Like most of the best science fiction, Blade Runner is not really concerned with pseudo-scientific gobbledy-gook. Despite the presence of aliens, alternate realities, or fantastical futures, the best science fiction asks, what does it mean to be human? What is the nature of consciousness? Of life? In exploring these issues, a science fiction universe can have an advantage over a "standard" fiction setting, because it gives writers greater freedom and a larger milieu in which to pose their questions. The best science fiction investigates the essence of life using conflicts out of the bounds of our contemporary world as a catalyst. (Star Trek also does this.)
Because science fiction is inherently speculative, sometimes one must forgive small holes in a premise. It's inescapable-even the most scientific science-fiction must ultimately resort to the imagination to conjure up possible futures and technological marvels. If you look closely, all science-fiction premises are flawed in some way. Certainly in Blade Runner there are a few problematic questions. For example, why must androids be subjected to a complicated emotion test to determine whether they are human? Why isn't a skin sample or an x-ray enough? A single scale and a microscope is enough to determine that a snake is artificial. One could argue that the androids are completely organic machines (the film suggests this, in fact), but that is inconsistent with their immunity to boiling water or extreme cold.
Such small discrepancies exist in most science fiction, and they don't really matter, as long as the science fiction world remains true to itself once the parameters have been established. Though there are those who would disagree, science fiction should not be ultimately about the science, but about the thematic explorations permitted by whatever imaginary setting the author has chosen. What matters is whether the story yields answers that resonate as universal truths.
Blade Runner may contain discrepancies, but it is a sophisticated and complex film, memorable both in style and substance. It's important in the development of cinema, too, because it is the first identifiable "cyberpunk" movie. Cyberpunk, a sub-genre of science fiction whose stories usually feature computers and/or cybernetics, came into its own with William Gibson's 1984 novel, Neuromancer, in which Gibson writes about things called "the net" and "cyberspace." Although William Gibson himself admits that he knew nothing about computers, he is credited by many with inspiring the development of the internet into what it is today.
Blade Runner doesn't feature computers, but it does have cybernetic organisms (androids, or "replicants"), and it shares with Neuromancer and most cyberpunk a grim vision-a future world ruined by capitalism run amok. In the year 2019, corporations seem to have replaced governments. Earth is an environmentally degraded mess that people can't wait to abandon in favor of off-world colonies. Note, for example, how J.F. Sebastian (William Sanderson) is the only resident of his apartment building. The only people left on Earth are the wretches who can't afford to leave and those who profit by exploiting them.
More than anything, the setting and visual style of Blade Runner influenced cyberpunk-a genre which culminated on film recently with The Matrix. But the style of Blade Runner was itself strongly informed by the classic film noirs of the 1940s. The setting may be futuristic, but it is typical noir: the city at night. Director Ridley Scott chooses darkness whenever possible, even during the daytime, and employs classic noir contrasts between light and darkness-light shines through window blinds, for example, and casts bar-like shadows against a character's face. Blade Runner is also a detective story. Like in a film noir, Deckard (Harrison Ford) works his case in a seedy underworld and falls for the femme fatale. Deckard's hard boiled narration in the original theatrical release (deleted from the Director's Cut), reminiscent of a pulp novel, is another explicit feature of the noir genre.
Fear and paranoia is the essence of film noir. Such movies were most popular in the 1940s and early 1950s, when rapid technological advances after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki led to the chilliest era of the Cold War. Despite the economic boom, the omnipresent threat of nuclear annihilation instilled a sense of collective dread. Similarly, when Blade Runner was released in 1982, Reagan's Second Cold War was underway, and the United States was at the tail end of a protracted economic recession, in which being eclipsed by Japan as the world's economic superpower seemed like a real possibility. In Blade Runner's future, Japanese businesses and culture have overrun Los Angeles, and the world in general is a bleak, inhospitable place. Virtually all animals have died, leaving lonely humans to design and build artificial creatures for companionship. Classic noir suggests that increased industrialization breeds alienation, and in the hyper-industrialized world of Blade Runner, this is especially true. Individuals are cogs, helpless and lost in their urban environment.
