Blade Runner - Ridley Scott - Harrison Ford - Rick Deckard - Sean Young - Rachael - Tyrell Corporation - replicants - conference room - bonsai

Blade Runner
1982, directed by Ridley Scott

There must be a strong temptation to view Blade Runner as a movie about the difference between humans and artificial intelligence, especially considering the fuss people make over whether Deckard is or isn’t a replicant. Of course it’s logical to conclude that he is, given his memory of a unicorn in the Final Cut, coupled with Gaff’s origami unicorn at the end, which signals that highly placed persons are aware of his secret memory and therefore must have planted it in him. Still it’s not necessary to banish the ambiguity from his character. The fact that Ridley Scott has weighed in, saying he believes Deckard is a replicant, indicates that it’s not the most crucial question. Confident directors don’t usually interfere with the interpretation of their movies. The distinction between human and replicant sets the plot in motion, it’s the object of the Voight-Kampff test, and it certainly matters a great deal to Rachael… so if it’s not the movie’s chief concern, what is?

We can start by noting the profusion of eyes throughout Blade Runner. A giant close-up of an anonymous eye cuts into the opening shots, reflecting the fiery smokestacks of nighttime Los Angeles. The Voight-Kampff test measures fluctuations in the subject’s eyes. The replicants Roy and Leon visit a storefront laboratory named Eye World where they intimidate Chew, a genetic engineer who designs and creates artificial eyes. Roy tells Chew, “If only you could see what I’ve seen with your eyes.” Pris spray-paints a black mask around her eyes, and Roy puts on toy glasses with bulgy eyeballs. Leon starts to gouge Deckard’s eyes, and Roy gouges Tyrell’s eyes. The replicants and the artificial owl have glowing red pupils, and Gaff’s eyes draw attention with their strange light bluish color.

Blade Runner - Ridley Scott - owl - red eyes - replicant
Blade Runner - Ridley Scott - eye - fire - reflection - opening
Blade Runner - Ridley Scott - Rutger Hauer - Roy Batty - eyes - glasses - replicant

Eyes also bracket Blade Runner‘s most famous line, the dying words of Roy Batty at the climax. He starts by saying “I’ve seen things…” and finishes with “tears in rain”, which also refers to eyes. His speech is a reflection on the wonder of his short life, a seeming monster and villain asserting his humanity – not by complaining of his suffering, but by recalling his experience:

“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder 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.”

Those numerous eyes should make sense now. They’re a metonymy for experience, a shorthand expression of the very thing that Roy finds to validate his life in his last moments. Roy’s experience is extraordinary, but he is not claiming to be special; anyone who has lived well should be able to think of comparable moments of wonder.

Blade Runner - Ridley Scott - Rutger Hauer - Roy Batty - tears in rain - roof - death scene - last words

Experience is the substance of life, and it’s the key to Blade Runner. Deckard’s name points to the idea of experience, as it sounds like the Anglicized surname of French philosopher René Descartes, whose Meditations on First Philosophy lays experience at the foundation of all knowledge. Pris confirms this connection when she says, “I think, Sebastian, therefore I am,” citing the famous first step in Descartes’ epistemological journey. A recurring question in Blade Runner is whether experience is real if memories can be implanted. The question bothers Rachael, but Roy answers it. It doesn’t matter whether his memories were lived or not; the fact of his experience is enough to make him worthy of life. By the same token, as the movie frequently hints, animals too – by virtue of their experience – have every claim to the rights and respect that human beings demand for themselves.

In other words, it doesn’t matter whether Roy or Rachael or Deckard – or any human being for that matter – is a replicant, an android, or a biological human. Whoever can claim experience can claim ownership of life on an equal footing with other creatures who also partake of experience.

Blade Runner - Ridley Scott - Harrison Ford - Rick Deckard - neon lights - rain - night

Still this doesn’t quite tell us what Blade Runner is about. It’s nice to say that all creatures who experience their existence are equivalent, and the idea can always use a fresh restatement, but it’s a thought that should occur to any thinking person. At least a movie about the line between humans and machines has the attraction of a defined argument, but what would it mean to disagree about the value of experience? We don’t need to find an opposite of experience, but unless we locate whatever it is that competes with and distracts from experience as a measure of life’s worth, then we risk spouting truisms.

