Thursday, January 19, 2012

I Want More Life, Father: Frankenstein and Blade Runner

This past Tuesday, I gave a lecture about Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, which ended up being a lot of fun.  I learned quite a bit about Shelley's life and how that may have influenced what she wrote--particularly the death of her new baby girl in 1815, just a few years before Frankenstein was published.  The students asked a lot of great questions, too, opening up intriguing possibilities for reading various themes in the novel.

The part of the lecture that I was most excited about, though, was the comparison that I drew between Frankenstein and Blade Runner.  If you're been reading this website for a while, you know that I love Blade Runner.  It's definitely one of my favorite movies, and every time I watch it, I'm impressed by how rich of a film it is.  As I was working on writing my lecture, I was struck time and again by connections between Shelley's book and Scott's film, so much so that I might be willing to claim that Blade Runner is a 20th century retelling of the Frankenstein story.

Here are three of the most obvious ways that I found Frankenstein to be very similar to Blade Runner:

  • As in Shelley’s novel, the relationship between creator and creature is a central theme in Blade Runner—in one of the key moments of the film, the replicant named Roy confronts Tyrell, the man who invented the replicants.  And just as this relationship is cast in terms of parent and child in Frankenstein, the replicants look to Tyrell as their father.  In the confrontation I just mentioned, Roy famously tells Tyrell, “I want more life, father”—although that last word is muttered and is often interpreted as a profanity instead, which, given the situation, would actually be entirely appropriate.
  • But the similarities between the two texts extend even further.  Eyes are extremely important in Blade Runner—they are what is used to tell the difference between a human and a replicant, and in one of the opening shots of the film, we see a dystopian Los Angeles reflected back in the eye of one of the blade runners.  Eyes also are important throughout Frankenstein—they are what Victor Frankenstein first notices when the creature becomes alive, and the difference between the creature's eyes and what Frankenstein thinks eyes should look like is one of the biggest reasons he finds the creature horrifying.  We even see eyes cropping up in places they usually aren’t—the moon, for example, is described as watching over Victor Frankenstein as he works on the female creature.  This similarity provides another connection between Frankenstein and Blade Runner, as well as raises interesting questions about why eyes would have such significance in texts about creation and the nature of humanity.
  • One final similarity between Frankenstein and Blade Runner is the attitude that both the creature and the replicants have toward life.  One of the most famous lines from Blade Runner is this one by Roy Batty, the leader of the escaped replicants: “I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I've watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.  Time to die.”  This quotation speaks to the ephemerality of memory, and connects it to an image from nature—“tears in rain”—that is similarly fleeting.  At the end of Frankenstein, I see something very similar going on with what the creature says: “He is dead who called me into being; and when I shall be no more, the very remembrance of us both will speedily vanish.  I shall no longer see the sun or stars, or feel the winds play on my cheeks.  Light, feeling, and sense, will pass away.”  Both Roy and the creature speak to the way their memories, and others’ memories of them, will soon fade—and as a result, both texts raise very poignant questions about memory, death, and whether one’s life has meaning after death.
I feel like there could be many more connections made--and I would love to hear about your ideas in the comments.  But even just with these connections, I think this comparison shows how important it is to continue to read texts like Frankenstein, even though they might seem old-fashioned or not what we think science fiction is today, because the issues they raise about the nature of humanity, the responsibility of scientists, and the limits of human knowledge are more relevant today than ever before.