by Susan Doll and Greg Faller
Blade Runner makes an excellent example by which to study certain aspects of genre theory because it combines conventions of more than one genre—those of film noir and science fiction. Other recent films which do the same include Outland (western and science fiction), Pennies From Heaven (musical and film noir). Streets of Fire (film noir, musical and western). Gremlins (horror and comedy), and The Terminator (science fiction and film noir). For convenience sake, we label these films “multigeneric,” a term referring to the mixture of genres in a particular film that precludes a simple, single, or predominant generic classification.
Genre functions through a set of codes that are recognized and understood by both the spectator and the filmmakers via a “common cultural consensus” or a “collective cultural expression.”1 The strongest mutually shared traits or codes—that is. the most easily identifiable—exist as both pretext (subject matter, content, and theme) and text (i.e. style—setting, decor, lighting, mise-en-scène. editing, and music). Genre also functions semantically (as an autonomous system of conventions), and by syntax (narrative systems). After conventions are recognized as belonging to a specific genre, certain expectations of narrative patterns, character, and ultimately specific meanings, arise. By extension, these meanings are often connected to deep-rooted human or societal fears and concerns.
We realize the potential for any film to employ conventions of more thin one genre, but these films are not necessarily what we would consider multi-generic because their various stylistic and narrative characteristics seem homogenized so that only one culturally recognized genre dominates. Multi-generic films, on the other hand, do not homogenize their various conventions, thus failing to emphasize one particular genre and perhaps causing problematic generic classification for the spectator.2
We will analyze Blade Runner as a multi-generic film, as a combination of film noir3 and science fiction. These individual genres will be highlighted, as will certain aspects of genre theory. Though this mixture of film noir and science fiction undoubtedly contributed to Blade Runner’s critical dismissal, it provides a key for appreciating the complexity of the film.
A brief synopsis of the film is necessary for later discussion. Blade Runner is set in Los Angeles in the year 2019. The city has become a dark, rain-drenched megalopolis, over-populated by a myriad of racial groups who speak a street jargon composed of a conglomeration of languages known as “cityspeak.”
The story concerns a group of four replicants (androids) who escape from an off-world colony and return to Earth searching for the genetic genius, Tyrell, who designed them. The replicants, two females (Zhora and Pris) and two males (Roy and Leon), are seeking a way to extend their four-year life span. This limitation is an automatic fail-safe device that serves as protection against the replicants’ increasing penchant for developing human emotions and desires. Replicants are forbidden on Earth because of their potential for becoming “too human.” When escapes to Earth do occur, a special unit of the police force is employed to hunt and destroy the renegade replicants.
These officers, known as “blade runners,” use the Voight-Kampf test (VK test) to isolate replicants from the general populace since they are superficially indistinguishable from their human creators. The most experienced blade runner. Rick Deckard, is dispatched to “retire” (kill) the four escaped replicants. During an investigation at the Tyrell Corporation, he meets an experimental female replicant model named Rachael, who not only does not know she is a replicant, but has even been programmed with memories from a non-existent childhood. After discovering the truth, Rachael flees the corporation and begins a relationship with Deckard.
Throughout the film, comparisons are drawn between Deckard’s emotionless, bitter, and disillusioned existence and the replicants’ desperate search for more life at whatever cost. Deckard hunts down and destroys each replicant, a process culminating in a mano a mano confrontation with their leader, Roy Batty. Ironically, Batty saves Deckard from plunging to his death From a massive skyscraper, just as Batty’s life slips away.
Thus, Deckard’s encounter with the replicants saves his life, both literally and figuratively. Batty and Rachael save him from sure death—Batty by rescuing him from the fall and Rachael by gunning down another replicant about to kill him. Rachael also saves him spiritually and emotionally by escaping with Deckard to a clean. Eden-like forest.
