by Peter Fitting
Both in what it shows and in what is absent from it, Blade Runner (1982) deviates in morally significant ways from the 1968 novel by Dick on which it is based. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? precariously balances two themes connected with the “replicants”: they represent the oppressed and exploited in capitalist society and at the same time embody the danger of humans becoming mechanized. The logical nexus between these two thematic ideas is provided by Mercerism and its attendant test for empathy as the factor distinguishing humans from androids. Ridley Scott’s film version, on the other hand, omits Mercerism entirely; and while it “humanizes” the replicants more than Dick’s book does, this finally exacerbates the problem arising from Blade Runner’s emphasis on violence in its depiction of their “termination.” The film does evoke feelings of resentment and anger against a repressive status quo; but it finally turns those feelings on the very entities rebelling against the system, even as its imaging of their violent deaths would persuade viewers of the futility of rebellion. This “catharsis” of antagonism towards the abuses and waste of the present system is radically at odds with Androids’ message. (RMP)
My grand theme—who is human and who only appears (masquerades) as human?
—Philip K. Dick, Comment (1976) on “Second Variety”
Is it still necessary to state that not technology, not technique, not the machine are the engineers of repression, but the presence, in them, of the masters who determine their number, their life span, their power, their place in life, and the need for them? Is it still necessary to repeat that science and technology are the great vehicles of liberation, and that it is only their use and restriction in the repressive society which makes them into vehicles of domination?
—Herbert Marcuse, An Essay on Liberation
1. The look of the future in Blade Runner (1982) is what strikes us first of all about the film—a look unlike the high-tech visions of so much SF in its more realistic mix of technological advance and continuing decay. Indeed, the visual power and integrity of this glimpse of the future has been the focus of much of the critical writing about the film.1 In the following remarks, I would like to focus on the actual putting into images of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), for this recoding, from novel to film, distorts the novel’s ethical message while foregrounding the tracking and “retirement” of the escaped replicants. I am not criticizing the film for what it omits from the novel per se, but for its conversion of a moral dilemma into a cynical legitimization of the status quo.
Without going into a full discussion here, the novel’s ethical dimension lies not only in Dick’s “grand theme”—“who is human and who only appears (masquerades) as human?”—but in the empathic spiritual experience of “Mercerism” which is dropped from the film.2 The adherent grasps handles attached to an “empathy box” and then experiences Mercer’s climb up a hill as he is pelted by stones, thereby joining in the struggle against entropy and the “tomb world” (18:140-41):
[He] gradually experienced a waning of the living room in which he stood….He found himself, instead, as always before, entering into the landscape of drab hill, drab sky. And at the same time he no longer witnessed the climb of the elderly man. His own feet now scraped, sought purchase, among the familiar loose stones….
He had crossed over in the usual perplexing fashion; physical merging—accompanied by mental and spiritual identification—with Wilbur Mercer had reoccurred. As it did for everyone who at this moment clutched the handles, either here on Earth or on one of the colony planets. He experienced them, the others, incorporated the babble of their thoughts, heard in his own brain the noise of their many individual existences. They—and he—cared about one thing; this fusion of their mentalities oriented their attention on the hill, the climb, the need to ascend. (2:21-22)
Empathy, as we shall see in a moment, is the key to the novel.
Most movie-goers are familiar with the story of the “blade runner” Rick Deckard, who is forced out of retirement for one last job—to find and “terminate” four advanced androids (“replicants”) who have rebelled and returned illegally to Earth. In Los Angeles in the year 2019, in a world in which pollution and radiation have apparently caused the death of many of the other living creatures on the planet, human technology has made it possible to copy the nearly extinct animals of the recent past. A similar technology makes it possible to build near-perfect copies of human beings. (“More human than Human” is the motto of the replicants’ builder, the Tyrell Corporation.)
These androids were apparently developed to replace men and women in space under conditions in which humans could not function—in a vacuum, for instance, or in extreme cold or heat. While animals and other “lower” life-forms on Earth are presumably duplicated out of nostalgia and guilt, because the original terrestrial animals are almost extinct, there are few reasons given why anyone would go to the expense and trouble of developing a robot which could pass for a human being—especially since this resemblance is the source of considerable anxiety about androids passing as human, an anxiety which generates the plot in both the novel and the film. There is some explanation in the novel, as we learn when Deckard objects to the builder about the development of androids which are almost indistinguishable from humans. Eldon Rosen (renamed Tyrell in the film) replies in strict business terms: “We produced what the colonists wanted…. We followed the time-honored principle underlying every commercial venture. If our firm hadn’t made these progressively more human types, other firms in the field would have” (5:41 ).3 Whatever the explanation, the robot and its ancestors and relatives have been used—at least since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—as a figure for collective anxieties about the dangers of science and technology. At the same time, the robot has often been taken positively, as a figure of the labor-saving possibilities of technology (as summed up in the fiction of Isaac Asimov).4
2. As is well known, Philip K. Dick used the figure of the robot, and more precisely that of the android, to raise a number of issues, including that of the original and the copy in the age of mechanical reproduction. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? deals with what could be labelled the “blurring of the human and the machine.” Here Dick walks a very fine line between attempting to elicit sympathy for the androids (the robot as metaphor of the oppressed and the exploited) and using the android to remind us of the growing risks to our humanity in an increasingly mechanized society.
