Welcome to Framed, a column at Cinematical that runs every Thursday and celebrates the artistry of cinema -- one frame at a time.
A group of violent, evasive and increasingly humanistic replicants known as the Nexus-6 -- genetically engineered beings who have been forced into slavery in off-world colonies -- have come back to earth despite being banned from entry. They're searching for their maker, Dr. Eldon Tyrell, who runs the almighty Tyrell corporation and has created the androids with a fixed lifespan -- something none of them take too kindly to. Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is the retired blade runner -- a special police unit -- who is assigned to hunt the Nexus-6 and "retire" them once and for all.
Ostensibly, Ridley Scott's 1982 sci-fi film 'Blade Runner,' based on Philip K. Dick's novel 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?,' is an action film and a style exercise -- but the message he grazes within his chase scenes and elegant decay is one of the things Dick focused on in his book: how far are we willing to pursue technology when our own humanity is at stake? Dick's bigger messages are far more interesting, complex and beautifully weird, but Scott has been pretty vocal about not wanting to dip his toe into those waters (the fact that he never actually read the entire book is a total bummer).
This has been the case with most of the Dick novel to film translations -- taking the topline premise, but steering clear of the non-linear, surreal, or esoteric (with the exception of 'A Scanner Darkly' and 'Barjo,' which thankfully took chances while remaining pretty faithful to the source material). Considering that most of these movies have been big-budget Hollywood blockbusters (which definitely have their place), it's no mystery why these themes have been avoided -- but it's often disappointing. Despite that being my main point of contention with most of the PKD cinematic endeavors, Scott's galactic antihero/neo-noir classic is an undeniable visual powerhouse.
I've chosen to focus on the imagery in the Final Cut version of 'Blade Runner,' which just arrived on Blu-ray this week. It's the copy I had available to me, but more importantly, it's the only re-release that the director had complete artistic control over. Scott's visual inspiration for the film is a pastiche of fine art, comic book style and expressionist cinema.
Edward Hopper's 'Nighthawks' captured the lonely, isolated tone that Scott was after, along with the dramatic lighting/setting and noir style. "I was constantly waving a reproduction of this painting under the noses of the production team to illustrate the look and mood I was after," the director said. The French sci-fi comic anthology, 'Métal hurlant' ('Heavy Metal' in the US), was also a stylistic influence -- in particular, 'The Long Tomorrow,' written by genre great Dan O'Bannon and illustrated by the artist Jean Giraud aka Moebius (who apparently almost worked with the director, but turned him down so he could work on 'Les Maîtres du temps' aka 'Time Masters').
Stills from Fritz Lang's 'Metropolis' were used by FX supervisor David Dryer to line up the film's miniature building shots, which can be seen in the opening scene with the Hades landscape -- but there are also some obvious narrative similarities. To capture the right mood for Scott's hellish, urban environment he looked to "Hong Kong on a very bad day," and the industrial steelworks surrounding his former home in England to inspire him.
This week's frame conjures all of these influences and was plucked out of one of the best scenes in the entire movie. Rutger Hauer plays Roy Batty, the leader of the Nexus-6 replicants and the most dangerous of the group. After making his way into Tyrell's penthouse (his "father") and murdering him for not being able to save his life, a deadly chase develops between Deckard and Batty which lands the men on the roof of the building. During the hunt, Batty is literally starting to expire -- forcing himself to carry on to avenge the death of the other replicants. Deckard attempts escape by jumping to an adjoining rooftop, but fails and finds himself dangling off a ledge.
Our frame shows Batty pausing quietly -- clutching a dove before making the jump to the other side where he saves Deckard from falling and then dies. Batty's struggles with his underlying humanity (felt most deeply when Pris, played by Daryl Hannah, is killed) overwhelm him in this moment. His final words to Deckard tell us that he made the jump and saved the blade runner so he could share his memories and in essence, leave a piece of himself behind to be remembered.
Syd Mead, credited as Scott's "visual futurist," designed 'Blade Runner's' environment using a combination of live-action and matte paintings. The rooftop scenery is comprised of the production designer's paintings, which we get a peek of behind Hauer. Also featured is the intrusive and dramatic spotlighting and shadows, which we see throughout the film. Scott described this as "layers" of light, which cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth achieved by "meticulously [framing] and [calibrating] each shot with complicated color palettes, often using heavy light sources just off-camera to illuminate his subjects in a unique way." The cinematographer also placed more importance on what wasn't lit versus what was.
Even though 'Blade Runner's' characters live in the most dire and dreariest of times, there's poetry to be found amid the crumbling. Scott's vision and Cronenweth's gorgeous cinematography helped introduce audiences to one of Philip K. Dick's most beloved works -- showing them a world filled with some of the most unforgettable imagery ever brought to screen.