Our examination of popular reviews reveals that many reviewer-critics did not acknowledge any significance in the film’s combination of genres. For example, Pauline Kael described Blade Runner as a “sci-fi film.” “a thriller,” and a “film noir,”4 and Harlan Kennedy labeled the film a mixture of “film noir fantasy and sci-fi fundamentalism.”5 yet neither elaborated beyond the point of description. Also frequently cited was the assumed subservience of plot to image, regarded by reviewer-critics as a negative feature. Andrew Sarris stated “… the narrative has drowned in an overpoweringly rainy nightmare vision of L.A. early in the twenty-first century,”6 an opinion echoed by both Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert.7
Another observation concerns the opposition between the major characters—a relationship never adequately explained in these reviews. Some writers suggested that the film’s theme centers on the superior humanity displayed by the replicants over the human characters, implying that while an over-mechanized society can create humanlike machines, it can also create machine-like humans. Jack Kroll reiterated this theme when he observed that by the end of the film the replicants have re-educated the detective in humanity.8 and Michael Dempsey repeatedly employed the phrase “more human than human” (taken directly from the film) when discussing the replicants in relation to the detective.9
Reviews such as these are inadequate because they are based on personal or cultural aesthetic assumptions of what constitutes a “good” film. Of all potential approaches, an evaluative one provides neither a key or methodology for understanding the film better, nor does it allow for alternative readings from audience groups outside the reviewer’s own. Our approach, an analysis of Blade Runner through its multi-generic construct, is not the only viable approach, nor does it reveal any one true meaning. Instead, it offers the spectator a structure with which to re-view the film.
FILM NOIR AND STYLE
A discussion of style and its relationship to film noir must be expounded in order to understand how film noir operates in Blade Runner.
The set of conventions that defines film noir as a genre are based initially on visual style. J. K. Place and L. S. Peterson suggest five characteristics which identify film noir: low-key lighting, claustrophobic framing, shadows and/or reflections, unbalanced compositions, and great depth of field.10 To these we add three more: urban landscapes; costuming, particularly trench coats, garments with padded shoulders, and spiked heels: and most often rain-soaked environments. These eight characteristics can be regarded as the iconography of the genre. Continual repetition of these motifs denotes and connotes film noir, and these motifs act as signifiers which trigger certain expectations of narrative, character, and theme. The narrative of film noir usually centers or some type of investigation.11 Characters include an investigator (often a detective), the investigator’s doppleganger (a double representing his dark side), a corrupt authority figure, and women who are either femme fatales or redeemers. Noir themes frequently suggest that the characters reside in a hopeless or doomed world predetermined by the past. The only sense of morality exists within the investigator who attempts to survive in an amoral and unstable society.
It is the act of iconographic identification and the resulting development of narrative, character, and theme which constructs the genre. This emphasis on tie relationship between visual style and meaning in a film is best explained in the studies being done by Jeremy Butler12 who borrows from Roland Barthes’s literary model of a signification.
The sound and image of the film (its style) can be called Signifier 1. The spectator’s first reading (on the denotative level) is the grouping of these sounds and images into narrative, character relationships, and emotions which is Signified 1. Continuing to the next level of Barthes’s model, we enter the connotative level of themes, ideology, and mythology. The relationship between style (Signifier 1) and narrative (Signified 1) becomes Signifier 2. The interpretation of style as theme grows out of style as narrative and may be designated as Signified 2. So style may express theme (on a connotative level) as well as narrative (on a denotative level).
Barthes’s model can be used also to demonstrate how the style of filrr noir generates meaning. The visual style of film noir, or Signifier 1, leads the spectator to construct a narrative, or Signified 1. Common cultural consensus categorizes this style as film noir, and the narrative is then assumed to be an investigation into the dark side of life. The evolvement of style into narrative becomes Signifier 2. In traditional film noir, the connection between Signifier 2 and theme/meaning (Signified 2) occurs so rapidly that style seems to elide directly into meaning. Thus style appears to take precedence over plot in evoking meaning and can be seen as the predominant determining code of film noir.13
A number of the usual signifiers of film noir are found in Blade Runner:
(1) the low-key lighting consistent throughout the film as in Bryant’s office, Tyrell’s office, and Deckard’s apartment:
(2) the claustrophobic framing of various characters and scenes, such as the close-ups of the replicant Leon during his VK test, and shots of the overcrowded nightclub, or the shots of Rachael and Dechard in his apartment;
(3) the heavy shadows cast by the Venetian blinds in Deckard’s apartment; the typical use of mirrors as a doubling device has been replaced by a
futuristic equivalent—television monitors—in several scenes;
(4) the off-beat compositions and bizarre angles, as in the opening interior sequence when Leon is forced to take the VK test, Deckard’s investigation of the Bradbury building, and the shot of Deckard and Gaff outside Leon’s hotel;
(5) the costuming, including Rachael’s tight-fitting dresses with padded shoulders and her 1940s influenced hair-do. Deckard’s and Bryant’s (and to some extent Gaffs) trenchcoats;
(6) the rain-soaked urban landscapes at night.
