There are a lot of issues surrounding Blade Runner that keep me coming back to it in regards to explaining some of the elements of the cyberpunk genre. One of the reasons for this is its rich imagery and how much the film calls attention to its source material. There’s one element that my screenwriting professor points to that I want to address here: the seemingly problematic point-of-view character. The film is populated with characters that are builders and the built. Some of them are in positions of surveillance, making them spectators along with the audience watching the drama unfold—except one character. Deckard doesn’t know who he is. The audience doesn’t know who he is and this is what makes him the perfect character to introduce us into this horrid landscape.
So, why is it the case that Deckard is our POV into this world? It comes from the tradition of noir fiction. During the interbellum period of the world wars, predominantly the Great Depression, people lived hand-to-mouth and this is pretty much embedded in the private investigator characters like Sam Spade. They are perpetually living on the edge, forced to take the next case that comes along so they can keep the lights on and afford a cheap meal. The oppressive heat that seems endemic to these stories lets us know as an audience just how hellish or close to hell these characters are.
The private investigator doesn’t have the ability to refuse the way a cop does. Sometimes the character is an ex-cop who still has connections on the police force. Of course, this just reinforces the concept that the character is caught between worlds. In this case it’s the duly deputized agents of the law (representing the light) and the shady characters the investigator is often paid to follow and discover what they’re up to. This is surveillance by the half-blind without the right gear or all the facts in a murky realm of twilight.
And this is where Deckard comes in. When we are first introduced to him he’s unconcerned with the world around him. He understands it, is a part of it, but wants to be distanced from it. How does the audience know this? He pretends to not understand the pidgin spoken by Gaff, played by Edward James Olmos. In the theatrical release, the audience is told this through the use of a voice over that doesn’t bother to hide that this film takes a lot of cues from film noir. Deckard is our Sam Spade, but his inability to refuse isn’t financially driven. No, this investigator is at the mercy of the law embodied by M. Emmet Walsh’s character, Bryant.
The audience is given very little information about Deckard beyond his desire to not blend into either world. We are told from the very beginning that his position is in question. Furthermore, some line spoken by Gaff recall actions taken or line spoken by Deckard that the audience cannot be sure if Deckard is a replicant or a human. All the audience can know for sure in the context of the film is what Deckard needs to do to escape the hold the law has over him given his skill set.
But, that isn’t the shadowy underworld that Deckard is plunged into. No, because in cyberpunk, the noir isn’t of the streets, but the mind and what it means to be human. This is why the question of the replicants and their place in the social order needs to but can’t be answered without violence. Where does the line between human and machine exist and can anyone be sure that it can’t be crossed? The Voight-Kampff test is supposed to tell Deckard, and the viewer, that at first blush, you can tell the difference. Here is where the femme fatale enters the story in the form of Rachel. The femme fatale character is a succubus figure that, with her beauty and sexual energy, draws the protagonist into the underworld.
The question here is who or what is Deckard. The audience is never told, but as he hunts down the replicants, there’s a subtle descent into the character’s subconscious through his interactions with each target. But, here’s where Deckard’s knowledge diverges from the audience’s and the story shows this world to be filled with Frankensteins and their monsters. The first one is the landscape itself. The monstrosity of the city sprawl and the darkness in which it’s veiled reveals the urban world as one of leviathan proportions. Anyone in the city is in the belly of the beast, which is what is shown with all the teeming press of people surrounded by buildings, some of which overhang the street.
The second realization is that the replicants may in fact be human despite their artifice. This is a nightmarish Pygmalion in the vein of Frankenstein. As a result, we have a world that is completely sterile with the only life therein is either filled with production values or an artifice playing at being alive. Regardless of the case may be the result is the same: extreme alienation and the illusion of freedom. The visuals of the world reflect this. It’s why the city is seen at a distance. The scale of the snake is examined in the extreme to reveal the manufacturer’s serial number in much the same way Deckard cannot look at a the whole of a photo, he has to zoom in and twist and turn around angles to decipher the information it contains in his pursuit of the inhuman while engaging in a decidedly inhuman act.
There is not satori here. Nothing in Blade Runner is appreciated for what it is, only for how it is put together. That is until Deckard is confronted with Rachel and the audience later with the unicorn dream and the subsequent reference with Gaff’s origami unicorn. And the origami (both the match man and the foil wrapper unicorn) here matters because it’s the only sign of life in this bleak environment and emblematic of the missing elements of the environment: vitality and light.
Is Deckard a replicant or is he human? The audience is never clued in and nobody says anything concrete. Yet, hints are given that he may very well be a duplicate of someone else. The theatrical release provided some important references here that give us another monster to confront in the struggle for identity and individualism. Deckard’s outfit is different than everyone else’s, but he is cast from the prototypical gumshoe mold complete with trench coat while Gaff wears the hat. Gaff and Bryant appear to surveil Deckard and when he finally makes a break for it with Rachel, the unicorn is the reference to let the audience know Gaff was there and knows his plans. It is as clear a message as any that in this murky world, someone has perfect measure of this man who doesn’t know himself and the audience cannot truly know.
This is a hideous position to be in and explains why the underworld in Blade Runner isn’t the club or Zhora’s erotic dance with the snake, but rather the internal turmoil Deckard is plunged into after meeting a woman who gives every indication of being human but has to be cross examined ten times as long (and thus psychologically dissected) to detect the artifice behind her construction. Deckard’s attraction to her isn’t Pygmalion’s, it’s the Nathanael’s from E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “The Sandman.” Rachel is therefore a newer model Olimpia and the obsession with eyes begins to make sense in this world of monsters.
Why the eyes, because absolutely nothing can be taken at face value even though nothing has depth. Everything presented is an interface devoid of content except for the replicants. They cry, they fume, they even commit murder as a crime of passion when Roy gouges out his maker’s eyes before crushing his skull. Zhora is a combat model who plays the seductress. Pris, the pleasure model acts like a child and in her death throes is depicted as having a tantrum as she thrashes her way into oblivion.
The violence here is justified as the only humans in the story are passive observers who show more interest in how their creations act and have turned out rather than treating them as people with equal dignity. Tyrell is interested in Roy’s mind and his growth in his short life. J.F. Sebastian is a toy maker whose work helped engineer the construction of the replicants’ bodies. Hannibal Chew only makes eyes, the windows to the soul, but no actual soul. No humans breathe life into this story, they only judge and marvel at their own work. They’ve played god and worship their own idols. This is a grotesque and inhuman response that’s all too human when we marvel at our own deeds and what we’ve wrought.
Deckard doesn’t answer the question of his position, but his escape from the city with Rachel speaks volumes. It’s the only time the sun shines in the film. The wilderness of the trees lacks any connection to the human world of machines and labor-saving devices. It is the equivalent to the monster’s flight into the barren Arctic waste in Frankenstein. Deckard is a monster like the rest of them, albeit one with a conscience. Blade Runner reveals the cybernetic world as one of irrational order. As such, Deckard is the correct POV character for the one thing he does: avoids giving into the madness of the darkness enveloping him, a remarkable feat compared to the artificial intelligences that come before him in the literary roots of cyberpunk fiction.