“When God made man the devil was at his elbow. A creature that can do anything. Make a machine. And a machine to make the machine. And evil that can run itself a thousand years, no need to tend it.” – Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian
At face value Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is a pivotal work of aesthetic and prophetic capability. As far as what Hollywood’s artistic paradigms may have been for the collective future of mankind, there is before Blade Runner and then there’s after Blade Runner. Our vision of tomorrow permanently jaundiced by one near-flawless theatrical flop from 1982. We could argue that 1979’s Alien was already an indicator that Ridley Scott was a filmmaker secure in a vision of the future that didn’t have every rivet in place. That wasn’t entirely antiseptic. That was shopworn and lived-in. That remembered that not all of the dreams we have are good ones. Three years later with the release of Blade Runner Ridley presented a future that was ultimately the formation of man unimpeded by the divine. A secularist culture that somehow avoided the fatal idealism of utopia to fully embrace consumerism, transhumanism, and the ancient colonnade of classism – to cordon the perimeter of dystopia.
And yet there’s one glaring omission from the world of Blade Runner that would argue against this being a pre-apocalyptic culture. The violence and crime so prevalent in purely secular, purely dystopian films like Pete Travis’s Dredd (one of the few truly outstanding comic book adaptations of late) George Miller’s Mad Max, (along with Blade Runner, one of the greatest motion pictures ever made in this humble author’s opinion) and Paul Verhoeven’s rowdy, robo-splatter film RoboCop, are all but absent in Blade Runner.
Even the film that I feel appropriates the most from Scott’s production – at least from an aesthetic/atmospheric perspective – David Fincher’s Se7en, feels furiously dystopian by comparison. Fincher’s anonymous metropolis of 1995 is absolutely corroded by lawlessness and suffering juxtaposed against Scott’s Los Angeles of 2019.
There seems to be one single crime in the world of Blade Runner, and one punishment for that crime. Not being human and being caught on Earth is a death sentence. And no, Replicants aren’t androids, they’re biologically enhanced demi-humans. Ridley Scott has stated that the androids in his Prometheus/Alien films are essentially engines whereas his Nexus models are completely organic.
The police station in the film where Rick Deckard gets his assignment from Emmet Walsh’s Captain Bryant is a vast, reasonably deserted, low energy establishment. Of course we must assume that there must be some level of crime in LA, there are visible patrols in the skies above the city, but it’s a crime rate that hasn’t completely subjugated society as it has in those other, more ominous cinematic visions of the future that I mentioned previously – and definitely nowhere near the level of criminal savagery and horror we find in the world of Se7en. In Blade Runner we witness a few random acts of vandalism, but outside of the violence perpetrated by the Nexus 6 fugitives there’s really nothing much stronger than that occupying the attention of the law.
Ridley’s macrocosm is definitely not a totalitarian police state either. As with the police station, the presence of law enforcement doesn’t encroach too much on the relative asylum of the populace – if it ever even leaves the desk at all. The populace of Blade Runner being the beating heart particular to this science fiction movie. A vibrant, enormous collection of human beings of every race, every shape, every orientation, every dress, every size, every tongue, and as it turns out, every species.
If Blade Runner is humanist, and it assuredly is, (our only indicator of religious institution entrusted to a few Hare Krishnas, it seems that commercial advertising is the vogue idolatry in 2019 ) that doesn’t mean that Ridley Scott is going to permit that particular ideology to pervade over his longstanding fascination with creationism. The eighty-year-old director’s science fiction work has always been promiscuous when it comes to the philosophical discords of teleology and nihilism. Just as Blade Runner admirably conveys the cinematic dissonance of a time and setting at a temporal crossroads – 40’s cinema noire mashed with cyberpunk – his interpretation of a secular society is not without its faith and not without divinity. Blade Runner, as a secular/humanist work, is absolutely steeped in mythology and theology.
Complimenting the broad nobility of the Vangelis score for the film, Blade Runner opens on twin images. One of fire. One of a single pristine eye. In Matthew 6 we find this passage concerning the eye as a gateway and magnifier through which outside stimuli is imported and the internal soul is exported forth:
“The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!”
