Alien Covenant, Bee Hives, Bees, Benjamin Walfisch, Blade Runner, Blade Runner 2049, Blade Runner Threeway, climate, Denis Villeneuve, dystopia, Eraserhead, failed environment, Film, film review, Hans Zimmer, Harrisson Ford, Hitchcock-Truffault, Jared Leto, Language of Cinema, Literature, memory, Place, Prometheus, Ridley Scott, Robert Osbourne, Robots, Ryan Gosling, science fiction, Sexual Fantasy, Sexual Rhetoric, Sexuality, Space, TCM
Is Blade Runner a silent movie? I’m seriously asking.
I recently, well not recently, I usually write these essays and then sit on them for a month and then upload them to WordPress and then sit on them again while I publish other essays, and so what was once “Recent” at the time of writing was actually months ago. My “process” aside, if you can call it that, I did take the time to watch the film Blade Runner this year with a group of friends. I’m a hermit by nature who tends to enjoy his isolation because it gives me time to read what I want and watch the movies that I want without having to worry about what’s new with the people I spend my time with. But, I still recognize that part of self-preservation is having some kind of social contact with people who aren’t my cats and dogs and immediate family members. That and the demon who lives on my bookshelves voted for Trump and won’t let me forget about it.
It’s hard to find people that I actually like, mostly because of the territory I live in. When you’re a bisexual atheist in a town with more churches than restaurants you pick your friends carefully. I have a great circle of friends who tend to be open-minded and, even better, have great taste in movies. As such I joined their movie-group and on the week that it was “science fiction classics” I picked Blade Runner, as did my friend Annie who’d never seen it before, and fortunately enough, our movie got picked.
Surrounded by the endless xenomorph collectibles in Michael and Victoria’s apartment I watched a film I’d already seen somewhere around twenty or thirty times reciting the iconic lines of the Final Cut, while TJ and Michael spoke them aloud with me.
It wasn’t this viewing that led me to my question however, because not long after watching the original film, I took my wife to see the sequel film Blade Runner 2049. I can honestly say that I’ve never been so terrified to see a movie. Blade Runner is an important film to me, and I’ve seen lately how Ridley Scott has attempted to expand some of his previous films with sequels and prequels, successfully with Prometheus, and tragically with Alien Covenant. I was waiting for Ridley Scott and the director Denis Villeneuve to turn the Blade Runner universe into something akin to a Marvel movie where characters are nothing but action figures and product endorsement.
The movie started. The music rolled. And two and half hours later I was crying because I hadn’t seen a film that sublime since Eraserhead.
Part of me was tempted to write out a full review of the latest film because I’m not being facetious when I tell my reader that I was floored by the movie. I haven’t seen anything like Blade Runner 2049 in my life, but what stopped me immediately is that I rely on quotes provided by IMDb to support my reviews and essays, and as of this writing there are barely any quotes on IMDb. This is frustrating initially, but as I reflected on the film
again something struck me. Unlike the first Blade Runner, which managed to have a few long stretches of dialogue here and there, Blade Runner 2049 did not. It’s a common occurrence during the film for there to be long moments in which nothing is actually spoken and the reader is left viewing the world which is often presented in wide shots that demonstrate the care and attention made to architecture, color, light, and sound. During one shot in which K and Deckard are fighting in a ballroom in the ruins of Las Vegas, the hologram projections of Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, and show-girls flicker in and out of existence providing only snippets of sound. It’s not that there isn’t any speaking, talking, or music during Blade Runner 2049, it’s just that after a while the reader becomes aware that the world and the design of the world, coupled with electronic music that honors the original film tend to be far more important than any of the dialogue.
In fact, much like a David Lynch movie, the dialogue is just another sound in this universe. And so looking back to the original Blade Runner my question feels terribly important: Are the two films actually just silent movies?
I anticipate my reader’s response: No, they aren’t. The films are filled with music and sounds and silent films are, by their nature, devoid of sound. So how could it possibly be a silent movie?
