The God of Biomechanics
Artistic expression in Blade Runner is in short supply. It resides more or less in the piano playing of Deckard and Rachel, in Gaff’s origami, and in the creation of ersatz photographs; but it resides, also, and perhaps most significantly, in Roy Batty’s standard Iowa Writer’s Workshop free verse.
The problem with the first two expressive forms (piano, origami), as replicants go, is that each is a science in its own right. They can be taught, i.e. programmed. Piano is a science of discreet, harmony-comprising aural frequencies, origami a science of elegant geometric proportions. Both can be, for sake of argument, replicated. As such, they have something in common with biogenetics. Sheet music, for instance (n.b. Deckard’s apartment), can be likened to the genotype of a species inasmuch as both are fixed patterns with relatively constant denouements: Moonlight Sonata, Orangutan, respectively. On the other hand, the pianist, like the organism’s phenotype sui generis, marks a novelization of generic form, as though the “refresh button” has been tapped. Just the same, Origami can be duplicated by following suit, but the possibility exists that one new fold might evoke a new species (n.b. Gaff’s unicorn in post-pastoral L.A.). Be that as it may, in Blade Runner, it’s hard to say whether the replicants (Deckard, Rachel, maybe Gaff) are merely doing paint-by-numbers, or if these moments signify personalized expressions. As for photography, much can be said about the “presence” of the photographic message in Blade Runner. One might call attention to the meta-notion that we are watching Harrison Ford replicating a replicant who cannot on the basis of pictures decide a dependable coefficient of humanity. One might invoke words like “simulacrum” or “simulation society.” Or, one might trace the Blade Runner’s Coca-Cola Zeppelin back to its modernist prototype, borrowing forward the words “pratfall” or “hubris.” I will, however, move on to our fallen angel.
“If you could see what I’ve seen with your eyes,” Roy tells He who gave him sight. Eyes are, of course, the regnant visual motif of Blade Runner: the Orwellian eye that watches over, and the phenotypical eye that registers everyday phenomena. But it is the latter that takes on the greatest importance for Roy, culminating in his final roof-top soliloquy. Rather than making Roy into a Lynchian Frank Booth, Blade Runner shows him to be, well, more human than the next human. As we see in the penultimate scene, Roy’s fight is not with Deckard, but with the biodegradable destiny his inheritance entails. In fact, Roy’s mutiny could be said to stand in symbolically for the revolt of the working classes, those who demand more than what humanity allows them. And so, on the roof, rain pinging, Deckard leering, Roy begins: “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 Tannhauser gate.” Then Roy ends: “All those memories will be lost in time… [Pause],/ like tears in the rain. / Time to die.” This final versification, trite as it may sound, is all Roy’s own, unlike the anxiety of influence he exhibited earlier in rehashing Blake. Yet what distinguishes Roy’s verse, its phenotype, is the imprint of human sentience it manages to externalize. Roy’s utterance is an outerance, as Elaine Scarry might say. It enters into the thicket of discursive space, where it will, as Bakhtin might say, brush up against other utterances, where it will affect and be affected, populate and be itself populated. In addition to the replaying of the Marlowe/Kurtz, Prendick/ Moreau trope, I would argue, furthermore, that the reason for which Roy keeps Deckard alive is not dissimilar to the reason Hamlet prolongs the life of good Horatio in the final act, that is, because death demands an audience, someone who can “speak to th’ yet-knowing world how these things came about” (V.ii.380-381). Deckard sees Roy’s death, and en route, affirms his life!
The Missing Middle
However, in light of the fact that “This message has been brought to you courtesy of the TYRELL Corporation,” is the artistic integrity of Roy’s verse compromised? Is it a debased commodity? Or, ought we to think of it as a futuristic captivity narrative, written in a time when race divisions are less divisive than genetic differences? But this notion seems horrendous, offensive even. Not only is Roy palest white (blond-hair, blue eyes), he’s been created in the image of the overman. Then again, what about Pris (Daryl Hannah)? Isn’t “pleasure model” mere innuendo for “sex slave?” Is sexism deliberately more pronounced than racism in Blade Runner? This opens up an entirely different can of worms. Does Blade Runner mean to suggest science’s failure to transcend ideological determinisms? Has science become mere innuendo for corporate enterprise, giving way to the privatization of human nature, of Nature even? To add insult to injury, the polarity between those above and those beneath is the film’s most marked visual-stylistic, hence the constricted marketplaces vis-à-vis the pyramidal amplitude of Tyrell’s living space, which opens out quite literally into space. Notably, any transition from the “bottom-up” provinces of the little-people to the “top-down” empire of the Tyrell Corporation is signaled by an elevator or stairwell shot. Is Deckard, then, all that remains of the betwixt and between? What motivates his mobility, up or down? What motivates Rachel’s fall from corporate grace? Was there fruit involved?
Rather than adopt the reductio ad absurdum program of speculative fictions like Brave New World, Blade Runner engineers a future that is, however grim, quite conceivable. More than speculation, the film brings to the fore the many anxieties and dangers latent in advanced techno-capitalistic societies—in short, (1) the degradation of art under science; (2) science’s assimilation to multinational (multi-galactic?) corporation(s); not to mention, (4) the shrinking of the middle class to naught; and (5) an alienation from labor that is absolute and that might mean (6) the return to indentured servitude, that might mean (7) science’s facilitation rather than its dismembering of gross male chauvinisms. But to put it in such o’bleak terms is to read a more scathing form of anti-enlightenment pessimism into Blade Runner, a pessimism that is perhaps unwarranted. I say this because I wonder if there is something more to this dread unicorn, if there is somehow a good deal of humanity in our imagining something, anything, which has absolutely no scientific precedent, no utilitarian purpose.