(Spoilers for the film Blade Runner below).
That is the question that has divided Blade Runner fans for many years. Not helping the debate is the fact that the cast and filmmakers don’t even agree as to whether or not Deckard should be considered a replicant or a human – this most notably led to a number of conflicts between director Ridley Scott who argued for Deckard being a replicant, and leading man Harrison Ford who argued that Deckard was a human.
So I’m taking a stance, and looking at the title that stance should be obvious: Deckard is human.
Disregarding the fact that Blade Runner is loosely based upon the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and in this novel Deckard is human! The primary reason for why Deckard should be human is that it supports the film’s cynical themes about the nature of humanity.
Scott apparently wanted to deviate from the material in order to create a twist ending, like something out of the Twilight Zone or an M. Night Shyamalan film. While twists can be fun, they can’t undermine the thematic structure that is holding up the film, and Blade Runner’s themes are deep and essential to the film having the emotional and dramatic impact that it has. The problem with the twist – Deckard was a replicant – is that it undermines the film’s central question, what does it mean to be human?
That is the question that is asked over and over again in Blade Runner, and the great thing about this movie is how it begins to subtly invert upon itself in regards to that question. As the film progresses the replicants begin to feature more and more human characteristics – Roy and Pris develop a genuine romantic relationship, Zhora creates a career for herself as an exotic dancer, Leon cherishes his photos – some of which are implants, others though are of his most recent friends – making the need for friendship the chief human aspect about Leon, and Rachel saves Deckard from being killed by Leon.
By the time the film reaches its climax with the scene where Roy saves Deckard on the rooftop, and he begins his famous epiphany in the rain about the beauty of living, viewers have now been able to genuinely connect with the robots that have succumbed to such a horrible fate. That Roy’s last act is not to destroy but to save, where as Deckard’s actions have been to destroy and not save, all but secures the idea that the replicants in Blade Runner are, ironically, more human than the humans.
Further enforcing the idea that the humans lack humanity are their inhumane actions throughout the film. The physical setting of the film (which is designed by humans) constantly shows a rundown, overly crowded, world that lacks culture and substance, Deckard’s romantic relationship with Rachel has none of the passion that Roy and Pris’s has – and when these two do consummate their love it’s one of the most uncomfortable and awkward scenes in the whole film-, and Deckard’s goal throughout the film is to destroy the replicants – whereas the replicants are only looking to extend the length of their short lives.
If Deckard is a human, than I believe the point to Blade Runner is this: humanity is more than flesh and blood. What makes humans, human is there conscience and their ability to engage the world with empathy.
Blade Runner is a cautionary tale. As the humans become less human than the machines, an imminent degradation of humanity is being suggested. The futuristic setting of the film feels like its physical result of the degradation of human values, and it’s only fitting at the end of the film that the human conscience descends to the low level of the physical setting the film takes place in. These questions and contradictions make Blade Runner such a fascinating film. This is a movie where the audience will generally empathize with machines more than with humans at its end because the machines learn to prominently display their humanity, whilst the humans forget about theirs.
Now let’s pretend Deckard is a replicant. None of these very fascinating questions about what it is to be human are viable anymore. Deckard’s romantic gestures towards Rachel aren’t lacking humanity now; rather they are misguided attempts at robot love. Deckard’s attempts at destroying the other replicants is undermined by the fact that he is now a replicant – instead of destruction being shown as a degradation of humanity, it’s showing that it’s a degradation of machines – who cares about the degradation of machines?
The biggest problem with Deckard being a machine comes at the climax of the film. Roy saving Deckard has a much more humane quality to it, if Roy is shown saving a human rather than another machine. A machine saving a machine would be expected because the movie implies the renegade machines will always work with machines first, and the law-enforcing humans will always work with humans first. Genuine empathy is what is needed to bridge the conflict between humans and machines, and as the story continually suggests, it’s genuine empathy that is fundamental to making humans, human.
If Deckard is human, then Roy achieves a state of genuine empathy by being the first of the two groups to reach out with a peace offering. Having a machine be genuinely empathetic furthers the idea that a state of true humanity is about more than having just the flesh and blood of a human. If Deckard is a replicant, than Roy’s state of genuine empathy is completely undermined because Roy has done the expected, he has saved another machine. Roy saving machine Deckard implies Roy hasn’t learned what it means to be human, he hasn’t learned what the beauty of living is, and he is quite simply doing what a machine should do. It also implies, since Deckard is a machine, that he can’t learn about what it is to be human either.
In other words if Deckard is a machine, then the whole film, a film that focuses about what the nature of humanity is for its entirety, can only logically surmise that humanity cannot be learned. With that logic, it can simply be implied that humans are nothing more than flesh and blood. Biologically this may be true, but in a film that has a deep philosophical premise, this notion is ridiculous because it suggests having the flesh and blood of a human is more important than a human’s ability to express empathy when it comes down to determining what humanity is.
The – humans can lose their humanity – aspect of this story is thrown out the window if Deckard is made to be a machine, and that is why he must be human. The importance of being able to empathize with others is undermined if Deckard is a robot, and that is why he must be human. And since this is a movie made for humans, it would make a lot more sense to show the dangers of the degradation of humanity and that humans are more than just sacks of meat.
Besides, I find that by having the film getting viewers to side with Deckard and against Roy throughout the entire film, only to switch the viewers perception about the two characters during their final battle is a much more impactful twist than… Deckard is a replicant… Surprise!
The end with Roy’s epiphany is quite frankly one of the greatest twists in film, it makes you question everything you saw before it and of course the nature of humanity.