Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Religious Symbolism in Blade Runner

(The last academic essay I've ever had to write, just completed for a Neo-Noir class)

    Ridley Scott's Blade Runner is a film that is filled to the brim with symbolism and metaphors. It also seems to pose one key question - What is it that makes us human? Throughout the film, the aforementioned symbols and metaphors are presented in order to help us reach our own conclusion about this question. One important group of symbols within the film are those that relate to religion. There are those that appear obvious (even upon first the viewing of the film) and those that are much more hidden. It is important, however, to discuss the more obvious ones in order to get to the complex web of theology at the center of film.

    The characters in the film share obvious connections with various religious figures. Eldon Tyrell plays the part of “God,” creating the Replicants himself. The four main Replicants that Deckard must Hunt down -  Roy, Pris, Zora and Leon - “are fallen angels. They were given a four year lifespan. God created man and gave him a four–score lifespan. The parallels are quite apparent." The four are a small fraction of the Replicants created by Tyrell that were eventually sent to the “Otherworld,” because they posed a significant threat to the humans on earth. With their return to earth they become similar to fallen angels that can be found in biblical texts. This idea is highlighted visually (and quite obviously) in the scene in which Deckard shoots Zhora down after she flees. She is shot once on each shoulder blade – the same position in which one would find an angel's wings.

    Tyrell is not the only character in the film that be connected to God. J.F. Sebastian plays an important role in the creation of the Replicants and is responsible in creating their eyes. While Tyrell gives them most of their physical attributes, Sebastian supplies the most crucial organ and gives them the ability of sight. Instead of being grateful for this, Roy uses Sebastian to merely meet his creator. This scene in particular evokes a number of different religious symbols and metaphors. Tyrell lives at the top of a gigantic pyramidal structure, much like those of the Egyptians. Egyptian pyramids were created to house mummified royalty and their treasures, which were believed to be brought with them to the afterlife. These structures were believed to be directly connected to places in the afterlife – heaven and hell. Roy and Sebastian ascend the ziggarat-like structure like an individual's soul would ascend to heaven to meet God.

    Once inside Tyrell's room, Roy's actions present an opposition to the relationship between God and Jesus in biblical texts. Whereas Jesus dies by following the words of his father, Roy kills his “father” out of hatred and spite for controlling his mortality. Not only is Tyrell killed, but Sebastian also falls victim to Roy's rage. Although, this killing seems to more closely resemble the story of Judas and Jesus. Like Judas, Roy befriends Sebastian (Jesus), gains his trust, shows sympathy for him (since Sebastian must also deal with time and mortality due to an illness), but ultimately betrays him.

    Shortly after Roy murders Tyrell and Sebastian, he is confronted by Deckard in Sebastian's apartment. Roy quickly turns the tables, however, and becomes the hunter. He stalks Deckard throughout the building and at one point pulls a nail out of a floorboard. In an obvious symbolic gesture, he inserts the nail into his palm, crucifying himself like Christ. Deckard eventually attempts to jump to a nearby roof , but comes up short and ends up clinging to the side of the building by one hand. Roy appears out of the darkness, nail in hand, cradling a white dove. The white dove is symbolic of peace and spirituality. As Deckard is about to plummet to his death “Batty grabs his hand and saves him. At last, he has freely chosen his essence by choosing to be a life giver rather than the life-taking combat model he was programmed to be." Roy then speaks about his memories and how he is about die. We see the dove fly into the air as he passes, symbolizing his ascent to a possible “heaven.”

    While many viewpoints exist about the state of Deckard – human or Replicant – there is also an interesting relationship between himself, Roy, and Christ. While the above mentioned examples show the connections between Roy and Jesus, a few of Deckard's actions at the end of the film also relate him to the biblical figure. “Deckard, too, parallels Christ, particularly in his words to Gaff after the confrontation with Batty is over, "Finished," echoing Jesus's last words on the cross and announcing his retirement as a blade runner. He follows up these actions by becoming a savior to Rachel, another replicant condemned to death." In the end, Deckard becomes a savior to Rachel and attempts to help her gain the freedom she longs for. However, it is inevitable that like Roy, she too will meet her pre-determined end.

    Upon researching the theme of religion in the film, I was able to create some of my own assumptions and theories as well. It is evident that throughout the film, Roy undergoes a transformation. The first time we are introduced to him he states that he would “Rather reign in hell than serve in heaven.” By reigning in hell, he is placing himself in the position of Satan or Lucifer. By the end of the film, illustrated by all of the visual symbols as well as the sacrifice he makes to save Decker, he becomes a Christ-like figure. This transformation reminded me of the “Temptation of Christ” texts within the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. After being baptized, Jesus fasted for weeks in the Judean desert. During this time, the devil appeared to Jesus and tempted him. After fighting each temptation, the devil finally departed. Angels then appeared to aid Jesus.

    It would appear to me that in the beginning of the film, Roy is possessed by evil – spite and anger towards his creator for not allowing him the freedom of a long life. He is tempted by the devil with the possibility of immortality. He goes as far as killing Tyrell and Sebastian to get this, but to no avail. The point that signifies his transformation occurs quickly, in the moment that he saves Deckard's life. He could have easily killed him, but decided to take the last moments he had on earth to save a human being. As the dove ascends, we feel differently towards him. In the blink of an eye the evil that inhabited him throughout the film is reversed and we feel sympathetic towards him. Through his sacrifice he becomes a martyr for his cause – to gain the freedom of a long life for himself and for other Replicants.

1. Gossman, Jean-Paul. "Blade Runner – A Postmodernist View « Blade Runner Insight." Blade Runner Insight. 11 Apr. 2001. Web. 06 June 2011. <>.
2. Conrad, Mark T. The Philosophy of Neo-Noir. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 2007. Print.
3. Gravett, S. L. (1998). The sacred and the profane: Examining the religious subtext of     Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. Literature/Film Quarterly, 26(1), 38-45.

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