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I had a strange thought some time ago. When movies like these come out, they aren’t the events that fans and filmmakers look back on and imagine. They’re movies with little concept of how much they’ll impact the world for the next thirty years and beyond. There is no futuristic city more quintessential than L.A. 2019, which isn’t far from now — but hopefully never comes to pass as it does in Ridley Scott’s apocalyptic cyber-fable.
The idea is so clean it’s almost painful. The story defines to me the beauty in science-fiction film, that of tight ideas which lead down fascinating roads of thought while maintaining and executing on a high concept premise. It isn’t just: “Bounty hunter tracks down and kills humanoid androids — STOP,” making it something like the more recent Surrogates, it’s “Bounty hunter tracks down and kills humanoid androids, an act that impacts the audience and characters on a moral and philosophical level, as these androids are distinguishable to humans only by a bizarre method of interrogation known as Voight-Kampff…”
In a recent interview with Cinemax to look back on Blade Runner during its 30th anniversary year, Ridley Scott revealed that Blade Runner was definitely his most personal film, though he followed that up with a moment of silence and thought and something like, “yeah, that’s it.” I suppose it makes since, not because Scott isn’t known for making films with very personal subjects (in that, he does everything from the Crusades and Columbus to espionage and modern warfare), but because Blade Runner is an emotional film that says quite a lot about humanity and violence — lofty themes atypical of science-fiction in film.
Because this is a sci-fi film, the emotion and that which says quite a lot are delivered in what we could call a non-traditional manner, considering the genres that do deal in these things more often than SF. There isn’t a lot of dialogue, or even character interaction, but there’s an unrelenting brooding about the atmosphere that looks pretty — though thirty years later it does show the construction behind its making — but hits you as a dead end for our kind, a shimmering monument to ourselves that’s choking out life and morality. Above all, it fills us with dread and loneliness, despite, or perhaps because of, the faceless crowds flowing in every direction, and being pelted with endless rain. It’s a perfectly impressionistic environment to house one man’s depressing, dehumanizing journey.
That’s exactly what Blade Runner is, this journey that chips away at Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), making it less of a dramatic tearjerker and more cerebral fare with a genuinely poigniant core. Characters struggle against forces beyond their control, whether it’s death or society (“If you’re not police you’re regular people”), and lose, even though the hero does achieve the dramatic need he establishes at the beginning of the movie.
Blade Runner also works because it’s one of the classic genre-mixers. It combines science-fiction with noir, a formula that’s sustained SF for years and years. In the context of this film, it’s a good blend, as the hard-drinking, chain-smoking hard-boiled is entirely justified in a bleak world where suddenly you can’t be sure of your own identity, and where the sky taunts you to join the “Off-World Colonies,” which I can’t imagine are any better than the ‘Hellscape’ of Los Angeles.
Anime in particular took to this new trope, referencing and embodying the movie in so many titles — but to no better effect than in Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, which does more than pay lip service to the visuals. In this 2004 sequel to Mamoru Oshii’s groundbreaking Ghost in the Shell, two police detectives scour the dark underworld of a futuristic Tokyo, maneuvering through yakuza strapped with illegal model cyborgs and the haunting, Gothic locales where minds can be easily lost to remote psychological warfare of the most invasive variety. Questions of humanity and the blur between flesh and metal — what Masamune Shirow refers to as the Man/Machine Interface — rise to the same effect, though in much clunkier, verbose terms.
Elements of Blade Runner have also found homes in America, in the oddest of places — anything from Mass Effect to Batman Begins. Science-fiction is great at capturing the imagination of fans and creators, and Blade Runner stands up there with Star Wars and Star Trek and frankly, has spawned better derivatives, which seem to be more venerating toward the source.
Maybe the greatest problem with the whole “Is Deckard a Replicant” thing is that he dreamt of a unicorn, and not an Electric Sheep. That would’ve solved it, put it down for good. Of course, there’s a bigger problem, that of harping on whether or not he’s a replicant, and proliferating the idea that it actually matters. What is gained from Deckard being a replicant? An idea, but only one that’s supplemental — the Philip K. Dick “aha!” at the end that gives us a notion about the world and the themes of the movie, a mechanic that Christopher Nolan most recently recycled in the ending of Inception. We are not meant to argue one way or the other, because that would be giving validity to something best experienced in its fleeting, epilogue form.
This is an issue of fandom, more specifically that of the science-fiction variety. This is odd because there are plenty of Philip K. Dick books out there with these kinds of endings — I think to Ubik immediately — but because there is no Ubik movie, there is no discussion, and Ubik is left alone as a thought-provoking, satisfying whole. It’s also an issue of medium, then. I think that we as audiences tend to value the literal over the figurative when it comes to movies, which unless established, portray things meant to be taken at face value. We’re seeing and hearing these ‘tangible’ things — they’re solid, concrete. When Deckard picks up that origami — it’s not the idea blending over the physical image and clouding our mind like it should.
This story format bias is interesting, but has only really haunted Blade Runner and a handful of others, as Blade Runner was brave but didn’t make its money back. It’s more of a cult success in line with The Thing and Streets of Fire, to name two movies from around that time, which often gives these movies its staying power. In the case of Blade Runner, it must just be that immortal question, that which is so backwards. In my mind, he’s a replicant insofar as he’s been dehumanized over the arc, but to say that creates a clash of how Scott sees the Android, and how Dick sees it.
In preparation for writing Nazi characters for his Hugo-award winning The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick did extensive and disturbing research, becoming fascinated by how robotic and callous people can be. He drew on that in his creation of the ‘andys’ in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, creating what were essentially empathetically-challenged humans, which Scott takes one step further. The replicants in Blade Runner are sympathetic, some more than others, but in the end, Roy is entirely human. But he’s a replicant. In the end, Deckard is a figurative replicant, but wouldn’t that mean that… he’s human? And besides, he’s also supposedly a replicant for real…?
