Blade Runner, 25 Years Later

Jeff Alworth

Art is a reflection of culture, and there's something wonderfully anthropological about watching old movies.  As I sat in Cinema 21 Friday night watching the lazy glide of a police car as it carried Harrison Ford through futuristic LA, I started to become aware of the dramatic shifts in American culture since Blade Runner was released in 1982. By the end of the movie, I wondered if there wasn't some wisdom early-80s America might have have to impart to present-day America.

Let's begin with the premise, so preposterous by today's standards that I doubt the movie could ever get greenlighted.  It is a throwback plot to the early days of speculative fiction.  Bladerunner_harrison_ford_2 A cop, whose job it is to snuff out ("retire") robots ("replicants"), begins to break down emotionally from the stress of killing what have become nearly perfect facsimiles of real people.  It is a shockingly humanistic premise.  Even when Blade Runner was made, its side-street in the sci-fi genre was already dead-ending.  The Star Wars model--cowboys in space--had already won out. In the 21st Century, space is no place for ethical considerations.

In post-9/11 America, we have no time for this ambiguous humanism.  This is the Jack Bauer decade, where even humans are no longer human.  In a purely reactive state of mortal terror, we send blood and body parts flying first and then ask questions later.  Unless we don't get around to asking questions--which is fine, too. Deckard, the character played by Harrison Ford, is haunted by his killing, and director Ridley Scott fills each assassination with the pathos of real killing.  The victims are aware of their mortality--they fight death.  Late in the movie, Deckard shoots Darryl Hannah in the stomach and she falls to the ground screaming and beating her feet--in the face of death's caprice, she roars and protests. This is what death looks like, and it's unbearable.  Deckard, sliding into alcoholism, suffers the psychic trauma. 

From the "form" side of things, I was shocked at how amazingly slow the pacing is.  The camera pans slowly across a set and we actually have the time to take in the details, as if looking at a painting (Scott is a famous visualist and he wants us to see what he has wrought).  In 1982, VHS was the new technology.  We were pre-digital, and information moved slowly.  As technology has sped up incrementally over the decades, we have hardly noticed it.  The result is that art now is in movement.  It's not enough that the images themselves move--they can't move fast enough.  Directors speed movement by cutting from shot to shot, three or four in a second.  The experience of a modern-day thriller is an amusement ride--breathless, pre-cognitive. But Blade Runner is languid.  It's mood is slowly emotional; the morose sense of loss at the end of a night's binge.

And speaking of art--what a joy to see a vision not generated in pixels!  Computer graphics have given directors clay with with to mold scenes unimaginable with tangible restraints.  But CGI has more subtle limitations.  There is a scene where Deckard is moving through the rain-saturated streets* of LA--now a predominantely Chinese city.  The details were not only amazingly rich, but surprising.  As some debris blew by, I realized the failing of CGI--it can only capture what the mind can generate.  Animators don't want "off" notes in their CGI, so they remove everything that seems out of place.  Yet the actual experience of life is one where the unexpected abounds. 

You can animate a piece of garbage on a green screen, but it will look "right."  Old-school directors would have actually use garbage, and when you listen to DVD commentaries or read histories about movie productions, what they inevitably point out is how something went "wrong."  The unexpected is the real.  The expected becomes strangely suspicious.  Blade Runner, despite being technologically ancient, didn't look half as dated as the early Lucas all-CGI Star Wars that came 17 years later.

Is it going too far to suggest that living in the age of George W. Bush and his stage-managed presidency has made us insensitive to reality?  Our culture now buys the lies (Saddam and Osama were buddies) and eschews the truth (Social Security isn't in serious trouble).  Have we become so habituated by the representations of reality that we can no longer recognize actual reality? 

Perhaps it is going too far.  But the message of Blade Runner is strangely resonant.  It suggests that if we get too comfortable with what we think we know about "real" and "fake," we risk sacrificing our own humanity.  It is difficult to look at our current debates about torture, spying, and bombing and not wonder if perhaps it's a message we should revisit.
*Two weeks ago, LA was burning down thanks to overdry forests baking under globally-warmed skies.  The future of a tropical LA seems off.  But Blade Runner got a lot right, too--we already see a world where the US takes cultural clues from Asia. 

