Sunday, June 1, 2014

Sensor Scan: Blade Runner

People are going to argue with me, but I think it's a pretty safe bet to say Blade Runner marks the beginning of cyberpunk in Western science fiction, at least in terms of mass mainstream pop consciousness. In fact, I'd even go so far as to say Blade Runner is likely the film that codified at least the visual style and iconography associated with the genre and is even probably what most people think of when they think of science fiction in the 1980s (well, this and Tron).

And although the anime, which defined much of the look and feel of the franchise, wouldn't debut for another two years, the fact is we've already covered a great deal of Blade Runner's most important innovations by introducing Dirty Pair in the last post. Yes, Dirty Pair owes a great deal to Golden Age science fiction too, but by virtue of the specific tradition it comes out of it is very much what we'd now call cyberpunk. Which means that, from my perspective at least, going from “The Case of the Backwoods Murder” to Blade Runner does feel like something of a rather large step backwards. But this is not entirely fair, given the fact that even though they're in some sense comparable, the fact is these two works ultimately come out of two different cultures and traditions.

Blade Runner is of course loosely based on Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, but I'm going to leave Dick's work out of the analysis here for the most part largely because it has nothing to do with it. Dick's stories were famously extensively altered before they were adapted into movies, and Blade Runner is no exception: The original novel was an exploration and defense of empathy, while the movie, well, isn't, mainly. The one major theme of Dick's the movie leaves more or less intact is his exploration of the Self and personal identity theory-We talked about this a bit in the context of “What Are Little Girls Made Of?”, but as this is pretty much the single thread Blade Runner's entire plot hinges on, it's worth talking about again here. Breaking the issue down into its component parts, we get two horns: “The Self” refers to theories about what, if anything, we fundamentally, essentially are, which is oftentimes liked to the idea of consciousness, while “personal identity” refers to more to how these said essential personalities persist over time and how that can be used to categorize and describe us.

None of the works we've looked at so far that have tackled personal identity have handled this exceptionally well: Gene Roddenberry's big rebuttal to the persistence of the self argument and why the androids in “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” (namely Doctor Korby, who beamed his consciousness into an android body) shouldn't be considered sentient extant beings basically amounted to “because robots”, but thankfully Blade Runner gives us something a tad more nuanced-The Tyrell Corporation's main argumentative premise, and the one Deckard initially holds to, is that Rachael's memories are inauthentic; implanted into her positronic matrix to maker her more human-like and thus more controllable (this, incidentally, brings up another interesting train of thought in regards to both corporatism and transhumanism, but I honestly don't think the writers thought the ramifications of these motifs all the way through).

(Blade Runner also adds the additional twist of attempting to define what it means to be “human”, which is an issue Star Trek: The Next Generation itself will eventually grapple with on more than one occasion. We'll come back to that another time.)

So, in regards to personal identity theory, the argument would go like this: Rachael cannot be Tyrell's niece despite sharing her memories because she did not physically experience them, she only “remembers” experiencing them and thus these memories are “false” as they belong to “someone else”. Since the main ethical quandary Blade Runner raises (whether or not the Replicants should be considered living beings) is pretty easy to resolve (of course they are because they very clearly have emotions, experiences and consciousnesses, and even if we couldn't prove that we still consider things like cells to be alive, so why the hell wouldn't we do the same for beings so much like us?), let's extrapolate on this in a way the film never does. I don't recall the movie mentioning Tyrell's niece in any context aside from the source of Rachael's memories, so let's presume for the moment she's dead and her life experiences were transplanted into Rachael, who was in turn modeled after her.

If this were the case, could the argument be reasonably be made that Rachael is not Tyrell's niece? I submit that it couldn't. For associative, categorical and social purposes, she would still be the same person with all the same memories, personality and positionality, just in a not-dead physical form. Now, the key that I think trips people up here, as I think it is in any thought experiment where minds and consciousnesses are transplanted into different bodies, is something we could call the experiential Self. What people tend to be afraid of in this sort of situation is that their sense of Self, that is, the combined set of experiences that give you the feeling that you presently exist as a conscious entity experiencing things, wouldn't persist. In effect, that in that moment “you” (meaning your sense of conscious awareness) ceases to be, replaced by a “different person” who just shares your memories. But there's a distinction we need to make between that worry and “personal identity”, which is more concerned with signifiers and labels other people use to describe you.

