Blade Runner – Motifs and Themes

One of my favourite moments in the documentary Dangerous Days, on the making of Blade Runner, is the moment when Ridley Scott had finished principal photography and post production, taken all the footage he had and stitched it together into the original working print of the movie, and sat down with Terry Rawlings, the supervising editor. to watch the whole thing through. As it finished, Rawlings turns to Scott and says:

“I think it’s marvellous, but what the fuck does it mean?”

He may have been the first to ask that question but he was far from being the last. This blog post is my attempt to address at least some of that question.

Tyrell pyramid

A motif is a recurring element that has symbolic significance in a story. There are several motifs that run through Blade Runner. Most of them are straightforward and convey a simple feeling or thought about the story. One however stands out.
Simple motifs include the unicorn: how it ties together Deckard, Sebastian and eventually Gaff, and how it stands for peace, for paradise and for love.

Among the more complex motifs is the reference of of animals to people – the novel on which the movie is very loosely based introduced the idea that status is indicated by the ownership of animals, the more rare and exotic the better; and that for those who cannot afford real animals there is a Market in artificial animals.
This is picked up as a background detail in the movie; through Deckard’s discussion with Rachael of the cost of the artificial owl in Tyrell’s boardroom, through Zhora’s sarcastic retort “do you think I’d be working in a place like this if I could afford a real snake?”.
But the association between animals and character in the movie goes deeper than that: the animal becomes totemic of the character with whom it is associated.


The owl represents the grace and beauty of Rachael but is also associated with wisdom: both the illicit knowledge she will go on to receive and the overarching knowledge of Tyrell.
Zhora’s snake is a very clear indication of her role, particularly given the introduction we hear at Taffy Lewis’ bar: “Watch her take the pleasure from the serpent that once corrupted man”. On one reading she is the snake, the demon who has infiltrated the garden to curse mankind [1], on another she is Eve: her provocative manner towards Deckard in her dressing room is temptation to him to fall from his quest, to take pleasure from the ‘evil’ he is tasked with destroying.
Roy Batty does not own an animal (as far as we are aware) but he chooses his own totem during his final confrontation with Deckard, howling after him like a wolf. In so doing he becomes the hunter: another example of the animal totem telling us about the character.
It is interesting then that Deckard neither owns and animal nor adopts one as a motif. [2] This could be indicative of Deckard being soulless, therefore a replicant, except of course that Rachael, Zhora and Batty all have animal totems. A more apt reading would be that Deckard is our surrogate in the film, that to impose a totem on him would limit our freedom to associate with him and his freedom to manifest aspects of our investment in him.

Probably the strongest and most obvious motif in Blade Runner is that of the eye. This is a subject on which I could write an entire thesis. I won’t, you’ll be glad to hear.

