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What is Blade Runner about?
Blade Runner is a meditation on what it means to be alive. Deckard’s character journey shows him transform from someone who doesn’t see the humanity in replicants, bioengineered humanoids, to someone who doesn’t care if there’s a difference. While the circumstances are science fiction in nature, the story is a familiar one about tolerance and understanding of the “other”. American History X, Crash, Magnolia (kind of), The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, I, Robot, all have similar stories where a “Deckard” starts off intolerant only to realize their prejudice was ignorant and wrong.
Beyond the idea of accepting others is a realization of our own mortality and the fight against death. It’s one we’ll never win, even when we have the opportunity to meet our maker. All we can do is relish in the time we’ve had and make the most of the things we’ve seen and experienced. Barbie and White Noise are two recent films that explore the same theme.
Movie Guide table of contents
- Rick Deckard – Harrison Ford
- Rachael – Sean Young
- Eldon Tyrell – Joe Turkel
- J.F. – Sebastian – William Sanderson
- Hannibal Chew – James Hong
- Bryant – M. Emmet Walsh
- Gaff – Edward James Olmos
- Roy Batty – Rutger Hauer
- Pris – Daryl Hannah
- Leon – Brion James
- Zhora – Joanna Cassidy
- Written by – Hampton Fancher | David Peoples
- Directed by – Ridley Scott
- Based on – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
The ending of Blade Runner explained
The ending of Blade Runner begins after Roy kills Tyrell and J.F. Sebastian. Deckard goes to check J.F.’s apartment. There, he discovers Pris. A brief struggle ensues that Deckard barely wins by shooting Pris just before she’s able to land what would have probably been a final blow. Her dying screams turn into a wailing howl that echoes throughout the building. Just then, Roy returns. After threatening Deckard and giving him a head start, Roy spends a few minutes mourning Pris. Then he begins to hunt.
This final chase sees the blade runner, the hunter of replicants, as the one running for his life. Roy taunts Deckard throughout. The two eventually end up on a roof. Deckard is desperate so tries to leap from one building to another but can’t make the jump, clinging to the ledge, only seconds from falling to his doom. Roy leaps across. In this moment when Deckard is at his most vulnerable, Roy changes course. He saves Deckard. Then the two sit. And Roy gives a closing speech.
Roy: Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it? That’s what it is to be a slave. I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time. Like. Tears in the rain. Time…to die.
Roy then passes away. A dove he had been holding flies into the sky. Just then, Gaff shows up. “You’ve done a man’s job, sir. I guess you’re through, huh?” To which Deckard says “Finished.” Gaff, as he walks away, leaves Deckard with a final thought. “It’s too bad she won’t live. But, then again, who does?”
Gaff’s referring to Rachael, the replicant Deckard has fallen for and been hiding. Afraid that Gaff had done something to Rachael, Deckard hurries back to his apartment. He finds her safe and sound. But, knowing that other blade runners will come for her, they flee. While leaving the apartment, Deckard discovers a tiny, silver origami unicorn. He knows its from Gaff. That Gaff had been there and chosen to leave. Those final words, “It’s too bad she won’t live. But, then again, who does?” sound in Deckard’s head. With a renewed sense of determination, he joins Rachael in the elevator.
The plot explanation
Let’s ignore themes for a second. Looking at the story, what do we have?
Roy had known for a while that he was coming up on the end of his four-year life span. That was why his hand kept uncontrollably closing. It was a sign of his body’s imminent shut down. It’s this self-awareness about his own demise that causes Roy to have a change of heart regarding Deckard. Why?
The short answer is that, narratively-speaking, having Roy spare Deckard is a demonstration of Roy’s complex humanity. The replicants are supposed to be less than human. They look like us but aren’t us. Except the whole movie is a demonstration that, actually, no, replicants are people, regardless of how they came to be. And one of the most elevated things a person can do is show mercy, forgiveness, be the bigger person. It doesn’t necessarily redeem Roy. He still took innocent lives. But, at least in his final moments, he decided to protect life rather than kill again. Even if it was the life of his enemy.
