One thing I know for certian is that my little sister is smarter than me. The easiest comparison is Albert Einstein vs a pillowcase full of yogurt. So, when she took on one of my all time favorite movies to study, I had to read the results. I would be lying if I said she saw things, in a movie I have seen more times than the sun has risen, that I had never seen, or picked up on. So now I, the pillowcase of yogurt, will step aside to count my shoes while you enjoy her findings. If you have never seen it, shame on you, spoilers ahead.
by Amanda Conrad
Examining “Blade Runner”A Multi-Dimensional View
“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I’ve watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time like tears in rain.” Roy Batty
Occasionally, a film will emerge that will impact popular culture to such an extent that it becomes a “cult classic.” Ridley Scott’s 1982 science fiction masterpiece “Blade Runner” is one such film. Despite a poor reception originally in theaters, “Blade Runner” moved on to such fame that it still inspires great debates today.
The goal of this essay is to examine this cult classic from six dimensions: technical, dramatic, auteur, historical/genre and rhetorical. It is hoped that the reader will gain new insight into the film, as well as an understanding of the impact “Blade Runner” has left on modern culture. Before beginning, it is important to mention that several versions of “Blade Runner” are currently in circulation. For the purposes of this paper, the 2007 “definitive” edition, “Blade Runner: The Final Cut,” was chosen for study. However, the original 1982 theatrical version is obviously of insurmountable importance.
The variations between these two versions will be referenced at various points throughout the following composition to demonstrate the auteur’s license, and will be explicitly cited as such. Major crew members and film characters that will be discussed in depth in the following essay are: Ridley Scott, Producer/Director; Jordan Croneweth, Director of Photography; Vangelis, original composer; Deckard, Blade Runner/possible Replicant; Gaff, Police Detective; J.F. Sebastian, genetic engineer; Dr. Eldon Tyrell, genetic engineer/”father” of the Replicants; and last but certainly not least, the following Replicants: Roy, Pris, Leon, Zhora and Rachael. Other characters and crew members will be identified as they appear in discussion.
The Technical Dimension
One of the prominent aspects of the technical dimension of “Blade Runner” is that of lighting. The future according to Ridley Scott is visually bleak, a dystopia. In the entire course of the movie, the only glimpse the audience is given of the sun is from a top level of Tyrell’s Aztecan pyramid, and is quickly darkened with window blinds.
Scott and his Director of Photography Jordan Croneweth use an excessive amount of fog and primarily non-organic motivated light to best achieve this visually dystopian society. All the outdoor/street scenes use neon lights in shop windows, street lamps and car headlights as light sources.
One particular scene using a dramatic mixture backlighting and highlighting is when Sebastian and Pris first meet and he takes her into his home. The two are backlit for the entirety of the scene as they navigate the halls of the large Bradbury Hotel, and the audience must strain to make out any detail. The elevator they ride contains some motivated light, with some unmotivated spotlight beams bouncing around the space. When the camera moves to a wide, establishing shot, it is revealed that the spotlights are entering through high windows, apparently coming from other buildings outside. As they scan the interior of the Bradbury, the beams show the state of disrepair of the lobby and staircases: the floors are wet, trash is scattered about and the building seems empty. The large, empty and desolate space gives a clue about Sebastian- that he is a very internal character. In a future where the planet has become so overpopulated that citizens are moving off-world, a man has full control of an entire hotel and occupies it solely with himself and the “friends” he creates.
The early scene in Deckard’s apartment has a similar feel, as it is mostly backlit through windows. The way Scott blocked Deckard and Rachael, then shot them in a close up causes only half of their faces to be visible at a time. It is almost as if the audience is missing half the story, to be filled in later.
The set design also plays a large role in communicating the feel of Los Angeles in 2019 to the audience. The buildings seem inside out- there are pipes, air ducts and other architectural mechanics crawling up the outside of buildings, instead of being hidden inside the walls. Ridley Scott mentions in his commentary on the 2007 release that he chose this precisely to show the beauty in the technology. He felt that it was something that should be displayed, and not hidden behind concrete barriers. Not only does this show the changes in the architecture of this iconic city, but also the evolving values of the population, and what is emphasized as “beautiful.”
