Blade Runner — What makes us human?
After finishing the latest mindless action extravaganza Gray Man from Netflix, the next recommendation was another Ryan Gosling movie Blade Runner 2049. Though I’ve seen it before, I watched it again anyway to cleanse my palate, so to speak. I want to introduce Blade Runner 2049 but I can’t discuss the themes explored in the film without touching upon its background specifically the book by Philip K Dick (I will call him PKD for the rest of this essay) that started it all, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and it’s 1982 adaption Blade Runner by Ridley Scott starring Harrison Ford. The book won several awards but failed to win the coveted Hugo Award (the film ended up winning the Hugo for best dramatic representation) and is still regarded as one of the seminal works of PKD if not all of science fiction. The 1982 film by Scott was a groundbreaking sci-fi saga that heralded a new genre of detective noir sci-fi and cyberpunk and its pace, aesthetics and screenplay acted as a trailblazer for many movies that followed. The film became a cultural touchstone and inspired countless books, documentaries and discussions around the world. Despite all that success, the 2017’s Blade Runner 2049 is one of the finest sequels ever made much like Terminator 2: Judgment Day that either superseded or eclipsed the original.
One of the main themes that is explored in the books is the question of identity, specifically, human identity. Philosophers and religious leaders struggled with the question of what makes humans unique, if we disregard the biological functions that are similar or different from other species? Is it the presence of the elusive “soul” or a combination of a welter of thoughts, experiences and gene expressions that is unique to every individual Or the mix of emotion, cognition and character? This question intrigued many of the finest thinkers over the years and philosopher John Locke proposed the modern understanding of the so-called tabula rasa (blank slate) theory that purports that the human mind is ever so malleable that we can shape it into any which way we want. This 17th century Lockeian idea has since been attacked and ridiculed by many other philosophers for its spurious claims because we now know that the human mind is not so blank after all. The theory also came under scrutiny of scientists that study evolution and human condition under various disciplines like anthropology, neuroscience, neurological medicine, cognitive psychology, evolutionary psychology, sociology etc. Many of these academic disciplines studied various species and cultures and compiled an exhaustive list of empirical traits that are unique to homosapiens. Author Micheal Bess surveyed most of the authoritative material in these fields and distilled the hundreds of traits into a holistic list of six categories that makes us distinctly human. Bess in his perspicuous work SuperHuman describes these categories: 1. Embodiment (the very fact that we have a body), 2. Cognition (interpreting/predicting/learning our environment and various kinds of memory, reason, logic, abstract thought, complex language, etc.), 3. Affect (basic emotions from exhilaration to melancholy, contradictory moods/thoughts/behaviors and unpredictability), 4. Identity (self-hood or character), 5. Community (need for relationships, empathy, belongingness, morals, intuition), 6. Engaging the world (free-will — the sense that we can project in our minds the alternative courses of action and make meaningful choices, autonomy — a sense of having long term life goals and seeking to realize them).
In the 1968 book, set in a dystopian post-apocalyptic world (which futuristic sci-fi is not? >:)), PKD (not being an academician or a researcher) proposes that the presence of empathy (specifically the reflex and authenticity) towards animals and other humans is what distinguishes humans from others, specifically humanoid robots (aka androids in the book and replicants in the movies). Given what we know of human nature, the story’s focus on empathy alone might seem puerile, but we can consider this as a thought experiment like many of his ideas in other works. In the world imagined by PKD, the mass extinction of entire animal populations made animals not only rare but rendered symbols of status and to mollify the hoi polloi, robotic animals are created to fill their “empathy” void. The books/movies go into detail on how the empathy tests are conducted and measured but suffice it to say, however meticulously designed a replicant is, it would fail an empathy test. Many elements from the book are left out by the films including the beguiling nature of the androids, the exploration of being one with nature, specifically the discussion of “speciesism”, normative ethics etc. Starting with Blade Runner(1982), the films take the most basic premise of the canon, that is the existence of replicants in this world and how to distinguish humans from it and issues and conflicts that arise in the struggle for co-existence.
