Blade Runner More Human Than Human Essay Introduction
This dissertation was written between September 1997 and February 1998, and formed part of the final examination for my undergraduate degree in English Literature and Philosophy, at Manchester University, England. I would like to thank Dr. Marcus Wood, formerly of Manchester University and currently teaching at the University of Sussex. As my dissertation supervisor, he offered advice and judgement which were hugely helpful. It goes without saying that any errors are my own.
Blade Runner opened in US cinemas on the 25th June 1982, amid media hype, and yet proved to be a commercial failure, only just recouping its $28 million costs. Critical reaction to the film was generally negative also: the Los Angeles Times cautioned: "Don't let the words blade runner confuse you into expecting a super-high speed chase film. Blade crawler might be more like it...  " . Indeed, reaction to the film was so hostile that director Ridley Scott later commented, "You'd have thought we were boiling babies or something  ." His previous film had been Alien (1979), a sci-fi horror film that proved an enormous commercial success, and Blade Runner's star, Harrison Ford, was (and still is) one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood, with Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark breaking box office records a few years previously. Blade Runner's producer, Michael Deeley, had last worked on The Deer Hunter, which won Oscar for Best Picture in 1979. It is to some extent understandable, given Scott and Ford's previous films, that the public were disappointed with Blade Runner; expecting a special effects laden action film, they were instead presented with a dark, depressing vision of the future, in which most Hollywood values are overturned  .
However, despite its initial failure, critical reassessments have steadily become more favourable. It has acquired a cult following, and is credited with having inspired the basic aesthetic of the science fiction sub-genre cyberpunk, the best example of which is William Gibson's Neuromancer (1984). Blade Runner is one of only 50 films to be stored in the United States Library of Congress, on account of its contribution to film culture. The British film magazine Empire once described it as 'a seminal work and an undeniable classic...  '.
The general volte face of critical and popular opinion towards the film may have been the reasons behind Scott's decision to release a Director's Cut of the film in 1992, which restored his original intentions for the film. As a text, the Director's Cut reveals exactly how Scott planned the film originally, and as such allows a variety of new readings of the film's themes. This dissertation argues that the Director's Cut of the film reveals subtextual complexities and motifs which question the status of Hollywood science fiction.
Many critics have cited Blade Runner as a postmodernist film. However, postmodernism carries with it an inherent tendency to devalue art, insofar as postmodernism posits that all semiological systems are self referential and as such incapable of any truly representative relationship with reality. In this dissertation I will argue that this may not be true of Blade Runner, because it makes use of mythical, and in particular Biblical, imagery to espouse some of its themes. In the first section of the dissertation I will consider the films moral and political themes, which relate to the politics of power and oppression. I will argue that the film debunks the idea that humans are superior to replicants. I will then consider the wider metaphorical implications of this through two historical phenomena which inform Scott's semiology, the first being North American slavery, and the second being South American slavery, in the form of the Mayan civilisation. In the second section I will analyse the films theological themes and their relationship to the film's literary antecedents, such as Paradise Lost. The film's use of mythical and Biblical imagery is a rejection of the depthlessness of postmodern ideas in favour of a view of Man which is redemptive, and which contradicts the celebration of meaninglessness which typifies postmodern theory. The use of imagery from mythic and religious meta-narratives offers humanity self-definition through moral truth. It is argues that the film's optimism id the result of a creative paradox. While the film suggests that dehumanisation is all that technology have to offer, it is the ultimate creation of this technology, the replicant Roy Batty, who finds the path to spiritual and moral enlightenment. I the third section, I apply popular postmodern theories to the film.
Moral and Political Paradigms
Science Fiction is a Genre which deals, primarily, with outlandish ideas, such as time travel, or human cloning. It is for sheer convenience's sake that most science fiction novels are set in the future, since this allows the author to disregard realist conventions which may hinder the exploration of the chosen idea. Most science fiction authors consolidate their readers acceptance of their vision of the future by inventing realistic vernaculars, not only to add a realist essence to their work, but often to help to express their ideas as well. Perhaps the best example of this would be William Gibson's invention of the word 'cyberspace' to describe the 'consensual hallucination' of a direct neural interface with a computer - a word which has since passed into mainstream language itself  .
Blade Runner uses its own terminology: the clones of the film are described as 'Replicants', a word chosen for its connotations with cell replication (the action which allows genetic engineers to clone genetic material  ). The terminology is introduced to the viewer by use of a narrative device often found in film noir - that of the scrolling text, either before, during, of at the end of the film itself. Once the opening credits of the film have rolled, this text is scrolled past the blank screen  :
Early in the 21st Century, the TYRELL CORPORATION advanced Robot evolution into the Nexus phase - a being virtually identical to a human - known as a Replicant. The NEXUS-6 Replicants were superior in strength and agility, and at least equal in intelligence, to the genetic engineers who created them. Replicants were used Off-world as slave labor, in the hazardous exploration and colonisation of other planets. After a bloody mutiny by a NEXUS-6 combat team in an Off-world colony, Replicants were declared illegal on Earth - under penalty of death. Special police squads - BLADE RUNNER UNITS - had orders to shoot to kill, upon detection, any trespassing Replicants. This was not called execution. It was called retirement.
This crawl introduces us to some of the terminology used in the film - such as replicants and blade runners - but much more interestingly, it can be seen to have an element of bias, also. The replicants are specifically referred to as slaves. The text also mentions that they are retired, but suggests that this is more or less synonymous with execution, we are allowed to ponder this deliberately emotive language for a few moments, perhaps long enough to intuitively feel some sympathy for the replicants before a single one has even been seen, before the words LOS ANGELES, NOVEMBER 2019 fill the screen, and the film proper begins.
The fade from black is marked by the sound of an explosion, and the first image of the film, the cityscape, is revealed. Los Angeles, the City of Angels, is a hellish, endless maze of giant, industrial buildings; an oil refinery spews flames into the night sky, which is an ashen, polluted grey. A flying vehicle emerges from the fog, and shoots past the screen. Lightning strikes a building, to no apparent effect. This is a place of poison and decay, and it is hard to believe that human could inhabit it.
The vast hell is dominated by the Tyrell Corporation headquarters, two Mayan-style pyramids, each 700 storeys high  . For decades, one of the greatest riddles of archaeology was why the Mayans, having built such huge, terrifying, aesthetically impenetrable cities, abandoned them en masse, to crumble and become overgrown with vine and jungle. The riddle was solved when it was recognised that the Mayans, despite their impressive astronomical knowledge, had agricultural practises so primitive that they did not even have ploughs; the farmland around their cities was overused, drained of nutrients, and cities had to be abandoned because staying in them would mean starving to death.
This historical fact is echoed in twenty first century Los Angeles. Earth has been drained of its resources - once the Garden of Eden, it is now a place of death and pollution. Those who can afford it have emigrated to the greener pastures of the Off-world colonies; those who cannot have no choice but to stay and live in the sulphurous ruins.
