The City in the Science Fiction Film
Blade Runner was released in 1981, and despite a flop in the box office, it became a success among science fiction fans and instant classics. Film director Ridley Scott largely drew on the tradition of film noir with its obligatory elements, such as night, rain, mist, the moody protagonist, and a femme fatale. Therefore, a large part of its success was due to a skillful use of environment and constructed city. Scott managed to create a separate universe of the murky and moody Los Angeles that was later emulated and taken as an example of science fiction futurism. Blade Runner centers on the protagonist’s need to identify artificial machines or replicants that look and act like humans, and sometimes are not even aware that they are not humans. To this effect, the chaotic and bleak image of the city symbolizes a difficulty to distinguish between the real and the artificial, the objective and the subjective, the made-up and the things felt.
The action is set in Los Angeles in 2019. According to the director, the city is a mix of past and future and has a special term for it – “retrofitted” (qtd in Mennel 145). Blade Runner begins with an aerial view of the dark city, twinkling with myriads of lights and illuminated by occasional flashes of fire coming from tall industrial pipes. The cityscape is dominated by the massive buildings of Tyrell Corporation made like truncated pyramids. However, aerial vistas are few in the film. The environment is often shown from low-angle shots, emphasizing on the lower layer of the city, rather than its “verticality and lofty aspirations” (Sobchack 136). The city looks polluted. Aerial shots of the city feature smog, while outdoor mise-en-scenes are set amidst clouds of steam and mist.
The film has no minimalist ambitions. On the contrary, each take is packed with visual details (Sobchack 136). There are many huge TV monitors on the buildings. Large billboards and neon signs add to the visual noise. The streets of Los Angeles are crowded with people, objects, and vehicles. Pavements are littered. In the article “Cities on the Edge of Time: The Urban Science Fiction Film,” Vivian Sobchack says that Blade Runner’s city is “exhausted” by recycling and pollution (136). Therefore, the objects lost its initial meaning and the viewers see occasional pipes and pieces of furniture without specific purpose.
Back in the 1980s, Scott envisaged the United States having changed its climate completely by 2019, so Los Angeles would be rainy and dreary. In fact, Scott’s Los Angeles is largely influenced by New York, and Scott even flew over to New York to capture its elements and implant them into his movie (Rowley 204). Even though, there is information that the director had initially chosen New York as a location but had to switch to Los Angeles, the aesthetics of film noir stems from Los Angeles, rather than from any other city. Besides, the city in the original novel was San Francisco, and Los Angeles is more related to it than New York (Rowley 204). Furthermore, there is another opposition between Los Angeles and New York in making the former “an archetypal postmodern city” while the latter is “the quintessential modernist metropolis” (Rowley 205). Scott’s Los Angeles is featured as a motley of different architectural elements and styles, a characteristic of postmodernism (Rowley 205).
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The film sees Los Angeles only at night when the streets are illuminated by streetlights, outdoor advertisements, and headlight beams from hovering police cars. Even in the scenes in Tyrell Corporations, the daylight is muted, and the sun in the background is dimmed by pollution and clouds. The yellow sky casts a yellow glow over objects and people, intensifying their artificialness. A lack of natural light further suggests a theme of decline, initiated by the litter on the streets, objects out of use, and the general feel of grimness and dirt (Staiger 118). In his article “False LA: Blade Runner and the Nightmare City,” Stephen Rowley argues that the “dreary brownness of the landscape around the pyramid” was not stimulating enough to make it for the whole film, so the director used it sparingly, relying more the “cohesive and legible” vistas of Los Angeles (211).
However, the film makers did not create a completely unique urban environment. It was not their task to portray how a city of future would really look like. They attempted to project into the future the issues the United States has nowadays. Therefore, they not only mixed the visual style of the 1930 and film noire and elements of futurism, but also multiplied the issues of pollution, multiculturality, corporation, etc. This way, their task was “marking the passing of the promise of modernism and diagnosing the condition of postmodernity” (Mennel 139). According to Scott’s interpretation of postmodernism in Blade Runner, the city is overpopulated, crime is rampant, and dirt is prevailing (Rowley 201). In fact, Scott’s reliance of the visual effect and aesthetics has largely contributed to the film’s success, and many critics remarked on tangible atmosphere (Raw 40). Film critic Tom Hutchinson says, “[S]tepping out into a wino-littered Leicester Square heaped with unswept rubbish, I began to wonder if the things to come I had just seen were here already” (qtd in Raw 40).
