How can it not know what it is?

Blade Runner: The Other Night’s Reading: Notes

Blade Runner (1982)

Directed by Ridley Scott

Cinematographer: Jordan Cronenweth

Screenplay by Hampton Fancher, David Peoples

Based on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

Editing: Terry Rawlings, Marsha Nakashima

Produced by Michael Deeley

Music by Vangelis

116 minutes.

The Advanced and Rebellious Nexus-6 Replicants just want to know their inception date, and whether the bio-mechanic who engineered their genetically encoded 4 year life span can change it. They will do anything to achieve this goal.

While they are hunting down their solution, the Blade Runners are hunting them. Replicants are illegal on Earth and those willing to kill rather than remain slaves are especially dangerous. They’ve already killed one Blade Runner. Will Deckard be able to “retire” them, or will they get him first?

The other night Sean and I watched Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). This was not the first time I’ve seen this iconic science fiction film, not even the third or fourth. It has been awhile though and much has changed for me since the last viewing. A massive difference between then and now has been my recent read of Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), upon which Blade Runner is based. I think they should have used “inspired by” rather than “based on.” Blade Runner has very little resemblance to Dick’s novel.

I would recommend anyone the film, if they haven’t yet seen it. And I would just as strongly recommend the novel if they have yet to read it. I cannot, however, recommend reading and watching the two close together. I suppose if you are looking at how film and its “based on” novel diverge*, this pairing would fulfill a required word count and then some. Otherwise, the film comes across as somewhat disappointing. Dick is the more masterful storyteller here.

There is also a difficulty in how different the characters come across in the Film versus the book, and this does not even address the differences in roles. For many Harrison Ford is Deckard and Rutger Hauer is Roy Batty (Baty). In 2008, Carl V. of “Stainless Steel Droppings” posted his experience of reading Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep? and the connections made to Blade Runner. Carl talks about how there were times when reading the novel that “images of Harrison Ford really interfered with [his] total immersion into the novel.” For instance, he “just could not picture the tough-as-nails Deckard as played by Harrison Ford wandering around waxing eloquent about animals.” For those quite familiar with the film, the transition to novel is not an easy one.

Time helps. I was able to make an easier switch to the novel incapable of recalling a faithful imprint of the film. Harrison Ford was still the image I recalled, at least his physicality. It had been suggested to me to abandon real hope of seeing the film in the novel. This is good advice. And easy, Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep? was an immersive experience for me. I wish the separation had been as similarly facilitated with the film. Maybe I shouldn’t have been holding a pen…

The Replicants are supposed to be this terrible threat. They are capable of turning on the Humans now and murdering them. Their superior intelligence and strength make them more than capable of succeeding. However, Deckard is sure to be more than capable. In the film he’s the best! (unlike the novel). The plot makes the hunt fairly easy (as does the book for that matter). The replicants hide from the Blade Runners while hunting down their inception date and possible cure. The Blade Runner hunts and “retires” them. Where the novel has no problem making a fairly simple plot complex, the film’s success is debatable.

With the Eye motif, the suggestion is that what can be seen is not necessarily Real. Interpretation is in the eye of the beholder. Who appears to be more real, more human?

The preoccupation with memory. The human would have one, where a replicant would have an implant.** But how convincing are the replicant’s memory? Rachael was convinced of hers. And how convinced are we by Deckard’s… How convinced are we of our own. Perceptions and Memory are mutable. Which is a direct threat to Identity (which is more individualistic a threat than societally). Dick touches on this, but understanding its precarious position as an Identifier of what it is to be human does not make this a pivotal notion. In the film, the notion should work  (because of the visual medium) in creating paranoia. The viewer understands that they can be easily deceived, not only by Rachael, but by what the camera chooses to show them.

The camera questions Deckard and so must we. This is potentially traumatic in that Harrison Ford is Han Solo for goodness sake. However morally gray, he is still the hero—as is the Noir Detective Ford is playing in Blade Runner; we know that he will do the right thing, and his is the opinion to follow.

Deckard as a possible Replicant. The least subtle cue is that Deckard is the only “Human” who is shown to have illuminated pupils like the Replicants. The other Replicants have their memories and so does Deckard: Rachael with Tyrell’s niece’s memories, the others with their stack of photographs, Deckard with his dream and his own photographs (notably generational). Gaff (Edward James Olmos), who acts like a handler, seemed to know about Deckard’s unicorn dream with his folded unicorn outside the apartment and would be in the position to know any implanted dream/memory.

