Future Tense

Blade Runner and the Power of Sci-Fi World-Building

Fictional futures can help shape reality.

Ryan Gosling in Blade Runner 2049.

Warner Bros.

On Friday, one of the most influential science fictional worlds in cinema history returns with the release of Blade Runner 2049. Building on the 1982 original’s dark and meticulously designed vision of a future Los Angeles, the new film has a lot to live up to. Blade Runner is often cited as one of the best, most visually inventive science fiction films ever. With the possible exceptions of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Minority Report, no other film has created a fictional future world so detailed in its execution, so comprehensive in the scope of its vision, and so accurately predictive of—and influential on—the design of the real world. But these movies aren’t just another illustration of the powerful feedback loop between science fiction and reality. If we look closer at the world-building techniques underlying these movies’ possible futures, they may even help us redesign our own futures for the better.

The original Blade Runner took place in 2019. Here in 2017 it’s clear that we won’t soon be achieving some of the more outlandish technological benchmarks contained in the movie’s future, like off-world colonies or androids that are “more human than human.” But put those sci-fi tropes aside. Whether you’re standing in Times Square or Tokyo’s Shibuya Crossing, all you need to do is squint your eyes to imagine that you are in the crowded polyglot neon nightmare that is the Blade Runner future: skyscraper walls of endless animated advertisements glowing down on a polluted human stew of the hyper-rich and the hyper-poor from a thousand cultures.

Welcome to the city of the future. Welcome to the city of today.

Blade Runner’s vision of dark future urbanity owes much of its uncanny verisimilitude to the guy who was tasked with designing one of the more optimistically clichéd pieces of sci-fi hardware: the flying car. Director Ridley Scott hired industrial designer Syd Mead, who had developed conceptual designs for the advanced automobiles of the future at Ford Motor Co., to do the same for his film. As Mead recounts in the newly expanded edition of Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner, which was reissued in September ahead of the new movie release, his experience at Ford combined with his passion for science fiction had given him the skills to build fully realized worlds:

Not only could I come up with advanced [car] designs that weren’t impossible, but I could also project them into a complete, imaginary scenario, a full lifestyle overview which surrounded and complemented the basic object. In other words, I was producing self-contained little worlds, automobiles that were placed into fully functioning future environments … a real street, with real buildings and people dressed in believable future fashions.

Which is exactly what he did for Blade Runner. He designed not just cars (both flying and ground-level varieties) but massive pyramidal skyscrapers, gaudy storefronts, diverse street crowds holding glowing umbrellas against the dirty city rain, public “VidPhons” as grimy and graffiti-smeared as any public telephone booth, and “Trafficators” that told pedestrians when to cross the street and displayed traffic, news, and weather.

There was intense detail in every frame of the film. Even the parking meters of the future were carefully designed, squat fiberglass-molded objects with plastic domes that glowed green or red depending on how much time was left. (It cost $3 to park for one minute.) And, of course, there was an endless array of neon signage and advertising screens crowded with the corporate logos of companies like Atari and Pan Am. (For all its foresight, Blade Runner was not great at predicting corporate longevity.) Such details insured that Blade Runner was the most heavily designed cinematic world that audiences had yet seen that wasn’t from a long time ago and a galaxy far, far away—and unlike Star Wars, this wasn’t fantasy but a realistic future. Which is why Mead was given a unique and unprecedented film credit as Blade Runner’s “visual futurist.”

No one had seen a future world this realistic and detailed since another sci-fi classic had graced the screen in 1968: Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. However, Kubrick’s approach to futurism was quite different from Scott’s. Blade Runner’s vision of the future was design- and story-driven, a broad but shallow slice of a future world, working backward from the science fictional concepts in the pulpy Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Kubrick was obsessed with extrapolating forward from contemporary scientific reality to imagine what man’s presence in space might actually look like 35 years into the future.

While Blade Runner’s world was in many ways designed by one man, Kubrick assembled his own design skunkworks stuffed with technical experts. Two NASA scientists in particular, Fred Ordway and Harry Lange, consulted full-time with the film for more than two years, working in tandem with Kubrick to develop the science—which helped shape the story—of the future. As described in The 2001 File: Harry Lange and the Design of the Landmark Science Fiction Film, Lange was responsible for designing most of the technology in the film including spaceships, spacesuits, moon bases, and computers, including an IBM-branded “newspad” tablet computer that anticipated the iPad nearly 50 years ago.

