What significance does memory hold in the film?
Memory serves at least three major functions in Blade Runner.
- precursor to consciousness
- ethical standard
- indicator of humanity
First and foremost, memory in Blade Runner is treated as a possession without which it is impossible to be considered sentient. Humans are of course considered conscious by default. Replicants, on the other hand, are limited to a lifespan of slavery in four years, and are only allowed to collect a toddler’s amount of experience before they die. Thus, replicants are broadly considered to be inferior to human beings. They aren’t treated as second-class citizens – they are treated as animals. This abuse is partly due to their laboratory origins. When Deckard meets Rachael – a replicant supplied with all the memories of a human being – later in the film, her behavior is subtly different from the expected human behavior, in spite of the memories in her head. This suggests a fundamental difference between humans and replicants.
An ethical standard is the second role that memory plays. A central plot device in the film is Deckard’s quest to (re)gain his humanity. He gradually does so as the film progresses, thanks in no small part to the various ethical dilemmas that he faces. (Should replicants be punished for wanting longer life? What happens if I mistakenly kill a human being? Can/should I love/lust after a replicant? etc.) Deckard evaluates these questions, it would seem, by examining both himself and his experiences to arrive at a conclusion. “Experience: replicants have killed people. Therefore they should be punished. Ex: I’ve never been wrong about a replicant before. Therefore there is no risk of a mistake. Ex: This replicant has memories and wants to have feelings. Therefore I can teach her to love.” Deckard’s experiences provide a standard against which he can weigh his actions. The same is true for Roy – in his short time, he’s seen only abuse at the hands of human beings, so he feels justified in killing the source of his suffering.
However, the most important thing the memory does for Blade Runner is to provide a criteria for humanity. Obviously, every human in the movie has a lifetime’s worth of memories stored up, and we take their status as human for granted. The audience is less sure about replicants, although it’s clear upon further examination that one of the movie’s goals is to convince the audience that the replicants are human. Look no further than Deckard himself for this information. He looks up information from Rachael’s past in a “file”, which allegedly contains information about the memories of all replicants. Earlier in the film, Deckard is seen daydreaming about unicorns. At the very end, he encounters an origami unicorn left in his path by Detective Gaff, the man responsible for looking after him. As this unicorn was placed in a location that Gaff would not normally have known, the strong implication is that Gaff looked up “unicorns” as being personally significant in Deckard’s file – which implies that Deckard is in fact a replicant, imbued as Rachael was with human memory. This revelation also has the impact of changing Deckard’s quest from “regaining his humanity” to “gaining it in the first place”, and explains how with time, Deckard becomes more human as he accumulates real-world experiences and real-world memory. As Deckard is arguably the most human character in the film, memory is clearly the film’s absolute indicator of humanity – it’s what Deckard quests for all along.