How The Dark Future Of Blade Runner's 2019 Los Angeles Looks In The Light Of Actual Today
We live in Los Angeles, it's November, and the year is 2019. What model of flying car do you have? Have you taken your synthetic dog for a walk today? Any plans to journey off-world for a taste of that colony life?
If we were living in the future imagined in Ridley Scott's 1982 sci-fi cult classic Blade Runner you might be able to answer some of those questions. The film takes place exactly here and now — Los Angeles, November 2019 — so we wondered: how does the film's dark future look against the light of actual today?
We spent months speaking with some of the minds that helped bring you the film, and posed this question to them. We recently published their oral history and perspective.
But we also ran this question through the KPCC/LAist newsroom. Here's what our in-house team had to say about how the real future Los Angeles turned out.
The film's opening moments feature what's become a quintessential symbol of THE FUTURE. From The Jetsons to Back to the Future Part II to The Fifth Element, nothing shows the progress of humanity like soaring through the sky in your own personal flying car.
Blade Runner's "spinners" set the tone for the cars of tomorrow, but that future is quite a ways off, according to Michael Manville, an associate professor of urban planning at UCLA's Luskin School and a faculty affiliate of the university's Institute of Transportation Studies.
"To something like what you see in Blade Runner, where cars are actually just regularly flying around the city, we're just not even close," he said.
You might notice there's not much traffic in the skies above Blade Runner's L.A. Just like the corporate and police helicopters we have now, aerial transit in the film is reserved for the privileged few, because "otherwise you would have aerial traffic that would just blot out the sky," Manville said.
"One of the great advantages of being a sci-fi movie is that you can sort of present this in a highly stylized way that ignores most of the actual logistics," he said. "In the real world... if you were ever going to get some sort of flying car service that would actually scale in a major city, you would have to address congestion problems ... and I don't see, personally, an easy resolution to that anytime soon."
So what about those "flying cars" Uber keeps writing about?
The rideshare giant has been promoting their big plan to revolutionize urban mobility through "aerial ridesharing." In the process, Uber has embraced the notion that they will soon send flying cars zipping over the city, where passengers will laugh at the rabble in their quaint automobiles, crawling on the asphalt below.
"Blade Runner showed flying cars in L.A. in 2019; thanks to Uber Air they may have only been off by a few years," a company spokesman said when we asked how Uber itself was characterizing its new aerial vehicles.
But, spoiler alert: if Uber has "flying cars" then flying cars have actually been around for about a century and we've been calling them the wrong thing: helicopters.
For good measure, we asked a helicopter pilot we know (we're cool like that) how he would characterize Uber's flying *vehicles*. He said calling them flying cars was "not precise."
We circled back with Uber on this point, wondering — given the propellers and wings and all — how are these not just sleek, electric helicopter/airplane hybrids?
"Fair point," an Uber spokesman wrote back.
— Ryan Fonseca
It's Nov. 2019, and there are (probably) no walking, talking, sex murder humanoids roaming the streets of Los Angeles. But... could they be coming?
"Yes, I think it's possible that sometime in human progress we will reach a stage where you're questioning whether that is a human or not," said Josh Hooks, PHD researcher at UCLA's Robotics and Mechanism Laboratory. "I would guess it's not in the next ten years, but..."
To figure out how close scientists might be, we've got to break replicant tech into a few respective parts — speech, movement and appearance.
First, speech. In Blade Runner, replicants can chat, reason, problem solve and communicate emotion, just like humans. Today's real world AI is scary good, but isn't quite there.
Chatbots like Alexa and Google Assistant excel at finding searchable answers and delivering responses. But if you veer from a narrow thought process, or rely on intonation and anecdotes to get your point across, they start to struggle.
Those modes of communication are uniquely human, and people pick up on those cues because they've had a lifetime of practice.
"People are very anecdotal. And one of the problems with AI's is they don't have any life experience," said Hooks. "So it's hard to have an anecdotal story for something you haven't experienced ... But they're finding ways around that."
In Blade Runner, suspected replicants are subjected to a sort of Turing test — a series of questions meant to help the questioner determine if someone is human or not. In real life, no AI has passed the Turing test. Yet.
