Comparing Ridley Scott’s film adaptation to the novel that it is looser-than-loosely based on, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, is a tricky task. However, considering that I could probably write volumes upon volumes, examining every dissimilar air and comparable nuance between the novel and film, I have decided to focus my attention on Scott’s and Dick’s visions of the future, and their inclusion and utilization of the eye as the transcendent symbolic device transmitting said visions of the future to its viewer/reader.
Keeping that in mind, let’s discuss the era in which Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was conceived and what issues were troubling Philip K. Dick’s mind, those of his peers, and the population in general when he wrote it in 1968. Blind faith in modernity and technological innovation prior to WWII seemed antiquated, outdated, and foolish in the decades following it. The world was left with questions: Could anyone with a little charisma lead a nation into war like a pied piper playing the sweet melody of delusional genetic superiority? Could one country be so hypnagogically removed from their emotions to commit genocide upon a percentage of their own people? If science and reason were such precise instruments of harmonious order and structure, how could the world have been thrown into chaos and bear witness to such societal evil? By the time the 1960s had arrived, the world still had no answers to the aforementioned questions and was now dealing with a new set of woes set in motion: important leaders were getting gunned down left and right; the Vietnam War was underway; the Civil Rights and Feminist movements were demanding equality; the youth counter-culture was questioning authority and religion; the world was frozen in the icy grip of the Cold War; and nuclear annihilation seemed in imminent. For many writers in this era of confusion and questions that had been built upon the confusion and questions of WWII, these issues weighed heavily on their minds and influenced their literary works; Philip K. Dick was no exception to this.
In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, he envisioned a post-apocalyptic future where the past was a blur and the present was a scramble to escape the realities of what humanity had wrought: “No one today remembered why the war had come about or who, if anyone, had won. The dust which had contaminated most of the planet’s surface had originated in no country, and no one, even the wartime enemy, had planned on it” (p.13). This quote is not only telling of World War Terminus, the title Dick has baptized as Earth’s final war in the novel, but also of the time in which it was written. It’s quite obvious that Dick was drawing upon and commenting on Cold War fears of nuclear war. By the time Dick had written Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, neither science nor technology had proven to be humanity’s secularized savior, ushering in the pre-WWII promises of a utopian future like many adherents of modernism had confidently predicted. Instead of utilizing the advantages of science and the tools of technology to advance the human race into a better tomorrow, war, fear, and competition had consumed the world. It would seem that the powers that be would’ve much rather invested their time, energy, and money into ways of eradicating the enemy and, ultimately, themselves than building a better future for all.
Dick further plays upon these ideas by explaining that, after World War Terminus, “the sun had ceased to shine on Earth” (p. 14), and that humanity had few options in the aftermath of nuclear bombardment. Abandoning Mother Earth and migrating to the stars seemed the only viable option for those that survived the war. Thus, “the U.N. had made it easy to emigrate, difficult to stay. Loitering on Earth potentially meant finding oneself abruptly classed as biologically unacceptable, a menace to the pristine heredity of the race” (p. 14). This excerpt also echoes the Aryan ideals inherent in Nazism… a subject Dick was fascinated with. Elsewhere in the book, Dick touches upon the notions of the genetically enhanced and perfected ubermensche, “a weapon of war, the Synthetic Freedom Fighter, had been modified; able to function on an alien world, the humanoid robot—strictly speaking, the organic android—had become the mobile donkey engine of the colonization program” (p. 14). A one-way ticket to the off-world colonies was humanity’s only option for survival and “the ultimate incentive of emigration: the android servant” (p. 14), which sweetened the deal for hesitant humans. Earth was advertised as a death sentence to those who weren’t certain whether to stay or go. Dick also touches on other baser reasons behind the world’s final war and its ramifications: “the silence of the world could not rein back its greed” (p. 18); unsurprisingly, humanity’s greed had also weighed heavily in determining the events which led up to nuclear annihilation.
