So I watched Blade Runner 2049 a couple of weeks ago, and wow.
Wow at the beautiful, ridiculously gorgeous cinematography by Roger Deakins (seriously this man needs an Oscar or the Oscars have no meaning). Wow at the industrial, haunting, pulsating score by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch, blending into the sound design to create the dark, brooding atmosphere of this bleak future. Wow at the bravery of Denis Vileneuve, already one of my favourite directors after the incredible run of Prisoners, Sicario, and Arrival, to not only take on something as beloved as Blade Runner, but also to take his time with the story, to take the substance seriously and earnestly and let the story unfold at its own pace. It’s not wall to wall balls to the wall all out action explosion time: it’s measured, meditative, and when the action does come it’s that much more impactful for the silences in between. Wow at the screenplay, from the original Blade Runner scribe Hampton Fancher, which doesn’t shy away from the big questions yet also refrains from offering any sort of concrete answer, something a lesser film would attempt to shoehorn in. Wow at all of it, at them pulling off a sequel 35 years after the beloved original and delivering in spades.
Wow, wow, wow.
I’m going to try and stay clear of out and out plot spoilers, because this is a film that will be more rewarding the less you know about the specifics, but I’m going to guess that anyone who is planning on seeing it will have at least watched the original in some form (and hopefully not just be going for the sake of Ryan Gosling). Seriously, don’t go just for Gosling, he spends most of this film covered in some form of grime/blood/grimy blood combo. Not hot.
But for a quick recap, let’s cast our minds back to the first Blade Runner, from way back in 1982. Here’s the Sparknotes-y bit, skip to the next paragraph if you know it all. Written by the sci-fi great Philip K Dick, also of The Man In the High Castle fame, the original name of “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” is a clever allusion to the themes of the story. In the near future the Tyrell corporation builds artificial humans known as Replicants to do dangerous work on off-world colonies, they are built to be strong, smart, with fake memories to develop personalities and with determined lifespans to shut them down when their use is done. A small crew of these Replicants escape, led by the amazing Rutger Hauer as Roy Batty, steal a ship, kill everyone on board, and make their way to Earth for a lil’ tete-a-tete with Tyrell. Cue our leading man Rick Deckard, a Blade Runner, being assigned to the case to find these Replicants and “retire” them. And that is all I will say of the plot, but suffice to say that if you have not seen Blade Runner you should 100% watch Blade Runner. But forewarning, it is a pretty slow film, as much a noir detective story as a sci-fi one,
I’m not writing this blog to talk about plot, or to just heap praise on the new film, but rather talk about the wider school that these films come from. What the first Blade Runner (which I’m now going to shorten to BR for the sake of my carpal tunnels) did, and what BR 2049 carries on in spectacular fashion, is the spirit of proper, old, hard science fiction. These are stories that delve deep into the biggest of questions, about the nature of humanity, the purpose of existence, the meaning and importance of memory, the ethical complexities of creating intelligence, the necessary evils committed by man for the sake of progress and expansion, and so much more. BR is not alone in this field, not by any means. Pretty much since Metropolis back in 1927, one can trace a long and storied lineage of science fiction films in the more serious vein, that aren’t just about lasers and explosions (sorry Star Wars/Trek, I love you but you aren’t quite on the same level of deepness), but instead tackle serious, searching, and often unsettling questions about our own nature, as well as the nature of the universe.
From 2001: A Space Odyssey, perhaps the pinnacle of sci fi filmmaking, via Solaris, Close Encounters, Twelve Monkeys, Contact, Gattaca (which more people have to watch), Minority Report (also based on a story by Philip K Dick), and Primer, up to more recent endeavours such as Children of Men, Moon, Her (kinda), Ex Machina, Interstellar, and Denis Vileneuve’s previous triumph Arrival, the grand old tradition of science fiction has been kept alive by subsequent generations of filmmakers who are brave enough to tackle these ideas without the campy overtones and styrofoam sets of things like Doctor Who or old Star Trek. They are films that continue to inspire and awe today, make you think, question, leave you with your mind considering all of the possibilities and problems, exploring the beautifully simple yet open ended question of “What if?”
The old stereotype and cliche of sci-fi being for nerds is dead, over, done. Although nonsense like The Big Bang Theory continues to try and perpetuate this myth that sci-fi is all about silly lasers and cosplay and man children with patriarchy problems, I like to think people are more aware of the fact that it goes far beyond that level. Sci-fi has crept into every level of public consciousness, from terrible YA novels to The Handmaid’s Tale, Marvel movies to Misfits, Westworld to Stranger Things, it’s all over the place. But I digress, this isn’t meant to be an “Aha! Got you, you secret nerd” moment, just an observation on how god awful TBBT is.
