Vernon Shetley and Alissa Ferguson

Reflections in a Silver Eye: Lens and Mirror in Blade Runner

Is the camera’s eye a lens or a mirror? Does film open a portal onto reality, giving us access to the look and texture of another time and place, or does film reflect back the apparatus of its own production, offering us the image of an artificial, constructed world? This fundamental opposition, between the idea that film is a quintessentially realistic medium whose strength lies in its ability to record, in Theodor Adorno’s phrase, “the intentionlessness of life as it is” (154), and the idea that film is a medium of fantasy that enables the realization of subjective, inner visions, runs through the history of cinema. Andre Bazin famously codified this opposition between subjective expression and objective realism in his division of directors into “those … who put their faith in the image and those who put their faith in reality” (24). This opposition appears in the time of the earliest filmmaking. Georges Melies built fantastic sets and used the jump cut to create visual illusions, pioneering strategies that would be perfected by the German Expressionists and Russian Constnictivists. The Lumiere brothers, on the other hand, filmed ordinary activities, often outdoors, “on location” as it were; their films inaugurated a tradition that includes Flaherty’s documentaries and the films of Renoir and Welles. Montage versus long take, the juxtaposition of unitary images or the presentation of a complex, layered space: these options may be resolved back to a fundamental opposition between subjective and objective, fantastic and realistic, that has characterized the cinema since its beginnings.

“”Blade Runner is all about vision,” as Scott Bukatman remarks {Blade Runner 7), and a film about vision is necessarily about cinematic vision, the particular kind of vision that the cinematic apparatus makes available. An opposition between lens and mirror is proposed, in fact, within the opening

sequence of the film. After two shots presenting the blasted cityscape of Los Angeles, 2019, we see a screen-filling extreme close-up of an eye, and within the eye we see flares of fire like those that have burst forth from the city. The eye is proposed as an analogue to the camera that has just been shooting the cityscape. If we could see the camera that had photographed the preceding image of the city, we might see something quite like this image of the eye: a convex surface partially reflective and partially transparent, bearing within it an aperture. Cinematic convention prompts us to take this image of the eye as a reverse shot, to read the eye as belonging to the observer of the scene we have just been shown, but the film never fully “places” the owner of this eye, never makes clear to whom it belongs. The status of the image imposed upon the eye is thus unclear. Is it a reflection of what the character sees? Or is it rather a representation of the inner world of the character whose eye contains it (note


that the flare suffers no convex distortion, as it would if the shot were showing a real reflection in an eye)? Is this eye, then, a mirror, pointing us outward to what one sees, or a lens, opening to interior experience, as in the old saying that the eye is the window of the soul?

Imagery of eyes recurs throughout Blade Runner, an index of the film’s almost obsessive exploration of the theme of vision and of its extensive self- reflexivity, its concem with the nature of the cinematic medium itself. We want to focus first on a sequence, however, in which a mirror plays a prominent role, the celebrated “Esper” sequence, in which the nature of cinematic vision is crucially at stake. On the trail of a group of renegade “replicants,” Blade Runner’s protagonist. Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), uses a high-tech apparatus (referred to in the film’s production notes as an “Esper machine”) to analyze a snapshot left behind by one of the replicants in a hotel room. The Esper machine, according to the production notes, possesses “powerful three- dimensional resolution capacity” and can “analyze and enlarge photos, enabling investigators to search a room without even being there” (Sammon 146). Deckard’s virtual search of the photograph eventually focuses on the image reflected in a convex mirror near the center of the snapshot, in which he discovers a clue that allows him to track down one of the replicant band. The mirror’s presence is striking, both because of the extraordinary richness ofthe information its reflection holds, and also because it seems so out of place. The replicants’ hotel room is precisely the sort of modestly furnished transient space in which the criminals and outsiders of film noir have always holed up; it seems unlikely to have so fragile, elaborate, and ultimately useless a piece of furniture within it.

