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rochefort [Celluloid 01.15.18] cyberpunk scifi



Cyberspace, artificial intelligence, street tech, cyborgs, shady megacorporations. These are just some of the staples of Cyberpunk, a science-fiction subgenre that began as a literary movement spearheaded by authors like William Gibson (whose “Neuromancer” won the Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick awards in 1984), Bruce Sterling, Rudy Rucker, Lewis Shiner, John Shirley and Neal Stephenson.

Cyberpunk reshaped the way we see the future, and has informed our understanding of the age of big data. Its pervasive and frequently subversive influence can be found in everything from the way we work and the devices we use to fashion, music and cinema. And underneath all the neon, grime, leather and chrome, cyberpunk fiction continues to ask vital questions about how we cope with progress and what it means to be human.



SPOILERS AHEAD





BLADE RUNNER

Blade Runner, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Harrison Ford, was released in June 1982, right smack in the middle of what is considered one of the best years in genre cinema history, a year that gave us Conan the Barbarian, E.T., The Thing, Poltergeist, Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, The Road Warrior and Tron, among many others. Ford, who at the time was one of the biggest actors in the world after two Star Wars movies and Raiders of the Lost Ark, playes Rick Deckard, his costars including Sean Young, Daryl Hannah, and Edward James Olmos. Rutger Hauer, a Dutch actor who had impressed American audiences one year earlier as the sinister “Wulfgar” in the Stallone vehicle Nighthawks, played the main villain Roy Batty.

A loose but fairly respectful adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep”, Blade Runner’s setup and plot are as simple as its themes are complex: It is 2019 and mankind has reached the stars, thanks in large part to the invention of vat-grown, genetically tailored humanoid product called "replicants". While absolutely vital to colonization efforts in the harsh conditions of space, replicants are too dangerous to be allowed back on earth, and special policemen called Blade Runners are tasked with “retiring” any replicant who sets foot back on Terran soil. Rick Deckard is one such Blade Runner, forced out of retirement to hunt down four recent returnees, all of them Nexus 6 models, after they try and fail to break into the Tyrell corporation, the very company that created them.

The production was not an easy one. Ford and Scott clashed frequently, principal photography was long and arduous, and a lot of those involved had no clear idea what to expect from the final product. Much has been written about the struggle to complete the film, and that’s not really my focus here, but if you love the original film or you just like to read about how the sausage gets made, definitely grab Paul M. Sammons’ “Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner”. It’s an exhaustive look at the movie with tons of fun details and cogent insights, some of which I may very well have inadvertently echoed in this article.

Among sci fi fans and cinephiles, there is an almost obligatory compulsion to praise Blade Runner, sometimes to the confusion of younger audiences who don’t get all the brouhaha. It’s old, slow-paced and "boring", after all. Honestly, they’re not completely wrong. And audiences in 1982 felt pretty much the same; the movie was a box office flop and confused a lot of critics. Only in the years since has Blade Runner gained a steadily-growing following on VHS and disc, and the creation of a sequel so many years later suggests that the general public has grown to respect it quite a bit more.

Fans, however, knew from pretty much the beginning that there was something very different about this movie. They suspected that here was a film that would stand the test of time in a way very few movies could.

Just check out this trailer for the SciFi channel’s 2000 broadcast for an example of how the original sights and sounds of the film are still effective today. It’s simple and elegant, doesn’t use any modern effects or zap sounds or booms, and the music is right out of the opening scene. And it's breathtaking.





The mind melting actually begins with the text that precedes the opening scene. I’m not talking about the opening expository scrawl, which is perfectly fine, giving us all the details and such we need, but what I’m actually referring to is the supertitle that follows:


“Los Angeles, November 2019”.



And the next image we see is nothing like the Los Angeles we expect. Fire spews from strange industrial towers, the smog makes the city look like it’s perpetually on fire, and nobody seems to care about earthquakes anymore if the height of the buildings is any indication.

