Blade Runner (1982) is unquestionably the seminal SF film of its generation. From the stunning visuals to the bang-on performances, to the casual effects, to the enigmatic symbolism, it is basically the magical heaven of all Noir. It was like every broody existental detective film based on a book by Hammett, Chandler, and the rest had been a mere precursor, and Blade Runner was the culmination of the entire genre. It is rightfully an unquestioned classic.
What the hell is it all about, though?
“It's a detective story, what are you, an idiot?” you say. Well, yes it is, it's more than that, too. The best stories are often not about the thing they appear to be about. Apocalypse Now is not about the Vietnam war, it's actually a study of mankind's capacity for evil and the thin veneer of civilization we hide behind. Dracula isn't about supernatural monsters, really, it's a clever discussion of the spread of venerial diseases in late Victorian england. Horton Hears a Who isn't just some dopey thing about an elephant saving a race of microbs, it's a completely on target argument against Abortion. (“A person is a person, no matter how small.”) “It's a Wonderul Life” is merely set at Christmas, it is not a Christmas movie in any way.
You get my point?
So what the hell is Blade Runner about? I've seen it so many times that I've sort of stopped noticing individual elements and just kind of let it wash over me. This week, though, after many years off, I've watched it a couple times closely, trying to figure out what it's about, since “Detective story” is too simple, and “Noir Detective Story” was frequently just a convenient package for some deeper idea.
I won't bore you with comparisons to the original novel. There are so few it's almost pedantic to discuss it, and most of them are completely irrelevant. All I'll do is point out the author's comment that the “Androids” were bad because they had no empathy, and humans are good because we do have it. That, I think, is the only relevant element that makes the jump from book to screen.
Ok. The first thing I noticed were the eyes. There are a lot of eyes in the movie. I mean a lot of eyes. The opening sequence repeatedly shows close ups of an eye (Never identified) with explosions reflected in it. The Voight-Kampf machine (Expressly stated to be an empathy test) has a little monitor thing that is exactly at the eye level of its subjects. The biggest display on the machine is a screen that displays nothing but the subject's eye in extreme close up. Doctor Terell wears ridiculously huge trifocal glasses which distort his eyes. Chu makes artificial eyes, and when Roy questions him, Leon pulls eyes out of a vat and starts playing with them, menacingly putting them on Chu's shoulders. We get a close up of the owl's eyes. When Roy is goofing around with JF, he takes two oversized eyeball paperweights, holds them over his own eyes, and says “We're so happy you found us.” Pris does that weird raccoon stripe over her eyes, which either emphasizes them, or hides them, depending on your take on such things. Leon attempts to kill Deckard by gouging out his eyes. Later on, Roy does kill Terell by gouging out his eyes.
On top of this, there's a ton of lines about eyes:
“I design you eyes!”
“If only you could see what I've seen with your eyes”
“Not an easy man to see, I take it.”
“I've seen things you people wouldn't believe”
“Is this to be an empathy test? Involuntary contractions of the pupil?”
And so forth. Clearly whatever is going on in the film is locked up in the eyes somehow. What is it?
The clue is a repeated 'cats eye reflection effect.' You know when you're driving down the road at night, and your brights hit a cat, and its eyes seem to glow, empty and without a pupil? That's the light reflecting off the souped-up retinas cats have. We see that with every replicant character in the film. First it's with the owl, but then we get it with Rachel, Roy, Zhora, Pris, Leon, and arguably Deckard, though that's more ambiguous. Ridley Scott, the director, has expressly stated that this is an effect for the benefit of the audience itself, it is not something the characters in the film can see. It's to let us know who's fake and who's real.
Why? Well, “The eyes are the window to the soul,” right? And when we look in to a replicant's eyes, all we see is emptiness. There's no soul there.
This “Soullessness” manifests itself as a lack of empathy. People often argue this point, showing clear examples of the replicants displaying emotion, but emotion and empathy are in no way the same thing. Emotion is the way you feel. Empathy is being able to project yourself in to the way others feel, being able to imagine their joy, their fear, their sadness, and so forth. A lack of empathy is generally called “Sociopathy.”
Are the replicants sociopaths? Hell yes! We're told in the opening crawl that they led a violent, bloody uprising on one of the colony worlds that was vicious enough to make them illegal on earth. So illegal as to be subject to immediate destruction if found, and a death sentence for aiding and abetting them. Bryant informs us that six replicants hijacked a shuttle, killed all 24 passengers and crew, and ditched it in the ocean. They kill three more people in the course of the film, one of whom (JF) they actually seem to like. They do this without remorse. People often tell me that the Replicans are good, since they're portrayed somewhat sympathetically and desparate in the film, but these people are clearly not paying attention. The Replicants are cold blooded mass murderers.
