I came upon a short video, The Ending Of Blade Runner Explained. You can go watch it, if you like. I didn’t embed it because I think it is stupid. Basically, it tries to answer the question, “Is Deckard a replicant?”
To start with, this question is very much like the question that most people obsess about after seeing The Conversation, “Where is the microphone?!” The whole point of the story is that it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter that Harry Caul is the greatest bugger in the world. And it doesn’t matter all that he does to protect himself. If someone wants to track you, they will. The reason most of us don’t have to worry about it is that no one cares about us.
Silly Questions About Movies
In Blade Runner you have the same issue. Deckard could be a human or a replicant, but it just doesn’t matter. The video puts this idea in the mouth of Philip K Dick, who wrote the novel Blade Runner is based on, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The problem is that Dick never said that. Much of his work deals with the question of what it means to be human. But in the novel, there is no question but that Deckard is human.
It is true that director Ridley Scott decided that Deckard was a replicant. I did learn from the video that Harrison Ford (who plays Deckard) believes that the character is human. But as I’ve been writing for many years, meaning does not come from artistic creators but rather from artistic consumers. So Deckard is a replicant for Scott, and a human for Ford and Dick. But I’m going to explain why Deckard is a human.
Looking for Clues
The big problem with the “Deckard is a replicant” camp is that they base their arguments on tiny details like the unicorn origami left at the end. And since Deckard had a dream about a unicorn, that must mean that Gaff could somehow read Deckard’s dream. First: how? The technology to do this without touching him doesn’t exist in the film. But more to the point, why does Decker know about the standard memory implants in Rachael, but somehow doesn’t know about them in himself? If he’s a replicant, he can’t think he’s a human.
I’ve always seen the ending in a much more simpler: Gaff left it there as a message to Deckard: he wasn’t going to kill Rachael and he was going to allow them to get away. Unicorns are symbols of freedom and the possible. So it is just a coincidence that the dream has a unicorn and Gaff’s final piece is a unicorn.
Don’t get me wrong: I know that Scott put it in there so he could imply that Deckard was a replicant. But then he leaves huge parts of the film indicating that he’s human. Scott is a good director, but he’s not a writer. So I suspect that Scott had Hampton Fancher and David Peoples (who were both involved in the final rewrites) to cram in little bits to imply this. I doubt seriously that they were in early versions of the screenplay.
The Most Trivial Conspiracy Theory
Consider the scene just before the unicorn scene. Deckard asks Rachael, “Do you love me?” She responds, “I love you.” That’s a far more interesting scene if one of them is a replicant and one a human.
Another thing that the video claims is that Deckard, in his battle with Roy is able to deal with his beating whereas a real human would die. Have they not seen a modern film? What Deckard goes through is pretty typical action star stuff. And Deckard shows great pain. Meanwhile, Roy shoves his head through a wall and doesn’t seem to feel any pain at all.
People who make claims for Deckard being a replicant sound very much like conspiracy theorists. They ignore major features of the film, and focus on tiny issues to make their argument.
The Issue of Empathy
The one thing that really distinguishes humans from replicants is empathy. This raises a problem, because not all humans have empathy. Lack of empathy is more or less the definition of psychopathy. And if ever there were a job that would be helped by a lack of empathy, it is a bounty hunter. Whereas a prosecutor is supposed to look for the truth (which they don’t), a bounty hunter is only supposed to hunt down people. It’s like in that great scene in The Fugitive where Dr Kimble says he didn’t kill his wife and US Marshal Gerard replies, “I don’t care.”
And this makes the ending of the film quite interesting. As Roy (Rutger Hauer) gains empathy, he saves Deckard. But if the roles were reversed, Deckard would not have done the same. That gets to the issue of empathy as a continuum. Clearly, when empathy came to Roy, it came in full measure — a measure that probably doesn’t exist in humans. Is it possible that the replicants are destine to be more human than we are? After all, how empathic is a four year old child? And I wonder if the humans who mandate that replicants only live four years don’t do so because it would be only too clear who are the better creatures.
How Do You Know You Aren’t a Replicant?
Regardless of this, the question remains: other than empathy, how would any human know that they were not a replicant? After all, our memories are nothing but chemical storage. The only thing that we can be certain of is that we exist in this moment. Everything else is just a phantom: a construct of what we call time. But I’ve long been suspicious of time. It seems to me just our primitive way of experiencing the totality of the universe. And in that way, Roy is wrong in his final speech:
I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-Beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in the rain. Time to die.
There are only two ways to look at it. It could be that time is an illusion. All our memories are effectively implants. There is only an eternal now. The past is a lie we tell ourselves to explain what is happening now. Or it could be that time is just our limited view of a larger cosmos: we are stuck seeing the three-dimensional world from our perspective in Flatland.
I remember reading that scorpions — some of them anyway — have no ability to create memories. It strikes me that memory is a necessary condition for an animal to develop empathy. So I think that the ideas of identity and empathy are really bound up in the notion of memory. Whether memory has some actual basis in past events hardly matters. And maybe this is why Rachael in the movie seems to have empathy: because she was given memories. Roy was not. Imagine what a great creature he would have been with a longer life.
Blade Runner Is a Mess of a Script
And what most annoys me is that the video thinks that Ridley Scott and Harrison Ford and Philip K Dick can somehow better tell us the answer to this question because they were involved in the making of the film (to one extent or another). But this is really stupid when you consider how different the film and novel are.
I like Blade Runner quite a lot. But it really is a mess of a film that you can make anything of that you like.
Movie Gets Mixed Up With Novel
Consider how the novel gets mixed up in the film. In the book, robotic animals are cheap. The sign of affluence is being able to afford a real animal. In the book, Deckard’s wife is unhappy because they can’t afford any real animals. So when Deckard gets a reward for blowing away a bunch of replicants in a single day, he buys his wife a living goat. And she is distraught when Rachael kills the goat.
In the film, Rachael talks about how expensive the manufactured owl is — implying that manufactured creatures are very expensive. Later, when Deckard confronts the replicant dancer, Zhora, he asks, “Is this a real snake?” She replies, “Of course it’s not real! Do you think I’d be working in a place like this if I could afford a real snake?”
Another example is all the exposition that poor old M Emmet Walsh (Bryant) is forced to spew when Deckard is brought to the police station. Replicants only have a four year life span. But is that all replicants or just this version? If it’s all replicants (which is implied), this is something that Deckard would surely know given that he is such a hot shot replicant “retirer.”
Blade Runner Is a Better Film If Deckard Is Human
Ultimately, Deckard is a human because the film is more interesting if he is. The film ends in a very ambiguous way. What’s going to happen to these two characters who we have come to like? It doesn’t need more ambiguity about who the characters even are.
Blade Runner is an interesting film. I enjoy watching it. But it isn’t some great work of art that has deep lessons to teach us. It’s an action film made for thoughtful people. And that’s more than enough for me to own it and repeatedly watch it.
Poster image taken from Wikipedia. Single frames are taken from the film. All licensed under Fair Use.