Architectural Space and Form in Science Fiction Cinema. An Analysis of "Blade Runner" (1982), "The Fifth Element" (1997) and "Alien" (1979)

Bachelor Thesis, 2000

18 Pages, Grade: 2.1


Table of contents


Chapter 1 : Modernism, Metropolis, Blade Runner

Chapter 2 : The Fifth Element and Post-Modernism

Chapter 3 : Intersubjectivities, Alien, Giger and Gaudi




Architectural space and form in Science Fiction Cinema often mirrors the identity of the individual occupying that space on the screen. However, in such films, it does more than just create certain ways of delineating (and connoting) an environment which parallels the characters’ position within an area guaranteeing and legitimizing their need to be there. Architectural space in Science Fiction cinema is also a space that the audience is invited and allowed to travel through – to participate, to partake in. The audience finds their way through the space, and therefore, are forced to relate and identify with the space created by the architecture during the viewing of the film. This identification process by the audience is central to a proper and legitimate understanding of the film. In this dissertation, I have chosen to analyse three films – all of them Science Fiction. My reason for choosing them was that I was intent upon finding some of the most interesting, thought provoking and effective ways architecture has been used to activate a response within viewers of film: a response, which is entirely justifiable, and extends to an unquestionable belief in the validity of the story taking place on the screen. All three of the films chosen within this study raise specific issues in relation to the significance of ‘architectural space and form in Science Fiction cinema’. Firstly, I chose Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), because of what I found to be the spatial dichotomy implicit/inherent in its production design; it is a film, which in terms of its architecture, presents us with worlds, which oppose each other. Both worlds — corporate and urban are clearly distinguishable and are generated by the architecture in the film. Secondly, I chose Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element (1997); because in this film Besson extends (in architectural terms) Blade Runner’s depiction of a modernist city space, by making the space generated by the architecture into a total space. This film is interesting because Corporate space has succeeded in taking over the entire space shown in the film thus leading to a space which I have termed ‘postmodern’ in relation to a depiction of city space – which is a space relating to chaos. Thirdly, I chose to look at another of Ridley Scott’s films Alien (1979). This is because I was interested in the different ways architectural space was used in this particular film. Particularly interesting was the way the space generated by the architecture seemed to control and manipulate the characters inhabiting it. The enclosed environment(s) for much of the film within the Nostromo forces the characters, if read in this way, to be transparent within the space – allowing us to almost read their thoughts, and by extension, determine their transitorial nature within the space. Another reason for choosing Alien was that I was interested in pursuing what I believe to be a curious relationship in terms of architectural style between H.R. Giger’s design for the Alien spacecraft not to be confused by Ron Cobb’s Nostromo, in the film and the nature of the Spanish Catalan architect Antonio Gaudi’s ‘biological romanticism’ and expressionistic personal style. Finally, all the films included in my analysis show evidence of the influence of Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis (1926). In terms of its visual style and the way the film attempts to dramatize architectural space Metropolis ’s influence on Science Fiction cinema is incalculable. In this case, it seems appropriate to incorporate some points on Metropolis before analysing the films discussed in this paper.

Chapter 1 : Modernism, Metropolis, Blade Runner

“It was in reality the urban structure, precisely in its registration of the conflicts created by that victory of technological process, that had radically changed. The city had become an open structure, within which it was utopian to seek points of equilibrium …Piranesi’s prophecy of the bourgeois city as an “absurd machine” was in a certain way, actually realised in the metropolises organised in the nineteenth century as primary structures of the capitalist economy.” Manfredo Tafuri [1]

The history of architecture displays the operation of grand narratives. During the past years, two of these have coded and systematised our knowledge about the intention and development of architectural modernism. Both of these set the paradigms for scholarship at the time, although both reached conclusions, which opposed one another. The first of the grand narratives, which appeared in the late 1920s, looked closely at the origins and development of architectural modernism and had dominated critical approaches to ways of interpreting the history of architecture for more than forty years. Within this, historians identified the major contributors and key thinkers and were able to show modern architecture as part of an evolution — a series of events. Through this, historians saw how modern architecture had risen from a logical and pragmatic application of technology to building and construction. The second of these grand narratives attempted to revise existing information in view of all subsequent knowledge by recording the fall of modernism and by searching for the culprits of its dramatic demise. In relation to this, modern architecture was seen as being the only legitimate and genuinely contemporary architecture in that it engaged the materials and the methods of construction specific to the age while matching form with function.

