the unicorn and the dove: another look at blade runner’s sublime dystopia

This essay first appeared on the Dissident Voice webzine.

When Blade Runner played the Castro Theatre in San Francisco recently, I went to see it on their old-school big screen, where it belongs. This was the Final Cut, one of multiple versions (not all of which have been released theatrically) made since the film’s first release in 1982. For some reason the Final Cut has been unavailable to theaters since it debuted seven years ago. Blade Runner’s production and re-production history is a saga in itself, as a little web research will show you. It’s clearly always been an object of obsession for its director, Ridley Scott. And has since become one for legions of fans, including me.

It was (appropriately) a night of rain, although a needed, drought-breaking rain, not the toxic acid rain that unendingly fills the skies of “Los Angeles 2019” in the film. It was a weeknight, and a busy time of year. Much of the audience didn’t look old enough to have seen the film when it first came out. But the ticket line for this 1400-seat theater stretched around the block, for both shows. Why? “People love some Blade Runner,” said a guy in line.

And why is that? Blade Runner was not a hit back in 1982. The love has taken time to manifest. In hindsight, though, it’s clear that a good deal of its power to attract comes from the extraordinary level of craft applied to both of the elements that determine reception in any film: visual and narrative.

For decades in Hollywood, pulp genre films were associated with low budgets and correspondingly simple design. That’s why earlier sci-fi movies mostly look cheap and silly. Stanley Kubrick blasted the hinges off the genre’s door back in 1968 with 2001: A Space Odyssey, but his approach didn’t inspire a herd of followers. Spielberg and Lucas were visual standouts in the 1970s, but their narrative model was for kids – it was the Boys’ Own Story. What Scott did with Blade Runner that was unique, at least until Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, was to tell a grown-up future story in which the design was superbly visionary and still created a putative environment on this planet, not out in space somewhere. Blade Runner’s visual aesthetic is both familiar and exotic, and, for a genre film, almost lovingly detailed.

(We’re talking about Hollywood here; Europe’s sci-fi masterpieces like Chris Marker’s La Jetée, Godard’s Alphaville, or Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris had already shown what could be done even without the kind of capital demanded for “big” studio pictures.)

But of course there is another criterion for enduring success that applies uniquely to stories of the future: can it prophesy?

Blade Runner’s rise really began in the ‘90s, when the rapturous wedding of capital and new technology, the ascending power of the Asian Tiger economies and transnational corporations, and advances in genetic engineering and AI (in 1997 a computer first beats a chess World Champion), indicated that much of the film’s future scenario was now clearly nascent.

This is key, because the best sci-fi is not predictive but prophetic. It doesn’t show us what we’re going to be wearing or driving in fifty years, but how living in the world could feel. And not just in the future, of course, but how it can feel right now. That’s because prophecy, unlike prediction, has a timeless quality. Its reality is always imminent. It’s always a reflection of inner understandings more than specific external characteristics.

Blade Runner also broke with the longstanding practice of portraying future societies, whether utopian or dystopian, as culturally uniform. Its future is neither shiny and homogeneous (2001) nor dingy and homogeneous (1984). Nor is it the conventional de-populated post-apocalyptic wasteland. Its densely inhabited urban setting is broke-down, chaotic, culturally mongrelized and economically stratified. The endless cityscape is loomed over by perversely awesome monoliths, temples of technologically generated wealth, branded with glowing corporate logos and hypertrophic advertising, while the mob just trudges along on the filthy, crowded streets way down below.

This, of course, is the way unchained global capital has made (and continues to make) much of the contemporary urban world look and feel, regardless of the lack of gargantuan pyramids or satanic flame-topped chimneys in present-day LA. Blade Runner’s imagined setting may actually be closer to contemporary Hong Kong or Manila – but that can only add to its power for US audiences. It’s arguable that what terrifies US Americans most, in some corner of their psyches, is the idea that they may someday have to live the way other people in the world live right now.

