The scene opens on glittering city night. Cars whiz by and the crowds bustle amidst streets awash in smoke and neon lighting. Every figure seems alone on their journey through this rainy underbelly. Somewhere, a gun fires, a body drops, and a mystery begins. At first glimpse, this description obviously leads the reader towards a certain genre of film. Known as noir, or film noir, this genre is defined by both its aesthetic affectations and its storyline tropes. Popularized heavily in the 1920s through 30s it was a turning point for early cinema, where filmmakers became more confident in their ability to tell darker stories with more pessimistic worldviews. Many movies from this portion of an era find praise even today as true artistic achievements. Yet surprisingly, that description works as well for a film just outside of that genre, and well outside of that time. Blade Runner is a science fiction movie released in 1982 (“Blade Runner”) Yet it exceeds these definitions by seeming to exist in a skin of cinema long past. Blade Runner is more than science fiction, and more than noir. Blade Runner is neo-noir.
To understand the connection between this film and its structural and aesthetic ancestors, one must first approach the topic of noir itself. How does one define a noir film? What elements of cinematography, mise-en-scène, and sound construct the visual and auditory experience needed to denote as such? What kinds of plot formats, character archetypes, and thematic ideas must present themselves?
If one chooses to begin with the aesthetic end of the spectrum first, one finds a wealth of factors to define the cinematography of film noir. In the article “Blade Runner and Genre: Film Noir and Science fiction”, authors Susan Doll and Greg Faller talk about the “claustrophobic framing” (91) that one oft associates with the style. This rings true if we take a few example from various films of the type. Look at say, The Big Heat. The film, released in 1953 and directed by the renowned German expressionist Fritz Lang, has copious shots which embody this tight and suffocated nature. (“The Big Heat”)
Notice how many of the figure in this is cut off by the edges of the frame. Everything seems to just barely make it into the viewer’s perspective. What a marvelous method to make the audience feel as though they’re never quite sure what will be revealed next. What is lying in wait right out of frame that could shift the tides of the plot dramatically? This framing works so well for this genre’s purpose. Now compare shots such as the above, with similar ones in Blade Runner.
Note the similarities between these shots and the previous set.
The only correlation in these shots don’t just present themselves through framing alone, but also the lighting. This filmic facet exists as part of both cinematography and mise-en-scène. It is also one of the key identifiers of noir cinema. The “look” of lighting in noir is generally low-key, meaning highly contrasted. It is also an artistic styling known as chiaroscuro (“Chiaroscuro”). This contrast is achieved by carefully selecting which parts of the image should be lit, while blanketing the rest in a thick coating of shadows. Often times, the light of the scene bursts forth from some exterior source. For example see below this scene from The Big Heat.
Here, the light comes entirely from outside the room and therefore is cut and molded by the blinds. The pattern then splatters the light in blocky shapes across the subject. It obscures the intention of the character or of the plot to add suspense. Who is this? What is about to happen? Why is the audience being shown this right now? It evokes mystery.
One could also analyze the famous ending frame from The Big Combo, the 1955 film directed by Joseph H. Lewis (“The Big Combo”). This shot, as the female lead emerges from the shadows of the hangar to join the grisly heroic lead detective, has a beautiful silhouette effect occurring. Again, the light is motivated from “outside the scene”, if you will.
The fog obscures our vision of the outside but we can assume that the glow pouring into the frame which distinguishes the murky figures, is coming from either a street lamp or the moon. Besides that the image is dark. It is such a harsh contrast, one would have no shame in using the pun: “it’s as clear as black and white.”
Again, these noir tactics emerge in Blade Runner.
Hold that shot up against the previous one, from The Big Combo, and the similarities spring forth. Both light sources are motivated by off-camera sources outside of the space where the actors move. To draw even more comparisons between these shots, view the medium the light travels through in both. Instead of glaring directly into the camera, the rays are diffused through smoke or fog. Another agent of obfuscation to add to this growing noir toolkit.
This shot of Rachael, the film’s leading female character, encapsulates all the ideals so far discussed. First of all, the framing is tight revealing only the face, shoulders, and hand to the audience. Even the background feels as if the camera holds it within a vice. The viewer can only see the top of the office chair, and the light peaking through the window behind her. The lighting is also intensely emblematic of film noir stylization. It is incredibly low-key, with light pouring in from her right and behind her, shadowing the left of her visage in deep pools of blackness. The rays are also caught in the smoke of her cigarette and diffused across the scene. This adds another patch of highlights to starkly contrast the shadows elsewhere.