Suddenly, the screen is filled with a blue eye, in which is reflected the explosions watched a moment earlier. It stares straight at the camera. The next scene begins with Holden, a blade runner, staring glumly out of a window at the city, at which point the eye can be inferred as being his. But when it is on screen this inference cannot be made, because we are yet to be introduced to any characters. Cinematically, it is a slightly unsettling experience. The film is being watched - and suddenly, quite literally, the film begins to watch the watcher. Throughout the film, as shall later be described, a sense of paranoia is sustained, contributing to an all-pervasive sense of negativity.
The camera zooms into a window, and the next shot is an interior one; the film's first character, Dave Holden, a blade runner, is seen staring out of a window, drinking coffee. A large man enters the room, and a loudspeaker introduces him as Leon Kowalski, a new employee working as a waste disposal engineer. He waits for instructions, and is told to sit down. There begins a bizarre and sinister test: Holden creates a hypothetical situation - not helping an animal in distress - which suddenly becomes accusatory. This both aggravates and upsets Kowalski. A certain tension is created by a lingering close up of Kowalski's upset face, as well as a thudding heartbeat noise o the soundtrack.
Abruptly, the mood changes. Holden smiles, visibly relaxes, and is suddenly conversational and friendly:
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.
(He smiled a genuine smile)
Shall we continue?
The tension in the atmosphere dissipates, since the reason for Holden's earlier hostility is known. His next question contributes to the new, friendly mood of the test. It is neither confrontational nor accusatory. It's a nice question.
HOLDEN: Describe to me, in single words, only the good things that come into your mind about your mother.
Leon thinks about this question for a moment, before responding, 'Let me tell you about my mother...' and shooting Holden with a gun hidden under the table, in a moment of violence so quick be barely have time to register it before the scene ends.
Leon Kowalski is, in fact, a fugitive replicant. The question 'describe in single words only the good things which come into your mind about your mother' may seem mild to us, but to Kowalski it is the most sinister question of all - because he has never had a mother, he is a manufactured being, and so cannot but reveal his status as such in any attempt to answer this question verbally.
In Mayan culture, the ruling classes were known as the almehenob - 'those with fathers and mothers', a reference to their noble lineage. There was no middle class in Mayan society; people were either fabulously wealthy or miserably poor. The very poor made up the huge majority of the population, and worked for the almehenob as slaves. Again, another reference to the Mayans - this time, their practises of slavery and oppression - is being made. Holden is asking Kowalski about his mother, but Kowalski is a replicant, and replicants are used as slaves: literally and symbolically speaking, he does not belong to the class of individuals who have fathers and mothers  . He kills Holden because he must; Holden has the authority to kill any replicant upon detection.
This scene introduces us to some of the themes that feature throughout the film: visually, it gives us the first two examples of 'eye' imagery (the giant disembodied eye, and Kowalski's eye on the monitor), and thematically, it introduces us to some of the political and moral issues of the film. Should the replicants be killed for being on Earth? Should the replicants themselves kill, simply to get here? What is the difference between replicant and human anyway? After all, the fact that Kowalski is a replicant is by no means obvious. He is, in fact, indistinguishable from a 'real' human - he exhibits fear, nervousness, and a capacity to kill in cold blood.
In the past, many film noirs have had recurrent images of eyes, an pun on the idea of the 'private eye'. Murder, My Sweet (1944) is a good example of this, as L Heldreth observes:
In its opening and closing scenes, the detective, temporarily blinded by powder burns, sits in a pool of light with his eyes bandaged. Earlier he had been unable to see figuratively, i.e. detect the killer, and at the end he has temporarily lost his vision  .
In Blade Runner, the eye motif of earlier film noirs is again used, in connection with the replicants. At various points in the film, each replicants eyes are seen to 'glow', a clue that they are replicants (this effect is most clearly seen in the artificial owl, as Tyrell dies). Consider the scene at Chew's Eye Works; Chew, a genetic engineer who designs eyes, is confronted by Batty about morphology:
CHEW(nervously): I don't know ... I don't know such stuff! I just do eyes ... genetic design ...just eyes. (Squints) ...you Nexus, huh? I design your eyes.
BATTY(smiling): Chew - if only you could see what I have seen, with your eyes...
Batty accepts his artificiality here, the fact that he was manufactured, but celebrates his experiences, the things he has seen. For Batty, eyes and vision are the keys to the development of an almost Romantic consciousness, emancipated from his status as an automaton. For Chew, eyes are simply units of production. He manufactures eyes, but only Batty 'sees' their significance. In some ways, Batty is the human, and Chew the automaton.
The politics of power involve a distinction between oppressed and oppressor, salve and master. In Nazi Germany, Jews were forced to wear a Star of David badge, a visible symbol of the inferior status forced upon them. In Dan Simmons sci-fi novel Endymion (1995), androids are used as slaves, but given bright blue skins, so there is never any confusion over who is slave, who is master. In Blade Runner, there are no distinguishing features between replicant and human, oppressed and oppressor. The only distinction that may be made is with the use of the Voight-Kampff test.
As Holden says, the Voight-Kampff test is 'designed to provoke an emotional response'. Because replicants are at most four years old, and hence to an extent emotionally immature, their responses to emotionally resonant questions is different, because their lack of experience may lead to them not knowing (or understanding) the correct reaction to some of the questions. Thus the two made be differentiated, and replicants, upon detection, executed.
The Voight-Kampff test has a monitor which displays a close-up of the subject's eye for the duration of the test. It is with the aid of this close-up that the exminer may judge emotional response by involuntary iris fluctuations. The Voight-Kampff machine is part of a continuous theme throughout the film, the idea that those in power have more 'vision' than those lower down the social scale. At street level, everything is chaotic, obscured; constantly unsteady shots have extras passing in front of the camera, forcing us to strain to see the often out of focus background images - for example, after Kowalski's death, whilst Deckard is buying his bottle of Tsing-Tao, Gaff (the blade runner who originally arrests Deckard) approaches Deckard from behind. Background images are so blurred that he is visible only when he practically right behind Deckard. However, those in positions of relative power - the police, Eldon Tyrell, have access to much clearer view of the city. The constantly roving spotlight, present throughout the film, suggest constant surveillance. The police spinners  afford vast, panoramic views of the city, and even have panes of glass in the floor to allow the pilots to see below them. Characters in the film are occasionally watched by the apparition of a strangely sinister Oriental woman, which floats over the city, embedded on the side of a giant airship. David Dryer, co-special effects supervisor for the film commented:
The one scene we ... were sorry to lose was supposed to occur in the fight between Deckard and Leon (Kowalski). The idea was we were going to do a matte painting of a giant building above Ford and James with an oriental woman on an animated billboard looking down on the and reacting to what they were doing. She was going to be puffing on one of those big cigarettes and acting as if she was watching a televised fight. That bit was supposed to give a feeling of oppression, that these billboards are watching everyone everywhere they go  .