The answer lies in an often-noted irony of Blade Runner. With the possible exception of J.F. Sebastian, the most humanized characters (Deckard, Rachael, and Roy) are presumably replicants, whereas the human characters fall short in their humanity. Even the thuggish Leon shows a glimmer of compassion when asked about an overturned turtle during his Voight-Kampff test, but we don’t see any corresponding signs of empathy from Bryant, Gaff, Holden, or Tyrell. Roy and Sebastian interrupt Tyrell trading stocks in his bed, and earlier the tycoon had told Deckard that “Commerce is our goal here at Tyrell,” stressing the first word with relish. He lives in a world of abstraction, chasing money and finding human connection on a chessboard. Abstraction is precisely the antithesis to experience that we needed to find, and once we realize this we can see it all over Blade Runner.

Blade Runner - Ridley Scott - Los Angeles - skyscrapers

What makes Blade Runner so dystopian is not merely its darkness or dirtiness, the overwhelming cityscape, the lack of nature, or the cruelty. It’s also the dominance of commerce to the exclusion of every other mode of life. Billboards, logos, and retail are everywhere. The marquee across from Sebastian’s building advertises the Million Dollar theater. The opening shots juxtapose an eye with giant office buildings shaped like truncated pyramids, subliminally evoking the Great Seal of the United States on the dollar bill. Money is one of the great abstractions of the modern world, and in this respect Blade Runner is not far from the reality of 2019, when corporations were beginning to rival the size and power of governments. As Rachael tells Deckard, “I’m not in the business, I am the business.”

The fact that Blade Runner is set in Los Angeles, instead of San Francisco like its source novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, is not a neutral decision. Hollywood makes no appearance in this futuristic vision of Los Angeles except that the Tyrell Corporation has usurped Hollywood’s role as a “dream factory”, literally implanting dreams and memories in the beings it creates. To implant experiences in people, trespassing on their most private and personal areas of life for the sake of commerce, is cynical, and Deckard is rightly aghast when he hears of it. There’s an implicit warning to Hollywood in this, that as long as it plants “dreams” in its audience, awakening new desires and shaping its viewers’ personalities with vicarious experiences, it must do so responsibly, guided by values less abstract than mere profit. At its best, cinema can add to our wealth of experience by bringing us some of the wonder that Roy Batty describes in his last speech.

Blade Runner - Ridley Scott - Harrison Ford - Rick Deckard - Edward James Olmos - police headquarters

By shifting the fault line at the center of Blade Runner from man vs. machine to experience vs. abstraction, we credit the movie with greater relevance. Theoretical arguments about artificial intelligence might be fun to think about, but even today conscious thought in machines remains a far-off fantasy. A good movie should have enough universality to speak to us about our own lives. Deckard is surely a replicant, but he stands for all of us in the sense that his experience makes him “human” – it counts for more than his place on the spectrum of nature and artifice. Like René Descartes, philosophy students love to speculate about abstract questions of identity, whether they might be deceived about their own reality. How do we know we’re not brains in vats, or part of a giant simulation? Blade Runner brings these questions down to earth, saying that they have no bearing on our identity. As with Deckard, it doesn’t matter how we came to be… it’s the fact of our experience that makes us who we are and validates our lives.

CONNECTIONS:

Casablanca – Encapsulation of experience in famous line near end; protagonist named Rick who switches sides at end

Mildred Pierce – Set in Los Angeles with an implicit allusion to Hollywood’s social influence

All About Eve – Contrast between abstraction and real life, with the ghost of Hollywood in the background

Juliette, or the Key of Dreams – Primacy of experience over abstraction; wealthy tend to live in abstraction

Fever Mounts at El Pao – Abstraction opposed to real experience

Seconds – Dystopia ruled by private enterprise in the virtual absence of government

2 or 3 Things I Know About Her – Challenge of finding meaning in a world dominated by commerce

Zabriskie Point – Set in Los Angeles with an implicit allusion to Hollywood’s social influence; profusion of billboards and advertisements; argument for experience over abstraction

The Man Who Left His Will on Film – Abstraction opposed to real experience

Solaris – Question about an artificial being’s reality answered by recourse to experience

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover – Dystopia ruled by private enterprise in the virtual absence of government

Hannibal – Tyrell and Verger lie in bed trading stocks or following financial reports

Matchstick Men – Set in Los Angeles with an implicit allusion to Hollywood’s social influence