Blade Runner retrospective
Blade Runner 2049 is set to debut this weekend and multitudes of critics have already begun the process of beatification. The consensus seems to be that Villenueves’ sequel (decades in the making) is a tremendous film, superior even to the original, a remarkable achievement given the fact that the original Scott effort is widely considered to be one of the greatest films of all time.
The introduction of another entry in the newly minted Blade Runner universe gives an impetus to reevaluate and revalue the original effort for added appreciation of this, the newest piece of art. As Blade Runner has been a part of the public consciousness for decades I will not do it (or you the reader) the injustice of “reviewing” the work anew. Instead I seek to engage with the swirling mix of past, present and future prophecy that a re-viewing of Blade Runner demands three decades removed from theatrical release. I fully admit that I undertake this labor of love out of a sense of obligation, built by cultivated appreciation of films that general audiences and/or critics have left out in the cold. Of course a film now recognized as a classic needs no such apologetic.
A thorough dissertation on the thematic and historical-prophetic importance of Blade Runner would require just that, so brevity compels us to limit our investigation to two major questions.
1. What kind of story is Blade Runner?
2. What does Blade Runner ask of us as observers and what should we ask of Blade Runner in return?
These ostensibly simple questions become infinitely more complex the more they are scrutinized. Questions of intention and creation intimately relate to the kind of perspective we should utilize in engaging with a work of art and these questions focus our attention on the thematic content art creates.
Question (1) asks us to classify Blade Runner as a particular kind of thing.
Question (2) Asks who and/or what are we to hold Blade Runner accountable to and for? How does the futurism of Blade Runner speak to us now?
We ask these questions for overarching the entirety of our quest are the specters of time, history and perspective.
Baldly put, in portion one we will classify, in portion two we will attempt to verify or disqualify the moral oracles that Blade Runner makes.
Blade Runner classified
The hypothesis I will be defending at some length is that Blade Runner is (and should be viewed) as a quadridimensional moral prophecy that speaks with great accuracy to our current cultural status.
“Quadridimensional moral prophecy” is a wonderfully dense phrase with two major components, I’ll define them quickly.
Types of Prophecy
Science Fiction is a genre that contains many types of prophecies, perhaps too many to list here, so I’ll simply focus on the dichotomous relationship between two major types: Moral v. Specific.
Specific prophecies are attempts to with a large degree of exactitude forecast events that will eventually come to pass. Contemporary works like 2012 or San Andreas are prime examples, both seek to accurately portray or predict forthcoming events based on current knowledge plus imagination. There is a distinct oracular function to the these types of works of fiction, “such and such will happen at some time.” It is possible that the time is known to the oracle but time-specificity is ancillary. It is enough that the specific prophecy is not Delphic. 2012 presents a specific set of events that the artists believe are more than likely to occur based on current knowledge. San Andreas is the same, it is a tale of the future specifying events that have not yet occurred within the context of fiction. Specific prophecies do not have to adhere to deuteronomic levels of veracity to be held as valuable, a lower bar is reasonable particularly with the addition of poetic license. Specific prophecies may also be religious or ethical. The wildly popular Left Behind series uses the vehicle of fiction to portray a timeline of specific historical events that have not taken place yet. A major feature of specific prophecies? They can be fact-checked against a list of specified claims.
Summarized: A specific prophecy attempts to speak with certitude about future events in a non-ambiguous, clear cut way. If x continues specified y will occur. Specific prophecies identify phenomena that are irrevocably connected and project their interaction into the future. “The Warriors will win the West this year” or “Dunkirk will win Best Picture” are good examples.
Moral prophecies are radically different.
Consider this statement –“if we continue to allow gun massacres without implementing sweeping gun control measures we will become a country that devalues life.” This too is a prophecy but one of a different sort. There are no specified claims to fact-check this statement against yet it is possible to discuss in terms of right/wrong. There are multiple ways to verify or disprove this prophecy, none of which are specific to some empirical detail the prophecy contains.
Moral prophecies concern themselves with making sweeping judgements about the trend lines of current humanity, what will the world look like if humans continue to do x? Moral prophecies concern themselves primarily with trends and not specifics or vagaries. Moral prophecies are also characterized as pedagogical, they seek to instruct our moral consciences about the ethical consequences or inevitabilities of current behavior.
