cybernoir: a cultural studies reading of blade runner


i.                     Introduction: the idea of hybrid media and their import for popular culture and for this class.

A.     A simple introduction to all of this: how many of you had seen Blade Runner before last night? (show of hands) How many of you had been told that it was a science-fiction film you had to see?

B.     Okay, whether or not they did, I had been told since I was a wee geeklet with a mother who looks so much like Sigourney Weaver that she's been mistaken for Sigourney's stuntwoman that Blade Runner was a foundational film for science fiction, one of the must-sees. The question is WHY does this film get recommended so much? Why is the "director's cut" (overrated, BTW) such a big deal for this film? What, in other words, sets off the "pay attention to this film on an academic level" alarm?

1.      Now meesa, this is part of what I do as a scholar and as your average hobbyist. I find the alarms and what sets off the alarms in my head when I'm surfing through the matrix of popular culture that's surround us. And I find a lot of what sets off the thing in my head is what Marshall McLuhan calls a hybrid. Sometimes this is a hybrid between mediums (for example, working with Professor Warner last quarter, I did a lengthy paper on Moulin Rouge which examines that film as a cross between the music video, the musical film, and Indian popular film). But in the case of Blade Runner, this is more about the creation of a hybrid film genre and how that both signals a radical change in science fiction and also how it clears the landscape for a new strain of science fiction--what we like to call cyberpunk.

2.      So what am I going to do to you for the next forty-five to fifty minutes, you ask? What cracked-out graduate student smeg am I going to spew at you? It basically comes down to three major divisions, each punctuated by a lot of clips because I'm like that. And the three divisions are:

I.                    You cannot have Blade Runner without noir: both the written noir that Philip K. Dick drew upon heavily for the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and more importantly for us as analysts of the film, the genre known as film noir that may in fact have a larger role to play in the shaping of this film than the science-fiction genre.

II.                 The science fiction in Blade Runner works primarily because it takes all of the rules of science fiction that we've gotten comfortable with by this point in the class and jumps on them. Stomps on them. Takes only the parts it thinks are cool and pretty much tells the sort of sf that's exemplified by 2001 on the one hand and Star Wars (as well as, to some extent, Ridley Scott's own Alien) to sit and spin.

III.               Blade Runner changes everything in science fiction, print, film, and television. Nothing is ever quite the same again in sci-fi--and there are many creative AND cultural reasons why. It's definitely a pop-cultural watershed.


so here we go…


ii.                   Part One: The noir aesthetic and what it means to Blade Runner

A.     Probably the best way to define film noir is to define when its "canonical" period begins and ends: it starts with 1941's The Maltese Falcon and ends in about 1958 with Orson Welles' Touch of Evil (highly contentious definition, BTW). Film noir, in many ways, is an emanation of the "pulp novel" (to go all the way back to formula fiction) that flourishes in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, exemplified by authors like Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain. The novels sounded mostly like this:


The room was too big, the ceiling was too high, the doors were too tall, and the white carpet that went from wall to wall looked like a fresh fall of snow at Lake Arrowhead. There were full-length mirrors and crystal doodads all over the place. The ivory furniture had chromium on it, and the enormous ivory drapes lay tumbled on the white carpet a yard from the window. The white made the ivory look dirty and the ivory made the white look bled out. The windows stared toward the darkening foothills. It was going to rain soon. There was pressure in the air already.  (Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep, 1939


Notice some of the big noir touches that we visually see in Blade Runner: first of all, the Los Angeles setting (how many of our novels/short stories/films have had that particular setting?), the heavily described settings that tend toward the grungy when it's the protagonist--and rain. Lots of rain. Other things that noir films and novels tend to have: a male detective protagonist, a normal guy, leery of cops, who works in a world full of colorful lowlifes, doesn't have much money, and almost always GETS THE CRAP KNOCKED OUT OF HIM. Meanwhile, the lead woman in the story tends to be wealthy, glamorous, and have a dark secret that almost undoes her and our detective-hero. Another point is that the detective-hero is what we like to call an anti-hero. He does violent, frequently downright creepy things to get a case taken care of. He's a selfish pig (if you've ever read the Mike Hammer books, he's a misogynist selfish pig) who's looking out for him--but despite that, we like him anyway.


