FAN EDIT REVIEW: The Star Wars Trilogy – Harmy’s Despecialized Editons

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Original Films Directed by George Lucas, Irvin Kershner, and Richard Marquand, Written by George Lucas, Leigh Brackett, and Lawrence Kasdan
Fan Edit by Harmy
Category: Reconstruction

While most fan edits can usually be distilled down to the editor’s subjective goal for a film, there is a rapidly-growing facet of the community that involves the creation of reconstructions. These are edits which do not seek to create a wholly new version of the film, but rather to restore a previously unavailable version, using a number of different home video sources. One can say this method of fan editing truly came into being with Czech editor Harmy, and his excellent Star Wars Despecialized Editions.

First, a brief history lesson, courtesy of the first half of this very informative short documentary:

In case you can’t watch the video, in effect, everything that the original Star Wars film won Oscars for–the visual effects, the set and costume design, sound design–was significantly altered by George Lucas twenty years later to produce the Special Edition, a series of cuts that he felt lived up to his original vision for the trilogy. While the merits of these versions have been and continue to be endlessly debated by fans, the original versions are, at the time of this writing, MIA, in either original print form or on high definition (or acceptable standard definition, for that matter) video.

Enter Harmy, a Czech English teacher and video enthusiast, who sought to restore the original versions of the trilogy in the vein of an early effort by Revisited editor Adywan, by combining different video sources to bring the film back to its original state. Thus, the Despecialized Editions were born.

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The first versions of the edits, available in MKV form, concentrated on two major fronts: correcting the massive alterations to the color timings of the films, and of course, reversing the editorial and visual effects changes that Lucas has made over three successive variations of the Special Editions. Even in these lower-bitrate versions, made with upscales of the Laserdisc-derived 2007 DVD releases of the original trilogy, were quite a step above the official Blu-ray release of 2011 in fidelity to the first-released cuts.

In the years since, Harmy has kept up with changes in both video editing technology and newly-available preservations of the original films, updating each edit accordingly. For this review, I used v2.7 of Star Wars, v2.0 of Empire, and v2.5 of Jedi, in two forms: the full MKV files and a custom blu-ray set made by editor NJVC. While both versions contain the same multitude of audio and subtitle tracks and have similar bitrates, the blu-rays lower the resolution to 720p in order to fit every feature onto a disc. This doesn’t bother me much, considering I don’t sit close enough to my 40-inch TV to notice a difference, but pick accordingly to your tastes.

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Star Wars v2.7 is undoubtedly the centerpiece of Harmy’s set, considering how extensively the original film has been altered in 4 decades. In addition to the highest number of new visual effects, Star Wars suffered a heavily-skewed color palette, to the point that flesh tones begin to take on incredibly rosy complexions. The Despecialized Edition mercifully corrects this, using a well-preserved 35mm print as reference for correct theatrical color timing. The film is no longer forced to conform to the look of the prequels, appearing as it once did in 1977.

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Top: 2011 Bu-ray, Bottom: Despecialized v2.7

And of course, every successive VFX change is reversed–from things as huge as the original ILM Death Star battle to tweaks as small as restoring the orange blob of Vaseline under Luke’s desert speeder, nothing goes unnoticed by Harmy. Each original shot is returned through numerous different sources, depending on which is the highest quality version available; while most of the video is a color-corrected blu-ray rip, changes made to that master are reversed by taking from HD broadcasts of the 2004 DVDs or the 1997 Special Edition, and so on.

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When it becomes necessary to restore a shot that was only in the original version, fan-produced upscales of the 2007 DVDs are utilized, with elements taken from two noteworthy film preservations, Team Negative 1’s Silver Screen Edition and the 16mm Puggo Grande Edition. The video above explains the process in much better detail than I can in these paragraphs, but to over-summarize, Harmy went the extra 100 miles on this one.

