Does Blade Runner: 2049 answer the question about Rick Deckard’s identity once and for all, or is the answer now even more murky than before?
Warning - This article features in depth spoilers for both the original Blade Runner and Blade Runner: 2049. If you have not seen both films, proceed at your own risk!
It’s one of the most discussed questions in science fiction cinema of all time. Rick Deckard, the central character of 1982’s Blade Runner, is employed to hunt down human-like androids called replicants. But could he actually be a replicant himself? The original film doesn’t give a clear answer, which has left the door open for discussion on the topic. Two director’s cuts released over the next two decades added in additional important materials to be taken into consideration, but the mystery remained.
Blade Runner: 2049 was the long awaited sequel released earlier this month and in my opinion the writers did a tremendous job handling the issue of Deckard’s identity. With a new film, many assumed that clarity would be offered to the now decades old conundrum, but that really isn’t the case after all. For some die-hard believers, it gave them new evidence to claim that they were right all along. For others, the film didn’t really provide any new evidence for a decision to be made. It really all depends on each person’s individual perspective. At the very least, it adds more talking points to both sides of the argument.
Taking all of this into account, let’s look at the current evidence for and against to see if we can finally get to the bottom of whether or not Deckard is human.
The Original Film
Let’s first look at the evidence left in the original Blade Runner, including the directors’ cuts. The first potential clue comes from the opening title card, which states: The NEXUS 6 Replicants were superior in strength and agility, and at least equal in intelligence, to the genetic engineers who created them. If Deckard was a replicant, this would make us believe that he would be stronger than a normal person. It would also make us believe that if Deckard and a replicant got in a fight, they would be evenly matched. This happens at several points in the film, and the results are mixed. Although Deckard comes out on top in all of his encounters with the identified replicants, he mostly wins due to luck, not strength.
Consider the first physical encounter with Leon. Leon is clearly superior to Deckard in terms of strength, and he really has no chance. He only escapes because Rachel shows up and kills Leon. In his confrontation with Priss, Deckard is again physically no match. He flies across the room when she lands her first blow. Deckard eventually prevails courtesy of an unexpected gunshot, and also because Priss is playing with Deckard rather than trying to kill Deckard as quickly as possible. In the battle with Roy, Deckard takes a beating. Many people argue that the beating he takes is too much for a human to withstand, which is why he is a replicant. However, Roy doesn’t outright kill Deckard, despite many opportunities to do so (which I will discuss in more detail below). Deckard is a hardened cop, a self-proclaimed killer.
However, the connotations of the referenced line from the opening title can be explored from a different perspective too. For one, Deckard is noted as having success at being a Blade Runner. Bryant, Deckard’s former superior, noted that his peer Holden, “... [is] not good enough, not as good as you. I need you, Deck. This is a bad one, the worst yet. I need the old Blade Runner, I need your magic.” If Deckard is a very good Blade Runner, this may be because he has special abilities that no human has, which makes him better for the job. If he was a replicant, he could also be specially built to be a Blade Runner, which explains his success and Bryant’s reliance on him. As a different model from the Nexus 6, he may not be as strong. Yet, he has lasted longer and had more success than his peers. That counts for something.
This could also be the reason that Deckard lives through all his encounters with the Nexus 6 Replicants. In the first encounter, Rachel shows up to save him because he IS something special. Like Rachel, Deckard himself could be a special creation which the Tyrell Corporation could both not afford to lose and not afford to be identified if he was killed. He HAD TO stay alive. In his confrontation with Priss, Deckard survives because of his cunning.
In his confrontation with Roy, Deckard is allowed to live. Roy had many opportunities to kill Deckard, but he doesn’t do it. In many ways, Roy is playing with Deckard. For the same reasons that Rachel saves Deckard, Roy doesn’t kill him. All of the other replicants exhibit childlike behaviors due to their reduced intelligence in comparison to humans - Leon is frustrated when things get complicated, Priss likes to play around. Roy’s behavior only plays into this idea. Furthermore, Roy’s initial aggression towards Deckard can be explained as retaliation for the “retirement” of his friends at Deckard’s hand. Roy knows he can’t kill Deckard, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be mad at him for what he did.
At J.F.’s apartment, Roy tells Deckard “I thought you were supposed to be good. Aren't you the good man? Come on Deckard. Show me what you're made of.” This statement shows that Roy knew who Deckard was and how he was good at his job. Why would Roy let Deckard live if Deckard was human? If Deckard was human, his continued existence would only mean more struggle for replicants. However, Roy’s decision to allow Deckard to live would make sense if he knew about Rachel, or felt sorry for Deckard. If Roy knew about Rachel, he would know that her safety would depend on Deckard. If Roy felt sorry for Deckard, it would be because he saw that Deckard didn’t like what he was doing (hunting down replicants). Through several actions in the film, including the voiceover narration of the original cut, we learn that Deckard no longer likes his job. In the same way that the replicants resent being slaves for humans, Deckard resents having to “kill” for a job. At the end of the film, Deckard is not hunting down Roy for pleasure, or because of malice. He’s doing it because he has no choice. If Deckard was a replicant, why would he resent the job he was built to accomplish?
