Shooting Straight: ‘Blade Runner’ and Queer Notions of Selfhood

Annie Parnell / February 3, 2021

The irony of the Voight-Kampff test, an analysis that Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) performs to identify “replicant” androids in 1982’s Blade Runner, is that it does not actually prove that his subjects are replicants. Instead, by observing and establishing various responses as “not human,” it proves what they aren’t. By asking suspected replicant Rachael (Sean Young) a series of questions while monitoring her verbal and physical responses with a machine, Deckard is able to quantify precisely how inhuman she appears to be; through noting the absence of what Dr. Tyrell (Joe Turkell) describes as “the so-called blush response” and “fluctuation of the pupil,” the Voight-Kampff test produces a kind of “human-negative” response that isn’t even disproven in Blade Runner’s dystopian Los Angeles when Rachael produces childhood photographs as positive proof of her humanity.

This strategy of collecting data that prove what the self is not connects inversely to Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests, a series of short films from the Pop Art movement that depict subjects attempting to stay motionless and hold eye contact with the camera for three minutes, each inevitably failing to not blink or twitch. Jonathan Flatley, for the art journal October, describes these films as revealing “each sitter’s failure to hold onto an identity” of performance, and links the Screen Tests to Warhol’s exploration of queer attraction and selfhood, describing the ways that the intimate series blends desire and identification with another. The Screen Tests form a kind of queer collection of humanities, emphasizing the viewer’s kinship with the series’ subjects through slight, unique movements that contradict the roles ascribed to them, while the Voight-Kampff test forces a sense of self by negation of the other upon the observer. The questions it uses rely on whether or not the subject makes a correctly “human” response, determined by rules of “human” performance that society has projected upon its members. The parallels to queerness are obvious here: in addition to tracking the dilation and contraction of her pupils, one of Deckard’s questions for Rachael asks if she would be sufficiently jealous to discover that her husband finds a picture of a woman in a magazine attractive. Humanity, in Blade Runner, is boiled down to whether or not you conform to a particular, heteronormative pattern of behavior; fail to live up to that pattern, and you are cast out.

In fact, Blade Runner makes repeated references to queerness, both for comedic and dramatic effect. “Is this testing whether I’m a replicant or a lesbian?” Rachael asks Deckard coyly after she’s asked about the woman in the magazine, her eyes inscrutable from behind a cloud of smoke. When renegade replicants Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) and Pris (Daryl Hannah) find themselves in the apartment of the sympathetic human Sebastian (William Sanderson), Batty gets down on his knees and positions himself between the other man’s legs. At the scene’s climax, when Sebastian leads them into the Tyrell Corporation, Roy kisses Dr. Tyrell (Joe Turkel) passionately before killing him on the spot. Throughout Blade Runner, the replicants are not only queered and sexualized, but their queerness and any implied proximity to it is as alluring as it is dangerous.

Towards the end of the film, however, both this aversion to queerness and the Voight-Kampff test’s negation-based model of selfhood is challenged when Deckard fights and flees Batty in an abandoned building. Deckard, who has “retired” a collection of replicants over the course of both the film and his career, is suddenly and brutally confronted with one who seems very capable of destroying him. This represents a confrontation between two concepts of humanity and definitions of the self: the isolating, heteronormative notions of the Voight-Kampff test, and a queered, kinship-based model centered on similarity rather than difference. Even ignoring the long-standing fandom debate over whether Deckard himself is a replicant, Blade Runner seems to ask what the functional difference between humans and replicants is, anyway. Just as Warhol argues for an understanding of sexuality and identity based on similarity rather than difference, the fight between Deckard and Batty signifies a brutal process of redefining the self in connection to others, despite coming from a framework that relies on destroying and negating them.

In this final battle, then, Rick Deckard is not only fighting for his life, but fighting to maintain a precarious sense of self that relies on the notion that replicants are fundamentally different from him. Despite this, the gaze of the camera consistently portrays him and Batty as similar to each other, juxtaposing both their bodies and their pain. After a shot that emphasizes Deckard’s fingers, bent at odd angles after Batty breaks them one by one, the camera cuts to a shot of Batty’s own hand curling in on itself as it necrotizes. The parallels are taken to new, gory heights when Batty drives a nail through his atrophying hand in order to trigger a healing response and stop his rigor mortis from spreading. Here, the camera calls back to Deckard having done the exact same thing: his grimaces and the angle of the shot are almost indistinguishable from an earlier shot of Deckard painstakingly and agonizingly popping his fingers back into place.

These instances also emphasize the sadomasochism throughout Deckard and Batty’s climactic chase—a raw, erotic fight to define the self. This is initially teased out through a variety of double entendres in Blade Runner’s script that harken back to the film’s earlier references to queerness. After he breaks Deckard’s fingers, Batty hands him his gun back and tells him that he will stand still by the hole in the wall and offer Deckard one clear shot at him—he must only “shoot straight.” When Deckard fires, Batty jumps out of the way and laughs, shouting gleefully that “straight doesn’t seem to be good enough!” From the other side of the wall, Batty tells Deckard that it’s his turn to be pursued and, his face twitching lasciviously, says that he will give Deckard “a few seconds before I come.” The role that the audience plays in witnessing the physical torment of both men—the pain that they inflict on themselves and each other throughout this chase—is almost pornographic, recasting the viewer as a voyeur absorbed into the crisis of selfhood occurring between them.

