The Philosophy of Blade Runner

Sebastian Blum

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In 1982, director Ridley Scott released the movie we now know as Blade Runner. A dystopian, detective, cyberpunk noir movie that was shown in over 1,800 theatres across the US, but unfortunately was a box office flop and was met with little to no praise. However, as the years have passed and multiple versions of the movie being made, seven to be exact, the Final Cut, which was deemed to be the original and unaltered version, in which Ridley had full artistic control, was released in 2007 as part of its 25th-Anniversary Edition. It is now hailed as one the best sci-fi movies to ever be made.

 

Set in Los Angeles in 2019, it sets up a world, in which technology has consumed people’s daily lives and the world had been separated by the rich white men that are on top, and the poor migrants on the bottom desperately struggling to survive. The sun shines no more, pollution clouds the air, and there are flying cars. Along with this are replicants, androids that are produced by the Tyrell Corporation, owned by Eldon Tyrell who sells these replicants as slave labor on off-world colonies, personal labor, and even as sex slaves. Richard Deckard, the main character, and of considered as an anti-hero, comes out of retirement as a Blade Runner, an officer that hunts replicants that are hiding on Earth (they are illegal) and “retires” (kills) them. He is now in search of 4 rogue replicants (Nexus-6) with the leader being named Roy Batty who seeks to further his and his crew’s lifespan of 4 years to a normal human’s.

 

The film Blade Runner explores what it means to be human, and what defines us to be human. The replicants who are made of synthetic material are built as slave labor but are also programmed to have emotions, while the humans who made them are seen as heartless and arrogant. It is obvious throughout the movie that these replicants are more human than humans and plays as the main theme throughout the entire movie.

 

The opening scene of Blade Runner is that of an extreme close up shot on an eye and shows the pupil dilating as it shows a dark void, which can be depicted as a replicants’ lack of emotion. In the reflection of the eye, you can see the bleak and dark LA with tall buildings and flying cars around them. Many have speculated that the eye is a reference to the window to the soul and how the viewer slowly comes to realise that the main “antagonist” does actually have a soul within him. This sets up the dilemma of the movie, which is whether replicant have souls and whether that actual human characters maintain their own souls even though most of them are seen as petty criminals, swindlers, strippers, prostitutes, and even corrupt officials. The film reveals to us about how little we truly know of these replicants and how we as humans know little about ourselves since the humans within the movie are in search of finding their own souls.

 

The eye is used heavily in the film as symbolism. The glow used in the replicants’ eyes is used as a symbol of artificiality, Ridley Scott even went on to say, “that kickback you saw from the replicants’ retinas was a bit of a design flaw. I was also trying to say that the eye is really the most important organ in the human body. It’s like a two-way mirror; the eye doesn’t only see a lot, the eye gives away a lot. A glowing human retina seemed one way of stating that.” This also plays in with the fact that we use our eyes as sight and to help make memories. In a scene where Roy Batty makes his way to the man who designs his eyes, he states, “Chew, if only you could see what I’ve seen with your eyes”, which in itself is a joke since Roy’s eyes are indeed Chew’s eyes since he made them, but also serves to show that Roy has experienced things others haven’t. That he is living and making his own personal experiences. The movie also uses the Voigt-Kampff machine, which is a machine used to tell if you are human or not and is used by Blade Runners. The questions usually asked are used to evoke empathy from the one being asked the questions and is noticeable when the eye involuntarily dilates the iris. It also measures bodily functions such as respiration, blush response, and heart rate in response to questions dealing with empathy.

Tyrell who wears trifocal glasses (glasses that have 3 regions for far, intermediate, and near distance) are a reflection of his reliance on technology for the power that he achieves and for his nearsighted vision. Roy, towards the end of the film, gauges out Tyrell’s eyes with his thumbs to show the judgment Roy places on Tyrell’s soul.

The relationship between sight and memories is frequented throughout the movie by many characters, such as Rachael (Deckard’s replicant lover) who has a visual representation of a memory, a photo of her as a child along with her mother. Even, Leon (one of Roy’s replicant crew members) is seen to be obsessed with photos and stores them in his apartment.

 

Deckard is assigned by his former boss, Captain Bryant, to see if the V-K test will work on the new Nexus-6 replicants, who resemble human beings. Bryant, who refers to replicants as “skin jobs,” shows Deckard a video of the escaped replicants. Before sending Deckard to the Tyrell Corporation, Bryant explains to him that the androids “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. . . . So they built in a failsafe device . . . [a] four-year lifespan.” The designers purposefully designed the replicants so that they could never become the equal of an adult human being.