Ergo, one can understand why many find a direct link between the cinematography of this film and those of yesteryear. Still, there are changes which Ridley Scott, his cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth ASC, and his art department made to the noir tropes that accelerated them into the world of tomorrow (“Blade Runner”). For one thing, color plays a vital role in this film. Many discussions have been had about the color palette used. It is an incredibly vibrant film in regards to color but very little blending of colors beyond perhaps two at a time. The majority of the scenes have a blueish/greenish tone to them. The highlights of the actors facial expressions in these scenes are often cast in a slightly warmer or, more often than not, white light. The other scenes which don’t fit these descriptions are often lit with harshly warm lighting to contrast the teal. These scenes occur in places of comfort, or what should be places of comfort. For instance, both the office and living quarters of the wealthy inventor Tyrell sit bathed in orange and golden rays from sunsets and candles.
The final tie-together of the noir and Blade Runner images is the establishing shots. In both, the city becomes a character in of itself. It lives and breathes, in its own way. It is the character who often is the greater antagonist. Yes, in The Big Heat the evil crime boss Lagana is the villain of the immediate plotline. Yet it’s the city itself and its penchant for destructive lifestyles which exists beyond the confines of the film’s timespan. This therefore must be represented. So in one key scene, as Lagana spouts at his lackey, Vince, he is suddenly backlit by the dazzling lights of the city.
Or for an even more direct example of the phenomena, The Big Combo literally opens with a series of shots flying over city streets at night as the opening credits fade by.
Many decades later, Blade Runner follows suit with its opening. It may have a few gas tower explosions and megastructures added in, but the result is essentially the same.
Beyond the merely visual, however, Blade Runner has another aesthetic side of it which mirrors its cinematic forefathers. The sound, both diegetic and nondiegetic, hearkens back to the days of gangsters and guns ruling the box office. Take first the well-known noir trope of the voice-over. Don’t think an audience will know what a character is thinking? Need to display pertinent plot information without shooting a whole extra scene and pronto? Why, just have the important lines grumbled into a microphone and pop it over the film.
The Third Man, directed by Carol Reed, starring Orson Welles, and released in 1949 has an interesting way of opening (“The Third Man”). It opens, unsurprisingly for this genre, with establishing wides of the city, Vienna. These are, however, accompanied by a narration track:
“I never knew the old Vienna before the war with its Strauss music, its glamour and easy charm. Constantinople suited me better.”
The narrator quickly establishes all we need to know about the world we are about to enter and what the lead character will likely be up to first. In this vein, Blade Runner closely follows suit.
“They don’t advertise for killers in a newspaper. That was my profession. Ex-cop, ex-Blade Runner, ex-killer.”
It’s worth noting that this narration was exempt from later cuts of the film. The story behind the theatrical cut is quite intense and somewhat rivals the battle over Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. In short, the higher up’s were scared the film would be too existential and nebulous to please a broad American audience. To push against the possibility of the film not doing well in cinemas, executives forced several drastic changes be made to the film (“Blade Runner”). For one, they left in a happy ending that many feel destroys the mystery and dark tone. The largest qualm had with the US theatrical cut, however, is the voice over. Harrison Ford was already unpleased with the production process of the movie due to conflicts with the director. In regards to being asked to read the narration, Ford is quoted as to saying, "I went kicking and screaming to the studio to record it" (Sammon 296). However, the fact that it does exist at least within the theatrical cut shows us another level of connection between Blade Runner and noir.
Yet there is an auditory tie that has stayed throughout the many iterations of the film. The music strongly mirrors its distant counterpart. Noir films are closely associated with jazz music. Exceptions persist, of course, such as the The Third Man soundtrack performed on a zither by Anton Karas (“The Third Man”). However, the majority of noir films have soundtracks rich in the blare of brass instruments from trumpet to sax. Then it’s unsurprising that when the Blade Runner composer Vangelis began work on the film’s score, he would draw inspiration from these older styles. He’s never admitted it explicitly, it isn’t that shocking since his track record with doing interviews is scarce and when they do occur, he says little. Regardless of his commenting, Vangelis’s work on the film is undoubtedly evocative of the jazzy styling established by noir classics (“Blade Runner soundtrack”). It has the piano and brass that lilts along in a smooth and sultry manner. It has these sudden trills and twinkles of mystery. It has distant crashes of cymbals spread throughout. Yet all of it is hurtled into the future by having it performed on mostly synthesized instruments instead of a live orchestra.
One track in particular stands out in a slightly different way. The song “One More Kiss, Dear” is inserted into the film diegetically, meaning that it is meant to exist within the actual world of the film and can be heard by the characters. It is playing in the background over a radio of some sort. It is a very 20s to 30s style piece that brings one back in time. It transports one to a melancholy speakeasy with a whiskey in hand as a small band accompanies the wiry singer crooning into a shiny aluminum microphone. There is even a lowpass filter on it giving it that distinctive muffled sound old recordings seem to have. Yet this track was written and recorded by Vangelis in the early 80s for this film. Don Percival, “leading back-room figure in British pop music” (Buchler) was even the vocalist behind the song. Again one finds themselves struck by the way in which this film takes the old and revitalizes it.