I suppose it’s more to do with the blurring of the two. It’s not so much where one begins and ends, but that we as people are becoming colder, or have been cold and this city is a mirror, and this is how we can shoot a human woman in the back, in front of the endless crowds.
BLADE RUNNER, 2019
The future of Blade Runner is a recent development with the announcement of a sequel, which is definitely one of those sequels that’s always been ‘possible,’ but never really plausible. On one hand, it’s a shame, as Blade Runner has always felt more in line with great science-fiction literature, and should stand alone as a great story with a beginning, middle, and end, but on the other, this is great news.
Thinking on it, the things that made Blade Runner a true classic could be done again. It’s just… science-fiction in film isn’t a thinking man’s genre, and the current state of SF is best summed up in the Syfy Channel*: “We just don’t give a fuck.” Granted, there are surprises every now and then, and hopefully Blade Runner 2 will surprise us all. If it doesn’t, that’s fine. This is how I view things, after The Thing remake: I love John Carpenter’s The Thing as a fan of film. It’s a great movie with memorable characters and moments that shock and reinforce the bleakness. I love the new The Thing as a fan of general science-fiction because I love the story’s setup, and the things it can do. The Antarctic setting, the monster itself, the infighting — it’s not the best it’s been, but it’s more.
The world of Blade Runner has also had time to develop. Cyberpunk was born in 1982 and died ten years or so later. It saw a lot of classics, like Akira, the aforementioned Ghost in the Shell and its TV series Stand Alone Complex, Strange Days, Deus Ex, and even to some extent the Terminator franchise, though that’s been missing an entirely new world to populate. That’s what Blade Runner 2 can offer right now, when we know so little about it. A world — and if it’s anywhere near the original’s, it’ll be a good day for science-fiction fans.
But we’ll bitch anyway.
(Not that any future plans on this site should be trusted. I’d like to do that but once I said I’d do a retrospective on Mamoru Oshii and then I said I’d do a Ghost in the Shell retrospective and then a Wire recap… Someday)
Actors and performances aren’t frequently covered here because for a long time science-fiction wasn’t an actor’s genre. In recent years however, genre fare has expanded its bounds (or actors have, as you might see it), and it’s always been inclusive to the weird that so often breeds interesting performances. I have no interest in the Academy Award-garnering “I have a disease, here’s my family,” one-man show performances that are typically seen as top in the industry. I want something out of an actor that grabs me or worries me, that makes me think about the character, not the artist’s craft.
These particular performances stand out because the characters they depict experience a great deal of physical pain or bound with endless energy — certainly an endurance test for any performer, despite all the breaks between takes and trailers and stuff. I think the reality of acting dawned on me recently when in an interview Mary Elizabeth Winstead described her experience shooting The Thing as breath-taking in the sense that she was hyperventilating 24-hours a day to act frightened. She was out of breath and light-headed so much, but in the movie it seems like a pretty standard horror role.
Note that the following list isn’t ranking how good I think the performances are, it’s based entirely on… well I guess the blob of text following the number’ll explain it.
10. Ralph Fiennes, Spider
This isn’t a case of bounding off the walls like #2 on this list — it’s a smaller approach. David Cronenberg’s Spider is an adaptation of a book about a mentally unstable British fellow who attempts to piece together a key moment from his past, and suffers the consequences when the memories blur over into the present. This may sound exactly what I was bitching about earlier, but this is a character piece unlike any other — there is almost no dialogue. Right around the level of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, I’d say. There are no soaring soliloquies or shout-fests with fed-up loved ones — Dennis Cleg (Fiennes) interacts with very few people, and when he does, it’s pretty uncomfortable.
He shakes and mumbles to himself, stalks forward with his shoulders slumped. Fiennes has really done it all, whether he’s the hero or the Nazi villain, or my favorite, the sleazy drugdealer from Strange Days, Lenny Nero. In Spider, he joins a good rank in David Cronenberg’s line of male leads (all of them with the exception of Rabid have featured male men characters, though I’m sure that one had a guy hero), another one of which is coming up soon…
9. Aaron Paul, Breaking Bad
This is one of my favorites. On the show, Jesse to me is the interesting character. Walt, played by three-time-in-a-row-Emmy-award-winning Bryan Cranston, is great, but his change is gradual, whereas Jesse is always on the rocks or at the bottom or coming back. He’s also a kid, which is something we must remind ourselves. To help, he uses foul language and says things like “Yo” and “Bitch” as catchphrases; he might jump bad — which is the term I believe they were going for with that title — but he’s actually a pretty nice guy, a victim of his past, of mistakes that ripple out to the end of one’s life.
Though he won the Emmy for Season 3, I think Season 2 was his finest moment — his involvement with Jane, an emotionally strong arc that makes you wonder why the original story had Jesse die at the end of Season 1. His ‘chemistry’ with Walt is just perfect. He’s the reason the premise, for me anyway, works. It’d be great as a show about a seemingly ordinary guy who unlocks the monster inside — but we already have Dexter, and unfortunately, Dexter (1-5) is the better show. In Breaking Bad, things are slightly different, as Walt and Jesse bicker and argue and joke around, and their relationship as student/teacher isn’t forgotten by the writers, and is really compelling to me for some reason.
Aaron Paul’s performance is one of constant exhaustion. Jesse is always running on empty, but he’s got a job to do. In the early days he was driven by money, because while Walt destroyed his life, he couldn’t say no to all that cash he was raking in and then losing. Nowadays (I’m halfway through Season 4) he’s in it because he has to be, and because he couldn’t leave his partner. He couldn’t — and he doesn’t want to.
8. Clive Owen, Children of Men
Those goddamn long shots, man. They must be super-endurance tests for actors. As if filming in front of a disorienting, bizarre green screen for a whole third of a movie in Sin City wasn’t bad enough, now he’s gotta throw his body through all sorts of hoops, navigating physical post-apocalyptic landscapes that seem to go on forever. For us, this makes the world seem real, and the action intense. But for the crew? I can’t even imagine. Children of Men is choreographed and shot so well, it’s like a divine invasion hit Cuaron square in the brainular, and he just painted each frame with gold.
