Yesterday, I went to see the re-release of the classic sci-fi film Blade Runner* at the cinema.
The plot goes a little something like this… A technologically advanced mankind has reached the level where it has built robots, called Replicants, so life-like that only specialised tests can tell them apart from humans**. These robots are used to do hazardous jobs on off-world planets.
The trouble is, the Replicants have become so ‘human’ that they are asking deep, existential questions of themselves. Why should they only be used as short-lived slaves? Why can’t they have a more fulfilling, self-determined existence? Some have even gone so far as to rebel, with Sparticist uprisings taking place. Replicants have killed their human masters and made a bid for freedom.
As a reaction, all Replicants on Earth are illegal. Any that are found are tracked down and murdered retired by the ‘Blade Runners’, special assassins devoted to tracking down the robots.
The film follows one Blade Runner, Deckard (played by Harrison Ford), called out of retirement to track down four Replicants who have made their way back to Earth.
It is a visually stunning film; strange, moving and thought-provoking. While it has some great action set-pieces, nerve-tangling tension and some shocking violence, it’s quite a slow-paced philosophical film. The Replicants are set out as the villains of the piece, and indeed they commit do commit two murders in the film. But it is hard to condemn them – they’ve merely returned to Earth to find their creator, to see if their measly, pre-programmed four years of life can be extended. For this crime, they must be ruthlessly hunted down and shot.
In fact, the arch-villain, brilliantly portrayed by Rutger Hauer, emerges as the real moral hero of the film. Despite having seen his loved ones killed like animals at Deckard’s hands, he takes mercy on Deckard in the film’s climax after beating him in a thrilling to-the-death chase.
Here he delivers his wonderful last lines – written by Hauer himself – just as his life comes to a natural(?) end:
“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 Tannhäuser Gate. All those… moments… will be lost in time, like tears… in… rain. Time… to die…”
One thing I did find quite shocking was that the film was set in 2019 – only 4 years away now! Flying cars***, space travel, colonies on other worlds, human-like robots – they all feature in the film, but I doubt we’ll see them in the next few years.
Despite this, what I sometimes worry about is not the pace of technological development, but whether we will allow them to have the transformational effects they could potentially have. While our forebears took a rather laissez-faire attitude to technological change – allowing steam engines, cars, electricity and the like to transform our world within a few generations – we seem much more cautious.
We have invented driverless cars, but we are being very slow in allowing them on our roads. Similarly, unmanned aerial drones also present a challenge for our regulators.
I doubt the sprawling cityscape depicted in the film, with giant skyscrapers, electronic billboards the sizes of football pitches and motorway lanes extending miles upwards, would get planning permission. Are we in danger of regulating the futuristic future out of existence?****
*** Billionaire entrepreneur, Peter Thiel, has as the motto of his firm, “We were promised flying cars, and instead what we got was 140 characters”.
Oddly, the computer interfaces in the film still look like MS-DOS. It seems in Blade Runner’s world that they have things backwards from ours – cool physical technology, lame software.
**** I admit, Blade Runner’s vision of the city isn’t all that appealing – and there will be very important matters of regulation around these technologies.