ATF movie: Blade Runner

posted: October 7, 2017

tl;dr: It probably isn’t yours, but Blade Runner is my all-time favorite movie...

I had been planning on writing this for a while, but with the sequel now out I thought I should get my thoughts down before they are influenced by Blade Runner 2049...

I’m sure that one reason Blade Runner is my favorite movie is that I saw it at a very impressionable time in my life: it came out the year I graduated from high school. I had already embarked upon a career in technology and was interested in artificial intelligence, the Turing Test, and the question at the core of the movie: would it be possible to develop an Artificial Intelligence (AI), in humanoid form, that has human intelligence, emotions, and consciousness? And what would happen when that moment is reached?

A movie poster, with the title and star's name and other personnel listed at the bottom, featuring a dark image of, at the top, the sweaty face of a man holding a gun, below which is an image of the face of an elegant woman smoking a cigarette, and below which are what appear to be futuristic skyscrapers

To use a trite expression, Blade Runner blew my mind. It was a serious science fiction film that dealt with the aforementioned questions in a much more realistic manner than other science fiction films that preceded it. It made Star Wars and its emphasis on the magical “force”, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial seem childish. I’ve believed for a long time that we are unlikely to ever encounter alien intelligences embodied in anything resembling a biological lifeform, for the simple reason that biological lifeforms are fragile and have a finite lifespan. As other movies have amply demonstrated, they can be killed with a blaster, or have a body part hacked off with a light saber, and they get ill and die without proper care and environmental conditions. It is much more likely that a superior alien intelligence has figured out how to solve these problems by migrating their consciousness into a much more durable, machine-based embodiment. It also logical that humans would attempt to build human-like robots to perform dangerous jobs, although again here it would be better to do this in something more durable than a biological “container”. We see this happening today, in a variety of forms and ways.

Visually, Blade Runner was stunning, and remains so today. It set the standard for dystopian science fiction. There was nothing at all like it before; it was pre-steampunk, and has had a huge influence on many books and movies that came later. Blade Runner was the pioneer. The street scenes of a dark, overcrowded Los Angeles, where something unmentioned has seriously gone wrong with the environment, are powerful and all-too-plausible. Blade Runner foresaw some of the cultural changes that the U.S. would undergo as demographics changed and commercialism grew. It was both a premonition and a warning, and, along with the music by Vangelis, it set a mood unlike any other film.

The characters in Blade Runner are highly memorable. The one I identified with is Deckard, who is a loner but who also wants to find love. As a technologist, the challenges that Deckard faces, almost always alone, are familiar. He’s responsible for a critical function in that society, maintaining the proper separation between humans and replicants, yet he’s one of the very few that can solve the problem. His boss merely gives him a simple, high-level task, monitors him lightly, and shows up to judge the results. It is entirely up to Deckard to piece together the clues and surmount incredible challenges to deliver the results. All too often solving technical problems feels that way, although without the constant threat to one’s life, of course.

The character of Tyrell, the technical genius at the head of a very large company, was fascinating; Howard Hughes may have been the inspiration. In 1982, when Blade Runner was released, the IBM PC had been out for a year and Microsoft was just getting started on its journey to become one of the world’s most powerful technology companies. Since then we’ve had other real-world examples of Tyrell-like technology CEOs such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, and Jeff Bezos. I actually don’t believe that a great company arises entirely from the vision of one all-powerful CEO/founder, but Blade Runner showed how power would accrue to such a person and how it might be used. Since the people I mentioned all rose to prominence after Blade Runner, I believe that we may attribute Tyrell-like characteristics to them because of the movie, which is not healthy.

The characters of Roy Batty and Rachel show the process that an artificially-created intelligence might undergo as it becomes aware of its genesis and its place in society. Their actions speak to the power of the life force: the desire of life forms to propagate and continue existing. The storyline rings entirely true, and the thought process that Deckard undergoes as he considers what to do about these new advanced AIs mimics what we as a society will have to address someday.

In the time since I first saw Blade Runner I’ve gotten to travel to a few of the places that inspired some of the imagery in the movie. I’ve spend time in Los Angeles, and toured one of the petrochemical plants in Carson, CA that no doubt inspired the opening sequence. I’ve traveled to several crowded cities in Asia, and seen the neon-lit night markets. I’ve worked in the technology industry, and seen the rise and fall of various technology firms and CEOs. AI and robot technology have advanced, especially in recent years, and we’ve recently seen the rise of a commercial space industry. We’re still a ways off from some of the events foreseen in Blade Runner, but some of them are definitely coming. After all these years Blade Runner remains my favorite movie, and one of the very few that i actually own on Blu-Ray and watch every few years. I’m looking forward to the sequel, albeit with the full knowledge that sequels almost never are as good as the first, because they necessarily lack some amount of originality...

Related post: Book review: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, by Philip K. Dick