(In fact one of the fan-based in-jokes about Blade Runner is that it actually presents a positively idealized LA – at long last the city has pedestrians, street markets, interesting architecture, posh ladies with fashion sense, and plenty of parking. Oh, and rocket cars, of course.)

But I would also say that an enormous part of its appeal is that Blade Runner, alone among science fiction films since 2001, has a true sense –visual, aural, and narrative – of the sublime.

It’s easier to see what sailing out among the stars trying to find God has to do with the qualities usually associated with the term. But how does portraying the degradation of the human species into a shuffling mass of poisoned drones – who’ve become inferior in almost every way to the “Nexus 6” androids employed as slaves and cannon fodder on off-world colonies – have anything to do with this idea?

First, it’s one of many ways in which the film and the novel differ significantly. Dick’s original story Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? grapples with metaphysical questions and the meaning of being human, but it does so in a way that uncomfortably mixes pedestrian pulp fiction with the literature of ideas (as do almost all of Dick’s novels). It’s an unrelentingly sad and dreary book. Ridley Scott and his writers took Dick’s clunky storytelling, undistinguished characterizations and superb ideas and honed them into a mythic tale (genre stories being probably the closest thing our culture has left to folktale and myth) that actually has the power to make us feel a kind of awe.

While “sublime” has multiple overlapping definitions in aesthetic theory and philosophy, it is interestingly enough not always associated with positive qualities. The 18th century philosopher Edmund Burke, who wrote the first aesthetic treatise on the subject, defined the sublime as “whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger… or operates in a manner analogous to terror.” He takes Milton’s heroic Satan in Paradise Lost as an exemplary figure. And the obscure light of this infernal sublime also illuminates Blade Runner.

Its City of Endless Night is lit exquisitely (by cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth), and gets an amazing amount of range out of its sepia color palette. While the street scenes are all remarkable backlot creations, it uses three iconic LA locations (Union Station, Ennis House, and the Bradbury Building, all of which appear in many other films) for its key interiors. Architecture can call up the sublime – what else is a temple or a cathedral? The degraded state of these elegant places, the camera panning casually over the trash on the roof of a dingy office at the back of Union Station’s great hall, or picking up tile patterns in an enormous filth-encrusted bathroom in the Bradbury building, contains as much impossible longing for transcendence as anything else in the film.

In most genre films, even big budget ones, the musical soundtrack is either crudely and sappily manipulative (looking at you, John Williams) or merely incidental. But Blade Runner’s score contributes fully in launching it into the territory of the sublime. With his canny interweaving of human and electronic music, attentively composed to create tone poems for every scene, Vangelis exalts the broke-down world while thematically echoing the blurred lines between man and machine.

Douglas Trumbull (Silent Running, 2001) headed the effects team. It’s his “Hades landscape” we see whenever we fly over the city. Fittingly, it’s just how po-mo culture critic Baudrillard described the “real” LA: “A sort of luminous, geometric, incandescent immensity, stretching as far as the eye can see, bursting out from cracks in the clouds.” Like the movie, Baudrillard makes both the infernal connection (by invoking Hieronymus Bosch) and the prophetic: LA “condenses by night the entire future geometry of human relations, gleaming in their abstraction… astral in their reproduction to infinity.” Humanity cowers and shrinks within its own creations.

Add to this the androids, all of whom (except for Leon, the grunt) are gorgeous iterations of Lucifer and the angels who fell with him. The film is charged by their belief in their superiority and their fierce desire to survive. When android Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) speaks Blade Runner’s most poignant lines (written by Hauer himself) and releases that white dove as he expires, it isn’t tacky, any more than Satan’s final speech in Paradise Lost is tacky. That is the power of craft, the power of myth. Like Satan, Roy is a super-human figure who gets to articulate a thoroughly human tragedy. In this case it’s about the irrevocable loss through death of all the intricate detail of memory that is the unique stamp of an individual human life.

The sublime is traditionally associated with that before which we feel prostrate because it makes us realize the true insignificance, against the vastly expanded horizon of existence, of the individual self. And that, in an infernal sense, is precisely what Blade Runner gives us, while basing itself firmly upon Dick’s prescient questioning of the whole idea of self in an age of mechanical reproduction.

