Humanity has a complex and sometimes concerning relationship with technology and the roles it plays in our lives, and this relationship has been examined in an array of cultural forms and contexts over a long period of history. Technology not only provides us with new tools for communication and expression, but continually-evolving social contexts for our daily existence (Lunenfeld 2000, p.1). From the conception of human engagement with technology, there has been concern about the potential for the end of humanity (Hansen 2004, p.14), and while this may seem like an extreme way of viewing technological progress, these fears remain today. Some of the most powerful arguments for and against the use of technology in our lives have been made in utopian or dystopian texts. Film has, for many decades, been a vehicle for bringing these arguments to mass audiences; both in terms of their historical context and its possibilities for the future. Technology or new media has, at different times, been shown on film as being the saviour or the downfall of humanity, or sometimes both simultaneously. This essay will critically analyse the 1982 film Blade Runner in the realm of new media and technology as resources for speculation and possibility, and the science fiction genre of cyberpunk from which it was spawned, and show that it is a culturally-significant example of technology and humanity colliding in fiction.
Directed by Ridley Scott, Blade Runner is partly based on Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. The plot follows ‘blade runner’ Rick Deckard, as he hunts four renegade human-like androids, or ‘replicants’, who are on the run from authorities in a dystopian Los Angeles. The clash between “creatures engineered in biomedical laboratories and those who create them to achieve colonial ends” (Lussier & Gowan 2012, p.165) form the basis of the dramatic narrative. Originally released in 1982 to a poor showing at the international box office and mixed reviews, the film gained a cult following in the following decades, and, today, is “consistently listed as one of the most important science fiction movies ever made” (Latham & Hicks 2015, p.1). Hailed for its production design, showing a retrofitted future, Blade Runner remains a leading example of the neo-noir genre, is heavily indebted to the femme fatale and cyberpunk genres, and has been the subject of much scholarly debate and examination since its release. It is a difficult film to examine as it exists in so many states, having been re-released in 1992 with a ‘director’s cut’ label, and again as a ‘final cut’ in 2007 (Dienstag 2015, p.107), and latter versions of the film make increasing suggestions that Deckard himself may be a replicant. Despite this, it is a prominent early depiction of the questions posed by combining high technology and humanity.
An obvious question posed by Blade Runner and similar texts is one which concerns the point at which technology moves from being beneficial to humanity to being a threat. The complex relationship between the two principal characters, Deckard and Rachael, could be seen as symbolising the relationship between humanity and technology. At first they are highly sceptical of each other: Deckard because Rachael is not human, and Rachael because Deckard is a murderer (Dienstag 2015, p.108). At the start of the film, Deckard remarks “replicants are like any other machine” (Locke 2009, p.115), and when he meets Rachael, asks her maker “how can it not know what it is?” (Locke 2009, p.115). Immediately, Rachael challenges Deckard’s ideas about the difference between human and machine by asking him “Have you ever retired a human by mistake?” (Locke 2009, p.115). Deckard breaks the news to her that she is a replicant and a single tear is shown to fall down her face. In this scene, it is the machine which is shown to have emotion, while Deckard remains cold and detached. As the story progresses, the pair come to respect and rely on each other, to the point at which their lives become irreversibly intertwined and they escape to be together. In a speech delivered four years after the publication of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Dick suggested that: “In a very real sense our environment is becoming alive, or at least quasi-alive, and in ways specifically and fundamentally analogous to ourselves” (Galvan 1997, p.413). Suggesting that technology is infiltrating our lives and changing our characters in subtle ways, Dick said we risk being reduced to “humans of mere use – men made into machines” (Galvan 1997, p.414). The film tempts viewers to imagine themselves in Deckard’s position and wonder if they would succumb to the same temptations posed by technology. The answer, in most cases, is likely to be in the affirmative.
The film also explores the difference between what defines humanity and technology (Locke 2009, p.113). The most obvious answer is the ability to feel emotion, or most importantly, empathy. However, the suggestion that artificial intelligence has the potential to become ‘human-like’ while humans themselves become increasingly less so is perhaps one of the most interesting areas for speculation within the film. The predominantly human traits of community and togetherness are more apparent in the replicant world of Blade Runner than in Deckard’s lonely existence – they fight to survive together and mourn when one of their group is killed. Batty, leader of the replicants, is, at times, playful and amiable, despite the certainty of his impending doom. Batty exhibits a sense of high culture and “proves his humanity by demonstrating that he is physically, intellectually, and even morally, superior to everyone else in the film, humans as well as slave” (Locke 2009, p.120). At the film’s climax, the exemplary and human-like behaviour of Batty, as he dies on the rooftops fighting the blade runner (and also saving his life), sees him transferring his freedom to Deckard (Lussier & Gowan 2012, p.165), and Deckard, as a result, is free. Deckard realizes that similarities between men and replicants “run deeper than their differences and that they are in fact the same type of man, ‘brothers’, regardless of any distinction between human and android” (Locke, 2009, p.138). Deckard comes to grips with his own humanity by falling in love with a replicant and deciding that he wants to live his life with her.