What supplied validity to these ideas and legitimised them was the widespread appropriation of modernist principles in urban restoration programmes, which had led to a belief in the historic success of modernism. It is evidently clear that the early twentieth century saw a number of schemes for utopian cities – many of which resulted in plans for actual towns. For example, Frank Lloyd Wright’s ‘Broadacres’ and Le Corbusier’s ‘Radiant City’. It has been argued by historians that in the case of these ‘ideal cities’, the changes in physical surroundings reveal an inner reorganisation in regard to the social structure. It is interesting to note that after twenty years with the materialisation of those principles, popular dissatisfaction made that belief in modernism’s success unjustifiable. One of the architects most often criticised for flawed utopian visions was the French-Swiss architect Le Corbusier whose vision it has been said had led to a ‘stark and simple’ solution to housing needs resulting in the construction of huge concrete slabs or towers of housing set in parkland, which rose disagreeably above towns, which were divorced totally from history and from their surroundings. Le Corbusier’s plans for his 1922 ‘Contemporary City’ stresses a detailed organisation characterised by orderliness, symmetry and twenty-four high rise units designed to house three million people. These units stacked up on six double floors included garden terraces (one for each duplex), that opened out at the ground level. Le Corbusier also envisioned a transportation system which would be both elaborate and fast, existing as being the very nerve centre of the city. He saw the ‘Contemporary City’ as an elite and capitalist city of control and administration and are the kinds of features and attributes that futurist noir films such as Blade Runner later mimicked and lampooned.

In Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, the transportation systems and high-rise buildings visible in the film, can be seen to replicate Le Corbusier’s vision in his ‘Contemporary City’. However, one of the most noteworthy things about Metropolis apart from its visual complexity is the way it sets up a binary structuralism between Capitalist and worker; brain and hand; reason and emotion; tyranny and anarchy; individual and mass; and old and young. This system of opposites also exists in Blade Runner and is allowed to function precisely because of the kind of space created by the architectural form in both films. Metropolis portrays the city as a space divided – workers below ground/upper classes above the ground. Through this dichotomy of space, both social types are contrasted in the film. In Metropolis, the upper classes who revel in amusement profit from the hard labour of the mediator son of the Lord of the Metropolis who attempts to reconcile the two. A hierarchy within the space is evident and can be seen to divide into three steps or levels, which also extends to Blade Runner. In Metropolis, we see repeated shots of towering skyscrapers, which create a labyrinthine view of space allowing numerous aeroplanes to travel through. Many of these visual motifs extend their influence into subsequent Science Fiction films such as the aforementioned Blade Runner as well as the Fifth Element. In Metropolis, Lang manipulates the space intertwining themes which revolve around race and social class with visual elements as does Blade Runner, the Fifth Element and Alien.

“Space is never empty; it always embodies meaning” Henri Lefebvre [2]

In Blade Runner, the architecture of the city dichotomises the space. One could say that the depiction of the city reflects a ‘modernist’ tendency, which divides the city into two main spaces. In Blade Runner, this spatial dichotomy is represented by urban and corporate space as in Metropolis. The opening sequence of Blade Runner shows a vast industrial city wasteland. Towering high above it, huge fireballs and gaseous emissions are being released from tops of tall pointed structures which appear like over grown chimneys. Flying cars called Spinners travel and up down through an immense and illuminated city skyline as steam rises up from the streets. It was decided Blade Runner ’s main location for filming would take place on what had been known as the ‘Old New York Street’ area within Warner Bros. (Scott’s original intention was to film on existing city streets.) Built in 1929 ‘Old New York Street’ had originally been part of Burbank Studios and the location of film noir ’ classics such as The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep. With the help of ‘visual futurist designer’ Syd Mead, Scott turned the street into the Los Angeles of the future. As such, in Blade Runner, the architectural space depicted in the film is used to mirror the identity of its occupants – (that is, the characters that traverse the space within the film). We see evidence of the depiction of urban space in the streets of Chinatown and ‘noodle bar’ as well as around the Bradbury Building, – (Sebastian’s home). The depiction of urban space is fully realised near the beginning of the film where Deckard orders dinner at the noodle bar. The space around the bar consisting of grimy and overcrowded streets seems to be a ‘Chinatown’ of both past and present mirroring the uncompromising and stringent order of our current world. The sequences, which depict the urban streets, seek to perpetuate the whole dystopian idea of a plebeian existence, which has been forced into a space where conditions are squalid, while the masters, the power elite – (Tyrell) live high above in a space both monumental and opulent.

