‘Blade Runner’ (1982) — Windows to the Soul: Thoughts on Being Human in a Postmodern World

Blade Runner - The All-Seeing Eye

Blade Runner – The All-Seeing Eye

Early in the 21st Century, THE TYRELL CORPORATION advanced Robot evolution into the NEXUS phase — a being virtually identical to a human — known as a Replicant..

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 squads — BLADE RUNNER UNITS — had orders to shoot to kill, upon detection, any trespassing Replicant.

This was not called execution.

It was called retirement.



 *               *                 *

With the scrolling of Blade Runner’s opening title-sequence above, the stage is set for one of science fiction’s most intelligently written and elaborately conceived screen epics. Since its initial 1982 release, director Ridley Scott’s vision of an over-populated Los Angeles (“Hong Kong on a very bad day”) has been widely emulated but never “replicated,” if you’ll pardon the expression.

Stunning production design, concept art, and exemplary art direction, that’s Blade Runner for you, a film that’s been influencing the look of sci-fi fantasy flicks — and those with apocalyptic impulses — for more than a generation, to include the likes of cyberpunk (The Matrix series), crime drama (Se7en), action-adventure (Cloud Atlas), Japanese anime (Akira, Ghost in the Shell), Pixar animation (Wall-E), video games (Cypher, Rise of the Dragon), and other forms of mass entertainment.

Warner Bros. had a tough time figuring it all out, though. Amazingly, the studio marketed the picture as a combination murder mystery-cum-film noir detective story, with Harrison Ford’s monotonous voiceover as a perfunctory commentary on the action. The redundant narration was later dropped, much to everyone’s relief, as were a few reshuffled scenes, for the re-released 1993 director’s cut. Blade Runner was later restored to its present glory between the years 2002 and 2007, which is now the preferred way to see this mind-boggling spectacular.

Based on Philip K. Dick’s novella Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, it’s set in a rain-drenched, futuristic Los Angeles in which, among other things, the denizens have adopted a newfangled street slang (anyone for Esperanto?).

We will attempt to examine this highly influential and ground-breaking production through its concept of the eyes as windows to the soul, and how this concept correlates (or not) to both the human and non-human experiences depicted in the story.

Hell on Earth

Blade Runner - Opening Scene: Los Angeles, November 2019

Blade Runner – Opening Scene: Los Angeles, November 2019

In the director’s commentary and making-of features that accompany the deluxe Final Cut edition of Blade Runner, the consensus of all those talking heads was that the all-seeing, all-knowing eye is everywhere at once, one of many deliberate references to George Orwell’s 1984 that present themselves throughout the picture.

From the opening panorama of a postmodern Los Angeles skyline, with its gargantuan flames and shafts of blast-furnaces that billow up from below ground — a frightening apparition of an earthbound inferno — to the aerial view of flying cars, or “spinners,” encircled by beams of light that stream by the endless landscape, we’re in the presence of a vastness of scale unimaginable to the mortal mind.

In the scene immediately following, those red and yellow flames are reflected, left to right, inside the backdrop of an enormous eye, a stupendous close-up shot that encompasses the entire length of the widescreen field. They speak of dreams kept carefully under wraps, burning desires still raging within the eye of the beholder. Is this beholder Big Brother himself, watching cautiously from a vantage point atop what looks to be a pyramid-like structure? No, he’s only human, an ex-Blade Runner named Holden (Morgan Paull), a functionary of the massive Tyrell Corporation which the structure represents.

From the safety of his office window, Holden peers out into the distance at the spectacle of fireballs and spinners. He is smoking a cigarette, his contribution to the city’s already polluted environment. Ceiling fans circulate the smoky air above him. Holden is about to administer the Voigt-Kampff test, a type of empathy assessment given to all new Tyrell Corporation employees, one of whom enters the room. The employee’s name is Leon (Brion James).

Sitting down at the table opposite his examiner, we see a glimpse of Leon’s enlarged eye, distended by the Voigt-Kampff machine to almost half the size of Holden’s initial gaze (the distinction between Leon’s smaller eye and Holden’s larger one also indicates the lack of something extra: a human soul). The machine measures the reaction of its test-subject through a series of questions designed to provoke an emotional response. Depending on the degree of emotion recorded, one can determine if the individual is a synthetic android (i.e., a Replicant) or a human being.

What it records as well is how humanity remains separated into first- and second-class citizens, despite the progress that human rights advocacy has made. Because of the deteriorating climate, the elite of humanity have departed the planet. Those unable to leave and who remain behind are from the lowest echelons of society and, ergo, are treated as such. They are carefully watched over (or spied upon) by the ever-vigilant police force.

