Light, Sound, and Significant Cinematography in Blade Runner
Set in a dystopian Los Angeles of 2019, Blade Runner follows Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), an ex-policeman brought out of retirement to eliminate a group of renegade replicants who have illegally arrived on Earth. During this anti-hero’s quest, he forms a relationship with a young woman, Rachel (Sean Young), revealed to be an experimental replicant with human memories. Simultaneously, the film follows the four fugitives, led by Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), as they search for their creator, the owner of the Tyrell Corporation. The film is an example of the neo-noir genre: A revival of the film noir pictures of the 1940’s and 50’s. Like its predecessors, Blade Runner presents a pessimistic view of reality: featuring a world of crowded cities with darkened streets, murder and doomed love. Also characteristic of noir, Blade Runner uses high-contrast, low key lighting and a strange, haunting soundtrack. In fact, one of Blade Runner’s most competent modes of delivering its thematic message is in its lighting, which places complex emphasis both on the characters and on the troubling society that they inhabit.
Significant lighting can be observed in an early scene of the film, in which Deckard meets Dr. Tyrell and his assistant Rachel. Deckard has her undergo what is known as the Voight-Kampf test: An interrogation aided by a device similar to a polygraph that can determine the authenticity of a person via involuntary emotional responses. The scene begins with Deckard’s arrival at the Tyrell corporation headquarters, a building that towers over the L.A. skyline more like a Ziggurat than a corporate office. At first, the lighting within is soft, an element rather uncharacteristic of the film. Reflections dance on the walls as Deckard and Rachel, newly acquainted, make awkward small talk. Tyrell and Rachel are illuminated in hard frontal lighting, all of their features discernable, yet flat. Deckard gets a much softer treatment, but is still lit very clearly and has the added effect of a rim-light that gives him a backlit, almost classical Hollywood glow, (fitting for the Los Angeles setting). This yet-unseen style of lighting within the film represents the initial feelings of this scene: While their meeting is a little strange, and almost dreamlike, there is little suspicion between the characters; therefore, the characters are lit in full view, as if they have nothing to hide. The mood changes as Deckard remarks about the brightness of the room; the Voight-Kampf must be given in partial darkness. This brief line serves to cue a shift in the lighting: A shade descends, slowly obscuring the panoramic view at the chamber’s rear and dimming the scene under a veil of shadow. The shade falls until just a sliver of light can enter. The room slips into darkness and only Deckard and Rachel remain partially illuminated. The shadows become crisp and defined in the hard light, and the soft edges of seconds ago are now absent.
This transition to hard, low key lighting, reminiscent of traditional film noir, marks the transition from pleasant introductions to interrogation. Deckard now sits with his eyes in darkness, just above where the glow slips under the shade. The rest of his body is enshrined in low-key light, his shadows hard and exaggerated. Rachel sits in hard backlight, her outline clear but her features less discernable than during her introduction. This transfer into dimness marks the beginning of suspicion and investigation. Deckard must peer through both literal darkness and the metaphorical darkness of the unknown in order to discern the truth about the girl in front of him. The shadowy veil between characters is enhanced by Rachel’s smoking, which Deckard assures “won’t affect the test”. In the hard light, the smoke of Rachel’s cigarette creates an opaque, milky cloud between her in Deckard, and, in close ups, between her and the viewer. With every breath, she is obscured for several seconds as the cloud dissipates and reforms with another silent breath. This girl, who is earlier clearly defined in high key light, becomes veiled by smoke and shadow. This shift in lighting coincides with a growing doubt, in both the narrative and in the viewer, of her authenticity as a human being. The test concludes as Rachel fails to respond to a question, not having the emotional experience to discern the proper answer. By this time, it is clear that the girl is a replicant. Tyrell waves for her to leave, and as she walks across the chamber floor she is once again lit in full: the darkness pushed aside, her true identity is revealed.