However, in Blade Runner, though these traditional signifiers may trigger expectations of specific signifieds, they do not and cannot support these expected signifieds. Blade Runner highlights Barthes’s model and the importance of style as the primary determining code of film noir because the recognized and accepted signifiers refuse to follow the traditional route ascribed to the act of signification for film noir. The rapid elision from style to meaning usually at work in film noir is thwarted by overt contradictions offered by other thematic and narrative concerns. For example, the most obvious contradiction between convention and assumed meaning in the film is in the presentation of the lead female character. Rachael. Her role as the femme fatale or spider woman of film noir legend is heavily coded in the visuals. Yet instead of being unstable, deceptive, undependable, and ultimately deadly, Rachael is responsible for Deckard’s moral salvation and escape from the urban setting into the beautiful countryside. Another example concerns the mise-en-scene. which suggests the plot will focus on an investigation of a corrupt urban environment, yet the presence of the replicants raises additional narrative concerns surrounding the moral implications of genetic engineering.
When the visual style of film noir does not support a readily accepted cultural interpretation of moral decay, doomed fate, chaos, hopelessness, etc., then new readings can be located. Other possible readings not supported by the noir visual style in Blade Runner can be derived from those narrative structures, themes, and characters which are based in science fiction.
SCIENCE FICTION AND THE MYTH OF FRANKENSTEIN
Science fiction depends for its identification on spatial displacement (other worlds, galaxies, dimensions), temporal displacement (future, past), its use of scientific or non-contemporary devices, and themes dealing with a too rapid technological progress. Traditionally, the genre invokes a basic paradox: the omnipotence of human science and the fragility of human society. Science fiction reflects a fear of life in the future, particularly a fear that we are destroying ourselves through science and technology or losing control of aliens or machines. Perhaps this explains why the Frankenstein myth has been so popular in the history of science fiction. It is the ultimate promise of science for man to play God by creating life; it is the ultimate fear when that life is discovered to have no soul and thus no meaning. Even though the genre foregrounds science or technology, common sense or an act of God often prevails as a resolution with a denouement that suggests hope for the future. The ideas underlying science fiction originated during the industrial revolution when technology allowed man to subvert nature and bring about changes in his environment. Consequently a guilt arose over this manipulation and the implied moral consequences.
We will analyze those aspects of science fiction, predominantly characters, visual motifs, specific themes, and a reworking of the Frankenstein myth, which subvert the film noir signification process in Blade Runner as detailed above.
In terms of characters, several cannot be placed within a film noir context. Not surprisingly, most of these characters are replicants whose identifying traits are clearly aligned with science fiction: they are from the off-world (outer space), they are non-humans, and the costumes of the female replicants suggest the future via their “punk” styling while the costumes of the males suggest futuristic uniforms. Human characters who fall into the science fiction category include the Asian eye technician, due to his occupation and equipment, and J.F. Sebastian, whose association with the replicants connects him with science fiction. He befriends the replicants because, like them, he is an outcast and suffers from accelerated decrepitude.
Still other characters appear to fit both science fiction and film noir. Rachael’s clothing identifies her with the spider women of film noir who often attempt to destroy the hero, but Rachael ultimately saves Deckard both physically and spir tually. Rachael differs from the other replicants because she has been programmed with memories and also has an indefinite life span. To a lesser degree. Tyrell can be placed in both genres. He is the corrupt, powerful businessman who seems to have at least an indirect influence with the police, as well as the brilliant, but amoral (mad) scientist.
The peripheral character Gaff holds a unique position in the film, one which is often difficult to pinpoint or explain in specific terms. Gaff is the racially mixed descendant of the melting pot of Los Angeles in 2019. His genetic background appears to include Asian, Latin American, and Caucasian heritages, a mixture evidenced in the language in which he converses, “cityspeak.” Unlike the other characters. Gaff seems to have a cultural past or heritage, as seen through his practice of origami, the art of Japanese paper folding.
Gaff has no direct part in the plot: he delivers Deckard to their supervisor, Bryant, and accompanies Deckard on his search of Leon’s room. Throughout most of the film he speaks no recognizable words, either remaining silent or addressing Deckard in the garbled tongue of cityspeak. His only contributions to the action are the small figures of folded paper he constructs while waiting for further instructions from Deckard or Bryant. The relationship between Gaff’s pieces of origami and the events in the film remain ambiguous.
