The film Blade Runner is hugely successful, but what does it all mean? As the makers’ hint, the key is to watch it through the eyes of William Blake and his mythology of liberation.

As a compulsory module at university I had to study ‘Philosophy of Mind and the Mind-Body Problem’. At the first lecture our instructor told us that we would be taking the subject with him for a year, but “if you want to save yourselves a lot of time understanding what the question of mind is about, you could do worse than watch the film Blade Runner”.

So that is what I did. The film’s plot sees a group of six robots (‘replicants’)—the latest and most advanced models of their kind (Nexus 6), designed by The Tyrell Corporation to fight in wars on alien colonies—hijack a spaceship and return to earth to find their designer and get him to undo the four-year lifespan he has built into them. Replicants are banned from Earth, so a policeman dedicated to capturing and killing them—a Blade Runner, Deckard (Harrison Ford)—is assigned to track them down and ‘retire’ them. 

Cops and Little People, Good and Evil

The story is structured around a set of binaries it invites you to consider. These start with the police chief’s warning to the Blade Runner when he is assigned to the case that “If you’re not cop, you’re little people.” Underpinning this political dichotomy, other, loftier contraries also come under the microscope: good and evil, man and machine, master and slave, reality and simulation. It was the film’s toppling of the supposedly absolute difference between man and machine that excited our lecturer: at the point in the film when that distinction is properly undone you can feel an entire moral and political world built upon it start to unravel.

Pris
Pris

Philip K Dick—author of the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) on which the film is based—was obsessed to the point of paranoia with the potential interpenetration and confusion of the real and the unreal. But for all Dick’s paranoia, when it came to robots he had a simple enough scheme for distinguishing them—people experience empathy while machines do not. This distinction is itself perhaps only a metaphysical working up of the political fact that we deny our slaves the dignity of being subjectsphilosophical lipstick on the slavedriver’s turkeywhich is why the desire to be recognised as an agent and a centre of lived experience has historically been coextensive with the struggle against slavery. The original story features a device that helps Blade Runners enforce Dick’s distinction: suspects take the ‘Voight-Kampff test’ using this machine to measure involuntary movements of the eye as an index of emotional response. No emotional response = no humanity. It is a machine for detecting runaway slaves.

The Voight-Kampff test transfers over to the film, but it is pointless there because the premise it is based on has been undone: the replicants have started to develop “emotional responses of their own”, so the test no longer works as it should. Now the machines have become like humans, according to Philip K Dick’s reasoning, capable of experiencing empathy. The test can no longer distinguish between human and machine. We can conclude from this either that the machines too have been proved to possess a mind, since they now have the same responses, or, If they don’t, and we insist that only the humans possess mind and spirit while the replicants do not, then this spirit seems to make no difference. Either matter thinks, or spirit (and the Philosophy of Mind) doesn’t matter.

Either matter thinks, or spirit doesn’t matter

In a sense, then, we can say that the point of the film is that the replicants finally become the equal of humans. But that way of putting it seriously undersells the replicants, as they seem in fact to be greatly superior to the humans, both physically and, crucially, morally. In the final scenes, not only does the replicant commander, Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), physically far outdo the Blade Runner sent to kill him even as his body is winding down toward its programmed death, but in the closing moments, just as he has it in his power finally to kill the Blade Runner by letting him fall to his death from the roof on which they have been fighting, instead he uses his last reserves of strength to gather him up and save him.

Roy Batty, Replicant Revolutionary

Roy

In this way, the traditional terms we set out with have been upset. The titular hero of the film turns out not to be its real star, instead, that role is adopted by his designated prey, and the man we start off assuming to be on the side of the good (Roy taunts him, “aren’t you supposed to be the good man?”) turns out to be a cog in a lethal corporate machine, while the supposedly unfeeling and mechanical replicant commander emerges as the centre of a vortex of profound emotion and is (or becomes) an exemplary moral actor.

