Spoilers for Blade Runner 2049 below.
The history of science fiction is littered with intractable debates. What defines “hard” science fiction? Should anime be watched with English dubbing or English subtitles? How is Data so sexy? But one question rises to the top of the genre pile this week: Is Rick Deckard a replicant? Ever since the 1982 release of the original Blade Runner, viewers have argued over whether or not its protagonist is, in fact, one of the manufactured humanoids that he’s usually tasked with murdering. Director Ridley Scott has said that he is, but co-screenwriter Hampton Fancher and Harrison Ford have said that he isn’t. According to Ford, he and Scott “resolved” the question while making Blade Runner 2049, which might lead you to believe the film offers up a conclusive answer. But does it?
Thankfully (or unfortunately, if you hate ambiguity), the answer is no. We get new information about Deckard and about replicants, but the relationship between the two remains hard to pin down. Let’s look at the evidence for both sides of the debate from both the original film and the sequel, and you can decide for yourself.
Evidence Deckard isn’t a replicant
The Ur-clue for the discussion is the fact that the novel upon which Blade Runner was based, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, says Deckard is full-on human. That makes thematic sense, as one of the primary themes of the novel and the movies is the question of what makes someone “human” — and it’s hard to make that definition if you don’t have a control case of someone who is at least human in a biological sense. There’s also the matter of lifespan: We’re told in Blade Runner that, as of 2019, the highly advanced Nexus 6 replicant line has built-in expiration dates about three years after their activation. If Deckard’s a veteran blade runner, then how would he have built a career in that short of a timespan? And wouldn’t the LAPD have reservations about employing a replicant, given that it’s illegal for them to live on Earth?
Even Blade Runner 2049’s title adds fuel to the “Deckard’s a human” fire. He’s survived for 30 more years, which would be a huge leap from the limited lives of the Nexus 6 models. He’s not only survived: He’s also grown demonstrably older (sorry, Harrison), which seems like a weird feature to build into a creature designed to be “more human than human,” as the replicant-manufacturing Tyrell Corporation’s slogan goes. We learn that Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel), near the end of his life, created Nexus 8 replicants that had open-ended lifespans, but again, if Deckard had built a life at the LAPD, that implies that he would have been an older model, and therefore one with the biological self-destruct function.
Evidence Deckard is a replicant
Although it’s never explicitly stated one way or another, the argument for Deckard being an artificial creation has always been the stronger of the two, and that continues to be the case in 2049. The original film features two huge suggestions of his robotic nature. The first is the unicorn: At one point, Deckard gets hammered and dreams of a unicorn running through greenery; later, fellow cop Gaff (Edward James Olmos) gives him an origami unicorn, implying that the dream was an implant Gaff knew about, much as Deckard knows about the memories implanted into replicant Rachael (Sean Young). The second is the final fight: Deckard battles rogue replicant Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) and takes a truly insane amount of damage without dying, which would fit the profile of the superhumanly strong artificial species. There are other little hints, such as the fact that Deckard doesn’t reveal whether or not he’s passed the replicant-detecting Voight-Kampff Test when Rachael asks him about it, and the fact that Gaff says, “You’ve done a man’s job, sir!” to Deckard at one point in a sardonic tone.
In 2049, we’re immediately told in the opening titles about the existence of the long-living Nexus 8s, and we then meet Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), an aging replicant. That all seems like significant exposition to explain how Deckard could be one. Once we finally catch up with Deckard, he’s again doing something superhuman: living in the massively irradiated wasteland that was once Las Vegas. When he meets Tyrell’s successor, Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), the latter seems to think Deckard is an advanced replicant from the Tyrell era. While talking about the late Rachael, Wallace specifically accuses the erstwhile cop of being “designed to do nothing short of fall for her, right then and there,” though he tempers that statement by saying, “if you were designed” and adding that it could have been “love” or “mathematics.” Near the end of the film, he also manages to partially break out of some tough restraints during a rescue from kidnapping. Plus, there’s the overarching fact that Ryan Gosling’s K is a replicant and a blade runner for the LAPD, which prompts one to see parallels between the two gents.
Beyond that, 2049 doesn’t have much in the way of hard evidence one way or another, but it does have a few bits designed to pique your interest in the question. K asks whether Deckard’s dog is real and the latter replies, “I dunno, ask him.” While being confronted by Wallace, Deckard growls at him, “I know what’s real.” And the mere fact that the film could have just come out and established the truth, but chooses not to, is the greatest clue of all: Unlike the lifespan of the Nexus 6s, this question isn’t going to die anytime soon.