Using Blade Runner as a basis, discuss to what extent contemporary cinema addresses the issues of representation of the individual within its created society, specifically looking at the areas of class, race, gender, sexuality and age.
Blade Runner, by British director Ridley Scott, is a film which most easily fits in the Science Fiction category. Set in the Los Angeles of the future, the narrative focuses on the policeman Deckard, who is given as a mission to kill four androids having unlawfully returned to earth. In the course of the mission he himself falls in love with another escaped android, and absconds with her at the end of the film- the escape is successful in the Original Version (1982), less so in the Director's Cut (1992). The purpose of this essay is to examine the extent to which contemporary cinema examines representation of the individual within its created society, considering class, age, gender and sexuality, and using this film as a basis. Before drawing conclusions as to the whole of contemporary cinema, the first step is to verify how far Blade Runner can be taken to be typical of it; once this has been defined, we shall look at how it addresses such issues as the representation of the individual within society, and the extent to which it does so.
Indeed, as we have mentioned in the introduction, Blade Runner is particular in that it is a Science-Fiction movie. Thus, whilst it retains with most films the idea of a plot-line concentrating on various characters, Blade Runner functions with a set of rules which differs from most films in that the surroundings in which the characters evolve are based in the future and are unknown to us. This gives the films' author an additional dimension with which to communicate. Film, just like theatre, uses exaggeration to achieve a particular reaction in the viewer; thus in a traditional film genre, the cineast has only the characters and the storyboard to play with, as distortion of surroundings the viewer is familiar with would make them unrecognisable. With Science-Fiction, however, the author can make a much broader comment on contemporary society using the film's setting. This is easily verifiable: predictions of what the future will be use contemporary trends as a basis and push them to the extreme. As such, the surroundings in a science-fiction film represents which of the major trends in his time the author thinks are going to become dominant; the result is his take on contemporary society.
This provides the film's author with a powerful additional tool to comment on society; we have seen that films concentrate on characters, yet with this genre the director also has the liberty of changing the environment in which these characters evolve. The sci-fi genre is thus particularly suited to the type of criticism we are looking at, namely the relation between the individual and the society he lives in. Because of this particularity, Blade Runner cannot be said to be representative of Film as a whole in terms of its representation of this relationship; however this very particularity, which is a staple of the genre, takes on a particular significance in Blade Runner because of the way it ties in with the story line.
We have seen that in Blade Runner, the plot revolves around the rivalry between the Replicants and humans. Replicants are genetically designed androids, "superior [to men] in strength and agility and at least equal in intelligence", created to serve humanity. This can easily be construed as a metaphor, comparing Replicants to society itself: the Replicants are the ideal humanity, humanity as it would like to see itself, with ideal looks and capacities. The film's casting strongly conveys this feeling, the Replicants being cast in strong contrast to the human characters in the film: Roy Batty is played by Rutger Hauer, whom Philip K. Dick, the author of the book the film was based upon, was particularly pleased with because of his likeliness to the Nazi ideal of man. Other Replicants include Pris, played by sex-symbol Daryl Hannah and Zhora, who in playing a stripper is assimilated to man's ideal of sexuality. In contrast the only humans we see in the film are somehow defective, imperfect; Deckard's assistant, who seems to have suffered from a skin disease, the elderly Asian marketspeople, the one-eyed woman behind the drinks counter. What we are shown here is the difference between humanity and the ideals humanity has created for itself. These ideals are fomented and withheld by society; that the representation of these ideals have, in Blade Runner, rebelled against their makers, shows us humanity overtaken by what it has created, overtaken by society.
This is effectively conveyed by the film's imagery and scenery; the film shows us the city as a hostile environment, unpleasant and almost inhuman. The set designers have used the popular conception of what Third World countries were like to represent poverty and harsh condition; hence the references to China, overpopulated and poor, and to Calcutta in the animal-market. These create associations in the viewers' mind with poverty, famine, overpopulation- harsh conditions in which humanity has to struggle. This is reinforced by the use of pathetic fallacy- rain is omnipresent throughout the film, which is shot mostly during the night-time. Once again the atmosphere is set to oppression, claustrophobia, harshness. This is compounded by the towering architectural structures in the film such as the Tyrell building, and of corporate imagery throughout the film: neon signs advertising corporations the viewer will recognise, such as TDK and Coca-Cola, and especially the gigantic zeppelin flying over the city, which with its penetrating lights and booming sound invade the privacy of the city-dwellers, and which symbolically looms over the city. All of these factors show humanity struggling to survive; yet at the same time it is fighting against an environment that it has created itself, namely society.
