Film

Blade Runner 2049 review – Is it okay not to love Blade Runner?

Well, Blade Runner 2049 is certainly something. At nearly three hours long, the film finds its own pace, happy to slowly gaze across a grim futuristic vista whilst a fantastically unconventional Hans Zimmer score roars in the background. Its capacity to generate mood is beyond question. More comfortable pontificating about the human condition than in portraying action set pieces, this isn’t your average blockbuster. It’s a bold, risky piece of art that provides a truly unique cinema experience. They really don’t make them like this anymore.

So, I ask myself, why twenty-four hours later do I feel so indifferent towards it?

I’ve got to preface this review with a guilty admission. I don’t love the original Blade Runner. Sure, I get why people do – just look at it, it’s gorgeous! – but it always left me a bit cold. In many ways this is probably a product of watching something thirty plus years after it was originally released. There’s no denying that Blade Runner had a huge influence on a lot of the science fiction that came after it, both aesthetically and intellectually, but perhaps that’s the problem. When you’ve consumed so much of the inspired media, the inspiration can feel slightly underwhelming. Everything that once felt so original and exciting had been picked clean.

Yet I was fairly optimistic that Blade Runner 2049 would deliver something fresh and new…and it kind of does, in a skin deep way. This isn’t a hokey sequel shat out for a few bucks, it’s very much the work of a visionary, keen to evoke your memories of the original movie while also offering up a new experience with fresh characters.

But let’s get to the crux of my disenchantment. Blade Runner 2049 thinks it’s ever so clever, positively dripping in pretension, to the point that Jarod Leto’s pseudo-intellectual ramblings about angels entering Eden never feel out of place (gee, do you think he, a creator, has some kind of…God complex? Deep, right!)

Okay, I’m admittedly being facetious and slightly overstating the point. Blade Runner 2049 certainly does have a lot more on its mind than your average blockbuster, but it seems, to me anyway, lacking in its ability to say anything all that interesting. The key questions, ‘What does it mean to be human?’ and ‘To what extent do our memories define us?’ are great age old thought provokers, but I never felt the movie had much in the way of an answer or even a unique perspective.

For all intents and purposes, replicants are so human that any differences between the two species is negligible. Whether a character is replicant or not virtually doesn’t matter – I guess that’s kind of the whole point. The only real difference is how they came into being; one is born, the other created (the film’s whole plot hinges on this). These concepts might have been challenging to a religious generation who believed in a soul, but in an increasingly secular world ‘the soul’ has come to mean something entirely metaphorical to most people. Post-Darwin, mankind has had to re-evaluate itself. We’re no-longer the divine worker’s greatest creation, but another animal, just a biological machine. Fretting about our ‘uniqueness’ feels rather antiquated.

Similarly, the concept of memory is explored but again to not much effect. As a child I used to wonder how I could be sure I wasn’t created that day, with all my memories just implanted. Once you’ve experienced that existential worry, I don’t think there’s much more Blade Runner 2049 has left to say.

It’s not that these questions have lost their probing power, it’s more the film just tosses around all these big thoughts without either answer or thematic culmination. This wouldn’t be a problem if there was more left to offer than its beautiful visuals but there isn’t, at least not beyond further narrative questions that are only as interesting as the world that is portrayed. Because all the characters are so fundamentally unengaging and thinly written, the big questions blow around in the breeze and we, the audience, simply observe, detached from any real meaning, wondering what it’s all about.

There are two films I’ve seen this year that have done a much better job of asking big questions by anchoring them in character and theme. The first is Mother!, a fantastic horror by Aronofsky, and one of my favourite films of the year. The biblical symbolism of Mother! may be pretentious, but it’s so on the nose that it almost eventually ceases to be symbolism, dissolving to give way to Aronofsky’s true focus; the relationship between God, man and nature (there are other readings, of course, but there is surely no doubt this is the primary intent.)

