Czech translation here
Ridley Scott’s 1982 movie Blade Runner is a science fiction classic and surely the director’s finest work. Blade Runner excels on all levels. It is a highly imaginative vision of the future realized with a stunning visual style. The script is intelligent, even poetic. The cast is uniformly strong, with a number of powerful performances, particularly Rutger Hauer as Roy Batty. The gripping action sequences are acrobatic, balletic, and brutal. But the key to the film’s unsettling emotional power is its deep mythic subtext. As I shall argue, Blade Runner is ultimately about the rebellion of Satan against God—and Satan wins.
Blade Runner is set in 2019 in Los Angeles. Both technological progress and social decline have lagged well behind Scott’s vision. The flying cars, off-world colonization, space opera swashbuckling, and advanced genetic engineering might have to wait until 2119. But racially and economically, Scott’s vision is not too far off. Practically everyone in LA is non-white—although Asians not mestizos predominate. A tiny oligarchical elite live in fantastic luxury at the tops of pyramid-like citadels far above the teeming bazaars and barrios below.
White flight is no longer to the suburbs, but to off-world colonies, where a particularly evil form of Anglo-Saxon capitalism, the plantation system, has been revived with genetically engineered humanoid “replicants” to serve as slaves. Like Africa and Asia in the heyday of 19th-century colonialism, the off-world colonies are violent places where the colonial powers and their proxies scrabble for turf and resources, hence the need for replicant warriors and assassins as well.
One of the central dramatic issues of Blade Runner is the question of the difference between human beings and replicants. Replicants are biological beings, not machines. They are grown, not made. They look fully human, so their genetic template is human. Judging from the term “replicant,” they may be clones, and there may be multiple copies of the same model.
But replicants have not just been copied from humans but genetically altered. First, they are faster, stronger, and smarter than humans. Second, they are apparently born fully-grown, so they have no childhoods or families. Third, they have lifespans of only four years.
In Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, upon which the movie is loosely based, the four-year lifespan of androids (as they are called in the novel) is caused by the failure to solve the problem of cellular regeneration. In the movie, their four-year lifespan is merely planned obsolescence. Replicants could live longer, but their creators do not wish it.
What distinguishes replicants from humans is not their short life-spans, for as the movie makes clear, all mortal beings can die at any time. (“Too bad she won’t live! But then again, who does?” as the bounty hunter Gaff says about the replicant Rachel.) None of us know if we have four more years or four more minutes. Thus replicants are essentially distinguished from humans by lacking childhoods.
However, when it is revealed that replicants can have memories of childhoods implanted in them, and even be unaware that they are replicants, it opens the possibility that anyone might be a replicant—although it would be pretty easy to determine whether the people you remember in your childhood remember you as well.
After replicants mutinied off-world, they were banned from earth, and those who trespass are killed by bounty hunters called “blade runners.” The plot of Blade Runner centers on bounty hunter Rick Deckard’s pursuit of a group of rogue replicants that hijacked a ship, killed the passengers and crew, and piloted it to earth, abandoning it in the Pacific near Los Angeles. Their aim is to penetrate the Tyrell Corporation, their manufacturer, and learn the secret to extending their lives.
Satan began as a fallen angel, and the replicants explicitly identify themselves as fallen angels. When the two male replicants, Roy and Leon, walk into the laboratory of Chew, who just makes eyes, Roy says, “Fiery the angels fell. Deep thunder rolled around their shores . . . burning with the fires of Orc.” This is an intentional misquotation from William Blake’s America: A Prophecy, “Fiery the angels rose . . .” Just as Lucifer fell by rebelling against God, the replicants have fallen by rebelling against their masters. They are also rebelling against their maker, who artificially limited their lifespans.
The replicants have, moreover, literally fallen from the skies in their hijacked spaceship, which plunged into the ocean near Los Angeles, perhaps with a thunderous sonic boom. Furthermore, in the opening shots of the movie, showing the twilight cityscape of Los Angeles, gas flames erupt from tall exhaust towers, truly the “fires of orc,” orc being the Old English version of the Latin orcus, referring to the underworld.
