Blade Runner is a 1982 neo-noir science fiction film directed by Ridley Scott and starring Harrison Ford, with Sean Young, Rutger Hauer, Daryl Hannah, M. Emmet Walsh, and Edward James Olmos. It’s loosely based on Philip K. Dick‘s 1968 novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which I will also be analyzing, as I will the film’s 2017 sequel, Blade Runner 2049.
Neither Blade Runner nor its sequel fared as well as they should have at the box office, though both have been well-received critically, the first film now regarded as a cult classic, and one of the best science-fiction films of all time.
The stories’ notion of androids–“andys” in the novel, and “replicants,” or pejoratively, “skinjobs” in the movies–raises questions of what it means to be authentically human; for the androids are virtually indistinguishable from real humans. Since these androids are used as slave labour on other planets, they can be seen as symbolic of victims of racism and class conflict.
From Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
‘I’m not a cop.’ He felt irritable now, although he hadn’t dialed for it.
‘You’re worse,’ his wife said, her eyes still shut. ‘You’re a murderer hired by the cops.’
‘I’ve never killed a human being in my life.’ His irritability had risen, now; had become outright hostility.
Iran said, ‘Just those poor andys.’ —Dick, page 1
The saying currently blabbed by posters, TV ads, and government junk mail, ran: ‘Emigrate or degenerate! The choice is yours!’ –page 5
“Kipple is useless objects, like junk mail or match folders after you use the last match or gum wrappers or yesterday’s homeopape. When nobody’s around, kipple reproduces itself. For instance, if you go to bed leaving any kipple around your apartment, when you wake up the next morning there’s twice as much of it. It always gets more and more.”
“I see.” The girl regarded him uncertainly, not knowing whether to believe him. Not sure if he meant it seriously.
“There’s the First Law of Kipple,” he said. “‘Kipple drives out nonkipple.’ Like Gresham’s law about bad money. And in these apartments there’s been nobody here to fight the kipple.” –page 52
Thinking this, he wondered if Mozart had any intuition that the future did not exist, that he had already used up his little time. Maybe I have too, Rick thought as he watched the rehearsal move along. This rehearsal will end, the performance will end, the singers will die, eventually the last score of the music will be destroyed in one way or another; finally the name “Mozart” will vanish, the dust will have won. If not on this planet then another. We can evade it awhile. As the andys can evade me and exist a finite stretch longer. But I will get them or some other bounty hunter gets them. In a way, he realized, I’m part of the form-destroying process of entropy. The Rosen Association creates and I unmake. Or anyhow so it must seem to them.” pages 77-78
At an oil painting Phil Resch halted, gazed intently. The painting showed a hairless, oppressed creature with a head like an inverted pear, its hands clapped in horror to its ears, its mouth open in a vast, soundless scream. Twisted ripples of the creature’s torment, echoes of its cry, flooded out into the air surrounding it; the man or woman, whichever it was, had become contained by its own howl. It had covered its ears against its own sound. The creature stood on a bridge and no one else was present; the creature screamed in isolation. Cut off by – or despite – its outcry. –page 104
Luba Luft…stood absorbed in the picture before her: a drawing of a young girl, hands clasped together, seated on the edge of a bed, an expression of bewildered wonder and new, groping awe imprinted on the face. –page 104
Resch…burrowed a narrow hole, silently, into her stomach. She began to scream; she lay crouched against the wall of the elevator, screaming. Like the picture, Rick thought to himself, and, with his own laser tube, killed her. Luba Luft’s body fell forward, face down, in a heap. It did not even tremble. –page 107
So much for the distinction between authentic living humans and humanoid constructs. –page 113
‘The whole idea in bounty hunting is to work as fast as hell. That’s where the profit comes’ –page 125
…bounty hunters…something merciless that carried a printed list and a gun, that moved machine-like through the flat, bureaucratic job of killing. A thing without emotions, or even a face; a thing that if killed got replaced immediately by another resembling it. And so on, until everyone real and alive had been shot. –page 125
‘You’re androids,’ Isidore said…’But what does it matter to me? I mean, I’m a special; they don’t treat me very well either, like for instance I can’t emigrate.’ –page 129
The old man said, ‘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. –page 141
Roy Baty…had probably been a manual laborer, a field hand, with aspirations for something better. Do androids dream? Rick asked himself. Evidently; that’s why they occasionally kill their employers and flee here. A better life, without servitude. Like Luba Luft; singing Don Giovanni and Le Nozze instead of toiling across the face of a barren rock-strewn field. On a fundamentally uninhabitable colony world. –page 145
‘That goat,’ Rachael said. ‘You love the goat more than me. More than you love your wife, probably. First the goat, then your wife, then last of all–‘ –pages 158-159
‘Mercerism is a swindle!’ –page 165
‘The whole experience of empathy is a swindle.’ –pages 165-166
What a job to have to do, Rick thought. I’m a scourge, like famine or plague. Where I go the ancient curse follows. As Mercer said, I am required to do wrong. Everything I’ve done has been wrong from the start. –page 178
For Mercer everything is easy, he thought, because Mercer accepts everything. Nothing is alien to him. But what I’ve done, he thought; that’s become alien to me. In fact everything about me has become unnatural; I’ve become an unnatural self. –page 182
The hunger and heat combined, a poisonous taste resembling defeat; yes, he thought, that’s what it is: I’ve been defeated in some obscure way. By having killed the androids? By Rachael’s murder of my goat? He did not know, but as he plodded along a vague and almost hallucinatory pall hazed over his mind; he found himself at one point, with no notion of how it could be, a step from an almost certain fatal cliffside fall—falling humiliatingly and helplessly, he thought; on and on, with no one even to witness it. Here there existed no one to record his or anyone else’s degradation, and any courage or pride which might manifest itself here at the end would go unmarked: the dead stones, the dust-stricken weeds dry and dying, perceived nothing, recollected nothing, about him or themselves. –page 183
‘They’re saying now that Mercer is a fake.’
