Memory in The Blade Runner Series

“If as humans we are not in contact with our memories, what is left of us if we have no relationship with our past?” This question drives Blade Runner‘s meditations on identity and authenticity, and it is the question that inspired Denis Villeneuve to take on the pressure of directing Blade Runner 2049The conflict in the original Blade Runner is between human and android — or, more accurately, between the authentic and inauthentic. Blade Runner’s Voight-Kampf test is supposed to delineate the real from the fake by asking suspected Replicants questions meant to measure empathy. This is necessitated by the human fear of being replaced by lookalikes (c.f.  Invasion of the Body SnatchersThe World’s End). However, events in the first film undermine the Voight-Kampf test’s ability to delineate the authentic from the inauthentic, which calls into question what it really means to be human.

The Voight-Kampf test operates under the assumption that Replicants are incapable of empathy, which humans consider to be the defining human trait. The original Blade Runner even lays hints early on that Replicants may really be remorseless: for example, Leon struggling to “save” the turtle in the desert, or Rachael not hesitating to “kill” the wasp in their tests. But while Replicants fail the test, they are the only characters in the film that possess loyalty in an isolated and cynical world. As Andrew Norris argues in his essay “How Can It Now Know What It Is?,” for Replicants to develop unity and a fear of losing each other this requires “an identity that endures in time and is aware of itself doing so.” This highlights the prominent role that memory plays in the formation of identity, both for Replicants and humans.

The long-awaited sequel Blade Runner 2049 is equally influenced by the power of memory. The film is largely the story of a man sorting through pasts both real and manufactured to form a coherent identity. Memories from the first film have a major influence on characters in the sequel, especially Deckard’s memories of Rachael. 2049 avoids retreading on the original Blade Runner‘s arguments about memory by updating the media used to store memories in the film and upgrading the Replicant Nexus to make the difference between android and human even more paper-thin.

That photographs are used to preserve memory in the original Blade Runner is not a product of the film being made in 1982. Blade Runner anticipates the incoming wave of digital technology and incorporates them into the film, such as Deckard’s video call that works as a proto-FaceTime. Instead, photographs are used because they enforce Scott’s main points about the quality of memories in Blade Runner. There is no doubt in the original film that the memories really happened. Rachael’s memory of the spider may have been implanted from Tyrell’s niece, but there was at one point in time an actual spider that got devoured by its children.

Photographs serve the same purpose as memory in Blade Runner: they are both proof that the past can actually be recalled with some certainty. Roland Barthes makes a similar point about conscious beings’ relationship with photographs in his book about photography and memory, Camera Lucida: “In photography, I can never deny that the things has been there. There is a superimposition here: of reality and of the past.” The certainty that photographs provide is what draws Leon and Rachael to them. Replicants’ lives are filled with doubt, as they constantly have to question their purpose, identity, and past. Looking at a photograph is one of the few times in their life that they can be sure that they are looking at something real. They provide Leon and Rachael with a past, even if it is not a past of their own.

Blade Runner also chooses to use photographs to store memory because memory is durable in the film. Blade Runner’s Replicants are terrified by mortality and driven by the quest for more life. Leon risks his life to save his “precious photographs” because he knows that they will last longer than him or his friends. Replicants understand that photographing a moment makes it more real — and hope that photographs documenting their lives will grant them some authenticity. While a photo may fade, it will not disappear like tears in rain.

Memory is more volatile in Blade Runner 2049. This has much to do with how memories are stored on an online network of data storage (the “cloud”). A Wallace Corporation employee explains to K that a Blackout wiped out society’s collective memory by corrupting all of the data stored in the cloud; everything from personal photos to bank documents. He and everyone else realizes too late what Leon and Rachael understood decades before: “it’s funny, it’s only paper that lasts.” The difference between the tactile and the digital is present in the different filmmaking decisions in each film as well. The cinematography and set design of the original Blade Runner is grimy and covered in trash. The film is more consistently shot at a street level that highlights this grit. But, like an old, beaten photograph, one can be sure that everything they see is actually there.

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(Image: Warner Bros.)

In 2049, the streets are no longer as filthy, nor are they as real. Digital projections and holograms have replaced the iconic billboards from Blade Runner. Even the famous “Enjoy a Coca-Cola” billboard from the original film is replaced by a hologram of a giant Coke can. Many of the cinematic differences in 2049 rely on these digital advertisements. Shots of the neon glow reflected onto K’s face as he travels through the city go a long way towards establishing that Los Angeles has changed since Deckard was on the beat. But if these projections were to go out in a Blackout-like event, Blade Runner 2049 would lose its carefully established visual identity and have to scramble to pick up the pieces like K.

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(Image: Warner Bros.)

The unreliable nature of memory in 2049 is most obvious during K’s personal odyssey. His journey is difficult from the start, as cracks in the data files of Rachael’s Voight-Kampf test corrupt everything but fragments. This immediately indicates that something is off in 2049, as the film’s connection to one of the most important scenes in Blade Runner has been damaged. Later, Deckard’s manipulation of digital birth records, aided by the impact of the Blackout, sets K down the path of an outlaw so that he can investigate his past. It is only when Freysa gives K the photograph of her holding Deckard and Rachael’s baby that he finally gets an authentic representation of the past and stops questioning his identity.

