Tag Archives: Apocalypse Now

Countdown to Beyond – Star Trek: Insurrection (1998)

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What does the ninth Star Trek movie have in common with Apocalypse Now?  Would you believe they were based on the same book?  Those of you who have read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness may be pained to recall any stretchy-faced aliens in it, but the concept of going up the river to find a long-lost colleague who has gone native is indeed what sparked the imaginations of producer Rick Berman and screenwriter Michael Piller as they bandied about concepts for what Captain Picard and company, triumphant in their victory over the Borg, could do next.  The dark tone, elements of horror and catastrophic stakes in the previous film had proven very successful, but no one on the production side, studio side or even the acting side wanted to explore down that alley any further.  (Piller, in his unpublished book Fade In, likens it to pitching.  No successful pitcher can get away with only throwing fastballs; sometimes you have to throw a curve.  Patrick Stewart, for his part, used a cricket analogy of a shot straight back at the bowler.)  Early discussions were geared more towards emulating the tone of The Voyage Home, which remained the shining pinnacle that every subsequent Star Trek movie had attempted and failed to reach.  Piller wanted to tap into Star Trek‘s optimism, and, inspired by the Rogaine he was spraying on his bald patch one morning, decided to do a Fountain of Youth story and blend it with Heart of Darkness – “Heart of Lightness,” as he called it.

In Piller’s initial treatment (called Star Trek: Stardust after the Hoagy Carmichael song) the movie would open with a flashback to a young Picard at Starfleet Academy with his libertarian best friend, Hugh Duffy, and then fade to thirty years later, where, in the midst of a galaxy-wide shortage of an important medical ore called “sarium krellide,” Duffy has gone rogue on an alien planet and begun attacking Romulan ships and colonies.  Picard is assigned to hunt him down through a treacherous area of space known as the Briar Patch, accompanied by a smarmy half-Romulan, half-Klingon named Joss who likes to leer at Troi and pick fights with Worf.  When Duffy/Kurtz is found, he looks as young as he did at the Academy, because the entire planet is made of this sarium krellide stuff and it turns out the Federation has made a deal with the Romulans to exploit the planet for its ore, displacing the natives that Duffy is trying to defend.  Picard and crew turn their backs on the Federation and help the natives repel the Romulans and kill Joss, at the cost of Duffy’s life, and in an epilogue Picard has a speech-off with a Vulcan admiral (whom Piller hoped could be played by Ian McKellen) about morality and so on, fade to credits.  Berman didn’t like the politics in the story and requested that Duffy be changed to Data to keep the drama within the established family.  He also worried that the de-aging story might be offensive to Patrick Stewart, as it was essentially telling him that he was an old man.  Piller’s rewrite eliminated the fountain of youth aspect and instead played up the aliens on the planet, a race of telepathic mutes without immune systems who are protected from illness by the much-needed sarium krellide.  This version was more warmly received by almost everyone… except the man who was going to have to say the lines.

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Patrick Stewart, named an associate producer on this movie in thanks for his work on First Contact, was uncomfortable with almost everything.  He did not want Picard in deep emotional turmoil for a third straight movie (this time about possibly having to kill Data), he thought the Romulans (and particularly Joss, as conceived) were uninteresting villains, he didn’t think there were any compelling guest roles to attract decent actors, he criticized the sarium krellide concept as asking the audience to get excited about a bunch of rocks, etcetera, etcetera.  Ironically, Stewart turned out to be tremendously excited about the dropped fountain of youth idea, and the actor laughed off any concerns as to how his age would be portrayed.  The Romulans and the widely panned character of Joss were replaced with a race of tremendously old aliens called the Son’i (ultimately changed to the Son’a to avoid sounding like Sony Pictures) and their leader Ru’afo (played by Academy Award winner F. Murray Abraham), the telepathic mutes were made plain humanoids called the Ba’ku, and the magic rocks became the more intangible “metaphasic radiation” present in the rings of the Ba’ku planet which would create a fountain of youth effect.  The plot would now revolve around a “Sorvino Switch” (a reference to a Next Generation episode, “Homeward,” where Worf’s foster brother played by Paul Sorvino tries to save a doomed alien culture by beaming them into a holographic recreation of their planet).  The Federation would be conspiring with the Son’a to forcibly relocate the Ba’ku in order to exploit the rejuvenating properties of the planet’s radiation.  Data would discover this and go rogue trying to protect the aliens, and Picard would disobey direct Starfleet orders to do the same.  With Jonathan Frakes back as director, and an increased budget of $60 million in place, the ninth Star Trek film was ready to go, even if no one could agree on a title yet.

