Blade Runner 2049

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I’m very familiar with the original Blade Runner, because I used to teach it as an exam text to my students. And, along with two or three other films (including The Exorcist, The Shining, and The Conformist), it’s a film I grew to love more every time I went through it. So I’d probably rank it among the top ten films ever made. It took Vertigo forty years (or four polls) to crawl its way to the top of the BFI 100 list, and though I can’t see Blade Runner getting there as soon as 2022, it’s a better film, for me, than 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was at number 69 in 2012, while 2001 was at number 6.

So there was no pressure on Denis Villeneuve in making this sequel.

My four five-year social media blackout meant that I didn’t even know Villeneuve was directing. I managed to avoid knowing anything about this film, including its title, until about two weeks ago. I have no idea why Ridley Scott chose not to direct.

I know I’m not alone in adopting this blackout policy. It’s a reaction to the oversaturated media landscape, and a content industry that prioritises clicks above everything else. If you genuinely care about something, it’s painful to hear even the most uninformed speculation about it. Back in the 90s, a “spoiler” was somebody telling you plot details; now, it’s just a feeling of being overexposed to something, so that you feel as if it has been watched for you. You’re overtaken by a feeling of enervation and simply can’t be arsed. I was looking at the iTunes movie store for something to rent last night, and there was nothing I felt like watching. I haven’t seen the most recent Star Trek film, for example, but the thought of sitting through it just made me feel tired. Anyway, here’s what I think all good internet citizens should do: don’t “review” or “preview” or speculate about anything until it’s out.

You can have the Deckard-is-a-replicant or Deckard-is-Gaff discussion as much as you like: but after everybody’s had a chance to see something. Looking at the production history section of the Wikipedia article now, I’m struck by how fucking repetitive and boring all of the reports are. The frenzy of question-and-answer simply revolved around whether Harrison Ford would be in it, and you just wonder why people obsess on such details.

I got something of that feeling sitting through the trailers “specially selected” to play before BR 2049. What a load of old shit. The intelligent and thought-provoking big ideas of Blade Runner wadded up like snotty tissue with the loud nonsense of barrel scraping superhero franchises. Urgh.

The relatively new Odeon at Milton Keynes Stadium is a decent enough venue. It never seems to be horribly crowded, and doesn’t smell of rancid fat, which is a bonus. BR 2049 was playing on multiple screens: you could see it in IMAX (no thanks), or 3D (no ta), or 2D. Sitting in the 2D theatre before the showing, the loud rumbling from the IMAX theatre next door was unpleasantly gut-twisting, that almost below hearing threshold bass making me feel a bit sick.

And because the showings were out of synch, you could still hear the theatre next door during the quieter sections of my showing, which was a bit of a bummer. Some sound leakage might be inevitable, but it’s a complete certainty given the sheer volume at which the film was being played.

I’ve never understood the volume people. I suppose they must be extroverts who are afraid of quiet. The audio volume in the theatre I was in was so extreme that the sound was obviously being distorted. This was a real shame, as one of the key marvels of the Blade Runner film(s) is the soundscape. But here it was being rammed so violently into my ears that its subtleties were being lost. I’m not counting that a black mark against the film, but against the exhibitor, in this case the Odeon.

Anyway, I’m pretty sure the BR 2049 soundtrack is a marvel, but can’t really be sure. The production design, lighting, and cinematography was brilliant, and I appreciated the world-building, which did not patronise or “as you know” the audience. Needless to say, shit had gone down between 2019 and 2049.

The narrative plot was a little bit thin, I thought, but then the plot of the original was also quite slight. What I did find interesting this time was the way in which the atmosphere and ambiguity of the original book was baked-in. The fucked climate and environment of the future was foregrounded, and the rarity and luxury of natural substances like wood, like real animals, was crucially important. So there are moments in this film that go unexplained, just like in the original, which I really appreciate. Ultimately, a film is only great if it rewards further viewings. There’s also a strong similarity between Ryan Gosling’s “K” and the original cop of the novel: his desire to fulfil his “wife’s” every desire, for example. And then there’s that feeling, far more foregrounded than in the original, that literally anybody could be a replicant. A nice reference to the unicorn sequence, too.