Another example of this is Tyrells office, at the very top of one of his pyramids, which has picture windows that survey the entire cityscape. The spaciousness of the office, emphasised by the spartan furniture in contrast to the overcrowding at street level, suggests that space itself is a status symbol. This contrasts sharply with the lot of the replicants, for example Zhora, who works in a crowded ground level strip club. When Deckard visits her, he tells her that he is from the 'Confidential Committee on Moral Abuses' and that he is investigating claims that the management have peep holes in the ladies dressing rooms. He claims to protect her from the intrusive surveillance of a higher authority, when in fact the only surveillance she need fear is his. Surveillance appears to be a key feature of Los Angeles in the future - the entire city appears to have turned into one of Jeremy Bentham's Panopticons, whereby one cannot tell if one is being watched, but it is possible that one is being watched at all times, which means extreme caution must be exercised at all times. The replicants of the film must stay 'in character' at all times, even when alone.
Their functions place them, forcibly, in the lowest social classes; whether hazardous, such as nuclear fission loading (Kowalski) or sordid, such as prostitution (Pris), the replicants are given only the most menial and degrading jobs. They have childlike qualities: Roy tells Sebastian he's got 'some nice toys' whilst Pris watches, toying with a broken doll. They are also linked with animal imagery - Roy's wolflike howl, Zhora's snake tattoo, Pris's racoon makeup. Both childlike and animalistic qualities have been attributed by slave systems to their victims. Stanley Elkins, in his book Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life (1963), offers a historical explanation for this fact, using as his example the racial stereotype of the black colonial plantation worker as being lazy and childish. It was common belief at the time that these personality traits were racially inherent, but Elkins debunks this argument by reminding us of the physical and mental torments many slaves suffered, not least in their capture and transportation. The vary act of capture was in itself traumatic, but what followed was the long march to the sea, which was sometimes hundreds of miles away. Upon being sold as slaves to European slave traders, the African would then be transported by ship to the America in what became known as the Middle Passage, which Elkins described as 'almost too protracted and stupefying to be described as a mere "shock"... brutalizing to any man, black or white, ever to be involved with it  .'
Only the strongest and healthiest men and women survived the entire experience, from capture in Africa to arrival in America  . Upon arrival, Africans knew absolutely nothing about where they were; the cultural codes by which they had lived their lives no longer had any relevance. The life these men and women went on to lead was one of hardship and constant surveillance. Given these facts - the mental scarring that their capture, transport and subsequent lives of slavery left upon them, it is not surprising, Elkins argues, that many of them responded to a situation which their deaths could occur at any time, and for any reason, by reverting, first to a state of utter detachment, and then to a state of childish loyalty to their new masters. Because as Elkins says:
The (old) African values, the sanctions, the standards, already unreal, could no longer furnish (the slaves) with guides for conduct, for adjusting to the expectations of a complete new life. Where then were (they) to look for new standards, new cues - who would furnish them now? (They) could now look to none but their master, the man upon whom the system had committed their entire being: the man upon whose will depended (their) food ... shelter ... sexual connection, (any) moral instruction (they) might be offered ... in short, everything  .
By casting Roy Batty as the perfect Aryan - 6'5", with a muscular frame, blonde hair and blue eyes - Scott is pointedly contrasting his appearance with black slavery, perhaps to bring emphasis to the fact that oppression need not be contingent upon race. Elkins finding are relevant in the way that Roy Batty has come to see Tyrell as his father, in the same way slaves in the colonies attributed 'father-figure' status to their oppressors  . All this would come to suggest that the replicants are strangle childish because of the unimaginable traumas they have been made to suffer. But, although these traumas may have affected them, they have not broken their spirit, or desire to return to Earth. Although slave ships often had insurance against mutiny by the slaves, it rarely happened. But the replicants in Blade Runner did mutiny, and killed humans in doing so. Although the Blade Runner script identifies J. F. Sebastian as a chess Grand Master, and Tyrell is referred to several times as a genius, Batty's chess strategies are superior to both. Mentally and physically, Batty is the Neitzschean 'superman' - he is 'More Human Than Human', as the Tyrell Corporation motto puts it. And yet Batty, the 'prodigal son' is a enslaved. But nothing, not even being born into slavery and suffering hardships we cannot imagine, can or will prevent him from coming back to Earth, to meet his maker.
John Locke, in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding , argued that personal identity comprises nothing but memories: the mind is a tabula rasa , or 'blank slate' at birth, and all subsequent experiences shape our personalities, and make us human. Subsequent philosophers (notably Noam Chomsky) have shown that there are in fact various things 'pre-programmed' into the human mind (such as the capacity for language acquisition, for example) but do not contest that our personalities, the ways we are that make us human, are acquired through experience.
This raises a compelling question: if humans are defined as such because we have personalities, based upon years of memories and experience, and there now exist replicants with personalities, based upon (albeit ersatz) memories also, at what point may the two be differentiated? According to Tyrell, there now exist replicants with memories so perfect that they believe they are human. The film encodes this idea in reverse; Rachel is presented as an ostensibly human executive at the Tyrell Corporation, part of the structure that creates and sells the replicants. But she is subsequently revealed to be a replicant - the Voight-Kampff machine gazes into the windows of her soul, and pronounces her a machine, also.
TYRELL: She's beginning to suspect.
DECKARD(incredulous): Suspect? How can it not know what it is?
There is no change in Rachel's appearance, but once the distinction is made, it is final, and she ceases being human. Deckard's switch to 'it' foregrounds the fact that Rachel is now an object, not an individual.
Later, Rachel goes to see Deckard at his apartment. She has with her a photo of herself as a child, with her mother. History is made up of linguistic and photographic artefacts from the past. Deckard proves to her the illusion of her past, by telling her her own memories. Although clutching a fake photograph, the tears are very real. It is at this point Deckard realises that she is not simply a machine, like other replicants, perhaps. Equipped with a memory, an entire lifetime of experienced, she becomes human - she has the life experiences that the replicants four years lifetimes forcibly prevent them from attaining. So seamlessly human, in fact, that even she did not realise that she was a replicant.
Rene Descartes, in his Meditations Upon The First Philosophy , pointed out that our senses are far from trustworthy. We have no direct one-to-one contact with reality, and must instead rely upon sense data to help us construct some simulacrum of it within our minds. His famous Demon Argument argues that our senses may be deceiving us - the modern form of the argument is to posit that it is quite possible that your brain actually resides in a nutrient vat somewhere, and that all the sense data you receive, convincing you of the existence of an external reality, is fed to you via strategically placed electrodes, by a mad scientist. It is a conceit entertained by us all, occasionally - how do I know that my existence is not just a virtual reality game? Reality is a very ephemeral thing. Rachel's predicament is Descartes' argument come true, the difference being that she has been unfortunate enough to have her illusion of reality shattered - the scientist has revealed his cruel trick to her. We feel sympathy for Rachel because she is forced to face a truth that we all, in our more fanciful moments, imagine and dread - the fear of verisimilitude being destroyed. Rachel responds by throwing away her photo, which contrasts with Kowalski, who knows he is a replicant, and yet treasures his photos. He may be an artificial human, but he knows that within that context his memories are real... and he cherishes them.
