🔮 The man who designed a tomorrow that never was. (At least not yet.)
Visual futurist Syd Mead offered a more optimistic and pro-progress vision than seen in his dystopian work on 'Blade Runner' and its '2049' sequel
Whatever insights Blade Runner has about the future of humanity and super-smart robots, the 1982 film’s lasting cinematic influence can be found in its unforgettable visualization of a dystopian, near-future Los Angeles. Key to that stunning feat of worldbuilding were the designs of Syd Mead. This includes many of the physical creations in the films — such as the flying “spinner” cars — and the movie’s general look and feel, what became known as “future noir,” described in The Movie Art of Syd Mead (co-written by Mead) as “constant drizzling, no doubt polluted rain, bleak light, the dissonant hum of machines, men, and hawkers, and layer upon layer of cables and abandoned structures … as though whole of Los Angeles was on life support.”
When Denis Villeneuve signed on to direct and worldbuild the sequel, Blade Runner 2049, he knew Mead had to play a role:
I may be wrong, but I think Syd’s traveled in dystopia only once, and it was because of Ridley Scott. Syd’s first drawings were pure, bright, and peaceful, but Ridley wanted his new world to be more claustrophobic and oppressive. And Syd dived into the darkness. As I was creating the universe of Blade Runner 2049, I realized only one person could reimagine the city of Las Vegas and give it the magnetism it needed to be worthy of Blade Runner’s dystopian landscape. So I asked the master to go back to the future for me. He came back with stunning images. I never thought Las Vegas could be as pure, beautiful, devoid of cynicism. I didn’t ask Syd to go darker. I needed this powerful beauty, maybe for my own sake.
Villeneuve’s comments highlight the obvious irony of Mead’s artistic career and legacy. His 2020 death at 86 from lymphoma was followed by numerous obituaries that understandably gave prominence to his dark Blade Runner work. But the best of those, usually several paragraphs deep, correctly made it clear that Mead was hardly the Down Wing gloomster that Scott asked him to be. At his core, Mead was an optimistic techno-futurist. Inspired as a child by early science fiction such as Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, he headed to art school after an early 1950s stint in the US Army, graduating from L.A.’s Art Center School in 1959. Then came his corporate career as an industrial designer and illustrator for companies such as Ford, U.S. Steel, and Philips Electronics, first as an employee and then through his own studio. Mead’s first work for film was designing the V’ger entity for Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979.
It was in the pre-Hollywood part of Mead’s life that he became known for fantastical-yet-practical design work. One favorite set of illustrations of mine are these promotional works he did for U.S. Steel in 1959:
This from “What Died with John Portman and Syd Mead, America's Last Urban Optimists?” by Colin Marshall for Archinect:
It seems to have been something of a blue-sky assignment, in response to which the young Mead produced, rather than utilitarian images of panels and beams, hypnotically glossy and colorful but nevertheless functional-looking visions of the world to come: impossibly low, aerodynamic sedans, one complete with gullwing doors, a chauffeur, and a giant lynx; a glass-walled suburban cross between a Case Study house and a moon base; even The Empire Strikes Back-style walkers making their hulking, deliberate way through the snow. And when Mead had occasion to render a city (or even as un-urban an environment as the Grand Canyon), he never failed to include megastructures: skyscrapers not just taller than any yet built in reality, but much more expansive as well, hinting at whole other cities hidden behind their walls.
It was these sort of lush, imaginative images of a postwar Golden Age of rapid economic growth and tech progress never ended that drew Hollywood to Mead. Unfortunately, Hollywood never chose to build upon Mead’s optimistic vision. Instead, we got Blade Runner (which is not to detract from its greatness as a film), which has played a huge role in our societal imagining of a technologically advanced tomorrow that helped ruin the world rather than fix it. Marshall notes (as Villeneuve also suggests) that Mead “in life distanced himself from the grim cinematic vision his work enriched.” And he was hardly alone. “Plenty of sci-fi creators have publicly bemoaned their genre’s overly dark turn and its impact on our societal ambition,” I wrote back in 2021.
Let’s set aside Blade Runner. Mead also contributed visual design work to the 2013 film Elysium where the rich live on an orbital space station above a polluted, impoverished, and overpopulated Earth. The habitat’s design is obviously inspired by Meads’ early work. But rather than an inspiring film about what humanity can accomplish, Elysium only provides more 1970s-style eco-pessimism along with a helping of 21st century “late capitalism” theory.
And here, again, is why all of this matters: Just as Up Wing progress can inspire culture — it was pretty easy for those early Disneyland imagineers to build Tomorrowland as the Space Age and Atomic Age were starting — culture can support growth and innovation. That, both by inspiring technologists and entrepreneurs such as Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, but also by giving broader society the confidence that the inevitable disruption caused by progress will be worth it. In this way, technological progress, as well as pro-progress politics, is downstream from culture — both in terms of what we value today and how we imagine tomorrow. And that stream has been polluted with caution and pessimism for a half century, thanks in part to Hollywood.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. I’ve been highlighting films and television shows that are both future-optimistic and tech-solutionist, as well as compelling entertainment. (And not just the Star Trek franchise.) One wonders what Mead might have produced if a filmmaker embraced his Up Wing optimism. Actually, we don’t have to wonder. The 2015 film Tomorrowland, directed by Brad Bird, does just that.
As the foreword to The Movie Art of Syd Mead puts it: “Mead’s images — confident, manifestly manmade, and culturally unapologetic — represent a technology-positive and aware worldview … [with] a powerful ability to summon heroic, even idealistic emotions.” More of that, please. Just compare the L.A. of Blade Runner to this other Mead vision of the city:
Maybe we’ll see something like this in Blade Runner 2079.
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