How Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner Illuminates the Central Problem of Modernity

Of all the soci­etal debates now going on in the West, many have to do with iden­ti­ty: who belongs in which group? Which groups belong in which places? And what if who we are changes accord­ing to con­text? In its own deep con­cern with iden­ti­ty, Rid­ley Scot­t’s Blade Run­ner, one of the most endur­ing cin­e­mat­ic visions of the 20th cen­tu­ry, has come to look even more pre­scient than it already did. The video essay­ist Evan Puschak, bet­ter known as Nerd­writer, finds out what the film under­stands about the prob­lems of social life in its future — our present — in a chap­ter of his “Under­stand­ing Art” series called “Blade Run­ner: The Oth­er Side of Moder­ni­ty.”

Blade Run­ner tells the sto­ry of Rick Deckard, a retired police detec­tive called back to work to hunt down a group of slave androids, known as “repli­cants,” who have escaped their con­fine­ment in an off-world min­ing camp and arrived on Earth. “In that process,” says Puschak, “we are con­front­ed with an avalanche of big ideas: what it means to be human, how our mem­o­ries cre­ate who we are, themes of love, exploita­tion, post-colo­nial­ism, social hier­ar­chy, and social decay.”

It all takes place in an imag­ined Los Ange­les of 2019, a rainy, dark­ly sub­lime urban realm whose “upper world is crisp, clean, and pre­dom­i­nant­ly Cau­casian,” and whose “street-lev­el world is dirty, chaot­ic, and mul­ti­cul­tur­al, par­al­lel­ing the ‘white flight’ of the mid-20th cen­tu­ry.”

The vision of moder­ni­ty at work in Blade Run­ner “finds its expres­sion, nec­es­sar­i­ly, in moments between devel­op­ments of the plot,” in its glimpses, delib­er­ate­ly offered by Scott and his col­lab­o­ra­tors, into the built and social envi­ron­ment at the mar­gins of the action. The over­all effect is “to pro­duce a world the keynote of which is malaise.” And though enthu­si­asts have writ­ten a great deal about the film’s explo­ration of human­i­ty itself — argu­ments still erupt, after all, over the issue of whether Deckard is a repli­cant him­self, even after Scott him­self has tried to set­tle it — “the cen­tral prob­lem of moder­ni­ty isn’t human­i­ty; it’s iden­ti­ty.”

In Puschak’s view, Blade Run­ner diag­noses the con­di­tion that “all the free­dom of mod­ern soci­ety, all its sec­u­lar­ism and egal­i­tar­i­an­ism and choice, con­ceals a dark­er side to the coin: the side on which human iden­ti­ty isn’t deter­mined by soci­ety, but by the indi­vid­ual, mak­ing its for­ma­tion, by def­i­n­i­tion, prob­lem­at­ic.” Indeed, we could see the shift from soci­etal­ly deter­mined iden­ti­ty to indi­vid­u­al­ly deter­mined iden­ti­ty — framed pos­i­tive­ly, the long march toward free­dom — as one of the main threads of the past few cen­turies of human his­to­ry, here rep­re­sent­ed by Deckard’s strug­gle with “the grad­ual break­down of the only iden­ti­ty he’s ever had.”

The essay high­lights one espe­cial­ly poignant but lit­tle-acknowl­edged scene where Deckard, hav­ing just slain one of his assigned tar­gets, instinc­tive­ly goes to buy a drink, but “what he real­ly needs is some kind of con­nec­tion, some place where the rules of inter­ac­tion are still sol­id and know­able.” Ulti­mate­ly, even after Deckard has dis­patched all of the rogue repli­cants, no “sat­is­fac­to­ry answer to the puz­zle of moder­ni­ty” emerges, but “Blade Run­ner does­n’t seek to give answers.” Instead, it seems to have known what ques­tions we would soon ask our­selves about “the con­se­quences of a soci­ety that, for all its mem­bers, is as lim­it­less as the vast archi­tec­ture of a city, yet as indif­fer­ent as the rain.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch Tears In the Rain: A Blade Run­ner Short Film–A New, Unof­fi­cial Pre­quel to the Rid­ley Scott Film

What Hap­pens When Blade Run­ner & A Scan­ner Dark­ly Get Remade with an Arti­fi­cial Neur­al Net­work

Watch an Ani­mat­ed Ver­sion of Rid­ley Scott’s Blade Run­ner Made of 12,597 Water­col­or Paint­ings

Blade Run­ner Gets Re-Cre­at­ed, Shot for Shot, Using Only Microsoft Paint

Blade Run­ner is a Waste of Time: Siskel & Ebert in 1982

Philip K. Dick Pre­views Blade Run­ner: “The Impact of the Film is Going to be Over­whelm­ing” (1981)

The City in Cin­e­ma Mini-Doc­u­men­taries Reveal the Los Ange­les of Blade Run­ner, Her, Dri­ve, Repo Man, and More

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (4)
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  • ignas says:

    The dou­ble use of ‘belong’ in the first two sen­tences com­pro­mis­es my sense of lib­er­ty. I com­pre­hend the dis­clo­sure top­ics soci­o­log­i­cal con­text. How­ev­er, feu­dal his­to­ry end­ed in Europe in the Mid Ages, even though pover­ty & eco­nom­ic hier­ar­chy con­tin­ues, it does not car­ry such didac­tic or com­pul­so­ry terms.
    The his­toric con­text of past tense in dis­cussing mod­ernism & moder­ni­ty, two dif­fer­ent mean­ings, rather out- dates any new dis­clo­sure as being about the past, not about the present. This is com­men­tary on the intro­duc­tion above, not the film.
    Ignas Bed­nar­czyk.

  • ignas says:

    The super video is a stim­u­lat­ing ‘thinker’- it makes you think.

  • padraig says:

    good read

  • Dorothy Gray Shinn says:

    “The cen­tral prob­lem of moder­ni­ty isn’t human­i­ty; it’s iden­ti­ty.” Rid­ley Scott said it, and if you look at the long wave of his­to­ry, begin­ning with the inven­tion of pho­tog­ra­phy in the mid-19th-cen­tu­ry, you’ll see that it’s true. The pho­to­graph made it pos­si­ble for the first time for an indi­vid­ual, no mat­ter what his or her rank, to get an image of them­selves that they could keep. Pri­or to that time, only the well-off could afford to have their phys­i­cal iden­ti­ty cap­tured in an image and/or exhib­it­ed in a vari­ety of forms. This focus on the iden­ti­ty of ordi­nary peo­ple fol­lowed the enlight­en­ment view of the impor­tance of the indi­vid­ual, and it has con­tin­ued to devel­op and expand, find­ing its way into all cor­ners of the globe and result­ing in all man­ner of inter­pre­ta­tions and evo­lu­tions. One could even ascribe the upheavals in var­i­ous parts of the globe today to this expan­sion of the notion that the Indi­vid­ual — not the state, not the tribe, not the cult, not pol­i­tics, not reli­gion, nor even the fam­i­ly — is the prime focus of today’s soci­ety. Tak­ing this fas­ci­na­tion with one­self to its extreme is the cur­rent abil­i­ty and/or need to both pro­mul­gate one’s own iden­ti­ty expo­nen­tial­ly as well as iso­late one­self phys­i­cal­ly through the use of smart devices and social media, which togeth­er allow an indi­vid­ual to cre­ate a bub­ble of pseu­do-exis­tence, with­out ref­er­ence to phys­i­cal real­i­ty or demon­stra­ble con­nec­tion to it.

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