There are two kinds of movies in the world: the kind that wraps up the plot with a nice little bow, and the ones that leave us a little bit baffled, kind of confused, and searching for answers long after the credits have rolled. We’ve all seen those mysterious movies with their ambiguous endings, and we’ve all spent countless hours asking some pretty difficult questions. What’s Jack Nicholson doing in that old photograph? What did Bill Murray whisper into Scarlett Johansson’s ear? Is that top ever going to fall over? And most importantly, is Rick Deckard a replicant?
That last question—the question of Deckard’s true nature—has stirred up some pretty fierce arguments among sci-fi nerds and cinephiles for decades, and several influential figures have weighed in on the debate. According to Harrison Ford, the guy who plays Deckard, Rick is definitely a human being. On the other hand, Ridley Scott says you’re a “moron” if you think Deckard is anything other than an android. So who’s right, and who’s wrong?
While there’s no definitive answer (film is subjective, after all), there are quite a few clues that hint at Deckard’s identity. Unfortunately for Harrison Ford and the “He’s Human” crowd, most of the evidence indicates Rick is a replicant. However, before we begin our cinematic investigation, it’s important to remember there are seven different versions of Blade Runner, each one different from the others. For the purposes of this article, we’ll only refer to the 1982 theatrical release and the 2007 Final Cut.
The 1982 film and the rerelease are totally different animals, especially when it comes to their endings. In the theatrical version, Deckard and his replicant love interest, Rachael, flee L.A. and escape into the mountains. Courtesy of a Harrison Ford voiceover, we learn Rachael will live as long as an average human being—pretty convenient since most replicants die after four years. It’s all very romantic and couldn’t be any more different from the Final Cut. In the 2007 version, Deckard and Rachael’s fate is left uncertain. Do they make it out of the city? Are they gunned down by another blade runner? We never find out.
Now it’s time to address the horned mythological creature in the room. In both films, seconds before Rick and Rachael step into the elevator, Deckard spots a tiny origami unicorn outside his apartment. It’s a message from Gaff, an enigmatic police officer who spends his free time taunting Deckard with handmade figurines. For example, earlier in the film, Gaff whipped up a paper chicken to imply Deckard was a coward. The tiny unicorn is obviously Gaff’s parting gift, but what does it mean? Well, that depends on which version of the film you’re watching.
In 1982 version, Deckard picks up the unicorn and his memory flashes back to an earlier scene when Gaff mysteriously called out, “It’s too bad she [Rachael] won’t live. But then again, who does?” The tinfoil figure is Gaff’s way of letting Deckard know he could’ve killed Rachael, but instead he chose to let her go. It also implies that Deckard and Rachael should get out of town before less sympathetic blade runners decide to pay a house call. But why does Gaff leave a unicorn of all things? Well, unicorns are magical creatures that stand apart from their real-world equestrian cousins. Perhaps the unicorn implies Rachael is different from humans, or perhaps it means she’s not like other replicants thanks to her extended life-span.
Of course, everything changes when you watch the Final Cut, all thanks to a rather unusual dream sequence. Earlier in the film, we see Deckard sitting at a piano, nursing a drink while pecking at the keys, and suddenly, he imagines a lone unicorn galloping through a forest glen. What does the unicorn signify? Perhaps it symbolizes Rachael, a beautiful being who can help Deckard escape his emotionless existence. Whatever the dream’s meaning, things take a shocking turn when Deckard finds Gaff’s origami unicorn outside his apartment. The blade runner realizes Gaff knows about his secret thoughts (just like Deckard knew about Rachel’s earlier in the film), and how could anyone know what’s happening in Deckard’s mind unless his memories are implants?
Suddenly, Gaff’s handcrafted calling card takes on a new meaning. Not only is it a warning, it implies Gaff knows the truth about Deckard’s identity. Of course, if the unicorn was the only piece of evidence for the “He’s a Replicant” argument, you could argue Deckard is human in the 1982 version and an android in the 2007 film. However, while the original doesn’t include the unicorn dream sequence, there are quite a few clues in both versions of Blade Runner that imply Deckard shares quite a bit in common with Rachael, Pris, and Roy.
For example, both versions include a scene in which Deckard plays a melody on the piano, and then later on, we see Rachael play the exact same song. Is it simply a coincidence? Perhaps. However, we’re also given a glimpse of Deckard’s living room and see his home is plastered with photographs. Maybe these are images of his family, or perhaps they’re just false memories, similar to Rachael’s fake childhood photographs.
Additionally, both films involve a scene where Gaff cryptically calls out to Deckard, “You’ve done a man’s job, sir.” Is this a simple compliment, or is Gaff implying Deckard isn’t quite what he seems? Similarly, Rachael asks Deckard if he’s ever taken the Voight-Kampff test, but Deckard never answers because he’s asleep. But perhaps the most damning piece of evidence involves Deckard’s eyes. In Blade Runner, we learn replicants have reflective eyes. When the light hits them in just the right way, their pupils turn dark orange. So what are we to think when Deckard steps out of his bathroom, glimpses at Rachael, and his eyes start to glow?
In addition to the “He’s a Replicant Theory,” there are quite a few sub-categories that take the concept even further. Some suggest Deckard is an android because replicants are created to perform dangerous or demeaning tasks, like serving in the military, serving as sex workers…or hunting down a bunch of emotionally unstable robots with super human strength. Some Blade Runner fans think Deckard might be the sixth replicant mentioned by Bryant (M. Emmet Walsh). Earlier in the film, the police chief explains six “skin-jobs” made it to Earth, and one was killed trying to reach Tyrell. We know the other four (Roy, Pris, Leon, and Zhora) so who is the sixth? Is it possibly Deckard? Finally, another fascinating sub-theory suggests Gaff knows about Deckard’s dream because Rick has been implanted with Gaff’s own thoughts.
Of course, not everyone thinks Deckard is a replicant. In addition to Harrison Ford, fans like Frank Darabont believe the blade runner is 100% human. The Shawshank Redemption director thinks the “replicant theory” cheapens Deckard’s emotional arc, his transformation from emotionless killer to a man willing to risk his life for Rachael. However, director Guillermo del Toro respectfully disagrees. According to the man behind Pan’s Labyrinth, Roy and Pris are superior beings because they’re more in touch with their emotions. Most of the humans in this movie are cold and dead whereas the replicants feel things like pain, sadness, and joy. So according to del Toro, “If Deckard is not a replicant, it’s his loss, actually.”