Rachel has neither father nor mother, and so is just like any other replicant, and faces the danger of being retired. For the sake of her survival, she must adapt quickly.
RACHEL: What if I go North ... disappear? Would you come after me? ... hunt me?
The reference to going North brings to mind the Underground Railroad , the method used by blacks in America to escape slavery in the southern states.
DECKARD: No ... no I wouldn't. I owe you one.
This is an important point in Deckard's moral development. He ceases his previous coldness to her, and begins to treat her like a person. This moral development is encouraged by the climax of the film, where Deckard, oppressor and hunter, is hunted by Batty a deadly game of cat and mouse. The terror-stricken Deckard is forced onto the roof of the Bradbury Building by a chillingly amused Batty, yet to break a sweat even when Deckard is exhausted. With no other options available to him, Deckard is forced to try and jump to the roof opposite, and barely manages to cling to the edge of it, dangling precariously.
Batty clears the gap with ease, and spends a few moments watching the crippled blade runner grapple with the edge, trying to survive even as his grip begins to weaken.
BATTY: Quite an experience to live in fear, isn't it? That's what it is , to be a slave.
These words are not spoken with rancour, nor is there any sense of gloating over Deckard's predicament. They are spoken in a perfectly conversational tone, although there is a sense of bitterness with the last few words. It is almost as though Batty has hunted Deckard throughout the scene not to wreak vengeance or otherwise punish him, but to educate his viewpoint, to help him understand fear and consequently develop empathy. Batty, the replicant, is humanising Deckard, the ostensible human.
Deckard, realising he is about to die, spits at Batty, his face a mask of fear and hatred. But then Batty saves Deckard's life, grabbing his hand just as his grip fails, and lifting him to safety. This restores a symmetry to the film, a symmetry Deckard cannot help but be aware of: he has killed two replicants, and now two replicants have saved his life. Edited out of the Director's Cut, the voice over at this point in the original film had Deckard saying:
DECKARD(voice-over): I don't know why he saved my life. Perhaps, in those last moments, he loved life more than he ever had. Not just his life, anybody's life. My life.
Although the Director's Cut dispenses with this narrative, the implications of Batty saving Deckard's life are nonetheless clear. He cannot simply dismiss replicants as machines. the Voight-Kampff test may be designed upon the principle that replicants lack the empathic, emotional responses of real humans, but they do possess empathy, a humane side - had they not, Batty would have left Deckard to die. They are as human as us.
The final scene of the film, in Deckard's apartment, is perhaps one of the most interesting scenes in the film. Having completed his assignment as ordered, Deckard returns to his apartment to get Rachel and escape out of Los Angeles before anyone tries to retire her. Having woken Rachel, they head for cautiously the elevator. Earlier in the film, in a scene where Deckard is drunk and picking out a tune on his piano, there is a slow fade into a sylvan wood; a unicorn gallops in slow motion past the camera, shaking its mane, and then the scene fades back to Deckard's apartment. The image, as with the giant eye at the beginning of the film, makes no sense whatever in its immediate context, and is somewhat surreal. The audience is led to infer that the unicorn is of some private significance to Deckard, a recurring dream, perhaps.
As Rachel walks toward the elevator, her foot knocks over something on the floor. Noticing this, Deckard picks it up. It is an origami unicorn, made out of tinfoil. Gaff, the other blade runner, is skilled at origami - we watch him make a chicken in Bryant's office, when Deckard is refusing to take the job. But how could Gaff know Deckard well enough to know about the unicorn? The only logical answer is to suggest that Deckard himself is a replicant. Just as Deckard revealed to Rachel her replicant status by telling her her own memories, so Gaff has done for Deckard, leaving with origami the one symbol, whose real meaning is never made clear to us, which convinces Deckard that he is not human. In fact, there is evidence that he was already beginning to suspect; earlier in the film, when Rachel asks him if he has ever taken the Voight-Kampff test himself, there is a pregnant silence, and Deckard ignores her. Also, his piano is covered with old photographs; he appears to spend his free time sitting at the piano, drunk, looking at the photographs, trying to convince himself that they are real, that they prove he had a father and mother. The most reliable evidence that Deckard is a replicant occurs in the scene between him and Rachel, in his apartment. Rachel asks Deckard if he would hunt her if she went north. He replies that he wouldn't, and the moves behind Rachel. At this point Rachel is in the foreground and to the left of the frame. Deckard is to the right of the frame, a few feet behind her, and out of focus. But nonetheless, his eyes can be seen to glow slightly, a device used by Scott to distinguish replicants from other animals.
Whilst the film as a whole has important moral and political implications, this scene, upon the discovery of the tinfoil unicorn, works as the keystone of both. Throughout the film, we have been encouraged to view replicants as the Other, as slaves, or simulacra. This scene demonstrates that such a differentiation is false, that replicants are no different from humans, and that it is quite possible that we may be replicants. This is the film's moral message; slavery, racism and sexism have always been defended on the grounds that the group being discriminated against represent an Other who deserve demonisation. But this scene in Blade Runner server to demonstrate that there is no Other - no slaves, no masters, no blade runners: only humans.
Romantic Paradigms and the Satanic Myth
The human/android relationship has always lent itself to metaphors of slavery and equal rights. The best example of this would be Isaac Asimov's Robot series of novels, which began in 1957 and foretold in epic style the story of a future race of androids, their fight for equal rights, and revolutions. The theme of Man's overreaching pride in thinking himself God's vice-regent on Earth has been explored often in literature, most memorably in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein . In cinema, examples would include Planet of the Apes , The Terminator and 2001: A Space Odyssey . These films all explore our relationship with nature and technology, and the potential dangers to be faced if we, in our pride, think ourselves masters of these forces. Blade Runner employs these themes, but almost uniquely, it's Christian imagery also raises theological questions about the definitions of humanity. Insofar as it was based upon a novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1969) by Philip K Dick, Blade Runner also has strong connections with literature, which are reinforced by the film's use of literary allusions and themes. This chapter of the dissertation will examine these aspects of the film.
In his excellent essay The New Eve , critic David Desser has observed a claim made by others that Blade Runner's power rests on its adaptation of a 'fundamental mythic structure' also found in Frankenstein: the struggle against human facsimiles. Frankenstein itself, he points out, is a Romantic reading of Paradise Lost. Blade Runner, in its own way, pays homage to both Shelley's novel and Milton's epic. the film's dialogue with Christian symbolism begins with one of the first shots of the film, that of Tyrell's futuristic Mayan pyramid.
