Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

The good news for dedicated fans of Ridley Scott’s highly influential sci-fi epic Blade Runner is that its three decades-late sequel, directed by Arrival‘s Denis Villeneuve, is entirely worthy of its predecessor. In the age of endless cash-in reboots & sequels, we tend to wince at rehashings of our personally-beloved properties in fear that the new material will dilute or cheapen the original’s memory. Blade Runner 2049 is more or less on par with the quality of the original Ridley Scott film, so protective fans who hold that one close to the heart can go ahead & relax. For the less avid among us, it’s not quite as exciting of a proposition. The stunning visual achievements of both Blade Runner films are undeniable in their potency. Scott’s neon-lit future-noir dystopia has influenced essentially every sci-fi futurescape that followed in its wake. Villeneuve’s hologram-filled, mustard-colored toxic wasteland is a worthy descendant of that vision, broadening the scope of its universe by stretching its tendrils into the dead spaces beyond its overpopulated urban clusters instead of simply recreating the original’s look with 2010s CGI. The stories staged within those visual, world-building achievements are much less impressive, however. Remembering details from the narratives of either Blade Runner film is like grasping sand in your palm; over time it all slips away. Blade Runner 2049 lives up to its namesake in that way just as much as it does as a visual achievement. Its surface pleasures are lastingly awe-inspiring, but the substance of the macho neo noir story they serve is ephemeral at best.

Ryan Gosling picks up the torch as the titular blade runner this go-round, following in Harrison Ford’s footsteps as he unravels a brand new corporate intrigue mystery about the future of artificial intelligence production. The manufacture of “replicants”, a form of A.I. slave labor gone rogue, has been made illegal on Earth; Gosling is employed to “retire” (destroy) the remaining Earthling replicant rebels who’ve slipped past police surveillance. They’re difficult to distinguish from naturally-born humans, but Gosling’s blade runner (eventually named some variation of Josef K, presumably after Kafka’s The Trial) is especially great at his job, mostly because he himself is a replicant, a traitor to his “people.” Between being insulted for being a “skinjob” traitor by everyone he encounters & playing out 1950s suburban domesticity fantasies with his A.I. hologram wife, K unearths a dangerous secret that might interrupt the balance between man & man-made machines while on one of his “retirement”/execution assignments. This grand scale conspiracy mystery gradually involves an expanding cast of futuristic heavies: an A.I. programmer who lives in an isolation chamber (Wetlands‘s Carla Juri, of all people); a rogue replicant manufacturer who verbally plays God through a string of philosophically empty, Bray Wyatt-style pro wrestling promos (Jared Leto, nearly tanking the picture); a haggard Harrison Ford reprising his role from the first film (hours later than you’d expect to see him); etc. K’s stoic P.O.V. at the center of this expanding cast remains a consistent anchor, though, relying on the exact same stone-faced masculinity charm Gosling employed to carry Drive. As big as the story is in an interplanetary, meaning-of-life kind of way, its focus always remains centered on the significance (or insignificance) of K’s function within it, even allowing the climax to be reduced to/resolved by a fist fight in an enclosed space.

Seeing this kind of a slow-moving, ultra-macho sci-fi noir on the big screen is the ideal setting. This is true not only because the surface pleasures of its visual achievements & sound design are its best assets, but also because it’s much less difficult to be distracted during its near-three hour runtime. Blade Runner 2049 technically boasts more sex, more violence, and more humor than the original, but it still leans heavily on the macho, hard sci-fi philosophizing of a Tarkovsky film or an academic lecture (it’s no mistake that a copy of Nabokov’s Pale Fire physically makes an appearance); that’s the exact kind of headspace where my mind invariably wanders. Looking back on its plot days after the screening I can recall big picture details in what it was trying to accomplish: a subversion of the Chosen One’s function in the Hero’s Journey, an echo of the human-A.I. entanglements of Spike Jones’s Her, whatever playing God nonsense Leto was mumbling about “storming Eden” & “the dead space between the stars,” etc. That’s not what makes the film impressive, however. What really sticks with you as the fine sand plot details slip through your fingers is the strength of its imagery. The way holograms haunt physical spaces or the way neon advertisements light the creases between the drab grey blocks of urban sprawl as a wall of synths wash over Hans Zimmer’s orchestral score is what ultimately remains as the dystopic dust clouds of the narrative clear. 2049 is true to the DNA of Ridley Scott’s original Blade Runner in that way, for better or for worse.

