An aching film on such exquisite pains of impossible love, Paweł Pawlikowski’s Cold War concurrently swells your heart and breaks it.
We are pleased to offer an excerpt from the latest by online magazine Bright Wall/Dark Room, which now publishes content weekly but with a monthly theme. Their theme for November is "Head Trips." In addition to this essay by Dean Buckley on "Blade Runner," the issue also has new essays on we also have essays on "Stalker," "Dark City," "Black Mirror," "The Truman Show," "The Fountain," "Santa Sangre," "The Crying Game," "Femme Fatale," "The Skin I Live In," and a look at the history of Acid Westerns and more. The art above is by Brianna Ashby.
It’s been over a quarter of a century since Blade Runner first graced theatres in a mangled cut with a dull, vapid, plodding voiceover and a ludicrous, tacked-on happy ending cobbled together from leftover footage from The Shining.
Thirty-five years and seven versions later, the debate rages on: is Deckard a replicant? People have spent years poring over the film for evidence of their preferred answer. There’s a brief frame where Deckard’s eyes glint as he turns his head, out-of-focus behind Rachael, and replicant’s eyes glow sometimes, so Deckard is a replicant. Deckard lacks any of the physical qualities the film ascribes to replicants, so Deckard isn’t a replicant.
For what it’s worth, Ridley Scott says Deckard is a replicant. But Ray Bradbury said Fahrenheit 451 wasn’t about censorship in his later years, even though it’s literally a story about state-sanctioned book-burning, so maybe authorial statements don’t carry any magical determinative weight.
Personally, I don’t really care whether Deckard is a replicant or not. I don’t think the film does much to suggest he’s a replicant, and in most of the places it does, it reads to me more as an invitation to question whether it would even matter. Rachael asks Deckard if he’s ever done a Voight-Kampff test and, for some people, I guess the fact he doesn’t respond means that maybe he’s a replicant. I was born 12 years after Blade Runner was released, and didn’t watch it until I was 22, so I was already primed by the zeitgeist to watch the film as if it were possible that Deckard is a replicant. I paid close attention, and took note of every moment that seemed like possible evidence. Even so, when Rachael asks Deckard about the Voight-Kampff test, I merely thought she was goading him into a moment of doubt—because to make Deckard doubt his humanity for even a second would allow him to that see there’s really no difference between them.
Both Rachael and Deckard live based on a remembered experience of their own humanity—whatever their origins, at that moment there’s no meaningful distinction between them as thinking beings. If there are parts of the film that are supposed to make the audience question whether Deckard is a replicant, I can’t imagine a purpose it would serve except to make us appreciate the humanity of the replicants all the more.
And yet the overwhelming cultural response to what seems to be a purposeful ambiguity that exists for us to soak in its irresolution is…to resolve it.
Blade Runner isn’t the only film to receive this response, nor is it the strangest. Perhaps no film has ever done less to present itself as an intellectual puzzle to be solved than Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. Nevertheless, we’ve now had 14 years of celluloid sleuths on the case, trying to crack the “mystery” of what Bob whispers to Charlotte at the end of the film. Inception could not possibly be more blatant about the fact that knowing whether its ending is real or not is irrelevant, given that it ends with a long shot of the question decidedly not being answered, but still it’s debated, and debated, and debated. I’m not exactly sure what motivates this pathological need to “solve” art (or why Birdman seems to have largely escaped it so far). But this fear of ambiguity is probably the most boring phobia we, as a species, have narcissistically projected onto the films we watch.
But given that we have, and given the likelihood that Blade Runner will never escape the shadow of this question, it would be foolish not to question its implications.
Forget whether Deckard is a replicant; what would it mean for Blade Runner, as a film, for Deckard to be a replicant? And what would it mean if he wasn’t? The seven extant versions of Blade Runner make these questions more complicated, but Scott himself endorses The Final Cut as the most complete execution of his vision—and thinks it’s the most obvious thing in the world that Deckard is a replicant. So, if it matters at all whether he is or isn’t, it should be most obvious in The Final Cut.
Let’s consider both scenarios.
If Deckard is a replicant…
Deckard is a replicant programmed with the memories of a replicant hunter. He is presumably a very recent model, since Rachael is described as an experimental model, and the fact that she doesn’t know she’s a replicant is treated as an astonishing breakthrough. Deckard is employed as a blade runner, despite apparently lacking the physical capabilities to match the other replicants he’s employed to hunt. He cannot outrun Zhora or outfight Roy, and though he succeeds in killing Zhora and Pris, he needs Rachael to kill Leon. Not only is he unable to kill Roy, but he only survives to the end of the film because Roy spares him in an act of unprovoked mercy.