Of course, we know that’s not the truth. Everyone involved put their work in, and that includes our lead, the reluctant Theo.
7. Tom Woodruff Jr., from Everything Good and Gooey
The special effects team of Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff Jr. has worked alongside Stan Winston and James Cameron in their prolific careers across almost all of the Alien films (the good and the bad), and very recently with The Thing. They’ve created many of the inventive and effective monsters of the past few decades, and Woodruff Jr. generally gets into the suit.
The physical toll the Robocop suit took on Peter Weller might be blamed on his not returning for a third return in that particular trilogy, but I have a feeling it was other things. Regardless, acting in a heavy rubber suit isn’t as fun as it might look on screen. And acting like a monster? Monsters have the tendency to a) move in otherworldly ways, like the Thing, and b) die horribly, like the Newborn from Alien Resurrection. While they do these things, they sometimes operate in environments thick with fog and goo. Ms. Winstead may talk of hyperventilation during the shoot, but Tom Woodruff Jr. I’m sure had brushes with overheating, even in the deep white of Antarctica…
6. Viggo Mortensen, Eastern Promises
One word: Naked Shower Fight.
5. Rutger Hauer, Blade Runner
I’m thinking specifically of the ending scene, which I saw on TV a few days ago during Cinemax’s Blade Runner 30th Anniversary, though I thought that was the 25th because I was gonna do something for it on the website. Given the state of things even that seems unlikely but if I missed it anyway…
While watching the climax, after Roy has met his maker and Rick gets an address, I realize how good this movie is and how it gets better with each viewing — and how jacked up Roy is. “Five, six, seven, go to Hell or go to Heaven — *gets hit, smashes into window* — THAT’S THE SPIRIT!” He really goes crazy here in his ‘pursuit’ for Rick, and we see how childlike he becomes. There’s a poigniancy to the madness, and it’s something that the subsequent roles Hauer took on couldn’t fully reproduce.
4. Jason Stathom, Crank and Crank 2: High Voltage
Jesus. The Crank movies are great, and booming with energy. Stathom has become known for driving a car and killing people, but when I close my ears and think “Crank,” the image that always comes to my mind is Jason Stathom running down the street and screaming into the air. These movies really live up to their namesake, and the fact that the second one is actually better than the first speaks to a sense of inventiveness and adventure that Nelvedine/Taylor work in with fiery passion and technical skill.
It’s kind of like the Escape from New York sequels, Escape from LA and Doomsday – they take a ridiculous premise and break it down scene by scene, element by element, making it less a movie and more a loose string of wild, graphic, and original action scenes with all sorts of gimmicks and mayhem. At the center of it all in Crank and Crank 2 is Chev “Fuck you Chelios” Chelios, undoubtedly the most memorable action hero of the 2000s.
3. Sharlto Copley, District 9
There’s something to getting beat up, and then there’s another thing to getting beat up by aliens, robots, PMCs, and warlords in the arid world of Johannesburg. District 9 has it all, and van Wikus goes through it in his painful-looking journey that’d be like if Dr. Brundle went on a mission to save some aliens while being pursued by the private military he used to work with. While his body becomes something that seems to always explode in pus whenever touched, van Wikus is rolling around in the dirt and sand amidst exploding heads.
Sharlto Copley gave it his all in this movie, and we feel his pain without him having to verbalize it. Even when he gets into the robot suit, which is supposed to be fun, there’s a drill noise and he gets hurt by something! This is one hostile world, which gives a lot of weight to the look and feeling of the movie, which moves along at a brisk pace toward a thundering climax*.
2. Kate Winslet, Heavenly Creatures
It’s small wonder why Winslet blossomed into the superstar actress she is today, for when she was seventeen and a part of a sitcom, she was brilliant in one of Peter Jackson’s most acclaimed films, Heavenly Creatures. Seventeen! She bubbles over with a frenzy of joy and insanity, playing a character with real life connections — a killer — who’s unmistakably a little girl with a troubled mind and misunderstood passions.
She loves the world and all its details so much, though not the one we inhabit. She’s the other half of socially awkward, that of off-putting, where the other character, played by the also brilliant Melanie Lynskey (who, like Kate Winslet, is a beautfiul adult), is inward and quiet. Winslet’s character beams and LOLs, always smiling with that face that looks like it’s about to explode, even when she’s plotting to kill someone…
1. Choi Min-Sik, Oldboy
I don’t think the number one could be anyone else. Mr. Min Sik (Mr. Choi?) never had to naked shower fight, but he did eat a live octopus, fight through an uninterrupted and complex hallway battle, withstand all sorts of torture and transform his appearance radically. The character, Oh Dae Su, becomes a monster, and Min-Sik does this with sweeping power and emotion that culminates in one hell of an ending, where after the Big Reveal, he goes crazy in an intense fight scene, screams for mercy and acts like a dog, and then cuts his tongue out. What a movie, I tell you.
So there you have it. These are the performances I watch out for, and I’ll try to put more of these together for other ‘categories’ of acting later.
*I don’t care how lude this word is. There isn’t much else I can use…
Like Prometheus, I guess I never really truly imagined the day would come. Prometheus doesn’t even feel real to me — the Alien cycle is the closest thing to Star Wars I have in terms of movie fandom, and not even those damn dirty execs want to touch that franchise after two clunky AVP flicks. Prometheus won’t have the iconic Xenomorph, but it’s got Stringer Bell, so the excitement factor is through the roof. 2012 is officially the next 2009 — John Carter, Prometheus, Total Recall, Cosmopolis, even The Avengers (which was good!), and I suppose The Dark Knight Rises (don’t care!) — and now I’m hearing news that a real live, actual factual Blade Runner sequel is on the books, but for truth? It’s a good time to be a scifi fan, at least on the big screen. On TV… I don’t know. People seem to like that AMC zombie show.