Want more? Rachel kills Leon without a moments hesitation, and displays no real remorse. She saves Deckard, but only because she wants him to deny her newfound revelation that she's a replicant. Deckard himself kills Zhora as she flees, and displays no remorse, more like awkwardness or confusion. He stares at her body for a while, as if recognizing he should feel some way, but doesn't. When he puts the second shot in to Pris, it has been argued to be a mercy killing, but if you look at his face, he's clearly just frightened at all the noise she's making and the flailing around. The love scene between Deckard and Rachel is awkwared and a little rape-ey. He won't let her leave, he tells her what to do and say. Of course she wants it too (She starts telling him to put his hands on her while he's instructing her what to say), but that's immaterial. The scene is as awkward as to virgins on a church trip. It's all about what Deckard wants, with no real feeling towards Rachel. Or at least not very much.
Much like comparisons to the book, it's pedantic to get in to arguments about whether or not Deckard is a replicant. Yes, he is. The director said so, there's eleventy kerjillion clues in the movie that he is. Let's just take that as a given and move on.
Why do the replicants prefer to gouge people's eyes out? Because the eyes are the window to the soul, in our case, and the window to the big blank spot in their case. They can't bear to look at our soul. They gouge out our eyes out of envy.
There's a long-dead religious beliefe called “Gnosticism.” The concept was that God didn't actually create mankind. Rather, God created various supernatural beings for whatever reason, and then one of these created us. Depending on which Gnostic religion you believed in, this was done out of maliciousness, evil, insanity, or simple boredom. The god of this world, Gnostics believed, had taken eternal souls and stuck them in meat, which was a blasphemy against everything. We were supposed to be eternal and perfect, but we ended up as people. This false god was called the “Demiurge.” “Salvation” in Gnosticism consisted of knowing how to dodge the demiurge after death, and escape into wherever it is souls are supposed to go to, rather than letting him catch you and throw your soul back down to earth for all eternity. Mater was a prison.
Now, I'm not saying Blade Runner is a gnostic metaphor. In fact, I'd be very surprised if anyone connected with the film had ever even heard of an arcane 3rd/4th century religious heresy. It is, however, a useful tool for us to poke around at the film with.
Dr. Elden Terell is expressly called “The god of biomechanics.” He designed the mind of the Nexus 6 replicants. He then trapped them in a ridiculously short lifespan (4 years), gave them enough brains to recognize and resent their lot in life, gave them no sense of purpose beyond their hated jobs, and he created them with the serious empathic flaw we've discussed. (I suspect this was a bug, and the artificial memories were an attempt to patch it. More on this later.) He is very much like a Demiurge. Furthermore, his office looks like a temple and his factory (Which makes people) is deliberately designed to look like a zigurat. His office is above the perpetual rain, suffused in golden light, and the only place we see the sun in the whole movie.
Some have called it a pyramid missing the top stone, which is the symbol on the back of the dollar bill. If so, then it's missing the eye of providence. “The architect,” as the Masons occasionally call God. If this is so, then Terell is the architect atop the pyramid, observing everything, and that eye at the beginning was probably his. Remember: Terell wears ridiculously huge glasses, and the eye in the beginning does appear sort of goofed up. Cataracts. So: an all-seeing god with goofed up vision. There's also a vague feeling that Terell may be homosexual. This would have been a deliberate choice in 1982 to make audiences uncomfortable, and it probably would have been seen as yet another deformity – of a spiritual kind – by the audience. Terell almost seems to be trying to invite Roy into his bed, and is all too willing to accept a kiss from him. Make of this what you will.
Roy is one of the first Nexus 6 models. He's running out of time very quickly, and starting to malfunction. Of the replicants, he's the only one who displays anything aproaching emotion. Pris fakes it well, Roy seems broken up when he tells her Zhora and Pris are dead, which Pris doesn't care about at all. Is Roy broken up? Is he upset that his friends are dead, or is he upset because their chances of success are now lower? Chess is a reurring theme in the film. He started the game with only six pieces, and now he's down to two. That'd make anyone cringe.
Now here's where it gets interesting: Roy eventually meets his god, and asks for more life (In the theatrical cut, he says “I want more life, fucker.” In the final cut (2007) he says much more reverentially, “I want more life, father.” Terell explains to him patiently that “We built you as good as we were able,” and there's just nothing they can do about it. He then tells Roy to just enjoy his crazy-short life.
“The candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long, and you have burned so very brightly Roy.”
“I've done questionable things.”
“Yes, but you've also done remarkable things.”
“Nothing the god of biomechanics would keep me out of heaven for?”
Terell smiles, Roy kisses him, then gouges his eyes out and kills him.
We next see Roy in a glass elevator, looking up with an expression that is half psychotic and half beatified, bathed in flickering light, as he looks up at the stars as though he's never seen them before, as though they're magical and transformative.
