Blog Post on Blade Runner: Shifting the Question of Empathy from Androids to Humans

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?

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2 Responses to Blog Post on Blade Runner: Shifting the Question of Empathy from Androids to Humans

  1. I think the question you raise is definitely really central to the film– and I think you’re right, that the androids do seem to be “more human” than the humans. Another way this really stands out from the novel for me is how the androids seem so obsessed with staying alive/ expanding their lifespan and really try to fight Deckard off more when he goes after them, whereas in the novel, I believe Deckard discusses a bit how odd it is that once the androids basically realize there is no escaping, they resign themselves to death, as though they lack a sort of survival instinct. On that note, though, I don’t know if we can say it’s a more “successful” posing of this question than the novel, because I think the novel leaves it more ambiguous and forces us to think about it more– I also feel the novel is more interested in characters on an individual level than just broader societal concerns, which were the vibes I got from the film.

  2. “The movie seems to further complicate the relationship between humans and machines by portraying the androids as more ‘human’ and empathetic than people.”

    Unlike the novel, the film never seems to doubt that androids are capable of empathy. Indeed, Bryant gives empathy as a reason for an android’s four year lifespan: “The designers reckoned that after a few years they might develop their own emotional responses… so they built in a failsafe device.” Life, according to the film, necessarily begets empathy. Rachel, for example, has been gifted a past—a lifetime’s worth of human interaction—and so she appears functionally human in empathetic terms. Similarly, Roy—“the light that burns twice as bright,” having “seen things you people wouldn’t believe”—has accrued a lifetime’s worth of pain, of suffering, of wonder in a just few short years. By the film’s conclusion—saving Deckard—he seems to have become functionally human as well.

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