Stylistic and thematic elements of Tech-Noir

The German expressionist film Metropolis (1927) by Fritz Lang inspired directors like Ridley Scott who created Blade Runner (1982) and Alex Proyas who created Dark City (1997)[i].  Metropolis (1927) also had an impact on another expressionist film Brazil (1986) by Terry Gilliam. Not only do these films have stylistic and thematic elements from expressionism, they have stylistic and thematic elements from film noir and science fiction as well. This combination of film noir and science fiction has become known as Tech-Noir. Tech-Noir happens when science or technology has altered or partially alter the world people live in and corporations, the government or the military is in charge of the technology. Tech-Noir is also typically dystopian, which is when things go wrong (Hell on Earth).


            Expressionist films are known to have fantastic or distorted sets. All four of the films (Metropolis, Blade Runner, Brazil and Dark City) contain buildings and sometimes machines that tower over the people and take up an enormous amount of space. In Metropolis there is a city beneath the towering magnificent city of the future. The lower class lives below ground in tenement looking houses “with black rectangles for windows”[ii]. The rich or upper class lives above ground in skyscrapers and spend their time in Olympic stadiums, lush gardens, and fancy brothels. In Blade Runner the city of Los Angeles has skyscrapers towering “over streets that are clotted with humanity; around the skirts of the billion-dollar towers, the city at ground level looks like a Third World bazaar”[iii]. However, unlike the pristine and sunny Metropolis, Los Angeles is polluted and littered with trash, and rain always falls. The rich people in Brazil go out to fancy restaurants, shopping centers and hold parties in their lavish apartments on upper floors. Like in Blade Runner and Metropolis the poor live in tenement third world housing, located on the outskirts of the city surrounded by broken down cars and other rubbish. The city in Dark City is not as vertical (but still towers over the characters), nor is it as futuristic as the other three before it rather the architecture is a melting pot from various ages. It is a “city of rumbling elevated streamlined trains, dank flophouses, scurrying crowds and store windows”[iv]. In a twist the Strangers, who are in control of the city and its inhabitants, live below the city they have created.  It is always night in the Strangers city, which makes the setting a little closer to Blade Runner, than then other two films.

In expressionist films the acting style tends to be exaggerated. The most exaggerated acting is found in Metropolis. During the film Freder appears to be a grown up toddler, with his head inclined forward he charges forward from place to place[v]. Joh Fredersen is rather unapproachable, his arms are almost always crossed and he constantly pushes his son away. The workers (who are for all intents and purposes slaves) walk slowly (in time), heads down, with no facial expression. In contrast the rich tend to have smiles on their faces and their movements are agile.  There is also a fair amount of exaggerated acting in Brazil. The women, like Sam’s mother and her friend, are always talking about cosmetic surgery, and whose is better. His mother’s surgeon is always smiling and talks in a happy bubbly voice. Sam’s friend Jack appeases everyone; he even starts calling his wife by a different name because his boss does it at a party. The waiter at is very accommodating, he is always smiling and helpful; he even puts up a screen after the bombing so that Sam, his mother and their guests can continue their meal and conversation. The expressionist use of exaggerated acting does not seem to exist in the in Blade Runner or Dark City, though Batty and the Strangers can be scary and intense.

In expressionist films the plot is extremely morbid and melodramatically pessimistic. The most morbid and pessimistic film in the group is Brazil.  In Brazil “society is controlled by a monolithic organization, and citizens lead a life of paranoia and control… Life is mean and grim”[vi]. Terrorist attacks are a normal part of everyday life and people are taken by the government, never to be seen or heard from again. Sam wants nothing more than to stay off the radar, however he falls in love with a woman (Jill) and his world is changed.  In the end Sam is taken away by the government and tortured by his best friend until he retreats into his fantasies. The other three films are still morbid, melodramatic and pessimistic but end on what could be called a positive note. In Metropolis Freder, the son of the most powerful man in the city falls in love with Maria, one of the women from under the city. In his hunt for her he learns about the harsh conditions the workers keep, ten-hour shifts during which if they stop the machine stop functioning and workers are hurt or killed. The workers eventually stop working and destroy the machines at the behest of the evil robot Maria. After the revolution representatives from both classes shake hands (with Freder’s help), though nothing is resolved. In Blade Runner Deckard is reluctantly pulled out of retirement to “retire” four replicants. As he learns about the replicants he is to kill, he meets Rachel, a replicant that he falls in love with after she saves him. The replicants are searching for more life, and their creator (Tyrell) denies it. When Pris is killed Batty shows sorrow, and in a rage chases Deckard to the roof where Deckard falls off and Batty saves him. Twice Deckard is saved by the replicants he has been ordered to kill. Because he loves Rachel is does not kill her, but rather runs away with her. As Deckard drives through the countryside with Rachel Deckard says something that notes human life as limited because of the dirty corrupt environment[vii].  Dark City starts with Murdoch waking up unaware of who he is. As the film progresses he learns how the Strangers program people every night and change the city. Eventually flashes of memories (his wife Emma, a beach, etc.) come back, but Murdoch is told by Dr. Schreber that all his memories were created by the strangers. Nothing anyone remembers is real but rather created and forced upon the people in the city.  With the doctors help Murdoch defeats the Strangers and creates the beach he kept picturing and starts over with Emma/Anna.

