Themes in Blade Runner

Themes in Blade Runner

Despite the initial appearance of an action film, "Blade Runner" operates on an unusually rich number of dramatic levels. [ [ 2019: Off-World Archives] ] As with much of the cyberpunk genre, it owes a large debt to film noir, containing and exploring such conventions as the femme fatale, a Chandleresque first-person narration in the Theatrical Version, and the questionable moral outlook of the Hero — extended here to include even the humanity of the hero, as well as the usual dark and shadowy cinematography.

It is one of the most literate science fiction films, both thematically — enfolding the philosophy of religion and moral implications of the increasing human mastery of genetic engineering, within the context of classical Greek drama and its notions of hubrisJenkins, Mary. (1997) [ "The Dystopian World of Blade Runner: An Ecofeminist Perspective"] ] — and linguistically, drawing on the poetry of William Blake and the Bible. This is a theme subtly reiterated by the chess game between J. F. Sebastian and Tyrell based on the famous Immortal Game of 1851 symbolizing the struggle against mortality imposed by God. [ Blade Runner – FAQ] [ [ Unnecessary Destruction: The Lost Films of Ridley Scott] ] (The king and queen are interposed on Tyrell's side, a position which a grandmaster would never attempt).

"Blade Runner" depicts a future whose fictional distance from present reality has grown sharply smaller as 2019 approaches. The film delves into the future implications of technology on the environment and society by reaching into the past using literature, religious symbolism, classical dramatic themes and film noir. This tension between past, present and future is apparent in the retrofitted future of "Blade Runner", which is high-tech and gleaming in places but elsewhere decayed and old.

A high level of paranoia is present throughout the film with the visual manifestation of corporate power, omnipresent police, probing lights; and in the power over the individual represented particularly by genetic programming of the replicants. Control over the environment is seen on a large scale but also with how animals are created as mere commodities. This oppressive backdrop clarifies why many people are going to the off-world colonies, which clearly parallels the migration to the Americas. The popular 1980s prediction of the United States being economically surpassed by Japan is reflected in the domination of Japanese culture and corporations in the advertising of LA 2019. The film also makes extensive use of eyes and manipulated images to call into question reality and our ability to perceive it.

This provides an atmosphere of uncertainty for "Blade Runner's" central theme of examining humanity. In order to discover replicants an empathy test is used with a number of questions focused on empathy; making it the essential indicator of someone's "humanity". The replicants are juxtaposed with human characters who are unempathetic, and while the replicants show passion and concern for one another the mass of humanity on the streets is cold and impersonal. The film goes so far as to put in doubt the nature of and forces the audience to reevaluate what it means to be human. [Kerman, Judith. (1991) "Retrofitting Blade Runner: Issues in Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner" and Philip K. Dick's "Do Android's Dream of Electric Sheep?" ISBN 0-87972-510-9]


Paranoia pervades "Blade Runner" just as the rain falls on Los Angeles 2019. Every major theme adds to the paranoia of the film and envelops the audience in suspicion and uncertainty.

At the beginning of the film, the replicant Leon is being interviewed by the Blade Runner Holden, who is working undercover at a company's employment office to screen for escaped replicants using the Voight-Kampff test, highlighting the widespread paranoia of replicant infiltration.

Advertising blimps float over the dark sprawl of 2019 Los Angeles; their searchlights penetrating into every dark corner, as seen when Deckard enters the Bradbury building. This gives the impression that the population is always being watched. Even Deckard seems to be watched by Gaff. The way Gaff interacts with Deckard implies that Gaff is Deckard's "handler" and Gaff also seems to know things about Deckard that Deckard doesn't even know. For example, the origami unicorn presumably left by Gaff, leads the audience to believe Gaff knows the truth of Deckard's humanity.

An additional level to the paranoia is the lifetime time-limit imposed on each replicant, and that the limit, while conceived and implemented by the Tyrell Corporation, is now intrinsic to their being. It is ironic to note that one of the most violent of the replicants, Roy, is the only one to execute his genetic programming to his endpoint, as all the rest perish through violent interactions with humans. The callousness and implied cruelty of the design imposed on the replicants is the palpable driving force of the paranoia.


