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Ah, there you are. Congratulations, though as it means you now get to read my response to what has become a rather hoary old question, you might not think it much of a reward…


I saw Blade Runner twice within a week when it first came out, but despite that and a fair amount of publicity material beforehand, the question of whether he was or wasn’t didn’t ever occur to me. I’m not even sure I realised it WAS a question, though that situation had changed comfortably before release of the Director’s Cut.


Evidence to support a ‘yes’ appears plentiful to some. Deckard’s red eye glow, established – through similar shots of Tyrell’s owl and Rachael – as the mark of a replicant; his interest in photographs; his lack of empathy toward anyone, human or replicant; his remarkable physical similarity to Holden, suggesting the output of a production line; Rachael’s snapped “You ever take that test yourself?”. And, of course, the unicorn, as dream and as sculpture.


And yet this is only one reading of these aspects. Read another way, they support the alternate answer.


Deckard is jaded and tired, of life and his job – he is called back from retirement (in the human sense), remember. The red eye glow on Tyrell’s owl was in fact an irrelevant artefact of filming initially, since the bird as scripted was genuine: “Of course not”, Sean Young said on set (and still does if you read her lips) in answer to Deckard’s “It’s artificial?”. Only when it was realised that the rarity and thus expense of real animals had not been made sufficiently clear to explain this was the line changed. The red eye glow then became useful. Rachael’s exasperated comment need not be read literally.


And the unicorn?


All three of Gaff’s sculptures are insults to Deckard: ‘chicken’, ‘prick’, ‘fake’ – the latter, in other words, meaning ‘Your desire, for life with her, is a fantasy, because of her four-year lifespan’. This reading fits particularly well with the originally intended and now restored ending, where that life limit still applies, and Gaff’s parting words that “It’s too bad that she won’t live.”


As for Deckard’s dream, how do we know that’s what it was? Could he not be imagining something Rachael might have told him she’d dreamed, or something Tyrell told him she’d dreamed, just as he knows she ‘remembers’ spiders outside her childhood bedroom window? This would fit nicely with Gaff’s sculpture.


It’s clear Scott intended some ambiguity – a deleted scene has Gaff’s final message on the rooftop include the bold question “Are you a man?” after the famous “You’ve done a man’s job, sir” – though as Scott says in Dangerous Days, the question is interesting but the answer is stupid.


So for what it’s worth, and if forced, here’s my take.


No, he isn’t. Why? Because it’s too easy. Because it’s too cynical. Because it makes little actual sense within the logic of the story, and none at all within the context of the making of the book on which it’s based. Its writing was prompted by a discovery Dick made whilst researching his previous novel, The Man in the High Castle, set in an alternate present day in which Germany and Japan won World War 2. In an archive, Dick read a German soldier’s diary entry in which he complained that the crying of starving children was keeping his unit awake at night. If a human being who was, in essence, the same as ‘us’ could think a thought like that, Dick reasoned, what exactly makes a human anyway? Dick wrote Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? as a vehicle to explore that question.


If Deckard isn’t human, and can’t emerge from a lifetime of pursuit and killing and death (“I used to tell [my wife] it wasn’t real blood. ‘Looks like blood to me’, she said”), of slaughtering to order creations that think, act and look just like us (“Which didn’t make me feel any better about shooting a woman in the back”) to find love, what hope is there?



Posted May 2012

Chris Rogers  |  Writer on architecture and visual culture

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