For Deckard, this is the culmination of his overall character arc. He started as someone who looked down on replicants and bought into their dehumanization. But he ends with the understanding that they’re the same. Despite their different origins and different life spans. Highlighting that is Gaff’s line, “It’s too bad she won’t live. But, then again, who does?” Implicit in that statement is the notion that the differences between replicant and human are merely superficial. Semantics. Deckard’s experience with Roy allows him to fully commit to Rachael rather than holding back because she’s “other”.
The ending would be straightforward if it weren’t for the origami unicorn and its implication that Deckard is probably also a replicant.
The “is Deckard a replicant?” discussion?
This is one people like to fight over. It’s never outright stated in the film that, “Yes, Deckard’s a replicant” but there are such heavy intimations that it’s almost undeniable.
In storytelling, you provide information either as context or subtext. Stories for kids tend to spell everything out. While subtext-heavy literary movies can be as rich as they are confusing. Most films fall somewhere in the middle, mixing both, sometimes leaning one way more than the other. Casino Royale isn’t without subtext but is mostly a context-driven story. Black Swan has a lot more subtext but still provides plenty of context so that viewers feel like they understand the main point. Then 2001: a Space Odyssey gives very little context—instead, it demands viewers piece together its subtextual clues. Blade Runner is in that Black Swan level.
So we get the context that Rachael is a replicant. And that she doesn’t know it because of a brain implant. Except that line about the brain implant is also doing work as subtext. Now that we know such an implant exists, it means we can ask the question, “Could Deckard also have a brain implant that makes him not realize he’s a replicant?”
A similar situation happens with Deckard telling Rachael about her implanted memories. There’s no way he could know the memories of a “real” person. But replicants have curated memories that help them gain emotional maturity. Because of an off-screen conversation with Tyrell or reading of a file or something, Deckard has specific details about her private memories. The spider outside the window and the hatchlings that eat it. And playing doctor with her brother. That’s all context.
But it also sets up the subtext that if Deckard could know Rachael’s memories, what does it mean if someone knows Deckard’s? That’s what we get with the unicorn. It’s a seemingly random moment of Deckard staring at the piano while having this vision of a white unicorn galloping through a fog-filled forest. In the last minute of the movie, you might suddenly remember it and be mad that the movie never explained why there was this unicorn. Only for the origami figure to suddenly add to the unicorn mystery.
Knowing what we know from the context of Deckard knowing Rachael’s memories, the logical conclusion is that Gaff knows Deckard’s. Which would mean that Deckard is himself a replicant.
Visually speaking, Scott makes a point to show replicants have, in certain lighting, a tint of red to their eyes. We see it with the owl. We see it with Rachael. Pris, Roy. There’s one moment where Deckard’s eyes flash the same red. Cinematographer and author Paul M. Sammon actually wrote a book on the making of Blade Runner. And he said in an interview with Harrison Ford that Ford clarified that the red glow in his eyes was a mistake. The shot had been composed in a way to get the glow in Sean Young’s eyes but because Ford was standing so close to her in the scene it actually affected his as well. Ford thinks Ridley Scott noticed in post-production and thought “Ah, here’s an accident that I can use as one more subtle reference to the fact that, perhaps, Deckard is also a replicant.”
We even have that line earlier in the film, from Rachael, where she says, “You know that Voight-Kampff test of yours? Did you ever take that test yourself?” That is another example of a subtextual sign post to get viewers to, on rewatch, ask the right questions and discover the clues scattered throughout the film. What’s great is that it serves a dual purpose. It reinforces the central theme and conflict around the question of is there really a meaningful difference between replicants and humans. But also is the most indirectly direct moment the film has when it comes to telling the audience Deckard is a replicant used by the injured Gaff to hunt other replicants.
