In a world in which memories are little more than self-structuring dreams, what is the value of a choice? This question plagues the android antagonists of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, and ultimately comes to define Harrison Ford’s Deckard, who may/may not be a ‘replicant’ himself. Dreaming permeates the film, infusing the dystopian Los Angeles setting with melancholic fantasy – consider the inscrutable image of a Geisha girl selling Coca-Cola, the recurring motif of the unicorn, and the haunting score by composer Vangelis. In a world as bleak as Deckard’s, dreaming takes on a complex and crucial role – hardly surprising given the source text, ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’ by everyone’s favourite sci-fi schizophrenic, Phillip K Dick. The dream-as-memory traps us, determines our fate, yet the dream-as-fantasy poises us to choose who and what we become.
The narrative of the film, which sees semi-retired ‘Blade Runner’ Deckard track down and ‘retire’ five rogue replicants, thematises the visual image – the opening shot of an eye reflecting the LA skyline, the flashing red eyes of the replicants, even the famous ‘Voight-Kampff’ test which depends on “involuntary dilation of the pupil”. The motif of “seeing”, or seeing-another-seeing (we are, after all, witnessing ourselves this back-and-forth), keeps us on our toes, scanning the mise-en-scene for clues that never materialise.
Because appearances don’t tell us a thing – the androids that mirror humans in appearance and childlike psychology, the sudden permeability of a photograph, even Roy Batty (Rutget Hauer) delivering his famous “Tears in Rain” speech: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.” The constant recourse to the outside – off-world, outside of vision, out of the frame – contributes to our imagining of Blade Runner’s world, expansive and complex. Ridley Scott’s famous attention to detail doesn’t hurt, either. We re-watch Blade Runner more than most films, revelling in the little details, as if trying to see all that we can before our time runs out.
But how do we remember this (fictional) world? Infused with Vangelis’ electronic jazz, always soaked in sunlight or rain, with a plot in which Deckard seems to stumble upon his targets by accident? Though the narrative is in fact tightly structured, our movement between sequences is dream-like, unfashionably slow for a Hollywood picture, even unexplained (at least since Scott’s first Director’s Cut, which removed Ford’s underwhelming narration). We are given time to ponder the meaning behind each deceiving image, to consider its counterpoint in the soundtrack, to feel the dread weight of an Earth whose time has run out. The chanting, electronically-distorted voice of an Arabic woman in Vangelis’ “Tales of the Future” seems hollowed, since there are few stories left to tell.
And our tales of the past, recall, are quite possibly fake. The tie between Deckard and his replicant love interest Rachel (Sean Young) is the suddenly external nature of their memories. Rachel’s are implanted by the Tyrell Corporation, Deckard’s are somehow known by his fellow Blade Runner Gaff (Edward James Olmos). The impossible dream/memory of the unicorn, just like Rachel’s memory of a dead spider, are designed to “make them seem more human”, by both the fictional corporation and the director.
The hint of memory, the idea that it shapes the characters we see, is another of Ridley Scott’s self-reflexive techniques – we become so invested in whether Deckard is real or fake that we overlook his status as fictional. Just as the privileging of sight and detail is undermined by indeterminacy, the status of memory is made impossibly problematic. If Deckard’s memories are fictions (they are) they explain his motivations as the protagonist – they make him a killing machine. We assume so much of his history as Blade Runner, as he does, that it structures our understanding of the plot – a plot built around five executions. Just as the replicants are ‘shaped’ by their mortality and relationship to memory, Deckard as protagonist is defined by the dream-as-memory.
His relationship –and ours – to imagined ‘past’ and ‘future’ becomes the driving force behind the film’s conclusion. Gaff remarks: “It’s a shame she won’t live. But then again, who does?” referring to Rachel, with whom Deckard leaves LA in the final shot. The cryptic nature of the comment suggests that Gaff knows what Deckard will do next – if he knows about Deckard’s ‘past’, then perhaps he can predict Deckard’s course of action in the future. But the film (at least, since the first Director’s cut, which removes the “happy ending” wherein Deckard and Rachel elope to the Overlook Hotel) leaves us hanging as to what happens next. Perhaps the Earth of 2019 is a closed system, where psychology and narrative are predetermined. But then, Scott suggests, perhaps not.