This is a fair argument, but at the same time it is plagued by the actual histories of Silent Films. While it is true that Silent films got their accurate title by the lack of sound in their final composition, Silent Films over time were usually accompanied by some sort of music. It was common for movie houses to hire musicians, usually paint players, to play tunes that matched the emotional language of the film and this have evolved since their apparent irrelevance. Silent films that are released on Dvd and Blue-Ray, or else played on TCM (We miss you Robert Osborne) are always accompanied by some kind of musical score. My little sister’s copy of Nosferatu includes two different scores, one of which is a horrifying as fucking-fuck organ. And recently when I checked out a Blue-ray of Metropolis I discovered it was a remastered cut in which the producers had sampled hit songs from Eighties pop bands to play over the film. This is all just a way of saying that Blade Runner 2049 and Blade Runner, despite the sound in their films, could be construed as Silent Films.
While watching these films I am able to follow the characters and their emotional journeys, however watching the films I am usually far more concerned with listening to the almost New Wave music that plays throughout the film. Vangelis, who produced the music for the original Blade Runner, manages to create a world that, while it isn’t dying, is more electronic than it is real. Along with his score, which manages to balance sound and silence brilliantly, are the various sounds which make up the world. When Deckard is studying the details of a photograph the clicking of the computer and the various switches broken by his drunken “enhance” let the reader disappear into the film. Watching the original Blade Runner, at least to a contemporary audience, is like listening to the sounds and world of a video game.
Benjamin Walfisch, Hans Zimmer, the composer’s of Blade Runner 2049 push the reader into a different direction, because in the world Denis Villeneuve creates, the world is dying, but it’s lingering. The music tends to envelop the reader as they watch the film to the point that one feels constantly that the sound is entering them. This world that exists, which is only thirty years older than the time of the original story, seems to be entirely made of sound.
And this idea of sound leads me next to design because watching Blade Runner 2049 I was struck by Villeneuve’s concern of place. Having watched a few Silent movies, and I do mean few, I’m usually struck by the concern for visual detail. Part of this might have been fortunate accident on the part of these filmmakers, however it is important to remember that many of the great masters of the early genre of film created wonders the likes of which have only been dreamed of by many current film makers. A film like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, yet another brilliant horror film from the early days of film which still manages to be actually terrifying, pays attention to the “place” of the story, allowing that “place” to become it’s own language.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a world that looks nothing like the “real” world, with it’s harsh geometric landscape and the pointed edges of the world, the reader is left constantly feeling like the world isn’t real, and yet, at the same time, they are entirely convinced by the vision. Blade Runner 2049, and the original Blade Runner manage this same trick.
Watching Blade Runner 2049 is watching color and shapes and often, sex. Unlike the original Blade Runner, which always alluded to sexuality (what exactly is a “pleasure model” I ask you) without coming outright and showing it. Sex was something that was implied, whereas in 2049 there is sex out in the open and the reader is often reminded of it. Whether its the holographic “Joi companion,” the prostitutes servicing men behind thinly veiled screens, the outright sex scene where Joe “becomes” the prostitute, or else the constant concern with the idea of procreation sex is constantly part of the landscape of Blade Runner 2049 culminating with K’s initial walk through the ruins of Vegas.
But along with sex the reader will constantly be bombarded with color and design and Villeneuve succeeds in making an entirely new world. Los Angeles is a world of color and advertisements and sounds, but it’s always in the Wallace corporation headquarters that the viewer is left naked on the shores of a new world. The offices, which tend to look more like the inside of Egyptian pyramids, are designed almost completely with stone and water, one room being nothing but a small island in a room filled with water which shines reverberating light across the walls. Even if language is spoken in these rooms, it’s obvious over the course of time that the words are immaterial.
The rooms do all the speaking.
