For those sci fi fans familiar with Philip K. Dick's book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the movie version Blade Runner must have come as a complete shock. Just the barest outline of the story makes it into the film. Director Ridley Scott seemed determined to create a noir detective film in the style of Chandler/Hammet, with homage due to Metropolis and Frankenstein as well. This is well and good, but we wish someone would make a movie that is really based on this great PKD novel.
What PKD created was in fact a religious science fiction novel. It is no wonder Scott claimed that he had not even read Dick's book, he probably wanted to make sure no one would complain about the changes he wanted to make. This is common Hollywood procedure though, even a movie about Napoleon cannot be made without inserting completely phony events, in order to "make it more interesting." Hitchcock felt no loyalty to the written word if he felt he could be more creative on film. No one seems to appreciate the effort PKD makes to create a plausible futuristic urban mass religion. Of course any reference to religion had to be deleted if Scott's detective noir theme was to make sense...it just would not fit into the hard-boiled atmosphere. No soft mushy stuff allowed.
In the novel, the religion of Mercerism is centered upon an empath who takes all of mankind's suffering upon his own shoulders. Using empathy boxes, people at home tune into Mercer's Sisyphean struggle uphill, being bruised themselves from the rocks unseen persecutors throw at him, follow him to the top where presumable he is martyred, and downhill into the Tomb World of dissolving forms of death and desiccation, until finally all is revived and he ascends again to start all over. What is significant in this trance-like experience is that all who are tuned in at the same time share each others emotions, and can exchange their joy for example to others who are miserable. In Tibetan Buddhism this is a visualization practice called tong-len, selflessly giving out our goodness and strength to those in need of it. "Health and wealth to others, sickness and poverty to myself." This is basically a method of grinding down the ego, that which separates us from our authentic self, our fundamental connection to all things.
Mercer himself is a kind of Amitabha or thousand-armed Avalokiteshvara figure, infinitely capable of listening to the troubles of others and forgiving them. His name, though etymologically different from the root of mercy, is so close there can be no doubt that he is meant to embody mercy itself. He is also similar to Krishna of the Bhagavad-Gita, as he speaks one on one with his devotees, giving them advice to "get on with it." For example, Deckard the bounty hunter, has doubts about his job of "retiring" androids. Mercer's words to him urge him nevertheless to go forward and do his duty. He says "we all must violate our identity...the ultimate shadow or curse of life"...this is what Joseph Campbell calls the basic horror at the crux of the world: life feeds on life in an unceasing cycle, and we are part of that process. Krishna tells the reluctant Arjuna, distraught at the prospect of killing his rebelling relatives,
"Indestructible, learn thou, the Life is, spreading life through all; It cannot anywhere, by any means, be anywise diminished, stayed or changed...Let them perish, Prince! And fight!...Birthless and deathless and changeless remaineth the spirit for ever; Death hath not touched it at all..." (Sir Edwin Arnold translation).
Mercer tells Deckard, "I am your friend. But you must go on as if I did not exist...there is no salvation." Deckard asks, "Then what are you for?" "To show you that you aren't alone." Mercer shows all the universality of suffering and the power of forgiveness. He utters this paradoxical statement: "You will have to stop searching for me because I will never stop searching for you." Mercer also appears in the nick of time at an apartment complex to warn Deckard that one of the androids is outside about to ambush him. Later on Deckard has a mystical type experience in the badlands, without even an empathy box, seemingly becoming Mercer himself in his endless quest.
Naturally the powerful media powers object to Mercerism. Buster Friendly and his Friendly Friends sponsor an expose of Mercerism, showing it to have been Hollywood produced, and even find the actor who played the part. Yet Mercer himself is not fazed by the exposure of the human origins of his religion, he forecasts nothing will change because what he offers is shared empathic unity of humanity. As it turns out, Buster Friendly and his guests are in actuality androids who, along with their manufacturer and all runaway androids, dream of destroying Mercerism forever, because it emphasizes the one thing they lack: empathy. I think certain parallels could be made with today's secular politically correct media.
Blade Runner ignores this subplot of course. It is more interested in creating sympathy for the "replicants", a politically correct term for androids. Rachel is nice and deserving of being saved when Deckard runs off to live with her in the end. In the book she turns out to be one of the chief agents helping murderous androids, and kills Deckard's live pet goat out of spite. Androids have no feeling for living beings, they torture a spider for kicks in a world where life is rare and therefore sacred. You can be quite sure that if the androids ever took over they would casually kill humans in the same fashion. One might imagine we were discussing Communists vs. capitalists in the Cold War era...should we see the Communists as extremists bent on world domination no matter what the cost to human freedom, or are they "just like us" deserving of a break, everything is relative, be nice to them despite their hostile actions and they will be great friends one day, coexistence is great...This is somewhat ironic as PKD was a rebel in his day, afraid that by fighting the Communists we were destined to become like them...in fact this is somewhat the theme of the novel...but he could not depict the androids with as much warmth as Scott...he was highly suspicious of beings that had no empathy...
PKD of course was so paranoid and anti-capitalist himself that he could not imagine a future in which the impersonal corporation did not rule the roost...even to the extent of creating near-perfect androids who sometimes revolted and killed their human owners. Of course in a real world the public through their exercise of free government would force the manufacturers to create many failsafe devices within androids to render them harmless or easily inoperable if malfunctioning. So Scott carries this thought forward into his postmodern society, emphasizing the dystopia of a polluted world run by selfish evil corporations who operate as if no government existed.