Science Fiction Studies

#57 = Volume 19, Part 2 = July 1992



Jake Jakaitis

Ridley Scott and Philip K. Dick

Judith B. Kerman, ed. Retrofitting Blade Runner: Issues in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner and Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1991. 291pp. $39.95 cloth, $19.95 paper.

This well-indexed collection of nineteen essays plus a rather complete bibliography of Blade Runner and Androids criticism "attempts to look at the multitude of texts and influences which converge in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner" (2). This statement, appearing near the end of Kerman's two page introduction, accurately prepares readers for a series of essays that, with few exceptions, privilege Scott's film while defending it against charges that it is flawed or a lesser work than its source novel. Kerman arranges the essays in four sections--"Social Implications: Blade Runner as Thought Experiment"; "Genre Issues: Sources and Synthesis"; "Film Sources and Adaptation Issues"; and "Aesthetics and the Creation of Science Fiction Worlds"-- that by title further reflect the collection's emphasis on film. Despite this emphasis, however, Retrofitting Blade Runner is as useful a collection of essays for scholars and fans of Philip K. Dick as it is for those interested in Ridley Scott's film and in adaptation issues.

To a large extent, this usefulness is created by Kerman's comprehensive index and William M. Kolb's bibliography. Because of Kerman's thorough index, readers should have no trouble correlating arguments regarding virtually any aspect of either film or novel appearing in this collection; they should also have little difficulty locating further discussions of both Blade Runner and Androids because of Kolb's annotated bibliography. His annotating the entries through brief (or sometimes extended) quotes from the essays, however, has limited value for researchers. Brief summaries of an essay's broad emphases and purpose are generally more helpful than a few sentences quoted in isolation as an attempt to cite a thesis.

While Kolb's approach to annotation might be the principal weakness of the collection's apparatus, his other two presentations contribute significantly to the volume's strength. His "Script to Screen: Blade Runner in Perspective" provides strong, detailed discussion of the film as a collaborative effort, as well as an informative summary of the early film reviews and criticism. His "Blade Runner Film Notes" is an impressive, exceptionally detailed description of the film based on frame-by-frame studies of both the film and the Criterion Collection CAV laserdisc. Kolb's keen eye for details, his transcription of sometimes difficult to follow dialogue, and his translations of "cityspeak" and foreign language make "Film Notes" an invaluable aid to students and teachers of the film. I am puzzled, however, by Kerman's decision to place these notes at the end of the "Film Sources and Adaptation Issues" section, for Kolb avoids interpretive gestures and remains as objective as possible while relating the film's details. In my view, this essay placed at the beginning of the section would objectively aid readers in their responses to the other essays without privileging any particular view of the film.

This raises yet another issue in the sequencing of the essays. The opening section, "Social Implications: Blade Runner as Thought Experiment," collects essays discussing broad philosophical connections between the film and current theoretical concerns. While this emphasis certainly belongs in the collection, it might have been more useful to first remind readers of the film's and novel's particulars before expanding to their broad relation to cultural and philosophical critique. The principal effect, however, of reserving these essays for later in the collection might have been to expose them as the weakest among the nineteen essays. After reading Leonard G. Heldreth's "The Cutting Edges of Blade Runner" and David Desser's "The New Eve: The Influence of Paradise Lost and Frankensteinon Blade Runner," essays that firmly ground their analyses of both film and novel in textual evidence and that justify discussions of sources and influences through specific allusions in the texts, Joseph Francavilla's "The Android as Doppelganger" and Marlene Barr's "Metahuman 'Kipple' Or, Do Male Movie Makers Dream of Electric Women?" seem both reductive and specious in their reasoning. The former essays, both from "Genre Issues: Sources and Synthesis," foreground ambiguity as dominant in both film and novel while citing specific allusions to Blake, Shelley, or Milton to justify their influence studies and discussions of thematic concerns. Francavilla and Barr both seem to impose readings not necessarily justified by either text, apparently because they begin with agendas, biases that they wish to use the texts to support. Like Marilyn Gwaltney, whose "Androids as a Device for Reflections on Personhood" also appears in the opening section, they begin with a pro-android bias, then read events or bits of dialogue out of context while attempting to develop that bias. While these three essays are provocative and do raise issues relevant to currently fashionable cultural critiques, they remain unconvincing as responses to Blade Runner.