Of course there is a symbiotic relationship between the types of prophecies, specific prophecies often seek to instruct or moralize. The Old Testament of the Christian Bible contains mighty fulminations of specified and conditional judgment against recalcitrant nations.
Specific prophecies promise a one to one correspondence of word and outcome, moral prophecies are more akin to myth. The two often intertwine – Silent Spring is perhaps the standard for ethical specific prophecies, with its stark depiction of a world ravaged and left empty of wildlife due to the indiscriminate use of pesticides.
We interpret and theorize about the meaning of moral/mythological prophecies; we categorize and empirically measure the content of specific prophecies. The avatars of moral prophecies are malleable and are useful by way of analogy.
Why is Blade Runner a prophecy? Because it has a telos, it is trying to inform us about what a world could look like that carried the values of a past time forward. Blade Runner attempted to construct a world that followed the cultural trend lines that had been established at the time of its imagination and in doing so show the faults of humanity unmoored to compassion and empathy.
Moral or specific?
It is my contention that Blade Runner is precisely this moral kind of prophecy; I don’t believe that Scott meant to offer precise insights about such mundane sorts of things as the proper names of companies that would gain hegemonic control over the economy or whether or not we would have gigantic holographic advertisements in our biggest cities. The larger and more trenchant points that Blade Runner wants to draw attention to center around what humanity truly looks like and where humanity is going. The specific ins and outs of what the future hold are not the intention of Blade Runner and I think it is a gross misunderstanding of the material to view it as some sort of recitation of what the future would look like, produced in 1983.
All of this to say derisively sniffing “it is 2019 and we don’t have flying cars” is not a useful dismissal of Blade Runner’s prophetic import. Why? Because Blade Runner is analogizing not prophesying, Scott is creating myths not making calculations. A minutely specific reading of Blade Runner is intellectually impoverished and ultimately uninteresting.
Dimensions upon Dimensions
Blade Runner adds dimensions by adding to the population of observers. This population consists of two groups, those who were projecting their thoughts from their present (now in the past) to interpret and predict the future and those who look back into the past to interpret how others saw the future and whether or not that envisioned future obtains. That necessity of interpretation and observation of future interpretation/observation takes Blade Runner from a simple person to person exchange story to a multiple dimensioned artifact that commands attention. It should come as no surprise that this sort of dimensionality in storytelling – the methods for understanding Blade Runner’s ideology through time- are the same that animate any historical enterprise. Why believe this to be a feature of the work itself and not just a happy accident? Because Scott deliberately set this work in the near enough future that many that saw it would be alive for. 2019 was a time just over the horizon.
Further, this engagement of viewer and author in an ongoing conversation about the nexus of past, present and future is inherent in any work with oracular pretensions. Blade Runner fits this description perfectly. The first dimension of Blade Runner’s storytelling is the inner monologue and production of the storyteller, the second is the sharing of this work with a contemporary audience, the third is the introduction of future audiences inputs to the literary matrix, the fourth dimension is the effort future observers make to understand the past minds that were attempting to project the future of humanity. Blade Runner (like the best of moral prophecies) demands that we participate in this exchange. Whether Scott intended to do so or not (and I believe he did) he created a work that demands close attentions.
So what then do we make of the two part claim that Blade Runner is (and should be viewed) as a quadridimensional moral prophecy that speaks with great accuracy to our current cultural situation? The first part seems true, the past-future observer conversation and virtue pedagogy by analogy seems to situate Blade Runner perfectly as a four dimensional moral prophecy but what of the message Blade Runner presents? Is it of any value to our current culture?
What does Blade Runner want from us?
Blade Runner, like the very best of science fiction combines all tenses within a historical perspective
We, interpreting it now, must consider not just the view looking back from 2017, but also the view looking forward from 1983. What do we know now that they didn’t then? What did they anticipate about us that turned out to be true? This is who and what we are holding Blade Runner accountable to.
Blade Runner asks pointed questions of its audience both past and present as it investigates the trend lines of human behavior. This list is far from exhaustive but it contains the themes I feel are most relevant to our age. I’ll venture here from the weakest inferences to the strongest.
