How does Blade Runner make use of film noir conventions?


Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner is considered today to be a classic of the science fiction genre, but the film also makes use of some conventional film noir themes through its characters and its strong, visual style. Mixing the classic genre of film noir with science fiction, Blade Runner is a generic hybrid, and I will explore which aspects of the genre the film makes use of.

Blade Runner follows Harrison Ford’s character, Rick Deckard, and his assignment in ‘retiring’ four recently escaped replicants. Along the way, Deckard begins a relationship with a replicant named Rachael (Sean Young), which forces him to question his and their humanity and identity. Loosely based on Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the film has garnered a cult following and has been incredibly influential to later science fiction films, games and other television projects.

Film noir is a term coined by French critic, Nino Frank, to describe a cinematic genre that appeared from the early 1940s to the late 1950s. The genre was seen as quite a departure from the typical Hollywood films that were being made at the time. Its downbeat tone, graphic levels of sex and violence, strong, dark visual style, and the end of the gentleman detective, are all considered to be typical film noir traits.

It has always been easier to recognize a film noir than to define the term. […] Such films would be shelved somewhere between Gothic horror and dystopian science fiction. […] There is in fact no completely satisfactory way to organize the category, and nobody is sure whether the films in question constitute a period, a genre, a cycle, a style, or simply a “phenomenon”.[1]

A hybrid genre or sub-genre of film noir and science fiction is tech-noir. The genre emerged in the 1980s and is closely associated with Blade Runner and James Cameron’s 1984 classic sci-fi action, The Terminator. Tech-noir combines the classic film noir elements with the more modern science fiction ideas and visuals.

Some of film noir’s central characteristics include amoral characters, a distinct visual style, such as low-key lighting, amongst others. Film noir’s tone is generally downbeat and its lighting and dark, gritty setting, further illustrate this. Filmmaker and critic, Paul Schrader, states that ‘film noir is defined by tone rather than genre.’[2] Its visual style owes its origins primarily to the stark contrast of light and dark used throughout and to the sometimes unconventional directorial style:

Compositional balance within the frame is often disruptive and unnerving. Those traditional harmonious triangular three-shots and balanced two-shots, which are borrowed from the compositional principles of Renaissance painting, are seldom seen in the better film noir. More common are bizarre, off-angle compositions of figures placed irregularly in the frame, which create a world that is never stable or safe, that is always threatening to change drastically and unexpectedly.[3]

The use of venetian blinds in film noirs are common as they create distinct shadows and a stark contrast of light and dark, known as chiaroscuro, and also occasionally serve as a foreshadowing for a certain character’s fate.

Film noir’s narrative is typically non-linear and follows an investigative mystery to solve. Information is slowly fed to the viewer piece by piece and there is typically a sense of uncertainty.

Narratives always seem obvious in film noir and even limited in appeal, while allegory serves to underscore the juncture of representation in cinema and to lead the eye away from the content of given shots or sequences and direct it to liminary areas – cuts, decorative objects in frame, uncanny shifts in time, or ruptures of the image and sound tracks – that incarn more immediate problems of visibility.[4]

The use of flashbacks is also very popular, but considered to be highly unusual for classical Hollywood filmmaking as a whole, and the non-linear approach is a very unsettling technique. The flashback is, perhaps, the most commonly-used tool in the film noir genre and it completely shifts the narrative structure, making for unsettling viewing. Dana Polan further states that ‘undoubtedly, the most powerful of such techniques of narrative complication is the Noir use of the flashback; the Noir flashback literally disrupts narrative flow and causes narrative development to be read under the influence of an already known ending.’[5]

A typical plot for a film noir would revolve around a murder, and a detective, corrupt policeman, or a writer, would become almost the standard for a film noir heroic protagonist. The genre, however, signalled the end of the gentleman detective and protagonists were now more morally questionable and tough: they were smart but ordinary, quick to violence and morally weak and, typically, did not know more than the viewer as to what was going on; an example of restricted narration which, like the flashback, upset the standard narrative. The femme fatale is also seen as a defining characteristic of the film noir genre. A woman who is alluring, mysterious, attractive and very much in control; she is a stark contrast to the sweet girl next door. Settings usually revolved around a city, usually at night, and bars and nightclubs were frequently used for the action to take place.