Thus, there are a number of different levels to Blade Runner; on one hand there is the storyline itself, which tells the story of a struggle for identity with many overtones, such as the question of what makes humans human and the importance of emotions as a definition for humanity; at the same time, the film is able to comment on our contemporary society and its excesses thanks to the implications of its genre as well as by specific elements of the plot, such as the parallel drawn between the Replicants and society's ideals and their eventual demise. Such considerations have lead some authors to consider Blade Runner as one of the first instances of post-modernist film-making, of which Tarantino and similar 1990s cineasts are later expressions. Pinpointing the nature of post-modernist film-making is the subject of much debate; here we will summarise it as being a film about film itself, as opposed to being a film about life. The way this is done in Blade Runner is rather subtle: we have seen that the struggle of the individual against society is a strong feature of the film. At the same time, Film itself relies on exaggeration to convey meaning; just as in theatre, a film communicates with the audience by presenting him with objects or situations he is familiar with and the connotations of which are known to him, and easiest way to communicate these to the audience is through exaggeration. When applied to Hollywood film-making, which for marketing purposes tends to focus on the positive side of humanity as opposed to its depravity, one can easily see how Hollywood becomes the same kind of mirror for the ideals humanity has created as the Replicants mirror in Blade Runner. In short, the Replicants represent society's ideals, as does Hollywood; it can thus be said that in Blade Runner, there is also an element of criticism towards the industry Blade Runner emerged from.
This is an extremely important point to understand, because knowing that Blade Runner is not only a criticism of contemporary society, but also of the way it represents itself, will necessary affect our interpretation of the representations of such themes as class, gender, or race. We have seen already that on one hand, the Replicants were cast according to Aryan ideals whilst most of the representatives of the underclass were from minority groups It would be easy to interpret this as primary racism; but if one considers the possibility that the film is using that casting as a critical mechanism pointing out that our idea of superhumanity involves Aryan ideals, the meaning is quite contrary. Similarly, much has been made of accusations of misogyny in Blade Runner; there are indeed few women in the film and all are relegated to either secondary and/or stereotypical roles. This is the case of Rachel who, submissive, silent and generally reactive, can be seen as a stereotypical female role from Hollywood's "golden era"- a particularly strong case for this is made in the scene of the first kiss in between Deckard and Rachel, in which Deckard almost forces himself on Rachel after verbally coercing her into approval. Rather than interpreting this as misogyny in the film, this scene is more readily interpretable as a comment on the role of women have been given in art, and particularly in film; this is verified by most other female roles, which are equally associated with specific cinematographic stereotypes. Pris is thus the stereotypical "waif/whore" part, in many genres such as Film Noir and Pornography; similarly the part of Zhora, with her S&M clothing and role as a stripper, has similar pornographic overtones. In both of their deaths though, the viewer is given clues as to how to interpret these characters: the panes of glass Zhora flies through whilst shot evoke fragility, and the slow-motion and melancholic music used for the scene contrast with the harshness previously associated with the character. Even more notably, at her death Pris gesticulates like an unarticulated puppet, thereby suggesting the impossibility of such a character being human- significantly, she is the only Replicant who does not appear human in her death. Understanding the post-modernist approach in Blade Runner is thus necessary to understand the way it represents individuals, and the comments on society it makes in the process.
To conclude, let us return to the aims stated at the beginning of this essay and assess the degree to which we have completed them. We have seen that Blade Runner is particular in that its genre, Science Fiction, functions with a different set of rules than other cinematic genres. The fact that it is set in the future provides the film with an additional tool to comment on the evolution of society; and we have seen that Blade Runner effectively takes advantage of this tool through its plot-line, decor and casting to criticise contemporary society and the direction in which it is heading, with all implications that has for the reduced role of the individual. At the same time though, we have also seen that Blade Runner is a post-modernist film in that it is able to critique society and its dealing with the individual not only directly, through the plot, but also indirectly, by referring and effectively criticising the way our contemporary society represents itself. Thus, it can be said that Blade Runner does, to a large extent, address such issues as the representation of the individual within society; however, because of the particularity of its genre, and the particularity of its approach, it is impossible to draw any conclusions as to similarities between the treatment of these issues in Blade Runner and in Cinematography as a whole.
Scott, Simon H. "Is Blade Runner Misogynist ?" (1995) Internet URL:
Neimes, J. "An Introduction to Film Studies" (1994) Routledge, London
Orr, John "Contemporary Cinema" (1998) Edinburgh U.P., Edinburgh
Barton Palmer, R. "Hollywood's Dark Cinema" (1994) Twayne Publishers, New York
Casey, Mark "Do Androids Dream of Blade Running ?" Internet URL:
Turner, Graeme "Film as Social Practice" (1988-1999) Routledge, London