Blade Runner 2049…

Blade Runner 2049, the best film of 2017 that no-one saw…

It saddens to admit it, but I have to eat humble pie. I had quite a few reservations about the planned sequel to Blade Runner ever since I heard the news. The original is one those classic films which has had such a huge impact on popular culture, that it’s difficult to remember that when it came out, it was neither well received or commercially successful. I can understand; it’s a film that demands several viewings to really form a strong opinion, but it is a film that’s close to my heart. I felt protective, even defensive about the whole idea. But now that I have seen it I can confidently say that it one of the best films coming out this year, and probably for quite a few years. It’s a masterpiece of editing and directing, with some fantastic performances and bold story choices. Let’s look a little deeper.

The first thing that needs to be addressed are the visual elements. Denis Villeneuve does a stellar job recapturing the intense composition of the original film whilst still making it his own. The frequent use of wide shots to establish setting and linger on the huge buildings that dwarf the main characters is still there, but Denis puts the characters into new settings as often, meaning that the film doesn’t just feel like a copy paste job. And Villeneuve also takes care to not overuse this tribute, for example in the final climax. The scene takes place in a dark car slowly falling underwater. This claustrophobic setting creates a tense mood and the churning seawater effectively mirrors the extreme emotion of the scene. I’d go as far as to say that in some respects, Villeneuve has surpassed the cinematography of the original, although I still prefer the set and costume design from the first.

For instance, the way in which the hologram Joi, played by Ana de Armas, interacts with her surroundings is astounding. Most film holograms look normal for the most part and stand without touching anything so as not to spoil the illusion, such as Rimmer from Red Dwarf. Not so with Joi; she frequently walks through and inside the other characters, and her head can suddenly sprout through another character’s head without warning. The way in particular the rain hits her body and causes see-through patches is incredible to watch. It’s a laudable achievement of both cinematography and digital effects and all those who worked on it should be very proud.

As to story, Blade Runner 2049 has proven me very wrong. I was convinced that the film would suffer from sequel-itis and try to redo the same plot elements and themes from the first film. However, while there are shared themes and moments the story goes in a very different direction and has some genuine surprises that I didn’t see coming. My other big fear about the story was that the writers would place too much importance on Deckard and Officer K, the protagonist played by Ryan Gosling. I’m about to discuss spoilers now, so if you haven’t seen it, skip to the last paragraph for the summary! When K discovers the bones of a replicant that somehow gave birth to a child, I began to worry, thinking that they were making K into a chosen one archetype, a special snowflake. When he was revealed as the child, I almost groaned with disappointment, so imagine my surprise when the twist was untwisted in the last third of the film. The leader of the replicant resistance reveals that Deckard and Rachels child was in fact a girl, and that K is just a normal replicant. This revelation comes after K has lost Joi, and this revelation destroys him. The double twist took me completely by surprise and was a brilliant inversion the usual cliché, even if the dialogue was a little on the nose, “Oh…you thought it was you?”. Well done writers, you had me there.

So, the story is original and while paying homage to the first film, finds its own stride, and the visuals and cinematography are fantastic, but what about actors? Apart from a slightly wooden performance from the resistance leader Freysa, played by Hiam Abbass, most of the actors do a splendid job. Ryan Gosling was engaging as the desperate and downtrodden Officer K, and Jared Leto almost redeemed himself for Suicide Squad, proving that he can be good given a decent director. He plays Niander Wallace, an intense blind businessman desperate to expand his accomplishments by breeding replicants together. The highlight roles for me however, were Harrison Ford as Deckard and Sylvia Hoeks as Luv.

Ford returns to the role with a new feel. Whereas the Deckard of the first film was jaded and numb from his work as a Blade Runner, this Deckard has learned to treat replicants no differently. He doesn’t even care if his dog is real or not. Ford gives him a wealth of sadness and pain from years of isolation and longing for his long dead Rachel. In particular, the scene in which Wallace offers Deckard a newly made Rachel is incredible. Ford brings a nuanced and restrained performance, hinting at the depth of feeling Deckard is trying to push down. This Deckard even shows concern for an injured K, despite knowing he is a replicant. Clearly, he has been on a journey since the first film.

But for me the most stand out actor is Sylvia Hoeks. She plays Wallace’s right hand, a replicant called Luv who is a strange mixture of charm, vulnerability and brutal cruelty. As a servant to a callous businessman with no regard for replicant life, she’s clearly learned to be the strongest, most useful she can, desperate to survive, not be disposed of. She takes pride in being “the best” and as such is violent and domineering to replicant and human alike, right up until her savage fight in the water with K, which she nearly wins. And yet she can be civil and charming, almost insightful. When we first meet her, I assumed she would be the Rachel parallel, as she has similar costuming and is in the same type of job. She flirts with K, and is nothing but helpful. Even then, we get a hint of her vicious nature when she uses her brute strength to open a broken door, telling us that she’s not above getting her hands dirty. And when Wallace kills a newly born replicant in front of her, she cries. She’s not without empathy, but knows that in her position, she cannot show weakness; she must be the best. Her death then, is almost tragic.