‘Mercer isn’t a fake,’ he said. ‘Unless reality is a fake.’ –page 186
‘The spider Mercer gave the chickenhead, Isidore; it probably was artificial, too. But it doesn’t matter. The electric things have their lives, too. Paltry as those lives are.’ –page 191
From Blade Runner
“Replicants are like any other machine. They’re either a benefit or a hazard. If they’re a benefit, it’s not my problem.” –Deckard (Ford)
“Skin jobs”. That’s what Bryant called Replicants. In history books he’s the kind of cop who used to call black men “niggers”. –Deckard (voiceover)
“Commerce is our goal here at Tyrell. ‘More human than human’ is our motto.” –Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel)
“Have you ever retired a human by mistake?” –Rachael (Young)
“Is this testing whether I’m a Replicant or a lesbian, Mr. Deckard?” –Rachael
“You know that Voight-Kampff test of yours? Did you ever take that test yourself?” –Rachael
“Painful to live in fear, isn’t it?” –Leon
“I want more life, fucker (father).” –Batty, to Tyrell
“The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long, and you have burned so very very brightly, Roy.” –Tyrell
“Proud of yourself, little man?” –Roy Batty (Hauer)
“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.” –Batty, before dying
“It’s too bad she won’t live. But then again, who does?” –Gaff (Olmos)
From Blade Runner 2049
“You newer models are happy scraping the shit… because you’ve never seen a miracle.” –Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista)
Interviewer: Officer K-D-six-dash-three-dot-seven, let’s begin. Ready?’
K: Yes, sir.
Interviewer: Recite your baseline.
‘K’: And blood-black nothingness began to spin… A system of cells interlinked within cells interlinked within cells interlinked within one stem… And dreadfully distinct against the dark, a tall white fountain played.
Luv: I’m here for Mr. Wallace. I’m Luv.
‘K’: He named you. You must be special.
Rick Deckard: I had your job once. I was good at it.
‘K’: Things were simpler then.
“Sometimes to love someone, you got to be a stranger.” –Deckard
“Dying for the right cause. It’s the most human thing we can do.” –Freysa
III: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
One of the things that are supposed to distinguish humans from “andys” is our capacity for empathy. Rick Deckard’s wife, Iran, however, is avid about using an “empathy box” to experience climbing a rocky hill and enduring being pelted with rocks, a shared experience called “fusion” with Wilbur Mercer, the hill climber and eponym of “Mercerism,” the new religion of those living after “World War Terminus” (in the year 1992, or 2021, in later editions of the novel), a nuclear war that has made life on Earth difficult, if not unliveable.
The empathy box allows her, and all other adherents to Mercerism, to experience Mercer’s climb as if they were he. Hence, she can empathize with him and all others sharing in the fusion, and thus grow spiritually in accordance with the religion. Yet, since empathy is, at least normally, an innate human trait, why does one need to use the box? Why not pray or meditate instead, using one’s religious faith to share the experience intuitively? Why use a machine to feel empathy?
The people of this world also have a device called a “mood organ” that they can set at whatever number to provide any emotional state they wish to have, including negative emotions. But again, since these are actual humans who use the mood organ, why can’t they just try to feel these feelings naturally? Devices like this one and the empathy box give us the impression that real people in this dystopia are as machine-like as the androids (who also have emotions, incidentally).
Empathy is the basis of the morality of Mercerism, which has replaced Christianity since the nuclear destruction of the world as we’ve known it. Few animals have survived, and as an expression of empathy, people are expected to own and take care of an animal–preferably a real one, but mechanical animals (e.g., Deckard’s electric sheep) are owned by those who can’t afford the expensive real ones.
The ‘better’ an animal one has (i.e, a real one), the more social status one has, since taking care of a ‘better’ animal implies that the owner has more empathy. We can see in this commodification of animals, bought and sold, real and fake, how the new religion is as corrupt as those of the past.
Rick Deckard’s ambition is to get enough money to buy a real animal. He sees his neighbour, Bill Barbour, with his horse (pages 6-10). He envies Barbour because all he has is that electric sheep. The opportunity to “retire” (that is, kill) a group of androids who have escaped the off-world colonies and come to Earth can give him the money for a better animal.
What is emphasized in the novel and both movies, though in different ways, is that the distinction between humans and androids is meaningless. Similarly, in our world it has been scientifically established that there are no such things as races, yet racists keep insisting on making those distinctions; just as the humans in Dick’s novel use the Voigt-Kampff empathy test to maintain a sense that “andys” are not truly human, and therefore aren’t deserving of basic rights.
Humans create androids to be slaves on the off-world colonies. Capitalists created, if you will, the proletariat through, for example, the enclosures of the Commons in England and forcing the peasant workers into the cities to sell their labour for a meagre wage. White slaveowners created the ‘nigger’ by taking him from Africa, scorning his original culture, and creating a disparaging one for him in the US. The histories of these oppressed peoples were replaced with the new ideology of the oppressor, to justify his ‘superiority’ over his victims.
