More Human Than Human

February 6, 2017 § 3 Comments

If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it’s probably a duck. My guess is that the futuristic dystopia in which Blade Runner is set has put an addendum on this old saying: If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it’s probably a duck or a replicant duck so call in a trained professional who can tell you which it is and whether you should “retire” it on the spot. (Disclaimer: I realize that in the Blade Runner universe replicant animals would not have carried the same “kill on the spot” stigma as replicant humans. But you get my point, right?)

The film Blade Runner, directed by Ridley Scott and based on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Phillip K. Dick, matches its optimism for human engineering capabilities with pessimism for human capacity for empathy.

The replicants of Blade Runner are a major departure from robots the like of Asimov’s in a number of ways. First, and most obviously, we have physical appearance. From sight alone it is effectively impossible to tell human from replicant (in fact, watching this film for the first time as a kid I definitely thought they were clones or something). The Tyrell Corporation has created them guided by the ideal “More human than human”. Which is just such an interesting concept to me. Replicants are essentially a slave-labor force. Why would society want their slaves as “humanlike” as possible if there was any other option? What does this say about mankind in the year 2019? Maybe not mankind as a whole, but at least the Tyrell Corporation is depicted as having serious god-complex/sadistic tendencies. As we saw with Frankenstein, there is something very dangerously empowering about creating an imitation of humanity. (Don’t worry, more on why the Tyrell Corporation is the literal worst later.)

Another factor that sets the replicants apart from other depictions of robots is that they themselves are the villains of the story. “What are you talking about, Olivia? Robots are vilified all the time in literature and film!” You’re not wrong, internal projection of what readers must be thinking. However, generally speaking, robots become villains due to the direct influence of humans (i.e. humans manipulating them directly or robots misinterpreting their programming). The Terminator and HAL-9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey are prime examples of this. In this scenario, however, the replicants have very distinctive, very human motivations, and they are actively choosing to take action. These “human motivations” I speak of go back to Tyrell Corporation’s slogan “more human than human”, as well as my reasoning for why they are the worst. Tyrell created his replicants to be identical to humans in every way, except for emotions. However, the corporation hypothesizes that they will begin to develop emotions after a few years. To combat this, they implement a “failsafe” four-year lifespan. The implication of this is that Tyrell allows his creations to live just long enough to have the capacity to care about life, and then he kills them.

I have stated that the replicants are the villains; however, had Blade Runner been told from the perspective of the replicants this film would have been completely different. There was no evil plot in this movie. No robot trying to take over the world or enslave humanity. First, before the events of the movie, there was a group of replicants, enslaved by humans, who led a “bloody mutiny” in a bid for freedom. Then we have a group of replicants who look, think, and feel as humans do, and have realized that their time is almost up. Fond of the notion of being alive, they seek out their creator in hopes of salvation. Sure, there was some brutal skull crushing along the way, but if you take nothing else from this blog please know that Dr. Eldon Tyrell deserved it. (Disclaimer: I do not condone murder or violence of any kind)

This is a world where robots have profound emotions and desperately want to live and enjoy them. On the other hand, humans are largely portrayed as cold and merciless (with notable exceptions in Deckard and somewhat in Sebastian). That said, in spite of basically everything I’ve said in this entire blog, while watching this movie I was rooting for Deckard and the downfall of the replicants. As a human I am naturally inclined to side with humans over robots. Even in this case where the robots may in fact be more human than the humans.


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§ 3 Responses to More Human Than Human

  • apchannell says:

    After reading your post, I’m interested in your comments of the “profound emotions” of the replicants compared to the “cold and merciless” nature of the humans, with Deckard noted as your exception to this rule. Since the initial release of the film in 1982, fans have debated whether Deckard himself is also a replicant (specifically, the sixth rogue replicant who is never seen in the movie but is referenced several times). Adding to the confusion were the movie’s multiple cuts (seven, to be precise) which implied Deckard’s non-human status to varying degrees. Even actor Harrison Ford was unsure whether his own character was human or a replicant, as the script never explicitly stated one way or another, and Director Ridley Scott gave the actor very few directions on how to play Deckard.

