I’ve seen Ridley Scott’s 1982 masterpiece Blade Runner probably 10 times and it took me a fair few viewings before I could even attempt to explain what the movie was about. That may have been some of the problem it had when it was released; it was gorgeous to look at but it is emotionally distant. Upon recently watching the film again, amid the gawking at how gorgeous it is every time I see it, it finally hit me what the film is ultimately about: humanity. Duh, right? A movie about robots wanting to extend their life is about humanity? You don’t say! But it’s deeper than that. I always thought that the replicants, specifically Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty, were far and away the most interesting characters, and Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard, the titular “Blade Runner” was pretty boring and unlikeable. But that, my dear friends, is the point. It’s taken me ten viewings to realize, Deckard is boring because he doesn’t know what it means to be human. He also might be the least heroic hero in science fiction.
Now, I’m not talking about whether he is or is not a replicant; that’s for nerds to debate. There’s evidence either way and the ambiguity is part of why the film is great. So for the purposes of this argument, let’s set aside this argument. What do we know about Rick Deckard at the beginning of the film? He is a guy who is good at his job, maybe the best, but who a) doesn’t do it anymore and b) doesn’t WANT to do it anymore. He keeps saying he’s retired and it’s only when faced with arrest that he agrees to take the task of hunting down escaped replicants. So he is his job and, in the eyes of many people, he’s only as good as his job, but he doesn’t like it. So he’s unfulfilled creatively.
Second, he lives alone and, until his fling with Rachael, he doesn’t seem like he has many visitors. He has many pictures of people, but they all are black & white and seem very old, so he doesn’t have much of a family presence either. He’s the typical cipher, a character about whom the audience knows little. This had to have been intentional. As a reference to the hardboiled detective Noir of the 40s and 50s, Deckard is the man without a past and largely without a future. We truly learn nothing about his situation from the film other than he plays piano and daydreams about unicorns.
What we do know is that he’s kind of a dick. He seems to have little regard for life, and even less regard for replicant life. He has no problem destroying poor Rachael’s whole belief system by rather callously telling her she isn’t a human, but a replicant implanted with the memories of her creator’s niece. Sure, he feels bad about it later, but he seems to think nothing of crushing this poor woman at the time. And even after he’s apologized and she’s saved his life, he’s more than a little rough with her, all but forcing her to have sex with him. Even if he “likes” her, it still seems like he still thinks of her as a thing.
He also shoots women. At the start of the film, he’s hired to hunt down and “retire” four replicants, two men and two women. Rachael kills Leon, and Roy Batty dies of old age, so the only two he actually manages to retire are the women. He shoots Zhora in the back as she tries to run away, and he shoots Pris after she’s managed to beat him up pretty badly. Both of these, where he accomplishes the task set before him, are quite unheroic and keep with the theme of him not being a very sympathetic character. What kind of a man kills women? In any other Hollywood movie, this would be the bad guy, but because these particular women are fugitives, and specifically synthetic fugitives, they are not considered people. We’re told that these women are violent killers, but they seem to just be trying to live quietly.
For the entire movie, Deckard has been about as unlikeable and unknowable a character as any in science fiction. But this changes when he finally confronts Roy Batty. In the film’s best sequence, Roy chases Deckard through the Bradbury building, taunting him all the way. He breaks Deckard’s pinky and ring finger on his gun hand in retribution for his killing the women. Deckard runs for his life, jumping, rather feebly, across rooftops and landings, while Batty merely hops. Batty could easily kill him at any moment, but just as Deckard clings to a parapet, Batty pulls him up and saves him. Batty, who has been a murderer the whole film, realizes his own life is ending and killing Deckard won’t change that. His final words, and his desperation to extend his brief existence, give Deckard an appreciation for his own life and his desire to create one worth living.
Rick Deckard is far more than simply the lead character in the film; he’s a flawed and complex anti-hero who learns what being a man, and a person, means through his interactions with those who are not “real.” At the beginning of the film, he is far more machine-like than any of the skin jobs he’s made to hunt and it’s because of them, specifically Batty and Rachael, that he understands what it truly means to be human.