More Human than Human or, Do Atheists Dream of Electric Sheep?

i. “I am the business.”

Rick Deckard: is he, or isn’t he, that is the question. Human or android? Blade Runner or replicant?

Inexorably, fans’ perspective on this matter will radically inform their interpretation of the film. To an interesting degree, it may also offer insight into their philosophy regarding morality, and even existence.
It should be acknowledged that while Blade Runner, naturally, owes a considerable debt to the novel it’s based on — Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? — the two have significant differences and should be considered as separate entities, at least for the purposes of this discussion.

The central disparity between novel and film is that in Dick’s version, Deckard is unquestionably a human being. In the film, of course, the matter is decidedly more ambiguous; indeed, the concern of how one construes his “true” identity provides the film’s enigmatic tension, and its enduring resonance.

Complicating things further was the decision — at the studio’s insistence, after tepid audience reaction during initial screenings — to have Harrison Ford add hackneyed narration throughout the film, ostensibly to clarify important plot elements (read: to tell less discerning viewers what to think). This unfortunate concession effectively ensured that Deckard was, in fact, to be viewed as a human protagonist.

The movie didn’t do especially well upon its release in 1982 and, with hindsight, seemed almost predetermined to become not merely a cult classic, but an archetype of sorts even within that refined category. Its ostensible flaws as commercial fare remain a credit to its intelligence and ambiguity — two attributes that don’t typically portend box office success. More, what begins as a standard action/detective story gradually expands to become a thoughtful meditation on morality, a tour de force of existentialism.

The 1992 Director’s Cut (which, aside from the insertion of one brief but crucial scene, is actually the unfettered original version) makes a compelling, even incontrovertible case that Deckard’s a replicant after all. Harrison hated the narration and, in fact, hoped by delivering it in a fashion somnolent even for him, it would be discarded. He should have known never to underestimate the judgment and intelligence of studio bosses. Ridley, on the other hand, has remarked that while he too loathed the narration, he felt it was sufficiently obvious Deckard was a replicant. (His sardonic, if refreshing take on the matter: “If you don’t know you are a moron.”)

The pertinent issue, then, is not so much whether Deckard is human; it’s how this cognizance clouds — or clarifies — the sublime climax of the film, where Deckard’s prime target, the replicant Roy Batty, after overpowering (and outsmarting) him, saves his life — then allows him to live. And, while overt comparisons between Batty and Christ might seem banal on a superficial level, it’s his actions and not his character that accords Blade Runner an ethical gravity not found (or necessarily intended) in the novel.

ii. “Wake up! Time to die!”

Of the many questions this film poses, the ones that loom largest involve Deckard’s identity. If, for instance, Deckard’s not a human being, how does this complicate his actions and reactions (and, an implicit question for the audience: how does our knowledge of his true identity color our impression of his actions — and the reactions of others, human and otherwise)? Also, assuming Deckard is a replicant, does it not mitigate the import of Roy Batty’s ultimate decision to liberate him? (Answer: no.)

Batty discerns he’s about to die (or, expire), and harbors no illusions he’s human and that — for him, anyway — there’s an afterlife. He has been made to acknowledge, with certainty, nothing but nothingness awaits him; that existence is not merely arbitrary (a fundamental human dilemma) but, for him, fabricated. Nevertheless, he saves the life of a police officer paid to “retire” him. This act abundantly, if ironically fulfills Batty’s purpose of being “more human than human”. His decision, in this light, to act unselfishly despite recognizing there will be no reward, should be viewed as heroic, and not a little inspiring.

“Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it? That’s what it is to be a slave,” Batty says, resignedly, to Deckard. As we’ve seen, these replicants have been created solely to serve the pleasure of the men (gods?) who created them. Earlier models, it’s explained, were indeed used for slave labor; these Nexus 6 prototypes, led by Batty, are endowed with advanced physical and mental abilities. As such, they come to realize — despite being implanted with human memories — that their lives are predetermined, and very brief.

One can understand why they rebel. The revelation that they’re fanciful and expensive experiments is capable of making even nihilism seem quaint, beyond the ken of even the most smugly despondent post-structuralist. Or else a case study of detached deconstruction, taken to extremes that might make even Derrida blush: always-already aware that your reality — and utility — was carefully planned long before you ever assumed consciousness.