With that in mind, it seems fitting then that Ridley Scott’s interpretation of Dick’s apocalyptic, android-ridden future came to filmic fruition in the 1980s when the stock-market motto, “greed is good”, was running rampant among yuppies and young republicans from sea to shining sea. Although Scott’s Orwellian vision of tomorrow is quite noticeably different than Dick’s, which seems Criswellian in comparison. Unlike Dick’s Earthly ghost town awaiting humanity’s fate, Scott foreordains one of genetic modification, overpopulation, cross-cultural abrasion, over-commercialization, obsolescence, and the most conspicuous of consumptions. Given the current state of contemporary culture, Scott’s vision of the future seems more accurate as ‘November, 2019’ slowly slips from the future and into the present.
From the opening scene of Blade Runner, the viewer is greeted with an over-industrialized, hellish future complete with bellowing, infernal plumes belching upward and disapproving lightning bolts raining down from the smog-filled heavens, creating an arguing dialect of symbolism between the elements. The viewer’s hovering gaze is pushed/pulled forward into this unholy urban congestion as hovercars whiz by, carrying their wayward occupants on thick stygian winds to their bleak fates. In the distance, the viewer can slowly make out the image of the camera’s ultimate destination—that of the Tyrrell Corporation’s pyramidal headquarters—Ridley Scott’s ultra-modern version of the Tower of Babel.
The shot is then abruptly interrupted by an all-seeing eye enveloping the camera and staring back at the viewer. As Ridley Scott explains on the DVD commentary to Blade Runner, “the eyeball, really, was the symbol of the ever-watchful eye…which would be the idea of ‘big brother’…the eyeball represented that eye of Orwell”. Much like the novel, the film draws upon the eye not only as the window to the soul …or the soulless, which is the case for the androids in the novel and the replicants in the film… but as the eye of the ‘other’, watching every move the constituents of this apocalyptic future make and, ultimately, the viewer, leaving an overall feeling of uneasiness, discomfort, and violation of privacy.
The eye continues to be a limitless source for symbolism and signification throughout the novel and its film adaptation. Another example of this ocular significance and importance can be found in its fundamental usage in the Voight-Kampff Empathy Test as an external determinant to differentiate between human and android/replicant. This significance of the eye in gauging whether its subject is human or machine is first explained in detail when Rick Deckard, the bounty-hunting/blade-running protagonist of both book and film, uses the Voigt-Kampff apparatus on Rachel Rosen—the naïve Nexus-6 femme fatale/damsel-in-distress—while explaining how it works: “‘This’—he held up the flat adhesive disk with its trailing wires—‘measures capillary dilation in the facial area. We know [the police] this to be a primary autonomic response, the so-called ‘shame’ or ‘blushing’ reaction to a morally shocking stimulus…this records fluctuations of tension within the eye muscles’” (p. 44).
Likewise, a similar description is extolled by Eldon Tyrrell, a wizened older gentleman and head of the Tyrrell Corporation in the film (in Dick’s novel, his name is Eldon Rosen—head of the Rosen Association): “Capillary dilation of the so-called blush response? Fluctuation of the pupil. Involuntary dilation of the iris”. Tyrrell obviously suffers from a severe case of poor eyesight as he is wearing a pair of thick glasses, which magnify and distort the image of his eyes. As Deckard sets up the Voight-Kampff apparatus in the film, the magnified image of Rachel’s eye appears on its main monitor screen, paralleling the image of the Orwellian-like eye looking out over the cityscape from the opening scenes. As in the novel, the Voigt-Kampff Empathy Test administered in the movie is to detect a human from android, or, in the case of the film adaptation, human from replicant.
It should also be noted that the Tyrrell Corporation from Blade Runner and its equivalent in the book, the Rosen Association, are both in possession of a replicated and/or robotic owl. The owl’s eyes in the film are utilized as yet another source of being watched by the ‘other’ as it peers out with glowing, phantasmagoric eyes over the inhabitants of Eldon Tyrrell’s office. Furthermore, the owl’s penetrating eyes are part of the Tyrrell Corporation’s logo. In the novel, the owl was the first animal to go extinct after World War Terminus. The significance of the owl in both novel and film, quite possibly stems from its symbolism in ancient myth. In Indian folklore, the owl was endowed with the gift of prophecy. In Greek myth, the owl was the pet of Athena—the goddess of wisdom—and believed to have magical powers emanating from an inner light which gave it the power of night vision. Additionally, the ancient Greeks believed the owl offered protection to soldiers going into battle and, if an owl flew over the battlefield, it was taken as a sign of imminent victory. The owl also appeared on the reverse side of coins to monitor the honesty of all trade and commerce in Ancient Greece, which seems to be symbolic of its presence within the inner sanctum of the Tyrrell Corporation and the use of its eyes on their logo.