Overall, Blade Runner 2049 is a masterfully made film, with many elements that improve upon the original, and from an objective point of view, it’s a more evenly paced and structured story, which would suggest it’s better. But for me, nothing is one hundred percent subjective, and the film doesn’t make me feel as strongly as Blade Runner. There is no scene in the new film which quite reaches the level of poetry of the tears in the rain speech, or the first meeting of Deckard and Rachel. There are many great moments, but I don’t think there are any iconic moments. People probably won’t be quoting this in thirty years. Which is fine, Denis Villeneuve doesn’t need that to make a great film, and I respect him more for not trying to replicate those moments. Scenes such as that are more happy flukes. So from a non-biased viewpoint, Blade Runner 2049 is a better made movie, but I personally still prefer the first film. And if you haven’t already, please go see it in the cinema, it is a crime that it hasn’t been a box office success. If we don’t buy films like these, then we won’t get them anymore. Or better yet, watch both!

Rick and Morty’s Toxic Fan-base…

The problem with fan-bases…

This week I thought I would stray away from a particular format, and tackle a topic that has bothered me for quite a while about films and TV, the people who watch them. In case this entire blog isn’t evidence enough, I watch a lot of both, and of course I would define myself as a fan of many franchises, particularly television. For the most part, a fandom is a good thing; a group of grateful people showing appreciation for a piece of media that has brought them a lot of joy. However, I’ve encountered another sort of fan over the course of my viewership; the toxic fan.

Whilst most fans are lovely people who sincerely enjoy something just for it’s merits and are thrilled when more people watch the thing they enjoy, there are those who feel entitled to be the only ones watching. These toxic fans delight in exclusivity and much like the traditional image of a hipster, can’t stand anyone else knowing about the thing they love, as it diminishes their own importance. Never mind that lots of people have discovered something they enjoy, never mind that the creators will now get more money and be able to make their product better, no it’s all about you. A good example of a fan-base that has been tainted by a toxic minority is the Rick and Morty fans.

For those few of you who haven’t heard, Rick and Morty started off as a parody of Back to the Future before evolving into a biting satire and wickedly funny sitcom, created by Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland. It straddles the line between being crass and silly and yet clever and nihilistic. I resisted watching it for a long time, partly because of the huge pressure from friends to start watching it, and when I finally did, I found it was a hugely fun series. Then I noticed that some the throwaway silly jokes, such as Rick’s pointless catchphrases kept getting latched onto by fans. But no big deal, right? So what if some people like to repeat stupid phrases on the internet, why does it matter? I’m glad you asked. I bring it up to illustrate a lack of understanding of the joke. The catchphrases keep changing to mock the idea of a character having a single phrase to hook viewers. It’s not a sincere phrase, yet it is taken as such, and this creates problems, because it shows a blind emulation of things in the show without understanding them.

Recently, the show made a joke about Rick being motivated only at getting McDonald’s Szechuan dipping sauce, which was a temporary promotional item for the film Mulan. The joke is that we don’t know Rick’s true motivation and never will, so it could be the sauce for all we know. However, this spawned a desperation amongst fans to get hold of this sauce, to emulate their beloved Rick. This was fuelled by McDonald’s cashing in on the free publicity and selling the sauce in a limited run last week. The problem was that the fans were too many and McDonald’s couldn’t meet the demand, leading to actual riots. Over sauce. Sauce which can be bought in Asda or Walmart by the way. The problem is clear, a need to try and be Rick. The character of Rick is intentionally a horrible person. He’s grumpy arrogant, nihilistic and selfish and the comedy arrives from his complete lack of normal social restrictions, thanks to his overwhelming intellect. The character is flawed and interesting, and leave it to a few desperate fans to completely miss the point. A small vocal minority of fans think that because the show has clever writing, only very smart people can truly appreciate it. Never mind all the lowbrow fart jokes and visual gags that make it accessible to almost everyone. Never mind the fact that a lot of people love it, only true genii can understand this 20-minute cartoon.

I don’t say this to disparage the series, if anything it’s part of what I love about it. It’s clever and yet has something for everyone. But to suggest that the show is off limits, to have the arrogance to actually create a secret Facebook group for clever people who truly “get” the show (yes this really happened) is very toxic. It creates an exclusive atmosphere which turns off newcomers to the show, which could ironically hurt the very show you claim to love. People shouldn’t try to be emulating Rick. The point is that we aren’t him. We are more likely Jerry, or Morty, the normal people in the show, and it should be clear that someone who is willing to commit massive genocide when drunk, isn’t meant to be a role model.

However, the toxicity of the fan-base also applies to bigots. When some the third season episodes didn’t quite meet expectations, sexist fans immediately blamed the new female writers on the show and started harassing them online, despite the fact that each episode is collaboratively written. This immediate assumption that the smelly girls have dirtied your treasured TV show is as immature and possessive as it is pathetic. And don’t get me wrong, the majority of Rick and Morty fans are fine humans beings, but it’s always the loud minority which spoils things for the rest of us. In Rick and Morty’s case the minority has evolved from slightly annoying, to dangerously toxic, and unlike in the show, we should consider cutting our toxic side loose. These immature, misogynistic, whiny babies are giving the show and other fans a bad name, and I know I speak for all of us when I tell those who riot over sauce or harass women for daring to write on a TV show, to grow up, and just like a TV show for being good. Is that too much to ask?

