WARNING: THIS POST WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS FOR BLADE RUNNER, AND POSSIBLE SPOILERS FOR BLADE RUNNER 2049.
After a stunning and frankly disturbing flyover of the Los Angeles of 2019, the Ridley Scott film Blade Runner suddenly goes intimate, depicting a strange kind of exam being run by LAPD officer Holden (Morgan Paull) on Leon Kowalsky (Brion James), a new employee at the replicant-maker Tyrell Corporation. This exam is punctuated by the awkward Leon, who doesn’t seem to be all mentally there, so to speak. As Leon continues to interrupt with meaningless questions, Holden frustratingly asks the first question:
You're in a desert, walking along
in the sand when....
Is this the test now ?
Yes. You're in a desert, walking
along in the sand when all of a sudden
you lookdown and see a.....
What one ?
It was a timid interruption, hardly audible.
What desert ?
Doesn't make any difference what
desert.. it's completely hypothetical.
But how come I'd be there?
Maybe you're fed up, maybe you want
to be by yourself.. who knows.
So you look down and see a
tortoise. It's crawling toward
This continues for an uncomfortable minute, with Leon seemingly unable to answer the question. In a show of solidarity, Holden reassures him:
They're just questions, Leon.
In answer to your query, they're
written down for me. It's a
test, designed to provoke an
In a nutshell, Holden has described the Voight-Kampff test succinctly and directly. Designed to measure empathic response to unsettling scenarios by taking in pheromones and reading involuntary body reactions, the VK Test is a Blade Runner’s most useful tool for identifying replicants, which have no real empathic response, only simulation.
Later in the film, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), our “heroic” main character and the titular Blade Runner, is recovering from a work day from hell in his apartment, where he shelters Rachel, and advanced model replicant with implanted memories that create in her mind the illusion that she is human, having lived a long, normal life that buoys her emotional development. Deckard had earlier administered a VK test on her and discovered her true nature, and in her own anguish over this shocking revelation, she has turned to him in desperation. During a rather intimate moment at this juncture in the film, Rachel rather pointedly asks Deckard of the VK test,
“Did you ever take that test yourself?”
Now, Deckard never answers, because he is fast asleep in a drunken stupor. However, several elements of the film point toward an actual answer given, and that is that Deckard is, in fact, a replicant, with the same type of memory implantation as Rachel. While this seems to be a point of contention between members of the fanbase and even the cast and crew who worked on the film, director Ridley Scott insists that this was always his intention to reveal Deckard as a replicant by the film’s end, so for the purposes of this article, I am treating this plot point as fact. Rick Deckard, replicant hunter, is a replicant himself.
What are the clues that point to this conclusion? As follows, here are the biggest and most obvious examples:
- The aforementioned question of Rachel’s that goes unanswered.
- The glow of Deckard’s eyes. At various points in the film, Scott employs a cinematic device, unseen by the characters within the film, of a dull, red glow in each of the replicant characters’ eyes. At one brief point halfway into the film, Deckard also possesses this eerie glow.
- Deckard’s piano is covered in old photographs, many of which are too old to be immediate relatives or acquaintances of his. Considering that Leon was shown in the film to have collected photos of strangers in order to create a fantasy of having lived a full life, this positions Deckard as a similar collector of false memories, albeit subconsciously.
- The unicorn. While drunk in his apartment at the beginning of the second act, Deckard is musing at his piano, wistfully daydreaming of a beautiful unicorn in the forest. This does not become important until the very end, when Deckard finds at his doorstep an origami figure, a calling card of his rival Blade Runner Gaff (Edward James Olmos). The figure is of a unicorn, suggesting that Gaff knows Deckard’s innermost thoughts as Deckard knows Rachel’s.
Of course, these only explain the existence of the situation, not the how or why. This is something that has plagued viewers and connoisseurs of the film for decades–if Deckard is indeed a replicant, why is he? Most viewers understand the thematic point that Scott was aiming to make, that the line between humanity and machines is a blur, even if they don’t agree with it in this instance. But what narrative purpose does the Deck-A-Rep theory, as it is known, serve? How and when was Deckard brought online, and why is he working as a Blade Runner, the very antithesis of a replicant?
Over the years, my own reading of this question has blended and melded with several other brilliant ideas on the subject from countless different viewers to form what I call the Unified Deck-A-Rep Theory. I think it more than adequately fills in the holes of Scott’s vision of a replicant Deckard, and fits nicely into the Philip K. Dick canon of troubled characters discovering their shocking true nature. Do I feel this is the end-all-be-all conclusion of the debate? Hell no. I’m just positing my own version of the behind-the-scenes events of the story, to clarify for some who cannot understand the Deck-A-Rep hypothesis.
