Reviews of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) and related work
- Adaptation: Blade Runner (1982)
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968)
Philip K. Dick (writer).
‣ Blade Runner (1982)
Biological android slaves are hard to distinguish from natural-born humans but usefully tailored for heavy labour, sex and other such services on the distant off-world frontier. They are untrustworthy after a small uprising. They are also banned from Earth, an overpopulated but ethnically diverse place of rain and rampant extinction. In 2019, a specialist is charged with finding and “retiring” four trespassing androids believed to be in Los Angeles.
80% pure cyberpunk and one of the subgenre’s most prominent iterations. Harking back to the darker SF classics of the 1970s and the noir films of the 1940s, with a little art deco, low-key lighting and Hedy Lamarr, Blade Runner opened poorly on the third weekend of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982).
The commercial failure is no mystery. Blade Runner took its stupid title from a completely different script. From the bulk of his later work we know Scott’s no genius. The film is poorly extrapolated in places, compared to William Gibson’s consolidation. Flying cars and massive space exploitation after less than 40 years are not likely. Though hovercars are in the novel, they are not apparently intended as the future of an alternate history, but they do remind me of the downbeat techno-optimism of The Sands of Mars (1951) and the like. This optimism is not at odds with E.T., but everything else is: The elements of realism and art film were apparently hard to digest, and the script is generally pessimistic, except in the tacked-on ending of its crappy studio cut, the first to hit cinemas. In the words of critic Daryl Surat à propos of the sequel:
It may be hard for those who have never seen Blade Runner until 2017 to appreciate its vision or legacy. After all, we now more or less live in the shabby, polluted, corporate run, authoritarian surveillance state of Blade Runner as it is albeit without the flying cars and sex robots, aka THE GOOD STUFF.
Scott lays the symbolism on thick. Batty’s Christian subtext—his dove for his soul, his crucifixion, his Miltonian challenge to his maker etc.—is blunt. It undermines both the SF as such and Dick’s modernist/postmodernist philosophizing on the subjects of authenticity and self-knowledge. The gaze motif, opening on Batty’s eye, is smarter. Tyrell, in his gigantic glasses, dwells on how the Voigt-Kampff machine studies the eye. He even keeps an owl, which I think is very nice: one of the few ecologically cognizant nods to Dick’s original. The loss of the novel’s far greater concern for nature is lamentable.
I am left imagining the androids are spin-offs from a paradigm-shifted genetic engineering which advanced to combat rapid extinction, but ultimately, that doesn’t make sense. The whole idea of slaves that are hard to detect as such, despite being designed to perform certain tasks better than their makers, exists just to illustrate the writers’ point that authenticity without a practical difference is spurious. This piece of philosophy is poorly anchored within the narrative. Ambiguity alone does not suffice to make the writers’ point, though it is a nice mind game. The script would have been better with a plausible explanation for why people would try to obviate their own species using a new species that is simultaneously identical and superior.
Even so, and perhaps by accident, it’s a masterpiece. It is prescient enough and sufficiently brilliant in execution that its fantasy aspects don’t break it.
References here: “Philip K. Dick” tag description, Alien (1979), Urusei Yatsura (1981), Burst City (1982), Neuromancer (1984), The Element of Crime (1984), Contact (1985), Bubblegum Crisis (1987), Akira (1988), Black Rain (1989), A.D. Police Files (1990), “Identity Crisis” (1991), “Silent Möbius” (1991), Ghost in the Shell (1995), The Dormant Beast (1998), Altered Carbon (2002), Cloud Atlas (2012).
‣‣ “2036: Nexus Dawn” (2017)
Seen in 2017.
The Asimovian behaviour built into Nexus-9 androids to relegalize them following the events of “Blade Runner: Black Out 2022” (2017).
Live-action promotional material for the 2017 feature sequel. So stylized and uneventful that a tableau painting and a paragraph of text would have been better. This is unsurprising given that Ridley Scott’s son, Denis Villeneuve’s “friend”, was given the role of director. Niander Wallace’s eyes remind me of Gary Mitchell in “Where No Man Has Gone Before” (1966). Jared Leto does about as poorly as Gary Lockwood trying to act with metallic contact lenses. The only possible trace of auteur cinema here is the lady who reacts to the violence like a spectator in a Roman arena, implying acceptance of androids as human slaves for all intents and purposes.
‣‣ “2048: Nowhere to Run” (2017)
Seen in 2017.
Hints at the back story of one new feature-film character with little or no worldbuilding.