Other characters we can probably presume are human—like Bryant, Gaff, and Tyrell—treat Deckard as if he’s human, but must know he isn’t given he’s such a recent model. Bryant’s general state of malicious amusement at bringing Deckard out of retirement might derive from his bigotry towards replicants, who he refers to as “skin-jobs.” Gaff’s disdain for and mockery of Deckard is less clearly motivated, given he seems more sympathetic to replicants than Bryant. Tyrell displays no particular disposition toward Deckard one way or the other.
The origami unicorn that Gaff leaves outside Deckard’s apartment is his way of letting Deckard know he’s a replicant. It shows that Deckard’s dream of a unicorn earlier in the film is implanted, and Gaff knows about it in the same way that Deckard knows that Rachael’s memory of a spider was taken from Tyrell’s niece. Gaff’s final remark—“It’s too bad she won’t live, but then again, who does?”—echoes in Deckard’s mind as he realizes he, too, is on borrowed time.
What, then, does Blade Runner mean if Deckard is a replicant?
Blade Runner is a story of revelation, both for the audience and for Deckard. We both come to recognize the essential humanity of the replicants, and then learn Deckard is one, too.
There is a moral horror in both revelations.
The first forces us to confront the fact that Deckard is a murderer—and not just that, but a slave hunter, a man who uses violence and death to enforce a state of industrialized exploitation of a despised and mistreated underclass.
The second forces us to confront the fact that Deckard is also an unwitting race traitor, and it’s honestly a little cheap.
As if it’s not enough to portray a character who realizes they’re complicit in oppression and grasp the horror of their own actions, of their own being, they also have to learn they’ve been part of the class of the oppressed this whole time. It’s that nasty old cliché where the Nazi finds out he’s Jewish; some weird instinct to amplify the shock value by exposing the bigot as bigoted against their own kind, in a way that always narrows the lens so as to keep the vast majority of bigots out of focus and imagines the oppressed as their own oppressor.
In effect, it’s a move that takes the film’s attention away from one of its major themes—how society pretends not to see the humanity of the oppressed even when it’s staring them in the face—and makes it about the self-hatred of the oppressed. Deckard ceases to be a symbol of the oppressive social order and becomes the other. He ceases to indict us as an audience who is, no matter what we tell ourselves, party to oppression, and instead indicts the oppressed.
Of course, that result isn’t inevitable. It’s caused by what we could generously call an absence in the film, but should more accurately describe as a major incoherence: who made Deckard to be a blade runner? No one in particular is even slightly implied to be responsible for Deckard’s existence. He’s presumably a product of the Tyrell Corporation, but who masterminded his creation? Who agreed to his deployment by the LAPD? We have no idea—he is a mystery with a solution, not a character with an origin. Lots of people cite his lack of apparent backstory as evidence that he’s a replicant, but the continued lack of history post-twist just leaves further questions unanswered, even though those are the very questions the film must answer to avoid disappearing up its own asshole.
If Deckard is a replicant, then Blade Runner is a film whose narrative momentum and emotional weight collapse just before the finish line.
If Deckard is not a replicant…
Deckard is a cop who’s too old for this shit, forced out of retirement by the vague threats of his superior. He is an exceptional blade runner by human standards, but he’s out of practice and seems reluctant to do the deed. Perhaps it was growing pains in his conscience that led him to resign from the force in the first place.
He does a few things early in the film to suggest a prejudice against replicants. There’s his pointed use of the pronoun “it” to describe Rachael while speaking with Tyrell, and some forceful comments about the inhumanity of replicants (“Replicants are like any other machine. They’re either a benefit or a hazard. If they’re a benefit, it’s not my problem”). But in the context of the movie as a whole, these read less like expressions of a sincere disregard for replicant personhood and more like the desperate attempts of a man fearful of facing his own sins to persuade himself of his innocence. Deckard seems to pursue the replicants primarily out of a selfish desire to avoid whatever consequences Bryant holds over him. Regardless, by the end of the film, his growing pains are over. Both his love for Rachael and the grace shown to him by Roy Batty have forced him to accept that replicants are people, too.
The origami unicorn that Gaff leaves outside Deckard’s apartment could represent any number of things—Gaff previously used an origami chicken to call Deckard a coward, and a man with an erection to mock his obvious attraction to Rachael. People have used the term “unicorn” for decades as a term for something that people seek even though it doesn’t exist. Often it describes a perfect romantic or sexual partner. Gaff’s origami unicorn could be Gaff’s way of telling Deckard that his plan to flee the city with Rachael is a fool’s errand, but in a way that acknowledges the beauty of the attempt.
The origami unicorn is notably made from the silvery paper on the inside of a cigarette packet—it sparkles in the light as Deckard picks it up. Gaff’s final remark—“It’s too bad she won’t live, but then again, who does?”—echoes in Deckard’s mind, but it sounds less cynical this time. Before it was like her death doesn’t matter since everyone dies, but now it’s like it doesn’t matter if Deckard’s time with her will be short. If everyone dies, then all that matters is making the most of the time we have together.
