“I've seen things you people wouldn't believe... Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion... I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.” This monologue, spoken by the replicant Roy Batty, played by Rutger Hauer, has since become both cinema history and a part of our popular imagination. “I've seen things…” is a kind of idiomatic verbal meme that still crops up in anecdotes and bar chat.
But that is not the only iconic element of Ridley Scott’s 1982 movie, Blade Runner, which is currently celebrating the 30th anniversary of its release in America. Its futuristic imagery, the dark tones of its photography, its gloomy urban neo-noir atmosphere, neon lighting and constant rain all helped create a new science fiction standard that still influences cinema and gaming today. Films like Terminator, Brazil, The Fifth Element, the Matrix trilogy and Inception or video games like Snatcher and Cyberpunk 2077 all owe something to Blade Runner, and this is partly thanks to the work of the cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, who won a BAFTA award for his innovative and revolutionary contribution to the movie.
With his photography, Cronenweth opened new horizons and created the founding cinematic imagery for the cyberpunk genre, a dystopian aesthetic combining hi-tech with the collapse of society that first appeared in the books of Philip K. Dick. After watching the film, the writer William Gibson, creator of the term cyber-space, and author of various works of science fiction, declared: “It’s even better than the images I have in my head.”
Many of Cronenweth’s colleagues used the word “elegant” to describe his work with light. A film critic for the Los Angeles Times even compared it to Vermeer’s paintings, as rays of light strike faces or objects, making them stand out from the shadowy backdrop of a futuristic Los Angeles that looks like a large, open-air nightclub populated by flying vehicles and android assassins. This bond with the noir genre is further underlined by the lighting. In fact, rear lighting predominates with sharp contrasts, a clear interplay of light and shadow on the walls of the buildings and the frequent use of silhouettes. These are all typical features of the Hollywood noir movies of the 1940s and ‘50s, especially Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (that was so adored by Ridley Scott, he wanted Blade Runner to visually resemble it).
The film, which rapidly became a classic and a cult movie, was so successful that in 2017 a sequel was released, entitled Blade Runner 2049. Directed by Denis Villeneuve, the movie stars Ryan Gosling and sees the return of Harrison Ford in the role of Dick Reckard. Like the original, its photography, the work of the English cinematographer Roger Deakins, was also applauded and presented with both an Oscar, and a BAFTA for best photography.
The sequel pays tribute to Cronenweth’s work in various scenes, recreating with silhouettes and neon lights, this sci-fi Los Angeles with all its holograms, lights and shadows. But also adding something new: the single, most important issue of our era, the climate catastrophe. Global warming and a planet that is changing as the result of human actions are topics that Hollywood first began portraying a long time before they became mainstream. Here they are represented through desert-like atmospheres and a widespread use of orange lights and tones. In Blade Runner 2049 the only tree in the film died several decades previously.
Thanks to its photography and lighting, even thirty years after its original release, Blade Runner continues to play a key role in the popular imagination and science fiction imagery of a world that cannot free itself of a dark vision of the future that has almost become its present.