Live action like “2036: Nexus Dawn” (2017). Another job given to Ridley Scott’s son, and apparently a rushed one at that. Interesting-looking actors, but the street is a pretty empty homage to the style of the original, with very little sign of time passing, and Adam Savage in a cameo for promotional purposes. This looks more like a relatively poor scene and a half cut out of the first act of the feature than a meaningful short.
References here: Blade Runner 2049 (2017).
‣‣ “Blade Runner: Black Out 2022” (2017)
Seen in 2017.
Following Deckard’s exploits in 2019, popular contempt grows for the long-lived Nexus-8 model. It has the superhuman faculties of the Nexus-6 and no lifespan restriction. Lynch mobs identify their victims from a central registry of androids. A conspiracy destroys the registry with nuke EMP and more targeted attacks. Los Angeles goes dark.
Animated promotional material for the 2017 feature sequel. Longer than the other promos, more substantial, more faithful, and a much stronger comment upon the events of the original film, though not linked directly to its plot. The grainy anti-android violence carries a strong whiff of “The Second Renaissance” from The Animatrix (2003) while the cutesy but emotionally disconnected action girl who wonders whether she’ll go to heaven when she dies reminds me not of the original Pris but of trashy Umetsu Yasuomi productions like “Kite” (1998) and Mezzo Forte (2000). The American voice acting is awful and the animation itself is par for the course, clearly not one of Watanabe Shinichirō’s passion projects, though the blasters and flowing Frédéric Back-esque off-world war sakuga are very nice. The setting thankfully looks more like the original than it does the early Japanese tributes like Bubblegum Crisis (1987).
No rationale is provided as to why the biological androids are still physically unidentifiable. There’s text on the right eye of the Nexus-8, normally hidden by the lower lid, which seems unsafe given how eyes are manufactured in the original. The feature sequel clarifies that it isn’t even visible in natural light. The registry is clearly a precarious workaround for that plot hole. Making no attempt to course-correct for credibility, the plot is enabled by emphasis on Syd Mead’s original designs as a retrofuture setting where the registry would conceivably be more vulnerable to physical assault than to economic warfare, disinformation, hacking or political campaigning. Shutting down much of the United States and killing untold numbers of people doesn’t seem like it would serve the ultimate purposes of the conspiracy.
Fun fact: Akira (1988) takes place in 2019, just like Blade Runner, and includes preparations for the 2022 Olympics.
‣‣ Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
Seen in 2017.
Seen in cinematic 2D.
The public hates “skinjobs” more than ever after Tyrell’s lengthening of their lives and the cataclysm they caused to hide themselves in “Black Out 2022” (2017). L.A.P.D. blade runner KD6.3-7 or “K” gets the job resulting from the tip shown in “2048: Nowhere to Run” (2017). He takes his showers in “99.9% detoxified water”. They’re very brief. The ample rain is tainted.
Half way down his rabbit hole of an investigation, K questions himself. He starts to believe, falsely, that he is the child of Rachael. Niander Wallace, the most powerful human in the world following Wallace Corp.’s triumphs in food production, space exploitation, biological android design and digital technology, takes an interest in Rick Deckard precisely because of this rumoured sole case of reproduction. Wallace, seeking to elevate his biological androids—whom he calls his “angels” and his “children”—has been unable to replicate Tyrell’s triumph with Rachael: The Nexus-7, and no other model, could have children.
Wallace’s androids are sold as safer than Tyrell’s. For those who can’t afford androids, there are holographic people similarly able to reflect on their own existence, and thus apparently equipped with artificial general intelligence. Neither sort is obviously constrained in its thinking by anything like Asimov’s laws. Indeed, androids are still difficult to identify visually. A “baseline” test similar to the Voigt-Kampff machine checks the psychology of confirmed androids on the same principles, implicitly monitoring the subject’s response times and other conventional markers of stress. This is because the marketing is apparently hollow. The androids lie and murder as well as natural people do at Wallace’s command and seem generally unstable.
In addition(?) to the nuclear bomb that detonated at high altitude in Black Out 2022, at some point a nuclear weapon depopulated Las Vegas without widespread structural damage. Deckard is the sole human inhabitant of Vegas, which has not been looted. However, K dies saving Deckard from Wallace.
A continuation of the original in style, theme and content. Crucially, even though reality has almost overtaken the original chronologically and a cataclysm is used to explain some discontinuity in technological development, this sequel does not go very far down the road of an analogue alt-future. 60% pure cyberpunk.
