Thursday, November 29, 2012

Blade Runner and the Future of Photography

by Drew Martin
I recently rewatched Blade Runner, the 1982 neo-noir sci-fi film set in a gritty and untypically rainy Los Angeles in 2019. I looked at the use of photography in the film and was a bit surprised. For one thing, I did not see anyone taking pictures in the whole movie; not even during the amazing chase and shooting/Rasputin-like death scene of Zhora, the semi-naked exotic snake dancer. People would be all over that in 2012 but nobody has a smartphone in 2019.

In 1982 photography was still an entirely analog medium and video was king. So what we see in Blade Runner are boxy clusters of small multi-monitor video stations, including the setup used to record the psychological profile test of Leon Kowalski, one of the skin-jobs - replicants who are visually indistinguishable from humans.

The primary role of photography in Blade Runner is that of memory. This is a play on how the medium was viewed at the time; photography equals the past, which is quite different than what it has become in this era of social media; showing I am right here, right now.

The replicants (Zhora the snake dancer was one too) are used for pleasure and labor on off-world colonies. Predicting wayward and rebellious units, Dr. Eldon Tyrell, the genius creator of the replicants and the head of the Tyrell Corporation, builds in a fail-safe: a four-year lifespan. This short existence has tragic consequences. The replicants do not emotionally develop like humans and they are desperate to extend their fleeting lives.

Tyrell experiments by implanting his niece's memories into a new unit, his assistant Rachael, and he does not tell her she is not human. Rachael falls in love with Deckard, a Blade Runner - a special detective used to hunt down and kill deviant replicants. Back at his place, she shows him a picture of Tyrell's niece as a little girl and explains that it is a picture of her with her mother. In another scene she plays the piano from the implanted memories, and reaches for a photograph of someone from Deckard's past (pictured here, left top).

An interesting twist on photography is in one of the most classic scenes in the film. Deckard takes a photograph (with Vermeer lighting) from Leon's apartment. He scans it back at his place and enhances the hell out of it, as if the image has labyrinthal memory/resolution within it. At the end of the scene, he prints out a hardcopy with Polaroid framing.