Technicism is the concept that all problems, all needs, and all reality will eventually be controlled using technological means, methods, and devices. It is a notion that dominates the dystopian Los Angeles of "Blade Runner" as it seems to blindly accept technological improvements. Many of the themes in the film reflect on this idea further. Humans appear to be fleeing "from" the Earth (to the Off-World Colonies) while replicants (machines) are fleeing "to" Earth.

Other futuristic novels have examined this idea, such as Burgess' "A Clockwork Orange", Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty-Four", and Huxley's "Brave New World". Some critics of "Blade Runner" state that the technology of the film dominates the characters, and that the depth of characters is second to the depth of technology.Fact|date=February 2007 Whether by design or not, it is quite apropos for this film as it reflects on a consequence of technicism — the pursuit of ignoble ends, technology for its own sake, devoid of any personal, ethical or moral consideration.

Genetic engineering and cloning

The first draft of the entire human genome was decoded on June 26, 2000, by the Human Genome Project, followed by a steadily-increasing number of other organisms across the microscopic to macroscopic spectrum. The short step from theory to practice in using genetic knowledge was taken quickly: genetically modified organisms have become a present reality.

The embryonic techniques of somatic cell nuclear transfer from a specific genotype via cloning, as well as some of the problems pre-figured in "Blade Runner", were demonstrated by the cloning of Dolly the sheep in 1996. Since 2001, political efforts have been mounting in many countries to ban human cloning, impelled by a sense of its abhorrence and imminence, while rumors abound that the first human clones may already have been produced, the most famous example being a claim by the extra-terrestrial worshipping Raelians, a religious group who have offered no proof to support their extraordinary claims. In all of these developments, a clear tension between commercial and non-commercial interests is apparent, as scientific and business motivations conflict with ethical and religious concerns about the appropriateness of human intervention in the deepest fabric of nature. In many ways "Blade Runner" serves as a cautionary tale in the tradition of Mary Shelley's novel "Frankenstein".

Eyes and memories

Eye symbolism appears repeatedly in "Blade Runner" and provides insight into themes and characters therein. The film opens with an extreme closeup of an eye which fills the screen reflecting the hellish landscape seen below. When reflecting one of the Tyrell Corp. pyramids it evokes the all-seeing Eye of Providence on the back of the U.S. one dollar bill. [Karantinos, Thomas. (2003) [ "Eyes in Bladerunner"] ]

In Roy's quest to "meet his maker" he seeks out Chew, a genetic designer of eyes, who created the eyes of the Nexus-6. When told this, Roy quips, "Chew, if only you could see what I've seen with your eyes", ironic in that Roy's eyes "are" Chew's eyes since he created them, but it also emphasizes the importance of personal experience in the formation of self. Roy and Leon then intimidate Chew with disembodied eyes and he tells them about J.F. Sebastian.

It is symbolic that the man who designed replicant eyes shows them the way to Tyrell. Eyes are widely regarded as "windows to the soul", eye contact being a facet of body language that unconsciously demonstrates intent and emotion and this meme is used to great effect in "Blade Runner". The Voight-Kampff test that determines if you are human measures the emotions, specifically empathy through various biological responses such as fluctuation of the pupil and involuntary dilation of the iris (as pointed out by Dr. Tyrell). Furthermore, Tyrell's trifocal glasses are a strong indicator of his reliance on technology for his power and his myopic vision. Later he is killed by Roy who forces his thumbs into Tyrell's eyes.

The glow which is notable in replicant eyes in some scenes creates a sense of artificiality. According to Ridley Scott, "that kickback you saw from the replicants' retinas was a bit of a design flaw. I was also trying to say that the eye is really the most important organ in the human body. It's like a two-way mirror; the eye doesn't only see a lot, the eye gives away a lot. A glowing human retina seemed one way of stating that". He considers the glow to be a stylistic device only, but Brion James, Leon's actor, suggests that pollution was the "cause" for the glow.

The relationship between sight and memories is referenced several times in "Blade Runner". Rachael's visual recollection of her memories, Leon's "precious photos", Roy's discussion with Chew and soliloquy at the end, "I've seen things you people wouldn't believe". However, just as prevalent is the concept that what the eyes see and the resulting memories are not to be trusted. This is a notion emphasized by Rachael's fabricated memories, Deckard's need to confirm a replicant based on more than appearance, and even the printout of Leon's photograph not matching the reality of the Esper visual.