The mirror’s presence, in our view, responds to the needs not of narrative plausibility but of symbolic resonance and allusion. Specifically, it recalls Jan van Eyck’s famous Amolfini Portrait (1434), which presents, at the optical center of the painting, a convex mirror much like the one in which Deckard, with the aid of the Esper machine, ultimately fmds the sleeping form of Zhora, one of the replicants. Scott may well have been familiar with the painting since he studied at the Royal College of Art in London, the city in whose National Gallery van Eyck’s painting is displayed. But its significance for Blade Runner is less that of direct allusion than that of a parallel investigation of the themes of mirroring, and ofthe relationship between replication and artistic representa- tion, that are explored in the film.

The mirror in the Amolfini Portrait is a marvel of miniaturization and detail. Mirrors, like windows, are common elements in painting. They often function as a mise-en-abime, a reflection on the nature of painting; often too they are placed so as to allow us to see sides of the depicted scene to which we would not otherwise have access, as in the many paintings where a view of a woman’s back is combined with a view of her face in a mirror. The mirror in the

Amolfini Portrait combines these two functions. The clarity and precision of van Eyck’s painting, its painstaking delineation of every physical element of the scene, however small or apparently trivial, seems designed to rival the precision with which a mirror reproduces whatever is before it, while the mirror’s convex


form reminds viewers ofthe pictorial wizardry by which the three-dimensional world is plotted onto the two-dimensional surface ofthe canvas. Occupying the vanishing point of the painting, van Eyck’s mirror offers a reflection of our own role as viewers of the depicted scene, and because it is convex, it is able to condense within itself, in reverse, almost the entire field of vision that is presented on the canvas. Close examination ofthe mirror enables the viewer to see a pair of figures who stand before the couple depicted in the portrait, at the point from which the painted scene has been observed; the mirror allows the painter to perform the paradoxical feat of including observer and observed together in the painting.^

The mirror in Leon’s photograph performs both these functions. Like van Eyck’s mirror, it gives the viewer access to information-that would otherwise be unavailable, and it also becomes a figure of the artist’s presence within the work. Zhora appears, not directly in the line of the camera’s gaze, but only in reflection—the Esper machine would be powerless to fmd her were it not for the convex mirror that allows Deckard to see around a wall to an otherwise visually inaccessible region of the space. The form of the mirror is also the form of the convex surface of the eye, so the mirror we see in Leon’s photograph is linked to the images of eyes that recur throughout the film, and particularly to the image of the eye in the opening sequence. The mirror in the Amolfini Portrait is an analogue of the eye; it sits at the vanishing point of the picture, directly meeting the viewer’s implied glance, and contains within itself, though in verso, most of what the viewer sees in the picture. The mirror in Blade Runner is an analogue for the (literally) penetrating gaze of the detective; it is a kind of spy within the room, enabling Deckard’s glance to bend through doors and around walls. But it is also, by extension, an analogue for the filmmaker’s vision, as it explores the recesses of the vast and mysterious city the film presents.^

The mirror in the Amolfini Portrait bears within it a marvelous plenitude. Its form echoes the swell of the pregnant body of Jeanne Cenami, Amolfini’s wife, establishing an analogy between pictorial reproduction and procreation, another kind of reproduction. The permanence the painting confers on a particular moment in time is likened to the permanence one achieves through having offspring, and the power ofthe painter’s art is celebrated by likening it to the miracle of bodily reproduction. Both are forms of copying that neverthe- less bring forward something new and unprecedented.^ Similarly, the convex mirror in Blade Runner may be read as a kind of womb in which Zhora’s image is contained, thus recalling perhaps the new form of reproduction embodied by the replicants. In this reading of the scene, artistic reproduction and bodily reproduction have been joined, in Blade Runner’s imagined future, by the process of artificial reproduction that yields the replicants.

The question arises, though, whether the products of this new form of reproduction are, like children and paintings, unique and individual, or whether they are, like photographs, multiples—identical objects without the claim to a distinctive, unique existence that is part of our sense of what being human is. Deckard’s boss refers to the replicant Pris as a “standard pleasure model,” indicating that in his eyes she is no more than one of a run of industrial


commodities. The anxieties awakened by Blade Runner’s imagining of a new, mechanical form of human (or quasi-human) reproduction have only grown more intense in the years since the release of the film, as new fertility technologies and the possibility of human cloning lead to fresh worries about what it means to be, as the title of a recent article in a popular science journal puts it, “Human in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (Wright).

