By David Reynolds
With news (or rumours) of a Blade Runner sequel on the not-too-distant horizon, I’ve been revisiting the first film. Let me say, I’m a fan of both the theatrical version as well as the director’s cut of the film, but my thoughts here reflect on the director’s vision of the film. The essay that follows is a revised take on a presentation I delivered for a class with Chris Lockett at Memorial University back in 2006.
Being post-human is a complicated matter. What does it mean to be post-human, anyway? One cannot consider this matter without first contemplating what it means to be human. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner confronts these questions and portrays the post-human condition as one consisting of degradation and the search for identity.
A brief synopsis of Blade Runner is helpful in considering the post-human condition. (NOTE: Spoilers aplenty ahead, of course.) The film, directed by Scott, was released in 1982 and stars Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Darryl Hannah, and Sean Young. Based on Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the story is set in a cyberpunk-stylized future where androids, called Replicants, are used as slave labour for dangerous jobs on other planets. The protagonist, Rick Deckard, is an ex-blade runner, a member of a special police unit who had orders to kill any trespassing Replicant. He is forced by police to track down and kill, or “retire,” four trespassing Replicants on Earth: Roy Batty, Pris, Leon Kowalski, and Zhora. These rogue Replicants have returned to Earth to find their maker. Through encounters with various Replicant designers, Roy and Pris come close to finding the answers they seek. However, when Roy finally confronts Eldon Tyrell, the essential creator of the Nexus 6 Replicants, he has no answers to satisfy Roy and only reaffirms that his death is both inevitable and immanent. Meanwhile, Deckard has dispatched the other three Replicants, and he has fallen in love with another Replicant, Rachael. During the climactic confrontation between Roy and Deckard, Roy reveals his insights of self-awareness and reflection before he dies. The film closes as Deckard reunites with Rachael, but before they flee to the north he receives a mysterious origami unicorn from Gaff, his police liason.
Next, before considering the post-human condition, we ought to reflect upon what it means to be human. This is not a simple matter, however, and it has preoccupied philosophers’ thoughts for thousands of years. Protagoras is famous for claiming that “Man is the measure of all things.” Socrates half-heartedly defined humankind as “featherless bipeds.” When Plato pronounced Socrates’ definition of man in his Academy, he was highly praised for the insight. However, Diogenes the Cynic quickly plucked a chicken and, bringing it to the Academy, said, “This is Plato’s man.” After this incident the caveat “with broad flat nails” was added to Socrates’ definition. Aristotle’s description of man is more serious. He proposes that humans are “communal animals.” As such, Aristotle emphasizes humanity’s social nature. During the Enlightenment period, Immanuel Kant posits, “Man is distinguished above all animals by his self-consciousness, by which he is a ‘rational animal.'” Here, Kant asserts humanity’s faculty of reason is our defining characteristic. In the 19th century, Karl Marx defined man as a “labouring animal.” Marx continues to categorize humanity as animals, like Aristotle and Kant, but he claims our distinguishing essence is the struggle within class structures. Furthermore, Christianity holds that humans are God’s creation and made in His image, while Charles Darwin argues that we have descended from millennia of evolution from amoebas. According to some of the strictest medical and legal criteria for humanity, people in vegetative states or those with severe mental illnesses may not qualify as humans whereas monkeys would. Effectively, the more vague the criteria for humanity, the more inclusive the group becomes. However, with more rigorous criteria the boundaries of humanity become more exclusive, to the extent that some people are not considered human. It is clear that what constitutes humanity is a matter of debate. Nevertheless, ideas such as those above help us contextualize the issue.
