Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi classic, Blade Runner, opens with a caption establishing the action of the film as commencing in “November 2019.” In the forty years since its release, Scott’s epic adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), starring Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Daryl Hannah, Sean Young, and Edward James Olmos has gone on to become one of America’s most iconic films and the inspiration for countless works of art and music. Viewers continue to be drawn into what is now a once future world by Vangelis’ (RIP) brooding and swanky electronic score within a striking opening scene depicting a dark, ominous cityscape draped in smog and cut through with fiery bursts from smokestacks towering above even the highest of this future LA’s high-rises.
It’s a scene that follows Dick’s depiction of a dystopian future choked with the detritus of the physical world, which he termed “kipple” and set in a San Francisco cast in physical and spiritual darkness, rife with pollution in the wake of a nuclear war dubbed “World War Terminus.” With the renewed possibility of the use of nuclear weapons made all the more real with Russia’s latest offensive against Ukraine in February 2022, we are reminded that this is a threat humanity will always have to live with.
The initial scene of Scott’s film is preceded by an opening crawl of roll-up text establishing the speculative basis of his cinematic story world. His is one centered around strides in “Robot evolution,” and the creation of a new model of superintelligent androids that are “virtually identical to a human—known as a Replicant.”
The near future of Scott’s envisioning operates in a context in which human ingenuity and technological progress, represented by the Tyrell Corporation (Rosen Association in Dick’s original) and led by a genius bioengineer who is so unlike the nouveau riche tech figureheads and click-bait hustlers of today. The revolutionary breakthrough that Eldon Tyrell has achieved is the long-dreamt production of organic androids capable of performing practically any task human beings can. The miracle and the curse, though, is that these latest Nexus-6 models have been equipped with real and self-perpetuating artificial intelligence, a feature making them “more human than human” as he extolls.
Advancements allowing for the synthetic production of the mystifying processes of the human mind is where things go awry as it’s precisely this capacity to think about the world from their perspectives--one scientists have been hard at work to accomplish for well over 60 years now, and as a Google engineer recently warned, may be on the cusp of achieving--that allows Scott’s ‘Replicants’ to develop emotions, independent learning and memories with the perceiver as subject. These are all key elements of self-awareness and the faculty that leads this new breed of physically indistinguishable androids to rebel against an existence whereby they have been condemned to serve as tools of colonization, technologically advanced slaves or conscripted war machines, if you will, in worlds beyond.
This design and purpose as it’s conveyed in both Dick’s novel and Scott’s film, represents yet another example of the unintended destructive consequences of human knowledge and scientific discovery. In this latest case of technology gone awry, the threat posed by the rebelling replicants against the perilous dangers of the tasks they are consigned to is of such a magnitude that it necessitates the creation of specialized police units known as “blade runners.” Harrison Ford is cast in the lead role of Deckard, whose task it is to “retire,” i.e., kill, any replicants that return to earth. The irony, of course, is that the very development of these Nexus-6 Replicants as combat models is what makes them so dangerous in the first place.
Although November 2019 (January 2021 in Dick’s novel) came and went without the apocalyptic scenarios Dick and Scott envision coming to pass, it’s not as though scientists in the developed world have disavowed such aspirations that seem headed to the creation of real-life versions of the technologies these stories present us with, either. And let’s not forget the affirmation made at the South by Southwest Film Festival in March 2016 by the robotic implementation named Sophia and made by Hanson Robotics. When asked in a demonstration by the company’s CEO, David Hanson, “Do you want to destroy humans, please say no?” Sophia responded, “Okay, I will destroy humans.”
Certainly, our first reaction may be to laugh at the irony and sheer absurdity of this response. After all, it could not have been more perfect given the longstanding fears and suspicions expressed in contemporary sci-fi on the possibility of robots, cyborgs or AI entities rising up against their human creators like some new-fangled Frankenmachines exiled from the age of technology.
A sampling of predecessors in this realm include the Czech writer, Karel Čapek’s R.U.R. (Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti, 1921), a play in which the term robot was first coined; Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) featuring the stunning robot-human, Maria and an Art Deco urban skyline that Blade Runner’s imagery in reminiscent of; Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot (1953), featuring the famous three laws of robotics; and the stories of Arthur C. Clarke that gave rise to the HAL 9000, with chilling images and deadpan voice Stanley Kubrick brought to life in his classic film (1968), with samples integrated into Skinny Puppy’s electronic, synth-driven soundscape in their song, “Rivers” (1989).
Added to these are the run amok robotic gunfighters of Michael Crichton’s Westworld (1973), led by Yul Brenner in brilliantly blurring his iconic role in The Magnificent Seven and the subject of its own fast and aggressive street punk song that drips of irony; an escaped robot known as “Mr. R.I.N.G.” (Robomatic Internalized Nerve Ganglia) featured in an episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974), focused around its own top secret research and development facility known as the “Tyrell Institute;” and, finally, the seductive and deadly femme bot brought by life by Alex Garland in Ex Machina (2014).
