Blade Runner is a great example of the Aquarius archetype on film. Based on the Philip K Dick novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the story explores the nature of humanity and the way memories create identity. It flopped when it was first released in 1982, largely due to the unnecessary (and truly awful) voiceover and bizarre happy ending. But after being remastered and reissued, it’s become a classic that continues to provoke arguments over its central question.
Both the film and the novel ask: if you can’t tell the difference between a real human and a fake one, does it matter? The answer might not seem important, but the implications are enormous and cut right to the heart of the meaning of life. It also explores the loss of nature and the commodification of life, corporate control and surveillance, slavery and freedom, perception and self-deception, and existential questions of life and death.
Blade Runner is set in the dystopian future of Los Angeles in November 2019. Most of the action takes place at night in a cityscape that Ridley Scott describes as “future medieval” on his commentary. Flying cars glide by high-rise buildings lit up with advertising, while down in the slums, crowds of people teem like ants. It’s a high-tech but worn-out world, and the constant rain never washes away the filth.
The story is a sci-fi take on the old noir trope of a detective roaming the mean streets and falling for the femme fatale who gets him in trouble. The detective in question is Rick Deckard, a ‘blade runner’ who is brought back from retirement to do one last job. Blade runners track and kill replicants – bioengineered robots – and a group have just returned to earth illegally.
The replicants were made by the Tyrell corporation and are virtually identical to humans. They were made to be stronger and of equal intelligence, and then sent to work off-world as slaves under conditions no human could survive. Deckard meets the latest model, a Nexus 6 called Rachael, who doesn’t know she’s a replicant, and promptly falls in love with her.
This opens a whole can of existential worms that doesn’t stop Deckard killing the replicants on his hit list. But he meets his match in Roy Batty, who saves his life and demonstrates just how human a replicant can be. Deckard leaves with Rachael, having failed to kill her, and possibly questioning his own status as a human being…
“If only you could see what I’ve seen with your eyes.”
Eye symbolism is central to the meaning of Blade Runner. The film begins with an eye looking out over the city but we never find out who it belongs to. It could be the eye of God, or the watchful eye of a surveillance state, as in Orwell’s Big Brother concept.
Or it could represent you, the viewer, watching the story unfold. The eye draws you in and says: pay attention – this story is about you.
The fire and lights of the city are reflected in the eye, suggesting the myth of Prometheus stealing the fire of the gods to give to humanity. Eyes are also seen as the windows of the soul and this tells us the story is about perception and consciousness.
Eyes are a key part of the plot too. Deckard uses a machine to test the replicants for an empathic response via their eyes. Roy Batty visits ‘Eye World’ to menace the genetic engineer who made his eyes and find out how long he has to live. The engineer tells him to see Tyrell for his answers, the man who designed his mind.
Tyrell himself has bad eyesight – symbolic of his limited vision and hubris – and wears huge glasses that make him look like an owl. Owls are often seen as symbols of wisdom, but their ancient meaning is much darker. To most ancient cultures, owls represented an omen of death and desolation. The owl in Tyrell’s office is artificial, as revealed by the red glow in its eyes. In other words, it’s not really alive – an imitation of life. The red glow is perhaps an indication of the emptiness within: the lack of a soul.
To test Rachael for signs of humanity, Deckard uses a Voight-Kampff machine that measures certain involuntary responses to a series of questions. The idea is to provoke an emotional response that reveals empathy with other living beings. She fails the test, but is unaware that she’s a replicant. As far as Rachael is concerned, she’s human.
There’s a couple of problems with this. Measuring empathy doesn’t tell you anything about humanity because other animals also experience empathy. What it does show is that the subject has an inner life. The answer to the question of humanity can be found in our ability to think symbolically – in other words, to find meaning in our experiences.
The next problem is whether it’s possible to measure subjective experience using a machine. The machine can only measure the external signs of an inner life. It can’t tell you anything about what the subject is actually feeling or what the experience means to them. It’s a measure of quantity rather than quality.
These problems stem from the materialist assumption that underpins the metaphysics of the modern worldview: that only matter is real and there’s no transcendent reality beyond the physical. This leads to the belief that consciousness is created by the brain and that a human being is just a meat robot.
Materialist science measures the external signs that indicate an inner life but can’t accept the reality of subjectivity. It reduces that inner life to biological signals – electrical or chemical. But that’s not where you find meaning. Humanity doesn’t exist at the level of neurons and neurotransmitters, so the reductionist believes that means humanity doesn’t exist at all.
This way of looking at life misses the point completely. Life and meaning can’t be measured – they can only be lived.
Leaving aside the dodgy science, the question of whether the replicants are human, or not, comes down to the nature of memory. The story suggests that memory creates identity, but that it’s also unreliable, an idea that’s explored further in the sequel. Replicants have been given fake memories that provide context for their experiences. But Rachael believes her memories are real and gets very upset when she discovers they might not be.
Memories mean you have a past and that you exist through time. They allow you to construct a sense of self by giving you a feeling of continuity. However, your identity is built from all your experiences but you don’t remember most of them, especially the earliest ones. Some of your memories may even be for things that never happened, at least not how you remember them. And what happens if you lose your memory to Alzheimer’s or amnesia? Does that make you less human or less real as a person?
The replicants have photographs of their fake pasts that they use to prove their memories are real. This also makes them feel more real as people. But a photo isn’t a memory and it’s not whatever was photographed either. It’s just a representation of something.
A replicant is a representation of a human being. And a memory is a (possibly accurate) representation of an experience.
Memories are a sign of having an inner life, a characteristic of sentient life forms. But the inner life of a replicant is an implant, a memory from somebody else – a human. So the inner life is artificial. But if that artificial inner life is meaningful to the replicant, does that make a difference? It does to Rachael – it makes her believe she’s real.
Blade Runner asks: If you can’t tell the difference between a real memory and a fake one, does it matter?
Since you can’t tell the difference, perhaps the question should be: what do your memories mean to you? It’s not enough to just have a memory of something, like a spider in your garden, or piano lessons. It’s how the memory fits into your story and relates to everything else in your life that matters. It’s the pattern or context that creates the meaning – the experience that created the memory in the first place.
Deckard has a piano in his apartment, with music on the stand along with a collection of photographs. Rachael tells him she remembers piano lessons but isn’t sure if the memory is hers. She plays a little tune and Deckard says she plays beautifully.
Would it really be possible to learn a practical skill like piano playing from a memory implant? I had piano lessons as a child and can still bang out a tune. But I don’t remember every lesson I had. My ability to play comes from hours and hours of practice drilled into muscle memory embedded in my subconscious.
I can play the piano not because I remember learning, but because I spent years of my childhood actually playing the piano. And it’s the music that makes it meaningful.
Musical notation is a representation of the music itself. The music only comes to life when it’s played. The notation means nothing on its own. In a similar way, memories are strung together into patterns that create a context for your life and only become meaningful when they’re lived and experienced.
Remembering piano lessons means nothing unless you actually play the piano. You are what you do.
Clearly, a human being is more than their memories. You may use memory to construct a self, but who you are is bigger than that. I can’t get into that here, but for another take on this read: Evolution of Consciousness: Army of Me
In part 2 we’ll continue to explore the humanity of the replicants and answer the ultimate question: Is Deckard a replicant? Read Blade Runner – part 2: Awakening to Humanity and Freedom
Images: film stills