Yet the arguments that Blade Runner 2049 makes about memory is more complex than physical media is incorruptible while digital media cannot be trusted. The orphanage’s paper record book should be more durable than data files, but gets corrupted nonetheless. K’s toy horse seems like physical evidence that his past was experienced rather than created, but only serves to further mislead him. It is not accurate to say that memory is much more reliable in the original than in 2049 either, as Rachael’s misunderstanding of her photos and her implanted memories cause the same identity crisis K experiences. Considered together, Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049 make a more compelling argument about memory: it is barely tethered to reality as is, and that relationship becomes even more tenuous when memory is not accurately preserved.

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Wallace Corporation hall of records (Image: Warner Bros.)

The programming of Nexus-9 models like K differ significantly from Nexus 6’s like Roy and Pris. In between the original film and the sequel, Replicants stopped receiving predetermined expiration dates. Implanting real memories into Replicants became outlawed, so the creation of new memories was subcontracted to memory designer Dr. Ana Stelline. The result of extended lifespans is that Replicants find out their memories are implanted before the very end of their lives; and they live long enough to make more memories than can be implanted in them. This makes the link between implanted memories and identity less concrete in Blade Runner 2049 than in Blade Runner.

K sums up the confusion that stems from knowing you did not experience formative memories when Joshi asks him to tell her a childhood memory. K says, “I feel a little strange telling a childhood story when I was never a child.” After K tells Joshi about fighting off the other boys in the orphanage to protect his toy horse, Joshi responds to his story with “little K, sticking up for what’s his.” This suggests that she feels the toy horse memory shaped K even if he did not experience it. However, she also tells him that she does not think he has a soul. Joshi, like most humans in the film, is unable or unwilling to evaluate the “soul” of K because she cannot see past the fact that he and his memories were created. Joshi recognizes that K draws from his memories to better understand himself like any other human. She also understands that humans are disproportionately influenced by a few enduring memories rather than the entirety of their experiences. This is the whole reason that Tyrell and Wallace can get away with implanting a few memories into their Replicants instead of coming up with an entire past. Yet even though she admits that she sometimes forgets K is a Replicant, and even makes a pass at him in his apartment, her offhand remark about his lack of a soul shows she still has a reductive opinion of K’s identity. He was built rather than born, so he is not a real person to her.

Unlike Joshi, Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049 legitimize the connection between characters and memories that they remember but do not experience. K bursts out in anger when he learns he might have experienced the horse memory and is completely devastated when he learns that he did not. Villeneuve suggests that these are both reasonable responses. Part of the reason the connection between K and the orphanage memory feels so tangible is the way Villeneuve chose to shoot the flashback to the memory. Rather than shooting the scene in a different color grade (e.g. black and white) or omitting certain parts to suggest subjectivity, the flashback is shot like any other scene in the present timeline.

This is the same technique that Scott used when Rachael’s photograph came to life to Deckard. Deckard mocked Rachael for believing she was human based on her implanted memories just as Joshi dismissed K for prescribing meaning to his. But when Deckard takes a look at the photograph he considered meaningless because Rachael was not in it, the image starts to move for him. Like the flashback in 2049, the image is not grainy to draw attention to the fact it comes from a photograph. It is as clear as if Tyrell’s niece and her mother were standing in front of him. From that point forward, Deckard respects that Rachael does not need to have experienced the implants for those memories to be real to her. Deckard understand the most important point the Blade Runner series has to make about memory: it is the interpretation of the memories that determines an identity, not just the memories themselves.

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(Image: Warner Bros.)

The end goal of the characters in both Blade Runner films is to establish and come to peace with an identity. To do so, characters must identify implanted memories, reflect on the impact of the implants, then draw from this period of self-discovery to form a coherent self-image. This is true for both humans and Replicants, which shows that identity has more to do with how one views their self than how the circumstances of their creation. Memory is initially used as a means of control in Blade Runner and 2049. Tyrell tells Deckard that, “If we give [Replicants] a past, we can create a cushion or pillow for their emotions, and consequently we can control them better.” Dr. Stelline reveals Wallace’s motives for providing memories are much the same: “Wallace needs [her] talents to maintain a stable product.” Tyrell and Wallace don’t implant memories into their creations to give them happy moments to reflect on during their difficult lives. They implant the memories so that the Replicants feel like a series of past events led to them working for the Tyrell and Wallace Corporations, and that is where they belong. If the Replicants found out they were created to be slaves for the companies and then manipulated into staying, the Corporations would at minimum lose the labor they rely on. At worst, a lot more human eyes would get pushed in.

Eventually characters learn to resist the control implanted memories have over them. The first step towards becoming something other than what their creator intended is recognizing they did not actually experience all of their memories. For Nexus-9 models like K this is less traumatic since people have stopped hiding the fact that their memories are implanted from Replicants. Rachael, however, was the first Replicant that Tyrell experimented with implanting memories into, so this upends her entire world. After identifying that memories have been implanted, characters have to reconcile these implants with their real memories and self-image.

