- Seven inquiries on the antediluvian labour market of cinematic 'sf auteurs' and Blade Runner 2049
With the advent of what David Butler has called the Golden Age of fantasy cinema–the Star Wars prequels; Sony, Fox and Disney Marvel film adaptations; The Matrix, Harry Potter and Hunger Games franchises; etc.–our crowning of new masters of the speculative audiovisual narrative, our role alongside fellow taste-making intelligentsia such as film critics and journalistic bloggers and op-ed writers in evaluating the immaterial labour of others, matters greatly. According to Paste magazine, as of 2019, the majority of the top 20 highest-grossing films of all time by worldwide box office have belonged in the sf/ fantasy category (Jackson n.p.). As I send this essay to press, Todd Phillips's DC Comics supervillain adaptation Joker (Canada/US 2019) broke domestic and foreign box office records for October, even as it joined the original Blade Runner (Scott US 1982), The Dark Knight (Nolan US/UK 2008) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick UK/US 1968) in the critical honour roll of sf for true cineastes. The full-blown digital-era intermediation of sf into commodified mass culture as well as highbrow art(/literary) culture, in addition to beloved geek subculture–a tripartite set of community practices anticipated by genre theorist John Rieder in his study of twentieth-century sf literature (65–92)–raises the stakes for even the simplest attempts at genre definition. Who–or what–are sf movie and television 'auteurs?'
Inquiry 1: who gets to be an sf cinematic auteur?
Let's ponder the stratified labour market for imaginative work in the global creative industries, particularly the hidden dynamics of non-membership in the elite club of sf auteurs employed by corporate studios and networks. Who does not become an sf film auteur? Film studies discourse on auteur theory, in the struggle to attribute authorship credit over film and television texts, has [End Page 128] commonly pitted directors (honoured as the lead cinematic artist from the French New Wave onward) against screenwriters (especially 'name' ones who had challenged directors and studios to achieve their writerly vision, such as Herman J. Mankiewicz and Paddy Chayefsky). As a screenwriting theorist, I view Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049 (Villeneuve US/UK/Hungary/ Canada/Spain 2017) as resulting from the vision of their main scripter, the nihilistic, noir-loving, East-Los-Angeles-raised, Mexican and Danish American writer Hampton Fancher–not British Ridley Scott or French Canadian Denis Villeneuve.1 Says Fancher of the role of screenwriters in the filmmaking process: 'A screenplay is the bones of a poem and the poem is a movie and the movie is a dream' (Fancher n.p.). Without the Angeleno Fancher initially furnishing those future-LA, noirish 'bones' based on his lifetime living in the city while employed as a Hollywood studio-system B-actor, it is unlikely Scott would have been able to 'create' such a deeply worlded, beloved film.
But further 'below the line' than directors or writers, industry powerbrokers and unionised Hollywood artists have capped the special 'auteur' designation for sf cinema so that this label refers only to middle- and upper-class (unionised) creative labour in the Global North. During the same 2013 Academy Awards broadcast in which Ang Lee took home a Best Director Oscar, visual-effects artists protested outside the ceremony against an industry in which they remained without collective bargaining rights and suffered from relatively poor job stability. The demonstrators rebelled at the irony of The Life of Pi's (Lee US/ Taiwan/UK/Canada 2012) LA-headquartered VFX company, Rhythm & Hues, like so many small contractors in their profession–commonly overseas, especially in developing nations–going bankrupt before this very ceremony in which Pi would win multiple Oscars for digital effects and cinematography (Giardina n.p.). Some types of imaginative labour get recognised as essential to a science fictional artistic vision; others become devalued as replaceable, despite the uniqueness and quality of their craft. To me, the strongest artistry in Blade Runner 2049 lies in its stunning production design and effects, followed by Fancher's creaky yet competent script, then lastly, Villeneuve's pretentious...