Monday, 30 October 2017

Dreaming of Sheep - Blade Runner

When I first saw the teaser trailer for Blade Runner 2049 I was intrigued. At first I thought it was just another remake with Ryan Gosling playing Deckard, however when Harrison Ford made an appearance in that same trailer I realised that it was actually a sequel. As such, upon discovering that after almost forty years we would be revisiting the world of Blade Runner I decided that I wanted to revisit the original story, starting off with the book (which, until recently, I have never read), and also watching one of the eight versions of the film. Originally I was planning on simply watching it at home, but I then discovered that my local cinema was screening 'Blade Runner: The Final Cut', so I decided that I would go and watch it on the big screen (which I don't believe I have actually done until recently).

There the film and the book are actually quite similar, but in a way the story is a little different (for instance in the film we don't have Deckard being arrested and taken to a 'fake' police station). However, the major theme, that of identity, is generally the same. Also, there is a difference in terminology - for instance in the book the replicants are referred to as andy's (short for androids), and the term Blade Runner isn't used either. However, the main theme about how four Nexus 6 androids escape to Earth and the Blade Runner Deckard has to hunt the down is the same.

Dick's Version

A friend of mine, who happens to be a pretty huge fan of Phillip K Dick, suggests that novels aren't really Dick's strong point. Personally, I'm probably inclined to agree in that I have found that his short stories tend to be of a much higher quality (though the only novels that I have read so far are Man in the High Castle and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep). Yet while the film and the book are similar, there is also some rather distinct differences. First of all Deckard is married, so while in both the film and the book he sleeps with Rachel, in the book the question is raised as to whether he is actually having an affair.

Another thing about the book is that the Earth is actually pretty much uninhabited. Sure, there is a suggestion in the film that only those who are fit enough are eligible to live in the off world colonies, leaving only the sick, lame, and those who are simply not interested back on Earth. However, while in both the film and the book, most of the animals are become extinct, in the book owning a real animal is actually a status symbol - a symbol which requires you to put it on display outside your apartment for everybody to see.

Also, the book is set after a rather devastating war, so much of Earth has not only become depopulated, but is also uninhabitable. The image you get is of deserted buildings and apartments inhabited by loners, with nobody else around. However, rather interestingly is that having now read the book, and watching the film again, I have noticed that there are some elements that seem to pop up in the film - yet in a way they seem to a series of disconnected scenes, created by a film maker that had an idea as to what he wanted, but wasn't really all that sure on how to but it together.

Scott's Vision

One of the major differences between the book and the film is the setting. Where as Dick's vision seemed to be of a world that had been devastated by war, in Scott's vision we have are taken into this cyberpunk world that is dark, wet, and incredibly crowded. In fact Ridley Scott's film is reminiscent of the old film Noir detective stories such as The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep. Actually, the one thing that Blade Runner isn't is an action film, which is in part why I am starting to feel a little disenchanted with the upcoming sequel. From the teasers it seems to be about a replicant who is building an army, and that is a lot more action orientated that the original.

The thing is that Scott's film is a detective film set in a cyberpunk like world. It is a world that has been ravaged by industrialisation, to the point that all of the animals have died off and are only in possession of those who have enough money. As for the world, it is a crowded world that is forever raining, and it wracked by pollution. In a sense it seems to build on the idea that was first espoused in Neuromancer, except that it gives us a visualisation of this world, and almost serves as a warning of one of the potential futures which we face. It is a harsh and barren world, one that is covered by city, and in which the sun never shines.

However, maybe that has something to the with the rather Film Noir aspect to it. It takes the form of a detective film, which follows on with the tradition of the old noir films of the fifties. Yet while it is dark, it is not a dark look at the present, but a dark look at the future. Whereas the noir films seemed to part to look at the dark underbelly of what some considered to be a perfect society, this vision shows us that the future isn't all that bright and rosy, and in fact could be quite terrifying.

An Issue of Identity

This is one of the key themes that not only permeates the book and the film, but also quite a lot of Dick's writings. For instance the question is raised as to whether the replicants are human or not, and the closer they come to becoming human, the more difficult it becomes to being able to detect what they are. This is why in the film they are constructed with four year life spans, namely because they are so much more powerful that your average human that there needs to be a failsafe built in case they escape (as they have done). The other thing is that they are so life like that there is actually difficulty in being able to tell them apart.

This is why a test was created to read their emotion. It is interesting that at the opening to the film we have one of the replicants being given the test, and he is so put off by the questions that he ends up snapping and killing the person giving the test. However, we then have Rachel being given the test and are told that even after a hundred questions Deckard is still not quite certain whether she is human or not. However, we are told that she is in fact a replicant, even though she doesn't even know it herself.