In the novel, the androids are not so much not-human as inhuman. As we have seen, the crucial difference is the ability to feel empathy :
He had wondered…precisely why an android bounced helplessly about when confronted by an empathy-measuring test. Empathy, evidently, existed only within the human community, whereas intelligence to some degree could be found throughout every phylum and order including the arachnida…. (3:27)
Empathy is not only the key to distinguishing the human from the non-human (by measuring the ability to feel empathy for other living creatures—the “Voigt-Kampf Empathy Test”), but also, as already noted, the basis for “Mercerism,” the inexplicable empathic mystical experience which is omitted from the film. The androids lack empathy; they cannot participate in the Mercer experience, and in the novel they are eager to expose it as a fraud (18:136). But their inhumanity is especially apparent in the manifestations of the replicants’ cruelty and indifference, as summed up in a crucial scene —absent from the film—in which John Isidore (the model for JF) watches in horror as the androids torture and kill a spider (18:135-40).5
Nor is this the only instance in the novel of a rejection of the androids and what they represent, as can most explicitly be seen in the changes to the character of Rachel. The relationship between Rachel and Deckard reflects and increases his growing empathy for the androids he is expected to “retire,” but in the novel Rachael (sic) explains that she has gone to bed with him so as to make it impossible for him to retire any more androids, a strategy which she has already used with nine bounty hunters before him (17:131-33).6 In the film, Rachel does not set out to seduce Deckard. On the contrary, he is the sexual aggressor, while she is frightened and vulnerable. She did not know that she was not human until Deckard gave her the empathy test and now she is afraid, confused, and lost. She does not ally herself with the other androids—as does Rachael in the novel—but with the one human who tells her the truth. (She in fact saves his life by killing the replicant Leon.) In the novel Pris and Rachael are identical models, made from the same “prototype”—a characteristic which again underlines that the androids are not human. Although Deckard cannot “kill” Rachael, he does kill her “duplicate,” Pris, even as “it” attempts to use its resemblance to Rachael to kill him (19:145-46).
Despite Deckard’s—and the reader’s—hesitations and growing sympathy for the androids, then, a number of incidents, including their torture of the spider, their attempts to undermine Mercerism, and their inability to participate in that empathic experience, as well as the calculatedness of Rachael’s seductive behavior, all make clear in the novel that the androids are meant to be understood as evil and inhuman. Yet the novel ends on an ambiguous note, with Deckard’s continuing doubts about what he has done. The film, on the other hand, eliminates the ambiguity and doubts underlying Deckard’s position through the happy ending, even as it blurs the reasons why the androids must be retired.
Although the replicants occasionally demonstrate superhuman physical abilities, there are few suggestions in the film of their underlying non-human nature. Instead they are obsessed with becoming human. To counteract attempts to return to Earth and live as humans, the replicants of the film have been built with a “fail-safe”—a four-year lifespan.7 For this reason, they have come to Earth to learn how to control the aging process. More interestingly, and in ways which are not present in the novel, they are preoccupied with overcoming their non-humanity—witness their attempts to construct for themselves an individual human past, as summed up in the packs of family photographs which they collect and treasure. Roy, in appearance the coldest and least human of the four replicants, is also the one who thinks the most about his incomplete humanity. The last of Deckard’s “assignments,” Roy will die not because the bounty-hunter is able to retire him, but because his own brief lifespan has run out. Moreover, when he could kill Deckard, Roy instead lets him live, as a gesture towards the life he has only begun to know. As Deckard says in the voice-over:
I don’t know why he saved my life. Maybe in those last moments he loved life more than he ever had before. Not just his life—anybody’s life. My life.
All he’d wanted were the same answers the rest of us want. Where do I come from? Where am I going? How long have I got?
Seen from this perspective, there is a fundamental contradiction at the core of the film; for in the novel, even if it is not completely successful, there was an ethical juxtaposition of the human and the mechanical, a valorization of life and the living and a rejection of the machine; and this polarization between good and evil legitimized and explained the necessity of “retiring” runaway robots. Thus when Deckard consults Mercer, he is told that although all life deserves respect, he must continue to hunt and terminate the escaped androids: “What you are doing has to be done” (19:145). The film, on the other hand, wants it both ways, and at times the narrative of the replicants’ struggle to survive threatens to overwhelm the viewers’ sympathy with Deckard. There are, for instance, several long scenes in the film which focus entirely on the replicants; and there is, of course, Roy’s death, to which I shall return. Indeed, according to Dick, the changes in the presentation of the androids constituted the principal difference between his novel and the film:
[In the novel] the replicants are deplorable…cruel, cold and heartless. They have no empathy…and don’t care what happens to other creatures. They are essentially less than human.
