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A little cheese and a little whine

Why I Didn’t Like Blade Runner 2049

Let me say at the start that there is a lot to like about this film. It’s visually wonderful, and the soundtrack is perfectly suited to the mood throughout. There is some depth to the character of the lead, and the generally understated script is carried off well by the cast. If you haven’t seen it, then despite what I say in the following, I’d encourage you to do so.

So what’s the problem?

Warning: What follows contains spoilers in spades, and won’t make much sense if you haven’t seen the film.

Let’s begin about two-thirds of the way through the film where we have what was for me a pivotally problematic scene, in which K has sex with a prostitute who is made to resemble Joi, his digital assistant. Having an intimate relationship with a non-human counterpart (as K has with Joi) is more-or-less messed up whichever way you look at it, laying on a spectrum between bestiality and droit de signeur, but the film does nothing to explore this either morally or psychologically. This is forgivable, though; it’s plausible that in some future the practice would be normalised. But a scene in which a man has sex with one woman while literally projecting his preferred partner onto her – with her complicit in the projection – invites a whole stream of commentary on the nature of intimate relationships which should be irresistible.

To its credit, the film makes it clear that it is Joi, and not K, who has hired the prostitute and has control over the situation, but this only raised in my mind quite why she has so much autonomy in the way she spends K’s money.

The scene, however, serves two purposes in the narrative. First, it consolidates the position of Joi in K’s emotions, setting up her later destruction at the nadir in the casino. Second, it allows the prostitute to plant a tracker on K allowing the replicant army to follow him to Las Vegas later in the film.

The problem with the replicant army is that they are basically redundant. They do three things: first, they patch K up after the nadir; second, they tell K he is not the replicant child; third, they ask K to kill Deckard. K doesn’t kill Deckard, would have found out from Deckard that he wasn’t the child, and could presumably have patched himself up, being a replicant and all.

Worse, the motivations of the replicant army make no sense. If Wallace Corporation find the replicant child, the result will be replicants having children, which will bring about (ostensibly) the revolution the replicants want. In fact, it will do so much more convincingly than the replicants holding up one example and saying “honest, guv, she was born not made.” This redundancy is emphasised by the somewhat “tacked-on” feel to their involvement – they are hinted at a couple of times before the nadir, make one appearance after it, and are never heard from again.

By the time the identity of the replicant child is revealed (a clever twist which I didn’t see coming despite it being clearly signposted), Deckard is in the hands of Wallace, and things become more problematic still. It appears that Rachel and Deckard were matched by the Tyrell Corporation in the original film precisely with the intention that they should have a child. With certain assumptions about the relationship between Tyrell and Wallace, this explains why Rachel’s file is tagged for special attention when K makes his visit at the start of the investigation, but leaves us puzzled as to why these organisations lost track of the technology which Wallace is now hoping to recover, and, come to think of it, how finding the child – rather than the parents – will help him.

A more satisfactory setup (IMHO) would be Wallace to take the view that replicants having children threatens his bottom line, and therefore seeking to kill the child. This would have given two clear forces in the narrative – K, Deckard and the replicant army fighting to keep the child hidden and alive, and Joshi and Wallace fighting to find and kill her.

Let’s return to the nadir, though, and the problematic status of Joi. The aim with the nadir in a narrative like this is to make us watch the hero stripped of everything – he is left battered and bruised by our enemies with no hope of accomplishing the goal we are invested in. This allows us to watch him make one final resolve, risk one final sacrifice, to bring about the conclusion we are hoping for.

When Luv destroys Joi, then, we are witnessing another thing being taken from K as part of this process. However, we don’t really have a sense that the assistant is actually a person for whom we have independent regard and concern, perhaps because she is acorporeal but also perhaps because in the set-up for her demise she speaks of herself as a piece of software. This means that this scene feels more like the Doctor losing his Sonic Screwdriver than a man witnessing the death of his partner. There is, though, a much deeper problem in that while by this stage in the film, it’s rather unclear what it is K wants – what conclusion we are supposed to be hoping for –it is clear that Joi isn’t relevant to bringing it about. While we might feel a little sorry for K – assuming we’re not ambivalent about his dysfunctional relationship with Joi in the first place – nothing happens here which really develops the plot.

