Science fiction can take the concerns of its time as well as timeless concerns and present them to an audience in a unique way as to appear innocuous. British novelist H.G Wells played a huge role in jumpstarting this tradition. His works dealt with themes as diverse as man’s struggle versus technology, man’s fear of the unknown, and identity crisis like The Invisible Man (1897). Jules Verne successfully foretold of the submarine, man’s ability to fly across the world, and space travel. E.M Forster in his novella, The Machine Stops, rather sagely wrote about a future society that would rely so heavily on technology that it would eventually be unable to function without it. The works of the early science fiction writers bore a complexity and a weight that made it a premier genre for boundary pushing and exploration. Great science fiction has always challenged what society accepts, explored what is impossible to explore, and posed questions that aren’t often asked.
Science fiction film had its holy grail as early as 1927 in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. In its dystopian contours, we have a literal embodiment of high class to low class society; the haves and the have-nots. Following its protagonist, Freder, from the high class pleasure garden to the oppressive urban sprawl of low society as he searches for the women he’s infatuated with, Metropolis introduced both political (social injustice, societal hierarchy) and philosophical (the nature of men, what separates man from machine) themes to science fiction film, and became the benchmark for all the films that followed.
This is where Blade Runner, with its vast urban dystopia, picks up, reflecting a sort of decline of human emotion. Based on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, it was the first of Phillip K. Dick’s novels to be adapted for the silver screen. The novel, like classic works of noir, both in the form of literature and film, dealt with issues of identity, and the filmmaking team spotlight this aspect of it through noir-fused sets and style; venetian blinds, hardboiled detective, dames who mean trouble but also have a soft side, and even voice over depending on which version you watch.
Dick’s story of a seemingly obdurate cop seeking to kill six near-perfect androids would become a film marvel in the hands of director Ridley Scott (fresh off of his first sci-fi hit, Alien), and, despite many glaring changes in the book’s transfer to film-the significance of animals is made vague and the principal character of J.R Isadora is lost completely-the main theme or question of what it means to be human is captured beautifully and provocatively. Blade Runner is a heavily philosophical film with undercurrents of the religious coloring its quiet moments. Is it any wonder then that upon release, the movie saw middling returns at the box office and was misunderstood by many prominent critics? Famed film critic Pauline Kael wrote, “It forces passivity on you,” in her review for The New Yorker. Janet Maslin for the New York Times opined, “A film that has neither strong characters nor a strong story.” And Roger Ebert said of Ridley Scott, “He seems more concerned with creating his film worlds than populating them with plausible characters, and that’s the trouble this time. Blade Runner is a stunningly interesting visual achievement, but a failure as a story. The movie has the same trouble as the replicants: Instead of flesh and blood, its dreams are of mechanical men.” Twenty five years later, however, Ebert re-reviewed the film adding it to his canon of “Great Movies”, remarking on his earlier quibbles, “This seems a strange complaint, given that so much of the movie concerns who is, and is not, human, and what it means to be human anyway.” I believe this point is where any analysis and discussion of Blade Runner beyond the spectacular superficial elements should begin. While many of the themes of Do Androids Dream of Sleep are still present within Scott’s text, the latter feels more concentrated compared to the former which felt to me like a self-published work; brilliant but without the mark of a real editor.
Blade Runner stars Harrison Ford as Rick Deckard, a former detective with Los Angeles’ Police Department, who is brought back to expose and hunt down five replicants (androids bioengineered to perfection). Deckard gives every indication of being the hard-worn but duty bound cop; incorruptible and without any apparent life outside of being a cop. On the trail of the replicants-Leon, Zhora, Pris- led by the charismatic and uber-Aryan Roy, Deckard is soon corrupted by Rachael. He knows she is an android, and finds himself increasingly drawn to her against his better judgment. Deckard finds and terminates Zhora, Pris, gets help from Rachael with Leon, and meets up with Roy on the rooftops in an extended climax with bizarre spiritual implications. He then runs off with Rachael into the unknown, and the credits roll over the uncertainty of our first viewing. But Blade Runner gets better every time you watch it. It is the greatest embodiment of the question, what makes someone human?
Before looking at how the film addresses this question with the replicants and Deckard, I’d first like to point out its use of men and women in broad strokes to convey this theme. For one thing, the humans in the movie are highly individualistic, and that is a generous way of describing their solemn, lonely existences. Consider the character of J.F Sebastian (played by William Sanderson). As a genetic designer, he is one of three men responsible for the creation of the replicants. Pris accompanies him to his home, which is filled with animated toys that keep him company. His lone source of human contact seems to be the occasional chess game with the boss, Tyrell. He works constantly. Consorts with inanimate objects. Plays chess. Sits alone his massive apartment. This hardly feels like the life of a flesh and blood man. His appearance too lends itself to conspiracy theories of him being an android. The blood in his cheeks feels painted on and he wears the same clothes in the few scenes he occupies. But I interpret his solitude as an example of how isolated humanity is, and how the androids have picked up where humans have dropped the ball.
Similarly, there is the master himself. The grand designer, sitting alone atop his own private tower of Babylon. Again we have the motif of humanity isolating itself; cutoff from other humans, cutoff from relationships, cutoff from emotions. Dr. Elden Tyrell is the creator; the life-giver. Before I get to the religious connotations of that, let us first look at him as simply another human in the story. No wife; no children; no house pets. He is married to his work, and I believe he says something about Rachael being like a daughter or something. What does it say about humanity when people are seeking artificial means of forming relationships rather than organically finding love and companionship? That is if they are even seeking, which most characters are not. How many married couples are seen in the film? How many children? I don’t remember any, and I would guess the notions of family and togetherness have migrated to Off-world colonies along with the people of means. Sci-fi films have long envisioned nightmarish futures and dystopias, but Blade Runner’s vision isn’t as off-kilter visually compared to the present. Its nightmare concerns the muted emotional aspects of humanity under the influence of some unknown conformity. The third human responsible for the androids is Hannibal Chew. He rounds out and drives home the point about the characters we can most safely assume are humans, as he too is seen working robotically at his work designing the eyes of the androids. Is there nothing left for humans but their work? We don’t get any sense of three dimensionality out of any human characters. We get no sense of them aspiring to anything.
