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Jonathan Willbanks

Professor Drew Casper

Introduction to Cinema

September 28, 2007

Blade Runner: A Visual Analysis

In Blade Runner (1982), director Ridley Scott employs juxtaposition of light and

dark to represent the conflict between man and that which is man-made -- between

humanity and artificial life. One of the film’s central thematic conflicts, Rachael’s

identity struggle between her presumed human self and the revelation that she is a

“replicant,” a machine, is conveyed through the use of lighting. As the film begins,

Rachael, confident in her humanity, is bathed in light. But as soon as her humanity is

called into question, the lighting of her character shifts to a scheme of extreme low-

key/high contrast. Scene by scene, the light disappears until, coinciding with the

acceptance of her true replicant identity, she is bathed in shadow, a visual metaphor for

the lonely darkness she feels at the realization that all of here life has been a lie. As if

quarantined by shadow, no direct light hits her character once she accepts this fact, until

she falls in love with Deckard, finally reawakening her soul, the true source of humanity.

Through the strategic use of high/key low-key lighting, Scott achieves a visual design

that evokes the recurring conflicts between light and dark, most significantly to represent

the battle between Rachael’s identity as a human and her realization that she is a

Replicant.

The pervasive simultaneous presence of both light and dark, achieved through the

heavy use of low-key/high contrast lighting is emblematic of the dichotomy underlying


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nearly every thematic element of the film, and serves to visually intensify the central

conflict between humanity and artificial life. Foreshadowing this coming conflict, Blade

Runner’s massive exterior opening shots are low-key. Alone, the behemoth smokestacks

towering over Los Angeles are lost in shadow, blending into the dark of the night. But as

the warm industrial fires of the Los Angeles industrial underbelly glow deep orange

against the dark, twinkling sprawl of the futuristic skyline, the smokestacks are

illuminated, bringing them out of the darkness and placing them in stark relief against the

backdrop of the black cityscape. With each burst of flame they are reemphasized, and as

each flame dies they fade again into blackness, the light and dark in never-ending

struggle for dominance. This use of visual foreshadowing in the film’s opening hints at

the broader thematic and visual motifs of light versus dark that underscore the rest of the

film.

Far beyond the classical analogies of good and evil, Blade Runner’s visual

conflict between light and dark assumes many meanings throughout the film. For

Rachael, the light is her humanity; the darkness is her identity as a replicant. As her

humanity is slowly lost at the growing realization that she is in fact a machine, she

becomes progressively bathed in shadow. With no reason to question her humanity,

Rachael’s introduction in the Tyrell Corporation building is warm and well-lit. The

golden California sun has a strong, radiant impact on her fair skin. This flattering light

serves to convey her sense of confidence and satisfaction. Very subtle backlighting,

nearly faint enough to be the ambient light of the sun reflected off the walls of the room,

serves to separate Rachael from her surroundings by creating a subtle halo effect around

her. Though shadow and contrast are still present on her face and body, she is lit with a
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soft key light that soothes the contrast caused by the bright sun out the window from the

right. Deckard and Tyrell in comparison are lit with far less fill, and whether due to their

naturally darker skin tone or because of a directorial move, they receive far less sunlight

than Rachael. Not blessed with Rachael’s naivety, Deckard and Tyrell are at this point

perhaps less human than she – far more jaded toward the world - and are thus generally

darker characters subject to Scott’s withholding of light.

Once the blinds come down however, Rachael herself becomes cloaked in

shadow. Though she does not yet realize it, this is the first step toward the destruction of

her perceived humanity. When she arrives at Deckard’s apartment to question him about

her growing suspicions, the sunlight still finds her, but there is little or no fill to balance it

out. Leaving dramatic, dark lines on her face and body, this harsh shadow conveys the

growing dichotomy within Rachael. Once again, the parallel between darkness and her

Replicant identity is emphasized as she asks Deckard, “You think I’m a replicant don’t

you?” For the first time in the scene, she is completely out of direct light, hiding in the

darkness. There is a glimmer of hope as she presents Deckard with a picture from her

childhood. “It’s me with my mother,” she says as a ray of light reaches her face. As

Deckard tells her that her past is a lie, he destroys her last reserve of hope. She steps

forward and nearly out of the light, only a small bit reaching her now. She is under very

minimal, if any fill. But by now even she must admit to herself what she really is. As

Rachael takes a final look at the picture in her hands, the symbol of her false self, she is

completely dark, devoid of key, fill, or backlighting. She is visible only by the ambient

light of the room, her silhouette both striking and sad against the sunlight, standing in

stark contrast to the ultimate source of brightness behind her. Visually separated from the
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background she stands out and demands attention, unconsciously emphasizing this

pivotal moment to the audience. Not only does this emphasize her acceptance that she is a

replicant, it serves to convey the acceptance of the darkness inside of her and the

darkness of the emotional void into which she finds herself descending.

With the exception of some minor overhead lighting from the innumerable neon

signs of the Los Angeles streets, the light reveals itself to her again only after she has

saved Deckard from Sebastian. Through the window of Deckard’s apartment, lit by the

lights of passing cars, fleeting streaks of light flash across her face. By killing Sebastian,

a replicant like her, she reawakened something human inside of herself. Though brief and

passing, much like the flashing lights of cars passing by outside the window outside, the

primal foundations of humanity are flickering to life insider of her. Once again though,

she teeters precariously on the side of an emotional abyss, ready to once again relinquish

her identity and accept her fate. “I’m not in the business,” she realizes. “I am the

business.” It is at this precise moment however that Deckard sees her humanity, and the

brightest burst of light yet fills the screen, blinding the entire frame. From this point

forward, the light begins to return to Rachael.

As Deckard spits blood into the sink, a sharp reminder of his own perceived

humanity, the first signs of her feelings for him become evident. As she approaches him,

Deckard passes through warm patches of morning light shining into the apartment.

“Would you come after me?” she asks, stepping into both a soft key and fill. She is in

love with Deckard, whether she fully realizes it yet or not. “No,” he replies, “but

somebody would.” No longer broken and with something to live for she begins to think

of her survival, a sign of humanity if ever there was one.


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A realization dawns on her, a horrible question. Might Deckard be a Replicant

too? If Deckard, the man she loves, can be a replicant - if the possibility even exists - then

being a replicant cannot make her anything less than human. Because Deckard is the

most human person - the most flawed person - she knows. As she kisses him, she moves

back into the light of the window. Her humanity has returned. Throughout the rest of the

film, Rachael is lit normally. Though low-key by most standards, she returns to a level of

normalcy on par with the other characters within the film. The visual and thematic motifs

of shadow, darkness, and light have come full circle -- from light to dark, then back to the

light again, and returning back to her humanity.

In a film defined by duality, by dichotomy, by conflict, Blade Runner’s most

powerful conflict between humanity and artificial life is experienced by the audience

through the conflict of light and dark, of contrast and of shadow. This conflict is waged

through low-key and high contrast lighting employed by Scott. Light and dark are

constantly dueling. As the flames of industry fight back the dark of night, only to be

overtaken before they can reclaim their dominance, the battle for Rachael’s humanity is

waged in the light that surrounds her, chases her, and runs from her. It is often said that

we cannot truly appreciate something until we have lost it. Scott masterfully plays on this

trait of human nature. He takes Rachael’s humanity and her light, only to give them both

back to her. Only once both are returned -- once the audience has lived for a time in the

darkness of their void -- can their beauty can truly be appreciated.


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