Earlier this year, I wrote an essay about Blade Runner for one of my courses, "Film Theory and Criticism." The essay was focused on genre theory. I decided to put some of it by slightly cutting and editing. You can enlarge the images by clicking on them.
Genres are both results of the negotiations towards simultaneously satisfying needs of the audience and Hollywood (Altman, 1999, p. 208) and the playfield during this negotiation over time. But what happens when two genres collide? What can we expect to see from films featuring cowboys fighting aliens or men with fedoras and trench coats getting in flying cars? Do those films satisfy twice more needs or fail to do so? Maybe the collision results with completely different needs? This essay examines Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, as a collision of film noir and science fiction, from a genre perspective as it discusses about which parts are borrowed from which genre and it follows Rick Altman's approach to genres while doing so.
This hybridism is perhaps obvious mostly during the scenes in which we can see the cityscape. The second scene starts with wide angle shots featuring the city, a civic mess. While lots of giant skyscrapers, a flying car and eye-straining artificial lights indicate that the film takes place in the future, giant advertisement of Coca Cola in the background ensures that we are still on the Earth, or at least the place is relevant and serves as a living space for humans (Frame 1). When the camera enters an alley where people walk through, we confront the film noir face of the city. It is a dark city under the rain with garbled streets, lots of shadows and smokes coming from everywhere. The camera gets closer to our hero, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), who still wears a trench coat and reads a physical newspaper in a futuristic world (Frame 2). He is conveniently (for both genres) a white male. Considering these semantic elements, we immediately understand that he is going to investigate a crime. One visual element very common with these two faces of the city is the invasion of artificial lights. Pedestrian areas are full of colorful, chaotic, neon lights. These eye-straining lights from the both faces, in a synergy, set a dystopian and alienating mood, like film noir usually does, rather than setting optimistic connotations like progress and glamour (Keating, 2015, p. 60).
In another scene, Deckard stands on his apartment's balcony while drinking his whiskey. As it is during many scenes in the film, our attention is grabbed by the shadows of venetian blinds, cast on him from somewhere (Frame 3). While this poorly lighted shot gives us the film noir impression, the film suddenly cuts to a wider angle from which we see Deckard looking below, to the concrete jungle he lives in. It is Los Angeles in 2019. The city is heavily populated and it looks like an enormous futuristic labyrinth which shines like a slightly less colorful Christmas tree (Frame 4). A flying car passes by which produces a lens flare, something we almost always see with a flying car in this film as if it was directed by J. J. Abrams. We feel the awe caused by the futuristic look of the city. The music plays steamy and mysterious melodies which again refer to film noir. Although it sounds like a sax solo from a jazz song, the instrument is actually a sizzling synthesizer which gives the ethereal and futuristic vibe. Vangelis, the composer of Blade Runner, does a great job with combining musically very different genres together.
As the flying car disappears around the corner with its slowly fading in-your-face genre indicating lens flare, it cuts to the following shot brings us to lower parts of the city. As Deckard is high above, Pris (Daryl Hannah), sexualized and dressed like a prostitute, walks on the street. In a similar way with filthy and dark streets against illuminated and high skyscrapers, it's possible to see both a flying car and a terrestrial public transport heading opposite ways on the scene which indicates two different faces of the city (Frame 5). These faces or "layers" are also explained by Syd Mead, who worked as "visual futurist" on Blade Runner, as "you'd have a normal five-story building, and then out of the top of it would be a big pylon that would go up a hundred stories to the underside of another building." (as cited in Deutelbaum, 1989, p. 67). Deutelbaum, on the same page, also explains how "‘layering' or accumulated ‘progress' also serves to develop a metaphoric argument." These oppositions/co-existences might reflect on the people as well. Pris comes from where the terrestrial public transport goes and she walks towards the skyscrapers, where Deckard resides and the flying car headed.
. . .
Although science fiction (context-wise) gives new possibilities like creatures turning against the creators, the fake ones becoming the real ones and love between a human and a non-human; main grayness, the moral dilemma which stems from film noir and stresses the hero here is the idea of being human and what makes us human. Yes, it might be a little harder, but it would be still possible to handle the same idea without using any science fiction elements like futuristic cityscapes, flying cars or replicants. Although women except Rachael (Sean Young) have a very futuristic look, their relations with Deckard are not. Although it is 2019, it is still a crime story.
So, is Blade Runner a film noir? Is it a science fiction? Is it both or neither of them? While it borrows elements like flying cars, futuristic cityscapes, replicants, etc. from science fiction and elements like low-key lighting, heavy shadows, costumes and the weather from film noir (Doll & Faller, 1986,p. 91-94) which creates an interesting co-dominance; science fiction seem to be contributing in a contextual way rather than weaving the story which feels like it is more of a film noir. On the other hand, Altman goes over his own approach and feels the need to add a third category, the "pragmatic approach", as he finds that his initial solution "is not by itself sufficient to expose or explain." This third approach suggests that genres are "a site of struggle and co-operation among multiple users." (Altman, 1999, p. 208-211) Therefore, different viewers can make different deductions during the decoding and textual poaching process. For some, it is oriented towards film noir while it is a "war between nature and science" for others (Doll & Faller, 1986, p. 94). Since it has been quite a while and we have seen many similar examples, we may even state that Blade Runner earned its autonomy as a different genre which is called "tech noir". . . Further studies, considering this third approach, might examine which parts audiences prefer from different genres when there is a combination of two or more and how it differs through different audiences in different times.
Altman, R. (1999). Film/Genre. London: BFI Pub.
Blade Runner: The Final Cut. Dir. Ridley Scott. Perf. Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Edward James Olmos. Warner Bros, 2007. DVD
Desser, D. (1985). Blade Runner. Science Fiction and Transcendence. Literature Film Quarterly, 13(3), 172.
Deutelbaum, M. (1989). Memory/ Visual Design: The Remembered Sights of Blade Runner. Literature Film Quarterly, 17(1), 66.
Doll, S., & Faller, G. (1986). Blade Runner and Genre: Film Noir and Science Fiction. Literature Film Quarterly, 14(2), 89.
Keating, P. (2015). Film Noir and the Culture of Electric Light. Film History, 27(1), 58-84.
Lev, P. (1998). Whose Future? "Star Wars," "Alien," and "Blade Runner." Literature Film Quarterly, 26(1), 30.