Monday, November 15, 2010

I've … seen things you people wouldn't believe part 2: Deckard as replicant “ruins” Blade Runner?

I came across this post today on and felt compelled to comment, as it concerns one of my top 10 films of all time: Blade Runner.

I’m not arguing with the author’s larger point that the plot of a story can be “squeezed” too much, and that too many “twists” can spoil the soup of a novel, if you will. I’m sure this is quite possible. But I happen to think her example to prove this point is a rather poor one: I don’t agree at all that Rick Deckard as replicant ruins Blade Runner.

Why does it weaken the story if Deckard is a machine, just like the machines he’s hunting? It shouldn’t, and doesn’t. Blade Runner is not just a story “about a man who has lost his humanity.” If you think that Deckard is a member of mankind and that Blade Runner offers no other interpretation, then yes, that’s what the film is about: A man who wakes up to his own life after seeing the "life" pulsing in the artificial heart of Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer). But if you add in the Deckard as replicant subtext, it becomes something more. This fascinating scenario deepens the film’s questions about what it means to be a human. Deckard-as replicant allows us to ponder scientific/metaphysical questions like:

  • Are humans mere machines of flesh and blood that also happen to empathize based on an accumulation of memories? Or are they something more?

  • If you could theoretically implant memories in a machine that allow it to empathize, and to comprehend the wonders in the universe and wish for more life due to the accumulation of experience, when would it cease being a machine and become a “human”?

  • Is Sean Young the hottest robot ever? (Yes)
I agree with the writer that the machines are ironically more “alive” than most of the humans in the film. But I don’t think that Deckard also being a replicant robs the film of its power. It merely illuminates the fact that we really don’t know what makes humans special, even today with all our accumulated knowledge as a species. Do we have a divine spark, or are we merely a more complex form of organic life? A future where machines are theoretically indistinguishable from humans is a scary thought, forcing us to rethink what—if anything—makes us special snowflakes in a sprawling, near infinite universe.

To be fair, if Deckard is just a human, the film still allows us to examine these questions through the example of the other replicants. But by not revealing any clues that Deckard is a replicant, Blade Runner sets up our expectations is that he is just a world-weary cop. This allows us to emphathize strongly with Deckard until the final reveal—and the revelation that he just might be a replicant, too. With that comes the realization that we’ve perhaps been empathizing all along with a machine. And that’s pretty amazing in itself.

Speaking of the final reveal, who isn’t blown away when Gaff places the origami unicorn on the landing, and Harrison Ford grimly nods his head, realizing that his dreams and “memories” are likely not his? That’s awesome storytelling in my book. Not a plot stretched too far.

In short, the possibility of Deckard as replicant defies our expectations and makes for a better movie--and a better story too.


scottsz said...

I totally agree with you, and would take it a step further:

Deckard being a replicant doesn't matter. His transgression of disobedience matters - it proves free will.

At the end, Deckard and Rachel are leaving together. They both express this clearly. It is what they want. Just as Batty wanted to 'meet his maker'. I think the operative component of anyone (or anything) being driven towards a goal of their own is the crucial part of the story as it touches on the 'core of humanity' that makes the characters really alive. I don't think the story suffers if Deckard is human at the start or is an android - he is undoubtedly human at the end of that movie - in large part because of Batty's moving words. As much as I love Batty's ending speech, I think the real plot of Blade Runner is revealed by Batty prior to that:
How does it feel to live in fear?
That's what it is... to be a slave...

For those who insist that Deckard is human, I would posit that Gaff's unicorn could mean that his memories will be used in future replicants...

I don't think the story is twisted too far if Deckard is a replicant - the movie gives very little reason not to doubt the humanity of most of the characters.

Sorry for the long comment - the nailyournovel post pissed me off a bit...

David J. West said...

I haven't watched "Blade Runner" in a long time-but I always thought it was a given that Deckard was an android.

I also disagreed with Roz about "Hurt Locker" earlier this year, it may have won the Oscar, but anyone who knows anything about military operations knew it was bunk.

Fred said...

