Replicants and the Primal Father in Blade Runner
Ridley Scott’s 1982 science fiction noir film Blade Runner is both one of the top ten Hollywood films ever made and the very essence of a Dad Movie. The film is perfect in nearly every aspect, and its very subject is what it means to be a father and what it means to grow up and look at your father as a person. Its casting, acting, script, cinematography, editing, set design, costuming and musical score were all both effectively flawless and very progressive for the time. Blade Runner, itself loosely adapted from a novel, spawned an entire genre of literature: cyberpunk. The genre’s best and best-known work is William Gibson’s 1983 novel Neuromancer — one of the ten best novels ever written in English — whose story, style, and aesthetic were adapted and greatly simplified to create the original 1999 film The Matrix. So Blade Runner is not only, itself, a Dad Movie, but also the father of many other films. Despite its age, it is very much worth watching and rewatching, both for its own sake and because it will shed new light on its many 21st-Century cinematic children.
The plot of the film is a standard noir story. Deckard (Harrison Ford), is a cop called out of retirement for one last job; he is forced to confront the essential darkness of the world as a test of his humanity. In this case, his job as a Blade Runner is to kill Replicants who make it to Earth. In the film, which is set in what was then an impossibly far-future 2019, Replicants are androids nearly indistinguishable from and generally faster and stronger than born humans. They are used as slaves in off-world colonies and not permitted to travel to Earth, but since four of them have managed to do this, Deckard is chosen to “retire” them.
There’s a great deal more to the story than this, but in order to fully understand just why Blade Runner is such an absolute masterpiece, we need to dive, briefly, into theory. Science fiction (SF), as a genre, is concerned with what its most influential theorist Darko Suvin calls cognitive estrangement. Suvin argues that SF is never about aliens or other planets or galaxies far, far away: it’s about us, here and now, on Earth. SF gives us a world that is cognitively plausible in that any elements wildly different from our own time and space have just enough backstory to enable us to understand how those elements got there by relying on reason rather than faith.
The SF novelist Arthur C. Clarke argued that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”, but what separates SF from fantasy is that SF does not require any breaking of the generally understood laws of physics. We can understand that what may seem magical is in fact advanced technology. Neo can dodge bullets and know kung fu because he, unlike most others, is aware that nearly everyone in The Matrix exists both in the real world and within the simulated one.
For Suvin, those elements of the story that differ significantly from our world are called the novum, from the Latin word for new. The function of the novum is to induce us to look at our own world from a different perspective. For Suvin this means “to hold up a distorted mirror” in order to persuade us to call into question some aspect of our society that we believe to be natural or status quo.
SF is always about the here and now. When Robert A. Heinlein wrote Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), he wasn’t writing about a human raised by harmonious, conflict-averse Martians’ first visit to Earth because he wanted to write about Martians, but because he wanted to induce readers to reflect on why human societies are so driven by petty power struggles. Ursula K. LeGuin didn’t write Left Hand of Darkness (1969), in which people are neutered 27 days a month and then become either male or female for three days based on who is near them, to explore alien biology, but because she wanted to induce readers to think about how strong a construct gender is in our world. And in Blade Runner, what you’re being asked to do is consider how we can shrug off using creatures indistinguishable from humans as slaves.
Before we can even begin watching the film, however, we need to choose which version. In the original theatrical release, the studio was worried that audiences wouldn’t be able to understand what was happening, and compelled Scott to have Ford record voice-over expository narration for certain scenes. The film performed poorly at the box office but grew to such cult classic status that a director’s cut was released without the voice-over and a few deleted scenes restored. In 2007, a 25th-anniversary version was released: Scott had total control over it, and it therefore most closely represents his vision. Those of you unfamiliar with SF may wish to watch the original theatrical release with its voice-over before tackling this final version.
Warning: the rest of this essay completely spoils the film. Watch it the first time before reading what follows.
All cuts of Blade Runner open with a scene where Leon (Brion James), one of the four Replicants, who is posing as a low-level employee at the Tyrell Corporation, is given a test. The man administering the test has a small camera that projects onto a monitor a close-up image of one of Leon’s eyes. In response to a hostile Leon’s questions about the test’s purpose, he says that the test is “designed to provoke an emotional response.”