The original Blade Runner followed this pattern, though often not to the same extremes. Color tended to be the stronger language and whether it was the freezer where Chew made the eyes, Tyrell’s private room decorated with gold and columns, or else if it was the Doll Room of Sebastian’s home colors created their own language. The designs of these rooms, and the details packed into them often allowed for the dialogue to be rather secondary if not irrelevant. Even if you heard batty asking Sebastian to help him into Tyrell’s office, the reader was probably more concerned with Prius’s make-up or else the way Sebastian’s home was a menagerie of toys, robots, and rotting walls. When Deckard is walking through the streets of Los Angeles the color of the light-up umbrellas, or the asian script made up of neon lights manage to tell the viewer more about the world than any of the later exposition. If nothing else about the “place” manages to capture the reader, then surely the ever-present rain should be enough to create the feeling of the world and what it is about.
Both of the Blade Runner films try to create a “place” before they create the characters that interact in this space because it’s the world that’s the important character. Part of
this is surely because it’s a science fiction movie and so the environment needs to be established so that the reader can feel like they are entering a new world. Watching the movies though I am struck more by the concern for creating a world because, at the end of the day, this speaks more to the “language” of cinema.
Better directors and cinema critics than I have explored this idea, and if the reader wants a great exploration of this they should read Hitchcock-Truffault. There is a language of cinema, often referred to as visual language. It’s a damn near impossible phenomena to describe in words but the idea is that the visual direction of films is a language unto itself and so the way a director arranges the Place and space, and then the way they move the camera through this world can communicate it’s own sort of message about humanity. This is not an alien concept I suspect for most people. If a camera zooms into a person’s face after they have heard news of their lover dying then most people would understand the message of the shot. Likewise if they see a director holding the camera still while two people eat in silence the scene will have it’s own meaning and context. This idea of film creating its own language is something which has existed since the early silent film era, and directors and artists have tried to build that language into something meaningful since the establishment of the medium.
Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049 continue to discourse because both films, while they do have characters and story and dialogue which create a story, are films more rooted in the tradition of the language of cinema. The images and lights and colors are far more important because they communicate more about humanity than most of the dialogue.
I think that’s why, as I was watching Blade Runner, and then Blade Runner 2049, I was left so emotionally impacted by both films. Seeing these movies I felt like I was watching directors who understood that a film is not just about telling a story with words, because even though I am a writer I recognize that words can only go so far. Sometimes, if I can quote Seth McFarlane here, music is better than words. Colors and sounds and images can have more emotional impact upon an individual viewer, and they can also illicit strong emotions. Watching Blade Runner 2049 I wasn’t watching a sequel to a great science fiction movie, I was watching a film that was trying to do more with the language of film.
Blade Runner 2049 is a film about the human condition, about the ideas of power and procreation, about the loneliness of souls, about what a father can give to his children, about the injustice of slavery, about the death of the world, and about the future of humanity in a landscape where symbol becomes more powerful than the individual human being. These are powerful ideas, and watching the film I found far more message in the colors and geometric patterns of light than I did in most of the dialogue. I recognize that the reader may not share my sentiments, and that they may find the new Blade Runner film an overly long exploration of a universe, but hopefully they will still recognize that the composition of Blade Runner 2049 is unlike any other film produced in the last decade.
Film is a medium unlike any other because the images that are being passively received can have a spirit and language all their own. Blade Runner 2049 is a beautiful reminder then that artists can, and should, take care to worry about the what the images in their films can mean for the sensation of the viewer.
The Silent Film may have reached a point where it no longer bears any real relevance to the mass audience, but the concern for the language of cinema is still an idea which has persisted and influenced movie makers for generations. It may not seem like it, but a man shoving his hand into a bee hive in the ruins of Las Vegas, or the same man staring up a giant hologram advertisement for a sexual hologram says more about the condition of humanity than most movies dare to.
This idea about the “Language of Cinema” is an important one, and so I’ve found a few great videos on YouTube which explore and explain it. I’ve posted them here because I like to offer my reader supplementary materials, but also because there are people in the world who are far, FAR better at explaining concepts and ideas than I am.
Along with this are several links to articles and YouTube Videos which explore facets and elements of the movie Blade Runner, just in case the reader was interested in digging deeper into the film.
I’ve also included a link to an interview hosted by NPR with science historian Howard Markel who explores the history and etymology of the word Robot