What does it mean to be human?
“If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?”
The 1982 film Blade Runner is a science fiction classic for a reason. It is a stylishly made noir film that is not afraid to get philosophical. Harrison Ford portrays the titular blade runner Richard Deckard with a steely determination that befits his job (hunting down genetically engineered “replicants”), but the audience soon finds that they may sympathize more with the hunted than the hunter.
Concerning the above quote from Shakespeare: replicants, in this bleak vision of 2019, have been designed to mimic humanity to a tee. They bleed, with no discernible robotic insides a la Terminator. Roy obviously feels pain when he drives a nail through his hand in the climactic end sequence. They clearly take amusement from their dealings with inferior humans like JF Sebastian and the eye-maker. And they certainly feel a yearning for revenge against the creator who made them run on borrowed time, Dr. Tyrell. So what is it that makes Deckard and his ilk feel justified in hunting replicants down like rabid animals or malfunctioning computers? Aside from JF Sebastian, many of the humans in Blade Runner show less emotion than replicants, Deckard especially (who may or may not be a replicant himself).
In fact, it is precisely this dynamic which one could call the central conflict of the film. Deckard, ostensibly the protaganist, through his years of almost robotic precision in hunting down replicants seems to have lost his ability to empathize, a quintessentially human function. When he performs the question test on potential replicants, he does not analyze their answers as a means of discerning character, only as a stepping stone to their possible annihilation. He doesn’t care when he guns down a replicant who had been making her living as a stripper, yet players of Grand Theft Auto are criticized for fake-murdering fake prostitutes.
Roy Batty, though, ostensibly the antagonist, is redeemed in the climax by his ability to empathize with Deckard and save his life, choosing rather to spend his last moments talking to another than alone on a rooftop after gaining his revenge. Would Deckard have done the same had the tables been turned? I’m not so sure.
The ultimate relevance of Blade Runner lies in its challenge of what it must mean to be human. It raises the eternal gnawing doubt as to our own humanity or lack of it. These are the same issues raised by the great religions and philosophies of the past.
– Reeser F.