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Bladerunner, Bladerunner 2049 and Layers of Meaning in Art

First published Wednesday, 25 October 2017

My last blog’s musings were about paintings that work on different levels and whether we should have to explain them. In that I stated that I liked books, films and music that works on different levels and mentioned the film Bladerunner. This week fellow artist Julie Cross and I went to see the much-anticipated follow up Bladerunner 2049, so this post is about that, and the 1982 original.

“In 1983, my first year at University, I went to see the film Bladerunner as a double bill supporting feature to Firefox. I remember really enjoying Bladerunner on face value, but sitting through Firefox my mind kept returning to the earlier film and I stayed in the cinema to watch it again. I kept thinking that there was more to it, in the visual imagery but also in the narrative and themes.” I could follow up that from 1995 to 2000 I taught print media to BTEC and first year Diploma students at a Further education college. The wider studies of the students included film studies and I took over delivering that module in 1996. Bladerunner was one of the films we studied, so from my initial explorations of the narrative and themes I looked at the film more deeply, including reading books about the production, and there is a lot to look at and discover. It is tempting to say well I couldn’t ever see the layers, or its too complicated and difficult and that is fine, but for me a piece of art with layers and themes, whether book, film or painting adds a power and richness to the art, even if you only accept it on face value.

If you have not seen the original Bladerunner film, then do. Despite being an expensive ‘flop’ at the time it has gone on to wider appreciation, benefiting from the co-incidence of the rise of home video at the time, and is now seen as one of the best sci-fi films ever made. It is loosely based on ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’, a 1968 novella by Philip K. Dick, and was adapted for screen initially by Hampton Fancher. The film brought Dick’s writings to the attention of filmmakers and subsequent adaptations based on his books include ‘Total Recall’, ‘A Scanner Darkly’, Minority Report’, ‘The Adjustment Bureau’ and Amazon Prime’s series ‘The Man In The High Castle’. Early differences between Fancher and the director, maverick Director Ridley Scott led to him leaving the project and David Peoples taking over as screenwriter.

The 1982 film is set in a completely thought out dystopian future-world, where environmental issues (Fancher’s vision) have led to a near constant rain and overcrowded, claustrophobic living conditions where modern technology is ‘retro-fitted’ (ie cobbled together), buildings are semi-dilapidated and the street-talk patois is a hotch-potch based mainly on oriental languages. Replicants, artificial beings, are created by the Tyrell Corporation as off-world colony workers. Animals, other than humans, are virtually extinct but again artificially produced by Tyrell. Bladerunners (the name comes from a novel by Alan E. Nourse, not from Dick’s book) are policemen dedicated to ‘retiring’, ie killing, rogue replicants who have escaped and returned to earth. Deckard (Harrison Ford) is brought out of burnt-out-retirement to retire Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), Pris (Daryl Hannah), Leon (Brion James) and Zhora (Joanna Cassidy), the replicants all played by relatively unknown actors at the time. That is the basic first level story told in a film-noir detective style with action chases to add some pace at least. There is also a side romance between Deckard and Tyrell (Joe Turkel)’s ‘niece’, Rachael (Sean Young), an experimental replicant who thinks she is human, but was starting to suspect that she is not, which is then confirmed by Deckard’s Voigt-Kampff machine testing.

On this first level Bladerunner is not really a good film. It is slow paced even for the time and for modern audiences can seem torturous. Having been trailed as ‘action-adventure’ it received bad feedback at test screenings in Denver and Dallas and the studio bosses demanded changes that included a tacked-on ending (courtesy of out-takes from Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’) and Harrison Ford (reluctantly) going back to work to provide a Chandleresque first–person dectective style voice-over to help maintain audience interest and explain what the heck was going on. Critics gave mixed reviews and the film only became commercially successful after world-wide and video release. It was nominated for several awards, mainly technical and cinematography, and even won some UK awards (and one in Los Angeles). Though nominated for Best Visual Effects at the 1983 Oscars, it lost out to Spielberg’s ‘ET’.