That title invokes, of course, Walter Benjamin’s celebrated essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” and the questions that gather around the mechanically produced humanoids of Blade Runnerhear some interesting parallels to those that inform Benjamin’s exploration of the ontological status of the mass-produced artwork. The key term in Benjamin’s discussion is “aura,” the name that he gives to our sense of an object’s

“presence in space and time, its unique existence” (220). Our awareness of an object’s uniqueness, its material specificity and history, in effect humanizes it for us; “experience of the aura,” Benjamin writes, “rests on the transposition of a response common in human relationships to the relationship between the inanimate or natural object and man” (188). “Aura,” writes Benjamin, “withers in the age of mechanical reproduction,” as the technology of reproduction “substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence” (221). Blade Runner imagines a world in which the new technologies of human reproduction likewise substitute plurality for uniqueness. Just as the mechanical reproduction of artworks destroys the sense of authenticity and uniqueness upon which aura depends, the mechanical reproduction of replicants threatens the sense of individuality that undergirds our notion of the human. But if Scott’s vision of the effects of mechanical reproduction on the defmition of the human parallels Benjamin’s vision of the effects of mechanical reproduction on the status of the artwork, Scott offers a more troubled response to the possibility he envisions than does Benjamin, who in the “Work of Art” essay celebrates the liberatory possibilities of the destruction of aura.

The ontological uncertainty rooted in the replicants’ status as manufactured items is experienced, within the film, by the replicants themselves. Mothers, for example, are objects of particularly intense feeling for the replicants. Leon attacks the blade runner administering the Voigt-Kampff test when asked to recall his mother, and the photograph Rachael offers to clinch her case that she is human is one that, she believes, depicts her with her mother. Van Eyck celebrates the power of his own art when he compares it to the power of human reproduction. Scott offers a more anxious reflection on the power of mechanical reproduction, and by implication, on the power of film. The technology that enables the Esper machine to create a new, artificial space from the information in the photograph is analogous to the technology that fabricates human bodies and selves from engineered parts. Perhaps cinema, itself a form of mechanical reproduction, is shaded with some of the same uneasiness we are meant to feel about the new form of reproduction embodied in the replicants.

We can begin to register that anxiety by noting the similarity between the Esper analysis and the Voigt-Kampff test. Just as the detectives seek information by peering into the eyes of the replicants, so the Esper allows Deckard to


penetrate into the mirror; using the Voigt-Kampff test on Rachael, and analyzing the photograph in the Esper machine, Deckard’s goal in both cases is the discovery of a replicant. If the Voigt-Kampff test can separate deceptive appearance and reality, discriminating between those who are really human and those who only appear to be, the Esper machine seems likewise to offer an instrument that allows its user to penetrate the reality of a depicted scene.

Close observation of the sequence, however, indicates that what Deckard gains access to in the course of the Esper analysis is not necessarily the “reality” of the space/time that the photograph depicts; a subtle cinematic trick plays a crucial role in the transformation of Leon’s photograph from a flat, two- dimensional object to a three-dimensional space available for the detective’s examination. As Deckard probes the reflection in the convex mirror, he fmds a shimmering waterfall of glitter—Zhora’s snake, we later infer—and fmally, Zhora herself, asleep in a comer of the room. But how does he fmd her? The stand that holds the snake at first blocks our view of Zhora; we see her arm, but her face is hidden. The point of view then shifts, and Zhora appears from behind the stand. This change in the relative positions of two objects through a shift in the point of observation is termed parallax, and is of course possible only in three-dimensional space, not in the two-dimensional space of a photograph. This parallax shift suggests that the space we move through in our exploration ofthe photograph is not a transparent record ofthe state ofthe room

at the time the snapshot was taken, but a reconstruction or simulation in which, as is often the case with digital representations, important data has been interpolated rather than directly recorded. Interestingly, the Zhora we see in the hard copy Deckard prints out at the end of his session with the Esper is not Joanna Cassidy, the actress who plays the character, but rather a stand-in (Sammon 146). This substitution reinforces the suggestion that the Esper gives access, not to the “true” contents of the photographed space, but only to a necessarily imprecise reconstruction, or reconstitution.

