The 2019 of Blade Runner (1982) is one of flying cars, darkness, and perpetual rain. In it, Los Angeles has been purged of green spaces and colonised by a maze of anonymous high rises covered with garish neon advertisements. The mix of light and fire make the sky difficult to separate from the land. It is a place that seems foreign, both in the mix of technology and the underworld, and in a very literal sense with the prevalence of Japanese language and culture.
Blade Runner follows police officer Rick Deckard who has been tasked with hunting down and ‘retiring’ escaped ‘replicants’ (humanoid androids used as slaves in mysterious off-world colonies). The film deals with some of the fundamental questions around human nature, though as we enter our own 2019 it seems appropriate to investigate the world that it creates.
In Blade Runner’s source material, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), the state of the world is explained as the consequence of a catastrophic nuclear war. It’s significant that in the film this is omitted: we get the sense that the 2019 it presents is not the result of some sudden catastrophe but has developed naturally out of the world that existed when the film was created. The world of Blade Runner can therefore be seen as a comment on the world of the ’80s, a kind of extrapolation of certain tendencies and trends of the time to the extreme. Examples of these include the presence of Japanese culture and imagery showing the tendency towards greater globalisation, the contrast between the masses and the all-powerful corporation showing the rise in inequality and death of post-war social democracy in the ’80s, and the ubiquity of high tech showing the potential of exponential advancement in that field.
These tendencies are very familiar, and we can see how they have shaped the world we live in today. Despite this, they are manifested in Blade Runner in an unfamiliar way. For example, there is a mix of tech beyond our time, in the form of off world colonies and androids, and a noticeable absence of anything like the internet. This makes the 2019 of Blade Runner what the late cultural theorist Mark Fisher called a ‘lost future.’ This is a vision of the future that arose in specific historical circumstances but has never materialised, and, because those historical circumstances are no longer present, never will.
Obviously, there are many things in Blade Runner that no one actually expected to exist by 2019. However, the themes and aesthetic of the film do represent a certain direction that our society and culture could have plausibly taken, but didn’t. In this way, going back to films like Blade Runner can be an interesting way of making us think about how we got to where we are now and which of the versions of the future will be actualised, and which will become the next generation of lost futures.
Image: Gage Skidmore via Flickr