I have to disagree here. If Deckard is a replicant, he's the most inept, clumsy, and incompetent replicant going. He is slower mentally and physically and certainly far weaker than any of the replicants he comes up against. To say that he's a earlier model doesn't make sense for then his superiors would know that he's no match for the newer models.

The unicorn is just something Scott threw in the later versions. If the unicorn origami is significant, then what is the relationship between the chicken and the man stick figures to Deckard being a replicant.

In an interview, Scott insists that Deckard is a replicant. My reaction is that he may say so, but the film says something quite different.

Brian Murphy said...

Fred: My take is that Deckard is a later model of replicant. If he was created to be an undercover sleuth, that Tyrell made him as human as possible (including with human weaknesses) seems reasonable. Perhaps they realized from the Nexus-6 models that creating "superhuman" replicants was not such a good idea.

There is no relationship between the unicorn and the other stick figures, other than to show that Gaff is capable of making them. If the unicorn had no signifance at all, why have Deckard pick it up and examine it with a knowing look on his face? It may be that Gaff just wanted Deckard to know he was on his trail and had chosen to let him live, but I'm not so sure. Deckard's unicorn dream and reaction to the origami unicorn is too much of a parallel for me.

In the end I think the ambiguity of Deckard as replicant only adds to the film. My point with the original article was that Deckard as replicant shouldn't be viewed as a twist too many that "destroys" the film. The fact that the arguments continue is part of the appeal!

Eric D. Lehman said...

This is one of my favorite films. The ambiguity of Deckard's "humanity" is the ambiguity of all great art. In other words, the fact that we can argue about it is what makes this a classic film.

I actually teach this in my science fiction class at UB. It is rich with issues and layered with subtexts. How poetry makes Roy "human" at the end. How the whole thing can be 'read' as an analogy for the Amistad (or various other slave) revolts. How the very ideas of what makes us human or rather unique continue to blur, as we continue to move the line further and further, and find it inadequate. I mean, really, eye dilation is what makes the "robots" different from us? That is suspiciously like some of the definitions of "human" they had back in the 1700s to prove that Africans didn't fit the bill.

Anyway, I could go on all day about this movie. Brilliant work.

Kent said...

I have to disagree Brian on the grounds of aesthetics. The director's intention is important but the Deckard as replicant idea looks to me to be an afterthought. Twists are more suited to watch-once-throw-away movies but this is a classic which under the scrutiny of repeated viewings gains nothing from the notion that Deckard is not a man. Nothing changes for me as I watch it seeing Deckard as human so the trick, if it is to read as such, only has an effect for a few seconds at the end. If this was an important idea it should have emerged mid-game to be handled substantially rather reserved as some kind of belated frisson.

I also think it is more poignant that Dekard as a man falls in love with Rachael than, to put it bluntly, two robots flee in the end with an us-against-the-world attitude.

Brian Murphy said...

Scottsz: Nice comments regarding free will. It's interesting that the replicants exhibit free will, too.

David: The Director' Cut of BR brings the Deckard as replicant subtext to the fore. It's not as apparent in the theatrical release with voice-over. My first viewing was the theatrical version and I never made the connection myself. I do much prefer the Director's Cut, though.

Eric: Man, I wish I was enrolled in that class. I hadn't thought of the slave revolt angle, though it makes perfect sense.

Kent: There's actually more subtle clues that Deckard is a replicant than the origami unicorn, though they are admittedly difficult to spot/interpret. There's one scene in which Deckard's eyes glow like a replicants'; Gaff tells him "you've done a man's job, sir," which could mean that he's an android doing the work of a man; Rachel catches Deckard off-guard by asking if he's ever taken an empathy test, and more. Although it may seem like an M. Night Shaymalan type-twist, it's really not. But again, it's still ambiguous.

Even if Deckard is a replicant I find his love for Rachel just as poignant because, for all intents and purposes, he has become a man (or more to the point, a human) over the course of the film. He couldn't have loved in the emotional state he was in at the beginning of the film; by the end he can.

One of the themes of the movie (and this is purely my opinion) is that there isn't a god, that men are simply a higher order of machine with finite lifespans that end in oblivion, but that we can find meaning through love, and empathy, and mercy. Of course, even as I type this, I am remembering the film's religious symbols and realize that there are other interpretations.

