This is the second assignment for ‘Introduction to Cyberpunk Literature’ at P2PU.org. An essay on the depiction of the environment of ‘Bladerunner’ and ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric sheep’. We will take a look at some of the core visual influences of the film, the relation of its depictions to the situation on the ground today (2/3 of the way into ‘the future’), and hear what one of the key creators of the films look has to say about it.
“When Blade Runner works best, it induces a lyrical sort of information sickness, that quintessentially postmodern cocktail of ecstasy and dread. It was what cyberpunk was supposed to be all about.”
– William Gibson
There is no doubt now that the tag-team of Ridley Scotts ‘Bladerunner‘ and William Gibsons ‘Neuromancer‘ set the tone for the cyberpunk genre, although neither could have had any conception of this at the time they created their works. The grimy, dark, hard-edged and chaotic futures envisioned by Scott and Gibson were both created almost entirely independently, indicating an overarching sensibility in culture at large that began to take the future more seriously than previously had often been the case. It’s a testament to Scotts vision though that not only was the author of the original story amazed with the films look, the author of its literary counterpart was also seriously impressed.
“About ten minutes into Blade Runner, I reeled out of the theater in complete despair over its visual brilliance and its similarity to the “look” of Neuromancer, my [then] largely unwritten first novel. Not only had I been beaten to the semiotic punch, but this damned movie looked better than the images in my head!”
– William Gibson
Color us all surprised then when we later hear about the time Scott & Gibson hung out to talk about comic books, and it turns out they were into the same stuff. ‘The Long Tomorrow’ – a 1976 Proto-Cyberpunk comic by French artist Jean Giraud (aka Moebius) was a great influence on both in shaping their future worlds. You may remember his art from from the René Laloux classic Time Masters, he also did concept art for Ridley Scotts Alien, a never-made Dune and a bunch of other shit. (Willow/The Fifth Element/Tron/The Abyss etc)
Another obvious influence is Fritz Langs seminal movie Metropolis (1927), the first serious science fictional dystopia depicted on screen. To be fair this movie has probably been an influence on almost everyone who created any Science Fiction at all in the last century, but Bladerunner is very clearly its direct descendant. The thematic parallels between Bladerunner and Metropolis include the low value of life, a significant role for artificial life, the violent deaths of its creators, and are expressed very strongly through the parallels in brutally enlarged modern architecture, dehumanizing those unfortunate enough to have to live in its footprint. Here is an example showing one of the similarities between the two works.
Bladerunner is often described as a nightmarish, post-apocalyptic and dystopic in a sense the carries very negative connotations, the scenario is not a place many people imagine themselves wanting to live. On the other hand though there are also those that see the city as a thriving urban environment, with a healthy mix of culture and commerce. One survey of Los Angeles City planners even showed that three out of five saw the environment of Bladerunner as a desirable future. Too bad megacorporate capitalism seems to come at the cost of specialist genetics & bio-engineering contractors not being able to afford decent accommodation.
As for Bladerunner being nightmarish and apocalyptic, people have nightmares about all kinds of stuff so the former doesn’t mean much and as for the latter, it’s just not apocalyptic. Apocalypse commonly means the end of the world and the world is obviously still around, it may suck for a lot of people but it hasn’t ended. The original meaning of apocalypse; “lifting of the veil” or “revelation”, is a disclosure of something hidden from the majority of mankind in an era dominated by falsehood and misconception. Not exactly what’s going on in Bladerunner.
A dystopia is often characterized by an authoritarian or totalitarian form of government, different kinds of repressive social control systems, a lack or total absence of individual freedoms and expressions and a state of constant warfare or violence. The impression of all this can be perceived to be conveyed strongly in Bladerunner, but in fact none of these characteristics are explicitly present. However they can be mapped directly to most of our planet right now, making dystopia just everyday normal for a lot of people who would probably like to see them go away. Remove them all though and you’re still left with a smelly, noisy, hot, humid, densely populated, overbuilt, decaying, retro-fitted city, but it can be a pretty cool place to live or at least visit. So how does the future vision of Bladerunner stack up now that we’re two thirds of the way to the time of its imagining?
