Pop culture is currently enjoying a thriving fascination with the potential humanity of artificial intelligence and androids. Spike Jonze’s Her (2013) and Alex Garland’s Ex-Machina (2014) both explored the capacity for romance between humans and human-made creations. Even TV shows like Black Mirror and HBO’s Westworld meditate on potential humanity of AI. Although technological advancement has certainly fueled this current interest, we should also recognize the lasting influence of a film that was truly ahead of its time: Blade Runner (1982).
Before 1982, Hollywood and cinema overall offered a much different treatment of androids: They were often seen as villainous and, most significantly, hopelessly inhuman. The android from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), while seemingly human, remains a lifeless, coldhearted machine underneath its convincing exterior. Although a computing system capable of emotions like jealousy, pride, and fear, HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is largely remembered for his inhumanity, especially in contrast to the protagonist Dave. Likewise, the hosts in Westworld (1973) are remembered for their senseless violence, not for their desire for self-determination as shown in HBO’s adaptation. And perhaps most interestingly, we remember Ash the android science officer from Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) for his admiration towards the alien and its freedom from “conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality,” those most human qualities.
Blade Runner flipped the script. The replicants – enslaved, bio-engineered people with a limited lifespan – become the face of humanity while their human counterparts exemplify inhumane qualities (prejudice, insensitivity, and heartlessness). Instead of using the presumed inhumanity of androids to stroke our own egos, Blade Runner gives us a mirror to see our egos for what they really are.
And what they are is, in a word, inflated. Take this scene: Rachael (Sean Young) is asked emotionally provocative questions while being monitored by a Voight-Kampff device, which identifies replicants based on empathetic responses. Unlike most, it takes more than a hundred questions for Rachael to test positive, and her creator, Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel), marvels in his own work. Blade runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) keeps a cooler head.
“She doesn’t know,” he observes.
“She’s beginning to suspect,” Tyrell muses.
“Suspect? How can it not know what it is?”
He stares down at Deckard. “Commerce is our goal here at Tyrell,” he responds. ‘More human than human’ is our motto.”
More human indeed. Tyrell’s apathy towards Rachael and the replicant experience not only reveals his inhumanity, but the lows that society has reached. Here is a man whose slave industry encourages and buttresses humanity’s own inhumanity, as evidenced by socially accepted slurs (“skin-jobs”) and the use of the word “retirement” to excuse murder. So while we can understand Tyrell’s capitalist attitude, we come to realize the troubling irony running through his company’s motto: It suggests that it is we who are inhuman.
Blade Runner’s influence was immediate. From Aliens (1986) to Moon (2009) and many in between, cinema began to focus (albeit to varying degrees) on the potential humanity in androids. And as mentioned, its legacy persists today in recent works like Her and HBO’s Westworld. But how does Blade Runner: 2049 (2017) address and push the boundaries laid by its predecessor? Where Blade Runner meditates on what makes something human, 2049 asks how fertility, the capacity to bring new life into existence, further blurs the distinction between humans and replicants.
Relations between humans and replicants remain tense in the world of 2049. Police Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright), alongside replicant blade runner K (Ryan Gosling), feels this tension acutely after discovering that a replicant had miraculously given birth several decades ago and that the child is likely still alive. Fearing societal collapse if word spreads, Joshi orders K to find and retire the natural-born replicant. Although programmed to obey without question, K seems oddly hesitant.
“I’ve never retired something that was born before,” he muses.
“What’s the difference?”
“To be born is to have a soul, I guess,” he responds.
K reassures Joshi that he will complete his mission and heads to the door as she says, “You’ve been getting on fine without one.”
“What’s that, madam?”
Joshi’s disturbing desire for K’s obedience and her dismissiveness about the souls of replicants reveals the human perspective that replicants should remain servants. This sentiment is shared and exaggerated by the film’s villain Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), whose Wallace Corporation has succeeded Tyrell Corporation. Upon learning of the replicant birth, Wallace overlooks the event’s philosophical implications. “I cannot breed them,” he admits after slicing open the “barren” womb of a recently made replicant. “So help me, I have tried.” For him, replicant fertility (and his control of it) creates a simplified production line in which his products produce themselves. Wallace sees replicants as servants, yet interprets their fertility as a commercial opportunity. Such attitudes reassert the festering inhumanity among humans.
Where humans have abdicated their responsibility for life, replicants now attempt to assume this role. The notion and fact of replicant birth, as evidenced by K’s musings, not only further blurs the physical difference between human and replicant but the metaphysical as well: If a replicant child has a soul, the replicant suddenly owns that immaterial quality enjoyed by humans and, as a consequence, seems less of a servant to “retire” than a being entitled to self-determination. The replicant sex worker Mariette (Mackenzie Davis) and Fresya (Hiam Abbas), the leader of the replicant rebels, promote this philosophy when they finally meet with K.
“If we can give birth, we are our own masters,” she claims.
“More human than humans,” Mariette echoes.
Where we once ironically agreed with Tyrell, we now sincerely agree with Mariette. In contemplating the human significance of birth, the film compounds the original message of Blade Runner – what, exactly, makes something “human” – by confronting the responsibilities that come with being human, namely, the preservation of life. By the film’s logic, to be human and have the ability to beget new life means to have a responsibility for one another, for the world we find ourselves within, and for life at large. The humans of Blade Runner and 2049 have long abandoned that responsibility. To join Deckard, K, and the replicant struggle for the right to live is not only to understand what it means to be human, but to remember the responsibilities that accompany our humanity.