It’s part of the narrative form that at the nadir the hero is left for dead rather than actually killed, but there are more convincing ways to accomplish this than having the villain simply not bothering to kill him. Luv is revealed in this scene as the cardboard cut-out sadistic sidekick – she destroys Joi just to torment K, but inexplicably, leaves K alive.

On this note, it’s worth pointing out that, similarly, Wallace is a cardboard cut-out supervillain, only a slip of the pen away from sucking his pinky and asking why he should make billions when he could make millions. Certainly he offers us neither the disinterested poise of Tyrell nor the artless menace of Roy.

Luv’s sadism, of course, is there to give us a sense of satisfaction when K finally kills her. I liked the idea, in this scene, of setting the final conflict against the sea wall (an echo of the rain in the final scenes of the original), but I found the whole thing a bit confusing. It seemed to me that the water level in the craft was at times higher than the water level outside, despite being on level ground. I might just have been tired. However, I was more distracted by a deeper problem with this scene, which is that the detail of the action depends crucially on the limits of the special powers of the replicants, which are never properly established. The tension in the scene depends on Deckard’s inability to break free of his bonds, so we need to know just how replicant-proof these are. In the end, Deckard seems unable to free his hands but K is able to break the restraints with only a little effort. At one point, Luv succeeds in stabbing K which would be a decisive blow in a fight between a replicant and a human, but in this case we have no way of knowing if it is a mortal wound or an uncomfortable scratch.

Most of all, though, by this time I’d more or less lost track of why I was supposed to be rooting for K. K’s character is very likeable, and has the same workaday, pragmatic non-hero feel that Deckard offers us in the original, and Gosling carries it off superbly. The lack of overt heroism makes it difficult, perhaps, for us to root for him in a simple, cheerleadery sort of way; our engagement with him, and his goals, is necessarily richer but for that reason more ambivalent.

At the start of the film we see a policeman trying to do a good job which is not the stuff of epic tales but gives us plenty to admire and engage with. As the film progresses, this turns into a man trying to establish his identity. I had genuine difficulty caring about this. Questions of personal identity are not the things of which gripping drama is made. Ostensibly, the film addresses this by making K’s survival contingent to the answer to this question, and for a while (between his discovery of the date carved into the tree and his failing the baseline test) this works well, although the threat is never very clearly articulated and certainly never very present. Once he fails the baseline test, though, it doesn’t matter whether he is the replicant child or not, from this point of view; it’s just something he wants to know. However, he doesn’t seem to want to know it very much. Joi makes the case that the possibility of him being the child makes him special, but he resists this (in a way which is beautifully consistent with his character); and when he meets Deckard, his questions are cautious and circumspect, rather than direct and urgent.

By the nadir, then, we have in K a very likeable character (despite the whole abusive cybersex thing) with whom we’ve built up a relationship but whose goals aren’t especially exciting for us. Even if we are captivated by his rather muted ambition to discover whether or not he is the replicant child, immediately after the nadir, both we and he have the answer to this question. Mission accomplished: he isn’t the child, he’s just part of the cover.

At this point, K is somewhat perfunctorily and ambiguously enlisted into the replicant rebellion. This has had little or no setup, and (as noted above) nothing the replicants are doing makes strategic sense. It isn’t clear to what extent K really signs on here; certainly, he doesn’t follow through on the replicants’ request to kill Deckard. Instead, he does what the narrative requires, which is to rescue Deckard, despite having no particular reason to do so. Worse, though, we have no particular reason to want to see him do this. We’ve only spent ten minutes with Deckard on screen; he isn’t particularly likeable; he isn’t trying to accomplish anything we particularly care about other than protecting a child who he has never met. If, at this point, K had decided to leave Deckard and the replicants to their own devices and concentrate on not being killed by his colleagues at the LAPD, we couldn’t really blame him.

