"Commerce is our goal here at Tyrell. More human than human is our motto."
- Dr Eldon Tyrell
A sequel to the 1982 science fiction classic film Bladerunner is being made next year for 2017 release - 35 years after the original with Harrison Ford reprising his role as Deckard and Ryan Gosling as an as yet unknown new lead. This verges on an act of cultural vandalism. If any film stands alone with absolutely no need of a sequel, it is this.
Based on the Philip K Dick 1968 novella, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? , Ridley Scott's film was a seminal pace-setter for the future. Referencing film noir, with its darkly dystopian cinematography of an urban world of perpetual rain-soaked night, Bladerunner posited a whole gamut of questions around the development of high-functioning artificial intelligence, the ruthless sociopathy of corporations and their abuse of science. Above all, perhaps, it threw into sharp relief the willingness of the agents of any ruling class, like the Bladerunner-policeman Deckard, to enforce the subjugation of those deemed lesser.
In the film, Rutger Hauer plays Roy Batty, Deckard's antagonist and leader of a small group of exceptionally anthropomorphic-appearing android slave-workers, or replicants, who have escaped the clutches of their manufacturers and owner, the Tyrell Corporation. Deckard is charged to track them down using a combination of psycho-electronic empathy testing and sheer hard bullets and muscle. Given just four years of lifespan, as the replicants develop self-awareness, they become hungry for life. This motivation, common to any sentient being, becomes the central theme of the film as Deckard and his Bladerunner colleagues hunt them down to terminate them.
Asked by the attractive Corporation staffer Rachael (played by Sean Young) if he ever regrets his work, Deckard coldly responds: "Replicants are like any other machine. They're either a benefit or a hazard. If they're a benefit, it's not my problem."
But he begins to question his own views when, ordered to test her, he realises Rachael is herself an unknowing replicant, with implanted memories of a false childhood.
|Harrison Ford as Bladerunner Rick Deckard|
He grows close to her in spite of her apparent artificial origins, leading him to question his mission against Batty, whose own objectives are simply to snatch more life for himself and his companions. And indeed, one version of the film uses a striking inserted sequence to question Deckard's own human nature; or not.
This was a visionary piece of work, significantly building on Dick's writing to highlight questions that are becoming ever more salient today. A.I. is increasingly aiding but also supplanting humans. In the not distant future, it will be able to out-think us and replicate itself.
In the last 18 months or so there has been an explosion of speculative articles in both the scientific and the business press about the replacement of human jobs with technology - one Oxford University study estimates a 47% replacement rate in less than two decades while Harvard research found that this trend is already impacting on the incomes and prospects of manual workers. This is an infinitely faster transition that any previous wave of socio-industrial change and will completely challenge how we organise our economies and live our lives.
While much of it is in the disembodied power of computer systems, a lot of work is underway creating robotic entities for a wide range of autonomous activities, from soldiering and hazardous civilian work to medicine and even replacing humans as empathetic companions for the elderly and sick. In such circumstances, the questions posited by the original Bladerunner about the benefits and the hazards and, above all, the rights of artificial but self-aware entities become ever more pertinent.
"Quite an experience to live in fear, isn't it? That's what it is to be a slave."
So, what is the point of a sequel, especially after so long? Sometimes, questions are best left unanswered and mysteries shrouded in the unknown. Indeed, casting Ford as Deckard 35 years on will destroy the abiding enigma of the original film - whether he looks much older or thanks to CGI hasn't aged, we will finally know what he is. And how can anything realistically follow what was in effect Bladerunner's conclusion, the utterly sublime Tears In Rain sequence?
But in this world of untrammelled commerce, where even humans can be exchanged for robots in pursuit of profit, why should we hope capitalism might leave a good story alone?