Then there's movement. Replicants can move through the world as elegantly as humans, but, again, today's robots aren't quite there yet. Atlas from Boston Dynamics has come a long way, though — from "a drunk baby to a nimble ninja" in just a matter of years, some have said.
Moving through the world is amazingly complex. Even something as straightforward as walking down the street means analyzing our surroundings, constantly balancing our bodies, and actively avoiding obstacles. That can be hard for robots.
Getting a robot to do a series of tasks, like walk up to a book, pick it up, and flip to a specific page is devilishly hard, explained Hooks.
Consider what's needed: as humans, after we walk up to the book we use our hands and eyes to consider its size and weight while picking it up. Then, we feel the paper to figure out how thick or thin it is and the sort of force it'll take to delicately separate and flip the pages. As we flip, we process how close we're getting to the page we're looking for. And we're doing that all while balancing to keep our bodies from falling over.
"There's a lot that is going on, and that I would say is very difficult for a robot. Especially for a robot that's a walking robot," said Hooks.
There are also issues with battery life (a few hours at most) and fitting all of the components that make a robot work into a human-like form. Presumably, as the tech advances components will be streamlined, but having the perfect piece of moving tech seems unlikely anytime soon.
There's also appearance. In the movie, the replicants are nearly indistinguishable from humans. Current tech is still working its way out of the uncanny valley. One facet that's tough to mimic is the micro facial movements humans make when communicating. "Sophia" is a good example of how hard this is.
Hollywood is getting pretty good at it, though. We're supposed to believe this Na'vi character has a soul. "Art always starts from where technology ends," said Sijin Kim, Electronic Engineer Principal with Walt Disney Imagineering, in a Disney Parks video.
— Jacob Margolis
Demographics (AKA The Future Is Asian)
The biggest puzzler of Blade Runner is perhaps not whether Harrison Ford's character is a replicant, but what's up with all the Asian people wearing rice hats?
Asians heavily populate this cyberpunk version of L.A., their cultural and economic clout obvious in the graffiti and neon signs in Chinese and Japanese that crowd every streetscape. Building-size digital ads with a geisha flashes repeatedly throughout the film, her beatific smile increasingly at odds with the rising body count.
Yet nearly all the Asians we see in the film are nameless city dwellers scurrying through the grime and acid rain with aforementioned bamboo hats or oil paper umbrellas -- a visual shorthand for the alienation and decay of dystopia, said David S. Roh, co-editor of Techno-Orientalism: Imagining Asia in Speculative Fiction, History, and Media.
"Even though this is a future where Asians dominate the scene, the only real human worth saving in this landscape is basically the white hero male character," Roh said.
Roh said Ridley Scott's film reflected the anxiety of eighties America over Japan's fast rise in auto-making and electronics. He envisions L.A. as mostly east Asian and white, with no main characters of color in Blade Runner except for the enigmatic LAPD officer played by Edward James Olmos.
Those demographics couldn't be more misaligned with today's reality. Latinos are the largest group of Angelenos (49%), followed by whites (28%), Asians (12%) and blacks (8%).
While Blade Runner doesn't nail the population breakdown, its instincts are right when it comes to its portrayal of a multicultural — and inequitable — future for L.A.
The street patois heard briefly in the film is "a mishmash of Japanese, German, Spanish, what have you," as Ford's character puts it. If this lingua franca actually existed, polyglot L.A., home to some of the world's largest diasporas, would surely be its birthplace.
And there are parts of modern-day L.A. where signs written in languages other than English are as ubiquitous as in the film.
Since Blade Runner came out in 1982, Koreatown has not only expanded its footprint, but along with the Asian-majority cities of the San Gabriel Valley, grown in cultural significance, especially when it comes to food.
In the film, Chinatown is the only L.A. neighborhood that makes an appearance, and it's a prescient depiction.
Deckard goes hunting in Chinatown for a replicant showgirl on his kill list. She works at a decadent nightclub where the boho-chic puff on opium pipes and dangle cocktails.
There are a few faces of color in the candle-lit haze, but the space is mostly white, exclusive and a world away from the Asian working poor outside its faux-gilded walls — a far-sighted nod, intentional or not, to a future where gentrification would churn through the neighborhood.