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Fade in on a Vietnamese forest that explodes into flame as Jim Morrison sings “this is the end…”  sorry, no.  Wrong Heart of Darkness.  Fade in on a utopian lakeside village on the world of the Ba’ku, where the inhabitants are tending to their morning chores while a beautiful woman strolls about and children play in the fields.  The pastoral scene is being observed in secret by Starfleet in invisible isolation suits, managed from a “duck blind” concealed by holograms.  The Starfleet crew are being supervised by aliens we have never seen before:  the Son’a, beings with sagging skin stretched taut over aging faces.  A sudden explosion, and panic, as one of the crew begins attacking the others.  It’s Data (Brent Spiner), who rips off his invisibility suit and fires his weapon at the duck blind, exposing it for the frightened villagers to see.  In another sector of the galaxy, Captain Picard and the Enterprise crew, including Worf who has stopped by from Deep Space Nine, are hosting a reception when they receive a message from Vice Admiral Dougherty (Anthony Zerbe) aboard a Son’a ship in the middle of a turbulent area of space known as the Briar Patch, advising that Data has taken the planetary observation team hostage.  Picard decides to bring the Enterprise into the Briar Patch to see for himself.   Descending to the surface in a shuttle, he and Worf are attacked by Data in a scout ship.  Picard tries appealing to Data by engaging him in a singing round of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “A British Tar,” which distracts the android long enough for Worf to subdue him.  Picard then leads a “rescue mission” to the Ba’ku village, finding both the Starfleet personnel and their Son’a allies sitting down with the Ba’ku for a cordial dinner.  He is introduced to Sojef (Daniel Hugh Kelly), the friendly leader of the small settlement of 600, and the lovely Anij (Donna Murphy), who is suspicious of off-landers.  The Ba’ku are as technologically sophisticated as the Federation, but have chosen to eschew such advancement and live a simple agrarian life instead.  Admiral Dougherty is satisfied that there has been no violation of the Prime Directive, and is eager for the Enterprise to be on its way, even though he and the Son’a will be remaining – to tie up “loose ends,” as Dougherty puts it.

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As the Enterprise lingers in orbit around the Ba’ku planet, the crew start behaving oddly:  Worf gets zits and oversleeps, Riker and Troi flirt like teenagers and even Picard notices a spring in his step.  Geordi discovers that Data’s odd behavior was triggered when his program was reset to function on strict interpretations of right and wrong – by being shot by a Son’a weapon.  Data is returned to normal and he and Picard head back down to the surface.  Journeying to the last location Data remembers, and accompanied by Anij, they discover neutrino emissions coming from the middle of a lake, which turn out to reveal a cloaked ship.  Inside the ship is a holographic recreation of the Ba’ku village, the purpose of which seems to be to move the Ba’ku off the planet; they would go to sleep one night and be beamed into this holo-ship, then flown to another, similar planet and left there without ever knowing what had happened.  Picard does not understand why, and the camera lingers on Anij’s face just as they are attacked by Son’a soldiers.  Picard and Data overpower them, and Picard orders them taken into custody until he can speak with Dougherty and the Son’a leader Ru’afo, who are on their way back from the outer rim of the Briar Patch.

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A midnight walk with Anij reveals the reason why the Federation and the dying Son’a are so interested in this planet:  she and the other Ba’ku are centuries old.  They came to this world from the ruins of their warring civilization to establish a new life, and found that the metaphasic radiation from the planet’s rings slowed their aging and led them to develop tremendous mental acuity; Anij herself has the power to slow down time.  Picard is envious of the existence that the Ba’ku lead and suspects that someone is planning to take it away from them.  After watching Geordi witness a sunrise with restored eyes for the first time in his life, Picard confronts Ru’afo and Dougherty aboard the Enterprise and is informed of the truth:  the Son’a have developed a method to collect the metaphasic particles from the planet’s rings for individual medical use, but the process will render the planet itself uninhabitable.  The Ba’ku world is in Federation space, and so the Federation Council has authorized Dougherty to transport the Ba’ku off the planet aboard the holo-ship before collection begins.  Dougherty argues the revolution in medical science that metaphasics could bring, doubling lifespans and curing disease.  Picard says that forcibly relocating the Ba’ku will destroy their culture.  Dougherty says that they are only moving 600 people; Picard asks how many people it takes before it becomes wrong.  Dougherty shuts down the debate by ordering Picard and his ship out of the Briar Patch.  A chastened Picard returns to his quarters and removes the pips from his uniform, deciding to betray his government to save the Ba’ku.

