In the opening sequence of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (loosely based on Phillip K. Dick’s award-winning novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) the camera crawls along above a hellish-looking city — aptly referred to as the “Hades” landscape. Flame-spewing cracking plants and dots of red-yellow artificial light dominate the ground. Hazy smog chokes the sky. Flying crafts zip through the air. The visual is both terrifying and breathtaking, and sets the stage for the cyberpunk look and feel of the rest of the film.
But don’t be fooled by the mise-en-scène into thinking that this is just another futuristic flick. For while Blade Runner can be viewed as a cautionary sci-fi tale about the dangers of globalization, advancements in technology, and the environmental concerns that go hand-in-hand with the two former, at its core, the film is really about exploring the concept of humanity.¹ About answering that age-old question that has mystified common folk and philosophers alike for centuries now: what exactly does it mean to be human?
The film is set in a dystopian California, in the year 2019, where “the Tyrell Corporation [has] advanced Robot evolution into the Nexus phase — a being virtually identical to a human — known as a Replicant”;² these Robots have a standard lifespan of four years and are restricted to slave labour on off-world colonies. Its narrative follows Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a former Blade Runner (bounty hunter of escaped Replicants) who reluctantly comes out of retirement to track down and “retire” a group of Replicants who have come to Earth illegally. The story also centers around the leader of the Robot fugitives, Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), and his quest to track down his “maker” so that he can extend his lifespan — fast approaching its end. The film reaches its climax when Batty’s and Deckard’s paths finally cross, and the result is unexpected and moving.
That scene is perhaps the most crucial and most memorable in the entire film, for it is in many ways representative of Blade Runner as a whole. It begins with an injured Deckard attempting a Matrix-esque leap from rooftop to rooftop in an effort to flee from Batty — hot on his tail— as rain pours down relentlessly. The Blade Runner’s jump comes up just short, though he’s able to grab hold of an overhanging beam to prevent himself from plummeting to his death.
Due to the injuries he has sustained and the torrential downpour making the beam slick, Deckard can’t lift himself up. His grip on the beam starts slipping. One hand lets go. And then the other. But just when it looks like he’s done for, Batty comes to the rescue — dove in his hand — catching the Blade Runner in the nick of time and hauling him up onto the roof.
What follows is a poignant speech by the dying Replicant about the absurdity of life, as rivulets of rain roll down his cheeks, just like the moments in his life that will be lost “like tears in rain” when he’s no longer alive.² Moments later, Batty expires, releasing the dove from his grasp. It takes flight toward a patch of the night sky where dark clouds seem to be slowly parting.
Throughout this scene — and most of the film, for that matter — Scott uses predominantly low-key lighting, giving it a shadowy and ominous film noir look. Film noir is a cinematic term that refers to movies which have a “dark, downbeat, and black” style and deal with themes such as alienation, futility, ambiguity, bleakness — to name a few.³ When Batty finally comes face-to-face with death and must accept his mortality, this style is particularly significant for it reflects not only his reaching the end of his life, but also the mysterious nature of life: its finiteness, the loss of memories at its end, and the unknown that follows. These are all harsh realities that the Replicant struggles to come to terms with over the course of the film.
Another crucial element of what has come to be known as the “Tears in Rain” scene is the use of religious imagery, which Scott expertly hides in plain sight. Church-like bells reminiscent of The Hunchback of Notre Dame toll ominously, forewarning Batty’s imminent death. There’s the nail through the Replicant’s hand, alluding to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. And of course, the white dove flying up into the sky, symbolic of Batty’s soul ascending into heaven. All these Christian references reflect the Replicant’s almost spiritual search for answers about life and his actual search for his creator.⁴
Moving beyond that particular scene, a symbol that appears again and again throughout Blade Runner is eyes. Part of the film’s masterfully crafted opening is a close-up shot of an eye, with the “Hades” landscape reflected in it. In their search for Dr. Tyrell (Joe Turkel), the band of fugitive Replicants, led by Batty, confront a genetic scientist responsible for designing Robot eyes for the Tyrell Corporation. When Batty kills Dr. Tyrell — his creator — he gouges out his eyes. And finally, there’s the Voight-Kampff test, used to distinguish Replicants from human beings by their eyes’ reaction to a set of questions designed to provoke an emotional response.
