Running on a Blade

Posted by on Sep 15, 2014 in Recent Posts, The Stripboard


Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is, without a doubt, one of the most influential films (and perhaps not surprisingly, one of the most played films) in my library. It speaks on cultural identity, the vision of self, and explores how society treats designated deviants of different varieties.

This week, I’m going to spend a bit of time exploring the concept of the Blade Runners as a group, and for those unfamiliar with three different versions of the film, I’ll do a bit of explaining to fill in any gaps you might be missing if you haven’t seen all three (the original 1981, “The Director’s Cut” 1992 version, and the director’s actual version, “The Final Cut“, which was released in 2007). To make a distinction, I’ll be speaking strictly about Scott’s Blade Runner, and not the phenomenal work the film is based on created in 1968 by Phillip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. There are several excellent comparisons between Scott’s and Dick’s works that the enthusiast may find interesting (1, 2, 3, to name a few), but in short, there are substantial differences in both content and message between the two mediums, so to simplify the argument, I’ll just be speaking about the films.

To begin with, the world building incorporated in the films is subtle, but thorough. While a few voice overs by the film’s main character, Deckard, are used from time to time to explain certain aspects that may not be immediately apparent, by and large, the viewer is left to conclude many facts about the story’s setting on their own. Following a scrolling introductory title card reminiscent of Star Wars at the beginning, most of the understanding of Deckard’s world comes from intercut shots and sequences of the street-faring folk of Los Angeles, which resembles no kind of city that we might know of today.

The Blade Runners are officers of the Los Angeles Police Department who are tasked with the unique job of identifying and ‘retiring’ incredibly human-like androids called Replicants who have been deemed unstable for any number of reasons. Replicants are bio-engineered machines designed to appear as human as possible to make their integration into society less noticeable. They are responsible for any number of tasks from heavy lifting to soldiering to, yes, even prostitution, though they are, in accordance to the will of society and their creators (the Tyrell Corporation) limited to a four-year lifespan so as to avoid the formation of compromising emotions that can be observed in all current models. When emotions manifest themselves in entities with capabilities beyond that of a human body who have no knowledge but that of a utilitarian existence at the hands of longer-lived (though more fragile) human beings, it is easy to imagine that somewhat compromising situations where citizens are harmed can occur. This explains the need for the Blade Runners, and in this story, Deckard is called out of retirement to hunt down six Nexus-6 (Tyrell’s latest and greatest model) replicants who escaped an earth-bound shuttle after murdering the crew and all passengers, and are currently at large within Los Angeles.

With the basics of the story covered, the first scene of the film shows a Blade Runner named Dave Holden interviewing a new employee of the Tyrell Corporation, Leon Kowalski. Mid-way through the interview, he suspects the individual to be a replicant based on his somewhat immature emotional responses and, suspecting he has been discovered, Leon shoots the Blade Runner with a concealed weapon and we are shortly thereafter introduced to Deckard, who we learn will be replacing Holden due to his severe injuries after he is arrested by Officer Gaff and taken to his old supervisor, Harry Bryant.

I know that’s a whole lot of names, but bear with me, because there are a few more pieces to lay out before getting to the point.

Throughout the film, Gaff can be seen observing Deckard, driving him to crime scenes, or fetching him for meetings with Bryant. Gaff acts as intermediary and driver, sure, but it’s very apparent (especially after watching the film several times) that Gaff seems to have a vested interest in Deckard, or at the least in his investigation into the missing replicants. He also has a rather peculiar habit of making origami figures, seemingly absentmindedly, and leaving them. According to actor Edward Olmos, this was originally just something for his character to do whilst other characters were speaking, so he didn’t stick out as being in the room pointlessly, but the habit grew to something of more significance when director Scott decided to run with the idea and create a bit of symbolism out of it, and as such, they really exist as the core of this argument, but I’ll get back to that in a moment.

