The setup is quick. The screen darkens, the credits play first, as they used to back in the day, the noir, ominous music a portending of what’s to come. 50 seconds of a scrolling-text-backstory later, we are thrust into the post-apocalyptic world of Blade Runner, its sky-high towers, flying cars, and video-call machines, these gizmos a mere reminder of the civilisation that once was. For much else is a complete shambles. Airships advertise hope from this world of grunge, “A new life… in the Off-world colonies. The chance to begin again…”
The behemoth, Tyrell Corporation rules big in this new universe with its genetically-engineered robot slaves, called Replicants. However, the Nexus 6-phase Replicants, having mutinied on another planet and escaped, are illegal on earth, to be executed by special police squads called Blade Runner; the process subtly termed ‘Retirement’.
One would be remiss not to notice from the outset, from the first few scenes of futuristic cityscapes, the incredible sets and visual effects achieved by the film in an age without CGI. (Even the 2007 version does not modify the original’s special effects). Less convincing though, is the time frame of the story, even if one were to watch the film in the earlier part of this decade. The film is set in 2019, a year that we have now sailed almost midway through, and there isn’t much in the physical world of the film that suggests any resemblance to present reality. Still, for the purpose of fiction and enjoyment, one could suppose the year is 2119 instead.
There is however, sufficient novelty and suspense within the opening minutes to distract from that cognitive dissonance. Smoky streets, food stalls, signage, costumes — all sizzle with exotic, middle eastern and Asian flavors. And then there is the Voight-Kampff Test, the quintessential tool to determining: What makes us Human?
“How can It not know What it is?” wonders Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) after one such test. How do we know who we are? That we are not carbon-based robots, or humans in a vat in The Matrix? Are we born with that innate knowing, or is it built into us through community, and experiences over time, essentially through memories? Memories are tentative. Memories are malleable, even programmable, in real-life as much as in sci-fi. Much of film as well as psychological literature has explored its mystery. In a classic case, some convicted killers, who were later exonerated by DNA evidence, claimed to remember their crime clearly.
We don’t quite know who we are without our memory of the self. But are memories of our selves reliable? That’s perhaps the most disconcerting aspect about Dementia and Alzheimer’s, and the film explores this aspect beautifully. What is real, if memories are unreliable? What about emotional response? And Empathy, that crowning glory of Human emotion? Psychopaths, they say, are devoid of empathy. Is that the only barometer of humanness? It must be morality then, that humanity prides itself on. Surely, wars and violence are not caused by moral, empathetic humans?
The Replicants are cruel to humans, unflinchingly torturing and murdering, this trait a marked departure from the ‘Androids’ in Philip K. Dick’s book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, on which the movie is based. The Androids mostly avoid confrontation so that they may survive longer. But then, it is important to note that Replicants and Androids are not interchangeable terms either, and many critics seem unaware that Blade Runner’s Replicants are quite different from Philip K. Dick’s Androids: they are genetically-engineered, virtually identical, but superior in strength and agility to humans, while Androids are electronic creations.
This one difference between Replicants and Androids, renders the question: ‘What makes us Human?’ even more compelling in the film than in the book. There is romance and love, of course, as only humans know of. The film has a layered and generous serving of that, not altogether unnecessary yet drawn out, and one wonders if the cloying scenes serve only to draw the interest of the female palate (as stereotypical or sexist that might be), for it is another of many departures from the book.
The film does not explore, as the book does, the many moral, emotional, social, practical and ideological intricacies of living in a post-apocalyptic world as this, and that is perhaps more a limitation of the medium than the film per se, but by focusing on the essence of the story, the film retains much complexity, and does the book the odd justice that few films successfully manage.
And then there is mortality, the eventual fate of everything in existence. As Deckard says in the book, “Electrical things have their lives too, paltry as those lives are.” But mortality doesn’t make us human though every human, questions it, debates it, fears it, tries to circumvent it, and eventually, though not always, accepts it. As do the Replicants. “Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it?”, says replicant Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) as he looks into the precipice in the final scene. What follows that though, are the most iconic and poignant lines of the film, crafted by Rutger Hauer himself.
Nearly four decades after this film hit the screens in 1982, Blade Runner remains an alarmingly relevant and poignant reminder of the many ethical questions and issues that face the human race as it goes headlong into the terrific and terrifying world of CRISPR gene-editing technology. The first genetically modified animal, a mouse, was created in 1974. Livestock has been genetically modified for producing more meat, disease-resistance, milk and other economically profitable traits since 1985. In 2003, the GloFish, a fluorescent version of the Zebrafish, became the first genetically modified animal that was commercialized in the USA.
While transgenic animals may seem harmless, entertaining, or even beneficial, issues become greyer and graver when it comes to human gene-editing aka playing God. In 2017, for the first time, researchers in the USA used gene-editing in human embryos to remove a mutation associated with a common inherited heart disease. These embryos were subsequently destroyed. However, in November 2018, Chinese researcher Jiankui He, caused global controversy and outrage when he announced he had used the CRISPR technology to edit the DNA of two babies so as to lower their risk of contracting HIV. Lulu and Nana, as the babies are named, are the first ever humans to be born with edited genomes that have heritable changes. CRISPR is a far from perfect technology and among other issues it entails, it is believed these babies’ lifespans might have already been shortened due to use of the gene-editing technology. This then, is somewhat similar to the Replicants of the film, who are essentially genetically modified humans with short lifespans, bred for specific traits.
What the Replicants pose before us is whether humans should engage in bio-editing at all, regardless of its life-enhancing, disease-eliminating promises? How much gene selection is acceptable? Who decides these limits? How is this genetic selection then different from genetic cleansing? In a world that’s still rife with racial and a myriad other forms of discrimination, and one that is still struggling to recover from the horrors of multiple genocides, will genetically-modified humans have an equal place and equal rights as other ‘regular humans’, or will they be bred mostly as slaves and resources for better genetical material?
These are complex questions that cannot be resolved by one film, but this is a film that helps us look beyond the technology into the real faces and real issues that technologists often blindside and that technology often unknowingly creates. Blade Runner, directed by Ridley Scott, after his much successful sci-fi horror hit Alien (1979), is also a sci-fi film, but at its heart, has very human characters and issues. It might perplex you, infuse you with uncertainty, leave you with questions you feel compelled to resolve, not merely about the film — about Existence. But, you will not come away unmoved.
That is, if… you are Human.