Two Films & a Book: Blade Runner (1982; 2017) & Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Having recently seen Blade Runner 2049, I finally got around to reading Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? on which the original Ridley Scott Blade Runner film was based. For completeness, I then watched the original, having previously only seen it in snatches whenever it turned up on good old-fashioned terrestrial TV.
The experience prompted this brief exchange with a friend on Facebook:
Me: Three more chapters of Philip K. Dick – there’s a fuck of a lot more electric animals than I remember in the films.
Her: Haha! How annoying when the books divert so heavily from the films…
Of course, films and books are very different forms of storytelling, but it is interesting to see how author and director have explored a common central premise within the constraints and opportunities of two very different media.
As we close down on the year in which the original Blade Runner movie was set (2019), it feels timely to reflect on Scott’s and Dick’s dystopian visions of where we will be in a little over a year’s time.
Rick Deckard is a Blade Runner. His job is to hunt down incredibly life-like androids who have illegally fled their lives as slave workers in off-world colonies and come to Earth in search of something better. Once caught and identified, Deckard “retires” the androids – a euphemism for killing them in a world which does not believe that a manufactured thing was ever alive.
Dick explores some existentialist themes of empathy, reality and humanity as his protagonist hunts down six very advanced (Nexus-6) androids, and one of his side characters, J. R. Isidore, provides shelter and a kind of friendship to one of the fugitive human-machines.
Dick’s inspiration for the book came through the research he did for The Man in The High Castle when he read accounts of Nazi soldiers so devoid of empathy (the men complained they were kept awake at night by the cries of starving children) that Dick questioned whether the men could be considered human.
And from that came the test for an android; a series of questions designed to evoke an empathic response – typically in relation to suffering animals.
In one scene, an android pulls four of the eight legs off a spider to test a theory that it could still walk without them and that eight was surely an over-abundance of legs – a scene which is upsetting to the human, Isidore, trying to befriend her. As a child in Brazil, I remember a school playground where small boys, a hot sun, a magnifying glass and a colony of ants combined to devastating effect. I don’t recall participating in the “making ants explode game” – I think teachers stopped it. But it is an interesting implication that some small boys (and girls, too) would not pass Dick’s Voigt-Kampff test of humanity and could be identified for “retirement.”
The world may have diverged in many ways from Dick’s vision of it, but empathy – or the lack of it – is arguably a more relevant issue now than ever. We hear of rising adolescent mental health issues, polarised opinions, and arguments waged by disconnected keyboard warriors racing to be the first to play the “you’re a Nazi” card. I even saw recently a very thought-provoking Youtube video on what it means to be empathetic.
To be fair to those long-ago children in a Brazilian schoolyard, empathy is not innate. It needs to be developed, and can sadly be unlearned or become selective in its application. My daughter is studying for a Psychology degree and wrote recently about the way people dehumanised refugees, an almost deliberate reframing of perception to self-justify a lack of empathy and an indifference in response to the refugees’ plight.
In Dick’s book, the test for empathy is necessarily complex and there are several points where a character’s identity as human or android is in doubt and the line between them becomes blurred. Dick also is fascinated by reality and how we perceive it; how indistinguishable from ‘real’ can artificial be and yet still be considered artificial? If it takes a bone marrow analysis to prove if a “retired” person was an android or not, then who is the human and who the inhuman?
One of the themes in the book that received only passing references in the films is the scarcity of real live animals – so much so that there is a vigorous trade in imitation animals, including the eponymous electric sheep. Owning a live animal is a status symbol – the rarest being considered prizes as exotic as a cartier egg. All Deckard’s contemporaries carry a price guide – a sort of animal auto-trader – that gives the book value of living creatures. Deckard’s desire to upgrade his electric sheep is one of the driving forces in the book that slips out of the films (much to their benefit, I felt).
Beyond that initial challenge of a killer of escaped androids, Dick’s work accrues other signature ideas. There is the strange empathic faith system of Mercerism. There are the mood machines that enable you to choose how you want to feel. All of these serve to undermine a notion of reality, to remove the character’s certainty about what is real emotion, real life, real experience. In a way, it is as eviscerating of faith in the world you see as Neo’s experience in The Matrix.
Authors will often debate the merits of being a plotster or a pantster; an architect or a gardener; a writer who plans to the nth detail before setting down the open line or an author who follows his characters’ lead with only the vaguest notion of where they may be going.
On the basis of Electric Sheep I would put Dick down very much as a pantser. The story plays with its key ideas, but performs some sharp volte-faces which don’t always make sense – or at least don’t seem to be connected or foreshadowed by what has gone before. Questions as to who is or is not an android are answered almost on a whim – and then illogical behaviour is subsequently explained away with androids being so stupid.
As a story, that makes Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? somewhat unsatisfying – for me, at least. As an exploration of ideas, it is entertaining in the best traditions of science fiction and fantasy. Like Aesop’s fables, they make us reflect on what it is to be human by making us think about something that is alien to our experience.
One of my favourite lines from the book is from the thoughts of J. R. Isidore the chickenhead – cognitively impaired by post-war pollution, and so denied the potential to access a new life off-world. In his dilapidated apartment – the only occupied one in an abandoned building – he seeks to befriend the fugitive androids.
