Blades and Guns: The Human Weapons of Science Fiction And Their Generic Appeal

Dylan Hintz

Film Genre 403

Dr. Walker

Blades and Guns:

The Human Weapons of Science Fiction

and Their Generic Appeal

Seeking a film to view, whether for enjoyment or for academic study, the audience typically selects in lieu of certain expectations. Glancing at the packaging summary of the 1982 Ridley Scott science fiction film Blade Runner, an interested surveyor of genre films would read of a world in which the hero Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) “prowls the steel-and-microchip jungle of 21st Century Los Angeles.” This brief-but-catching description goes on to reveal the main protagonist’s job, that “he’s a ‘blade runner’ stalking genetically made criminal replicants. His assignment: to kill them.” Finally, the narrative theme of the story comes to light in the simple statement: “[The replicants’] crime: wanting to be human.” In his article “Questions of the Genre,” Steve Neale says “the indication of relative genre characteristics is […] one of the most important functions that advertisements stills, reviews, and posters perform” (Neale 163).

These snippets of promotional information sum up the place, person, and the main idea of the film, all of which set the mold of science fiction genre expectations. To the anticipating audience, these are “specific systems of expectation and hypothesis that spectators bring with them into the cinema and that interact with the films themselves during the course of the viewing process” (Neale 161). In essence, genre expectations help to solidify the age old saying “what you see is what you get,” and help the viewer find what he’s looking for, and to understand what he’s found.

If that same genre fan then came across the DVD of Kurt Wimmer’s sci-fi action film Equilibrium, crafted a whole twenty years later, his genre expectations might be met with similar findings. Reading the back of this box he would find that in the world of Equilibrium “mankind has outlawed things that trigger emotion— literature, music and art,” leading to a steel and concrete world of industrial aesthetics similar to Blade Runner. The lead character of this oppressive future is John Preston (Christian Bale), a Grammaton Cleric, “a special breed of police assigned to eliminate all transgressors” of emotional crimes, operating within the narrative theme of “a future where the only crime is being human!” If anything can be made clear by reading the summaries for Blade Runner and Equilibrium back to back, it is that both films are set in futuristic and technologically advanced societies, star highly skilled yet reluctant enforcer-heroes, and carry the metaphysically and sociologically imperative theme of humanness. All are staples of the science fiction genre, as seen in the films themselves, and the novels which inspired them.

The stories inspiring these films are “mass-produced fiction of all kinds [which] helped in some cases to originate, and in all cases to circulate, genres like the western, the detective story and the thriller, horror, science fiction, war, and romance” (Neale 176), all of which play together as elements within both films as fictional art that stems from their source materials. Popular literary fiction such as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and other works by Philip K. Dick supplied inspiration for Scott’s film, and various pieces of dystopian classics 1984 (George Orwell), Brave New World (Alduous Huxley), and Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury) were brought together as sources for Wimmer’s screenplay for Equilibrium. Therefore, alluring “back-of-the-box” statements are written to attract fans of generically similar films and literature through attention-catching conventions in form, and thematically-nourishing promises in content.

Genres such as westerns, horror, and science fiction all contain certain elements that make them readily accessible to certain audiences, known as generic conventions. Conventions “offer a way of working out the significance of what’s happening on the screen: why particular actions and events are taking place, why the characters are dressed the way they are, why they look, speak, and behave the way they do, and so on” (Neale 161). Within their genre, conventions help to mold the mis-en-scene, the characterization, and the narrative theme of the films that carry them, and in turn provide an audience with what they are expecting to see, because “the reasons for the popularity and longevity of genres are relatively uniform, as are […] the meanings they convey, and the culture (ideology) that underpins them” (Neal 180). In comparing Blade Runner and Equilibrium through these three elemental conventions, it is clear that even with a twenty year difference in age, where the former is an established classic and the latter a modern cult hit, the two films are generically relatable to each other on both their metallic-coated futuristic surfaces and under their timelessly philosophical skins.

