It’s undeniable that Blade Runner is a philosophical film. The plot of the film follows the human protagonist, Deckard, as he tracks four fugitive replicants. These replicants are synthetic beings, trying to reach their maker, a biotechnology mogul named Tyrell in an attempt to ask him to extend their short four-year lifespans.
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The premise is blatantly philosophical, the parallel here being that these creatures who are humanized throughout the film are on a mission to beg their Creator to grant them a little more life. And as we get deeper into the film, other philosophical issues emerge. It would be easy then to say that Blade Runner is a movie that’s very concerned with existentialism, in that the main conceit of the movie has to do with definitions of humanity. On first blush, it would be easy to say that humanity is something that the film is preoccupied with, juxtaposing ‘natural’ humans against ‘artificial’ replicants. After all, replicants were “designed to copy human beings in every way except their emotions…” (15 mins) as the film quite clearly states to us. And yet, the actual difference between these replicants and these human beings are muddied. The primary test used to discern human from replicant, the Voight-Kampff empathy test, relies upon bodily responses to emotionally provocative questions such as respiration, heart rate, blushing and eye movement, and yet at least once during the film a replicant, Rachel, is able to put that test into question. Indeed, the film goes out of its way to muddy our definitions of humanity, of what really constitutes a human. It would be easy then, to say that Blade Runner is a movie that’s very concerned with humanity, but that statement would be debatable on account of the fact that the subject of that statement is debatable within the confines of the movie.
Rather than humanity, Blade Runner is preoccupied with the question of authenticity, of existing, of the validity of one’s own experience. The famous quote by Descartes is repeated by one of the replicants within the film. “I think, therefore I am,” and in part it’s the same questions Descartes grappled with in his Meditations that this film grapples with now. The ultimate conclusion of Descartes meditations is that the mind and soul exist in a separate state from the body. That is to say, the essence of man is located in his ability to reason. It could be argued that this is the tact Blade Runner takes in its struggle with the question of being. The film does recognize various levels of intellectual development among the replicants, and even among the protagonist. And yet, the idea that the mind is the only thing that really matters with regards to the question of being is something the film tacitly rejects. As I’ve stated previously, the primary test used to determine replicant from human, the Voight-Kampff test, relies upon involuntary reactions to emotional questions. It’s already been stated that replicants are as intelligent if not more intelligent than humans, emotional reactions are the only way within the confines of the film to discern replicant from human. Moreover, the film goes out of its way to highlight emotional reactions within the replicants in stark contrast to the lack of emotion on Deckard’s part.
There’s Roy Batty’s heartfelt soliloquy near the end of the film and his death, the famous “tears in rain” soliloquy that occurs right after he saved Rick Deckard’s life despite Deckard being the one who was sent to terminate him. “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.” (106 mins) According to Descartes, Batty’s last words would be meaningful in that they highlight the memories that have driven his short life, and memories and the mind are the essence of being. That’s not really the point the film is making with this scene, however. This scene is emotive, meant to evoke strong heartbreaking emotion, in that it humanizes Batty by restoring something personal to his short experiences. Batty not only saves Deckard’s life, despite the fact that Deckard’s been killing his friends and loved ones, but he also enlightens his pursuer through one empathetic action by sparing his pursuer’s life. This not only subverts the stigma associated with replicants that has been showcased throughout the film, but it transcends it. In this vein, there are many flourishes that humanize these replicants throughout the film: there is Zhora’s anguish and terror while fleeing Deckard (55 mins), Pris’ amusement with Sebastian’s genetically engineered toys (73 mins), Roy’s “precious photos” (25 mins). In contrast, Deckard’s lack of affect is one of the defining traits of his character. His perpetual grumpiness, his dourness and cynicism, all of these things serve to sort of dehumanize his character in a way. Some of his actions too, most notably the part of the film where he shoots Zhora in the back, the killing framed as an execution in cold blood. Likewise, Deckard’s ‘retirement’ of Pris (93 mins) is framed in a cold light, with Deckard as a killer and Pris bleeding and convulsing violently on the ground, in agony. The replicant Batty, on the other hand, mourns his fellow replicant, whom he loves: kissing her corpse and whimpering like a heartbroken wolf. (95, 97 mins) It is in these ways that the film places tacit emphasis upon all of these emotional reactions, upon casting these characters based upon their emotional reactions, upon highlighting within the film that emotional reactions and emotions in particular are important. All of this silently suggests that these levels of emotional sophistication are more important for understanding that question of being. In this way Blade Runner rejects the conceit of Descartes’ Meditations, making them a poor choice of text in which to frame the film. Blade Runner is concerned with the question of authenticity and being, but not framed within the context of thought.
Instead of Descartes, Blade Runner echoes the words of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger. “If I take death into my life, acknowledge it, and face it squarely, I will free myself from the anxiety of death and the pettiness of life— and only then will I be free to become myself.” The questions of heritage and death are more tangible within the film than the questions of thought or humanity, which informs our questions of being. The distinctive kind of being Heidegger was interested in is referred to as Dasein within his work, Being and Time. What is Dasein though? In English, it is translated literally as ‘there-being’ but within the confines of Heidegger’s work it refers to the idea that human beings are the only ones who are able to encounter these questions of being, and that it is the fact that we’re able to ponder on the meanings of our existences that really give us Dasein. The question has to be asked then, how does Blade Runner address this question of Dasein within the context of the film and its replicant characters? Do replicants encounter these questions of the meaning of being like humans? I’ll pause here to note that there are two things that Heidegger discusses in relation to Dasein, as a way of explaining why Dasein has the particular character that it does. These components deal with heritage, and death. I’ll also pause again to note that in order to really answer these questions some basic characteristics with regards to the replicants shown within the film have to be noted. The Nexus series of replicants, as I have made note of previously, are designed to replicate humans in their entirety. They’re designed to be stronger, faster, and more intelligent so as to perform menial labor better.
