What did Blade Runner get most right about November 2019? Life in the big city. Downtown Los Angeles actually has bustling nightlife today, which in 1982 seemed preposterous. And ubiquitous digital devices and social media give us means and motive to externalize our memories to photographs in exchange for likes and influence, ensuring that we can never be certain if we’ve taken a picture of a memory or are just remembering a picture.
An excess of rain, though? Welp. Took a wrong turn there. In the real now, the Santa Ana winds have the tang of a barbecue-flavored potato chip and the air is as dry as a noir private detective’s movie narration. Still, the substance of the prediction holds. It’s the one everyone always maps onto LA: disaster. Blade Runner’s implied ecological catastrophe is nuclear and chemical, industrial pollution and bombs. That’s what we all worried about in the 1980s, and we were wicked wrong. No wonder the sequel Blade Runner 2049 retroactively refocused that prediction onto a climate apocalypse, with its desertified Southwest and seawalled coastline. That’s frame-drag at work, looping the present back into the past so the future will make sense.
Let’s say you buy the idea that Los Angeles’ future is interesting because it is all our futures. It’s not perhaps westernmost on maps, but if that’s the direction of frontiers, it is the most westest of Western towns. What happens there happens first. So, OK: In that headspace, you might want to contrast two pieces of unintentional advice.
On one hand you have Roy Batty, Hauer’s killer replicant, who just wants more life. His memories make him worth saving, he’s arguing, even though a police detective, avatar of the city, is trying to snuff him out—to retire him. Batty was, ironically, a humanist, insisting that the memories of one person were a hologram for the universe. Nice … but maybe a little backward-looking. Los Angeles has issues with history.
On the other side, you have Gaff, Edward James Olmos’ dapper shadow, who lets Deckard and Rachel flee to safety. “It’s too bad she won’t live,” he says. “But then again, who does?” None of us really has a future. That’s what makes us all human, even robots who come to Los Angeles in hopes of reconstruction. Sure.
Gaff’s conclusion—live for the now, bail out, run away—is terrible advice, of course. Gaff was a nihilist, confronting insane robots and lightning storms with a big old “whatever.” Maybe you can afford the $200,000 ticket on Rocketship Billionaire.
Yeah, it’s too bad we won’t live, but out here in the real world we actually made it to November of 2019, and it’s our job to make sure the children of Los Angeles and every other misbegotten bumbling city get to the next milestone, frames dragged at the speed of light toward something better, if we build it.
I’ve straw-manned a false dichotomy here. This is Los Angeles, so the ending is more complicated. You know who I think gets it right? J.F. Sebastian, the genius genetic engineer who designs replicants. Sebastian gets it. He’s too sickly to play the billionaires’ off-world games, so he lives downtown. The world doesn’t give an Angeleno an even break. So he makes his own, a happy, kinky, multicolored life in a golden land of opportunity and adventure—at home, in Los Angeles, California, Earth, where it always has been, and always will be, almost exactly but not quite November 2019.
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