Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Do Androids Dream Of Cinematic Masterpieces?

It’s been 25 years since Ridley Scott took Philip K. Dick’s classic of futuristic paranoid dystopia, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” and retooled it into “Blade Runner”. In doing so, Scott was something like Dr. Tyrell, building replicants along the design of their human creators, but with improvements necessary for survival in their new environments. The difference is that Scott’s creation, for all its variances from the original model, does not set out to destroy what was laid out in ‘Androids, rather “Blade Runner” pays tribute to what made the novel great. In fact, I remember a classmate way back in high school who was inspired to start reading the works of PKD because he enjoyed “Blade Runner” so much.
Volumes have been written about both the novel and the film, exploring the metaphysical questions, the elements of paranoia, the dehumanizing effects of technology and other nuances. Probably all of us who love SF movies and literature have discussed the subtext of these works with friends at one point or another. But tonight, as I re-watched “Blade Runner” to celebrate the anniversary, for whatever reason, those larger critical concerns were in the background as I found myself focusing on the masterful way this film was put together.
I’m not talking about the editing and pacing or casting of the movie (although those were spot-on), I’m talking about its look and sound and feel.
The claustrophobic towers and rain-slick streets are only the beginning when talking about how the environment in the movie becomes one of the characters.
It’s the light and shadows that make “Blade Runner” come alive. The ever-present darkness down on the street level is essential to the mood of film-noir on overdrive. The depth of the shadows between the buildings, on the faces of the people and in the contours of their clothes and bodies and between everyone completely isolates them in a way that few other movies have ever come close to. “Dark City” certainly attempted this feeling years later, but came nowhere near to the layering of shadow accomplished in Scott’s film.
When light makes its appearance, it is to create contrasts. The peons swarming along the streets are soaked in the greasy glare of neon, while high atop his ziggurat, Dr. Tyrell can actually see the sun, and moreover has the choice of whether to block it. For this king of the mountain, his artificial light of choice is the archaic but softer, more pampering candlelight.
Light is used to divide people – the slash of streetlight or sunlight coming through a window across a table separates Deckard from Rachael during his initial examination of her. The same occurs to a greater extreme in the opening sequence where the blade runner officer interviewing Leon is entirely lit by the window while the android is generally in shadow.
In “Blade Runner”, light is often used to give hints of things unseen rather than to illuminate. Returning to Deckard’s interview of Rachael, we see that marvelous shot once the windows have been darkened of the band of light across Deckard’s lower face. We’re seeing the working of the cop’s mouth during interrogation – what we’re subtly seeing clearly is the investigation by the numbers – what’s hidden from us (not completely, but, through the use of some shadow, metaphorically) are his eyes, and thus his thought process. We’re forced to read him purely on a physical level, which puts us to some degree in Deckard’s place – forced to deal with replicants as physical objects and unable (usually because of dangerous circumstances as well as his own orders) to get to know or care about what they’re thinking and feeling.
Sean Young’s hair styles throughout the movie are also used to manipulate light to create facades or hide things about her. In the beginning, the no-nonsense business coif allows her to put forward a serene mask of disdain, concealing the burgeoning inner turmoil about her identity which Tyrell tells Deckard he suspects is beginning to take root. The hair itself also creates a black aura around her, drawing the focus to her face instead of things around her (where an investigator might uncover details?) Later, when her hair comes down in Deckard’s apartment, it softens her look, but creates shadows to try to hide her now more openly troubling emotions.
Sebastian’s apartment is shrouded in gloom – there is much that is only hinted at there. We see android toys walking around in full shots in some scenes, but later we get quick, tight, medium-shot glimpses at them bound and gagged. We see a wasteland of wrecked toys and female mannequins giving rise to some vague unease about the state of mind of this supposedly innocent, childlike inventor.
Conversely, all is bright white in Chew’s frosty eyeball laboratory. The man has nothing to hide. Indeed, he’s even stripped of his cold-weather gear by Roy and Leon, and left in his longjohns, emphasizing that he isn’t concealing anything. His responses to their questions are open too: “I just do eyes” - he’s also pretty straight-forward about telling them where to find Sebastian.
Light is used to highlight character traits in other ways. We are very clearly meant to pick up on the danger Sebastian is about to find himself in when he first meets Pris, not only because we already know she’s an android, but because the twin streetlights with their pale greenish glow above and behind her have gone slightly out of focus and now look like cat’s eyes gazing down at a mouse (an image further enforced by the sound effect of the cat’s yowl woven into the scene). She also uses spray-on makeup to mask her eyes and thus her intentions, creating another contrast of light around her.
The sense of danger around Roy is always emphasized by his movement into and out of light: in neither condition is a person safe from him. It shows that the replicant leader is completely dangerous all the time.
