"Are you proud of yourself, little man?"
The question, asked by Roy, the replicant (Rutger Hauer), to Deckard (Harrison Ford), echoes at the core of my still developing understanding and appreciation of Ridley Scott's science-fiction masterpiece.
The film finally opened in Durham, North Carolina this weekend, and Cindy took me to see it on the big screen to celebrate my "inception date."
Roy asks the question after Deckard has "retired" Pris (Darryl Hannah), that word being the euphemism for killing.
Of course, one can't "kill" a machine, even a very life-like one, but even though logic and law tells you (and Deckard) that putting bullets into Pris is no different than pulling the plug on a hard drive or slaughtering an animal, something in his conscience tells him otherwise. Something that can't be numbed by all the alcohol he keeps chugging down to still his shaking hands. Pesky things, consciences. We can't retain our humanity without them, but they often make it hard for us to live with ourselves.
Pris's "retirement" is painful to watch. Painful for Deckard and painful for us. Her body jerks in spasms reminiscent of some short circuiting robot, but also of a marionette jerked on a string, or a creation of Frankenstein jolted with electricity. It is the antithesis of so many movie deaths that happen at distance and desensitize us to violence. The deaths, like the moral choices in the film, are not neat, not clean. Things get messy. Things get painful.
Roy wants to know if Deckard can look on his work and call it good.
Blade Runner is, above all else, a film about what makes us human. What is it that Deckard has that the replicants don't that make his life somehow more valuable than their existence? Emotions? Memories? A conscience? A lot of ink has been spilled over the question of whether or not Deckard is himself a replicant, but in the end I'm not sure that how we answer that question is all that relevant to the film's message about respect for all life.
On an intellectual level, the film tells us it may not matter because if we can't distinguish human from replicant than any justification for treating them differently is really doomed to implode under the weight of its own hypocrisy. On an emotional level, the film argues that the sadness and horror our eyes and souls feel at the sight of the replicants' deaths are real, even if the replicants are not. And the reality of that emotion trumps and overpowers whatever arguments we make to ourselves to try to convince ourselves that it is okay.
In an election year that has seen a resurgence of debates about the justification of torture, Blade Runner reminds us that violence always extracts a price on those who use it, not just on those who receive it. Each time we act in violence a part of our own humanity is lost, or at least repressed. So even if we can convince ourselves that the objects of our violence are not covered under whatever moral or legal code we operate under, we can't escape the fact that the agents of violence are haunted and scarred by the experience of using it.
As an aside, the film holds up very well on a technical level, which was a relief. It is always a dangerous thing to revisit a film around which there is a mystique, lest the actual fact fails to live up to your memory of it. Blade Runner may not have the "wow" factor it did in the 1980s in regards to its special effects or art design, but unlike many contemporary action or genre pieces, there is something there in addition to spectacle, so once the giddy rush of spectacle (or the warm wave of nostalgia) wears off, there is still a core of ideas within the film for the viewer to contemplate.
Link to my interview with Doug Cummings about Blade Runner, at The Matthews House Project.