by Veronica Stone
With Denis Villeneuve’s upcoming Blade Runner 2049 scheduled to hit theaters in 2017, I thought it would be interesting to revisit the original 1982 neo-noir cult classic from the production design perspective. Blade Runner is considered a mix between science fiction and film noir, and it has become a cult classic due to its postmodernist depiction of our world. Set in Los Angeles in the not-so-distant-future, 2019, the film tells the story of cynic detective Deckard who’s forced to hunt down Replicants, extraordinary humans used as ‘slave labor’ on other planets. These Replicants have a 4-year life span to avoid becoming a possible threat to the human race.
Blade Runner’s plot isn’t, in my opinion, what has made this film endure throughout the years. Rather, it is director Ridley Scott’s depiction of an overpopulated post-modernist Los Angeles that resembles, in the director’s own words, “Hong Kong on a bad day,” that hit a nerve with audiences all over the world. Almost every scene is at night and it’s always raining; we immediately get the sense of a clear division between the wealthy and underground worlds. The sets’ architectural designs convey a sense of postmodernist mish-mash; one can’t help but notice the similarities between Blade Runner and Metropolis. Instead of everything looking new and polished, the city has been enveloped into an urban machine, with people living inside.
The upperclass city goes upwards: the Tyrell Corporation building resembles monuments from ancient times, an Egyptian pyramid or a ziggurat; and everything is polished and clean, thus fulfilling the stereotype of the dystopian sci-fi city. The underworld, on the other hand, is filled with chaos and poverty. It resembles some kind of modernist take on Chinatown; it’s filled with people who are always selling something and stacked with run-down empty apartment complexes. Los Angeles is depicted as a decrepit landscape of deindustrialization and post-industrial decay. The masses are always being force fed advertisements of a “better life” on other worlds and everything is a simulation: animals are all genetically created and sold on the black market and even Tyrell’s motto is “more human than human.”
As the film deals with the topic of simulation and simulacra, specifically with the Replicants being so similar to humans (even having implanted memories to make them more empathetic), the line between who is human and who is a Replicant becomes blurred throughout the film. The same goes for the film’s environment. Nothing seems genuine and everything is a copy of a copy.
Going back to the idea that the Los Angeles depicted in the film is a city whose only purpose is to harbor commodities and a society based on consumption, the Replicants are being used as a commodity, or better yet, human labor, for a shorter amount of time. Everything about Blade Runner’s urban setting conveys a sense of disposability and the world shown in the film can be seen as a “throwaway society,” where even (almost) human lives are given a 4-year lifespan to fulfill their purpose as a service to their creators. The bombardment of stimuli and sensory overload in the modernist urban living hangs over the residents’ heads. The upper section of the city is constantly illuminated by giant sized advertisements and floating balloons that tell the masses they can find a better life on other planets. Earth becomes only a temporary rest stop for humanity, as they wait to join a better lifestyle elsewhere. This promise of another life leaves Los Angeles and its residents without hope and a sense of purpose, so they let their surrounding environment rot into chaos and decay.
Overall, Blade Runner doesn’t depict a dystopian world like any other; or better yet, in Ridley Scott’s own words, Blade Runner is a “40 year old film set forty years in the future.”
With principal photography having already begun for the Blade Runner sequel, Villeneuve has been revealing some official artwork over the past couple of months that share some very distinctive factors with the original film: the sequel is set to be a couple of decades after its predecessor and we can already see that Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford will be dealing with Replicants in a futuristic rainy run down Los Angeles.