And so, in reacting to Sophia’s unscripted response, we just might discern a hint of discomfort in our laughs, too.
Given the philosophic issues evoked by the theme of artificial life it is only natural that the appearance of unruly robots traces back to the very beginnings of this sci-fi genre. Čapek’s R.U.R. is an auspiciously modernist play that anticipates themes found in Dick’s and Scott’s stories whereby robots have been created to perform as servants, workers and fighters. In Čapek’s example, a critique of industrialization and the industrial factory system revolutionized by Henry Ford and Frederick Taylor is clearly discernible in machines created to do tasks with optimal efficiency. As we might anticipate, Rossum’s machines are soon adapted as unfeeling soldiers as they also grow self-conscious. It’s not a far leap from this point to such robotic beings reassessing their situation and realizing that they may not need humans after all. The trajectory narrated in Čapek’s story has subsequently been expressed in an array of other texts as noted above, and many others, while also making more recent appearances in Charlie Booker’s Black Mirror and Tim Miller’s Love Death + Robots.
The growing archive of such narratives, all of which express concerns that speak to the deep-seated anxieties and fears that many of us harbor about the perils of technology, also, perhaps, represents a nostalgic lament on the passing of what we remember as a more simple, less mediated world before the advent of computer technologies. A technological and computing revolution of the 20th century that spawned all manner of wired products and digitized platforms which, despite all of their conveniences, now seem relentlessly at work in eroding our privacy, personal liberties and even our very sense of agency. Transforming humanity, as Donna Haraway suggests in her seminal, “Cyborg Manifesto,” into mere “chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism.”
All within a contemporary social context in which we feel hopelessly attached and dependent upon, if not explicitly addicted to, technologies and social media platforms offered up as essential to our daily lives. Nevertheless, such features are precisely the essence and uncanny reflection of what has become known as the posthuman era, an epoch Katherine Hayles has described as being typified by “the union of the human with intelligent machines.”
Scott’s Blade Runner offers a particularly provocative aesthetic intervention in this context, as well. One that is at its most compelling and influential in the stylization of apocalyptic and dystopian imagery and fashion in a future in which only the unfortunate masses—and the corporations whose neon signs seem ubiquitous—remain. In this future earth world, which Dick dubs the “tomb world” in his novel as an indication of the hopelessness to which it is doomed, the wealthy, elite and connected have long since fled our dying planet. The imperative directive of this context is that anyone still remaining on earth should leave with all haste, too, as a floating billboard promoting interplanetary settlement proclaims in English (with a distinct hint of racism given the majority of this future’s globalized population are of Asian extraction): “a new life awaits you in the Off-world colonies! A chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunity and adventure.”
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And who wouldn’t want that, right? Especially after so utterly mucking up their own world so spectacularly.
The question posed by the bleak images and ideas Blade Runner presents to its viewers takes us back to the matter that lies at the heart of the film itself. And that is not whether Deckard lives happily ever after with Rachael, even if she is granted much less agency in Scott’s version, or if Deckard is a replicant or not. As interesting as those questions may be, the more fundamental issue audiences asked to confront, and one that has relevance for all of us in ways the former concerns do not, is the nature and status of technology in its relation to the future of human life that gets at the essence of being human.
This is the issue that lies at the crux of the exchange that the replicant leader, Roy Batty (played brilliantly by Rutger Hauer, RIP) has with its/his creator, Tyrell. When confronted by Batty within his isolated home-office sanctuary, Tyrell, knowing well the seriousness of the threat, disarmingly asks, “would you . . . like to be upgraded?” The response elicited from Batty, “I had in mind something a little more radical,” is an assertion that nothing short of total liberation from the Tyrell Corporation and humanity will do. Batty follows this up, stating, “I want more life, father,” asking for an escape from the failsafe four-year lifespan of Nexus-6 Replicants that any act of rebellion is all but pointless without.
It’s a plea that indicates not only a release from the innate slavery of the replicants’ condition, but independent agency from the controlling designs and whims of humanity. It’s a prospect that we, as well as Tyrell, can imagine would lead inexorably to a place where humans are a redundant nuisance, and obsolete at that. The moral and ethical ramifications at the heart of this crucial scene, one that is sanctified through Tyrell’s death at the hands of his prodigal son, exposes the problematic basis of the assertion of control over intelligent machines, which, by necessity it would seem, will strive for autonomy from human control. Reflections that are as much about our own insecurities and weaknesses in the face of forces and technologies we fear we may have already lost control over.
