Legendary Sci-Fi Film “Blade Runner” Turns 40

"Blade Runner" ushered in a subgenre of sci-fi known as cyberpunk

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic Blade Runner debuted in 1982. The movie, starring Harrison Ford, depicts a corporatized future and raises questions about being human. It remains an influential cyberpunk masterpiece.

Futuristic architecture rendering. Science fiction cityscape in sunset colors.
A central theme of the 1982 science fiction film, Blade Runner, is a futuristic identity crisis of what it means to be human, in reference to androids and humans. Photo by CROCOTHERY / Shutterstock

Many popular literary works of science fiction author Philip K. Dick have been turned into movies, television shows, and even video games. From films such as Minority Report, Total Recall, and A Scanner Darkly to series like The Man in the High Castle and the anthological Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams, his books and short stories have reached generations of audiences.

His most famously adapted novel, however, may be Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Since its publication in 1968, Androids has spawned the Blade Runner film franchise, several related short films, a continued novel series by a friend of the author, and a video game for PC. The original film, Blade Runner, was released in Summer 1982 and, along with William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer, ushered in a subgenre of sci-fi known as cyberpunk that remains popular today.

In his video series Masterpieces of the Imaginative Mind: Literature’s Most Fantastic Works, Dr. Eric S. Rabkin, the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of English Language and Literature at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, defines cyberpunk literature.

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“The term ‘cyberpunk’ refers to a constellation of features,” Dr. Rabkin said. “The word itself comes from ‘cybernetics,’ a term coined by Norbert Weiner for the science of communication, command, and control, with kyber being the word for ‘helmsman’ in Greek. The ‘punk’ comes from the term ‘punk music,’ with its associations with low-class, iconoclastic social rebels—cyberpunk.”

British editors in the 1960s called for a “New Wave” of science fiction that would take the baton of formal literary experimentation that characterized pioneering “high culture” for the preceding half century. Ontology is the branch of metaphysics that concerns itself with the nature of being, while epistemology is the branch which deals with knowing.

“The New Wave projected a dismal worldview characterized by stylistic experimentation for ontological and epistemological problems,” Dr. Rabkin said. “They did it through drug realities. Drug realities are used often in cyberpunk, because drugs ‘decenter’ us and call into question what reality might be. Cyberpunk, in particular, does this using a fast-paced, jarring style and takes a radically anti-authoritarian view.”

Cyberpunk, which grew out of New Wave sci-fi, concerns itself with ontology much more than epistemology. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Blade Runner, police officer Rick Deckard is tasked with hunting down and killing runaway androids who look and act almost exactly like humans. The question of android and human identity is raised, and its lines blurred, throughout both versions of the story.

Blade Runner, 1982, is actually cyberpunk before the ‘cyberpunk’ word exists, before the publication of Neuromancer that motivated its coinage,” Dr. Rabkin said. “Blade Runner is an extraordinary movie, the most important aspect of which, from our viewpoint, is that its central problem is the inability to decide who or what is human; and if one were to decide, would you have the right to kill a thing just because it’s not human, even though it clearly loves and fears?”

Mastepieces of the Imaginative Mind: Literature’s Most Fantastic Works is now available to stream on Wondrium.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily