As a dystopian look at our future, Ridley Scott‘s Blade Runner is primarily concerned with what really concerned us at the time it was made. The movie maps the worries of 1982 onto a then-distant 2019, extrapolating how contemporary fears might come to be realized in the future. While it hasn’t been completely on the mark with its predictions — we’re still a ways from flying cop cars, for example — the film is a thematic feast informed by the worries of the day, many of which we’re still psychologically consumed by.
Let’s see how well the anxieties behind Blade Runner have held up over the past 35 years:
Overseas Challenges to America
Blade Runner emerged from a very particular socio-political backdrop. The ’70s and ’80s saw an anti-Japanese attitude take hold in the US in response to the rise of corporations such as Nissan and Mitsubishi challenging its global economic position. Fears abounded of a Japanese threat to American dominance which were often expressed in overtly racist language: politicians like Representative John Dingell of Missouri blamed the decline of the US automotive industry on “those little yellow people,” indicating that there was some top-down agreement with the automotive workers pictured angrily smashing Japanese-brand cars just a year before Blade Runner’s release.
Anti-Japanese sentiment culminated in June 1982, just six days before cinemas first screened Scott’s movie, with perhaps the most tragically literal example of “Japan-bashin,” In Detroit, Vincent Chin, a Chinese American mistaken to be Japanese, was killed by two white Americans who had targeted him because of his race, blaming him for their redundancies in the automotive industry.
With its LA setting better resembling an East Asian metropolis like Tokyo or Beijing than La La Land’s eponymous city, then, Blade Runner gave tangible embodiment to contemporary concerns in some circles about the rise of Japan and China on the world stage. The patchwork language used by bystanders (an amalgamation of languages including Japanese, Mandarin, and Korean called “cityspeak”), food served at street food stalls, and even the distractive habit of Gaff (Edward James Olmos) in making origami all imply a dominance of East Asian influences in the US of the future. While this isn’t presented as an explicitly bad thing in the film, for those paranoid about America being economically and culturally challenged by Japan, it was the realization of their fears.
For most of us, though, the above probably doesn’t strike as scary in the slightest. This might be because we don’t tend to see international relations in terms of aggressive competition between nation-states anymore, instead preferring a globalization-inspired worldview (perhaps this is why jingoistic movies like 2012’s Red Dawn don’t tend to do so well these days).
There’s always one (or a select few), though, isn’t there? In a stunning display of loyalty to nostalgia, President Donald Trump is keeping alive the rhetoric of the ‘80s, having recently accused China of manipulation for their own economic gains at the expense of US jobs and profits, and he made similar comments about Japan. In a recent speech in Detroit, the basin of Japan-bashing in the ’80s, he repeated his “buy in America, hire in America” call to Japanese automotive manufacturers — a mantra eerily reminiscent of the slogan of the violent anti-Japanese protests in 1981, which reflected the sentiments of Vincent Chin’s murderers: “If you build in America, sell in America.”
Tyrell, the movie’s corporate villain, seems to subsume the role of government in 2019 America: its ziggurat-like headquarters dominates LA’s skyline like a city hall might have before, and it unseats NASA by making off-world living possible only through its signature commercial product, replicants, who act as slave labor in the colonization of other planets.
This might sound familiar to fans of HBO’s Westworld, a show centered on an AI-inhabited luxury holiday destination owned by the shady Delos Incorporated. There have been hints the show’s corporate entity that makes the androids might have motives for its army of pliable robots, namely that it could weaponize its legions of “hosts” for a sinister, power-grabbing cause.
As in Westworld, Blade Runner’s world is ruled through capitalism, and the film is keen to stress its heavy price: inescapable consumerism and economic disparity between classes. Advertisements glare from building faces and blare out from unseen speakers, subjecting passers-by to a constant stream of commercials. On the gloomy streets, they provide the main lighting, like suns come to lift the city’s inhabitants out of their imposed darkness. There is literally no escaping them — on Earth, at least. The film suggests that, as in Black Mirror’s “Fifteen Million Merits” episode, only those who can afford to give in to the ads’ hard-selling (the better-off who have emigrated to off-world colonies) are free to live life uninterrupted, while everyone else must endure constant 15-second intervals as they go about their business.
Here, both Blade Runner and Black Mirror tap into trends we’re already familiar with: how many times have we been put on hold by in-app ads, promising an interruption-free life if we just cough up for the full (read: paid) version? So many YouTube videos and news articles make you sit through commercial prologues before you get to the good stuff, and even then, some come with virtual obstacle courses as you try to find the X to close those infuriating auto-expanding ads. The film hit a nerve here, and judging by the trailer for the sequel, Blade Runner 2049, it looks like the filmmakers think it’s still a point worth pursuing.
