Casting a Dystopian Gaze: Cynical Science Fiction Cinema of the 1980s

Throughout the years, as science and technology continues to evolve beyond the boundaries of our imagination, a certain sect of the culture has taken it upon itself to examine the ethical, political and social implications of our discoveries. Most oftentimes operating within the genre of science fiction, these cautionary tales have run our amazing achievements down that slippery slope of human fallibility, corruptibility and incompetence to their inevitable ends.

Blade Runner Buildings

When we built the Bomb and birthed the nuclear age to end the war, we were reminded with The Fly and Godzilla that there was going to be consequences moving forward in this brave new world. When we looked to explore space, Gene Roddenberry and Rod Serling reminded us that our previous efforts at colonization were still being ironed out in Star Trek and The Twilight Zone. When life itself seemed to be too much, George Romero fed us our brains. As we stood on the cusp of the computer age in the 1980s, having been run through the gauntlet for twenty years, a collection of filmmakers looked at our past and imagined our future and realized that we were most likely screwed. Led by the visionary works of James Cameron, Ridley Scott and John Carpenter with The Terminator, Blade Runner and Escape From New York, this ten year period produced thought provoking films, continuing the longstanding tradition of cultural examination set before them, that can still be probed for their relevance in society today.

What is it that shapes the dystopian states in these films, and how did it get that way? Their bleak vision of the future depicts the chaos which would result from the combined effect of nuclear disaster, ecological destruction and over-population (Galagher, p.169).

Terminator Future

While The Terminator only allows us brief glimpses into our future, the darkness and rubble of a post apocalyptic Los Angeles, following the nuclear attack by Skynet, doesnʼt look too different from the acid rain soaked skyline of Blade Runner, where the exhaust of the factories can easily be mistaken for missile strikes, or the prison island of Escape From New York, where the architecture of a once vibrant city now serves as catacombs housing the memories of the past.

Nothing is distinct; all is smoky, blurred, shadowy so that the street scenes depict crowds with scarcely any individual characteristics, people hiding their features to avoid the corrosive elements and blending into a large amorphous mass (Senior, p.3).

Everything is marked by a heightened police or military presence, a constant in most dystopian visions, as the social safety structure and basic tenements of civilization are all filtered through an authoritarian chokehold that generally takes civil liberties as its first victim. The nuclear apocalypse in The Terminator might have been a flash event, but the factors Skynet used in its calculations to determine that man is its own greatest threat are the same numbers that lead to the heightened crime rate in Escape From New York and the environmental destruction in Blade Runner.

Escape From New York Map


A main component of futuristic science fiction is projecting what the future will look like. While absolutely no one predicted the internet, perhaps the most significant invention of all time, these three films not only hinted at some of the technology that would follow them, their hard sci-fi narratives proved to be the direct inspiration for it, and they also accurately captured the spirit of technological dependency in the culture that it would create.

The ubiquity of technology places Blade Runner at a remove from our everyday world by taking what we have to extremes, just as most cyberpunk works posit a future in which technology infiltrates every facet of life (Senior, p.4).

In Blade Runner and The Terminator, Man attempted to play God, to foster life from which there was none, and it backfired. Like a futuristic Frankenstein, the creatures birthed by innovation and the ever charming curiosity of the human spirit revolted.

Blade Runner Roy

Replicants were built to be human in almost every way, yet they are denied human status, like many of the others who cannot qualify for off-world placement, in a technologically racist society that views them as disposable slaves (Senior, p.5).

Why make such complicated machines to just use for labor? How can you be surprised when the inevitable happens? We build because we can, because we are naturally curious and prone to wonder with our big brains, its just a matter of math and time before we build something real bad.


Humans have lost their natural dominance over their creations, and their prejudices against the replicants seem outdated, now that they are virtually indistinguishable from humans (Galagher, p.170).

Terminator Reese


This is interesting because we also see in The Terminator that the ability to distinguish between man and machine, friend and foe, has faded and itʼs up to the animals in the underground bunkers, which in Blade Runner are now replicants too, to distinguish between the two. Granted, you would think that you could pick out a Terminator Unit based on their outrageous physique in a malnourished world, but Iʼm going to write that little inconsistency off as a casting necessity to please a star that wants to hang with his friends on set.

In the streets and alleyways of Blade Runner lurk a dispossessed and increasingly ignored underclass that lives by cunning and wit in a social Darwinism gone mad (Senior, p.3).

The environment has taken a beating in all three of these films, which is the most glaring nod to this being a dystopian state. In Blade Runner, the ones left on Earth are the lower class that couldnʼt leave. There is no wildlife or vegetation and even the animals are fake.

Blade Runner Replicants

It would appear, in fact, that almost anyone who can go off-world already has, so that Blade Runner deals with a different class of humans heading for Morlock status, and it thus achieves reflexive polarities in examining humanity: the replicants, who exist at the higher end of the scale, and the human rejects, who exist at the other, yet both are linked by the control exerted over them by the authorities; they are, as Bryant puts it, ʻlittle peopleʼ (Senior, p.11).

In the future depicted in The Terminator, man lives in the rubble of a once vibrant city, hiding in underground bunkers. Like societal landfills, large swatches of America have been abandoned.

