Why ‘Blade Runner’ is Still Relevant

By  · Published on September 29th, 2014

Warner Bros.

Some movies, no matter how old they are, never age a day. Their situations and themes remain as relevant now as when they were first released. Watching them today, they reflect and comment on our present in ways they couldn’t possibly have anticipated. Every month we’re going to pick a movie from the past that does just that, and explore what it has to say about the here and now.

Blade Runner is 1980s cinema in all its glory: moody sci-fi, shoulder pads, the hairstyles, the synth score. But none of those things – rightfully – have ever held the 30-year-old film back from remaining a classic. It’s still a beautifully designed neo-noir, as entrancing visually as it is narratively. Like much of Philip K. Dick’s work (even if it is loosely adapted here), Blade Runner is also becoming increasingly more relevant – especially technologically – practically every passing minute. Here’s five ways it’s 2019 world is synching with our 2014 one.

1. The Rise of the Robots

We may not yet have need – like Blade Runner’s Replicants – for humanoid robots created for “hazardous exploration and colonization of other planets,” but we are making them in the same spirit. We’re creating them to make our lives easier. Increasingly so. Robot technology is advancing so quickly that Wired Magazine has even declared 2014, “The Year of the Robot.” It’s hard to argue when robots can now clean our homes and fill our orders in Amazon’s warehouses. Or, when they’re learning how to fly, drive our cars, play as a band, and act as humanitarians. Social robots are even learning to anticipate our needs – right down to pouring us a beer. Like Replicants, which come in a variety of models (heavy lifters, pleasure, soldiers), soon they’ll be a robot for every occasion. And like Replicants, they’re not only looking more human, but – some believe – inheriting our spirit. There is a Japanese term called Sonzai-Kan, “which is essentially the notion that an object can contain the presence or spirit of its creator.”

2. The Best Technology Isn’t Made to Last

It’s hard not to recognize something in Blade Runner’s Replicants’ four-year lifespan and the Tyrell Corporation’s perpetually churning out of new models. Hell, a direct evocation of our contemporary equivalent is right there in Roy Batty’s model number: Nexus-6. The same name as Google’s latest smartphone. Smartphone and tablet makers – Apple perhaps being the most notorious – are perpetually updating their phones and OS’ every few years so that the moment a new phone comes out our current ones become nigh antiquated. System updates are prone to crippling older phones or tablets to a hair-pulling crawl, drastically reducing their usability so that it’s hard to even use a phone for four years. And they don’t even get to see c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate in that time. Well, unless you Google it.

3. The Eye is the Window for Screening Technology

The eye scanning tech Blade Runners use to dig out Replicants in Ridley Scott’s movie may look like their school projectors, but the idea has been increasingly pursued and – most recently – realized. Eye-based tech is becoming far more pervasive. Lie detectors that are based on your peepers are being developed.

Governments are using eye scanning for border crossing, like in Amsterdam where citizens can travel without producing a passport. Google uses iris scanning as security, relying on them to allow entry into their labs. Eye-tracking has become a crucial means of analyzing where people look on website that is influencing how websites are being designed. You can even buy scanners to augment your iPhone 4/4S if you want to scan for your own Replicants. (Don’t do that. They don’t exist. Well. Not yet anyway).

4. Advertising is Everywhere

A recent re-watch of Blade Runner made aware of something I’d never noticed before. That monstrous advertising blimp is everywhere. It seems to pop up constantly, perpetually blaring its promotional promises. Its primitive, clunky tech doesn’t compare to ours now, but the spirit is certainly relevant. Advertising is persistently around us all the time. Just like that blimp. Seemingly always actively trying to find us and cater to us, whether it’s pop-up ads, or algorithmically customized spots that find us on Twitter, Facebook, or Google. With commercial space flight taking off soon, we may even start getting ads like those in Blade Runner selling us on the allured of off-world adventures.

5. The Abandonment of Neighborhoods

We hear a lot about the problems of gentrification these days. Neighborhoods are being constantly reclaimed and Starbucksified in the name of economic progress. But there’s also a flip side: neighborhoods abandoned to destitution and obsolescence as progress moves on without them. We see that subtly, but powerfully, captured in Blade Runner.

The film early on likes to perpetually float over parts of its futuristic city that never seem based on something recognizable. No traces of old structures evoking the buildings of our time, just augmented and updated. It seems completely new and unrecognizable. We see monolithic pyramid structures with hundreds of floors worth of lights beaming out of apartments. It isn’t until we get to the Bradbury Apartments, where J.F. Sebastian lives, that we see architecture we recognize as our own. Except the building – and its neighborhood – are abandoned, worn down, and destitute (“No housing shortage here,” jokes J.F.). It’s unstated, but clear, that progress in civil engineering in 2019 meant abandoning neighborhoods like this to poverty, as progress – in the form of 100-story condos – progressed elsewhere. Post-economic recession, that’s a very persistent reality in the United States. Just ask Detroit.

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