One of the more contentious ongoing debates in cinema is whether Deckard in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner is a replicant or not. Over the course of the three decades and seven cuts of the film since its release, fans have broken down any and every piece of symbolism, line of dialogue and corner of set-design in order to try and develop some sort of concrete theory. All of which has consistently come to the same outcome: probably, but also probably not.
Ridley himself has weighed in on the subject several times, believing that Deckard is an android, adamant his movie makes that explicitly clear. The author's intention and what the text says can often be wildly different, though, and in this case, despite what Scott says to the contrary, it's anything but definitive. Ridley himself has historically been alone in his view; Philip K. Dick, the author of Blade Runner source material Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, believed Deckard to be human; as did Harrison Ford, who played Deckard; and Hampton Fancher, who co-wrote the film. Fast-forward to Blade Runner 2049, a sequel set some 30 years after the original, and one of the biggest questions looming over the ambitious production is whether Deckard's artificiality, or lack thereof, would be addressed.
It is, but those looking for a clear-cut validation of their elaborate theories one way or another may be disappointed. Before examination, it's important to note that 2049 director Denis Villeneuve agrees with the returning Fancher that Deckard's relative humanity is more ambiguous than anything, something Fancher's co-writer on the sequel Michael Green willfully made integral to the screenplay. “I have to recognize that going into a sequel for this, not only would it be foolish but it would be the midichlorianization of the experience to canonize yes or no and give it an answer,” Green told Screen Rant when asked about including the discussion. “What would be much more meaningful and much more honest to the integrity of the original would be to make that ambiguity part of the story and our experience because ambiguity, if you ask people to talk about the original Blade Runner, ambiguity is one of those words that comes up a bit and proudly so.”
And if one were to boil down Blade Runner 2049 to a single question, it'd be “if it becomes so hard to notice, does the difference between human and android still matter?” The film begins as a riff on the first with Blade Runner KD-9 (Ryan Gosling), himself a replicant, hunting down older model androids, and becomes something much bigger and more philosophical as K gets embroiled in a mystery about robotic evolution that leads right back to Deckard. In the short Black Out 2022, we find out that the last wave of robots Tyrell Corp. released were the Nexus 8s, who were purpose-made with a lifespan similar to our own. Despite replicant prohibition, a number of these 8s have existed on the fringes of society for decades now. Rachael was almost definitely a test model 8, some form of hybrid experiment Tyrell kept very close to his chest, and the confirmation of a new, more elaborate line of Nexuses also explains how Deckard has lived this long if he is a replicant, but it gets even weirder. See, the hard-boiled robot-hunter and Rachael somehow had a child together. When Rachael's remains are unearth, having died during childbirth over 20 years prior, LAPD give K strict instructions to cover it all up, lest the public find out robots can breed. K, altogether too curious about what this incident could tell him about his own existence potential, engages in a personal investigation that places him in a race against Tyrell Corp. successor Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) to find Deckard and retrieve some answers.
It's a clever conceit that makes the enigma of Deckard's origin the entire thematic backbone of the story. Replicants are still practically slave labour. They're manufactured for a specific purpose and no matter how impressive they're built, any deviance is seen as defect that must be eradicated. K is discriminated against at work and where he lives for being a "skinjob," the term human supremacists give any robot living among them. Integration between the living and the fabricated exists, but only to a point, and any bigotry is to be endured without recompense - after all, they're just machines.
Blade Runner asked us whether harmless existence as an artificial intelligence should be permitted, 2049 asks when something becomes human enough for us to disregard the “artificial” part. The only person in this world who could've told us if Deckard is a replicant was Dr. Eldon Tyrell, the head of Tyrell Corp. murdered by Roy when he wouldn't help him achieve a longer lifespan. Everything else is up for debate and now it's become ever more complicated with the notion that replicants can themselves replicate like humans. They can reproduce.
The movie does directly speculate on Deckard. Two characters, a returning Gaff (Edward James Olmos) and replicant insurgency leader Mister Cotton (Lennie James) express to K their belief that Deckard is indeed artificial. The crucial scene where he and Wallace face each other has Wallace profess first that Deckard was completing his manifest destiny as an experimental bio-machine by procreating with Rachael before walking the claim that they could've also connected because of love. But all are only going by their assumptions. Their own interrogations of evidence that's been presented. Cotton and the rebellion could easily be suffering confirmation bias to affirm their stake for greater rights and freedoms, Gaff is likely trying to square the idea of someone he worked with to hunt these things running off with one. Both have less information than we do, without the ability of seeing Deckard's unicorn dreams and thus the possibility of implanted memories from the original as we are.
Wallace, it can be assumed, has the best idea since he's the new leading voice in bio-mechanical engineering, but he's quietly frustrated that whatever Tyrell achieved with Rachael is beyond him. He can't make his life make life. When hard-nosed and uninterested Deckard gives him nothing, he decides to ship him up to the colonies to torture him for an answer. What Wallace doesn't stop to comprehend is that Deckard himself doesn't know either. How could he? Not like the Voight-Kampf test has been meaningfully updated since we last saw him. If anything it's just been further commodified and stream-lined. And as we see over the course of the narrative with K, replicants are as capable of deep existentialism as we are. They've less easy answers than we do, and if their neural pathways stop matching up we kill them, placing them in the precarious position of fearing if their mind should ever wander too far.
As frustrating as this all may prove to long-time fans and speculators, the ending, wherein we see Deckard meet his daughter for the first time, a parent and daughter brought together on the cusp of war, the answer it gives is nonetheless a worthy one. Is Deckard a replicant? Probably, but also probably not, either way it really shouldn't matter.
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