Isak Enger was born in Bergen in 1995. He is currently a student at the University of Trondheim (NTNU) at a five-year Master’s Programme to become a teacher in English and religion.
The genre known as cyberpunk has its roots in early 1980s film and literature. Two of the most notable works from this time are William Gibson’s 1984 novel “Neuromancer” and Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner, based on Philip K. Dick’s novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” first published in 1968.
Blade Runner, being a motion picture, stands out from other works released during this time through its vivid visuals and set design. Its influence in shaping the genre is huge, and it is considered by many to be the first “true” cyberpunk film (Senior, 1996, p. 1). Its portrayal of a bleak, rainy, smoky Los Angeles, with large concrete buildings blanketing the horizon, and polyglottic masses of citizens maneuvering under neon signs and giant billboards was one of a kind, and these elements are echoed in contemporary movies, books and games that are considered cyberpunk.
Blade Runner is itself an adaptation, but is largely considered as a separate literary work. There are several similarities between the book and the 1982 film, but even more differences. Many of the themes and characters from the book are changed or removed to the point where both works are considered related, but independent of each other. Because of this, along with the fact that the book precedes cyberpunk as a genre by about 20 years, the focus of this essay will be solely on the film over the book. The visuals and set design are unique to the film, and along with a completely different title, served to establish Blade Runner as its own literary and filmic originary.
More than thirty years later, Blade Runner got its first and only sequel, titled Blade Runner 2049, directed by Denis Villeneuve. The thirty-year gap between the release of each movie is present in Blade Runner 2049’s story as well, and as such it has imagined a kind of future within a future. While cyberpunk is not a clearly defined genre and there is no checklist to cross off, certain elements are core, and in being a subgenre of science fiction, cyberpunk is often both a lens to the future as much as a mirror of the present (Abbott, 2007, p. 122).
My analysis will look at the genre itself, and attempt to identify some core elements relevant to both movies. It will then look at how some of these elements are present in the original Blade Runner, and then analyze how these elements are adapted and changed when they are brought into both the fictional future Los Angeles, as well as the cultural context of 2017, in Blade Runner 2049. Due to the recent release of Blade Runner 2049, few articles discussing it exist. I will therefore focus on articles discussing cyberpunk and the original Blade Runner, and draw my own conclusions when analyzing the 2017 sequel.
For my exploration into some defining characteristics of the cyberpunk genre, I will use Carl Abbott’s article on urban theory, titled “Cyberpunk Cities”. The city has as much presence, indeed character, as many of the (semi) human characters in both movies, and is vitally important in science fiction. It draws its energy both from the fallible, downtrodden people who inhabit it, as well as through its electrical infrastructure of interlinked buildings (Abbott, 2007, p. 122), and, in a way, becomes a living creature and character. As the city is an important visual and thematic element in cyberpunk movies, it is relevant to explore it from the perspective of one involved in designing cities.
1.1 Cities and Inhabitants
Abbott makes it clear that any story involving a future must be a projection or reflection of one or several current facets of human life, condition, and history (2007, pp. 122-3). This is no less true for cyberpunk, and during the genre’s genesis in the 1980s, it reflected the issues and worries present in late capitalism, including isolation, unethical corporations, environmental collapse, etc. Also strong is a sense of excess. The people are numerous, the buildings cover your sightline no matter where you look, and there seems to be an overflowing of both ecstasy and fear, often brought on by the available technology (Byron, 2008, p. 43).
The very name itself says a lot about the genre. Cyberpunk fuses the brilliant possibilities as well as potential misuses of advanced technology (cyber), with the underground rebellious attitudes of those disillusioned, living in a world where the system is against them (punk). Common cyberpunk protagonists are hackers, ex-cops, or street-dwellers, while common antagonists are enforcers of the system or heads of corporations. Characters in cyberpunk stories often integrate technology directly with themselves, whether it be through explicit neural or cybernetic enhancements, or in a more subtle manner through improvements to their quality of life, however small or seemingly unimportant (Abbott, 2007, p. 124).
Furthermore, Abbott connects the concept of a “world city” to cyberpunk, and claims the genre and its theory developed contemporaneously. World cities are hubs for large banks and corporations, and are often linked to “current” world cities like New York, Tokyo, and London in cyberpunk stories. These cities are the centers of business, economy, and the social through sheer population density. They are both dynamic and deadly, and the protagonists of cyberpunk stories are part of the pulse of the city, often employed as policemen, programmers, or deliverymen. The cyberpunk world city draws heavily from the presentation found in Las Vegas, with blaring advertisements, enormous neon signs, vendors, bars, shops, and crowds, to capture a sense of a dreamlike world of wonder and possibility (2007, p. 125).
