BLADE RUNNER (1982)
IT’S NOT GENOCIDE – IT’S RETIREMENT
A Few Observations by Philip Powers, 17 November 2017
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#69/100 2012 Sight & Sound Critics List
#67/100 2012 Sight & Sound Directors List
The film is based on a Philip K. Dick story called Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
It has a deeper philosophical and theological significance which is part of this essay which you can skip to here.
There are four main versions of Blade Runner – the International and U.S. Theatrical release (1982), Ridley Scott’s first Director’s Cut (1992) and his last Director’s Cut (2007) called The Final Cut.
I saw both Director’s Cuts in 1992 and 2007 respectively, in the cinema. My favourite is the International Theatrical release which I saw in a movie theatre in 1982 and owned on laser disc. It has a couple of extra – violently authentic and powerful – shots which add to the beauty of this strange, lyrical and ethereal film and in this day and age are inconsequential.
The main thing I like about the original theatrical release is the narration. Some complain that it was added for reasons of clarity, to benefit viewers who might not understand what was going on in the story. That could well be the case. I’ve even heard that Harrison Ford objected having to record the narration and did it in the flattest, emotionless tone possible, hoping they’d leave it out (this hearsay quote coming from my friend, Alicia over lunch last Friday.)
I don’t think the film suffers from being over-explanatory although sometimes we see something which immediately has a clarifying commentary by Deckard.
I like the narration for two reasons:
- It gives the film a Film Noir sensibility, like a Humphrey Bogart – Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe – movie.
- It brings the viewer closer to the personal side of Deckard’s character, an emotional side, which he finds himself – to his surprise – developing. One typical kind of private-dick-on-an-investigation line occurs when Deckard visits the apartment where Leon admitted he lived. It’s a classic Noir-style line:
“I didn’t know whether Leon gave Holden a legit address. But it was the only lead, so I checked it out.”
The lighting of the film throughout creates a palette of subdued colours and lots of shades of greys and browns. In the opening interview, smoke hangs in the air. In Bryant’s office, smokes hangs in the air. Dimly lit offices, washed-out buildings, the greyness of perennial rain, the darkness of the grimy streets full of garbage: it all reeks of Film Noir.
LIFE HAS VALUE
All life – even artificial – has value, as well as an instinct, even a right, to survive and to defend itself, whether it is a remote threat – from a built-in 4-year life span – or from an imminent threat, like a Blade Runner with a gun.
People need to determine the value of life – their own life as well as someone else’s life.
A creator of life bears a responsibility to that living creation. A mother or father can’t create and give birth to another life and then choose to terminate that life at the age of one, or four or fourteen, if that’s what they want to do – that’s amoral. It would be unthinkable to create a life but then become so scared of it you killed it in case it killed you.
A creator of life is a god – maybe not the God. But beware: the thing you create will want to live longer than the time you created it to live for. A Replicant wants more than four years to live. A human wants more than forty, fifty, sixty, seventy years to live. The entire medical community and a lot of the scientific realm are dedicated to solving the problems that cut life short, so that people can live longer. The result in 2017 is that people are living longer than ever before and that endowments, like the pension in Australia, from 65-years of age, is now not sustainable economically for the country. When that right was created and granted it wasn’t expected that the majority of people would live into their seventies or eighties. That’s why this right needs to be revised in this 21st Century. Whether you are created by the God of the Christian Bible, or by an accidental Big Bang, or by the Tyrell Corporation, your life will be something that all but a tiny minority will try to hang onto, desperately, and for as long as possible.
Slavery is wrong. If you enslave people, they will eventually rise up against the oppressors, as described through Pris, Leon, Roy and Zhora. The fact that Tyrell has created a life to be as identical to a human life as is technologically possible – so that it takes experts and computers to tell the difference – is what makes enslaving them wrong. The fact that they have memories and develop emotions makes them every bit as human – or alive – as humans. To put a use-by date in their programming so they don’t become emotional, greedy or smarter than their creators is essentially built-in murder.
Rain has long been a symbol of sadness. When a director of a film wants to illustrate sadness in someone, but not through showing actual tears, rain became that symbol, often with a face looking out a window, with rivulets of rain running down the face of the window, not the person.
That it never stops raining in Blade Runner indicates that the world is in a state where we should all cry for what it has become. It’s a world that condones slavery, that creates life and limits it’s longevity, makes killers out of cops and Blade Runners, and calls executions, ‘retirement’.
The scene on the rooftop where Roy dies, his head bowed, rain pouring through his hair and down his face, is the ultimate waterfall of tears at what this world has turned into and the inherent evil in what Tyrell has been doing by creating robots with a use-by date.
