Consuming almost three hours of screen time, Denis Villeneuve’s long-awaited — and simultaneously long-dreaded — sequel to Blade Runner, the 1982 film by Ridley Scott, challenges the viewer to affirm or deny that the original material — including Philip K. Dick’s seed novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? — merits and can sustain such a monumental follow-up. Are there really still sufficient unexplored depths to the nascent franchise to shoulder such a return?
Despite a semi-disappointing performance at the box office, the film’s initial critical reception — and this writer’s personal appreciation — attests to the validity of both Villeneuve’s handling of the material and that material’s inherent unplumbed reaches. Indeed, the ramifications of Dick’s initial vision — very much the product of 1968 and quintessentially of its time — and its extension by Scott in the film, which embodies the burgeoning cyberpunk concerns and esthetics of the 1980s, are brilliantly and honorably extended by the 2017 vehicle.
But to fully appreciate the new addition to what has become an essential part of SF’s cinematic canon, we really do need to go back and examine its roots. Lawrence Sutin’s Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick provides essential context for the creation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Sutin reports that the year 1966 was a pivotal one for Dick, during which the writer’s block “that had plagued him ever since he left [his third wife] Anne in 1964” finally broke. There came swiftly, at Dick’s usual pell-mell, first-draft-only, amphetamine-fueled pace, several books, with Do Androids Dream? being completed that same year. The two-year gap between completion and appearance in 1968 has no recorded explanation, such as a list of publisher rejections. But when it appeared as a Doubleday hardcover in March 1968, thanks to the good taste and patronage of editor Larry Ashmead (1932–2010), Dick must have felt chuffed. especially after being restricted to so many paperback originals during his career (such as his previous outing, The Ganymede Takeover, in 1967). Some time later, an additional $9,000 for paperback reprint must have felt like manna from heaven to the always impoverished author. Astonishingly fast, the first film option money came in May 1968.
The book’s anomalous landmark status in Dick’s oeuvre — at one point in his career, and possibly to this day, it was his title with the largest number of sales — was not immediately apparent. It resembled very much, in themes, tropes, plot, and characters, that which had come before: an extension at best but not a sea change. Even the famous title was initially in flux, with Dick contemplating such misfiring alternates as The Electric Toad; Do Androids Dream?; The Electric Sheep; and The Killers Are Among Us! Cried Rick Deckard to the Special Man.
In the novel, Rick Deckard is a married man, a typically conflicted, somewhat schlubby PKD protagonist, prone to self-doubt, anxiety, and vacillation. He’s not a glamorous freelance mercenary but a government employee, almost a bureaucrat: married, in a dead, loveless relationship. His entire adventure is compacted into the course of a single day. His world, our faraway future of 1992, is not an ultra-urban landscape all chrome and matte, sleek and rain-swept, neon-laced and sexy. It’s not noir but post-apocalypse, a radioactive wasteland due to World War Terminus. The reduced populace huddles in half-abandoned apartments and civic structures.
These environments are plagued with “kipple,” an entropic accumulation of useless junk and clutter. Due to the extermination of all wildlife, any technology-fostered living animals are deeply prized, with simulacra offering the next best thing. Deckard’s dream is to have enough money to upgrade from his current fake electric sheep. A similar relief is found in two technologies: the Penfield mood organ, which changes brain functioning, reprogramming the user’s emotions; and the virtual-reality empathy machine which puts one in contact with a spiritual avatar named Mercer, thus engendering the religion of Mercerism. In addition to killing many species, the radiation has birthed “specials,” human mutants. Deckard shares the narrative with one of these, a hapless “chickenhead” named J. R. Isidore, who comes to shelter illegally three of the runaway androids (not “replicants,” as in the film).
Certainly the depiction of the androids is the most dramatically different aspect when the book is placed against the film. They are not exotic athletic killing machines — although they do mortally menace Deckard before he manages to lethally “retire” them — but simply confused, almost purposeless, nonhuman runaways, seeking to keep low profiles. Roy Baty, for instance, has been masquerading as a pharmacist; another is a salvage worker; a third risks attention by following her muse to be a famous opera singer. Their lack of agency is typified by their huddling in Isidore’s “con-apt” and just waiting for Deckard to track them down. They also have no cohesive philosophy along “us versus them” lines, humans versus their creations, and there is no sense that they are Homo superior, no lectures on justice and prejudice. In fact, their lack of empathy is portrayed as a crippling defect, rendering them substandard. Perhaps the most intellectual and partially empathetic of them is a non-outlaw android, Rachel Rosen, with whom Deckard has sex, and who takes her revenge by killing the live goat that Deckard has splurged on. Deckard’s own possible identity as an android is moot, decisively settled in his favor by the famed Voigt-Kampff test.
The book concludes with Deckard’s return to home and his wife, after receiving a small epiphany from the spirit of Mercer and the discovery of a toad found in the wilderness.
So this is what Mercer sees, [Rick] thought as he painstakingly tied the cardboard box shut — tied it again and again. Life which we can no longer distinguish; life carefully buried up to its forehead in the carcass of a dead world. In every cinder of the universe Mercer probably perceives inconspicuous life. Now I know, he thought. And once having seen through Mercer’s eyes, I probably will never stop.
