Tears in Rain: 'Blade Runner' and Philip K. Dick's Legacy in Film
Thirty years after the release of Blade Runner, with a remake of Total Recall on the horizon, the work of Philip K. Dick continues to find its way into our cinemas and minds. How did the visions of a paranoid loner become the most relevant science fiction of our time?
“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 Hieronymous 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 gets 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 exactly the right word. 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 horsemeat from the 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 as he flees the futuristic gunfire in the upcoming remake of Total Recall (an adaptation of an adaptation, as it were). Consider the limitations of free will with Tom Cruise (a well-known fan of unstable science fiction writers) in Minority Report while wondering how short he really is. Watch Paycheck 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 entirely 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
Despite the fact that Ridley 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 had 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. In appearance and atmosphere, Blade Runner is so distinct, 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 -- but also the freest in its interpretation of the material.
The central premise remains in both book and film; Rick Deckard, 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 getting rocks thrown at him, 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."