I normally rate “The New York Post” as far as tabloids are concerned but this feature on the prophetic side of the 1980s dystopian science-fiction reads more like something out of the “Guardian”:
Two classic science-fiction films — “Blade Runner” and “The Running Man” — are both set in 2019, and although the films envisioned a few details that aren’t a reality right now, many of their themes nailed current modern life in America…
Watch these films now, and you can see many parallels between their fictional worlds and the real one we’re living in this very year.
Ridley Scott’s 1982 film “Blade Runner” told the story of a detective (Harrison Ford) tasked with hunting rogue humanoids known as “replicants,” played by Daryl Hannah and Rutger Hauer. “The Running Man,” which hit theaters in 1987, concerned a police officer (Arnold Schwarzenegger) falsely imprisoned by the totalitarian state and made to perform on a top-rated game show, which forces convicts to run from heavily armed pursuers through a dystopian maze.
While the events of the films are too exaggerated to be real, the two movies are set in a world affected by climate change and technological upheaval, both of which can be seen today.
So it’s 2019 and with the exception of Mark Zuckerberg we still don’t have any rogue humanoids for anyone to hunt. And contrary to “The Resistance” claims, the United States is not a totalitarian state with “Hunger Games”-like public entertainment. So what’s going on?
“‘Blade Runner’ was meant to be a warning about how our climate was changing, how our pollution was destroying the world, how industry is taking over the environment,” says Gray Scott, a New York City-based futurist and host of online show “Futuristic Now.” “All of those conversations we’re having now.
“I looked at San Francisco a few weeks ago, and those people were forced to wear gas masks because of the forest fire. It looked just like ‘Blade Runner,’” Scott says. “The sky was orange. I don’t want to live in that world.”
But people wearing gas masks on a one-off basis because of forest fires is hardly the perpetually smog-filled urban nightmare of “Blade Runner”. And it doesn’t have anything to do with climate change either. As Bjorn Lomborg writes, “Fires in California and elsewhere are devastating. But US fires are nowhere near the record. More likely about one-fifth of the records in 1930 and 1931.” Natural disasters seem worse nowadays because the greater population density and greater wealth of the nation put more people and assets at risk – that, and the 24/7 spectacular media coverage, which tends to exaggerate everything. And while the process has slowed down somewhat in the recent years, the urban air quality in the United States is the best it has ever been since the advent of heavy industry and the automobile. In fact, if you want to experience “Blade Runner”-like smog, you better go to Beijing rather than Los Angeles (and Los Angeles does happen to be one of the worst cities in the US in that regard):
So what else?
Another detail both films correctly predicted was the widening gap between the rich and poor.
The world of “The Running Man” is rife with shantytowns filled with the homeless and destitute, recalling pockets of modern-day Los Angeles and New York City. Meanwhile, the rich travel in limousines and live in gleaming skyscrapers. While today’s New York is cleaner and safer than it’s ever been, the wealthy increasingly live in ever-higher towers — such as 432 Park Ave. — making the division between rich and poor more stark and visible than ever before.
The same is true in “Blade Runner.” Super-tall buildings dominate the skyline, while the streets below them are chaotic places choked with people and traffic.
“I knew that Ridley wanted to produce a city that was congested visually and architecturally because the decent people never got below the 40th floor,” Mead says. “The city streets were like a basement.”
The shortage of food and fuel depicted in “Blade Runner” thankfully hasn’t come to pass in the US. In fact, we now have a glut of oil and fewer people are going hungry today than in any time in history. And yet, in some parts of the world, people do live like this.
“I really found ‘The Running Man’ interesting because of the idea of a global economic collapse,” says Katie King, a New York-City-based futurist. “This makes me think of Venezuela. Food shortages, they’re having issues with natural resources and there’s also the police state. It’s straight out of the movie.”
Big American cities have for more than a century now been places full of super-tall buildings and streets teeming with people below. What’s new? The “Post” acknowledges that “today’s New York is cleaner and safer than it’s ever been” and that “The shortage of food and fuel depicted in ‘Blade Runner’ thankfully hasn’t come to pass in the US. In fact, we now have a glut of oil and fewer people are going hungry today than in any time in history.” So where are the amazingly predicted parallels? In the socialist Venezuela apparently. What would you know, socialist countries have generally been dystopian hell holes for as long as socialist countries existed. But “Blade Runner” was set in the futuristic America, not some tropical Soviet Union.
Perhaps the best detail that both movies got right was our more immersive relationship with the media.
Back in the 1980s, there were three television networks and the Internet was still just being used by a couple researchers. Unplugging was the default.
Both films also imagine a world where cameras are ubiquitous, filming us whether we like it or not. There’s also the merging of propaganda and news — something seemingly impossible back in the days of the three trusted news anchors.
The Los Angeles of “Blade Runner” is covered by gigantic digital billboards and blanketed by blimps floating overhead streaming ads on an endless loop. “The Running Man” similarly cloaks its city with building-sized screens, so programming can be watched at all times. There is no escape from information. Government runs the network and controls the message, often spreading misinformation to further its cause.
“Running Man” director Paul Michael Glaser said his movie reflects our current media environment. “It mirrors people’s perception of the entertainment industry, their perception of the news,” Glaser told The Post. “It captures the feeling that we’re all being manipulated and lied to. Those are huge things that people live with every day.”
“The lines have blurred between reality and news and propaganda and entertainment,” the movie’s producer George Linder agreed. “All that did not exist at the time ‘The Running Man’ was made.”
OK, that’s a bit closer to the mark, but still… The surveillance state and the mixing of news, propaganda and entertainment has been predicted by many others, much better, and for a lot longer than the early 1980s. If in doubt, reread “1984” from 1948. In any case, we’re not really there as imagined by “Blade Runner” and “The Running Man”, because – contrary once again to all the over-hysterical commentators – it requires a totalitarian or at least an authoritarian government to make it happen. Instead, the manipulation and lies of today are a matter of the private sector, decentralised and competitive.
And then there’s the emergence of reality TV. “The Running Man” perfectly predicted the America of 2019 and our obsession with watching “regular” people become iconic.
“We have a reality star as a president. I don’t know how much more we need to say about it,” futurist Scott said. “We’re not killing each other for ratings — yet. I think if your culture would allow it, we would. I’m not saying we won’t.”
“I do wonder what would make Americans decide to take the worst of the worst [criminals] and turn it into a show?” King said. “Could it be these big media companies start failing and a way to save their channels is to do something new that could be something like this? It very much could happen.”
Really? We’ve been watching regular people become iconic as long as we have been watching TV – think of game shows or talent shows. Ancient Romans, of course, had their gladiatorial games, to which “The Running Man” and Scott and King above allude to. Today we have “Survivor”, where, contrary to the title, no one dies. “It very much could happen”? So could a zombie apocalypse.
It’s difficult to read articles like this and, putting aside the perennial issue of media sensationalism in pursuit of readers/viewers, not to think that some people really need to feel like they are living in dark and dangerous times. Whether it’s boredom, guilt or simply ignorance – or all three – living in the best times we’ve ever had since our ancestors have climbed down from the trees just doesn’t cut it with the doom-mongers. Who would have predicted that?