On June 1st, Prometheus lands (using Halo marketing-speak), and it’s success will not only signal the future of this series within a series, but how Blade Runner 2 might shake out. In my opinion, Ridley Scott hasn’t made a good movie since Gladiator – but has he had to? Most filmmakers can’t lay a claim to three of the greatest movies ever: Alien, Blade Runner, and Gladiator, in this case, but Ridley Scott can. But now he’s doing something very, very important to the landscape of science-fiction — coming back to it.
Sure, we may tire of retreads and sequels, but the universe of Blade Runner at least, is rich (Alien is often said to be better unexplored, I agree) and inhabiting a subgenre screaming out to be revisited — hasn’t been done proper since ’03, though we’ve been getting recent respites in other fronts like Deus Ex: Human Revolution and a Ghost in the Shell… Lucas Special Edition every so often. All of these things have been hugely influenced by the 1982 greatest-SF-movie-of-all-time, and have roots in cyberpunk’s 90s glory days. I’d love to return, and maybe this new Blade Runner will usher in a new generation of creators tuned into artificial intelligence and cyborg proxy soldiers, to whom the name “Tetsuo” means spinning dick-drills and giant nuclear babies that explode and destroy Tokyo.
I wonder if this new Blade Runner will be influenced at all by the over-the-top Japanese sensibilities that were themselves influenced by the original tech-noir, and the debut novel of the godfather of cyberpunk. That would be a strange and rare cycle between east and west that I’ve only so far seen in westerns. There’s a back and forth in the lineage of chambara (that the right term?) samurai and westerns, which are linked thematically; each generation become spritual successors of each other — between Ford, Kurosawa, Leone, and now Miike. It’s interesting, and if it happened to cyberpunk I feel like it’d be as natural.
Although thematically all cyberpunk is pretty much the same — what is human? What… do robots do? How fun would VR really be? — and not as poetic in this regard with the gunslinger/samurai, ritualistic violence and honor parallel, Blade Runner might use a touch of exploration, though being novel certainly didn’t help it commercially the first time around. I just think that by 2016, maybe 2017 when considering a two-three year turnaround time for Scott (after a movie set in the Middle East following Prometheus), we’ve seen it all. Cyberpunk was considered dead — for Christ’s sake there’s a subgenre called postcyberpunk — Blade Runner’s had its day in the sun.
But there is something interesting, something I like to stress as often as its relevant (not often) is women in science-fiction. Two of the most inexpilcably successful SF franchises of the day — Resident Evil, going five strong and soon to be six, and Underworld, on its fourth — feature female protagonists. So we’re getting there, but how about good characters, and good movies? Alien was both, and we’ll get that again with Noomi Rapace in Prometheus – and then with Blade Runner 2, believe it or not.
Some of the earliest news on this recent development is that Scott and co. (Hampton, but so far no Peoples, I gather) are pursuing a strong female lead, and this is very exciting.
So what’s to concern over?
Well, I suppose that this is just another in the line of redos and continuations of old properties, but hey — Blade Runner is Blade Runner. I love The Thing ’82, so I was super-excited when the new one was coming out, but Blade Runner is like… personal top five, and without a doubt the greatest science-fiction movie of all time. More of the same would be a hell of a thing.
For more on Blade Runner, check out the Blade Runner Directory
You know, we got ourselves into this. No one made us chew Chew-Z.
PKD scholars tend to divide the author’s career into three eras: the 50s pulp with flashes of literary merit, the golden era of the 60s and early 70s with many of his masterpieces, among them Ubik and Flow My Tears, and then the late 70s and early 80s with the fascinating spritual journey that yielded, among other things, the VALIS trilogy. Published in 1964, one might view The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch as a prelude of things to come, a blend of science-fiction and faith that maintains a relatively grounded story. Through the three eras, we can trace an analog to Philip K. Dick’s life, one that began in the dregs of pulp science-fiction with mainstream aspirations, and was bombarded with drugs and bizarre religious experiences into the oblivion of quiet tragedy, ending on March 2, 1982. As Philip K. Dick was buried next to his long dead twin sister — the original dark-haired girl — the mainstream was finally introduced to him through Ridley Scott’s brilliant Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? adaptation released later that year in its first of many forms.
Nowadays that mainstream often considers The Three Stigmata to be one of his best novels, along with A Scanner Darkly and The Man in the High Castle, and I must say real quick that I’m glad this is our reality, where we can evaluate his work and not be laughed at, where my mom knows who Philip K. Dick is and we’ll all be lining up to see the Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said or Disney’s King of the Elves in years to come. But anyways The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch tells the story of an Earth on the brink of destruction, where people are forced into emigration to a miserable existence on Mars, and find sole respite in Can-D, a drug that offers shared hallucinations — the ultimate escapism. Or is it? There’s talk in the wind of a competing substance known as Chew-Z, as manufactured by the enigmatic Palmer Eldritch. God promises eternal life, Chew-Z can deliver it, as they say. Corporate bigwig Leo Bulero and his top psi consultant Barney Mayerson investigate and soon find themselves in a plot to assassinate Eldritch, who may or may not be human. Or God. They travel across space, time, and everything, often propelled along by the fierce women in their lives.
What starts as a pretty typical Philip K. Dick novel, one that could conceivably share the world of Ubik or Flow My Tears, with its flying cars and vidphones and corporations, mutates into a spiritual meditation on the big questions. Science-fiction is being used here as means to reach these areas of exploration, which is why it’s important to remember that Philip K. Dick was definitively an author of science-fiction. Like Kurt Vonnegut. I’m not just saying this because I’d like to use this useless blog in defense of the genre, and don’t want to lose one of its key players, but because with The Three Stigmata we witness the growth of an artist. Dick always wrote about ideas close to his heart through fantastical worlds and scenarios, but in his discussions of faith and God strike a profound chord.
