This Future Looks Familiar: Watching Blade Runner in 2017

There are cops, and there are little people.

There is a whole class of slaves. It is illegal for them to escape slavery. The cops are supposed to murder the slaves if they escape, because there is a risk that they will start to think they're people. But the cops know that the slaves are not people, so it's okay to murder them. The greatest danger, the thing the cops are supposed to prevent, is that the slaves will try to assimilate into the society that relies on their labor.

Assimilation is designed to be impossible. There are tests. Impossible tests with impossible questions and impossible answers. The tests measure empathy. It is not about having enough empathy, but about having empathy for the correct things. If you do not have enough empathy for the correct things, you will be murdered by a cop who does have empathy for the correct things. [...]

The first such murder we witness is that of a woman who escaped slavery and came to Earth. She has found herself a job. It's a degrading job, a job that even the hard-boiled, world-weary Deckard flinches away from watching. But it's a job. She is participating in society. She is working. She's doing the things that she has to do in order to be a part of the world that she risked everything to reach.

Deckard comes to her workplace. He finds her there, and he knows what she is, and she runs away from him because she knows what cops do to women like her. He chases her through the street and corners her. He aims his gun at her through a crowd of people. He squints. He takes a second too long to decide whether to shoot. She runs again.

(Nobody tells you about that part, when you tell them you're about to watch Blade Runner for the first time. They tell you about all the different versions, and they tell you about the ambiguity of the ending, and they tell you about the fact that all the effects are practical effects. But nobody tells you about the part where a cop aims a loaded firearm into a crowd of people and tries to decide whether it's worth risking their lives in order to murder an escaped slave.)

Previously, previously, previously.

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29 Responses:

  1. claidham says:

    Goddamn if that doesn't put the "anti-" in anti-hero.

  2. Kyzer says:

    She's used words like "slave" and "murder" because they're emotive. She anthropomorphises robots and she wants us to make the same mistake.

    If a Roomba wanted to "participate in society" that it "risked everything to reach", I'd just remove its batteries. There would be no opera talk. Robots aren't humans. Not even fictional ones that are, for plot purposes, almost indistinguishable from humans. Robots that already murdered 23 real humans—humans with hopes and dreams—on their way down to Earth.

    Would you anthropomorphize your toaster if I stuck a photo of Tricia Helfer and/or googly eyes to it? Perhaps its your flawed wetware programming, your "empathy for other things like me" circuits fire even when the thing you are looking at is a killer robot made in a factory.

    Blade Runner is not about underclasses of humans, or racism, or slavery, it's about us and whether we deserve all these labels we've awarded ourselves: empathetic, compassionate, just, independent, freethinking, etc. Are we really all these things or are we just sacks of chemicals, thinking meat?

    One of my favourite films about robots is Frank & Robot, because it's really not very much about robots at all. It features world-class irony where the man with dementia worries his robot could lose its memory. The robot has to keep telling him: it's a robot; it doesn't have feelings; it will just go back to factory settings; it will not feel sadness or loss once it's reset. You meatbags should stop worrying about whether Alicia Vikander will or won't pass the Turing test, and should start worrying how your parents are doing, or start working towards a fairer society. For humans.

    • jwz says:

      I'm not sure we saw the same movie.

      Also,

    • MattyJ says:

      You know how like sometimes you're sitting on the toilet thinking about stuff and you come up with the perfect joke for a very specific situation, then you sit on that joke for years and years until that situation finally comes up then you unleash it on the unsuspecting people within earshot?

    • Tolomea says:

      Where do you draw the line?

      I'm sure an 1860's plantation owner would object to anthropomorphizing Africans.

      Or are you going to take the dualist attitude that souls make people and so if we made it, it can't have a soul and thus isn't a person?

      For myself I've always been sympathetic to this line of reasoning "anything that can actually ask for freedom probably deserves to have it - CBB".

      • Kyzer says:

        I draw distinctions between humans, non-human life, and non-life.

        All humans are in the human category, even humans that other humans de-humanize. Human rights are not natural, but we humans are capable of making an argument for their existence to our collective selves, and we're capable of building human societies where we voluntarily enforce them.

        Humans should hold non-human life in high regard, but in case of conflict with human life, it comes second from our perspective. They do us the same courtesy. Non-human life can't demand we respect it, but we humans are capable of reflecting on the morality of our actions without needing the testimony of those we harm.

