In 1982, when Blade Runner first hit theaters, the American city was dying. Crime was up, the middle class had fled, and many of the nation’s major urban cores were dilapidated and derelict. That sense of urban decay — the notion that the city was somehow a lost prospect — was embedded and extrapolated in the movie, a science-fiction noir set in 2019 Los Angeles.
The movie’s futuristic city is dark and dreary, beset by permanent darkness and drizzling rain, hinting at a history of environmental calamities. Animals are mostly artificial, symbols of a natural world that has been lost to industrial blight, and healthy humans have decamped from the planet to unseen off-world colonies staffed by plentiful robot labor, hoping to start over. Those who remain on Earth are sickly, depressed, and desperate.
Blade Runner offers one of the densest and most richly detailed depictions of the future ever put on film; it’s an urban design statement as much a movie. And its vision is relentlessly bleak. It’s a movie about a future set in a city in which there is no future.
Yet the urban future it envisions is in some ways not too far from our own, and the reality turns out to be far less grim than what the movie projected. Despite its pessimism, the movie has helped define our own collective sense of what great urban environments should look like. It plays like a warning, but it helped invent the future as we know it today.
At the core of Blade Runner is a consideration of humanity’s relationship with the planet
To understand the strange appeal of Blade Runner’s quasi-dystopian future, it helps to know a little bit about the way the movie was conceived and designed.
Loosely based on oddball science fiction writer Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Blade Runner follows Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a gruff detective type in the Humphrey Bogart mold who is pulled out of retirement to take down a group of escaped androids called replicants. This particular band of replicants are all advanced models that can pass for human, but are stronger, and in some cases more intelligent, than humans.
The movie, in other words, looks a lot like a sci-fi riff on the LA detective story — Raymond Chandler meets Isaac Asimov. The theatrical release version even included a hardboiled voiceover, added late in the editing process, in order to cement the connection.
But it’s much more than a simple genre mashup, and in some ways the detective story is the least interesting part of the film. Blade Runner is a big-budget mood piece, an existential tone poem about the precarious nature of humanity and its relationship to the planet, set in one of the most elaborately constructed and imagined futures ever put on film.
Watch any of Blade Runner’s street scenes, and it’s immediately apparent how much work went into creating its near-future Los Angeles. Director Ridley Scott’s shots are densely packed, nearly cluttered, with information: old cars outfitted with industrial odds and ends; flying vehicles with blinking monitors; graffiti-covered video payphones; storefronts with blaring neon signs competing for your attention; bands of strangely dressed people carrying umbrellas lit from the handles; video advertising, some of it vaguely menacing, plastered everywhere. Dirt and smog and steam coat everything.
There’s nearly as much audio information as there is visual detail: From the mixed-language slang spoken on the streets to the talking traffic systems and spoken advertisements blaring from blimp-born loudspeakers, Blade Runner’s streets are noisy urban collages.
The movie packs an incredible amount of detail into every frame, but what’s even more amazing are the details you don’t see. In Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner, author Paul M. Sammon writes about touring the set and finding tiny warnings engraved on the parking meters, and seeing newsstands packed with edgy magazines of the future, each with fully designed covers.
None of these laboriously constructed production elements are ever seen in close-up in the movie. Even the most attentive viewers would never know about them. They just exist in the background, adding to the accumulation of detail and suggesting a world that exists beyond the strict confines of the story and plot. Blade Runner’s Los Angeles feels lived in and used, like a place with a history. Like a well-developed character, it has its own life and backstory. It serves its own purpose. The movie has stayed relevant for so long in part because its world feels real in a way few science fiction films ever achieve.
Ridley Scott’s vision of the future blended the conceptual with the practical
Scott and his production team set out to cultivate that sense of layered, lived-in realism. Before he was a feature film director, Scott was trained as an artist and worked on television advertisements, and that commercial sensibility permeates the film. His idea of the future was that it wouldn’t look slick and shiny. Instead, it would be practical, a hodgepodge of recycled vintage fashions and contemporary ideas, all jumbled together and interconnected. He wanted it to look “authentic” rather than merely “speculative.”
During the film’s production, Scott was notoriously obsessive about creating that reality onscreen. “You’re going through a rather frightening process every time you make a design decision,” he told Sammon. “Whether it’s a television, or a bar, or the shoes a character will wear, it must be lumped in with everything else in the film. For better or for worse.”
Scott demanded the same level of attention from his crew. Sammon recounts a story told by the movie’s art director, David Snyder, during the building of Blade Runner’s elaborate street set — a re-dressing of a New York street set dubbed Ridleytown — Scott showed up to inspect the work. The team had worked for months to create the sort of dense, retrofitted industrial look that Scott had in mind, and they were already $1 million over budget. They thought they had done everything they could. Scott arrived, looked around, said, “It’s a great start,” then left them to figure out how to take his ideas even further.
To help establish the film's look, Scott hired Syd Mead, a “visual futurist” who had worked extensively with automobile manufacturers to develop concept vehicles. Mead’s job initially was just to design the movie’s cars, but he soon began to draw background environments along with the flying vehicles. Mead specialized in design work that was both innovative and practical; everything he designed for the movie was, if not quite workable, based on real-world engineering principles. He quickly became one of the film’s key visual influences.
What Scott and his team did with Blade Runner was create a future that was both stylistically plausible and reasonably realistic from an engineering perspective — a world that didn’t yet exist, but could. And now, in an unexpected way, it does.
Modern cities resemble sunnier versions of Blade Runner’s urban dystopia
Mead, importantly, was hopeful even as he worked on the film. “Despite the downbeat philosophical atmosphere permeating Blade Runner, I’m an optimist about the future,” he told Sammon.
Indeed, despite the pessimism that is so deeply embedded into its outlook, there is something darkly romantic about the way it depicts Los Angeles’s urban future.
It’s not just that Harrison Ford looks dashing in neo-noir future wear or that the lighting is always moody and perfect, as if the entire city had been converted into a sultry nightclub — though none of that hurts. It’s that Blade Runner presents its futuristic city as one that is overrun by the liveliness of mass humanity. Its bustling sci-fi cityscape is defined by diversity and walkability, by commerce and cultural mixing, by industrial ingenuity and panoramas of larger-than-life advertising. Even as the city is dying, it teems with the business of life.
The combination of realism and romanticism makes the movie’s 2019 Los Angeles a place you can imagine not only going to but wanting to visit.
And today, in a sense, you can: Walk through Midtown Manhattan and it’s hard not to see it as a better-lit cousin of Ridley Scott’s LA, packed with fascinating fashions and endless commerce, building-size advertisements and sizzling street food. (The movie’s LA was, after all, built out of a New York set.) It bustles with life and energy and industry. It’s Blade Runner, but without the darkness and depression.
Urban centers have staged a comeback in the decades since 1982, and in the process, they have come to resemble sunnier versions of the gloomy urban landscape that Scott dreamed up. Yes, they are brighter and happier places, but they speak in the same visual language. In attempting to show us how cities would decay, the movie inadvertently ended up offering a reminder of many of the ways they are attractive and appealing.
Blade Runner, in other words, helped set our expectations for what cities should look like. And although it was far from a positive vision, it has, over time, become one.