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Picard leaves Riker and Geordi to take the Enterprise to the edge of the Briar Patch to call for help, while he and the rest of the crew descend to the surface aboard the captain’s yacht.  Figuring that the Son’a will not begin their procedure while the planet is still populated lest a public relations disaster result, Picard’s people set up transport inhibitors and lead an evacuation of the Ba’ku village.  With Dougherty’s consent, Ru’afo sends drones to tag the villagers with homing markers that will allow them to be beamed up, and orders two of his ships to stop the Enterprise before it can reach communications range with the outside.  A battle in space leaves the Enterprise without its warp drive, but some fancy maneuvering by Riker destroys one of the Son’a ships and leaves the other crippled.  On the Ba’ku world, Sojef is taken by the drones, leaving his young son Artim (Michael Welch), who fears technology, in the care of Data.  The Ba’ku are shepherded into caves where the mineral deposits will blind the Son’a sensors, but the Son’a begin dropping charges on the mountainside to force them out, and a resulting cave-in crushes Anij.  Picard helps her to use her time-slowing power to keep her alive until medical help arrives.  Anij is saved, but shortly afterwards she and Picard are tagged by drones and beamed aboard the Son’a ship.  There, Picard reveals the final twist to Dougherty and the assembled group:  the Ba’ku and the Son’a are the same race.  Sojef says that a century earlier, a group of Ba’ku youth eager to embrace technology again tried to take over the colony, and were exiled when they failed.  Those youth have become the decrepit Son’a.  Dougherty has been unwittingly helping the embittered Son’a take revenge on their forebears – in the name of the Federation.  Ru’afo decides to go ahead with collecting the metaphasic radiation even if there are still people on the planet, and murders Dougherty to keep him from telling anyone.

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Picard manages to sway Ru’afo’s second in command, Gallatin (Gregg Henry), who was once known as Gal’na when he lived among the Ba’ku and clearly has misgivings.  With the assistance of Gallatin, Data and Worf, Picard has Ru’afo and his crew beamed to the holo-ship and presents them an illusion of the collector activating and draining the metaphasic particles.  But the savvy Ru’afo realizes it is a trick, and figures out a way to escape the holo-ship and transport to the collector to restart the countdown for real.  Picard beams over as well and the two leaders battle it out with fists, with Picard quoting Danny Glover, saying “we’re getting too old for this.”  Ru’afo’s crew manages to recapture his ship’s bridge and take Worf and Gallatin prisoner, but the Enterprise returns from the edge of the Briar Patch and disables them.  Picard activates the collector’s self-destruct just in time for the Enterprise to beam him off and leave the mad Ru’afo to be consumed by the explosion.  The remaining Son’a surrender before their air supply gives out, and Riker advises that the Federation Council has called an indefinite halt to the Ba’ku relocation project.  On the surface, the aging Gal’na is reunited with his still-youthful mother and they share a tender, forgiving embrace.  Artim bids goodbye to his new friend Data, Picard promises Anij that he has nearly a year of shore leave he’d like to spend with her, and the Enterprise crew beams away to head home as Marlon Brando whispers “the horror, the horror…” – sorry, I did it again.  Bad reviewer.

