Blade Runner 2049: Back to the Future – the movies that showed us what's to come
Robocop? Star Trek? What's your favourite vision?
Blade Runner 2049, the long-awaited sequel to Ridley Scott's immeasurably influential vision of tomorrow, was released this week.
And while the sci part of the sci-fi equation may be questionable in Scott's 1982 original, the production design felt so right to audiences that it has overshadowed almost every future-set movie since. Even if – with only two years to go – our world looks nothing like Blade Runner's vision of 2019, Scott's vision remains the benchmark for The Future.
But Blade Runner isn't the only future that has been laid before us. Plenty of realities have been conjured up over the years – some complete, some partial, others whimsical, others profound and thought-provoking.
Here, then, is The Register's guide to a select choice of the most significant, persuasive, or influential tomorrows on screen. It comes complete with a handy table highlighting sci-fi's talent for pre-empting key future developments in technology and in society.
Star Trek key prediction: Harmony
In the Blade Runner future, it rains. A lot. Neon lighting is everywhere, but in the few places it's not are vast video screens advertising a better life on the off-world colonies. The Star Trek franchise is for the most part a sunny, optimistic, utopian vision of tomorrow. And, with capitalism having been replaced by some nebulous universal credit system, very few adverts.
In 23rd century San Francisco – where most of the franchise's rare earthbound scenes take place – it's gloriously sunny most days. It's only during those annoying, sporadic, incursions from alien superintelligences that the weather closes in on the Silicon Valley campus that Starfleet uses for its HQ.
While Blade Runner's nearest literary cousins are William Gibson's tech-noir Sprawl stories (more about that later) Star Trek's post-scarcity society has more in common with Iain M Banks' relentlessly uplifting Culture books. Earth is a harmonious paradise, its starships crewed by happily multicultural crews that were genuinely revolutionary when the series debuted in 1966.
Low budgets meant some alien Star Trek worlds looked remarkably Californian
Trek creator Gene Roddenberry summed up his post-racial vision, saying: "If we cannot learn to actually enjoy those small differences, to take a positive delight in those small differences between our own kind, here on this planet, then we do not deserve to go out into space and meet the diversity that is almost certainly out there."
Interestingly, when the Next Generation crew visited the Blade Runner era year 2063 in Star Trek: First Contact what little we see of this (to us) near-future Earth is dark, gloomy and a bit drizzly.
Star Trek works as a future because, underneath all the knobbly foreheads and phaser shootouts, it's a representation of the best we can be. When we need a break from small-minded demagogues on the news, rational moral arbiters like Jean-Luc Picard or even Jim Kirk show us a better view of ourselves.
Star Trek's prediction of a united Earth government seems less probable now, with runaway nationalism on the rise, than it did when Gene Roddenberry developed the idea during the dark days of the Cold War.
But the show did anticipate, or perhaps inspire, flip phones, injections without needles and Miguel Alcubierre's concept for a warp drive that might one day take humanity on a trek to another star.
Aliens key prediction: Corporations
James Cameron's 1986 follow-up to Ridley Scott's other sci-fi classic, Alien, was that rare beast, a sequel that added new and interesting elements to the original. In particular, alongside the pulse-quickening aliens-versus-space-marines combat was a good deal of world-building about corporation-dominated 2184 (or thereabouts.)
Long-lasting mega-corporations like Weyland-Yutani, which diversified into asteroid mining and long-haul space freight alongside their apparent core mission of bringing uncontainable bio-weapons to Earth, seem less likely now than they did in 1986, when the film was made. The old industrial giants seem to be increasingly endangered and barely can a new disruptive business model establish itself before it's swept away by a newer and even more disruptive one.
Weyland Corp... The, er, Shining scene in Aliens
But omnipotent super-corporations seemed a near certainty in the immediate post-Blade Runner era. Apart from Weyland-Yutani we had OmniCorp in RoboCop the following year and Cyberdyne Systems from the Terminator franchise.
Weyland-Yutani, a faceless presence in the first instalment in the Alien franchise, is personified by amoral slime ball Carter Burke (Paul Reiser) in the second. His attention-grabbing 22nd century outfit is a constant reminder that he is a Suit. A self-seeking corporate drone with less humanity than the Sulaco's android executive officer Bishop.
Sinister mega-corps are everywhere in sci-fi. And they're never called anything fun like Yahoo! or Google.