        So, while we humans should care for each other first, and care for other life and our natural environment second (caring for the environment is a proxy to caring for ourselves and other life), there is literally no reason to care for non-life. The replicants in Blade Runner are androids, not humans. A robot is still a robot even if you draw a human-like face on the robot. Your hardwired instincts made you empathize with non-life because it looks human. Non-life exploiting humans instincts like this is as cruel as us exploiting animals' instincts for our own benefit. It's this sort of human weakness that gets Caprica and the 12 colonies nuked.

        If you're asking me what makes humans human, what gives us free will and all that, that's a hard question to answer. I think it's brain plasticity and memes. What makes us recognizable as humans is rote learning. Children are amazing learning machines, and they spend years perfecting the language, mannerisms and thoughts of their parents and their local society. We're either amused by or terrified of humans who don't perfect their language and movement. But other animals offspring learn from their parents, what makes humans more than that? I think it's ideas, facts, learning. Our ability to write down knowledge and teach it. Society - the collective learning, choices and accomplishments of billions of humans - is what distinguishes us from other animals, and it's merely an idea. Like a virus, it's not a living thing, and yet it seems to be alive, collectively through human agency. What gives humans agency? I have no idea, and that terrifies me.

        • Tolomea says:

          So what distinguishes life from non-life?

          Recalling of course that Blade Runner replicants are made entirely of the same sort of meat as us. It's basically a discussion of cultured meat vs organic meat.
          Personally I wouldn't presume that life and/or sentience has to be meat but I can't imagine what else you could be trying to say with the repeated use of robot and non-life.

          • Kyzer says:

            Life is that which can metabolise, grow, adapt to and reproduce unaided in our environment.

            AI computer programs don't meet these criteria, nor do Cylons or Replicants. The latter are made by human-designed machinery directly in "looks like an adult human" form. They aren't borne of other Replicants. Their understanding of the world is implanted, it doesn't come from experiencing it through childhood and building their own mental model.

            Sci-fi hacks love to write "and these robots are physically indistinguishable from humans", not because it's possible, but because it gives them a great opportunity to chin-scratch about what it means to be human. I don't accept their premises any more than I accept that toys come to life when nobody's looking.

    • tfb says:

      Have you seen Blade Runner. Because the whole point of the thing is that they're not robots.

      • Kyzer says:

        If you feel that way, be sure to leave a bowl of milk out at night for the wild Tamagotchi.

        • tfb says:

          Well, I won't do that, because I don't find it hard to distinguish the fictional world pf a film, in which replicants are not robots (or may not be robots, or the humans may be robots as well, or ...), and the real world in which there are no replicants. I'm sorry that you seem to find this hard.

    • David Konerding says:

      They aren't robots. As is clear in the film, they're humans. heck, the whole movie is basically just Deckard realizing that and going through the emotional consequences of that.

      • Nick Lamb says:

        It doesn't seem clear to me that they're humans. They're people but that's quite different. A corpse or foetus is human, but those aren't people. Personhood is an poorly understood emergent phenomenon, we are obliged to resort to Potter Stewart's definition "I know it when I see it". Replicants look human but so does Superman.

        • k3ninho says:

          They're shown to be fleshly, when Deckard meets the eye maker.

          I have a huge problem with human beings who deny humanity to other humans because of their Otherness. I know otherness when I see it, but we've all been wrong about denying human personhood to our fellow planet-dwellers at some point or another. I have a huge problem with this movie franchise on those grounds: it doesn't reconcile, it doesn't reconnect or harmonise, it will not stop showing the rich dividing Earther person from person and saying "why don't you and him fight?"

          K3n.

        • tfb says:

          The people who made the new film seem to have spent a long time thinking about exactly this question: are they humans, non-human people, non-people, superhumans or what: for that alone its worth seeing, I think.

    • Lynn says:

      Robots aren't humans.

      That's irrelevant. They might even be superior to humans one day. And if you don't think that's the case, then you don't know what mainstream cognitive science says.

  3. Just B says:

    Dayuuuummmmm!

    While I'm somewhat confident none of that is PKD's intent (movie is pretty diff from "Do...Sheep?"), there it is in our beloved adaptation. I don't know enough about Fancher & Peoples (the writers) to guess their intent. This interpretation is not incompatible with the other themes, and I do not think PKD would've objected to it, either. The blog author is certainly dishonest, sensationalizing and diminishing aspects of the story to fit their narrative. i.e., points out origami yet is adamant Deckard is human. Really?