Hades eye

The first sight we have of any character in the movie is the giant close up of an eye – presumably Holden’s, although in many ways it really doesn’t matter whose eye it is [3] – reflecting the incredible Hades landscape that was our introduction into the world of Blade Runner. This motif recurs throughout the film, but instead of simply being an image which repeats on itself or directly indicative of one theme in the movie the eye motif in Blade Runner continually tells us more both about the story and about the themes being explored.
After the close up of the ‘hades eye’ we are introduced to the Voight Kampf test – we discover that this measures emotional responses – and therefore humanity – by measuring reflex action in the eye. This is Blade Runner in microcosm – simultaneously graceful poetry and leaden, oppressive technology: it tells us that the eye is the window of the soul, but then says that can be tested and measured: your soul is no longer the divine part of your being, it is now a simple scientific fact.
We see eyes in the giant digital billboards that dominate the skyline, eyes in the faces of the geisha style models who seem both to advertise – and note that it seems to be cigarettes and drugs that they are pushing – and to watch the population of the city, even it seems in private: this is nowhere more obvious than when we look up trough the glass ceiling of the Bradbury Building to see the advertising blimp looking back in at us. This is the eye as the manifestation of the oppression of what we now know as the surveillance state.
When we meet Gaff at the noodle bar one part of his eclectic appearance is his ice-blue eyes in a face that seems Hispanic or oriental. Part of this goes to his character as representative of the multicultural, multiracial population of Los Angeles 2019. But again the eyes tell us about the man – through the window we see this man’s soul: cold, hard, icy.
Tyrell’s character is revealed through his eyes – again not just in terms of the story but his thematic role as well. In many ways the most powerful character in the film, Eldon Tyrell is a physically small, frail man who sees the world through huge, thick ‘trifocal’ glasses. In terms of story his eyes give us some clue why the richest, most powerful man in this world still lives in the hell that Earth appears to have become, why he hasn’t taken up the offer of a better life in the off-world colonies. Sebastian tells us later that there is a medical exam which he had failed – did Tyrell’s myopia prevent him from leaving?
Beyond this it tells us about Tyrell’s nature – if the eyes are the soul, the fact that Tyrell’s are so weak tells us about the nature of his soul. This is the man who manufactures replicants – he is the slave master of the future. The evil that he has done to them has crippled his soul; his eyes are where we see that damage.
But even further the glasses tell us about his thematic role – he is later described as the maker – the God of bio-mechanics. We witness in his first appearance how his technology has given him the Godlike power to turn down the sun, but in his eyes we see that this reliance on technology goes both ways – he can use the his technology to give him those powers but his reliance on technology has equally diminished his own humanity.
It is no coincidence that where the replicants start their quest with Chew, the man who makes eyes. Chew reflects on Tyrell – for all his power Tyrell it seems can’t do eyes – can’t gift them a soul.
One of the ways that we the audience know replicants is the glow we sometimes see in their eyes – first with the owl, then in Rachael, Roy, Pris and eventually Deckard. This is an interesting choice: it is a beautiful effect, one which gives them a golden inner glow. There were other ways that this could have been communicated through the eyes – changing or omitting the catch-lights on the close up shots of the replicants, having them wear contact lenses. Instead Ridley Scott chose to give them this golden glow. If we follow the metaphor this is a reflection on their souls.

The issue of memories crops up repeatedly throughout Blade Runner: the false memories that have been implanted into Rachael (and possibly Deckard – but that’s for another post), the memories that Batty recounts as he sits in the rain waiting to die. The story suggests that a person is nothing more than the sum total of their memories, but also poses the question – if that is right where does that leave us when our memories can no longer be trusted?
The most obvious example of this is Rachael playing the piano, wondering if she ever attended the lessons she remembers or whether that was Tyrell’s niece, whose memories she has been given.
It is also reflected in the photographs – both those that Leon hordes and those found on Deckard’s piano.

Creation without responsibility – Frankenstein

One of the most obvious themes through the movie is that of man being destroyed by his own creation: Tyrell creates the Replicants; mankind fears them so much that they ban them from Earth, Batty defies his creator’s command and returns to kill him. This is the parallel with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein [4].
It is a theme with a much broader application than the Batty/Tyrell confrontation however: from the outset of the movie we are introduced to what has become legendary as the ‘Hades Landscape’, a nightmare vision of a super-industrialised world, where towering stacks belch flames into the sky. We see throughout the massive overcrowding in the streets below, and we experience a world in which we never see the sun, in which it always rains and, from the clothing of the inhabitants, it appears it is permanently cold, damp and miserable. Then remember: this is supposed to be Los Angeles.

Hades landscape

This is the Frankenstein story as environmental catastrophe: if we continue to create without taking responsibility for the impact of our creations we risk turning our paradise into this vision of hell [6].
There are those who describe this story as hubris; certainly in Frankenstein that was the clear undercurrent. I do not personally apply that epithet to the story as presented in Blade Runner, purely because the term suggests that by challenging one’s god one is doomed to fail and to be punished by that god: in Blade Runner the direct challenge to god is successful, the punishment suffered by others (namely the human race) is not divine but a natural consequence of their own irresponsibility. I don’t know if Blade Runner is a rejection of religion or of god or not, but I don’t see the role of god in punishing those who seek to challenge his role as creator.

Slavery and Racism
Confession time. I first saw Blade Runner as a child and I hated it. I couldn’t understand it, it was dark, dreary and miserable, but most of all, as a child who’d grown up on Star Wars, science fiction comics and cartoons and Metal Mickey (yes Metal Mickey) I didn’t see the point of a movie about killer robots in which the killer robots looked just like people.
Of course that is the damn point. These are a race of artificial life forms that resemble humans so perfectly that the only method of detecting them is the Voight Kampf test – they are looked down upon and persecuted, outlawed and hunted and yet they are exactly like us. This is Blade Runner telling us about the inherent stupidity, pointlessness and wastefulness of racism.

