We find our jobs supplanted across seas to foreign lands in this increasingly globalizing capitalist economy. We find our very existence depending more and more upon advancing technology—computers, iPods, blackberries, videoconferencing, MRI’s, cat scans, robots, cyber security. Images and information from news tickers, billboards, movies, television, and the Internet bombards our eyes at all hours of the day. Manmade radiation of all sorts flies through the air, crisscrossing, synthesizing, and eventually frying our synapses. And we are lost, dazed and confused—unsure of where the real world ends and the constructed reality of mass media and popular culture begins. How can we hold on, cope, and hopefully thrive in this dizzy, mixed up world?
Blade Runner’s Dystopian Future: Postmodernism or Pessimism?
Blade Runner’s Dystopian Future: Postmodernism or Pessimism?
It is not an easy question, so there is of course no easy answer. But while scientists, engineers, politicians, and economists deal with the more tangible issues of the present age (the shrinking ice caps, growing population, depletion of the O-zone layer, outsourcing, weapons of mass destruction, etc), those hiding in academia (a place I hope to find refuge), or more specifically “cultural studies,” explore the all important abstractions and complexities of our current existence, hoping to find answers that might calm our nerves and bring us peace. Postmodernism has become, since its popular genesis in the 1970s, an all-important mode of critical theory, a philosophical dialogue used by academics to digest the world around us. It is a lens, if you will, that may be applied to the art, film, society, economy, and culture of our times. In this paper, I will apply the postmodern lens to the urban setting and themes of Ridley Scott’s award winning film Blade Runner in hopes of finding some of these answers that might make our world slightly more intelligible. I intend to enter the polemical dialogue over Blade Runner’s postmodernity, and specifically its ability as a film to accurately project a postmodern future. But in order to do this we must first come to some basic understanding of postmodernism and the characteristics of postmodern film, and additionally, momentarily gauge the nature of the debate over Blade Runner.
One problem with defining postmodernism is its very resistance to simplified, singular narratives or understandings. Postmodernism distrusts grand theories and ideologies. It was originally a reaction to modernism, and at its heart is a response to the pretensions and snobbery of “high” art—a rejection of elitist culture. Extreme complexity, ambiguity, contradiction, diversity, as well as interconnectedness and intertextuality characterize postmodern art. The intentional assimilation of different artistic styles, the self-conscious allusion to previous styles and works of art, and the integration of images and dialogue relating to the consumerism and pop culture of our postindustrial, postcolonial society will be the most obvious characteristics of postmodernism in film, and certainly these aspects will be reflected within the settings, characters, and themes of Blade Runner.
Critical theorists Jean Baudrillard, Jean-François Lyotard, and Fredric Jameson can claim responsibility for the most significant shaping of the postmodern discussion, particularly in regards to cinema. The crux of Baudrillard’s characterization of postmodernism in film is the idea that the rise of cinema and Hollywood culture in America has reversed the traditional mimetic relationship between art and reality. Baudrillard argues that in today’s world the “simulacrum” or image supersedes reality. Our world has become so saturated with the constructed image, that our reality becomes constructed by these images. “It is not the least of America’s charms,” Baudrillard observes, “that even outside the movie theaters the whole country is cinematic. The desert you pass through is like the set of a Western, the city a screen of signs and formulas.”1 As reality mirrors image, instead of the reverse, reality slowly drowns all together and we realize Baudrillard’s presentation of the postmodern as a world become wholly image, described by Catherine Constable as “pervaded by its own superficiality and thus rendered meaningless.”2 With reality superseded by the image, autonomy of the artist disappears, as original social commentary is no longer possible. As Jameson explains, this idea results in one of the key aesthetic features of the postmodern, pastiche: “all is left is to imitate dead styles, to speak through the masks and with the voices of the styles in the imaginary museum.”3 The pastiche form of expression, drawing from the styles of various time periods, annihilates temporality just as the domination of the image and mass culture drowns reality. In this sense, postmodern art fails to establish any sequential sense of past, present, or future. As a result, art is “condemned to the perpetual present,” that is, as Jameson and Constable posits, “emblematic of the postmodern condition.”4 These characteristics of postmodernism in film and others are fully exhibited in Blade Runner.
The film Blade Runner is set in a dirty, dizzying, expansive Los Angeles in the year 2019. Incredible advances in technology have allowed for the production of sophisticated bio-engineered humanoid beings, dubbed “replicants”—they are essentially robots without the necessity for but with the propensity for human feelings. In wake of some sort of violent revolt on what we can imagine to be a “replicant” production city and slave-labor plantation somewhere in outer-space, but what is simply referred to as the “off world,” replicants are declared illegal on earth, and a search for any that may have escaped to earth and into the mixed up habitat of L.A. is hastily undertaken. Reminiscent of the introduction to the 5th Element and Bruce Willis’s character several years later, Harrison Ford’s character Rick Deckard is called out of retirement in order to locate and destroy (or “retire”) a few specific replicants known to have escaped to the area. In a strange turn of events, Deckard becomes romantically involved with one of the replicants, Rachael, whom has convinced herself of her own humanity, although Deckard coldly explains that she has been programmed with false memories. Deckard provides her with refuge in his apartment as he proceeds to eliminate the rest of the replicants, and the films ends as Rachael and Deckard depart from his apartment into an uncertain world and towards an unsure future.
