Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Seeing is be/live-ing

From its opening scene, Blade Runner declares that it will be a visual movie. Aerial shots of flying cars speeding over a lit-up futuristic cityscape tell us that we'll have plenty to look at. But the following shot, an extreme close-up of erupting flames reflected in a human eye, shows that the movie will be about what and how its characters see. Indeed, the film is replete with eye imagery. Here's a look at some of that imagery and thoughts about how it defines some of the film's themes.

Replicant eyes glow

Rachael during her Voight-Kampff test
Roy kills Tyrell
Tyrell's artificial owl
The Replicants' eyes are often shown with a reflective glow not seen in the humans' eyes. This proclaims their difference (at least to us; Deckard does not appear to see the glow as a distinguishing feature, if at all), and also supports a metaphor used by Tyrell: "The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long," he says, "and you have burned so very, very brightly, Roy."

This notion that Replicants are "more alive" than humans is developed throughout the film, as Roy determinedly seeks out Tyrell and a way to extend his own life. During the climactic chase, Roy gives Deckard a head start and repeatedly lets pass opportunities to kill the Blade Runner. He is less toying with Deckard, however, than teaching him — teaching him to recognize the value of life and to fight for his own. After Deckard hits Roy in the head with a pipe, the Replicant exclaims "That's the spirit!" perhaps seeing in Deckard for the first time some of the spark that shines in his own eyes.

Visual aids

Tyrell's large eyeglasses
Chew's goggles and microscope
Abdul Ben Hassan's glasses
and microscope
Those who create Replicants appear to have failing vision, or at least require optical tools to perform their work. Tyrell wears very large eyeglasses, Chew and Abdul Ben Hassan wear goggles and magnifiers and rely on microscopes, and the woman at the artificial fish shop uses a magnifying screen to examine Deckard's snake scale. This implies an impairment which may inspire these engineers to create beings that are impervious to such defects, but it also suggests a symbolic nearsightedness. Focused so much on the minute details of artificial life, these humans are seemingly oblivious to the grander issues with which the Replicants are preoccupied: existence (Pris: "I think, Sebastian, therefore I am"), mortality (Roy seeks to extend his life), ethics (Roy: "I've done questionable things"), kinship (Roy's group is a kind of family), freedom (Roy: "That's what it is to be a slave"), art (Roy quotes William Blake).

Tyrell's glasses make him look like his pet, the owl, a symbol of Tyrell's wisdom. It is telling, however, that Tyrell's owl is artificial, for despite all Tyrell's technical knowledge, he is unable to extend Roy's life or to offer any comforting or "real" wisdom to the murderous creation that has escaped his control.

"Seeing" machines

Rachael's eye on the VK screen
Holden's Voight-Kampff machine
Deckard's photo machine
Blade Runners can't visually distinguish Replicants from humans without the use of the Voight-Kampff machine, which scrutinizes the subject's eyes for inhuman reactions to questions posed by the operator. Deckard uses another machine to see details in photos taken by Leon; he needs special equipment to look through Leon's eyes, to see what Leon has already seen.

Despite this visual assistance, humans are slow to comprehend. During Leon's examination, Holden is tipped off by Leon's reaction to the question about a tortoise, though does not act quickly enough to avoid being shot. He may see Leon as a Replicant, but he does not perceive the immediate danger. Similarly, it is not until the end of the movie that, after being saved by Roy and then watching him die, Deckard is able to glimpse the Replicant's motives, his "point of view."

The eye shop

"If only you could see what I've seen with your eyes."
Roy and Leon enter the eye shop
Chew works on an artificial eye
Leon taunts Chew with his own eyes,
mocking his lack of "vision"
"I just do eyes"

Nowhere are eyes more emphasized than in the eye shop, where Roy and Leon confront Chew, a genetic engineer specializing in eyes. Chew recognizes Roy as a Nexus 6, the most advanced Replicant model, and explains that he designed Roy's eyes. "If only you could see what I've seen with your eyes," Roy says in response.

Not only has Roy seen different, presumably spectacular off-world things that Chew could not have seen, being stranded on Earth, but Roy may also be referring to an ability to see — Roy has "seen" the value of life, and his drive to preserve his own demonstrates a passion not apparent in the humans. Chew, not being a Replicant with such a limited life span, could not have "seen" the same things because his perspective on life is so different — his mortality does not hang over his head as ominously as Roy's hangs over his.

