It is a black life, but I don’t want to die
I don’t want to die, I don’t ever want to die
–Dorothea Lasky, “Tornado”
When it first arrived in U.S. theaters in 1982, Blade Runner featured a test-audience-approved happy ending and an awkward voice-over track. Harrison Ford’s narration sounds a little snarky and insincere, more like a parody of cinematic renderings of Sam Spade or Phillip Marlowe than the intended homage. And the happy ending marks a significant departure in tone and substance from the source material, Phillip K. Dick’s bleak novella. Neither remains in the 2007 release marketed to fans as “The Final Cut.” Yet there’s one small, seemingly minor change that cuts in another direction–a matter of just one word, really. For me, its absence blunts the force of Dick’s original vision, which is, after all, not only bleak but deeply humane.
It occurs toward the end of the film, when Rutger Hauer’s character, renegade “Replicant” Roy Batty, finally comes face-to-face with the artificial life tycoon whose company manufactured him; Roy has gone, literally, to meet his maker. Like the rest of his kind, the exquisitely wrought humanoid has a predetermined four-year life span. He’s come to demand that his synthetic DNA be recoded to forestall his death, now imminent. But that’s not how Roy puts it. He says, simply: “I want more life, fucker.”
Blade Runner is an enjoyable film and I’ve enjoyed it when I’ve seen it, admiring in particular its punk style and dated futurism, its twitchy noir pacing and the blurriness of the hero-villain distinction. But, in truth, it’s not one of my favorites. I’ve given more thought to that one line than to any other aspect of the film. The line sticks with me and its stickiness has much to do with how succinctly it conveys a disposition toward living only truly understood by those who know how little of it they have left. In this way, it resonates with what I myself have felt as one of the not dying whose love for the dying temporarily imprisons them within that same terrible margin of experience.
In the “Final Cut,” fucker becomes father. The line is more Oedipal and less profane, but also much less affecting. It’s difficult to categorize the emotional timbre of Hauer’s restrained yet seething delivery of the original version. That ineffability makes the line something of a counterpoint to the “empathy test” that plays such a pivotal role in the narrative. This is the series of questions Ford’s “blade runner” uses to discern human from non-. “I want more life, fucker” shatters the premise of a definitional humanness bound up with simple affective proscriptions. Ford probing his test subjects for appropriate emotional responses—such rehearsals of “empathy” seem a very shallow gauge of soul next to Roy’s invective.
It’s not grief, exactly, though I see in Roy little glints of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—all of Kübler-Ross’s famous “stages,” first developed to describe the psychological experience of terminally ill patients, only later projected onto their bereaved survivors. It’s more like the groundwork for grief. The je sais bien…mais quand meme rooting a kind of wild despair, wildness amplified by being so agonizingly alive to the dull ineffectiveness of despair itself. “I want more life, fucker.” And the way Hauer bites off the fricative “fucker” hints that Roy already knows that the loophole he seeks does not exist and that the true target of his barely checked rage is his own inability to will things otherwise.
Early in her memoir Wild, Cheryl Strayed sounds a variation on this theme, in the “prayer” she recalls turning to upon first learning that her mom had late-stage terminal lung cancer. Inspired by the doctors whose prognosis she refused to accept, it goes like this: Fuckthemfuckthemfuckthem. In the taut span of months that separated learning that my own mother’s death was imminent from its actually happening, the word that buzzed around my brain as I shuttled between Maine, where I’d recently moved for work, and my parents’ house in California was, simply, please. Small and unfocused, much as I felt myself to be, this one word actually wanted so much: more time with my mom, and for her, more mental clarity and much less pain, but, mostly, that the reality enfolding us from within the dark bloom of her disease be made to go away.
Without prompting, the line from Blade Runner returned to me a few years later, once grief had ebbed enough to make room for the kind of distracted boredom that allows random pop detritus to wash up on the shores of one’s consciousness. Vestiges of that particular species of wanting to which Hauer gives voice remained with me to the degree that having recalled his words, I wasn’t inclined to discard them. Even before my most recent encounter with Blade Runner—ambient TV in the living room, a few nights before my partner was due to teach it—I was already thinking about how the shadow of a memory of this film I admire but don’t especially love had lent coherence to once shattering affective states. Feeling ready, at last, to inhabit the inexorability of my mother’s death—this is the kind of grace that can never arrive too late.
How would a Replicant feel about birthdays? Our annual metric of the “more life” we’ve had would, for her, only herald the less life to come. That knowledge is the crux of the post-human difference that is Blade Runner’s subtext. But maybe it’s also what makes them, as the Tyrell Corporation motto promises, “more human than human.” The unformed thought beneath the breath that darkens each yearly cake: that we humans, too, might have our DNA reprogrammed, to extend this life and its possibilities—not for forever, just “more.”
Eden Osucha: Mixing cocktails with a plastic-tipped cigar.