"I'll never see myself in the mirror with my eyes closed." -- They Might Be Giants
Reality and identity are two of the most obvious major issues in Ridley Scott's 1982 film Blade Runner. The film questions what is real and what is not. It asks what is human, who are we and how do we know. But these questions are not new. They have plagued scholars since . . . when? Adam and Eve? Since the first "human" looked over his shoulder at the primordial soup and asked "is that where I came from?" Jacques Lacan's theories, specifically what he pinpoints as the mirror stage, go a long way in explaining how Blade Runner decides what is real, what is human and how we know ourselves. Ultimately, Scott's film refuses to offer us any easy answers to these questions; rather, the film suggests we are foolish to ask them in the first place.
Image is at the heart of Lacan's theory and also at the heart of Blade Runner. According to Lacan, the mirror stage is when, at eighteen months or so, the child first sees his own reflection in the mirror. He recognizes that he (or she, of course) is simultaneously part of and separate from the rest of the world. In Lacan's words:
The mirror stage is a drama whose internal thrust is precipitated from insufficiency to anticipation -- and which manufactures for the subject, caught up in the lure of spatial identification, the succession of phantasies that extends from a fragmented body-image to a form of its totality that I shall call orthopeadic -- and, lastly, to the assumption o an armour of an alienating identity, which will mark with its rigid structure the subject's entire mental development. (4)
So there exists an image (orthopeadic) which the subject offers as an identity, but this image is not the "real" subject. It is, after all, just a reflection. Thus begins the never-ending process of identity production, the subject's ongoing construction of an outer layer, an image which represents the subject to the rest of the world. This always-shifting outer layer, or "orthopeadic" as Lacan calls it, forever surrounds the "real" center of the subject which remains evermore unknowable. Lacan claims it is this lack the empty center which drives the subject and forces the orthopeadic to shift as the subject continually reinvents himself.
Since most of the principal characters in Blade Runner are replicants, that is to say artificial humans, identity becomes a crises for them, a crises which forms the thematic basis for the film. Ostensibly, the plot of the film is driven by the replicants' desire to prolong their four-year life span, so they return to Earth to confront their makers. But it is the quality of a replicant's life rather than its length which causes distress for the replicants and gives the film its depth. The replicants constantly attempt to create identities for themselves, desperately wishing to be more human, in fact more "real." The film opens with blade runner Holden administering the Voit-Kampf test, an empathy test designed to distinguish replicants from authentic humans. During the test, Holden asks Leon, the subject of the test, to describe memories of Leon's mother. As a replicant, Leon has no mother and therefore no memories of her. The question distresses Leon to such a degree that he draws a pistol and shoots Holden.
Leon's reaction stems from the challenge to his humanity, his "realness." Leon, like the other replicants, lashes out at those who do not see him as human. Indeed, since so much in Lacan's theories and in Blade Runner depends on images, seeing and being seen takes on crucial significance in the film. In Blade Runner, Scott extrapolates the idea of a mirror into photographs and video, all devices which offer a sort of "reflection" not unlike a mirror.
Images of eyes abound throughout the film, furthering the notion that "seeing" and perception are important thematic elements to the film. When the replicants Roy and Leon begin their quest to further their life spans, they appropriately begin with Cho, a minor character who designs and manufactures eyes for the Tyrell Corporation's replicants. Roy tells Cho, "If you could only see what I've seen with your eyes." Here, Roy attempts to establish an uncertain kinship or connection with Cho and by extension with Cho's employer Tyrell. Roy's statement implies a birth process in which Tyrell and his agents (Cho, the corporation) are identified as the symbolic father. This "fatherhood" role has been assigned Tyrell and company by virtue of Tyrell's giving them eyes. Not only does the corporation provide them with literal, biological life, but it also gives them the means to see, enabling them to form identity.
In a very Oediple scene near the conclusion of the film, eye imagery again plays an important role. Roy faces Tyrell in a final, desperate bid to convince his maker to somehow extend his brief life span. Tyrell refuses, explaining the impossibility of Roy's request, and Roy responds by brutally gouging out Tyrell's eyes. Here, the film combines a literal death with a symbolic one. Tyrell's inability to see erases his identity, but more importantly it erases his ability to recognize Roy's lack. Roy's lack and the lack of the other replicants is crucial to a Lacanian reading of Blade Runner.
It is because of the replicant's presumed lack that Tyrell rejects Roy. Tyrell penetrates Roy's othopeadic and exposes his lack, prompting Roy to poke out Tyrell's eyes. For Roy and the other replicants, Lacan's term "orthopeadic" is not quite accurate, and I would here substitute the word prosthetic or prosthesis. "Orthopeadic" implies support for something that exists; whereas prosthesis suggests a replacement for something missing. Imagine the difference between an orthopedic shoe and a wooden leg. This missing "limb", the lack, would seem to be appropriate in the case of the replicants. "Real" human beings each have an orthopeadic, but a replicant must have a prosthetic. Not only is "seeing" important in Blade Runner but also not seeing and by what means we see.
