Civil Rights Era Discrimination in Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner”
In Ridley Scott’s 1982 film “Blade Runner” a strong element of oppressive slavery pervades throughout the film. The people of earth, set in the year 2019, have developed a human like species in which they refer to as ‘Replicants’. These creations are primarily used for manual labor and are seen as inferior to the earthly human population. In this analysis, I will show the similarities between civil rights era discrimination and the replicants that this futuristic society has created.
According to IMBD.com, they refer to replicants as,” Primarily used as manual laborers in the ‘off world’ colonies in space. Because of their advanced nature and violent behavior, replicants have been outlawed on Earth” (paragraph one). During the 1960s, in which this dramatic film was written, our nation was in turmoil regarding the rights of African Americans. There are some distinct similarities between this film and the time period in which it was written. As represented in the film, the replicants were primarily used as manual laborers working to build this “off-world” colony. This is precisely the stereotype that our nation’s African American population was trying to escape from. They were pushing harder than ever before to gain their rights as Americans and establish an acceptable level of equality for their race. As a part of their movement, protesting became a popular way of voicing their opinions and they sometimes became violent. The replicants were seen to be violent in nature and subsequently were outlawed from earth. The African Americans of the time were fearful that if they were not granted genuine Constitutional equality, then they would never be viewed as true Americans. Similar to being outlawed from earth, the newly freed African Americans were fearful of their past treatment and wanted to establish a new identity for their race and equal and responsible Americans.
Rick Deckard is a Police Officer who is called upon to eradicate replicants. He says this in one of his earlier quotes 1Replicants are like any other machine, are either a benefit or a hazard. If they’re a benefit it’s not my problem. As you can see Rick Deckard is a disgruntled police officer and does not have respect nor appreciation for the replicant race, namely because of their violent behavior and recent criminal acts. He views them as machines and explains that if they are beneficial, he has no problem with them. In comparison to the events of the era, African Americans sadly enough are trying to erase the exact same image from their social identities. Prior to, the African Americans were largely enslaved and are now pushing to reform their place in society. Viewing the replicants as either a benefit or a hazard is a very polar way of expressing his opinion towards the replicants. Deckard is an officer of the law and his civic duty is to uphold law and order. The replicants recent bout of criminal violence has led him to view this group of creatures as either compliant or on his kill list. Much to the kind of views police officers had towards African Americans of the time, they were either compliant and kept to their place in society, or were protesters and deserved to be punished. This common view of police officers in the 1960s came to be primarily because of the rising disorder and the civil disturbances that the violent protesters caused. Although much undeserved, this stereotype breaks through into the film regarding the replicants as problem makers and that unless they were keeping to their labor in the “off-world” colony, they were to be killed.
Roy Batty says to Deckard in a later quote, “Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it? That’s what it is to be a slave.” Roy Batty, whom is the leader of the Nexus-6 replicants, expresses the struggle that he faces of always living in fear of being killed for his acts of non-compliance. In this quote, Deckard is fearful for his life, and Roy mouths off a remark trying to force Deckard to see the struggles that he endures. The African Americans in the civil rights era did much of the same, protesting and openly voicing the daily struggles that they endure in their everyday lives, in hopes of change. Roy goes on to even compare himself to a slave, and expresses the similarities between their treatment. In fearful moments, some people are awakened to their conscious moral code and finally see what the right thing is to do. I believe this is exactly what Roy was hoping for in his remark to Deckard. By taking advantage of the situation and the fearful emotions that Deckard was having, Roy chose to voice his feelings to him in hopes of a conscious breakthrough and a positive reaction. Although unsuccessful, the point was driven home to the audience that to be a slave is to always be living in fear. I can see this film as a voice for African Americans of the era, hoping to deliver the message to the American people that they live in fear and deserve equality.
