Blade Runner 2049 (First Viewing)

Blade Runner 2049 is a 2017 neo-noir science fiction film starring Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Robin Wright, Dave Bautista, and Jared Leto. A sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 cult classic Blade Runner, 2049 is directed by Denis Villeneuve and written by Hampton Francher and Michael Green. Francher is one of the two people who wrote the screenplay for the original film. 2049 takes place 30 years after the original film and follows K, a Blade Runner employed by the LAPD to hunt down rouge and dangerous Replicants, bio-engineered humans. K uncovers a vast conspiracy which leads him to retired Blade Runner Rick Deckard.

I left the theater an hour ago and am still processing what I just saw. I am struggling to come up with words. Villeneuve, director of one of my all-time favorite films, 2015’s Sicario, as well as 2013’s brilliant Prisoners, will be credited with creating a piece of film history. It will not be immediately apparent, as some, like Forbes, seem to be ripping into this movie unfairly. I don’t understand their criticisms. 2049 is a slow burn, but so was the original, and, as I recently discussed, that is not at all a bad thing. I won’t go so far as to label it or put it in league with the greatest films of all time, the authority to make that distinction belongs only to history itself. I will, however, say that it most certainly lives up to, and may even surpass, the original masterpiece.

I don’t even know where to begin. Villeneuve and his director of photography Roger Deakins, who is the best cinematographer working in the business today, have managed to create a futuristic world that is a perfect continuation of what the future would look like in 2049, through the lens of the original’s version of 2019. It feels very natural, and it has, as I expected, the best cinematography I’ve seen all year. I would expect nothing less from Deakins, who has been the man behind the camera for all of Villeneuve’s English-language directorial efforts. The world of 2049 is nothing short of beautiful.

2049 is a completely organic continuation of the original in terms of story and characters, as well. Every character, new or old, feels like a part of this world. Absolutely nothing about this sequel felt forced or unoriginal; quite the opposite, actually. The best sequels are ones that can stand on their own as being good movies, without having to be compared to or unnecessarily reference the original film. 2049 comes to us 35 years after the original hit theaters, but there’s no forced nostalgia here. 2049 stands on its own, and it stands very, very tall.

Ryan Gosling is brilliant here. The new characters introduced in this film have more emotional and psychological depth than anyone in the original, including Deckard himself, and this is coming from someone who loves the original. K, explicitly a Nexus Class 8 Replicant, is a deeply conflicted and confused character, and Gosling portrays that confusion and K’s anger and rage perfectly. With 2011’s Drive and last year’s La La Land, I have grown to respect Ryan Gosling as more than just a pretty boy with less range than a wet piece of plywood, which is what I used to think of him. With K, my growing respect has now solidified, and I can now stand by him as one of Hollywood’s major players. Everyone else gives a flawless performance, as well. I was especially impressed with Ana de Armas’ performance as Joi. Harrison Ford gives his best performance in recent years, maybe since the original Blade Runner.

Like the original film, 2049 is a very philosophical and existential tale. It is one of the most weighty and complex films I have ever seen, in terms of narrative and the many layers found when digging deeper in. K faces prejudice in his life from nearly everyone he meets, even his empathetic boss. He is looked at differently for his unnatural origins, even though, like Roy Batty, he is essentially human in every other way. He has his own emotions, feelings, and ideas, and yet, he is seen as less just because he was not born, but created. He seems to have internalized these feelings, expressing that, since he was not born, he lacks a soul, an idea which his boss callously reinforces. This question of what defines a human was explored in-depth in the original, and Francher uses this opportunity to keep going, right where he left off in 1982. I spent two full college class periods analyzing Blade Runner, and the only reason we stopped is because we, regrettably, had to move on to another film. You could fill an entire semester of an upper-level philosophy course with questions from 2049 alone.

