Film review – Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve, 2017)

The announcement of a new Blade Runner film after a 35 year gap was always bound to be met with trepidation from the loyal fans of the original. Ridley Scott’s sci-fi epic, first released in 1982, has undergone something of a cult status transformation and is now generally viewed as one of the greatest sci-fi films of all time, holding a 91% audience rating on results aggregator Rotten Tomatoes and serving as a touch point for films of all genres for generations. Surely bringing back the film for a rather needless sequel, re-treading old ground that fans didn’t want to revisit, would only result in failure.

Actually, the countless versions of the original film available to view indicate just how willing Scott was to wring the masterpiece for every drop of life, managing to go unnoticed as he George Lucased every scene and finally settled on 2007’s The Final Cut. The main reason he got away with it? Two-fold. Firstly, Blade Runner has fewer fans than Star Wars. Secondly, Scott was actually improving on the original.

So, thinking about it Blade Runner 2049 makes perfect sense. It can build on the existing fanbase, re-ignite interest in the original film and give a new and ambitious director a crack at creating something truly original and perhaps turn the cult film into a blockbuster franchise.

The man tasked with doing this is Denis Villeneuve, a director who crafted two excellent films in recent years in the form of drug crime-thriller Sicario and futuristic sci-fi Arrival.

Did he achieve everything the fans and studio had wanted prior to seeing the film? Not really. But the final result is absolutely astonishing and perhaps better than anyone could have possibly hoped for.

Set in 2049, the plot focuses on Ryan Gosling’s “K”, an agent working for the LAPD as a “Blade Runner”. It is his job to hunt down and eliminate rogue replicants – bioengineered humans who have been integrated into society to serve specific jobs, essentially working as slaves. K lives with a holographic girlfriend named Joi (Ana de Armas), a product of the replicant manufacturing company The Wallace Corporation, a company building on the work started by the Tyrell Corporation and headed up by Niander Wallace (Jared Leto). After K finds some potentially revelatory evidence that a replicant may have been a female replicant that gave birth to a child, his superior Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) orders him to destroy the evidence to prevent an unpreventable conflict between humans and replicants should the knowledge reach the public. Going against his boss’s orders, K chooses to investigate a mysterious replicant named Rachael, with all routes pointing towards a former blade runner named Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford).

Villeneuve’s vision, created alongside cinematographer Roger Deakins, has turned out to be one of the most visually stunning spectacles of the year. A shoo-in for a Visual Effects nomination at the Academy Awards, the dull, desolate misery of the original film are replaced with brilliant orange hues, polarised colour palettes and sensory overloads. That it still feels part of the same universe seems unlikely, but it definitely does.

Ryan Gosling is perfectly cast as K, a replicant battling with questions about his own mortality. The pacing to some may feel slow, but in reality it is a deliberate choice. As K discovers more pieces about the puzzle, we as the viewer are given space to breathe and think about the very same questions. It an overpoweringly intelligent way to deliver a film and puts a lot of faith into the viewers that they are intelligent enough to process what is going on.

Questions remained about the character Joi throughout its cinematic release, and beyond. Criticism focused on the fact that Joi exists only to serve the needs of Ryan Gosling, and is totally dependant on him. My take on her was entirely different – indeed her inclusion felt like a genuine triumph. As a character, she has been created to show huge developments in replicants since the original film, but also poses further questions to the viewer. If a product could be bought straight off the shelf to stimulate every human emotion just as required, would that be a good thing or a bad thing for the human race? Does removing real emotion through human interaction make us any “less human than human”?

Director Villeneuve responded to the criticism, stating:

“Cinema is a mirror on society. Blade Runner is not about tomorrow; it’s about today. And I’m sorry, but the world is not kind on women. There’s a sense in American cinema: you want to portray an ideal world. You want to portray a utopia. That’s good—dreams for a better world, to advocate for something better, yes. But if you look at my movies, they are exploring today’s shadows. The first Blade Runner is the biggest dystopian statement of the last half century. I did the follow-up to that, so yes, it’s a dystopian vision of today. Which magnifies all the faults. That’s what I’ll say about that.” [full article here]

Incidentally, Julia Alexander wrote a superb and balanced article on the matter on the website Polygon, which is well worth checking out.

Box office

Blade Runner 2049’s performance at the global box office may well have done it out of further sequels, no doubt to the disappointment of Warner Bros. It made money – $258m based on a $150m budget (as of 24th December 2017) – but not enough money. It feels like a risky prospect to pump more money into the franchise when the likely drop-off in profit would potentially lead to a loss-maker.

This is a double-edged sword. 2049 feels like a fitting end to the original film, complimenting it whilst not ruining its mystery and intrigue. It would be difficult to achieve a third great film in the saga, so a studio unwilling to make any more instalments is a positive. However, it felt refreshing to see a genuinely thought-provoking blockbuster that left me contemplating the contents for weeks. It’s sad to think there will be fewer of these in the future.

Verdict

Blade Runner 2049 is a breath of fresh air for cinema in 2017. Villeneuve should get substantial credit for pulling off the near-impossible. He’s created a visually-stunning masterpiece that builds on the original without ruining any of it. Whether it will be talked about as much as Ridley Scott’s original in 35 years’ time remains to be seen, but for now it feels like a more-than-worthy addition to the story. Simply brilliant.