It also seems strange that both Dick and Scott introduce the reader/viewer to the owl almost simultaneously with that of the introduction to Rachel, giving her and the scene an almost supernatural quality. That being said, the ancient Romans believed witches could transform into owls, called the Stryx, as a means of transportation and to seek out that evening’s human victim. With this in mind, Rachel’s first appearance alongside the owl then takes on a vastly different meaning; although, in the novel, it would appear that Dick decided to weigh more heavily on the myths of Ancient Rome. This scene forces the reader to witness, with the written word, Rachel’s transmogrification from showroom-model into that of femme fatale. However, it would appear that Scott incorporated both Greek and Roman myths in his vision of Rachel since she teeters between noir-ish vamp and pencil-skirted damsel, leaning just as heavily on Greek myths of Athena and her holy pet owl as those of the aforementioned Roman ones. Regardless, both she and the owl appear together to extend a visual/textual dialogue between the eyes--those of the owl’s aglow with ‘inner light’ and those of the replicant’s, glowing with the ‘uncanny valley’.
Dick makes reference to the female androids’ eyes several times throughout Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. When Rachel is given the Voight-Kampff test, Dick describes, “She [Rachel] gave him [Deckard] a malice-filled sidelong glance” (p. 42) and “Her [Rachel’s] black eyes flamed up, she glowered at him [Deckard]” (p. 42). Later, in the novel, while describing Rachel again, Deckard observes, “Rachel had been modeled on the Celtic type of build, anachronistic and attractive…the total impression was good, however…Except for the restless shrewd eyes” (p. 185). However, Dick’s references to the eerie android eyes do not stop with Rachel. When describing Pris Stratton, one of the androids Deckard is out to kill, her eyes are described as “enormous, glazed over fixedly as she attempted to smile” (p. 60). Perhaps, the android that Dick most uses to symbolize this otherworldly glow emanating from the eyes can be found in the novel’s chapters dealing with the Luba Luft.
Luft is a renegade android masquerading as a human opera singer. As Deckard moves in for the kill backstage by portraying himself as an ardent opera fan, he notes in her dressing room that her stage makeup “enlarged her eyes; enormous and hazel, they fixed on him and did not waver” (p. 98). Later during questioning, using the Voight-Kampff test, Deckard observes, “her immense eyes widened with childlike acceptance, as if he had revealed the cardinal mystery of creation” (p. 100). Being an opera singer performing the role of Pamina from Mozart’s The Magic Flute, Dick has created a Droste effect; in this case, entertainment within entertainment—the opera being performed in the literature being read. Another example of this appears later in the novel as Deckard is joined by another bounty hunter, Phil Resch, to apprehend Ms. Luft who hasn’t fled to the four corners of Earth but, instead, decides to take shelter within the confines of a museum exhibiting the works of Edvard Munch.
Dick has written yet another example or the recursive Droste effect into this scene, “Holding a printed catalogue, Luba Luft…stood absorbed in the picture before her: a drawing of a young girl, hands clasped together, seated on the edge of a bed, an expression of bewildered wonder and new, groping awe imprinted on the face” (p. 129). Here, the reader is left to envision Luba viewing the piece of art; thus, drawing upon Munch’s “Puberty” as an artwork within Dick’s literary work, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Furthermore, Dick parallels Munch’s portrait of a young woman maturing within the confines of his painterly brush-strokes, while Dick metamorphoses the character of Luba Luft from cold, calculated android into one of warmth and empathy as she stands there viewing the portrait with an appreciation. Unfortunately, Luba was removed from Scott’s film adaptation.