The series of questions starts with one about a suffering animal and Leon’s complicity in its suffering; it ends with a question about Leon’s mother, which provokes him to take out a gun and shoot the questioner. The test is called “Voight-Kampff” in both the film and Philip K. Dick novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Few particulars about the test are given, but it’s clear that an involuntary dilation of the iris in response to emotional stress is key to distinguishing a Replicant from a born human: because Replicants are incepted as adults, they don’t react to emotional situations to the same extent as born humans.
The Voight-Kampff test is rooted in reality: your eyes really do dilate and take in more light when you’re under emotional stress. But in Blade Runner, Leon is not the one being subjected to the Voight-Kampff test: you are. It’s your eye that’s in the camera. The film is so good that it uses relative levels of light and darkness in the frame to tell you when you need to be emotionally present in order to consider yourself a human being. Eyes, mirrors, monitors, spectacles are everywhere in this film; they’re meant to test Deckard and you, the audience.
The action then returns to Los Angeles 2019, a “retrofitted future” where inequality is so high that corporate advertisements tower over the gloom of the run-down, half-Japanese city below. The set design is an advanced course in the primary rule of literature: “show, don’t tell.” At no point are we told how LA ended up so broken (and so rainy!); instead, we’re left to infer what might have happened to the city and the world to make things so unequal and gloomy. Remember that low light dilates our pupils: we’re almost biologically required to empathize with the citizens who huddle in the islands of light scattered among the darkness. Contrast this with the tremendous light output of the pseudo-Japanese advertisements on glowing screens that take up the sides of entire buildings. In 1982, screen technology was nowhere near capable of producing the great glowing billboards that pollute our own cities and highways today.
Deckard is summoned to police headquarters by Gaff (Edward James Olmos), a Blade Runner who speaks the incomprehensible mix of languages shared by most of the uneducated residents of LA. At headquarters, their captain (M. Emmet Walsh) gives Deckard the assignment to “retire” four Replicants who landed on Earth illegally. The captain is a racist who calls Replicants “skin jobs,” but he also informs Deckard that the four Replicants loose on Earth are a new model called Nexus Six — “more human than human” — and that the Voight-Kampff test will need to be recalibrated in order to detect them. Nexus Six Replicants are less dangerous than they might seem because they’ve been programmed to have a four-year lifespan.
Deckard visits the headquarters of the Tyrell Corporation, which manufactures the Replicants. Its CEO (Joe Turkel) has Deckard subject his assistant Rachael (Sean Young) to the Voight-Kampff test. Deckard determines that Rachael is a Replicant, but it takes him far more questions than it normally would to determine this. Tyrell then explains (after Rachael has left the room) that she is a Replicant who doesn’t even know she’s a Replicant: she thinks she’s human because she’s had Tyrell’s niece’s memories implanted in her head.
Note very carefully the changes in lightness and darkness in this extended scene. Also take note of how saucy and poised Rachael is throughout it: she’s confident because she knows she’s really a human, whereas Leon, who only has three years of memories to work from, is visibly nervous because he knows the test is going to catch him.
It is here in Tyrell’s Sumerian temple of an office where Blade Runner truly becomes a Dad Movie. Tyrell is a god figure, an All-Father who has, without benefit of a mother, generated an entire race of superior people who are “more human than human.” Nexus Six Replicants are at the vanguard of humanity’s push off the Earth and into space. And they’re all slaves. He’s used his powers of creation to profit off the backs of his own children’s slavery.
Tyrell, with his TV screen spectacles, provides the film’s first model of fatherhood — and it’s a terrible, awful, exploitive one. In the real 21st century, fathers are supposed to nurture their children: to be givers of hugs as well as laws. Go to any park or supermarket and you’ll see a dad carrying a baby on his chest. But Blade Runner is a Dad Movie because, among other things, it shows us life under the earlier model of fatherhood: law giving without tenderness, exploitation without nurturing. Historically, children were the property of their fathers and could be put to work, neglected, abused, or even killed without much sanction. This continued well into the 20th century.
