Friday, December 29, 2017

Kafka with Robots

Humanoid android stories belong in the same category as those about vampires and zombies - they examine alternative ways of being in such a way that to a greater or lesser extent throws some light on pressing human existential questions. 

All of these presences reside in what Japanese robotics professor Masahiro Mori called bukimi no tani, the uncanny valley. (Sean Young’s appearance in Blade Runner 2049 is textbook in this respect!) 

For Phillip K Dick existential questions were always asked with a wide-eyed paranoid gaze. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, described on the jacket of my 1981 copy as ‘Kafka with robots’ features ‘andys’ posing as Soviet agents, and parallel police stations in different parts of town (SF, not LA, perhaps more appropriately) each with its own captain, principal bounty hunter and methodology for tripping up embedded ‘carbons’...yet only one of these can be real

There are also quite a few electric sheep and other synthetic animals, as the biological kind have become scarce on planet Earth and keeping and caring for the needs of an animal is regarded as a sign of empathy, an apparently very human quality around which this society has built an entire religious outlook. 

This being a Phillip K. Dick story it almost goes without saying that profound epistemological unease is never far below the surface and the suggestion that everyone’s memories might be falsely-implanted hangs in the air, so to speak. 

I hope I’m giving a sense of just how much of the novel’s complexity was flushed away by Ridley Scott when he adapted it. Yet that movie is rightly considered a sci-fi classic, in the main because of the original manner in which a partially-apocalyptic future was imagined then realised on celluloid. And also because of a famous valedictory speech at the end ad-libbed by Rutger Hauer. 

And partial apocalypses are a sub-genre that I have a particular enthusiasm for - scenarios containing elements of both utopia and dystopia. In this instance the precise nature of the blend is one of the key questions being posed.

Although only credited as an executive producer, the script for the sequel has the hand of Sir Ridley all over it. As we’ve seen in his ‘development’ of the Alien franchise, the director has some signature concerns about synthetic consciousness that are perhaps not quite as fascinating or philosophically-profound as he surely must imagine they are. He has tended to use the intelligent androids’ own existential jitters to drive his narratives, rather than evoking human concerns about these technological imitations. 

The baton has nevertheless been formally picked this year up by Denis Villeneueve, and even though more than 35 years have elapsed since the original Blade Runner, the Canadian director has given himself permission not to have to re-state that much of the fundamental back-story.  I guess I’m fine with that, but along the way, he went soft on the basic ground-rules, and as with any zombie or vampire franchise, the ground rules are also very important for worlds with robots. 

The three elemental givens that Scott inherited from Dick are as follows:
  • Replicants are manufactured for use off-world (only) as servants for the colonists
  • They have a very limited lifespan compared to humans
  • They appear to be missing one very significant part of the standard human psychological make-up. 
None of these is consistently upheld in Blade Runner 2049 and, as a consequence, it doesn’t really hold up either as a faithful sequel or as a convincing stand-alone premise. 

Here the quest undertaken by the central protagonist is nuanced and ultimately engaging, perhaps less Noirish than Deckard's, but the various antagonists are comparatively under-developed in terms of their motivations. Robin Wright for instance stands in for an entire ‘human’ interest for roughly half the length of the movie and then is rather wastefully thrown away. 

Somewhat optimistically, Villeneuve left enough of these cardboard cut-outs still standing to support further iterations in the future. 

Yes, it's beautiful to look at, and Roger Deakins may finally get his Oscar. But it is cursed with being inconstant with not one, but two 'sacred' texts. These things are always a bit of a hospital pass. I remember how many critics deplored the 'ridiculous' ending of Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes, yet this is precisely how the Pierre Boule novel concluded. And we all know what happened when Stephen King tried to make his own authentic version of The Shining

Denis Villeneuve has some previous with sources. He quite successfully added his own symbolic whimsy to José Saramago's The Double in Enemy, but he also notably flattened out the heavyweight scientific and philosophical ideas in Ted Chiang's Story of Your Life, which arrived on screens as Arrival

One more thing. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? I found myself wondering some of the time why the andys lacked a factory marker such as blue toe-nails that would make them easier to spot. But then I realised that the author was literally dicking with the suspicion that ultimately there can be no way to tell the difference and that the whole empathy-based worldview might be delusional. 

Nevertheless, Nexus-6 Pris tells the human ‘special’ Isidore that the Chablis he has provided is ‘wasted on her’. So, instead of all that cumbersome Voight-Kamff testing apparatus, a bottle of New World Chardonnay might actually have done the trick...

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