As I write this at the close of 2023, Tesla has just delivered its first production Cybertrucks. The tagline for its launch video proclaims that “The future should look like the future”, which was also Elon Musk’s mantra for the truck’s design team during its development.
But what future is it? Not the future-future, shocking in its newness but exciting in its possibilities. Rather, it’s an old future, decades old, in fact. Indeed, the design boards for the Cybertruck shown in other Tesla videos underline its dated origins – there are 1970s and ’80s angular concept cars, TRON, and even Robocop (!).
There’s more to this than Gen X nostalgia. As car designer Frank Stephenson suggests, for such a supposedly futuristic vision, not only is the Cybertruck likely to feel dated very quickly, but it’s contrary to the kind of future we ought to be creating. Tech website Engadget put it more starkly, calling the Cybertruck a “dystopian, masturbatory fantasy“, one that (seemingly gleefully) envisages a future of urban danger, where drivers (those who can afford the truck’s top-of-the-line $100k price tag) charge through streets encased in tank-like bullet-proof steel cages, slicing through rioting crowds (quite literally, given the truck’s sharp angles).
If this is the future, it’s a brutal, insecure, and anti-social (not to mention ugly) one. As if to prove the point, at the Cybertruck delivery event, Musk mused, “Sometimes you get these late civilization vibes, the apocalypse could come along at any moment, and here at Tesla, we have the finest apocalypse technology” (yes, that’s an actual quote).
As PopMatters readers will recognize, the vehicle’s name references cyberpunk, the science fiction sub-genre famously described by foundational author William Gibson as a “combination of low life and high tech.” Cyberpunk is unique in sci-fi in having avoided becoming hopelessly dated. In genre terms, it was a reaction to the shiny spacesuits and silver rockets of the ’50s, which persisted into the ’60s. But now that it’s more than four decades old, why does popular media continue to feature its imagery and themes (not to mention it inspiring self-proclaimed tech visionaries of a certain age)?
One of the most successful videogames of the past few years has been Cyberpunk 2077 (strapline: “No future”), alongside other big-budget titles such as Watch Dogs: Legion (set in a near-future post-Brexit dystopian London), and numerous independent studio games such as Ghostrunner, Cloudpunk, The Ascent, and Stray. Sci-fi television and movies also keep returning to cyberpunk, from Altered Carbon to Cowboy Bebop (originally a Japanese anime), The Matrix Resurrections to the Korean film Jung-E, as well as numerous graphic and non-graphic novels. A single scene or frame from any of them instantly tells us what kind of future we’ve in: polluted, grossly unequal dystopias with highly advanced technologies the playthings of the rich, and the rest of us scrabbling for survival down in trash-filled urban warrens.
The primary reference point for these visions is, of course, Blade Runner (1982). In some ways, it’s strange that Blade Runner persists. It’s not the most entertaining film; it’s cold, dour, and distant, with, at times, a faux seriousness and profundity. It lacks an engaging protagonist and has an air of fundamental fatalism. As the author of the definitive book on the movie, Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner (1996), Paul M. Sammon, puts it, in terms of people’s reactions, it’s a “love it or who cares?” kind of experience. Unsurprisingly, at the time, it wasn’t a commercial success.
But from its opening moments, Blade Runner has amazing production design. There’s a solidity and credibility to its future. As is well known, the industrial designer and ‘visual futurist’ Syd Mead played a critical role in this. His modernist, optimistic commercial design work (often focusing on urban transportation) was incorporated into a dank and dying world in which the future isn’t what it once was, or at least what was promised (Mead liked to call science fiction “reality ahead of schedule”). And it’s this that points to the film’s recurring relevance and that of cyberpunk more generally.
Certainly, there’s something to the notion that Philip K. Dick’s paranoia has increasingly become our own (Dick wrote the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, on which Blade Runner was loosely based). There are a thousand (or many more) analyses of the film, from fan sites to impenetrable theoretical commentaries. But the obvious fact, hidden in plain sight, is that Blade Runner persists because its future remains our most likely future and, increasingly, our present.
Blade Runner depicts a future of urban decay and under-investment, overpopulation, corporate domination, commodification, and alienation. The lack of flying cars in our own time (something that today’s tech accelerationists seem obsessed with) isn’t the point. Described by its director Ridley Scott as “Hong Kong on a very bad day”, the film realizes a future Los Angeles of soaring inequality, environmental degradation, pollution, urban sprawl, absent government, and (literally) dehumanizing technological progress. It’s the distillation of all dystopias – today, we might say ‘polycrisis‘ – the reason it still feels relevant, even if it might now be too late to act as a warning (a point we’ll come back to in a moment).
