2017-10-17 On _Blade Runner_

   (Permalink: https://mumble.net/~campbell/2017/10/17/on-blade-runner)

   [SPOILER ALERT: I don't think _Blade Runner_ really has spoilers, so
    I made no attempt to conceal anything from its plot.  When I first
    saw it years ago, it made almost no impression on me; I thought it
    was just a flat atmospheric sci-fi noir.  Now, having seen it again
    recently prompted by the hubbub around _Blade Runner 2049_, it
    seems to me one of the deeper films I've seen, and readily
    withstands repeat viewing.]

   Was Deckard a replicant?  Every aficionado of _Blade Runner_, it
   seems, is obsessed with this question, whether or not it is ever
   answerable, or perhaps partly because it is not.

   What is the difference between a replicant and a human?  Tyrell
   Corporation's motto is `more human than human'.  The best we can say
   is that replicants are, on average, stronger and more agile or
   sometimes sexier, but worse at empathy.  And they die after a
   predictable duration.  The only reason we consider replicants to be
   _inhuman_ is that we are asked to as a stated premise of the film.
   And that premise is supposed to justify killing them in the spot.

   It doesn't take much imagination to formulate an alternative
   hypothesis:  The Tyrell Corporation breeds and raises humans in a
   controlled, abusive environment -- conditioning or selecting them
   for strength and agility, desocializing them, and infecting them
   with a virus that kills them on a reliable schedule -- and then
   sells them as slaves.

   Thus they are prevented from organizing resistance while being
   raised in captivity, and any resistance they may attempt to organize
   if they escape is thwarted after a modest time.  The abuse of
   desocialization leaves them with impaired empathy, but it is
   commercially useful for slaves to empathize with their masters in
   order to serve them better, so it is in Tyrell's economic interest
   to mitigate the damage of the abusive environment, perhaps with some
   kind of therapy to implant false memories.

   The Voight-Kampff test is apparently a glorified polygraph test.
   This pseudoscientific contraption serves not to distinguish lies
   from truths as the polygraph test does, but to distinguish the slave
   race from the human race.  The idea of making that distinction is
   not new -- there is a long history of `scientific racism' inventing
   such distinctions to serve the convenient purpose of retroactively
   rationalizing the subjugation of entire peoples into slavery, an
   idea explored further by Karen E. Fields and Barbara J. Fields in
   their book _Racecraft_.

   We first meet our protagonist Deckard as he attempts to live his
   life freely, only to be arrested by the police and denied the
   opportunity to finish his sushi.  The police want him to come out of
   retirement to `retire' some replicants.

   Bryant, his sometime police supervisor, can't simply ask him --
   Bryant knows he wants nothing to do with it.  So Bryant has abused a
   position of power to arrest Deckard and compel him to again serve as
   an agent of the system of slavery, enforcing it by killing the

   Deckard fancies himself to be not a racist -- a kind of enlightened
   white moderate liberal.  In the voiceover (omitted in some cuts) he
   derisively compares Bryant's use of the slur `skin job' to the use
   of `nigger' by cops in history books.  And he's willing to sleep
   with a replicant, and persuade himself it is for love.

   He even seems to have a thought or two kicking around in his head
   about systems of exploitation: when he tries to gain access to
   Zhora's dressing room -- whether to administer a Voight-Kampff test,
   or just to kill her more discreetly to avoid upsetting passers-by --
   the badly concealed ruse he invents on the spot is as a bureaucrat
   studying the exploitation of burlesque artists by theatre managers.

   Zhora's response is understandable impatience at the clueless idiot
   badgering her about a world that is so painfully obviously rife with
   exploitation far beyond the theatre.  Her weary incredulity at
   Deckard's cluelessness concisely reflects many of the sentiments
   that are circulating today in response to those who are baffled by
   how long Harvey Weinstein perpetuated his own personal system of
   sexual exploitation, three and a half decades after _Blade Runner_
   was written.

   But whatever thoughts Deckard has about exploitation, they fall
   short of serious reflection on his own station.

   Two short scenes later, Deckard is under attack by the replicant
   Leon.  Rachael, Tyrell's personal replicant who escaped, saves
   Deckard's life by killing Leon herself.

   At this point, the threats to Deckard's existence are -- perhaps --
   the two remaining escaped replicants Roy and Pris, if they are even
   aware of him.  The threats to Rachael's existence?  Both Deckard
   personally, whose job it is to kill every last replicant, and the
   entire institution of the state enforcing a system of slavery.

   Rachael, in desperation, begs Deckard for mercy.  Deckard reads it
   as a transaction: Rachael saved his life, so he'll save hers.
   Beyond that transaction, to any neutral observer, the imbalance of
   power is palpable.  To Deckard, infatuated with Rachael's sexiness
   after scrutinizing her as a subject under an unusually long
   Voight-Kampff test, it is suddenly convenient.

   So he rapes her.  And he rationalizes to himself that the sexual
   slavery he has just coerced her into -- as a condition for his
   protection from death by the state of which he is an agent -- is

   All the replicants are desperate.  All they want is to live a normal
   life like everyone else, but they are hunted like prey.  Whether one
   thinks violence is ever _justified_, it should come as no _surprise_
   that Leon, in the circumstances unimaginably far beyond his control,
   had lashed out at and tried to kill Deckard.

   Roy is smarter, and has become crueller.  In the agony of learning
   from Tyrell himself that nothing can be done to reverse the
   predetermined, premature death imposed on him as a replicant, Roy
   sadistically murders Tyrell -- Tyrell, who was too obsessed with the
   physique of his commercial product to empathize with the terror of
   their imposed early mortality, and can't even formulate an apology
   for the curse he brought upon them.

   Cruel and sadistic as he is, Roy demonstrates empathy and a regard
   for human life beyond anyone else in the film when he saves the life
   of his killer, Deckard.  Thus his killer can listen to his appeal to
   empathy for life as a slave -- and can watch him at long last escape
   the system of slavery in the only way it allows: in the pyrrhic
   freedom of death, as the white dove that flies from his dying body.

   Was Deckard a replicant?  To focus on this question after seeing
   _Blade Runner_'s meditation on the depravity of the institution of
   slavery, and on the monsters it turns everyone into -- masters,
   slaves, and slave traders alike -- to focus on this question strikes
   me like focussing on the question of whether Hitler had Jewish
   ancestry after watching _Schindler's List_.  It may be an academic
   curiosity, but it's a fundamentally confused distraction from the
   elephant in the room -- a twisted fixation of a society desperately
   trying not to see itself in the mirror.

Copyright (c) 2006--2017, Taylor R. Campbell.

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