Even Now, Rutger Hauer’s Performance in ‘Blade Runner’ Is a Marvel

“Gosh, you really got some nice toys here.”

Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty speaks those words more than halfway through Ridley Scott’s 1982 film “Blade Runner.” They’re not the character’s first lines (he has a brief scene earlier, threatening an artificial eye designer) nor his most famous. That honor goes to his unforgettable dying soliloquy about all the memories that “will be lost in time, like tears in rain.” But the words are, perhaps, the first to offer a window into his conflicted, synthetic soul.

With his shock of blond hair and imposing figure, the Nexus-6 replicant Batty, a lifelike android meant for combat who has turned on his human masters, seems like a science-fiction villain par excellence. But the anxious wonder with which he gazes at the cluttered lair of the genetic engineer J.F. Sebastian resembles that of a nervous child. A steely surface masking a tender, wounded inner world — the description could apply just as easily to “Blade Runner” itself, which is why Batty, and Hauer’s portrayal of him, remains the sci-fi classic’s beating heart.

The actor, who died Wednesday at 75, had a long and distinguished career that included titles as diverse as the Dutch war classic “Soldier of Orange,” the medieval romance “Ladyhawke,” the Italian fable “Legend of the Holy Drinker,” and whatever the hell “Hobo With a Shotgun” was. But his performance as Batty was, after all these years, still his most indelible turn, in part because it spoke to his unique gifts.

Arriving from Holland, Hauer made his American film debut in 1981, as a remorseless terrorist in the Sylvester Stallone thriller “Nighthawks,” At first glance Hauer might have looked like just another in a long line of European musclemen who steadily found work in Hollywood throughout the 1980s, ready to play their share of killer robots, stoic soldiers and disposable blond henchmen.

But Hauer brought to this particular killer robot a mixture of physical menace, regal charm and psychic anguish. He moved with melancholy grace, his eyes alternately darting and serene. The character, we’re told, has a lifespan of only four years, and probably even shorter if the film’s protagonist, the gruff cop Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), has anything to say about it. What’s only implied, and then suggested through performance, is that Roy Batty will cram into that short period the existential journey of an entire human life.

So, in his early scenes, he speaks in clipped, hesitant tones. Batty has clearly researched his predicament — he knows he doesn’t have long to live, and he has ideas about all the scientific methods that could be used to prolong his existence — but he sputters the words out, as if saying them for the first time: “EMS recombination,” “a repressive protein.”

That childlike nervousness evokes genuine pathos, even as we witness the violence he’s capable of. When he finally viciously kills his creator, the scientist-businessman Eldon Tyrell, rage, sadness, fear and exaltation all dance across Batty’s face. And are those tears in his eyes, or just the ever-present sweat caused by “Blade Runner’s” apocalyptic climate? Is there even a difference? This world is as broken as the humans and near-humans who populate it.

Had Hauer played Batty as another stone-faced Eurobaddie, “Blade Runner” itself might have been a more comfortably classifiable genre effort, the kind of movie that many viewers expected in 1982, the kind that promised to pit Ford, the star so familiar to us as Han Solo and Indiana Jones, against a new kind of futuristic nemesis. Instead, audiences were thrown off by the knotty neo-noir that Scott and the screenwriters Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples delivered, the film flopped, and a cult masterpiece was born.

Look no further than Batty’s extended final battle with Deckard to see both the evidence of the movie’s idiosyncratic tone and how Hauer’s remarkable performance enhances it, practically deconstructing the simple plot before our eyes. The replicant chases the beleaguered, frightened Deckard around an abandoned building, toying with the cop and playing singsong children’s games. But there’s still a catch in Batty’s words, slight pauses scattered in unusual places. Seeing that Deckard has killed his replicant lover, Pris (Daryl Hannah), Batty offers, “I thought you were good. Aren’t you the … good man?” The awkwardness of the words, combined with the pause before “good man” seems to question the film’s very moral universe.

And maybe, when Batty strips down to his underwear for the final pursuit, it’s a sign that he has nothing to hide, that he is finally fully himself and self-aware — in contrast to our hero, who never really suspects that he himself may well be a replicant (a much-speculated-upon theory that years later was confirmed by the 2017 sequel). We see Hauer’s impressive physique, and sense Batty’s growing confidence, which turns first to bewilderment, and then to a kind of joy when Deckard fights back and actually wallops him in the face.

Hauer’s delivery of Batty’s dreamily immortal final lines is certainly perfect, but what’s even more heartbreaking is what he says right before, as he saves the seemingly defeated Deckard from plunging to his death: “Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it? That’s what it is to be a slave.” Scott shoots Hauer in extreme close-up, and captures in the actor’s eyes an instant of almost explosive awareness. It’s the kind of moment that still catches a viewer off-guard, many decades later. It’s the look of a man who has finally unlocked himself, and a brave, cruel new world.

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