Rick Deckard is the movie's protagonist, but he's kind of a puzzling guy—more so than many of the other characters. Yeah, it seems like he's the hero, but his job as a blade runner is to kill replicants, who are essentially runaway slaves. He may kill them reluctantly but he kills them nonetheless.
Deckard also embodies some of the clichés of the film noir detective: he's a moody dude who likes to drink. He's kind of a loner, and he doesn't get close to people. The voiceover in the original cut of the movie helped fortify this image.
But Deckard is a little deeper than that, too: he starts to fall in love with a replicant, Rachael, and he's deeply ambivalent about his job. In fact, Deckard himself might be a replicant (at least, according to certain versions of the film—but more on that soon). When speaking to Rachael earlier in the movie, Deckard expresses his views on replicants:
"Replicants are like any other machine. They're either a benefit or a hazard. If they're a benefit, it's not my problem."
But if they're not a benefit, Deckard will track them down and kill them.
Essentially, at the beginning of the movie, that's how Deckard views the replicants: as tools and machines, just as the Tyrell Corporation intends them to be viewed. Even though he's been trying to get out of his career as a blade runner, he doesn't fight against his new assignment after it's set. He's willing to hunt down the rogue replicants who've escaped from the Off-World colonies. But as the movie progresses, his opinions start to shift.
The big shift for Deckard comes when he meets Rachael, a replicant with a particularly enhanced degree of humanity. When he gives her a Voight-Kampff test, which is designed to identify replicants, it takes far longer than usual to out her—and she herself is unaware of her replicant status. This is because Dr. Tyrell has given her false memories culled from the mind of his niece.
At one point, Deckard tries to disillusion Rachael, though as soon as he does, he feels bad about it:
"They're implants. Those aren't your memories, they're somebody else's. They're Tyrell's niece's. Okay, bad joke, I'm sorry... No, really, I made a bad joke. Go home, you're not a Replicant... (sigh) you wanna drink? I'll get you a drink."
But this is where things start to get weird for Deckard. After seeing the fake family pictures that Rachael has, which remind her of her nonexistent past, Deckard sits by the piano in his apartment, drinking, surrounded by old family photos. Suddenly (in the "Director's Cut" and the "Final Cut"), a weird, brief dream sequence ensues: Deckard sees a unicorn running through a forest.
Later, Gaff, another blade runner, leaves a silver origami unicorn in Deckard's apartment—indicating that Gaff knows the content of Deckard's dreams… which suggests that these dreams might actually be implants, and Deckard might be a replicant himself. This would mean that his family photos are the same as Rachael's—fakes. So, perhaps, when Deckard is sitting by the piano with the photos, he might actually be pondering his own identity, wondering if he's a replicant, too.
What's the difference, actually, between a replicant and a human? Memories? Identity? The capacity for empathy? What?
Nonetheless, Deckard continues hunting and killing replicants. He tracks down Zhora and kills her in a violent sequence, blowing her away as she crashes through a storefront's windows. He runs into Leon—although it's Rachael actually kills him—before fighting Pris and murdering her, too. Yet, in his final confrontation with Roy, Deckard finds himself outmatched. Fortunately, grace descends, and Roy spares Deckard's life. He's able to run away with Rachael at the end, since the other blade runner, Gaff, has decided not to kill her, allowing her to run away with Deck (apparently).
But wait—isn't the Voight-Kampff test designed to tell the difference between humans and replicants based on the capacity of each for empathy? The idea is that replicants don't have it, but humans do—and yet we've just seen Roy feel empathy for Deckard. So what's the difference, really?
Does Deckard himself recognize the fundamental humanity of the replicants? Does he have any sense of his own identity? With the lead replicant, Roy, we get the sense that he's reached some great epiphany at the end of his life—he's lived more intensely than most actual humans and has earned the right to be called a human by his final compassionate act.
Deckard functions as a witness to this, and it seems to change him, too, though it's more of an implicit thing. Roy's forgiveness leaves him free to go live with Rachael and start a life somewhere outside the movie's hellish version of L.A. Maybe.
Roy Batty might be the movie's most compelling character. He's a Nexus 6 replicant—in other words, a manufactured human—who has escaped from slavery on distant colonies in outer space, and his quest is to obtain more life, to override the predetermined four-year lifespan that his corporate creators have given him and other replicants.
Roy begins this quest by heading to the lab of Hannibal Chew, the genetic designer who created Roy's own eyes. Chew provides him with the next step on his journey: find J. F. Sebastian, another designer, who will then be able to lead Roy to Dr. Eldon Tyrell, the man who basically created him. Roy follows through, forcing Sebastian to take him to Tyrell's place. When he arrives, he confronts his own creator—a twisted version of his father figure.
