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.

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REVIEW: Lucy (2014)

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Directed by Luc Besson
Written by Luc Besson
Starring Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Min-sik Choi, Amr Waked, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Pilou Asbaek, Analeigh Tipton

2014 saw the release of two films dealing with the concept of a post-human being: Wally Pfister’s Transcendence, which depicts the technological-based post-human concept of whole-brain emulation, and Luc Besson’s Lucy, which goes for a more preposterous premise for its titular transcendent being and uses her to tell a very spacy and heady action movie.

It was supposed to be a simple job. All Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) had to do was deliver a mysterious briefcase to Mr. Jang (Min-sik Choi). But immediately Lucy is caught up in a nightmarish deal where she is captured and turned into a drug mule for a new and powerful synthetic drug. When the bag she is carrying inside of her stomach leaks, Lucy’s body undergoes unimaginable changes that begins to unlock her mind’s full potential. With her new-found powers, Lucy turns into a merciless warrior intent on getting back at her captors, receiving invaluable help from Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman), the leading authority on the human mind, and French police captain Pierre Del Rio (Amr Waked).

Like many of Luc Besson’s films, Lucy is a frothy-sweet mixture of pseudo-intellectual ideas and impeccably-staged action, centered around a strong female lead who can kick some serious ass. This time around, that lead is Scarlett Johansson, and her ass-kicking is the product of her unlocked mind. Embracing the tired old myth that human beings only use 10% of their brain mass, or “cerebral capacity” as Professor Norman calls it, Besson uses the hypothesis in a somewhat convoluted setup to a frenetic and stylish action flick that actually manages to make up for its narrative deficiencies.

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Before I go on to sing Lucy‘s praises, I must address the elephant in the room. As I already mentioned, Besson’s take on the mighty psionically-powered superhuman is fundamentally flawed from its base within the 10% brain usage myth. Simply put, it’s complete rubbish. We use every bit of our brains, and there is absolutely no evidence to suggest otherwise. Digging deeper into the premise of this “hypothesis,” mostly told through scenes of a lecture by Professor Norman and later by Lucy herself, only reveals the massive holes in Besson’s logic. Lucy’s ever-expanding cerebral capacity reveals dormant abilities in the human brain: complete control over her own body, over others, over electromagnetic signals, and finally, time itself. So why does she need a massively powerful synthetic drug to access it? Why do any of us? How exactly does a simple flesh-and-blood organ exert control over space-time? Besson tries his best to explain, but his best isn’t enough to ever come off as believable.

Luckily, he is very skilled at crafting a hell of a violent good time. Beginning with Lucy as a scared college student at the mercy of Oldboy‘s Min-sik Choi as a typical-to-form slimy Besson gangster, the film weaves an intricate drug mule plot that intercuts with both Norman’s lecture and some very on-the-nose shot sequences of predators and prey. It’s classic Besson, and provides suspenseful opening that eases the viewer into the more metaphysical remainder of the film, which starts with the bag of CPH4 rupturing in Lucy’s abdomen, exposing her to an overdose of the superdrug.

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From here, Johansson carries the film in a performance that it truly doesn’t deserve. Going from a terrified young woman, authentic in every way, the CPH4 transforms her into a relentless killing machine with very little humanity left. It’s a very tall order for any actor to have to play, but Johansson toes the very fine line and succeeds brilliantly, appearing sufficiently creepy with just the right amount of her previous identity to anchor the character. Min-sik echoes her creepy factor as Jang, and Amr Waked rounds out the main players as a French detective caught up in Lucy’s quest to acquire more of the drug in order to stay alive. And of course, Morgan Freeman is God–er, I mean Morgan Freeman.

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Heavy on CGI visual effects, Lucy nonetheless electrifies visually, appearing as a clean and colorful digital slate punctuated by images of the changing innards of Lucy’s body and the powerful manifestations of her new abilities. Action scenes are handled with care, either with a tactful mind to cutting or with John Woo-style slow motion that allows us to savor every gunshot, every pounding hit.

When it comes down to it, Lucy likes to play around with very interesting and profound ideas about human perspective and the boundaries of perception and reality, with a character that has truly transcended all of it. Whether it does that well seems to be up to interpretation, given it’s horribly wrong method of presenting said questions. Lucy is blue pill entertainment; meant to be consumed, not savored, and while I can’t quite turn my brain fully off to avoid complaining about the perpetuation of pseudo-science at its worst, that doesn’t mean I can’t recommend the film for what it is: hella fun.

