In my second year of university, I took a short fiction class. My teacher was an incredible woman who got passionate about our readings, which came from a little paperback called Darwin’s Bastards that for some reason I was embarrassed to read on the bus. This lady was one of the best teachers I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing, and she taught me one important thing that I’ve carried with me into everything I write: the idea of aboutness.
After our first reading, she sat down on her desk and asked us, “What was this story’s aboutness?” Someone began by recapping the plot, but she said, “No, I didn’t ask what the story was about. I want to know what its aboutness was.” Of course none of us had any idea what she meant, so she went on to explain.
When you look at a story, you can look at the plot, think literally, and say, “This story was about a police officer chasing robots.” You can also look at theme, which is a general idea that encompasses the work, whether that’s something like justice or the responsibility of a creator or the meaning of emotions. But if you want to know the aboutness of a story, you have to look deeper. You have to analyze the characters and what makes them tick, and you have to look at the world and why it is the way it is, and you have to pick and poke and delve deep until you find the heart of the story and understand what it’s truly about.
Blade Runner is a story that makes you think about aboutness, and there’s a very good reason for that: it’s impossible to follow the plot, so you have to wax philosophical if you want to stay awake. Keep reading and hear me out.
The story begins with reading, actually. I hate it when people make me read during movies (it’s just plain lazy, really. Couldn’t they shoehorn in the exposition any other way?). Five years from now in the year 2019, everything is terrible and it rains all the time. People use androids to do dangerous work on Earth’s off-world colonies, à la the gangers from Doctor Who’s series six episode “The Rebel Flesh.” After a bloody incident years before, these androids, or Replicants, are illegal on Earth and are shot on sight. They have an incredibly short lifespan, just four years. A small group of Replicants, nearing the end of their life cycles and desperate to keep living, escape to Earth to find their maker and seek out a cure for death.
Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford, a.k.a. one of three names I recognized in the entire movie) is a Blade Runner, or Replicant-catcher. I’m a bit fuzzy on the backstory, but it sounds like he’s a loner who doesn’t like to work with the police force. He’s pulled in for this job, which involves “retiring” the four escaped Replicants now on Earth. He follows a frankly bewildering set of clues, and along the way he stops in at the office of Dr. Eldon Tyrell and interrogates his secretary to show us exactly how this test works.
During the test Deckard figures out that this woman, Rachael, is a Replicant but didn’t know it. This is a new technology that depends on implanted memories to sell the illusion to the Replicant themselves. However, Rachael is starting to figure it out, and she comes to his apartment looking for answers. But all Deckard has is his tough-as-nails attitude, and this isn’t particularly comforting, so she leaves.
He continues to follow the clues to a strip joint, where he runs into the first escaped Replicant (who’s working as an exotic dancer, probably, or maybe she just really likes snakes and body glitter). Deckard inexplicably poses as a creepy guy who’s looking out for her best interests, peeping Tom-wise, but this quickly turns into a fight for his life. After a chase scene he guns her down, but he’s almost immediately attacked by a second Replicant, who’s dispatched by Rachael.
They head back to his place, and Deckard gets drunk and falls asleep. Rachael starts playing his piano, wondering if her skills are implanted or real memories. Deckard wakes up and puts the moves on her, but she tries to leave. I think the writers intended the events that follow to seem like overwhelming passion that can’t be denied, but to me it came across a little differently. Deckard tells Rachael what to say (e.g., “Tell me you want me.” “I want you.”) and she says it. I think Replicants might be more susceptible to suggestion than humans, and so this scene is basically machine rape, and don’t tell me it’s not wrong because she’s a machine, because we all saw that one episode of Battlestar Galactica and it was upsetting for everyone.
Meanwhile, the two other Replicants have made friends with a lonely genetic designer named J.F. Sebastian. Poor lonely J.F. finds solace in his mechanical friends, which he makes himself. It’s not surprising that he welcomes Pris and Roy, the two Replicants, with such awkward enthusiasm: they’re not real people, but they’re his kind of people.
It turns out that they’re only using him to get to Dr. Tyrell, who works with J.F. and plays the odd game of chess with him. When Roy and J.F. get into Tyrell’s home, Roy asks about extending their lifespans, as Pris’s is almost at its end. But Tyrell has been working on this problem for a long time, and there’s no solution in sight. The Replicants will die. So Roy kills his creator and turns on J.F., who dies as he lived: alone in the shadows, with only artificial people as company.
Deckard tracks down Pris at J.F.’s home and retires her. This, combined with the fact that Roy knows the end is near, makes Roy snap. He comes after Deckard, and he keeps coming and keeps coming until they’re on the building’s roof and Deckard is dangling by his broken fingertips, about to plummet to his death. He falls—
—and Roy catches him. He pulls Deckard back up onto the roof, and he waxes poetic for a minute. He says, “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I’ve watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.” At that moment, Roy reaches the end of his allotted time. The Replicant dies, with only Deckard there to witness it.
Now, I think my ending was a bit different than the theatrical one, but I’m gonna describe it anyway. Deckard is congratulated for his work, but he’s given a warning: Rachael doesn’t have long, either, as she’s getting close to the end of her lifespan. So he returns home, gets a confession of love out of her (“Do you love me?” “I love you.” Suggestion indeed), and spirits her away into the night.
So that’s what the story’s about. It’s a weird world. It’s a place where Replicants aren’t allowed, where people are damp and cold and miserable, where advertising blares out of every screen and every speaker, where blimps fly overhead blasting messages and even more ads, where disease and poverty and crime run rampant but no one knows any better. But that’s just what the story’s about.