So, this was great, I think. It’s almost a shame that there was no shitty voice-over that can be subsequently removed, but at least we can hope that there might be missing sequences that can be put back in. My favourite scene was the bit in the waves, which reminded me a lot of the ending of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora: the feeling that, no matter how much humanity tries to destroy this planet, nature has the power to overwhelm and wash over us.

This was a film that made me not want to reach a verdict or a conclusion, which means I want to watch it a few more times: which is as it should be.

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Alien: Covenant

Social-media-blackoutMy media blackout on Alien: Covenant was so effective that its release and reception almost completely passed me by. I only remembered it was there when it showed up on iTunes and was available for rental.

I’m a little aggrieved that the rental price was hiked up for £5.49 — for this of all films, as if the franchise still carried some kind of ‘brand premium’ after the crushing (but not if you run the other way) disappointment of Prometheus.

So, anyway, I rented it last weekend and sat down to watch with low expectations.

And, because my expectations were so low, I wasn’t disappointed.

I’ve got no issues with details like the production design, the cast, the cinematography, or the performances.

I just have an issue with the whole thing.

What, really, is the point of this franchise?

  • People waking from frozen sleep.
  • A space ship.
  • A signal.
  • A planet (or planetoid, or planet-like moon).
  • A robot, who may be good, or may be evil.
  • An alien or aliens.
  • People who act in an irresponsible or bizarre way.
  • A main female character who survives.
  • Returning to frozen sleep.

This is the mix-and-match plot line for most of the Alien films. And it was brilliant in the first film. The second ramped up the budget and the numbers along with the action. The third made it all a bit claustrophobic and intense in a different way. The fourth tried our patience and stretched our credulity.

There may be eight plots in literature, but there’s only one plot in Alien films. These prequels are adding nothing, telling us nothing new, but are simply repeating the same old plot beats (see above) and annihilating logic. If aliens can grow from spores, why are the face huggers deemed necessary? And how can there be baby face huggers outside of the eggs, which until now have been deemed necessary for their production? And why does nobody, ever, say, “Don’t come near me, I’m contaminated”?

Director Ridley Scott is said to be leading up to the origin of the Space Jockey of the first film, but he’s taking his time. And the only reason for taking that time, or that these films seem to exist is not because they have a compelling or new story to tell, but because people keep buying tickets/downloads. Its as cynical a marketing exercise as splitting popular novels into two or more films. Like the fucking Hobbit needed to be as many films as Lord of the Rings. If they were making Lord of the Rings today, it would be nine films, wouldn’t it? And still shit.

So Alien: Covenant passed the time, and if I hadn’t seen all the other films, it would have been all right, though frustrating in not having a proper ending. But I have seen all the other films, and there wasn’t a single unpredictable element. It followed the well-worn path and left me longing for another plot.

Blade Runner beckons.

Ghostbusters

ghostbusters_cI queued up around the block to watch the original Ghostbusters in the winter of 1984. Those were the days, eh? I think in my life there have been no more than five occasions when the queue for the cinema tailed down the street and around the corner. If you’re somewhere near the back, you’d be thinking, no way we’re getting in, but you would persevere and be surprised. Cinema auditoria were big in those days.

I remain convinced that the version of Ghostbusters I saw back then was different to the version that has survived to this day. I’m convinced it was a 15 certificate at first but was then cut down to a PG version due to its popularity. And then the 15 version was lost forever. See, when I watched it again, later, it seemed to me that the comic timing was off, that the film was less coherent, that this artefact that had lost its power to move me had been bowdlerised.

Anyway, I’m probably delusional. Probably the film wasn’t that great after all, and I was just caught up in the excitement and atmosphere generated by queueing around the block.

Which brings us to Ghostbusters, the reboot, or 2016 version. As to the manufactured controversy about the casting: not going to dignify it with any more comment than this: the Saturday Night Live school of comedy produces comedians of a very similar bent. Doesn’t matter if they’re male or female, they’re all pretty much the same. I think the SNL comedy style is a bit laboured, a bit forced – the kind of thing that’s funnier in the telling than it is in the watching. Tina Fey excepted.

