Blade Runner 2019

Welcome to the year Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) hunts down replicants in the film Blade Runner, which was released in 1982.

It is fun to compare a futurist vision to reality, once we get there and look back. Remember the Voight-Kampff test in the film, which identifies replicants as non-human because their empathy is off? The New Yorker this week, on anthropology research at NYU:


“In a locked room at the lab was an expensive new eye-tracking technology, which measures gaze direction and changes in pupil size as subjects respond to prompts on a screen. ‘Your eyes index what’s going on with you internally, your emotional state, without you saying a word,’ a researcher said. Another tool…is the International Affective Picture System, which was developed at the University of Florida. The I.A.P.S. provides normative ratings of emotional responses to more than a thousand photographs…an image of a floppy disk has a moderately high rating on the scale of pleasant to unpleasant, for instance, perhaps owing to nostalgia, while that of a grieving woman is low.”


The film made safe bets on Asian influence (and Russian in the film’s sequel, Blade Runner 2049) in Western culture, though without real consequence. It anticipated a lack of other animals, and in the sequel the need for other sources of protein.

“Salt-Water Fish Extinction Seen by 2048,” says today’s headline at CBS News, missing the sequel’s date by only one year. They mean all the fish, the sea empty. While we will have to wait to see if it happens, we can already say the films are goofy to the extent that they portray human life when all other forms are dead.

Blade Runner made predictions about the role of advertising in society, by adding a little more technology to what was already irritating and intrusive. It was not radical enough. The 1982 film failed to see that small devices in our pockets, which would obviate the need for video-phone booths in the film, would target us with personalized ads after spying on us. In fact, other than the slave-trade of replicants, the film had nothing to say about indiscriminate technology-love and consumerism, a bigger system that ruins us even as it grants our wishes.

“I Can Has Flying Cars?” an article about the Blade Runner inception asks. (The answer is, No, you may not.)

All in all, the film’s hellish vision has not come to pass. My friend who lives in Los Angeles, where the film is set, told me as he walked his hound on a gorgeous day, “As a writer, why would you set a sci-fi film 20 years in the future—are you stupid?”

Dystopian films (and other texts) mostly get things wrong in a literal sense, whether by trying to make a separate point, failing to understand human nature, or needing something to show on screen. Never mind the dark, drippy, uniformly-rotten city of Blade Runner. What we have discovered, here in the future, is that what will kill the human planet—carbon dioxide, heat, our own natures—is still mostly invisible. Even when some aspect can be seen, it is often treated ironically, because life looks pretty normal most days. (Facebook users had fun mocking the National Geographic issue devoted to plastic in our oceans, which came shrink-wrapped in plastic and sealed in a second plastic bag.)

But I was never drawn to Blade Runner for its futurism, or the idea—already old with Frankenstein—of creating something with a will of its own. Everything in the world has a will of its own; only our hubris thinks otherwise.

The Blade Runner films are, for me, about something more existential: How did I come to be part of this thing, in which the mass of us have been given qualities such as curiosity, will, ambition, and cleverness, for which we cannot individually repent when they damn us all? No wonder there were rebellious angels!

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.