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The Blade Runner Saga: Outcomes of Humanity’s Relationship with Technology

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Several of Philip K. Dick’s works have been adapted for film and television to varying degrees of popularity, but the one that receives the most acclaim is Blade Runner (1982), which is based on his Nebula Award-nominated novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” The movie didn’t receive immediate critical or financial success, but through the power of the newly emerging VHS market it found a cult following. Both the novel and its film adaptation would go on to influence several other science fiction films including the 2017 sequel film Blade Runner 2049 directed by Denis Villeneuve. This paper will examine what the Blade Runner saga’s narrative tells us about humanity’s potential challenges with our relationship with technology.

While only mentioned in “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep”, Blade Runner opens as Earth suffers the fallout of World War Terminus. It is a war that is so catastrophic that the planet will never recover. The details hardly matter as opposed to its consequences. Philip K. Dick writes that “no one today remembered why the war had come about or who, if anyone, had won. The dust which had contaminated most of the planet’s surface had originated in no country and no one, even the wartime enemy, had planned on it.” Instead, the war devastated animal and plant life while accelerating space colonization by people who wanted and could afford to get off of the scarred Earth. Indeed, plants and animals have become something that are only kept by the ultra-rich.

Blade Runner takes place in 2019, and while that year has come to pass since the film was made in 1982, most of the technology in Blade Runner is vastly beyond technological achievements reached today such as flying cars and space colonization. The most important of these futuristic technologies, and the centerpiece that makes up Blade Runner’s message about class, racism, slavery, and our relationship with technology is Replicants.

Replicants are genetically-engineered, synthetic beings with implanted memories that are created by Eldon Tyrell, played by Joe Turkel, and the Tyrell Corporation to provide a cheap, expendable labor force for jobs including menial work on protein farms, the dangerous work of preparing planets for colonization, and sex work doled out by “pleasure models”. Tyrell’s self-described greatest creation is the Nexus-6 model Replicant. They are nearly indistinguishable from a human being, plus they can have enhanced strength, speed, stamina, and intelligence. The catch is that they are programmed with a lifespan of only four years. To make them appear and behave more human-like they are programmed with memories of their non-existent childhood, and in fact, some Replicants do not know they are Replicants.

These Replicants and their role in society draw an obvious parallel to slavery in America up until 1863. Indeed, technology exists to make life simpler, but it begs the question of where that line must be drawn as Blade Runner “shows us the future of humanity in which, paradoxically, technological advances lead to practices of the past”. The justification for using Replicants as a slave labor force is eerily familiar: they aren’t human. In the bigger picture, that’s a minor difference between African slaves who were brought over under the justification that they were subhuman. Whether subhuman in America’s past or not human at all in the world of Blade Runner, the law fails to afford them rights or protection, and both are considered property. The obvious similarities between Replicants and African slaves are so direct that Replicants are referred to with the pejorative “skinjob” just as black people were and sometimes still are referred to by the n-word.

As Blade Runner opens, a group of four Nexus-6 Replicants led by Roy Batty, played by Rutger Hauer, rebel against their masters, kill 23 people, and return to Earth seeking out Eldon Tyrell in hopes of coercing him into giving them the one thing they want most, an extended lifespan. The viewer could infer that this part of the narrative is inspired by headlines from 1831 when Nat Turner led a group of up to 70 slaves at any given time on a bloody rampage through Virginia demanding their freedom in what would become known as Nat Turner’s Rebellion. The slaves wanted freedom, the Replicants want the freedom to live.

The audience is introduced to the protagonist Rick Deckard, played by Harrison Ford. Deckard is a Blade Runner, a law enforcement officer whose sole job is to hunt down and “retire” Replicants.

It is important to note that this future society does not say they kill Replicants, but instead they merely “retire” them. In America’s past it was not considered murder if it was property, in fact, Adalberto Aguirre estimates that 1,161 slaves were executed between the 1790’s and the 1850’s despite civil codes being in place to protect them. The codes were there, but people simply didn’t bother to enforce them. In Blade Runner, the same rules appear to apply as Blade Runners nonchalantly execute Replicants as soon as it is determined that they aren’t human beings.

