Disclaimer: I assume herein that Deckard is a human being, not a replicant. Ridley Scott’s attempt to retcon this film is too stupid for further discussion. The original intention that Deckard is human is evidenced most notably by the repeated avowals of the screenwriters.
“Blade Runner” (1982) is all about the visuals. Here is a proper sci-fi movie with a complete, fully realized, lived-in world. Los Angeles 2019 is utterly convincing. It’s a masterpiece of special effects. This, above all, is why “Blade Runner” deserves to be seen and appreciated.
I think some might be tempted to construe it in loftier terms than it deserves because of its obvious religious and existential themes, and its eyeball motif seems designed to inspire film student thesis papers. But themes and motifs should only underscore a good story and good characters, and therein lies the problem with “Blade Runner.”
Deckard, the main character, is a cop who’s been assigned to track down and kill a group of synthetic humans called replicants. His main character trait is his lack of empathy. The replicants he’s chasing were used as slave labor on an off-world colony but they killed their masters and escaped to Los Angeles. Deckard doesn’t care about any of this. He doesn’t want to take the case but his boss makes some vague threat and forces it on him.
Deckard doesn’t have any grudge against replicants motivating him to track down these fugitives. He doesn’t sympathize with their plight as slaves. Instead, we have a main character who doesn’t care about what’s happening in the story and is only going through the motions because he “doesn’t have a choice.”
Hm, okay. Maybe this will pay off, we think.
Later he meets a pretty replicant named Rachael. She’s been given false memories to help her cope with her burgeoning emotions. This has had the side effect of instilling in her a belief that she is human. True to his character, Deckard doesn’t care about her feelings. He calls her “it” and casually reveals to her the horrible truth that she is a bioengineered product, not a person. His only apparent motivation for this is boredom or cruelty.
But Rachael forgives him. She even saves his life later. She brings him back to his apartment and he awakes to the sound of her playing piano. She says she remembers lessons but acknowledges that these must be false memories. Deckard says, “You play beautifully,” meaning, it doesn’t matter whether the memories are real or implanted; you are you now.
He’s beginning to see her humanity.
Or at least, he’s seeing her as human enough to think of her sexually. By that I mean he attacks her and forces her to say she wants him. He gives her this order as if she’s bound to obey him as a superior being, like the way Asimovian robots relate to humans. She complies, but she does not convey sincerity like a proper robot would. Her resistance is the strongest indicator of her humanity.
Deckard still sees her as inferior at this point but what is unclear is whether this is because she’s a replicant or a woman. Seriously, it is conceivable that the assault scene was meant to be sexy in 1982, meant to convey not his complete disregard for her as a person but the opposite, that he was falling in love with her.
Later Deckard faces Roy, the leader of the fugitive replicants. It becomes clear that Deckard is no match for the physically superior replicant. Roy could easily kill Deckard, but he doesn’t. He injures him and terrorizes him.
Deckard desperately jumps out of a window and tries to climb to the roof. Roy looms over him and says, “Now you know what it’s like to live in fear. That’s what it is to be a slave.” And there it is, finally, Deckard’s chance for empathy.
We’d like to assume that this experience changed him. What evidence do we have of this? He goes back to his apartment, finds Rachael there, and tells her he loves her. They escape together.
That’s a nice, quick resolution to the story but it feels wrong. The movie wants us to feel happy that Deckard and Rachael both survived and they’re together. This gives the impression that they were not fully aware they were telling a story about a despicable character. And that is the problem with the story.
Deckard, now enlightened with empathy, should have realized how horribly he’d treated Rachael and arranged a passage for her to someplace she’d be safe without further burdening her with his miserable presence. Being woke doesn’t erase all the harm he caused.
The happiest ending this film deserved was one where Rachael was safe and Deckard was alone and repentant. And, of course, the last shot should have been an eyeball, its iris contracting in a bright light, to satisfy all those film student papers.