More Human than Human: Postmodernism in Blade Runner
Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is set in a “hyper-modernist” 2019 Los Angeles. The plot follows police agent Rick Deckard as he is tasked with killing 5 bioengineered androids called “replicants” as it is illegal for these “replicants” to be on Earth. This film is considered postmodern due to its many uses of mise-en-scene and pastiche, along with the fact that the film never gives the audience a solution to the problems presented in the film. To many, Blade Runner is the postmodern film of this generation, and that bares fruit when you look at the architecture and the uses of smoke and neon to create an almost toxic environment. To further expand upon this, the style of never giving the audience a solution to the problems in the film is another example of how postmodernism can be found throughout, as the ending of the movie leaves many with more questions than answers. This film fits into the postmodern extremely well as Ridley Scott takes from almost every time period and combines it with the retro-futuristic vibe of a 2019 Los Angeles. One of the biggest challenges one can take in writing about this film and associating it with postmodernism is the lack of a “true” definition of postmodernism. In this essay, I will be discussing three of the most commonly used elements of postmodernism, mise-en-scene, pastiche, and how the film never gives any solutions to the problems given. I have differed from my proposal, as I realized that discussing the act of never giving an answer to questions to be more pivotal to the piece than the use of romanticism.
One of the first largest elements of postmodernism is mise-en-scene. Mise-en-scene is described as “The physical setting of an action (as of a narrative or a motion picture)” (Merriam-Webster). Some excellent examples of mise-en-scene in Blade Runner can be seen right at the very beginning of the film. The pan over of 2019 Los Angeles gives the viewer a feel of decay and decline, as large breadths of fire shoot out into the night sky. The image of the light of the fire shooting upward into the sky and the dark and dreary aspect of the ground play well to the motifs of this world, where the rich can pay to get off the dying earth and go live on healthier, better, “off-world” colonies while the poor must spend the rest of their lives on an old, decaying, dying planet. Guiliana Bruno’s piece entitled Ramble City: Postmodernism and “Blade Runner” discusses the use of postmodernity in the city. She discusses the connection between the postmodern and late capitalism and states “[it] is highlighted in the film’s representation of post-industrial decay” (Bruno). This statement is obvious when one notices the decay of the world encompassing the film. When one looks deeper in the atmosphere of this world and the story of the film, the viewer can see the connection between the planet, and the story, as the dying planet signifies the end of humanity, paired alongside the story of the replicants, who are also straining for a way to extend their lifespan. The biggest question faced in the film is “Can humanity be manufactured?” This question is ever present throughout the film and attempts at answering it are nil. Circling back to the mise-en-scene of the film, as the film progresses the viewer sees a shot of a grimy, wet, downtown street. Neon lighting mixed with deep Asian influence overflow the streets. This plays again into the theory of humanity being manufactured as the viewer is now witness to humanity in full, as all walks of life are seen husting around this street, everyone shoulder to shoulder. Rick Deckard, as played by Harrison Ford, is seen sitting in a street side noodle shop, with neon lighting and old school technology surrounding him. The use of old school technology in Blade Runner is everywhere, as Ridley Scott decided to take the interesting approach of mixing science fiction with a retro design, affectionately called “retro-futuristic” . The computers and televisions in the film are old, and outdated by today’s standards, as though Ridley Scott, the director, is trying to say that humanity decided to not pursue advancing television or common-place technology, but rather decided to focus on the bigger picture, thus the viewer can see how the bioengineered androids came to be in an alternate reality future where consumer technology didn’t take the foreground. A final example of mise-en-scene in the film is the use of space. The entire world, and almost every scene in the film is cluttered and messy. In Deckard’s office, papers are piled everywhere leaving only one place for Deckard to move or go to. The use of clutter and mess is paramount in the feeling of claustrophobia and anxiety that is felt throughout this film. The last example I have for the use of mise-en-scene in the film is the use of smoke and the act of smoking in the film. Almost everybody in the film smokes, and the smoke is used carefully and so well-lit that it can almost give the audience a sense of dread and almost the feeling of choking in your throat as the plumes of smoke billow out of the characters’ mouths. The use of smoke is an attempt of the director to establish the world, as the smoke can be translated to the grime and grit of the outside world, and the smoke present in the film plays a key element to that.
