Now Playing at the Row Three Rep: What is Human?

[Row Three programming if we owned a Rep Cinema]

Blurring the Line Between Android and Human

Metropolis – 5:00pm
Blade Runner – 8:00pm
A.I.: Artificial Intelligence – 10:00pm
bonus: Battlestar Galactica – all night and the next week 🙂

With the concept of mankind creating sentient robots and androids inevitably follows the question of how we are to treat them – since we made them, can we do with them what we want, treating them as disposable slaves? Or by creating something that can think like us, and eventually react and feel like us, are we bound to treat them the same as we would (or should) treat other human beings? And faced with such a potential reality, what does it really mean to be human? These are the kind of questions that cerebral sci-fi has always asked, with robots and now clones being among the most appropriate catalysts to spark such explorations of ethics, morality, and ontology itself. There are many films (and TV series) I could’ve chosen for such a triple feature; I chose these partially to tie in with our ongoing Ridley Scott marathon, and also because these films also specifically feature androids, that is, robots that appear to be human, who fool humans into thinking they are human, and who may not even themselves be aware that they are androids. Of course, all of these works use androids to explore the issue of “otherness,” or what happens when a dominant group comes into contact with a group they deem “different.”

Note: Scott’s Alien also features a human-fooling android, but questions of human-android ethics are not really explored in that film.

Taken on the surface, there’s not a whole lot of inquiry into the robot-human question in Metropolis; the human Maria is unequivocally good, almost angelic, while the robot Maria is evil and destructive. But I wanted to include it because it is really the first iconic cinematic depiction of a robot, and it’s telling that the first use of a robot in cinematic science fiction is to mislead and misdirect a humanity that believes the robot to be human – and not only to be human, but to be somebody they know and trust. It would be many years before sci-fi would have good human-mimicking robots – even the robots in Forbidden Planet and The Day the Earth Stood Still are distinctly non-human in appearance. In Metropolis, that question of whether robots should be treated as humans is superficially irrelevant, because the only robot we see is given the role of enacting the worst that humanity has to offer. On the other hand, the Complete cut of Metropolis fleshes out (so to speak) the back story surrounding the creation of the robot, which inventor Rotwang created as a substitute for Hel, the woman he loved and Joh Frederson took from him. So before the robot was commandeered by Frederson as a means to put down the undercity rebellion, Rotwang already intended it to be a human stand-in. Deeper questions are begged – would Rotwang have found comfort in this shadow of Hel? Would the robot have been an adequate substitute? Are robot-Maria’s evil excesses solely due to Frederson’s mission for her, or is a mechanical creation of man inevitably going to disappoint and betray, and if it does, is that because if its mechanical nature or the humans who built it? Would (should) Rotwang have treated robot-Hel as human, or would he simply have enslaved her, a helpless puppet to his desires? It’s unclear from the film whether robot-Maria had full sentience or autonomy, so the questions may be moot. But they’re there, nascent even from the very first cinematic depiction of a human-mimicking android.

As its thirtieth anniversary looms this year, Blade Runner remains the central cinematic text when it comes to the ontology of humanity faced with androids almost utterly indistinguishable from humans in every way – physical, mental, and even emotional. Android technology is basically perfect in Blade Runner‘s world, but replicants are used only as an off-world labor force, their four-year lifespan mandated to maintain control and their presence on Earth forbidden and policed by Blade Runners tasked to “retire” replicants who come to Earth anyway. Already we have a set-up where androids are completely human-like in just about every way, yet are kept in a slave-like condition and terminated if they try to actually live like humans. In fact, some replicants don’t even realize they’re not human, like Rachel. The emotional tests designed to distinguish replicant from human don’t work on her. And Blade Runner doesn’t even stop with that, rather suggesting that it’s the humans in the story who lack emotional depth and act as cold-blooded and ruthless killers. If one group is trying to escape tyranny and survive, and the other group is heartlessly killing them simply because of what they are (not who they are), who’s the real monster? Where is the humanity located? The long-standing debate of whether or not Deckard himself is a replicant basically misses the point. The blurring of lines is the point – erasing that ambiguity either direction dilutes the film, which is richest when the distinctions between human and android are at their most unclear.

If Blade Runner marks the cerebral and gritty height of human-android relations, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence may mark the emotional height of the genre. Famously started by Stanley Kubrick and finished by Steven Spielberg, the film shows the inherent conflict between Kubrick’s heady sterility and Spielberg’s genuine sentimentality, and ends up being a film that I don’t quite love as a whole, but that has many individual parts of great power. David is an android child capable of emulating emotions, placed with a human family as a test of his abilities. When their own son is cured of a life-threatening disease and returns to their home, David’s place is threatened, and he is pushed away in favor of the real boy. But whether programmed into him or not, David’s love for his mother Monica is fierce and real, and the scene where she leaves him in the woods is heartrending. His Pinocchio-esque quest to become a real boy highlights the issues that arise when technology speeds along faster than humanity’s ability to accept it (and in fact, the technology isn’t quite good enough to fully simulate physical humanity even as it pulls toward emotional verisimilitude, as evidenced by David damaging himself trying to eat). There are real problems with David’s interactions with his family and his human brother, but destroying David as an android whose purpose has been served doesn’t seem like a real solution even to the family who no longer knows how to deal with him. The film forces us to examine our responses to something that looks human and most importantly FEELS human, asking us how long we can treat it as inhuman.

A bonus entry, in case you have a few days worth of marathoning in you instead of just a few hours. The reimagined Battlestar Galactica is arguably the best depiction ever of androids who seem to be human and sometimes actually think they are human. I say arguably because of Blade Runner, which has at least mythic superiority and the advantage of not having stretches of unrelated or uninspired sections. But when BSG is on, it’s really on, and the subtlety and depth with which its characters, both human and Cylon, are written can be incredible. BSG has two types of Cylons – the mechanical-looking Centurions, which are obviously robots, and the fully human-mimicking Significant Seven (so called by the show’s producers), which are synthetic flesh with digital DNA, and which exist in many cloned versions. (There are also the Final Five toward the end of the series, but they’re not necessary to the topic at hand.) Gradually, it becomes clear that these cloned versions, though they share exact physical forms and some personality traits, are not identical, since different versions of Six and Eight relate to humanity in vastly different ways, with specific models joining the humans rather than fighting against them. If Cylons can make decisions against their programming, and feel real emotions, and choose to sacrifice themselves for those they love, then it becomes increasingly difficult to think of them as disposable objects that we can use or abuse as we see fit. The season two episodes “Pegasus” and “Downloaded” respectively show the brutal torture of a Number Six that’s almost sickening to watch, and Boomer and Caprica-Six realizing that trying to destroy the humans is wrong – a moral compass that most androids, even in films like A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, don’t really have. I have to admit there were many times post-“Downloaded” that I was rooting for the Cylons rather than the humans. The Cylons in BSG become stand-ins for “otherness” – a narrative device that serves to interrogate that dominance and the ways the dominant interacts with the “other” – in short, the humanness of both the dominant and the other. And really, that’s what all these stories of humans and androids are all about. Though BSG as a show falters a bit here and there, it remains a masterful inquiry into humanity itself.