Personality and the Uncanny Valley in Blade Runner

Marcello Sachs '10, English 65, The Cyborg Self, Brown University (Fall 2006)

At the center of the Blade Runner story are the Replicants, genetically engineered robots that are superficially indistinguishable from humans. In correspondence with the Uncanny Valley theory, these robots are able to provoke empathy and overall positive emotional reactions from humans. While the three renegade Replicants are not viewed positively because of their antagonistic positioning in the movie, the replicant Rachel inspires strong feelings in Deckard, perhaps even love.

Although Replicants have the same (if not greater) physical and mental capabilities of humans, their emotional inexperience marks a striking difference. In fact, the test used to detect a Replicant is simply a series of questions designed to expose a Replicant's emotional simplicity. Rachel, a prototype with implanted memories, requires a much lengthier set of questions to be exposed. Leon Kuwolski, however, a replicant without artifical memory enhancement, easily reveals his psychological puerility at the beginning of the film. Being used for an experiment conducted by his human masters, Kuwolski answers a series of questions in an inhuman way:

Holden: You're in a desert, walking along in the sand when all of a sudden you look down...

Leon: What one?

Holden: What?

Leon: What desert?

Holden: It doesn't make any difference what desert, it's completely hypothetical.

Leon: But, how come I'd be there?

Holden: Maybe you're fed up. Maybe you want to be by yourself. Who knows? You look down and see a tortoise, Leon. It's crawling toward you...

Leon: Tortoise? What's that?

Holden: You know what a turtle is?

Leon: Of course!

Holden: Same thing.

Leon: I've never seen a turtle. (pause) But I understand what you mean.

Holden: You reach down and you flip the tortoise over on its back, Leon.

Leon: Do you make up these questions, Mr. Holden? Or do they write 'em down for you?

Holden: The tortoise lays on its back, its belly baking in the hot sun, beating its legs trying to turn itself over but it can't. Not without your help. But you're not helping.

Leon: WHAT DO YOU MEAN, I'M NOT HELPING?

Holden: I mean you're not helping! Why is that, Leon?

[Leon has become visibly shaken]

Holden: They're just questions, Leon. In answer to your query they're written down for me. It's a test, designed to provoke an emotional response. (pause) Shall we continue?

Holden: Describe in single words only the good things that come into your mind about... your mother.

Leon: My mother?

Holden: Yeah.

Leon: Let me tell you about my mother. [Shoots him]

Although part of Leon's awkwardness can be attributed to his intention to escape, his psychological immaturity is yet reflected in his jolty answers. In spite of his physical similarity to humans, he is emotionally "almost" human. Does this place Leon in the Uncanny Valley? In what aspects must a cyborg be almost-human to be placed in the Valley? Are appearance and movement all that matter? What aboutvoice? Could Leon unsettle the viewer simply because of his nearly-human personality?

  • Valley of the Uncanny
  • Voices in The Uncanny Valley
  • H.R. Giger and the Almost-Human
  • Valley of the Uncanny
  • Personality in Blade Runner
  • Voices in The Uncanny Valley

  • Course Website cyborg Body & Self Literature

    Last modified 16 November 2006