The worldbuilding makes sense at the most basic level. Noir and the ‘hard-boiled’ 1940s are a weaker influence here than in Scott’s original with its retro stylings, and I like that. I don’t mind the holographic old stars. The retrofuture stuff is unobtrusive, including ads for Atari and Pan Am, brands fallen between the two productions. There is more delicious extrapolation here than I expected, broadening a plausible urbanism approaching The Caves of Steel (1954) and combining it with a stronger tribute to Dick’s toxic holocaust in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968).
The details are curious and paradoxical. The state of medical care is not discussed. Gaff plays a small part in an apparently conventional retirement home, folding a sheep; people are still getting old. Items from Vegas are identifiable by their tritium content instead of any proposed isotope for a salted bomb, such as 60Co. Flying cars, still used after the 2022 EMP, are still evidently rare, despite advances in drone technology and propulsion. There seems to be mass underemployment of natural-born humans at the same time as Wallace complains his robots aren’t meeting demand, being too expensive to make; how both can be true is unclear.
It is also unclear why Wallace has no competition, despite being mentally ill. According to the model makers at Weta, the guy’s headquarters is 3.5 km tall. Consider the following:
- Though he does not seem to be a hated figure, Wallace is unaccountable. His hold over the police is even stronger than Tyrell’s. He is able to pursue his pro-android agenda even after Luv murders the hard-drinking Lt. Joshi. There is no good reason why the public should trust the corporation or the state in this situation. The institutions would be vulnerable in an uprising.
- The biological android technology seems to be an even bigger cause of instability than the economic inequality. After the 2022 uprising it is still unsafe and paranoia-inducing as if by design. The only reason given here is Wallace’s god complex, as in Ex Machina (2014).
- The original novel’s reason for having androids—a gift of companionship on the frontier as an incentive to colonists—is inapplicable now that the colonies are well established, the public apparently consumes images of them as entertainment, and there are safer alternatives like Joi for emotional support.
- K’s boss fears the truth would cause war between natural humans and androids by threatening the conceptual distinction—what she calls a wall of kinds—between natural and artificial people. Freysa’s and Mariette’s “freedom” fighters have been planning this war for 30 years, all but proving Joshi right.
- Bees thrive without visible flowers in the Las Vegas desert. Either they’re artificial and fertile or they make no sense. Reproduction is pretty much the defining feature of all natural life. That this should be difficult for Wallace to achieve in DNA-coded androids, given his unlimited resources and the advanced state of genetic engineering, is implausible.
- All the necessary technology exists for creating more mechanical robot bodies, like K’s drone, to keep androids out of the economy. Non-breathing robots must be preferable in the colonization of space.
- Food is scarce. Androids eat.
No matter whose perspective you adopt, this is internally contradictory. Even taking Wallace’s insanity as a given, it is not in his interest to continue serial production of biological androids on Earth. Given what we know, he should be working on fertility off-world, where it is less likely to be discovered, and then he should poison the Earth through his food production facilities and induce Kessler syndrome to prevent an effective revolt by the species he is replacing, or whatever his long-term goal is.
A plausible solution would be for Wallace’s competitors to make robots that cannot disguise themselves as human, are more energy-efficient than human flesh, less generally capable, and can be mass-produced more easily than the androids. These would naturally beat the androids on the open market, given the bias against androids. Detente. Everybody wins. Even Wallace’s plan would seem more likely to succeed in this situation once tensions are defused. Mechanical robots would not undermine the interesting existential themes of the film as art: there would still be Joi, the commodity Alexa-/Siri-/Echo-like assistant naming its owner/boyfriend after itself.
The pregnancy idea was possibly taken from Blade Runner 3: Replicant Night (1996), one of the widely disliked sequel novels. It might as well have come from Battlestar Galactica (2003) or straight from the Bible. It’s a poor choice, having no upshot, but the Biblical aspect to it is uncommonly elegant. Rachael takes on the aspect of her Biblical namesake, in addition to her name meaning “ewe”. Sebastian’s likewise Biblical Methuselah syndrome has its counterpart here in Ana Stelline’s Galatian syndrome, a more ambiguous allusion.
In “Galatians” (ca. 55 CE), the Christian apostle Paul talks about having been ill, but there is little symbolic correspondence in that. There is some correspondence in the idea of Christian replicants, false members of the cult mentioned in verse 2:4, but this is just a brief aside. Rather, in verse 3:23 per the NIV translation, “Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed.” This, not Paul’s illness as such, maps onto Stelline’s imprisonment and positions K as Jesus dying right outside the building, with Deckard as Paul bringing the gospel.