Mercerism’s moral notion of human empathy, something that androids apparently lack, is used to justify notions of human superiority over “andys”; just as the ‘superior’ morality of Christianity has been used to justify ‘superior’ Western culture in its lording itself over ‘uncivilized’ and ‘heathen’ societies, thus legitimizing imperialist conquests of Africa, Southeast Asia, and South America with no pangs of bad conscience.
In comparing bigotry against androids with bigotry against people of colour, though, we note an ironic contrast. The difference between man and android is invisible, whereas the visual difference between whites and non-whites is obvious. We don’t deny the biology and personalities of non-whites as genuine, yet we treat them as subhuman just because of their darker skin colour. “Skinjobs” (as they’re derogatorily called in the movies) have no skin colour distinct from that of humans, yet biologically, they’re synthetic, and thus are regarded as non-human.
Deckard’s willingness to retire the androids, just to rise in social status by owning a real animal, illustrates perfectly how this dystopian world is symbolic of how dehumanizing capitalism and class conflict are. Subjugate and/or kill off the lower classes and people of colour, and rise in class status by having done so. Religion justifies this class structure, since the upper classes apparently are more moral, have more empathy, and therefore deserve a better life.
Protestantism justifies letting the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, since God rewards the hardworking with more money and, by implication, punishes the ‘lazy’ with poverty. The Hindu caste system in India has also justified privileged ruling classes of Brahmins and Kshatriyas, and the Vaishyas, rewarding their good karma from previous lives, as against the lowest-level Shudras, who are kept in poverty because of bad karma:
“The fundamental social ideal is that of the four-fold division of society…In the accounts of the division of society into four classes (varna) in the sacred texts it is emphasized that the origin of the class structure is divine, not human, the implication being that the right ordering of society is ultimately a religious, not a secular, concern.” (The Hindu Tradition, page 75)
The ’empathic’ caring for an animal (usually a synthetic one) in Mercerism parallels the phoniness of charity promoted in typical manifestations of organized religion. We socialists see through the pretence of using charity to help the poor, since we know that throwing a bit of money at them from time to time does nothing to solve their problems. Giving to the poor is about giving oneself face, and little more.
Alongside the contempt shown to androids is a similar attitude shown to humans adversely affected by the toxic environment after the nuclear war. One common affliction is against the intellect, causing such people to be unfit to live on a colonized planet off-world. Such people are referred to by the slur, “chickenhead.” A gentler term for “chickenhead,” however, is “special.”
John Isidore is a “special,” living alone in a filthy, abandoned building, until he meets Pris Stratton, one of the renegade androids that Deckard has to retire. Isidore’s relationship with her, Roy and Irmgard Baty (whom he later meets) is one of a mutual understanding of each other’s outsider status, with an added measure of android contempt for servile Isidore.
So while the androids are comparable to the scorned working class and people of colour, Isidore is rather like mentally disabled people; so “chickenhead” might remind us of the slur ‘retard.’ While we’re on the subject of people discriminated against and looked down on, consider Rachael’s remark when given the Voigt-Kampff test: “‘Is this testing whether I’m an android,’ Rachael asked tartly, ‘or whether I’m homosexual?'” (page 39–of course, in the movie the words android and homosexual are replaced with replicant and a lesbian)
Indeed, that very test is grating on one’s nerves, in how it probes and discriminates through its taunting questions. The very determination that Rachael Rosen, originally assumed to be human, is an android underscores the foggy distinction between human and android. There’s a recurring worry that these tests may be ineffective in spotting the difference between android and human, leading to the fear of accidentally killing a person.
Added to this confusion is Deckard’s growing empathy for androids like Rachael. After retiring Polokov, having originally thought he was a Soviet policeman, and after helping Phil Resch kill Luba Luft, an android opera singer whose voice he admired, Deckard is beginning to see the futility of distinguishing human from android. The incident at the fake police station (manned by androids, Chapters Ten and Eleven) reinforces Deckard’s confusion, since he’s been manipulated into thinking he could be an android.
Recall the end of Chapter Nine, when Officer Crams (an android pretending to be a policeman) has apprehended Deckard, and says this to him: “‘Maybe you’re an android,’ Officer Crams said. ‘With a false memory, like they give them. Had you thought of that?’ He grinned frigidly as he continued to drive south.” (page 88)
And later, an android, pretending to be a senior police official named Garland, says this to fellow bounty hunter Phil Resch about Deckard: “‘I don’t think you understand the situation,’ Garland said. ‘This man–or android–Rick Deckard comes to us from a phantom, hallucinatory, non-existent police agency allegedly operating out of the old departmental headquarters on Lombard. He’s never heard of us and we’ve never heard of him–yet ostensibly we’re both working the same side of the street. He employs a test we’ve never heard of. The list he carries around isn’t of androids; it’s a list of human beings. He’s already killed once–at least once. And if Miss Luft hadn’t gotten to a phone he probably would have killed her and then eventually he would have come sniffing around after me.’ (page 94)
So we see here a group of androids trying to beat the humans at their own game, by projecting the non-human, Untermensch status onto those who are always doing it to them, and–with respect to “Garland’s motives. Wanting to split [Deckard and Resch] up…” (page 112).
We learn that Garland et al are androids, and after he is killed by Resch’s laser tube, Resch asks Deckard about the “andys”: ‘Do you think of them as “it”?’ With Deckard’s growing empathy for androids, he replies to Resch by saying, ‘When my conscience occasionally bothered me about the work I had to do; I protected myself by thinking of them that way but now I no longer find it necessary.’ (page 99)
Because both Deckard and Resch have doubts as to whether they’re androids or human, they both do the Voigt-Kampff test (pages 111-113). This doubt of theirs again reinforces the unclear line between human and ‘non-human.’
