Type of Narrative

What sort of a narrative is Blade Runner?

The plot of Blade Runner was described in the above post.

Although the film is primarily concerned with the actions of Deckard as we follow him on his investigation/assignment to find and retire the replicants, there are scenes which do not directly involve him. In this sense the narrative is fairly unrestricted, meaning that as a viewer we have access to certain things that Deckard himself would not have personally experienced. These include:

–       The first scene with Holden and Leon

–       Roy and Leon’s interrogation of Chew at Eye Works

–       Pris, Roy and J.F.’s interactions at the Bradbury Building

–       The confrontation between Roy and Eldon Tyrell

In all the other scenes in the film we follow Deckard directly, and find things out as he does.

Blade Runner as a classical Hollywood narrative

If we consider the characteristics of the classical Hollywood narrative, can Blade Runner be said to adhere to them?

Action comes from individual characters as causal agents

This is opposed to natural disasters or other societal factors such as wars or economic depression. The action is Blade Runner does come primarily from the actions of the individual characters in the film, however it is important to keep in mind the ‘outside’ factors that may be shaping their actions. It is my contention that human (or replicant) actions cannot be divorced from the social situation in which they occur. The world of Blade Runner consists of a degraded, corrupt and unhealthy dystopia. Deckard is in fact ‘locked in’ to his role as a blade runner, as indicated to him by Bryant – he essentially has no choice as to whether or not to take the assignment. If he refuses, he becomes one of the ‘little people’ (and his physical safety may even be in danger). This is an example of how certain elements in society are restricting, or determining, the actions of Deckard. In this sense we may not be able to consider the actions that he performs as entirely his own. Also consider the replicants. Due to their social use as slaves, as well as their inherent genetic programming, the actions of the replicants can also be said to be both restricted as well as determined by outside factors. It is their design and role in society (neither of which was their own choice) which creates the conditions under which they may choose to rebel. From a broader perspective, the lives of most of the cities inhabitants are undoubtedly shaped to a large extent by the environment that surrounds them. Mass-media presence, authoritarian police, unhealthy environmental conditions and other factors would all undoubtedly affect the way that they act. Regardless, as I stated earlier, the action in the story does come primarily from the actions of individual characters. It is Roy and his replicants friends conscious choice to hijack a ship and come back to earth that sets the story in motion. It is Deckard’s ‘choice’ to pursue the replicants that drives the story forward, alongside Roy’s determination to find Eldon Tyrell and have his and his friends’ lives extended.

There is a clear protagonist who has a certain goal or desire alongside an antagonist who is opposed to this

This is an interesting element. We may consider Deckard to be the protagonist, with the clear-cut goal of finding and retiring the replicants. Opposed to this would naturally be the replicants themselves, who are going to attempt to stay alive. But it is also the replicants (especially Roy) who have their own goal – that of finding a way to get rid of the four-year limit imposed on their lives so as to be able to live a fully human existence. Their goal is not to oppose Deckard, and they make no attempt to find him and launch a pre-emptive attack. It is Deckard himself, acting on behalf of society at large, who is the one opposed to goal that the replicants are trying to achieve. So it is fair to say that there is actually not a clear-cut protagonist, and a clear cut ‘villain’, in Blade Runner. Depending on where your sympathies lie, either Deckard or Roy and the replicants could be viewed as the protagonists.

The world begins in a state of equilibrium, a force comes in from outside to disrupt that, and eventually an equilibrium is re-established

“According to narrative pattern theories, Hollywood films generally begin in equilibrium: the film that the audience enters into is in a state of harmony, where the social system works, and people are happy and contented…[however] Los Angeles 2019 is a terrible place to begin with…[Deckard’s] journey in the film is one of doubt and increasing confusion over who he is and what he is doing. The film arguably gets more ambiguous in terms of its morality the more it progresses…his quest has left him existentially adrift and he wants no more of killing…identification arguably shifts from Deckard to Batty, or audience identification is at least shared between the two similarly constructed protagonists. By the end of the film some confusion reigns over whether Deckard is a replicant…the closure itself is shot through with sadness: Deckard and Rachael may have found love together but their time is short.” (p.38)

The world depicted in Blade Runner is certainly not one of equilibrium. Right from the opening shots of the cityscape, we are made aware that this is a place where you definitely don’t want to live. The stereotypical white-picket-fence American suburbia, or the utopian technologically perfected city, are nowhere in sight. This is a place where disequilibrium is already deep set. And although there is a force that enters this society from outside and alters things, it is an ambiguous one. This force is of course the replicants who have come back to earth from off-world. Can they be said to disrupt the social order? In the eyes of those who are prejudiced against them (and in terms of the law) it does not matter what the replicants are doing back on earth – it is fundamentally wrong, and must be corrected via state-sanctioned violence. The replicants cause no damage to wider society, although they do commit murder against people who may or may not be considered deserving of that. Seeing as the film starts with a profound disequilibrium, it is no surprise that it ends that way as well. No large changes have been made to society, either for better or worse. Things have stayed much as they were, although some individual characters, namely Roy, Deckard and Rachael, have developed in what I consider a positive way. There is some degree of hope at the end of the film, in the unifying love that has developed between Deckard and Rachael and their possible escape to a better place.

