Out of Bounds

Moment in the Spotlight

While debate rages as to how bright a life it was, we can all agree on its duration

By Rob Breeding

I was recently convinced I’d discovered an overlooked Easter egg in my favorite science fiction film, “Blade Runner.”

In an early scene, Harrison Ford’s character, Deckard, is hauled back to the police station for a visit with Captain Bryant, Deckard’s boss before he retired from his job as a blade runner. Blade runners are cops who hunt and kill rogue replicants — artificially manufactured robots that appear human. Bryant makes Deckard an offer he can’t refuse, forcing him out of retirement to track down four replicants on a murderous rampage.

I noticed my Easter egg on Bryant’s desk. The captain has a lamp with illuminated panels in place of a lampshade. There are images on the panels of a man on African safari, kneeling beside a dead Cape buffalo.

“Hemingway!” I was certain of my discovery, even as I couldn’t make out the hunter’s face.

I’ve watched “Blade Runner” many times. More than I can count. It might seem I should have picked up this detail long ago. This was the first time viewing it on a theater big screen, however, so the lampshade never seemed obvious. And if a movie’s really good, you’re supposed to find new treats each time you watch.

I have friends who know this movie better than I do. But I’m still probably in the Top 1% when it comes to “Blade Runner” aficionados. There are subtle messages sprinkled throughout the film, but I was surprised I missed this clear reference to Ernest Hemingway — one of my favorite authors — and Cape buffalo. To fans, Hemingway and buffalo mean only one thing, the story, “The Short Happy Life of Frances Macomber.”

The lampshade seemed an obvious allusion, since, as the title makes clear, Macomber’s life is brief. A dismal man on African safari with his equally dismal wife, Macomber suddenly awakens from his cuckolded existence, aroused to manhood by the carnage of a buffalo hunt that turns into slaughter. It’s his “el momento de la verdad,” or moment of truth for the non-bullfighting crowd. Blood lust rises in him. At last, Macomber lives!

While debate rages as to how bright a life it was, we can all agree on its duration. Macomber doesn’t even make it back to camp for a celebratory gimlet.

In “Blade Runner,” Roy Batty is Deckard’s dangerous prey — a Nexus-6 combat model — the most technologically advanced replicants, which are programmed to die after four years. This programming is a response to the eternal human fear that artificial intelligence will gain prescience, leading to revolution. Batty seeks his maker, Eldon Tyrell, CEO of the corporation that manufactures replicants. The robot hopes Tyrell will terminate Batty’s termination. 

When Batty confronts Tyrell, the maker tells his prodigal son, “The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long — and you have burned so very, very brightly, Roy.”

It’s no coincidence that in both stories, humanity is most profoundly displayed by non-humans. In “Macomber,” it’s the wounded lion Hemingway’s omniscient narrator briefly inhabits. In “Blade Runner,” Batty is the anti-hero.

We know enough of humans to be skeptical. Alternative life forms offer hope.

Humans all share a trace of vanity, to burn brightly, living Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame. I even imagined my headline: “Small-town college prof untangles sci-fi classic’s complex mystery.”

Fortunately, I didn’t spend in advance the appearance fees I expected to collect in my quarter-hour in the limelight. Once the movie ended I found plenty of safari pics of Hemingway and game. None matched the images on the lamp.

Additional sleuthing revealed I wasn’t the first “Blade Runner” geek to note Bryant’s decor. Others had been here before. Hemingway wasn’t mentioned.

Director Ridley Scott surely would have copped to the “Macomber” seed by now, if it were real. The hunt for my own Warhol 15 continues.

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