October 6, 2017 marked the North American release of Blade Runner 2049, the long anticipated sequel to the dystopian sci-fi noir classic from 1982. The original Blade Runner was a triumph of production design, blessed with wonderful hardware like Deckard’s gun, the Voigt-Kampff machine, and of course, the spinner.
Conceptual artist Syd Mead designed the original police spinner, which became a visual icon of the 1982 film. This elegant craft was equally at home on city streets and in the air. With no wings or visible means of propulsion, it could nevertheless take off and land vertically and fly like a conventional aircraft, its police flashers casting red and blue beams through the rain drenched night.
Like its predecessor, the spinner used by Ryan Gosling’s character, K, in Blade Runner 2049 is an integral part of the film. One of the most popular publicity stills from the movie features a shot of K exiting the spinner as the driver’s side door scissors shut. What’s striking about K’s spinner is its bold, angular design, which is completely different from the original police spinner.
Let’s talk a bit about automotive design. All car designs, including the earth-bound vehicles of today and the airborne versions of tomorrow, can be roughly grouped into two camps: curves and angles. Curvaceous cars, like Ferraris, have fluid, feminine lines and soft edges, while angular cars, like Jeeps and Land Rovers, have straight, masculine lines and strong angles. If you want to draw a Ferrari, you need a set of French curves, whereas for a Jeep, a ruler will do.
Most cars today fall in the curvy category because soft edges generally yield a lower drag coefficient. This means lower fuel consumption, so the approach is rooted in practicality. Most people also seem to prefer curves over angles, and this preference is so strong that they use words like “boxy” to describe angular designs. This is incorrect of course since boxes have right angles, which are rarely found in cars.
Cars are machines, so why should they appear soft, flowing and organic? We make no such demands of toasters and microwave ovens. So thought Giorgetto Giugaro, a brilliant designer who rose to fame in the 1970s by showing the world that angular cars could be beautiful.
Giugaro gave us origami inspired masterpieces like the Lotus Esprit and Delorean (the latter coincidentally became a flying car in the film Back To The Future). Angular designs also made their way into the more affordable end of the market, the Fiat X1/9, Toyota MR2 and Volkswagen Scirocco being examples. Today, high performance car manufacturers tend to go either all curvy (like Porsche) or use a blend of curves and angles (like Lamborghini).
Back to K’s spinner. This fine piece of hardware, bearing the nameplate of French automaker Peugeot, is an unabashedly angular design. It incorporates a healthy dose of DNA from the Lotus Esprit and is decidedly different from the other spinners in Blade Runner 2049. The Wallace Corporation spinners, like the one which attacks K and Deckard at the casino penthouse, are devoid of any elegance or grace. Their bulbous, oversized greenhouses give them an ungainly look. This is entirely appropriate. After all, the bad guys always have ugly cars, and the hero has the coolest one.
So how did the design of K’s spinner—which we can all agree is the best Peugeot ever—come about? Production designer Dennis Gassner, in response to director Denis Villeneuve’s request for a “brutal” aesthetic, created a spinner for 2049’s lead character which Gassner calls “robust, angular, and chiseled.” K’s spinner is built on strong triangular motifs which create a bold, masculine look. Its three-wheeled chassis gives it a hint of eccentricity (as you would expect from a Peugeot). And its worn-out, beat-up exterior sets it apart from the well-maintained company cars it goes up against in the film’s climax. This is not a pampered vehicle, but a utilitarian workhorse for a detective on a budget. It fits K much the same way that the 1968 Mustang in Bullitt fit Steve McQueen’s character. These guys don’t sentimentalize their cars. They treat them as disposable tools to get the job done—nothing more. And dispose of them they do. Both the Peugeot and Mustang end up getting ditched.
As with many fictional craft, how the spinner actually flies isn’t addressed in the film. According to an article in Wired magazine, K’s spinner is powered by “a futuristic form of fusion.” This is actually plausible for such a compact vehicle, since fusion propulsion relies on solid lithium propellant, which takes up much less volume than liquid rocket propellant. NASA’s website has a good article on it. “It’s a new technology,” Gassner is quoted as saying, “since in the world of 2049 they don’t really have a lot of fossil fuels or sun to power a car.”
The question on everyone’s mind is, when are we going to see a model kit of K’s spinner? So far, all we have is a couple of diecast toys from Cinemachines (one 3” and one 6”) which are clearly intended for kids. Given that 2049 is an obviously adult film, the marketing logic behind these diecast toys is questionable.
Fujimi did a superb (if not timely) rendition of the spinner from the 1982 film, which was a delight to build. Too bad it didn’t come a few decades sooner. I wired mine with LED lighting and put it in a diorama which you can see here. Hopefully Fujimi has reached out to 2049’s producers for licensing rights and will offer K’s spinner at some point as well. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.
If you like to build dioramas and want to learn more about how to optimize the visual impact of your work, you might like my new book, Diorama Design. It’s available in both ebook and print formats at Amazon.