Sunday, October 03, 2004

Blade Runner vs. 2001

I am now in a position to answer for myself the question I posed last week: whether Blade Runner or 2001: A Space Odyssey is, from the Christian point of view, the better film. On Monday night I was in the library and a copy of Blade Runner on the shelf caught my eye, so I took it home, having decided that I was probably jaded enough now to handle whatever level of violence it might contain.

The answer is that Blade Runner is clearly more compatible with a Christian view of things than 2001. There really isn’t much contest. I might still say that 2001 is my favorite science-fiction film, but as I said last week my preference in that genre leans toward visions of amazing (and in effect magical) technological progress and grand cosmic vistas; I like it for its appeal to my sense of wonder. But Blade Runner transcends the genre, and while the evolutionary fantasy of 2001 is entertaining, Blade Runner has much more of truth to say about life as it really is.

The future as depicted in 2001 is a pretty antiseptic affair, and I’m not the first to point out that the film is fundamentally cold. There is very little of real human nature to be seen in it, and the characters are the sort of conventional place-holders—scientists and military men—familiar to anyone who’s read much science fiction, especially that written before the late ‘60s or so. The plot concerns the unfolding of the mystery of the monoliths (I am assuming you have seen the film) which seem to have guided human evolution, and the specific people portrayed are incidental. (Only in the struggle between Dave, the astronaut, and HAL, the shipboard computer, do we get much sense of any individual. Some say the acting here is flat and the scene without tension, but I’ve always seen it as an excellent portrayal of a man totally, unimaginably alone and concentrating intensely, with all the self-discipline he can muster, on solving the problem that is threatening to kill him as it has killed the rest of the crew.) For the most part, unless you are willing to entertain seriously Arthur C. Clarke’s conjecture that a wise and mighty alien civilization is at work behind the scenes in the development of humanity, the plot is just a vehicle for spectacle.

There is, so to speak, no place to stand for Christianity in 2001. Religion simply has no place here. It seems to have vanished, as so many people under the sway of scientific materialism assume it is destined to do. There are only physical facts. Technological man has produced a clean, orderly, rational world ready for the next evolutionary step, soon to be revealed by the unseen aliens, who in effect occupy the place of God.

The world of Blade Runner, on the other hand, has been all but ruined by technology in the hands of the malformed human will; it is a dark, dirty, post-nuclear-war world. From the point of view of technical film-making it’s at least as well done as 2001. I am not going to summarize the plot—most people who would be interested have either seen it or should do so—but in a nutshell it concerns a policeman whose job it is to hunt down renegade androids who can be distinguished from humans only by elaborate and subtle tests. The story is always on the verge of falling into standard Hollywood patterns: of course the policeman is going to fall in love with a beautiful female android, and of course there is going to be a final hand-to-hand (and hardly believable) fight with a killer android. I suppose, in fact, that it’s accurate to say that it does fall into these patterns, but it doesn’t stay there, and in the end it transcends them as it transcends the science fiction genre.

What does it have to do with Christianity? Well, nothing directly. But although there is no sign of religion in the world of Blade Runner, it would not be out of place, as it would be in 2001. One can easily imagine any number of the characters, including the androids, at worship. They certainly have the essential intuition without which Christianity has no purchase in a soul: that they and their world are a mess and in need of help. (Yes, the human world of 2001 is dependent upon the gifts of the aliens, but this is not so much a rescue from sin as the working out of a logical puzzle: how did we get so smart?) And there are at least two thematic elements which share certain aspects of the Christian vision.

First is the question of the humanity of the androids. It is clear that they are—the newest models, at any rate, which are the subject of the story—in every relevant respect human, although perhaps even more flawed in some ways than the rest of us. Never mind the technological and philosophical questions of whether human beings could ever build human beings—I myself do not think it possible, but, taking it for granted as an element of the plot, the clear implication of the film is precisely the same point that John Paul II has made over and over again: to treat human beings as objects is deeply wrong.

The second element emerges fully only in the surprising last few minutes of the film. I’ll say only that it involves gestures of love, mercy, and a kind of simple human solidarity in the face of mortality that were for me deeply moving. I don’t usually admit to this sort thing, but I had tears in my eyes at the end of Blade Runner. I doubt very much that anyone was ever made to weep—whether for joy, sorrow, or beauty—by 2001.