Also in the Director's Cut, when at the Tyrell corporation the owl's eyes flicker with a red tint. This wasn't done on purpose and later decided to call the owl a fakeFact|date=December 2007 and emphasize the red tint.

Christian symbolism

There is a subtext of Christian allegory in "Blade Runner", particularly in regard to the Roy Batty character. Given the replicants' superhuman abilities, their identity as created beings (by Tyrell) and "fall from the heavens" (off-world) makes them analogous to fallen angels. In this context, Roy Batty shares similarities with Lucifer as he prefers to "reign in hell" (Earth) rather than "serve in heaven". [Gossman, Jean-Paul. (2001) [ Blade Runner - A Postmodernist View] ] This connection is also apparent when Roy deliberately misquotes William Blake, "Fiery the angels fell..." (Blake wrote "Fiery the angels rose..." in "America, A Prophecy"). Nearing the end of his life, Roy creates a stigmata by driving a nail into his hand, and becomes a Christ-like figure by sacrificing himself for Deckard. Upon his death a dove appears to symbolise Roy's soul ascending into the heavens. [Newland, Dan. (1997) [ Christian Symbolism] ]

Zhora's gun shot wounds are both on her shoulder blades. The end result makes her look like an angel whose wings have been cut off. Zhora makes use of a serpent that "once corrupted man" in her performance.

Economic inequality, corporatism

The dark and dirty urban sprawl Deckard explores in searching for the replicants is contrasted with Dr. Eldon Tyrell's offices, and by the bright skyscrapers in the distance, people are migrating to off-world colonies in outer space to escape poverty and contamination. Corporations dominate this world, much as their buildings and pervasive advertising dominate both the city and the surrounding landscape, strongly implying that corporatism is widespread.

Environment and globalization

The climate of the city of Los Angeles, in A.D. 2019, is very different from today's. It is strongly implied that industrial pollution has adversely affected planet Earth's environment, i.e. global warming and global dimming. Real animals are rare in the Blade Runner world. In Philip K. Dick's 1968 novel, "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?", animal extinction and human depopulation of the planet were consequent to the radioactive fallout of a nuclear war; [Leaver, Tama. (1997) [ 'Post-Humanism and Ecocide in William Gibson's Neuromancer and Ridley Scott's Blade Runner'] ] Owls were the first species to become extinct. This ties in with Deckard's comment about Dr. Tyrell's artificial owl: "It must be expensive." "(cf. post-apocalyptic science fiction)"

Given the many Asian peoples populating Los Angeles in A.D. 2019, and the cityspeak dialect policeman Gaff speaks to the Blade Runner, Rick Deckard, clearly indicates that much cultural mixing has happened. Globalization also is reflected in the name of the Shimago-Domínguez Corporation, whose slogan proclaims: "Helping America into the New World". [Välimäki, Teo. (1999) [ "Comparing Philip K. Dick's Novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Ridley Scott's Film Blade Runner in Terms of Internationalisation"] ] This indicates that a mass migration is occurring, as there is a status quo that people want to escape.

The cultural and religious mixing can also be verified at the scene where Deckard chases Zhora. At the streets, we can see people dressed traditionally as Jews, hare krishnas, as well as young boys dressed as punks.

Deckard: human or replicant?

Rick Deckard is the anti-hero of "Blade Runner", hired to "retire" replicants. The nature of most of the characters is clearly shown, yet Deckard's character is ambiguous, and viewers are left doubtful; aficionados debate this matter. If Deckard is human, then his being spared by Roy and his love for Rachael soften the line between human and replicant, adding conflicting ambivalence to the story. If Deckard is a replicant, the irony is greater. There is a sequence in the Director's Cut version that alters the significance of the origami unicorn that Gaff leaves in Deckard's apartment, suggesting to the viewer (and to Deckard) that Gaff knows about Deckard's dream in the same manner that Deckard knows about Rachael's implanted memories. If the origami unicorn seen in the Director's Cut reveals Deckard as a replicant in the film's end, then the audience's expectations and prejudices are questioned — and, by extension, our humanity.