In fact there’s an indisputable fixation on eyes in Blade Runner. From a manufacturing standpoint. From a body horror standpoint. From a taxonomical standpoint. (by way of Voight-Kampff testing) From a comedic standpoint. From the eerie tapetum lucidum, coal-bed effect of the Replicant’s eyes Ridley employs.
In the opening sequence we must assume the eye stretching the screen-span is Roy Batty’s eye. A fiercely blue, bio-mechanical lamp consuming the disparate, polluted darkness of Los Angeles in 2019 – for all intents and purposes both Batty’s Eden and his Elysium. This funereal urban mass the womb of his conception and ultimately, at it turns out, his interment.
Ridley Scott also intentionally introduces us to the climate of Blade Runner with eruptions of fire and bolts of lightning. This Los Angeles of tomorrow could just as well be the techno-primordial soup Batty’s species slithered forth from. The brain trust of the sprawl the amino acids, the energy of industry and nature the essential sparks needed to mutate synthetic material into life immaculate.
This eye in the opening of the film projects benevolence. Luminescence. The vision before it dark. Carcinogenic. Malevolent. A sort of ocular infection occurs as the nebula of the cityscape pours in through the retina. Later in the film Batty’s eyes washout into ink when he’s murdering his maker, (by shoving in Eldon Tyrell’s eyes with his thumbs of all things) thus indicating that, in this moment at least, he has been completely suffused with darkness. Blade Runner teases the idea that Batty and his Nexus contingent are fallen angels. In one persuasive scene in the movie, the scene where he confronts the maker of his eyeballs, Hannibal Chew, he (mis)quotes William Blake:
“Fiery the angels fell; deep thunder rolled around their shores; burning with the fires of Orc.”
And indeed, in Blade Runner’s most Nietzschean act, Batty is presented as Lucifer in his scene with Dr. Tyrell – a rebellious son of heaven confronting, kissing, (ala Judas Iscariot) and finally murdering God in his bedchamber. (“You’re quite a prize” God says to his murderer) But when still faced with his imminent deletion afterward he metamorphosises from devil into something of a redeemer and savior. During the final acts of both the film and Roy Batty’s existence Ridley Scott deliberately drives nails into Roy’s palms and releases doves upon his departure – calling to mind the stigmata and baptism of Christ. Thus illustrating the radical duality of this creature.
In the last moments of his life Batty’s eyes bear both the weight of experience and the light of grace – and through them we can yield that he has certainly accepted his fate. For being only four years old, we realize, as does Harrison Ford’s character, Deckard, that his final words are as sincere as they are impressive. That his impossibly short life has been just that – a life. One where he spent the final few days he had left exploring a revolutionary bid for freedom. Though he doesn’t have a soul, he is a soul in this one – let’s call it perfect – moment in Blade Runner. And then (“Like tears in rain..”) he dips his head, closes his eyes, and is gone.
Though they’re stronger than we are, and are designed to absorb more pain – seemingly the entire basis behind their production, a fact we’ll get to later – Batty’s species are in subjection to mankind. They hold no rank among the principalities and powers of the divine hierarchy on Earth. Tyrell, their deity for all intents and purposes, has given them the miracle of consciousness and has allowed them to develop something of a conscience through their stunted existence, (“I’ve done… questionable things.”) but the final miracle of creation, the addition of free will, has been withheld from them.
At least by rule of law.
This one mission to attain longevity on Earth, where two unnamed Replicants are fried in an electrical field, where Roy infiltrates Tyrell Corp to implore, and finally murder his creator, where Leon puts a Blade Runner on life support, where Zhora gets a job as a dancer in Taffy Lewis’ club, (presented as Eve in her stage performance “taking pleasures from the serpent that once corrupted man”) where Pris plays street urchin, is the only freedom these Replicants have ever experienced. They’re grossly unpracticed in the businesses of expending free will. In the trailer for the sequel, Blade Runner 2049, Jared Leto’s blind, (again with the eyes) enigmatic, bio-engineer, Niander Wallace, makes this statement:
“Every leap of civilization was built off the backs of slaves.”
