Science fiction is a genre that is closely associated with the era of rapid technological development in history. Movies of Lucas and Spielberg have demonstrated throughout the 1950s that this genre could be highly profitable and as a result, the early 1980s saw a rush of science fiction films with the trend extending into the 1990s. During this period, there were science fiction movies discussing the impact of machine intelligence and robotic automation. The robot (or cyborg or replicant or android) played an important role in these films and through them, the movies were able to discuss two significant issues – the ability of technology to allow human beings to create replicas of themselves and the possibility that these beings might overpower the humans and take their place (Telotte, 2001). These concepts are explored in the two Terminator films (1984, 1991) and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982).In science fiction movies such as The Terminator I and Terminator II and Blade Runner, by creating characters that are half-human and half-machine, the might of technology is explored as something to be both celebrated and feared
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Science fiction holds three kinds of fascinations: that dealing with extraterrestrial beings or aliens; the impact of science and technology on society and culture and third, “technological alterations in and substitute versions of the self” (Telotte, 2001, 12). The third category explores the applications of science and technology towards the creation of robots, cyborgs, androids, and other enhanced beings based on the human model as in the movies – The Terminator films (1984, 1991) and Blade Runner (1982). Movies such as these explore the boundaries between human beings and machines and reflect upon the dangers to humanity posed by unchecked technological developments. They also raise questions regarding what it means to be human and show that when humans create cyborgs they are also making and unmaking conceptions of their own selves (Bell and Kennedy, 125). They explore dilemmas related to the possible production of artificial humans through advances in robotics and biological engineering. In a broader sense, by exposing the threat of technologically created beings, these movies stimulate audiences to look inward and examine their own feelings about humanity and about human beings who may be different from themselves racially, culturally, or experientially (Booker, 2006).
In Terminator, a machine from a future war between humans and machines had come back in time to kills Sarah Connor, the would-be mother of John Connor, leader of the human resistance against the mechanical attack. But this cybernetic assassin was part human and part machine, a cyborg. The human qualities of the cyborg are somewhat ambiguous (Manzanas, 2007). When the Terminator enters the disco, he is initially not noticed because of his human exterior. However, when he displays his dual nature of being half-man, half-machine, others in the disco become terrified, showing that crossing the boundary between man and machine can be very scary and dangerous. As the movie progresses, the cyborg gradually loses its human qualities. It would thus appear that the Terminator lost only after he was deprived of his human attributes such as rationalistic oppositional thought (Manzanas, 2007). Schwarzenegger played the main roles in the Terminator movies and he was able to fuse his natural physical prowess with the technological being. While the first Terminator cast Arnold as a ‘transtemporal assassin created by yet another computer out to destroy all human life, he is cast in the second as ‘humanity’s cyborg protector’ (Bukatman, 1993, p. 303).
The technological entities in Blade Runner are the city, the replicants, the laboratory of Chew who makes genetically engineered eyes for replicants, and the Esper machine used to study photographs (Kerman, 1997). While portraying the replicants care is taken to show that they are from both genders and that there are distinct ethnic and class distinctions in its small group of replicants. Roy Batty is shown to be brighter than most humans and built for self-sufficiency and he is the model of the classic Aryan superman, while Leon Kowalski, designed to be a nuclear fission loader and waste disposal engineer is shown to be sweaty and greasy. In general, the replicants are a slave-class of artificially created beings, created by Tyrell Corporation. The replicants are programmed to carry out dangerous tasks such as mining or menial tasks such as prostitution for human beings on off-world colonies. Though they are superior to humans in strength and intellect, they are labelled inferior to humans by class (Leong, 2000). In order to keep them in check, replicants are created with a short life span of four years and implanted with false memories to make them continuously subservient to humans. However, some replicants were advanced technically and hence were able to develop emotions and sentience, leading to violent replicant revolts. Replicants are therefore banned on earth and their infiltration is checked by officers known as blade runners. Rick Deckard is a blade runner who is entrusted with the task of tracking four replicants on the loose in LA – two females and two males. As Deckard progresses, he realizes that the fugitive replicants are motivated by the same desires and emotions as humans and nurture a quest for longer life (Leong, 2000). This is understood by Deckard only at a roof-top battle he has with Batty in the film’s climax and he watches Batty shutdown as a result of having ‘no more time’. Having understood that, Deckard decides to help Rachael, an advanced replicant prototype to escape from possible ‘retirement’. Blade Runner explores the ethics behind the creation of artificial life through the character of Rick Deckard who questions the level of the existing humanity in an increasingly technologized environment.