Let’s first begin with the how: how can Deckard be a replicant? How can he not know this fact, or discover it through the supposed superhuman abilities he should possess? Obviously the first two questions are answered by the character of Rachel. She is obviously a prototype, a proof-of-concept built to demonstrate how false memories can be used to stabilize the fragile artificial personalities that replicants develop over their short lifespan, and therefore making them more controllable. This covers Deckard’s personality and memories easily; they are as fake as Rachel’s. The third is a little less apparent, but still answered neatly by the rich visual tableau of the film. When Deckard is viewing the personal files on the escaped replicants, several pieces of information on them are presented, including physical and mental level grades. While their mental levels vary across the spectrum from C to A, their physical levels are maxed out at A.
However, this doesn’t mean that all replicants possess this high level of physical ability. The fact that it is given a separate grade speaks to this, and since Rachel doesn’t exhibit any superhuman abilities throughout the story, it is easy to imagine that there are weaker models available on the market. Deckard could simply be one of these models.
In an alternative, it has been brought up that Deckard still does seem to perform remarkable feats, such as his repeated brushes with death at the hands of Zhora and Leon, and the fact that he is able to climb up the side of the Bradbury building in the rain with broken fingers and almost make the full jump between buildings that Roy accomplishes. This could also suggest that Deckard could have a slightly higher physical rating than a human, perhaps B, but still not high enough to break the illusion of humanity he is supposed to believe in.
Now that we have worked out the means by which Deckard can be a replicant, let’s examine how he could have come into being, and why he would be made in the first place.
The opening crawl makes it very clear what replicants were designed and built for: the hazardous exploration and colonization of other planets, as slave labor. This fits with the dictionary definition of a robot, an automaton which carries out tasks too tedious or too dangerous for human beings to endure. This also perfectly jives with the job of a Blade Runner. After all, isn’t hunting down and killing sentient beings, especially ones that are physically and mentally superior to humans, certainly an example of dangerous and demeaning work?
This still doesn’t explain why the LAPD has a replicant on the payroll, but a clue could be found in Rachel. From Chief Bryant’s dialogue (“There’s a Nexus 6 over at the Tyrell Corporation…”) we can easily infer that he knows of her existence on Earth, a crime under American law. However, he doesn’t order Deckard after her until she disappears from Tyrell, and Deckard doesn’t immediately retire her after the VK test, meaning that the police department and Tyrell have some sort of shady arrangement that allows for her continued presence on-world, so long as she stays within the auspices of the pyramids. It stands to reason that there is a similar agreement between them regarding Deckard.
Rachel’s case also provides the framework for a replicant Blade Runner. Her apparent role as a secretary at Tyrell is not in the tradition of slave labor, and her memories as one of Tyrell’s nieces puts her into a position of privilege that all other replicants do not have. Deckard, on the other hand, would fit this criteria: he is forced back into the job with threats, his work is hazardous and deplorable, and he enjoys no position of privilege, other than his power to terminate other replicants. I submit that Deckard’s model is a logical next step from Rachel, a replicant forced to do dangerous and degrading work as a slave, but with his mind so altered by the implants that he believes in the work he is doing, and will never rebel. Like a cyberpunk wetdream of the worst slaveholders of the American South, Deckard represents what so many of their ilk wished their black slaves could be: completely servile and trusting of the system. At least, that’s what his existence was supposed to prove.
This is the reason for Deckard’s creation: as Phase Two of this Great Experiment. And what exactly is Phase Two? A field test, tasking the skin job with hunting down other skin jobs. After all, if you can get a slave to kill his own on command, he will most certainly do whatever you tell him, no matter what that is. The test “designed to provoke an emotional response,” as Holden put it.
Deckard is created, and held in stasis while his memories are crafted and implanted, waiting for the right opportunity to demonstrate his abilities. That opportunity comes at the start of the film, with the escape of Roy Batty’s group from the Off-World colonies. Preparations are quickly made. As Holden is sent to the hospital with a smoking hole in his back, Bryant and his department are given instructions on how to converse with the Deckard model, Rachel is brought back online for her role, and Blade Runner Gaff is assigned to shadow Deckard, watching his every move to ensure compliance with the main objective.
And thus, Deckard is brought online and let out into the city, with his false memories giving no indication that he was literally born yesterday. While he exhibits aspects of defiance toward authority and hard feelings toward the department, I submit that this is intentional; another hurdle for the replicant to clear to prove just how reliable it can be in its current task. He is quickly approached by Gaff, (whose position as liaison to a machine explains his dislike of Deckard in the ultimate example of robots supplanting humans in the workforce) taken to the station and recruited, and brought up to speed on the Nexus 6 models. Some have expressed confusion regarding this scene, wondering why he wouldn’t already have this knowledge as a former Blade Runner, but again, I submit that this is perfectly in keeping with the illogical realities of Dick’s work. To Bryant and Gaff, this is another aspect of the test–to present the replicant with a situation that should break the illusion of its humanity and see how it responds.