Yet, the film would choose ambiguity.  Some find this choice wonderful, because depending on perspectives is how the film would play out. Others do not care for it at all and see it as indecisive and passive. However amusing the conversation it creates it is, in the end, negligible if there is no implication. How would it threaten us if Deckard were a replicant? Does the story work if he is/isn’t?

The Replicants must pose a threat to society; which in turn equates to the threat to what it is to be human (whether right or no). The Female Replicant: sexual deviance. sexually manipulative. I suppose on a certain level, their appeal, their ability to supplant the human female in the mind and arms of the Hero, the other woman. The Male Replicant: He is “unnaturally” strong and intelligent, merciless, cold and calculating, a persuasive Leader of a Rebellion, proven capable of infiltrating and assassinating the best protection we have. (as with the novel.)

We cannot allow Ford/Deckard to be a replicant if the above implications follow. Fortunately, we come to realize that the replicants show more humanness than the humans do. The ambiguities and our recognition of underlying subversions become a relief in a way. Though the discomfiture over humans appearing inhumane and the unhuman becoming human lingers—or does it?


The visual storytelling cues of the Neo –Noir help create some complexity in an otherwise Action-Adventure film, though the two seem to fight for pacing. Most of the film was cast in shadow, dark and rainy and cold and impersonal exteriors; dimly lit interiors. Tyrell (Corp/Scientist) with his ability to control the brightness of the sun seems to be behind all the problems Earth is facing. Most of the characters are cast half in shadows; Deckard often shown conflicted, the blinds casting Noir-ish lines among other geometrically shaped suggestions. I would have to look again, but I don’t believe Bryant, Gaff, Taffey, or Tyrell are so often dimly lit upon the face.

Sean and I argued over the Femme Fatale. If I had to pick one I would say Pris (Daryl Hannah). Sean chose Rachael (Sean Young). While Rachael was most certainly a threat in Dick’s novel, she was not so worrisome in the film. Really, does anyone really believe that Ford’s Deckard could be led astray or to his demise? And astray from what? In the novel, Rachael was a threat to Deckard’s marriage (such as it was). Deckard was already retired when he was called to hunt the illegal Nexus-6. He didn’t appear to be worried about losing his job or money (which was a concern/motivation in the novel).

I suppose that while we have Pris finding an in with Sebastian (William Sanderson), Rachael could be contriving an in with Deckard; both acting on preservation; both threats because they are replicants. But the doubling in the novel is not choice made in the film. If anything, the film would place Rachael in opposition of the other two female androids. Rachael is dressed in a demure yet empowered wardrobe of a 1940s woman. Her red lips are suggestive, but her drab colored clothes and pinned-up coif create conflict there. Zhora (Joanna Cassidy) is a freak show performer, a Lilith with her snake, a stripper, immodest and physically combatant. Pris is as equally “trashy,” fishnets, black, leather, punkish, emerging from the streets. Neither Zhora nor Pris are above using their sexuality to get what they want: distraction, anonymity, power, confidential information, or into a man’s apartment. But their threat is transparent, I suppose Rachael’s is less so. At least until she kills Leon (Brion James) to save Deckard’s life. But then, that could be self-serving… It really comes down to the intercourse in Deckard’s apartment.

I was really bothered by the “seduction” of Rachael by Deckard. I read coercion/rape. I hadn’t remembered the scene (at least that way) for whatever reason and I found my response to it distracting.  I simmered on it afterward.

I started with maybe the scene is just culturally indicative of prevailing male attitudes; if so, what were said attitudes? Maybe people get off on this kind of depicted encounter and the scene is sexy. I mean, someone did cue the saxophone. And there was “sexual tension.” I mean, Harrison Ford half-naked and heavy-lidded… But suddenly he wasn’t appealing that way. He was scary and repulsive. His forcefulness wasn’t seductive.

