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Blade Runner and the Essence of Humanity
by Christopher Dow
In a world where humanity is increasingly divided by barriers constructed of racial, ethnic, religious, cultural, social, and economic 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 race and ethnicity, socio-cultural background, mutual support and respect, and love. The concept of “kind” conferred affinity, equality, and justice upon similar sorts of people. In Blade Runner (1982)*, director Ridley Scott and screenwriters Hampton Fancher and David Peoples take this idea a step farther as they explore 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 or warfare 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, à la a Terminator. 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—and their intelligence reflects the entire spectrum of human intelligence, from low to high. So perhaps there is a fear factor at play here: humans fearing they will be replaced by Replicants in a silent, internal, and implacable invasion. But despite their sophisticated physical abilities, Replicants also have extremely limited life spans due to unsolvable factors in the manufacturing process that cause their bodies to shut down after about seven years.
Because they are stuck in psychological preadolescence, Replicants exhibit an extremely unsophisticated emotional development that is constantly at odds with their adult physiology and intelligence and the brutal and violent adult jobs they were designed and built to do, either as laborers in dangerous situations or as soldiers. The are, essentially, child laborers and soldiers. Their arrested development ensures a certain moral primitivism, and they can be violently murderous in the same way that a three-year-old child can throw a temper tantrum. Witness the overreaction of Leon (Brion James) in the opening scene, where he shoots a blade runner who simply asks him about his relationship with his mother. Thus, Replicants are the perfect devices to represent the dichotomy that resides within humanity itself—that of cold, mechanistic rationality set against emotional 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. Right up front, 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.” The metaphor is further reinforced by 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, far removed from their homelands. Replicants become, in disguise, all oppressed minorities who have been subjugated and who have struggled for justice and recognition of their essential humanity. This is ironically set off by Roy’s appearance and character. Even the Aryan Superman can be downtrodden and his dreams squashed by hatred and bigotry. However, the pejorative also points to the superficiality of all such pejoratives because Replicants are not simply “skinjobs,” but are indistinguishable from humans through and through. If Replicants are skinjobs, then, ultimately, so too are humans born of woman.
Deckard, hunter and killer of Replicants, represents the cultural, political, and economic forces that seek to dominate and destroy elements within society that are perceived as being different from a prescribed cultural, ethnic, and behavioral norm. Or rather, Deckard is the tool of those forces. And like any tool, he is forced to come into intimate contact with the workpiece—in this case, to directly interface with and understand the “other” in order to find its weaknesses and use them to destroy it. But in understanding the “other” and tracking it down, Deckard little realizes that he will ultimately come to identify with it on a visceral level, leading him to become “divergent”—something other than the norm or even the “other.” Something that might find its genesis in both is beyond either. On top of that—or perhaps because of it—he is not a self-assured assassin. In his early scenes, he is brooding and depressed, at once bound by a system he hates and unable to escape it. Although his thoughts have not yet fully gelled, he has begun to question the morality of killing Replicants. His doubts balance on one single pivot: the Replicants are so indistinguishable from true humans that only an expert like himself can tell the difference, often using intuition more than hard scientific data.
The test to determine if one is a Replicant or not is, ultimately, subjective. “What reading would you get if you tested a human?” Tyrell asks Deckard. There is no final, solid, and indisputable parameter, such as an established weight or measurement, that can determine if the results of the test are valid or merely an opinion or assumption on the part of the blade runner. Hence, there is no way to pragmatically determine how many people have been mistaken for Replicants and murdered as a consequence. Or how many Replicants have gone free to to potentially menace society. “Have you ever retired someone by mistake?” Rachel asks Deckard, and it is a question he cannot answer. Or rather, it is a question he can answer as he begins to realize that everyone he’s killed might have been a mistake and that he has become a dehumanized machine programmed as a tool of slaughter and thus has no moral high ground from which to eliminate his targets. He is nothing but a government-paid serial killer, and his targets appear to be as innocently human and desiring of freedom as he is.
Deckard is not allowed to simply brood on his crimes against humanity, however, 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—or even Replicant. 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, a worker unit.
During the course of his investigation, Deckard learns that the newer, more sophisticated models of Replicants have implanted memories that are indistinguishable from genuine memories of real experiences and that are so consummate that they even can 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), purported to be the niece of Replicant inventor Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel), is really a Replicant, though she is unaware of it.
Through his investigation, Deckard learns that 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. Batty is intelligent enough to discuss details of android manufacture with Tyrell, despite the fact that he is, in reality, only about seven years old, and during that short life, he also served as a warrior fighting off-world. Leon’s intelligence is much more basic, but whatever a Replicants’ individual levels of intelligence, they all have the power of reason to help balance the coldly mechanistic with the bestial, just as do humans. Second, Deckard discovers that even an unsophisticated worker unit like Leon can develop emotions and feel the power of loyalty. Deckard can’t help but realize that the Replicants are infused with a moral imperative that he, himself, lacks. They might kill, but it is in the name of freedom, whereas, Deckard kills simply as a job.
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 differences lose focus. He discovers that any quality that defines humans also defines Replicants, and vice versa.
It is true that the androids regularly kill those they meet who are not their “kind,” but Deckard does no less, killing every android he comes in contact with 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 emotional desires and needs within both humans and Replicants—and between the two “species,” as well.
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 real families with genuine historical backgrounds, evidenced by Deckard’s collection of family photographs. But false as their recollections might be, the Replicants also have indelible memories of family reinforced by photographs. Family photos are important to both Leon and Rachel, and even coldly calculating Roy acknowledges their importance after 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 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—have bonded with each other as a family—but Deckard has no one who even pretends to care for him. He is alone and lonely.