We know they’re coming from a very genuine place, as Philip K. Dick would not only become obsessed with the religious half of these books, but always stuck by the science-fiction half. He always hoped to be accepted by a popular audience, but knew that the perception of his genre was that of the literary ghetto. 40 novels, 50 short stories, only a handful non-science-fiction — that’s dedication.
There’s not much I can say about this book, and not much I can say to remember the author that hasn’t already been said. For a better resource, be sure to check out the review catalogue on the Genrebusters website, which has many of his works, and if for all diehards, make sure to pick up the recently released Exegesis of Philip K. Dick. If you haven’t already, I’d recommend The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. It’s an involved, thoughtful tale of endless unpredictability and spots of humor that punctuate a terrifying, absurdist reality.
For a two hour interview with the author I just found on YouTube but haven’t yet listened to, click here
It will be difficult for me to get across in words just how much I appreciate the Ghost in the Shell series, how much it means to me as a fan of science-fiction and… things that are good. I suppose that’ll make the next post somewhat ironic, but beyond that it’s all uphill, or downhill–good stuff anyhow, all good stuff. Ghost in the Shell appeals to me on almost every level as someone who’s watched a fair to nearly good amount of science-fiction movies and shows and never really ‘fallen in love’ with anything beyond the nostalgia movies of childhood.
They take a premise, which is that in the future we’ve blurred the line between metal and flesh, man and machine, such that our brains are computers and can be manipulated. But what of humanity?, and they don’t just make it about a detective or some dude, they make it about a paramilitary organization within the Japanese government–and they run into some crazy stuff. Of course, Ghost in the Shell 2 is more about detectives, but you still get the same dose of robot suits, cyber-terrorists, gadgets, gross bodily harm, artificial intelligence, and existential musings the series is known for.
It’s cyberpunk, or post-cyberpunk if you must, with a heavy philosophical bent. An obvious influence on the Deus Ex series in this regard (though it’s probably more successful), and something that took a few notes itself from the likes of Gibson and Blade Runner. The world it creates is much more frightening than 2019 Los Angeles, or the Sprawl, however, as the future tech has become so advanced it’s invisible. You can have a shotgun in your arm and walk around town fully loaded while none would be the wiser. That’s not really the scary part, but it’s kind of a fun idea. What’s scary is the ability to be hacked…
We don’t really feel for computers when they cluck up–we feel for ourselves and our wallets. But what if we could be compromised mentally by the will of some motherfucker with good hacking skills? What if an artificial life form created on the Net wanted no more than to exist, but first needed you to believe you have a family when you don’t? One minute you’re some poor dude and the next you’re a terrorist. Or, one minute you’re a terrorist and the next you’re a meat puppet killing all your friends and waiting for somebody to cap you–depends on who’s team you’re on.
Ghost in the Shell is much more concerned with cyborgs and virtual reality than megacorporations or cyber-drugs or androids; there’s a prevailing preoccupation with the man-machine interface and the loss of humanity. The Major can’t quite be sure of herself, as her body was patched together before our very eyes in a lab, and there exist fake memories, like Blade Runner. Might she just be a collection of false lives inside a robot shell? At least she’s got her personality… but we’ll get into that.
This choice of cyberpunk tropes is what I like most and least about the series, but we’ll get there too…
Before we begin, I suppose I should note something. I’ve never watched a single volume of Ghost in the Shell with the original language track, so… see ya.
If you’ve decided to stick around to see what I have to say–thank you, that’s very courteous. The truth is: the dub is excellent. Which dub? All. With the exception I suppose of the first movie, all the voice talent is consistently good. There are those weird pauses and awkward intonations that you’d expect from any translated work, but these are few and far between, and perhaps appropriate, given the inhuman nature of the cast.
Ghost in the Shell is one of my very favorite things in the realm of science-fiction, so I’ll try to do it justice here. It’s all worth seeing, so if you haven’t yet, I recommend you get your ass to Amazon right quick, and here to help is a Ghost in the Shell Buyer’s Guide, because it can get kind of confusing:
(These are things that I’ve bought–they’re all good. I won’t speculate on anything)
1. Ghost in the Shell DVD, released by Manga Entertainment: $10 on Amazon. Light on special features, from what I recall, but it’s probably the most essential to own for any cinema buff. If you prefer high-def, you’ll have to settle for Ghost in the Shell 2.0, which is nearly the same movie, but with awkward CG rendered scenes in the beginning.
2. Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence Blu-Ray, released by Bandai Entertainment. There was a big curfuffle surrounding the original US release of Innocence. The DVD by DreamWorks Video has apparently a terrible subtitle job, which is basically just closed-captioned. If you want to know that a helicopter is making noise or that footsteps are happening, check this one out (Netflix ships this one), but if you want a real version or the English dub, look no further than the excellent Blu-Ray disc. Along with the Stand Alone Complex cast dub, it’s also got some Oshii-esque special features: a trip to Cannes and a look at how some scenes were animated. It’s $149.99 New on Amazon, which is shocking because it definitely was not that when I picked it up. Sorry. The DVD version, with its weird naked girl cover is equally absurd, at $49.99. The poop CC version will have to do, it’s a more modest $11. Honestly, the CC isn’t that terrible…
3. Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex – I have yet to buy this one, because I watched it all on Netflix streaming, which it is currently on right as we speak. At the time, 2nd Gig wasn’t, so…
4. Ghost in the Shell: Anime Legends 2nd Gig, released by Bandai Entertainment. If I remember correctly, this is the same deal as the Cowboy Bebop I have–something like a Franchise Collection line, I don’t really know. It’s the cheaper version of the real thing, so you get all the discs but it’s bare bone–no special features. Being the whole second season I suppose $20 on Amazon isn’t bad, especially compared to the current cost of a new ‘real’ version, which may have better cover art, but’ll run you in the ballpark of $299.99. Used is only $24.95 at this moment, so if that doesn’t bother you it’s probably worth it. Like the first Gig, this is on Netflix streaming, so there’s an instant alternative if you have the subscription.
