March 7, 2006

Blade Runner Brilliance

As 60 leading scientists attest, the movie is more relevant and important today than ever

By George Dvorsky, September 10, 2004

I'm a bit of a science fiction movie junky, so it was with great interest that I recently came across the results of a poll conducted by the Guardian about the best science fiction movies of all time. Sixty leading scientists were asked to rank their favorite science fiction films, a group that included such thinkers as evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, quantum physicist David Deutsch, psychologist Steven Pinker and Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer with SETI.

As a futurist and transhumanist, I looked at their results with great anticipation and seriousness. The science fiction genre, sometimes referred to as speculative fiction, is a particularly valuable medium for engaging in prediction and foresight. It's an effective and entertaining way in which to portray plausible futures.

In fact, I often assess the successfulness of a science fiction film based on its ability to do exactly this. Movies such as Star Wars are fine from an entertainment perspective, but offer little in their exploration of the human condition. In my mind, the most important science fiction films are the ones that speak to humanity's relationship with its science and technology, and the risks and benefits they hold for the future. Really, it's future-realism that I'm after rather than fantasy.

Thus, given the prominence of the scientists asked, it was with great delight that I discovered my own personal favorite ranked at number one: Ridley Scott's 1982 classic, Blade Runner. Today, given the potential for radically redesigned humans, cloning and artificial intelligence, Blade Runner has never been more relevant nor more important.

Realistic vision

Based loosely on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, and set in 2019 Los Angeles, the narrative focuses around artificially manufactured androids called replicants who are used for dangerous and degrading work in Earth's "offworld colonies." Replicants are considered dangerous and are illegal on Earth, and blade runners are bounty hunters who track down and kill those that trespass. Blade runner Rick Deckard, portrayed by Harrison Ford, is called out of his own retirement to "retire" several advanced "Nexus-6" replicants who are illegally present in LA.

At first glance one could easily dismiss Blade Runner as just another run-of-the-mill science fiction action movie. It's got all the classic staples, including futuristic cityscapes, bad guy androids on the loose, heroic gun-wielding cops and flying cars, all set to an otherworldly and majestic musical score.

But for those who really paid attention, and for those who have picked up on all its nuance and detail over the past 22 years, Blade Runner emerges as a philosophically complex and challenging film that speaks to the nature and future of man, while touching upon such themes as the perils of technological progress, tampering with nature, religion, mortality, the bounds of personhood and the very nature of individual identity and experience itself.

In doing so, Blade Runner avoided the trap that much of Hollywood speculative fiction tends to fall into, that of conveying an overly simplistic moral fable. Instead, the movie presents the viewer with a scientifically potent and realistic vision of a future filled with sober doses of philosophical and existential introspection.

More human than human

There are many shades of gray in Blade Runner, including ambiguity as to who the "good guys" and "bad guys" actually are.

Take the replicants, for example. While initially painted as the villains, viewers tend to become increasingly squeamish over the course of the movie as they watch them being hunted down like animals and shot in cold blood. But as the replicants' story unfolds, and as the viewers familiarize themselves with the characters and the issues, the problem of just what exactly a replicant is, and why they lack any fundamental rights, is forced to the surface.

Replicants are highly advanced androids manufactured from genetic and biological components. They have greater-than-human strength and intelligence, but have been created by the Tyrell Corporation to serve humans and be nothing more than slaves. To make matters worse, they only have a four-year lifespan. In Blade Runner, a group of replicants illegally return to Earth in search of the fountain of youth.

To complicate things, the differences between humans and replicants are so minute that a sophisticated procedure called the Voight-Kampf test is required to flesh out the latter. In this test, suspects are hooked up to a device that resembles a kind of lie-detector machine and asked a series of questions meant to elicit an emotional response. It is through subtle responses, particularly blush responses and the contraction of the iris, that a replicant can be identified. And even then the test is not perfect. When asked if he has ever retired a human by mistake, Deckard offers a very unconvincing, "No."

The justification for the replicants' status as noncitizens, or more accurately as nonpersons, is never clearly elucidated. It's just taken for granted that replicants have been created to serve humans. As Deckard himself admits, "Replicants are like any other machine, they're either a benefit or a hazard. If they're a benefit it's not my problem." Eldon Tyrell, the genius behind Tyrell Corporation, says of them, "[They are] an experiment, nothing more."

Later on in the movie, taking exception to these types of attitudes, replicant leader Roy Batty says to genetic designer J.F. Sebastian, "We're not computers, Sebastian. We're physical." And earlier, as replicant Leon Kowalski chases down Deckard, he remarks, "Quite an experience to live in fear, isn't it? That's what it is to be a slave!"

Today, as human genetic engineering, cloning and AI come closer into focus, these themes have an added sense of realism and urgency. As advances in human reproductive and cybernetic technologies allow us to modify our offspring and ourselves, and as these technologies increasingly enable us to create humans of a different sort, we need to pay close attention to, and work to prevent, human rights violations, prejudices and inhibitions such as those portrayed in Blade Runner.

I think, Sebastian. Therefore I am

In addition to these personhood issues, Blade Runner also offers commentary on the nature of individual identity, experience and even the soul. The film does so by exploring the role that memories play in the construction of the self and personal identity.