Will Brooker (2005) in his book “The Blade Runner Experience” points out that the movie has clear elements of technophilia or love for everyday technology. A technological aspect of Blade Runner is the depiction of the futuristic city of Los Angeles. The city has flying cars or spinners moving across its landscape and its traffic regulated by trafficators. As Deckard approaches police headquarters, the viewer is presented with two spaces – a superbly detailed urban space that dominates the film and a second field defined by the controls and data screens of the hovercar (Brooker, 2005). These images give the illusion of travelling in a gliding vehicle through an invisible traffic corridor. Advertising blimps above the city promote a better life “Off-World”. The city has constant acid rain and the sun is blocked out by pollution. People use neon tubes within their umbrellas to light their way and to identify themselves. However, in LA 2019, technology has advanced to such an extent that it has resulted in a future where all-natural elements have been wiped out. Inhabitants of this futuristic city of LA are unable to be natural because they are under constant surveillance and very few private technology-free spaces. Technology even invades their dreams through memory implants. Unmarked cyborgs walk the city streets along with cyber pets and genetically engineered life forms. In this super mechanical Los Angeles 2019, there is no vegetation and no such things as a natural sunrise or a natural landscape.
In Blade Runner, technology even affects the social and personal lives of its citizens. Geneticist J. F. Sebastian suffers from a wasting disease that ages him prematurely – as a result of a genetic experiment gone wrong. The Tyrell Corporation building which is a mock Egyptian edifice houses Dr. Tyrell who has forgotten what it means to be human and in his quest for scientific knowledge and economic power he had been transformed into an unfeeling rationalist – an embodied tyrannical machine. However, Will Brooker says that Blade Runner also pays homage to technology in the film. Nature is shown not inside the city but above the city in the deserted spaces of hyper technology where the blimps and the incandescent oil fields have an organic life-like quality. Moreover, nature that was lost to mankind seems to have been found in the replicants who become associated with the natural.
One inherent drawback in the narratives of these technology-oriented movies such as “Blade Runner” and the Terminator Series seem to take for granted the death of humans, revelling in a tone of ‘cynical nihilism’ (Sharrett, 1993, 67). These movies, while taking a critical stand against corporate civilization are more drawn towards their cyborg/replicant protagonists. This is quite expected as sympathy for the “monster” (the grotesque outsider) has always been a part of the humanistic aspects of the horror and science fiction genres. Moreover, these movies unfold bizarre conceptions of the body – 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” (Sharrett, 1993). In the context of the physical representation of cyborgs in these movies, Wong et al (2005) make an interesting observation. They point out that in both these movies, the cyborgs are gendered and have sexualized cyborg bodies; in terminator, the cyborgs are depicted as male and sometimes hyper-masculine, emphasizing a threat of violence of domination. However, in Blade Runner, the replicants are of both genders.
The true impact of the technology-dominated world portrayed in movies such as Blade Runner is expressed clearly in the words of Rosemary Jackson: “What is experienced as uncanny is an objectification of the subject’s anxieties, read into shapes external to himself” (Jackson, 1981, p. 67). The cyborg and replicant are the ‘shapes external’ to the viewer in the context of science fiction movies. They distract the viewer, make them spectators, and give warnings to them. The violence that cyborgs inflict on each other in “Terminator 2” when mixed with actual human crises such as a nuclear catastrophe creates a whole new cybernetic world where the viewers are diverted from thinking about the loss of their subjectivity and the worth of real human issues (Sharrett, 1993). There is also a conflict in such cyborg/replicant movies in that they deal concept-wise with the issue of human obsolescence whereas, in reality, they prepare people for commodification by making them just spectators and not participants in events (Sharrett, 1993). Cyborgs/replicants, in Hollywood movies, provide the warning signals for the human race that it is heading in the wrong direction. In a particular scene in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, a “terminator” cyborg from the future addresses a group of humans on the topic of his creation. He begins the story by cutting open his arm to reveal a bloody mechanism underneath, gestures with his newly revealed metal digits to his horrifying human audience, and then give them a message that he wants them to listen to carefully. He enumerates the difficulties and dangers that humans are likely to face in a world that they have technologized and populated with artificial life. Movies such as Blade Runner and the Terminator Series warn that in creating perfect imitations of the self, and by allowing technology to rule the world, humans are likely to be pushed to being mere spectators of the world, forced to hide behind “the window of technology” and with no real place in this world (Romanyshyn, 1989, p. 114).
The cyborg/replicant movies also emphatically declare the uniqueness of the human ‘self’ and how technology can never exactly mimic it though it may come close. The Terminator is not endowed with the status of humans because it is a purely material and materialistic object with no self-identity. In Terminator 2 there is some attempt to humanize one of the Terminators by concentrating on how it can learn from human companions, but it is not able to achieve the autonomous self-identity that characterizes human beings. It is not able to understand why John Connor prevents it from killing human beings although it is able to obey his commands and refrain from doing so (Featherstone and Burrows, 1995). Similarly in “Blade Runner”, the replicants are not endowed with the status of humans because they are created by humans for being slaves to them and also they are given very little lifespan. They do not have free will to think and have implanted memories. However, when advanced replicants do have human qualities and the desire to have a longer life and fight for survival. Thus the movies indicate that technology becomes dangerous and revolutionary only when it is integrated with artificial intelligence giving the cyborgs/replicants the mental capabilities of human beings. As long as artificial intelligence and imitation of self are not provided to cyborgs or replicants, they will remain in control of the humans and be subservient. This then is the ultimate message behind the technological movies of Hollywood such as Blade Runner and the Terminator Series.
