This paper considers two deeply influential science fiction (SF) films: Blade Runner (1982) and Minority Report (2002). While their plots share relatively little overlap, the films’ directors both made concerted attempts to build detailed visions of the future, particularly in their approach to setting and cinematography. This paper analyzes the similarities in world-building between the two films and argues that their respective visions of the future helped influence sociotechnical developments in the world beyond the screen.
Jordan Moeny is a graduate student in the Communication, Culture, and Technology Program at Georgetown University. Her work primarily focuses on the cultural and communicative aspects of cities and other built environments, both real and fictional. You can reach her at email@example.com.
Volume 19, Issue 2 • Spring 2019
“The honest truth is that when I talk to people about the film, the thing that they remember is not the plot, it’s the world.” – Futurist Peter Schwartz, on Minority Report (Wired Staff 2012)
When it was released in 2002, Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report was a commercial and critical success, opening at the top of the box office. In the months following its release, Minority Report won a Saturn Award for best science fiction (SF) film and appeared on numerous lists of the year’s best movies. Renowned film critic Roger Ebert called it “mainstream moviemaking at its most sublime” (Ebert 2002). Yet one of the most fascinating aspects of the movie is neither the premise—that “pre-cognitives” with the ability to see into the future would enable the end of murder—nor Tom Cruise’s acclaimed performance as Department of Precrime head John Anderton. Rather, as Peter Schwartz suggests above, the deeply intricate world that the production team created draws at least as much attention— and arguably has the more lasting impact.
By contrast, seminal SF film Blade Runner— Ridley Scott’s 1982 story of androids, detectives, and the nature of humanity— started off as a flop. Though film critics and audiences were underwhelmed at the time of its release, the film has since come to be recognized as one of the most influential movies of all time—SF or otherwise— particularly in its portrayal of a future version of Los Angeles. Released twenty years apart, the two films offer fairly different visions of the future. Yet these visually divergent settings ultimately reveal countless similarities in theme and in the dystopian societies they depict, and both claim cultural staying power and significant influence on real-world sociotechnical developments.
Building the Future
Both Blade Runner and Minority Report occupy a particular role in SF film in that they represent specific forms of the future. Both are based on writings by Philip K. Dick1, who worked almost exclusively with the near future. Neither post-apocalyptic nor set in a galaxy far, far away, both films present a future that is, if not probable, at least possible. Blade Runner takes place in Los Angeles 2019, 37 years into the future at the time of release; Minority Report shows us Washington, D.C. in 2054, 52 years post-release. In grounding their narratives in real cities and within the possible lifetimes of the audience, both films force their visions of the future to carry more weight than those that are more distanced from the here and now.
Spielberg and Scott took similarly thorough approaches to worldbuilding. Scott, known for the layered approach to set design that he demonstrated in Alien, hired Syd Mead first to design the film’s vehicles, and later as the guiding “visual futurist” (Bukatman 2009, 29). Mead focused largely on the idea of retrofitting old technologies into new ones and mixing styles from a variety of eras in everything from clothing to cars. The city was an imaginative and richly detailed one; Bukatman reports that Ridley Scott’s vision:
was informed by a range of sources: engravings by Hogarth and paintings by Vermeer, photographs by Jacob Riis of New York’s Lower East Side, the urban nightdreams of Edward Hopper and the baroque visual science fiction of Heavy Metal. (29)
Sweeping panoramic views of the city and architecture involved a multitude of miniature sets and painted backgrounds, assisted by ninety separate special effects shots (30).
The result is a future that is simultaneously spectacular and bleak. Seen from above in the film’s opening sequence, Los Angeles 2019 is somewhat terrifying, with bursts of flame shooting from looming black towers. At the same time, the soaring Vangelis score tells us that we’re looking over something majestic and awesome, and the endless expanse of glittering lights makes us believe it. Reflected in a close-up of an eye, the lights and flames look as much like a city as they do an expansive galaxy, swirling in the darkness of space.
From street level, Los Angeles is a cyberpunk mess of a city, reflecting Scott’s philosophy of packing each shot with detail. “This is a dark city of mean streets, moral ambiguities and an air of irresolution,” writes Bukatman (2009, 59). Smokey and dim, full of crowds and shadows and accompanied by endless chatter in an unintelligible blend of languages, this is a place where nothing is ever quite clear. Yet for all that, there’s something sexy and attractive about it, with its neon lights and street food and see- through clothing. Vivian Sobchack (1988) writes that the L.A. of Blade Runner is “experienced less as base and degraded than as dense, complex, and heterogeneous with its multinational and marginal populace, additive architecture, sensuous ‘clutter,’ and highly atmospheric pollution” (15). There’s an exhilaration that comes at the thought of exploring this chaotic, striking version of the future. Ultimately, Blade Runner is a film that asks a lot of questions and offers few answers, both for its audience and for its characters. The future Los Angeles is reflective of this, offering plentiful distractions and places to hide. As in the plot, few things are exactly as they seem.
