We open on a now iconic cityscape. It’s night. A sea of neon lights glitter below amongst silhouettes of skyscrapers reaching towards a glowing, polluted sky. Plumes of flame spurt upwards, belching from the metropolis, searing into our brains. The year? 2019.

It’s been 37 years since the release of Ridley Scott’s sci-fi masterpiece, Blade Runner, based loosely on the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sleep. It depicts a dystopian future in perpetual rain; a neon-lit, seedy version of Los Angeles dominated by omnipresent advertising, crime and the towering pyramid of the Tyrell Corporation. The protagonist Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is tasked with “retiring” (initially) four replicants – humanoid robots – who have illegally infiltrated Earth from an off-world colony.

Blade Runner is an existential film, in which Deckard is forced to question his own humanity. Four decades later, that remains as compelling a narrative as ever. But are we even close to Blade Runner’s year 2019 beyond a capitalist dystopia, the prevalence of corporate advertising, and a taste for Japanese food?

Harrison Ford in Blader Runner Blade Runner © 1982 Warner Bros. Ent. All Rights Reserved

Harrison Ford in Blader Runner © 1982 Warner Bros. Ent. All Rights Reserved

Of course, we don’t have replicants…yet. They remain a fantasy, but we’re certainly getting closer thanks to vast robotics research and improvements in both physical technology and artificial intelligence software. Take, for instance, the robot Sophia developed by Hong Kong’s Hanson Robotics. Sophia has a human appearance and uses various technologies to imitate our gestures and expressions, as well as learn over time. In 2018, functional legs and the ability to walk were added. Sophia is, undoubtedly, an early replicant prototype.

At a more affordable price is Pepper, the humanoid robot. Pepper uses a tablet and voice recognition software to speak and interact in multiple languages and can be programmed for a variety of functions. He just seems far too cute to ever become sentient.

There are plenty of robots that are far less humanoid. There are robots designed to flip and run and open doors; robots imitating animals; mechanical robots used in manufacturing in place of humans (just like in Blade Runner). Further still are the non-physical robots. AlphaGo is a computer programme designed to play Go, a game which originated in Ancient China and is so complex there are more board configurations than there are atoms in the known universe. Or there’s IBM’s Watson, designed for machine learning and data analysis, and messenger bot platforms used for automated conversations on social media. These are comparatively primitive examples, but they prove how robotics and A.I. are gradually infiltrating our world.

Harrison Ford and Sean Young in Blade Runner © 1982 Warner Bros. Ent. All Rights Reserved

Harrison Ford and Sean Young in Blade Runner © 1982 Warner Bros. Ent. All Rights Reserved

More interesting still are the ethical questions behind advancements in robotics. It’s notable, for instance, that the replicants in Blade Runner are “retired” rather than killed. But if robots are developed to such an extent as to have feelings, what right do we as humans have to simply retire them or switch them off? What’s the ethical risk of developing robots that create an artificial attachment between a human and a device? Should robots be used to manipulate and persuade people, even positively? And are robots merely a reflection of humanity and our own unconscious bias?

All of this is to say that one of Blade Runner’s central themes – that of sentient synthetic life overthrowing humanity – remains a ways off. The Turing test, the Chinese Room experiment, or the film’s own Voight-Kampff test are all methods utilised to create a distinction between robots and humans – and they’re still yet to be passed.

Creating an artificial consciousness, as with the replicants, simply isn’t a design choice for engineers in 2019. But the ethical and moral questions surrounding robotics are as relevant now as they were then, simmering beneath the surface of Scott’s film.

However, it’s a film that says as much about humanity as it does robotics. What’s special about being a human? And who gets to define that? The moral panic of our own purpose, our wish for a fulfilling life, our fear of death – these are all universal themes. But where support for mental health is much more widespread today, these themes seem particularly urgent.

What hasn’t aged well are the film’s sexual and gender politics. One female character is gratuitously shown topless before being chased in her underwear; another is simply a “basic pleasure model”. Worst of all is the infamous love scene, in which a man aggressively seduces a woman and forces himself upon her despite her frequent rebukes, all to a sultry saxophone soundtrack. It’s always been a difficult watch, but in a post #MeToo 2019 it’s incredibly uncomfortable.

Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner © 1982 Warner Bros. Ent. All Rights Reserved

Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner © 1982 Warner Bros. Ent. All Rights Reserved

The film’s most obvious legacy is its visuals. Itself influenced by 1940s noir cinema, Scott created a unique visual style: neo-noir meets gothic futurism. The towering buildings, the rain-soaked streets, neon signage, chiaroscuro lighting and abstract mise en scene – all that underscored by Vangelis’ throbbing electronica that’s as mesmerising and awe-inspiring as it is romantic, still sounds like nothing else today. It remains a fresh and beautiful aesthetic, despite influencing a whole wealth of other sci-fi works across various media. What sci-fi doesn’t have a dark rainy city? From its impact on the cyberpunk genre, to movies, literature, TV, anime and video games, Blade Runner is everywhere in 2019, even if our own world doesn’t quite match.

We may not live in a world of replicants…just yet anyway. But there are elements of Blade Runner that are certainly prescient in 2019: its downbeat dystopia, moody anxiety, and corporate technological power. Today, the film remains a remarkable futurist fantasy, one whose ambiguities and morality keep us questioning to this day. And we’re still left guessing: is Deckard himself a replicant?