At the end of the film, however, the character of Gaff gains significance. His only understandable words are spoken to Deckard after Deckard’s final confrontation with Roy Batty: Gaff says, “Too bad she won’t live, but then again, who does.” The line seems to have more than one level of meaning. It refers to Rachael’s predicament as a replicant—as an escaped replicant, she should have been “retired” like the others. Gaff’s line reminds Deckard of this, and he quickly returns to Rachael with plans of escaping to the North before another blade runner can retire her. As they leave his apartment, she steps on one of Gaff s paper figures—a unicorn, the mythical beast associated with virginity and Arcadia/Eden. Deckard realizes Gaff had been there but did not harm Rachael. In a sense, Gaff knowingly allows Deckard and Rachael to escape to the countryside depicted in the closing shots. Gaff s line “Too bad she won’t live,” reminds us of the replicants’ limited life span. The second half of the line, “then again, who does,” is, perhaps, a melancholy acknowledgment of the sad state of existence for human beings in such a dirty, corrupt environment. Humans, too, in a different way, are leading a limited life.
What Gaff does not know, but Deckard reveals at the end, is that Rachael is special—she has no built-in, limited life span. Deckard declares in words similar to Gaffs, but with a different implication, “We didn’t know how much time we had, who does.” This echoes an earlier sentiment Deckard himself had posited at Roy’s death, “They [the replicantsj were only asking the same questions we all do, how long have we got?” Gaff functions as a chorus reminding characters, particularly Deckard, of their own mortality.
Though the predominant visual style of the film is associated with film noir, triggering certain narrative and thematic expectations, a number of visual motifs are immediately recognizable as those of science fiction. They include:
(1) the flying vehicles such as police air-cars and advertising blimps;
(2) the futuristic cityscape and congested streets implying over-population;
(3) an advanced technology as part of everyday life—forexample, movie-like billboards with audio, the Voight-Kampf machine, the “talking” elevator which suggests a need for extensive security, picture phones, and Deckard’s voice-activated, computerized photo analyzer;
(4) the replacement of real animals with cloned animals complete with the manufacturer’s serial number.
These motifs in themselves do not contradict the film noir code, but work in conjunction with the more complex elements of character and theme in science fiction, deconstructing the process of signification regarding film noir while simultaneously constructing the process of signification regarding science fiction. This act begins with the recognition of the science-fiction motifs listed above because they represent images of “nature defiled by science,” a theme discussed by John Tulloch and Manuel Alvarado in Dr. Who: The Unfolding Text.14 Tulloch and Alvarado suggest that scientific and technological apparati signify progress yet may imply potential defilement. Blade Runner takes this a step further, because we actually see the defilement. For example, the computerized advertising blimp and billboards, the massive skyscrapers, and the artificial animals seem to suggest scientific advancement; however, these images also imply the antithesis of this promised utopia in the crowded darkened sky, the congested and garbage strewn streets, and the extinction of numerous animals—in other words it is a true dystopia.
This is similar to what Frank McConnell, author of The Science Fiction of H.G. Wells and Storytelling and Mythmaking, proposes about science fiction, that it is a war between nature and science. We can infer from both Tulloch and Alvarado’s and McConnell’s ideas that scientific technology may be destructive and dangerous, because of the possibility that machines will replace or control natural life. A tenet of science fiction holds that a technologically advanced society fears this dependence on machines and subsequent loss of control because it represents dehumanization. In Blade Runner, the replicants literally embody the dual nature of technological progress. They free mankind from menial and hazardous tasks, yet their existence implies the threat ot non-human control. They could completely overpower humanity or. if they successfully integrate into society, could erase any distinction between man and machine. A situation in which the defining characteristics between the natural and the artificial are obliterated represents the ultimate fear of loss of identity/control.