In Blade Runner, Scott accords us with a powerful social commentary by juxtaposing different kinds of space depicted in the film. While a lot of Tyrell’s office contains empty space, down on the grimy dirt-encrusted and crowded streets the masses fight for space. Thus in Blade Runner, a hierarchy of space within the space of the overall film manifests and is generated by the architecture. Tyrell is represented within a symbolic space at the top level of the hierarchy while Sebastian, Pris and Roy occupy space within the symbolic spectrum below. When analysed in this way, the division within the space of Blade Runner can be seen to exist on three main axis levels. All of it symbolic space. Deckard’s apartment can be seen to represent heaven but also possible human sacrifice while we see evidence of the depiction of corporate space especially in Tyrell’s tower. This is a monumental structure, and one of the main symbols of corporate capitalism in Ridley Scott’s film. What is presented is a structure in which exterior space takes on characteristics of monumental proportions. This structure, which seems modelled on the idea of an Aztec temple symbolises a world of corporate power in a ‘modernist’ age within the film. Within Tyrell’s building, a giant sun, producing sources of power and light pervades the interior spaces. The Aztec religion existing on the ‘mystico-militaristic’ level aims at preserving the sun’s life, which the Aztecs believed was designed for destruction, through ritual sacrifice and ritual warfare. The Aztec warriors believed that they were the chosen people of the sun (people of Tonatiuh), who, in order to fulfil their mission needed a precious liquid if they were to shine over the world. Alongside this, many of the great sages throughout history had also thought to determine and penetrate the meaning of life intellectually. The idea existing within the beliefs of the Aztecs recalls a similar juxtaposition to be found in Nazi Germany’s ideology where a ‘mystico-militaristic’ view of the world combined with a humanistic literature and philosophy co-existed. Comparable to the Fascist architecture created by Albert Speer in the 1930s for Hitler, Tyrell’s pyramidal structure displays characteristics that can only serve to illustrate the megalomaniacal persona lying behind its overbearing composition. In 1934, Speer became stage designer for Nazi pageantry. For Hitler, he was able to create instant monumentality in order to emphasise Nazi rhetoric. Speer drew on whatever architectural styles of the past seemed most appropriate for constructing works on an awesome and colossal scale. Classical, Neo-Classical, Babylonian and Egyptian styles were all stripped down to create stone veneers that were regimental in their repetition. Speer was responsible for expanding Hitler’s megalomaniacal fantasies and quickly became his architectural interpreter. In 1938, Speer was commissioned to rebuild the Chancellery building in Berlin in order to create a space most fitting the imperial stature of the leader. It is interesting to note that the interior space of this building is strongly reminiscent of the office of the Tyrell building. Tyrell’s office assembles and incorporates an eclectic mix of styles derived from the architectural styles of the past and is reminiscent of Speer’s work. Its most characteristic flavour emanates from the fact that it successfully evokes the essence of a ‘Neo Nazi’ or Totalitarian establishment, which, on reflection, mirrors the idea behind Tyrell. Inhuman, cold and threatening to all that enter his office, the space within the building reflects its inhabitant – (as Tyrell is the building himself).

