Friday, November 3, 2017

Did You Ever Take the Voight-Kampff Test Yourself?

When someone (one of my college TAs, as I recall) introduced me to the most popular fan theory about Blade Runner (1982), namely that Rick Deckard was a replicant, I got rather angrier than the remark warranted. The aforementioned theory rested on Rachel's pointed question to Rick about the Voight-Kampff test, a mechanism used to distinguish replicants from "real" humans: "Have you ever taken that test yourself?" I think many fans, and eventually director Ridley Scott himself, read the question as a hint* that the VK machine would reveal Deckard's android identity.

I read it instead as a deeper philosophical question, a rare one in movies and one a science-fiction film was well-positioned to ask: how does anyone know s/he is real, is human? Most of the replicants in Blade Runner were "Nexus 6" models who strongly resembled humans: they had the same physical abilities as humans, could reason, could feel love and fear and pain, could and did hope for a future. Rachel had even more human features. She had a childhood, or at least the memories of one; had mastered a creative art, piano-playing; had the capacity for complex human emotions. She had, in short, all the attributes of a human being. All that became irrelevant when she failed the VK: she was now a replicant and a slave, a lesser life, someone whom Rick could murder at will. The only things separating Rachel from Deckard or Bryan, however, were the Tyrell Corporation's (presumably secret) records of her manufacture and the results of a mechanical test. How many natural-born humans would have fared any better at the VK exam than her? How arbitrary, then, is the difference between a full person and a fake person, between freeman and slave. This interrogation of mental and social reality is, I suggest, the philosophical heart of the original Blade Runner film. Simply saying "Oh, Deckard must be a replicant" robs it of its power.

To its credit, the sequel movie, Blade Runner 2049 refuses to answer the "human or replicant" question, except to imply (through the film's villain, Niander Wallace) that in Deckard's case it doesn't matter. All of the (other?) replicants in the new film are aware of their artificiality, have easily-accessible serial numbers, and in some cases routinely take a "baseline" test determining their level of obedience. The main character, K., not only knows what he is but prefers being a replicant; indeed, he is upset by even the possibility that he might be partially human. The other replicants in this film don't want to be human, either. They merely want the few things that make human beings independent, including control over (to borrow a Marxist term) their own means of reproduction. "More human than human" was a subtle joke in the first Blade Runner movie; now it is something audiences are willing to accept at face value. BR 2049 has shed some of the poetic ambiguity of its predecessor, but it has made its social criticism more explicit. And it has put a spoke in Ridley Scott's rhetorical wheel, which these days is a plus.

* Another supposed hint was Captain Bryant's threat: "If you're not cop, you're little people." Bryant didn't explain what that meant. One could translate "little people" as "replicants who don't have a badge to protect them." Or it could mean "regular shmoes like everyone else in this dump."

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