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The indeterminate sign in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, Director's Cut.

"... prehensile hands exchange forgeries of what the heart dare not surrender."--Gaddis

The "empire of signs" foregrounded Ridley Scott's postmodernist film Blade Runner, Director's Cut (1982) is not twentieth century Japan as described in Roland Barthes' semiotic study of Nipponese culture, but an Asianized futuristic America. By illustration, a city landmark provides the central visual motif: a gigantic advertising sign presenting a sound and light show with a liberated, hip geisha girl extolling the virtues of Coca Cola (both the soft drink and the hard drug) functions as a classic past/present/future simulacrum while fulfilling the lyric "And the people bowed and prayed, to the neon sign they made" in the 1960s Simon and Garfunkle ballad "The Sound of Silence." Structurally, the film treats Philip K. Dick's 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? in a series of stark scenarios featuring wide angle shots panning a fantastic urban skyline; focused, swarming street scenes; and vast, labyrinthine interiors in a neogothic mansion haunted by devil dolls and murderous cyborgs. Blade Runner, like Roman Polanski's Chinatown (1974), revisits the classic film noir of the 1940s by following the formula and adding techniques such as thematic intertextuality and elements of pop culture. As in early film noir, the environment does not simply provide a neutral background for the action. Throughout the film, then, clashing images that inform Scott's hyper-real, darkly imaginative setting complement the problematized status of the human/android characters, along with their motives and relationships, as firmly established by the ambiguous dialogue in the opening street scene.

Rick Deckard, the putative hero, orders a bowl of noodles from an Asian street vendor, when an airborne police hovercraft lands nearby. Immediately thereafter Lieutenant Gaff from headquarters addresses Deckard (who studiously ignores him) in futuristic street dialect. The counterman provides a translation:

VENDOR. He say you under arrest.

DECKARD. Got the wrong guy, pal.

VENDOR. He say you brade runner.

Rick Deckard, of course, proves to be the model detective, a specialist in "retiring" (i.e., destroying) androids, with an unassailable record: "I need ya, Deck. I need the old blade runner.... I need your magic," Chief Bryant pleads. Deckard in fact unknowingly speaks the truth in flatly denying his identity, for in psychoanalytic fashion, the "old blade runner" says more than he intends. Indeed, Rick Deckard is "the wrong guy" in several respects as the plot reveals early on.

Paradoxically, although Deckard clearly functions as the protagonist, the character with whom we identify, the actual hero, the character essential to the central plot and theme in Blade Runner, is not the hunter, but the hunted. Namely, Roy Batty, a cyborg "combat model" who has orchestrated a mutiny among several fellow replicants and jumped ship in pursuit of the impossible dream: freedom and immortality. Thus, the terms "protagonist" and "hero" cannot, in this instance, be used interchangeably, although of course they interact, thus blending the (unconventional) love story with the quest/revenge play. Significantly, literary precedents obtain: for example, critics have long addressed the ambiguous status of God, Adam, Satan as candidates for the hero in Milton's Paradise Lost, as Blake was the first to observe obliquely by pointing out that "the reason Milton wrote in fetters of Angels & God and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true poet and of the devil's party without knowing it" (Blake 74-75).

In Blade Runner, an ordinary man is juxtaposed with an extraordinary android. Rick Deckard's perspective provides the privileged left (first) element of the binary structure--human/non-human--whereby essential human qualities such as professional duty, loyalty, compassion, and love are (owing to the point-of-view) both foregrounded and simultaneously brought into question--not solely with respect to cultural norms as in a conventional plot, but in light of definable traits. For example Kant's categorical imperative ("Duty before inclination") is central to Deckard's existential choices concerning relationships with Roy and Rachael. Thus Blade Runner's enquiry regarding the "ghost in the machine" suggests a fourth--and final--narcissistic wound, as first outlined by Freud: Copernicus (no geocentrism), Darwin (no special act of creation), psychoanalysis (no absolute consciousness)--and, in Blade Runner, biomechanics (no unique human traits), which traumatic quartet ultimately dethrones mankind as the self-appointed master of the universe. In the two closing scenes of the film, then, Deckard's mastery as a compassionate human being is challenged first by Roy, who inexplicably spares "his" (1) would-be assassin's life, and then by Rachael, who trusts him to spare and extend, for a limited time at least, her counterfeit existence.