Roy and Rachael decide to completely disown their implants. After struggling with how much of her past was implanted (e.g. her piano lessons) Rachael rejects her implanted past and flees Tyrell Corp. to make her own memories. Roy rejects his implanted memories during his tears in rain monologue. Roy recognizes in his dying moments that he has one last moment to pass on to Deckard the memories that mean the most to him. He chooses to preserve memories from his time as a soldier-slave at an Off-world colony rather than any implanted ones. Roy did not have much control over how he lived his life, but he exercises autonomy in his last moment by choosing which memories he identifies with.

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(Image: Warner Bros.)

K, on the other hand, chooses to let his connection to the toy horse memory continue to define him. It shaped his resilient personality before he knew it was implanted, and his examination of the memory got him to question his programming. Even when he later finds out that he is not the child of Rachael and Deckard, K does not revert back to who he was at the start of the film. The memory helped him achieve consciousness and free-will, and it comforted him when he felt like there was nothing special about himself. So K decides the memory is “real” — even if it was not experienced.

After coming to terms with these memories, characters face the most difficult step on the path towards authenticity: determining how reckoning with their past will define who they are going forward. Rachael, Deckard, Roy, and K all achieve authentic personhood. Not because they pass the Voight-Kampf test, and not just because they defy their initial programming. These characters become individuals because they make decisions based on the unique perspectives on the world. Rachael does not let the doubt that crept in her mind when she learned her memories were implanted dictate her life. She felt like she was a person before she learned this, and continues to act like her own person afterwards by ignoring her impending expiration to start a life with Deckard. Deckard becomes a true individual by gaining empathy for the Replicants he was supposed to kill; even if he were a human, it would be difficult to call him authentic if he carried on as a killing machine that did not question his instructions.

K and Roy become individuals by reflecting on the perspectives on life that their memories have granted them. K’s journey from leaving the Blade Runner unit to learning that he is not actually Deckard’s son leads him to a pivotal moment: Freysa asks him to join the Replicant Resistance and rise up against the humans. The simplest arc for a character programmed by humans against his will, who later learns to reject his programming, would be to take up arms against the group that enslaved him. Rejecting his programming as a Blade Runner to instead start killing humans would demonstrate change for K. But falling into the new type of tribalism that the Resistance offers would not demonstrate K has achieved free will.

By sacrificing himself to reunite Deckard with his daughter, K becomes an authentic individual. Through a combination of implanted memories he accepted and new memories he experienced, K develops a stronger connection to Deckard and Stelline than to any group that defines themselves by how they were created. K is not concerned with doing “the most human thing possible” like Freysa advocates for. His sacrifice does more good for Replicants than a war if uniting Stelline and Deckard can bring reproductive abilities to other Replicants, and it demonstrates that he has what he really cared about more than how he was born: a soul.

Roy’s difficult journey to personhood mirrors K’s in some ways. Like K, he sets out with the goal of discovering himself, but realizes along the way that being an individual is more complex than what he thought. Roy originally thought he would achieve personhood by rejecting his programming as a soldier to kill the people that programmed him that way. After killing Tyrell, he decides his path to identity must be paved by killing the people who hurt his friends. Yet Roy decides to spare Deckard when he gets the chance. In his last moments, Roy realizes that recognizing the abuses he’s suffered shows consciousness, but continuing to behave like the killer he was created to does not show individuality. By sparing Deckard, Roy rejects his pre-ordained role of executioner. He and K both see that there is more to identity than the groups you belong to or are supposed to hate.

The common thread between these journeys is memory. Memory is given to Replicants as a form of control, but Tyrell and Wallace overlook how it is what makes everyone an individual. As long as something is given memories and the consciousness to make sense of them, they will be able to achieve free-will and break free of their shackles. The Blade Runner series is compelling because it does not equate human with real and non-humans with fake. Replicants in both films truly become “more human than human” by expressing empathy, sacrificing for one another, and proving that how one comes into the world matters less than what they do on it. Memory is integral to this awakening, and its deep exploration over the course of both films creates a compelling thesis: who we are largely depends on what we remember.

 

4 thoughts on “Memory in The Blade Runner Series

  1. This was great. The thread of memory, how it works, what it means, how it can be trusted and how it can deceive, is a hugely important subtext in both films and is the link that connects the two. And makes both films so fascinating. You make a very interesting observation that Roy and Rachel reject, and become seperate from, their memory implants.

    What interests me in these films is that Replicants, by their nature, probably never ‘forget’ their memories as their databanks/brains are likely more efficient than ours. The memories as vivid as if they happened yesterday. This could drive them crazy- I think it’s a mercy that for us humans, memories fade, don’t stay as intense or painful, over time. Replicants seemingly don’t have this luxury- witness Officer K re-experiencing the trauma of his memories of that furnace room.

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    • Exactly! Humans can block out their worst memories either consciously or subconsciously, Replicants are stuck with what was implanted at their creation and the largely unpleasant things they’ve experienced. Reminds me of the people with photographic memories who view it as a curse rather than a blessing.

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