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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Ghost In the Shell (1995)

Ghost in the Shell is a 1995 Japanese animated science-fiction techno-thriller film based upon the manga of the same name by Masamune Shirow. The film was written by Kazunori Itō and directed by Mamoru Oshii; it is a Japanese-British co-production, and is one of the works, if not the single most prominent work, that led to the modern popularization of Japanese animation, known as anime, in Western culture. Anime experienced a surge of popularity back in the 1960’s with Speed Racer and Astro Boy, but it didn’t stick. Since the advent of the internet, however, anime has become progressively more and more popular outside Japan, with many appreciating the various art styles and dramatic flair that can be found in many animes. Ghost in the Shell, however, is considered to be the one that started the surge, and has remained immensely popular, even in the two decades since its release.

Ghost in the Shell takes place in 2029. The world is interconnected and many people have become cyborgs with prosthetic and cybernetic enhancements, with many possessing fully cybernetic brains, with their “ghost” being an individual’s personality and memories, hence “Ghost in the Shell.” The film follows Major Motoko Kusanagi of Public Security Section 9. She is one of few people with a fully cybernetic body, with no real human parts to speak of aside from her “ghost.” Section 9 is an elite cybercrime and intelligence organization on the hunt for a mysterious hacker known only as “The Puppet Master.” The Puppet Master apparently possesses the ability to ghost hack: hack into individuals and take over their body without their knowledge. Considered a very dangerous individual for obvious reasons, the film follows the hunt for The Puppet Master while The Major and Section 9 are drawn into a vast and far-reaching political conspiracy.

Ghost in the Shell features top-notch animation, which was created using a unique process called Digitally Generated Animation, a combination of traditional cel animation, computer graphics, and audio that is entered as digital data. It was the goal of animation director Toshihiko Nishikubo to depict film movements realistically. In fact, the animation team performed extensive research into firearms and bullet physics, noting, for example, that a bullet will create a spark upon striking metal, but will not do the same against stone or rock. The team also made character movement seem more realistic; The Major’s movements seem much more mechanical than her more human counterparts.

The most interesting part of Ghost in the Shell is the world itself. Set in an unnamed, post-World War III Japanese city, it almost feels like a real place. The characters in the story interact so fluidly and naturally with everything around them that you sort of almost forget you’re watching a science-fiction film, somewhat akin to the world of Blade Runner, which this film seems to draw from in terms of its “futuristic but natural-feeling” setting. Due to the setting feeling so organic and real, that makes the extremely deep themes explored by the film’s plot easier to digest.

Ghost in the Shell’s most striking aspect is its exploration of extremely deep ideas wrapped up in what would seem on the surface to be a straightforward techno-thriller. This film, however, is so much more than that. Through it’s main character, the film presents an intelligent discussion on what exactly it means to be human. The Major’s body is entirely machine, so what makes her human? Is it her brain, her personality? Is she human at all? What defines humanity? Is it something physical like organs, or is it simply sentience? These questions are the driving force of the entire film, and the whole film drives these ideas home in a flawless manner.

*Please keep in mind that I watched this film in the original Japanese with English subtitles, the voice acting in the dubbed version leaves much to be desired, and I would recommend the original audio*

Another question the film sees fit to ask is a question about the nature of reality. There is a point wherein The Puppet Master uses a normal truck driver as a puppet and a patsy to get him to ghost hack government officials. The Puppet Master does this by implanting false memories about a wife and kids that he doesn’t have.

Ghost in the Shell is an excellent and well-made anime film with enough entertainment to go around even if the philosophical questions do not interest you, but it is hard to deny that the philosophical questions are what permeates through the most. Ghost in the Shell has explicitly influenced many filmmakers and their techniques. Most notably, this film is a favorite of the Wachowski Siblings, being a very large influence in their 1999 magnum opus The Matrix, which borrows a lot thematically and stylistically from this 1995 film. The opening credits to The Matrix were directly inspired by Ghost in the Shell.

For several reasons, most notably the film’s philosophical intellect, as well as just being a generally very well-made film, Ghost in the Shell is considered one of the greatest, if not the greatest, works of anime ever made. Its influence can be seen even outside of Japan in several Western productions. Its influence is the reason for the entire medium of anime being repopularized in Western countries. With gorgeous animation, a fully-realized world, interesting characters, and an interesting plot to boot, Ghost in the Shell is an excellent film that I would recommend to anyone, not just anime fans.

Westworld (Pilot) [SPOILERS]

Westworld is a science-fiction psuedo-Western mystery drama television series created by Jonathon Nolan and Lisa Joy for HBO. It is based upon the 1973 film of the same name by Michael Crichton. The series stars Evan Rachel Wood, Thandie Newton, Jeffery Wright, James Marsden, Luke Hemsworth, Simon Quarterman, Anthony Hopkins, and Ed Harris. Westworld premiered on October 2nd. I have been anticipating the series for quite some time, and it is finally time to see if my high expectations can be met.

