Denis Villeneauve

Blade Runner 2049

 

 

05/10/17

The original Blade Runner (1982) is widely regarded as a classic of the sci fi genre. People forget that on its release, it didn’t receive much acclaim. The critics were distinctly sniffy about it and, for that matter, it didn’t exactly pack out the multiplexes. But, over the intervening years, its stature has grown, especially as original director Ridley Scott couldn’t seem to stop tinkering with it. This must surely be the only film where the Director’s Cut is actually shorter than the theatrical release?

When the news broke that there would be a sequel – and furthermore, that Scott would only be producing, rather than directing, expectations plummeted. But the appointment of Denis Villeneauve to the director’s seat definitely helped to bolster confidence; (his Arrival was one of the most acclaimed films of last year) and besides, Scott’s recent return to another of his franchises, with Alien Covenant, hadn’t exactly been the massive success everybody had predicted. Maybe it was the right thing to go forward with a new hand on the helm. Then the advance reviews for Blade Runner 2049 broke and it was, apparently, a masterpiece, a jaw-dropping work of staggering genius. The truth of course, is that it isn’t quite that, but it is an assured and credible sequel to the original film, which is pretty much all we could have hoped for.

It’s thirty years since the events of Blade Runner and a new generation of replicants – ones that are supposedly incapable of insurrection, are now taking on the work that humans disdain, including hunting down and ‘retiring’ the last remaining Nexus 6 models, who are still insisting on going about their business. ‘K’ (Ryan Gosling) is one of the new breed of ‘skin job’, working as a Blade Runner for the LAPD, under the direction of Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright). While hunting down renegade replicant Sapper Morten (Dave Bautista), K makes an unexpected discovery. Buried in a box beneath one of the world’s last surviving trees, are the remains of a woman. The pathology department soon establishes that she died in childbirth. The problem is, a serial number hidden in her bones identifies her as a replicant. And replicants are supposedly incapable of procreation. This is news that threatens to have world-changing repercussions and one, when you think about it, that is the basis for most religions.

If Villeneauve’s brief was to mirror the look and feel of the original movie, then this has to be regarded as a success. The squalid grandeur of the cityscapes are breathtakingly realised, the recreation of a smog laden, overcrowded dystopian Los Angeles is perfectly achieved – even Hans Zimmer’s eerie score manages to echo the feel of the Vangelis original while still somehow managing to be its own beast. The references to the first story are all cleverly integrated. Nothing ever feels tacked on.

But this is more than just an accomplished rehash. I particularly liked the concept of Joi (Ama de Armas), K’s virtual reality companion, which gives you an idea of where the likes of Siri and Alexa are eventually going to wind up. A VR creation capable of feeling love for its owner? This element is the film’s strongest card, (and a scene where Joi ‘borrows’ the body of another woman in order to make love to K is a standout); but there are plenty of other thought-provoking ideas in here, much more than the usual cartoonish ones we’ve become used to in this genre. They will have you discussing their implications long after the credits have rolled.

What exactly does it mean to be human? How important are memories to our evolution and to what degree can we trust them? And perhaps, most baffling of all… why does Harrison Ford never seem to get any older?

Okay, so the film isn’t quite perfect. Jared Leto’s Niander Wallace  – the man who has inherited and improved upon the Tyrell Corporation’s achievements – is a bit wearisome, to tell you the truth, given to intoning his lines like an Old Testament prophet; and while I appreciate that there must be fight scenes in a film like this, the climactic punch up between K and a supercharged female adversary seems to go on for just about forever. But the ending is cool. I really didn’t see that coming…

Inevitably, arguments will rage about this one. Some people are going to hate it. Some are going to insist that it’s way better than the original. But for me that will always be a solid gold five star picture, while this one? Close, but no cigar. Maybe just a slim panetella.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

 

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Arrival

11/11/16

We’re all familiar with the scenario, right? Gigantic spaceships hover over the major cities of the world, and eventually disgorge battalions of vicious alien creatures, that are hell bent on world domination. Luckily, a group of plucky resistance fighters come together to kick alien butt and free the planet from tyranny…

Thankfully, Arrival really isn’t one of those films. Director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Prisoners)  chooses instead to depict an alien visitation as a positive, perhaps even fruitful occurrence. This is a sedate, almost hallucinatory film, that dares to try something different with a much mistreated genre.

Linguist, Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams) finds her everyday life rudely interrupted by the unannounced arrival of twelve huge black ellipses hovering inexplicably in the air above different locations around the world. The ellipses (surely inspired by the paintings of Magritte) are silent and make no apparent attempts tocommunicate with the human race. Louise soon finds herself enlisted by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) who is leading a team of North American scientists, whose job it is to try and make contact with the aliens and work out what (if anything) they are trying to tell us. Louise finds some common ground with scientist, Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and the two of them set about the complex task of communicating with the inhabitants of one of the giant elipses. They are quickly dubbed heptopods and are giant octopus-like creatures, which (perhaps wisely) are only glimpsed through the haze that constantly surrounds them. As she starts to make progress, Louise is increasingly affected by images of her young daughter who comes to a tragic end…

I thought Arrival was a remarkable film, quietly persuasive in its approach and totally absorbing. The googly ball that it throws at its audience in its final stretch, hit me for six – I really didn’t see it coming – and it was only as the shock of the impact spread through me, that I began to appreciate just how skilfully the storyline’s tangled web has been put together. If the film’s ultimate message could be accused of being a little bit cheesy, it’s nonetheless a welcome relief from the usual crass Hollywood approach to alien visitations.

Worth further investigation.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Sicario

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16/010/15

‘Cancel that holiday in Mexico!’

That would seem to be the overriding message of Denis Villeneauve’s white-knuckle ride of a thriller in which FBI operative, Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) finds herself mixed up in the violent world of the Mexican drug cartels. Assigned to work alongside Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and the mysterious Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro, looking increasingly like Brad Pitt’s Puerto Rican twin) she starts off with high hopes and good intentions, as the team work their way towards the Mister Big who is responsible for the murder of hundreds of innocent people; but she soon discovers that, in this shady operation, the good guys are pretty much indistinguishable from the bad ones.

Blunt, of course, cut her action chops on the seriously underrated Edge of Tomorrow and she’s on excellent form here – but it must be said, that Taylor Sheridan’s script is incredibly misogynistic. Poor Kate is beaten, throttled and crushed at every opportunity and as the one character in the film with any apparent sense of decency, the film’s bleak conclusion seems to bray the fact that women should keep their nibs out and leave the rough stuff to the big boys. And wouldn’t it be nice if, just for once, a character’s motivations weren’t based around his desire to revenge himself on the man who killed his wife and daughter?

This is a shame, because in most other respects the film works brilliantly – there are tense shootouts aplenty, gripping covert operations and a nightmarish vision of Juarez that certainly won’t make it into the holiday brochures. But when the film’s central character is a strong woman, trying to stand tall in a male-dominated environment, her eventual failure to do so  does seem suspiciously like a missed opportunity.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney