Viewing replicants in Blade Runner

What are replicants?

Replicants are genetically engineered (human) beings that are designed and made by the Tyrell Corporation, and its subcontractors, for specific use as workers, human servants and other specific roles. It appears that different parts of the replicants are designed separately by different workers/companies and then brought together (with Eldon Tyrell designing the minds).

The current ‘generation’ of replicant is the Nexus-6, the most advanced yet. It embodies the phrase of the Tyrell Corporation, “more human than human”, as it is superior to its human makers in terms of intellect and physical abilities.* It also resembles humans identically in terms of physical appearance, and is seen to be able to develop complex emotions and feelings over time, just like regular humans. Because of the latter ability, the Nexus-6 replicants were designed to have a four-year lifespan, because a longer life would allow them to fully develop emotionally, rendering them harder to control. * *

As such, on the day exactly four years after their ‘incept date’ the replicants ‘retire’ themselves – they slump over dead. During their four years they do not age in any physical sense, however as they begin to come close to their termination date (possibly within days) they show signs of weakening.

Nexus-6 replicants are certainly self-aware of their existential status. That is, they know they exist and they know what they are. It is unknown how developed the older model replicants were in these terms, but my speculation is that they may have been far less developed. I presume that the Nexus-6 are a relatively new creation, and that presumption is based on the fact they Deckard seems surprised when Bryant is briefing him about the escaped replicants. Bryant explains the features and nature of the Nexus-6 as if they are new, so it appears Deckard has not dealt with them before. A further clue is that he is unsure whether or not the VK test will work on them.

It may be then that older replicants were easier to spot. They may have noticeably differed from other human beings, and so been easier to treat as ‘other’. This may explain people’s willingness to accept them as slaves and inferior beings, as well as Deckard’s continued job of killing them off. So it may be that with the development of the Nexus-6, the line between human and non-human was really blurred. Of course, all that is speculation.

But it is clear that the Nexus-6 replicants are so like other humans that you cannot help but question their true identity. It is the nature of the replicants that pose that ultimate philosophical question in this film: What does it mean to be human?

Our senses immediately recognise them as ‘human’, they look, sound and behave like other people. They are so like us that an elaborate emotional test must be used to identify them, rather than a blood or DNA test. How is it justified that they are designed specifically for use as tools, as oppressed servants? It may be the case that they are viewed as lesser beings simply because people view them as lesser beings. In other words, it doesn’t mean that they are less human. We can choose what to believe, and if enough people go along with it and subject a minority group, then it establishes that custom.

But then again, there are differences between replicants and humans. The most obvious is that a private corporation engineers replicants, while most other humans are created ‘naturally’. Next, replicants are actually superior physically and mentally. Their bodies and minds must have been so engineered as to be different from ‘normal’ human ones. The replicants have a four-year lifespan; humans do not have a determined lifespan of such, but generally seem to live eight decades or so in good conditions. Replicants know exactly when they are going to die (presuming they are aware of their own incept dates); humans do not.

* It may be that only the replicants with a level-A mental capacity, such as Roy, are superior to their designers. Pris and Zhora are level-B, while Leon is level C. Leon appears a little dim in the film, but this may be because he is younger than the other replicants.

* * Eldon tells Roy that he was made as well as he could be, suggesting that the engineers may not have been able to give the Nexus-6 a longer life, even if they had wanted to. Maybe because of their superior abilities (burning more brightly), the replicants wear themselves out quickly. However this is put into question when you consider that Rachael has no expiration date. Is she a Nexus-6, or a more advanced model?

Are replicants human?

At the beginning of the film, the Nexus-6 replicants are said to be ‘virtually identical’ to humans, and the result of the latest phase of ‘Robot evolution’. In Philip K. Dick’s novel, instead of replicants the term ‘android’ is used. An android can be defined in various ways as a robot with a human appearance, a synthetic organism designed to look and act like a human, or an automaton (self-operating machine) that is created by biological materials and resembles a human. Whereas a robot may not look at all human, androids are specifically designed to look and behave as humanly as possible.

