With Blade Runner 2049 releasing this weekend, some fans of Ridley Scott’s 1982 classic are wondering whether the sequel will resolve one of the “mysteries” of the original: Is Deckard a replicant?
Ridley Scott has already answered the question in the affirmative, while Harrison Ford has insisted that his character is human.
Blade Runner 2049 director Denis Villeneuve, however, is playing coy. In a recent interview, he referred fans to Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, upon which Blade Runner is based:
“I felt that the key to deal with that was in the novel of Philip K. Dick, which was that, in the novel, the characters are doubting about themselves. They are not sure if they are replicants or not. They are like, from time to time, the detectives are having to run a Voight-Kampff [test] on themselves to make sure that they are humans. I love that idea.”
Villeneuve makes a valid point about ambiguity in the story. Deckard’s journey is equally tragic either way; it is just as horrifying for him to be a human who starts to question his humanity because he empathizes with his replicant victims, as it is for him to realize that he is a replicant who is killing his own kind, and therefore equally a slave.
But why weren’t we told specifically either way?
Perhaps we were. Film is, after all, a visual medium, and Sir Ridley showed us in pictures, rather than telling us in dialogue (with a few exceptions).
Here’s your guide to what to look for in the 1982 original. In case you’re wondering which version to watch— other than the infamous unicorn scene— you’ll find any of these hints in every cut of Blade Runner.
Also, perhaps to make things easier for viewers, Scott seems to have clustered most of these clues in or around Deckard’s apartment.
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The Eyes Have It
As many astute observers have noted, eyes are a recurring motif in Blade Runner.
One of the first shots of the film is a reflection of the Los Angeles cityscape in the close-up of a human eye. In the original script, it is said to belong to Holden, the Blade Runner who is shot by Leon at the beginning of the film. But over the years, Ridley Scott has said that it doesn’t belong to anyone and it is a symbol of big brother, i.e., an all-encompassing eye that sees all.
Replicant Roy Batty—the film’s antagonist—is especially associated with eyes. Every instance of him interacting with the genetic engineers who created him involves him handling eyes: He places a manufactured eyeball on the shoulder of Hannibal Chow when he interrogates him about incept dates in his icy workshop. Trying to convince J F Sebastian that he is not a monster, Batty covers his own eyes with ping pong ball yes to make him laugh. When he finally meets Tyrell, who refutes every possible solution that might extend the replicant’s life, Batty murders his creator by gouging his eyes and crushing his skull.
In the movie, the Voight-Kampff Test is used to determine whether a person is human or a replicant. It is an empathy test that measures bodily functions, including fluctuation of the pupil and involuntary dilation of the iris. The machine used to administer the test is a sinister affair with wheezing bellows and a screen which allows the interrogator to monitor a closeup of the test subject’s eye.
Using cinematic language and a purely visual clue, Scott provides the audience with a metaphorical Voight-Kampff machine of its own. At some point during Blade Runner, every single replicant’s eyes (including those of Tyrell’s artificial owl’s) glow red.
This is a purely practical effect. Just as the reflection of a still camera’s flash causes red eye in a photograph, mounting a light next to a film camera while shooting in a dark environment can cause the same effect. Interestingly enough, the effect is caused by pupil dilation. The human eye doesn’t react quickly enough to the sudden increase in light, the pupil doesn’t contract fast enough, and the light is bounced off the back of the retina at the back of the eye. Because this area is rich in blood, the reflected light is red.
During the sequence that takes place in Deckard’s apartment, we see the blade runner approach Rachael, who is in the foreground. Her eyes glow red, as Harrison Ford enters the shot, so do his. The actor claims that he wandered into the light accidentally, but can we seriously believe that a director of Ridley Scott’s caliber would allow such a rookie mistake?
Photographs are another recurring motif in Blade Runner. Replicants are somewhat obsessed with them.
After killing Holden at Tyrell headquarters, Replicant Leon Kowalski risks his life to retrieve a stash of photographs he kept in his apartment. He doesn’t get to them on time, and Deckard uses them, and an artificial snake scale he found in Leon’s bathroom as clues that help him track down another replicant, Zhora.
After she breaks into Deckard’s apartment, Rachael presents the startled blade runner with a series of childhood photographs. Deckard brushes them off as fakes. Having read her file, he recounts childhood stories about Rachael sneaking into a basement with her brother, and about watching a spider’s egg hatch. He reveals that these memories are implanted and actually belong to Tyrell’s nieces. Upon seeing her horrified reaction, he backpedals and tells her that his words were a bad joke.
Curiously, Deckard’s piano is covered with black and white photographs. They seem to represent an idyllic childhood in a big house—perhaps in the suburbs or the country—that is at odds with the hellacious Los Angeles of his adulthood. As he sits at the piano and lapses into a waking dream—which we’ll get to in a moment—one of the photographs comes to life for a split second.
The contradiction and the surrealness of a still image briefly displaying motion suggests that Deckard’s memories, and perhaps his assumptions about his identity and his reality, are at odds with the truth.
Perhaps the biggest—and most disputed tell—is the unicorn sequence that was excised from the original theatrical cut. Half-asleep, Deckard sits at his piano, listlessly repeating a single note. He opens his eyes and has a waking dream of a unicorn.
In and of itself, the dream could be construed as proof that Deckard is human. After all, would a replicant have an imagination? It could be also be a simple marker of Deckard’s psychological state. Perhaps he dreams of escape, and of a better world than his polluted Los Angeles.
However, this sequence ties into what’s happening in his real life. Throughout the movie, Deckard appears to be shadowed by fellow Blade Runner Gaff, played by Edward James Olmos.
We’re never told why Deckard is being shadowed. Perhaps it is another clue that he is a replicant, but we’ll get to that later.
Gaff walks with a cane, implying that he was injured in the line of duty. He also uses a combination of English and CitySpeak, an invented language used by the future denizens of Los Angeles, suggesting an ethnic—and possibly class based—divide in the city. Throughout the course of the film he leaves origami creatures in his wake: a chicken, a tiny paper man with an erection, and a unicorn.
This last figure is spotted by Deckard after he retrieves a sleeping Rachael from his apartment, and prepares to escape. It suggests that Gaff knows about Deckard’s dream, which makes it an implanted memory. Deckard is therefore a replicant.
But it also implies that Gaff may have entered Deckard’s apartment, and decided to spare the sleeping Rachael’s life.
The Importance of Manhood
As we saw earlier, part of the Voight-Kampff Test involves observing the eye for clues that the subject is a replicant. As we also noted, director Ridley Scott appears to have used reflections in characters’ eyes to show, rather than tell us, that they’re replicants.
If the film is truly a Voight-Kampff Test administered by the audience, then it must also be an empathy test of sorts. Can viewers tell who is human, and who is not?
Early on in the film, police captain Bryant reveals that the Nexus 6 series of Replicants have a built-in failsafe: a lifespan of four years to prevent them from developing emotions, and starting to question their own existence.
Deckard’s emotional arc in the film shows him developing empathy with the replicants whom he is hunting. As the film progresses he calls his own humanity into question. But his humanity is called into question by others, as well.
Although there are plenty of visual clues in Blade Runner, scriptwriter Hampton Fancher also provides us with a few clues in his dialogue.
For starters, Deckard never uses the words “retired” or “retirement” to indicate his departure from the police force. These words are antiseptic euphemisms used to describe the killing of replicants.
Perhaps this is a conscious choice, after all in his profession, the expression literally connotes an assassination. But it may also signal to the audience that he is very much a replicant who has been allowed to live.
Bryant also hints that Deckard may be different, “You know know the score, pal,” he snarls. “If you’re not cop, you’re little people.” This line suggests arrogance, and an abuse of authority on Bryant’s part. It’s certainly the kind of hardboiled dialogue you’d expect from a police captain in film noir. But could it be more than a throwaway?
Deckard’s resignation at having no choice but to accept the assignment suggests that there’s something left unsaid here. We are never told what compels him to respect Bryant’s demand.
Rachael twice questions his humanity. In Tyrell’s office, she asks Deckard if he’s ever retired a human by mistake. In his apartment, she asks if he’s ever taken a Voight-Kampff test himself.
But the biggest clue comes from Gaff at the end of the film. As a bleeding Deckard lies crumpled on the roof of the Bradbury Building, the lights of a Spinner hover behind the dead Roy Batty. Gaff emerges and remits Deckard’s retrieved gun. “You’ve done a man’s job, sir!” he exclaims. “I guess you’re through, huh?”
Most viewers pay attention to Gaff’s next line, “It’s too bad she won’t live,” referring to Rachael, “But then again, who does?” The implication is that Gaff is targeting Rachael for retirement, but it is also an affirmation that humans and replicants have their mortality in common.
The “man’s job” line reinforces the notion that Deckard is a replicant, and that Gaff knows it. But the fact that he spares Rachael has a further implications.
As we noted, Deckard’s emerging empathy for his targets is part of his emotional arc. If he is indeed a replicant, and is only becoming aware of it, could it be that Gaff is also a replicant? And one who has come to terms with who and what he is?
This is more than hinted at. Given the obvious strength of the Nexus series, and the fact that Holden was easily bested by Leon at the beginning of the film, it may be that some, if not all blade runners are replicants.
Gaff’s willingness to spare Rachael suggests that he may be a replicant who feels compassion for those who are like him. Or, maybe he’s giving his quarry a head start. When Deckard screams at Officer K, “They were hunting us!” in the Blade Runner 2049 trailer, is he referring to replicants as a group, or specifically to himself and Rachael?
Maybe we’ll get a definite answer this weekend. Maybe we won’t. But the clues are definitely there.
Either way, the original Blade Runner is one of the greatest entries in the cinematic science-fiction canon. Let’s hope Denis Villeneuve equals or surpasses Ridley Scott’s achievement with his sequel.
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