Friday, July 6, 2018

Humanity Denied And Rights Suppressed, Yet Resurgent And Triumphant

     The fiction of Philip K. Dick, gone from us these past thirty-six years, has inspired a multitude of paeans and some of the best visual fiction – large screen and small – ever to come out of the science fiction genre. Many have sought to emulate him stylistically, but no one has ever equaled his depth of insight into Mankind, our needs, and our fumbling, often tragicomic attempts to advance our condition. To those who lack an acquaintance with this giant taken from us far too soon, allow me to recommend a few of his novels:

     ...though you really can’t go wrong with anything he wrote, whether long or short.

     In speaking of his fiction, Dick once said:

     "I want to write about people I love, and put them into a fictional world spun out of my own mind, not the world we actually have, because the world we actually have does not meet my standards....In my writing I even question the universe; I wonder out loud if it is real, and I wonder out loud if all of us are real."

     The love – whether wholehearted, chiding, or supremely distancing – Dick felt for his characters comes through in every one of his stories. If you’re an Amazon Prime member, and you haven’t yet enjoyed the Electric Dreams series crafted from some of Dick’s best short stories, repent of your sins and get over there at once!

     But I’m not here to talk about Dick’s fiction. At least, not specifically.

     Hollywood is currently mired in “sequelitis.” Everyone is aware of how great a fraction of the movies being released today are sequels to successful predecessors...or worse, remakes of earlier, much loved works. Tinseltown producers are apparently afraid of genuinely new ideas and new themes to explore in the visual media. Perhaps that’s only rational, given the immense cost of making a wide-release film and the crapshoot nature of its returns. Whatever the case, we’ve been given little original work to dazzle us: a pox that afflicts the written word as well.

     For that reason, a sequel that improves upon its predecessor, exhibits original thinking in its plotting and characterization, and introduces new and vital themes in doing so is something to celebrate.

     The movie Blade Runner, one of Ridley Scott’s early triumphs, was inspired by Dick’s book Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? The central theme in that mighty film was the struggle to live and be free in the face of irresistible forces that compel enslavement and death. The “replicants” of the film weren’t “androids” of the sort Scott inserted into his movie Alien, but rather bioengineered humans with a built-in four-year lifespan, intended to become slave labor in strenuous and dangerous occupations. Escaped replicant Roy Batty and his three companions strive to find a way out of that box, and fail...but in failing display one of the quintessential human virtues: the fellow-feeling that underpins our conception of the right to life.

     Quite a lot of the fans of Blade Runner were nervous about the planned sequel. It struck them as all too likely to be unoriginal, derivative, and exploitative: a defacement of one of cinema’s true gems. I know a few people who’ve declined to see Blade Runner 2049 for that reason.

     I saw it just yesterday afternoon. It blew me away.

     Director Dennis Villeneuve apparently had the cooperation of Ridley Scott, both as a producer and in the creation of the story. It’s a homage to its predecessor, but it’s more – much more. It deserves to be evaluated on its own merits, which are plentiful.

     Central to Blade Runner 2049 are the themes of the sanctity of life and the rightness of freedom. Protagonist K, brilliantly played by Ryan Gosling, is a late-model replicant with no lifespan limit, and supposedly incapable of disobedience to his superiors. He’s employed by the LAPD as a “blade runner,” providing the first of the movie’s innovations: replicants hunting other, older-model replicants. K first illuminates the sanctity of life in this exchange, when his superior officer has just ordered him to “retire” – in other words, to kill – a child born of a replicant: the first one ever known:

'K': I've never retired something that was born before.
Lieutenant Joshi: What's the difference?
'K': To be born is to have a soul, I guess.
Lieutenant Joshi: Are you telling me no?
'K': I wasn't aware that was an option, madame.
Lieutenant Joshi: Attaboy.
Lieutenant Joshi: Hey! You've been getting on fine without one.
'K': What's that, madame?
Lieutenant Joshi: A soul.

     Yet Joshi is wrong about that last. K most definitely has a soul. He demonstrates it throughout what follows.

     The child K has been ordered to hunt is the offspring of Rick Deckard by Rachel, the replicant girl who loved him, played in Blade Runner by Sean Young. K undertakes the mission, but ultimately refrains from “retiring” the child, whom he recognizes after a series of plot convolutions whose resolution I failed to foresee.

     Blade Runner 2049’s replicants aren’t just long-lived; they have full human potential, apparently including the possibility of reproduction by natural means. They see in this the key to their liberation: If they can reproduce without the assistance of technology, they can have their own society and be their own masters.

     That’s something they want desperately enough to risk their lives.

     I needn’t detail K’s decision to align himself with the rebel replicants. It develops slowly, even painfully, as he searches for leads to the mysterious, well hidden replicant-child. Suffice it to say that Blade Runner 2049 exhibits a deep affection for Mankind, and extends it to Man’s technologically engendered unwilling slaves. It expresses the seldom articulated yearnings to live, to love, and to be free that anyone – or anything with volitional consciousness – must feel, whether or not he’s aware of it.

     The acting is uniformly excellent. The script is first-rate. The cinematography is superb. And the climax...well, you really must see it for yourself.

     I think Philip K. Dick would have loved it.

1 comment:

Linda Fox said...

I found the original hard to watch - it is deliberately a soul-less society, with a bleak culture that reminds me of the stories of the Weimar Repubic.

I'll check it out - being me (cheap), I'll probably wait until it gets to our local discount theater, but I will see it.