Christian Symbolism

By Dan Newland

This paper was originally written for a Science Fiction in the Cinema class in 1991. Since that time I have placed on a newsgroup or two, and have had numerous friends read it, but I have done very little editing or improvement. As such, the essay is much the same today as it was then. I am not even sure that this is terribly novel, but it is nonetheless a reading of the film that I find to be both plausible and affecting. I do not claim to be inside Ridley Scott's brain. Regardless of its accuracy, I hope you enjoy the ideas in it, and would very much like to hear feedback on them. - Dan.

Blade Runner is not a pleasant film. Many of its ideas are very frightening, and the visual images are magnificent yet decadent. Director Ridley Scott has a chilling story to tell, and there is a complex web of allegory and meaning lurking in the background. We are unmistakably in a future time, yet this future world is one we can easily recognize, as it is not so different from our own. As with all good science fiction, futuristic concepts provide the basis for the story, but do not dominate the more universal themes expressed by the film. This is not to say that the special effects of Blade Runner are anything less than stunning, but they serve to flesh out the story, as well as to give us a vision of the future in which this story can take place. This is not the cardboard cutout future of Forbidden Planet, but a world we can almost touch and absolutely believe in. Onto this stage are placed a group of characters who perfectly compliment their environment. They are as shadowy as the Los Angeles night, and their actions are seldom clear cut or simple to understand. We are seldom certain of the motivations which move these characters, and our protagonist (Deckard, played by Harrison Ford) is not exactly a knight in shining armor. Because of this, it seems that to understand this film we must look past the actions of the characters and focus instead upon the reasons behind what they do.

In an attempt to accomplish this, we will focus on one particular element of the film: it's allegorical relationship to Christianity. This is by no means to imply that this is the only subtext in the movie, or that it is the major force in driving the characters to behave as they do, but it is definitely a structure by which at least some of the plot elements and character development of the film can be understood. As one begins to develop an allegory from the symbols and subtext of a film, it is very easy to begin seeing meaning everywhere, even where it is irrational to do so. This paper hopefully only develops the analogy between Biblical myths and events in the movie where a connection actually exists, and I have tried to develop at least a reasonable case that the symbolic dualism described here are valid and were purposely planted within the film to add depth to what is already a wonderful adventure. Regardless of how much of this sub-textual story was planned, though, the following reading is a useful and coherent means to help round out the characters and give a universal message to the film.

Humanity itself is brought up for definition in this film, as the Replicants are in many ways more human than the "real humans" they are interacting with. These Replicants are artificial organic humanoids, which function as brute laborers and sex toys on Earth's space colonies. They have five-year life spans, and are banned from Earth. Rutger Hauer is brilliant as the leader of the Replicant band which has come to Earth anyway, in search of the secret to extending their life spans. He in many ways is the most developed character in the entire film, as we see him laugh and cry, kill and philosophize. Their are no truly one-dimensional characters in this film, a credit to the cast, but there is definitely a sense that Bryant and many of the other humans are less than fully alive. Holden, the first Blade Runner we see, is totally lifeless and aloof. Quite probably this is the way Deckard was during his first stint as a Runner. It has been said that only as you face death are you truly alive, and the Replicants look into Death every minute of their lives. This is because although they know that they will die, they do not know their incept dates (birthdays) and as such are not sure when the clock started, or when it will end. Knowing only their life spans, they hunt for their incept dates and life extension, knowing that the end is always just around the corner. Possibly because of this, they live, fear, and love far more passionately than the film's human characters. They also find a greater importance to life, as Batty discovers at the film's end, when he saves the man who has killed everyone he loved.

J.F. Sebastian is in a way the "missing link" between the Replicants and their Human creators. He is Human in the fact that he was born, rather than created, yet the disease which is causing the rapid degeneration of his cells causes him to be in much the same situation as the Replicants he befriends. In this I find that J.F. functions as a symbol of Christ in this film. First, he is a composite of man and Replicant, just as Christ is a composite of God and man. Second, just as Christ lived among men, J.F. lived among the Replicants. Third, Christ attempted to bring humanity to God, and was killed by the very people he attempted to help. J.F. Sebastian also attempted to bring a man (Batty) to his maker (Tyrell) and was murdered for his trouble. It seems significant that Sebastian and Batty ascend (via elevator) to the presence of Tyrell.

