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The 'Blade Runner' Question

And other ways to ruin a perfectly good movie.

By Stephanie Van OrmanPublished 15 days ago 6 min read
The 'Blade Runner' Question
Photo by Joshua Sortino on Unsplash

Something that I find very interesting whenever I read an article about Blade Runner film theory is that they never (and I do mean NEVER) mention the book the movie is based on. It's called Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick. Instead, everyone gets caught up in this question: Is Deckard a replicant?

Honestly, the question never crossed my mind because in the book, he's not and I mean, he's not in a BIG way.

The question the book poses to the reader is: Are your experiences still valid if you're having them with an artificial interface?

If your moods are provided by a machine, are they still yours? If your religion is provided for you by a machine, can it still elevate your spirit? If you take care of an artificial animal, can you still bond with it? If you have sex with an artificial human, are you still making love?

Deckard absolutely has to be a human in order to provide answers to those questions.

If the film provides answers to those questions, it provides them in reverse. Can an artificial human have experiences that make them human?

One of the biggest leads toward this is when Deckard is interviewing Rachel. In the book, killing an animal is 100% bad because so many animals are facing extinction (and because it shows a lack of empathy, a human trait), so when he says 'A wasp lands on your arm' and she answers, 'I'd kill it', that is an instant tell that she's a replicant. In the film, she answers that way and they say it takes more than a hundred questions to show she's a replicant. The way the replicants in the film have emotional/empathetic responses to the questions about animals shows their humanity while in the book the empathy would hide the fact that they are replicants. It's super backward.

Now, it is totally true that the book is bastardized by the film, but that doesn't necessarily have to be bad if it accomplishes the same thing. And I think it does with the final fight between Roy and Deckard. Roy shows him empathy by saving him and then tells him the story of his life, showing that their experiences as a human and as an artificial human are very similar. What makes them different? Maybe nothing.

Except, everyone starts crapping themselves wondering if Deckard is a human or a replicant.

If he's a replicant, all the questions become moot immediately because you need a real human to provide a juxtaposition against an artificial human. If Deckard is a replicant, that would basically mean that all the characters in the story are artificial. Now, I'm not saying that wouldn't be interesting in its own way, but it would obliterate everything the original author tried to communicate. It calls into question what the story is even about.

This is where it gets really interesting.

In the book, Deckard and his wife have a mood organ in their apartment. Deckard chooses an alert mood before he goes to work as a blade runner, while his wife stays home and chooses despair for her mood. To give someone a machine that makes a person feel a certain way is a brilliant idea as far as my scifi brain is concerned. To a certain extent, we have this choice as humans anyway. So that answers the first question. If your moods are provided by a machine, are they still yours? You pressed the button, Sweetheart. You chose your mood. This is true for all media we consume. We chose to watch that horror movie, that romantic comedy, that documentary, etc. Yes, it deepened our mood, lightened our understanding, fed our existing beliefs, depressed us, whatever. We chose. The machine complied.

This issue goes unaddressed in the film. Films don't have as much room for abstract contemplation as books.

The next question I mentioned was regarding religion. If it is provided by a machine, can it still elevate your spirit? I phrased that oddly. In the book, everyone goes through a simulation each day regarding animals designed to teach empathy. Where I come from, that's the point of religion, to teach empathy. I think it's naive to think that empathy is something we don't have to teach humans. Yet, that is one of the basic markers that makes a human human when you're juxtapositioning it against artificial intelligence. This is where it becomes completely okay to flip the whole thing on its head and say, can we teach empathy to artificial intelligence? This is where the movie shines much brighter than the book.

Can you bond with an artificial animal? This is the very last question that the book answers (I'm doing it second to last), whereas the film doesn't touch on it at all. So, Deckard had a sheep that he was taking care of on the roof of his highrise. It died and he was so embarrassed that he replaced it with an electric sheep. When he starts getting bonuses for retiring replicants, he replaces the fake sheep with a goat that actually costs too much for him. In a strange twist for anyone who has only seen the film, Rachel kills his goat. The book ends with Deckard wandering in the desert where he finds a toad. At first, he thinks it's real and it would be the most amazing find ever... a total treasure. But it turns out to be fake. He takes it home and his wife orders fake flies for it to eat. So, is it still a valid experience if the interface is fake? If the toad is fake, is your adventure meaningless?

If we bring the questions back here, again, I think his conversation with Roy at the end is elegant and accomplishes the same thing. Experiences are not meaningless. They're treasures.

'I have seen things you people wouldn't believe.'

I saved the sex question for last. If you have sex with an artificial human, are you still making love? So, in the book, it's very important to note that Rachel and Priss are the same model. They look the same. So, when Deckard retires Priss, he's already slept with Rachel and she looks exactly the same. Rachel did not believe that Deckard would have the guts to kill any more replicants after he had sex with her. That was the whole reason she had sex with him. She believed that his human trait of empathy would kick in and he'd no longer be able to kill replicants because he'd view them as humans. She'd slept with other blade runners, achieving that very thing. Except, humans kill other humans often enough that maybe she shouldn't have been surprised when he's able to shut off that part of himself completely and retire Priss and Roy.

Now, we flip back to the film. Deckard and Rachel and the unicorn origami. I've seen multiple versions of the film and the first time I saw it, the theatrical cut, I thought the only significance of the unicorn was that the other blade runner had been there and decided to let Rachel go, but I thought that was pretty redundant since he says 'It's too bad she won't live' when he last sees Deckard. In a different version, they show Deckard dreaming of a unicorn running through the woods. I took it completely differently. A unicorn is not a real animal, so it is like a replicant, and he's dreaming of them in a way that elegantly combines the animal themes of the book and the film. I did not for one second think that it meant that Deckard was a replicant.

I was quite pleased when Blade Runner 2049 settled the argument.

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About the Creator

Stephanie Van Orman

I write novels like I am part-printer, part book factory, and a little girl running away with a balloon. I'm here as an experiment and I'm unsure if this is a place where I can fit in. We'll see.

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