The replicants non-humanity is further emphasized by the fact that they have no memory, past identity, and by extension, no soul. This moral and spiritual void visually manifests itself through a surfeit of eye imagery. Scholars suggest that in certain ancient cultures, such as the Sumerian, eyes were considered to be windows to the soul.15 In Blade Runner, the eye imagery serves as a reminder of the replicants’ soulless existence. In the opening sequence, an extreme close-up of an eye juxtaposed between shots of science fiction exteriors and film noir interiors establishes the significance of eyes. Immediately after, the Voight-Kampf machine is demonstrated which uses a subject’s pupils to determine empathic responses to emotionally charged questions. Other visual references to eyes include: Tyrell’s “coke-bottle” glasses which make his eyes appear large and distorted, Pris’s masking of her eyes with black paint. Batty’s playfulness with toy eyes, the red glow of the owl’s eyes, and the murder of Tyrell by Batty through the gouging of his eyes. The most elaborate application of the eye motif occurs in the scene in the eye technician’s laboratory where dialogue, setting, and props combine to highlight the various connotations of the act of seeing. The technician “recognizes” his work by looking into the replicant’s eyes: “I design your eyes,” he says. Batty replies, “If only you could see what I’ve seen through your eyes.” The dialogue throughout the film consistently reinforces the importance of eyes, as in Batty’s final soliloquy which begins, “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe . . . . ”
Science fiction depends not only on spatial/temporal displacement but also on questions of morality and ethics. If the exploration of or quest for a Physical Frontier is not the main thrust of the narrative, then a Moral Frontier is often explored. A society’s attitudes towards technology and ensuing moral concerns rarely keep Dace with actual technological progress. Recent science fiction films seem to emphasize the moral dilemma of the fragile human spirit over simple time/space distanciation. In Blade Runner, the possibility of replicant infiltration or take-ever is presented early on as fact. The film is not about the discovery of replicant technology, but rather how the members of society (particularly Deckard) deal with the threat the replicants posit.
Blade Runner’s multi-generic nature offers a complicated and ambiguous presentation of morality due, in part, to the difference in the locus of morality between science fiction and film noir, and then, more extensively, in the film’s presentation of fear and sympathy regarding the replicants’ existence. In film noir. the site of morality is the protagonist, the lone detective. He represents the last vestiges of morality in a decaying society. Often his moral stance seems outmoded for the society in which he moves and proves inadequate in instigating any changes other than his own perception. Frequently his code of honor even fails to save himself from the corrupt society. In science fiction, society as a whole questions its assumptions of morality, which, as previously mentioned, are centered on the consequences of using advanced technology. These notions of morality, the latter focused on society and the former on the individual, seem diametrically opposed. Deckard functions to synthesize the two, focusing attention on the central question of Blade Runner: is it morally acceptable to manufacture a race of clones/slaves? The film, unlike the majority of science fiction films, does not offer specific answers. Instead, it presents a changing and increasingly complex perspective on the inevitable existence of artificially created life.
The initial response to the replicants could be reprehension as Leon shoots a human in cold blood; soon after it is discovered that Leon and the others had massacred the crew and passengers of a space shuttle. This wanton carnage serves as a warning against the creation of soulless beings, or man’s foolish attempts to “play God,’’ a recurring tenet of science fiction. As the film progresses and more about the plight of the replicants is revealed, Deckard begins to understand and sympathize with their situation. For example, the violence surrounding Zhora’s pathetic death in the storefront-window display makes Deckard question his methods of “retirement.” Visibly shaken, Deckard for the first time, discovers “feelings” for the replicants. In addition, Bryant’s inability to sympathize with Zhora’s fate begins to alienate Deckard from his human counterparts.
The initial feeling of reprehension towards the replicants alters as later scenes demonstrate that they are not merely automations. Leon’s question to Deckard. “Painful to live in fear, isn’t it?” reveals a bitterness over the conditions of their life under human control, while Pris’s poignant comment, “Then w’e’re stupid and we’ll die,” reflects the inevitability of their fate. Such observations further cloud Deckard’s perceptions regarding the replicants.
The ambiguity and intricacies of the replicants are embodied in the character of Roy Batty. At once the “perfect” killing machine, he also personifies certain religious aspects. Such a duality not only becomes one of the main reasons the replicants seem more than just robots, but actually gives them a greater hold on humanity (Tyrell refers to them as “more human than human”). Some of the religious overtones include the fact that Batty and his crew are searching for their “creator” so he can give them more life; when Batty finds his creator (Tyrell), he re-enacts Judas’s kiss of betrayal. The final confrontation between Batty and Deckard contains several Christian motifs: Batty stripping off his clothes, the wound on his temple, and the nail through his hand are visually reminiscent of the image of the Crucifixion. More importantly, Deckard’s physical and ultimate spiritual salvation is represented through the sacrifice of Batty’s life, visually implied by the releasing of the dove skyward. This scene heightens his status as a Christ figure.
Batty also describes his quasi-religious quest with literary allusions. Upon entering the eye technician’s laboratory, Batty says,
Fiery the Angels fell;
While thunder roared around their shores;
Burning with the fires of Orc.