4. Ghost in the Shell SAC: Solid State Society Limited Edition Steelbook, released by Manga. Yikes this one is also expensive, running at $37.98 Amazon price. I paid maybe $20 for it so maybe the tides will turn in time. As it stands though it’s not a terrible deal. Three discs, including the soundtrack, which is pretty good–From the Roof Top by Ilaria Graziano is awesome–but not the series’ best. Considering the Blu-Ray is ten dollars cheaper I’d probably go for that one. The Limited Edition Blu-Ray is so expensive that it isn’t even available. (laughs)
5. Ghost in the Shell, PS2 game. Yeah I bought this for some unreasonable amount of money for the PS3, a system that refuses to play it. I think it was like $3, which wouldn’t be so bad but I also bought one of the PS2 classics–Zone of the Enders 2–the same day, and it wouldn’t play either. Thanks, Sony. You’re a pal.
So that’s the list. Pretty expensive. But worth it. I guess there were also two books, but… damn it. I’ll get to those later.
Editing is the unsung hero of film. It’s also the unsung hero of selling film, and I figured to honor that fact by listing off what I feel are the most effective, manipulative, or just downright cool scifi trailers to come along. Sometimes it’s the music, the dialogue over certain images, the action editing, or maybe that it’s just a good movie, as in District 9‘s case–I love these trailers, and I love trailers in general. That’s half the reason why I go to see movies nowadays. Except, they had a trailer for something really weird in front of The Thing (not a movie I went to see for the trailers, just so we’re clear, that movie kicks ass), some teenage comedy…
D9 was considered to be a sleeper hit, and word-of-mouth plays a big part of that, which is a good thing. Movies should be rewarded on their standalone merits, rather than merely the merits of their marketing. Of course, this had pretty good marketing, too. I never saw any of the physical stuff, the signs and shit, but I also live nowhere, so never mind. I did however see the trailer, and I’m not one who goes on Apple.com and just sits there watching trailers (if I did, I’d be lost to the Internet in the lamest cyber-addiction yet), so when I did for this one I was skeptical at best. You better be good…
Boy-O, man. This trailer is good mostly because they had an excellent source to draw from. I bet that all the D9 trailers are good. What a great flick…
This one gives us a taste of the game’s requisite cyberpunk philosophical tendencies, and segues quick into a tour of the world complete with robot spiders and arms that turn into guns–draws us in, and we haven’t even seen a lick of gameplay. We won’t, and that’s fine because they had my money when they announced this damn game. That’s irrelevant. This trailer, and the Gears of War trailer and the one for Bioshock are analogous to the greater video-game industry’s push toward the big and the cinematic. The movie-like Uncharted 3 just came out and BLEW EVERYBODY’S FUCKING MINDS. I’ll never play it; Uncharted 2 wasn’t my speed, but I think this is a good and bad thing. Who knows if I’ll cook up an excuse here to talk about video-games further–time will tell.
For now, let’s say this. This trailer is really good stuff. Cheesy voice acting and somewhat histrionic lines, “the body will heal, but the mind is not so resilient,” works in tandem, and works quite well for some odd reason. I love the guy who’s like “They cannot stop us. They cannot stop the future.” Since when was “can’t” not good enough? Doesn’t matter–sounds cool.
Something about this one that I really dig. It echoes the romantic vision of space adventures (but with that modern spice) of the 2009 movie, and has the great sweeping camera moves and energy that make Star Trek stand out from every single one of its predecessors. In particular, I really like that shot of John Cho ready to fight, the way it flows with shots of other characters and you get that big music overlaying the whole thing (Freedom Fighters, by Two Steps from Hell) and dialogue from the gang and Romulan Villain Nero.
They played this exact trailer (there are other TV spots like it) during some football game, which my dad was watching on a big, projected screen. I just about wet myself when I saw this trailer, because I, like everyone else, wasn’t 100% sold on the first few trailers for Avatar. This showed a movie that’s exactly what I want to see: Aliens. Not only Aliens, but like, Mega-Aliens. The marines are all OOH-RAH and they’re shooting their future guns and riding their robot suits and it all looks so pretty and violent and all about the space military…
God bless and also screw you to the editor who compiled this. God bless because it’s a great 30-second piece of entertainment, but screw you because you sold me the wrong movie. I would’ve seen Avatar anyway, but this got my hopes up to levels totally unecessary. Somehow, in the context of the movie, the lines, “We got movement out there,” and all that aren’t as exciting.
The song, Tree of Life, I believe, is really awesome, very intense, and there’s no better movie to compliment it (aside from, you know, The Fountain) than Blade Runner. If only The Final Cut wasn’t a poop version of The Director’s Cut, this trailer would be perfect, but as it stands, we got all the Blade Runner trappings, snippets of classic dialogue like: More human than human is our motto, and I want more life sprinkly this ominous and foreboding little ad. They somehow made one of the boringest movies on record seem exciting, and for that, I give you five stars.
This was super easy to compile, I’ll do this again.
We’ve talked about the movie’s thematic structure, how Rick Deckard becomes a robot over the course of the movie, having started out not far removed, and how Roy Batty is humanized as he accelerates toward his engineered death. The only weak link in the narrative extends from this point – the tears in rain monologue was of course very telling of Roy Batty’s character as human, but it was meant to reflect on Rick Deckard as a replicant. One of the endings of Blade Runner (never filmed) was Deckard taking Rachel up north and shooting her in the back, which would have worked perfectly after the monologue scene, where our hero must embrace the robot he’s become.
Of course, what we have in the Director’s Cut, which in my opinion is the most best Cut (I hate that I even have to make the distinction) is the taste that lingers – ambiguity, as some see it. I see it as a clever bookend and a confirmation on what we’ve observed earlier, that Deckard is in some sense a replicant, and the preface to a truncated denoument.
