November 21, 2016

Watch: One Reason Why 'Blade Runner' is the Most Symbolically Complex Movie Ever Made

Here's what Ridley Scott's masterpiece can teach you about using color in your own work. 

Adapted from Phillip K. Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Ridley Scott's 1982 film Blade Runner is a classic of science fiction, as well as a deeply subversive movie. (Its dystopian world defied all the "rules" at a time when Star Wars had codified the genre.) Over the years, its troubled production history and many cuts have led to near-Shining levels of devotion to and debate over the film's meaning.

Rob Ager of Collative Learning recently looked at the use of the color red in the eyes of the characters (and the mise-en-scène of the film itself). It shows how, by looking at a small piece of the film, larger thematic trends are revealed; the visual ambiguity inherent in the movie is valuable for any filmmaker to contemplate. 

It's always difficult to translate a novel to the big screen. As an almost entirely visual—as well as ruthlessly temporal—medium, film demands that the subtleties of fiction find a visual correlation that, in all likelihood, will be lacking from the written work. The two operate on different plains of symbolic logic (verbal and visual). From the beginning of the film, Scott uses the image of the eye—and especially the "red" eye—to telegraph meaning to the audience. But what is that meaning? 

"The eye is really the most important organ in the human body. It's like a two-way mirror; the eye doesn't only see a lot, the eye gives away a lot."

In the film, Harrison Ford's character, Rick Deckard, is a Blade Runner, or a member of a "Special Police Squad" tasked with the elimination of replicants, a form of advanced A.I. and perceived existential threat to humanity following a bloody mutiny. Replicants are difficult to discern from humans and must be given psychological tests to determine their humanity, or lack thereof. Deckard's love interest, Rachel (Sean Young), is both a replicant and an "experiment"; she has been given implanted memories to protect her from realizing that she is a replicant, thus will only live for a few years. The illusion of humanity subdues her. 

While red eyes appear throughout the film, and some of them appear on replicants, Ager quotes a forum member who said, "If replicants do have a natural red-eye effect, then why do Blade Runners bother with all that psychological testing? Why not just shine a light into their eyes?"

The common and usually undesired photographic effect of red eye occurs "when a camera flash goes off [and] the pupils of your subject's eyes don't have time to constrict to reduce the amount of light entering their eyes .... a large burst of light reaches their retinas, reflects back, and is captured on film." The redness that is captured is from blood vessels at the back of your eyes; paradoxically, this most human of features commonly represents artificial intelligence in science fiction (think The Terminator, or Hal 9000). 

In the above scene, a replicant is given the so-called Voight-Kampff test, a series of questions that are innocuous to humans, but that reveal the true nature of replicants, who are unable to answer them properly. The test is administered by a machine with a rather prominent red dot at the center of a circle; and yet, the eyeball shown on the monitor screen in the clip above at 1:44 seconds, which belongs to Leon, who is a replicant, is green (the same eyeball is shown in Rachel's test at :39 seconds in the clip before that, though the characters have brown and blue eyes, respectively). According to Ager, the eyeballs on the monitors are actually stock footage. The symbolism is not uniform and appears to follow little rhyme or reason. 

But notice, in the explanatory titles at the beginning of the film, that the only word that appears in a color is the word "Replicant"in red. Ditto for the eye in the sign outside Eye World, a store where the eyes of several replicants have been manufactured. 

Ager believes that the reason for the seemingly capricious use of red eyes in the film and its characters—as well as the inconsistency with which it's deployed—is because "it's there for the audience, not the characters. In other words, it's metaphoric."

In another shot from the opening credits, we see the city and fire reflected in an eyeball, but this is not tied to any specific character. It could be said to represent the eye of the audience, who is going to receive knowledge that will be denied the characters. (Though the shots are edited to give the impression that they are coming from Deckard's POV, this spatial-temporal relationship is never clarified, and, in fact, he's shown in a room where he couldn't be looking at the vista reflected in the eye). 

Credit: Warner Bros.

Scott, who believes that Deckard is himself a replicant, has said of the glowing eyes, "that kickback you saw from the replicants' retinas was a bit of a design flaw. I was also trying to say that the eye is really the most important organ in the human body. It's like a two-way mirror; the eye doesn't only see a lot, the eye gives away a lot. A glowing human retina seemed one way of stating that."

It's also interesting to note that Dick believed Deckard to be human; so did Hampton Fancher, the film's screenwriter. Of course, the symbolism goes far beyond just the issue of eyes (there's also the issue of the 1940's wardrobe and other elements of film noir aspects, as well as the environmental catastrophe and destruction of nature); Blade Runner is one of the most symbolically and thematically rich modern Hollywood films. Scott allows for a degree of ambiguity in the story, Ford's character, and the world which he and the replicants inhabit, and this is, arguably, why the film is such an important work of art today, 34 years since its release. It's an object lesson for filmmakers, too, and a standard to test the tensile strength of your story: when you can pile uncertainty upon uncertainty and maintain a coherent work that can withstand multiple interpretations, then you've done your job. By that measure, as well as many others, Blade Runner is a triumph.      

Your Comment

13 Comments

BladeRunner really isn't that complex or ambiguous. And I'm not knocking it here - it's one of my all time favourite films. But the whole notion of the film is that Deckard is a replicant and the film plays with ideas of what makes a human.
Yes, the red eyes are a metaphorical symbol of replicants, and Deckard has red eyes in one shot.
But the absolute proof that he is a replicant is his unicorn dream and the origami unicorn Gaff leaves at his door at the end. Gaff knows his dreams because Deckard's dreams/memories are not his own.
It's a pretty simple, obvious, but fantastically realised, piece of symbology that is in no way ambiguous.

