Bright Lights Film Journal

Slave Runner: Genetic Engineering, Slavery, and Immortality in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982)

Pris (Daryl Hannah) and Sebastian (William Sanderson). Screenshot

In a dehumanised world it is therefore the replicants who are keener to live, love, and be free. This is another important issue that the film raises: who is actually human in Blade Runner? In which species can you find the noblest sentiments?

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Inspired by Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner broaches the subject of using genetic engineering to create perfect “human” beings from DNA.

In a near future, 2019, in a Los Angeles that is overpopulated, decaying, and choked by pollution, those who have not abandoned the Earth are faced with the rebellion of a group of genetically engineered beings. Called replicants, these creatures bring to life the chimera of a godlike “human” being: they are stronger, more intelligent, and more beautiful than ordinary mortals. We thus enter the field of eugenics – the perfecting of the individual achieved through synthetic creatures, which, despite having human DNA, are not humans.

This desire to create life through unnatural processes takes us to the myths of Prometheus and the Jewish Golem, the homunculi of alchemy, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and the very creation of Eve from Adam’s rib.

Gestated in a laboratory instead of a uterus, the replicants are born at an age between twenty and thirty and have fake memories of a childhood they never lived through, thanks to a chip implanted in their brain. However, there is a price to pay for such perfection: their life span is only four years.

In addition to this time limit, the replicants are created to perform tasks considered dangerous, degrading, or merely annoying to humans. So humans manufacture combat models, models to work in mines, and among others, models whose function is to give pleasure to humans – i.e., male and female prostitutes. Although the replicants are physically and mentally superior to humans, they are nothing more than their slaves. Just as in the past, mankind reintroduces the practice of acquiring “human” beings to satisfy their needs. The slave traders of this future are large biotech companies, such as the Tyrell Corporation.

Science therefore serves a totalitarian regime in which real human beings with health problems – such as geneticist J. F. Sebastian – are deprived of their civil rights. While replicants are unable to come to Earth, humans suffering from disease – J. F. Sebastian’s problem is accelerated aging – are prevented from leaving it. Much like a disabled person in Nazi Germany, Sebastian is considered subhuman – and the Earth is his concentration camp. Technological advances not only contribute to the destruction of the planet, but they are also used to destroy humanistic and democratic values. Instead of being used to cure diseases, such as the one affecting Sebastian, genetic engineering produces slaves.

However, as in the tale of the sorcerer’s apprentice, the story of the Golem or of Frankenstein, the creature escapes from its creator. An improved version of the replicants, the Nexus 6, who want to win their freedom and have a longer life span, rebel and return to Earth. Led by Roy Batty like the Spartacus of the future, the replicants kill their human masters aboard a spaceship and engage in a desperate race against time – if they are unable to change their genetic programming, they will die in the coming weeks. Instead of humans, it is therefore the replicants who rebel against the totalitarian society in Blade Runner.

The Nexus 6 are beings that embody the ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity: the very principles that the corporations dominating the world are trampling. United by a value they consider supreme – the right to life – the replicants show feelings of love and compassion for their fellow beings and are able to give their life to save others. In stark comparison, the humans seem incapable of feeling and acting with compassion. In a dehumanised world it is therefore the replicants who are keener to live, love, and be free. This is another important issue that the film raises: who is actually human in Blade Runner? In which species can you find the noblest sentiments?

Then the Blade Runner appears. Rick Deckard is an android hunter who is coerced by agent Gaff into exterminating the rebel replicants. To this end, Gaff employs the following argument: either you are a Blade Runner or you’re nothing. In other words, Deckard, like a secret agent charged with dirty work, understands that his only worth lies in serving the regime. And this regime, as in all dictatorial regimes of the past, does not tolerate dissent. Challenging the authorities and the law entails terrible punishments like persecution and extermination. Sebastian is punished by being banished to Earth as he does not meet the physical characteristics required of a perfect being. The Nexus 6 are punished with death for failing to obey their masters. Between the 15th and 19th centuries, a black slave caught running away from a plantation would be flogged and branded with a hot iron, but unless he had killed a white person, his life would be spared. In the 21st century of Blade Runner, the new runaway slaves, whether they have killed their owners or not, are executed – their life is worth no more than that of an animal reared on a factory farm. And not one human questions the morality of these laws. On the contrary, the intelligent scientist Tyrell – creator of the Nexus 6 – contributes with his knowledge of biotechnology to ensure the totalitarian regime remains. Science has definitively erased humanist ideals.