Instead he sets about rescuing Deckard and reuniting him with his child. We’ve been in the cinema for three hours, and instead of seeing our hero getting what he wants – and indeed what we want – we get to see someone we’ve spent ten minutes watching get to meet an estranged family member he presumably never had any expectation of meeting, and who we care even less about than we care about him. He has made no sacrifice for this, suffered no hardship, and generally done nothing to make us think he deserves it. Perhaps here we are supposed to feel some sympathy for Deckard from the original, the iconic figure of Harrison Ford providing the continuity. Meanwhile, the man we have come to know and like and sympathise with is lying outside in the snow, maybe dying or not (because we don’t know quite how resilient replicants are), maybe in danger or not (where did the car come from? Can it be traced? Are the LAPD looking for him yet?), but presumably only just able to restrain himself from turning to the director and saying, “again, what’s my motivation?”

What is truly, madly irritating about this conclusion is that it takes a basically sound sci-fi premise, builds an interesting, slightly dystopian vision of the future around it, and then bottles out and becomes a film about how great it is having kids. I don’t have kids; I don’t empathise with this premise; I wanted something more for my three hours.

Now, all these criticisms can be dismissed by saying that Blade Runner simply didn’t set out to be the sort of film I am asking it to be. This is not supposed to be an edge-of-the-seat-Bruce-Willis-with-a-big-gun action flick. This is a science fiction dystopia with philosophical pretensions, a work of art combining elegant, beautiful images with an innovative, captivating soundtrack. And I have to admit that on the last two points, the film succeeds.

Were it not for the philosophically empty, family values conclusion, this response might have some weight, but in the end, it doesn’t bear analysis. The film starts very well from a philosophical point of view, establishing in the opening scenes that it will not retread the ground of the original. K is a replicant, and knows he’s a replicant, and that’s that. In an early scene between K and Joshi, the film sets out some interesting problems. How are we to maintain a distinction, morally, between replicants and humans? How do we justify summary execution of the former while protecting the rights of the latter? Is the matter of genesis – “born not made” – part of the answer? If so, is K right to accept the mission he accepts? And what sort of choice does he have? We are told in the very opening moments of the film that obedience is built into replicants of K’s design, but how is this enforced? When he says he doesn’t know that disobedience is an option, is he speaking literally, or alluding to some possible (and presumably terminal) punitive consequence? How are we to feel about Joshi, and the society portrayed, in either case? If K concludes that “born not made” is critical in the assignment of rights, does he have sufficient autonomy for this to constitute a moral dilemma, or does his nature mean he is bound (physically) to obey and is, as an agent, simply along for the ride?

Having alluded to all these exciting and interesting questions, the film does absolutely nothing to explore any of them. Instead, it follows all the tropes of a Bruce-Willis-with-a-big-gun action flick – the hero has a quest, the quest puts him in danger, he gets beaten up and stripped of the things he loves, makes a resolve to strike back at the villain and ultimately triumphs. Having failed to explore its philosophical potential in favour of these things, though, the film does them in a rather second-rate way.

There are lots of obvious ways a sequel to Blade Runner might have been a failure. A thoroughgoing attempt to make this into an action flick would have been disappointing and tasteless, and a simple repetition of the material of the first film pointless. This film does not fail in any of those ways – it displays imagination and a great deal of art. It is, in many ways, a beautiful film. While it succeeds, I think, in its aesthetic and historical ambitions, for me it failed in its emotional and intellectual ones. I spent three hours in the cinema; I wanted to see something more satisfying than Harrison Ford meeting his daughter.

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Filed under: Film + TV

Film Log: Pacific Rim

Details here

It might seem odd to criticise a science fiction film on the grounds that it was implausible, but there are just too many things in this film that don’t add up. It begins with a long montage-with-voiceover serving to establish the conceits of the piece, and it doesn’t do a very good job. It’s not clear why the best defence against giant sea monsters is giant robots, as opposed to, say, ground to air missiles, or why those robots need two pilots sitting inside them attached to neural interfaces, as opposed to one pilot with a joystick and a remote control, or why the neural interfaces allow people to share memories which is, quite frankly, a much more interesting technological advance than the ability to fight giant sea monsters. A Mecha-Kaiju movie needs to establish a need for a lot of these elements, but the way Pacific Rim does this is at best perfunctory and at worst a waste of time that could be taken up with actual drama.