The Esper machine breaks down the unity of the image, isolating and enlarging significant elements, dissolving the image into a series of details. In the process, as Scott Bukatman remarks, “the two-dimensional space of the photograph becomes the more three-dimensional space of cinema” (Blade Runner 59). We would contend, though, that the three-dimensional space the Esper creates is not the space of cinema tout court, but rather of a particular kind of cinema, the cinema of montage. In montage filmmaking^ a scene is fragmented into its elements, and those elements are then reassembled into a new whole through editing. The goal is not to capture what Andre Bazin called

“the reality of dramatic space” (24), but rather to construct a new, specifically cinematic space, in which every detail has become powerfully imbued with significance. The eye ofthe montage filmmaker dominates the world it surveys, rearranging it according to the dictates of his own vision. In similar fashion, Leon’s photograph becomes, in the Esper machine, not the record of a real moment in time but a reservoir of information from which a new, fantasmatic space can be assembled, a space available to the probing, investigating eye of the detective. The Esper machine, then, is mirror rather than lens; it does not


provide access to the empirical reality of the photographed scene, but rather reflects back Deckard’s own desire and the “predatory” nature of his gaze/

The Esper sequence might be seen as embodying the mode of vision that Laura Mulvey, in a celebrated 1975 article, diagnosed as constitutive of mainstream cinema, a mode of seeing that has, in the wake of her discussion, come to be referred to as “the male gaze.” Broadly stated, Mulvey identifies cinematic pleasure with the pleasures of voyeurism, and insists on the gendering of vision in terms of masculine activity and feminine passivity. Indeed, the Esper sequence seems to offer a kind of ideal resolution to a problem that, in Mulvey’s account, confronts classical narrative cinema. Woman’s role as spectacle, the passive object of the gaze, threatens to “freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation” and thus to work against the narrative agency identified with the male protagonist (19). The Esper sequence combines a female figure presented as the static, passive focus of observation with a male figure presented as “making things happen,” in this case precisely by means of his gaze. Through the Esper machine, looking becomes not passive perception or registration but itself narrative action. The same dynamic of looking informs the moment when Deckard has the tables turned on him, in the climactic confrontation with Roy Batty. The detective becomes both the object of pursuit and the object of another’s gaze, as Batty puts Deckard under scrutiny with his challenge to “Show me what you’re made of.”

In light of Mulvey’s critique of mainstream cinema, we are led to ask: does the film offer an alternative to the way of seeing represented by the Esper, a way of seeing opposed to the detective’s detached and dominating gaze? Should the visual strategies of the Esper sequence be identified directly with those of the film itself, as Bukatman does {Terminal Identity 135-37)? There seems at first as little room in the film for an alternative to this probing, invasive mode of vision as there is space outside the urban necropolis that the film depicts. Yet we fmd an admittedly fleeting but nonetheless significant suggestion of such an alternative in a moment that occurs shortly before the Esper sequence, Rachael has presented Deckard with a photograph as proof that she is not a replicant, a photograph showing her as a child with her mother. Deckard convinces Rachael, by his knowledge of her memories, that she is indeed a replicant, whereupon she departs in tears, leaving the photo behind. Deckard picks up the photo from the floor where Rachael has tossed it aside, and as he looks at it, it

flares for a half-second into life: the shadows tremble, the figures move, one hears for an instant the sound of laughing children, as if we suddenly had access to the reality of that long-ago afternoon on which the picture was taken. In other words, the photograph becomes, for a moment, cinematic.

This effect, spectacular when noticed but so fleeting that many theatrical viewers may well have missed it or convinced themselves that they were seeing things, reminds us of the origin of cinema in the impression of movement produced by the juxtaposition of static pictures: cinema suddenly flares up through the animation of the still image. It reminds us as well of that aspect of the earliest filmmaking that was devoted to the recording of the real, the look of everyday events and ordinary people. This moment suggests an analogy


between Deckard’s imaginative entry into Rachael’s experience, and the power of the film medium itself to give access to a world that would otherwise be unavailable to us. Empathy is the key element in both these cases. Deckard moves from detachment, from viewing Rachael as an object, to viewing her as a separate self whose experience he feels compelled to imagine. So, the film suggests, we must view the characters it presents to us, even if those characters are, in the way of all cinema, as synthetic as the replicants.