The notion of the gaze of an audience upon eroticized pain not only suggests the identification with a subject that the Screen Tests encourage, but also evokes an artistic successor of Warhol’s: Robert Mapplethorpe, whose depictions of gay male S&M are described by Richard Meyer in Qui Parle as insisting on “the photographer’s identity with… the erotic subculture he photographs” and emphasizing the impossibility of “knowing” a person or a culture through outside observation. This suggests potent ramifications for the battle between Deckard and Batty. Much like the Voight-Kampff test proves the absence of humanity through observation rather than identifying its presence, a read of Warhol and Mapplethorpe’s projections onto Deckard’s observation of replicants and the climactic fight with Batty suggests that distinctions of identity are unknowable through opposition and passive perception, and that selfhood relies instead on likeness and identification with others.

When Batty does catch up to Deckard, he maniacally shouts, “You’d better get it up, or I’m gonna have to kill you!” before Deckard attempts to flee out of the window. From this point onward, Deckard is cast in an explicitly submissive light by the camera: as he desperately attempts to scale the decrepit building and escape, we follow him almost exclusively in wide-range shots from above, watching him pant as he stumbles and dangles off the building’s edge. When he reaches the roof, he lies at the top of the building, whimpering. The sexualized power dynamic between Deckard and Batty is only re-emphasized when Batty comes outside and finds him again. Deckard, once more attempting to flee, leaps to the next building over and fumblingly latches onto one protruding metal bar, only to find Batty looming over him moments later after gracefully jumping onto the rooftop. Batty is portrayed, here, as a kind of unhinged replicant dom; the camera showcases him from below in a series of shots that emphasize both his power over Deckard and the physique of his body.

After Batty pulls Deckard up with one hand and throws him onto the rooftop, Deckard continues to struggle below him, breathing heavily as both he and the audience wonder what Batty will do to him. Batty, by this point, has removed most of his clothes; his nakedness, which gave him a primal, animalistic edge during the chase, now makes him seem vulnerable and human as he stands with Deckard in the rain. In a compelling moment of empathy, he physically crouches in order to face Deckard, then muses about the fleeting nature of memory and time before telling Deckard it is “time to die.” 

By the end of the scene, when Batty gracefully shuts down, Deckard’s practice of collecting replicants through administering the Voight-Kampff test and violently retiring them has been overhauled through a sadomasochistic struggle that ends in Batty thrusting likeness upon him and ultimately retiring himself. Deckard is left to grapple with a sense of selfhood that is suddenly uncategorizable by opposition. Closing his own eyes moments after Batty has closed his, both he and the audience are left to reckon with Warhol and Mapplethorpe’s queer notions of identity and kinship instead.

Annie Parnell is a writer and student based in Washington, D.C. who hails from Derry, Maine.

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2 thoughts on “Shooting Straight: ‘Blade Runner’ and Queer Notions of Selfhood

  1. In regards to Blade Runner as queer allegory I agree with Daisy Sprenger who in her article “Blade Runner: Queer Allegory?
    Re-examining a Science Fiction Classic” sums it all up by writing, “Perhaps a way to negotiate this problem within reading of this film as a commentary on queerness is to focus less on the direct allegory it presents, but rather on the more basic principle of questioning convention. It is an ambiguous film which can either be taken as Rick Deckard’s psycological to reconcile his position in society, or as a hero’s journey for the replicants to realize their own purpose and position. Either way, the film addresses social positionally. Rick Deckard needs to re-evaluate his approach to life, and perhaps his own sexuality and identity. Roy Batty and the rest of the replicants want to find a purpose or a meaning of life in a society that is incredibly hostile to them. The film becomes not so much a clear call to action for social change, but rather a more subtle re-evaluation of the normalized structures around us. Queer or straight, replicant, or human, what matters more than the differences that divide us, are the lessons which we learn from each other: lessons in defining your own identity and subsequently living your best possible life.

    It is an ambiguous film which can either be taken as Rick Deckard’s psycological quest to reconcile his position in society, or as a hero’s journey for the replicants to realize their own purpose and position. Either way, the film addresses social positionally.”

    I mostly agree with Daisy because after watching decades of Ridley Scott films he just isn’t as deep a filmmaker as Blade Runner being a queer allegory would make him out to be. That and there’s enough background info about the making of the film that were a queer narrative ever meant to be part of it I think we’d know by now.

    • Oh, I agree. A lot of the production notes speak of the panic of getting the film made, and that there were script revisions even after the film was completed – there’s an entire film worth of Deckard monologue that was editted out, piece by piece: monologue that had mostly been written and delivered after the film was shot because nobody knew if audiences were smart enough to understand the plot let alone any subcontext.

      That’s not to take away from how interesting this article is. Rutger Hauer was well involved in the look of Roy Batty and had some input with his own dialogue, and he certainly played with normative convention in his role. It’s also possible that at a subconscious level the script wrestled with heteronormative concepts. But the script went through many, many revisions and is very far from its “Dangerous Days” roots: a whodunnit-style mystery that took place in a single room., and even farther from PKD’s novel. For PKD, it was enough to ask “who is human”, more than “who turns you on”.

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