This article first appeared as a part of the Brattle Theatre Film Notes commentary series, presented by the Brattle Theatre in Boston, MA, for a special screening of Blade Runner: The Final Cut. Slight edits have been made from the original posting.
So: is Deckard a replicant? This is the question that most everyone comes to after seeing Blade Runner, especially if the version in question is Ridley Scott’s 2007 Final Cut. There are seven distinct version of the film — including the U.S. and International Theatrical Cuts (both 1982) and the Director’s Cut (1992) — each of which is evidence of a continued preoccupation with this dystopian vision of our future. Granted, the broad strokes of all seven versions are more or less the same. Harrison Ford plays Rick Deckard, an android-hunting policeman quite different than most other Ford heroes. Regardless of which version you’re watching, Blade Runner is about Deckard’s brush with dehumanization after he’s assigned to track down a band of escaped androids (“replicants”) and terminate them before they discover a way to extend their own lifespans.
But the Final Cut is the only version to place emphasis squarely on that question: is Deckard himself a bioengineered replicant? The original versions certainly leave little reason to doubt the humanity of the protagonist. Deckard and Rachel run away at the end of the theatrical cuts and presumably live happily ever after. Along with a completely restored picture, a restored sound mix, removal of Deckard’s voiceover narration and addition of several improved effects shots that simply weren’t possible in 1982, the Final Cut also subtracts that happy ending and includes a few key scenes that had been cut from the initial releases.
And it really comes down to a unicorn. Right in the middle of the Final Cut, Deckard sits at a piano and daydreams briefly about a white unicorn galloping through a forest. This three-second clip didn’t appear in the original versions, and despite all brevity still manages to inspire a different perspective on the new conclusion. The Final Cut ends as Deckard and Rachel leave his apartment, when he leans to retrieve a small item left on the hallway floor by Edward James Olmos’s character Gaff. Ridley Scott explains the Final Cut’s ending in a 2007 interview with Wired:
Gaff, at the very end, leaves an origami, which is a piece of silver paper you might find in a cigarette packet, and it’s a unicorn. Now, the unicorn in Deckard’s daydream tells me that Deckard wouldn’t normally talk about such a thing to anyone. If Gaff knew about that, it’s Gaff’s message to say, “I’ve read your file, mate.”
Gaff harbors a clear disdain for Deckard throughout Blade Runner, and Scott’s explanation would assert that this distrust comes from a knowledge of Deckard’s true nature. Deckard’s unicorn daydream — something he never tells anyone about — can be equated with his own description of Rachel’s implanted reminiscence of a spider building a nest outside her childhood home. This is the “memory” of a replicant: preprogrammed, recorded, and filed for anyone with proper clearance to access.
Once these Final Cut additions and omissions are considered, the evidence embedded in the rest of the film takes on new light. Some argue that the cops allowing Deckard to track down the other replicants makes sense — why endanger themselves? — and that Gaff is from the old school in that regard, forced to go along with the plans of his superiors. It’s certainly interesting to note that there’s always a palpable measure of regret whenever Deckard offs one of the replicants, and that the replicant Leon Kowalski was actually finished off by Rachel and not Deckard. This would mean that the humans never actually get their hands dirty. And at the outset of the film, M. Emmet Walsh’s police chief Bryant lets slip the fact that there are six replicants on the loose — three male, three female — and he shows Deckard mugshot slides of Roy Batty, Leon, Pris and Zhora. Rachel is soon revealed to be the fifth wanted android, which serves to further beg the question as to the identity of the final male replicant.
So there’s strong evidence in the Final Cut to support the theory that Deckard is in fact not human; we might go so far as to say that Ridley Scott himself, in arranging and recutting Blade Runner to emphasize these significant clues, wants us to think this is true. Once we’ve answered “Is Deckard a replicant?”, the next question should be “Why?” Why does it matter one way or the other if Deckard is human or replicant? How does the Final Cut improve Blade Runner?
That’s a tough question. There’s a lot to be said for ambiguity, especially with regards to something so steeped in heady themes of humanity as Blade Runner. But it’s also true that certain parts of the film shine differently when we suspect our hero to be an unwitting machine, primarily the shadowy final confrontation between Deckard and Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty. “I thought you were supposed to be good,” Batty says to Deckard. “Come on…show me what you’re made of.” Taken at face value, this is just your standard climactic fight scene taunting — but if Batty recognizes Deckard as an artificial form like himself, that macho-talk becomes something much deeper. His words might seem to conjure the notion that “being human” is tantamount to “being good”, which is a notion that both Batty and Blade Runner on the whole take pride in challenging. He playfully calls Deckard “little man”, again underscoring the possibility that Deckard is just a creation of a frenetic toymaker. Almost everything Batty says can be geared toward the specific question of Deckard’s humanity, whether we choose to believe that Deckard is a replicant or not.
And so that final speech by the inhuman Batty — the beautiful, rain-soaked, neon-lit speech that remains the most enduring segment of any version of Blade Runner — is perhaps particularly meaningful in the Final Cut:
Memories — preprogrammed, recorded, filed, or “true” — are lost in death, presenting an unavoidable commonality in replicants and humans. Deckard’s identification with Batty’s speech, then, doesn’t necessarily prove or disprove his humanity. But then again Batty might be showing Deckard what a real man is made of, facing death with such bravery, and in this respect that crucial ambiguity surrounding Deckard’s soul remains fully intact in the Final Cut. Even if he is a machine, there’s still the possibility that Deckard can be a real man.