They have the following exchange:
TYRELL:What..? What seems to be the problem?
TYRELL: Death. Well, I'm afraid that's a little out of my jurisdiction, you...
ROY: I want more life, fucker.
Um, yeah, this meeting is a bit contentious, you might say—even more so after Roy gouges Tyrell's eyes and crushes his skull. Why does he do that? Well, Tyrell has just told him that there's no way to extend his life. Roy goes ahead and kills Sebastian, as well, though this happens off screen.
All of this gives us the impression that Roy—although he's been seriously wronged by his society—isn't on too even a keel. He seems somewhat crazy and definitely violent. (Also, it's noted that he and the other replicants killed all the crew-members and passengers on the space shuttle they hijacked to get to earth… so there's that to keep in mind.)
But the movie concludes by upending our whole impression of Roy. While he chases Deckard around J. F. Sebastian's old apartment building, it seems like Roy's going to kill Deckard—after all, Deck just murdered Roy's girlfriend, Pris. And he does break two of Deckard's fingers. But, surprisingly, when Roy finally has the chance to kill him, he prevents Deckard from falling off a building and saves his life. Realizing that his own life is coming to an end—the four-year time limit is just about up—Roy has a moment of wonder, compassion, and grace. Before dying, he says:
I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I've watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those ... moments will be lost in time, like tears... in rain. Time to die.
Deckard goes from being a classic rebel trying to take down his creator—like Prometheus or John Milton's Satan—to a Christ-like figure, who reacts to his own suffering with mercy and love. We're not making this up—the Jesus imagery is pretty overt: Roy drives a nail into his own hand in the last moments of the film. He then releases a dove, apparently symbolizing his soul, which soars upward as he dies.
That's the paradox of Roy's being: his society considers him to be just a biological machine, but he manages to prove that he's more truly human than many of the other characters in the film, affirming his humanity through suffering before releasing a dove that symbolizes the soul he isn't supposed to even have.
Rachael is Deckard's love interest. Part of the problem of her identity is that she doesn't really have one—at least, not one unique to herself. She's a replicant, and her memories have all been implanted, copied from Dr. Eldon Tyrell's niece. At one point, after learning from Deckard that she's a replicant, she muses on her piano-playing skills:
RACHEL: I didn't know if I could play. I remember lessons. I don't know if it's me or Tyrell's niece.
That's the big issue with Rachael: she doesn't know whether she's an individual or whether she has a Franken-personality, cobbled together from someone else's memories. Rachael's not the only one who's confused. When Deckard first encounters her, at Tyrell's penthouse, he's not sure if she's a replicant—though the way the lenses in her eyes reflect light should be a giveaway. Now, after giving her an empathy test, he does discover that she is a replicant—but it takes way longer than it usually does.
If Rachael wasn't an individual before this point, she sure becomes one when she decides to chuck it all and run away. It's an act of defiance and free will as much as it is an act of desperation, and it gets her on the blade runners' hit list, too. Rachael's situation makes us wonder, well, what does make us human? Is a clone or a manufactured "human" just as human as we are? What happens when Rachael says she's in love? How can you fall in love if you're not in some sense human? Even some real humans have a hard time being capable of love, right?
Discovering that he's attracted to Rachael, Deckard ends up inviting her over to his apartment where he sleeps with her, falls in love with her, etc., etc. You know the drill. After tangling with Roy and Pris during the movie's climax, he returns to the apartment, worried that the other blade runner, Gaff, has murdered Rachael. But, for some reason, Gaff has spared her life, allowing her to leave with Deckard.
Depending on the cut of the movie you're watching, Rachael's story ends either happily or ambiguously. In the original theatrical version, the voiceover informs us that Rachael is actually a special replicant with a normal human lifespan: she and Deckard head out to beautiful expanses of natural scenery in the West, free from the suffocating squalor of Los Angeles. In Ridley Scott's revised versions of the movie, the ending shows Rachael and Deckard getting in the elevator to the leave the apartment, with Rachael's truncated lifespan remaining. Her fate seems much more uncertain.
If the movie has a true villain, Dr. Eldon Tyrell is probably it. He's the mastermind behind the Tyrell Corporation, which manufactures the replicants and other artificial life forms, like owls and snakes. He expresses his ethos succinctly: "Commerce is our goal here at Tyrell. 'More human than human' is our motto." Basically, Tyrell is creating and enslaving super-humans in order to make money.
Yeah, he's not the most ethical businessman in the world.