Something has puzzled me ever since I first saw this movie in December of 1998:  why don’t I like it more?  It captures and reflects the optimism that makes Star Trek endearing, it has an intelligent script, it tells a fast-paced adventure story without racking up an enormous body count, it asks ever-timely and relevant questions about the needs of the many vs. the needs of the few, it has good performances, it has villains but not people being nasty just for nasty’s sake, it has a lot of sweet and funny and even touching moments, it has a Jerry Goldsmith score, and the gorgeous Donna Murphy steals breaths in every frame she’s in (and you get to see Marina Sirtis covered in soap bubbles, if that isn’t additional inducement!)  But for some reason the entire affair falls a bit flat.  I’ve wondered if it’s perhaps because there’s nothing here that is surprising, and it raises the question of whether surprises always require the risk of making people uncomfortable.  This movie, by contrast, was designed from the outset to be light-hearted and breezy, and anything that could have represented audience discomfort was snipped out.  (A scene was filmed where Riker and Troi went to the ship’s library to do research on the Son’a and were shushed by an elderly, glasses-wearing caricature of a librarian; deeming this possibly offensive to real librarians, director Frakes deleted it from the final cut.)

Making audiences uncomfortable doesn’t have to mean assaulting their senses and morals with blood and guts and sex and swears, but it does mean thwarting expectations by introducing irrevocable changes to the characters and the universe they inhabit, consequently leaving the audience actively guessing at what could possibly happen next.  This movie never does that.  It has the visual aesthetic and sweep of a major motion picture, but the play-it-safe mentality of an average TV episode.  When Picard, Data and Anij find the holo-ship and Picard describes the “Sorvino Switch,” we’re deflated because what is supposed to be a major plot twist turns out to be a retread of an episode we just saw a few years ago.  We don’t want the movies to recycle the TV plots; we expect better, more consequential events than that.  We’re paying to be here, after all.

Even the final title of Star Trek: Insurrection is a promise not kept.  I hear “insurrection” and I’m thinking wide-scale galactic rebellion among dozens of starships across hundreds of worlds, not just Picard and his crew disobeying the orders of one misguided Starfleet admiral – especially when there is never any legitimate doubt that Picard is in the right (wouldn’t it have been a more gripping  ethical dilemma if the audience were to question if the “insurrection” was valid?)  Part of the problem could be that, Donna Murphy’s beauty aside, the Ba’ku are not really that compelling an alien species to spin a story around.  We don’t always have to put Earth itself in jeopardy to have drama – witness Avatar – and we don’t even have to make the aliens eight-foot-tall and blue either, but they should have a little more meat to them than just coming off like a commune of well-manicured hippie California Democrats.  Call it a failure of worldbuilding, as my fantasy-writing friends will appreciate.  It’s unfortunate too that the Ba’ku were cast all white, which represents a deep valley in Star Trek‘s otherwise proud tradition of diversity, and I can’t find a logical reason as to why it was done that way.

Look, to echo Michael Piller’s baseball analogy, sometimes a curveball finds the strike zone, and sometimes, as Brett Cecil of the Blue Jays could tell you, the hitter smacks it over the left-field fence.  That doesn’t diminish the worth of the pitch, nor does it mean the curve won’t be more effective the next time you throw it.  Star Trek‘s curveball, Insurrection, isn’t a bad movie, but it never risks enough to potentially become a great one.  Yet you can’t bring yourself to hate it or its creators.  Everyone is trying very hard, and the effort is obvious.  But its greatest sin is in wanting so much to make us smile that it trips over its own good intentions.

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In summary:  This curveball, sadly, veers too far off the plate.

Next time:  The world gets its first major look at an up-and-coming actor named Tom Hardy.  Pity it’s in one of the worst Star Trek movies ever made.

Final (Arbitrary, Meaningless) Rating:  2 out of 4 stars.

Deckard’s Not a Replicant: Blade Runner revisited

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I haven’t watched or even thought about Blade Runner in a good while.  The other day on the tweet-o-machine, my old friend Tadd reminded me of it by pointing me in the direction of an essay on the timeless, Ridley Scott-directed 1982 sci-fi classic, which dared to tackle the question of whether or not its lead character, grizzled replicant-hunter Deckard (Harrison Ford) was in fact one of the very same androids dreaming of electric unicorns it was his duty to gun down on sight – a debate that has raged among fandom for thirty-two years, with contradictions as to the answer offered depending on which of the movie’s creative partners you ask.  (The director says yes, absolutely, that was always the intention; the star says no, that’s not what I agreed to.)  Anyway, if you haven’t the time to peruse the linked entry, the thesis presented therein is that not only is Deckard a replicant, but he carries the memories of the enigmatic Gaff (Edward James Olmos), his flashily-dressed, patois-riffing colleague who has a penchant for creating origami out of random bits of trash that display a preternatural insight into the mindset of our hero.  Brian, another good pal from the old hood, ruminated over this for a few days and offered his own persuasive rebuttal, arguing that Deckard might indeed be a replicant but that he’s merely an artificial reincarnation of the original human Deckard, Gaff’s dead partner.  Admittedly, I’ve always leaned toward the notion that Deckard is as constructed as the beings he’s chasing, but in the course of a single series of tweets, I’ve had something of a revelation on the subject.  And it’s not just born of my fascination with contradictions, or a hipster-esque need to go against the grain.  But I’m satisfied now that Deckard is as human as Gaff, Bryant, Holden, Tyrell, J.F. Sebastian and the old sushi master from the beginning of the movie – and that to insist otherwise is to rob Blade Runner of much of what it is trying to say about humanity, and about the nature of the soul.

