Blade Runner and the power of sci-fi world-building.
On Friday, one of the most influential science fictional worlds in cinema history returns with the release of Blade Runner 2049. Building on the 1982 original’s dark and meticulously designed vision of a future Los Angeles, the new film has a lot to live up to. Blade Runner is often cited as one of the best, most visually inventive science fiction films ever. With the possible exceptions of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Minority Report, no other film has created a fictional future world so detailed in its execution, so comprehensive in the scope of its vision, and so accurately predictive of—and influential on—the design of the real world. But these movies aren’t just another illustration of the powerful feedback loop between science fiction and reality. If we look closer at the world-building techniques underlying these movies’ possible futures, they may even help us redesign our own futures for the better.
The original Blade Runner took place in 2019. Here in 2017 it’s clear that we won’t soon be achieving some of the more outlandish technological benchmarks contained in the movie’s future, like off-world colonies or androids that are “more human than human.” But put those sci-fi tropes aside. Whether you’re standing in Times Square or Tokyo’s Shibuya Crossing, all you need to do is squint your eyes to imagine that you are in the crowded polyglot neon nightmare that is the Blade Runner future: skyscraper walls of endless animated advertisements glowing down on a polluted human stew of the hyper-rich and the hyper-poor from a thousand cultures.
Welcome to the city of the future. Welcome to the city of today.
Blade Runner’s vision of dark future urbanity owes much of its uncanny verisimilitude to the guy who was tasked with designing one of the more optimistically clichéd pieces of sci-fi hardware: the flying car. Director Ridley Scott hired industrial designer Syd Mead, who had developed conceptual designs for the advanced automobiles of the future at Ford Motor Co., to do the same for his film. As Mead recounts in the newly expanded edition of Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner, which was reissued in September ahead of the new movie release, his experience at Ford combined with his passion for science fiction had given him the skills to build fully realized worlds:
Not only could I come up with advanced [car] designs that weren’t impossible, but I could also project them into a complete, imaginary scenario, a full lifestyle overview which surrounded and complemented the basic object. In other words, I was producing self-contained little worlds, automobiles that were placed into fully functioning future environments … a real street, with real buildings and people dressed in believable future fashions.
Which is exactly what he did for Blade Runner. He designed not just cars (both flying and ground-level varieties) but massive pyramidal skyscrapers, gaudy storefronts, diverse street crowds holding glowing umbrellas against the dirty city rain, public “VidPhons” as grimy and graffiti-smeared as any public telephone booth, and “Trafficators” that told pedestrians when to cross the street and displayed traffic, news, and weather.