Ridley Scott’s 1982 film “Blade Runner” has a powerful message in regard to the events that were taking place in the era in which the film was written. The civil rights movement was a historical event that forever changed American culture. Subsequently, this film embodies elements of the African American struggle for equality in comparison to the struggles that the Nexus-6 replicants endure. The quotations from the film and outside sources corroborate my analysis and offer and clear correlation between the two groups of people and the hardships that they face.
Do Females Dream of a Respectable Representation?
Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (a novel) and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (a film) insist comparison: Ridley Scott’s film is based on the story told by Philip K. Dick’s novel. These works were created about ten years apart from one another and therefore had important situational differences influence their creations. Most importantly, Ridley Scott never finished reading the novel and did not allow anyone working on the film to read or refer to the novel. Given these noticeable differences, this essay will explore the difference in the portrayal of women in both works, as well as how many of the missing ideas from the novel are still present through a different representation. This essay will focus on the representation of women and how it communicates the objectification of women, the oppression of women, and the animalistic equivalence of women. The need for women, both android/replicant and human, to be artificial is a theme in both the film and novel, but it is emphasized in the film. The film lacks the presence of Luba Luft, an escaped android now working as an opera singer, because the film is in the genre of film noir and Luba does not fit into the femme fatale character archetype as the other women do; therefore, her omission stresses the importance of the femme fatale representation. Unlike the novel, the film constantly displays propaganda with images of Japanese women. This propaganda objectifies women and signifies the way in which women, both real and replicant, have become both technologically advanced synthetic beings and consumer products. During the time the film was made, Japan was rising in the technological field, and thus the images represent an “advanced” woman, a synthetic woman. More in the novel than in the film, the relationship between Pris and Rachael is stressed by the fact that they look similar, adding to their production line’s consumer product quality. This idea of an artificial female is not only recommended in the film through the propaganda, but almost demanded by the society in the film, as can be interpreted by the fact that all of the female lead roles are of artificial females. The only women seen in the film who are “real” are a senior oriental and a liquor vendor. Additionally, the film places the story in Los Angeles, as opposed to San Francisco, as it is in the novel. This adds to the idea of artificial women as Los Angeles has a reputation for an abundance of celebrities, and celebrities have a reputation of plastic surgery and other forms of visual manipulation. This gives the impression that in the Los Angeles of the future, a woman must be artificial in order to have any sort of significant identity. It is for this reason that all of the android/replicant females are designed to have aesthetically pleasing appearances. This is confirmed when both the novel’s Eldon Rosen and the film’s Eldon Tyrell of the replicant-making Rosen/Tyrrell Corporation describe Pris as a “basic pleasure model.” In the novel, a fellow bounty hunter tells Deckard “if it’s love toward a woman or an android imitation it’s sex” (Dick 141). This quote openly suggests that to a male, a woman and a machine are the same, and should be the same.The novel and film also express the oppression of women. In the first chapter of Dick’s novel, the reader is introduced to Deckard’s wife, Iran, and made aware of her emotional instability as she uses an empathy box to control her emotions. She reinforces the stereotypical gender role of a submissive emotionally distraught housewife. Her submissive nature can be seen when she allows Rick to dial and he dials “594: pleased acknowledgment of husband’s superior wisdom in all matters” for her; for himself he dials “for a creative and fresh attitude toward his job” (Dick 5). In Scott’s film, we see Deckard’s same power and the subservient nature of women toward Deckard. This is specifically seen in the scene between Rachael and him, where he does not hesitate to feed her the lines she must say to him and almost forces her to be involved with him.
Deckard: Say kiss me.
Rachael: I can’t rely on…
Deckard: Say kiss me.
Rachael: Kiss me.
Deckard: I want you.
Rachael: I want you.