What has been discussed up to this point is merely the surface elements of the motion picture Blade Runner. Though there is certainly sufficient material to draw the comparison between it and film noir, that isn’t all of it. The other part resides not within the aesthetics of the film, but within the structural foundations of it. The plotline, characters, and themes resemble their earlier counterpart.
The external storyline of most noir films follows a mystery. Regardless of profession, our hero has ended up in charge of solving the mystery ("Life on the Margins: The People and Plots of Film Noir”). In The Third Man, author Holly Martins must know who killed his dear friend Harry Lime. In The Big Heat, detective Dave Bannion has to prove the evil Michael Lagana is behind the corruption of the police force. In The Big Combo, Lieutenant Leonard Diamond also has to reveal the crimes of master gangster, this time, the conniving Mr. Brown. This external plot often is driven by or drives a romantic internal plot. Holly Martins falls for Anna Schmidt, Dave Bannion falls for Debby Marsh, and Leonard Diamond falls for Susan Lowell. In the French poetic realist/noir film Le Quai des brumes (Port of Shadows), directed by Marcel Carné, deserting soldier Jean falls for Nelly (“Port of Shadows”).
Blade Runner fully embraces these tropes. Our hero is Rick Deckard, an ex-Blade Runner. Blade Runners are tasked with bringing in rogue replicants, an engineered breed of superhuman. When four replicants return to Earth, a no-go zone for their kind, Deckard is brought back in by the police as the only man who can get the job done. His task: track down every rogue replicant and “retire” (kill) them. Already, the mystery external plotline appears unveiled.
The next step: the internal love-based plotline. For that, one must consider Deckard’s relationship with the replicant Rachael. Their interactions have all the signs of a classic noir romance. For one, she causes a good deal of Deckard’s internal conflict to begin. Beyond that, she also requires Deckard to save her despite having been the source of many of their troubles herself. It makes her echo the femme fatale role presented by many film noirs (“The Dark Dames of Noir”). Their relationship also culminates in them running away together in hope of a brighter future.
These of course are not just plotline factors, but factors of characters. It would thus be prudent to run off the character archetypes one often finds in film noir. As previously discussed, the hero, despite being any profession, assumes the role of investigator in the story. They are also typically dark and frustrated male anti-heroes whose situation in life has been dealt to them by little or no fault of their own (“Film Noir”). Dave Bannion of The Big Heat is just a cop tired of seeing his fellow officers corrupted. They are drawn into their investigation or quest reluctantly at first. Bannion, for instance, is thrust in deeper than he ever wanted when his wife is killed by the mob he is hunting. They also typically destroy or are destroyed by the women in their story. For Bannion, all the women he encounters throughout his tale meet untimely ends. His wife dies from a car bomb planted for him, and Debby, the gangster’s girl who falls for him is eventually gunned down.
Does Blade Runner’s Rick Deckard stand the test? He’s undoubtedly the investigator of the story, tasked as he is with finding the replicants. He certainly has a grim disposition. If we presume that Ridley Scott is correct in his vision that Deckard is actually a replicant himself, a much debated topic with many voices of authority weighing in for and against, then we can also assume that his situation is not his fault. He was created by humanity with his faults pre-determined not by nurture or nature but by biogenetic coding. Deckard also finds himself thrust into the investigation not by his own choice but by his old boss at the police station. As for the women in his tale, he quite literally destroys two of them. He guns down the replicant Zhora in a famous scene as she hurtles through shop windows. He kills Pris, replicant and personal favorite of rogue replicant leader Roy Batty. The third woman who he encounters doesn’t die but he certainly takes some questionable steps with her when he forces himself upon her. This would of course be Rachael, who eventually falls for him and by doing so, insights conflict into his life. Should he choose his duty to “retire” all rogue replicants and remain as he is, or should he disobey his order (his programming one might jest) and run away with her. According to the final cut released by the director in 2007, he at the very least attempts the latter option. The theatrical release confirms their attempts to escape as being fruitful.
Then what of Rachael? Does she too confirm the stereotype? The femme fatale is often defined by her seducing of the lead character and her destructive nature. This has resulted in debate as to whether the femme fatale archetype is thus sexist or not. Those who say yes argue that their portrayal is hard to reconcile with politically correct depictions of women. Femme fatales don’t often have fellow female characters in the stories with them. This leads to a sole female character representing all of womanhood while multiple male characters depict the multiple types of manhood which exist. Then, when this sole female character is downright corruptive and detrimental to the lead character, it can quickly appear to cast all women in the same light. Even after all their troublesome behaviors though, the male lead will typically save them both from their wild actions. It appears as though all that’s being sought after is a man then.