The first scene with Harrison Ford’s character underlines what’s wrong with the world as he describing himself – and admits that he is – a killer. There’s no black and white for Deckard. What he does is murder:
“They don’t advertise for killers in the newspaper. That’s what I am. Ex-cop. Ex-Blade Runner. Ex-killer.”
An advertisement, at the beginning of the film boasts, “A new life awaits you in the Off-world colonies. The chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunity and adventure.”
The film is full of symbols and references to life. Life is important. Life is everything.
That’s what Roy tells Sebastian in the final scenes set in his apartment when Sebastian is blow-away by the extraordinary creation of a NEXUS 6 and meeting one:
“We’re not computers. We’re physical.”
A Nail in his Hand
If someone makes a film about life and death, creation, and good and evil; and one of the two main characters saves the other main character in the climax, by grabbing the other person’s hand or wrist, preventing his death, with a hand which is pierced by a nail, that character with the nail in his hand after rescuing a life, dying a few seconds or minutes later – it surely cannot be an accidental symbolic reference to the Biblical Jesus Christ, crucified on the cross, sacrificing his life for a weaker being, or beings.
If the NEXUS 6 Replicants aren’t angels or disciples and Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) isn’t the superior being – above all other universal life, real and artificial – then Philip K. Dick (who wrote the novel) and Hampton Fancher and David Peoples having accidentally created a screenplay which – symbolically – tells the story of a superior being who sacrifices his own life to save all of humanity.
It’s Not Genocide! It’s Just Violent Retirement
The film opens with a lot of important explanatory facts that set the scene for the viewer.
The NEXUS 6 Replicants were superior in strength and agility, and at least equal in intelligence, to the genetic engineers who created them.
Replicants were used Off-world as slave labor, in the hazardous exploration and colonization of other planets.
After a bloody mutiny by a NEXUS 6 combat team in an Off-world colony, Replicants were declared illegal on earth – under penalty of death.
Special police squad – BLADE RUNNER UNITS – had orders to shoot to kill, upon detection, any trespassing Replicant.
This was not called execution. It was called retirement.
Deckard used to hunt-down Replicants and kill them. He’s sick and tired of killing and he’s given it up. He’s jaded. The kind of jadedness that a gumshoe is in Humphrey Bogart films, cynical and world-weary. That’s why the voiceover narration works so well. Deckard is brought by Gaff to see Bryant who runs the Blade Runner department. Bryant’s best man, Holden, was shot by a Replicant he was interviewing and is on a life-support system.
Bryant tells Deckard, “skin-jobs” are on the run. “They jumped a shuttle Off-world, killed the crew and passengers.” Deckard refuses to accept the assignment.
Bryant pleads: “I need the old Blade Runner. I need your magic.” Finally Deckard sees he’s been put in a situation where Bryant threatens to have him bumped off – by Gaff probably – if he doesn’t recognise that this is not a request – it can’t be refused.
Bryant briefs him in more detail:
“There was an escape from the Off-world colonies two weeks ago. Six Replicants: three male, three female. They slaughtered 23 people and jumped a shuttle. An aerial patrol spotted the ship off the coast. No crew, no sight of them. Three nights ago they tried to break into Tyrell Corporation. One got fried running through an electrical field. We lost the others. On the possibility they might try to infiltrate as employees I had Holden go over and run Voight-Kampff tests of the new workers. Look like he got himself one.”
Given that the law has been changed to outlaw Replicants on earth, shot on sight, Deckard doesn’t think it makes sense for six Replicants to escape and the choose to come to earth.
“I don’t get it. What do they risk coming back to Earth for? That’s unusual. Why…? What do they want out of the Tyrell Corporation?”
Bryant responds, “Well, you tell me, pal. That’s what you’re here for.”
Deckard starts tracking the remaining four down. He’s sent to see Tyrell himself, to put a NEXUS 6 through the test. While there he meets Rachael. Tyrell asks him to try his Voight-Kampff test on her, so he can see it in action. After more than a hundred questions Deckard determines that Rachael is a Replicant but doesn’t know it. Tyreel says that she’s special.
Deckard moves on in his investigation, starting with Leon’s last known address where he finds his first clue in photographs in Leon’s apartment which lead him to Zhora and Leon and eventually Sebastian’s apartment where he finds Pris and Roy.
Replicant (M) Des: BATTY (Roy).
NEXUS 6 N6MAA10817
Incept Date: 8 Jan, 2016
Func: Combat, Colonization Defense Prig.