We encounter Tyrell on two occasions. First, Deckard comes to see him at his penthouse—located at the top of a futuristic ziggurat or pyramid—where they discuss replicants, and where Tyrell introduces Deckard to Rachael. In line with his motto about commerce, Tyrell says that he considers Rachael to be nothing more than an experiment. Even though she's biologically the same as a human being, he views her and the other replicants as soulless tools. For instance, he's used memories from his niece to give Rachael a false sense of identity, toying with her very nature.
Next, we see Tyrell when his creations come back to exact their revenge. Roy Batty comes to Tyrell's penthouse, and demands "more life" from the very man who created him. Tyrell says that he can't help—there's no way around the built-in time limit on the replicants' four-year lifespan. He offers Roy some pat consolations, telling him to delight in the time he has:
TYRELL:The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long, and you have burned so very very brightly, Roy. Look at you. You're the prodigal son. You're quite a prize!
ROY: I've done questionable things.
TYRELL: Also extraordinary things. Revel in your time!
ROY: Nothing the god of biomechanics wouldn't let you in heaven for.
After delivering this last line, Roy kills Tyrell, crushing his skull and gouging his eyes with his bare hands. It's poetic justice—the slave overthrowing his malevolent master.
Tyrell embodies the capitalistic or commercial worldview that has taken over in the futuristic world of this movie. Sure, we don't know exactly what the replicants actually are, but they sure as heck seem to be more than robots to anyone who takes a moment to interact with them. Tyrell doesn't see any "soul" in them because he thinking solely in terms of dollars. In fact, it's not much different from the way some people see wage-laborers these days.
The confrontation between Tyrell and Roy has some other implications, too. By creating life forms from scratch, Tyrell has basically been playing god, and when Roy approaches him asking why he can't have more life, it echoes a question a lot of people might like to ask God, or some kind of higher power. Why do we have to die? What's the point of that? Right? The replicants have to deal with the same kind of big questions we all do… only they have to ask to ask Tyrell.
Pris is a replicant who is notable for, among other things, crossing the room by doing somersaults as she tries to fight Deckard to the death in J. F. Sebastian's apartment. But Pris is more than just a deadly gymnast assassin—she waxes philosophical at times, even hitting J. F. Sebastian with a Descartes quote at one point: "I think, Sebastian, therefore I am."
Um, she has a point. All of the replicants seem totally capable of thinking independently, on their own. So are they just technology, or are they more than that?
In addition to sporting bleached hair and goth/punk/clown makeup, Pris is in a romantic relationship with Roy—and he gets pretty upset when Deckard shoots and kills her. We first see her when she scrounges around on the street, alone, before running into J.F. Sebastian—just the person she and the other replicants need to find, coincidentally—and seeking shelter at his apartment. There, she reunites with Roy before finally dying at Deckard's hands.
Gaff doesn't really say or do that much in the movie—but the things he does say and do are pretty important. Like Deckard, he's a blade runner, but with a more flamboyant sense of style. In fact, he's the man who drags Deckard back into the blade running line of work, finding him at a sushi stand before bringing him to the police station. Also, he's apparently fluent in "cityspeak"—the crazy hybrid language spoken by many of L.A.'s citizens in 2019.
Gaff is most notable for two things: he spares Rachael's life at the end of the movie, allowing her to run away with Deckard, and he leaves a silver origami unicorn behind in Deckard's apartment as a clue that he knows Deckard's dreams, which suggests that Deckard may therefore be a replicant himself. Initially, Gaff is a character who might seem somewhat suspect or sinister, but he ends up showing Deckard mercy—not unlike Roy, in a way.
Gaff also gets one of the last lines in the movie, regarding Rachael and her time-limited lifespan: "It's too bad she won't live… But then again, who does?"
Good question, Gaff. Good question.
J. F. Sebastian seems to lead a strange and lonely existence. He's a genetic designer for the Tyrell Corporation—responsible for the creation of the rebellious replicants—and he lives in an apartment with a giant number of beings that are half-living and half-toy. After meeting Pris and letting her stay at his apartment, he tells her: "They're my friends. I make them." In a way, he's a prophetic symbol: he's like people in the present day who only have friends from virtual worlds online and who date imaginary characters and things like that. This makes him both sad and sympathetic.
Although Sebastian seems attracted to Pris after he first meets her, this doesn't really go anywhere, given that Roy shortly shows up. Roy forces Sebastian to take him to Tyrell, which he does. But things quickly go south: Tyrell says he can't extend Roy's lifespan, which causes Roy to murder Tyrell and then kill Sebastian off screen (we find out about this when Bryant radios the info to Deckard).
