Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is a movie that asks what it means to be human. Like Frankenstein, mere mortals attempt to create life, but in the world this film invents, most other mortals don’t see this as an abominable thing as Mary Shelley’s characters do. The original theatrical release is still my favorite after the multiple director’s cuts that have been released over the years. I say that mostly because of Harrison Ford’s voiceover narration. It helps bring a classic 1940s film noir element to sci-fi that introduces us to Harrison Ford’s character Rick Deckert as a detective just like those in film noir. But much more importantly it also lets us see that Rick values the lives of the genetically engineered beings known as replicants who resemble humans in every way except emotion.
While those around him call him the great blade runner and want to see him once again be the hero they thought he always he was for “retiring” replicants, in the narration he tells us that he sees himself, and blade runners in general, as killers. As in any police work, sometimes killing is necessary and unavoidable, but it’s killing all the same. The genetically engineered replicants aren’t treated as human by other police, but Rick sees things differently, more like a real police officer when forced to kill in the line of duty. Is that because he’s a replicant himself or just has a moral compass that nobody else in this future world has? Of course, people have debated this for 35 years and the movie never answers it. I hope Blade Runner 2049 doesn’t answer it either. Yet I think it’s the second.
Every character in Blade Runner either has a seared conscience, a seared emotional capacity, or both. Rick has no emotional capability when we first meet him, just like the replicants he’s hired to kill. But a new replicant model, Rachael (Sean Young), was made with implanted memories through which she was able to develop her own emotions. She also was made without the 4-year lifespan of all the replicants before her and without the knoweldge that she’s a replicant. Through Rachael, Rick begins to feel again, and they fall in love. Yet his respect for a replicant’s life began long before meeting Rachel though.
Back to that noir-esque narration. After hearing his boss give him his next orders and calling replicants by the derogatory term “skin jobs,” Rick tells us in the narration that his boss is the type of person that would have used the “n” word long ago. That tells us that he believes replicants are fully human. And all his actions throughout the movie continue to show that belief. Because he believes that, and because he respects human life unlike most people in this very dark vision of an amoral, violent future, he does his job much different than anyone would expect him to. During the intense and terrifying chase scenes between Rick and the great villain Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), we see Roy’s humanity. We see the humanity of the replicants he killed. We see the humanity of Rachel.
Rick believes that replicants are human from the beginning, but he doesn’t feel it and can’t express that belief in any tangible way because he’s not emotionally connected to his own conscience. It takes Rachael for him to learn to feel the truth behind what he believes. Thankfully the movie never tells us for sure if Rick is a replicant or not, because all we need to know for sure is that he is human and that he believes replicants are human. As he learns to feel what it means to be human and how to act on the moral beliefs already established in his character, we the audience are taken on our own moral journey in our very own world that parallels perfectly with the dark, futuristic world of Blade Runner. Not that we’re as hopeless and inhumane as the world in the movie, but we are pretty selfish and need to wrestle with the question of what it means to be human and how that relates to our selfishness. Our answers to that question determine the relationships between our consciences and our emotions. It determines how we live in relationship with others and what we’re willing to risk.
Concerning the lack of certainty of Rachael’s lifespan, Rick is told “too bad she’s gonna die, but then again who doesn’t?” He simply nods, and that nod shows us that he’s not going to waste any more time questioning her humanity or his own. He’s going live and he’s going to love even though he lives in a world that has no consideration for life or love. Blade Runner confronts our views of other people and urges us to reject the selfishness so abundant in our world.