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Countdown to Blade Runner 2049 – Part VII: Replicant or not?


This year's most anticipated sequel, Blade Runner 2049, is finally released on Friday and is set to plunge us back into a visually arresting future world. Harrison Ford returns alongside Ryan Gosling for Arrival director Denis Villeneuve's follow-up to the 1982 Ridley Scott masterpiece.

We're counting down the days until the sequel's release by breaking down eight aspects of the Blade Runner universe. This week we're exploring one of the key questions: is Harrison Ford's Rick Deckard a replicant?

The background

As seen in Scott's original movie replicants are humanoid robots, outwardly identical to us in every way but designed for very specific purposes.

The original Blade Runner saw Deckard tasked with tracking down and eliminating a group of Nexus-6 replicants built for slave labour in the off-world colonies. Led by the physically powerful Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), they return to Earth in search of a way to extend their four-year lifespans.

This is where the moral complexities of the Blade Runner universe find their centre: are the distinctly non-empathetic Blade Runners more human than the androids they're ruthlessly hunting down? The presence of Batty's moving death monologue, with its celebrated "tears in rain" line, strikes a far more compassionate note than any of Deckard's violent actions.

It gets a hella lot more complicated when one considers the presence of the unicorn dream sequence in the 1992 Director's Cut of Blade Runner.

As experienced by Deckard himself, this would seem to suggest that he's experiencing a replicant's implanted memories, reinforced by the presence of Gaff's (Edward James Olmos) origami unicorn at the end of the movie.

It would appear that Gaff is signalling his own knowledge of Deckard's artificial dreams – and so a whole other aspect of Blade Runner mythology was born, people split into two camps as to whether Ford's character was either human or robot. 

And fans aren't the only ones who disagree on the issue...

Ford's view

Hot to trot off the back of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars, Ford found himself unprepared for the mental strain of Blade Runner's arduous shoot. Largely shot at night on the Warner Bros backlot amidst downpours of simulated rain, the bleak mood of the production clearly filtered through into the movie itself.

Added to that were Ford's complaints that Scott was distant as a director and that his role made very little sense ("I'm playing a detective who does no detecting," the actor grumbled). Even so it was the philosophical undercurrents of the story itself that led to further tension between the two, namely the question about whether Deckard was a replicant.

At the time of filming Ford was firmly of the opinion that Deckard was human. Scott however had become fascinated with the idea that the character was more than that, inserting clues like the unicorn sequence (ultimately removed from the original cut and restored in the Director's version) suggesting Deckard was an android, irritating Ford in the process.

"I felt that the audience needed to have someone on-screen that they could emotionally relate to as though they were a human being," Vanity Fair reports Ford as saying.

His reaction to the unicorn scene, meanwhile? "Goddammit, I thought we said I wasn’t a replicant!"

Scott's view

The director on the other hand has become increasingly convinced over the years of Deckard's replicant status. In fact, according to Scott it was right there in front of our faces from the beginning.

In 2007 Scott told Wired the following: "That's the whole point of Gaff, the guy who makes origami and leaves little matchstick figures around. He doesn't like Deckard, and we don't really know why. If you take for granted for a moment that, let's say, Deckard is a Nexus 7, he probably has an unknown life span and therefore is starting to get awfully human. 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." 

Scott continues: "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.' That relates to Deckard's first speech to Rachael when he says, 'That's not your imagination, that's Tyrell's niece's daydream.' And he describes a little spider on a bush outside the window. The spider is an implanted piece of imagination. And therefore Deckard, too, has imagination and even history implanted in his head."

Complicated? In fact the issue is so divisive, Ford and Scott still haven't resolved their differences...

Ford v Scott

According to Denis Villeneuve, Ford and Scott are still at loggerheads over the whole replicant issue.

As quoted by Cinemablend he says: "So I decided that the movie... Deckard, in the movie, is unsure, as we are, of what his identity is. Because I love that. I love mystery. That's an interesting thing to me. I really love that. Again, Harrison and Ridley are still arguing about that. If you put them in the same room, they don't agree. And they start to talk very loud when they do. It's very funny."

This rather conflicts with Ford's response earlier in 2017 ("It doesn't matter what I think," as reported by Screenrant) but there's no denying that the conflicting viewpoints shared by the Blade Runner crew (screenwriter Hampton Fancher says he prefers it unsolved) makes for fascinating discussion.

Blade Runner 2049

Coursing with those existential ideas about what constitutes a human being, 2049 is centred around Ryan Gosling's replicant Blade Runner K, whose own search for answers leads him right to Deckard's door, the latter having been off the grid for 30 years.

If anything the sequel deepens the complex, brain-nagging themes for which Blade Runner has become famous. Villeneuve says he's been equally influenced by both the original and director's cuts of Scott's own movie, in the process leaving us with more questions than answers.

"I was raised with the first [movie], and then later on, I discovered what was the original dream of Ridley," he tells Cinemablend. "So I really loved his version, too. The key to making this [new] movie was to be in between. Because the first movie was a story of a human being falling in love with a designed human being – an artificial human being. And the story of the second movie is a replicant that doesn't know he's a replicant, who slowly discovers his own identity." 

He continues: "So, those are two different stories. I felt that the key to deal with that was in the novel of Philip K. Dick. Which was that, in the novel, that characters are doubting themselves. They are not sure if they are replicants or not. From time to time, the detectives are having to go and perform [tests] on themselves to make sure they are really humans. I love that."

So what's the truth?

In short... That's up to you to decide. One of the enduring pleasures of Blade Runner is its ambiguity, and the ability of each viewer to form their own interpretation.

With reviews of the sequel raving about its thematic complexity and emotional depth, it seems we can expect this debate to go on for quite some time yet.

Click here to book your tickets for Blade Runner 2049, opening this Thursday, and join the replicant debate @Cineworld.