Every technical marvel that people recall when they think of Blade Runner is in that opening scene and turned all the way up. The late Jordan Cronenweth’s cinematography, Lawrence G. Paull’s production design, Syd Mead’s concept work, and holy crap that music by Vangelis. Both ominous and majestic, these opening moments perfectly encapsulate the film and prepare you for what you’re about to see - a hell you’re actually kind of curious to live in:





The design of the film is in a class all by itself. The late 70’s and early 80’s were the era of the rock star conceptual artist, with guys like Rob Cobb, Stan Winston, H.R. Giger, Ralph McQuarrie and the aforementioned Mead creating imagery in genre films that would become some of the most enduring and recognizable in cinema history. And director Scott, a formidable artist himself, knew how to find these guys and give them room to work. The look of the city itself, inspired by the likes of Metropolis, Just Imagine, and Things to Come, was achieved through extensive and painstaking model work, and the cityscape scenes have a tactility that has never been surpassed, and with the advent of CGI it’s likely it never will.





Vangelis’ score is so iconic by now that it only takes a few measures of any of the key themes to feel like you’ve been literally transported into the future. It’s the gold standard for cyberpunk soundtracks, but there’s another reason why the overall score works so well. Vangelis shifts back and forth from a style that is overtly “futuristic” in one scene, then in the next calls to mind a mid-20th century feel, bittersweet piano and saxophone pieces that match the 40’s hairstyles, hard-boiled detective flair and rampant alcoholism onscreen. Almost every scene in Deckard’s apartment is accompanied by the kind of music you’d expect to hear at closing time in a 1940’s Chicago dive bar. We get the same feeling from the non-Vangelis songs in the film, each of them a mid-century easy listening tune that could have come from an old ’78. The result is a beautifully weird and surreal soundtrack that, so far, has aged extremely well.

And it can not be overstated just how astonishing is the attention to visual detail. In addition to all the “science-fiction-y” elements like neon umbrellas and clear plastic dresses, the street scenes are packed tight with costumes that span multiple eras, worn by a multicultural throng of punks, basket-wearing Asian bicycle gangs, Hare Krishnas and football helmet-wearing pedestrians. Taffey Lewis’ club is filled with harlequins, ballerinas, sequined showgirls, yards and yards of taffeta and lace, bowties and fezzes. The 2nd act journey through the LA streets is a virtual history tour of 20th century culture and fashion. All of it taking place in what is, for the most part, a fully convincing world (the odd sideways tv notwithstanding), even in its depictions of elements that have since become anachronisms. Every neon sign is a real or wholly authentic-looking brand, every cover on every magazine stand is custom-printed. And keep an eye out for the German-speaking dwarf who shows up every time Deckard is about to kill one of his targets.





I was too young to see the R-rated film when it first hit theaters, so the first time I saw it was when some friends working at a video rental place received the laserdisc and let me watch in on their big projector screen right there in the store. I was barely in my teens and wanted things to move around fast and make loud noises, so I was initially disappointed by the film’s pace and the small number of action scenes, but I couldn’t shake the sense that I’d gotten a glimpse of a place I wanted to return to again and again. Three years later and I’d watched the film so many times that I’d broken not one but two VHS tapes, one dubbed and one store-bought.

Thanks to my slavish repeat viewings, I started to notice how the film’s influence was creeping into pretty much everything from perfume commercials to comic books to other movies and TV shows. Without Blade Runner, the general aesthetic of the 80’s in the U.S. would have looked very different. New Wave, MTV, shoulder pads and crazy moussed-up hair were everywhere, and it felt like we just needed to commit and build the replicants to complete the illusion.

And once I was old enough to sour on Star Wars’ Ewoks and Hollywood’s inability to rip itself off with anything resembling a consistent degree of quality, Blade Runner’s more sophisticated vision of the fantastic seemed more and more relevant, and its influence was becoming obvious among a much headier group of subversive futurists and mythmakers. William Gibson himself has even admitted that when he first saw the film (while still working out the kinks in “Neuromancer”), he felt like he’d been beaten to the punch.