With the two films established as individual members of the science fiction genre, they become relatable through the elements of form seen within the stylistic elements of film. One such sequence is the conventionally adherent “crawl text and voice over reminiscent of science fiction” (Boozer 212) that opens both films. Both Blade Runner and Equilibrium open with expositional monologues, the former through text and no audio, the latter with some text, and some narration, announcing the current state of their respective worlds and “formally asserts the omniscient narrative authority characteristic of the science fiction epic” (Boozer 213). Blade Runner’s crawl text describes a world in which special trained police men known as BLADE RUNNERS must hunt down and destroy the enemy of the world (and to a more specific extent, the Tyrell Corportation, the key tyranny to this civilization): the replicant. Similar to this in both form and content, Equilibrium states through dominant text that after the Third World War (booming with vintage footage of nuclear explosions), man kind could not survive another war, so it chose to banish all emotion to prevent the worst elements of humanity from taking over ever again. To ensure this it required a new champion, The Grammaton Cleric (Wimmer’s equivalent of a blade runner), a highly trained warrior, to keep the peace and dispose of the society’s enemies: sense offenders, the enemy-equivalent of Blade Runner’s replicant’s. In this authoritative opening sequence, the world, the protagonist, and the antagonists are all packaged together as equal parts of the generic structure for science fiction conflict.

When the setting of Blade Runner is later revealed, it contains “a paramilitary force…” under the aesthetic of “enormous corporate headquarters [that] dominate the skyline” (Lev 33). The crowning jewel of which is the gargantuan pyramid structure of the Tyrell Corporation’s headquarters, from within which the replicant’s are engineered and eventually ordered to be “retired.” Equilibrium shares many of these genre aesthetics, with dark-suited guards looming every corner, large tank like vehicles rolling down the street unchecked, and towering gray corporate structures, littered with semi-religious iconography, shadowing the residents of the fictional society Libria in total oppression. As Lev says about Blade Runner’s mis-en-scene, “clearly this is not the best of all possible worlds” (Lev 32). This statement is clearly applicable to th world of Equilibrium as well.

Established by Blade Runner’s “physically and emotionally convincing Los Angeles” (Lev 31), wherein billboard-lined sky scrapers glow out into the dark night, a world of overbearing consumer products and “necessities” such as the replicants themselves (as slave labor) is on high-tech display. In both films, the society “not only accepts the rights of the corporations and its leaders, it depends upon their services” and that this dependency has “resulted in a stark dystopia” (Boozer 221). Both films are ruled over by moving visual information within their cityscapes. Through large view screens similar to Tyrell’s billboards in Los Angeles, a Tyrannical yet “all-loving” Father figure speaks on the state of the world around the clock and alerts the inhabitants of their daily routines. One routine is to stand absolutely still all at once, like pod people, take out an injection tool, and insert a daily interval of Prozium— the emotion controlling drug of the society— into their bodies willingly.

In both films, the “almost tactile atmosphere suggests the interchangeability of objects and people, of objects and simulations that move with life, and people who appear mechanical and cold” (Boozer 215). The inhabitants of 2019 L.A. are ever scuttling creatures of confusion, lacking a sense of direction and no hope for fulfillment, while the citizens of Libria are emotionless automatons, going back and forth as their society commands them. Neither life is truly meaningful and, while shown in different ways, reflects a similar fear of over-conformity within future dystopian societies through a well choreographed display of human-populated mis-en-scenes.

To combat the feeling of hopelessness inherent in both science fiction worlds is not just the job of the protagonists, but their destinies. In Blade Runner, Deckard is characterized as a man who must question if he “is killing ‘skin jobs’, i.e., non-human criminals? Or is he killing angels, i.e., human-like or more than human beings whose differences are to be respected” (Lev 33). This characterization does not just come through his hunting of the replicants, but also the weapon and method in which he completes his task. While Deckard is equipped with a thunder-roar producing hand-cannon of sorts, seen in all its destructive might when killing the first replicant, Zhora, he is weakened from his ability to perform his job by realizing just how human a replicant can truly be in Rachel after she saves him with the same such weapon. Deckard faces a moral quandary, in beginning a romantic relationship with the replicant Rachel, he begins to “recognize the contradictions of his own situations as enforcer” (Boozer 218).

