Where strange fact and stranger fiction collide
It was the summer of 1986, one of those perfect days that Southern California is known for. There was only an occasional puffy white cloud, in the dark blue sky. I was eighteen and had just completed my first year of college. My family and girlfriend Joy had spent the day in the town of Solvang. It is a quaint little tourist town above Santa Barbara, its thing is this Danish theme, complete with replica windmills, Scandinavian pastries, and a copy of the world famous statue of Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid. I couldn’t swear to it but I think for dinner my dad splurged for chicken, back when KFC, was still called Kentucky Fried. It was a good day.
It was the type of day I didn’t want to end. It was one of those days were I really felt the closeness of being a family, something that I would spend most the rest of my life chasing. It was almost eight at night, too early for Joy to go home when my mother asked if there was anything on TV that would be appropriate for all of us to watch.
There was something I wanted to see. The problem would be convincing the other four people in the house that they wanted to see it too. I figured that the show that I wanted to see was too dark, too edgy and well just too weird for any of the others to want to watch it. I tend to be rather passive, so I usually don’t speak up when I want something, especially when it was as provocative as this particular movie was. But my desires to see the forbidden fruit of a dark dystopic world, overrode my innate inability to not express my desires. Softly I spoke so it sounded off handed, even though I had thought about it several times earlier that day I said. “Uh…uh…there is a….science fiction movie on ABC…That I think…would you know…Be cool…If we watched it…If there is nothing else…you know you want to watch…”
“Really?” My mother asked. “What is it called?”
“Uh…It…it is called…” I was mumbling and looking at the ground. I was so scared that they had heard about this movie and would immediately chastise me for even suggesting that we watch such a shameful program. “It…It is called Blade Runner…It has Harrison Ford and it is a future cop movie…” I added the last details because I knew my sister had a huge crush on Han Solo, when she was younger, and my dad liked police novels. I was hoping that with those tidbits of information that somehow I would have an ally, in at least one them, and through them I would have enough support for my lost cause to at least see the start of the movie. I fully expected that my parents would become disgusted with my choice in entertainment and demand that we turn it off after the first twenty minutes.
Somehow they all agreed to my request, maybe it was because I didn’t usually express my wants and desires, maybe they had seen a positive review, or maybe even back then there was nothing else worth watching. Anyways for the next two hours we all sat engrossed in Ridley Scott’s vision of Los Angeles 2019.
I was hooked on this precursor of the cyber-punk movement. But just watching the movie wasn’t enough for me. A few days latter I headed out to the Port Huneme public library, and picked up a copy of the book. The storey’s original title was Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? I thought I was going to be reading a novelization of the movie. After all the paperback’s cover was a reprint of the movie’s poster. I was wrong. It was the original novel written several decades before, by Philip K. Dick, in a style that I now associate with the famed golden age of sci-fi. Despite sharing several common themes the book and its cinematic interpretation were two separate stories. The premises of both was about a man named Rick Deckard whose job was hunting human like androids, but the two protagonist, at the time, seemed so different to me.
Latter as I became a geek movie coinsure I found out that author Philip K. Dick was offered $400,000 to write a novelization of the movie and turned it down. (1) So in correlation with the movie release the original book was rereleased. I discovered in its pages that it dared to ask questions about our responsibility as human beings the nature, empathy and religion. (Someday I will do a blog about just about symbolism in Philip K. Dick stories)
Philip K Dick’s book went deeper than just Deckard’s jurisdiction of San Francisco but revealed a deeply layered yet ultimately depressing world. The constant rain in the back ground wasn’t the effect of a monsoon, like it was in the movie, rather it was the remnant of an environment devastating war which had begun in the Middle East. Most of the war’s survivors had made going though the motions had become the status quos. Mr. Dick created a world where two new quarreling religions had emerged using electronic media, and their sole purpose was to make people fell something, anything. It was a bleak landscape where mankind’s arrogance had killed nearly all the animals on earth. In this dark place in which the desire to watch something on TV, even when there was nothing good on, was what passed as a feeling. Here a cabal of androids hide in plain sight under the nose of the humans, mimicking human existence but not quite duplicating what mankind takes for granted.
I was asked several times which one, the novel or the movie, I thought was better? That was a tough choice. The book had Philip K Dick’s world view and vision of what it meant to be human. Or the movie with its breath taking panoramas of future LA, and action scenes. In reality I really couldn’t chose. That is where I probably learned not to compare movies and the novels they are based on. A trait I carried on for the following decades.
