The original Blade Runner movie made a deep impression on me when it was released in 1982, especially the last few seconds, when the protagonists escape from the dark, rainy, urban disaster zone of future Los Angeles into sunlit forests and mountains — the only glimpse of nature in the 1-hour 57-minute film. Thus I was very curious when Blade Runner 2049 showed up in theaters a few weeks ago.
The timing was fortuitous, because I’d recently read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the 1974 classic by Robert Pirsig, which opens with a motorcycle trip into the fresh air and sunshine of the countryside, an attempt to escape a lifestyle increasingly shaped and dominated by technology. Or perhaps, as the novel’s protagonist muses, it’s not technology itself but some kind of force that gives rises to technology: “something undefined, but inhuman, mechanical, lifeless, a blind monster, a death force.”
Dread of technology is not recent. A copy of Walden tucked away in the protagonist’s motorcycle saddle-bag calls to mind Henry David Thoreau’s warning that “men have become the tool of their tools.” For Thoreau, dependence on technology was a form of enslavement, and his famous observation that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” seems to be the implicit premise in both Pirsig’s novel and the tech noir genre to which the Blade Runner films belong.
Of course, we need technology to survive. Pirsig adds that without it, “there would be no possibility for beauty in the arts,” as the words “technology” and “art” both refer to the process of making things…. But the fear remains: that technology has taken on a life of its own, that it is reordering human existence according to mechanical rules, that the end result for us will not be the light and beauty of nature, but rather despair and the grim urban decay through which the blade runner stalks his prey.
Before going to see the new movie, I read the 1968 novel upon which the Blade Runner films are loosely based, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick. The story takes place in a not-too-distant future where genetically-engineered humans (called “androids” or “replicants”) have been developed for use as slave labor on outlying planets. Androids are banned from Earth, where they are hunted down by a special police unit. The story follows Inspector Rick Deckard as he pursues a group of androids who’ve mutinied against their human masters and returned under cover to Earth, leaving behind a trail of bodies.
Eliminating androids is no easy task. The latest models are physically stronger than humans and just as smart, and they’re difficult to identify since they look, act, and talk like ordinary people. To pick them out, the police administer a special test consisting of questions designed to elicit an empathetic response, which is measured through involuntary reactions in the face and eye.
The reason the test works is that androids lack empathy. In the story, they don’t hesitate to threaten, manipulate, or kill. One of them cuts the legs off a spider, curious how many it needs to keep moving. A female android named Rachel Carlson seduces Deckard — and for a moment we think there could be genuine mutual attraction — but then she admits her goal was purely manipulative, to keep him from pursuing her peers.
Why the androids lack empathy, or even the ability to fake it, is something of a mystery. Deckard marvels that androids “bounce helplessly about when confronted by an empathy-measuring test” and surmises that empathy exists “only within the human community, whereas intelligence to some degree could be found throughout every phylum and order including the arachnida.”
The emphasis on empathy (or lack thereof) is ironic, because human empathy in the novel is pretty pathetic. A truck driver named J.R., when he first hears about the special police officers tasked with eliminating androids imagines “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.” In his eyes, the human police seem no different from their replicant prey.
J.R. is a “special,” a person whose mental capacity has been damaged by radiation. His healthier human peers treat him with scorn, calling him a “chickenhead”. What empathy people do exhibit seems to be manipulated by fraudulent religious figures. The story’s setting in a post-nuclear war disaster zone calls the whole concept of empathy into question.
Despite his limited intellect, J.R. provides an intuitive insight into what makes the androids different when he describes them as “intellectual” and observes that they “think abstractly.” In other words, they’re intelligent in a coldly logical kind of way. This insight provides us with Philip Dick’s interpretation of technology as death-force: it’s the triumph of intelligence over empathy. The novel ends without much reason for optimism: while the rebellious androids are wiped out, the progress of techno-intelligence seems inexorable, with human empathy largely irrelevant.
The 1982 movie Blade Runner takes its premise from Dick’s novel, but then heads in a somewhat different direction. In the film the special police officers are called “Blade Runners,” and Inspector Deckard (played by Harrison Ford) has the same mission, to hunt down rogue androids who’ve returned to Earth. When Deckard meets android Rachel Carlson (played by Sean Young), she isn’t aware she’s an android, because her mind has been implanted with artificial memories. As she discovers and wrestles with the truth, a bond forms between her and Deckard, and in the final scene, the couple escape from dark, grim, grimy Los Angeles into those sunlit forests and mountains that impressed me so forcefully. What’s amazing is that a romantic relationship has developed between human and android.