Zhora, her eyes closed and face averted from the camera, cannot return the detective’s gaze from the photograph, any more than she can return it in our fmal vision of her as she lies dead in the shopping arcade. Benjamin likens the experience of aura to the return of the gaze: “To perceive the aura of an object we look at means to invest it with the ability to look at us in return” (188). This account of aura, it should be noted, comes from Benjamin’s essay “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” which takes a substantially more equivocal attitude to the destruction of aura than the better-known discussion in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Where the earlier essay had celebrated the dehumanizing of perception induced by the advent of mechanical reproduction, the later essay, acknowledging the modernism Baudelaire achieves by inscribing the experience of the decline of the aura, nevertheless recognizes the double- edged nature of this disappearance. In both these essays, however, it is the arts of photography that most crucially focus the question of aura. Scott’s use of photographic images seems a kind of Benjaminian commentary on the nature of photography, but a commentary informed more by the later Benjamin’s ambivalence.

So, where the Esper image of Zhora closes its eyes to us, in Rachael’s photograph the young girl looks directly into the camera. When the photo begins to move, it is as if she were suddenly endowed with the ability to return Deckard’s look. The effect is reinforced by the way Scott shoots the two sequences. The reverse shots of Deckard giving commands to the Esper are shot from off to his side, so that we see him almost in profile through the sequence. As he examines Rachael’s photograph, however, he is shot full-face, from a slight low angle, almost as if we were looking at him from the perspective of the photograph he holds in his hands. When Deckard retums to his apartment at the end of the film, to flee the city with Rachael, he fmds her asleep, just as

Zhora had been asleep in Leon’s snapshot. At first we might fear that she is dead—Deckard finds her covered with a sheet, after she has failed to respond to his call—until he awakens her with a kiss. The scene obliquely recalls the Sleeping Beauty story: a woman is held captive by a spell until she is delivered by a kiss. But it might also remind us of the way that Rachael’s photo comes to life in Deckard’s hands, animated by the force of his feeling for her. Deckard has killed Zhora, but he seems to be giving life to Rachael, releasing her from whatever spell has held her immobile. His ability to invest her with this promise of life and animation is predicated on his imagining her inner life, investing himself in her experience.

The treatment of the theme of empathy marks perhaps the greatest divergence between book and film, a divergence that produced a fair amoxint of


tension between Philip K. Dick and Ridley Scott as the former realized that the director’s ideas about the replicants were incompatible with his own. In January 1982, with the film in production, Dick contrasted his own views with those of

Scott in an interview with Paul Sammon:

To me, the replicants are deplorable. They are cruel, they are cold, they are heartless. They have no empathy, which is how the Voight-Kampff [sic] test catches them out, and don*t care about what happens to other creatures. They are essentially less-than-human entities.

Ridley, on the other hand, said he regarded them as supermen who couldn’t fly. He said they were smarter, stronger, and had faster reflexes than humans.

“Golly!” That’s all I could think of to reply to that one. I mean, Ridley’s attitude was quite a divergence from my original point of view, since the theme of my book is that Deckard is dehumanized through tracking down the androids. (Sammon 285)

If Dick and Scott disagree about the allocation of empathy, they agree in making the possession of empathy the defining qualification for “human” status. “An android,” Deckard remarks in Dick’s novel, “doesn’t care what happens to another android. That’s one ofthe indications we look for” (89). In Scott’s film, of course, the replicants care deeply what happens to others; their solidarity contrasts sharply with the sense of antagonism and veiled threat that character- izes much of tiie interaction between humans. The empathy the replicants have for one another invites the audience to extend its sympathies toward them; the novel’s androids have much less power to dispute our sympathies with Deckard.

But the trajectory of Deckard’s development in the film is not as inconsistent with the themes of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? as the remarks from Dick might imply. In both film and novel Deckard is in danger of sacrificing his humanity to the detachment necessary to do his job. In Dick’s novel the dehumanizing effect of being a bounty hunter is exemplified in the character of Phil Resch. Resch’s coldness toward the androids whom he “retires” at first causes Deckard to mistake him for an android; Resch is an image of what Deckard might become were he to assimilate himself too completely to the role his job compels him to take on. The androids are less than human because they care nothing for others; it is a mark of Deckard’s tenuously maintained humanity that he, in contrast to Resch, has an “empathic response” to the androids (124).

