The Indeterminate Sign in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, Director's Cut

By Hallam, Clifford | West Virginia University Philological Papers, May 2011 | Go to article overview

The Indeterminate Sign in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, Director's Cut


Hallam, Clifford, West Virginia University Philological Papers


"... prehensile hands exchange forgeries of what the heart dare not surrender."--Gaddis

The "empire of signs" foregrounded Ridley Scott's postmodernist film Blade Runner, Director's Cut (1982) is not twentieth century Japan as described in Roland Barthes' semiotic study of Nipponese culture, but an Asianized futuristic America. By illustration, a city landmark provides the central visual motif: a gigantic advertising sign presenting a sound and light show with a liberated, hip geisha girl extolling the virtues of Coca Cola (both the soft drink and the hard drug) functions as a classic past/present/future simulacrum while fulfilling the lyric "And the people bowed and prayed, to the neon sign they made" in the 1960s Simon and Garfunkle ballad "The Sound of Silence." Structurally, the film treats Philip K. Dick's 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? in a series of stark scenarios featuring wide angle shots panning a fantastic urban skyline; focused, swarming street scenes; and vast, labyrinthine interiors in a neogothic mansion haunted by devil dolls and murderous cyborgs. Blade Runner, like Roman Polanski's Chinatown (1974), revisits the classic film noir of the 1940s by following the formula and adding techniques such as thematic intertextuality and elements of pop culture. As in early film noir, the environment does not simply provide a neutral background for the action. Throughout the film, then, clashing images that inform Scott's hyper-real, darkly imaginative setting complement the problematized status of the human/android characters, along with their motives and relationships, as firmly established by the ambiguous dialogue in the opening street scene.

Rick Deckard, the putative hero, orders a bowl of noodles from an Asian street vendor, when an airborne police hovercraft lands nearby. Immediately thereafter Lieutenant Gaff from headquarters addresses Deckard (who studiously ignores him) in futuristic street dialect. The counterman provides a translation:

VENDOR. He say you under arrest.

DECKARD. Got the wrong guy, pal.

VENDOR. He say you brade runner.

Rick Deckard, of course, proves to be the model detective, a specialist in "retiring" (i.e., destroying) androids, with an unassailable record: "I need ya, Deck. I need the old blade runner.... I need your magic," Chief Bryant pleads. Deckard in fact unknowingly speaks the truth in flatly denying his identity, for in psychoanalytic fashion, the "old blade runner" says more than he intends. Indeed, Rick Deckard is "the wrong guy" in several respects as the plot reveals early on.

Paradoxically, although Deckard clearly functions as the protagonist, the character with whom we identify, the actual hero, the character essential to the central plot and theme in Blade Runner, is not the hunter, but the hunted. Namely, Roy Batty, a cyborg "combat model" who has orchestrated a mutiny among several fellow replicants and jumped ship in pursuit of the impossible dream: freedom and immortality. Thus, the terms "protagonist" and "hero" cannot, in this instance, be used interchangeably, although of course they interact, thus blending the (unconventional) love story with the quest/revenge play. Significantly, literary precedents obtain: for example, critics have long addressed the ambiguous status of God, Adam, Satan as candidates for the hero in Milton's Paradise Lost, as Blake was the first to observe obliquely by pointing out that "the reason Milton wrote in fetters of Angels & God and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true poet and of the devil's party without knowing it" (Blake 74-75).

In Blade Runner, an ordinary man is juxtaposed with an extraordinary android. Rick Deckard's perspective provides the privileged left (first) element of the binary structure--human/non-human--whereby essential human qualities such as professional duty, loyalty, compassion, and love are (owing to the point-of-view) both foregrounded and simultaneously brought into question--not solely with respect to cultural norms as in a conventional plot, but in light of definable traits. …

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