The characters in the film are clearly psychologically defined

“Deckard is the ‘hero’…we get to know him an anxious, alienated, troubled character and empathy, as a consequence, builds up between him and the audience. Collectively, the replicants are the ‘villains’ and Roy Batty the arch-enemy – an apparently cold-blooded murderer on a revenge mission to wipe out his maker. Batty and Deckard get to slug it out in the classic end of film showdown.” (p.34)

We can see that in the above simplistic sense the film seems to have a clear-cut ‘good guy’ who is on a moral mission against the ‘bad guys’ that are dangerous and need to be stopped. From this perspective, the replicants are the ones in the wrong, their actions being depraved, immoral and without justification. Deckard is the moral fighter, on the side of the law, who will use his intelligence and physical skills to take out the corrupt bad guys and restore peace.

But of course, things are certainly not so simple in Blade Runner. Redmond continues:

“Batty, for example, saves Deckard from near-certain death, and so proves that there is humanity at the core of his cyborg being. The tyrannical Tyrell Corporation is arguably, by contrast, the real monster in the film, driven singularly by greed and commercial profit. In essence, Blade Runner blurs the line between good and evil, and complicates audience identification.” (p.35)

We should mention that Rachael saves Deckard’s life as well, meaning that twice in the film he is saved by the very things he is assigned to kill. As for the ‘evil’ actions of the replicants, these may well be justified by the fact that they were being used as slaves in off-world colonies. Their escape could be seen as a justified revolt, and all their violence is directed towards those who had a part in engineering them, rather than innocent civilians. Deckard himself is complex and cannot be easily assigned to the category of ‘good guy’. There is really no way to consider him a hero either. His police superiors determine his actions, and they are in themselves very morally questionable. He is cynical, isolated and unemotional. Numerous times in the film he performs physical violence on women. Looking at it from this perspective, it may be more appropriate to label Deckard as the villain! And whilst Roy does kill people, he does so with some purpose and a degree of justification. The viewer is also attracted to Roy because of his intensity, intelligence, humour and his noble actions at the end of the film. He is not simply a depraved killing machine. For these reasons, Blade Runner departs from classical Hollywood narrative by providing characters that are complex and ambiguous.

There is a heterosexual romantic element alongside another task

There are two romantic threads throughout Blade Runner. The more pronounced is the one between Deckard and Rachael. The lesser one is that between Roy and Pris. There are absolutely no other references to love or romantic relationships in the film besides these. It is my contention that the ‘love’ element in Blade Runner goes against what would normally be seen in a film from the classic period of Hollywood. This is firstly because the relationship between Deckard and Rachael is considered socially unacceptable and taboo. Deckard is aware of this, and this results in confusion on his behalf. Secondly, Deckard physically imposes himself on Rachael and almost forces her to sleep with him. This portrayal of physical/sexual violence would unlikely have been shown in mainstream Hollywood film. Nevertheless, at the end of the film, there is a scene of tenderness between Deckard and Rachael as they proclaim their love and trust for one another and then flee. In this sense the film does close in a way similar to many of the classic Hollywood films. Roy and Pris are also shown to be in a relationship, although this is only hinted at briefly. In a case of irony it is in fact these two replicants who seem to be more comfortable and expressive of their love than the human characters in the film.

Overall it seems that Blade Runner does adhere to some elements of the classic Hollywood narrative whilst also subverting others. It does feature continuity editing and a cause-and-effect relationship to push the story forward, but its complex characters and their questionable actions, as well as the overtly dystopian societal conditions, seem to go against the classical Hollywood style.

As a closing note on the narrative, it is interesting to note Redmond’s interpretation of the film as an ‘anti-narrative’:

“…one of the film’s reference points is German Expressionism but the dislocated and open-ended nature of the narrative also more widely suggests a challenging art aesthetic borrowed from film movements such as the French New Wave. Blade Runner’s narrative is marked by gaps and enigmas that are never fully cohered or resolved…there is a high degree of self-reflexivity and intertextuality in the film. The film consciously quotes from other film texts, art forms and media including the films Metropolis, Double Indemnity, Mildred Pierce, the science fiction comic Heavy Metal, and the artists Vermeer and Edward Hopper. This enables the film to be read in quite complex ways, well outside of the specifics of its classical narrative trajectory.” (p.38-39)

You can read more about some of these in the influences section.

References  used:

Redmond, S 2008, Studying Blade Runner, Auteur Publishing


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