Film Noir Series: Blade Runner (1982)
Blade Runner is the blueprint of a postmodern film noir. Its 2019 Los Angeles is a rain-soaked hive of skyscrapers and massive industrial complexes belching fire into the sky. None of the human characters appear to cultivate meaningful relationships. At the beginning of the film, we see Deckard engaging in a conversation with a Japanese ramen shop owner, tripping over himself in miscommunication. Japan appears to have taken over the world right on schedule, judging by the enormous smiling geisha billboard, kanji and hiragana scrawled all over the walls, and an atmosphere that evokes Tokyo during a rainstorm more than Los Angeles. Considering that we’re due to catch up with the timeline of Blade Runner in only five years, I think we have some work to blacken the sky.
The reason this film aligns so well with postmodern sensibilities is twofold. First, its thematics are concerned around duplication, simulacra, difference, and memory, with its plot taking place in a corporate-dominated LA with no social solidarity. Everyone is just a customer or salesperson, or working for the state, which appears to have abdicated all responsibilities other than using violence to keep the market going. In other words, it’s a postmodern, neoliberal utopia, a “bricolage wonderland,” if you will. Secondly, the film’s style is an amalgam of eclectic matter taken from numerous styles. Rachel’s clothing and Deckard’s garb both recall 40s noir, while the Tyrell Corporation skyscrapers appear to be Mayan temples, drawing on both Orwell and Chichén Itzá. Every building appears to be designed for maximum spectacle, and the ground level of the city is a throbbing mass of bodies clutching umbrellas surrounded by glitzy glass and dilapidated apartment complexes. All of this is portrayed with few if any exterior establishing shots, cutting from interior to interior. This gives the film a subjective edge similar to other noir, a dreamlike quality that insinuates itself through the narrative.
My initial reaction to the film came when I watched it about three years ago. At that time, I was thoroughly awed, which I now suspect was partially the result of the film’s commitment to sensory overload. This time, however, I found myself alienated by the film’s treatment of its Asian characters and paranoid treatment of Japanese “invasion.” In addition, you could certainly read the Replicants as a new slave labour supply necessary for expanding an imperialist capitalism that depends on extracting value from colonies, but the film’s mélange of disarticulated elements tends to muddle and obscure any critique it might be making. This time, the shadowy cinematography and flashy lighting were certainly alienating, which is to the film’s credit, but I also found it excessive–in an uninteresting way. Where two years later Terry Gilliam’s Brazil would stick a razor-sharp knife into the heart of bureaucratic oppression and technological disaffection, this film is rather less sure of itself. Its message is messy: we are all constructed copies (or simulacra, following Baudrillard), free-floating packets of memories and meaning that we can, through some existentialist exertion of will, turn into meaningful lives. It is an ambitious attempt to raise questions about human life and the boundaries between artificial and natural, but I am not convinced it follows through on most of the threads it dangles. Ultimately, though this is an excellent example of the turn that noir took in the later 20th and early 21st century, I am considerably less fond of it than I once was.