The original film asked a lot of questions and provided few answers. A large portion, if not a majority of the film, is left entirely up to interpretation, which added to the film’s legacy and reputation over time. 2049 could have easily been ruined by answering any questions. Answering questions definitively in a narrative such as this will confuse and anger people, because that would invalidate their thoughts and beliefs as to what the open-ended stuff means. Thankfully, 2049 answers nothing, and leaves audiences a fresh new pile of questions to ponder. I left the theater with nothing but more ambiguity and questions, and it was awesome.

2049, like its predecessor, is not for everyone. Not everyone is going to like it. Not everyone liked the original. 2049, although a big-budget sequel to possibly the most influential science-fiction film ever, is not what I would consider a mainstream film. In fact, I would say that some sequences and elements of this film have a more art house/experimental feel to them. The original did, as well. They are both, as I have discussed, slow burns that focus more on theme than plot. 2049 is not a blockbuster action film. There are invigorating scenes of action in here on par with Sicario’s traffic jam scene, but they are few and far in-between. Seriously, if you haven’t seen Sicario, go watch it now.

2049 is a think piece. I think mainstream moviegoers might take a cursory look at Blade Runner’s legacy, completely misunderstand how and why it is so influential and why it has a legacy, and think it must have been a fast-paced, slick, awesome flick, because that’s what all good movies are, right? Wrong. It is not, and 2049 isn’t either. If you go into 2049 expecting anything like Baby Driver or John Wick, you will be woefully bored and disappointed. Both are low-concept, philosophical think pieces that use science-fiction as a vehicle; both are so uniquely their own I can’t think of appropriate comparisons.

With that caveat out of the way, 2049 is quite possibly the perfect sequel. I remember a lot of people were concerned that Scott was handing over the reigns to a different director, but French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve has succeeded at the task of creating a sequel that not only stands up to, but in many ways surpasses the original, and considering how firmly entrenched in film history the original is, that should have been a near-impossible feat. Villeneuve has succeeded in a way no one else could, creating not only the perfect sequel, but also a film that may also end up with its own personal legacy 30 years from now. With excellent set design, excellent cinematography, excellent acting, excellent effects, and an extraordinary script, Denis Villeneuve is the director of not one, but two of my Top 10 Favorite Films, which is a first. I get if you don’t like it. Honestly, you very well might not. I, however, most definitely did. The parenthetical means I might go more in-depth on this someday, by the way. I should probably learn how to say Denis Villeneuve out loud, right? I can barely spell it.

 

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In Defense of the Slow Burn & Blade Runner

So I am a big fan of Blade Runner and am very excited to see 2049 sometime this weekend. I begged my friends Mary and Kyle to watch it. Now, in hindsight, Mary doesn’t go in for that kind of stuff. She is much more partial to Baby Driver and faster-paced movies because, you know, attention span. She found it boring and couldn’t get past the scene where Deckard meets Rachel. Kyle, on the other hand, is the biggest nerd I know aside from his roommate Alec. I thought they would both be totally down for Blade Runner, and was disappointed when they said they didn’t really dig it. Mary, I get, though. Anyway, she sent me the Honest Trailer for Blade Runner.

I actually agree with the Honest Trailer for Blade Runner. It is slow but that isn’t a bad thing. Baby Driver was very fast in every regard, from the editing to the action. Baby Driver, though, never explored anything thematic. I can’t really tell you what the broader themes of Baby Driver are, but that’s OK. Baby Driver did not ask questions of the audience. Baby Driver was meant to be fun. It was not a character study; actually most of the characters were very thinly written. That’s not a criticism, they don’t need to be complex. It’s not that type of movie. The more complex the themes and characters in the film are, the more analysis needs to be done. The more analysis needs to be done, the slower the film needs to be. Slow does not necessarily mean bad, although being slow can often leave general audiences bored and distracted. I’m not saying Joe Public is wrong for not appreciating slower movies, but Joe Public, if watching a film, may need to be prepared to invest himself. My parents didn’t really enjoy Hell Or High Water because it ended up being a deliberately paced, slow burning character study rather than a high-octane bank robbery thriller. My parents aren’t one for slow. Some of the movies I enjoy a whole lot are ones they really don’t. I, knowing what type of film it was going in, found it rather enjoyable.