Rachael: I want you. Put your hands on me.This scene is disturbing; it could almost be considered rape if it were not for the fact that Rachael is not human. Rachael’s character in the film is quite the opposite of her character in the novel. In the novel, Rachael is deceitful and much more solid in standing her ground, as can be seen in her command to Deckard: “Goddamn it, get into bed” (Dick 193). In the film, Rachael at first seems to be a very confident, independent woman when she has no doubts of not being a human; she is characterized by her quick and precise responses to the Voight-Kampf test. Later in the film, when Deckard informs her of her replicant nature, she becomes the passive subservient female, the femme fatale in a film noir. Pris and Zhora, are also femme fatale characters, using their sexuality in order to obtain some stability. Zhora, a trained assassin replicant, uses her sexuality to work at a strip club performing some sort of sexual act. Pris, a replicant, uses her sexuality to reach Tyrell by persuading Sebastien to help Roy and her. One of the most noticed aspects missing from the film is the theme of real/electric animals. This theme is still found in the film through the representation of women. In the society of today, many women feel that they are hunted by men as pieces of meat. In the novel, Deckard is, as his wife calls him, “a murderer hired by cops” (Dick 7), only continuing his duties with the motivation of buying a real animal. In the film, Deckard hunts down androids with the motivation that it is his job. Ironically, the only replicants Deckard personally retires in the film are Zhora and Pris, making the film a bit of a misogynist work. Once again the novel contradicts this idea through Luba Luft’s character. Deckard feels almost unwilling to retire her because he does not imagine she would be a harm to society, thus contradicting this misogynist idea.In the film, women are animals; they are the pets, the real animals Deckard hunts for in the novel. In the film, Rachael runs to Deckard for unneeded protection. She runs to him because it is he who allows her to discover her true synthetic self, and she therefore feels a bond with him. In contrast, in the novel Rachael undergoes this realization differently, and instead of clinging to Deckard for her own protection, she seduces him to protect her kind. Rachael survives in the film as Deckard’s pet, not his lover, while in the novel she is victorious as she does not get killed by Deckard. Actually, since he ends up retiring the androids, she gets a small revenge by killing his real sheep that he bought with the bounty money. This can be a metaphor for the killing of the oppression of women. This relationship between women and animals is also seen in the scene in the film with Zhora: after performing her sexual act, she appears with a snake wrapped around her, wearing makeup that reflects the scaly qualities of the snake. She has become an animal. Ironically, Deckard is distracted by her beauty and openness and eventually leaves himself open to be attacked, resembling the serpent from Genesis and its corruption of man. Also in the film, when Deckard is about to kill Pris, she runs around attacking him and yelling like an animal fighting for her life. Ironically, one of her defense mechanisms is to choke him with her legs. This symbolizes both her animalistic nature as well as her use of sexuality as a defense mechanism. To conclude, Philip K. Dicks’s novel and Ridley Scott’s film tell similar stories with different yet similar drives and themes that can be interpreted through the representation of women in both works. The demand for women to be synthetic is hinted at in the novel, but it is central to the film. The oppression of women in the novel is not as intense as it is in the film because of the addition of several characters and scenes that are omitted in the film. Lastly, the importance of animals is centered upon in the novel, but it is also represented through female roles in the film.
