Neon Hauntings: Gender, Bodies and Terrain in Blade Runner

This essay was originally published in Slate Film & Moving Image Journal (April 12th, 2016).

Aglow in a perpetually buzzing, flickering neon mise-en-abyme, Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner takes place in the haze of Los Angeles, 2019. The film’s shiny future vision is stained by pervasive nostalgia for a political time far closer to the film’s production present than its embodied temporality. Baroque and Romanesque Revival architectural corners and parapets peek between blinding neon signs. In a nightclub, women are adorned with mesh veils and hold cigarette holders between their fingertips just as they did a century ago. The nostalgia in this futuristic imaging is latent in the film’s politics as well as mapped onto its surface landscape. Scott’s Los Angeles 2019 is steeped in Reaganite institutional hegemony, racialized anxieties about globalization, as well as visual concordance with, and nostalgia for, the female body as institutionally and visually bound by oppressive politics. Blade Runner's particular dystopic landscape is predicated upon the de-familiarization of Earth as we know it. This Earth is no longer desirable for human habitation. In pursuit of “off-world colonies,” the Tyrell Corporation has cloned humans – “Replicants” – to use as slave-colonizers. However, Nexus-6, the newest model of Replicants, have gone rogue and returned to Earth. Blade Runner (Replicant “retirer”) Rick Deckard is forced to hunt them down and kill them. Just as architecture is never devoid of signification or of discourse, the female body is always a site upon which a complex politics is at work. The nostalgic-dystopic politics of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner are mapped explicitly onto the film’s neon-lit landscape, and are articulated through the bound or bloodied female bodies that inhabit it.

Blade Runner opens with an establishing shot that serves to disorient rather than – as is an establishing shot’s formal purpose - orient the viewer. The iconic urban sprawl of Los Angeles, shrouded in darkness, is multiplied tenfold. Towering, coiled obelisks spurt flames into the black-red atmosphere. It is the familiar landscape of Los Angeles rendered strange, uncanny, disturbing. It establishes little more than disorientation – an unmooring of a known place from its visual tether. The infinite, burning urban sprawl in Blade Runner's establishing shot sets a visual precedent for the rest of the film’s mise-en-abyme. The term ‘mise-en-abyme’ translates directly to “putting into abyss.” The term is expressed visually and formally through seemingly infinite mirroring, or a shattering of intelligible space. It serves both a disorienting and de-stabilizing purpose. The effect of mise-en-abyme – a formal technique expressed in a multitude of ways in Blade Runner – is not dissimilar to the way in which dystopia distorts and disturbs images of the familiar.

The Oxford English dictionary defines dystopia as “an imaginary place or condition in which everything is as bad as possible.” In his essay “The Cinematic City: Between Modernist Utopia and Postmodernist Dystopia,” Nezar Alsayyad emphasizes the meta-entanglement of dystopia and utopia crucial to understanding or imaging either “no-place” (271). Alsayyad proclaims that there cannot be a “utopian city without a dystopian vision... all dystopias have embedded in them a utopian dream” (271). Blade Runner's “embedded... utopian dream” is intertextually manifest (Alsayyad 271). The building which serves as the setting for much of the film is a decrepit version of The Bradbury Building (built in Los Angeles in 1893) whose architecture was itself inspired by Edward Bellamy’s 1887 utopic science fiction novel Looking Backward (Ferrell 2). Alsayyad remarks that the utopic vision embodied by Looking Backward is one of “a rosy future where Victorian family values were preserved and held together by saccharine- sweet male-female relations” (Alsayyad 271). Blade Runner's dystopic re-rendering of a utopian architectural bastion does not merely bridge a Los Angeles of the past or present with a filmic vision of the future. It is also, importantly, an intertextual allusion to a Victorian-conservative utopia. Like all doubles, utopia and dystopia are two parts of one whole, bred from a similar creative-destructive impulse.

Blade Runner's landscape is declared textually as dystopic; it is fragment of a world explicitly declared undesirable by floating advertisements exalting “the off-world colonies... a chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunity and adventure.” Earth, abandoned by all those able to leave (presumably those with the economic means) is visualized here as a transformed, perpetually dark and damp Los Angeles. The film’s temporality is established by futuristic iconography: flying cars, mammoth glittering structures and an overabundance of neon. Los Angeles 2019 is bereft of its iconic palm trees, as well as any other signs of natural life; an owl and a snake – the only ‘animals’ in the film - are declared “not authentic.” Urban planning – be it fictional or otherwise – is never merely practical. There is a power dynamic written into all city streets; architecture is never devoid of signification. Blade Runner's postindustrial dystopic landscape is inflected heavily by what Timothy Yu describes in his essay “Oriental Cities, Postmodern Futures” as “continuing fantasies of – and anxieties about – the Orient” (46). The heavily populated, neon-lit, rainy streets of Los Angeles in Blade Runner bear a much stronger resemblance to an East-Asian metropolis than anywhere on the American West Coast. The majority of the neon signs that cover virtually every visible surface of the Blade Runner landscape are in Chinese characters or Japanese kan’ji. Those who occupy service industry or blue-collar jobs (including manufacturing Replicant eyeballs in an ice box of a room or selling noodles on the street) in this film are all of Asian descent, in stark contrast to the all-white cast working higher class jobs such as police officers and genetic designers. In his essay, Timothy Yu claims “the Orient is the necessary space within which imagining alternatives to Western modernity becomes possible” (47). In Blade Runner, these “[imagined] alternatives” do not hold utopic potential (47). The film’s status as a dystopia infects Blade Runner's globalized landscape with a profoundly negative association. The film’s pairing of a dystopic rhetoric with visual signifiers of East-Asian capitalism underlines an “[anxiety]” about a globalized future (Yu 46). The future feared most by the white middle class is shown in Blade Runner to be one wherein ‘Eastern’ signifiers have seeped into – or contaminated - ‘Western’ spaces. Blade Runner's future anxieties thus run along racialized lines.