When cyberpunk burst onto the literary scene in earnest just two years after its release, it’s hard to deny that BR helped readers quickly accept these new worlds from Gibson, Sterling and company. After all, they already had a pretty good idea of what these worlds looked like. Blade Runner was no longer just a movie. It was a gateway drug.





BLADE RUNNER 2049

Blade Runner 2049 was released in October 2017. In it, thirty years have passed since the events of the first film. After a replicant-instigated blackout destroyed all computer records in 2022, replicant production was banned and the Tyrell corporation went bankrupt, only to be later absorbed by the omnicorp run by zillionaire genius Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) who now makes “safe” replicants who obey without question. Blade Runners still hunt and kill the strays, but the police no longer have a clear idea of just how many renegades are left since any pre-blackout “skinners” are now untraceable.

A perfectly cast Ryan Gosling plays Agent K, a replicant Blade Runner who hunts older models. K tracks down one such stray, a Nexus 8 named Sapper Morton, and confronts him at the protein farm where Sapper has been hiding out. After he “retires” Sapper he discovers a buried box on the premises, full of the bones of a female replicant who died during childbirth. Fearing the panic that will result if the public finds out that replicants have somehow managed to breed, his commanding officer Joshi (Robin Wright) assigns K to find and kill the replicant child. Not only is the child wanted by Niander Wallace, who dreams of a faster way to make millions more replicants to colonize more distant planets, but K, once his investigation yields some very curious clues, starts to wonder if he himself is the miracle child.

I suspect the reason why most fans of Blade Runner, myself included, haven’t spent the last thirty-five years loudly demanding a sequel is pretty simple. The story had been told, and we were happy with what we had. When the sequel was announced, I succumbed to cynicism and shrugged, resigned to yet another wonderful thing being unjustly shackled to a pointless and desperate cash grab. And it feels really, really good to have been so wrong. Blade Runner 2049 beautifully expands the world and themes of the first film and gives us another chance to get lost in its settings, and is easily one of the best sequels ever made.





Ridley Scott only produced this time around, having handed over the directing reins to Denis Villeneuve, director of Arrival and Sicario. And thank God he did. Scott’s taken a lot of flak over the past few years for his bluntness; he’s getting on up in years and cares a lot less about playing the PC game, and more power to him, but his output over the last decade or so has been spotty, and he does tend to ramble a lot. Regardless of what you think of his rants and jabs, give credit where it’s due; choosing Villeneuve wasn’t just very smart, it was a coup. Much like Scott himself at the dawn of the 80’s (having come off the success of Alien), Villeneuve is a filmmaker at the apparent height of his powers, ranking easily among the world’s current best, and he could probably elevate any franchise in Hollywood he chose.

Whereas the original’s making is a torrid tale of art through adversity, the making of the sequel distinguishes itself for a very different and very welcome reason. It’s a remarkable case where a collection of incredibly talented people came together and made an (almost) unbroken chain of good decisions. Honestly, every Hollywood executive should make the 2049 production strategy their official franchise bible, and I’ll bet if past productions had approached their respective properties with the intelligence and skill on display from Villeneuve and company, we’d probably have very different follow-ups to the likes of Tron, The Terminator, and yes, Star Wars (come on, guys, let’s be honest with ourselves, the new trilogy just isn’t working out...).

The level of technical expertise on display is a clear indication that the producers understood what a difficult task they’d set for themselves, and populated the cast and crew with artists and craftspeople eager to do right by the first film. As with the first film, there’s not so much an MVP as a collection of MVP’s.

In addition to Villeneuve’s assured direction, a cast of solid veterans and some of the best art directors and production designers working today, 2049 boasts a score by Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer that is stunningly good, featuring echoes of Vangelis’ most memorable themes and doubling down elsewhere.

The edges in the music are much harder this time around, and the new themes reflect a changing world where humans have grown more and more hubristic and stratified. Tribal drums accompany aerial views of the over-constructed city below, buzzing, windy whooshes signal each moment when K’s life is turned upside down, and the main theme, a variation on the first film’s opening piece, is darker and more apprehensive, confirming that, yes, things have actually gotten worse.

