After watching the final cut of Blade Runner*, a friend of mine was pointing out how blatantly the Star Wars prequels ripped off Ridley Scott’s futuristic cityscapes. Does he have a point?
All right, he has a point. But while the influence is unmistakable, Blade Runner didn’t invent the look of its urban dystopia. There’s an earlier film to which it owes at least as much as Coruscant owes to it. If you need to ask whether I’m referring to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, you haven’t been reading this blog for very long. I’ll be exploring the parallels and, just for fun, weighing in on which film I think delivered better on each element.
Giant, city-dominating buildings (Stadtkrone Tower and Tyrell Building):
Judgment: Tyrell Building. We get shots of Stadtkrone Tower in the background, but Scott really indulges us in the scenery porn and takes us all over this one.
Small, personal flying transports:
Judgment: While Metropolis may well have invented the flying car in concept, if not in design, those Blade Runner spinners are just so great-looking that I’m giving it to them.
Stoic businessmen with views that demonstrate their total control over the city:
These two films may be unique in portraying the dictator as a businessman, rather than a politician or military leader. Joh Fredersen wins handily; Tyrell certainly has the more impressive view, but Fredersen is a powerful leader effective at getting what he wants, and you can bet he wouldn’t have gotten his face smashed by a rogue robot. Speaking of which…
Sexy but dangerous robot hookers (robot Maria and Pris):
Judgment: Maria. Pris has a sweet woobie quality to her, but Maria takes depravity and runs with it. And she’s actually more dangerous: Pris may be a physically capable fighter, but Maria makes an entire city destroy itself in revolt. Okay, so neither Tyrell nor Fredersen is capable of making a robot do what he wants.
Use of multiculturalism, and especially Asian culture, to give the city an unfamiliar feel:
I’m giving this one to Blade Runner, which carried it out to beautiful perfection, but it was a reasonable prediction by the 80’s and would explode along with cyberpunk in a few years. But why would a 1920s German director have named the city’s red-light district Yoshiwara? Cue wild speculation.
And of course their vastly different, yet thematically related, portrayals of dystopian industry:
Judgment: Blade Runner. The Hades landscape is just pure post-industrial gorgeous. Lang’s dystopia is much more personal, bringing us up close with the workers and their plight, but Scott doesn’t have to–his landscape is so self-evidently craptastic that the misery of its inhabitants goes without saying. Besides, it’s a testament to the marvels of miniature work and forced perspective; here’s a video about the making of the scene. (In fairness, Metropolis had groundbreaking miniature work as well; here’s a picture of them moving the cars in the city shots–individually, one frame at a time).
So which of these movies really deserves credit for the future cityscape? Both. Metropolis pioneered it; Blade Runner codified it. Each gave it a different spin and feel, each filled it with a different story, and on top of it all, each is an excellent film in its own right. You should see both of them to see how they have shaped our collective vision of the urban future.
*Essentially a cleaned-up version the director’s cut. The theatrical release has a substantial cult following, but I’ve never seen a release so rightfully buried from the memory of man. Even Harrison Ford hated his voiceovers.