The photographed mirror is an eyewitness, one that fixes and makes permanent the sights it has seen. This permanence ofthe photographic image is played off, in Blade Runner, against the transience of another kind of image, the memory image. As he dies, Roy recalls the extraordinary things he has seen:

“Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time … like tears in rain.” Roy is, in one sense, a machine, a product of mechanical reproduction, but the images he has stored in his memory, unlike photographs, will disappear with his death. Ultimately, this is what makes Roy human, for in Blade Runner humanity is defined by transience, and the shared recognition that acknowledging that transience produces.


The tag line in the original publicity material for the flim announced that “Man has made his match,” implying that the film will treat the classic Frankenstein theme of the creation of a technology that turns back against its

makers. But the film itself suggests that the replicants are a “match” for humans in a different way: in the pathos of their transience, a pathos made all the more intense by the brevity of their life-spans. As Deckard puts it in the voice-over ofthe theatrical release, “All he’d wanted were the same answers the rest of us want. Where did I come from? Where am I going? How long have I got?” In another evident allusion to painting, the film here echoes the title of Paul Gauguin’s monumental canvas Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (1897-98), to something of the same effect. Gauguin’s title suggests a comment on all human existence, and so closes the gap between the beliefs and practices of the Tahitian islanders among whom he lived and the European world he had left behind. Scott uses these questions to close the gap

between the replicants and the humans who have made and who destroy them. This emphasis on transience suggests an opposition between film and photography. The images of photography are stable and permanent; this allows Deckard to enter the space of Leon’s photograph and come away with the evidence he needs. Film, on the other hand, is evanescent, alive only in a continuously unwinding and disappearing present; so Rachael’s snapshot is alive

only for a moment, scarcely long enough for us to catch its fleeting animation. Though a film as rich as Blade Runner invites us to study it frame by frame—at the time of the film’s release the VCR was just beginning to make available to home viewers the Esper-like experience of dissecting a sequence in slow motion—such an analysis is not the experience of the film, which can occur only through a submission to its temporsd flow. Leon and Rachael cling to their photographs, as if the stability and permanence of a snapshot could provide a stable grounding for identity. But as Roy comes to realize, it is memory, with all its poignant transience, that defmes humanness. The photograph offers an illusory promise of permanence and stability, while film reimmerses the photographic image in the flow of time and the forming and fading of memory. Film is ultimately the more human art. Blade Runner implies, but it becomes human only through the viewer’s imaginative engagement.

Film, fmally, is both mirror and lens; it can offer us a detached, objective view, like the gaze that Deckard brings to Leon’s photo, but it can also bring us into the lived texture of a character’s experience, as in Deckard’s response to Rachael’s snapshot. We might propose then, another interpretation of the image of the eye in the opening sequence. It is the eye of the audience, reflecting back to us what we have just witnessed. If van Eyck places the observer of the scene inside his artwork, within the reflection in the convex mirror, so Scott places us within the artwork as well, witnesses to the sublime horror of the urban future he envisions. By implicating us, Scott suggests that his film depends on the viewer’s imaginative response. Film offers us the pleasures of visual mastery, the detached, godlike view from which we first survey the cityscape of Los Angeles, 2019; but it also offers the possibility of empathy.


Scott holds up a distorted mirror to the world of corporate capitalism and human expendability, revealing scene by scene a stagnant necropolis. But the portrait is not complete without acknowledging also the possibilities of change and transformation held out, in however fragile a form, in the lives he follows. The Esper sequence compellingly enacts an urge to visual mastery, engaging us in its drama of investigation and its revelation of a new kind of vision. But Scott also suggests a link between this spectacle of visual mastery and the detachment that allows Deckard to function as a cold-blooded killer, and further connects that detachment to the voyeurism of the cinematic gaze; the sleeping Zhora is precisely an object of vision that cannot retum the gaze. The film, as we have tried to suggest, returns our gaze, and offers a glimpse, however fieeting, of

another kind of seeing. When Rachael, after saving Deckard from Leon, asks the blade runner whether he will “come after” her, he answers: “No … I owe you one,” responding according to a code of reciprocity familiar from private eye fictions. But at the end, he does “come after” Rachael, to leave with her, however uncertain the future toward which they are traveling. Deckard achieves a kind of humanity in the course of the narrative, through the exercise of imaginative empathy, and what hope the film offers turns on its ability to cultivate that power within its viewers.