Of course, had Blade Runner shown Deckard shooting Rachel, which we may or may not infer happens after the credits, it may have suffered Boyz N the Hood syndrome: we didn’t have to be shown (or told, rather blandly) that Doughboy dies young, it’s been implied internally in the narrative. Not only that, but it seems to be pounding the sadness of the South Central situation on to near excess. So maybe we don’t need to see the guy shoot the girl, because it is in some way implied – as an extension of Deckard as dehumanized robot – but I see too many pros over cons to the scene.
Running with this thematic thing, the hypothetical shooting of Rachel serves only the plot, a payoff to the various discussions of “No [I wouldn't come after you]. But somebody would,” but an actual displayed shooting of Rachel would have a grave tragedy to it because of the visceral nature of the act itself – its power lies in its existence, which sounds stupid, so in other words we need to see it in order for it to work. This is film, after all.
Rachel walks out into a clearing and Deckard is there behind her (I believe while snow is falling) mulling it over with that stoic and shadowed face, and then shoots her and walks off. He doesn’t like it, but he’s not human anymore, and this is the demonstration of that fact. That would solidify the themes whereas now what we’re sort of stuck with is endless ambiguity. Will Deckard and Rachel live a happy life together? (I guess that’s explored in the sequel novels – Blade Runner 2: The Edge of Human through Blade Runner 4: Eye and Talon) Is Deckard a replicant? Will Gaff ever find true love?
So basically Blade Runner‘s ending should be like what Jin-Roh has. Kill the girl, embrace the wolf.
It’s too bad she won’t live. But then again – who does?
For more on Blade Runner, check out the Blade Runner Directory
In this year 2011, over a decade after The Matrix hit theatres and I was but a boy, I never thought I could ever be such a thing as a Matrix apologist. Of course, the sequels were poorly recieved so I had to defend those, but the original Matrix is one of science-fiction film’s proudest moments – from what I understood of critical consensus. Why then do I find that people can be so critical of it when it’s – on the level that they criticize it for – essentially Star Wars, operating on the same principle of gracefully synthesizing old tropes. Where Star Wars had Kurosawa and Flash Gordon, The Matrix had Gibson and Ghost in the Shell. It also, and this is something that Star Wars most certainly did not have, had a year that was appropriately surrounded by a bevy of cyberpunk and existential movies. We had, from 1995 to 1999, Strange Days, Dark City, Johnny Mnemonic, eXistenZ, and The Thirteenth Floor, and as Christopher Nolan will tell us, Memento. I can agree with that, though it lacks cyber and it has no punk.
If one day The Matrix actually came into your office and ripped you off, just jacked all your belongings and was seen only on the security feed, you couldn’t say a goddamn thing – it’d be crying wolf, as a legion of creatives has already beat you to it. It’s a fundamental problem the Wachowski brothers had with their universe. It’s hugely popular as a franchise in terms of finance, akin to Star Wars but obviously not as galactic (*laughs*), but have you ever really heard of a Matrix fan? As a devout science-fiction nerd, this is indeed something I’ve turned over in my mind not once but a frequently many times before.
A Star Wars fan has a Boba Fett T-shirt, a Phantom Menace poster – because I don’t know he’s a hipster – a Chewbacca bobble-head, and a preorder for Star Wars: The Old Republic, or KOTOR III-VI, if marketing jargon has been effective. The fan has a lot of universe to pick from, it’s so expansive and conducive to fandom. Same with Star Trek and Doctor Who and Buffy, I guess, though they might just say “Whedonverse,” which might as well just be Buffy for various reasons*. The Matrix on the other hand has something of a flawed universe if we’re speaking to fan-friendly terms.
The heroes in The Matrix universe are actively working to undo the universe. As a result it sort of feels temporary, and personally that’s something that doesn’t jibe with me. It’s definitely one of those weirdnerd things, but out of all the sci-fi universes I’d want to live in – where the Sprawl universe or Mass Effect ties for the top – The Matrix would be down near Ghost in the Shell, which is at the bottom because you can get real fucked up in that world. Being in The Matrix would just be no fun, and it does reflect on the movies, which are all very, very serious.
Despite some flashes of humor, all three movies and the one anime anthology, take themselves very seriously, and tonally that doesn’t always click with people. Not to harp on Nolan again but that’s one of the reasons why I can’t say without qualification that I like his movies, where even the jokes in something like The Dark Knight feel like they’re taking themselves seriously. At the same time though The Matrix always works for me, even if all the parts in Zion that don’t involve sexy robot-on-robot action come off something like… The Chronicles of Riddick.
I’ve said this before but The Matrix is not only exemplary in modern filmmaking (indeed such a general term), I’d also consider it to be the second best science-fiction film ever made, above Star Wars and 2001 and all the others. It fills out exactly what movies of this type aspire to – being hugely entertaining and taking the time out to allow the audience to think about what’s going on. Not even Blade Runner does that because not everyone can find it as entertaining. That being said, The Matrix doesn’t quite operate on the same intellectual plane as Blade Runner, where it’s existentialist questions and themes were upstaged a year earlier with Dark City.
It’s just a damn good movie that talked about all the things people have been talking about for centuries – Allegory of the Cave but the difference here is that the Cave is the Net, which I suppose makes it stretch only as far back as certain episodes of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, but it never gets old and had two not-as-good sequels and a universe that nerds can’t get behind. Hmm.
*Well I didn’t want to get into it above because I thought it was just a funny throwaway joke but didn’t want to bog down the already needlessly joke-heavy post; a gamble, of course. But it occured to me as I typed the word “Buffy,” up there that Joss Whedon has Buffy, a huge series spanning like seven or twelve seasons or something, and then Angel, which is a spin-off and occupies the same universe, a little later on he had Firefly, which was so short it doesn’t count, and then Dollhouse which was about four times as long but nobody liked it.