From such unlikely, quintessentially genius-bonkers and idea-heavy fodder, director Ridley Scott and Hollywood would turn out the visually dominant, glamorous, narratively pared-down film we know today as Blade Runner. The title change itself, employing the licensed appellation from an Alan Nourse novel utterly unrelated in theme or style, would be indicative up-front of the vast changes made to the material of the book — changes Dick initially hated, then half-heartedly endorsed, then repudiated for a second and final time. And cruel fate would also ironically present him with an ethical and financial challenge connected with the film, as well as linking his untimely death to the film’s imminent premiere.
So much of this vital information — but not a few missing salient angles — is contained in the monumental tome Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner. This third edition, updated with some pre-release musings on Blade Runner 2049, chronicles author Paul Sammon’s thirty-five years of involvement with the film, ever since, in June 1980, he was assigned by the editor of Cinefantastique to hang out with Ridley Scott, prior even to any shooting, and learn about Scott’s mysterious follow-up to his massive hit Alien.
What resulted from that fortuitous association is an exhaustive, loving history of the whole project, from the early, nebulous interest in Dick’s book by freelance screenwriter Hampton Fancher, through the script writing, the financial machinations, the casting, the shooting, the editing, the studio quibbles, the special effects, and on into postproduction and general release. This book is the very model of a well-crafted behind-the-camera documentary in printed form. It’s a breezily authoritative gold mine of data on the film.
We get a meticulous, scene-by-scene exegesis of the film that runs for well over 100 pages, presenting all the motifs, themes, unused takes, and Easter Eggs. Sammons deploys solid journalism derived from deep interviews with all the principals. No bit player is too small not to have a biography and an appreciation — a case in point being the massive detective work needed to uncover the identity of the fellow who played “Abdul Ben-Hassan” — yet Sammon does not merely laud but also digs critically into performances and other cinematic virtues and defects. Finally, the three decades of fallout from the film, its role in the canon and in the culture at large, is examined. And I fear that my portrait of the book has probably left out about half its content. About all that’s missing is an index.
The portions of Future Noir relevant to PKD and his original novel tell a story substantiated by other sources. When Dick saw some early drafts of the Hampton script, he disliked what had been done to his vision and publicly complained. He was wooed back into the fold with some revisions and, later, a look at some early reels. He reportedly emerged from that experience affirming Scott’s vision and happy with the prospect of seeing Do Androids Dream? onscreen, albeit transformed. But then, just four months before the premiere, he was dead from multiple strokes, never to witness his rising acclaim nor any of the profits.
But before then, he had had to deal with another irksome challenge. As was standard practice, the studio wished to issue a book connected with the film, a conventional novelization that would hew to the plot of the movie. Offered the task of producing such, Dick stood to earn a large sum — the figure of $400,000 was bruited about — that would have meant so much to the ever-impecunious author. But to agree also meant agreeing to the studio’s demands for the elimination and suppression of his original text. Dick declined and used his legal rights to force the issue his way. Do Androids Dream? was reissued for a token sum, with imagery from Blade Runner on its front cover — and inside, an apology from the publisher since the text deviated so radically from the film!
As for Dick supposedly being hunky-dory with the film, even after all the headaches, his own journal tells a different story. The Exegesis of Philip K Dick, finally published in 2011 in abridged form, is the infamous, massive, obsessive diary Dick maintained while striving to unriddle his famous mystical visions. The portion dated “Fall 1981” contains this take on the movie:
My god, this movie is the greatest defeat (what was done to the book) and victory (the Tagore kerygma promulgated); the first is ostensible, the latter cryptic. Oddly, the first appears ostensibly to be a victory but is really a defeat; nonetheless a real victory lurks secretly under it, but it is not the victory that people will think the making of a movie from my book is. They will say, “It is a great victory to have your book made into one of the biggest movies of all time,” but they will not know why; it doesn’t have to do with what is in the movie, etc.; it has to do with what is in the novel…
Viewed in terms of God’s strategy, Blade Runner has been used as a means to an end, the end being the kerygma in Androids. Thus to have suppressed Androids and either written or authorized the novelization based on the screenplay would have been to hand over victory to evil, but this did not happen…
I didn’t sell out to Hollywood: (1) do the novelization or (2) permit the novelization; (3) suppress the original book. And in view of what the film is about, it would have destroyed me for two reasons, not one: (A) the Tagore vision in Androids; (B) the Heinlein power fantasies in Blade Runner. These are antithetical: and they express the opposing kingdom’s [apostrophe sic] Christ (Androids) and Satan (Blade Runner). Look what it would have done to me spiritually and psychologically and politically. My soul is safe, and it was in jeopardy. This is why I see victory despite the vast defeat.
A definitive creator’s summation of Blade Runner as “Satanic Heinlein power fantasies” is a less-than stellar endorsement, no matter what equivocations Dick might have uttered in the screening room.
But we as viewers can practice cognitive dissonance and revere both Do Androids Dream? and Blade Runner as separate and worthy accomplishments. Exactly how does the film hold up today? I recently rewatched the version dubbed “The Final Cut.”