Phys: LEV. A Ment: LEV. A
Bryant:“Combat model. Optimum self-sufficiency. Probably the leader.”
Replicant (F) Des: ZHORA
NEXUS 6 N6FAB61216
Incept Date: 12 JUNE, 2016
Func: Retrained (9 Feb 2018) Polit. Homicide
Phys: LEV. A Ment: LEV. B
Replicant (M) Des: LEON
NEXUS 6 N6MAC41717
Incept Date: 10 APRIL, 2017
Func: Combat / Loader (Nuc. Fiss.)
Phys: LEV. A Ment: LEV. C
Replicant (M) Des: PRIS
NEXUS 6 N6FAB41416
Incept Date: 10 FEB., 2016
Func: Military / Leisure (Nuc. Fiss.)
Phys: LEV. A Ment: LEV. B
Bryant: “The standard item for military clubs in the outer colonies”
Roy Batty and Deckard Experience Mercy from Different Angles
Deckard is a killer (from his own statement) and Roy is a killer (from documentary evidence). Both are dying. Deckard has been dying inside himself for years, so much so that he’s left the police force. In a lovely filmic eloquence he has retired from executing – retiring – Replicants. He’s done with killing and having it justified as ‘retirement’ instead or ‘murder’.
Roy’s trying to find answers and as a slave the only way he can attempt to find answers is to cause a revolt. What is seen as a murderous escape (killing 23 people) from one point of view — is someone else finding liberation by escaping from – and killing – his oppressors, from another point of view.
The film pitches Deckard as good: a sanctioned killer. It pitches Roy as bad, because he murdered people to escape slavery. But both characters are enslaved by their circumstances; one thinking he is working for good – and trying to escape it because he knows it is wrong; and the other – Roy – trying to find a way to live through a spark of light in his heart which says he has value even though everything and everyone around him says he doesn’t.
The first time we see Roy, we see his hand before we see his face. It is the symbol for him nearing the end of his life – that he is dying. He moves his hand, his fingers, and opens and closes his fist. It’s clear to the viewer that Roy realises that something is wrong with his hand.
He doesn’t know what we know: that he was designed as a Level A Replicant, physically and mentally, and has become aware of the fact his life is fading and diminishing. That’s why he has gone to Earth, to visit the Tyrell Corporation searching for answers. Because he is phys: LEV. A and ment: LEV. A, he has survived the longest, has such an understanding of what it means to be alive, is so erudite, has such breadth of emotion, and has so many questions about why things are the way they are. In fact, Roy is anyone in the world who wants answers to questions about their purpose and provides the legitimacy of anyone’s desire or expectation – human or android – of continuing to live and breathe, simply because he does live and breathe.
Roy is almost moved to tears several times as the futility of his purpose is eroded and less achievable and as he loses those who are like him – his friends, his disciples. He’s moved to tears despite being an android. If androids do in fact dream of electric sheep then Roy’s tears would be electric tears. But they’re not, they’re real. He has truly been created in the image of his creator.
In the final scenes he holds the power of life or death over Deckard. He toys with him in a way that only a creator, a superior being, or a God, can do. He is not the first or the last of those three things – neither a creator or a God – but he is the second, superior – beautifully so – in every way, over Deckard.
He has come to Earth from the outer colonies to find answers to his questions. His questions are never clearly stated until he meets Tyrell and how he even arrived at a state of being where he was able to think of then to ask those questions is a mystery that can only be explained by an awareness that his perfect body is slowing down, decaying, dying.
ROY IS SUPERIOR TO EVERYONE
We know three things about Roy which are explicit even if the film gives the viewer no time to absorb all the information (without freeze-framing).
- Bryant thinks he’s “probably the leader”
- the still frame of the Replicant’s profiles tells the viewer that the four NEXUS 6 Replicants have a physical and mental rating of A, B or C. Leon is A and C. Pris is A and B. Zhora is A and B. Roy is A and A.
- Roy’s Incept date was 8 January 2016. The film is set in November 2019. Roy doesn’t know it, but he has only four years to live and he’s only a few weeks away from his 4th birthday.
As “phys and ment A” it is understandable why Roy is the leader. He’s the smartest.
Roy also knows essentially who he is from the first time we see him. When he asks Leon if he retrieved his beloved photographs, the answer is no. He asks Leon if it was because the police were at his apartment. But he says, “Police”, then he says “men”. Roy’s intelligence has developed in almost four years beyond any expected development. He disdains the word men because although they created him, they are inferior. He disdains them because, intuitively, he knows they have created him with a limited life. He is superior to them and knows it and he is angry about his role in life, as a slave. He knows something’s wrong within his body and wants an answer to his question about how long he has to live and what can be done to override the programming.
