Note: I have made a few notes on the original film, inspired by the release of Blade Runner 2049. Blade runner is based on the book by Philip K. Dick, but departs from the story in a few areas, including avoiding the book’s concern with a religious leader.
There is no single version of ‘Blade Runner’, and the original cinematic release featured a voice-over that has now been removed.
Genetic engineering and cloning was ‘futuristic’ in 1982 (when it was released) but are now more familiar to us. Dolly the Sheep was cloned here in the real world in 1996 and lived for 7 years, a year longer than the Nexus 6 life span. We are also now more accustomed to denser populations, and advancing technology, but nothing near the level of artificial intelligence depicted in this film.
Blade Runner is a film about what it means to be human. It also imagines a future in which urban development and artificial life is more common than today. It concerns the apparent danger presented by a small group of human-like ‘replicants’ who are considered the industrial products of Tyrell Corporation. Ironically, the Company’s motto is “More Human Than Human.” even though it limits the lifespan of its latest models (Nexus 6) to four years.
The police’s interest in tracking replicants is made more difficult because they generally blend in so well that special identification techniques are needed. The preferred technique requires the police capturing replicants and administering an interrogation, to decide if they lack the expected emotional response of a normal human.
When such a test on a dangerous replicant results in a police death and the replicant’s escape, an officer Deckard is asked to track and find (kill) the replicant. Deckard responds coolly to the idea, but takes the job. An hour into the movie and his superior officer, Inspector Bryant, changes the scope of work to include four replicants, three of whom are companions of the first. This includes the group leader, Batty. Another high-level replicant named Rachel, created by Tyrell, is then identified by Deckard in the course of the investigations, with Tyrell’s permission.
Philosophical and cultural questions
The discourse in the film involves a distinction between replicants and humans explored through the interactions between Deckard and other characters, human or otherwise. The movie begins with this distinction being an established divide within the world of the film.
The prejudiced society depicted in the film raises many questions of a deeply philosophical nature. These include whether it is morally good to create genetically-selected, artificial humans for industrial and pleasure purposes. In addition, how should the criminal law respond to something that the world does not regard, for some purposes, as a free human? The fact that replicants can be given human memories also raises issues about how much of being human is linked to our unique life story of birth, memories and death.
Deckard’s initial motivations to come out of ‘retirement’ as a police officer, in order to kill one or more replicants, remain unclear, but appear to be based on his own insecurities and weaknesses. The small leverage needed to coerce him to do the job is being called ‘chicken’, or a ‘little man’ by Bryant (as Gaff also quietly puts a paper origami chicken on the desk). This persuasion is so straightforward that it appears that Deckard has been fitted with a convenient pyschological ‘button’ to be pushed when needed. He responds by agreeing, in a strangely hypnotic (or slavish, robotic manner), as if he is reading from some internal recorder:
“Replicants are like any other machine, they’re either a benefit or a hazard. If they’re a benefit, it’s not my problem.”
Deckard’s relationship with Rachel is also, outwardly, cool, as he observes that she is a replicant but does not initially know it. Deckard subsequently pursues a relationship with Rachel, and it is unclear if he takes advantage of the fact she is unable physically or emotionally to resist him. Perhaps these are one of those instances where he simply regards her as a machine with ‘benefits’.
Batty and his personality
We’re introduced to the leader of the escaped replicants, Batty, when he meets his creator, Tyrell. There we see his ability for both thoughtful conversation and brutal murder, albeit justified from his point of view. The meeting leaves him with the realisation he has little time left to live. We see a kind of psychopathic tendency – an ability to inflict harm on another because of the choices they have made. Batty is a complex character.
Near the end of the film, after witnessing the death of his companions, Batty is also nearing the end of his short life, having failed to find a way to extend it. At the same time, Deckard is still engaged in his mission, futile as it seems. Batty utters some self-encouraging words (“not yet”), by not giving in to the desire of others to end his life prematurely. His internal code and character still gives him agency with respect to Deckard, who is forced to respond both to Batty’s strength and provocation.
In the final scenes, as Roy fights to live by actively inserting nails into his hands and punching walls, he remains remarkably aware of his own strength and others. Though he taunts Deckard, and seems to be pushing that metaphorical button by labelling him a ‘little man’ as he breaks his fingers, he returns the gun to him and ultimately lets him live. This act of generosity, against his pursuer, does not seem to have been appreciated by Deckard (at least, in the voiceover in the original film).
The resonance that Batty’s act and his poetic reflections has with most audiences may be due to its life-affirming message that life has moments of beauty and significance that should be both lived fully, and appreciated.
Visual language and the police
Inspector Bryant’s desk is squashed between fans and lampshade with backlit pictures of a man sitting with pigs. It is possible that Bryant is pleased with the label; at some level it seems intentionally ironic here.
The striking visual language in this film and its strongly symbolic message most likely draws on the director’s background in television advertising. The police force’s main office (unlike their advanced flying cars) is incongruously realised in a futuristic science-fiction film as a backward, hot, 1950’s style mess of fans, papers, microphones and abandoned immigration transit areas. It looks almost a century older than the other technology in use. The implicit signalling is that those with greatest prejudice against the replicants are also the most trapped in the past. In contrast, the most poetic lines in the film are delivered by the leader of the replicants, who is himself a more advanced artificial creation.
updated 6 December 2019