Doctor Labyrinth, like most people who read a great deal and who have too much time on their hands, had become convinced that our civilization was going the way of Rome. He saw, I think, the same cracks forming that had sundered the ancient world, the world of Greece and Rome; and it was his conviction that presently our world, our society, would pass away as theirs did, and a period of darkness would follow.
“The Preserving Machine” by Phillip K. Dick (1953)
It’s great. It’s nourishing escapism and fine food for thought. No matter how preposterous the plot, the story remains curiously human and we are at home in its atmosphere. It is Philip Marlowe as android against a forbidding urban background, both seductive and repellent, that Marlowe would well have understood. We are off balance yet mesmerized by a world we intuitively understand but which is still somehow completely alien.
Physicists tell us that human beings are not very good at determining what is real. That thought leaps out as the central message of Philip K. Dick’s (PKD) seminal story Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the basis of the Blade Runner films of 1982 and 2017.
The title and plot stray far from the original writing. The core message, however, remains the same. And it is a message that transcends, like much of PKD’s work, the science fiction genre in which he found his voice.
The novel is set in post-apocalypse San Francisco, following a global nuclear whose radiation has rendered Most animal species are endangered or extinct. In this dystopian world simply owning an animal becomes a sign of status and empathy towards the vanishing animals with whom we once shared the planet.
The main plot of the book like the original film, follows the movements of Deckard (Harrison Ford), a PI/bounty hunter whose job is to retire six escaped Nexus-6 model androids, who look and act like humans, the only difference being their limited lifespan (about which they have learned) and their lack of human empathy, which can be detected by asking a series of question while testing the reactions of their retinas for signs of empathy.
Blade Runner 2049 takes place thirty years after the events of the first film. Now a new blade runner, the LAPD Officer K (Ryan Gosling), uncovers a secret that might plunge the remainder of society into chaos. K must find Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a former LAPD blade runner who has been missing for 30 years.
A central question posed by the story and both films remains: who is actually more human, the androids or the human beings and how can this be ultimately determined?
“The position of writer’s like myself in America is very lowly.”
Philip K. Dick
And that was true. PKD struggled against the convention that sci-fi was not serious and against his own poverty-stricken paranoia for years. There is something of Dostoevsky in his suffering, much of it self-induced. He never made much money until Hollywood came calling near the end of his life and began optioning his books, making him a wealthy man. He wrote 44 novels.
Now, in hindsight, it seems easy to see that this amphetamine-popping genius was something of a predictor of the future. See not only the two Blade Runners but Minority Report, Total Recall and A Scanner Darkly.
PKD was obsessed with portraying the uncertainty of reality, what is real, what is unreal. This led to his famous statement in 1977 before an audience in France: “We’re living in a computer programmed reality.”
The stunned audience gasped. The fellow had gone quite mad. That was in 1977. (PKD died in 1982, the year Blade Runner appeared and made him famous worldwide.)
Now, of course, anyone who is paying attention is familiar with Swedish philosopher’s Nick Bostrum’s theory which says that we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation. From this “It follows that the belief that there is a significant chance that we will one day become posthumans who run ancestor-simulations is false unless we are currently living in a simulation.” And his further assertion that with artificial intelligence we are like children playing with a bomb.”
We are just pixels . . .
He played Roy Batty in Blade Runner 1982, a seminal film that built on older classics like Metropolis and Things to Come in fundamental ways, using the present to illuminate a far distant future. The role made Rutger Hauer famous beyond his native Holland and is with Soldier of Orange, one of his two finest performances. It was an unforgettable role that he relished, having turned down the lead role in Das Boot, the WWII submarine movie that made Jurgen Prochnau a worldwide star.
Here is what he had to tell me about that seminal moment in the film where he reaches out his hand to save Deckard (Harrison Ford) from falling to his death, the exhausted replicant, on the edge of death, proving his empathy. It is one of the great scenes in cinema.
Q: “One of the great Hollywood stories is about how you modified the monologue at the end of Blade Runner. Would you talk about that?”
“I did work on it to make a simpler version. That’s very much part of my talent. I tend to like what is not written what is usually not filmed. In Roy’s last words there was a page of like 300 words or something. It was a really looooong speech. But I thought after four big opera-style deaths we needed to go very quickly or the audience would see the end coming. And that ruins everything. . . So I cut all the lines except two—it was after midnight when we were shooting. I thought what if I could wrap up the character in one sentence. I chopped it down to: ‘I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I’ve watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those … moments will be lost in time, like tears…in rain.’
I cut 40 or 50 lines—but what I really wrote was the silence of the scene. For me to sit there at four in the morning on one of the last days on the shoot, well this was me and Roy fighting for our big moment . . . and for the line to travel for all those years into people like a fucking arrow. I’m so happy that it meant something. It was fun you know. I danced through that movie. . . This movie really liberated me because as an actor I felt I was really in the right place with the right director and I worked hard to do some crazy, funny, excellent work.”
