Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Death and Androids: Explorig the Themes of Blade Runner (1982)

Blade Runner, like so many of Ridley Scott’s films, is an immersive experience. The world of Blade Runner is constructed in such an intricate and layered manner that you can’t help but get lost in the film. Aesthetically speaking, it’s one of my favorite films because it’s just beautiful to look at, those scenes with flying cars over a futuristic skyline filled with metal pyramids? Count me in! A lot has been said about Blade Runner as the quintessential cyber punk film because it’s about androids and because it’s set in a bleak future, like so many of William Gibson’s cyberpunk novels. Who is William Gibson you ask? Well, he’s the father of cyber punk that’s who; Gibson’s the guy who practically invented what we now know as 'cyber punk' through a trilogy of novels, the first of which is the seminal ‘Neuromancer’. If you want to truly find out what cyber punk is all about, I recommend starting there. But Blade Runner is based on Phillip K. Dicks ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’; a novel with its fair share of cyber punk elements, some of which bled onto the film. As a side note to this article, I'd like to mention that the book and the film are two different things all together, so you might want to try and read the novel, it’s an entirely different experience. Actually, you might end up being surprised just how different book and film are! How different is the book from the film? Well, the books main theme is religion! The film has nothing to do with religion! The book explores a whole different set of themes and has an entirely different tone to it. The book remains a special experience, I highly recommend checking it out! The difference between book and film points to one thing, what an amazing filmmaker Ridley Scott is. He basically took the world that Phillip K. Dick presented us with in his book and weaved a story that played with other themes  which though different, are equally relevant.   

Harrison Ford and Ridley Scott

For the longest time, I would just watch Blade Runner because I loved that world, the look, the feel. And you have to admit, the film is a lush production, it’s not a cheap looking film. But it wasn’t until adulthood that I started to appreciate the film from a whole other angle, I started to realize that there was a lot more to Blade Runner than flying cars and murderous androids. What was Blade Runner really about? What was it commenting on? The films central theme is mans own disillusionment with our short time on this earth. We come and go in the blink of an eye and when you really stop and think about it, it’s a really sad thing how short our lives are. I mean, our lives can be so rich, filled with so many memories and experiences, but as Roy Batty muses in the climax of the film, all of it just fades away when we die. When Roy Batty goes up to Tyrell, his creator to ask him for more life, Tyrell tells him it’s not possible, but not without offering a glimmer of hope to Batty’s preoccupations about death. Tyrell tells Batty “The light that burns twice as bright, burns half as long, and you have burned so very, very brightly Roy!” In this sense, the films offers us the only glimmer of hope when it comes to death, we have to live an amazing life, try and leave our mark in the world, to make what little time we were given matter.   Unless you lived an outstanding life and shined so brightly that your mark will be indelible for time immemorial, chances are, no one will even remember you were 100 years from now. So let’s make that time count my friends!

Now, taking all that in consideration, what would you do if you could go up to your god and ask him or her for more life? What if you could have a conversation with your creator, what would you say? I’d ask him why he allows decease, dictatorships and death. I’d ask him why he is so silent and apparently not even here. In Blade Runner, the Nexus 6 androids or ‘Replicants’  to use the term that they went with for the film get to actually talk to their creator, the “God of bio-mechanics” as Roy Batty calls him. They question him about why they die so soon, they want more life, they want for the god of bio-mechanics to let them into "heaven" so to speak. Problem is that the engineers who made the Nexus 6 androids gave them a four year life span. Why? Because if given any more than that, they get too smart, revolt and kill their masters. When given more than four years to live, the Nexus 6 would get too independent, volatile and unpredictable and that’s not what the powers that be want with a serving class; nope, they want the working class dumb and controllable. Here the film also offers us an interesting allusion to class issues. Should we take our given place in society? Or should we aim for more? The androids in Blade Runner want just that, they want to be like their creators. So, in order to keep the androids from rebelling or getting smarter, as a failsafe device, the Tyrell Corporation gave the Nexus 6 replicants only four years to live, after which they expire and die. In other words, the Nexus 6 are conscious of their mortality and they will fight it to the bitter end. 

