Review: Blade Runner 2049

2017 seems to be the year in which Harrison Ford finally cares about his acting performances again

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Throughout his directing career, Denis Villeneuve has proved that regardless of budget or genre, he can create a great piece of cinema. Blade Runner 2049 is Villeneuve’s second foray into existential science fiction, a sequel to Ridley Scott’s timeless 1982 classic, and it is truly staggering in scale.

There is a distinct step away from the original in terms of style but he continues to build upon both the world and themes that Scott developed. Similarities can be seen between the two, for instance both involve an unfathomably powerful corporation who manufacture replicants; androids who are superior to humans in almost every way, except for their lack of empathetic abilities.

In 2049, the original corporation has been bought out by another, helmed by an extraordinary looking but ironically blind Jared Leto. In preparation for the role he partially blinded himself and because of that he won’t be disappointed at how few scenes in which he appears. His intentions are sinister however most of the work beyond brooding is done by his assistant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks).

The plot centres around Ryan Gosling’s K, a replicant Blade Runner tasked, like Harrison Ford before him, to hunt down other replicants living illegally. After each ‘retiring’ of a replicant, K must endure the Voight-Kampff test, a bizarre psychological assessment to determine if his human to android balance is still correct after a traumatic experience. The sterile, emotionless nature of his employment is a product of the bleak, dystopian world he lives in. At home he is greeted by his girlfriend Joi, played by Ana De Armas, who is sumptuously attractive, albeit holographically.

A sad product of technological advancement, the waifu of today’s culture has long since been replaced by an A.I girlfriend so complex that it makes that of Spike Jonze’s Her look cheap and tacky. The main downside to a holographic significant other is the impossibility of physical intimacy. To overcome this, Joi arranges for a prostitute to come to the minuscule flat they both live and, in perhaps the strangest thing I have ever seen, have sex with K whilst she layers her holographic body over that of the prostitute, their two separate bodies flickering over one another. Even in love he can’t find a human touch.

This idea of humanity is explored throughout the film, most poignantly so towards the end. K pauses outside a building and extends his arm, snowflakes gently land upon it before quickly melting. Inside that building is a female character (Carla Juri), whose compromised immune system traps her in a large, sterile bubble where she is forced to invent her own reality. We watch as she too extends her arm, holographic snowflakes gently landing upon it before glitching out of existence. Both feel empty in their inability to experience life in its purest form.

Roger Deakins, regarded by many as the pre-eminent cinematographer of our time, nominee of thirteen Academy Awards, winner of none, will undoubtedly receive his fourteenth for his incredible work here. Few would deny his work should have earned him at least one golden statuette and this I feel, although I hesitate to make such bold predictions, should be his year. The 2049 version of Los Angeles was horrifically miserable, truly deserving of the dystopian name and when K travels to Las Vegas, he encounters a world so different yet somehow still dystopian.

That wretched, angular world which Deakins created is complemented beautifully by Hans Zimmer’s score, although beautiful is not an attribute you would easily assign. It’s harsh, disjointed and unmelodic, and unless you sat through to the end credits there would be no indication that it was indeed composed by Zimmer.

Next on the agenda for Villeneuve is Frank Herbert’s science fiction epic Dune. There have been several attempts of a big screen adaptation and all have failed. David Lynch’s version was deemed sacrilege to fans, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s version, had it received funding, would have certainly changed cinema forever, with Pink Floyd, Salvador Dali, Orson Welles, Mick Jagger and many more attached.

The seed of that film, denied the water to sprout, was so significant as simply a seed that it influenced fantasy films of the future like Ridley Scott’s Alien. Interestingly, Ridley Scott was attached to Dune for seven months before the death of his brother Frank made it too tough to continue. Now, just as he took over the reigns on Blade Runner, Villeneuve will take over the reigns on Dune, and I for one am sure we are in very capable hands.

Review: Arrival

Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival is a uniquely gentle Sci-Fi experience

One moment is all it takes to change our lives, to define a species. Director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Enemy, Prisoners) presents this moment with a profound silence uncharacteristic of science fiction. No great battle, no chaos or destruction, just the arrival. Sometimes the most terrifying action is nothing at all.

The film opens to Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a distinguished linguist traveling to work as a lecturer at the University of Montana. All around her people scramble to see screens displaying news although Banks continues to her lecture hall unaware. Almost immediately after beginning the lecture a phone goes off, then another. The world has just changed, the scale of the change however, is hidden for a few more seconds.

After tentively switching a news channel on, they learn of a mysterious object in rural Montana, massive in size and visible for miles around floating just metres from the ground. Speculation suggests an experimental military ship until more objects are found across the world, 12 in total. Villeneuve plants the audience into his world, desperate for any sliver of information but before any possible understanding can form an alarm rings around the lecture hall. The whole state is on lockdown while governments across the world scramble to figure out what is going on. As Banks enters the parking lot we see people rushing to get back to family and jets flying overhead, in a deafening array of sound.

The next day by contrast is eerily quiet, Banks travels to work as usual although it soon becomes apparent that she’s the only one. Here she is approached by Colonel Weber (Forrest Whitaker) to join a military task force at the landing site. Working alongside a theoretical physicist, Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), they must not only establish the methods of communication with the unknown visitors, but decipher it and be able to communicate back. Some nations faced with a landing do not have peace as the primary objective on their agenda. China and Russia mobilise their respective armies to defend the populous from an expected invasion and it becomes a race against time to avert war with potentially peaceful extraterrestrials. Chaos is a persistent threat illustrated through widespread rioting and looting by people under the impression that the end of times is upon them.

Every few hours Banks and Donnelly travel to the bottom of the spaceship from a makeshift base nearby. Cinematographer Bradford Young (Selma, A Most Violent Year) achieves an almost tangible level of anticipation as the sheer scale of the pebble shaped ship is slowly revealed to us. This feeling is very shortly dwarfed in the sequence following as the team make their way inside. For all the advanced technology of both alien and human design depicted, there was a certain irony in using a scissor lift to bridge the gap between the 2 civilisations. When the aliens are eventually revealed, dubbed heptopods for their 7 legs, Banks is unable to make sense of their whale like cries. With the relations of world nations seeming to crumble around them, failure is not an option and upon seeing words and sentences in a visual form and not noise, a deeply complex and beautiful written language is revealed. The further she plunges into this language, the more her reality begins to shift and in doing so changes the fate of her world.

The climax of Arrival is both staggering and satisfying as several confusing elements from early on suddenly become crystal clear. With fabulous cinematography accompanied by a soul-stirring score by Jóhann Jóhannsson, this is truly a first contact film like no other. Villeneuve delivers a poignant message underlining the utter necessity of communication that transcends the screen and resonates beyond.