Short films

There were three short films created to bridge the gap between the original film and the new instalment, which can be viewed in chronological order below.

They don’t ruin anything about the film, but they do compliment it quite well. Very much worth watching.

Black Out 2022

2036: Nexus Dawn

2048: Nowhere to Run

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Film review – Alien: Covenant (Ridley Scott, 2017)

I have to lay out some home truths before we start. After five years, it appears the dust has settled and most of us have decided Prometheus was a pile of rubbish.

The Alien prequel was a return to the helm for Ridley Scott after a 33-year hiatus. Despite the anticipation, the disappointment amongst the hard-core fans stemmed from some convenient plot points that seemed to allow progression of the story despite not really making sense (“Why did she run in a straight line?”, “Why did the navigator guy get lost?”, “She’s just had a caesarean… how is she running?”).

I saw the film as a midnight screening and I remember coming out of the cinema buzzing with excitement. The film was, in my opinion, a return to form for the franchise after the overwhelmingly disappointing Alien v Predator films (which worked better as a toy line than as a film). It wasn’t a patch on the first two – Alien and its sequel Aliens – but probably stood alongside or better than any of the other instalments.

Yes, that’s right. I am a fan of Prometheus.

I went into an early screening of Covenant with the same kind of excitement and anticipation as I had five years ago. The advertising campaign has been nothing if not relentless, so finally getting to see the film on the big screen felt as much a trip to the cinema as it was a way to quench my carefully manipulated thirst for a next instalment.

The film is set in 2104, ten years after the main events of Prometheus and around twenty years before the events of Alien. The opening sequence, which features a reprisal cameo from Guy Pearce as Peter Weyland, explores the themes of humanity’s desire to meet its creator. It could easily have been a part of the first instalment, but bridges the gap and reminds viewers of the unhinged nature of David, one of two robots played by Michael Fassbender.

The main body of the film focuses on a colonisation mission from Earth to to a remote planet Origae-6, aboard the titular spaceship Covenant. The main crew includes Captain Branson (James Franco) and third in command Daniels (Katherine Waterston), a terraforming expert and wife to Branson. Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup) is a man of faith who is unexpectedly promoted to captain shortly into the mission. Michael Fassbender’s second character in the film is a synthetic android named Walter, a more advanced version of David. The crew also includes Chief Pilot Tennessee (Danny McBride), Sergeant Lope (Demián Bichir) and Karine Oram (Carmen Ejogo). Aboard their ship is around 2,000 human embryos, with the purpose of populating their destination planet upon arrival.

After a neutrino shockwave hits the ship, the main crew are woken up to deal with the repairs on the ship. They are seven years away from their destination planet but a matter of weeks away from an alternative planet that appears to offer the same prospects as Origae-6. New captain Oram makes the decision to land on the newly-found planet, which turns out to be the one Dr Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and David set sail for at the end of Prometheus. Needless to say, the story goes downhill from here for our crew, with disastrous consequences.

Given the popular misgivings about Prometheus, I couldn’t help but pick fault with a couple of major issues with the decision making of the crew of the Covenant. Most glaringly, none of them seem keen to wear masks when they leave the spaceship, even though there’s no obvious investigations into how viable to atmosphere is to breathe. It just seemed odd that they were so confident only minutes after being so worried. Surely that’s rule number one for space travel?

All the people on the ship have a partner on there, meaning everyone is at risk of losing a loved one at every turn. This falls down, however, when you throw a couple of red coats onto the first expedition. Where were the devastated husbands and wives grieving their loved ones? Do they not get to show emotion because their rank is too low? I’m looking at Ledward here. Surely he has a wife or girlfriend on board?

Aside from picking nits, the film is genuinely a great effort, probably a lot better than Prometheus. There are a number of great nods to previous films – the face-hugger makes its comeback – and it feels like Scott has set out to make a crowdpleaser. That’s definitely not a bad thing.

The partner element is an intelligent way to add depth to all of the characters. Shortly into the main plot, James Franco’s Captain Branson dies, immediately answering the question of why he wasn’t featured more prominently in the advertising campaign (a missed trick in my opinion). This plunges Katherine Waterston’s Daniels into immediate emotional turmoil, though she quickly rises out of it and continues with her mission objectives.

Waterston has some big Sigourney Weaver sized shoes to fill in terms of taking the female lead role. I’m sure she has felt the pressures of her predecessor, though it doesn’t show on screen. She does a fantastic job and at times carries the film, acting as the sensible decision maker, the natural leader and the only one with the will to fight back when everything goes pear shaped. Sure, the strong and intelligent female protagonist is becoming a bit of a broken record in modern cinema, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that Signourney Weaver in Alien is probably the best early example of it being done so well, certainly in terms of Blockbuster films in genres usually associated with male audiences.

The final act is wholly worth of the Alien canon, rescuing a film that at times had threatened to go off the rails. It’s here that Scott ramps up the tension and action, paying off the setup over the previous 90-ish minutes.

