The original Blade Runner is a film about the past, present and future. The future part is obvious: replicants, flying cars, off world colonies. It also remains fixed in the present of its time, the early 1980s, with the film’s characters wearing neck ties, reading newspapers, smoking indoors, talking on payphones, watching small screen TVs, and dressing like punk rockers. The past part may not seem so obvious, but it is essential to understanding the film.
The past of Blade Runner is film noir of the mid 20th century. Not just in the way it looks, though the look of film noir is spread throughout the film: the clothes Rachel wears, the office that Bryant works in, the style of clothes and music in Taffy Lewis’s club, the constant smoking, the hats of Gaff, the trench coat of Batty. It is noir in its morality and outlook. The world is a bleak place, the characters are not who they appear to be, and the morality of everyone is compromised and complicated.
I thought about this again when I read this piece, There’s Something About “Blade Runner” | Balder and Dash | Roger Ebert, as well as reading comments about Blade Runner 2049. In this piece, the author tries to establish who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. Assigning who the good and bad people are in film noir is pointless. No one is entirely good, and more often than not, everyone is some degree of bad. Film noir characters have to make difficult choices in a bleak environment where there may be no happy outcomes.
Likewise, some people are critical of Blade Runner 2049 and the role of women in this future. The assumption should be that in the future there should be progress and women should have better roles. But the future of Blade Runner is not one of progress. It is a future where despite technological advances there is no progress. It may not be the future you want, any more than the worlds of film noir are not ones you want to inhabit. It is the future the filmmakers want to explore, and get you to think about.
More on film noir here and here. A great example of what Blade Runner might look like cast as just a film noir film is in that clip above. While Blade Runner is gorgeous in colour, I’d love to see a black and white (sepia and white?) version of it too.