Is Deckard Human or Replicant?

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“More human than human.”

The replicants in Blade Runner are so convincingly human, the cops, the blade runner units, who hunt them when they go rogue are equipped with a sort of new-fangled polygraph test, a Voight-Kampff, to distinguish between the two. Rachel, an advanced model of replicant played by Sean Young, asks Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard if he’s ever retired a human by mistake. Deckard doesn’t hesitate before saying “No”. But Rachel presses him, suggesting that in Deckard’s line of work, it’s a risk.

This sets up the question that Blade Runner is asking: What makes us human? Is it our ability to think? To feel? To be empathetic (echoing Philip K. Dick’s source novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) As the main character, Deckard’s are the eyes through which we are introduced to and see the world of Blade Runner. And since the film’s question involves humanity, it would make sense that the character we’re meant to identify with is human. At the very least, we should have a human character by which to measure the androids that are cast as villains in the story. Most people take Deckard’s humanity for granted, but director Ridley Scott has been very clear in his vision for the character: Deckard is a replicant, and as far as the director is concerned, his is the word of God.

There’s disagreement, of course. Even the screenwriters who worked on the film, Hampton Fancher and David Peoples, disagree with this interpretation. For that matter, nearly everyone who worked on Blade Runner, including Harrison Ford, disagree with Scott’s view of Deckard as a replicant. Fancher has said the question of his humanity is interesting, but the answer is stupid. In other words, leaving Deckard’s humanity up for debate encourages people to think about the film’s themes, but answering it definitively squashes any discussion to be had.

Still, there’s evidence in the film to support Scott’s view. Gaff, Deckard’s minder played by Edward James Olmos, leaves potential clues (in the form of origami) to Deckard’s humanity and even says of Deckard’s success at dispatching the replicants that he’s “done a man’s job”, suggesting he may not be a man afterall. There’s also Deckard’s glowing eyes, an attribute given the other replicants to highlight their otherness and the infamous unicorn dream sequence (which, despite what you’ve heard, is not leftover footage from Legend) that suggests Gaff’s origami unicorn means Deckard’s dreams are implanted.

But there’s also plenty of evidence to the contrary. As mentioned, writer Hampton Fancher, who bought the rights to Dick’s source novel and was the steward of the entire project long before Scott was attached and it was called Blade Runner says he never intended for Deckard to be a replicant. David Peoples, the other writer on the project, admits the idea of Deckard as a replicant was the result of Scott misunderstanding a bit of voiceover narration Peoples had written at one point.

“‘I wonder who designs the ones like me … and what choices we really have, and which ones we just think we have. I wondered if I had really loved her. I wondered which of my memories were real and which belonged to someone else. The great Tyrell hadn’t designed me, but whoever had hadn’t done so much better. “You’re programmed, too,” she told me, and she was right. In my own modest way, I was a combat model. Roy Batty was my late brother.’”

Peoples intended Deckard’s ruminating to be philosophical. The dialogue basically makes explicit the film’s central question: What does it mean to be human? But Scott was smitten with the idea of Deckard as a replicant and he praised Peoples for the idea, even though it wasn’t what the writer had intended. Once the director locked on to the idea, according to Peoples, he couldn’t be dissuaded from it.

Many have insisted that Scott’s misunderstanding of the character of Deckard suggests a misunderstanding of his own film. But like any great work of art, there’s room for interpretation.

So what say you? Is Deckard human? Replicant? Or do you take Hampton Fancher’s view that the question is interesting but the answer isn’t? Or does it even matter?

Tell us what you think in the comments below, and we’ll see you in the trenches.

Author: Billy Dhalgren

“A man writes because he is tormented, because he doubts.” -Andrei Tarkovsky