- Legacies of Blade Runner
Blade Runner's futures: on cyberpunk and franchise cinema
1 November 2019–Blade Runner Day–has now come and gone, officially relegating Ridley Scott's sf vision of the future to the prosaic past. For many, the film's once-iconic cyberpunk and grimdark world now seems less surreal than our actual November 2019, which has somehow outstripped the original film's dystopian vision. Thus, while critics and fans may mock the futuristic fashions and advanced technological developments that have not (yet) been realised, in many ways our world has caught up with the dystopian imaginary of Blade Runner (Scott US 1982): corporatocracy, climate change and the violent rounding up and extermination of exploited and marginalised peoples in the name of national security. As one tweet lamented: '#BladeRunner was apparently set in November 2019. Where's my flying car? Back then it was a dystopian sci fi movie, turns out it was wildly over optimistic' (Spencer n.p.).
Of course, sf is not simply prolepsis, and Scott's vision of the future–already a retrofuture in the 1980s1–tells us more about the ideological limits of that present and the stubbornly persistent regressive retrofutures that we continue to inhabit. Consequently, although Blade Runner's future is now slipping into our past, its worldbuilding continues to draw in academics, critics, cult fans and popular audiences alike; the original film is an enduring classic in the histories of sf cinema and cyberpunk visuality and an important text for thinking these histories and their pervasive pull on our present and future. Indeed, if cyberpunk is 'the supreme literary expression if not of postmodernism, then of late capitalism itself' (Jameson 419m), then Blade Runner is cyberpunk's quintessential visual expression. Such cyberpunk aesthetics are often tied to a stereoscopic visual regime that fuses the digitised virtual realm with the material street level–cue The Matrix's (Wachowskis US 1999) overlaying of code from Neo's point of view. Yet, as Scott Bukatman attests, the [End Page 1] 'aesthetic of cyberpunk was defined by Blade Runner' (Bukatman qtd Murphy 'Cyberpunk and Postcyberpunk' 523).
The overwhelming influence that Blade Runner has asserted on our sf imaginations has proved Bukatman's point, but it poses a nagging question: where's the 'cyber'? Where are the military grade viruses, console cowboys, coders, hackers and light-bikes? Instead of these stylistic touchstones, Blade Runner offers us something else. As Graham J. Murphy, following from Bukatman, notes, what made Blade Runner 'arguably the most influential cinematic vision of cyberpunk' was its attention to the material world–its 'neon-saturated and polluted urban sprawl, overcrowded streets, futuristic and anachronistic technologies, and incessant advertising' (523). In other words, Blade Runner played the 'meatspace' dialectical other to the virtual world of Tron (Lisberger US 1982). What established the film as the aesthetic precedent for cyberpunk was not its portrayal of abstraction–the invisible ones and zeros of an emerging cyberspace–but instead the way that it consolidated a set of experiences already undergirding the material reality of everyday life. And this is perhaps one reason why the film has endured; despite some seemingly outlandish elements, its vision of the future mediated the material foundations of a nascent neoliberal capitalism, cohering them into the visual grammar of a dystopian world that so alarmingly foreshadows our present.
Significantly, having established many of the visual protocols for cyberpunk's material realm, Blade Runner was just as important for how it established the subject that inhabited this new late capitalist mise-en-scène. For many commentators, early cyberpunk's chief vocation was fundamentally bound to its mapping of the newly emerging (post)human subject along with its equally new late capitalist terrain, as both of these–the new subject and system–cut across and were reconstituted through a complex comingling of the virtual and material spaces. As Bukatman notes, looking back on the pathbreaking works of cyberpunk: 'Visuality was, and is, urgently important to an emergent [cyberpunk] that, more than anything else, set out to survey and map a new terrain, all the while performing the urgent work of elucidating how the...