The troubled production of Blade Runner and the various Cuts of the movie put out over the years by different parties gives credence to the idea that very few of its makers fully grasped exactly what the movie was about. Some argued that Deckard wasn’t a replicant, some preferred ambiguity. In one cut we see that Tyrell wasn’t killed, his replicant was, and he’s up on the top floor of the pyramid frozen like Walt Disney. How could this be? And how in the world does it turn out to be such a focused piece of literary science-fiction film? Perhaps there aren’t answers to such questions; the best we can do is look back on the masterful filmmaking and science-fiction storytelling that was at play back in ’82. This is a dark, intense, cerebral, and moving film, the very most important science-fiction movie ever made.
This is of course, only in my opinion, as most people believe movies like Metropolis, 2001, Star Wars, The Day the Earth Stood Still, maybe Solaris, or possibly Planet of the Apes to be the best SF movies of all time. Blade Runner usually comes in second or third – a good movie, but the best? I have this sometimes unique opinion because Ridley Scott’s finest hour fills out every requisite in my personal checklist of the standard of film.
Awhile ago I was going to publish a post akin to my ludicrous “To Ride a High Horse” post that was all about the “Standard of Film,” though it was more about how movies like Citizen Kane and Crank 2 are both great movies, but can’t be judged on the same plane. One has the aspirations to be a dramatic metaphor for America, and the other wants to be an adrenaline-pumped action masterpiece to rival HK cinema – they both succeed, but they’re different aspirations that appeal to different people: one happens to appeal to AFI. Anyhow, it’s not the time nor place for that – this new standard of film is something I concocted awhile ago and couldn’t find a new name for:
If a movie is going to succeed fully in my eyes it must be treated like a sudoku puzzle. Every element has to fit into place here, here, and here, lest it upset the balance and not work – if we do upset the balance with some superfluous element, some other filmmaker could take the movie and exchange the element for a better one. So every fabric of the movie should serve a higher purpose, and equally significant, the manner in which it’s stitched should be important and irreplaceable. Everything that happens in the movie must tie back to the thematic structure, and this is the foundation that the filmmakers will build off of with their own unique and personal ideas.
There are of course exceptions to this, like The Shawshank Redemption, those thematic framework isn’t necessarily the strongest, but it’s here to tell a damn good story, and it does, making it a truly great movie. Blade Runner on the other hand succeeds by being thematically dense – the paranoia, the questions of humanity and reality and morals, the film noir stylings, they’re everywhere in the images presented, in the dialogue, and embedded in deeper, subtler places.
What makes Blade Runner special is that the themes it addresses so meticulously are all fascinating and sometimes enlightening to me personally, and hopefully you too. Very phildickian, as one might imagine, despite it’s narrative departure from the beautifully titled Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? It’s a movie that steps back from humanity by pushing us forward thirty-seven years into a smog-choked future to examine and ask question like only sci-fi can. By using death as a motive for the villains, it creates dual arcs that dovetail into a powerful climactic scene between very changed characters, and in this journey’s end we as the audience are privy to the measure of dehumanization. We’re also allowed time to reflect on all the ideas brought up over the course of the story.
I’ll try to get into it more in depth later, but the idea that death motivates our villain is so brilliant on so many levels. Not only does it make Roy Batty sympathetic and not a one-note mustache-twirling “Give me one-billion dollars lest I blow up the world” fool, it demonstrates that the acceptance that all things fade in time like tears in rain makes us human, and Rick Deckard watches on, now a replicant in spirit but not in flesh…
What seems to be the problem?
For more on Blade Runner, check out The Blade Runner Directory
Here’s a title that will be referenced frequently in the coming weeks with the start of the Blade Runner post series proper; Philip K. Dick had a lot of interesting things to say about the one film based on his material produced during his lifetime. He also had a lot to say about The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, the final book, and The Owl in Daylight, those segments of which are fascinatingly maddening.
The editors Gwen Lee and Doris Elaine Sauter were good friends of Philip K. Dick, and Lee had taped several conversations with the man between January 10 and January 15, 1982, just months before his death. This book is a collection of those interviews, and we get insight not only on the various concerns of the writer, but the way he talks, which when translated on the page is cumbersome and near-scatterbrained. It’s clear by the things he says and the ideas he tackled (and was going to tackle with The Owl in Daylight) that he’s got a hell of a lot going on up there, and so truncated thoughts, contradictions and the like can be excused.
It is afterall, a fascinating read.
The title of the book, What If Our World Is Their Heaven? represents a bit of a tragedy, as it alludes to an idea Dick was working with for his new book, The Owl in Daylight. There’s a long segment where he and Gwen Lee are actually working out the premise behind the book, and it’s a compelling if dangerous method of pre-writing. He doesn’t start with narrative, he doesn’t start with the personal philosophy he’s written many of his stories under – it’s almost indescribable, and I don’t want to spoil it, if such a thing were possible.
Easily the most intriguing bit in the book was Philip K. Dick’s discussion of the connection he often has with his fictional characters, in particular Angel Archer, who he fell in love with. He claims that The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, the one non-science-fiction novel (the only ‘literary’ one, as he says) he wrote, nearly killed him, that it was the hardest and least rewarding book he wrote. Upon inquiry, he responds with, “I don’t have very much to show for it. I mean, I could have written five science-fiction novels.” He may believe that it was perhaps a wasted effort, augmented by the fact that he did fall sick during or after writing it, but something very important happened.
After he finished the book and had to part ways with it, he felt that he was losing someone – he realized that he was parting ways with the main character Angel Archer, a dark-haired girl that he had spent so much time with. As he says, the writing of Angel was an unprecedented event, as he had actually created a character who was better, smarter, and cooler than he. He found that he was writing about things that she knew of, and he had to research later to understand.
Sounds odd, but that’s only because it is. And that’s Philip K. Dick for you. None of the stories you’ll hear about him make sense, but it doesn’t matter if you believe it or not, because he did, and that’s what translated into some awesome fiction, and an extraordinary life, the latter of which is captured briefly here in this book.