The Question Is Not Whether Deckard Is A Replicant, But Whether Roy Is A Person

Blade Runner is a near-perfect vision. What I love most about it is its willingness to embrace the Noir idiom, not just in its visuals, but in the ambivalent moral position of its protagonist, Roy Batty.

I find its rare mistakes downright encouraging to me as a creator; if the entire creative team can accidentally, but explicitly, miscount the number of characters in the story, then I can live with that typo in MFØ.

We’re gonna skip talking about Deckard right now, because while he’s our point of view over the course of the movie, he’s not a protagonist; it’s not his decisions that impact the course of events, it’s Roy’s decisions. It’s not his actions that precipitate the events, those are Roy’s, Zhora’s, Pris’, and maybe Leon’s (though none of them seem to have any better a relationship to him than tolerance, and I suspect he’s there as a compromise.) And it’s not Deckard’s actions that make the moral statement that the movie leads up to: that’s Roy’s, again.

Roy wants one thing: “More life.”

Roy Batty's Incept Date

We know that he was activated today, January 8th, 2016. Four years from now is January 8th, 2020. But the movie takes place some three months earlier than that. Roy, like everyone else who’s ever lived, doesn’t actually know when he’s going to die. The information he wants so badly doesn’t exist. He’s a living thing, subject to the vagaries of life.

We’re not computers, Sebastian. We’re physical.

But he’s not going to go down without a fight. Roy, the actual detective in the movie, roots out every piece of information he can possibly uncover in order to assemble the brutal narrative of his short life into one that leaves him with a sense of meaning. But he’s also a being forged of, and designed to inflict, suffering. He’s at peace with himself in that regard; pain and compassion are the same thing to him.

Contrast that with Zhora, who’s had enough of death, and just wants to have a life, with the scraps of sex and beauty she can gather to herself before she dies. Good job on that one, Deckard. Feeling bad about “Shooting a woman in the back” is cutting yourself rather a lot of slack.

He kills Chu, who only makes the windows to the soul, not the soul itself, in order to find Sebastian. He kills Sebastian, who makes the vessel for the soul, in order to find Tyrell. (OK, he doesn’t kill him first. Roy holds him aside so he can kill him later — and, I think choose not to kill him if things go his way. They don’t go his way.)

For whatever value of “him” you want here. Given that Eldon’s mostly excuses about why he can’t give Roy more life and why he’s good like he is, I think he’s mostly explaining to himself, which, for a man of power like him, usually gets him what he wants.

And Tyrell tries to explain Roy’s life in a way that’s satisfying to him; tries to explain Roy’s life as a slave, living in fear, his vast capacities squandered for the profit of those who built him and direct him.

More accurately, Eldon tries to patronize Roy into accepting his own death as both moral and necessary. I get the idea that Roy wants Tyrell to give him a reason to not kill his father (per Final Cut) / fucker(per Director’s Cut). But no reason is forthcoming. Roy finds Eldon’s explanations petty and trite, formed of the kind of compromise one can make when the consequences of that compromise are borne by others. The sun god in his pyramid can make life, but can’t answer the questions that the life demands when it walks up to your bed in the middle of the night and wants to talk about ethyl methanesulfonate as an alkylating agent.

Is Roy in the moral right?

Roy is a violent person, built for violent purposes. And yet, he loves Zhora and Pris and, even though Leon is clearly an idiot and Zhora seems to have abandoned them, he never considers harming any of his companions. His violence is constrained and purposeful. He wants those who have visited a life of suffering on his kind to feel the same  suffering that they casually inflict, to relieve them of the belief that they are untouched by the consequences of their actions. Roy even apologizes to Sebastian as he kills him — he knows that, while Sebastian has done a great evil, he intended no evil.

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The other one is the moment it says STAR WARS.

I have a great deal of sympathy for slaves who turn on their masters: Leia strangling Jabba with her chains is one of the two moments in Star Wars that brings tears to my eyes.


Do you love Roy the way I do? I made you this shirt, then!

I don’t think so, and cui bono in such a construction? Is it more wrong to allow the brutality to continue, inflicted on others less brave or able?But if it’s wrong to brutalize people in order to enslave them, is it equally wrong to turn that brutalization around? Does that make the (now ex-)slave as bad as the master?

Instead, if a person deprives another person of agency, the master must know that the goal of total deprivation is impossible; rather, they have narrowed all of their slave’s avenues of agency down to those that run through and over the master’s corpse.

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So, is Roy’s brutal murder, destroying his father/fucker to the very soul, evil? Sure. Of course. But it’s evil that stems from Eldon’s every moral decision, which he makes with impunity and with the force of vast resources. Roy accepts that evil, since his very existence is an expression of it. But at this moment, it’s evil that is seeking — and finding — its own end.

