Despite the initial appearance of an action film, Blade Runner operates on an unusually rich number of dramatic levels. As with much of the cyberpunk genre, it owes a large debt to film noir, containing and exploring such conventions as the femme fatale, a Raymond Chandleresque first-person narration (removed in later versions), and the questionable moral outlook of the Hero — extended here to include even the humanity of the hero, as well as the usual dark and shadowy cinematography.
It is one of the most literate science fiction films, both thematically — enfolding the philosophy of religion and moral implications of the increasing human mastery of genetic engineering, within the context of classical Greek drama and its notions of hubris — and linguistically, drawing on the poetry of William Blake and the Bible. Blade Runner also features a chess game based on the famous Immortal game of 1851 (The king and queen are interposed on Tyrell's side, a position which a grandmaster would never attempt).
Blade Runner depicts a future whose fictional distance from present reality has grown sharply smaller as 2019 approaches. The film delves into the future implications of technology on the environment and society by reaching into the past using literature, religious symbolism, classical dramatic themes and film noir. This tension between past, present and future is apparent in the retrofitted future of Blade Runner, which is high-tech and gleaming in places but elsewhere decayed and old.
A high level of paranoia is present throughout the film with the visual manifestation of corporate power, omnipresent police, probing lights; and in the power over the individual represented particularly by genetic programming of the replicant's. Control over the environment is seen on a large scale but also with how animals are created as mere commodities. This oppressive backdrop clarifies why many people are going to the off-world colonies, which clearly parallels the migration to the Americas. The popular 1980s prediction of America being economically surpassed by Japan is reflected in the domination of Japanese culture and advertising in LA 2019. The film also makes extensive use of eyes and manipulated images to call into question reality and our ability to perceive it.
This provides an atmosphere of uncertainty for Blade Runner's central theme of examining humanity. In order to discover replicants an empathy test is used with a number of questions focused on the treatment of animals; making it the essential indicator of someone's "humanity". The replicants are juxtaposed with human characters who are unempathetic, and while the replicants show passion and concern for one another the mass of humanity on the streets is cold and impersonal. The film goes so far as to put in doubt the nature of Deckard and forces the audience to reevaluate what it means to be human.
- WARNING: Spoilers follow here.
If you have not seen this film, it is recommended to skip to another section.
Paranoia pervades Blade Runner just as the rain falls on Los Angeles 2019. Every major theme adds to the paranoia of the film and envelops us in suspicion and uncertainty.
At the beginning of the film, the replicant Leon is being interviewed by the Blade Runner Holden, who is working undercover at a company's employment office to screen for escaped replicants using the Voight-Kampff test, indicating the paranoia directed towards replicants.
Advertising blimps float over the dark sprawl of 2019 Los Angeles; their searchlights penetrating into every dark corner, as seen when Deckard enters the Bradbury building. This gives the impression that the population is always being watched. Even Rick Deckard seems to be watched by Gaff. The symbol of "eyes" also tie into this theme. The way Gaff interacts with Deckard implies that Gaff is Deckard's "handler" and Gaff also seems to know things about Deckard that Deckard doesn't even know. For example, the origami unicorn presumably left by Gaff, leads the audience to believe Gaff knows the truth of Deckard's humanity.
An additional level to the paranoia is the lifetime time-limit imposed on each replicant, and that the limit, while conceived and implemented by the Corporation, is now intrinsic to their being. It is ironic to note that one of the most violent of the replicants, Roy, is the only one to execute his genetic programming to his endpoint, as all the rest perish through violent interactions with humans. The callousness and implied cruelty of the design imposed on the replicants is the palpable driving force of the paranoia.
Technicism is the concept that all problems, all needs, and all reality will eventually be controlled using technological means, methods, and devices. It is a notion that dominates the dystopic Los Angeles of Blade Runner as it seems to blindly accept technological improvements. Many of the themes in the film reflect on this idea further.
Other futuristic novels have examined this idea, such as Burgess' A Clockwork Orange, Orwell's 1984, and Huxley's Brave New World. Some critics of Blade Runner state that the technology of the film dominates the characters, and that the depth of characters is second to the depth of technology. Whether by design or not, it is quite apropos for this film as it reflects on a consequence of technicism — the pursuit of ignoble ends, technology for its own sake, devoid of any personal, ethical or moral consideration.
This closely resembles the theme of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, in that man's never ending pursuit of technology and control of the environment, will ultimately lead to his destruction. Just as Victor Frankenstein was destroyed by the monster he created, Dr. Tyrell was killed by a replicant.
Genetic engineering and cloning
The first draft of the entire human genome was decoded in June 26, 2000, by the Human Genome Project, followed by a steadily-increasing number of other organisms across the microscopic to macroscopic spectrum. The short step from theory to practice in using genetic knowledge was taken quickly: genetically modified organisms have become a present reality, with genetically-modified food ingredients an everyday part of human daily diet (at least, in the western part of the world.)