This tendency is most extreme in Gwaltney's essay. Discussing "personhood" in both film and novel, Gwaltney ultimately re-conceives both texts as statements alerting us to animal rights issues and the abuse of animals in laboratory research. At this point, we have, in my view, exited the arena defined by issues in Scott's film and Dick's novel. Too many of these opening essays revise the texts to suit their own ends, speak of the novel only when it's necessary to support an argument not evidenced in the film (or controverted by evidence in the film), and produce reductive analyses that deny those ambiguities of identity and humanity central to both texts. Their principal strength, then, might be in exposing the dangers sometimes inherent in succumbing to current desires for cultural critique. The text's relevance to culture--both its overt commentary and its implicit values--can sometimes be erased by a preconceived agenda.

Fortunately, Kerman's "Technology and Politics in the Blade Runner Dystopia" fulfills the promise of the opening section through an intelligent political analysis that assesses the implications of "indistinguishable" government and corporate power. She ties the image of Tyrell as a man "whose fascination with science and his own creative power totally overwhelms any moral scruples" (22-23) to the exploitation of skilled subcontractors like Chew and Sebastian, suggesting "severe limits to populist hopes that falling prices of high technology necessarily lead to 'trickling down' of power" (21). Kerman's essay addresses technological, political, and moral issues implicit in genetic engineering as free enterprise and does so through direct citations and convincing discussion of particulars in the texts. This dual emphasis on close reading and broad cultural analysis informs most of the remaining essays in the volume.

I have already mentioned the essays by Heldreth and Desser. While defending the film against charges that it is "the ultimate noir nightmare" or a "film noir overload," Heldreth examines its relation to three genres, displays a particular knowledge of both Scott's film and Dick's novel, and stresses both texts' controlled ambiguity in their treatment of empathy and the question, "What is human?" While Heldreth's distinctions between noir elements and hard-boiled detective themes might be splitting hairs (his hard-drinking, terse, but witty professional detective living in two worlds and distracted by an alluring woman characterizes both film noir and hard-boiled detectives), his analysis is otherwise pointed and well-argued. Heldreth does not commit the error of assuming that androids have limited life-spans in both novel and film, as a few other critics here do, and, unlike Francavilla, he relates his analysis of Batty and Deckard as doubles or "shadows" to Dickian issues of empathy and the definition of humanity.

Desser's "The New Eve: The Influence of Paradise Lost and Frankenstein on Blade Runner," one of the strongest essays in the volume, substantiates virtually every claim with irrefutable textual evidence while situating Scott's film within a tradition of "serious, philosophical, important works" (53). Desser is one of only three critics in the volume (the others are C. Carter Colwell and Jack Boozer, Jr.) to acknowledge that Roy Batty's comments to Chew are paraphrased from William Blake's "America: A Prophecy" while discussing influences on the film. More important, while his emphasis is not on feminist analysis, he supports a brief feminist reading of the film through citations of Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's analysis of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Linda Williams's Lacanian address to "the Other as an aspect of Self" while reading women in horror films (63). That is, unlike the critics discussed earlier, Desser invokes feminist readings and practices when they are clearly relevant to the intertextual issues raised by both film and novel. The result is a provocative, yet controlled and insightful cultural critique.

