Blade Runner 2049

At the beginning of the year, I said I wasn’t going to review any sequels (except superhero-related ones). Well, I already broke that rule with War for the Planet of the Apes, and I’m about to break it again, because I can’t not talk about this movie.

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Blade Runner 2049
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writers: Hampton Fancher and Michael Green
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas
Music by: Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer
Rated R

If you’ve seen the original Blade Runner, you know the setup. (If you haven’t seen the original Blade Runner, I’d highly recommend watching it before the sequel.) Thirty more years into the alternate future imagined there, Los Angeles is just as polluted, overcrowded, and full of the incredibly lifelike androids known as replicants. Ryan Gosling plays a blade runner named K, whose job description is the same as Deckard’s in the first movie: hunt down and kill–erm, excuse me, “retire”–rogue replicants. His job is a little easier, though, because only a few long-lived older replicants are still willing to rebel against their human masters. The newer models, the movie’s opening text tells us, are programmed to be more obedient. But during a run-of-the-mill investigation, K uncovers a secret that leads to a much bigger mystery, and ultimately causes him to question his own identity.

I am a fan of the original Blade Runner–up to a point. When I first watched the Final Cut (there are, like, five different versions of the movie, but that’s the only one I’ve seen), I fell in love with its bleak yet beautiful vision of the future, its neo-noir atmosphere, and its haunting soundtrack. It’s the movie that got me hooked on cyberpunk. But I felt the story left a lot to be desired. I didn’t care about any of the characters (not even Harrison Ford’s–and I love Harrison Ford), and the plot was a pretty basic detective story that, while entertaining, didn’t really seem to warrant all the philosophising and faux symbolism piled on top of it.

So I’m pleased to say that 2049 is better.First of all, as gorgeous as the first movie was, the sequel blows it away in terms of cinematography. With its rich colours, its desolate city landscapes and its shiny futuristic tech, it’s easily one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen. Every shot feels like a work of art all by itself. And while the soundtrack isn’t quite as imaginative as the original, it still has plenty of lovely, synth-heavy melodies to add to the atmosphere.

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Radioactive wastelands have never looked better.

But more importantly, this movie has what the original lacked: a heart. Unlike his predecessor, K is a very sympathetic character despite his morally questionable job.  He’s a calm, stoic guy who seems to accept his role as a small cog in the big machine that preserves what passes for “order” in his society, but as the movie goes on, we find out that a part of him longs for a greater purpose in his life. In a world where human beings can be manufactured as easily as toilet seats (and get about the same amount of respect), K wants to be special, to feel that his life has meaning. It’s a desire most of us can relate to. And K’s not alone in this movie’s universe. His girlfriend, Joi, is also looking for more substance in her life, although her motives are a bit of a puzzle. Even the villains want to make their world a less artificial place–for their own twisted purposes, of course.  Even Deckard, when he shows up this time around, lets his gruff attitude slip often enough to reveal that he, too, longs for a genuine relationship with someone else. As one character says, “We’re all looking out for something real.” Between the excellent acting and the greatly improved story, I ended up caring deeply about most of the people in this movie–human, replicant and other. The original Blade Runner made me think, which is good; but this one made me feel.

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“You’ve never seen a miracle.”

You don’t have to be a film expert to tell this movie is a masterpiece of visual storytelling. But, like its predecessor, it’s a flawed masterpiece. A lot of people will probably balk at its length, which is close to three hours. I grew up on The Lord of the Rings extended editions and marathons of BBC miniseries, though, so the length really didn’t bother me. It’s somewhat slow-paced for a big blockbuster, but that’s because it needs to be in order to fully develop its characters and themes. And it has plenty of fist fights and explosions for those patient enough to wait for them. That being said, there are a couple of scenes I could have done without–mainly those involving Jared Leto as one of the main villains. Something about the way he talks just makes it hard for me to take the guy seriously. He came off a bit too much like a pop star trying to be “edgy,” rather than the evil genius he was supposed to be.

