Blade Runner 2049 (Villeneuve; 2017)

Making a sequel to the classic 1982 Harrison Ford science fiction film Blade Runner is either tremendously gutsy or stupid or both.  While it initially bombed at the box office, it has always been a critical success and it didn’t take long at all after its theater run for word of mouth to make Blade Runner a film which is now considered one of the greatest films ever made by many, and one of the greatest science fiction films ever made by so many that even its few detractors have to admit it’s something special.  In 2013, Denis Villeneuve caught the attention of smart filmgoers and Hollywood executives alike with Enemy.  Two years later he repeated his success in a more acceptably mainstream way with Sicario.  Then Arrival in 2016.  Denis Villeneuve finally gets his career making or breaking job with Blade Runner 2049, and not only is it certainly a career making job it’s one that cements him as one of the finest working directors and a man with the potential to be spoken about alongside the likes of Kubrick, Scorcese, and Hitchcock as one of the best directors of all time for giving us intelligent but also thrilling cinema.

Blade Runner‘s tone is instantly recognizable, yet also a little hard to grasp and explain.  It seems like it should be an action movie, yet it takes its time spacing the action far apart and getting it over with quickly.  It seems like mainstream science fiction, but it has camera work that so lovingly frames its painstakingly built world it’s more an art piece.  It seems like a simple good humans versus evil robots presence, but it’s really a treatise on what it means to be human.  Blade Runner 2049 understands all of this, and not only repeats it but manages to add more to the experience while also raising it to the next level.

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The tone and pacing which was the make or break element in the original Blade Runner for most is repeated in Blade Runner 2049.  Once again, we have a film which takes its time establishing its settings in silence before moving ahead with the action, a film which isn’t afraid to linger for a moment longer than usual on an empty room or a skyline.  While most appreciated this aspect of Blade Runner, there are those who say it makes the film boring.  Blade Runner 2049 uses this same style while also adding 45 minutes to the running time, so if you are in the Blade Runner is dull category, you will most likely feel the same about the sequel.

You’ll notice I didn’t do my usual brief plot summary of the film, and that is because to say anything about the plot of Blade Runner 2049 would be to spoil more than I like.  But, just like the original it is a story integrally tied to its themes.  It’s also a story which piggy backs both its plot and themes directly from the original in a way which both flows naturally and yet is also an entirely original creation.  In Blade Runner we were asked to think about what it means to be human and what our creations say about us, in 2049 we are asked again, and more dealing with memory, success, and the idea of our creations themselves becoming creators.

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The Vangelis soundtrack of Blade Runner was essential in establishing its unique dreamlike tone, and Blade Runner 2049 mimics that original soundtrack excellently with a gorgeous score from Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer.  Just like the story, the score mimics in exactly the way it needs to, yet still sets is self apart as its own entity showing us that the music just like everything else in Blade Runner 2049 is an evolution not a copy.

The cast of Blade Runner 2049 does the incredible job you would expect from this group of talented veterans.  Ryan Gosling in the lead, point of view role of “K” the replicant Blade Runner, does a fantastic job of portraying the artificial cop torn between doing what he was created and programmed for and his Pinocchio-like journey of self discovery and fulfillment which conflicts with his duties.  Harrison Ford reprises his role as Deckard, now confirmed to be a replicant, and gives us his best stuff despite being very vocal in the past about not liking nor truly understanding the first film.  Robin Wright is excellent as Ks boss/owner in the police department who brings a new twist to the role of hard ass cop with a soft spot for her subordinate, and relative newcomer Ana de Armas is a true revelation and a wonderful surprise in her part as K’s holographic companion.

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The crowning glory of Blade Runner 2049, though, is its visuals.  The special effects, art direction, and cinematography combine to make every frame a work of art.  The original Blade Runner practically invented the visual aesthetic of what we call cyberpunk, Blade Runner 2049‘s advanced technology and bigger budget takes that world we largely viewed from a distance and puts us right in the middle of it.  We get to look out the windshields of the flying cars as we weave between buildings, we interact with the larger than life holographic advertising which fills every available empty space, and we get to walk along streets then into alleys then through doorways filled with the desperate people of an overpopulated resource plundered world.  All this taken in and framed with the eye of a true auteur who makes the dystopia somehow beautiful and haunting and you have a masterpiece of visual artistry.

Final recommendation:  If you found the original Blade Runner overrated and dull, then you are not the audience for its sequel.  If you call yourself one of the millions, if not close to billions, of people who are a fan of the original, though, what you are getting in Blade Runner 2049 is more than just a continuation of the original story, much more than just an homage.  Blade Runner 2049 takes everything that made the original one of the greatest science fiction films of all time and somehow brings it to a level even greater.  Its themes are explored with even more nuance and depth, its characters more three dimensional and fascinating, its story even more gripping and surprising, and its visuals are of the sort that not just win awards, but which are shown off as examples which revolutionize the art of film making.  Blade Runner 2049 is a masterpiece, a more than worthy successor to the original, and of course I recommend it as wholeheartedly as is possible.

