How Science Became God in Blade Runner

By Tony Schloss

In one of the most acclaimed science fiction movies of all time, Ridley Scott presents us with a beautiful and scary vision of the future. It is a vision that has sparked many debates throughout many genres, including, film, literature and science. In Blade Runner, released in 1982, we are faced with a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles, full of darkness, acid rain and decay. Within this picture are three scientists who, together, paint a very different picture of the science and scientists of the future. Each one of them has a purpose in the scientific world and also in society as a whole. In this study, we will find that there are both literary and realistic origins of the representation that we are faced with in the movie.

Blade Runner focuses around the adventures of Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter, whose prey are the replicants, androids who are virtually indistinguishable from humans. The story is set in downtown Los Angeles, in the year 2019. This is a post nuclear holocaust world, where the sun is darkened by the fallout and acid rain continually falls. Six replicants of the Nexus 6 generation, the most advanced, have escaped from their off-world colony, where they were being used as slave labor. The leader of the replicants, Roy Batty, is on a mission to find more life for himself and the others, for they only have a four year life span and are on the verge of death. Roy is a military style replicant, so he has killed many people in inter-galactic wars and continues to kill as he searches for life. Deckard is on a mission to find all of these replicants and in the terms used by the police and the giant Tyrell Corporation that made them, "retire" the replicants.

There are three scientists in the film, but the most important of them all and also the seemingly most powerful man in the society of the film is Tyrell. Tyrell is the president and super-genius of the Tyrell corporation, a huge company that makes the replicants, the artificial human slaves that have allowed humans to move off-world and colonize other planets. Tyrell is presented to the viewer as having a God-like presence. Only in his office do we see any essence of the sun and a calm space. The motto of his corporation is "More human than human". He calls Roy Batty, the leader of the rogue replicants, his "prodigal son". In the movie he is presented as the highest science authority and is constantly referred to by others as a genius. In addition to this he seems to be the leader in politics and other realms. The police seem to work in cooperation with the Tyrell Corporation, and the office of the corporation is the largest building in the city. The whole of society seems to revolve around the Tyrell Corporation, and Tyrell is the leader of it all. It becomes clear very quickly in the film that science and technology are two of the most important factors in this society. By presenting Tyrell to us, the leader of science and also like a God, we are led to believe that science is the work of the Gods. In a new type of creation theory, it is science and technology that has created the world. Without the replicants provided by Tyrell, we can presume that the creation of off-world colonies, which in turn led to the decay of earth, would not have been occurred. Science has become something that has always been feared- the maker and destroyer of worlds, an all-powerful beast, a God, and Tyrell is the head of it all.

In contrast to Tyrell is the scientist Chu, who is a genetic engineer of eyes. He works in the freezing basement of his shop, far, far away from the light and sun of the Tyrell office. Though he creates part of the Nexus 6, the generation of replicants in the movie, he remains at the bottom of the corporate ladder, suggesting a wide industrial network of sub-contractors employed by Tyrell. He and J.F. Sebastian, our third scientist, represent all of the other scientists that help create the replicants. J.F Sebastian lives in a large apartment, but he is the only tenant in the building. His apartment is dark and dank. These men are middle class citizens and are portrayed as very much like the rest of those still on earth. The difference between their homes and work and Tyrell's is remarkable. In addition, these two scientists show that science is no longer separated into the academic world. Now the scientist and his work are fully integrated into the consumer culture which must provide the goods and services. The director may have extrapolated from present day America, where consumer culture seems to control all of society, and put the two together to form an even larger beast. Having science come to the everyday and be perhaps the most valuable commodity in the film's culture once again increases its omnipotence.