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Empire and Jedi, while containing their fair share of VFX alterations, were less butchered by Lucasfilm, with the changes limited more to the inclusion of previously deleted footage and alternate audio takes. The latter example further displays the collaborative nature of the Despecialized Editions, with Harmy enlisting the approved usage of another fan project: a recreation of the original theatrical mixes. Produced by Hairy_hen mainly using the 1993 Laserdisc mixes, the main audio options replicate the standard 35mm stereo and the 70mm six-track mixes that were originally heard in theaters, with the first film also including the mono mix. All are presented in DTS-HD Master Audio, and while most certainly aren’t reference-material, hold up to the official releases quite well.

Each MKV file is quite massive, weighing in at an average of over 30 GBs, with bitrates approaching an average of 20 MBPS. The latest versions are in 1080p, and look stunningly beautiful in their original forms compared to the official releases, which are varyingly faded or glossed over with digital enhancements. The blu-ray set by NJVC, with its lower resolution, doesn’t really handle the grain field as well, but as I mentioned before, unless you’re sitting right in front of the TV, this isn’t really something you will notice.

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But that’s not all! Both options include a selection of interesting and excellent features, many of which aren’t easily available anywhere else. On the MKV files, no less than twenty different audio options are available: in addition to the theatrical mixes, the original Laserdisc tracks are included in Dolby Digital form, along with a wide array of foreign dubs (my favorites are the German and Japanese tracks. So awesome and funny at the same time). There are also audio commentaries available from the Laserdiscs, DVDs, and Blu-rays, with Star Wars also presenting a rare official website podcast commentary by Pablo Hidalgo. Finally, each one provides an English Descriptive Audio track (so caring and thoughtful of the fans. If only Lucas could be the same).

In addition to the audio tracks, an equally-impressive selection of subtitles is collected from the Project Threepio effort, ranging from English to such overlooked languages as Thai and Navajo.

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The NJVC blu-ray set, available in several options, ups the ante in the extras field with several more commentaries such as Internet podcasts by Rebel Force Radio and Collider, and even Rifftrax by the MST3K crew themselves, along with a few more subtitle options. The bonus features discs include a collection of goodies from around the inter-webs, such as featurettes detailing the changes made to the films over the years, parody productions, documentaries, deleted scenes, trailers and TV spots, and even the excellent filmumentaries by Jamie Benning. All of the discs are finished with full motion menus which further push the official feel of this set.

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All in all, this is a great time to be a Star Wars fan. The dark years of the late 1980s have passed, as have the Lucas years, where Star Wars was kept under the stranglehold of a veritable Darth Vader, a man who has become everything about the Hollywood system he used to hate. Look at it now, with new, acclaimed films in theaters, TV series killing it on the small screen, and fan productions restoring to us our most treasured memories of the Galaxy Far, Far Away, things are finally looking up. So this Christmas, or Star Wars Day, or anytime you want, fire up the Despecialized Editions and enjoy yourself. You finally can again.

HOW TO GET IT:
Despite the crackdown on p2p file sharing going on these days, the Despecialized Editions are still easily and readily available in just about every corner of the web today, thanks in no small part to their popularity. If you are going through the official channels, visit this Harmy-approved guide, which will walk you through the different methods of obtaining the digital files, whether in the full MKV versions or lower-resolution AVCHD files.

NJVC’s blu-ray set was briefly unavailable due to the creator pulling it from circulation–it appears that several unscrupulous individuals were selling the sets on Ebay. However, another fan has graciously and with NJVC’s support made them available again. All you need is a blu-ray burner and the discs, and you are good to go!

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November at The Movie Maestro

Now that Halloween is long behind us, it’s time for me to refresh myself with some of my favorite films and film franchises! Until the end of November, I’ll be reviewing a wide array of entries from the Star Trek series to Indiana Jones to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, all just in time to read while you stuff your face with Thanksgiving turkey! Also on the plate will be a complete review of the Star Wars saga to prepare for the December 15 release of The Last Jedi.

Stay true, believers!

