Blade Runner redux?

by nkronos on March 3, 2011

Alcon of Warner Brothers looks seriously to re-imagine, re-cycle, re-vive–whatever re- verb you want to use, except for “re-make”–the iconic Blade Runner as evidenced by the recent acquisition of rights to same. This news understandably has many fanboys whirling at their highest speed and their voices shaking as a result. Although not appreciated when initially released, Blade Runner now enjoys a reputation as one of the most nearly perfect SF films ever made.

Based on Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep?, Blade Runner has proved to be that rare vision of the future that ages well, mostly because its central idea is the blurring distinction between man and machine. (Its cinematography and art direction, many times imitated since, not only look cinematically fine but also more and more accurately predictive of the 21st century urban landscape.) Dick’s novel, published in 1968, explored how humans seemed to be evolving away from their biological roots in the hierarchy of animals to something above all that and purely technological. In Dick’s dystopia, in fact, actual critters have become rare and valuable, thanks to human destruction of earth’s environment. The remaining humans miss them and scrimp and save to buy their artificial counterparts as pets.

The unanswerable question when humans know they function just like any other mechanical/chemical process is, “What makes us so special?” The point of attack in the novel is the increasing problem for human beings of distinguishing the replicants (synthetic humans) from the real thing. Dick’s answer is the human capacity for empathy.

The film also purports to explain where that empathy comes from: our sense of our own inescapable mortality. Once Roy Batty, the leader of the replicants, becomes aware that he too will die and nothing can prevent that, he saves a human life, that of Rick Deckard (played by Harrison Ford)–who is the Blade Runner sent to kill him. Then Batty dies. It is one of the finest death scenes in film with Batty’s poetic soliloquy reminiscent of Lucifer in Paradise Lost, the Frankenstein monster in Mary Shelley’s novel.

Today with all the talk about the “singularity” and artificial intelligences like Watson’s, the question of what makes us human nags at us all the more. It’s unsurprising then–especially given the escalating trend of sticking with proven formulas rather than creative experimentation for much of contemporary entertainment–that Blade Runner is a good candidate for re-mining. It is unlikely, however, that any new effort will answer that question more poignantly than the original.

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