Blade Runner uses many of film noir’s central themes; for example, Deckard is not a typical hero. His moral compass wavers and he does not hesitate when it comes to ‘retiring’ the escapee replicants; however, his emotions get the better of him when he meets the replicant, Rachael, who is unaware of what she is. Deckard’s main adversary in the film is the leader of the escapee replicants, Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer). Roy is a charismatic character and his name alludes to his craziness but he does have moments of calm. He is also highly motivated in saving fellow replicant Pris’ (Daryl Hannah) life and is possessed with a great sense of humour as well as a strong inclination to violence. The lines are blurred between human and replicant and the issue of identity becomes an increasingly dominant theme throughout the film. At the end, Roy is given the chance to become a hero as he saves Deckard’s life; he is capable of empathy for Deckard, while Deckard was unable to for him. In Roy’s famous final speech, he exclaims ‘I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.’[6] The ending of the film further illustrates, not only the issues with identity, but Deckard’s moral wavering, a principal characteristic of a film noir protagonist.

The film displays a stunning visual style; it is dark and gritty with flashes of neon throughout. Ridley Scott has credited Edward Hopper’s painting ‘Nighthawks’ as inspiration for the film’s aesthetic. The most common recurring visual themes throughout Blade Runner that can be attributed to film noir are the use of venetian blinds, largely used in Deckard’s apartment, and the fact it is always raining, another common visual which heavily complements the darker atmosphere of noir films. The eye is a recurring motif throughout and can be linked to seeking the truth and, as they are the windows to our souls, they are symbolic when dealing with replicants. The opening shot is of an eye and a burning city is reflected in it, another distinct trope of film noir. The film also adapts colour and infuses flashes of neon and other aspects of visual style to develop a neo-noir aesthetic.

The film is one big mystery to solve; the opening scene of the Voight-Kampff test provides no answers, only questions. The viewer is given no real information at the beginning and only learns bits and pieces when our protagonist, Deckard, does. We learn no background information about Deckard and only fact sheet information on the escaped replicants. Everyone in the film mostly remains a mystery. Films are typically told from beginning, middle, to end. When Blade Runner begins, the replicants have already escaped and the viewer is dropped in the middle of the action and we are forced to piece things together. It is an unsettling narrative but it only adds to the nature of the film.

The film is a true tech-noir film as it blends the strong visual style of classic film noir with the modern technology of the science fiction world. Blade Runner’s world is dark, gritty and grimy and its future technological universe appears as such. Mirroring reflections, venetian blinds across Deckard’s face, issues with morality and identity and an atypical hero are just some of the themes and visual representations used in Blade Runner that convey the film’s film noir conventions.




[1] James Naremore, ‘American Film Noir: The History of an Idea’, Film Quarterly, 49.2 (Winter 1995-1996), 12-28 (p. 12).

[2] Paul Schrader, ‘Notes on Film Noir’, Film Comment (Spring 1972), 8-13 (p. 9).

[3] Janey Place and Lowell Peterson, ‘Some Visual Motifs of Film Noir’, in Movies and Methods, Vol I, ed. by Bill Nichols (Berkeley: University of California, 1975), 64-73 (p. 68).

[4] Tom Conley, ‘Stages of “Film Noir”’, Theatre Journal, 39.3, Film/Theatre (October 1987), 347-363, (p. 348).

[5] Dana Polan, ‘College Course File: Film Noir’, Journal of Film and Video, 37.2, Sexual Difference (Spring 1985), 75-83 (p. 79).

[6] Blade Runner, dir. by Ridley Scott (Warner Bros., 1982) [on DVD].



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