The caveat is that these replicants are supposedly not endowed with human emotions, the idea of emotions something the film struggles with up to and including the test that is required to spot a replicant in the first place. The Nexus 6 series of replicants that feature in this film are also given a shortened lifespan, of only four years. Moreover, in order to prevent these replicants from becoming unstable, they have been implanted with false memories. An example here would be the case of Rachael, who was given a set of memories copied from Eldon Tyrell’s niece as a kind of test-bed replicant. It’s here that heritage comes into play, the temporal aspect of Being and Time. Heritage is kind of the way Daseing refers to the past of a particular being, the past referring to the cultural history of some particular group. The idea is that every individual that is Dasein will experience life shaped by pre-established, conditioned patterns of meaning. Events within their life are shaped by their cultural heritage, culturally conditioned patterns of interpreting the world. We’re all products of our environments, having been inducted into particular cultures, and therefore we grow into pre-established ways of interpreting the world around us, essentially. One of the more interesting conflicts in the film occurs when Rachael learns from Deckard that she is a replicant, with implanted memories that truly aren’t her own. In Heideggerian terms, her realization is serious not because she’s discovered that she possesses false memories, but because she’s realized that she has no heritage. Her entire established worldview, that world of meaning where she was largely at home, has been completely annihilated and thrown into question. It also marks a transition in Rachael’s way of thinking, and it’s now that I turn to the idea of death. The state of being is juxtaposed against the state of un-being, of death.
Death is an inevitability, however, Heidegger makes an observation that out of all of the genuine possibilities that ever confront an individual within their life, the possibility of their death is unusual in that it must only remain a possibility. If the possibility of death is realized, then that individual ceases to exist because they’ve died. The Dasein-defining questions of authenticity lie within this confrontation of death. Heidegger believes that it’s necessary for us to confront death, because that is the only way to reconcile our existences as human beings. Heidegger goes on to explain that the anxiety of death lies in a state of mind where an individual no longer feels at home within their world, in a sense, where the world feels alien. In effect, the individual is experiencing a world in which they do not exist, the possibility of a world without their presence, a loss of heritage. Rachael’s state then, after Deckard’s revelations about her artificial nature, exhibits these qualities. This is something which is illustrated by the fact that her emotions are no longer assuaged by the implanted memories that have driven her for her short life. It’s this existential anxiety that’s so important to Heidegger, as he claims that it’s a route to the idea of authenticity. It’s also important to this paper, because the whole goal of this paper is to illustrate how this film really highlights these ideas of being and authenticity.
The crucial point to make is that authentic here does not mean genuine instead of fake. Rather, authentic means ‘to take ownership’ in the sense that a president might own the edicts he sets forth or the CEO of a company might take forward as his a policy set forth by him to his company. With the alienation and existential angst that comes with the loss of heritage, the invitation for an individual to re-seize control of their life is extended. There are two examples where this occurs within the film. There is Rachael, who has experienced this invitation to self-determination and ultimately takes charge of her own life. We see this when Deckard returns to his apartment towards the end of the film and discovers her there, ready to run away with him. And then we have the example of Roy Batty, and I turn again to his final actions. Just before his death, he saves Deckard when Deckard falls from a tall building. Before his fall, Deckard endures a fear-ridden moment of hanging from the edge of the building, teetering above an immense drop. The choice of words that Batty uses when he saves Deckard is important, that ‘that is what it is to be a slave.’ In effect, he points out that living in fear of one’s own death is to live inauthentically, to not be. The irony is that Batty has never been able to live authentically, the issue of his impending demise one of the things that drives the conflict of the film. The entire reason why he returned to Earth in the first place was to attempt to force his creator to give him more life. Another irony lies in the fact that this state of inauthenticity is exactly mirrored by Deckard’s precarious predicament, helplessly dangling over the edge of a building, acutely aware of his mortality. The question of being this film struggles with is not truly to be, but in what way we exist, in what ways individuals grapple with the thought of their own deaths.
This might all sound like I’m arguing that Heideger’s really the best framework with which to view this film. In answer to that statement, yes that was my intent. As I’ve established, the philosophical themes that the film struggles with do not line up with the purely intellectual methods of philosophers like Descartes. The issues of authenticity lie within that existential anxiety that Heidegger believes is a necessary condition for realizing our states of being. It’s ultimately a futile effort to search for overlaps between the replicants and ourselves. The issues of humanity are a dead-end when attempting to showcase the existential themes within this film. It is within those moments when we observe Roy Batty’s complete lack of ownership in his life, or Rachael’s reactions that we attain that sense of Dasein. Blade Runner deals with the fundamental structures that determine the ways in which lives are made meaningful, through a struggle with the thought of death and the overcoming of some such. And that is why it really engages with its audience.
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