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Memory, Photography and performing the ‘human’ in Blade Runner

 | Essay |

  BY Ankan Kazi

The opening scene of Blade Runner presents us with the vision of a futuristic city that breathes fire, lightning and smoke like a fantastic and primeval dragon; but then it also ruptures this atavistic vision by conjuring multiple spaceships from an imaginary of the ‘future’ that whiz past our point of view. And then we are presented with our ‘point of view’- an all-seeing eye that fills up the frame and brackets the scene we have witnessed before as if reproducing our own experience of watching the scene. Eyes, lenses and mirrors constantly appear and dictate different ways of looking in the film. They challenge a traditional notion of the image as a pure representation of an unmediated reality and also complicate the ways in which this capricious system fixes itself into constructs of memory, identity and subjectivity. 

The eyes and the mirrors foreground the easy and all-pervasive possibility of multiple reproductions and replications. Additionally, it is also pointed out that the replications bear their resemblance to an original image, but that image itself is also a construct- a science fiction film set that quotes and re-arranges images from other films, photographs and architectural icons. The film’s production design allows for a certain ‘retro-fitting’ that is an explicit acknowledgment of this attempt to simulate the real space of the film itself. It isn’t a pure invention of forms in the manner of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but a constructed image of advanced decadence- borrowing the language of its space from other films. This artistic construct cuts into the heart of the film’s subject: “The question arises, though, whether the products of this new form of reproduction are, like children and paintings, unique and individual, or whether they are, like photographs, multiples- identical objects without the claim to a distinctive, unique existence that is part of our sense of what being human is (Shetley and Ferguson 2001).” Through all its quotations and cultural borrowings we are almost asked to move the question of humanity- what constitutes a human and what distinguishes her from a replicant- from the domain of scientific speculation to an artistic one.  The terms have shifted to consider the problem of multiple reproductions and replicants as a representational problem and one that should be approached by challenging our traditional ways of using art to assert, or even understand, our subjectivity.

Vernon Shetley and Alissa Ferguson’s reading of Walter Benjamin’s category of the ‘aura’ in this context is especially useful: “Our awareness of an object’s uniqueness, its material specificity and history, in effect humanizes it for us; “experience of the aura”, Benjamin writes, “rests on the transposition of a response common in human relationships to the relationship between the inanimate or natural object and man”. “Aura,” writes Benjamin, “withers in the age of mechanical reproduction, “as the technology of reproduction “substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence”( …). Blade Runner imagines a world in which the new technologies of human reproduction likewise substitute plurality for uniqueness. Just as the mechanical reproduction of artworks destroys the sense of authenticity and uniqueness upon which aura depends, the mechanical reproduction of replicants threatens the sense of individuality that undergirds our notion of the human.”

Additionally, one is confronted with the allied problem of ‘authenticity’. Since the replicants are always created through shifting changes in technology and their question of humanity is therefore, only a technical question (and an unimportant one as Tyrell seems to believe), they are always outside the sphere of ‘authenticity’ that marks human existence and reproduction. This constitutes the meat of their ontological uncertainty. This uncertainty is only reified by the replicants’ exclusion from the prime epistemological categories that construct ‘Man’- defined here uniquely as the product of a long form discourse emerging out of the Enlightenment- which includes History. The absence of a history allows them to be perceived as non-human (even subhuman) subjects that are only defined by colonial legal frameworks that situate them solely as utility devices.  It also lends itself to the visual space of the film at large, as Kevin McNamara writes, “we are in a world in which the body cannot locate itself in space, or consciousness in history, a society defined by an abandoned public sphere and an expanding rift between rich and poor, a built environment choked with waste and squalor (McNamara 1997).” 

A swirl of colours

The replicants’ sense of exclusion from history finds utterance in the form of Roy Batty quoting from literary texts that constitute the cultural fabric of the human subject. William Blake is misquoted so that Batty can allow himself to be compared with fallen angels and his sacrificial Christ-like performance in the climactic scenes of the film attest to his strong desire to belong within a tradition that will invest his actions with transcendental meaning- like salvation, for example, as he hopes to achieve, instead of meaningless extinction or dysfunction. The allusion to fallen angels place the replicants within the tradition of active dissidents like Lucifer and the Frankenstein myth of the created turning against his oppressive/ careless creator. In Philip K. Dick’s source text, Do Androids dream of electric sheep?, the androids are further ‘humanized’ by their interest in art- especially the art of Edvard Munch, a painter of exaggerated human performances of repressed horror, who declared in his manifesto: “We should no longer paint interiors with men reading and women knitting. We should paint living people who breathe, feel, suffer and love.” By imitating the motions of breathing, suffering (like Christ), feeling and loving, Batty and his cohorts are making a direct claim on living people. In his moment of disillusionment with Tyrell, he makes his case clear: “I want more life, father.” The roles they play are perfectly furnished with rich cultural meta-narratives: Roy Batty’s punk enfant terrible get-up, Rachael’s femme fatale from noir films and Zhora’s snake costume that is so obviously exotic that it attracts no unwarranted attention in an exotic nightclub. These are further underpinned by a network of gender roles that construct the hero- Deckard, with his distinct, individualistic, disheveled one-man-against-the-world look quoted from noir films- in an already-specified function within the text and in opposition to the other characters. Kevin McNamara writes, “Deckard isn't authentically Deckard-although he is not a replicant either; he is enacting a cultural memory of masculinity.”  Of course, the film goes about subverting these roles and functions in a meaningful way throughout the narrative to suggest an almost unequivocal authorial stance on the debates presented in the film.