The only type of buildings that the Mayans built as pyramid shaped were the temples in which they worshipped the Sun through ritual human sacrifice. Tyrell, who lives on the top floor of one of his pyramids, is a small, thin, middle-aged man with weak eyesight (he wears thick trifocal spectacles) and little visual presence; and yet, in a visual contradiction typical of the film, he is presented as a sort of deity. He has the highest, most panoramic viewpoint over the city, suggesting he is the most powerful person in it. The only time the sun is seen in the entire film is from Tyrell's office windows, in the scene where Deckard gives Rachel the Voight-Kampff test. Tyrell tints the windows with the push of a button, suggesting that he, the owner of the Pyramid of the Sun, controls the sun itself, and so is in that respect a godlike figure. We are told by Chew that Tyrell designed the replicants very minds. As William Kolb points out:
Nexus is a Latin word meaning 'to bind' and refers to the tie between members of a group, e.g. members of a series. The replicants who arrive on Earth are literally and metaphorically the Nexus-6.
And as such, the replicants can be said to be a species distinct from us. thus Tyrell can be said to be their God, in that he created them.
'Commerce is our goal here at Tyrell - "More Human Than Human" is our motto' , explains Tyrell. This is a point stressed by Scott throughout the film: the replicants display not only great physical strength in the film, but also great intelligence, too. In the scene where Deckard is being debriefed, Captain Bryant describes Roy Batty as being a 'combat model., with optimum self-sufficiency'. From these words, and the image of Batty's cold blue eyes, it is easy to imagine him as some sort of generic robot killing machine, as seen in countless science fiction films and novels: toneless production line automata. But Batty, as played by Rutger Hauer, defies these epithets. He is intelligent, sometimes cold and calculating, sometimes witty and frivolous. Whereas Deckard is shown constantly in transit, Batty is only ever shown arriving. He is somewhat of an enigma.
Upon his meeting with Chew, the genetic designer, the combat model asserts his independence from generic cliché, and shows that there is more to him that meets the eye, by reciting (quite well) a line of poetry:
Fiery the angels fell, Deep thunder roll'd around their shores, Burning with the fires of Orc.
This is a misquotation from America: A Prophecy , by William Blake, a poem that uses the American Revolution as an allegory for the struggle for personal freedom. Many freed slaves fought in the War of independence, believing that victory would mean the abolition of slavery. As such, this quote is particularly apposite; the replicants themselves are seeking freedom from slavery, and so this is Batty's way of stating his agenda, his reasons for returning to Earth. Blake's actual lines were:
Fiery the angels rose, and as they rose deep thunder roll'd, Around their shores; indignant Burning with the fires of Orc.
Batty's angels fall rather than rise, however, giving his quote a Miltonic ambience. In several ways, in fact, Batty and his fellow replicants may be seen as fallen angels. Literally, the murder of the crew and passengers of the shuttle that facilitated their return could be seen as an offence against nature: as slaves, it is above their station to murder, or return to Earth. Once humankind's servants, they are now demonised, hunted and executed on the spot. Damned, they have fallen from their 'More Human Than Human' status, prey to amoral blade runners like Deckard. Insofar as he is the leader of the fallen angels, Batty becomes a sort of Satan figure: the strongest, most intelligent of the fallen angels, unhappy with his station in life, now disgraced.
Desser states that if Batty can be seen as Satan, then Deckard, world-weary blade runner, can be seen as Adam. In Paradise Lost, Milton stressed that his intention were to create Adam as the epic hero, but later generations read Satan as being the real hero of the text. Similarly, Desser argues, Blade Runner presents us with the ambiguity concerning the issue of the film's hero. Insofar as Deckard is the character we are made to identify with, he appears to be the film's ostensible hero - he survives. But what kind of hero shoots a woman in the back? Batty's quest in the film is truly heroic - he seeks more life, to confront his creator, whereas Deckard is just doing a job he has been forced to do. deckard tries to kill Batty several times at the end of the film, and yet when the roles are reversed, and Batty has a chance to kill Deckard, he spares him. At a structural level, the question of who is the hero in Paradise Lost is echoed in Blade Runner: Batty is Satanic, and so Deckard can be seen as Adam-figure of the text, the character who the audience is ostensibly made to sympathise with, but who cannot capture the imagination quite like the ostensible villain can.
Desser also states that Rachel is Eve, and again, I agree with him. Eve was created for Adam, using one of his ribs. When children are born, we have no idea what kind of people they will grow up to become. Rachel, like Eve, was specifically created using human tissue to become a specific person, with the memories and personality of that person predetermined. As such, she is very much like Eve. Desser argues that Rachel's role as Eve is reinforced with film noir imagery:
To the contemporary reader of Paradise Lost, foreknowledge of Eve's tragic succumbing to temptation, bringing Adam down with her, makes her image a profoundly ambiguous one. On the one hand, as described by Adam, she has many desirable qualities; and yet she leads to the Fall. Blade Runner similarly relies on an archetypal set of conventions to create an ambiguous image of woman, the classic femme fatale of film noir. Rachel wears her hair pinned up behind her head, and is often seen wearing jackets with the classic Joan Crawford padded shoulders. Her links with the noir era of filmmaking are further stressed by the ... use of low key lighting with heavy reliance on shadows, especially the 'bar effect' created by light streaming in through half open blinds. This iconography automatically makes Rachel suspect - a potential spider woman, the woman-as-temptress, our fallen mother, Eve.
Rachel believes she is a perfectly normal human being, until she fails the Voight-Kampff test, and Deckard ends all speculation by telling her about the spider that lived outside her window: a memory of childhood innocence, seared into meaninglessness. The transformation that Rachel subsequently goes through is one of the most beautiful moments in the film. Deckard, having numbed himself with alcohol, has fallen asleep. Rachel sits at his piano, and studies the old photographs: testaments of a past, a family, a history: all the things she has lost. She is no longer wearing her jacket. Slowly, very slowly, she begins to let her hair down.
She is no longer the spider-woman that Desser describes; as Milton says:
She, as a veil ... Her unadorned golden tresses wore Dishevelled, but in wanton ringlets waved As the vine curls her tendrils...
Humans are born with original sin, and as such, are fallen creatures, tainted with evil.
Rachel becomes a replicant, and automatically her sin is annulled. As such, she returns to a prelapsarian state of innocence, as evidenced by her Eve imagery. She becomes a true human, free of original sin.
The Director's Cut of the film ends with Rachel and Deckard entering the elevator together, the closing doors cutting off our view of them. If we extend Biblical imagery, it would be logical to infer that they, having been cast out of the Garden, now venture forth into Earth, their futures uncertain. But how valid is this inference? Can Los Angeles really be said to be the Garden of Eden? Literally, it is Earth. But it is also a metaphorical Hell, with its infernal landscape into which the fallen angels descend. Having said that, it is also a metaphorical Heaven, insofar as it is Tyrell's domain. That they are leaving Los Angeles is clear - but what is Los Angeles? Heaven, Earth, or Hell? The answer to this presumably determines their destination. It must not be forgotten, however, that they are both replicants - Rachel was sentenced to execution the moment she disappeared, and one may assume that Deckard's incipient departure will lead to the same sentence being passed on him. are they, then, a new Adam and Eve, progenitors of a new race who must suffer in a hostile world? Or, given their death sentences, have they just left Earth, only to enter Hell, with the constant fear of surveillance that will characterise their lives as replicants? We can never know. The bleak, gnawing agony of their predicament is telescoped into eternity by celluloid.
