Identity and Alterity in Blade Runner
by Kate Fenimore
Watching Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner, it’s easy to imagine the hopes and fears of the time in which it was produced. On the one hand, there is the actual narrative, where a retired cop is pulled back into the business of tracking and eliminating humanoid robots, only to discover that both he and his love interest are themselves “replicants”. In this we can see an idealistic fantasy of universal acceptance, where breaking down the traditional binaries of “us” versus “them” results in a stronger sense of personal identity and human community. However, the environment that serves as the plot’s springboard tells a conflicting story, one that uses the presumed fears and prejudices of the audience to communicate an altogether different message. The narrative of the film hinges on the idea that Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), the aforementioned reluctant hero, is alienated from the world he inhabits, so that true love and self-discovery act as dramatic lifelines in a life devoid of personal relationships. As innocuous as this dynamic appears, it is important to examine more closely the visual cues that provide the context for Deckard’s isolation. Assuming, as the film asks us to, that there is no difference between replicants and humans, why is Deckard so alone in the midst of a crowded street? Clearly there is a second form of “otherness” at play in the film, and one that is not ultimately vindicated and included like the replicants. This other sports Fu Manchu moustaches, wears conical straw hats, and speaks from floating billboards in an unknown language. In short, this other is based on race and, as Edward Said describes in “Orientalism”, defining the other actually serves to define Deckard himself. Within the unspoken reality of the film, Deckard's identity is communicated through the dominant language he doesn't speak, the highly racialized population he doesn't look at, and the flashy technology he outright rejects. These tropes indicate dystopia because they play on the American fears, particularly in the 1980s when an Asian economic and technological boom was, for many, the harbinger of American decline. While the film's narrative allowed audiences to congratulate themselves on their post-colonial ideology, they were simultaneously encouraged by the mise-en-scene to view a loss of American hegemony in the world as an essentially dehumanizing and destructive proposition. This explicit championing of an invented form of alterity, while implicitly constructing a race-based "other", causes Blade Runner to perpetuate a particularly hypocritical sense of Western identity, where inclusion is valued in theory but, in true Orientalist fashion, the dominant collective identity is formed by exclusion.
When Deckard first appears on screen, he is hunched against the drizzling rain, gloomy darkness, and swarms of passersby that seem to perpetually envelop the city. In Scott’s dark vision, the Los Angeles of 2019 is gritty, post-racial melting pot where those with means have migrated to off-world colonies, and the remaining population struggles against a severely decayed environment. Against this backdrop, Deckard stands as the seemingly lone voice of humanity, the only character who appears at all uneasy with their lot in life. Similarly, Deckard quit his job as a blade runner, a member of the elite police force charged with killing replicants who have escaped a life of slavery on the off world colonies. However, when four of the androids stage a bloody mutiny and return to Earth, he is forcibly reinstated. As Deckard reluctantly begins his task, he is increasingly aware of the surprisingly human lives of his prey. Like him, they have family photos, love interests, and, perhaps most importantly, an almost inexplicable desire to keep living despite the tribulations inherent to life on this planet. This connection is solidified when he meets, and ultimately falls in love with, a beautiful replicant named Rachael (Sean Young). Deckard’s identification with the replicants is also illustrated in their deaths, which gradually move from a hunter/prey dynamic, to more evenly matched battles, culminating in an epic dual with the leader, Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) that actually ends with Batty saving Deckard and dying of old age. Deckard, more emotive and human then ever, collects Rachael, and bathed in natural sunlight for the first time in the film, has a realization: he too is a replicant. Full of love, determination, and moral clarity, Deckard and Rachael quite literally head towards the light as they begin their new life together.
The message of this narrative is clear and persuasive: “we” are “them”; the colonizers are not only no better than the oppressed “others”, they are in fact one and the same. However, I would like to employ the theories of several writers to think more critically about the validity of this idea, particularly in relationship to the more subtle narrative underscoring the film itself. To this end, some definitions are in order. Linda Tuhiwai Smith describes imperialism, the larger framework for colonialism, as “tied to a chronology of events related to ‘discovery’, conquest, exploitation, distribution and appropriation” (21). As Smith recounts, this sense of imperialism is the most easily identifiable and delineated, and as such is quite easily tied to the explicit ideals of the film. Nonetheless, there is another form of imperialist thinking that is more pernicious, and harder to pin down, succinctly named by Edward Said as “Orientalism”. In this system, the West creates a narrative of the East that uses exotic imagery, historic misrepresentations, and a sense of innate superiority to continually push the Easterner into a submissive position of “otherness” and externality. Finally, I have found it useful to include William Roseberry’s ideas of “languages of community and contention”, as a way of examining the group hierarchies portrayed in Blade Runner (71). For Roseberry, these uses of language are indicative of the daily power struggles between classes, and the way that speech works to bring people together and push them apart (78).