Equilibrium also menacingly displays this super-killer authority with the choreography of the character’s main skill, the lethal and fictional “Gunkata” fighting style, to illustrate its enforcer’s skill set immediately. Cleric Preston charges through a door on command, sliding through a hallway, shooting out a light, and killing twenty-something sense-offenders before they even knew what was coming for them. These displays of stylistic ultra violence occur generally in science fiction films because the genre “can pay more attention to the deep structure of what is and what ought to be” (Lev 30) without having to keep with the structure of social reality, allowing it to create fantastic but form-fitting elements of action and excitement. Establishing this new fighting style and mystifying the character is part of the stylistic approach of the film, further enhanced by the martial practices of the Cleric seen in expositional training sequences.  The use of his heavily modified M92F Berretta pistols, harkens back to the days of Blade Runner, and its stylistically modified weaponry.

While it is true that for both Deckard and Preston that “the gaze of his handgun” is “interchangeable as signifiers of death” (Boozer 218), these characters are brought down from their position of righteous killers by women from the enemy sides, both of which demonstrate violent but compassionate behaviors and illuminate the “heroes” to their true destines. It is through these auxiliary characters and action sequences that both men become aware of their failing ways, and initiate a path of atonement for past sins. Throughout Blade Runner, “this cycle of detection and confrontation and death leads Deckard to an evolving awareness of himself. One by one the replicants fall, and what is revealed is their desire for a fuller life which increasingly becomes Deckard’s own. In this particular construction of fiction illusions, the replicants become guides to laying bare of illusions” (Boozer 220).

When translated into the plotline of Equilibrium, the same narrative theme becomes apparent, wherein Cleric Preston, through meeting the sense-offender Mary, learns to detect that emotions are deeper than hatred and more meaningful than jealousy and pain, and is lead to an evolving awareness of his own emotions. He recognizes that the destruction of these “true humans”, similar in how “the repeated instances of replicant rebellion serve to catalyze Deckard’s self interrogation,” is not just prejudice— it is slander against humanness. His realization of their desire to fight for something more than just survival brings him to feel the need for a similar desire to create a fuller life of his own, shown primarily in an unexpected romantic fixation upon Mary, similar to that of Deckard’s upon Rachel. Both films act as a science fiction “parable illuminating the attainment of insight through the process of personal and cultural re-evaluation and revelation” (Boozer 225). It is through this scientific, almost empirical journey of enlightenment that both main characters are struck with a desire to seek atonement through the preservation of that they had sworn themselves to kill, and furthermore the fulfillment of becoming romantically involved with their respective targets.

Generically speaking, Blade Runner and Equilibrium are in dialog through an ancestor-descendant relationship, within the contexts of mis-en-scene, characterization, and narrative themes. Both films contain and represent many staples of the science fiction genre, including settings of bleak dystopia and protagonists of exceptional, yet mercilessly necessary skill. The narrative theme of coming to terms with a society of prejudice against humanness through both artificial and natural outlets, both the replicants and the sense-offenders, provides sets of antagonists for both Deckard and Preston to learn important philosophical and existential lessons from. With this in mind, should a sci-fi fan view either film individually, it would probably be within his best interest, for the purposes of entertainment or academics, to later view the other. They are clearly relatives on both the levels of form and content within the generic context of science fiction.

Works Cited

Boozer, Jack Jr. “Crashing the Gates of Insight: Blade Runner,” in Retrofitting Blade
Runner: Issues in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Philip K. Dicks ‘Do Androids

Dream of Electric Sheep? (Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University
Popular Press, 1991), 212-228

Lev, Peter. “Whose Future? Star Wars, Alien, and Blade Runner,” Literature Film
26, no. 1 (1998): 30-7.

Neale, Steve. “Questions of Genre,” in Film Genre Reader III, ed Barry Keith Grant

(Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 2003), 160-184.

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Blades and Guns: The Human Weapons of Science Fiction And Their Generic Appeal by Dylan Hintz is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.