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.

 

The Birth of a Nation (Parker; 2016)

Nate Parker is the writer, director, producer, and star of The Birth of a Nation, the film with the same name as the 1915 silent film which is known for its innovation in cinematography techniques which influences the way films are made to this day, but is also known for its racist and terribly offensive story line which portrays the Ku Klux Klan as heroes who made America a great country, Abraham Lincoln as a villain, and free black men as degenerates.  In telling the story of the great slave revolt of 1831, Nate Parker is obviously using the name ironically, but a little of the irony falls off on him because while the story is important and a strong condemnation of racism and the culture which encourages it, it also isn’t too terribly innovative in its more technical aspects.

The Birth of a Nation is first and foremost impassioned, most often in a good way but sometimes to the point of melodrama.  A series of events that led to a man gathering together a group of slaves to kill slave owners is little more than a slasher movie without the context of how Nat Turner  was brought to that point, and that means many emotional scenes, some positive, some negative – many negative, and while many, especially those early on are quite intelligent and insightful, the longer the film goes on the more it begins to rely on cliche’s and cheap emotional tricks.  Some of my favorite scenes show how the idea of owning another human being was so normative during this period that even those we were most empathetic to took it for granted, its quite powerful to find yourself really liking a particular character then have that character get excited when an person is bought for them as a gift and its just taken for granted by everyone.  But, later, we get into the stereotypical scenes in a slave era film, the whippings, the white man standing over a kneeling black man snarling and showing teeth, and the like.  We’ve seen the brutality in film after film before this, it’s not shocking because we’ve been grappling with it for years already, it’s seeing the normalization of people being seen as possessions that creates the shocks, and while those scenes give the film its power, there aren’t enough of them.

Along with the evils of treating people like objects , another powerful theme throughout the movie, and the one that is handled more intelligently, is a look at how religion can be used to control and to justify any cause.  The Bible ends up becoming a major focal point in The Birth of a Nation and nearly every action undertaken by the central characters is either motivated by or justified with Christian faith.  This element in the script is handled quite deftly, never attacking the religion itself nor its followers, but merely showing how easily people can be manipulated by the offer of eternal reward and how any action whether good or evil can be rationalized using the Bible as a reference.

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Here we see The Birth of a Televangelist

Parker obviously knows his way around a camera, but at least here never shows himself to be a true auteur.  Scenes are framed well and there is little to no cheating going on with perspective during action scenes or otherwise.  However, there is also not a whole lot going on in the way of true creativity.  Some scenes here and there are quite beautiful, but not often enough to definitively determine whether the beauty comes naturally or from camerawork.  What we see on display is definitely proficiency, but only the rudiments of artistry.

The acting is much like the camerawork.  The performances here show no weakness, but also don’t give us anything beyond the storytelling.  It’s obvious the actors understand their characters, but it’s rare that they truly embody them.  It may be a mistake for Parker to have directed himself, in fact, as his performance is the one that glues everything together, and is in many ways the most all over the place.  There are scenes in which he absolutely commands attention with a powerful charisma and others where he gives in to overacting.  He does his best to direct others, though, as his own performance is the most inconsistent.  The other actors range from professional to quite good, though there are no award contenders to be seen here.

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I’m practicing my Golden Globe speech right now, dickhead.

The writing on display here is also a little on the inconsistent side.  We have some great dialogue, fresh ways of looking at how slavery demeaned an entire people with consequences that last to this day, a smart look at how religion is used to control, and many very real, three dimensional characters.  However, we also have a script that devolves into cliche and “been there, seen that” more and more as the story goes on, characters that defy motivation and take actions that seemingly come out of nowhere just to move the plot along, and questionable omissions from the true story, both because they could make the themes of people being pushed to the limit even more interesting and sully the legacy of Nat Turner and his fellow slaves by turning them into something they weren’t for either dramatic effect or false empathy.

The Birth of a Nation is a very good film, and at times, an important film.  I recommend it, but not wholeheartedly both because it has some very serious flaws, and because it could have been more.  It looks to me like Nate Parker either didn’t have faith in his original vision, or he didn’t know how to follow up his story’s brilliant beginnings with equally brilliant follow through.  What could have been a really thoughtful and razor sharp look at the evils of cultural normalizations, the long term effects of the degradation of an entire people, and both the positives and negatives of religion and its control of entire groups unfortunately becomes a story that relies on dramatics and cheap emotional manipulation.  There is no doubt that The Birth of a Nation is a tense and passionate story, but you can see even as you’re watching it that it had the potential to be so much more.

Rating:  6.0 out of 10