Are humans the only beings who can learn emotion, and is this the fundamental idea that comes to define and separate us from other beings? Director Ridley Scott explores these and other ethical issues in his 1982 film Blade Runner, a masterpiece of American science fiction. Based on novelist Philip K. Dick’s 1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Blade Runner has been immortalized as one of the greatest works of late twentieth century cinematography thanks to its standard-setting cyberpunk set design, eclectic soundtrack, and thought provoking questions about the extent of human rights.
The year is 2017, and, as we would expect, the streets of Los Angeles are crowded with masses of people. However, in this era, rickety, crude spacecrafts, tremendous, towering black obelisk buildings, and animated billboards hundreds of stories tall add to the already chaotic setting. The city is under a constant state of torrential downpour and fog, with a seemingly endless amount of dirty neon signs peering through the gloomy musk. Muted colors, constant smokiness, and a score of synthesizers and futuristic sound effects all inspire the film’s finely executed gritty urban dystopia setting.
In the film’s universe, science has developed to the point where the creation of “Replicants,” genetically engineered beings who can be designed to be mentally and physically equivalent or superior to humans, is possible, and they are widely produced in the aim of slave labor by the Tyrell Corporation. They are given no rights under law, and are banned from existence on Earth. The title of the film refers to a sect of the police force who hunts down escaped Replicants and destroys them. Rick Deckard, himself a Blade Runner, is tasked with finding a group of advanced models of Replicants who are hiding themselves somewhere in Los Angeles in an effort to find a way to extend their genetically coded four year lifespans. As he searches for and finally confronts the renegades, he finds that the minds of these Replicants have tremendously developed beyond their initial design, and must consider the grey area between an intelligence that’s natural and one that’s artificial.
Replicants are created by humans with the sole purpose of servitude. One of the female Replicants is described as being a “… basic pleasure model…” and the others, thanks to their above-human strength, are used for hard labor. They are more than simple robots; they are designed to look, act, and think like we do, or often at a superior level than us. Thus, the central question posed by the film: what separates us from these beings we have created in our image? When the Replicants begin to behave in ways that were not originally intended and their behavior even further resembles that of humans, is it correct to strip them of the same rights we give ourselves, ban their presence from the Earth, and give orders to shoot them on sight?
The film’s commentary on the extent of human rights is similar to some of the themes raised in Aldous Huxley’s 1931 novel Brave New World, albeit in a different context. In this world, a person’s place in society is decided at birth, and they are chemically manipulated to their benefit or detriment as appropriate to their class. It is said and accepted that everybody shares equal rights, but we as readers know this is not true because some people’s basic abilities to think and reason for themselves are forcefully taken away from them. In both Brave New World and Blade Runner, members of society are born to varying levels of physical and mental prowess. The practice is widely accepted by the people of both societies without issue. However, as viewers looking in on the worlds depicted by Huxley and Scott from our time, their works raise several questions of equality in human rights and ponder the possibility of an intellectual being that is described by the mighty Tyrell Corporation as “more human than human.”
Opening introduction: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AbWNZkoQHuE