A Question of Replicants

Yes, if you have not guessed it, this is a post about the movie Blade Runner.  First of all, let me preface this post by saying I was not a fan when I first saw this movie in 1982.  I was only sixteen at the time and still riding the high of Star Wars (1977), Star Trek the Motion Picture (1979), and Star Wars the Empire Strikes Back (1980) where the subject matter, while not necessarily juvenile, was definitely lighter in nature.  The heroes were heroes and the outcomes were less bleak, escapism at its’ finest.  Of course now, I am a big fan of the movie and consider it to be one of the finest Sci-Fi movies made to date.  Warning, if you have not watched the movie stop reading right now, go buy the 2007 four disc set with the Final Cut and watch it along with the documentary “Dangerous Days:  the Making of Blade Runner” then read the rest of this post.  After that, watch the movie again.

Why am I writing a post to discuss topics from a 32 year old movie?  Well, because it is that good; however, the main reason is because of an interview in the bonus material of my four disc set of the movie.  In the interview, the director of the “Shawshank Redemption” refused to believe that the main character, Rick Deckard, was a Replicant and felt that the entire narrative of the film fell apart if Deckard was not human.  He felt the story revolved around the plot of a man forced to do inhumane work surviving and finding his humanity on the other side.  Although this argument has played back and forth over the decades since the movie’s release, I wanted to express my own opinion, not only as a person that had seen the movie, but also read the book.  I desire to share my insights about certain aspects of the movie I had gleaned from several viewings along with hearing conversations with Philip K. Dick, the author of “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep”, which is the basis for the movie.

I have another admission; I hated the book.  The story made no sense to me compared to Blade Runner and was so vastly different that I could hardly believe they were related.  However, the main aspects of “what is it to be human” and “who is human” did come through.  I came away from the book unsure of the answer to whether Deckard was an android or not; which is the same in Blade Runner even though I now know that he was a Replicant in the movie.  Ridley Scott was so subtle with his clues that most people would not have caught them, including a younger me.  Scott’s final cut of the movie is far superior to the original since you have to think to understand it.  He does not dumb it down, which risked alienating his audience, especially in America where we need everything spoon fed into our ADHT brains, but he took the non-Hollywood approach anyway.

To understand my argument that the movie is better served by Deckard being a Replicant, you have to know the fundamental difference between the book’s and the movie’s portrayal of the artificial humans.  While both art forms work on the idea of what it is to be human, they do so in different ways.  Philip K. Dick chose to make his Androids sub- human and evil since they had no emotional responses to keep them from committing horrible acts.  They were amoral.  Killing a baby would be no different to them then picking out a suit to wear; the same type of issue we face in mass murderers in our modern culture.  They could and so they did.

Ridley Scott, on the other hand, chose to make humans the villains of the movie.  They created artificial beings not out of love, but out of a need for slave labor.  Replicants are endowed with strengths and intelligence greater than our own but given limited emotional capacity and short lifespans so that we can control them.  He highlights our history of deeming others as less worthy of rights so that we can use them without feeling guilty, the United States’ treatment of African and Native Americans, Nazi Germany’s treatment of Jews, and Russia’s treatment of dissidents.  However, what happens when we lose control of our slaves.  In Blade Runner, we create a police force to terminate the rebellious machines we have made; we create machines to destroy the machines.  Ridley focuses on man’s inhumanity to man and, by proxy, Replicants.  We treat each other horribly along with all the other creatures of our planet then why not the beings we create?

For this reason, Deckard being a Replicant makes a much more profound statement.  Throughout the movie you are shown how horrible the world has become under our stewardship.  We have destroyed our environment to such a point that the weather patterns are changed and most animal species are extinct, only obtainable as clones.  Humans suck.  Just look at how they handle problems with their manufactured slaves; they assassinate them.  Yes, you could follow the idea that Deckard is a human damaged by the inhumanness of the task he is given; however, he is not regaining his humanity because humanity at that time would deem it correct to destroy the Replicant Rachel whom he loves.  In truth, given the relationships of the Replicants he has dispatched, Deckard’s actions portray his conversion to the Replicants point of view.

To me, making Deckard a Replicant provides an even more profound statement.  It shows that Replicants have evolved beyond the ugliness of their creators, in affect transcending them.  What a profound statement to make about what mankind stands to lose by continuing on its self-destructive path.  Our creations will learn how to love while we continue to destroy ourselves.  I would rather be the Replicant.  Of course this is only my opinion, Ridley Scott may or may not have had these ideas in mind when he chose to make Deckard a Replicant, but these are my thoughts as I watch the movie.

