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Running the Blade: Examining the Imagery of a Hollywood Cult Film By Thomas O. Meehan. Photographs by Ryan GallagherGo Back to the Table of Contents
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Do societies reveal themselves through their vision of the future? The film Bladerunner, an American science fiction film first released in 1980 and set in the 21st Century, has by now become a cult classic. Much of its visual imagery has been assimilated into pop culture and continues to influence filmmaking. What is it about this film that has endured and captured the popular imagination? A financial disappointment at the time of its release, Bladerunner still haunts many who have seen it, and, like the novel 1984, seems destined to remain in the public mind through it’s own predictive vision. Let us hope that, like 1984, it fails as prophecy.
Set in a future dominated by institutions against which individuals have little chance to craft a personal destiny, the characters in Bladerunner must define their humanity in a world in which the essence of what it means to be human has been brought into question through the advent of genetic engineering.

It rains perpetually in the smog shrouded, hyper-polluted Los Angeles of Bladerunner. The city is a stratified multi-cultural megalopolis run by corporate conglomerates. This LA resembles Hong Kong at street level, New York above the lower floors of its neo-Aztec skyscrapers. The film invokes the future through the past; mirroring costumes and styles reminiscent of the America of the 1940s.


The streets are the world of the “little people.” The corporate bad guys live above the smog in high-tech pleasure palaces. Exactly where the human engineers of this highly complex world live, and how the necessary middle class exists without visibility, are left unanswered. Indeed, the villain in this film, Dr. Tyrell, resembles nothing so much as a cross between the late Dr. Goebbels and Bill Gates.

The film follows a common science fiction plot in which contemporary concerns are extrapolated into the future. The plot elements are painfully familiar: evil corporate executives (the prototypical villains in most popular television fiction) exploit a race of genetically engineered humanoid workers called “replicants” who are used for various “off world” occupations such as soldiering, prostitution and heavy labor; all presumably in violation of minimum wage laws. Each replicant is genetically programmed to terminate at a set and unalterable date. The replicants are thus established as a devalued minority with grievances against the majority culture, most of which have left the planet for the ultimate suburb: the planet Venus.

The hero cop (whatever happened to hero insurance agents?) is coerced from retirement to “retire” (viz. kill) a band of particularly murderous renegade replicants who have returned to earth in search of their corporate creator, the genetic engineer and tycoon, Tyrell. Their project is to both confront him, and extract from him a way of extending their lives beyond the predesignated deaths.

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