Blade Runner (1982) by Ridley Scott, is a science fiction film that is set in a dystopian future world (Los Angeles) that is overridden with Urban Density artificiality and has seen human colonisation beyond the planet Earth. It’s loosely based on Philip K. Dick’s novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”. Genetic and Bioengineering is a marvel of this world and has been used to replicate non-human nature as well as the essence of “humanness”, thereby attacking and questioning what is real itself. This response aims at looking at a central theme depicted in the film, which is the permeation of the line between representation and reality when it comes to non-human nature. I’ll be drawing parallels between this theme in the film and concepts that I have learnt in various classes, which include Murray Bookchin’s Social Ecology, Social and Cultural Ecofeminism, along with my own understanding of the film to look at this.
Opening Sequence – The Cityscape and Artificiality
In the opening scene of the film itself, post the titles that explain the background of the film, there is a scene depicting a cityscape (most likely of Los Angeles) – with illuminated structures, possibly buildings with windows and other lights. The cityscape is overly dense, with tall structures (possibly chimneys) in the middle, ejecting fire – also referring to an overly industrialised setting. There are shots of a “human” eye, in which the reflection of this cityscape can be seen, and nothing about this overview of the entire space seems natural. All the eye could also gaze at is this dense urban jungle. Even though, the night sky is possibly visible – there are no stars, no depiction of any possible celestial entity. A possible explanation could be the depiction of light pollution in its worst possible form, artificial light overspreading in the atmosphere, illuminating the darkness. The Los Angeles that is depicted seems otherworldly, not a part of planet Earth – because the only earthly depiction shown in the opening scene is human figures, which is questionable considering that the film is based on bioengineered replicants.
“Humans are animals, are nature.” – Mary Jenkins
As the film progresses, we notice in several scenes, particularly those that depict the inner city streets, that these streets are overpopulated. Crowded, bustling, noisy streets filled with too many people. This can be seen as parallel to the depiction of fauna as artificial – bioengineered. Whether it is the snake that is worn by Zhora or Tyrell’s Owl, these are not naturally conceived animals but are artificially produced using Biotechnology. This also hints toward the endangerment or possible extinction of Earthly Fauna as a catastrophic result of human subjugation of nature. In the words of Mary Jenkins, there is a denial of humans to acknowledge that they are animals, and therefore nature. This denial is what causes artificiality to exist in the first place. Humans are unable or rather unwilling to recognise the relationships and the interconnectedness between themselves and non-human nature. This tied to Murray Bookchin’s argument about the direct relationship between Human subjugation of nature and humans oppressing humans. This is what makes ecology social, where ecological problems lie, within the mastery of nature. In fact, the opening title itself says that “Replicants” were used for the “hazardous exploration and colonization of other planets – of the Off-world. Eldon Tyrell, the chairperson of Tyrell Corporation that has monopolised genetic engineering technology by creating replicants, calls replicants “more human than human.” This tells us that there is an excess of everything – of humans, of built structures, signage, and of nature. Therefore the question: If there is an excess to nature, then is there anything that is natural at all in this post-human world? I think not. Particularly because of the earlier argument about the human denial of being nature. There is an over-instrumental human influence on nature, so much so that there is no nature anymore. A particular fantasy depicted in the film, that of a unicorn running across a lush green meadow, tells us that nature in the world set in the film, exists only in phantasmagoria. A depiction of a mythological being in a place that no longer exists tells us that there is nothing natural or “real” for that matter, that is left in this dystopian world. A world that is nearing its end.
Replicants: More Human, than Human
Coming back to the argument on Replicants, on what Tyrell meant by “more human than human, we realise that this is indeed a world where even humans are not a part of nature. Moving beyond the human denial of being a part of nature, there is a realization that with the arrival of something that is “potentially more human than human”, there is indeed no human anymore. Replicants are distinguished from humans via a “Voight-kampff” test, which analyses replicants responses to questions that test memory and empathy. However, in the scene where Deckard performs the test on Rachel, it takes him about 100 questions to prove that she is a replicant, to which Tyrell says that she is an improved version, with implanted memories of his niece. Pan-sensory memory is so unique to human consciousness that it is what indicates sentience in the first place. The very idea that memories that determine individual subjective experience can be implanted, destroys the uniqueness altogether. Moreover, the film refers to the NEXUS-6 Replicants as equal in intelligence to the engineers who invented them. This poses another question: What then marks a creator from their own creation if it questions the former’s very existence? The answer indeed is very unsettling. If human denial of any association with nature is the rational action driving this world, then what will stop questions being raised against which is the superior being in this scenario: the human or the replicant? The very revolt of the NEXUS-6 and Roy Batty’s aspiration for longevity makes this expectation a very valid one.
“Is Female to Male what Nature is to Culture?” – Sherry Ortner
Another theme that connects to the absence of the natural in the film is the depiction of its female characters. This will help to understand the object in the world depicted in Bladerunner. It is worth noting that all main female characters in the film are replicants – Zhora, Pris and Rachel. While this on one hand connotes to the subjugated position of women in a myopic, instrumental, patriarchal world, especially the character of Rachel who is nearly perfect, this also ends up being much more than that. We realise that Zhora and Pris are not frail or unintelligent, requiring male protection – rather they are fierce, quick-witted and unwavering. They embody the characteristics of the femme fatale strikingly well. Monstrous, ferocious females who express a desire that is as strong as male instrumentality. Although like the femme fatale, Zhora and Pris are also “retired (in this case)” by a male as punishment. Rachel’s character on the other hand has a very interesting character development – from being a meek non-human entity with someone else’s memories to the same entity, except later on one who embodies a sense of acceptance of this non-human character and wishing to live life according to her own terms. Despite all these character developments, what is striking is that, as mentioned earlier – resistance to this patriarchal imposition comes from a non-human entity. This yet again alludes to gender being an imitation, and that normative gender roles are not “real”, once again proving the fact that gender is something so human that it has become a tool to strengthen the human denial of association with nature itself. Therefore, as culture (human) subjugates its object that is nature, man subjugates his object that is the female, in both the cases the object becomes non evident and insignificant after a point.
Also Read: 10 Movies – Sociological Analysis
On a concluding note, throughthe various sub themes that I was able to identify from the film, which include The Cityscape, Human denial of association with nature, The Replicant and the feminine object as non-evident; all of these connote to the broad theme of there being no natural in the film. Bladerunner, in its dystopian, patriarchal, artificial and unnatural world reminds us of the fundamental flaw that is perhaps the precursor to all ecological problems that exist: human beings trying to separate themselves from nature, which is indeed a path of self destruction, of evolutionary failure.
- The Dystopian World of Blade Runner: An Ecofeminist Perspective (1997) – Mary Jenkins – http://trumpeter.athabascau.ca/index.php/trumpet/article/view/172/210
- What is Social Ecology? (2007) – Murray Bookchin – http://www.psichenatura.it/fileadmin/img/M._Bookchin_What_is_Social_Ecology.pdf
- The Death of Nature (1980) – Carolyn Merchant