For his part, our hero, Deckard, is almost always shrouded in half-light. For a tired and nearly broken, but still capable man (who may not be a man after all), varying degrees of shadow are his realm – one that he never leaves for long. Perfectly appropriate for a man who takes orders to deal out life and death, who hunts in the shadow world of streets and abandoned buildings, and who may be that which he pursues.
Hand-in-hand with lighting is the brilliant, highly limited, use of colour in this movie. This is a world where there aren’t many colours that exist. It is a place of black and white and grey, with some dingy browns, faded dark blues and highlights of sepia. This is true for wardrobe as well as d├ęcor. The trend is bucked when we see splashes of red in blood, street neon and a replicant’s lipstick.
Using brief slashes of colour for shock value in what would otherwise be a black & white movie in some ways makes “Blade Runner” a precursor of “Schindler’s List” or “Sin City”. It’s also interesting that colour was used as a highlight to a predominantly black & white world in another cinematic milestone that happened to be released in 1982: “Tron”.
These occasional appearances of red in “Blade Runner” usually mean trouble’s on the way: someone’s died, or Deckard’s on the street hunting or being hunted, or, in the case of lipstick, a male’s attention is being drawn to female beauty (whether it’s Deckard in the presence of Rachael, or Sebastian in the clutches of Pris) which is about to draw him into whole new levels of complexity and danger. Admittedly though, the red lipstick analogy gets strange at the end of the film when Roy smears Pris’ blood onto his mouth and chin – adding a gruesome lipstick of sorts. Does this mean he’s taking Pris unto himself in some profound way as he attempts to avenge her death? Is he trying to make her a part of him as he lashes out at a world of humans that have enslaved them?
Roy Batty’s colour – or lack of colour, is also extremely interesting. White is a colour associated with death in many Eastern cultures, and the replicant leader certainly brings enough of it to Earth with his gang of fugitives. On a flag, white is the colour of surrender, which is what Roy eventually does in the end, sitting down and waiting for death. Disturbingly, one might see Batty’s pale superhuman strength as a white supremacist’s ideal – though one that is short-lived and unsuccessful. In contrast, white is the colour of the saviour in the Christian tradition, and without a doubt, that’s the role Roy tries and fails to assume for his fellow androids, and yet successfully accomplishes by saving Deckard, the man trying to kill him. Certainly, we tend to connote white with innocence, and despite his bloody quest, there is an innocence about Roy in how he seems to savour his life, how he mourns the deaths of his friends (in telling Pris about Leon and Zhora, his facial expression looks very much like a little boy’s), and even the quest itself: yes, Tyrell’s right, Batty is aware that there have been no scientific breakthroughs to prolong his life, but the act of wanting to ask his creator to try once more implies innocence and hope. Even killing Tyrell in a twisted act of justice/vengeance is a kind of innocence in its attempt to impose meaning and consequence on an unfair life and universe. A true cynic would probably not have bothered with the voyage to Earth to begin with. One could even reach back into literary tradition and say that in being both hunter and hunted, being pierced by a sharp object at the end, by trying to protect others of his kind, Roy’s whiteness connects him to the whale Moby Dick – with the difference being that he sinks into death at the end, rather than under the waves, leaving Deckard afloat on the meaning of it all much as Ishmael took refuge on Queequeg’s coffin.
Just looking at this movie was a treat. But let’s not forget the sound.
Animal noises are used to underscore the emotions of scenes. I’ve previously mentioned the cat’s yowl associated with Pris, but let’s not forget Roy’s wolf-howl of anguish at her death, or the buzz of bees adding a frantic, coming-at-you-from-all-sides feeling to the chase through the rotting maze of rooms in the Bradbury hotel at the end.
There’s the endless, layered noise of the street. That was yet another layer of heaviness in the smothering darkness of futuristic Los Angeles.
And the soundtrack played an important role too. Vangelis’ weird synth soundscapes are appropriate for the pictures on screen; they’ve got a high-tech feel while maintaining an overwhelming weariness. The occasional blues piece is perfect for the burnt-out, raw-edged-nerve feeling of a beat-up Deckard at his limits. And the simplicity of a piano piece by itself painted all the pictures we needed of a lost and possibly non-existent childhood for Rachael.
The sights and sounds of “Blade Runner” are clearly ones we don’t want to experience for ourselves, but if we must dream with the androids, this film does a fantastic job of letting us feel their electric sheep.


Unknown said...

in many ways bladerunner remains the pinnacle of movie-making for me. yes a lot of that is nostalgia, but why amongst the many things i remember from my youth is bladerunner one of the few that doesn't leave me asking - "did i really enjoy watching that?". maybe its the gritty reality and science fiction theme (films like alien and aliens hold up well too), but i think there is something else at work here. great post.

Robin Shantz said...


You're right, Garron, good storytelling doesn't lose its edge over time.

Frederick Paul Kiesche III said...

Two other of Scott's films for me make the same uses of layered light, etc.

One is an earlier film of his, "The Duellists". The second is "Black Hawk Down".

Robin Shantz said...

I'm ashamed to admit I hadn't heard of "The Duellists" before. I'll have to check it out. Thanks for the recommendation, Fred!