What then does Blade Runner mean if Deckard is not a replicant?
Blade Runner is a story of revelation, both for the audience and for Deckard. We both come to recognize the essential humanity of the replicants. And we’re both forced to confront the fact that Deckard is a murderer, and not just that, but a slave hunter, a man who uses violence and death to enforce a state of industrialized exploitation of a despised and mistreated underclass.
We see in Deckard’s face as he watches Roy die that he’s not shying away from the moral horror of what he’s done. But it’s less clear what he’s thinking as he flees the city with Rachael. Does he view it as an act of resistance, an opportunity to save just one replicant, after killing so many? Or is it just about escape, to get away from the site of all this slaughter he’s committed, to leave it all behind and live happily with Rachael, at least for a little while? Has he even considered his present actions in that context, or is he just trying to get out before Bryant sends someone else to kill Rachael?
Gaff used an origami chicken to call Deckard a coward, but the unicorn suggests that, in this moment, he’s acting out of love. What else can he do? Even if there was no urgent need to escape, how could Deckard fight the system on his own? After all, he hasn’t uncovered a case of corruption, he’s just opened his eyes to the brutality of a system that’s functioning exactly as intended. There’s no higher authority to rectify the injustice if he brings them evidence. We don’t know of any abolitionist movement in the film’s dystopian future.
And so, they run away together.
But a question lingers.
What’s up with the goddamned unicorn dream? If it doesn’t imply that Deckard is a replicant, what purpose does it serve? Forget about purpose even—what is it doing there?
The unicorn is definitely a recurring image in the film, but trying to infer some meaning in the dream from the other unicorns just makes the dream even more incoherent. There’s the origami, sure, but Sebastian also has a stuffed unicorn doll in his apartment, so what’s that about? Maybe the unicorn dream represents Deckard’s burgeoning desire for something more than this provincial life, but if so, it’s bizarre that its only effect is to inspire him to blow up the photo of Roy until he can see the tiny details reflected in a mirror. The unicorn signifies nothing, but it also, somehow, serves as an important driver of the plot, for no apparent reason.
If Deckard is not a replicant, then Blade Runner is a film whose narrative momentum is based in no small part on a scene whose only function is to drive the story forward. But that erodes the story’s coherence because it’s nonsensical and meaningless.
Whether Deckard is a replicant or not, Blade Runner doesn’t really hang together as a cohesive piece of filmmaking. It’s still a great film, of course, and even better if you just delete the unicorn dream from your memory. No one could fault its exceptional visual composition, its incredible production design, or its score. The whole cast turn in stellar performances and the script crackles with brilliant dialogue.
Nonetheless, it’s a flawed and incoherent film based on a flawed and incoherent vision.
Ridley Scott says he always intended that Deckard be a replicant. That may well be true but, if so, it wasn’t something he made clear to Harrison Ford or the film’s writers, Hampton Fancher and David Peoples. The unicorn dream wasn’t in the screenplay. Scott conceived of it entirely on his own, and was apparently so obsessed with it that he swore he saw it in a special screening of the workprint cut. As recounted by the preservationist who found the workprint, Michael Arick, in Paul M. Sammon’s book Future Noir: “After the screening, Ridley thought he’d seen the unicorn in this print. He hadn’t. It wasn’t there. He was a little insistent about that, though.” But if it was supposed to be such clear and straightforward proof that Deckard was a replicant that the debate would be settled forever, it was obviously a failure. Some have suggested Blade Runner is doomed to incompletion, a notion that Scott rejected in a 2007 interview with Wired:
Scott: Somebody had written very simplistically that one of the fascinating things about the film was that it was incomplete. That’s absolute horseshit. The film was very specifically designed and is totally complete, with great decisions. A lot of decisions made in that film.
Wired: I’m not sure what that would mean—“incomplete.”
Scott: I read this article recently. I don’t remember who the hell it was. But somebody had intellectualized and theorized that the film had found an ongoing audiences because in its completion it was incomplete. And therefore, because there had been no decisions made at the end as to who this character may be—which is entirely wrong, because this character always in my mind was a replicant. In those particular days there was more discussion than was welcome, as far as I’m concerned.
Blade Runner will forever be an incomplete version of a film that makes sense, but it seems undeniable that The Final Cut is a complete execution of Scott’s vision, or, at least, his vision at the time he made it. I understand the impulse to believe there’s another tweak around the corner that will finally make Blade Runner work as a total film, but it’s never going to happen, and it shouldn’t anyway.
The idea that it can be “completed” into a coherent film is just as silly as the idea that anyone can “solve” the puzzle of whether Deckard is a replicant. Blade Runner exists as it does, a simultaneously brilliant and broken film, forever doomed to be nothing more than itself. We can take it or leave it, but we cannot change it, and it will never be the film it could be or should be or would be if we had our way.
Thirty-five years and seven versions later, it’s time we learned to live in that ambiguity.
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