Roy plays with artificial eyes at JF's place. While comical,
the large eyes suggest Roy's great capacity for "seeing."
Roy's words also hint at the idea that Replicants are extensions of their Earth-bound creators. J.F. Sebastian, deemed too ill to leave the planet for a better life on an off-world settlement, marvels at Roy's perfection. Explaining that he worked on the Nexus project, J.F. later tells Roy, "There's some of me in you," and asks Roy and Pris to "do something" spectacular, something that he would be incapable of doing not only due to his illness, but to his being human. So while their mortality may not preoccupy these engineers as much as it does the Replicants, the humans are at least aware of their shortcomings and strive to overcome them vicariously, but in so doing create beings that have to bear greater amounts of fear, stress, uncertainty, and captivity.

"I've seen things you people wouldn't believe."

The difference between what Replicants and humans "see" and value is emphasized in Roy's dying speech, when he tells Deckard, "I've seen things you people wouldn't believe." On the surface it seems that Roy is referring to amazing visions — "attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion," "C-beams glitter[ing] in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate," things that Deckard and other Earth-bound humans could not see from Earth, yet which they would nonetheless find too spectacular to comprehend. Or perhaps the attack ships and C-beams wouldn't be such spectacle to humans after all, but to Roy and other Replicants with a looming death sentence, these visions — any visions — would be worth treasuring, as Leon treasures his photos, as Roy treasures the memories that he fears will be lost like "tears in rain." Seeing is reassurance to Replicants that their experiences are real, not artificial like the memories implanted by Tyrell, but things they have "lived." Seeing validates their existence and makes them feel alive.

(Of course, it is not certain that Roy has seen any of these things. Like Rachael's childhood, Roy's recollections may be implanted memories of things he has never experienced. If Roy has considered this, it is likely that what he has "seen" is instead metaphysical, something he has realized and which he knows has not been understood by the humans of his time, by Tyrell and the society of Frankensteins that have created artificial life without fully considering the consequences. Or perhaps Roy is unaware of the use of implants and accepts his memories as experience, or perhaps more interestingly accepts them as experience while knowing they are false, as Deckard chooses to accept Rachael as human...)

Loss of sight equals death

The end of Tyrell
Leon tries to kill Deckard
Zhora's lifeless eyes

If seeing is necessary for a Replicant to feel truly alive, then loss of sight is equivalent to death. It is fitting, then, that when Roy kills Tyrell he does so by pushing in Tyrell's eyes, inflicting on him the highest penalty, the loss of sight/life. This punishment makes certain what Tyrell's large eyeglasses have suggested all along — that despite his scientific ability, he lacks vision. He, like all the visually impaired genetic engineers, is unable to see what consequences his work has on the work itself, on the Replicants.

The half-blind bartender
After killing Zhora, Deckard explains in voice-over that even though Zhora was a Replicant, he still found it unsettling to shoot a woman in the back. Ostensibly wanting to numb the impact of that sight, he buys a bottle from a bartender with a patch over one eye. Her state of half-blindness ("half-death") suggests the state she dispenses: the inebriation Deckard wants to feel. While the Replicants treasure their experiences and the memories of them, Deckard seeks to forget.

Pris' eyes (de)emphasized


Rolled back
During her stay with J.F. Sebastian, Pris' eyes are highlighted in several ways: they are accented by a line of black paint that Pris sprays across them, which contrasts the white makeup covering her face; they display the Replicant glow; they are lit by a directed light when she peers through one of J.F.'s instruments; and during Deckard's arrival they are veiled and momentarily rolled back into her head, concealing the iris and pupils and showing only the whites. This white-on-black calls attention to the eyes but also conceals them. "Then we're stupid and we'll die," Pris tells Roy in an earlier scene — her blackened and pupil-less eyes illustrate this prophecy moments before she is killed by Deckard.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful observation Jeff. I've watched this beautiful film so many times I've lost count and your perspective never occurred to me, yet it's so obvious. Something new to watch out for next time. Thanks.