The Replicant Option
There has been a tendency in the debate concerning Deckards human or replicant status to focus on the so-called evidence in the movie. Personally, I prefer to see the unicorn and other so-called evidence as indications: signs that he might be a replicant. I find it more rewarding to discuss what he should be, not what he is. In this pragmatic analysis, I will present a pro-replicant view on this issue; not necessarily innovative, but hopefully systematic. In many respects, it is a summary of opinions I, and probably many other fellow Blade Runner fans as well, have expressed elsewhere.
THE LOGICAL PERSPECTIVE
First, I would like to address some specific objections to the replicant option, albeit of a technical or superficial nature:
Replicants are illegal On-World. Already today, we can see how international treaties are being ignored and abused. I believe it is reasonable to assume that the On-World prohibition is being systematically ignored and abused: there are probably many replicants on Earth, possibly tens of thousands. After all, the gigantic size of the Tyrell complex suggests that replicants are being manufactured On-World, and the demand for especially replicant prostitutes and soldiers would probably be enormous On-World. Why would a nation or a corporation for that matter! not use replicant soldiers that can be cognitively manipulated and that are completely expendable? On a similar note, why would American authorities not use replicants as special agents, especially secret agents? The benefits and the competitive advantages would simply be too compelling. If, for instance, China would use replicant intelligence agents, would USA not follow, especially in a chaotic world? If the American military would use replicants, would the police not follow, especially in a police state?
As Rachael is an experiment, Deckard, and possibly other blade runners as well, cannot be replicants with false memories. Well, Rachael is said to be an experiment. Notice that Deckard, Bryant and Holden are not really familiar with the Nexus-6 generation. Nevertheless, the incept dates of the renegade replicants show that this particular generation has existed on the market for at least three years! Evidently, the Tyrell Corporation has kept Rep-Detect in the dark. As far as we know, there might already exist a Nexus-10 generation! With a replicant protagonist, we catch a glimpse of an abyss: Exactly how far has the Tyrell Corporation advanced the replicant evolution?
Deckard cannot be a veteran blade runner if he is a replicant. A Nexus-6 replicant, and even more so a replicant of a later generation, could have worked as a blade runner for over three years. Furthermore, can we really be sure that veteran skills cannot be identified and transformed into memory representations in the future? Hypothetically, an artificial veteran could, as a compound, be more skilled than a genuine veteran.
Deckards false memories would have to be obtained from a real Deckard. A statement such as this one assumes that we already know the exact nature of human cognition, and that is far from true. Do we really know for sure that the memory banks needed to accomplish such a delusion cannot be of a fragmental nature? Do we really know for sure recordings from virtual reality constructs or even conventional film studios would not be sufficient? I believe the notion of fragmental memory banks can be advantageously compared with the theories of Gestalt psychology. In any case, if these fragmental memories exist in Deckards mind, he cannot possibly dismiss them as false; he must assume they are true. He would simply have to cope with the situation: a complex, elusive and indefinable problem. Hypothetically, he might even suspect that he is about to become insane. After all, he appears to be an introverted, ruminating, almost existentially confused individual in the movie.
Deckard is physically, and possibly also mentally, too weak to be a replicant. If Deckard had para-human capabilities, he would sooner or later understand he is a replicant. The consequences could become severe: he could become psychotic or at least find it difficult to interact with humans; he could decide to sabotage the system from within, help renegade replicants to escape or even kill his human masters. Furthermore, do we really know what constitutes a perfect detective? If we examined all the successful detectives of today, would we really find out that they were perfect? Perhaps Deckard actually is the perfect design: the intuitive detective. Remember Tyrells slogan: More human than human.
Replicant blade runners with false memories would be too expensive. If replicants were (comparatively) expensive to manufacture, the Off-world colonists would not be offered custom tailored, genetically engineered, humanoid replicants designed especially for your needs; replicants could not be extensively used as slave labour in the colonisation programme. Furthermore, we cannot know for sure that brain implants are exclusive and expensive. Judging from the rather casual way that Bryant mentions them in the movie, they may be quite common; hypothetically, all replicants can be equipped with some kind of brain implants. Memory implants are probably more complex and expensive, but we cannot know exactly how complex and expensive. On a meta-cinematic level, if we accept that artificial, sentient beings can be mass-produced in Blade Runner, then why should we not accept that complex brain implants could be mass-produced? In any case, replicant blade runners might hypothetically be less expensive: Rep-Detect would not have to pay for training, insurances and pensions.
The replicant option is a far-fetched conspiracy. That is probably true. However, this statement assumes that far-fetched conspiracies can never be real; in reality, they sometimes are. If USA 2019 is a police state, which it certainly appears to be in the movie, we know two things for sure from real police states: the mass media can be effectively controlled and suppressed, and the leadership never has to answer for its actions to the public. Why would the police hesitate to conduct an experiment like this in such a society? The common man would fear the police to one degree or another, and certainly not dare to question its methods. The regular policeman would probably not object either: better expose a replicant policeman to lethal danger than a human policeman. The Tyrell Corporation would probably co-operate quite eagerly: a Tyrell product would correct other dysfunctional Tyrell products.
Although the question might be of minor importance after all, this is science fiction and we accept the imaginative concepts as such I do not think a replicant Deckard is a logical impossibility.