On the rooftop with Deckard, Roy has lost his companions, his creators, and his life. All he can do is try to explain to a fellow slave — now marked in mirror on their hands, making them blood brothers — that he experienced his life as a person, in stark defiance of institutions with powers of life and death, and to take pride that, for a moment, he brought justice.

Time to die.

TimeToDie

xenoglyph-dingbat

 

PS: See you next month!
Pris Incept Date

39 thoughts on “The Question Is Not Whether Deckard Is A Replicant, But Whether Roy Is A Person”

  1. Applause. This is the best piece about Blade Runner that I have read in a long, long time (and it makes me want to watch it again)

  2. I always felt the replicants got a bad deal. Born to work for four years (or so) and.not even gifted emotions.
    Very much the same reason armies don’t recruit older people.
    Roy is a young man, self aware and burgeoning early into adolescence. Confused, distraught and lashing out at a cold world he didn’t create.
    It has many points of discussion, and when held up to the light, Deckard’s isn’t the most obvious.

    1. Definitely Final Cut. The remaster is stunning and the little changes give a really interesting insight into the film’s creative process.

      1. Can you mention any differences?

        Does it bring back any stuff from the original cut?

        Despite the fact that I preferred the Director’s Cut artistically, I greatly enjoyed seeing the original cut afterward. There was just more content there, with the voice-over and the ending on the train; having already parsed the Director’s Cut, it was like a “what if” or bonus material to me.

        1. There’s more volume of people and stuff to the Chinatown scenes that changes the pacing to make it feel like you’re lost on a crowded city street. In general, it’s that kind of little, subtle stuff. Additionally, of course, the image quality is outstanding and it does great honor to the artists who built it all.

  3. To be fair, they are no more treated unfairly than any other life. Like all life, they have been given an expiration date. They have been proven to be a threat to humans, thus locked out of their world. They have the rest of the galaxy to roam. Unlike many despairing humans, they don’t need to yearn for purpose, their purpose is clear from the start.

    1. You’re completely ignoring the central moral fact of agency. All life expires, but only some lives have an expiration date imposed on them through the choices of other living beings. We don’t say that someone who’s been murdered “has been treated no more unfairly” than someone who dies a natural death — the time of their death is the result of someone else’s choice, and we consider that a moral evil. That’s why Tyrell’s choice to impose a fixed time of death on all replicants is “unfair”, to say the least.

      1. Yeah; they DON’T have the universe to roam. That is for their human masters. They do what they’re told: the difficult, dangerous jobs the include lots of murder.

  4. Excellent insight.

    It’s interesting to compare *Blade Runner* to Philip K. Dick’s novel, *Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?*, on which it is nominally based. The two stories are so different that it’s the few points of commonality that really stand out. For instance, there’s the “Voight-Kampff test”, appearing in both, which is supposed to identify androids by their lack of empathy. This is made clearer in the novel.

    What I find strange is that most interpretations of *Do Androids Dream* take at face value the claim that androids don’t feel empathy — which was insisted upon both by an odd religion called “Mercerism” and by the police bureaucracy. But by my reading, it seemed to be clear that this was a self-serving falsehood. It was an explicit plot point that the Voight-Kampff test could not reliably distinguish between humans and androids, and we see the androids express empathy for each other and for humans, even as Deckard kills androids without any apparent empathy for them as sentient and suffering beings.

    *Blade Runner*, by placing Roy Batty in the foreground, makes this much more clear than it was in the novel.

      1. So true! And, curiously, as this article makes its way around the net, I’m seeing a lot of humans who ration their empathy in proportion to how similar someone else is to themselves.

  5. Interesting. But Roy’s actions are a result of his suffering as you point out. I would argue that the final moment of justice where Roy saves/spares Dekkard’s life is a result of the cessation of his suffering.

  6. You reminded me of a paper I wrote in an undergrad anthro class about the construction of memory. I surmised that the replicant gal whose name I forget right now who had been given the memories of the creator’s daughter and believed herself to be that person actually was that human being, for all intents and purposes. She was what her memories made her and that was what allowed her to accept her existence (if only I could remember which version I had!). Thanks for a great essay. After the twenty or so times I had to watch the movie to write that paper, I thought I’d never watch it again, but now I think will. You’ve given me more to think about.

    1. That’s Rachael. Once she realizes her memories are false, she endeavors to find out who she is — just like we all do.

  7. Great article, with a POV I’ve always thought was lacking.

    Roy has always been to me the pivotal character in the movie, along with Rachel, because they two experience more humanity than any of the other characters, go through more loss and become MORE human. And that makes an extraordinary film.