Escape From New York Cast

In spite of the academic worldʼs disregard for his films as being mostly reactionary exercises in genre escapism, John Carpenterʼs Escape From New York can easily be viewed as a warning flare for a growing nihilism amongst those on the fringe of the culture. While the political ideologies of Escape From New York can be dismissed as uneven, itʼs commentary on our ever expanding prison population, that could very easily occupy an entire major city at this point, has proven to be quite astute. The prison island of Liberty City could very easily be mistaken for sections of cities in modern day America, with its crumbling infrastructure and abandoned population.

And if we were to ignore his significant contributions to both the craft and business of independent filmmaking because of his genre filmmaker status (a branding Hitchcock was also labeled with), and solely focus on the characters he created in his expansive oeuvre in science fiction, like Snake Pliskin, we would notice that these figures stand out as providing us with a unique perspective as to what a hero is, or rather, is not in an authoritarian, dystopian world.

Escape From New York Snake


Snake Pliskin is not interested in being a hero. He is not interested in fixing the world that bureaucracy, foolishness and arrogance has created. He is no oneʼs fool. No oneʼs lacky. And no oneʼs friend. And that is why he is still alive at the end. He is the reluctant antihero who never wavers in his nonconformist views. And it doesnʼt hurt that he looks like a badass.

A major factor in the cyberpunk environment is the futuristic and hostile world through which characters move and which often has the effect of unfocussing humanity because of the need for change (Senior, p.2).

Terminator Nice Night for a Walk

Which brings me to another similarity that we see in these films and most depictions of a dystopian future, everyone tends to dress like cyberpunks in these projected futures. The sharp corners and geometric shape of most garments, mixed with either a camouflage, leather, monochromatic or metallic shine create a militant, ʻdonʼt mess with meʼ appearance. That attitude is necessary to survive in their aggressive and combatant environments. The lawlessness and oppressive nature of the state has penetrated the culture at large, and the individual is left with no choice but to match the measure of oppression with an equal and opposite display of personal expression. Hence the outlandish stylings of the Duke and his minions in Escape From New York and the punk rock wardrobes of the replicants in Blade Runner.


A central method of survival is through physical or intellectual enhancement as each character takes anything he or she can get to even the odds against the giant, often isolated and unreachable, conglomerates and their hidden agendas and mysterious AIs (Senior, p.4).

So, the environment has been exploited and destroyed, the population has been desensitized, domesticated and dehumanized, and man no longer rests comfortably at the top of the food chain…now what?

The Terminator

When these chapters of their stories end, our heroes realize that the system is too much to overcome, conformity and surrender is the fate of anyone that accepts the current trajectory of technology, pollution, corruption, arrogance and crime that permeates all positions of authority and control. The heroes of these stories win the day by choosing to fight and rebel against the system to the point where they overcome the immediate threat, but identify that the damage to society as a whole is already done, and the only thing left to do is run. They know that while they can navigate the overcrowded, smog ridden streets of Blade Runner, or the police state of Escape From New York, the only way to avoid the apocalypse foretold in The Terminator is to flee. Staying alive is the strongest statement they can make in the face of these unsurmountable odds..

Only in rejecting the ideological apparatus constructed by the sociopolitical center is she (Sarah Connor) able to emerge as the Individual through whom the Community (read ʻhumanityʼ) can be saved (Abbott, p.22).

Blade Runner Deckard


The future will not stop coming. That is its one task, and it will not stop until itʼs mission is complete. Thatʼs the reality Sarah Connor faces as she retreats to seclusion to raise and train her son, John Connor, a child that will grow up to lead humanityʼs resistance against extinction.

Rather than spend his remaining time, however long it may be, trudging through the dregs of society, looking to retire rogue replicants that strive to do more than slave labor with their limited life span, Deckard decides at the end of Blade Runner to stop taking his life for granted and leave with Rachel, a replicant in her own right, who also happens to be the only source of happiness he has in that miserable world.

Snake Pliskin plays along just long enough for the explosives the authorities have planted in him to be disarmed before he say the hell with it and walks off.

The potential for absolute victory has long passed in these, and many other dystopian science fiction films of the 1980ʼs, but fortunately their futures are still a long way off and we have time to change. But then again, blink and 2019 might pass by. Which is their point. To encourage us to do better, and if we happen to be entertained along the way, well, so be it.



Galagher, Nola. “Bleak Visions: Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, Directors Cut” Australian Screen Education. Winter2002, Issue 29, p169. 5p.

Senior, W.A. “Blade Runner and Cyberpunk Visions of Humanity” Film Criticism. Fall96, Vol. 21 Issue 1, p1-12. 12p

Abbott, Joe. “They Came From Beyond the Center” Literature Film Quarterly. 1994, Vol. 22 Issue 1, p21. 7p. 1 Black and White Photograph.

Dang, Gyu Han. “Going Beyond Binary Disposition of 0/1: Rethinking the Question of Technology” Midwest Quarterly. Winter2009, Vol. 50 Issue 2, p176-189. 14p.

Holt, Jason. “Terminator-fear and the Paradox of Fiction”. The Philosophy of Science Fiction Film. Ed. Steven M. Sanders. University Press of Kentucky, 2008. 135–150. Web…

Hendershot, Heather. “The Cinema of John Carpenter: The Technique of Horror, ed. Ian Conrich and David Woods” Film Quarterly 62.1 (2008): 95–96. Web…


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