Memento Mori: Rutger Hauer’s Message in ‘Blade Runner’

The death in July of Dutch actor Rutger Hauer brought out reflections on his career. Hauer made his film debut as a wild sculptor in Paul Verhoeven’s “Turkish Delight” (1973), and since then has starred in numerous films, but he is known primarily for his role as Roy Batty in Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” (1982). Hauer plays a replicant—a synthetically engineered being—with seemingly odd human qualities.

Scott’s film is loosely based on Philip K. Dick’s novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968). Even though it does not follow the novel completely, it retained the themes of Dick’s works, namely mortality, humanity, and God. Through his literary output, Dick developed a nontraditional structure of metaphysics, and in that structure, existential questions were a constant presence, whether in events or characters. For him, reality itself is always fragile and enveloped in an ominous cloud of doubt.

The film is a cinematic and philosophical tour de force. An amalgam of film noir and science fiction, “Blade Runner” features Harrison Ford as Rick Deckard, a burned-out cop who hunts down and “retires” (read: kills) Nexus-6 replicants. These beings were made by the fictional Tyrell Corporation, and their only purpose was to work on the off-world colonies. Deckard is cornered by his former boss, Bryant, to hunt down a group of Nexus-6 replicants—Roy Batty, Leon, Zhora, and Pris—who have returned to Earth illegally in hopes of extending their four-year lifespans.

As in most of his films, Ford exudes masculinity coupled with a need for justice, and yet the rebellion of the spirit is always visible in his face and body language. Ford’s Deckard knows that what he is doing is not necessarily ethical and yet the line between good and evil is so blurred that he is too fatigued to even begin questioning his actions. Wherever it may come from, Deckard’s persistence pays off because he manages to hunt down and kill two replicants (Zhora and Pris) before the final face-off with Roy Batty.

Batty cannot accept the fact that all the replicants (even those who were made from superior materials) have an expiration date. His time on Earth is connected to a definite mission: to find his creator and force him to extend his life. Tyrell tries to remind Batty of the beauty of his design and to stress there is nothing he or anyone at the corporation can do to extend his life. Batty is not satisfied and kills Tyrell.

As powerful as Harrison Ford’s presence in the film is, it is Rutger Hauer who shines in his performance as Batty. He is self-centered, calculating, and let’s not forget, coldly blond with equally cold blue eyes. He is a killing machine, and like any synthetic and superficially engineered android, he is incapable of compassion. And yet, his pressing desire to chase death away is very human indeed.

Batty redeems himself in a twisted way when he saves Deckard from falling off a building into the darkness of a dystopian, disconnected, and rainy space. Deckard is confused by this compassionate gesture, and instead of killing him, Batty delivers a short soliloquy, a meditation on mortality. As the rain falls on their battered bodies, Batty speaks with awe and resignation: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. 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 tears in rain. Time to die.”

With those words, Batty draws his last synthetic (yet human) breath. Deckard is unable to comprehend this moment of compassion and reflection. Batty’s words resonate and indeed remain alive even in the oppressive and never-ending darkness and rain. Hauer’s presence somehow brought together the malice of an android and the awe of a human being. His character stands as a symbol for our own incapacity to feel and to wake up from an existence of dread that hinders our capability to relate to one another.

Batty’s words also point to the significance of memory and whether any of our actions will be remembered at all. They are reminiscent of the famous first lines of Ecclesiastes: “Merest breath, said Qohelet, merest breath. All is mere breath.” Do any of our actions matter? Should we be toiling if the toil will give us no rewards? Can we have certainty and assurance that our work will be recognized? And then comes that awful realization that the work we do on Earth may not be recognized or remembered at all. How can we, in the midst of this uncertain thought, achieve happiness? Or are we doomed to only have small glimpses of happiness and joy overtaken by dread, anxiety, and the everlasting burden of being? Responsibility to truly see is ours.

Roy Batty’s character reveals our relationship to death. His short speech is a meditation on dying as well as an acceptance of death. The denial of death is one of the funny and strange characteristics of being human. We think we can cheat it, run away from it, and like Ingmar Bergman’s knight in “The Seventh Seal” (1957). We think we can play chess with Death and what’s even more absurd, that we can win. We reject the absurdity of death and yet accept absurdities created by our own flawed wills. Is this the meaning of happiness—an acceptance of death?

Ironically, the character of Roy Batty dies in the year 2019, which is when the 1982 film is set. Rutger Hauer’s passing somehow gains a greater significance with this bizarre coincidence. But truly, are there really any coincidences? Isn’t that what Batty’s character is saying also—that there is always something higher than our own selves illuminating the often dark path we face?

Is it easier for us to live by coming up with a story that everything is connected and the world and life are not simply made up of chaos and haphazard disconnected events? In other words, is the life of faith made easier or more difficult by the fact that we die?

Memento mori—remember that you will die—says Roy Batty so that you may find an illuminating glimpse of happiness, renewal, and life itself.

About Emina Melonic

Originally from Bosnia, a survivor of the Bosnian war and its aftermath of refugee camps, Emina Melonic immigrated to the United States in 1996 and became an American citizen in 2003. She has a Ph.D. in comparative literature. Her writings have appeared in National Review, The Imaginative Conservative, New English Review, The New Criterion, Law and Liberty, The University Bookman, Claremont Review of Books, The American Mind, and Splice Today. She lives near Buffalo, N.Y.

Photo: Warner Bros./Archive Photos/Getty Images

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