Despite being set in the future, nary a word is said about human bio-engineering, epigenetics and how gene therapies might change the fundamental definition of human. This particular trend is nothing new and the advent of technologies like CRISPR revolution and the wide-usage of nootropics is any indication, we are definitely going to be in a future where “enhanced” humans are the next stage of evolution (As an aside, this conceit forms the basis of the new thriller Upgrade that is worth checking out).
When that future arrives, the world would be mired in the discussion of what makes us human and how do we measure that, rousing the fundamental debate about human characteristics to a whole new level and I am sure bioethicists are going to have some busy days ahead of them. Yet, we see very very few novels/films tackle this. Even in seminal sci-fi works like the Asimov’s Foundation series, Clarke’s Rama series, even the recent blockbuster of sci-fi world Three Body problem, the humans of the future are just that, basic humans. I think even sci-fi writers are a little reluctant to let-go of their innate humanity and portray humans of the future as regular human beings. Author Michael Bess calls this reluctance “The Jetsons Fallacy” after the famed TV show of the 60s which is set in a futuristic world that is festooned with incredible gadgets and technologies but the basic traits of people, family, patriarchy, teen angst are left intact. Except in the works like Aldous Huxley’s The Brave New World and novels of William Gibson(where human traits evolved or changed to suit the new world order), even a fantasy like Star Wars imagines future humans as we know them, with all their capabilities, fallacies and pitfalls and most importantly emotions left intact.
In the Blade Runner universe, the replicants are designed to look, behave like humans but their life-span is limited by their makers. They even pantomime human empathy but the difference between what they can emulate and the real thing is detectable by instruments. If androids/replicants are at one end of the spectrum and the bio-engineered/enhanced humans are at the other, meeting somewhere in the middle is inevitable and concern for defining or even holding on desperately to what we believe as humanity becomes paramount, and it can be observed in the works of many of the important thinkers, writers and makers. The original book’s title even speculates if androids dream of electric sheep just like humans do and if activity in the brain is nothing but an electric signal, does that unite androids and humans? Though this particular thought is not overtly expounded, what is discussed is, if humans are so good at empathy towards animals (the lesser species as it were), how come their empathy doesn’t extend to the androids? The Blade Runner(1982) film takes the idea forward and speculates what if the protagonist who harbors apathy towards replicants is himself a replicant? Is that programmed behavior or innate quality? The Blade Runner(1982) also explores the love-hate relationship between the creation and creator much like the relationship between Dr Frankenstein and his monstrous creation. The sequel Blade Runner 2049 discards all these ideas and takes the capabilities of replicants to another level where they can reproduce just like humans and when boundaries are threatened, humans would not only silence the replicants and actively engage in annihilation to prevent destabilization of the society, while the replicants are evolving by organizing into a resistance squad, colonizing the outerworlds etc, in other words, typical human behavior to reproduce and spread. As I said before, the idea of innate humanity is fragile and as physical differences start to blur, these movies ask the question does it even matter?
While the book holds up a mirror to humanity in the form of androids, the landscape in which the story is set in is a cold, brutal, corrupted world that is steeped in doubt and unrest. If these dystopian fantasies serve as a “what-if” for our world, our creations like the replicants serve as a mirror to our own behavior. The films especially Blade Runner 2049 skips over the empathy trap entirely that plays a prominent role in the previous installments and asks us to examine and judge the actions of individuals as a path to redemption and though the protagonist’s quest is unrequited, his arc hints at an inexorable future of cohabitation and synergy if were to survive in this universe.
Blade Runner 2049 picks up the story after 30 years from the original movie in the same world that continues to dwell in its state of dissolution and follows the journey of Officer K, who is our new “Blade Runner”, aka mercenary who is tasked with “retiring’’ rogue replicants. While the Blade Runner(1982)’s Deckard was an intractable rogue, Officer K is a good little soldier whose loyalty is ossified into his behavior and unlike Deckard he doesn’t display an odious attitude towards the replicants he retires. Without spoiling the story, suffice it to say that he is confronted with conflicting priorities of the humans who run the society and the replicant resistance that is fighting for independence and freedom. Would he follow the whims of his human masters or help his replicant brethren or will he try to pursue his personal agenda when assaulted with the disorging of overwhelming personal memories that were seemingly suppressed? Through him, we try to peel the layers of our own understanding, vulnerabilities, and the true meaning of identity.
