Blade Runner 2049: an idiot’s review

I’ll put this out there from the off. Only a complete numpty would go to see Blade Runner 2049 with just a vague memory of the original, but that’s what I did. The reason being is because, shock horror, I’ve never been a die-hard fan of the original and wanted a fairly untainted experience of the sequel.

Now I imagine this statement may cause many a film fan to start sharpening up their unlimited cinema passes in an effort to stab me in a rage, but it is what it is. Some films just didn’t grab me growing up, so I didn’t revisit them. Despite this one being a cult classic, revered by many.

So I’m almost – almost – coming at this sequel as a newbie. I mean, I’m aware of Deckard and replicants and how the 1982 original was loosely adapted from Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do androids dream of electric sheep? But anyway, enough apologising, let’s talk 2049 and my impressions of the film.

So the story starts with words on screen, bringing us up to speed. We learn that the evil Tyrell corporation who built the original replicants is now no more, having been replaced by the super evil Wallace corporation, headed up by nefarious-bloke-with-a-God-complex, Niander Wallace (Jared Leto on fine, sinister form).

Also, Blade Runners still exist and are tasked with hunting down old models and ‘retiring’ them. So in a tense exchange in the opening scene we meet Officer K (Ryan Gosling), attempting to bring in Dave Bautista’s protein farmer; in a scene reminiscent of Hans Landa in Inglorious Basterds. Everything looks gorgeous and stylish and the tension is palpable, up to the point it explodes into action.

Which is very much how the film goes. Slow burn, intense and loaded with meaning and symbolism. It is almost style over substance, but Villeneuve treads that path well, just about keeping the balance between the two.

So after his encounter with the farmer, Officer K finds a clue which leads him to believe replicants are changing in a way that could have a significant impact on society. This leads him to search for Deckard (Harrison Ford).

And, to geek out and digress for second, typing this got me thinking the film could’ve been called Blade Runner: The Search for Deckard, but I guess Star Trek already took that. Shame though, had a nice ring to it.

Back with 2049, other than the details above, the plot is best avoided for fear of spoilers.

But what I will say is that, returning to my point about being a bit of a newbie, this film did world build (for the uninitiated) extremely well. As director Denis Villeneuve – in an impressive balancing act – managed to stay true to the look and feel of Scott’s original, but also put his own stamp on it.

For example, we get a look at the world outside of L.A., all hazy red and yellow mists, complete with abandoned cityscapes and giant statues, which speak of ancient, long-lost civilisations. Post-apocalyptic and then some. Set design must have had a field day, in a good sense, for this all adds to Scott’s world in a way that feels credible.

Villeneuve also builds on other concepts touched on in the original, such as the debate around what it means to be human. Here, Officer K has a companion, Joi (Ana de Armas) a hologram.

And whilst she may have started as a basic, out of the box programme, she’s sentient and has grown and evolved to the point where you get the sense they’ve shared many moments together and have an intimate connection. Inasmuch as is allowed for Officer K, who is not supposed to show – or succumb to – signs of emotion or humanity, and is subject to regular ‘baseline tests’ by his employers.

Moreover, the more time we spend with Joi and K, the more we come to understand him through how he interacts with her. He keeps his emotions in check for the most part, but is conflicted. Desperately trying to do his job, yet his need to discover his origins and come to terms with his latent humanity gnaws at him, and is brought home every time he lets his guard down and allows himself a taste of humanity with Joi.

It’s deeply sad, in a way. K longs for a human connection and to discover his place in the world, but cannot find it. In some ways, there’s a lot of DNA this film shares with Spike Jonze’s Her. And perhaps shades of Lost in Translation.

Fans of the original will probably feel validated too, given how the film is held in such high regard, this sequel has done a commendable job of ‘not messing it all up’. Gosling is a great fit for the lead and it’s really grounds the film and story when Ford shows up too. Armas, a relative up-and-comer, also puts in a fine performance as Joi.

Come awards season it would be a travesty if Deakins didnt get an Oscar for the cinematography on this one – as the majority of shots are pieces of art in their own right. Villeneuve, too, could be in for an award or two, building on his critical acclaim following Arrival.

For me, I was less enamoured with the film than some people (being an idiot newbie and all that) and felt it dragged in places, largely due to its 2 hour 44 minute running time and methodical pace of storytelling. But I appreciated the performances, questions it raised, way it was shot and, crucially, the type of film it was trying to be.

In the age of superhero films and blockbusters and godawful comedy remakes, this sort of cinema is neccessary and vital, but not to everyone’s tastes. So whether you’re a fan of the original or not, I urge you to give it a try, and go in with an open mind, pay attention and let the experience wash over you.

(I said much the same of mother! recently, but the point stands for this too.)

 

 

Ex Machina: Lessons in playing God

Alex Garland is a mighty fine writer. He’s now a director. His past writing credits include The Beach, 28 Days Later, Sunshine, Never Let Me Go, Dredd and now Ex Machina.

With the latter he’s stepped up to the director’s chair, and done so without missing a beat. He’s been helped by a great cast of course, in three rising stars: Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander.

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The story here starts with young coder Caleb (Gleeson) winning a competition to spend a week with reclusive genius Nathan (Isaac), CEO of Bluebook (essentially, Google). He quickly finds out he’s to be the subject of a ‘Turing test’ (to determine artificial intelligence) with beautiful cyborg Ava (Vikander).

Attempting to manipulate – or at least stay on the good side of – an unhinged genius is something Gleeson has done before (in Frank opposite Michael Fassbender), but here he has his work cut out for him with Nathan.

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Right from their first meeting we see Nathan pumping iron outside his beautiful forest/mountain retreat. He’s a beast of a man with a shaved head and bushy, slightly unkempt beard, looking more like South American gangster than the head of one of the world’s most powerful tech companies. But then that’s the point, he’s not what you expect. He confounds expectations.

And with a masterclass in passive-aggressive behaviour, Isaac keeps us guessing. We see him as Gleeson’s Caleb sees him; drinking heavily then attempting to cancel it out by furiously detoxing. He calls Caleb his buddy, sharing a beer with him one moment then the next cutting him off mid-sentence with a psychotic look or antagonistically dismissive comment. In short, he’s used to being in control but has his demons. Lots of them, judging by the film’s first third.

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As most of us have been dimly aware, over the last few years Gleeson’s career has skyrocketed. Other actors often have showier parts, but he tends to provide the anchor to the story and a way in for the audience – if he was a footballer he’d be a defensive midfielder. Often overlooked, but the rest of the team know he makes them look good.

And talking of the rest of the team, when Caleb isn’t having unnerving conversations with Nathan he’s being challenged by Ava in an altogether different manner. Vikander is a revelation as Ava, all sharp, precise movements and piercing looks, she puts Caleb on the back foot from the get-go, challenging why he’s there and what he truly wants and desires, making him question himself as much as the situation.

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All in all, this is a riveting film from start to finish. The three leads excel in equal measure and Garland’s script and direction are strong. It’s tense, dramatic, emotional, and makes you question – in terms of technology and what it means to be human – where we as a race are going. Or where we might be going. It’s timely too, with Stephen Hawking’s recent comments that the existence of AI poses a threat to our very existence.

So, if films cannot tackle big themes and do so in a commanding, compelling and affecting manner, then what good are they? Or, to put it another way, if you care about the future of humanity and thoughtful, challenging filmmaking, go see this film.