In the source material, Philip K Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Deckard is clearly human. Book Deckard passed the Voight-Kampff. The only reason for the film to make that change from “definitely passed it” to “left ambiguous” is because Scott wanted to introduce the concept of Deckard’s potential replicant origin. But the screenwriter, Hampton Fancher, maintained he intended for Deckard to be human. Apparently most of the people involved with the film thought Deckard was human. Except Ridley Scott.
This question came back up when Denis Villeneuve directed the Blade Runner sequel, Blade Runner 2049. Ford returns as Deckard. It’s been 30 years. If Deckard’s a replicant and still alive then he’s a miracle. Except 2049 has the same context/subtext markers that clarify this. Tyrell had made Nexus 8s that lived as long as regular humans. And Dave Bautista’s Sapper Morton is an example of a Nexus 8 that’s lived for decades and grown older. 2049’s main character, K (Ryan Gosling), is also a replicant who is a blade runner. And looks a lot like 1982 Harrison Ford. No exact context that Deckard’s a replicant but certainly all the necessary wink-wink-nudge-nudge that one would need to come to that conclusion.
Harrison Ford actually weighed in on this in 2023. While doing promotion for Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, he told Esquire, quote: I always knew that I was a replicant. I just wanted to push back against it though. I think a replicant would want to believe they’re human. At least this one did.
Does it matter if Deckard’s a replicant or not?
Thematically, no. The point of Blade Runner is that replicants are humans and that the label is superficial and unnecessary and dehumanizing. That’s why Roy specifically makes references to being a slave. Historically, slaves have primarily been treated as less than. As property rather than people. Which is awful. Treating a person differently because of a label or because of how they were born or where they were born or their race, physical features, etc.—it’s all outrageous. We’re people. All simply trying to live.
So the ambiguity about Deckard fits with that. If he’s a human, then he’s overcome an ignorance society bred into him, thus serving as a positive example for other people to become not only tolerant but empathetic and to question their own implicit biases. If he’s a replicant, then he’s come to realize his own inherent value and beauty and that he deserves as much as anyone to have a life.
With all that said, he’s definitely a replicant. And that gets into a meta point.
The thematic explanation
One of my favorite things about Blade Runner is that we start off viewing Deckard as the human protagonist we identify with in a story whose other primary characters are replicants. We don’t doubt him. We don’t question what he is. Until the very end. Then the audience has to come to terms with the fact that we couldn’t tell the difference. We identified with this “non-human”, empathized with them, rooted for them, when, in reality, “he” was “other”.
That’s the film making a statement about the stupidity of discrimination. And how easy it is to dehumanize others through labels and preconceived notions that create systemic discrimination. That’s the point of the euphemistic language at the beginning of the film. What a blade runner does is murder people who don’t want to be slaves. But instead it’s framed as “retiring a replicant”. That creates a huge shift in the psychology of the action. And that’s why, initially, Deckard saw Roy simply as a runaway tool to be decommissioned.
The memories Roy shares in that final speech weren’t implanted. All those space-related events that the average Earth-bound person could never begin to comprehend were real experiences that defined Roy and made him who he was. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. Glittering C-beams near the Tannhäuser Gate. These sound like something out of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian meets Neuromancer by William Gibson. Roy could have used the wonder of those experiences to create art that inspired others. Or been a scientist. We get a glimpse of just how smart he is when he debates genetic engineering with Tyrell. Instead, society denied his humanity, his potential, and hunted him.
Think about that in terms of real life. All the people who have been dehumanized across human societies over the centuries. Those who had their voices stolen then their lives taken. Unfathomable numbers. And each full of potential. That’s true for you, you reading this, as well. Your life, whether you believe it or not, is special and you have had experiences that are unique, beautiful, and meaningful, even if they seem meaningless to you. This is the wonder of traveling and interacting with people from different backgrounds. Your high school experience might seem mundane to you, but to someone from another country it could be the most fascinating thing in the world.
