'Blade Runner,' 'Westworld' test our empathy

Why 'Blade Runner' is more relevant today
Why 'Blade Runner' is more relevant today

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Why 'Blade Runner' is more relevant today 03:02

(CNN)The following contains major spoilers about "Blade Runner 2049."

Like HBO's "Westworld," "Blade Runner 2049" tinkered with the DNA of the original movie in reimagining it for the 21st century. In both, the formula includes asking an audience to empathize with artificial intelligence, at a time when such compassion -- even toward fellow citizens with opposing viewpoints -- is often in short supply.
"Westworld" toyed with expectations by essentially flipping the script. Set in an elaborate amusement park for adults, the series departed from Michael Crichton's original -- where the robots went wild and began killing guests -- to probe the dawning sentience of those creations. Suddenly, the people mistreating them were the bad guys, even if the androids could be rebooted after each sordid encounter.
"Blade Runner" adopts a similar approach. Its central character, K, played by Ryan Gosling, is a replicant, one charged with hunting down his misbehaving brethren.
    Ridley Scott's first film also showed sympathy for these constructs, and there's still debate about the true nature of Harrison Ford's character. In the new plot, K hopes that he might be special in a way that evokes "Pinocchio," as did another movie about a not-quite-real boy, Steven Spielberg's "A.I."
    Clearly, this is in the zeitgeist right now. Instead of robots running amok, they become a downtrodden class, meant to engender sympathy, while the worst of the humans are the real monsters.
    The same tension provides a foundation for the AMC series "Humans," which deals with robots who have more depth and feelings than the people that employ them as synthetic servants. Movies like "Ex Machina" and "Her" have also explored the potentially complicated nature of human-machine relationships.
    Variations on these questions have long been a source of fascination, dating back to science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov and memorable episodes of "The Twilight Zone."
    In the context of big-budget entertainment, though, this dynamic can create dramatic challenges, beginning with the fact that the robots don't always face jeopardy in the same way humans do.
    Ascertaining how and what they feel, especially at first, can make it harder to identify with them. Should we be equally moved when a robot dies, especially when (in some of these productions) it can be easily fixed and reanimated?
    The ethical and intellectual issues raised -- including whether such creations possess what we'd think of as a soul -- are provocative, coming at a moment when technology has become so inextricably woven into our lives. Modern breakthroughs make "Westworld" or "Blade Runner" seem considerably closer than they did in 1973 and '82, respectively, advancing from toasters to phones that talk to us in soothing tones.
    Most critics had no problem accepting "Blade Runner 2049's" concept based on the abundance of rave reviews (although the movie experienced a softer-than-expected box-office reception). This one, however, found that it initially blunted the emotional impact, just as it made "Westworld" harder to get into as its rules were being set in the early going.
    Science fiction is nothing if not aspirational, which explains the hopeful spirit that allows us to see through a robot's eyes. Yet by framing the story in this fashion these projects also raise the hurdle that must be cleared to make us care about the characters, even when those eyes are as piercing as Gosling's.