Blade Runner envisioned a future of electric dreams, flying cars and ‘more human than human’ androids. As we enter the monsoon, neon metropolis, we’re shown a timestamp: ‘November 2019.’
Ridley Scott’s 1982 film, based on Philip K Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, planted seeds that would blossom throughout sci-fi cinema.
Indisputably seminal, the hunter vs hunted morality tale has finally aligned with time, no longer a fictional future. So, just how far is our reality from sea-beams glittering in the dark near the Tannhauser gate?
We’re thrown into Los Angeles on a cloud, floating above a dimly-lit cityscape. As fires boom indiscriminately and Vangelis’s angelic electronica echoes over the vista, 2019’s cities are presented as perma-cloudy, dark and soggy.
Rain is always pouring in this LA, with the pitter-patter of droplets permeating through every windowed locale and vehicle. The future beyond 2020 is set for more erratic temperatures, more extreme weather – was Blade Runner a prescient visage of our climate-changing destiny?
Yes, and no. Between May 2018 and April this year, the US saw huge precipitation levels, topping 36 inches over a 12-month period for the first time in more than 120 years of record-keeping. According to The Washington Post, drought now only affects around 2% of the country, the smallest amount since the government started monitoring in 2000.
Even the permanent darkness could be a possibility over the coming decades, as smog and greenhouse gasses flood the air. Therefore, Blade Runner‘s drenched city is oddly relevant, considering it was unintentional.
Commenting on the flux of rain in Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner, director Ridley Scott explains:
It does help lend a realistic quality to the story, yes. But really, a lot of the reason we finally settled on all that rain and night shooting was to hide the sets. I was really paranoid that audiences would notice we were shooting on a back lot.
Through the drizzle, flying cars roam the skies. Not the kind of accelerated airborne highway à la Back to the Future. Rather, they’re reserved for the high-class and authority figures: aristocrats, police officers and Blade Runners alike.
Tesla’s new cyberpunk Cybertruck may be reminiscent of Scott’s sci-fi ideas, but we’re not quite there yet. That’s not to say flying cars aren’t in development: for example, there’s the Terrafugia Transition, a body-kit mishmash of planes and cars. However, logistically, flying vehicles aren’t in the pipeline for mass ownership.
Ian Constance, chief executive of the Advanced Propulsion Centre, told euronews:
At present, the idea of a flying car is very much a rich man’s toy and will be built in tiny numbers. I think the real future of this type of vehicle lies in pay-per-use as a taxi and that means testing methods will have to account for both road and air use. That brings many conflicts as it requires a large amount of energy to get a vehicle airborne.
Introducing Uber Air: the taxis of the future. The empirical transport company is set to trial air travel next year, using vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) turboprop planes – however, it’s only coming to relatively open, quiet cities like Dubai. Harrier jet-esque transport is where we’re headed in that regard, but don’t keep an eye out for the LAPD flying around just yet.
One area Blade Runner never caught up to is home automation – we’re well ahead of the curve on that one. In the film, Deckard (Harrison Ford) enters the elevator of his building via a code and vocal command, aka ‘voice print identification’. Then, when he gets to his front door, he users a smartcard to actually enter his home.
At the time of the film’s release, smartcards had only entered the world just over a decade prior thanks to Norwegian inventor Tor Sørnes. Nowadays, it’s rare to check in to a hotel without being given one – the prediction of smartcard ubiquity was fair, but rudimentary.
Automation is the name of the game, with the ‘smart’ prefix being added to just about anything, whether it’s a plug, light or thermostat. While they’re not as common as everyday keys, wireless smart locks – opened via the signal on your phone or a swipe of the finger – are a growing market looking to reinvent ancient technology (not to mention the development of face identification across tablets and phones).
With the advent of devices like the Amazon Echo, Google Home Hub and Apple Home Kit, manual actions are out – your voice is your greatest tool, with the ability to control your living room from the comfort of your sofa.
One moment in the film blends reality and the future seamlessly. To decipher clues hidden in photographs, Deckard puts them through an Esper machine. By using his voice to target coordinates of images, he’s able to enhance them to insane degrees without losing any of the clarity.
While his use of vocal command to control the system is true of today, the Esper machine is well beyond our time, regardless of how advanced Photoshop is (some AI specialists have found a way to create 3D details from a 2D source image, but it’s an incredibly niche privilege reserved to the most basic of shapes, rather than interior designs and the like).
Also on photos, there’s a jarring lack of social media – no Facebook, no Twitter and importantly, no Instagram. Therefore, Deckard deals in Polaroids, collecting them as his investigation heats up. As cool and hip as that is, today, realistically, police would track a suspect’s movements through their online footprint.