Of course, there’s rare films like Heat that can do both high-octane and deep at the same time. Those are very rare, though. Heat might actually be the only film I know to pull off that tightrope act successfully.

The Godfather, a film Mary and I both enjoy very much, is slow as balls. I tried to watch it at various points throughout my life. I hated it. I could not stand it. Because, on the surface, nothing ever happens. No crazy gunfights, no action, no flash, no style. I hated it. That is until I was forced to watch it in class for Sociology. By the time Kay closed the door, 17-year-old me was like “That was brilliant.” The Godfather isn’t Heat. It’s not a crime film. It is a family drama with crime as a backdrop. It is a complex, slow, methodical character study of a good man slowly and subtly driven to evil. You need it to be long, and drawn out for that reason. Films like that are an investment that some people, like my friend Lauren, my parents, sometimes Mary, and sometimes Kyle aren’t willing to make. And that’s OK. The thing is, people are then very confused at how anyone could enjoy this, mainly because they don’t understand the concept I am attempting to explain. I encountered this with my aunt. She didn’t like The Godfather, or at least, she didn’t enjoy it as much as I do. I was surprised, because she indirectly introduced me to The Wire, which, though different, follows the same logic I am trying to explain. Due to the fact that The Wire asks weighty questions about society, socioeconomics, institutional corruption, basically all the things, it has to be methodical. Exploration of those themes cannot be done quickly.

In the 1940s and 1950s, a popular genre of film was noir. Noir were films inspired by pulp fiction popular at the time. Noir movies, like the hardboiled detective novels which they draw inspiration from, focused on the seedy underbelly of society and featured characters of dubious morals and were chock full of violence and sex. The Maltese Falcon and Sunset Boulevard were two you’ve probably heard of. Noir films were often told through the lens of a detective or PI who must navigate and deal with these shady people in order to find and discover the truth. Stylistically speaking, noir films made use of low-light and exaggerated shadows to create a feel of mystery and bewilderment. A character’s face will be obscured by shadow until the lighting of a cigarette reveals his face, for example. I can’t find a good video of a scene that properly demonstrates this but you get it.

With the advent of color, the neo-noir was created. My favorite film, The Usual Suspectsis a neo-noir. Chinatown is another great example.

The core concepts of what we now deem science-fiction were created by a guy named Isaac Asimov. Interesting dude; I would recommend further reading. He pioneered the genre and used it to ask complicated questions concerning humanity and the meaning of humanity using robots as a proxy. I have read some of his work in grade school. I haven’t read anything by him since seventh grade, and I was too young to fully grasp the thematic approach to his work. Surface level, they were still excellent and captivating to young me and got me to appreciate the genre more. Seriously, he’s good. Back to Blade Runner.

Ridley Scott said from the get-go that he wanted to make a combination of neo-noir and science-fiction. At the time in 1982, a genre-bender like that had never been attempted. It was very ambitious and, although it underwhelmed upon its theatrical release (mainly because that cut sucked, but you can reread my review for further explanation), it found success after several other cuts surfaced over a period of several years showing Scott’s true vision.

Blade Runner asks a bunch of very complex Asimovian questions: What constitutes a human, the philosophical questions surrounding slavery, rebellion, emotions, personal experiences, the list could go on endlessly. My Film Studies class took two whole class periods analyzing the film’s philosophical implications. In order to sufficiently cover all these complex ideas, it has to slow down and pull a Godfather. And it does this very well. Not to mention the score is amazing and the special effects still hold up because of the Final Cut rerelease. It is slow, and I realize that, I think everyone does, but people appreciate that.

There are a lot of “slow burn” movies out there that mainstream audiences may not appreciate. Heck, there are a lot of truly great movies that I didn’t appreciate at first. Slow burners may very well require a passage of time, a change in perspective, multiple viewings, or a combination of all three to really get to a point of appreciation, as Chris Stuckmann explains in this video.

I’m fine with Mary, Kyle, and Alec not digging Blade Runner, although I do hope they give it another shot someday. Maybe they’ll never like it, and that’s OK. I really just felt like talking about Blade Runner again.

