- I have put down a few thoughts in advance of seeing Blade Runner 2049, to see how my views may change after seeing the sequel. This is a close reading, rather than a recommendation.
Blade Runner is a story about a small group of artificial humans being hunted down on Earth by the police force, after returning from space. The Company that makes them, Tyrell Corporation, produces them for the military and commerce, but it is also unwilling to grant its latest models (Nexus 6) anything more than a four year life span, even when they ask for it. The Company’s motto is “More Human Than Human”, yet the police force still uses tests that attempt to distinguish a ‘replicant’ from a natural human. It takes longer to carry out this procedure on the Nexus 6 than the earlier ones. The plot involves a secretive manhunt that is entrusted to a specific ‘retired’ replicant hunter (Deckard). I call him Deckard, because that is how he introduces himself. Deckard is initially reluctant to take up his old work, but is soon persuaded to take up the job, and ultimately he pursues it in a moderately successful way. In the process, we are left to wonder, in the ultimate showdown, what are his real motives, and what morality is behind the project in the first place. At a more mundane level, I detect Deckard has real problems with job satisfaction.
I should note that there is no single version of ‘Blade Runner’. People may criticise George Lucas for fiddling with his Star Wars films, but even Blade Runner has not escaped the post-release modifications and refinements.
The original version was distinguished by Deckard’s voiceover. In those moments where the audience might have been permitted a bit of reflective time, the audience is treated to Harrison Ford’s interior monologues about what he was thinking, or his pondering about why other characters acted the way they did. I suspect that the distributors of the film wanted to avoid open interpretation. The director’s version, years later, removed the voiceover. From this we can infer that the director was happy to trust the film’s interpretation to the audience.
Blade Runner may well sit within the ‘Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’ paradigm, of a set of several alternative versions that does not spark too much of an outcry because people can find a version they prefer. (Practically, the issue with multiple versions is whether you know of all these versions, and can you obtain it? That’s the issue Star Wars fans have, due to the low availability of the original version of Star Wars IV, in a modern HD format.)
[THE DEEP QUESTIONS]
Speculation after the film, particularly in light of the director’s cut, focussed on whether Deckard was himself a replicant. Whilst that may provide further reason for inquiring into the morality of his actions, it probably doesn’t really change the deepest issues that the film is concerned with.
The film’s team of Nexus 6 ‘replicants’ are, by most definitions, perfectly able to pass themselves off as humans to the general public (it takes a sophisticated system to tell the difference). Whilst emotions may not be always their strong point, they certainly pass themselves off as having more emotional connection than some humans. Rather, the development of the ‘test’ is itself a plot element that focusses attention on the lines that we draw to classify : to include or exclude. It says more about the maker of the test than the subject in many respects. Tyrell, the creator of the robots, seems intrigued by the test. It seems his interest is not to draw a line, or to emphasise distinctions, but to remove them. In that, although his aim is commerce, he effectively creates a situation where discrimination is impossible. The darker issue, however, is whether the ability to engineer free-thinking, emoting human/replicants can predispose them to particular traits or behaviours. In the opening scenes of Blade Runner, the police force certainly seem to associate them with particular roles and behaviours: Pris is described as a ‘pleasure model’ and Batty as ‘leader’.
Some aspects of Blade Runner that were ‘futuristic’ in 1982 (when it was released) are now more familiar to us. This includes denser populations, holographic imagery, and the more mundane ability to clone animals and humans. After all, Dolly the Sheep was cloned here in the real world in 1996 and lived for 7 years, which is longer than the Nexus 6 life span.
What is different in the film that still remains starkly different? The essential difference in the film is that the production of artificial humans is the norm, and has reached an incredible degree of sophistication. Tyrell adopts the aspirational motto “more human than human”, suitably vague in all its possible meanings, but nonetheless with the promise of superiority. The police force of the Blade Runner metropolis still chooses to identify the replicants as items of commerce, and not as humans created by Tyrrell Corporation. The Tyrell corporation passively accepts this distinction, whilst remaining proud of the invisible line that exists between its creations and everyone else. Origin is everything. This is a class system, but also a system of enslavement and dictation.
The Blade Runner world has not adopted a functional test for humanity: the society does not accept that ‘human is as human does’ is an acceptable basis for citizenship. This is, however, a question the audience must answer in navigating the story and deciding what actions and statements are justified.
