In "Blade Runner" the city is depicted as a cold concrete colossus.
© Boris Hars-Tschachotin

Gigantic screens on skyscraper facades, flying cars, no sunshine, constant rain – and AI humanoids used for slave labour: a grim vision of the future once presented on the silver screen – and now our present reality? Boris Hars-Tschachotin’s documentary “The Blade Runner Phenomenon” is now being shown on ARTE and is well worth watching.

By Thomas Wagner.

“Blade Runner” achieved cult status long ago. While the story that develops around Rick Deckard may have faded in the memories of many cinemagoers, the design behind the urban spaces and buildings, the roads, the cars and the costumes in the most famous science fiction film (up there with Kubrick’s “A Space Odyssey”) have never gone away. Young people today find the settings in Los Angeles very “instagrammable”. So, how did the designers manage to design scenery that made this 1982 vision of LA in the year 2019 seem like the present day in certain parts?

Talking about “Dangerous Days”, as the script for “Blade Runner” was called back then, Ridley Scott said, “What fascinated me about this project after I had just finished up with ‘Alien’ was the opportunity to keep developing this futuristic world. I did not want to simply return to everyday reality. I really liked that the script was about the not-so-distant future. It needed to be a familiar city, which it is. Many aspects of this city already come across to us as common. Some of the viewers will even experience a future like this one themselves. What I also liked was that the story was about a realistic character and not just a two-dimensional comic book figure, which is what you often see in science fiction films.”

Big cities in a Hadean landscape

Much of today's Los Angeles is reminiscent of the film "Blade Runner"
Much of today’s Los Angeles is reminiscent of the metropolitan juggernaut created by Syd Mead as early as 1982 for the film “Blade Runner”: the city is depicted as a cold concrete colossus in which people lose themselves like ants. © Ralf Ilgenfritz

The world was different when Scott became the director of Blade Runner in the spring of 1980. The things depicted in the film seemed extremely distant, even when the film was only set 40 years in the future: a decrepit megacity with gigantic screens on the facades of densely packed skyscrapers, the sunless gloom, constant acidic rain, the “Hades” landscape with columns of fire inspired by the chimneys in the petrochemical industry – and androids and slaves called “replicants” in the film. The film experienced a lukewarm reception when it was released in 1982 as a smoothed-over version with a happy ending. These days, however, Blade Runner is considered a vision of astonishing, prophetic power and its dystopian vision of 2019 LA is frighteningly relevant. The climate catastrophe is occurring; a society where everyone is being watched is just as realistic as excessively powerful tech corporations and AI creations.

From box office failure to cult film

Model of the Tyrell skyscraper from "Blade Runner"
Model of the Tyrell skyscraper from “Blade Runner”. Photo: Olof Werngren. Veröffentlicht von Wikimedia Commons. Distributed under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

Boris Hars-Tschachotin’s documentary on the film is well worth watching. It shows how and, most importantly, why Blade Runner made it from being a box office failure to a cult film. It looks into the film’s world and shows behind-the-scenes material from a range of sets and original film locations in Los Angeles. The film’s future and the present day continually merge into one in the shots of the city’s streets. Alex McDowell, the production designer for the film “Minority Report”, emphasises right at the beginning of the documentary that Blade Runner’s science fiction label is increasingly inaccurate. He says that the film is developing more and more into reality. While people see Blade Runner as this dystopian world with gigantic billboards and permanent rain, he believes that a walk on Los Angeles’ streets would make you think the LA of 2019 was Blade Runner’s 2019.

What makes this documentary so exciting for architects and designers of all creeds (and anyone who today talks of a homogeneous, technology-inspired future as God-given) is that it is not another “making of” film. Rather, it connects a sceptical perspective of humanity with the film’s grim aesthetic to approach questions such as these: what impressions of 2019 that were held in the 1980s, as bizarre as they appeared in the film, went on to become more or less real? And, how did the designers’ decisions, the atmosphere and the set design influence the quality of this prophecy? In other words, did the fiction gain authenticity by harmonising the form and content with the aesthetic imaginativeness and story?

