Blade Runner

Movie released: 1982 | Set in: 2019

Summary Table
Event Likelihood Time frame
Genetically engineered human replicas low 2040+
Genetically engineered animal replicas high 2030+
Downloading of memories low 2050+
Heavy migration from Earth very low 2100+
Flying cars low 2060+

Approach to the future

Oblique, philosophical exploration of scenario


Futurism: 9
Blade Runner is one of the preeminent visions of future-noir, in no small part due to the thoughtful work of the film’s “visual futurist,” Syd Mead.

Entertainment: 8

Plausibility: 4
Plausibility is sacrificed in order to explore the philosophical consequences of an extreme scenario.

Interesting depictions

Genetic engineering:

The Tyrell Corporation is described as creating robots, but in fact the replicant humans and animals are based on biology. Indeed, it seems they are more clones than artificial life forms, except that they are grown rather than born.

They are produced as slaves, for dangerous jobs or sex, and given traits meant to justify distinguishing them from normal humans: short life spans and artificial memories. But the distinction is clearly a semantic one. And it is reinforced, as such convenient distinctions are, by easy denigration: the replicants are called “skin jobs” in slang.

They are also engineered to be physically superior to and intellectually equal with normal humans.

Human cloning is likely, as is genetic improvement. But people are unlikely to arbitrarily classify the results as non-human. Problems may instead develop at the margins: use of human or non-human brain tissue to make more intelligent animals, or better computers. Deciding when they have crossed a line to personhood may be controversial.

Or the problem may be reversed: the improved may look down on normals—as in Gattaca, or Star Trek II.

A side note: the replicants visit a genetic designer, who operates a one-man shop that makes eyes. This may be curiously close to future reality: biotech capabilities are likely to proliferate, until little labs in Shanghai are designing their own genetic hybrid animals.

A second genetic designer has created toy-like miniature people for companionship. They seem to be simple and unaware.

Such tinkering will be possible in the next few decades, but creation of semi-humans is likely to be banned in much of the world. But there may be unregulated pockets and rogue activities: if some billionaire pays for a lab in Libya or somewhere, who will stop him?

Animal genetic engineering:
Real animals are evidently rare, so people have replicant owls and snakes. Judging by the human replicants, these too are probably based on DNA models provided by nature.

If they can be made nearly identical to “real animals,” why aren’t they able to breed and become common again? One possible answer is that the technology is commercially controlled, and limited for profit reasons—a possible outcome of the biotech industry’s current direction.

Some catastrophe must have destroyed all the animals. Possibilities include an ozone hole or some other environmental collapse, a destructive manmade chemical whose effects go unnoticed until it is too late, or a disease. Fortunately, none of these are very likely.

Other technologies/topics depicted

Brain technology:
Replicants are implanted with artificial memories and skills, so that they can function as soon as they are produced. Some of the memories are borrowed: one replicant is given recollections from Mr. Tyrell’s niece.

We currently don’t even know how memories are stored in our brains. Because memory is stored at the chemical and atomic level, in an immensely complicated structure, it may be impossible to either implant artificial versions, or scan minds to extract information. The process of collecting the information might so change the brain that the content would be destroyed in the process.

Perhaps, however, it might be possible to implant simpler scenes, facts, or skills by converting them into the signal as it would be processed by sensory nerves, and sending it into the brain to be put in the proper places. But that ability is decades away, if it ever arrives.

Urban future:
Los Angeles of 2019 is dominated by immense buildings, some pyramidal, towering over dark and teeming streets. Unexplained bursts of flame, like gas flares in an oil field, erupt into the sky. Deckard’s 97th-floor apartment is lower than many surrounding buildings. Yet many structures were built in the early 20th century, and are showing their age.

This city poses the question: why? Why will it be so built up? People do not like to be lost in urban immensity, or resident in vast high-tech rabbit warrens. There are possible explanations:

  • severe overcrowding could drive people to build upwards
  • ecological collapse or out-of-control pollution could make people turn away from the outside world
  • simulated worlds and artificial windows could also make people happy with a life inside buildings

The first two conditions may have prevailed in the world of Blade Runner.

It is not clear what the future of the mega-skyscraper is, in reality. Americans and Europeans may be mostly done with it, and more interested in creating urban landscapes people actually want to live in and around.

But there is still a desire to build landmarks and symbolize progress and power in the developing world—witness the skyscrapers of Asia and the Middle East. It is there that more extravagances will go up, sometimes amidst squalor.

Space travel:
It is commonplace enough that the majority of people seem to have left for “the off-world colonies,” leaving the city half-deserted.

It is hard to imagine a scenario in which this might occur, except perhaps if a relatively small population faced ecological collapse. People will not leave the Earth because of overcrowding: it will always be easier and more pleasant to live in colonies in Antarctica, the Sahara, or underwater than anywhere in space, and new habitats on Earth would be much cheaper to construct and support as well. Removal to space will never be an answer to the population problem.

It appears that they have faster-than-light travel—a replicant speaks of watching a ship burn “off the shoulder of Orion” —and that they are in contact with other species, unless the combat replicants are fighting rebellious humans.

See: A note on space travel.

Flying cars:
Icons of the future, flying cars cross the skies of LA in 2019. They are aerodynes, enclosed-lift vehicles similar to Harrier jets. This is much more likely than antigravity vehicles, though the movie’s visual futurist Mead noted that more compact and efficient engines would be necessary for something as small and quiet as the film’s police spinner.

Flying personal vehicles could not begin to replace cars for decades. Flying cars are dangerous and expensive, and current schemes like the Skycar will be folded into general private aviation if they are successful at all.

If flying cars ever achieve widespread use, they are likely to be under computer control for safety reasons.

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The futures depicted in the movies