This idea is borrowed from Philip K Dick , author of the novel - _Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?_- that the film was based on. In particular it is seen in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1973); the eponymous hero of this novel is a man who, having survived interstellar travel, brings back from an alien race an hallucinogenic drug, Chew-Z, which allows people to spend their lives in Paradise, whatever their definitions of Paradise may be. The price to pay, however, is Palmer Eldritch's assumption of the role of God in every Paradise this drug creates. Given that Palmer Eldritch is the villain of the novel, he uses this omnipotence for generally negative purposes, leading those who have already taken the drug, trapped under his power, to wonder if they really are happy, if they really are in Heaven, or in some subtle, slow-burning Hell of Eldritch's devising. Another character undergoes an unrelated treatment called E-Therapy, that will turn him into a superhuman genius. There is, however, a slight possibility that it will have the reverse effect on him, and turn him into a simian dimwit. In the weeks that follow the treatment, his worries escalate into full blown paranoia, as his life falls to pieces, and he wonders whether this is a result of his oncoming stupidity, or a natural consequence of possessing genius in a world of lesser men. He quite literally cannot be sure if he is entering a Heaven or a Hell.
In fact, Dick's books are filled with recurring motifs of paranoia and dehumanisation that illuminate Blade Runner. Dick dies in 1982, four months before the film's release, as an indirect result of amphetamines misuse in his earlier career. The paranoia attacks that drug users commonly suffer was a source of interest to him: he once joked in an interview, 'the ultimate paranoia would be when it is attributed to objects - not "My boss is plotting against me" but "My boss' phone is plotting against me."This ultimate, object based paranoia does turn up in Dick's novels, for example Radio Free Albemuth (1985 - published posthumously), in which a character called Nick, who is feeling unwell, thinks his radio hates him because it says nothing but 'Nick, you're a prick' all day. But in the world of Blade Runner such paranoia seems commonplace, even encouraged: even the billboards watch the city's population as it goes about its daily business. The audience is forced to share this uncomfortable sense of being watched by the giant eye at the beginning of the film, helping us to understand the nightmarish plight of the characters in the film, watched wherever they go.
However, the film does offer hope in the form of its ostensible villain, Roy Batty. Chew points Batty in the direction of J. F. Sebastian, a genetic designer and friend of Tyrell's. Sebastian, both enthralled by and terrified of Batty, agrees to take him to see Tyrell.
They ascend in the lift to Tyrell's living quarters. Tyrell is lying in his bed (apparently modelled after that of the Pope's). Tyrell allows Sebastian entrance, to discuss his chess gambit:
SEBASTIAN: Mr Tyrell...? I ... I bought a friend.
TYRELL (to BATTY): I'm surprised you didn't come here sooner.
BATTY: It's not an easy thing, to meet your maker.
TYRELL: And what can he do for you?
BATTY: Can the maker repair what he makes?
TYRELL: ...do you wish to be modified?
BATTY (to SEBASTIAN) : Stay here. (Advances) I had in mind something a little more radical.
TYRELL: What ... what seems to be the problem?
TYRELL: Well, I'm afraid that's a little out of my jurisdiction, you ...
BATTY: I want more life ... fucker.
Tyrell's first scene in the film opened with an owl flying from one perch to another, reminiscent of Goya's sketch The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters . Tyrell is now faced with his monster/creation, but cannot help it - although having experimented with life itself, he admits that it's 'out of my jurisdiction'.
TYRELL: You were made as well as we could make you.
BATTY: But not to last.
TYRELL: The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long, and you have burned so very very brightly, Roy. Look at you. You're the prodigal son. You're quite a prize!
BATTY: I've done ... questionable things.
TYRELL: Also extraordinary things. Revel in your time!
BATTY: Nothing the God of Biomechanics wouldn't let you in Heaven for.
Tyrell's reference to Batty as the prodigal son is understandable: Satan was the second most powerful being in creation, after God. Batty's confession that he has done 'questionable things' certainly debunks the idea that he is some kind of conscienceless robot. Batty's final words are spoken with an ironic smile, and some sadness. He was not created by some supernatural agency, but by a man with no more control over mortality than Batty himself. Batty then kisses Tyrell, and kills him.
This scene works in tandem with other key scenes in the film to demonstrate how indefensible slavery is. The slave asks his master for help, but the master cannot provide it, for he too is a slave - a slave to circumstance and mortality. We all are. What right have we, then to enslave others? It is interesting that Batty chooses to attack Tyrell's eyes - perhaps this is his visceral way of ending the surveillance the city forces the replicants to cower under.
Having killed Sebastian also, Batty takes the elevator down, alone. His initial crimes are compounded by the murder of Tyrell and Sebastian. We see Batty staring through the roof of the elevator - the stars, impossibly, rush past him. He is literally falling from the sky, damned in Hell forever.
Milton's Satan could be defined as an empiricist, insofar as he did not accept God's superiority until it was proven to him:
...so much the stronger proved He with his thunder: and till then who knew the force of those dire arms? ...(God) I now of force believe almighty, since no less Than such could have o'erpowered such force as ours...
He could also be described as a humanist, in that he rejects preordained standards, and prefers self-advancement to servility. Most admirable of all is his self-belief: even when cast into Hell, he remains unbroken:
The mind is its own place, and in itself Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.
It is these qualities of Satan's that Batty inherits. Satan accepts, given the facts, that he is damned, but this does not stop him from building a palace and continuing his existence on his own terms. Nietzche once claimed that God was dead: from his argument we may infer that if he is not then we should kill him, because it is only once humankind has dispensed with the childish notion that there is some supernatural agency governing his fate that we can truly become responsible for ourselves. Batty does exactly that - kills his God. He must now take responsibility for himself. Tyrell cannot make Batty live longer, nor make him human. Batty must therefore find redemption himself.
During the confrontation between Batty and Deckard, in which Batty proves completely superior an opponent - even dodging Deckard's bullets - his hand begins to seize up, a sign, perhaps, that his body is beginning to shut down. 'No!' he cries. 'Not ... yet!' He searches desperately around the room, and sees a nail protruding from a floorboard. He pushes this nail through the palm of his hand, and the pain unlocks his hand. 'Yes...' he breathes.
There is an obvious analogy to the Crucifixtion here, but given that Batty is supposed to be Satan, it seems misplaced. But it is further reinforced once the confrontation has ended. Deckard clings to the overhanging girder, finger slipping. Batty has stripped down to his shorts, holding a dove in his unimpaled hand. After he saves Deckard's life, Deckard warily scrambles backwards, thinking this some macabre continuation of the hunt. But Batty, simply, wearily, sits down.
