Techno Dystopias in Film

Laura Lee

In Ridley Scott's movieBlade Runner, Strange Days, and the recent techno-dystopic flick Dark City, technology controls all aspects of the character's lives. Although these movies are similar in their themes of surveillance and navigation through envisioned urban systems, they vary in the manner the filmmakers portray technology, and how characters use/fuse with this technology (thus becoming cyborgs, half-human/half-machine).

InBlade Runner, the classic urban dystopic flick made by Ridley Scott, characters fuse with technology whether they like it or not. In the beginning of the movie, we are welcomed into the world of Rick Deckard, a reluctant police agent assigned to track down four "replicants," that is, genetically-engineered humanoids that have been wrecking havoc on the city of Los Angeles. These replicants, borne from a pre-determined genetic code, are angry at their short life-span and trying to find a way to escape meeting it. Deckard, drives and flies throughout the city to find them, makes stops at Chinatown 2019, weird snake-dance clubs, and the looming pyramidal Tyrell Corporation where he meets Tyrell and another replicant, Rachel. It is upon meeting Rachel that the plot becomes more compelling. A replicant that does not know she's a replicant has convinced herself of her own identity through her memory. Rachel remembers having been a child, she remembers her mother, all in little bits and fragments that Tyrell has injected into her brain. Like the memory of human beings, she remembers fragments, never the entire picture, which in fact, never really existed.

What is so compelling about Rachel is that she represents the ambigious cyborg/humanoid that by her nature could be a human being. It is only her lack of a past, the non-authenticity of her memories, that defines her as non-human. As Riuyan Xu pointed out in her essay titled "The Nature of Humanity: Commentary on Blade Runner," cyborgs have memories, but this does not make them human. A cyborg becomes human by exhibiting and feeling emotional empathy towards other humans, a human becomes a machine when there is a failure to empathize or feel emotions towards other human beings. The very nature of our language lends expressions such as "he was a cruel, inhuman man," implying that an individual's demeanor defines him as a human being, or not. Hitler was inhuman, Mother Theresa was a human itarian.

This definition of humanity certainly is fine for categorizing people or machines, but as Jacob George pointed out in his essay on Max Headroom, all people have a human desire to retain unique and independent identity. A person's past fulfills some inherent notion of a person's individuality and history. So long as people define themselves as a sum of their past, memories control their present life. Having control over the memories, being able to inject or fashion them into another individual, is controlling that individual's present atmosphere and lifestyle. In Blade Runner, Rachel and the other replicants are under the control of those who define their present reality. When Deckard realizes the false unicorn memory has been placed there by Tyrell, he realizes he is no different than Rachel, that he is a replicant himself. As an audience, however, we are convinced that Deckard is human, because of his love for Rachel, and visa-versa. There comes to be a point that one's past, no matter how much one relies on it for self-knowledge, does not matter. One can not live in the present and in the past simulaneously, the past only serves as a reassuring mechanism for patterning our present lives. Living in the present, is living free from the past.

Freedom from the past is a relief if anything to Lenny Nero in James Cameron's cyberpunk thriller flick Strange Days. Plagued throughout the entire movie by an old love-turned-wife of Lenny's nemesis/vampire-like record exec, Lenny, played by Ralph Fiennes, is living in the past. Juliette Lewis, who plays Lenny's old girlfriend, Faith, is Lenny's obsession. Talk about sex with machines, Cameron's apocalyptic high-tech thriller is full of high-tech "entertainment." The plot itself is dizzying, filled with bad LAPD and a Rodney King-style murder on the LA highway, burning streets and chaos approaching at the end of the milennium. But what stands out in Cameron's movie is the use of high-tech devices by the characters--- they use them to receive information, have realistic sex, and even murder. Cameron's movie emphasizes the isolation of the users of playback devices, how real life becomes mundane when compared to playback time. The main character is Lenny, a Los Angeles dealer in the latest fringe-culture entertainment devices, who sells playback devices called "squids" that let the viewer relive other people's experiences. The experiences range from a man experiencing having the naked, voluptuous body of a woman, to reliving rooftop-and-gun-chases and all kinds of cyberfantasies. The fantasy experience is so real that it is addictive and illegal. Lenny is an addict himself, and uses the playback device to relive his own past with Faith, keeping her stored up in a box full of "Faith" tapes. As Lenny describes the playback experience to a customer, "This is not like TV only better. This is life. It's a piece of somebody's life. Pure and uncut, straight from the cerebral cortex." The effect of playback is dizzying, like the movie itself, which is long and full of rioting crowds on the L.A. streets, Gibsonian cliches, and cyberfantasy-overload. Jacking in to the playback device, proves to be dangerous. You can overdose and then go brain dead, lost from yourself forever.

