Blade Runner is entirely set in the city of Los Angeles, California (USA) in the year 2019. The film begins with an overhead shot of this city, and pretty soon the viewer is taken down into the streets themselves. From this point on the film stays centred in Los Angeles, as we follow the main characters movements throughout this utterly fascinating city. Of course, we instantly recognise the setting and note that the ‘future’ in which this film is set is in fact very near to our present – thus an instant connection between today (2010) and the films timeframe is established…is this film portraying a potentially realistic scenario that we could experience in the near future?

* As a side note, the majority of the film was shot on an expansive setting at the ‘Burbank Studios’ (now called Warner Brothers), not on location in the city of Los Angeles itself. The setting was dubbed ‘Ridleyville’ during shooting.

The films opening shots give the viewer a birds-eye overview of the sprawling city at night (although due to pollution it may in fact not be night time – a point I will touch on later), as the camera tracks forwards and eventually descends to a position inside an office on one of the upper levels of the gargantuan Tyrell Corporation building. After this scene where Leon murders the first blade runner sent to retire the replicants (Holden?), the film cuts back to shots of the city, this time at a lower level amongst the buildings. It then descends down into the city streets, and we get our first glimpses of what this city looks like from a more human perspective. This pattern of high and low movement is continued in the film via the main characters themselves as they move through the city, ascending and descending in elevators and police cruisers – we are alternately shown scenes at ground level on the streets (the marketplace and Deckard’s chase with Zhora), in mid-height buildings (Deckard’s and Sebastian’s apartments), tall buildings (Tyrell Corporation and Eldon’s apartment), and even briefly high above buildings (Deckard in the police cruiser). Despite this movement, we never leave the city of Los Angeles and the setting of the film seems to take on a rather cramped and claustrophobic quality – as if there is no escape, no ‘other’ place to go. The only allusion to any other real place are the references to the ‘off world colonies’, but we do not learn anything about them nor do we see them. But in another sense, other places/settings are in fact referenced extensively in the film – via the architecture of the city, the differing ethnic/racial types, clothing, music, and more. These all suggest that the city of Los Angeles in 2019 is in fact an amalgamation of different races, classes, cultures, and timeframes. It is in fact quite an ‘unstable’ setting.

The city itself

“In Blade Runner the city works to instil a pervasive sense of alienation and loss, and to shape and define the motivations of the characters that live there. Los Angeles 2019 is largely an urban nightmare – a nightmare fleshed out of the materials of globalisation, capitalism, cyberpunk, and noir, so that its neon and concrete veins and arteries appear clogged up and yet leaky, pouring despair into its inhabitants.”

(Redmond 2008, p.49)

“In Blade Runner, urban space moves toward the condition of cyberspace…[its] cyberpunk urbanism exaggerates the presence of the mass media, evoking sensations of unreality and pervasive spectacle…this is a dark city of mean streets, moral ambiguities and an air of irresolution…if the metropolis in noir was a dystopian purgatory, then in Blade Runner, with its flame-belching towers, it has become an almost literal Inferno.”

(Bukatman 1997, p.46-50)

“Blade Runner presents one of the most elaborately visualised fictional environments ever constructed for an American film…Ridley Scott’s twenty-first century is a decayed, jaded, mutated place, a cheerless landscape whose meagre humanity is being ground down by the microchipped jackboot of a ruthless technological zeitgeist. Its mean streets teem with hundreds of oddly dressed citizens…all scurrying ratlike through concrete canyons whose confines are constantly bombarded by ubiquitous neon advertising…and by the sodden, perpetual downpour of a numbing acid rain.”

(Sammon 2007, p.3)

“…the ruined frontier of Blade Runner’s Los Angeles 2019 – perhaps the most dazzling cinematic vision yet of the results of exploiting the environment for technological progress…the city rots with the waste products of its overtechnologized, overcommercialized culture…the set designs and mise-en-scene reveal the future as a recycled collage of the present…the city projects no sense of community, nothing even vaguely reminiscent of nature…even the city skies are polluted, not only with acid rain, but with obscene blimps whose neon graphics and noisy commercials lure those with enough money to exotic off-world promised lands…”

(Rushing & Frentz 1995, p.144-45)

The above quotations all rightly suggest that the overall setting of Blade Runner is one of a ‘futuristic metropolis dystopia’. We will now examine how the complex city setting of this film is constructed, how it works to establish certain moods and feelings, and what it means in relation to the overall themes of the film. Not every scene/setting of the film will be analysed, but the main ones (in chronological order) are:

