The Book Was Better (or was it): Android vs Blade Runner

In a slight twist on proceedings, I’m not only asking whether Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep was better, but comparing it to two films at once. Which is a tall order and gives me lots to talk about. Or may just be a thinly veiled excuse to talk about Blade Runner 2049.

…yeah, it may just be that.

I reviewed Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep earlier this year, finding it fascinating for PKD’s prescience and irritating for its smug classic SF sexism.

It should surprise nobody that Ridley Scott didn’t fix this (and I say this in spite of Ellen Ripley. She’s an outlier in the pantheon of supposedly strong female characters Scott has given us).
On the other hand, Scott did give us a film so noir-soaked, so slow and so tortuous (dare I say self-indulgent?) the studio didn’t know what to do with it. Which gives us my next problem: which version of Blade Runner do you go with?

Ironically, I’m not sure it matters. Much of PKD’s material ended up on the cutting room floor regardless, with only the core characters, Deckard’s mission (find the replicants) and the noir-ish, despairing mood persisting. Voice-over or no, the film doesn’t actually reproduce Deckard’s inner monologues or his sad, almost Arthur Miller-esque obsession with owning a live pet to enhance his social status (…and if it did, we’d probably despise him for it).

What Scott did with those basic ingredients, however, is masterful. PKD’s vision is pretty bleak; Scott presents it in rain-soaked darkness and illuminates it in lurid neon lights. He captures Deckard’s isolation whilst cutting some of his less pleasant character traits (along with his failing marriage).

He also captures PKD’s replicants – dangerously incapable of empathy, but oddly vulnerable – and lends them a nobility they lacked in the text. Or maybe that’s just what you get when you let Rutger Hauer off the leash.

Unfortunately, he kept intact the sexualisation of the female characters. While there’s no Resch to suggest that you should sleep with replicants before you kill them, the rather arbitrary relationship with Rachel goes from a femme fatale seducing Deckard to something that feels non-consensual, which leaves me much more uncomfortable. Worse, Scott’s vision of the future shows women only as replicants, strippers and sex workers.

Needless to say, while I appreciate the visuals of Blade Runner, I don’t much like it as a film. I’m not even sure it captures Android’s central question: whether humans are as incapable of empathy as replicants – although I’m sort of glad it cut PKD’s weird technologically-enabled empathetic religious experiences.

…which is where 2049 comes in. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got issues with this too, but I do think it embraces PKD’s central theme with panache. It also successfully shifts our sympathies in a way that Roy Batty and co never could; whilst still showing how inhuman the replicants are. Like Blade Runner, it’s visually stunning, taking the motifs of Scott’s film and enhancing them with all the style modern cameras and CGI can impart.

Denis Villeneuve (whose previous film was the stunning Arrival) is rapidly becoming one of my favourite directors for his ability to make films that take excruciatingly beautiful cinematography (the veteran Roger Deakins behind the camera here) and blend it with rich emotional nuance, wringing out every last feeling in each close-up.

And – brace yourselves – we get interesting female characters. Several of them. Now, let me qualify my praise here, because my biggest issue with 2049 is its treatment of its female characters, but I still think it’s worlds ahead of its predecessors. Damning with faint praise? Maybe. But Villeneuve has made a film I can forgive for its faults, even while I refuse to accept that any homage to Blade Runner has to adopt the casual sexploitation of its women.

Cases in point: we don’t need to see Jared Leto knife a naked woman to know he’s a ruthless asshole. Yes, I’d argue this scene is actually about Luv’s response, not Wallace’s actions, but the point remains. Nor do we need skyscraper high adverts of naked sexy virtual girlfriends. A future where Advertising Standards says that’s okay is hopelessly misogynistic even by the fucked up standards of 2017.

I’m willing to accept sexy virtual girlfriends. I can see that being a thing, and I like that Joi appears to exceed her programming and exhibits both empathy and free will. I don’t even mind the scene where K loses his virginity. But I don’t like Joi’s over-arching role in the narrative, which is to be insubstantial and wringing her hands in the background while stuff happens to K. And I definitely don’t like that SPOILER ALERT (mouse over) she’s ultimately fridged, her loss just another way of showing a.m. is capable of emotion (…we’d already seen this. Seriously).

In spite of these issues, 2049 is the first story in this universe that I’ve wanted to see again. And maybe the stunning cinematography and the combination of Gosling and Wright was always going to swing it for me (not to mention Luv, who separates her regrets from the Terminator relentlessness of her duties). But it’s easily my favourite of these tales.

PKD wasn’t exactly ambiguous: he focused on human (lack of) empathy; Scott focused on whether Deckard was a replicant (arguably missing the point); Villeneuve focuses on replicants’ capacity for empathy. And it’s all the better a story for it.

I know, I know. I’m sentimental. I’m fine with that.

And if I champion Francis Lawrence’s interpretation of I Am Legend when it had practically nothing to do with Matheson’s book, I reckon I can come down on the side of 2049. After all, at least it answers the question PKD posed.

Yes, yes of course they dream of electric sheep. They dream, at least, and who are we to judge whether being electric makes them or their dreams less worthy?