Blade Runner is arguably one of the best science fiction films ever made and a lot of what makes it such a landmark of the genre is Roy Batty, one of the greatest robots in cinema. Harrison Ford’s character, Deckard, may be the protagonist, but Roy is the richer, more interesting character – and there’s a good case to be made, once the ending is taken into account, that he’s actually the hero of the piece.
A ‘replicant’ constructed by the hugely powerful Tyrell Corporation for hard, off-world labour, he is superhumanly strong, fast and intelligent, but only has four years to live, after which time he’ll shut down. As per the corporation’s slogan, Roy is “more human than human”: he’s indistinguishable from the real thing, but because he has so little time to live, his life becomes an intense burst of activity. In his creators own words- “The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long, and you have burned so very very brightly.”
Whether or not you believe that Deckard himself is a robot, (different cuts of the film provide different interpretations,) Roy is, in spite of being a robot, the most human character in the film. Like HAL 9000 in 2001, the humans who surround him seem more robotic than he is. He’s handsome, charismatic and is driven by passionate emotion. His rage and disillusionment with his creator is that of a person suffering from a terminal disease- why, if you could create life, would you create it to end prematurely? His anger at this ultimate injustice makes him immediately relatable.
His nature as more human than human finds possibly its most powerful expression when he murders Tyrell, the founder of the corporation, his creator and “father”. In this scenario, Tyrell is essentially God, has created the replicants in his own image – and is killed by his creation. In this scenario, Roy isn’t a robot, but Man: in the same way that human science has largely discredited the idea of God in the real world, Roy has advanced to the point that he is able to kill his creator – an idea which recurs throughout science fiction, from Frankenstein to Ex Machina. And once god is dead, the only thing the killer can do is replace him.
Nietzsche asks, “Must we ourselves not become gods” once we have killed God? Roy certainly fills this role in Blade Runner. After the Oedipal murder of his father, complete with gouging out Tyrell’s eyes, he becomes a Christ figure for the film’s climax, able to give or take away Deckard’s life as he chooses. In some of the film’s least subtle but most potent imagery, he drives a nail through his palm to keep himself alive for a few more minutes, and produces a dove seemingly from nowhere right at the end. Roy gives his own life to spare Deckard’s, and to teach him the value of life.
Roy isn’t human. He’s something more.
Like so many great screen robots, Roy’s purpose is to hold up a distorted funhouse mirror to humanity, and so teach us about ourselves. With his immense intellect and Olympian strength, not to mention his capacity for genuine friendship, love and – ultimately, once he’s proved his point – mercy, he is a reflection of humanity at its best. But he also shows us at our worst: unable to keep his emotions in check, he frequently gives in to anger, and can be capricious and cruel. His murder of his father is horrific, later he torments Deckard and breaks his fingers without a second thought as part of his final lesson. He shows us humanity’s compassion and potential for greatness, but also its capacity for destruction.
Roy isn’t human. He’s something more. As he himself says, “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.” As much as he wants to be human and to have a full, human life, he accepts his fate and recognises that he has lived more in his four years than most humans will in 80. His insistence that we make the best of what little time we have is one of the most poignant speeches in all cinema, and a fitting end to the life of one of cinema’s greatest robots.
By Emlyn Roberts-Harry