The Dramatic Dimension
“Blade Runner” is without a doubt a movie created for an intelligent audience. The controversial themes, the nuances of the plot and the intricacies of the characters would likely be lost on a casual viewer.
One controversial aspect of the movie is the much-debated “eye shine” of the Replicants. First seen with Tyrell’s owl, the audience is given privileged information that any Replicant’s eyes will have a reddish shine when light hits the retina in a certain manner. It is not visible all the time, and it is not visible to the other characters. This privileged information is the cause of one of the most debated plot points of the film. In one pivotal sequence between Deckard and Rachael in his apartment, Rachael, who has recently come to terms with being a Replicant, asks if Deckard will chase her if she runs. As she questions him, Rachael’s eyes shine red. Deckard walks around so he is standing directly behind her and says that he won’t, but that someone else would. As he delivers this line, his eyes appear to shine red as well.
Another widely discussed plot point is that of the origami figures left by Gaff. The detective, who seems to follow Deckard wherever he goes, creates three telling figurines, each relating to Deckard in different ways. First in the police station, Gaff is blocked in the background and seen fiddling with a piece of paper as Deckard tells his former boss, Bryant, that he has no interest in coming out of his retirement to help track the Replicants. As he gets to the office door to leave, Gaff sets a small paper chicken on the table next to the door. He is implying that Deckard is afraid of reprising his role as a Blade Runner, and in the next sentence Deckard changes his mind.
Next, while Gaff and Deckard are in the apartment of Leon, the two are busy in different manners: Deckard is seen investigating the space and picking up clues, while Gaff is once again discreetly folding paper. As they leave the apartment, Gaff places his creation on the table: this time a stick figure man with an overemphasized erection. He once again seems to be mocking Deckard, either implying that he is attracted to Rachael, also a known Replicant, or that despite fighting the return to work, he gets off on his profession.
Perhaps the most controversial origami figure Gaff leaves is in the final sequence of the film. As Deckard and Rachael are running from his apartment, the audience sees her kick an object with her foot. Deckard stops to examine the figure and sees that it is a small unicorn. Once again, Gaff is taunting Deckard, possibly showing that he knows Deckard is a Replicant. One major difference between the 1982 and 2007 releases lies in the reference to the unicorn. In 2007, Ridley Scott supplemented his definitive edition with a short cut-away shot of a unicorn running through a forest. The add-in takes place when Deckard is drunkenly playing piano in his apartment, and seems to drift off into a daydream. As there is no other reference of a unicorn in the film, it suggests that Gaff knew of Deckard’s dream, and perhaps that Deckard’s memories are placements as Rachael’s were.
The Auteur Dimension
Sir Ridley Scott is one of the most influential film directors of the last four decades. From “Alien” in 1977 to his most recent release of “Robin Hood” in 2010, Scott’s ability to create films that are acclaimed by both critics and general public alike is a quality that shouldn’t be easily dismissed.
“Blade Runner” was Scott’s first movie to be shot in Hollywood, and his third film directorial credit period. As such, it is part of the foundation of the style now recognized as his own. Several elements are prevalent in this film that resurface in Scott’s other works.
Perhaps most noticeably is his ability to create a completely foreign world with such reality, one might forget they are watching a fantasy. For example, while “Blade Runner” is classified as sci-fi and is set nearly 40 years ahead of its release date, the future is palpable; it doesn’t seem uncomfortably “out there.” In “Gladiator” (2000), the reverse is achieved- the film is set centuries in the past, but has such a sense of realism that the audience might forget their own 21st century location. Scott’s incredible attention to detail in the creation of his worlds is unparalleled, further adding the myth of reality.
The Historical/Genre Dimensions
“Blade Runner” challenged the way filmmakers made, and audiences consumed, the science fiction genre. Because these two dimensions are so intertwined in this film, they’ve been combined in this essay to avoid repetition.
