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Blade Runner

Saturday, January 3rd, 2009

bladerunner

Blade Runner
1982, 117 minutes
directed by Ridley Scott

Two years prior to the symbolic date of 1984, Ridley Scott released this film based on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick. It stars Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Edward James Olmos and Daryl Hannah. In the film, Harrison Ford plays a bounty hunter hired to search and destroy rogue ‘replicants,’ genetically engineered machines designed to be identical to human beings, yet used exclusively for labor. The date is 2019, and the place is Los Angeles.

In terms of the progression of this semester’s films, it serves as one of the dystopic bookends of these cinematic investigations into the city and architecture. Metropolis, by Fritz Lang in 1927, a film which essentially established the genre, imagined the city as completely beholden to the industrial revolution that was gripping the first world at the turn of the century. As the machines fall towards the end of that movie and the indentured servants are released from their servitude, perhaps we can see Blade Runner as the result of that uprising in Metropolis; the city in Blade Runner is a city of endless hordes of disenfranchised, despairing, and dispersed masses of people (almost all Asian, (un)surprisingly). There is no implied order, no nods to any sort of benevolent government in place, nor any sense of optimism. The setting for epitomized dystopia moves from the East Coast to the West Coast, from a fictional New York to a fictional Los Angeles. The dystopia arcs from one of stifling order to one of bewildering disarray.

Blade Runner has shown incredible longevity as a film. As Pauline Kael put it in her otherwise tepid and uncomprehending review, “[Blade Runner] has its own look, and a visionary sci-fi movie that has its own look can’t be ignored—it has its place in film history.” But it isn’t quite so simple as merely the look of the city that distinguishes Blade Runner, it’s also the conception of dystopia that it presents. Much like the way classical, Newtonian physics was superseded by the hazy, cloudy realms of relativity and quantum mechanics; technology, once the force of order and oppression in Metropolis, morphs into the ambiguous field of chaos and unknowability in Blade Runner.

This quantum world view is probably most apparent in one of the largest themes running through Blade Runner, that of the humanity of the ‘replicants.’ Though they are visually and interactively indistinguishable from humans, they are none the less ruthlessly hunted down whenever they disobey (they even possess the wherewithal to disobey). Whereas Fritz Lang asked us to decide between human and machine, Ridley Scott asked us where one begins and the other ends.

If there is one city that could serve as an example of the broken promise of Modernism, an ethos essentially rooted in the classical Newtonian world-order view, it might be Los Angeles. There, the pernicious grid, that pseudo-neutral system that imposes political hierarchy spreads throughout the desert landscape and blankets it with an industriocratic stupor. The existence of the grid implies a distinction between planner and planned—it is the manifestation of Nietzschian hubris via technology that culminates in a Hegelian subject-object dichotomy. Los Angeles, then, presents the perfect setting for contemporary urban alienation. In April 1992, Los Angeles was besieged by the Rodney King riots. Though the ostensible impetus for those riots was the verdict of the eponymous trial, if we abstract those events to be indicative towards a shifting relationship between subject and object, it thus can be seen to presage the banlieu riots of Paris and post-9/11 non-nation state terrorism.
Thom Mayne, the principal and founder of Morphosis, a Pritzker Prize winning practice based in Los Angeles, has often spoken of the need for “an architecture of resistance.” His insightful, incisive, and eloquent critiques of the nature of building public buildings today (see his interviews published recently in The New York Times), most poignantly aimed at the Ground Zero debacle, point to the interdependency of architecture, politics, and urbanism. If we take the 1968 generation of architects to be the resistance against Modernism, then today we have a need for a resistance against the society of the spectacle.

(originally written April 17, 2007)