Momento

Momento is a 2000 neo-noir psychological thriller film co-written and directed by Christopher Nolan, based upon a short story titled Momento Mori by his younger brother Johnathon. Johnathon’s story would later be published in a 2001 issue of Esquire Magazine. The film stars Guy Pearce, Carrie Ann-Moss, and Joe Pantoliano. Pearce plays an insurance investigator named Leonard Shelby. Leonard has developed anterograde amnesia after being clubbed in the head by one of two men who broke into his house and raped and murdered his wife. Leonard was able to kill one of the men, but the second escaped. Anterograde amnesia affects the brain’s ability to make new memories, meaning Leonard wakes up every day with his last memory being that of his wife’s murder. Leonard, despite his condition, takes it upon himself to exact revenge. Using a series of tattoos, notes, and polaroids, Leonard develops a system so he can continue hunting the man despite not being able to store recent memories and sometimes forgetting conversations after having them.

Momento, like Nolan’s previous directorial debut Following, is presented in a complex non-linear narrative that includes two distinct time frames, one in black and white, and one in color. The black and white sequences come first, followed by the full-color sequences, which are shown in reverse. For reference, I have included a diagram of the film’s structure which, although containing spoilers, should visually spell out the film’s narrative complexity.

Memento_Timeline (1).png

This complex and at times confusing plot structure adds to the mystery of the film and left me invested, trying to figure things out. Though I feel specific plot details of the film are difficult to explain due to this complex structure, I will simply say that it very much works to the film’s advantage and should draw the viewer in, as I certainly was.

Momento’s engrossing plot is punctuated by brilliant performances from Pearce and Moss. Guy Pearce, who rose to stardom with the brilliant neo-noir mystery film L.A. Confidential in 1997, is, in my opinion, a vastly underrated actor who seemed to disappear from the spotlight as soon as he found it, with his most recent work of note being Aldrich Killian in the somewhat disappointing Iron Man 3, to the best of my recollection. He is great in this film, and he makes Leonard extremely empathetic and engrossing. Carrie Anne-Moss is also excellent here, and the two leads show great chemistry (and lack thereof, when need be).

There isn’t much else to say about Momento without getting into spoilers. It is another well-directed, well-scripted, and well-acted film by a man who would eventually become one of the most popular directors of my generation. Momento continues to receive critical acclaim and is often touted as one of the best films of the 2000’s, in addition being known as one of the most realistic and factually accurate depictions of anterograde amnesia in fiction. Some consider Momento to be Christopher Nolan’s magnum opus, though I personally feel that honor belongs to The Prestige. Featuring very poignant acting and dialogue and a complex and mysterious plot that is sure to generate interest, Momento is a brilliant film that is well worth a viewing.

Following

Following is a 1998 British neo-noir crime thriller film written and directed by Christopher Nolan in his directorial debut. The film stars Jeremy Theobald, Alex Haw, Lucy Russell, and John Nolan, Christopher’s uncle. Following tells the story of a struggling, unemployed, and unnamed (like all of the characters in this film) writer who takes to following strangers around the streets of London. This strange new hobby draws him into the city’s criminal underworld after he takes his odd, yet ultimately innocuous hobby too far.

Being Nolan’s directorial debut and being straight out of film school, Following was shot on an official budget of $0.00. The most expensive part of filming was the actual 16mm film stock, which Nolan paid for with his own salary. The film was intended to be as inexpensive as possible to produce. In order to economize the expensive film stock, scenes were painstakingly rehearsed ahead of time in order to get a perfect scene in as few takes as possible. The cast and crew, if you can call them that, all worked full-time during the week, limiting film production to Saturdays. Fifteen minutes of footage every Saturday was shot over the course of four or five months. The decision to shoot the film in black and white came from the fact that Nolan did not have access to lighting equipment, forcing him to only use natural, real-world lighting. Even on a no-budget shoot, Nolan described the production as “extreme.”

