Are we human? Or are we cancer? In his first article for RetroZap, Jason Flatt takes a look at Blade Runner, one of the greatest science fiction films ever.
Ridley Scott’s 1982 Blade Runner is a paradigm of science fiction, begging its viewers to ask one of life’s most confounding questions: what does it mean to be human? The year is 2019 and the ever-subtle nemesis of civilization has reared its ugly head. Capitalism has overtaken the planet, driving those who could afford it to head Off-world while the wretched and the poor remained behind to squabble over what was left behind. What was left behind is a sprawling and towering cityscape, barren yet claustrophobic at the same time. Japanese culture and people have overtaken San Francisco in a fashion likely to have been nightmarish for American audiences in the real-life 40’s and 50’s whose films the neo-noir style of Blade Runner builds its storytelling and style from.
By 2019 in the film, scientists and capitalists together developed genetically modified beings known as Replicants that were used as slaves in Off-world labor operations. Several of these genetically enhanced Replicants, in a mutiny, escaped to an Earth where they were outlawed. To find and stop them, retired Blade Runner and Replicant expert Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is called into action.
“I think, Sebastian. Therefore, I am”
The Replicants in Blade Runner are often misunderstood as being androids or cyborgs. It is crucial to understand that Replicants are neither. Being either of those things would imply that part or all of a Replicant is robotic. The Replicants, however, are pure cells and genetic material. The Tyrell corporation designed the latest “model” of Replicants, the Nexus 6, to be just like humans in nearly every way. The key difference is that Replicants do not have the same emotional capacities and functionalities as humans.
The Voight-Kampff Test
Blade Runner exemplifies the pinnacle of early 80’s science fiction. Futuristic landscapes and just-believable-enough pseudo-scientific explanations for marvelous technologies. The most important example is the Voight-Kampff test. A Voight-Kampff test can be administered to tell the difference between humans and Replicants. The “humanity indicator,” involuntary dilation of the pupil, is what the test observes. Only, when Nexus 6 Replicants are tested, it seems as though their pupils do dilate.
Has this generation of Replicants been so well developed that they actually do have emotional capacities? Or, is their intellect so great that, with the assistance of false memories programmed into their brains, the Replicants have been able to surmise what the appropriate emotional responses to given stimuli are supposed to be?
Dr. Tyrell (Eldon Turkel) explains that as the designer of the Replicants, he suspects that over time they will start to develop emotions. But that like children, the Replicants will not know how to properly express or process them. These Replicants likely have some of both very real emotions that they just do not understand combined with the mirroring of expressions they have learned match different situations. These details are key to deeply understanding the film just as well as they are key to immersion in the fantasy.
Who is Human?
The classic debate surrounding Blade Runner is over whether Deckard is himself a Replicant. To nip that question in the bud from the onset, the answer is not nearly as interesting as the question itself. Deckard is a very static character. He has virtually no character development from the beginning of the film to the end. The character’s actions are totally consistent throughout the film; he has a job to do, he is going to get it done, but he has a particular infatuation with Rachael (Sean Young) that supersedes his mission.
While this does lend to the dragging pace of the film’s first two-thirds, it is also a clearly purposeful choice rather than poor character building. In fact, the lack of development in Deckard’s character is ingeniously intentional. Deckard’s scenes are coarse and emotionless. The escaped Replicant leader and Blade Runner‘s main antagonist Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) always follows Deckard’s scenes with scenes that are lively and high-stakes scenes. Each time Batty graces the screen, the tone becomes noticeably more dynamic. The locations are exotic as opposed to the rainy, grey, and crowded scenes that feature Deckard. Even the music changes to a more jazz-inspired track when Batty takes on screen time.
The film seems to strongly imply that humanity’s ability to express and process emotions is its most human quality. The fact that Replicants are capable of doing the same horrifies humanity and drives them to do all they can to protect their supposed superiority, and it is through this stark contradiction that it becomes increasingly clear the humans’ assumptions may be wrong.