This is a paraphrase of several lines from an epic poem by William Blake entitled America: A Prophecy:
Fiery the Angels rose, & as they rose deep thunder roll’d,
Around their shores; indignant burning with the fires of
Blake’s poem deals with the struggle for personal freedom and independence using the American Revolution as an allegory. Blake invented a pantheon of god-like characters that is consistently used throughout his works, creating his own mythology. In the above example Ore represents the inherent spirit in each individual to overthrow’ tyranny. Batty’s inversion of the opening line refers on a simple narrative level to the fact that the replicants “fell” to Earth from the off-world. By extension it negates the positive thrust behind Blake’s poem: the poem recognizes every individual’s drive for freedom as the basis of American society, whereas Batty realizes that the replicants’ desire to escape their slavery will be viewed as a threat to that society.
Certain aspects of Blade Runner’s storyline allude to John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. Just as Lucifer, God’s favorite, falls from Heaven and from grace with his Creator. Batty descends from the off-world and falls out of favor with Tyrell. Batty’s position as a “fallen angel” echoes even more complex notions about freedom propounded by Paradise Lost.
The “message” of the epic is that true freedom lies in obedience—and—obedience is not bondage. Man has free will to choose although his^choices may be limited. Obedience requires faith in God and God’s omniscience.16
The replicants, because of their soulless existence, cannot participate in free will. Their “obedience” stems from genetic programming and not choice. They do not have faith in their god because Tyrell ultimately lacks the power to engender such faith. Freedom and obedience are. for the replicants, mutually exclusive concepts: obedience is bondage, and freedom means denying God, faith, and the hope for a soul.
As a final note on the presentation of morality in Blade Runner, the character of Rachael embodies a dual morality. Visually, her costumes, makeup and hair style, as previously mentioned, signify her status as a film noir spider woman. Her antagonistic attitude towards Deckard in the early part of the film reinforces this connotation. However, she too saves Deckard’s life physically (by shooting Leon), and completes Deckard’s spiritual salvation by escaping with him to the country at the film’s conclusion. Rachael as a replicant achieves the freedom so poignantly sought by the others, completely overturning the original presentation of the replicants as reprehensible aliens.
The very existence of man-made creatures recalls the myth of Frankenstein. In Blade Runner there are a number of ideas which relate particularly to the original novel. For example, when discussing the “monsters” these comparisons can be drawn:
(1) both Frankenstein’s monster and the replicants are alienated from human society by the very fact that they are manmade and superior in strength, thus perceived as a threat:
(2) both the monster and the replicants, particularly Batty, gain culture/knowledge, and the desire to live a full life unhampered by society;
(3) both suffer severe consequences in their attempt to integrate themselves and are forced to acknowledge their miserable existence, finally realizing they can never be accepted;
(4) after their failed attempts to achieve any compromise, both Hatty and Frankenstein’s monster regress to an animalistic state (especially noteworthy is the parallel between their behavior after they fully understand their plight— both begin howling like a wolf);
(5) both the monster and the replicants appear to have no moral qualms about committing murder;
(6) both the monster and Batty cause the destruction of their creator;
(7) the monster and the replicants (except Rachael) inevitably perish.
Similarly, when discussing the creators, the following comparisons are evident:
(1) both Frankenstein and Tyrell are scientists;
(2) both are isolated from others—Frankenstein withdraws from his family and colleagues, while the wealthy Tyrell lives high above everyone in his luxurious penthouse;
(3) a love/hate/fear relationship exists between the creators and their creations.
These direct parallels between Blade Runner and Frankenstein once again question the morality of the creation of artificial life. What appears to be a noble and extraordinary scientific achievement—clones who free men from mundane or dangerous tasks, fight their wars, etc.—is ultimately a moral failure.
Frank McConnell considers the Frankenstein myth pan of science fiction because if plays on man’s guilt and fear over tampering with nature. The tension which exists between man and nature derives from the fact that man has the potential to destroy his natural environment through over-manipulation of technology. As escape to an Eden/garden by the protagonists after the destruction or near-destruction of their surroundings is a common theme of science fiction. Often this flight implies a revitalization of the species (seen in When Worlds Collide, Star Trek II, No Blade of Grass, Road Warrior, and THX 1138). At the very least, the tension is evident if not resolved (as in Silent Running, Soylent Green, Crack In The World, Night of the Lepus, and Godzilla vs The Smog Monster). The science fiction genre attempts to balance the use of technology with the preservation of nature. Technology can be a positive aspect of daily life, as demonstrated by Deckard’s consistent use of high-tech devices to decipher clues.