In a few deleted scenes that were included as extra content on the 2007 DVD release of The Final Cut, Deckard goes to visit Holden when he’s laid up in hospital, being kept alive by machines. They speak about Leon and the Nexus 6’s, and stating that “they’re no damn different than you or me… they’re almost us, Deck!”, going on to outline that besides the Voight-Kampff test that Blade Runners normally use to identify replicants, bio-engineered life-forms can also be identified during autopsy, but these are the only two ways known within the film’s scope to discover a replicant… unless, of course, there is a creation record on file with Tyrell, as with all the Nexus 6 models. However, as Deckard learns when visiting Tyrell, there are replicants created by the corporation that, as experimental models, are nearly impossible to detect with a Voight-Kampff, and truly are almost no different than a human being.

Rachel's Voight-Kampff test.

These new models, limited in his statements to his employee, Rachael, are so convincing for the simple reason that they believe themselves to be human. They have memories extracted and implanted from real human beings, giving the replicants childhoods, and under ideal circumstances, are never brought to suspect that they are anything but human. In a similar way to how humans today can pass a lie detector test by simply not knowing they are lying, this particular breed of replicant can essentially pass a Voight-Kampff test if they truly believe they are human, and most importantly, they are not limited by the four year, pre-programmed life-span of the Nexus 6 line. The implanted memories give them the emotions necessary to blend in with society better than any other replicant design to date… and the concept shakes Deckard badly when he learns of it, even though the only known replicant of this model is Rachael, a perceived non-threat.

Later in the film, as Rachael and Deckard grow closer, Deckard sits at a piano in his apartment as he mulls over the case. He lets his mind wander, and is caught in a daydream of a unicorn running through a misty forest. The dream is surreal, but vivid enough to leave an impression on Deckard when he wakes. A curious expression crosses his face, and the keen viewer will realize that, in this futuristic society, the concept of a unicorn wouldn’t be present, as the idea of a non-artificial animal is in itself a near impossibility. This vision of a unicorn, then, is likely unique to Deckard; it isn’t something that he could have picked up from a movie he watched as he was falling asleep. This is also a scene that is only present in The Director’s Cut and The Final Cut versions of the film, so somebody familiar with only the original theatrical release version of the film is missing out on this… and the somewhat stunning revelation it alludes to: Deckard is a replicant.

All kidding aside, the ending under scrutiny here is one where Deckard, after the SPOILERS: kills all of the Nexus 6 gang returns to his apartment to find Rachael there, asleep in his bed. He asks her if she loves and trusts him, to which she replies yes, and they are seen leaving, Rachael in a heavy coat, so it’s presumed that they are going to be going for some time, perhaps forever, “up north”, where earlier Rachael spoke about running to after it was revealed she was a replicant and wished to escape men like Deckard. As the pair leave his apartment, Deckard stops, looks down, and picks up a piece of origami art, presumably left by Gaff. It’s a unicorn, and as Deckard contemplates how Gaff could have known about and referenced his daydream, the last line yelled through the rain by the dedicated officer after watching the final replicant die echoes through his mind: “It’s too bad she won’t live! But then again, who does?”

Working through the logic, one can surmise that Gaff, having access to police records, was either A: able to work out Deckard’s true nature and learned of the unicorn vision through these files, or B: the department knew about Deckard’s status and assigned Gaff to keep an eye on him, which would have given him access to the same knowledge. In any case, the unicorn Gaff leaves, paired with his paring words, is a clear indication that he understands exactly who and what Deckard is. It could be considered a courtesy that he informed Deckard, or a warning of a ‘retirement’ to come, but we’ll never know, because in this version of the film, the credits roll as soon as Deckard turns around and gets into the elevator with Rachael. For all we know, Gaff could be waiting outside to kill both of them, but I prefer to think of a happier ending, personally. After all, the police force let him retire once already without going through the standard replicant ‘retirement’ process, why not let it happen again? Deckard and Rachael’s models clearly have sophisticated enough emotions to interact with the general populace anyway, so unless he did something radically dangerous, there should be no real reason to kill either of them.