Despite the wide and varied technological environment, humans are most often at the core of cyberpunk, often with the intent to blur or examine the lines of what “being human” precisely means. Through the melding of man and machine, the limits of what one might call a human expand, and this spurs a debate on current and future issues of humanity. Human life, however defined, is tough in a cyberpunk world. Gone are the traditional utopian views of the future where science saves all, and technophobia tinges the genre, wherein technology is as much our damnation as savior. Those that are worst off are often in the background, as an underclass dwelling in alleyways or on street corners (Senior, 1996, pp. 2-3). In Abbott’s own words, cyberpunk cities are “…big, bad, bifurcated, and baffling. But they can also be spirited and specific, sometimes sinful, sometimes suspenseful, but always stimulating.” (2007, p.129).
2.0 Blade Runner (1982)
When discussing the original Blade Runner, a brief mention of its many versions needs to be made. For this analysis, I will be looking at the “Final Cut” version, released in 2007. While the differences between the multitudes of versions are not entirely irrelevant, they are largely of little consequence in light of this essay’s focus. The choice of Final Cut over any other was made due to it being the most recent release of the movie, as well as being considered the Director’s cut.
Already from the first shot, the resemblance to the city as described by Abbott, Senior, and Byron is apparent. Excluding the opening credits and intro text informing the viewer of the role and status of replicants, the first shot is a wide shot of the city. Few details are visible, as it takes place at night, but the lights dotting the seemingly endless urban landscape establish it as a city that does not sleep. In fact, it resembles the night sky, while the sky itself is barren and devoid of starlight. The flying cars (referred to as spinners) briefly seen flying through the shot, inform us that it is not only a modern city, but also a highly advanced one, a staple element of the cyberpunk city. Further shots of the city as the film progresses give us expanded and more intimate insight into 2019 Los Angeles. Despite being the future, it is not an ultramodern, but rather postmodern city, wherein the industrial decay seen throughout represents an evolution of real world postmodernism and late capitalism. Waste dots the Blade Runner world. It is a decaying city that continues the ever-present consumption and discarding of products so prevalent in capitalism. Waste is a sign of a working system, and the more advanced a society, the more waste it produces (Bruno, 1987, pp. 63-4).
The world is hostile, and it is visually blurry. Heavy rain, smoke, shadows, or crowds of people create a sense of everything blending together, and nothing feeling distinct, except the enormous neon signs and billboards attached to buildings that dwarf the people below. These are no exception to the strong influence of Oriental and Asian culture present in 2019 Los Angeles, particularly that of China and Japan. The influence is not overly distinct in an already massively multicultural and multilingual society, but present enough to not be ignored, as rickshaws roll by, Chinese graffiti litters the walls, street vendors serve sushi and noodles, and many of the supporting characters and faces on the billboards are Asian (Senior, 1996, p.3).
In particular, one of the earliest shots of the city depicts a wall of structures with seemingly every interior light lit. To the right, an enormous billboard depicts a woman in Geisha makeup swallowing a pill and smiling (Blade Runner, 00:07:26). The juxtaposition of the Geisha woman and advertisements for Coca Cola and Atari, brands at the heart of America, creates a clear image of a melding of the east and west, much like the cyberpunk tradition of melding man and technology, and as Bruno puts it, “recreates the third world inside the first” (1987, p. 66). The shot has become iconic in its depiction of a cyberpunk city, and the Geisha woman carries an eerie sense of capitalism taken to its utter extreme. This visual motif sets a mood for Blade Runner that carries over into Blade Runner 2049, both in terms of visual and cultural theme.
2.1 Technology and Emotion
In terms of specific examples of technology, I will focus on three: The replicants, the Voight-Kampff test, and Deckard’s “Esper” photo analysis machine. In terms of design, the two latter devices follow a philosophy of “new onto old”. The Voight-Kampff machine’s screens and buttons are familiar in design to most late seventies/eighties technology, except for the readings they give off, which one can assume only a professional could parse. In that familiarity, however, some design elements seem alien, almost intimidating, particularly the “eye” that sticks out and seemingly scans the interviewee (Blade Runner, 00:04:55).
Likewise, Deckard’s Esper machine for manipulating and analyzing Leon’s photographs looks largely similar to that of an old television set, complete with a VCR-like insertion of the photo. The main difference lies in the multitudes of unfamiliar technology sticking out of its sides, clearly showing it is a lot more advanced than any technology the everyman might possess in the 1980’s (00:42:55).
