Blade Runner is one of those films that only gets deeper with each watch. Ridley Scott’s classic, with its prescient image of a world dominated by Chinese culture and fear of a rampant AI, describes a universe in which replica humans - replicants - are built to do thine jobs humans would rather not be involved. These jobs might include fighting wars, being part of ‘an off-world kick-murder squad,’ or giving ‘pleasure’ to humans.
When one of these replicants goes rogue, it is the job of the Blade Runner to hunt them down. This is usually easy. Replicants don’t have emotions, so by using a test to check for micro-expressions such as ‘capillary dilation of the so-called blush response, fluctuation of the pupil, involuntary dilation of the iris’, and asking questions designed to produce an emotional response, they are easily spotted.
That is until four of the latest generation of replicants - the Nexus 6 - go rogue. As explained to the Blade Runner at centre of the film - Deckard (played by Harrison Ford) - the Nexus 6:
“...were designed to copy human beings in every way except their emotions. The designers reckoned that after a few years they might develop their own emotion responses. You know, hate, love, fear, envy.”
Given time, these new replicants could develop emotions. To stop any rogue replicant simply disappearing into society, the Tyrell Corporation that make them limits the Nexus 6 to a four-year lifespan.
It is the idea that emotions can develop that is at the core of the film. To understand this you first need to understand what emotions are. That is a good question, and not one with a definitive answer. Broadly, those trying to answer it fall into two camps.
The first are those who believe that emotions are evolved, based upon trigger-response mechanisms within the amygdala, the insula and other bits of the brain that control fight, flight, freeze, and the other sensations of emotions. In this view, fear is an instant reaction to something that can hurt us, disgust is a reaction to something that can contaminate us, happiness is a reaction to something that benefits us, and so on. All the rest of it - that some people like garlic and some people find it disgusting, or that Jazz music might give one person great joy while causing anger in another - is just window dressing.
The proponents of this view often postulate a set of ‘basic emotions’: emotions that are shared by all humans, and sometimes - as in the case of the work of Neuroscientist Jaak Panskepp - all mammals. The most well-known are happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise and disgust. These were developed by Psychologist Paul Ekman in the late 1960s and 1970s from evidence that all the humans, from New York college students to the Foré Tribe of Papua New Guinea, recognise the faces associated with those emotions. However, there are many opposing groups of basic emotions. Jaak Panskepp, for example, thought all mammals could experience RAGE, FEAR, LUST, CARE, PANIC/GRIEF,and PLAY. And yes, they were all supposed to be written in capitals, to help us know they are basic when we see them amongst more complicated emotions like ‘bewilderment.’ Most of these groups seem to agree on fear and anger - or rage - as being basic, and they have done since Plato grouped together sets of emotions in around 500 BC.
The other camp believes that emotions are socially constructed, each culture and historical period having its own set of feelings. This view goes further, suggesting that the category of emotions itself is a recent invention with older categories of feelings, like passions, sentiments and the greek pathé, all referring to something slightly different.
This group points out that different cultures have different and often culturally unique sets of feelings, such as the Czech emotion experienced when you realise just how miserable you are, litost, or the French depaysement - an uneasiness felt when experiencing unfamiliar scenery such as that in another country.
Even at the level of ‘fear’, ‘anger’, etc., the social constructionist view points out that both what causes the experiences and the experiences themselves can be slightly different. For example, the German equivalent for ‘disgust’, ekel, is described as a need to avoid something unpleasant - a bit like the feeling you get when trying not to be tickled - than the English emotion of nausea and revulsion. To this group, the window dressing is what is important, as it feeds back into how the window itself is perceived. If repulsive things make you shudder rather than feel sick, then repulsive things are perceived as causing a shudder, even if the face a German pulls is the same face an English person.
Dreaming of Electric Tears
This is where Blade Runner is interesting. Blade Runner suggests a third way, long suggested by philosophers of history.
Through the replicant escapees, the film is suggesting that some feelings can exist in all human-like beings, but that it takes life experiences for people to develop them fully. The clue to this view comes in Decker’s examination of Rachel, a replicant who has developed complex emotions by having memories implanted. As her creator, Tyrell, explains:
“We began to recognise in them strange obsessions. After all they are emotional inexperienced with only a few years in which to store up the experiences which you and I take for granted. If we give them the past we create a cushion or pillow for their emotions and consequently we can control them better.”
The idea that experiences are central to emotions - that they are evaluations of a situation based on what we know of the past - is one shared by many philosophers of emotion. The philosophers Robert Solomon and Martha Nussbaum both believe, roughly, that emotions are caused when the pathways our brains develop through experience to deal with things quickly - schemas - are messed with when a situation goes in an unexpected way. The replicants don't have many schemas, and so when something unexpected happens, they react in the only ways they know how.
The leader of the rogue replicants, Roy Batty, was built as a soldier and programmed for “optimal self-preservation.” He realises that he is going to die and there is nothing he can do about it. This doesn’t fit with what he knows because all he knows is survival. He feels something, something powerful that he would later identify as fear. Fear of death drives him to escape and seek out his creators. It is one of the two things he knows how to do: self-preserve. Each time he finds out that this is impossible, the fear becomes something else - rage - and the confusion makes him perform the only other action he understands: to kill.
In the final confrontation, after almost killing Deckard, Ray catches Deckard, saving him from plummeting to the ground from the top of the Tyrell Skyscraper. He then utters the classic dialogue:
"I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the sholder of Orion. I watched sea beams glitter in the darkness at Tan Hauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time like tears in rain. Time to die."
Roy then dies, his four-year lifespan having come to an end.
In the original script Deckard contemplated why he might have saved his life:
“Maybe in those last moments he loved life more than he ever had before. Not just his life, anybody's life, my life. All he'd wanted were the same answers the rest of us want. Where did I come from? Where am I going? How long have I got? All I could do was sit there and watch him die.”
Roy’s last words speak to the brevity of life. Of how life’s experiences disappear in a flash. His memories had finally provided him with the cushion need to control his emotions. To me, this last act is an act of compassion. The realisation that to take a life was to waste it and to cause another person’s memories to disperse ‘like tears in the rain.’
Roy had finally developed enough experiences to appraise his feelings. He had realised that for replicants, the only way to be allowed to live, was to learn to cry. The new question now is: have the Replicants of 2049 figured this out?