Eyes of the Beholders

Eyes of the Beholders



Still of a shirtless man holding a white dove from the film Blade Runner.
Still from Blade Runner, Directed by Ridley Scott, 1982.

The 1982 film Blade Runner invents a world in which people not only use androids, or “replicants,” for slave labor (on an Earth colony called Off-World), but also refuse to acknowledge these laborers as human. Scholar Lisa Zunshine gives a reason behind this behavior. In analyzing our brain’s cognitive functions, Zunshine describes how we have learned to define the traits of an entity based on the ontological category in which we place them. According to Zunshine, the two largest and most important categories are animal and artifact. She defines animal as something with an “essence,” which is an intangible uniqueness that can’t be copied. Artifacts are tools that we create with a single defining intention. Therefore, since each replicant in Blade Runner is built to serve a purpose, the audience and the characters in the movie are quick to place replicants in the artifact category, despite their personalities and emotions. The protagonist, Dick Deckard, is a “blade runner,” a cop whose job is to “retire” (i.e. kill) a group of runaway replicants who have integrated themselves into society. But even after an entire movie of Deckard hunting and watching the blood pour from the wounds of these replicants, he consistently fails to see the human side of them until the very end of his search. It’s only after hearing the dying words of the final replicant and leader, Roy, that something appears to click in Deckard’s mind which allows him to accept the replicants as human. To explain what may have caused this reaction, I will draw from Zunshine’s Strange Concepts and Herbert Sidney Langfield’s The Aesthetic Attitude. Langfield’s book examines humans’ uncommon ability to admire art and imagery as well as explore how our minds work when doing so. By using their scholarship to interpret the film, I have decided that Deckard could only place the replicants in the ontological category of human because Roy was able to demonstrate the replicants’ appreciation of the world in his final monologue.

First, what explains Deckard’s change of heart? The plot of Deckard’s replicant hunt runs parallel to the development of his relationship with another, non-hostile but still illegal, replicant named Rachael. However in the beginning of the movie Rachael does not know she is a replicant because, as her manufacturer’s experiment, she was taught to believe that she is human. It is Deckard who breaks the news to her. A little later in the movie, Rachael goes home with Deckard for protection from being caught by other blade runners. Here, the audience is introduced to Deckard’s alcoholism as he proceeds to get drunk, and consequently becomes very physical with Rachael. At first, he tries to kiss her, but she evades and heads for the door. Deckard slams the door shut before she can exit, pins her against a wall and commands, “say ‘kiss me.’” Rachael says it, to which Deckard responds, “I want you,” and waits again for her to mimic him. One cannot say for certain, but the near sobbing tone with which Rachael follows his demands suggests that Deckard rapes Rachel once the scene fades to black. Whether or not Rachael actually has feelings for Deckard is debatable, but even if she does love him, at that moment, it’s clear that she does not want to have sex, and Deckard forces it anyway. In contrast, when Deckard returns home from his showdown with Roy the following day, he goes to Rachel not demanding sex, but passionately asking if she loves him. She replies yes, and they make their exit hand in hand. I am not arguing that Deckard’s actions are excusable, nor do I want to glorify them; for my argument, I just want to show that there is a contrast between the two scenes that demonstrates how at the point in time of the rape scene, Deckard fails to see Rachael as anything more than an artifact. In that scene, she is a replicant with no purpose, and so Deckard decides to project one on to her— to serve him physically in exchange for shelter. But when he returns home from his bout with Roy, Rachael is nowhere in sight. Deckard appears worried; he yells her name and soon finds her under some blankets on his bed. For a moment, he is unsure whether she is alive or dead, and he looks sad, but she then responds, and Deckard realizes she was just asleep. He then actually acknowledges her emotions by asking whether or not she loves him instead of commanding her to. There is still a sense that her behavior echoes his in this scene; it is unclear whether Rachael genuinely loves Deckard or whether she is just humoring him to stay safe. Nonetheless, this scene still plays out very differently, as Deckard is no longer treating Rachael like an artifact. He genuinely cares for her safety when he could not find her, and by asking her a question with no implication of a threat, he is giving her the freedom to respond however she wants. She is now no longer simply a sex toy for Deckard, but a real life partner for him, which requires more than a single purpose. So, extrapolating from the change in Deckard’s treatment of Rachael, one can see that something very important occurred during the showdown between Deckard and Roy.