The flip side of everything being a bit of sci-fi is that sci-fi in its original sense is often distorted, lost to high camp and special effects, treated as a joke or a peg to hang a more easy going comedy or action film off. These are the crossover sci-fi films, which may still be decent, but aren’t fully focused on the real core of the idea they’re tackling. A good example is the Matrix, a sci-fi premise teamed up with Hong Kong wire-fu action and a pulsing electronic soundtrack to blow the minds of everyone in the late 90s, but the minute it tried to go a bit serious with the Architect the entire thing collapsed under the weight of its leaden handling of the subject. On the comedy side we have Back to the Future, Bill and Ted, and to an extent the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (although those books get surprisingly deep bro), but they all leave a nice cushion of humour between themselves and pure sci-fi.
Then, every so often, a film comes along that sets all of that artifice aside in the pursuit of something purer. Films that pick a question, a massive, huge question, and run with it. “How will humanity survive in the future?” “What happens when we make contact with extra terrestrials?” “What happens if we create artificial intelligence?” “What if we name that artificial intelligence HAL and he goes a bit mad?” “What if we could predict crime?” “What if we could travel in time but have to deal with very real consequences of duplicates and timelines?” “What if nobody could have children?” “What if we were sorted into a society based on our genetic disposition at birth?” “What if aliens arrive and we need to learn how to talk to them?” “What if we find a big black monolith and touch it and then creepy Ligeti music starts playing and a monkey kills another monkey with a bone and is that the first murder and oh god can mankind ever rise above its base urge to kill?” Please watch 2001. If any of those things sent a little shiver up your spine then good, because they should. Science fiction authors and filmmakers don’t pluck these ideas from nowhere, they look at the world of their day and see how it could develop. Ever since H.G.Wells was inspired by the industrialising world around him to eerily predict chemical weapons and mechanised warfare, those who write and envision these scenarios always take something from the world of their time.
So what do the hard sci-fi films of today have to say about our world? Ex-Machina takes place in a clean, glossy future, where the main character is summoned to conduct an AI experiment by a reclusive tech genius, selected based on his search history and browsing patterns. Sound creepily possible? How about in Interstellar, where global warming has decimated the world’s food supply, leading to arid dustbowls hit by violent windstorms? The DNA based life plans of Gattaca find their real world echoes in increasingly accurate embryo screening and gene editing, Children of Men’s childless future mirrors a steep decline in real world fertility rates, and the bickering nations in Arrival failing to work together look eerily like the ever more fractured international relations of the world today. BR of course has its real world echoes, many of them. The increasing focus on AI and machine learning, the millions of second class citizens across the globe who live in slavery, the gulf opening up between the richest and poorest in society, the increasing growth of sprawling urban centres, the list goes on.
That is what great sci-fi does. It holds up a mirror, a Black Mirror if you will, to the world, and asks us to dive into the realm of possibility. I know what some of you may be thinking, “But wait, all of those possibilities in those movies are just really bleak, where’s the happy stuff? Where are the rockets and hover boards and shiny buildings?” That idea existed, for sure it did. Look at anything we would now deem retro-future, think The Jetsons, the hopes for the future back in the 40s and 50s were of bright, clean cities and flying cars and house cleaning robo – oh wait, we kind of have those. But it’s hard to envision that kind of future building from today, or from the time when the sci fi greats like Heinlein, Asimov, Dick, Clarke, Herbert, and more were at the height of their powers. They lived in the aftermath of WWII, driven by nationalism fuelling a global conflict, under a looming cloud of potential nuclear war, in an era of rapid and unchecked technological advancement. Seem familiar?
We need films like BR 2049, just as back in summer I wrote about needing films like Dunkirk, because we need to consider our future as much as we need to learn from the past. We need science fiction, in all of its weird forms, to take itself seriously and to in turn allow us to take it seriously, to really think about these fundamental, pertinent, and ever more pressing questions. Great sci-fi should leave you wanting, leave you hungry for meaning and answers, because it poses questions that we don’t have the means to solve just yet, but someday will. Authors of the late 1800s had their fantasies of tanks and rockets become reality in the 20th century, the authors of the 20th century are seeing their imaginings of AI, ecological collapse, and enduring slavery come to light now, what will the authors of today predict for the world of the 22nd century? It’s natural to hope for a happier, brighter future, but if the startlingly accurate predictions of sci-fi are anything to go by, we’re in for one hell of a ride.
Also, if you haven’t seen Blade Runner or any of the films mentioned, please please go and check them out. Plenty are on Netflix/pop up on TV every so often, they are all brilliant and all worth seeing in full. And then watch the new Blade Runner in as big a cinema as possible.
xoxo, The Angry “Do you like our owl?” Indian