More Human than Human

Indy Datta hasn’t seen Blade Runner 2049 yet, but he has re-watched the original Blade Runner and re-read the novel, and he has thoughts.

In 2017, it’s pretty much impossible to move a yard in any direction without tripping over another adaptation, of a story or novel by the late Philip Kindred Dick: in the last few days, even as “Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams” unspools weekly on Channel 4 to the mild interest of a select audience, the news has dropped of a television series based on the short story “Second Variety”, already the basis of the 1995 film Screamers. In contrast, when Dick died in 1982 his name would have been obscure beyond the ranks of socially-shunned science fiction fans and his small cult following (particularly, of course, in France). Ridley Scotts’s film adaptation of “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” premiered a few months before Dick’s death, and invented the now-thriving Dick industry, but also stands in the minds of many as the source of the original sin of that industry, which mines the author’s work for tricksy, marketable or cool narrative sci-fi concepts while failing to get to grips with most of what made him such a distinctive and essential artist, most notably the radical metaphysical doubt and paranoia that underpins his work.

Is this fair? Going back to the film and its 1968 source novel in search of an answer is not a straightforward undertaking, given the multiplicity of versions of the film that exist, and their strikingly different approaches to some of the work’s key questions (not to mention the tangential relationship of any version of the film to a coherent narrative). It’s certainly true that Scott’s film, in all its incarnations, has a strikingly different tone to Dick’s book. Scott’s work has arguably never with great success dealt in humour while the novel, although deeply engaged in its deeper questioning, has a distinctive timbre of arch, dry absurdity. And the film diverges from the world-building and storytelling of the book in ways both large and small: the book’s earth is depopulated and dying, the film’s richly visualised future Los Angeles is teeming with life; and the film completely jettisons Mercerism, the novel’s fictional religion – a compellingly strange hybrid of Scientology and literalised media-celebrity worship.

But it’s also worth re-acknowledging the beautiful, bruising totality of Scott’s vision (and the vision he empowered in his collaborators, like production artist Syd Mead) and his achievement of it, an expression as powerful as Star Wars, 2001, and his own Alien of the proposition that the expressive power of science fiction cinema lies as much in design as in narrative – and not just visual design, but the design of language. Would Blade Runner have endured and been as influential as it has been under Dick’s original title rather than the one Scott gave it (lifted from Burroughs, with no narrative justification whatever, and applied to Dick’s bounty hunters), or if the replicants were called “Andys” as Dick called them?

The change of tone in the course of the adaptation also speaks to a change of subgenre. In the book, bounty hunter Rick Deckard’s lethal pursuit of a cohort of renegade androids hiding in the interstices of human society is a bureaucratic formality, complicated mainly by his own crisis of conscience and by the attempts of others to manipulate that conscience. Scott’s film, much to Dick’s initial consternation, recasts the story as a hardboiled noirish thriller, and Dick’s nervy introspective Deckard as, well, we’ll come to that. This change is crystalised in the portrayal of Rachael, the android Deckard falls in love with.

In Blade Runner, we first meet Rachael (played by Sean Young) when Deckard (Harrison Ford) subjects her to the Voigt-Kampff test, a measurement of empathic reflexes designed to distinguish humans from replicants, and condemn the latter to death (or “retirement”). Deckard discovers that, unknown to Rachael herself, she is a Nexus 6, a new and sophisticated model of replicant, closer than ever before to passing for human. When she learns the truth, she appeals to Deckard to recognise her humanity and spare her, and – in a scene freighted with profoundly uncomfortable overtones of coercion, he seduces her. Pre-seduction Rachael is styled in retro femme-fatale drag draped on the sense memory of the body of Maria from Metropolis – post seduction Rachael is smaller, softened and humanised, her hair let down; the filmic image was femme fatale but the reality was sexually pliable damsel in distress. The film ends, depending on which version you’re watching, with Deckard and Rachael going on the lam together in the country, or with elevator doors closing on the pair of them, Rachael’s fate uncertain.

The novel’s Rachael is very different: aware at all times of her android status, she’s playing Rick from the start, and seduces him, gambling that when he has experienced an emotional connection with an android he will find himself unable to kill any more for the bounty on their heads. When her plan fails, she murders Deckard’s prized pet goat in a fit of pique, by throwing it off the roof of his apartment building. The film is inarguably poorer for omitting this scene and – more seriously – the change in Rachael’s portrayal in general denies agency to its only dimensional female character, and subjects to her to a seduction that borders on rape.

It’s possible to read this differently, of course, and the interpretation hinges on the narrative status of the replicants. Watching Blade Runner soon after watching Alien, and revisiting the naturalism and fine grain of the performances in the latter, one thing that struck me was how comparatively stilted and artificial the “human” performances in Blade Runner are, and then you see again how much more compelling the replicants are, all the way up to Rutger Hauer’s glorious Aryan-camp murderer poet Roy Batty. Free yourself of the preconception that Deckard is the hero, because of course Batty is really the hero, the one who fights death, who’s seen things you’ll never see, and the tragedy of Rachael’s story snaps into focus.

A question that audiences will expect the Denis Villeneuve-directed sequel to address: is Deckard himself a replicant? The various versions of the film have flirted with ambiguity on this point to varying extents, and in Dick’s novel, there is no doubt that he is not – notwithstanding a grandly entertaining reality-slip interlude where he is arrested by a shadow police department covertly run by androids on the pretext, among other things, that he is. There’s no doubt that the ambiguity of the film on this point plays a part in its longevity, and there’s a danger (as with Scott’s prequels to Alien) that the impulse to explain will not be to the new film’s advantage. For my own part, however, my return to both film and book did establish that Dick’s enquiry into the diffuse border between humanity and post-humanity is more searching than Scott’s to the extent that resolving the ambiguity won’t mean much to me. Dick’s humans can outsource their very affect to dialed-up settings on “mood organs” (sample settings – 100: Creative and fresh attitude toward my job; 003: The desire to dial; 101: Despair; 594: Pleased acknowledgment of husband’s superior wisdom in all matters; 888: The desire to watch TV, no matter what’s on it). They imagine that their capacity for empathy is greater than that of androids but they disdain radiation-poisoned “chickenheads” and follow a sham religion which blurs the distinction between empathy and communally-experienced sensation, mob-feeling. They enslave and exploit sentient beings and murder on sight any that escape slavery. Blade Runner asks what it means if you can’t tell the difference between humans and simulacra of humans. “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” asks if there is any difference.

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