While Blade Runner(1982) is revered one of the best sci-fi movies ever made, in retrospect, some of its cringe-worthy themes like how Deckard persuades (abuses) Rachel the replicant to have sex with him sticks out like a sore thumb. Blade Runner 2049 won several awards including the academy awards for cinematography and visual effects. Director Dennis Villeneuve borrows heavily from the original to assist his world building and characterization but still manages to make it his own and fresh. Ryan Gosling with his inscrutable expression (reminiscent of his character in Drive) gives a soulful, engaging performance that is no easy task while playing an action hero. Unlike Harrison Ford’s Deckard from Blade Runner(1982), his character is declared to be unambiguously a replicant from the start and frankly I like Gosling’s Officer K better. Harrison Ford’s customary cameo (reprising the original character) serves its purpose but left me unmoved. Maybe I am wrong but many of the classic characters like Deckard to Han Solo to Luke Skywalker to Sarah Connor are rendered ponderously dull in the sequels to increase the relevancy of their newer versions. This production decision not only makes all the previous classics pointless not to mention vacuous.
The rest of the cast including Robin Wright as the conniving Lt. Joshi and Sylvia Hoeks as hectoring android Luv do an adequate job while the rising star Ana de Armas captures your heart. The intimate scene between Ana de Armas and Gosling is strikingly similar to Spike Jonze’s film “her” but we can probably excuse it given the similarities of the AI characters of both films. Jared Leto tries to play the benevolent despot Niander Wallace, but his unhinged performance ends up channeling a crazy tech billionaire that we have seen in countless other films. Although the film was financially and critically successful, it failed to garner as much attention as other sci-fi blockbusters probably because of its pacing and the sensibilities of a director like Dennis Villeneuve. With a masterpiece like Arrival under his belt, Villeneuve is fast becoming the next Ridley Scott who can successfully bring beloved sci-fi classics to screen. The eerie, unfamiliar cityscapes ensconced amongst familiar surroundings and the background music gives the film the required enormity of this strange world while dealing with familiar problems.
Hampton Fancher who wrote the 1982 film came back to revive the characters and he breathed new life into the franchise without harboring any hangover from the previous film. Like all good character arcs that not only engage us but reel us into their quest, Fancher weaves a taut thriller with assiduous attention to detail that we can empathize with. The writing and dialog (or the lack of) are top notch and the masterful way the old story is carried forward while brushing aside one of the biggest “cliffhangers” of the previous film that perplexed a generation of nerds is done with professional elan. One of the main reasons for the success of Blade Runner(1982) is the use of carefully crafted practical effects that embody not only loving detail but roots many of the scenes in reality because it is after all Los Angeles, albeit ravaged by time. Like Ridley Scott before him, Villeneuve opted to create many of the set pieces in miniature and blend them seamlessly with CG. In the world saturated with the antics of green screen, this might seem like a sisyphean endeavor but this bold choice goes beyond redefining reality and brings together a heady mix of surreal and fantasy that is also showcased by directors like Christopher Nolan. Along with the production design, the usage of IMAX cameras to shoot the master copy pays off in spades with the film’s look of grandeur and feel. I did watch the film on cinema screen and home theater without having to sacrifice an iota of enjoyment. Ridley Scott did express an interest in directing the sequel but given his recent debacles of extending the world of Alien with Prometheus and Alien:Covenant, I am thankful that he took a backseat and handed over the reins to Villeneuve.
If you ask me, start with the book and then watch Blade Runner(1982) and then lastly Blade Runner 2049. If you are not willing to invest the time, just enjoy Blade Runner 2049 on Netflix unimpeded with the knowledge that it is a superior product but it stands on the shoulders of giants.