The obvious parallel in Blade Runner is with slavery: Batty makes this point himself as Deckard clings on for his life. The ideas of slavery and racism in 20th Century western culture, particularly but not uniquely American culture, are inextricably linked. [7]
It may be my unbridled optimism or naivety, but in light of the inauguration of the first black president of the USA I feel this is one of the few aspects of Blade Runner that, if not already, will soon start to look dated.

Free Will and obedience – Paradise Lost
One of the strongest themes in the film is that of free will: this is exemplified by Roy Batty’s enlightenment and Deckard’s eventual decision to rebel, taking Rachael with him. This theme leads interestingly to a comparison with one of the great works of English literature.
There is a very clear parallel between the central trio of Blade Runner and the trio of Lucifer, Adam and Eve in John Milton’s Paradise Lost. This again is the stuff of which theses are made, I will deal with it in fairly short terms here.
It is made quite clear that on one level Roy Batty represents Lucifer. Scott cast Rutger Hauer for the role, an actor possessed of not only physical prowess but startling good looks surmounted by almost platinum blond hair; then dresses him in black leather. This is the Morning Star of Milton’s poem. We are told that he is a replicant of “alpha-plus intelligence”, the finest example of Tyrell’s creativity; again a reference to Lucifer’s origins. Batty himself deliberately misquotes William Blake’s America: A Prophecy when he first confronts Chew. The Replicants, as Milton’s rebellious angels, descend from the ‘heaven’ of the off-world colonies to the hell of Los Angeles 2019.

Roy as Satan

Batty, as Milton’s Lucifer had, rebels against his God. This leads to a series of events which results in Rachael acquiring knowledge in spite of her creator (the knowledge of her own nature as a replicant), and in turn to her tempting Deckard to his own act of rebellion at the conclusion of the movie.
We can also fill in the supporting roles; Eldon Tyrell as an imperfect cypher for God; Gaff as the angels Raphael and Michael: both to warn Adam of the infiltration of Satan into the Garden (Batty’s arrival on earth) and at the conclusion to provide him with his exit from the Garden (Gaff’s complicity in Deckard and Rachael’s escape).
The end of the film echoes the end of the epic poem; man and woman, Adam and Eve, Deckard and Rachael, running together from the authority; a couple, dependent on one another not in defeat but in triumph that they have freed themselves of their preordained fate by acquiring free will.

It is of course not a perfect parallel:
» the replicants seek their God on earth, not in heaven nor in the metaphorical heaven of the off world colonies;
» the confrontation between Batty and Tyrell occurs after Rachael has acquired her illicit knowledge;
»Batty as Lucifer defeats his God, which of course does not occur in Paradise Lost;
»the human couple we a left with at the conclusion of the movie are not being exiled from paradise into a harsh and unforgiving world, but rather are escaping from the hades landscape of LA 2019 towards what they, and we, hope will be a more idyllic life beyond.
But there are sufficient clues to point in that direction, and certainly one of the overarching themes of the movie, regarding free will and the need to think beyond what we are told by whatever authority, echoes very clearly Paradise Lost.

Classical Mythology
There are those who seek to draw comparison between Blade Runner and aspects of classical mythology – this blog for example draws parallels between Roy Batty and either Prometheus or Oedipus. I am not in favour of these, however: to me the similarities are too superficial. Granted the Batty story arc encompasses both a Promethian rebellion against the gods and an Oedipal failed attempt to escape one’s destiny, but the conclusions and the themes are markedly different. The Promethian myth teaches that to rebel against the gods is futile and will be punished by an eternity of torment: Batty is not only successful in confronting his god but achieves the only beautiful peaceful death in the movie. The story of Oedipus is a cautionary tale about seeking to break with one’s fate and how running deliberately contrary to prophecy can have disastrous effects: Batty, on the other hand, challenges his predestined course, to be a soldier-slave, and achieves peace at the end of his life by refusing to go on being evil.
Granted there are important differences between Blade Runner and Paradise Lost, as I explain above, but to my mind the similarities in theme make that a more workable comparison. I do not feel the same about the above comparisons with classical mythology.
One could as easily draw parallels with Tolkien – that the replicants, with their deliberately shortened lifespans, are Tolkien’s men, gifted with mortality in that it gives meaning to their lives; as opposed to the immortal Elves. If the humans in Blade Runner then represent the Elves then the off world colonies to which all seem to want to escape are an analogy with the elvish desire to flee Middle Earth and journey into the west.

