Metaphysics goes to the movies with “On Meaning and Purpose: ‘Blade Runner’ Frame by Frame”

Ray Younis, “On Meaning and Purpose: ‘Blade Runner’ Frame by Frame” (The University of Sydney / Centre for Continuing Education, Saturday 8 February 2014)

Not often does a person get an opportunity to attend a discussion on metaphysics and its central concerns based on a dissection of a science fiction film so of course when I found out about this particular one-day seminar, I just had to go! I have attended quite a few of Ray Younis’s one-day adult education courses in the past at the University of Sydney so I had high expectations of what he would talk about and I was not disappointed in this respect.

Younis is quite an avid fan of Hollywood sci-fi films that dwell on issues like meaning and purpose to life, what it means to be human and the nature of freedom and free will. If there was money to be had in combining film reviewing and philosophy in an online or print newspaper column, he ought to be there. Unfortunately not even the ABC, SBS or Guardian Australia is quite up to this level of sophistication. The class basically ran through a screening of the entire film in its director’s cut version and particular scenes were analysed in detail with respect to cinematography, the genres that were referenced (science fiction and film noir) by the film, the use of lighting and shadow, and the scenes’ relevance to the film’s themes and the philosophical concepts and values expressed.

Metaphysics refers to the discipline of philosophy that deals with abstract concepts outside the physical world such as whether God exists and what the nature of that god might be, whether humans or their souls survive death and/or have immortality, and questions of freedom, free will and what it means to be human. The issues that “Blade Runner” addresses are those of what makes a human being human, what is the purpose of individual human beings, and what are worthwhile goals of human beings as opposed to mere beings. Tied up with these issues is the issue of how human beings should conduct themselves within a community of other beings, some of whom might qualify as “human” and others not by the standards of the community’s leaders, and whether those standards are fair or unfair, moral or immoral. How should humans behave towards others and live lives of purpose and integrity in societies that operate on principles and with values that are clearly at odds with living with purpose, dignity and respect for others?

The film portrays a hierarchical society with enormous social inequalities and a complicated class structure in which a small human-only elite dominates a vast underclass of both humans and replicants (cyborg beings created to perform the most dangerous or disgusting work). The human characters throughout the film, and the blade runner (professional killer of runaway or rebellious replicants) Deckard in particular, are portrayed as ciphers content with their allotted status in life and not knowing anything more than what is necessary for them to do their jobs and survive. The replicant characters are complex beings who know more than what they should, who have achieved self-awareness and can quote poetry, play chess and plan chess strategy, and talk philosophy. They thirst for more life because they are all too aware that their life-spans are limited and time is running out for them. Though the plot is fairly standard – Deckard hunts down the runaway replicants and manages to dispose of most of them – the narrative turns the plot elements on their head: the hunter becomes the hunted, humans are shown as dehumanised and the replicants end up teaching Deckard what it means to be human and to have a worthwhile purpose in life.

Pivotal scenes in this respect (and these were discussed in the class) were those in which Deckard confronts Zhora, Leon, Pris and Roy Batty in turn: what these characters say and do to Deckard is important as a wake-up call to him. Zhora is shown as a trapped prey during Deckard’s pursuit of her in the crowded Los Angeles streets. Leon’s last words to Deckard are  “Wake up, time to die” before he himself unexpectedly is killed. Pris chooses to go down fighting even though she knows she has no chance against Deckard. Batty resists his programming as a replicant designed for combat and assassination duties by saving Deckard’s life and shows Deckard that he too can choose a new path in life and resist orders from an oppressive authority. Deckard is reminded of what he has lost in his career as a blade runner: honour (he killed two women in the back in cold blood), mercy and compassion for others weaker than he is.

Significantly though the replicants know they are going to die, they insist on choosing the mode of their deaths and if they have to die violently, they face their deaths as bravely as they can. Zhora, a combat model, keeps running for as long as she can and exhausts Deckard in the process; Pris, a pleasure model (and presumably not programmed to resist), fights Deckard hard with whatever resources she has; and Batty perhaps even accelerates his death by using up his strength to rescue Deckard from a fall, then calmly faces the inevitable with Deckard as his witness. In acting as they do, they go beyond their programming and exercise choice and will: they finally realise what it is to be human.

Other important scenes include Batty’s confrontation with Eldon Tyrell in which he converses with his maker on genetics and Tyrell tells him patronisingly that a life that burns twice as bright is only half as long. In his few scenes, Tyrell comes across as smug and somewhat slimy: the irony is that as the de facto ruler of the new Los Angeles, he is also constrained by his role and status and becomes less of a human than the creatures he created.

The frame-by-frame analysis of the film allows viewers to appreciate the ways in which elements of the film noir genre was employed to suggest the panopticon-style society that characterises Los Angeles in 2019: the use of flashing lights  in certain scenes reinforces the 24/7 surveillance and the prisons, both mental and physical, that bound Deckard’s character as he hunts down the replicants. Various motifs such as eye images, the repetition of musical melodies at particular points in the film, blue lighting, hazy atmosphere and the film’s setting in a dingy, rundown part of the future Los Angeles help to paint a picture of a complex yet brutal society in which just about everyone is an insignificant being of some sort.

Although there wasn’t much mentioned about the film’s themes that I wasn’t already aware of – for me, the film possesses great clarity – I did appreciate additional insights about aspects of the film’s messages that either reinforced or challenged my views.

My original post of my views about “Blade Runner” can be read here.

 

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