How Blade Runner Made Metropolis' Sci-Fi Vision Immortal

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How <i>Blade Runner</i> Made <i>Metropolis</i>' Sci-Fi Vision Immortal

Blade Runner is an iconic film that has influenced cyberpunk and other sci-fi worlds over the four decades since its release while drawing on older speculative influences. This is thanks, in part, to the Philip K. Dick adaptation being a great example of the collaborative effort of filmmaking, of artists coming together to realize a shared vision. While Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples penned the script, director Ridley Scott and concept artist Syd Mead developed Blade Runner’s vibe by drawing on the French sci-fi comic magazine Métal Hurlant and the Edward Hopper American realist painting Nighthawks, leading to a neo-noir detective story of blaring light and baleful shadow. They thought up an overdeveloped industrial cityscape that production designer Lawrence G. Paull and art director David Snyder realized with the help of Douglas Trumbull, Richard Yuricich and David Dryer (visual effects); Mark Stetson (chief model maker); and Linda DeScenna (set decorator). Massive buildings and dirty streets; crowded markets and abandoned skyscrapers inspired by Antonio Sant’Elia’s futurist architecture and Fritz Lang’s 1927 German sci-fi, Metropolis. The vast overdeveloped urban sprawl of Metropolis, and its themes about labor, machinery and humanity, echo through Blade Runner into contemporary science fiction

Metropolis’s ideas about industrial urban development clearly influenced Blade Runner’s imagery. Written by Thea von Harbou, author of the 1925 novel of the same name and Lang’s then-wife, the 95-year-old film is about the need for captains of industry to see their workers as people and not regard their labor as disposable in the push for technological progress. It’s about the need for a mediator, such as Gustav Fröhlich’s Freder; a “heart” to make the “mind” of executives and “hands” of labor understand one another. Along the way, the city’s industrial leader Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), convinces his former rival, the inventor Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), to utilize a robotic “Machine person” to sow discord by impersonating the liberationist prophet Maria (Brigitte Helm), convincing the workers to destroy the engines of the city’s health and wealth before abandoning them.

Metropolis is set in a city where workers mind machines for ten-hour shifts, living deep beneath the earth’s surface while providing power, wealth and luxury to its upper class. The wealthy citizens, in addition to having free run of the city’s main levels, have a city high above the clouds—one of pleasure gardens and leisure athletics. The great development and sprawl of Metropolis is expressed through the art direction of Otto Hunte, Erich Kettelhut and Karl Vollbrecht, who contrast an ever-bustling urban center of interlocking skyscrapers, highway traffic, trains and planes with underground catacombs and beauty-bereft apartments. At the center of the top-side city is a great bulky tower, which the film refers to as “the new Tower of Babel,” so wide as to appear almost squat. Joh Fredersen oversees economic production from the tower, overlooking miles of skyscrapers. His son, Freder, has an epiphany about the terrible cost of progress after becoming smitten with Maria when she visits the city above the clouds with the dirty and ill-fed children of the workers.

Cast similarly in a world of immense stratification and alternating bustle and desertion, Blade Runner is about the intrinsic nature of human beings. An ex-cop is brought back into service to forcibly retire (execute) Replicants, near-human androids employed as slave labor in planetary colonies, when they’re found to be hiding out on Earth, where they’re prohibited. Richard Decker (Harrison Ford) eventually sees the humanity of the near-people he hunts, personified in a romance with Rachael (Sean Young) and summarized by the final monologue of the fugitives’ leader Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer).

Blade Runner opens on a shot of expansive industrial plants, smokestacks belching fire, posed as if they were giant bayoneted rifles pointed skyward. Then we see Tyrell Tower, a gigantic multi-tiered pyramid at the heart of the city with a duplicate right next to it. After a brief interrogation scene, we get another wide shot of a police vehicle flying through the sky; a digital billboard sells a dietary supplement with a colorful geisha-themed advertisement amid a fabricated night sky of dark buildings and tiny lit windows. Scale is unavoidable, juxtaposing the little vehicle with enormous buildings, all as urban crowding implies a vast population before the camera introduces many people. The sky itself is obscured from ground view by the many towers, while a sort of armored blimp—covered in lights—advertises escape off-world, something repeated in both theme and imagery by the likes of Elysium and Altered Carbon (as well as the fantasies of some modern billionaires). Scale is impressed on the audience again when Decker is standing on his balcony drinking: The background shows great pillars of buildings, and only the odd car; the buildings banded with light seem to stretch in rows ever onward into the distance, a reminder of how small this individual story is in the scheme of this grand world.

Blade Runner contrasts its crowded commercial districts with abandoned skyscrapers like the one where genetic designer J.F. Sebastian (William Sanderson) lives. But he doesn’t live there because he’s a successful laborer—he lives there because there’s no shortage of housing, because many of the well-to-do have left for space; the disease that’s quickly aging him deemed him unfit to go. Sebastian lives alone and busies himself designing small clockwork robot people, only getting a direct audience with Tyrell after one of his rare wins against Tyrell in chess, engineered by Batty. Tyrell Tower, like the new Babel, is ever-present but aloof—distant from the street beggars and ground-level engineers, like the eyeball designer depicted by James Hong.

