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The soul in science fiction films

What’s great about good science fiction movies is that at the same time that you are entertained and “teleported” to entirely different worlds, these make you contemplate—only if you choose so, that is—some of the most fascinating questions a human being can think of.

“The Matrix”, for instance, makes us wonder what “reality” really is, whether Eastern mystics got it right when they asserted that life is merely maya (illusion), the playful dance of supreme Lord Shiva.

A profound question recent sci-fi films have been playing around with is what “consciousness” and the feeling of “selfness” really are. Most organized religions consider these two phenomena as one, calling it the “soul”, which in Christianity is that wispy essence that purportedly floats to heaven or oozes down to hell when we die. (I’ve often wondered though if we are ever given the option to choose which outfit we’ll be wearing as souls.)

Movie poster of film “Oblivion”: He wasn’t alone.

Movie poster of film “Oblivion”: He wasn’t alone.

The classic cult movie “The Blade Runner” is the first to delve into the question.

If in the future mankind could create robots that are exact replicas of us, even implanting our memories into its circuits, would that “thing” have consciousness as we humans experience it? That is, would it have a “soul”?

At “The Blade Runner”’s start, these “replicants”, robots who rebel against their human masters, are villains the hero Deckard (played by Harrison Ford) is hunting down. At the end of the film though, one sympathizes with these replicants and we’re a bit angry why their human creators have programmed them to expire in such short period of years.

“The Blade Runner” was a flop when it was released in 1982, with reviewers saying that it was too slow-paced, too dark, and didn’t have the action of such sci-fi films that were released at the same time, like “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” and “E.T”.

My sense though is that it was a flop because it was too ahead of its time, that is, before the digital world emerged twenty years later that seemed to make within humanity’s reach the creation of computers with such power that these could do what human brains do. It was also two decades before the first cloning (of a sheep) was undertaken by scientists, raising the possibility that clones of you and me can be created, which substitute for robots.

In the decade of the 21st century, there were several sci-fi movies, among them “A.I. Artificial Intelligence,” “I, Robot,” even the Japanese “My Girlfriend is a Robot.” These films’ basic idea is that robots and clones will be as common as laptops in the not-too-distant future, with the same kind of consciousness and selves—souls—people have. Humanity though cruelly refuse to believe that they have souls, in the way just a century and a half ago a part of the United States believed that Blacks had no souls, so they could be treated as beasts of burden.

This movie genre in a way borrows the twist in M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Sixth Sense” that made it such a hit. There, after more than an hour of empathizing with the hero played by Bruce Willis, with the director successfully putting us in his shoes, we are shocked at the movie’s climax. He is really dead, a ghost who thought he was still with the living.

While “The Sixth Sense”’s twist scares us, those in its sci-fi counterparts leave us sad. In “Never Let Me Go” (based on Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel), we gradually realize that the characters with all their longings, emotions, and aspirations, and the narrator herself, are clones, who are “completed” (killed) after several “harvestings” of their vital organs, to be used by humans who paid for their creation.

In the 2009 British “Moon,” the main character Sam is excited that his three-year contract operating a mining base on the moon is ending, and that he will soon be seeing his pregnant wife Tess, who’s been sending him video messages from Earth. We are intrigued when he saves somebody in a damaged lunar module, who turns out to look and act exactly like him. Later, the two discover two dozen other Sams, kept under the lunar base, as spares ready to be turned on with the flick of a switch.

Sam is a robot (or a clone) and thinks he is human, with memories—such as those of his wife Tess—implanted into his artificial brain. Clones run the lunar base, programmed by their human creators into thinking they are humans. Probably because of some imperfection in the clone technology, a clone only has a three-year lifetime. To make up for this limitation, their creators tell each clone that he will be returning to earth after his three-year stint. He will be killed (disassembled for parts?) to be replaced by a new one, who will go through the same cycle.

The sci-fi genre exploring the phenomenon of a “soul” seems to have gone mainstream, going by the fact that top action stars Tom Cruise and Morgan Freeman are in “Oblivion” (shown in local theatres in April).

It’s about a post-apocalyptic world in 2077 after which, we are told by the narrator Jack Harper (Tom Cruise), humanity wins against invading aliens at the cost of the devastation of the Earth, which has become uninhabitable. The human survivors have moved to a mammoth huge Tetrahedral (Tet) space station orbiting the Earth as it prepares to migrate permanently to Saturn’s moon Titan. The Tet is powered by fusion energy drawn from the ocean by huge power stations.

Harper and his partner-lover Vika live on a high-tech spic-and-span base towering above the clouds, and their job, as Harper explains it, is to maintain the drones that hunt down the remaining aliens (called scavengers).

That is at least what Harper believes, and the movie is about how this reality is shattered.

After your typical Tom-Cruise type of action sequences, Harper discovers what really happened and is happening. The aliens have in fact conquered the earth although there remain pockets of human guerillas, who the drones Harper maintains are hunting down. The Tet is the alien space ship draining the earth’s oceans for its fusion energy, its reason for invading the planet.

The twist is that Harper and Vika are clones, and the originals are the astronauts who were first sent to check out the Tet as it approached the earth. For some reason, despite the aliens’ programming to limit his memory, the Harper clone retains some memory of the original’s life, especially of his wife Julia.

Not one but many clones were created based on the original Harper and Vika, all deployed in the many base stations around the globe. The Harper we’ve been watching is just Harper clone number 49, and at the end of the movie, after 49 sacrifices himself to destroy the Tet, Harper No. 52 appears at the film’s end to claim the original Harper’s wife Julia.

The intriguing question, posed in different ways in modern philosophy, is this: If every part of you, even your brain with the synapses it has formed, were replicated, would that exact replica also be “you” and with a soul?

That may seem to be just a mind-game puzzle.

The question behind that is the biggest question of both science and religion, and of our lives. Is the soul merely the result of hundreds of billions of electrical firings in this wondrous 2.8-pound organ we call the brain? And when those firings stop, is it just oblivion?

Indeed, the most unforgettable scene in “The Blade Runner” was Roy Batty, the head of the replicants (played by Rutger Hauer), saying moments before his death amidst a rainfall:

“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”. Maybe the replicant was expressing what we feel deep in our hearts.