Light: Imitating Nature and Conveying Power in Cyberpunk Film and TV

Alexander Rosenthal '08, English 65, The Cyborg Self, Brown University (Spring 2005)

The use of light constitutes a concern common to all visual media, exemplified by a number of movements in art history, including gothic cathedrals and 19th-century impressionism. In cyberpunk visual media light represents man's power. This power includes the ability to imitate and eventually replace nature and the possession of sheer technological might. This message comes through because artificial light dominates natural light, either serving as the predominant light source or creating a more striking effect on the viewer.

In the dystopic future of Blade Runner, natural light makes next to no appearance. Only the scene inside the Tyrell Corporation Headquarters before Deckard interviews Rachel shows the sun, which appears through a strange red haze. A constant rain falls over the city, and darkness dominates the sky. However, artificial light permeates everything, whether the constantly swooping beams of light, neon signs, LED advertisements, or the lights of vehicles flying through the sky. The film manages to balance the city's constant darkness with an almost excessive amount of artificial light. One of the opening shots of the movie shows industrial bursts of flame sending their own artificial light out. Even at the movie's climax, when, chased by Roy Batty, Deckard climbs to the roof of the Bradbury hotel, a light mounted on the roof sweeps back and forth for no apparent reason, adding to the sense of tension and urgency. The only glimpse of blue sky in the move comes shortly later, when the bird Roy had been holding flies up into the sky, hinting at salvation from this dystopia.

In the "Whacketts" episode of Max Headroom, the sky provides light for outdoor scenes, and artificial lights illuminate indoor scenes, as would be expected. However, the most striking use of light occurs when Edison enters Bryce's lab. Here a series of red laser beams cut across the room, which Bryce explains would cut Edison in half if he touched and can copy information about his personality to create an artificial construct. Nothing comes of this in this episode, but this simple visual effect represents great technological power. This power manifests itself not only as a potential weapon, but also as a means of producing simulacra of the natural world, a recurring theme within Max Headroom.

In Bubblegum Crisis, as in much of anime, light often makes the biggest impression as explosions. The size and frequency of these explosions denote power. Two main types of explosions occur in episode 5: the smaller explosions in the chase scenes and the larger explosions in the battle armor fight scenes. Predictably, the larger the explosion, the more powerful the boomer or armor. Because the explosions manifest themselves as bright flashes of light, light becomes an indicator of power and superiority.


1. When and how did the strong association between light and technology develop?

2. How else does light communicate visually?

3. Does darkness simply come across as the absence of light, or does it send more complicated messages? What striking instances of darkness do the works described here employ?

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Last modified 20 March 2005