-Brandon Ledet

Arrival (2016)

fourstar

I was very shaky on Arrival’s merits as high concept sci-fi until its third act revelations & narrative upendings completely turned me around on how I was thinking about the story it was telling. As such, it’s difficult to discuss the film’s successes without diving headfirst into spoilers, which is something I’d like to avoid in this review if possible. Arrival is a film about two species, human and alien, learning to communicate with one another by the gradual process of establishing common ground between their two disparate languages. Similarly, the film has to teach its audience how to understand what they’re watching and exactly what’s being communicated. It’s often said that movies are about the journey, not the destination, a (cliché) sentiment I’d typically tend to agree with, but so much of Arrival‘s value as a work of art hinges on its concluding half hour that its destination matters just as much, if not more than the effort it takes to get there. This is a story told through cyclical, circular, paradoxical logic, a structure that’s announced from scene one, but doesn’t become clear until minutes before the end credits and can’t be fully understood until at least a second viewing. Whether or not you’ll be interested in that proposition depends largely on your patience for that kind of non-traditional, non-linear payoff in your cinematic entertainment.

My initial complaints about Arrival‘s narrative shortcomings are fairly indicative of how I feel about high-concept sci-fi cinema as a whole. With a lot of hard sci-fi, Big Ideas are given prominence while smaller, more personal emotions take an unfortunate back seat. In an ideal sci-fi work, something like Ex Machina or Midnight Special, those two ends meet a well-balanced compromise. Arrival struggles to find that compromise, opening with a world-class linguist (played by a wonderfully measured & muted Amy Adams) as she recounts the loss of a child & the monotony of an academic life lived alone, but not taking the time to live in those moments & make their emotional impact count for something. The familial drama at the film’s center is conveyed through an impressionistic set of Tree of Life-type imagery & brief conversational snippets, a preview of the worst information dump stretches of the film’s eventual alien invasion plot that finds Adams’s protagonist at the center of a potentially world-ending interplanetary negotiation. The way narrative information is conveyed in Arrival is often cold & blatantly utilitarian, at one point even spelled out in a narrated monologue that completely disrupts the flow of its storytelling rhythm. The film is much more interested in the global implications of an alien invasion (within which it’s much less realistic than a Godzilla film from this year of all things, in how it depicts America’s involvement in such a crisis) and the tensions between military & academia in its problem-solving strategies than it is depicting the smaller scale personal impact that would make these tensions resonate with any significance. Any and all personal drama within Arrival, no matter how traumatic, exists only to serve the weirder turns the plot takes in its mind-bending second half. It’s a good thing that the ideas they serve in the film’s gloriously strange conclusion are so interesting that their emotionless delivery in the front end doesn’t matter in the slightest.

I’m typically a style over substance audience when it comes to movies, especially sci-fi, so a lot of Arrival wasn’t my usual mode of genre filmmaking. Until the film pushes its narrative into the loopy, paradoxical territory of its glorious third act, it mostly just reminded me of The Martian: a reasonably entertaining story of scientific problem-solving with more in-the-moment significance than ideas worth chewing over long-term. I was very much struck by the film’s design of the alien species and their vaguely egg-shaped ships, which had a kind of 2001 monolith vibe in their clean lines & oppressive grandeur. The film would have been perfectly admirable as a The Day the Earth Stood Still-style parable about humanity’s potentially aggressive response to alien contact had it remained a straightforward story, but it thankfully expands into something much stranger & much more unique. Arrival is above all else a story about the power of language, how it is the first weapon drawn in a conflict, how learning a new one can rewire your brain to think differently. Once you learn the film’s own language, you start to understand that it was never a straightforward story to begin with, that it was always just as strange as the places it eventually takes you in its final act. This rewiring of audience perception takes a little patience before it reaches a significant payoff and it’s one I expect is better appreciated when experienced rather than explained. Director Denis Villeneuve tried to do something similar with the surreal conclusion of his film Enemy, another work that plays with his audience’s linear perception of storytelling, but I think he’s much more successful in pulling off the trick in Arrival. For all of my early misgivings about the film’s emotionless information dumps & preferences for big ideas over small character moments (despite the best efforts of Adams & other capable actors like Michael Stuhlbarg, Forrest Whitaker, and Jeremy Renner), the weird dream logic surrealism and paradoxical reality-shifting of the final act makes all of those complaints entirely worthless. The truth is that the film & I just started off speaking different languages and it’s value as a work of high-concept sci-fi storytelling was lost in translation until we found common ground. I’m very much eager to give it a second look now that I know how to communicate with its more outlandish ideas in a less-linear, less literal fashion.