Blade Runner is a reminder of everything that is lost when we deny others their humanity. Roy was, like his maker, a genius. But was never allowed to contribute. Instead, he was reduced to the life of a slave and his potential wasted. This caused him to become something far less noble than he could have been.
The film wants to provoke both an external and internal awareness. The external awareness being a check on our own negative biases and hopefully an increase in not only empathizing with other people but actually engaging with them. And the internal awareness is the fact that our time on Earth is limited. We don’t have four-year life spans but we might as well. Tomorrow is not promised. The blade runner is hunting you even as you read this. So what are you doing? Will you wait for it to show up at the door? Or will you live as much as you can in the time you have?
It gets Biblical?
Finally, Blade Runner includes some comparisons between Roy and Jesus Christ. Specifically, we see it with the nail through the hand, recalling both stigmata and the crucifixion. As well as the presentation of Tyrell as a God-figure to the replicants and him calling Roy his son. Then the white dove that flies into the sky absolutely has Biblical and spiritual implications.
According to the Bible, if the stain of sin was on someone’s soul, they wouldn’t get into heaven, meaning no eternal life. In the Old Testament, individuals atoned for sins through animal sacrifice. What made Jesus so special, beyond the whole Son of God thing, was that his sacrifice was this next level action that would ensure there was always a way for faithful people to find atonement and thus eternal life in heaven.
Roy and Deckard, with that in mind, become symbolic for Jesus and humanity. Deckard no longer being a blade runner can be seen as losing the burden of sin. Which is what will allow him to start his next life. In the original theatrical ending, Deckard tells us, through voiceover, that Rachael actually doesn’t have an expiration date. Despite being edited out of the Director’s Cut and Final Cut, 2049 reintroduces this concept and extends it to Deckard (meaning both are Nexus 8). This longer than normal life span is the film’s equivalent of eternal life (4 years vs decades).
The themes and meaning of Blade Runner
We talked about this at length in the ending explanation but it’s worth restating here. Blade Runner’s primary theme is humanization.
Throughout history, across civilizations, people dehumanize others. It’s a sad truth. And the why often depends on context that, in hindsight, is quite stupid and a poor excuse to indulge in outright discrimination (and worse). The reasons have ranged from economic status, religion, race, nationality, gender, skin tone, hair color, age, geography, profession, sports team you cheer for, political affiliation, etc. Replicants are just another in a long line of society mistreating a group of people because they’re labeled as different.
Deckard opens the movie as someone who shares the view that replicants are others. But by the end he knows better. Despite the different origins and different life spans, replicants are still humans. Their emotion is genuine. Their experience isn’t less than or false. They deserve respect and the same basic decency and opportunity as anyone else. Deckard’s relationship with Rachael externalizes this humanization. She goes from being “a thing” he interviews to a person he wants to spend time with to a partner he’s willing to sacrifice everything to be with.
Living in fear and the cost of dehumanization
Leon is one of the four replicants who return to Earth. He’s nearby when Deckard murders another of them, Zhora. Pissed off, he stalks Deckard until people won’t notice them. Then he attacks. The fight is very one-sided. Leon’s savages Deckard. In the middle of it, he rhetorically asks, “Painful to live in fear, isn’t it?”
Roy says something similar when Deckard’s hanging off the side of the building. He says, “Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it? That’s what it is to be a slave.”
When you’re so busy being scared for your life, forced to fight for your life, it limits not only what you can do but who you can be. There’s a world where Zhora and Leon become regular contributors to society. A world where Roy and Pris are a happy couple and Roy works alongside Tyrell to further the study of genetics. But they don’t have those opportunities. They’re too busy living in fear. That’s the cost of denying someone their humanity.
Another way of looking at it.
