Representations of Dystopia in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (part 2)

Dystopia and the Cityscape:

Blade Runner’s Los Angeles is a visually stunning but bleak vision of the future. Its towering skyscrapers and large advertising screens show a society consumed with commerce. The city is reminiscent of that in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, both of which can be seen in the images below.

The German Expressionist style evident here is similar to the style used in Blade Runner, and the narrative’s divide between the ruling classes who live at the top with the factory workers underneath also bears a resemblance. Andrew Milner says of Metropolis:

It is a class-divided city, vertically stratified between the darkest proletarian depths where the workers live, the intermediary levels where they work in conditions of extreme alienation…and the high city of light inhabited by the privileged classes.[1]

Similarly, in Blade Runner there is a chaotic street level where the masses crowd and right at the top is the police station, which is shown in the above still. Also high up is the pyramid building where the creator of the replicants – Tyrell – lives. It is only up here that daylight can be seen, showing that this is a privilege only shared by the wealthy. However although the large amount of cars seen in the image of Metropolis indicate a big population, there does not seem to be the deterioration of the city that is visible in Scott’s film.

This state is visually captured through the use of retrofitting, where aspects of the future and the past are combined. Nezar AlSayyad states that ‘Although purportedly set forty years in the future, Blade Runner simultaneously depicts a world forty years in the past.’[2] The film mixes old buildings such as Los Angeles’ Bradbury Building, and adds elements like neon props to create a futuristic setting. Interestingly this was partly a result of limited production costs that prevented the crew from building brand new sets.[3] The idea of the ‘retrofuture’ is also central to the steampunk genre, which is science fiction or fantasy that incorporates nineteenth century technology.[4] The use of this technique in Blade Runner helps to give the impression of a run-down city, crumbling under the weight of its own commercialism.

Polluted and overpopulated, its decaying state can be considered a result of economic excess. Marcus A. Doel and David B. Clarke write:

In the film’s representation of postindustrial decay, the proliferation of waste having come to serve as an index of accelerated turnover time of a new phase of capitalism.[5]

Such a focus on commerce has led to the extinction of all nature. The only animals we see are manufactured, and the city remains in darkness from the polluted sky. In the original release we are shown Deckard and Rachael escaping from the city through green fields below a clear sky, however it has since been thought that such a utopia could not exist so close to the city.[6]

The theme of overpopulation is shown through the multiculturalism of the city, where Eastern imagery abounds. Giuliana Bruno states:

The explosion of urbanization, melting the futuristic high-tech look into an intercultural scenario, recreates the Third World inside the first. One travels almost without moving, for the Orient occupies the next block. The Los Angeles of Blade Runner is China(in)town.[7]

Indeed the city is rife with Eastern iconography: a geisha woman is seen advertising on a large screen and food stalls sell noodles to be eaten with chopsticks. The cop Gaff speaks a language called ‘Cityspeak’, which is a mix of words from languages such as Japanese, Hungarian, Chinese and French. Noticeably the Eastern population are old and decrepit. Brian Locke remarks:

The sushi master is an old Japanese man. Chew is so shrunken from age that he looks like a piece of dried fruit rattling around in the heavy husk of his animal fur suit…The wrinkled “Cambodian lady” communicates with a voice so ancient that it crackles like dried parchment.    * citation needed

This is a city living in poverty. The streets teem with people while the large buildings remain mostly empty.

Much of the imagery seen in these streets is similar to Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell,  seen underneath the shot from Blade Runner below:

The neon signs are very alike and although Ghost in the Shell is not set in any real city, both films have been associated with Hong Kong. Scenes from William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer have also been compared to this Eastern city, due to what Wong Kin Yuen describes as:

Not only a sense of ethnic and cultural confusion and hybridity but also a continuous process of the destructions and reconstructions so characteristic of contemporary cityscapes.[8]

Therefore we can gather that Blade Runner’s Los Angeles is made up of aspects from different cities – it has also been compared to New York – and moulded into one culturally diverse cityscape. The images of the city give the viewer a very visual sense of the film’s dystopia, but this is also portrayed in the evidence of the technological advancements we are made aware of, to be discussed in Part 3.


[1] Andrew Milner, Literature, Culture and Society (London: Routledge, 2005), p. 255.

[2] Nezar AlSayyad, Cinematic Urbanism: A History of the Modern from Reel to Real (London: Routledge, 2007), p. Nezar, p. 134.

[3] Dangerous Days: Making Blade Runner. Dir. Charles de Lauzirika. Lauzirika Motion Picture Company. 2007.

[4] Lorna Jowett, ‘Back to the Future: Retrofuturism, Cyberpunk, and Humanity in Firefly and Serenity’, Investigating Firefly and Serenity: Science Fiction on the Frontier, ed. by Rhonda V. Wilcox and Tanya R. Cochran (London: I.B. Tauris, 2008), p. 101.

[5] Marcus A. Doel and David B. Clarke, ‘From Ramble City to the Screening of the Eye: Blade Runner, Death and Symbolic Exchange’, The Cinematic City, ed. by David B. Clarke (London: Routledge, 1997), p. 146.

[6] Milner, p.265.

[7] Giuliana Bruno, ‘Ramble City: Postmodernism and Blade Runner’, Alien Zone: Cultural Theory and Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema, ed. by Annette Kuhn (London: Verso, 1990), p. 186.

[8] Wong Kin Yuen, On the Edge of Spaces: Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell and Hong Kong’s Cityscape’, Liquid Metal: The Science Fiction Film Reader, ed. by Sean Redmond (London: Wallflower Press, 2007), p. 99.


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