Monday, October 09, 2017

Love or Mathematical Precision: Do You Know What's Real?

Guardian  |  Where most sci-fi movies quickly date, Blade Runner has improved with age. Of course, it was always a fantastic ride, superbly detailed and steeped in neo-noir atmospherics, but its deep, troubling ideas about technology, humanity and identity chimed with postmodern and cyberpunk theory, and launched a thousand PhD theses. One of the few student lectures I can remember was about the French theorist Jean Baudrillard, orders of simulacra, and how nothing is really real any more. In a down-with-the-kids gesture, the lecturer stood behind a TV monitor playing a muted video of Blade Runner. “You’ll probably get more out of watching this than you will by listening to me,” she said. She was right. Deciphering Baudrillard’s arcane prose is like wading through treacle; Blade Runner is a ride you don’t want to get off. And, against all odds, its belated follow-up, Blade Runner 2049, carries the baton brilliantly, both in terms of visual spectacle and finishing the debates the first movie began.

Between the two movies and Philip K Dick’s source novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Blade Runner serves as a record of how our dystopian fears have evolved over the past half-century. When Dick wrote the story, in 1968, he was thinking of the dehumanising process of nazism. His “replicants” (artificially engineered humans with a four-year lifespan) were “essentially less-than-human entities”, Dick stated. They were “deplorable because they are heartless, they are completely self-centred, they don’t care about what happens to other creatures”.

Ridley Scott’s film turned it around, somewhat. Far from being a deplorable, heartless machine, Rutger Hauer’s chief replicant, supposedly the baddie, develops empathy for the cop trying to kill him. Replicants were the superior beings. “More human than human,” as their manufacturer, Eldon Tyrell, puts it. Apart from the four-year lifespan, what was the difference? This was the part Baudrillard and co were so keen to engage with: what was “real” when the copy was better than the original? “The real is not only what can be reproduced but that which is always already reproduced. The hyper-real,” wrote Baudrillard. Human status was no longer a matter of biological or genetic fact. You couldn’t trust your memories either – they could just be implants. So how do any of us know we are human?