It was never meant to be about the far future or even what could be. It was about what would most likely be, and not far from now. As Scott remarked, “[A] lot of the overall environment we came up with for Blade Runner was simply a forecasting of what I’d already seen in high-density urban centers throughout the world” – including the financial center of Hong Kong, Tokyo’s Ginza district, London’s Piccadilly Circus, New York’s Times Square, and Milan’s business center.
Moreover, since Blade Runner is set in 2019 (the seminal 1988 Japanese anime Akira also takes place in a dystopian 2019), it’s also our past, a future that’s already happened. Dystopias are often set comfortably decades in the future. Much of cyberpunk isn’t, uncomfortably so. Indeed, William Gibson’s response to his fiction being regarded as dystopian was to express surprise – and skepticism: “I suspect that the people who say I’m dystopian must be living completely sheltered and fortunate lives. The world is filled with much nastier places than my inventions, …and a lot of those places seem to be steadily getting worse.”
Blade Runner might have helped to solidify cyberpunk, but it wasn’t its beginning. Among other things, the film was influenced by The Long Tomorrow, the French graphic artist Mœbius’ hard-boiled futuristic detective comic published in 1975 written with Dan O’Bannon, who also wrote the screenplay for Alien and Total Recall, the latter based on another Philip K. Dick novel (the actual term ‘cyberpunk’ was first used as the title of a short story by Bruce Bethke, written in 1980 and published in Amazing Stories in 1983, and was later popularized by Gardner Dozois, editor of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine).
It’s been a long tomorrow ever since. Some might dismiss cyberpunk’s continuing popularity as merely 1980s nostalgia (albeit a strange nostalgia about a dark fictional future created decades in the past). But it still resonates because the dystopian fears of the ’80s are still our fears.
Neither, of course, was Blade Runner the first dystopia. But perhaps part of the reason for its longevity is that it’s actually quite a different kind of dystopia from many others. Conventionally, the purpose of dystopias is to act as a warning so they don’t come true. As Frédéric Claisse and Pierre Delvenne put it: “A dystopia is the depiction of a dark future based on the systematic amplification of current trends and features. …Yet, however inescapable this future may be described as, the very existence of such a narrative presupposes that the political community it tries to reach is actually able to do something to thwart it. Oddly enough, a successful dystopia aims at making itself obsolete…”
Unusually, Blade Runner doesn’t seem to be trying to do that. Despite what many audiences would regard (not unfairly) as its dramatic failings, the film is effective in conjuring a thick air of alienation in which ordinary people are largely redundant – economically, socially, and physically left behind in the acid rain while the rich have fled to ‘Off-world colonies’ (alienation was a major theme of Philip K. Dick’s work, particularly what he came to think of as “android personalities”, people who had become detached from human values of compassion and empathy).
Of course, to reflect this, we’re meant to recognize that the replicant android slaves, the real workers, are indeed “more human than human” (as the film’s Tyrell Corporation’s slogan has it). At least they’re full of passionate intensity, still wanting to live, while the humans have seemingly given up. These are the beings that Deckard (Harrison Ford’s protagonist) is tasked with hunting down and killing on behalf of the authorities, and because the arrogant corporation screwed up its programming and assumed there was no limit to the exploitation of its slaves.
Crucially, this is a stagnant future, both in the sense that it keeps recurring in our visions and also in itself. Despite the flying cars and the ability to fabricate ‘people’, this future feels static. There’s no sense of dynamism or progress here, no hope that things might get better. The Tyrell Corporation might be intent to advance its replicant technologies, but it’s detached from any sense of social advancement. The future won’t be trickling down from its gleaming corporate pyramid to the dirty, suffocating streets hundreds of floors below.
Welcome to our default future. As writer and game designer Kyle Marquis put it in a well-known 2013 tweet: “Yearly reminder: unless you’re over 60, you weren’t promised flying cars. You were promised an oppressive cyberpunk dystopia. Here you go.”
And so to Pauline Kael’s (longtime film critic for The New Yorker magazine) famous review. Kael’s influence casts as long a shadow on film criticism as Blade Runner does on contemporary science fiction. She recognized the significance of its ground-breaking production design, of course: “The congested-megalopolis sets are extraordinary, and they’re lovingly, perhaps obsessively, detailed; this is the future as a black market, made up of scrambled sordid aspects of the past…” But Kael dismissed its story: “[W]e’re not caught up in the pulpy suspense plot… …Blade Runner is a suspenseless thriller; it appears to be a victim of its own imaginative use of hardware and miniatures and mattes.”
Reacting to its lack of warmth, Kael’s most controversial line was cutting, as she could be: “If anybody comes around with a test to detect humanoids, maybe Ridley Scott and his associates should hide.” Her most astute point was about the film’s fatalism: “Here we are – only forty years from now – in a horrible electronic slum, and Blade Runner never asks, “How did this happen?” The picture treats this grimy, retrograde future as a given – a foregone conclusion, which we’re not meant to question. …The sci-fi movies of the past were often utopian or cautionary; this film seems indifferent, blasé, and maybe, …satisfied in a slightly vengeful way.” (Going back a bit further, we might similarly reference Susan Sontag’s famous 1965 essay “The Imagination of Disaster” and its critique that Cold War-related science fiction fantasies help to normalize that which we should never become accustomed to, namely the potential destruction of humanity.)
And yet, we need to recognize that, as Isvtan Csicsery-Ronay Jr. suggests in The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction, today’s social, political, and cultural conditions have become ‘science fictional.’ Whereas once the genre was regarded as inherently artistically shallow (including by critics such as Kael), now sci-fi imaginations help us make sense of a world being changed by proliferating technologies we – like Blade Runner’s poorer inhabitants – can scarcely comprehend: nanotechnology, genetic engineering, cloud computing, artificial intelligence… Science fiction is the way we try to imagine the actual future, in novels (both explicitly sci-fi and not), films, TV programs, video games, music, and beyond.
More importantly, it’s how we imagine the politics of these futures. In cyberpunk, corporations become the law; in our world, to answer Kael’s important question, this was achieved by a connected array of commentators, think tanks, corporate donors, and highly partisan economists and lawyers, some of whom, it seems, would like us to go full cyberpunk, with untrammeled corporate power, private police forces and legal systems, and no meaningful welfare safety nets at all.
Naturally, the likes of Elon Musk find this future inspiring. He’s one of the few who (will) benefit from this future-present at the very top of the pyramid and from the political pessimism depicted (though hardly welcomed) in films such as Blade Runner (as Douglas Rushkoff has noted, what the uber-wealthy and tech-elite are actually worried about in the event of social collapse is whether their staff will desert them).
And so, however much it might be past time to move on from cyberpunk to sci-fi visions with more human agency and environmental hope, such as solarpunk, criticizing the former types of fictional dystopias amounts to blaming artists for society’s stasis. Before we accuse them of being complicit in creating pervasive social pessimism, we should (much more importantly) consider our own complicity in the systems that have led us steadily towards dystopias and how it’s these systems that are the cause of hopelessness – not novels, movies, comics, or videogames. It’s not a failing of creators’ imaginations that we’re stuck in dystopian visions of the future; it’s that politically, economically, and socially, we’ve been stuck on the same trajectory toward futures that are decidedly dystopian.
This is the hidden-in-plain-sight critique that cyberpunk continues to convey, even as we can’t avoid its future crashing into our present: there was no sudden shock, no asteroid or solar flare, that caused social collapse, just the refusal to change course even after ‘we’ were warned that economic growth, extraction, and exploitation couldn’t go on forever. Blade Runner is then still our vision of the future because the future it was warning us about hasn’t changed – because the ideological political-economic project that came to the fore just before the time the film was released (what we used to call the ‘new right’, before today’s new new right) has determined our future, is still with us, and still dominates.
So it’s perhaps better to regard Blade Runner as the culmination of the late ’60s-’70s period of more serious socially-conscious science fiction (before the high-concept pitches more common in ’80s Hollywood films) – even as a companion piece to Ridley Scott’s previous film Alien (1979), with its similar themes of corporate exploitation and unchecked desire for technological dominance, alongside its dirty future production design (indeed, fans like to speculate that the two film franchises are set in the same fictional universe).
To Kael’s criticism, we can say that Blade Runner’s fatalism is not its flaw but its point. Ultimately, dystopia comes from a political collapse, an inability of politics to respond to oncoming crises, and that far from being accidental or a collective human failure, this inability was core to the political project of the new right, to the elite desire to make us believe that (as Margaret Thatcher put it) “There’s no alternative.”
Unfortunately, for all his apparent idiocy, Musk might be right. The Cybertruck might not be the future we should be creating, but it could be the one we’re getting.
This article is adapted from the author’s book Come With Me If You Want To Live: The Future as Foretold in Classic Sci-Fi Films, out now in hardback and e-book from Lexington Books.
Csicsery-Ronay Jr., Istvan The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction. Wesleyan University Press. February 2011.
Claisse, Frédéric and Delvenne, Pierre. “Building on Anticipation: Dystopia as Empowerment”. Current Sociology. Vol. 63, Issue 2. March 2014.
Kael, Pauline. “Baby, the Rain Must Fall”. The New Yorker. 12 July, 1982.
Sontag, Susan. “The Imagination of Disaster”. Commentary. October 1965.