Bladerunner and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a tormented exploration of the nature of what it means to be human. The Protagonist is a bounty hunter chasing human simulations known as “androids” and he struggles with his feelings about the task of killing androids throughout the book. He begins to identify with the human replicants as the novel progresses which causes him to question what it means to be human and shakes his certainty that what he is doing is morally justifiable. The attempt to adapt this novel and these concepts to film known as Blade Runner fell horribly short of translating Philip K. Dick’s message from Literature into film. The Protagonist of Bladerunner does not grapple with the same dilemmas of identity that are dealt with in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and the ultimate message is lost in the action film because of several inconsistencies and one glaring mistake made in the definition of what an android is in the film. The movie Blade Runner takes a few liberties with Dick’s storyline and the most notable is the way they identify and define an android. The androids in Blade Runner are capable of becoming indistinguishable from human beings because they develop emotions based on collected experiences. The Tyrell Corporation tries to nurture this by giving the androids memories of pasts that the androids never really had. This helps them form emotions and become harder to detect as inhuman. It takes Deckard one hundred questions when testing Rachel, a new Nexus6 android, when on previous models of androids twenty to thirty questions would have been sufficient. The audience can then assume that if the androids were not given a four year lifespan as a failsafe to prevent them from becoming completely indistinguishable from humans that they would eventually collect enough experiences to simulate sincere emotion flawlessly. The questions of identity that are addressed in the book are ignored, in part, because of this addition to the idea of the story. The androids in the movie are already capable of becoming indistinguishable from humans and the power of the message sent in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is lost. In the book the androids are not exactly human. The have short life spans because science could not perfect cell replication and they are also incapable of simulating empathy because of some problem that is implied to be more inherent and inseparable from android nature. These Androids are not capable of becoming exact replicas of human beings and are therefore separated from humanity. Dick establishes this intentionally while simultaneously dehumanizing humanity greatly throughout the book. The protagonist struggles with his own identity as well as the identities of the androids and the possible value of artificial life when so much of his supposedly valuable organic life is reliant on technology on a day to day basis. The main character in the book is tormented by poignant internal struggles while the tough guy Deckard of Blade Runner seems to have no problem doing something that should probably be even harder in this movie that abruptly descends into almost pointless action by the end. Rick Deckard is brought to life on the first page of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by his Penfield Mood Organ. The electric machine he depends upon to get through each day sets a tone of a skewed sense of humanity for its dependence on and use of technology. Deckard then argues with his wife, Iran, about the nature of emotion and whether it is natural for them to manipulate their emotions. He goes up to his roof to check on the electric sheep he uses to deceive his neighbors because life is so valuable in this world. He goes to work and retires a few androids all the while evaluating their emotions to determine whether or not they are human while his own emotions are simulated by a machine. He has sex and shows affection toward an android who he was first fooled into believing was human (and who, contrary to Dick’s claim that androids do not empathize, shows a remarkable amount of empathy for other androids by trying to prevent Deckard and other bounty hunters from “retiring” androids). He partners up with bounty hunter Phil Resch who is fooled by several androids that were right under his nose and Deckard believes—and even convinces Resch—that he is an android. He is told by the sage, Mercer—who turns out to not be what he seems—that his job is a necessary evil, and he is finally given a toad by Mercer (a word that, interestingly enough, is a term for a dealer in textile fabrics) that is a fake. Deckard goes home after all of this with his fake toad to the corpse of his precious goat that was killed by the android he seems to love and who claims to love him and he refuses to alter his mood before going to sleep. He takes the opposite position of his initial argument in the beginning of the book and he surrenders to the way he feels. Who is human and what counts as life in this convoluted emotional concoction? When humanity is dehumanized by technology and technology is humanized by humanity what counts as life? There are certainly some issues with identity in this book and these are the extremely complex questions addressed by Philip K. Dick in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? that are largely forsaken in Blade Runner for mere action. The Deckard of Blade Runner does not ever seem to question the morality