REVIEW: Zodiac (2007)

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Directed by David Fincher
Written by James Vanderbilt, Based on the book by Robert Graysmith
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards, Robert Downey Jr., Brian Cox, John Carroll Lynch

David Fincher just can’t seem to get away from the morbid and disturbing. Beginning his feature-film career with the much-maligned Alien 3 and continuing through with Seven and Fight Club, even his more fun films deal with the darker shades of human nature, usually ending on some dour note that wrecks a fragile faith we as a society has come to hold dear. Zodiac certainly fits neatly into this reading of Fincher’s work, as its structure more befits a political procedural with no clear ending than a typical serial killer film.

Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a cartoonist who works for the San Francisco Chronicle. His quirky ways irritate Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), a reporter whose drinking gets in the way of doing his job. The two become friends thanks to a shared interest: the Zodiac killer. Graysmith steadily becomes obsessed with the case, as Avery’s life spirals into drunken oblivion. Graysmith’s amateur sleuthing puts him onto the path of David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), a police inspector who has thus far failed to catch his man. Graysmith’s job, his wife and his children all become unimportant next to the one thing that really matters: catching the Zodiac.

The Zodiac Killer was a serial killer who operated in Northern California in the 1960s and ’70s, and originated the name himself in a series of cryptic letters and ciphers he sent to police and newspapers in the San Francisco area. Beyond this, not much is known about him, since he was never caught. Using this mystery, David Fincher’s film follows not the killer directly, but three people with whom the Zodiac would become a lifelong obsession: detective Dave Toschi, newspaper crime writer Paul Avery, and political cartoonist Robert Graysmith.

In this approach, the film does for serial killer flicks what All the President’s Men did for political thrillers; by taking a less-is-more, from-the-outside kind of mentality, Zodiac becomes a different breed of thriller, one that feels efficient and pulse-pounding despite the near-three-hour runtime and lack of on-screen scenes of the killer’s rampage. In a way, Fincher’s film seems to perfectly capture both the cultural shock of Zodiac himself as the fear of his presence pervades San Francisco and the cyclical feelings of discovery and frustration that each of the three leads experience.

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Zodiac begins not with the killer’s first confirmed attacks, but with the second, a choice that only becomes fully coherent with the very end. Taking place the night of July 4th, 1969, we follow Darlene Ferrin, a married woman, as she drives down a picturesque dusk neighborhood, fireworks exploding in the distance, arriving at one house in particular to pick up her secret lover, Martin Mageau. As night descends, the beauty of each shot begins to betray a creeping sense of unease as they pull off to a secluded couples spot, where they are stalked by a mysterious car. When the unseen occupant exits his vehicle and proceeds to riddle both of them with bullets, you know you are in for a spine-tingling time.

Much of the film seems to be made of build-up to these moments of shock, but is never filler. Weaving in and out of the different arenas of Zodiac’s cat-and-mouse game with society, the film gives us an intimate view into the newspaper media of the time, the law enforcement bureaucracy, and how neither seem to ever congeal into a coherent force working together to catch the psycho. For an uncommon procedural, Zodiac nails just why men like the killer are sometimes never caught.

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Shot on digital Thompson Viper cameras, Zodiac achieves the now-signature 21st Century Fincher look–low contrast, smooth details, and a diffuse look that almost emulates faded 1970s film, but without the dirt or scratches. I usually don’t prefer this look, gravitating more towards a more authentic filmstock appearance, but Fincher’s eye wins me over, imbuing even the mundane scenes with the unease of the time which makes the viewer tremble a bit inside.

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What really propels the film into classic territory, however, is the acting. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Graysmith, the man who would eventually write the book upon which this film is based. Displaying an aptitude for puzzles early on, he quickly becomes attached to the Zodiac case despite not being taken seriously by his colleagues. He is, after all, a cartoonist. Gyllenhaal can have some detractors with regards to his abilities, but anybody who doubts his Graysmith has a serious screw loose. Graysmith is likeable yet single-minded in his obsession, wholly convincing. So too is Robert Downey Jr. as Paul Avery, the crime writer who seeks the glory of catching Zodiac, as if he’ll become Bob Woodward before Bob Woodward. With his career-defining role as Tony Stark just under a year in the future, RDJ gives us a preview of that character, with a smug confidence that erodes into horrific substance abuse after he receives a letter from Zodiac himself.