W. Russel Gray's "Entropy, Energy, Empathy: Blade Runner and Detective Fiction" and Aaron Barlow's "Philip K. Dick's Androids: Victimized Victimizers," the remaining essays in "Genre Issues: Sources and Synthesis," are also strong. Gray borrows the concept of "bootlegging" from energy theorists to support his argument that Scott and David Peoples and Hampton Fancher (the scriptwriters) "revitalize" the private eye genre by "bootlegging" energy from SF (66-67). The entropy of a decaying popular genre is delayed or averted, in his view, by a general infusion of SF elements and by "Deckard's self-investigation, which parallels his outer quest" (63). This emphasis, like Desser's, incorporates current theory by drawing precise relations among theory and the basic concerns (empathy and humanity) of both texts. That Barlow's essay is one of the few here to privilege Dick and his writings comes as no surprise, for his 1989 dissertation is titled "Reality, Religion, and Politics in Philip K. Dick's Fiction." Barlow clearly identifies Dick as a questioner, not an answerer, and traces his shifting positions on androids through a detailed survey of the early short stories. Unlike the pro-android arguments presented in the earlier essays, Barlow's position convincingly argues that the problem of "distinguishing the real from the fake" (85) is an address to "androids as mask" (84). At stake in both Androids and Blade Runner, then, is not the "personhood" of animals or the potential humanity of created beings, but the question, "What are we?"

Barlow's essay is appropriately placed, for its emphasis on Dick assists the transition to "Film Sources and Adaptation Issues." While the previous four essays engage intertextual issues, those that open this section stress Dick's personal relation and reactions to the film while foregrounding filmmaking as a collaborative process. Brooks Landon's "'There's Some of Me in You': Blade Runner and the Adaptation of Science Fiction Literature into Film" unravels contradictory reports of Dick's reaction to the film by noting that his various responses were to different versions of the script and finally to viewing early film footage. Landon then overrules casual and uniformed responses to the film as an adaptation through a concise explanation of Dudley Andrews's three categories of adaptation: "borrowing, intersection, and fidelity of transformation" (97). The result is an analysis that privileges neither film nor novel while validating the strengths of both. Gregg Rickman draws on his previous interviews with Dick to clarify Dick's views on the novel's principal thematic concern ("Deckard is dehumanized through tracking down the androids" [107]) and to delineate the author's changing views of the film and its scripts. As a result, Rickman's analysis complements Landon's. These two essays, along with the contributions by Kolb discussed earlier, are the strength of this section of the volume. Desser's second essay, "Race, Space and Class: The Politics of SF Film from Metropolis to Blade Runner," attempts to discuss Blade Runner as an uncharacteristically political SF film by addressing the three motifs listed in the essay's title. Unfortunately, this 11-page essay only briefly discusses Scott's film before beginning an address to no fewer than a dozen earlier examples, each evoking one or more of the motifs, but none of them in quite so overtly political a manner as Blade Runner. The result is more of a catalog of motifs than a cogent discussion, an essay far weaker than Desser's excellent earlier analysis.

C. Carter Colwell's "Primitivism in the Movies of Ridley Scott: Alien& Blade Runner," signals a further weak note in the sources and adaptation section, for his relation of Benjamin Church's 1716 "tale of regeneration through violence" (127) and Richard Slotkin's study, Regeneration Through Violence, to Scott's films recalls the strategies of the essays that open the volume. While Colwell's argument is interesting up to a point, it holds up more through an act of faith than through any precise relation between the events of the films or their broad thematic emphases as they are understood by other critics and Slotkin's theories. Fortunately, this section ends with Kolb's "Blade Runner Film Notes," which reaffirms the film's thematic and visual concerns. I earlier argued that these notes might have been better placed at the beginning of this section; however, their placement is purposeful, for it prepares us for the emphasis on visual detail that governs the essays of the final section, "Aesthetics and the Creation of Science Fiction Worlds."