Ridley Scott has gone down on record saying that he never intended to make this any kind of profound allegory, that it was a piece of entertainment only. But I think given his source material, it’s become something profound anyway. One of the hallmarks of classic science fiction is that it seeks to answer a question through an environment that isn’t our own. Terminator asks what will happen when we inevitably give too much power to machines. Total Recall ponders the nature of reality when we willingly choose to alter it. And Blade Runner asks us a simple question, one that we’ve been asking ourselves for a long time, but maybe not in the same context: what is the nature of life, and do we have the right to limit it?
I mean, let’s look at the big four: the escaped Replicants. The first, a female named Zhora, worked as a stripper. That was it. She wasn’t doing anything else, as far as I know. She did a show with a snake on a stage, and that was it. And she seemed to enjoy it, more or less. Zhora had simple tastes: take off her clothes, get paid for it, go home and chillax with a glass of Chianti or something. But because she had the misfortune to be a Replicant, not a human, she wasn’t allowed to have that life.
Then there’s Leon, the other male Replicant. I’m actually not totally sure what he was doing after they escaped, but at the start of the film, he was given the “are you secretly a robot” test. The person asked him to describe his mother, and that was the point at which he snapped. He’d been terse before, what with not knowing which desert he was hypothetically in or what a tortoise was, and he’d have every right to freak out there. After all, men don’t like not knowing things, right? But he didn’t flip his sh*t until the questioner asked about his mother. Now why might that be?
My theory is, Leon resented the fact that he doesn’t have any memories of his own. Unlike Rachael, he didn’t have an implanted past with all the little facets that made him who he was. He began as a blank slate, filled up by hatred and oppression at the hands of his human masters. He wasn’t given the opportunity to make his own memories or to become his own person. He was plainly, horribly aware at every moment that he was an android, and that he would never be anything else.
So when the questioner asked about his mother, Leon snapped, because he didn’t have a mother, he never would, and he never could. There was no point in lying because he didn’t know what a mother should be, so it’s pretty interesting to me that this incident is what sparks the escape and the whole story that follows—because a Replicant wanted a past that was denied to him.
Now let’s check out Pris. She’s pretty cold and manipulative, and there’s one thing she’s after: extended life. Now that she’s getting close to the end of her life cycle, Pris has no problem using and abusing anyone who could possibly help her, as long as she gets the better deal out of it. Her role in the story is to befriend J.F. Sebastian, which I think draws an interesting parallel between her purpose and her desires.
See, she was a basic pleasure droid. Her purpose was to provide satisfaction, not necessarily companionship. Yet she used her charms to get close to J.F., who has nothing in common with real people and could only be reached by a Replicant. That’s crazy to me, because if Eldon Tyrell hadn’t designed her to please people, she would never have gotten close to J.F. He in turn wouldn’t have led Roy to Tyrell’s home, and Tyrell might still be alive in the end. By designing a person to be subjugated, he brought about his own death.
And her death brought about the end for Roy. At the end of the story, when everyone he cared about was retired and he was kneeling there on that rooftop, mad with grief and terrified of the void that awaited him, Roy found peace in his memories. He had seen and done so much in the few years he had, finding fulfillment and purpose in who he was. It wasn’t selfish to want to keep that life going, not when there was still so much he could have done with it.
Of all of the Replicants, I think Roy’s motives were the most pure. He wanted to be with Pris, so he asked Tyrell for help in extending her life. His creator wouldn’t help, and Roy, consumed by his anger and hurt at what he viewed to be a betrayal by his father — and, essentially, his god — killed him. Maybe he didn’t go about his plans in the right way, killing people and causing destruction wherever he went, but how could he know any better? I don’t think anyone took the time to explain morality to a group of Replicants, so it was up to him to form his own moral code for himself.
To him, the only code he needed was “be with Pris.” Everything he did was for her, and at the end, when he lost her, he had to find a new code. And it seems to me like he latched on to something important, something that might just be the aboutness of the movie: life is precious, whether it was born or created, and it should be preserved.
I dunno, maybe there’s something more there that I’m missing. But out of the muddled plot and the confusion that comes from not being sure if you’re watching the right version of the movie (seriously, that’s a problem nobody should have to suffer from), that was the truth I found when Roy was dead on the roof and Deckard was staring at his body, looking as though he’d just seen something terrible and realized something profound at the same time.
Life is precious. It doesn’t have to be a pro-life message or an anti-suicide message or even a touchy-feely kind of message about how we should all love each other. It can be something as simple as being a stripper, if that’s what you enjoy, or making your own memories, or being with the person you love. It doesn’t have to be anything more than that. It just has to be a reminder that no matter where we are, whether it’s in a bleak dystopia five years from now or a golden spring afternoon, life is important. And while we’re living it, it should be enjoyed.
Because who knows when it’s going to end?
Final Grade: B+
- I watched the 30th anniversary edition of the movie. Was that okay? Should I have watched a different one? What do you think?
- What was the deal with the little origami figures that Edward James Olmos was making? Are they supposed to be a symbol for something? WHAT DOES THE UNICORN MEAN.
- It’s good to know that five years from now, Coke and Heineken will still be advertising everywhere.
- That HAIR. Did people actually wear their hair like that in the ’80s, or was that a “this is what hair looks like in the future” thing?
- I know, I know, I didn’t overanalyze Rachael and her struggle with being a Replicant. That’s because she only existed as a parallel for Deckard, who (in other versions of the movie, I believe) may be a Replicant. But because that wasn’t suggested in this version — or if he was, I didn’t catch it — I didn’t bother talking about it. I may come to regret that, but hey, I may end up reviewing another version of this movie someday with a completely different angle and a totally different grade. I guess we’ll see.
- Feel like I missed the mark with my story analysis? Let me know in the comments and we’ll chat. That is all.