Our introduction to Tyrell is juxtaposed with Deckard’s first encounter with the tyrant who enters the space – walking on to a stage in order to begin a performance. It is at this moment that the notion of Tyrell as tyrant takes shape – (Tyrell/tyrant). Up to now in the film, we have only been provided with shots of the exterior space of Tyrell’s corporate structure. The way Tyrell is made to utilise the space of the office and the interior space of the building is crucial to our understanding of Tyrell. He exists only as himself within the space of the building. In fact, his appearance, (which is of slight build) resembles and reflects the body and mind of a scientist. But it is his office and the way he is depicted within the space of its construction as well as the presentation of the structure as a whole which helps to provide him with much of the mystery and power that surrounds him within the film. It is interesting to note, that Tyrell would not seem so powerful if he occupied part of the space on the streets below. As such, his identity is created and manifests through the architectural space and form depicted in the film.

Unlike Tyrell, Deckard traverses the space between both worlds of corporate and urban space. However, it is only when he is in his own space that he feels comfortable. The interior space of his apartment represents a sort of sanctuary for him. It is also the space where he consolidates relations with Rachael. When he is out of this space, he is frequently depicted to be out of his depth. The city streets present a world, where, although he has a certain power (which is derived from the fact that he is the Blade Runner), he is still vulnerable. Note his early arrest in the film when he is escorted to the police station to see Captain Bryant. His visit to the Tyrell building to see Rachel and later, his entry into the Bradbury building — Sebastian’s home where he struggles to overcome the replicant Batty before killing him serves to illustrate how out of depth he seems to be when out of his own space. It is also interesting to note that Deckard’s apartment lacks emotion, — (the design of the walls resembling computer chips), as does Deckard himself. As such, the interior space of his apartment is thus a cold space but like so much architecture in Science Fiction cinema seeks to reflect the identity of its inhabitant(s). Surrounding it is an atmosphere imbued with a cold and misty light which reflects a milieu and spirit which it shares with the qualities inherent in the look of the film noir’ films of the 1940s. For the exterior of Deckard’s apartment, Scott chose to film a real house — Ennis Brown House designed in 1924 by architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Later a matte painting by Blade Runner ’s chief matte artist was added on to shots of the exterior form of the building in order to transform the single structure into a complex, which could appear hundreds of stories high. The result is an architectural pastiche which exhibits the enclosed, dark and oppressive nature of Deckard’s occupation as the Blade Runner.

After he is arrested on the streets and is escorted to see Captain Bryant at police headquarters (in order to be briefed), we are taken into an Art Deco style building – one that is again reminiscent of the 1940s. As Deckard enters the space of the office, he forces himself to sit down opposite Bryant whose face is half lit – the other half in shadow. The interior space of the office is cluttered with items and memorabilia from a past age. It is dimly lit containing old filing cabinets and an old large steel fan and its look derives plenty from film noir’ where streets are dark and full of moral ambiguities as they are in Blade Runner. Towards the end of the film , the exterior space of the Bradbury Building reveals a tone, which extends to the presentation of all the urban spaces in the film. On approaching the outside of the building, Deckard walks through a set of huge columns, which, in terms of their design, are reminiscent of, and seem to be derived from the architectural style of ancient Babylon. The internal space of the Bradbury building — (mostly a depersonalized space), is labyrinthine-like in its endless array of staircases and lifts which cage the protagonist’s Deckard’s experience within the space and conspire to imprison him. The damp and filthy floor within the building is an echo of the surrounding area of which the building is part of. This Neo-Baroque structure had been built in 1982, and by the early 1980s, when Blade Runner was being filmed had already deteriorated and fallen into dilapidation. As in the case of the interior space of the H. R. Giger’s monumental spacecraft in Alien, it is also a space, which we, as audience are invited to traverse, to experience and to be lost in. Darker, brooding and more mysterious however, and seemingly less esoteric in terms of its design than the interior space of Tyrell’s corporate tower, the Bradbury building swallows Deckard, engulfing him in shadows. It is here that Blade Runner is probably at its most film nourish’.