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Probably my favorite performances in the film are Mark Ruffalo and John Carroll Lynch. Ruffalo plays Toschi, the San Francisco detective who worked the longest on the Zodiac case. From his first scene, he exudes a proficiency with his job unmatched by other detectives, but begins to crack under the pressure of this seemingly-unsolvable case. Lynch plays Arthur Leigh Allen, the prime suspect for Toschi and many other characters in the film. Lynch is unsettling in many ways, but never tips his hat too far as to unequivocally paint himself as the Zodiac, only allowing the audience to form a tortured “maybe.”

And therein lies the biggest strength of Fincher’s Zodiac, one that still defies explanation as to how the film received such mainstream acclaim: it doesn’t truly end. After Allen’s suspicion falls apart due to lack of evidence, the film begins to trail off, briefly picking up pace when Graysmith takes over the investigation as part of his book, but never arriving at a clear answer as to who Zodiac truly is. Indeed, by the end, when Mageau returns to the narrative to point out from a photo lineup the man who shot him in 1969, he seems completely sure–and then halfheartedly suggests that he had features from another man in the lineup, casting doubt on his memory. Like the 70s themselves, Zodiac drifts into nothingness with no payoff, no closure, just unanswered questions and the gut-wrenching feeling of letting a killer slip away unscathed.

REVIEW: Eraserhead (1977)

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Directed by David Lynch
Written by David Lynch
Starring Jack Nance, Charlotte Stewart, Judith Roberts, Laurel Near, Jack Fisk

David Lynch, weirdo extraordinaire, once said of his debut film, Eraserhead, that it is a “dream of dark and troubling things.” That will probably forever be the most apt and clear explanation we will ever get about just what this film is about, because upon watching the first few minutes, I’m sure you will find it to be an entrancing if impenetrable experience.

Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) is a hapless factory worker on his vacation when he finds out he’s the father of a hideously deformed baby. Now living with his unhappy, malcontent girlfriend (Charlotte Stewart), the child cries day and night, driving Henry and his girlfriend to near insanity.

Note that the above synopsis, while generally accurate, is only a fraction of what viewers see during a showing of Eraserhead. I once used to tell prospective audiences of the film that it is the closest they can come to having an acid trip without taking acid, and while I don’t truly know what that is like, that remains my easiest go-to for recommending it. Lynch, having built a large and loyal fanbase with his dream-like, odd, and frankly disturbing visions of celluloid, still has never come close to his original nightmarish effort as seen here.

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According to the bonus features contained on the Criterion Collection blu-ray, Eraserhead took five years to complete, with much of that time spent in an abnormally-extended production period. Lynch and cinematographers Frederick Elmes and Herbert Cardwell would work at such a slow pace that at one point, the production was only shooting 1-2 takes per night, spending most of their time intricately lighting the set and rehearsing every move, no matter how small, with main actor Jack Nance. However, by all accounts, the project suffered little-to-no ills of frustration or creative difference. Such is the oddity of Eraserhead; even its overlong production did the opposite of expected, only bringing its cast and crew closer together.

The result of this gargantuan time process is nothing short of stunning. Sequences of horrific and eerie shapes and monsters pervade images of planets floating in empty space, a smaller-scale preview of the psychedelic imagery contained in Lynch’s later adaptation of Dune. These give way to timid little Henry Spencer as he makes his way through an industrial wasteland, so choked with dirtiness and devoid of meaningful life that it feels like the world of Brazil after some devastating apocalypse, or as if the Garden of Eden itself was overrun by automated machinery after Adam and Eve were cast out of it.

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As these more epic sights give way to the main setting of the film, namely Henry’s one-room apartment, the film takes on an incredible gradation of light and shadow, unseen by my eyes in countless other black-and-white flicks viewed over almost three decades. Here, Nance delivers a wonderfully-subtle performance, constantly appearing aware of some great trouble befalling him, but consciously not aware. On the outside, he is the bumbling oaf he appears to be, and yet, inside his eyes, there is terrible screaming.