From the opening seconds, the Los Angeles of the far-off year 2019 assumes the implacable role of one of the main protagonists. The overpopulated, sultry, wet, polychrome ambiance of trash, modern ziggurats, and shabby survivals (the classic Bradbury building), with flying cars and product-placement animated adverts in every niche, offers a predestined and organic gestalt. Max Headroom (1984) is not very distant. When we see the populace, street life scramblers, the viewer is instantly back in the early heyday of quick cutting and cryptic MTV videos and New Wave fashion iconography, with that since famous infusion of French bande dessinée, also just then becoming known to English-speaking audiences. One could be inhabiting the urban hives of Jodorowsky and Moebius’s The Incal. But the retrofuturism of the technology (akin to what Terry Gilliam would soon dial up to eleven in Brazil (1985) — the skittering CRT screens, the PVC corrugated tubing, the dieselpunk weaponry, a little of which, in a pre-CGI world, has the charmingly clunky feel of Lost in Space or Star Trek: The Original Series — alleviate and soften and temporally displace any of these now-campy references into a kind of timeless bricolage, either 1949 or 2049, or both at once.
As each character comes onscreen they are nailed down vividly with deft touches — from the actor’s own skills and the script itself — that transcend mere tics or quirks to become defining. The slack-jawed deadly yokelism of replicant Leon; Deckard’s stony jungle awareness and defensiveness; replicant Rachel’s confusion, pride, longing and elegance. Each role, no matter how small or fleeting, is burnished and searing. And no one really has much of a back-story, certainly not our hero, Deckard. This only-nowness contributes to a certain archetypical, mythic quality for each player.
The chief antagonist, Roy Batty, makes his first appearance only after half an hour, contributing to the mystery and suspense of Deckard’s quest. Of course, he dominates every subsequent scene he inhabits.
As with the best prose SF, there are minimal “As you know, Bob” moments of dialogue. This lack of explanatory concession to the untutored viewer might explain why early critics — as detailed in Future Noir — found the movie garbled or enigmatic. But to subsequent generations reared on the challenging SF films that followed, from The Fifth Element to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the coherence and inevitability of the plot seem crystalline, like a ballet. There are also almost no inconsistencies or holes, although the emptiness of the Bradbury building in a teeming world, with only the Isidore-avator J. F. Sebastian as tenant — a holdover trope from Dick’s original? — is one of the few puzzlers.
The fashion eyekicks are unrelenting, the bell-like Vangelis scores uplifts and casts down and murmurs as demanded. The violence is surprisingly muted, and the chase scenes are interspersed at critical moments. Dick’s speculations on a world without living animals receives its due and is even extended in the symbolic instances of Batty’s dove, Tyrell’s owl, and Deckard’s dream unicorn. Additionally, Scott achieves something unavailable to mere prose: a layering of planes of action, both visual (simultaneously busy foreground, middle ground and background) and aural, with overlapping dialogue and ambient sounds. This multiplicity of dimensions reaches its apex in the death of replicant Zhora as she crashes through multiple sheets of glass, both a corporeal and a reflected presence.
The ending of “The Final Cut,” which finds Deckard and Rachel running away to some kind of imagined temporary two-person refuge, the elevator door closing on their scared yet hopeful faces, functions as the perfect stopping point.
Perhaps Dick, suffering from a lifetime of frustrations, the ailments that would kill him, the theophanies that plagued him, and a paternal reverence for Do Androids Dream?, was, in labeling this elegant, scrupulously crafted, humanistic film “Satanic Heinlein power fantasies,” rendering more a view of his own demons than of any that inhabit the film.
The world of 2017 obviously owes a lot to Blade Runner. Perhaps foremost is the boost it gave to PKD’s reputation and literary work, being the first translation of his fiction into a wider sphere. (A short story of his, “Imposter,” was actually filmed in 1962 for television.) With Dick now enshrined in the Library of America, his canonical stature, deemed laughable in 1982, now seems solid and secure, thanks in large part to Blade Runner.
Perhaps the cyberpunk eminence William Gibson’s take on Ridley Scott’s creation, as expressed in his Paris Review interview, should serve as the conclusive word.
I was afraid to watch Blade Runner in the theater because I was afraid the movie would be better than what I myself had been able to imagine. In a way, I was right to be afraid, because even the first few minutes were better. Later, I noticed that it was a total box-office flop, in first theatrical release. That worried me, too. I thought, Uh-oh. He got it right and nobody cares! Over a few years, though, I started to see that in some weird way it was the most influential film of my lifetime, up to that point. It affected the way people dressed, it affected the way people decorated nightclubs. Architects started building office buildings that you could tell they had seen in Blade Runner. It had had an astonishingly broad aesthetic impact on the world.
Elsewhere, in an online Q&A conducted at The Guardian newspaper site, Gibson added: “I think that Blade Runner was very important in that, in its wonderfully European depiction of a future Los Angeles that grew perpetually out of its own ruins. A very un-American vision, radically un-American. Something came from that.”
Indeed. And whether Blade Runner 2049 leaves a similar legacy is a question only future generations can settle.
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