Kent said...

I imagine the film is equally enjoyable whichever way one thinks of Deckard. I just think that more hints are beside the point because if the (Dec as Rep) idea was conceived before filming it should have been explored with some artistry as was Batty's final speech, a profound tribute to the blurring of humanity.

This is an aesthetic view and very much a matter of opinion. Im trying to get across why nailyournovel-girl might think imperceptible hints and a very late twist might be ok for a ghost story or the twilight zone but could have been replaced with a more substantial handling in a truly great film.

Fred said...

"If he was created to be an undercover sleuth, that Tyrell made him as human as possible (including with human weaknesses) seems reasonable."

An incompetent undercover sleuth? Deckard wasn't undercover.

In addition, that doesn't sound reasonable to me, especially if I invest a lot of money in something to do a job. I would expect competency beyond that of a human.

There is no relationship among the origami except that they were all created by Gaff. The unicorn origami was present in the first three versions (1982), ten years before it appeared in the director's cut (1992). It was just another one of Gaff's creations.

The unicorn in Deckard's reverie is a late addition and is Scott's attempt to bolster his contention that Deckard is a replicant.

Moreover, how do we know it was an "implanted" memory? We don't. It appeared after Rachel left his place and she might have reminded him of a former girlfriend who had a thing for unicorns.

As for the flash in the eyes, that could just as easily have been a reflection. One thing that I noticed is that there is a lot of light flashes throughout the film.

Why did Deckard pick the unicorn up? He picked it up because he recognized Gaff's handiwork and since Gaff was not around, he knew that Gaff was not going to give him any problems about Rachel. Gaff could have left a snake there, and Deckard would still have picked it up.

As I mentioned earlier, Scott says Deckard's a replicant. His film is not convincing.

Many prefer to believe he's a replicant--fine. I think the film works better and makes more sense if he's human for reasons already mentioned by others here.

Fred said...


I agree. It is a major issue, and the possibility should have been brought out more clearly much earlier. To have the question answered at the end just weakens the film when viewed a second time.

Brian Murphy said...

Fred: Deckard was the best Blade Runner in the department with an untold number of "retirements" to his credit. At the beginning of the movie the force is begging for him to come out of retirement and help with the escaped Nexus-6's. That's hardly incompetent.

What makes him a great BR isn't his physical strength, but his detective work, his ability to pick out "skin jobs" from the real thing, and his skill with a gun. Because he needs to be a cold-blooded killer, it actually makes sense to use a (theoretically) emotionless android in the role. Again, operating under the assumption that Deckard is a replicant, it makes sense that he's become less effective the more "human" he becomes, and the more emotional baggage he's taken on. Thus he is less competent at this stage of his career.

I guess we'll have to agree to disagree that the film works better with him as a human instead of a replicant. My contention is that a film with the question "what does it mean to be human?" at its core is made even more intriguing by a central character who may or may not be human himself.

Fred said...


Yes, I'm aware of Deckard's reputation. But, if he's best on doing the detective work, then why doesn't he call in for backup instead of confronting alone his quarry who is faster and stronger than he is, and just as smart probably.

In the Korean sf film, _Natural City_, the authorities send in a SWAT team (perhaps 20+ people) in full body armor when going after renegade cyborgs. The conflict in that film is caused by the cyborgs' attempts to eliminate/ or work around their termination date. Also, a human cop falls in love with a cyborg.

Having Deckard be human provides a much better balance to the film. Deckard's life was saved twice by a cyborg; therefore to provide some balance, we need a human to attempt to save the life of a cyborg.

It also provides a interesting aspect to the film if both the human and the cyborg become more alike in portraying just what it means to be human.

But, as you say, "I guess we'll have to agree to disagree."

D Collins said...

I always thought that the Unicorn was a gift, and a subtle reminder.

The gift, Gaff not terminating Rachel even though he was under orders.

The warning... even though Rachel and Deckard were going offworld, Gaff could find them if they misbehaved or rebeled.

In the book, it's inferred that Deckard is a replicant. I always thought Deckard was a replicant.

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