These films are socially relevant as these are times when there is growing cultural concern over issues such as cloning, stem cell research, creating and transplantation of artificial organs, developing mechanical prostheses, the manipulation of human genetics, and the introduction of robots into the workplace (Telotte, 2001). The movies seem to show that though the technology is truly powerful and advantageous, there can be serious repercussions if technology is allowed to dominate the world. These movies generate a fascination as they offer a visualization of how things could turn out in the future if a man chose to play God. Futurist science fiction film-makers offer two options in the face of dominance by technology: either humanity must accept the good and bad aspects of technological progress and find new technologies to cope with the problems created by the previous new technologies or escape from the domination of technology by returning to a lifestyle before the industrial revolution.
The movies Blade Runner and the Terminator series carry the motif of “kiss and tell” which emphasizes that “even in the most highly technologized environment, feelings or emotions remain the “telling” marks of human nature, a stable foundation on which we can rely”. The Terminator of Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) indicates that he has come to understand humans when he tells his young master, “Now I know why you cry”. In Blade Runner, the rebellion of the replicants can be countered only if they are ‘retired’ on sight but for this, they need to be identified from the humans they resemble. The only difference between humans and replicants is that they lack altruism and empathy – which can be found only through the Voight-Kampff empathy test. This test cannot be conducted without the help of advanced technology. Confirmation that one is not a machine can be provided only by a machine. Thus the movie “Blade Runner” and the Terminator series depict technology as “both the cause of ontological uncertainty and the only means to resolve it” (Hassard and Holliday, 1998, 254).
Scientific fiction movies also have to match up to their visual content with the narrative. “The visual presentation of a liquid metal Terminator in Terminator 2 is “state-of-the-art” technical marvel much like the android itself” (Bukatman, 1993, p. 14). In Terminator 2, the conflict between Arnold’s old-fashioned T-100 cyborg model and the new, “liquid metal” T-1000 is presented using the digital technology of Morphing. Moreover, the cyborg is depicted as dressed in leather and matching the machine – ‘becoming part punk, part cop, part biker, part bike, part tank, part Freikorps-superhero’ (Bukatman, 1993, p. 14). Thus cyborgs in the Terminator series are shown to have externally forceful masculine machinery with internally fluid concealed systems. On the metaphorical plane, by battling the fluid, effeminate, digitized form of the T-1000, the mechanical Terminator reestablishes the masculine and industrial identities (Bukatman, 1993, p. 304). “Blade Runner” also has many technically stunning scenes, as it strives to captures life in Los Angeles in 2019. For example, the spinner’s inaugural flight over the city is magically captured that as it disappears into the distance, glitter sweeps over the spinner and makes it merge with the electronic circuits of the city. Among the smog and burning oil fires, a luminous beauty is shown emanating from the neon signs, advertising blimps, mechanical toys, spinners, etc. It is interesting to note that such technophilia elements of the film are present only when real people are absent in the frame, indicating subtly that technology reveals itself in all its splendor only when all traces of humanity have been effaced. According to the film’s message, people are tainted by their class position and pollute the vision of purity in the film. Whenever Deckard enters the Tyrell ziggurat or Sebastian enters Tyrell’s bedroom, chaos and destruction follow.
In ‘Blade Runner’, there is a lot of focus on the technology related to perception. ‘Looking’, ‘being seen’ or ‘not seeing what is really there’ play an important role in directing the narrative and position of the subject. The film is permeated with several elements of vision such as electronic eyes, scanners, photographic cameras, retina devices, and so on. They produce a layered gaze or a type of miraculous vision. When one looks or is looked at in the film there is a beauty to the gaze employed. But this beauty becomes terrifying when one realizes that there is no one can escape from it. Deckard may try to hide into the shadows or retreat elsewhere, but he is always caught in the city’s surveillance system and his working-class origins will be confirmed again and again by the system.
Hollywood has always been fascinated by the growth of technology not only in the making of movies but also in its treatment of technology through the movies. All the three movies under discussion – Blade Runner, Terminator 1, and Terminator 2 tap into real fears about technoscience, globalization, population flows, media manipulation, and environmental catastrophe. This can be explained by the fact that these movies came at a time when there were media corporate takeovers, holes in the ozone layer, fears about cloning and stem cell research, migration, and immigration were perceived to be threats to national identity. The movies show clearly that Hollywood has both technophobic and technophilic elements. Through the half-man, half-machine characters these science fiction movies show technophobia, presenting technology as a force to be feared if allowed to grow unchecked. Through the breathtaking visual effects, state-of-the-art computer graphics, and creative cinematography, the same movies show technophilia, presenting technology as a force that would break barriers for Hollywood films to explore new territories.
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