Made with false memory-implants, the replicants of the new order Nexus 6 are additionally gifted with the possibility for nostalgia. If one understands nostalgia as a strong yearning for a unified moment in the past- a utopic moment that galvanises one’s identity and anchors her subjectivity in consciousness- then it performs the cynical role of just another constituent of the human construct in the film. This is aided by the sinister uses of photographs in the film and the nature of film itself as a commentary on this relationship between memory and identity. In fact, photographs, performances and memory are inter-linked in the film and they serve the purpose of complicating a straightforward construct of subjectivity. They are manipulable and are distinctly manipulated throughout the film, yet they also form the basis on which humanity seems certainly able to distinguish itself from a replicant. It seems that, by the end of the film, only an acknowledgment of this glaring contradiction within one’s self can allow one to be human. Or rather, one could point to the transient moment between ill-defined categories as the moment of actual humanity, the authentic act of existence. Gaffe hints at this explanation towards the end of the film when he walks away from Deckard’s confrontation with Batty and enigmatically declares: “It’s too bad she won’t live. But then again, who does?”

Rachael’s ontological doubt is initiated when she ‘fails’ the Voigt-Kampf test which is, after all, a test of performance- almost functioning like an auditioning machine that judges the actor to be inadequately invested in her character or role. She does not believe the test, however. In the absence of any real ‘test’ that can establish humanity, she relies on the absolute truth of her memory that is aided by the photograph she possesses of herself with her mother. When Deckard exposes this to be a fake- a photograph of Tyrell’s niece with fake memory-implants- Rachael has no option but to consider herself ‘exposed’; and this causes her enough anguish to elicit tears: an emotional response that is perhaps more human than anything Deckard is capable of in the film. But then again, as the cruel motto of Tyrell Corporations makes clear, these replicants are designed to be “More human than human”, casting an eerie doubt on the humanness of so-called ‘human responses’ altogether. Another important intervention is made by the director to further complicate this problem. After Rachael leaves Deckard’s apartment, he sits down with the photograph and examines it. It appears to be a sunny snapshot of real moment in the past and on the flipside one can notice random scribbling that further simulates an air of intimate connection. However, as he observes closely, just about half a second before the scene cuts away the photograph suddenly comes to life as if it’s the recording of a film scene frozen into an image. This allows the director to cast a net of extreme doubt on the very nature of film itself and its duplicitous relationship with unmediated reality. Another scene with the Esper Machine allows this doubt to harden into a further shade of unreliability. But before examining that scene, it might be worth looking at the inter-textual cultural reference evoked by this particular scene.

A Photo that Moves

The scene, as has been recognized by several hawk-eyed fans of the film,[1] is a direct homage to a similar sequence in Chris Marker’s La jetée (1962).  Time, in Marker’s film, has been colonized and one can access the past before the third world war and the distant future equally in their resistance to the complete destruction of the present. But the protagonist needs to have a strong memory of the past in order to facilitate his travel. And this memory comes to his aid in the form of an image- the image of a woman on the pier- that almost has him obsessed. The still image here has a similar function to the photographs in Blade Runner. The still images do not allow any of the actors in the film to perform or play their role as the replicants must in Blade Runner. They make the film look ‘authentic’- more like a dispassionate documentary record of the third world war- and the film does not need to construct an artificial reality (by articulating performed continuities between space and time) for itself as Blade Runner does. We are taught by the narrator to also misrecognize images and their relationship to the remembering subject. When the protagonist remembers images the narrator immediately tells us they’re real boys or birds, and not that they’re images of boys or birds. What follows, therefore, is the protagonist’s confusion whether the image of the woman is one from his past or simply something he dreamt up in order to cushion his memories of the terrible war that he had to live through.[2] We are told that the dreams of these prisoners- trapped in a cave-like underground passage- are also regularly monitored by the scientists and it is after the end of the first stage of experiments, when he doubts the authenticity of the image he obsesses over that we have the image suddenly flickering to life for a brief second or two. The sudden uncertainty induced by this sequence in the audience throws the entire narrative into doubt and places us in the position of the replicant who is confronted by the possibility that her humanity is perfectly mutable. Moreover, this provides a further clue to the exacting and rigorous nature of the blade runner’s job: to police the borders between dreams and memory, real and unreal, and human and replicant by keeping them in their fixed places. Deckard, on the other hand, is constantly assailed by confusions at these borders and finds it increasingly difficult to define his dreams (of the unicorn, for example) or even the nature of his reality as a human. Instead of disproving anybody’s humanity, therefore, this approach problematizes the conceptual bases of human subjectivity within history: “These scenes also remind us that our knowledge of the past is always mediated through representations (even our memories are mediated), and that we must interrogate them to reveal the ideology that subtends the apparently natural (McNamara 1997).” An acknowledgment, in other words, that history is constantly produced by reproductions, representations and replications.

