Deckard’s vision of hell
I haven’t looked (time constraints), but I’m sure there must be numerous tracts on the Christian symbolism (and likely, hopefully, how it is complicated) in Blade Runner. The bells anticipating Deckard’s death (when he dangles from the rooftop in the climactic sequence of the film) would be one of these.
Another strong symbol is J. F. Sebastian, the only human friend the replicants find on Earth. Sebastian, of all the main players, is the only one who acts with compassion, and he is unarguably human (while Deckard, hunting the replicants, is not unarguably so)—soul-possessed, we might say. He is also genetically defective, suffering from methuselah syndrome (premature aging—a condition worse than albinism (to which I’ll return), I’d venture). (Methuselah is the longest living person in the Old Testament: “and all the days of Methuselah numbered nine hundred and sixty-nine years.”) Sebastian’s condition is played upon clearly when he explains to Roy and Pris, “There is some of me in you,” meaning, ostensibly, that he helped design the Nexus 6, but taken more literarily, that they, like him, suffer premature aging.
“J. F.” recalls Kennedy—and that whole mythology of sinful Protestantism, humanitarianism, and premature death—and Sebastian is the name of a Christian saint martyred some 1700 years ago for criticizing Diocletian, a Roman emperor most famous for persecuting Christians. Sebastian, the saint, was famous for surviving the first execution miraculously; but his acts included conversions and healing of the sick, especially those stricken with plague. Sebastian, the rapidly aging geneticist, leads Roy to Tyrell (the god figure and maker), and we might think of this as a dark kind of conversion story.
Back to that rooftop and bells . . . when Roy appears on the rooftop he has a dove in hand. A moment before, when we see him running through the interior of Sebastian’s building, he does not. This might be read as a diegetic gap, an event (significant not for the plot but for its symbolic content) that we do not see but are shown the effect of.
Vangelis’s score here contains tolling bells (natural or synthetic is difficult to tell by their sound alone), which sound funerary enough, solemn and ominous, Deckard’s death knell perhaps, a mourning song for the life he is about to lose. We could read the bells as diegetic (perhaps a few blocks from here they’re holding midnight Mass), but the most straight forward read would be that the music, bells and all, is nondiegetic, serving Chion’s value-added function, the sound and the image working together so that they each inform the reading of the other and, synergistically, their combined effect is stronger than the sum of their parts. Bells are a conventional Christian instrument, used to call the faithful to worship (among other things).
But the main thing here, for me is that Roy, in his last moments, is holding a dove. Jesus, upon baptism and his becoming the Christ, is visited by the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. The Dove of peace is a common enough symbol, and Noah (like his Sumerian and Hindu predecessors, Utnapistim and Manu) releases a dove to find land following the purifying flood. Here we might also note the ever-present rain in Blade Runner, perhaps the most common and consistent background in the film, both ocular and sonic: The world is on the brink, it seems, of another deluge. Better, the world is sinking back into the abyss from which it came (which both the Old Testament and Milton figure as oceanic, and Milton equates with chaos), the boundary and distinction of earth and water dissolving . . .
Avians in general play a big role in both creation and destruction stories from around the globe; they often play significant parts in the cosmic drama, and there is a cross-cultural suggestion that the bird is somehow the proto-animal and the apex of nature, or the creature that bridges the divine and earthly realms. Milton seems keen on this, and in his reprisal of Genesis he envisions the Holy Spirit that
with mighty wings outspread,
Dove-like sat’st brooding on the vast Abyss,
And mad’st it pregnant
inseminating and incubating chaos like an freshly laid egg (that’s right up front, during the first invocation of the muse in Book I).
There are other Christian symbols as well, perhaps more gnostic than orthodox, with Tyrell playing the defective demiurge (he’s nearly blind, this creator, judging by the size and amplification of his eyeglasses) and Roy, Deckard, et al acting as his even more flawed creatures (Latin creatura, “created thing”). Roy (like his comrades) is a bit of living death, a kind of artificial zombiesque being who searches not for immortality (Christ’s given), not even for longevity, but for an average lifespan, a pursuit that turns the concept of resurrection inside out and gives it a good nipple twist.
Roy warps the Christian mythos again when he pulls a nail from a floorboard and shoves it through his already dead hand to revitalize it. This is the same hand he will later use to catch Deckard when he (Deckard) nearly falls several dozen stories to his death. The crucifixion, the stigmata, is the mechanism by which both Christ and Roy Batty (whose name might play on something like “insane king,” another defective godlike being—Roy from Latin Rex, “king”; and Batty like batty) are able to save.
Returning to the dove, this bird is prized as a symbol of spirit, spirituality, peace, hope, and the Holy Spirit. The dove is honored in Islam because a flock of them fell upon and distracted the enemies of Mohammed in a decisive battle. For all that, the dove is columbidae, genetically identical to the pigeon, one of the most common birds in the world and often considered a pest or blight upon the landscape, especially the urban landscape—which Blade Runner portrays in all its decaying, toxic, late-age beauty. The dove, image of the Holy Spirit, is an albino pigeon, and while the dove seems to do more or less fine in nature, albinism in general tends to be a genetic flaw, a maladaptation, often accompanied by general weakness or unhealthiness, susceptibility to damage from the sun and high temperatures, and increased visibility (which means an increased likelihood of being eaten by a predator).
Roy is holding it when he pops onto the rooftop to which Deckard has retreated, trying to escape Roy. He is holding it when he successfully jumps from one rooftop to the next, where Deckard dangles, hanging on for dear life, having attempted (and not quite succeeded at) the same jump a second before. He is holding it when he saves Deckard, hauling his otherwise street-pancaked ass back onto the roof. He holds the dove when he gives his final soliloquy, and only releases it when he expires.
The dove flies up and away into the soot-colored and pissing sky. When we see the first blur of its wings, we get the Foley sound, “flapping wings” (indexed only by the vision of the flapping wings—otherwise the sound would, I think, be quite unrecognizable), but the sound lasts only a fraction of a second and is replaced (or drown out) by a rapid twinkling of bells, a unique sound in the nondiegetic music, harplike and angelic, a sonic artifact that has since been clichéd, indexed in the popculture mind as “magic” or “miracle” (or perhaps it was even when Vangelis composed the score). The symbolism, without the sound, is heavy handed enough: Roy, just before his own demise, attains a soul (and the timing corresponds nicely to the explanation of the Nexus 6’s built in, and short, lifespan: After a few years, the replicants develop sophisticated, confusing, messy human emotions) and therefore is able to imaginatively empathize with the imperiled Deckard. Also, again, we do not see Roy get ahold of the dove—and this diegetic gap might suggest that we cannot see when or exactly how a being comes to have a soul, even if we can see that the being does in fact have one. We could note that Roy has the dove, the spirit, the soul, in his grip—it is a clutched and clutched after thing, like a normal human lifespan—then, upon dying, Roy’s soul is released.
I don’t think the soundtrack has aged too well, and the interjection of these harpish bells when Roy’s bird takes flight is about as corny-clichéd as it gets. But I love the film itself (and all of its incarnations, from the theatrical to the final cut, have their own charms), and I can get behind the implications of Roy’s weird salvation story: The savior must fight to be human before he or she may save anything—and the human might seem divine, but in the end, soul possessed or otherwise, it is mortal.