One more.
There is one more level of meaning to Blade Runner that I can see – I don’t pretend to know everything about the film and I have no doubt there will be others who draw from this masterpiece themes that I haven’t even considered. But this last one occurs to me.
Ridley Scott has described this as the most personal of all his films. It is of note that he has not made another science fiction film since, in spite of the trajectory his career appeared to have set by the time Blade Runner opened. He has put a piece of himself in the film, much as Tolkien gave Faramir [8] his recurring dream about the Great Wave, towering up, and coming in ineluctably over the trees and green fields; so too does Ridley Scott give to Rachael his memory of the spider being eaten by it’s children.
When Tony Scott saw the film for the first time and saw the opening over the Hades Landscape he says that he immediately recognised it as home – where he and his brothers had grown up in the industrial north of England.

What is it about the movie which is so personally resonant, given that Scott wrote neither the original source novel nor the screenplay for the movie?
I believe this comes down to what was happening in his life at the time he made the movie. In the early part of the 1980s Ridley Scott’s older brother Frank died of skin cancer. Although he discusses it infrequently it is clear when he does that this had a dramatic impact on him; he recalls desperate feelings of paranoia and insomnia for years afterwards.
At the end of Blade Runner we have our protagonist sitting in the rain watching his antagonist die. Batty has, throughout the movie, achieved: he achieved his aim in getting to earth, he achieved his aim in confronting his god, he beat Deckard at every step of the ‘game’ through the Bradbury building and finally he has achieved enlightenment and through it a peaceful death. And Deckard, our protagonist, understands this as he sits and watches while Batty, the better man, dies.

Roy dies

Paranoia and insomnia are classic symptoms of survivors’ guilt. Often the incomprehension that accompanies the feelings of unfairness, that the sufferer should have been spared while the one who died was not, spills over into a subconscious glorifying of the other – that it was the better person who unfairly died; that the lesser person (the sufferer) was left behind.
I said in my post on Deckard that there was another reason why he was the protagonist: in this moment Deckard becomes the cypher for Ridley Scott himself, playing out the survivors’ guilt Scott felt at the death of his brother.
I don’t know Ridley Scott, have never met him, and I am not a psychologist nor a psychiatrist, but this seems to me to ring true. If I am right then Blade Runner was more than simply a movie for Scott: it was a moment of catharsis.

[1] I will come back to this shortly.
[2] There are those who will suggest the unicorn, but I don’t necessarily agree with that analysis, I prefer the Darabont interpretation of this.
[3] Look at the eye in that opening montage – look at the reflection of the Hades Landscape in it. Then we cut back to the landscape itself. Now we’re zooming in to the ziggurat – to the window – now we cut to Holden, standing in the conference room, his back to us, smoking a cigarette in front of the window. See it? That window is a good 8-10 feet above the floor, he’s standing right under it. There is no way Holden is looking out through that window at the Hades Landscape outside – it’s too high up, the angles are all wrong. So whose eye is it? Discuss.
[4] It is interesting also that Frankenstein is not only one of the seminal works of horror fiction but also one of the earliest science fiction novels.[5]
[5] There is a moment in the much-overlooked 1964 Audrey Hepburn comedy ‘Paris When It Sizzles’ when the character played by William Holden explains how Frankenstein and My Fair Lady/Pygmalion are essentially the same story.
[6] It is worth noting that James Cameron then took up this Frankenstein/EcoFrankenstein theme and ran with it in The Terminator. And The Abyss. And Terminator 2. And Titanic. And Avatar.
[7] I have said before how much I hate going back to excised dialogue or previous versions of the movie, but in the much hated now thankfully consigned to history voice-over there is a point when Deckard calls Bryant “the kind of guy who years ago would’ve called black people niggers”. That pretty much sums up the subtlety of the voice over and the reason so many fans were delighted when it was removed.
[8] Which Jackson et al then handed to Eowyn, but I agree with them that it matters less which character has the dream than that the dream is present in the work. Interesting that there’s another Scott/Tolkien parallel though, isn’t it?

3 thoughts on “Blade Runner – Motifs and Themes

  1. There is also a lack of children in Bladerunner, however, it is interesting that only Rachel’s memories of being a child are shown as well as alluding to her character being “innocent” until she is given information about what she really is. Showing a transition from “child” to adult.

    All of the main characters in Blade Runner are in transitional states and are experiencing revelations. As was the film’s Director at the time.

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