A lot of the evidence for the Deckard-as-replicant theory is drawn from the Paul is Dead school, where coincidence and editing errors on the part of the filmmakers are selectively interpreted by the audience towards a predetermined conclusion – notes such as the number of replicants mentioned by Captain Bryant not adding up, the peculiar glow in Harrison Ford’s eyes in one shot matching that of the replicants and so forth.  The idea that Gaff’s memories are informing Deckard’s actions fits very neatly into this conceit.  However, Gaff is not the first character to exist within the world of a narrative and possess an omniscient awareness of what is going on within the mind of the protagonist.  For a more recent example, look at Sam Elliott’s Stranger in The Big Lebowski:  a character within the film who is impossibly aware of events in which he does not take part.  Gaff, it can be argued, fills the Stranger’s role in Blade Runner.  (The owner of the all-seeing eye glimpsed in the opening sequence is never revealed, but interestingly, it is the same ice blue as Gaff’s – ponder that for a moment.)  Granted, his “insights,” at least at first, are not terribly revealing – the chicken origami reflecting Deckard’s reluctance to take on the job, the erect matchstick man keying in on Deckard’s growing feelings for Rachael.  But then, Deckard is not exactly living a life that is immune to prediction and analysis, either.

In examining the nature of the soul, Blade Runner questions whether the humans, who are born with souls, are truly deserving of them, while presenting us with artificial beings who want nothing more than to possess this most uniquely human trait.  The humans of Los Angeles, November 2019, are living essentially soulless lives, having carpeted their planet in concrete and steel and even driven the sun from the sky, shuffling about as both rain and advertising pelt down on them in a constant, depressing drizzle.  Compassion and empathy are as extinct as animals here (otherwise the penalty for finding a replicant on earth wouldn’t be death without due process).  Until summoned by Gaff, Deckard meanders through the world, eating in public yet shunning company, getting drunk alone each night in an apartment full of relics of a past, more fulfilling life.  His actions, then, those supposedly illuminated by Gaff’s origami, aren’t programmed memories – they’re merely predictable responses from a man irrevocably plugged into the system, a system that Gaff, like any good omniscient narrator, can recognize even if the rest of the characters in the movie can’t.  Although, Captain Bryant seems to at least understand his role as well, with his line about Deckard’s option to go back to work for that same system or be crushed under it (“if you’re not cop, you’re little people.”)  In this context, Deckard is indeed subject to a kind of programming, yet the ASCII of his soul is written in the slouching language of age, circumstance and apathy, instead of ones and zeroes (or the GCAT of genetic design, as befits the Nexus 6).  Ironic that the test the humans have devised to detect replicants, the infamous Voight-Kampff, works by stimulating emotions, when those administering it seem to have none themselves.

