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.
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