In this light, consider the post-human. Broadly speaking, post-humans are those who have somehow gone beyond being human, whether that is through evolution or augmentation. So, where can the distinction be drawn between humans and post-humans? People undergo organ transplants and cosmetic surgery all the time. Despite these modifications they remain human. A prosthetic leg is a mechanical replacement for a biological leg – it may look and function quite similar to an organic leg – yet these people remain human. Ponder this: is a blind woman’s cane an extension of her body? Are the cars we drive part of who we are? What about voice boxes? phones? computers? the Internet? Science fiction deals with cyborgs, humans with technological modifications, quite frequently. But, aren’t there people living today, all around us, who resemble such a description?
In Blade Runner, the Replicants are effectively post-human. The Nexus 6 Replicants are described as “[beings] virtually identical to humans… and at least equal in intelligence to the genetic engineers who created them.” Later, Bryant describes the Replicants to Deckard as follows:
They were designed to copy human beings in every way, except their emotions. The designers reckoned that after a few years they might develop their own emotional responses… well, hate, love, fear, anger, envy… so they built in a fail safe… [a] four-year lifespan.
The Replicants are created to emulate human physiology and rationality. If left at this stage, we may still consider them machines, like organic computers. They are not, generally, created with prescribed emotions, but they may develop emotional responses on their own, through experience – acting and reacting to stimuli in the world. When Rachael – a rare model of Replicant who was conditioned with a lifetime of memories, experiences, and emotions – takes the Voight-Kampff test she undergoes about a hundred questions before Deckard can determine a result. This reflects the difficulty in determining the line between human and Replicant. It is at this stage that the line between human and post-human is most definitely distorted. As the Replicants’ rationality is fused with emotion they become cognizant of philosophy and poetry. They display a keen sense of insightful self-reflection. This is also evident when Pris’ trick for Sebastian, a befriended Replicant designer, is to quote Rene Descartes’ indubitable certainty, “I think, Sebastian, therefore I am.” The Replicants do not appear to merely repeat philosophy like this as, say, a parrot would. Rather, they seem to genuinely understand and reflect upon it. This is a feat we tend to believe is beyond the realm of possibility for machines.
Regardless of their degrees of humanity, the post-human life of the Replicants in Blade Runner is not all sunshine and lollipops. Theirs is an oppressed existence. They are considered to be far beneath human concerns, and they have fewer rights than any animal. Pamela Anderson does not appear in any advertisements to help save the Replicants. Their reason for being is to be expendable slave labourers. Once some of the Replicants gained an insight into the nature of their existence as mere slaves, they react like any other oppressed group would – they rise against their oppressors. The four rogue Replicants that return to Earth are in search of answers from their creators. Their questions are the same as any of us would ask, given the chance.
As the protagonist, Deckard, hunts down his prey, we view the narrative through his lens. If our sympathy for the Replicants has not been nurtured earlier in the film, it certainly grows at the film’s climax, when Deckard himself is forced to confront the Replicants’ humanity. Since Roy reveals his insight to Deckard before dying, when he could have killed the blade runner, we must accept that the Replicants’ plight is not dissimilar to our own. Finally, it is important to note that Deckard, too, is revealed to be a Replicant at the end of the film. Clues troughout the film allude to this, such as the collection of pictures as well as Rachael’s questions about mistakenly killing humans and taking the Voight-Kampf test himself. However, it is Graff’s origami unicorn which reveals with certainty that Deckard is a Replicant. How else would Gaff know about Deckard’s dreams the same way Deckard knew Rachael’s memories? Since Deckard is revealed to be a Replicant it shifts his own perspective out of the human realm of reason, but the audience is led to believe his perspective was human up until this revelation. This further blurs the line between humans and post-humans.
In closing, being post-human is very much like being human. The distinction between the two is ambiguous at its best. The plight faced by Replicants is indicative of human ignorance and arrogance. Blade Runner portrays humanity as considering themselves the owners of the Replicants, as if they are no more than property. Nevertheless, these beings are intelligent, conscious, and self-aware. They ought to be treated ethically and equally, whether they are “human” or not.
Scott, Ridley. Blade Runner The Director’s Cut. Warner Bros. Pictures: Burbank, California, 2006. DVD.