When blade runner Deckard is briefed on the rogue replicants, Captain Bryant shows him a video likeness of each. These aren't the "real" replicants but representations. When Rachel shows up at Deckard's apartment, she offers a picture of herself as proof of her authentic humanity. Like the "prosthetic," these constructed images are continually sent forth by the subject as a means of engaging the world. Rachel's photograph is meant to take the place of the lack, and in this way becomes similar to Lacan's notion of meconnaissance or mis-knowing. Just like the post-structuralist claim that all readings are mis-readings, so too is all knowing mis-knowing. This mis-knowing is meant to deflect attention away from the lack, in Rachel's case the knowledge (even from herself) that she is artificial. Thus, the orthopeadic or prosthetic offers us a constructed, artificial image which identifies us to others, represents us to the world, but also conceals -- prevents others from "seeing" -- that which would expose our lack and void our othopeadic.
But the image, however important, is not the only material used in the construction of the prosthetic. Language also shifts and swirls around the subject and joins with images to surround and attempt to penetrate the empty, lacking center. When Rachel gives Deckard the picture of herself with her mother, she claims "It's me." In a very real way, she offers the image as herself, the language restating the image. When Deckard suggests she talk to Tyrell, Rachel tells the blade runner "He wouldn't see me." The conversation conflates "talk" with "see" and marries language with image. It also reinforces that to be recognized as "real," one's image must be seen. For Rachel, not being seen was tantamount to voiding her existence. Deckard's recognition of her image or Tyrell's seeing her acknowledges the prosthetic rather than exposing the lack.
Rachel's reaction to the exposure of her lack differs from those of Roy and Leon because of the nature of Rachel's self-knowledge. Leon and Roy both react violently, each killing the man who refused to recognized the replicant's proffered prosthetic as legitimate identity. But Rachel does not know she is artificial, although Tyrell tells Deckard, "She's beginning to suspect." Rachel's realization dons on her gradually, slowed by her own pathetic attempts to maintain her faltering prosthetic. Not only does she show Deckard the photograph of her and her "mother," but she also desperately clings to the implanted memories of Tyrell's niece. To Deckard, Tyrell claims, "If we gift them with a past we create a cushion for their emotions; consequently, we can control them better." It is one of the keys to mis-knowing that the subject also mis-knows him or herself. It is this brutal disruption of identity which forces the replicants to admit to themselves their lack -- not just another mis-knowing as with "real" humans, but the actual knowledge that nothing exists at the center of their prosthetic -- that spins the replicants into crisis.
In an interesting reversal, Deckard later needs Rachel to reconfirm his identity, that is he needs her to recognize his orthopedic. Deckard offers Rachel his affections, and when she resists, he becomes forceful. The incident falls short of rape, but it is clear Deckard will not allow Rachel to refuse. He instructs her to say "I want you" and "kiss me." Soon, her resistance melts into complicity, and it becomes very difficult to know exactly who is validating whom. Although staunch feminists might find it difficult to swallow, Deckard's objectification of Rachel actually helps validate her prosthetic as a legitimate agent of her identity. For her validation of him to have any value, Deckard must "see" her as "real." Otherwise, her reconfirmation of his orthopeadic (prosthetic?) is worthless. Although flawed by its lapse into archaic gender roles (Male=aggressive,Female=passive), the event nevertheless creates a mutually beneficial cycle of reassurance which supports and reinforces Rachel's and Deckard's prosthetic/orthopeadic. Deckard must see her as real to validate himself, and his advances deflect knowledge away from Rachel's lack.
In Blade Runner, penetrating a replicant's prosthetic to expose this lack is how the blade runner's tell the difference between a human and a replicant. Difference, then, becomes a key element to this process. Let's return to the questions that plagued Philip K. Dick and reoccur so frequently in his fiction: What's real? What's not? What makes us human? In Blade Runner, the Voit-Kampf test helps answer these questions.
Lacan's mirror stage also depends heavily on the recognition of difference, and it is this difference which makes the Voit-Kampf test so thematically important to the film. The test itself is an empathy test designed "to provoke an emotional response." If we extrapolate how the mirror works in Lacan's theory, we can easily see empathy operating in the same way. When we speak of empathy, we speak of feeling the same way someone else feels, of knowing through experience what someone else knows emotionally. By identifying this lack in a replicant, the blade runner also exposes difference. He also exposes flaws in the replicant's prosthetic. When Deckard administers the Voit-Kampf to Rachel, he exposes her as a replicant, but Tyrell Rachel's creator is impressed by how many questions it took to expose her. The scene implies that she is closer to human than inferior replicants more easily exposed, and the film implies that if she or any other replicant can get through these questions with his or her prosthetic in tact, then he or she deserves to be called "real."
