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Existentialism in ‘Blade Runner’

Creator: Avazbek2077

Staff writer Reece O’Halloran explores the theme of existentialism in the original ‘Blade Runner’, delving into the profound questions it raises.

‘Blade Runner’ is a distinctly existential film that follows Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a bounty hunter, as he eliminates rogue Replicants – genetically engineered people with para-physical capabilities, albeit designed with a limited lifespan, who have illegally travelled to Earth.

Just as Deckard’s mission to kill the Replicants forces him to question his morality, the film encourages us to address our own existential questions. We are led to believe that the Replicants are dangerous. In typical Harrison Ford fashion, we hope for Deckard’s triumph. However, the main antagonist, Roy Batty’s (Rutger Hauer) final monologue changes this perception. His monologue is beautiful and haunting, leaving the audience with a distinct existential feeling. We sympathise with Roy when he reflects on his experiences before his death. The monologue has arguably been considered one of cinema’s greatest.

What is existentialism?

Existentialism emerged as a robust intellectual movement following World War Two. Existentialists were concerned with the aftermath of the profound death and destruction the war brought. Individuals were faced with an absence of meaning. Although it started as an intellectual movement, it would be exported to literature and eventually film, which ‘Blade Runner’ grappled with. Existentialists attempt to uncover the nature of human existence – our choices and the subjective experiences that define who and what we are. They purported that questioning our being will lead to the truth of our existence. As such, existentialism was a pessimistic reaction to the modernist ontology. By ontology, I mean what we “know” about the world or what is “out there”. In this case, it was a world detached from traditional modes of thought. Belief in religion was substituted for scientific explanations. In the words of Nietzsche, “God is dead”. Individuals came to question their new reality in light of these radical changes.

Embracing existentialism

How does the film encourage us to embrace existentialism? The existential themes are layered in the film. The stagecraft captures the underlying pessimism present in the entire film. Set in a dystopian near-future Los Angeles, plagued by toxic waste and smoke, we can feel the weight of everyday life. On the surface, the post-industrial environment is suffering. Deckard is forced to navigate through crowded streets and dark alleys in his hunt for the Replicants. From here, the film challenges us to reflect on our own circumstances.

Industrial overdependence

The notion of human dependence on industrial production going too far is present in the film. The side effects of extensive industrialisation are clear towering pyramid skyscrapers, flying cars, and abandoned vehicles. While flying cars and tall skyscrapers reflect certain industrial innovations, the conditions of the streets say otherwise. What does this say about our dependence on technology? At what point should we draw the line between utility and damage? When does innovation turn into degradation?

These are certainly big questions relevant to our world today regarding climate change. Likewise, the film provokes a reflection on our morality. The film forces us to question what it means to be human. As Deckard hunts down these Replicants, he too wonders about his own identity and morality. Why was he relentlessly pursuing these Replicants who were designed to die shortly? What does this say about Deckard’s own morality?

We are forced to reflect on the same questions. What is our purpose? What is the point of enduring the mundane routine of everyday life? We should embrace these questions, for we may learn and understand ourselves on a deeper level, like Roy and Deckard. When we reflect on our experiences, we should focus on what brings us meaning. These questions do not need to be treated as a looming void, but they can be used to establish a deeper connection with ourselves.

How do we make sense of existential questions?

Trying to make sense of these questions is certainly difficult. They have no objective answer as they are rooted in our own feelings. I would say the film does much of the thinking for us. The answers to the questions the film raises are our natural reactions. Feelings that we immediately associate with these questions because of our experiences and views. For example, the answer to the question of human industrial dependence is rooted in our views: is it positive or negative? Efficient or inefficient? Beneficial or dangerous? Though, truly deconstructing this is terribly complex! The overall point I’m grappling with is that the ability to address existential questions requires us to confront our feelings.

The beauty of ‘Blade Runner’

I will conclude by returning to Roy’s monologue. Originally the film’s antagonist, in the end, he becomes the true hero. Despite trying to prolong his imminent death, he accepts his experiences. Roy spares Deckard, conveying the critical message that all life is valuable. Just as Roy reflects on his existentialism, we too should embrace our own existential questions. The film captures life’s deepest dilemmas and beautifully provides us with the means to reflect on these thoughts through our natural reactions and sense of meaning. We are in the centre of a narrative that provokes us to reflect on our being, what makes us human, our morality, our treatment of the environment and technology and many other questions.

The way in which we are given the chance to reflect on these questions, through a simple storyline, makes ‘Blade Runner’ a masterpiece.

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