In Totem and Taboo, Freud wrote about the very basis of civilization, which he argued stemmed from a band of siblings working together to stop their father, the primal father, from eating or raping them. The notion of taboo — that there are certain people you can’t touch, or have sex with — is the fundamental cultural justification for abstract laws such as workers’ rights, minimum wages, child labor laws, etc. Think about the Greek myth of Kronos and Zeus, which is one version of this story. Kronos doesn’t want his children to take away his power the way he took away his own father Ouranous’s power, so he swallows his children. Only once Kronos’s wife swaps out a rock for baby Zeus and raises him far away can Zeus return, free his siblings, and band together with them to defeat Kronos. It’s not as if Zeus is a real nurturing father, but he’s bound by certain laws in a way that Kronos was not. Fathers, Freud argues, to deserve the name in a civilized society, have to give power to and to nurture, or at least not actively exploit, their children.
Now reconsider the affable, smiling Tyrell. He’s created a sexy slave, fooled her into thinking she’s a born human, and put her to work for him as well as on display as a token of his power. He explicitly states that having implanted memories will make Replicants easier to control. He’s created a race of children, but instead of giving his power to them, he’s taking their power from them — and, not at all incidentally, limiting their lives as a means of protecting himself and his profits. If Nexus Six Replicants only last four years, those off-world colonies are going to keep having to hand their money over to the Tyrell Corporation. It is not an accident that one of the many giant advertisements in the city tells people that “a new life awaits you in the off-world colonies”, and dangles the prospect of your very own Replicant slave to sweeten the deal. You, too, can be a primal father, and have a new life, just so long as slavery doesn’t bother you all that much.
Deckard was burnt out on his job before the film begins, but even for an emotionless noir hero, he’s troubled by his encounter with Tyrell and Rachael. When Rachael shows up at his house two scenes later, having figured out that she might be a Replicant, Deckard does not have a human emotional reaction. But we do, or should, not only because his apartment is dark and our pupils dilated, but also because of the sheer pain on Rachael’s face. She has a photograph of what she believes to be her childhood, and Deckard brusquely tells her it’s from Tyrell’s niece’s childhood. Deckard tells her an intimate memory from what she thinks is his own childhood:
Deckard: Remember when you were six? You and your brother snuck into an empty building through a basement window. You were going to play doctor. He showed you his, but when it got to be your turn you chickened and ran; you remember that? You ever tell anybody that? Your mother, Tyrell, anybody? Remember the spider that lived outside your window? Orange body, green legs. Watched her build a web all summer, then one day there’s a big egg in it. The egg hatched…
Rachael: The egg hatched…
Rachael: …and a hundred baby spiders came out… and they ate her.
Rachael never was six years old — or at the very least, she hasn’t turned six years old yet. She was never a child, never grew up, and this proves it to her. She’s a Replicant, a slave, a toy, with no real past and a limited future. But pay attention to the story itself: not only does it neatly foreshadow the end of the film, but it also provides us another, better, more human than “more human than human” model for parenthood. The young taking sustenance from the old is far more just and humane than the model Tyrell provides; but it’s just a story, a deliberate falsehood, something that doesn’t actually belong to Rachael, and something that has no place in the world of Blade Runner.
Deckard, given the chance to choose which model to follow, picks the wrong one. He lies clumsily to her, tells her it’s just a joke, and she runs away. If he’d been kind to her, she might have stayed, but he’s a classic noir hero, so he allows her to seal her own death warrant by running away from both him and Tyrell. Now she’s just another Replicant on Earth, and it’s his job to “retire” her.
He doesn’t want to even think about this, so he uses image-enhancement technology on a photo Leon left behind in his apartment to track down Zhora (Joanna Cassidy), one of the other Replicants. This is Blade Runner’s one false note: it’s physically impossible to use software to extract so much detail from a print photograph. But note, again, the presence of photographs. Real inhabitants of 2019 would use digital media, which hadn’t been invented in 1982, but it’s the persistence of memory that’s important here. Leon has nothing like the emotional base a born human would have, so the photographs become even more important to him, so much so that he’s almost caught by police when Deckard takes the photographs from his apartment.
In the meantime, however, we get to meet Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), the leader of the escapees, when he goes with Leon to the laboratory of a man who designs eyes for Tyrell. Roy is a truly iconic character with his slicked-back ice-blond hair and leather jacket. Cheese-rocker Billy Idol stole Roy’s look for most of the 1980s and made a lot of money doing it. Roy is a warrior, designed for military combat, as physically capable as Leon but much smarter; however, he’s also desperate, because he knows his lifespan is limited but not by how much, and only Tyrell will be able to remove the limit. The eye designer doesn’t know about their lifespans, but he points them to J.F. Sebastian (William Sanderson), who designed their minds.