There is, of course, one rather blatant problem with this scenario of Sebastian as Christ. Later in the movie, we see Batty shove a nail through his own palm. It is a gesture too symbolic for even History major to miss. We now have an allegorical crisis, as I would assume that there is a limit of only one Christ-like character per film to maintain continuity within the plot. This is a problem, as the case for Batty as Christ is also a strong one. After all, he did ascend into Heaven, he was seated at the right hand of his god, and he did return to Earth only to die and have his soul (in the form of a white dove?) ascend a second time. Also, he forgave Deckard his sins, and saved him from falling to his death (and damnation in Hell?) I have some problems with the theory of Batty-as-Savior, though. For one thing, Batty is a man of violence, while Sebastian is one of peace. For another, Batty gouged out Tyrell's eyes, which makes no sense at all if he is a symbol for Christ and Tyrell is a symbol for God. As a way of understanding these actions, I find it is more reasonable to consider Batty to be a symbol of mankind. By this, I mean that he was created by Tyrell's genius (as man was by God) and was separated from his maker when he was sent off world (expelled from the Garden). Eventually he begins to seek out the one who had made him (as nearly all men quest for God at some point in their lives), and he does "questionable things" in his search for the creator (as many men throughout time have committed heinous crimes in the name of God). Through the help of Sebastian (in this example an obvious Christ symbol) he is able to finally come into the presence of his maker, who welcomes him warmly and without reservation. "I'm surprised you didn't come here sooner." Tyrell comments as Batty enters his church-like quarters. Tyrell in this scene is a perfect symbol of the New Testament God -- slow to anger and quick to forgive, he is happy to throw out the past, and look only at those things which are positive about his children. But Batty is not satisfied to just come into the presence of Tyrell, and he begins to make demands of the man who created him. In the end, Roy is like any other man. He is aware of his own mortality, and looks to Tyrell to give him a new lease on life. When he finds that his pleas to Tyrell are not answered he lashes out and rebukes the man who he had thought of as a savior in the past. This is akin to a man who prays faithfully to Heaven for a release from cancer, and loses faith if his condition does not improve. Upon losing faith, Roy also kills the messenger, Sebastian, thereby paralleling the killing of Jesus by the men of millennia past. After these acts, he returns to the elevator and falls from heaven, returning to the material world.

As he nears the end of his life, Roy begins to change. This change is expressed in the fact that he not only does not kill Deckard, he saves him from dropping to his death. Also, he seems to be making a decision just before jumping between the buildings to get to Harrison Ford. That jump can probably be looked upon as Batty's final Leap of Faith (OK, this is stretching) allowing him to come to terms with his own mortality, as well as his place in the World. Roy Batty then becomes a sort of Everyman, struggling with what he cannot understand or change. Eventually, he stops trying to alter his fate, and instead looks philosophically at what he has seen and done. By the time he dies, Batty has redeemed himself by following in the footsteps of Christ. This is where the nail in the hand begins to make sense, as Roy is in effect attempting to become Christlike himself. He has also forgiven others as he would have God forgive him in that he saved the man who killed his beloved Pris. As he dies, the white dove he had been holding escapes from his hand and flies up into the sky. Roy's newly purified soul is now free, and on the way upward. The Everyman of 2019 has taken the final step on his long journey to peace and salvation.

The great strength of Blade Runner was that it successfully dealt with the tenuous nature of human life, and examined what really makes a person human, without being preachy or obvious. The film was meticulously crafted, and created a world which was decadent, dirty and yet strangely beautiful. The same can be said of its inhabitants, and maybe of all of us.

Written by Dan Newland , 1997

Image artwork by DanielMurrayART