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    Great stuff, Jeff. This is exactly the kind of broad commentary and social critique I'd like to see more of here at BlueOregon.

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    Do hybrids dream of flying cars?

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    I can't believe you didn't mention Philip K. Dick.

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    Darrel, I just assumed everyone knew it was Dick. However, one thing I didn't mention but could have: I never noticed that the name of Sebastian's apartment is The Bradbury. A nice homage to the early giant of speculative fiction, and perhaps a nod to his darker fellow-traveler, PKD.

  • jrw (unverified)

    Lovely essay, but....

    No bearing on reality, at least reality as reflected by written sf. Even in the land of visual imagery, it's hard to believe we wouldn't have the Matrix without having Bladerunner first.

    The Bladerunner movie was just the first whisper of the cyberpunk subgenre in sf writing, and elements of it still exist. The shapes are different (William Gibson and Bruce Sterling don't dominate it, for one), but before you rule out that particular style, you might want to check out John Scalzi, Elizabeth Bear, Charles Stross, and Ken Macleod. Among others.

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    Darrel, I just assumed everyone knew it was Dick.

    I think by now, a quarter century after Dick's death, far, far more people have seen the movie than have ever read all of Dick's novels combined. He wasn't even in the the mainstream of SF (by sales volume) back when he was alive (I was working in a specialty fantasy/sf bookstore when he died and Bladerunner came out). His readers were loyal and he was critically acclaimed, but his work was kind of dense for the popular taste.

  • Dave Porter (unverified)

    Great post, Jeff. I can't touch most of it, but I can do a riff on the last phrase "we already see a world where the US takes cultural clues from Asia" and the concept of LA as a predominantly Chinese city. This is the Asian century. The rise of Asia, especially China, is the most important event in our lifetimes. I am today yet again writing legislators urging more Mandarin in Oregon's schools and quoting Robert Vogel's economic forecast that "the Chinese market in 2040 by itself will probably be larger than the combined markets of the U.S., the EU15, India, and Japan." And I have just read online national security strategist Tom Barnett's article "Recasting the Long War as a Joint Sino-American Venture" in which he argues for making China our ally in the war against jihadist terrorism and in bringing the connectivity of globalization to much of the underdeveloped world. One of his arguments is that China will increasingly become the face of globilization all over the globe and thus increasingly receive the the blowback of the terrorists.

    I think that, if we want to think of Portland as a beautiful, thriving city in the future, we have to think of it has a international city well connected to Asia. And yes, that means that everything will have more of an Asian flavor. Maybe not quite like in the movie, but not like today either.

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    Jeff, nice, thought-provoking post. Thanks.

    The Philip K. Dick point matters because Bladerunner wasn't a throwback, it was part of a still-growing rediscovery of Dick's work that probably peaked later in the '80s or early '90s. On the literary side, not sure if you're right about the dead-end in speculative fiction, but some of the sensibility you're pointing out has migrated out of the sci-fi genre box and still quite alive elsewhere I think. E.g. work by Thomas Pynchon, Dom DeLillo and some of Jonathan Franzen's. Could any of that get made into a movie today? Perhaps not. Your observations about speed and film technology are interesting and raise good questions about the relationships among literature, film, and new media technologies.

    I'd also observe in passing Bladerunner's relationship to the L.A. film-noire detective genre from Humphrey Bogart's films to A Touch of Evil to Chinatown to L.A. Confidential, and the literary connection of some of P.K. Dick's work (& some of Pynchon's) not only to Dashiell Hammett & others but also Nathanael West, particularly Day of the Locust.

    There is a question in my mind about mass culture & changes in mass media vs. other cultural realms. While Bladerunner's replicants are more robotically cyborgic than they might be today, it seems to me that there really is a great deal of public angst about biotechnology in various guises that is suppressed in the U.S. public debate and media by comparison to Europe.

    I think your "the culture now buys the lies" but didn't before theory may be nearly as off-base as its more popular inverse, the recurrent claim that the U.S. has "lost its innocence" at some point in the very near or recent past. These things are like the aristocracy always falling and the bourgeoisie always rising in British history.

