Hella Movie Villains: Roy Batty
Last weekend I went to see Blade Runner: not 2049. But the original (1982), in 4K Restoration, on the big screen. From the opening shots of a 2019 industrial skyline (God, that year sounds far away now), to the gritty colors, mesmerizing music, and slow, meticulous angles that draw you into its world, Blade Runner has stood the test of time as one of sci-fi’s crowning achievements. I would now call it it’s best (sorry, Metropolis).
Sure, the camerawork, the lighting, and the ever-so-careful placement of props and set pieces can make a film. But a true film can only be as good as its characters: ergo, the human vessels for execution, not just the technical ones. Celluloid doesn’t just capture an angle; it also captures a face. And a feeling.
And no more do those feelings ring true in Blade Runner than they do in the character of Roy Batty: a dying replicant seeking life. As a combat model he has been programmed all his life to fight and kill, and now that his biomechanical clock is ticking, he is fighting to protect his existence.
Instantly, no matter how dark or conniving, there is an element of sympathy for his character. The thought of death is a puzzle to Roy: a joyless riddle he can’t solve. More than anything it is a question that requires an answer.
He’s a desperate man, or rather artificial man, on his last leg. And you can see the effect throughout the movie: the more his proverbial “answer” defies all reason, the more it defies his own sanity. He goes from being calmly insistent, to almost imploring, to practically begging. And when the begging ends he turns to a vengeful psychopath.
The final scenes of the movie are disturbing, to say the least. After losing his last hope of survival, along with the woman he loves (pleasure model Pris), Roy goes into epic “f-it” mode: he howls, monologues, and viciously taunts as he chases Deckard around the apartment. Every moment of it echoes with the sound of explosion.
Watch any interview with Rutger Hauer and you can tell how much he enjoyed the role. Roy Batty seems to have every eccentricity attached to his character: rage, terror, charm, philosophy, and even a bit of humor. Hauer even says he was looking to incorporate all those expressions into one.
Though a replicant, Roy luxuriates in every human emotion he feels. And why not: he only has four years to live. By the time of the movie, those four years are fast waning. As a result he is crumbling, day by day: at times collected, at others bursting apart. His inner seams are just as brittle as the life force he holds.
And he goes to his maker: the last resource for a troubled creation. When that “false god” doesn’t have the answers he’s looking for, Roy destroys him. He has finally and completely “lost his faith”, once he realizes that the “god” of his making can’t save him.
And, for one moment, let’s mention J.F. Sebastian, the genetic designer working for the Tyrell corporation who takes in two of the fugitive models: Roy and Pris. Not only does he have his own apartment chock-full of little, mechanical dolls that he built, but he is also a designer for the Nexus-6 models (aka, replicants). “There’s a some of me in you” he tells them fondly, painting himself as a similar “father” and thus “god-like” figure to Roy Batty.
And yet, the gods are irresponsible: one of Blade Runner’s central themes. Or rather, men who create like gods. They gift life to “alternative” beings without understanding the complexities of it: only the accomplishment.
“I’ve done questionable things” Roy confesses to his creator.
“But also extraordinary things” he returns.
This is Tyrell’s view of life: a matter of what you can and can’t accomplish. It isn’t a matter of wanting or choice: only the things that capability entails.
Replicants were created to serve: so capability IS that purpose. So, you have malfunctioned a few times; but look at all the times you did exactly as instructed. “Revel in your time” Tyrell says, which would ordinarily be pretty good life advice, if it wasn’t used as a deflection from life’s most “human” questions.
Tyrell is far from God; but he represents God to Roy. As the borg queen remarked in First Contact: “You are an imperfect being; created by an imperfect being.” Side note: I made a joke about how funny it would be to see Data from Star Trek in the role of Roy Batty, shirtless, running through apartments screaming, and popping his head through walls.
But Data isn’t Roy: he doesn’t hold his outlook on life, the universe, and everything. Yes, in Roy, there’s a sense of wonder: but also dread apprehension. And his troubled relationship with “the maker” reflects in his frustrations with J.F. Sebastian.
There’s a bunch of fan forums I’ve seen online that pose the big question: why the hell did Roy Batty kill Sebastian? The answer’s apparent, maybe after a couple of times watching:
Roy has a personal grudge against “creator” types. He sees them as irresponsible and unwilling to understand things from his point of view. What makes him sympathetic as a villain is that, to a certain extent, he’s correct.
Take Sebastian, for instance. He sees his creations as little toys: a pleasurable hobby by which he can engineer life. When Roy tries to convince him to let him see Tyrell his perception is different: we’re living beings, just like you; help us.
If you would only step off your high horse and look at us as more than one of your “pastimes” seems to be the crux of his appeal.
There’s a weird irony in Roy trying to convince Sebastian of this while sitting in a room full of his creations. They are no more than mindless, tinkering toys. But Sebastian is more of a childish creator: he does it partly because he wants friends; a sense of inner fulfillment. Like Roy, he’s a sick and aging man (Methuselah Syndrome) who needs something of life to cling to.
Tyrell’s the bigger dog to convince: will you please see me as something more than one of your “accomplishments”? As something deserving of “life”? The answer: look to your own accomplishments, instead of questioning the moral integrity of mine.
And, since the creator must die, who better to kill next than the creator’s right hand? Sebastian, to Roy, is merely an extension of Tyrell’s irresponsibility, no matter how innocuous he treats his “hobby”.
In his last moments, Roy Batty luxuriates in every human extremity: shedding his calm façade to become viciously primal. In his human expression, it almost looks as if he’s mocking it. Or crossing off a “bucket list” of emotions he’s never fully embraced until now.
But the last one is mercy.
When he sees Deckard hanging on the beam, ready to plunge to his death, Roy saves him. Maybe, as the original narration (which they thankfully took out of the final cut) offers, it’s a long-lost appreciation of life. Roy now sees, from another’s eyes, what it’s like to be on the verge of death. To be afraid. It’s a dark reflection of his own internal struggle.
Roy sees the light. And it causes him to take on an almost saintly persona: choosing mercy over murder. He has become godly, not in the selfish way of Tyrell, but in the way of compassion.
Because I’ve been fighting for life, I know what it’s like to be hanging on, so to speak (not a quote from the movie, just an interpretation).
And just before he dies he merely implores (in a way) Deckard to imagine life from his eyes. He isn’t asking for deliverance from the death he knows is imminent: just a sense of understanding. Yes, Roy is the prodigal star that burns for only half as long, but no matter how quickly he burns, that time is still precious. And is fading away.
What will all his “extraordinary” deeds matter if they’re going to be lost and forgotten? Only his functions as a replicant will matter ultimately, not the loves and wishes he shared in his lifetime. Not the “human heart” inside him.
Cast that to the rain, he ponders tragically. Just like tears.