The human obsession with all things not quite human, as portrayed in films such as Bladerunner and the tv series Max Headroom, and even in Anime is at times amusing, astounding, and certainly unsettling. Perhaps in part because the evolution of computer intelligence is progressing at a rate exponential compared to our own, there is a certain human inferiority complex. Already out-smarted by computers, there is a new fear of being out-humaned, in the fields of emotion and independent thought processes. The irony of course is that computers can only attain the humanesque levels through human fingertips.
Ridley Scott's Bladerunner is based on Phillip Dick's 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? In Dick's vision androids and animals alike can be manufactured so accurately that Bladerunners are necessary to weed out the imposters. While Scott provocatively suggests that protagonist Rick Deckard might really be an android in his director's cut version of the film, there is no such mystery in the novel: Deckard is a replicant from the start, plain and simple. But that was 1968; by the 1980's the idea of further blurring the line between android and human was clearly more alluring. The smarter the computers become, the more difficult it is to perceive the difference between man and machine.
This disturbing storyline hints at more than just the issue of discerning man from machine; the more evolved the machine becomes, the further the human gets pushed into an ideological corner, trying desparately to retain an independent and unique identity. Intellectual superiority works with animals, but with computers it has long been a lost cause. Instead, the battle of Bladerunner is fought along the battle lines of emotions and memories.
In the film, Deckard, even if he actually is an android, represents a dark and cold humanity in this post-apocalyptic era (there is a World War in the book). He is brooding, anti-social, and largely un-emotional, perhaps explaining his violent line of work. With the existence of the "Off-World," earth is no longer the desireable destination for humans. Not coincidentally, the green planet is a place where androids have a better chance to blend in and thrive. Tyrell Corp. product Rachel, the replicant who initially believes she is human, has an emotional spectrum fittingly somewhere in between the extremes. But the true irony is that Roy Batty, the cold-blooded leader of the Nexus 6 androids, provides the most heartfelt display of emotion in the film in the climactic scene.
Knowing he will soon die because he is doomed with a mere four-year life span, Roy speaks of the memories which he himself has created, when he wistfully tells Deckard: "I've seen things you would not believe..." after which the white dove (and obvious symbol of freedom) leaps from his grasp and flies away. Given Deckard and Rachel's merely luke-warm professions of love for one-another, Roy is the most poignantly human character; are humans therefore destined to be surpassed in this emotional realm as well in a decidedly bleak future? It seems doubtful, yet it is thought-provoking nontheless.
Max Headroom is a creation born out of an AI that steals Edison Carter's memory and feeds it into the mainframe. Bladerunner's Rachel has someone else's memories as well, while Roy can even create his own. Not only is the line between man and machine blurred, but we are all cyborgs already anyway! It seems dreams can only be around the corner as the next computer conquest and with them the end of pure humanity as we know it. No wonder everyone in Scott's film wants to get "Off-World" (the prematurely aging J. F. Sebastian is stuck on earth because he was unable to pass the medical exam); at least there the androids are enslaved and the boundary is clearer. For now . . .
[To other discussions of this topic by members of English 111, Cyberspace and Critical Theory, Spring 1998.]