THE TIMEHAS COME to stop apologizing for science fiction. Traditionally, films about the future were categorized as fantasies and therefore not expected to have any correlation to reality, either in their story lines or in their characterizations. Films like Star Wars were judged with a differer: set of criteria than Ordinary People. Science fiction was intended solely to entertain: no social relevance or believable events were necessary. Fortunately, all that seems to be changing now, with the release of Blade Runner and E.T: The Extraterrestrial, two exceptional movies that stand apart from ordinary science fiction.
As entertaining and engrossing as Star Wars was, its themes had virtually nothing to do with contemporary reality. It represented a world of absolutes, where good and evil fought it out for control of the galaxy. Its hero, the vapid Luke Sykwalker, relied on "The Force"--some ESTian kind of energy source--instead of on his own abilities. It is no wonder that the more self-assured rogue, Han Solo (Harrison Ford), emerged as the true hero of the Star Wars saga. But even he was too good to be true.
Ford's latest character, Rick Deckard in Blade Runner, isn't too good, but he's very true. Deckard is a product of his society, and it is a society with which we can readily identify. Director Ridley Scott presents a very bleak landscape for his depiction of Los Angeles in the 21 St century. The stark buildings, neon signs, and dismal rain paint the picture of a world without any connection to human emotion or morality. It is a world which could easily be ours one day.
There are no heroes in Blade Runner, only people who mechanically go about their jobs and survive. The focus of the film is not on what makes a hero, but what makes a human being. People like Deckard have forgotten what it is to feel; they substitute sex for love and indifference for politics In the end, they must be taught even the most primitive of human emotions--fear. As Deckard runs from his pursuer in the film's climax, we realize that he has never experienced so intense an emotion in his life.
While the characters in Blade Runner are far from likeable, they are real and identifiable. The strike a nerve in the audience, reminding us of who we are and what we may become.
The message in Steven Spielberg's E.T. is similar, but hardly as pessimistic, The main characters in this film are not merely likeable; they're irresistible. The relationship between the boy, Elliott (Henry Thomas), and his extraterrestrial friend is so real that we almost forget that E.T. is a mechanical creature. Spielberg draws our attention away from the technological wizardry and toward the human side of the story, toward the very simple themes of love and friendship.
The counterpart to this emotion-packed relationship is provided by the unemotional scientists who threaten to destroy the bond between child and creature. In the opening sequence, they are filmed from a child's perspective, so that their heads are out of the camera's range. They become more foreign to the audience than the spaceman himself. They are the enemy because they represent a complete lack of subjective feeling. To Elliott, E.T. is a friend--a cross between a pet and a bosom buddy; to them, he is merely a subject for scrutiny.
E.T. and Blade Runner share a common message: Spielberg and Scott are warning us not to lose track of our humanity in our struggle for progress. It's an old theme, but one that bears repeating--particularly in a world so obsessed with technology and escapism.
Many recent films have dealt with periods of the past. The point of something like Ragtime or Reds is not simply to relate history, but to make a statement that is relevant both to the period depicted and to our own. Without a message of this sort, such films would be virtually meaningless.
If period pieces have a responsibility to adhere to the problems of contemporary society, then films about the future share the burden. The future will not be as simple as the black-and-white world of Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker. If we continue to believe that it will be--vainly hoping that "The Force" will be with us--then we are indeed doomed to the barren landscape that swallows the blade runner.