The embryonic techniques of somatic cell nuclear transfer from a specific genotype via cloning, as well as some of the problems pre-figured in Blade Runner, were demonstrated by the cloning of Dolly the sheep in 1996. Since 2001, political efforts have been mounting in many countries to ban human cloning, impelled by a sense of its abhorrence and imminence, while rumors abound that the first human clones may already have been produced, the most famous example being a claim by the extra-terrestrial worshipping Raelians, a religious group who have offered no proof to support their extraordinary claims. In all of these developments, a clear tension between commercial and non-commercial interests is apparent, as scientific and business motivations conflict with ethical and religious concerns about the appropriateness of human intervention in the deepest fabric of nature. Possibly resulting in the "ownership" and enslavement of life that could eventually turn on its creators. In many ways Blade Runner serves as a cautionary tale in the tradition of Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein.
Such issues are deeply troubling to many. At core, the creation of life and the ordering of the natural world has been the traditional prerogative of God or gods, and the substance of various creation myths. In the classic Greek tradition, the term "hubris" denotes actions by humans that usurp roles properly reserved for the gods; heroes who display hubris invariably meet nasty ends (nemesis). Blade Runner has been praised for immersing us in these conflicts, successfully blurring any standard expectations of moral correctness.
Eyes and memories
Eye symbolism appears repeatedly in Blade Runner and provides insight into themes and characters therein. The film opens with an extreme closeup of an eye which fills the screen reflecting the hellish landscape seen below. When reflecting one of the Tyrell Corp. pyramids it evokes the all-seeing Eye of Providence.
In Roy's quest to "meet his maker" he seeks out Chew, a genetic designer of eyes, who created the eyes of the Nexus-6. When told this, Roy quips, "Chew, if only you could see what I've seen with your eyes", (ironic in the sense that Roy's eyes are Chew's eyes, at least inasmuch as they are the products of his labours), emphasizing the importance of sight in the formation of self. Roy and Leon then intimidate Chew with disembodied eyes and he tells them about J.F. Sebastian.
It is symbolic that the man who designed replicant eyes shows them the way to Tyrell. Eyes are widely regarded as "windows to the soul", eye contact being a facet of body language that unconsciously demonstrates intent and emotion and this meme is used to great effect in Blade Runner. The Voight-Kampff test that determines if you are human measures the emotions, specifically empathy through various biological responses such as fluctuation of the pupil and involuntary dilation of the iris (as pointed out by Dr. Tyrell). Furthermore, Tyrell's trifocal glasses are a strong indicator of his reliance on technology for his power and his myopic vision. Later he is killed by Roy who forces his thumbs into Tyrell's eyes.
The glow which is notable in replicant eyes in some scenes creates a sense of artificiality. According to Ridley Scott, "that kickback you saw from the replicants' retinas was a bit of a design flaw. I was also trying to say that the eye is really the most important organ in the human body. It's like a two-way mirror; the eye doesn't only see a lot, the eye gives away a lot. A glowing human retina seemed one way of stating that".
The relationship between sight and memories is referenced several times in Blade Runner. Rachael's visual recollection of her memories, Leon's "precious photos", Roy's discussion with Chew and soliloquy at the end, "I've seen things you people wouldn't believe". However, just as prevalent is the concept that what the eyes see and the resulting memories are not to be trusted. This is a notion emphasized by Rachael's fabricated memories, Deckard's need to confirm a replicant based on more than appearance, and even the printout of Leon's photograph not matching the reality of the Esper visual.
With this theme throughout the film, even mistakes and inconsistencies can be interpreted as further tests of the audiences' visual memory. For example stand-in's are used for Roy and Zhora in Leon's photograph which is put into the Esper machine. Also when Deckard finds a snake scale in the bathtub and stands up to place it in a bag; it is Ford's stunt double Vic Armstrong. This serves to reinforce the unsettling conclusion that despite the rich visual tapestry of Blade Runner, clarity cannot be achieved.
Another issue that permeates Blade Runner is the role of women. This is explored through the treatment and defining of lead female roles, which all happen to be artificial (replicants) and sexualized by the men around them. This gives whole new meaning to the term "objectifying women" since they are manufactured to look like models.
- Pris is a "basic pleasure model."
- Zhora becomes an erotic dancer performing with a snake.
- Rachael is supposed to be a copy of Tyrell's niece (with implanted memories). Her ambiguous part-secretary, part-femme fatale character can be read as being objectified – one of the questions in her Voight-Kampff test seems to question her sexuality. Depending on one's view of replicants, she then becomes Deckard's "love interest" or "love object."
