During our discussion on Blade Runner today, we talked a lot about the ways in which the movie characterized the androids as extremely empathetic, thereby shifting the narrative to the androids’ perspective rather than the human viewpoint that we get from the novel. To add to that discussion, I want to talk about the lack of cruelty we see from the androids in the movie compared to the novel, and how this colors our understanding of the relationship between humans and machines – as well as what it means to be human or alive – in both works.
Although the androids do act viciously in Blade Runner – which we can see from the extremely violent and visually graphic acts of slaughter – their actions seem somewhat justified by their motives to stay alive and break free from slavery. In contrast, the novel goes out of the way to depict them as unnecessarily cruel and apathetic – e.g. the scene when they torture the spider – making their humanity and capacity for compassion appear a lot more ambiguous in our eyes.
Rather than questioning the androids’ sense of empathy, the movie focuses on challenging the human characters’ sense of humanity/empathy. For example, Deckard’s role in the movie seem to be to portray the jaded sense of apathy that humans appear to have developed to survive in this society. When Rachel asks if Deckard will come after her if she runs, he tells her that he won’t because he “owes her,” but that “someone else will” – portraying the decision as something more like a repayment of debt than an internal transformation towards feeling a greater sense of empathy for the androids. Although viewers become more sympathetic towards the androids as the movie progresses, the human characters do not seem to undergo any significant transformation towards greater empathy (The Deckard in the movie does change, but the transformation is slight compared to the Deckard in the novel), which was really a focal point of the novel.
By flipping the question of empathy from the androids to the humans, the movie seems to further complicate the relationship between humans and machines by portraying the androids as more “human” and empathetic than people. Is this depiction more disturbing than the one in the novel? If there is essentially nothing different between the androids and the humans except life span – androids even have the added advantage of not being hurt by extreme cold or heat – what does that mean for humanity? Does the movie get at this issue of what being “human” and being “alive” is more successfully and provocatively than the novel as a result of this portrayal?