In expressionism elaborate use of light and shadow create a high contrast between the bright areas and the dark areas of the screen, which has a psychological effect on the viewers. In Metropolis, Blade Runner, Brazil, and Dark City the use contrast lighting to highlight themes of entrapment and seclusion, it is often the darkness that prevails. Darkness creates uneasiness and a sense of solitude, when contrasted with a bright stop a sense of ensnarement occurs. This happens in Metropolis with Rotwang chases Maria in the catacombs. Light pooling through Rotwang’s window implies imprisonment. At the end of Metropolis large shadows are cast on the cathedral roof because of the light, making the scene more dramatic. In Blade Runner the cool tones of the set are contrasted by amber lighting. The extreme use of light and shadow are seen in Tyrell’s office, when Deckard meets and questions Rachel, as well as in Deckard’s apartment. A similar contrast of cool and warm colors was used in Brazil. The offices are all shades of grey, whereas the halls of the rich have many bright colors. In Dark City even fewer colors than Brazil or Blade Runner to create contrast. The Strangers are often first seen in shadow, because of their white skin they stand out and are ominous against the dull background.

Most films are shot on horizontal and vertical lines, however in expressionism diagonal lines as well as high and low angles are used to create a sense of abnormality and unease. In Metropolis the camera looks down on Freder from above as he lies in bed, there he is meek, insignificant and out of sorts. At the end of the film the camera looks up from below at Freder and Rotwang on the cathedral roof, this shows the danger that the two characters are in. In Blade Runner the film opens looking down on a room with a table and two chairs, something is obviously going to happen in that room. The fight between Batty and Deckard uses a variety of high and low angle shots. At one point the camera looks down from above Deckard’s head as he hangs off a metal bar on a rooftop. High and low angle shots are also common in Brazil. At one point the camera looks up at a man who stands on a chair as he tried to catch a fly. Other times the camera looks down at the ground as Sam flies or it looks up at Sam flying from the ground. Dark City also uses diagonal, high, and low angle shots, to create the sense that something is not right in the city. At one point the camera looks down (at an angle) and then up as Murdoch creates a chimney to escape one of the Strangers. As Murdoch runs on rooftops the camera angles down to help create a sense of danger.

Subjective or first-person point-of-view camera work is common in expressionist films. In Metropolis the audience sees through Freder’s eyes as he hallucinates and a machine becomes Moloch. In Blade Runner the audience sees through the eyes of Deckard as he chases after the stripper replicant Zhora in a shopping mall. In Brazil subjective camera work in common in Sam’s dreams, at one point in time the audience sees the ground explode upward towards them as Sam flies overhead. Subjective camera work is also used in Dark City; the audience looks at a postcard from Shell Beach as Murdoch pulls it out of his suitcase.

The City

In Metropolis the city of Metropolis is a very vertical futuristic city (with planes, high bypasses, and tall buildings), in which the very rich (Joh Fredersen) live at the very top of the tallest building and the poor live beneath the earth. The two classes never interact, nor do they have to because they live in two separate cities. But the poor are exploited by the wealthy and eventually the poor revolt, affecting the rich (who lose power) as well as the poor (who’s city is flooded). Los Angeles like Metropolis is very vertical futuristic city (hover cars and blimp advertisements), with the wealthiest (Tyrell) living at the top and the poor living in small dirty apartments or on the graffiti covered streets. The rich and the poor do not socialize, when Deckard goes to a low-level club Rachel does not join him because it isn’t her kind of place. Replicants live off world and are retired upon their arrival to Earth; this shows the negative feeling humans have towards the replicants. The London of Brazil is yet another vertical city, with the rich and powerful (Mr. Helpmann) living on the top floor of the tallest building. Again the rich and the poor in Brazil are isolated from each other, and remain that way, as they do in Blade Runner. In Dark City the Strangers and the humans are separated from each other, in fact most humans do not know that the Strangers exist. The humans occupy the ever-changing city (one minute a couple lives in a small apartment and next they live in a mansion), without knowing the changes. Humans that suspect changes are eliminated. The Strangers however live below ground in a stone and metal complex and interact with the unknowing humans every night, when they give them new memories.