In 2001, Seth MacFarlene flew from Los Angeles to the Rhode Island School of Design to give a speech. The next morning he was 10 minutes late to the airport. By the time he got to the gate, boarding had completed, the door was closed, and there was nothing he could do. Less than an hour later, the plane, American Airlines Flight 11, exploded into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
At that point, Family Guy was in the middle of its third season. It had already been canceled once. Now it was struggling again. So much so that it eventually got bumped for a full year then re-canceled. It wasn’t until 2005 that the show found new life and became a global sensation. As of writing this in September of 2023, Family Guy has aired nearly 400 episodes. It’s considered one of the greatest animated shows of all time. It did so well that Fox gave MacFarlane another show, American Dad. That’s currently in its 20th season and has aired over 300 episodes. MacFarlane also created The Cleveland Show, The Orville, and three films (Ted, Ted 2, and A Million Ways to Die in the West). His work has had a tremendous impact. It’s employed hundreds of people, entertained millions (if not billions), and has helped shape the world’s comedic zeitgeist.
None of that would have happened if Seth MacFarlane had been on time to the airport on 9/11/2001.
That’s one person. Think about all the lives lost that day. Thousands of people who could have had a positive impact on the world. In big and small ways. Not everyone would have to create a legendary TV show. But maybe one would have been a teacher who has a positive influence on their students. Or a nurse who keeps morale at the hospital high, meaning a difficult job becomes a little more bearable for those there.
Now apply that to the Holocaust. Apartheid. U.S. slavery and the decimation of Native Americans. The Crusades. Every war. Every superficial inequality that’s existed and continues to exist. That’s the cost of dehumanization. That’s the cost of denial and ignorance. Humanity as a whole loses out on potential friends, family, loved ones. On art and culture. On scientific and technological breakthroughs.
Time and mortality
Time is as important to Blade Runner as the theme of humanization. There are those of us who are, relative to most others, lucky enough to not live in fear. We have plenty of opportunities and options. It’s easy to take that for granted. To think we have time in abundance. Decades. Then you blink and you’re in your mid-thirties and suddenly panicked about how much time has passed. But there’s still more than half your life left, right? So you don’t worry. You go to bed. When you wake up, you’re 50. Where have the last 20 years gone? But, still, 50 is the new 30, right? That’s a relief! You’ll just—fall and break your hip. You’re 80 and hearing the news, while in the hospital bed, that your kids have set you up in a nursing home.
Time slips away from us. And that’s what we see with Deckard. His life is pretty lackluster. When he’s not working, he’s drinking. He has no friends. No family. What’s he doing with himself?
That’s the subtext of his interactions with each of the replicants. They’re all fighting to survive. Zhora’s working. Leon’s hustling with Roy and Pris to meet with Tyrell in order to potentially increase their life spans. Deckard does his job but each time has to come to grips with how human the replicants were. Especially compared to himself.
Leon says to Deckard, near the end of their fight, “Wake up! Time to die.” That’s Deckard’s first existential awakening. Up until that point, he had been the one in control. Except right then his life was no longer in his own hands. If it weren’t for Rachael showing up and shooting Leon, he’d be gone.
To his credit, Deckard does start to wake up. Having been the one afraid, the one facing death, he softens in his interactions with Rachael. He reflects. A change stirs. It comes to fruition in the final encounter with Roy. Roy’s last words are “Time to die.” When Leon said that very thing, they were aimed outwardly at Deckard. But Roy is referring to himself. By facing death then witnessing someone else’s demise, Deckard transforms. He’s no longer going to be someone who drinks in the dark. He’s going to make every second he has left matter. Whether that’s hours, days, weeks, months, or years. He now understands how precious time really is.
Why is the movie called Blade Runner?
The simple answer is that it sounds f***ing cool. Interestingly, it’s not something from Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Novel Deckard is simply a bounty hunter.
But there was a science fiction novel from 1974 called The Bladerunner, written by Alan E. Nourse, primarily concerned with overpopulation issues. In this dystopian future, medical care is super expensive (sound familiar?). So the government manages the system by saying only people who agree to sterilization can receive treatment. It’s a huge cost that not everyone is willing to pay. It gives rise to an underground medical system that relies on black market dealings to transport scalpels (blades) and other supplies. Thus we get the cool sci-fi name of bladerunners.