The corporate future of Aliens worked because in the 1980s, the wellspring of the future we all grew up with, the continuing growth of companies such as Sony, Lehman Brothers and Volkswagen seemed unassailable. Now, with email leaks, diesel emissions scandals and the complete implosion of economic certainties that future may seem less probable but because we grew up with it, it remains believable.
The Running Man key prediction: Reality TV
Reality bites for Arnie in The Running Man
Reality TV didn't start with The Running Man – you can find examples going back into the 1970s and beyond – but the plot of Paul Michael Glaser's satirical dystopia, based on a novel by horror-master Stephen King, shows us where it might go.
The Running Man shows how an evil mega-corporation (yes, again) running a sort of privatised prison system/TV network combo on behalf of a totalitarian government keeps the population of future America pacified by showing them public executions in a sort of hyper-violent game show. Think Gladiators, only Wolf has a chainsaw.
We already have private prisons. Presently, the key trend of reality TV is mainly towards people having sex on camera but you never know: maybe ultra-violence will be next.
Blade Runner key prediction: Everything
William Gibson invented the future. He also coined the term "cyberspace", which earned his place not just in literary and sci-fi but also nerd history. His world of elite hackers, shady super-corporations and unfathomable artificial intelligences inform almost all modern speculative fiction.
Gibson didn't invent Blade Runner. He was just breathing in the same post-industrial silicon fumes as its director Ridley Scott and futurologist production designer Syd Mead, who also shaped the look of Aliens and Tron. A heady mix that stapled Blade Runner to the pantheon of film and ensures we're discussing it today.
Gibson had this to say about seeing the movie for the first time: "Blade Runner came out while I was still writing Neuromancer. I was about a third of the way into the manuscript. When I saw (the first 20 minutes of) Blade Runner, I figured my unfinished first novel was sunk, done for.
"Everyone would assume I'd copped my visual texture from this astonishingly fine-looking film. But that didn't happen. Mainly I think because Blade Runner seriously bombed in theatrical release?"
Clearly there was something in the air. French comic Metal Hurlant was an influence, as was classic Hollywood noir, but the key element that made Blade Runner such a compelling vision of tomorrow was Mead's obsessive attention to detail. Everything in the film looks like a bona fide future artefact, not a prop.
Blade Runner 2049: The transport
You never doubted that if someone built the Spinner, the film’s iconic flying car, it would actually fly. Even if the dashboard displays were obviously filched from Scott's previous film, Alien.
Phillip K Dick, who wrote the novel that inspired the film, didn't think too much of the script. He thought Scott's streamlining of the book into a hard-boiled detective yarn too simplistic – "Philip Marlowe meets the Stepford Wives" – but he was stunned by an early look at Blade Runner's visual style.
In 1981 he told Paul M Sammon, author of Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner: "It was the greatest 20 minutes I ever experienced, I literally came out in a state of shock. When I close my eyes I can still see that opening sequence...
"It's like being transported to the ultimate city of the future, with all the good things and all the bad things about it."
Like a lot of movie classics, Blade Runner's plot can only take so much critical analysis; why does Deckard need the slow and unwieldy Voight-Kampff machine to spot a skin-job when replicants can pluck eggs from boiling water and have trademarks built into their skin cells?
But there's no time for nitpicking when you're basking in Scott's ravishing vision of a grimy, believable tomorrow of flying cars, corporate arcologies and polyglot food courts. Besides, there's increasing evidence that Blade Runner is set in The Man In The High Castle alternate timeline: The ubiquitous Atari advertisements in the original have been followed up in Blade Runner 2049 with big and bold Pan-Am and Seiko ads. Blade Runner is such a classic, it's outside time.
Long after the ephemeral airlines and watch manufacturers of this time are long gone, a new generation of Blade Runner fans will watch the film while sex robots feed them GM popcorn. And how will we determine then who is human and who is sexbot? That's the only thing Scott really got wrong – no one will care. ®
Sci-fi films' key predictions or technologies
|Title||Made||Set||Key prediction or technology|
|Things To Come||1936||1940 - 2036||Gigantic, flying-wing aircraft|
|Star Trek||1966||2266||Personal communicators|
|Blade Runner||1982||2019||Synthetic humans|
|The Running Man||1987||2017||Reality TV|
|Back to the Future II||1989||2015||Hoverboard|
|Total Recall||1990||2084||Full-body security scanners|
|Minority Report||2002||2054||Personalised, digital billboards|
|I, Robot||2004||2035||Autonomous vehicles|
|Elysium||2013||2154||Surgically attached exoskeletons|