Why 'Blade Runner' Is So Fixated on the Eyes

The line between humanity and machine has always been in that classic window to the soul.
Stephen Vaughan

[Warning: This story contains minor spoilers for Blade Runner 2049.]

With Blade Runner 2049 in theaters, the Blade Runner franchise has solidified itself as one of the most stimulating, existential science fiction franchises of all time. The film is rich in visual themes and symbolic imagery, and it's time to shine the spotlight on one of its motifs — the relationship between eye and identity.

The Blade Runner movies, based on Phillip K. Dick's 1968 novel "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?", ask questions centered around the existence of the soul. Questions like, "What does it mean to have a soul?' and “Can we create a soul?” The answer is in the eyes, which long have been considered a gateway to the soul.

In the first scene of the original Blade Runner, a suspected replicant is given the Voight-Kampff test, in which a subject's eye is studied as they are asked questions designed to elicit emotional responses. There's an iconic closeup shot of an eye, beautifully centered in the opening frame. Replicants, void of emotion, react differently than humans when exposed to these questions. In the right lighting, replicants throughout Blade Runner are also seen having reflective eyes, as the eye is giving away just as much information as it's receiving.

In 1982's Blade Runner, replicant Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) is in a relentless search to find his creator, Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel). In order to find Tyrell, Batty finds the designer of the replicant eye, Chew (James Hong). "Chew, if you could only see what I've seen with your eyes," Batty dismissively tells him, and intimidates him into giving him the location of Tyrell. Batty then kills Tyrell, fittingly, by gouging out his eyes.

Unlike sci-fi franchises such as The Matrix and Terminator, which focus on what happens when humanity's AI creations run amok, The Blade Runner franchise shows what happens when humanity develops a god complex and exploits those AI creations.

Things have evolved by the time of Blade Runner 2049, and replicants are even more clearly subjugated. Replicants are branded with serial numbers below their left corneas, as though their manufacturers are letting them know they are created and do not have souls. The new model replicants are also more docile and easier to control, and through their eyes, they are also easier to identify as being artificial.

In Blade Runner 2049, industrialist Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) is the leader of the corporation that now makes replicants. Wallace is blind, which is ironic, considering Tyrell, the last person to own the rights of replicant manufacturing, died without his eyes. Rather than seeing with his eyes, Wallace has half a dozen miniature flying drones that are connected to a chip implanted in his neck, which allow him to see. Wallace can look at six completely separate things at once using these drones, and according to one fan theory, Wallace was born blind, for which he blamed his "flawed" creator. His blindness may be a large motivating factor for why he wants to do more, create more and continue to show he is "more powerful than God."

And as a god, he offers Deckard a creation: a perfect copy of Rachael (Sean Young), who he loved and lost years earlier. But looking the replicant in the eyes, Deckard declines the offer by telling the replicant's creator that her "eyes were green," implying that the replicant was imperfect. While this would be another example of identifying an imposter by their eyes, Deckard was lying. The eye color was a perfect re-creation, but he used the eye color lie to concisely end the discussion. If this replicant had a soul, it wasn't the same as the one with whom he'd had a child.

Now if only Deckard's eyes told us anything about if he's a replicant or not ...

Blade Runner 2049 is in theaters now.