REVIEW: Ghost in the Shell (1995)

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Directed by Mamoru Oshii
Written by Kazunori Ito, Based on the Manga by Masamune Shirow
Starring the voices of Atsuko Tanaka, Akio Otsuka, Koichi Yamadera, Yutaka Nakano, Tamio Oki

Usually whenever classic and essential anime is discussed, two titles take center stage: Akira, and Ghost in the Shell. While I have seen the former several times and enjoy it a lot, Ghost has eluded me for all this time. Well, I have finally taken the time to view the original film, and it doesn’t disappoint. In fact, it surprises.

The year is 2029. The world has become intensively information oriented and humans are ever-connected to the network through their readily-available cybernetic enhancements. Crime has evolved as well, allowing hackers to take control over other people’s very minds.¬†Major Motoko Kusanagi (Atsuko Tanaka), a cyborg policewoman working for Japan’s omnipresent Section 9, tracks one such hacker, a mysterious and powerful individual known only as the Puppet Master.

Ghost was a part of the Nineties wave of anime flicks, a veritable golden age of Japanese animation which spawned most of the Studio Ghibli family films such as Princess Mononoke and Pom Poko. On the other side of the spectrum, adult animation saw a resurgence, many of the films being adaptations of manga, or graphic novels. Both Akira and Ghost were popular manga in the late ’80s, and heavily influenced by the cyberpunk movement stretching back to William Gibson’s work and the film Blade Runner, so when Akira earned a feature film in 1988, it must have been inevitable that Ghost would get one. These are where the similarities end.

Whereas Akira is a more hard-pumping action film, Ghost opts for a slow-burn approach, focusing on the suspense of the hunt for the Puppet Master and the philosophical grey area of the film’s setting. To be honest, I was surprised by this, having only heard of this franchise in the past and remembering the action-heavy trailers of the new live-action effort. Don’t take it to mean I was disappointed by this, I rather enjoyed the more quiet form of this work, just be forewarned if you saw the new one first and are expecting endless gunfights and fisticuffs.

Much of the film is a haunting affair; one particular group of scenes extends for about ten minutes, focusing on Motoko’s shaky sense of identity within herself. She is nothing more than an organic brain encased in a high-tech shell, connecting her to a simultaneously feminine and de-sexualized body. If that wasn’t enough to make her question what was left of her humanity, she also contends with another surreal fact of this post-post-modern world in that her brain is also linked forever to the network; her own thoughts are just as easily accessed by her partner Batou (Akio Otsuka) as his are to her. Imagine the inside of your head, the last true vestige of privacy, not only being laid bare to another, but that this arrangement is the new status quo of reality. Scary stuff.

This particular scene is book-ended by two long sequences of motion, weaving slowly through a poor district of the futuristic city as an ancient Japanese wedding song drones. This juxtaposition of both old and new is but one example of how well Ghost handles its surreal and memorable narrative. Usually when a science fiction film is composed mostly of dialogue and creeping montages, it gets boring pretty fast; Ghost handles its pace incredibly well, never reaching a yawn-worthy drag or unbearable preachy-ness.

Conversations always serve a purpose, some advancing the plot and posing mind-bending questions at the same time. Seemingly-irrevelent¬†occurrences with the story almost always give way to disturbing revelations. I, for one, don’t think I will be forgetting soon the look of a supporting character’s face when told that the daughter he longs so much to be reunited with is nothing but a false memory, a face of pure heartwrenching disbelief. I doubt a live actor could ever accomplish what the character model does in that moment. And when there is action, it is meticulously animated to precise choreographic momentum.

Ghost in the Shell was enough of a success to spawn several more productions over the years, including two more films and an anime series, and of course, the American remake. Now, there is another version of this original film known as Ghost in the Shell 2.0, which replaces much of the original animation with CGI imagery, cuts several scenes, and redubs a few voices. I have yet to watch this version, so when I do, I will update this review accordingly.

Akira is still amazing and retains a high status within my favorite films, but Ghost in the Shell has quickly risen to match it. It’s a film that sticks in your mind for days, possibly even weeks, with its unique look into a post-human world where our already ubiquitous social technology has become part of our very body image, and it’s an engaging mystery to boot. Akira is often compared to Blade Runner, but I think Ghost is the closer relative of that classic film, and as such, earns my highest recommendation.