Nowhere is the tension between man and nature more evident than at the film’s end. Deckard and Rachael flee to an Eden/garden, suggesting a balance between nature and technology in the implied generation of a new species in a new environment. However, any optimism could be undercut by Deckard’s voice-over narration reinforcing the idea of a limited existence. (“We didn’t know how much lime we’d have together, who does.”) In addition, the fact that they are fugitives suggests that any balance they may achieve or any resolution they may represent would not be condoned by the society that exiled them. From a film noir perspective, leaving the city for the country may be a recurrent motif, but it is a temporary retreat, not a permanent solution. Thus the ending of Blade Runner could be particularly disturbing to an audience because it does not satisfy the conventions of either genre. This perhaps accounts for the complaints by several critics that the ending, rumored to be a last minute addition, was inappropriate.
The above analysis of Blade Runner represents how the motifs and characters of science fiction combine with its themes (specifically those emphasizing morality) to thwart the signification process of film noir. We hope it forwards a new reading for the film that is less critical of its combination of genres than those readings posited by certain reviewer-critics. Our interpretation holds that this combination is not necessarily deleterious, but actually allows for the integration of the two genres.
A final feature of science fiction found in Blade Runner (though not necessarily a part of the deconstruction of film noir we have just delineated) concerns a search for past (particularly an ideal past), as a means of escaping the anxieties that the present and future hold. According to Doctor Who: The Unfolding Text, a too rapid technological progress changes an intrapersonal community into a society of alienated individuals. Guilt or anxiety results from this separation which can lead to a longing for a unified consciousness that ultimately proves mythical, or a unity with a group from a time long past. In Blade Runner. Deckard can be seen as one who is individuating from his group, which is already alienated by a high tech environment. Deckard collects photographic portraits clearly from an earlier century. The subjects of these portraits and their relationship to Deckard remain ambiguous: perhaps he is attempting to reconstruct a past, a past where members of society relied more on each other (hence a true community) than on technology. The replicants, by contrast, are recording their existence through Leon’s collection of snapshots, thus assembling a past which, for them, replaces a lifetime of memories. Deckard’s sepia-tinted photos are nostalgic in tone, whereas Leon’s collection of colored snapshots seems more recent. The parallel between Deckard and the replicants is underlined here because both are creating an artificial history.
The above examples are not the only instances in which photographs play an important role. Upon Bryant’s desk sits an unusual lamp with a shade made of photographs depicting sunlit landscapes, green forests, and flowing streams, foreshadowing the film’s final imagery. Also, when Deckard discovers Leon’s set of snapshots, one becomes the central clue. Titus a photograph is the catalyst which prompts further investigation. The importance of photos (and other two-dimensional images) to Deckard (and thatsociety) is foregrounded by Deckard’s photo-analyzer, a computerized device which enlarges designated areas of photos. Superficially it allows the user to flush out detail, but it also creates the illusion of transforming a two-dimensional image into a three-dimensional space.
The most poignant use of a photograph occurs when Rachael tries to prove to Deckard that she is not a replicant by showing him a photograph of her and her alleged mother. Deckard points out that the photo is a fraud, shattering her illusions of a happy childhood. Deckard looks closely at the snapshot; in an extreme close-up the spectator appropriates his point of view. The spectator sees the hair of the mother and the daughter in the photograph move slightly as if a breeze were gently blowing. The photo becomes a memory, a piece of time in one’s mind instead of merely a two-dimensional image. This instance of the overlapping of two-dimensionality with three-dimensionality is similar to the illusionary experience created by Deckard’s photoanalyzer.
Deckard’s, Leon’s, and Rachael’s desire to connect with a past would seem a way to justify or give purpose to their lives. But since photographs cannot in themselves construct a past (only true memories can), these characters find little purpose of understanding about their existence in that environment.
Investigating Blade Runner as a multi-generic film proved fruitful in discovering and clarifying our ideas about genre. Through the course of our analysis we probed the numerous facets of film noir and science fiction, learning how text and pretext operate in both genres. By discussing how one genre affects or short-circuits another, the process whereby a spectator can derive meaning from a film was foregrounded without resorting to an evaluative approach.
The study of film noir itself provided much material regarding genre theory. For example, as a classification of cinema, it generates much debate concerning whether it functions as a genre, an historical movement, or a style. The dilemma revolves around the definition and role of visual style. Whatever the stance, most agree that any potential meaning for film noir initially derives from the visuals. In Blade Runner, the visual style dominates. The plotline is minimal, and the dialogue sparse, or often abstract, serving as a highlight rather than revealing the story.