On paper, exploring how God and man act indifferently towards nature is the exact kind of empty posturing I accuse Blade Runner 2049 of, an interesting question that has been thoroughly exhausted. And yet where Mother! succeeds is it’s not dispassionate at all. Far from it. As the horror grows, Aronofsky posits that humanity (you and me!) are the evil and any redemption we may have isn’t just difficult but unjustified. This isn’t some glib ‘humans are the real monsters’ though, Aronofsky means it. Far from sitting back and posturing on some abstract ideas, this is full blown rage, and it’s magnificent and unsettling all at once.

The second film that handles the relationship of creator and creation really well is Alien Covenant, from none other than the original Blade Runner director, Ridley Scott. Yes, I know, we’re all meant to say it sucked because it fucked up the Xenomorph’s origin story (I agree with that point, by the way) but Alien Covenant really isn’t about the Alien at all, at least not directly. The film constantly gravitates to and eventually orbits the character of David, an android who finds himself utterly disappointed with his creator. From his anger comes his own act of creations, arising themselves from destruction. He sees humanity as a failed species and indifferently orchestrates their removal as if they were nothing more than bacteria.

Covenant doesn’t really answer the questions it poses any more than Blade Runner 2049, but it locates them in character. Even if most of the other characters are two-dimensional at best, David really stands out as a fascinating fictional creation. The questions aren’t merely posed as hypotheticals but contextualised in David’s motivations, and you can feel the existential questioning of Scott, the film’s creator, pulling the strings. Covenant works because it is an artist grappling with their own thoughts about creation.

As Film Crit Hulk puts it (the best film critic out there, for my money):

‘I first harped on Prometheus because it seemed equally obsessed with answering an unanswerable question, failing to realize the simplest truth that knows that God, whether you believe or not, is unknowable. And in Alien: Covenant we finally get the believer’s reaction to that answer. It’s an angry screed of vengeance.’

The difference between Bladerunner 2049 on the one hand, and Mother! and Alien Covenant on the other, is the difference between an armchair philosopher asking abstract metaphysical questions, and an artist truly wrestling with their existence. Perhaps it’s just me, but I don’t want a filmmaker to ask me to engage with their dry questions, but instead I want to be right in the middle of the director’s existential nightmare. That, to me, makes better art.

After all, most of the best dystopian stories are those that capture the real fears of the author. By the time you’re in Room 101, I think it’s clear that Nineteen Eighty-Four isn’t just a hypothetical musing on human society, but a reflection of some of Orwell’s greatest fears about the future. Much the same, The Handmaid’s Tale seems born out of genuine concerns with the inherent patriarchy and self-destructive purity systems within American Christianity and the very real threat they pose to a civilised society.

Perhaps it’s just me, but I didn’t for one moment believe that Denis Villeneuve, 2049’s director, is truly struggling with the questions he’s raising. Maybe that’s why there’s so little thematic coherence. When push comes to shove, there’s not much in the way of closure, emotionally or intellectually.

Yet Villeneuve has shown how capable he is of making a good, thoughtful sci-fi movie in the practically perfect Arrival. Perhaps thanks to fantastic (and unspoilt) source material, he not only is able to highlight an interesting question (to what extent does our language determine the way we think?), but brings it forward into the plot (spoilers!) enabling Amy Adams to see into the future using an alien language. This then has thematic and emotional pay-off by letting her character freely choose to pursue a family, fully knowing it will end in grief and heartache. That says more about what it means to be human than anything Blade Runner 2049 musters in its near three hour running time.

This is not to say I don’t admire the film, because I really do. The cinematography is staggeringly beautiful, the lingering sense of despair tangible. The fact it’s performing pretty poorly at the box office is a terrible shame, because cinema needs more risk-taking pieces of art that don’t follow the Hollywood cookie cutter approach to blockbusters.