Interestingly we also have the issue of the animals in the book (which doesn't make it into the film). The whole point behind the title is that Deckard actually has an electric sheep on display, though nobody actually realises that it is a fake. The funny this is that these animals actually serve no purpose whatsoever other than as a status symbol - the rarer the animal you have on display, the greater the status you have because it is a symbol of wealth - and this is despite the fact that they actually serve no purpose whatsoever.

This idea of owning a useless item as a status symbol is something that seems to resonate in our society quite a lot. Cars are one thing, as are houses. Well, suggesting that cars are useless is sort of devaluing them more than they probably deserve, but in reality they are a symbol not so much of individualism but also of isolation, two things that are not necessarily the best traits of our modern Anglo-American world. However, while the latest BMW might have all the fancy bells and whistles that you would expect a top of the line and state of the art vehicle to have, in the end you are still paying a premium for the name, and also in a way you are paying money for a status symbol.

Yet there seems to be a lot of pressure on people to confirm to these status symbols, as was indicated by a German that I spoke to who worked for Audi. His position was that if you lived in Germany then you were expected to purchase, and drive, a German made vehicle - anything else was basically a symbol that you were either poor, or a cheapskate. In fact we live in a society where a person who is frugal with their money is actually viewed with suspicion and scorn - words such as stingy and cheapskate regularly apply to them, though ironically not so much the word prudent.

End of the Cycle

Years ago I remember a Christian industrial metal band named Circle of Dust released a song named Course of Ruin. This song had selective samples from the film, and generally focused on the concept of death. While we are all faced with the inevitableness of death, this is much more so when it comes to the replicants, who have a mere four years in which to experience life. Of course, as is the nature of robots, they technically should not be aware of the span of their life, and its inevitable conclusion, yet it seems that the more advanced the robots become the more self aware they become.

One wonders whether it is possible to program a computer to fully understand the nature of death, or is it something that sets us humans apart from machines. Okay, animals also have an understanding of death, which is why they tend to be timid, and also display self preservation survival techniques. However, it seems as if an understanding, and appreciation, not just of the finality of death, but also its mysteriousness, is something that not just makes us human, but also makes us self aware.

Yet it is clear that these replicants are self aware because they are aware of their mortality. In fact the whole purpose of the trip to Earth is so that they can meet their maker and somehow reverse this mortal aspect of their lives. Interestingly enough, the whole invocation of deity comes about with the phrase 'it is not everyday that you get to meet your maker', and also when asked about whether he can reverse this process, the reply is simply 'I'm sorry, but that is a little out of my jurisdiction'.

This is another part of the film that confronts our modern lives - that of our endless quest to stave off death. Yes, it is true that death of final, and heart wrenching, but it seems that many of us go to extraordinary lengths to stop it. Simply walk past the local gym and you will see rows and rows of people on the equipment keeping fit so that they might live longer. However, as I look at them I sometimes wonder whether their lives are actually all that fulfilling. In some cases, like other aspects of our society, working out at the gym can actually be a very solitary exercise.

The other thing that I notice is the extraordinary amount of money that is being poured into the medical fraternity. In fact I have seen here in Australia the government fund two cancer centres in two cities - these two buildings focused on attempting to combat a single disease, though it is one that is incredibly devastating. Yet sometimes I wonder whether there is some selectiveness in the way these diseases are being combated. AIDS for instance, because it is a disease that attacks people that live certain alternate lifestyles then it was pushed lower down the list of important diseases to combat. However, I still remember back in the days when having aids was a stigma that literally outed you as being a member of an undesirable underclass. Fortunately this has changed somewhat, though the destructive nature of the disease is still being felt world wide.

Looking to the Future

This version of the future is rather bleak - both in Dick's novel and in Scott's film. However, not every picture of the future is all that rosy and beautiful, and sometimes this can serve as a warning to us all. Mind you, Dick wasn't necessarily interested in painting bleak pictures of the future, but rather addressing the nature of the human identity in an increasingly post-modern world. In fact the rise of individualism has almost created a fluidity in our identity, and I am not necessarily talking about gender identity here, though this is one aspect of it (and while I could discuss some ideas regarding Gender identity I think I'll leave it for another time).

Yet the question of the barrier between an android and a human is an interesting one. Sure, these days it is pretty obvious what the difference between a construct and a human is, but as we head into the future, and such technology increases, this line slowly but surely becomes ever more blurred. Is a genetically engineered human that is implanted into a womb through IVF treatment and born naturally an android or a human - how about a normal human featus that is grown in an artificial womb, and brought into the world through artificial processes in which the human body is no longer needed (in my mind they would both be human, but they were examples of how far we have moved away from the biological processes that we have relied upon for millenia).