Leon (Brion James) taking the Voigt-Kampff test with Holden (Morgan Paull)

Leon (Brion James) taking the Voigt-Kampff test with Holden (Morgan Paull)

As the test progresses, Leon becomes more and more agitated. His evasive comebacks to such trite queries as “You know what a turtle is?” and “You like it there?” — referring to his shoddy place of residence — provide Holden with an opening: “Describe in single words the good things that come into your mind about your mother.”

“My mother?” Leon inquires, his eyes narrowing in focus. “Let me tell you about my mother …” He then fires a pistol pointblank at Holden from underneath the table, and finishes him off just as the examiner goes crashing through the wall (one of the deleted scenes shows Holden in a hospital isolation ward, still alive but experiencing agonizing pain and suffering).

Leon is one of four escaped Replicants — the others are Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), Zhora (Joanna Cassidy), and Pris (Daryl Hannah), a “basic pleasure model” — who have fled their Off-world confinement in a slave-labor camp to make the dangerous trip back to Earth. Originally there were six Replicants, but two lost their lives during the escape. The four remaining Replicants are on the run, as the opening titles suggest, and have been dutifully marked for “retirement.” We learn, too, that because of their four-year life span the only hope they have is to return to their point of origin, to find the Maker and convince him to extend their lives.

Befitting the dark themes associated with “urban film noir,” the principal action takes place primarily at night and during a perpetual rainstorm. For all we know, this could be fallout from acid rain or the early stages of a nuclear winter (e.g., the scene of Zhora’s shooting and death). But no matter what the weather conditions seem to dictate, they occur within a blighted megalopolis where, despite all those blast furnaces, the sun never shines.

Implicit as well, in the perceptive screenplay by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples, is a hint of Schopenhauer’s philosophy whereby nighttime becomes the realm of intrinsic reality.

In the Land of the Blind

Leon links up with Roy Batty, his fellow Nexus 6 runaway, and together they begin their search for the Maker. They pay a visit to Hannibal Chew (James Hong), the Chinese craftsman who plies his eye-making trade in a frosty deep freezer.

Chew (James Hong) is questioned by Roy Batty

Chew (James Hong) is questioned by Roy Batty (left), while Leon rips open his coat

Toying with the old man, Leon places cryogenically frozen eye samples on Chew’s shoulder — the point being that Chew may have missed detection before now, but he won’t escape their notice this time around, another analogy to the Big Brother theme, as are the enormous digital faces on the ever-present billboards of oriental women popping treats into their red-lipped mouths.

The trio’s dialogue is clipped and dry. Chew is unable to assist them in prolonging their lives: “I don’t know such stuff, I just do eyes,” he insists briefly, with teeth chattering as he speaks. Chew then asks a question of Roy: “You Nexus, huh? I design your eyes.”

“Chew, if only you could see what I’ve seen with your eyes!” Batty confides. From their conversation Roy learns of the existence of J.F. Sebastian (William Sanderson), a soft-spoken genetic engineer who could lead them to the elusive Dr. Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel), the head of the corporation that bears his name — the Maker and all-mighty father figure.

Tyrell is holed up in his office, which happens to be the master bedroom in which he lives, works, and sleeps. The décor is ancient Egyptian. In one corner sits an artificial owl who blinks with luminous eyes; they impart the outward show of wisdom, as in the saying, “As wise as an owl.” Wisdom, however, has eluded the Maker, for Tyrell sports impossibly thick spectacles. Was his purpose in wearing them to make his eyes more prominent, or merely to boost his image by giving the appearance of greatness?

Paradoxically, the Maker is myopic, which betrays his lack of understanding for the biomechanical beings he has created. He is blind to the inevitable truth: that one day the Replicants will insist on living beyond their four-year span. This is why the pyramid-shaped edifice that houses the Tyrell Corporation, reminiscent of the Masonic temple of the all-seeing eye, is lopped off at the top: it’s only partially formed and, therefore, lacking in completeness — much as the Replicants themselves are incomplete. They have superior bodies and minds, but lack the necessary longevity.

Of what use are brains, looks, and brawn if they’re gone in the blink of an eye? “The light that burns twice as bright,” Tyrell declares to Batty, “burns half as long.” His efforts at comforting the Replicant, however, fall on deaf ears. Still, the Maker’s own lack of completeness is reflected in his creations, be they office buildings or artificial beings.

