Blade Runner‘s science fiction cyberpunk world is anchored in the classic noir genre’s sombre aesthetics. But it also subverts them. The film combines urban decay in the high-tech metropolis of a futuristic Los Angeles with postmodern production and costume designs, to explore—with remarkable prescience—the human condition and our vision of the future.

Inspired by Philip K. Dick’s 1968 science fiction novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Ridley Scott provided Blade Runner’s writers, including Hampton Fancher and David Peoples, with visual examples from the French artist Moebius’ comic The Long Tomorrow, published in the Metal Hurlant magazine in 1976. Built on these futuristic visual flairs, Blade Runner’s lone-detective narrative centres around the philosophical investigation of what constitutes human consciousness. 

The Long Tomorrow

The Long Tomorrow by Moebius. Courtesy of: Marvel Enterprises

The film’s moral ambiguity and lack of existential resolution derive from the investigative narrative of its detective protagonist Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford)—typical of the hardboiled noir genre’s focus on criminality and fatalism. These in turn accord with the film’s postmodern statement that this future world’s replicants could be more human than humans in their agency and subjectivity—so there is no certain truth in what constitutes human consciousness.

Since Blade Runner’s original release in 1982 and throughout its various cuts over the decades, its depictions of the future become exponentially more relevant with each passing year: the hyper-globalised vision of capitalism; the technological abundance; the cultural mishmash; the ecological devastation—all these predict the bizarre development of our humanity in the real world. Indeed, the film—despite being set in 2019—constantly provides its own visual answer for a question that at times still enters our curious minds: what will our future world look like? 

Blade Runner’s answer is a culturally concentrated global society, marked by an impoverished overpopulation saturating its futuristic Los Angeles’ downtown scenes—as well as an overarching corporate superpower that develops economies and technologies that lead to further ecological deterioration.

That cultural concentration is clear from the hybrid architectural logic of its futuristic LA. The city recollects and reconciles the cultural histories of myriad countries in a pastiche embodiment of the accumulation and appropriation of various architectural prototypes. That ranges from the bombarding LED billboard that displays hip geisha imageries of Japanese exoticism and eroticism, to the Tyrell corporation, built up like the Mayan pyramids glazed in the golden sunset.

Tyrell Corporation

Courtesy of: Warner Bros.

Blade Runner’s architecture is just one element in its multilayered world-building. The film’s narrative also incorporates a variety of languages and ethnicities, as a large number of Chinese, Japanese and Egyptian inhabitants converge in the city’s single metropolitan melting pot. Deckard can understand “cityspeak”, which is described as a “street” language invented out of a combination of Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, German and so on. That stir of different languages into a newly created urban dialect is underpinned by an international market connected through underground networks, as well as relations prevailing in every sector of Blade Runner’s postmodern society. 

The film’s production designer Lawrence Paull and conceptual aesthetician (credited as “visual futurist”) Syd Mead also permeate the landscape with flying cars shuttling through the kaleidoscopic cityscape of towering skyscrapers. Meanwhile, the city’s underbellies are overflowing with garbage down the drain, along with ceaseless surges of rain, all of which visualise the mass ecological devastation that occurs in response to a comprehensively capitalist world’s mass production.

These ideas of consumerist waste and the capitalist mode of production are also reflected in Blade Runner’s costume design. Costume designer Michael Kaplan styles Pris (Daryl Hannah), the replicant “basic pleasure model”, in a polyester ensemble of torn stockings and spiky dog collars with smoky eye makeup.

Daryl Hannah As Pris

Courtesy of: Warner Bros.

Zhora, another female replicant, is dressed in a see-through plastic trench coat in her death scene. Here, the noir genre’s history of violence towards the femme fatale is stretched throughout the outfit’s transparent display and seamlessly sewn into the editing and choreography of Zhora’s death, as she breaks through the city streets in slow motion. 

Blade Runner’s interplay between postmodern philosophies and noir genre conventions opens up a visual portal for us to experience a meticulously fabricated, hyper-realistic vision of our humanity’s shared future. What is quintessentially postmodern about this sci-fi film is its duality: that on one hand, its dystopian future is characterised by grim deterioration in the noir city’s mean streets; on the other, its visual re-imagining of architectures from around the world alludes to the potential for cultural and ethnic diversity leading to greater human unity. In other words, it is both dystopian and utopian. This remaining shred of optimism is its key subversion of the typically gloomy noir genre—and in turn offers us a glimpse at a more positive alternative future.