If it had to be described with a single word, the film noir mood is best defined as claustrophobic. Scott's visual motifs enhance this mood. Everywhere, we see eyes, creating an atmosphere of constant surveillance, like in Orwell's classic novel 1984. After the opening credits we see the flaming smokestacks reflected in an eye; eyes are used in the emotion test to detect replicants; the replicants visit Chew (James Hong), a genetic engineer who "only does eyes," and before killing him, Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) remarks, "If only you could see what I've seen with your eyes." Later, Roy puts out Tyrell's eyes. Scott also uses images of fans, also common in noir. In most cramped, polluted urban noir landscapes, the fans are required for ventilation. They are a visual symbol of the oppressive environment from which they provide a barely adequate source of relief. (Similarly, fans would later be used in Alan Parker's Angel Heart as an ineffective remedy against the heat of Hell itself.)
Birds are also a common motif in Blade Runner. Nothing represents freedom quite as well as a bird in flight, and nothing represents imprisonment quite as well as the same bird caged. However, different birds appear at different times, each serving a different function. Roy refers to "shores burning with the fires of a hawk," a bird known as a hunter and predator, perhaps meant to represent Roy himself. Instead, the dove released by Roy when he dies symbolizes peace and, perhaps, his soul. Much earlier, near the beginning of the film, there is an owl in the lobby of the Tyrell Corporation. It's a bird known for its large eyes (again, a symbol of watchfulness), and it is also mechanical. As it flies across the lobby, its image is juxtaposed to that of Rachael, looking like a flawless china doll as she walks out to meet Deckard. The message is obvious: the owl is artificial; Rachael is artificial. (Owls are also a symbol of wisdom, of course, which suggests that the replicants are in some respects wiser than humans; more on that below.)
Deckard isn't sure at first that the owl is artificial. He must ask. After all, the owl is much more real-seeming than the statues of birds also found in the Corporation's lobby. Those are the artificial birds; surely this flying feathered creature is a living thing. This contrast introduces the key conflict of Blade Runner. Can a replicant be a conscious, living creature, or is it just a machine? What's the difference between a replicant and a human being? In other words, what defines life? It takes Deckard an unusually long time to determine that Rachael is a replicant. "More human than human is our motto," comments Tyrell. A background advertisement during the climactic scene between Roy and Deckard echoes Tyrell's remark. It advertises TDK, which makes blank video and audio tapes. Tapes are used for duplicating-or perhaps, replicating-and the slogan reads, "TDK-so real."
Are the replicants alive? The empathy test used by Deckard helps to answer to this question. It is designed to detect replicants by measuring their emotional responses. This is done by tracking the dilation of their pupils as they answer a series of questions. Pupil dilation is affected by emotions. Therefore, one would expect to find variations in pupil size in a human subject and not in a replicant. Interestingly, however, the replicants' emotional responses during the test seem strong-stronger, in fact, than those of a human being-and that's what gives them away, not their lack of emotion. Consider how upsetting the test questions are to the replicant Leon (Brion James) in the opening scene. A hypothetical situation in which he refuses to assist a helpless tortoise greatly distresses him, and, in response to a seemingly innocuous question about his mother, Leon murders his interrogator.
Why the extreme response? As Dr. Tyrell (Joe Turkel) explains to Deckard, "[Replicants] were designed to copy human beings in every way except their emotions. The designers reckoned that after a few years they might develop their own emotional responses." They become like young children or developmentally disabled humans when they experience anger or frustration, and don't know the proper ways of dealing with strong feelings. Perhaps this is why Pris (Darryl Hannah) feels such affinity for the developmentally retarded J.F. Sebastian (in addition to the other more obvious reason, his medical condition that causes "accelerated decrepitude").