Minority Report’s Washington, D.C. is in many ways the opposite of this, but like Scott, Spielberg took pains when it came to designing his future. “One of the things that Steven was pointing out, correctly, was that we all live in yesterday’s future,” production designer Alex McDowell has said. “We’re not living in crazy sci-fi buildings, we’re living in buildings that were 100 years old” (Brew 2010). To put together a plausible version of future Washington, Spielberg called an “idea summit” of experts from Hollywood and from a variety of scientific fields to brainstorm. Futurist Peter Schwartz, who was part of the summit, described it as such: “We would ask questions: What about advertising? What about transportation? What about newspapers? What about food?” (Wired Staff 2012). Fellow attendee and design scientist John Underkoffler emphasized that the goal was always to create a realistic, believable future. The outcome of the multi-day meeting was the “2050 Bible,” an 80-page stylebook that McDowell and his team used to construct the world of Minority Report (von Stackelberg 2015, 40).
The result is a striking vision of the future. If, per Bukatman (2009), Blade Runner rejects “the rational city,” then Minority Report embraces it (59). The city is clean and bright, made of glass and metal, with natural light streaming in everywhere. The editing emphasizes this bright look; the film was put through a “bleach bypass” process to desaturate and lighten the final images. The scenes are bright to the point of being washed out and overexposed, with light obscuring as much as it reveals.
Minority Report’s vision of Washington, D.C. in 2054 is a marvel of technology laid over the existing structure of the city and its suburbs. The bulk of the action actually takes place in Northern Virginia so that the film could portray skyscrapers and other taller structures—experts at the idea summit maintained that the District’s height limits would persist well past 2054 (Wired Staff 2012). Highways filled with self-driving cars run up, down, and around cement and glass buildings; unlike in Blade Runner, there is no congestion to speak of. Set in the real- life Ronald Reagan Building in downtown D.C., the Department of Precrime, is a swirl of transparent walkways and glass walls. In fact, there are few buildings in the city that don’t have floor-to-ceiling windows.
Or at least, this trend is true of the buildings in the upgraded part of the city. But there’s another side to D.C.: a darker underbelly that McDowell describes as “a kind of tenement, decaying dark city which exists underneath the new city” (Barlow 2005, 48). Barlow notes that at this level of the city, the setting evokes Blade Runner. For the first time, we see trash and mud and broken-down cars; a layer of grime seems to coat every surface. As Anderton jogs through the run-down area known as the Sprawl, constant shadows echo the darkest corners of Blade Runner’s L.A. Even in many of these darker scenes, though, there is still plenty of light. In the apartment/office of the skeevy Dr. Solomon Eddie, who surgically swaps Anderton’s eyes for a new pair, the windows are covered in gauzy curtains that still allow the room to fill with natural light, black-and-white films are projected in the background, and translucent walls reveal wiring that glitters with star-like pinpricks of light.
The pervasive light is key to one of the central visual metaphors of the film. McDowell explains: “[Y]ou’ve got the sense that the whole thing is transparent. That architecturally and metaphorically the transparency is hiding this core dark loss of civil liberties for the population because of the existence of pre-cogs” (Brew 2010). Just as the glass walls of the Precrime headquarters disguise the dark and hidden spaces where Anderton does his work, the public narrative about Precrime hides its dark secret: that the pre-cogs’ predictions are merely possibilities, not certainties as the public has been told.
Blade Runner and Minority Report also grapple with the ethical and social implications of a future that is deeply integrated with technology. While there are certainly some differences— Precrime’s eye-scanning devices probably would have made Deckard’s job a lot easier—similar threads run throughout both films. Both are, at a greater or lesser level, about the humanity of genetically modified persons, which is echoed both in Blade Runner’s market of artificial animals and in Precrime inventor Iris Hineman’s venomous zoo of a garden. New-and-improved vehicles add to the ambience of both films, reminding us with each SF whoosh and whir that we’re somewhere— or rather, somewhen— unfamiliar.