of “retiring” androids because the androids he approaches all try to kill him. The audience is spared the emotional and moral dilemma because Deckard has the excuse of self defense from extremely heinous enemies. They make comments to the effect of “how does it feel to be hunted,” and the audience can certainly understand their plight, but the overtly violent and destructive actions of the androids ultimately make them unsympathetic characters. The final eloquent speech of Batty to Deckard caused a slight shift in the understanding of the androids, but they essentially were violent creatures who greedily wanted more time to live rather than the passive and sympathetic androids of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? who merely wanted to be left alone during their time alive. The film touched on the Deckard’s struggle through his relationship with Rachel, but it was never clearly articulated or fully developed and the poignant and devastating struggle with identity that the Deckard of the book experiences is almost completely ignored and at the very least is confused and misinterpreted. The movie took the path of least resistance by translating the story as an action movie with plenty of sex, nudity, violence, and a climactic ending. The fact that the androids were capable of becoming identical to humans emotionally if it were not for their intentional four year life spans makes it more obviously wrong to kill them and that problem is solved by making them murderous. The struggles faced by Deckard in the book are so much less certain because of the degrees of life and the obvious flaws in artificial life juxtaposed with the obvious flaws in humanity. By the end the Deckard of the book is exhausted by the dilemma that intensifies with his increasing physical exertion and the reader is left thinking about the same questions that plague the protagonist. The movie was a cool sci-fi action movie that most likely left the audience thinking about Pris’s breasts or the way Batty gouged out Tyrell’s eyes. The encapsulating scene in the book where Deckard is viewing Munch’s Scream displays both Deckard’s almost realized qualms with killing androids and the plight of the androids themselves. Resch says at one point “that is how an andy must feel” as the two view the painting and Deckard contemplates his feelings of attraction towards the android Luba Luft. The android’s feelings of hopelessness are confounded with those of the main characters and at this point, and for the first time, Deckard is empathizing with the androids who can not (supposedly) empathize themselves. This is largely started by Deckard’s attraction to Luft, something that the reader assumes has never happened before. Attraction is a powerful feeling and Deckard is shown to be sensitive and perhaps particularly vulnerable to being affected by it through his comparison to his callous counterpart, Resch. Resch uses heartless and cold logic to cope with his job of killing androids and Deckard finally realizes that he is not right for bounty hunting through his experience with Luba Luft and Phil Resch and he ends up being profoundly disturbed by his decision to finish hunting the rest of the androids after he had decided that it is wrong. All of Do Androids Dream of Electric sheep? is a struggle with identity, life, and reality. The man who maintains himself and relies on artificial moods produced by a machine hunts androids who he detects based on their insufficient emotions while driven by his desire to possess life and rid himself of his fake animal. He ultimately gives in to the despair he was trying to talk his wife out of at the beginning of the book and he does, in fact, finally possess the life he sought the entire book—his own. Blade Runner falls way short of making any profound statements, though it does briefly touch on the theme of identity between sex scenes, fights, and rugged quips from Harrison Ford. The questions applied to the human condition and the sense of self that humanity must face in an increasingly technological world are complicated and distressing. This is what Philip K. Dick is articulating in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and what Blade Runner is imitating with its cinematic adaptation.
Light, Sound, and Significant Cinematography in Blade Runner
Set in a dystopian Los Angeles of 2019, Blade Runner follows Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), an ex-policeman brought out of retirement to eliminate a group of renegade replicants who have illegally arrived on Earth. During this anti-hero’s quest, he forms a relationship with a young woman, Rachel (Sean Young), revealed to be an experimental replicant with human memories. Simultaneously, the film follows the four fugitives, led by Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), as they search for their creator, the owner of the Tyrell Corporation. The film is an example of the neo-noir genre: A revival of the film noir pictures of the 1940’s and 50’s. Like its predecessors, Blade Runner presents a pessimistic view of reality: featuring a world of crowded cities with darkened streets, murder and doomed love. Also characteristic of noir, Blade Runner uses high-contrast, low key lighting and a strange, haunting soundtrack. In fact, one of Blade Runner’s most competent modes of delivering its thematic message is in its lighting, which places complex emphasis both on the characters and on the troubling society that they inhabit.
