Well, yesterday was the 30th anniversary of the release of “Blade Runner” — the film I have, since I saw it when I was 11, invariably listed as my favorite film of all. Like most people (who weren’t up on the latest literary scifi trends) at that time, circa 1982, I had no experience or knowledge of “cyberpunk.” But the style and themes of “Blade Runner,” despite having had only 11 years of safe, middle-class life experiences to draw upon, etched themselves into my mind and from that moment, converted me from a die-hard Ray Bradbury fan to (although I didn’t yet know it) a die-hard William Gibson fan. After “Blade Runner,” my scifi aesthetic became dark as an alley and bright as neon. I didn’t yet know it, but the seeds of appreciation for the posthuman were planted, the seeds for understanding postmodern capitalism were planted — albeit deeper.
Though, on the surface, what that 11-to-13-year-old me most loved, was most amazed by, was the very, very, un-Star Wars, un-Star Trek view of the polluted and dying megalopolis depicted in the film. A film with the symbol of human progress and science: the flying car, set, unexpectedly, among the decay and nihilism of the cyberpunk world.
Thanks to having my awareness primed by “Blade Runner,” when I did finally come across William Gibson in the fiction pages of OMNI magazine just a couple years later, the short circuit was made and I became. I began to truly understand what it meant to question being human, what it meant to fear the future and question the myth of the bright and glorious future of humanity.
And, over the 30 years, every time I revisit “Blade Runner,” by accumulated life experiences informs my appreciation for the film and those questions and fears even more — and more deeply.
Gareth Branwyn wrote a short essay on BoingBoing.net a few weeks ago, remembering the truly sublime, life-altering experience seeing “Blade Runner” for the first time was for him. He had the life experiences to allow him to have that sublime epiphany in the moment. I had to draw that moment our over three decades into growing awareness punctuated by moments of, “Ooohhh, yyeeaahh….” (Be sure to read that BoingBoing article! Emotional.)
The latest stage of my developing awareness came, funny enough, toward the later years, when I discovered the works of the man whose novel, Do Android Dream of Electric Sheep, inspired the film. Philip K. Dick. There is no “Everything happens for a reason,” but it’s difficult to ignore the feeling that my history with “Blade Runner,” Gibson, cyberpunk, didn’t lead me to where I could encounter PKD prepared to appreciate and understand his work, his themes, his intent, from the first word of his I read.
Naturally, the plot of “Blade Runner” diverges from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep somewhat significantly. But when you examine it, and realize Ridley Scott had to pare a novel down to a two-hour audio-visual version, it really is an excellent, and indeed, faithful translation. And from the script he read and the dailies he saw, PKD thought so as well until he passed away so close to the premiere.
And this is where my assessment appears to diverge greatly from that of cartoonist John Bonner. In his one-page comic, “Comic Crits Classics: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick,” Bonner speculates that PKD would have loved the style of the film (which he did), but would have ultimately been disappointed and even betrayed by the lack of certain thematic elements. Not only is Bonner likely wrong about what PKD would have thought (based on PKD’s own words), but he’s factually wrong about the film not including some of the themes he seems to think it missed.
He has his Philip lamenting the film’s lack of “kibble” (sic) and the “exploration of the android-human dilemma.” In fact, he projects that his idea of Philip would be “heartbroken” at the loss of supposedly nearly everything from the book that didn;t make it into the film. Well, allow me to address Bonner’s errors.
The so-called android-human dilemma is at the very core of the film. In fact, the primary theme of the film centers around the dilemma of androids who are more human than human and yet are considered less-than human by the cold and resentful humans that created them. The entire film asks, “What does it mean to be ‘human’?”
And the kipple? (As it’s properly spelled.) The film is wall-to-wall with it. A couple of years ago I wrote a paper for grad school titled, “The Ubiquitous and Panasonic Kipple: Tracing the Consumption of Death, from Philip K. Dick to Don DeLillo’s White Noise.” As the title suggests, I deal with the concept of kipple a wee bit. From Do Androids, here’s what it is:
“Kipple is useless objects, like junk mail or match folders after you use the last match or gum wrappers or yesterday’s homeopape. When nobody’s around, kipple reproduces itself. For instance, if you go to bed leaving any kipple around your apartment, when you wake up in the next morning there’s twice as much of it. It always gets more and more.”
“I see.” The girl regarded him uncertainly, not knowing whether to believe him. Not sure if he meant it seriously.
“There’s the First Law of Kipple,” he said. “‘Kipple drives our nonkipple.’ Like Gresham’s law about bad money. And in these apartments there’s been nobody there to fight the kipple.”
“So it has taken over completely,” the girl finished. She nodded. “Now I understand.” (57)
In Androids, PKD has to, naturally, explain what kipple is and that the world is filled with it. It’s a novel. Ridley Scott, however, is (despite the heartbreakingly disappointing “Prometheus.”) an expert filmmaker. He doesn’t need to tell you about kipple, he shows you. Every set, every scene of the film is wall-to-wall kipple. The streets, Deckard’s apartment, Sebastian’s apartment, Zhora’s dressing room, everywhere except Tyrell’s conference room is littered with kipple in a claustrophobia-inducing crush. Scott doesn’t have to tell you that the decaying Earth is being weighted down by the cast-off corpses of consumerism — it’s evident in every shot. It seeps into the subliminal awareness of the film like the way kipple seeps into our lives. Scott “gets” it. And that’s probably one reason PKD did indeed love what he saw of the film:
I came to the conclusion that this indeed is not science fiction; it is not fantasy; it is exactly what Harrison said: futurism. The impact of BLADE RUNNER is simply going to be overwhelming, both on the public and on creative people — and, I believe, on science fiction as a field. Since I have been writing and selling science fiction works for thirty years, this is a matter of some importance to me. In all candor I must say that our field has gradually and steadily been deteriorating for the last few years. Nothing that we have done, individually or collectively, matches BLADE RUNNER. This is not escapism; it is super realism, so gritty and detailed and authentic and goddam convincing that, well, after the segment I found my normal present-day “reality” pallid by comparison. What I am saying is that all of you collectively may have created a unique new form of graphic, artistic expression, never before seen. And, I think, BLADE RUNNER is going to revolutionize our conceptions of what science fiction is and, more, canbe.
Let me sum it up this way. Science fiction has slowly and ineluctably settled into a monotonous death: it has become inbred, derivative, stale. Suddenly you people have 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. Thank you.
“I saw a segment of Douglas Trumbull’s special effects for Blade Runner on the KNBC-TV news. I recognized it immediately. It was my own interior world. They caught it perfectly.”
Mercerism was an, admittedly, prominent and important aspect of PKD’s novel, but to attempt to include that would require a film twice as long. And from PKD’s appreciation of the script he read:
After I finished reading the screenplay, I got the novel out and looked through it. The two reinforce each other, so that someone who started with the novel would enjoy the movie and someone who started with the movie would enjoy the novel. I was amazed that Peoples could get some of those scenes to work. It taught me things about writing that I didn’t know.”
“You read the screenplay and then you go to the novel, and it’s like they’re two halves to one meta-artwork, one meta-artifact. It’s just exciting.
…I think PKD was perfectly okay with their not including that half of the book in this film.
So, I have a feeling that Bonner was personally disappointed by what he felt the film missed from one of his favorite books, and decided to project that disappointment into the voice of the author — despite the author’s own well-documented opinions of the film.