The desire to move beyond imperialist thinking is aptly represented in Roy Batty’s final, poignant soliloquy on the fleeting nature of life and the finality of death. In that moment, the replicant is no longer a robot, a slave, a tool to be exploited; he is human. This shift from machine to man is the backbone of post-colonial thinking, and it is best expressed, as Batty illustrates, through the reclaiming of one’s own narrative. This is part of what Smith refers to as decolonizing the mind, where the subjugated individual claims “a space in which to develop a sense of authentic humanity” (23). It is also an important trait of that humanity that Batty has moved from killer to savior, he is no longer “savage”; rather he is civilized and thoughtful. Unfortunately, it is all too easy for the audience to feel that they have graciously shifted their own perceptions of this subaltern group, when in fact the transformation happens within the story itself. We now recognize Roy Batty as human not because we have changed, but because he has.
While this scene represents a discourse on colonization between Deckard and Batty, it is important to look at who is not included in that conversation. The isolation and alienation that describe Deckard’s initial position in the film are succinctly represented in his first scene. The camera finds the wayward blade runner amidst the floating billboards and flashing neon dragons, inexplicably reading a newspaper. He is immediately established as distinct, both through his anachronistic choice of entertainment and his incredulously searching gaze, a particularly unusual feature on the street bustling with city dwellers uniformly obscured by paper parasols and all manner of eye-covering veils, hats and helmets. The implication is clear: Deckard is able to see, in the most literal sense, and while he chooses not to look at the people around him, they are incapable of looking at him. For Said, this gaze is in itself a position of dominance, because the act of seeing functions as a form of creation, and in this sense, operates as “a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient” (3). Additionally, these “others” lack this crucial human function, so that Deckard’s mere possession of a perfunctory biological trait becomes a source of strength and identity. This method of describing the Westerner in terms of what he is not (i.e. the Easterner) is another key trope of Said’s Orientalism, and again works to maintain a particular racial hierarchy. Deckard’s race is constructed in the same way: not through explicitly defining it, but by placing it against his racialized surroundings. As the audience is a presumptive member of his community, a form of racial hegemony is established that, as Said points out, subtly transmits its particular worldview onto the viewer (15).
The use of language, or lack thereof, also furthers this sense of Western hegemony. In this future, the landscape is dotted with neon-signs in a non-specified Asian language and the unearthly voice intoning an advertising slogan does so in an unknown tongue. In the voiceover of the theatrical cut, Deckard identifies the language of the streets as “cityspeak, gutter talk, a mishmash of Japanese, Spanish and German”, a language he knows yet refuses to speak (Scott). Deckard’s failure to communicate with the human beings around him is not a pitiable condition of his unintentional solitude, it is a conscious choice. As such, it operates as both a language of (an imagined) community, and as a language of contention to express his discontent with the larger population (71). That the audience is part of Deckard’s community, with no connection to the “others” is further confirmed by the lack of subtitles for this foreign tongue. This stubborn and exclusive community is an example of the “positional superiority” described by Said, where the Westerner maintains his authority through some sense of inherent power, not through the particulars of a given situation (7). Even as Deckard’s community is dwindling in numbers, he retains his sense of innate dominance.
In Roy Batty’s humanity we can see precisely what is lacking from the very real droves of humans bustling through the streets of this post-apocalyptic version of Los Angeles. Batty describes the things he has seen; they have no sight. Batty tells his story; they have no language. Together Batty and Deckard find some sense of shared community; the city’s residents live in crowded isolation. While those positive attributes add to the sense of a post-colonial discourse taking place between the two central characters, their lack has an equally regressive effect for everyone else. Effectively, the very elements that make a replicant human are simultaneously denied to a population historically dehumanized when viewed through this type of Orientalist lens. The result is that Blade Runner only succeeds in confronting the most onerous and glaring forms of colonialism, while continuing to propagate a more insidious form of racial hegemony.
1. “On the investment side as well there is a growing asymmetry, with Japanese investment in the United States now rapidly outpacing U.S. investment in Japan” (Business America)
2. ''In economic terms, we risk becoming a colony [of Japan] -- exporting raw materials and importing manufactured goods,'' Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia recently warned. (Impoco)
Fatimah Tobing Rony, “King Kong and the Monster in Ethnographic Cinema,” The Third Eye: Race, Cinema, and Ethnographic Spectacle Duke University Press, 1996, pp. 157-191
Roseberry, William. “Hegemony, Power, and Languages of Contention.” The Politics of Difference: Ethnic Premises in a World of Power. Ed. P.A. Mcallister. University of Chicago press. 71 – 85.
Said, Edward W. "Orientalism." Orientalism. New York: Vintage, 1979. 1-28. Print. Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. "Chapter 1." Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. London: Zed, 1999.