Blade Runner, BBC’s Being Human, and Humanity
In the series finale of BBC’s Being Human, vampiric character Hal Yorke suffers a return to his evil self. Once he becomes “Bad Hal” he begins to taunt his former comrades, a ghost and a werewolf.
I’m not a part of this little project now, which gives me clarity that I didn’t have before. Annie, George, Mitchell, Nina, the two of you. None of you realized. None of us realized, it’s the desire to be human is the end, not the beginning. To want it, is to have it. You’re not wasting your time Tom, you’ve already won.
With this quote, the thesis of Being Human is revealed. The characters, in performing the actions of humanity, have become human. Humanity is more than an intrinsic, unalterable quality. It is no longer innate. Humanity is both a practice and a desire. It is something performed and learned, through trial and error. To want it is to have it. To seek it is to find it.
I think Blade Runner, in both incarnations, takes this stance, through the characters of Deckard, Rachel, K, and Joi.
Firstly, it must be noted that there is still no definitive answer as to whether Deckard is a replicant. Harrison Ford says no. Ridley Scott says yes. The abundance of cuts to the movie means that there is no single version which can be held up as an objective truth, and the sequel itself refuses to draw a line in the proverbial sand.
The line between humanity and inhumanity is one that Blade Runner considers and discards. Lieutenant Joshi warns K that the birth of a replicant child must be concealed, for fear of inciting a conflict between the two sides.
The world is built in a wall that separates kind. Tell either side there’s no wall, you’ve bought a war. Or a slaughter.
To maintain the status quo, and the idea of humanity as exceptional, a wall must be established. K’s job as a Blade Runner, and the function of his LAPD division, is to enforce this divide.
The idea of the permeability of this wall is toyed with in the original film. Gaff, in his parting message to Deckard, equates him with Rachel: “It’s too bad she won’t live! But then again, who does?” By acknowledging that both humans and replicants have an expiry date, the wall is breached.
Gaff also notes that Deckard has done “a man’s job.” It doesn’t matter to the viewer, to Deckard, or even to the narrative if Deckard is a replicant. What matters is that he performs his tasks, he feels he is human, and he acts accordingly. He is human in every meaningful sense — at least, in the senses that the film deems important. Rachel does not know she is a replicant for the majority of the film: does she become a replicant when she identifies as one? Or is she a replicant all along? What does it mean for someone to be human, if they are fundamentally not? Isn’t believing and acting accordingly enough?
In 2049, despite the moody, luxurious atmosphere there is also the same feeling of reaching. Just like Adam reaches for God’s hand, the replicants in 2049 reach for a feeling of normalcy, which they equate with being human. K and Joi exemplify this wistful grasping.
While it is easy to dismiss Joi’s character as a man projecting his desires onto a feminine object, I think her story contains much more emotional resonance for the audience. Joi is as nominally human as K is, and constantly talks about K becoming a “real boy” and herself becoming a “real girl.” Her story-line exists to show how deeply lonely and empty K’s life is, but exists on its own as a story of a creature struggling to define herself.
It’s notable that K treats her as if she is human herself: he playacts at humanity with her. They eat meals together, he reads to her, he dances with her. But he doesn’t share his real self with her: even though she knows full well what his occupation is, and rides along with him on the job, he still holds up the pretense of a normal life. When he comes home after being stabbed in the arm, he tells her he had an “accident” at work, and stitches himself up out of her sight. Throughout the film, she is his biggest cheerleader, telling him what he wants to hear, just as advertised: that he is loved. That he is special. That he is born, not made.
But he doesn’t view himself as more real than her. When Joi points out that she is made of code and he is made of DNA, he tells her that she is more elegantly designed, that’s all. They are each no more real than the other, and distinguished only by their coding. Though the Blade Runner franchise is obsessed with birth as a signifier of humanity, it also transcends the idea of origin determining fate.
2049 constantly toys with the idea of humanity as a conscious choice. When K asks if Deckard’s dog is real, Deckard says “I don’t know. Ask him.” This throwaway joke belies the central conceit of Blade Runner: that one’s humanity, or even one’s reality, depends on one’s perception of themselves. What does it mean for any one of us to be human? Is it an innate quality of birth or an act we must perform daily? One idea is a lot more comfortable to entertain than the other.