The strengths of the five essays in this section reflect the strengths of the entire volume, for despite their overt emphasis on aesthetic concerns in the film, collectively they implicitly if not overtly enhance our understanding of the novel as well, while also engaging in broad cultural analysis. Rebecca Warner's response to the film is a personal interpretation discussing images of entropy, empathy, identity and humanity, themes central to both Dick's novels and Blade Runner. She is the only writer here to discuss at any length the role of "waste" in the film, thereby recalling Dick's "kipple," although she does not apply that term herself. Her view of the film's final scenes as evidence of "a valid human hope" to be "seen" or "recognized" by another recalls the small, good things in the Deckard/Iran interaction at the end of Androids that undercut the novel's final despairing moments. Similarly, Andrew Stiller's defense of Blade Runner's much attacked Vangelis score evokes moments in the novel not directly discussed by the critic, for Stiller discusses the background "Hum" everpresent in Deckard's apartment as an important part of that score. Stiller capitalizes the word because he believes that the hum "has a life of its own" and that "it radiates stability, calm, and self-understanding" (200-01). This hum recalls the sound of kipple that pervades Isidore's apartment complex in the novel and suggests connections not made by Stiller. While relating Stiller's Hum to the mood of loneliness and despair evoked by the sound of emptiness and waste in the novel might overrule Stiller's interpretation, it nonetheless evidences one of the less obvious strengths of Retrofitting Blade Runner. The strong essays in the volume revitalize our own views of the novel and film even when we sometimes dispute their findings.

Even weaker essays, like Steve Carper's "Subverting the Disaffected City: Cityscape in Blade Runner," can function in this manner. Carper argues that "Syd Mead's brilliant future city proves to contain contradictory elements and fares poorly upon close examination" (193) in an essay purporting to prove that "no sense of place ever develops in Blade Runner" (187). His literal-minded critique of the film's set design and model of the future ignores the traditional symbolic and metaphorical functions of setting in science fiction. While looking for literal and practical justifications of Mead's future city, Carper fails to recognize, yet implicitly directs our attention to, the relation of Mead's "retrofit" cityscapes to the issues of empathy and humanity. John J. Pierce's "Creative Synergy and the Art of World Creation" then affirms this response to Carper's analysis by discussing the roles of dramatic exposition and setting in SF and applauding the film's "visual texture" and "sense of concrete reality" (204) as elements that contribute to the film's "controlling social vision" (208). Pierce--like Landon, Rickman, and Kolb--stresses collaborative efforts in producing a total visual effect that in turn establishes a sense of credibility.

The volume's final essay, Jack Boozer, Jr.'s "Crashing the Gates of Insight: Blade Runner," is well placed, for it combines detailed textual analysis and discussions of visual texture with the broad social and political concerns that govern the volume. Boozer's thesis is "that Blade Runner does not give itself over entirely to self-sufficient functions, that it does in fact make an issue of representation that throws the spectator back onto problems of fragmentation and disconnection" (212). He develops this thesis through both close reading of the film and reliance on the simulationist theories of Jean Baudrillard and the postmodern and political analyses of Fredric Jameson. Through this analysis, he concludes that the story of Batty and Deckard "becomes a parable illustrating the attainment of insight through a process of personal and cultural re-evaluation and revelation" (225). Boozer's analysis reflects the many strengths and counterpoints the few weaknesses of the entire collection. He applies theory and cultural analysis when they are relevant to the text. Clearly, simulation is crucial to both Dick's novels and Scott's film; clearly, we are urged by the texts to view Batty and Deckard as shadows delineating through their relationship a search for insight and identity. Boozer, unlike a few of the others in this volume, never forces connections, never imposes only marginally relevant theoretical concerns on the text, but does produce an insightful cultural analysis.

"Crashing the Gates of Insight," then, identifies the broad strengths of Kerman's volume. Retrofitting Blade Runner is an invaluable aid to those interested in broad issues of adaptation, Ridley Scott's film, Philip K. Dick's science fiction, and the problematics of cultural analysis. Even when they falter, the essays in this volume inspire re-evaluation and revelation, not only of Blade Runner and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, but also of important issues in current critical practices.

  moonbut.gif (4466 bytes) Back to Home