The issues that arise between humans and replicants, despite the technological foundation, are ultimately associated with personal freedoms. The laws of the Blade Runner universe seem to equate being artificial or manufactured with able to being controlled. Interestingly, the solution to the ambiguous nature of what is artificial and what is not has been a pragmatic, rather than a completely regulatory one. That is, lifespan has been reduced. This speaks volumes about the difficulties of controlling the will of the artificial creations. It suggests that they are, in fact, quite capable of doing many things that humans do. To protect the superior position of those with human origin, these artificial humans are placed in chains, within their DNA.
The personal freedoms that we take for granted include those things that are considered unique to our personality – our memories being an important aspect. When memory becomes subject to control (as it is in the case of all replicants), it raises the question whether that individual is truly acting with free will. Some of these questions are answered early in the film by the choices made by the character Rachel.
The police Inspector F.Bryant refers to Deckard by his shortened first name “Dick” when he first enters Bryant’s office. Deckard replies coolly “Bryant”. They are familiar, but not friendly.
Bryant’s desk is squashed between fans and lampshade with backlit pictures of a man sitting with pigs. The fans indicate heat, and insufficient funds for air-conditioning. The desk is swamped with microphones – the large, directional microphones used for press conferences, or interrogations. It paints a picture of connectedness, but there is isolation too. There is no hum of reporters, or any obvious audience for these tools for communication. Bryant’s office is hidden inside a dusty room reminiscent of an arrivals area, with dozens of empty booths each topped by a microphone. There is an air of disuse, of inquisitions and police activism long forgotten. The action is elsewhere.
An hour into the movie and Bryant changes the scope of work. He informs Deckard there are now 4 replicants to take out – one of which is now Rachel, who has gone missing after finding out she was a replicant too.
Deckard’s motivations to come out of ‘retirement’ as a police officer, in order to kill the replicants, are unclear. There is no obvious monetary gain established in the film. He seems tired and jaded. He is brought into the police office by Gaff (Edward James Olmos) under threat; seemingly against his will, but quietly. Bryant calls the replicants ‘skin jobs’. It’s harsh, communicating his distaste for them: a suggestion that the resemblance to being human is only skin-deep and superficial.
Although Deckard drags his feet on coming out of retirement, he is persuaded to do so. The obvious turning point, early in the scene involving Deckard and Bryant, comes when the police chief asks Deckard if he is ‘chicken’. At the same time, the Gaff is quietly putting a paper animal in the shape of a chicken down on the desk. The police chief goes on to berate Deckard for wanting to pull out, pointing out that such a choice involves the risk of being a ‘little person’. It’s not clear why that would matter to Deckard, or why he thinks he is not already a ‘little person’ in some way. Whatever the true nature of the taunt, it seems to be a pressure point for Deckard. It is the taunt that turns him on his heel and back into the police work. In this capitulation, Deckard seems passive and weak – more of a secondary character than the protagonist.
What’s odd about this is how mundanely Deckard approaches his police work or this new brief. He does not seem to have an intense personal hatred of all things ‘replicant’. When he agrees to do the work, he has no apparent knowledge of what Replicants are, so that Bryant has to school him in the subject. Bryant describes the possibility of the Nexus 6 models developing authentic emotions as an innovation. Deckard’s response is flat. From these early scenes we learn that the replicants suffered from poor emotional range, and even the latest models are considered inferior to humans in that regard. Indeed, it is subtle cues in the emotional response of even the Nexus 6 models that is used to identify them as artificial.
Deckard avoids judging replicants by that fact alone, but he does so by equating them with machines. He explains his resigned philosophy, in his customary flat delivery:
“Replicant are like any other machine, they’re either a benefit or a hazard. If they’re a benefit, it’s not my problem.” If you follow and accept his description, then he considers his work no more than decomissioning hazardous machines, and allowing the other ones to go about their business. It’s a fairly distinterested, but utilitarian philosophy he espouses.
Whatever words he has learned to say, outwardly, to reconcile with his work, his true beliefs are tested throughout his relationship with Rachel. In his first encounter with Rachel, he does not know she is a replicant. She refers to artificial life as ‘our work’, and has a sense of ownership of it. However, any inner conflict about the Nexus 6 issues is made real by his support and affection for Rachel, even after he knows she is a replicant (though some viewers/critics have suggested he wants to dominate her more than protect her). But his views about replicants are not so tied to moral but rather practical outcomes – his shift toward protecting Rachel could be explained by self-interest rather than a shift in his general attitudes.
[THE ORIGAMI – PART 1]
Gaff puts the origami chicken in view at about the same time that Deckard’s courage is tested in Bryant’s office. Perhaps it is symbolic that he and Bryant knew how to push Deckard’s buttons. These calling cards of Gaff, who is fairly tight lipped, are symbolic, but who is the audience? Is it a joke within the film or for the audience or both? Deckard doesn’t seem to notice or react to it. Clearly, Gaff sees Deckard is motivated to act out of fear of being called a coward, rather than for any generally moral purpose.