Roy’s first spoken words, after seeing his fingers and then a clenched fist, a hand which is seizing up, are quietly spoken.
These two words says everything about the plight of the NEXUS 6. Time is valuable, it’s running out, it defines the length of life. Enough is a word which describes the limit of something. If something is enough, then logically it has expired, has limitations and will come to an end.
If something is enough, there’s normally a feeling of exasperation. Sentences like, “I’ve waited long enough”, or “Enough! Stop talking”, or “Enough. It’s over” come to mind.
For Roy Batty the two words – beautifully, for the viewer – have their meaning as individual and separate words to convey his psychological state. But, in reality he means them to be a statement. He looks at his hand which is becoming slightly more difficult to open and close and to flex. It’s the most important thing to Roy because it defines who he is. His athleticism and strength and understanding are what makes him special.
It’s the first thing we see of him and almost the last thing we see of him.
His life is declining so quickly at the end, that as his hand is in the final stage of becoming useless to him, he pulls a nail out of a piece of wood and pierces it through his palm and out the other side, so that he can feel something – as if the awareness of pain will keep him conscious and moving.
As Deckard hangs from a beam – above the streets below – in the final scene between Deckard and Roy, Deckard’s fingers slip. A hand reaches down. Not the good hand, but the one with the nail in it. That’s the symbol which describes how Roy is feeling.
Roy was born without emotion or feeling, he developed it unintentionally, he eventually had to push a nail through his hand to enable him to keep it for a few more minutes…
and then in his final moments he found the understanding of what it is like to want to live, desperately, from another person’s perspective.
Roy, level A, has developed as a human being does, from having the instinct to survive at whatever cost to those who enslaved him and his people, to a point where he now understands the need to save them. He needs to die so that they can live.
If Roy was fundamentally cruel or was Christ (or God), he could send Deckard (who represents all of mankind) to his death. But when faced with the decision of accepting his own fate, imminent death, Roy realises that the love of life which he now has inside him is the most important thing he can learn or possess.
After a bitter fight against mankind (and Deckard), caring nothing for those who represent the people who created him, in an (almost) inexplicable denouement, Roy has in these last moments of his life, become Jesus Christ. With the nail through his hand, just as Christ was nailed to the cross, he rescues Deckard – humanity – a split-second after he loses his grip on the beam, with that hand with the nail in it. That hand grabs Deckard and hauls him from hanging over the abyss, up onto the roof, to safety, like he was a rag-doll.
There is to be no more killing. Through Roy’s superior intelligence he understands that he holds the power of life and death in his hands and decides to be merciful. He has defeated evil – Tyrell – and he spares mankind.
The result is that people who are different and incompatible, black or white, enslaved or free – like Deckard and Rachael – can put aside their outward and superficial differences, of class or race, being Gentiles or Jews, or Montagues and Capulets, via a redemption that washes away the distinctions between what has previously been an insurmountable barrier. That barrier he demolishes is ultimately the one which comes between people who are classed by other people as acceptable or not acceptable. Roy’s death underlines the fact that a life is a life, and that Rachael, a robot with feelings, can have a life with an ex-killer who has started to develop feelings.
As the film progresses Deckard loses more and more of that world-weary cynicism until it presents him in the final moments as a man in love, driving toward an unknown future.
The film goes beyond the religions of the worlds, beyond the real and the artificial, and articulates one important concept – a universal statement – that all life has value, no matter your religion or belief, or anything that makes you distinct from anyone else.
Roy, who has collected his own disciples, Level B or C, and killed the oppressors (slaughtering 23 on a shuttle to escape), in his last few minutes chooses life for mankind. In these last moments, from complete selfishness and hatred across all classes and religions, Roy transitions to Christ, who loves life and forgives Deckard of his transgressions.
With a nail in his hand, a superior being than human beings, Roy is merciful. He came to Earth to destroy evil (Satan/Tyrell) and he saves Deckard even though he doesn’t deserve it. Deckard was a killer (like the New Testament Saul prior to becoming the Apostle Paul), which he has admitted from his own mouth. He’s been a Roman killing Jews, or a white killing a black, or a Muslim killing Christians, or Christians burning Joan of Arc.
Everything Deckard has been while acting for one force against another force has been wrong because no matter which side you fight for – if you’re fighting – you’re on the wrong side. All of life – everyone – needs to show mercy, even to the oppressors and the assassins who fight on the side of what they believe is righteous.
