The transformation of the human in Blade Runner and The Matrix
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a dystopia as an “imaginary place where everything is as bad as possible” (“Dystopia” 302). For this kind of state to remain in place, its inhabitants must be ignorant of how bad everything is and thus humans living in dystopias must be blind to better ways of living. Since humans are the most intellectually advanced species on the planet they are the most-equipped of any, and it is in their nature, to question their existence. If one was told of other people who had stopped questioning any part of their daily lives that person would think of such people as machine-like. Therefore it is fitting that two of the best dystopian visions in film, Blade Runner and The Matrix, document the transformation of the human into what a voice-over ad in the former calls a “custom-tailored, genetically-engineered, humanoid Replicant designed especially for your need [..,]” and Morpheus in the latter refers to as “a slave […] born into bondage, born into a prison that you cannot smell or taste or touch. A prison for your mind.” Both films are ostensibly about the war between humans and machines, albeit with different chronologies. Blade Runner, set years from now in 2019, occurs at the onset of this epic battle, a few years after The Tyrell Corporation created Replicants. In response to “a bloody mutiny,” they “were declared illegal on earth- under penalty of death.” The Matrix, in stark contrast, takes place “closer to 2199 [..,] I can’t tell you exactly what year it is because we honestly don’t know [..,]” as Morpheus tells Neo in one of their many explanatory conversations. As shocking as it is to think that humans would not know what year they are living in, this is not nearly as earth-shakingly fearsome as the fact that Neo soon learns that the machines have won the war a long time before the film begins. It is evident that these films are only partly about these stories because they are really about their respective protagonists’ slow realization of their machine-like status, the state of life they are living in, and finally their subsequent re-transformation into human-like characters the viewer can relate to and learn from.
Each film chronicles its characters’ progress in differing ways. Blade Runner’s hero, Deckard, begins the story as a special policeman named after the film’s title whose mandate is solely to “shoot to kill, upon discretion, any trespassing Replicant.” What is especially compelling about the film is the viewer, in a process experienced by the protagonist in turn, progressively learns that Deckard is a Replicant himself. This process is paralleled by the Replicants’ progressively and exclusively human behavior, emotions, and thoughts, such as having compassion and love for one’s fellow human being. This manner stands in comparison to that of the film’s “human” characters, who communicate at an impersonal level and are racist, sadistic and condescending among many other flaws. By contrast, in The Matrix, the hero progresses from Thomas A. Anderson, an unblissfully ignorant, anonymous cubicle worker, to the far more skeptical computer-hacker personality of Neo. As Neo, he eventually learns that he is also godlike, “the One” to a motley crew of rebels. The rebels manifest human qualities towards Neo, such as compassion and love, in teaching him what “the Matrix” is and how to break its rules, with the exception of Cypher. Cypher exhibits character traits of the sadistic Agents, condescending machines who are the primary enforcers of the dystopia, and his differences from his peers echo those of Agent Smith, who certainly acts like a machine much of the time, but shows disarmingly human honesty in his interrogations of Neo and then Morpheus.
Deckard, in being reluctantly taken out of semi-retirement to chase Replicants, and rudely having his lunch interrupted as Gaff arrests him, learns a valuable lesson, as does the viewer, in humans’ lack of friendly communication. Bryant tells Deckard he had him arrested because, as he says, “You wouldn’t have come if I just asked you to.” Moreover, Bryant showcases his racist and elitist views, referring to the Replicants as “skin-jobs,” which reminds one of epithets such as “kike,” etc., and later shows his disdain for others: “If you’re not cop, you’re little people.” As Deckard makes his disgust for his new mission known, Gaff’s only reply is non-verbal, impersonal, and quite sinister; he makes an origami chicken as a sign of Deckard’s cowardice. Furthermore, as Bryant explains Deckard’s assignment to him in detail, he absent-mindedly lists all of the emotions he expects humans to have: “[…] hate, love, fear, anger, envy.” One will note that only love would qualify as a positive emotion among those named, and that after seemingly hunting Replicants for years previously it is preposterous that Deckard would have to again be explained what Replicants were designed to be. Since Replicants have memories implanted in them, it stands to reason that Deckard may not remember what Replicants are all about because he is one and ergo his memories are someone else’s.
Viewers of The Matrix, with Neo in his turn, learn that the dystopia is ruled by police intimidation and a lack of friendly conversation. Immediately after the Agents are introduced, they badger, ironically, a human policeman. That said, the police are not exactly angels either, as they require five men to arrest Trinity, whose great crime consists of using a computer. Hence, communication in The Matrix is terse and paranoid, because it is outlawed. The agents enter the scene and the officer called is already dismayed: “Lieutenant. Oh, shit. Lieutenant, you were given specific orders. Hey, I’m just doing my job. You give me that ‘juris-my-dick-tion’ crap, you can cram it up your ass. The orders were for your protection. I think we can handle one little girl.” Neo, after he is introduced, meets some people who act friendly; he sells them what seems like the drugs of the time, in diskette fashion. Yet we learn that they are slaves to a different kind of Matrix: the Matrix of narcotics. When the buyer calls Neo “my savior, […] My own personal Jesus Christ […] it becomes evident religion is outlawed as well in this dystopia, and sadly mescaline becomes their “only way to fly.” It is only after Neo meets those who are illegals in society that he encounters real human conversation and feeling, learning to soar without having to intoxicate himself. He learns to free his mind rather than his body.
Accordingly, it is only after Deckard is sent to examine a Replicant whom he will eventually be ordered to kill, Rachael, that he encounters someone he can be comfortable with. While Rachael wears clothing and sports a hairstyle that are both desexualizing, submits to an outrageously invasive questionnaire, which is “designed to provoke an emotional response” and points a camera right into her eye in pitch-black darkness, her basic humanity shines through. She challenges Deckard on the cruelty of his job; killing people solely based on the results of a test, when she asks, “Have you ever retired a human by mistake?” While taking the test, she does something no other Replicant in the narrative does, something that is exclusively human: she smokes a cigarette. In answering a question that she believes tests her more on whether she is a lesbian than a Replicant, her response is a touching, “I should be enough for him.” Finally, the contrast between Replicant and human, how the former act more like the latter and vice-versa, is fully tested as Deckard meets the creator of the Replicants, Eldon Tyrell, who explains his vision in scientific terms, with no pretensions to a greater moral purpose. He seems to agree with the Blade Runner point of view that empathy can be measured in a test, via “fluctuation of the pupil” and “involuntary dilation of the iris.” Empathy, by definition “the psychological power of projecting one’s personality into (and so fully comprehending) object of contemplation” is a voluntary thing, which could not be tested in any right-thinking human being (“Empathy” 315). Moreover, after Tyrell dismisses Rachael, Deckard shows compassion for her predicament, as well as his, unknowingly, and Tyrell’s response can only be classified as coldly scientific;
How can it not know what it is? […] Rachael is an experiment. Nothing more. We began to recognize in them… a strange obsession…If we gift them with a past, we create a cushion or a pillow for their emotions and consequently we can control them better. Memories. You’re talking about memories!
It is evident that Rachael professes more humane sentiment than her creator, which only adds to Deckard’s growing acknowledgement of the truth. His shocked reaction suggests that, like Rachael, he does not yet know he is a Replicant but is beginning to suspect.
Neo cannot believe he is “the One” after Morpheus has told him so repeatedly, but only after the rest of the ship’s crew does so. While Tank puts Neo under further pressure to become who the prophecy related by being the first besides Morpheus to discuss his godlike status and what it means to the rebels, he also describes an atmosphere of teamwork and nurturing, which reassures Neo that he will have help in fighting the war. Shortly after, Neo is again shown the stark differences between this form of warm human interaction, and violent relations with non-human machines. Morpheus says, “The Matrix is a system, Neo. That system is our enemy. But when you’re inside, you look around, what do you see? […] The very minds of the people we are trying to save […].” This teaches Neo that the rebels are trying to set people free from a prison they do not know they are in, which can be classified as a nobly human goal, but shortly after the price of attempting this becomes evident in a world where Neo and those who have become his friends have been cast as criminals. Morpheus continues: “[…] but until we do, these people are still a part of that system, and that makes them our enemy. You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged, and many of them are so inert, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it […].” Finally, Morpheus tells Neo the grim truth about fighting the war yet shows immense belief in Neo’s abilities. Neo continues to doubt, but the valuable lesson eventually sticks: the support of others is what humans need to reach their fullest potential. Morpheus relates:
[…] anyone we haven’t unplugged is potentially an agent […] they are the gatekeepers. They are guarding all the doors, they are holding all the keys, which means that sooner or later, someone is going to have to fight them […] I won’t lie to you, Neo. Every single man or woman who has stood their ground, everyone who has fought an agent has died, but where they have failed, you will succeed. Why? […] their strength and their speed are still based in a world that is built on rules, because of that, they will never be as strong or as fast as you can be. What are you trying to tell me, that I can dodge bullets? No, Neo. I’m trying to tell you that when you’re ready, you won’t have to.