Ostentatious opulence through the affection of nostalgia
Eldon Tyrell receives Roy Batty into his private residence lit with candles, while garish electric lights festoon the streets outside. The candles are beautiful but starkly confronting upon further reflection. Candles, when electric lights illuminate the outside of the building Tyrell lives in… Is this not reminiscent of our own culture’s odd obsession with displaying wealth through affectations of nostalgia? One of the surest signs of privilege is the ability to discard or utilize it as one sees fit. Here, candles are an affectation, a more expensive alternative to the electric lights that are lifesavers to the inhabitants of the dirty world before. Tyrell is showing here that he has the means to live as if he had none… Privilege indeed.
This is an inference from clues given in the film. Apparently only those of a certain stature are allowed to go off-world and the hollowed out buildings that Roy Batty and crew seek refuge in speak to a mass exodus of good people fleeing undesirables. The 80’s were not the beginning of flight to suburbia but they were a period of increasing bifurcation between inner cities and suburbs crafted as an escape from them. The urban center is garish and crowded but closer inspection reveals parts of it have been abandoned. Giant advertisements float overhead promising a new life and new opportunities and it seems like those who are capable have taken full advantage. This same impulse continues today, often the rich and capable are able to flee squalor and danger while those less fortunate are left to wholly fend for themselves.
The Persistence of Squalor in the face of bounty
The world of 2019 is wondrous in many ways; impossibly large buildings crown every eminence, cars fly and perhaps most wondrous of all – the persistence of poverty. A wise person once intoned that “the poor will always be with you” and Scott shows us this off-handedly. Run down buildings, seedy streets and the attempted theft of Deckard’s tires all go to show us that the grandiose wealth on display has not quite trickled down to the masses. The opening shot of LA in the beginning shows a glittering jewel of a city, but beneath the glamor of a world where cars fly, trash litters the street corners and abandoned homes are the safe refuge of the fugitive. This tracks perfectly with the vision of a society in the Reagan era, ostentatious avarice creating a world where the ugly and destitute received a gloss but were no better off. Are we so different now, all protestations to the contrary aside? Has the gap between rich and poor faded as we are even now creating mechanisms that could end world hunger and energy scarcity? Has the middle class grown or been hollowed out? In the west we are rightfully grateful for the blessings we have received, but have we become complacent about the frailties around the corner? There is a certain poignancy to the fact that Deckard is able to escape the squalid would be thieves by simply flying away, he is quite literally above his foes.
What does it mean to be human?
Blade Runner blurs the lines between human and machine continuously and deliberately. The replicants do not just ape human appearance they replicate human behavior and psychology as well. They have flights of fancy, pique, empathy, despair, a sense of irony and above all the capacity for introspection (Roy Batty’s rooftop monologue, Deckard’s ending). This last quality – introspection- is perhaps the most integral part of the entire question of whether consciousness is integral to certain types of beings or not. Blade Runner takes great issue with Hume and Searle on the possibility for introspection. To Blade Runner the capacity to derive knowledge from reflection on experiences (mental or empirical) sets Replicants apart from simple computers. Deckard in the moment he discovers he is a replicant is reflecting not only upon his states of experiences but upon the higher thing that interprets those experiences. When he realizes he is a replicant he is bundling his perceptions under the guidance of a supervening thing, this “thing” is himself.
Replicants are conscious. As our own culture grows ever closer to creating beings that resemble humans, we need to have a frank societal conversation about what lines we will or will not cross as we approach uncharted territory.
Death and Shelf-Life
The themes of death and appointed obsolescence hang heavy over Blade Runner.
The Replicants remonstrate against it, how cruel it is to be given the gift of life only to have it drained away and Batty’s rage against his maker ends with blood and resignation. Roy Batty shows us it is not easy to meet one’s maker. The Replicants insist that this aversion to a timed and planned death is a sign of shared humanity; they literally attempt to beat this into Deckard multiple times. This is all fairly anodyne, a deeper analysis reveals that this aversion to planned obsolescence is actually the fundamental reason that Replicants exist-to do jobs that humans fear. We see faint echoes of this in our youth obsessed culture that continually abandons and marginalizes the elderly while insisting on youth or its appearance as the measure of all things. Our society fears death and dying, an obsolescence for which there is no real cure.
The Amorality of Technological Advancement and the ubiquity of commercialism
Scott imagines human ethical maturity and technological advancement as running on parallel lines, never intersecting. This brings to mind the Benjamine vision but that deserves its own essay… Suffice it to say that Scott’s representation of the Angel’s vision isn’t much different than that good German’s. Scott, arguing by analogy insists that inherent in humanity’s progress along the technological path is the ability and eventuality of domination systems.