Although Blade Runner holds a brief for renegade cyborgs as de facto humans who claim at least parity with their creators and masters, the implicit argument is neither decisive nor finally persuasive. At best, the resolutions--commonly interpreted as Roy's compassion and Rachael's love--function as undecidable, the Socratic aporia brought to its logical (or paralogical) extreme in postmodern art. Regardless, no superb screen play nor elegant sophistry can explain or eliminate the essential, irreducible differences between the human model and the cyborg copy: for example, androids don't age; neither do they eat or drink; they cannot sire or bear children; they are not subject to extremes of temperature; they are not mortal. Existence, unless it's their own, has little meaning for them: thus, Roy and his mutinous crew torture and murder at will; while beautiful, gentle Rachael destroys Leon, out of self interest, without a second thought. Replicants, in fact, function as Sartre's Other, who steals our world and reveals our secret. Indeed, these creatures of the laboratory have no Heideggerian being-in-the-world--although Dr. Tyrell, who creates humanoids, and Rick Deckard, who hunts them, for radically different human motives, invite them in.

The film's opening frame, which includes an expository text, graphically presents futuristic Los Angeles: high-tech, overpopulated, flame-belching, terminally polluted--the perfect synecdoche for a failed civilization. Thus, the near future is a man-made hell and the Apocalypse is at hand. At this telling moment in fore-history Roy (the king) and a few remaining epigones (the rest have been destroyed) return home to Mother Earth, to seek their destiny in the face of certain and imminent oblivion. After a failed attempt to penetrate Tyrell Corporation, the replicants go to ground while Deckard tracks them down one by one.

Desperate, with time literally running out, Roy decides to confront Dr. Tyrell, CFO and chief biomechanical scientist, for a final reckoning with the Father, who fails his suppliant son. Roy's identity, like Deckard's (though in a decidedly different manner) cannot be fixed--a classic overdetermined symbol, which is simultaneously condensed and displaced and thereby positively radiating meaning(s). As signifier, Roy generates multiple homogenous and heterogeneous signifieds: Christ and anti-Christ; Nietzsche's splendid blonde beast and abject slave; favorite son and patricide; Hegelian/Marxist revolutionary and alien terrorist. As postmodern icon with classic Aryan features and ubermensch physique in full-length black leather coat, Roy yokes the shameful image of the political past and a terrifying threshold figure of the present/future (im)perfect: the retroactive cyberpunk Nazi.

Most tellingly, Roy violates boundaries: first, literally, by jumping ship and returning to earth, which is off-limits to androids. Yet, by virtue of his (non) being, Roy already crosses the bar of binary structure through his indeterminate ontological status: Roy is neither alive nor dead. In the folklore tradition of vampires, ghouls, and zombies, the replicant is a member, not of the human species, but of the undead--a stock feature of the gothic mode. Indeed the replicants are uncanny because they break the absolute boundary between the organic and mechanical. Like the doppelganger figure that informs the nightmare specter in the return of the repressed, Roy and his demonic disciples are simultaneously familiar and alien, indeterminate--which characteristic, according to Ihab Hassan, is an identifiable feature of postmodernism itself (592).

Yet, in Roy's first scene with Leon, the cyborg leader acknowledges in clipped speech the gap between replicants and humans:

ROY. Did you get your precious photos?


ROY. Why?

LEON. There were some men.

ROY. Men? Police. Men?

The nightmare figure that merely functions, to all appearances, as a genuine person boasts a long literary history: Spenser's Orgoglio, Milton's Satan and Haraptha, Shelley's Frankenstein monster--all of whom goose-step when walking like Hitler's legions, stiff-legged and therefore unable to kneel in prayer. Roy, however, is not simply a programmed machine and strongly denies this label: "We're no robots, J.R., we're physical," yet he does not qualify as human, either. Nevertheless, he laughs, uses tools and language, and--most crucially--maintains a high level of consciousness, while simultaneously lacking biological parentage and ancestry, a childhood with long-term, formative memories, and a system of internal values. Roy is nevertheless a dangerous sociopath belonging to no society and functioning by primary process--in Freudian terms, the ego in direct service of the id. This humanoid combat model is a formidable killing machine in the guise of a world-class athlete, with no trace of conscience.