Following is a very impressive film. Often, low-budget productions are just plain bad, but this film is proof that you don’t need money to make a movie, though I will admit a budget of some level will usually help a lot. Low-budget films are often bad because the filmmakers try to be flashy and reach for levels way outside their budget. Christopher Nolan, even as a young man fresh out of film school, is smart enough not to do that. Following is extremely barebones, and it is, in fact a better film because of it. The core elements of a good noir film are there and, due to the fact nobody had the time nor the money to focus on anything else, those core elements are perfectly constructed and brilliantly executed. There’s nothing extraneous here, only the stuff that needs to be in the film is in the film. Following, from a plot perspective, is very tight and focused, an aspect of filmmaking I think Nolan, admittedly still one of my favorite directors, has forgotten in his more recent work.

Following is also surprisingly very well-acted. The cast, made up entirely of unknowns, even 19 years later, is very talented. The unnamed main character comes off as an everyman, even with his odd, some might even say creepy, pastime. He seems like a slightly odd but relatable guy. Cobb (which Nolan reused as the surname for the main character in 2010’s Inception) is as charming and witty as he is scummy.

Following uses a non-linear narrative to keep things interesting, something that has become a staple in Nolan’s films. The dialogue, like the overarching plot itself, is sharp, witty, focused, and on-point.

Following is not the greatest neo-noir film ever, not is it Nolan’s best work. It is, however, an interesting early work of one of today’s most well-known filmmakers, and is a great showcase of his talents as a director. Clocking in at only an hour and ten minutes, Following is a scrappy, smart, and interesting noir film and the testament of what a filmmaker can do given will, determination, ingenuity, and intelligence.

Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang

Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang is a 2005 American neo-noir crime comedy film written and directed by Shane Black in the Lethal Weapon screenwriter’s directorial debut. The film stars Robert Downey, Jr, Val Kilmer, and Michelle Monaghan. The story takes place in Los Angeles, California. Harry is a petty thief who accidentally wanders in into a screen test while running from the police. Harry, who had his witnessed his partner-in-crime be shot and killed moments earlier, has a mental breakdown, which is mistaken for character acting by the producers. He is sent out to L.A. and is to be given private detective lessons by experienced P.I. Perry Van Shrike, A.K.A Gay Perry. Harry also reconnects with an old friend and the girl of his dreams, Harmony, an aspiring actress. Harry and Perry accidentally stumble upon a murder mystery while on a routine surveillance job, while Harmony and Harry attempt to solve the mysterious death of her twin sister.

Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang is a great film in every way. I don’t think I really have anything bad to say about it. It is hilarious while also providing a tight and interesting mystery plot. It accomplishes everything it sets out to do, it definitely gets the neo-noir feel right, it’s an interesting mystery, and it is laugh out loud hilarious. Harry regularly provides sarcastic, fourth-wall-breaking commentary throughout the film, delivered in only the way RDJ and Ryan Reynolds can do. Shane Black is a witty comedic genius, with a sense of humor unlike even the most experienced screenwriters. The “Definition of an Idiot” scene had both me and my friend dying of laughter, and it may be the most simplistic joke in the history of comedy, and it is awesome.

The movie is able to keep the laughs going throughout, but it also makes you genuinely feel about the characters. This is, I think, Robert Downey, Jr’s specialty. Even pre-rehab and pre-Iron Man, Downey as an actor had been graced with likeable “everyman”-type qualities that are in full effect here. You root for him, you root for Harmony, you root for Perry. Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang, in addition to being hilarious and even engaging from a mystery aspect, also has a very honest and sweet quality about it, and that is what takes the film from “great” to “excellent.”

Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang is so good, in my opinion, that I honestly can’t think of a whole lot more to say. The film, full of hilarious, endearing, and downright interesting moments, owes a lot to its actors and their abilities, but owes a whole lot more to its brilliant and underrated writer/director Shane Black, who, a decade and change later, still does not get the credit he deserves. Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang is a cult classic film and a high watermark for both the comedy and neo-noir mystery genres that should be enjoyable for everyone, and you should definitely check it out. Although I just discovered this film recently, it is now one of my favorites.