–       The city streets

–       Bryant’s office

–       Inside the Tyrell Corp. building

–       Deckard’s apartment

–       J.F. Sebastian’s apartment/Bradbury building

–       The marketplace

–       ‘The Snake Pit’ (Taffey Lewis’ nightclub)

–       The Deckard/Zhora chase scene

–       Eldon Tyrell’s apartment

The outside city streets – first scene

After the opening overhead shots of LA and the scene with Leon and Holden, we are greeted with our first glimpse of the city at street-level. As the camera descends down to around shoulder height, the first thing that we notice is that it is night time and it is raining – this will in fact be the case throughout the rest of the film, so these weather elements form a consistent part of the mise-en-scene. One may question whether or not it is in fact night, or whether the pollution is so bad that it just always looks that way. Regardless, the weather conditions are never pleasant. We see a neon blue oriental-looking dragon above a street café, and crowds of people walking along the footpath (many of them holding oriental-looking umbrellas). There is a sense of crowding and lack of space as the camera pushes into the pedestrians, revealing Deckard leaning against a shop window reading a newspaper. Neon signage with Asian writing and television screens displaying bizarre imagery are in the shopfront behind Deckard. We cut quickly to a front shot of the White Dragon café. The setting has now established that there is a strong Asian influence apparent in the Los Angeles of 2019 (or Deckard just happens to be in Chinatown – it may be both). The camera then follows Deckard’s gaze as he looks upwards at a huge, mechanical blimp that is cruising above the city streets. It has a number of spotlights shining down on the street, many bright flashing lights, and a large screen on its side that displays advertising. Booming loudly from its speakers is a voice advertising ‘off-world colonies’. The blimp looks rather grotesque, and reminds me of some sort of pulsating giant metal cockroach. It establishes three things – media and advertising is powerful and pervasive (not at all subtle), there is a shift away from Earth to colonies on other planets, and Asian corporations may have a leading place in American society. After Deckard is ‘arrested’, we are shown another prop – the police cruisers (technically called ‘spinners’). These are very advanced, technological machines that can both drive and fly (among probably many other things), and they signify the level which technology and law enforcement have reached.

Bryant’s office

Bryant’s office looks decidedly old-fashioned. The brown wooden interior, metal vertical blinds, the font on the doorfront, and the fans and lamps all seem like something out of an old detective film (1940s film noir comes to mind – see the section on genre for more information). There is a glass ashtray full of butted cigarettes, and Bryant pours Deckard two shots of whisky. These are typical detective props. Also notice that there are a number of black-and-white photographs around Bryant’s desk and on his lampshade. These gain more significance when the importance of photographs is established later in the film – remember that Deckard also has a number of black-and-white photographs in his apartment. They seem to signify a need for a sense of history and belonging to a family, a sort of personal connection to the past – perhaps so as to be able to better shape your own identity in the present (the photos themselves seem very old). Another important prop is introduced into the setting of this scene – the origami objects that Gaff makes and leaves in various places. In this scene he is shown folding a piece of white paper into what appears to be the shape of a chicken – this is most likely a joke on the part of Gaff, who seems to be a smart-ass character. It is an indication that Gaff considers Deckard to be scared (a ‘chicken’), because he does not want to take on the job of retiring the replicants.

Inside the Tyrell Corporation

In the next scene, we are shown Deckard’s trip to the Tyrell building in the spinner. From the outside, we can see that the building is absolutely enormous (700 stories tall). It is a strange mix of high-tech futurism and ancient architecture. There are strong parallels with the look of the building and ancient Mayan temples (research this and include comparative pictures if possible). Of course, the scope of the building clearly shows the importance and the dominance of the Tyrell Corporation in Los Angeles (and possibly all of America and overseas as well, although we can only guess). It literally towers above everything and everyone else. Seeing as the corporation specialises in genetic engineering, we are also led to believe that science, technology and private big business have combined into the most powerful of entities (consider that we neither see nor hear any mention of government in the film – the police forces may even be privatised). Inside Eldon Tyrell’s office an artificial owl serves as a prop, and there are also large silver statues of owls apparent in the background. See the section on symbolism for what they may represent. The office setting is exceedingly large (80 by 80 feet); this is given emphasis by the way that words and footsteps echo off the walls. The characters in this scene are dwarfed by their surroundings. It bears a strong resemblance to some sort of chamber in a temple, with its rows of thick symmetrical vertical pillars, statues, carved wall designs, and drab brown/gold colour scheme (Rachel’s red lipstick stands out strongly). The office establishes a theme of decadence, wealth and power. The ancient temple look may also suggest that Eldon sees himself as some sort of god-figure, a theme that is reiterated later when we see his personal apartment. We get a good look at another important prop in this scene – a Voigt-Kampff machine that Deckard uses to test Rachael. This high-tech machine measures emotional responses by looking at eye and pheromone changes. They are needed to distinguish replicants from humans – as replicants are (presumably) not able to show empathy like ‘normal humans’, they will fail the test questions and their status will be revealed. There are not any other significant features in this setting – as you no doubt noticed, most of the office is a huge empty space!