It is clear that the Replicants also have both genuine personal memories and genetic continuity. Roy tells Deckard, “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.” His personal memories are as unique, meaningful, and ineffable as those of any human, and further, his family history is as unique as those of humans, and even includes a genetic inheritance. 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 Roy has just visited two of his uncles before going to see his father, Tyrell, to learn more of his family background—including his family’s genetic predispositions for certain diseases.
Human excellence in art and philosophy also are matched by the androids. Deckard, as human artist, plays the piano, but Rachel also plays and does it more beautifully than he. This, alone, demonstrates her essential humanity. Philosophically, the androids show an identity corresponding to human. Deckard’s brooding considerations on the morality of killing Replicants is matched by even the lowest-level 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 Pris’s caution as Deckard hunts her amid a forest of human and humanoid figures, 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 physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual suffering. And the fear is further mirrored in Rachel’s angst and sorrow when she discovers she is a Replicant. She kills Leon not to save Deckard out of either principle or love. It’s too soon for those. Instead, she does it because she is afraid that she is a Replicant, and Deckard is the only one who can tell her the truth. Having believed that she was Tyrell’s niece, she is a little like the the belle of a Southern ball who has just discovered she is a quadroon.
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 probably should have as a merely practical consideration. She obviously wanted to, but her growing human compassion held her back. And she shows personal evolution when she trades in the profession of soldier, or public killer, for that of erotic dancer, or public lover. This change indicates that Replicants, just as humans, have a predilection for personal behavior that runs deeper than societal expectations or training. Rachel falling in love with Deckard only underscores the idea that love is the force that can unify the opposites in humankind, just as it unifies man and woman.
Both Deckard and Roy show extraordinary courage in the face of fear: Roy in his quest to confront his creator, and Deckard in his desperate climb up the face of the building during the climax. 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, letting out the entire energy of her unlived life in one frenzied spasm. 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 and has murdered all his comrades, including his budding love, Pris. This is the ultimate expression of the will to live, demonstrated through Roy’s desire to preserve the integrity of his immortal soul. That soul, new-found and 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. Perhaps more pure than most because he lived a principled life.
Reinforcing the theme of human equality almost from the start is the mounting evidence that Deckard is, himself, a Replicant. Over the decades since the film’s initial release, much argument has been made on both sides of this equation. Initially, I was of the opinion that Deckard was indeed a Replicant, and there are strong reasons to back up this conclusion. Plus, it was an interesting twist to contemplate. Even during the film’s initial release, when cuts eliminated some of the evidence supporting this assumption, it was clear that Deckard could very likely be a Replicant. Like them, he performs the dirtiest work of society by serving as an assassin. He is isolated, and the only sense of any family he might have comes from the few photos on his piano, all of which are so old as to be meaningless on a personal level. Are they present simply to amplify and reinforce implanted memories?
Further, even after Roy mangles Deckard’s hand, Deckard continues his desperate attempt to complete his mission. And he does so despite the seeming impossibility that he could ever succeed and the distinct possibility that Roy will kill him first. His climb up the side of the building in the rain is not simply desperate. It shows the kind of superhuman tenacity, determination, courage, and strength that Roy has exhibited all along. And then, Roy rescues Deckard and lifts him onto the roof. This is a singular act for Roy, who has killed every human he has come into direct contact with. Does he not let Deckard fall to his death or kill him outright because he has gained compassion, or is it because he recognizes that Deckard is in reality a Replicant—one of his own “kind?”
And, of course, there is the origami unicorn left by Ganz (James Edward Olmos) on the steps of Deckard’s apartment, a clear sign he is aware of Deckard’s unicorn dream, which would be possible only if he knew it had been implanted in Deckard’s memory. Also unmistakable is that Deckard’s eyes exhibit the same golden sheen as the eyes of the Replicants. Finally, capping everything off, is the idea that only blade runners can distinguish Replicants from humans. Like the old saying goes: It takes one to know one.
A lot also has been made in this regard of the so-called “fifth Replicant.” When Bryant first assigns Deckard to the case, he says there are five skinjobs running around, but during the course of the story, Deckard encounters only four, and the fifth one is completely ignored. Many commenters believe this is proof positive that there is a fifth Replicant, and that Replicant is Deckard. But according to the filmmakers, this is an artifact from a working copy of the script, in which there were originally five Replicants. One of those characters was dropped from the script, but by then, the scene with Bryant instructing Deckard to go after five replicants, instead of four, had already been filmed and was not reshot due to time and financial constraints. But let’s say that the presence of the fifth Replicant remains. Is it truly Deckard, or is you? Or maybe me?
More recently, I’ve backed off the Deckard-as-Replicant hypothesis, not because it isn’t valid or possible, but because it doesn’t matter. The whole point is to conflate Deckard, who we initially take to be human, with the Replicants, who we initially take to be inhuman, mix them up, shake them out, and show that they are the same in all points. Human is human, whatever its source.
In the final analysis, those who are human are those who—like Replicant recognizing Replicant—recognize the humanity in others. Both Deckard and Roy realize this truth at the conclusion of their battle, and though Roy dies, Deckard retains this knowledge 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.” Their future is uncertain, but they are no longer bounded by artificial constraints on what it means to be human.
* The version of Blade Runner referred to in this article is the 2007 release, subtitlted, The Final Cut.