“I think, Sebastian, therefore I am.” — Pris
One of Blade Runner’s key themes is emotional response. Not only the degree of that response, but its authenticity. Can the replicants in the film ‘feel’ as well as a human? Are their feelings even real, in human terms? And if their emotions are genuine, and not the product of a corporation, does that mean those replicants have a right to life as much as humans do? These questions have remained provocative since the film’s 1982 release; they have haunted audiences long afterward. This is the film’s most powerful premise, and the reason it will remain a classic for many decades to come.
In this third of four essays commemorating the movie’s 40th anniversary, I will explore who felt it better: the humans, or the replicants? The level of their blush response, as it were. This essay assumes the reader has seen the film; I will be referring to the 2007 Final Cut, the definitive version as stated by the director, Ridley Scott. This essay also contains a spoiler for the sequel, Blade Runner 2049, so be warned.
Early in the story, it becomes obvious that replicants are more expressive than the humans of 2019 Los Angeles. This can be indicative of their unorthodox reactions (as Bryant tells Deckard, Nexus 6 replicants develop their own emotional responses), or the passion of those who know they only live four years. One gets the sense they live that short life to its fullest — unless a Blade Runner ‘retires’ them (a euphemism for their termination). Deckard, Bryant, Gaff, Tyrell — few of the film’s (alleged) human characters display more than a passive apathy for their environment or vocation. That most of them are male hints at the toxic masculinity within our world, where men are taught to hide their emotions for fear of appearing weak. (Hiding emotion is a key plot point in Blade Runner 2049.) Sebastian is an exception; his loneliness and anxiety is well-portrayed, and most importantly, he’s sympathetic to replicants. He has empathy. Deckard, in the course of the story, rediscovers (or discovers for the first time?) his empathy and helps a replicant he has fallen in love with, Rachel, to escape.
This fits with the story’s noir aspects, as well as the source material’s foremost idea: don’t let the bleakness of the world dehumanize you. That source material…