Blade Runner: Ridley Scott's Brilliant Future Noir
This article evaluates Blade Runner, which was directed by Ridley Scott and released in 1982. Blade Runner presents the most complete dystopian vision of the future since Metropolis. The concept of dystopia has been used as a metaphor to explore anxieties within contemporary society. The future worlds of science fiction are nightmarish reflections of the present. In particular, Blade Runner dramatises the anxieties associated with postmodernism.
The film was based on the sci-fi novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, who also wrote the source material for Total Recall and A Scanner Darkly. The novel was set in San Francisco in 1992. Blade Runner shifts the action to the desolate industrial wastelands of Los Angeles in 2019, but as in the novel, the world is in a state of industrial decay. The planet is an environmentally degraded mess and the wealthy are emigrating to off-world colonies.
Blade Runner has been seen as a quintessentially postmodernist film, so to begin with I want to explore the concept of postmodernism. In the 1970s cultural theorists began to sense that Modernism had ended and been replaced with something else, an evasive and protean phenomenon that came to be known as postmodernism. Postmodernism had implications for all forms of culture, as well as philosophy and science. There is a lot of theory associated with it, but basically postmodernism was a reaction against Modernism and a rejection of all its principles.
You can’t understand postmodernism without understanding Modernism. The Modern Movement dominated design from the 1920s to the 1960s. This is one of the most iconic Modernist buildings, the Villa Savoye by Le Corbusier. It embodies all the attributes of Modernism: it is rational, the form has been dictated by function and it’s been purged of ornamentation. In the 1970s there was a reaction against Modernism. People began to feel that it was monotonous and impersonal. The reaction was known as postmodernism, which means ‘after modernism.’
Architects began to find the Modernist vocabulary restrictive. They grew bored of the sterile, puritan forms. In 1972 Robert Venturi published a book called Learning from Las Vegas, which celebrates the stylistic diversity of Las Vegas, Nevada. Las Vegas is almost like the capital city of Postmodernism because it’s a mishmash of different styles. In this photo you can see reproductions of the Eiffel Tower, a Roman basilica and a Hindu palace. Las Vegas forms a disorientating geography that juxtaposes different cultural symbols from around the world. Robert Venturi said that architects should follow the example of Las Vegas in order to enrich the vocabulary of architecture.
There was a deeper reason for this shift. One of the first people to identify Postmodernism was Charles Jencks, who is an architectural critic. Jencks argued that our civilisation has been transformed by the growth of the mass media, satellite technology and mass communication. He called this the ‘information explosion.’ He said that the mass media have brought different cultural images from around the world crashing together and that they have fused to create a hybrid culture. He was writing before the internet was invented, but the internet is the ultimate example of this process.
Jencks argues that in this context it is impossible for architects to be committed to any one style. Instead, he wrote that ‘the true and proper style in architecture is eclecticism, because only this can adequately encompass the pluralism that is our social and metaphysical reality.’ We can no longer use just one style; we have to use multiple styles in order to mirror our hybrid culture.
For example, this is a Water Treatment Works on the Isle of Dogs in London, designed by John Outram (1988). This is a hybrid of different styles. It has a triangular pediment, which is drawn from Classical architecture. The columns are Egyptian. This form resembles a turbine, which is probably a reference to Modernism and the machine aesthetic. Different styles are jumbled together. Overall, the aesthetic of this building is ‘hybrid rather than pure’ in the words of Robert Venturi.
Water Treatment Works, Isle of Dogs
Postmodernists argue it is impossible to be committed to any single orthodoxy, for example architectural style. This gives rise to irony and pastiche, which are perhaps the main characteristics of postmodernism. Architects use style ironically. For example, this is the AT&T Building on Madison Avenue, New York by Philip Johnson (1979). This features a Classical pediment. This should really be a small detail that you would see above a door or window, but here it’s expanded to a gigantic scale and carved into the top of the building. So this building uses a Classical detail in an absurd, deliberately incorrect way.
