The Treachery of Memory and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner

Blade Runner

My first memory of watching Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) is on New Year’s Eve 1983. A family friend had a new VHS player and I, my mum and her partner had been invited round. I remember the images blinking through the fog of cigarette smoke. We were watching in the dark, which was strange to my 11-year-old self. I was drawn into this world of sky-climbing buildings and the euphoric Vangelis soundtrack. I may also have nodded off for some of the time. I could see the clock on the video player shunting through the minutes, then hours, and gradually ease its way towards midnight. No one said anything, no one switched over to the TV for the countdown, no celebratory drink was poured, nothing. The display flicked to 0.00 and I wondered if I was the only one who had noticed. Far from feeling the coolest 11-year-old on the block, I felt cheated, and that, I suppose, is why the memory is so vivid. Now of course, I usually delete this emotionally weighty part of the story and give the cut version, that yes, I saw Blade Runner when it came out, and started my second decade well versed in cinematic sci-fi. Such is our capacity to retrieve and retell memories, to have our own variations of events.

Blade Runner is set in 2019, just seven years away from the time of writing, and the projected reality in the film appears to be close at our heels. Touch-sensitive, zoomable screens mimic Deckard’s (Harrison Ford’s) photo enhancer, and the division between organic memory databanks and digital data spaces is breaking down. Photo albums backed up on flame-proof Flickr, years of diaries turned into blogs or Facebook timelines that we can carry anywhere.

The film leaves you with a nagging feeling, a dark paranoia, that our memories are a key to our sense of knowing ourselves, a way of holding on to valued experiences. When Deckard shows he knows android Rachel’s (Sean Young) personal memories, she is heartbroken.

Deckard: ‘You remember the spider that lived in a bush outside your window? Orange body, green legs, watched her build a web all summer, then one day there was a big egg in it, the egg hatched…’
Rachel: ‘The egg hatched… and a hundred baby spiders came out, and they ate her.’
Deckard: ‘Implants. They aren’t your memories, they’re somebody else’s, they’re Tyrell’s niece’s.’

Rachel, close up, in semi-darkness, has a lost, empty look. She shows an attachment to these memories that reveals the success of Tyrell’s project. She actually responds to betrayal as a human would. Of course, psychologists might tell us that memories are retained and pulled out of our mental archives for many reasons, largely involuntary. Nonetheless, for the most part, they feel like they are ours. It’s notable though that I write this at a time when neurologists are successfully implanting simulated memory traces of fear into laboratory mice. Memories now merge with film sequences, images seen before, dreams. We have to double-take and unravel the mess, driven by a need for authenticity. Facebook, with its best friend digital photography, allows this to happen publicly with sometimes thousands of photographs being uploaded to an individual user’s account.

Ridley Scott has released many cuts of Blade Runner. Noticeably, he marked every new video format on the market with a new version. To name some, theatrical versions were distributed on VHS in 1983, as was the Director’s Cut 1992. This was later released on LaserDisc in 1993 and was an early film to be released on DVD in 1997. A digitally remastered version of this DVD was put out in 2006 but with the 2.0 stereo soundtrack. The Final Cut in 2007 was released during the HD format wars and came out on HD DVD and Blu-ray with Dolby Digital Surround Sound 5.1. Each new version promised new answers. Would it finally reveal more of the beloved cult film, more cut scenes, more added scenes? Would Scott make any more suggestions that Deckard was a replicant? But this searching for answers is commensurate with the way the film in its various versions seems to shrug off our questions.

Part of Blade Runner’s appeal for me is its 80s futurist aesthetic merged with noir: Atari in neon; lip gloss with 40s hair rolls; oversized technology. It is a film made for clunky VHS distribution. The format’s very materiality is tied to the materiality of organic memory. It is in keeping with the human attachment to memory that is at the core of the film, where characters are driven by their questioning of the reliability of memory. To remember is a process of betrayal. We seek cogency from memories, but they exist as fragments, an affect, a trace, a sentence or two. The visual field produced by VHS is unstable, blurry, low-grade compared to contemporary formats. In Blade Runner, we see youthful faces against a metropolis that, although illuminated, remains in low contrast, where neon bleeds into incoherency and reds elude us. VHS magnetic tape corrodes with age and use and allows the surface to break down, the image and sound slip away, a dignified erosion. The VHS version of Ford and Young produces a romantic couple melting away with each watch.

What happens off screen is as important as the film fragments that fill our minds in a formulation of the memory of a film. Testament to this is a new generation of VHS collectors. A YouTube search for ‘my VHS collection’ reveals a category of uploads from teenagers discovering their parents’ VHS collection, or showing off their own Ebay purchases. A clip featuring a 1983 print of Blade Runner is a prime example. Here ‘VHS-ness’ is a prompt, a trigger and a way into the nostalgia for these films. The collectors seem to value the materiality of the tapes, fastidiously archiving various indices of authenticity. VHS boxes are carefully set out on makeshift backgrounds; the format involves a shot of the front cover art work, the spine of the tape box, the back, shots of the actual tape, the label and a recitation of the print dates. These collectors also proclaim the originality of their tapes by uploading opening previews and closing credits of their tapes in fierce competition. All this stands in for, and at the same time, is part of, the experience of the collected film. A way of feeling connected to the memory of the memory of the film (perhaps here their parents’) via memorabilia. Perhaps in the face of inorganic forms of digital communication such an activity has a special draw.

With the DVD format in the mid-90s came the remaster, a facelift for VHS. Films viewed through a haze of degrading magnetic tape were suddenly clear and crisp. With each release we have the new and still newer Rachel and Deckard. In Blade Runner: The Final Cut (2007), Harrison Ford seems to have defied time. He plays a hyperreal, uncanny Deckard, inorganic, invincible and situated in an immersive, three-dimensional space. The VHS Deckard seemed in tune with time, ageing and decay. To watch a new version is to give in to the rewriting, to turn your back on an intimate connection with your version, your personal favourite. The memory of Blade Runner as was, is corrupted, replaced with fragments of the new, each replicant attempting to supersede the last.

Nicola Woodham