by Mikai Tilton
Film noir was a genre popularized during the 1940s during an age of civil unrest and distrust of authority. These films aimed to explore the darker spectrum of the human condition. Classic characteristics of the genre included shadowy urban settings, trench coats, and voice-over narration surrounding a disillusioned investigator.
Blade Runner (1982) was a science fiction film that defined how filmmakers portrayed film noir’s exploration of society’s biggest dismays.
In A Panorama of American Film Noir, Borde Raymond writes, “Now the moviegoer is being presented a less severe version of the underworld, with likeable killers and corrupt cops. Good and evil go hand in hand to the point of being indistinguishable.” Whereas before, film noir was set in the ‘underworld’ of our everyday lives, in this age, directors can create elaborate (and dystopian) future worlds that are unmistakable as a kind of pessimistic prophetic telling of our future lives. In our world of extremely fast-paced technological advancement, it’s not hard to relate to a world seemingly so far advanced. Instead of uncovering and exploring civilization’s collective mistrust or fear of corruption, modern film noir has, in many cases, shifted to exploring exaggerated manifestations of society’s fears.
The main setting of Blade Runner is a reimagined Los Angeles, a city heavily transformed by, among others, an influx of Japanese culture. In the 80’s, Japan was seen as the greatest threat to the United State’s place in technological advancement; in our decade, these fears are mirrored by a fear of China. The climate of this city is in disarray; many signs point to an eternal darkness and perpetual rain; the Earth is nothing more than a smog-filled industrial landscape. (The likes of which can be observed in the darkness of Ghost in the Shell (2017) or the decay of The Matrix (1999).) The presence of climate-backed catastrophe in portrayals of future urban settings has increased exponentially as large-scale anxiety of climate change continues to dominate any discussion of what the future may hold. Wide-scale globalization and climate disasters characterize the portrayal of this small, bustling world, in turn, a mold for modern perception of what urban settings could soon be.
Though in some ways horrifying, there is something nostalgic in the way Ridley Scott illustrates Los Angeles: he creates artifacts out of recognizable everyday city life. Though there is an overwhelming amount of new-age technology (flying cars, off-world colonies), half of the portrayal of the “future” comes in the form of showcasing how outdated the “past” is.
Blade Runner breaks the boundaries of philosophies of life and death by introducing another pressing modern ethical dilemma: genetic engineering and artificial intelligence. Its introduction is harsh, uncomfortably forcing audiences to view an extreme interpretation play out. Replicants, human-identical machines with false memories, live tortured lives as slaves with a four-year lifespan. Roy Batty, in the film’s final dialogue, says, “Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it? That’s what it is to be a slave.” Replicants are self-conscious, however, are not allowed to think of themselves as human.
Perhaps the darkest themes of film noir: death, murder, and a troubled conscience—are revived in a way unseen in cinema when the very laws of mortality are twisted when non-living creations are given sentience and self-consciousness.
On the role of the protagonist in film noir, Raymond writes, “The private detective is mid-way between lawful society and the underworld, walking on the brink, sometimes unscrupulous but putting only himself at risk…as if to counterbalance all this, actual law breakers are more or less sympathetic figures.”
Corruption in law enforcement has always been a large theme in film noir, and in the United States, public distrust of police only accelerated as cases of police brutality became more publicized and protested. Widespread organized protest can be seen as early as the 60’s during the civil rights movement.
Rick Deckard, the protagonist of Blade Runner, is distanced from law enforcement from the very first scene; he is shown to be both immediately wary and disdainful of unfamiliar police that approach him. He is forced into the role of a detective.
The lead men of film noir serve more than to pursue a story; they, in a way, entirely embody the themes the story tries to convey. Deckard is more than a vehicle to take the audience from scene-to-scene, setting-to-setting—he directly embodies and sets the framework of the convoluted moral quandaries the audiences must ponder when experiencing the film. Susan Doll, a film studies professor at Oakton Community College argues that in a world with human-like machines, a disillusioned and apathetic Deckart is, by contrast, a machine-like human.
Blade Runner used science-fiction settings and a troubling manifestation of a current ethical dilemma to strengthen the impact a story built on a foundation of traditional film noir. Ridley Scott, through paying homage to earlier film noir, monumentally changed the way film noir adapted to the modern age.