Now, these revelations, while shocking at the time of their initial reveal, are well accepted facts about the film, now. Scott stated in a 2007 interview with Wired Magazine that Deckard was, indeed, a replicant:

If you take for granted for a moment that, let’s say, Deckard is a Nexus 7, he probably has an unknown life span and therefore is starting to get awfully human. Gaff, at the very end, leaves an origami, which is a piece of silver paper you might find in a cigarette packet, and it’s a unicorn. Now, the unicorn in Deckard’s daydream tells me that Deckard wouldn’t normally talk about such a thing to anyone. If Gaff knew about that, it’s Gaff’s message to say, “I’ve read your file, mate.”

“So what’s the point?” you might say. “Why spend all this time explaining something that the content creator already confirmed years ago?” Well, dear readers, it’s because I suspect that not only Deckard, but the entire Blade Runner division is made up of the so-called Nexus 7 models that Scott created for his re-telling of Do Androids Dream. The leap isn’t really that hard to make, when you think about it. Who better to hunt replicants, the humanoid creatures with strength and abilities far beyond that of any man, than another replicant? And as long as the department keeps an eye on their activities through agents like Gaff, then the enlisted replicants who have had memories implanted and integrate well into society, have no reason to suspect anything, creating a closed loop where limited human beings stand to be harmed. Basically, the defense for Blade Runners being replicants is the same defense for replicants existing in the first place: there are some jobs too dangerous for humans to take on willingly, and to fill the demand, replicants are created with specialized tasks. It also makes sense that the Tyrell Corporation would bankroll such a project, even in secret, because it would mean less bad press about their android models if they were able to design machines to hunt and kill ones that went rouge.

“But what about Holden?” you might ask. Well, Holden takes a little bit of work to squeeze into this mental model, but one must understand that Scott’s desire to make Deckard a replicant was only able to be brought about through re-edits many years later… they weren’t able to go back and re-shoot anything, but the inclusion of the deleted scenes in the 2007 release could enforce the idea of there being important content in the hospital scene between Deckard and Holden. The specific lines stating that the Nexus 6 models are difficult to detect, making them “almost like you and me” struck a chord with me, and was actually what set me on this line of thinking to begin with. What if Deckard and Holden both, at some intrinsic level, know that they aren’t quite human? Rachael had a similar response, according to Tyrell, but was never able to come up with any proof until Deckard came by with the Voight-Kampff machine and provided her with the answers she had already instinctively gravitated towards. Convenient, then, that Deckard has never taken a Voight-Kampff test (or so we can assume, given the omission of an answer when asked directly by Rachael), and that Holden never says he has either, which may have been a calming bit of information to give the clearly agitated Leon during their interview in the opening scene. Even the name blade runner implies running on the blade of a, perhaps, double-edged sword… and in a film rife with symbolism, one could find some meaning in this relating to the nature of their work: constantly hunting bounties, while always on the edge of making an earth shattering discovery.

I suppose at the end, this is just a theory with not much else to back it up besides what we can glean from the film(s), as the book is entirely irrelevant to such a claim, but if Scott releases the sequel that’s been talked about for a few years, don’t be particularly surprised if such a revelation is re-visited by Scott… the groundwork is all there, even if exact evidence supporting it can’t be nailed down, and if he could go back, years later, and change a key concept of the story using editing technique… well, imagine what Scott could do with an interested audience, modernized CGI and digital filming techniques, and a 180 minutes of runtime.

That’s all for this week! There are, of course, many things to write about with a film like Blade Runner, but I thought I might take an angle that you may not have heard before to keep things interesting. I’ll be doing a different film next week, so check back then if you’re interested in following!


(Background Pic: Flagstaff Az, 2014)


[Blade Runner and all associated media is the property of Warner Bros. and all media seen here is used simply for reference and not for profit]