Deckard, by contrast, had renounced his vocation and, momentarily, risked police execution (the flip side to his own professional mission) owing to a bad conscience. However, when Chief Bryant equates Deckard's refusal to hunt replicants with becoming "little people" (i.e., a candidate for execution), the ace blade runner, who functions as the police department's designated hit man, wisely chooses life--but reluctantly. With each generation Tyrell's replicants approximate more persuasively--by language skills, behavior, and all outward appearances--a genuine human being, but with bogus thoughts, motives, anxieties, and goals. Above all, like their organic models, these androids seek life, avoid death. "How long do I live?" Leon demands before attempting to kill Deckard. As Leon, Rachael, Pris, and Roy make clear, the days of their lives are not the promised three score and ten; rather, replicants face extinction after only four short years--shorter if they break the law and are consequently marked for retirement by a blade runner.

Like all humans, Rick Deckard is seduced--in Rachael's case quite literally--by appearances; he embraces Coleridge's "willing suspension of disbelief" entirely and, in tentative fashion, grants his quarry the one feature it absolutely lacks: humanness. As a hard-boiled detective in the grand tradition of Hammett, Chandler, and Spillane, Deckard is an anomaly of type, for his professional persona is no match for his compassion. "The shakes? Me too. Get 'em bad. Part of the business," he says sympathetically to Rachael, a replicant so lovely, so vulnerable, so life-like, that Rick is taken by desire. " I'm not in the business. I am the business!" Rachael replies pathetically--and the blade runner is suddenly stricken by doubt and remorse, which incident marks the turning point of the plot. But Deckard also crosses boundaries: he becomes infatuated with a cyborg and has sex with it, commits himself in the courtly tradition as protector of the beloved even unto death, and so arranges an escape--for them both: Omnia vincet amor with a vengeance.

Critics and commentators, most notably Slavoj Zizek, have suggested that Deckard is himself a replicant--with arguments to support this interpretation. (2) Gaff compliments his fellow officer by saying "You've done a man's job, sir!" and Roy, during the cat and mouse scene, states: "I thought you were supposed to be good. Aren't you the good man? Show me what you are made of." When questioning Zhora, the exotic dancer about possible sexual exploitation in connection with her lewd act, she asks rhetorically: "Are you for real?" These idioms may well be taken as literal in context, and although it is entirely possible that certain characters suspect his identity, Deckard must be human in order to establish and maintain the thematic structure, along with Eliot's "moral center," of the film narrative. If Deckard is also a cyborg, no existential enquiry into the nature of being obtains. Moreover, Rick not only harbors ordinary moral doubts, which capacity for indecision identifies him unmistakably as human, but he fails to exhibit any extraordinary mental or physical traits easily identified in the cyborgs on the run.

The most interesting ontological question concerning Rick's identity, however, occurs in the watershed moment with Rachael, who asks him if he himself had ever taken the Voight Kampff test, which she failed. Rachael's rhetorical question is easily explained by the fact she is manipulating Deckard's human qualities in order to prolong her own existence. After Deckard promises not to hunt her down, Rachael immediately enquires: "Deckard? You know those files on me? The incept date, the longevity, those things? You saw them?" The blade runner is evasive, but Rachael now sees a way out, in keeping with the multidimensional ironies of the film, through the commissioned agent of her destruction.

BRYANT. Four more to go.

DECKARD. You mean three.

BRYANT. No! No! There's four. Not counting the one we lost from the start ... and that skin job you VK'd at Rosen. Rachael.

Unlike Pris ("basic pleasure model"), Rachael is prissy, coy, and aloof. Rachael leaves the apartment abruptly when Deckard offers her a drink as an obvious prelude to sex, and when he invites Rachael to join him at Taffy's sleazy bar in the combat zone, she says that the tenderloin is not "my kind of place." After saving Deckard's life by shooting Leon, Rachael has virtually guaranteed the ideal guardian. Ingeniously, back in Deckard's apartment, Rachael offers a subliminal suggestion to their mutual (the android's existential, the man's sexual) dilemma:

RACHAEL. What if I went north. Disappeared. Would you come after me? Hunt me?

DECKARD. No, no I wouldn't. I owe you one. But somebody would.

Deckard has now decided to destroy the remaining androids to buy off Bryant and, quixotically, to elope with Rachael. Earlier, Rick had dreamed of a white unicorn, a mythical beast associated with virgins in medieval iconography and, like the dream mechanism itself, "impossible." Although the romantic tradition holds that love surmounts all barriers, Deckard knows that the biosphere has been degraded beyond regeneration and, more importantly, he is a marked man. Bryant will undoubtedly commission Gaff, who leaves Deckard a white origami unicorn calling card, to hunt the renegade cop and Tyrell's finest replicant wherever they flee: to the ends of the earth or, perhaps, even to the off-world colonies.