In order to better control the replicants, the designers decided to try something new. Speaking with Deckard, Tyrell explains, "We began to recognize in them a strange obsession. After all, 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 with a past, we create a cushion or a pillow for their emotions, and consequently, we can control them better."

"Memories!" responds Deckard, "You're talking about memories!" Specifically, Tyrell was referring to Rachael, a replicant who was endowed with his niece's memories. In this particular case, however, Rachael has no idea that her memories are implanted, and thus, has no idea that she is a replicant fresh off the assembly line. To her, she had lived an entire lifetime of experiences as Tyrell's niece.

Needless to say, once Rachael was made aware of this, she was thrown into existential shock. Confused and angry, she had difficulty trying to locate and define her true self. After playing a piece on the piano, she remarked, "I didn't know if I could play. I remember lessons. I don't know if it's me or Tyrell's niece." Recognizing Rachael as a person unto herself, Deckard responds, "You play wonderfully," quickly returning to Rachael some of her dignity and self-worth.

Further complicating this issue is the question of whether or not Deckard himself is a replicant. This issue is given further grist in the director's cut in which the famous unicorn dream sequence appears. Deckard himself is most likely a replicant with false memories who, like Rachael, has been fed a set of experiences and a preconceived identity that causes the kind of Cartesian skepticism explored later in such films as Ghost in the Shell, The Matrix and Vanilla Sky. In fact, the name Deckard itself is play on the name Descartes.

The issue of implanted memories and engineered experiences raises not only troubling ethical questions, but the age-old question of whether or not the self even exists. What are we but the steady accumulation of memories over time? If we lacked the capacity for both short- and long-term memory, would we cease to be self-referential persons? Is memory therefore a requisite for sentience? Such questions throw the whole idea of the self and the immutable soul into complete turmoil.

It's not an easy thing to meet your maker

Over the course of the next few decades, as humans become progressively more "manufactured" and "engineered," the bubble of creationhood will expand outward from mother and father. In our future form, our very components and essence will be the product not just of our parents, but also of various scientists, engineers and corporations.

The replicants of Blade Runner face this on a daily basis. When genetic designer J.F. Sebastian meets with two of them, he tells them in a fatherly way, "There's some of me in you." And when the replicants come across Dr. Chew, the geneticist who created their eyes, he proudly proclaims, "You Nexus, huh? I design your eyes." Batty reacts to Chew by countering, "If only you could see what I've seen with your eyes," suggesting that, while Chew may have designed the eyes, it's Batty who has lived with them and endowed them with life.

One can certainly sympathize with Batty and the plight of the replicants. Indeed, their story is not too far removed from that of humanity's; we can certainly interpret the replicants as a metaphor for man. As we are, they are unsure and confused about existence and driven to seek answers to the big questions. They struggle to live in an indifferent world while trying to come to grips with their limitations and mortality. And, like (some of) us, they are actively trying to overcome their limitations and mortality.

Hoping to expand on his short four-year lifespan, Batty searches for Tyrell, the man who designed his brain. When Batty and Tyrell finally meet, the exchange is reflective of what the modern humanist or transhumanist might say if he were to finally meet God himself.

Once together, Batty admits to Tyrell, "It's not an easy thing to meet your maker." But Batty quickly gets down to business and asks, "Can the maker repair what he makes?" To which Tyrell responds, "You were made as well as we could make you." Filled with near pathological desperation and rage, Batty stares at Tyrell and irreverently demands, "I want more life, fucker."

Sounding eerily reminiscent of conservative bioethicst and thanatophile Leon Kass, Tyrell tries to console Batty by telling him, "The light that burns twice as bright, burns half as long. And you have burned so very, very brightly, Roy. Revel in your time!"

No longer in awe of the creator who endowed him with awareness and life, and frustrated with the imperfectness and absurdity of his existence, Batty brutally kills Tyrell. Man has killed God and must now face his fate alone.

Faced with his inevitable death, Batty regresses into an animalistic predator, howling out as he tries to hunt down Deckard. But with the tables turned on the blade runner, and with just moments to go before his own death, Batty spares Deckard's life in a final gesture that both restores and reaffirms his humanity.

Conceded to his fate, Batty never accepts his mortality. Looking back on his life and noting the wastefulness of death, Batty breathes his final words, "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 Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die."

Okay, okay. Clearly I could go on and on like this. Blade Runner is, after all, among my favorite movies. It also had a profound impact on me, bringing to my attention many of the issues I contend with today as a concerned humanist and transhumanist. Blade Runner was and is a breath of fresh air, forcing issues into discussion rather than denying them, while avoiding the all-too-frequent Hollywood tendency of painting a simplistic portrait of what we'll have to contend with in the future.

I tip my hat to the 60 scientists who voted Blade Runner number one. Good call.

Copyright © 2004 George Dvorsky

This column originally appeared on Betterhumans, September 10, 2004.

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Peter Turney said...

Based on your reviews of Solaris and Blade Runner, we have very similar tastes in science fiction films. I went searching for the Guardian article that you mentioned and found their top 10 list. In my opinion, it was missing Forbidden Planet and Colossus: The Forbin Project. These are two films that both entertain and raise important questions for transhumanism.

Stephen Gordon said...

Great review George.

I did a countdown of scifi movies awhile back.