Sound and Adaptation in Blade Runner

Through the futuristic, science fiction score, sound effects, and use of dialogue, Ridley Scott successfully creates a realistic society that is similar to the book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? but still unique to the cinema medium in Blade Runner. By taking advantage of modern advances in sound editing, Blade Runner fully develops many of the themes presented in the book while adding a new sense of film genres with a heavy neo-noir influence. While the aesthetics of the setting play a vital role in establishing the tone for the story, the sounds allow for many of the working parts of the fictional society to appear realistically functional and add to the ambiguity that surrounds the idea of the true definition of existence.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? begins with the main protagonist Deckard in bed with his wife as they argue over morality issues regarding murder, his job as a hired killer of androids, and their manufactured sheep (Dick, 4). This immediately presents themes of whether or not the engineered androids should be considered equal with humans or not and begins to explore the idea of what truly defines human existence. Even though Blade Runner opens on a wide shot of the sprawling metropolitan area, it still initially brings about a discourse on the relationships between humans and machines and how existence cannot simply be defined by what people are physically made of. As the text on screen describes the setting for the rest of the film, an electronic soundtrack begins to play that appears to be void of any stereotypical music that accompanies human narratives. Once the screen fades from black, the sound of fire bursting in the air from one of the many, generic factories explodes on screen and gives a feeling of mechanical prowess (3:06). This scene gives no indication or sign of personal human identification due to the lack of both visual and audible mortal interference as the sounds resemble working machines and computers. The musical score contains many bursts of noise that do not quite fit into any pattern, once again reflecting mechanized motion and its auditory output.
Instead of having to introduce characters through descriptions and adjectives like in the book, the first important character in Blade Runner is revealed through an unseen speaker informing a man of his arrival (6:08). The voice coming through the speakers appears robotic, once again commenting on the normality of artificial life and its place or usefulness in a new, futuristic human society. Having the voice come off screen also implies that the space around the two characters is much larger than what the viewer is seeing. The placing of the camera within the proximity of the characters is very tight which contradicts the environment and provides the tension between them to become even more amplified.

Similarly, where Deckard is getting food on the streets, a blimp over head blares advertisements about the off world where life is better and there is opportunity for improvement (8:18-8:31).  Where the book focuses more on the thoughts behind the characters to portray various themes, the film heavily relies on sound to play on the similarities and differences between mortal beings and manufactured creatures. Scott uses noises and sounds to argue that besides the physical make up of the androids, their existence is still equal to humans and should be considered lives worth living, instead of held down to forced slavery simply due to genetic makeup. He also implies that reality may not be held down to certain concrete devices such as that truth simply exists in what the eye can see or that the wakened state is the only truth. As Deckard begins to slowly slip into a dreamlike state, he plays a simple note on the piano that begins as a diegetic noise but transitions into non-diegetic as the piano notes morph into the musical soundtrack (41:39-42:00). The continuous piano key plays as his dream of a unicorn galloping starts, revealing that many times truth can transcend the standard reality of the awakened being and flow through the subconscious.

While Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? covers this same thematic plot, it cannot convey the aspects of dream and reality through well placed, technical devices like blending sound and having noises off screen. However, the book does provide insight into Deckard’s mind in a more thorough way that strongly differs the from the sounds and dream sequences in the film. In many instances it is easier to understand his mindset and his motivations as a character through simple inner thoughts that comment on most of his actions throughout the entire narrative of the book. These inner thoughts do resemble the dream sequences in some ways as they flow seamlessly from simple descriptions of the environment to his own questioning of the events around him (Dick, 113).

This type of inner monologue comes back in the film at the end when he reflects on Gaff’s sympathetic words towards Rachael’s advancing end to mechanical mortality as he says “It’s too bad she won’t live, but then again, who does”, which only increases his new found understanding of existence (1:52:02-1:52:07). By using the sound clip of dialogue, Scott re-emphasizes what it means to truly live beyond the physical boundaries of the world and experience life with empathy, joy, love, and understanding, many of which, ironically, Deckard had forgotten until he formed a relationship with the android, Rachael. Having the sound of Deckard’s dream state play while he’s functioning in reality both with the unicorn dream and the remembrance of Gaff’s words show that other realities can exist and correspond simultaneously on numerous levels.

To address Deckard’s own personal struggles with his feelings towards killing the androids, his final retirement scene with the Nexus-6 Roy acts as means in which Scott can project Deckard’s inner turmoil onto another character. As he wanders through the darkly lit home of the genetic designer Sebastian, Roy initiates a game of cat and mouse where he attacks Deckard mentally and physically. Roy plays on Deckard’s struggle with killing as he says “I thought you were supposed to be good, aren’t you the good man?” but the android is not on screen when he delivers these lines (1:35:34-1:35:40).

This mirrors Deckard’s earlier interaction with his conscience, instead this time Roy is acting directly as his inner voice. Having the dialogue come off screen also creates a feeling of tension and suspense because the audience does not know where Roy is and it is apparent that one of these men will not survive the conflict.

In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the psychological aspect in the final fight between Deckard and Roy is largely reduced and merely comes to an end with a few shots from a gun (Dick, 223). The environment plays a large part into this ending as well, as the sound of continuous falling rain creates a strong neo-noir aesthetic and reinforces the idea of the struggle of the anti-hero Deckard. A strong downpour of rain also sets up a strong scene of exposition where Roy reveals his past and why is existence, android or not, still is just as important as Deckard’s. As Roy sits on the rooftop, looking back on the vastly unique experiences that most humans have not enjoyed, he sums up the significance of the loss of being by saying “all those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain” (1:46:41-1:46:58).

Without the sound of heavy rain persistently drenching the background, those words would not have had the full effect of allowing the audience to understand how quickly life can end. This rain storm calls forth a questioning of how many other individual experiences have been lost or destroyed simply because of their genetic make up or the prejudiced social class system.

Many times the sound represents the ongoing society that exists outside of Deckard’s storyline with the androids and help support the believability of the futuristic world. Something as simple as a police siren that is familiar to modern day audiences grounds the science fiction aspects in reality and also reflect the continuing social deviance that has persisted throughout the history of the world (35:07). The book has to rely on textual descriptions to try and present a society in the future that is still relatable to current audiences, which works well but is strengthened in the film adaptation by sound. Sound itself acts as a character, in some places as a gritty reminder of the evil in human nature, other times to show that no matter how far society advances, the natural world is still a vibrant part of everyday life. The constant sound of rain and wind reminds the audience that even the completely mechanized world cannot overcome forces that did not derive from human creation.

Unfortunately, the only thing we have close to a blade runner in our time is this guy.


~ by Joseph Thomasson on January 10, 2012.

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