So on the one hand, we've got the textual elements of noir here that you know, clearly work in Blade Runner. Deckerd does get his ass kicked on a regular basis. Rachael has plenty of elements of the femme fatale. The setting is Los Angeles--and notably, a dystopian, miserable Los Angeles full of lost and lonely souls trying to scrape along as best they can. The cops are jerks, the ending is uncertain at best, and we don't feel any thrill of redemption for our protagonists. But what about the visual, filmic elements (you know, the stuff that makes Stanley Kubrick the man?)


well, let's start with me showing you two sequences--one from Blade Runner and the other from the 1941 film The Maltese Falcon. Maltese isn't the best for locale, but it's definitely got the tone that I'm looking for, so here we go.


You're obviously seeing a major visual similarity: these movies are dark. Smoky, shadowy, hard to see. Gritty. Insert your own dark-related synonym here--the gift of noir movies to the film industry. However, I'd also like to point out how tense these sequences are, and how the woman looks in this scene. Visually, there is much to link our 1940s flick and our 1982 flick.


But therein lies the big quandary. Why did Ridley Scott decide to make a cross-genre novel like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep into a noir-sf movie? If the big flourishing of noir is 1941-1958, why is Scott working with a genre that's at least 25 years out of date? What's he see in noir that's relevant to a 1982 audience? I think the answer perhaps lies in how Scott handles the science fiction part of his film and what he's reacting to within science fiction.


iii.                  Part Two: Stomping all over Science Fiction--and teaching them to like it


Now, the thing that's extremely interesting to me is that people think of Blade Runner as primarily a science fiction film. I mean, it's clearly a science fiction film in form: there's the futuristic setting, there's the robots who aren't exactly robots. There's the flying cars, there's the technology that's advanced. Except compared to the striving for scientific accuracy and the description of believable future technology, Blade Runner is more or less pulled out of someone's hey-hey if you're looking at the details. Nobody explains how the replicants came to be, or off-world travel. They just ARE.


Compare this to 2001. The science there is on display in a hardcore, incredibly central way. The movie revolves around the technology. Now so does Blade Runner--in a way. But the way the science fiction is used is completely different and I think it's why Ridley Scott (and Philip K. Dick, for that matter) play up the noir aspects of the story around them. They're not interested in hitting you over the head with the technology for their Big Points. Right? Or are they just doing the reverse psychology thing?




I think there are two answers to the way that Blade Runner handles science fiction: on the one hand, it's the answer to big, clean, white futures in space that we see in films like 2001, and Star Wars. Think about that: the last film Ridley Scott did before Blade Runner was Alien, which is a much more obvious reply to the "extraordinary people doing extraordinary things in space" idea that in particular, Star Wars is hitting popular culture with. (Though I would seriously consider a look back to 2001, because I don't think it's possible to make a serious science fiction film after 2001 without having some relationship to that film). Instead of heroes who destroy galactic empires, or you know, the first men going to Jupiter, Alien and 2001 feature people who are a little more "average Joe" types. People who are NOT necessarily obsessed with Science for Science's Sake. Or saving the world. Deckerd is fairly normal after all that (he has a job, problems with the bills, lives in an apartment, eats noodles, has cultural contact zones, et cetera)--he's doing a dirty job which could be even more complicated if he's a replicant (as Ridley Scott says he is--I'm not entirely convinced).


[Talk about how maybe, just maybe, Blade Runner is the portrait of science fiction as it appears to people who are not the extraordinary people or the scientists. It could be how fabulous new technology appears to more average and everyday people--or to the dispossessed.]


After all, what are replicants to people on Earth? What do they represent? They're smarter, better-looking, and healthier. They get to go off-world, which most people left on Earth (think of Sebastian) either are not capable of physically or economically. And despite the fact that they DO bleed, that they are NOT exactly what we'd term "robots," they are treated EXACTLY like robots who disobey. Shoot first, ask questions later. They don't even get the dignity of death--they're "retired." And for what reason? Replicants are more or less human--they "don't have the same emotions" claim the people with power and money, but from what we see of Roy, Pris, Zhora, and most importantly Rachael and Deckerd, that might be bullshit. So our aliens--our Others--are completely indistinguishable from other humans without tests. The difference is SMALL at best. But it causes the most violent response--a non-compliant replicant dies, as compared to what happens to non-compliant robots in I, Robot. Hell, even HAL has to kill before they retire him.


But you know, the big thing about Blade Runner as science fiction is that because the technology is NOT shoved in your face as alien, different, not human, but you can't stop thinking about replicants. Or the fact that it's always raining in Los Angeles and that the people who aren't replicants look like hell. Instead of being distracted by the technology's viability and how it would work, people can focus on the world that the tech and the alien others have given to humans--and not great, especially smart humans. In fact, a lot of these people are sick or "abnormal" in some way.


