Blade Runner, and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

It's a bit difficult to concentrate this evening! (For people coming across this blog post years from now, we just heard that Joe Biden won th election. Today is Saturday, the election was on Tuesday.)

But to my normal Saturday busioness. Blade Runner won the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation in 1983. The other finalists were all cinema films; I have seen two – Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which came second, and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, which came third – but not the other two – The Dark Crystal, which came fourth and Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, which came fifth. I wonder where Airplane II came in the nominations tally? I think of the three I have seen, I would have gone with the majority and voted for Blade Runner.

This was the third Hugo-winning film in a row to star Harrison Ford, leading as Deckard here, having been Indian Jones in last year's Raiders of the Lost Ark and Han Solo two years ago in The Empire Strikes Back. He was also of course Solo in the original Star Wars.

There is just one cast member who had a speaking role in an Oscar-winning film: it's M. Emmet Walsh, who is Deckard's boss, police captain Bryant here, and was the swim coach in Ordinary People two years back.

Kimiko Hiroshige, credited here as "Cambodian Woman", and Howie Lee, who plays the Sushi Master, were both also uncredited extras in Around the World in Eighty Days, 26 years ago.

I remember daringly going to the cinema on my own to see this in London, when I was fifteen, so it has a lot of nostalgia for me, and I still like it a lot, even though the year 2019 has now been and gone without android replicants threatening Los Angeles. To get the obvious out of the way, it's a Bechdel fail. Dave points out on Facebook, in response to this review:

Blade Runner didn’t just fail the Bechdel test, it has the leading male character coerce a woman to sleep with him, and has a female replicant wearing virtually nothing be shot in the back and fall through plates of glass. It’s thoroughly sexist throughout.

There are also no visible African-American characters, though many Asians, in a city which actually has about equal numbers of both groups in its population. More subtly, Sarah Gailey has pointed out what is really going on here:

There is a whole class of slaves. It is illegal for them to escape slavery. The cops are supposed to murder the slaves if they escape, because there is a risk that they will start to think they’re people. But the cops know that the slaves are not people, so it’s okay to murder them. The greatest danger, the thing the cops are supposed to prevent, is that the slaves will try to assimilate into the society that relies on their labor.

Assimilation is designed to be impossible. There are tests. Impossible tests with impossible questions and impossible answers. The tests measure empathy. It is not about having enough empathy, but about having empathy for the correct things. If you do not have enough empathy for the correct things, you will be murdered by a cop who does have empathy for the correct things.

The actual plot is straight out of pulp sf, and has been stripped of much of what made the book special. But it's a chilling story, and Deckard engages our sympathy largely by being good-looking Harrison Ford, conflicted over what he is doing, particularly when he falls in love with one of the replicants.

But. It still looks and sounds fantastic. The cityscapes of LA in 2019, pouring rain, crowded underclass, glitzy commercial offices but abandoned residential buildings, are superbly conveyed. Rutger Hauer's dying words as lead replicant Roy Batty remain one of those moments you'll never forget in cinema, as Deckard begins to realise what his journey has really been about.

And I was thoroughly addicted to Vangelis's music – I had a cassette of the album and played it incessantly as a student. I think it holds up as at least the equal of his work for Chariots of Fire last year.

I'm putting this right at the top of my list, in fourth place behind 2001 but ahead of Superman. A very welcome return journey.

I reread Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? again as well. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

As he unlocked his office door, his superior, Police Inspector Harry Bryant, jug-eared and redheaded, sloppily dressed but wise-eyed and conscious of nearly everything of any importance, hailed him. “Meet me at nine-thirty in Dave Holden’s office.” Inspector Bryant, as he spoke, flicked briefly through a clipboard of onionskin typed sheets. “Holden,” he continued as he started off, “is in Mount Zion Hospital with a laser track through his spine. He’ll be there for a month at least. Until they can get one of those new organic plastic spinal sections to take hold.”for a month at least. Until they can get one of those new organic plastic spinal sections to take hold.”

It's a short book, but it's amazing how little of it actually made it into the film – sure, the core plot of the replicants is there, but we lose the fact that the factory is in Seattle not LA; we lose the obsession with live animals (there's an awful moment when the chap taking what he thinks is a robot cat to be fixed realises that it was real and it has really died); we lose Deckard's home life, and Mercerism and the empathy boxes; and we lose the single most chilling moment of the book, when the replicants set up a fake police station and Deckard is almost fooled into thinking that he is the android – it's a typical Dick moment of questioning reality.

It's also worth noting that the book is set in 2021 (in more recent editions – when first published in 1968, it was set in 1992.) I'm preparing piece on twentieth-century SF set next year; this is certainly the best known.

Next year's Hugo winner is Return of the Jedi, but before that we have to get through Gandhi.

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