Review of Blade Runner 2049

This was another one of those movies that stuck with me. Anything that fills my thoughts for hours—or even for days—is worth my appreciation.

Just like the original, Blade Runner 2049 has great music, gorgeous visuals, and gruesome action scenes. There’s a carful effort to make the audience question themes such as sentience and what constitutes humanity. Even if someone was programmed to have certain feelings, thoughts and to say certain things, are they still technically a sentient being? After all, our DNA programs us, our upbringing codifies our behaviours, our memories build our world view.

I was originally worried when I watched the trailer, which was edited to make the movie seem like a stereotypical action film. We had explosions, gun shots, a pretty love interest. But once again I was fooled: the movie works as a contemplative piece of speculative fiction, full of thoughtful moments and raw emotion.

The story is haunting and the visuals reinforce that feeling. There are some truly heartbreaking moments. Frightening violent actions. Acting and special effects that made me forget that I was watching actors on green screens.

The future is depressing and enticing. There are post-apocalyptic landscapes and grandiose, epic horizons. Everything has a worn, lived-in feel. Thankfully not all technology is hyper modern: there are lots of things that seem almost archaic and “old school”. It made it all feel more “real”.

The music is fantastic. Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch honour Vangelis without being patronizing. Moody electronic soundscapes that reinforce this vision of the future that was borne out of the 1980s. It doesn’t feel tacky or fake; they really tried to make it genuine.

Denis Villeneuve, the director, enchanted me with Arrival (my review here). He ensures that every emotion is given focus without being saccharine. He is a fantastically talented visual artist and I will always follow his endeavours.

I also liked how Harrison Ford’s reappearance as Decker doesn’t take over the story. It really is about the main protagonist, K (aka Joe). I thought that he was wonderfully subdued and earnest; more so than in the original.

Ryan Gosling is great as K/Joe. As usual, in his subtlety, Ryan nails it, lets us appreciate the story without interrupting it with his actor ego. It’s no spoiler that he’s a Replicant himself, although as the mystery unfolds (and his acting shows) this becomes ambiguous.

Robin Wright was great and strong. A very admirable actor. She has a reassuring presence that’s hard for me to explain.

Sylvia Hoeks was frightening. It’s rare that I’m actually really nervous and worried at the presence of an antagonist whenever they’re on the screen, but she nailed it as a sadistic, murderous, broken creature.

It’s a thoughtful Science Fiction movie that poses questions, makes you think as much as you feel, and takes its time to show you a story. My favourite kind of speculative fiction. Sadly, this will not be a huge success in the “Fast and the Furious” generation. Most people will be bored, but I didn’t feel the length at all. I think that you’ll enjoy this if you like films by Christopher Nolan or smart movies that aren’t made to strictly appeal to the cult of Michael Bay and Rom Coms.

The final action scene is very untraditional. No explosions, epic battles or fist-pumping moments of “yeah! Kick ass!”. It was disturbing and depressing. But in a good way. It just isn’t a dumb action flick; not that there’s anything wrong with that. I enjoy simple super hero movie once in a while. But, at the risk of being labelled as pretentious, Blade Runner is supposed to be more elevated than that. And this movie keeps that standard.

It’s moments like this:

…that make this film memorable. This scene in particular isn’t just a typical “kiss in the rain” scene. It has existentialism and even slight foreboding. In fact, all of the scenes between these two artificial intelligences had a feeling of tragic pathos. They’re both trying so hard to be real: to feel real feelings. Every scene of romance was filled with an equal part of sadness.

A great film, go see it, but be ready: it’s intense, rich and atmospheric. And long: don’t make any plans after unless they’re relaxed and contemplative. I really think that you should give it a try. Movies like this strive to be more than just a way to pass the time; the visual medium is also art.

Review of Arrival

Summary: Arrival is a thoughtful and dramatic movie that’s really worth seeing. It’s a “smart” alien invasion story. If you like introspective science fiction like Interstellar or Contact, then I think you’ll enjoy this one too. Bonus for folks interested in linguistics.

Science Fiction is a medium unlike many others because if often attempts to deliver a philosophical message to an audience despite the trappings of futuristic or cosmic themes. I’d argue that these poignant themes are emphasized because of the way that they ground the audience in spite of the extraordinary.

You wouldn’t always expect that. On Netflix and other video collections, the majority of Science Fiction stories focus on action, fantasy or horror. But there are a few that stand because they try to elevate the human experience to the above and beyond.

Arrival stands with such science fiction films as:

  • Interstellar (for the epic and emotional climax)
  • 2001: a Space Odyssey (for the existential observations about humanity)
  • Contact (for the unique take on interacting with alien beings)
  • Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (for the themes of memory and nostalgia)
  • Signs (where the focus is often about the people, not the event itself)

It also reminded me of Jacob’s Ladder, but for mixing anguish and loss with whatever genre it was.

All of these films tap into something primal about human emotion and existentialism. Memory, nostalgia, loss, anguish and fear. Unlike horror movies, where these feelings often (but not always) are detrimental to the protagonists’ fate, films like Arrival are about how these feelings elevate us and make us stronger. Human emotional vulnerability ultimately saves.