    George Orwell certainly saw public credulity as a problem in the '30s and '40s across the industrial world including the U.S. The political evolutions of the 1950s and 1960s, McCarthyism & Vietnam, not to mention longer-standing buying of lies about race and racism, through more recent matters like Iran-Contra disproving the Watergate-based theory that "the system works," Reaganite "welfare queens" & your own recent excellent post about the unreal lies of Reaganomics, show a great deal of continuity. Richard Hofstadter's The Paranoid Style in American Politics and David Brion Davis' work documenting recurrent cultural paranoias stimulated by "big lies" of various sorts show this continuity extending back to the 1790s.

    (Davis' & other work on Know-Nothing Nativism in the 1850s alone is worth revisiting in light of the current anti-immigrant moral panic.)

    On Social Security I'm afraid you're close to helping to propagate one of the big lies yourself. You're not wrong that Social Security is in trouble, but you seem to be buying into a false, even phony sort of unobjective "balance" common in the media, by not pointing out that this ultimately is a deliberate policy choice.

    The fact of the matter is that Social Security is in trouble but need not be. It is being progressively driven into an artificial crisis for the sake of an agenda of privatizing it and/or cutting benefits in the name of anti-government ideology, and to "prove" anti-government ideology by causing a crucial, widely supported government program to fail. It is being sabotaged by people who want it to fail.

    We are still in the window when the baby-boom generation is achieving its highest income. Properly progressive tax policy to cover the later costs to maintain all boomers decently without bankrupting today's children and the as yet unborn, and without leaving tail-end boomers like me, or Gen Xers and Yers with no adequate socially provided solid retirement floor, is still possible.

    Although certain self-congratulatory boomer myths about their uniform progressiveness in their youth are exaggerated (former Reagan budget director David Stockman, Trent Lott, Newt Gingrich, Karl Rove, not to mention our Maximum Commander-in-Chief & numerous other miscreants with a large political base of their own ages are all boomers), it would be at least interesting to see if a call from within their/our own ranks (I'm a "tail-end" boomer) to literally put some of their/our money where their/our mouths are and pony up for the common good that their/our sheer numbers threaten under current bad policy, but not inherently.

    (Social "safety nets" as opposed to floors is another big category of reality denying lies that goes back a long way).

    The generational warfare trope, which calls upon those of us from 50 or 40 and younger to slit our own throats by ditching Social Security, by making "it won't be there when we're retired" into a self-fulfilling prophecy, is exactly one of the lies we're being asked to buy. So are the various tropes that treat meeting the problems with new revenues as impossible or prima facie undesirable. You seem at risk of lending these big lies undeserved support.

  • jaybeat (unverified)

    What hasn't been mentioned that should be top-of-mind for Blue Oregonians is the environmental destruction and nihilism that pervades the world of 2019.

    Endless rain in Southern California.

    Anyone who can is fleeing Earth for "a new life... in the Off World Colonies." The rest are life's discards, rattling about in abandoned buildings and stealing spare parts.

    The rich entertain themselves with replicated pets; in Dick's novel, not even the richest of the rich can afford a real animal.

    Except for the flying cars and space travel, this is a world of climate change, after Peak Oil. One where the division between have and have not is never more stark than that between replicant and "human." One striving to be the other; the other yearning to return to what they no longer are.

  • jrw (unverified)

    Chris Lowe--

    Jeff's most certainly not correct about the dead-endedness of the sf (note the difference, sci-fi brands you as--well--lacking a certain level of awareness) genre as a written body of work. There's a lot of stuff bubbling to the surface these days which is both challenging and entertaining.

    Again, I'd cite Scalzi (who has a novel out that refers back directly to Philip K. Dick, with The Android's Dream--interesting political novel and well worth the read), Ken Macleod (who is a Real True Libertarian Trotskyite from Scotland), Charles Stross (oh heck, who knows what Charlie is, except a rollicking good read), Elizabeth Bear (want some interesting politics and global warming, read her Wetwired trilogy), and many others. Tobias Bucknell with his Crystal Rain series, who's bringing in a Caribbean element into science fiction settings. Jay Lake, with his new "clockpunk" novel Mainspring.

