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“If only you could see what I’ve seen with your eyes.”
In the opening sequence of BladeRunner, we are shown an incredible show of an eye and reflected in it are hundreds of lights from the city of Los Angeles. These lights, by no small coincidence, shine like stars in the eye and, even though we can’t see the rest of the expression of whoever’s face it is, there is a palpable sense of awe and wonder conveyed in that shot.
The overriding theme of BladeRunner is “What does it mean to be human?” In the film, we are introduced to Replicants, bio-engineered androids who are extremely strong and intelligent. They were originally designed to work as slave labour, developing off-world colonies. We are told at the start of the film that the Replicants rebelled and as a result a new police division was created to hunt them down. These are the Blade Runners. Deckard is one such Blade Runner, who is tasked with tracking down and ‘retiring’ (executing) a renegade group of Replicants, led by Roy Batty.
Eyes are used as a theme throughout the film and help to point the audience towards a deeper understanding of what being human could really mean. This may sound quite grand and convoluted, but isn’t that what Science Fiction is supposed to do? (See by previous post here for more on this).
So how does BladeRunner do this with eyes?
Firstly, there is the Voight-Kampff Test that both Leon (at the start of the film) and Rachael undergo. The test uses a combination of questions on moral scenarios to determine if the subject is human or a Replicant. How does it do this? By using a device that closely monitors the eyes.
In the scene where Deckard uses this test on Rachael, we see him set up the device and zoom in close on her eye. He can then clearly see her reactions (pupil dilations) as each scenario is explored in the test.
It should be noted at this point that, throughout the film, there are a number of references to the fact that the animals people keep as pets in this society are not in fact real animals. No-one can afford the real thing, so bio-engineered animals are created instead. In this scene between Rachael and Deckard, there is an owl perched to one side.
Towards the end of the film, we focus again on the bird. Do you notice the orange glow in its eyes? This is not simply a trick of the light. It is one of the indicators we are given to alert us to the fact that this owl is not real and has in fact been manufactured by Dr Tyrell, the genius behind the creation of the Replicants. As Deckard tests Rachael, we see the orange glow in her eyes. It is the same glow that briefly appears in Leon’s eyes as he is tested. Clearly, she is not what she seems and not what she thinks herself to be.
Rachael is the first Replicant that Deckard has encountered who does not realise what she is. She is an experiment designed by Tyrell to be so convincingly human that even the trusty Voight-Kampff test is almost fooled. Deckard himself comments that it took over 100 questions, around five times longer than usual, before her eyes finally gave her away.
Next, there is Tyrell himself. As I mentioned, he is the man who is noted to have created the Replicants. He is an incredibly short-sighted man, both figuratively and literally. The glasses he wears are milk-bottle glasses in the extreme. The lenses are so thick, it makes you wonder if he would see anything at all without them. In the symbolic sense, this highlights his rather narrow view of humanity. He does not see the Replicants as individuals but as tools that no longer have a purpose. Even Rachael, to whom he has given his niece’s memories, is only a science experiment to him. He cannot understand the Replicants’ desire for life and so he is content to just sit back while they are hunted down.
Tyrell is not the only human with physical limitations to be juxtaposed with the Replicants’ seeming perfection.
Sebastian suffers from a genetic defect that causes him to age prematurely. He is contrasted starkly with Priss, the effervescent Replicant who has an almost childlike nature (coupled, of course, with a killer instinct). She is fascinated by Sebastian, as aging is not a burden the Replicants will ever have to bear.
Priss also has an interesting point to make on the subject of eyes. While she is hiding with Sebastian, she paints a thick black stripe across her eyes. This makes her eyes stand out brightly against the black (and highlights the telling orange glow in them), but it also brings to mind imagery of a mask, specifically the likes of which are worn by superheroes. Replicants were, after all, designed with super-human abilities. They repeatedly outdo their human counterparts with their physical abilities.
By why do superheroes wear masks? To hide their identity. Because of the Voight-Kampff Test, a Replicant’s eyes are what ultimately give them away and set them apart from humans. Priss paints a mask over her eyes not to enable her to use her super-human abilities, but to hide them so she can therefore live as a human.
The other physically limited human of note is Hannibal Chew. An almost throw-away character, we meet Chew in an extremely cold lab where he is creating eyes for the Replicants. Understandably, Chew wears a heavily insulated coat to stave off the cold as he works. When Roy and Leon visit him, they are wearing nothing more than leather coats. Leon even plunges his hand directly into a vat of liquid nitrogen and pick up a handful of Chew’s eyes.
This is the scene in which we get the wonderful line I used as the opening quote: “If only you could see what I’ve seen with your eyes.”
“I wish you could have seen it.” “You wouldn’t believe your eyes.” These are familiar expressions we use when trying to convey a particularly memorable experience. There are times where words cannot describe how thrilling or awe-inspiring or terrifying something was. Really, the only way to get that across is for the other person to “see it with their own eyes,” To go through it with you.
On first glance, this is what Roy is saying to Chew. Roy has seen such incredible wonders… But remember, he is talking to the man who literally manufactured the eyes he sees out of.
“If only you could see what I’ve seen with YOUR eyes.” The eyes you made. While Chew has been locked away in his freezing cold lab, Roy has been out in the world, really seeing it in all its beauty and its ugliness. It is something that Roy elaborates on at the end as he dies:
His dying words are all to do with what he has seen – what he has experienced in his lifetime, which seems to be so much more than any human has ever done.
And herein lies Roy’s frustration. Replicants were made to have expiration dates. No matter how fit and healthy they may seem, eventually there comes a point where their bodies simply shut down. Throughout the film, Roy knows this is going to happen. He knows he is going to die and so he fights back. He wants to go on living as long as he can. He has seen so many amazing things and he wants to see more. From what he has seen of humanity, he feels humans are wasting the lives they are given because they are not living each moment as if it were their last, and they are not going out and experiencing the world as he has. In Roy’s eyes, humans have lost their passion and desire for life and therefore do not deserve it. That is until he sees Deckard struggling to keep hold of a metal girder overhanging a sheer drop. As Deckard fights for his life, Roy finally meets a human being with as much of a desire to live as he has. This is why he saves Deckard.
(Of course, there is the question hanging over as to whether Deckard himself is a Replicant, but that’s a debate for another day).
Even though his own and Deckard’s life are ultimately heading to be forgotten (like the “tears in rain” he speaks of), Roy still feels Deckard’s life is worth saving because life is precious. This, according to BladeRunner, is what it means to be human. To be passionate and hunger for life. To seek new sights and experiences and to share them with others in whatever way we can.
Our eyes see a lot every day. How often do we really appreciate what they take in?