But when it comes to the questions raised, I find the film unsatisfying. And yes, it’s probably personal preference. I’m sure many enjoy dreamy sci-fi, awash with big detached questions, the way one may observe a magnificent painting. But when wrestling with the big issues, Villeneuve is merely asking questions and, frankly, we can ask the questions ourselves. I want a filmmaker’s unique perspective, I want to feel their despair and get lost in their own existential turmoil. That, to me, is what gives a piece of art a soul. That’s when a movie is more than a movie.

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Film

Why the prospect of Star Wars putting an end to the Jedi is so damn exciting

“I only know one truth, it’s time for the Jedi to end” says a much older looking Luke at the end of yesterday’s exciting teaser for Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. For all the beautiful shots of Rey’s training, and the compulsory whizz-bang final shots of the trailer, it’s Luke’s line about the Jedi which is actually the most exciting.

Why? Well, the idea of the Jedi having to end or at least significantly reform would be a really organic, thematic culmination to the entire saga. One of the criticisms people have of the prequels is that the Jedi aren’t very likable, they’re not exactly the peaceful monks hinted at by Obi Wan in the original movie. But I’ve always thought, ‘yeah, that’s the whole point.’

From the moment we meet the Jedi Council in Episode One, their arrogance is on display. Mace Windu, one of the highest ranking Jedi, immediately doubts Qui-Gon’s assertion that he had battled a Sith Lord on the basis that if the Sith had returned, the Jedi would definitely have known (in this case, he was completely wrong!) Obi Wan is met with similar resistance in Episode 2 when he asks the librarian in the Jedi Temple about a planet he can’t find in their records. ‘If it does not exist in our records’ she says, ‘then it does not exist.’  Again, if people want to doubt this was Lucas’ intention, he writes a scene in Episode II where Yoda himself explicitly calls out the Jedi for being too sure of themselves, even the ‘older, more experienced ones.’

It seems like quite a statement Lucas is making that Qui-Gon Jinn, the Jedi most sceptical and rebellious of the Jedi Council’s authoritarian stance, is the first to learn the path to immortality.

Another troubling element of the Jedi in the prequel trilogy is their entanglement with the political structure of the time. From the moment we find them they seem a lot less like ‘the guardians of peace and justice’ which exist independently from the state for the good of the state, and instead much more like galactic police enforcing the laws of the Republic. I mean why on Earth are the Jedi sent as negotiators to the Trade Federation in Episode I, if not for the purpose of intimidating their opponents? It’s this entanglement with the political structure that makes them so ripe for Palpatine’s manipulation – by manufacturing a war between the Republic and Separatists, of course the Jedi are going to get dragged into the war itself, becoming generals and soldiers.

Further still, Palpatine suggests to Anakin in Episode III that the Jedi actually don’t trust democracy and are ultimately planning to take over the Republic. It’s not something we, as viewers, really see much of but there is one troubling scene in Episode III which gives this point a slight legitimacy. Some top ranking members of the Jedi Council are discussing what happens if they need to remove Chancellor Palpatine from power by force. It’s then Mace Windu suggests that the Jedi would have to take over for a short time to ensure a smooth transition…a line of thought Yoda immediately calls out as being dangerous. What’s so rich about all of this, and why I think the prequels are extremely underrated, is that this is really grey stuff. Of course the Jedi aren’t planning on a state takeover, but it’s certainly possible that a well-intentioned seizure of power could be hugely corrupting for the Jedi.

And when Mace Windu does finally go to arrest Palpatine after finding out he’s a Sith Lord, he makes the call at the end of the fight that the Chancellor is too dangerous to be left alive. Windu is prepared to kill Palpatine in cold blood because he simply doesn’t believe the Senate is sufficient to deal with him itself – this is really chilling stuff. This also goes someway in explaining why Anakin ultimately comes to view the Jedi as evil – after hearing concerns from his father figure, Palpatine, that the Jedi are plotting a takeover, he sees a respected Jedi master about to abandon the Jedi code and the rules of the Senate to kill the leader.