Also, assume another scenario: What would happen if, at the end after Roy gives his big famous monologue about memories disappearing into the void forever, Deckard, Rachael and Gaff were able to get him back to the lab and transplant his mind into a new Replicant body? Wouldn't that person still be Roy, except now he's still alive and his big Epic Villain Speech looks silly and irrelevant because his memories did in fact live on? There is, again, the issue of the experiential self to consider, but that's still a *separate* issue and Blade Runner doesn't even go this far, stopping short of full transhumanism by stumbling a bit on a personal identity theory problem that seems maddeningly simple to resolve. All we'd need is to introduce the additional wrinkle of the persistence of the experiential self and Blade Runner's already shaky conflict ceases to be a conflict and its entire plot is rendered sort of pointlessly irrelevant.

One other note worth mentioning about the Replicants: Edward James Olmos, who plays Gaff and who we're naturally going to be talking more about as this project goes on, said in a 2009 interview that Blade Runner works particularly well when seen as a sequel to Battlestar Galactica, and that Gaff is a descendant of the character he plays in that series. Obviously we have to address Battlestar Galactica in some form once we reach the 2000s, but, as is the case with speculation about endings and extrapolating beyond them, here there be spoilers, so if you haven't seen Battlestar Galactica's finale “Daybreak” and are for some reason really paranoid about spoiling it for yourself, you may want to skip the next few paragraphs.

For the rest of us, what's interesting about this claim is how downright cynical it is. Battlestar Galactica ends with the Messengers departing this plane of existence, cautiously optimistic that they've broken the endless cycle of revenge and conflict between the humans and the cylons. If Olmos is correct, than in just a few decades' time the humans are right back to their old tricks and treating the cylons as slaves, implicitly meaning the whole damn thing is going to happen all over again. Which, well, I guess is fair enough given that this is Battlestar Galactica.

But this actually brings us back to the posthumanism issue: One of the reasons we might want to transplant our minds into android bodies someday is to improve the human condition, to in effect allow humans to become better. And we can see this in the way both the Replicants and the cylons are depicted: They are generally superior to humans (except for the Replicants' self-imposed four year lifespan, of course), and in both cases the humans tend to react with fear and disgust and flatly reject the possibility of any such improvement. Gene Roddenberry wrote a whole story with that exact moral, after all. There are of course further discussions to be had here: From my perspective, one thing that worries me is how much we don't know about consciousness and how its related to the larger cosmos (from an animist or Buddhist viewpoint this kind of transhumanism is somewhat challenging to get a functional conception of), but I certainly hope the discussions we have are more mature and intelligent than the ones the humans in Blade Runner and “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” have.

Speaking of plot, Blade Runner's is about as stock film noir as it gets. I mean, it's so by-the-book and hits so many of the requisite beats and cliches (especially if you're watching the original version and get to hear Harrison Ford's bored grizzled private eye narration) it would almost come across as a parody were it not for the fact everyone involved is playing it so obviously straight, making it all the more stupefying that the studio thought this film was too heady and confusing for audiences to follow. There's also the accusation of slothlike pacing, which is something Blade Runner shares with other landmark works of cinematic science fiction like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Another thing it shares with them is that Douglas Trumbull did the special effects and the accusation is completely unfounded (well, except in the case of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which *did* have slothlike pacing, but that was Gene Roddenberry's fault, not Trumbull's).

It's Trumbull's effects, along with Ridley Scott's direction, that really make this film. Blade Runner is the first work we've looked at that really works purely on the level of aesthetics (well, except for maybe Star Wars, but let's not go there): Like all of Trumbull's work, the Los Angeles of Blade Runner is an absolutely magnificent and unforgettable series of images that evokes a unique and distinctive atmosphere from the very first shot. You can glean all you need to know about this film and its world simply by looking at the lingering, imposing shots of the city. It tells you every single story, both grand and humble, mythic and mundane, you could possibly think of telling in this setting silently and implicitly through the power of imagery alone. Helping this, and frustratingly nowhere near commented on as much as it should be, is Vangelis' soundtrack, which compliments Trumbull's and Scott's visuals with a score that blends the meditative electronic fusion of Cosmos with melodies and refrains that hearken back to the days of Humphrey Bogart. Blade Runner is one of a handful of movies that I think is more effective if you cut out all the dialogue and watch it set to a soundtrack like a kind of feature-length music video.

