I ordered “THX 1138” (1971) and “Blade Runner” (1982) to come at the same time without really knowing whether the two movies could be compared. Lucas’ THX 1128 is plainly a precursor to “Star Wars” without CGI and “Blade Runner”, which is supposed to happen in 2019, is the reality that a lot of people know today: living in squats and eating Top Ramen noodles every meal. But Ridley Scott was building on “Star Wars”, the most obvious reference being the casting of Harrison Ford.
One person’s dystopia is not like the next person’s except in one regard: the issue will be how humans fit into it. Not just “humans” but the individual human being. Will there be imitation humans, more human than we are, or will humans be made into robots, much less than we are? Will the environment be the crowded clutter of “Blade Runner” or the erased white surround of “THX”? One of the dynamics is whether one’s imagination runs Apollonian (Platonically erased of all but the concept -- well, and some car chases and a little nudity so people will pay money to watch) or Dionysian (film noir, cyber punk, bloody death, ambiguity, Joe Campbell). Desert or coast? Asia or Europe? Super-controlled or out-of-control.
These movies are part of a trajectory of films about invented environments for archetypal tales, mostly rooted in urban or suburban America. Ridley Scott, a Brit, brings a kind of Masterpiece Theatre skew (not the Austen/Shakespeare thread, but the mystery thread which is far darker over there) to literary sci-fi, if any BEM (bug-eyed-monsters) tales can be literary and why can’t they? Isn’t the minotaur a BEM? Thus “Aliens” (1979) instead of car chases.
What neither conceptualist quite grasped but that has become terrifyingly real is the modern BEM, a predator drone or a rocket-armed helicopter that can fly to your apartment balcony and annihilate everything. The police in the sky are a commonplace in LA. Lucas, in the first “Star Wars”, is one of the few to consider what devastation in a sparsely populated arid setting might be like, but that’s probably because he was drawing on the vision of Robert Heinlein’s “Red Planet Mars” which seems to echo American prairie homesteading, a surefire indicator of virtue and resourcefulness. Or you could think of it as early Israel. Or maybe a Western -- a column of smoke replacing home or wagon train. I expect it echoes in Iraq or Pakistan.
Both these movies concentrate on individual human beings in their reflections on what it is to be vulnerable but purposeful in human terms: programmed and confined and yet fighting to follow their hearts. They don’t give much attention to community, which has been a much neglected context in sci-fi unless one goes over into fantasy, which I think the third “Star Wars” does when it gets to the Ewoks, which were consciously designed to echo the early California tribes where Lucas’ ranch is: the primitive and childlike but resourceful. When Ridley Scott considers government and, well, “civilization,” he goes historical, like “Gladiator.” But it is the old “Firefly” series that explores on-going community and relationship outside of romance. It takes a lot longer than one movie.
Religion comes off badly in “THX” -- a dogmatic repetition of cliches that requires so little humanity that it can be taped and run in a loop in a sort of phone-booth chapel or is that supposed to be a confessional? Probably. Maybe it was about that time that “Eliza,” the counseling computer program, was in the news. Some of the lines are from her repertoire. The lie detector contraption in “Blade Runner” is another interface between person and machine, but it works the opposite way: the mock confessional is sealed off from any possible empathy, but the lie detector says “I don’t care what your humanness is like, I know better, I see through your defenses.” This is not about human vs. animal but rather about human vs. machine. So which is god-like? We must hope neither. The animal vs. human blurred lines are in other movies, except that one astute reviewer noted that the robot-detecting questions were often about the treatment of animals.
The religion in “Blade Runner” is mythic, the unicorn. Olmos is the trickster guide, the one who knows and is in sympathy with the hero but also in league with the powerful. He is a conveyor, an interface who knows. The artist here also has a role in the little man who makes creatures that are not quite human. Velveteen Rabbit and Pinocchio stuff, where love makes the inanimate human. “A.I.” is a brilliant depiction of that.
What does it mean that we have lost the feeling of being the “chosen animal,” the one who is unique in the cosmos and protected by all-powerful but inscrutable and uncontrollable forces? We anxiously scan the galaxies for planets like ours, half hoping that there will be intelligent beings and half dreading to find them. People obsess about whether computers will get too smart by half and begin to boss us around. (Like so many other things, they’re already doing it.)
Lately the changes in our world have seemed to come quickly and with devastating crashes, economic or pandemic. Dave Lull keeps me up to date on Taleb’s thinking which has been focusing on what makes phenomena sturdy and reliable, as opposed to the air castles of Wall Street. He urges us to think of a future that is “robust,” which seems to mean something more like “resilient” than indestructible. If you apply this criterion to these two movies, “THX 1138” is brittle and unsustainable. In fact, one of Lucas’ little tricks is to always show the cracks in the facade. (Harrison Ford pounding on the dashboard of his space ship to make the loose wiring behave.) When “THX 1138” climbs out of the underground hive he faces an ambiguous overwhelming sun. How will he survive here?
“Blade Runner” generously allows the cyber-creatures to become human through love. He slides the issue over from the worry about robots as destroyers to the shared torture of loving in the knowledge that we are all limited, that we will all die. His most relentless and murderous Nazi character dies gently, releasing a dove in a Christian symbol which is also related to the perfectly ordinary keeping of pigeons on rooftops, a bit of nature in the city. The hero is allowed to take his lover with him to a new place up north. Maybe Montana. If they show up here, I’ll throw my arms around them.