For years I carried in the cinema in my head, a vision of the edited and pillar boxed version of the movie, that I had only seen on the TV screen. But in 2008, I and a group form work and went to the retro-theater in Ventura and saw Blade Runner on the wide screen. No matter how many times I had scene it on TV or videotape I had never seen it like I saw it that night. The dark future cityscape seemed to jump off the screen and surround me. It was one of the many numerous ‘Directors Cuts’ which meant there was a little bit more screen time dedicated to the city-scapes, and the loss of Harrison Ford’s dead pan noir-ish voice over (which I love by the way). But there it was the way it was meant to be seen, It was like seeing that the cute girl that you had a crush on in high school had years latter turned into a beautiful and graceful woman.
In 2009 Rocket Magazine named Bladerunner the number one science fiction movie ever(2). It has been preserved by the library of congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”(3) and is considered a classic of modern science fiction. It is the thinking geeks go to movie when they want to defend sci-fi, as more than a waste of time.
That is today, but it was not the case in 1982. The movie was a critical bust that never quite broke even financially. Its image was marred by public infighting between the director and his crew. Many people including Harrison Ford felt that Rick Deckard was a detective who never did any detective work.(4) Basically with its theatrical release Blade Runner was a flop. So what has changed between its release and now? The answer is us.
We do not live in a cyberpunk, dystopia filled with radioactive monsoons, artificial humans that cannot feel emotions, no matter how hard they try or flying cars. And consider yourself lucky that we don’t. But in a way Bladerunner is what we could have ended up as. Reminding us that despite, how bad we think the post 9-11 world we live in is, it could have been worse.
Both Blade Runner and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Are at their core are stories about a man trying to keep what remains of his humanity in a world that has lost all of its own semblance of humanity. These two men are both named Rick Deckard, they are both as Ridley Scott so beautifully graphically portrayed him are dangling on the edge of a ledge by the skin of their fingers, struggling to prevent them from falling in to the abyss. This scene is symbolic for dangerous and dark world waiting to consume him, If Deckard can’t save himself, then his only hope for deliverance would be from the one person he sought to destroy. In some ways they are these two men are same and in other ways that are almost tangible they are different.
Both men try to feel something, something more than their bleak lives the world has given them. In an attempt to shake off the numbness that permeates their existence, they make love to a character named Rachel, (whose name means ewe, as in sacrificial lamb, I did say that Philip K. Dick was way into biblical symbolism right?) And both try to maintain the dark equilibrium of their neo-society by killing those who the powers that be have deemed a threat to humanity. The Deckard of DADOES? Also tried to connect with his inner humanity by taking care of what he thought was one of the last real animals left on earth, ironically he notes people feel more empathy for animals than their fellow human beings. Deckard of Blade Runner hopes that if he quits the police force, once and forever, he can escape the circle of murder. Both Deckards destroy the nearly indistinguishably human like androids, becoming less and less human as their prey became more human like.
In the end of the novel, Deckard finds himself alone in the desert, (more religious iconography in Philip K. Dick stories.) where he sees a toad, an animal that is supposed to be extinct. Delighted he takes it home, to replace the real goat that Rachel, killed in an act of revenge. (He realizes in a form of somber enlightenment that it is better that she destroy his property than if she’d had tried to killed his wife). He then sleeps peacefully for the first time in a very long time. When he awakes his wife explains to him that the toad is not real but synthetic, an android toad, he is disappointed to realize this but glad he knows the truth.
In the film, the ending is actually more upbeat. (I know how it ends depends on what version you watch, and yes I am aware that there are actually seven versions of the film, but I am going on the ending that was in the original theatrical release.) Deckard has fulfilled his destiny to become a ‘One man slaughtering house.” And heads back to Rachel, who now has a kill order placed on her, as a rouge replicant. (Rachel in the movie is much less conniving and more humane than in the book, and is played with a reto yet futuristic sexy by Sean Young.) Deckard and his love, escape up north (And yes I know that the mountain scenes are outtakes from the movie The Shinning (5)) their future is uncertain, but then as Deckard reminds us…So are all of our futures. True love redeems this killer and makes him human again.
That is why Bladerunner, and to a lesser extent Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep endures. It reminds us that even in the future we don’t want to be as the Tyrell Company’s slogan proudly claims “More human than human.” All we really want is to be just human. And maybe find someone to love and redeem us.
(2) Rocket Magazine Vol. 1 Issue 1