- 'I've heard things you people wouldn't imagine'Blade Runner's aural lives
Sf film has often been framed as negotiating the opposites of spectacle and narrative, with the former frequently taking precedence, much to many critics' chagrin. But some genre films are more visual than others– and Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (US 1982) is one of them. Starting almost immediately after its release, a broad range of both journalistic and academic texts have addressed the film's inspirations and its production process, as well as its meandering distribution and commercial circulation, narrative preoccupations, visual tropes and vistas, and, finally, the movie's politics. Blade Runner has also been a favoured example in critical conversations concerning the phenomenon of cult creativity, fandom dynamics and adaptive remediations, both official and unsanctioned. However, regardless of their specific focus, almost all these approaches emphasise the film's visual mastery. Despite Carl Freedman's claim in 'Kubrick's 2001 and the Possibility of a Science-Fiction Cinema' that Scott's Blade Runner tends to lean towards the 'science fiction'–rather than 'film'–half of its generic denomination (304), these interventions have illuminated the film's set design, lighting patterns, visual influences of noir, futuristic verticality and recurrence of ocular tropes and themes.
There is, however, one dimension of the film that has remained virtually unexamined with any degree of consistency: Blade Runner's sound, with the latter term understood in the most inclusive sense. Vangelis's eponymous soundtrack may remain the most recognisable film soundtrack ever and has, almost universally, generated accolades from both fans and critics, but there is relatively little scholarship examining the film's aural aspect beyond the customary assurances of its atmospheric quality. Blade Runner has had an intensely rich and complicated sonic life, whose forms and incarnations have not only centrally enhanced the unique status of the film in the sf canon (and beyond) but have also resonated with various cultural shifts of the last three decades. In the same way in which Matt Hills argues, in his brilliant contribution to the Cultographies book series, that Blade Runner is not one [End Page 113] but several cults (90–112), I like to think of the film as living several distinct sonic lives. So, in my reflection here I would like to, however tentatively and provisionally, recuperate three such lives, each of which represents a different dimension of the film as a cultural phenomenon.
The very sound layer of the film constitutes the first of these lives. While there are many interesting aspects to Blade Runner's sound design and dialogue,1 Vangelis's original score has been instrumental in the nostalgic aura the film has accumulated over the years. In his contribution to Judith B. Kerman's Retrofitting Blade Runner: Issues in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner and Phillip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, one of the very few pieces focused on the film's music, Andrew Stiller notes that the entire score is 'drenched in reverb' (199), from the opening urban soundscapes and Rachel's 'Do you like our owl?' to Roy Batty's sorrowful self-eulogy. As a sonic effect, the persistence of sound has a long history, but, at the time of the film's release, the digital reverb was a relatively new effect, made possible by the first electronic reverb machine EMT250, which appeared in 1976. However, reverb in Scott's movie does not invest it with futuristic spaciousness. Instead, it pushes the narrative into the past. When applied to music, reverb generally places it at a remove, in the distance. In Hollywood, the distancing effect has been often used to indicate memories whose recession down the temporal lane corrupts and complicates their accuracy. Of course, the dominant emotion of Blade Runner is nostalgia for a past that–in some cases–never existed in the first place. That mood is, to a large extent, maintained as much by the narrative as by the film's score. Consequently, while what the viewers see catapults them into the future, what they hear transports them into the past.2
Secondly, Blade Runner's aurality lives in the samples. In...