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 – Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Rian Johnson, 2017)

CONTAINS SPOILERS – ONLY READ AFTER WATCHING THE LAST JEDI

Well, it’s finally arrived. After an almost-two-year wait, we finally got to see what happens on Ahch-To immediately after the infamous closing sequence of The Force Awakens. The highly-anticipated interaction between Luke and Rey was anything but grandiose – Luke simply tosses the lightsaber over his shoulder and walks away.

This may not have been the first thing we see in the film, but it certainly set the tone. There are some serious plot developments going on here, but they’re always delivered with a smattering of humour. Indeed, The Last Jedi may be one of the best examples of a script being so well-written that the overarching plot’s many loopholes can be forgiven.

In many ways, the tone of the script is essential to ensure the entire spectrum of potential viewers stays on board. Those expecting to see the darkest of dark sides of the force will certainly be pleased – it gets very dark –  but there’s a lighthearted feel to this film that means no fan will feel alienated.

The basic plot is split into three threads, essentially focused around the three main new heroes introduced in The Force Awakens: Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac).

Rey is wrestling with the dark and light sides of the force – a development that clearly has ramifications for the future of the galaxy. She spends the early parts of her journey with Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), before taking off to see Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Our heroine is a truly engaging character and Ridley is the perfect actor to take on the role, taking us on a journey to find out more about herself at the same pace as the viewers.

Elsewhere, Finn wakes up from the coma we left him in at the end of The Force Awakens, before a chance happening sees him forming a bond with resistance mechanic Rose Tico (newcomer Kelly Marie Tran), herself mourning the death of her resistance fighter sister.

Poe Dameron is busy on the main resistance fleet ship attempting tactical dogfight missions to attack the First Order, before attempting a rescue/escape plan with Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern).

If great films are remembered so for their show-stopping visual moments, then The Last Jedi delivers them in buckets. The dogfights are absolutely real, comprehensible and exhilarating, clearly showing the influence of the film ‘Twelve O’Clock High’, which director Rian Johnson cited as a key reference point. The final fight sequence on the salt land of Crait contrasts the crystalline white of the ground with the kicked-up red chalk as the fighter vehicles slice through them towards the enemy.

A surprising and memorable fight sees Rey and Kylo team up together to wonderful effect. It’s a sequence reminiscent of ‘Three Outlaw Samurai’, with very few cheat editing or confusing cuts. It’s delivered masterfully. There are two specific deaths that really caused some great whooping and fist-pump scenes at the midnight screening: one involving a lightsaber-in-the-head death for a Praetorian Guard, and one involving the brutal death of a major character.

The McGuffin for Finn and his new partner in crime Rose allows them to develop something of a romance. It’s a romance that remains almost entirely unkindled by the end of the film – allowing plenty of  scope to further develop or completely nix their relationship before episode IX. The cynic in me believes this will probably depend on how popular Rose is as a character.

It must be said that the whole story thread for this pair of characters is mainly pointless. There is a largely disappointing sequence on the casino planet of Canto Bight that serves the sole purpose of introducing DJ (Benicio Del Toro). It is framed in a world that is wholly reminiscent of Final Fantasy on a plot level – casino-based planets are common in most games in the franchise, with Chocobo races being a clear inspiration for the Fathier creatures being forced to race for entertainment on Canto Bight. It’s also fairly identical on a visual level, suffering from a common issue in present-day cinema where physical sets and props are lovingly built and filmed, only to be touched-up in post with some less-than-realistic CGI, making for a wholly underwhelming result (see Unkar Plutt in Episode VII for a further reference point).. Fortunately there was no need to reproduce an entire human character a la Peter Cushing in Rogue One, but the visuals are so important after the failings of the prequel trilogy and it’s almost unfathomable that this can still go wrong.

As a side note, there is a wonderful tracking shot whilst we’re on Canto Bight that felt like a tribute to 1927 silent film Wings, which can be seen below.

Unfortunately, this Finn-Rose sideplot always feels like an unwelcome distraction from the Rey-Kylo thread. We were left hanging for two years and so most of the build up has been about what happens next to Luke and Rey, who Rey’s parents are (nobody, it turns out), how her training will play out and how she’ll defeat Kylo Ren. It’s frustrating that we keep getting the rug pulled from under our feet with unwelcome distractions from what is emerging as the main plot, and contributes to a sagging middle act. Indeed, should this have been missing from the film entirely, there would have been little impact on the outcome.

Poe’s character gets many of the best lines for laughs, but there are also big visual gags from BB-8 and some friction between Chewbacca and the furry little creatures called porgs. These porgs are destined to be something of a Marmite character for the franchise – I’m still trying hard to warm to them.