Some critics have argued that a projection of postmodernism onto Blade Runner’s narrative for the purpose of critical interpretation is an overly forced use of the theory, and several of these same critics even question the usefulness of the postmodern theory, and the truthfulness of its separation from modernist theory. My intent in this essay is not to project a theory onto a film, nor to characterize Ridley Scott’s filmic intentions as any way related to postmodernism (although I don’t doubt that this could be successfully done), but to specifically demonstrate how Blade Runner, and most importantly the construction of the fictional Los Angeles of 2019, reflects the characteristics of the postmodern condition, the distinctiveness of late capitalism or postindustrial capitalism, and the distinguishing factors of postmodern architecture. As well, in my humble opinion, it is ludicrous to question the usefulness of postmodern theory and its associated terms. The theory has garnered an expansive currency across many academic departments and the critical discourses surrounding many artistic endeavors. As mentioned before, postmodernism has provided a vocabulary and theoretical framework that has helped critics and intellectuals relate the most recent art, literature, film, architecture, etc to the ever changing and globalizing modern world. Certainly there is room to critique the use of postmodern theory and the intricacies of the theory itself. Also, there is truthfulness to explaining postmodernism as an extension and evolution of, rather than a departure from, modernism. But to describe it as an unnecessary extension would be misguided. Those who would ask us to ditch the use of postmodernist theory in their unwavering loyalty to modernism are somehow in belief that Hemingway’s work and that of John Barth or David Foster Wallace can be best understood under the same theoretical parameters. This view assumes that the founding theorists of the modernist school foresaw the incredible changes that would undergo both society and art over the subsequent century. I find this view incredibly hard to believe. In all of my critical endeavors I look to emphasize continence as much as I highlight change over time. There is much truth to be found in grounding today’s intricacies in the ancient narratives of human and social nature. This point is exhibited by that fact that the story of Oedipus continues to be employed by critics today, and Aristotle’s formulaic unraveling and understanding of tragedy continues to be relevant today. But to deny the necessity for critical theory to evolve along side the ever-changing world is a view detrimental to our ability to understand the current relationship between our arts and the psychology of our surrounding world and ourselves.
Film critic, and College of William and Mary professor, Varun Begley takes issue with the fact that:
- …it is a commonplace in cultural studies circles to invoke Blade Runner as a paradigmatic example of postmodern film. Since the 1980s, architects, urban scholars, film critics, and cultural theorists have used the film to advance a variety of disciplinary aims associated with the postmodern watershed. As an investigation of time, space, identity, capitalism, and the city, the film has often been taken as commentary on, or indeed as evidence of, a profound historical and cultural transition.5
Geographers and academics Michael Dear and Steven Flusty have clearly and successfully summarized some of the common themes and characteristics of postmodern urbanism: offering the broad categories of “world city,” “dual city,” “altered spaces,” and “cybercity” as a way of loosely organizing the discussion of a city as postmodern. The first three of these categories are applicable to and recognizable in the construction of Ridley Scott’s imagined Los Angeles. Dear and Flusty single out the idea of a world city in order to “emphasize the emergence of a relatively few centers of command and control in a globalizing economy.”6 A world city is the projection of globalizing forces onto the physical and social structuring of a city. Such an idea is easily realized in the viewing of 2019 L.A. Director Ridley Scott was quoted attributing his portrayal of a futuristic L.A. to his time in “Hong Kong on a very bad day” and his former home in the heavily industrialized landscape of northeastern England.7 Many critics have described Ridley’s L.A. as an amalgamation of Los Angeles, New York, Hong Kong, and Tokyo, reaffirming an understanding of the futuristic city as less and less distinctive, and more and more universal in appearance. This parallels the understanding of the postmodern condition as one in which the local is dissolved into the global, and true origins become lost. This loss of identity is exhibited in one case by the fact that police in L.A. speak a foreign language, no longer English, and Deckard is forced to have the creator of his Japanese noodle dish translate for him. The hybridity of global cities today, like L.A. and New York, with their large and highly imageable ethnic burroughs, are proof of this fictional projection. The fictional and futuristic Los Angeles becomes a collage of architectural styles, where Japanese and Chinese billboards juxtaposed with Coca-Cola posters, rising from the roofs of grecco-roman temples and Egyptian-style apartment highrises. Critic Giuliana Bruno explains: “We are not presented with a real geography, but an imaginary one: a synthesis of mental architectures.”8 The pastiche nature of L.A. is further emphasized, and reaffirmed as world city, in the social make up of the city. As Deckard walks its streets, we witness the passing of Hassidic Jews, as well as Japanese punks and Chinese businessmen. Bruno elaborates on this idea, writing: “The film is populated by eclectic crowds of faceless people, Oriental merchants, punks, Hari Krishnas.”9 But more significant to a postmodern and postindustrial reading of Blade Runner’s setting, than the pastiche nature of the world city, is the idea of “dual city.”