In the chapter “Utopia and Dystopia: Fantastic and Virtual Cities,” Barbara Mennel explains that such an unusual look of a science fiction film is a result of “the conflict between human subjectivity and virtual reality” (Mennel 131). The future is mostly unknown and the materials and technologies present now are not able to tell about the future that will happen many decades from now when everything will be different. Therefore, the futurism of the film has its aim to show not the future, but “the difficulty of distinguishing reality and representation from one another” (Mennel 131). At the same time, the aesthetics of futuristic landscapes and environments is “implicit criticism of modern urban life and the economic system that produces it” (Staiger 99). The only element that can refer to the future is the fact that with the modern speed of technological development, there is a growing number of automated equipment and electronics and with time people might see the consequences.
Although, at the time of Blade Runner creation, there already were sleek modernist constructions by Le Corbusier or Ebenezer Howard more suitable to indicate futurism in films, Scott chooses his own modernism – multinational, messy, dirty, and chaotic (Rowley 174). This opposition between the old modernism of the renowned architects and the new modernism of Scott suggests that both strive for the same – order and efficiency. However, Scott’s film is a warning against the situation that can happen if something is not changed. In this regard, “Blade Runner is not so much a postmodern vision, as an old-fashioned modernist view of what to avoid” (Rowley 205).
Despite the visual chaos of Scott’s Los Angeles, Stephen Rowley remarks that it has no problems the present day Los Angeles has. Grimness aside, Scott’s Blade Runner is busting with life and energy. People are busy, walking along the streets, street vendors are quickly selling their produce, cars are rushing and flying vehicles are swooshing by. Even though Scott’s Los Angeles is decentralized, it has its “downtown” (Rowley 210). Besides, the city’s public transport functions properly. The replicants must move around on foot or by the subway and bus, as they do not have a car.
Thirty-five years after Blade Runner was made, Los Angeles does not look like Scott’s suggestion in the least. Rowley notices “overtones of medievalism” reminding that medieval towns were as much overcrowded and populated as the expected cities of the future (Rowley 211). It implies that more well-off people tend to leave the inner city and move to more pleasant areas in terms of environment and aesthetics. In the episode with J. F. Sebastian, female replicant Pris asks the scientist why he had not left and he answers that he did not pass the test because of his genetic mutations (“Blade Runner”). In confirmation of the idea of the middle class migrating to better areas, J. F. Sebastian’s multistoried building is deserted. With its high ceilings and lavish decorations, suggesting its belonging to the middle- and upper-class, its prosperous inhabitants have left to off-colonies or, at least, to less polluted areas (Rowley 207).
In his article “Imagining the Real: Blade Runner and Discourse on the Postmetropolis,” Brooker notices that Los Angeles inherently contains a dichotomy as a city of contrasts: while it lures people with the promise of their dreams come true, simultaneously it crashes someone’s dreams. Even the weather sustains the dichotomy by offering “endless summer and the threat of natural disaster” (Brooker 219). The image of paradise and hell was reflected in two endings. The original version of 1981 offers a ‘happy ending’, which was in contrast with the overall mood of the film. In 1992, the Director’s Cut corrected it but the two versions suggest the struggle between utopian and dystopian readings of Los Angeles (Brooker 217).
To this effect, Los Angeles is a perfect city because it is “a collage city, a pastiche of time and place and attitude” and has “no single identity” (qtd in Brooker 217). It becomes an ideal place for the protagonist, Deckard, to question his own identity. Is he a replicant or a real person? Inasmuch as Deckard and other replicants doubt their memory and memories of their childhood, Los Angeles sits as a place of dreams, rather than reality. As a birthplace for the dream factory, Hollywood, Los Angles is more of a simulation than real. People flock to Hollywood to achieve an ephemeral success and the city is a symbol of their dreams and their simulation of real life (Brooker 217).
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Since its release in 1981, Blade Runner became an icon of visual representation of science fiction urban environment. Despite an expected futuristic image of the city with minimalist elements and sleek outlines, Scott chose his own way and relied on the existing styles of film noir and Eclecticism, rather than minimalist modernism. Taking Los Angeles as the film’s major location, Scott reverses its natural sunny side into a grime perspective of the future when the world is overcrowded and filled with recycling and garbage. As a birthplace of the Dream Factory, Los Angeles is an ideal place to show the ambivalence between the real and the imagined. By making the city atmosphere oppressive and bleak, Scott underlines the difference between the artificial world and real life, as well as replicants and humans. The dystopian nature of Los Angeles responds to the indefinite state the Blade Runner characters find themselves in. The oppressive and murky atmosphere contributes to the sense of dislocation, while the ambiguous status of replicants is in unison with the city.