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In Blade Runner, Rutger Hauer taught us the bittersweet nature of mortality
"I've seen things you people wouldn't believe … attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like ... tears in rain. Time to die."
It feels like terrifying serendipity that the great Dutch character actor Rutger Hauer died the same year as his most famous character, Roy Batty. Star of stage and screen, Hauer made a name for himself as baroque, intense figures in genre films like Ladyhawke, Blind Fury, and The Hitcher. He was Buffy the Vampire Slayer's first real villain in the original 1992 film and leaned hard into his cult bona fides with the grindhouse homage Hobo With a Shotgun. But no role ever illustrated the Byronesque romance of his acting work quite like Batty, a replicant desperate to squeeze more time out of his existence in Ridley Scott's dreamlike cyberpunk fantasy Blade Runner.
Throw a stone at Facebook or Twitter in the ensuing hours since Hauer's death, and you'll hit half a dozen RIP posts quoting the above monologue, Batty's final words before his death on a rainy rooftop to Harrison Ford's wearied blade runner Rick Deckard. It's for good reason; it's not just one of the actor's most iconic moments as a performer, it's one of the most highly regarded monologues in film history.
For many science fiction fans, especially those (like me) who saw Blade Runner at a young age, Batty's entire character journey allowed us to process death in a way we never could before. Now, given a closer look, Batty gives us a framework with which to deal with Hauer's own passing.
Even before his iconic "tears in rain" speech, Batty spends the entirety of the film raging against the dying of the light. A replicant, an artificial being created to perform heavy labor and only given four years of life, Batty has been sentenced to a life of anguish and servitude offworld. Now, having stolen himself away to Earth, he sees the chance to meet his creator and get, as he growls to Elden Tyrell, "more life, f***er." (In some versions, this is overdubbed to "father"; each appeal respectively carries the anger and fear that accompanies such existential dread.)
Batty's battle against death is one that we've all been through; as mortal beings, we're constantly in the grip of a crippling fear of our imminent demise. If you've ever woken up with a start at 1 in the morning, your brain having just reminded you that you're going to die one day, you've been in Batty's shoes. That fight-or-flight response, the heavy breathing, the need to get up and walk around or distract yourself, it's all reflected in Batty's single-minded agenda to eke just one more moment of time on this earth by any means necessary. In that frame of mind, you'll do just about anything to survive, to live longer.
Batty's frustration with his maker echoes our own frustration with ours — why, if life is so sweet, does it have to end? Imagine going to your creator, however you imagine them, and hearing from them that you, too, have to die. That they designed you to exist only for a short time. You might lash out as Roy does — he kills Tyrell in the most intimate of ways, crushing his eyes and skull after planting a loving, familial kiss on his lips. Hauer's face at that moment is a tapestry of existential torment, all gritted teeth and wild eyes. He's infuriated, but also heartbroken at the Oedipal act of violence he's compelled to carry out.
As a replicant, he's been born into slavery, with too brief a candle to burn to make a lasting legacy. Batty has nothing to leave behind; even his replicant friends won't live much longer than he, even if Deckard didn't "retire" them. He can't control his fate, and no number of threats to Tyrell can change the fact that he was made as well as they could make him. "But not to last." In one of the film's final set pieces, a devilishly childlike game of cat-and-mouse through a dilapidated apartment complex between him and Deckard, Batty eventually makes the choice to spare Deckard's life.
Perhaps the point of his chase with Deckard is to remind the other man of the value of life. (The theatrical cut puts a pin on this with Ford's half-lidded voiceover: "I don't know why he let me live. Maybe in those last moments, he loved life more than he ever had. Not just his life. Anyone's life. My life.")
Which brings us to the iconic monologue, in which Batty resigns himself to his fate as a stunned Deckard watches helplessly. It's well known that Hauer played a large part in rewriting this speech, trimming and altering screenwriter David Peoples' original words (which Hauer considered "opera talk") to give it the grander sense of poetry it currently enjoys. In its final form, it's a beautiful elegy, a celebration of the "things [he's] seen" in his too-short existence. The images he recalls, of "attack ships on fire" and futuristic laser weapons lighting up the darkness of space, imply a life of hardship and violence.
And yet, there's beauty in the chaos, a nobility granted a man given little but his memories to cling to. After all, what is life if not a collection of our memories? And when we die, those moments are lost, "like tears in rain." Everything that's unique about us is gone, no longer able to be recalled or passed down. Death takes not just an individual's life, but the collective experiences we all share.
In just five simple lines, Batty (and Hauer) manage to encapsulate the bittersweet tragedy of death and our ever-complicated relationship with it. Even before he died, Hauer was inexorably tied to Batty, granting millions of science fiction fans and cinemagoers a new vocabulary for expressing our feelings toward the "retirement" that's coming for all of us one day. In the wake of Hauer's passing, Batty (along with the rest of his tremendous body of work) becomes a crucial way for us to deal with our sense of loss, mourning an actor many of us held dear. As Tyrell tells Batty, "the light that burns twice as bright burns half as long."
Hauer's light burned very, very brightly indeed.