Evidently, Deckard responded well, because he is off to the next trial: his first VK test of a replicant. Not just any replicant, however, but Rachel, one with implants like his. This presents another hurdle for Deckard to clear, which is pushed further when Rachel seeks him out to persuade him she is actually human. Again, he passes perfectly, and continues on mission, retiring Zhora in short order.
Here is where things get interesting. We are led to believe that Deckard is a veteran Blade Runner, with many kills under his belt. So why then does Zhora’s death affect him so deeply, reducing him to a wimpering mess as he orders a bottle of Tsing Tao? Quite simply, it’s because this is his actual first kill. He may remember other retirements before this point, but he never actually committed them, so this emotional response that he can’t quite understand is actually his brain reacting to murder for the first time in its short life. This reading even halfway explains the rape-y vibes of the so-called love scene between Deckard and Rachel: Deckard has no real experience with love, so his replicant brain interprets this a forceful act.
Now, while this is going on, Roy Batty obviously has his own plans, which unbeknownst to the department and Tyrell, are to gain access to Eldon Tyrell himself in an attempt to prolong his life and that of Pris. His plan succeeds, but only as far as seeing the old man. Upon being told that there is no way to save himself, Roy murders Tyrell and escapes, sending the department and the corporation into the chaos heard on Deckard’s CB radio on his trip to the Bradbury building. Tyrell’s death was certainly not a part of the plan, but for whatever reason, Bryant decides to continue with the trial run, dispatching Deckard to finish the job, with Gaff close behind, watching. This explains why Gaff had Deckard’s weapon after he dropped it, and why he never helped him. Again, all part of the test.
When Deckard is finished, soaking on the roof next to the deceased Roy, Gaff decides to give one final taunt: “It’s too bad she won’t live! But then again, who does?” He knows that Rachel is hiding with him. Deckard hurriedly and fearfully returns home, thinking that Gaff has retired her. Finding Rachel unharmed, Deckard decides to run away with her, thereby failing the entire test–despite accomplishing so much, he is still willing to run.
So Gaff leaves a final calling card, a last-ditch attempt to break the humanoid, or perhaps a show of solidarity by letting them go–this is up to the reader. Gaff places a unicorn origami at Deckard’s doorstep, a real-world echo of Deckard’s daydream at the piano, revealing not just Deckard’s true nature, but Gaff’s. An added layer can be applied to this adversarial relationship between the two of them: what if Deckard’s memories are actually Gaff’s, who was forced to retire as an active duty Blade Runner in favor of a skin job because of an injury that forced him to rely on his dandy little cane?
In either case, now knowing the truth, Deckard turns and enters the elevator with Rachel, and the screen goes black, leaving us in the dark about his final actions. Did he suddenly decide to fulfill his purpose and retire Rachel? Or did he indeed run, either rejecting the truth or embracing it in a flight from those who would retire him?
And that is the Unified Deck-A-Rep theory. I hope I’ve been able to clear up the more hazy parts of Ridley’s vision, and I certainly hope that some of you who could not accept the replicant Deckard have been encouraged to at least be open to the possibility. I feel that Blade Runner 2049 will certainly render this theory moot, considering Deckard is still alive thirty years later, but we shall see.
Blade Runner is an incredible and beautiful piece of cinematic vision that challenges the viewer on multiple levels. It breathes new technologically-tinged life into the unsavory and traumatic memories of the human race’s long relationship with dehumanizing and enslaving itself, and in the process raises some deep philosophical and spiritual questions on just what makes a human being, well, a human being. It is a film that for all its achievements and faults still divides people down lines of thought that spark meaningful discussion, an activity sorely needed in today’s world, and no more divisive is the Deck-A-Rep theory.
While I clearly have chosen my side in this debate, I also encourage you not to necessarily drop your own view in favor of mind, but simply to listen and entertain, just as I surely will yours on this matter. It is the question that is more important, not this long-winded but fun answer. What makes Deckard, or any of us, what we are? Are we any better than the automated reflex machines of Dick’s conception, or are we just that? This is the soul of the Deck-A-Rep theory, and why it persists to this day.
“It really doesn’t matter even, that you would be able to say whether or not, ‘Harrison is a replicant.’ It doesn’t really matter. That’s how strong this film is, because it always tells the same story. You can’t destroy this movie.” – Rutger Hauer
“I often get asked whether I think Harrison is a replicant, but I think, you’ve got to make up your own mind. That’s what’s intended with the film. It’s your choice.” – Terry Rawlings
“To my mind, the only correct and proper answer [to Deckard being a replicant] is, maybe.” – Paul M. Sammon.