Chapter 2 : The Fifth Element and Post-Modernism

“Issues of identity are crucial to postmodernism, so much so that some theorists propose a new awareness of certain identities to be the defining characteristic of the post-modern age.” Nikos Stangos [3]

Since time immemorial, western philosophy has often been concerned with the idea of space in metaphysics. However, aesthetic criticism did not begin to apply this general philosophical notion to architectural form until the end of the nineteenth century. At the very centre of the ancient philosopher Lao-Tzu’s beliefs was ‘Tao’ – the way of becoming. The philosophy of Tao withholds the idea that in an ever-changing world nothing is permanent. What gave Lao-Tzu’s thinking such force was his ability to recognise man’s changing ideas. In the eleventh chapter of ‘Tao Te Ching’, he lays down the foundation for his principle of two opposing elements – the existent and the non-existent. For Lao-Tzu, the non-existent is the essential, which is made discernible through form – it is what is contained within. Later, in the nineteenth century, architects asserted that the existence of space was the fundamental constituent of architecture. During the early twentieth century particular artistic trends recognised the old sayings of Lao Tzu (who said that the servant of the void in the mass) found themselves being steered to a dematerialization of the solidity of mass. For example, the De Stijl movement. Even for architects of today it is the ‘intangible material’ – the space generated through architectural form which is considered the true substance of architecture. In an interview in 1957, Louis I Kahn stated that:

“Architecture is the thoughtful making of spaces. The continual renewal of architecture comes from chasing concepts of space”.

An enquiry into the evolution of the notion of space in the theory of architecture results in the belief that the architecture of today and of the immediate future will find its basis in a new perception of space. In Science Fiction cinema, ‘post-modern space’ is characterized not by a new idea of what space is, but by a new conception of the way it is occupied. What this means is that the ‘new space’ differs from the ‘old space’ (old space being for example, the modernist spaces of Metropolis and Blade Runner) – because what passes through it, or impregnates it, is no longer systematized or disciplined. In ‘Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture’, Fredric Jameson identifies three different kinds of space. Specifically, what Jameson does is to identify three different three stages of Capitalist space. Jameson’s three stages are identified as market capitalization; the progression from market to monopoly capitalism; and lastly, late capitalism. Post-modernist space refers to this last category. For Jameson, post-modern space is a space charged with images of a fragmentary nature, which he calls disorientating in its extinguishing and elimination of distance. In actuality, the end of modernism had been prophesized even from its very beginnings; however, the term ‘post-modernism’ only gained relevance in the mid-1970s. This term was then applied retrospectively, and in the case of art was engaged in an attempt to classify developments ranging from ‘Pop’ to ‘Conceptual’. The term ‘post-modernism’ is often linked to a specific set of meanings, which exist around terms like ‘appropriation’, ‘deconstruction’ and ‘pastiche’. Post-modernists see representation and reality as being part of the same thing. This is because conventions of representation are learnt and internalized so that they are experienced as real. In Science Fiction cinema, it is in the arrangements of the visuals, which provides these films with their inherent meaning, – that is, with their visual materiality. It is often in the organisation of the ‘space’ which leads the audience into new and alien worlds. In Science Fiction cinema, the self is often swallowed up and engulfed in a world in which the main experience is visual and is experienced as real for the characters. He or she is often terrified by a loss of identity in a world in which they cannot relate.

In Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element, unlike Blade Runner the architecture is used to generate a total space. The shared space of The Fifth Element characterizes a post-modern world which exists in the film. This kind of architectural space in cinema reflects a post-modernism where corporate domination permeates throughout the entire city space. In this way, Besson’s film extends Blade Runner ’s depiction of a ‘modernist’ city space gone wrong and seeks for a space, which could be termed ‘post-modernist’ in its reflection and depiction of a city. In the film, the space created through the architecture is essentially one kind of space and one where corporate and urban space merge in order to form a total space – or an absolute space. Life in the city exists in the air, within offices and buildings and below, hidden in the subterranean depths. Often paradoxically, the space within the city is presented as limited (this is because of the great amount of buildings), while possessing an illusion of infinite space.