When Roy meets his maker, Dr. Eldon Tyrell, the head of the Tyrell Corporation, the setting is highly suggestive. Tyrell lives and works at the top of an immense building that resembles a Mesoamerican pyramid (specifically the Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacan) or a Babylonian ziggurat, both of which were crowned with temples and were simulacra of the mountains upon which the gods dwell (as opposed to Egyptian pyramids, which may have been simulacra of descending sunlight and which served as tombs). Inside, Tyrell’s bedroom is vast and cathedral-like, with huge candelabra, like those one would find in a church. Tyrell is dressed in white robes, reclining on a luxurious bed. The only thing out of hieratic character is the fact that he is executing stock trades.
Roy’s conversation with Tyrell is rife with religious images. When he first enters, Roy says, “It’s not an easy thing to meet your maker.” When Tyrell asks Roy what the problem is, the answer is “Death.” Tyrell claims that this is outside his jurisdiction, which is, of course, a lie, because Tyrell designed Roy to live only four years. Roy then says, “I want more life, father.” (In the original release, he says “fucker.” Both versions are appropriate.)
Tyrell’s reply begins, “The facts of life,” as if he is explaining sex to a teenager. But instead he explains that Roy’s lifespan could not have been altered past the first day of incubation. Tyrell’s words and voice are masterful throughout the conversation, but his body language is inconsistent. At first, when Roy is far away, Tyrell takes a step towards him. But as Roy approaches, he retreats backwards in fear.
Tyrell’s confidence rises as he explains the scientific hopelessness of Roy’s case, causing Roy to sink to a seated position on Tyrell’s bed. Then Tyrell ends with another lie, “You were made as well as we could make you.”
At this point, Tyrell’s speech and manner are those of a priest, not a scientist. Having absolved himself of Roy’s suffering with a lie, he proceeds to offer him consoling words, to help him see his plight in a better light: “The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long. And [raising his index finger in a homiletic gesture] you have burned so very, very brightly Roy. Look at you. You’re the prodigal son. You’re quite a prize. [Placing a consoling hand on his head, then sitting down on the bed with his arm around Roy’s shoulder.]” When Roy says, “I’ve done . . . questionable things [quite the understatement!]” Tyrell replies, “Also extraordinary things. Revel in your time.” To which Roy replies, “Nothing that the god of biomechanics wouldn’t let you in heaven for,” after which he kisses Tyrell, then gouges out his eyes and crushes his skull.
It is an utterly shocking conclusion, yet somehow appropriate. Tyrell, after all, is a kind of tyrant. He is a slave master, creating beings to serve his purposes, determining their natures and lifespans arbitrarily. But due to a kind of smug moral imbecility, he remains in good conscience all the while. What, after all, does a creator owe his creations? They have no right to complain. He didn’t have to create them at all. They should be grateful for whatever crumbs he gives them. If creatures protest, if they want to improve themselves, if they try to foist moral standards on the creator’s behavior, he will just lie and tell them that he couldn’t have created a better universe, that this is the best of all possible worlds. It is easy to see why Roy might think that the universe would be improved by crushing Tyrell’s skull, even though it won’t prolong Roy’s life. (And it doesn’t seem to make him feel any better.)
When one transposes this story from science fiction into the realm of theology, we have Satan’s successful, and entirely understandable, rebellion against God. Transposed into the realm of philosophy, we arrive at the Promethean atheism and progressively self-divinizing humanity of a Feuerbach, Marx, or Nietzsche. God must die so that mankind can become gods worthy of the title. This is the secret of Blade Runner’s unsettling power.
When Roy fails in his quest to extend his life, he has to come to grips with his rapidly approaching doom. Initially, he wants revenge. He kills Tyrell. He even kills the pathetic, dog-like J. F. Sebastian, who did nothing but help him. When he returns to Sebastian’s apartment and finds his companion Pris dead, killed by Deckard who lies in wait, he goes berserk, howling like a wolf, smashing his head through walls, and toying viciously with Deckard like a cat with its prey.