-Brandon Ledet

Sicario (2015)

EPSON MFP image

threehalfstar

One of the initial reasons I wanted to check out Sicario while it was still in the theaters was that during the film’s early press a lot was made about the fact that Emily Blunt’s protagonist was almost replaced with a male lead due to pressure from nervous producers, presumably because they believed that alteration would sell more tickets. I caught a clip of Blunt promoting the film on Stephen Colbert’s talk show where she quoted a producer as saying “If you make her a dude, we’ll up the budget,” a fucked up sentiment the actress backed up with, “Welcome to Hollywood.” This gross line of thinking gets more & more outdated every year, especially when you consider the recent success of female-led action properties like The Hunger Games, Mad Max: Fury Road, Divergent, Lucy, and the list goes on. Hell, even Blunt herself outshone Tom Frickin’ Cruise with her action star prowess in last year’s Edge of Tomorrow. I initially had very little interest in Sicario based on its trailers, due to its drug cartel-busting subject matter & the promise of a relentlessly bleak tone, but I resented the idea that the film’s lead was once potentially going to be genderswapped to supposedly make more money. I resented it so much that I decided to support the film while it was still in the theater in the simple act of buying a ticket.

It turns out that the film is actually pretty good. I don’t have any particular fascination with the subject of drug cartels & border control outside of what I read about it in the news, so I’d usually be much more likely to seek out a trashier, goofier take on the topic like, say, the recent, grotesque Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Sabotage. Sicario is a lot more realistic than that ugly affair, following a multi-agency operation (mostly between the FBI & the DOJ) that seeks to shake up the status quo of typical drug raid protocol in an attempt to dethrone a couple of kingpin brothers wreaking havoc in Phoenix, AZ & Juárez, Mexico. The “war on drugs” becomes quite literal as Blunt’s law-abiding SWAT member goes on a Training Day-style tour of how much more effective it is for drug enforcement agents to break the rules entirely. In an attempt to get a leg up in an ongoing power struggle, the United States government essentially becomes a well-funded rival cartel, resorting to acts of kidnapping, torture, and assassination to get the results that the by-the-books drug raids simply aren’t. When Blunt’s protagonist pleads “What the fuck are we doing?” & “I’m not a soldier,” in protest of their far from legal war tactics, her helplessness as a pawn in the shakeup is alarming. Questionable authority figures played by Benicio del Toro & Josh Brolin intentionally keep her in the dark as they put her life in danger & overtly manipulate her into participating in human rights violations. At one point del Toro snarls, “Nothing will make sense to your American ears and you will doubt everything we do. But in the end, you will understand.” That last part may be true, but understanding is not the same as approving.

What Sicario does best is establishing a claustrophobic threat of violence. Early in the film a shootout in a tiny drug house reveals walls lined with dozens of corpses. Bombs go off unexpectedly. Dismembered bodies are strung under overpasses as warnings. Shootouts in traffic jams & underground tunnels cramp the audience into inescapable spaces riddled with gunfire. A tense, ominous soundtrack makes visual cues like night vision, Western landscapes, and blood running thin in shower water look impossibly alien. Much like how the recent Johnny Depp vehicle Black Mass gets by purely on the strength of its acting, Sicario might be a mostly predictable film in terms of narrative, but it creates such a violent, foreboding atmosphere, that some scenes make you want to step out in the lobby for a breath of fresh air (or to puke, as the cops who discovered the early scenes’ in-the-wall corpses couldn’t help doing).

One thing’s for sure: no matter what your mileage with a serious action film centered on US/Mexican border drug cartels may be in general, Sicario would not have been at all improved by replacing Emily Blunt’s character with a male lead, no matter what a scumbag Hollywood producer would like you to believe. The few supporting roles played by men within the film are pitch perfect, especially in small character details like the way Josh Brolin turns the simple acts of whistling & chewing gum into unbearable grotesqueries or in Benicio del Toro’s delivery of cinema’s all-time most violent wet willy (that’s one for the ages, right there), but it’s Blunt’s performance that provides the film with the bulk of its pathos. Sicario is a fine film, but Blunt is a damn fine actor. It’s a testament to the characters of Sicario‘s director & writer, Denis Villeneuve & Taylor Sheridan, that they stuck with Blunt & didn’t opt for that promise of a bigger budget. The results were certainly worthwhile & hopefully it’ll help lead to idiotic propositions like that dying away forever.

-Brandon Ledet