In his chapter “Brave Homelands and Evil Empires,” Stephen Prince laments the aesthetic and political merging of film and advertisements – of capitalism and “art” within a Cold War and post-Cold War context. To illustrate this, Prince cites a Diet Pepsi ad that directly preceded screenings of Top Gun (1986), claiming that this

Emblem of consumer culture... [is] fused with the military apparatus at a seamless audiovisual level as the ad makes the kind of connections between political ideology and domestic life which are the essence and function of the Cold War” (71)

Blade Runner's landscape serves a similar purpose within the text of the film. The neon mise-en-abyme that characterizes the film's visual terrain and the flashing blue and red lights of police vehicles are “fused...seamlessly” (Prince 71). The lights that indicate a heavy police or military presence in Blade Runner are simply one set of many neon lights in Scott’s landscape; the police neon is camouflaged in the vicious mosaic of neon consumer capitalism. The police are thus visually inconspicuous in this landscape. The effect of this is a Panoptical reiteration of the police’s omnipresence in this version of Los Angeles 2019 - they could be anywhere, and thus they are everywhere – and thus a further visual iteration of the dystopic schema. The film’s visual submersion of neon police vehicle lights with the constant buzzing neon lights of late consumer capitalism in Blade Runner is grounded in the film’s Reaganite context. This fusion of a visual landscape that embodies consumer capitalism with a stealthy police omnipresence suggests a reimaging of a future heavily influenced by Ronald Reagan’s “conservative agenda,” whose “[concern]...[was] with preserving the authority of traditional social institutions” such as the military (Prince 70).

These prominent elements of the film's visual and rhetorical landscape – a mise-en-abyme of neon capitalism, racialized anxieties and Panoptic surveillance – are further iterated in and articulated through the bodies in Blade Runner. The human form is obsessively replicated in Ridley Scott’s mise-en-scene. The apartment of genetic designer J.F. Sebastian (located in the dystopic version of The Bradbury Building) is littered with humanoid figurines and mannequins. Human-like, motionless figures are silhouetted in a repeated shot of the building’s entranceway. J.F. muses to Pris (another Replicant Deckard has been assigned to kill) – “I make friends, my friends are toys, I make them.” The toys J.F surrounds himself with are all influenced by the human form but often deviate uncannily from it. They appear stunted in growth, are missing limbs, and have distorted features, and their mechanical marching is reminiscent of wind-up toys and the military. Near the end of the film, when Pris is hiding from Deckard in J.F.’s apartment, she disguises herself among the non-human figures that populate the apartment. Her already “non-human” form is made even more mechanical by its juxtaposition with the other figures in J.F.’s toy mausoleum. Replicants are engineered by the Tyrell Corporation, a company whose motto is “more human than humans.” As Eldon Tyrell himself explains to Deckard, the newest Replicant model – Nexus-6 – is engineered to have a shorter lifespan and is implanted with memories. These memories are visually supported by photographs given to the Replicants. By granting the Nexus-6 Replicants a “past,” the Tyrell Corporation is creating “a cushion for their emotions” which then helps the company “control them better.” Rachael, a Replicant with whom Deckard becomes enamoured, believes herself to be human. This ignorance of her own “difference” renders her harder for Deckard to identify as a Replicant using the formerly reliable “Voight- Kampff” test. She is more human – based on the test criteria – because she believes herself to be. The perceived integrity of the human form – that it reflects some kind of inner definably “humanness” – is dismantled in all its Blade Runner iterations.