    Now, granted, the sf film world sucks big time. But you can find decent literature out there that's pretty edgy if you just try. I just don't think much of it can be made into film, unless it's in the world of anime. It's certainly not the material of blockbuster Hollywood films

    (dropping into fangirl mode...)...but before you write too much of sf film off, you might want to look at some of the TV stuff out there--the new "Doctor Who" is pretty damn edgy at times.

  • ws (unverified)

    "Is it going too far to suggest that living in the age of George W. Bush and his stage-managed presidency has made us insensitive to reality? Our culture now buys the lies..." Jeff Alworth

    Kind of what I thought when reading the story about the 10 year old boy authorities zeroed in for having started one of the big California fires. Nice to be able to conjure up a culprit for one of modern day mankind's self caused urban sprawl related disasters.

    10-Year-Old With Matches Started a California Wildfire

    I've seen Bladerunner a bunch of times in various version including un-narrated. I don't idolize this film or think its perfect, but it highlights personalities and various fundamental aspects of human nature and inter-relationships that have been for me, unforgettable, sad and chilling. Tell people something enough times in a particular context and they may believe it regardless what the truth is.

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    Hmmm, we seem to be drifting a little far afield from the text I was referencing--the film, not Dick's original novel. Sci-fi fiction and sci-fi film went in different directions. They have rarely deviated from standard space shoot-'em-ups. There are of course exceptions--the first Matrix, the Terminator series. But for every Matrix, there are fifteen "Chronicles of Riddick" and "Men in Black." I wasn't talking about literature, I was talking about a specific movie and the genre in film.

    And JRW, you miss my reference to "dead-endedness." I was talking about the sub-genre of speculative sci-fi, which was dead-ending in film, to be cut off by the super-highway of space wars.

    But I will give you this, TV is another matter altogether. The Next Generation was speculation at its finest, and I was a huge Firefly fan.

  • Anon (unverified)

    I thought I read somewhere that Gene Roddenberry deliberately wanted to show a future where all races and countries on the planet were unified. I often wonder if we are headed for the Star Trek future, or the Blade Runner/Soylent Green future.

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    The top-grossing film of 1982 was "E.T." Number 5 was "Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan". 1982 also saw the release of John Carpenter's "The Thing", "Android" starring Klaus Kinski, James Earl Jones in "Blood Tide", Persis Khambatta (from the first "Star Trek" movie) and Barry Bostwick in "Megaforce" (it had flying motorcycles!), a low-budget movie about a beautiful woman who can heal people called "Mysterious Planet", and many more.

    Believe me, there was plenty of "Chronicles of Riddick" and "Men in Black" equivalent in the sci-fi cinema back then.

  • ws (unverified)

    I know I'm kind of slow to catch on. Can't seem to see what, by today's standards, is so preposterous about the Bladerunner premise, unless the point is confined to today's standards only associated with blockbuster SF action adventure movies. If there's anything IT people probably want to do more than anything else, it's to be able to make a thinking robot. A robot with functioning based on that of humans would logically follow. Fortunately, that seems to be at least decades, maybe a century or two away. If of course, humans haven't completely obliterated themselves from the face of the earth before then.

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    i remember reading this article in the LATimes a while back, about Dick and how his family is trying to ensure that cinematic adaptations of his stories are worthy of the stories themselves.

    the whole cyberpunk sf thing gets a bit overwrought. the best sf has always been cyberpunk: disaffected, grasping at the future for any glimmer of hope, angry, lost, etc. simply read Harlan Ellison's two "Dangerous Visions" anthologies (1967, 1972) and realize how many writers were going down the dark depths long before Gibson coined the term. those two books changed my life, literally; amazing works of imagination, creativity and courage.

    and as much as i love Blade Runner, the screen will never come close to capturing the essence of sf as the written word. never.

  • Chris Andersen (unverified)

    I think its the difference of pacing that is the most telling. I've tried sitting down with my kids (14 and 12) and watch older movies like this with slower pacing and they have problems focusing their attention on what is going on because it is happening at a languid pace.

    I just hope that, as they get older, they come to appreciate the slower side of life. I know I have. I wasn't really a fan of Blade Runner when it came out, but it has grown on me as the years pass.

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    jrw --

    Thanks for the tips, I'll look for these.

  • iggir (unverified)
    <h2>yeah, "Dangerous Visions" rocks, good man.</h2>

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