What does it mean to be human?

Media Studies

Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner poses several questions which it is not necessarily easy to answer. The most important of these is what the film is about. While Blade Runner is known for its main ambiguity concerning whether Deckard himself is a replicant, answering this definitively would do little to answer the question as to what the film is about. For me, this question can be answered first by jettisoning preconceived ideas of the film as an action movie, and then by reconsidering its ending. My reaction to Blade Runner is determined by attempting to understand precisely what happens in the final confrontation between Roy and Deckard. The first time that I watched the film, I found this scene confusing, and even anti-climactic. It seemed to go against conventions of denouements in which a hero would emerge triumphant over an antagonist. Instead, the climax involves the killing of Priss in an intensely traumatic manner followed by Roy easily out-matching Deckard, breaking his fingers, and ultimately choosing to save his life.

Now that I have seen Blade Runner three times, I feel that I understand the beauty of this scene, together with how it relates to the rest of the film. I now see the film not as the story of a heroic, albeit weather-beaten individual who sets out on the kind of quest or mission that one would associate with a more conventional action film, but as a narrative of Deckard’s redemption as a result of his contact with the replicants, specifically with Rachel and with Roy. Roy’s own motivation in the final scene can be explained according to his desire to die well, in a manner which befits the extraordinary life he has led, and the extraordinary attachment he feels to be alive. Any such death must be witnessed and remembered if it is going to count. For Deckard, the sight of seeing Roy express both an extraordinary power and an extraordinary attachment to his own life makes clear to him that the replicants possess a more powerful claim on being alive and on being “human” than any of the non-replicant characters. It is this that motivates him to return immediately to Rachel and to run away with her, saving her life for as long as possible.

The idea that the film is really about Deckard’s redemption also enables me to make sense of one of its most uncomfortable scenes, in which Deckard refuses to allow Rachel to leave his apartment and forces himself on her, insisting that she tells him that she “wants him.” To contemporary sensibilities, this scene is deeply offensive, outdated, and misogynist. One way of reading it, however, is to suggest that the film does not intend to valorize Deckard’s action here, or even to generate any sympathy for him. Rather, Deckard in this scene is still the Deckard who has yet to understand the humanity of the replicants, and, indeed, has yet to understand the importance of his humanity and freedom of choice. It is only after his final encounter with Roy that Deckard begins his redemption proper. Indeed, we can even argue that the fact that Roy sees Deckard as someone worthy to witness Roy’s death does affect Deckard, through which he comes to see himself as a person who is capable of taking action and of embracing life lived according to concern and a love for others. It is this realization that motivates Deckard’s protection of Rachel, and, more than this, the saving of his soul.

When viewed from this perspective, Blade Runner is less concerned with abstract philosophical questions concerning the relationship between artificial intelligence and human life and is more concerned with explicating the power of recognizing, and being recognized by, the humanity of another.