While the Toymaker (William Sanderson) lives alone in a dilapidated five-story building — the famously elegant Bradbury Building, no less — other inhabitants of the city, including Harrison Ford’s blade runner, Deckard, are piled high and packed like sardines into behemoth buildings, not so much skyscrapers as heaven-scrapers with their 90-plus floors of apartments.
Given Eldon Tyrell’s (Joe Turkel) luxurious and lofty dwellings (and the fact that the Toymaker has to step past a sea of garbage to get to his front door) we can assume the higher up you live, the better off you are, since the height takes you that much further away from the trash-strewn streets.
This partly explains why there’s so much uninhabited space in the Toymaker’s building, but there is another reason, too. Although never visualized, the off-world colonies seem to be the site of flight for the well-off from all that overcrowding and urban decay, which would be why previously in-demand architectural beauties like the Bradbury are now open for occupancy. That there are so few white humans visible in 2019’s LA — save for Deckard, his boss, and a few others, most white characters are replicants — suggests that the deep class divide implied in the movie is racialized in much the same way as the real-life phenomenon of white flight is.
These days, white flight has generally been on the decline in the US and the UK, and suburbs are gradually growing more diverse, but this reversal has come slowly, meaning that the film’s image of racialized economic disparity is arguably just as recognizable to audiences in 2017 as it was 35 years ago (see Elysium, Snowpiercer, and The Hunger Games for recent iterations of Blade Runner’s class-stratified future).
Although the final scenes show us a glimpse of a natural environment in which the sun shines and plants grow outside the city, Blade Runner’s LA is an otherworldly sight in which the only living things are the people. There’s as much chance of a drought in Scott’s version of the city as there is a palm tree, too. The movie’s metropolis never seems to see the sun under its perpetual shroud of foggy night and a constant onslaught of acid rain. Perhaps the best singular emblem of this monumental change is the prevalence of umbrellas in the film — an unusual sight in Southern California — which are here fitted with glowstick handles to help light their owners’ way through the dark damp streets.
Visually, the film presents an extraordinary image: a famously sun-soaked and painfully dry city like LA now drenched in drizzle, with puddles steaming on every street. The juxtaposition is intended to be symbolic, showing the devastating, transformative power of pollution in changing climates. It’s on the mark about smog: SoCal has seen its pollution-induced haze problem grow to be the biggest in the US. But we know now, of course, that the film’s prophecy of rainfall wasn’t quite so accurate: LA is due to get hotter and drier, rather than wetter, in the future.
But Blade Runner is still a warning of sorts, an alarming glimpse into the crystal ball of cinema that has urged us to consider the consequences of our resource-guzzling, toxin-pumping actions. It’s a message that has been reiterated elsewhere — Mad Max: Fury Road, Snowpiercer, and the German feature Hell are some examples — and seems to be recognized in Blade Runner’s upcoming sequel, the trailer for which features striking images of Ryan Gosling’s character walking through dusty, parched swathes of orange desert reminiscent of George Miller’s vision of a post-apocalyptic Australia.
Another resident feature of California, its rich wildlife, is also conspicuously absent in Blade Runner. In the LA of 2019, animals are scarce, presumably because their natural habitats are, too. So real pets are a luxury only available to the well-off, while everyone else makes do with lab-bred synthetic creatures for comfort. Blade Runner’s world is universally recognizable here: although we’re still far-off from being the only living species on the planet, we are very familiar with the devastating impact of climate change on the lives of polar bears and crucial ecosystems like the Great Barrier Reef.
In the film’s real-life setting of California, especially, hundreds of native species of plants and animals are at risk from the climate change-induced decimation of habitats and evaporation of drought-ravaged water supplies. Movies like Over the Hedge have since reiterated Blade Runner’s tacit SOS call for our environment, while the critical acclaim of documentaries Racing Extinction, Virunga, and Chasing Ice has proved how much more seriously we’ve come to take these issues since 1982.
AI and its Ethics
Blade Runner explores the possibility that humans’ technological progress in creating AI could ultimately strip us of our humanity. Tyrell’s replicants come in various models — combative (Zhora), sexual (Pris), and those designed to perform the labor required in off-world colonization — but the fact that they look, speak, and act like real people throws into light the cruelty of their exploitation by the Tyrell Corporation and its clients.