One scene in each film solidifies the linkage between the two technological worlds. In Blade Runner, we see Deckard investigate a photo on a computer screen, zooming in on minor details until the photograph reveals its secrets. Bukatman explains, “The classic scene of searching a room for clues is now played out on a terminal. The screen, that frontier separating electronic and physical realities, becomes permeable; the space behind it, tangible” (2009, 56). The same description could be applied unchanged to Anderton’s “scrubbing” of a virtual crime scene for clues in the opening of Minority Report. Though he manipulates the image using gestures rather than his voice, the process itself is a direct parallel.
However, advanced technology plays a larger and more obvious role in the plot of Minority Report than in Blade Runner. As Cynthia Bond (2006) notes, “All aspects of the culture are cinematized: newspapers bear moving images rather than photographs; telephones are videophones; logos on cereal boxes are moving pictures; and cameras are ubiquitous” (29). Meanwhile in Blade Runner’s L.A., street-level technology seems to be mostly confined to neon signs and glowing umbrellas. This makes a certain sense, as Bruce Sterling notes that cyberpunk rejects the “careless technophilia” that Minority Report seems to embrace (qtd. in Bukatman 2009, 58). (“Careless” is perhaps not a completely accurate descriptor, given the detail in Minority Report’s worldbuilding, but “technophilia” is certainly applicable.) Yet both worlds offer omnipresent reminders, in the form of video advertisements in all parts of the city, of their respective central technologies:Blade Runner’s off-world colonies—the “golden land of opportunity and adventure” that wouldn’t be possible without the replicants—and Minority Report’s Precrime program.
Dark City, Bright City
The visions of the future laid out in Blade Runner and Minority Report fulfill very different roles in the realm of science fiction futurism. John Gold (2001) posits that there have only been two significant trends in how urban settings are portrayed in the genre. The first is the “vertical city,” laid out by films like Metropolis. Sobchack describes such films as employing the “architecture of ‘aspiration’”: “Emphasis in these images is on the vertical, lofty, and aerial quality of the city rather than on its pedestrian and base horizontal dimension” (1988, 8). The other is “future noir,” a style of which Blade Runner provides the ultimate example: “The future noir city was quintessentially dark: sometimes a city of perpetual night lit only artificially; sometimes one where the sombre [sic] skies constantly teemed acid rain; and frequently a city in which the air was heavily stained by industrial pollution” (Gold 2001, 339-40).
Minority Report has trouble fitting into either of these classifications. Among other things, future noir is characterized by an excess of darkness (Staiger 1988). While there is certainly a high level of visual contrast in the film, it is more often caused not by overwhelming shadow but by overwhelming light, reflecting the film’s themes of transparency and obfuscation. Even in the most traditionally noir settings, such as Dr. Eddie’s slum apartment, characters’ features are obscured not by shadows but because the light behind them is so strong that they become silhouettes.Minority Report also lacks the “urban- design chaos” Staiger describes as key to future noir (24). Writing a full fourteen years before Minority Report came out, she specifically highlights Washington D.C. as a prime example of how urban planners have attempted to create utopias through ordered city structure (24). Where Blade Runner leans into urban chaos, Minority Report maintains the city’s order in a way that is antithetical to future noir.
For all the high-rises and skyscrapers we see in Minority Report, it is also not quite the vertical city. For one, the action happens primarily at ground level or below. In the scenes that do take place on higher floors, the camera remains focused on the characters and discourages the audience from dwelling on what Sobchack might call the “transcendent” aspect of the city. What’s more, the film blurs the very definition of vertical. In a classic Cruise action scene, Anderton is forced to escape from his car onto a busy highway; as he climbs out the window, the scene suddenly shifts and his car begins driving vertically rather than horizontally. In a way, Minority Report forces even the vertically oriented city into mundane horizontality.
Perhaps Minority Report escaped the traditional portrayals of the future city, then, in avoiding in large part both the vertical city and future noir. The film’s creators certainly believe so. According to Schwartz, that was the goal from the start:
Steven [Spielberg] and I talked specifically about creating a new set of vernacular images of the future. Before then, the only images that anybody ever referred to were either Blade Runner or 2001 [A Space Odyssey]. It was a very dark vision. Our goal was to get on screen a really amazing vision of the future that people would talk about. We achieved that overwhelmingly.(Wired Staff 2012)
By looking beyond the tried-and-true settings for science fiction films, Minority Report expands audiences’ views of what future cities might look like.