All these issues paint the Jedi as flawed and, perhaps, terminally so. But their single biggest weakness, and the flaw that runs across both trilogies, is their absolute belief in asceticism – no romantic involvement and no acceptance of grief. In the prequel trilogy Anakin’s biggest flaw is he’s highly emotional (and highly reactive). He feels love, anger and grief in the way most humans do. But, having been largely raised by the Jedi, he is given no healthy way of dealing with those emotions – he’s simply told not to have them.

His romantic involvement with Padme is entirely innocent, by all accounts it’s entirely right for these two to be together. But, knowing the Jedi council will never allow it, it becomes a cancerous barrier between him and the Jedi, even between him and his best friend Obi Wan. There’s then that haunting scene after Anakin’s mum dies at the hand of Tusken Raiders and he, in a burst of rage, slaughters them all. Padme says to him ‘To be angry is to be human’ to which he replies ‘I’m a Jedi, I know I’m better than this.’ I mean, geez, how emotionally repressed must you be to believe that grief is wrong!

This ultimately paves the way for his fall to the dark side because of his premonitions of Padme’s death. Not only is he unable to confide in anyone because the strict rules of the Jedi prohibit his attachment in the first place, when he asks Yoda about the premonitions he’s simply told he must ‘let go of everything he fears to lose.’ And so, in some perverse way, Anakin’s turn to the dark side is partly him just embracing and accepting his humanity and emotions. Of course it’s the wrong answer, but the Jedi offer absolutely no healthy alternative.

These themes continue (start? Stupid Star Wars timeline!) in the Original Trilogy. Luke finding out Darth Vader is his dad is an absolute game-changer – everything becomes more personal for him. Yet Yoda and Obi Wan are disappointed that he found out, precisely because they believe Luke having any form of emotional attachment will be his weakness (yes, they’re still spouting that bullshit 20 years after it cost them everything!) Obi Wan even says that if Luke can’t kill his father then the Empire has already won.

Yet Luke refuses to kill his father or to give up hope that there is any good left in him. And we see, bit-by-bit, the harder Luke outreaches to Vader, tiny moments of Vader’s humanity are revealed. When Vader is lying helpless at Luke’s mercy, the Emperor is urging Luke to kill him and take his place. What’s interesting is that had Luke kept an emotional detachment as the Jedi wanted him too, this could actually have made his turn to the dark side easier. Instead, Luke throws away his lightsaber (in contract to Windu’s actions in Episode III) and sticks by the Jedi code. As Vader sees his son being tortured, still crying out for help, still believing in his father’s capacity for good, he finally gives in and saves his son, destroying the Emperor in the process. It’s through Luke’s humanity, not his dedication to Jedi traditions, that Vader is redeemed and Luke survives.

That’s why I always find it funny when people say there’s ‘no grey areas’ in Star Wars. I completely disagree. Star Wars certainly believes in right and wrong as absolutes, but it is far less clear (particularly in the prequels) who actually is operating under those labels.

And, back to the original title, why is the idea of getting rid of the Jedi so exciting? Well, up until now, I’ve enjoyed Episode VII just enough, and I really liked Rogue One, but they ultimately felt like unnecessary add-ons. Episode VII in particular just looked to be putting all the same pieces into play as the original Star Wars but to diminishing returns. But, if they do look to reform the Jedi (and that teaser line isn’t just a really early ‘refusal to the call’) then it would make this next trilogy an organic extension and, indeed, the necessary modern thematic climax to the proceeding two trilogies. Character’s following their humanity and allowing for that ‘grey path’ that isn’t polarised by ‘light’ and ‘dark’ could be really exciting.

