Philosophy and Blade Runner, by Timothy Shanahan

Murray Smith learns much from an examination of the existential questions in a classic cinematic adaptation

August 28, 2014

Ridley Scott secured his reputation as a film director with a potent left-right combination: Alien in 1979, followed by Blade Runner in 1982, loosely based on Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Here, Timothy Shanahan offers an engaging exploration of the philosophical assumptions and implications of the latter film – ideas that have their roots in Dick’s novel but were (to use Shanahan’s term) “transmuted” in Scott’s work. Dick, initially sceptical, eventually embraced the film, stating that his life and creative work were “justified and completed” by it, although he died shortly before its release.

Shanahan’s stated aim is “to explore the philosophy of Blade Runner and to explore philosophy through Blade Runner”, although the boundaries between these two rather different projects are not always clear. He pursues these twin goals by examining the various existential and ethical questions raised by the film: what is it to be a human, or a person? What is the nature of human freedom? Is death something to be feared? His method is to determine what the film or a character assumes on some philosophical question, and then to explore the relevant philosophical debates before returning to the film in the light of them. Drawing on a mix of classic and contemporary references, his exposition of the philosophy is lucid and his application of it to the film is deft.

However, Scott’s relationship with Blade Runner’s philosophical dimension is vexed in more than one sense. In interviews, the director has rejected any attempt to attribute sophisticated meaning or philosophical purpose to the film, insisting that it is simply a piece of entertainment – although one might wonder whether we can take such blanket denial at face value. A more serious worry is the extent to which Shanahan’s analysis does (or does not) do justice to the film’s striking audiovisual design. A film, after all, is in the first instance something that we apprehend and appreciate with our eyes and ears.

In the epilogue, Shanahan briefly acknowledges that his approach to the film connects with current debates on the extent to which films can act as effective vehicles of philosophy, and indicates that he is really not bothered whether there is some distinctive cinematic form of philosophical expression. One can sympathise with that point but still wonder about his lack of attention to Blade Runner’s complex and intoxicating textures. Instead, Shanahan remains squarely focused on its narrative structure and conceptual implications; aside from a couple of references to the film’s “impressive visual achievements” and its “pulsating Vangelis soundtrack”, we might be reading an account of a novel, a comic strip, or a TV movie lacking the visual bravura of the film. He overlooks the stylistic character of the film, failing to show how it contributes to the film’s philosophical vision, or considering whether it might actually mask or detract from whatever philosophical content it does possess. Blade Runner’s status as a film thus seems almost incidental. Nonetheless, this is an illuminating and highly readable book, through which I have learned much about the thematic dimension of Scott’s film, Dick’s novel and the array of related philosophical debates through which Shanahan skilfully guides us.

Philosophy and Blade Runner

By Timothy Shanahan
Palgrave Macmillan, 232pp, £16.99
ISBN 9781137412287 and 2294 (e-book)
Published 25 June 2014

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