Human Bounty
Blade Runner and the Essence of Humanity

Christopher Dow

In a world where humanity is increasingly divided by barriers constructed of economic, social, cultural, and ethnic differences, the essential qualities that define humanness are called into question. Shakespeare often used the word “kind” to indicate the inner linkages that unite people, linkages that include socio-cultural background, mutual respect, and love. The concept of “kind” conferred affinity, equality, and justice upon similar sorts of people. In Blade Runner (1982), director Ridley Scott takes this idea a step further as he explores the essential qualities not just of “kind,” but of “humankind.”


Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a “blade runner,” a government assassin whose job is to kill androids, called Replicants, who have escaped from forced labor in off-Earth colonies and come to live in secret among humans on Earth. Replicants are not machines with superficial layers of apparent humanness that cover a metal, robotic frame. Instead, they are physiologically indistinguishable from humans. Only an expert, a blade runner, using sophisticated psychological tests, is able to tell if an individual is a Replicant.


Even with all their apparent humanness, Replicants are not considered human. Replicants, being manufactured, are superior to humans in certain aspects: primarily strength and agility but sometimes intelligence. But despite their sophisticated physical abilities, they also have extremely limited life spans—about seven years—due to the manufacturing process. Because they are, in essence, stuck in preadolescence, they demonstrate an extremely unsophisticated emotional development that is constantly at odds with their adult physiology and the adult jobs they are forced to do. Their arrested development also ensures a certain moral primitivism, and they can be violently murderous in the same way that a five- or six-year-old child can throw a temper tantrum. Only in their intelligence are they equal to humans, but in this they also reflect the entire spectrum of intelligence, from low to high. Thus, Replicants are the perfect devices to represent the dichotomy that resides within humanity itself—that of cold, mechanistic rationality set against bestiality.


Portrayal of Replicants as creatures at once sub- and superhuman yet walking in the guise of humans links them to the very real problems of racial and cultural hatred and prejudice. Deckard’s cop boss, Bryant (M. Emmet Walsh), calls the Replicants “skinjobs,” a pejorative term that Deckard points out is like calling a black man a “nigger.” (It also points to the superficiality of all such pejoratives because Replicants are not simply “skinjobs,” but indistinguishable from humans through and through.) Reinforcing this metaphor is the fact that Replicants are slaves used for forced labor in off-world colonies, just as African slaves were used for forced labor in the American colonies. Replicants become, in disguise, all oppressed minorities who have been subjugated and who have struggled for justice and recognition of their essential humanity.


Deckard, hunter and killer of Replicants, represents the force within humanity that seeks to dominate and destroy elements within humanity that are perceived as being abnormally different from a prescribed cultural and ethnic norm. But Deckard is not a self-assured assassin. At the opening of the film he is brooding and depressed, for he has begun to question the morality of killing Replicants. His doubts hinge on two major points: the Replicants are so indistinguishable from true humans that only an expert can tell the difference (often using intuition more than hard scientific data), and worse, Deckard has, himself, become a dehumanized machine programmed as a tool of slaughter.


Deckard is not allowed to continue to brood on his crimes against humanity, but is forced to face them. Four Replicants are walking the streets. If Deckard refuses to hunt them, Bryant threatens that Deckard will be treated like “little people,” or, further dehumanized and put into the category of slave. Deckard gets a description of the Replicants. They are Roy (Rutger Hauer), a sophisticated military combat model; Pris (Daryl Hannah), a pleasure model; Zora (Joanna Cassidy), another combat model; and Leon (Brion James), a worker unit.


During the course of his investigation, Deckard learns that the most sophisticated models of Replicants have implanted memories that are indistinguishable from genuine memories of real experiences and that are so consummate that they can even confer artistic ability, such as playing a musical instrument. These memories can be so thoroughly integrated within the personality that a sophisticated Replicant may not be aware that it is not actually human. Deckard discovers this fact when he accurately deduces that Rachel (Sean Young), a purported assistant to Replicant inventor Eldon Tyrell, is really a Replicant, though she is unaware of that fact.


Through his investigation, Deckard learns that two crucial characteristics stand in the way of simplistic categorization of Replicants as coldly mechanistic or bestial, and thus inhuman. First, their range of intelligence is equal to that of humans, thus giving them the power of reason to balance the coldly mechanistic with the bestial, just as it does in humans. Second, Deckard discovers that even the less sophisticated Replicants can develop emotions and feel the power of love, thus infusing their reason with a moral imperative.