THE DYSTOPIAN PERSPECTIVE
Blade Runner has often been labelled dystopian, and for good reasons. However, the fate of the protagonist in a dystopian depiction usually differs from the conventional heros: he, because it is usually not a she, almost invariably has to face Pyrrhic victory or utter defeat. A common theme is that the oppressor, or the collaborator, becomes the oppressed, or, perhaps more appropriate in Blade Runner, the hunter becomes the prey. The circle "must" be completed in dystopian fiction. This is significant and fundamental; and one can even claim that it is the raison d'être. As a comparison, look at "Nineteen Eighty-four": Winston Smith "must" be exposed and tormented. Otherwise, the intellectual and emotional impact on the reader or viewer becomes less intense.
Dystopian depictions can be regarded as warnings: to live in a dysfunctional society is a lethal lottery. Without a replicant protagonist, replicants can more easily be dismissed as monsters; after all, it is a basic mechanism in fiction that the audience cannot dismiss the protagonist as easily as other characters. Furthermore, with a human protagonist, the audience can get the impression that it is possible to cheat the system: one does not necessarily have to suffer in a dysfunctional society. With a replicant protagonist, on the other hand, it becomes perfectly clear that no one, absolutely no one, is safe. With a human protagonist, this message becomes more diffuse and less effective, in my opinion.
THE FILM NOIR PERSPECTIVE
Blade Runners distinctive style has often been labelled film noir, although tech noir or future noir are probably more appropriate labels. The possibility that Deckard might be a replicant and theoretically every other character too corresponds well with the noir tradition of deceit and betrayal: the offender might be or might become the victim and vice versa. Ridley Scott has a similar view, as expressed in an interview with Paul M. Sammon:
If Deckard were a replicant, it would indeed be the ultimate noir delusion: Deckard does not even know who or what he is.
Needless to say, a replicant protagonist also enhances the mystical qualities of the movie; it becomes dramatically more uncertain and enigmatic. Like in so many prominent film noir movies, the ending does not necessarily answer all questions: it generates new questions. With a human protagonist, the ending only looks into the future; with a replicant protagonist, the ending looks both into the future and the past. I believe it goes without saying that with the latter option, the mystery becomes much more complex.
Furthermore, a classical film noir feature is the conspiracy not seldom of a quite far-fetched nature! Without a replicant Deckard, the movie lacks an elaborate and explicit conspiracy. One can of course claim that the baroque nature of the replicant business is a kind of large conspiracy in itself, but it is definitely more abstract and diffuse.
THE CYBERPUNK PERSPECTIVE
It is the creed of science fiction, especially cyberpunk: the story should make the mind reel. A human hunter of replicants is simply a too conventional concept, not really ground-breaking in any respect. A human protagonist makes Blade Runner less than it can be, in my opinion. From a conceptual point of view, it diminishes Blade Runner to a conventional futuristic movie: a cop that hunts monsters in a metropolis, just like in A Split Second or similar. It is a depressing fact that Blade Runner often has been described in this stereotypical manner in mass media.
An important aim of cyberpunk is to illustrate the potentially dire impact of future hyper-technology on humanity. If Deckard is a replicant, he is the only one that displays a natural human behaviour in the movie. For instance, Rachael could be dismissed as unnaturally cold and Roy Batty as psychotically violent. Furthermore, if Deckard is a replicant, he is the only one that lives a life that could be regarded as somewhat normal; a common man, albeit with an uncommon profession. All in all, if Deckard is a replicant, he is the only character that can serve as a proper illustration of the possible consequences of hyper-technological progress: humanity has to be redefined. The audience can simply dismiss the other characters as not human, claim that they do not count.
On a more superficial note, a human protagonist also lacks a fundamental cyberpunk quality: the abstract feature Bruce Sterling calls EDGE.
THE META-CINEMATIC PERSPECTIVE
A replicant protagonist adds a meta-cinematic dimension to Blade Runner. If Deckard is a human, the audience experiences how he faces a dilemma: he is sympathising with alleged automatons. Of course, this also applies if Deckard is revealed to be a replicant at the end of the movie. However, in the latter scenario, the audience has to face exactly the same dilemma as Deckard: it has sympathised with an automaton. The message becomes perfectly clear: the human identity has become universally diffused, distorted or even disintegrated in the age of hyper-technology. Blade Runner is not about them, but about us. Roy Batty can be, and has often been, dismissed as one of them, but not necessarily Deckard.
A common objection to a replicant protagonist is that the movie loses an important contrast: the human nature of replicants cannot be expressed, as there is no prominent human character to compare them with. This notion strikes me as somewhat odd. Obviously, there will always exist a contrast between the viewer and the replicant protagonist. As a comparison, a movie entirely about robots, extra-terrestrials or even animals would not have to be pointless: the viewer would of course compare the characters with him- or herself. Finally, on a speculative note, one may wonder if there should be any contrast between replicants and humans at all in the movie. An ending suggesting that every single character is a replicant could possibly be even more interesting. After all, more speculative experiments than that has been conducted within the field of imaginative science fiction. That is a somewhat different issue, though.
In any case, the notion of a replicant protagonist evidently makes the movie linger in the mind of the viewer: more often than seldom, Blade Runner fans initially approach different Blade Runner forums in order to explore the unicorn issue. For better or worse, the fandom would not be what it is without the suggestion of a replicant protagonist.
Finally, it is of course up to the viewer to decide whether Deckard really is a replicant or a human. In the end, it is a matter of personal preference.
29 October, 2003.