In order to take a look at what truly makes us human, we must first question everything we know about ourselves; even the obvious. For up until recently, we have never had to ponder this question of humanity – what makes up a human exactly. Up until now there was nothing that could impersonate us, fool us into believing something made of metal was the same as us. But this comes to light in the film Blade Runner. We see firsthand the struggles: who is a fake human, how can we tell them apart, and how can we ‘retire’ these replications of humans. Most importantly and most disturbingly, we see the toll it takes on the man who is charged with taking down these replicants. We see perfectly that the human senses are tricked extremely well into believing the veracity of the replicants. Thus, we see how the conflict the main character, Deckard, faces in the movie – that of killing robots nearly indistinguishable from humans – displays all the characteristics that go into the decision of what makes a human being different from something that is not, but yet can display all the same things a human can.
One of the first things we are introduced to as an audience is how we are able to recognize and separate the replicants from actual human beings. Not only do we realize that there is a scientific method to reveal this fact, but we also realize that save for the machine that can tell us this difference, we cannot tell them apart with our natural human senses. During the interrogation, the emotions and expressions that the replicant Leon gives seem real and lifelike like that of a human. However, we later come to realize the truth when Leon blasts the interrogator through the wall. This similar revelation is seen in a different way when Deckard talks with the ‘daughter’ of Dr. Tyrell, Rachael, in his apartment. After being cold and blunt with the truth of her origins, Deckard can see the impact of the truth on the face of the unknowing replicant, and even though he knows she is not ‘living’ he still feels remorse for his words just like he would if he had said the same to a human. This conflict which arises here between Deckard and Rachael plants the seed for Deckard’s flip on this issue of the veracity of the replicants exactly due to Rachael’s feelings and emotions she displays with deep convictions to Deckard.
The next encounter Deckard has with a replicant is the first time we will see him ‘retire’ in the film and moreover, this next encounter is heavily emphasized to the audience by the filmmaker. In the sequence, Deckard tracks down a replicant named Zhora and through a long chase is finally able to get a clear shot and ‘retire’ her. On the surface it seems simple enough, but the conflict certainly runs deeper than that and the film makes sure the audience sees it that way. During her last moments of ‘life’, the film slows down while she crashes through every window trying to escape her death by the hands of Deckard. It emphasizes every bullet that goes through her body. It emphasizes the point where she hits the ground and dies. It emphasizes to the viewer that there was some form of life here, and shows the pain and violence that this being went through as it approached death as exactly we humans would. Then the sound of the film drowns out and we focus on Deckard while he looks at the body of the being he just killed. Much like Didi-Huberman quotes in her book from Kracauer, “…we do not, and cannot, see actual horrors because they paralyze us with blinding fear; and that we shall know what they look like only by watching images of them which reproduce their true appearance” (177 – Four Photographs from Auschwitz). The film truly emphasizes this event of the ‘retirement’ and forces us to reflect on what just occurred and what the ramifications are of killing a being who just wants to live.
Another prominent moment in the conflict of the film occurs at the moment the leader of the replicants, Roy, finds his lover, another replicant named Pris. The film showcases this pain that is felt very deeply by Roy and pushes the viewer strongly to feel, if not mourn, for Roy’s loss. For a character that throughout the film has been portrayed as almost invincible in strength and awesomely cunning, Roy is then shown completely vulnerable in that moment while seeing Pris’ dead body. It is an image that strongly portrays the violence and pain experienced by the replicants in their fight for survival against the Tyrell Corporation and in doing so, pulls the viewer to realize the life that resides in these replicants. Later in the sequence about the warehouse, Roy saves Deckard from certain death and gives a monologue about the images he has seen while in space working for humans. This speech he gives is almost bewildering as a viewer, but lends to the evidence that Roy has seen things humans never will see; images of both beauty and horrible destruction. After these final words, Roy dies and Deckard is saved however after all of these events and the impact they have had on him, he decides to give up hunting lost replicants due to this heart wrenching ethical dilemma of killing beings that are essentially humans. With this realization, he rushes to save the last one he knows is alive – Rachael – and keep her safe from other Blade Runners, thus ending the conflict and showing the viewer the clear decision he made.
Blade Runner depicts strong images of pain, violence, and conflict while portraying the dilemma faced by Deckard. It poses the thought that what truly makes us human is not our flesh and bone, but rather our thoughts, feelings, emotions, and the intangible presence that is felt when around another being that can do the exact same things you can. Whether or not it is a fabrication of man-made machine or another being entirely is of no relevance, it is the fact that we can relate with that being and share our experiences with it that makes us believe it is the same as we are. What makes a replicant life, is that it is no different than us in its thoughts.
“Cogito ergo sum.” – René Descartes
Didi-Huberman, Georges. Images in Spite of All: Four Photographs from Auschwitz. Chicago: U of Chicago, 2008. Print.
Blade Runner. Dir. Ridley Scott. Prod. Ridley Scott and Hampton Francher. By Hampton Francher and David Webb Peoples. Perf. Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, and Sean Young. Warner Bros., 1982.