An Extraordinary Praxis

The replicants outdo the humans in every category, capable of an extraordinary praxis. At first this superior praxis is only physical. Pris (Darryl Hannah)—designed as a “basic pleasure model… for military clubs in the outer colonies”—asserts her gravitas and essential identity by quoting Descartes, “I think… therefore I am.” Roy then finesses this by indicating what it means in practice, adding, “Very good Pris—now show him why,” at which point Pris does a backward somersault and thrusts her hand in a jug of boiling water, without flinching, in order to pull out the egg within.

But while this performance is beyond normal human capabilities it remains essentially trivial, a stunt, which Pris can only perform because she is so cleverly designed—and by a human, at that. We knew from the start that the replicants were physically superior, having been built that way to fight in off-world colonial wars. Ultimately it is in the moral dimension that the replicants truly stand tall, exemplified by Roy’s rescue of the Blade Runner. It is only when that happens that you finally start to grasp the true stature of Roy and his crew.

Fiery the Angels Fell

That is as far as I understood the film at the time. But there is also a specifically Blakean theme at work in it that throws more light on the meaning of the story, and especially of its ending. The first sign of it arrives when Roy and his lieutenant, Leon (Brion James), visit Hannibal Chew (James Hong), a subcontracting manufacturer of replicant eyes for the Tyrell Corporation, looking for information from him that will help them get to their creator. In the middle of their interrogation of Chew, Roy suddenly breaks into a quote from Blake’s America, a Prophecy (1789): “Fiery the Angels fell / Deep thunder rolled about their shores / Burning with the fires of Orc.”

Much has been made of the fact that this is a misquotation,1 since in the original text Blake has the Angels rise rather than fall (“Fiery the Angels rose, & as they rose deep thunder roll’d / Around their shores: indignant burning with the fires of Orc”).2 In a film full of imploding binaries and dramatic reversals it is tempting to see this inversion as significant, but I think that is a mistake. In Blake’s text, the Angels denote the revolutionary forces of Orc, embodied in those Americans rising against their British colonial masters. In the film, our Orc-ian rebels fall from the sky to start their insurrection. Roy simply transposes Blake’s words appropriately. The more significant point is that in the act of rebellion the Angels become righteous Devils—for the Romans, Orcus was a god of the underworld. In the film, the replicants represent the insurgent energy of Orc rising up not only against the earthly powers that be, but also ultimately against God, their father, just as Orc, an avatar of Satan in Blake’s mythology, is in rebellion against the patriarch, Urizen.

Blade Runner is a film made in the spirit of Blake, and knows it

If the quote captures the spirit of the replicants precisely, it is nevertheless not especially relevant in the immediate context of the confrontation with eye-master Chew. The fact that Roy’s use of Blake seems gratuitous tells us that it is there as a marker, inviting the viewer to imagine the replicants in terms of Blake’s mythos. Most critics ignored this clue to focus instead on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, with Roy envisaged as the monster who accuses his maker of irresponsibility in creating in him, a mere simulation of life. While Blake’s Orc and Shelley’s Frankenstein certainly share features based on their sharing a common Promethean ancestor in the figure of Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost, Blake makes very different use of these elements than Shelley, one that makes much more sense of Blade Runner. The use of the quote may be gratuitous in context, but it is willful. Blade Runner is a film made in the spirit of Blake, and knows it.

Eldon Tyrell

Tyrell

Frankenstein or Orc

The upshot of the replicant’s mission is that, with most of them already killed along the way, Roy finally manages to confront Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel), the genius behind the Corporation named for him, and the designer of the replicant’s minds. When he does so, he puts the problem bluntlyhe “wants more life”. Tyrell explains that more life is not possible (You were made as well as we could make you.”). At this, Roy kills Tyrell, kissing him while using his thumbs to put out his eyes, and using all of his strength to crush Tyrell’s skull.

