I’ve watched Blade Runner a bunch of times. I’m enough of a die-hard that I have the original version on VHS, plus the Director’s Cut on DVD. It’s in my Top 10 favorite films. It’s worth seeing just for the sets. Remember, this is all pre-CGI. Everything that you see was built from scratch.
It’s also inspired by the sort of detective fiction that I’ve been reading of late. So I wanted to watch it again from this angle. I’ve viewed it many times from the SF angle. This time, I wanted to see it as a noir. In the final analysis, I’m not sure if it actually works from this perspective. I mean that exactly as it sounds; in my mind, the jury is still out on whether or not Blade Runner is actually a noir, or if it is only stealing the visual cues of the genre.
But that doesn’t really concern me, because I gained a little more insight into the movie this time around.
Blade Runner belongs to that philosophically-oriented subgenre of SF that is trying to probe serious questions through its stories. Specifically, Blade Runner is asking the question, “What does
it mean to be human?” [*]
For those of you who don’t know, the movie is about replicants, which are genetically-created robots, nearly indistinguishable from humans, except by their emotional responses. The newest models (Nexus-6) are so advanced that, in an attempt to keep them emotionally stable, their creators gift them with implanted memories to give them a sense of having a past. Also, they only have a four-year life span.
Since an out-of-control replicant can do a lot of damage, they are banned from Earth and are used on the off-world colonies instead as cannon fodder, slave labor, and the like. Any replicant that returns to Earth is “retired” by special police units called “Blade Runners”.
So, here’s the question. Replicants look like humans. They have memories like humans. They even have emotional response like humans. So why aren’t they humans?
The easy response is that they are made, and humans are not. But that fails to answer the question in a satisfying way, especially as, throughout the film, the replicants react and respond in very human, understandable terms.
What makes us human?
This time, watching the movie, I realized that there was an answer in the film that I had overlooked in the past.
At the end of the movie, Roy Batty, the leader of the replicants, is chasing Rick Deckard, the blade runner who has killed…er…retired all the other replicants in his little group. They work their way up through an abandoned building, where Roy traps Deckard. In desperation, Deckard tries to leap to the next building. But his jump is too short. He is left scrabbling for a handhold over the yawning abyss.
Roy, a combat model replicant, makes the jump easily, and stands over Deckard. Then he says, “Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it? That’s what it is to be a slave.” Deckard struggles, flails, and slips. He is begins to fall.
Lightning-quick, Roy reaches out and grabs him, saving him from death. Then he drops Deckard on the roof, sits down next to him, and says these immortal lines: “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.” And then, while Deckard watches, he slumps and dies.
Mercy. In the end, Roy showed Deckard mercy.
Another character does so, too. Gaff is another blade runner who has been monitoring Deckard’s pursuit of these replicants. Gaff also knows that Deckard is harboring another replicant (Rachael) at his apartment. But he gives Deckard a chance to escape. He can’t give him much. Both Gaff and Deckard understand that Gaff will have to hunt them both. But Gaff shows mercy to both Deckard and Rachael.
All this brings me back to this quote, from one of the detective novels that I’ve read recently:
“That isn’t your real motivation. I know your type. You have a secret passion for justice. Why don’t you admit it?”
“I have a secret passion for mercy,” I said. “But justice is what keeps happening to people.” â€”The Goodbye Look, Ross MacDonald
Mercy is the virtue that makes us human. That certainly seems to be what Blade Runner is getting at. And isn’t that part of what God wants from us?
He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God? (Micah 6:8; KJV)
*Another worthwhile film addressing the same question is Dark City. Interestingly, the visual cues are very similar. Maybe there’s more to the noir references than meets the eye.