BATTY: I've seen things you people wouldn't believe ... attack ships on fire, off the shoulder of Orion... I watched C-beams, glitter in the dark near Tannhauser gate ... all those ... moments ... will be lost ... in time ... like ... tears. In rain.
Even if we don't understand the images, it is still a powerful moment. Batty's entire quest throughout the film has been to prolong his lifespan. But in those final moments, he accepts the inevitability of what is known as the human condition. An essential part of being a blade runner is presumable a lack of empathy, in order to kill replicants without remorse. Yet once the positions have changed, and Batty is in a position to let Deckard die, he shows empathy, and saves him. If there is one thing the film tells its audience, it is that replicants are superior, not just physically, but morally too.
In the end, it is not Tyrell or anyone else who can make Batty human - he must achieve this himself. After murdering Tyrell and Sebastian, and descending into Hell once more, Batty realises that "human" is not a particular DNA combination, but a state of mind. If is he who pushes the nail through his palm, who picks up the dove. He turns himself into a Christ figure, and in those final moments, by accepting his own death and saving Deckard's life - by showing empathy - he makes himself human, redeems himself. The film's themes are mostly conveyed visually, and so it is that Battty's death is signified by the dove flying up into the only blue sky seen anywhere in the film: the heavens have opened. We are reminded of Christ's baptism, when the heavens opened, and the ove flew down as a personification of the Spirit of God. Now, the dove returns from whence it came. Batty, once Satan, is redeemed, and become an angel once more.
Many critics have cited Blade Runner as a postmodernist film  . Some would argue that all Hollywood films are inherently postmodern, in that they generally recycle earlier forms of popular culture, such as comic books or gangster novels ( Batman, Pulp Fiction etc.). Indeed, they can sometimes go so far as to recycle themselves, as the five Rocky films demonstrate. The difference, I believe, is that whilst most popular cinema is postmodern by virtue of existence, Blade Runner is consciously postmodern, in that it explores some of the issues the phrase relates to.
Postmodernism is a word that refers to many things, not least of them being a reference to the ways that signs become more important than the things they signify; as Dominic Striantii says:
The mass media, for example, was once thought to hold a mirror up to, and thereby reflect, a wider social reality. Now reality can only be defined in terms of this mirror. Society had become subsumed within the mass media. It is no longer even a question of distortion, since the term implies that there is a reality outside the surface simulations of the media, which can be distorted, and that is precisely what is at issue according to postmodern theory  .
The idea of the 'simulacra' lies at the heart of Blade Runner. The simulacra of the film, replicants, are indistinguishable from humans. 'Human' is a very ambiguous term. Structuralism dictates that it is the relationships between elements of the code that give it signification. The word 'human' requires a context, in this case, 'replicant', to give it meaning - by juxtaposing ourselves in binary opposition with another we define ourselves. This sheds light on many aspects of the film. Why are the replicants not allowed on Earth? Why, if they are capable of developing their own emotional responses, are hey ruthlessly denied the opportunity to do so? The answer to these questions relates directly to the Human/Replicant relationship. The humans of the film treat the replicants ruthlessly because, in a way, they must, in order to give the concept of human meaning in the postmodern world. But they cannot keep this violent hierarchy from collapsing; the replicants prove they can be just as human as the humans themselves. the cultural code upon which the world of the film is based is, like the city itself, corroding, resulting in a crisis of definition for humanity.
In his influential work Simulations (1981), Jean Baurillard charts the history of simulations, and posits that there are three order of simulacra. The first order was that of pre-Industrial Revolution, counterfeit simulations of Nature, such as using a fork as an artificial prosthetic in place of the hand. The second order of simulation was the production of industrial times, where the idea of 'counterfeit' becomes meaningless, because industrial production requires no natural template and yet can mass produce identical objects in their thousands. The third order of simulation is us, insofar as cells replicate, they become genetic simulacra of one another. Baurillard calls this the 'code': the binary system of ones and zeros that id the basis of DNA structure. As a system of signification, it is forever beyond our grasp:
The code's signals ... become illegible ... no possible interpretation can ever be provided, buried like programmatic matrices, light years, ultimately, from the biological body, black boxes where every command and response are in ferment ... the code itself is nothing other then a genetic, generative cell where the myriad intersection produce all the question and all the possible answers to select (for whom?). There is no finality to these questions (information signals, impulses) other then the response which is either genetic and immutable or inflected with minuscule and aleatory differences ... Instead of prophecy, we fall subject to the (genetic) 'inscription' ... (this) is the outcome of an entire history where God, Man, Progress and even History have successively passed away to the advantage of the code ... 
In effect, Baurillard implies that there is nothing that can be done - any hope of a significant relationship with reality is lost:
Every closed system protects itself ... from all metalanguage that the system wards off by operating its own metalanguage, that is, by duplicating itself as its own critique ... reality is immediately contaminated by its simulacrum. 
If there can be no reality, but only a simulacrum of it, we must surrender to simulation. To pick up an earlier point, Blade Runner's humans attempt to protect their identity in the postmodern world by enforcing a violent hierarchy between human and replicant: but doings this is not possible. As Raman Selden says of Blade Runner:
(In Blade Runner), in a parallel scenario to Baudrillard's view that humans should surrender to the triumphant world of objects, human subjects are involved in a (mostly losing) battle with invasive postmodern technologies. 
We cannot uphold the human/simulacra relationship because we are, in effect, simulacra ourselves - genetic simulacra, and simulacra in terms of our ontological assumptions (ie we create a simulation of reality in place of the reality which, according to Baudrillard, is forever beyond us).
The relationships between humans and replicants aside, Blade Runner also presents us with a fascinating view of human class relationships. Historicists believe that when one accepts the existence of historical styles of art - e.g. High Renaissance, Abstract, pre-Raphaelite - one must also accept that, insofar as they had different definitions of art and quality, there can never be objectively measured against each other. Clement Greenberg defined avant-gardism as a way of sidestepping this: all art periods nonetheless shared the formal apparatus of the medium, paint, brushed, and so on, and Greenberd believed it was the task of the avant-gardist to concentrate on this. But postmodernism, in particular postmodern architecture, has rejected this theory in favour of the view that one can hold a relativistic view of all former styles of art or architecture, and engage in pastiche. Pastiche is perhaps the favourite form of postmodernists: the best example of this would be Andy Warhol's painting Thirty are better than one  . Blade Runner itself engages in pastiche on more than one level. first, its architecture reveals several different styles. The first few shots of the film show futuristic looking refineries, but then concentrate on a futuristic building that is a pastiche of Mayan architecture. The interiors of the Tyrell Corporation that are shown, however, are designed in an Establishment Gothic look  . The police headquarters of the film was designed to echo the Art Deco look of the Chrysler Building, in New York City  , and the Bradbury Building, in which the final chase scene of the film is set, is an architectural anomaly, built in 1883 by an architect heavily influenced by a utopian book he had read about the year 2000  . Animoid Row, where Deckard goes to discover the origins of the snake scale, seems to resemble a Middle Eastern bazaar. Blade Runner's presentation of Los Angeles in 2019 as a postmodern architectural entrepot accentuates the ahistorical nature of postmodernist art.
