ESSAYS // Science Fiction

A New Breed of Science Fiction Heroes

"New" ... OK, this was originally published in September 1983.

The Road Warrior

Like all other film genres, science fiction and fantasy movies have undergone tremendous changes in the last several years, mostly due to the success of such films as STAR WARS, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND and ALIEN. The new generation of filmmakers, though, has been greatly inspired by the films of the '40s and '50s, which are proving to be the standards by which the new creations are compared.

Two recent science fiction films — THE ROAD WARRIOR and BLADE RUNNER — are themselves off-shoots of genres which have virtually disappeared from the screens in the past decade: the western and the hard-boiled detective fiction.

THE ROAD WARRIOR, a sequel of sorts to MAD MAX, is an exuberant, violent mythological tale set in a time following a holocaust which has laid waste civilization. Into this bleak world rides Max, a lone drifter whose life consists of evading murderous bikers intent upon stealing the precious gasoline in the tanks of his V-8 Interceptor — a relic from his days as a policeman in charge of running down traffic violators.

Mel Gibson's charisma, much like that of Steve McQueen, adds immeasurably to his performance as Max (as it has to his roles in GALLIPOI, TIM and THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY). Just as Gibson recalls Hollywood idols of the past, the universe Max inhabits, as envisioned by director George Miller, is inspired by the westerns of America's Hollywood. Among these are the films of John Ford (in which the protagonist stands tall and steady amidst an awesome and untamable environment) and Howard Hawks (wherein both men and women possess an aggressive but moralistic character, no matter what the odds are against them).

Max is the picture of an amoral man within whom a sense of justice is reawakened by a violent and intolerable world, and who takes upon himself the role of savior to the oil refinery workers under siege by the barbaric scavengers led by the warlord Humungus. While these villainous warriors are the equivalent of the American Indians and western outlaws as Hollywood chose to remember them, Max is a reborn vision of the western hero who defeats both the enemies of justice and his own prejudices and amorality (much like the characters played by Alan Ladd in SHANE and John Wayne in THE SEARCHERS).

Although revenge was his motivation in MAD MAX (his family and partner had been murdered by bikers, so he sought to destroy them), Max's intentions are more honorable here. It is his wish to provide the survivors with a pathway through the wasteland to a place they believe to be a paradise, which is blocked by the deadly scavengers. Mythic and god-like, Max is a futuristic evocation of a knight — not in shining armor, but in black leather and leg brace.

As a science fiction figure, Max is at home not in a world of high technology but in the barrenness of the outback. Since the folklore of Australia — a country founded as a penal colony — contains many legends of outlaws such as Ned Kelly, the story of Max seems a natural step in the building of a new myth: A man under no authority but his own haunts the roads to save the survivors from the scavengers who are in part responsible for the holocaust and the terrors that apocalypse bred.

The science fiction hero portrayed by Harrison Ford in BLADE RUNNER is light years away from his charming and rugged characters in the STARS WARS films or RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. In this film his empathy is won not so much by his charm or heroics but by his redemption. His cynical aloofness is liberated only after having faced death too many times, with little of the buoyant bravado exhibited by his Han Solo or Indiana Jones.

The Los Angeles of 2019, as created by director Ridley Scott in BLADE RUNNER, is a place inhabited by the lowest dregs of the human race. (People with more foresight have long since relocated to colonies "off-world"). In this rainy, depressed culture, Ford's Deckard, a retired policeman of the "Blade Runner" unit (a force responsible for recognizing and terminating human-like robots called replicants, which are illegal on Earth), comes back into action. His mission is to find a band of four replicants which has made its way to Earth and to the Tyrell Corporation, the conglomerate responsible for their creation.

While told in the manner of the detective stories of the '40s such as THE BIG SLEEP, the film's story appears more interested in the philosophical questions concerning a robot's life and death. As personified by Roy (Rutger Hauer), the robot born with the implanted memories of a childhood which never existed and who anticipates his date of termination following a maximum four-year life span, the replicants are both seeking the purpose of their existence and the seemingly impossible notion of immortality.

Deckard, like Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, does not concern himself with metaphysical questions while he is doing his job, but it is his exposure to the replicants, and particularly to the beautiful robot Rachael, which allows him to grow as a character, He chooses to see these replicants not as manufactured imitations of human engineers, but as life forms like himself.

Deckard's aloofness, his smart-alecky narration and his motivations are all reminiscent of the detectives of earlier films. In the context of science fiction, through, Deckard is perhaps the first existential sci-fi hero. Having been nurtured by a pessimistic environment, he manages to rise above the dreariness and corruption of his world and escape the suffocating influences of the future Los Angeles.

Science fiction heroes, like their Saturday matinee ancestors, have been made up of equal parts of courage, idealism and charm. Deckard (like the characters of Scott's previous film, ALIEN), however, is a product of recent science fiction in which the hero is not a cartoon character created by the filmmakers to dress an expensive set, but a person whose origins are extrapolated from our own times and then pushed ever so slightly into another time period, in order to take liberties with the character's environment but not the character himself.

Deckard's claims to heroism are not that of a fantasy character like Superman but of an ordinary man confronted with a situation in which he may either escape or be seduced by his environment, and whose testament of courage is that he does not resign himself to the morose life of his contemporaries. Since BLADE RUNNER is a study of the individual's emptiness in the face of his society, Deckard has succeeded in doing what few characters in Hollywood science fiction have done. He has outgrown his futuristic, technologically-awesome world and reestablished his worth as a human being, something which, though not as spectacular as defeating a squadron of invading aliens or slaying a monster, is nonetheless just as triumphant.

copyright 1983, 2009 by David Morgan
All rights reserved.