In the course of his investigation, Decker goes to an exotic nightclub where well-dressed rich people with cigarette holders and ornate headdresses invoke the crowd of the Yoshiwara club in Metropolis while watching live sex acts (which Decker turns away from and the camera never has in view). In Metropolis, people of color are solely the purview of the provocative entertainment of Yoshiwara—in Blade Runner specifically and cyberpunk in general, the viewpoint is not as narrow, but the exoticization of East Asia and its people continues to demean and flatten.

Blade Runner and Metropolis differ greatly in their plot, but their shared elements relate architecture and design to the spirit of their setting. Both take place in worlds of advanced industrialization and extreme wealth disparity. Both use repeated shots of their densely-developed cities in scene transitions to reiterate the feeling of vastness, of humanity subject to the consequences wrought by unfettered technological advancement. The visual language of Metropolis states and restates that the architectural build-up, the technological progress and enlivened commerce rely on endless toil that is nearly indecipherable from the camera’s perspective. We know that the workers labor, though not how; the why—to enrich Joh Fredersen and provide for the livelihood of the city—is more apparent.

Blade Runner focuses less on explicit industrial toil. Its narrative starts with rebellion rather than climaxing with it: A worker suspected of being a Replicant shoots an interrogating detective, spurring Decker’s involvement. The necessity of these workers—superior in aptitude to humans but treated as less-than—is a given, but their place is away from the metropole in the colonies, making space safe for humanity. Like the workers of Metropolis, they are out of sight and out of mind for Dr. Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel), the owner and operator of the corporation that manufactures Replicants. He keeps one Replicant that doesn’t know she’s a Replicant (Sean Young’s Rachael), but otherwise—from the film’s vantage point—leads a solitary life, even sleeping at the top of this technological temple. In Lang’s film, an inventor promises that soon a robot will be indistinguishable from a human; in Ridley Scott’s film, a special test has to be deployed to find the difference. As technology advanced in the real world, the inventor’s promise became a fearful reality. Art reflected that.

While not originally a commercial success, Blade Runner was critically lauded for its artistry. Paull, Snyder and DeScenna were nominated for Best Art Direction at the Oscars. Trumbull, Yuricich and Dryer were nominated for Best Visual Effects. Vangelis, coming off an Oscar win for Chariots of Fire, was nominated for best score. Jordan Cronenweth won Best Cinematography at the BAFTAs and L.A. Film Critics Association. Stetson would go on to co-supervise miniature effects on Total Recall and supervise special visual effects on The Fifth Element. The world they created cast a long shadow.

Every modern mainstream and independent piece of sci-fi that is immersed in or draws from cyberpunk owes something of its imagery to what Scott and his collaborators created for Blade Runner.

Seminal anime films like Akira and Ghost in the Shell drew on the imagery of contrasting architectural overgrowth with a lack of care for the masses; jagged skylines and prominent crime. The anxieties that came with the boom times of the 1980s and 1990s, fear of losing the essence of humanity as humans became increasingly dependent on and integrated with technology—a theme the genre shares with Metropolis. Paul Verhoeven’s steelpunk movies like RoboCop and Total Recall echo these fears and the focus on corrupt institutions, prominently featuring industry and hardware rather than veering into transhumanism, software and cyberspace. The Star Wars prequels (where the Jedi Temple and Galactic Senate appear as opposing stand-out centers of power amid a city-planet of thousands of levels) and the two Judge Dredd movies similarly share the architectural focus of cities built atop themselves, where humans are as less than ants in the towering shadows of businesses and tenements. The sprawl of cyberpunk influence includes games like the transhumanist Deus Ex series and the environmentally-concerned Final Fantasy VII, while the Shadowrun series of tabletop and computer role-playing games infuse a Blade Runner aesthetic with magic and monsters, and The Ascent tries to do something similar with aliens. Tim Rogers’ massive review of Cyberpunk 2077 looks at the game as a playable Blade Runner. Comics like the political satire Transmetropolitan and cartoons like Batman Beyond also use the focus on scale that Blade Runner borrowed from Metropolis—modern urban wonders of human creation rendered mundane by their proliferation in their worlds, while they remain fantastic in ours. All of these owe something of their identity to Blade Runner’s interpretation of the genre, a visual template that channels Metropolis.

What these stories and images always recall is massive urban sprawl and the associated moral “failings.” Skyscrapers covered in advertising, dense populations correlating with low-valued life, exploited workers and underclasses, prevalent sex work and wealth/security inequality. Cyberpunk has focused on these themes since its beginning, but the critiques they traffic in, their aesthetic and ideological conventions, are older than the genre. Seven different edits of Blade Runner were released to theaters, home video and eventually streaming. They were followed by a 2017 sequel and a 2021 CG-anime. Blade Runner is a contemporary IP institution with myriad spiritual successors. Nearly as much as they owe to Blade Runner, Blade Runner owes to Metropolis.


Kevin Fox, Jr. is a freelance writer, editor, and critic. He is a former Paste intern with an MA in history, who loves videogames, film, TV, and sports, and dreams of liberation. He can be found on Twitter @kevinfoxjr.