What “Blade Runner” Can Teach Us About Fictional Violence

Well, although I’m still busy preparing next month’s webcomic mini series, I thought that I’d take a break from talking about webcomics and talk about what Ridley Scott’s 1982 masterpiece “Blade Runner” can teach us about how to make fictional violence more dramatic and/or complex.

Since I’ll be talking in depth about my favourite movie of all time, expect lots of geekiness and lots of SPOILERS too.

This is mostly because, although “Blade Runner” is a violent film, it handles these parts of the film in a very different way to the average Hollywood movie. This film does all sorts of clever, and very subtle, things with it’s violent moments that really help to shape the emotional tone of the film and to make it considerably more suspenseful, impactful and dramatic than the average Hollywood movie.

The first thing that Ridley Scott does is to ensure that most of the violence within the film isn’t “fair”.

For example, in all scenes involving gun violence, only one character has a gun at any one time (with the other character or characters being unarmed). This has the effect of making guns seem like much more powerful weapons than they usually appear to be in films. It also instantly adds an element of chilling suspense to every scene that includes a gun – since one character instantly has a huge advantage over the other character or characters.

By ensuring that only one character is armed with an instantly-lethal weapon at any one time, the film changes the dynamics of it’s combat scenes from thrilling duels between evenly-matched adversaries to something more like a hunter/prey dynamic (which is more similar to something from the horror genre). This allows Ridley Scott to add an element of unpredictability, shock value and fear to the film that is often missing in more conventional thriller movies.

For example, an unevenly-matched fist fight between two characters is suddenly ended in a shockingly abrupt fashion when another character turns up and uses a gun that was knocked out of someone’s hand earlier in the fight.

Another intelligent thing that Ridley Scott does with the fictional violence in “Blade Runner” is to present it as an ugly thing. Instead of the more sanitised, fast-paced and spectacularly choreographed violence found in many Hollywood films, the violence in “Blade Runner” tends to be a bit more realistic. Violent events in “Blade Runner” are often chillingly abrupt and/or they are drawn-out things that are filled with pain and suffering.

This has the effect of making the violence in the film a lot less abstract than in many Hollywood films. Instead of, say, “a detective fighting a criminal” – a scene in Blade Runner will be more like “one person harming another”. By focusing more on the consequences of violence and refusing to present violence in a typically “thrilling” way, Scott is able to criticise the more blase way that most Hollywood movies depict violence. “Blade Runner” is that rare thing, a violent film that is genuinely anti-violence.

This also extends to the characters’ motivations for acting in a violent manner. In this film, violence isn’t a way for heroic characters to appear “tough” or to save the world or anything like that. In this film, there are no clear heroes or villains (although it could be argued that Deckard is the villain, but that is an entirely different essay).

So, the motivations behind the violence in the film often tend to be chillingly “realistic” ones. Whether it is a frightened person making a last-ditch attempt to protect themselves, someone overcome with fury exacting brutal revenge or even a “just following orders” police officer shooting an unarmed character in the back (because she is considered to be “non-human” by the authorities), Ridley Scott makes sure that the motivations behind most of the violent events in the film aren’t things that the audience can cheer for.

In addition to all of this, yet another clever thing that Ridley Scott does with the violence in “Blade Runner” is to contrast ‘ugly’ violence with beautiful set design. Seriously, the locations in “Blade Runner” are the kind of fascinating, mysterious, imaginative, visually-detailed places that will linger in your imagination for the rest of your life.

Such as this awesome-looking cityscape.

Not only does this contrast make the violence seem even uglier by comparison, but it also taps into a much more fundamental instinct in the audience.

We have a natural instinct to protect and preserve beauty. Beauty being destroyed or marred in some way elicits an instinctive feeling of digust or horror. So, by showing ugly violence within beautiful locations or showing beautiful locations being damaged by violent actions, the film is able to tap into this instinct in order to make the fictional violence seem even more shocking.

For example, this awesome-looking neon corridor is the site of a brutal shooting. Several cutaway scenes in this segment of the film contrast this beautiful location with the disturbing image of a dead body. By juxtaposing beauty and horror, Ridley Scott is able to lend the film’s violence more of an emotional impact.

I’m sure that I probably haven’t covered everything in this article (eg: how the film’s ending is about the value of life etc..), but hopefully these examples from “Blade Runner” will show you that fictional violence can be handled in a much more complex and intelligent way than you might think.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

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