Blade Runner is based on a science fiction novel written by Phillip K. Dick – “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” – and is based around the protagonist Deckard who is a retired L.A. law enforcement officer whose job was to put down any rogue replicants. He is then asked to carry out one last assignment: that of “retiring” a group of replicants which have revolted and are seeking to come to Earth in order to increase their lifespan.
The Voight-Kampff Test
In Blade Runner, the genetically engineered androids known as replicants have to take a test which is similar to that of Alan Turing’s Turing Test which tests a machine’s ability to exhibit human like intelligence and whether it succeeds in fooling the interrogator into thinking that its human. The androids’ behaviour and appearance being extraordinarily close to that of humans makes them indistinguishable and requires them to undertake an intense test called the Voight-Kampff test which involves the human asking the replicant a series of psychological questions whilst scanning the retina and other involuntary responses in order to determine the difference.
One of Tyrell’s Corporation more advanced replicant, Rachel has been made in such a way that even she herself does not know that she is a replicant. When Deckard asks “How can it not know what it is?”, Tyrell explains that he implanted memories in her giving her a sense of self. So the line between the real and artificial is unclear – what makes our individuality more plausible than that of an android? How are our memories more real than those of the replicants?
After all it is our experiences and idiosyncrasies that give us our own sort of narrative context through which we view the world and it is those quirks that programs and androids would have trouble imitating convincingly.
What Blade Runner seems to hint at is that Deckard and other humans (including us!) might also be replicants and are simply not aware of it just like Rachel wasn’t. The film concludes with a scene showing Deckard finding a piece of origami in the shape of a unicorn which, as we see earlier in the film, Deckard was dreaming about. It is left behind by a fellow cop named Gaff and seems to imply the possibility that Deckard too is a replicant otherwise, how would have Gaff known that Deckard was dreaming about a unicorn without having exchanged any words or information about it? It leaves us with the notion that the memories and “sense-of-self” that “classify” us as human might have been programmed into us and that we are simply not aware of it.
Replicants in Blade Runner are sent to off-world colonies and are mainly used for dangerous, menial or leisure work. Them being so similar to humans in both appearance and thought process raises moral and ethical questions: is it wrong to enslave replicants and use them as forced labor? Do they have rights?
In the quote above, Deckard refers to Rachel as an “it” and not a “she”. The lack of equality is also seen see through the way the replicants are treated like outcasts and considered to be our “enemy”. Furthermore, when Deckard is asked to terminate replicants the term used to describe the act of killing is “retiring” and not “killing” or “murdering” which are the terms used when concerning humans.
We also have Zhora who resorted to working as an exotic dancer in order to blend in and not get caught and “retired”. Is it less frowned upon if a replicant is being used for such pleasures or has a demoralising job?
Are Androids Capable of Emotions?
In Blade Runner, the ‘real’ characters come off as quite cold and loveless, whilst the replicants turn out to be the most passionate and sympathetic. In the scene below we see Roy, one of the replicants seeking to increase his lifespan, explaining to Deckard that he’s experienced and seen things that we wouldn’t believe and that those memories will die with him.
If the roles where reversed and Deckard had the opportunity to either kill or save Roy, would he have shown the same level of compassion Roy did, potentially sparing his life? How is Roy’s fear of death and desire to experiences new things any different to that of humans?
Maybe what makes us human isn’t something we can measure or take retinal scans of. Maybe it’s not completely dependant on the way we are genetically coded. Consciousness is something that remains a mystery to this day, so why assume that nothing else other than human could be conscious and feel the same way we feel? Maybe being human all comes down to being capable of producing a kind of self-awareness which grants one the ability to make moral decisions and treat others with the dignity and respect they deserve.