Blade Runner was made in 1982 and was directed by Ridley Scott. Made a long time after the classic Noir film making period of the forties and fifties, this neo noir sci-fi thriller was a bricolage of genres and highly original. Described as ‘visually overwhelming’, this movie has become a cult classic, and there are few films that have managed to achieve it’s originality, mood and suspense. The narrative is typical Noir set in a dystopian future Los Angeles. Disillusioned blade Runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is hired to track down six replicants (more commonly thought of as androids or robots) who are out of control.
Typically labyrinthine, as the narrative continues it picks up the femme fatal and other trade marks of classic forties detective fiction, as Deckard stumbles after his quarry in a tough, tough, world. The scene I am looking at is the introduction, the opening sequence of Blade Runner. It is key because it suggests things to the audience through the genre conventions it uses, because the audience will recognise them.
Noir opening sequences are very dramatic usually. They create a feeling of claustrophobia and impending doom.
They are often what makes a noir stand out and are re-used in other films, for instance the Coen brothers ‘Blood Simple’ was almost exactly the same as the opening to ‘Double Indemnity’, and it is the kind of classic noir opener that is often seen in other films of the genre. Also the opening of any film sets the mood, tone and, most importantly, the expectations of the audience.
I am going to explore the genre conventions that are used in the opening sequence, especially the noir conventions, and look at how they are used, and to what effect. I will also look at audience expectations, and how the conventions used create them.
Genre is a term often just associated with classification. It is a lot more than that. Each film genre has its own set of conventions that distinguishes it from other films from other genres and builds expectations within the audience. Inflecting those expectations or subverting and merging them with others does alter an audiences perception of the film. Phillip Drummond says “They (genres) respond to rules and conventions by developing formulas and patterns – of theme, character and iconography (the repertory of visual motifs)”
He also states that genres need to stay the same to survive, and also, for precisely the same reason, need to retain the possibility of innovation and change” Blade Runner is an example of such innovation and change. All these conventions and rules form a ‘language’ which the viewer learns through years of watching film, and subconsciously reads. Each genre has its own language, a set of symbols and conventions which distinguish it from other genres. My approach to the study will be an ‘iconography approach’ to genre study, as it embraces not only looking at classification but the way a film looks, its language, and its continuity and change.
There are other conventions such as sound which must be considered, and things like character stereotypes, narrative structure and themes that it’s harder to explore in one scene. Foster Hirsch describes Film Noir as ” as a descriptive term for the American crime film as it flourished, roughly from the early forties to the late fifties” It became known as Noir because of it’s dark look, a look that came from the German expressionist movement. It created its own conventions, and created a whole new style of lighting, low-key lighting.
Low key lighting was a style where the main characters wouldn’t always be lit up in full, and would not only leave many parts of their face and body in shade, but also parts of the set and scenery. It was a dark image that created a world full of contrasting patterns of light and dark and would create a dark, tense, claustrophobic and secretive atmosphere. It wasn’t just a style, or a technique to create suspense, but symbolic representation of a dark reality. A scared reflection of a modern world that lacked morals. Where people always seemed to be I the dark because of lack of knowledge, or because they were secretly greedy and lustful.
It represented hidden emotions and a clash between good and evil that was almost daily. The film doesn’t just use Noir conventions. From the outset it is clear that science fiction has big role to play as the sequence opens up with a scrolling text. This is a most common part of sci-fi, that even without such words as replicant and Blade Runner to highlight the genre, we understand that it has been used in such sci-fi greats as Star Wars, and that it is an essential part of informing the audience of the setting of the sci-fi.
The script, however, is in red this hints at the types of emotions the film is going have in it, such as anger and lust, but also tells us that it isn’t going to be like Star Wars and the others, and will have a different edge to it. The text sets other expectations as well, of the narrative. It tells that a Blade Runner (and what a Blade Runner is) will be hunting down what are in essence outlaws, giving the audience an idea of what other genres the film will be drawing on. It could be interpreted as a western, but sounds like one of the more classic chases of the noir crime genre.
The lone detective in a world of deceit and lies trying to find the truth. Next we are given the date and location. While the fact that is 2019 tells us it is Sci-fi, the location of Los Angeles is most definitely the site of most crime stories, and a classic Noir location. Also the hero is a world weary cynic, as up to this point he had been retired, so he knows his stuff. This is the classic hero/anti-hero that noir loves to use. The slow moving tracking shot of the city is the next thing that appears, and it to has it’s Noir elements. While it is most definitely a futuristic setting, it is also dystopian.
Film Noir’s world is almost indefinitely dark, as this city is. The world of Noir is not just dark, it is a setting for lust, greed, mystery and corruption. This city is the kind of opening shot most Noir directors would have dreamt of. It has many levels, which could be symbolic of the different levels of corruption in this city, and it is also massive. It is perplexingly complex, yet almost totally dark. This wide angle establishing shot is breath-takingly presented in the first few moments, yet what the eye is drawn to the most is the large bursts of flame appearing from different parts of the screen.
Fire is a classic symbol of Noir, standing for corruption, burning anxiety and Hell, where most of the characters in this film are headed for, or so it suggests. The fiery colour are juxtaposed to the blackness, and make an interesting contrast. It is not only symbolic therefor, but also a device to create mood and suspense. The next thing that strikes us is a sort of lying car, obviously a land mark of the future, and something that has become a classic symbol of sci-fi. It is not just that though, as the theme of escape has always been one a the very heart of noir.