Back at JF's he finds Pris dead, and snaps. His feelings – honest to God feelings – are primal. He doesn't know how to frame them. He howls like a wolf, he strips down almost naked, he hunts and taunts Deckard with rage. He could easily kill him, but he tortures him, taunts him, breaks his hand, and then gives him his gun back. He insults him, and yells random frightening things (“Four, five, six, seven, go to hell or go to heaven!”) In the process, Roy's body is malfuctioning more and more and he stabs a nail through his hand evidently to keep it functioning.
Deckard eventually makes it to the roof, Roy finds him, and so he makes a desparate jump to the roof of the next building over. He doesn't quite make it, and is hanging over the edge. Suddenly we see Roy looking calm with a dove in his hand. Where the hell did the dove come from? Why is he holding it? It wasn't there a minute ago, and now it is. It's like it just appeared.
Roy jumps over to the other building, watches Deckard moments from death, watches Deckard moments from death, watches Deckard moments from death and then....suddenly he gets it. He's able to connect the way he feels, and the way Deckard does. He's suddenly got empathy! He rescues Deckard because he feels for him! He has transcended his basic programming, and become more than the sum of his parts. For this he's earned a soul (the dove). He sits down and dies, and his soul/the dove flies up beyond the clouds.
While Deckard is the protagonist, the real hero of the film is Roy, a little wooden boy who confronts his god, is denied salvation, kills his god, and then finds his own way to become a real live human.
That's the important stuff. Now to tie up the loose ends.
Deckard is a replicant. He shows up against a wall looking very slightly disoriented for a moment, then goes and gets sushi and is interrupted by Gaff, who takes him in to the office and he's press-ganged in to taking the job. We're told he's got a long history tracking Replicants, but there's no reason to believe this is true. We're told “This is the worst it's ever been, we need you,” but realistically how often could a milder version of this situation arisen? Deckard even says “Why would Replicants come back to earth?” Bryant admits he doesn't know. Ergo Deckard's burned out past memories must be fakes.
My own thinking is that he was activated that moment on the bench in the rain. Once Terell Corp realized they had a problem, they contacted the police, and gave them a special model with fake memories (Just like Rachel) to take care of it. He only interacts with Gaff and Bryant, and Bryant is strangely theatrical around him. There's no reason to believe he ever met Deckard before that afternoon. Deckard's memories are fake, and Bryant and Gaff are simply saying what the owner's manual told them to say. His whole “Got burned out and quit, then dragged back in after an unspecified length of time” would be a perfect way to distinguish between his present actions and his fake past, without causing him to come in to conflict with his memories and suffering cognitive dissonance.
The problem, we're told, is that without memories, the Replicants develop “Their own emotional responses,” and have no empathy. Implanting memories was an attempt to essentially program the replicants with a lifetime of experience so that their emotions will behave in normal human ways. They may lack empathy, but they will at least understand what society dictates for them. This probably explains why Rachel and Deckard are so flat in affect most of the time, and yet are clearly not as loony as the others. They may be tin men without hearts, but they at least know how to act as if they have them. Note the awkward way Deckard apologizes to Rachel after he's proved to her that she's a replicant: He tries very awkwardly to play it off like he was making a bad joke. There's no emphasis in this, he's just going through the motions. You hurt someone's feelings, you apologize, not because you feel it, but because that's what you're expected to do. (Interestingly, The Maltese Falcon ultimately revolves around this 'code' of what you do or don't do, regardless of your own feelings)
Rachel knows she's a replicant. Deckard is suspecting it. They run. It's unclear if they're in love, or if, like Roy's gang, they're simply bonding out of convenience. Given their superior programming, they're probably behaving as if they're in love because that's what is expected of them. Will it turn in to something more? It may. Deckard just saw Roy turn in to a Real Live Boy, and then drop dead. He knows it's possible. He knows damn well that neither he nor Rachel will live very long (No more than four years, max, probably less for Rachel) but if they do things right, they may become truly alive before the end comes. So there's hope. Their antihero messiah accidentally stumbled in to a way, so there's hope.
Finally we come to Gaff, who seems like an asshole through the film. He's clearly Deckard's handler, and he's an unsympathetic character. Like so much in the movie, though, things are not what they seem. In fact, JF and Gaff are the only people in the film who show any compassion to a Replicant. JF is clearly emotionally stunted, so his interest in them may be simple novelty, but Gaff is different. Gaff actually declares Deckard a man: “You've done a man's job, sir.” Then he gives him a warning: “It's too bad she won't live, but then again who does.” Then he tosses Deckard his gun back, and lets him go. Back at his apartment, Gaff has left proof that Deckard is a replicant, but this whole thing is essentially a warning to Deckard: Run.
Gaff is merciful. Sympathetic, even. If a Replicant can become human by displaying empathy to a human, than a human can only be expected to show empathy to a Replicant, right? No one does, excepting Gaff, which raises the parthian shot question: “Forget Replicants: how many humans actualy have souls?”