Sunday, March 27, 2011

Blade Runner Remake and the Elements of Literature

Blade Runner is the best movie of all time. If you want to argue that point, you are fundamentally flawed, cognitively and morally. I'm interested to see what they're going to try to create in the Blade Runner mold but I don't envy them their responsibility and I'm not getting my hopes up.

Reflections on film and prose in the setting of science fiction:

1) Film is much more capital-intensive. It costs more money to make a movie than write a book, which is fundamental to the nature of the work that gets produced. Film-makers are naturally going to be more risk-averse. This is why there's a longer tail on BOTH sides for books in terms of innovation and quality, and more interesting/ experimental/weird books than movies. The barrier to entry and risk to investment is just lower (and books can be written solo). Hence, movies like Blade Runner get accidentally made and are considered failures by most people responsible for their creation and distribution, because it was a box office disaster, even though it continues to make people happy, a mere 8 years from 2019. (Speaking of which, I'm calling dibs on Blade-Runner themed parties New Years Eve 2018-2019.)

2) In movies where a paradigm shift is key (spoiler alert, Deckard is a replicant), it's very difficult to pull off a second one. In fact this puts the producers of sequels in a very bad position. If you use the same paradigm shift, it won't be cool because everyone already knows; to their credit, in the new V, at least they didn't drag it out, like a vampire movie where you have to wait around for the police to figure out what the audience, and everyone with a brain, figured out the first time they find a corpse drained of blood by two bite marks in the neck. In Planet of the Apes the spin Burton tried to put on it was absolutely pointless. And the Matrix sequels were largely done in by the unexpectedness of the shift in the first movie. But on the other hand, if they don't do something with the who's-a-replicant question, they're not making a Blade Runner sequel, and why did you go see it? It's really a rock and a hard place, and why from an artistic standpoint these kinds of movies should be left alone after the first one. If they were Box Office flops like Blade Runner, they might be; if they made money like the Matrix, they won't be. This isn't a problem just in science fiction - action thrillers often use paradigm shifts as well. As the most intense possible plot element, paradigm shifts will be useful in any plot-driven genre, which both science fiction and action thrillers are.

3) Because of the capital-intensiveness and therefore the risk aversion of the film-making endeavor, the use of cinematic properties that are guaranteed an audience, or at least close simulacra of them, is one approach to minimize risk. E.g., Transmorphers, or Starcrash. These film makers didn't seem to have delusions of art like Ed Wood did - these are businesspeople, and they're very good at what they do, and they seem to get a good ROI. Even if you rent it just as a goof, unless you pirated the thing, you still paid to see it. Ironic dollars raise bottom lines just as well as earnest ones do. (Note: if you watch Starcrash, watch the documentary Marjoe too. I stumbled across Starcrash being shown in a bar on my 35th birthday, oddly immediately after I had seen the Marjoe documentary and not known that Marjoe was ever in a "real" movie.)

Science Fiction and the Elements of Literature

There's more to be said about the importance of literary elements in science fiction, versus other genres. Literature is first and foremost built on plot (I'm just paraphrasing Aristotle here - the focus on character is a modern development.) The evolution of literature is about bringing more of its basic elements into play over time. The first stories were just lies: plot elements that didn't happen, even if the people were all real. (Imagine a caveman telling his tribe that he fought a huge bear.) Gradually, people got smart enough to know when they were getting lied to but to enjoy it anyway, and to let the story-teller know that they knew they were being lied to, but keep going. Chimps can deceive each other but not on the level that we can. Eventually, some smartass decided to make up people who never existed, or even whole classes of people that never existed (like ghoststhe kind that live on Mt. Olympus.)

More recently, setting has been brought consciously into play, and we make up places and times that never existed. Thinking about it this way gives us an idea about how to resolve the perennial question of whether Shelley or Plato were writing science fiction: they were certainly using the setting element creatively, to make a point or tell a story that they couldn't tell without playing with setting, but (to their credit) there was no continuous convention of using the setting as one of the variable elements.

More recently than setting, structure and genre rules are in play. Again, we can look back to previous examples: some sections of Shakespeare's Tempest, or Don Quixote, or certainly Tristram Shandy play this game - but there was no continuous convention until the last century. In part, developing an awareness of these elements and structures is a malady of the postmodern age that we can't escape because this wealthy era so saturates us in media that we can't help but notice the patterns. Consequently, to stand out in the marketplace, writers have no choice but to tweak our nerves by violating these now-obvious expectations slightly. This is no surprise, since what drives pattern recognition in all organisms from worms on up is what has driven art since day 1: novelty with some preservation of patterns that can still be recognized.

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