The film’s implication is that if you define a person’s memories, you create their identity; if you create their identity, you can control them; if you can control them, you can make them your slaves.
The setting is Los Angeles, November 2019. The antagonists of the story are four Replicants, “custom-tailored, genetically engineered humanoids,” who escape from a space colony by hijacking a shuttle and killing the passengers and crew. They return to Earth in an attempt to confront their maker at the Tyrell Corporation and extend their lives. The opening text crawl explains:
Early in the 21st Century, THE TYRELL CORPORATION advanced Robot evolution into the NEXUS phase -- a being virtually identical to a human -- known as a Replicant. The NEXUS 6 Replicants were superior in strength and agility, and at least equal in intelligence, to the genetic engineers who created them. Replicants were used Off-world as slave labor, in the hazardous exploration and colonization of other planets. After a bloody mutiny by a NEXUS 6 combat team in an Off-world colony, Replicants were declared illegal on earth -- under penalty of death. Special police squads -- BLADE RUNNER UNITS -- had orders to shoot to kill, upon detection, any trespassing Replicant. This was not called execution. It was called retirement.
Technology of 2019 has outpaced ethics. Advancing beyond mere mechanics, Replicants are biological beings. Their roles are tailored for great physical strength, military service, assassination, and “pleasure models.” However, the human attitude toward their usefulness does not change. “Replicants are like any other machine,” Deckard says. “They’re either a benefit or a hazard.” Slavery of manufactured humanoids is considered palatable and preferable to humans doing such hard, dangerous work. Flying cars called “spinners” are commonplace, while genetic engineering is also used to recreate all manner of animals. Faster-than-light travel has evidently been achieved in the Blade Runner setting, but Off-World colonization is selective: only those who can pass a medical test and afford the cost to emigrate are allowed. Thus, the sick and the poor are left on Earth while the healthy and well-off have brighter futures elsewhere. The population of Earth becomes a permanent slum society. Los Angeles is a dark and dirty city of towering buildings, perpetual rain and grime, multiethnic jargon, and overcrowded streets.
Due to their inception as adults with no childhood development or family bonds, Replicants have only their identity as slave laborers. They differ from humans mentally in that they lack normal emotions, particularly empathy. As they age and develop, they begin to recognize an identity and experience emotions, something new and shocking to them. They behave unpredictably and can become violent without warning. The Nexus 6, being the most advanced and closest to human, are naturally the most dangerous. Deckard, a veteran Blade Runner, is called upon by Captain Bryant of the Los Angeles police to track down and retire the four Nexus 6 Replicants who have escaped. Bryant explains that, “The Nexus 6 was designed to copy human beings in every way except their emotions. But the makers reckoned that after a few years they might develop their own emotional responses - hate, love, fear, anger, envy. So they built in a fail-safe device… A four year lifespan.” With no past, no long-term memories, and a short lifespan, the replicants have little attachment to the regular world and can enact violence with few morals to stop them. Dr. Eldon Tyrell hopes to prevent any future organized rebellions by simply allowing them to die off in four years before they become too self-aware.
However, a replicant’s identity can be created artificially and used to control them. Dr. Tyrell experiments with a new prototype in the Nexus line. Deckard is invited to the corporation to check out a new model replicant, Rachael (Sean Young), using the Voight-Kampff test. It is a machine designed to elicit an emotional response in a test subject and measure their involuntary physical responses (blushing, iris dilation etc.) or lack thereof, as a way to detect Replicants from ordinary humans. Early in the film, a Blade Runner named Holden tests one of the escaped Replicants, Leon. After a question about his mother (a nonexistent person), Leon flies into an irrational rage and shoots Holden.
If a person’s identity and past experience are insufficient for them to handle reality, how can they respond? Rachael, the experimental subject at Tyrell Corporation is a professionally attired, stuffy looking young woman. Deckard ends the Voight-Kampff session saying, “You're watching a stage play. A banquet is in progress. The guests are enjoying an appetizer of raw oysters. The entree consists of boiled dog.” Instead of instant disgust, Rachael's response is one of silence. She sits and stares blankly. She is apparently unable to think of a response, and none comes naturally. It takes Deckard over 100 questions to determine she isn’t human. Rachael, however, is unaware of her own nature. Deckard confronts Dr. Tyrell about creating a Replicant ignorant of herself. “Commerce is our goal here at Tyrell,” he replies. “More human than human is our motto. Rachael is an experiment, nothing more.”
The concern for success and profit at the company are more important than concerns for a person’s well-being. This is not so far-fetched in our current capitalist system. “We began to recognize in them strange obsessions,” Tyrell explains. “They are emotionally inexperienced with only a few years in which to store up the experiences which you and I take for granted. If we gift them the past, we create a cushion or pillow for their emotions and consequently we can control them better.” The cushion Dr. Tyrell refers to are false memories implanted into the new Replicants to make them more stable. Emotional stability translates to easier control by their masters. After all, commerce is the goal.