The montage, the unconvincing grounds for the conceits, and the problems with the science (confronted with an underwater nuclear explosion, holding on to something really really tight just isn’t going to cut it) all indicate a laziness in the script which makes itself felt throughout the film. There’s a lot of shouting but no real drama; caricature but no comedy; and a stream of clichéd set pieces where the plot should be.

I’d like to say at this point that the film made up for these failings with its aesthetic – this is, after all, a piece which provides no end of opportunity to impress us visually. And indeed, this is a pretty film. But pretty films are no longer difficult to make, and there is nothing here which is innovative either technically or aesthetically. The robots and monsters are competently done, the cityscapes are recognisable and the scenes of destruction and devastation are realistic, but there is nothing to make us sit up and take notice.

Again, this leaves us with a sense that the film isn’t trying hard enough. Similarly with the casting: There are no big names here, apart from Ron Perleman, whose presence merely points up the relative weakness of the cast as a whole. Hunnam, Elba and the rest give perfectly good performances but very much at the standard of a better episode of Dr Who than a feature film.

Filed under: Film + TV

Film Log: Man of Steel

Details here.

All superhero movies face the problem of how to generate sympathy for the protagonist; after all, it’s hard  to feel sorry for someone with superpowers. The recent trend of “reboot” films face the additional problem of how to tell a story which the audience has already heard in such a way as to give the retelling some artistic purpose or at least, to feel worth the effort.

Man of Steel felt to me like two films: everything up until Zod’s arrival at Earth and everything thereafter. The first part offered no very good solutions to the first problem, falling back on the old and implausible stand-by of Superman unable to use his powers for fear of his identity being revealed. I was hopeful, after a promising start on Krypton, and a cut straight to an adult Superman rescuing survivors from an oil rig disaster, that we would be spared the tedium of a whiny childhood in Smallville; but a few minutes later we were in flashback central, subjected to the secret identity cant overlaid with the traditional but slightly troubling proto-fascist “what the world needs is one really strong man” narrative.

The first half did, however, add some interesting ideas to the Krypton backstory in a way which laid the ground very nicely for the second half. This was rather better, developing the basic idea that Superman had to choose between saving his own race or defending humanity, adding nicely to the well-known story while also giving our (super)hero a genuine moral dilemma and a reason for us to care about him which didn’t depend on his refusal to man up and get on with his life. It didn’t go as far with this as it might have done, but this part of the film was a fairly satisfying by-the-numbers alien invasion romp and too much philosophy would probably have made it a lot less fun than it was.

Having been fairly ambivalent about the first hour of this flick, the second part won me over, right until the unnecessary five minute coda where Superman and Zod slug it out and destroy huge swathes of Metropolis in the process. Like the rest of the film, this was technically very accomplished, but uncertain, from a storytelling point of view, quite what it was doing.

Filed under: Film + TV

Film Log: Star Trek Into Darkness

Details here

This film starts in the middle of the action, with Kirk and Bones being pursued by angry natives, and the action never really lets up. It’s visually very impressive, but there are no lingering camera shots showing off the special effects – almost every moment is used in telling the story.

The story itself is a bit rag-tag, and at times it isn’t clear who knew what and who deceived whom, but there are no inconsistencies and it makes up in energy what it lacks in clarity. The script plays predictably with Spock’s lack of emotion and Kirk’s dedication to his instincts, but doesn’t linger here (or indeed anywhere else).

The film re-imagines material from the original series and movies and here I couldn’t help feel it was a little too clever; the emotion of the final minutes was obscured because one couldn’t help sense the presence of the author, orchestrating echoes of familiar material. Of course, to anyone unfamiliar with the franchise, this wouldn’t matter at all.

In its conclusion, the film says some pleasingly liberal humanist things about America’s relationship with terrorism and justice, re-articulating the values of the original series and (more so) Next Generation. It’s a shame no-one had the courage to make it ten years ago.

Filed under: Film + TV

Film Log: Brave, Puss in Boots, and Hotel Transylvania

Details here, here and here.