What distinguishes a real human versus something that just looks human? In the world of Blade Runner there is one answer – humans feel more empathy. Deckard utilizes a Voight-Kampff test to distinguish between humans and Replicants. By monitoring bodily functions, especially reactions in one’s eyes, they gauge the empathetic response of an individual by asking provocative questions. The theory is that a Replicant has lower levels of empathy because the quality of their implanted memories can’t match those of a human because genuine, high-levels of empathy require a full lifetime of high-definition, real experiences that can’t simply be programmed into something.

In stark contrast, the actual humans in the film are distant, short, downright mean, and show very little empathy for their fellow human beings. Meanwhile, the Nexus-6 Replicants consistently show more empathy and emotion than any other characters in the film.

The Nexus-6 Replicants showing compassion is most evident in the climax. As Pris, one of the Nexus-6 replicants, is killed by Deckard, Roy Batty breaks down into tears, showing levels of feeling not approached by any human character in the film. He is enraged and begins hunting Deckard in a cat-and-mouse game that leads to the rooftops, but as Deckard slips and is on the precipice of falling to his death he shows more powerful, empathetic emotions not displayed by any human in the movie: compassion and mercy. Ray pulls Deckard back up onto the roof, accepts his fate, and he delivers his now-famous Tears in the Rain monologue:

“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die”.

Yes, Ray was the antagonist, but his motivation wasn’t rooted in evil. All he ever wanted was a chance to live. Earlier, Tyrell, creator of the replicants, defends giving Replicants their short but extraordinary existence by quoting Lao Tzu. “The light that shines twice as bright, burns twice as fast.” Contradictory, Roy for all his four years of incredible experiences will still die and be forgotten when all he wants is more life, and therefore, a chance to make his mark on existence.

In the end, his display of mercy and forgiveness was him making his small mark on Deckard’s existence. Perhaps part of the message is that Replicants could be more human than human, and that someday real-world technology will allow for the same. A literal deus ex machina.

Some thought it would never be made, but the Blade Runner saga continued with Blade Runner 2049. Ridley Scott stepped back into an Executive Producer’s role and Denis Villeneuve stepped into the Director’s chair to tell a new story written by Hampton Fancher that adds new layers to the themes presented in the original film.

Blade Runner 2049 tells us the story of a new Blade Runner. While on a routine mission to retire a farmer named Sapper Morton, played by Dave Bautista, he is revealed to be a combat-enhanced Replicant, and as soon as the Blade Runner makes his intention to retire Morton known Morton repeatedly smashes the Blade Runner’s head into a wall. The Blade Runner is left largely unscathed revealing that he is a Replicant himself because he can withstand the beating. This Blade Runner is Agent KD6-3.7, played by Ryan Gosling, a Replicant whose name slowly becomes the more natural K as he is revealed to have more emotional, human characteristics over the course of the film. K seems to have some moral quandary over retiring his kind, but still carries on with his work.

After the brawl, Sapper Morton is defeated. On the verge of being retired he defiantly calls out K for retiring his own kind, but also foreshadows what’s to come. “You newer models are happy scraping the shit… because you’ve never seen a miracle” (Blade Runner 2049). K’s suspicion is aroused with Sapper Morton’s last words, and upon further investigation of the worm-protein farm he finds a box buried underneath a dead tree that calls for further investigation. The box is revealed to contain the remains of a Replicant that has scars from a caesarian section. A Replicant had a child! Maybe there was a miracle!

This revelation captures the attention of Niander Wallace, played by Jared Leto, who purchased the defunct Tyrell Corporation and is now responsible for Replicant Manufacturing. He fumes about how he can’t solve the scientific riddle of Replicant reproduction, “The last trick of Eldon Tyrell!” (Blade Runner 2049). Wallace wants to unravel the secret of Replicant procreation because it would be key to overcoming his manufacturing bottlenecks that are key to colonizing deeper parts of space.

On the flipside, the discovery that a Replicant gave birth to a child threatens to send shockwaves throughout the solar system. Some already saw them as “more human than human”, but most see a force of robotic slave laborers that might suddenly be able to bear children.

John Orquiola lays out the potential consequences writing “if Replicants can conceive children as humans do, it would be a revolutionary step towards Replicants being recognized as having human rights.” and “It begs the question of whether Replicants born and not made would have a soul as humans beings believe they do” (Orquiola ‘Blade Runner 2049: What Happened to Rachael and Deckard’). Some fear that the consequences could even include all-out war between humans and Replicants.