Significant lighting can be observed in an early scene of the film, in which Deckard meets Dr. Tyrell and his assistant Rachel. Deckard has her undergo what is known as the Voight-Kampf test: An interrogation aided by a device similar to a polygraph that can determine the authenticity of a person via involuntary emotional responses. The scene begins with Deckard’s arrival at the Tyrell corporation headquarters, a building that towers over the L.A. skyline more like a Ziggurat than a corporate office. At first, the lighting within is soft, an element rather uncharacteristic of the film. Reflections dance on the walls as Deckard and Rachel, newly acquainted, make awkward small talk. Tyrell and Rachel are illuminated in hard frontal lighting, all of their features discernable, yet flat. Deckard gets a much softer treatment, but is still lit very clearly and has the added effect of a rim-light that gives him a backlit, almost classical Hollywood glow, (fitting for the Los Angeles setting). This yet-unseen style of lighting within the film represents the initial feelings of this scene: While their meeting is a little strange, and almost dreamlike, there is little suspicion between the characters; therefore, the characters are lit in full view, as if they have nothing to hide. The mood changes as Deckard remarks about the brightness of the room; the Voight-Kampf must be given in partial darkness. This brief line serves to cue a shift in the lighting: A shade descends, slowly obscuring the panoramic view at the chamber’s rear and dimming the scene under a veil of shadow. The shade falls until just a sliver of light can enter. The room slips into darkness and only Deckard and Rachel remain partially illuminated. The shadows become crisp and defined in the hard light, and the soft edges of seconds ago are now absent.
This transition to hard, low key lighting, reminiscent of traditional film noir, marks the transition from pleasant introductions to interrogation. Deckard now sits with his eyes in darkness, just above where the glow slips under the shade. The rest of his body is enshrined in low-key light, his shadows hard and exaggerated. Rachel sits in hard backlight, her outline clear but her features less discernable than during her introduction. This transfer into dimness marks the beginning of suspicion and investigation. Deckard must peer through both literal darkness and the metaphorical darkness of the unknown in order to discern the truth about the girl in front of him. The shadowy veil between characters is enhanced by Rachel’s smoking, which Deckard assures “won’t affect the test”. In the hard light, the smoke of Rachel’s cigarette creates an opaque, milky cloud between her in Deckard, and, in close ups, between her and the viewer. With every breath, she is obscured for several seconds as the cloud dissipates and reforms with another silent breath. This girl, who is earlier clearly defined in high key light, becomes veiled by smoke and shadow. This shift in lighting coincides with a growing doubt, in both the narrative and in the viewer, of her authenticity as a human being. The test concludes as Rachel fails to respond to a question, not having the emotional experience to discern the proper answer. By this time, it is clear that the girl is a replicant. Tyrell waves for her to leave, and as she walks across the chamber floor she is once again lit in full: the darkness pushed aside, her true identity is revealed.
Outside of the ethereal internals of buildings like the Tyrell office, Blade Runner has many scenes of cacophonous, layered sound. External scenes, where hordes of extras shuffle through, have overlaying conversations in several languages, the hum of steam and electricity and the low rumble of transportation. These sounds are accompanied a continuous deluge of rain falling as heavy droplets. One moment, in which Deckard wanders a market for synthetic animals, features an undercurrent of birds screeching and livestock bleating. Other sounds are even nightmarish: sirens wail eerie, electric cries and pedestrian signals with robotic voices repeat a surreal mantra: Cross now, cross now, cross now… Don’t walk, don’t walk, don’t walk… These scenes, resounding in diegetic noise, are immersive and effective at creating a view of a future suffocating from overpopulation, and are indispensable to mediating the film’s setting. When communicating other thematic elements, however, Blade Runner best does so with more subtle uses of sound. After plainly informing Rachel that she is a replicant with implanted memories and her distraught exit, Deckard stands alone in his dim apartment. The environment is drastically quieter than previous exterior scenes, but there is still an abundance of ambient noise. The low timbered hum of air moving through vents provides a deep baseline of sound along with the omnipresent rain beating upon the windows. Police sirens and passing vehicles frequently come into range and fade out as Deckard remains silent. Above this subtle sound is electronic musician Vangelis’ soundtrack. This scene features a melancholy, reverberated piano. The diegetic, ambient noise in the room seems to complement the non-diegetic soundtrack as sirens and electronic noises accent the ends of Vangelis’ phrases. At one point, looking at a photograph of who Rachel claims to be herself and her mother, the sound of children playing is audible. Deckard stares, intrigued, as if he can hear these voices. This expert mixing of diegetic and non-diegetic sound creates a blend of the reality of the film and the way in which it is presented, and the viewer finds themselves questioning exactly what Deckard is experiencing. Is he in his own reality? Perhaps Deckard is in something more like a dream, where he can hear children playing and Vangelis’ pulsing, synthesized notes. This dissonance between the real and unreal—between human and replicant—is the soul of Blade Runner. Among the converging diegetic and non-diegetic sounds of the film, the difference between dream and reality—of signified and signifier—is not clear. Out on the streets once more, mise en scene takes over as in mediating the film’s message.