Now that we have investigated these scientists and their role in the movie, we must ask ourselves a more important question, that of how did these portrayals come to be? Director Ridley Scott wanted this movie to be truthful to his vision of the future, and have that vision be plausible. We can see in the set design that the director was attempting to create a setting that was not a far-fetched idea of someone's imagination, but a place based on real ideas of how the future might look. The buildings are created to look as though the have been built upon over and over, because Scott determined that it would be more economically feasible to keep adding to the edifices rather than tearing them down and creating new ones. The building that we see the most of, the Tyrell Corporation building, is one of the few buildings that looks drastically new, which is presumably a metaphor for the business that occurs inside the walls also being a new business of the future. But even that building bears a striking resemblance to a Mayan temple, perhaps evoking the technological advancements that the Mayans accomplished centuries before.

With this believable backdrop being set, we must now ask whether the scientists and the science practices stay true to that vision. Seeing that it is a film, we must first look to see whether there are precedents set in the literary world that would cause for us to be comfortable with the director's view. In Roslynn Haynes book From Faust to Strangelove, the author gives many examples of literary works that bear significant similarities to the characters of Blade Runner, in addition to the logic behind the individual author's reasons to write the stories the way they did. There is a direct relation to the Blade Runner screenplay and Alfred Doblin's Berge, Meere und Giganten (1924). Haynes tells us that in Doblin's story "industrial scientists and research groups have effectively assumed total power over society.". The partnership of Tyrell and the police illustrates this same circumstance in Blade Runner. The police chief in one of the first scenes of the movie is in obvious partnership with Tyrell. The psychological test conducted by the police to determine whether a person is real or artificial seems to be a common occurrence in this society. The police presumably administer the test to find Tyrell's replicants, but we can imagine that they could use it for any sort of devious plan.. Tyrell alone has created the society, and with the police with him they together can rule over this society. The police chief himself said to Deckard, "If you're not cop you're little people!", illustrating the point.

Aldous Huxley, one of the most famous and brilliant science fiction writers of all time, also has many stories that relate to the Blade Runner dystopia and story. Huxley also wrote essays explaining his beliefs about his stories. In one of these essays, entitled Jesting Pilate, he wrote " They (mankind) have required an intellectual, a logical and 'scientific' proof of their existence....when you start your argumentation from the premises laid down by scientific materialism, it simply cannot be discovered. Indeed, any argument starting from these premises must infallibly end in a denial of the real existence of values." The replicants, probably the only true rebels against society in the movie, illustrate this idea in their actions. This society they are in, which is so permanently intertwined with science, created them, and now they are questing through that society to find understanding in their existence and to continue it. But since their existence is based upon these scientific principles, they fail, and will always fail in finding an answer. In Brave New World, Huxley does not name any individual scientists, illustrating his point of loss of individuality and science being all pervasive. Chu and J. F. Sebastian represent these unnamed scientists of Brave New World. They are part of the system, but as common and simple as today's plumber or auto mechanic. It is not to say that plumber's or mechanic's are not individuals or special, but only to illustrate the point that the genetic engineer of the future appears to live and work at the same socio-economic level as these occupations, with all the same degrees of respect for the occupation.

In addition to the origins of the story being found in literary sources, there is also precedent to believing the story from writings and examples of some of our most influential intellectuals. Sigmund Freud, in 1929, wrote a scathing review of science and its purpose in society. The book, entitled Das Unbehagen in der Kultur, were essays involving science and our doomed effort to master "the human instinct of aggression and self-destruction".( Einstein, History, and other Passions, Gerald Holton, 1995) In another part of the book he details man's constant inner battle between Eros and Death, the instinct for life and the instinct for destruction. In the replicants we see this battle wage itself , and possibly even more so in Deckard. In Blade Runner the replicants are attempting to find life, but the only way to do so that seems to be possible for them is to leave a trail of destruction. They also act as metaphors for the society that created them. Therefor, our society, in its struggle for civilization, also continues to destroy, something we see occurring everyday through out the world. Deckard fights this war inside of himself as well. His job is to find all replicants and "retire" them, but he is faced with a problem. His love interest, Rachel, also turns out to be a replicant, though her life span is unknown. As Deckard tracks and kills the four outlaw replicants, he is torn inside by his love for Rachel. In Deckard, unlike the replicants and society, it appears that Eros wins, for he and Rachel leave his apartment together as the film ends. But we can not be so sure, especially in this future world, this world of "accelerated decrepitude" as Pris the replicant calls it. Freud also writes that though science and technology began in order to protect us from our hostile environment, it now only exists so we can fulfill our selfish wishes. Freud writes that it basically allows us to play God. In Blade Runner, the leader of the science world, Tyrell, shows every sign of a man playing God. The motto of his company is "More human than human", which as if to say that they can make newer, better being than the Creator himself. All of Tyrell's surroundings also give the idea of his omnipotence, as outlined earlier in this paper.