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There are several more parts crucial to the film, especially Charlotte Stewart as Henry’s incessantly-breaking girlfriend Mary X, and of course, the ever-present Lady in the Radiator, played by Laurel Near. She is the star of several wacky dream sequences that wriggle in and out of the main narrative and Henry’s head, providing some strange laughs that just as quickly morph into disturbing tableaus that call back to some unappetizing Francis Bacon drawings. Much of these are accomplished by old-school in-camera special effects work, and while crude compared to today’s methods, they lose no impact, thanks to Lynch’s increasingly bizarre intuition.

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But what is this intuition guiding us to? Just what is Eraserhead about, what is the point? The point may be, there is no point. As Lynch has said in the past, Eraserhead is an incredibly subjective film, it’s meaning changing in the eye of the beholder. While some elements are always there, mainly the presence of fear and ever-building uneasiness, in reality, there is no right or wrong answer. I’ve read some truly inventive theories over the years, ranging from “Henry is in Hell” to the film being “a treatise on the fears of parenthood.” These are all wonderful readings, but in the end no more correct than the next. And really, is that not a beautiful thing?

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But (final but) should you see it? After all, Eraserhead could best be described as being an art-house film, rich in substance but generally confusing to an everyday audience who desire an escapist story. While I would hope everyone would at least give it a chance and watch it once, the world can’t be perfect. I would say that if your are one of those precious few that likes films like Aronofsky’s Mother or have found enjoyment in Lynch’s more mainstream work like Blue Velvet or Twin Peaks (did I just call those mainstream? Ha!), then definitely seek this out.

REVIEW: The Fly (1986)

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Directed by David Cronenberg
Written by Charles Edward Pogue and David Cronenberg, Based on the Short Story by George Langelaan
Starring Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davis, John Getz

Was there any filmmaker quite like the 1980s David Cronenberg? Making a series of films that were at once grotesque and physically horrifying yet deeply intimate and human, Cronenberg brought a strange, gothic heart to the horror and thriller genres that I don’t know if I’ve ever encountered since. Right smack in the middle of all of this is The Fly, the remake of the 1958 Vincent Price hit that blows all comparisons to that work out of the water.

Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum), a brilliant but eccentric scientist attempts to woo investigative journalist Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis) by offering her a scoop on his latest research in the field of matter transportation, which against all the expectations of the scientific establishment have proved successful. Up to a point. Brundle thinks he has ironed out the last problem when he successfully transports a living creature, but when he attempts to teleport himself a fly enters one of the transmission booths, and Brundle finds he is a changed man.

I remember first seeing The Fly on late night cable, and being utterly repulsed by its extreme gore. And I still couldn’t look away. Sure, part of it was my adolescent curiosity, but even then, there was something about Cronenberg’s shocker that was more than cheap blood and goo. Since then, I’ve become a fan of Cronenberg’s work, and have always attributed that to The Fly, his most commercial and successful picture.

Much of the film’s success comes from three people: Cronenberg himself, and the two leads: Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis. Goldblum, a master of performance and subtlety, dives deep into some of the best work of his illustrious career. Goldblum’s Brundle is eccentric and insecure; hiding behind a boyish shyness is an altruistic need to create, and create he has, probably the most important invention of the human race: the telepod. Davis is the hot journalist who at first seems mildly amused by the young genius, only to find herself falling for him as they document his successes and failures with teleportation.

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Themselves a couple at the time, their on-screen chemistry as first scientific partners and later as lovers is wholly believable, and genuinely touching. There are times when I want to rate them as one of the ten best movie couples ever. You know what, I am going to rate them as one of the ten best movie couples ever. Which one would they be? I don’t know, but it’s up there.

And therein lies the genius of Cronenberg’s script rewrite. Charles Edward Pogue’s original draft (which is included on the excellent Fox blu-ray), is much more flowery and sweeping, playing more like the 1958 original, and places more emphasis on the scientific aspect of the film. Cronenberg aimed for a more concise narrative framed around these two doomed lovers, and in doing so, imbued this film with a bleeding heart that far outshines the scares.