Relevant opinions from those involved in the production:
* Philip K. Dick wrote the character Deckard as a human. [cite book
last = Dick
first = Philip K.
authorlink =
coauthors =
title = "Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep"
publisher = Ballantine
date = 1968
location = New York
pages = 244
url =
doi = PZ4.D547Dm
id =
isbn = 1568658559
* Hampton Fancher (original screenwriter) has said that he wrote the character Deckard as a human, but wanted the film to suggest the possibility that he may be a replicant. When asked, "Is Deckard a replicant?", Fancher replied, "No. It wasn't like I had a tricky idea about Deckard that way." [ [ Anderson, Jeffrey; "Hampton Fancher interview"] ] During a discussion panel with Ridley Scott to discuss "Blade Runner: The Final Cut", Fancher again stated that he believes Deckard is human (saying that " [Ridley Scott's] idea is too complex"), but also repeated that he prefers the film to remain ambiguous: "I like asking the question and I like it to be asked but I think it’s nonsense to answer it. That’s not interesting to me." [ [ "Ridley Scott compares Blade Runner to little orphan annie"] ]
* Ridley Scott stated in an interview in 2002 that he considers Deckard a replicant. [ [ Video of Ridley Scott] – Interview where he states that Deckard is a replicant] [ [ BBC News] article about Ridley Scott on Deckard being a replicant]
* Harrison Ford considers Deckard to be human. "That was the main area of contention between Ridley and myself at the time," Ford told interviewer Jonathan Ross during a BBC1 "Hollywood Greats" segment. "I thought the audience "deserved" one human being on screen that they could establish an emotional relationship with. I "thought" I had won Ridley's agreement to that, but in fact I think he had a little reservation about that. I think he really wanted to have it both ways." [ [ "Hollywood Greats"] – Edited clip from BBC1 documentary program, ] (However, in an interview in Wired magazine in 2007, Ridley again states that he believes Deckard is a replicant, and jokingly says that Harrison Ford may have given up the idea of Deckard being human.) [ [ Interview with Ridley Scott in Wired magazine] ]

The debate on his nature renewed when the Director's Cut was released with the unicorn sequence. Since the Original Theatrical Version (OV) points to Deckard being human, whereas the Director's Cut (DC) indicates Deckard is a replicant, it may be that Deckard's nature depends on which version one considers authoritative. Others maintain the film is ambiguous.

Significance of Deckard's identity


To emphasize similarity by juxtaposition: When Roy Batty saves Rick Deckard, a replicant is saving a human. When Deckard falls in love with Rachael, a human is affectionate towards a non-human. If replicants are hunting — and falling in love with — replicants, there is no ambivalence, and therefore, no conflict. If Deckard is a human interacting with replicants, who are behaving very humanly, it renders moot the question of whether there is a resonant difference. It places a few human attributes into relief, so they may be clearly seen.


Emphasizing Deckard's struggle to find his own identity, and so provoke the audience to feel as he does in their struggle to grasp Deckard's identity, and ultimately to question their understanding of how we can know our humanity is different, and how we can know at all (cf. epistemology). If the audience ignores the answer until the end, and the characters do not know it either, then the story again provokes the audience, and the characters, to ask: What is the difference between being human and being non-human, if I can be either, and I need someone else to tell me which I am?


*cite book| last =Telotte| first =J.P.| title =A Distant Technology: Science Fiction Film and the Machine Age| publisher =Wesleyan University Press| date= 1999| location =Hanover, NH| pages =165, 180-185| isbn =0819563463
*cite book| last =Menville| first =Douglas| coauthors =R. Reginald| title =Futurevisions: The New Golden Age of the Science Fiction Film| publisher =Newcastle| date= 1985| location =Van Nuys, CA| pages =8, 15, 128-131, 188| isbn =0893706817

External links

* [ Blade Runner FAQ – Is Deckard a Replicant?]
* [ The Replicant Option] – essay by Detonator
* [ Deckard Is Not A Replicant] – essay by Martin Connolly
* [*replicant Was Deckard a replicant?] – discussion at 2019: Off-World
*cite news
title=Blade Runner riddle solved
work=BBC News

* [ Hampton Fancher interview]
* [ Edge of Bladerunner Channel 4] – Documentary explores the question of Deckard's pedigree
*"Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" ISBN 0-345-40447-5

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