I’ve always known that there’s debate over whether Deckard is a replicant or not in the movie Blade Runner. I’ve never understood the debate because I feel the film spells it out pretty clearly. I figured some of the disagreement stems from people watching different versions of the film or the fact that some people just don’t pay much attention. I have friends who have movies as background entertainment, which is something I can’t do.
Today I was talking with a friend who had recently seen the best version (Final Cut, which is the true director’s cut) and they didn’t think Deckard was a replicant. So I explained why, in my opinion, he definitely is. I was surprised to find that two other friends, who also agree Deckard is a replicant, didn’t interpret the film the same way I did. I started asking my film friends online (ones I knew had seen the Final Cut) and none of them interpreted the film the same way I did.
I was a bit worried that I had read the film wrong. I took to Twitter and apparently only a small minority of followers seemed to know what I was talking about. So now I feel I have to dump these thoughts from my brain but I didn’t want to share all this in the Twitter thread because spoiling amazing films on social media isn’t a great idea. So here we go. Spoilers ahead. Seriously. Blade Runner (Final Cut) is a sci-fi masterpiece and really should be watched without spoilers so pleeeeeeeease watch it first before reading more. Here’s a nice picture before the spoilers begin.
Who is the “Blade Runner”?
The question “is Deckard a replicant or not” has always baffled me because it’s answered. To me the real question of the film that is eventually answered is “who is the Blade Runner?” I’ve always thought this was super obvious but the blade runner isn’t Deckard; it’s the ex-blade runner, Gaff. If you’ve forgotten who Gaff is, here’s a picture:
Yep, Gaff played by Edward James Olmos (also of Battlestar Galactica fame, so say we all). He is the super blade runner. The best there is. A legend. Let’s just be up front and tell you exactly what I thought was common knowledge by the end of the film: Gaff is the best blade runner but he’s getting older, he has a bad limp now and uses a cane, and just isn’t the “old blade runner” anymore.
What’s more, Tyrell can now create replicants who literally think they aren’t replicants by implanting them with the modified memories of real people. Rachel has the memories of Tyrell’s niece. I’m mostly ignoring the previous versions of the film but the original does mention that Gaff had been hanging around the Tyrell place and knew about Rachel. Of course he does. His memories have also been used in a replicant: Deckard.
“I need the old blade runner, I need your magic”
Blade Runner doesn’t have many characters who aren’t important to the plot. Sure there are extras roaming the streets but named characters with dialogue play an important part in the story. Except Gaff, apparently. He sits around and makes origami figures. But I think he’s the most important character in the film. The first time we see him he collects Deckard from a noodle bar. Unless Deckard has a tracker on it’s a bit weird that they find him there rather than his house or by calling him. Gaff knows where Deckard will be. This isn’t the last time Gaff appears to know what Deckard knows.
Next we see Gaff in the background as Deckard’s boss tries to give him an important assignment. Gaff doesn’t speak. He seems to have no role except to observe. It’s almost like he’s supervising. Or a backup if anything goes wrong with Deckard. I’m of the opinion that Gaff can still handle himself with a replicant. But four extremely dangerous models all at once? Sounds a bit much. When Deckard is refusing to take the assignment, Gaff knows he’s scared. Why? Because he’d be scared. Gaff knows Deckard better than anyone. That’s when he makes the first of his origami figures: a chicken. He also makes a man with a penis when Deckard is falling for Rachel and there’s the origami at the finale that we’ll get to. Is Gaff some kind of psychic?
There’s also a line from the boss that just stood out to me like a sore thumb. He seems excited and desperate to get Deckard on this case. Perhaps it’s a slip of the tongue but he says “I need the old blade runner, I need your magic”. Gaff, the best blade runner, isn’t his old self anymore. But with his memories in Deckard, maybe the old blade runner can be back in action?
“You’ve done a man’s job, sir!”
Gaff continues to keep an eye on Deckard, supervising him. It’s hard to know in the early stages of the film if this is a safety precaution in case Deckard figures out he’s a replicant or if Gaff is curious and sympathetic. But throughout we get hints that Gaff knows a creepy amount about Deckard. He knows where he’ll be, knows his emotions… and there are even more subtle clues but I won’t share too many because some could be coincidences. My favourite one that can’t be a real clue: I used to sell magic tricks for a living and the context I know the word “gaff” from is a gaff deck, a trick deck that looks like an ordinary deck of cards but is more than it seems. I’m sure it’s a coincidence rather than a hilariously clunky clue that the two characters are Gaff and DECKard!
But the film is full of hints that Deckard is a replicant. His journey through the film, discovering that Rachel is a replicant reflects our own journey as viewers learning that Deckard is. We’re introduced to Gaff first. We’re then introduced to the idea that replicants can think they’re human. We learn about false memories (and in some versions that Gaff has some involvement with the people who do this). Deckard comes to sympathise with Rachel and learn that replicants can feel and be loved, and we’re simultaneously learning this about Deckard. A really cheeky moment is when Rachel asks Deckard if he’s ever been tested himself and he falls asleep before he can answer. And that is the answer. It’s right there. If you want to know for certain if all these hints mean anything you have to look at that answer: his sleep.