[Ridley] Scott regarded them as supermen without wings….8
Interestingly enough, there is an even more surprising and revealing analogy that the film momentarily brings up to describe the status and meaning of the replicants. Early on, Blade Runner explicitly draws a similarity between the androids and another group of Americans who attempted to escape from their enslavement and “pass” for human: when Deckard says (in the voice-over narration) that his boss, because he calls the replicants “skin jobs,” is the kind of person who in an earlier day “would have called black men niggers.” Although the film does not return to this comparison (however, before he dies, Roy says to Deckard: “quite an experience to live in fear; that’s what it is to be a slave”), it clearly points to the contradictory treatment of the androids in the film. This contradiction becomes sharper if we attempt to pursue the analogy between robots and slaves, for it would be difficult for any but the most racist viewer to continue to sympathize with Deckard if the hunting and killing of the replicants were transformed into the tracking of runaway blacks. In that case, sympathy would clearly and unequivocally lie with the escaped slaves from the beginning. But, as it is, the film retains its ambiguity: the replicants both draw our sympathy and yet, somehow deserve to be killed; or rather, it is only when they are dead that they no longer deserve to be killed! This contradiction suggests that the meaning of the film, unlike the novel, no longer lies with an interpretation of the ethical opposition between the androids and “living” creatures.
3. Instead, the narrative of the escaped androids, it seems to me, provided Scott with an opportunity to display once again filmic images of death and killing. Psychologists write about the effects of media violence on the spectator, but they address less frequently the causes of that violence, the needs that it satisfies and that propel it.9 I mention this, although I disagree with much of that research, because in the case of the most developed domain of the psychological study of effects, apart from advertising—namely, the effects of pornography—one can immediately identify, in however direct or indirect a fashion, the origins of this “need” with sexual drives. But violence? Many of you reading this may have explanations for the increasing need for pictorial and filmic representations of violence, but its origins are not as evident as with pornography, however much you may think of pornography as a debased or distorted form of human sexuality. What, we might ask, is the need for the portrayal of violence a distortion or debasement of? Without attempting to answer that question yet, I am arguing that in Blade Runner the actual hunting and “termination” of the replicants is but another version of the myriad contemporary depictions of hunting and killing other humans. Here the excuse for that display of killing is to be found in an SF device: the representations of violence with which we are already familiar, as seen in the narratives of cops, sheriffs, and soldiers who are only “doing their duty,” is here justified as the hunting down and “termination” of rebellious machines who also happen to look like real men and women. This is but an aspect of what I consider one of the fundamental differences between SF writing and SF film, a difference having to do with the increasing popularity of special effects since the success of 2001 (1968): namely, the foregrounding of visual pyrotechnics for their own sake, as opposed to SF’s long claim —however restricted the number of works which actually achieved such a goal—to be a literature of ideas. This should not be taken as either a definition of what SF should be nor a condemnation of the specular vocation of film. I may enjoy such spectacles; but liking is not enough, and it cannot be a substitute for an explanation. Without going into a discussion of such recent SF films as Road Warrior (1981) or The Terminator (1985), I would point out that films such as those are much more straightforward in their justification for the violence portrayed. Blade Runner, on the other hand, pretends that it is not really stimulating the desire for representations of violence since, after all, these are only machines. Moreover, as we shall see in a moment, some critics argue that violence and selfishness are transcended by the film’s ending. Nonetheless, I am arguing that the foregrounding of violence and the change in the nature of the androids subtly and cynically distorts the major themes of Dick’s novel by catering to violent escapist fantasies.
4. Let us return, then, to the question of what produces the need for these representations of violence and to the link between that need and the figure of the android. The robot, as I have already pointed out, has long been understood as our symbolic alter ego—a manifestation of the desire for liberation from toil and drudgery and from human frailty and imperfection, and also as the expression of an increasing awareness of our diminished status in the technological society we have built. The androids of Blade Runner suggest both of these contradictory possibilities: they offer a glimpse of a liberated and empowered humanity, which could be realized thanks to the wonderful possibilities of technology; but so too, they indicate the terrible price of that seductive empowerment in the substitution for our humanity of the qualities and characteristics of the machine.
Expressed this way, the film’s theme seems faithful to Dick’s novel, but this does not explain Scott’s use of violence. Although Deckard carries out the retirements with increasing reluctance, the film presents those moments in much more vivid and graphic detail than does the novel. Indeed, through the lingering depiction of the termination of the four androids— particularly the two female replicants—the film substantially changes the initial Dickian theme. In the transfer from book to film, then, a new element is introduced which can only be dealt with through the spectacle of violence.
Nonetheless, the scene in which Roy lets Deckard live has led some critics to argue for the “transcendence” of both characters at the end, through their “renunciation of violence” (Kellner et al.: 7).
Deckard must put aside his distrust of women, must transcend his emotional aloofness, must finally make the ultimate commitment—to give of himself and his humanity. To his credit, Blade Runner resolves its issues with the specific science fiction context it creates. Man merges with his creation. This new Adam and his genetically engineered Eve will become first father and mother of a new species. And they—we—have an ambiguous, ambivalent, violent rebel angel to thank for it.
If Roy Batty is Satan, Adam, and Christ all rolled into one, and Deckard is the human recipient of the replicant’s redemptive/heroic mission, what are we left to conclude? Mainly that the allusions to Paradise Lost, to Frankenstein, and to other works similarly concerned with the question of what it means to be a person, allow Blade Runner itself to participate in the redemptive process….The replicants are products of technology and imagination…works of art made in our human image. Art, we may understand, can take on a life of its own beyond what its maker intended, but such a life can be positive. Such a work can possess innate qualities that improve our lives and make us whole. Art, whether it is the creation of ‘replicants’ or the creation of Blade Runner, holds out the possibility of transcendence. (Dresser: 178)
In opposition to such a reading, I am arguing that despite the scene in question, the film’s meaning is a profoundly cynical and reactionary one. The hero’s distaste for his job of killing escaped androids is contradicted by the film’s sensuous and prolonged fascination with the depiction of those killings, even as his doubts are simplistically resolved in the happy ending. Three characters supposedly transcend their condition: the two “machines” —Rachel and Roy—and the human bounty-hunter, Deckard.
