When Blade Runner was first released, the reviews ran from lukewarm to underwhelmed to baffled, a fact that many critics have been doing their best to forget in the intervening 30 years, polishing the film’s legend in a frantic effort to make up for missing the boat first time round. Considered today, in our gleaming plastic future of bad credit and worse politics, where we are reliant not on humanised robots but dehumanising gadgets, and where much of the movie’s retro-futurism appears as quaint as it does prescient, what is left to say about Blade Runner?
Should I recite the plaudits that have become ritualistic? Should I point out the Rutger Hauer’s ‘tears in rain’ monologue is among the most moving and eloquent ever written or performed? Or that Vangelis revolutionised jazz, electronic music and film scoring simultaneously in one of the best soundtracks ever composed? Is it really necessary to highlight the acting of all involved; Harrison Ford as one of the best soulful detectives to grace noir of any kind, an understated and heartbreaking Sean Young, a dangerous but innocent Daryl Hannah, or Rutger Hauer’s mixture of the psychotic and the Shakespearean? Do I need to praise the costumes, the set design, or the script which balances so many themes, so many hidden or implied meanings, with such grace and economy?
Well, yes. You want a criticism of Blade Runner? I would’ve liked more Gaff. He’s cool. I want Deckard’s coat.
But we need to be reminded of these things, every now and again, as each new generation discovers the film afresh, and especially when the next logical question becomes: how did Blade Runner get it so right, more so than any other adaptation of Dick’s work since? What did it understand that they did not? To try and answer that, we have to go back to the source.
“Phil acknowledged that his talk sometimes sounded like “religious nonsense & occult nonsense”—but somewhere in it all was the truth. And he would never find it. God himself had assured him of that.”—Lawrence Sutin, Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick.
In 2000, at the one and only Disinfo Con—a friendly gathering of millennial deviants concerning all things ‘counterculture’—Grant Morrison, a writer who could arguably be counted as one of Dick’s prodigious bastard literary offspring, opened his keynote speech marvelling at the fact he spent his youth reading Robert Anton Wilson and now, all these years later, “we’re standing here, we’re talking about this shit and it’s real.”
Fans of Philip K. Dick have been feeling like that since at least the ‘70s, when the dark realities on the other side of the Drug Revolution and the true possibilities of an all-powerful Nixonian surveillance state were becoming painfully apparent. Then as now, we use Dick’s paranoia to express our own.
Dick once commented that, with the making of Blade Runner, what had once been a private world that only he inhabited was now open to all; they would live in its murky depths, just as he did every day. At first, one might think that a paranoid and delusional visionary—and I use the word in its most literal sense—would want nothing more than for others to see and experience what he does. But perhaps Dick didn’t want anyone in his world. Maybe he didn’t think his world should be suffered by anyone else.
The fantastic, tortured mind of Philip K. Dick has been discussed, analysed and treated like an object of supreme curiosity since his death in 1982 (a few months shy of Blade Runner‘s release) and before. He had eked out an impoverished existence writing science fiction since the ‘50s, when it was less a genre than a ghetto, and could only make a living by producing at a furious pace which he fuelled with huge amounts of amphetamines, at one point producing 12 novels over the course of two years.
But Dick was ever a seeker of truth, which made him, strangely, something of an oddity in science fiction, which is largely populated by fantasists who are quite happy to leave truth of all kinds at the door. Within these novels, beneath the aliens and spaceships, moon colonies and interstellar wars, was arguably the best satire being done in science fiction on American life outside of Kurt Vonnegut’s oeuvre, the philosophical undertones and untrammelled, often gothic imagination of which called to mind Borges more than Asimov. The uniting thread that ran through his work—and, eventually, his life—was the notion that reality, as we know it, is fundamentally untrustworthy.
As the ‘60s wore on, Dick’s involvement with the drug culture increased, adding a psychedelic aspect to both his ever-evolving philosophy and his ever-present paranoia. In 1971, Dick experienced a defining moment: his home was broken into, his safe blown open and many of his personal papers burglerized. He never discovered who was responsible, though he had many suspects—local drug addicts, Black Panthers, the police, the FBI, the Soviets, or any of these, pretending to be one of the others. The effect it left on Dick was to give him proof, unexplained and terrifying, that his paranoia was somehow justified. There had been comfort in simply telling himself he was crazy. But after years of grappling with his mental health, someone, it seemed, truly was out to get him.