Making a Scene: Blade Runner

Looking at a scene from one of the best Sci-fi noir films of all time…

As I’ve just started my final year at university, I haven’t managed to get out and see a new film in a while, so this week is going to carry on with a segment I introduced a while ago: making a scene. I’m going to analyse a scene from one of my favourite noir films and ask the question; what makes it stay with me? Since the new Blade Runner 2049 film will be coming out this week, and everyone is either very excited or very worried about whether or not it will live up to the original, I thought I’d take a look at a single scene from Blade Runner and examine what makes it so iconic.

It’s tough to look at a film like Blade Runner without a certain amount of bias. It’s one of those films which has a passionate cult following and many film geeks, myself included will wax lyrical about why it’s such a masterpiece. It’s had a huge impact on popular culture, and film-making in general. To separate the impact of the film from the actual objective quality is therefore a tricky process. If I wrench myself away from my bias I have to admit that the film does have a number of problems. It is a masterpiece, but a flawed one. One of the flaws is that the pacing does drag a bit. Like a typical contemplative noir Blade Runner is a slow film, it takes an hour for Deckard to even find his first replicant, and this can hurt the story. With repeat viewings you can get used to the pace and immerse in the world, but on the first watch it’s hard to ignore. A big part of why this ceases to be a problem on multiple viewings is that we tend to remember the iconic scenes. These stick in our head long after we forget the rest of the film, and so it’s easier to get through the movie, knowing our favourite parts are coming up.

There are several evocative scenes in Blade Runner, such as the “tears in rain” speech at the end of the film (arguably one of the most beautiful speeches in cinema history), but one stands out to me more than the others for several reasons. It’s the scene in which Deckard first meets Rachel at the Tyrell building. I remember the first time I saw this, it gave me shivers down my spine. The soft music, expert lighting and exquisite sound design worked hand in hand with nuanced acting from Harrison Ford and Sean Young. The scene is oddly soothing and yet sets up a lot of the major themes going into the rest of the film. The images presented are also timeless and iconic, Rachel smoking in darkness, the close-up of her eye, even the bright pyramids in the background. Matte paintings never seemed so real.

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The main reason this scene is so visually evocative is the way light is used. The huge room makes the heavy shadows seem endless, dwarfing the characters and the light coming from the evening outside sets a golden glow on points in the room creating strong contrast. This all gives the scene an ethereal, almost unreal atmosphere, which mirrors the replicants and their “gifted” memories. The characters often walk out of shadow into the light, such as when Tyrell enters the room. Their faces are illuminated similar to a stage spotlight. When Rachel sits down to take the Voight-kampff test, her cigarette smoke is lit up and bathes her face, creating a protective mask, and hinting at her true nature. She is disconnected from the regular humans. Having her face covered in darkness, lit only from behind bring her bright eyes into focus and creates a second “mask”. We see her as Deckard sees her, beautiful and mysterious. Sean Young gives a spectacular performance here, a career highlight, and the way she uses half smiles and slight tilts of the head to indicate her curiosity and hidden insecurity is masterful. This is unquestionably her scene.

But the light is only part of what makes the scene come alive. There is also the set design, which utilises huge architecture and classic antiquity style furniture, making the chamber seem more at home in a fantastical palace than a corporate office. This sets the otherworldly atmosphere, making the wealthy elite seem as though they live on a different planet altogether. The size and style contrasts with the grimy neon streets and Deckard’s scruffy appearance, putting the character on the back foot from the first. The tall pillars and pyramids remind us of temples and empires, creating parallels to the pharaohs and their slaves and the Tyrell corporation and their replicants.

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Another aspect of this scene which cements it as one of my personal favourites is the music and sound design. I love the way the echo is used to add to that almost mystical atmosphere, and the diegetic sound of the water blends with the music, creating a soothing rhythm which I sometimes use to help me sleep. This music might as well be Rachels theme; it plays as she enters and swells as she speaks. It’s choral and a little eerie at the same time, and this helps to emphasise the privilege afforded at Tyrell and the disconnection from what is going on in the streets, where the music is more instrumental and mournful. The music in Blade Runner is an echo of the characters and their world, and it serves to illustrate the differences, and evoke an atmosphere of inevitability. This scene in particular has beautiful music which stays with you long after the scene is over.

This scene is a perfect example of many of the best things about Blade Runner, the music, set design, acting and lighting. But one of the main reasons I chose this scene over the death of Roy Batty is that this moment is a quieter, more subtle part of the film. It’s a prelude to where the rest of the plot is going and a set up to the themes and arc of the story. In setting up the idea of a replicant nearly passing the test, and using Rachel to demonstrate the blurred lines between man and machine, the rest of the story falls into place with ease. Deckard’s journey is set. It’s a scene which I admire all the more, because setting up story elements is often the hardest part to do well. Watch carefully the next time you see Blade Runner, and hopefully you’ll appreciate this scene in a new light.