What Roy tells Deckard he has seen during his brief life does not completely confirm the renunciation of violence:
I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched sea beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.
Time to die.
Roy spares Deckard in a recognition of life, and the above words point to his sense of beauty; but his first example—an expression of Scott’s own aesthetics of violence—is a scene from the battlefield. How does this beauty differ from the slow-motion death of Zhora as she crashes through a series of plate glass windows after Deckard shoots her in the back?10
More importantly, this argument for redemption would be more convincing if Roy’s death were the final scene, but it is followed by the flight of Deckard and Rachel into the sunset. It is interesting to see how the critics explain this final resolution: Dresser, above, writes that Deckard has “transcended his emotional aloofness…[making] the ultimate commitment” (p. 178); while for Kellner et al. this “symbiosis of humans and machines” is an indication that the film is not technophobic (p. 7): “The flight to an empathetic and romantic interior space away from the external realm of public callousness suggests a general human aversion to capitalist market values” (p. 8). I read the significance of the final scene very differently. Deckard is rewarded by the system he serves for his successful suppression of an armed revolt; while Rachel transcends her machine status by becoming a “real” woman—something which it is increasingly difficult for flesh and blood women to accept—namely, a submissive sex object, subject to her man’s wishes and desires. Farfetched? The one exception to the absence of reasons why these machines should be built to resemble humans in the film lies in the replicant Pris’s status as “a basic pleasure model”—an advanced sex doll. The importance of this latter theme in SF, as epitomized in Jeff Renner’s “The Shortest Science Fiction Love Story Ever Written” (“Boy Meets Girl/Boy Loses Girl/Boy Builds Girl”) as well as the fact that the other replicants have been built with specific functions, allow us to ask what other functions Rachel has been given.
The happy ending as well as the resolution which is identified by Dresser as “transcendence” have in this regard another meaning. In both film and novel Deckard carries on until all of the escaped replicants are dead. In the novel, these retirements were the source of the novel’s ethical concerns:
‘Don’t you see? There is no salvation.’
‘Then what’s this for?’ Rick demanded. ‘What are you for?’
‘To show you,’ Wilbur Mercer said, ‘that you aren’t alone. I am here with you and always will be. Go and do your task, even though you know it’s wrong….You will be required to do wrong no matter where you go. It is the basic condition of life, to be required to violate your own identity. At some time, every creature which lives must do so. It is the ultimate shadow, the defeat of creation; this is the curse at work, the curse that feeds on all life. Everywhere in the universe.’ (15:119; italics in original. See also 22:158.)
In the film, however, in opposition to the somber ending of the novel, Deckard is not only rewarded for the risks he has undergone and for his reluctant exercise of violence in the maintenance of the status quo; the happy ending also absolves him of his doubts.
Finally, the possible redemption of the characters—human or machine —is made possible only by Roy’s convenient death: he transcends his machine nature not by letting Deckard live, but by dying. The argument for transcendence (based on the renunciation of violence) falls apart if we ask what would have happened if Roy had not died (whether he spared Deckard’s life or not). Deckard—or someone else—would have had to kill him. If Deckard had refused, he would not have been rewarded with the convenient overlooking of Rachel’s continuing existence. She, too, would have been terminated.
Roy’s renunciation and transcendence resemble the death of the villain in other narratives who repents as he lies dying. But as the comparison with black slaves suggests, Roy is not a villain. Although the replicants/escaped slaves analogy is made early in the film, the viewers’ reactions towards them are carefully orchestrated so that we only fully sympathize with them once they are all dead! Roy’s acquiescence and death remind us of the necessity of choosing between acceptance and rejection of the world as it is. Critics like Dresser speak of Roy’s redemption insofar as it conforms to Christian salvation, which involves renunciation of attempts to change a flawed and oppressive world in return for a promised reward in the hereafter. The dove which Roy releases is a symbol of his soul, which ascends to heaven even as his body “dies.” The character who represents an active threat to the status quo cannot be allowed to live, but in exchange for his voluntary death, Roy is offered a reward “greater than life itself’: forgiveness for his mistaken rebellion and the promise of salvation in another life. On one level, critics like Dresser are right about Roy’s transcendence in the film, but they have avoided spelling out its full meaning as an acceptance of the world as it is, and they have overlooked its violation of Dick’s life and work.
Thus the question of our fascination with representations of violence is, in a sense, a false problem which points to a more profound deformation of the novel’s original moral dilemma. In displaying at length the termination of the rebellious slaves, the film legitimizes the use of violence in defense of the status quo, even if that world is repressive and unjust. The film’s violence can be seen, at least at the beginning, as the displaced expression and release of the spectator’s anger at the abuses and waste of the present system. But this anger is gradually transferred in the film, from the wealthy—like Tyrell—to the exploited victims who dare to rebel. The robot workers who revolt against a system which exploits them and even denies them the status of “human” are hunted and killed with the complicity of the spectator. Yet somehow, because the most vicious of them, in his own death, still aches with the pain of all that is denied him, the film is read as the expression of a generalized human transcendence.