But the scares exist, and while it takes awhile to get to them, they do not disappoint. The first forty minutes or so are consumed with Brundle’s attempts to correct a major flaw in the telepod–it can only teleport non-living material. His first teleportation of an animal, a baboon, results in the film’s first horrific set-piece as the poor creature is turned inside out upon reintegration. After correcting the issue, Brundle succeeds with another baboon, but soon, his idiosyncratic insecurities rear their ugly head, and he drunkenly enters the machine…not noticing the fly that has made inside with him.

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At first, the changes are positive: Brundle can perform feats of physical prowess and seems to be wired all the time. But as the film goes on, his appearance and demeanor changes, frighteningly. His body becomes sensitive to food and external stimuli; strange, insect-like hairs sprout from his back and later his face; even his personality shifts, revealing a new Seth Brundle that is dodgy, arrogant, and all-too-willing to demonstrate his abilities, to the harm of those around him.

At about the hour-mark, the film starts to take on a more familiar sci-fi edge as Seth’s body begins to deteriorate, the fly genes manifesting in cancerous legions that tear his visage apart. Major props to Chris Walas and the rest of the makeup department, who create disgustingly logical appliances that allow Goldblum to change before our eyes into a true monster but allowing him enough freedom to create a performance. Their work is honestly second only to Rob Bottin’s creations on John Carpenter’s The Thing. All through this, Veronica is forced to watch him slowly fall away into a new, terrifying form, showcasing the quiet torment that Geena Davis so effortlessly portrays.

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The Fly is a clever bait-and-switch to armchair fans of gory horror flicks. As I did years ago, I’m sure many people tuned in or bought the DVD to see the excellent makeup effects that still make me cringe, and slowly discovered the tender undercurrent of melancholy inherent in the film. In fact, I’d go so far as to say this is one of the most depressing films I’ve ever seen. It certainly is not for everyone, and I wouldn’t begrudge someone from disliking it after a viewing, but for those that can weather the storm, David Cronenberg’s The Fly is a unique remake, taking only the barest premise and treating(?) us to a darkly humorous and sad meditation of disease, deformity, the perils of scientific progress and the tragedy of doomed love.

Time to Get Halloween-y!

Now that we are leaving Blade Runner behind, it’s time to feel the fall!

For the rest of October, The Movie Maestro will be focusing on horror films in honor of All Hallow’s Eve, Halloween, the Festival of Samhain, whatever you want to call it! Kicking off this scary month will be the 2017 Halloween Horror Maestro’s Marathon, where I reveal this year’s horror theme. Check back in for the rest of the month for horror film reviews and other spooky goodies. My social media accounts will get ghostly as well!

Have fun and be safe this Halloween!

REVIEW: Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Written by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green, Story by Hampton Fancher, Based on Characters from the Novel Do Androids Dream of Electrip Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
Starring Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Jared Leto, Ana de Armas, Robin Wright, Dave Bautista, Mackenzie Davis, Sylvia Hoeks

I really shouldn’t enjoy this movie at all, despite my unconditional love for the original film. Because I fully believe, nay, know, that Blade Runner is a film for whom any follow-up, be it a sequel, prequel, or remake, is completely unnecessary, I have approached this one cautiously and reservedly for over a year. I seemed to have gone through the stages of grief with this one before seeing it, and I am now in a comfortable stage of acceptance.

Thirty years after the events of the first film, a new blade runner, LAPD Officer K (Ryan Gosling), unearths a long-buried secret that has the potential to plunge what’s left of society into chaos. K’s discovery leads him on a quest to find Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a former LAPD blade runner who has been missing for 30 years.

And now here I am, sitting in front of the computer, trying to find the words for what I just watched. I mean this in both good and bad ways, because 2049 affected me in a much different way than the original film. Much like Alien: Covenant earlier this year, I feel that it’s going to take time and multiple viewings to truly come to a conclusion regarding how much I enjoy this film.