Our introduction to Besson’s post-modern metropolis is juxtaposed with Leelo’s first sight of the city. Leelo finds herself thrown in unexpectedly into the post-modern city-spaces of the film. In this film, architectural form often dominates the frame. In a crucial moment, Leelo escapes via the air-duct system. She steps out on to the ledge of the Government building and stares into a post-modern universe, an awe-inspiring mix of architectural styles, which reflect a melancholy signifying a post-modern uncertainty. An example of this kind of post-modern space — one that is generated by the architecture can also be seen in Judge Dread (1995). In this film, architectural monstrosities tower high above the city and in the random mixture of styles derived which creates a space that encloses about its occupants.

Similarly, for Leelo, in The Fifth Element, the walls of the monumental buildings confuse her and she is lost in and bewildered by the chaotic and busy city. Flying cars whiz by at breakneck speed. The architectural design of the city terrifies her. She is confined within its space. This is not her space. In this, we are made to identify with her sense of astonishment and her surprise is made our surprise. Horizontal and vertical – essential parameters of meaning become confused in her mind as she falls and surrenders to the city. By contrast however, rather than Leelo’s, the space of the city in particular, is Corben Dallas’ space. Dallas is at home in the city – he knows its space. He knows how to use it to his best advantage. As if in a dream, Leelo’s fall is broken at mid-point by the presence of Corben Dallas. Unlike Leelo, Dallas belongs in this chaotic and post-modern metropolis. Dallas is the city and his character reflects this idea. He is vibrant like the city itself. The city’s rhythms are similar to his own. Like the city he inhabits he himself is post-modern. As is the case with Blade Runner and many Science Fiction films, the space generated by the architecture in The Fifth Element reflects the characters’ identity. In The Fifth Element, there is no dichotomy of space employed to reflect two worlds, which oppose one another as in Metropolis and Blade Runner. In a sense, the kind of space created by the architectural form in The Fifth Element permeates throughout the various dwellings of each of the major characters, — that is, the space inhabited by Zorg is akin to the space inhabited by Corben Dallas. Both characters share the same space. Thus, the city as seen in The Fifth Element reveals the idea of a shortage of city space and thus is post-modern in its fight for space and in many scenes in the film, what seems so terrifying is the apparent lack of space in the city. Here it is interesting to note the ‘flying hotel’ in the film. In Blade Runner, the noodle bar has its own space in the city which is unlike its counterpart — the flying Junk in The Fifth Element, which has to float precisely because its space is not fixed – in fact, it has no space of its own. It belongs nowhere. It serves its customers and moves on. The space it flies through is condensed – limited. The architectural form in this structure is suggestive of certain forms found in the architecture of the early twentieth century, particularly in Belgium. In Besson’s film, this construction consists of round and curvilinear forms – some of the constituent parts suggestive of the parts of a car engine. However, what makes this structure accord and fit into Besson’s conceptualization of a post-modern universe lies in the ‘kitch-ness’ of the design. By attempting to re-contextualize and appropriate certain forms and visual motifs derived from the architectural styles of the past, Besson succeeds in being post-modern himself.


[1] Tafuri, Manfredo, Architecture and Utopia, The MIT Press, U.S.A., 1976, p. 42.

[2] Lefebvre, Henri, The Production of Space, Blackwell, Oxford, cited in In Between Architectural Design, VCH, Cambridge, 1994, p. 13.

[3] Stangos, Nikos, Concepts of Modern Art, Thames and Hudson, L.T. D., London, 1995, p. 274.

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Architectural Space and Form in Science Fiction Cinema. An Analysis of "Blade Runner" (1982), "The Fifth Element" (1997) and "Alien" (1979)
University of Reading  (Dept. of Film/Architecture)
BA Hons. Film and Drama/ Art and Architecture
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Architecture, Cinema, Science Fiction, form, space, "Alien" (1979), "Blade Runner", "The Fifth Element"
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Cyrus Manasseh (Author), 2000, Architectural Space and Form in Science Fiction Cinema. An Analysis of "Blade Runner" (1982), "The Fifth Element" (1997) and "Alien" (1979), Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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Title: Architectural Space and Form in Science Fiction Cinema.
An Analysis of "Blade Runner" (1982), "The Fifth Element" (1997) and "Alien" (1979)

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