From top to bottom that’s Los Angeles (2019), Hong Kong (2009), New York (2009) and finally Los Angeles (2009). Note that the LA smog looks way worse today than it does in 2019, this leads me to believe that large incendiary explosions on the tops of tall buildings can somehow be used to combat pollution, I’m looking forward to seeing those implemented soon on high-rises near me.
Looks like we’re doing great as far as the smog goes, how do other elements of L.A.2019 compare to today? Well smoking in bars is banned in most places, I’m not sure if that puts us ahead or behind. P.K Dicks ‘Kipple’ translates to omnipresent urban decay and trash in Bladerunner, both of which are common to most major cities around the world today, so we’re good there. The weather seems strange for L.A but given the mess that our climate is in there’s a good chance strange will become normal for everyone all too soon. And the fashion? Well I’ve seen a lot worse out on the street than most of what is walking around in Bladerunner…
Above L.A. 2019 , below Tokyo today. Neon breaklight umbrella handles haven’t caught on yet, but there is way more advertising now than there apparently will be in the future. Face masks are already a common sight in many Asian cities, on Bladerunner it seems they were mostly just worn by everyone off camera. Of course nowadays we don’t have replicants, off-world colonies and flying cars, neither are we likely to by 2019 but nevertheless the way in which these are presented in Bladerunner keeps their look and feel plausible, and creates a world which at the very least in internally consistent to itself, a crucial element in any good science fictional scenario.
“The fact that real architects are fascinated with the ‘look’ of the film still blows me away!”
– Syd Mead
Besides Ridley Scott one of the key figures in the construction of this vision of the future was ‘visual futurist’ Syd Mead, who did a great deal of the work on the various scenes, buildings, vehicles and other props present in the movie.
“We labled our assembly style ‘retro-deco’ and added the additional label of ‘trash-chic.’ The visual style followed Ridley’s original intent to make a ‘noir’ type movie from Philip K. Dick’s story.”
– Syd Mead
An interesting coincidence (?) to note here is the parallel with “Gothic Hi-tech” and “Favela chic”, concepts on which our benevolent overlord Bruce Sterling spent a great deal of time enlightening the masses last year. He describes these as two of the main cultural modes of the next ten years, a ‘transition to nowhere’ at the end of which we are placed squarely within Bladerunners chosen year of 2019.
The plausibility of the future world of Bladerunner was very important to Mr. Mead as he created the concept art for the movie, and this is reflected in many facets of his works, even the more fantastic. A prime example is the ‘spinner’ vehicle, a flying car which has a very futuristic look in part due to the removal of the hood area we expect in contemporary cars, yet even this omission is rooted in rational principles, the hood being removed in order to provide the visibility necessary in order to pilot a flying vehicle.
Even props that aren’t likely to ever make it into the real world in any way are given a look that makes them appear possible, and at least consistent with the world in which they find themselves placed, like the Voight Kampff machine which Syd Mead designed with what we could now recognize as having a very steampunkish aesthetic, placing it outside the confines of technology as we have seen it develop and making it an excellent theatrical prop.
“I didn’t ‘get’ the story at all…”
– Syd Mead
All of the above has contributed to Bladerunner having become what we see it as today, over the years its look has never become dated, as it has skillfully placed itself just outside the confines of reality but close enough for the parallels to be very clear, allowing it to both engage and disturb its viewers even almost 30 years after its production. As far as near future fictions go in film Bladerunner is still one of the best, and as with all good speculative fiction the exploration of its ideas has hopefully allowed us to avoid many of the problems that people find so disconcerting about its vision.
Beyond Blade Runner: Urban Control – The Ecology of Fear – Mike Davis. 1992
The Least Scary Option: Blade Runner and the Future City – Stephen Rowley, 1998
The Future of our Discontents – William Timberman, 1999
From dystopia to myopia: Metropolis to Blade Runner – Dave Clements, 2003
Syd Mead with Joel Johnson, part 3: BLADE RUNNER – 2008
Stewart Brand proclaims 4 environmental ‘heresies’ – 2009