— Josie Huang
Blade Runner presents a "vision of a sort of hyper-dense metropolis of the future ... that's really not pleasant at all," said Michael Manville, associate professor of urban planning at UCLA's Luskin School and a faculty affiliate of the university's Institute of Transportation Studies.
"It's one of the great urban backdrops, especially dystopian urban backdrops, in film, but its relevance to the Los Angeles we live in is probably pretty limited," he said.
For example, present day Los Angeles is planning for a future with more people. In Blade Runner's L.A., anyone who could afford a ticket off the planet is long gone.
"It's a place that you're there if you've been left behind and not gone to the place where the opportunity is," Manville said. "So much of what's happening in Los Angeles now is defined by the challenge we face because so many people want to come here ...[it's] the diametric opposite of what you see in Blade Runner."
— Ryan Fonseca
There aren't many details about the state of the climate in the film, and no one seems to discuss it. By contrast, the actual November 2019 is inundated with research, fear, conversation and controversy over the "untold suffering" that climate change will bring.
What we do know about Blade Runner's 2019 L.A., is that it is a persistently rainy and smoggy place. It does rain in present day L.A., but it's not all that common, and rainfall could become even more unpredictable as climate change marches along.
The smoke machine-level smog of Blade Runner is also beyond what we see in L.A. now. Air quality has improved since the 1940s, when Angelenos had to wear gas masks to drive their convertibles but, it's still terrible, and often ranked some of the worst in the nation. And bad air days are getting worse, especially for poorer communities.
Part of that has to do with hotter temperatures. As they rise, ozone - a particularly dangerous gas for high risk groups - can become even more of an issue.
Non stop wildfires haven't helped air quality much either. However, a closer real world air quality comparison to the film might be modern day Delhi, India.
— Jacob Margolis
Housing And Homelessness
It was genetic designer J.F. Sebastian's quip about how there's no housing shortage in downtown Los Angeles that got a chuckle from the crowd at a recent DTLA screening of the 1982 science fiction classic Blade Runner.
Sebastian says this while admitting he lives alone in the Bradbury Apartments, presumably a remodeling of the Bradbury building, located just a few minute's walk from the theater where I recently saw the film, one of my favorites.
There's no questioning that California has a housing shortage severe enough to warp the state's entire economy.
But modern day downtown L.A., with its glut of new high-end residential construction, is one of the few parts of Southern California where there is actually supply enough to meet demand. Perhaps Sebastian lives in a building where all the other units are part of a billionaire's diversified portfolio.
When critics compare and contrast the physical Los Angeles we all actually live in with the one of Blade Runner, they tend to look at the building heights. The verticality of Blade Runner's L.A. represents a specter that actual Los Angeles is consistently apprehensive about, and for the most part continues to reject.
But it's the relative absence of street homelessness — the central crisis of present day Los Angeles, November 2019 — that underscores the schism between Ridley Scott's vision and the path we're actually on.
The film's release date roughly coincides with the first appearance of street homelessness as we know it today. Just two weeks after the film was released in June of 1982, the Los Angeles Times ran one of its first substantial pieces of reporting on a "New Wave Of Homeless."
Where the old homeless were largely single male alcoholics who moved through Skid-Row flophouses, the "new homeless" were families, children, and workers with no unified profile other than that they were, as the Times said, "economic refugees."
The film's only real intelligible nod on street homelessness is when the replicant Pris buries herself in newspapers outside of Sebastian's apartment. Whether or not that was on Ridley Scott's mind when the scene was shot, you'd have to ask him. But it's a tiny enough feature to remind you how the actual Los Angeles of November, 2019 has an ever worsening humanitarian crisis on the streets that's doesn't seem to be there in the Los Angeles of Blade Runner.
Perhaps in the over-policed movie-city, the homeless were simply deported to the off-world colonies, or otherwise institutionalized out of view.
But also, maybe it's a warning sign that the path we are on here in November, 2019 is one that could lead to an even darker place than the one Ridley Scott imagined in 1982.
— Matt Tinoco
Ryan Fonseca, Jacob Margolis, Josie Huang and Matt Tinoco contributed to this story.
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