“It’s too bad she won’t live. But then again, who does?” The words echo across Rick Deckard’s mind as he steps into the elevator. Having just taken the lives of two replicants, he begins to truly contemplate this question. Deckard was a once Bladerunner, a cop specializing in “retiring” or killing replicants. Replicants, genetically engineered humans, were originally designed as slave workers on off-world colonies. The viewers can identify a replicant simply by their eyes, which appear gold. However, this is a non-diegetic element, not visible to those in the film. Because of this, replicants are virtually indistinguishable from humans. In order to differentiate between them, humans force the replicants to undergo the Voight-Kampff Test, which analyzes their emotional capacity and is designed to “generate an emotional response.” Replicants roam the streets, but upon being found out are to be “shot upon sight” because of a past incident. Replicants, like humans, can develop emotions, but as a “fail safe” can only live for four years. Essentially, the replicants’ artificial creation is the only difference that separates it from humans. Being merely “created” however, they are treated quite differently than other residents. The unfair treatment of replicants is one of the most important aspects of the film. Through the struggle between replicants and humans, Ridley Scott seeks to convey that all forms of life are equal, whether artificial or organic. Through this lens, Scott thrusts an even greater challenge on his audience: to acknowledge the commonalities between the replicants and their struggle for equality and our own struggle with race and equality in America.
Race and equality are highly emphasized almost immediately stepping into the film. The audience is thrust into a foreign city, both literally and figuratively. Skyscrapers reach beyond eyesight, casting darkness on the slum-like grounds underneath. Cars no longer have need for wheels, gracefully flying through the air. As a moviegoer in the 1980’s, these visuals were breathtaking, to say the least, portraying an entirely new world. Among the many displays floating about the city, people of Asian descent are often featured, accompanied by text in a foreign language. The streets are crowded, dirty, and dark. Merchant stands adorn every corner. The audience is introduced to Deckard at one such merchant stand. He orders noodles, given to him by an illiterate Chinese man, as evidenced by the man’s difficulty to understand what he wants to order. Deckard is then approached by Gaff, a member of the police force. He speaks in an amalgam of many different languages and is translated by the Chinese man. The city has no official language, it is a polyglot. This was extremely different than U.S. society in the 1980’s, in which this sort of multicultural melting pot was not the norm. It was also around this time in America that outsourcing began, moving many jobs overseas. Many looked upon China and other Asian countries in a negative light because of this, viewing “those” people as people taking away their jobs. Drawing on this real world issue in the U.S, this cinematic city effectively evokes the fear of orientalization. Terrified by the idea of racial change, many Americans manifested this fear in stereotypes, emphasized by the “Chinatown” areas of the lower streets.
Additionally, the entire city and its obviously foreign aspects, are shrouded in literal and figurative darkness. This cityscape sets the stage for the rest of the film, with Scott actively maneuvering the viewer into equating being foreign as something overtly negative. A strong emphasis is placed on this idea from the very beginning, so that, ultimately it can be contrasted with the overall theme of the film: equality within life. The city serves a societal template of inequality. Regardless of race, humans should be treated equally, not confined to a life in the streets.
Drawing again on real world issues, slavery and racism rear their ugly heads throughout the film. Replicants, perhaps the most important characters, deal firsthand with slavery and inequality. Their very inception is for the purpose of being slaves. While serving at an off-world colony, a mutiny occurred, making replicants illegal on Earth. Although virtually indistinguishable, the replicants are treated as slaves because of being created differently. Perhaps most responsible for this mistreatment are the police, those who hunt the replicants. The police have gone so far as giving them a dehumanizing derogatory name: “skin jobs.” Among the victims of their mistreatment is also Deckard himself, having been forced into Bladerunning again. When he tries to decline, the police chief Harry Bryant says, “Stop where you are! You know the score pal! If you’re not a cop you’re little people.” This obvious sense of superiority in the chief’s statement exposes the horrible life of being on the wrong side of power–of being one of the “little people.” Deckard spends the film hunting the replicants, eventually finding himself on the wrong side of that power, clinging for his life. At the climax, he is hanging by only a few fingers before he is saved by Roy Batty, a replicant that he was hunting. After catching Deckard’s slipping hand, he gives light to living as a replicant: “Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it? That’s what it is to be slave.” Prior to this, the audience sees replicants merely as tools used to fulfill certain purposes. Watching the film from Deckard’s point of view, the audience begins to learn what it means to be a slave, being forced into something against their will-and for a brief moment living in the very fear in which replicants live every day. By shedding light on the true beauty of the life of a replicant, Scott brings the audience into his story, showing the inhumane nature of slavery and the problems with living in an unequal world. No one should ever be considered “little people” in the face of superiors or a slave to those in power.
The question of equality carries with it another important question: What does it mean to truly be alive? Pris, another replicant says to a genetic engineer, P.F Sebastian, “I think, therefore I am.” This could be an answer to that question, and although rather simple, does speak great lengths about what it means to live. Free will is also typically an answer. Bladerunner however extends past the typical cliches when answering it. When investigating another replicant’s apartment, Leon Kowalski, Deckard comes across a stack of photos. To the viewer, the pictures seem typical and replaceable. To a replicant, however, these pictures are physical copies of memories. During a conversation with Deckard, Dr. Eldon Tyrell, the creator of the replicants, says they are “emotionally inexperienced, with only a few years in which to store up experiences which you and I take for granted.” Replicants walk, talk, and think, but what truly makes them “live” is their ability to experience and recollect experiences. Although “emotionally inexperienced,” Batty expresses remorse in his last moments:
“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 Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time….like tears in rain….time to die.” These final words are what ultimately help replicants as a whole cross the line from replicant to human. This is a transcendent moment for Deckard, having hunted the replicant and then being saved by it. Deckard held the view that replicants are “like any other machine–they’re either a benefit or a hazard.” Replicants are merely the subject of his job, not necessarily people. After his encounter with Batty, Deckard sees the light, realizing that he witnessed not the end of a replicant, but the end of a life. Replicants are no longer seen as something below human; their place in society is now equal.
“Have you ever taken that Voight-Kampff Test yourself?” Rachael, another replicant, asks Deckard. Realizing she is a replicant, she seeks to know what makes him so human in contrast to herself. He feels that he should not have the legitimacy of his existence questioned by something “artificial.” Throughout the film, he holds the opinion that the replicants are less than him, remorselessly hunting them. However, he slowly begins to fall in love with Rachael. Through this relationship, his views on replicants and indeed, life shift, and the audience finds its views shifting as well. Deckard watches Batty take his last breath, and in finally doing so, Batty releases a white dove he was holding into the air. This symbol of peace represents Deckard’s realization of what it means to live, and the significance of replicants’ lives as well. What began as a forced mission from the police ends as a transcendent journey. While stalking the replicants, Deckard learns how much they cherish their short lives. He learns to respect their existence, regardless of how they were created, and that they too, deserve to be treated equally, in spite of their differences.[tx_divider size=”24″]
Blade Runner: The Final Cut. Dir. Ridley Scott. Warner Bros, 1982. Film
“Quotes.” IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 29 Oct. 2013.
About the Writer
M Stuart Persson is an undergraduate at the University of Illinois. In pursuit of a bachelors in sociology, school is merely one facet of life. Long boarding, stand up comedy, music, film and writing make up the rest of his free time. An aspiring creative writer and editor. I’m a wave about to splash.