The bounty hunter archetype has always been popular, especially in Western films. Action flicks tend to do good business, and few stories are easier to report than that of an individual who chases criminals for a living. Bounty hunter films practically make themselves: there’s drama and action, and a sort of fracas is bound to occur as the hunter chases the escapee—a shootout, or a pursuit through the streets—and bounty hunters already have a motive, a cause, a reason for their actions. All that’s left is to find a suitable villain. But few pictures spend time to actually examine the bounty hunter archetype with any depth or thought. Blade Runner is a film that does, and does so exceptionally.
It surprises me that more pictures don’t look at the psychology behind bounty hunter types. Perhaps it’s wrong to expect a generic action blockbuster to attempt a character study, but films that do peel back the skin of the bounty hunter archetype can be successful, even with mainstream audiences. Midnight Run packaged its examination of the bounty hunter sub-genre in a comedic veneer, and even Blade Runner, which wasn’t a giant hit initially, has now gained boilerplate approval and indeed has cemented itself in a position of influence over our popular culture.
The term ‘bounty hunter’ is itself striking. We use it to refer to individuals who chase convicts, criminals, or otherwise wanted men. But the fact that a bounty hunter is somebody who hunts man isn’t referenced in the term. Rather, a bounty hunter hunts bounty—he is literally seeking the cash sum that is to be his reward. Forget about the individual that is being sought. The bounty hunter’s sole interest is the reward at the end. The capture of the person with the bounty on their head is simply a means to that end. It’s a cold thought, but it’s something inherent to the bounty hunter himself. The hunter must be indifferent, divorced from humanity. He can’t afford to care about the individuals he’s chasing, for doing so would compromise his livelihood. There’s no room for empathy.
Yet empathy is one of Blade Runner’s core themes. Ridley Scott’s masterwork examines the divide between human and robot. ‘Replicants,’ slave robots modeled after mankind and indistinguishable from us, begin to pose a threat to humanity as they assimilate into society. Deckard ( Harrison Ford) is a ‘blade runner,’ a bounty hunter in a taskforce charged with finding and eliminating all replicants in the United States. To expose replicants, blade runners employ the ‘Voight-Kampff test,’ a series of hypothetical questions which test the respondent’s ability to emote—specifically the ability to empathize, which replicants are said to be unable to do.
Perhaps the greatest irony in Blade Runner is that replicants come across as emotionally vibrant while humanity seems very much the opposite. Replicants cannot surmount the trial posed by Messrs. Voight and Kampff, yet they still appear to be emotionally whole. Replicants ‘live’ for only four years but in that time they demonstrate a gamut of human traits: love; sadness; joy. As they near their end they have the propensity to become sentimental, clinging to old-timey photographs which recall false memories implanted in them at their inception. Humans are the opposite of all this in director Scott’s dystopian future—they are downtrodden and drone-like, exhibiting little regard for their fellows, not offering even the most cursory of interactions as they pass each other by on the streets.
Deckard is hardly exclusive; he too is emotionally broken. At the picture’s outset he lacks any empathetic aptitude and merely follows orders, to eliminate (“retire”) replicants, and he is unfazed by their flawless human disguise. Deckard is the fully realized bounty hunter: he is a vacant being, utterly untroubled by his macabre trade, a fact amplified by the nature of his work, and by who he is hunting. It’s unsettling to see Deckard gunning down replicants that are even remotely emotionally radiant, precisely because they are not meant to entertain emotions and precisely because it is he that is meant to harbor some feeling and yet lacks all sensitivity.
This, among other more direct evidence, has fuelled the theory that Deckard is in actuality a replicant. The final cut of the film certainly determines he is not human—the unicorn, the photographs, the flashing eyes—but Blade Runner may be a case where the viewer is permitted to select one of the two outcomes based on their own interpretation of the film.
Despite that, even if one believes Deckard to be human, isn’t he virtually a replicant? He follows orders blindly and carries them out efficiently, exactly as a replicant is designed to. He has no qualms even when destroying a being that looks and feels, by all accounts, entirely human. Deckard certainly sounds like a machine even if he is wholly organic. It is only when he kills a particular replicant, a naked woman that is entirely defenseless, that he begins to stir and starts to display human qualities, and by the end of the picture he seems have achieved a modicum of humanity—even then only after a replicant first shows empathy toward him and spares his life. (Further to the aforementioned human vs. replicant debate, is Deckard’s increasing sentimentality and humanity just more evidence that he is in fact a replicant that is nearing the end of its four-year lifespan? What a tangled web we weave.)
This constitutes a somewhat damning position for bounty hunters to find themselves in. To a certain extent, the bounty hunter might successfully protect himself with the argument that he is ultimately doing the right thing: he is hunting down bad people, people that have so far eluded the law. The bounty hunter is chasing people that we, as a society, have decreed to be criminals. Bounty hunters may not be inherently immoral, but to remove any and all thought and eschew any human connection with the person you are hunting down cannot be a good thing.
In life, don’t be a replicant. If we are to glean any sort of Aesopian moral from Blade Runner, that must surely be it. What, when it comes down to it, is the difference between human and replicant in Blade Runner? The murder of replicants is troubling because there is no real difference between the two, and if we were to find any difference it must surely be a point in favor of the replicants. The humans sauntering about in Blade Runner may be born from a womb rather than from a factory, but like Deckard, they may as well be replicants. An emotionally sterile human being—a human unable to empathize—is as close to a robot as can be. Blade Runner’s world is barren. ‘Los Angeles 2019’ isn’t dystopian because it’s dirty, or because it’s always dark and raining, or because there are skyscrapers with corporate advertising everywhere. It’s dystopian because there’s nothing human at the core. You don’t need a totalitarian state in order to build a dystopia. You only need human emptiness.