'Blade Runner' Was Set In 2019. What Does It Tell Us About The Cities And Real Estate Of Today And Tomorrow?
Los Angeles, 2019. It is jarring to realize, but we are living in the future, or at least, the future imagined by director Ridley Scott in his 1982 science fiction classic, "Blade Runner".
"Blade Runner" is one of the most visually iconic sci-fi films of all time, set in a dystopian version of Los Angeles, where it seems to be permanently dark and raining. The city is almost as much of a character as Harrison Ford’s police officer, Rick Deckard, and the “more human than human” replicants he hunts down.
And for that reason, it is worth looking at what the film got right and wrong about the city of the future as imagined 37 years ago. How the city and real estate imagined in "Blade Runner" actually evolved tells us a lot about the world now, and something about where we are going as well.
WHAT IT GOT RIGHT
Density — Going Up
The opening shot of the film shows a Los Angeles as sprawling as it is today, but with huge skyscrapers as far as the eye can see. Ford’s Deckard lives on the 97th floor, and he isn’t in the penthouse by any means. That may not have come true in a literal sense as far as LA is concerned, but the need to build up to house fast-growing urban populations has become the norm around the world. Indeed, a lot of what the film imagines has come true in other parts of the world, particularly China and large Asian metropolises.
The LA of "Blade Runner" has streets that are densely populated, crawling with people packing the pavements, queuing to sit at street food stalls (a spot-on prediction) and jostling for an inch of space. That is already true in major cities, and as urbanization increases, dense urban cores with more and more skyscrapers are already the norm.
The Video And Neon Aesthetic
"Blade Runner" is a 1940s film noir set in the future, with vast neon and video advertising creating a stark contrast between light and dark. You only have to look at Times Square today, and the advances in video technology being used in street advertising, to see that one of the most famous visual aspects of the film is very much with us today, with advertising totally infiltrating our public realm.
The Quasi-Religious Corporate HQ
One of the most astute observations made by "Blade Runner" was around the power technology companies would have in the future. The Tyrell Corp., which makes replicants, pervades every element of life, and while the police hunt down the replicants that have gone AWOL, there is little mention of governments or regulation.
This is mirrored in the company’s HQ, which is enormous, a city in itself whose design mirrors a Mayan temple, while the police department is dusty and falling apart. Apple’s circular HQ, a huge facility referred to by the company as an infinite loop, evokes perpetual continuation and has the same spiritual connotations.
And once inside, Tyrell’s amoral genius chief executive has the ability to control his environment via voice control, including reducing the amount of light in the room, which is already de rigeur in the most bleeding edge tech-led offices.
NEARLY BUT NOT QUITE
The LA of "Blade Runner" is permanently either raining or thick with smogs. Climate change hasn’t advanced to the point where LA is a rainy city yet, but in big cities worldwide and Beijing especially, air quality is a big concern, and images like this are redolent of the world imagined by Scott and his designers.
Obviously one of the most famous elements of "Blade Runner" is the flying cars, and we are clearly not there — yet. Drones already patrol the skies, and Uber thinks it will have a prototype vertical takeoff vehicle by 2020 and hopes they will be in use by 2023. So maybe the film was just a few years off.
When "Blade Runner" presents its panoramic cityscapes, one thing immediately stands out — the skyscrapers it imagines aren’t just huge, sleek rectangles, but clunky and mechanical looking, resembling the machines that populate the world it imagines; or sprawl over huge areas like the Tyrell HQ. While the preference today in big cities is for skyscrapers to be tall and narrow, some buildings like the Grand Lisboa Hotel in Macau seem to have been directly inspired by the film, especially when viewed from angles like this. UBS’ London HQ was explicitly designed to resemble an engine block.
WHAT IT GOT WRONG
The Hollowing Out Of City Centers
When "Blade Runner" was made in 1982, cities were in decline and many thought they were dying, with the middle classes leaving city centers for a brighter, cleaner, safer life in the suburbs. So while the city is teeming with people, no one lives in the city center in the film’s version of 2019, and areas off the main thoroughfares are abandoned and dangerous. J.F. Sebastian, the designer of the film’s replicants, lives alone in LA’s famous downtown Bradbury Building, which has been abandoned, and quips at one point: “There is no shortage of housing around here.”
Contrast with the reality today, where city-center residential is hugely desirable, short on availability, massively expensive and increasingly gentrified. Even cities where the dereliction reached levels recognizable in "Blade Runner," like Detroit, are making a slow but steady comeback.
The Closed Office Still Dominates
Sci-fi is famously much better at predicting technological change than it is social change — in the cartoon "The Jetsons," everyone communicates via video phone like we do today, but none of the women work. And so it is to a degree with "Blade Runner." The now ubiquitous open-plan office does not exist in "Blade Runner," a particular anomaly when it comes to a big tech company like Tyrell. And the sight of people smoking in the office seems as incongruous today as the flying cars.
WHAT’S TO COME?
And so, what can we expect in 30 years’ time, if 2017’s sequel "Blade Runner 2049" is anything to go by? Climate catastrophe is a huge concern of the film — Las Vegas has been abandoned and given over to the desert, with Ozymandias-like statues littering an uninhabitable wasteland. Rising seas are held back only by huge dam-like structures.
More recognizable perhaps is the fact that in the home of the film’s protagonist, an Alexa-like device called Joi has been given a human form and is so real that the hero, Ryan Gosling’s K, falls in love with it. That is something Amazon is probably already working on.