Blade Runner and 2001: A Space Odyssey both imagine times roughly 35 years into the future (give or take a few years), but their views of these futures are remarkably different, even opposed. While 2001 sees human future as one of continual progress and eventual elevation to something beyond humanity, Blade Runner sees humanity improving in technology only, while declining steeply in order, civilization, and morality.
2001, directed by Stanley Kubrick, is primarily a film of formal brilliance. It’s techniques, camera movements, and special effects are its primary draw, its appeal almost entirely intellectual rather than dramatic or emotional. This technique draws from and reflects the film’s vision of the future, a future of cold and efficient order. Future man is contrasted to prehistoric man through technology: prehistoric man uses bones as clubs, future man has spaceships. The progress is clear---from primitive murder weapon to interplanetary transportation--but it is complicated by subsequent events. The question is implicitly asked if human nature is any different, if missiles and space guns are really any different from clubs. However, we are never shown any space guns or human warfare in this future, and it may even be an open question whether war has been averted or not. Certainly America and Russia seem to be at peace, collaborating on space exploration and space travel. Nor is there any evidence of a civilization-ending thermonuclear war, something that Kubrick’s previous film, Dr. Strangelove: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, viewed as inevitable. Future man, then, has successfully navigated the challenge of the Cold War and learned to collaborate on space exploration, solving the problem of interplanetary travel.
At what cost, though? The future men of 2001 are undeniably cold and unemotional. This can partly be attributed to Kubrick’s style with actors. Few of his characters ever act in an entirely natural way; from Alex DeLarge in A Clockwork Orange to Jack Torrence in The Shining, Kubrick’s films are populated by inhumans and psychos, whose every move feels calculated, false, unnatural. The men of 2001--and there are only men, no women characters allowed--seem similarly false and unnatural. They have two subjects of conversation: bland, fake small talk, and serious, world-changing business. There is no suggestion of genuine friendship, emotional passion, love, or sex. This is emphasized by Kubrick’s supremely deliberate camera movement. The spaceships and space stations are bare, narrow, uncomfortable, furnished with nothing that is not absolutely necessary. Kubrick’s camera moves slowly, following characters from a distance, observing closely but not participating. It is not until Dave Bowman’s battle with HAL 9000 that the camera is allowed to truly identify with a character and offer POV shots to the audience. Before then, there is never a clear point of identification for the audience, no main character to latch onto. Even the score is distancing--there is more beautifying music when observing the rotation of satellites than when observing humans in any capacity. There is music when the astronauts are exploring the crater and discovering the monolith, but this seems to serve more to glorify the monolith than to express emotions in the characters, who seem rather less moved than we might expect. All of this serves to build an image of the future as a time/place of scientific calculation, not emotions or relationships.
Blade Runner, in contrast, is a mood piece, where emotion is the central conveyor of theme. Ridley Scott is a visual stylist but not a formalist of the Kubrick school; he creates images and environments, but not obsessively structured sequences of deliberate cuts and camera movements. This gives the film a highly detailed, specific, and believable sense of place. Instead of observing vast swaths of time and place like 2001, the camera plunges into a chaotic milieu of city life. Set in Los Angeles in 2019, the world is in a postmodern tumult, filled with people attempting to lives their lives amidst a general moral vacuum, where rules, rights, and certainties are things of the past. The city is a hybrid of then-contemporary L.A. with Hong Kong and Tokyo, and just a sprinkling of ancient Babylon in the massive ziggurat office-buildings. This is a city of life--teeming multitudes populate shopping districts, shop-owners eagerly hock noodles on the streets--but also a city of death--homeless people lie in back alleys, tragedy and emptiness haunt the faces. In this future, man has succeeded in traveling to new planets (an advertisement invites citizens to emigrate to the off-world colonies) as well as developing new technologies like hover-cars and videophones, but civilization as a whole seems to be breaking down. The increasing diversity of the city leaves no one feeling at home, and the common sense of nationality, community, and purpose seems nonexistent. There is a massive divide between the haves and the have nots, with the wealthy literally living on high in massive palatial buildings while the poor scrabble in the streets. There is no evidence of government except the police force, which appears corrupt and ineffective. This is a world where meanings are questioned and danger may lurk down any alley.
Scott crafts this world with an appreciation for minute detail and a focus on dazzling production design. Every scene is teeming with background detail, with streets visible that stretch into the distance and pedestrians hurrying by on unknown business. Aerial shots of the city show it extending beyond the edges of the screen, filled with bright lights glowing in the darkness but illuminating nothing. The style is a fusion of 1940s film noir and 1970s speculative fiction and art, including European comics by Moebius. The city is filled with shadows, unsavory dives, the proverbial mean streets. It always seems to be raining, something definitely not normal to Southern California but highly evocative of noirs like The Third Man. Scott’s cinematography is far from Kubrick’s hyperrealistic focus. Instead, when not evoking the angles and silhouettes of Carol Reed and Jules Dassin, the style is dreamy and atmospheric, gradual camera movements that suggest existential drift. This is helped immeasurably by Vangelis’ otherworldly synth score--which incidentally contrasts sharply with Kubrick’s constant use of classical music, structured as it is with such precision. Mood is the most important quality of the movie--more important than the plot. All contributes to the depiction of the future as a place of existential stasis, a crumbling civilization with a crisis of self, solitude in the midst of crowds.
2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner are both science fiction masterpieces whose visions of the future have influenced all those which have come after them. Their styles are each integral to their themes and visions of the future, form and effect inseparable. (Interestingly, both look to what will come after humanity, and while their ultimate views may differ, both depict artificial intelligences as more sympathetic than average humans.) 2001 sees humanity as advancing inexorably toward a higher plane of existence, while Blade Runner sees the world in decline, full of lost people looking for purpose. Which will prove right? Only time can decide.