With these ideas in mind forty years since the film’s release, we may now ponder not only what the beneficial applications of machine learning, Artificial Intelligence, and robotics may be, but more emphatically for whose benefit and to what ends? In considering efforts currently underway in the fields of computer science and robotics in the public sphere, and given the rewards and accolades that attend, it is not surprising that such researchers often seem disinterested in considering how their platforms or technologies could be used for nefarious ends. Similarly, in contemplation of the technologies and machines being developed by private industry today, whether in Tesla’s continued development of self-driving capabilities, including the armored Cybertruck equipped with standard bullet-proof windows, or the prospect of ever more realistic, and submissive, sexbots, ‘the future,’ indeed, ‘looks bright.’ That is when registered with the sarcasm and irony of that smiling Black Mirror bullet hole logo.
This is not to mention the even more menacing developments in robotics via an array of weaponized machines Manuel DeLanda warned us about and that continue to be developed by militaries and their contractors around the globe. These include Boston Dynamic’s “SpotMini” robot dog, which bears a chilling resemblance to the relentless robotic security dogs featured in the “Metalhead” episode of Black Mirror, or the American military’s use of MQ-9 drones, provocatively named ‘Reapers,’ armed with Hellfire missiles. The situation seems even more bleak when one is reminded that these dire developments in intelligent weapons represent only the dawning of invention in this arena. You’re welcome. Thus, with the accelerating efforts to create ever more efficient and effective, i.e., more lethal, autonomous weapons,’ the warnings offered in Blade Runner are more relevant and urgent than ever.
Considering such developments and plans for the immediate future, maybe we are already beyond the point of no return despite the best efforts of groups like Scientists Against Inhumane Weapons. And this is not just because a large cross-section of the population has seemingly accepted, whether with glee, ignorant celebration, or sheer disgust, the expansion of corporate power fueled by what many perceive to be a rigged economic system that really only works for the benefit of the wealthiest.
Forces that create an understanding of reality in which desperation and insecurity have become naturalized as the default for many, while endlessly multiplying the sense of hopelessness and despair that issue as a natural effect of the seemingly endless capacities for corruption, greed and dishonesty that have become veritable replacements for the American ideals of justice and equality. The purported building blocks that form the foundation of the similarly illusory mythos of the American Dream™. Images and ideas, projections and visitations that not only eschew but negate all claims to exceptionalism, recalling instead the specters of injustice and authoritarianism and apocalypse and dystopia.
So, when we reach the film’s climactic scene featuring the final confrontation between Deckard and Batty (hero and villain, right?) it soon becomes apparent that the replicant is the superior combatant. More significantly, though, we are also brought to the realization that it is he, Roy Batty and not Deckard, who is there to teach a most profound lesson on human ethics and morals as he states, “quite an experience to live in fear, isn't it? That's what it is to be a slave.” The notion that the Nexus-6 Replicant is not just physically superior like James Cameron’s Terminator, but that Batty also seems to be intellectually superior in a philosophic sense as well, makes his “retirement” so much more affective, compelling and tragic.
This is what Batty ultimately conveys in one of the most famous scenes in the history of sci-fi film through his final words, reportedly improvised by Hauer, to Deckard after saving him from falling to his death. Batty’s mournful reflections on his own lived and felt experiences—something that by intention and design he should be incapable of—in making him into the anti-hero this character was transformed into beyond the pages of Dick’s novel, serves as the realization of his creator’s immodest claim that Batty is indeed, more human than human. As he observes, “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.” Resigned to his fate and in acceptance of the unfairness of it, at this pivotal moment, Batty refuses to resort to the useless violence or resistance often celebrated in film and literature, and that even the poet Dylan Thomas expresses in inciting us to, “rage, rage against the dying of light.”
Batty’s reflections on the fleeting, ephemeral nature of experience, memory and existence, stand distinct from these or other desperate refusals against the reality of his fated mortality and are shown to be beneath his dignity. This is what gives his death such a sense of supreme nobleness as he concludes his reflections on a life cut short too soon, stating, “all those moments will be lost in time . . . like tears in rain . . . Time to die.”
In laying bare the tragic, violent history of humanity, and turning away from it, in this taut moment, the forces of exploitation, oppression and conflict have not just been revealed as a means to an end but as issuing from a system of values Batty decisively rejects. Through this superlative act of agency, he reveals the contexts of greed and exploitation from which he was born as a damning reflection on human civilization. In rejecting that fraught inheritance, Batty exhibits a courage, grace and sense of true feeling, emotion and empathy that many humans seem increasingly less capable of despite all their wild potentials.
In the end, Batty’s final words are far from a statement of helpless resignation by a rogue or malfunctioning machine as in the case of Kubrick’s HAL 9000. His heartfelt words, instead, serve as a philosophical mirror held up not just to Tyrell and Deckard, but to all of us, in reflecting a radically divergent and affirming conception of life’s purpose and humanity’s very being. Matters in which the human reactions of apathy and escapism are shown to be as fatal as any auto-destruct mechanism within a social and historical context that demands our active and informed engagement to prevent the bleak future that seems to lie before us from becoming reality.
Not just in our relationship with the world, but so too, and especially, with other humans and living beings. Well, that is, if it is a world and planet that can still be saved and kept as a safe and hospitable place that remains worth living in, not just today but long into the future.