“You are an unusual man, Mr. Asher," the cop beside him said. “Crazy or not, whatever it is that has gone wrong with you, you are one of a kind."-- Philip K. Dick, Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said.
"I've seen things you people wouldn't believe..."
-- Roy Batty, Blade Runner.
Los Angeles, 2019. The script simply reads: "Ext. Hades - Dusk".
Chemical flame bursts into the perpetual, post-nuclear Los Angeles gloom from skyscraping smokestacks, rising out of an industrial landscape Hieronymus Bosch might have envisaged. Flying cars flit through the darkness like fireflies. The camera moves slowly over impossible architecture with the immensity and decaying grandeur of ancient Egypt; a phantasmagorical megalopolis strung with necklaces of neon. The music rises.
The last war is over and nobody won. The Earth is living on borrowed time. Science has destroyed all boundaries between the real and unreal except those we choose to impose. Policemen are murderers, androids are lovers, nobody can be trusted, and everybody dies. Welcome back to the world of Blade Runner. Every time we return, it becomes more recognisable. Perhaps we never left.
Santa Ana, 1981. By now, Philip K. Dick -- author, religious visionary and possible schizophrenic, who once said "You would have to kill me and prop me up in the seat of my car with a smile painted on my face to get me to go near Hollywood" -- has read and approved the shooting script for Blade Runner by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples, as well as viewed a test reel of the movie's groundbreaking special effects. In an effusive letter to Jeff Walker, the man in charge of the film's marketing. Dick makes his prophetic opinion clear.
"Let me sum it up this way," he wrote. "Science fiction has slowly and ineluctably settled into a monotonous death: it has become inbred, derivative, stale. Suddenly you people come in, some of the greatest talents currently in existence, and now we have a new life, a new start. As for my own role in the BLADE RUNNER project, I can only say that I did not know that a work of mine or a set of ideas of mine could be escalated into such stunning dimensions. My life and creative work are justified and completed by BLADE RUNNER... It will prove invincible." ('Letter to Jeff Walker regarding Blade Runner" on Philip K Dick.com)
Dick, with a writer's knack, chose the right words. Blade Runner has survived everything that could be thrown at it, including its initial critical reception, successive unsatisfactory edits, and dilution by both the science fiction genre and the film industry, which would plagiarise its vision with varying degrees of shamelessness for the next three decades. Yet nothing has been able to replicate its unique synthesis of elements, melding equal parts noir, action, romance, cyberpunk, dystopia and a meditation on what it means to be human. Whether praised or disparaged, ignored or overexposed, it has seen off all critics and challengers. Blade Runner's invincibility endures.
Unfortunately, the inimitable artistic fortitude of Ridley Scott's best work also allowed Hollywood to practice its favourite hobby of missing the point. The novels (or rather, in the film industry netherworld, 'properties') of Philip K. Dick -- a writer largely unappreciated in his own lifetime who, at his lowest, claimed he he could not afford the late fee for a library book and infamously sustained himself on horse meat from a local pet store -- have become highly prized and sought-after by studios eager to import intelligent ideas, rather than go through the hassle of conceiving their own. In the (twisted) spirit of Dick's short story "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale", no need for originality, we can develop it for you wholesale.
Question the nature of identity with Colin Farrell's Douglas Quaid /Hauser as he flees the futuristic gunfire in the remake of Len Wiseman's Total Recall (2012, an adaptation of an adaptation, as it were). Consider the limitations of free will with Tom Cruise's Chief John Anderton (a well-known fan of unstable science fiction writers) in Steven Spielberg's Minority Report (2012) while wondering how short he really is. Watch Jon Woo's Paycheck (2003) and wonder how much Ben Affleck is actually being paid to appear in this piece of shit.
The names change, but the formula remains the same. Each summer, there must be blockbusters, and to fill the gaps in between the explosions with the barest bones of a Phil Dick story is, to the studio mindset, to buy instant, ready-made philosophical depth and artistic worth. Just add CGI!
Improbably, with 11 films based on his work and more in the pipeline, Dick has become the most adapted science fiction author in cinema history... And I'm not sure that's a good thing.
