Blade Runner: Twice as Bright, Half as Long

Blade Runner demands to know why our creators made us mortal in an age of wonders

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<i>Blade Runner</i>: Twice as Bright, Half as Long

(Note: Like all proper examinations of this film ought, this article refers to the 2007 “Final Cut” 25th anniversary version of   Blade Runner, with the exception of the following quote.)

Roy:I want more life … fucker.

Why do we create? It’s not accurate to say that only humans make things, but there’s a difference between an anthill or beaver dam and, say, a film about humanity’s pathological drive to leave its mark on the world, even when doing so results in a new form of intelligent life. A form of life that is terrified of and vindictive toward its imperfect creator—that demands to know why we promised it the world and didn’t give it enough time to live in that world.

Lay aside for a minute that Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) is the beginning and ending of cinematic cyberpunk, of futuristic urban dystopia, of artificial intelligence rebelling against its creators. Lay aside that there is not an uninteresting or uninspired shot in the entire experience. Lay aside that it is really cool. It is also the cry of every emerging adolescent frustrated with the platitudes of Sunday school, every person laboring under the grinding unfairness of an illness for which there is no cure, every unwanted child at the utter mercy of parents who don’t know what the hell they’re doing. Deicidal rage at an imperfect creator’s unfairness is something too subversive for most blockbuster films, even in this world awash in daddy issues.

Our progenitors (biological and divine) bring us into the world without any idea of how long we have in it, or why we’re here. Blade Runner’s angry demand is: In this age of wonder, why don’t we? Why were we made flawed? Why can’t we fix ourselves?

Why can’t we just have more time?

Rachael: It seems you feel our work is not a benefit to the public.
Deckard: Replicants are like any other machine. They’re either a benefit or a hazard. If they’re a benefit, it’s not my problem.

Blade Runner takes us to the distant, distant future of 2020, where cars fly over an oppressive cityscape and buildings belch plumes of flame beneath a smoggy sky that has forgotten what the sun looks like. In this future, Earth is overpopulated and humanity is taking to the stars—and employed bio-engineered, human-like constructs called “replicants” to do the dangerous work of settling suitable planets. But, the expository crawl at the beginning reveals, these replicants have become more and more advanced, in some cases becoming mentally and physically superior to their creators. After some of them rise in bloody rebellion, they are outlawed on Earth on pain of death. To “retire” these defective machines that look and feel like humans, police departments form a special class of replicant-hunting detectives called “blade runners” (a name with no rationale, it seems, other than it being an unspeakably cool thing to get to put on one’s résumé).

The newest model of replicant is so advanced that the only way to distinguish it from normal humans (without vivisecting it, maybe?) is to subject it to a profoundly weird psychological examination involving a machine that monitors the potential android’s eye as the blade runner bombards it with surreal hypothetical questions. We witness this emotional stress test on a corporate worker named Leon (Brion James), who, it turns out, is a replicant and was packing a surprisingly powerful handgun the entire time.

From there, we join ex-blade runner Deckard (Harrison Ford), interrupted in the midst of his lonely meal to get dragged back to his old police chief and coerced into coming back on the job to replace the blade runner shot in the first scene. Five replicants escaped from an off-world colony and crashed on Earth, and they’re trying to break into the corporation that made them. As Captain Bryant (M. Emmett Walsh) explains, their creators have tried to mitigate the possibility of them becoming emotionally aware by building in a rather harsh planned obsolescence: A four-year life span, with a ticking clock the replicants can’t see.

(Infuriatingly, Bryant only ever lists four replicants in this scene. Some have pointed toward a major spoiler as being the reason for him saying “five,” but adopting that logic doesn’t do a thing to make that make sense.)

Tyrell: She’s beginning to suspect, I think.
Deckard: Suspect?! How can it not know what it is?

To kick off his investigation, Deckard goes to the Tyrell Corporation’s massive corporate headquarters to inspect a Nexus 6 replicant and learn the ins and outs of the synthetic people he’s after. In a boardroom that looks out above the smog cover—this is the only time in the entire movie we see the sun—he meets with the sinister inventor Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel) and his assistant Rachael (Sean Young). Mastermind of the replicants, with the motto “More human than human,” Tyrell seems to take a twisted pride in thwarting Deckard’s attempts to be able to distinguish woman from machine as he presents Rachael as a human test subject—only to later reveal she’s actually his newest and hardest-to-spot replicant.