This is the story, then, of the trajectory from book to film, a trajectory whose implications Dick himself resisted. The film’s producers offered him $400,000 if he would agree to suppress the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and allow it to be replaced by the screenplay of Blade Runner. Dick refused.11
5. Much popular art serves to maintain the status quo by stimulating our repressed hopes and fears; and then, rather than permitting those awakened feelings to become knowledge or praxis, it sets out to defuse this nascent recognition of social contradiction by redirecting and draining off those threatening emotions. These representations of violence provide incomplete satisfaction for the anger and frustration we feel when confronted with a world of plenty in which science and technology and the fruits of human labor are squandered in the intensifying race for new forms of destruction. Blade Runner co-opts and redirects our rage from the political and economic structures responsible for this exploitation and waste to its victims. The film does this by merging in a single figure—that of the escaped replicants —both the machines which are used to exploit us and all those who would refuse and rebel against that system of exploitation. For although the androids are the target of that anger in the film, they are not its real cause. Our frustration and alienation stem not from the increasing presence of machines in our daily lives, but from the imperatives of production and consumption which those machines serve and from the human misuse and misapplication of technology. This can be seen in the fact that the characters—whether human or android—are not in control of their lives in the film. Deckard is forced out of retirement to hunt and retire replicants against his will, while the androids themselves are nothing more than slaves; and Rachel is the product of a cynical psycho-technological experiment. Paradoxically, the film identifies and nourishes our fantasies of refusal and revolt against a system which uses and manipulates us, by allowing us to empathize for a time with the four androids and their desperate rebellion. But as they are retired one by one, the film forcibly reminds us of the futility of struggle. Our frustration and resentment towards an order which increasingly turns to machines to exploit and control us is then displaced, from the human and societal source of that exploitation, to its victims, who are punished for their refusal of the impossible conditions of their existence. As opposed to the novel, which ends on a note of resignation with Deckard’s acceptance of personal responsibility for human suffering, the film is a cynical denial of that message and of the major themes of Dick’s book. Resistance to the status quo, however unjust the existing system is, will be punished, the film tells us, while the willingness to participate in the forcible maintenance of inequality and exploitation will be amply rewarded. The film ends with our first look at the world outside the dark, rainy city, as Deckard and his reward—his very own personal android, a grateful and subservient—and ageless!—sex doll, fly off into a Playboy sunset.
1. The look of the film has interested critics in two ways: (a) for its portrayal of the near future “the densest, most arresting futuristic society in screen history” (Dempsey: 34); “a future city which perpetuates corporate capitalism’s distinguishing features—urban decay, commodification, overcrowding, highly skewed disparities of wealth and poverty, and authoritarian policing. The film’s urban images present a world where advanced capitalism’s worst features have coalesced to produce a polluted, overpopulated city in a society controlled by giant corporations” (Kellner et al.: 6); and (b) as a blending of the conventions of SF and “film noir” (see Doll & Faller and Dresser).
2. Although many of the critiques of the film mention the novel, there is little extended comparison. The one exception is Wingrove’s brief entry in his Film Source Book. On the other hand, Dick’s critics have paid even less attention to the novel, accepting Suvin’s judgment (p. 93) that it is one of the author’s “outright failures.” Androids is discussed in Robinson (pp. 90-93) and in Warrick (, pp. 223-28; revised ed. , pp. 205-09).
Despite my assertion that moral issues in the novel have been pushed to the background in the film, some critics do call attention to philosophical issues, particularly Dresser’s “Science Fiction and Transcendence”—to which I shall return —and Telotte’s “Human Artifice and the Science Fiction Film,” in which he studies a “number of recent films which take as their major concern or as an important motive the potential doubling of the human body and thus the literal creation of a human artifice” (p. 44).
The development of Mercerism is an opening to the increasing use of transcendental themes by Dick in his late novels.
3. As opposed to this profit-motive explanation, Telotte argues in terms of the subjective motives of the replicants’ creators:
Tyrell, it seems, is moved solely by his fascination with creating ever more perfect copies, replicants which can defy those tests for humanity which have developed in this future world….Sebastian has turned his engineering skills to no less subjective end [sic], the task of filling his lonely life with manufactured ‘friends’…. (p. 48)
The important point—central to Telotte’s article—lies in his attempt to analyze the fascination with “doubling”:
As Arendt noted [in The Human Condition]—and as our accomplishments in genetic engineering every day point up—we already possess the potential which science fiction films have so frequently described, that for crafting artificial versions of man. What these films hope to forestall is the dark obverse of this capacity, that for making human nature artificial as well. (p. 51)
Corporate interests and machines which pass as humans are also an important element in Ridley Scott’s earlier SF film, Alien (1979), where the science officer of the Nostromo is discovered to be an android and to have been acting against the interests of the humans on board. (See, on this matter, my 1980 essay and that by Thomas Byers in the present issue).