While it would seem obvious that the development and wide-spread use of technologies that make it easier for human flourishing would lead to that outcome precisely, history has shown us that is not the case. Technology’s value is determined by the ethics of a society that employs it. In the world of Blade Runner, technology powerful enough to leave the planet and create replicants is impotent to provide adequately for those living on the outskirts. Technology does not glorify or damn, it simply is. Congruent with this is the overweening presence of advertising and branding. It permeates the entirety of Blade Runner. The audience is meant to identify with Rachel when she bleakly observes “I am not in the business, I am the business.” Our histories, our locations, our memories, our preferences are a hot commodity around the globe, bought and sold daily. In a significant sense we are not a part of the economy, we are the commodity the economy sells. Further, the technology we create will have no inherent telos, we must give it meaning and purposes that virtuous or our technology will be used for vile purposes. This is the way of things.
Domination as a societal ethos
Blade Runner exists in a world of lifelike slaves and masters so everyone chafes under the rule of tyrants, petty or otherwise.
This system of domination creates two sorts of people, the happily or unhappily docile and those who (up to their level of power/influence) dominate others.
Blade Runner tells us that the current and future trendline of humanity is domination of somethings and someones.
In the BR Universe humanity is in the grip of a boundless yet cautious ambition, in which benefits of domination redound to the whole of humanity while the bleeding edge of progress is borne by ones bred for the purpose.
This arrangement is supposed to reverse the usual way of things- benefits accrue to the entirety of humanity at the cost of a slave minority instead of benefits flowing to an entrenched minority at the cost of the majority.
The key word “supposed” it turns out that the benefits of lifelike space labor are not for everyone – indigent, unhealthy and poor are all excluded, even though in a perverse joke a hope of a better life is hanging over their heads constantly.
Perhaps the most (or least) shocking fact is that humanity seems to have no problem creating a slave labor force with human faces. Blade Runner tells us that somewhere along the road humanity lost the battle with itself over creating lifelike simulacrums of itself and concurrently re-learned of the expansive power slave driving can lend to imperial dreams. Of course slavery and domination is the natural way of things but in the Blade Runner universe lifelike slaves are simply passé.
As mentioned earlier, the domination system has a Reaganish trickle-down effect on the whole of society as it creates a world in which the strong do what they will and the weak endure as they must.
The system of domination recapitulates itself in the police captain’s treatment of Deckard. The Captain bends Deckard to his will by psychological force, a microcosm of society’s treatment of replicants. Deckard then forces a replicant to copulate with him, unaware that he too is mimicking societies larger dysfunction. Is there any surprise that Roy Batty replicates dominance in his interactions with human beings? This is the norm of the world that Blade Runner has populated.
It is impossible to speak of domination without mentioning the role of women. Usually subordinate or used for men’s pleasure, women are commoditized in the year 2019. Sex work is underpaid and a last resort for those without other work.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but are the people that continually make our lives easier welcome to live with us? Or do we construct barriers to keep them out so we can live in peace?
With pinpoint accuracy Blade Runner identifies several of the most severe issues our time faces, it is both to its credit and our admonishment that these trends could be seen so clearly 30 years ago. Our duty then, is to realize that something foreseen may well be forestalled and do our best to create worlds that are welcoming to all.
This is what I mean when I reference the quad-dimensality of the seemingly simple act of remembering Blade Runner at this particular historical moment. Blade Runner asks us to look forward – at the picture of the future it represents, while the act of reviewing insures that we look backwards at the historical moment that proffers a view of the future we can analyze in the present. Past, present, future all are contained in Blade Runner, thus ensuring that Blade Runner’s impact is felt beyond the immediate. This is not some happy accident; I choose to believe (with reason) that Ridley Scott intended to offer a tale with prophetic insight beyond artistic merit. Of course Blade Runner is interesting as art – the grungy world, the gritty necessity of beat cops, the glitz and glamor of the future – but there is more to it. The time manifold that Blade Runner forces into our consciousness is powerful and immediate.
Blade Runner is an achievement, a tour de force combining elements of prophecy and philosophy into a tale that strikes with lethal precision the moral obtuseness of the current age.
Blade Runner: 2049 is now in theaters, let us all hope that it can succeed in the same ways.