In his shock and unease about realizing he’s empathizing with androids, Deckard buys a Nubian goat (a real one) with his reward money. After presenting it to Iran, he explains his feelings to her: ‘I took a test, one question, and verified it; I’ve begun to empathize with androids, and look what that means. You said it this morning yourself. “Those poor andys.” So you know what I’m talking about. That’s why I bought the goat. I never felt like that before. Maybe it could be a depression, like you get. I can understand now how you suffer when you’re depressed…But when you get that depressed you don’t care. Apathy, because you’ve lost a sense of worth.’ (pages 137-138)
His wife wants to have “fusion” with Mercer because of her husband’s purchase; he isn’t all that enthused about Mercerism, but he has a vision of Mercer during “fusion,” who tells him of the necessity sometimes to do what is or seems to be immoral, or contrary to one’s nature (page 141). This hearing of Mercer’s words must be an auditory hallucination brought on by his stress and confusion over the morality of his work, and his growing, troubling empathy for androids he has to kill.
He meets Rachael, who has agreed to help him with the remaining androids to be retired, in a hotel. They are developing feelings for each other, which is difficult for him, of course, since she’s an android. He tells her of his goat: ‘I bought a black Nubian goat,’ he said. ‘I have to retire the three more andys. I have to finish up my job and go home to my wife.’ (pages 150-151)
This revelation annoys her, since it seems to her that in his hierarchy of values, the goat comes first, Iran second, and Rachel last: ‘That goat,’ Rachael said. ‘You love the goat more than me. More than you love your wife, probably. First the goat, then your wife, then last of all–‘ She laughed merrily. ‘What can you do but laugh?’ (pages 158-159)
She seems to have it right, for Deckard’s whole motivation has been to retire “andys” so he can have a living animal as a status symbol. Middle class types like Deckard rise, retired andys fall; this is symbolic of the class contradictions between the middle and lower classes, or the racial contradictions between whites and blacks.
Deckard’s wife isn’t all that important to him, since he sleeps with Rachael without any pangs of conscience over his adultery. The only aspect of the immorality of his sexual encounter with Rachael is in how he’s broken the law by sleeping with an android; it reminds one of the KKK’s abhorrence of inter-racial sex.
Towards the end of the novel, Deckard reflects on his sexual transgression: “Bed rest, he thought. The last time I hit bed was with Rachael. A violation of a statute. Copulation with an android; absolutely against the law, here and on the colony worlds as well.” (page 186)
The retiring of Pris, Roy and Irmgard Baty is, in my opinion at least, disappointingly anticlimactic, especially as compared to Deckard’s and Roy’s confrontation in the film. Only Pris will be even remotely a challenge, since, firstly, she could be Rachael’s twin, both females being of the same model.
“Tonight sometime, he thought as he clicked off the bedside light, I will retire a Nexus-6 which looks exactly like this naked girl. My good god, he thought; I’ve wound up where Phil Resch said. Go to bed with her first, he remembered. Then kill her. ‘I can’t do it,’ he said, and backed away from the bed.” (page 153)
The second reason it will be difficult for Deckard to kill Pris is because she’s planning a surprise attack as she waits for him to look around Isidore’s building. Again, the stress of the moment causes Deckard to have a hallucination of Mercer, who warns him of Pris. (pages 174-175)
What’s interesting about Deckard’s growing faith in Mercer is how, for pretty much everyone else, the whole religion has been proven a fake. Mercer is dead: thus spoke Buster Friendly (pages 163-166). Still, it’s remarkable how people can cling to a discredited faith, especially one in its fundamentalist form.
Many fall prey to organized religion, not so much out of spiritual conviction as from an emotional crisis of some kind, as is the case with Deckard. The simple, black-and-white solution of fundamentalism for people’s problems has an immense appeal, in spite of the absurdity of the belief system.
Deckard’s original belief system, that of the ‘difference’ between man and “andy,” has been shaken. It’s been suggested that he’s an android, he’s been empathizing with a few androids (Rachael and Luba), he’s made love with one, and he’s killed, among other androids, one that looks exactly like his “andy” lover. All of this is more than enough to give him an emotional crisis needing quick relief.
The black-and-white solution of ‘Mercer’s guidance’ can give him that relief easily, so Deckard hallucinates about him. Similarly, Christians who have brutalized black people can comfort themselves with the visual illusion that black skin somehow makes blacks fundamentally different from whites; the spurious notion that blacks were descended from Ham, who disgraced himself before drunk, naked Noah, has been used, among other rationalizations, to scorn blacks.
Deckard, however, doesn’t have the convenience of a different skin colour to fool himself that androids are sub-human, and therefore unworthy of the same consideration and rights as humans. Ironically, as his empathy for “andys” grows, so does his faith in Mercerism. It is so bizarre that, in a post-apocalyptic world of nuclear annihilation, where androids are either enslaved or killed, and people like Isidore are scorned as “chickenheads,” one believes that the cultivation of empathy can be anything other than a case of ‘too little, too late.’ Indeed, the very idea of trying to cultivate empathy in such a dystopian world is a sick joke.
Deckard’s crisis grows when he learns that Rachael has thrown his goat off the roof of his apartment building, thus making it fall to its death. Recall how irked she was over his preference of the goat, and his wife, over her. On another level, her killing of the goat can be seen to symbolize an act of proletarian defiance against a system that prizes commodities and the bourgeoisie over the working class. Since it’s a real goat, its killing is a misguided defiance, but a defiance all the same.
