Neo-Noir: The Importance of Aesthetics in Blade Runner (1982)

Tuesday, January 22, 2019


Anyone who knows me or who has read this blog is familiar with my etherial struggle to appreciate Blade Runner. While I am not going to delve too deeply into that, I am going to push past any of those preconceived notions of inferiority in an attempt to appreciate and understand this highly-beloved film for what it is rather than what it is not. Rather than review this film, I am going to deep-dive into one of the things that really interested me during my rewatch last weekend: the neo-noir aesthetic and how that depiction of 2019 is significant to the progression of the plot.

Note: I have not seen Blade Runner 2049. If any of my thoughts/opinions either contradict or are answered in the 2017 sequel, I guess I'll find out later.


One thing that sets this sci-fi film apart from any other of its time is the creative direction that Ridley Scott followed. The film is very neo-noir as it creates a dark and mysterious world in which the main character, who is a detective, leads us on a journey into the dark world of 2019. Just like classic noir films, neo-noir films feature a dark and mysterious protagonist, a dark (think: underworld) depiction of society, and are usually centered around a mystery of some sort. Blade Runner very obviously checks off on all of these characteristics. So how does this affect how we are invited into this world?

The style of Blade Runner is enough of an indicator of the type of 2019 world that is being created. The actual plot falls secondary to the dark and mysterious underworld that depicts 2019 as sort of post-apocalyptic anti-robot frontier in which Rick Deckard tracks down runaway robots known as "replicants."

One of the most noticeable aspects of the film is that it is very dark, with most of the scenes taking place at night. The darkly lit scenes build upon the film noir aesthetic that was historically used as a way to express the dark or depressed state of society in a post-WWII era. Similarly, Blade Runner's reliance on dark scenes could be an expression of 80s anxiety that 2019 would be a post-nuclear society.


Lets talk about shadows for a bit. If there's one thing that film noir loves, it's a good shadow and if there's one thing that Ridley Scott loves, it's a good shadow. Right out of the gate, the film brands itself as film noir with a nice shadow of Gaff. Then, throughout the film, the use of shadows is used to enhance the feel of mystery. Just as in classic noir, shadowing emphasizes the duality between worlds. Sure, there's some good in the world, but shadows in noir, and in Blade Runner, highlight the dark world of mystery and crime in which Deckard is immersed. Bringing it all back to sci-fi, the use of shadows could also hint that Earth is actually the underbelly of society at this point. In order to escape the shadow and find the light, you'd need to go off-planet where replicants are obedient and humans are healthy (oh wait, I think I'm incorporating some of the book into that assumption. Still, I think it checks out.)


Possibly one of my favorite Noir elements from Blade Runner is the consistent presence of rain. Just as in classic noir films, the dark aesthetic and the mystery of the plot is enhanced through a rainy backdrop. By adding a texture to the aesthetic, we are transported into the film. We can now feel what Deckard feels and even if we are sitting cosily at home, we feel suddenly wet and miserable too. Not only does rain enhance the noir style of the film, but it also plays into the idea that the world in 2019 is undergoing a change. Is the rain merely rain or could it be, like in the novels, radioactive fallout? That ambiguity, I feel, is important in merging the noir style of the film with the sci-fi aspects.

The film noir style of Blade Runner is important because it portrays a future (for those in the 80s) 2019 as one in crisis. It is a future that buys into the early 80s paranoia that the Cold War would ultimately lead to a decayed society. Blade Runner  enhances those paranoid visions of the future with its dark colors, persistent shadows, and ambiguous rain.

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