The most compelling evidence from the original film that Deckard is a replicant comes from the unicorn scene added in the director’s cut, which we discussed here. When Gaff makes a unicorn origami for Deckard, it is a sign that Gaff knew about Deckard’s dream much in the same way that Deckard knew about Rachel’s memories. After Roy dies, Gaff tells Deckard “You've done a man's job, sir”, which further provides evidence that Gaff knew Deckard was a replicant. At the very end of the film, when Deckard finds the origami, he smirks. Many people believe that he smirks because he finally has the answer to his question about his identity, and there is relief and acceptance.
However, if we look at Gaff’s actions as proof that Deckard is a replicant, we also have to consider the opposite opinion. For example, from the very beginning of the film it is apparent that Gaff doesn’t like Deckard and Deckard doesn’t like Gaff. Gaff may not like Deckard because Deckard represents the successful Blade Runner that Gaff is not. Gaff can’t get the job done, and so he has to recruit Deckard. If Gaff doesn’t like Deckard, he has incentive to play mind games with him. He uses the origami to make fun of Deckard throughout the film. Gaff even notices that Deckard is attracted to Rachel.
This could be the reason that he makes the unicorn at the end. He isn’t trying to tell Deckard that he is a replicant, and the unicorn dream sequence did not exist in the original cut (it could have easily been something that Ridley Scott added in to further the conspiracy). Instead, the unicorn is made to represent Rachel, who is a rarity. By placing the unicorn at Deckard’s apartment where Rachel was hiding, Gaff shows Deckard that his secret is safe. It is a note that Gaff would not follow, nor turn him in. Indeed, the fact that Gaff put the unicorn at Deckard’s apartment is proof that he knew where Rachel was. He could have captured or “retired” her at any time. He had the advantage to finish the job and make Deckard look bad. Yet, he did not take advantage of this situation. This showed a change in heart. For one, he was relieved that Deckard finished the job that Gaff was not able to do by himself. Second, with Rachel’s safety in mind, Deckard was essentially finished. He wouldn’t be around to interfere with Gaff’s career any longer. In the original theatrical cut, one of Deckard’s voiceover narration lines is “I didn't have to worry about Gaff. He was brown-nosing for a promotion, so he didn't want me back anyway.”
The New Film
When we look at Blade Runner: 2049, there are now additional points that can be made to argue one way or the other regarding Deckard’s identity. Let’s start with the title of the film itself. Blade Runner: 2049 shows us that the film takes place 30 years after the original. This film also features Rick Deckard, who is now older. Together, these observations may prove that Deckard is human. For one, the replicants in the original film were engineered with 4-year life spans. 2049 introduces the idea that new replicants were created with open-ended life spans, but this was not discussed in the original film, so it is not known if that was a possibility based on the technology and legal limitations of 2019. Second, since Deckard is still alive and older, he has aged. Why would a replicant be designed to age if they have open-ended life spans? Couldn’t they keep themselves young? No other older replicants are seen until the opening scene in 2049 when we are introduced to Sapper Morton. Until then, all of them are younger.
The plot of 2049 revolves around Rachel being able to have a child with Deckard. This child is later revealed to be Dr. Ana Stelline, a woman who creates the memories for Wallace Corporation’s Nexus-9 replicants. Whether or not she is human is unclear. If she is human, that would provide evidence that Deckard is also human. This assumes that one of her parents would have to be human to have a human child. But if she is replicant, that would not really prove anything one way or the other. Since Rachel IS a replicant, it is logical to assume that her child conceived with either human or replicant father, could also be a replicant. Two interesting wrinkles are 1.) the fact that Dr. Stelline has a genetic disorder which affects her immune system, and 2.) the fact that she has clearly grown from baby to adult. If she is a replicant, this would be the first evidence of a replicant being capable of these things. As such, it could be taken as proof that she is human, and so is Deckard.
However, Niander Wallace, the progenitor of the current crop of replicants, is very interested in Deckard’s child because it represents the next step in the evolution of his “product”. It seems that his company has reached the zenith of replicant technology and production, and self-reproduction would allow him to expand his reach even further. If Dr. Stelline represents the next step in Replicant technology, perhaps that would mean that they are able to utilize genetics and grow, just like real humans. This was something that Wallace himself has said that he was unable to accomplish, which is why he puts so much effort in finding Deckard’s child. If the child was human, Wallace would not have any interest in it because he would not be able to control it like he can control his own replicants. Furthermore, it would seem like he would not waste his time and resources pursuing Deckard if he wasn’t sure that the child would be a replicant. But again, Stelline being a replicant is not necessarily proof that Deckard is also a replicant.
