On Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982)

Blade Runner (1982)


After watching Blade Runner for the first time (Yes, it took me a very long time to actually watch the film) it became apparent to me where this film gleaned some of its ideas and the influence this film has had on science fiction/ fantasy films that followed it. I am sure I am not the only one to say that Fritz Lang’s Metropolis must have been the first contributing factor to the style and subject matter Ridley Scott took on in Blade Runner.The most apparent concepts that connect these two films are the overall visuals of both films and their vision of city of the future. The futuristic city of both Scott and Lang are distinct in their landscapes, geography, and social structure.These two films sought to envision a future where technology was the basis by which society functioned. Technology was the culture and the cities would crumble without it.Although the studio cut of Blade Runner was not a box office hit when it was released in 1982, it’s reputation has grown since, especially since the director’s cut was released (Blade Runner). Blade Runner became a cult classic. “The film may have survived long enough to benefit from a renewed taste for darker, more violent sci-fi. It’s appeal has less to do with a fascination for outer space (which does not feature beyond reference in a few lines of dialogue) than with a vision of earth and humankind in the near future” (Roberts and Wallis Pg 157-8). Partly for this reason, it became known as one of the best sci-fi films of all time. It has influenced many sci-fi films that followed it. Some of these films dealt with the subject of the android and some sought to further explore other ideas that Blade Runner brought forth regarding the futuristic city. I would like to explore the latter here.The futuristic city of Blade Runner is very different from what we know a city to be in our modern time. It is a  crumbling dystopia. We see this concept early on in motion picture history in Fritz Langs’s Metropolis (1927). In Metropolis society is divided into two classes: “one of planners and management, who live high up in luxurious skyscrapers and one of workers, who live and toil underground” (Metropolis). In Blade Runner we see a city in which different things seem to be happening on different levels. While the film Metropolis mainly deals with social classes and the plight of the worker, Blade Runner, although not entirely about the division of class, does touch upon this concept. The big corporate headquarters, for example the Tyrell Corporation, are situated in large skyscrapers high up closest to the clouds while down at ground level there is garbage everywhere and buildings are deteriorating (i.e. J.F. Sebastions apartment).

Metropolis (1927) city view
Blade Runner (1982) city view.

I find it so interesting that even though these films were made in different times their ideas about the futuristic city and society are almost identical. Ridley Scott’s construction and ideas of what life in the city of the future would be like are extremely similar to Lang’s.Lang’s film set the bar for science fiction films at such an early era of the moving picture it is hard to miss the influence it has had on films like Blade Runner.

In both films we are presented with a dystopian like society in which the classes have reached far extremes and  society has neglected its environment in pursuits of technology and material things. In Blade Runner we are shown a Los Angeles in 2019, in which, technology has progressed but civilization seems to have decayed. “There are no brightly lit scenes in the film, suggesting a world choked with an atmosphere of dark smog and that has to conserve power everywhere owing to the density if the population and it’s high consumption” ( Roberts and Wallis 158). The city is dirty, cramped , dark, polluted, and congested. Along side this, consumption seems to increase while all other things get much worse. Real, organic like humans, and animals things are hard to find as they are becoming extinct. It’s it difficult to distinguish between humans and androids. The snake in the market seems so real it is hard to believe it’s a machine.

