“It’s just like everything that is awful about the city, but at the same time, everything that is fascinating about it…and this, in many ways, is a futurist projection—it’s not so much escapist, it’s a projection of what life will be like in every major metropolis 40 years from now.” – Philip K. Dick, 1982
Big Brother is watching you. The Eye in the Sky. There Are Eyes Everywhere. 2016…or 2019? In this day and age, does three years matter? In 1982, however, the difference was cavernous and 2019 a lifetime away. The past has finally caught up with the present…or has the present finally caught up with the past? One of the first images shown in Blade Runner (1982): an extreme close-up of an eye – encapsulates all of this, for we are living in paranoid times. We are living in Philip K. Dick’s world. This film was based on his 1968 novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? He has become one of the most widely-adapted science fiction authors and with good reason. He crafted paranoid tales populated by damaged characters trying to figure out what it means to be human. What were once considered paranoid delusions have become tactile realities.
One of the first things that struck me about Blade Runner is its obsessive attention to detail. It is virtually impossible to take it all in upon an initial viewing. Only after watching it several times was I able to properly appreciate how fully-realized the world of Ridley Scott’s film is – a tangible future that “you can see and touch,” the director said in an interview, “it makes you a little uneasier because you feel it’s just round the corner.” This vivid world, designed by Syd Mead and Lawrence G. Paull with special effects by Douglas Trumbull, is the backdrop to a detective story. Ex-cop Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is brought out of retirement to find and kill four replicants, artificial people that are forbidden to be on Earth, but this is merely a launching pad for Scott to address a myriad of fascinating themes – predominantly, as with the novel, what it means to be human.
The first image is an establishing shot of a hellish cityscape that stretches as far as the eye can see. The next shot goes deeper into the city of Los Angeles as giant plumes of fire occasionally erupt from factories. The camera penetrates deeper into the landscape to finally locate the massive twin structures of the Tyrell buildings. Finally, the camera literally travels down to street level: neon signs, futuristic attire and lighted umbrellas are only a few of the images presented before finding Deckard reading a newspaper. This opening traces a detailed path from an ordered city on a grand scale…to the chaotic streets on an individual level.
The L.A. of Blade Runner consists of three distinct layers. The top one consists of huge, monolithic, pyramidal skyscrapers that dominate the landscape and contain the ordered offices of Tyrell. The middle layer represents middle class residential areas seen mostly as interiors like Deckard’s apartment. Finally, there is the bottom layer: crowded, garbage-strewn streets filled with the dregs of society – a pastiche of subcultures of humanity. These three layers are tied together by flying cars, elevators and a huge, hovering ad display ship that constantly advertises off-world propaganda.
The top layer is represented by Tyrell’s offices where Deckard runs the “Voight-Kampff” test on the latest replicant, Rachel (Sean Young). It takes place in an immense room populated by massive support columns that suggest strength. It is sparsely furnished with expensive accoutrements that convey wealth. The room is a mixture of Third Reich splendor and film noir style, as represented by Rachel with her angular dress and severely swept hairstyle: one half Nazi secretary, one half femme fatale. The Tyrell offices represent the pinnacle of this world’s tasteful opulence. According to Mead in an interview from 1982:
“The pyramid is very high tech compared to the rest of the movie, very sleek, a carefully arranged textural megalith. The pyramid is set in the middle of what was called ‘Hades.’ An endless plain, like the chemical plant area of New Jersey…It is the ultimate visual statement of where our society is headed in the future.”
The middle layer is a claustrophobic collection of canyons of buildings where the less fortunate live with some providing giant advertising space while a flying advertisement extols the virtues of living off-world: “The chance to begin again in the golden land of opportunity and adventure.” L.A. is presented as a city of ads: Coca-Cola, Atari and Pan-Am are surrounded by neon-like Japanese fast food joints. These ads are familiar objects that we recognize within this strange, chaotic environment. Deckard’s journey to the police station in a flying car gives us another chance to see the stunning cityscape with its collision of diversified architectural styles. As Scott said in an interview, “We’re in a city which is in a state of overkill, of snarled-up energy, where you can no longer remove a building because it costs far more than constructing one in its place.” He exemplifies this with the retro 1940s style décor of the police station. The old architecture wasn’t torn down but rather built on top of and around.
The climactic showdown between Deckard and head replicant Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) takes place in the famous L.A. landmark, the Bradbury Building, which Scott transforms it from its once beautiful, ornately designed wrought-iron railings and cage elevators into noir nightmare – a deserted, dilapidated space strewn with garbage and debris. Deckard is chased through room after room by Batty in a harrowing sequence that resembles a horror film as the latter taunts and torments the former.
The street scenes are the most fascinating aspect of this filmic world. The first shot we get of it is the camera moving through the crowded, noisy streets to find Deckard waiting for his turn at a noodle stand. It is populated by a colorful assortment of people – punks, elderly people and so on, each with a distinctive look. He’s just one of many people in this city until he’s summoned by the cops to visit his old boss, Captain Bryant (M. Emmet Walsh).
The scene where Deckard chases renegade replicant Zhora (Joanna Cassidy) through the busy streets really shows off the bottom layer in all of its anarchic splendor. Scott orchestrates an audio/visual assault on the senses as Deckard fights his way through crowds. The director also subverts the norm of always keeping the protagonist in focus by continually obscuring Deckard with smoke, people and vehicles. The populace is a fascinating collection of ethnicities and subcultures resulting in one of the first truly multicultural future cities. The soundtrack is also a cacophony of vehicle horns, people talking and the incessant chatter of street signs that adds to the sense of urgency as he cuts through all of this confusion to find Zhora.
The L.A. of Blade Runner isn’t some sterile futureworld but a lived-in reality that feels like it existed before the film began and will continue to do so after it ends. All of this painstaking attention to detail immerses us in this universe and it grounds the characters in a tangible experience. It also transports us immediately to 2019 Los Angeles, difficult to do in a futuristic science fiction film; a lot of explanation is usually done up front so as not to confuse the audience. After a brief preamble textual scrawl, however, Scott drops us right in and expects the viewer to keep up and buy into the world he’s created.
“Looking back on what I saw, I realized that we are in an information decade. Information is the life blood, the metabolism of the modern world. And that basically people will be going in to see Blade Runner as information junkies.” – Philip K. Dick, 1982
We are living in Philip K. Dick’s future. Try making eye contact with someone on the bus or train. They are buried in their cell phone or iPod or some other electronic device. We are under constant electronic surveillance, be it cameras or remote controlled drones. The answer to what it means to be human may appear to be wildly different now than it was 34 years ago but it is quite the same. It is our species’ humanity that’s become buried beneath technology; Blade Runner was a warning that clearly was not heeded.
Kennedy, Harlan. “21st Century Nervous Breakdown.” Film Comment. July-August 1982.
Lee, Gwen and Doris E. Sauter. “Thinker of Antiquity.” Starlog. January 1990.
Mitchell, Blake and James Ferguson. “Syd Mead: Futurist and Production Designer Talks about Ridley Scott’s Newest SF Thriller Bladerunner.” Fantastic Films. November 1982.