The female body is a landscape of its own in Blade Runner. As viewers we do not encounter any “human” females in this film, however the film’s choice to gender certain Replicants female is highly significant. The first “woman” to appear in the Blade Runner diegesis is an enormous moving billboard of a geisha placing an unidentified object into her mouth. The billboard alternates between this shot and a close up of her mouth. Already here the female body is visually amputated. The geisha – arguably a symbol of women existing or performing for male pleasure only – is cut up by the formal technique of the close-up, and re-rendered as only a mouth. This geisha image is a telling introduction to the female body in this film. Rachael – arguably the most developed ‘female’ character in the film – exists iconographically as a symbol for outdated gender politics. At the beginning of the film, Rachael’s attire is distinctly reminiscent of the early 1940s. She wears skirt suits with wide, sharp shoulders, fur coats, and her hair is pinned up in a “victory roll.” Even the texture and timbre of her voice harkens back to the voices of early film movie stars. As she starts to grow attached to Deckard, she lets her dark, curly hair out of its pins, and dons a high-necked, white dress. In a shot where she is seated at a piano, she bears a striking resemblance to the Victorian women in the sepia- toned photographs Deckard has in his apartment. Her transition from mysterious, independent figure – coded by her futuristic suffragette-era attire – to a woman willing to risk her life and autonomy for a man – coded by Victorian-era regalia – politicizes Rachael’s body in a way Deckard’s male body never is. Rachael’s body is draped in temporal signification - her physical adornments harken back to eras that embody far more “regressive” gender politics than an image of the future might hope to articulate.

Out of the Replicants Deckard is assigned to “retire,” two – Zhora and Pris - are female – and two - Leon and Roy – are male. All of these Replicants die at different moments in the film, however, the way in which their respective deaths are filmed differs depending on their coded genders. Leon’s death is the least spectacular of all – he is shot by Rachael just before, it would appear, he was about to kill Deckard. In contrast with the camera’s disinterest in Leon’s death, Roy’s death is a spectacle of martyrdom. Just before dying of “natural causes” – his ‘lifespan’ is depleted – Roy gives a speech about the transience of memory. His death is steeped in dramatic convention – slow motion – and biblical references – he sets a white dove free in an allusion to the myth of Noah’s Ark. These lend both his life and “retirement” transcendental significance. When Pris and Zhora are killed, their deaths are, like Roy’s, spectacular. However, these female Replicants are not lent any divine signification nor theatrical martyrdom. Their bodies, not their consciousness, are rendered as spectacle. Specifically, the female body in death is here an erotic spectacle.

In her essay “Her Body, Himself,” Carol Clover contrasts depictions of male and female deaths within the realm of the slasher film. She asserts that “the murders of women... are filmed at closer range, in more graphic detail, and at greater length” than “the death of a male” (35). Unlike the male, the female in the throes of death is a graphic, erotic body spectacle. While Blade Runner is not a slasher film, it nevertheless reproduces the formal schema Clover outlines. This is evident in the scene where Deckard stalks Zhora at her job in a nightclub and, after chasing her through mirrors, glass and neon, shoots her multiple times. As she falls, Zhora’s body becomes ghostly – almost transparent - cut into shards and refracted multiple times in disorienting glass reflections. She dies in slow motion, wearing only undergarments and a transparent raincoat spattered – like a butcher’s apron - with her own blood. The camera lingers on Zhora’s collapsed body in a pile of glass, her legs askew, as if, as in the slasher genre, “[fascinated] with flesh or meat itself” (Clover 32). Zhora’s flesh – though not “human,” deliberately gendered female – is put on visceral display. Similarly, when Deckard kills Pris, she is rendered cinematically as an erotic, bloody spectacle. Pris is shot, like Zhora, in slow motion. She then writhes on the floor, bleeding from her chest, naked-looking, her screams ricocheting across the walls and into the next scene. In Carol Clover’s examination of the “Final Girl,” she suggests that the last living female – in this case, Pris – “is at her most effective in a state of undress, borne down upon by a blatantly phallic murderer, even gurgling orgasmically as she dies” (42). The murdered female as erotic and fetishized spectacle in the throes of death is clearly a trope that extends past the slasher genre. While the two murdered male Replicants die quickly or as martyrs, the deaths of their female counterparts are extended graphically and viscerally eroticized by Scott’s manipulation of the film apparatus.

Scott’s Blade Runner is a haunting. The landscape of Scott’s dystopic Los Angeles 2019 – blackened by perpetual nighttime, damp with rain, fizzing with neon – is informed by nostalgia and populated by ideological ghosts. The female body is an erotic phantasm reflected in shards of glass. Human creators are haunted and inevitably destroyed by their own creations. Blade Runner's visual terrain – and its articulations in human-like bodies - places the film in the middle of a temporal tug-of-war. Utopian intertexts and visualized nostalgia, both spectral presences, are at perpetual odds with Scott’s dystopic vision of the future. As a genre, science fiction holds distinctive radical potential. Sci-fi pivots primarily on a future ‘space’ linked delicately, at the very least, to contemporary Earthly human experience. In this way it functions as a ‘queering’ of “the world as we know it” in a similar way to fictional incarnations of dystopias and utopias. The radical potential of sci-fi lies in the possible re-imagining – or obliteration – of the socio-economic, patriarchal base of contemporary human life. The most radical science fiction goes beyond a critique of the present, and moves into the creation of new, unarticulated paradigms. The landscapes of 2019 Los Angeles and the female bodies who inhabit it are certainly politicized in Blade Runner, but not to a radical, paradigm-shattering extent. Their respective terrains are written over with yearnings for a resurrected, conservative past and racialized anxieties about an uncontrollable future. The ideological poltergeists that wreak havoc on Scott’s future visions undermine Blade Runner's radical textual potential.