This is the Piazza d’Italia in New Orleans by Charles Moore (1975-9). It references Roman Classical architecture, but the style appears as a series of redundant signs like a dead language; it looks like a storeroom of old stage sets. Postmodernism shows no commitment to any particular style. Everything is just a pastiche, a quotation. It has been argued that postmodern culture is ‘an aesthetic of quotations.’ Architects quote from styles as a form of pastiche. In the same way, filmmakers communicate with their audience by quoting from the conventions of redundant genres.
Another key writer on postmodernism is David Harvey. He wrote a book called The Conditions of Post Modernity (1986), which describes the social, cultural and psychological effects of the postmodern age. His main theme is time/space compression. He says that our perception of time and space has been drastically altered by things like the mass media, satellite technology and the rise of global corporations. He also says that immigration and cheap air travel have contributed to this by allowing people to travel around the world. Harvey sees this as negative. He argues that we now have one continuous culture that envelopes the entire world like a sea and that our individual identities are dissolving in this sea.
Blade Runner is a postmodernist film in two senses. Firstly, it is a film about postmodernism; it depicts the conditions of postmodernity - all the trends that David Harvey and Charles Jencks write about. Secondly, the film is itself a postmodernist text because it communicates through references to established cultural forms.
This is a view of the cityscape of Los Angeles in 2019. This is the opening shot of the film. The city is completely industrialised and polluted. The famous Angelean smog has choked the skies. The film depicts the shift from modernity to postmodernity. One of the key thinkers of postmodernism is Frederic Jameson, who wrote a book called Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991). He is a Marxist critic so he brings everything down to economics. He says there has been a shift in the organisation of capitalism. The modern era was about production – machines and mass-produced goods were the emblems of the modern age. The postmodern era is a post-industrial age. Information is now the most valuable commodity.
Blade Runner's cityscape
Here, the city is in a state of post-industrial decay. It looks like a decrepit version of the technological city of Metropolis – it has corroded metallic skyscrapers, industrial chimneys and pollution. The sky is perpetually black and the streets are awash with acid rain – a corrosive version of the rain that falls on the noir city. The streets are strewn with rubbish.
Ridley Scott was born in South Shields and grew up in Hartlepool and Stockon in the North East of England. He regularly passed the chemical plants at Teeside and this inspired the look of the cityscape. To prove it, this is a photo of Teeside, showing the various chemical plants. Of course, the North East of England was in industrial decline in this period, so the film uses this image to suggest this painful shift into the post-industrial era.
To create this world, Ridley Scott hired a number of designers and technicians. Sid Mead was hired as a conceptual designer. Sid Mead worked in industry, producing genuine products for the future, so his work on Blade Runner is very realistic. He was described as a ‘visual futurist’ in the credits. This is one of his conceptual drawings for the flying cars called spinners. This is one of the models from the film, which does look like a logical projection of the way car design was changing. Sid Mead also established the look of the streetscapes. This is some of his conceptual artwork. The neon signs are an echo of film noir, but also a powerful image of the information society, in which everyone is bombarded by visual stimuli.
Syd Mead's conceptual artwork
Postmodernism quotes from established cultural forms, and Blade Runner uses many stylistic and narrative elements drawn from film noir and detective fiction:
? Deckard’s trench coat – the classic detective outfit; this puts Deckard in the tradition of the hard-boiled private-eye.
? Los Angeles setting – a classic location for film noir. LA is the ‘city of dreadful night’, to quote William Boroughs.
? Nocturnal timeframe – the streets are always enveloped in darkness.
? Slick city streets – it’s always raining in the noir city.
? The police station has a decaying 1940s interior (this was filmed at Union Station in Los Angeles).
? Rachael has a 1940s hairstyle and clothes. This is a pure film noir image. She functions as a femme fatale, the dangerously attractive woman whose sexuality is bound up with the central mystery of the narrative. When Deckard gives her the Voight-Kampf test, most of his questions are about her sexuality.
