Alienations in a Dystopia: Scott's Blade Runner
and Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep

by Patrick Meaney, 10 June 2002

            In adapting Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep to film, Ridley Scott shifts the focus from bounty hunter Rick Deckard's struggle with his conscience, to the plight of the hunted replicants, and the question of what is human in a world of ever advancing technology. Dick's work focuses mainly on the effect that hunting human-like replicants has on Deckard, while Scott spotlights the diminishing line between human and replicant, by expanding the role of replicant cell leader Roy Batty, and questioning the humanity of Blade Runner Rick Deckard. This change alters the primary message of the novel, but in doing so, proves a universally resounding point.

            Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep shows the isolation of a dystopian future through the gradual breakdown of bounty hunter, Rick Deckard. Commissioned to kill six renegade androids on Earth, Deckard spends the novel losing confidence in the accepted beliefs of his society, realizing that android achievements are just as valid as human achievements, and that though they are made artificially, android life forms are not very different from humans. However, Deckard still continues his work as a bounty hunter after making this realization, placing his own need for survival above his moral beliefs. The novel focuses on Deckard, and his conscious crisis. He is the driving force of the novel, actively seeking out the androids, and constantly pursuing them.

            The major symbols in the novel are animals. In a post-apocalyptic world, any living thing is valued, and Deckard's major goal in the novel is to get enough money to buy a real animal, to replace the fake sheep he has. Real animals are a status symbol, and in acquiring one, he would rise up in society. By protecting humanity, and killing androids, Deckard acquires enough money to purchase a real sheep, and replaces his own electronic model. However, Deckard's sheep is killed by an android, and that true life cannot be replaced. Through his interactions with androids, Deckard realizes that humans and androids, artificial and natural are not that separated, and that his feelings of compassion for androids are not unwarranted. Ironically, this does not stop him from continuing his life as a bounty hunter. The novel tells how Deckard comes to terms with his problems of conscience, and how he finds fulfillment in his own life.

            The film, Blade Runner, replicates the atmosphere, most characters, and the general plot of Sheep, but alters the novel by changing Rick Deckard from an active to passive character, and explicitly demonstrating the equality of replicants and humans by expanding the role of replicant cell leader Roy Batty. The film's message is that replicants are the same as humans, and that the prejudice against them is not warranted, a more conclusive stance than the book. Director Ridley Scott changed the name of androids to replicants, a more ambiguous term in that could be human or mechanical, as opposed to the harshly artificial android. A less welcome change was bounty hunter to blade runner, which softens the impact of Deckard's profession, by creating a euphemism for killer.

            The film's incredible visuals capture perfectly the run down city atmosphere that Dick described in his novel. Constant oppressive rain, and neon lights illustrate the seedy nature of LA city streets. Scott's film reduces the role of animals in the world, making only vague references to the mass extinctions so important a part of Dick's novel.

            The film adapts the detective story into a distinctively film genre, Film Noir. By blending traditional film noir character archetypes, such as the detective and femme fatale, with the future setting of the novel, Scott creates a "Future Noir." Deckard's trenchcoat is classic noir attire, and his voiceover is a trademark of detective thrillers. The interrogation scene at Tyrell captures the feeling of vintage film noir through tense interaction between Detective Deckard, and femme fatale Rachael, whose atmospheric cigarette smoke pollutes the frame.

            Deckard's investigation is significantly different from the novel. In the film, Deckard pursues the leads left by the replicants, but mainly assumes a passive role, rarely doing any traditional detecting. In the novel, he was an investigative force, but in the film, Deckard only retires one replicant, and is even saved from death by another replicant. This change ruins some of the impact of the book, because there is so little development, or action for the film's major character.

            In adapting the film to the screen, Scott drops a number of plot points that would have been very interesting, and helped to flesh out Deckard. In the novel, Deckard is captured by the police for attempting to kill an opera singer, who is also a replicant, and is taken to an underground police station run by replicants. Deckard is completely lost in an unfamiliar world, oblivious as to why this police station would have no knowledge of his. While there, he is partnered with bounty hunter, Phil Resch, who is having doubts about whether he is human or replicant. This exemplifies the fact that there is little difference between human and replicant; all that matters is taking advantage of life.