Much praise has already been given to Roger Deakins’ cinematography, and I’ve got no counterargument. Every single image in this film is pretty much a gift for your eyes. Deakins greatly broadens the color palette of the BR universe, giving us chalky whites in Sapper’s protein farm, stone greys in San Diego, radioactive oranges in Las Vegas, and misty aquas in the city scenes and the sea wall. His use of color throughout the film lays to waste the argument that there’s no new way to shoot future-set science-fiction. How fitting that the best movie to show how to evolve past the iconic look of Blade Runner is its own sequel.





The opening scene trades the bombast of the original film’s opening for a stark, minimalist approach as K’s spinner quietly closes in on Sapper’s location. It’s a dreamlike sequence, K himself asleep at the controls, and it sends a crystal clear message that this new film won’t be a duplicate of what we’ve seen before. Which is no small feat considering the protein farm is a repurposed version of the original film’s scrapped opening scene, and was initially meant to be our first introduction to Deckard.

And as the story gets going and K’s investigation takes him into the badlands of San Diego and Las Vegas it dawns on us, even if only subconsciously, that in addition to being a superb addendum to an already rich cinematic universe, we’re seeing a pretty state-of-the-art post-apocalyptic film, as well. Neither film ever addresses World War Terminus, the war that in “Electric Sheep” explains why LA looks the way it does, but in 2049 everyone’s living in an informational post-apocalypse, and it’s strongly suggested that once the screens went blank whole sections of the country emptied overnight.

Las Vegas was hit particularly hard, as once the bank records were erased society’s attitudes towards gambling suffered an instantaneous paradigm shift. Whole chunks of the travelogue on display are so loaded with clues and suggestions that it becomes almost overwhelming how much backstory and experience is infused into every vista and empty ruin. This is science fiction storytelling of the highest order.


THE FLAWS

It’s not all that hard to understand why some people find the original Blade Runner’s pacing so frustrating, especially considering that, at the plot’s most basic, it’s a story about a bounty hunter who would prefer to never leave his apartment. Watching Deckard drink himself to death doesn’t exactly get the blood up.

The ESPER scene is maybe the standout lumberer. In it, Deckard, drinking again, and this time with the whole bottle in hand, uses an endearingly rickety analysis machine, basically a voice-activated analog photoshop booth, to pry into a photo he found while searching Leon’s apartment. It’s not a particularly suspenseful scene, and it does go on for quite some time as the ESPER clicks and bobs and weaves its way through an image of Zhora taking a nap.

To audiences in 1982, this kind of borderline-steampunk tech was interesting enough to watch, but this is perhaps the scene that makes it most obvious to modern audiences that the film takes place in an alternate universe. While I wouldn’t make too much effort to defend it to someone who’s already nodding off, I still think the ESPER scene is notable because of the way the machine itself works. If a device can go “inside” a printed, two-dimensional photograph and search it like a three-dimensional environment, I’d definitely like to know more about the camera that took the picture to begin with.

Speaking of the various kinds of tech on display in both films, the first film has an almost schizophrenic approach to technological progress. There are flying cars, sky-high retrofitted buildings in an earthquake-prone LA, artificially manufactured humans and widespread space colonization. But we’re never shown anything resembling cell phones or cloning, and if there’s an internet nobody seems to be using it. Every screen seems to be designed with poor eyesight in mind, one line of big block text occupying a full third of each square cathode display.





2049 more or less course-corrects the tech dilemma by introducing the “blackout effect”, and it doesn’t take us long to get used to seeing Luv’s sleek eye screens in one scene and a crude microfiche viewer in the next. We even learn that a wireless network does exist, at least if you want to connect with Offworld servers, and late in the film we see that Wallace has clumsily “cloned” Rachael. But it would be tempting to write off the multitude of future antiques on display in the original film as poor conceptualization. Until you consider that there are way too many astute observations going on in the rest of the film to justify such a dismissal.

My take is that, like a lot of dystopian fiction, the original Blade Runner is something of an anti-Star Trek. While the Roddenberry vision for the Federation is one where humans have put aside their differences and become galactic explorers, Blade Runner posits that a more likely scenario is one where humanity gets into space anyway, not through purity and goodness of heart but due to corporate greed, a theme that reoccurs throughout a huge amount of cyberpunk storytelling.