Life in the (Fictional) 21st Century
Blade Runner and Minority Report offer such fascinating worlds that it is easy to forget about their inhabitants, but the lives of these future city-dwellers add a crucial layer to the films. One key subject that both films address is that of anonymity and privacy. In Minority Report, anonymity is only rarely possible. No one is allowed to disappear in this city; “eye-dents” scan everyone as they enter buildings, get on the Metro, or walk through shopping districts, and Anderton doesn’t even attempt to hide his face from them, suggesting that such a thing is impossible to accomplish. Even in “private” spaces, Precrime can disperse eye-scanning “spyders” without a warrant, invading homes to make sure no one goes undiscovered. Indeed, the film repeatedly depicts the violent dissolution of the boundary between public and private, with Precrime officers smashing through glass in the opening sequence and jetpacking through apartment floors and windows when Anderton tries to escape them. Not only does the government track everyone, but so do corporations. Advertisements identify Anderton constantly, demonstrating that no one can ever be a nameless face in the crowd.
Where a baseline level of anonymity does exist, it is by accident rather than design. The advertisements make this clear.The digital ad systems can talk to Anderton by name, but they can’t tell anything about his situation, and when his eyes are surgically replaced, a display in a GAP store demonstrates the superficiality of its technology by addressing him as “Mr. Yakamoto.” Mark Garrett Cooper (2003) describes this scenario as “preserv[ing] a discomfiting anonymity in the very moment of identification” (38). Nor do the advertisements help Precrime find Anderton, as the first “eye-dent” they are able to use occurs when he enters the Metro. Privacy exists through great effort— see the creator of the Precrime program Dr. Iris Hineman, who isolates herself by weaponizing the landscape around her home—and full anonymity is achieved only through even greater effort, as Anderton’s surgery demonstrates.
The film’s ending speaks to the connection between isolation and privacy. Cooper draws a distinction between the traditional Hollywood ending and that of Minority Report, with the latter merely imitating the former:
Rather than prove that the world has been made safe for romance (again), the film envisions the private sphere as an isolation zone. To be even remotely secure, the family must have no contact whatsoever with the intrusive world of bureaucrats, policemen, and advertisers that exists outside. This solution seems all the more inadequate given that the film spends most of its running time showing such seclusion to be a practical impossibility. (2003, 24-5)
While John and Lara’s contentment seems intended to reflect the social freedom that comes with the end of Precrime, it is hard to believe that all governmental overreach will fade out in the same way. The government may no longer be looking into citizens’ very futures, but presumably the rest of the invasive technology—the “spyders,” the “eye-dents”—will stick around. Anderton’s security and comfort in the final scene of the movie is as much an illusion as it ever was.
If anonymity in Minority Report is a bug in the system, in Blade Runner it’s closer to a feature—though it’s still quite complicated. Anonymity exists in the crowd in Blade Runner, and in the ability to get lost in the mass of humanity; a Minority Report– style surveillance society is missing here, as evidenced by Blade Runners like Deckard being required in the first place. Those who play their cards right, can disappear forever.2 The possibility of anonymity in the crowd does not, however, imply full personal privacy. For replicants, even such deeply personal things as feeling and memory aren’t private. The replicant Rachael’s memories are not her own, as shown when Deckard recites them to her, having learned all about them from Tyrell. It is similarly implied that Gaff, one of the police officers in charge of the case, knows Deckard’s memories, even though Deckard believes himself to be human.
Tied into anonymity in both films are issues of class and power. In Blade Runner, privacy and open space are privileges that are conferred only on the wealthy and powerful. In a city that is crowded and congested, one of the only wide-open spaces is the Tyrell Corporation headquarters, where the scale of the building dwarfs anyone who enters it—including Eldon Tyrell himself, indicating that while his company may hold vast amounts of power, he personally is limited. Indeed, his final scene, where he exists primarily as an individual rather than as a representative of the company, is far more visually cluttered. The camera keeps quite close to Tyrell here, depriving him of personal space in his final moments. In J.F. Sebastian, we see this as well. While he has a level of power— a genetic engineer, accomplished at a young age—he is confined to Earth by his medical condition and finds it difficult to stand up for himself against the replicants. This is mirrored in his Bradbury Building apartment, where he has copious amounts of space— “No housing shortage around here,” Sebastian tells Pris— but is surrounded by endless piles of books, toys, and other clutter. His apartment is filled with the dirt of the street rather than the polished surfaces of Tyrell HQ; cleanliness, too, is something afforded only to the well-off.