1. For an analysis of a similar mirroring effect in another masterpiece of realist

painting, see Michel Foucault*s discussion of Diego Velasquez’s Las Meninas (The Maids of Honor, 1656) in The Order of Things (3-16); see also Steinberg’s essay, which corrects a number of errors in Foucault’s account, and also Alpers, which offers a deeply considered alternative to Foucault’s reading.

2. For a treatment of the links between vision and space in the film, see Bukatman, Terminal Identity (136).

3. Edwin Hall, writing in 1994, argues against the idea that the woman in the painting is depicted as pregnant, citing numerous fifteenth-century works in which “virgin saints, who obviously cannot be pregnant, also appear gravid”; he notes, however, that the “mistaken inference” he combats is “documented as early as … 1700,” and “continues to be drawn by modern viewers seeing the picture for the first time” (105). In her 1995 book on ihe Arnolfini Portrait, Linda Seidel relates van Eyck’s image to representations of the marriage of the Virgin Mary in which she is unmistakably pregnant. Shortly before the publication of Hall and Seidel’s books, Margaret Carroll argued that “van Eyck portrays the couple as already married” (99)—a reading that, of course, leaves open the possibility that the woman in the panel is depicted as pregnant. The important point for our argument is that visually sophisticated observers, among whom we should certainly count Ridley Scott, have for centuries taken the woman in the portrait to be pregnant, and that nothing in the art-historical literature of the time of the film’s making would have prevented an observer from drawing such a conclusion.

4. For a discussion of the links between Deckard’s character and technology, see Kerman.


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Alpers, Svetlana. “Interpretation without Representation, or. The Viewing of Las Meninas” Representations 1.1 (February 1983): 30-42.

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Walter. “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire.” In Illuminations, trans. Harry New York: Schocken, 1969. 166-76.

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Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken, 1969. 217-51.


Bukatman, Scott. Blade Runner. London: BFI, 1997.

. Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1993.

Carroll, Margaret. “‘In the Name of God and Profit’: Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portraitr Representations AA (Fall 1993): 96-132.

Dick, Philip K. Blade Runner. 1968 (as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?). New York: Ballantine, 1982.

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Hall, Edwin. Jlie Arnolfini Betrothal: Medieval Marriage and the Enigma of van Eyck’s Double Portrait. Berkeley: U California P, 1994.

Kerman, Judith. “Technology and Politics in the Blade Runner Dystopia.” In Retrofitting Blade Runner: Issues in Ridley Scott’s BLADE RUNNER and Philip K. Dick’s DO ANDROIDS DREAM OE ELECTRIC SHEEP?, ed. Judith Kerman. 2nd ed. Bowling Green: Bowling Green State U Popular P, 1997. 16-24.

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Steinberg, Leo. “Velazquez’s Lay M^m/zay.” October 19 (Winter 1981): 45-54. Wright, Karen. “Human in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Discover 19.5 (1998):



Blade Runner is a film centrally concerned with vision. Prostheses of vision—the Voigt- Kampff test and the Esper machine—permit detective Rick Deckard to probe physical and even mental space, and extend his search for android “replicants” into distant rooms and

into the minds of the characters he encounters. In the Esper sequence, Deckard analyzes the photograph cherished by the replicant Leon, an analysis that turns on the presence of a convex mirror at the center of the image. This photograph echoes the mirror seen in Jan van Eyck’s famous painting. The Arnolfini Portrait. Both mirrors are signs of artistic self-consciousness, pointing to the way these works sustain an extended meditation on pictorial or cinematic vision. In Blade Runner, the form of vision embodied by the Esper machine—which is characterized as probing, dominating, and ultimately lethal—is played off against a mode of vision tentatively but crucially present in the moment when Rachael’s photograph “comes alive” in Deckard’s hands, a mode of vision that turns on

imaginative empathy.

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