The large, impersonal futuristic (or in Dark City’s case not so futuristic) city creates overall feelings of isolation, anxiety, and danger. It also provides an excellent metaphor for the lone outsider hero who struggles against society’s divided classes and the corruptible nature. Metropolis, Blade Runner, Brazil and Dark City all feature an outsider hero that is working against the status quo of society in one form or another. In Metropolis, Freder, is the mediator between the upper class and the lower class. In Blade Runner Deckard, is not so much struggling between the upper and lower classes, but rather between humanity and artificial humanity. In Brazil Sam, finds himself inadvertently against the city’s oppressive bureaucracy. And in Dark City Murdoch, is a rapidly evolving human that has the abilities of the mind-altering Strangers.

Role of Women (gender roles)

            Metropolis features a very traditional dichotomy that appears in countless film noir that were directly influenced by expressionism. The classic mother/ whore dichotomy is when women in film are traditionally depicted as either virginal, nurturing maidens (mothers) or as tempting, siren-like vixens (whores).  In Metropolis there are two versions of Maria one representing the “good,” human original, who is a saintly teacher and prophet, and the other representing the “evil,”  robot, who controls both the upper and lower classes with her overt eroticism. The robot Maria was originally designed to lead the workers away from their planned uprising, but her erotic power, proves to be so alluring and tempestuous that it winds up ensnaring not only the workers, but also the men of the upper class as well. It is interesting that mother/ whore dichotomy represented by Maria in Metropolis parallels the contrast of human/ machine with the human as “good” Maria and the robot as “evil” Maria.  The men of upper and lower Metropolis are workers and business men that make the city run. The rich men also have time to party when they are not working (which they usually are not).

The depiction of the central female characters in Blade Runner, Dark City and Brazil are anything but conventional. For example, in both Blade Runner and Dark City, the female leads are portrayed in such a manner that the audience believes they will be traditional femme fatales. However neither of these women turns out to be so; instead, they both become the love interests for their respective male leads. In Blade Runner, Rachael is initially introduced in a colossal boardroom, and as she places a cigarette between her blood-red lips and lights it in classic femme fatale fashion. She has a cold, calculating speech pattern and a tendency to look Deckard directly in the eye, which gives her an air of calm and control. In the middle of the film Rachel actually saves Deckard’s life when she shoots Leon in the head as he attempts to gouge Deckard’s eyes out. Later she becomes vulnerable (which is not proper for a femme fatale) and she seeks Deckard’s protection. The other females that appear in the film of note are a replicants stripper and an assassin, the first more conventional for film noir. Tyrell (a rich man) runs the company that creates replicants, the parts, like the eyes are also made by men. Men are also police detectives/blade runners, all positions of power.

In Dark City Emma is first seen singing onstage in a smoky nightclub. She is heavily spotlighted and backed up by a shadowy group of musicians. Emma is the emotional anchor for Murdoch as he searches for clues to solving the Strangers’ mysteries and for the key to his own identity. There are relatively few female characters in Dark City and it could be suggested that women play a subordinate role in that society. When other women are seen they are wives, prostitutes, and mothers, whereas men are doctors, police officers, detectives, and store owners.

In Brazil Jill (the main female character) is the love interest for Sam but she is much more well-rounded than Rachel or Emma. Jill both good and bad, but she is also active; she verbally abuses the near-mindless government stooges, she braves the intimidating bureaucracy in order to complain about the government’s unjust arrest of her neighbor, she smartly and aggressively drives her can in the chase between Sam and the police which leads to his escape, and when the government finally catches up to her and Sam, she violently and vocally resists the arrest. Sam’s mother Ida (the second most important female character” in Brazil more likely represents the rampant, inhuman bureaucracy or the decadent English upper class (she has constant cosmetic surgeries and is ignorant of the terrorist attacks going on around her) than femininity. Men in Brazil work for the government, are doctors, or are on the run.