This process of design is called “retrofitting”, and involves attaching new-looking technology onto old-looking ones, creating a midpoint between the two. This philosophy is present not only in set and prop design, but in the entire tone and setting of the movie (Byron, 2008, p.42). Through this, the film creates a dual sense of stagnation and progress. Certain elements of design and technology seem frozen in place, while others advance with great speed. Instead of remaking or reiterating on design and function, it is instead simply added to whenever and wherever necessary. It also serves to make the complicated and advanced technology recognizable and realistic, as it bases itself on real world and relatively common items.
The replicants are at the heart of the Blade Runner story, being genetically engineered humans designed for specific purposes, usually jobs that are too demeaning or degrading for normal humans. Replicants are denied status as humans, ostracized by society and hunted down by the titular blade runners when they fall out of line. Blade runners serve as judge, jury, and executioners of replicants. They are given a name and a face, and tasked with hunting down and identifying the replicants. Upon successful identification, the sole job of a blade runner is to kill the replicant in question, often with a gun and in the middle of a crowded street. Blade runners are, in many ways, as singular in purpose as the manufactured replicants they are devoted to hunting down.
It is a racist society, where racism has evolved to a point where those discriminated against are nearly identical to their oppressors, save for the circumstances of their coming into being, and their lifespan, as Replicants die after a mere 4 years. The ambivalent question of whether or not Deckard is a replicant himself is hotly debated and will not be discussed in this essay, save for the mention that it is a contributing factor to the lines between human and non-human in the movie breaking down (Senior, 1996, p.5).
Little is shown or known about the process of creating replicants, but it ultimately does not matter. They are a testament to a vision of a world where genetic technology is leaps ahead, while other technology has progressed, but not to the same level. Replicants follow the same “retrofitting” concept, albeit in a more subtle manner. They are the product of highly advanced technology, set in a familiar and traditional mold, that of the human form. While replicants are visually identical to humans (with the exception of a red-orange glow behind their eyes visible at certain times), they are capable of greater feats of strength and cognitive function. As is the motto of their creator, Dr. Tyrell: “More human than human”.
The Voight-Kampff test is an early signifier of the importance of emotion to replicants. It seeks to analyze minute emotional responses to certain situations or phrases, which a trained blade runner is able to parse and use to determine whether their target is a replicant. The test is much like an interview. Characters relax, smoke, and answer as simply as they can; it is personal, maybe in an effort to make the emotional responses more genuine (Blade Runner, 1982, 00:19:20).
The Esper machine, on the other hand, is an advanced device capable of “entering” a photograph, moving around within it, and zooming to an impressive degree. The machine is voice-controlled, with Deckard speaking commands like “enhance 34 to 36” and the machine almost instantly complying (00:44:17).
The thematic links between photographs and memories, and then memories and emotions, are clear. Rachael, a replicant originally unaware of her manufactured nature, is explained as having memories implanted to “cushion” her emotions by her creator, Dr. Tyrell, along with his mention of his corporation’s motto being “more human than human” (00:21:40). When confronted with her true nature, Rachael presents a photograph of her and her mother, which Deckard explains as belonging, like her memories, to Tyrell’s niece.
Emotions and memory are core to humanity. They serve to reaffirm our experience of life and place within the world. Replicants have implanted memories, and their emotional responses are evidently different enough from real human ones to be detectable. This serves to further make it clear that replicants are incredibly close to, but just not quite human “enough”. Since the memories are technically real, and their emotional discrepancies are unidentifiable by the layman, the line between human and replicant is increasingly blurred.
3.0 Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
Comparing the opening shots, after the initial shot of the eye, of Blade Runner 2049 with the original Blade Runner, there are several visual and thematic similarities, along with some differences. The shot is once again an overview of structures, and another spinner flies by, but this time we are further away from Los Angeles. Instead of the view of buildings reminiscent of a glittering night sky, we are shown fields of solar farms, inviting a sense of environmental progress. It is a cleaner, brighter image, and the towers spewing flame, provoking thoughts of oil and industry, are replaced with green, solar energy.
Much like how the original Blade Runner mirrors societal worries on consumption and capitalism, the cultural context of Blade Runner 2049 is different, and thus presents a world shaped by our current worries of environmental collapse. It is one of the very few images that invites ideas of a positive approach to the environment in both Blade Runner films. If one operates with the idea that the original Blade Runner takes place in a timeline split off from our own, wherein technology took a different route and advanced faster, Blade Runner 2049 continues this timeline and carries it 30 years into the future.