Roy in his last breath forgave Deckard and all of mankind, just like Christ said in his final words when his body was nailed to a cross, “Father forgive them. They know not what they do.”
Luke 23, verse 34, says, ‘When they came to the place they called the Skull, they crucified Him there, along with the criminals, one on His right and the other on His left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his garments by casting lots. The people stood watching, and the rulers sneered at Him, saying, “He saved others; let Him save Himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen one.’
Roy is all powerful. There is no scene in the film where he isn’t the smartest and strongest person in the room. He chooses mercy in the scenes on the rooftop, a bewildered Deckard gasping for breath, rescued from certain death. Roy has been hunted down like an animal and his followers have been killed, as they tried to survive in the face of overwhelming odds, defending themselves against the government – or any law that outlawed their behaviour – and required their extermination, or, in the benign words of the Blade Runners: retirement.
For almost everything that is too inflammatory in a word, like execution, people now find a new way of saying it.
Firing people, for instance, isn’t firing people – it’s downsizing.
The Replicants aren’t the subjects of genocide – they’re just being violently retired.
Any life that has breath has a right to live. That is “Blade Runner”’s main concern. It differentiates the lives of beings between humans and robots, humans and androids, humans and replicants and emphatically argues they all have equal value. Specifically, Roy, Leon, Pris and Zhora, have a life no less valuable than any of the lives of the beings that created them.
The story on which the film is based has a question in the title, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” It has no answer in the text because our humanity is what gives us the answer:
It doesn’t matter. They’re real.
Whether they are electric sheep in the dreams of robots or androids, or real sheep in the dreams of the beings on this planet, the question is what’s at fault – it’s the wrong question to ask.
If a being – a life – dreams, then the fact they’re dreaming, proves their legitimacy as a lifeform. Artificial or not, real or not, of course they are real and deserve respect, understanding, grace and ultimately, mercy.
Maybe Deckard is a Replicant
Over the last thirty-five years I’ve read about evidence in the film that implies Deckard could be a Replicant. And it is true. He could be.
There are many allusions to the fact that anyone could be a Replicant and not know it.
Rachael didn’t know she was. The proof (for herself) that she was real was that she had memories and photographs of Rachael and her mother, which proved it.
Bryant has told Deckard:
“They were designed to copy human beings in every way except their emotions. The designers reckoned after a few years they might develop their own emotional responses. Oh: hate, love, fear, anger, envy. So, they built in a fail-safe device. Four-year lifespan. Now, there’s a NEXUS 6 over at the Tyrell Corporation. I want you to put the machine on it.”
Deckard: “And if the machine doesn’t work?”
Bryant doesn’t answer.
When Deckard uses the test on Rachael, Tyrell explains important things to Deckard that he doesn’t know, like the fact she doesn’t realise she’s an android.
Tyrell tell Deckard, “She’s beginning to suspect, I think.”
“Suspect? How can it not know what it is?”
“Commerce is our goal here at Tyrell. ‘More human than human’ is our motto. Rachael is an experiment, nothing more. We began to recognize in them a strange obsession. After all, they are emotionally inexperienced, with only a few years in which to store up the experience which you and I take for granted. If we gift them with a past, we create a cushion or a pillow for their emotions then consequently we can control them better.”
“Memories. You’re talking about memories.”
When Deckard see family photos as proof of being human, he wryly says, “And family photos? Replicants don’t have family’s either.”
Deckard is associated with photographs throughout the film. He is surrounded by them in his apartment. They’re all over his piano, and they’re also the physical evidence that enables him to solve the mystery.
In the opening scene with Deckard he further describes himself as cold-blooded killer: “Sushi. That’s what my ex-wife called me. Cold fish.” A description, of someone without feelings, would use words like acting like a robot or android, for instance.
“I’d quit because I’d had a bellyful of killing. But, then, I’d rather be a killer than a victim” . And that’s exactly what Bryant’s threat about little people meant. “So, I hooked in once more, thinking that if I couldn’t take it, I’d split later.”
Rachael feels something for Deckard and she visits him in his apartment.
She asks him if he’s ever done the Voight-Kampff test on himself. The implication is that if he’s so certain that he’s a human by virtue of his own memories and his photographs, where’s his proof that he isn’t the thing that he is so adept at killing?
It’s a great question. Just like the ones which could ask,
what if a life created life?
what if there is design because there was a designer?
what if it wasn’t because of a Big Bang?
I don’t think Deckard is a Replicant, but its a good question to understand before you execute someone.