Blade Runner for town planners

May 16, 2015 at 11:23 am | Posted in Short Story | Leave a comment
Tags: , , , , , , ,
A fresh look.

A fresh look at a cult classic.

I love Blade Runner. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t. So it’s a brave soul indeed who dares review it. Chris is one such.

You may recall Chris from this post. Lately he sent me this comment. He’s a fine writer. And his town-planning take on this amazing movie was a perspective I’d not considered.

It made me want to watch it yet again. And that’s surely a sign of a good review.

So thank you Chris – and take it away!

Blade Runner is set in a bleak, decrepit and perpetually rainy Los Angeles megalopolis in the year 2019 (now not so far away as it seemed in 1982!). This cityscape looms large as a character in its own right and speaks to the urban-planning related themes of sustainability, climate change and environmental determinism. It also frames and gives context to Blade Runner’s examination of bio-ethics, morality and what it means to be human … or not.

In the film, so crowded, degraded and polluted is planet earth that ‘Off World’ colonies have been established for humans seeking, if physically and financially capable of acquiring, a better life.

To help build and service the Off World colonies, Tyrell Corporation has created all manner of genetically engineered, humanoid ‘Replicants’ (as well as a few feathered or scaled ones). Replicants are illegal on earth, and it is the role of the ‘Blade Runners’ such as Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) to track and kill, or euphemistically ‘retire’, those Replicants who have made their way back to earth.

The Replicants are smart, agile and tough, but they are also mortal and have a programmed lifespan of 4 years. The current Nexus 6 model Replicants are however so lifelike that they can only be distinguished from their human counterparts through the analysis of their emotional and empathetic responses. Those responses are more limited than their human counterparts’ because Replicants, being ‘born’ adult, have not developed the full range of emotions and values based upon a lifetime’s experiences and memories.

It is this mortality, and the desire to unlock it, that triggers a group of rogue Replicants, led by Ron (Rutger Hauer), to make their way back to earth and to stage a murderous mutiny intent on seizing Tyrell Corporation’s founder, Eldon Tyrell. So begins the film’s cat and mouse game.

On the surface, Blade Runner is an action sci-fi action movie. However it actually presents plenty for urban planners to reflect upon. The setting of a climate-changed planet in which mankind’s blind faith in its own abilities and supreme (god-like) power, and the willingness to adapt (by creating Replicants and moving off-world) rather than addressing the causes of environmental devastation, reflects uncomfortably on our own society’s (and our government’s) tepid responses to tackling anthropogenic climate change and upon our willingness to adopt technological solutions in lieu of behavioural change.

The film demonstrates that humans are inherently flawed, self-destructive and, where it suits their needs, willingly oppressive and segregative (of Replicants, and of the lowly earth-bound humans). At the same time, Blade Runner depicts certain essential and meritorious human qualities that cannot be replicated, such as Deckard’s questioning of his own morality, and that one’s eyes (symbolised by, for example, Eldon Tyrell’s glasses and the eyes of a Replicant owl) are a window to the soul. Moreover, it underscores the message that when mankind meddles with things that it doesn’t understand, then things inevitably go wrong.

As an urban planner, I am drawn to films that in some way explore or present utopian visions. Blade Runner’s Off World settlements are portrayed as ‘sunny, clean and happy’ places. The utopian ideal of settlement is one almost as old as planned habitation itself, and in Blade Runner the Off World utopias sit in contrast to the grimily-depicted Los Angeles, which, as the “City of Angels” itself portrays a utopian vision that has decayed into a Sodom-and-Gomorrah-esque state. The city’s streets have been relegated to utilitarian status by the miserable climate and by the creation of airborne transport corridors (yep, the old flying cars routine). There are visual references to the city’s heritage and formerly distinctive character, which helps to ground the hellish vision of the city in a reality to which viewers can relate, yet at the same time symbolises that which has been disregarded, devalued and lost.

The streets below are inhabited by the sub-classes because they have no other choice, not because it is a setting to which they aspire or from which they derive pleasure. In such places, what social, cultural or environmental cues, other than an overt police presence, can inspire its inhabitants to refrain from anti-social or criminal behaviour and to express their humanity instead?

I can’t help but think that the real-world corporations that presumably paid for the advertising and product placement opportunities that litter the film (e.g. Coke, Pan-Am, TDK, Atari) were unwitting pawns in director Ridley Scott’s game. Blade Runner’s Los Angeles condemns as doomed and unsustainable the dystopian world where corporate control and power has prevailed over that of society and the individual. Even Tyrell Corporation’s headquarters, reminiscent of a Mayan temple soaring above the congested and polluted streets, is representative of an empire and a utopian ideal in decline. Yet the fact remains that the Off World utopias, if based upon the endeavours of an oppressed and disenfranchised Replicant sub-class and the skewed moralities that this engenders (people barely bat an eyelid when Deckard ‘retires’ a ‘pleasure model’ Replicant in the street), surely too must fail.

It can only be when we rise above our own imperfect and destructive nature that utopia can be found. And it’s usually right under our noses.

Leave a Comment »

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at
Entries and comments feeds.

%d bloggers like this: