Blade Runner: Black Lotus and the Perpetual Relevance of Cyberpunk

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<i>Blade Runner: Black Lotus</i> and the Perpetual Relevance of Cyberpunk

Blade Runner is a film franchise with a remarkable pedigree and enduring legacy. For 35 years, the on-screen iterations of the IP stood as one film and a few videogames from the mid-’90s. Then, in 2017, three short films were added in the lead-up to Denis Villeneuve’s sequel to Ridley Scott’s classic. And now Crunchyroll and Adult Swim add to that legacy with Blade Runner: Black Lotus, a new animated series that premieres on Nov. 13. Given the way the world’s been going, this particular dystopia might be more relevant than ever.

Based on Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the 1982 film Blade Runner received mixed reviews at first, but had outsized influence. The film helped popularize the cyberpunk subgenre of science fiction—pioneered by novels like William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash—for global screen-going audiences, leading to a direct design and thematic influence on various futuristic works from seminal anime films Ghost in the Shell and Akira to the Star Wars prequels and Batman Beyond. Longstanding fans and newcomers alike can get a new view on the fictionalized megalopolis Los Angeles in Black Lotus. The new series reunites the creators behind last year’s Ghost in the Shell: SAC 2045, executive producer Joseph Chou—who has been trying to bring the series to animation since seeing The Animatrix and produced the 2017 anime short Blade Runner: Blackout 2022—and directors Shinji Aramaki and Kenji Kamiyama.

The influential 1982 film, a high-tech, gritty neo-noir starring Harrison Ford, has been released as several different cuts. While the book was originally set in the sprawling megalopolis Los Angeles of 1992, the film changed the date to 2019—a future where robots called replicants are built with expiration dates and implanted memories designed to perfectly mimic humans, and where specific police detectives are required to chase down and eliminate the runaways. These special police are colloquially called “Blade Runners”—the occupation held by both Harrison Ford’s Decker in 1982 and Ryan Gosling’s K in the 2017 sequel.

A recurring theme coursing through the plot of both films is the question of “what makes us human?” Do robots designed to look, act, think, and feel like humans deserve autonomy and human rights? A conflict between humans and the robots made to serve them culminated in the anime short film Blade Runner: Blackout 2022, and sat foreboding in wait during the events of Blade Runner: 2049. Blade Runner: Black Lotus asks those questions and more of its audience, as Jessica Henwick stars as Elle, an amnesiac replicant whose only link to her forgotten past is the titular black lotus tattoo on her shoulder. Henwick, who starred in Netflix’s Blood of Zeus animated show and has a starring role in the upcoming Matrix: Resurrections, will be the first female protagonist of a Blade Runner property.

She is joined by an all-star cast that includes Will Yun Lee—recently seen in Netflix’s two-season television adaptation of Richard Morgan’s cyberpunk novel Altered Carbon—and self-professed “geek” and lifelong sci-fi fan Stephen Root, who plays Chief Earl Grant, a villain with a perspective Root describes as “prejudicial.”

During a recent press junket, the actors had nothing but praise for Chou, Aramaki, Kamiyama, and voice director Wes Gleason. They report Kamiyama-san and Aramaki-san were getting up at three and four in the morning local time to record with the actors across the world, remotely because of COVID. Root mentioned another challenge caused by the pandemic was the difficulty of finding a place to record because so many places just weren’t available. Overlap in Henwick’s filming schedule meant that she was in Berlin preparing to film that other influential dystopian sci-fi property, The Matrix, and recording from there. Lee pointed-out that Chou’s skill as a polyglot and Gleason’s interpretive knack for voice direction helped bridge the gap between the Japanese and U.S. sensibilities of the creative team, creating a seamless creative vision between the cast and the creators.

All three also described the breathtaking nature of the world their characters get to inhabit, and how the CG animation style left them in awe. That world is a major part of Blade Runner’s legacy and its staying power. It’s something that Chou, Kamiyama, and Aramaki thought a lot about. The executive producer said that they knew this was a “big glove to fill,” that they needed to make something distinguishable and recognizable as Blade Runner, and that they wanted to find a middle-ground between the cartoonish and photorealistic ends of the CG animation spectrum.