Deckard has a recurring dream of a unicorn. There aren’t other unicorns in his life that we’re aware of. As viewers we are privileged to see Deckard’s dreams and know something that nobody else in his universe can know. We’re literally seeing into his mind. He dreams of unicorns. We learn this information and store it for later.
At the excellent climax of the film, the first person Deckard sees after Batty dies is Gaff. The original version of the film was very heavy-handed with its narration and also clues. For the better versions they removed the narration and some of the dialogue that made the plot too obvious. One of my favourite removed lines was Gaff’s compliment to Deckard: “You’ve done a man’s job, sir!” Oh my god, what a loaded line. Sure, he’s done a good job. And a man’s job. As opposed to what, a replicant? And not just any man’s job, but a specific man’s job! It works in so many ways.
But even then nothing is really confirmed. Gaff is always around, always supervising dealings with Deckard, always knowing where he’ll be… but it doesn’t confirm anything. Perhaps Gaff just has intimate knowledge of newer blade runners for professional reasons. But by this point of the film we also don’t have a solid explanation for why Gaff makes a chicken figure when Deckard is scared or a man with a penis when Deckard is talking about Rachel. That’s a little too intimate. Does Gaff know what Deckard is thinking? Yes. He knows because it’s what he’s thinking. Nobody knows Deckard like Gaff does. Actually, he even knows what Deckard dreams about because they share the same memories and dreams.
Gaff chooses to warn Deckard at the end of the film. He warns him to save Rachel and perhaps even protects her because he was at the apartment at the very end of the film. Then the film drops its big reveal: Gaff leaves his final origami figure for Deckard to find. A unicorn. The thing Deckard sees in his dreams. Why Gaff chooses to help Deckard isn’t explained. Maybe he becomes sympathetic for Deckard just as Deckard does for Rachel. It should be no surprise that they come to the same conclusion about the lives of replicants given that they’re more or less the same person. Deckard saves Rachel and Gaff saves them both.
This is my favourite thing in the film. The dream is such a great misdirection. Halfway through the film we see the dream as proof that Deckard is human. It throws us off the scent. I mean, do androids dream of electric sheep? But by the end it’s literally the answer to the big question of whether Deckard is a replicant or not.
That’s how I’ve always interpreted the film from the first time I saw it. I really can’t imagine seeing it any other way or Gaff would just be pointless. So there you go. I’m glad I got that out of my brain and onto the internet. I’m 100% positive others interpret the film the same way I do. They must do. But I’ve just been shocked at how many of my friends don’t see anything in Gaff when watching any of the versions including the Final Cut.
I’m adding this short section just to address the reactions to this piece. I predicted I’d see a lot of people saying “oh wow yeah I know Deckard is a replicant but I never really thought about Gaff before except that he’s odd” and that is the most common reaction I’ve received. This piece is about Gaff, not about Deckard being a replicant. But I’m still getting reactions from people saying they think Deckard is a human and I’m not really understanding how they can explain that. You have another character aware of Deckard’s dreams. You have the director of the film confirming that Deckard is a replicant and that the unicorn is the reveal. And you have all the extra scenes that were cut because they would make it far too obvious. Try this alternative ending, for example:
“Did you know your wife for a long time?” is interesting because he answers “I thought I did”. It was actually Gaff that knew her. But more importantly this ending would make the very last lines of the film be: “We are made for each other”. That’s way too corny and heavy handed. I’m a big fan of how all the answers are in the film if you look for them but it’s much more subtle. I’m a huge fan of how making Deckard dream seemingly gives us proof he’s human early on and that someone else knows his dreams simultaneously shows he isn’t and makes the end of the film a callback to the title of Dick’s great book.
I think the real issue here is that Deckard is a human in the books and there’s a chance that Deckard may have been envisaged as a human in earlier versions of the film. I feel the character was always written to begin questioning it himself but in a subtle, vague way. So whether you think Deckard is human, or a replicant, or even perhaps the answer depends on the version you’re watching, you’re always supposed to at least have a suspicion and Deckard is always meant to have a vague sense of it regardless of the answer.
I’ve also had two reactions to the new film coming out. One is from people who feel Deckard is a replicant saying they were disappointed to see he’s still alive and that this is wrong or means they were wrong. The other reaction is from people who feel Deckard is a human, pointing to the new film as proof since he’s still alive. Remember, replicants live for four years.
So I hate to keep dragging you back to the original narrated version of the film because I don’t like how heavy handed it is but these are Deckard’s last narrated lines: “Gaff had been there, and let her live. Four years, he figured. He was wrong. Tyrell had told me Rachael was special. No termination date. I didn’t know how long we had together… Who does?”
Replicants live four years because they’re designed that way and you can’t change it or extend that life. But Rachel was designed to live longer. She’s special. She also differs from normal replicants in that she has the memories of a human (Tyrell’s niece). A replicant that has someone else’s memories and no forced termination date? Right there in the movies themselves? Maybe not so weird that Deckard is still alive in the new film, huh?