Before the late 1970 and the early 1980s, sci-fi films were largely “campy,” with few exceptions. The created worlds were majorly clean lines, shiny surfaces, and a clear distinction between right and wrong, good and evil. Beginning with “Alien” and continuing with “Blade Runner,” Scott challenges this “Star Trek” approach to sci-fi by creating a reality where life is difficult. In his dystopian society, the lines separating good and evil are blurred.
The film pulls from many genres, amalgamating a super-genre of sci-fi, romantic drama and film noir into the then-newly coined “cyberpunk.” Described as “low-life, high-tech” cyberpunk leaves behind the formerly sterile version of sci-fi to merge into a gritter vision of the future.
The science fiction aspects are plentiful: flying cars, the Voight-Kampff machine, robots that are “more human than humans” and referred to as “skin jobs,” and high-tech photo enhancing equipment are just a few examples the film’s roots in the genre. The romantic drama comes into play in several relationships, most obviously between Deckard and Rachael, as well as Pris and Roy. The concept of robots and their integration into society is also largely romanticized. Finally, noir plays a major role the characterization of this film, which was one of the first crossovers between sci-fi and noir. The concept of following a detective through the movie as he completes his work is classic noir. In the visual aspect, the constancy of rain and steam or fog are prime indicators of the genre. In the original 1982 release, Deckard also speaks in a voiceover narration, also in the style of noir. The voiceover was pushed by the studio, and never fully accepted by Scott nor Harrison Ford. As such, the director’s cut is noticeably missing the narration.
With his distinct vision in “Blade Runner,” Scott opened the door for future films to embrace the newly created cyberpunk. It disputed the formerly unspoken limitations of sci-fi, allowing for incredible growth in the genre.
The Rhetorical Dimension
“Blade Runner” is not a fluffy film lacking a social agenda. Perhaps most notably, the storyline warns of the dangers of creating hyper-intelligent robots with extremely humanistic features. Simply creating a humanoid machine to perform unwanted tasks might seem like a beneficial idea, but the film cautions of likelihood of backfiring. In the beginning of the film, the audience feels it is acceptable to “retire” a Replicant. As the story progresses, more human features are revealed and the sympathies of the audience, as well as Deckard, evolve. Roy’s final lines to Deckard on the rooftop of the Bradbury are an intensely poignant insight that while they are “skin jobs,” the Replicants are capable of incredible perception, as well as emotion. Roy has several opportunities to either let Deckard die, or actively kill the detective. The fact that he refrains from doing so further proves his emotional, and perhaps moral, evolution through the course of the film.
Gaff’s final lines of the film further reiterate the frailty of humanity. “It’s too bad she won’t live!” he shouts to Deckard, referring to Rachael. “But then again, who does?” Gaff could be referring to her four-year expiration date as a Replicant, but more dramatically he could be implying that while all are alive, the fact is taken for granted and no one truly lives their life.
These words are repeated as a voiceover as the final words of the film as Deckard studies the previously referenced origami unicorn, further demonstrating their importance. It is as if Gaff is telling Deckard that he won’t be the one to chase after Rachael, and that they should fully embrace the years they have left together.
In the making of “Blade Runner,” Ridley Scott did not set out to create a forgettable film. As one of his first films as a director, Scott strove, and was successful in, challenging the state of science fiction films, as well as the perceptions of humanity. “Blade Runner” was released to theaters nearly 30 years ago, and has sparked debate since. It is hoped that with this essay, the reader gained a new insight into this important film, through studying the technical, dramatic, auteur, historical/genre and historical dimensions.
ReferencesAnonymous (2009, Oct. 31). What Is Cyberpunk?, from http://www.cyberpunked.org/cyberpunk/Ebert, R. (2007, Nov. 3). Blade Runner: The Final Cut, from http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article AID=/20071103/REVIEWS08/ 71103001/1023Scott, R. (Producer/Director), & Deeley, M. (Producer). (1982/2007). “Blade Runner: TheFinal Cut” [Motion picture]. United States: Warner Brothers Pictures.