Technology’s impact on human consciousness and identity

The impact of technology on human consciousness and identity is addressed in at great lengths in Blade Runner and Dark City. In Blade Runner, the difficulty brought by futuristic biological technology concerning what constitutes a human being is crucial; the audience is supposed to question the notion of humanity itself.  The Nexus-6 replicants are able to think, feel, and to possess memories just as humanity does.  At the end Batty saves Deckard from plummeting to his death and Deckard comes to realize that the “machines” he is contracted to “retire” are in fact just as human as he is. The Strangers in Dark City try to uncover the puzzle of humanity and the human soul through chemical technology. Murdoch, the only human who can “tune” (alter the city and do other things with his mind) as the Strangers do, is obsessed with discovering the location of Shell Beach (his childhood home). Murdoch’s memory of Shell Beach is a chemical implant given to him by the Strangers as is love for Emma. But to Murdoch, the memories of Shell Beach and his wide feel absolutely real, this drives Murdoch to uncover the truth about the Strangers and the nature of their city. Throughout the film Murdoch relies on “false” memories to help him assert his humanity and rebel against the Strangers. Towards the end Murdoch points out to both the Strangers (and the audience) that humanity cannot be “created” through manipulation of the memories.

In Metropolis technology has a bearing on human identity and consciousness, but to a smaller extent. The robotic Maria is given the appearance of the real Maria, but there is the impression that “artificial” life can be equal to “evil.” The robotic Maria was originally designed to be a tool of the technocrats (she is it carry out Joh’s objective) but she winds up serving her own ambitions. In all three films the application of humanlike identity, intellect, and/ or personality traits to a soulless machine only hastens the destruction of the maker.

Technology’s impact on human sexuality and procreation

            Both Metropolis and Blade Runner express the idea that using technology to create life is both dangerous and unnatural. The robot Maria provokes the city’s workers to destroy the machines that keep the city running. When robot Maria dances for the upper class the rich kill each other to be with her, thus stating that female sexuality equals death.  In Metropolis there are lots of children in the lower city, but none in the upper city. Suggesting that procreation aside from the technological creation exists. In Blade Runner the humans left on Earth are so fearful of replicants that they declare the androids to be illegal, and if any are detected, they are hunted and “retired” by the police’s blade runner units. The Nexus-6 models in the film not only rebel against what they perceive as slavery (a human quality), but they also undertake a quest to find out about their own mortality. In Batty’s quest he becomes responsible for Tyrell’s (his creators) violent death.

Technology in Brazil affects beauty and sexuality, not procreation (there are plenty of kids in the film). Many would say that technology is ultimately supposed to make human existence better; but in Brazil technology removes all of the joy from life. Food becomes a paste and technology to keep one comfortable (ducts) often break.

It is possible that the humans in the Strangers’ city are not allowed to procreate; some children already exist in the city. Where sexuality is concerned, it is logical to assume that since the Strangers program humans daily it is allowed only when the Strangers wish to study of it. The impact of technology upon human sexuality and procreation is depicted here as being totally and utterly absolute.

Technology’s impact on government and corporate institutions and functions

In Metropolis, the main governmental body and corporate industry are the same. Joh is “the Master of Metropolis,” which indicates that he is the city’s ruler. The ruler also pours over a futuristic version of a stock-ticker and he commands a group of accountants. All of the governments’ wealthiest members of a society have the true power in any administration. Joh turns to Rotwang (science and religion) for council. Joh as the leader of the city must acknowledge that the workers keep the city running and can potentially bring Metropolis to a grinding halt.

Wealthiest members of a society hold the majority of the power in government in Blade Runner. A police department still exists and enjoys broad enforcement. The rich people in the film have more leeway than their poor counterparts. For example the only reason Deckard is allowed to be in the Tyrell building in the first place is because Tyrell permits it. Police intimidation does not work on Taffy (the owner of a club); he offers Deckard a free drink and smugly walking away. Taffy obviously has no fear of Deckard’s powers of enforcement, and this fearlessness probably comes from the fact that he is financially secure.

In Brazil the government is run by a massive bureaucracy, which reaches into every single aspect of human life. The government is both short-sighted and almost ridiculously inefficient, a fly falling into a teletype and causing an arrest warrant to be misprinted. Ducts breaks down so often, the citizens rely on a vigilante repairman to avoid the bumbling mechanics and endless paperwork that accompanies the government’s “official” Central Services. Technology hampers communication in the film; Sam is always missing phone calls due to the complicated nature of the patch-cord system. Technology in Brazil is inhibitive and unreliable and also severely limits the efficiency of the government.

There are no governmental or corporate institutions in Dark City. Strangers are the city’s ultimate controllers of all things (finances, legislation, or otherwise) through technology. Technology represents absolute control in Dark City. The Strangers domination over the city is maintained until Murdoch is able to gain control of the Strangers’ machine. In this film technology is neither inherently good nor evil; it is a necessity.

These four films are similar stylistically and thematically, because of the fantastic and distorted cities, and because technology is dangerous and inefficient. But they are also different, highlighting certain elements or themes more than the others.



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