Bladerunner and the Esper machine

M. C. Escher, Still Life with Spherical Mirror, 1934

Communicative English class on perspective & optical illusions featuring the Esper Machine scene in Bladerunner & its inspirations in art

My previous post about Blow-Up, and especially the scene in which the hero enlarges the photographs in his dark room to reveal that he had unwittingly witnessed a murder, put me in mind of another great scene from cinema. Among the many evocative scenes from Ridley Scott’s sci-fi opus Bladerunner that could be used in language teaching (indeed, I hope to come back to the film in future posts) is this one in which the hero Deckard, played by Harrison Ford, runs a photo through his Esper machine, a rather dated-looking bit of kit with highly prescient technological capabilities.

As with Blow-Up, Bladerunner‘s central protagonist is a detective of sorts, bringing to bear his powers of observation to penetrate mysteries that he will become increasingly entangled in. For me both films fall loosely into the category of metaphysical detective stories, the subject of my Phd and also the focal point of this volume which features M.C. Escher’s optical illusion Still Life with Spherical Mirror (above) on the cover. Predicting the power of digital technology to enhance and manipulate the image, the machine enables Deckard to go into a mirror pictured within the original photo, reflecting items and people within the room that are not immediately visible. More impressively still, the machine seems to enable the user to peer around objects and obstacles within the frame, allowing a deeper exploration of the scene.

There are no doubt a number of ways one could develop a class based around this scene. For me, the primary interest lies in the way the film foresaw digital photography but also how it drew inspiration from illusory tricks of perspective found in painting. I have a particular interest in this having worked as a picture researcher and publishing co-ordinator on a book accompanying The Hayward Gallery exhibition Eyes, Lies & Illusions, back in 2004.

Many have claimed (notably this article) the Bladerunner scene is an allusion to Jan Van Eyck’s 1434 The Arnolfini Portrait, in which a mirror in the centre at the back of the room apparently reflects not only the scene in reverse but travels beyond the painting’s notional foreground to include other figures, among which features potentially the painter himself. Much has been written about the painting, as well as it’s influence on the Esper machine in Bladerunner, so I won’t reiterate that discussion here, suffice to say that there is potential in linking the Ridley Scott’s canonic work of sci-fi to optical illusion in art more generally, with lots of opportunities for students to describe, discuss and present images, and enrich their preposition skills. This might seem a bit academic for some groups and/or contexts, but art has proven a rich source of ideas for English teachers. For handouts and more ideas on how to teach prepositions through analysing artworks, check out this lesson plan.

The Arnolfini Portrait, Jan Van Eyck, 1434

Level: B1+

Clip analysis

Watch the Esper machine clip above. Ask students to make notes and share their observations in pairs or groups around the following simple question prompts:

Who? What? Where? When? Why? How? etc.

Have the students share their observations with the whole class, noting down vocab for all to see.

As a follow-up discussion, if it has not already been mentioned, you could ask the students if they think the scene has dated or not, considering when the film was made (the first version released in cinemas came out in 1982), or whether they think the scene is realistic.

Furthermore, assuming they don’t know the story already, the students could prepare and present an imaginary story around the clip, predicting who the woman in the picture is and why the man is looking for her.

Picture analysis one

Tell students that the scene from Bladerunner was inspired by The Arnolfini Portrait, and show them the painting. Ask them to look at the image in pairs or groups, describe the painting and discuss the possible link to the film scene. This might not be immediately obvious, but hopefully their speculations will generate discussion. After eliciting suggestions, show them the detail below, in which the mirror is shown in close-up.

The Arnolfini Portrait, Jan Van Eyck, 1434 (detail)

You could then ask the students to describe and/or speculate as to what they can see in the mirror image and what effect it has on the overall painting. Having discussed this in pairs, elicit ideas from the whole class.

Picture analysis two

As a follow-up, you could ask students to compare and contrast The Arnolfini Portrait with Petrus Christus’s A Goldsmith in his Shop, 1449, which features a similar optical trick involving mirrors, but to different effect. Once again a clever artifice is used to open up the world beyond the initial frame of the painting. Students could also speculate on the situation being depicted, why the couple have gone to the goldsmith, who seems to be weighing something, and who the figures reflected in the mirror could be.

Creative/productive activities for students

Now that students have built up a vocabulary for describing perspective and, hopefully, developed their preposition skills, you could ask them to do one or more of the following:

  • Choose an artwork which features an optical illusion that they can present to the group, describing its contents and effects. If they need help finding an artwork, you could make suggestions. For example, the work of M. C. Escher, whose illusory works have become quite well known (see below). These needn’t be reflective tricks, though, they could be other forms of illusion.

M. C. Escher, Three Spheres, 1946

  • If you are feeling more adventurous, you could ask the students to make and present their own photographs using mirrors to play a visual trick. They could photograph a scene in which a reflection provides some element of information beyond the initial framing of the image. This could be a parody of the kind of artworks examined in class, or an ambiguous scene that suggests a hidden narrative, in which case the group could present it to the class and elicit responses and suggestions from their classmates.

Possible areas of language focus

  • (As always) modals for deduction (He must be a detective, he could be looking for the woman etc.)
  • Prepositional phrases (see above)
  • sequencing words for explaining a narrative (first, then, next, before, after etc.)
  • Tenses

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