Speaking of scenes I could have done without…I did not go into this movie with high expectations regarding its representation of women. After all, in the original Blade Runner, the only female characters were literal sex objects, and the “romance” that drove much of the plot was questionably consensual at best. 2049 is a bit better in that area–in fact, it arguably has more plot-relevant female characters than male ones. But it also has  a giant hologram of a naked woman strutting through L.A. as an advertisement for a virtual girlfriend who is “Everything You Want to See” and “Everything You Want to Hear.” So…there’s that.

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And I thought Victoria’s Secret ads were bad.

To be fair, I’m pretty sure imagery like that (which occurs frequently throughout the film) is meant to highlight the shallowness and debauchery of this dystopian society, with its tendency to treat living, thinking beings like disposable objects. But here’s the thing about working in a visual medium: you can’t criticise the objectification of women and parade CGI-manipulated images of naked women through your movie at the same time. That’s contributing to the problem, not solving it. And while it may not be surprising in a Blade Runner sequel, it is pretty disappointing coming from the director behind a wonderful female-driven sci-fi film like Arrival.

But just because I disagree with some of the execution, that doesn’t mean 2049 has nothing to say worth listening to. Quite the contrary.

Many essays could be written–and will be, no doubt–about the many implications of this movie’s premise on issues like racism, classism, the ethics of A.I. and the mysteries of reproduction, just to name a few prominent themes. There’s no doubt that, despite the flying cars and highly advanced robots, the Blade Runner universe is bleak and miserable in ways that sometimes feel uncomfortably familiar.  The climate’s a wreck, whole cities have been turned into literal trash heaps or nuclear wastes, and a large section of the population is treated as sub-human slave labour…but at least those omnipresent hologram ads are still there to distract us with Coke, Sony products, and virtual girlfriends. ‘Murica?

But for me, the heart of this story is in K’s search for identity and purpose. He lives in a world so artificial it’s difficult to tell whether anything is real–even the characters’ own memories–and one of his main goals throughout the movie is to find out how much of his own life is genuine. And while he does get answers by the end of the film, it’s still up to him to decide how those answers will affect his identity. 2049, like its predecessor, spends a lot of time exploring what it means to be human, and it takes a much more definitive stance on the subject by the end. Without giving too much away, I think I can reveal one message I took away from this movie: you don’t have to be “special” in order to make a difference in the world. You just have to do the right thing.

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And sometimes you get your nose broken along the way.

There’s a lot more I could say, but to avoid spoilers and to give my typing fingers a rest, I’ll stop there. This is a movie that sticks in the brain, one that demands multiple viewings to fully unpack all its themes and character arcs. It may be bombing at the box office right now, just like its predecessor (you couldn’t ask for a more faithful sequel, honestly), but I have a feeling people will be talking about Blade Runner 2049 for many years to come.

And did I mention how pretty it is? ‘Cause it’s really pretty.

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Grade: A-





Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Yes, there’s an Indiana Jones movie I haven’t seen before. Clearly that must be rectified.

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Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz
Starring: Harrison Ford and some other people
Released in: 1984
Rated PG (because PG-13 wasn’t invented yet)

So just in case you don’t know the story, this movie starts with everyone’s favourite disaster-prone archaeologist delivering an artefact to some Chinese mobsters in Shanghai. Naturally, things go wrong, and he ends up escaping on a plane with a little kid named Short Round and a living migraine named Willie Scott. They crash-land in India, where they meet some villagers whose children have all been taken by a local ruler, along with a sacred stone rumoured to have magic powers. Then the plot really kicks in, as Indy  decides to go on a quest to find and return the stone.

I love the Indiana Jones movies. Raiders of the Lost Ark was one of the first “grown-up” movies I was allowed to see as a kid, and both it and The Last Crusade have always been family favourites at my house. (I also saw Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in theatres, but…that one’s less of a favourite.) However, I was never allowed to see Temple of Doom as a kid, and it’s one of many movies I never quite got around to seeing as an adult. Until now, that is.

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Yeah…can’t imagine why my parents didn’t want me to see this as a kid.

To be honest, it struck me as a bit of an odd movie. Plot-wise, it’s much like all the other Indiana Jones movies: there’s a big opening scene with lots of punching, Indiana has to go search for a lost treasure, evil folks get in the way, there’s a bit of romance going on with the lead lady, they run into some freaky supernatural stuff, and it all leads up to a big climactic fight scene and a happy ending, although Indy still doesn’t get the treasure. But its tone is very different from any other entry in the franchise, and I think that’s what weirded me out so much. For about the first third, it almost feels like a slapstick comedy. All the Indiana Jones movies have a certain amount of humour, but this one starts out feeling downright goofy. There’s a fight scene where Indy shish-kebabs someone with an actual kebab, followed by a car chase with a little kid driving the car while making puns in bad English, followed by a plane crash where everyone survives by means of a physics-defying inflatable raft, and so on. And then somewhere around the half-hour mark, the tone completely changes into something very dark and disturbing, with a lot more gore than any of the other films had. Then, for the final third, it switches back to the exciting Indy action we know and love. All three tones work fine on their own, but together, they’re a bit of a weird combination.

Still, I’ve always heard this movie described as the low point of the original Indiana Jones trilogy, so I was pleasantly surprised by it in a lot of ways. The story itself is every bit as exciting as any of the others, it has several amazing action scenes, and you just can’t go wrong with young Harrison Ford playing Indiana Jones. He’s the perfect action hero, and he’s also quite funny, as I often forget between viewings. Every good Indiana Jones movie has two or three moments that make me smile just because of how…Indiana Jones-y they are. This movie has them, too: the part where he dives under a collapsing door to grab his hat, the entire mine cart sequence, “Prepare to meet Kali…IN HELL!”, etc. Classic Indy.

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You can keep your Tom Hiddlestons. This is what a real Hollywood heartthrob looks like. 

Granted, this movie is, shall we say, less than PC. It’s made clear that the evil Thuggee cult Indy encounters has nothing to do with actual Hinduism (it also has nothing to do with the real-life Thuggee cult, but whatevs), but the movie still gets away with a much more offensive portrayal of another culture than you’d see in most blockbusters today. Then again, the other two movies showed us a pretty laughable caricature of Christian mythology, and I didn’t let that ruin them for me. It’s Indiana Jones–you can’t expect much in the way of historical and cultural accuracy.

In the end, I do have to agree with the majority opinion that this is the worst of the trilogy, but only for one reason: WILLIE. My word. She is easily one of the most annoying characters I’ve ever seen in a movie. I had heard of her infamous screaming voice before, but I didn’t realise she uses that voice throughout the entire movie. She contributes almost nothing to the plot, half the time it doesn’t even make sense for her to be there (why did Indy decide to bring her on a dangerous mission, again?), and she’s either screaming or whining in every other line of dialogue. For most of the movie, Indy seems as annoyed by her as the audience, so their “romance,” if you can call it that, feels incredibly forced. It wouldn’t be so bad if she was a minor comic relief character, but no, she’s in almost every scene of the movie, distracting from Indy’s awesomeness by screeching about her nails. Within the first five minutes, I was thinking, “This chick needs to die in a fire.” And when she actually gets a chance to die in a fire later in the movie, spoiler alert, she gets rescued! I’ve never been more disappointed to see the plans of an evil death cult foiled. The only good thing I can say about Willie is that she made me appreciate Marion from the first movie all the more.

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She’s like Jar Jar Binks. Only blonde.

But there is one aspect of Temple of Doom that I think is actually an improvement on the other movies. For once, in this movie, Indiana Jones does something genuinely heroic–on purpose. Usually he’s chasing a treasure more or less for his own gain, and then the Nazis just happen to get in the way, so he has to fight them. But in this movie, he takes a huge risk in order to rescue a bunch of kids from slavery, without necessarily expecting a reward. It’s nice to see a nobler side to our normally selfish treasure hunter, and it makes it even easier to root for him in his more Willie-free adventures. And even though I thought it was a little weird at first for him to have a 12-year-old sidekick, I also found his relationship with Short Round to be pretty endearing by the end.

Overall, I enjoyed this movie. It’s not as much fun as the other two in the original trilogy, but it’s much better than Kingdom of the Crystal Skull–or, indeed, several other modern action movies I could name. And now that I’ve seen all the movies in the series, I feel like I can finally call myself a proper Indiana Jones fan.

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Cue amazing John Williams music.

Grade: B