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Blade Runner: What It Means to Be Human

When it opened in 1982, Ridley Scott’s movie “Blade Runner” was a box office flop. But the world’s top scientists recently voted it best science fiction film ever. Maybe now the film will finally gain the audience it deserves.

Blade Runner

"Blade Runner is the best movie ever made."
Dr. Stephen Minger, Kings College, London

Our times are dominated by transforming technologies. Advances such as artificial intelligence, mechanical implants, biotechnology, voice-activated programming, virtual reality, robotics and computer graphics—all once thought to be mere science fiction—are now a reality. These have not only blurred the distinction between human and machine, they have also opened the door to cloning and genetic manipulation.

This was the overriding message of director Ridley Scott's groundbreaking film Blade Runner. However, when Blade Runner opened in 1982, it was routinely panned and attacked. And even though it opened in over 1,200 theaters, it was a certified box office flop.

Three key, yet profound, questions contribute to the core of Blade Runner: Who am I? Why am I here? What does it mean to be human?
Fortunately, the film's discovery on cable TV, videocassette and in revival houses revealed not only a cult film par excellence but an emotionally challenging, thematically complex work whose ideas and subtexts are just as startling as its now-famous production designs. Moreover, according to a recent poll conducted by the British newspaper The Guardian, Blade Runner was chosen as the best science fiction film ever by sixty of the world's top scientists. With this latest honor, perhaps the film will finally gain the audience it deserves and the truths it has to teach us can be revealed.

Set in Los Angeles in the year 2019, Blade Runner shows a world where the sun no longer shines. Instead, a constant rainy drizzle adds to the dark character of this futuristic landscape. The opening shot's aerial perspective suggests a modern Los Angeles, but the audience soon discovers a very different city—the endless archipelago of suburbs have been replaced by a dark and ominous landscape lit only by occasional flare-ups of burning gas at oil refineries. An energy shortage has crippled life in the future. The earth is decayed, and millions of people have been forced to colonize other planets. Those who remain behind live in huge cities consisting of a conglomeration of new buildings 400 stories high and the dilapidated remains of earlier times. The crunch and crush of the modern population seems overwhelming and totally dehumanizing.

Genetic engineering has become one of the earth's major industries, with humans now assuming the role of "maker" and "creator." Since most of the world's animals have become extinct, genetic engineers now produce artificial animals. And artificial humans called "replicants" are manufactured by the mega-giant Tyrell Corporation. The replicants only have a four-year lifespan, however, and were created to do the difficult, hazardous and often tedious work necessary in the colonies on other planets.

When the replicants somehow make their way back to earth, they are systematically "retired" (but not "killed" since they are inhuman) by special detectives or "blade runners" trained to track down and liquidate the infiltrators. The point is that the replicants have no right to be on earth because they were developed for off-world situationsmilitary, industrial, mining. They are a second-class generation developed for inhospitable environments and dangerous or boring work.

The most vital question confronting us is how to maintain humanness in the human race in the face of overwhelming technology that tends to dehumanize us.
The film shifts dramatically when the replicants, who are on a mission to extend their short life span, display a stronger sense of community than the human beings on earth. After his three partners are destroyed by explosive bullets, the fourth replicant, Batty, succeeds in finding his way to Tyrell himself, the master of the Tyrell Corporation and the genetic engineering genius who designed him. Batty wants to have his genetic code altered to extend his assigned four-year life span. He simply wants to live. But when he discovers he cannot, Batty kills Tyrell in a despairing rage, calling him (as Zeus to Cronos) "Father." At one point, Batty remarks: "It's a hard thing to meet your maker."

The importance of Blade Runner is that it reaches for higher truths. Thus, it cannot be understood without comprehending the deeply felt moral, philosophical, ecological and sociological concerns that are interwoven throughout the story.

Three key, yet profound, questions contribute to the core of Blade Runner: Who am I? Why am I here? What does it mean to be human? These are the same basic questions that humanity has faced since the dawn of time. The eternal problems in the film are, thus, essentially moral ones. That is, should replicants kill to gain more life? Should the blade runners kill the replicants simply because they want to exist?

Defining what it means to be human provides most of Blade Runner's philosophical focus. This is increasingly the dilemma faced by contemporary society—that is, the most vital question confronting us is how to maintain humanness in the human race in the face of overwhelming technology that tends to dehumanize us.

The film is based on a novel by Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? "Sheep stemmed from my basic interest in the problem of differentiating the authentic human being from the reflexive machine, which I call an android," Dick once said. "In my mind android is a metaphor for people who are psychologically human but behaving in a nonhuman way."

Do we reach for the one downed by the crushing perplexity of modernity or do we merely pass by?
During research for an earlier work, Dick had discovered diaries by SS men stationed in Poland. One sentence in particular had a profound effect on him. That sentence read, "We are kept awake at night by the cries of starving children." As he explained, "There is obviously something wrong with the man who wrote that. I later realized that, with the Nazis, what we were essentially dealing with was a defective group mind, a mind so emotionally defective that the word 'human' could not be applied to them."

"Worse," Dick noted, "I felt that this was not necessarily a sole German trait. This deficiency had been exported into the world after World War II and could be picked up by people anywhere, at any time."

The dilemma is even more acute now than when Dick was penning Sheep for we have moved deeper into the methodological terrain of a new worldone more than ever dominated by what we believe to be the machine. And with the daily bombardment of entertainment distractions, it is no wonder that only a few realize what is happening to them.

The ultimate relevance of Blade Runner lies in its challenge of what it means to be human. It raises the eternal gnawing doubt as to our own humanity or lack of it. These are the same issues raised by the great religions and philosophies of the past. And it goes to how we respond to the pain of those around us. Do we reach for the one downed by the crushing perplexity of modernity or do we merely pass by, forgetting about that grizzled human lying on the sidewalk who is drowning in the gutter created by the disintegrating and dehumanizing post-modern existence?

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September 15, 2004

Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. He can be contacted at [email protected]

Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

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