Replicants realize hey must overcome or at least conceal this difference and achieve some level of "sameness" if they are to survive in the human world. To achieve this sameness they must strive for empathy. Consider the scene where replicant Pris observes human J. F. Sebastian and asks, "How old are you?" Sebastian answers "Twenty-five." But since he clearly appears older Pris asks, "What's your problem?" Sebastian tells her he has Methuselah's Syndrome, a rare glandular disease that accelerates aging. Later, Pris and Roy use this knowledge to establish a rapport of empathy between them and Sebastian. Pris says, "We have similar problems: accelerated decrepitude." This statement is followed by two others: "You're our best and only friend," and "you're the only one who can help us." Clearly, a statement of empathy was deemed necessary to help erase (or at least conceal) difference before a plea for aid could have been convincing.
Thus do we arrive at what might be called the "message" of the film, and we return to the questions posed above. What makes us real or human? How do we know? Our humanity or reality lies not at the empty lack at the center of our prosthetic but in others' willingness to engage our prosthetic. To be human is to be seen as human by others, by forces outside of ourselves willing to recognize our difference but also, ironically, willing to share a sameness.
In Blade Runner, all outward reality depends on the inward machinations of the "I"-centered subject. This "I" bends all of outward reality to its perception, at least as far as Lacanian identity construction is concerned. For this reason, it is Deckard's ability to empathize what determines the reality or non-reality of the replicants. How the replicants measure on the Voit-Kampf test, whether or not the replicants feel any empathy at all is only relevant insofar as it affects Deckard's ability to feel empathy toward them. Deckard's increasing empathy for the replicants manifests itself in language, most noticeably in his usage of pronoun reference. After he administers the Voit-Kampf test to Rachel, discovering she's a replicant, he asks Tyrell, "How can it not know what it is?" His pointed use of the pronoun "it" demonstrates Deckard's cold but astute recognition of Rachel's lack. She is not human; therefore, she is an "it." Later in the film, however, he refers to the replicant Zora as "her." He muses that even though it was his job to kill her, it did not make him feel any better "about shooting a woman in the back." His empathy causes Deckard to see an "it" as "her." The replicants are becoming "real" to him, not because of their ability to feel or show empathy, but because of his.
As Deckard progresses through Blade Runner, his empathy for the replicants continues to grow, and it is his willingness to "see" them as human that makes them human more than anything else. Deckard's voice-over, albeit of questionable artistic merit, reinforces these notions. In the scene where Roy finally dies up on a roof in the cold rain, Deckard comments: "All he wanted were the answers we all want. Who am I? Where am I going? How Long have I got?" Gaff's comment to Deckard about Rachel is equally telling: "It's too bad she won't live, but then again who does?" Both speeches tell us the same thing. There are no guarantees, and reality depends on what we make ourselves believe, not what we are told to believe by a nameless bureaucracy.
The Voit-Kampf test is no less than a police state tactic to expose and eliminate the "other." Otherwise, no one's prosthetic in Blade Runner would ever be challenged. The questions asked in the Voit-Kampf test would never occur to anyone if they were not ordered by the state. Dystopic paranoia is another theme popular in the fiction of Philip K. Dick, and it works to drive the plot in Blade Runner. When Deckard defies order, refuses to eliminate Rachel at the end of the film, it is his "I" shifting his orthopeadic (or prosthetic) to accommodate the inclusion of Rachel into his life.
Strangely, the film itself as a text seems to question reality. There is an original version as well as a director's cut. Also, Internet sites abound with alternate scripts, and, of course, any script version is based on Dick's original novel. So when we say "Blade Runner," we are always already engaging a fluctuating understanding of what it means to be Blade Runner. It is as if the swirling orthopeadic of the Blade Runner aficionado encounters the prosthetic of the film itself. Somewhere in between communication occurs, but understanding almost never manifests itself in the same way twice.
So, real or not, human or not isn't a matter of biology or life spans in Blade Runner, nor is it a matter of original version or director's cut to the aficionado. A human's or a replicant's prosthetic or orthopeadic construction works out to be the same thing. What is real in Blade Runner is largely a matter of what we are willing to accept as truth, our willingness to keep mis-knowing until our "I" shifts our orthopeadic into a position that is comfortable.
At the end of the director's cut, Rachel and Deckard get on the elevator after Gaff's ominous words and strange origami suggest to Deckard that he himself might be a replicant. The elevator closes, and we are left with darkness, credits, music and questions. The end implies that there are no "for sure" answers, nor should we expect any. The original version shows Rachel and Deckard sailing away into a green-world in his sky-car. The image suggests a new beginning as the couple leaves behind the deteriorating, dystopic city. Deckard's narration implies that Gaff made an error in judgement letting them escape: "For years, he figured. He was wrong. Tyrell had told me Rachel was special. No termination date. I didn't know how long we'd have together. Who does?" The voiceover alludes to the fact that replicants usually only have a four-year life span, but Deckard goes on to muse that no one -- real or not, human or not -- really knows how long they have for anything, love, life, whatever. Deckard has no better or worse of a chance at happiness than if Rachel were "real." Personally, I like the original ending better.
But ask me again tomorrow, and I might say something different.
Lacan, Jacques. Ecrits. New York: Norton, 1977.
Scott, Ridley. Blade Runner. Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young. Warner Bothers, 1982.