4. Without conducting a full review of the history of robots and androids (and their cousin, the computer), several points should be made. Even as the figure of the robot may point to actual technological developments, it is clear that it means much more. In general, one could speak of an opposition between positive images of the robot as the visible sign of the triumph of reason, the Enlightenment dream of human progress, as well as a more immediate symbol of the liberation from drudgery; and negative visions, which, at least since Frankenstein (1818), have parallelled those same beliefs and hopes in technological progress.
While genealogies are always difficult (and there will always be someone with an earlier example), for many SF readers the theme of a robot “passing” for a human was introduced in Issac Asimov’s I, Robot (1950), and in particular in the story “Evidence” (1946). Set in the 21st century in the context of the anxieties of those who distrusted the increasing use of ever more sophisticated robots and computers, the story revolves around a politician who is accused of being a robot. In the larger context of I, Robot, this story is significant for its discussion of the moral dimension of the “Three Laws of Robotics” when juxtaposed to human morality.
Asimov’s own positive attitudes about the liberating potential of technology are summed up in the final story (“Evitable Conflict”), which depicts a utopian future where the world is run by the “Machines”—the extensions of the “positronic brains” of the robots. (Note that in the early 1940s, there was still no commonly accepted word for the computer. It is usually associated with the work of Eckert and Mauchly and the development of the ENIAC [Electronic Numerical Integrator and Calculator] in 1946, followed by the UNI VAC [Universal Automatic Computer] in 1951. Asimov saw that the upper limit to the development of sophisticated robots lay in the area of what is now referred to as “artificial intelligence,” so he posited the development of a “positronic brain” for his robots.)
Asimov’s optimism is important in light of the shift in attitudes towards computers over the next decades. Along with a general distrust of technology following the use of the atomic bomb against the Japanese, the computer came to be one of our most powerful images of government control (Fitting, 1979; 1980). And now, in the 1980s, there has been again a reversal in attitudes towards the computer, whose potentiality for control is increasingly subverted; in films like Tron (1982), War Games (1983), and the British television series Max Headroom; and of course in the writing of the so-called “cyber-punks,” beginning with Vemor Vinge’s True Names (1984) and reaching its apogee in the writing of William Gibson (Neuromancer , Count Zero , and the anthology Burning Chrome ). This is the subject of a book in itself. For a discussion of the first two periods, see for instance, Patricia Warrick’s book.
In the context of the robot as a figure for the liberation from drudgery, the rebellion of the machines in Androids should remind us that there is also another side to the meaning of the robot: as a figure of the increasing roboticization of the work process, not only in the increasing use of robots in the work place, but in the development of work processes—as epitomized by the assembly line—which rob the worker of individual choice by transforming him/her into a cog in the machine —as in Chaplin’s classic film Modern Times (1936). The standard analysis of this transformation of the work process in the 20th century and the alienation of the worker is Harry Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century (NY: Monthly Review Press, 1974.) For an application of this issue to the robots of Asimov, see Portelli. In their article on Blade Runner, Kellner et al. briefly raise this issue.
5. “The android, which is the unauthentic human, the mere reflex machinery, is unable to experience empathy”: Dick’s 1978 comments (quoted in Dick , V: 389) on his “The Little Black Box” (1964), a story which deals with Mercerism. For a further discussion of these themes, see Dick’s Vancouver speech, “The Android and the Human”; see also the anthology of many of Dick’s robot stories edited by Warrick and Greenberg.
6. I do not have the space here to discuss the increasing appearance of misogynist themes in Dick’s writing—a theme which his critics, myself included, have avoided for too long. For a novel which also mixes a “predatory” female and a sympathetic humanoid robot, see his We Can Build You (1972). For a discussion of this issue in Blade Runner, see Barr.
7. The expression “fail-safe” is used during the briefing on the escaped replicants by Deckard’s boss. The “andys” of the novel also have a four-year lifespan, but it is presented as a by-product of their manufacture rather than as an intentional limitation, and as such, it plays no part in the androids’ motivations in the novel. There is some confusion in the film on this subject, for although Tyrell tells Roy that he cannot reverse the process, Rachel has been built with “no termination date.”
8. Quoted in Sammon, p. 26. So far as I am aware, this particular difference is dealt with in only one of the articles on Blade Runner, David Wingrove’s entry in his Source Book:
…the main difference, and the one that subverts the central theme of the novel, is in the treatment of the androids. Dick makes it clear that his androids, no matter how sympathetic some of them appear, are radically evil because they lack souls. The movie, ironically, takes a more humanistic approach to the androids, or Replicants, and presents them as victims of human evil. The Replicants are capable of murder but even so they emerge, by the end of the film, as morally as well as physically superior to their human hunters, (p. 40)
In his brief account, Wingrove goes no further in his explanation or interpretation, but it is interesting that in such a short account he would stress a point which most of the other critics simply overlooked. I shall return to this in my conclusion.
9. For an accurate sample of recent psychological studies of the effects of representations of violence, see the essays collected in Bryant & Zillman. For a critique of this research, see Thelma McCormak’s “Making Sense of the Research on Pornography,” in Burstyn, pp. 181-205. For a sensible discussion of the entire question, see Fraser’s Violence in the Arts. Finally, for discussions of the question of how film moves the spectator, see the articles by Dyer and Mulvey.
