‘Analyse the design of a cityscape in one film or television episode. ’ Nightmare visions of futuristic societies, or dystopias, are a major theme of the sci-fi genre and most post-1970s Hollywood films portraying these worlds embody a ‘crisis in US ideology’ at that time. These sci-fi films usually illustrate issues regarding: ‘environmental pollution, over-population, violent crimes, bureaucratic administration and economic exploitation’. They also represent the unrepresentable, showing us things that we can only otherwise imagine.
In this essay I will attempt to explore the labyrinthian landscape of Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi blockbuster Blade Runner, and consider the ways in which it mirrors the social, economic, and political context of the time in which it was made, as well as the socio-ecological consequences of contemporary problems such as war and pollution. I will also further explain how the film’s soundscape is essential to the meaning behind its narrative. The design of sci-fi frequently contains alien planets, foreign bodies, and space-age cityscapes, giving these spectacular fictional worlds an overall glossy, futuristic feel.
Blade Runner is a scintillating world with a high-rise landscape, but closer examination reveals that structured within this milieu are metaphors of a dystopian society. Across the top of the skyscrapers are immense neon advertisements and television screens that project messages down for the people to see, showing that this is a world of complete industrialisation. These features provide primarily the main source of light throughout the city. The overall mise-en-scene is obscure and brooding, much like a late 40s and 50s film noir, and the contrast between light and dark here depicts repressed social fears of totalitarian control.
The divide in society is evident when we look at the difference between the replicants and the humans. The replicants feel safer on the decayed streets and adopt working-class lifestyles, for example, Leon works in a run-down hotel, while Zhora works as a stripper in Chinatown. Deckard, in contrast, lives high above the crowded streets, protected by high-tech security devices. Police crafts also hover above, beaming down their probing lights and surveilling the people below. The Cold War period consisted mostly of spying and tense international relations between the US and the Soviet Union.
It is almost like Orson Welles’ Big Brother, where no one is free and everyone is constantly being watched by a ruling intellectual force. The theme of paranoia therefore comes into play here; the omnipresence of the police force is a visual motif of corporate power. The superstructures that we see dwarf the smaller, decrepit buildings and crumbling architecture; this binary opposition thus creates a high/low spatial allegory for the lower class- the workers who live below in the post-apocalyptic streets, depressed and dehumanized; and the elite- those who live in high-rise apartments above the rest of the city, benefiting from the labourers.
Like in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), the difference between the elite and the masses is virtually dramatised by this spatial opposition and the concept of the upper class is literalised. The vertical architecture serves as metaphor for a hierarchy of evil power and is a symbol of economic inequality and corruption, intrinsic with a society that is out of kilter. Fears revolving around race, space, and social class are therefore structured within these thematic elements.
Figure 1 (page 6) shows the pyramid of the capitalist system of the early 20th century. People of America believed that anyone could become wealthy and enjoy good lives by working hard – this was the American Dream. Sadly, capitalism reared its ugly head and citizens soon discovered that this economic system benefits only those at the top of that pyramid- ‘the winners gain at the expense of the mass of losers’. It reflects the philosophy of Orthodox Marxism, where economic base determines cultural and political structure. Who then controls this vast city?
As stated in Antonio Gramsci’s theory of cultural hegemony, a culturally diverse society can be dominated by one social class, by manipulating the social culture (beliefs, perceptions, values) so that its ruling-class worldview is imposed as the societal norm, which is then perceived as a universally valid ideology beneficial to all of society, but in fact benefits only the ruling class. The biggest and most dominating of structures within this cityscape are in fact two pyramids, home to none other than Eldon Tyrell, head of the Tyrell Corporation.
Pyramids are archetypal Egyptian symbols of power and immortality. Rising high up within this city, they denote a future of affluence and progress, and technological triumph. Tyrell’s office is laden with rich items, golden statues and intricately carved pillars. Yet it is the cinematography techniques here that are key to representing this majestic interior. The warm, golden hues are a stark contrast to the rest of the city that we have been exposed to. The fact that Tyrell’s office is located so high up is an indication that people who live in the highest, most prestigious places are clearly elites.
They are at the top of the hierarchical “pyramids” of economic or political structures- they are the ruling force of society. Since the dropping of the atomic bomb in 1945, science fiction has portrayed dystopias to show the massively destructive capacity of certain scientific developments. These nightmare visions are society’s fears over these developments. Science fiction explores a darker side of science, articulating real fears about advances in areas such as nuclear power or genetic modification.
More recently, the Cold War had reached its peak in the 1980s, and the corporate evil seen in Blade Runner echoes a ‘growing weariness of the cold war and anti-communist attitudes that had been festering since the wars in Korea, Vietnam, and later’. The tone of this period of history was incredibly pessimistic, with the continuous danger of nuclear war looming over the world. This cynicism about the future of mankind and of the planet is clearly seen in Blade Runner. ‘The information age was a time where computers and electronics replaced the heavy industry of the modernist period, and political control was applied through mass media.
Information became a commodity, and films that portray these spectacles show them as developments that pose challenges to society. They also correspond to contemporary crises developing in the US throughout the 1980s, for example, use of the media to portray political messages’. Anxiety over scientific and technological advancements is central to most science fiction films and is a very apparent theme when examining the cityscape of Blade Runner; from vast television screens, to vertical strata, to the Voight-Kampff machine.
