Set in the dystopian future of 2019, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner stars Harrison Ford as protagonist Rick Deckard, a special police operative known as a ‘Blade Runner’, given the task of hunting down and killing, or “retiring”, a group of rogue androids (called ‘replicants’) in Los Angeles, their presence being highly illegal on Earth. The film explores the philosophical themes of what it means to be human, particularly the emotional and social complexity necessary to identify as a person.
According to Pryor, Blade Runner primarily “emphasises the difficulties humans have appreciating what makes them human” [Pryor 2006]. Specially trained, high-ranking officers of the law administer a “Voight-Kampff” test – an examination involving questions designed to invoke feelings of empathy and emotional depth in humans – the outcome of which determining whether the individual being examined is human on non-human. Pryor goes on to suggest that the human characters in the film show very little empathy, in stark contrast to the fundamental ideal at the core of the Voight-Kampff that humans are inherently empathic.
The philosophical theme at the core of the film – what makes us human – is contested by its non-human characters displayed inherently human emotions and its human characters showing little other than their appearance identifying them as a human person. Deckard administers the Voight-Kampff test to Rachael (played by Sean Young), a young woman working under geneticist Eldon Tyrell (the creator of the Nexus-6 model of replicant, the same line from which the rogue group are built; played by Joe Turkel). Rachael, having failed several questions in the test, is concluded to be non-human, and despite having a remarkable social range and in-depth memories of her childhood, she was unaware that she was a replicant; her own personal identity that has shaped her as a woman was fabricated; her emotions and memories nothing more than complex machinery.
The replicants are “the slaves of the future, without any rights or intrinsic value, merely instruments…” [Falzon 2007, p.94], indicating that a human Blade Runner should feel no qualms in “retiring” a replicant as it is simply an in-organic life. However, the film personifies the androids by giving them emotional complexity and a sense of sociability; Roy Batty (played by Rutger Hauer), the leader of the rogue group of replicants, begins to fear death due to his short life span as an android, feels love for his female companion and is distraught when she is killed. The climactic scene sees Batty become merciful to Deckard. Batty, by saving Deckard’s life, saw himself in the suffering and in turn experienced the human emotion of empathy.
Blade Runner effectively blurs the line between human and non-human, posing many questions such as whether Deckard, an apparent human with little empathy, is in fact a replicant, and if a replicant can and should be recognised as human despite their inorganic state of being due to their emotional complexity and sociability exhibited. Rachael at one stage asks Deckard if he has ever taken the Voight-Kampff test. He does not respond. According to Cultures of Technological Embodiment, p.265, “the implication is clear: if he took [the test], he would fail” [Burrows and Featherstone 1995], giving a clear indication that the reason for Deckard’s lack of empathy is the fact that he is that which he hunts: a replicant.
Burrows, R., Featherstone, M. (eds).( 1995). Cyberspace, Cyberbodies, Cyberpunk: Cultures of Technological Embodiment (p265). SAGE Publications, ltd: London.
Falzon, C. (2007). Philosophy Goes to the Movies: An Introduction to Philosophy (2nd ed.), p.94-95. Routledge: New York.
Pryor, J. (2006). Central Problems in Philosophy – Blade Runner. Retrieved June 8, 2012, from http://www.jimpryor.net/teaching/courses/intro/notes/bladerunner.html