But the particular appeal of the infernal sublime is a longtime constant in Western culture, at least since Christianity began to sell us on the destructive notion that you could isolate light from darkness and just live in the light. The violence done to the human psyche, society, and nature by this idea continues to reverberate – and infernal visions are a necessary consequence.

The sex and power fantasies in modern pulp fiction are another, addressing the lack of agency that most people experience in mass society – but such pubescent fantasizing is far more common than the creation of true infernal visions. It’s also hyper-individualistic, anti-social, and (still) overwhelmingly male. The infernal sublime, from Dante to Milton to Tolkien, always incorporates individual, social, and cosmic elements. Its worldview may not be “progressive,” but wherever it exists, it indicates awareness that suppressed and repudiated aspects of experience require imaginative expression. What makes Blade Runner mythic is precisely its ability to incorporate pure-Id pulp elements but elevate the whole context in which they exist.

A word on graphic violence, for which the film was criticized when it was originally released (and which is now boringly standard for genre pics): if you think insanely garish violence is a new thing in storytelling, or has risen to new heights with every passing year, you have neglected your classical education. Reading anything from the Odyssey to Norse sagas to Dante’s Inferno can literally make you gag. George R.R. Martin has defended Game of Thrones from this charge of excess by referring to its basis in historical chronicles of the War of the Roses. Pulp violence is as old as civilization. Go figure.

The infernal sublime may be a little too close for some to the kind of jaded view that the great Marxist literary scholar Fredric Jameson critiqued in Stanley Kubrick’s other genre masterpiece, The Shining. Jameson excoriated the ahistorical, anti-human, ultimately (to him) nihilistic vision of that film, embodied in its impeccably sterile mise-en-scène. But Blade Runner is visually quite different even if its worldview is equally bleak. Its frames are crowded with people; it’s not just focused on one isolated family imploding against a gorgeous backdrop of cosmic indifference. For all its killer androids and retro-techno interventions, Blade Runner, like the novel from which it derives, is actually still concerned with a kind of humanism. Although, true to the noir genre, it’s a vision of humanity degraded to such an extent that it’s unrecognizable as anything the Renaissance or Enlightenment humanists could have championed.

The standards of noir are all present and accounted for in the picture: dogged, lonely detective, check; borderline between good and evil almost non-existent, check; corruption is everywhere, the rich are above the law, and police work is basically institutionalized vigilantism – you get the picture. “You’re either cops or little people,” says M. Emmet Walsh’s top cop character, summing up social relations that ring true on many of the world’s mean streets today.

In fact, what has made noir perennially appealing down the decades since it emerged under the nuclear shadow of the mid 20th century has a lot to do with the failed promise of humanism. Western humanism’s trumpeting of the supreme capabilities of our species (which truly resided only in the male, property owning, Christian, European members of that species, as academics have been informing us for at least forty years now) has proven somewhat tinny and hollow when you look at how most people actually live at this late stage. It now turns out that the liberation of capital and smarter technology are not (surprise!) leading inexorably to wiser, nobler human societies. Some scientists have even begun to whisper that humanity’s only undeniable legacy in the distant future may well be the ultimate holocaust we caused, the anthropogenic Sixth Extinction.

But still we go on. In the absurd universe through which the noir detective stumbles after the Holocaust and the Bomb have destroyed its last shred of credibility as an engine of humanism, Western civilization simply continues. Dick goes that one better. After Armageddon, it continues. The world is not reduced to a tiny band of intrepid survivors; it’s still overpopulated. There’s still marketing; there’s still industry; there’s still colonial expansion. And yet life, all the incredible variety and vibrancy of biological life, is degraded past hope of return. But still we go on.

This is not what will occur. This is what is occurring. Prophecy, not prediction.