The film makes it clear that human physical appearance alone doesn’t make someone a human being. René Descartes, a seventeenth-century philosopher, follows this idea by finding out what makes a human being. He says that, when he observes from a window human beings passing by on the street below him, he sees “hats and cloaks that might cover artificial machines, whose motions might be determined by springs.” By just looking at someone, or even interacting with someone, doesn’t give enough evidence that the person is human. People often jump to conclusions on this idea with insufficient evidence.

In a scene early on in the movie, Tyrell enters and tells Deckard to perform the V-K test on a human being, Rachael. Agreeing, Deckard finds out after an unusually high number of questions, that she’s an android. However, she is unaware of this and leaves before Deckard can tell her. Immediately, Deckard’s view of her changes, a view that is reflected in his choice of words, as he asks Tyrell: “How can it not know what it is?” She has now become to him an object, an “it,” rather than a person.

Wanting to convince Deckard that she’s human, Rachael goes to his apartment with a childhood picture that has herself and her mother. Shattering her hopes, Deckard says that her memories are simply the implanted memories of Tyrell’s sixteen-year-old niece. Rachael tears up and this act awakens his deadened empathy. Uncomfortable about his unfamiliar feelings toward an inhuman “thing,” he advises her to go home.

He has now started to question the beliefs that were programmed into him by society. He has taken a step toward being more human.

 

The relationship of Roy and Tyrell are often seen as parallels to Jesus and God, Tyrell, of course, being God and Roy being Jesus. Tyrell gives Roy the name “the prodigal son” to show that Tyrell, the God of biomechanics, considers Roy as his perfect creation. A scene within the movie shows Deckard driving a nail into Roy’s hand, depicting the crucifixion of Jesus. Roy spares Deckard when they are on a roof and he is close to falling off and dying to show a sign of forgiveness, which is a reference to Jesus when Roy’s states, “Forgive them they don’t know what they do.” The movie shows the extreme steps that Roy is willing to take to prolong his current lifespan, but is willing to die and save the life of another as well. This is done to show that replicants, like humans, are able to have dignity and accept their own deaths.

When Roy sits down, cradling a dove on the rooftop, he says: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire on the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.” His words, expressing the value of his life experiences, are all the more meaningful because these are the last words of his life. At the same time that his given four years have expired, the dove is liberated, and Roy is freed. In these four years, he has acquired a unique combination of experiences, experiences that he both remembers and treasures. It’s not in just seeing objects and understanding what they are that we express our humanity. Rather, our humanity is expressed in the deep emotional appreciation that we bring to what we take in. Ironically, given Tyrell’s final advice to his “prodigal son,” Roy knows how to “revel” in the present moment. It is this emotional response, so unique to each individual, that gives a human his or her worth as a human being.

 

Although the replicants are engineered to act and reason as humans, they can’t choose what determines their character. This inability is what differentiates any made beings from humans. The replicants aren’t responsible for their condition because they were programmed to fulfill a certain function; they cannot create their own selves as humans can. No human is programmed or manufactured being. Instead, humans create their own nature through free choices and actions. We can choose our occupation, our level of education, our marital status, our religion or lack of one, our lifestyle, and our attitudes, beliefs, and values. Since we choose our nature, we are responsible for it. We can’t blame anyone else for what we are, since we can at any moment, choose to become a new, different sort of person. We are free because we can rely neither on a god nor on society to direct our actions or to program our natures. Our freedom consists mainly in our ability to envision additional possibilities for ourselves.

Once we accept our freedom, we must also accept its responsibility. Since we could have made different choices, we should take on responsibility for what we have become. Sometimes, however, we try to escape responsibility by pretending we’re not free. We try to convince ourselves that outside influences have shaped our nature, God, our family, our genes, society. This is a cop-out because being human is making every choice for his or herself. If we choose to believe that we are determined by outside factors, we are responsible for adopting this belief. To be human means to create oneself, the emotions one chooses to feel, the beliefs one chooses to retain, and the actions one chooses to perform.

Since replicants have a maker who programs them, unlike humans, can justifiably blame someone else for their for their acts and/or characteristics. Some replicants, having the advanced Nexus-6 design, blamed humans so much that they commit a mutiny. As a result, a death sentence was placed on any that returned to earth. It would make sense that any replicants would not dare to make their way back to Earth, but four replicants try to reach their maker, a genetic engineer, to beg for more life.

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