Blade Runner (1982): Future Noir

          Blade Runner (1982), an essential film in the science fiction canon, follows Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) as he tries to track down the last replicants (bioengineered androids) on Earth. His mission to “retire” the remaining replicants turns complicated when he falls in love with one of them, causing him an existential crisis. Although Blade Runner is a notable example of the science fiction genre, it shares many similarities with some of the classic films noir. For the purpose of this paper, a comparison based on visual style, character types and narrative patterns between neo-noir Blade Runner and classic noir Double Indemnity (1944) will be made.

          Visual style is one of the many elements that these two films have in common. In terms of the cinematography, low-key lighting is used in both to accentuate feelings of anxiety, tension, and pessimism. In “love scenes” specifically, this lighting technique creates juxtaposition between tenderness and violence. In one particular scene of Blade Runner, the audience sees Deckard and his love interest, Rachael (Sean Young) share a kiss. However, this intimate moment is not a conventional love scene. At first, Rachael seems to resist Deckard’s advances and tries to leave his apartment, but he rushes to the door, slams it, grabs her and pushes her against the wall. Low-key lighting is used throughout the scene to create both a sensual and violent atmosphere. In particular, when Deckard and Rachael finally kiss, a hard light is seen through the iconic Venetian blinds, which are featured in almost every film noir and serve as homage to the genre. The harsh lines not only create a stylistic resemblance to film noir, but they also emphasize the tension between the characters. Similarly, Double Indemnity features several scenes with low-key lighting and Venetian blinds. Toward the end of the film, the Venetian blinds can be seen when Stanwyck’s character is sitting down as she waits for Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray). Here, too, a sensual and violent scene is depicted. However, Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity takes it even further, as the scene actually culminates with the characters shooting one another.

          Blade Runner and Double Indemnity share stylistic similarities that go beyond low-key lighting. Regarding the setting, both films take place in Los Angeles. Nevertheless, Blade Runner is more urban than Double Indemnity, as the latter blends both urban and suburban locations. Blade Runner’s set design emphasizes the ‘high tech, low life’ concept found in many cyberpunk films. For instance, when looking at Deckard’s apartment, one can notice it is cluttered with all sorts of things, which mirrors the claustrophobic, anxious and pessimistic feelings that the character is going through. The exposed pipeline in Deckard’s kitchen further emphasizes the ‘dirty sci-fi’ and cyberpunk style of the movie. Walter Neff’s apartment also gives the impression of isolation, but his apartment seems more orderly, almost uninhabited.

          These protagonists share more than just the feeling of isolation. In fact, Deckard embodies the film noir anti-hero for reasons that go beyond his trench coat. Like Walter Neff, he thinks twice before getting involved with a woman. When he meets Rachael, he is cold and seems emotionally distant, but this changes as he spends time with her and begins to learn about her past. Neff’s character arc resembles Deckard’s in this regard because he ends up opening himself to Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck). However, the protagonist in Double Indemnity comes to regret this decision since he later gets stabbed in the back. Additionally, just like Neff, Deckard “finds himself embroiled in a seemingly routine case which turns mystifying and deadly” (Sammon 4). In addition to their isolation and emotional distance, both Harrison Ford and Fred MacMurray portray characters that are morally ambiguous, which is a distinctive trait of the noir protagonist. It could be said that both Deckard and Neff inhabit the in-between spaces of their respective societies. On one hand, Deckard, as a Blade Runner, occupies a tight space between law enforcement and criminal behavior. In Neff’s case, the fact that he needs to maintain the deception means he often goes back and forth between the legal and the illegal, which means he also operates in a gray moral area.

          Although Deckard embodies the noir protagonist in several ways, the female characters in Blade Runner are quite different from the ones found in classical films noir. In Double Indemnity, Barbara Stanwyck’s character is the quintessential femme fatale: seductive, cunning, manipulative, and evil. Phyllis and her stepdaughter—the only other female character in the story—truly exemplify the virgin/whore dichotomy. Although the male protagonist is morally ambiguous and complex in Billy Wilder’s film, there are no gray areas when it comes to the women; they are perceived as either good or evil. Blade Runner however, goes beyond good and evil. At first, Rachael seems quite cool and in complete control of the situation, but Deckard is able to break down her walls and uncover her emotional side. Even though she is noble, she still has a dangerous quality to her, which prevents her from becoming a two-dimensional character. Although the viewer’s first encounter with Rachael might suggest she is the femme fatale type, Pris (a female replicant) is closer to the archetype. When Pris meets the genetic designer, Sebastian, outside his apartment, she uses her femininity to trick him. More specifically, Pris manipulates Sebastian to make him believe she is homeless and defenseless, which causes him to bring her into his home. Even though Pris seems to genuinely like Sebastian, she realizes he is fairly naïve and uses that to her advantage. However, her motivations are more complex than simply killing off a husband to collect some insurance money. She is aware of her own mortality and acts out of self-preservation.

          Although Blade Runner and Double Indemnity have comparable traits in terms of their visual style and characters, their narrative patterns are dissimilar. Billy Wilder’s film employs the voice over / flashback technique present in many films noir to emphasize subjectivity and to create a nonlinear narrative. Double Indemnity is not concerned with the ending of the story; the last events of the plots are the first ones to be shown. In other words, this film focuses on the events leading up to the ending rather than on the resolution. Even though Ridley Scott’s neo-noir pays homage to the genre quite well, it has a fairly linear style of narration and has a more ambiguous ending. In the theatrical release of Blade Runner, the viewer is actually left with the question of whether Deckard is a replicant or not. This aspect of the film is more in accordance with the speculative nature of the science fiction genre.

          Overall, Blade Runner is not only one of the most recognizable films of the science fiction canon, but it is also significant as a neo-noir. Its visual style is comparable to that of classical films noir such as Double Indemnity because it features low-key lighting, urban settings, and the iconic Venetian blinds to create a gloomy atmosphere. Additionally, these visual elements emphasize the pessimism, anxiety, and overall isolation of the protagonists, which have very similar traits. Both Rick Deckard and Walter Neff are anti-heroes who have questionable morals and are alienated individuals. Although both male protagonists are alike, the female characters in Blade Runner are far more complex than Phyllis Dietrichson and her stepdaughter. Rachael is noble but has an edge to her, while Pris, in spite of her manipulative actions, seems to genuinely like Sebastian and is trying to ensure the survival of her species. An additional characteristic that set Double Indemnity and Blade Runner apart is the fact that the latter does not make use of the voice over / flashback technique. Instead, Ridley Scott’s film opts for a more ambiguous ending, which makes it more thought provoking.

References

Sammon, Paul M. The Making of Blade Runner, HarperPaperbacks: New York, 1996. p.   4. Print.

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