The film’s impact comes from its skillful blend of two other distinct images of Los Angeles—as noir jungle and harbinger of the future.

Blade Runner 2049 opens in American theaters this week, 35 years after the original version first came out. The first Blade Runner eventually became a cult classic and, according to author and urban theorist Mike Davis, L.A.’s “dystopic alter ego.” It helped fuel two decades of critical and dystopian depictions of Los Angeles by Davis, Octavia Butler, James Cameron, and many others.

Why did this particular movie resonate so strongly and work so powerfully to shape a negative image of Los Angeles? It’s a peculiar outcome. Phillip K. Dick set the source novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? in San Francisco and much of the Blade Runner street action was shot on a redressed “Old New York” set. The dark ambiance is diametrically opposed to the ubiquitous surf and sun imagery in television shows like Gidget, films like Beach Blanket Bingo, or music like the early Beach Boys. Even the creepy Bradbury Building, although authentically Los Angeles, has little in common with the wide corridor of Wilshire Boulevard or the sun-baked grid of the San Fernando Valley.

The film’s impact comes from its skillful blend of two other distinct images of Los Angeles—as noir jungle and harbinger of the future.

Commentators in the 1950s and 1960s picked Los Angeles as the “shock city” for the postwar generation. Like 1840s Manchester for Frederick Engels and 1910s New York for Leon Trotsky, Los Angeles was the place for visitors to get a handle on the trends shaping the urban future. Journalists like Neil Morgan in Westward Tilt and Christopher Rand in The Ultimate City were remarkably upbeat in describing the “prototype of the supercity” in language that marched in step with painter David Hockney’s iconic canvas, A Bigger Splash (1967).

Los Angeles wore a second face as dark, devious, and dangerous, most prominently in the novels of James Cain and Raymond Chandler and their cinematic versions like Double Indemnity and The Lady in the Lake. The dim lighting, drab colors, and omnipresent drip that frame Harrison Ford’s search for rogue replicants in the Los Angeles of 2019 echo Humphrey Bogart’s pursuit of dark secrets through soaking rains and gloomy nights in The Big Sleep.

Blade Runner fused the images, using noir atmosphere to turn Future Los Angeles into something dark and threatening rather than bright and hopeful. Flames randomly burst from corporate ziggurats. Searchlights probe the dark sky. But little light reaches the streets where street merchants and food cart proprietors compete with sleazy bars—a setting that Blade Runner 2049 revisits. The dystopic versions of New York in Soylent Green and Escape from New York are set in a city crumbling from age and overuse. In contrast, Blade Runner uses the imagery of the future for similar stories of deeply embedded inequality.

The film resonated with audiences because it embodied unease about a changing American population. The United States of 1982 looks racially homogeneous from the perspective of 2017, but effects from migration and the Nationality Act of 1965 were already apparent in large cities. Latino immigration was growing. Japanese tourism and investment in California were surging, triggering an upswing in “yellow peril” scaremongering and warnings about economic takeover. On the Blade Runner screen, Asian people fill L.A. streets and replicants hide in plain sight—both potent reminders of social change. A second key was the tacit message about environmental danger. Turning Los Angeles into a dreary rain zone exaggerated the image of a smog-choked city and signaled a future of dangerously radical ecological transformation (even if hotter—not wetter—is the actual projection now for L.A.’s climate future).  

When it comes down to it, of course, there’s more fun and schadenfreude in imagining trouble striking a big city than a small town. Terminator 2: Judgment Day would not be half so exciting if T-1000 chased Arnold Schwarzenegger along the banks of the puny Miami River in Dayton, Ohio, rather than the concrete arroyo of the Los Angeles River. In the 1980s, the fictional destruction of New York was old hat. Los Angeles was a relatively fresh target and, for the film industry, a logistically convenient one. Moviegoers were increasingly willing to disparage it, too.

Blade Runner was a catalyst for a dystopian decade that was accentuated by the rioting and violence that followed the April 1992 acquittal of police officers accused of beating Rodney King. Moviegoers would soon get Falling Down, whose filming was interrupted by the Rodney King riots, Pulp Fiction, and Independence Day, with its total obliteration of the metropolis. In print in the early 1990s were Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, Cynthia Kadohata’s In the Heart of the Valley of Love, and Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, all depicting a near-future Los Angeles fragmenting into enclaves and drifting toward chaos, capped by Mike Davis’s The Ecology of Fear.

Intimate scale makes nightmare scenarios vivid. For a movie set in sprawling Los Angeles, Blade Runner is remarkably claustrophobic, whether Harrison Ford is grabbing a meal at a food stall, drinking in Taffey’s Snake Pit, navigating streets under the eyes of hovering police aircars, or probing the shadowy interior of the Bradbury Building. The same intimacy makes Butler’s Parable of the Sowera depiction of the slow collapse of normal life among residents of a cul-de-sac who fail to wall themselves off from the mobs and disorder—the most chilling of literary dystopias. Her book, Butler said, was an “if-this-goes-on” story that simply projected the political and environmental portents of the Reagan years.

Blade Runner arrived at a strategic moment. A string of national crises in the 1970s—from Watergate to the fall of Saigon to gasoline shortages—had undercut American optimism. In the aftermath of the Watts Rebellion, the upbeat Southern California narrative was ripe for reversal. Through an improbable geographic hook, Blade Runner put a focus on emerging fears of demographic changes, environmental crises, and post-industrial collapse.

In an era when La La Land seems to be the new iconic Los Angeles film, the ambiance of Blade Runner may seem a bit shopworn. Perhaps 2049 will change that.

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