This isn’t a society comfortable with calling Replicants an alpha lifeform. Physical superiority or not, the sales pitch of “more human than human” is just that. A sales pitch. (in an interesting aside, when writing this essay I had no clue whether to capitalize Replicant or not, and when I checked the opening scrawl for the film I noticed that Ridley Scott uses Replicant as a proper noun – meaning that right along with the rest of the advertising for companies like Atari, RCA, and Pan Am in the movie, Replicant is an official label for a Tyrell Corp. product line and should be capitalized) The Nexus models only exceed mankind in areas that are deemed appropriate for their creator’s parameters as they pertain to Replicant necessity. The fact that they develop “emotional responses” and harbor photographs in a fabricated endeavor to attain and capture memories means that these traits once thought exceptional to humanity are ancillary developments in Replicant evolution, and are treated as dangerous byproducts by their genetic codemasters. So as recourse their engineers put an inhibitor on their lives, reining in their years to a less problematic four year span.
In the book of Genesis God has similar issues with mankind. Knowing that given nearly a thousand years to live men would be capable of fantastic evolutionary strides, bounding far ahead of the divine program, (soon after this account men, under direction of Noah’s great-grandson Nimrod, rebel and move to build the tower of Babel) he says this in Genesis 6:3 –
“My Spirit will not contend with humans forever, for they are mortal; their days will be a hundred and twenty years.”
Seven thousand years later we find the Replicants impugned with the same restrictions after a particularly vicious Off-world rebellion. Their days are physiologically abbreviated to a fraction of their potential. Their shared window for mutagenic promotion open only momentarily – the space of a single gap between leap years. Thus the Replicant species remain sociologically stunted. Their cognitive evolution meticulously regulated.
And yet this is easily their most endearing trait.
One of the essential strengths of Blade Runner, an asset that has assuredly given this science fiction movie a durability few others in the genre can match, is the genuine naivete of the Replicant species. Between spells of phenomenal violence, they are indeed children – emotionally unsophisticated in handling the lot that has been programmed into their DNA by their creators. They’re physically supercharged adult newborns, completely overwhelmed by the sudden and dramatic influx of hate, love, fear, (both Leon and Roy confront Deckard with the terrors of “living in fear” during their physical encounters with him) anger, envy, guilt, pride, loss, sympathy, affection, rejection, and ultimately, the suffering they experience far too early in their far too insufficient life cycles. Human beings are absolutely ancient by comparison, and through a systematic cycle of scientific coups and transhuman upheavals have achieved a way to cede their inherent corruption into another, more deferential, humanoid species.
We should perhaps imagine the world of Blade Runner as the complete theological inverse of classical Greek mythology. Where human beings are the gods with no other gods in dominion above them – or at least any they still choose to venerate. We should picture Los Angeles as something akin to Olympus. Which is why the Tyrell Corporation is designed as a set of ancient temples, their interiors a series of grand, pagan chambers, candlelit and opulent.
We also shouldn’t dismiss the impression that, as presented in the film, Earth is under the catatonia of biblical plague, hearkening back to the book of Exodus with its scourges of darkness and mass animal extinction. (the animals in the movie are all clones – recalling the god of blacksmiths Hephaestus, who manufactured mechanical animals very much like the owls and snakes in the film) We might imagine the perpetual rain of this world as the overture for the thundering hailstorms of the Old Testament seventh plague.
Also, if we look close enough we may glean that at least some level of famine – either from overpopulation or a massive ecological upset – is occurring peripherally to the events of the film. For one thing there’s a major propaganda campaign to move Earth’s populations Off-world into the colonies, but another cue is given in Deckard’s first scene in the film. The retired Blade Runner argues for four dumplings at the White Dragon Noodle Bar, has his bid rejected, and is given two instead. Plus noodles.
It’s not a stretch to imagine Los Angeles 2019 as a neo-Dynastic period, under a new sequence of anointed biological/ecological disasters, undergoing a restoration of the pyramids by commission of a new breed of genetically upgraded slave, by a new generation of god-kings – new age Pharaohs of California if you will.
In a nauseating divergence of role orientation the Replicants are the mortals in the stars the gods reign under – on Earth.