The work of Jean Francois Lyotard is also of relevance. Lyotard's book, The Postmodern Condition (1979), offers as a symptom of the aforesaid condition the downfall of meta-narratives, which are paradigms which make total, all-encompassing claims to truth, such as Marxism, or science. The postmodern condition rejects any claim to absolute truth in favour of relativist interpretations of the world (a staple part of postmodernism), which results in meta-narratives collapsing into meaninglessness. For example, History, as a meta-narrative, seeks to chart human behaviour in terms of sequential causality. Blade Runner was made in 1982. Although it contains the futuristic elements of forty years in its future - 2019- it also contains the film noir elements of forty years in its past. Time appears to obey different laws in Blade Runner - it is both present, future and past simultaneously, without respect to sequential causality. Science and religion are both meta-narratives, but Blade Runner throws them both into doubt by using religious imagery in reference to biotechnological creations - are the replicants machines? Or prophets? Or neither - are they just human, like us? Tyrell's death signifies the both the literal failure of science and the metaphorical failure of religion to provide solutions withi n the film: Tyrell cannot help Batty, either as his scientific creator, or his God.
Even Deckard's total, all-encompassing belief in his own existence - what one might tentatively define as the Cartesian meta-narrative - is devalued by a tinfoil unicorn, a crude simulacra of one of Deckard's dreams.
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The Good News Bible
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Kerman, Judith b (ed), Retrofitting Blade Runner:Issues in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner and Philip K Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Bowling Green State University Press, Bowling Green, Ohio, 1991
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Strantii, Dominic, An Introduction to the Theories of Popular Culture, Routledge, London, 1996
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Written by Majid Salim
Image artwork by SoundNinja
Perhaps it goes without saying that the best science fiction stories are the ones that present us with ideas about our humanity, rather than just pursuing the logic of technological futurism. The impending release of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus this Friday prompted me to revisit Scott’s previous foray into science fiction approximately 30 years ago: his 1982 masterpiece, Blade Runner. I want to offer some, perhaps obvious, ruminations upon the questions I see the film posing, such as: What does it mean to be human? Who is the true protagonist of the film? What is our relationship and ethical responsibility to our creations?
To me, some of the most intriguing philosophical aspects of Blade Runner are the ways that the filmpushes the limits of the definition of human. The definition is complicated through the relationships of the characters, both the replicant “skin jobs” and homo sapiens. The world of Blade Runner, like Alien,is an ambiguous one, in which characters must navigate the interplay of human vs. the non-human, and the lurking threat of monstrosity; in it, the ontological status of one’s humanity is no guarantee of non-presence of the monstrous. Such is the case in Scott’s first science fiction feature, Alien, where the threats are as various as the android, Ash, and the thoroughly “Other” xenomorph which bursts from within the chest of one of the protagonists.
Monstrosity in Blade Runner is slightly more ambiguous. Roy Batty is in fact a fairly perfect “human” specimen: strong, handsome, and erudite. There is also the monstrous uncanny of Sebastian’s creations, the strange and ungainly precursors to the replicants he designs for Dr. Tyrell. Monstrosity is also present in the human characters. See for instance the coldness with which Deckard, along with Bryant and Gaff, respond to the assignment of “retiring” the replicants; the use of the verb absolving them of any moral wrongdoing. To say “kill” would be to grant the replicants some semblance of autonomy, even if merely the status of a living being; to “murder” them would be to tacitly admit their humanity.
The status of the replicants in Blade Runner is not unprecedented in science fiction. In fact it is a reworking of one of the oldest science fiction stories: the story of Frankenstein, or “The Modern Prometheus” as Mary Shelley subtitled her novella (the more one probes these things the more connections one sees across Scott’s science fiction films). Dr. Tyrell creates his replicants with fixed life spans of four years in order to prevent them from getting out of control. Like Victor Frankenstein, Tyrell is complicit in creating a lifeform for which he will not be responsible. Batty’s plea to Tyrell is simple, “I want more life, father!” One could interpret Batty’s subsequent murder of Tyrell as justified punishment for Tyrell’s promethean hubris and refusal to grant Batty more life. Batty’s final speech about all he has seen in his admittedly brief life and all that will be lost, “Like tears in the rain,” after he has saved Deckard’s life (while Deckard has been trying to kill them the whole time) forces the viewer to question his or her initial assumptions about the replicants humanity. Batty’s sheer enjoyment of life, desire to live, and willingness to show mercy is perhaps more “human” than the callous and drained existence most of the human characters live out. As a new version of Frankenstein’s monster, perhaps Batty is more frightening for all the ways that he does seem to surpass the human. Such is Batty’s status that he could be seen as a kind of hero of the film, though a tragic one done in by flaws that are not his own fault. The logic of how we deal with our creations, whether clones, AI, or the kind of advanced combination of bio- and computer-engineering that the replicants represent, is already present in any kind of reproductive ethics, stressing the importance of Batty calling Tyrell “father.”
The standing order to “retire” the replicants may seem like a moral preservation of human identity, drawing a clear line between what is and is not human. But it is an abdication of responsibilities. The solution for pacifying the new breed of replicants raises another ethical quandary; the new replicants receive the implantation of false memories, so that the replicant Rachael doesn’t even know she is a replicant. She believes at first that she is Tyrell’s niece. How then do we deal with an “other” who doesn’t even know they are an other? Such dilemmas further blur the lines between human and non-human.
One of the things that Ridley Scott sought to heighten in his 2006 “Final Cut” was the suggestion that Deckard himself may indeed be a replicant. Whether one finds the suggestion lends the film a stronger ambiguity in terms of judging Deckard’s actions and his relationship to both Batty and Rachael, it is unnecessary in order to show that the line between the humans and replicants is not as clearly marked as one might initially think. If anything, leaving Deckard, who has displayed callousness and an obsession with the past - all the supposed trademarks of the replicants he hunts, as a human makes the thin line between him and the replicants more poignant than if the explanation is simply that he is also a replicant. If anything his encounters with the replicants, both Roy and Rachael, have made him “more human.”
Despite its broad influence on the science fiction cinema that would follow (especially in set design and special effects), Blade Runner remains very unlike other science fiction films. It’s languorous pacing and lack of closure highlights the ambiguity of its world. One could see it as incorporating some of the modes of art cinema practice into the mainstream science fiction film. Will Prometheus follow suit, or will it be a bit more conventional? Either way one hopes that it will offer food for thought on par with Scott’s last science fiction opus, with its resonant title and its own android character played by Michael Fassbender. But perhaps that’s too much to ask.
 In earlier cuts of the film, Batty’s line is ambiguous: either “father” or “fucker.”
Blade Runner (1982 [2006 Final Cut])
Directed by Ridley Scott; screenplay by Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples based on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Phillip K. Dick; starring Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Edward James Olmos, M. Emmet Walsh, Daryl Hannah