I don’t read this as a story about revenge for an act of creation gone wrong, as with Frankenstein, but rather a parallel with all life. We will all die. Roy’s reluctant acceptance of this is ultimately no different from the acceptance we all must arrive at if we can. The question is, having acquired this understanding, what does he make of it?

Blade Runner as a film is arguably overburdened with clues to its meaning, some of which point in different directions. For instance, the thrust of the story depends on the contrast between the android Roy and the human Deckard in their mutual struggle, but this is undermined by a series of clues that Deckard himself may also be a replicant.

I've seen things you people wouldn't believe

In the original version of the film, there is a voiceover from Deckard, read in the style of a film noir cop or PI, involving a stream of laconic tough-guy cliches. The impression given is that Deckard is something of an automaton himself, not greatly prone to original thought, stilted, possibly even pre-programmed. The Director’s cut removed this voiceover but then left a different clue to the same effect at the end when Deckard and Rachel (Sean Young)—who we have been led to believe is the last replicant standing after Roy’s deathare making a dash to escape the city and its Blade Runner assassins. Just as they are leaving we notice (as Deckard and Rachel do not) that the junior cop, Gaff (Edward James Olmos), has left a tiny origami unicorn of his own making by the entrance to Deckard’s flat. This reminds us of Deckard’s earlier dream of a unicorn and implies that Gaff knows something of the contents of Deckard’s dreams and his inner life, and thus that Deckard’s memories were programmed into him, as we know is the case with Rachel (Tyrell: If we gift them the past we create a cushion or pillow for their emotions and consequently we can control them better.”)

At the opening of the film, when we are first introduced to Deckard, he is ordering food at a sushi stall. Apropos of nothing, he says “Cold fish, that’s what my wife called me”, inviting us again to see him as a frigid and unemotional being, ‘robotic’. But if Deckard’s memories were implanted by Tyrell, one wonders how it will help to give him memories of being accused of being robotic. Worse still, if both of our protagonists are replicants there is nothing left of the central dialectic of the film about the relative status of man and his robot mirror. Perhaps the writers left contradictory clues about Deckard’s status to confuse the viewers, so that, forced to try and resolve the issue, the audience would conclude that it can’t be resolved satisfactorily. They might then ask themselves whether it even matters how we categorise Deckard. Like so much else in the film, the implication seems to be that our ideas about who is or isn’t human, who has or hasn’t agency, are practically useless.

Roy Batty

It Is Finished

A clue of a different type comes when Roy and Deckard are fighting on the roof of the Bradbury Apartments. Roy’s body is closing down as he fights. His hands begin to seize up. To stall the quickening process of death he takes a nail from the wall and pushes it through his own hand, so that the jolt of pain will bring him temporarily back to life, giving him a few more minutes to fight on. Obviously, we are led to think of Christ crucified. Roy’s last words are “Time… to die”, at which he lowers his head and releases a dove, his spirit, which ascends into the grimy and polluted night sky. In the Gospel of John, we read that at the end, “[Christ] said, ‘It is finished!’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” 1  Why make this comparison with Christ?

In sacrificing himself Christ breaks the cycle of pain and retribution, offence and revenge that characterises society. In doing so he opens the door to a new dispensation, a New Jerusalem, as Blake had it. But to arrive there we must “become like Christ”, transcending the (old) human condition.

Roy, on the other hand, is a rebellious slave in the tradition of Spartacus, fighting for his life against the corporate system and its enforcers who together keep the interstellar economy of war and slavery running. When he and his fellow Angels fall to Earth to begin their struggle for life, they become Devilsbearing in mind here that, as we know from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, for Blake the Devils are very far indeed from being the world’s bad guys. Specifically, the replicants become like Orc, the spirit of energetic rebellion in Blake’s mythology.

