This is the second half of my in-depth look at Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. For Part 1, examining the idea of future noir, the visuals of the film, and Vangelis’ score, click here.
Layered and Flawed Characters
Harrison Ford turns in a fantastic portrayal as Rick Deckard, a protagonist who doesn’t speak much and whose feelings are rarely spelled out. Mostly, we see his character growth through his reactions and attitudes, which typically play out on his face. It’s a subtle but strong performance by Ford. Unlike Han Solo or Indiana Jones, Deckard isn’t some flawless action hero who consistently beats the bad guys. Instead, he’s flawed, broken down, and very human. His growth isn’t through killing replicants, it’s by interacting with them and accepting his own humanity. He messes up and gets consistently beaten badly, but by the end we feel what he feels and grow as he grows.
Rachael, while not as compelling as some of the other characters, is a tortured replicant played by Sean Young. Given that she was led to believe that she was a human through decades of implanted memories, the discovery that she is an artificial human is obviously a world-shattering revelation to her. Together with Deckard, she learns to embrace humanity, eventually becoming much more human than she was at the beginning of the story by accepting her true nature.
Zorra, Pris, and Leon are the three other replicants that have come to Earth with Roy, trying to stay alive and find some way to extend their own lives. Together, they represent different ways of facing death. Some are angry and violent, others try to live to the fullest, but they all seem heavily burdened by their fates. They may be dangerous, but they are people just like Deckard. These characters pose a serious threat to Ford’s character at times, but it is often only due to him tracking them down. Their deaths are never really seen as triumphs. Often, the movie slinks down further into the darkness after they have been killed, even when it is in self-defense.
Roy Batty is a magnificent character, with Rutger Hauer turning in a complex performance that gives the movie its heart. Batty is obsessed with protecting his short life and the lives of his fellow replicants, since they can only live for four years due to their design. He is often frightening and violent, killing multiple people during his mission and pursuing a terrified Deckard through a decaying apartment building in the film’s climax. But when it all comes to an end, we are able to see his true humanity. He spares Deckard and bares his soul to the man, mourning himself and loving life to the last second. It’s a scene and soliloquy that gives clarity to both Batty’s character and the themes of Blade Runner as a whole. It is suitably adored by any fan of the movie.
What Makes You Human?
Science fiction gives writers, directors, and all types of artists the ability to create new worlds and explore all kinds of concepts that could never be possible today. While this can make for great adventure or action stories, its greatest strength lies in creating a scenario that helps us examine the real world.
Blade Runner uses science fiction ideas – the future, artificial life, space travel – to explore ideas of humanity. If an artificial human can value life just as much, or possibly more than, a man, does this not make him or her just as much of a person? Unlike Rachael, Roy and his fellow rogue replicants did not have memory implants, Instead, their personalities were shaped by their many experiences during their short four years of life. These years were both beautiful and terrible, as shown in Roy’s “Tears in Rain” speech, but it made them more than simply artificial slaves. While Rachael was given fake memories, actually the experiences of someone else’s niece, she only embraced life once she realized the truth and began making her own choices.
While the replicants may act out in violence, they are trying to hang onto what little life they have. Deckard only kills them because he has been ordered to do so. The only way that he finally embraces life and love is through connecting with Rachael and being spared by Roy. These connections are deep and emotional, each in their own way, and touch his soul. If replicants were never human, how could they have such a deep impact on someone?
Anyone can apply this to issues in modern life. Too often, we devalue the lives of fellow people, people who are more like us than we care to admit. Blade Runner calls the viewer to see how life is filled with beauty and that all lives are equal. Once the film’s ideas sink in and are accepted, it can be easier to grasp these concepts and apply them in everyday life, without having to think about Deckard, Roy, Rachael, and the replicants.
One Lingering Question
This mystery is not a vital aspect of the film’s story, but it adds in yet another layer to Blade Runner. While the film is a story about a man who only comes to appreciate life after encountering artificial beings who value it far more than he does, that doesn’t mean that the values presented are any less important if Deckard is actually one of them.
What makes viewers question Deckard’s status as a human? The clues are subtle but obvious once they have been spotted.
At one point in the Director’s Cut and Final Cut versions of the film, Deckard daydreams of a unicorn. It’s an image that doesn’t seem to have any real place in the story until the very end. Detective Gaff, a fellow Blade Runner, leaves a calling card at places he visits: a tiny piece of origami. When Deckard goes on the run with Rachael, he finds one waiting for him outside his apartment – a sign that Gaff knew his plans and gave him the chance to run.
And what is that piece of origami? A tiny unicorn, tying into an earlier scene showing that humans can find out what memories have been implanted into the minds of replicants. Deckard squeezes the origami unicorn knowingly, acknowledging and accepting an idea we will never fully know before he leaves forever.
There are other, more subtle clues as well. At various points in the film, replicants are shown to have a sort of orange glare in their eyes from a trick in the camera filming the scene. No one else is ever shown with this, except for Deckard in one brief moment.
Additionally, Deckard is shown to have a fixation on collecting photos – a hobby of many replicants who seek to fill out their own memories and create connections as people.
Little is known of Deckard’s past. While the voiceover in the Theatrical Cut make mention of his past relationships and experiences, these are never shown in any other version. It’s quite possible that the first time we see Ford’s character is the very start of his life. He just may not know it.
Together, these make for a decent case that the man is actually a replicant. Perhaps a new version like Rachael. Or maybe these are just aspects of his life that show how truly human the replicants were. If a man can be mistaken for a replicant, then why should artificial humans be treated any differently?
Then again, Ridley Scott has stated in interviews in the years since Blade Runner that he views Deckard as a replicant. But then again, I stopped listening to the ideas he put out about his films since his interviews about Prometheus.
It is no single element that makes Blade Runner into a masterpiece of the science fiction genre. While these singular elements can be the sole focus of one viewing, it is the sum total of these parts that makes Scott’s movie into a film that will only grow in importance and reverence year after year.