Gerald Holton, in his book Einstein, History and Other Passions, speaks about the ideas of Isaiah Berlin, whom he calls "one of the most sensitive and humane historian of ideas.". Berlin writes that there are two defining factors of our century, that of amazing progress in science and technology, and also the proliferation of ideologies that have shaped the minds of so many, like racism, nationalism and bigotry. Once again, if we look back at Blade Runner, we see these exact two things occurring. The technological advancements that allowed for the replicants to be created which then in turn led to the prejudice against them and their use as slaves.

Finally, in an essay entitled, "Technology and Politics in the Blade Runner Dystopia", written by Judith B. Kerman, the author investigates the factual truth of the story by interviewing Ridley Scott and researching other pertinent texts. Kerman points out the discrepancy in the housing arrangements, the fact that J.F. Sebastian lives in a huge apartment in an empty building while there is obvious overcrowding at the street level. Kerman explains this potential flaw in the movie by quoting Marx. She writes that such a contradiction is pointed out by Marx as an inevitable, irrational problem created by capitalism. The proliferation of weapons to never be used and prosperity coming at the expense of the unemployed and disadvantaged are examples of this capitalistic contradiction that Marx outlines. It is through the work of the masses of the street level Los Angelinos and the replicants that enables the higher classes to move off-world. Though Scott never has said that he was attempting to make a Marxist movie, being British and having an outsiders view allows him to see the problems with American society. Doing so, perhaps unconsciously, he has created a scathing review of our society. Scott has also extrapolated from the current trends of large corporations controlling much of the capitalist market, and also controlling the governmental regulation of these huge companies. This is another reason why we see Tyrell in cahoots with the police. But instead of using the model of a dynamic and controlling businessman as the leader of a huge corporation, he instead has a genius, a man of science who created a product that caused his to rise to the top, in this case, of society. As we watch Bill Gates and other computer designers create huge empires based on their inventions, the character of Tyrell does not seem so far off into the future.

Science fiction stories set in the future quite often have the possibility of being too far out of our present day scope to be believable. Blade Runner, though set in the future, is so carefully constructed that it disregards this fear almost completely. It can be understood, artistically, through an investigation of science and scientists in literature that came before. Its setting and characters can be found historically throughout the literary world. In addition to this, it also is believable based on real trends throughout this century. The structure of society, centering around science and technological advances seems to be a trend that may be beginning as we speak. The recent discovery of cloning in the lab could easily be believed to be a precursor to the genetically engineered replicants of the movie. The main striking difference between our society today and the society of the movie is that in the movie there was a nuclear war at the turn of the century. Hopefully, this is a difference that will continue to last. Besides this hopeful difference, the science and scientists of the movie could possibly be the science and scientists of a not so distant tomorrow.


  • Bass, Thomas. Reinventing The Future. Addison-Wesley Publishing, Copyright 1994.

  • Haynes, Roslynn D. From Faust To Strangelove: Representations of the Scientist in Western Literature. Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, Copyright 1994.

  • Holton, Gerald. Einstein, History, and Other Passions. Woodbury, NY: American Institute of Physics, Copyright 1995.

  • Kerman, Judith. Retrofitting Blade Runner. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, Copyright 1991.

  • Robinson, Kim. The Novels of Philip K Dick. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, Copyright 1984.

  • Velikhov, E.P. Science, Technology and the Future. New York, NY: Pergamon Press, Copyright 1980.

Written by Tony Schloss

Image artwork by Karl Fitzgerald