Welcome to Film Frame Friday! Last week Alonso Parades wrote an amazing piece about the Wachowskis’ Speed Racer that is honestly hard to top, but I will give it my best. For the first week of the month, I decided to write about an American classic.
This month marks the 36th anniversary of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, one of the most iconic sci-fi films of all time, up there with 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alien. It’s also a special month because Blade Runner 2049 is now airing on HBO.
What makes Blade Runner an interesting discussion for visuals is how well the film holds up after 36 years. There are even some people who prefer the visuals to its sequel, but that is an argument for part two of this series.
I will never forget what made me want to watch Blade Runner. It was the images and gifs of Rutger Hauer standing in the rain. There was such a beauty to it that I immediately bought a copy of the film. During this time I didn’t know much about noir, let alone the sheer brilliance of the visuals displayed. What I knew was that the film was amazing to look at it. A few years later, I can now actually talk about the difference between neo-noir and noir and how they influenced this classic.
The film is pleasing to look at, and the visuals are not just there to wow you but to wrap you in their setting and the story. Despite other films utilizing neo-noir techniques, Blade Runner is the ultimate embodiment of its usage, infusing everything we know about neo-noir into a futuristic setting. The beauty transcends that of other films, and in Blade Runner, the world has a polluted, cluttered and downright grim look. What I described doesn’t sound appealing, but when everything is in motion you can’t help but fall in love.
My thoughts are not uncommon about this film and most of what I talk about has been said, but that is what makes this film such a marvel. We are in the year 2018, yet this 1982 film is still hard to outdo. The noir influences, amazing production design and effects that somehow managed to stand the test of time are key factors in what makes this film work.
In noir, the common tropes are almost always present. Crime and mystery are stuffed with morally ambiguous characters and sprinkled with lust. Scenes are layered with the different contrast of darkness, and light is used to highlight a certain object or character. There tends to be a detective or criminal paired with a femme fatale.
Notice the top hat, trench coat, rain, and smoke? All common tropes we associate with past noir films. And the film even has its own femme fatale. Of course, Blade Runner is much more than just trench coats and hats, but it is always nice to notice these things on a second viewing.
Smoke not only sets the mood but serves as a way to transition to a flashback or next scene.
Blade Runner pays homage to the great noir classics with rain, smoke, and a variety of darkly lit spaces. The high contrast of light and darkness make the characters and objects larger and somewhat foreboding. Below are some images from classic films that paint the picture of noir.
The way light pierces the darkness in Blade Runner produces some of the best shots in the film. Darkly lit corridors, rooms, and buildings have never been so pleasing to look at. All the lighting comes from electrical sources like headlights, flashlights, and neon signs. Due to there being no sunlight, the artificial light gives the film a certain blue to a green hue and only enhances the futuristic neo-noir setting.
Notice in the scenes above how the character blocking and camera focus give off the mood and atmosphere of noir. Faces, objects, and fine details of clothing are occluded by shadow, only to be revealed as they approach the camera. These are the scenes I love the most, and the ones that leave me with goosebumps.
Neo-noir is not the only key factor in the visuals of the film. The practical and special effects combined with genius level production design make Blade Runner a masterpiece. The film uses special effects only to enhance the atmosphere. The choices made in this regard are what make the film relevant to even the biggest budgeted films of the modern era.
Notice how the special effects are blended with real footage of Deckard, or how the large buildings and ads are based on cities like Times Square in New York. There is actually a great YouTube video that highlights some of the amazing special effects and how they beautifully blend with the score and neo-noir elements.
Blade Runner has a certain authenticity to its world, as if what we are seeing could be a reality. Everything feels like a natural progression of human design and choices we made related to our environment. The cinematic visuals of this film don’t just stand the testament to time but represent a foreshadowing of our future. Asian influences, mega-corporations, and giant ads influencing our way of life are just the tip of it.
One of the most humorous things about Blade Runner is that it is based on the simpler themes of noir but still serves as the template for not only cyberpunk but how we imagine futuristic cities. The influence of Blade Runner on film is still being felt more than three decades later. I decided to prove this with the 2018 Netflix show Altered Carbon. Instead of writing about the similarities and influences why not show you.
All from Altered Carbon
Despite writing this article I have yet to scratch the surface of Blade Runner or acknowledge the more technical aspects of this film, and for that, I apologize. I give credit to the director Ridley Scott, the late cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, and industrial designer Syd Mead. Writing about such an influential film and still failing to grasp everything makes me feel like the character Roy Batty.