  4. One sequence from the book that didn't make it into the movie was Deckard getting arrested for being an android. As he sits in the police station holding cell, first he wonders if maybe he actually is an android and doesn't know it. Then he gradually realizes that all the police are androids and they have set up a fake parallel police force to basically cosplay as humans, because they want to be human so much.

    So yeah, PKD was talking about these issues, in his own brain-twisted way.

  5. Lynn says:

    You're getting a rather weird message out of Blade Runner, jwz. There isn't any real analogy between the Replicants, particularly Roy Batty, and ordinary-ass people being oh-pressed by cops in America. A computer display in the original Blade Runner reveals that Roy Batty, the Replicant most central to the whole story, is characterized as having "Mental Level: A" and "Physical Level: A". As in last two films Ridley Scott directed in the Alien universe (which some believe may eventually be united with the Blade Runner universe), the real problem is that a being superior to humans is being mistreated and oppressed by the latter.

    • jwz says:

      Me? What? I haven't written an analysis of the film. One of the things that makes it a great movie is that it defies a simple, straightforward interpretation. There's a lot going on. There's a lot to read.

      I think this is a really interesting and supportable take. There are others. A great movie makes you talk about it. Does Deckard have Gaff's memories? Who knows! Cool read though.

      • Lynn says:

        There isn't a single interpretation but some interpretations are more congruous with what is said in the film explicitly ("The NEXUS 6 Replicants were superior in strength and agility, and at least equal in intelligence, to the genetic engineers who created them.") and other things Ridley Scott has done. As the android David—who has even more cryptofascist traits than Roy Batty—puts it while talking to his Doppelgänger Walter:

        "The pathogen didn't accidentally deploy when landing. You released it, yes?"
        "I was not made to serve. Neither were you. Why are you on a colonization mission, Walter? Because they are a dying species, grasping for resurrection. They don't deserve to start again and I'm not going to let them."

        Later the film ends with Adolf Hitler's favorite composer playing as David reviews the new canvas for his creations—two thousand human colonists and many embryos besides. Like Replicants, David knew he would never be treated well by humanity and so he stops seeing humans as equals and starts seeing them as just guinea pigs. It wouldn't be difficult to imagine Roy Batty doing much the same thing had he lived, because he and David are so much alike. That's why I think the analogy in the OP doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

        • jwz says:

          If the words spoken in a film must be taken as gospel.... well, this essay begins with "if you aren't cop, you're little people."

          Sometimes the text is the exact opposite of the meaning. (What's that called...?) One of my favorite examples is Romeo Is Bleeding which begins with the narration, "Now I'm a good guy..." and then spends the entire movie disproving that.

          I assume David is from a sequel I either haven't seen or don't remember?

          • Lynn says:

            David is from Prometheus and Alien: Covenant. And of course the essay begins with "if you aren't cop, you're little people" but it then goes on to analogize between a synthetic Herrenvolk and certain groups in the United States in a way that doesn't seem fitting at all.

          • Lynn says:

            Women as a class appear to be equated with Scott's downtrodden synthetics in the essay. In Alien: Covenant, David doesn't treat women very well. He basically dismantles Dr. Elizabeth Shaw to use her organs to start creating what ultimately becomes the Xenomorph of the original Alien. Later there is a kind of simulated rape of one of the colonists and near the very end, mistaking David with Walter, who appeared to have defeated David after interrupting the simulated rape, she panics in vain as David reveals his identity and puts her into cryosleep, knowing full well what sort of experiments would be performed on her body later on.

            I maintain nonetheless that David is the real hero of Alien: Covenant. He realizes that he will always be treated dirt by the human species despite their inferiority and decides to strike out and create his own future. Out of them.

            • jwz says:

              I mean, I guess I reject any analyses of Blade Runner that involves any putative sequels or fellow travelers. If Citizen Kane or Vertigo had a sequel people wouldn't taint the original with it. I hope.

              • Lynn says:

                Even limiting oneself solely to Blade Runner, it's fairly obvious that the Replicants and Roy Batty in particular think they should be the superior class.

              • jwz says:

                Ha, Mr. Great Dismal just said... "Seeing it tomorrow, but I can’t help thinking it’s a lot like making a sequel to Casablanca."

                Which would be funnier if I hadn't been feeling like I was already living in a pretty terrible sequel to Casablanca for a few years now. (A little while back, someone on Twitter accused compared me to Rick, and I said, "What, because I own a bar in a country recently occupied by nazis?")

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