Roy saves Deckard

Blake saw the revolutionaries of the American War of Independence as such Angels, and identified them with Orc. He did not see the American uprising as merely embodying Orc-like qualities but as the opening movement of a real historical awakening of the forces of transformation. At the same time, while this awakening begins in the sphere of colonial politics, Blake imagined it sweeping far beyond there to overturn all oppression and ultimately to free the human mind completely. That is the plot of America, a Prophecy. What starts as a protest about taxation and representation, generalises to overturn all forms of oppression, and ends with a cosmic final judgement on each individual in which “the five gates [of the senses] were consum’d, and the bolts and hinges melted”. Blake depicts a cosmic permanent revolution that gathers pace until it overcomes every last trace of Urizenic woe.3

This also describes the curve of Roy’s development in Blade Runner. His act of rebellion is not only against settler colonialism and its army but against his maker, his God. He rails against the iniquity of his condition, but when he finally comes to terms with it, and comes to kill God, he is changed. As he struggles with Deckard after the killing of Tyrell, seeing Deckard crushed and defeated, and facing death himself, he exercises an extraordinary act of empathy, using his last reserves of strength to save him, to the Blade Runner’s amazement (“Maybe in those last moments he loved life more than he ever had before. Not just his life, anybody’s life.”)

Give Me More Life

In this act of compassion a final reversal takes place: Roy, in his final moments, is able to grant ‘more life’ to Deckard in a way Tyrell could not do for him. Roy exercises compassion in a way that the clinical-sounding Tyrellwith his talk of ‘EMS recombination’ and ‘immutable genetic coding sequences’did not. He does this in the most extraordinary way, extending it to the man who has spent the rest of the film hunting him down and killing his friends and lover (Pris). He becomes, if not Christ, then Christ-like: Rather than extend the cycle of violence into which he and Deckard had been locked, he terminates it.

In this way, Roy arrives at the second stage in the arc of Blake’s imagined ‘permanent revolution’. He does not undo oppression, but he removes himself (and Deckard, it turns out) from the cycle of oppression and retribution, by saving Deckard’s life rather than killing him. To complete Blake’s rising curve of liberation, it only remained for him to unshackle his senses, abandon what Blake called the ‘single vision of Newton’s sleep’, and gaze into infinity. If we do not actually witness this happen, we get at least a taste of it in his final speech, where, after having saved Deckard and placed him down beside him, he speaks of his experiences (“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe”) and reimagines them, famously concluding “All those moments will be lost, in time… like tears in rain… Time to die.” Admittedly, this is less of a Last Judgement than a hymn to the cosmic validity of his own experience, but it’s all we have, and I think it is enough to justify seeing Roy’s development as echoing the course of Blake’s permanent revolution of the oppressed.

The Fires of Orc

Blade Runner is not entirely consistent. I have offered a generous interpretation of the contradictory clues it has on offer. In truth, these could be simple inconsistencies. The screenplay and plot are sometimes confused. Its picture of a dystopian world of ‘romanticism without nature’ has been hugely influential, and has seen the film placed near the top of many lists of favourite movies. But at the core of the film is not the weight of the dystopia it depicts, but rather a message about the confluence of political resistance, compassion, personal identity and redemption. By the end, we might even imagine that the brilliant lights illuminating the blood-spattered, soaked, dying but triumphant Roy, are not those of the neon of the Blade Runner’s futuristic city, but rather the reflections of the fires of Orc, whose “fierce flames… burnt round the heavens, and round the abodes of men” at the very moment of his triumph.4

Roy saves Deckard

Notes

  1. See, for example, Alexis Harley, America, a Prophecy: When Blake meets Blade Runner, The University of Sydney: Sydney eScholarship Journals online, core.ac.uk/reader/229392480, accessed 2021-02-10.
  2. Blake, America, a Prophecy 11:1-3, in David Erdman, The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake (1965), New York: Random House, 1988, p 55.
  3. Here I am stealing from Trotsky’s idea of the necessity of a ‘Permanent Revolution’, such that a revolution which begins in one country must necessarily generalise and become international if it is to succeed.
  4. Blake, ibid, Erdman, p 58.