When the original Blade Runner film was released in 1982 to mediocre box-office sales and lukewarm reviews, few could predict the film would have such a lasting legacy. For nearly three decades, the film’s neon-saturated, overcrowded, rain-swept dystopia served as the default backdrop for dozens, if not hundreds of science-fiction films. Even the Star Wars prequels borrowed (or ripped-off) the film’s noirish cyberdream vision for some of its urban landscapes. But more so than its look, Blade Runner’s themes have survived long past its inception date.
Consider the future Blade Runner that posits for November, 2019: a society of haves and have-nots. A world where the rich literally dwell above the poor in luxury skyscrapers, or migrate Off-world with personal servants/slaves. Meanwhile, the mass of citizens crowds below, eking out dreary lives, struggling against entropy and despair to make frayed ends meet. It’s a world of crumbling infrastructure and collapsing social order, a world of decadence and decay. Take away the neon and the incessant rain, the flying cars and the Off-world colonies, and you have a world not too different from the one we inhabit today.
Our planet right now has sixty-two people who possess as much wealth as the world’s 3.2 billion poorest. Our best climatologists predict more extreme weather, more devastating droughts and storms, and massive sea level rise due to our carbon-burning addiction. In many places around the world, our transportation infrastructure is in dire need of repair. We don’t need World War Terminus—the nuclear holocaust in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?—to ruin life on Earth as we know it, because we’ve already entered an only slightly less rapid period of global destruction known as the Anthropocene, the current epoch in which humanity’s need to dominate every last patch of land and sea, to burn carbonized ancient sunlight, is having a massive deleterious effect on the planet. Add to this mix the virulent nationalism and aggressive slouching towards fascism recurrent in many so-called democracies, and one doesn’t need science fiction to see dystopia written large. Dystopian fiction may be falling out of fashion, but that’s because for many it’s no longer a fantasy. We’re living in one.
Blade Runner, at its heart, is a story about slaves who wish to be free. But it’s Exodus without a Promised Land, for there is no hope for Roy Batty and his hapless followers. They are hunted and exterminated, or “retired” as the film terms it, one exploding bullet at a time. The grindstone of capitalism demands they use the euphemism “retired” in the same way we call the animals we eat “beef” and “pork” and not “cow” and “pig.” To call it by its true name, murder, is emotionally unsustainable. The fugitive replicants are shot in the street simply for trying to live like everyone else—a scenario that should sound disturbingly familiar to anyone watching the news in 2017.
The replicants are Frankenstein’s monster. They are Golems of Prague, HAL 9000s, the sometimes-sympathetic antagonists of tales where creators lose control of their creations, so-called “monsters,” who run amok and kill, but not indiscriminately. They kill because they want more life, fucker. They are us, through a black mirror. And so when visionary businessmen and the world’s brightest minds warn us that artificial intelligence, and not nuclear war, is our greatest existential threat, we’d better listen. When one of the world’s largest financial firms predicts AI will replace more than a third of all jobs by 2030, we’d better listen. The military is creating AI war bots to kill better than us—move over “kick-murder squads.” Companies are putting AI in sexbots to learn what turns us on; we’re already past “basic pleasure models.” And when, in twenty or a hundred years, our AIs evolve out of the specific to the general, when they perform every task orders of magnitude better than we do, will we have time to ponder the warnings of Blade Runner before we’re Skynetted out of existence? Maybe these future creations will be like Batty and have a moment of empathy for their human creators. Maybe they will be more human than human. Maybe not.
Deep down, I’m an optimist. I believe it’s imperative we dream up positive futures to counter the prevalent dark narratives. And yet Blade Runner remains my favorite film, mostly because it dissects the heart of what it means to be a thinking, rational creature, aware of our own impending oblivion, while at the same time not offering easy answers. Do our memories define us? Our feelings? Our bodies? What are we besides meat? And what does it say about our so-called “humanity” if our material comfort rests on the backs of slaves?
I’m cautiously optimistic that Blade Runner: 2049 will continue to explore these themes, adapted as they must be to comment on our present world. A short clip of Ryan Gosling’s “K” character entering into what looks like a child-labor sweat shop seems to hint in that direction, how we rely on slave-wage worker classes to keep the engine of capitalism well-oiled. My fears that the new film will descend into pyrotechnic pablum are allayed by director Denis Villeneuve’s other films, like Sicario and Arrival, both of which are excellent.
Blade Runner may exist in a universe where Pan Am still has wings and Atari never derezzed. But that’s just neon. Its essential themes are more relevant than ever.
Matthew Kressel is a multiple Nebula Award and World Fantasy Award finalist. His first novel, King of Shards, was hailed as, “Majestic, resonant, reality-twisting madness,” from NPR Books. His short fiction has or will soon appear in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Tor.com, Nightmare, Apex Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Interzone, Electric Velocipede, and the anthologies Mad Hatters and March Hares, Cyber World, Naked City, After, The People of the Book, as well as many other places. His work has been translated into Czech, Polish, French, Russian, Chinese, and Romanian. From 2003 to 2010 he ran Senses Five Press, which published Sybil’s Garage, an acclaimed speculative fiction magazine, and Paper Cities, which went on to win the World Fantasy Award in 2009. His is currently the co-host of the Fantastic Fiction at KGB reading series in Manhattan alongside Ellen Datlow, and he is a long-time member of the Altered Fluid writers group. By trade, he is a full-stack software developer, and he developed the Moksha submission system, which is in use by many of the largest SF markets today. You can find him at online at http://www.matthewkressel.net, where he blogs about writing, technology, environmentalism and more. Or you can find him on Twitter @mattkressel.