First things first, let’s get something out of the way: I do not think 2049 surpasses the original. Not by a long shot. Anybody who thinks it does simply did not like the original, and I will stick by that observation to the death. The future world depicted in Villeneuve’s film is not as profoundly shocking as Scott’s, and the story is not as efficient or effective. This is not to say that it’s terrible; it just isn’t the same kind of simple, hard-hitting film noir that Blade Runner still is.

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2049 begins with a new adaptation of an original opening concept for the first film, no doubt a signal of Hampton Fancher’s influence, who has returned to help write this film. Officer K arrives on a futuristic farm, clad in bleak grays, with Dave Bautista taking the small role of the big replicant that K waits to retire. After he discovers a strange crate buried on the property, K returns to Los Angeles, which in the past 30 years has changed much–and also not much at all. LA is still choking with corporate product placement and diseased masses of humanity, but this time around, a lot of it seems more…clean? That might not be the right word, but many of the sets do possess a more sterile quality than their counterparts in the original, especially K’s apartment and the police station. I completely understand the reasoning behind this–30 years can do much to change architecture and style–I just miss the old retrofitted future.

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A most interesting addition to the Blade Runner mythos in this film is Ana de Armas’s Joi, K’s holographic housewife. Firmly cementing 2049 into a 21st Century evolution of the original, Joi is an interesting spin of Her‘s Samantha, a computerized companion in a world where even some of the humans are artificial.

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Speaking of artificial humans, in this film there are way more of them. In the 30 years since, human-replicant integration has taken place, to the point where replicants are now openly holding jobs on Earth among humans. There are still racial tensions that prevent replicants from fully enjoying human freedom, however, in a few nice tidbits of screenwriting by Fancher and Green. This increased acceptance of replicants into society draws neat parallels with the end of slavery and the beginnings of the civil rights movements in the United States, and poses some powerful questions about identity, segregation, and the state of humanity in a world that was already post-human decades ago.

K’s discovery eventually leads to something of an intriguing mystery that further sets 2049 apart from its predecessor. While Blade Runner is pretty straightforward in terms of its narrative, 2049 is more about mystery. I don’t want to say too much for fear of giving the best parts away, but I will say that the quest undertaken by K is intriguing, even if a little predictable.

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Ryan Gosling is his usual self as K, which is to say he is absolutely brilliant. Building on the performances of both Harrison Ford and Rutger Hauer as Roy Batty, Gosling combines the more subtle nuances of both to create a character as likeable. Everybody else is adequate, but not quite praise-worthy. Robin Wright and Mackenzie Davis are straight and narrow in their roles, while Jared Leto and Sylvia Hoeks play decent villains with a few nice quirks. On the whole, however, the acting front is pretty slim compared to the original, and I would level the blame on the fact that there is no Roy Batty counterpart in the film. His character was a very important counterweight to Deckard, and without one for K, the film suffers.

One more thing on the acting: Harrison Ford. While his performance here is decidedly more subtle than it was in The Force Awakens, I don’t feel Deckard had much to contribute to the narrative. Besides one deeply unsettling and wickedly good scene between him and Leto, I could have easily done without his inclusion. This is the third iconic character of his to return, and his entrance onto the screen was greeted with chuckles in the auditorium I saw it in, and I know that scene wasn’t meant to be funny.

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Do I hate Blade Runner 2049? Absolutely not. The film is a beautiful and stark vision of a future, paved-over planet, thematically similar yet visually separated from its ancestor, and Ryan Gosling and Ana de Armas more than made the experience worthwhile. Roger Deakins will for sure get an Oscar nod for his work here, and the score by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch comes pretty damn close to equaling Vangelis’ work. Villeneuve assembled a kickass team, and didn’t forget to raise deep and profound questions like Scott did. And yet, for all this praise, I still feel something missing. Perhaps it is just that it will never leave the shadow of Blade Runner in my eyes. But then again, what film truly could? For an unnecessary sequel, 2049 didn’t do too bad at all, and I’m sure I will love it more as time goes on.