Writers have also, at different times, used an analysis of the themes in Blade Runner to explore issues affecting vast numbers of people in the world today. Workman likens themes in the film to issues of a medical nature, comparing the replicants’ desire to not die an early death to that of people with fatal diseases. “Almost all of us shall feel the pain and frustration that comes from living with the knowledge that we will in some sense die prematurely” (2006, p.95), he suggests. It has also been argued that Blade Runner uses the relationship between technology and humanity to make political statements. The film’s humanization of its replicants is a “compelling statement against exploitation and domination” (Dienstag 2015, p.101), although this could be tempered with the argument that it is necessary for humanity to control technology to prevent technology from controlling it. Dienstag (2015, p.108) argues that Blade Runner shows us that to “live freely in any regime, we must understand the dangers of representation, even if, in a large state, we must continue to make use of it”. If the success of democracy relies singularly on representation, it risks being dehumanized, much like the initial relationships in the film (Dienstag 2015, p.119). Furthermore, Brooker (2009, p.79) proposes that the ‘final cut’ of the film constructs it as “a fictional world with some parallels to contemporary transmedia franchises”, as it creates a narrative path with several possible routes.
Blade Runner is an early example of a film containing cyberpunk elements, as defined by Bukatman’s definition of cyberpunk as being particularly concerned with the “interface of technology and human subject” (1993, p.54). Mead (1991, p.350) describes cyberpunk as depicting the type of radical technological change seen in Blade Runner as an opportunity to positively change the “perceptual and psychic definitions of what it means to be human” (Mead 1991, p.350). Deckard fits the description of an archetypal cyberpunk character perfectly: he is a “marginalized, alienated loner who live[s] on the edge of society in [a] generally dystopic future, where daily life [is] impacted by rapid technological change, an ubiquitous datasphere of computerized information, and invasive modification of the human body” (Person 1998, online).
Despite its roots lying in the cyberpunk genre, Blade Runner offers so much more thematically. It considers political, moral and technological issues, has stood the test of time and is more popular today than when it was released, unlike many early cyberpunk works. Many of these set out to demythologise technology and failed, but, interestingly, Blade Runner found a greater number of fans as time passed and technology – especially the Internet and robotics – evolved and flourished. It also influenced films featuring similar android or human-like robot storylines which are still popular in cinema in the 21st century (such as The Terminator series of films). In this way, it could be argued Blade Runner contributed to expanding our ideas about the limits of technology, and how it interacts with humanity, in exciting and possibly concerning ways.
Blade Runner also sits thematically within the postmodernism movement, and adopts and puts creative spins on many of its assertions about society and technology, although it has also been argued that the differences between the 1982 and 1992 versions “thus establish a foundational tension that fuels both modern and postmodern interpretations” (Begley 2004, p.186). Jameson explains that “cyberpunk offers privileged insights into contemporary culture providing a cognitive space through which we can understand the postmodern condition” (1991, p.96). Harvey (1990, p.323) suggests that “Blade Runner hold[s] up to us, as in a mirror, many of the essential features of the condition of postmodernity”, while Clayton (1996, p.15) explains that “[s]ince its first release in 1982, Blade Runner has been taken by critics as a vision of a particular historical epoch, the period many people today are calling postmodernism” (1996, p.15). The film rejects the idea of social progress and promotes pluralism in the form of multiple, co-existing realities, while the human-replicant bond between Deckard and Rachael “manifests a form of hybridized love” (Lussier & Gowan 2012, p.165). This bond becomes a crucial plot device for the film, as well as contributing to the “continued relevance of Romanticism for postmodernism” (Lussier & Gowan 2012, p.165). The film’s depiction of Los Angeles is of an orientalised, post-modern, noir-ish city that is an archetypal cyberpunk landscape, offering the viewer at a glimpse at both a high level of technological advancement and increasing social breakdown. A dark, despoiled environment, dominated by the towering pyramid of the Tyrell Corporation headquarters – a metaphor for the class system depicted in the film – is the setting in which the story plays out. The postmodern cityscape depicted “shares the attributes of the globalised, transnational, borderless space” similar to the notion of cyberspace (Yu 2008, p.46).
In conclusion, it can be said that Blade Runner’s many narrative and thematic complexities offer ample opportunity to explore the world of new media and technology as resources for speculation and possibility. The relationship between technology and humanity is at the core of the film, and, in essence, the film tells the story of one individual’s gradual acceptance of the changing parameters of how technology and humanity interact and operate together. How this happens is a complex tale with many elements open to interpretation. The ability for artificial intelligence to show humanity, while humans simultaneously become increasingly dehumanized, is perhaps the most interesting subject presented by the film, and worthy of further examination. The system of master and slave is turned on its head by the very suggestion that machines may have the ability to show humanity. By being saved from death and set free by Batty, has Deckard been set free by technology, or set free by humanity? It’s an interesting question which leaves plenty of room for speculation and possibility.
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Clayton, J, 1996. Concealed Circuits: Frankenstein’s Monster, the Medusa, and the Cyborg, Raritan, p.15
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