Deckard finds Zhora. She susses him out and almost kills him, and he chases her out into a crowded city street. Again, the set design is pure genius, as is the cinematography and costuming: Zhora is wearing a clear plastic raincoat flapping behind her, making her look as if she has insect or fairy wings. Fleeing in panic, she charges through a plate-glass window that’s the first of a series of store displays. She keeps crashing through windows as Deckard shoots her in the back; she falters and falls into a display full of fake snow, all in slow-motion. It’s the first of three beautiful death scenes in the film, and everything about it is morally wrong. In the voice-over cut of the film, Ford has Deckard say he felt a little bad about shooting a woman in the back, but in the director’s cut, he just makes sure it’s really Zhora, then shrugs it off. This woman was most human when she was running for her life, but Deckard, by contrast, is cold and inhuman, even when he gets a pat on the back from the captain who also tells him that Rachael is now on his target list.
Deckard hardly has time to think about this before he’s jumped by Leon, who knocks his gun away and beats the hell out of him while demanding answers Deckard can’t provide, except that Leon has four years total to live. Leon gets the better of Deckard and is about to kill him by driving fingers into his eyes when Rachael shoots Leon to death with Deckard’s gun.
She comes with him back to his apartment, where he not only tells her that while he won’t kill her the other Blade Runners will, but also goes into his room to have a drink while she’s in extreme emotional distress. Again, he refuses to make the humane choice.
She sits down at the piano in the living room and plays, then breaks down because she remembers piano lessons as a child, and can play well, but never was that child. This finally induces Deckard to comfort her. As they’re talking, we can see the lid of the piano is covered with old framed photographs. The photos are never spoken of, which is another fantastic element of “show, don’t tell”: we’re left to wonder why Deckard keeps photos everywhere. Is he just your fairly typical human, or is he also a Replicant? Much ink and many pixels have been spilled addressing this question with little consensus. There are a couple of other clues in the film that Deckard may be a Replicant: his eyes glow briefly at one point, like those of the gengineered owl in Tyrell’s office. Scott himself claims Deckard is a Replicant with implanted memories, like Rachael; Harrison Ford disagrees. But of course the entire point of the film is that it doesn’t matter. Humanity has nothing to do with being born, and everything to do with how you react to another’s pain.
Once again, here, Deckard makes the wrong choice, though perhaps from purer motives. When Rachael wants to flee, he pins her up against a wall and demands that she say she wants him, then kisses her. The 1980s had a rather different idea of what constitutes consent than we do now, but this is still problematic within the model the film has given us. The human choice here is to comfort her, but instead, he exploits her for his own pleasure. We might argue that he’s trying to provoke an emotional response in her, but there are better ways to go about this. We might point out that he’s a noir hero and not exactly brimming with affect himself, but all this is window dressing: the Los Angeles of 2019 is so suffused with slavery and the law of the primal father that it’s the only reaction he knows.
While Deckard comforts Rachael, Roy Batty, along with Pris (Daryl Hannah), the final escapee and a “simple pleasure model” according to the captain, manage to track down J.F. Sebastian. Sebastian is the genetic engineer who created the brain of the Nexus Six models; he lives in a cozy oasis within a rundown apartment building, his only companions are a pair of very creepy gengineered toy creatures.
Sebastian suffers from Methuselah Syndrome, accelerated aging, so his time is as limited as Pris and Roy’s. They charm him into taking Roy to Tyrell’s building, then gain entry to the inner sanctum by means of Roy’s help in the chess game Sebastian and Tyrell are playing. Roy gets to be the rare creation to confront his creator: he wants more life, but Tyrell claims he can’t do this without killing Roy. Roy appears to accept this, embraces Tyrell, then kills him by plunging his thumbs into Tyrell’s eyes.
What’s most salient about this scene is the depth and range of emotions Roy experiences in Tyrell’s chambers. He goes from elation — he really thinks he can have his time limit extended — to sadness, to love, to rage, and back. Deckard, putatively a born human, can’t manage to properly comfort a crying woman, but Roy, the Replicant, has more emotional range than anyone else in the film. If we judge humanity by an appropriate reaction to the suffering of others, as Blade Runner manifestly tells us we should right from the start, then Roy, more than Deckard, Tyrell, the captain or anyone else, is the real human in the film.
