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The cinema of human obsolescence.

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.

A new attitude of cool toughness surrounds the cybernetic hero. The armor plating of Robocop (and the movie version of Batman) suggests the defenses, psychological and physical, needed for survival in post-modern civilization. The superhero no longer is the self-possessed professional who merely needs a change of clothes to put right an essentially benign universe. Bruce Wayne is a timid yet angry ego that requires a suit of body armor to permit him to manifest any authenticity, yet Batman is interesting only in his physical appearance, like the lines of a new muscle car. The interchangeable metal body parts of cyborg toys probably are natural cultural manifestations of the world of synthetic organs and test-tube fertilization, neither of which has spelled doomsday. Yet, the fascination with the cyborg--and what might now be called cyborg culture"--seems another instance of a fixation on surface, on a shiny depthlessness. Viewers might be pleased that the violence the cyborgs inflict on each other in "Terminator 2" isn't far from a Roadrunner cartoon, with little blood shed, but the mixing of this violence with actual human crises (nuclear catastrophe) of the real world parallels the introduction of computer imagery into the filmmaking process.

The cybernetic revolution is most apparent in a movie such as "The Lawnmower Man," which deals explicitly with human consciousness being totally supplanted by the computer. This message perhaps is made most explicit by the privileged status given to computer graphics. Just as audiences waited to see the monster in early horror films, they wait to see the computer effects that clearly supersede the (negligible) storyline. "The Lawnmower Man"--like "Westworld" "TRON," and any number of similar works of this sub-genre--seems to use some familiar good guy/villain conventions and offer a cautionary tale in the best tradition of science fiction. It must be noted, though, the degree to which these narratives ask viewers to revel in their displacement as human subjects since, after all, the cyber-effects are more potent than the live actors. The contradictions here become troublesome, as the fascination with the cybernetic world represented in cinema tends to divert people from the erasure of their subjectivity and the worth of real (an increasingly nebulous category) human issues.

Of course, a contentious, unsettling cinema that refuses the viewer easy anchors is needed in a climate that often is blase and comfortable with itself. The real question is if the cinema of the cyborg is disingenuous in asking questions about human obsolescence, with its principal inclination really being preparing people for transformation into products and making individuals simply spectators, rather than participants in events.
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Title Annotation:science fiction films and society
Author:Sharrett, Christopher
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Article Type:Column
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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