The terrible ‘real’ that needs to be cushioned by artificial memories causes an ethical breach that disgusts Deckard and he makes this clear to Tyrell. The breach affects him strongly because he depends on a similar relationship between photographs and memory as a foundation for his own identity. His flat is strewn with photographs and although we are never clearly told who the people in the photographs are, it is understood that this heavily photographed space constitutes the centre of his self.  It is implied that the relation between a photograph and the photographed subject is a near-sacred one for humans. Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida begins with the writer remembering his mother through one of her photographs. It is not a theory of photography so much as an exploration of how the human subject relates to photographs. This Freudian drama is staged repeatedly in Blade Runner too.

We have already seen how Rachael depends upon a photograph with her mother as if it were ‘proof’ of her humanity. Leon, who is also very attached to photographs, is pushed to react violently when the Voigt-Kampf controller asks him about his mother. “Let me tell you about my mother,” he says before shooting him dead. This desire to install themselves within the oedipal framework guides Roy Batty and his group to seek out their father. Putting out his father’s eyes, in this context, reverses the oedipal paradigm through an impotent act of revenge and it also confirms his inability to ultimately become the Oedipus of his own drama. 

Photo Enhancement

The director ultimately chooses to locate the audience in this ambiguous replicant-like space through the nature of his gaze. When Deckard uses the Esper machine to determine the presence of Zhora in Leon’s room, we witness a series of shots that dig into the space of the photograph. Deckard assumes the role of a film director ordering the machine to pan, zoom in or out or even approach from another angle. The intense zoom catches a mirror in the distance and we begin to notice Zhora only through faint reflections on the mirror. And then, almost suddenly, the photographic space becomes a three-dimensional space that allows the camera to adopt an angle that will allow Deckard to look behind a pillar. This is inexplicable at first glance and almost as confusing as the sudden animation of Rachael’s fixed photograph. Thus, a photograph, a mirror, and then a duplicitous invasion of the photographed space by the gaze of the director-figure: constituting a trompe l’oeil that confirms the cinematic gaze as an active agent of the processes that arbitrarily determine the replicants’ positioning as an ‘Other’ to the supposedly sacrosanct conception of the human self. The implications maybe summed up thus: “the three-dimensional space the Esper creates is not the space of cinema tout court, but rather of a particular kind of cinema, the cinema of montage. In montage filmmaking, a scene is fragmented into its elements, and those elements are then reassembled into a new whole through editing. The goal is not to capture what Andre Bazin called "the reality of dramatic space" (24), but rather to construct a new, specifically cinematic space, in which every detail has become powerfully imbued with significance. The eye of the montage filmmaker dominates the world it surveys, rearranging it according to the dictates of his own vision. In similar fashion, Leon's photograph becomes, in the Esper machine, not the record of a real moment in time but a reservoir of information from which a new, fantasmatic space can be assembled, a space available to the probing, investigating eye of the detective (Shetley and Ferguson 2001).” The director as the determinant of the gaze, the detective who reduces space to a map that furnishes evidence against blank absences and the blade runner as a hazy combination of both. 

What is repeatedly denied is the sacred relationship between image and subjectivity as a pre-determined construct. The memory constructed on the photograph is revealed to be a ‘fake’, a construct with no reference in reality; a simulacrum like the replicant herself. The fact that she can play the piano based on the memories of another person who had learned as a child draws the link between performance and memory through the mediation of technology. In the light of this reading, as hinted above, the imagined space of the film becomes the final clue against the colonial enterprise of the state within the film. The ‘retro-fitted’ look imitates the look of a pastness that depends upon cultural representations of the past. A mediation akin to that of the technological mediation that attempts to simulate authenticity for the replicants. The irony of setting a futuristic film against the production design of past glories underlines the tension at the centre of the film, but more importantly tips the scales in the favour of Deckard’s decision to escape finally with his replicant lover.


1) ‘Reflections in a Silver Eye: Lens and Mirror in "Blade Runner"’; Shetley, Vernon and Ferguson, Allisa; Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 28, No. 1 (Mar., 2001), pp. 66-76  

2) ‘"Blade Runner's" Post-Individual Worldspace’; McNamara, Kevin R.; Contemporary Literature, Vol. 38, No. 3 (Autumn, 1997), pp. 422-446   

3) http://www.original.rolandcollection.com/rolandcollection/section/14/507.htm 

4) Blade Runner; director: Scott, Ridley, writer: Fancher, Hampton and Peoples, David; The Ladd Company, Sir Run Run Shaw and Tandem Productions, 1982


1. http://www.ballardian.com/la-jetee

2. Tyrell explains how memory implants help ‘cushion’ the replicants’ consciousness of reality