What is human and what does it mean to be human? Do our flesh and blood, our organic conception make us human? Or is it our thoughts, memories, experiences and desires? Are there degrees of humanity? If so is there a hierarchy and how is it constructed? Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner raises these questions about identity, humanity, and society’s treatment of both.
In 2019 (just five years away) a race of genetically engineered, very advanced race of androids, called Replicants, revolted against the humans who enslaved them. They are now illegal on Earth. Rick Deckard is a former Blade Runner, the nickname given to officers whose task it was to “retire” any and all Replicants that came to Earth. He is recruited by his old chief to hunt down four Replicants who have come to Earth to find a way to increase their four-year lifespan.
In his investigation, Deckard meets a sophisticated Replicant named Rachel, who has had the memories of her creator’s niece implanted in her brain in the hopes that apparent memories of a longer life will make her more stable than her predecessors. She raises more questions both for the audience and for Deckard when he realizes his attraction to her. Are we defined by our memories and experiences? How do we know that those experiences are uniquely ours and that we acquired them ourselves? If we were told that our memories were not our own, how would our concept of identity change?
Roy Batty, the leader of the gang of Replicants, has only one purpose in his return to Earth; he wants to live. He has been given all the capacities of thought, emotion, empathy, desire, curiosity, and hunger that human beings have, but only four years to enjoy and explore it. He wants the same right to a long life span that humans have. He knows the value of those unforgettable experiences that have made his life miraculous reflecting upon them moments before his death. “All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.”
Batty’s refusal to adhere to the confines of slavery and to accept his determined lifespan defy the “programming” he was outfitted with by his creators, meaning that he has achieved a level of consciousness that is beyond replication or control by an extrinsic force. Does this make him more human?
What are the moral consequences and concerns of creating an entire race whose purpose is to be exploited? Batty tells Deckard that life as a slave is painful for it is “painful to live in fear,” poignantly illustrating that these beings whom the humans have enslaved can feel, and they feel the pain of being denied the right to live a free and full life. It is easy to believe that humans could commit such a crime; we’ve done it before to our own race. Is our history that cyclical? Is our need for a defined pecking order so great?