There’s another example of empathy in the film. Deckard’s being chased by an android named Rob Batty (played by Rutger Hauer), who’s very fast and tough, and who manages to corner Deckard as he’s hanging by three fingers from a roof. But instead of letting Deckard slip, Batty pulls him to safety. Due to the limited lifespan engineered into his model, Batty is himself close to death. Confronted with his own mortality, his final act is one of mercy. “Maybe in those last moments he loved life more than he ever had before,” Deckard muses, “not just his life, anybody’s life.”
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.
— Android Roy Batty in Blade Runner
Fast forward thirty years, and Blade Runner 2049 returns us to the dystopic Los Angeles futurescape, even darker, stormier, and more contaminated than the first film. But now the Blade Runner is an android (played by Ryan Gosling) called “K” (he doesn’t have a name, this is the first letter of his serial number). As K pursues a group of rogue androids, he discovers that Deckard and Carlson produced a child, the first ever between human and android, something that was not thought possible. Police and corporate agents hunt for this child, who has been carefully hidden.
Greed, abuse, and violence abound, but consistent with the first movie, empathy emerges as a positive force and a possibility that crosses the boundaries between natural and artificial. We see attraction between humans and androids (K’s human boss seems to like him), as well as sympathy among androids. A touching relationship develops between K and his evening companion, the disembodied spirit of an artificial intelligence program, who appears as a holographic projection.
The negative force is manipulation. Huge advertisements fill the screen, reminding us that corporate and government interests seek to manipulate people through imagery, advertising, and propaganda. We learn that artificial memories, which were first experimented with in Rachel Carlson, are now routinely implanted into androids to make them docile and obedient.
Recalling the sunlit mountains of the first movie, I was delighted when half-way through Blade Runner 2049 the scene cuts from grim urban decay to a lush forest glowing with natural light. But seconds later, we discover this is nothing but another projection. We’re actually in the hermetically-sealed laboratory of Dr. Ana Stelline (played by Carla Juri), a skilled technician who creates artificial memories for newly-produced androids. She’s a subcontractor to the corporation that manufactures androids, but Dr. Stelline takes joy in her craft, commenting that “there’s something of the artist in all of her work.” Dr. Stelline appears only briefly, but her character is the symbolic fulcrum of the movie, for she is the hidden child of Deckard and Carlson, the fruit of the first-ever fusion of artificial and natural.
K takes on the mission of uniting Deckard with his daughter, but in the process is mortally wounded. We watch him sink to the ground outside Dr. Stelline’s lab while snow swirls through the air. As K lies dying, Dr. Stelline uses her equipment to capture the image of snowflakes. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” she asks, before turning to meet her father.
It’s an ambiguous ending. We could interpret the word “beautiful” as referring to the relationship of father and daughter, or to K’s acts of heroism in bringing about the reunion, or maybe it’s just innocent appreciation of snowfall. But a more sinister interpretation is also possible: it’s the artist as manipulator, harvesting the images of a dying android for use in the next batch of artificial memory implants that will keep slave laborers docile.
Speaking of manipulation, I learned that the sunlit mountain scene in the first Blade Runner, the ending that I still remembered 35 years after seeing the film, wasn’t part of the original screenplay, but rather was stapled on by nervous studio executives after test audiences found the film a little too grim. In subsequent versions that ending was eliminated.
There’s no escape to nature in the Blade Runner movies. There can’t be, as the boundary between natural and artificial has all but disappeared. The death-force grows ever more powerful, for the combination of intelligence, technology, and art has produced an unparalleled power to manipulate. “I know what’s real,” the aging Deckard claims — and perhaps this is the film’s message, that the individual must go beyond the digital imagery that bombards us from all directions and search for something that’s real.
I enjoyed Blade Runner 2049 immensely, in fact, I watched it three times. But that’s enough, and judging from the previews, you won’t likely see me at the movies anytime soon– or catch me watching TV or streaming video on my laptop. My appetite for digital media is extremely limited, and not because I reject all art as a form of manipulation, but rather because I know there’s real beauty and exhilaration waiting for me in the mountains. I’m heading back there in search of sunlit vistas.