Blade Runner, the first re-imagined Neo-Noir

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When a science fiction film like Blade Runner crosses over into sultry, cynical film noir territory, movie aficionados tend to sit up and take note.

And that they most certainly did… eventually; Blade Runner only took on cult status years after its poor box-office performance.

Firmly rooted in film noir mystique, director Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner planted the seed for a new genre, the retro-future, and proved that a film can not only shrug on the cloak of more than one genre, but it can wear both — or more — with compelling, masterful panache.

The Dark Mark of Film Noir

Nothing’s gonna be alright. Mose Allison

One of the most notable characteristics of a noir film (“black film”) is lighting. An uneasy play of shadows, stark contrasts between light and dark, immediately sets the stage and leaves the audience feeling caught in a strange web of disquiet, desire and doom.

Like the lyrics from a Mose Allison song, we know from the start visually that “nothing’s gonna be alright.” Blade Runner is no exception and fits in nicely with the typical noir urban gloom.

A dark, seedy, futuristic Los Angeles — sprawling yet claustrophobic — greets moviegoers. Rain, constant, relentless acid rain beats mercilessly down on an L.A. of 2019 (in 1982 the year 2019 was futuristic), lending a sense of desperation to the film right from the start. Alleys, roof tops, abandoned buildings — all add to Blade Runner’s general dreary murk.

Indisputably, Blade Runner contains all the criteria to be considered a film noir:

  • Cynical cop or detective
  • Femme fatale
  • Low-level lighting
  • Pervasive atmosphere of doom
  • Crime drama
  • Urban setting
  • Gripping investigation
  • Seductive, steamy, ill-fated love
  • Quiet, almost accepted, desperation

…with the exception, that is, of a chain-smoking, fedora-sporting, protagonist. Deckard does wear a trench, however, or the closest imitation of a trench that was deemed to be plausible in the futuristic setting.

Enter the Blade Runner

The Film Noir Foundation describes noir films of the forties and fifties as “cynical crime melodramas” inspired by “hardboiled American crime fiction.” Humphrey Bogart’s character, Sam Spade, in Howard Hawks’ The Maltese Falcon stands as a perfect example of a film noir protagonist: cynical private detective (or cop) who, during the course of the film, runs into a host of unsavory characters, falls hard for a seductive femme fatale and gets beaten up — quite a lot, actually.

To believably be beaten almost to death, and yet carry on, a star was needed. Harrison Ford, in what is probably his finest role, delivered the very essence of the pain so perfectly depicted in the past by Bogart and Mitchum.

The “blade runner” of Blade Runner, Rick Deckard, meets the tenuous criteria of a film noir “hero.” Hero may not aptly describe this particular, or any other noir, protagonist, because they act more out of necessity, playing a realistic role.

Despite being capable of heroic actions, such as self-sacrifice, historycally their actions have never been motivated by romantic, idealistic, heroism because they belong to the post world war II age.

Noir heroes have learned the hard way that it’s better to stay out of troubles. That’s why a reluctant Deckard — ex-cop turned gun to hire — has to be forced to carry out one last job as a blade runner.

Deckard has been assigned to hunt down and take out a group of escaped very human-looking and -acting replicants scattered throughout L.A.’s over-crowded, maze-like understory that exists beneath a canopy of towering mega-structures and buildings that really do seem to scrape the sky.

The job, the audience feels, ain’t gonna be easy, nothing’s going to be alright, and Deckard will probably — and does — end up with a lot of bruises, split lips, black eyes, and cracked ribs before the movie ends.

In a voiceover from the 1982 theatrical release, Deckard is heard to say, in typical, hard-edged noir fashion, “They don’t advertise for killers in the newspaper. That was my profession. Ex-cop. Ex-blade runner. Ex-killer.”

Hard as a hard-boiled egg and another tentacle-like root wends its way beneath the gritty film noir soil.

The Director’s Cut edition (or rather, editions — there are two of them, three counting the unapproved “Workprint”) does not include the voice over nor a few other details, such as the ending aerial footage donated by Stanley Kubrick (a leftover from The Shining).

For true film noir fans, the original theatrical release is still the only canon (accepted or, as many would contend, self-evident). Yet an open minded evening spent watching the 2007 edition would probably satisfy even the strongest advocates of the 1982 version. Most of Blade Runner’s noir roots are still there and the lack of the signature voice over does not make it less effective.

La Femme Fatale

A film noir hero may be hard-edged and cynical, but he usually ends up going all gooey over a long-legged, shoulder-padded gal in silk stockings, stilettos, and a pencil skirt. Deckard may be tough and distrusting, but he’s got a vulnerable spot for his particular femme fatale, Rachel (Sean Young), a dark-eyed replicant who’s “more human than human” and doesn’t know she’s a replicant until Deckard breaks it to her.

Rachel’s first appearance on screen is pure noire. She sports a fifties hairdo, lavishly smokes in smoke filled rooms, her silhouette drawn by light leaks from the ever-present venetian blinds.

She greets Deckard with a sensual coldness that turns her in to the re-imagination of Lauren Bacall.

Rachel works as an assistant to the genius that created the Nexus replicants, Dr. Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel), a formidable corporate tycoon and owner of the most mega of mega-structures in L.A.: a 700-story colossus where the replicant-androids are developed, created and tested.

Deckard and Rachel desperately need each other and follow film noir tradition by having a steamy, albeit doomed, relationship that seems to cause more anguish than pleasure.

Tears in the Rain

The most frightening character, seemingly, in Blade Runner takes the shape of one uber-strong, physically fit and determined replicant named Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer). Doggedly pursued by Deckard, who’s been busy eliminating the other rebel androids and falling in love with Rachel, Roy knows that his own life is winding down prematurely and seeks a solution to the problem.

Film noir’s sense of hopeless urgency, futility and desperation are perhaps nowhere better revealed than in Roy and Deckard’s final scene together on a rainy rooftop.