I watched Blade Runner a week or two ago with my son, who thinks it’s as awesome as I thought it was when I was twenty-one years old. And I still get a great big techno-boner watching the flying cars weave between the blindingly-lit thousand-story buildings of Los Angeles in the far-flung year of 2019. This is a movie you could watch with the sound off, the better to soak up the geeky details they painstaking added to every single scene.
With the sound on, though, this is a movie that makes me like it a little less each time I watch it. At the time it was released in 1982, Blade Runner got a lot of attention for being a movie that questioned what it means to be human. The story follows four replicants who have escaped from their human handlers, and Deckard, a blade runner, a police officer who specializes in finding replicants.
The world of 2019 is pretty standard for a sci-fi movie: The planet has been so ravaged by humankind that people live crowded shoulder-to-shoulder in hellish cities like the Los Angeles of the movie, and giant floating billboards urge everyone who will listen to emigrate “off-world.” Replicants, robots with bodies so life-like that they appear to be human, and brains clever enough to act human, prepare other worlds for humans to live on. They are not supposed to be on Earth, only on faraway planets, but apparently they get loose often enough that people like Deckard have job security.
And here’s where the story, such as it is, starts to break down: Why would replicants have to look like humans? They really don’t. If their purpose is to prepare other planets for human habitation, they could look like anything. In fact, they really should look like giant earth-movers or bulldozers or whatever. I wouldn’t have any problem pondering the meaning of intelligent machines if they looked like machines, but the reason for them looking exactly like people is never discussed much.
One of the replicants, who looks like a woman, is described with a sly smile as “your basic pleasure model,” so it would almost make sense that her makers would want her to look human, except that it doesn’t make any sense because the question of why anyone would go to the staggering expense of building a robot hooker is so stupid it doesn’t even bear consideration.
Another replicant is described as a combat model. Why would that guy look even remotely human? Why wouldn’t he be a flying gun? Or a gaping mass of swirling blades? It doesn’t make any sense at all for him to look human, even if only for the element of surprise. The moment he tears someone’s arms and legs off, his cover’s blown.
But let’s assume that, for whatever reason, replicants have to look human to work the magic of making other planets habitable for humans to live on. Okay, why wouldn’t we want them on Earth, then? Why wouldn’t we have an army of replicants right here on earth, re-making it so it will be habitable once again? There’s no way it’s even remotely possible that our home planet, the planet on which we live and thrive even when it’s a mess, would be more difficult to clean up than a planet that was not fit for human life before replicants killed off every single bit of the local flora and fauna and replaced it with more friendly animals and plants that we could eat. Replicants only become a danger to humans in this movie when people like Deckard start shooting at them.
And if the question we’re supposed to ponder after watching this movie is, What’s it mean to be human? My answer, based on this movie, would be: It means we will all have to travel light-years across space to live on other planets if we want to survive, and even then it’ll only be due to the benevolence of our robot overlords.
The new ending, by the way, sucks. The old ending kind of sucked, too, but the new one, which strongly hints, but never concretely establishes, that Deckard is a replicant, sucks more. When he was a human hunting robots, the conflict was pretty cut and dried and you could argue all night with the rest of the guys in your dorm about the difference between human and robot intelligence, but now that it’s a story about robots hunting robots, whoopee. Who gives a shit about robots that don’t show an ounce of moral conflict when it comes to killing humans, and have to make no more than a binary choice when it comes to killing other robots: If he tries to stop me, then I’m going to stop him. I don’t see that it requires intelligence to complete a conditional statement that a beginning programmer can write, and I don’t feel any concern over “killing” robots that kill humans. Kind of a no-brainer.
And that’s the way I trash Blade Runner, one of my all-time favorite science fiction movies. If you want, I’ll also tell you how the Christmas classic Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer stinks on ice.