Deckard’s apartment

Deckard lives on the 97th floor of an apartment building in the city. The apartment complex’s architecture has an ancient or oriental feel to it, as does the inside of Deckard’s apartment. The walls seems as if they are made of stone, and they are a very light brown colour. There is a distinct lack of bright colour in the whole apartment itself – it is mostly drab shades of white, brown, grey, and yellow. This colour scheme is likely a reflection of both the overall mediocrity of the city as well as Deckard’s personal detachment and isolation. Here we have a male character that lives alone in an apartment high above the city – is this not similar to both Sebastian and Eldon? The male (human) characters in this film all seem to be suffering from a lack of human connection and companionship, especially that of female attachment. Deckard drinks, stares out longingly from his apartment balcony, and mournfully sits and his piano (that is adorned with what we presume to be his old fashioned family photos). In this setting, Deckard is alone and unhappy.

The Bradbury Building

J.F. Sebastian lives in a large upstairs apartment inside the Bradbury Building. He is supposedly the only occupant in the whole building itself (‘no housing shortage around here’, he mentions to Pris), which seems strange in a city that appears overcrowded in some scenes, but this may have been done to further emphasise his loneliness and isolation. This setting is a real building in Los Angeles, and the exteriors were all filmed on location. The interior of J.F’s apartment was filmed in a studio however. We see that the building itself looks very old and is rather dilapidated, with rain leaking in and dirt and rubbish on the ground. This setting seems to establish that J.F. leads a life of isolation and probably has little money. He even dresses poor. But this seems strange as well – after all, he is a genetic designer that works for the all-powerful Tyrell Corporation. Shouldn’t he be earning a lot of money and living in a plush apartment? This seems to suggest that the Tyrell Corporation exploits its workers (not surprising, seeing as it genetically engineers slave workers for use off-world). These questions about J.F. Sebastian and the nature of his work are left to speculation. The interior of J.F’s apartment continues the theme of isolation. It has huge ceilings and a large number of rooms, with a lot of empty space. He is surrounded by dolls, mannequins, and his own specially designed ‘friends’ whom we see are not robots but actual living persons (although their mental capacities are probably nil – they act robotically). These props serve to show the sadness of J.F’s existence, in that he has been led to interact only with artificial objects in place of real people.

The marketplace (‘Animoid Row’)

Deckard takes the snake scale to a Cambodian shopkeeper for it to be analysed. This marketplace setting is called ‘animoid row’, as it specialises in the sale of artificial animals. The place is a crowded, dingy Chinatown area that is full of buyers and sellers of Asian and ethnic appearance. Once again there is a strong sense of the old clashing with the new. It looks like an old marketplace, but is punctuated with neon advertising signs, pieces of high technology, and a police presence. We see ostriches, ponies, and snakes for sale – who buys these ‘animals’ and for what purposes?

‘The Snake Pit’ (Taffey Lewis’ nightclub)

After Deckard gets the tip-off from Abdul the snake seller, he heads into the ‘snake pit’ nightclub owned by Taffey Lewis. The place is a decadent upper-class establishment, crowded with well-dressed attractive people. It still retains an ethic appearance, and it is filled with ornate sculptures and lit candles. It has an old-fashioned feel to it, as exemplified by the clothing worn by those attending. Interesting is the fact that there appears to be a large number of females in attendance, and there are a number of direct shots to emphasise this. Most of the rest of the film centres on male characters, while the females are killed. I couldn’t help but wonder whether all those attractive women in Taffey’s nightclub were replicants, designed for the pleasure of men. Notice that many of them are wearing masks, face paint, or veils as well as elaborate and ornate clothing. Could this be a link to their status as mere objects? Sexual exploitation is hardly surprising, considering that the main act at the nightclub involves Zhora receiving sexual pleasure from a snake. This nightclub setting also shows that there is in fact a wealthy upper class that still resides on Earth (assuming they are not all replicants). This is in contrast to the idea that all the ‘best’ people (the wealthiest and fittest) have already moved to off-world colonies. Of course, this is just speculation.