Another element of postmodernism that is almost always present is Pastiche, and its uses throughout the film. Pastiche has many descriptions, but in this case, Pastiche as it is described by David Demers, author of The Posthuman Condition is the act of “referencing works of art from various geographical areas and historical periods, contrasting it with the art of today, and reinterpreting the combination of art as a whole” (Demers). There are many examples of pastiche in the film. One of the biggest examples of this is the use of many different tropes from several different genres. On top of the retro-futuristic that is ever-present throughout the film, the combination of science-fiction and film noir is aggressively present during the film, as the protagonist Deckard follows the exact footsteps of the film noir technique called “chiaroscuro”. Chiaroscuro is the technique of “The hard-boiled detective protagonist and the descent into an underworld” (Demers). This is ever-present as Deckard is sent on a mission to kill the replicants, but ultimately ends up descending into the underworld to help the replicants escape to freedom. Pastiche can also be used in an ethical sense, as the ethics in Blade Runner are a patchwork of the new school and the old school. In this neon future, there are specific police departments with the sole job of hunting down and killing essentially bioengineered humans. This leads to the argument on whether this is deemed ethical, as there is virtually no way for any normal person to tell a replicant apart from a human. Deckard is asked in the film if he has ever “retired a human by mistake?” and this begs the question of whether retiring humans by mistake is something that happens regularly in this futuristic Los Angeles and the ethical dilemmas that this film produces. Another example of pastiche in the film is the use of scenery, as was touched upon in the paragraph about mise-en-scene, as the film progresses we bear witness to two towering monolithic towers that pay host to the Tyrell Corporation, the company that created the bioengineered androids, or “replicants.” The use of the two enormous towers is no accident on the art directors part. The towers symbolize the company’s almost God-like power on the world, as they are the creators of this humanoid replicant. The influence of the monolithic towers is heavily Mayan, and speaks volumes in its excess, something the film does not shy away from. Even the characters in the film are examples of pastiche. The character Roy Batty, played by Rutger Hauer is the leader of the replicant group that Deckard is trying to hunt down and kill. Roy Batty is the only replicant that has reached a level of free-will to where he feels like a king, hence the fact that the “etymology derives from the French roi meaning ‘king’” (Demers). One last example of the use of pastiche in the movie is the fact that history, and having memory are the key driving force of the movie, and the main subplot in the formation of identity. It is no wonder then, that all the architecture and clothing styles are historical and powerful. Deckard wears an old-school trench coat while punk-esque characters walk around in the background.
The final example that is most commonly associated with postmodernism is the act of never giving a solution to a problem that is presented. This can be seen continuously during the film. The first thing the viewer sees is the 2019 landscape of Los Angeles, dying and decaying. While the film presents an option for the upper-class to leave this dying world, there is never truly a solution given to the viewer, and they are left with the taste of death in their mouths. Another example of this is the questions that are present more toward the middle of the story. “Can humanity be manufactured” and “Can emotion be programmed” are two questions that plague viewers throughout the film and again the film leaves viewers ultimately with more questions than answers. Those same questions were asked by philosophers while they discussed the hyperreal (Baudrillard). One can argue that the question of humanity in general is brought forward, as Clifford Hallam, author of the piece The Indeterminate Sign in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, discusses this. He states, “An ordinary man is juxtaposed with an extraordinary android…Essential human qualities such as professional duty, loyalty, compassion, and love are (owing to the point of view) both foregrounded and simultaneously brought into question” (Hallam). One of the biggest questions left unanswered by this film is the question of time, and the complete lack of extra time that anyone has. This is seen numerous times, with the subplot of the replicant struggling to extend their time on this planet, and time in general running out for the dead planet that humanity is inhabiting, and the question of time is never answered by the film, leaving one to ponder their existence, and how much time they may have left.
The film Blade Runner is one which leaves the audience with more questions than answers most of the time, and it may take the viewer multiple viewing to fully comprehend the piece. The uses of mise-en-scene in the film as well as its excellent uses of pastiche make Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner up there with most influential movie of all time, as its “retro-futuristic” stylings can be seen in different forms of media all over the world up to today. And the uses of mise-en-scene in the film are taken and expanded upon in films that came out after Blade Runner. The use of smoke, and deterioration is almost always present in the post-apocalyptic genre, and the usage of clutter and stagnation is used widely. In all, Blade Runner uses itself to get the audience to ask itself if they are ready to “confront the way in which the modern world is constructed through a set of binary options” (Baudrillard The Matrix…). The discussion of this film may help people better understand the film and its influential text as viewers, and readers are simply thrust into this film, with no guiding hand to explain the intricacies of the subplot and the deepness of the scenes and characters.