Yet, Deckard faces still another formidable barrier: just how much of a woman is Rachael, after all? The torrid foreplay in the foyer brings Deckard, whose ex-wife called him a cold fish, to a new level of intensity; first, Rachael is probably less than a year old and certainly a virgin. Moreover, seductive appearances and sexual ploys notwithstanding, this android is not quite human and consequently presents a perfect example of Lacan's jouissance:
   Given, however, that the subject [Deckard] casts the Other's
   [Rachael's] desire in the role most exciting to the subject, the
   pleasure may turn to disgust and even to horror, there being no
   guarantee that what is most exciting to the subject is also most
   pleasurable. That excitement, whether correlated with a conscious
   feeling of pleasure or pain, is what the French call jouissance.

Thus Deckard demands that Rachael express her desire verbally: "Kiss me.... I want you. Put your hands on me," she breathes. Rick must wonder if, naked, Rachael might prove to be made, as she appears clothed, like a Barbie doll or--horrible to imagine--upon consummation, a trap: the literal vagina dentata, and not simply the fantasy proposed by Freud or the alienation metaphor as defined by Lacan: "The sacrifice involved in castration is to hand over a certain jouissance to the Other and let it circulate...'outside' ourselves" (99). Leaving Rachael asleep (le petit mort after sex), Deckard resumes the chase.

In a macabre time/thematic parallel to Deckard's love making, Roy is admitted to Tyrell's suite by a ruse. Not surprisingly, given the binary structure of a replicant's thought programming, Roy masters the game of chess to a superior level in a matter of minutes and mates Tyrell, who thinks he has been outmaneuvered by Sebastian, his reluctant betrayer. To explain the putative "error" in play, Tyrell inadvertently allows his creature entry. The checkmate problem is abandoned and a verbal chess game begins. Tyrell, while barely disguising his disdain for his arrogant, demanding progeny, opens with an accommodating tone:

TYRELL. I am surprised you did not come here sooner.

ROY. It's not an easy thing to meet your maker.

TYRELL. And what can he do for you?

ROY. Can the maker repair what he makes?

TYRELL. Would you like to be modified?

ROY. I was thinking of something a little more radical.

TYRELL. What seems to be the problem?

ROY. Death.

Realizing the double implication of this last utterance and the true mission for the "old surprise visit," Tyrell explains in scientific terms the (presumed) immutable laws of cyborg mortality. Roy remains unconvinced, and sensing an imminent threat, Tyrell abruptly shifts strategy and attempts a final desperate gambit: flattery. Ironically, Tyrell did not program amour propre when designing his replicants, but they are somehow driven by Schopenhauer's Will to Live. While Roy never addresses his maker by name Dr. Tyrell, using Christian imagery, virtually claims his offspring: "The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long. And you have burned so very brightly, Roy. Look at you. You're the prodigal son. You're quite a prize!"

Thus, with unintended irony Tyrell welcomes the prodigal brother who squandered, not mere money, but his very existence performing corvee labor in the off-world colonies. A welcoming feast does not celebrate the homecoming but, grimly, a ritual execution. Roy removes his "father's" thick bifocals and methodically gouges out his eyes, driving designer thumbs into the creator's brain. In so doing, Roy deprives himself and Pris of the answer to the mystery of existence, of being and nothingness. Sebastian, the sorcerer's apprentice and doomed messenger of bad news, might share the secret of cyborg terminus, but Roy then kills him too.

The murder of Eldon Tyrell serves as a textbook example of Freudian dream condensation. Though chronologically out of order, the entire myth of Oedipus occurs in a matter of seconds. After Tyrell's scientific explanation for the riddle of life, the replicant is unable to solve the riddle of the sphinx, which is "man." Roy then kisses his "mother" passionately on the mouth (metonymy for incest) and finally sees himself as he is for the first time, and removing the myopic maker's thick glasses, he drives the lesson home. Like Laius at the crossroads, his own son kills Tyrell; like Oedipus after the tragic recognition scene, the god of half-life loses his sight at the moment of truth. In Lacanian terms, the death of Tyrell signifies that the phallic signifier has been eliminated, effectively erased, and the Law has been violated in the Name-of-the-Father.