The actual doing it is always in question, as noir is a fatalist genre where it seems that the characters can’t escape their eventual fate. The car is not just a symbol of that escapist theme, but is also seemingly moving away from the city (the place always to escape from), and is a more actual than just symbolic reference to escape. Earth looks like a dispiriting place that people would want to escape from, probably to the off earth colonies. The images created make the city seem threatening, a place where people are trapped and doomed, and this is also a major part of noir.
Not just a theme, but a feel, an atmosphere that is created. From this opening we know that the opposite of this world – an agrarian paradise – would be the utopia that would be the place to escape to. Again the colonies seem to provide that answer, they are places where there is space, somewhere to be able to see things, somewhere better to live. It then cuts to a blue eye with fire reflected in it, juxtaposed with the colour of the eye to a startling effect, and also used as a symbolic reference to film Noir.
We have no idea who the eye belongs to at this point, but we assume one of the main characters. The eye is not just an interesting opening sequence device to shake up the mood, but a running theme throughout the film. Not only that but it is an allusion to one of the central themes of Noir, the act of seeing. Vision as a whole is a theme often in question, how it can be clouded, whether characters see what they want to see, and in a dark genre such as Noir, the actual physical, and not just metaphorical, act of seeing becomes a central preoccupation of the viewer.
Before this shot the tracking shot didn’t seem have any destination, but we cut back to the tracking shot and our attention is drawn to pair of large, triangular buildings with white beams of light coming from the top. The chiaroscuro pattern of light and dark recurs throughout noir, and these make a classic symbol. As J. A Place and L. S Peterson describe in ‘ Some visual motifs of Fil Noir’ “it is the constant opposition of light and dark that characterises noir cinematography. Small areas of light seem on the verge of being totally overwhelmed by the darkness that threatens from all sides. And this is exactly what we can see here. It is towards these we now head. Because of the expectations created by the opening sequence so far, the audience already has a certain understanding of what is going to happen. Not just in the narrative, but in what the expect to see. Remembering the shot of the flying car, the viewer will probably realise, now we have a destination, that we seem to be on one these. That is was is taking us to our apparent destination of the two buildings, and the shot can now be recognised as having some practical relevance to the film.
It is not just some grandiose sci-fi opener, but an integral part of the film, accustoming the audience to the feel of the film, and the world they are entering. This very continues the custom of Noir openings, where you are placed in the world of the characters, either by being in a car in the rain (Blood Simple, Coen Brothers 1983, Double Indemnity, Billy Wilder 1944) or by travelling the seedy back streets of the inner city in another way. This time we are just travelling above.
We cut back to a medium shot of a man standing in a smoky room, extremely reminiscent of a private detectives office. It is small, cramped badly lit, and the unnerving sound of a huge fan whirring. The fan is a classic symbol of Noir because of the way it emphasises the claustrophobia of cramped spaces, and because it has a knack of creating the image of jail with a juxtaposed pattern of light and dark splashed across small walls. It does it’s job well here, and not only creates a enclosed atmosphere in seconds, but really does add to the Noir feeling of the film.
Of course it looks out of place, as the so far we have seen nothing but futuristic images, albeit unpleasant ones. This image is obviously contrasted with the others so sharply to create a shock. It is at this point that the audience get their first proper idea of genre mixing, as well as the possibility of archetypal characters appearing, and certain narrative conventions being followed. This is true, and there is a lot of noir conventions that appear throughout the film, but the old set up against a futuristic backdrop is indicative of the film itself.
It’s set is a mixture of superior technological advancements set in an almost industrial age city, which cramped living style and industrial smear reminds you of something from Oliver Twist, or gangster movies set during the Great Depression. Ridley Scott managed to use Noir conventions to create this dystopian vision. The connotations that this Noir imagery carries are important in helping the audience pre-determine the narrative, recognise the themes, and creating a mood. We cut back to the approach to the building until we settle inside the office.
Then we again cut back to the approach. We can see the office through a window, as well as the building it is situated in. Up close it is a grimy, metallic, but definitely futuristic in it’s design. We cut back to the office, and see that it has a table and two chairs. A computers voice opens the scene introducing one of the characters with his name, occupation and how long he’s worked. The edge interview that follows is typically Noir. There are long pauses, awkward silences, and interviewed character is very defensive.
The interviewer is shot at the end when the interviewee delivers a line that carries all the hidden threat and innuendo that a bad guy would want to carry in a Noir. “Let me tell you about my mother. ” The non-diegetic music running through the entire opening sequence shout sci-fi, it is dreamy and electronic, a winding piece that fits perfectly with the setting and establishes a very futuristic and dystopian mood. As a film student I have been able to recognise many elements of the opening that suggest the mixture of Noir with Sci-Fi.
These images and clues were put their purposefully and were supposed to let the viewer know the nature of the film within minutes. It is questionable, however, to whether this theory is correct, and whether it is possible to tell such things from a ‘film language’. The film was slated when it first came out, and did appallingly at the box office. This could be due to peoples expectations being focused totally on the Sci-Fi element of the film from the beginning because they missed the signs.
Then when the film did not conform to their expectations the were disappointed. I use myself as a perfect example, as when I watched when I was younger I was very confused by the lack of action in the film and did not pick up on the Noir elements. Ultimately, though, that is because of my lack of knowledge of Noir at the time. The beauty of the film is that it confuses expectations from the very start and does not promise anything specific, other than the fact that you know it will have elements in from both noir and sci-fi.
We have already read from the opening that the future appears to be bleak and threatening, and yet many elements from the past have survived. We also have expectations of the characters and the narrative from the opening dialogue. It is all picked up through an understanding of the language of film, and the more film we watch the more we will be able to read that language. The noir iconography in this opening sequence is not explicit until the scenes in the office, but it is always there.