Significant spoilers ahead for the 1982 Blade Runner and its 1968 source material.
Ridley Scott’s original 1982 film Blade Runner has been so visually influential that its special effects still look state of the art, in spite of the clunky analog computers and the women’s goofy 1980s helmet-hair and enormous ‘80s shoulder pads. Scott’s smoky, run-down retro-noir setting, full of ceiling fans, rusting clunky future-tech, and ramshackle Asian marketplaces, has been spliced into the DNA of tomorrow. It’s influenced the visual style of everything from the 2013 hit Pacific Rim to the despised 2017 Ghost in the Shell, and on to the long-awaited sequel, Blade Runner 2049.
Even today, Blade Runner still looks like the future. But the book it’s based on is more relevant to our blandly hateful present. The genius of Scott’s Blade Runner was in mashing up gritty detective noir with science fiction, creating a policeman hero for the future. But the source material — Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? — was both more cynical and more prescient. Its cop hero isn’t a hero, he’s a smaller-than-life monster. Do Androids Dream…? sketches a bureaucratic machinery of terror that, in the age of Black Lives Matter and Donald Trump, looks more queasily familiar than ever.
Blade Runner’s plot and character dynamics deliberately echo common noir mystery tropes, to the point where some viewers may find them clichéd. Protagonist Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a bounty hunter charged with executing (or “retiring”) four Nexus 6 androids (or “replicants”) who have returned to Earth from the outer colonies where they were used for slave labor. But in spite of the futuristic angle, the film’s dynamic is pure Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler. Deckard is a classic hapless gumshoe, staggering from one dangerous encounter to the next as he tries to hunt down his prey.
Beneath the noir trappings, though, Blade Runner is about slavery and injustice. The replicants face exploitation and discrimination. They’re more sympathetic than Deckard, who murders them one by one. Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) kissing Pris (Daryl Hannah) after Deckard kills her is one of the film’s iconic scenes, suggesting that Roy is a more reflective, loving, and sensitive soul than the film’s protagonist.
But Scott is careful to position Deckard as a hero. At the beginning of the film, Decker has quit his job, and he only returns to hunt the androids when his superior threatens him. He doesn’t have any animosity toward his prey, and he eventually falls in love with an android named Rachael (Sean Young) and smuggles her to safety.
This is all in keeping with mainstream media portrayals of injustice, which are often less interested in the plight of the oppressed than the redemption of the oppressor. For example, in 1989’s A Dry White Season, a white, wealthy South African (played by Donald Sutherland) learns about the evils of apartheid and martyrs himself for the cause of justice. Or on HBO’s Westworld, where the evil mastermind played by Anthony Hopkins eventually orchestrates his own murder as recompense for his sins against the androids he created. And it’s the case in Blade Runner, where Roy Batty saves Deckard’s life and forgives him for his murders.
The scene, which is framed by shafts of light and literal doves of peace, is powerful and moving, but it’s also awfully convenient. Would Roy, who has just seen his lover brutally murdered, really abandon revenge to rescue the man who killed her? Roy gives the audience permission to keep seeing Deckard as the hero, and to forgive themselves for rooting for him as he blasts his way across the screen. Even though he shoots a fleeing woman in the back at one point, he’s still the audience surrogate, and a martyr to the genre tropes that say the cop has to be the hero.
Philip K. Dick clearly had issues with police brutality and the license to kill
The Deckard in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is the hero, too, but that heroism is much less comfortable. Dick is clearly uncomfortable with the police’s ominous power over life and death, and their selective and prejudicial use of that power — the same issues Black Lives Matter and other citizens’ groups are highlighting today. Book-Deckard isn’t a charismatic rogue falling in love as he tries to escape the bounty-hunting business. He’s a married schlub who’s excited at the chance to make some cash by retiring a bunch of escaped androids. Movie Deckard is forced to kill against his conscience and his better judgment. Book Deckard kills out of economic anxiety. He wants to put a down payment on a new artificial pet. In Dick’s dystopic future, live animals are largely extinct. The electric goat Deckard wants to buy would be a real status symbol.
A cop trying to earn enough cash to buy a robo-goat is a goofy, cute story hook, but it’s also nightmarish. Deckard feels more compassion and empathy for his goat than he does for the virtually human androids he murders. Deckard feels like he isn’t getting ahead in life, and like so many others, he turns his resentment into casual brutality at the expense of the marginalized.
In the book, empathy is theoretically what distinguishes humans from machines. Bounty hunters ferret out replicants by giving them the Voight-Kampff test, which measures empathic response via pupil dilation and heart rate. Humans have empathic responses to animals, but not to androids.
