How Blade Runner, Akira, and RoboCop are closer to reality than they seem
By Lewis Hyden
‘Dystopia’. There’s a word we’re all familiar with. What comes to mind when you think of a dystopia? One might consider the archetypal nightmare police-state of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four; or perhaps a more modern take on the concept, such as the supreme Capitol of Panem in The Hunger Games. Either way, you’re guaranteed to have an understanding of dystopia in some form or another: it’s both a staple genre of science fiction storytelling, and an intrinsic aspect of modern popular culture.
Two infamous interpretations of a dystopia. Nineteen Eighty-Four is considered one of the most notorious examples of dystopian sci-fi in all of the genre’s history. As a more recent example, The Hunger Games depicts a anarchic rebellion against the dystopian control of the upper classes.
As with all influential genres of fiction, there are many distinct variations of the classic dystopia. Arguably the most topical of these is the ‘cyberpunk’ subgenre, which emphasises a corporate rulership rather than a government one. Unlike the omniscient ‘Party’ of Nineteen Eighty-Four or the ruling Capitol of The Hunger Games, the ‘cyberpunk’ genre of dystopian film centres around large and wealthy corporations having a complete, dehumanising control over the consumer. Often, the very government is powerless to intervene in this corporate hierarchy: in some depictions, such as RoboCop’s villainous megacorp Omni Consumer Products, a corporation may own a portion of governmental authority; alternatively, companies such as Tyrell Corp in Blade Runner have enough control to effectively govern a dystopia themselves.
A number of esteemed movies that are not overtly advertised as ‘cyberpunk’ can nonetheless be considered stellar examples of the format: we have RoboCop, Akira, The Matrix, Tron, Ghost in the Shell, Total Recall and Blade Runner, to name only a few.
Why, then, is cyberpunk considered a topical genre of film? This question is best answered with a comparison. If you view a still from RoboCop’s Delta City side-by-side with a comparison of modern-day Detroit, it isn’t hard to draw parallels between the representation of urban living in cyberpunk and its real-life equivalent.
Top: still from RoboCop (1987). Bottom: the General Motors Headquarters in Detroit, today.
RoboCop and other notorious cyberpunk movies may depict vast dystopian architectures, beset by perpetual darkness, crime and amoral corporate policy, but they have also inadvertently served as a model for urban development in the real world: although these dystopian cities are far from an optimistic vision of the future, they have, as a result of their influence, molded the urban city to their own likeness by setting a standard for how the future of technology and urban life should look. It is apparent that we have been edging closer and closer to this standard, without exactly intending to do so.
Cyberpunk is considered fiction for a reason. I don’t mean to imply that we’re living in the superficial datastream of The Matrix, or the post-apocalyptic nightmare city of Akira’s Neo-Tokyo. However, it is fascinating that these films have retained their significance in global popular culture, to the extent that they have influenced the very basis of what the city of the future should look like. In many ways, the Los Angeles of Blade Runner is similar to the real-world Los Angeles of today; they are both nucleated by high-rise skyscrapers and towering office blocks, nestled between which are antique movie theatres and historic buildings, almost untouched by the urban development around them. It is a strange contrast to behold, and an even stranger one to see evidenced in cyberpunk films more than thirty years old.
It is for this reason that cyberpunk is relevant: it is visionary. Cyberpunk is as much a spooky, unnerving depiction of a dystopian corporate future as it is a representable target for urban development. In short: we are living in Blade Runner.
Top: still from Blade Runner (1982). Bottom: an area in the modern-day Los Angeles Chinatown district.
Modern urban development isn’t where the similarities between cyberpunk and real life end. In fact, this vision of the city of the future is only one of the more superficial representations of the cyberpunk genre’s influence on the world. There are innumerable examples of corporate error in real life which are comparable to that of these movies’ fictional megacorps.
In early 2018, it was revealed that the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica had been using illicit methods to harvest personal information from millions of Facebook users by way of a misleading informed consent process. In as early as 2015, the firm realised they were able to access personal information from their survey respondents on Facebook, of which the company failed to inform them in the survey consent policy. The outing of the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal in March 2018 was a shock for social media users worldwide: not only did it lead to Cambridge Analytica turning defunct only two months later, it also sparked a popular demand for stricter data regulation laws, both here in Europe and in the U.S.A.
This scandal is a pertinent and well-understood example of how a business presented with the opportunity to expand (i.e. a political consulting firm being presented with the personal data of millions of Facebook users) will walk the fine line of the law in order to achieve their goals. Corporate scandals - whether they are influenced by poor decision-making or an outright interest in profit - are a distinct facet of both cyberpunk media and, it would seem, the real world. Whilst I’m hardly claiming that Cambridge Analytica were cloning Replicants, I do believe that there is something eerily familiar about the attitude of such fictional megacorps as Omni Consumer Products and Tyrell Corp, and the laws they are willing to ignore in order to attain power and influence over their consumers. It is simply an exaggerated interpretation of real-world corporate ideology.
In essence, an argument can be made that, while the multi-national businesses of cyberpunk media are vastly more insensitive and anti-humanitarian than those in real life, their actions aren’t always so different from real-world organisations: ultimately, the corporate chain calls for money and power, which is - depending on who you ask - a vividly dystopian concept.
Two distinctly villainous corporate logos and the notorious cyberpunk films which birthed them.
Left: Omni Consumer Products (RoboCop). Right: Tyrell Corporation (Blade Runner).
So, if you are a budding filmmaker and you have an interest in the development of the city sprawl, or urban living, or modern-day corporations, or dystopian hierarchies, or rampant drug abuse, or any facet of cyberpunk storytelling, one of the first things you should do is start to draw links between these ideas and their presence in the real world. The inspiration for any good cyberpunk film should come from your own unique vision of the future, however it is vital to remember that even the most surreal cyberpunk films have their roots in reality. It is, in essence, a central notion of cyberpunk that the scariest dystopia is established in the most realistic setting: the vast urban skyline. In short, while the original dystopia suppresses individual liberty, the business-run dystopia of the cyberpunk genre takes full advantage of our freedoms, with the sole interest of corporate success.
You might believe, then, that the most successful type of cyberpunk film is one that is inspired by, and relevant to, the real-world corporate atmosphere. Your vision for your cyberpunk film may be the next groundbreaking influence, like Ridley Scott’s view of the Los Angeles in 2019, and it may have its own role in shaping the development of urban life going into the future.
We continue to see the importance of cyberpunk films all around us. Next time you’re driving through the city at night, take a look out of your car window at the advertisements suspended on the buildings surrounding you. Peer down the alleyways between the nightclubs and office buildings, or stand in the middle of the bustling central avenues. Listen to advertisements on the television, visit the Chinatown district, stand at the top of the tallest building you can find. If you’re fascinated by cyberpunk fiction, like I am, then you can see how it has helped shape our world. Maybe cyberpunk and reality aren’t quite so different after all.
At least reality is a much nicer place than Blade Runner. Shame we don’t have flying cars, though.
Top: Piccadilly Circus, London. Bottom: still from Blade Runner (1982).