I ended up with this reading: In that scene, what was important was that Rachael was neither seductive nor coercive. Despite her hair now come undone, she was confused, caught-up in the moment, emotional—non-replicant behavior. She sought distance—human behavior. More importantly, she was acting out of modesty and propriety, female decency—good moral behavior. She “resisted” sexual advances as best she could, thus showing acceptable human behaviors. Deckard was commanding her response as opposed to the threatening idea of Rachael commanding his. Now what to say about the movement of the camera from the internal space to external, looking in through the window…


“It’s quite an experience to live in fear. That’s what it’s like to be a slave.” ~Roy Batty

In the novel, Empathic response would differentiate the human from the andy. In the film, Fear would provide similitude. We come to realize that the replicants are afraid. Their Fear triggers the human audience’s Emphatic response toward the Replicant.  We understand oppression. We understand mortality.

In the book, there was a greater struggle to call up empathy on Roy’s behalf. In the film, he is a more complicated character (partly because he is more of a protagonist). Hauer was still able to terrify me, stripped and feral and howling as he hunted Deckard. And yet, before he crushed Tyrell’s skull and turned on Sebastian (we are to suppose he killed the guy too right?), I felt bad for him. He only wants to live longer. Of course, he’s wired toward violence, but what about that moment with the dying Pris? I think I was running the emotional gambit with Hauer [who showed the greatest amount of range in the film]. Hauer/Batty is the most overt facet of the film’s play on perception.

Blade Runner works to subvert the idea that the replicants are the problem and that their “threat” (which will become surmountable by film’s end) is not the true threat. Indeed, replicants are victims. Our gaze returns again and again to Tyrell Corp. Who put the Humans and Replicants in their present situation in the film? This signals a central conflict between Creator and Created, best played out by Batty and Tyrell.


I am not sure what to do with the end of the film. Batty saving Deckard on.

Batty spares Deckard to reveal his conversion to Human via emotion (emotions the Nexus-6 are prevented from developing via a 4-year-life-span). His terrify hunt ends in an act of mercy that plays out the whole of the film’s action in minutes. Deckard, in love, runs away with Rachael. The Merciful act, poetry, metaphoric white bird, elopement, suggests that our fear of the replicant is overcome. What once appeared as unhuman only needed to time and our changed perspective for them to become human (which may be a fearful thing for some still).

Batty kills his Creator Tyrell. He kills the master scientist and CEO and god-like figure. The slave has risen up and rather gruesomely smote his oppressor. He could have easily slain Deckard. That he doesn’t does not change the fact that he could have. Rachael has won a Protector in Deckard who is not seen as completely lacking after cowering in fear of Batty. Rachael is still going to be hunted as illegal, but she has survived, the only remaining replicant on the list to do so. Does the threat of the replicant’s success register? Or does it matter now that The True Nemesis Tyrell has been identified and  destroyed. The rest is epilogue and subject to whim.

Are those that see ambiguity as cheating completely wrong?***


“The Nexus 6 Replicants were superior in strength and agility at least as equal in intelligence, to the genetic engineers who created them.” ~opening text

It seemed to me that at the end of Dick’s novel, the question of What it means to be Human is explored. At the end of Blade Runner it was a different but similarly aged question: Can you find the Bad Guy in this picture? plausibly restated “Who should you really be afraid of?”


What do you do with the ubiquitous woman on the animated billboard?


note: the quote in the post’s title is Deckard’s response to Tyrell when discussing Rachael’s ignorance. Also, I do not dislike the film, I do appropriately marvel in its achievements, especially its technical ones.

* because Wiki summed it up so nicely: “Some of the themes in the novel that were minimized or entirely removed include: fertility/sterility of the population; religion; mass media; Deckard’s marriage; duality of Rachael and Pris; curiosity/fear of the psychological implications of sex with androids; Deckard’s uncertainty that he is human; and real versus synthetic pets and emotions.”—Wikipedia (“Blade Runner”)

** Eager by Helen Fox, a juvenile sci fi handles the idea of memory implants in robots beautifully. I recommend anyone interested in AI/Humans and robotics the read.

***I like to use ambiguity in some of my writing, so the question is not meant to be aggressively stated, or maybe it is.

Janet Maslin’s June, 1982 NY Times Review. Roger Ebert’s Review : June, 1982. September, 1992. 
IMDb film link. Wiki film link. 

Published by L

I read, and I write. and until recently, I sold books.

One thought on “How can it not know what it is?

  1. Phew, you just caught me! I have seen the movie once and I’ve been wanting to watch it again – but I also want to read the book. I’ll do that first. 🙂

thoughts? would love to hear them...

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