Director: Ridley Scott
With the recent release of the sequel to Blade Runner, now is a good time to look back on the political themes that made Ridley Scott’s original film remain relevant and influential today.
Blade Runner is perhaps one of the the prime examples of a cyberpunk film, in the sense of its popularity and the presence of the key elements of the genre. It is a loose adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Much has been written about Blade Runner (including multiple books on the film) and it remains one of the most influential science fiction films, so we cannot pretend to be able to examine all of the important aspects of the film in this post. The future depicted in the film is one of a decaying capitalism and vast inequality with continued corporate dominance over cities and people’s lives. This dystopia has become common not only in the cyberpunk genre but in many science fiction films since.
The film is often interpreted as a critique of neoliberalism. Corporate power runs rampant, and while technology has advanced significantly, the problems of society have not been solved but rather have been exacerbated or at least brushed under the rug. The story revolves around a “Blade Runner” named Rick Deckard (played by Harrison Ford) whose job is to “retire” or destroy artificial intelligence androids called replicants. These machines were made to be humanlike but to serve humans by doing work and serving as soldiers in the “off world” colonies, which are colonies in space.
The replicants are illegal on Earth because they led a mutiny in an off-world colony which made the society on Earth uneasy with their presence even as servants. Thus a Blade Runner’s job is to track down a destroy a category of servants that are seen as a threat to the social order of Earth. Blade Runners thus essentially play a reactionary role in that they are tasked with eliminating rebellious humanoid beings that threaten the current power structure of human dominance over the androids.
The replicants featured in the film have escaped from their off-world colony and have returned to Earth in an attempt to infiltrate the Tyrell Corporation. There they want to discover how to extend their life span limit which was imposed by the corporation at their creation. Thus the Deckerd’s job in the film is simply to prevent these human like machines from extending their own lives in the service of the state apparatus and the corporation itself.
While there is some tension between the corporation and the state in the sense that the corporation of course wants the unlimited ability to produce replicants for profit (going as far as to claim that replicants are “more human than human”), it’s quite clear that in the world of Blade Runner that corporations continue their rule over society. For example in many shots we are shown futuristic advertisements from contemporary companies (many of which ultimately went out of business, leading to what was called the Blade Runner Curse). While the world has clearly entered a significant decline due to war, environmental destruction, the extinction of many animals and pets, etc. corporations have increased their efforts to advertise and sell products. This increased sales effort can be seen as a sign of a broader crisis of the system itself. So while there has always been some tension between the state and corporations, what this dystopian world makes clear is that corporations still rule.
Blade Runner is structured in part like an old film noir detective movie. But the major difference is of course the overall setting and role that the police in this film play. What’s exposed in the main characters adventures isn’t the solving of an interesting mystery but rather an exposè of a dystopian world where the ability of capital to run rampant essentially remains unchecked.