Scott’s film encourages us to be sympathetic to the struggle of Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) and his band of renegade replicants in fighting for their human(oid) rights, couching it in the language of emancipation: at one point, Roy says, “Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it? That’s what it is to be a slave.” The disdain with which they’re treated is presented as callousness on the part of Tyrell, who gives them a taste of precious life and near-sentience before sadistically consigning them to an early expiration date.
This theme also receives attention in Westworld, one of the most nuanced fictional examinations of the ethical implications of AI yet. The show explores the burgeoning consciousness of the android “hosts” in relation to their exploitation as objects of entertainment. The biological truth of the “hosts” leads the eponymous park’s guests to treat them like disposable playthings to be abused and destroyed as they wish, but, as in Blade Runner, the terrible visual gruesomeness of their treatment encourages audiences to doubt the humanity of the real humans. Which are the better people, the androids who are (supposedly) unable to feel empathy or the humans who choose not to? These are prudent questions that still keep us up at night, 35 years after Blade Runner introduced them to the public.
Sexual relationships between humans and AI are spotlighted in both Westworld and Blade Runner, too, proving it’s a theme we’re still very much interested in. When humans can create near-human androids, the border between the two becomes a site of profound curiosity, and since romantic relationships are the natural nexus between the two, being the primary site of intersection for physical and emotional bonds, it’s natural they would be addressed in a film like Blade Runner. The movie leads us towards thinking that, in matters of the heart, the Voight-Kampff exam becomes ineffective. The real test is less scientific than it is emotional: is there something going on beyond the circuit board? Can a human heart be fooled into loving an android? Are they themselves capable of loving? Roy and Pris’s affectionate relationship, and the family-like bonds between the group of rebels, certainly suggests so.
Unfortunately, by the time Blade Runner hits the crux of the human-android love/sex issue, it has botched its attempts to grapple with it intelligently. When replicant Rachael (Sean Young) resists Deckard’s advances, he physically blocks her from leaving, at which point he forces her to kiss him, and it’s implied that they have sex. Some have argued that Rachel’s resistance is drawn from inner conflict generated by Deckard having just revealed to her that she is a replicant, rather than a human as she had previously believed. There isn’t really much textual evidence for this argument, though, and it seems like a reach to avoid acknowledging the film’s thorny treatment of sex and consent. While Blade Runner’s treatment of the subject is awkward, to say the least, it hasn’t hindered our deepening interest in human-AI relationships. As we grow ever closer to realizing science fiction’s AI (wet) dreams, more art has explored the ethical topics thrown up in Scott’s movie.
Ex Machina and the Stepford Wives remake devote screen time to the idea of what Deckard’s boss dubs the “basic pleasure model,” sexually functional, genetically-engineered androids designed in the image of the “perfect” woman. The Stepford husbands seek to make their wives simply subservient to them (also seen with Cherry 2000’s “gynoids”), while Ex Machina’s Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac) programs his Ava (Alicia Vikander) to have a little more complexity in her personality. Both are ultimately interested in the sexual utility of the androids, though, rendering these female characters literal sex objects and exposing the seedier side of android creation.
There are, however, glimmers of change in our general approach towards AI these days. Blade Runner depicts a 2019 world that is much more technologically advanced than the reality of its release year, which at the time made the dichotomy between present and future so staggering. But now, when we’re already so much closer to the movie’s vision of the future, some of the initial shock factor is lost. The positive reception we give to Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, and Google’s unnamed Assistant plus films like Her suggest that we’re less alarmist about AI now. That movie gives us a rare image of a non-dystopian world in which we co-exist relatively happily with AI and even have non-abusive relationships with them, revealing that we’re no longer as instinctively spooked by the idea of living side-by-side with non-human humanoids.
Her is strikingly devoid of themes central to Blade Runner, Westworld, and Ex Machina, which addresses fears that AI could one day turn against their makers, a la the iconic HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The only danger Her‘s Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) presents is as a heartbreaker. The distressing consequences are, however, still less grave than the apocalypse hinted at in dystopian sci-fi.
In 1982, Blade Runner gave voice to the concerns of its era, and many of these have persisted. The tension between humanity and nature on display in the film has only mushroomed in the last 35 years, and environmental issues are now a concrete fixture in public consciousness. That it gets it wrong on a couple of counts isn’t really significant, because in its general depiction of a meteorologically transformed world, it taps into our enduring and ever-growing anxiety about climate change and the cross-species devastation it causes. While Scott’s vision of a globalized LA probably worries fewer people today than it did upon its release, the planet is still grappling with the same ethical concerns about the future of AI. However, there’s more room for positivity here, since we seem to have gotten the memo from the plethora of dystopian AI films released since 1982.