"More human than human": Ridley Scott's Blade Runner

Perhaps it goes without saying that the best science fiction stories are the ones that present us with ideas about our humanity, rather than just pursuing the logic of technological futurism. The impending release of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus this Friday prompted me to revisit Scott’s previous foray into science fiction approximately 30 years ago: his 1982 masterpiece, Blade Runner. I want to offer some, perhaps obvious, ruminations upon the questions I see the film posing, such as: What does it mean to be human? Who is the true protagonist of the film? What is our relationship and ethical responsibility to our creations?

To me, some of the most intriguing philosophical aspects of Blade Runner are the ways that the filmpushes the limits of the definition of human. The definition is complicated through the relationships of the characters, both the replicant “skin jobs” and homo sapiens. The world of Blade Runner, like Alien,is an ambiguous one, in which characters must navigate the interplay of human vs. the non-human, and the lurking threat of monstrosity; in it, the ontological status of one’s humanity is no guarantee of non-presence of the monstrous. Such is the case in Scott’s first science fiction feature, Alien, where the threats are as various as the android, Ash, and the thoroughly “Other” xenomorph which bursts from within the chest of one of the protagonists.

Monstrosity in Blade Runner is slightly more ambiguous. Roy Batty is in fact a fairly perfect “human” specimen: strong, handsome, and erudite. There is also the monstrous uncanny of Sebastian’s creations, the strange and ungainly precursors to the replicants he designs for Dr. Tyrell. Monstrosity is also present in the human characters. See for instance the coldness with which Deckard, along with Bryant and Gaff, respond to the assignment of “retiring” the replicants; the use of the verb absolving them of any moral wrongdoing. To say “kill” would be to grant the replicants some semblance of autonomy, even if merely the status of a living being; to “murder” them would be to tacitly admit their humanity.

The status of the replicants in Blade Runner is not unprecedented in science fiction. In fact it is a reworking of one of the oldest science fiction stories: the story of Frankenstein, or “The Modern Prometheus” as Mary Shelley subtitled her novella (the more one probes these things the more connections one sees across Scott’s science fiction films). Dr. Tyrell creates his replicants with fixed life spans of four years in order to prevent them from getting out of control. Like Victor Frankenstein, Tyrell is complicit in creating a lifeform for which he will not be responsible. Batty’s plea to Tyrell is simple, “I want more life, father!” One could interpret Batty’s subsequent murder of Tyrell as justified punishment for Tyrell’s promethean hubris and refusal to grant Batty more life. Batty’s final speech about all he has seen in his admittedly brief life and all that will be lost, “Like tears in the rain,” after he has saved Deckard’s life (while Deckard has been trying to kill them the whole time) forces the viewer to question his or her initial assumptions about the replicants humanity. Batty’s sheer enjoyment of life, desire to live, and willingness to show mercy is perhaps more “human” than the callous and drained existence most of the human characters live out. As a new version of Frankenstein’s monster, perhaps Batty is more frightening for all the ways that he does seem to surpass the human. Such is Batty’s status that he could be seen as a kind of hero of the film, though a tragic one done in by flaws that are not his own fault. The logic of how we deal with our creations, whether clones, AI, or the kind of advanced combination of bio- and computer-engineering that the replicants represent, is already present in any kind of reproductive ethics, stressing the importance of Batty calling Tyrell “father.”[1]

The standing order to “retire” the replicants may seem like a moral preservation of human identity, drawing a clear line between what is and is not human. But it is an abdication of responsibilities. The solution for pacifying the new breed of replicants raises another ethical quandary; the new replicants receive the implantation of false memories, so that the replicant Rachael doesn’t even know she is a replicant. She believes at first that she is Tyrell’s niece. How then do we deal with an “other” who doesn’t even know they are an other? Such dilemmas further blur the lines between human and non-human.

One of the things that Ridley Scott sought to heighten in his 2006 “Final Cut” was the suggestion that Deckard himself may indeed be a replicant. Whether one finds the suggestion lends the film a stronger ambiguity in terms of judging Deckard’s actions and his relationship to both Batty and Rachael, it is unnecessary in order to show that the line between the humans and replicants is not as clearly marked as one might initially think. If anything, leaving Deckard, who has displayed callousness and an obsession with the past - all the supposed trademarks of the replicants he hunts, as a human makes the thin line between him and the replicants more poignant than if the explanation is simply that he is also a replicant. If anything his encounters with the replicants, both Roy and Rachael, have made him “more human.”

Despite its broad influence on the science fiction cinema that would follow (especially in set design and special effects), Blade Runner remains very unlike other science fiction films. It’s languorous pacing and lack of closure highlights the ambiguity of its world. One could see it as incorporating some of the modes of art cinema practice into the mainstream science fiction film. Will Prometheus follow suit, or will it be a bit more conventional? Either way one hopes that it will offer food for thought on par with Scott’s last science fiction opus, with its resonant title and its own android character played by Michael Fassbender. But perhaps that’s too much to ask.

[1] In earlier cuts of the film, Batty’s line is ambiguous: either “father” or “fucker.”

Blade Runner (1982 [2006 Final Cut])

Directed by Ridley Scott; screenplay by Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples based on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Phillip K. Dick; starring Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Edward James Olmos, M. Emmet Walsh, Daryl Hannah