In terms of communication, there’s a delightful lack of iPhones. Like many ‘futuristic’ movies, the filmmaking behind the production fantasises about the possibilities, yet they don’t have the means to make them a reality. That’s why screens in old movies, no matter the radical functions behind them (such as the Esper), look pungently retro – they didn’t have 4K, ultra-HD, 1080p luxury on-hand.
In the film, to contact Rachel, Deckard uses a video phone booth for the cool price of just over a dollar. While video-calling has been around since the 1920s (formerly, corporate bigwigs and government officials would use a combined TV signal and phone line), it wasn’t until Skype entered the scene in 2003 it became the norm.
Now, with the likes of Facetime, WhatsApp and Snapchat, chatting via video isn’t even a privilege – it’s so beyond ordinary it’s boring.
The imagery of Blade Runner is one of its most powerful takeaways: the sprawling city, the trench-coats, the ethereal landscapes. Yet, it’s the neon-piercing advertising emblazoned across skyscrapers, blinking and smiling at you, that really stick.
Gigantic electronic billboards became the norm in the years following the film’s release, and while the brands themselves haven’t aged well over the past three decades (Pan Am has long been out of business and Atari is a shadow of the gaming titan it was), its vision of corporations’ looming influence on the public is quietly haunting.
While today’s advertising is much sneakier, worming its way through your mental digestion through web cookies (one day you look up a product, the next it’s appearing all over sites you visit), it’s still a sad indicator Blade Runner isn’t that outlandish.
Michi Trota, media critic and non-fiction editor of the science-fiction periodical, Uncanny Magazine, told the BBC:
It’s disappointing, to say the least, that what Blade Runner predicted accurately is a dystopian landscape shaped by corporate influence and interests, mass industrialisation’s detrimental effect on the environment, the police state, and the whims of the rich and powerful resulting in chaos and violence, suffered by the socially marginalised.
‘Do androids dream?’ is a question posed throughout Blade Runner and its sequel. It’s a profoundly sweet question – but its ethical implications echo long after the credits roll.
The story revolves around Deckard hunting down a group of rogue Replicants – groundbreaking, human-like androids designed for physical labour whose intelligence rises above their ‘purpose’.
The film’s opening scrawl explains:
Early in the 21st century, the Tyrell Corporation advanced robot evolution into the NEXUS phase – a being virtually identical to a human – known as a Replicant. The NEXUS 6 Replicants were superior in strength and agility, and at least equal in intelligence, to the genetic engineers who created them.
Replicants were used off-world as slave labor, in the hazardous exploration and colonisation of other planets. After a bloody mutiny by a NEXUS 6 combat team in an off-world colony, Replicants were declared illegal on earth – under penalty of death.
Special police squads – Blade Runner units – had orders to shoot to kill, upon detection, any trespassing Replicant. This was not called execution. It was called retirement.
The bioengineered Replicants are human and then some. Strong, cunning, intelligent, eloquent, emotive: they may be manufactured, but are they not more than that?
Our technology hasn’t reached the devastating heights of the NEXUS 6 range, but that’s not to say we won’t be there one day (according to the New Humanist, upwards of half of the world’s leading experts believe machines will be as smart as humans by the year 2047).
Artificial intelligence has taken bold leaps over the past 10 years. For example, Hanson Robotics’ Sophia is magnificent, yet her lexicon is vastly limited compared to Tyrell’s free-flowing tech.
One of the androids, Pris, is a basic pleasure model – while, again, we’ve not reached that point of sentience, the sex doll industry is booming (a brothel in Switzerland has even opted to replace many of their prostitutes with them).
Yet, with the advancement of AI, how do we legislate? Where is the moral line drawn? One character says late on: ‘It’s too bad she won’t live! But then again, who does?’ Do these humanoids really live, like you or me? Should Replicant-esque engineering be the endgame?
Blade Runner may have a bleak allure, but misery roams its atmosphere. Beyond the dystopian porn, there’s a true inhumanity to the Replicants’ existence: as Roy Batty says, he’s seen things we wouldn’t believe, like attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion.
‘More human than human’ is the Tyrell moto. Yet, whether it be a man, woman or android, futility is universal. ‘All those moments will be lost in time… like tears in rain.’
If you have a story you want to tell, send it to UNILAD via [email protected]
After graduating from Glasgow Caledonian University with an NCTJ and BCTJ-accredited Multimedia Journalism degree, Cameron ventured into the world of print journalism at The National, while also working as a freelance film journalist on the side, becoming an accredited Rotten Tomatoes critic in the process. He’s now left his Scottish homelands and took up residence at UNILAD as a journalist.