The name symbolism in Blade Runner, while not particularly subtle, is singularly effective: Roy (king), Leon (lion), Rachael (barren), Sebastian (martyr), Pris ("prosty") being cases in point. Dr. Eldon Tyrell, however, presents a distinctive example of the literary connection between naming and being. The name "Tyrell," an approximate anagram for "letter, " might allude to the biblical passage in 2 Corinthians: 3:16, "... for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life." Dr. Tyrell, the "mad scientist" in the tradition of Dr. Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll combines the traits of Dr. Faustus and the capitalist tycoon, whose pleonastic lust for more--ever more--billions contributed to the degradation of the biosphere. Eldon Tyrell--father-mother-midwife--engendered humanoids that were all stillborn, dead on arrival. These spiritually vacuous creatures nevertheless yearn for a prolonged existence in a soulless society. Roy cries, "That's the spirit!" ostensibly to compliment, somewhat ironically, Deckard's courage and resolve, but the expression also foregrounds the fact that, unlike humans, androids lack an indefinable and inexplicable sense of self beyond consciousness.

Thus, heightened awareness alone according to representative cyborgs Pris and Roy is sufficient to approximate meaningfully the human condition. Descartes's reductive "I think; therefore I am" as primly quoted by the prostitute Pris clearly complements the immediate replicant quest for extended existence, which in turn underscores other unstated, but imminent guarantees for rights. That is, the androids are well on to demanding like people worldwide the essential Kantian a priori: human freedom and dignity. Blade Runner, as many viewers have observed, tests the boundaries of the human condition by foregrounding vis a vis replicants the sign of our being--which though indeterminate holds pride of place in an exclusive class with no other members.

Specifically, the essential distinctions between the appearance of an individual with a familiar form complementing a distinct personality, as in the case of Tyrell's replicants, and an authentic human being, as shown by Rick Deckard, are crucial to identity. That is, the replicants, according to Sartre's phenomenology, are complete like physical objects in themselves--although they have reached a level of artificial intelligence at which they prefer "being to nothingness." Humans on the other hand are characterized by yearning and radical contingency, hence freedom and moral choice; thus, Rick's desire and love for Rachael highlight the self variously defined by philosophers and psychologists as incomplete--longing for completeness and union, as defined for example by Freud's "oceanic feeling" (11). Rick Deckard's self-deceptive strategies for wholeness include identification and projection, mechanisms that partly explain the fulfillment of an infantile wish that informs the resolution; for the protagonist-detective, having failed in a committed relationship with a woman, his former wife, now throws in his lot with the cyborg Rachael. As Lieutenant Gaff, number two blade runner and presumably already on the case, observes, "It's too bad she won't live. But then again, who does?" This final observation underscores the film's central theme: while humans are absolutely defined as mortal beings, replicants are not, because they never lived.





Barthes, Roland. The Empire of Signs. New York: Farrar, 1990.

Blade Runner. Dir. Ridley Scott. Warner Bros., 1982. Reissued as Blade Runner: The Director's Cut, 1992.

Blake, William. "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell." The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. M.H. Abrams and Stephen Greenblatt. 7th ed. Vol. 2. New York: Norton, 2000. 74-75.

Dick, Philip. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? London: Grafton, 1972.

Fink, Bruce. The Lacanian Subject. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1995.

Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. Trans. and ed. James Strachey. New York: Norton, 1961.

Hassan, Ihab. "Toward a Concept of Postmodernism." Postmodern American Fiction: A Norton Anthology. Ed. Paula Geyh, Fred G. Leebron, and Andrew Levy. New York: Norton, 1998. 586-95.

"On the Edge of Blade Runner." Documentary. Dir. Andrew Abbott. Channel 4. 13 July 2000. Television.

Simon, Paul, and Art Garfunkel. "The Sound of Silence." Simon and Garfunkel's Greatest Hits. Columbia, 1972.

Zizek, Slavoj. Tarrying with the Negative: Kant, Hegel, and the Critique of Ideology. Durham: Duke UP, 1994.


(1) For stylistic purposes, I will observe--except in special cases--the legal fiction of human pronouns (his/her, who, etc.) as name substitutes for the replicants throughout.

(2) See Zizek for a discussion of Deckard's identity. Also, several entries on the Blade Runner website present arguments, which I have perused and selectively rehearsed above, to prove that Deckard is genetically engineered. Moreover, Ridley Scott in commenting about the character Rick Deckard on the TV documentary "On the Edge of Blade Runner" states: "He's a replicant."
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Author:Hallam, Clifford
Publication:West Virginia University Philological Papers
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:May 1, 2011
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