Once the unnaturally strong replicants experience emotions, they become volatile and dangerous. Therefore, Tyrell has incorporated a fail-safe device into the replicants: a four-year life span. Tyrell is also experimenting with memory implants. Artificial memories of a childhood and adolescence provide built-in experience in handling emotional reactions-they supply maturity, in other words. Moreover, a replicant with artificial memories would not know that it is a replicant. Unlike Leon and Roy, Rachael is such an experiment, which is why Deckard has such a difficult time establishing that she isn't human. Because she believes herself to be human, she is far more convincing.
In addition to their emotions, the replicants' search for their Tyrell is further evidence of their sentience. For millennia humans have posited the existence of a god or gods that are responsible for creation and give order to their seemingly random lives. For almost as long humans have questioned their gods. Various answers are found in different religious texts, but there are very few who claim to have known God directly-to have spoken to him, or to have experienced the divine. Unlike humans, Roy knows exactly where his creator is. Tyrell lives in a building on Earth that closely resembles one of the Toltec pyramids at Teotihuacan, in Mexico-a visual expression of Tyrell's godhood. Tyrell later refers to Roy as "the prodigal son," further underscoring his status as father and creator.
When they meet, Roy asks the same questions that humans have longed to ask God. Why did you create me? Why did you design my life to be so brief? Can you not show mercy? Can you not make things better? Roy has reached the point in his development where he is wrestling with the same existential issues with which humans struggle. Alas, nothing can be done about his four-year life span. Frustrated by losing his last hope of changing his fate, Roy gets even by killing Tyrell, freeing himself of god.
Rachael's implanted memory of baby spiders hatching and eating the mother spider foreshadows the result of Roy's meeting with Tyrell, which serves as a warning not to use technology and science to play god. Tyrell's creation, a sentient being designed only to make human life more convenient, has destroyed him. The replicants are only seeking a place in the world, to be accepted and fit in, and to increase their life span to a normal human length. They do not kill unprovoked. They are on a quest for life, not death. For this, they are considered dangerous, and they are hunted and killed.
It is the humans who have a greater disregard for life. They have destroyed their own world; they exploit each other, and, except for the child-like J.F. Sebastian (whose innocence only highlights other humans' deficiencies, and whose solution for loneliness-literally making friends-contrasts with the manufacture of replicants to suit more distasteful needs), they show no compassion for one another or for the replicants Captain Bryant (M. Emmett Walsh) callously refers to as "skin jobs." This is not true, however, of the replicants, who protect each other, fall in love, and grieve.
Who is more "human," the humans or the replicants? Like another unnatural, emotionally immature (and therefore dangerous) creation, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the replicants are ironically the more noble creatures, vilified and destroyed by those who misunderstand them. They are also slaves-note the heavy irony in Deckard's question to Zhora (Joanna Cassidy), as he is posing as a member of the Committee for Moral Abuses, "Have you ever felt yourself to be exploited in any way?" The replicants' fight for freedom, not unlike the struggle of slaves throughout human history, is seen as dangerous and subversive by their masters. "Aren't you supposed to be the good man?" Roy asks Deckard. By whose twisted definition is Deckard the good guy and not a ruthless murderer?
By the time Roy has disposed of Tyrell, Deckard has "retired" all Roy's companions, and Roy's four years are almost up. Roy faces imminent death alone. His first instinct is to avenge his friends by killing Deckard before he dies himself. But Roy has a change of heart at the climactic moment. Having accepted his fate, Roy discovers an appreciation for life that goes beyond the basic instinct for self-preservation. With Deckard's life in his hands, Roy spares him, exercising compassion that Tyrell did not possess. In the last moments of his life, Roy has achieved emotional maturity and is now fully "human." His outward appearance has similarly changed. When Roy first appears, he looks inhuman with his chiseled features and bleached hair, but at the end he is wounded and bleeding, no longer a too-perfect physical specimen.