For example, as interesting as Kylo Ren is, I always thought it was a bit much that ANOTHER member of the Skywalker dynasty (the second in three generations) has turned into a dangerous psychopath. Yet if that turns out to be the whole point, (namely that repressive Jedi training leads to a disproportionately high number of dangerous, emotional, angry young men – Siths – in the same way the Catholic Priesthood has lead to a disproportionately high number of sex offenders), that would make Ren’s story an organic and important addition to the Star Wars universe.

Needless to say, this has all got me hyped for the next instalment of that story that took place a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away…only have to wait until Christmas now!

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Film

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens – Spoiler-free Review

Star Wars inspired my love of cinema.

I still remember going to see A New Hope Special Edition (a re-release) with my dad when I was about seven years old. I remember the day vividly, it was Easter time because I remember an egg hunt before it, I remember queuing outside my local cinema waiting to be let in…I even remember one of the trailers.

And I remember all this because Star Wars seared itself onto my mind. I adored every moment, it appealed to everything inside of me and, unfortunately for my family, from that day forward I was destined to be a geek. The seed was sown that slowly but surely gestated inside me.

The original Star Wars was the ultimate goodies versus baddies story – its simplicity spoke the language of a seven year old boy. Evil guy dressed in black, young good guy dressed in white; that’s really all I understood, I had no idea what an Empire or a rebellion really was, but I didn’t need to, I loved it.

I went on to love not only the rest of the original trilogy but even the prequels. Yes, now’s probably not the time for that can of worms but you can read a defence I wrote here.

For me, The Phantom Menace came out only two years after I saw the original Star Wars and so I hadn’t had time to decipher what Star Wars strictly was or strictly wasn’t, nor had I spent time pondering the history of Anakin or the Clone Wars. So I wasn’t really able to experience the disappointment many older fans clearly felt.

Equally, the prequels were as much Star Wars as the originals for me, there wasn’t a clear dividing line between Jar Jar, Naboo, Hoth and Chewbacca – it was one and the same. Even now, with as objective a mind as I can have, I still think the prequels are given way too hard a time. Sure they’re not perfect, in fact that’s an understatement, but there really are some great ideas in those movies and the real conviction of one man’s vision.

Anyway, this is a long way of saying I was excited for Episode VII. In fact so excited that I went to see it at a midnight screening with some Star Wars loving chums (at the same cinema, funnily enough, that I watched the original.)

The sense of joy when that big Star Wars logo flashed on the screen is second to none…I pity people who have never felt such geeky joy (poor folks, probably off having sex or something equally trivial.)

When the credits finally rolled I clapped with the rest – it was Star Wars, it deserved it. But what did I really think?

Well, on reflection, I think it was good. Not a stunning triumph nor a crushing disappointment, just good.

Good is a weird thing to write about. The internet loves hyperbole, everything’s ‘the best film ever!’ or ‘the worst film ever’. And with a movie as hyped and ‘important’ as Star Wars, that feeling is amplified.

But what do you say when a movie is just good?  Where’s the fun in that?

There are certainly some things about the movie I really enjoyed. In particular I LOVED the new characters. If the prequels truly failed at anything, I think their inability to create relatable, sympathetic characters was it. The Force Awakens is a breath of fresh air in giving us truly great characters to spend time with. In particular I love Rey (Daisy Ridley), who is a perfect female protagonist. Yes, she’s strong and independent and doesn’t need saving, but she feels incredibly real and relatable too.

Finn (John Boyega) is also a strong addition to proceedings with a back story that Star Wars hasn’t really explored before. The chemistry between Rey and Finn is so natural and organic (words you certainly wouldn’t be using about a certain Hayden and Natalie) that it’s a joy to watch.

I wasn’t particularly blown away by Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), he felt a little straight down the line and lacked the conflict of the other characters but I could see why that might be a draw for others.

The film also manages to keep the tradition of strong Star Wars bad guys alive with a brilliant turn by Adam Driver as the evil Kylo Ren. I wasn’t initially expecting much from this character, from his dark dress sense to his weird altered voice I was expecting a Darth Vader knock off, but instead he’s a genuinely complex villain who is both terrifying and engrossing all at once.