The Power of Euphemism
Humans enslaved Replicants, just as humans have done with beings they believed lesser to themselves for all of human history. It is apt then, that Blade Runners use the euphemism “retirement” to describe the execution of Replicants. This phrasing allows the humans to convince themselves they are simply putting a faulty tool out of commission rather than killing a living and sentient being. Further, the irony of the term itself is that retirement is supposed to be an earned choice workers make after years of service. By referring to the execution of Replicants as retirement, the humans exacerbate the point that the Replicants have no rights to choose when their service is complete. Throughout Blade Runner, euphemisms expertly arouse deep discomforts in order to illustrate the hardest truths the film strives to unveil.
Replicants have a four-year lifespan that virtually guarantees the beings cannot choose when they are ready to die. While for the humans it is a repressive measure to prevent Replicants from developing too far emotionally and realizing their enslavement, for Batty, it is one of the greatest factors in his developing and unstable emotional state.
The Abuse of Power
The abuses of power do not stop there. Few scenes are as uncomfortable as the scene where Deckard and Rachael become intimate. It must be made abundantly clear that consent under duress is not consent. Rachael clearly is not in an emotionally stable state. Rachael is a Replicant, she is only just developing emotional awareness as it is. She may not verbally say “no” to Deckard as he comes on to her, but all body language and other indications point towards her extreme discomfort and lack of desire for intimacy.
As despicable, cold, and unsettling as this scene is, though, it needs to be there. The uncomfortable relationship between Deckard and Rachael juxtapose the youthfully playful romantic tension between Batty and another escaped Replicant, Pris (Daryl Hannah).
Where Deckard is shown to have little if any emotional charge in his romanticism, Batty is full of life and purpose. Even their names juxtapose one another, Deckard being harsh and standard, while Batty has a softer sound and a whimsical name. By the time the film hits its climax, Deckard’s likability even as a person is very low.
Who is Free?
Just as strongly as Blade Runner is asking who is human, it also is asking, “who is free?” That question is left far more open. While the viewer is led to sympathize deeply with the Replicants and their situation, there is still the constant lingering fact that they are the super-powered antagonists.
Deckard had no choices. He had to come out of retirement to find the escaped Replicants. He had no choice but to kill each of them on sight. Rachael had no choices either. She was a Replicant. She had no choice but to run and hide. Rachael would have faced being retired by Blade Runners like every other Replicant if she stayed. She also had her autonomy taken from her as Deckard pressured her into a romantic relationship. Meanwhile, Batty and the rest of his escaped Replicant friends seemingly had a more nuanced relationship with freedom.
Created to be slaves, obviously, their freedom was supposed to be limited. Yet, the Replicants managed to escape and provide themselves the freedom they were kept from having. Nexus 6 Replicants have a four-year lifespan, but Batty provided himself the illusion of freedom. Batty believed he could be cured of that curse.
In Dr. Tyrell’s penthouse, the reflection of the candlelight in Batty’s eyes fills his pupils. The image shows that his pupils are stagnant and not dilating. The image is a reminder of the supposed lack of emotion that Replicants are assumed to possess. Batty breaks those expectations.
Those Who Believe They Are Free
Ultimately, Batty succumbed to his expiration date. But even in death, Batty chose to die on his own accord. He prolonged death as long as possible and refused to be retired by Deckard. It was perhaps here that Batty realized he was the one who was free. Deckard was the one who was enslaved.
The white dove Batty lets go as he dies encapsulates the entire predicament. White doves are genetically mutated, just like Replicants. They are albino versions of usually pigmented birds. The dove and Batty are kindred. They are both free.
The Cost of Freedom
Batty’s final living act is to save Deckard’s life. Rather than exacting revenge for killing Pris and the other Replicants, Batty grants Deckard the freedom to keep living. In one final act of humanity, Batty forgives his enemy so that Deckard and the film’s viewers might learn from his ordeal.
Blade Runner, while a challenging pace at times, excels at urging the viewer to question their own humanity and their own freedom. The film makes it increasingly obvious that the involuntary dilation of the pupil is not what measures humanity; how people interact with one another and treat them is. Freedom is not determined by an arrangement of genes or the circumstances of one’s birth. Freedom is determined by whether one is conscious enough to seek it and apply it to themselves.
Blade Runner is an excellent film that holds up in virtually every way 35 years later. Excellent from its visuals to its audio to its characters to its plot. As a new rendition or sequel to this classic film makes its way to theaters at the end of this year, hopefully, it matches not only in those qualities but manages to beg the same questions this film did for a new generation.