Deckard’s progression into learning not only that he is a Replicant, but more importantly, that Replicants deserve to live in peace due to their having real human thoughts and emotions, is complete after he battles Roy Batty. Roy repeatedly challenges Deckard to act like he is supposed to: the human, not only morally superior to the machine, but setting a good example for it. Instead it is Roy teaching Deckard a lesson as he yells: “Not very sporting to fire on an unarmed opponent. I thought you were supposed to be good. Aren’t you the good man?” Later he gives Deckard a free shot at him with a pipe, screaming “Six… Seven! Go to hell or go to heaven!” The lesson here evidently is the maxim “live and let live,” as Roy tells Deckard not to hunt him down if Deckard wants to go to heaven. The Blade Runner subsequently tries to run away, not wanting to kill or be killed but rather to go home to his love, Rachael. Roy’s most telling lessons are his forgiveness of Deckard’s having killed two of his best friends, finally saving Deckard from certain death, and his moving elegy for himself in his final moments. Roy says: “I’ve… seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those… moments will be lost… in time… like tears… in the rain. Time… to die.” It is only after Roy dies in his presence that Deckard shows eye-opening understanding of his being a Replicant, and it is only after Roy shows forgiveness, along with self-awareness at the time of death, two profoundly human traits which are nonetheless difficult to exercise, that the viewer can truly say that Replicants act more humanely than the humans do in Blade Runner.
This final statement does not hold in The Matrix, as the few humans in the narrative are morally superior to the machines that created many of them, with the exceptions of the human Cypher and the machine agent Smith. Neo believes he is “the One” only after sacrificing his life for the life of the biggest catalyst in his education: his mentor Morpheus. It is Cypher through his treachery who puts Neo in the position to fulfill his promise. By comparison,when Cypher defines his greatest pleasure he shows himself to be as intellectually shallow as any machine. Cypher tells Smith, “After nine years, you know what I realize? Ignorance is bliss […] I don’t want to remember nothing. Nothing. You understand? And I want to be rich. You know, someone important?” In addition to his championing his own future ignorance, by denying his own memories Cypher denies his ever having had a human existence and thus denies ever having done anything worthwhile. Later, to finalize his own fall from awareness, he criticizes those who have led worthwhile lives and continue to do so, his former comrades-in-rebellion, and kills two of them in a cowardly, inhumane manner. Cypher says of Morpheus: “He lied to us, Trinity. He tricked us! If you would have told us the truth, we would have told you to shove that red pill right up your ass! […] All I do is what he tells me to do […] I disagree, Trinity. I think the Matrix can be more real than this world. All I do is pull the plug here, but there, you have to watch Apoc die.”
It is evident that Morpheus leads people who love him and are loyal, two innately human qualities that Cypher lacks, and leads by example rather than edict. Morpheus’ lessons are not meant to be understood as proofs of his superiority but rather as his manner of getting one to recognize one’s own mental superiority over a world that is trying to imprison one’s mind. What is finally most compelling about Cypher’s beliefs is how he seems to prefer being a machine, and how the unlikeliest of machines, the condescending Agent Smith, admits to Morpheus his preference for being freed from his own creation. Smith says, “I’m going to be honest with you [..,]” as he takes off his glasses, being the first agent to do so and therefore knowing of the human belief that the eyes are the window to the soul, and making eye contact represents being truthful. This is surprising of Smith on its own, but his integrity becomes even more startling as he continues; “I… hate this place… this zoo, this prison, this reality, whatever you want to call it, I can’t stand it any longer […] I must get out of here, I must get free, and in this mind is the key, my key.” The ability to rhyme in speech is distinctively human, but most of all Smith’s candor suggests he would not look strange in swapping places with Cypher. Like Neo and his fellow crew of the Nebuchadnezzar, as well as Deckard and the other Replicants in Blade Runner, Agent Smith learns what it means to be human in worlds where the term has been corrupted, where the antithesis of humanity, ignorance, has transformed the human into someone disturbingly unrecognizable.
Blade Runner- The Director’s Cut. Dir. Ridley Scott. DVD. Warner Home Video, 1997.
“Dystopia.” Oxford 302.
“Empathy.” Oxford 315.
The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English. 7th ed. 1989.
The Matrix Special Edition. Dirs. Andy Wachowski, Larry Wachowski. DVD. Warner Home Video, 1999.