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.