I saw it at the still-new Odeon at Milton Keynes Stadium. This place never seems that busy. It was a Wednesday, I was in the 2D screening, it was quiet. Which is disappointing, because at least it would be something if people were queuing around the block. I genuinely think a lot of people aren’t aware of the new Odeon. The facilities aren’t bad. The place is clean, and doesn’t smell of rancid fat like the one in the Xscape in MK.

The film was OK. Moderately entertaining, one good jump scare. A couple of laugh-out-loud lines, some winning performances. But as a film, kind of instantly forgettable. Some new twists on the theme, but it’s basically Ghostbusters, so a recycled story from our zombie culture, our stuck culture, as Adam Curtis puts it.

I thought it was too loud, and I felt our seats were slightly too close to the screen. The Odeon chooses to charge extra for the plum (“Premium”) seats. Very few people occupy them. It’s a terrible waste, but fuck ’em.

The other technical issue I have is with digital projection and jitter. Static shots are fine, but as soon as the camera moves, especially if people are moving, it just jitters. With film, of course, you get analogue blurring, which is fine. But digital jitter gets on my nerves. And once I see it, I can’t stop seeing it.

So: an entertaining popcorn distraction, instantly forgettable, but enjoyable (technical issues aside) for the most part. That feels like three stars to me.

 

IMAX – not believing

imax-theatreBeen meaning to say something about IMAX since I went to see Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak a few weeks ago. It was playing on the IMAX screens in the new Odeon in Bletchley/Milton Keynes. Given that there were no other screen options, and given that I’d never experienced IMAX, I booked tickets.

First of all, the film: not all that impressed. Seemed like a mashup of his other films, but I’ll wait till I see it again in a non-IMAX format, because my whole experience was affected by the screening.

hated the IMAX screen. Its curve meant that people got weirdly distorted when they moved across to the side. I don’t see how a curved screen is any use for anyone other than the very few who can sit bang centre and far enough back (which in the Odeon, of course, are the “premium” seats). Movement seemed jittery, too, like on your 1080p TV screen, lacking the smooth blur that traditional 24-frame-per-second film stock gives.

I’ve seen those curved screen TVs in shops, and I think they look shit. Again, no good for anyone who is not sitting dead centre. Which I guess is fine in our lonely, single-person household society. But not for me.

Apart from the annoying curve and the jitter (both of which are deal breakers for me), which are distorting the screen image and distracting me, leaving me unable to suspend disbelief, I hated the height of the IMAX screen. IMAX talk on their web site of the “cropped” image of 1953-era Cinemascope anamorphic screens:

When a film is presented in CinemaScope it is cropped and uses only part of the image the movie camera captures. This is the reason most ordinary screens are very wide but not particularly high – like looking at the world through a narrow slit.

Which demonstrates the visual equivalent of a musical tin ear. They’re saying it as if it’s a bad thing. It’s like saying, ‘When you hear “Strawberry Fields Forever,” you’re only hearing the result of editing together the best parts of several different takes. The IMAX version of “Strawberry Fields Forever” gives you all the shit that The Beatles cut out because it was rubbish.’

The genius of film and photography is that it puts the world in a frame. The frame of cinemascope is the highest expression of that genius. A cinemascope landscape or close-up has an incredible visual impact: so much so that watching cinemascope films on an un-letterboxed 16:9 screen is disappointing. Great directors use the framing/cropping of Cinemascope as part of the art of filmmaking. Given the ‘uncropped’ option, where’s the art? You see more, so what? Fucking less is fucking more, you morons.

Watching IMAX felt like watching a giant 4:3 ratio (but curved) TV. The image didn’t even look like it was a high enough resolution to warrant the size of the screen. People looked odd, like you could detect the artifice behind the make-up. There was nothing happening in my peripheral vision other than distortion of the image. As to the sound: too fucking loud, man. Like an amplifier that goes up to 11: better, because louder? Fuck off.

IMAX is the Spinal Tap of movie projection. Never again.

