Since its release in 1982, Blade Runner has generated a great deal of debate among fan communities. The substance of this debate concerns the protagonist of the film, Deckard, and his identity as either a human or a replicant (artificial life form). Much of my interest in this debate has little to do with the fans themselves or their particular reasons for favoring one interpretation of Deckard’s nature over the other, but how these positions mark a division within our aesthetic discourse. This analysis will explore the scholarly side of this debate which is grounded in literary criticism, the philosophy of interpretation, and film aesthetics. I will argue in favor of the position that Deckard is a replicant, which is supported by the film itself and director Ridley Scott’s commentary about the film. This argument will contribute to my discussion of the moderate intentionalism position as put forward by Paisley Livingston and defended by Noël Carroll.
Prior to addressing intentionalism and the salient features I wish to discuss, it’s important to contextualize this debate with a discussion of Blade Runner and the two positions as they’re normally explicated. Blade Runner takes place in a future Los Angeles originally envisioned by Phillip K. Dick in his 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Rick Deckard is a retired blade runner (specialized police officer) coerced into hunting down several replicants who have illegally escaped from colonial slavery to Earth. The film was a financial failure and received a mixed-reception from both audiences and critics. Explanations for this financial failure range from sloppy marketing strategies to Scott’s inability to secure a PG rating.
As with any film adaptation, significant changes were made by the screenwriters Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples, both of whom had different goals in mind which contrasted in turn with the interests of Ridley Scott. Peoples was responsible for major dialogue changes and the final battle between Deckard and Batty, the film’s antagonist. Of the filmmakers involved in the production, Peoples is credited by Dick with the “beautiful, symmetrical reinforcement” of his novel, particularly with respect to replicant emotions, which were far less important in Dick’s original conception. Between the three primary creators, Fancher, Peoples, and Scott – Judith Kerman explains – the script underwent “as many as ten different drafts…prepared between 1979 and 1981.” The original script was much closer to Dick’s novel and the later drafts seemed to struggle with love interest Rachael’s end, which was either through suicide or euthanasia. Deckard’s character was stripped of his past, which included a wife and son and, unlike in the novel, his status as human or replicant was not explicitly revealed.
According to Kerman, the published edition of the Blade Runner script featured a “unicorn running in the forest while Deckard sits at his piano.” This scene would later be cut from the theatrical release of the film and then added in another version. This unicorn dream was intended to intersect with a scene towards the end of the film featuring an origami unicorn, implying that Deckard is a replicant. Kerman believes that changes to the theatrical version of the film were due at first to the confusion and lukewarm response of American audiences (contrasted with European audiences who seemed to have had more of a taste for ambiguity) and finally the inconsistent “Hollywood” ending that was added to garner a more positive and hopeful response to what is otherwise a bleak film.
Regarding these changes, Scott commented, “What one gets in blueprint or screenplay is hopefully a good story or a thrilling story or a touching story or a sentimental story, well told. After the blueprint, things are wide open for interpretation.” An unintended consequence of this wide open view of interpretation with regard to the filmmaking process was that it left many fans of the film feeling unsatisfied, awaiting the final, official, and authentic version. They eventually got their wish when Scott released his final cut in 2007. For the purposes of this discussion, I will be addressing this final cut because the debate has not gone away despite Scott’s changes.
Scott’s contention early on was that at the very least he wanted audiences to be conflicted about Deckard’s identity, and he has since been clear about this having informed his approach throughout the film’s production. He eventually provided a definitive answer to the question, which has been plaguing fans since 1982, confirming once and for all that Deckard is a replicant. This revelation had the counterintuitive result of encouraging debate rather than stifling it, the more informed fans drawing on aesthetic discussions in literature and philosophy to bolster their arguments. The replicant debate arises from some taken-for-granted assumptions about art, including, but not limited to our ability to talk intelligibly about it, that there are a limited number of valid or true readings of particular artworks, and that there’s a meaningful distinction between subjectivity and objectivity. While most fans would likely agree that one’s response to a film is subjective, they implicitly reject relativism when it comes to certain matters of fact. In the case of Blade Runner, fans expended a great deal of effort watching the film, isolating particular frames, slowing down sequences, and even drawing together extra-filmic content such as press releases, interviews, and other forms of textual data. They believe they can tease out certain meanings of the film through careful analysis and this kind of rigor informs both positions, which I will now briefly describe.