Deckard arrives at Sebastian’s apartment; he’s nearly killed by a lurking Pris, then shoots and kills her. Pris’ death scene is brief but extremely disturbing: more than anyone, she seems like a machine gone haywire. Roy returns to the apartment and, in a hallucinatory sequence, chases Deckard through the building. This scene is even more disturbing than Pris’ death: Roy is loony, singing, laughing, chanting nursery rhymes, pressing a nail through his own palm as he senses his own impending death. The effect is twofold: it terrifies and freaks out Deckard, who can only flee, and it freaks us out, as well — because Blade Runner is putting us through the Voight-Kampff test. Can we react appropriately to Deckard’s terror, which is pretty much the only emotion he’s manifested in the entire film? Can we react appropriately to Roy’s mix of emotions? Can we put ourselves in the place of a man who thought he could demand more life from his creator and actually get it, and who now only has minutes to live? Do we want to kill Deckard, as our last action?
Or, as Roy does, do we push Deckard to the very moment of total capitulation and powerlessness, hanging by his broken fingers from a ledge at the top of a ruined building in the rain, until he realizes he has no choice but to fall to his death? Roy grabs Deckard at the last instant and hoists him back up, and only then does Deckard truly understand what it’s like to be a slave. Roy then gives what is without a doubt the single best death soliloquy in Hollywood film, one so widely quoted as to verge on cliché, but still so powerful as to be worth quoting:
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. Time to die.
This is science fiction, and very good science fiction. Cognitive estrangement gives us a scientifically plausible novum, which forces us to look at our own society from a different perspective, one that defamiliarizes what we consider normal. Notice how we are shown, not told, even when Roy’s telling us. What are C-beams, and what in the world is the Tannhäuser Gate? No idea; that’s the point. Deckard might not even know. We can fill this in with whatever we want, some pastiche of SF tropes. But it remains clear that Roy, the slave, has a set of experiences far beyond that of all the born humans in LA or anyone else on Earth. And because he’s a slave, he can’t really be a father, and all his tremendous experiences won’t become photographs on his children’s pianos. Others — the master class — will write history instead: Tyrell’s death won’t stop the Tyrell Corporation.
But what Roy does manage to do is pass something on to Deckard in his last moments. Now Deckard knows — really knows — what it means to be a slave and, therefore, has a deeper understanding of what it means to be a Blade Runner. He profits from erasing slaves who dare to assert their humanity, and the masters profit from this even more.
When Deckard returns to his apartment, his first and only impulse is to find out whether Rachael is still there and alive. He cares for her, so he bundles her from the apartment with the only English words spoken by Gaff echoing in his head: “Too bad she won’t live; but then again, who does?”.
The film ends with Rachael and Deckard in an air car, driving above a beautiful, well-lit green landscape, somewhere away from the city. What Gaff doesn’t know is that Rachael, unlike the other Replicants, wasn’t shackled by the four-year lifespan.
There’s far more to unpack in this film (I haven’t even touched on the role of animals). But insofar as Blade Runner is a Dad Movie, we can understand that it gives us two models of fatherhood — Freud’s primal father and a nurturing one — and shows us, rather than tells us, how corporate power and violence are always already bound up with the first model and humanity with the second. Insofar as it’s a science fiction movie, it’s not about Replicants and never was; it’s asking us how human we, ourselves, really are when we tolerate slavery and exploitation. If you’re reading this on a monitor or phone, some part of your experience was almost certainly mediated by corporate power exploiting slavery or the sort of near-slavery that is rampant in electronics factories, where the owners string nets under windows to prevent workers from hurling themselves to their deaths.
America today, three years before 2019, is boiling over with arguments about “illegal aliens” and building walls to keep them out — but they wouldn’t be here, says this finely-crafted story, if we didn’t shrug and turn away and pretend they weren’t quite so human as we are.
Ian Campbell is Associate Professor of Arabic and Comparative Literature at Georgia State University in Atlanta. His published research addresses postcolonial Moroccan novels in Arabic and French, and Arabic-language science fiction. He administers a YouTube channel, Arabic Grammar Unpacked, and publishes, under the name Julian Cage, trashy, character-driven mystery-thriller fiction set in Atlanta. You can find Julian Cage’s work on the Amazon Kindle website.