3.1 A Different Future
Keeping in mind the real-world advancements made over the past 30 years, Blade Runner 2049 has an enormous playing field for crafting new technologies or evolving known ones. Mirroring our own progress, the overall design of the film is sleeker. The interior of the spinners is visibly cleaned up, with loose tubes and wires replaced with more polished flat surfaces, while still retaining a worn-out and well-used look. The city itself has undergone a similar change. Pipes and antennae on roofs are still present, but an emphasis on hard, flat concrete is visible in much of the architecture. Overhead shots of the city reveal it a grey mass, blanketing a seemingly endless stretch of land. What little color there is bleeds through the cracks of streets in the form of neon lights and advertisements, a clear expansion in scale and scope from the 1982 film.
We are also shown a glimpse of the sea wall that acts as a barrier between Los Angeles and the Pacific Ocean, giving the viewer an idea that efforts towards clean energy may have come too late. The fact that the weather switches between heavy rains and snowfall in June/July reinforces the fact that the environmental collapse dreaded in the original has already happened.
Real-world technologies that had yet to enter the public eye during the eighties often have parallels in Blade Runner 2049, such as Officer K’s drone. However, objects like smartphones and laptops, indeed the existence of a publicly accessible internet, seem strangely absent in both movies. This is not out of the ordinary in the original, as the internet had barely become commonplace, but for viewers of Blade Runner 2049, it is a conspicuous absence. It is clear that while this is a future Los Angeles, it is a different future. Some technology has advanced rapidly while others evolved slower or not at all. There may be an in-universe explanation for this, or it may also have been a simple narrative choice used to drive the plot where it needed to go.
However, both movies set rules for what does and does not exist within its world. It may be as small as Roy Batty’s mention of “attack ships” in his famous ending monologue, but this acknowledges the existence of war and military machines within the Blade Runner world, and justifies the inclusion of orbital weapons in Blade Runner 2049. The internet, in any shape or form as we know it today, is not mentioned at all, and therefore has no analogue within either movie. With this in mind, the inclusion of certain technologies over others becomes clear. While it is certainly subtle and unspoken of, there exists a technological ruleset for the Blade Runner universe, to which Blade Runner 2049 adheres.
3.2 Evolving Technology
The Voight-Kampff test is gone, but has thematically been split into two different technologies. The first is shown during K’s fight with Sapper, wherein he scans Sapper’s eye with a small tool to identify that he is not only a replicant, but also exposing his very identity through his serial number (Blade Runner 2049, 00:08:30). 30 years in the future, replicants have open-ended life spans and are more advanced, but retain their ostracized status in society. Now, they are branded and easily identified, through a serial number under their right eye. Some lack names in favor of a serial code. The protagonist of Blade Runner 2049, K, full “name” KD 6-3.7, is a replicant blade runner. The irony of this is not lost on the characters, and Sapper comments on it, asking K how it feels to kill his own kind, while K himself dismisses this by stating that his kind, the newer models, do not run from their duties (00:09:14).
It is clear that, even among those shunned by society, there is a hierarchy of status. Newer models are the favored, bringing back focus on capitalist ideas of a throwaway society, wherein something needs to be replaced the moment a slightly better version of it is released, only this time it is a person rather than a cell phone. Along this line of thought, K’s device becomes a sort of barcode scanner, confirming he has the correct “product” that needs to be thrown out.
The other half of the Voight-Kampff test’s split comes in the form of the “post-traumatic baseline test” that K undergoes on two separate occasions. This is a clear evolution of the interview portion of the Voight-Kampff test. However, it has changed dramatically, from a somewhat personal one-on-one interview between two individuals into something hyper-industrialized. Like a conveyor belt, K is bombarded with personal questions that still intend to elicit an emotional response. Gone is the face-to-face interview over a table. K is instead placed in a small, white, claustrophobic room, being barked commands at by a disembodied voice while facing a scanner. It is frantic, fast, and more reminiscent of quality assurance at a factory than an interview.
Whereas the Voight-Kampff test’s questions were of a seemingly random nature, the baseline test asks deep, prodding questions like “what’s it like to hold the hand of someone you love”, followed by a kind of trigger word that relates to the preceding question (in this case: “interlinked”), which K must repeat back (00:13:50). The baseline test seeks not to identify a replicant, but rather attempts to break it mentally. It is a psychological stress test, measuring responses and biometrics to detect whether the toll of the job has made K unfit for duty. A later scene makes it clear that failing your baseline test is grounds for termination, not from your job, but from your life (01:23:05). The baseline test reinforces that replicants living in this hyper-consumerist society are numerous and disposable, to a certain degree. What may once have been seen as a rarity is now another product in a world of constant production.
