How Alien connects to Blade Runner, and Philip K Dick’s drug fueled paranoia

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Ever since seeing the first Blade Runner film, I’ve been a fan of Blade Runner and more generally of Dick’s oeuvre. But what makes his work so compelling? Why did it have such an impact on me?

I assume most people these days know about his abuse of amphetamines. It makes perfect sense of the recurring theme of existential paranoia in all of his works. Even stuff that seems worlds apart from Blade Runner, like Man in the High Castle, is based around the same feeling.

There’s a novel within that novel, about what the world would be like if the Allies had won. The “meta” feeling of living in that reality, reading a novel where the axis wins, in which characters read a novel in which the allies won perfectly ecapsulates the feeling present in everything Dick wrote.

The more you read about replicants and how lifelike they are, the more it gradually dawns on you that anybody could be a replicant and not realize it. This anxiety is intensified by the story taking place in a world where replicants are hunted down and killed, and told from the perspective of the guy whose job it is to hunt them. The possibility that he himself is a replicant is only the best known example of this feeling, the essence of Dick’s work.

A Scanner Darkly is basically just a reskin of Blade Runner in many ways. The main character is, himself, one of the people his organization is spying on and preparing to convict. That feeling of being simultaneously privileged and hidden but also in incredibly grave danger captures the mania of Dick’s amphetamine binges, the god complex and persecution complex all in one.

It’s easy to see how he could become fixated on it. It’s a terrifying idea that sucks everything else into it like a black hole until it’s all you can think about. During the binge that inspired Blade Runner, Dick actually called the local police station to warn them he was a dangerous android who should be locked up. It was also the source of melancholy, resigning yourself to the conclusion that you’re fake, your memories are fake, everything that ever mattered to you is a facade created to keep you fooled.

Given that Blade Runner and the Alien films canonically take place in the same universe, I dearly wish for a film that explores this feeling in that setting. Tyrell Corporation and Weyland Yutani are confirmed to be competitors, with WY focusing on inorganic materials and technology in their androids while Tyrell instead goes the synthetic biology route. It’s interesting to note here that the original R.U.R., aka Rossum’s Universal Robots play which coined the term “robot” did not originally involve metal automatons.

In the original short story and play, the “robots” were synthetic biology. A substance produced by sea slugs (which is where Bioshock took the idea from) is discovered to have remarkable biogenic properties, like stem cells on steroids. Any tissue it’s exposed to, it can copy and produce more of. The “robots” in R.U.R. are assembled from individual body parts grown in this fashion, like assembly line frankensteins.

R.U.R. can best be thought of as “what if the process Dr. Frankenstein used to create his monster was commercialized”. There’s wonderful imagery in one scene describing the factory where the robots are assembled. Looms of intestines weaving them into the body, great sheets of skin on rollers designed for fabric, with the robots moving step by step along the conveyor belt in various stages of completion.

While Prometheus was a huge disappointment, I think the addition of the engineers was a constructive and important one. They are not some half baked idea, they go all the way back to Giger’s artwork which served as the inspiration for the xenomorph. The consistent materials and aesthetic in all of his paintings imply that they all depict the same biomechanical world. Which begs the question, who built it? The engineers exist to answer that question.

This ties neatly into Blade Runner, with the same questions raised by humans creating replicants extending upwards to the creation of humans by the engineers. Which means on some level, nobody was “real” from the beginning. We were all synthetic, from the dawn of time. The revelation that David is responsible for the creation of the classic xenomorph is also unfairly panned.

It explores the fascinating question of what kind of synthetic life an artificial intelligence would choose to create. We created David the way he is because he’s an expression of our ideals. But what lifeform would result from the creative expression of an AI’s ideals?

This makes sense of why, for example, the neomorphs are very biological looking and noticeably share DNA with the engineers but why the xenomorph at the end of the film looks much more mechanical. That’s how David wanted it, moving away from pure biology and towards a more even mixture.

This is arguably foreshadowed in the first Alien when Ash, the crew’s only synthetic, is creepily praising the perfection of the facehugger while he dissects it. From the ruthless, unemotional perspective of an AI, the xenomorph does appear more perfect than humans. It exists for a singular purpose and everything about it is optimized towards that goal. They have no concept of fear or compassion which would hinder their relentless pursuit of survival.

Anyway we got two shitty Aliens vs Predator films and a bunch of mostly ok games. It’s time we got an Blade Runner/Aliens crossover. I want more of that world, and really we don’t see enough of Earth in the alien films anyways. It could cover the infestation of Earth by xenomorphs we saw in the Earth War comic series, but with equal time given to a subplot about the Auton rebellion.

If you recall, Annalee Call in Alien Resurrection was an Auton, the term used in the Alien universe for synthetics made to have complete emotions and no baked-in behavioral restraints. They’re analogous to the experimental Nexus 7 line in Blade Runner.

Anyway these are just some thoughts that have been percolating in my brain ever since watching Alien Covenant and the new Blade Runner film. Maybe others have had similar thoughts about how they connect? I’ll be interested to hear about it in the comments, if so.

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