In Westworld (1973) life-like androids in a high-tech resort ‘malfunction’ and kill the guests; and in Blade Runner (1982) ‘replicants’, built with deliberately curtailed lifespans, return to earth to seek revenge on their creator. Both stories explore the implications of manufacturing realistic humanoid robots.
The humans treat the androids and ‘replicants’ as if they are equipment, without individual rights, built to serve the needs of mankind (rich tourists in a high-tech adult resort, and menial workers for a large corporation). While the androids in Westworld are described as ‘malfunctioning’, their maladaptive behaviour can be interpreted as a sign of independent thinking, self-will — the magical accident of life even. These are, after all, incredibly sophisticated entities, as the Chief Supervisor in Westworld explains: ‘We aren’t dealing with ordinary machines here. These are highly complicated pieces of equipment. Almost as complicated as living organisms. In some cases, they have been designed by other computers. We don’t know exactly how they work.’
The ‘replicants’ in Blade Runner can only be identified by putting them through a Voight-Kampff test, which requires a special machine and intensive questioning by a trained expert. The ‘replicants’ may not even be aware they are not human. Although their implanted memories are fabricated, their re-played experiences of those memories are real to them — and the ‘fake’ memories are central to their identity crisis.
Likewise, the Delos Resort in Westworld is a metaphorical arena that allows the storyteller to explore illusion and reality. How real is West World? To the guests it seems real, but their experience of it lacks the full spectrum of emotional responses. As a sanitised and choreographed version of reality it lacks actual physical danger. There’s no threat to human life — the exhilaration and fear of a genuine life or death shootout is missing.
Both stories involve powerful corporations with impressive technical capabilities. And yet there is, somewhat surprisingly, no mention of androids in Westworld being used anywhere outside of the resort. One might imagine that they would make useful helpers for the elderly, or provide valuable social service: as bus drivers and industrial maintenance workers, etc. But this does not appear to be the case — there’s no logical reason why, given their obvious sophistication. And the ‘replicants’ appear to be only used in the ‘outer worlds’.
These are cross genre stories. Westworld: predominantly a Sci-Fi Western (with some Roman and medieval subject matter). Blade Runner: a Sci-Fi noir. Westworld re-stages movie clichés as a form of wish fulfilment for the characters, and Blade Runner mixes a 1930s hard-boiled detective story with a science fiction vision of the future: art deco literally merges with a post-modern, Tokyo-like megalopolis. Both stories use an action adventure to ask high concept philosophical questions about the nature of reality.
At the end of Blade Runner, Roy (the lead ‘replicant’) demonstrates that he has empathy for Rick Deckard (the detective) by allowing him to live: in fact, Roy actually saves Deckard’s life. Roy’s demonstrable empathy, and anxiety about his death indicates humanity of a kind. The androids in Westworld, on the other hand, lack human emotion like empathy, guilt, or remorse, which makes them all the more terrifying, because they have no capacity for pity or mercy. Their ‘independent thinking’ is much more limited than the ‘replicants’.
The young woman rescued from the medieval torture chamber doesn’t turn into a killer, because that isn’t part of her role playing behaviour. The ‘malfunctioning’ rattlesnake bites a man, because that’s within the programmed scope of what a snake might do. A castle ‘wench’ displays individual will by refusing the kings advances, because that ‘choice’ falls within the parameters of being an accurate simulation of a real woman. The Black Knight slays a guest in a sword fight, and the Gunslinger in black murders a guest in a duel: both these behaviours fall within the role playing scope of their programmed characters. But — unlike Roy in Blade Runner — the androids in Westworld don’t question the nature of their existence outside of their pre-programmed role play.