In Ridley Scott’s 1982 science fiction masterpiece “Blade Runner”, the cityscape of Los Angeles in the year 2017 is one of the most memorable and important features of the film. How does its dystopian landscape add to the movie, and what is the message that this portrayal of a near-future mega-city conveys?
The plot of the movie centers on Rick Decker, who is the eponymous Blade Runner of the film. A Blade Runner is a type of police officer who “retires” biological androids known as replicants who have been illegalized on Earth. Decker is given the task of hunting down four renegade replicants, and he sets out to methodically retire each one throughout the movie. Along the way, he ends up falling in love with a replicant named Rachel who decides to help him. The movie ends with him killing the ringleader of the replicants, and escaping the city with Rachel.
The Cityscape is as crucial to the movie as the actors. Los Angeles is in itself a character. The dark, grungy, fog infested city streets lend an atmosphere to the film that invokes the same morbid feelings in the viewer that Deckard himself faces during the course of the film. The type of city that Los Angeles has morphed into is known as a “dystopia”, which is a type of society that is in dysfunction. We can tell that Los Angeles is a dystopia in many ways. We see the skyline of the city in the opening minutes of the movie. From smokestacks on the ground, great plumes of fire burst into the sky. This sets the tone of the film for the viewer, as it represents a fearsome sight that quickly goes away, similar to the four replicants in the story. As well setting the tone, it also presents a violent image that goes along with the topics of pollution and crime.
One interesting aspect of Blade Runner’s depiction of Los Angeles is the overwhelming amount of Japanese influence on the city. In the initial scene of the movie, we see billboards with Geisha advertising products with hiragana text all around. Japanese immigrants are prominent in the city, which is lined with sushi stands. In the penultimate scene of the movie, a TDK billboard is prominent. This aspect of the city plays on fears that viewers of the movie back in 1982 may have shared about the rising influence of Japan on the United States.
Immigrants are also a prominent aspect of the near future depiction of Los Angeles. Immigrant populations are a defining feature of large urban cities. Many different ethnicities are portrayed in the film. Japanese are prominent denizens of Los Angeles, while both an Arabic man and a European man each play roles in Decker’s hunt for the replicants midway through the movie. With the immigrant aspect also comes differing languages, another feature commonly seen in a city. The Japanese and Korean languages are heard frequently in the movie. Another commonly heard language in the movie is known as “cityspeak”. Cityspeak is an interesting mixture of languages including Japanese, Hungarian, Spanish, and French (Mariman). What this made up chimera language implies is that the various foreign cultures that have mixed in the urban metropolis of Los Angeles have created a unique culture to Los Angeles. This is also a common feature of urban cities where cultures intermix in a melting pot, creating a culture that is distinctly of that city.
How the city is depicted in a film like this can send a substantial message to the viewer. Overall, the view of the big city of Los Angeles in Blade Runner is very pessimistic in tone. As noted above, the city is a dystopia. There is garbage and grime covering the city. Trash is piling in the streets, a detail very noticeable in the scene where the character Priss makes her on screen debut. The streets are covered in some sort of thick smog, signifying a great amount of industrial pollution comparable to the pollution of New Delhi. Likewise, it is often raining in the movie. Rain is a good thematic representation of sadness, and helps to subliminally convey that to the viewer. Another key feature of the movies portrayal of Los Angeles is that the city is constantly shown at night. No explanation is given as to whether or not this is due to pollution of some sort or is only to convey a literal sense of darkness to the viewer. Another scene that lent itself to the pessimistic tone of the city was the scene where Decker is hunting down Priss two thirds through the movie. In this scene, Decker is sitting in his police car during a rain storm. After being checked on by a patrol officer, a gang of kids mug a man and then try stealing parts off of Decker’s car. The small, one minute clip portrays a very bleak image that suggests that crime is commonplace in Los Angeles. Another subtle reference to crime is a sound effect heard while Decker is going to the Middle Eastern bar; the sound effect is a very distinct honk that is usually made by “Bosozoku”. The Bosozoku are Japanese youth motorcycle gangs that were frequent causes of concern in Japan when the film was produced. These subtle details show to us that not only is Los Angeles a gloomy and dirty city to live in, but that it is also a dangerous steel and concrete jungle.
The film’s depiction of the city obviously takes many liberties with what could be realistically expected of technology’s advances, even in 1982. Things such as “flying” cars, space wars, and androids so lifelike that they are easily mistaken for humans are technological feats that still haven’t been achieved today with only six years to go until the date the movie takes place in. Likewise, Los Angeles has not morphed into quite the dystopia that the movie projects it as being. However, Los Angeles is still a very polluted place. An article on the Atlantic Cities blog shows maps that indicate where and how much pollution is in certain parts of the city (Badger 2013). It is rather disturbing in fact that much of it is around areas that house children. It is areas like this that the movie was accurate in its prediction for the future of the city.
Yet, another point to go against the depiction of crime in Los Angeles in the movie is that crime rates have dropped nationwide, and in Los Angeles as well since 1990. According to the Christian Science Monitor, crime is down drastically, and is nowhere near approaching dystopian levels anywhere in the country (Wood 2012). This isn’t to say that the movie was wrong for including that as an element in its dystopian depiction of what could essentially be any urban metropolis. However, it’s depiction of the city being a seemingly out of control mess feels heavy handed from a modern viewpoint. To a viewer in the 80’s though, it must have been a rather chilling projection of a seemingly never ending trend that the nation as a whole was undergoing at the time. To this extent, the dystopian shock of the cityscape is somewhat lost on newer viewers.
In conclusion, Blade Runner is a film that attempts to portray a dystopian setting in order to cast a dark atmosphere for what is essentially a science fiction tinted detective story. While its expressions of fear about crime and Japanese cultural and corporate takeover were relevant to audiences in the 1980’s, the movie’s depiction of a future Los Angeles is somewhat outlandish today. However, it’s interesting take on the future development of the city, along with its realistic depiction of foreigners is commendable. For being a science fiction detective movie, Blade Runner takes considerable care with its portrayal of an urban cityscape.
Badger, Emily. 2013. “One of the Most Disturbing Maps of Los Angeles You’ll Ever See.” The Atlantic Cities, June 18. http://www.theatlanticcities.com/neighborhoods/2013/06/one-most-disturbing-maps-los-angeles-youll-ever-see/5933/.
Mariman, Lukas. “BRmovie.com: BR FAQ: Language Matters (including Cityspeak, Blimp Ad and full Noodle Bar scene).” http://www.brmovie.com/FAQs/BR_FAQ_Language.htm. Accessed June 20, 2013.
Wood, Daniel. 2012. “US crime rate at lowest point in decades. Why America is safer now.” The Christian Science Monitor, January 09 http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Justice/2012/0109/US-crime-rate-at-lowest-point-in-decades.-Why-America-is-safer-now.