? Hard-boiled dialogue, especially between Deckard and Bryant. This mimics the language of Raymond Chandler’s detective novels. Bryant gets out a bottle of whisky, which is another clear reference.
? The original theatrical release of the film had a voice-over narration in a sub-Chanderlesque style. This was added on to satisfy the producers. It was badly written and Harrison Ford’s delivery was dreadful (it is rumoured that he deliberately gave a bad reading in the hope that they wouldn’t use it). A lot of films noirs had voice-over narration.
? Chiaroscuro – expressionistic lighting that generates a mood of fatalism and danger.
? Classic iconography – neon lights, cigarettes, Venetian blinds, the labyrinthine city.
Thus, the film appropriates the style and imagery of film noir and detective fiction. It communicates with the audience through references to a redundant cultural form. That is the essence of postmodernism. Again, Blade Runner functions as a postmodernist text.
The film also depicts the conditions of postmodernity. First of all, it looks at the consequences of the information explosion. In the city people are bombarded with adverts – electrified signs to make them consume products they don’t need. This giant digital billboard glares down into the streets. An advertising blimp hovers over the city, constantly reciting advertising slogans like a muezzin. The city spaces are lit with pools of neon light.
This is an extension on our contemporary world. The city looks like Times Square or Tokyo. This is Times Square in New York. This is a place that embodies the characteristics of Postmodernism: it’s multi-ethnic; disparate cultures are mixed together. The space is suffused with adverts and signs, so people are bombarded by the constant flow of information. Times Square is the embodiment of the information explosion.
What makes Blade Runner such an iconic film is the way it depicts the technological city environment where much has become our reality today, from the electronic billboards now part of our surroundings along with the constant bombardment of advertising, to showing a convincing future city overpopulated, affected by climate change and the impacts on the world of globalization.
Kuhn, A. (1999) Alien Zone II: The Spaces of Science-Fiction Cinema. London: Verso, p76
We’ve seen that postmodernism is about hybridisation. The city of Blade Runner is a hybrid city. It harbours a hybrid population made up of Americans, Asians and Latinos. So the city is an urban melting pot. The people even speak a hybrid language called ‘city speech’, which a mishmash of different languages. In the streets, different cultures have merged together; everything is a mix of American and Asian cultures, as you can see from the neon signs.
The architecture of the city is also a postmodern hybrid. It fuses ultra-modern skyscrapers with industrial structures and historical styles. The headquarters of the Tyrell Corporation is a golden skyscraper that echoes the form of an ancient Mayan pyramid. This is reminiscent of the way that postmodern architecture quotes from ancient cultures. At the same time Annette Kuhn argues that the neo-Mayan architecture suggests that the Tyrell Corporation is making human sacrifices to the capitalist god and that Eldon Tyrell is depicted as a god-like figure.
Crucially, the city of Blade Runner has a history; it’s a hybrid of old and new. The character J.F. Sebastian lives in the Bradbury Building, a famous Victorian building in Los Angeles. This would have been recognised as an LA landmark, which makes it very clear that the city has a history. Old buildings have survived amid the futuristic development. In the film, the building has fallen into decay; it’s empty because the wealthy have emigrated to off-world colonies. This is the interior of the Bradbury Building. It’s almost unrecognisable, which is a testament to Ridley Scott’s skill as a director.
The interior of Deckard’s apartment is based on the Ennis House by Frank Lloyd Wright. This is one of the textile block houses that Wright designed. He developed an experimental mode of building, using textured concrete blocks which were held in place with steel rods. The filmmakers took casts of these concrete blocks and reproduced them for Deckard’s apartment.
At the beginning of the film Deckard flies to the Police headquarters. This is the building, which is a direct echo of Metropolis, especially the central skyscraper. However, the interior was filmed in Union Station in LA. This was an historic interior that provides another link to film noir.
