More Human Than Human: Blade Runner looks at our dystopian future

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Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner stands among science fiction’s greatest, most disconcerting films.  It’s also thought provokingly beautiful.  What makes it so great?  

To begin, imagine yourself as a replicant, or a genetically bioengineered human-like creature. You are, in many ways, engineered to be superior to humans — even called “more human than human.” Still, you are essentially just a slave, and not legally allowed to become anything else (in fact, you’re not even supposed to exist on earth). Your kind may fight in wars, work in mines, or act as “pleasure models.” To restrict your fate, your life span has been artificially shortened to just four years, and it’s possible that even your memories are implanted. Who and what are you?

These are the basic questions explored in Blade Runner, although they inevitably link back to us and our own world. Upon watching it again, I realized just how unthinking and unfeeling the world often is. Also, while Blade Runner dazzles with special effects, there is a self-awareness to that, too.

We see the flying cars, the bright city lights, the interesting avenues of human expression in the future cityscape. Still, none of the bright, flashy things matter when the human world is basically dead inside. What’s a human being without empathy and individuality? What’s a bright, shining diamond in the middle of a spiritual sewer?

One of Blade Runner’s many stylish, surreal images. Blink and you might miss it!

The future in Blade Runner is disgustingly like our own present, wherein everyone seems utterly dependent on some vast, corporate, essentially faceless super-visceral state. Fittingly, the main character of Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) stays well within the functions of a “Blade Runner,” or an assassin of replicants, largely because he lacks choice. He’s just doing his job, right?

It harks back to a basic premise of modernity — you can technically be free and enjoy technological progress, but a lot of institutions may limit your freedoms by restricting access to resources and decision making. You do what you can with what you have wherever you are, or you end up doing nothing at all. Your freedoms are only gifts from above, for which you must be thankful (lest they be restricted).

Is The Future Really That Bad?

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It’s tempting to be an optimist and say, “Well, things aren’t as bad in reality as they are in Blade Runner.” However, that’s just not true. Some truly awful things have happened, and are happening now, in our world. This fact eludes some people, so long as it’s not happening to them.

Similarly, Deckard accepts his assassin role with some casual aplomb, so long as things go according to plan. However, when some of the replicants come dangerously close to ending his life (or maybe I could say, “prematurely finalizing his mission”), the drama is heightened and all bets are off.

That’s one of the strengths to Blade Runner. Yes, I know how it ends, but when I first watched it, I had the feeling that the main character could die, or at least majorly lose. That does not happen in every movie. Then, toward the very end, I realized that it doesn’t matter if he wins or loses, lives or dies.

There aren’t necessarily heroes and villains here, just a poorly designed future perpetually collapsing in on itself, rebuilding itself, and trying to present its industry as both ever-threatening and ever-perfect. While dystopian societies exist in other fiction, here it is assigned a toxic normalcy beneath superficial style, to hide the soul crushing lameness of ongoing cruelty.

An example of the constant and surreal nature of a corporate surveillance state, or is it just modernity? (Blade Runner)

So, while Blade Runner is itself a product of Hollywood money-making, it still truly crosses a border from sci-fi blockbuster into exploring humanity’s future and failure. In fact, the opening scene conveys this border crossing well by itself. In order to distinguish humans from replicants, a test is given to gauge one’s emotional response to questions.

Now, without even seeing the scene’s results, doesn’t this suggest a basic flaw in humanity? Why administer these tests in the first place? Why not just let replicants be, so long as they are not killing/enslaving humans? The answer would inevitably be: “It’s policy,” and “I’m just doing my job.” Of course, the replicants show more humanity than “normal” humans in Blade Runner anyway.

So, what about the performances? I will briefly look at two of the main performances, with no intent of downplaying anyone else’s roles.