Everyone has a pet theory about Blade Runner, and I want to tell you mine. Spoiler: Blade Runner is about Blade Runner. Or rather, it's about creating Blade Runner. I reckon many films and books make more sense seen this way: creatives are narcissists, and creative works are commentaries on the act of creation.
Ok. Let's start with an easy one. In Star Wars, what is the Force? This 2005 article in Slate hits the nail on the head:
the characters come to understand that there is another agent, external to themselves, that is dictating the action. Within the films' fiction, that force is called ... er, "the Force." It's the Force that makes Anakin win the pod race so that he can get off Tatooine and become a Jedi and set all the other events in all of the other films in motion. We learn that Anakin's birth, fall, redemption, and death are required to "bring balance to the Force" and, not coincidentally, to give the story its dramatic shape.
There's a tension for an author between doing what the characters and internal logic of the universe demand, and doing what the reader or viewer demands: moving the story forward, keeping attention through cliffhangers and long story arcs, surprising but not subverting the genre, and so on. It's a balance.
At its worst, when plot beats sense, blunders are easily observed as called out as "deus ex machina" and MacGuffins. At best, the story feels completely natural.
I've read that Pixar consider three foundational elements, and each has to make sense in the context of the previous: the world, then the characters, then the narrative. If there is trouble resolving the story, the characters (or even the world) may have to change. This loopback is how the eventual whole feels so complete, immersive and organic.
That Star Wars article continues:
The Force is, in other words, a metaphor for, or figuration of, the demands of narrative. The Force is the power of plot.
The Force is another way of bridging the needs of the world and the needs of the narrative: it's an in-fiction concretisation of the gap itself. The relationship between the characters and the Force - that is, the prophecies and the balance - is an examination by the author into this gap.
The monolith in 2001 is, like the Force, a catalytic agent: it turns the apes into humans, and takes modern day humans through another evolution and brings about the Star Child.
As has been pointed out, the monolith is the cinema screen, and this idea has been well explored. The proportions are the same; it transforms the in-fiction characters just as it mysteriously transforms the audience.
So in the films opening and during the intermission, we are not looking at an empty black screen at all. We are looking directly at the surface of the monolith! The monolith is the film screen and it is singing directly at its audience in the same way that the apes and astronauts are entranced by its heavenly voice, not realising that they are being communicated with directly
But for me, 2001 (the movie) is an exploration of the relationship between the director and the audience, with the in-world characters making the examination by glimpsing, from their side, this boundary: the screen/monolith.
There's the famous shot of the aligned planets: this conjunction only makes sense from the perspective of the viewer, but there's no viewer present in space at this point... except, suddenly, the audience. So the audience is forcibly inserted; given a location in the in-world universe.
The boundaries are blurred again when a shot on the Moon brings the monolith (as Tycho Magnetic Anomaly One) - black, indistinguishable from the dark room of the cinema - from the edge of the screen, again pulling the audience's environment into the film. An equivalent is made between the audience's world and the agent of change in the in-fiction world.
Which is of course true: the fiction-world only lives while the film plays, while the literal film is projected. The characters reaction to the embodiment of that (the monolith) is as spiritual and ineffable as ours would be, encountering our own agent of reality.
Sticking with science fiction, Arrival (2016) - which is a gorgeous, beautifully paced movie, and you should definitely see it - gets into playing with time.
Spoilers, obviously, so let me summarise: aliens land, and their language is somehow outside time. They apprehend the past and future as one, fitting together into a cohesive whole. A human - a woman - learning their language, finds she can now do the same.
As a film this makes a cracking story. As the short story on which it was based (Story of Your Life, by Ted Chiang) it's a classic. The story of the title is both the in-fiction story of the woman's daughter, and the short story in the reader's hand. The alien's ability to apprehend all of time at once (but also be within it, yet without the capacity to change what happens) is the reader's perspective too.
Chiang is using his protagonist as an agent to examine whether it's possible to break through from the inner reality of the fiction to the outer reality of the reader.
This section is kinda obscure, so feel free to skip. But before you do: you should read these Egan novels because otherwise you'll be missing some of the best, most robust hard sci-fi of the late 1990s/early 2000s.
Greg Egan is an Australian author and computer programmer. The kind of author who, when he invents in a story a game called quantum soccer where the players move a ball which is a quantum mechanical probabilistic wave function, and scoring a goal means manipulating the probability of the "ball" such that it is (probably) in one of the goals, he then goes ahead and builds a simulation of the game playable on his website. The kind of author who works out the equations for a rock in orbit around a black hole, and then has to invent new words to describe new directions because space gets all mixed up under the extreme regime of general relativity.
Three of his early novels are investigations of what it means to be human, and how human-ness is conserved across greater and greater extreme translations from the flesh and the everyday. For me these three sit together as a trilogy: Permutation City, Schild's Ladder, and Diaspora. They're surprisingly easy reading, and have that magical characteristic of boiling frog gentle escalation where every single step makes individual sense but you look behind you at the end and all you can say is "holy shit how did we end up here." (Like Apocalypse Now where you get to the end and all you can think was, hang on weren’t we just surfing.)
