The Cinema of Human Obsolescence

Article excerpt

THE RELEASE of the director's cut of Ridley Scott's masterful 1982 science-fiction film "Blade Runner" has reminded audiences not only of the centrality of this picture to the sci-fi of the 1980s and 1990s, but of the importance of the movie in its embodiment of ideas becoming crucial to debates about the displacement of human beings in contemporary culture and society. In so many respects, the film looks remarkably prescient. At least two major studies of Los Angeles (most notably Mike Davis' City of Quartz) cite "Blade Runner" for its insights into L.A. as a fragmented Third World metropolis, militarized and markedly divided on class and racial lines, retrofitted with chic post-modern architecture over a decaying infrastructure.

In the best retelling of the Frankenstein story to date, "Blade Runner" also deals with the marginalization of humanity itself in the age of the cybernetic revolution and supranational corporatism. The killer cyborg Roy Batty (brilliantly portrayed by Rutger Hauer) ultimately is more compassionate and "human" than his creators or pursuers. Indeed, the film raises questions about whether or not the human soul can survive media/computers/drugs/implants/transplants and the other components of the civilization that makes individual identity seem obsolete. One can not help but notice how the ideas of "Blade Runner" and the subsequent cinema jibe with the decade's academic and public debates about the death of the subject and the end of history. What separates this film, however, from much of the cinema that picked up its ideas is the hardly sanguine tone about the movie's conclusions: humanity here clearly is threatened, looking back nostalgically on its history and struggling in the hyperalienating post-modern moment to keep a handhold to survive.

In many of the films so dependent on "Blade Runner"--including the "Robocop," "Terminator," and "Predator" movies--the narratives at times take for granted the passing of the human subject as they revel in a tone of cynical nihilism. While ostensibly critical of corporate civilization, they are fascinated with their synthetic cyborg/robot protagonists. At first, this seems not very problematical, especially since Robocop and the second Terminator are so derivative of a long line of action film heroes (both depend a great deal on Alan Ladd's Shane). More important, sympathy for the "monster" (the grotesque outsider) always has been one of the progressive and humanistic aspects of the horror and science fiction genres.

It is interesting, especially when observing the toy and other spin-off markets, how rather bizarre conceptions of the body have taken hold in the popular imagination. The emblematic Terminator image is a threatening chrome skull staring through the charred flesh of a human face which, after all, is only a mask. The Terminator toy "bioregenerator" set invites kids to tear the clay flesh" from Arnold Schwarzenegger's metal skeleton. …