Now for Some Fun

Here is where I will discuss interesting observations about the movie given that Rick Deckard is a Replicant.  First off, let us discuss the character of Holden who was shot by Leon at the beginning of the movie.  Is He a Replicant?  I don’t think so.  Although given Deckard being a Replicant would lead you to believe that all Blade Runners were Replicants, I don’t buy it.  As portrayed in the movie, humans don’t think of Replicants as anything other than fancy machines that are expendable.  Sure, Blade Runner models might be pretty pricy, but would it be worth saving one as badly damaged as Holden.  If he had really been a Replicant, he would have just been replaced by a new Replicant; thus, the fact that they mention Holden being taken care of means he is human.

Second, if Deckard is a Replicant then it puts a whole new spin on the scene in Tyrell’s office where Deckard tests Rachel with the Voight-Kampff machine.  If Deckard was a Replicant then Tyrell would know and that makes me think that he was not necessarily testing the work they did on Rachel.  He may really have been testing whether Deckard could be trusted to work or if he was smart enough to figure out who he really was, think about it.  Maybe Rachel was an earlier test for making a stable Blade Runner and Deckard was the full deal.  Maybe the police department wanted further confirmation.

Finally, there is Gaff.  Gaff who does the departments dirty work, who knew what Deckard was, and who let him go.  For the limited amount of screen time Gaff actually gets, he greatly influences the story line.  To me, Gaff fulfills the dehumanized human finding the humanity that man once had.  He has most likely done questionable things for the department, but in the end, he lets Deckard and Rachel escape.  He sees that the Replicants deserve better than what they have gotten and does something to make amends.

Again, these are only my thoughts on the story.  Ridley Scott may not have thought as deeply about these aspects as I have, but they are the things I took away from the movie and its attending materials.  Let me know what you think.

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Bender’s Back Baby!

Here is a glimpse into how my goofy mind works.  I just watched a documentary by John DiMaggio, the voice of Bender from Futurama, called “I know that voice”, which is about the craft of voice acting from behind the scenes.  Midway through cleaning the dishes, two small sparks crackled in the back of my mind.  One, Futurama was canceled and brought back several times, meaning that they had to get John DiMaggio to reprise the voice of Bender.  The other is a scene from a favorite movie of mine, Blade Runner.  The scene is where Deckard is talking to Bryant after Gaff has brought him back to the police station.  Bryant says something like “This ones bad Deck, I need you.  I need the old Blade Runner magic.”

Now, put them together.  Have Bender talking to Matt Groening in the same scene, Matt saying “This ones bad Bender, I need you.  I need the old Bender Magic”

Bender could say “You can bite my shiny metal ass.” or other equally good lines, cool huh.  Just think if they did another season or movie and opened with this.

In Awe of Mass Effect

Mass Effect image

 

 

Before you say that was so last season, yes, I know the Mass Effect video game trilogy came out several years ago and, given our penchants for looking for the next great game, no one currently cares.  I; however, have just finally completed the third installment in the series.  I will admit that I was dubious of completing the series because I had long since heard gamers were upset with the ending of Mass Effect 3.  It was a controversial ending many thought at the time and, for all I know, still do.  But I decided to get a used version of Mass Effect 2, which later lead to a used version of Mass Effect 3.

First off, I will say that while at times I wanted to throw my controller through the TV because of issues with the duck and cover system and what I later noted as an intentional turning of my character to disorient me, I am just amazed by the story telling.  Let me say that again, I was amazed at the story telling!  This series, while derivative of many great works of science fiction, was a stunning achievement in space opera told in an interactive medium.

Not only did they tell a Science Fiction story on a grand scale, but they must have written multiple stories to cover the myriad of choices affecting the final ending.  For example, I learned after a second attempt to save a character I had allowed Shepard to fall in love with that there was no way I could do so given the actions and consequences of my play through of Mass Effect 2.  Maintaining a cohesive story while allowing each player to effect the telling by their choices had to be, excuse the pun, a massive headache.  I assume that they probably put some limiting factors to manage the number of branches you could follow and how they fit into the over all story, but wow.  Each player could end up with a completely unique play through yet reach a similar ending.  Sure, many players followed paths with little variation, but others could have had very different outcomes.