So this is not a purely futuristic city; it’s an amalgam of old and new, as most real cities are. The historical Los Angeles has been built up with new structures and this produces a hybrid aesthetic. In response to this, Giuliana Bruno writes:
The city of Blade Runner is not the ultra modern, but the postmodern city. It is not an orderly layout of skyscrapers and ultracomfortable, hypermechanized interiors. Rather, it creates an aesthetic of decay, exposing the dark side of technology, the process of disintegration.
Kuhn, A.K. (1990) Alien Zone Cultural Theory and Contemporary Science Fiction
Cinema. London: Verso, p185.
Blade Runner shows us a retrofitted future. A number of Hollywood studios have permanent sets on their back-lots. Universal has a New York Street set which has been used in countless film and TV productions since the 1940s. The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep were shot there. For Blade Runner, the designers started with this set and built futuristic structures onto it. This was the idea of retrofitting the future. It mimicked the process by which real cities develop.
‘More human than human’
The film deals with the theme of artificial humanity, which is one of the key themes of science fiction. The robot or cyborg is a recurring figure. I have a quote from Vivian Sobchak:
The ultimate horror in science fiction is neither death nor destruction but dehumanisation, a state in which emotional life is suspended . . . this type of fiction hits the most exposed nerve of contemporary society: collective anxiety about the loss of individual Identity, subliminal mind-bending, or downright scientific/political brainwashing.
Sobchack, V (1980) The Limits of Infinity, p123.
In Blade Runner, powerful multinational corporations have created artificial humans or replicants to bear the brunt of work for space exploration and the colonization of other planets. Replicants supposedly have no emotions. Blade Runners use the Voight-Kampf test, which is designed to test emotional responses. This suggests that to have emotions is to be human. This is the key anxiety associated with the robot – the idea of an unfeeling, inhuman being that can’t be reasoned with.
In a way, the replicant is the archetypal postmodern subject; it’s a metaphor for the diminished status of the individual in the postmodern era. Our identity is threatened by the pure chaos of postmodernity. Global corporations use the mass media to monitor and manipulate us. Our identities are dissolving in a sea of information.
In order to control the replicants, the Tyrell Corporation creates fake memories to give them a sense of identity. Rachael has these memory implants. The replicants also use photographs to hold on to this fragile sense of identity, but ultimately they know it’s fake. At the beginning of the film, the blade runner Dave Holden is testing Leon. When he asks him about his mother, Leon kills him. Leon doesn’t have a mother, so the murder is an act of fury against his lack of identity. That seems to parallel the crisis of individuality in postmodern existence.
However, the motto of the Tyrell Corporation is ‘More human than human’, and that’s true. The great irony of the film is that the replicants display more human characteristics than the real humans. The replicants show concern and empathy for each other in a way that the humans don’t. The replicants are trying to extend their lifespan, so they have a lust for life. Roy Batty says, ‘I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.’ He then recites some of the spectacles he has seen. In contrast, humans are burned out shells, eking out an existence in a derelict world. In postmodernity, our sense of the human is depleted as our identities dissolve in a sea of disembodied images.
The big debate in the film is whether or not Deckard is a replicant. Harrison Ford has always protested against the idea. At a certain point every replicant is depicted with an orange glow in their eyes. Even the artificial owl at the Tyrell Corporation has it. Deckard has it too. Deckard doesn’t seem to empathise with anyone. Like the replicants, he relies on photographs for his connection to the past. So there’s a lot of evidence that he is a replicant, but I think the point is that the film is deliberately ambiguous. This makes you question the nature of identity and what it means to be human in the context of postmodernity.
In conclusion, Blade Runner is a postmodernist film in two senses. It functions as a postmodernist text by quoting from film noir. It simultaneously depicts the conditions of postmodern existence – hybridisation, the rise of global corporations, the loss of individual identity and the state of information overload caused by the mass media.
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