Taking place some time in the future, Westworld is a hyper-realistic theme park populated by lifelike androids called hosts. Regular programming updates occur, managed by head of the Programming Division, Bernard, the successor to the brilliant and enigmatic Dr. Robert Ford, the creator of both the Host androids and Westworld itself.There are also updates to the main narrative of Westworld, managed by the arrogant but creative Lee Sizemore. Theresa Cullen is the Operations Director of Westworld, working closely with Bernard to deal with any malfunctioning Hosts or other developments. Hosts that are either outdated or begin to malfunction are sent to cold storage. Bernard is usually able to fix the bugs and send them back into rotation. Westworld Hosts begin to experience a number of bugs and glitches. Bernard discovers that these glitches are due to Dr. Ford’s “reveries.” These reveries are subtle gestures Hosts use that make them seem more human and lifelike to the guests. Hosts have their memories purged regularly, but Dr. Ford discovered a way to access them, creating a subconscious of sorts. The updated Hosts are all killed in a robbery orchestrated by the team and rolled back.

Meanwhile, we follow Delores, a Host in Westworld. She wakes up every morning and goes down to the station (where guests arrive) and normally, barring any interruptions by the guests, encounters Teddy, another Host and the love of her life, who arrives on the train with the guests every morning. A peaceful day with Teddy is interrupted by The Man in Black, a sadistic and mysterious guest with a hidden agenda, who spends the episode searching for answers to his unknown query. The Man in Black ruthlessly murders Delores’ father, mother, and Teddy, and presumably rapes and kills Delores. It is possible and probable that guests kill the Hosts, but Hosts cannot, due to their programming, bring harm to any living thing, even a fly. Hosts kill other Hosts all the time. One of the Hosts glitches out, killing several other Hosts in a psychotic rampage. Throughout the episode, Delores must deal with the turmoil in her life caused by the glitched out Hosts and the mysterious Man in Black. Of course, she has no memory of these events after being killed.

The film on which the series is based is a rather straightforward narrative about AI gone bad with hidden depths. Westworld as a series is so much more than that. Instead of AI gone bad, we are presented with an Asmovian tale of the android Hosts and their benevolent and omnipresent masters behind the scenes. Delores is the series’ de facto protagonist, as it seems. You end up caring more for the Hosts than you do about the humans, who are presented in a more antagonistic vibe, though you can understand and empathize with everyone’s perspective. as well. The Hosts have thoughts, beliefs, emotions, much like humans, but they are treated as tools. Peter, Delores’ father, discovers a picture of a guest from the real world, which causes the android to have nothing less than a complete and utter breakdown.

In the film, the robots go bad in a big way, but I don’t think that is what the series will focus on. We are one hour in, and there are already many questions, both philosophical and narrative ones, that need to be answered, questions about the nature of reality, the nature of artificial intelligence, ethics when it comes to technology, and humanity’s reach exceeding its grasp. Westworld is truly a work of narrative brilliance.

The acting in Westworld is flawless. Evan Rachel Wood, Anthony Hopkins, Jeffery Wright, James Marsden, Ed Harris, and Louis Herthum are all great. Westworld has a budget of $100 million. With this massive budget, series creator, writer, and director of the pilot episode, Jonathon Nolan, is able to create a believable Westworld, and a believable future, as well. Subtle visual effects were used to make the actors seem more robotic.

Westworld is as intense as it is philosophical. The events that occur in Westworld itself are brutal, violent, and vicious. The series is as much a straight western as it is a sci-fi. To me, the most important question isn’t what’s going on with the Hosts at large, but what is up with the Man in Black? What does he want, and why is he torturing and slaughtering Hosts to get it?

Speaking of black, Westworld showed off its musical stylings and cinematic flair in one very interesting and engrossing scene. Using an orchestral cover of Paint It Black by the Rolling Stones, the saloon robbery is possibly the most notable scene of the entire episode.

Featuring a score by Game of Thrones composer Ramin Djawadi, the music of Westworld is as haunting as it is addicting; it is another wonderfully constructed piece of the wonderfully constructed puzzle that is this series.

Westworld’s premiere episode had the network’s highest viewer count since True Detective in 2014, drawing in 3.3 million viewers. It is already well on its way to being HBO’s flagship series following the soon-approaching end to Game of Thrones. This excellent revival of an excellent film is certainly a must watch for me, and it should be for you, as well. The pilot episode is free to stream right now. As for any further reviews, I will most likely wait until the season is over to share the entirety of my thoughts on it, I just felt it necessary to get the word out, because this show is awesome and it can only get better.