Broadly, Paul tries to reconcile Jewish law with the new sect and other non-Jews. Verse 3:28 of the letter thus reads “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free,” etc. Paul also quotes Leviticus, saying “Love your neighbor as yourself” with the implication that the meaning of this phrase is broader than it was in the tribal Iron Age. By extension this would map onto natural and artificial people trying to live together. In this interpretation the social tension, or Joshi’s wall of kinds, is itself the metaphorical Galatian disease.
“Galatians” 4:2–5 extends a metaphor about people having been akin to legal minors and slaves “under the elemental spiritual forces of the world.” The child of Rachael signals maturity and freedom for the androids. Stelline would then be Jesus. Paul’s phrase for Jesus, “born of a woman”, equates to the Nicene Creed’s “born, not made”, recurring throughout the film. It is a profound problem with the script that Wallace’s failure to replicate Sapper Morton’s “miracle” supports the notion that it really was an act of the Christian god, acting through Tyrell for some bizarre reason. A little later, verse 5:4 could be read to imply that K is alienated by his adherence to the law as a substitute for empathy.
Continuing, verses 5:22–23 read: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love [Luv], joy [Joi], peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” In the letter, this is just contrasted against the inherent loathsomeness of the body in Paul’s warped imagination, but it might map onto an android’s freedom to seek out its own happiness. However, it corresponds also to Wallace’s deceitful marketing in “2036: Nexus Dawn” (2017). Tellingly, it would not map onto a more sensible scenario with realistic, unintelligent robots.
These possible maps are unenlightening. It may have been the more superficial correspondence of 4:15-16 that the writers were thinking of: “I can testify that, if you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me. Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth?” The reference to Nabokov’s Pale Fire (1962) in book form and in K’s baseline test is likewise too vague to be useful. Is it K for Kinbote putting himself at the center of someone else’s story, as the makers of this sequel do? The more peripheral allusion to Kafka is all right for Dick. I assume the name “KD” pulls triple duty alluding to Philip K. Dick himself. Alissa Wilkinson points out, in her review for Vox, that the musical cue of Joi’s emanator is part of the child Peter’s theme from Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, readable as subversive against the Soviet regime, hence any regime, yet it is a Wallace product.
These learned allusions being alternately trite and blurry, Villeneuve is about as mainstream as Scott. His dystopia is a good deal cleaner than Visitor of a Museum (1989) and I dislike the injection of superhero action, especially K choosing to jump through a wall. Wallace’s matching supervillainy reminds me of Unbreakable (2000); the movie would have been far better with Sean Young reprising her role instead of equally eccentric Jared Leto hamming it up as a walking plot hole. Luv’s crying would have been a lot more interesting without the gloating and the cruelty. Her exclamation of “I’m the best!” makes her sound like a seven-year-old, which I suppose is the point.
Wallace’s religiosity and the aforementioned Biblical allusions expand upon the religious undercurrent in Scott’s film. Like the Batty-Tyrell dyad it’s all Miltonian-Satanic, having no relationship with the empathic cult of Mercer in Dick’s novel, which is unfortunate. There is only a tiny hint of Mercerism in K’s childhood memory, mainly in its artificiality and the way K comes to identify with it personally, the same way the literary Deckard is surprised by falling rocks.
Just as I would have preferred a more determined shift away from the androids to more credible SF tech, I would have liked to see a deeper cultural shift in response to ecological devastation, as in the aforementioned Visitor of a Museum. The multiculturalism of L.A. feels shallow. It would have been more fun to have 50% of the dialogue in Gaff’s pidgin street-speak and nature VR. I like the way Villeneuve maintained the gaze motif though. Notice the drones have no visible camera eyes.
As a whole the sequel is fundamentally unnecessary and marred by more than just its deep plot holes. The detective story as such has several weak links. It remains a very enjoyable experience, largely thanks to the better spots of the writing and the excellent execution. Set design and props often steal the show from the indifferent actors. I loved K’s cramped kitchen which would have fit right into Alien (1979). Tómas Lemarquis’s file clerk has a pretty nice keyboard, similar to an Ergodox. The Vegas hologram sequence, with a bit-rotted Elvis mostly silent on stage, is a beautiful bit of auteur nonsense masquerading as a fight. The monochrome sequences are a bit over the top, recalling The Element of Crime (1984), but I would gladly have sat through another hour of such indulgences. The soundtrack is nice, not overdoing its tribute to Vangelis, and the many wordless scenes of flight and urban exploration to the music recall Ghost in the Shell (1995), without Oshii’s human touch.