I know what you’re thinking. “Chris, that has nothing to do with the movie Blade Runner. Plus, the movie is based on the Philip K. Dick novel. You know this.”
Yes! So what happened is that William S. Burroughs released the novel Naked Lunch in 1959 and it became very popular and helped define the idea of cyberpunk as a movement. A few years later, Burroughs started acting and writing in various Hollywood movies while still producing a lot of literary work. In 1979, he got a job writing the treatment for a film adaptation of Nourse’s The Bladerunner. That became a novella called Blade Runner (a movie). Same idea with overpopulation and sterilization to receive medical care. But Burroughs was a visionary lunatic so his version of the story is a lot more frantic and chaos-driven.
I love this description by a Goodreads user named Jon: Imagine that you have just finished reading Alan E. Nourse’s novel The Bladerunner; as you were finishing it, you were just starting to come down with a bad case of the flu. You go immediately to bed, and suffer through a night of bad sleep punctuated by fevered dreams in which you are watching a very bizarre film adaptation of The Bladerunner. If these things were to happen to you, the experience might not be unlike reading William S. Burroughs deranged adaptation, Blade Runner: A Movie.
So the whole “Burroughs is maybe adapting The Bladerunner” was something people in the film and sci-fi world knew about. One of them was Hampton Fancher. Hampton was in the process of writing the screenplay for Untitled Adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? He and Scott and the team had been trying to figure out a shorter title and had used Android and Dangerous Days but it seemed they weren’t happy with anything so far. Fancher then pitched Blade Runner. Scott agreed, purchased the rights, and that was that.
What’s interesting is that “replicant” is also not in the novel. They’re just androids. At that point, “android” was such a common sci-fi trope that people had preconceptions about what an android was and wasn’t. And they were mostly thought of as not human. So if Scott had gone with that, he would have been fighting an uphill battle when it comes to people believing replicants are people. By changing the generic “bounty hunter” to the cooler “blade runner” and “android” to “replicant” he made the world of the film a bit more realized and singular.
It also plays into the idea of labels and euphemistic language that’s one of Blade Runner’s major motifs.
Important motifs in Blade Runner
Eyes are everywhere in Blade Runner. The shot of the eye in the very beginning is iconic and arguably one of the best in movie history. An eye is the focus of the Voight-Kampff test. Replicants all have the artificial red iris/pupil glow in certain light. Hannibal Chew is an eye maker. Leon tries to crush Deckard’s eyes. Roy does crush Tyrell’s.
There isn’t necessarily a great piece of dialogue or moment to point to for explanation. I’ve always assumed it plays into the popular idea that eyes are the window to the soul. The film’s core concern is whether or not replicants are people. Which can be reframed as “Do replicants have souls?” So the eye motif plays into that notion of the soul and being alive. Which makes the whole “death by gouging out the eyes” a pretty powerful thing.
It also ties into the idea of experience. What’s the beginning of Roy’s final speech? “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.” As important as the other four senses are, sight is often the most powerful. When Neo becomes The One in The Matrix, what’s the biggest change? His perception of the world around him.
That idea of perception also connects to the idea of our views on a topic. What do we see when we look at a replicant? Blade Runner wants to challenge our perception on humanity and dehumanization.
One last notion is the eye as representing Orwellian dystopia. That lines up with the euphemistic language that feels very dystopian. And the fact that the Tyrell Corporation is this hugely dominant force. And that you have blade runners “retiring” people. It’s a pretty messed up world.
The eye does a ton of work and is definitely the most important motif in the film.
Animals come up a lot. They’re a huge part of the Voight-Kampff test. Leon reacts to the tortoise question. For Rachael, she receives questions about a calf-skin wallet, a butterfly collection, and a wasp. There’s the fake owl at Tyrell’s. As well as Zhora’s artificial snake. Roy has the dove. Of course, there’s the unicorn. The source material is also called Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Having an animal in the title definitely places emphasis on them as a motif.
