For some strange reason, people have always been fascinated with eyeballs. Ancient Egyptians believed the Eye of Horus was a symbol of protection and good health. In Matthew 6:22, Jesus said “the light of the body is the eye,” and the Eye of Providence marks every U.S. dollar bill. Our infatuation with eyeballs also pops up in modern-day literature and movies. The characters of The Great Gatsby are haunted by the ever-watchful eyes of T.J. Eckleburg, Frodo Baggins spends three novels/movies avoiding the evil gaze of Sauron, and in the world of Minority Report (2002), irises are essentially futuristic fingerprints that reveal our true identities.
Blade Runner (1982) , however, takes our eyeball obsession to a whole new level. After a brief prologue, the film reveals the dystopian world of 2019 Los Angeles, complete with lightning bolts, fire-breathing smokestacks, and a million city lights enveloped by pollution. At first, we see L.A. through the camera’s P.O.V., but then we’re greeted by the eerie image of a disembodied eye, a blue iris reflecting the hellish landscape…and that’s just the first of many eyeballs to come.
We quickly learn that replicants—both human and animal—are equipped with special eyes that give off a dark orange glow. And when Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) first appears, he walks into “Chew’s Eye World,” a specialized shop that produces android eyeballs for the Tyrell Corporation. Eyes play a key role in the Voight-Kampff test where “fluctuation of the pupil” and “involuntary dilation of the iris” indicate empathy—and thus humanness. Perhaps most memorably, Roy Batty’s beautiful monologue begins with the quote, “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.”
Eyes also play an important part when it comes to…murder. When Leon (Brion James) assaults Deckard (Harrison Ford), he tries to kill the blade runner by gouging his eyes out. While the big guy’s plan doesn’t pan out, Roy is much more successful when he jabs his fingers into Tyrell’s (Joe Turkell) sockets, killing his creator. And it should be noted that Tyrell’s most notable fashion accessory are his gigantic tri-focal glasses. Considering all the ocular imagery, it’s probably safe to say there’s an eyeball motif going on here but why?
Well, we’ve all heard the expression “the eye is the window to the soul,” and Blade Runner takes that maxim literally. While replicants are superhuman when it comes to strength and agility, their eyes are essentially Kryptonite. Not only do the reflective pupils betray their true nature, replicants are unable to pass the Voight-Kampff test because their eyes don’t react as a human’s would. While Tyrell Corp. boasts its replicants are “more human than human,” the eyes are the great divide between man and machine…at least superficially anyway.
At first glance, it might seem as if Blade Runner is suggesting that replicants are soulless robots, but as the film unfolds, we see Roy, Pris (Daryl Hannah), and Rachael (Mary Sean Young) display emotions like fear, love, and friendship. The replicants actually express more feelings than most of the film’s human characters. Compare Roy to his creator, and you’d be mistaken for assuming Tyrell is the automaton. While their eyes might not react to the Voight-Kampff test, it’s quite clear the replicants feel deeply for each other. In fact, at the end of the film, Roy saves Deckard’s life - not a decision you’d expect from a coldhearted killing machine.
Perhaps Deckard and his blade running buddies have it all wrong. Perhaps those glowing orange orbs actually imply replicants have more feelings—rawer, more intense, even more beautiful—than those of the cold, dead humans. True, Roy and his friends are murderers, but isn’t our protagonist? And while blade runners kill “people” they considers inferior, the replicants kill because they want to survive, because they love life, because they want to survive for as long as they can. That might be the most human emotion of all…and souls might glow orange when the light hits them just right.