The external scenes of Blade Runner are some of the most meticulously crafted and choreographed of the film. They feature hundreds of extras, all with unique costumes and props, as they move along the sidewalks and on streetcars, and move in and out of futuristic establishments. Shrouded figures in gasmasks, women scantily clad in polymer lingerie, disfigured scavengers that meander through the gutters are but a few of the bizarre men and women that viewers catch sight of as Deckard and his replicant targets traverse Los Angeles. Neon signage bearing licensed names—Atari, Coca-Cola and Pan-Am to name a few—glare down and reflect off the unrelenting rain. The density of these scenes is accentuated by how the characters move through them. In one instance, Deckard gives chase to a replicant, Zhora, after tracking her to a nightclub. As Deckard chases the woman out of the club, both characters must navigate the congested streets in snakelike patterns. Extras, seemingly isolated and apathetic to the dangers of the city, rarely move aside to allow either character to pass. Instead, they must sidestep obstacles, often moving to the rear of the scene only to come forward again, trying to gain distance. Their movements through these areas is also a means to show the audience glimpses of the diverse figures and structures that make up the world of the film. In this scene’s climax, Zhora crashes through a glass storefront ass Deckard fires his weapon several times into her back, and falls among a group of mannequins—like her, likeness made in the images of human beings—where she dies. Deckard disappears into the rapidly dispersing crowd as a computerized voice tells the already disinterested populace to move on.
Mise en scene again plays a critical role in a scene close to the film’s climax, moments before Deckard retires the third replicant, Pris. The remaining androids have been sheltered at the apartment of one J.F. Sebastian, a genetic designer for Tyrell. A lonely individual, Sebastian has filled this abandoned Bradbury building penthouse with what he calls “friends”: crude replicants and animatronic mannequins. Deckard arrives at the apartment, and finds himself in a side-room home to dozens of Sebastian’s eerie dolls. Some lay still while others continuously perform vaguely human movements. A stout figure holds its gut and laughs eerily as another maneuvers a china set, repeating, More tea…? More tea…? More tea…? Deckard moves across the room, overlooking Pris, who sits immobile at the center of the frame, and making his way to the far side. He turns and is still for a brief moment. At the back of the gathering, Deckard, the only human present, is flanked by a plethora of uncanny human likenesses. For an instant, there is little to discern the difference between the human, the replicant, and the menagerie of dolls that surround them. Each of these mannequins could be the young android or the policeman hired to gun her down. This room is a microcosm of the film’s theme. Blade Runner presents a world where the true definition of human is uncertain; where in the crowded streets of Los Angeles it is not possible to label those around as human or mere dolls with human form.
The climax of the film follows shortly after Deckard’s encounter with the dolls. Roy Batty returns to Sebastian to find Pris dead, and begins relentlessly pursuing Deckard as his replicant body approaches the end of its lifespan. Both injured, they move through the darkened penthouses to the roof, where Deckard attempts to escape the maniacal Batty by jumping to an adjacent building. Just catching a jutting beam, he hangs limply, certain to fall. It is at this moment that the already flimsy distinction between human and replicant is shattered, as Batty, in the last seconds of his own life, saves Deckard from his imminent demise. That which is essentially a doll in the reality of the movie exhibits, for a brief moment, human compassion and respect for life. Sitting for a brief period, he remarks how all of his experiences will be lost “like tears in rain”. In accepting death and developing an appreciation for life, it becomes impossible not to accept this man and his executed comrades as human beings. In a future characterized by isolation and suspicion, portrayed via lighting, sound and mise en scene, it is a machine that proves to be most capable of compassion.
