“What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end.” – Friedrich Nietzsche
The philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche presented the idea of Übermensch as a goal for humanity. A German word meaning Above- or Beyond-Human or Superhuman, this idea was presented to contrast with the divinity (beyond-humanness) in contemporary Christianity. He promotes the idea of giving meaning to human life through the advancement of further generations. Although this could be in terms of moral progress, scientific advancement is also a valid application to this idea, and it has often been connected with the concept of eugenics as a method of “improving” the human species. Science fiction presents many alternative iterations of Übermensch, including androids, cyborgs, superheroes, and more. The “replicants” of Blade Runner are another example of these superhuman beings.
Ridley Scott‘s 1982 movie* shows the polluted and overcrowded slum of Los Angeles in 2019 where human clones known as replicants were created to be used for slave labor. After a violent rebellion by replicants off-world, they were banned from Earth, and so-called “blade runners” execute any replicants that do escape to the planet, a process referred to as retirement. At the start of Blade Runner, four such replicants have arrived in LA looking for their maker to extend their short lifespans — approximately four years — so blade runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is recruited to hunt them down. He successfully locates and retires three of the four, but Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) succeeds in confronting his creator and, upon disappointment, kills him. Roy then goes after Deckard, and they fight until his life ends naturally with Deckard watching.
In Blade Runner, an examination called the Voight-Kampff test measures minute reactions in the eyes of its subject (pupil dilation, movement) to discern the authenticity of their emotional response to specific questions. When asked to use single words to describe his mother, Leon (Brion James), a replicant, shoots the blade runner who is questioning him — he knew that he could not fake the answer to that question since he had no mother. Being so short-lived, the replicants are very emotionally immature, and their responses allow them to be identified through this test, which is later adapted as a PTSD/baseline test in the 2017 sequel Blade Runner 2049). Deckard performs the Voight-Kampff test on a woman named Rachael (Sean Young) who is, unbeknownst to her, a replicant. Rachael has been given a wealth of memories, an entire life’s worth, to provide her with the emotional experience and maturity of a human being. Nonetheless, although it is much more difficult than usual for him to determine her nature, Decker does correctly conclude that she is a replicant. It is said that “the eyes are the windows to the soul,” but as Joshi (Robin Wright) reminds K (Ryan Gosling) in Blade Runner 2049, replicants are not thought to have souls.
Although the replicants in Blade Runner 2049 are given the illusion of childhood to ensure emotional stability, it is a fleeting thing, sparse and manufactured. It is illegal to give them real memories; to allow them such humanity would compromise the line between replicants and humans, which cannot be allowed for their society to continue to function. “More human than human” the Tyrell Corporation boasts. Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), the head of the Wallace Corporation, Tyrell’s successor, in Blade Runner 2049, is less whimsical about the use of Replicants. “Every leap of civilization was built off the back of a disposable workforce,” he says. “We lost our stomach for slaves.”
They use these super-humans, gifted with enhanced strength, speed, resilience, intelligence (dictated by their model number), to the benefit of society, working in conditions that could never be acceptable for humans. These slaves have enabled the settlement of many new worlds. However, despite all attempts to dehumanize and disempower them, they have human desires, too, and are not content to be bound in slavery to their creators, their parents.
The Blade Runner franchise stresses the importance of parental figures, especially fathers. These father figures are the creators of these Übermensch, or are the personification of their creator — e.g., Tyrell is the head of the Tyrell Corporation, and he was vital in the manufacture of replicants, having designed their brains, but in truth, there were many other scientists and manufacturers necessary for their creation. Although portrayed as knowledgeable, wise, and powerful, they are each proven fallible in turn. In the 2007 “Final Cut” of Blade Runner, Roy’s line to Tyrell “I want more life, fucker” has been replaced with “I want more life, Father,” which helps emphasize the paternal nature of their relationship. Referred to as the “prodigal son” by Tyrell, Roy has returned seeking his creator to demand that he fix him and extend his cruelly short lifespan. When Tyrell tells him that he cannot help him, that “you [replicants] were made as good as we could make you,” Roy is enraged by the powerlessness of his maker. He kisses Tyrell and then crushes his skull between his bare hands with his superior strength.
This emphasis on parental figures is made more complex in Blade Runner 2049 when it is discovered that a miracle has occurred. Rachael has given birth to a child, fathered by none other than Deckard. This child, presented in an inversion of the Chosen One trope, is proof of what the Wallace and Tyrell corporations have been denying all along — despite their inhuman qualities, the replicants are no different than humans. This truth invokes fear in those that profit from the unjust class structure because the replicants are no longer bound to their manufacturers to ensure the continued existence of their own race. Not only are they as worthy as humans, but they may also even be more so. Wallace sees the replicants as a perfect product, calling them “angels.” This calls back to the same motif in Blade Runner when Roy refers to himself and his fellow replicants as fallen angels in a deliberate misquote of Blake’s America: a Prophecy (1793): “Fiery the angels fell; deep thunder rolled around their shores; burning with the fires of Orc” versus “Fiery, the angels rose, and as they rose deep thunder roll’d. Around their shores: indignant burning with the fires of Orc.”
As the leader of these fallen angels, Roy is related to Lucifer (fallen angels are a recurring theme in Blake’s work, perhaps most notably in his poem The Tyger), the brightest of God’s creations before he fell from grace. Portrayed throughout history as both loving and hating his Father, Lucifer seems to desire reconciliation but not at the price of his freedom. Roy seeks this reconciliation to gain his freedom and is denied. Roy’s true apotheosis and liberty from his nature are achieved moments before he expires when he shows how he values life and saves Deckard’s life. As Roy passes away, he seems to have found peace from his lifetime of conflict.
The ending of the original Blade Runner is poetic but grim. Blade Runner 2049 ends on a more open note, with the reunion of father and daughter and the hope for a better future for the replicant slaves. A “skin-job” uprising may be in the cards for the Blade Runner worlds; although humanity has trashed their home planet, they have also created the Übermensch replicants who are perhaps more suited to live in the damaged world. Whether or not they take it for themselves will have to remain for potential future Blade Runner sequels.
*Note: There have been several versions of Blade Runner (1982) released; the one being analyzed in this article is the 2007 “Final Cut.”