If one looks at the times in which these two films were made we can glean a bit about why these films portrayed such a bleak future. Firstly, Metropolis was made and released while Germany was still recovering from WWI and its aftermath. The country was stepping into a time of change and a shift in political power. (Metropolis)  Secondly, one must take into account the artist movement and genre in which this film is categorized. Although the film was released at the end of the German Expressionist movement, Metropolis is still considered to be a German Expressionist film. The main reason for the appearance of German Expressionism in film was that German filmmakers needed to find a way to compete with the lush films of Hollywood at the time. They sought out to create their own style in which a deeper meaning is conveyed in a film through  symbolism and mise-en sense, focusing on the darker aspects of the human experience (Bordwell and Thompson 408).  The political climate at the time and the style in which this film was made play a big part on the look, feel, and  ideas presented in the film. .Life was not easy as German society found itself with an undecided future. We can see this uneasiness in the film; the powers that be lived in luxury, without regard or concern for the workers who keep them in that life style. The working class is disposable and their futures are dark and uncertain. Lang was portraying what seemed to be for them the inevitable future.
Blade Runner, was made during a time when the world was under constant threat of nuclear war. The second half of the the Cold War loomed over everyone as a constant reminder that nothing was certain (Blade Runner). Technology was advancing and along with it better weapons that would one day mean the end of it all. Scott captures this doom and gloom feel of the time in the film through the dark setting and isolation of the characters like Rick Deckard (Harriosn Ford) and J.F. Sebastian (William Sanderson). They are both solitary characters that live separated from society.  Deckard lives alone in a dark apartment and Sebastian lives among the robotic toys he has created. The film reflects  the climate at a time in which those in power were wealthy, secure, and had the world at their finger tips while the rest of society lived in fear.
There are many stylistic elements that are common in most science fiction films, like Metropolis and Blade Runner and the many films influenced by them. Films like Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report and Lou Besson’s  The 5th Element came directly to mind when I was watching Blade Runner for the first time. Unlike Blade Runner, both films did reasonably well at the box office, but also unlike Blade Runner they are not necessarily cult classics. Both films do bare resemblance to Blade Runner in terms of the the construction of the futuristic city and the technologies of the future.In Minority Report we are shown Washington D.C. in the year 2054. For the most part Washington looks like any other contemporary city we know and live in today. There are regular houses, on regular streets, in regular neighbourhoods. People shop in malls like we do now. This city, unlike the city depicted in Blade Runner, seems to operate on a single plane. By the looks of the city in Minority Report society is not crumbling nor are they low on resources. If anything, it looks like the future Washington D.C. is striving. If one takes a closer look though there are some indications of decay. For example, the scene in which Chief John Anderton (Tom Cruise) goes out for a run while looking to buy the psychoactive drug he is addicted to is dark, dank, and inhabited by drug dealers. Speilberg shows us a socitey where not everything is what it seems. Throughout the film we are lead to believe that city is in a certain state of utopia due to the invention of the PreCrime program. As it turns out the city is not so safe and free of crime. Anderton’s superior Lamar Burgess (Max von Sydow) is the head of the program. PreCrime is a program  used by a specialized police department to apprehend criminal base on the premonitions provided by three psychics called “precogs”. They arrest “criminals” for crimes they have yet to commit. It the means by which Burgess brings about peace and harmony to a city but because of his thirst for power he makes it into something whose mere inception leads to murder and deception thus rendering it a failure.In Minority Report  we see a city, much like in Blade Runner, where advertisement and consumerism play a major part in the citizens every day lives. We see advertisements on every available public space. In Minority Report the advertisements on these public spaces change to directly appeal to the person or people who happen to be walking past them. No wall is untouched. In Blade Runner we see entire office buildings being used as giant billboards that even those in an aircraft would be able to see. Obviously, this is a strategic placement because in this future city there exists flying cars.In The Fifth Element we see a future city that is more vibrant and full of colour then most futuristic cities but we also see a city that is riddled with garbage (the airport), cramped (Korban Dallas’ apartment), and consisting of many levels. Like in Blade Runner, the city portrayed in Then Fifth Element exists on a vertical plane. It consists of many levels.This is seen in the scene where Leeloo (Milla Jovovich) meets Korban Dallas for the first time (Bruce Willis) when she jumps off a ledge and falls through the roof of Korban’s taxi cab. We are given a glimpse downwards onto a city that  falls several feet down to the bottom.In the background we see people going about their daily business at various levels of the city.  There is no clear indication as to where the ground level of the city actually is.It appears almost as if there is no ground.Tiered cities, flying cars, space crafts, futuristic highways, digital advertisements are all predominant in the landscape seen within  Blade Runner and subsequently other films like Minority Report and The Fifth Element. Such ideas were taken and perfected upon from Lang’s ideas  of the cityscape in Metropolis.. This influences on other sci-fi films can not be ignored. The futuristic city as it has been embedded into our collective conciseness through the sci-fi films mentioned here and many more like them ( I could make a very long list here) all come back to Blade Runner. It was this film that cemented this idea of what cities would be  like and how they would function in the future to an entire generation. It was only after re-watching Metropolis that I see where such notions came from.

    “Blade Runner’s great strength is in a way its valedictory vision of the future pervades every image and scene, but without resorting to heavy explanatory dialogue. The richness of the designs and art director depicting a decadent society showing a clearly flattering modernism are arguably more important in their dramatic weight than the core thriller plot, when tied to the film’s existential interest in life, humanity, and reality.” (Pg 158 Key Film Texts)
To me the richness of Blade Runner does not lie in its plot but in its exploration, even if in a fantastical way for what is science fiction if not fantastical, of what the future city would look and feel like. It takes certain issues that are prevalent in our society and fictionalizes the future out come of these concerns by showing what our city, society, and even planet would be like if these things were still issues. The the notions of the environment and the dangers of technological advancement are examples of this. In the film there seems to be very little sun and there is no greenery to be seen. This is something our society is currently trying to avoid. He also explores the notion of the dark side of technological advancement by imagining what it would give us in the future. For one thing it could give us androids who look act, and inhabit our cities like we do. He dreams of a world in which the robots we have created become so intelligent and indistinguishable from adult humans that society fears them.
Blade Runner may have been influence by Metropolis but Blade Runner took the notion of the futuristic city further and made it more tangible. I think the reason whyBlade Runner is considered by many to be the best science fiction film ever made is because it dared to be something more than just be a sci-fi film. It was a sci-fi film with a thriller plot in a film noir type setting. The film made you look past the surface of things and made you look deeper into the what the story was telling you. It allowed the viewer to see it from their own perspective. Nothing was given to you, the inherent plot invites you to interpret for yourself what is going on and what the conclusion of the film really is thus giving you a sci-fi film that is both entertaining and intellectual. It was the sci-fi film that would define and influence all other films like it that followed. It is like in music where if certain bands like The Beatles or Joy Division never existed then we would not have the music we have today. This may be a bold statement to finish on but I am going to do it anyway, if Metropolis was never made then we would not have Blade Runner. Consequently if Ridley Soctt had not made Blade Runner we would not have films like Dark City, The Matrix, The Fifth Element, Minority Report, Gattica etc. This list could go on and on.
Works Cited
”Blade Runner.”  Wikipedia. 2011. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc… 01 July 2011
Bordwell, David and Kristan Thompson. Film Art: An Introduction 6th Edition.  New York: McGrall Hill, 2001.
“Metropolis.” Wikipedia. 2011. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc… 01 July 2011
Roberts, Graham and Heather Wallis. Key Film Texts. London: Arnold , 2002.

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