Outside of the ethereal internals of buildings like the Tyrell office, Blade Runner has many scenes of cacophonous, layered sound. External scenes, where hordes of extras shuffle through, have overlaying conversations in several languages, the hum of steam and electricity and the low rumble of transportation. These sounds are accompanied a continuous deluge of rain falling as heavy droplets. One moment, in which Deckard wanders a market for synthetic animals, features an undercurrent of birds screeching and livestock bleating. Other sounds are even nightmarish: sirens wail eerie, electric cries and pedestrian signals with robotic voices repeat a surreal mantra: Cross now, cross now, cross now… Don’t walk, don’t walk, don’t walk… These scenes, resounding in diegetic noise, are immersive and effective at creating a view of a future suffocating from overpopulation, and are indispensable to mediating the film’s setting. When communicating other thematic elements, however, Blade Runner best does so with more subtle uses of sound. After plainly informing Rachel that she is a replicant with implanted memories and her distraught exit, Deckard stands alone in his dim apartment. The environment is drastically quieter than previous exterior scenes, but there is still an abundance of ambient noise. The low timbered hum of air moving through vents provides a deep baseline of sound along with the omnipresent rain beating upon the windows. Police sirens and passing vehicles frequently come into range and fade out as Deckard remains silent. Above this subtle sound is electronic musician Vangelis’ soundtrack. This scene features a melancholy, reverberated piano. The diegetic, ambient noise in the room seems to complement the non-diegetic soundtrack as sirens and electronic noises accent the ends of Vangelis’ phrases. At one point, looking at a photograph of who Rachel claims to be herself and her mother, the sound of children playing is audible. Deckard stares, intrigued, as if he can hear these voices. This expert mixing of diegetic and non-diegetic sound creates a blend of the reality of the film and the way in which it is presented, and the viewer finds themselves questioning exactly what Deckard is experiencing. Is he in his own reality? Perhaps Deckard is in something more like a dream, where he can hear children playing and Vangelis’ pulsing, synthesized notes. This dissonance between the real and unreal—between human and replicant—is the soul of Blade Runner. Among the converging diegetic and non-diegetic sounds of the film, the difference between dream and reality—of signified and signifier—is not clear. Out on the streets once more, mise en scene takes over as in mediating the film’s message.
The external scenes of Blade Runner are some of the most meticulously crafted and choreographed of the film. They feature hundreds of extras, all with unique costumes and props, as they move along the sidewalks and on streetcars, and move in and out of futuristic establishments. Shrouded figures in gasmasks, women scantily clad in polymer lingerie, disfigured scavengers that meander through the gutters are but a few of the bizarre men and women that viewers catch sight of as Deckard and his replicant targets traverse Los Angeles. Neon signage bearing licensed names—Atari, Coca-Cola and Pan-Am to name a few—glare down and reflect off the unrelenting rain. The density of these scenes is accentuated by how the characters move through them. In one instance, Deckard gives chase to a replicant, Zhora, after tracking her to a nightclub. As Deckard chases the woman out of the club, both characters must navigate the congested streets in snakelike patterns. Extras, seemingly isolated and apathetic to the dangers of the city, rarely move aside to allow either character to pass. Instead, they must sidestep obstacles, often moving to the rear of the scene only to come forward again, trying to gain distance. Their movements through these areas is also a means to show the audience glimpses of the diverse figures and structures that make up the world of the film. In this scene’s climax, Zhora crashes through a glass storefront ass Deckard fires his weapon several times into her back, and falls among a group of mannequins—like her, likeness made in the images of human beings—where she dies. Deckard disappears into the rapidly dispersing crowd as a computerized voice tells the already disinterested populace to move on.
Mise en scene again plays a critical role in a scene close to the film’s climax, moments before Deckard retires the third replicant, Pris. The remaining androids have been sheltered at the apartment of one J.F. Sebastian, a genetic designer for Tyrell. A lonely individual, Sebastian has filled this abandoned Bradbury building penthouse with what he calls “friends”: crude replicants and animatronic mannequins. Deckard arrives at the apartment, and finds himself in a side-room home to dozens of Sebastian’s eerie dolls. Some lay still while others continuously perform vaguely human movements. A stout figure holds its gut and laughs eerily as another maneuvers a china set, repeating, More tea…? More tea…? More tea…? Deckard moves across the room, overlooking Pris, who sits immobile at the center of the frame, and making his way to the far side. He turns and is still for a brief moment. At the back of the gathering, Deckard, the only human present, is flanked by a plethora of uncanny human likenesses. For an instant, there is little to discern the difference between the human, the replicant, and the menagerie of dolls that surround them. Each of these mannequins could be the young android or the policeman hired to gun her down. This room is a microcosm of the film’s theme. Blade Runner presents a world where the true definition of human is uncertain; where in the crowded streets of Los Angeles it is not possible to label those around as human or mere dolls with human form.
The climax of the film follows shortly after Deckard’s encounter with the dolls. Roy Batty returns to Sebastian to find Pris dead, and begins relentlessly pursuing Deckard as his replicant body approaches the end of its lifespan. Both injured, they move through the darkened penthouses to the roof, where Deckard attempts to escape the maniacal Batty by jumping to an adjacent building. Just catching a jutting beam, he hangs limply, certain to fall. It is at this moment that the already flimsy distinction between human and replicant is shattered, as Batty, in the last seconds of his own life, saves Deckard from his imminent demise. That which is essentially a doll in the reality of the movie exhibits, for a brief moment, human compassion and respect for life. Sitting for a brief period, he remarks how all of his experiences will be lost “like tears in rain”. In accepting death and developing an appreciation for life, it becomes impossible not to accept this man and his executed comrades as human beings. In a future characterized by isolation and suspicion, portrayed via lighting, sound and mise en scene, it is a machine that proves to be most capable of compassion.
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