If anything, Lenny is not lost from himself, but lost in himself. The playback tapes allow him to relive his own life, placing him in the past. Self-absorbed and addicted to his own experiences, Lenny hardly pays attention to Mace, played by Angela Bassett, who is cleaning up constantly after his messes and taking care of him. That is, until he finally dumps Faith and breaks free from his history with her. Like in Blade Runner, Lenny is controlled and trapped by his own memories. Where Blade Runner's Deckard is unwillingly controlled by those who fashioned his memories, Lenny accepts and reinforces his slavery to his past.

A final example of urban techno dystopia is in Alex Proyas' new film Dark City. In Proyas' sci-fi thriller, Rufus Sewell plays a man Murdoch, who is caught in a nightmare of a city that is trapped in perpetual night, a world controlled and created by an alien race called the Strangers. The Strangers, pale, gaunt figures of death clad in black, float around eerily through the Metropolis-inspired city, whipping out long and sharp knives from their sleeves to threaten and menace. Their vaguely-described purpose is to find out what makes human beings "tick" through a study of their memory processes. Somehow the Strangers believe that this knowledge will save their own dying race.

The film itself was amazing to watch visually, as the Strangers mentally-projected buildings to take form and shoot up into the sky, as they created doors where there were brick walls, and entered and left through them. As buildings shot up like sprouts, twisting and bloating steel architecture stretching into the skyline, we saw how the Strangers created new physical and mental environments for people while they slept. Injecting a whole new set of memories into the sleeping heads of the human beings, the Strangers changed entire personal histories for all the human beings living in Dark City on a daily basis. When they woke, their surroundings were shaped/morphed to suit their new memories, they carried on as if nothing ever happened.

The importance of memory in Proyas' movie becomes significant when linked to movies such as Blade Runner and Strange Days. In Dark City, the dramatic weight of the movie comes from Murdoch's discovery that nothing is real, that his memories were manufactured by the Strangers. Confronting his dissociation with reality, his nightmare expands when he realizes every one in the city is living in fake memories. He asks people questions that are left unanswered, blown off to "bad memory." People can only recollect far away memories, like childhood memories, or memories of loss, but are unable to remember something that happened a week ago. The plot culminates in his confrontation with the man who creates the memories, a doctor played by Kiefer Sutherland, who explains the purpose of the Strangers and why they keep him hostage as well. Memory serves as a means to control the human mind just as in Blade Runner, where characters or outsiders construct personal identities rooted in past history. In Dark City, the ultimate duel at the climax of the movie is between Murdoch and the Strangers, over whose mental powers will win in constructing the universe. Murdoch wins.

In the final part of the movie, the Strangers are sucked up into a void in the sky, Murdoch reconstructs the decimated city using the mental powers he has been injected with from the Strangers (yes, Murdoch is a bi-species cyborg with powers of the Strangers and human qualities as well) and creates an ocean, and lets the sun shine over the metropolis. In a scene similar to Deckard and the dying replicant on the roof of the industrial building, just before Murdoch allows the sun to rise, one straggling, dying Stranger confronts him. In the exchange Murdoch says with a punch that mocks the Stranger, declaring that if they were looking to understand the human mind, they were looking in the wrong place, then tapping his forehead. "It's not in here." And bang, the sunlight enters, the Stranger howls at the light and dies. Unlike Blade Runner, our sympathies have not gone out to this dying Stranger.

At last, Murdoch is able to come back to his love interest, a woman played by Jennifer Connelly, who wakes from sleep with a different life. She doesn't remember Murdoch, though in her previous life she was his wife. When Murdoch declared that the human core is not in the brain, he implied that it was in the heart, in human compassion. The Strangers lacked any semblance of this. His love for Connelly's character is based not on any history, but is a love that exists solely in the present. The movie then seems to suggest that humanness itself goes beyond mere memory or an identity constructed from that memory. It suggests that humanness is a quality attained through love. Although Murdoch has become a fusion of half-human/half-Stranger, he is still perceived by the audience as human because of his ability to show love and compassion toward Connelly's character.

In conclusion, it is clear that the approach of these three movies carry many differences and similarities toward the construction of memory and technology. But as far as urban dystopias go, they all appear to embrace the qualities of the human heart, despite how hellish the world that is inhabited. Cyborgs are humans, if they are compassionate, emotional creatures. Humans are cyborgs. And visa-versa.

[To other discussions of this topic by members of English 111, Cyberspace and Critical Theory, Spring 1998.]

Website Overview Cyborg OV Body OV Theory