Deckard is a replicant: The most convincing evidence offered for this position is the unicorn dream and the origami equivalent which follows later in the film. The implication is that Gaff has seen Deckard’s memories like Deckard has seen Rachael’s memories. Prior to the reinsertion of the unicorn dream, the replicant position rested on Deckard’s collection of photographs which parallels Leon’s obsession; Deckard’s success at retiring replicants when many replicants are physically superior to humans; Deckard’s hesitancy to respond to Rachael’s inquiry about whether or not he took the Voigt-Kampff test; and the fact that his eyes glowed red for a moment while administering the test like the replicants' in the film.
Deckard is a human: The arguments against Deckard being a replicant rely on two strategies, one active and the other reactive. The active strategy for the human position is less interesting than the reactive position because it strains credulity by relying on a complex framework tied to narratology and audience expectations. According to this view, it is more conducive to the narrative of the film if Deckard is human because it is only from a human position that we can appreciate how fluid our identities are. In other words, we need to empathize with someone, and a vulnerable human protagonist is our window into the future dystopia presented by Blade Runner. Tied into this is the view that the dénouement of the film would make less of an emotional impact if Deckard was a replicant because the story is about human love and resilience. The reactive strategy seems to be employed more frequently than the active one, significantly influencing my response to this debate. It accepts as a given that Deckard is a human and systematically attempts to rebut the replicant position, seeing it as a marginal interpretation of the film. Prior to the reinsertion of the unicorn dream, these rebuttals constituted an attack on Deckard’s competence, as he does not seem to be particularly strong, fast, or smart. Continuing with this approach, Deckard does not appear to have a limited lifespan unlike the replicants in the film and he appears to be comfortable with humans and human society, once again, unlike the replicants in the film.
If I ignore Scott’s claim that Deckard is a replicant, and if I ignore the version of Blade Runner that included the unicorn dream, I would argue that Deckard’s status as human or replicant is debatable, though I find the replicant position more rewarding as it was my initial impression the first time I saw the film. It never occurred to me that Deckard was a human as I found his collection of odd photographs and his lack of response (snoring) to the question of the Voigt-Kampff test indicative that something was afoot. If I instead consider extra-filmic content and the later versions of the film, I think it’s difficult to support the human position, which brings me to my analysis of this debate.
Within and without academic discourse, two positions have traditionally been offered regarding the interpretation of artworks: intentionalism and anti-intentionalism. Both of these viewpoints have undergone significant revision and there are several varieties of each, but these distinctions are less relevant to this discussion than the general paths these two positions have taken and their relation to the replicant debate. Roughly speaking, fans who favor Scott’s interpretation of Deckard as a replicant are intentionalists and those who place little or no weight with Scott’s interpretation are anti-intentionalists. These labels are of course slippery as most fans are probably not familiar with this terminology and most likely come to their positions without articulating their viewpoint in any substantial manner.
I find it easy to label the positions because of where the discussions, if uninterrupted, lead. The contemporary version of the debate eventually involves someone bringing up Scott’s contention that Deckard is a replicant and the opposition consequently discards authorial importance. Intentionalism probably arose from romanticism and views the artist – Denis Dutton reminds us – as “a communicator, one who speaks. His work of art, moreover, possesses a meaning that he alone gives it – indeed, which he alone may truly know. Thus the work of art is a bridge to the mind of the artist, and finding out what it means requires finding out what it means or meant to its creator.” Anti-intentionalism, in response to intentionalism, is rooted in the work of New Criticism (see Wimsatt and Beardsley) and the follow-up poststructuralist doctrine of “the death of the Author” as expounded by Foucault and Barthes. This view privileges the intersubjective character of meaning and focuses on the audience or viewer of a particular artwork. Wimsatt and Beardsley introduced the notion of the Intentional Fallacy into our vocabulary, and among other things, argued that the “works themselves stand as public and autonomous entities.” Despite the challenges introduced by New Criticism and poststructuralism, intentionalist interpretations remain firmly embedded in the philosophy of interpretation and aesthetics in general. There are many reasons why critics might want to deal with the intentions of the author, such as the “security of the possibility of achieving objective truth,” as Richard Shusterman phrases it, but intentionalism has been reformulated over the years in response to attacks, and anti-intentionalism hasn't remained static either, driven by parallel concerns, such as the “demand for continued interpretive efforts and new readings.”