In retrospect, the creators of Mass Effect took the medium of video games and science fiction to new levels not necessarily appreciated by fans.  I believe some of angst toward the series came from the fact that they were not only trying to make a good video game, but also a great story.  A story that the player actually gets to live over three games.  I will admit there were times that I felt gypped out of game play because of long cinematic story telling sequences, but now, after finishing the series, I appreciate what they were doing.  The way the creators handled the ending was excellent science fiction and movie storytelling.

Spoiler Alert:

If you have not played the games and wish to after reading the above, then don’t read further, if you want to come at this without foreknowledge.  What Mass Effect does better than any franchise I know is to tell a great space opera in such a way that the gamer viscerally lives the story.  Where in books writers try to use prose to spark responses in the reader for them to envision the scene they are writing, a video game programmer can actually put you into the scene via the character you play.  A case in point, was a section very near the end where I had to survive a ridiculous pairing of Reaper laser attacks along with Banshees cutting off my escape routes.  As if this was not challenging enough, the programmers tossed in a maddening half turn my character would periodically take after a combat roll.  Basically, as I rolled away from the laser beam, my character would stand up and then turn left or right totally disorienting me.  Getting through that section was pure perseverance.  Thinking back on it; however, I feel they did this to give me a visceral feeling of what it is like to be in a life or death combat situation where you are under intense enemy attack.

As for the overall ending sequence, I can see both sides of the issue.  Being a long time gamer, I am quite use too and sometimes demand that the programmers make me fight to the very end.  Yes, tell me a good story but I want it to end in an extravagance of button pushing battle.  The one thing I noticed but did not think too much about in the first Mass Effect game was that the ending was almost entirely a cut scene sequence.  I fought my character to a certain point and achieved a task that created the opportunity for the actual ending to occur.  The actual ending was a cinematic sequence worthy of a movie.  The same is true for the final ending.  Your character does not fight hoards of enemies to the bitter end, but instead is left in a relatively quite place where a final world-changing decision has to be made.

The final choice your character has to make is worthy of stories like Startide Rising, Hyperion, and Dune and is science fiction at its best.  With all the advanced technology, alien lifeforms, and political intrigue, sometimes it all comes down to one person and their decision.  The ending was reminiscent of the conclusion of the Hyperion series by Dan Simmons or the Matrix series by the Wachowskis and tells a science fiction story better than the bulk of Hollywood’s sci-fi output.  I could only wish that Hollywood would create an epic with the same breadth and depth of the Mass Effect series.  Instead we get Alien versus Predator or Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.  Movies like the original Planet of the Apes and Blade Runner are few and far between (surprisingly both are only derivative of their original stories not verbatim copies).

The best part about the end is that you are made to literally live a last stand situation through your character.  At the end, your character is beaten up badly and disoriented.  Unlike a book where lots of descriptive prose would be used to convey this feeling, the programmers got the point across by stripping away all the fancy and powerful controls you have used throughout the series and leave you with only a gun you can barely lift.  Your character responses are completely sluggish and you feel like someone waking after a severe head trauma, ears filled with cotton, head ringing, and eyes watering.  Almost more cinematic than video game play; however, you still have control and have to defeat a few more aliens, very cool!  At the end, you have to drag your character along a choice of two simple paths, no explanations or hoards of aliens to fight.  One path is blue the other is red, one path ends in freedom the other continuation of what is currently happening.  You choose without anything obviously pointing to which color represents which ending, until you remember a feature of your characters development.   Throughout the series you are awarded status as a Paragon or a Renegade based on your decisions.  Paragons usually take the high road favoring peace and acceptance over force.  A Renegade, on the other hand, prefers to squash dissent and force their way through delicate situations, control over cooperation.  Paragon status was represented in blue and Renegade status in red; thus, I had the means to make my choice.  Because the hint was so tenuous and subtle, I found myself fretting all the way as I dragged my character along the path, hoping it was the one I meant to take.  Luckily it was.

To conclude, the Mass Effect series did for my science fiction gaming what Skyrim did for my fantasy gaming.  The series told a great story worthy of some of the best science fiction novels and movies by letting me inhabit an avatar, the reference is intentional, and live another life in a sprawling sci-fi universe.  It also took full advantage of the video game medium to immerse me in the story beyond what any book or movie could do.  My actions affected how the story was told and I had to struggle through intense sequences with my character.  The experience further was enhanced with great music and stunning cinematography.  In the end, I felt I got to be part of a great story and not just another bystander reading the story from a distance, which is something neither books or movies can offer you, kudos.