Reflecting Humanity: A Reading of the Complexities of Ridley Scott’s ‘Blade Runner’
Prior to the release of Blade Runner 2049 in theaters in October of 2017, I prepared myself for the film by re-watching the last – and best – version of Ridley Scott’s landmark 1982 film Blade Runner: The Final Cut. In the film, Scott portrays a dystopian Earth in which a genius inventor named Eldon Tyrell has created mechanical humans called replicants. While once an exciting and innovative product, virulent hate for the new beings has begun to spread throughout Earth and its surrounding colonies and the eponymous blade runners (all of whom are essentially hitmen tasked with killing rouge replicants) are tasked to hunt down and destroy the newly rebellious replicant population. One such blade runner is Rick Deckard (played brilliantly by Harrison Ford, who later reprised his role in 2049). Deckard is tasked with pursuing and ultimately killing (or terminating, depending on point of view) four replicants, including the antagonist of the film, Roy Batty (played by Rutger Hauer). The group is near the end of their life cycle and have captured a spaceship to return to Earth to meet their creator — Tyrell. As audiences get acquainted with Deckard, Rachel, and Batty, the films themes become more and more clear. And one of many things the film does well is make its themes palatable and exceptionally complex. Among all of the films themes, one sticks out: What does it mean to be human?
The film posits that what makes humans human is the ability to think and emotion, specifically empathy (one of the characters in the film repeats a Descartes quote: “I think, therefore I am”). Yet, Tyrell’s newer models have become nearly indistinguishable from humans. In turn, the blade runners turn to the Voight-Kampff test to help them differentiate between human and machine. In a memorable and key scene in the film, Rick Deckard, administers the test to a young woman named Rachel to determine if she is a replicant or human. At the end of the test, Deckard — a man the audience is unsure is human or replicant — is unsure if of her status. After all, her responses were nearly indistinguishable from those that humans would give. Nevertheless, at the end of the encounter, Tyrell tells Deckard that Rachel is in fact a replicant he has created to be his servant. In the world of Blade Runner, this sort of test has become necessary because the line between human machine has become more and more blurred.
Replicants can feel emotion, empathy, think critically and independently, and as we learn in 2049, have children. Take Batty’s now famous farewell speech as example. “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe,” he says, “Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I 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.” In this key scene, Batty’s humanity is emphasized. He has the capability to emotionally reflect (hence the mention of rain and the fact that it is raining when he gives the speech) on his life well-lived. Batty may have robotic capabilities no human does, but he has the soul of a human being. Now, even the one noticeable difference between humans and replicants — humans are born, not manufactured — is becoming a moot point. Most are manufactured, but increasingly, replicants will be born to a loving mother. This leaves one difference: humans are made up of flesh and blood and replicants are made up of circuitry and technology.
But at the end of the day, what is the difference? As we draw closer and closer to the advent of Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) technology, this is the question that philosophers and laymen alike will increasingly ponder. Over 35 years ago Blade Runner posed this question; it is a testament to the minds of Philip K. Dick (the man who wrote the book this film is based off, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) and Scott that the book and film have endured and stayed so relevant after all these years.
In many ways, Blade Runner was ahead of its time, particularly when it comes to the discussion of the nature of humanity. Sure, there had been films like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) before it, but never before had a film and its themes been so accessible and palatable (yet still very complex) to general audiences. Scott’s Blade Runner is a cult classic for a reason. It’s a trenchant film and one that brought up questions still being considered today. Like the novel on which it was based, Blade Runner redefined what it means to be human.