The Voight-Kampff Self-Test: Rethinking Blade Runner

“If only you could see what I’ve seen with your eyes.”

-Roy Batty

Even at the time, it seemed all too fitting that my first experience with Blade Runner came as an undergraduate.  There’s something in the film’s mix of genre tropes, in a visual universe that’s at once startling and familiar, and in a philosophical subtext that’s so blatant it’s practically text, that appeals to the young intellect trying to assert itself before it’s really earned the right to do so.

But that I still revisit it today, some 20 years on, suggests that there’s something more to the film, something in the alchemy of all those elements.  Why does Blade Runner still have that hold on me?  Why is its power stronger now than when I first saw it?


-Roy Batty

The details of the film, though not inconsequential, are almost common knowledge after 30 years in pop-cultural circulation.  Based on Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (and adapted by David Peoples and Hampton Fancher), Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner brings the values of film noir and literary science fiction into the kind of imagined world that would influence a generation of artists and audiences.  In that quintessential dystopia (drawn from the likes of Metropolis and Edward Hopper, and brought to life by such legends as cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, production designer Lawrence G. Paull, composer Vangelis, and visionaries Syd Mead and Douglas Trumbull, among many more), a band of replicants has escaped to Earth, and Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is forced back into service to “retire” this “defective” line.

Doesn’t seem like much when you put it that way, I know.  But it’s still enough for the film to explore some of the classic sci-fi themes.  What makes us alive?  What makes us human?  Is a machine that can feel anger and love and even grief, even when it can’t entirely understand or express them; that’s aware of its own mortality and so will do anything for just a little more time; that treasures life more than any organic being… is that machine still merely a machine?  Or has it become “more human than human”?

I did recognize all of this when I first saw the film (in its inferior, wildly imperfect, but still entirely compelling theatrical cut), but I didn’t focus so much on those questions as I did on the characters asking them, and the world they inhabited.  At the risk of sounding too back-in-my-day, for everything digital technology is capable of today, I don’t think it has reached the point where it can match the scope and mass of the miniatures and matte paintings and full-scale sets created for Blade Runner.  Watching it today, it’s just as easy to get lost in that world as it was 20 years ago.

And then we have the beings who inhabit said world.  Ford’s world-weary Deckard, Sean Young’s naive and troubled Rachael, Brion James’s menacing yet frightened Leon, Edward James Olmos’s vague and ambitious Gaff – stereotype or archetype, every character in this film belongs there.  Every character matters.

“The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long. And you have burned so very, very brightly, Roy.”

-Eldon Tyrell

But even back then, like so many fans, I was most drawn to Roy Batty.  In a lesser film he’d be the villain, and even here we’re first led to believe he is one.  But in the battle between him and Deckard, it’s Roy we sympathize with.  We’ve seen what the job makes of Deckard, the cold-blooded things he does in the name of humanity.  But we’ve seen Roy fight for nothing more than survival, for himself and for his literally makeshift family.  We’ve seen Deckard “retire” without emotion.  But we’ve seen Roy kill in anger and grief.  And in the end, when Roy speaks of “things you people wouldn’t believe”, it’s not a villain’s monologue we’re hearing.  It’s a man’s.

And so, as Theatrical Cut gave way to Director’s Cut and Director’s Cut gave way to Final Cut, it was through Roy Batty that I viewed the changes.  It was through his perspective that I came to explore and embrace what the film asks about the human machine.  And it was through Rutger Hauer’s still-unmatched performance that I came to believe that despite the title, and Harrison Ford’s name above it, Blade Runner is far more Roy Batty’s story than Rick Deckard’s.  Roy’s actions drive the plot, and even in the end Deckard more reacts than acts.  Deckard’s character and motivations are explored and revealed through their contrast with Roy’s.  And in the film’s final shot, we’re left to wonder if the blade runner has been changed by their encounter, or if he’s still acting out his “programming”.

In that sense, I don’t think we ever see Roy with Deckard’s eyes.  I think we see Deckard with Roy’s.

Of course, if you’ve seen it (and it may likely also depend on when you’ve seen it), you may have an entirely different response.  And I think that’s the key to the film’s endurance, its evolution into a sci-fi classic.  Much like the empathy test of this essay’s title (a creation of the film), Blade Runner is a kind of barometer, and our response to it reveals a great deal about who we are as moviegoers, as genre fans, maybe even as thinking and feeling beings.

If we struggle to process that, to express it, even merely to accept it… well, I guess that’s just part of what makes us human.

With that, I’ll let you go once again.  Thanks as always for your time and support – until the next post, “be seeing you…”

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