Arrival is a smart film, but not pretentious. All of the characters seem unsure of themselves; they all doubt and fear their own understanding of what’s happening around them. They express it in different ways, but because of this, all of the characters are relate-able, understandable. Even the film’s antagonists who tragically became worse because of their fears and anxieties. In a movie all about communication, these soldiers nearly ruined everything because of a lack of it.

The world’s military organisations play a large role, but they aren’t praised (like those propaganda schlock-fests of Michael Bay) nor bashed. There really are good people on all sides here; no cartoonish evil. It’s pretty fair.

Amy Addams is fantastic in this movie. I’m always fascinated and moved by portrayals of characters who are deeply affected by personal tragedy and loss. I’ve seen this actor in other films and I feel that she has quite a noble range. I want to see more movies with her in a leading role.

Most of the other actors did fine jobs with their subdued roles. Everyone in the world is numb in this movie and it’s quite dramatic. The representation of fear and anxiety is like a sickness, not a panic-driven fight or flight.

The special effects were extraordinary. I forgot that there was any CGI. This might be due to the excellent cinematography, editing and scoring. I felt completely immersed in the wondrous visual scenes. The alien design was very inspired and interesting.

I won’t spoil it for  you, but the movie has a surprising twist (not in a Shyamalan way, though) that is as packed with surprise and dawning understanding as it is with feeling. Intersellar made me feel the same way.

There’s an element to this movie that will make you scratch your head upon the first viewing. It all gets explained in the end, but makes you want to watch it again. Sort of like the Sixth Sense. But when it is revealed, it isn’t just another “AHA!” moment: it too is rich in emotional impact.

A common theme throughout the film is the circle or maybe even the tesseract. That is, a never-ending cycle or loop. High concept stuff for sure. I was very impressed.

The reveal of the aliens’ physical appearance, as well as their motives, also reminded me of Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End. I won’t go any further into that though.

As mentioned earlier, I highly recommend this movie. Definitely in my top favourites. The less you know about it, the better.

Reminiscent of the Engineers ships in Prometheus.

 

Review of Darling

Darling is a slow burning horror film reminiscent of the Shining and Witch. It is eerie and atmospheric, with sudden bursts of shrill, frightening music that reminded me of Insidious.

I think that it’s an okay film. It “felt” smarter than a lot of other films that I’ve seen recently, that’s for sure. But ambiguity doesn’t always mean greater intellectual merit. I was not left with any haunting moments stuck in my mind.

I won’t go over the plot much because I want others to see it and the less that you know, the better.

It is filmed in crisp, gorgeous black and white. The starting montage could have easily been part of the opening to Woody Allen’s Manhattan if it weren’t for the ominous low music and lack of narration. The shots were picked very carefully so as to omit anything that might take it out of its setting in the late 1960s / early 1970s.

I will say that this film is very beautiful. The director really knew how to get the best possible range of black and white. Some of the best that I’ve ever seen.

The film is ambiguous about whether or not the protagonist becomes unhinged due to a malignant spiritual or demonic presence in the house, or if she’s actually unhinged from the start and that she’s only imagining things. Perhaps she’s using the house’s reputation for being haunted as an excuse to indulge in her revenge fantasy (or homicidal tendencies in general).

Just like Pulp Fiction, I suppose that in the end it doesn’t matter what’s in the suitcase (or, in Darling’s case, just what she sees when she finally opens the locked door at the end of the hallway). The movie is about the situation and the atmosphere, not about plot.

When I first finished watching it, I wasn’t happy. I thought that it was pretentious and that it relied too heavily on visual trappings from Jacob’s Ladder and the Shining. The ending made me say “okay, so what?”.

In retrospect, I think that Darling was finely made and tightly directed. Lauren Ashley Carter was pretty good as the tormented (and demented) protagonist. Her huge, emotive eyes sure helped. There were times when her skinny face gave me flashbacks to Shelley Duvall panicking through the halls of the Overlook Hotel.

In terms of scares, Darling uses long, slow shots without any sound, sudden, loud bursts of orchestral noise, shaky heads and jump cuts to 2-3 frames of grotesque expressions, and some substantial gore during one sequence. There are one or two jump scares which mostly annoyed me.

I think that one scene in particular would have worked better if they had made the blood more “gooey” or “syrupy”. Not sure if Rigor Mortis kicks in so soon after a murder, but the watery splashy-ness of the gore felt too fake to me.

Some key mysteries:

Spoilers start here

  • When Darling finds her victim’s I.D. card, and realised that he wasn’t her intended target, was she freaking out because she killed an innocent man or because she didn’t get revenge after all?
  • Is the house deliberately attracting vulnerable, unhinged people as caretakers? Is it a malevolent force that likes to create tragic murders and suicides?
  • It is implied that Madam might know what’s going on with that house (and is probably in on it). If she was, why did she call the police when she found out that Darling had done something awful?
  • What was behind that locked door down the hall? My theory: nothing. It’s a broom closet. Darling realises that she’s nuts, and that she hadn’t been influenced by an outside, supernatural force that condoned her terrible deed.

Spoilers end here

Conclusion

If you want something different, and you like the slow, eerie qualities of the Shining and the Witch (VVitch?), give this one a shot. I found it interesting, but not hugely memorable.