However Bladerunner is one of those films that you can watch again and again and each time spot something else that you missed before. I suspect Bladerunner 2049 will prove to be the same. Both are visually sumptuous and stunning, with intricate attention to detail and atmospheric lighting. Both have haunting soundtracks – the original by Vangelis, Bladerunner 2049 by Hans Zimmer but reverting to Vangelis’ original at the end of the film. The plot in 2049 is more comprehensive and some of the themes of the original are nodded to or further explored. The huge advertising cameos that form part of the set being taken to a new dimension, literally, with the inclusion of interactive hologram imagery. The original film influences can be seen, especially but not exclusively, sci-fi film making in terms of staging and atmosphere to the present day and I suspect 2049 will continue that influence.

"Is he or isn’t he?"

That was always the question. Is Deckard a replicant who doesn’t know what he is? Rachael even challenges him after her testing, asking if he has ever taken the Voigt-Kampff test himself, and Zhora asks him “are you for real? Devotee lore cites evidence within the film that Deckard is in fact replicant. In the voice over version Deckard states that his ex wife called him a ‘cold fish’. Cop boss Bryant, while recruiting Deckard for the mission states that six replicants escaped, one "got fried running through an electrical field" which leaves five, but Deckard is sent after Batty, Leon and Zhora (combat and assassin models) and Pris (a basic pleasure model) ie only four, so is Deckard actually the sixth?. Bryant also states that Deckard is the best Bladerunner “I need the best, I need the old magic”, Leon having killed the previous best during his testing in the opening shots of the film. The inference being I need someone better than human. In one shot Deckard’s eyes seem to glow. Replicants have an attachment for photographs and Deckard’s apartment is full of old sepia photographs. As the film is set in 2019 if they were really family album then they would be digital or at least in colour. The adapted first released version also contained a Deckard dream sequence featuring a unicorn (again footage from another film, this time pre-production shooting for Ridley Scott’s next venture, ‘Legend’). At the end of the film as Deckard and Rachael leave his apartment she steps on an origami unicorn fashioned by Gaff (another cop who follows Deckard to check up on him throughout the film). So, the lore goes, Gaff knows Deckard’s dreams, which must then be implanted. Apparently Fancher says he wrote the character to be human but with ambiguity for interest, Ford says he played Deckard as human and argued with Scott who wanted ambiguity but more inclined toward Deckard being a replicant. My considered view? Deckard was human. A replicant would not be so terrible at his job. Deckard failed completely on his mission. Rachael shoots Leon while the replicant has Deckard pinned to a car and lifted from his feet by his neck. Zhora almost strangles him, and only stops because she is interrupted by a bevy of chorus girls returning to the dressing room, Deckard then shoots her in the back as she flees. He kills Pris but only after a fight where he fairs not so well and he is only able to shoot her as she is like a cat playing with a mouse and takes too long to finish him off. Remember Pris is not a combat model but a ‘pleasure model’ so he should be able to retire her with ease. Batty has Deckard on the run through the whole of their confrontation. He even saves Deckard’s life by lifting him as he hangs from the edge of a high building before dying himself through his built-in lifespan. No replicant would be that ineffectual.

Bladerunner 2049 bears out my view. Deckard is not a replicant. The protagonist K (a nod to Phillip K. Dick? and played by Ryan Gosling) is a replicant but when he finally meets Deckard, the old bladerunner is, well, old. Replicants do not age. K is also effective at his job while Deckard was not, even though he tells K that he was. Gosling is very good in the role by the way and I have a new-found respect for the actor. One updating of the original plot is the love interest. Deckard falls in love with a replicant, K falls in love with a hologram. One of the themes in both the Bladerunner films is artificial life developing emotions, love and humanity. It is that very capacity that makes Tyrell build in a life expectancy of four years as the emotions make them 'unstable', rather less easy to control. In 2049, K has to undertake testing after every mission to prove that he is still unaffected and failure of the test leads to ‘retirement’. Batty and Pris are in love. Leon has feelings for Zhora, K and Joi (Ana De Armas) are in love, though Joi’s feelings are questionable as the hologram advertisement version of her model speaks to K and calls him Joe, Joi’s name for him that is only known to the both of them until he tells Deckard. Throughout both films it is the artificial life forms (though not all of them) that show compassion and feeling rather then the self-serving humans. Batty eventually shows compassion, seemingly to honour life, even Deckard’s life, more than revenge for the death of his friends.

