‘Analyse the design of a cityscape in one film or television episode.’
Nightmare visions of futuristic societies, or dystopias, are a major theme of the sci-fi genre and most post-1970s Hollywood films portraying these worlds embody a ‘crisis in US ideology’ at that time. These sci-fi films usually illustrate issues regarding: ‘environmental pollution, over-population, violent crimes, bureaucratic administration and economic exploitation’. They also represent the unrepresentable, showing us things that we can only otherwise imagine. In this essay I will attempt to explore the labyrinthian landscape of Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi blockbuster Blade Runner, and consider the ways in which it mirrors the social, economic, and political context of the time in which it was made, as well as the socio-ecological consequences of contemporary problems such as war and pollution. I will also further explain how the film’s soundscape is essential to the meaning behind its narrative.
The design of sci-fi frequently contains alien planets, foreign bodies, and space-age cityscapes, giving these spectacular fictional worlds an overall glossy, futuristic feel. Blade Runner is a scintillating world with a high-rise landscape, but closer examination reveals that structured within this milieu are metaphors of a dystopian society. Across the top of the skyscrapers are immense neon advertisements and television screens that project messages down for the people to see, showing that this is a world of complete industrialisation. These features provide primarily the main source of light throughout the city. The overall mise-en-scène is obscure and brooding, much like a late 40s and 50s film noir, and the contrast between light and dark here depicts repressed social fears of totalitarian control. The divide in society is evident when we look at the difference between the replicants and the humans. The replicants feel safer on the decayed streets and adopt working-class lifestyles, for example, Leon works in a run-down hotel, while Zhora works as a stripper in Chinatown. Deckard, in contrast, lives high above the crowded streets, protected by high-tech security devices. Police crafts also hover above, beaming down their probing lights and surveilling the people below. The Cold War period consisted mostly of spying and tense international relations between the US and the Soviet Union. It is almost like Orson Welles’ Big Brother, where no one is free and everyone is constantly being watched by a ruling intellectual force. The theme of paranoia therefore comes into play here; the omnipresence of the police force is a visual motif of corporate power. The superstructures that we see dwarf the smaller, decrepit buildings and crumbling architecture; this binary opposition thus creates a high/low spatial allegory for the lower class- the workers who live below in the post-apocalyptic streets, depressed and dehumanized; and the elite- those who live in high-rise apartments above the rest of the city, benefiting from the labourers. Like in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), the difference between the elite and the masses is virtually dramatised by this spatial opposition and the concept of the upper class is literalised. The vertical architecture serves as metaphor for a hierarchy of evil power and is a symbol of economic inequality and corruption, intrinsic with a society that is out of kilter. Fears revolving around race, space, and social class are therefore structured within these thematic elements. Figure 1 (page 6) shows the pyramid of the capitalist system of the early 20th century. People of America believed that anyone could become wealthy and enjoy good lives by working hard – this was the American Dream. Sadly, capitalism reared its ugly head and citizens soon discovered that this economic system benefits only those at the top of that pyramid- ‘the winners gain at the expense of the mass of losers’. It reflects the philosophy of Orthodox Marxism,...
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