"It's a film about whether or not you can have a meaningful relationship with your toaster." -- Harrison Ford on Blade Runner in an interview with The Washington Post, 11 September 1992
That Scott is a director second only to George Lucas in his determination to tinker with a bygone masterwork until it meets his ultimate, exacting satisfaction (at last count, there are seven different versions of Blade Runner floating around the ether, finally culminating in Scott's so-called 'final cut' in 2007), when a startling new interpretation of the film appeared online this June to wild acclaim, he had nothing to do with it. Instead, it was the work of the artist Anders Ramsell, who painstakingly recreated every frame of the movie's opening 13 minutes with 3,285 gorgeous, haunting, impressionistic watercolours.
The painting technique employed to create this effect is known as aquarelle, which also acts as a sly commentary on Blade Runner's repeatedly-rejiggered legacy: because of its transparency, with aquarelle nothing can be painted over -- once a mistake has been made, it has to be lived with. But as I watched what Ramsell called his 'paraphrase' of the movie, the familiar scenes and faces and voices emerging from the flickering, sensuous wash of colour, it seemed all the more appropriate. Other than Derek Jarman's Caravaggio, I can think of no other film that so looks like a painting without paint -- a piece of art that evokes other art, and yet remains entirely itself.
This is all a long way of saying that Blade Runner is beautiful, in almost every way possible. This has, ridiculously, sometimes been described as being to its detriment: Roger Ebert, one of the film's more famous naysayers, wrote in a contemporary review in the Chicago Sun-Times that "It looks fabulous... but it is thin in its human story," (11 September 1992) an oddly myopic remark to make about a parable on the nature of humanity. True, Blade Runner has an embarrassment of style, but never at the expense of substance, much like the best examples of the Cinema du look movement, which was just emerging in French cinema at the time of Blade Runner's release. Indeed, in appearance and atmosphere, Blade Runner is so distinct that it changed the aesthetic of science fiction, and new subgenres have since been invented simply to describe it -- 'future noir', coined by the critic and filmmaker Paul M. Sammon, being the most enduring.
To those who have yet to experience the film, I wonder what to say that has not been said elsewhere. Based on Philip K. Dick's 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Blade Runner somehow manages to be simultaneously the truest adaptation of Dick's work yet produced -- in spirit, if not plot -- and also the freest in its interpretation of the material.
The central premise remains in both book and film; Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), halfway between policeman and bounty hunter, makes his living by tracking and killing androids that are almost entirely indistinguishable from humans, living amongst us under false identities. The supposed test for distinguishing real from unreal humans is that of empathy, but as Deckard methodically adds to his 'artificial' bodycount, he begins to question who is really the unemotional machine.
Blade Runner dumps much of the novel's narrative furniture -- Scott justified this to Dick by saying: "You know you're so dense, mate, that by page 32, there's about 17 storylines" -- in a way that, in almost any other adaptation, would be considered sacrilege. Most noticeably, in the novel, Deckard is trapped in a barely functional marriage, while in the movie, Harrison Ford's laconic protagonist is the classic bachelor gumshoe.
Also prominent in the book are 'Mercerism', the religion based around its followers' empathy for a man whom others were throwing rocks at, and the 'Mood Organ', the household device which stimulates any mood the user wishes to experience, and which much of the population now depends on in order to face another bleak, post-apocalyptic day -- two tragicomic creations typical of Dick, but too wry to fit with the Blade Runner's overall tone. Despite such changes, Dick's reading of the screenplay convinced him that this film could express his ideas in a way he had not thought possible.
The production could hardly be called smooth. Even before its release, troubling rumours had begun circulating, and as Paul M Sammon wrote ,"by the time BR (Blade Runner) officially completed principle photography in July on 1981, the gossip has become more specific -- BR's workload had been horrendous, its shooting conditions miserable, and its director, difficult. Moreover, the whispers went, BR's moneymen were unhappy, its leading man had clashed with his director, and the crew had been near revolt." Some of these stories were indeed true, but one should bear in mind that movie moneymen are nearly always unhappy, and Harrison Ford will always be the man who told George Lucas that "you can type this shit, but you sure as hell can't say it."
