Musings on Blade Runner: What does it mean to be human?

As promised in my Friday post, I finally saw the cult-favorite Blade Runner last Friday. I see what all the fuss is about now, and to those who vouched for its important place amongst the best sci-fi movies ever made, glad to say it didn’t disappoint.

It’s impressive given this was made 20 years ago in 1982, the cinematography and art direction of the futuristic world is striking. Instead of opting for a slick, polished look, Ridley Scott’s vision of Los Angeles in 2019 (heck, that’s less than a decade from now!) is dark, gritty and downright bleak. Gone is the warm, glowing sunshine, the city’s now assume the climate of London or Seattle 🙂

To those who aren’t familiar with this movie based (as I was until a few days ago), here’s a brief summary from IMDb:

In a cyberpunk vision of the future, man has developed the technology to create replicants, human clones used to serve in the colonies outside Earth but with fixed lifespans. In Los Angeles, 2019, Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a Blade Runner, a cop who specializes in terminating replicants. Originally in retirement, he is forced to re-enter the force when six replicants escape from an off-world colony to Earth.

Deckard with the Voight-Kampff machine, a polygraph-like device to test whether a person is human or replicant

We’ve seen a lot of sophisticated science fiction movies since then that deal with a similar subject of rogue bio-engineered creatures, but this film based on Philip K. Dick’s novel seems to stand the test of times because it’s more than just about gadgets and special effects, so even when the technology feels dated, the theme is a timeless one. There are so many thought-provoking themes open to analysis, but one that filmmakers and audiences alike still grapple with and will perhaps continue to do so is…

What does it mean to be human?

Rutger Hauer in one of his most memorable roles

The common theme that countless sci-fi movies about man-made robots/clones share seems to be that the conflict stems from the inherently-human ability to feel. These bio-engineered robots are created with a purpose to serve their human masters, and as long as they are obedient and just do as they’re told, things are fine and dandy and we can co-exist peacefully. But of course, stories after stories tell us that the robots develop emotions, and that’s when problems arise. For if they have the ability to love, automatically they too, have the ability to hate. In a pivotal ‘tears-in-the-rain’ scene involving Deckard and the ‘villain,’ a replicant named Roy, the very human Deckard looked at his opponent and reflected upon what Roy’s kind is all about: “All they’d wanted were the same answers the rest of us wanted, where have I come from? Where am I going? How long have I got?”

Deckard & Rachael… is it love?

Interestingly, whilst all these inhuman androids in sci-fi movies want to feel and see feelings as a privilege they wish they have a right to, a lot of romantic comedies with real people seem to want to do the opposite. Even within the last few weeks alone, there are three upcoming rom-coms dealing with the same theme: can we just have sex without emotion? Because let’s face it, feelings just complicate things, right? As you can see in the Friends with Benefits trailer (you can find it on YouTube), the guy asks the girl ‘why does [sex] have to come with complications?’ to which the girl agrees, ‘… and emotions!’ The guy continues, ‘It’s a physical act… like playing… tennis.’ The other two movies No Strings Attached and Love & Other Drugs are no different, they’re toying with the notion that in this modern, career-oriented, busy world, people just have no time to be emotionally-involved. Come on, feelings are only for the radically conservative and old-fashioned folks who should have better things to do with their life. It’s apparently more hip and in vogue to keep relationships strictly physical.

I’m not singling out these movies as it’s by no means a groundbreaking concept. I just find that this no-strings-attached notion mind-boggling, and to be honest, quite tragic… the fact that people even want to deny what it means to be humans… one that separates us from the rest of God’s creations. To rid ourselves of the gift of emotion, whether it’s joy or sorrow that comes with every relationship, romantic or otherwise… it seems not only pointless but futile.

In any case, for a movie about mechanically-engineered beings, it’s a very ‘human’ story that takes a poignant look at our humanity. No, it’s not warm and fluffy the way most rom-coms are, but this movie is certainly not heartless.

Those who’ve seen and loved Blade Runner, feel free to add your own thoughts about it below.

32 thoughts on “Musings on Blade Runner: What does it mean to be human?

    1. Thanks Andrew. Yeah, I’d agree with that. I like Minority Report, another one from Philip K. Dick, and it definitely has a similar vibe.

  1. Raya

    I’ve been a Blade Runner fan for years; your comparison of Blade Runner with the banality and stupidity of those flibbertigibbet movies like ‘No Strings Attached’ is fascinating.

    1. Hi Raya, welcome to FC. I’m not exactly comparing the movies or even the genres… I just find the contrasting themes between a lot of these sci-fi movies and today’s rom-coms rather discombobulating.

  2. I am glad that you enjoyed this classic! I enjoyed your ponderings about the genre and it’s relation to rom-coms! You are right about the direction that Hollywood continually forces our attention towards in most films. I thought it unique in how you tied it in with A.I.’s desires. I was reminded of I, Robot and Data from Star Trek while reading your post.

    The theme about what it means to be human also reminded me of a film called Impostor. A not very well known scifi film starring Gary Sinise, Tony Shaloub, and Vincent D’onofrio placed in the near future that I enjoyed.

    Do you think that if R2D2 had the ability of feeling emotions, that he would soon want to be emotionless? Like so many humans that wish they could operate emotionlessly? Just a fun thought!

    Loved the post, glad you watched it, seems like you are too! I watched The Legend of 1900 this weekend!! Wow! I very HIGHLY recommend that film. The language does start off rather strong in the film, but other than that….Amazing!

    1. I’m glad I finally watched it… it’s not an ‘enjoyable’ movie but an essential one I think. It just so happens that I caught a few of the rom-com trailers before and after I saw Blade Runner… funny how some people would rather be ‘robots’ in the way they interact with others, I just had to put it out there.