The Deckard and Zhora chase scene  – city streets

After Zhora escapes out the back of the nightclub, Deckard pursues her through the city streets, eventually retiring her by shooting her twice in the back as she stumbles and crashes through a shopfront window. We know that the setting for this scene is the Chinatown area of the city, as that is where Taffey Lewis’ nightclub was located. The scene is notable for its cramped and crowded feeling, and also its elaborate mise-en-scene – we are able to see many different types of people, cars, signs, and other props. A strong part of the setting of the city streets seems to be old materials that have been dumped all over the place, without any sense of order. You wonder what happened to recycling and waste removal. There are shells of cars sitting in the streets with what appears to be either children or little people picking away at the parts. Burning bins sit aside large stone columns that are engraved with Chinese symbols, steam pours out of holes in the ground and walls, and once again it is night time and raining. The first few shots are filled with Asian people wearing holding umbrellas and wearing old tattered clothing. This is clearly an area of poverty and deprivation. In the background of the next shots we see a pair of (cyber)punks, complete with jet-black hair, sunglasses, and leather clothing with silver buttons and studs. Next to them is a pair of what appears to be nuns, as well as a group of people in some kind of identical uniforms. The vast ranges of people that are on display make it difficult to pick out the exact details, and for the most part the viewer is unable to properly discern exactly what everyone looks like. We see a pair of young women in upper-class old-fashioned clothing are sitting in a taxi. As Deckard pushes past the crowds of people, a monotone robotic voice continuously blares out for pedestrians to ‘cross now’, as if it is stuck on repeat. We see a few shots later that the machine is in fact malfunctioning. There is such a random mix of people moving in every direction that it seems ridiculous to be attempting to direct them. That is another aspect of this city street setting that is important to note – there appears to be no coherent order anywhere. This is strongly contrasted to the city that I live in, which is defined by traffic lights, footpaths, road rules, signs and so on that regulate carefully the flow of people and vehicles. There appears to have been a breakdown of these things in the Los Angeles of 2019. We get a shot of a number of ‘Hare Krishna’s’ chanting down the street – a rare sign of spirituality. Many of the characters in this setting are wearing face masks, goggles, and earmuffs, probably to block out the noise and pollution. Many of the cars look like they are straight out of the 1940s/1950s – this is again another reference to the past being recycled in the present as well as film noir (see the genre section). Deckard eventually catches up to Zhora and gets into a position that enables him to fire off some shots. He does this fairly blatantly in a public setting, hitting Zhora twice in the back as she is running, causing her to dramatically stumble and crash through multiple sheets of glass in a shopfront window display. Coloured neon sings reflect off the glass windows and female mannequins can be seen in sides of the shot as she crashes to her death. Mannequins are of course representations of the human figure, much like the status of the replicants in the film. We see the same motifs in J.F Sebastian’s apartment for example. At the end of the scene we see a hovering police spinner urging passers by to ‘move on’ in a repetitive monotone. It is likely that there is no human interaction between the police force and the public in this city – in fact, one may wonder whether the police force are specially designed replicants themselves. Overall this scene is notable for its cramped and crowded feeling, established by the crowded and disorganised streets. The amazingly eclectic variety of people is certainly interesting to look at. There are many sub-groups, styles, fashions and individuals tastes apparent in the city, and it is just so busy and bustling. You almost wish you could step into the city for a day and observe all the different aspects of its culture. However, the negative aspects such as the waste, pollution and disorganisation certainly outweigh the positives – this is not a place you would want to live in personally.

Eldon Tyrell’s apartment

Eldon Tyrell lives alone in the top floor penthouse of the Tyrell Corporation building. This setting signifies the extreme distance between him and the rest of the population. He is completely isolated, elevated 700 stories above the ground in an almost god-like gesture of his own (inflated) importance. As has been mentioned previously, he echoes Deckard and Sebastian in that he is a male character that lives an isolated, separated existence without any romantic company. We see him sitting in a massive bed, surrounded by burning candles while he trades on the stock exchange (‘commerce is our business’, he says earlier). His apartment is similar to his office, in that it looks like the chamber of an ancient temple. He is dwarfed by its size, and his works and footsteps echo off the walls. He adorns himself in a large white robe. All these aspects of the setting are there to signify the apparent importance of Eldon, but the setting is also significant in that it is symbolic. Roy, the ‘prodigal son’, travels upwards to meet his ‘father’ (or god) in order to try and gain more life. Failing this, he destroys that which created him by gouging in his eyes (another reference to vision), and travels back down to ground level.


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