Lange and Ordway also consulted extensively with many dozens of technology companies, academic and government research labs, and other expert institutions that could help them achieve 2001’s amazingly accurate futurism. Sometimes, those partners even got involved directly in design: General Electric helped envision space station and lunar base technology; Bell Telephone contributed to the design of a video phone booth; in addition to the tablet, IBM worked on the HAL 9000 computer and several of the spaceships’ control panels; MIT helped conceptualize HAL’s skills and behavior; and Honeywell aided in the design of additional computers—including prototyping a laptop computer and mobile phone set that didn’t make it into the movie but did make it into this documentary about the making of the film.

2001’s vision of the future was technically deep but narrow—mostly following a small handful of government bureaucrats and American astronauts between a few spacecraft and a moon base, from Earth orbit to Jupiter. By contrast, Blade Runner’s vision was shallow but wide: mostly surface-level in terms of its design and technical extrapolation, but offering a broad view of its futuristic society and the range of people, places, and technologies in it. Not until Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report in 2002 would we see science fiction world-building that combined both 2001’s depth and rigor with Blade Runner’s breadth and style.

As with Blade Runner, a Philip K. Dick future-noir mystery gave Minority Report the broad strokes of a plot, but the filmmakers had to build a detailed science fictional world from scratch. Unlike Blade Runner, however, Minority Report’s production designer, Alex McDowell, began designing the world of 2054 even before the script was written. And as McDowell has described, Spielberg’s directive—like Kubrick’s—“was to create future reality, not science fiction.”

Spielberg’s team pulled together more than a dozen scientists, urban planners, futurists, and journalists for a weekendlong “idea summit” to help the filmmakers brainstorm the technology and society of 2054. And as with 2001, corporate partners like Lexus helped conceptualize and design branded technology for the movie. McDowell told me that with the help of these experts and companies, his team “buil[t] a horizontal map of the world, a kind of a holistic view of how we would imagine that world progressing in the near future.” Then, that world—a world of predictive policing, maglev self-driving cars, advanced gestural interfaces, and pervasive retinal scanning both for surveillance and targeted advertising purposes—inspired new story ideas.

Whether you call it inspiration, prediction, or both, Minority Report’s expert-sourced vision of the future accurately reflected a range of real-world technology trends that have only accelerated in the years since. By McDowell’s count, more than 100 new patents can be traced to ideas that were floated in Minority Report, while the gestural interface and translucent screens used by Tom Cruise in the movie have been incredibly influential on interface design in both the real world and the movies—perhaps too influential, considering some of the drawbacks of such interfaces. (The movie doesn’t show the many breaks that Cruise had to take because his arms would get tired from all the gesturing.) Though ultimately not a cinematic classic like 2001 or Blade Runner, Minority Report may have already had a greater impact on tech development.

The most powerful idea to come from Minority Report may not be any of its particular tech innovations or predictions, but rather the filmmakers’ methodology for world-building itself. Production designer McDowell has created a whole academic program around the Minority Report approach to world-building, with which he hopes to “bring a narrative lens to bear on real-world situations.” He and his students at the World Building Media Lab at the University of Southern California have envisioned the future of sustainable transportation with the Ford-sponsored City of Tomorrow project, worked with the Obama White House to design the refugee camps of the future, and imagined what life in the floating village of Makoko in Lagos will be like in 2036. As McDowell told me, “The big difference between what we’re doing with world-building and what you might call ‘futurism’ or ‘science fiction prototyping’ is that we are using fiction as a disruptor,” seeking not just to predict but to change the future:

We have control over the narrative here. We want a different outcome. So, let’s create a narrative—a fictional world space with multiple narratives—that is moving in the direction we want it to go. Extrapolate that forward over the near horizon, then thread our discoveries back into the present and use that to change direction in our present and move towards a new future.

At their best, dystopian visions like those in Blade Runner—and now Blade Runner 2049—are helpful self-preventing prophecies, warning us about the futures we want to avoid. But it turns out that the most lasting gifts of movies like Blade Runner, 2001, and Minority Report may be world-building techniques like McDowell’s, which can help us build our own world and design a future that we actually want to live in.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, follow us on Twitter and sign up for our weekly newsletter.