Paranoia Runs Through Blade Runner Like a Knife Edge
When Blade Runner was first released, the reviews ran from lukewarm to underwhelmed to baffled, a fact that many critics have been doing their best to forget in the intervening years, polishing the film's legend in a frantic effort to make up for missing the boat first time round. Considered today, in our gleaming plastic future of bad credit and worse politics, where we are reliant not on humanised robots but dehumanising gadgets, and where much of the movie's retro-futurism appears as quaint as it does prescient, what is left to say about Blade Runner?
Should I recite the plaudits that have become ritualistic? Should I point out the Roy Batty's (Rutger Hauer) 'tears in rain' monologue is among the most moving and eloquent ever written or performed? Or that Vangelis revolutionised jazz, electronic music and film scoring simultaneously in one of the best soundtracks ever composed? Is it really necessary to highlight the acting of all involved; Harrison Ford as one of the best soulful detectives to grace noir of any kind, an understated and heartbreaking Sean Young (as Rachael), a dangerous but innocent Daryl Hannah (as Pris), or Rutger Hauer's mixture of the psychotic and the Shakespearean? Do I need to praise the costumes, the set design, or the script which balances so many themes, so many hidden or implied meanings, with such grace and economy?
Well, yes. You want a criticism of Blade Runner? I would've liked more of Edward James Olmos' Gaff. He's cool. I also want Deckard's coat.
But we need to be reminded of these things, every now and again, as each new generation discovers the film afresh, and especially when the next logical question becomes: how did Blade Runner get it so right, more so than any other adaptation of Dick's work since? What did it understand that they did not? To try and answer that, we have to go back to the source.
"Phil acknowledged that his talk sometimes sounded like "religious nonsense & occult nonsense" -- but somewhere in it all was the truth. And he would never find it. God himself had assured him of that." -- Lawrence Sutin, Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick.
In 2000, at the one and only Disinfo Con -- a friendly gathering of millennial deviants concerning all things 'counterculture' -- Grant Morrison, a writer who could arguably be counted as one of Dick's prodigious bastard literary offspring, opened his keynote speech marvelling at the fact he spent his youth reading Robert Anton Wilson and now, all these years later, "we're standing here, we're talking about this shit and it's real."
Fans of Philip K. Dick have been feeling like that since at least the '70s, when the dark realities on the other side of the Drug Revolution and the true possibilities of an all-powerful Nixonian surveillance state were becoming painfully apparent. Then as now, we use Dick's paranoia to express our own.
Dick once commented that, with the making of Blade Runner, what had once been a private world that only he inhabited was now open to all; they would live in its murky depths, just as he did every day. At first, one might think that a paranoid and delusional visionary -- and I use the word in its most literal sense -- would want nothing more than for others to see and experience what he does. But perhaps Dick didn't want anyone in his world. Maybe he didn't think his world should be suffered by anyone else.
The fantastic, tortured mind of Philip K. Dick has been discussed, analysed and treated like an object of supreme curiosity since his death in 1982 (a few months shy of Blade Runner's release) and before. He had eked out an impoverished existence writing science fiction since the '50s, when it was less a genre than a ghetto, and could only make a living by producing at a furious pace which he fuelled with huge amounts of amphetamines, at one point producing 12 novels over the course of two years.
But Dick was ever a seeker of truth, which made him, strangely, something of an oddity in science fiction. Within these novels, beneath the aliens and spaceships, moon colonies and interstellar wars, was arguably the best satire being done in science fiction on American life outside of Kurt Vonnegut's oeuvre, the philosophical undertones and untrammelled, often gothic imagination of which called to mind Jorge Luis Borges more than Isaac Asimov. The uniting thread that runs through his work -- and, eventually, his life -- is the notion that reality, as we know it, is fundamentally untrustworthy.
As the '60s wore on, Dick's involvement with the drug culture increased, adding a psychedelic aspect to both his ever-evolving philosophy and his ever-present paranoia. In 1971, Dick experienced a defining moment: his home was broken into, his safe blown open, and many of his personal papers burglerized. He never discovered who was responsible, though he had many suspects -- local drug addicts, Black Panthers, the police, the FBI, the Soviets, or any of these, pretending to be one of the others.
The effect it left on Dick was to give him proof, unexplained and terrifying, that his paranoia was somehow justified. There had been comfort in simply telling himself he was crazy. But after years of grappling with his mental health, someone, it seemed, truly was out to get him.
"I mean," he told the Aquarian magazine in a 1974 interview, "it's a very frightening thing when the head of a police department tells you that you better leave the county because you have enemies, and you don't know who these enemies are or why you've incurred their wrath."
When one is peripherally aware of one's own tenuous psychological condition (which we must be, we tell ourselves, if we have any hope of overcoming it), the uninitiated cannot imagine the sheer anguish, the self-doubt, the fear that follows when you know you cannot trust your own mind, and you cannot trust anyone to help you. The luckiest paranoids are also egotists, or better yet, megalomaniacs; they face the lurking forces of imagined persecution with a defiant roar or a knowing smirk.
Dick, on the other hand, was a sensitive, fragile, frightened soul, as well as a possible undiagnosed schizophrenic. His subsequent religious experiences -- a series of hallucinations in which a beam of pink light connected him with a "transcendentally rational mind" -- may have been his brain's attempt to soothe his paranoia, or merely the next stage of his mental instability. In either case, as always, it provided inspiration for another novel.
Critics and biographers often talk about Dick's paranoia and delusions like they were shocking fashion statements or extreme political opinions -- just another interesting aspect to the bizarro image of a literary titan. What they don't say, although the evidence is all around us, is that Dick's paranoia is ours, as well. Ours may not have such colourful outlets or dramatic results, but we shall always carry our paranoia with us. It cannot be blotted out. There will forever be dark fears lurking in the deeper pools of our mind about our untrustworthy friends, co-workers, policemen, criminals, the FBI, the CIA, the Communists, the aliens, or God himself... and beyond. Existence will always be open to question, forever taunting us with its uncertainty. We can't trust reality, but we have to live there.
This paranoia runs through Blade Runner like a knife edge. You cannot trust others, or yourself. You cannot trust your memories, your past, or your future. The entire world may be against you, even if it doesn't appear to be. Then again, you don't have to like it.
The heroes and villains of Blade Runner do not like, or accept, the oppression of the paranoid worldview. Deckard fights a series of seemingly impossible battles, even against what he thought was true, and finds romance where it should be impossible. Roy Batty, the leader of the renegade replicants, fights against death itself, seeking to extend and outlive his designer-mandated expiration date. The inhuman fights to become human, so humans must prove their humanity. This is the message at Blade Runner's core, and it has never been replicated.
Near the end of Dick's 1976 novel Radio Free Albemuth, the protagonist, an author surrogate for Dick who also writes pulp science fiction, is faced by a gloating representative of the government conspiracy that the writer has become entangled with, who coolly informs him they will continue to put out books under his name -- lurid trash scattered with a few of the author's trademark concepts to keep it recognisable for his fans, but encoded with non-too-subtle propaganda messages designed to keep its readers afraid and unenlightened.
At our most cynical, it's sometimes difficult not to think of Hollywood the same way: trading on Dick's name and style and core ideas, but discarding the message and the mind behind them.
Authors often have to face a string of misfires and misinterpretations before their work gets the cinematic treatment it deserves; Dick, on the other hand, got a masterpiece on the first go. And it remains ours to enjoy: Blade Runner, as Dick wrote, is invincible.
Maybe it's finally time for Hollywood to leave the legacy of Philip K. Dick at the local bookstore, where it belongs.
"What matters to me is the writing, the act of manufacturing the novel, because while I am doing it, at that particular moment, I am in the world I am writing about. It is real to me, completely and utterly. Then, when I'm finished, and I have to stop, withdraw from that world forever -- that destroys me... I promise myself: I will never write another novel. I will never again imagine people from whom I will eventually be cut off. I tell myself this... and, secretly and cautiously, I begin another book." -- Philip K. Dick, "Notes Made Late At Night By A Weary SF Writer", 1968.
* * *