Q: “Definitely. Are we all living in a virtual reality?”
“Sure, sure. What the fuck else are we? Come on though. We aren’t even virtual, really. We are just pixels . . .”
It’s taught me to be nicer to electronics.
Ryan Gosling on Blade Runner 2049
It is rare that a movie based on a book equals the primary material. It is still rarer for a film sequel to rival or even surpass the original. See Godfather II. Blade Runner 2049 is a stunning film.
In the new Blade Runner movie, it’s Gosling’s turn to take over from Harrison Ford. In the role of Officer K, Gosling is a new “blade runner” assigned – like Deckard before him – to terminate rogue “replicants,” artificially engineered beings virtually indistinguishable from humans. Unsettled by his duties, Officer K seeks out Deckard, who had vanished in the original, thirty years before.
Gosling was as enthralled by the story as audiences surely will be. Fans of the first film will be demanding and those demands, for the overwhelming majority will be fulfilled.
Gosling says, “Everyone involved, including me, knew that this film would come under intense scrutiny and there was that pressure to live up to the ambitions and standard set by the original Blade Runner. Also, for me personally, Blade Runner was one of those key films that fed my love for movies. So when you enter a universe that you know from childhood, that’s something very special. When you’re lucky enough to experience that it makes you all the more determined that you invest yourself into your work with total dedication and love.”
“[Blade Runner] was one of the first films that I saw that I didn’t know how to feel when it was over,” Gosling says. “The line between heroes and villains was so blurred. It’s not a hero’s journey in any way. When I was a kid that was the storyline I had seen. Thematically, there’s just so much there — it was rich, it was melancholy, it was romantic. It’s so special. So many other things have stolen ideas from it, but they could never steal its soul. I felt lucky to enter that world.”
How did he approach the complex character of Officer K?
“I thought it was such a compelling character,” says Gosling. “As massive as the world is, as massive as this film is, interesting as it is conceptually, there are these very intimate, personal, emotional storylines as well. So it’s operating on this kind of amazing scale, and this character, there’s such a complicated journey that he goes on. And it’s just amazing to me that the film could honor the original in the way that it did, and the storylines, and the questions, and the themes, and yet still accommodate this very different character and a story that felt totally enmeshed in the DNA of the original. And yet it still felt original in its own right.”
Director Denis Villeneuve contributed his own perspective to the universe first created by Ridley Scott, evoking a neon nightmare of glittering Los Angeles sprawl. There’s that Metropolis influence, too. Blade Runner 2049 distinguishes Villeneuve – who put this together since making Arrival – as a director of rare accomplishment, perhaps unsurpassed in his deft feel for our times.
About him, Gosling says: “It was an incredibly inspiring experience. It was a bold choice to let Denis make this film and he went on to create that world and commit to that vision. He was able to ground it and make this world his own. They were more than just sets. They were monuments to how far he was willing to make that world real and it inspired us to go as far as we could into that world.”
Early on in filming, before Ford’s first day, Gosling said the director told him to imagine Ford in the corner during every scene. “I’d always be asking if Harrison would be happy or not,” Gosling says. “And I wasn’t quite sure in my mind what he thought, and then when he arrived, it was such a relief, because he just rolled up his sleeves and got right to work. I think we just sat around a table pretty soon after he arrived and just started working. He was such a wonderful partner, and so gracious, that it really felt like the movie finally began.”
Gosling continues: “The great thing is that you hang out with him and you realize that all those iconic moments from his films that you love are his — like “I love you,” “I know” from Star Wars, or shooting the guy in Indiana Jones. He’s just like that all the time. Normally I’d say there are hundreds of ways to play any scene. Unless you work with Harrison and you realize there’s only one great way and he’s already figured it out.”
The standard focus on the weird nature of reality, memory and the difficulties of empathy pervade this epic. Future angst hangs in a pall.
Says Gosling: “The futuristic setting is a spectacle itself and so massive on a conceptual level and the world is both beautiful and a nightmare. All these characters are isolated by technology which was meant to help them but in the end, has isolated everyone from each other and everyone is scrambling for a connection and scraps of love. It was interesting in a film to be able to visit that worst-case scenario and I hope that your world can eventually escape that fate.”
Blade Runner 2049 is a ride well worth taking. It is one vision of a terrifyingly convincing path into the future whilst remaining faithful to the previous literary and movie material. This beautifully constructed blockbuster falls on its feet as it considers the nature of perception, its superficial aspects, and its deeper running currents. Denis Villeneuve’s movie explores both potentials in astonishing fashion creating something monumental.
PKD would be proud.
BY Will Richardsson