Now we come to Rick Deckard, who I like to believe is a replicant, but will read as a human for this discussion. He lives to work, and the only hint of extracurricular interests come about halfway through the film when we see he has a piano in his apartment. Deckard in that same scene quite cruelly breaks down Rachael’s faith in her own memory and identity; memory and identity also being crucial themes. He proves to her that her memories are manufactured, and the film later whispers questions about his memories when another cop leaves an origami folding of a unicorn that harkens back to Deckard’s dreams on the subject. How much can anyone trust their own memory?
Deckard has a fool proof way of identifying androids. No matter how convincing, how thorough the established illusion, he can identify a replicant based on their inability to empathize. To this effect, he administers the Voight-Kampff test described in the film’s original press kit as, “A very advanced form of lie detector that measures contractions of the iris muscle and the presence of invisible airborne particles emitted from the body. The bellows were designed for the latter function and give the machine the menacing air of a sinister insect. The VK is used primarily by Blade Runners to determine if a suspect is truly human by measuring the degree of his empathic response through carefully worded questions and statements.” He needles his subjects about various strange things happening to animals and gauges their response. This sets up a very convenient line between humans and androids-humans can empathize, replicants cannot. Except this delineation falls apart throughout the film. Take the scene where Zhora is retired by Deckard for example. She is gunned down in the street with dozens of people breezing by. They keep moving. Most significantly, at the film’s end Roy saves the man who killed his friends, and tried to kill him. Is this a sign of grace from a being that has killed its creator and become its own judge of life and death?
In the novel, maybe the movie as well, Tyrell asks Deckard if he has ever used the Voight-Kampff test on himself. Aside from just being another occurrence where the text plays with our conception of who is and isn’t a human, the moment also points to a level of reflexivity that is lacking in the human characters but present in the androids. In essence, does Deckard ever question? Does he ever doubt? Apparently not for much of the film, until Rachael introduces it to his life. We see Deckard struggle with his emotional ties to someone he needs to kill, plus the physical aspects of that situation. Then, in the love scene in the apartment, he struggles to remain detached while convincing her that she is not human. He appears to waver a little as a result of his action, and I think we can see him empathize with her and her newfound knowledge. The combination of these doubts and frustrations lead to him taking her forcefully. It is an unusually attractive, aberrant, problematic, enigmatic scene as at a base visual level we have an attractive male movie star forcing his way with an attractive woman that raises all kinds of questions of consent and misogyny. For me the scene represents Deckard’s awakening, wherein you have a male character flooded with an overwhelming load of novel feelings not knowing what to do with them, and trying to convince himself that she is merely a tool that can be used as needed. You can see how that comes close to not distant enough levels of misogyny present in films past, but here, I feel there is dire subtext that makes the segment absolutely necessary. First, as repulsive a notion as it may be depending on your reading of the scene, this is the first time where we can begin to empathize with Deckard. He is flesh and blood after all, and he accepts her gift of love (albeit in a brutal manner) at long last. The scene also harkens back to classic noir where women are constantly getting pushed around, and having to prove their angelic interiors to violent brooding male protagonists. We like those male protagonists and begin to like Deckard precisely for those flaws that are so apparent, because it makes the characters more human.
Next, we have Roy, the super being/replicant/more human than human/Christ-figure.“We’re not computers, Sebastian, we’re physical,” he says. He is dying. He feels his time coming to an end and wants more. This is a deeply human trait, and because his time is so finite, he searches for his maker for answers. The implications of this are readily apparent and separate the androids from the humans in a way that feels inverted. His sporadic utterances throughout the film move between ominous and wise, when he says things like, “Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it? That’s what it is to be a slave.” I could picture him easily having followers in our society. There is the crystal clear subtext in the film of Roy being a Christ-figure. Not a metaphor or a direct representation of Christ but someone who has a certain resemblance. His creator, Tyrell, informs Deckard that the motto in making the replicants was “more human than human,” which itself bears an apt description of the Christian conception of Christ. He experiences high levels of pain, sees the worst men have to offer, inspires others to follow, and ultimately allows his worst enemy to live, before he, himself, dies. For Roy, it is not a question of can he do what humans can, because he can do anything a human can better and to the extreme.
John Salzi, in his Rough Guide to Sci-fi Movies, talks about science fiction’s ability to blend genres, styles and subgenres. He says, “Science fiction does not contain itself to neat categories, and science fiction fans do not content themselves with one genre of film.” This points to what makes science fiction a genre capable of immense depth. Blade Runner at once rediscovered and reset the mold, and in its wake we’ve seen other great films like AI: Artificial Intelligence (Steven Spielberg, 2001), Wall-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008), and Ex-Machina (Andrew Garland, 2015) explore this issue of what constitutes being human. Rick Deckard, talking about his enemy Roy Batty, summed up this theme in the end monologue for the original version (read without remembering Harrison Ford’s performance of this dialogue), “I don’t know why he saved my life. Maybe in those last moments he loved life more than he ever had before. Not just his life – anybody’s life; my life. All he’d wanted were the same answers the rest of us want. Where did I come from? Where am I going? How long have I got? All I could do was sit there and watch him die.”