The late Philip K. Dick is all the rage these days. When he died in 1982 he was little-known beyond dedicated science fiction readers, but now he is quickly overtaking Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke to become the fashionable headliner for all things sci-fi.
At this point, I should admit that although I have read some of Dick’s work over the years, I have really not been gripped by his writings. Heretical though it might seem, I sometimes incline to wonder about the Emperor’s New Clothes, but I think that I must be wrong as his writings have inspired people to make films that I have really enjoyed.
My favourite of the canon is Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report, but Total Recall starring Arnold Schwarzenegger was fun and surprisingly thoughtful, and The Adjustment Bureau with Matt Damon was an imaginative piece of cinema. But most of the Philip K. Dick films should really be described as ‘loosely based on’ his short stories rather than being slavish to the man and his vision.
Indeed the Canadian director, David Cronenberg described being involved with the early development of Total Recall in the early 80s. Cronenberg re-wrote 12 versions of the original script by Dan O’Bannon and Ron Shusett (both old Hollywood hands who wrote the Alien screenplay). The relationship finally fell apart when Shusett complained to Cronenberg: ‘You know what you’ve done? You’ve done the Philip K. Dick version.’ Cronenberg, confused, responded, ‘Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be doing?’ Shusset responded, ‘No, no… we want to do Raiders of the Lost Ark Go to Mars.’
Key to the evolution of Philip K. Dick from niche writer to cultural phenomenon is the person of Ridley Scott, who brought Dick’s ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ to the screen as the movie Blade Runner in 1982. Although Dick died before the completion of the movie, he had read the script, and he thought the dystopian feel of Douglas Trumbull’s special effects had caught his own interior world perfectly and the movie would complement his novel well.
Now, 35 years on, the sequel to Blade Runner has appeared in the cinemas – Blade Runner 2049.
The backstory of the new film is the same as the original. Human beings have created androids (replicants) as slaves for manual labour, military use and personal services. At some point in the not-too-distant past some of the advanced replicants rebelled against their enslavement and were ruthlessly put down (‘retired’) by specialised assassins, known as Blade Runners.
In the original film, Harrison Ford played Deckard, a wearied and cynical Blade Runner, who is shaken out of his scepticism by falling in love with one replicant (Sean Young as Rachael) and then being outmatched physically and morally by another replicant (Rutger Hauer as the memorable Roy). At the end of the original film, Deckard escapes from Los Angeles with Rachael.
Blade Runner 2049 slots us into the story 35 years later. Ryan Gosling is a Blade Runner; he himself is a replicant and his job is to execute rogue replicants. As part of a case he is working on, Gosling stumbles across evidence that a child was born between Deckard and Rachael. The film tells the story of how various ‘interested parties’ search for the child.
The film is good. Ridley Scott is the Executive Producer and has given the director’s chair to Denis Villeneuve who handles the film with confidence. At two and a half hours it is long, but I admire the way they allowed the narrative and characters to emerge and did not shoe-horn it into a two hour parcel to please the casual action-romp audience that the studios would be tempted to target. The initial cinema release of Blade Runner fell into that trap and Scott and Villeneuve should be applauded for taking their time.
The sequel could never have matched the impact of the original movie. The feel and the grungy imaging of Los Angeles – modelled on the night-time view of the ICI chemical plan in Teeside that Scott used to see when growing up in the industrial North East of England – when married to an atmospheric Vangelis score, caused a cinematic sensation in 1982 and has been much copied since. The hype for the sequel was always going to lead to disappointment for those unrealistically expecting more. Blade Runner 2049 is a good film, but it is not the Second Coming.
Interestingly, although the story follows the trajectory set by the 1982 Blade Runner, the content and the questions reminded me more of Spielberg’s touching and thoughtful AI: Artificial Intelligence. Brian Aldiss wrote the original story for AI and he is a timely reminder that we shouldn’t give the monopoly of ‘prophet of the present age’ to Philip K. Dick.
In 1950, in a seminal academic paper on computing machinery, the polymathic genius Alan Turing asked the question ‘Can Machines Think?’[i] Many people have raised this very question in various imaginative ways since then, but the real challenge is to start to answer those questions. Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report and AI all intelligently addressed the question of humanness, the role of memory and the definition of personality, yet we seem not to have realised that the questions are urgently in need of intelligent answers.
Human beings have been in relationships with animals for millennia and we still haven’t really worked out how we handle the moral, psychological, legal and theological implications – e.g. do dogs have rights? However, in the next couple of years, with 5G technology, life is going to become even more complex as we inevitably move into entwined complex relationships with the thinking machines around us. If you think this is a non-issue, ponder the intriguing example of Gus Newman[ii] or take the hand of Jeremy Clarkson as he reflects on the death of Concorde.[iii]
35 years ago thinking machines were science fiction but now they are science fact. We still need to ponder our relationships with machines, because the future isn’t the future – it is now.