Blade Runner, preserved in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”, is regarded by many critics as one of the all-time best science fiction films. It is hailed for its technological innovation, as well as its production design, which depicts a highly original “retrofitted” future. Blade Runner’s investment in the interrogation of technology’s dystopian tendencies and incorporation of detective genre motifs into a science-fiction setting bring viewers’ nightmares about urbanization to life. As a film, it operates on multiple dramatic and narrative levels, but the questionable moral outlook of Deckard – including reflections upon the nature of his own humanity – is the most prominent.
A paranoid aura pervades the film: the corporate power of Tyrell looms large; the police and their spinners are omnipresent; vehicle and warning lights probe into buildings; and the consequences of huge biomedical power over the individual, especially the consequences of implanted memories for replicants, are explored. Environmental Control also takes place on a vast scale, hand in hand with the absence of natural life, evidenced by artificial animals roaming in place of extinct predecessors. This oppressive backdrop serves as explanation for the frequently-referenced migration of humans to “off-world” colonies. These dystopian themes and the recurring motifs, such as eyes and manipulated images, call humans’ ability to accurately perceive and remember reality into question and provide uncertainty for Blade Runner’s central theme of examining humanity.
In order to expose replicants, the Voight-Kampff machine (an empathy test) with a number of questions focused on the treatment of animals – seemingly an indicator of “humanity” – is used. The replicants are compassionate and concerned for one another, juxtaposed against the mass of humanity on the streets that lacks empathy and is impersonal. The film goes so far as to put in doubt whether Deckard is human, and the audience is forced to re-evaluate the meaning of “being human”. As I watched Deckard’s unicorn dream sequence, coinciding with Gaff’s parting gift of an origami unicorn, I began to believe that Deckard is, in fact, a replicant – as Gaff could have accessed Deckard’s implanted memories. However, I also began to ponder whether the unicorn imagery was being used to convey that the characters, human or replicant, share the same dreams and are finally recognizing their similitude.
Nevertheless, the ambiguity and uncertainty of the film, as well as its textual richness, have permitted viewers like myself to gather their own perspectives on the underlying moral question and formulate their own ideas on “what makes us human” for over 30 years.