Blade Runner: Sounds, Lights, And Cinematography

Blade Runner is set at the end of the 21st century in Los Angeles. It features Rick Deckard, an ex-policeman who retires to take out a group renegade replicants. He develops a friendship with Rachel (Sean Young), an experimental replicant who has human memories, during his anti-hero’s pursuit. The film simultaneously follows Roy Batty (Rutger Huauer) and four other fugitives on their search for the Tyrell Corporation’s creator. The film is a good example of neo-noir: It is a revival and reinterpretation of the film noir photographs of the 1940’s & 50’s. Blade Runner is a continuation of the neo-noir films that preceded it. The film depicts a grim world filled with crime, despair, and crowded streets. Blade Runner is a noir film that uses low-contrast lighting with a haunting soundtrack. Blade Runner’s lighting is a great way to communicate its message. It puts complex emphasis on both characters and the troubled society in which they live.

One scene in the film’s early scenes shows Deckard meeting Dr. Tyrell and Rachel. Deckard makes her go through what is called the Voight-Kampf Test: A type of polygraph interrogation that uses involuntary emotional responses to determine authenticity. Deckard is seen arriving at Tyrell corporate headquarters. The building looks more like an office than a Ziggurat. The film’s lighting is very soft at first. This is a strange element. Deckard and Rachel are new friends when they make awkward small talk. All of Tyrell’s features are clearly visible, but Rachel is illuminated with hard frontal lighting. Deckard is given a gentler treatment but still has great visibility. Deckard’s glow is almost Hollywood-style, and the rim-light gives it a Hollywood glow. The film’s first feelings are captured in this yet undiscovered lighting style. Deckard is given a softened treatment, but he is still clearly lit. Deckard makes a comment about the room’s brightness. Voight-Kampf should be given in partial dark. This short line signals a change in lighting. A shade slowly descends to obscure the view from the chamber’s rear, dimming the scene and creating a shadow. The shade descends until only a tiny amount of light can penetrate. Deckard, Rachel and others are left partially lit in the darkened room. The dark shadows are sharpened and defined by the bright light. Only Deckard and Rachel remain partially lit. Deckard now lies in darkness, his eyes hidden from the sun. The rest is hidden in dim lighting. His shadows are hardened and exaggerated. Rachel is seated in hard backlight. Her outline is clear, but her features are less obvious than when she was introduced. This shift into darkness is the beginning and end of suspicion. Deckard must examine the girl’s reality through both literal and metaphorical darkness. Deckard claims that Rachel’s habit of smoking does not affect his ability to see through the dark veil between characters. Deckard notices that Rachel smokes a cigarette and creates an opaque milky cloud around her. As the cloud dissipates, it reorganizes with each silent breath. The shadow and smoke cover the girl that was once clearly visible in bright, high-key light. The change in lighting creates doubts in both the story and the viewer about Rachel’s authenticity. Rachel fails to answer the question. The girl is clearly a replicant by this point. Tyrell waved for her to go, and she walked across the chamber floor, once more lit.

Blade Runner’s scenes are filled with complex, layered sound. The external scenes feature extras moving through the city, with conversations in multiple languages, steam and electricity hums, and low rumbles of transportation. This is accompanied by heavy raindroplets falling in continuous showers. Deckard, as he wanders through a marketplace for synthetic animals, hears an undercurrent bleating and screeching of livestock. Other sounds are frighteningly disturbing: sirens sound eerie, electric cries are heard, and pedestrian signals with robot voices repeat a surreal phrase: Cross now. Don’t walk. Walk. Blade Runner uses subtler sounds to communicate other themes. Deckard is left alone in his dim apartment after telling Rachel straightly that she is an infected replicant. The surrounding noise is more muted than the exterior scenes but it is still quite loud. Along with the constant rain beating on the windows, the low-pitched hum of air passing through the vents creates a rich base of sound. Deckard is silent as passing cars and police sirens often come into range. Vangelis’ electronic music is heard above all this. This scene is dominated by a melancholy, echoing piano. Vangelis’ words are accented by electronic and siren sounds. When Rachel looks at the photograph of Rachel’s mother and herself, he hears children playing. Deckard stares in fascination, as though he can hear the voices. Deckard feels like he is in a different reality because of this expert mixing of non-diegetic audio and film. Are they in their reality? Deckard might be dreaming and listening to Vangelis’ pulses, synthesized sounds, or perhaps Deckard is more in his own reality. Blade Runner’s soul lies in this dissonance of the real and the unreal, between replicant and human. The film’s converging non-diegetic and diegetic sounds make it difficult to distinguish between reality and dream. Mise en scène takes over the role of mediating the message on the streets.

Blade Runner’s exterior scenes are among the most intricately choreographed and meticulously crafted of all the films. They are made up of hundreds of extras who wear unique costumes and have their own props. As Deckard and his replicant targets travel through Los Angeles, they are greeted by disfigured figures, women in lingerie and shrouded in gasmasks. The rain reflects off neon signage that bears licensed names like Atari, Coca-Cola or Pan-Am. The characters’ movements through these scenes enhance the density. Deckard chases Zhora, a replication of Deckard, after following her to nightclubs. Deckard follows Zhora out the club. Both characters must navigate congested streets in snakelike fashions as Deckard chases her. A few extras are seen as aloof and unresponsive to the dangers that the city presents, but they rarely let their characters pass. They have to avoid obstacles and sometimes move backwards in order to gain distance. They move in this way to allow the audience to see the different structures and figures within the film. This is the scene that ends with Zhora falling through a glass shopfront. Deckard fires several rounds into Zhora’s back, and she falls amongst a group of mannequins. Deckard disappears among the crowd of disinterested people as a voice from the computer tells them to go on.

Another crucial scene is played by Mise en Szene, right before Deckard retires Pris the third replicant. The rest of the androids were kept safe at J.F. Sebastian, a genetic engineer for Tyrell. Sebastian is a lonely man who has filled his Bradbury penthouse with “friends”, which he describes as crude replicants or animatronic models. Deckard arrives at his apartment and discovers that he is living in a side room with dozens of Sebastian’s creepy dolls. Some of them lie still while others move in vaguely human ways. As another man maneuvers the china set, another stout person laughs and holds its stomach. Would you like some more tea? Would you like some more tea? Deckard moves through the room, admiring Pris as he sits immobile at its center. Deckard then moves to the other side. He stops for a second and then turns. Deckard, the human only present at the gathering is flanked with a variety of uncanny human appearances. There is no way to tell the difference in the humans, replicants, and the many dolls around them. These mannequins could either be the young Android or the officer hired to take her down. This room represents the movie’s central theme. Blade Runner portrays a world that is ambiguous about what it means to be human.

Deckard’s encounters are the climax of this film. Roy Batty returns from Sebastian to find Pris deceased and continues relentlessly following Deckard as the replicant body nears its end. They both get hurt as they climb through the penthouses to reach the roof. Deckard then jumps to another building to escape Batty’s madness. He just manages to catch a jutting beam and hangs there, certain to go down. Deckard’s imminent death is prevented by Batty at this point. The movie shows that even though he is a doll, he has a short moment of human compassion. He remarkes that all his experiences will be forgotten “like raindrops”. Accepting death is a way to learn about life and it’s easy to accept this man as a human being. It’s a machine capable of compassion even in an environment that is filled with suspicion and isolation.