Though lost in the decayed urban hellscape, Deckard still finds idle moments to dream of something better, something elusive, something magical to break him from the drudgery.  His unicorn, literally.  In Blade Runner‘s Los Angeles, that something seems utterly unobtainable, hence the use of a unicorn to symbolize what Deckard craves is apt.  We are led to understand then that Deckard’s unicorn manifests itself in the shape of Rachael.  She is introduced in film noir tones, in the shape of a femme fatale:  dark hair, long red nails, wreathed in cigarette smoke; enticing, untouchable.  Her manner, however, is as far from Double Indemnity Barbara Stanwyck as Rick Deckard is from Han Solo.  Rachael is innocent, scared, trying to cope with the revelation that everything she thought about herself was a lie, that the soul she thought she possessed was the invention of her boss, her memories those of his niece, implanted to provide a cushion for her emotions.  Yet she does feel, moreso than any other character in the movie.  Her challenge to Deckard, when she asks him if he’s ever taken the Voight-Kampff test himself, is less an insinuation that he’s a replicant than it is a plain statement that for someone lucky enough to be born human, he certainly doesn’t choose to act like one.  Contrasted with Deckard, Rachael is, indeed, as per the Tyrell Corporation’s motto, “more human than human.”  The uncomfortable scene where she and Deckard kiss for the first time is less Deckard trying to evoke emotions in an artificial being than it is him trying to stimulate the dormant soul within himself – making himself feel something, the way he’s supposed to, latching on to the tiny flame she’s managed to stir inside him and blow gas on it.  The evolution of the relationship between Deckard and Rachael, his learning to develop compassion for someone considered “lesser” by the system that controls his life, is meaningless if he is also a replicant, if fundamentally it’s just two robots trying to figure out how to mash circuits together.

Of course, theirs is not the only human/replicant relationship in the movie:  Blade Runner‘s ultimate expression of the emotional capacity of the creator versus the created comes in the often less than subtle Christ allegory present in the character of replicant leader Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), the ostensible villain of the piece.  With his time about to expire, Batty risks the return to earth to find his designer/deity, Dr. Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel, poised at the top of the world’s tallest building and dressed all in flowing white robes, naturally) and ask for an extension to his four-year lifespan.  There’s a line spoken by Spock in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (released three years earlier) that well encapsulates the Batty-Tyrell dynamic:  “Each of us, at some point in his life, turns to someone – a father, a brother, a god, and asks, ‘is this all that I am, is there nothing more?'”  Batty isn’t really looking for more time in terms of minutes and hours, he’s searching for a vindication of his existence.  In the words that ultimately doom the “god of cybernetics,” all Tyrell can offer his prodigal son is the bromide that the candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long, “and you have burned so very brightly, Roy.”  Roy then betrays himself with a kiss and crushes his father’s head in his hands.  As he descends from the top floor of the Tyrell Corporation, back to the decayed cityscape (a literal descent into Hell, one might say), the psychotic look on Batty’s face suggests that without the resolution he wanted, he has accepted the system’s role for him as the villain.  You made me to be a soulless monster, I will now become that nightmare.  I will show you all.

Which leads to his first and final encounter with Deckard – if one will permit drawing from Apocalypse Now, yet another film released three years prior (and one featuring Harrison Ford, no less) – an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks, to collect a bill.  To Batty, Deckard is dirt beneath his shoe, a nuisance to be disposed of, not to mention the man responsible for the death of two of his replicant friends.  Batty owes him nothing but an unpleasant death.  But on that rainy rooftop, as his life-clock dwindles to its final ticks, Batty makes a choice to become more than the limits of his design, of his programming.  He sees, ultimately, in Deckard, something to which he can relate – the feeling of being trapped, being a slave to a system he had no hand in creating.  From that seed springs compassion, and, with nail through palm, Batty saves Deckard’s life, finally achieving what he most desired – a soul – by creating it himself.  Becoming more than the sum of his programming, exceeding the flaws of the designers who assembled him in a lab, demonstrating to the man in front of him that he is, finally, more human than human.  And then, in one of the most beautiful, heart-rending scenes in all of cinema, delivering his own eulogy.  Speaking about the incredible things he has seen, showing Deckard what is possible given the wondrous gift of life, and giving Deckard a chance to make the most of his own, with the life Batty has returned to him by pulling him off that ledge.  “Time to die” – for the sins of humanity.  And as the dove in his palm flies free, so does Roy Batty’s new soul, at peace now.  Deckard, the Roman centurion, can merely marvel at what is transpiring before him.  If he’s just another replicant, as so many want to believe, then the impact of Batty’s sacrifice is blunted.  It becomes in effect merely a rah-rah moment for robots, rather than the transcendent, evolutionary note it needs to be.