Part of this ties into the decriptide of Earth. Huge environmental issues made real animals a rarity. Most are extinct or on the brink of extinction. So there’s an idea of them representing something that’s been lost. As well as ideas of replacement. Is the owl not an owl? Is the snake not a snake? The way we replaced them could we also replace ourselves? Could replicants become the norm?
The electric sheep from the novel title refers to an animal Deckard owns. But he wants to buy a live one. He’s working as a blade runner to save up for that purchase. It’s something he desires. So the title—Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?—refers to the question of whether or not androids show desire. The way humans dream of things they want to have and do and become. Do androids/replicants do the same?
In Blade Runner, the answer is a resounding yes.
So you could also view animals in that context as an external representation of this basic aspect of humanity—to want, to desire, to aspire. That seems more applicable to the novel than it does the movie. But it would also play into the idea of the unicorn. Deckard, assuming he’s a replicant, does have dreams of something spectacular. And you could maybe view Rachael being a unique model of replicant as a metaphoric unicorn.
In the original theatrical version, we’re told Rachael has no expiration date. Which does make her a unicorn among replicants. In 2049, we’re told that she’s a special model that could give birth. In fact, the only one ever made. The secret died with Tyrell. So in the sequel she becomes even more of a unicorn.
One cool bit is that the first time Gaff makes an origami figure it’s of a chicken. It’s done specifically as a call out to Deckard as Deckard’s hesitating to take the blade runner job. But it does right away make a metaphoric connection between Deckard and an animal. Then the final origami is of a unicorn that probably refers to Rachael. The theme definitely has a lot of open-endedness to it, making it both a rich vein for discussion but also one that’s hard to explain as clearly as other aspects of the film.
Euphemistic language and propaganda
Blade Runner opens with a block of exposition:
Early in the 21st Century, THE TYRELL CORPORATION advanced Robot evolution into the NEXUS phase—a being virtually identical to a human—known as a Replicant. The NEXUS 6 Replicants were superior in strength and agility, and at least equal in intelligence, to the genetic engineers who created them. Replicants were used Off-world as slave labor, in the hazardous exploration and colonization of other planets. After a bloody mutiny by a NEXUS 6 combat team in an Off-world colony, Replicants were declared illegal on earth—under penalty of death. Special police squads—BLADE RUNNER UNITS—had orders to shoot to kill, upon detection, any trespassing Replicant. This was not called execution. It was called retirement.
The last two lines are the most important. The movie tells us what literally happens is execution. But that it’s re-framed as nothing more than retirement. Euphemistic language in and of itself isn’t inherently a problem. It’s quite typical in day to day conversation, usually as a simplification or because it’s in better taste or for comedic reasons. One person might say they’re going to the bathroom. Another might say they’re going to powder their nose. And someone else might say they’re taking the Cleveland Browns to the Super Bowl. All mean the same thing.
But euphemistic language can be insidious and manipulative and is often part of propaganda. Historically, propaganda has proven incredibly effective at convincing otherwise normal people to participate in horrible events. The typical method of accomplishing this is done through othering/dehumanizing by means of cartoonish images and labeling. So genetically engineered humans get renamed replicants. And government-sanctioned murderers become blade runners. And the act of violence is nothing more than retiring. It’s similar to telling a child that their beloved dog went to a farm upstate or is in doggy heaven. It softens the blow enough to where they’re willing to accept what happened and moved on. Thus entire populations become conditioned to accept heinous acts as the norm.
Questions & answers about Blade Runner
Is Deckard a human or a replicant?
We answer this pretty thoroughly in the section about the movie’s ending. But the short answer is: replicant. There’s a deleted scene that would have been at the end of the movie that picks up with Deckard and Rachael driving away from Los Angeles and Rachael says to Deckard that she believes they were made for each other.
Why did Gaff make origami figures? Was he a blade runner?
