Sunday, June 14, 2015

Blade Runner

SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.

Ridley Scott’s 1982 movie (with subsequent “Director’s Cut” and “Final Cut” editions, with a sequel in the works), explores the theme of what it is to be human. This theme, visited often by author Philip K. Dick in his writings, including in his story, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, on which Blade Runner is based, has been addressed recently in the films Her and Ex Machina, and in the television series, The Walking Dead.  

Here, the eyes have it! There are numerous references to vision in the film. The android detecting test at the beginning of the film is administered by a man named Holden (Morgan Paull), a “blade runner,” who is a person who hunts down the illegal presence of replicants (synthetic life forms) on earth. The device used tests pupil dilation to see if an emotional response is elicited by the subject. (The phrase “the eyes are the windows to the soul” comes to mind). The idea behind the test is that only humans can show emotion, and in particular empathy. The fact that there needs to be an involved, one hundred question test administered by an expert in emotional detection shows how difficult it has become to distinguish real humans from artificial ones. The replicant in this scene is Leon (Brion James) who does have an emotional response, becoming agitated by the questions asked, followed by him shooting Holden. Leon is one of a group of advanced androids known as Nexus-6 replicants. Leon was trying to infiltrate the Tyrell headquarters (the company that engineered the replicants) following a rebellion on another planet.

The Los Angeles of 2019 presents a world mostly inhabited by people from other countries, mostly Asians. The movie implies that the original inhabitants are racists, alienated by these aliens. The racism is emphasized by the existence of slaves in the form of the replicants. It could be that the Americans are offered an escape to “off-world” colonies because the “world” in LA feels “off” to them. Alienation and racism detach us from our humanity, which relates to the overriding theme of the movie. It is interesting that the replicants want the freedom to return to earth. In that sense they are more human, looking to seek comfort in the home of their origin.

Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) is the leader of the Nexus-6 group. He and Leon visit the manufacturer of replicant eyes at a place called “Eye World,” looking for ways to extend the four year lifespan of the replicants. The engineer there can only understand the androids by producing one part, the eye, so he doesn’t understand them as complete entities. He looks more like a machine himself than do the replicants in his outfit, with multiple hoses attached to him,. The man gives them a lead, telling them to seek out J. F. Sebastian (William Sanderson), a genetic designer who works for Tyrell.

Deckard (Harrison Ford), a retired blade runner, is pressed back into service by his old boss, Bryant (M. Emmet Walsh). He finds photographs at Leon’s apartment. Deckard tries to hunt down the replicants by using a computerized picture viewer, a “visual” device, to analyze Leon’s photos. The replicant wants to keep his “family” pictures, because he cares about his fellow synthetics, thus actually showing empathy. Pictures are visual, but they are not reality, only two-dimensional representations, once-removed from actual people and things. Yet, we invest our belief in their accuracy as a substitute for the real thing. In this world, people have been replaced by floating billboards with pictures of people talking to the residents. There is more interaction with synthetic life than “real” people. Is humanity becoming extinct here? What about in our lives right now, with streaming video and video games?

The owl, a creature with large eyes, at the Tyrell Corporation appears genuine, until we see that one of its eyes does not appear lifelike in a certain light. When Deckard meets Tyrell, the latter asks him to test his assistant Rachael (Sean Young) to show the results of the test on a human. Just like the owl, we can’t trust what we “see” because Rachael is also a Nexus-6 replicant. But, she cares (emotion) for Deckard, and shoots Leon when the latter tries to kill him, by jabbing his fingers into, what else, Deckard’s eyes. This may imply that Deckard is not able to “see” the whole story involving the plight of the replicants. Deckard also finds an animal scale in Leon’s bathtub. He tracks down its origin and finds it is from an artificial snake used in a striptease act by another replicant, Zhora (Joanna Cassidy). Zhora says she can’t afford a real snake. True life is becoming scarce. Again, we can’t trust our eyes, because the animal appears to be an actual snake. When Deckard shoots Zhora in the back as she flees, he is being cold-blooded, demonstrating a lack of empathy. Is he becoming what is usually considered more machine-like?

There is an ongoing debate as to whether Deckard may be a replicant since his eyes glow with a red reflection, and he sounds and looks similar to Holden. Is he just another android version? He has a dream about a unicorn. At the end of the film, Gaff (Edward James Olmos), who works for Bryant, makes an origami unicorn. How would he know about Deckard’s dream of it unless it was an implanted memory, which he read about in a file. Deckard earlier asks Tyrell how Rachel “could not know what it is?” But, he may not know he is one, too.

Pris (Darryl Hannah), a replicant, surprises Sebastian, and pretends (again, looks are deceiving) to be a homeless person. He offers her shelter in his home. He has an accelerated aging condition, just like the replicants, which also suggests how the two are alike. He also “makes friends,” literally, because he is an engineer, and has mechanical “friends” even before meeting the replicants, who also try to become his new synthetic pals. One of Sebastian’s “dolls” walks into a wall, showing that they are as fallible as humans. A rat walks across a table in his dining room, and we can’t tell, by “looking,” if it is real or mechanical. Roy uses Sebastian to meet Tyrell at the corporate headquarters, housed in a pyramid-shaped building. It suggests that Tyrell is at the top of the technological evolutionary ladder, and Roy climbs up the ladder to meet his maker (shades of 2001: A Space Odyssey?). But his “god” falls short of expectations, being unable to give his creation the answers he seeks. Tyrell himself has weird, large, thick spectacles, and his human eyes appear distorted. Has he lost his humanity by playing God, creating sentient beings and then limiting the length of their lives, and enslaving them? His eyes are gouged out by Roy for the failure of Tyrell’s vision in not completely understanding the needs of the synthetic humans he has designed.

Pris sprays paint around her eyes to pretend to look like one of Sebastian’s dolls. So, she is a mechanical creature, who is so lifelike, she must pretend to be mechanical. She is pretending this time to ambush an investigating Deckard. She attacks him, but he shoots her. Roy arrives and shows true loss at Pris’ death. He stalks Deckard throughout the building that contains Sebastian’s apartment. The flight is again upward in this building, but Roy’s ascent this time is spiritual. He is seen as a Christ figure, pushing a spike through his hand, supposedly to slow down his built-in destruct mechanism. He saves Deckard from falling off of the building, thus forgiving the blade runner. He releases a dove (the Holy Ghost?, his spirit?) he is holding in his hands as he dies. Deckard and Rachael are fugitive lovers at the end of the film. Gaff lets them escape saying he didn’t know how long they had together, but “who does?”

Are we the sum of our memories, the images that we see in our mind’s eye? Or are we are who we are because of our basic personalities, and memories are just layered onto that foundation? Rachael’s memories are implants, but don’t we all have images implanted in us by the media engulfing our lives? Whatever their origins, our memories do affect us. At the end of the film, Roy talks about the wondrous things he has “seen.” These are real events that he, as a synthetic human, has experienced, and which have evoked true human emotional responses. In death, whatever memories we do have are as transient as we are, dying with us. As Roy says, they are like tears washed away in the rain.

There are many questions in the above paragraphs. Most of the time, humans don’t have the answers.

The next film is Fail-Safe.

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