Back to the Future

Finally! Sci-fi that looks and feels great and makes sense! What a relieve…

Remaking old ideas is a modern trait, not only in cinema. In history of culture, beginning of the XXI century will be called “era of plagiarism” or “recyclism” one day. It seems like with such an advancement in knowledge and comfort  people lost ability to tell interesting stories or perhaps they don’t value them anymore (at least in America). Did our lives suddenly became so boring and mundane that we have nothing to say about ourselves? You need one glimpse at social media to realize: absolutely not! There is plenty of people who think their lives are infinitely amazing and worth sharing and they have so much to say. Attention span decreased rapidly but access to tools of expression and media increased exponentially so what is to blame? Are we already “amusing ourselves to death” like Neil Postman claimed in 80’s?

“Blade Runner 2049” was apparently disappointment to some critics in US as it didn’t smash box offices after premiere, meaning it didn’t attract predicted number of viewers or like some “experts” put it: (…) failed to live up to…expectations and/or budgets this past month [www.boxofficemojo.com/news/?id=4344]. If you look what movies reign in October and November (Tyler Perry’s Boo 2! A Madea Halloween, Geostorm and Happy Death Day to name just few and I think titles speak for themselves) it is actually a compliment. Sci-fi was always a niche for movie and science geeks, despite modern dilution (to not say rape) of the genre but Blade Runner is a classic in many respects, widely regarded as one of the most important movies ever made. It requires basic knowledge and interest in technology as well as patience and certain level of sensitivity. If Jeff Nichols is right when he claims that only 7% of adult Americans are scientifically literate meaning that they can understand basic concept of logic, critical thinking and absorb most of the international news without getting lost after second sentence, then it’s a miracle that this movie made some money at all. Artistic value is another attribute that discourages popcorn audience and when it comes to Blade Runner, even trailer is “difficult”.

Movie is visually stunning, bordering on masterpiece at places but story line is rather simplistic, only referring to the original movie from 1982 and adding hints of reflection about human nature in long, carefully crafted nostalgic shots enriched by uneasy soundtrack of indispensable Hans Zimmer. Heavy in graphics but stingy in essence – footprint of a modern cinema I would say.

Blade Runner goes way beyond AI and neural networks debates – it touches eugenics, creation of artificial life and integration of androids into human society, just like some of the classic sci-fi animations: Ghost in the Shell or Appleseed. Is “designed life” less real or less valuable than the one conceived (“assembled”) naturally? Do we really value conception that much? Why would it make any difference since genetics is only a software shaped and adjusted by nurture? Being born in-vitro or through genetic engineering doesn’t determine who you are – just like being born in a wrong country. Once we learn to create life this distinction will disappear. Being born “naturally” or in the lab will have the same value in the future, the only distinction being maybe easier or “cheaper”. It may become the only way just like on Krypton where human DNA is stored in universal codex, but people will accept it as something natural and obvious anyway.

Do people really need to build humanoid machines to avoid dissonance and feel more comfortable? Wouldn’t we move beyond physical appearance by then? You don’t want to re-create human, you want to make something better. Body is a constrain in general, not perfectly adapted to digital environment so building android is like equipping old car with jet engine – why not just create superior vehicle instead of trying to adapt obsolete technology to a new idea? Besides: why outsource all superhuman values into silicon beings instead of improving ourselves? It’s us who want to be smarter, stronger and live forever. I think we will rather transcend into digital realm, drop our physical constrain and upload ourselves into the stream of data (just like Johnny Depp in Transcendence) or become cyborgs, androids rather than risk all these ethical and racial issues of having incompatible social group of beings. Both trends are happening already. Virtualization change they way we perceive space and time and contact with other people, just wait for Internet of Things (IoT). Medicine in developed countries has moved from healing to enhancing (Yuval Noah Harari). We are partly cyborgs already – transplants and prosthesis, chips and peacemakers pierce our bodies prolonging lives and enhancing our abilities. It’s just the matter of scale. How far are we willing to go and what determines being a human: brain, body or more metaphysically: consciousness, soul?

Opposite side of this issue is tackled with presence of Joi. She wants to become tangible, even for a while so she merges with a body of a prostitute to imitate haptic contact with K. Program who wants to grow a body and upload itself into a physical dimension? We’ve seen this in TRON already but Villeneuve is much subtler and sensual. Algorithm tries to limit itself with space and time even if in the future these realms seem to be more interchangeable and blurred.

Same goes to the purpose of creating androids in Blade Runner. I don’t think we will build anthropomorphic weapons to fight our wars or colonize newly discovered planets. We will fight cyber wars using virtual avatars rather than highly trained and biologically enhanced androids or we will avoid them altogether by hacking and disabling enemy through more accurate and quicker cyber-viruses. We don’t need to kill soldiers to win anymore. You blind enemy digitally… or remove him from Facebook.

Blade Runner is an important and beautiful sequel, noble exception in the era of recyclable and disposable cinema. Copernican revolution in biology removing us from pinnacle of evolution and expanding to astrobiology where life becomes more possible or even inevitable on growing number of extraterrestrial planets, makes us think about human nature from a new perspective. AI, neural networks and machine learning invade our everyday life and nothing seems to be able to stop it despite apocalyptic warnings from Stephen Hawking or Elon Musk. Do we know where we are and where do we go? Predictions are hard, especially about the future (Niels Bohr). What will happen to people? Will they merge with technology and singularity completely, becoming new hybrid specie immune to biological evolution or disappear replaced by race of silicon beings? “Future of intelligence is a race brewing between carbon-based lifeforms and silicon-base lifeforms,” to quote Reed Hastings, founder of Netflix. “Both are rapidly evolving. It’s unclear which type of intelligence will emerge dominant in 100, 150 years.”

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