BLADE RUNNER VERSUS DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP? BY CATHY BELL
The film Blade Runner starring Harrison Ford from 1982 is based on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K Dick which was published in 1968. Even although the film is later it seems less contemporary than the book which has a more timeless feel to it. This is partly due to the 1980’s aesthetic of the film which is shot in a dark, moody environment which, for some reason not apparent, is set in San Francisco’s downtown Chinatown. The film seems dated but its real problem is its failure to engage with the issues that Dick has placed central to the theme of the book – that is, nature versus Artificial Intelligence (AI). The film smacks of Hollywood and it would seem that its main premise is to follow the same old tried and tested method i.e., handsome hero hunts down baddie. Throw in some fast, furious and whacky scenes and some women (whether they be human or android it doesn’t matter). There you have the recipe for a sci-fi blockbuster which exploits the bare bones of a good piece of literature while failing to engage with the pertinent ethical issues addressed in the book.
In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the hero Rick Deckard dreams of owning a live animal (the more exotic the better). He already has a mechanical sheep but it is not satisfactory, live animals, however, are hard to come by and expensive. Deckard is a bounty hunter who hunts down and retires/kills rogue androids, with the bounty he receives for each destroyed android he hopes to buy a live animal. This aspect of the story is not explored in the film, there is an unsuccessful attempt to introduce the theme of animals by having a stripper android with a live snake wrapped around her neck perform amazing contortions while being chased by Harrison Ford who wants to destroy her. There is also a fleeting glimpse of an owl (an early exercise in CGI) at the Rosen Foundation (who build the new and advanced Nexus 6 model android). This omission of the animal dimension is disappointing since this is a central and important component of what the book is about. The ideas contained in the book are questioning what human beings are doing to the planet with their quest to advance AI to the detriment of nature and the natural world.
The chapter in the book where the female android Pris cuts the legs off a live spider is a strong metaphor, it suggests a clear link between AI and the slow erosion if not destruction of nature. This scene does not happen in the film, instead the character of Pris has no real purpose as she trots around looking like a spaced-out escapee from an 1980’s indie band instead of the dangerous machine that she really is. Similarly, the character of John Isadore the lonely human who lives alone in an entire block of flats is badly portrayed in the film. It is important that he is lonely, that he has no friends as, because of this, the rogue androids can fill the void and enlist his help. So, what did the makers of Blade Runner do with this character? They renamed him Gaff and gave him a gang of crazy little robot companions thus spoiling the subtle character traits that are crucial to the situation. That is, it takes away the reasoning behind why he sides with the androids without hesitation.
Rick Deckard and his wife (yes, I did say wife) are desperate to own a live animal and not only is his wife absent in the film there is no sense at all that this is a major preoccupation of Deckard’s. In fact, there is little attempt to engage with any of the philosophical issues raised in the book regarding the human condition. Deckard, in the film, comes across as a one-dimensional character whose main source of concern seems to be that the woman he has fallen for (Rachel Rosen) is an android. He doesn’t even have to bear the burden of guilt that might come with an extra-marital affair since his wife has been banished from the narrative. And, even the leader android Roy Baty’s wife Irmgard Baty is nowhere to be found – what did the makers of Blade Runner have against wives? Yet these two characters are important, Iran Deckard provides (albeit unsatisfactory) human companionship for Deckard in a desolate world. Whereas Irmgard Baty’s character is a somewhat reasonable thinking android, a type of which does not figure in the film which prefers to take a more simplistic approach towards the androids, that is, although intelligent they are incapable of human empathy and reasoning. So, Irmgard is, therefore, an important character in the book, after all, this is what the book is hinting at – i.e., Irmgard (in Philip K Dick’s mind) is possibly the blue-print for the development of a machine/android/robot capable of compassion which could usher in the development of a comparatively reasonable co-existence between human and android? We will never know.
Blade Runner comes across as a rather diluted version of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, a book which displays lasting vision. A book whose message is more relevant today than ever. The film is what it is, a Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster, it achieved its goal of becoming a box-office hit and even today is considered a cult classic (an epithet it does not deserve). If a new film based on this novel were to be made today it would be much better if the essence of the book could be captured in a more meaningful way.