The androids’ loathing of empathy, as a virtue assumed to be unique among the privileged–since “andys” rarely receive any of it–is also reflected in Pris’s clipping of the spider’s legs (pages 162-166), much to Isidore’s chagrin; this loathing is also seen in Roy Baty’s glee in knowing that empathy is fake, because Mercer is fake (pages 165-166). The loathing is comparable to how class-conscious workers realize that, as Marx observed, “religion is the opium of the people.” Rachael’s killing of the goat-commodity is like workers’ deliberate sabotaging of their bosses’ means of production.
Recall Irmgard’s words on empathy as a supposedly human-only virtue: ’empathy…Isn’t it a way of proving that humans can do something we can’t do? Because without the Mercer experience we just have your word that you feel this empathy business, this shared, group thing…’ (page 165)
In Chapter Twenty-One, Deckard, in his growing emotional turmoil, flies his car up to an obliterated area of Oregon, where he climbs a rocky hill, is pelted by rocks, and thus finds himself acting like Mercer, but without one of those VR empathy boxes. His delusion that he is Mercer is the ultimate narcissistic defence against psychological fragmentation, the only thing keeping him from falling apart, from all of his accumulated guilt over having killed all those “andys.”
We see the lead-in to Deckard’s vision of Mercer in his conflicted reflections on what he’s done, his alienation from himself: “For Mercer everything is easy, he thought, because Mercer accepts everything. Nothing is alien to him. But what I’ve done, he thought; that’s become alien to me. In fact everything about me has become unnatural; I’ve become an unnatural self.” (page 182)
Then, as Deckard ascends the hill: “The hunger and heat combined, a poisonous taste resembling defeat; yes, he thought, that’s what it is: I’ve been defeated in some obscure way. By having killed the androids? By Rachael’s murder of my goat? He did not know, but as he plodded along a vague and almost hallucinatory pall hazed over his mind…” (page 183)
In his stress, Deckard has seen Mercer, a dark figure in the shadows, twice (excluding the VR “fusion” on page 141): once before confronting Pris (pages 174-175), and now this other time on the hill. This second time, he identifies with Mercer. The dark image of Mercer is rather like Lacan‘s mirror: an idealized version of spastic, hill-climbing Deckard looking back at him like a mirror reflection. He’s alienated from himself, just as that spectral image alienates him and, paradoxically, is identified with him.
“‘Mercer,’ he said, panting; he stopped, stood still. In front of him he distinguished a shadowy figure, motionless. ‘Wilbur Mercer! Is that you?’ My god, he realized; it’s my shadow. I have to get out of here, down off this hill!
“He scrambled back down. Once, he fell; clouds of dust obscured everything, and he ran from the dust–he hurried faster, sliding and tumbling on the loose pebbles…He plucked open the car door, squeezed inside. Who threw the stone at me? he asked himself. No one. But why does it bother me? I’ve undergone it before, during fusion. While using my empathy box, like everyone else. This isn’t new. But it was. Because, he thought, I did it alone.” (pages 183-184)
Deckard also finds a toad that is supposed to be extinct, yet he imagines, in his ‘divine’ self-delusion, that it’s real: “…to find the critter most sacred to Mercer. Jesus, he thought; it can’t be…Did Mercer arrange it? But I’m Mercer. I arranged it; I found the toad. Found it because I see through Mercer’s eyes.” (page 188) He takes it home, thinking it can replace the goat as the object of his ’empathy.’ Iran shows him it’s electric (page 191). “Crestfallen,” he, in all exhaustion, goes to bed, covered in dust (page 192).
This sleep of his is a sleep of sloth. His illusions have been peeled away, one by one: androids have no less a legitimate right to be empathized with than humans have; Mercerism is fake; the radioactivity and filth have probably infected his brain, causing his Mercer delusions as well as his inability to tell a fake animal from a real one, as he has begun to suspect, even during his Mercer delusions: “Maybe it’s due to brain damage on my part: exposure to radioactivity. I’m a special, he thought. Something has happened to me. Like the chickenhead Isidore and his spider, what happened to him is happening to me.” (page 188) Deckard is losing all purpose in life.
In his routine as a bounty hunter, using empathy boxes and mood organs to help him have feelings, he–as well as Iran and every other human on Earth–is more android than android.
Since I see androids as symbolic of proletarians and people of colour, this notion that humanity lives an android-like life indicates how we’re all victims of the alienating, hierarchical world of capitalism, regardless of whether we’re black or white, working class or petite bourgeois.
Deckard realizes his pitiful state, yet gets no edification from it: he just goes to bed and acquiesces to his mechanical life.
Perhaps he’ll dream of his electric sheep.
IV: Blade Runner
[I am basing this analysis on the Director’s Cut. I don’t have a DVD of the Final Cut; if, in the future, I get one and find elements in it that ought to be included in this analysis, I’ll update it accordingly then.]
It’s fitting that I should write this analysis in 2019, though I’m not in Los Angeles (as opposed to the novel’s San Francisco setting), and…why don’t we have flying cars by now?
Leon Kowalski (played by Brion James, and roughly equivalent to Polokov in the novel) is being given the Voight-Kampff test by Dave Holden (played by Morgan Paull). Replicant Leon is nervous, and comes off as not very intelligent. He often interrupts Holden with irrelevant questions and remarks.
Because the test is “designed to provoke an emotional response,” as Holden tells Leon, because replicants are emotionally immature due to their short life span (four years, not enough to develop the nuanced emotions we all take for granted), because the test’s purpose is to help in the discrimination between man and replicant, and because–as I’ve shown above–the oppression of replicants (or “andys”) is symbolic of the oppression of people of colour and of the working class, this test can be seen as a formalized kind of taunting.