Blade Runner was revolutionary for science fiction fans and creators. The neon signs, dark alleys, rain-soaked streets, and artfully-but-inarticulately constructed kanji—which Kamiyama-san described (through Chou’s translation) as “endearing” if flawed—became mainstays of sprawling cyberpunk worlds. We saw this in The Fifth Element in 1997, and in the “nonsense” Korean signs in this year’s cyberpunk twin-stick shooter, The Ascent. All of these stories—Blade Runner and Blade Runner: 2049, Altered Carbon, Akira, Ghost in the Shell, even the 1995 and 2012 Judge Dredd movies—use scale to impress upon the audience the alienating nature of metropolitan life. The Blade Runner stories specifically deal with individuals trying to decipher their identity and their memory as small cogs in a greater machine.

The films are set on Earth in Los Angeles even though they exist in a universe where off-world colonization and warfare are happening. The stories zoom in on people that might be insignificant, getting a chance at significance. And 2049 focused on a subversion of what that significance might mean. They’re tools used by the powerful to oppress people like them. They’re individuals thrust into the crosshairs of conflict while working their regular jobs. Blade Runner is the apex of cyberpunk neo-noir, and Blade Runner: Black Lotus is going to provide a whole new angle on that by focusing on a protagonist who works entirely outside of the system.

The adaptation of the series from the medium of film to television means making creative choices to adapt a cerebral story into an animated series; trying to hold onto what makes Blade Runner special while bringing it to a new form and audience. Aramaki (through Chou) stated that they needed to consider things like “What is the point of the series being done through CG animation? […] What kind of action do we want to use here? What kind of entertainment can we provide? What is something new that we can contribute to the franchise?” These ideas led to the fresh perspective that Blade Runner: Black Lotus will bring to the screen.

The film-to-television conversion also naturally includes the expansion of the character base to avoid “running out of story to tell” about one character, as Chou put it. In addition to the aforementioned actors, Wes Bentley takes over the role of Niander Wallace Jr., Jared Leto’s antagonist from Blade Runner: 2049. Brian Cox voices his father, Niander Wallace Sr. Josh Duhamel, Peyton List, Samira Wiley, Barkhad Abdi, Henry Czerny, Jason Spisak, Gregg Henry, and Elias Toufexis round-out the English language cast.

The directing team’s purpose of the show is not just to be faithful to Blade Runner’s canon, but to expand the essence of Blade Runner. Coming into a new medium, the show offers a chance to serve as an entry point for people that did not get to experience the franchise’s advancement over the last 30 years.

With any piece of art, especially fiction, there has to be a consideration of how that art can ring true, and touch on parts of the lives real people are living. Cyberpunk is more poignant than ever, with advanced capitalism, mass corporate consolidation, and environmental degradation prevalent in our minds and in our world.

It has become surreal that Blade Runner’s commentary on contemporary society seems all the time less far off from reality, even if the dates are off. It is a franchise that, as executive producer Joseph Chou puts it, “looks at class struggle” and has in the replicants something that interprets issues of racial discrimination, as well as environmental problems. The themes of the series are more relevant than ever.

Blade Runner: Black Lotus deals with a giant corporation abusing technology to take over society. With the technology of replicants, the series will focus, as the movies before it, on the worth and meaning of a human life: what makes us human? As Henwick put it, “As technology evolves over time and artificial intelligence becomes so much more evolved[…] where does consciousness begin and end?” What power is granted by the Wallace Corporation’s control of replicant technology and the means of economic production? What different sorts of problems might a female replicant with no past deal with that a male replicant cop does not? What freedom is afforded to her coming from outside of the system? These are plot-specific questions but they speak to problems and truths drawn from the real world.

Blade Runner is a franchise that delivers spectacle while delivering claustrophobia at scale. It visually and rhetorically delivers a dark aesthetic. Blade Runner’s mesmerizing visuals have captured the hearts and minds of fans and of creators that duplicate and imitate it through their own work. As we speed into a world encouraging us to participate in society by dissolving into technology, all its themes remain relevant. In Blade Runner: Black Lotus, we may have a singular piece of animation that speaks to its moment.

Blade Runner: Black Lotus premieres Saturday, Nov. 13 at midnight on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim and Crunchyroll.


Kevin Fox, Jr. is a freelance writer and Paste intern. He loves videogames, film, history, pop culture, sports, and human rights, and can be found on Twitter @kevinfoxjr.