“I mean,” he told the Aquarian magazine in a 1974 interview, “it’s a very frightening thing when the head of a police department tells you that you better leave the county because you have enemies, and you don’t know who these enemies are or why you’ve incurred their wrath.”
When one is peripherally aware of one’s own tenuous psychological condition (which we must be, we tell ourselves, if we have any hope of overcoming it), the uninitiated cannot imagine the sheer anguish, the self-doubt, the fear that follows when you know you cannot trust your own mind, but cannot trust anyone else to help you. The luckiest paranoids are also egotists, or better yet, megalomaniacs; they face the lurking forces of imagined persecution with a defiant roar or a knowing smirk. Dick, on the other hand, was a sensitive, fragile, frightened soul, as well as a possible undiagnosed schizophrenic. His subsequent religious experiences—a series of hallucinations in which a beam of pink light connected him with a “transcendentally rational mind”—may have been his own brain’s attempt to soothe his paranoia, or merely the next stage of his mental instability. In either case, as always, it provided inspiration for another novel.
Critics and biographers often talk about Dick’s paranoia and delusions like they were shocking fashion statements or extreme political opinions—just another interesting aspect to the bizarro image of a literary titan. What they don’t say, although the evidence is all around us, is that Dick’s paranoia is ours, as well. Ours may not have such colourful outlets or dramatic results, but we shall always carry it with us. It cannot be blotted out. There will forever be dark fears lurking in the deeper pools of our mind, about our untrustworthy friends, co-workers, policemen, criminals, the FBI, the CIA, the Communists, the aliens, or God himself… and beyond. Existence will always be open to question, forever taunting us with its uncertainty. We can’t trust reality, but we have to live there.
This paranoia runs through Blade Runner like a knife edge. You cannot trust others, or yourself. You cannot trust your memories, your past or your future. The entire world may be against you, even if it doesn’t appear to be. Then again, you don’t have to like it.
The heroes and villains of Blade Runner do not like, or accept, the oppression of the paranoid worldview. Deckard fights a series of seemingly impossible battles, even against what he thought was true, and finds romance where it should be impossible. Roy Batty, the leader of the renegade replicants, fights against death itself, seeking to extend and outlive his designer-mandated expiration date. The inhuman fights to become human, so humans must prove their humanity. This is the message at Blade Runner‘s core, and it has never been replicated.
Near the end of Dick’s novel Radio Free Albemuth, the protagonist, an author surrogate for Dick who also writes pulp science fiction, is faced by a gloating representative of the government conspiracy that the writer has become entangled with, who coolly informs him they will continue to put out books under his name—lurid trash scattered with a few of the author’s trademark concepts to keep it recognisable for his fans, but encoded with non-too-subtle propaganda messages designed to keep its readers afraid and unenlightened.
At our most cynical, it’s sometimes difficult not to think of Hollywood the same way: trading on Dick’s name and style and core ideas, but discarding the message and the mind behind them.
Other authors who are much-adapted often have to face a string of misfires and misinterpretations before their work gets the cinematic treatment it deserves; Dick, on the other hand, got a masterpiece on the first go. And it remains ours to enjoy: Blade Runner, as Dick wrote, is invincible.
But after 30 years, maybe it’s finally time for Hollywood to leave the legacy of Philip K. Dick at the local bookstore, where it belongs.
“What matters to me is the writing, the act of manufacturing the novel, because while I am doing it, at that particular moment, I am in the world I am writing about. It is real to me, completely and utterly. Then, when I’m finished, and I have to stop, withdraw from that world forever—that destroys me… I promise myself: I will never write another novel. I will never again imagine people from whom I will eventually be cut off. I tell myself this… and, secretly and cautiously, I begin another book.”—Philip K. Dick, “Notes Made Late At Night By A Weary SF Writer”, 1968.