In Dick’s world, humanity is defined as much by its lack of empathy as by its positive qualities. Effectively, that makes people no different from androids. The film Blade Runner subtly (or less subtly, in some versions) suggests that Deckard may himself be an android, which associates him more closely with the oppressed, and makes his willingness to kill other replicants a tragedy. Given that he’s forced into the job, he’s a slave to the system as much as they are. But in the novel, Deckard is an android only metaphorically. He’s a killing machine. One minor character has a brief, terrifying vision that describes Deckard this way:
“…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.”
The police in Do Androids Dream…? are merciless, unstoppable android killers. Their victims, in contrast, are remarkably vulnerable and weak. In the film, the replicants have enhanced reflexes, super-strength, and tremendous intelligence. Part of the reason Deckard evokes sympathy is that he’s clearly overmatched. Replicants may not deserve to be murdered, but they are terrifyingly powerful and dangerous. Roy, howling his shirtless way through an abandoned building at the end of the film, is an atavistic, gothic terror. The androids in Blade Runner are dangerous and threatening when provoked — which is how Darren Wilson saw Michael Brown, and the excuse most often given by police who kill unarmed black civilians.
The understanding that police can kill without consequence changes how androids live
But Dick’s replicants have no special powers or abilities. They’re considered dangerous because they’re almost indistinguishable from humans, which means that humans sometimes empathize with them. But once identified, they don’t have much more chance against armed killers than any other civilian. Deckard sneers that androids give up in the face of death, and he calls them stupid, because they’re so easy to kill. But that sounds more like bigotry than meaningful observation. People hunted down by the law are likely to succumb to despair, especially if they have no legal recourse. And human beings often make poor decisions under stress. The androids aren’t superpowered, and they aren’t especially weak or incompetent. They’re just human.
And because they’re human instead of superhuman, they don’t go out of their way to forgive their murderer. Roy Batty in the novel doesn’t die naturally when his built-in lifespan expires; Deckard shoots him and his wife. There is no absolution or redemption. After racking up his final kill, Deckard thinks blandly, “That’s the last one… Six today; almost a record. And now it’s over and I can go home, back to Iran and the goat. And we’ll have enough money for once.”
Instead, Deckard is forgiven by a religious figure named Mercer, a seeming god of empathy who is actually a washed-up actor. Deckard says Mercer told him “it was wrong [to kill the androids] but I should do it anyhow. Really weird. Sometimes it’s better to do something wrong than right.” The novel never clarifies that moral choice, but it sure sounds like a variation on “I was just following orders.” Dick’s false pretender-god of empathy recommends obedience, both to Deckard’s superiors and to his acquisitive status-consciousness.
Dick’s original novel is bleak and sardonic, about a world of sociopaths in power
It’s a bleak, sardonic message, and it leaves Dick’s actual sympathies in the novel uncertain. He never clearly condemns hatred and bigotry in the book, and he only tangentially accuses his characters of embracing it. That’s particularly true about the android Rachael Rosen. The movie version of Rachael is a tragic romantic figure who falls in love with Deckard, her supposed nemesis. In the book, though, she’s cold, manipulative, and cruel, and she sleeps with Deckard to imprint him with her face, in hopes that he’ll have trouble killing other replicants who resemble her. When he murders her friends anyway, she retaliates by throwing his goat off the roof. She is in many ways a misogynist caricature — and possibly, given her stereotypically Jewish name, an anti-Semitic one. The way Deckard expresses his sexual frustration and lust through violence is certainly familiar from attitudes seen on the Internet today.
The flashes of genuine hate in Dick’s novel are unsettling, but they also make its critique of society more bitterly pointed. Film-Deckard is pure of soul; he does bad things, but he’s a good man, and he’s offered redemption. The Deckard in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? murders for petty gain and justifies his lack of empathy by projecting the same sociopathic reserve onto his victims.
Deckard isn’t a rotten cop spoiling an essentially virtuous police force, nor is he a good man trapped by an unjust system, as in the film. Rather, in the novel, Deckard is an average guy doing an average job, which happens to consist of genocidal violence directed against marginalized people. He’s part of the machinery of justice, and that machinery is driven, not by empathy, but by animus and a clinical bloodthirst.
Blade Runner presents a run-down but beautiful future, filled with tragic emotion and powerful moral decisions. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? seems truer to our blander, bleaker present, in which a clockwork bureaucracy blandly declares that certain lives are worthless, that only a chosen few people are worthy of protection, and that equality under the law would somehow hold the nation back. The central insight of Black Lives Matter is that the state is programmed for petty hatred and genocidal violence, and that bystanders’ apathy or resignation constantly gets in the way of lasting change. Book-Deckard, the smaller-than-life policeman as mass-murderer, still seems grubbily prescient, half a century after Dick first sent him off to kill.