The popular theory is that Deckard was, like K in the sequel, a replicant working for the police. That would make Gaff a handler, or the true blade runner, and Deckard more of a tool to get the job done.
Remember how Rachael wasn’t necessarily convinced she was a replicant so Deckard tells her her own memories as a demonstration that he knows details of what Tyrell implanted in her? Well that’s essentially what Gaff’s doing. When Deckard’s afraid, Gaff makes a chicken. When Deckard’s attracted to Rachael, Gaff makes a stick figure with an erection. When Deckard’s running off with Rachael, Gaff leaves a unicorn, signaling that he knows this is what the replicant had dreamed of.
What is the scale Deckard finds?
He thinks it’s a fish scale but it ends up being a snake scale from the snake Zhora has.
Who is in the photo Deckard enhances?
Zhora. Deckard notices the snake tattoo on her neck/cheek. That’s how he tracks her down.
Whose eyes is it at the opening sequence?
Ridley Scott did comment on this: I think I was intuitively going along with the root of the Orwellian idea. That the world is more of a controlled place now. It’s really the eye of Big Brother. Or Tyrell. Tyrell, in fact, had he lived, would certainly have been Big Brother. The early intent [was for the eye to be Holden’s]. But I later realized that linking the eye with any specific character was far too literal a maneuver and removed the particular emotion I was trying to induce.
Scott went so far as having someone working on the film, Richard Rippel, serve as the model for the eye. So it truly doesn’t belong to any character in the film.
Personally, I always liked the idea that it’s Roy’s eye and represents his return to Earth and the excitement of seeing this place (maybe for the first time). We are told that Roy and Leon both tried to reach Tyrell by pretending to be employees. So it could be Roy on his way to work.
But the generic eye works as well. It can represent the innocence and wonder of beholding something. As well as that Orwellian sense of authority. Especially as the eye’s witnessing Tyrell’s empire.
For those wondering, George Orwell wrote 1984 and Animal Farm. Both stories emphasized totalitarian systems that controlled people through fear, propaganda, and dehumanization. In 1984, Big Brother is the leader of the totalitarian regime. The title is in itself euphemistic propaganda. Instead of calling him what he is—a tyrant—he has people refer to him as this family member, which plays on our instinctual positive feelings for family. So anything Orwellian is referring to this insidious, euphemism-driven dystopia.
With this in mind, there’s something even more poetic about the ending. The last thing we see is the elevator door closing on Rachael and Deckard. They’re out of sight. And trying to flee from the watchful eye of this discriminating society.
Could other people see the red glow?
No! Ridley Scott confirmed it was something only done for audiences rather than something characters in the film could notice.
What’s a skinjob? Why does Bryant use the term?
It’s a derogatory slur for replicants, derived from the fact that people like Bryant think replicants only look like humans on the outside but are “fake” on the inside.
What’s the blimp saying?
Multiple times, an advertising blimp flies overhead and projects some kind of audio message.
In the Final Cut the specific lines are: A new life awaits you in the Off-World colonies. The chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunity and adventure … The custom-tailored, genetically engineered humanoid replicant, designed especially for your needs. So come on America, let’s put our team up there.
Given the Biblical references throughout the film, like the replicants being fallen angels and the Roy/Jesus connection, it’s hard not to see this Off-World message as heaven-esque. Or even Paradise Lost. We had this wonderful planet but in Blade Runner the planet is almost ruined. Eden is gone. And now you have to go elsewhere to find it.
Why does Roy kill Sebastian?
Roy kills Tyrell for making replicants have such limited lives. Sebastian was a key part of that process. The same disease that J.F. to look so much older was used in the creation of the Nexus 6. He acknowledges as much when he says “There’s some of me in you.”
Now it’s your turn
Have more unanswered questions about Blade Runner? Are there themes or motifs we missed? Is there more to explain about the ending? Please post your questions and thoughts in the comments section! We’ll do our best to address every one of them. If we like what you have to say, you could become part of our movie guide!