            The element that makes the film superior to the novel is the increased role for replicant messiah Roy Batty. In the novel, Batty is a leader, but he is a minor character, and functions mainly as cannon fodder in the end. In the film he is a sympathetic antagonist, divided between his moral responsibilities and the "questionable things" he must do to find his maker, in the hope of breaking the limit of his four year lifespan. By showing the life of a replicant instead of merely presenting Deckard's musings on the subject as the novel does, Scott actively demonstrates that all replicants "wanted were the same answers the rest of us wanted, where have I come from? Where am I going? How long have I got?" This alteration by Scott is effective, because it takes advantage of the show, don't tell nature of film as a medium. Deckard's meditations would not have translated to film, but seeing Roy's actions works well visually.

            Batty's goal during the film is to rise above the limitations of his creation, and confront his creator about his four-year life span. To avoid the development of emotions, in beings that are intended to be slaves, and to keep sales high, the Tyrell Corporation limited all replicant lives to four years. With the end of his life nearing, Batty leads a group of replicants on a mission to confront Tyrell.

            After a buildup, Batty confronts his maker, a scene not present in the book, one of Scott's best additions. In the novel, Tyrell's attempt to create life, and play God went unchallenged. Here, he must face his greatest creation, and attempts to shirk responsibility for that creation's impending death. Batty confronts Tyrell to find out if "The maker can repair what he makes," carrying the questions of every replicant with him. After hearing that he has "burned so very...brightly," but will burn no more, Batty turns violent. Without the time to develop the proper emotional control, having only lived for three years, Batty gives in to rage, and kills Tyrell, gouging out his eyes through his glasses. The symbolic breaking of the glasses reflects the failure of Tyrell's knowledge to save his prodigal son, the knowledge useless to Roy, his fate already sealed. The addition of this scene demonstrates the folly of playing God, and demonstrates the emotionally volatile nature of replicants.

            The divide between Roy's violent side, and his caring side is best exhibited in his final confrontation with Deckard. Deckard "retired" Roy's greatest friend, Pris, and Roy is moved to tears looking at her bloody, dead body. He stains his face with her blood, symbolically carrying on her life through his memories, and hoping to honor through his actions. However, seeing the body also inspires a rage in Roy. His juvenile concept of justice indicates that killing Deckard is the only way to avenge Pris, and Roy pursues him, behaving like an animal. When he gives in to his rage, he loses some of his humanity, and proves true the authorities who feel that replicants can be exterminated as easily as insects. He howls at the moon, and chases Deckard, who was supposed to be the aggressor, to the rooftops of LA. Deckard is outmatched by the "A" replicant, who is physically fit beyond any human means. This scene demonstrates the dual nature of replicants, with perfect athletic ability, but unable to control their emotions.

            Eventually, Roy leaps to another building and Deckard, while attempting to replicate the leap, lands hanging from a plank, slowly slipping. Batty is forced to weigh his human compassion against his animal desire for revenge. As Deckard begins to fall, he is gripped by Batty's hand and pulled up, saved by the man he was trying to kill, saved by the "savage and dangerous" replicant. Batty has proven to himself that he is human and as he dies he convinces Deckard also. As he dies, he conveys to Deckard the wonder that life has given him:

"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 Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die."

            This one speech, beautifully scored, and wonderfully lit, conveys, more than Dick's entire novel, the fact that artificial life is as sacred as natural life. Because Roy Batty had limited life, he used it completely, never becoming complacent, and always appreciating the wonders of the world. He changes Deckard, who now believes that replicants are the same as humans, with congruous dreams, and an unparalleled lust for life. Through his death, Batty saves the entire replicant race in the eyes of Rick Deckard who is "done" with Blade Running after the experience. Roy Batty's appreciation for life convinces Deckard that replicants are the equals of humans. Scott's use of all of cinema's techniques conveys the message of the story more elegantly and succinctly than Dick's novel did.

            Overall, Ridley Scott's Blade Runner conveys a different and more powerful message than its source novel by focusing on the actual experience of a replicant, instead of merely the personal problems of Rick Deckard. The film takes most of the novel's best aspects, and combines them with great acting, an awe-inspiring future-scape, and a haunting score to create a unique work that demonstrates that artificial life deserves as much respect as natural life, a message that will become increasingly important as organic technology advances. Scott's adaptation of the work is excellent because he tailors Dick's story to the medium of film. While the deletion of some sequences is regrettable, Scott's altering of the text is generally welcome. While the sacrifice of the novel's ambiguity toward androids is regrettable, the strong stance that Scott takes, saying that replicants deserve all human rights, is inspiring, and the character change in Deckard further illustrates the themes of Dick's novels. Scott removes the excesses of Dick's novel to create a more polished and concise finished product.

Copyright 2002 Patrick Meaney.
Published by in the Blade Runner and DADoES Analysis Section