This is only going to make sense if you've read them, but my contention is that each book is about the characters of the inner reality probing and attempting to understand the outer reality. And the outer reality, in this case, is not only the reader's world, but the actual physical book in the reader's hands, paper pages and all.
If our own universe was actually a book, that was written, isn't this how we would attempt to understand the outer reality -- piecemeal, and never completely? In fact, with our enormous particle colliders and speculation about the universe being a holographic projection of a pattern on a bubble surface, and trying to find ways we might test that, isn't that what's happening now?
In fiction, there are three times. The time of the inner reality, of the fiction, of the characters. The time of the reader or audience. And the time of the author. These times don't only vary in pace, but may be ordered differently. They may repeat, or not. They have differing agency over what is real.
This is fertile ground for exploration.
Tom Stoppard's play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead follows two minor characters from Shakespeare's Hamlet, between scenes and interleaving the original Hamlet itself.
It opens with the two characters asking themselves whether they are doomed to have the same conversation again and again. Well yes, they do in the play. But they do in another sense, in the outer reality, because the play has a nightly performance.
They ask each other whether they remember what happened before. Was there a before? For the character, kinda: the character has a memory and a backstory, but if the audience didn't see it, did it really happen? And there is definitely a "before" for the actor playing the character.
We'll come back to Ros and Guild. They're replicants.
So Stoppard's play is a play exploring what it means to be a play. It's built on good source material: Shakespeare was exploring the same ideas with Hamlet.
First, yes, the famous play within a play at the heart of Hamlet. A recursion like the monolith representing the cinema screen being shown on the screen.
Secondly, and mainly, the ghost.
Hamlet is a clever, wonderful, tightly told, and above all realistic play. The story unfolds from the internal drives of, and feelings between, the characters. There are few coincidences, no deus ex machina. It's insightful and subtle, and derives from details in the depths of the human condition. It feels true.
But at the beginning - the domino that kicks off the whole sequence of events - there is the ghost of Hamlet's father. You what? This isn't just Prince Hamlet's wild imagination. The guards see the ghost too. This is, right upfront in an obstinately real story, the presence of the supernatural, driving the narrative.
Sounds like the Force.
And, get this:
According to oral tradition, the Ghost was originally played by Shakespeare himself.
How's that for a statement on how the inner reality relates to the author from the outer reality!
The ambiguity about Blade Runner is whether Deckard, the replicant hunter, is himself a replicant. Are his memories real, or has he been instantiated with a remembered past borrowed from elsewhere; will he - like other replicants - live only for a brief time, just four years? Or is he human?
There's a solid theory that Deckard is a replicant with Gaff's memories. Gaff being a detective who makes origami that mysteriously mirrors Deckard's dreams, indicating that he has special access to Deckard's inner life.
What makes the Blade Runner ambiguity so delicious is that in the released 1982 theatrical cut, Deckard's replicant identity is ambiguous. In the later director's cut, all the hints are inserted. We get to choose, and the fact that it's still debated which the "true" cut is (the one with the bigger audience? Or the one the director wanted us to see?) enlarges the ambiguity to ask who gets to determine reality.
But what happens if we apply the Narcissist Creator Razor? The answer becomes that Blade Runner is simply about the act of making Blade Runner. The fictional inner reality isn't about the story, it's about the reality of the maker. And what is that reality? This:
The reality of Blade Runner is this: Deckard isn't a human, and Deckard isn't a replicant. Deckard is a sequence of recorded images of Harrison Ford saying lines written by someone else. The story is an exploration of that fact.
Here's Aaron Sorkin (screenwriter of the West Wing, A Few Good Men, and much more) talking about characters and backstory:
Your character, assuming your character is 50 years old, was never six years old, or seven years old or eight years old. Your character was born the moment the curtain goes up, the moment the movie begins, the moment the television show begins, and your character dies as soon as it's over. ... Characters and people aren't the same thing. They only look alike.
That's what's being explored in Blade Runner. Characters look like people, except they exist for only the duration of a movie -- only while they are necessary. They come with backstory and memories fully established but never experienced, partly fabricated for the job and partly drawn from real people known by the screenwriter. At the end, they vanish,
like tears in rain.
Like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Like replicants.
Roy knows he is a replicant. He's the one who comes closest to understanding his true nature: that his memories were given to him, that when the short span of the film passes he'll be gone. He's coming to terms with his emotions about this in a short period - his journey as a replicant but also as a character in a film - in a way that no one else does. The Off-World Colonies - Roy's point of origin and source of memories but never seen - are a stand-in for the inaccessible outer reality of the creator.
Deckard is a character. Roy is a character. Gaff is a character.
So that’s what Blade Runner is about, for me: it’s an examination of what it means to be a character. It’s a creator using their creation to examine the nature of that creation.
(This is also why I don’t like the idea of the Blade Runner sequel. It risks the delicate balance of audience vs creator, and inner vs outer reality, and I think we might lose access to a very interesting place because of that.)
I am aware, by the way, that proposing a totalising general theory of all creative work is an utterly ludicrous thing to do. But to hedge the above appropriately would have added too many words, and this is long enough already.