Morality at the Movies: Blade Runner & Finding Humanity Through Mercy

Picture it: Los Angeles, 2019. We collectively turn a blind eye as a special unit police officer guns down an enslaved minority that has escaped captivity. We are told the killing was done to uphold law and order. Besides, the cop is just doing his job.

Sadly, aside from flying cars the dystopian vision of 1982’s Blade Runner is not so out of this world. In an extreme sense of white flight to the suburbs, anyone with money has abandoned earth for the Off-World Colonies.The poor and working-class are relegated to the climate crisis that has turned a once bright and sunny southern California to a dark and dreary world of constant rain. Animals are no longer born in the wild but are manufactured by tech companies and sold amongst deteriorating buildings retrofitted with oppressive exterior piping and glaring neon advertisements. Like our own world, the powerful gain wealth from the enslavement of the lower class and their oppression is justified to sustain a shallow form of peace and order. While this is probably not the first time you have watched a movie featuring slavery, it is likely the first film in which it takes multiple viewings to have any sympathy for the enslaved.

In this bleak future, Dr. Eldon Tyrell’s monopoly on the manufactured humanoid ‘replicants’ used as labourers, soldiers, and prostitutes for the Off-World Colonies, has made him fabulously rich. The slogan “More Human Than Human” rings true as the replicants are visibly indistinguishable from their masters. As a means of controlling their enhanced physical abilities, fictitious childhood memories are implanted in their minds and they are restricted to a life span of four years. The former is done to assist in the development of human-like emotions and responses, while the latter limits and controls that same development. Besides the fact that they were manufactured in a factory, we’re told that what makes the replicants non-human is the fact that they lack both memories and empathy. Dr. Tyrell enjoys playing god from his temple-like pyramid far and seems to lack empathy for his creation.

The movie opens with a reflection of the fiery urban world in Roy Batty’s eye, and we are introduced to a recurring symbol of eyes questioning what it means to be an individual ‘I’ – or human. Together with fellow Nexus 6 model replicants Leon, Zhora, and Pris, Roy defies orders and returns to earth in search of freedom from his short life spans- a quest which he will stop at nothing to accomplish. Following this eye motif, the police’s method of distinguishing replicants from humans, asks a series of ethical questions while a machine observes involuntary contractions in the eye. There is a deep sense of irony in the police deferring to an emotionless machine to determine who is empathetic and human.

Blackmailed out of retirement and tasked with hunting down the rogue replicants, Rick Deckard (played by Harrison Ford) starts the film with a low opinion of his prey. In the original novel Do Androids dream of Electric Sheep by Phil K. Dick, which Blade Runner is based on, Deckard is under pressure to buy a living pet as a replacement for his robotic sheep. The only way he can afford this expensive status symbol is to complete bounties and kill replicants. To think that killing can increase one’s social status is a disturbing allegory for how power and authority can corrupt our ambition. In the movie his motives are not as blatantly questionable. He’s genuinely concerned by the mayhem the replicants could unleash on Los Angeles. But, each kill leaves him with shakes that are only numbed by alcohol. Through his investigation, he begins to see replicants differently, especially when he falls for Tyrell’s assistant Rachel, who happens to be a replicant. Deckard sees something worth protecting in her.

While far from righteous in their ambition to extend their lives, the replicants’ actions do not always match our expectation of them. Rachel uncharacteristically shows empathy for the police officer and turns on her own kind to save Deckard’s life. Later, Roy deviates from his military training to save Deckard from falling to his death. He does so with one hand impaled by a nail, and the other holding a dove. These biblical references allude to Roy finding the freedom and salvation he returned to earth for by choosing mercy and humility over violence. Just before his death, Roy comes to terms with his mortality by reminiscing on the things he has experienced in his short life.

We have to wonder what it says about a society that empowers police officers to gun down unarmed women in the streets and lies about whether replicants possess the capacity to have memories and show mercy. If in fact the replicants are human, the way we understand the plot of the film changes drastically. Like any human would, the replicants are desperate to escape the oppressive system that says they are violent, disposable slaves. Ironically, Roy finds the freedom he seeks by showing mercy to Deckard, who is now inspired to see replicants as something other than property. This influence will far outlive Roy, as most acts of kindness do.

Broadly speaking, the replicants in Blade Runner are an example of how marginalized people have been treated by those in power throughout history; both are born into systems that benefit from their oppression. The movie forces us to question this, and how moral it is to assume a biologically superior position because of insignificant differences. Now as the gap continues to grow between the haves and have-nots of our own world, we must ask ourselves if we will continue to allow our economic and societal system to be built on modern-day slavery that suppresses the “have nots”, or will we choose to be empathetic towards the marginalized and find freedom through mercy? Roy’s act of mercy reminds us that in a cruel and broken world, the most radical thing we can do is be kind. Through a sober lens, this movie reveals the fault lines in our own society and challenges us to treat marginalized people like they are valued, like they see, and that they are.