Deckard’s “Esper” machine lacks the same analogues as the Voight-Kampff test. However, the technology behind it and spirit of the scene is echoed multiple times in Blade Runner 2049. The first is during the analysis of Rachael’s bones. The zooming abilities of the machine are astounding, as it is able to locate a serial number on the inside of a scalpel cut (00:25:55). This is also a callback to the scene in the original where Deckard finds a microscopic serial number on the snake scale (Blade Runner, 00:46:15). Similarly, the DNA machine used by K is voice operated, and the manner in which K tells it to “stop, bring up 4847 and 2181, side by side” is nearly identical to Deckard’s operation of the Esper machine. The fact that the DNA machine speaks Japanese only also shows that the Oriental influence on Los Angeles has not stagnated (Blade Runner 2049, 00:54:23).
Analogues to the Esper machine are also present in the scene where K operates his drone on the way into Vegas: “Go to five, four, 30 degrees to the left…” (01:36:15) as well as the scene in which Luv controls a missile-firing satellite via voice command and eyewear while getting a manicure: “200 feet to the east. Fire.” (01:03:05). The latter mirrors the real-world depersonalization of military warfare.
Blade Runner 2049 takes it to the furthest extreme by showing an incredible ease of use and nonchalant attitude while raining hellfire on a location miles away. The scene functions as a commentary on drone warfare, only the drone is orbiting the planet and can strike anyone, anywhere, and the operation of such a machine is as simple as putting on a pair of glasses. It is evident that the ever-growing ease of use of technology has expanded into the military field as well, which paints a horrifying picture of the future of warfare. Overall, the design of technology favoring voice commands over tactile interfaces like keyboards speaks to an attitude to technology as servile. Machines, like replicants, are at the command of humans, they are our tools to use and not following our orders is unimaginable.
The motif of the Geisha billboard also carries over into Blade Runner 2049. An analogue for its visual presence is visible on several occasions in the form of a huge video billboard showing a white-faced woman. However, the motif is taken further, as seen through the impressive hologram technology available in Blade Runner 2049. Advertisements for various products are done through holograms that pop out from the side of buildings or walk along the street among the people. Joi, K’s “girlfriend”, is merely an artificial intelligence given a physical presence through a holographic emanator.
These advertisements are another concept being taken to its furthest extreme. The idea of consumerism and capitalism has gotten to the point where advertisements can walk among us, interact with us, even talk directly to us, as is shown during the scene in which a defeated K, lamenting the loss of his own Joi, is talked to directly by a giant Joi commercial (02:16:40). The movie also makes a statement on women’s portrayal and sexuality in advertisements, as the holograms generally feature scantily clad women, or, in the case with the giant Joi commercial, are completely nude and speak seductively in order to attract customers. Whereas the original Geisha advertisement planted an idea that products dwarf people, Blade Runner 2049 takes this further and makes it tangible, as the ads are physically enormous compared to the humans below.
By identifying and iterating upon preexisting elements in Blade Runner, Blade Runner 2049 shows that it respects the original work it bases itself on. Cyberpunk was only emerging as a genre when Blade Runner was released, but its visuals, set design, and themes have become staples for what any cyberpunk piece of media should look like, sound like, and discuss through its themes. While individual pieces of cyberpunk technology vary greatly between any literary work, those Blade Runner displays tell of a decaying future where attempts at shifting hard labor onto manufactured humans has led to a world with runaway replicants being hunted by blade runners, using equipment that is simultaneously foreign and familiar, but indisputably advanced.
In making a sequel, with both an in-universe and cultural progression of 30 years, staying faithful to the 1982 film’s original vision could have been no easy task. By adhering to the rules of its universe, and expanding on its visuals and themes, Blade Runner 2049 succeeds not only as a sequel, but also as a cyberpunk film. Through evolving the technology and showing realistic progress in a very different Los Angeles, the film further solidifies the Blade Runner universe as one that is consistent. Through this, its science fiction function as a dark mirror of a possible future becomes all the more impactful.
The world it shows warns of the potential culmination of a society fixated on capitalism and consumerism, with a disregard for issues of humanity and the environment. Both Blade Runner films are undoubtedly interlinked visually and thematically, but perhaps more impressive is how they are interlinked with humanity’s past, present, and future.
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