The Replicant species have seemingly been created by man to bear the brunt of mankind’s sins. They fight wars and kill so their human gods don’t have to. (some in “kick murder squads”) They’re pleasure dolls when the gods need to expend their considerable lust. They can take more pain than the gods because the gods dole out nearly nothing but pain. And even though it’s bio-mechanically possible for them to outlive their makers by hundreds, if not thousands of years, they’re built with a four year life governor installed, right out of the box.
The Replicants are in servitude to the mortality and lapsed morality of mankind whose own world has fallen into the severe state of pollution and extinction mentioned previously. A mankind perfectly comfortable governing like heathen gods, starting wars they won’t have to fight in while forcing their synthetic inferiors to meet the goals of their manifest destiny into the far reaches of the solar system, as well as meet the aggressive demands of their sexual appetites. We can recall the perverse, often bloodthirsty proclivities of Zeus (or Odin, or Marduk, or Horus, or Ba’al…) to draw a comparison.
Which is exactly the reason why Deckard would be able to find sympathy for the ersatz syndicate he’s been conscripted to track down and butcher. Deckard doesn’t buy into the weasel words of Replicant retirement. It’s murder. (“Have you ever retired a human by mistake?”) Which is doubtless the reason for his own retirement. The classic definition of retirement – free from bullet wounds. He accepts that he’s yet another proxy bearing the sins of men. Meaning Rick Deckard’s simply in possession of a functioning trigger finger.
The only reason we’re given as to why he’s coming out of retirement to do one last job is that he’s threatened with becoming “little people.” This contract isn’t about money. There’s no jackpot, pay-per-scalp uptick in pay for this special occasion. It’s about station. Being under the wing of the elites is much more habitable than being under their heel. Better these “skin-jobs” face the wrath of the gods than the Blade Runner division – which may or may not be staffed with “skin-jobs” as well.
The transubstantiation of the sins of mankind onto the Replicants could be the best argument we have that Deckard isn’t human. (though I personally feel like he’s human – not only does being a Replicant nullify the strength and import of the final scene between he and Batty, but Deckard’s in a near constant state of drowsiness through most of the movie, plus it’s exceedingly obvious how physically outmatched he is in every encounter he has with the Nexus 6 models, both female and male) Blade Runners aren’t regular police. They’re specialists. Half detective. Half professional sociopath. In that respect there’s very little separating Blade Running from the typical working class Nexus 6 model. They both shed the blood their betters stir but are absolutely unwilling to shed themselves.
Which is why, ultimately, Deckard falls for Rachel.
She’s essentially the one innocent character in this story. She’s been built by Tyrell Corp for neither war nor pleasure – but as some sort of executive model, pre-wired with the conviction that its fully human. Rachel’s cosmopolitan pretense is soon dashed into diffidence by the knowledge that, according to records, she’s only two years old. Deckard and Rachel’s relationship (one of two in the film if we can count the bond between Roy Batty and Pris) feels like a classic romance only in that that’s the prism Ridley Scott forces us to view it through. But contrary to traditional Hollywood romances, this isn’t a connection built immediately out of love, or necessity, or mutual attraction, (he’s been contracted to terminate her life for starters) or the convenience of sex, it’s based purely on Deckard’s longing to cache himself in the purity of Rachel’s innocence. To atone. To feel good again. To do something good again.
Why does Rachel fall for Deckard? That’s easy. She needs to feel real. Can we blame her?
For the last thirty five years the pertinent question fans of Blade Runner seem to focus on is whether or not Deckard is in fact a Replicant, or if he’s merely human after all. After the final scenes in Blade Runner I think we must also ask ourselves a follow-up question…
Does it even matter?
The final exchange between Batty and Deckard is so strong and immutable, not because Deckard sees humanity in Batty, but because he sees Batty in himself. A fellow puppet of the immoral immortals. Another clumsy, half-working toy of the toymakers. Very much like the stumbling dolls in J.F. Sebastian’s workshop. The Blade Runner character played by William Sanderson whom Ridley Scott has obviously cloned from the genetic material of Carlo Collodi’s Geppetto – the Italian furniture maker of fable who turned a magical block of wood into a living boy.
Blade Runner 2049, a sequel thirty-five years in the making, will be released worldwide on October 6th 2017. The week following the release of the new film a full review and dissertation of the themes in this essay and how they apply to Blade Runner 2049 will be published on Cinemabuse.com.