Attacks on intentionalism are very much concerned with epistemic considerations: what we can know about author(s) intentions. In many cases, we may not be able to look outside the film to determine what the filmmaker intended, so we're left with the film itself, and critics of intentionalism identify that as the proper object of interpretation. According to Noël Carroll, the problem with anti-intentionalism is that it presupposes that “aesthetic pleasure or satisfaction is our only legitimate interest with regard to artworks.” We have a conversational interest in artworks, or at least I do, and it’s unlikely that an authentic conversation can take place without some attention to the artist’s intentions. The ontological distinction made between interpretation and, say. words and deeds seems unnecessary to me. It is not clear to me how the interpretation of an artwork, such as a film, is substantially different from the interpretation of a historical figure’s intentions or our friends in everyday conversation. As Carroll states, “much of our interpretive activity is spent in trying to ascertain the point, often the implicit or implied point, of large segments of discourse.” Paisley Livingston would add that “actual maker(s)’ attitudes and doings are responsible for some of the work's content, and as such are a legitimate target of interpretive claims; more specifically, knowledge of some, but not all intentions is necessary to some, but not all valuable interpretive insights because such intentions are sometimes constitutive of the work's features or content.”
In the above quote, Livingston describes moderate intentionalism, which is the position that Carroll defends. As a simpler repetition of Livingston’s position, the intentions of artists are relevant to the interpretations of the artworks they create. In the case of Blade Runner, Scott has identifiable goals, which have evolved in different version of his film. Prior to the re-insertion of the unicorn dream, his intention was obvious from the film itself that he wanted the audience to question Deckard’s nature, and this fact is also supported by extra-filmic commentary. With the release of his final cut, his intention is clearly to reinforce this anxiety surrounding what it means to be human and Deckard’s identity is weighted towards him being a replicant rather than a human. In turn, Scott’s extra-filmic commentary explicitly confirms that Deckard is a replicant.
I have just expressed a position that takes into consideration both the artwork and the artist. The artist’s position is supported by the artwork, which lends an element of modesty to Livingston’s position as opposed to the extreme form of intentionalism, which argues that meaning is completely determined by the artist’s intentions, leading to the “unpalatable conclusion that the meaning of an artwork is whatever the author intends it to mean,” as Carroll explains it. The artist’s position must be supported by the text and if that’s the case then her intention is authoritative.
There are a number of rebuttals to the modest intentionalism position, but they are typically consistent in expressing concerns about driving the audience away from the film. Earlier in this discussion, I mentioned that anti-intentionalists are concerned with epistemic issues about the artist, but this extends to anxieties about interpretation itself, sometimes approaching metaphysical territory. Richard Rorty, for example, resists the distinction between intentionalism and anti-intentionalism, relying on a critique that "holds an utterly skeptical attitude towards the existence of intrinsic natures, [believing] that there is no privileged way in which objects should be approached.”
My response to this position is that Rorty did not take moderate intentionalism seriously, as the intention of the artists is often in the artwork itself. Livingston states it is the artist who chooses and settles “on categories and meanings” as part of her creative process. The audience does not invent the story, and in practice the range of interpretations is fairly limited, simply because of the logical limits contained within the film. In the case of the human/replicant dilemma, to my knowledge there isn't a third option. Rorty is avoiding essentialism, but in the process he undermines interpretation, which may have been his goal, but it certainly doesn’t lend credence to proponents of anti-intentionalism who at least want to be part of the conversation.
It’s difficult for me to conceive of such a conversation that does not take into consideration the artist’s intention(s) if supported by the artwork. There could be no meaning at all without the intention of the artist, and interpretive attention to the film is in some respect “just the pursuit of the actual intentions of the artist,” as Carroll reminds us. This paper is a response to the debate surrounding Deckard’s status as either a replicant or a human. I have described both arguments and provided a context for understanding the relationship between audience interpretation and an artist’s intentions. In an effort to provide a framework for understanding both positions, I examined the ongoing conflict between intentionalism and anti-intentionalism, offering a defense of modest intentionalism, which privileges the artist’s intention if it is supported by the artwork. I have concluded that Deckard is a replicant as a consequence of examining both Scott’s intention and the evidence to be found in Blade Runner. I am in agreement with Hirsch, who argues that the “possibility of introducing a ‘genuinely discriminating norm’ against which the comparative validity of different, possibly conflicting interpretations may be assessed serves as the precondition of the very meaningfulness of...interpretation, and only the author's intention is able to provide the normative force this purpose requires.”
From guest contributor Jonathan Simmons