If the final 30 minutes is great, then the final ten seconds is utter genius.

If you have any misgivings about the Alien franchise, Covenant is the film that will bring you back on track.

Film review – Logan (James Mangold, 2017)

THIS ARTICLE IS FULL OF SPOILERS

Hugh Jackman is, in the superhero film world, a living legend. There has never been a single actor or actress that has achieved relentless success across so many different films in this genre, making a character his own and developing it into one of the big guns instead of just part of a team. Like the character Wolverine, the actor behind him seems like he’ll play the part forever.

And yet we come to Logan, a wisely-timed and fitting ending to the franchise and Jackman’s input into the character. It’s hard to believe it but this is the tenth time we’ve seen the character – seven X-Men films have now been made, along with three Wolverine-focussed standalone films. It seems impossible to think anyone will fill the role, meaning this could be the last time we see the character for many years, possibly ever.

It could well be the best superhero/mutant-hero film ever made.

Set in the world 2029, the film finds Logan worlds apart from his former self. Hiding out in a disused smelting plant in New Mexico, he is working as a chauffeur whilst hustling for prescription drugs for Professor X (Patrick Stewart), whom he lives with alongside Caliban (a surprisingly sincere Stephen Merchant). He is tracked down by a mysterious woman named Gabriella (Elizabeth Rodriguez) who is trying to get him to take a young mutant girl named Laura (the brilliant Dafne Keen) to specific co-ordinates in South Dakota before Transigen finds her to either kill her or take her back into their shady mutant development programme. The company, which we have previously glimpsed in X-Men: Apocalypse, is headed up by Zander Rice (Richard E. Grant), whilst they are hotly pursued by head of security and leader of the Reavers Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook).

Jackman reportedly took a pay cut to ensure this film received an R-Rating in USA. The result is certainly the most brutal cinematic portrayal of Wolverine yet, with no holding back on any of the gruesome details. It is certainly not a kids’ film. Jackman looks battle-worn from the start, the reasoning given that the adamantium is now poisoning his body and losing its regenerative abilities. His best cure is to drink alcohol, which may mask the pain but won’t cover the endless scars across his body.

The perfect muse for Jackman’s final turn as Logan is Patrick Stewart, reprising one last time his Professor X character. Now in the midst of a horrific battle with dementia, he struggles to keep control of his telepathic abilities. What is really interesting here is that it is a study of people at the end of their life who are losing their usefulness to society. Okay, this is shown in the most extreme manners when someone has superpowers, but the poignancy is still there for everyone to see.

To add extra emotional weight to the film, the young girl is revealed to be the kind-of-daughter of Wolverine, in that she shares some of his genetic make-up. In the greater comic book storylines she is X-23, who first appeared in 2003. Whilst not strictly his daughter, this is a clever plot device as it means the two characters are immediately drawn to one another, despite their tendency to mistrust those around them.

It may be masquerading as a film about mutants but this is so much more – a character-driven drama about old age and retirement.

Inevitably, the ending is upsetting, as we see our titular hero sacrifice himself to ensure the safe passage of his daughter. The final scene, especially the final shot, is absolutely perfect.

A fitting end to one of the greatest film characters of our time.

Film review – Grimsby (Louis Letterier, 2016)

If you live outside the UK, it’s unlikely you have ever heard of Grimsby before. A middle-sized coastal town in East Lincolnshire, Grimsby was once famed for its fishing industry, though it is now in post-industrial decline. There are plenty of towns just like Grimsby dotted around the UK, though none of them have a huge blockbuster movie named after them. 

This tale involves two brothers.Sebastian (Mark Strong) is a top class secret agent who we get introduced to during an exilerating first-person opening scene. All action, no messing – a man set up as a lone wolf. In contrast, his older brother Nobby (Sacha Baren-Cohen) is living in a run-down area of Grimsby with his girlfriend Dawn (Rebel Wilson) and countless children whose names include Skeletor and Django Unchained. Fostered and split up at birth, it is true that they have lived entirely different lives. An incident at a charity event led by the suspicious Rhonda George (Penelope Cruz) brings them back together but also leads to a manhunt for Sebastian. The brothers must team up and go on the run to prove his innocence and save the world.

  
Critical response for this film has been mixed to negative, and I’d braced myself for the worst after an unrewarding time watching The Dictator. However, this was a unexpectedly rewarding experience.

The storyline is fairly generic but well executed, serving as a solid platform for some massively hilarious scenes involving the two leads. Strong makes for a surprisingly effective comedic straight man, when it would have been much easier to play the part for laughs.

Cohen yet again proves to have chameleonic abilities to perform as a character far removed from his real-life persona. Whilst the more disgusting scenes may be the most memorable (three spoiler-free words: poison, elephants, fireworks), the film does have some satirical messages it does well to sneak in. True, the climactic battle speech he delivers is a little too obvious, but elsewhere there’s a lot going on that shows it has more than just a tea-bagging gag to offer.

It is definitely going to feel dated due to the overuse of jokes relevant only to 2016, possibly only to the UK, but for now it’s worth a punt.

An unexpectedly good film with lots of laughs.