Blade Runner: A Marriage of Noir and Essay
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Blade Runner: A Marriage of Noir and Sci-Fi
Blade Runner is a 1982 film noir/science fiction film set in 2019 that depicts a world that is threatened by human advancements in technology. In the film, robotic humanoids become self-aware and decide that it is within their right to live past their predetermined expiration dates and set out to find a way to live among humans and defy scientists, whom arbitrarily decided and programmed these humanoids' lifespans, and society, which does not readily accept humanoids despite having created them. In Blade Runner, a group of these humanoids, called replicants in the film, escape their off-world and flee to Los Angeles with the hope of finding a way to defy their preprogrammed self-destruction. However, because it is illegal for replicants to be on Earth, it is up to former blade runner, Rick Deckard, to stop the replicants before they create any disturbances within the city. Blade Runner successfully melds two distinct film genres, film noir and science fiction, through its depiction of a dystopian Los Angeles.
Traditionally, film noir is based on a criminal investigation to introduce stock characters including the hard-boiled detective, the femme fatale, and the corrupt policeman (Borde & Chaumeton 7). In Blade Runner, Rick Deckard, the hard-boiled detective, is forced back into being a blade runner when a group of replicants begins to terrorize Los Angeles. In the process of his investigation, Deckard meets Rachael, the femme fatale, who is Dr. Tyrell's assistant and does not know that she is a replicant. Like many stereotypical femmes fatale, Rachael puts Deckard's life in danger by seducing him; Deckard subsequently falls in love with Rachael and finds that he cannot bring himself to destroy, or "retire" her, even though her existence on Earth contradicts everything he stands for (Blade Runner).
Stylistically, film noir was heavily influenced by German expressionism and its use of chiaroscuro and mise-en-scene (Dimendburg 114). In the film, chiaroscuro can be seen through the abrasive contrasts between light and dark and through the creative use and incorporation of futuristic neon lighting that pervades the Los Angeles cityscape. The different types of lighting help to create distinct shadows on what may be interpreted as a lifeless skyline. Additionally, the venetian blinds help to highlight how chiaroscuro was used in classic film noir and in Blade Runner. While venetian blinds in their pure form are only seen in Deckard's apartment, there are virtual representations present at Dr. Tyrell's apartment, and an allusion to venetian blinds can be seen during the final battle between Deckard and the replicant Roy Batty as light shines through boarded up windows at the dilapidated Bradbury apartment building (Blade Runner). Blade Runner's mise-en-scene is also reminiscent of classic film noir and it is interwoven with modern innovations. For example, the film references art deco and classical architecture, yet these concepts are juxtaposed against modern technology such as neon lighting and flying cars.
Film noir is also known for its use of low angle, wide-angle, and Dutch angle shots as well as distortion, disorientation, and deep focus. Low angle shots are best represented in the scenes that feature elevators. The most prominent low angle shots can be seen in elevators that access J.F. Sebastian's apartment and Dr. Tyrell's apartment. Wide-angle shots are used primarily to capture the Los Angeles skyline and Dutch angle shots are used sparingly throughout the film and are meant to create a feeling of unease. Lastly, high angle and low angle shots are utilized best to demonstrate the reversal of power between man and machine during Deckard and Roy Batty's final confrontation (Blade Runner).
Another characteristic of film noir is the distinct manner in which the narrative is structured, many times using voiceovers and non-linear narratives to drive the film. Despite the fact that the director's cut of
the film eliminates the use of voiceover narrative, the 1982 theatrical version of the film utilizes the narrative device to give the audience insight into how the narrative has progressed and how it has affected Deckard. Blade Runner also uses non-linear narrative to recount the struggle between replicants and humans; non-linear narrative is best represented through modernized flashbacks, in this case through the playback of security footage within the film.
Just as Blade Runner is a film noir, it is also a science fiction film. In order to bring the two distinct genres together, retro-futuristic references are made throughout the film. Retro-futurism is defined as the future seen from the past and the past seen from the future (Retro-futurism). Retro-futurism can be seen in the film's portrayal of fashion and costuming, architecture, and technology. For example, many of the clothes that various characters wear are reminiscent of 1940s fashion, yet they have been updated to reflect the year that the film is set in, 2019. Moreover, Deckard's apartment and office decors are also designed to reflect 1940s decor. Architecturally, retro-futurism appears through the juxtaposition of art deco and neo-classical styles against a futuristic backdrop that is vividly lit with neon lights and signs. Lastly, retro-futurism is used technologically to incorporate flying cars, the Voight-Kampff machine, and videophones into the film's narrative.
Conventionally, science fiction, in general, demonstrates the dangers of knowledge and emphasizes the fact that technology has the capacity to destroy humankind (Dirks). In film, science fiction stories are often set in outer space, other worlds, and often involve aliens. Blade Runner acknowledges that there are multiple worlds in existence within the film and makes reference to Off-worlds that are largely inhabited by replicants. Moreover, these replicants can be though of as alien life forms because they are not only foreign beings, but also because they are not human (Blade Runner). Additionally, science fiction explores how technology and other scientific principles clash with the laws of nature. In the film, it is unnatural that humanoid machines are not only created, but also exploited and used as slave labor on foreign planets. This exploitation helps to present "new and different political or social systems" within the film (Dirks). The discrimination is not only technological and mechanical, but also social and brings the master-slave dynamic back to the forefront.
A common theme between film noir and science fiction is the moral ambiguity that characters face. The concept of moral ambiguity is most evident in the relationship between humans and machines. Case in point, the film's preface states,
Replicants were used Off-world as slave labor, in the hazardous exploration and colonization of other planets…[and] after a bloody mutiny by a NEXUS 6 combat team in an Off-world colony, Replicants were declared illegal on earth -- under penalty of death. Special squads -- BLADE RUNNER UNITS -- had orders to shoot to kill, upon detection, any trespassing replicant. (Blade Runner)
Ironically, humans maintain a very skewed perception of replicants so much so that when a replicant is killed or destroyed it is not considered to be an execution, but rather see it as the machine's retirement. Also, the concept of replicant identity also arises due to the fact that although replicants were created to be "more human than human" they are thought of and treated as though they are inferior to humans (Blade Runner). When replicants do become self-aware, much like a human is prone to do, they are punished for wanting to prolong their existence instead of passively submitting to their pre-programmed lifespans.
The concept of moral ambiguity can be further explored through the relationship between Tyrell and Roy Batty. In Blade Runner, Tyrell is responsible for the creation and development of replicants and it can be argued that Tyrell "played God" by creating and perfecting the technology that made it possible for replicants to exist. Furthermore, Tyrell is responsible for creating a machine that was in many ways superior to humans and then forcing replicants…
Sources Used in Documents:
Borde, Raymond and Chaumeton, Etienne. A Panorama of American Film Noir: 1941-1953.
Trans. Paul Hammond. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2002. Print.
Blade Runner. Dir. Ridley Scott. United States: Warner Bros. Pictures, 1982. Motion Picture.
Dirks, Tim. "Science Fiction Films." AMC Filmsite. Web. Accessed 12 February 2012.
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