All three of these films do a little bit more than it says on the tin. They’re all basically light-hearted and inconsequential animated comedies with a family oriented premise, and none of them tries to be anything else. All three succeed, though, and do so without collapsing into sentimentality or insulting the intelligence of their audience. There are some very funny moments in all three films, and Puss in Boots in particular does a good job of building a whole character and indeed film from a Shrek sidekick. Not having any children I can’t comment on how suitable they would be for watching with a younger audience, but if you want something undemanding and amusing to do for a couple of hours, you could do worse than watch one of these.

Filed under: Film + TV

Film Log: The Bourne Legacy

Details here.

This is a sequel to The Bourne Ultimatum in the sense that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is a sequel to Hamlet. Set synchronously with Ultimatum (and borrowing footage from it), Legacy tells us what is happening off-stage during the former film as characters mentioned in Ultimatum work through the consequences of its events in a largely independent narrative punctuated by them. Unlike Rosencrantz, Legacy doesn’t do anything intelligent or satisfying in making a drama from what is essentially a footnote to another work, instead inviting us to invest in the main conflicts of Ultimatum while failing to provide any resolution to them. I’m not sure how much the writers expect us to remember of Ultimatum, and this is part of the problem: the references to the other film are disorientating and undermining, as it’s never clear how much we are supposed to infer from them. Worst of all, the villains of Legacy don’t really get brought to book, but you’re left uncertain if you’re meant to infer that this is something that happens in or as a consequence of events in Ultimatum, and is simply an abbreviation, or whether it is a deliberate statement about the power of government conspiracy.

The film has a much slower pace than its predecessors, and for the first twenty minutes I wondered if it was aiming at a Tinker Tailor sort of feel: we see a lot of conversation, and very little action. It does pick up but the relaxed, wide-shot camera work undermines what excitement there is. This is particularly true in the lengthy, formulaic and perfunctory motorcycle chase towards the end of the film, where we are more or less watching a (rather tastefully shot) documentary of three people on bikes rather than experiencing the danger of fleeing an assassin in a crowded city.

The action in the first three films is driven by Bourne’s amnesia, his desire to avenge the death of his lover, and his determination to expose the Blackbriar conspiracy. The action in Legacy is driven by Cross running out of the pills provided him by Operation Outcome (in effect, Blackbriar’s successor), on which he is dependent. Not only does this sit badly with the mythology of the previous films – Bourne is presumably subject to a similar or inferior medical regimen but has no dependence on it – but it makes us feel like we’re watching an addict trying to get his fix rather than a hero. Only half-way through the film do we have the sympathy-provoking reveal that if Cross doesn’t get his dose he will be reduced to a gibbering wreck, a fear with which, with more than an hour of the film left to go, we can easily empathise.

Renner (as Cross) and Weisz (as love interest and side-kick Shearing) carry their roles well and have some real chemistry, and things pick up no end while they are on screen together, which luckily is most of the second half of the film. On the other hand, Edward Norton is woefully unconvincing as the villain, coming across more as a slightly overworked primary school teacher than a sinister retired USAF colonel.

To be fair, Matt Damon’s refusal to take part in Legacy, while wanting to take part in any further sequel, posed the writers a unique challenge to which Legacy’s move of documenting the voices off during Ultimatum is not a bad response. However, that response creates an unfavourable set of constraints under which the film struggles to succeed, and which undermine it to the extent that otherwise forgivable weaknesses become far too noticeable.

Filed under: Film + TV

Film Log: Skyfall

Details here.

At some point, someone decided that Bond films should be About something. I’ve always believed this to be an error; the early Bond films are just Christmas crackers stuffed with leftover items from Boys’ Own annuals for Boys old enough to drink, smoke and at least think about having sex. Contrary to what Daniel Craig once said, they really were about the toys. Skyfall, on the other hand, is About staying relevant as one gets older and the changing nature of intelligence and national defence, themes which have been handled rather better in Red and Page Eight 

The problem with films which are About something is that they tend to take themselves seriously and end up being a bit po-faced. This is certainly the case with Skyfall, which is almost entirely humourless, despite a couple of old-fashioned Bond throwaways in the script. This might be a deliberate attempt at sombreness, given the themes at work; certainly it fits well with the slow pace of a lot of the film, the emotionally restrained feel to the acting (which borders on woodenness) and the bleak spaciousness of the photography in the last act. Similarly, the complete absence of chemistry between Craig and Harris (Moneypenny) may be a consequence of unfortunate casting or an effort to leave room for the film’s real love story, that between Bond and M. In the end, this love story is more-or-less convincing, and there is some real pathos in the final scenes, but it’s a long time coming.