The opposition to this would instead state that despite these almost antic dispositions, they are not portrayed as flat and weak. Instead, noir paints these women as complex characters that may show more faults than merits, yet aren’t afraid to demand things from the men in their lives. They are at once dangerously attractive and intensely determined.
The argument could go in circles. Where does Rachael fit in, however? While lacking in stubbornness, she does have an undoubtedly complex character. She is right off the bat something out of the ordinary for Deckard. Performing the Voight-Kampff test, a test designed to determine whether or not the subject is a replicant, Deckard cannot determine her status until about a hundred questions in. The standard replicant is discovered after about 20-30. This literally proves that she has the emotional capacity close to that of a human. She’s almost indistinguishable from the real thing. This can’t be said of any other replicant in the film besides possibly Deckard. Later on, she does shift more towards the submissive nature of many third act femme fatales, where they completely fall for the hero. Despite getting there by somewhat non-consensual ways, she finds her heart won.
It’s in her relation to another character where we can see a bit more of her grounding in the noir framework. She is, albeit not romantically, attached to Eldon Tyrell, the businessman and inventor who designs the minds of the replicants. She begins her character's arc as his assistant or secretary. This last until she discovers the truth of her being, the fact of her being a replicant. When this occurs, Tyrell dismisses her, and Deckard receives orders to “retire” her. This would then put Tyrell in the classic noir position of empowered villain. He is, after all, the reason for the external conflict. He designed the minds of the replicants and thus gave them the capacity to run amok as they did. That would then put his partner and scientific associate J.F. Sebastian in the position of main henchman to the villain. Clearly, all these characters have their counterparts in the noir genre. All but one, that is.
Roy Batty, assumed leader of the replicants, has no direct link back. There are loose ties here and there. His impassioned belief in certain ideals as a way to justify the destruction he causes could be mistaken for the archetype of crime boss. Yet Tyrell lines up with that part much more naturally and Roy isn’t on the side of Tyrell or Deckard. Nor is he fighting for personal gain of a monetary or hedonistic nature. Instead, his quest is for more life for both himself and his friends. He is driven by love and by a basic desire to keep striving for more. In fact, if the movie sympathized with and followed Roy more closely, the noir connection might fade all together. If he was the main character, the film would not resemble noir. For he as a lead is more of a Jesus figure than a dark anti-hero. This is strongly suggested in the ending of the film when he puts a nail through his hand, much like Christ had nails put through his on the cross. On top of that, his death is selfless and for the good of mankind.
One line of Batty’s stands out in light of this observation. Addressing Deckard during their battle he quips:
“I thought you were supposed to be good. Aren’t you the ‘good’ man?”
This line may just be a joke but it resonates when taken in context to the noir ideals we have seen thus far. It is as if the character is aware of what sort of movie he is in. He is looking the various different stereotypes and laughing at them. If Roy doesn’t fit into our noir allegory, then where does he fit? What is he? This line seems to suggest he is somewhat of a commentary on noir and the film itself. He challenges worldviews widely held by noir films. Take a look at his dying words, the legendary monologue unofficially titled “Tears in Rain”.
“I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time... like tears in rain... Time to die.”
These words are somber, yet somehow the way Roy says them, they seem slightly joyous. He is content to die, for he has done more with his short time than many men would dare do with their much longer lives. This kind of cosmic perspective check just isn’t in the noir vein. It doesn’t gruffly propose life is awful and only suckers get ahead. It proposes humanity should understand its scale in the universe and lose it’s self-importance. It eschews the idea noir leads seem to have that the world owes them something.
So in doing so, Roy Batty single handedly changes the film. Without him, the usage of noir tropes is merely a fun throwback to cinema of many years ago. With him, this noir stylization becomes a vessel for self-reflection, for understanding, and for criticism. It begs the question of who the real hero of this film is. Deckard? The man who just follows someone’s orders until someone else convinces him to heed their orders instead? Or Roy? The man who took action. The man whose wings the world clipped. The man who by even attempting to fly, appeared to soar for one dazzling moment. It is as Tyrell says to this wondrous creation of his:
“The life that burns twice as bright burns half as long. And you have burnt so very very brightly, Roy.”
What then, of Blade Runner? This marriage of science fiction and noir is previously unheard of and unnatural. Still, it works. In fact, it works so well that it is as well known if not more well known by the general public today, than any singular noir film. Much like the replicants in the film itself, this film has more of noirs strengths and less of its weaknesses. It is noir but is not defined by noir. Through this vessel noir and storytelling can evolve. After all, noir is simply the marriage of German expressionism and post-war American pessimism. It is a narrative of bleakness. Yet Blade Runner, and other neo-noirs, transcend this. They see the bleak and point to a light shining through the bleak. They say to humanity, “That is your future, all you have to do is keep going.” What then does this future hold?
If androids do indeed dream of electric sheep, what then will we dream of next?