As ‘Blade Runner’ has recently been re-released in selected cinemas, this week seemed a fitting time to revisit and review this sci-fi cult classic, as well as to cast a more general eye over the works of one of science fiction’s most frequently adapted authors.
A lot more people will have come into contact with the work of Philip K Dick than realise it. His novels and short stories have been adapted time and again to the big (and even the little) screen, with varying degrees of success. He was an enormously prolific writer, producing forty four novels and more than a hundred short stories. Despite this, he spent a fair amount of his life in poverty, in living with his mother in poor mental health, and dying young at the age of fifty three.
His stories often explore themes of identity, reality, and mental illness. These are evident in virtually all of his works that have been adapted to cinema. ‘Total Recall’ , ‘A Scanner Darkly”, and ‘The Adjustment Bureau’ are examples in which all of these themes are obviously evident. And then, of course, there is ‘Blade Runner’.
To give a quick synopsis for anyone who hasn’t yet seen this cult classic, ‘Blade Runner’ - based on Dick’s novel, ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ - throws us into a dystopian, down-at-heel near future LA, where almost-human Replicants (clones with enhanced attributes such as strength and toughness) are used to do humanity’s dirty-work. Replicants are not seen as human; they do not have rights. Sometimes the Replicants rebel agains the harsh treatment to which they are routinely subject; to deal with these problems, we have Blade Runners - specialist cops tasked with identifying and murdering (or ‘retiring’) replicants who have gone rogue. The main character, Deckard - played charismatically and with some sensitivity by a young Harrison Ford - is one such Blade Runner, tasked with finding a specific group of replicants who have fled back to Earth from the off-world colonies where they were being brutally exploited.
Deckard quickly finds himself drawn into a cat-and-mouse pursuit of the Replicants, while also developing a romance with Rachel - another Replicant who has been created and implanted with false memories so that she is unaware of her real identity. Needless to say, such occurrences makes Deckard - and through him, us - begin to question his motivations and loyalties, and raises lots of thorny issues about humanity, identify, exploitation, memory, and reality. There is another twist, a very thorny contentious issue, that fans of the film have debated hotly for decades. Perhaps one factor that has given the film such longevity - seeing it at the cinema a few days ago, it still looks beautiful, and has not dated badly - is the existence of several different versions of the movie. The twist mentioned above seems starker in some versions than in others, more or less subtle depending on the emphasis given by various deleted/restored scenes. Whatever view you take - and famously, the director, Ridley Scott, and Harrison Ford have very different views of what the truth is - the film resonates on multiple levels, and is still a powerful piece of cinema.
There are a few interesting changes from the novel - for example, a rather mystical, mass-religious element is notably absent from the movie - but it is not certain that this is any bad thing. Philip K Dick was a prolific writer, and it is possible to take the view that his great ideas were often mixed and muddled with the merely average. One reading of his catalogue of work is that he was frequently wholly taken with whichever project he was writing at the time, but would move on quickly to the next before his last story was completely polished. In this way he could be compared to a Beat Poet like Jack Kerouac - and in one other way, too, the comparison might be justified: Philip K Dick was a rather heavy user of amphetamines. He used them to fuel the rapid-fire click-click-click of his typewriter, as well as the brilliant opulence of his imagination. But the use of mind-altering substances didn’t stop there - his other drug of choice was LSD. Looking again at the thick tendrils of paranoia that suffuse his work - especially ‘A Scanner Darkly’, perhaps the most faithfully adapted of his novels to date, which deals explicitly with drugs and the damage they can do - it is easy to see the effect of this chemical exploration in his fiction. It is probably responsible for some of the most vivid, terrifying, and engaging aspects of his writing - as well as being linked to his poor mental health and seemingly often unhappy life.
It is difficult to think of a novelist who has had such a profound influence on the science fiction cinema of the last thirty years than Philip K Dick. Some of the adaptations have sunk, and not a few have been rather poor - but many of them have been excellent: moving, enthralling, intelligent, and most of all, endlessly creative. If you haven’t seen any of these movies, - and can’t wait for the upcoming Amazon adaptation of ‘The Man in the High Castle’ for television - Blade Runner might not be a bad place to start. And once you’ve seen it, you can have fun trying to work out what his original title was all about - that would probably be another article all on its own!