In his eloquent final words, Roy both mourns and celebrates his remarkable but brief life. "Look at what I have done in just four years," he seems to be saying to Deckard. "Do not waste this gift I am giving you." As Deckard listens to Roy and watches him die, a look of understanding dawns in his eyes. Only then does Deckard fully appreciate that the replicants are conscious, living beings. Only then does he grasp the brutality of what he has done to other replicants. Deckard's perspective has completely changed from the beginning of the movie, when he comments to Rachael (before discovering she is a replicant herself), "Replicants are like any other machine. They're either a benefit or a hazard." "Have you ever retired a human by mistake?" Rachael challenges him.
Rachael continues to challenge Deckard's prejudices-for that is what they are-throughout the story, laying the groundwork for Deckard's revelation. When Rachael visits Deckard's apartment after the empathy test, for example, he cruelly informs her that she is just a machine-one of Tyrell's little toys. Then, when she is visibly upset, he insults her by lying and saying that he was just making a bad joke. Deckard immediately regrets it. As Rachael stands in his apartment completely vulnerable and disillusioned, Deckard begins to see her in a different light. He begins to feel pity, and he also finds himself drawn to her. Deckard initially can't accept that he is attracted to a replicant. Uncomfortable with his own emotions, he treats her roughly, trying to provoke what he views as a human response. This is not Rachael's fault, of course. She has clearly exhibited emotions that can be described as human, but Deckard does not yet fully accept her as a conscious individual. The moment of tenderness at the piano, and later, when he is fearful that Rachael is lying dead in his bed, show Deckard's true feelings.
Deckard has hunted replicants all his life. His mission is to protect humans from replicants. Yet here is a replicant who is for all intents and purposes human. Rachael awakens Deckard's protective instincts, and he begins to reconsider what he does for a living. It's not just Rachael that causes Deckard to reassess. For example, in Leon's apartment, Deckard finds photographs. Why would a replicant, one without memory implants, keep mementos of his life? It's another sign of "humanity" in something that is supposed to be a machine.
Of course, Deckard doesn't enjoy hunting down replicants in the first place, even though he has been able to live with actions until now. Scott emphasizes the distastefulness of Deckard's job by photographing each death tragically instead of triumphantly. Deckard's dispirited reaction to Zhora death contrasts starkly with that of Bryant's jubilant response. When Bryant tells him that there is one more replicant that he must retire, Deckard is even more unhappy, particularly when he learns that Rachael is the target. In yet another irony, Deckard's own life is saved not once but twice in the film, both times by replicants.
Fearing that Ridley Scott's final cut of Blade Runner would be too difficult for audiences to follow, the studio deleted Deckard's unicorn dream, added Deckard's hard-boiled narration (which Ford recorded under protest-and it shows), and tacked on a more uplifting ending that shows Deckard and Rachael driving off into the sunset. (The Director's Cut ends with Deckard and Rachael leaving Deckard's apartment and descending the staircase to make their escape.) Deckard's narration then suggests that Rachael may have no fail-safe, meaning that she has a normal life span, and the happy couple can thus live happily ever after. The studio used extra footage from The Shining to create the dreamlike landscape as Deckard and Rachel speed off. Though beautiful, the addition of this footage is absurd, because we've been told repeatedly that the Earth's environment is hopelessly fouled, which is an integral part of the story's setting and context.
Deckard's narration clarifies the plot, but it obscures many of the themes. It and the deletion of the unicorn dream rob Blade Runner of its most interesting subtext-the idea that Deckard may himself be a replicant. The most explicit evidence supporting such a conclusion is Gaff's message to Deckard at the end of the movie. Gaff (Edward James Olmos) is a police lieutenant who works for Bryant and has a habit of making tiny origami animals and leaving them at places he visits. He makes a chicken, for example, and later what looks like a human with an erection, which is probably a comment on Deckard's attraction to Rachael. When Deckard and Rachael leave his apartment to go on the run, Rachael knocks over a tiny origami unicorn left on the floor of the hall.