    However, in the 2000’s, this argument was put to rest when Ridley Scott confirmed that Deckard is, in fact, a replicant. In the 2007 final cut of the movie, the version I viewed, there are several clues presented which hint at Deckard’s replicant status.

    First, the Voight-Kampff test, which is used to measure empathy as a means to differentiate human behavior from replicants. While Deckard is skilled at administering the Voight-Kampff test, he is never shown taking it, and when asked if he has taken it, he gives no reply.

    Second, his past. Little is known about his past, and Deckard keeps a large collection of old, black-and-white photographs, for which replicants are known to have an affinity, as it allows them to reconnect to implanted memories.

    Third, on the topic of implanted memories, there is Deckard’s dream, where he watches a unicorn run through a forest. The insertion of his dream sequence into the film is a jarring cut, with a setting that bears no resemblance to the environment we always see Deckard in (2019 Los Angeles). At the end of the film, he finds an origami unicorn outside his apartment, almost certainly a calling card left by Gaff. Discounting the possibility that the dream unicorn and the origami are totally unrelated, which would be almost staggeringly inept film-making, it seems likely that external knowledge of Deckard’s dream signals to the viewer that Deckard’s dream is a plant, as would be his past.

    In your post, you stated that “As a human I am naturally inclined to side with humans over robots.” I would take this one step further and say that as film-goers, we are naturally inclined to side with the protagonist over other characters. We are never explicitly told that Deckard is human. We are simply told a story from his perspective, and with his status as the central character come several assumptions. We assume his actions are sympathetic and meant to be understood, we assume that his story is the most important in the universe we are immersing ourselves in, we assume we are meant to be in his corner. In reality, many of Deckards actions are predatory, violent, and cold. But he’s played by Harrison Ford, so he must be the good guy.

    This concept can be extended to most interpersonal interactions, from social cliques to international affairs. We side with those whose stories we know, even if those stories may be planted and artificial like Deckard’s. Because we know who we’re meant to side with, we assume our in-group to be more sympathetic, more worthy of support, more human.

    Even if, like Deckard, they’re not.

    Regardless of whether Deckard is human or a replicant, I can’t wait for flying cars to become popular in the next two years. 2019’s gonna be crazy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Olivia Peel says:

      This is an excellent point. I was under the impression that the new “Blade Runner 2049” movie killed the “Is Deckard a Replicant” conversation (what with Harrison Ford being more than four years older an whatnot) but I suppose I should probably wait to see it before factoring it into my argument.
      You are right in saying that Deckard tends towards “predatory” (good word for the situation), but I found him to be a highly sympathetic character. He is far from nonchalant about killing (the whole “I still get the shakes” scene) and he exhibits a very real fear when facing Roy. One thing I really like about Deckard as an action protagonist is that when faced with a scenario that would have most humans cowering in a puddle on the floor, he is not completely calm and in control.
      This above paragraph, I think, becomes much more interesting if he is, in fact, a replicant (which I’ll take your word for it that he is. You make a good argument, my friend). He is not human. He is a robot. But he is very very human in his characterization, more so than comparable protagonists from other action series (James Bond comes to mind but is probably arguable).


  • bkcallander says:

    I’m curious about our own predispositions about Dr. Tyrell. The film portrays his character as inherently misguided/evil, a common motif for the creators of an AI. This stems largely from his decision to create robot slaves that think and feel like human beings. You say yourself that you were happy when he met his end. In contrast, Sebastian seems entirely unaware of the lives he changes with his inventions. Are there only two possible motives for creating an AI? Does the process have to be fueled by either willful negligence or nefarious intent? Obviously, these options make for a good story, but narratives like Blade Runner do not bode well for the future of AI.


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