Los Angeles November, 2019. The words, white text on a black screen, fade to an industrial realm of flaming chimneys and blinking smokestacks that stretches to the horizon. Vangelis’ synthesised orchestration stirs into being. Flying cars swoop in and out of shot. An apparently human eye reflects the spectacle back at us.
This is our first glimpse into the world of Ridley Scott’s 1982 cyberpunk epic Blade Runner – and while Tokyo has often been cited as an aesthetic inspiration, no city is more entwined with the Blade Runner mythos than Hong Kong. Scott himself visualised the city as the setting for the movie, creating a complex, counterintuitive beauty for which his film, and the city that helped inspire it, have come to be celebrated.
Even today, Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples’ script has the power to transport the reader into the streets of an otherworldly Hong Kong. The same rain drips from ramshackle overhangs and, pooling on the concrete, reflects ancient neon signs. Cracks between monolithic towers admit shafts of sunlight. Step through the mirror into the city itself and you are at once bombarded by a cacophony of sound and smell. The jostling, the ding-ding of trams and the blare of horns; stores emit rich scents – here, traditional Chinese medicine; there, eau de cologne; car fumes mingle with the aromas of tripe and stinky tofu.
Blade Runner’s world-building is perhaps most effective not in the grandness of its gloomy vistas, but in its imagining of humanity condensed. And Hong Kong, arguably more than anywhere else in the world, is a snapshot of exactly that. All the realms of human experience: young and old, rich and poor, living around and above and beneath one another. The in-film city is sprinkled with references to Mong Kok’s 24-hour, everything-for-a-price milieu; Hong Kong’s celebrated neon signage, much of it now in disrepair and under threat from more modern LCD and LED technology, bespeak future nostalgia.
Critics have dubbed the Blade Runner aesthetic ‘Ridleyville’ – characterised by urban grit intertwined with extreme, high-tech modernity; a profusion of neon and huge video billboards; quasi-Asian design elements rubbing up against American commercial motifs. In the words of former M+ / Design Trust research fellow Hugh Davies, ‘This visage is replete with dualities: East and West, technology and tradition, affluence and destitution, all connected in space and time.’
Such dualities also define Hong Kong. In the 1980s, when Blade Runner was made, the city was regarded as a conduit between the West and China; a place between two worlds.
In an essay in 2004’s Liquid Metal: The Science Fiction Film Reader, Hong Kong academic Wong Kin Yuen, now professor and head of department at Hong Kong Shue Yan University, compared Blade Runner’s city scenes to two specific areas of Causeway Bay: the Hennessey Road crossing outside Sogo, and Times Square. Here, ‘an area once inhabited by comparatively low-income locals has been transformed by commercialism into a high-tech wonder’, Wong wrote. ‘A bewildering collage of signs and patterns with enough anarchic elements remaining (a small part of the market and old style shops) to create a sense of pastiche. Yet nothing unusual or uncanny is felt by the people who live there.’
The sight of protagonist Rick Deckard eating noodles on the street, and even ordering a Tsingtao, tells us exactly where we are – even if we’re not exactly there. Among the craggy vastness of the skyscraper canyons that could have been lifted from Central or Tsim Sha Tsui, we’re offered small, Earthly details. Presented with a world just familiar enough to believe in, we do.
As a fantastical, darkly beautiful mirror image of our reality, Ridleyville cast a spell over our creative culture. But perhaps it is not its rich fiction or lofty fantasy that elevated Blade Runner beyond genre conventions. Perhaps this film, which remoulded science fiction in its own image, was able to do so because of its relationship with a familiar, very human place. Today, the film – and the Hong Kong that gave it life – continues to inspire storytellers, artists – and those shaping the future.
From Sci-fi to Sci-fact
Is Blade Runner’s 2019 all that different from our own?
As far as we’re aware, humanoid machines aren’t yet walking among us – but this could soon change. In 2016, Hong Kong-based Hanson Robotics unveiled Sophia, an AI-equipped android able to hold basic conversations; meanwhile, US robotics lab Boston Dynamics has created remarkably fluid bipedal robots.
Retinal scanning and facial recognition
Machines able to identify people from their faces were the stuff of fiction in 1982. But today, the tech is being rolled out worldwide: Hong Kong International Airport has facial recognition gates to help get passengers airside. But some applications are controversial. Will they benefit humanity, or could they be used to control us?
Loud, brash and inescapable, the huge video billboards so prevalent in Ridleyville can now be seen in practically every major city. Hong Kong’s Times Square video screen arrived in 1994, but has since been surpassed in scale: at the time of writing, the world’s largest video screen can be found in Suzhou, at the city’s Harmony Times Square.
In the Blade Runner universe, flying cars take off and land vertically on cramped city streets. In our 2019, we’re still stuck on the ground. But if you have the cash, the dream is within reach: The two seater PAL-V Liberty drone gyrocopter is available now for US$400,000. It may be decades before they’re a common sight, but flying cars are no longer a flight of fancy.