Yet, this observation leads to the most compelling evidence in Blade Runner: 2049 that Deckard is a replicant. This evidence comes from the scene where Deckard is brought to Niander Wallace to be interrogated. In this scene, Wallace tells his guest that "You are a wonder to me, Mr Deckard”. This shows his interest in Deckard may go beyond the fact that he fathered a child with Rachel. He even brings up the possibility that Deckard was created specifically to fall in love with Rachel. Besides Deckard himself, if anyone else knew that Deckard was a replicant, it would be Wallace. Furthermore, with Deckard in his captivity, Wallace would be able to scan him and verify his nature once and for all. This is not shown in the film (unless it is performed by Wallace’s floating robotic eyes), so we don’t know if this happens. Regardless, Wallace is the most trustworthy option we have besides Deckard and Tyrell (who is dead).
Other than Wallace’s musings, the sequel gives us other potential clues about Deckard’s identity, especially towards the end of the film. First, Deckard is hiding in what is assumed to be a radioactive wasteland (former Las Vegas) that would be lethal to humans. Although, when K goes to find him, the radiation seems to not be as harmful. It is possible that the radiation was once harmful to humans, but it has reduced over time. Later, Deckard’s strength is called into question when he gets into a fist fight with Agent K. During the fight, K takes a beating from Deckard and is bleeding. Yet Deckard doesn't show that he is in any pain despite punching K with the same fist over and over. If K is a replicant that is supposed to be stronger than a human, and Deckard was a human, we might expect at least a wince. However, evidence from the previous film shows that Deckard can take a beating. Perhaps he is a human that just has a strong threshold for pain. When Wallace’s people show up in Vegas, Deckard and K attempt to flee. In one sequence, Deckard tries to lock a door behind him, which would have trapped K. Instead, K walks through the wall. This doesn’t mean much, but perhaps it is a meant as a nod to K’s superior strength because Deckard is not a replicant after all.
Other Materials Worth Discussing
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Is the Phillip K. DIck novel on which Blade Runner is based. In this novel, Deckard is clearly indicated as being a human. He’s a selfish, hypocritical person who enjoys his job because of the material items he can buy from the money he makes. In the book, having Deckard as human is important because it uses his personality as a mirror for the other people and androids he encounters. Deckard hates the androids because they are insincere, but so is he. Deckard hates his wife because of her flaws, but admires Rachel who is an android. At one point in the book, Deckard is captured by a police officer who begins to question whether or not Deckard is an android. The paranoia spreads through the station until it is determined that all of the officers are replicants, and they can’t deal with the truth.
That blatant questioning of identity is absent from the film, which may be one reason why Ridley Scott decided to add the unicorn dream sequence to the director’s cut. As the novel established that Deckard was a human from the beginning, this is also how many of the cast and crew interpreted the character when making the film. Harrison Ford has long said that he played the character under the impression that Deckard was human. Ford said that he had at one point approached Ridley Scott about this issue, and he never received an adequate response. It is not clear if this happened during production, or afterwards. Ridley Scott, on the other hand, has stated bluntly in an interview that Deckard is a replicant, but only more recently. Ford believed that Deckard needed to be human so that the audience had a connection with the film. Scott has stated that he disagrees.
When looking at how the book was translated from page to screen, it may also be important to consider how the story and the character was changed. For example, removing the character of Deckard’s wife leaves the movie version of Deckard as more mysterious. We don’t exactly know his past except for the fact that he is good at his job. This makes it more plausible that he is actually a replicant. The character in the film is also much less emotional than the character in the book. It's true that the film doesn’t allow him much opportunity to show emotion, but that could also be intentional. Despite Ford playing the character as human to try and create a connection with the audience, the film’s cold tone and bleak outlook works against that effort so that it is not as obvious one way or the other. Furthermore, Ridley Scott may have purposefully not told Harrison Ford that Deckard was a replicant because Deckard himself didn’t even know, and therefore the performance would have been more accurate.
For the sequel, Harrison Ford and Ridley Scott were apparently able to reconcile their difference regarding this question. Director Denis Villeneuve has claimed that his perspective on the subject is different than both Ford and Scott. In an interview with Jared Leto, the actor recalled that “[Denis] said to me, since I'm the one who actually scans his brain and looks inside, that I can make the decision, so now I get to hold this secret with me." From this statement, it seemed that Leto needed to know the answer to the question because it would dictate his performance. This means that besides Ridley Scott, Leto would have been the only other person whose work in either film could have been based on the idea that Deckard is a replicant. This brings up the potential of more clues that can be found by simply looking into the subtleties of the scene in which Wallace is featured with Deckard in the new film. Things to consider include the way that Wallace treats his replicants versus how he treats Deckard, and Leto’s acting style in this film in general (such as, why does he seem like more of a robot than all of the other replicants in the film?).
All of the above that I have outlined can be interpreted in different ways depending on your personal perspective and appreciation of both Blade Runner films. Certain pieces of evidence may be more important to one person versus another. That’s what makes this question one of the most intriguing in all of cinema that goes beyond the context of the film itself. Is this a case of filmmakers intentionally adding easter eggs to allow viewers to experience something more profound, or is it a matter of avid fans just looking too closely at circumstance (and filmmakers later taking advantage)? For many of us, the discussion itself is part of the fun. There are so many nuances and complications worth looking into that I, for one, hope that a definitive answer is never provided.