How Blade Runner constructs an empathy test…for the audience

Damien Walter writes on technology, culture and scifi for The Guardian, BBC, Wired, Oxford University Press, IO9, Tor.com and elsewhere. He’s a graduate of the Clarion scifi writers workshop, and teaches Advanced Scifi & Fantasy : writing the 21st century myth

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The science fiction author Philip Kindred Dick believed that humans were defined – not by our intelligence or our technology – but by our empathy.

The human capacity for empathy – our ability to place our self into the experience of the other – is what makes us truly human.

It’s our capacity for empathy that makes stories possible. Without empathy for its characters, a story cannot come to life.

But as humans we also have the capacity to not feel empathy. Who we feel empathy for, and crucially, who we choose to exclude from empathy, became the theme of Philip K Dick’s novel DoAndroids Dream of Electric Sheep.

The novel that became Blade Runner.

To tell android from human we must have an empathy test.

But what if we, the humans, fail the test of empathy?

Watch the full video essay on YouTube

From its title onward, Blade Runner constructs a test of empathy…for the audience.

The words Blade Runner summon images of the hard boiled detective, of the gritty outsider hero. But the character we follow through Blade Runner is no hero.

Rick Deckard is a slave hunter.

Blade Runner’s sci-fi noir setting, it’s immaculate production design and cinematography, hypnotise us into ignoring the truth before our eyes.

The cyberpunk future of Los Angeles in 2019 is a world built on slavery.

Blade Runner is a representation of an America built on slavery, that has returned to slavery again. Androids are metaphor for African American slaves. Off world colonies stand in for American colonies. Every off-worlder, like the early American colonists, is entitled to own slaves. America’s first police officers, who were explicitly tasked with slave hunting, are the Blade Runner.

We the audience follow Rick Deckard as he hunts and kills his victims.

A woman is forced to flee naked through the city, then shot in the back by the police officer who hunts her.

A man in despair at the death of his love is set to bring justice to her killer, when an innocent saves the killer.

An innocent girl, only a few days old, is coerced into sex by a police officer in exchange for protection.

A billionaire who made his fortune from selling lives into slavery is finally confronted by the champion of his victims.

A five year old girl, raped repeatedly as a “pleasure model”, is shot through the heart in her final moments of life.

With each abuse and murder we watch without empathy, we the audience fail the empathy test.

“If we are told the hero is human, we can watch the murder of the android.”

Blade Runner exploits the same flaw in human psychology that allows us, in reality, to watch without empathy the abuse, beating and shooting of others.

Othering is the psychological process that allows us to exclude other humans from the circle of our empathy.

Humans are story driven beings. If we are told the hero of the story is the police officer, we can accept almost any abuse against the criminals he hurts.

If we are told the hero is human, we can watch the murder of the android.

If we are told the hero is male, we can watch the abuse of the female.

If we are told the hero is white, we will not question the murder of black.

If we are told the hero is us, we will watch with relief the pain and suffering of the other.

All of humankind’s worst travesties were possible only because of Othering. War, genocide, systematic rape and slavery can only exist if we can Other their victims.

Blade Runner tests our empathy, to show how easily we fail the test.

And then Blade Runner offers us redemption.

At the climax of the story we watch the slave hunter Rick Deckard first saved, and then redeemed, by the android Roy Batty.

We are shown Roy Batty with a nail through one hand, a dove in the other. The Christian symbols for mortal suffering and transcendent life.

Like Blade Runner, the story of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ tests the empathy of its audience. Christ has been made other by the people he was born to save. We follow his journey to the cross as he is beaten, tortured and killed. If we the audience have the strength to empathise – to feel Christ’s suffering – then we can follow our saviour into death and experience rebirth and redemption.

As we watch Roy Batty forgive the man who came to murder him, we have our own chance of redemption.

Because it is Roy Batty who is the hero of Blade Runner.

It is Roy Batty who rises up against oppression. It is Roy Batty who rescues his people from slavery. It is Roy Batty who confronts and throws down his maker. It is Roy Batty who faces -and forgives- the man who killed his lover.

Existing on the edge of a four year lifespan, half as long but twice as bright a life, it is Roy Batty who is the Blade Runner.

If we can see the hero in the Other, if we can feel for Roy Batty after being given every excuse not to, then with empathy we can follow his journey into death, and glimpse our own redemption.

Androids live brief lives, filled with suffering and pain, built on memories that will be lost in time like tears in rain.

And so, as humans, do we.

Is Deckard an android?

As Rick Deckard watches Roy Batty’s death, he sees the humanity in the android, touches his self in the other, finds empathy for the being he came to murder.

And he finds his own redemption.

Deckard has no human relationships. Like all androids, his few memories are based on old photographs. His hard boiled noir persona is the kind of false identity an android would be given. The office where Deckard is briefed seems to be a set on a soundstage, the inspector who briefs him a bad, cliched actor. The android being tested in the office of its creator is not Rachel, who fails the test, by Deckard, who passes.

Deckard is followed on every step of his path by another detective, because an android that completes its mission must then be itself retired. When that detective chooses to let Deckard and Rachel run – an act of empathy – the origami unicorn he leaves at the door mirrors Deckard’s repeating memory, indicating that Deckard’s memories, like Rachel’s, are implants


.”It’s a shame she won’t live. But then again, who does?”

Is Deckard an android? The point of Blade Runner’s most famous mystery is that it doesn’t matter.

Whether Deckard is an android or a human, he will live and then die. All that matters is what he does with the time in between. Deckard can find empathy for the Other and with it his own redemption, or he can live in fear as a slave

“It’s a hell of a thing to live in fear, that’s what it means to be a slave.”

Slavery or freedom. Suffering or redemption. Fear or empathy.

These are the choices that face the characters in Blade Runner.

Our choice as humans is nothing less.

Afterword

Hollywood has made thousands of scifi movies, most have been lost in time. Ridley Scott’s masterpiece has only grown greater with time.

But the scene that makes Blade Runner transcendent was neither in Philip K Dick’s original novel, or in the screenplay by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples. Instead it was improvised onset by the actor Rutger Hauer.

Like so many timeless myths, including the myth of Christ that inspired it, Blade Runner was not the creation of any one storyteller. Instead it emerged from many imaginations, to speak to the imagination in all of us.

If you yearn to create mythic stories that move the soul as Blade Runner does, join Writing the 21st Century Myth, the advanced course in scifi & fantasy writing.

Advanced SciFi & Fantasy

Writing the 21st century myth

Damien Walter, writer on sci-fi and geek culture for The Guardian, BBC, WIRED and graduate of the Clarion writers workshop, leads a journey into scifi and fantasy storytelling.

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Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Director of creative writing at UoL, published with OUP and Cambridge. Currently travelling the world and writing a book.

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