My own approach is based on the work of Fredric Jameson, most specifically his “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture” and on the discussion of ’50s monster movies at the end of his Marxism and Form (pp. 404-06). There, in a gloss on Susan Sontag’s “Imagination of Disaster,” he argues that the viewer’s relationship to these films was caught up in contradictory feelings of anger and anticipation— anger at the society in which she or he was imprisoned and exploited, an anger which vented itself in the monsters’ rampages. At the same time, glimpses of a repressed alternative could be seen both in the collective struggle against the monsters and in the figure of the scientist as an image of a non-alienated kind of work.
10. There is little depiction of the actual killing or “retirement” of the androids in the novel (Polkov, 8:65; Luft, 12:91; the Battys, 19:147; and Rachel 19:145). The increase in violence from novel to film cannot be explained by arguing that film, by its visual nature, emphasizes violence in the way a novel does not. Compare the violence in Mickey Spillane’s I, the Jury with the 1953 film version, where the situation is almost reversed: the protracted brutality of the novel is almost completely missing from that film.
Moreover, not all violent films “aestheticize” violence in the way Bonnie and Clyde, Clockwork Orange, or The Wild Bunch do. A test case might be Pasolini’s version of De Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom (Salo, 1975). For a sympathetic overview of low budget “gore (violence) and sexploitation” films, see the special issue of Re/Search, “Incredibly Strange Films” (1986). For a powerful analysis of the progressive political dimension of horror films, see Robin Wood’s “An Introduction to the American Horror Film,” in Britton et al., pp. 7-28.
11. Sammon quotes Dick (p. 26) as follows:
I was offered a great deal of money, and a cut in the merchandizing rights, if I would do a novelization of the screenplay, or if I would let someone like Alan Dean Foster come in and do it….My Agent figured that I would make about $400,000 from this deal.
But part of this package required the suppression of my original novel, and I said no….They got nasty again. They began to threaten to withdraw the logo rights—we wouldn’t be able to say that my book was the novel on which Blade Runner was based….We remained adamant, though, and stuck to our guns, and they eventually caved in. In re-releasing the original novel I only made about $12,500. But I kept my integrity. And my book.
Ashley, Mike. The Illustrated Book of Science Fiction Lists. London, 1982.
Asimov, Isaac. I, Robot. 1950; rpt. NY: Signet, 1964.
Barr, Marleen. “Metahuman ‘Kipple’; Or, Do Male Movie Makers Dream of Electric Women?: Specieism and Sexism in Blade Runner,” forthcoming in a critical anthology on Dick’s work, ed. Judith Kerman (Bowling Green Popular Press).
Britton, Andrew. & Richard Lippe, Tony Williams, & Robin Wood. American Nightmare: Essays on the Horror Film. Toronto, 1979.
Bryant, Jennings. & Dolf Zillman. Perspectives on Media Effects. Hillsdale, NJ: 1986.
Burstyn, Varda, ed. Women Against Censorship. Toronto, 1985.
Chevrier, Yves. “Blade Runner; or, The Sociology of Anticipation,” SFS, 11 (1984): 50-60.
De Lauretis, Teresa. Alice Doesn’t: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema. Bloomington, IN: 1984.
Dempsey, Michael. “Blade Runner,” Film Quarterly, 36, no. 2 (Winter 1982):33-38.
Dick, Philip K. “The Android and the Human,” SF Commentary, 31 (Dec. 1972): 4- 26.
___ . The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick. 5 vols. Los Angeles: Underwood/Miller, 1987.
___ . Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? 1968; rpt. Toronto: Signet, 1969.
___ . “Man, Android, and Machine,” in Science Fiction at Large, ed. Peter Nicholls (London: Gollancz, 1976), pp. 199-224.
Doll, Susan. & Greg Faller. “Blade Runner and Genre: Film Noir and Science Fiction,” Literature/Film Quarterly, 14 (1986): 89-100.
Dresser, David. “Blade Runner: Science Fiction and Transcendence,” Literature/Film Quarterly, 13 (1985): 172-79.
Dyer, Richard. “Entertainment and Utopia,” Movie, 24 (1977):2-13.
Fitting, Peter. “The Modem Anglo-American SF Novel: Utopian Longing and Capitalist Cooptation,” SFS, 6 (1979): 59-76.
___ . “Reality as Ideological Construct: A Reading of Five Novels by P.K. Dick,” SFS, 10 (1983): 219-36.
_______ . “The Second Alien,” SFS, 7 (1980): 285-93.
_______ . “Ubik: The Deconstruction of Bourgeois SF,” SFS, 2 (1975):47-54.
Fraser, John. Violence in The Arts. Cambridge, UK: 1974.
Greenberg, Martin Harry. & Joseph Olander, eds. Philip K. Dick. NY: 1983.
Jameson, Fredric. Marxism and Form. Princeton, 1971.
_______ . “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture,” Social Text, 1 (1979): 130-48.
Kellner, Doug. & Flo Leibowitz & Michael Ryan. “Blade Runner: A Diagnostic Critique,” Jump Cut, 29 (1984): 6-8.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasures and Narrative Cinema,” Screen, 16, no. 3 (Autumn 1975): 6-18.
