Ridley Scott’s visionary movie Blade Runner opened in 1982 but was set in November 2019, in a world of synthetic humans, flying cars, and mercenary wars on space colonies.
Now that the auspicious month has arrived, let’s take a look at where the movie (adapted from a sci-fi novel by Philip K. Dick) was prescient, and where it wasn’t. (If you want to judge for yourself, check out the Nov. 14 screening of Scott’s final cut at the Film Center, 7 pm.)
“Blade Runner missed some big things like the internet and cell phones. On the bright side, we haven’t seen actual replicants yet," noted bioethics expert Dominic A. Sisti, Ph.D. and director of the Scattergood Program for Applied Ethics of Behavioral Health Care at the University of Pennsylvania.
The replicants to which Sisti refers are key to the Blade Runner plot: In the movie, much of the dirty work and fighting is done by synthetic humans, each given a four-year lifespan. When a band of replicants (led by Rutger Hauer) returns to Earth looking to extend those lifespans, detective Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is assigned to locate and eliminate them.
He does so in a nocturnal Los Angeles drenched in rain. Blade Runner predicted significant changes to climate, and imagined a waterlogged L.A. SoCal’s climate has changed, but not in the way the movie anticipated: It’s not rain but wildfires that bedevil residents.
Several of the companies whose logos appear in Blade Runner didn’t make it to 2019. Pan Am is a goner. Bell telephones are no longer in use, though parent AT&T survives. Atari is an orphaned brand trying to make a comeback. Cuisinart is still around but sought temporary refuge in bankruptcy just three years after the movie opened, leading to talk of a Blade Runner curse on featured commercial firms. But the curse was certainly not absolute. Coca-Cola survived, and so did Tsingtao Beer.
As Sisti noted, Blade Runner failed to anticipate cell phones, but we see some form of Bluetooth connectivity in Harrison Ford/Rick Deckard’s flying car. Speaking of which: Auto and airplane manufacturers estimate that commercial passenger drones will hit the market around 2025, and several concept models are operational or in the offing. But they are more like mini-helicopters — noisy and rotor-driven — than the quiet Deckard vehicle, or the pleasing burble of George Jetson’s car.
The movie didn’t anticipate the decline of print, as there are still kiosks in Blade Runner well-stocked with magazines (Premiere, which reported on the so-called Blade Runner Curse, is itself out of business). But — as the movie predicted — we have facial recognition, and digital parking meters and talking crosswalks in most major cities.
The (voice command) “zoom-and-enhance” digital photo trick that Deckard uses to amplify a tiny image detail (via AI using a vast storehouse of existing visual data) is just now catching up to the movie — about as close to total November 2019 synchronicity as we’re likely to get.
Maybe, though, the details don’t matter as much as the movie’s compelling overall vision, said novelist Audrey Schulman, author of five sci-fi books and winner of the 2019 Philip K. Dick Award for her novel Theory of Bastards, itself set in a dystopian future featuring a rotten climate and humans infused with technology.
“We focus on big and glitzy things in terms of flying cars, and we don’t focus on the small and yet revolutionary changes that already have happened. Phones having our entire lives compacted inside them,” said Schulman, who wondered how different we really are from the movie’s Sean Young character, Rachael, a technological compromise between human and AI machine. “We’ve all become a little bit like an android, the way we carry this technology around, and interact with it, we have already become part cyborg.”
Novelist Michael Swanwick noted that when Dick wrote the novel in the 1960s, he wasn’t preoccupied with flying cars. He was studying sociopaths. In his novel, the replicants lack empathy, though that idea was modified in Scott’s film (with Dick’s approval, Swanwick said).
“He was not interested in the physical future. He was interested in what it means to be human. He was writing a philosophical novel rather than a novel concerned with the props of science fiction,” said Swanwick, who’ll be at Philcon this weekend at Cherry Hill, and has recently published The Iron Dragon’s Mother, the conclusion to a fantasy trilogy.
And, Schulman said, while the movie’s view of climate change might be flawed, it’s essentially correct in anticipating “the scale of our effect on the planet. In a million years, if they dig into the planet they’re going to find this whole human layer of trash and plastic.” (This is a prominent aspect of Blade Runner 2049, the sequel).
The Philip K. Dick Award is presented annually by the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society (yes, its acronym is PSFS) to the author “best representing the spirit of innovative science fiction in the paperback marketplace.”
Schulman, who’ll be in town 8 p.m., Dec. 6, at the Rotunda, 4014 Walnut St., to speak to the PSFS, said she’s surprised there are no flying cars, and really surprised to have won the award.
“I never win anything. I don’t even win at bingo.”