Early on in the film, Tyrell summons Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a hunter of Replicants, to the front office to perform the Voigt-Kampff test on his latest creation: the beautiful Rachael (Sean Young), an advanced model and possible Nexus 8 series but introduced as Tyrell’s niece. Once again, we look deeply into the test subject’s eyes (to wit, her soul) by way of a question-and-answer session — this one taking over a hundred questions to get to the desired outcome.

Tyrell Corporation building

Tyrell Corporation building

Since Tyrell lives and works in his office, his bedroom can be both symbolic of sleep and, in many instances, romance and love. It can also represent a place of procreation — specifically, the act of procreating. It was here, in his bedroom office, that Tyrell created the Replicants. And it’s here that the strongest and most intelligent of the lot — Roy Batty — returns, much like the Old Testament Prodigal Son, to his place of origin, in a showdown with the Maker: Roy, the embodiment of the fallen angel Lucifer, in direct opposition to Tyrell, or God the father.

But Roy needs direct access to the Maker, an extremely difficult man to “get” to (there’s a double meaning implied in his choice of words), especially after Leon is shot through the head by Rachael, who upon being told that she herself is a Replicant has fled the Tyrell Corporation and followed Deckard to a crowded street.

Prior to Leon’s demise, the Replicant attempts to dispose of Deckard by putting his fingers into the bounty hunter’s eye sockets, thus telegraphing to the viewer Batty’s immediate intentions for Tyrell, as well as his eventual fate. Similarly, Leon also spouts the same last words — “Time to die” — that Roy will use in his death scene at the end.

In the meantime, Pris is sent on ahead to gain Sebastian’s confidence. She meets him in front of his apartment complex, the stately Bradbury Building in downtown L.A. Once he’s accepted her as his friend, Pris and Sebastian are joined by Roy, who pops in “unexpectedly,” so to speak.

Sebastian is only 25, but he looks much older than his years. He tells the Replicants that he suffers from the Methuselah Syndrome, a degenerative disease that involves rapid aging. The irony here is that a human has undergone biological transformation via an altered or deformed, or even malfunctioning gene, which renders him old before his time; conversely, the artificial beings, the Replicants, have been purposely bred to have shortened lives, but with no apparent signs of aging.

Pris (Daryl Hannah) with Sebastian (William Sanderson)

Pris (Daryl Hannah) with Sebastian (William Sanderson)

Replicants are former test tube babies who have outgrown the test tube and are now seeking knowledge of the world on their own. But the only knowledge they’ve gained in their shortened existence is that life is hard, all labor is drudgery, and that it will end for them at age four (“Built-in fail-safe device”). The following dialogue encapsulates all the sadness, anguish, and poignancy shared by both humans and Replicants:

Sebastian: “My glands. They grow old too fast.”

Pris: “Is that why you’re still on earth?”

Sebastian: “Yeah, I couldn’t pass the medical.”

And then, a little while later, when Roy Batty enters the picture:

Roy: “We’ve got a lot in common.”

Sebastian: “What do you mean?”

Roy: “Similar problems.”

Pris: “Accelerated decrepitude.”

Sebastian: “I don’t know much about biomechanics, Roy, I wish I did.”

Roy: “If we don’t find help soon, Pris hasn’t got long to live. We can’t allow that.”

(From the Blade Runner movie screenplay – Final script: February 23, 1981)

Roy picks out two large glass eyeballs and places them over his own eyes (in imitation of the Maker, it is presumed). It’s his version of the Voigt-Kampff test. He is now the one peering into Sebastian’s “soul” for a response to his request for aid. Through a pickup game of chess in which Roy discovers that Tyrell is Sebastian’s opponent, he convinces the young man, who’s become sympathetic to their cause, to pique the Maker’s interest in an unusual chess move. This is enough to allow the two of them entry into Tyrell’s inner sanctum. Tyrell expresses surprise that his creation didn’t come sooner.

Significantly, Batty kisses the Maker before he kills him. Those familiar with Shakespeare’s Othello may recall the Moor’s final speech that closes the tragedy: “I kissed thee ere I killed thee, no way but this. Killing myself, to die upon a kiss.” Of course, Batty has no plans to “kill” himself. That would go against his nature, as well as the raison d’être for his visit to Tyrell: to prolong his existence.

“I want more life, fucker,” he snaps at the Maker, visibly disturbed (this was later changed to “father”). “You were made as well as we could make you,” answers Tyrell. “You’re quite a prize. Revel in your time.”

Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) meets his Maker (Joe Turkel)

Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) meets his Maker, Dr. Tryrell (Joe Turkel)

Tyrell’s fate at the hands of his greatest creation is the most significant episode in the drama: it’s the highpoint of their confrontation, and a sweeping arc that takes us directly to the Maker’s execution (or the death of their God) by the plucking of his eyes from their sockets, followed swiftly by the crushing of Tyrell’s head. He will no longer see, he will no longer think; he’ll be blinded, as Oedipus was blinded by his own hand, for his numerous faults (Samson, too, was blinded after he lost his strength, a physical representation of his having lost his way).

There will be no more Replicants, no more slave labor by second-class citizens once the last of the artificial humans have outlived their usefulness. The Maker’s pet owl, synonymous with Wotan’s ravens, watches silently close by. Powerless to intervene, the owl can only blink its huge orbs at the murder of its master: they can no longer see or even comprehend the significance of Roy’s act. This definitive end to the Maker, however, and his capitalistic schemes neither fulfills nor satisfies the desperate Batty. Instead, it horrifies an innocent onlooker, Sebastian, who makes a move to flee the terrible scene. Roy corners and murders him, leaving the corpse behind as evidence of his foul deed.

The Man with One Eye is King

Sebastian was the only person allowed to accompany Roy on his way up to Tyrell’s office. But now, Roy is the lone occupant of the elevator that takes him down to street level and away from the scene of the crime: first, his lofty ascent to Heaven; and then, his descent from the heavens back down to Earth, and to an earthly Hell of the humans’ making. The image of Dante’s Inferno runs rampant throughout Blade Runner, and returns again for one last go-around.

Blade Runner billboard

Blade Runner — spinner and billboard

With its promise of a hopeful future, Off-world becomes the new Paradise, which we hear about constantly in the background and foreground of shots that defy the imagination. Immense flying advertisements, bloated dirigibles, and billboards with digital screens broadcast the wonders of a new life in distant, Off-world colonies. Let the biomechanical Replicants slave away for the limited time they’re on the planet’s surface; as for the “real” humans, i.e., those few with means and the wherewithal to leave this nightmare, they will live out their existence somewhere in Paradise (or Paradise Lost, whichever comes first).

Turning to Roy’s final speech, I don’t know of a more fitting end to all that has gone before than this poetic farewell to life. The entire film’s themes are summed up in his brief apotheosis to an undeserving mankind. It begins as soon as Deckard takes his first potshot at Roy’s form. Having wounded him, Roy reacts by letting out a wolf’s howl. Baying at the ceiling, one last song before dying, he grabs hold of a rusty nail and thrusts it into his right hand. Can he still feel pain or hurt? Can he experience sorrow? He runs down the hallway, occasionally poking his head through the wall to spout a few pearls of wisdom: “Four, five, how to stay alive … Six, seven, go to Hell, go to Heaven.” When you have only minutes left to live, you make the most of what little time remains.

In a way, Roy sacrifices what life he has left to save Deckard, the bounty hunter, or “Blade Runner” of the title, who’s been on the lookout for him since the beginning. A life for a life: “Kinship,” Batty shouts triumphantly, as he suddenly grabs hold of Deckard’s arm with his own impaled hand. Seconds before, Deckard had spat at him in rebuke. Yet he prevents Deckard from taking the “fall” for Roy’s crimes. Batty’s piercing blue eyes now glower at Deckard: they are lit from within, with the flickering flame of life ticking by. Only seconds left to his redemption, and he’ll be no more.

Roy Batty glowers at Deckard

Roy Batty glowers at Deckard

Roy acquires his humanity by empathizing with mankind. He first learns about empathy from Sebastian’s example, who unfortunately had to die after witnessing the murder of the Maker. He next mourned Pris’ death, fingering her wound and smearing her blood on his lips. Indeed, the entire film is an homage to humanity, represented by its eyes, the organs by which humans (and their human imitators, the Replicants) reveal themselves to the world, learn from the world and, in the final analysis, grow to attain the knowledge required to survive in the world, while passing on that knowledge to those deemed worthy enough to benefit from it. This is what humans do, and this is the omnipresent theme of Blade Runner: the exploration of one’s humanity and its eventual attainment:

“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe …” Roy announces descriptively to Deckard. “Attack ships on fire off the shoulders of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments … will be lost in time, like … tears in rain … Time to die …”

Roy has “seen things,” which indicates he has personally witnessed, and experienced, these marvels. “I watched c-beams glitter in the dark” is a phrase that encompasses an image of the night sky, enveloping the massive horizon with flashes of light, a metaphor for death as it makes its stealthy approach.