Replicants, formerly defined through their contrast to humans, suddenly take on very human qualities. These qualities are defined through Deckard, the film’s major representative of humanity. Deckard’s human qualities should contrast sharply with the inhumanity of the Replicants, but the more that Deckard interacts on a personal level with the Replicants, the more the barriers between them lose focus. He discovers that any quality that distinguishes humans also distinguishes Replicants, and vice versa.


The androids regularly kill those they meet who are not their “kind,” but Deckard does no less, for he regularly kills every android with whom he comes in contact. But if both Deckard and the Replicants have negative emotions which emerge as murderous intolerance, both have positive emotions as well. Deckard and Rachel fall in love despite their differences, and their developing emotional attachment is mirrored by the emerging love between Roy and Pris. The kissing of the two couples underscores the parallel abilities and needs to love within both humans and Replicants.


Another aspect that further conjoins humans and Replicants is that both groups have a sense of personal history. Personal history is initially ascribed to humans, who have families with genuine historical backgrounds, evidenced by Deckard’s collection of family photographs. But, false as their recollections may be, the Replicants also have memories of family reinforced by photographs. Family photos are important to both Leon and Rachel, and even coldly calculating Roy acknowledges their importance when Leon loses his collection. Interestingly, although Deckard presumably has a real family, there is no sense that he has any more continuity beyond himself than do the Replicants. His sense of personal history is programmed by his photos no less than the Replicants’ memories have been programmed into them. In fact, Deckard is even more personally isolated than are the Replicants. They have each other, but Deckard has no one else who even pretends to care for him. He is alone and lonely.


And, on a deeper level, the Replicants do, in fact, have both genetic continuity and personal memories as genuine and unique as those of humans. Chew, the eye-maker (James Hong), tells Roy and Leon that he designed their eyes. Even more poignantly, the genetic designer, J. F. Sebastian (William Sanderson) proudly tells Roy, “There’s a little bit of me in you.” The Replicants are not machines, but have direct genetic continuity from all parts of humanity. And on a personal level, Roy tells Deckard, “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.” Roy has personal memories that are as unique, meaningful, and ineffable as those of any human.


Human excellence in art and philosophy are matched by the androids. Deckard, as human artist, plays the piano, but Rachel also plays, and does it more beautifully than he. Philosophically, the androids show an identity corresponding to human. Deckard’s brooding considerations on the morality of killing Replicants is matched by even the most stupid of the androids, Leon. This emerges when Leon delivers a philosophical diatribe on how living in fear heightens the sense of self and the joys and beauty of living, while at the same time giving a practical demonstration by beating up Deckard and trying to kill him.


Human Deckard feels pain and fear, first in his encounter with Leon, then later when he battles Roy in the deserted apartment building. But his fear already has been echoed by Zora’s desperation as she flees from him through the crowded streets, by Leon’s diatribe on the subject, and by Roy’s very similar statements during the final battle. Deckard’s human pain also finds its counterpart during the final battle in Roy’s own obvious suffering. And the fear is mirrored in Rachel’s angst and sorrow when she discovers she is a Replicant and the love she shows Deckard, even to the extent of killing Leon, one of her own “kind.”


But the essence of humanity rests in overcoming fear and showing both compassion and personal evolution. Zora demonstrates these qualities when she does not kill Deckard after she knocks him out, though, as a combat model, she could easily have finished him off. And she obviously wanted to, but her human compassion held her back. And she showed personal evolution when she trades in the profession of soldier, or professional killer, for that of erotic dancer, or professional lover. This change indicates that Replicants, just as humans, have a personal predilection for behavior that runs deeper than societal expectations or training.


Both Deckard and Roy show extraordinary courage in the face of fear: Roy in his attempt to confront his creator, and Deckard in his desperate climb up the face of the building. Deckard’s climb testifies not only to his courage, but to his intense will to live, as do Zora’s panicked flight and the furious hammering of Pris’s feet on the floor as she lies prematurely dying. But even more telling is that Roy demonstrates honor equal to the best in humans when he saves Deckard’s life even after Deckard has made repeated attempts to kill him. This is the ultimate expression of the will to live, expressed through Roy’s desire to preserve the integrity of his immortal soul. That soul, symbolized by the dove Roy clutches to his breast, flies into the blue heavens above the polluted clouds of the city as Roy dies, indicating that his soul is, indeed, as pure and immortal as that of any human.


In the final analysis, those who are human are those who recognize the humanity of others. Both Deckard and Roy recognize this truth at the conclusion of their battle, and though Roy dies, Deckard retains knowledge of it when he returns to his apartment to rescue Rachel. They escape, carrying with them an acceptance of their mutual humanity that had been sparked by their love and fanned into flame through Deckard’s repeated encounters with his own humanity in the faces of others.

Copyright 2020 by Phosphene Publishing Company

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