Blade Runner as Science Fiction

Blade Runner as Science-Fiction

What defines the science fiction genre?

As is the case in basically every attempt to clearly and definitively define a certain film genre, there is a debate over what exactly constitutes the science fiction – which texts to include, and which to exclude. Many scholars have given a range of differing opinions as to what science fiction is all about. For my purposes I felt that the definitions that I located in two of the Blade Runner texts I had used for my studies were appropriate, although not overly academic. But first, here is the approach from Film: A Critical Introduction.

“Of the many popular film genres, science fiction is perhaps the most difficult to define through a set of conventions…the genre does not have the visual and narrative conventions so readily located in the ‘Western’…what links the wide array of science fiction films is a thematic interest in the relationship between technology and humanitythey explore the potential for human ingenuity and ponder the spiritual, intellectual, and/or physical costs of technological developmentthey suggest that technology alone is impotent, or worse, destructive, unless its development coincides with an expansion in the human capacity for creativity, empathy, and/or humility.”

(Pramaggiore & Wallis 2008, p.386-87 [my own emphasis added])

These authors also state that science fiction can be divided into four subgenres, these being:

–       The Exploration Film

–       The Invasion Film

–       The Critique of Scientific Enquiry

–       The Dystopia Film

Interestingly, Blade Runner clearly fits into three of these four subgenres.

In the invasion film, humanity is threatened by creatures that are encroaching upon supposedly safe territory. They are “the by-products of scientific inquisitiveness and/or technological development” and because they are physically superior, they can “only be conquered by luck or ingenuity” (Pramaggiore & Wallis 2008, p.388). The Nexus-6 replicants in Blade Runner are most certainly a case of high-level scientific development, as well as the by-products of Eldon Tyrell’s lust for power, status and profit (as well as ordinary humans demand for slave labour). They have come from off-planet and ‘invaded’ earth, and are deemed (incorrectly) to be a threat to society.

A video screen shot of the details of replicant 'Pris' - the replicants represent the typical science-fiction threat of invasion

A critique of scientific enquiry film shows “reclusive, often mad, scientists who are so fixated on their quests for scientific discovery that they fail to recognize the self-destructive ramifications of their behaviour…brilliant scientists are threatened or destroyed by their audacious experiments” (Pramaggiore & Wallis 2008, p.388). Eldon Tyrell fits this description somewhat, however I doubt that he is that interested in ‘discovery’ and he is certainly aware of the ramifications of his behaviour. It is status, power and wealth that drive him foremost.

Eldon Tyrell - the flawed scientist

The dystopia film “suggests how an entire society can be corrupted by if ‘progress’ goes unchecked…these societies assume that human emotions are flawed because they are irrational and impossible to control…but they question the benefits of technological progress by suggesting that societies devoid of emotions are devoid of humanity” (Pramaggiore & Wallis 2008, p.388-89). The society portrayed in Blade Runner has certainly become corrupted. A strange paradox exists in which aspects of science and technology have ‘progressed’ (flying police cars, replicants) while everything else seems to have regressed (pollution, empathy, equality etc.). The creation of replicants is a form of control, in which beings with less developed emotions are exploited. And while Rachael seems the most fully human replicant, remember that she has actually been given an ‘emotional cushion’ – that is to say, she has been implanted with the ‘right’ memories, those ones that presumably provide her with an emotional/mental state that allows for maximum control. Interestingly, she breaks free from the Tyrell Corporation, sleeps with Deckard, then saves his life by killing a fellow replicant, and then flees the city with him. Hardly what you would call ‘well controlled’!

An example of the regressive urban environment of Blade Runner

But that is getting off topic. Let’s go back to what those two books about Blade Runner have to say about the science fiction genre:

“In terms of science fiction, a whole series of cultural fears are played out through the overall distancing device that alternative possibilities are being entertained in the text. These possibilities allow for alterative futures, social structures, human relationships, lifestyles and technologies to be imagined, but imagined in a way that…speak to the present – to the here and now”

(Redmond 2008, p.15)

Redmond argues that science fiction does this in two differing ways. These are:

–       The disaster/dystopian narrative

–       The utopian narrative

Well we are certainly aware that Blade Runner fits into the ‘dystopian’ category. Here, “technology/techno-science has more widely produced a society where human emotion has been extinguished or is on the run from these hyper-rationalist/scientific forces…consumerism, globalisation, corporate greed and media dumbing down and disinformation have so taken a hold on the power bases of the world, and the ordering of everyday life, that freedoms have been eroded…the poor, the weak, the racially Other are often forcibly excluded from these future worlds. Natural resources are scarce and the synthetic, the manufactured and the virtual dominate everything from eating habits to sleeping arrangements. Privacy has been outlawed…the masses are kept diverted and under control through the propaganda of the visual image, which is everywhere, and personal freedoms are kept in check by totalitarian police and army regimes that kill ‘rebels’ on sight” (Redmond 2008, p.16).

This most certainly describes the world of Blade Runner.

Redmond goes on:

“Science fiction addresses or bombards all the human senses through its kinetic, highly charged and yet sensuous and cerebral stimulus. On the one hand science fiction is all about making the audience giddy with its hyper-fluid and breathtaking creations; on the other hand it asks the audience to ponder over these creations, to feel and think through them as more than just special effect since they often attempt to say something profound about the human condition”

(Redmond 2008, p.19-20)

The city of blade runner is teeming with stimulus – it is frantically crowded with an eclectic mix of characters and fashions, everywhere there are bright coloured neon signs, while screens, sound and odd sorts of junk and technology fill the streets. We can look at this place with a sense of awe and wonder – there really is so much to look at! But of course, we do ponder it all as well, as there is so much that is evidently wrong.

The streets are overcrowded with an interesting variety of people in Chinatown

Hopefully the above has provided an idea of what the genre of science fiction can encompass. But once again, our intuition is fairly strong on what the genre is – in my mind, science fiction would encompass a narrative set in the future (distant or near) that heavily involves science and technology and seeks to examine how this has altered the way society functions, as well as its effects on human beings both individually and in their relationships with one another.

What makes Blade Runner science fiction?

The above section mostly answered this question, but I will briefly outline my take on what makes Blade Runner a science fiction film in many ways.

Well firstly the film is set in the ‘future’ (this was about 30 years into the future if you go from the 1982 release date). Both science and technology have advanced considerably, but society has gotten to a point in which they do not appear to play much of a positive role, but seem to be mostly used for the purposes of law enforcement and corporate profit. In this ‘high-tech’ environment we are forced to look at crowded streets filled with poor people, rubbish, burnt our cars, and abandoned buildings. Alongside this we see flying police cars, awe-inspiring advertising and media spectacles, advanced weaponry and all sorts of other futuristic gadgets. But the costs of ‘progress’ have been heavy for the natural environment, the physical city, and for most of the humans who reside there. And of course the film deals with an aspect of ‘speculative science’ – the creation of genetically engineered human beings. We also get the typical mad scientist character in Eldon Tyrell, a very bright man that has been corrupted by an obsession with power and wealth. Blade Runner provides the viewer with a visually charged portrayal of a future society that has gone terribly wrong, because human greed and short-sightedness has combined with science and technology to create an urban dystopia that may be beyond redemption.

The 'Voight-Kampff' empathy testing machine is one example of advanced technology in the film

Gaff gives Deckard a ride in the 'spinner', a flying police ship - a good example of speculative technology

The science-fiction style cityscape of Blade Runner

Another example of speculative technology - this one being a voice-controlled image manipulating machine, with the ability to 'see' into photos

J.F. Sebastian and his artificially created 'friends' - an example of high-end science


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