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.
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)
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.