Taunting is a tactic often used by bullies and racists against their victims. The provocative nature of the Voight-Kampff questions–especially in relation to my notion of replicants as symbolic of, among other oppressed groups, black people–is comparable to what happens to Marian in Angelica Gibbs‘s short story, “The Test,” published in 1940 and reflective of white racial prejudice against blacks.
Marian is an African-American woman doing a driving test, sitting next to a prejudiced white man who’s both testing and taunting her. He calls her “Mary-Lou” instead of her real name. When he learns she’s 27, he says, “Old enough to have quite a flock of pickaninnies, eh?” He whistles “Swanee River.” He pretends to be astonished to learn she’s from Pennsylvania, saying, “You-all ain’t Southern?…Well, dog my cats if I didn’t think you-all came from down yondah.” She endures him as best she can, until his slurs against her skin colour finally go too far, and she cries, “Damn you!” He loses “his joviality in an instant” and makes “four very black crosses at random in the squares on Marian’s application blank,” failing her, even though her driving has been impeccable the whole time.
The tension the replicants feel in Blade Runner when doing the Voight-Kampff test is similar to how Marian feels. When Holden asks Leon to talk about his good memories of his mother (of which he obviously has none), the replicant, holding a concealed pistol, shoots Holden and leaves him for dead (though we later learn that Holden survives). One endures the taunts and provocations as best one can, but sooner or later, everyone reaches his breaking point.
The notion of a replicant’s relationship with his ‘parents’ is symbolically interesting, from a psychoanalytic standpoint. The lack of a mother for Leon is tantamount to what the object relations theorists would call a ‘bad mother’; Roy Batty’s relationship with Eldon Tyrell is also like a son’s relationship with his ‘bad father’–Roy literally calls Tyrell “Father” (or “fucker,” depending on the version) when demanding a longer life…this shows us how much of a ‘bad father’ Tyrell really is.
The bad mother is derived from a part-object, the bad breast, a Kleinian concept that Wilfred Bion developed by saying the lack of a breast for an infant, frustrating the baby by not giving milk, is a bad breast (Bion, Chapter Twelve, pages 34-37). So by extension, Leon’s lack of a mother is a bad mother, causing a traumatic split in the replicant’s mind that Melanie Klein called the paranoid-schizoid position. Leon’s nervousness and agitation indicate the paranoid aspect, his persecutory anxiety; the splitting of people into absolutely good replicants and absolutely bad humans is the schizoid aspect.
For Roy, his begging Tyrell to find a way to lengthen replicants’ lives is an attempt at reparation with his ‘father’; but Tyrell the ‘bad father’ insists that lengthening a replicant’s life is impossible (or, maybe, Tyrell simply doesn’t want to lengthen the replicants’ lives, out of a wish to maintain power over them), so Roy kills him. Reparation with the father is impossible; Roy, like Leon, is doomed to being permanently in the paranoid-schizoid position.
The inability to connect with one’s parents, real or symbolic, as in the case of this movie, is the basis of social alienation, since the relationship with one’s parents, be it good or bad, becomes the blueprint for one’s later relationships with other people throughout life. Now replicants, as symbols of the wage slave global proletariat, experience alienation in a particularly stinging way. Taunting remarks from the Voight-Kampff tests, in particular as to whether one has a mother or not, are especially triggering for a replicant, hence Leon’s violent reaction.
In this connection, recall how Marx compared the bourgeois family with that of the proletariat: “On what foundation is the present family, the bourgeois family, based? On capital, on private gain. In its completely developed form, this family exists only among the bourgeoisie. But this state of things finds its complement in the practical absence of the family among proletarians, and in public prostitution…Do you charge us with wanting to stop the exploitation of children by their parents? To that crime we [communists] plead guilty.” (Marx, page 52) Note the absence of the family among replicants like Leon, hence his shooting of Holden. Note also Roy’s exploitive ‘father.’
Some buildings in Blade Runner have a pyramidal structure, reminding us of those of the ruling class Pharaohs of Egypt, who had peasants build them through forced labour, or those of the imperialist Aztecs who invaded other Central American civilizations and killed their enemy captives in rites of human sacrifice on the tops of their temples (rather like a blade runner retiring replicants, isn’t it?). Other buildings shoot flames up in the air: these make one think of volcanoes, suggesting the fiery wrath of Mother Earth after all of man’s environmental damage to her.
Indeed, the film replaces Dick’s World War Terminus with the results of a more gradual ecocidal degradation that we’re inflicting on the Earth right now. We see a Coruscant-like cityscape of endless buildings and no nature; the electric animals that are so integral to Dick’s plot are of little more importance in the film than to develop theme.
Instead of being eagerly willing to retire Roy, Pris, et al in the hopes of buying a real animal to enhance his social status (as is the case in the novel), the Deckard in the film is dragged back into a bounty hunter life he wants to leave behind. He’s called a “blade runner,” an expression snatched from The Bladerunner, a novel with no other connection whatsoever with Dick’s, or the film’s, story.
The Tyrell Corporation boasts in its motto that its replicants are “more human than human,” and Deckard finds out just how accurate this motto is when he does the Voight-Kampff test on Rachael, who is assumed to be human. Indeed, when we first see her and watch her respond to Deckard’s questions, her mannerisms and facial expressions seem almost robotic; but after we learn that she’s a replicant, she shows the full range of human emotions and body language.
