Tag Archives: science fiction

A Rey of Sunshine

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Be forewarned.  Star Wars spoilers ahead.

Again, in all caps, just so you’re clear.  MAJOR STAR WARS SPOILERS INSIDE.  ABANDON ALL HOPE OF REMAINING UNSPOILT, YE WHO VENTURE PAST THIS POINT.

One more time for those just joining us.  THIS POST WILL CONTAIN STAR WARS SPOILERS.

*hold music hums while you decide*

We all good?  Okay.  By reading on, you hereby agree to hold the author of this site harmless for any potential Star Wars-ruining experience that may occur, in perpetuity until the heat death of the universe.

I saw The Force Awakens yesterday afternoon.  When you hit your fifth decade of life, and you’ve seen so many movies in those forty years that the tropes and cliches of cinematic storytelling have embedded themselves in your neural pathways to the point where your response to them becomes almost Pavlovian, you tend to approach any new theatrical venture, particularly one that has been so excessively hyped, with an unavoidable sense of cynicism.  Here we are now, you say warily, paraphrasing Kurt Cobain, entertain us.  And how often do you walk away feeling satisfied, or surprised?  Rather infrequently, I have to admit.  I enjoy the movies for what they are, but I always see the seams at the edges.  And I went into The Force Awakens with a healthy distrust of its director, J.J. Abrams, a man whose storytelling style relies primarily on frustratingly circular references to the movies he grew up watching, rather than any particular unique vision.

J.J., you sly, sly dog you.

Granted, one does not walk into the seventh installment of a 40-year-old movie franchise expecting mind-blowing originality (I certainly don’t expect it from Bond, my other great cinema love).  I did receive the anticipated reprises of old favorite characters and the homages and tributes to everything that has made the world love Star Wars all these years.  But what I also got, and what made me walk out of the theater with a broad, dumb smile on my face, was something that I’d been longing to see realized on screen for ages, and finding it in a Star Wars movie of all places was like the surprise toy inside the chocolate egg.  I knew too, that as happy as I was to discover this, there were millions of girls and women to whom it would mean so much more.  I’m happy for them most of all.

To wit:  the absolutely compelling character of Rey, played by English actress Daisy Ridley, is the center of the movie.  The “awakening” referred to in the title is hers.  She is brave, skilled, resourceful, determined, and over the course of the story, as her connection to the Force deepens, grows immensely powerful.  She has a past that is not spelled out for us but rather left as a tantalizing mystery.  She is no one’s love interest, and is not defined by her relationships with or unrequited longings for any particular man.  And she kicks tremendous ass, whether it’s outrunning TIE Fighters in a rusty old Millennium Falcon or confronting and defeating Dark Side villain Kylo Ren and saving Finn, the male character whom the movie’s poster and trailers would have you presume is the new Jedi of this trilogy.  (Abrams’ controversial “mystery box” promotion style has worked very well here, which is why again, I hope you’ve already seen the movie as you’re reading this.)  And Rey achieves all of these things without descending into sassy or sexualized caricature, or a neon sign flashing above her head reading “LOOK AT THIS AUDACIOUS, ENLIGHTENED STATEMENT OF FEMINISM WE MALE FILMMAKERS ARE MAKING.”

Rey just is who she is, and frankly, it’s glorious.

I’ve always found the term “empowered women” a bit troubling, as it suggests that women on their own are somehow without power.  Rather, it is better to say that a woman is powerful by her very nature as a woman.  Goes with the territory, folks.  And yet in science fiction and fantasy this is too often the exception and not the rule.  Looking back, there has never really been a good reason why in genre movies, women have not been able to take the forefront of the story, other than the increasingly outdated notion that the young boys who make up the presumed primary target demographic for this genre somehow won’t be interested in seeing girls buckle their swash, or that somehow casting a female lead means you have to turn the story into a pedestrian rom-com with true love as the object of the quest.

Instead, women are usually relegated to the secondary roles of eye candy, love interests or over-the-top man-hating villainesses, their characterizations as sketchy as the anatomically impossible poses in which they are often rendered in comic books.  Why have we had eighteen Marvel movies without a female lead?  Your guess is as good as mine, but it seems to stem largely from writers, producers and directors (and executives) unable to arrive at what feels like, in the light of The Force Awakens, should be a very obvious conclusion:  that women with power and agency won’t, in fact, scare men away from fantasy and science fiction movies.  They belong there, as much as the boys do, and audiences will thank you for it.  And yes, the dudes will love these characters too.

Thankfully, there have been huge exceptions of late that may be at last, softening this attitude.  Frozen was a story in the fantasy genre about the bond between two sisters (one with tremendous magical powers), with male characters shunted to the background, and it only became the highest-grossing animated movie of all time.  As I write this The Force Awakens has already become the fastest movie to hit $300 million at the box office, and I’ll wager here and now that it will eventually blast past Avatar and take its place on top of the all-time list.  Because audiences love Luke, Leia, Han and Chewie, but it’s Rey’s story they are going to want to see again and again.

There has been some criticism of her, centering largely on the speed with which she acquires her Force abilities in the movie without any training, and suggesting that this pushes her into Mary Sue territory.  I would suggest that there are two responses to this, one “in-universe” and another examining the broader question.  The in-universe explanation is found in a line from the very first movie, where Luke and Ben are discussing the Force and noting that while it obeys your commands, it also controls your actions.  The Force is sentient and has an awareness of when people’s greed and lust for power has pushed it out of balance, so it creates what it needs to set the universe right again.  Rey’s awakening is in response to the rising threat represented by dark-sider Kylo Ren and his mysterious master Snoke, and the speed at which it happens is perhaps a reflection of the urgency with which it is needed.  (And it also makes for the movie’s best scene in which Rey tries the Jedi Mind Trick on a Stormtrooper played by a very famous actor in disguise…)

You could also suggest that Rey is just that damn gifted, which is where the Mary Sue question comes in, and my answer to that is, so effing what?  In how many movies across how many genres have we seen preternaturally skilled guys?  How many times have we seen a young male screw-up transformed into an unstoppable fighting machine in the space of a five-minute training montage?  Why is this somehow more valid storytelling technique than seeing it happen to a woman?  Yes, Rey may be in some ways an expression of wish fulfillment for fangirls, but thanks to some great writing (by Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan) and Daisy Ridley’s magnetic performance she doesn’t come off like that, and even if she does, I fail to see why this is a bad thing.  We gents have plenty of examples on our side to choose from.  I’d love to see more women like Rey in genre films, treated with all the maturity and complexity that those characters deserve, and I’m glad that the gauntlet has been thrown down.  All those involved with her creation deserve accolades.  (It should also be noted that The Force Awakens passes the Bechdel Test too.)

I’ve come to know a fair number of women through social media who are big genre fans, and I’m excited to read what they thought of Rey.  I imagine they’ll be able to articulate what Rey means to girls and women far better than I possibly could, so I’ll sign off for the time being and let them take the stage and enjoy their well-deserved moment.  And I will wait with bated breath for Episode VIII and the joy of discovering where Rey’s story takes her next, my faith in the ability of the movies, and genre movies in particular, to surprise me renewed, and hungry for more.

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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.