The term cyborg is also well known, and refers to a being that is partly organic and partly mechanical – one that would look like a human, but has machinery inside itself (think of Terminator or the science captain from Alien). Replicants are referred to as objects, machines and lesser beings in the film numerous times:

“Replicants are like any other machine…they’re either a benefit or a hazard”

“How can it not know what it is?” (Referring to Rachael)

“We’ve got four skin-jobs walking the streets”

“Use your new friend as a personal body servant or a tireless field hand. The custom-tailored genetically engineered humanoid replicant, designed especially for your needs” (voiceover advertisement)

Based on the above, replicants are not considered fully human. Law would reinforce this – replicants are almost certainly classed as some ‘other’ being in a legal sense, and thus deprived of human rights. So we can say that in the society depicted in Blade Runner, replicants are classed as being not human. But of course one of the points of the film is to get you to think about this classification and question its validity. In the past, humans have classified other humans as non-human, or less than fully human, but over time perceptions have changed and we realised the error of past ways and remedied it (although prejudice is undoubtedly still rife). So perhaps the classification of Nexus-6 replicants as non-human is incorrect too.

Can it really be accepted that replicants are androids?

It appears that Philip K. Dick regarded the androids in his book as simply robots, referring to them as ‘deplorable’ and ‘essentially less than human entities’. This is in contrast to Ridley Scott, who envisaged them as ‘supermen who couldn’t fly’. So the nature of the replicants presumably differs quite a lot from the novel to the film (I have not read the novel so cannot personally comment). Ridley certainly had a more sympathetic view of the replicants, and encouraged more audience identification with them.

But still, the real nature of the replicants in Blade Runner is ambiguous. The science behind their design is never made clear, and we are not exactly sure what they look like inside – is there any wiring or metal? How do they act and behave when they are young, say in the first half of their lifespans? It seems likely to me that there is little or no machinery inside the replicants. They certainly bleed, sweat and cry like other humans. We see no indication of machinery when Zhora and Pris are killed (although Pris’ death does seem rather robot-like); instead we see flesh and blood. It is also likely that they only develop a full sense of themselves late in their life – my presumption is that they are more subservient and emotionally neutral early in their life, when they have yet to have a lot of experiences.

The androids in Philip K. Dick’s novel are apparently differentiated by their inability to feel empathy. In fact the absence of feelings and emotions is a pretty well established trait of robots, cyborgs or androids. It helps us to quite easily tell the difference between them and us. Of course, we can immediately note that some humans seem to lack emotions too (sociopath/psychopath). Does this mean they are less than human? See the section on humans in the film for more discussion related to this. Regardless, replicants in Blade Runner clearly have emotions. In Rachael’s case they are so developed as to be indistinguishable from those we feel. So this feature of the replicants complicates our task of defining what they are.

This has all been leading up to a definition of a human. I have placed a post on this important question in another section called ‘What is a human?’, which can be accessed here or via the links on the right.

Replicant-like beings in other films and works

Blade Runner was hardly the first work to portray the interaction of artificial beings in a largely human environment. Oral myths and stories that include such beings have probably been told for thousands of years, although their existence would not have been based on science. But it seems likely that with the start of the modern world (the scientific revolution, industrialisation, advent of cities, and so forth) many new ideas and speculations were put forward. Science and technology was at that time beginning to develop to a point where it was able to be used to create simulations of real things. One of the early classic stories, later to be adapted into film, was Frankenstein. * Most are familiar with the basic story. Tell story

Other examples are Creation of the Humanoids

update in progress…

*In fact, Blade Runner owes a debt to Frankenstein, which is discussed in a chapter from the book ‘Retrofitting Blade Runner’ published in 1991.

Replicants in the year 2010

You won’t be surprised to find out that androids have already been developed by various companies.

update in progress…


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