So it is with some desperation that Roy Batty and his gang of androids manage to find Tyrell himself in order to ask for more life. Sadly Tyrell tells them that it’s not possible, essentially denying Roy and his crew of life. The frustration is so huge that Roy kills Tyrell, his creator, but not before telling him “I want more life fucker!”  To me this is the most pivotal scene in the whole film because it lets us know exactly what the film is about: our frustrations with death. At the same time, this scene offers some of the films most shocking and daring ideas. On this scene, Tyrell plays the role of God, the creator, while Roy Batty plays the role of the human, close to his death bed, asking god for a few more years. Again, what would you ask God if you were ever face to face with him? Well, Roy asked for more life and when he was denied it, he killed his creator, a shocking idea if you ask me, that of killing God. It’s not just any movie that will deliver the idea of anger and hatred towards God, but this one has the guts to do so. The films characters show certain contempt towards God for not having given us longer life. In this film God has created imperfect creatures with the ultimate decease: death! Not so different from the world we live in if you ask me! But, was Roy Batty justified to do what he did? Did his plea have any weight to it?

Well, if you ask me, Roy Batty may be the villain, but it feels to me like his plea is genuine, it has validity. To Batty, death just isn’t fair. He has seen and lived so much; he is frustrated that it’s all going to fade away “like tears in the rain” as he so eloquently puts it in the last moments of the film; which reminds me just how beautiful and poetic the ending of the film is. I mean, to be honest, I completely get the villain of the film, he may be a bit ‘batty’  as his last name implies, but you have to admit, his anger and frustrations are very real, it’s a cry out to life and death. Roy Batty is a desperate individual, but you have to understand, the guys body is freezing up! He can’t feel his fingers! His skin is turning white! He has to penetrate his fingers with rusty nails in order to make himself feel alive.  I compare this to those moments we’ll eventually get to in our life when we start feeling the aches and pains of old age and we start doing everything we can to battle it. We go to the gym, we eat better, we go to the doctor, doing whatever we can to fight what’s inevitably going to come. Yup, there comes a time in everyone's life when we simply won't run as well, when our resistance will be less, and we'll get tired faster. At some point in our lives, our energies will no longer be what they used to be. Our bodies will sooner or later start to show signs of wear and tear and we'll see death rearing its ugly head.  I find those last scenes in Blade Runner when Roy Batty is reminiscing about the beauty of life, when he starts remembering about that “he has seen things that you wouldn’t believe” just beautiful, like an old man remembering all those experiences he once lived and enjoyed; in many ways, Roy Batty has a lust for life, which is why death deeply saddens him. I have to admit, that scene always gets to me.

"All those moments will be lost in tears in the rain"  

As an artist, Ridley Scott is obviously terribly concerned with death, which let’s face it, is kind of one of the big mysteries of life. What happens when we die? Where do we go? Do we truly just vanish? This is why inquisitive characters have always been a part of Ridley Scott’s films, so they can ask the big questions. Most recently in Prometheus (2012) he revisits the exact same themes as he played with in Blade Runner, but with a slightly more existential twist to them because in Prometheus characters aren’t just asking for life, they want the answers to the big mysteries of the universe, they want to know where we all came from as well. Prometheus is less subtle with its themes; it asks its questions louder. It proposes that our creators not only don’t like us, they also want to wipe us out like some failed experiment that has to be started over again. Hell, even Ridley Scott’s brother, director Tony Scott was obsessed with this theme of death as well; I guess it runs in the family? For example, Tony Scott’s The Hunger (1983) has David Bowie playing a half vampire who is searching for a scientific solution to old age and death. Again the idea is visited on that film, can life be expanded? Can’t we live just a little more? But going back to Blade Runner, this is a film that is extremely consistent with its death theme, for example, when Deckard is confronted by one of the androids in a fight and the android tells Deckard “Wake Up! Time to Die!” we are reminded that it’s not only old age that can kill us. And then again, in the ending of the film, when Gaff, who knows that Deckard has fallen in love with an android, tells him: “Too bad she won’t live. But then again, who does? “  And I think that ultimately, that is the films final message, that we should live our lives as passionately and as intensely as we can, because death will be a part of it, eventually.


Maurice Mitchell said...

The best science fiction explores themes of life and death. A classic.

Jessica Penot said...

I never get tired of Blade Runner. Every time I watch it I discover something new.

Franco Macabro said...

Maurice: Yeah, the best sci-fi is actually a reflection of the real world, true!

Jessica: Ridley Scott does something in his productions that he calls layering, which is basically adding all these little details that add to making the world, however fantastic, more "real". That technique worked wonders on Blade Runner, I agree, it's so rich visually!

Thanks for your comments!


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