Ridley Scott says yes. Harrison Ford says no. And fans have argued about it for three decades. But now that "Blade Runner 2049" is out, we might finally get an answer to the age-old debate: is Rick Deckard a replicant?
"I love questions," said "2049" director Denis Villeneuve when we met to discuss the film. "I don't like answers".
Uh-oh. Maybe we won't be clearing this up after all.
The 1982 sci-fi classic "Blade Runner" first brought Rick Deckard, played by Harrison Ford, to the big screen. As a state-sanctioned "Blade Runner", his job was to hunt and kill illegal bioengineered androids known as replicants. Things get complicated when Deckard falls in love with Rachael, a beautiful replicant played by Sean Young. Director Ridley Scott also weaved in a number of hints and clues Deckard might unknowingly be a replicant himself.
Fast forward to "Blade Runner 2049". Replicants are now docile and no longer illegal. Deckard's job has been taken over by one such tame android: Officer K, played by Ryan Gosling. Uncovering a horrifying conspiracy, K seeks out Deckard and brings the older cop back into the centre of conflict between human and replicant.
The original film drops tantalising clues Deckard might be a replicant. He isn't blessed with superhuman strength like the other replicants, but he is shown with glowing eyes, a visual cue identifying androids. Most significantly, his partner Gaff presents him with an origami unicorn, suggesting his dreams of such a beast could actually be fake implanted memories.
The teasing continues in "2049". For example, Gaff tells K that Deckard is "retired" -- the euphemism for killing a replicant. The question is most directly addressed in the new film when Deckard is brought before industrialist Niander Wallace, played by Jared Leto. Wallace now heads the production of replicants, having bought the Tyrell Corporation that first created them.
Wallace knows Deckard fathered the first child born of a replicant, which is a world-changing paradigm shift in replicant -- and human -- evolution. "You are a wonder to me, Mr Deckard", Wallace says. Wallace then asks if it occurred to Deckard he might have been "designed" specifically to fall for the replicant named Rachael to create "a perfect specimen".
That use of the word "designed" sounds like a pretty strong hint Wallace believes Deckard is a replicant. There's clearly something unique about Rachael for her to bear a child. But what's special about Deckard?
If he is a replicant, it's unlikely he's the very first replicant to have sex with another one. More importantly, if he was artificially created, you have to wonder how his creator -- presumably Tyrell -- manipulated events to bring Deckard and Rachael together.
Unless … this is a world in which memories can be manipulated and even implanted. Did the events of the first film actually take place at all, or are they fake memories implanted in Deckard as backstory to motivate him to love and protect Rachael? Maybe "Blade Runner" didn't actually happen the way we saw it.
Now, let's flip it around. If Deckard is a human, he certainly isn't the first to have sex with a replicant. Replicants like the original film's Pris are specifically manufactured as "pleasure models", and in "2049" we see replicant brothels. Yes, it's fair to say replicant sex is rife.
So perhaps Tyrell, having designed Rachael to be uniquely capable of conception, was waiting for the right human to come along. When Deckard turned up, he steered the couple together, and presto -- a bouncing android baby.
Either way, Tyrell was killed before he could do anything about the coupling. That left Deckard and Rachael free to run away -- the secret of procreation "lost", as Wallace puts it.
Those are some of the onscreen possibilities. Looking behind the scenes at the fictional narrative, there are arguments on both sides why Deckard should or shouldn't be a replicant.
Ford is adamant Deckard is human to provide a human point of identification for the audience. That human connection is sorely needed in both films, which look and feel austere and clinical. I certainly struggled at times to connect emotionally with "2049", which focuses on a blank-faced robot and his artificial hologram girlfriend.
On the other hand, there's an interesting irony in the idea Deckard hunts and kills his own kind. That irony is fully explored in "2049", which depicts K as an outcast, hated by humans for being different and by his own kind for hunting them.
Ultimately, "2049" doesn't offer solid answers as to whether Deckard is man or machine. In fact, it replaces that age-old question with even bigger puzzles. What is the secret of replicant procreation? Did Tyrell manipulate the first film? Did the first film happen at all?
And I can't help but wonder if a certain other major character is human or replicant. In the original film, glowing eyes were a subtle visual cue that a character is a replicant. And who has glowing eyes in "2049"?
Maybe he is himself a replicant. That might be why he's so angry and envious that the secret of procreation is denied to him. If he is a replicant, isn't it a delicious little irony that an android takes over the world not by killing humans but by simply buying us out?
"2049" encourages ambiguity, just like the first film. It looks like this question, and many more, will be debated for years to come.
Tech Culture: From film and television to social media and games, here's your place for the lighter side of tech.
Batteries Not Included: The CNET team shares experiences that remind us why tech stuff is cool.