Looking at a scene from one of the best Sci-fi noir films of all time…
As I’ve just started my final year at university, I haven’t managed to get out and see a new film in a while, so this week is going to carry on with a segment I introduced a while ago: making a scene. I’m going to analyse a scene from one of my favourite noir films and ask the question; what makes it stay with me? Since the new Blade Runner 2049 film will be coming out this week, and everyone is either very excited or very worried about whether or not it will live up to the original, I thought I’d take a look at a single scene from Blade Runner and examine what makes it so iconic.
It’s tough to look at a film like Blade Runner without a certain amount of bias. It’s one of those films which has a passionate cult following and many film geeks, myself included will wax lyrical about why it’s such a masterpiece. It’s had a huge impact on popular culture, and film-making in general. To separate the impact of the film from the actual objective quality is therefore a tricky process. If I wrench myself away from my bias I have to admit that the film does have a number of problems. It is a masterpiece, but a flawed one. One of the flaws is that the pacing does drag a bit. Like a typical contemplative noir Blade Runner is a slow film, it takes an hour for Deckard to even find his first replicant, and this can hurt the story. With repeat viewings you can get used to the pace and immerse in the world, but on the first watch it’s hard to ignore. A big part of why this ceases to be a problem on multiple viewings is that we tend to remember the iconic scenes. These stick in our head long after we forget the rest of the film, and so it’s easier to get through the movie, knowing our favourite parts are coming up.
There are several evocative scenes in Blade Runner, such as the “tears in rain” speech at the end of the film (arguably one of the most beautiful speeches in cinema history), but one stands out to me more than the others for several reasons. It’s the scene in which Deckard first meets Rachel at the Tyrell building. I remember the first time I saw this, it gave me shivers down my spine. The soft music, expert lighting and exquisite sound design worked hand in hand with nuanced acting from Harrison Ford and Sean Young. The scene is oddly soothing and yet sets up a lot of the major themes going into the rest of the film. The images presented are also timeless and iconic, Rachel smoking in darkness, the close-up of her eye, even the bright pyramids in the background. Matte paintings never seemed so real.
The main reason this scene is so visually evocative is the way light is used. The huge room makes the heavy shadows seem endless, dwarfing the characters and the light coming from the evening outside sets a golden glow on points in the room creating strong contrast. This all gives the scene an ethereal, almost unreal atmosphere, which mirrors the replicants and their “gifted” memories. The characters often walk out of shadow into the light, such as when Tyrell enters the room. Their faces are illuminated similar to a stage spotlight. When Rachel sits down to take the Voight-kampff test, her cigarette smoke is lit up and bathes her face, creating a protective mask, and hinting at her true nature. She is disconnected from the regular humans. Having her face covered in darkness, lit only from behind bring her bright eyes into focus and creates a second “mask”. We see her as Deckard sees her, beautiful and mysterious. Sean Young gives a spectacular performance here, a career highlight, and the way she uses half smiles and slight tilts of the head to indicate her curiosity and hidden insecurity is masterful. This is unquestionably her scene.
But the light is only part of what makes the scene come alive. There is also the set design, which utilises huge architecture and classic antiquity style furniture, making the chamber seem more at home in a fantastical palace than a corporate office. This sets the otherworldly atmosphere, making the wealthy elite seem as though they live on a different planet altogether. The size and style contrasts with the grimy neon streets and Deckard’s scruffy appearance, putting the character on the back foot from the first. The tall pillars and pyramids remind us of temples and empires, creating parallels to the pharaohs and their slaves and the Tyrell corporation and their replicants.
Another aspect of this scene which cements it as one of my personal favourites is the music and sound design. I love the way the echo is used to add to that almost mystical atmosphere, and the diegetic sound of the water blends with the music, creating a soothing rhythm which I sometimes use to help me sleep. This music might as well be Rachels theme; it plays as she enters and swells as she speaks. It’s choral and a little eerie at the same time, and this helps to emphasise the privilege afforded at Tyrell and the disconnection from what is going on in the streets, where the music is more instrumental and mournful. The music in Blade Runner is an echo of the characters and their world, and it serves to illustrate the differences, and evoke an atmosphere of inevitability. This scene in particular has beautiful music which stays with you long after the scene is over.
This scene is a perfect example of many of the best things about Blade Runner, the music, set design, acting and lighting. But one of the main reasons I chose this scene over the death of Roy Batty is that this moment is a quieter, more subtle part of the film. It’s a prelude to where the rest of the plot is going and a set up to the themes and arc of the story. In setting up the idea of a replicant nearly passing the test, and using Rachel to demonstrate the blurred lines between man and machine, the rest of the story falls into place with ease. Deckard’s journey is set. It’s a scene which I admire all the more, because setting up story elements is often the hardest part to do well. Watch carefully the next time you see Blade Runner, and hopefully you’ll appreciate this scene in a new light.