Finally the last phrase, “all those moments will be lost in time,” indicative of time running out: “tears” can obliterate sight, since one cannot see when one’s eyes are filled with tears. This is the physiological manifestation of blurred vision — “seeing” equates to “knowing,” or gaining the knowledge of things … of the world … and of miracles (such as those Roy describes above). Tears mixed with rain, tears in rain. The rain continues to pour down over Roy’s face, washing the tears away. Again, the analogy is to Roy’s accumulated knowledge, now irretrievable, being lost forever.

His sins have been washed away, a purging of his tortured soul. These words from Ezekiel 18:20, in the American Standard Version of the Bible, read as follows: “The soul that sinneth, it shall die: the son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son.” Both Roy’s and Tyrell’s misdeeds have been forgiven. The sins of the father will not be passed on to his son (or sons), and vice versa.

Our final glimpse of Batty is the closing of his eyes and the ritualized lowering of his head, both an unconscious act and, quite possibly, a deliberate bow to Deckard, a nod of understanding that knowledge has been passed on from Roy to Deckard, a human being (or so we believe), who can learn, perhaps benefit from his proximity to this most extraordinary of beings: Roy Batty, a “human” at last through empathy; and Rick Deckard, the pure fool made wise through pity and compassion for a non-human, Roy.

"Time to die..."

Roy Batty: “Time to die…”

No more tears, no more seeing, no more watching. He’s asleep now. The spontaneous release of the dove Roy carries with him flies away to the sky; it’s the launching of Batty’s soul — or whatever it is that Replicants have that equates to a human soul, leaving the physical boundaries of terra firma and flying upward to freedom. Perhaps back to the Tannhäuser Gate.

But the story does not end with Roy’ death. There’s one more Replicant to go: the beautiful Rachael. She waits in Deckard’s apartment, but is she alive, is she dead? Did the lame Blade Runner with the walking cane, Gaff (Edward James Olmos), who revels in making matchstick figures and animal origami, dispose of her body before Deckard’s arrival, before he’s had a chance to save her life?

In Ridley Scott’s Final Cut of the film, there is no “happy ending” for the lovers, only the expectation that by running away the former Blade Runner can have a life outside his distasteful profession, i.e., that of a killer of runaway androids. Having been redeemed by Roy’s death, Deckard embarks on his own journey: to freedom, to liberation? To one of the Off-world colonies? We can only surmise.

But before he and Rachael can get away, Deckard spots something on the floor. It’s a tinfoil figure of a unicorn, the same mythological creature that appeared in his dream. The voiceover reiterates Gaff’s spoken lines, heard on the rooftop of the Bradbury Building where Roy Batty ceased to exist: “It’s too bad she won’t live. But then again, who does?”

Gaff (Edward James Olmos): "It's too bad she won't live. But then again, who does?"

Gaff (Edward James Olmos): “It’s too bad she won’t live. But then again, who does?”

Deckard nods in agreement (giving back to Batty the nod he just received from him), crushes the unicorn in his hand, and takes off with Rachael for parts unknown. The window into men’s souls has been opened. Deckard peered into it, and was changed by what he saw. Like Roy with Sebastian, he and Batty are so alike, yet so different. They’ve seen things, they’ve done things: “Questionable things,” according to Batty, before he blinded and killed his Maker.

But the questions remain: who is more deserving of a future, the human or the Replicant? What did Deckard learn from Roy about life and living? Does this mean Rachael has a limited life span? And is Deckard himself a Replicant?

We aren’t told any of the answers, nor are we assured the couple will have a blissful, carefree future together — or for how long. There is no formal ending to the story, and those familiar yet comforting words that bring this and other twice-told tales to their logical conclusion are never spoken: “And they lived happily ever after.”

Did they? Really? We don’t know the answer. But then again, who does? Ω

Blade Runner (1982)

Produced by Michael Deeley; directed by Ridley Scott; screenplay by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples; based on the book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick; cinematography by Jordan Cronenweth; edited by Terry Rawlings; production design by Laurence G. Paull; art direction by David Snyder; concept art by Syd Mead; special effects supervised by Douglas Trumbull and Richard Yuricich; costume design by Charles Knode and Michael Kaplan; music by Vangelis; starring Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Joanna Cassidy, Daryl Hannah, William Sanderson, Edward James Olmos, Joe Turkel, M. Emmett Walsh, James Hong and Morgan Paull. Color, 116 min. (Final Cut), the Ladd Company, distributed by Warner Brothers.

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes

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