During the final confrontation, there are several events with the potential to cause a change in Deckard’s thinking about replicants. As Deckard hangs precariously off the side of a rooftop, Roy has the opportunity to let Deckard die, but Roy makes the choice to save him. Additionally, the scene culminates in Roy’s death, which demonstrates the mortality of the replicants. Both are crucial events that could have contributed to Deckard’s change of heart. However, Deckard knew about the replicant’s fixed lifespan, since he was debriefed at the beginning of the movie, and just the action of saving someone’s life does not make one human. What is possibly humanizing is whether there is motivation behind the action. After pulling Deckard up from the side of the building, Roy tells him, “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.” Roy’s head drops in death leaving Deckard free to return home to Rachael. Roy’s quote indicates that he spared Deckard for two reasons. One is that he wanted to give this final message to Deckard in hopes of giving him some perspective, but also to cherish life instead of encourage death in his final moments. Roy’s sadness derives from knowing the sights he had experienced Off-world will be “lost in time.” An admirably human trait, but why? Roy is describing his memories of imagery pertaining to war, such as “attack ships on fire,” but portraying them with allure through his mournful yet reminiscent delivery of those lines. A machine cannot witness “C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate,” and then look back at that memory at the end of its life and reflect on beauty. This is because, as explained in Langfield’s book, to appreciate aesthetics not only requires self-consciousness, but to also have the ability to then block that consciousness so that one may direct all focus on the image being examined. This nuanced self-awareness, including the manipulation of self-awareness, is, according to Langfield, a uniquely animal trait. As an example, “when we focus our attention upon a bright button, the intense light reflected from it will soon occupy our consciousness to the exclusion of everything else. It is then that one reposes in the object, for there is at such times no wandering back and forth between foreground and background” (54). What Langfield means by foreground and background is where the object holds interest in our consciousness. When someone is fully contemplating a piece of art, the art is in the foreground of their consciousness because it is thoroughly holding his or her interest, while things like “the beating of the heart, the rhythmical breathing, and the weight of the clothes” (53), are placed in the background. When we look at something that is striking to us, like a bright button, or attack ships on fire, or C-Beams, all of our other interests become effectively nonexistent throughout the period in which we observe. Now turning to Zunshine’s argument regarding the single-purposed nature of artifacts, if Roy were an artifact, his sole function would have captivate every moment of his thought, and therefore, he would not be able to put that interest in the background of his conscious. The robot surgeon in the 1999 film The Bicentennial Man exhibited this artifactual trait: when asked if it wanted to be human, it could only give an answer that related to being a surgeon, therefore concluding that being a human would make it a less perfect surgeon, and so it should remain a robot. At the beginning of Blade Runner, Deckard is told that Roy is a “combat model,” meaning his purpose must involve anything war related. As I mentioned earlier, the imagery Roy describes to Deckard in his final moments has violent connotations. “Attack ships on fire” would be an image that strongly resonates with Roy’s purpose of combat, yet he has no problem placing that in the background of his attention and seeing that image just as something of beauty. His comments demonstrate—to the viewer and to Deckard—that though Roy was built for combat and certainly could fight, he is not some machine that can do nothing but kill because it that’s was built to do, rather, he is something with a human conscious full of many different interests in appreciating the world around him.

Furthering that idea while also looking at it more abstractly, just the fact that Roy is able to identify something as beautiful shows that the replicants are human. Langfield looks at what makes art and imagery different from everything else we appreciate. Part of the conclusion is that beauty’s purpose goes beyond the physical realm. He writes that “the most frequently and generally accepted concept, and the one that the majority of aestheticians have included in their definitions . . . is that of the utter absence of utility . . . We value most things for what we can do with them . . . but in the enjoyment of art . . . beauty is pleasing in itself” (45). There is no one dedicated aim that we use art to accomplish, in that whether it is created or captured, it is vulnerable to the individual perceptions of the audience. “Those to whom beauty means most do in fact desire it, though only for purposes of contemplation, just as they desire food though only for eating; and both appetites may, by starvation, become cravings. What is meant would probably be better expressed by saying that beauty is what pleases in the mere contemplation” (45). In short, Langfield proposes that art is not something we need to help us with a tangible task, but it is something we desire to satisfy our need to think. Langfield goes on to say that possession of art, though technically possible, is not necessary. To satisfy our need to contemplate, we must go out and identify things that will do that. Meaning that art is not art by design, but it is given that title by person who believes that the beauty of it is pleasing to them. The audience does not really know what C-Beams are or what their purpose is, but to Roy, there is an aspect of beauty to them that is free of utility and entertained his need to contemplate. That status of beauty is transferred from Roy to the audience, who, despite having no knowledge of C-Beams, receive Roy’s emotional response to them, therefore making C-Beams artful to the audience. In the world of artifacts all is known solely for the intention of its creation, but only humans have the power to decide that just the appearance of something is purpose enough. In short people do not create art, we decide it is art and Roy proved to Deckard that he has the ability to contribute to that relationship.

Blade Runner is a minimalist film in some respects. The visuals and action are at the forefront for a lot of the movie, and the important dialogue is used sparingly among its many scenes. The message of the film only really comes together after Roy’s death, but in doing so, it makes Roy’s final words all the more significant. The shared appreciation of the world and life is a compelling force that seems to always be the outsider’s most important asset in becoming accepted by humans. It shows up in Frankenstein, Ex Machina, Grendel, and many other stories. There is an indescribable and deep emotional connection to the shared love for the beauty of life that helps humans overlook the reason we have marked as different and alienated some creature. I think it is important to realize that this connection is very powerful and has the potential to generate acceptance in reality where there are no replicants, but where there is racism, sexism, classism, and many other intolerances. The biases at the root of these problems objectify people no different than how Roy and his band of replicants, and even Rachael, were made into artifacts. But we need to remember that just because someone is physically different or  lives differently from us, it does not mean that person cannot also share the feeling that attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion are beautiful too.

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