However in her place, is Zhora, a replicant described in the movie as “trained for an off-world kick murder squad. Talk about Beauty and the Beast. She’s both.” Like Luba, Zhora also works in the entertainment industry… albeit, the seedier side of the entertainment industry. Zhora performs in the 4th Sector as ‘Miss Salome’ and, as the emcee announces to the audience in Taffey Lewis’ rather posh yet questionable establishment, “Ladies and gentlemen, Taffey Lewis presents Miss Salome and the snake. Watch her take pleasure from the serpent that once corrupted men”. Like Luba, the eye is focused on Zhora’s onstage performance, making entertainment within entertainment. Unlike Luba, Zhora bolts out of her dressing room before Deckard has the chance to run the Voight-Kampff test on her. As Deckard pursues her out into the heavy traffic of the raining dark of the noir-ish cityscape, the viewer is inundated with a barrage of advertisements. As our intrepid blade-runner fires away at Zhora, we see her crash into display windows filled with mannequins as she is gunned down. This is an obvious allusion to her being an organically-grown robot. She continues to run after Deckard fires each shot at her and hits his target. Scott positions the camera so that Zhora’s attempts to flee the scene like a wounded animal are mirrored in the reflections of her image emanating along the corridor of display windows. Ultimately, Zhora meets her demise with her eyes open wide as neon images of advertisements overhead pulse and flicker their products, reflected on her lifeless frame.
Keeping representations of mass-media entertainment in mind, both film and novel handle its oversaturation in the public eye but in their own distinct, separate ways. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Dick introduces readers to the TV and radio personality of Buster Friendly and his merry band of Friendly Friends. Buster Friendly’s show appears to be the only thing that the constituents of this post-apocalyptic world tune into and no-one seems to mind. As Dick informs the reader, “The Buster Friendly Show, telecast and broadcast over all Earth via satellite, also poured down on the emigrants of the colony planets. Practice transmissions beamed to Proxima had been attempted, in case human colonization extended that far. Had the Salander 3 reached its destination, the travelers aboard would have found the Buster Friendly Show awaiting them. And they would have been glad” (p. 72); not even the cosmos appears to be free of Buster Friendly’s broadcasts.
Buster Friendly is a source of companionship, “Good old Buster…I watch him every morning and then again at night when I get home; I watch him while I’m eating dinner and then his late late show until I go to bed” (p. 61); a source of information, “it’ll be nice to see Buster Friendly on TV again, instead of just listening on the radio in the store truck…Buster Friendly is going to reveal his carefully documented sensational expose tonight. So because of Pris and Roy and Irmgard I get to watch what will probably be the most important piece of news to be released in many years. How about that, he said to himself” (p. 202); and a source of fear and disgust, “Better, perhaps, to turn the TV back on. But the ads, directed at the remaining regulars, frightened him. They informed him in a countless procession of ways that he, a special, wasn’t wanted...why listen to that?” (p. 19).
While Buster doesn’t appear in Scott’s adaptation of the novel, the viewer is assaulted with a multi-sensory surplus of inner-city commercialization and skyscraping advertisements replete with: massive, flashing Coca-Cola signs; smiling kabuki-faced women enjoying the stylized pleasures of the products they’re pushing; a throng of television sets stream neon images similar to Nam Jun Paik’s video artworks; an overwhelming barrage of brand-names and logos overpowering the city spires appear everywhere the eye can see; and catch-phrases and buzzwords radiate in katakana and hiragana under radioactive skies. Scott has taken the argument that Linda Hutcheon discussed in On the Art of Adaptation, concerning the logophiliac superiority and iconophobic mistrust that the literati feel towards cinematic adaptations and turned it on itself; thereby, transforming the ‘logo’ into light-emitting ‘icon’, usurping every camera angle and jutting out every corner of the lens. It should also be noted that Scott has found an inventive way to include product placement into his film.
Similar to the inventiveness involving product placement, Ridley Scott has masterfully created a way to explain part of the story and history behind Dick’s dystopian vision of tomorrow, and all within the context of conspicuous consumption. Several times throughout the film, Scott intersperses leering zephyrs floating alongside the thick of pollutants choking the dystopian skies. These dirigibles brandish a ‘friendly’ voice selling civilians below on the idea to escape the caustic environs of nuclear holocaust on Earth and head for the stars. The confident, masculine voice reverberating from the blimps announces, “A new life awaits you in the off-world colonies. The chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunity and adventure”, while yet another blimp appears to be selling the populace “the custom-tailored, genetically-engineered humanoid replicant designed especially for your needs.” This echoing voice may very well be an echoed homage to Buster Friendly from the novel.