The dual city is the embodiment of “the increasing gap between rich and poor; between the powerful and powerless; between different ethnic, racial, and religious groupings.”10 This concept is realized in both the plot and setting of Blade Runner. The evolution of society and technology to the point that human’s are creating replicants for the purpose of war and labor, is essentially a return to human slavery, and the perfect materialization of the oppressive nature of capitalism. The distinction between the human and the replicant, is a projection of the relationship between rich and poor, between capitalist and laborer. The idea that progress can augment the postmodern condition into a happy state of perfected capitalism is eschewed in this case, because such a notion is fantastical, naïve, and likely impossible. The only projection of the postmodern, postindustrial city is one in which current realities are at least maintained and in most cases exaggerate. We can’t assume that the processes of waste and creative destruction, the necessities of the capitalist system, will be solved as time goes on. Instead we must assume they persist and materialize in new and evolved forms. Again, this is demonstrated in the physical and social construction of Blade Runner’s setting. Bruno writes, “The postindustrial city is a city in ruins.”11 Indeed, in the world of Blade Runner the wealthy literally live on top. No longer feasible to escape laterally to posh gated communities, the capitalist elites build their havens higher and higher as the laborers scurry about well below. We see this as the Tyrell Corporation and other high-rise apartments look out on the city from high above, while street level scenes exhibit social dissidents, the homeless, and streets and alleyways of filth and trash. Bruno acutely synthesizes the idea of the world-city and the characteristics of the post-industrial, stratified, dual city when she describes Scott’s Los Angeles, writing:
- It is a place of vast immigration, from countries of overpopulation and poverty. While immigrants crowd the city, the indigenous petite bourgeoisie moves to the suburbs or to the “off world” as the case may be. Abandoned buildings and neighborhoods in decay adjoin highly populated, crowded old areas, themselves set next to new, high tech business districts.12
While Blade Runner may not whole-heartedly engage with the intricacies of postmodernism in the construction of its narrative, I believe the film as a whole, and more successfully the characterization of the city setting, are illustrative of the postmodern condition projected into the future. To reiterate, my intention has not been to position Blade Runner as a postmodern text. Instead, I have attempted to show how Blade Runner’s setting and general feel successful portray the economic, social, and political conditions of postmodernity. Many critics contend in response to such a claim, that Blade Runner fails to account for the entire breadth of postmodernism, arguing that Blade Runner only portrays the negative, “doom-and-gloom” side of postmodernity. Critics choosing this position point to the dialectic portrayals of postmodernity as falling under the category of the “sunshine face” or the “noir face.” They position an utopian/futuristic portrayal against a dystopian/apocalyptic portrayal. Certainly the dystopian portrayal is the category under which Blade Runner belongs, and such is the case for most of the successful futuristic films (The Matrix, Mad Max, Akira, etc). But my support of Blade Runner as an accurate and successful portrayal of the postmodern condition does not suppose that Ridley Scott’s L.A. is a perfectly truthful projection of our future. I of course do not believe that in ten years, I will have the ability to order pleasure replicants over the Internet, be flying around in hover crafts through American cities that look like Tokyo, and be in the need of translators for police altercations. But I do believe that the very nature of the postmodern condition plays to our inner anxieties, not our hopes and dreams of joy and harmony, and so it makes sense to project in an exaggerated fashion the failures and problematics of our current existence in a mixed-up and confusing, capitalist world. In a way, Scott’s projection of a dystopian postmodernity can serve as a warning. The struggle between man and machine, as touched on earlier, is evocative of the struggle between rich and poor. By appealing to the anxieties of our postmodern condition, Scotts exaggerated projection of postmodernity may call attention to the potential for very grave consequences if the middle classes fail to acknowledge, and rectify, the repercussions of the widening gap between rich and poor, and the establishment of a limitless majority underclass laborers. In this light, the building and building, higher and higher, on top waste and poverty, will not allow our escape, but may lead to the toppling over of our elitist structures and institutions, leaving the bougousie to fall paralously down to face the ugly realities of postmodernity. Those who wish to grapple with the semantics of postmodernity, frustrated with its projection in films like Blade Runner, may actually be secretly unwilling to engage in the far more serious political debates inmplicate in postmodern theory.