Blade Runner: The Anti-Hannibal?

Peachfront’s Note: This month The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect author Roger Williams compares two modern classics. Enjoy.

hannibal plus blade runner paperbacks

electric sheep or screaming lambs for your summer reading pleasure…

When Pete Mandik and Richard Brown were interviewing me for their SpaceTimeMind blog, we spent some time on the topic of Hannibal Lecter. I mentioned that the much-hated ending of the novel Hannibal was really the only way to end the story because the theme of the series was transformation and somebody had to transform.

And Richard quipped, “Maybe Hannibal could transform. Become a good person!” I laughed at the time because “butterflies don’t turn into caterpillars,” but that comment did tickle me a bit.

So, heeding the call of that little birdie that sometimes sings unexpectedly, I found myself just now re-watching Ridley Scott’s classic film Blade Runner. It was a great call on the little birdie’s part because I’d never seen the director’s cut without the annoying narration and happy ending found in previous releases. And it’s a gorgeous groundbreaking movie with a lot of wonderful things to talk about.

But for now what I really want to talk about are the replicants. Their transformation mirrors Hannibal Lecter’s in fascinating ways — and also forms a Hubble-class telescope for examining the difference between Thomas Harris’ Hannibal and the version Bryan Fuller and Mads Mikkelson are serving up for us in the current NBC TV series.

Blade Runner final cut cover courtesy Warner Bros.

Released in 1982, Blade Runner took its cues from the writing of Philip K. Dick, who spent a long career writing fictional tests of the questions “what is real” and, more to the current point, “what is human?” Blade Runner is most directly an adaptation of the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? but it draws ideas from many of his works on those themes.

The opening scroll warns us that in nearly every way replicants are better than humans — stronger, faster, and at least as smart as their creators. But they’re created without emotions so that they can be usefully controlled. Replicants who learn to feel emotions on their own become extremely dangerous so they’re created with a limited four-year life span and completely banned from Earth. The Blade Runner police are tasked with hunting renegade replicants down before they can do too much damage.

As the story opens, it’s clear that despite the whole strongerfaster thing, the replicants aren’t quite human. The four renegades we meet onscreen have some emotions, but none seems to have a whole palette. The fear of death unites them in their quest, but otherwise Leon has nothing but rage, while Roy and Pris share a kind of affection resembling puppy love.

It generally takes Blade Runners like Rick Deckard 30 or 40 carefully selected Philosophy Test Questions from Hell to solidly identify a replicant. The one exception is experimental model Rachael. As a personal pet project of replicant creator-genius Dr. Eldon Tyrell, she has been prepped with sham human memories and not told she isn’t human. It takes Deckard over 100 questions to root her out.

But in Blade Runner it’s not just the replicants who seem to be playing with an incomplete deck. Deckard’s old boss Inspector Bryant flashes a fake used-car salesman smile before coercing him out of retirement through a move eerily similar to Will Graham’s recruitment in Red Dragon. Dr. Tyrell comes across as a classic bad SF mad genius with no regard for ethics, and man-child genetic designer J.F. Sebastian has created a personal replicant playground with a disturbing Island of Dr. Moreau vibe. Harrison Ford’s Deckard is stiff enough that it’s regularly suggested he might be a replicant, and he’s visibly stung when Rachael asks him if he’s ever taken his own test.

Indeed, the difference between replicants and their human creators seems academic as we witness Tyrell’s casual disregard for the feelings of his creations, even though he’s gone out of his way to encourage those feelings to arise in the first place.

In the end it’s renegade replicant leader Roy Batty who performs the most human act of the entire movie, saving Deckard’s life instead of letting him fall to his death, as he himself is dying from Tyrell’s built-in “accelerated decrepitude.” He is clearly stricken by the death of Pris and in his last remaining minutes chooses mercy over vengeance, perhaps realizing that Deckard is the last remaining person who will ever care about him.

There’s the transformation Richard Brown suggested; the superhuman replicant finally does something good.

And that brings us to what we might call a Tale of Two Hannibals. Transhumanism wasn’t a thing in 1981, when Ridley Scott was making Blade Runner and Thomas Harris was finishing up Red Dragon. Instead, a common trope in fiction was the story of striving to become human, with the most famous example coming at SF’s very beginning, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Roy Batty was established to be superhuman in almost every other objective respect before he grew a conscience in the last scene of Blade Runner. One could say that he was in that final moment not just human but transhuman.

Unlike Roy, Thomas Harris’ Hannibal does not start out less than human; Harris makes it clear he doesn’t even start out as the kind of classic psychopath who lacks emotion. If anything Hannibal feels things a bit too exquisitely, so that he values his feelings over the mere lives of those people who might diminish them. He sees himself as a kind of radical benefactor who risks his own freedom to rid the world of unpleasantness that would remain if not for his taste and courage.

Brian Cox played Hannibal pretty much as written in Red Dragon, but Sir Anthony Hopkins played up the idea of Lecter as a kind of radical aesthete, and Harris seems to have run with that idea when writing Hannibal. There is no suggestion anywhere that this Hannibal is in any way lacking human qualities; it is something extra that makes him a monster. Before one can eat the rude, one must have the refined taste to identify them.

But Mads Mikkelson’s Hannibal from Bryan Fuller’s TV series is something different. His therapist Bedelia says he wears a “well-tailored person suit” — implying that whatever talents he may have, what’s within the suit is not actually a complete person. In fact it’s implied that TV Hannibal may see in Will Graham the possibility of acquiring what he’s missing, driving his emotional pursuit of Will.

TV Series Hannibal is a monster that will have to become human before he can become transhuman.

Book Hannibal has been human and moved on, enhancing his skills and discarding limitations as he sees what is possible. He aspires to godhood, not humanity.

TV Hannibal’s flaw is missing emotions. He understands other peoples’ emotions but he doesn’t feel them. When he arranges for those he cares most about to follow his path, there is a kind of ad hoc destructive quality to his machinations. I don’t see Book Hannibal leaving Will’s encephalitis untreated more or less to see what will happen. Yes, he does things to Clarice in the course of her Becoming that are shocking and horrible, but they are all carefully calculated toward the end of sculpting her into a more advanced human being. TV Hannibal seems to spend much of his time winging it.

So to circle back around to my beginning: Richard’s suggestion for Hannibal’s fate has actually happened to a certain degree in Harris’ book universe, although it happens at a later point than Richard might have wanted. It’s suggested that just as Hannibal lived in Italy for years without murdering anybody after his escape at the end of Silence of the Lambs, he’s also had no such inclinations in his new life with Clarice as the Great Red Dragon to her Woman Clothed with the Sun.

But it’s hard to see TV Hannibal making that transformation. He’s an interesting and dangerous character, and his series is definitely on my must-watch list. But alas he’s not a transhuman icon. I doubt he’s Becoming anything other than what he already is.

Poor TV Hannibal isn’t even Roy Batty, who defied his creators and carved a trail of death across the universe in a quixotic bid to save his girl. Instead he’s carved a trail of death among his own friends out of a simple fit of pique, which is something Book Hannibal would probably consider eating him for.

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