Unlike Dick’s focus on the female of the android species, Scott singles out Roy Baty from the novel and expands and flushes out his character to create an antagonist to Rick Deckard’s sleuthing, hard-edged hero. Taking this liberty with the novel, Scott also adds an extra “t” to Roy’s surname; ultimately, changing the original meaning from “son of Talmay” (a commune in eastern France) to “crazy” or “insane”. Since Ridley Scott cut out the backstory of Roy’s leading an android commune and opted for accentuating his maniacal side, this change makes sense. Roy’s character in Dick’s novel is minimal at best, while his filmic counterpart takes on several symbolic meanings; that of temperamental child, god-killing machine, and bleach-blonde psychopath.
Roy’s two key scenes in the film adaptation both focus on sight. Once Roy has made his way to the center of the Tyrrell Corporation’s maze to face Eldon Tyrrell himself, he confesses, “It’s not an easy thing to meet your maker.” After Tyrrell cautiously asks Roy how he might help him, he viciously responds with “Death!” Tyrrell then explains, “Death? Well, I’m afraid that’s a little out of my jurisdiction. You…” Roy impatiently interrupts Tyrrell as he predatorily moves in closer to his creator, “I want more life, father.” Tyrell then piously retorts, “The facts of life. To make an alteration in the… evolvement in an organic life system is fatal. A coding sequence cannot be revised once it’s been established.” Roy continues to prod Tyrrell for possible solutions to prolonging his four-year lifespan until Roy must face his fate and sits down on Tyrrell’s bed. Tyrrell explains to Roy, “You were made as well as we could make you.” Roy calmly interrupts Tyrrell again, “But not to last.” After stroking Roy’s ego to sooth the savage beast within him, Tyrrell exclaims, “Look at you. You’re the prodigal son. You’re quite a prize.” Mimicking this ego-stroking, Tyrrell strokes Roy bleached-blonde coif. Roy confesses to his maker, “I’ve done questionable things.” Now, Tyrrell interrupts by feeding Roy’s ego even more, “Also, extraordinary things. Revel in your time.” Roy’s look of disparity shifts towards a sinister sneer and questions, “Nothing the god of biomechanics wouldn’t let you in heaven for?” Roy smirks at Eldon Tyrrell, reaches out to embrace his creator, kisses him passionately upon the lips, then, grasping Tyrrell’s head in his hands, proceeds to crush his skull while crushing Eldon’s eyes with his thumbs; blindness in death.
Likewise, in Blade Runner, the brief battle between Roy and Deckard is expanded in the film and, in doing so, Ridley Scott transforms Batty from a soulless psychopath to a flawed, troubled soul. In his final dying moments, Roy saves Deckard who is hanging from the side of a building about to plummet to his death. Roy collapses into a meditative pose and proudly admits to Deckard, “I’ve… seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams…glitter in the dark near Tannhauser Gate… All those… moments will be lost… in time… like… tears in rain.” Roy then lowers his head to meet his fate. In this scene, the viewer is again faced with the eye and sights that he/she will never see due to Batty’s death. This parallels some of Deckard’s final thoughts in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?: “Once, he [Deckard] thought, I would have seen the stars. Years ago. But now it’s only the dust; no one has seen a star in years, at least not from Earth. Maybe I’ll go where I can see stars, he said to himself” (p. 225).
For all intents and purposes, Blade Runner is Scott’s cinematic assimilation of Dick’s dystopian vision of tomorrow through the lens of a “many-worlds interpretation” into the ‘uncanny valley’ of human/machine interaction. This paper is by no means exhaustive for I have left out the mind’s eye of Mercerism—the Sisyphean video-game religion that would make Albert Camus proud. Nor have I included scenes from the film involving Chew—genetic engineer of the replicants’ eyes. However, I have tried to include as much as possible without turning this response into an 8-page paper. Therefore, I will end on this note: for as many liberties as Ridley Scott takes with Philip K. Dick’s novel, the overriding themes concerning the complexities of human nature and the nature of reality still remain intact, and Scott’s use of the eye keeps these themes in focus; without them, the movie would quite simply be blinded by kipple compared to the novel.