Gaff’s return and the film’s final five minutes are where one has to make the decision on whether to accept the idea of Deckard as replicant.  Gaff says “You’ve done a man’s job, sir.  I guess you’re through, huh?”  He answers Deckard’s response with his lingering parting thought, echoed just before the credits roll, as Deckard contemplates the tinfoil origami unicorn:  “It’s too bad she won’t live; then again who does?”  At this point, Deckard’s sins have been cleansed, and he has been given the opportunity to break free of the system and begin a new life with Rachael, one that will be rich and fulfilling, and in the film’s most potent irony, it is the artificial beings that have shown the human being how.  When the preternaturally aware Gaff says “I guess you’re through,” what he means is, I know I’m stuck here, and I’m okay with that, but you’ve found your way out – good on you, pal.  The origami unicorn is the reminder – you’ve found something rare and precious, now don’t cock it up.  Don’t waste your second chance.  Burn brightly.  Live.  Follow Batty’s example and create your own soul, grow beyond the limits of who you think you are and what you think it is your fate to be.  That’s much more powerful and impactful a message than a literal indication that we know what you’re dreaming about because you were assembled in a lab and you have someone else’s memories.  Deckard in this moment is Everyman – us – and we need a human being with which to identify, so we too may take up that torch.

I hardly expect, in meandering about here today, that this will be the final word on the Deckard-as-replicant debate.  In struggling to bring this piece to a conclusion I realize I could probably go on until the word count stretched into the 100K range, so deep are Blade Runner‘s facets, how it too overcame its genesis as a sci-fi action movie about Harrison Ford hunting robots to become an endlessly rich, meditative statement on the nature of what it means to be human.  And in order for that to work as intended, Deckard has to have been human all along, merely enslaved by a different form of self-imposed programming.  That contrast, human versus artificial programming, and the capacity to grow beyond it, is the heart of Blade Runner‘s moral debate.  A debate needs both sides.  Make Deckard a replicant and you’ve lost the distinction, you’ve diminished the meaning, you’ve made the extraordinary a bit more ordinary for the sake of feeling clever for having discovered something that wasn’t necessarily there to begin with.

So, in summation:  Deckard’s human, Batty is Christ, Tyrell is God, Rachael is more Disney’s Ariel than Rita Hayworth’s Gilda, Gaff is the Stranger from Lebowski with a different hat, the unicorn dream is a longing for magic in a world cleansed of any semblance of it, and the comments are open as always awaiting your polite dissent.  I’ll be over here in my spinner, ruminating on what to do with my next four years.

The lasting lesson of The West Wing

The first time I saw The West Wing, I was in bed with a bad cold over the Christmas holidays.  Bravo was running a third-season marathon and while I’d never paid much attention to the show before, for whatever reason (sluggish, cold med-induced trance perhaps) my finger slipped off the remote as Josh and Donna bantered along through the hallways.  It wasn’t two minutes before I was hooked – I had never seen television characters interact like this before, bantering back and forth with sparkling, witty repartee that actually rewarded you for keeping your brain engaged while you were watching (as opposed to almost pleading that you turn it off).  After spending the subsequent seven years evolving into whatever the Trekkie-equivalent of a West Wing fan is (Wingnut?  Westie?) I look back on the role it played at a transitional time of my life in helping to shape my worldview – already pretty liberal, I was still missing a critical element of the equation.  I could never really say why I was a liberal, I just felt more at home in the liberal tent, and progressively disinclined at a gut level towards anything remotely conservative.  The West Wing crystallized it for me.

The missing ingredient was the power of people – that famous quotation attributed to Margaret Mead that cautions us to never doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world, as it is the only thing that ever has.  One of the challenges to anyone’s governing philosophy is deciding which side of that famous dichotomy you sit on – the nature of mankind, whether he is by nature basically good, or basically evil.  Whether altruism and compassion are our natural state, or if we’re all fundamentally John Galts out for number one alone.  You can find plenty of arguments for and against in the animal kingdom, whether it’s in watching a pride of lions leaving their weakest members behind to the hyenas, or in seeing a herd of elephants gather to bury and mourn their dead.  Yet those same lions will tend lovingly to their cubs, and those same elephants will battle each other with their mighty tusks to win the favour of the most comely pachyderm.  As human beings we are poised so delicately on the razor edge of that question, crawling along it like the snail Colonel Kurtz rambles about in Apocalypse Now (even he calls it both his dream and his nightmare).  We want so much to be the good man that we fight ceaselessly from slipping over the other side.  When there are a lot of us gathered together in that fight, we can do some pretty damned incredible things.