The obvious interpretation is that Gaff is telling Deckard that he's been there, that he knows that Deckard is harboring Rachael, and that he will allow them to make their escape. But Gaff has already told Deckard this when he arrives at the scene of Roy's death and says, "I guess you're through," even though Gaff knows Deckard has not yet "retired" Rachael. Gaff is then even more explicit, "It's too bad she won't live."
The origami message is unnecessary unless Gaff is communicating some new thing. Why did Gaff specifically choose a unicorn? Does he have knowledge, somehow, of Deckard's dreams-just as Deckard knows Rachael's memories? If so, there is only one possible explanation: Deckard's memories have also implanted.
The implication could not be clearer: Deckard is a replicant, too. And why not? Why should human beings risk life and limb in the dangerous task of hunting down renegade replicants? Humans build replicants to do all their dirty work-why not a replicant policeman? Of course, the replicant can't know that he is a replicant, or he'll refuse to do his job. So, just like Rachael, Deckard is given human memories. To maintain the illusion, they haven't given him the inhuman strength that other replicants have. This makes Deckard's task of hunting outlaw replicants more difficult, but who cares? If he's killed, he can easily be replaced-right? Deckard could easily have been activated shortly before the start of the story. Deckard is not actually employed by the police department. He's brought in when the previous blade runner fails. Deckard has memories of having worked for the police and having quit, but who's to say those memories are real?
There are other hints that Deckard may not be human. The daydream of the unicorn is juxtaposed with his photographs on the piano, suggesting that, like a unicorn, Deckard's past is a myth. In addition, in the Director's Cut, we see red glints in some of the actors' eyes-like people might have in a cheap flash photograph. However, only replicants ever display these odd red reflections-only replicants, and, during Rachael's second visit to his apartment, Deckard.
Then there's an odd discrepancy. Bryant at first tells Deckard that six replicants have escaped, and one has already been terminated. That should leave five. But then Bryant shows Deckard profiles of only four replicants. Where is the fifth replicant? Later, when Rachael turns up missing, Deckard has a total of five replicants to kill again, but presumably Rachael is not the fifth replicant Bryant originally refers to. So who is? Bryant can't mean Deckard, as Deckard is the hunter. The issue is never resolved, and the discrepancy may be simply an error, but it's possible that it was inserted to make us think that there's another replicant somewhere that we should be looking for. The uncertainty hangs over the movie, just like Rachael's unanswered question to Decker-"You know that test of yours? Did you ever take that test yourself?"
If Deckard is a replicant, there is an additional way to interpret Deckard's rough treatment of Rachael during their love scene. Presumably, Deckard would never have experienced strong desire before. Deckard's passion is so strong that even the cushion of his fake memories isn't enough for him to process the emotion in a normal way. So he gets rough, initially, with Rachael. This explanation is not inconsistent with the interpretation that Deckard is uncomfortable feeling desire for a replicant, because Deckard believes himself to be human.
The possibility that Deckard is a replicant adds an extra dimension to the film, but it does pose problems. For example, why would Tyrell create replicant blade runner to hunt other replicants, also created by his corporation? Who knows? Perhaps the Tyrell Corporation manufacturers whatever it is commissioned to manufacture. If Tyrell Corporation replicants are destroyed, they must be replaced with Tyrell Corporation replicants, which means greater profits. Or maybe Tyrell is obliged to produce replicant blade runners to reassure the government that there is a safety net in place to take care of any problems.
Certain questions must necessarily remain unanswered because Scott doesn't want us to know for sure Deckard is human or replicant. Had Scott explained everything, it would have removed all doubts, and thus removed the intrigue of the Director's Cut. The theatrical release is a superior science fiction movie, but additional questions and themes explored by the Director's Cut makes it a masterpiece, and one of the most talked-about science fiction movies of all time.
Written by Carlo Cavagna