Film Industry

Neon Noir In Film: What Is The Neon Noir Aesthetic?

Photograph of the blog post author, Jodie Francis

Jodie Francis

4.8.2021

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The world of neon noir in film has long fascinated and captivated audiences. It certainly has a dark theme, and therefore crime and thriller movies really lend themselves to the genre. If you would like to learn more about neon noir, then welcome! This article takes a deep dive into the dark and dazzling world of neon noir. 

neon noir

We will provide answers to everything that you could possibly need to know, including the definition and some great examples of neon noir films that you can check out for yourself! 

So, keep reading to discover everything that you need to know about your new favourite genre. 

What Is Neon Noir In Film?

neon noir

Neon noir is a continuation of the genre neo-noir. This genre is characterised by the use of flashbacks, cyclical heroes, and stark lighting effects.

The plots tend to also be extremely intricate and complex, and there tends to be an underlying existentialist philosophy. 

This genre has been highly prevalent in American crime dramas released after the World War II era.

When it comes to neon noir, it takes things to the next level in terms of the use of vibrant colours and dynamic lighting. The neon noir design can be easily spotted thanks to this. 

It is essentially a revival of the neo-noir film genre, although they are extremely similar, yet it can be categorised by three main elements.

The first is a dark colour palette that’s infused with neon lighting, a grim setting, and the expressionistic use of costumes and architecture. 

The History Of Neon Noir

Now let’s take a look at the history behind the genre and how neon noir films got to be where they are today.

To discover the history behind neon noir, we will have to take a look at where film noir began. After all, neon noir is directly inspired by it.

German Expressionism

german expressionism in film

German Expressionism played a vital part in influencing film noir, as they have been used to demonstrate a cynical outlook since the 1930s.

These types of films are characterised by expressionistic sets, a type of lighting referred to as chiaroscuro, and a lead detective character who has ambiguous morals. 

For example, films such as The Asphalt Jungle and Touch of Evil focus on violent deaths and reject the idea of human beings being sentimental in nature.

The year of 1959 saw the film noir genre experience a re-freshening. This is largely due to Technicolor. This gave the films a chance to include a vibrant colour palette and move away from darkness and shadows.

Art Deco

The Art Deco movement largely helped to influence the themes, like revenge and paranoia. This represented the public mood following WWII. The neo noir genre can include crime movies, right up to westerns

This is what the neon noir genre was born out of, it blends the trauma, stylized visuals and colours, and has a dreamlike quality to it.

It stands out from the film noir thanks to its neon text, a typically loud electronic score, and a troubled hero/anti-hero who is experiencing isolation. 

While the neon noir aesthetic is bright and eye-catching, this doesn’t mean that the story isn’t at the heart of the film. This includes the violence and the examination of the main character’s ambiguity. 

There are many scenes that take place during the night, with a rare amount of filming taking place during the day.

There are typically plenty of shots of the surroundings, such as the buildings and the roads. This helps to shape the city itself as a character

Despite the neon colours, characters are likely to be cast in shadows and darkness to help contrast the neon noir color palette.

Protagonist

neon noir characters

As previously stated, violence is at the heart of most neon noir films. The main character will typically need to commit acts of violence in order to distance themselves from a dream and goal that seems unattainable. 

The genre can dangle and taunt the main character with their dreams and provide them with a glance at what their life could be.

However, this dream is shattered through their acts of violence, and the desire of the character to overcome their isolation. 

Leading on from this, the main character will live by their own moral code of what they believe to be correct. This can mean overlooking the rules of society, making them unpredictable and potentially dangerous.

The main character will often have a persona that they put out into the world, yet in reality they are vulnerable. 

Neon noir can be considered a cousin to the neo noir film genre. They are similar and reflect the same view of the main characters.

Neon noir films will demonstrate their meaning instantly, allowing the audience to connect their possible feelings of isolation and mortality to the experience that they are seeing on screen.

By the end of the film the audience will recognise that the old values have influenced the new. 

Examples Of How Neon Noir Is Used In Film

Now that we know the history of neon noir and what it is, it’s time to take a look at some examples of it in film

Taxi Driver (1976)

taxi driver

This is a very early example of the neon noir film genre. This film was directed by Martin Scorsese, and it’s classed as a crime/ thriller drama. It is set in New York City after the Vietnam War. The city acts as a morally bankrupt character

It follows a character called Travis Bickle, who is a war veteran turned taxi driver. He works the night shift in the city; however, his mental state is deteriorating as he turns to violence.

The violence, the representation of moral decay through the city, and the visuals all serve to contribute to a fantastic neon noir film. 

Blue Velvet (1986)

blue velvet

This is a crime thriller that follows a man returning from college to visit his father following a stroke. He discovers a human ear in a meadow and joins the investigation into what has happened to the person.

It leads him down a dark path, full of violence. It can be viewed as a criticism of the ideological nostalgia of 1950’s America.

The film examines what really goes on behind the façade of ordinary life. Additionally, it reveals a world of corruption and darkness. 

Blade Runner 2049 (2017) 

blade runner 2049

This a sci-fi/ action version of neon noir. It’s set thirty years after the last Blade Runner film. Officer K (a blade runner) uncovers a secret that could alter society forever. 

This leads him to discover Rick Deckard, a man who used to be a blade runner. He has also been missing for thirty years. 

The shadowy visuals that are interspersed with light and neon help to establish this film as a part of the neon noir genre. Furthermore, the narrative of the story is very well executed.

There’s a detective element to the story, as well as the idea of lifting the lid on the facades of society.  

Terminal (2018) 

terminal

Terminal belongs to the thriller neon noir genre. It follows two assassins who have been hired to kill their next victim. This brings them into contact with many different types of people. It’s also a tale of revenge and retribution. 

The dark characters and setting are perfectly contrasted with the smattering of neon colours throughout the film. This is a film that’s full of twists and turns – and a very surprising ending. 

Atomic Blonde (2017)

atomic blonde

Atomic Blonde was adapted from a graphic novel. It represents a traditional cold war spy thriller. Lorraine is an MI6 agent who needs to find a list of undercover operatives that was stolen from the body of another MI6 agent in Berlin. 

The film is extremely stylized, with many exciting action sequences. The film represents neon noir through not only the characterisation of the main character (Lorraine). But also through the use of neon noir art. 

The Berlin streets are covered in colourful graffiti. Most sets are covered in neon lights of various colours, including green, red, and blue. This is a film aesthetic that you won’t be forgetting in a while. 

Now You Know Everything About Neon Noir

neon noir

That now completes our guide to neon noir! The genre can be attributed to many different categories, although the most popular are thrillers, crime, and sci-fi.

 It’s a genre that’s easily recognisable once you know what to look for, such as dark and ambiguous main characters, violence, and, of course, bright neon lighting and colours. 

What’s your favourite neon noir film? Let us know in the comment section below! If you enjoyed this article then why not share it on your socials? Be sure to tag us in your post @musicgateway!

If you would like to read more great film content, then head over to the blog at Music Gateway. Here you can read articles about How to Make a Short Film, the most Famous Movie Props, How to Become a Filmmaker, and lots more!

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