Was 'Blade Runner' Prophetic?

Monday marks the 25th anniversary of the release of the movie Blade Runner. The film's neo-noir production is cited as having influenced building design. Some argue that its dystopic setting of Los Angeles in 2019 is not far removed from life on the streets of downtown Los Angeles today.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ANTHONY BROOKS, host:

And I'm Anthony Brooks.

"Blade Runner" swept into movie screens a quarter of century ago today, delivering a dark vision of the city of the future, Los Angeles.

BRAND: At the time, the movie didn't do much commercially or critically. Now it's considered one of the best science fiction movies ever made.

BROOKS: In the film, genetically engineered replicants are trying to extend their short lifespans. Harrison Ford is the blade runner who specializes in hunting them down and killing them.

BRAND: Phillip Martin reports now on how modern-day Los Angeles measures up to director Ridley Scott's vision of the city.

PHILLIP MARTIN: "Blade Runner" opens with a panoramic aerial view of Los Angeles, 2019. Smoke stacks secreting fire, blue-green lights dotting skyscrapers, and a dominating corporation sitting on the horizon. Flying cars traverse the charcoaled sky.

L.A. Architect Xing-Ming Fang(ph).

Professor XING-MING FANG (Southern California Institute for Architecture): The image that everybody remembers was this flying vehicle, which circle around and fly by illuminated billboard with this Japanese advertising.

(Soundbite of movie, "Blade Runner")

Prof. FANG: I think that to me was like one of more powerful image. But you never quite have an overall view of the city. You just kind of project and imagine.

MARTIN: And the imagined world of "Blade Runner" has had a significant impact in the way that architects and urban planners think about present day L.A., says Xing-Ming Fang. She teaches at the Southern California Institute of Architecture. In metropolitan L.A. today, you could see bits of Blade Runner's post-modern futuristic cityscape. Think of a Getty Museum and the Disney concert hall.

"Blade Runner" is set on the gritty streets of Los Angles, populated by hustlers, cops, and food vendors. But much of "Blade Runner" takes place high above the teaming masses at the ultra modern Tyrell Corporation, a city in itself, and in the decaying Bradbury building, an L.A. landmark. That's where the replicant Pris, played by Daryl Hannah, meets the genetic engineer Sebastian played by William Sanderson.

(Soundbite of movie, "Blade Runner")

Ms. DARYL HANNAH (Actress): (As Pris) You live in this building all by yourself?

Mr. WILLIAM SANDERSON (Actor): Yeah. I live here pretty much alone right now. No housing shortage around here. Plenty of room for everybody.

MARTIN: Plenty of room for everybody. That's where the LA of today departs from novelist Philip K. Dick and Ridley Scott's vision of the 21st century.

Gary Dauphin is a writer. He lives in downtown L.A. Looking down on the parade of homeless from his third floor loft above Skid Row, Daughin says L.A. today is even gloomier than Blade Runner's dystopia.

Mr. GARY DAUFEN (Writer): There is something vaguely Venetian about living here in a sense that there's these kind of rivers and canals of misery that surround these buildings and you just kind of float through it. Downtown L.A., just because of the center of gravity that it is for people who are drug addicted or homeless, it's more of a downer than "Blade Runner."

MARTIN: Dawn Garsa(ph) has been living off and on Skid Row for six years. He writes a blog about life here and he also happens to be a sci-fi fan. He thinks of "Blade Runner" when comparing people on the streets with the young middle class professionals living in the gentrified penthouse condominiums surrounding the area.

Ms. DAWN GARSA (Blogger): They're over there (unintelligible) over there, looking out at us right now. To me that's the way of them to make, you know, downtown more aesthetically pleasing, which is the kind of maybe just have a facade around this place so you can't really see what's going on down here.

MARTIN: In the movie, the leader of the rebel replicants hiding out in L.A. is played by Rutger Hauer. He says what has metropolis has become with its McMansions and Skid Row tent cities, isolated Beverly Hills homes and rundown barrios is more problematic than the darkly romantic setting in the movie.

Mr. RUTGER HAUER (Actor): L.A. should be so lucky, I think, if the design of "Blade Runner" would go for, you know, what L.A. is like; L.A. would be a beautiful place. But I think there is more design in "Blade Runner" than there is in L.A. L.A. is just a mess.

MARTIN: Hundreds of books, articles, and essays have been written about "Blade Runner"'s dark underpinnings, it's social commentary and it's influence on urban design. But Rutger Hauer says in the end it's only movie, the greatest movie of his career, he says.

For NPR News, I'm Philip Martin.

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