Imagining a Better Future by Re-imagining the Past

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Blade Runner: Dieselpunk or Cyberpunk?

1982 saw the release of one of the great movies of science fiction, Blade Runner. Loosely based on Philip K Dick’s novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” the movie, while not a box office success at its release, has since been declared "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the Library of Congress and chosen for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.

For those few who have not seen Blade Runner, the movie is set in Los Angeles in the year 2019. It portrays a dystopian future where Earth, for reason’s never explained, appears dying and in which those humans lucky enough to be healthy are abandoning the planet to live in “off-world” colonies. The only living things left on Earth are humans crammed into polluted, overpopulated cities, which are run as police states and where the people are forced to try to survive by retro-fitting technology. The central elements of the story involve genetically produced androids, known as “replicants,” who appear indistinguishable from humans and are created to slave in the off world colonies. After a violent rebellion the replicants were forbidden from Earth and a special police unit known as Blade Runners were created to kill (they use the euphemism “retire”) any rogue replicant that return.

In the movie the lead character, an ex-Blade Runner named Rick Deckard (played by Harrison Ford), is forced to rejoin the Blade Runner Unit to hunt down four rogue replicants who have returned to Earth and to “retire” them.

Historically, Blade Runner has been considered as a cyberpunk movie but I disagree. It’s my opinion, which has also been expressed by some others in the dieselpunk community, is that Blade Runner should actually be classified as dieselpunk. Let me make my case.

First, Blade Runner is heavy in decodence, which incorporates the aesthetics, styles and themes of the diesel era. Just as in the diesel era in Blade Runner there is an all-powerful capitalist Dr. Eldon Tyrell, CEO of Tyrell Corporation. The hair style and fashion of many of the characters, especially Rachael’s (played by the gorgeous Sean Young) and Gaff (played by the amazing Edward James Olmos) were clearly inspired from the diesel era.

Gaff (Edward James Olmos)

Rachael (Sean Young)

There are moments in Blade Runner that appear as though they could have been lifted straight from a classic diesel era film, such as the scene in the police office that used the lighting from a window to give the feel that they were watching a projected movie rather than a video. Not to mention the architecture of the city that was obviously inspired by the 1927 classic science fiction Metropolis. (Source: The Guardian)

Scene from Metropolis

Scene from Blade Runner

Second, the film has been appropriately labeled as “neo-noir” by Judith Barad in an article in Mark Conrad’s book “The Philosophy of Neo-Noir.” This is supported by Ripley Scott, the director of Blade Runner, who said in the documentary Dangerous Days: The Making of Blade Runner that he decided to, “make a futuristic film noir.” The noir elements are everywhere in the film. One can see it in the constant oppressive rain, which almost screams “it was a dark and stormy night.” Decker’s character is a detective taken straight from Philip Marlow or Sam Spade, down to the narration that was included in the theatrical release. To drive home the film noir intent, according to the documentary, during pre-production the actor Robert Mitchum was the first consideration to play Deckard because of his history of making film noir.

Finally, there is little in Blade Runner that’s actually cybernetic. Certainly there’s a great amount of high tech, such as flying cars, but cybernetic technology play a minor role in the film. As the replicant Roy Batty (played by Rutger Hauer) said, “We’re not computers Sebastian, we’re physical.” Some may protest saying that the central theme of the movie is to try to understand what is means to be human, which is a common theme found in cyberpunk. But Jerold J Abrams explains in Conrad’s book that all detective stories, whether they are classic tales, film noir, or neo-noir are actually searches for the nature of the self and the existential question of meaning. Such themes, even when placed in futuristic settings, do not automatically make a movie cyberpunk.

In conclusion, when one combines all three of the components found in the movie: decodence, neo-noir, and the minor role of cybernetics, it’s my opinion, that Blade Runner should not be considered a cyberpunk movie but would be better classified as dieselpunk.


Teresa Lott said...

Blade Runner was inspired a great deal by Metropolis that is true, and the look of Metropolis is something that dieselpunk has used as a backdrop as well, but that does not make Blade Runner dieselpunk. Blade Runner wasn't even really meant to be cyberpunk, but it is what kicked off the genre along with William Gibson's work and Bruce Bethke's short story that gave the genre its name.

Cyberpunk is not just about everything being cybernetic anyway, it's a theme, an atmosphere. Besides, it fits with what cyberpunk is The replicants are cyborgs, the computers and tech are tools within the structure of the story, Deckard is an anti-hero, it's set in a gritty, dark, overly crowded near future. It's cyberpunk

Dieselpunk is an alternate reality retro future cyberpunk dressed as art deco pulp. Blade Runner doesn't fit that description.

Larry Amyett, Jr said...

Possibly I could have expressed myself better in my posting.

Cyborgs and advanced technology were also used in Sky Captain but I'm sure we could both agree that it wasn't cyberpunk. So I'm not convinced that their presence in Blade Runner makes it cyberpunk, even if the movie helped start the cyberpunk genre.

The strong use of decodence found in the movie combined with the overt attempt at making a film noir, in my opinion, distinguishes the ultimate product that became Blade Runner as dieselpunk.

Thanks for reading my blog and posting your comments. I appreciate your thoughts on the matter.

Hayen Mill said...

Well, i can certainly see the retro-futurist aspects of Blade Runner more clearly now, but I also don't think its an entirely Dieselpunk or Cyberpunk story. If anything it is a subtle combination of the two. One has to bear in mind that there are digital elements in the movie as well, which are not a characteristic of dieselpunk.

I guess that, in a sense, there are no utopian cyberpunk movies, and in contrast, dieselpunk often bases its story on optimistic progress of technology, even though social environments might still be tense (ie: WW2).

Labeling is certainly a difficult subject, but I thought the post was pretty good overall, even if i'm not sure what to think of it yet.

Larry Amyett, Jr said...

Very interesting points, Hayen.

Remember that dieselpunk isn't always positive in its portrayal of technology. Thinking back I should have described Blade Runner as a Piecraftian Dieselpunk (see The Gatehouse Gazette issue 1) with its dystopian and post-apocalyptic themes.

Thank you for both your kind words about my post and your comments.

Caine said...

I really enjoyed this post a lot.

I agree that labeling it definatively one or the other would present a difficulty.

While we could argue the asthetics of Cyberpunk and Dielselpunk in multiple terms: genres, themes, styles, etc

I've always associated the internet and it's infusion with our daily lives, our very being, as a heavy element in any Cyberpunk I've consumed and enjoyed.

They don't really speak much about, or heavily use the Internet in Blade Runner. The internet is used, and looked at as if it were little more than a toaster or door bell, technology long ago mastered and existing in it's niche.

So, I too would label it Dieselpunk.

Larry Amyett, Jr said...

Thanks for the comments Caine. You made some interesting observations and I'm very glad you enjoyed this post.

Private Runner said...

You made some good points. Whether a cyberpunk, dieselpunk, or a mixture of both with some future noir flavor, I really love this movie, especially the soundtrack. Happy postings.

Andres Salvador said...

Very interesting article Mr. Amyett,Greetings from Argentina!

Larry Amyett, Jr said...

Thank you, Sir.

Anonymous said...


very good article Sir.

I also love the movie, I seen the remastered version and It looks awesome in HD.
Soundtrack rocks, and the atmosphere, dark and rainy, great play !!!

Speaking of Cyberpunk/Dieselpunk, I recommend you all a PC game that I play right now, called Gemini Rue, very atmospheric also with noir elements and all the ingredients.

Have fun everyone!