Blade Runner revisited

I was 19 when I first saw Blade Runner. That year, 1982, was also the year of ET, Poltergeist, The Thing, Tron, Star Trek II, and a lot of other decent, but non-genre movies. This was the era of Ghostbusters, Gremlins, Starman, films that followed the successes of Alien and Close Encounters in the 70s, not to mention that other thing.

The original theatrical release was the one with the voiceover and happy ending and without the unicorn sequence. At the time, I didn’t think it was a bad thing. This was Ridley Scott’s follow-up to Alien; this one director had already made two of the best science fiction films of all time. But Blade Runner was a flop, right? Not to me, at least.

I was at university in Nottingham 10 years later, when the Director’s Cut was released. We were all excited to see the legendary (but not from Legend!) unicorn sequence, and to see the film without the voice over telling us what to think. The rumour that the sequence came from Legend relates to the way in which the waking dream doesn’t look like the rest of the film, I think. The lighting is different, the colour palette is different. But back then, I tended to receive the film in terms of its narrative plot, and, like everyone, I was fascinated by the question of Deckard’s status.

Now that I’ve watched the film (including the Final Cut) so many times because of teaching; now that I’ve paused and discussed it and dissected it, shot by shot; I see it almost entirely in terms of its visuals. I still find the question of Deckard’s status somewhat interesting (Deckard is Gaff), but I now see more visual clues than narrative clues, if you know what I mean. For example, the film is thoroughly obsessed with eyes, from its opening sequence through to the end. The eyes are the windows to the soul, and the artificial people and animals in the film all have red eyes (because they have no souls).

As to the unicorn, its painterly qualities actually match the painterly qualities of the rest of the movie. The scene when Deckard explores the Bradbury apartment while Pris hides under a veil looks like a Renoir or a Manet painting, the street scenes look like Hopper, and the production design is all Moebius.

I watched the new BFI print of The Final Cut at the new Odeon cinema in Milton Keynes yesterday. There was a queue at the entrance to screens 1-6 and we joined the back of it without asking whether it was the right queue. Of course it was the right queue. I said to my daughter, ‘Just look at the age demographic and the preponderance of spectacles.’ I could have added that it was a mostly male crowd, but I didn’t do a headcount. But this was definitely a group of people who had all seen the film before. Perhaps this will be the last time I see it on a big screen? Who knows. I watched with mixed feelings. I know the film inside out.

The big screen revealed some odd focusing issues in some scenes. At first I was willing to blame the projector, but it was clear in other, sharper shots, that the projector was fine. No, there are so many big close-ups in the film of actors who are in motion that the focus wobbles at times. I think if Ridley Scott had had more time and more budget he would have reshot these.

There are lots of uncomfortable scenes. The violent confrontation at the end is painful to watch. That’s the power of cinema, that transference of empathy from the screen to the audience through the anchor character to whom we relate. But one scene that stands out as discomfiting to modern sensibilities is the one where Deckard more or less forces himself on Rachael as she tries to leave his apartment. The scene plays out with her pinned by him against a wall and repeating what he tells her to say (‘Kiss me’). But then there’s a moment where she volunteers: ‘Put your hands on me,’ she says. So it’s all right, is it?

Rachael has just discovered that she is a replicant. She has feelings for Deckard. She doesn’t trust these feelings, because they might not be her own. That’s the source of her reluctance. What’s the source of Deckard’s forcefulness? Does he want her to understand that feelings are real even if memories are false? Or does he think that it can’t be rape if it’s a replicant? The whole thrust of his job is that replicants don’t have human rights.

One major problem with the idea of Deckard as a replicant is that he not only feels pain, but appears to be weaker than the others. He can’t jump across rooftops like Roy Batty. He gets beaten up a lot by all four of the escaped replicants. The only one he appears to be able to best physically is Rachael, whom he is able to force against the wall quite easily.

