The following remarks were delivered in an ENGLISH 2RW6: Reading & Writing Criticism lecture at McMaster University. The format was a three-person panel, and I was the first speaker.
Blade Runner constructs a meticulously detailed environment for, as John Gold suggests, in science fiction the architecture is frequently “as much a part of the action as the actors themselves” (337). Through its architecture, which includes a “contrast between an upper city of fortress-like buildings which house the powerful and the privileged… [and] a lower city containing the world’s uprooted masses” (386), Blade Runner suggests a dystopian social order wherein machinery has supplanted human vitality.
Blade Runner‘s opening scene displays a city bathed in night, darkness broken only by minute tower lights, churning, roiling flames billowing from the tops of buildings, and flying automobiles zooming towards and off the screen. The scene is marked by a distinct lack of not only humanity, but biological life at all. By featuring the conglomeration of commanding architecture and lively machinery and yet no human presence, Blade Runner suggests, from the start, a dystopia in which machines have superseded humanity.
Ridley Scott does, however, juxtapose this overwhelming mechanical presence with a single eyeball, shown intermittently between the shots of the non-human entities. Reflected in the eye’s iris are the lights and flames from the buildings, suggesting a domination, even internalization, of the machine over the human. Indeed, the eye is also significant in that sight has historically been considered the most precious sense; this dates back to the Bible, in which the ultimate punishment for sinners is “madness, and blindness, and astonishment of heart” (KJV, Deuteronomy. 28:28). Werner von Koppenfels argues that sight is the principle faculty with which to combat unreason, and the eradication of sight – or, as he calls it, “the sun of reason” (155) – results in a dystopia that “inverts the course of enlightened progress with a vengeance, creating totalitarian or brutish patterns” (156). For humanity to lose its ‘sight’ would result in an ultimate dystopia, and in Blade Runner‘s opening Scott reflects the architecture in the iris to delineate exactly this. The vitality of the buildings’ whooshing flames and twinkling lights are reflected in a human eye which also, notably, is unblinking. The aforementioned internalization of the mechanized is embodied in this eradication of a necessary, or at least formerly necessary, behaviour.
Similarly to Metropolis‘ City of the Workers, Blade Runner‘s Los Angeles is an overstuffed, claustrophobic urban environment wherein humans – faces often covered by elaborate paraphernalia and blinking mechanical goggles – shuffle past one another without pause, without dialogue. This is exhibited most clearly when Decker pursues Zhora. In the sequence, which occurs on the city streets, the camera is bombarded by bodies milling in front of the lens, disorienting the viewer, reflecting the discombobulation of the characters themselves. The only sounds are rain beating the pavement and anonymous, nigh indecipherable robotic announcements; no one speaks.
Furthermore, note the architecture in the scene. Rather than generic hulking clones for buildings, Blade Runner‘s are vibrant Bastilles of blinking neon. These contrast starkly with the uncommunicative humans, who are clad exclusively in dreary shades of grey and black. As Decker forces his way through the dense mass of murkily-clad bodies to reach Zhora, the lights of the surrounding buildings flash contrastively; when Zhora is finally shot, reflected in the glass she falls through are the same structures, twinkling and glimmering as human bystanders observe her demise sans visible emotion. Blade Runner uses this eerily cheery architecture to suggest its dystopia: machinery has supplanted human vitality.
The Tyrell headquarters, an ostentatious twin pyramid John Gold calls an “early 1980s postmodern-styled building that symbolises power and control” (340), is also noteworthy. Its gargantuan shell dwarfs the surrounding buildings (which are themselves massive), and its most striking feature is giant windows which look, from Tyrell’s office, on to the city proper. Scott shoots Tyrell, as he stands in front of these windows, from a distance, allowing the impressive scope of the city to dominate his comparatively minuscule body. The suggestion is made, then, that his vitality originates in the architecture. It is because of his relative societal position that he possesses something approximating vitality, not any essential human qualities. Even the supposed ‘leaders’ of society, then, are disciplined by the machines surrounding them.
Eldon Tyrell calls his replicants “more human than human” (Williams 384), and the assertion that a machine is even comparable to a human, let alone superior to, is cause for dismay. Blade Runner depicts a dystopia wherein the latter is true. Machinery has supplanted humanity, for the machines possess not only the strength and intellectual benefits intrinsic to their metallic being, but have appropriated human vitality – that animalistic advantage – too.