Sean Young as Rachael. Screenshot

In the meantime, Deckard meets Rachael, Tyrell’s “niece,” a special replicant who is unaware of her condition. With Rachael, Tyrell realizes Victor Frankenstein’s dream of creating a human being who instead of being a slave is meant to be his equal. Rachael is absolutely convinced that she is a woman who had a human father and a mother, as her implanted memories demonstrate. Subjected to a test designed to detect replicants by measuring the ability to empathize, for the first time Rachael begins to suspect that she is not human. And through the loving relationship that is established between them, Deckard, while trying to make her see that her memories are fake and that her skills belong to someone else, ends up questioning his own identity. Is he, the Blade Runner, a replicant too?

The ability to feel emotions that the replicants should not have – love – and to reveal noble sentiments – sacrifice for others – is shown when Rachael, risking her own life, saves Deckard from being killed by the replicant Leon. Having witnessed the death of his female companion Zhora, shot by the Blade Runner, Leon, revealing human feelings too – pain and the desire for revenge – is about to kill Deckard when Rachael shoots him. Seeing that the person she loves is in danger, Rachael does not hesitate to kill a being of her own species. This can be compared to the act of someone who would rather sacrifice a member of his own family than lose the person he loves.

In the meantime, Roy, has killed one of the geneticists who created him, as he was unable to prolong his life. He joins Pris, who has taken refuge in Sebastian’s house. Then the confrontation between the defective human and the perfect replicants takes place. There is a strange empathy between them as they are all running out of time. Although brief and illusory, a friendship is established between those the system has shunned.

Roy and Dr. Tyrell. Screenshot

Dr. Tyrell then pays the same price as Victor Frankenstein – he is killed in the confrontation with his creature, Roy, as he is unable to prevent his imminent death. Unlike Prometheus, scientists are not punished by the gods, but by their creations. And unlike Frankenstein, Tyrell feels proud of his masterpiece, which he sees as an extension of himself. However, this doesn’t stop Roy from gouging out his eyes and smashing his skull. The desire for revenge blinds them: the monster gets revenge for having been scorned by mankind; Roy gets revenge for having been given such a short life. Both kill their fathers. The Oedipus myth is thus exhibited in the two stories. However, only in Blade Runner does the relationship between Tyrell and Roy get close to being one of father and son. “I want more life, father,” says Roy – with the ironic reversal of Oedipus (Roy) blinding Laius (Tyrell) instead of himself.

In the end, Deckard and Roy confront each other. However, when the replicant is given the chance to kill the human who has been pursuing him, instead of precipitating his fateful fall, he saves his life. In his last moments of life, Roy commits an unexpected act of mercy and compassion. And the last words he utters, in a poetic drama rarely achieved in cinematic history, he alludes to the passage of life and memories, to everything that will be lost, like “tears in the rain.”

Combining science fiction, film noir, and existential drama, Blade Runner, more than two decades since it was released, continues to raise issues and generate discussion. The time elapsed since its release, with advances in cloning and artificial insemination, reinforces the credibility of the story and the dystopian prophecy that underlies it. In fact, if you can already choose the sex and eye colour of a baby yet to be born, it won’t be long before advances in genetic engineering will allow the assembly of an à la carte human as perfect as the replicants in Blade Runner.

Genetic engineering, Blade Runner style. Screenshot

The question is whether, in this inevitable future, there will be a Tyrell Corporation to manufacture replicants. Asked in the present day, the question seems easy to answer given the bioethical norms that regulate at least the countries with democracies. However, if one considers the possibility of a Third World War or of a natural or pollution-caused disaster, possibly leading to the depletion of resources and the emergence of authoritarian powers, it is almost certain that new Dr. Tyrells will also surface, committed to creating replicants to serve anyone who can buy them.

Blade Runner is thus a science fiction film that shows us the future of humanity in which, paradoxically, technological advances lead to practices of the past. Genetic engineering will create the best slaves in existence. However, these slaves, like so many others, will end up in fatal revolt. Whether we would give them a similar fate to that given by the Romans to Spartacus and his companions, or if we would become their servants, no movie or book can tell us (for now). This lies in the realm of genuine science fiction.

Despite the extraordinary – or terrible – achievements it is capable of, genetic engineering will never be able to achieve immortality, for humans or for replicants. Man will get closer and closer to the gods, but will never be one of them. The ambrosia is beyond his grasp. As officer Gaff says of Rachael, “It’s too bad she won’t live. But then again, who does?”