J.F. Sebastian (played by William Sanderson), who is loosely based on Isidore, isn’t afflicted mentally (actually, Sebastian is a genius), but rather physically: he isn’t allowed to live off-world because he suffers from “Methuselah Syndrome,” which makes him age faster, thus shortening his lifespan and making his predicament comparable to that of the replicants. No wonder Pris (played by Daryl Hannah) says to him, “We need you, Sebastian. You’re our best and only friend.” He is one of the few humans who can truly empathize with her and Roy…and he makes robotic toys, rather like what replicants are! The oppressed would naturally have mutual sympathy, even if they aren’t oppressed in the same way.
Roy: We’ve got a lot in common.
Sebastian: What do you mean?
Roy: Similar problems.
Pris: Accelerated decrepitude.
A major motif in the film is eyes. There’s the closeup eye reflecting the fire-shooting buildings at the beginning; there are Leon‘s and Rachael‘s eyes, with the “Fluctuation of the pupil…” and the “involuntary dilation of the iris,” as Tyrell says of the reaction to Voight-Kampff tests; there’s Hannibal Chew, the Asian eye-designer who is bullied by Leon and Roy; and there’s Roy playing with a pair of fake eyes in Sebastian’s home.
Here’s a relevant question: since replicants’ eyes are artificial, shall we associate that with seeing ‘fake’ things? Or, since replicants are “more human than human,” do their eyes–as ‘fake’ as they may be–see even better and grasp more complete truths than human eyes can? Do the oppressed see reality better than the privileged, though the latter gaslight the former into thinking their ‘fake’ eyes see a ‘fake’ reality?
Hannibal Chew: I just do eyes, ju-, ju-, just eyes… just genetic design, just eyes. You Nexus, huh? I design your eyes.
Batty: Chew, if only you could see what I’ve seen with your eyes!
Speaking of gaslighting, one should note the implications of giving replicants implanted memories, thereby tricking them into thinking they’re human, as has been done with Rachael and…Deckard? Giving people a fake past, then denying them the validation of the truth of their memories, is the essence of gaslighting; and as I’ve argued elsewhere, gaslighting has political manifestations as well as those in relationships involving, for example, narcissistic abuse; and abusive interpersonal relationships are the microcosm of the larger, geopolitical forms of abuse and manipulation.
Now, whether or not Deckard is a replicant (i.e., his unicorn dream and Gaff‘s unicorn origami, implying he knows of Deckard’s supposed memory implants) is irrelevant to me, since I see replicants as, to all practical purposes, as human as humans. If they can be more human, replicants can be equally human, too. They’re just told they’re non-human as a part of the oppression they suffer.
These replicant humans are deprived of life (the four-year lifespan), and thus are denied a childhood. They’re denied a decent stock of memories, hence they’re emotionally immature. Some are given false memories as a “cushion” to make it easier to control them (gaslighting). They’re slaves on the off-world colonies, conquests of Earth’s imperialism; and if they try to escape, they’re killed (or, “retired,” to use the human euphemism). Their experiences are denied validity because they don’t have natural, human eyes. Small wonder Deckard would never believe what Roy has seen: what the replicant could teach us, due to his short life, “will be lost in time, like tears in rain.”
The empathy of film-Deckard won’t be lost as that of book-Deckard is, though; so instead of sleeping, he runs off with Rachael as a fellow fugitive.
V: Blade Runner 2049
The meaninglessness of the differentiation between human and replicant (or bioengineered human) is made even clearer through a new development: it has been discovered that Rachael has given birth. Now, if Deckard is a replicant–presumably an older model with memory implants and a long lifespan–this means that no human was involved at all with the baby’s conception.
Whether or not Deckard is a replicant, the fact that K (Ryan Gosling) is a replicant blade runner working for Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright) is itself established proof of a symbolic class collaboration, given my equation of replicants with the proletariat and oppressed racial minorities.
One of the ways we keep the male proletariat in line is with fantasies of beautiful, submissive, and supportive women, as we can see in K’s purchase of Joi (Ana de Armas), a holographic image of, essentially, the perfect housewife. She’s sweet, loving, and willing to do anything K wants, to please him. That she’s not even a replicant, but rather an ideal image of woman emphasizes how unreal she is; for no woman can (or should ever have to) be so perfectly pleasing to a man. That her name is spelled with an i instead of a y adds to the symbolic unreality of the happiness she provides.
When Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), a female replicant who is a ruthless killer for Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) and thus another example of a class collaborator, meets K and asks if he’s satisfied with the company’s product (Joi), we see not only the commodification of the housewife ideal, but also how women under capitalism, provided they’re in the upper echelons, will often strive to maintain the system as it is, just as much as their male counterparts will. Just look at Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren, and Gina Haspel to see my point. Both Luv and Lt. Joshi represent this ugly reality in the film.
Wallace himself is wicked and cruel on a whole different level. As the creator of so many replicants, he seems to have a God complex: he certainly likes to incorporate Biblical concepts in his speech. “And God remembered Rachael, heeded her, and opened her womb,” he quotes from Genesis 30:22 when he meets Deckard.
Wallace covets the newly-discovered ability Rachael had to bear children. A newly-created female replicant stands nude before him in his first scene. Like a newborn baby, the naked woman is as vulnerable and helpless as any member of the possessionless proletariat; he touches her belly and contemplates how he wishes he could make her conceive, while Luv watches with restrained emotion. He stabs the replicant where her reproductive anatomy is…if only it worked; she falls down dead. Luv’s shock is again suppressed, for Wallace’s replicants are totally obedient (class collaboration). He, like Tyrell to his creations, is the bad father, kissing his newborn ‘daughter’ the way the ‘prodigal son’ Roy kissed Tyrell before killing him.
