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 We learn that the evil Tyrell corporation who built the original replicants is now no more, having been replaced by the super evil Wallace corporation, headed up by nefarious-bloke-with-a-God-complex, Niander Wallace (Jared Leto on fine, sinister form).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

 

 

Star Wars: The Force Awakens review

Is it acceptable for a 33-year-old man to well up multiple times during this film? Probably not, but it happened. It was bound to happen. I mean, from the opening shot of the logo I was struggling to hold it together. Perhaps because I’ve now finished work and it’s been a long year, but it’s more than that, it’s Star Wars. And we’re all hoping beyond hope that J.J. Abrams will give us something good and help take away the pain of the last lot of films.

Happily, I’m pleased to report he does. The Force Awakens is set a few decades after the events of the original films and the First Order has risen as the new evil power led – in part – by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who looks to the memory of Darth Vader as his inspiration to do bad things. Incidentally, Driver is impressive as the new bad guy. Stepping into the shoes of cinema’s greatest villian is no easy task, but his evolution is a compelling one.

But, to backtrack a moment, we begin the film with Finn (John Boyega), a stormtrooper with a crisis of confidence who teams up with resistance fighter Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) to escape Ren’s clutches. Finn quickly meets resourceful scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley) and they – in turn – meet Han Solo (Harrison Ford, as if you need telling) and Chewie and things kick on from there. And this feels good, natural, a nice blend of newcomers and classic characters we know and love. We’re in a safe place. Ok, now we can relax and enjoy it all.

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The plot largely revolves around the First Order and the Resistance both hunting for Luke Skywalker who has gone into hiding, Yoda style. At the same time the First Order have built an upgrade to the Death Star, which the Resistance must destroy or face being wiped out by themselves; so what we have is a partial retread of the original first film with touches of the other two originals, for the most part.

Abrams, being a lifelong fan, has gone for the look and feel of the original as much as he can too, with practical effects making a welcome return. And The Force Awakens also manages to balance the light, adventurous tone we originally loved with the pathos and torture of the dark side well, which is no easy thing. Recently I criticised SPECTRE for feeling like Bond’s greatest hits, yet here Abrams does a similar thing. Although there’s a difference between a loving nod and a lazy reference, and I think Abrams succeeded where Sam Mendes mostly failed.

Perhaps what it all boils down to is character and emotional connection (a tricky thing with Bond as he reinvents himself every few years, and is a bit of a cold fish). With Star Wars the audience is full to bursting with nostalgic love before the film has even begun, so it’s more a case of the filmmakers just not dropping the ball.

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Give us what we love, but give us new stuff too. Which they do. (You’ll grin like a kid at Christmas – and it almost is Christmas, so everyone’s a winner!)

So whilst this film starts with newcomer Finn, it’s more other newcomer Rey’s tale really. And she gets thrown into the action from the off, but definitely not as arm candy for the male characters, she kicks ass better than most – something it’s clear Abrams is keen to show (and on strong female characters he has past form) so it’s refreshing to see her front and centre of this story.

In some ways she reminded me a lot of Keira Knightley in Pirates of the Caribbean, in terms of both how she looks physically and how her character reacts to situations, fighting her corner and forging her own destiny.

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Although, even with Pirates Knightley’s character often found herself having to be rescued by the guys (but this was almost a decade ago, so she sort of paved the way a bit for characters like Rey). And with Rey she is rarely at the mercy of a male character, unless it’s Ren – even then there’s stuff she does which will surprise you, without giving too much away.

But just so it’s not all Daisy Ridley, others should get a mention too. John Boyega, for example, is much funnier than I expected him to be. Having only seen him as the strong and silent type in Attack the Block he’s done pretty much a 180 to play talkative Finn, balancing comedy with the film’s more dramatic moments. And it’s so reassuring to have Han Solo knocking around the place, too. He gives the film a gravitas and legitimacy playing the elder statesman role, but still with a growl and a cocky line or two to remind you who you’re watching.

As far as the rest of the cast go, the movie flies along at such a pace that many other characters (originals and newbies) get scant screen time, but you get the sense their stories will be expanded during the next two films and there’s a lot more to come. So that’s OK then.

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All in all, it has to be a big thumbs up and a hurrah for Abrams. He’s made a Star Wars film that people will come back to time and again, one that fits in well with the franchise and tees things up nicely for the next two. He’s also (arguably) repeated his trick of rescuing another franchise (after Star Trek) and restored faith in these stories for many round the world. And all in time for Christmas.

Thanks J.J. We owe you one. May the force be with you.

The Age of Adaline: Who wants to live forever?

There’s a TV show I’m watching at the moment called Forever, starring Ioan Gruffudd as the lead character who cannot age. In each episode something happens to trigger his memory to a time in his past when a similar thing happened. Thus we learn a little about his character and it gives him a chance – in a knowing voice-over – to impart his wisdom on the strange things people do that shapes their lives.

It’s an easy watch, not too taxing and has a certain degree of charm. In the case of The Age of Adaline a similar flashback technique is regularly employed, but it tends to slow the whole story down to a plod at best, but let’s start, as most stories do, from the top.

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We meet Adaline (Blake Lively) working in a library in modern-day San Francisco. We learn (through the first of many lethargic flashbacks) that she was in an accident decades ago which causes her not to age – and to avoid suspicion she keeps people at arm’s length and changes identity every ten years.

You know the message of the film before it’s even got going. If you continually push people away you’ll never really live, blah blah. To get her living life she meets handsome stranger Ellis Jones (Dutch actor Michiel Huisman, most recently seen as Daario Naharis in Game of Thrones) who eventually cracks her frosty exterior and forces her to make a choice – after much to-ing and fro-ing – to live and actually love.

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But, like I say, you know all this. You’ll see it coming a mile away.

What you probably don’t count on is, halfway through, with the story heading the way we expect, we get treated to the pleasure of Harrison Ford turning up as Ellis’s dad, William. As things flag a little he gives everything a much needed lift and brings real warmth, gravitas and star power to proceedings.

In essence, he shows the youngsters how this acting lark is done.

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As a lead, Blake Lively is perfectly fine. Nothing she does will really blow you away but it’s a solid performance. In terms of looks you can see why she was cast; there’s a sort of timeless beauty about her that fits well. I spent the film’s first third giving her a hard time, likening her to a poor woman’s Rosumund Pike (who would have been great), but Lively does get better as she goes on and I warmed to her eventually. Damning with faint praise you might say, but praise nonetheless.

Returning to my earlier point about TV; as a story this one is slight and doesn’t feel that cinematic. Plus the regular flashbacks – which work well in the episodic nature of the small screen – do grind things to a halt here, testing even the most patient moviegoer.

Take Forest Gump for example. A guy sits on a bench and tells his story and each flashback is a joy as his life was so varied and full of excitement. Plus Hanks really sells it.

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The problem with Adaline is that her flashbacks all seem to be wistful, melancholy and full of remorse, which makes for a rather strained watch and she becomes difficult for the audience to like on any level.

The title of this blog, as some of you may have spotted, refers to the song by Queen in Highlander, a beautiful track that elevated a bit of a B-movie. Yet… even there the main character led an exciting life. And the flashbacks helped serve a dramatic story in the present. In The Age of Adaline her tale in the present day is just a straight up romance. C’mon guys, you need to mix it up a little.

So there you have it. A passable film with a reasonable cast and a bit of a wobbly concept. One to catch on a Sunday night but maybe skip at the cinema.