 

Alien: Covenant (Scott; 2016)

In 1979, Star Wars had recently made science fiction a very cool genre and studio after studio was looking to capitalize on that by giving the public bad clone after bad clone of the film that had inspired so many to flock to the theaters for swashbuckling space opera.  Ridley Scott took a different tack.  Instead of flashy pulp action heroes jetting through space in fighters and fighting off bad guys with blasters and laser swords, he gave us a horror movie which just happened to take place light years away from Earth starring blue collar grunts hauling ore and machinery on their space semi tractor-trailer.  Needless to say, with Alien he hit a nerve where movies such as The Black Hole, Starcrash, and Laserblast failed, and now 38 years later Ridley Scott once again returns for his third installment in the franchise he started – Alien: Covenant (the second installment directed by Scott would be 2012’s Prometheus).

Alien: Covenant takes place ten years after the events which occurred in Prometheus.  After a brief prelude, the real action of the film opens on a colony ship making a seven year long journey to its final destination.  All of the colonists and ship’s crew are asleep in cryostasis for the duration of the journey and the only the ship’s android Walter (played by Michael Fassbinder) and the ship’s computer “Mother” (voiced by Lorelei King) are active.  During a routine recharging stop, a freak accident damages the ship forcing the crew to be awakened prematurely to deal with the situation.  While repairing their vessel, a message is received from a nearby planet which should be uninhabited and uninhabitable, but upon further investigation the crew finds that this planet is in fact a sort of paradise world that their deep space scans somehow missed and this may be a perfect place to start their new colony rather than going back into cryogenic sleep and continuing their journey.

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If this all sounds familiar, be prepared to feel that a lot throughout the course of the film.  The major problem with Alien: Covenant is that far too much of the film feels less like an original plot, and more like a “Best of Alien” special in which we get to see all the best scenes from Alien movies of the past shown again except with different actors.  They even go out of their way to make Daniels, our main female protagonist played by Katherine Waterston, look a hell of a lot like Ripley.  No spoilers, but throughout the course of the film you can practically make a checklist of Alien tropes as they appear over and over.

Another of Alien: Covenant‘s flaws which is hard to overlook is the premise that the ship’s crew is made up almost entirely of couples.  Now, couples being sought out as the focal point of starting a new colony makes a lot of sense, and is a smart idea, but extending that to the crew who does emergency maintenance on the ship if it is in trouble is problematic.  While it makes sense that a crew member would have a spouse or loved one making the journey with them, to be a coworker making decisions upon which the fate of the entire ship rests is a less logical choice, and this very dynamic is what leads directly to the majority of the bad decisions which drive the crises which make up the plot of the movie.  Heck, couples usually aren’t allowed to work together in a modern office or retail environment, who the heck would look to hire couples specifically for a dangerous job in which many lives depend on the quality of their decisions?

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While these two flaws are large enough that Alien: Covenant becomes a movie impossible to recommend to everyone, the rest of the film is very well done.  The special effects are really impressive, the aliens themselves have never looked better, and the art direction and scenery is at worst effective and often is a straight out wonder to behold.  This is, to date, the best looking film in the Alien series in every way except for cinematography.  Though, while Alien and Aliens are both a little better in the cinematography department, this one lags only a small distance behind making for an entire visual package which is a wonder to behold.

The acting on display here is also fantastic with even minor characters whose only jobs are to be gruesomely killed managing to project a personality using little more than facial expressions and body language.  The main cast really outdo themselves, though, with Billy Crudup embodying the ship’s captain thrust into a situation he couldn’t have predicted and is not prepared to deal with, the aforementioned Katherine Waterston chanelling Sigourney Weaver as the incredibly strong “with it” protagonist, and Michael Fassbender gives us a true tour de force playing two roles, both androids, who have to be similar enough that we recognize them as similar model mechanical creations, but different enough that we can tell the two roles apart at a glance.  I won’t go so far as to say Michael Fassbender outdoes himself here, but he does prove yet again what an incredibly talented and dedicated actor he is.

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How would I rate this film compared to the myriad other Alien films?  I haven’t seen the Alien vs Predator movies, and they aren’t considered canon regardless, so I will leave them out of the equation, but Alien: Covenant is nowhere near the masterpiece which both the original Alien and the perhaps greatest sequel of all time Aliens are but it is a good deal better than both Alien 3 and Prometheus and light years ahead of Alien: Resurrection.

Final verdict:  Aside from Michael Fassbender’s performance(s) there is nothing in Alien: Covenant that hasn’t been seen before in the Alien Franchise, and it has a plot which relies too much on people making bad decisions.  However, it also as some eye popping settings and special effects and impressive performances from every single actor who appears on screen.  Alien: Covenant is not a film I recommend unequivocally, but if you’ve somehow never seen an Alien film before in your life, this could be an excellent introduction to the series.  If you’ve seen every entry so far, then your mileage may very.  It could be a fun action packed bit of nostalgia or it could merely be a shameless retread.  I personally found it to be the former, but your mood upon entering that theater could greatly influence how you feel about what you’ve seen upon exiting even more so than with most films.

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