Welcome to the world of Blade Runner

Edward James as Gaff
Edward James Olmos talks about his role as Gaff and one of the key scenes in the film “Blade Runner”. © Ralf Ilgenfritz

“Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” This is a question that Philip K. Dick asked in the title of his 1968 novel, which multiple screenwriters ultimately distilled into the script for Blade Runner. The novel as well as the film tell the story of Rick Deckard, a hunter of artificial humans. Edward James Olmos, who plays police officer Gaff in the film, asks what it is like to be a corporate slave and trapped in an urban hell. The documentary shows clearly how the LA of 1980 was a very different place to the LA of today, with much less development. On the other hand, these days there are people who work three jobs and still live on the street because they cannot make enough money to live in a house. It explains how the homeless populate the streets in between the high-rise buildings in which the film was shot. McDowell talks about how there is no connection between those people who live in houses and those who do not, describing the juxtaposition as hard to understand. There are 1.5-million-dollar apartments in the middle of places where people have taken over the streets. He says that the city is ending up in a situation that Blade Runner predicts accurately. The people living on the street are also asked about the film. Their names are displayed; they are not left anonymous. “The crux of the story is about the future … predicting this, I guess,” says Rodney Ranson, a man with a long white beard, referring to the homeless encampment as he stands between the tents at the side of the road.

What does it mean to be human?

The documentary gains its energy by continually setting scenes from the film against shots of LA in 2019. The director, actors, production designers and special-effect designers discuss their work on the film – and today’s reality. The speakers include Katherine Haber, who rescued the film on multiple occasions as production executive; actress Joanna Cassidy, who played Zhora; and her colleague Edward James Olmos, who also reprised his mysterious Gaff character in the sequel “Blade Runner 2049”. “The question posed in Blade Runner is this mystery of what it means to be human,” says Douglas Trumbull, the special-effects mastermind who had already made a name for himself in the sixties with his pioneering effects for Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”. The film had therefore already asked what the consequences would be when more robots perform the work of humans.

The quality of the unfinished

Designer Syd Mead
US designer Syd Mead developed the Los Angeles of the future for “Blade Runner”, in addition to flying cars. © Boris Hars-Tschachotin

Syd Mead, who is listed as a “visual futurist” in Blade Runner’s closing credits, designed large swathes of the urban spaces, the “Spinner” police car that can drive and fly, Deckard’s apartment and the Voight-Kampff machine used to identify replicants. He now explains the extent to which the film’s creatives developed the future based on the present day in the 1980s. His “Spinners”, for instance, were not the only source of inspiration for the automotive industry’s air taxis. In particular, it is the unfinished, the “retrofitting look”, the constant construction and refurbishment, and the extensions and modernisations that create a kind of hybrid of new and old that combines into a consistent whole. In the trashy chic he created, the temporary tells more about the contemporary city than the few signature buildings circulating in glossy photographs. The tall buildings made the street into the basement of the city. “The trick to doing the future”, Mead says, “is that you have to have a recognition trigger so that people watching it know what you are up to. Then they say, oh, that looks sort of familiar … OK, then I’ll buy all the rest.”

Film noir and science fiction

An "Everyman Car"
„Everyman Car“. Photo: zombieite. Veröffentlicht von Wikimedia Commons, gemeinfrei nach UrhG §64. Distributed under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

The viewer begins to understand how Blade Runner reveals the darker corners of the modern era’s dreams of the city as a machine. The urban spaces that are meant to be glamorous are riddled with dirt and fear; the dystopian undercurrents of a naive belief in the future rise to the surface. The documentary explains that every designer and entrepreneur must face a question today: how do you combine the old world with the new?

Katarina Jaspers, curator of Deutsche Kinemathek, explains, “White was the colour that symbolised the future in the 1970s – clean, pure, with smooth surfaces.” However, “Ridley wanted to make a noir science fiction film,” says Syd Mead. There were places for people and objects to hide in the many shadows of 1930s and 1940s film noir. The world of Blade Runner is also a very dark one, with no sunlight, constant rain and complete darkness. Jaspers says, “I think it’s exactly this low-key lighting that characterises film noir, and it was a novel idea to deploy it in science fiction, in Blade Runner.” Paul A. Sammon, author of “Future Noir. The Making of Blade Runner”, says that the visual inspirations for Blade Runner were “certainly buttressed” by Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” because people had “never seen a metropolis like Metropolis”. Jaspers notes how the film opens with the vertical city, the skyscrapers. She says there is a building in the centre, which in Metropolis is the Tower of Babel, while in Blade Runner it is the pyramid-like Tyrell Corporation building.

Everything about Blade Runner, Douglas Trumbull says towards the end, “is so profound and it has its own beauty. It is like looking at a painting and you say, ‘that is enigmatic’. There is something about that painting that just keeps working. It is like Mona Lisa’s smile.” Joanna Cassidy adds, “There are very few films that come together like this one. It just was not seen initially and, now, there will be waves of it … but it will never die. This film will never die, ever.”


Much of today's Los Angeles is reminiscent of the film "Blade Runner"
© Ralf Ilgenfritz

The Blade Runner Phenomenon (Das Phänomen „Blade Runner)

Director: Boris Hars-Tschachotin
Running time: 53 Min.

Available online in the arte Media Library from 27 May 2021 to 26 June 2021


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