The film-noir setting provides further context of the portrayal of women in film, with the femme-fatale historically portraying women as dangerous, uncaring, devious, sexualized and deadly as a reaction to changing roles after World War II. Sebastian is lured by Pris' sexuality, a naked Zhora catches Deckard off-guard, and then there is the forbidden love with Rachael. Critics may believe Blade Runner misogynist, given that Pris and Zhora can be seen as "strong, independent and non-subservient women" who are killed, whereas Rachael who is the opposite lives.
Arguably, the use of women as victims is meant to elicit sympathy from the audience (a Voight-Kampff test), and moreover can be read as a postmodern critique of the film-noir archetype. In this view, Blade Runner exposes the femme-fatale stereotype as dead. Furthermore, the race of the replicants implies a critique of females in Hollywood films. The replicants become representative not of a battle between sexes, but "between that which is human, and that which is non-human, or to put it more simply, that which is real and that which is not real."
There is a rich subtext of religious allegory in Blade Runner. Tyrell has the appearance of a living god from within a pyramid above the clouds that exudes wealth and power. This self-image is reinforced when Tyrell assumes the role of the gods by dimming the sun on command. Given the replicants' superhuman abilities, they are created by Tyrell and fall from the heavens (off-world) makes them analogous to fallen angels. Roy Batty shares many similarities in this context with Lucifer as he seeks an audience with Tyrell using J.F. Sebastian who shares the replicants' "accelerated decrepitude". Like the classical image of angels Roy refers to Tyrell as "Father" in the Workprint and the Final Cut. Also like Lucifer when he cannot gain the power he seeks from his creator, he seeks instead to destroy him. This connection is also apparent when Roy deliberately misquotes William Blake, "Fiery the angels fell..." (Blake wrote "Fiery the angels rose..." in America, A Prophecy). Zhora makes use of a serpent that "once corrupted man" in her performance. Nearing the end of his life Roy creates a stigmata as he transitions into a Christ-like figure who provides salvation to Deckard. Upon his death Roy's soul ascends into the heavens in the form of a dove; which appears to fulfill Tyrell's premature metaphor of the Prodigal Son.
The kiss of death is also seen in Blade Runner, when Roy Batty kisses his maker, Tyrell, moments before he is killed.
Deckard: replicant or human?
Rick Deckard is the antihero of Blade Runner, hired to "retire" replicants. The nature of most of the characters is clearly shown, yet Deckard's character is ambiguous, and viewers are left doubtful; aficionados debate this matter. If Deckard is human, then his being spared by Roy and his love for Rachael soften the line between human and replicant, adding conflicting ambivalence to the story. If Deckard is a replicant, the irony is greater. If the origami unicorn seen in the Director's Cut reveals Deckard as a replicant in the film's end, then the audience's expectations and prejudices are questioned — and, by extension, our humanity. (Note: This ambiguity is not a factor in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? There, author Philip K. Dick expressly identifies Deckard as human.)
Relevant opinions from those involved in the production:
- Ridley Scott stated in an interview in 2002 that Deckard is a replicant.
- Harrison Ford continues to insist that Deckard is human.
- Hampton Fancher (original screenwriter) has said that he did not write the Deckard character as a replicant.
The debate on his nature renewed when the Director's Cut was released with the unicorn sequence. Since the Original Theatrical Version (OV) points to Deckard being human, whereas the Director's Cut (DC) indicates Deckard is a replicant, it has been asserted in the Blade Runner community that Deckard's nature depends on which version one considers authoritative. Others maintain the film is ambiguous. In some cultures, this is acceptable, but many cannot resist looking for clues, and analyzing them for deeper insight into the film — and themselves.
Clues and questions
Note: Bryant saying there are six escaped replicants is a dialogue error arising from a sixth replicant (Mary) from the script being removed from the theatrical cut of the movie.  It is not an implication Deckard is the sixth replicant.
Since Gaff folds a chicken when Deckard is "chickening out" of the task being pushed at him, and the matchstick man later in the film representing Deckard's attraction to Rachael; this indicates that the unicorn was also a message for Deckard. The origami unicorn stands alone as a symbol of what is "not real" and yet exists. Before the addition of the unicorn dream sequence it is possible that this symbol was intended as a reference to Gaff's knowledge of Rachael being a replicant. Or, a reference to the mythical, savage beast which could only be tamed by a chaste maiden; in this case, the cold-blooded bounty hunter, softened by a new love. Alternatively, the unicorn could simply be meant to symbolize Rachael (both are man-made creatures, in a sense), with the dream indicating Deckard's falling in love with her.
In any event, the origami seems to be made of chewing gum wrapper which is foil on one side and paper on the other. It has been said that this hints at the organic and mechanical nature of a replicant.
Significance of Deckard's identity
To emphasize similarity by juxtaposition: When Roy Batty saves Rick Deckard, a replicant is saving a human. When Deckard falls in love with Rachael, a human affectionate towards a non-human. If replicants are hunting -- and falling in love with -- replicants, there is no ambivalence, and therefore, no conflict.