Returning to Minority Report, we can see the same patterns. The dark, older part of the city, the Sprawl, is as crowded and full of grime as the modern neighborhoods are free of it. However, even Anderton’s spacious, modern apartment is covered in dirty dishes and old food, reflecting that no matter how successful he may be professionally, he is brought low in his personal life. Privacy, too, is indicative of status, although the upper class is no less surveilled than the lower. In fact, they have arguably more surveillance due to corporate interests. After Anderton’s initial escape, one of his pursuers predicts that he will hide in the Sprawl because “there’s fewer consumers there, which means fewer scanners” (Spielberg 2002). However, when the less-privileged Washingtonians are surveilled, it is more violent and disruptive when “spyders” are set loose in a tenement building, causing chaos as they burst into apartments. Privilege in this society is embodied in the ability to ignore that one is being watched, to let it fade into the background of ordinary life. As Anderton is hunted, he shifts from one part of the city to the other—from clean to dirty, and from passive privacy violations to active ones—reflecting his shift from a “have” to a “have-not.”
Guidebooks to the Future
In a genre filled with everything from aliens and lightsabers to superheroes and mutants, films that envision a concrete future play a special role. Gold (2001) writes, “The city … is often as much part of the action as the actors themselves. … [Cities] can be the expression of a dysfunctional society or even the vehicle through which oppression is practiced” (342). The latter of these possibilities neatly sums up Minority Report’s Washington, D.C., where the technology that controls the populace is embedded in the city itself. The “dysfunctional society” descriptor applies to Blade Runner, where a semi-controlled chaos has grown out of a society that shifted its sights away from Earth and away from the sticky ethical question of whether or not replicants ought to be treated as human.
Gold also writes that such films “are intended less as projections than critiques… They warn what might happen if, rather than forecast what will happen when” (2002, 338- 9). While both Blade Runner and Minority Report do carry warnings of dystopia, it is also true that they have served as previews of— or perhaps guidebooks to—the future. Only fifteen years later, many of the technologies so painstakingly dreamed up for Minority Report have become commonplace or, at the very least, possible: self-driving cars, smart homes, mobile video calls. Facial recognition today is becoming commonplace both in the home and, more controversially, in law enforcement. Microsoft’s now-discontinued Kinect functioned quite similarly to the touchless screen Anderton uses to “scrub” crime scenes, and as it turns out, Jaron Lanier—who attended Spielberg’s “Idea Summit” and helped brainstorm the film’s predictions of future technologies— later went on to work on developing the Kinect (Wired Staff 2012).
Blade Runner, though designed with less predictive intent, has had even more of an impact, especially on SF cinema itself, which it would influence for decades to come. Mamoru Oshii, director of Ghost in the Shell (1995), has said, “When you create a film dealing with humans and cyborgs, you have no choice but to refer back to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, as this movie is probably the foundation of movies with this theme” (Rucka 2004). The cyberpunk noir aesthetic the Blade Runner brought to life so memorably is today so familiar that many moviegoers don’t think twice when cluttered neon cities show up in Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence (Spielberg 2001) or a Star Wars film.
As the real world catches up with the film’s timeline, Scott’s vision of 2019 Los Angeles continues to resonate in both positive and negative ways. Urbanism writer Colin Marshall (2016) explains that in the real Los Angeles, “To this day, the term ‘Blade Runner-ization’ gets tossed around by those looking to block buildings they consider too big, or that would mix elements, functional or human or hybrid, that they don’t want mixed.” On the other hand, Vox contributor Peter Suderman (2017) argues that the film provided a positive model for real American cities. “Walk through Midtown Manhattan and it’s hard not to see it as a better-lit cousin of Ridley Scott’s LA,” he writes. “In attempting to show us how cities would decay, the movie inadvertently ended up offering a reminder of many of the ways they are attractive and appealing. … Blade Runner, in other words, helped set our expectations for what cities should look like” with all their life and energy. Though the film raises questions about its characters’ humanity, the city itself has an undeniably human feel.
Ultimately, the two films take very different approaches to portraying the future but converge on a shared thematic vision: one of corporate and governmental overreach, in which the best option is to trust nothing and no one—perhaps not even yourself. While they both do an admirable job of warning against this type of highly surveilled dystopian state, their true legacies exist in the thoughtfully designed fictional worlds they built. It is those worlds that have shaped our present technologies and our expectations of the future, and that will continue to do so for years to come.
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