    This is even more noticable vis a vis the other characters in the Nexus 6 version of Bladerunner, my personal favorite.

    1. Well, to be honest, I’m looking forward to writing essays soon about Pris and Zhora. There’s more to be had about them, too!

  8. Nice. For a long time I’ve thought that the question isn’t, is Deckard a replicant–there’s overwhelming evidence that he is–but rather, is any living being in the film not a replicant? The answer to that is less clear, but is plausibly no, which would leave us with a society where the distinction between masters and slaves was political, and the belief in the essential, biological difference between them was ideological.

    So for me your article nicely shows how one does, or at least can, end up in the same place whether you start with Deckard or with Roy–a place where the questions are political ones of freedom, justice, etc.

  9. I’m not sure about directorial intent — seems odd to give a non-protagonist all the screen time Deckard enjoys — but I completely agree that Roy is the driving, challenging, fascinating character of the film. A friend of mine used Roy’s dying quote (starting from “I’ve seen things…”) as his email sig for years, and virtually every time I saw it, I appreciated it more and more.

    I remember hearing that Hauer improvised the “like tears in rain” bit, and even though that’s a little beside the main point and might not have looked good on paper, I thought it worked well there to connect to the rainy moment and reflect on a sensory being’s sensory experience and desire for expression. Anyway, whether that story’s true or not, props to Rutger for a great performance.

    1. It’s partially true. The original line was similar, but clunkier poetry. Hauer rewrote it the night before shooting that scene.

      I think Scott was looking seriously at the cliché of the hardened detective, and knew that it was a good tradition with which to tell this story. But, like any science fiction creator, was salivating the whole time at baking irony into the implementation of the cliché.

      1. I like that take on Scott. He’s done enough awesome stuff that I’m happy to give him the benefit of the doubt. “You think you know who the protagonist is, but…”

        Am I right that a unicorn dream was in the original cut and removed from the director’s cut? Perhaps Scott ultimately decided that that was some interiority his faux-protagonist didn’t deserve…

  10. I had thought a lot about Roy’s relationship to Deckard at the end (I think Deckard’s passionate struggle to stay alive resonates with Roy, and that while Roy may have originally intended to kill him, he decides that the moments of life he so cherishes are better honored by affording Deckard more of them), but not much about Roy’s relationships to Chu and Sebastian and Tyrell. Great stuff on that, Joshua. That “climbing the ladder of creation” thing definitely resonates.

    1. Yeah, I also think that he was hoping he would get a different answer from Tyrell, and therefore wouldn’t have needed to kill Sebastian.
      Finally, he makes his choice about not killing Deckard because, as you say, he’s fighting and running like a scared animal but is, like Roy himself, a slave. That is, he shows empathy for the very person who’s charged with killing him.

      1. Maybe so on Sebastian! Or maybe Sebastian is one of the Masters, guilty of the same sorts of unforgivable (to Roy) “playing God” crimes as Tyrell? Dunno. I think it’s interesting that perhaps Roy judges Deckard, who runs around shooting people, to be less of a monster than Chu/Sebastian/Tyrell.

        Your “fellow slave” idea definitely makes sense to me! Just seeing other possibilities too…

  11. “Jeff Goldblum leans forward and quietly asks if you’d like to swap gum.” http://liartownusa.tumblr.com/post/131558511745/blade-runner-voight-kampff-tests-part-i

    Excellent thoughts. It was a delight to sit next to you bathed in the light of the screen as the movie washed over us.

    I think that neither Roy nor Deckard realizes that Deckard is a replicant. Deckard’s final act (to his mind, anyway) is to spit at Roy. “For hate’s sake, I spit my last breath at thee.” Perhaps there was Melville in the air in for SF movies in 1982. Perhaps a spit is just a spit. Whether or not Roy is his white whale, Deckard hates him.

    Roy only saves Deckard so there will be a record of his final words. And what words they are. I think that it is significant that the rooftop is lit by the TDK sign. They are in Roy’s recording studio.

    This may push analysis past breaking and, having never read the book, I have no idea of Philip K, Dick’s original intent. But his very name: R**** *eckard, is his function here as Roy speaks literally framed by TDK. (The pronunciation is correct in the age before compact discs.)

    Roy reveals his belief that Deckard is human when he addresses him with “you people.” He proceeds to tell him what they wouldn’t believe as blood washes off of their faces, lost, like tears in rain.

    Slaves can die in unmarked graves. Persons get tombstones. Deckard is now Roy’s living tombstone.

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