November 22, 2016 at 4:40AM, Edited November 22, 4:40AM

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Chris Johnson-Standley
Owner - Rogue Robot Visual Industries
82

Agreed. I think the Deckard as replicant controversy stems from the original theatrical release of the film where the unicorn dream sequence was omitted. The director's cut, irrefutably, established that Deckard is, indeed, a replicant with the inclusion of his unicorn dream and, again, substantiated by the subsequent origami unicorn Gaff leaves on the floor.

I've never been sure if this is the moment Deckard realizes he is, in fact, a replicant or if he knew or suspected it previously.

November 22, 2016 at 11:02AM

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Richard Krall
richardkrall.com
943

Richard?! Crazy running across you in a place like this.
Blade Runner is still one of my all time faves. Clearly you have watched it a time or two.

November 23, 2016 at 2:31PM

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I think the Unicorn dream scene was added in a later cut of the film, so it wasn't clear to me at first that he was a replicant.

November 23, 2016 at 3:03PM, Edited November 23, 3:04PM

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It was added later, but more like added "back" in as it was intended from the start to be part of it. As was the more ambiguous ending with the elevator door closing --and not the absurd driving off into the beautiful countryside shots.
I always love Blade Runner from the start, but those final scenes confused the hell out me! I was like "Um guys, why live in the horrible, crowded dark dystopian city when there is all this clean air and open space just a drive away!?"

November 23, 2016 at 5:16PM, Edited November 23, 5:16PM

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Douglas Bowker
Animation, Video, Motion-Graphics
102

I'd aver that it's ambiguous in that the dream etc. point us in a direction but if the film flat out said Deckard=replicant there would have been some sort of revelation/confrontation. In a Hollywood film, the omission of Deckard declaiming, "OMG I'm a freakin' robot!", and the inclusion of dreams and motifs and etc. make it relatively rich. Perhaps not 'of all time' but that's not my dept. Thanks for your thoughtful engagement. Appreciated.

November 27, 2016 at 1:38PM, Edited November 27, 1:39PM

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Justin Morrow
Writer
Writer/Director

Thanks for your insight on one of my favourite films.

Why do people have red eyes when flash is used in photo's? Your explanation goes a long way, but stops where the difference between photo and film matter.
The eye pupils take time to react to a flash and only after the immanent shutter release, the pupils will shrink.
The suggestion of using a small light to redden the eyes of the replicant is valid for only the first frames of the shot. After that, the pupils will accommodate to the new light intensity and shrink. The red eye effect will no longer be present.

Imo the suggestion of stock footage being used with the wrong, green eye color, seems far fetched. It is trying to hold up this theory and totally ignoring the intentions of a dp, a director who could have presented eye footage in any color at the same time.

So, I am not sold. It was interesting all the same.

November 22, 2016 at 5:08AM, Edited November 22, 5:08AM

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"The Most Symbolically Complex Movie Ever Made"

Really?
You could have just gone with "one of the most..." and just about got away with it.

November 23, 2016 at 10:36AM, Edited November 23, 10:36AM

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I wanted to call it 'The Eyes Have It' but voted down. So, yeah...

November 27, 2016 at 1:32PM

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Justin Morrow
Writer
Writer/Director

Next to Schindler's list, this is one of my all-time favorite movies. Definitely detailed, but not the most complex symbolically. The script is fantastic and the set pieces really make this film. But if you listen to all the DVD commentary on this film, and there is several hours of it, you will learn that some stuff just happened and not necessarily a story reason behind it. For instance, at the Terrell Corporation, when Deckard meets Rachel for the first time, it was a beautiful set piece, and after Ridley Scott saw, he asked for shimmering gold reflections to be added to the scene. When the lighting director asked him where the light was supposed to be coming from, he just said do it. Did it look great? Yes. Symbolic meaning? No.

November 23, 2016 at 2:58PM, Edited November 23, 2:58PM

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Minor nitpick here, but when you state "(Though the shots are edited to give the impression that they are coming from Deckard's POV, this spatial-temporal relationship is never clarified, and, in fact, he's shown in a room where he couldn't be looking at the vista reflected in the eye). "
That's not Deckard's eye we see, it's Holden's. He's the poor guy that gets to give Leon the VK test, and then get's blown away when he gets personal and asks about "his mother." It's why they bring Deckard back to the blade runner force in the first place.
"He can breath fine as long as they don't unplug him."

November 23, 2016 at 5:04PM

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Douglas Bowker
Animation, Video, Motion-Graphics
102

The "Red Eye" effect is actually a result of the technique used to shoot the Tyrell Board Room Sequence. The backgrounds for that scene were photographed first, by Douglas Trumble's effects group. The backgrounds were then Front Projected through a transparent mirror onto a Scotchlite Screen. Closeups of Rachel, who was seated with the background behind her, have all that light from the Front Projection system bouncing around her eyes and illuminating them red - because of the blood vessels at the back of the eye. The filmmakers liked that look, and used the front projection mirror in other shots, including the scene of Deckard and Rachel together, which is why Deckard's eyes also go red. In today's digital world they might have corrected Deckard's eyes and let Rachel's stay red, but in 1982 that wasn't possible.

November 24, 2016 at 12:08AM

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Well the stock footage supposition is Ager's, but the effect if it was actually DP/director manipulation is the same, viz. a subtle visual disorientation. The point I was trying to make is an intentionality behind the eye color difference, cf. the so called "continuity errors" in 'The Shining' which are arguably meant to disorient and alienate the audience from some notion of cinematic "reality." I digress.

November 27, 2016 at 1:30PM

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Justin Morrow
Writer
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