‘You did a man’s job,’ says Gaff at the end. As I pointed out to my daughter, Gaff doesn’t say, ‘You did a man’s job,’ he says the line without emphasis, as if saying, ‘You did some other guy’s job,’ which is to say, ‘You did my job.’ I think both of Edward James Olmos’ last lines might be fluffed. I reckon it’s possible that the shortness of time and the budget overruns meant that they simply couldn’t do multiple takes and had to live with these badly spoken lines. ‘Too bad she won’t live, but then again who does?’ is said with a fade on the last couple of words that robs them of emphasis and conviction.

Mistake? Or genius?

The film is visually stunning, and has an incredible soundtrack, an electronic version of a 1940s film noir score. For those reasons alone, it’s a must-see at the cinema. It’s also a thoughtful film as it explores the humanity of its non-human characters. When Batty rescues Deckard at the end, he shows that he values life, and displays a human empathy that seems to be lacking in the human characters. You’ve already seen it, but see it again.

Los Angeles Plays Itself

This 2003 documentary by Thom Andersen was finally made available for the home video market in the autumn of last year. I’ll confess that I hadn’t heard of it. I’m pretty up on things, generally. I mean, I knew about the Helvetica and Linotype documentaries. I knew about Side by Side. But not this.

So maybe it was my head in the sand, maybe it was something else. It all seems to have been a little hush hush. You don’t need to think very hard to come up with a reason why it took more than 10 years for the film to appear on DVD. And the same thought will explain why, even now, you can’t buy a Region 2/European version.

Rights. Clearances. You’d think the media conglomerates would be friendlier towards education and more supportive of academic work or film historiography. This film does shade towards a personal polemic, but it is still fascinating, detailed, brilliantly done.

But although I looked, I could only buy an imported Region 1 DVD or Blu-Ray, and I couldn’t find a legitimate download.

I could find an illegitimate download. It was low resolution (640×480) and looked soft and painterly when displayed on my HDTV. When I first played it, the sound was not just a little out of synch, but a good minute, playing the voice-over over completely the wrong pictures. Using different playback software fixed this problem. My daughter complained that the voice over was monotonous, and it certainly can be at times. But I found it interesting enough to watch all the way through. It reminded me of Adam Curtis documentaries. The clips were there to support the polemic.

The complaint in the film is that Los Angeles is often distorted or misrepresented in films. Cars turn corners in the movies and are suddenly 30 miles away. Characters exit a building to find themselves on a street 15 miles away. Los Angeles is often called upon to play other cities, or different countries: New York, Chicago, Switzerland. People are portrayed as living either in the hills above the city or on the beach. Rarely do we see them in the midst of the vast suburban sprawl where most of the inhabitants live. There are some wonderful modernist buildings in the city, examples of progressive, utopian architecture: but they are usually depicted as the homes of crime lords and drug dealers: only evil people choose to live in modern buildings.

My favourite sequences in the film were

  • the one about the Bradbury Building and all its appearances in film (including Blade Runner, which I’m going to see again tonight);
  • The Bunker Hill history, showing how its gradual destruction and disappearance was recorded in the movies;
  • The Chinatown sequence, discussing the background to the script, and the way in which the film’s fictionalised and temporally transposed story of water corruption serves to conceal the real scandals of Los Angeles history;
  • and the LAPD sequence, discussing how the police are seen as an occupying force, working against the interests of the people they’re supposed to serve: are they the only police force whose motto is in ironic quote marks?

There is much, much more. Street corners, diners, motels, locations that turn up again and again. Things that get knocked down and rebuilt as simulations. The film puts to bed a lot of the myths about Los Angeles. It complains that it is the only major city known by its initials – and blames the movies. The idea that ‘nobody walks’ and that ‘everybody drives’ is exposed as an example of a white privileged viewpoint. In Steve Martin’s LA Story, there are only two black characters with speaking roles: they are both in the service industry.

It was interesting to see excerpts of forgotten, independent, neo-realist films such as Killer of SheepThe Exiles and Bush Mama, depicting the Los Angeles ‘hidden’ by the movies, or only ever viewed through the lens of the privileged cop point-of-view, which sees brown people as the enemy within. These are ‘foreign’ films made in the heart of the city largely ignored by the film industry that is based there.

This page lists the films excerpted in the documentary, in order, including their repeated appearances. If you can get hold of a copy, highly recommended, rights be damned.