They serve as a warning to society over the compulsion to force science and technology to create what is hoped to be a utopia for all, but in fact ends up dominating everything and everyone to the point where people are no longer free. The final aspect of the design in Blade Runner regards the soundscape of the film. Produced by Greek composer Vangelis, the film’s score owes a lot to the meaning behind its narrative. The film’s genre is part cyber-punk, part film noir, and through orchestral instruments and unique electronic sounds, he creates a sense of eeriness or alienation.
Most of the music heard is quite ambient, but rather static with no real drive or pinnacle. However, within this ambient structure is a diverse range of musical styles, for example, Jazz is heard frequently- an old-fashioned film noir effect, stereotypically associated with subjugated urban settings, but also more commonly linked to intimate moments, such as the growing love between Deckard and Rachael. However, it is also somewhat melancholic at times and works as a sign of doom, insinuating that things will not end well.
A recurring musical symbol is the sound of bells; church bells connote religion, and this is often heard on the top floor of the pyramidal Tyrell building, implying that Tyrell is a powerful, god-like figure. In terms of the film overall, there are very few moments when there is complete silence; even when there is music missing from a scene, sound effects emanating from the environment are usually present, for instance, it constantly rains throughout the film, so rain is heard repeatedly, indicative of the depressed and forlorn atmosphere.
The reputable vertical intensity of Los Angeles’ landscape depicts the power relations intrinsic within the cityscape of Blade Runner. It provides us with a picture of decay and abandonment associated with a dystopian world. It is more nightmare than vision, more anxiety than hope, expressing social fears of racial, political, and economic crisis, as well as the perils of advanced technology, whether it be through genetic engineering or a Voight-Kampff invasion of humanity. In the end, it is the verticality of the cityscape which ultimately defines the purpose of Ridley Scott’s arbitrary dystopia. Bibliography Bullock, A. , and Trombley, S. (eds), The New Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought (Third Edition), Harper Collins, Canada, 1999 Carper, S. , “Subverting the Disaffected City: Cityscape in Blade Runner” in Retrofitting Blade Runner: Issues in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Judith B. Kerman (ed) Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1991 David Desser, ‘Race, Space, and Class: The Politics of Cityscapes’, in Alien Zone II, p. 82 Heldreth, L. G. and Kerman, J. B. (ed), ‘The Cutting Edges of Blade Runner’ in Retrofitting Blade Runner: Issues in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Philip K.
Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Bowling Green University Popular Press, Bowling Green, Ohio, 1991 40-52 Kellner, D. , Leibowitz, F. , and Ryan, M. , ‘Blade Runner: A diagnostic critique’, in Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, no. 29, February 1984 King, G. , and Krzywinska, T. ,Science Fiction Cinema, London: Wallflower Press, 2000 Prince, S. ,Visions of Empire: Political Imagery in Contemporary American Film, Greenwood Publishing Group, New York, 1992 Sammon, Paul M. “The Making of Blade Runner. ” Cinefantastique 12 (1982): 20-47 Stiller, A. and Kerman, J. B. ed) “The Music in Blade Runner” in Retrofitting Blade Runner: Issues in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? University of Wisconsin Press, Wisconsin, 1997. Pages 196-200 Websites Kurt Bullock, Vertical Apocalypse: Altered Noir Cityscape within Blade Runner’s Dystopia: http://soma. sbcc. edu/users/DaVega/FILMST_101/FILMST_101_FILMS/Bladerunner/Vertical%20Apocalypse_Bullock. pdf Fig. 1 taken from http://www. aaronblake. co. uk/blog/2010/03/08/the-pyramid-of-the-capitalist-system/) ‘Paranoia and cynicism in Blade Runner’ in American Cinema: 1960-Present: http://amcinema1960present. ordpress. com/category/second-student-post/page/11/ (Fig. 1) ——————————————– [ 1 ]. Douglas Kellner, Flo Leibowitz, and Michael Ryan, ‘Blade Runner: A diagnostic critique’ from Jump Cut, pp. 6-8 [ 2 ]. Geoff King and Tanya Krzywinska, Science Fiction Cinema, p. 64 [ 3 ]. Ibid, p. 73 [ 4 ]. Sammon, Paul M. “The Making of Blade Runner”, Cinefantastique: 20-47 [ 5 ]. Kurt Bullock, Vertical Apocalypse: Altered Noir Cityscape within Blade Runner’s Dystopia, p. 1 [ 6 ]. ibid [ 7 ]. David Desser, ‘Race, Space, and Class: The Politics of Cityscapes’, in Alien Zone II, p. 82 [ 8 ].
The Pyramid of the Capitalist System- http://www. aaronblake. co. uk/blog/2010/03/08/the-pyramid-of-the-capitalist-system [ 9 ]. Alan Bullock and Stephen Trombley (eds), The New Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought, pp. 387–88. [ 10 ]. Geoff King and Tanya Krzywinska, Science Fiction Cinema, p. 17 [ 11 ]. ‘Paranoia and cynicism in Blade Runner’ in American Cinema: 1960-Present-http://amcinema1960present. wordpress. com/category/second-student-post/page/11/ [ 12 ]. Stephen Prince, Visions of Empire: Political Imagery in Contemporary American Film, p. 167 [ 13 ]. Leonard Heldreth, ‘The Cutting Edges of Blade Runner’, pp. 40-52