Recall the eye motif from the previous film. Niander Wallace is blind, using cybernetic implants in his neck to interact with various computers and “see” through flying miniature camera units. He’s symbolically blind to the suffering of the oppressed. Do his fake “eyes” make him see a false reality that flatters his megalomania, or do they allow him to see the elite’s privileged version of reality? Again, the distinction between real and artificial is blurred.
K, for the great majority of the film, shows little, if any, emotion. As a good, obedient blade runner working for the system, he lives a soulless existence, as all proletarians are forced to do. Indeed, Lt. Joshi notes that he’s “been getting on fine without…a soul.”
After investigating who Rachael’s child could be, though, he learns that his memory of a small toy horse isn’t synthetic, as they usually are for replicants–those emotional cushions implanted in their brains in order to control them; this particular memory is real, so he comes to believe that he is Rachael’s son. His whole enslaved life has been a lie, regardless of whether he is her son or not, though he realizes this only through imagining he’s her son. He does have a soul, it seems. So finally, he shows emotion, in the form of an explosion: he shouts, “God…damnit!”
The Voight-Kampff test has been replaced by a new one called a “Baseline” test. K is required to recite five lines from a poem from Vladimir Nabokov‘s Pale Fire. The section of the poem that K quotes involves a near-death experience of fictional poet John Shade:
And blood-black nothingness began to spin
A system of cells interlinked within
Cells interlinked within cells interlinked
Within one stem. And dreadfully distinct
Against the dark, a tall white fountain played.
Since the fear of death is a major preoccupation of replicants, it’s significant that K is required to recite what, for him or any replicant, must be quite a triggering passage, and to do so without hesitation or emotion. The repetition of the words cells and interlinked, in the context of the film rather than that of Nabokov’s novel, is noteworthy in how replicants’ lives seem trapped in metaphorical prison cells, and replicants aren’t supposed to be interlinked by any sense of mutual empathy.
As for K, though, he’s realized what cells he and his kind are trapped in, and only by being interlinked in mutual love will they ever be free.
His recitation of the baseline is with mechanical precision the first time; but his next recitation, after coming to believe he’s Rachael’s son, is shaky and hesitant, making him fail the baseline and causing him to be regarded as having gone rogue.
K finds Deckard in an abandoned building that was once a Las Vegas night club. Holographic images of Elvis, Frank Sinatra, and young women dancing in a 1960s style can be seen; like Joi, they represent an idealized older world that has no basis in reality now. Elsewhere, and earlier in the film, a huge holographic image of a Soviet [!] ballet dancer is also seen…another idealization no longer possible in the dystopia of 2049.
Instead, this dystopia shows us the ugly reality of such things as prostitution. Some feminists have criticized the film for presenting women either in this degrading way or as the housewife ideal in Joi; they forget that, as with American Psycho, the intention is not to recommend such portrayals of women, but rather to comment of these ugly realities. The first step in ridding our society of such ugliness is to acknowledge its reality.
In a noteworthy scene, Joi hires one of the prostitutes seen earlier to merge with her as a body that K can have sex with. Two forms of female fantasy are thus combined: the “nice girl”/”bad girl” opposition; also, the ideal and material forms. It should be seen as a sad comment on alienation in a capitalist society, that a woman has to be a man’s fantasy, rather than be herself, to make love with him.
In Deckard’s and Rachael’s case, however, we can see real love, and it has resulted in a child. That people, replicant or not, can connect and have families, is a threat to the dystopia that Lt. Joshi’s police department, on the one hand, is trying to keep ordered and stable, and that Wallace, on the other hand, is trying to profit from and rule over as its ‘God.’
Lieutenant Joshi: The world is built in a wall that separates kind. Tell either side there’s no wall, you’ve bought a war. Or a slaughter.
Niander Wallace: Every leap of civilization was built on the back of a disposable workforce,…but I can only make so many.
Normally, capitalists and the state work together in harmony. In this case, the LAPD’s agenda to have the replicant offspring killed is in contradiction with Wallace’s agenda to find the offspring, then learn how to use replicant reproduction to expand interstellar colonization, symbolically a manifestation of capitalist imperialism. Because of this contradiction, Luv must kill Joshi, though one suspects that Luv, as a replicant, has her own personal reasons to find the replicant child, feelings that are suppressed and just under her surface obedience to Wallace.
Now, the prostitute who was with K and Joi is secretly part of a replicant resistance movement. Their leader, Freysa (Hiam Abbass), hopes K will kill Deckard before he can tell Wallace where…as it turns out…his and Rachael’s daughter is. Though K now knows he isn’t their son, he’s been humanized enough, through all his traumatic experiences, to want to help Deckard reunite with her. It’s the most human thing he can do, after all.
To protect his daughter (Dr. Ana Stelline, played by Carla Juri), Deckard has had to keep away from her all these years, making him a kind of ‘bad father’ through his absence from her life, yet also a good father for sacrificing the relationship to keep her safe. K recognizes the need to prevent Wallace from finding her, for the sake of the coming replicant revolution; but K also realizes that the liberation of the oppressed must come through the establishment of human relationships, to end alienation. Hence his arrangement to have Deckard reunited with Ana.
A system of cells interlinked.
What’s it like to hold your child in your arms? Interlinked.
To be freed from our cells, we must all be…interlinked.
Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Orion Publishing Group, London, 1968