Life After Empathy: On Philip K. Dick and Blade Runner 2049


On Film

Still from Blade Runner 2049.


Driving cross-country some years ago, I pulled off Interstate 76, among the arroyos and tumbleweed at Fort Morgan, Colorado. Philip K. Dick lay buried somewhere in the cemetery there. But where? At the public library, a sweet old lady volunteer flipped the pages of a bound burial record until she found the grave’s location. I wrote it down, thanked her, and wandered around until I found a double tombstone, about a foot high, bearing the names Philip and Jane, Dick’s twin sister, dead in infancy. (Before he died in 1982, Dick purchased the plot next to hers.) Standing only a few feet above his moldering corpse gave me the willies. His books produce in me a sort of psychotic break with everyday reality, revealing a hidden life behind it, ominous and possibly sacred. On top of the low tombstone, an earlier pilgrim had placed an array of small plastic sheep. An offering! I sensed something sacred about them, so I stole one. Returning to my car, I stuck it into the heater grid on the dash. To this day, it guides my travels, a holy relic reminding me to dream of electric sheep.

When bioengineering produces androids indistinguishable from humans (probably soon), will they share the sanctity of human life? That’s a typically weird Philip K. Dick question, played out in his 1968 novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The two movies it has inspired, Blade Runner (1982, directed by Ridley Scott) and now its sequel, Blade Runner 2049 (2017, directed by Denis Villeneuve), take up that question, too, but avoid Dick’s fateful claim that what makes human life sacred is a quality androids don’t have and never will: empathy.

In Do Androids Dream, Dick calls them “replicants,” humanoid creatures with a four-year life span bioengineered to serve as slaves on off-world colonies. Like the enslaved Africans in the New World, they sometimes object to their lot in life and go rogue, killing their masters, returning to Earth, and passing for human. Hence the need for Blade Runners, police bounty hunters like Rick Deckard paid to track and “retire” replicants. They protect humans from look-alike predators who feel no empathy for living things. The police use a test to identify replicants, the Voight-Kampff empathy test, measuring minute dilations of the iris in response to emotionally disturbing questions. Pass it and you’re human, fail it and you’re retired. “Kill the killers”: that’s the mantra of Mercerism, the empathy-based spirituality that ennobles life in Do Androids Dream. Killer replicants get marked for disposal.

And if a human should develop empathy for a replicant? That’s the dilemma Deckard suffers in Dick’s novel. He’s only human, and he comes to love a replicant named Rachel. She’s an advanced model, a Nexus 6, and true to her replicant nature, she uses his love against him to imperil his ability to kill replicants. She feels no empathy for him, however much he feels for her. That’s what makes life sacred for Dick—the feeling that it is. Kill the killers.

In an explosive early scene in the original Blade Runner, set in the year 2019, a replicant named Leon, having trouble with the Voight-Kampff test, pulls out a fat handgun and blows the examining officer through the wall. No empathy there. But Leon hasn’t returned to Earth alone. He’s part of a close group of rogue replicants capable of caring for each other, maybe humans, too. In the looming penultimate scene of Blade Runner, under a dark sky drooling rain, their Teutonically chiseled leader, Roy (played by Rutger Hauer), saves the frightened Deckard (Harrison Ford) from a deadly plunge off the roof of the derelict Bradbury Building. In case you need some symbolism to get the gesture, he also sticks a nail through his palm. Cue fluttering white dove. This replicant empathizes with his human hunter.

Or does he? Rereleases of Blade Runner (seven total, but Ridley Scott had artistic control only over The Final Cut of 2007), clarify a decisive departure from Dick’s narrative: Deckard, too, is a replicant. Blade Runners kill for a living, making it hard to defend their humanity (Dick’s point). Why not make them replicants? Implanted memories make Deckard feel human. But he isn’t. As a Blade Runner he protects humans against predators like himself, while displaying plenty of empathy, most urgently for the alluring Rachel, with whom he absconds at movie’s end. Empathy can’t make human life sacred if replicants feel it, too. So much for the Voight-Kampff test—and Dick’s attempt to distinguish artificial from sacred life on the basis of feeling. Lucky for Deckard, the love of his replicant life enjoys an extended life span, which means he probably does, too.

Blade Runner 2049 picks up these hints from the original and runs with them. It’s a visually gorgeous film, panning, as it opens, a vast cityscape in ambient sfumato, architecture somewhere between Albert Speer, Bauhaus, and I. M. Pei. Sans-serif text reveals that replicants have seen improvements: there’s now a model with an extended life span, another capable of complete obedience. The opening scene ends with an obedient one, a Blade Runner called K (Ryan Gosling), carrying a bloody eyeball in a plastic bag toward his police-issue hover car parked in the sand. The eyeball belonged to Sapper Morton, a geriatric replicant leading a peaceful if illegal life in the desert as a grub farmer. After verifying a serial number embedded in that eyeball, K retired him. No need now for that clumsy empathy test.

Later, under bright office lights, K’s human superior, the tough Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright), reminds him that the difference between replicants and humans must remain clear, however similar they appear. Civilization depends on the “wall” that divides human life from the kind that can be enslaved and, when necessary, destroyed. In a Los Angeles as dense with humanity as its air is with dust (hover cars gliding through deep canyons of glass and neon), the LAPD defends humanity by retiring replicants trying to pass. The police and their Blade Runners preserve the sanctity of human life.

What ever became of Rick Deckard, the old Blade Runner from 2019? That’s the crux of the new movie. At the end of the original Blade Runner, Deckard departs with Rachel snuggled up in his hover car for a great green beyond where, in defiance of Dick’s novel, they might live happily ever after. Only they don’t. Blade Runner 2049 resumes their story. Rachel dead and happiness along with her, an aging Deckard holes up in a vacant, sun-dusted Las Vegas casino. A litter of gargantuan human statuary lies strewn across the desert. The indefatigable K comes hunting, but not because Deckard is passing as human. This time the stakes are higher.

Deckard turns out to be a replicant with a difference, progenitor of a miracle that makes replicant life sacred. And what’s the miracle? Biological reproduction. K discovers that Deckard and Rachel conceived a child, and that Rachel died giving birth to a girl. The child’s existence remains shrouded in secrecy, but she lives. Begotten not made. No substantive difference now exists between human and replicant life. If they are equally sacred by virtue of birth, how can one be summarily enslaved or destroyed? The wall that divides human from replicant seems about to fall, and civilization along with it.

Deckard fathers a new race, and Blade Runner 2049 ends on the brink of a race war. Kill the killers was an easy fix. The Blade Runner movies rehabilitate the replicant, turning it into an image of life subordinated, denied its sacredness. Replicant lives matter. Convincing humans to accept it, however, will take some doing. As an allegory of contemporary race relations, Blade Runner 2049 anticipates difficult times ahead.

If you were a replicant, how would you know?


Paul Youngquist is the author of four books, most recently A Pure Solar World: Sun Ra and the Birth of Afrofuturism. He teaches English at the University of Colorado Boulder.