You have to be with other people, he thought. In order to live at all.
That summarises the interconnectedness at the heart of the book – and of life.
The original film
The original film was Ridley Scott’s first foray into film-making in the US, and that brought conflicts of working style that made for a challenging production experience.
That said, the film is visually stunning. An actors’ strike may have delayed filming, but extended the time available for set design and manufacture, and the impact is seen in every atmospheric frame. The level of detail in the sets is astonishing and the whole has a grim noir feel to it intentionally reminiscent of Raymond Chandler’s tales of Philip Marlowe: Private Eye. That fits well given that the organic (pantser) style of Dick’s writing matches Chandler’s, but where Chandler’s brilliance was in tone and language, Dick’s is more in ideas and imagination.
The film pulls the slightly rambling thread of Dick’s imagination into a more coherent, focused plot. The androids have a sense of purpose in their return to Earth that is more significant, more empowering than the book androids’ desire to assimilate into human society. There is a stronger sense of villain and the action is more compelling. The bare few brief paragraphs that describe each android’s “retirement” are developed into tense, bloody, extended action sequences. The distraction of Deckard’s wife, their mood machines and obsession with owning a real animal are all dismissed with a passing reference to “my ex-wife.” The various love interests coalesce into something more recognisable and sympathetic. Deckard bemoans the way the androids in the book don’t fight for life as they should – as they would if they were the product of a billion years of evolution, rather than a manufactured piece of machinery with a four-year life span. In the film… the androids fight. My, how they fight.
In the book, Roy Batty – the lead android in the rebellion – is a relatively uninspired figure; terse, querulous, but not sufficiently frightening to be a principal foe. In the film, Rutger Hauer is brilliant, and rightly considers this one of his finest performances – capturing the demonic desperation of someone not quite human, yet still a genius.
The film explores more of the androids’ faltering attempts at humanity, in particular their feelings for each other and the clumsy automaton nature of their kissing. Throughout it challenges that notion of an incapacity for empathy more robustly than the book does, right up to the final climactic rooftop scene.
The film also picks up the book’s challenge of reality versus perception. What if an android thinks it’s a human? How far are we simply the sum of our memories – the experiences that have shaped us – and what if those memories are not our own, but were stolen and implanted to give us a false sense of self? It can get a little mind-bending in a way that reminded me of the film Total Recall, wherein Arnold Schwarzenegger’s memories were re-written and effectively turned him into an entirely different person.
The film delivers a more focused story than the book, yet still meandered too much for some critics’ tastes. Initial screenings showed audiences were so confused at points in the story that a clumsy voice-over of Deckard’s inner monologue had to be retro-fitted so that Harrison could Fordsplain what was going on. If you know what is going on, the narration is intrusive, and a couple of later versions (the 1989 misnamed ‘director’s cut’ and the 2007 final cut) dispensed with the device.
The film – given that it is set in 2019, just a year or so hence – missed a few tricks in its prophecy. Like the book, it predicted flying cars, off-world colonisation and video-phones. Yet the internet, smartphones and near-ubiquitous CCTV would have radically altered how the story played out. Perhaps most anachronistic of all are the old, printed photographs with white borders – grainy physical tokens of implanted memories – that now seem totally out of place in a near-contemporary setting.
Blade Runner 2049
Set thirty years after the events of the first film, this is a genuine sequel. It admires and develops the visual artistry of the original film, though doubtless with far more CGI assistance than was available to Ridley Scott in 1982.
Again, it questions themes of humanity and reality – what it is to exist, and the value of memories in determining who we are. It answers the question, I guess, that androids don’t dream of electric sheep; they dream of companions, of AI simulations so convincing they could pass the Turing test.
Harrison Ford reprises his Deckard characterisation, and – in ploughing uncharted territory beyond the original book’s end – the film can tell its own compelling story, and does so well.
In its android protagonist, the film draws out some of the presence and the pathos of the Rutger Hauer character – though without quite having the lines and delivery that he had in the first film. Gems such as these:
If only you could see what I have seen with your eyes.
I have seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion.
All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in the rain.
A last word on empathy, films and books
Long ago, I heard Baroness Susan Greenfield talking about brain development, and her concern at how reading was undervalued as a psychological developmental tool. As George R.R. Martin once wrote: “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. A non-reader lives but one.” Reading, more than film watching, requires and develops empathy. The brilliant visual images of the two films were delivered by the directors, not created by their audiences. The demands books make of their readers exercise their imagination to turn black and white words on a page into colourful images in their heads; to see those strange worlds through the protagonist’s eyes; to walk in their shoes; to understand how they feel. Reading is an active process of fashioning a new meaning in the space between the author’s mind and the reader’s imagination. Reading is our first and our best training in empathy for another point of view.
This makes for something of a meta experience when reading a book about the capacity for empathy as a test of human-ness. But it is a skill (not an attribute) that we neglect at our peril. That is to say, empathy can be learned, and can be selectively applied. Human history is littered with the foul deeds of those who dehumanised opponents by deeming them so different as to be unworthy of empathy.
So in many ways, Philip K. Dick’s story – inspired by the empathy-void of the Nazis – has (in all its forms) more relevance than ever today.