Also, gushing a bit now, I love BB8. The droids of Star Wars have always been lovable but BB8 takes it to the next level – he’s basically like a droid puppy and he had my heart in the palm of his hands (or the droid equivalent.) If anything ever happens to that little fella it’ll crush me!

On reflection all these new additions are rightly more important than the return of the original cast, apart from perhaps Han Solo. Seeing the original cast back was as goosebump inducing as I expected but it’s to the film’s credit that it’s the new characters I’m excited about going on a journey with.

This is even more impressive given that the film is so drenched in nostalgia. In fact, at times, you realise you’re watching a very, very expensive fan movie. Abrams, as always, doesn’t bring much in the way of his own style (although, on at least a visual level, he’s a more competent director than Lucas) but instead essentially makes a 21st century remake of the original Star Wars movie.

This is both to the film’s strength and its biggest weakness. In harkening back to the simplicity of the original, when Star Wars was more a swashbuckling adventure rather than an operatic tale of tragedy and redemption, the movie is able to just focus on entertaining – and entertain it does. In fact this is probably the funniest Star Wars movie yet, there are some great gags and witty lines.

But, in sticking so rigidly to the formula, the movie not only feels predictable but at times feels a little unambitious. I get that they’re going backwards so they can go forwards but each subsequent Star Wars film has largely expanded upon and dug deeper into the themes and narrative of the franchise so it’s jarring to take a real step back.

Equally its simplicity makes things (paradoxically) rather confusing from a plot perspective. I went into this movie feeling I was totally unspoiled (I didn’t know what was going to happen) and I left feeling almost equally unspoiled – there was very little plot (bar perhaps one major event) that truly could be ruined.

It’s frustrating that you get no sense of who or what The New Order are, how the New Republic functions and what role The Resistance exactly plays. Sure, I get that everyone’s terrified of going down the prequel route of talky pseudo-politics (which I happen, for some unbeknown reason, to love) but it makes it hard to invest in a story where you can’t get a handle on the stakes.

Again, I know this is an attempt to emulate the simplicity of the original (which so appealed to me as a child) but unfortunately the Star Wars universe is too much of a beast to be simple now. In the original Star Wars you had an evil Empire ruling the galaxy and a rebel resistance fighting back. Simple. Now you’ve got the remains (?) of an evil Empire fighting a resistance that has some sort of government in place but you’re not sure where, and you’re not sure who are really the underdogs.

On top of that there is some absolute nonsense about a map to Luke Skywalker which is so silly and lacking in any form of logic I’ve removed it from my mind.

All things considered you end up with a movie that is the absolute antithesis of the prequel trilogy. It’s got likable characters that are full of heart and natural chemistry, but all the big ideas, themes and endearing pompous have been scraped back to help people recapture the experience they first felt watching the original movie.

And, frankly, it’s not as good as the original. The structure is a bit off, the climax is a bit disappointing – in fact, despite a very good lightsaber battle, it’s probably the weakest climax to any Star Wars movie. There’s nothing to match the original Death Star trench run, if anything the space battles here are at their weakest. It really makes you appreciate just how solidly structured the original movie was.

The biggest compliment I can give to this film though is I’m excited to see the next one. If the plan of this first movie was to introduce likable characters who we’re going to go on adventures with then it succeeds. And I hope with a strong director like Rian Johnson we’re going to get a deeper more complex instalment much like The Empire Strikes Back was to A New Hope (could you imagine a Star Wars movie as tense and as masterful as ‘Ozymandias’– wow!)

And so, all things considered, you’re left with a movie that’s good. It’s fun, it’s endearing, it’s got heart but it doesn’t do anything particularly new and its hazy plot hinders engagement. Not the best film ever, not the worst film ever, just good. But sometimes good is good enough.

And that final scene…chills!

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