All is forgiven by the final act. If anyone was left unconvinced at any point, the film gets firmly back on track with a lovingly-balanced reintroduction of Yoda as a force ghost. It was surprising but absolutely welcome. Frank Oz provides the voice and yes, it is a real puppet operated by real people. This is how it’s done Mr Lucas.

This kick-starts a long stretch towards the end that is entirely satisfying, exhilarating and feels like a genuinely fresh take n the franchise. It sets up the Resistance in a perilous predicament that gives J.J. Abrams a meaty starting point for the final installation of this trilogy.

It makes the failings pale into insignificance and provides a perfect ending to a not-quite perfect film.

The clocks are officially reset and I’m now on countdown again for the next instalment.

Film review – Thelma (Joachim Trier, 2017)

Supernatural horror ‘Thelma’ begins with an unforgettable opening scene. A girl called Thelma, no more than 7 years old, is hunting with her father Trond (Henrik Rafaelsen). The man allows her to walk ahead of him, entranced by the sight of a deer and the prospect of its impending doom. Trond instead points the gun at his daughter’s head, with a expressive face that reads as both fear and temptation.

It’s an arresting opening shot that is hard feel anything but intrigue for. Why was a man willing to kill his own daughter? What sort of emotional termoil are they both experiencing? It’s brilliant filmmaking.

It is followed up with a long shot of a pedestrianised square. The viewer is essentially challenged to a game of ‘Guess Who The Main Character Is’. Eventually, the slow pan begins, finally focusing on Eili Harboe, who portrays the titular Thelma, some ten years after the opening scene.

Director Joachim Trier, in these opening shots, is warning us what he is about to do with his film – drawing us in slowly and leaving us guessing until he, by design, reveals what we need to know, with maximum impact.

The square, we learn, is at the University of Oslo, where Thelma has just begun her studies. A deeply-religious girl who refrains from drinking, she struggles to settle in and make friends. However, when she has a seizure in the middle of the study area of a library, she is helped by a girl called Anja (Kaya Wilkins).

Becoming increasingly friendly with Anja, Thelma begins to express herself more, eventually becoming physically attracted to her. However, her journey of self exploration doesn’t stop at her growing lustful emotions for Anja and she begins to worry about the causes of her seizures and the dark secrets that lie behind them.

What Trier has achieved with this story is nothing short of remarkable.

It’s a visual wonder, full of memorable set-pieces that jump out of the screen and leave a lasting memory. A scene at the opera oozes with tension as Anja and Thelma search for each other’s hands in the safety of a dark public space. With the accompanying concerto raising the pace and increasing filling the auditorium with volumous classical music, Thelma begins to feel another seizure engulfing her mind. It’s a stressful thing to watch, and captures the threat she feels perfectly.

Harboe is the perfect casting for the title role. She has a naturally distant expression on her face that gives nothing away. It borders on cold, making her eventual emotional expressions feel genuinely surprising. When she finally kisses Anja, you can feel her blushing. She knows it goes against everything she has learned as a child and is scared and excited about her new discovery.

The flashbacks serve as a means to reveal to truth behind her story, what the seizures mean and the shocking reason her father was willing to murder her as a child. The make-up department has done a fantastic job of making these flashbacks believable, without trying too hard to make them look like the parents are caked in make-up – too often a failing of bigger-budget releases.

The culmination of the film hits like a crescendo, and Trier plays the audience perfectly with a balanced build up to the final pay-off.

This genuinely is an excellent film and one that should do well outside its home country. It has also been submitted as Norway’s nomination for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 90th Academy Awards, 11 years after Trier’s first feature film achieved the same accolade. Here’s hoping it goes one step further and makes the shortlist – it deserves to be seen by a wider audience and this will help ensure this happens.

Film review – Flash Gordon (Mike Hodges, 1980)

Where’s he got that leotard from? Why doesn’t he just sleep with the alien girl? Why is he so dedicated to the earth girl when they’ve know each other ten minutes? Why did they do so many tracking shots?

If you’re sat there pondering any or all of these questions, then you may well have been watching Flash Gordon. Maybe, like me, you were on holiday with a VHS player and only a handful of of videos to play on it, of which 80% were James Bond.

On the face of it, this could have been a great film. There’s a classic comic book as the source. The cast is, for the most part, absolutely brilliant. Then there’s the unforgettable titular theme song by Queen.

Yes, it’s easy to be critical of it now. It’s almost 40 years old and time has not been kind to the flimsy costumes or the flimsier scenery. These are of the time and can partly be forgiven.