“I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.”

Batty’s famous ‘tears in the rain’ soliloquy after saving Deckard and before he dies in the never-ending downpour is one of the most heartfelt, heartbreaking and beautiful speeches in film history. The monologue was altered from the script by Rutger Hauer, who invested heavily as an actor in the film. Hauer delivers a performance that even Phillip K. Dick described as perfect, and the perfect replicant.

Which brings me to another theme, one that is continued in 2049. Memories, more specifically, the unreliability of memories. The replicants are implanted with memories of other humans to give them emotional stability so the memories that they actually form themselves are more precious, hence the love of photographs. Conversely their own memories make them more emotional and less able to be controlled as they lead to emotions, hence the built in fail-safe of a four-year life span. In Bladerunner the return to earth is a quest to find out how long they have left and to see if that fail-safe can be removed, a human reaction and one echoed in the tacked on closing image voice over in the first film: Deckard “Tyrell had told me Rachael was special. No termination date. I didn't know how long we had together... Who does?”. By the way, watch the numbers shown closely in 2049 and that question is answered. Rachael cannot trust her memories as they are implanted from Tyrell’s niece, she says so when Deckard pressures her into a relationship “I can't... rely on... my memories...”. In 2049 K’s childhood memory and whether it is real or not is crucial to the plot. In Bladerunner Deckard’s photographs ‘move’ when Rachael looks at them. We are meant to question our own memories as to accuracy and reality. Ask any policeman, the recall of eye-witnesses builds a changing picture of the event so what is reality?

By extension of this eyes, and eyes as the windows of the soul, are another theme in both the Bladerunner films. Both open with shots of eyes in the opening montages. The Voigt-Kampff test works on eyes, Batty's visit to the artificial eye designer Hanibal Chew (James Hong) is an integral part of the plot in the original film and his freezing tube of eyes is echoed in the toy maker, J. F. Sebastian (William Sanderson)’s home with the tube of boiling eggs. Batty meets then kills his maker, gouging out his eyes and crushing his skull. The eye is symbolic of the soul and the question ‘can we make a soul?’ runs through both films. The creator or God in both films is human (Tyrell in Bladerunner, the blind Wallace in Bladerunner 2049) and the creation is artificial life so by extension if God made humans and humans made artificial life then should not the replicants have the same rights to life, to live and to extend life that we expect without interference from our creator? As humans we are flawed, we make fatal errors, Shakespeare illustrated this repeatedly in his plays. Tyrell makes an error in his chess match with Sebastian which ultimately leads to his death and the end of his god-like existence high above the teeming 'little people' 'humanity' of the streets.

Slavery has been purported as a theme for both films too, with the replicants being owned and their lives directed, but I see this as not just the replicants but the humans too. Deckard is threatened by Bryant as being seen as ‘little people’ if he does not comply, he is followed and monitored by Gaff (Edward James Olmos). The more troubling theme for me is misogyny. The first ‘love’ scene between Rachael and Deckard has always bothered me as near rape, certainly forcing, of a traumatised woman and the Hollywood favourite of breakingand control of a seemingly self assured, aloof, unattainable female beloved by Hitchcock and seemingly Harvey Weinstein. In both films naked and near-naked women are recurringly seen in huge advertisements as commodities. Zhora the assassin is an exotic dancer along with the biblical snake, Pris poses as a toy, a plaything (she is a pleasure model remember) in J. F. Sebastian’s house. In 2049 Joi changes clothing and attitude in the blink of beam of light to advertising men’s varying ideals of women. Only Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), Wallace’s creature and assassin keeps her clothes and she is a stone cold killer.

I have only seen Bladerunner 2049 once but want to watch it again. I think I will find more layers and themes, and anyway the cinematography and music is beautifully enjoyable. I like puzzles and think that this one will continue to distract me for a long time to come.

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The contents of this article or blog are not intended to amount to advice and you should not rely on any of the contents of this article or blog. Professional advice should be obtained before taking or refraining from taking any action as a result of the contents of this article or blog. Ruth Buchanan disclaims all liability and responsibility arising from any reliance placed on any of the contents of this article or blog.

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