Additionally, Sebastian suffers from a disease called "Methuselah Syndrome" (named after the oldest man in the Bible), which causes him to age prematurely. The replicants play on this in order to win his sympathy, pointing out that they too suffer from "accelerated decrepitude."
Again, what's the real difference between the humans and the replicants here? Even humans can be made with short lifespans, and we're guessing they'd also like to know exactly what it has to be that way. It's hard not to feel sympathy for these creatures.
Bryant is the obnoxious policeman who acts as Deckard's boss. He's evidently bigoted against the replicants, referring to them as "skin jobs," and he doesn't have any problem pulling rank on Deckard, pointing out that a blade runner is a little person compared to an actual cop.
He's important in that he assigns Deckard's mission to him—okay, he forces Deckard to accept it—but he doesn't really appear that much in the film as a whole. Deckard finds him fairly off-putting: Bryant is delighted at Zhora's death and tells Deckard that Rachael needs to be killed, too, since she decided to run away from her controllers after realizing that she was a replicant (which was partly Deckard's fault).
Leon Kowalski shows up in the very first scene of the movie. He's a replicant undergoing the Voight-Kampff empathy test, which is designed to distinguish between humans and replicants. But rather than sit there and keep letting the test demonstrate that he's not a real human, Leon decides to shoot the interviewer, a blade runner named Holden.
We later see Leon when he and Roy play rough with the genetic eye designer Hannibal Chew. He makes his final appearance right after Deckard kills the replicant Zhora, attempting to murder Deckard himself. But Rachael shows up and blows Leon away, saving Deckard's life.
It seems he was in a romantic relationship with Zhora, since one of the scales from her snake was found in his shower. All these replicants having romantic relationships makes you kind of wonder how non-human they actually are…
Zhora is a replicant working as an exotic dancer at a club owned by a dude named Taffey Lewis. She performs using an artificial snake, and she has a snake tattoo on her neck. In fact, Deckard tracks her down with help from a snake scale that he found in the shower at Leon's apartment, which leads him to the club where she's working. After a scene during which Deckard questions Zhora in her dressing room, she attacks him and tries to run away. After a chase through the teeming L.A. streets, Deckard guns her down as she crashes through a storefront's windows.
Apparently, Zhora was in a romantic relationship with Leon, another replicant. It seems kind of like a weird match, but whatever.
Hannibal Chew shows up in just one scene. While fiddling around in his freezing cold lab, Chew is interrupted by Roy and Leon, who tear off his protective coat. Freezing and at risk of death, he tells them that he's just a genetic designer who creates eyes for replicants—something Roy and Leon know, since he designed their eyes. They force him to tell them who might be able to help in their quest to extend their lifespans, and Hannibal mentions J. F. Sebastian as someone who can take them to see Dr. Tyrell.
We don't get to learn about his final fate—although there was supposedly an un-filmed scene in the original screenplay, in which Hannibal's frozen corpse was discovered, shattered into pieces (source).
Hannibal doesn't really seem to think too much about what he's doing—he's just making eyes, right? Just following orders? Yeah, well, that's a bit of a problem, since the whole system is kind of corrupt. Hannibal may just be making eyes, but he's making eyes for what are essentially slaves.
That's the big picture, and it's not pretty.
Dave Holden only appears in the very first scene of the movie. He's a blade runner administering the Voight-Kampff test to Leon—but when Leon seems to be failing the test—thereby revealing that he's a replicant—he tries to shoot and kill Holden.
Apparently, Holden was only injured, as he appears in a few deleted scenes, included on a more recent DVD release of the movie. In these scenes, the injured Holden chats with Deckard, and explains that the replicants are looking for the man they consider to be their personal equivalent of God—Dr. Tyrell (source).
Taffey is the dude who owns the nightclub where Zhora works as a dancer. He appears for a brief moment in which he chats with Deckard and refuses to give him any useful information.
Interesting fact about this character: Ridley Scott is an infamous perfectionist, asking for take after take from his cast and crew. The scene with Taffey? They only needed one take, a fact for which actor Ty Pike was very proud. (Source)
Abdul doesn't have any spoken lines in the movie. He's the genetic designer who created the snake Zhora uses in her dance, and we get to see Deckard threatening him behind a window before Abdul caves and tells him where Zhora is.
Bear and Kaiser are two toy-like beings created by J. F. Sebastian to be his friends. Bear is basically a walking, talking teddy bear (dressed like an 18th-century Revolutionary War soldier), whereas Kaiser looks like the German dictator Kaiser Wilhelm. Kaiser also has a long Pinocchio-type nose.
...hey, don't look at us. We didn't design them.