But there are things that you just can’t get past. Gilbert Taylor acted as cinematographer. This is a man who worked on Star Wars just three years prior. Between him, director Mike Hodges (Get Carter) and editor Malcolm Cooke there was a much more impressive final product to be had. Some clumsy edits reveal mistakes in actors’ takes, whilst tracking shots do little to hold the imagination when it seems a wider angle could have been taken.

The dialogue is intentionally camp but winds up feeling unintentionally humorous. This results in confusion over certain lines that may or may not have been intended as jokes. There’s an excruciating scene between Flash (Samuel J. Jones) and Princess Aura (Ornella Muti) that not only feels embarrassing but also fails to provide any motive for either character. In particular, our hero seems to have developed a sort of honour-bound dedication to Dale (Melody Anderson), a woman he had only met a couple of hours before and knows nothing about.

For campiness, it’s impossible to beat the American Football fight at the start of the film. Why, oh why…

Indeed, overall there is very little in the way of character development and the viewer is left to piece together the well-intended plot from what we are left with.

There are two types of film that become cult classics. Some are under-appreciated gems, or at least were when they were released (see Big Trouble In Little China, The ‘Burbs or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off). Others attain cult status because they flopped or were never that good in the first place (Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, or every film by Ed Wood). Unfortunately, Flash Gordon falls into the latter category.

It’s a real shame because my memory of the film was hazy but certainly positive. It is now somewhat tarnished, just like the VHS copy I watched. Fitting, really.

Film review – Okja (Bong Joon Ho, 2017)

Remakes, sequels, animated children’s film. Say what you want about the film studios, but if they’re judged solely on how to make money from well-marketed films, then they know how to do it. But when you look at the UK box office for 2017 on an artistic level, the top 10 leaves a lot to be desired.

Of the top ten, only La La Land isn’t classed as a remake, sequel or children’s film. You have to stoop as low as numbers 16, 17 and 18 to find Lion, Split and Get Out respectively, to start really finding good original cinematic enjoyment for adults wanting something fresh to think about.

Paul Dano

So whilst Okja, Bong Joon Ho’s latest futuristic sci-fi action film, was booed at Cannes Film Festival when the Netflix logo appeared at the start of the film, it isn’t a surprise that the popularity of the service has really grown exponentially in recent times. In the month of June, both Okja and the excellent The Circle landed on the service, along with women’s wrestling series Glow and the new drama series Gypsy, which stars Oscar nominee Naomi Watts. I’ve finished watching all but Gypsy, and it was often the case that I actively decided to stay at home to watch these instead of going to the cinema.

My decision wasn’t financially motivated. It was because they looked like better options.

‘Superpig’ just doesn’t have the same ring to it

Okja tells the story of a new breed of superpig that has been created by the Mirando Corporation as the flagship programme for new CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), who has inherited the company from her controversial family and is looking to create a better image for their brand. In 2007, 26 superpigs were distributed around the world to various farmers. Now, in 2017, the corporation will crown the best pig as they simultaneously launch products using the meat from the huge slaughterhouses being used to house and kill 1000s of the new species. The ten-year-old daughter of one of the farmers, Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) has grown close to the titular superpig and attempts to stop the competition from going ahead, teaming up with a band of animal rights activists that include Jay (Paul Dano), K (Steven Yeun) and Red (Lily Collins). Jake Gyllenhall also stars as eccentric television zoologist Johnny Wilcox.

Tilda Swinton as Lucy Mirando

Bong Joon Ho has created something exceptionally special here, getting excellent performances from all of his lead cast. But it is the performance by newcomer Ahn Seo-hyun that really captivated me. The opening sequence of the film may be all bravado and sensory overload, but the film soon settles into a much more naturalistic tone as we learn about the relationship between the young girl Mija and her best friend and childhood companion Okja. Its remarkable that the relationship feels so visceral given that there is nothing but animation for the superpig. There was a foam head made in the likeness of the eventual CGI creature to give her something to interact with. It’s an age-old technique but one that has resulted in an intimate and captivating coupling.

Jake Gyllenhall as Johnny Wilcox

The message contained within the film is at least on some levels for the viewer to consider the origin of the meat they are eating. “Okja is real,” director Bong Joon Ho said in a recent Independent interview. “It’s actually happening. That’s why I rushed making Okja, because the real product is coming.”

I personally felt disgusted by the end of the film and it brought back memories of Robert Kenner’s 2008 documentary ‘Food, Inc.’ Thry weren’t particularly positive memories, but they certainly were effective.

Given so many people have Netflix and can watch this film at no extra cost, it’s a no-brainer to seek it out and watch it. It might be the start of a new era of high quality original cinema heading first to home streaming platforms. Given the state of the year-to-date box office, it’s a movement everyone should be supporting.

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.