This comprehension, with good reason, generates dismay amongst the Nexus 6 replicants, and should arouse empathy from the viewer. How interesting (peculiar, even) that these same parameters, adjusted for aesthetics, are precisely what oblige the faithful to find value and consequence in their lives. Or, put another way, one can imagine even the most reflexively staunch believer appalled by the notion that there is a God, but life nevertheless ceases at death. Cynics can — and do — point out that a totalitarian dynamic based in fear is the very nature of organized religion. If we are, by decree, slaves compliant to our creator here on earth, we’ll be redeemed forever, in Heaven. This is the tacit covenant that makes belief agreeable, if bearable.

It’s inevitable to surmise, with the contextual evidence on offer (via the Director’s Cut), anyone still insisting Deckard’s a human is not unlike one who asserts — often with the self-righteous assurance of the zealot — that without the concept of God (and eternity) there is no grace; no reason for benevolence. This, of course, is merely cowardice disguised as faith: the need to believe says much about the individual and little about the ethos.

As such, we can conclude that because Batty’s act is witnessed and, more, received, it has meaning beyond the gesture: affirming life, and saving a life while one’s own life is ending. Batty’s deed is not an act of rescue so much as one of redemption. It underscores the hopes and fears of every sentient — or at least sensitive — being: What was I? What do I leave behind? What will I become? By living, Deckard keeps Batty alive; by remembering, he ensures Batty’s sacrifice has significance aside from the act itself. Of course, it would have meaning, in the metaphysical sense, even if it was unrecorded.

iii. “All those moments will be lost in time…”

The notion of doing good for good’s sake is an ideal articulated in the writings of difficult artists ranging from Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky to Melville and Poe. In the 20th Century, after the events that preceded and accompanied World War II, it’s remarkable that poetry, prose, music and movies continue to reinforce a defiance of despair as opposed to a begrudging — or lethargic — acknowledgment of life’s meaninglessness. Put more plainly, ample evidence supporting altruism exists that’s not contingent upon religious faith; indeed, much of it actively eschews dogma.

As humans we create meaning, even if we ultimately resolve that life is meaningless. Our outlook is still the result of deliberation, however dejected. It is, in fact, those insisting only God can imbue meaning (since He created everything) who argue that the absence of God obviates meaning. This position, inculcated by rote, isn’t merely flawed intellectually; it’s defective, morally. The correlation between religious fanaticism and the violence it can inspire — and provide cover for — is well-documented. Disturbingly, the thin line between faith and desolation is reason enough to be grateful many would-be sociopaths are compelled by their belief, or suspension of belief, to determine there’s actual value (or, again, meaning) in their own existence; there’s motivation to choose amity over annihilation.

It is, then, with Batty, that the film turns typical theology upside down. The redeeming (and, redeemed) character is, in a sense, dying for the sins of others, but will receive neither reward nor restoration. Not for nothing does Tyrell, after confirming Batty’s worst fears, declare him to be “the prodigal son.” Certainly, one could make a career out of the religious imagery invoked throughout the narrative (the nails in the palms, the brutal beating he suffers, the futile entreaty to his creator, etc.).

On a purely practical level, if one reckons that the ends justify the means, the notion of using Christ as a model is commendable, particularly when it results in the pursuit of reconciliation over aggression. Indeed, the idea that organized religion was designed as a self-perpetuating (and quite effective) system to organize and supervise the masses is unoriginal enough to be dismissed as cliché. And yet, considering the ultimate objective of Christian fellowship is to inspire conduct sufficient to earn everlasting life, it’s difficult to argue which is more disingenuous: the self-serving ecclesiastics or those who see through it, yet utilize it for personal gain or to consolidate control.

The figure of Christ is enduringly appealing, as a literary figure, for His acts of kindness and care. But concerning the biblical moments of transcendence, the miracles distance Him from us; whereas Batty’s final gesture is made with the understanding that he’ll gain no favors, here or elsewhere. As such, it would cheapen his sacrifice to give Christianity unearned credit and declare this an act of Christ-like mercy; rather, it’s an enduring gesture of human grace. As such, it remains a persuasive and provocative advertisement for what we’re capable of when we’re most fully human or more, when we transcend our inherent (see: selfish) human limitations. Blade Runner remains the ultimate paradox: a movie about the impermanence — even the construction — of humanity, yet it makes one of the greatest cases for compassion and charity.

This essay originally appeared at The Weeklings on 10/17/16.