[Talk about how the world of Blade Runner makes it easier to understand that science fiction is about the anxieties of the world around us. I mean, we can talk about War of the Worlds being about worries about imperialism, but it seems abstracted because these are Martians, not cyborgs/humans. For example, it's easier to see Pris as talking about the sexual exploitation of young women. Or the homeless problem. And it's easier to see cultural anxieties spelled out--after all, Los Angeles seems like an outpost of Japan, doesn't it?]


So overall, yeah, we've got the fact that the science fiction in Blade Runner is noticeably different from the sort of science fiction that's come before. It's a futurity that doesn't focus on the amazing developments that then go wrong. Things are already wrong and it's not the fault of the amazing developments. That's where it suddenly makes sense to cast this in the noir idiom, because film noir is all about the dysfunctional world that's trying to be understood by a hero that's broken in some ways. And there aren't any simple answers about how to fix things.


But in any case, it's a new paradigm in science fiction. And it changed things--ask me how.


iv.                 When It Changed: The Advent of Cyberpunk and Nouveau Sci-Fi


So we've got Blade Runner as neo-noir science fiction, and through looking at the way science fiction is morphed, we kind of may have a reason why Ridley Scott decided to do it that way. What we haven't talked about is what happened after Blade Runner came out and why everyone throws the word cyberpunk around when we're talking about it.


Well, what you have to think about is the early 1980s and what science fiction was starting to percolate out. Usually, even though it's not the case, literary science fiction of the 1980s begins and ends with cyberpunk and literary cyberpunk starts with William Gibson's Neuromancer. Between Gibson and Blade Runner, most of the terminology of science fiction has significantly shifted (though not until the mid-90s do people get all a-twitter about it). So what's happened to science fiction?


One, we've got a noticeable shift in where technology goes. Technology isn't nearly as big and metallic anymore. Robots have become cyborgs (even those with metal structures, like in Terminator have human-looking visages and a yearning toward the human). Humans have implants. Technology and science don't save the world--all the technology in Blade Runner hasn't made Earth into a paradise. In fact, Earth is the dump. Industrial technology has thrashed earth and nobody seems to care.


Computers and robots have more space between them. The AI's of Neuromancer, Snow Crash, and The Matrix are less interested in this world and more in worlds of their own making. The powerful computer in Alien, "Mother," is ominous but without personality. This goes along with the micro-computing revolution that's going on--and noticeably, it's not playing a part in Blade Runner, which is not neatly and cleanly cyberpunk. However, I think that matters less because of what Blade Runner does to science fiction.


Not that this is necessarily a magical invention of Ridley Scott (even George Lucas seems to have darkened up some upon 1980 if you're looking at Empire and such), but what Ridley Scott does to science fiction with Blade Runner is provide it a new aesthetic, a new direction for it to go in popular culture. Sci-fi film immediately reacts--cuz this is the time of Terminator, Brazil, Aliens, et cetera. They get darker. Television, as television does, takes a longer time to react, but it really does start hitting in the early 1990s when the digital revolution starts really hitting (even though TV doesn't really give a damn about that. The look matters, not much else--so you get The X-Files and maybe even Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but that not so much). Comics and graphic art does react, especially in the form of anime--for example, Ghost in the Shell was The Matrix before there was such a thing. But the real difference, I think, is in the way we think about science fiction.


[Talk about perception, the idea of the person being more important than the technology, a lot of what was central to old-school sf being subjugated for the story in new school, the shift to where the cultural concerns are a lot clearer and easier to see, the fact that instead of calling the Japanese the Romulans or making them aliens, American fear about being bought out by the Japanese is suddenly just out in front of us, clear as a bell. Suddenly the idea that science fiction is about cultural fears isn't so far-fetched…but then there's what is sort of lost by shifting science fiction into noir sf and why cyberpunk DID NOT SELL until the 1990s nearly as well as Anne McCaffrey or Robert Heinlein or people who went with the old formulae. And that's the wonder. We suddenly get the view of our Other, we suddenly realize that what's "so great" about technology isn't necessarily so, but it's no longer Thus Spake Zarathustra, you know?]


So what's my conclusion? As someone once told me, "Life is Blade Runner, the rest is just details," and in many ways, she's right. There was a significant shift in the way our futures got portrayed after Blade Runner (hell, even Star Trek shifted latently--Deep Space Nine), and the meaning of what science fiction was all about also shifted a great deal. In some ways this was long-overdue and allowed for significant new voices to come into the game, but in other ways, Blade Runner sort of took something out of science fiction, too.