      I’ve never heard of Impostors… but I like Gary Sinise. Interesting how a lot of the actors there now are on TV… D’Onofrio, Shalhoub, Dourdan, and Sinise as well 🙂

      Well I don’t know about R2D2, but it doesn’t look remotely like a human being anyway so it’s less relevant whether it can feel or not… he..he..

      Glad you enjoyed Legend of the 1900, I’ll check that out at some point.

  3. Ted S.

    Did you watch the final cut version or the version with narration by Deckard and a happy ending? To me this movie was about us human beings take our lives for granted, while these replicants were willing to do whatever it takes to live longer. That tears in rain speech by Roy is the perfect example of that. I love that scene.

    I do recommend you read the book too, of course there are some differences between the film and novel.

    1. Hi Ted, thanks again for lending me the disc. I watched the International version, isn’t that what you told me to watch first? That’s the one with Deckard’s narration, which actually helps me understand the story a bit better and I didn’t find it annoying.

      Yes, there is definitely that theme of appreciating one’s life… and that Roy speech is heart wrenching! That last part before the speech was quite suspenseful as well, that whole moody, rainy environment makes it all the more bleak and sinister.

      1. Ted S.

        No problem, when you get a chance watch the final version too and see if you like it better. Ridley Scott made some minor changes to it, he removed the narration and the “happy” ending. He also fixed some of the effect shots but nothing big like say what Lucas did to the original Star Wars films.

        1. I might do that at some point, but I’m more interested to watch the special features now. There are a lot of materials to get my hands on… but it’s always fun to see the world that Ridley created for his movies.

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  5. Vince

    I’d just like to add that Vangelis’ score is a huge part of this movie’s coolness. The track Blade Runner Blues is mesmerizing – this is the underscore in the scenes where Deckard is first shown in his flat. Joe Turkel is sinister as the tycoon. I also love Sean Young and the way they styled her look.

    1. Oh right, I fail to mention the Vangelis’ score… I must’ve heard it so many times before I saw the movie. Sean Young is so gorgeous she looks like a mannequin… it’s almost inhuman… which I guess is perfect casting 🙂

    2. Great call Vince…that track is sensational! So ethereal and I think it goes a long way in blurring the lines between humans and replicants perfectly.

      Combined with the stunning visuals I don’t know why I don’t just love this…its probably the pace that it too slow for my tastes. Still Vangelis knocked this out of the park!

      1. Now, I don’t know if it’s just me but sometimes Vangelis’ score sounds… um, sexual… y’know like what people perceive a Barry White song as… I don’t know what it is but it made me think that on several occasion 😉

          1. [sheepish smile] I can’t believe I admit that to the whole world! Though I’m quite certain I’m not the only one thinking that about Vangelis’ score.

  6. Harrison Ford in his prime, that’s always a good time! Certainly one of the crowning achievement of sci-fi movies and a movie I need to revisit but I always skip it 😦

      1. I’ve always thought this was overrated but I still respect it and the appeal it has to its fans. Taken me 3 viewings to almost get it but I keep getting bummed out by the ending feeling so underwhelming.

        Sure the undertones make fans go crazy (specifically the origami at the end) and that’s why they love it, but I want a wham bam sci-fi as opposed to a thinking man’s sci-fi…oh well maybe that’s the folly of youth:P

        1. Well, I don’t know how the hype was when it came out but I can see it being a cult-favorite and its enduring qualities. I think people have gotten used to movies being so slick and fast-paced these days but I don’t mind slower movies once in a while if the story is captivating enough, as the case here and Days of Heaven that I saw the same weekend. He..he.. I think I’d rather have the thinking man’s sci-fi any day than a wham-bam one Marc 🙂

  7. Richard

    Interesting blog. I haven’t seen Blade Runner for a long time. It was one of those movies that I watched to death in my youth. I really need to watch it again. What I loved about it was the musings on memory and the idea that it is our memories that make us what we are. The replicants were made more human simply by being given memories. I always thought that was a cool idea.

    As for the score, I remember that it took years for the actual score to be released. Until then, it was a re-recorded version that didn’t really sound the same.

    See? Memories. All coming back now. 🙂

    1. Yeah I think the memory thing is a pretty novel idea, I wonder if that’s also what makes them have deep emotional connection as humans do. I didn’t know that about the score. I had a Vangelis CD, I think it was my mom’s, and I thought I remember hearing the score in that CD… or maybe it just sounds similar to his other work.

  8. I personally don’t think sex has to also be emotional, and i have yet to see a film where two people who say they are friends with benefits actually are(Its always one partner hiding feels for another)

    But yeah, Blade Runner is awesome. I actually might want to rewatch it now

    1. Sorry I missed this comment for some reason, sorry Julian. Well, you know I’d disagree with you on your first comment nor would I even be able to fathom such a concept. In any case, yes BR is a good movie I wouldn’t mind rewatching again myself.

  9. Linking sci-fi movies where robots pretend to be human and rom-coms where humans are like robots. Probably the most interesting post I’ve seen this year.

    1. I hope you mean ‘interesting’ in a good way Fitz 🙂 I just think some rom-coms aren’t very romantic anymore while a lot of sci-fi surprisingly are.

  10. great post; i’m glad you enjoyed it. Based on your comment about the scene between Roy and Deckard, it sounds like you watched the original version with the voiceover. Have you watched the “Final Cut” from 2007? Digitally remastered, etc., and minus the voiceover and tacked-on happy ending. The DVD also includes a fantastic documentary on the making of the film called “Dangerous Days” , which I think you can find on You Tube. You can also read my thoughts on the film here (blatant self-promotion to follow):

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