The question that springs to mind is why the writers, if this is the film they wanted, open it with a lengthy (and slightly dull) set-piece action sequence. This is the second problem with a Bond film which tries to be About something – it has to fit its themes in around the sine qua non of the series. While Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy has room to examine the subtle political machinations of the Circus with little more than a series of conversations, Skyfall has to explore loyalty, aging and sacrifice through the lens of car chases, exploding helicopters and a cartoonish supervillain. The result is a rather unsatisfactory compromise.

Visually, the film makes a lot of effort to be beautiful, sometimes self-consciously so, and makes good use of its locations and indeed of Craig’s torso. The latter also features briefly in a rather curious and disconnected flirtation between Bond and the villain, which I guess was a last-ditch attempt to do something interesting in a script which is otherwise too constrained by its own ambitions to every really get off the ground.

Filed under: Film + TV

Film Log: Mr Nobody

Details here

This film is set in a future where most humans are immortal, and shows us the last mortal, Mr Nobody, looking back on his life and the three marriages he might have had. The film does nothing with the conceit of immortality, instead presenting us with the twists and turns of Mr Nobody’s life in an intelligent and stylish way, rather as if Luc Besson and Jean-Pierre Jeunet had gotten together and remade Sliding Doors. The diverse strands are eventually tied together into a single narrative, and despite the length of the film (2 hours and 21 minutes) the result was very moving and IMHO worth the wait.

The film is visually beautiful and a little quirky, with occasional nods to The Fifth Element, The Matrix and in a roundabout way The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. Jared Leto does a fine job carrying the central role and all the acting is eminently watchable. This isn’t a film that will thrill but it will delight, and is well worth settling down in front of for an evening with some good friends and a bottle of wine.

Filed under: Film + TV

Film Log: Red

Details here.

The publicity shots for this film feature Helen Mirren holding an Absurdly Big Gun, and that is essentially all you need to know about it. It’s basically a vehicle for Mirren, Willis, Malkovitch and Freeman to have fun, supported very ably by Mary-Louise Parker. The result is a very enjoyable couple of hours in which a lot of perfectly predictable things happen in an artless and engaging way. The plot has no problems but has nothing in it to keep you on the edge of your seat or even guessing about what will happen next, and pretty much every other aspect of the film is similarly competent but unremarkable. If you like the leads, you will enjoy this film only marginally less than sitting in the pub with them for an hour, and if you don’t then it is likely to strike you as a bit of a waste of time.

Filed under: Film + TV

Film Log: The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn

Details here.

This film gives a good sense of the ripping yarn silliness of the books, but garners its plot from a number of unrelated stories which is a bit disorientating if you’re familiar with them. To give the plot a more recognisable emotional arc, it foregrounds Haddock’s family history, making his quest to recover the treasure also one to restore his family’s name and fortune.

This means that Haddock is the hero of the tale and that it is he, not Tintin, who faces the villain in the denouement, which is a bit of a let-down. It also means that the Haddock name gets bandied about a lot more than in the books, with such gems as “It will be wonderful to have a Haddock in charge”, “Haddocks don’t flee” and “Call yourself a Haddock?” peppered about the script with no apparent sense of irony.

The script captures the characters well (although it’s a shame not to see Professor Calculus) and has some very funny moments. I’m sure it would work well for anyone not familiar with the books or the animated series.

The film is, of course, entirely CGI, and I wasn’t sure what this brought to the party. It goes some way to capturing the look of Hergé’s drawings, but isn’t particularly faithful (the characters are recognisable but quite different in detail) but on the other hand it never develops a distinctive visual style of its own. And the fact that the characters are animated certainly takes the punch out of the “stunts” in the big action sequence.

Filed under: Film + TV

My Bookshelf

The Golden Bough
The Value of Nothing
The Fire
A Wolf at the Table
Devil Bones

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