Despite her lifetime memories being a copy of Tyrell’s niece, Rachel seems to function in a very human way. She initially does not doubt her own humanity. She is reserved, not prone to anxiety, anger or other extreme emotions. Yet she has the capacity to shoot one of the replicants to save Deckard. She has some kind of feelings toward him. Rachel and Deckard’s relationship seems strained, claustrophobic even in the context of what else is going on. In some ways it seems Rachel is needy, and in particular, needing protection. Deckard’s pursuit of her seems opportunistic, even impatient.
[THE ORIGAMI – Part 2]
On more than one occasion, Gaff left small folded paper animals near Deckard, or for him to find. These include:
1. A chicken, in the office where he takes Deckard to meet the police chief.
2. A [unicorn?] outside Rachel’s apartment, to prove that he had been thre, but had not arrested Rachel.
3. [In the director’s cut?]
People have often speculated that the cranes are a plot device, to convey information about Deckard’s nature as replicant or not. I think there is more going on. The director’s original cut relied more on visual cues. The paper chicken placed on the desk was announcing that Deckard’s nature as a coward was there for all to see, even if not discussed with him. He is easily cajoled into taking on the work.
We’re introduced to the leader of the escaped replicants, Batty, when he meets Tyrell. There we see his ability for both thoughtful conversation and brutal homicide, albeit justified from his point of view. The meeting leaves him with the realisation he has little time left.
Batty motivates himself by saying “not yet” as his body tells him he has little time left. Even at the end, he still has a purpose. But what is it that he want to do beyond eking out a few more seconds of existence? Play with Deckard? Teach him a lesson? He does not pursue killing for killing’s sake. When Deckard first shoots at him, he immediately questions Deckard’s principles of shooting against someone who is unarmed. Being without a gun may not make a replicant any less dangerous, but Deckard is definitely on the defensive.
Deckard still performs some physical feats that appear superhuman – holding on by one hand after falling off the side of a building. Roy is just far superior. He punches through walls and sticks metal through his hand to urge his body to respond. I am not sure why you stick things in your hand when the flexor and extensor muscles fo the fingers extend up the forearm, but maybe it’s a subtlety of replicant biology. Maybe it’s a symbolic act by the director, referencing things like crucifixion and stigmata. This kind of interpretation tells us something about the audience, not necessarily the director. Only those who want to encode the scene with that kind of symbolism may do so, but there’s plenty who might. Just Google it. Of course, the director may have not intended any greater symbolism: it might have been a pragmatic act, one designed to show the lengths to which Batty would go to hang on to his physical abilities until the end.
In the final scenes, Roy taunts Deckard, but instead of threats, he just calls him a little man and breaks his fingers. He only wounds Deckard, deliberately, and by returning the gun to him puts the power back in Deckard’s hands. The insult ‘little man’ is used by Batty in a much different way to Bryant. Batty is almost daring Deckard to realise his own nature as a coward, but in doing so Batty is not afraid to die. As a killer himself, it seems Batty has more regard for what choice is made when taking a life.
[DOVES AND POETRY]
Batty saves Deckard whilst holding a white Dove. They sit together. Deckard is in shock, defeated by Batty physically and mentally. Batty sits down wearily as if his life is spent, but he will not die alone. He has a moment to share his thoughts on the world. Then he says “I’ve seen things….[you people]” and goes into his poetic soliloquay. He ends with the simple, self-reflective realisation: “…time to die” and releases the dove. Just who Batty was referring to when he said “you people” is not clear: it could encompass the police, Earth dwellers, or non-replicants: perhaps all of these.
One question is where did the Dove come from? A man nearing death, who can quietly go off and collect a Dove is an unusual man indeed. In this film, we don’t know if it is artificial or not. Are we to assume that there is symbolism in the Dove as well, with its deep peace message (another Christian story).
Then, in the original version, there is a voiceover from Deckard, who said: “I do not know why he saved my life….” and “all he wanted were the same answers the rest of us want….all I could do was sit there and watch him die”. This kind of narrration is clumsy and obvious. In that version of the film, we see Deckard as someone who still failed to understand Batty’s nature, even at the end.
Then there are some final remarks by Gaff to Deckard, which we can only assume were made without him knowing that Rachel was any different from the other Nexus 6 replicants because she didn’t have a four year lifespan:
“I guess you’re through huh?”
“It’s too bad she won’t live, but then again who does?”
The last question here is a question about living in fear or not living through fear.