The secret, as an astonished Deckard learns, is implanting false memories in the replicant to create emotional context. Deckard is surprisingly flip about this with Rachael later, but in the moment he and Tyrell discuss it in her absence, it’s hard to tell if Deckard is more amazed at the technical feat or the moral implication.

An austere and ineffable father figure, atop a gleaming pyramidal building so high up it looks as if you could reach out the window and touch the sun, has created life and fed it a stream of lies to make it easier to control. If he claims to be all-seeing, it sure is suspect that he is wearing the biggest, dorkiest sci-fi coke-bottle glasses ever. And if he sounds proud, it’s entirely in the context of his creations as a product. Parenthood in the relatively comfy developed world is supposedly about legacy and love, but isn’t it also about having somebody to pay for the nursing home?

Isn’t it only a few generations removed from just needing a son with a strong back to work the field?

Roy: Can the maker repair what he makes?

The film follows Deckard as he searches for his quarry on the grimy streets of dystopian L.A. and sympathizes with the fugitive Rachael, who can’t distinguish her real memories from false ones. But, crucially, it also follows the replicants, led by Roy (Rutger Hauer), as they bully and seduce their way closer to infiltrating the Tyrell Corporation and confronting the aloof creator who made them to die.

Made as it was a year before my own incept date, it took me a while to realize that despite the staging and music cues when the replicants kill and sneer, they’re the protagonists. Roy and his cohorts all exhibit a strangely childlike menace. Each presents another facet of teenage rebellion—Leon is violent, Zhora (Joanna Cassidy) is hyper sexualized, Pris (Darryl Hannah) presents herself as a runaway, and Roy is a black-clad philosopher prosecuting the question of mortality as if he’s the first in the world to do so.

With Zhora and Leon killed, Roy and Pris take up with the batty inventor J.F. Sebastian (William Sanderson), who lives alone in a derelict hotel with his … robotic? … toy creations. Like Tyrell, he’s another flawed creator trying to fulfill a psychological need, though Sebastian’s is more sympathetic: He just wants friends to talk to him as, abandoned on Earth, he slowly dies of premature aging. He quickly sees through the replicants’ pretense of humanity and agrees to take Roy to meet Tyrell in the hopes of determining a cure for Pris’ short lifespan.

Up in the tower, Roy’s demand to Tyrell, in Scott’s preferred cut of the film, has been changed from the one at the top of this article to “I want more life, father,” and I much prefer the obscene version. I never got the impression Roy was making a plea—he’s making a demand. He’s questioning the perfection of a deity who so clearly made us all broken.

Tyrell has much the same thing to say as has any father figure—or any religious figure—about why Roy can’t have more life. There are jargon-y biomechanical reasons, platitudes about the light that burns twice as bright but half as long. But there aren’t answers. And, like a lot of teenagers who can’t reconcile those responses with the real world’s tragedy, Roy casts his god down.

Deckard: Shakes? Me, too. I get ’em bad. Part of the business.

So where does that leave Deckard? In a society hubristic enough to create life, he’s been handed the unenviable task of acting as death. We watch him pursue his quarry with workmanlike precision, even as the broader implications of what he’s being forced to do gnaw at his soul. He finally confronts Pris and Roy in Sebastian’s dark hotel, gunning Pris down and barely escaping the berserk Roy with his life. In the last moment of their struggle, when Roy has Deckard dangling over a fall that means certain death, he drags his would-be killer back from the brink.

Roy delivers the line of Rutger Hauer’s career and then dies in the rain, his time up. The theatrical cut of the film added film noir-style narration that seemed to indicate Roy did so because he’d learned the value of life. As Scott and Ford have both utterly disavowed this cut of the film, I’m safe in saying that this is complete nonsense. Roy, like his creator, wanted something of himself to survive after he was gone—even if it’s just an offhand recollection of the wondrous adventure of outer space. Even if it means the only person who remembers it is his mortal enemy.

A legacy is all any of us get, if that.

In Scott’s preferred version of the film, the theatrical cut’s cloying happy ending is excised in favor of the somewhat ponderous implication that Deckard himself might be a replicant. Escaping with Rachael, Deckard sees a grim message from a fellow blade runner in the form of an origami unicorn. It’s a reminder: We’re all in a desperate chase with death, and we can never know when he’ll catch up with us.


Kenneth Lowe is a media relations coordinator for state government in Illinois. His work has appeared in Colombia Reports, Illinois Issues magazine, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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