Given Scott’s heavy use of this symbol in the film, one cannot help but think of the notion of eyes as the window to the soul — a concept inextricably linked to humanity. This, coupled with the nature of the Voight-Kampff test as the sole means of differentiating Robot from man, seems to suggest that a big part of what Scott believes makes one human is the capacity for empathy — the kind Batty displays toward Deckard when he saves him from plunging to his death.
Though he states that Blade Runner is “explicitly concerned with the question of what it is to be a human being,” philosopher Stephen Mulhall believes that, at its core, the film really centers around Roy Batty’s obsession with his quest for “a life which is on a par with that of human beings.”⁴ The goal of the film, according to Mulhall, is to illuminate Batty’s misconception — that more life somehow translates into humanity.
The leader of the fugitive band of Replicants is, undoubtedly, obsessed with prolonging his life. In his pursuit of it, he breaks the law, kills several people, and manipulates an innocent man. He even says to Dr. Tyrell when they meet at long last, “I want more life.” It doesn’t get much clearer than that.
But does he truly believe that a longer life will make him more human? Or is it his obsession to extend his life that in fact makes him human? Although few of us have experienced circumstances even remotely similar to Batty’s, we can all put ourselves in his shoes and vicariously relate to his obsessive drive to elude his imminent end at all costs. Given the development of Batty’s character and Scott’s cinematographic choices throughout Blade Runner, this interpretation seems to make more sense.
In addition to displaying the lengths to which he’ll go in order to dodge death, Batty also exhibits other aspects of what we’d consider the “human condition” such as man’s fear of the inevitability of death and what follows, his search for his maker, and his inevitable acceptance that his life will end whether he likes it or not. The Replicant also comes to realize the value of life and of memories, just as many of us do near the ends of our lives, which is possibly why he saves Deckard on the rooftop — to live on in the Blade Runner’s recollections.
In many ways, Batty serves as foil to the human race as a whole, contrasting and highlighting the qualities that make us human in order to challenge our notions of what we really are. And looking at Blade Runner, we quickly learn that it is not simply a developed brain or opposable thumbs that defines our species, but rather more intangible things like compassion, existential angst, valuing life, and our universal quest for immortality.
As the years go by and Scott’s prophetic vision of a future with robot servants that blur the divide between computer and man becomes closer to reality, the question of what it means to be human grows more and more important. And so too does the film Blade Runner. For it shows us the collision course that we are currently on and the moral considerations that lay waiting for our society and civilization as we get better and better at playing God.
1. Fink, Lisa Storm. “Science Fiction.” Readwritethink.org. NCTE, n.d. Web. 19 Jan. 2014 <http://www.readwritethink.org/files/resources/lesson_images/lesson927/SciFiDefiniton.pdf>.
2. Blade Runner: The Director’s Cut. Dir. Ridley Scott. Perf. Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, and Edward James Olmos. Warner Brothers, 1992. DVD.
3. Dirks, Tim. “Film Noir — Films.” Film Noir — Films. AMC, n.d. Web. 19 Jan. 2014. <http://www.filmsite.org/filmnoir.html>.
4. Mulhall, Stephen. “Picturing the Human (Body and Soul): A Reading of Blade Runner.” Film and Philosophy. Open Humanities Press, n.d. Web. 14 Nov. 2013.
5. The Matrix. Dir. Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski. Perf. Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano, and Hugo Weaving. Warner Brothers, 1999. Film.
6. The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Dir. William Dieterle. Perf. Charles Laughton and Maureen O’Hara. RKO Radio Pictures, 1939. Film.
7. Dangerous Days: Making Blade Runner. Dir. Charles De Lauzirika. Perf. Daryl Hannah, Michael Deeley, and Harrison Ford. Warner Brothers, 2007. DVD.
8. Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? New York: Ballantine, 1996. Print.
9. Gleiberman, Owen. “Blade Runner (1992).” EW.com. Time Inc., 02 Oct. 1992. Web. 10 Nov. 2013.
10. Ebert, Roger. “Blade Runner: Director’s Cut.” Rogerebert.com. Ebert Digital LLC, 11 Sept. 1992. Web. 14 Nov. 2013.
11. “Blade Runner.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 11 July 2013. Web. 09 Nov. 2013.
12. “Blade Runner (1982).” Blade Runner. Flixster, n.d. Web. 10 Nov. 2013. <http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/blade_runner/>.