Our final thought is actually a series of questions focusing on the role of common cultural consensus in genre. If genre is a type of cultural ritual or collective expression, what does the combination of genres imply? Does it imply, for example, that genres in their traditional form no longer fulfill the needs of the culture? What if a financially unsuccessful film becomes a cult favorite; is it fulfilling the needs of only a small, specific group? What is the significance of one genre short-circuiting the other, as in Blade Runner? Perhaps this phenomenon can be seen as an extension of Christian Metz’s or Henri Focillon’s notion of genre evolution—that a generic form passes through various stages of development, from experimental to classical to those of parody and deconstruction.17 These and other questions address the confusion surrounding a specific group of recent films. Whether or not these films represent a trend remains to be seen, but they have generated, at least for us. an interesting approach to genre study.
1. Andrew Tudor in Image and Influence (London: George Allen & Union Ltd.. 974) uses the term “common cultural consensus,” while Thomas Schatz in Hollywood Genres (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1981) uses “collective cultural expression.”
2. Multi-generic films are not necessarily a recent phenomenon, but have historical predecessors such as the Abbott and Costello horror/comedies (e.g. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein).
3. Film noir has undergone much debate as to what type of categorization it truly is. Janey Place, in Women In Film Noir (London. BFI, 1978), pp. 35-38, edited by E. Ann Kaplan, argues that film noir may only be seen as a film movement. Paul Schrader’s “Notes on Film Noir,” in Film Comment 81 (Spring 1972), pp. 8-13 states that film noir classifies by style only. Throughout this paper, we hold that film noir can be seen as genre because it manifests both syntactic and semantic systems.
4. Pauline Kael. “Baby the Rain Must Fall,” The New Yorker (12 July 1982). pp 82-85.
5. Harlan Kennedy. “21st Century Nervous Breakdown,” Film Comment (July/August 1982), p. 65.
6. Andrew Sarris. “Cold Wars and Cold Futures,” The Village Voice, 6 July 1982, p 47.
7. Gene Siskel. “Blade Dulled by Lack of Sharp Story” The Chicago Tribune (June 25, 1982), Section 3, Page 3. Roger Ebert, “Blade Runner” The Chicago Sun Times (25 June 1982), p 45.
8. Jack Kroll. “High-Tech Horror Show,” Newsweek, 28 June 1982, p. 72
9. Michael Dempsey, “Blade Runner,” Film Quarterly 36, No. 2 (Winter 1982-83), pp. 33-38.
10. J. A. Place and L. S. Peterson, “Some Visual Motifs of Film Noir,” Film Comment 10. No. 1 (January-February 1974).
11. Foster Hirsch suggests that the investigator, the victim, and the psychopath are me central figures in film noir’s three, basic story patterns. Films noirs in which the victim is the main character include D.O.A. and Sunset Boulevard: those in which the psychopath is the protagonist include Night of the Hunter and the Third Man. In all cases there is some type of “investigation”; whether it is initiated by someone clearly labeled as an investigator (i.e., a detective, a police officer) depends on the narrative structure and concerns of the film. Foster Hinsch, Film Noir: The Dark Side of the Screen (New York: Da Capo Press. Inc., 1981), pp. 167-197.
12. Jeremy Butler, “Toward a Theory of Cinematic Style: The Remake,” Diss: Northwestern University, 1982.
13. In their introduction, editors Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward (Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style: Woodstock. New York. Overlook Press, 1979). pp. 1-6, suggest that the repeated use of certain visual/thematic associations creates the basis for the common cultural consensus.
14. John Tullock & Manuel Alvarado, Doctor Who: The Unfolding Test (London, Macmillan Press, 1983).
15. Helen Gardner, Art Through The Ages, 5th ed. rev. by Horst de la Croix and Richard Tansey, (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World. Inc., 1970), pp. 39-40.
16. John T. Shawcross, ed., The Complete Poetry of John Milton, rev. ed. with an introduction, notes and variants by the editor. (New York: Doubleday. 1971). p. 249.
17. Christian Metz, Language and Cinema, (New York: Praeger, 1975). Henri Focillon, The Life of Forms in Art, (New York: George Wittenborn, Inc., 1942).
Literature Film Quarterly; 1986, Vol. 14 Issue 2, pp. 89-100