Portelli, Alessandro. “The Three Laws of Robotics,” SFS, 7 (1980): 150-56.
Robinson, Kim Stanley. The Novels of Philip K. Dick. Ann Arbor, MI: 1983.
Sammon, Paul. “The Making of Blade Runner,” Cinefantastique, 12, nos. 5-6 (July-Aug. 1982): 20-47.
Strick, Philip. “The Age of the Replicant,” Sight and Sound, 51 (1982): 168-72.
Suvin, Darko. “Artifice as Refuge and World View: Philip K. Dick’s Foci,” in Greenberg & Olander, pp. 73-95.
Telotte, J.P. “Human Artifice and the Science Fiction Film,” Film Quarterly, 36 (Winter 1982): 44-51.
Warrick, Patricia. The Cybernetic Imagination in Science Fiction. Cambridge, MA: 1980.
_______ . & Martin Greenberg, eds. Robots, Androids, and Mechanical Oddities: The Science Fiction of Philip K. Dick. [Stories] Carbondale, IL: 1984.
Wingrove, David. Science Fiction Film Source Book. London, 1985.
Original title: Peter Fitting. Futuroflics: la Neutralisation de la revolte dans Blade Runner.
This article is an expanded and revised version of a paper read at an international conference (July 1986) on “Philip K. Dick et la Science Fiction Modeme,” cosponsored by the Universite de Paris IV (Sorbonne), Le Centre franco-américain Universitaire (Paris), and the University of California at Riverside.
Published in Science-Fiction Studies #43 = Volume 14, Part 3 = November 1987
3 thoughts on “FUTURECOP: THE NEUTRALIZATION OF REVOLT IN ‘BLADE RUNNER’”
I really enjoyed the article – yet I think the thesis is flawed. I believe both works, the novel and the film are complete works with the Flim being highly derivative from the novel. Yet the with the material the core themes are vastly different. The novel sues more antiquated more of its time more cold war concepts of Us vs Them and condescends to moral binary morality placing the Nx6 as “evil” and life as somehow superior to the artificial, despite evidence portraying them in many ways the equal or superior of a human being. There is an obvious element of the ubermensch in the Nx6 and its as though Dick (with his own spiritual, psychotic, personal experiences giving him a bias) is defying Nietzsche and arguing against a logical ethical framework. Yet the Nx6 are human creations if we made them lacking …could we not as easily have fixed that design flaw? I find this conundrum the most perplexing in the novel. If by choice we built something why did we not build it right? There is no explanation of this nither is it explored in depth.
The film, however, is much more consistent in its Neon-Pinocchio Posthuman vision asking instead how humanity is evolving and having a hand in its evolution now that purely natural pressures have been fundamentally altered and we building “lifeforms” like we would any machine. Thier are still many holes in the logic of the narrative used to propel the film yet it is easier to accept, in part because we are given touchstones back to our own daily grind, telling us clearly that this is the way “a day in the life of” context derived in part from the visual context of the city and in part by the world building of the spoken dialogue in the film and its single narrative thrust works in its favour the simple “all life lives its life and its all life” ultimatly it is devoid of the cole war Us vThem and embarces strength in diversity and the value of the human/Life experiance.
Great article but I disagree strongly with your conclusion that in the film Deckard is rewarded for maintaining the status quo – it seems you based your writing on one of the versions of the film where Deckard provides narration and his humanity is never questioned. In the definitive Directors Cut, taken as canon and the basis for the film sequel Blade Runner 2049, it is heavily implied (and then confirmed in the sequel) that Deckard is also a replicant and beginning to realize this. In this understanding, the films message is shifted away from its characters and towards the oppression of the advanced capitalist society in which the film takes place. Though both Roy Batty and Rick Deckard commit acts of violence and of mercy, neither is hero or villain. In fact, there is no hero: the only villain is the governments and mega corporations, such as Tyrell Corp, who create the entire cycle of enslavement and violence. The characters in the film are simply pawns in the game of capitalism. Though Deckard’s relationship with Rachael is incredibly toxic, with Rachael forced into the role of the ideal submissive woman, this understanding of their relationship is highly personal; when taken in the context of the machinations of Tyrell Corp, their relationship is clear – Deckard and Rachael were designed with human lifespans and the ability to reproduce. This explains the bizarre, forced nature of their relationship as perfect counterparts bound to love each other, a relationship that does not change even after Deckards rape of Rachael. Their relationship is false, designed by Tyrell. This ending, in turn, recenters the themes of the film on the question of humanity: Deckard and Rachael can live like humans, as long as humans, and reproduce like humans, yet they were designed to do so with no agency of their own. Even so, is this not the case for actual humans? It is not our choice to be born, nor to be born with a drive to reproduce. What, then is the difference between human and replicant? Control. The humans are the masters, the replicants the slaves. This is the only difference. The violence is gratuitous and sickly fascinating, but this is not because Scott wanted any excuse to add violence to the film. It is because this senseless and horrid violence is the result of a capitalist slave society. The violence is not random, it is a symptom of the society in Blade Runner, and the question, “what is human?” Is still the central theme.
Wow did not realize this is literally an article from the 80’s. Of course the author couldn’t have known Deckard was a replicant, the directors cut wouldn’t be released for another couple decades.