One interesting thing is the idea of robots being used as, well, sex toys. Okay, this isn't necessarily flagged in some of the more purer sci-fi shows, but it is out there, and is also something that is suggested in both the film and in the book (namely because Deckard sleeps with Rachel in both). The question is whether Rachel is a human in this regard, and since she is an artificial construct, can a true relationship really exist. I guess the end point is will it be possible for a human to marry a robot. This may sound absurd, but consider that fifty years or more ago the idea of two males (or two females) getting married as not so much considered absurd, but was actually impossible.

Another idea that has been floated is whether Deckard is actually a replicant. This is something that comes about every so often, and there is even a significant segment on Wikipedia about it. Mind you, this is something that never really crossed my mind much, and my initial thoughts is 'no, he is not'. However, there is the origami unicorn at the end, that he picks up when he leaves the apartment with Rachel. Gaff has indicated that he knows about Rachel, and the suggestion is that he also knows about Deckard. However, Dick never intended there to be any ambiguity, nor did Ford, Scott, or the screenwriter. Yet, this is something that is thrown in at a later date for some ambiguity.


There is some rather interesting religious imagery in the film, some of which I have touched above. Of course there is this idea of one meeting their maker, though that is also a phrase that is referred to people dying. Yet the wikipedia article also equates the replicants with fallen angels in that they have come from offworld in an attempt to locate the person responsible for their life span. Yet interestingly, the Bible also mentions that one of the reason that humanity's lifespan was shortened significantly was due to the immense amount of destruction that could be wrought if we were allowed to live hundreds, or even thousands, of years.

One of the striking images though is the scene at the end where Roy holds a dove to his chest, and also stretches out his arms in a form of crucifixion. Many action movies would have the protagonist kill the antagonist at this point, but not only does Roy hold off from killing Deckard, but Deckard doesn't kill Roy either. In once sense it could be seen as lazy writing, until we note that the striking thing about the film is that Roy dies of old age. This is something that has stuck me since I first watched it as it sets it apart from many of the other films out there. The dove is also an interesting image, because it symbolises the ascension of a spirit to heaven.

However, I think I'll leave it at that, and refer to the Wikipedia page for any further ideas regarding the themes in Blade Runner. Instead, I'll now jump over to the more recent film.

Years Later

As it turned out, the sequel was nothing what I expected, which is probably a good thing. While at first I didn't want to say anything about it, for fear of spoiling anything for anybody, this post has been deliberately published at a time when one can assume that most people who have wanted to see it have already seen it, so I guess I can openly speak about the film. However, before I touch on some of the themes, I should say that the film does retain the film noir style of the original, though we do switch between a world of endless rain and blistering desert. It is also a detective mystery, and unlike the original, we aren't given all that much to go on, with bits and pieces slowly released to us, and also a curve ball that leads us thinking one way only to realise that we were misled all along.

Like the original film, the sequel continues to raise the question of identity, though we are given another thing to think about. Our new hero, who is a replicant himself, discovers a box buried under a dead tree (though the existence of trees, even dead ones, are almost non-existent) which contains the bones of a replicent. Well, that shouldn't be too much of a concern, except that it comes about that this particular replicant was pregant. This is the game changer because it raises the possibility that not only are they human, but they actually have souls.

As I have mentioned about, there is this ongoing exploration as to the nature of humanity, and this continues in this film with the existence of the child. In fact, the whole film is about attempting to locate the child. Obviously there are elements that want the child dead, and erased from history, because its existence may mean that replicants actually have rights. Then there is the question as to the identity of the child - is it natural or artificial. In a way it is both, particularly when we discover who the father is, though the nature of the father is also pretty much up in the air.

However the film brings in something new - slavery. Replicants are slaves, and have always been slaves. They are a disposible workforce, and are able to do things, and work in places, that humans aren't able to. Since they are considered artificial constructs then their nature is considered set - because humans made the replicants, the replicants are possessions of humans and can be bought and sold, and owned. There is no question of whether a replicant can go free because they aren't human, and they don't have a soul.

Then there is the question of dreams, and whether they are real or not. The thing is that in Blade Runner, at least where the replicants are concerned, dreams are implants. However, what if we start implanting dreams into humans - what does that do about the nature of our identity, and does that change our basic nature. Are we defined by the sum of our memories, and what happens to us when our memories change. However, this issue is probably something that best be left for another film at another time - and I'm sure we all know which one that is.

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Dreaming of Sheep - Blade Runner by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me

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