Cultural Afterlives: Blade Runner & the Steelworks

image for blog - steelworks.PNG

Chloe Harvey

Menacing structures of steel stand in a night that’s hazed with an artificial, orange glow. Red lights blink in a starless sky that’s thick with smog. If you listen, you might hear the towers groan…

This image may remind you of a dystopia seen in the likes of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. However, I recall something different: the Teesside steelworks, a place close to my hometown. Before its closure in 2015, the steelworks were a source of income for working-class families; built on practicality over aesthetics. Since then, local opinion of the site has declined. The shutting down of Tata Steel was described as the ‘final nail in the coffin’ for North East industry. Now, the empty site juts out from the coastline as another glaring threat of redundancy.

However, the parallel between the steelworks and Blade Runner is more than coincidental, shining a flattering light on the menacing structures. But can an afterlife exist for the steelworks in Scott’s fictitious landscape?

There’s a walk from Redcar into Hartlepool … I’d cross a bridge at night, above the steelworks. That’s where the opening of Blade Runner comes from … You can find beauty in everything, and so I think I found the beauty in that darkness.

Scott uttered this inspiring quote himself. I wish I could say I was perceptive enough to see the steelworks like he did. Alas, growing up, I found the site an eyesore, as did most locals. When I watched Blade Runner, though, I finally understood the beauty that Scott was talking about when I spotted a glimmer of the steelworks in the dystopian setting.  It’s curious that a tiny part of the North East, often considered a blemish on our landscape, helped shape the landscape of a longstanding classic movie.

However, when considering the afterlife of Teesside steelworks, perhaps it is more appropriate to look at Villeneuve’s reboot. Blade Runner: 2049 is a beautifully cinematographic film that also manages to reflect the industrial atmosphere of the steelworks. Their presence feels like a dimmer cultural reverberation of Scott’s original influence. The reboot emerged on screen two years after Tata Steel closed, so an afterlife for the steelworks seems possible. Though it now takes home in the creative industries, rather than in the steel industry it was used to. Conversely, despite critical praise, Villeneuve’s reboot faced a tepid reaction from audiences. Perhaps, then, this afterlife will be short-lived.

The connection between a local landmark and the cultural giant that is Blade Runner has been a regional topic of small-talk since the eighties; my hometown even petitioned to build a statue in Scott’s honour. Though the steelworks no longer function, there is a beauty in that darkness. Their afterlife might not be found within a franchise that, too, has an uncertain shelf-life. However subtle an impression, the North East’s industrial heritage left an impact on Hollywood and the steelworks’ afterlife is found in the pride that this still brings the region, to this day.

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