Neither Blade Runner nor Blade Runner 2049 can leave the viewer with the definitive answer of whether Replicants have a soul or qualify as human, but much like the issue that America went through with slavery they do send a message about compassion and even giving them fundamental rights. Blade Runner 2049 stretches the boundaries of the “What is human?” question even further with K’s holographic companion Joi.

Joi is programmed to act as a companion to its owner including the possibility of being a lover. As she records data and creates memories she can evolve over time. Whether she is cooking K a virtual dinner and helping him light a dessert cigarette or showing a desire for a deeper connection by hiring a prostitute so she can sync up and have sex with K she appears to have every bit of a loving relationship with him as a happily married couple.

There isn’t much argument that Joi might have a soul, after all she is strictly computer code, but much like the Replicants in Blade Runner she is shown having more empathy than most of the humans around her. Despite K’s protests and knowing that she was risking her permanent deletion she is shown arguing that her desire is to download herself into a portable emulator so she can accompany him to Las Vegas in search of Deckard from the original film.

Ultimately, that decision ends with her showing some of the most empathetic, human qualities in Blade Runner 2049 when Joi tells K that she loves him right before her emanator is ruthlessly crushed underneath the antagonist’s boot – an act that borders on self-sacrifice for someone she loves.

Perhaps the question of whether artificial life can be human or have a soul isn’t the point. It’s established that Replicants have emotions and memories, but whether they deserve protections. After all, there are laws in modern society that protect animals from abuse, poaching, and other cruel acts. Science fiction has tackled this topic time and time again. Eric Schwitzgebel, a professor of philosophy at the University of California, sums this up:

The consensus is clear: if someday we manage to create robots that have mental lives similar to ours, with human-like plans, desires and a sense of self, including the capacity for joy and suffering, then those robots deserve moral consideration similar to that accorded to natural human beings. Philosophers and researchers on artificial intelligence who have written about this issue generally agree. 

He also goes on to describe that they may be owed even more consideration, as humans would be their creators. If human beings are to act as their literal God then humanity owes their creations benevolence (Schwitzgebel).

These themes are tackled by other great films in science fiction. Like the story of Joi in Blade Runner 2049, Ghost in the Shell (1995), directed by Mamoru Oshii makes the viewer consider the implications of a purely artificial intelligence can achieve sentience and be deserving of fundamental rights.

HBO’s current series Westworld also wears its influence from Blade Runner on its sleeve as viewers are presented with a theme park full of robots whose collective experiences eventually lead them to wanting to lead real lives instead of being an attraction that can be killed, beaten, or had sex with only to be cleaned up and sent out to do it again the next day.

Audiences will also find influence from Blade Runner and it’s message about our relationship with technology in The Iron Giant (1999), The Fifth Element (1997), The Matrix (1999), Total Recall (1990), and Minority Report (2002) – the last two of which are also adaptations of Philip K. Dick’s science fiction.

The Blade Runner saga’s message is clear. Humanity should be having discussions now about the implications of creating artificial life, and what its relationship with it will look like. Humanity doesn’t have all these answers yet, but Blade Runner and films like it provide us with the opportunity to have these conversations before science catches up and forces us to make short-sighted decisions that could ultimately lead to repeating the mistakes of the past.

Works Cited

  • Adalberto, Aguirre, Jr., ‘Slave Executions in the United States,’ The Social Science Journal, vol. 36, issue 1 (1999), pp. 1–31.
  • Blade Runner. Directed by Ridley Scott, performances by Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, and Edward James Olmos, Warner Brothers, 1982.
  • Blade Runner 2049. Directed by Denis Villeneuve, performances by Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, and Jared Leto. Warner Brothers, 2017.
  • Boissoneault, Lorraine. “Are Blade Runner’s Replicants ‘Human’? Descartes and Locke Have Some Thoughts.”, The Smithsonian, 3 Oct. 2017. Accessed on 12 Aug. 2019.
  • Cerqueira, João. “Slave Runner: Genetic Engineering, Slavery, and Immortality in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.” 5 May 2015, Accessed 5 Aug. 2019.
  • Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Doubleday, 1968.
  • Orquiola, John. “Blade Runner 2049: What Happened to Rachael and Deckard.” ScreenRant. 6 Oct. 2017, Accessed on 7 Aug. 2019.
  • Schwitzgebel, Eric. “We Have Greater Moral Obligations to Robots than to Humans – Eric Schwitzgebel: Aeon Ideas.” Aeon. 12 Nov. 2015, Accessed on 8 Aug. 2019. 

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