Originally written on April 26, 2001
The technology of modern sci-fi films incorporates the need in humans to become more perfect. Androids and robots represent the perfect strength and dexterity that humans wish to gain. The artifice of the android also reveals the fear in humans of making a technology that is better than we could ever be. Modern sci-fi films illustrate through artifice the weakness of humans and the superiority of the machine.
In the film Death Watch(1980), Roddy is a man who is equipped with cameras in his eyes so he can film anything he watches. Roddy is not technically an android but does possess machine parts that make him more powerful. Roddy’s camera eyes give him the advantage over unenhanced artists because he simply looks and shoots. Roddy is not encumbered by bulky cameras or equipment and is therefore superior to other humans in this respect.
The downside of Roddy’s camera is that it makes him less human. Roddy cannot be in darkness or his camera eyes will fail. To make sure his eyes don’t fail, Roddy takes a lot of amphetamines and learns to sleep with his eyes open. The inability to sleep properly makes Roddy vulnerable. Consequently, Roddy’s camera eyes become a liability as they finally render him blind. Roddy finds that technology can make a better human, but only up to a point. He realizes that spectacular technology does not guarantee human betterment, but instead human misery.
The replicants in Blade Runner(1982) represent both the fear and hope that humans hold about technology. All of the Nexus 6 models encompass incredible strength and intelligence. Their only downfall is their “accelerated decrepitude”. Other than the short life span, the replicants are built better and function better than human beings. This fact causes humans to fear them unless they are in the service of humans.
Roy Baty is the Ubermensch of the group of replicants. He embodies all the wondrous qualities of the artificial. Roy is incredibly strong, he is witty and clever, and he has the capacity to feel real emotions. Of all the characters in Blade Runner, Roy is the most human while obviously not being human. Roy feels deeply about the plight of his replicant friends and wants to help them live longer. When he realizes that is not going to happen, he kills Tyrell in a fit of passionate rage. Tyrell is obstensively Roy’s father and realizing that one’s own father cannot help is a huge blow to Roy. Though Roy’s killing of Tyrell is brutal, this act shows that he understands the finality of his situation and those of his friends.
Roy also has the capacity for forgiveness, which is a very human virtue. When he battles Deckard in the hotel he is ruthless up to a point. Yet Roy finally saves Deckard by pulling him up to the roof. The act of saving Deckard gives Roy a humanity that is lacking in the humans around him. The humans want only to kill the replicants who escaped to Earth, yet Roy saves a human anyway. It is heartening to see that a replicant can be compassionate as well as vicious.
The replicants are actually just like humans, except for the fact that they are stronger, smarter and live for less time. This is what scares humans about replicants; that they have the capacity to become so much like us, yet not at all like us. The superiority of technology over biology is probably why humans don’t want replicants on Earth. The replicants are a constant reminder that technology created by humans can produce advanced forms of artificial life but cannot be applied to humans. Humans want all of the special attributes that replicants possess, but they do not want to be artificial. It seems as if humans created a superior breed and then started to resent it. Through the replicants humans finally understood the fragility of biological life and this upset them greatly.
The android Call from Alien: Resurrection(1997) is an interesting example of technology. Call is very unassuming and does not reveal her true self until very far into the film. Call is supposedly programmed to care about people and to help them defeat the dreaded aliens. Ripley is amused by this fact because it seems as if the only one who cares about preserving life on Earth is a robot. All of the other people just care about saving themselves and getting off the ship, with fairly little concern about the aliens invading Earth. Even Ripley, who knows how horrible the aliens are, is somewhat sympathetic towards them.
Call is crushed when her companions find out she is a robot. Many of them make disparaging comments about her; one even calls her a toaster. Even in the far progressed future, robots are a novelty to humans. They are seen as freaks and are treated as such. This is why Call hid her real identity; hoping to be judged by her own merits, not by the fact that she was a robot. Yet in the end, Call reluctantly gave into her nature and used her wiring to save everyone.
The human experience is one of possessing a natural body and living in an artificial world. The androids and robots in sci-fi films represent this idea. We live in a world bombarded with technology and media. There is no place to hide from the mechanization of life. The humans best efforts to combat technology and to return to nature are futile, as this world is one of artifice. There is a constant philosophical question in the human mind as to what is real and what is produced. Androids are a proxy to understanding this question.
Technology is a perplexing issue for humans in sci-fi as well as in real life. In the book Screening Space author Vivian Sobchack observes that, “Immersed in media experience, conscious of mediated experience, we no longer experience any realm of human existence as unmediated, immediate “natural”.” (Sobchack, 237). This idea is applied very well to sci-fi films. In Blade Runner it is incredibly hard to differentiate between the human and the artificial. The technology produced in replicants is so human-like that a precise machine must be used to tell a human from a replicant. This is the human fear of technology; that we no longer have the ability to determine what is natural because there is no longer anything natural left in the world.
Sci-fi films represent technology as both beneficial and detrimental. Androids are extraordinary because they were made from humans to be so perfect. Their strength and perfection is a credit to our knowledge of science and its application. Androids also frighten people because they are so perfect that humans know they cannot live up to that level of engineered perfection. In essence, humans are afraid of anything that is different from themselves, of the Other. Humans attack difference due to a mixture of jealousy and ignorance. The ingrained human instinct to destroy Otherness is why humans are fearful of androids and artificial life in its varying forms.
Sobchack, Vivian. (1987). Screening Space: The American Science Fiction Film. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.