BLADE RUNNER and The Humanity in Machines
With the release of his latest film, PROMETHEUS, director Ridley Scott marks his return to the realm of science fiction. Not since 1982’s BLADE RUNNER has the British auteur explored the genre that first made him famous with 1979’s ALIEN. Now, with BLADE RUNNER celebrating its 30th anniversary, Scott tackles a similar theme with this year’s PROMETHEUS: the humanity of artificial intelligence. In both films, the androids have more emotional investment in life and life’s meaning than do the humans.
Arguably the most powerful moment in BLADE RUNNER occurs when android Roy Batty (Rutger Howard) stops his murderous pursuit of Deckard (Harrison Ford) and appreciates the beauty of life. “I've seen things you people wouldn't believe,” he utters. “Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time... like tears in rain.” It’s a moment of haunting beauty delivered by a murderous machine.
In PROMETHEUS, actor Michael Fassbender brilliantly plays the android, David, who has similar moments of unexpected depth. In one exchange between David and a human aboard the ship, David asks, “Why do you think your people made me?”
His human co-hort replies, “We made ya’ cause we could.”
“Can you imagine how disappointing it would be for you to hear the same thing from your creator?”
These films, thirty years apart, express a fear and awe shared by many science fiction films about our technological ability to create androids that are more emotional and ethical than humans. Ridley Scott’s androids help us pause and marvel for a moment at our species and at our own God complexes. By having mechanical creations offer philosophical musings with such poignancy, these films invite us to wonder if perhaps we could one day create something more contemplative of existence than ourselves. Scott challenges us to define our own humanity in the presence of these existential machines. How long before we are capable of building machines like Roy or David, and what are the implications for what it means to be human?
With technology growing at a faster and faster rates than in 1982, it’s no surprise that Scott carries over the most impactful themes of BLADE RUNNER in his latest film.
Whether we’re able as a species to create human-like artificial intelligence in the coming century is yet to be seen, but here are some other great sci-fi films that leave you with a lot to ponder on the question of what it means to be human.
2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968): Master filmmaker Stanley Kubrick explores humanity’s relationship with technology as astronauts struggle to survive against a cold, calculated computer named HAL in a film that spans four million years.
TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY (1991): Sarah and John Connor battle against an impending war between man and machine with the aid of a time-travelling cyborg assassin while in the crosshairs of another.
TRANSCENDENT MAN (2009): A documentary looking at Inventor, author and futurist Raymond Kurzwiel and his theory that, sometime in the 21st century, genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics will fuse and result in the creation of a human-machine civilization and create a sort of utopian society.
PLUG & PRAY (2010): A German documentary that delves into the moral questions, general ethics and potential problems of artificial intelligence that also features TRANSCENDENT MAN’s Raymond Kurzweil.
THE IRON GIANT (1999): In this animated film from director Brad Bird, a young boy befriends an intergalactic robot struggling with amnesia who manages to display acts of humor, caring and self-sacrifice that shame many of the movie’s human characters.
THE MATRIX (1998), THE MATRIX RELOADED (2003), THE MATRIX REVOLUTIONS (2003): In a world controlled and overtaken by machines, a small group of freedom fighters struggle to recapture the planet and the consciousness of its organic inhabitants.