In Star Trek, humanity comes together after we receive proof that we’re not alone in the universe. In time we develop communicators (cell phones), teleporters, light speed and phaser technology, all things conspicuously absent from the Blade Runner universe. It’s tempting to infer that one reason the progress in Blade Runner is so cynical is not just because the aliens never showed up (and Ripley hasn’t found them yet), but also due to an inability to speedily communicate with each other as society continues to move faster. And on a side note, Deckard has plenty of access to vid-phones but clearly hates them, and every time he uses one he either pretends to be a snarky jerk or frowns like a cancer patient. In it’s own accidental, darkly funny way, the original film gives us one of the earliest depictions of tech fatigue.

While it may have smoothed out a lot of the pricklier tech questions that linger around the original, Blade Runner 2049’s biggest misstep is a more glaring one, the character of Niander Wallace, the “blind god”. I’m not much of a Jared Leto fan, to be frank. He’s always struck me as the kind of actor people pretend is better than he is simply because of his looks, but to be equally frank he isn’t the problem this time around. His work as the megalomaniacal Wallace is fine, but his is simply the most poorly-written character in either film.

When we’re first introduced to Wallace, he’s checking out a newly-produced female replicant while giving his assistant Luv a speech that I think is best described as Exposition of Grandeur. This monologue about creation, slavery and power is boilerplate and on-the-nose, and a far cry from the blunt-but-compelling manner in which Tyrell justifies his corporate philosophies in the original film. We never really see anything that suggests Wallace is actually a genius, but instead we get the ramblings of a mustache-twirler obsessed with rudimentary religious symbolism.

While at first we just assume he has a god complex, which is tired enough, it turns out he actually fancies himself Lucifer, and quotes him from “Paradise Lost” (“this, the seat that we must change for Heaven”, Lucifer’s assessment of Hell itself). Seconds later he hammers home the Milton reference by referring to Tyrell’s trick of procreation as “perfected, then lost”, and punctuates the pretentious moment by needlessly murdering a newborn replicant. All this while wearing black, in obvious contrast to the angelic white outfit Tyrell wears in his death scene in the first film. We get it: God is dead, the devil’s in control, etc. You’d think that a smartie like Luv would remind her boss that even Satan himself is rarely so forthright about the fact that he’s, well, evil, and would rather you think he’s just misunderstood or something. In fact, Luv would have been a much more interesting surrogate for Wallace’s agenda, the mouthpiece for an impossibly rich and mysterious super-elite we never see, and actress Sylvia Hoeks would have almost certainly nailed it. In a movie series full of complex themes and nuanced characterization, Wallace is the absolute low point.


READ PART 2 of this article here.



Recommended Release: Blade Runner 2049











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Genius (9 months ago) Reply

buying Blade Runner 2049 in on wednesday! And I saw it in the Theater Twice!

As for Blade Runner I saw that on VCR, Tape, Laser Disk, DVD, Bluray.

Now I read all of this and I must say do you actually think these films are first when it comes to ideas? No They are allowed to have those ideas so that you are prepared for whatever they decide is in the future.

Example Minority Report Self Driving Cars. They want you to be conditioned to self driving cars.

Films in Hollywood get an ok from People in Black Suits that Control the money. Ideas in films are preconditioned for you to except what they push on society.

They will tell you if what you have in a film is ok or not and if it is not it's not going in the film.

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Hot Fuzz (9 months ago) Reply

Genius -- I think you are right that there is a connection between future tech in movies and what gets invented in real life, but I don't know if it's quite as conspiratorial you make it out to be.

Did engineers see self-driving cars in Minority Report and wonder if it was possible? No question. I think fiction feeds our ideas of what is possible, but I don't know if Hollywoods hand is being forced by tech companies in quite the way you describe.

Is there a relationship between tech companies and Hollywood in other ways. Definitely. Is it a "good" partnership. I'm not so sure :)


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