What both novel and film so darkly demonstrate is that “technological solution” is an oxymoron. In the novel, Earth has been made a toxic wasteland by nuclear war. The “solution” has been to colonize other planets, and the people left behind, the losers, get artificial mood enhancement and televised religion so they can deal with their depression and misery. The movie, even though it was made while the Cold War still raged, wisely left the cause of the toxic mess and the deformed and sick humans we see on screen an open question. Genetic tinkering, viral plagues, and even climate change, not considered much at the time, all become possible answers. In both novel and film, the fact that robots have become almost indistinguishable from humans makes them useful and profitable, but also dangerous. An endless spiral of blowback is inevitable.

Take space colonization, which in the 1960s everybody thought we’d already be doing by now. It’s probably not much closer to reality but has gotten refreshed attention in the era of global biocide. From this perspective it looks ever more like the kind of deluded elite-panic strategy Dick framed it as being. Stephen Hawking blathers to a sycophantic public that our species is doomed if we don’t get off this planet. The most fantastically vibrant, bio-congenial world the solar system has produced, and it’s already tossed in the trash as far as he’s concerned. What European colonialism did to the Americas we are apparently destined to repeat throughout the cosmos, with no shred of remorse or chagrin. This is scientistic (as opposed to scientific) hubris at its most headily absurd.

And who is this “we” anyway? That’s the question scientists and venture capitalists always seem to dodge when they talk about how “we” need quantum computers and genetically engineered food and artificial intelligence. And that’s the question Blade Runner (faithful here to Dick’s original) clearly answers: it ain’t you, loser.

Which doesn’t mean that our immediate future won’t contain more and more machines that can pass Turing tests. But what if the brain, as renowned neuroscientist Gerald Edelman firmly states, is not a Turing machine? Like nuclear energy, or industrial farming, or increased mechanization in general, AI may just be another case of technology and capital going ninety miles an hour down that famous cul-de-sac. That’s to say, one more thing poets prophesied and the powerful ignored, to the ultimate chagrin of the “little people.” And with them, now, all the “little species” too.

One of the most significant elements of Dick’s novel that the film unfortunately can’t incorporate is the role of animals. To his human characters, living animals are supreme objects of desire, talismans of the final, fading hope of salvation that remains in the world. If the androids are their infernal selves (recognizable chiefly by their lack of affect for animals), and religion is only a kind of hucksterism, live animals represent the last precious link to the almost obliterated world of unconstructed nature.

It’s still a defensible bet that our extreme machine dreams will have little or nothing to do with the long-term future of our species or this planet, because they’re too reductive and arrogantly unconcerned with the social and ecological elephants in civilization’s room. The Singularity is Not That Near. Or let’s say it’s just as near and represents just as much real benefit for you and me as space colonization and rocket cars and designer children…

But that doesn’t make Blade Runner less compelling. In fact the whole exercise serves to prove an ambiguous point: being human rather than mechanical or animal is not really as important as the persistence of certain qualities, chiefly altruistic love and empathy. Thus the controversy the film tries to generate over whether or not professional robot-killer Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is himself an android is one of its few missteps. (Fans have pointed out the silliness of having a supposed “next generation” hit man be so clearly physically weaker than the Nexus 6 models that keep beating him to a pulp.) He has a unicorn galloping through his dreams because, like all of us moderns, he is still haunted by the idea of the beautiful, free, and perfect – that is, the heavenly sublime – even if it is utterly imaginary. How does his laconic sidekick Gaff (Edward James Olmos) know this? Maybe it’s just human intuition.

Gaff utters the summa theologica of Dick’s philosophy and Blade Runner’s mythology: As Deckard prepares to flee with Rachel (Sean Young), the real next generation android with whom he has fallen in love, but who, like all the rest, has a non-extendable lifespan of only a few years, Gaff calls after him, “Too bad she won’t live. But then again, who does?”

Well, we do, maybe. When you tear your eyes away from all the screens, big or little, and step outside the built environment, even momentarily, life is still all around. Will there actually come a time when it’s literally impossible to turn away, or there’s nothing left to turn to? To say so would be a prediction, and prediction is a fool’s game. What we have in great works like Blade Runner is prophecy, which means we already know how it would feel.

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