Directed by Ridley Scott
In Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), the environment is a key character in the narrative. The world of Blade Runner, the city of Los Angeles, and the Tyrell Corporation present major thematic elements throughout the story. Scott’s postmodern design of the film and its noir genre led him to creating a world that is not only visually expressionistic, but that also captures the essence of many of Scott’s key themes (Silverman, 1991). In an attempt to contrast the physical and social environments within the film’s world, Scott shows the striking differences in style and design between the physical environments of the city of Los Angeles and the Tyrell Corporation. Scott’s design and styling of the two settings reflect on the films themes of social hierarchy and capitalism, “big brother” surveillance, environmental pollution, and the God-like complex of Tyrell and his corporation.
Scott reflects the culture of this dystopian society simply through the design of his fictitious Los Angeles. The city is overwhelmed with advertisements and the idea of capitalism. The city’s many massive billboards enchant the inhabitants with images of women, brands, and products - in this case, it’s Coco-Cola (Bruno, 1987). Despite this city being swallowed up by smog and toxins, the capitalist advertisements still shine brightly in the sky, almost like the sun or the moon for the people below. In Scott’s fictional future, he’s showing a society built on capitalism and greed - where an advertisement is more important than clean air. Even the grandeur of the Tyrell Corporation’s building, which, in design, reflects the Egyptian Pyramids, shows the excessiveness of this society’s focus on the power of capitalism - where the most powerful corporation in this world lives in a palace (or fortress) above the city slums and out of touch from the rest of society (Bruno, 1987). Scott not only makes a clear allusion to the power of corporations and capitalism in this society but also to the social hierarchy, with corporations placed above society.
Scott also shows the dominance of surveillance and the power of the police in this dystopia. When Decker is being transported to the Tyrell Corporation for the first time, Scott uses powerful imagery to show the social control by police in this society. In a cutaway shot, Scott shows a striking image of the city skyline being dominated by five police crafts. There is no other movement in the apparent abandoned city other than these prowling cops. Scott uses this imagery to portray a sense of a “big brother” society. The police, who work for the big corporations (further perpetuating capitalism place in this society), can see every action, every movement, and probably every thought the people in this city have (Kerman, 1991). Scott shows this practice in more detail later in the film when the police swarm in on Decker and the surrounding “small people” in an attempt to stop them from loitering. The police monitor and control everything that happens in this city, and the people in it must obey them. This dystopian society is repressed by the higher powers, bound to obey the police and the Tyrell Corporation. The people of Los Angeles, despite not being replicants, are just as much slaves to the upper crust of society as the AI technology.
Scott also provides a stark contrast between the environment of Los Angeles and the Tyrell Corporation. As Decker and the police squad are flying above the city, Scott provides the audience with a clear picture of the deteriorating environment of this futuristic world. The city is engulfed in thick smog, it’s dark, desolate, and devoid of life, and the only source of light is artificial, like the police crafts and the billboard signs. It's a toxic environment, unfit for human life. But then Scott cuts to the Tyrell Corporation, which is basked in a beautiful golden light, spacious, and made with material that glimmers in the sunlight. Decker is even forced to squint as they approach the Tyrell building because he is not used to strong sunlight that never makes it through the city smog. The design of the building itself is like a piece of art - a stark difference from the ugly skyscrapers in the city. This is another way Scott is able to contrast the differences in society. In this world, only the upper social class is privileged with clean air and sunlight or are able to move to a new planet, free of toxins. Whereas the poor and underprivileged members of society are forced to live in the slums of the city, with overbearing pollution.
Similarly, it could also be said that the styling of the Tyrell building compared to the rest of the city could allude to a God-like complex Tyrell has in this society (Kerman, 1991). The warm, golden light and the spacious interior, along with the almost angelic introduction of Rachael creates the illusion of being “beyond” the world below. Compared with the overcrowded, dingy, and “Hell-like” city below, Tyrell’s home is seen as almost Heavenly, floating above the poverty and violence below. Scott projection of a Heaven in the sky reflects Tyrell’s God-like position in society. Much like Dr. Frankenstein and his monster, Tyrell is attempting to manufacture human life, to create these replicants, like Rachael and the Nexus-6 replicants, to be “more human than human.” He is playing God with humanity. Scott consciously designed and styled the Tyrell Corporation to reflect Heaven, as Tyrell plays God with the society below.
The setting in Blade Runner plays one of the most pivotal characters in Ridley Scott’s enigmatic sci-fi. The environment of the world reflects many of the film’s themes and alludes to the social commentary of the work. While reflecting on Scott's classic film, it's hard to separate the dystopian future he has created from our dilapidating present. Perhaps, the correlation between our failing social structures, capitalist hierarchies, and suffering ecologies with that of Scott's world, transforms Blade Runner into less of a sci-fi and more of an ominous warning.
Bruno, Giuliana. “Ramble City: Postmodernism and ‘Blade Runner.’” October, vol. 41, 1987, pp. 61–74. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/778330.
Kerman, Judith B. “Technology and Politics in the ‘Blade Runner’ Dystopia.” Retrofitting Blade Runner, 1991, pp. 16- 24.
Silverman, Kaja. Back to the Future. Camera Obscura. 9(3 27) Sept. 1991. pp. 108-132.