The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long – “Dr. Eldon Tyrell” in Blade Runner*
Rutger Hauer, the Dutch actor and activist most famous for his role as Roy Batty in Ridley Scott’s 1982 classic, Blade Runner, passed away on July 19that the age of 75. His light has gone out, but his career still burns bright.
Blade Runner is a theo-drama. Its premise is that all men and women long to be part of a story greater than their own individual experiences and memories. Without this theological dimension, we are plagued by a sense of rootlessness and existential dread. As the author of Ecclesiastes chillingly laments, “the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten.” (9:5)
The concept of Theo-Drama, as developed in Hans Urs von Balthasar’s seminal five-volume work of that title, flips the construct in Western philosophy of the pursuit of “the good, the true, and the beautiful.” Balthasar reverses that order of exploration, treating beauty as the primary object of study, and rejecting the notion that beauty is merely an aesthetic appendage of goodness and truth. Anything that is essentially good or true, he insists, must first be deeply, fundamentally beautiful.
In Blade Runner, Hauer’s Batty is locked in a struggle with Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford). Batty is a replicant – an android in a human body with superior strength and intelligence, but also with a pre-programmed four-year lifespan. His memories are implanted (i.e. artificial), and he has a limited emotional capacity. He has returned from an off-world colony with a group of other rogue replicants to persuade their creator, Tyrell, to extend their lifespans.
The tragic prodigal son confronts “Father.”
Tyrell asks, “What seems to be the problem?” Batty responds simply, “Death.”
He “want[s] more life.” It’s a moment reminiscent of Pinocchio, Geppetto’s wooden puppet who wants to be a “real boy,” or of Luke Skywalker’s confrontation with Darth Vader – archetypal scenes of sons challenging fathers in order to become more fully alive.
And it’s in this that Blade Runner’s genuine spiritual dimension – its existential gravitas– separates it from many other films. It’s about the search for meaning in postmodern life. Roy Batty becomes our champion, and we become companions on his search for immortality. “The irony of man’s condition,” wrote Ernest Becker in The Denial of Death, “is that the deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation; but it is life itself which awakens it, and so we must shrink from being fully alive.”
Rick Deckard is the Blade Runner of the title, a police officer tasked with detecting and “retiring” (killing) replicants who are no longer allowed on Earth, and the film’s climax comes when, after Deckard has tried to retire him, Batty inexplicably saves Deckard from certain death, using his superhuman strength to pull him off a slippery ledge. While the panting Deckard leans against a pillar, Batty launches into the soliloquy  that made Hauer famous:
“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. [laughs] Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like [coughs] tears in rain. Time to die.”
This largely ad-libbed monologue, among the greatest in cinema history, are Batty’s last words before his lifespan expires.
Batty has built his identity on experiences as a soldier, but he yearns for more poetry in his life: friendship, suffering, love. When he saves Deckard, we wonder if replicants and humans are really so different. In a film-ending voiceover, Deckard describes Batty’s salvific decision as “his final act, all too aware of his fleeting life and desperate to live on somehow, even if only in my memory.”
The world of Blade Runner, like much science fiction, is a projection of contemporary concerns about technology, the environment, mega-corporations, and the loss of meaning – a mirror of our own postmodern nightmares. Just as the replicants “want more life” and desire to understand their origins and future (if only to know when they will die), humans long to be part of a larger story with a grander purpose.
Blade Runner seems to show us a world devoid of transcendence and the replicants’ journey as merely a fool’s errand. They play their roles as soldiers, performers, pleasure models – corporate marionettes, not individuals capable of finding meaning. Without the possibility of transcending their physical roles, they are forever in a purgatory of pleasure-seeking and role-playing. Transcendence is intangible. And yet there’s Roy Batty.
The experiences to which we humans assign significance are beyond our physical appetites – are keys to the formation of character. Contrary to some modern critics, this significance consists of something beyond the mere avoidance of bad faith and impure motives or an empty, superstitious hope. The experiences out of which we construct meaning are our visions and dreams inspired by faith.
Our past and our best experiences accumulate in memory and inform the narratives that are the basis of identity, personal and cultural. We need origin stories – ethnic, political, moral – to define us. As Mircea Eliade wrote, “The crises of modern man are to a large extent religious ones, insofar as they are an awakening of his awareness to an absence of meaning.”
Rutger Hauer’s flame has been extinguished, but his portrayal of Roy Batty will continue to cast light, illuminating Blade Runner as theo-drama in its deepest and darkest moments. And as fragmented and isolated as our existence may seem at times, we will be reminded that we are part of a larger narrative, a fuller drama, one with eternal direction.
*Note: When initially published, this quote from “Tyrell” was erroneously attributed to “Roy Batty”