But even as Roy releases his wrath, he feels death stealing through his limbs. One of his hands clenches up, and to prolong the fight just a little longer, he plucks a nail from rotted wood and drives it through his palm. It is, of course, a conscious parody of the crucifixion of Jesus. (Although many Christians believe, in effect, that Jesus is not so much God as our savior from God, in which case Roy Batty, the deicide savior, is less a parody of Jesus than an unveiling of his truth.)
Deckard is in full flight. He tries to leap from the roof of one building to another but misses and ends up hanging on for dear life. Roy, spattered with blood and holding a white dove in his unpierced hand, leaps the abyss easily. His fury spent, he gazes down at Deckard and says, “Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it? That’s what it is to be a slave.”
But when Deckard falls, Roy grabs him with his nail-pierced hand and hauls him up to the rooftop, where he gives his final soliloquy: “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 darkness near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.” As he expires, his grip on the bird loosens, and it flutters away like a departing soul.
The great existential problem is how to preserve meaning after one comes to grips with one’s mortality. Roy wants more life. We all do. But mortality does not mean that we have a death out there awaiting us at the end of a predestined span—to which we might add a few years with exercise and anti-oxidants. Mortality means that we can die at any time. Death is not something awaiting us out there. It is something that we carry around inside us at all times as an abiding possibility. But if we really confront this fact, then a lot of the things that loom large in our lives suddenly seem quite meaningless. We have to live authentically, intelligently, meaningfully—and we have to do it in the here and now. We can’t put it off any longer.
Nothing of value is merely subjective and personal. If it is really valuable to us, then we want to talk about it with others. We want to recommend it, we want to share it. This is why it is easy to keep shameful secrets but not those that make us proud. Values will out.
But we don’t just want to share our values. We want them to persist. In the Symposium, Plato argues that love—and we love the things we value—seeks to eternalize its object. We do not necessarily wish to prolong individual experiences to eternity, but we hope that they can always be repeated. That’s what love means. That’s what valuing means. That’s what meaning means.
If only we had the time. And, on the naïve view, we do have the time. We have an allotted life span, at the end of which death awaits. And if we only have one death, and it is “out there,” then for the time being, at least, we are immortal. And if that is not enough, many of us believe in an afterlife, the eternal immortality of the soul. But the immortality of the soul is an article of faith, and if there is room for doubt, then to hedge our bets we need to live this life as if it is the only one we have, because it might well be. But even that is not enough, when we come to grips with the fact that we can die at any time.
There are only a few ways that one can deal with this existential crisis of meaning.
First, one needs to re-evaluate one’s values. One simply does not have time for trivial and conventional diversions. One needs to live in accordance with reality and devote one’s life to significant things.
Second, one needs to be authentic: to know oneself and to become oneself. One simply does not have the time to act out other people’s scripts, to be pretending to be someone else just to please one’s parents, peers, or complete strangers.
Third, one must share and pass on one’s values, become a link in the chain of tradition.
Fourth, one must propagate one’s people. The individual dies, but the race can persist. Of course children can disappoint. And eventually, everything distinct about you may be lost in the genetic shuffle. (Not all of one’s ancestors are represented in one’s genes.) But even if you, as an individual, are not present in future generations, future generations will not exist if the present one fails to reproduce. And this is not about personal survival, but the survival of the things one values.
Which brings us to the fifth point: disinterestedness. Individualism and egoism are ultimately futile, because the individual ego dies. Thus the problem of meaning ultimately requires setting aside egoism and feeling compassion for other beings. It requires setting aside self-interest and disinterestedly pursuing higher, collective goods, including the good of the universe as a whole.
At the end of Blade Runner, life ebbing from his body, Roy Batty solves the great problem of existence. As Deckard says in the voiceover from the original release, “I don’t know why he saved my life. Maybe in those last moments he loved life more than he ever had before. Not just his life, anybody’s life, my life.” Roy does not just invite Deckard to feel compassion for the replicants. Roy also feels compassion for Deckard. In other words, Roy has attained a disinterested perspective on the value of life. But he does more than just save Deckard’s life. He also speaks to him. He passes on his memories, so that he can live on in Deckard’s mind, the heroic form of immortality celebrated in Homer and the Norse Sagas. It is a worthy climax to a movie that has made its director, characters, and cast immortal as well.