Blade Runner's true successes and legacy lie not in its philosophy or speculative elements, but in what it contributes to the unmatched power of Long 1980s visual media. By being a spectacle that not only symbolizes and conveys so much but actually manages to tell stories without any dialogue, it becomes the necessary link between the “spectacle for spectacle's sake” filmmaking of the Golden Age of Hollywood and the postmodern, self-aware and self-critical spectacle that will come to define the rest of the era. We're entering a period where visual media has a sense of meaning and purpose the likes of which it hasn't had since Weimar Berlin and, quite possibly, will never have again. Works will soon have the power to dynamically interact with their readers on a *textual* level and our shared myths and legends will gain free will and seize lives of their own. Moments won't be lost in time, they'll be recorded forever in our minds and on our VCRs. And they'll live on.


  1. Yep, the style is amazing and heady and moving and gorgeous and well worth it by itself... though the influence it has had has often done the original no favours. I mean, the Super Mario Bros. movie looked Blade Runnerish. This may, of course, stem from the fact that Blade Runner has little substance to back up its style, making it style particularly susceptible to bastardisation and bowdlerisation. I'm not necessarily criticising the film for not having a coherent philosophical perspective behind the sublime, post-nuclear urban grimdark... but I do think the evident grope for philosophical coherence undermines the film. Alien, by contrast, was happy to latch on to various submerged horrors and suggestions and allow them to be mysterious, to free associate with them and let us do the rest. Even if you scale Blade Runner down a bit and look at it as being about race and slavery, it's no less trite, even if it becomes a tad more coherent (though also, perhaps, unwittingly offensive).

    1. I mean I agree, of course, but I can't get past the fact Jack actually mentioned Super Mario Bros.

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    3. The range and depth of my erudition astonishes, I know.

  2. I still don't know what to make of Blade Runner. It's a movie I had to own ... but rarely watch. It's certainly a dream to watch, as an artist - filled with the kind of design choices and great camera angles that could drive a creative young mind to become an artist, a set-designer, or a writer who wants to set stories in that world.

    This is the crux of why it's so often bastardized, bowdlerized, borrowed. You wish you'd thought of it - and that's an impossible hurdle to get over.

    That said, the story is awfully straightforward. It's paced fine, clever because it doesn't try to be too clever. The mystery at the end is offbeat because even if you realize Deckard isn't human, you also realize that it doesn't matter. And it didn't take however-so-many BSG seasons to get to that ultimate point.

    But ironically, Blade Runner's importance for me is less about the film itself, and more about some of the brilliant stuff that came later, which occupies its cyberpunk space, and that's all animated. Batman Beyond comes to mind, Ghost in the Shell seems like a really obvious one because it treads the same themes, but obviously the one I'm hoping to see some major thoughts on once we get to the 1990s is Cowboy Bebop, and the idea of re-purposing stock or pulp style stories (IE; a spaghetti western) into a cyberpunk or neo-noir future. And I'm obviously more interested in the ones that do it without feeling bleak or dystopian in doing so. Hopelessness has the undesired effect of making sci-fi, or "near future" stories chores to watch.

    In that regard, I felt like Blade Runner maintained a healthy sense of optimism, even in a world populated by jaded heroes, cynical femme fatales and traumatized manufactured slave-caste pseudo-humans.

  3. "All we'd need is to introduce the additional wrinkle of the persistence of the experiential self and Blade Runner's already shaky conflict ceases to be a conflict and its entire plot is rendered sort of pointlessly irrelevant."

    Yes it feels like the plot and characters are suck in ways that they can't see, and just fumbling about in a dark drama trying to find a resolution which has been hidden from them by a corporation. Love this film.

  4. Thanks man. Thought on it more. In-built obsolescence - we do now have the technology available to make pretty much any product last for life, but often the decision is made to build into products the seed of its own decay. This means we continue buying. Same with the replicants - the tech was likely there to do the same, but the company wanted their *product* to keep selling.

    1. Very true. Unfortunate, but true.

      Interesting enough, I've been having a lot of computer problems lately, so planned obsolescence has been on my mind a lot. I've had a number of opportunities to rant about it at length, but I've always dialed myself back. I try not to write while angry.

    2. Yeah good point, not great to let the writing turn into a rant!