A Journey Through Blade Runner, with Frankenstein

Posted: July 20, 2012 in Uncategorized
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As a teenager in the 1980s, Blade Runner was a staple video in our house. This was the release that included Harrison’s Ford narration, later overshadowed by the release of The Director’s Cut in 1992. However, my brothers and I would watch the VHS tape, recorded from the TV, that proceeded to get ever grainier with repeated viewings.

In the late 1990s, I taught this ‘early’ version of the film, to, of all groups, a top Year 10 class. This was in the days before it was put on the HSC list, and I was looking to it as a piece to connect on a study of Detective Fiction, having already opened the unit with a study of Raymond Chandler’s novel, The Big Sleep.

At the time and having watched and discussed the film, I would highlight the fact that the students and I ‘sat’ half way between Scott’s vision of the film in 1982 and the film’s setting of Los Angeles, 2019. This was the segue for a discussion about the future, and working on the basis that the film aimed to predict a future that was 40 odd years in the future, how accurate was the development of that vision. How well could students predict 40 years from their own present?

Fast forward to 2012 and, again, a number of events have piqued my imagination and got me thinking about the HSC unit that my students study, pairing Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein with Scott’s dystopic view of the future in Blade Runner. These include the announcement that the film had been voted the most popular/influential sci-fi movie of all time, that Scott was looking to make another Blade Runner film and, from New Zealand, a story I initially heard on radio discussing the likelihood that, within 50 years, prostitutes of the future could well be artificial ones created by humans. It was the last item that struck me most of all. In the media that I perused, there was little to nothing about the ethics and the logistics of such an enterprise.

Recently, I marked an HSC assessment for the Advanced candidature. The question included a brief visual stimulus (the opening of the film, up until the appearance of Holden in the office) and asked students to discuss the negative consequences that arise in the text from the actions of man’s desire to play God. From reading their work and with some thoughts to the media mentioned above, I write the following to see where Blade Runner, along with Frankenstein, sits in our context now. Hopefully it provides some ideas, discussion points and assistance for staff and students alike.

Frankenstein gives rise to Blade Runner?

There are a number of excellent study guides on both of these texts, and I am not looking to intentionally cover ground explored by others here. In opening, and acknowledging that this novel by Mary Shelley is arguably the progenitor of the science fiction genre, it strikes one in terms of the ability to view these two texts as a kind of before and after on a continuum. Victor Frankenstein goes through a number of gates in the course of the novel. We see his passionate pursuit of education and knowledge and his inability (or wanton disregard) of the warnings of others (while, incidentally, all of these other figures similarly miss the signs from Victor or are, again, ineffectual in mentoring him). This leads to his creation of the monster, his abhorrence and abandonment of the monster and the spiralling events from this point on.

So while Victor Frankenstein sets up the process of strikingly illicit scientific pursuit, undertaken in a clandestine manner, often under the cover of darkness, we see that this has been brought into the mainstream by the time we get to Blade Runner. Is Tyrell more the business man than the scientist – is it that he stands on the shoulders of figures such as Frankenstein (or, more recently, the work of JF Sebastien and Chew, the genetic designer and eye specialist respectively from the film) to have reached the position that he is in now? Eldon Tyrell has made the manufacture of the replicants a part of mainstream America, yet has similarly ‘lost’ part of his connection with others along the way. The nature of the commodity is highlighted by his comments regarding Rachael, an “experiment, nothing more” who has been gifted “the past” in order to stabilise her emotions. When he is interrupted by Roy and J.F. Sebastian, he is in the middle of stock trading, rather than any notions of scientific experimentation as was the case for the fevered Victor. For a “genius” as described by J.F. Sebastian, I am amused that he is two moves away from mate in a chess game, yet can’t see this coming – mind you, J.F. seems similarly oblivious to the fact that he is this close to what would be only be his second ever win against his employer. The rampant greed that would (go on to) be the hallmark of 1980s sees a facet of this world, where Tyrell’s tower rises, Babel-like, above the trash that mark street level Los Angeles, below the smog line. Los Angeles, reflected, 2019

This leads to larger ideas of the place and role of Nature in the two texts. In the novel, reflecting Romantic sentiments, it is often depicted by Shelley as a restorative; the juxtaposition between the sublime, pure, often ‘light’ aspects of nature (the Romantic movement) counterpoint Frankenstein’s gothic, secretive pursuit of his dream of reanimation. One thing which one might ‘consider’ is Victor’s original aim (obviously mirrored in Walton’s story). Does one view his initial desire to discover and study as negative? Context is important, and most would argue that the pursuit of discovery and exploration in most human societies is highly valued. Certainly, I don’t think anyone has any issue with his later irresponsibility, and it is often hard for students to appreciate anything other than a negative take on Victor.