Identity and knowledge are part and parcel of memory. What is history, but a shared memory, one accepted through consensus? Rachael does not realize she is a Replicant, because she looks, acts, feels, thinks, and remembers as a normal person. At such a high level of development, what is there left to separate a Replicant from a person? The legal status in Blade Runner does not change for Replicants, at least in the timeframe of the film.
The creation of false identity is accomplished by Tyrell through memory, and memory is just personal history. Without the cushion that Rachael has, Leon instead lashed out when asked about his mother, whereas Rachael sat quietly at a loss for words. All Replicants, regardless of model, are obsessed with collecting photographs. They are drawn to the past and to relationships with people, even fictional versions. Human nature cannot be engineered out of them. Replicants obsessively struggle to create the facsimile of a past.
A person’s identity is so central to them that confusion about it is naturally a disturbing, emotional experience. Rachael begins to suspect her status and arrives at Deckard’s apartment to confront him. She tries to prove to Deckard she isn’t a replicant by showing him an old photo of her and her brother. Deckard has hunted replicants his whole career and is reflexively hostile towards Rachael. Deckard responds by reciting two “memories” that Rachael had when she was six years old. First, she and her brother snuck into an abandoned building; second, an orange spider lived outside her window but was eaten by its own offspring. Deckard knows Rachael's memories, either because Tyrell told him or he read it in her files. In fact, these are the memories of Dr. Tyrell’s niece, implanted in Rachael.
In the book Memory and Popular Film, late 20th Century film is cited as demonstrating a concern with the “unsettled boundary between reality and simulation in the constitution of remembered identity and experience”. Blade Runner is a perfect example. The “preoccupation with fantasy, subjectivity, and fabrication” is at the forefront of the film. It presents the question of how real our world really is when technology can fabricate our memories or manufacture an entire person.
Rachael’s identity, like anyone, is based on her memories, but once she realizes they are false, she has an identity crisis. Disturbed by Deckard’s knowledge of her memories and the revelation that she is indeed a Replicant, Rachael begins to cry. She throws down her photo and leaves. This is not typical Replicant behavior, however. Rachael is not the unpredictable, violent type Leon is. She has morals and empathy. Later, when Leon attacks Deckard on the street, Rachael nervously takes Deckard’s gun and shoots Leon to protect Deckard. When Rachael starts a romantic relationship with Deckard, her appearance changes. She is more natural, her hair is down, and her wardrobe is less stuffy and professional.
The chance for a person to create their own identity, and not have it dictated for them, can be a new beginning. Contrary to Tyrell’s expectations, Rachael’s identity crisis is a liberating force. A new identity begins to form through experiences and relationships in the present, rather than implanted memories of the past. She does not know she can play the piano until she tries. She remembers lessons, but is unsure if they were her own or Tyrell’s niece. It’s not important because she enjoys playing. She laments her status as a Replicant on Earth and worries that the police will track her down. When she asks Deckard about her “incept date” and longevity, she does it nicely rather than aggressively. She asks Deckard, “You know that Voight-Kampff test of yours? You ever take that test yourself?” She seems to be saying anyone could be a Replicant, and it shouldn’t matter. Instead of allowing herself to be a slave to her own false identity and remain a meek person, Rachael breaks free of this limitation.
Every person at the end of their life wants just a little more. Mortality is the largest fear for us. Once we are gone, so is our identity. It is the common factor between replicants and humans. Roy Batty, leader of the escaped Replicants, nears the end of his lifespan during the final scenes of the film. When he confronts Dr. Tyrell, Roy desperately pleads for a longer life. Tyrell is blunt. “The facts of life. To make an alteration in the evolvement of an organic life system is fatal. A coding sequence cannot be revised once it’s been established. Because by the second day of incubation any cells that have undergone reversion mutations give rise to revertant colonies like rats leaving a sinking ship. Then the ship sinks.”
Roy protests but Dr. Tyrell continues with pride, even boastful. “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, true to his violent nature, kills Dr. Tyrell once it is obvious his life has no hope of extension. His past has been a mere four years of off-world labor, his present is as a criminal on the run, and his future is closing fast. For the Replicants, their whole lives, all their experiences, were as slaves. All they knew was fear and labor. No wonder they lashed out at their masters. The identity forced upon them by Tyrell has come back to haunt him. Roy refers to Dr. Tyrell as “father” before killing his own maker. The killing is an act of rebellion, defiance, and perhaps a little revenge, but it is also the act of an oppressed person finally displaying some autonomy.
As Roy reaches the end of his lifespan and begins to die with Deckard at his side on a rainy rooftop, he recounts his memories. “I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tanhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.” Even then, in his final moments, those experiences as a slave seeing the galaxy, define him and he latches onto them. His past, as meager as it was, became a source of pride.
Perhaps sentience is the only important criterion for being human. Memory, origin, physical form (born or engineered) and even identity may be irrelevant. The ability to bond with others and make intelligent decisions are what define us. If our identities are dictated for us we can be controlled, but free will allows us to choose a different path. We aren’t tied to the past unless we allow ourselves to be.