In Canada, the CTS network is showing West Wing reruns nightly.  CTS is including segments in each act break called “West Wing Attaché,” where a right-leaning media personality provides “balance” (I suppose that’s what they call it, he sniffed derisively) to the ideas the episode is putting forward.  The comments offered thus far have been predictably insipid.  There has been a question asked many times in many Internet forums over the years as to why there was never a show about the Presidency produced from a Republican or more general right-wing perspective.  The answer to that one is easy – because conservatives at heart do not believe in government.  To them it’s a nuisance that gets in the way of people making money and living their lives.  It is impossible to have a workplace drama where the characters in that workplace don’t believe in what they’re doing, and more to the point, are seeking to dismantle the very structure that provides them employment.  Would ER work if the doctors were always looking for a way to reduce services and ultimately close down the hospital?  Would Star Trek work if Captain Kirk thought the Enterprise was a bloated waste of tax dollars and his five-year mission better handled by private contractors?  Closer to home, you probably know at least one guy in your office who hates being there and bitches constantly about how the whole organization is a joke.  How much time do you enjoy spending around that dude?  (As an aside, this is why I always laugh – and cry a bit – watching conservatives campaign for office, as they claim government is terrible and evil and horrible and ghastly but they want to be in it anyway.  I’d like to try this approach the next time I interview for a job:  “Well, I feel that your company should be reduced in size and finally dismantled because it is a grotesque blight on the cause of personal freedom.  Hire me please.”  The crying is for how often this pitch works at election time.)  CTS doesn’t mind the ad revenue they’re earning from airing West Wing, obviously, but I guess they feel they have to stay true to their viewer base by ensuring that not one of them starts to think seriously about the “heretical” ideas it offers up.  I will wait patiently for the day they offer similar “balance” by giving a liberal atheist a few minutes of airtime during 100 Huntley Street, and in the meantime, thank goodness for the mute button.

The West Wing characters believed in the capacity of government, whatever its flaws, to be a place where good things can be done to help people in need.  Their reward for advancing this philosophy was not wealth, fame or even a healthy family life – it had to be in the knowledge that they had done their jobs well, even if no one else knew it.  As a guiding philosophy for our brief shuffle across this mortal coil, not bad.  Not the selfish whine of the Ayn Rand devotee looking to cast adrift those who have a harder time of it while they gobble up exponentially more than their share.  Not the bottom-line focus of the corporation who cares about people only so long as you keep buying stuff from them.  Instead, fighting to do good for good’s sake – and while they’re at it, pausing to enjoy the fight itself (Josh Lyman’s telling a right-wing Senator to shove a Stone Age legislative agenda up his ass still resonates, as does President Bartlet’s utter demolition of his Bush-clone opponent in their debate with “Can we have it back, please?”)

Warren Kinsella talked about how the staff in former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff’s office was obsessed with The West Wing and how it proved to him that they were headed for a massive electoral wipeout.  People in politics, Kinsella argues, are never that smart.  Indeed, in some of The West Wing’s more idealistic (and unrealistic, if we’re being fair) moments it counts on the wisdom of the American people to make the correct choice, and again, this is the same country that elected George W. Bush and at this point in 2008 was ready to put Sarah Palin within one John McCain heart attack of the presidency.  Yet it’s not fair to write The West Wing off as an unattainable liberal fantasy.  Perhaps it’s a long game, something to always strive for, with the recognition that you’ll probably never get there – which doesn’t mean that it isn’t still important to try.  It’s ironic that it’s the other side that usually goes on about the importance of belief in those who seek to enter public life, because for a liberal, the pursuit of the greatness a country can attain when the best people lead its government is a true journey of political faith.  You could see faith on The West Wing in every episode, even when the characters were beaten down by political realities and implacable foes.  Communicating that faith to non-believers is the challenge real-life liberals continue to face.  The other side is usually better funded and better at getting its message out, because the other way is just easier – appealing to cynicism and greed and pitting us against them.  No one ever went broke riling ordinary folks up against invisible enemies.  But as I said in a previous post, faith unchallenged is no faith at all, and the path of faith leads to a more lasting reward.  In this case it’s the promise of a better place to live.

Is that the lasting lesson of The West Wing?  Well, it is for this Wingnut.