This is where one can tap into concepts such as the values of humanity. Perhaps it is not so much that he creates the life, but that he has no foresight as to what this entails in terms of rights and values and continues to abandon any sense of responsibility that he must shoulder thereafter. We, as readers, don’t see the ‘monster’ as human, but it is hard not to see the replicants as such when viewing Blade Runner. He, in 1818, cannot walk amongst society without fear or backlash, whereas they walk (look at Roy and Leon early on as they walk along the streets in their leather jackets) amongst humanity, almost to the point where their difference is their physical superiority to the human rabble – they certainly appear more striking aesthetically.

More human than human?

So if Frankenstein sets up the problem of animation, Blade Runner, takes it forward to a time when it is unremarkable – except that we have made them ‘too’ good. This becomes a problem when we can’t tell them apart from us without machines. Yet, all along, we have missed the opportunity to set Frankenstein’s mistakes to rights – this 200 odd years later. We create the most wonderful creature and offer it slavery, danger and a death sentence in return. Should we be surprised by the actions of the replicants? Consider, at the top of this article, the notions of creating artificial prostitutes within our lifetimes. What have we learned? What are we capable of learning?

The scrolling text at the beginning of the film affords a wealth of discussion points. I am struck by the context – long lost to us in 2012, that watching this film in 1982 would have held (and, more notably, the potential to view this film as a resident of Los Angeles). Reading that white on black text, with the associated ‘noises’, to be greeted with THAT image of L.A. – not any Los Angeles that a 1982 film viewer would recognise, would have been a powerful one. Perhaps it is not surprising that the film was not well received upon release and flopped commercially. As the text, (again covered admirably in other articles) comes to an end and the words ‘LOS ANGELES 2019’ appears, there is a simultaneous harp ‘glissando’ and drumbeat- like the curtain is being drawn back in a magic show for the reveal. In a world where we can create life, look what we have done with the ‘life’ (nature) that was already present. The mise-en-scene is a veritable slap in the face and still holds well as we draw close to the magical date of 2019 itself.

What continues to strike me are the notions of the consequences that the film holds. As mentioned, Tyrell neatly ignores any notion of rights that the replicants have. They are certainly commodities but Tyrell seems inept at interaction – ignoring Rachael and providing less than satisfying (inane?) responses when confronted by Roy. The need for Blade runners only exists due to his creation, and he smugly hides behind the ‘commerce is our goal… more human than human” line midway through the film. That word “human” is so evocative. One can look at all the presentations of human we have had – from the ‘racist’ types like Bryant, to the street level mishmash of cultures – individuals who do not react with the killing (let’s not beat about the bush here) of Zhora. What does this word suggest in light of the concerns of the unit? It may well be that other units that are being studied examine the nature of the human condition. It should be no different here.

While considering this, I noted in my marking of that HSC assessment that some students had suggested that in the scene where Deckard shoots Zhora in the back, that Deckard shows no emotion at this point. This surprised me. If you look, you will see that the only three who do react (appropriately) are Deckard, Leon and Rachael. Sure, Deckard has shot her as part of his job, but the next few minutes sees him shaking (physically and verbally) and verbally jousting with Bryant. Is this Ridley Scott’s way of positioning the viewer? Where do you stand when an unarmed woman, running away from her assailant, is shot in the back? Notice the change in her physicality when the body is turned over (the mannequins that are in the shop windows suddenly come to prominence). In death, she returns to being a ‘doll’.

Zhora, having been shot by Deckard

Think about, for a moment, what a human corpse ‘signifies’ in death. Most religions would probably posit that the soul is not the body and so our corpse is not indicative of who we ‘are’ following death, if that makes sense. Think forward then, to Roy’s ‘tears in rain’ speech. This speech goes for all of us in death, and that’s what makes it so poignant. Even Gaff ‘gets it’ to some degree in his “It’s too bad that she won’t live. But then again, who does?” line. If both texts are cautionary tales, as most students would be able to identify, one can look at the legacy idea for each text in isolation and both together. Where does Walton stand at the end? Where is the viewer at the end of Blade Runner? If we are ‘close’ to creating this kind of future with predictions of synthetic prostitutes, are we going to make these mistakes that these two texts warn of, despite all these warnings? Perhaps we should all look at our context now and the decisions, like Victor, that we are looking to make in the near future.

  1. […] Post’s use by date before, as well as which Post generates the most traffic. For me, it is my 2nd Post, exploring two texts (Frankenstein and Blade Runner) we study as part of our senior school syllabus […]

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