Symbolism

A ‘literary’ reading of Blade Runner

The following section was written with the direct use of the book ‘How to Read Literature Like A Professor’ by Thomas C. Foster (2005). Although this text deals with how to interpret certain elements in literature, it has proved handy in reading Blade Runner (especially considering the film is adapted from literature).

The quest – Many stories involve some sort of trip, task or path taken by a certain character, and in Forster’s opinion these very often represent a form of ‘quest’ where the real goal is always self-knowledge, rather than simply the implied aim. In the case of Blade Runner, Deckard is the character that gets assigned to go on a task. A ‘quest’ consists of these five things: The quest consists of five things:

(a) a quester,

(b) a place to go,

(c) a stated reason to go there,

(d) challenges and trials en route; and

(e) a real reason to go there.

“The real reason for a quest never involves the stated reason. In fact, more often than not, the quester fails at the stated task. So why do they go and why do we care? They go because of the stated task, mistakenly believing that it is their real mission. We know, however, that their quest is educational. They don’t know enough about the only subject that really matters: themselves. The real reason for a quest is always self-knowledge”

(Foster 2005, p.7)

Deckard does indeed fail at the stated task that he has been assigned. He is close to being killed when both Leon and Zhora confront him, and has to struggle hard to kill Pris. He proves no match for Roy, and actually flees from him in the final scenes of the film. Deckard does not prove to be the ruthless and precise killer that his reputation may imply. In the end, we see that Deckard has been changed by his assignment to retire the Nexus-6 replicants – he has changed his consideration of what it is possible for replicants to be, as well as re-engaging with his own (possible) humanity as he connects with Rachael. A further form of self-knowledge may be his realisation at the end of the film that he is a replicant along with Rachael.

Rain – Weather often has a symbolism within a story. The weather in Blade Runner is very poor – it is always raining! Rain sets a certain kind of atmosphere in a story. Especially with shown at night, it can be mysterious, uncomfortable, unwelcome, isolating. It can evoke moods of sadness and misery. This certainly seems to be how it functions for the majority of Blade Runner. But at the same time, it can also be cleansing. “Rain can bring the world back to life, to new growth, to the return of the green world”, writes Foster (p.41). Near the end of the film, rain is seen washing down the skin of Roy, who is near naked. This is the end of his life, and he performs a noble act by allowing Deckard to live and to face his own death with dignity. It may be possible to read this as Roy being ‘cleansed’ of his previous sins and delivered to heaven. The same goes for Deckard – as rain pours down on him, he is shown crying, thrown into a harsh moment of realization about the nature of the replicants and his own being. We can only presume that after this encounter he too may be cleansed, and ready to begin a new life with Rachael away from the corruption of the city.

Violence –

Violence is one of the most personal and even intimate acts between human beings, but it can also be cultural and societal in its implications. It can be symbolic, thematic, biblical, Shakespearean, Romantic, allegorical, transcendent. Violence in real life just is. If someone punches you in the nose in a supermarket parking lot, it’s simply aggression. It doesn’t contain meaning beyond the act itself. Violence in literature, though, while it is literal, is usually also something else. That same punch in the nose may be a metaphor”

(Foster 2005, p.43)

There a number of cases of physical violence in Blade Runner, and all of them are rather extreme and generally end in a death. Note that all the violence Roy inflicts is shown off-screen. He and the others have murdered 23 humans in order to escape back to earth, but we don’t see that. He murders Chew and J.F. Sebastian, but we see neither, the violence is only implied. We do see him begin to crush the skull of Eldon Tyrell in a rather extreme example of murder, but the onscreen shot is very brief. Compare this with Deckard’s violence. His murder of Zhora is not only lengthy because he has to shoot her in the back twice as she is running away, but it is shown in slow motion! This heightens the effect of the violent act that Deckard is committing. The viewer is forced to watch Zhora, a female, get shot twice in the back and then crash through panes of glass. The camera holds on her dead and bloodied body for a few seconds as well. A similar situation for Pris – we see her flailing around after Deckard shoots her in the stomach, and then he does it again. We see her dead body clearly in several shots. The simple fact that violence from a human is accentuated and violence from a replicant is downplayed forces the viewer to question the nature of Deckard’s violence (and of the violence towards the enslaved replicants in general). It seems to suggest that Deckard’s acts are worse than Roy’s, which may well be true. Also consider that Deckard seems intent on inflicting violence towards women – he kills two female replicants without any help, and uses his physical strength to forcibly make Rachael kiss him after she rejects his initial advances. Yet he struggles to kill either Leon or Roy.

* Update in progress… *

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