Blade Runner 2049 (US-UK-Canada, 2017)

Life?

After seeing Arrival (US, 2016) I did start to get excited about this sequel to the 1982 classic, one of my favourite films. Denis Villeneuve is an exciting director and it was co-scripted by Hampton Fancher (who’d also co-scripted the original) thus the outlook was promising. All involved have delivered a visually stunning and mind boggling film; there are spoilers ahead.

It’s difficult to know where to start as there are so many ideas, drawn from the original and placed in a 2017 context, which makes this a film that needs a lot of thought. One thing we didn’t have in 1982, of course, was the Internet so now it is easy to see and engage in the discussion about the film.

In 1982 the buzz was that the film, which in those days were always released in America weeks in advance of their UK distribution, was amazing to look at. As an SF fan, particularly of Philip K. Dick, I had to see it and wasn’t disappointed. Obviously I saw the original version with the tagged on happy ending and explanatory voice over. Apparently Harrison Ford read the voice over, which he didn’t want to do, in as a dead pan way as he could hoping it wouldn’t be used. However, the world weary delivery was perfect for a film noir protagonist so it worked well. As for the ending, I understood it to mean (as we didn’t actually see Deckard and Rachel in a green world, it is only suggested) that we’d better look after our planet or we’ll end up in the dystopian world of 2019. Of course (because capitalism reigns) we haven’t looked after our planet and although I don’t expect it to go ‘tits up’ in two years it’s clear we are heading to a climate apocalypse of some description. The production design of 2049 is phenomenal (take a bow Dennis Gassner), the enormous sea walls of the climax are quite chilling, and the world is convincingly 30 years more shit than in the original.

SF is not a genre of prediction because, at its best, it is always about now. By extrapolating trends it seeks to hold a mirror to our world. AI was SF in 1982; now it’s with us. 2049, where most of the protagonists are not human, brilliantly investigates the philosophy of AI, and therefore what it means to be human. K’s relationship with Joi, an AI holograph, is contrasted with Mariette, a ‘pleasure model’. The latter says to the former, after one of the most bizarre and fascinating love/sex scenes ever filmed, (I’m paraphrasing) “There’s less inside you than you think.” A division between different types of humanoid AI is a fascinating idea.

Joi is a male fantasy in terms of her looks, and domestic devotion, and there’s a degree of understandable feminist flak about the representation of women in the film. The film is representing a patriarchal world, though few would dominate Robin Wright’s Lieut. Joshi, and so sexist representations are going to be used. The final time K sees Joi could be particularly exploitative of the female body, the narrative freezes in the way Laura Mulvey describes as typical of Classical Hollywood, but then ‘she’ speaks to him and the point is made. Our understanding of Joi’s and K’s relationship is that it was one of love. However, when she calls him Joe here, and it was she who had named him, we are reminded that she isn’t real, she calls everybody Joe. K stares at her presumably grieving for her but also questioning whether the love was real between them. Hence the narrative isn’t freezing but giving time for the audience (and K) to think: was his relationship with Joi real or a fantasy?

Objectified gratuitously?

Ryan Gosling’s taciturn (he’s always taciturn isn’t he?) Joe K refers to Franz Kafka’s The Trial; the modernist parable of an absurd world. The reference is to the existential angst of a meaningless life which fuels the film’s narrative trajectory; ultimately K’s life has meaning through altruistic sacrifice. His death scene in the snow, where the ‘tears in the rain’ music beautifully infiltrates the soundtrack, is extremely moving. One of the advantages for those of us old enough to have seen the original in 1982 is that 2049 works on our memories through subtle references. Of course anyone who’s seen the original will get the reference however, particularly sitting in the cinema, in an almost Proustian way, the references trigger vivid memories of the first experience of the film; well, they did for me. I was taken back 35 years and watched it with my, now long dead, dad.

Seeking a father is a key narrative driver of both films and movingly, through K, portrays the angst (maybe) experienced by a cyborg; a being with no biological father (or mother). Unlike the original, 2049 is equally interested in mothers and (evil capitalist) Niander Wallace wants to appropriate the female prerogative of being able to give birth. His actual blindness is a metaphor for his inability to understand that women are not meant to be under male power; in that he stands in for the numerous exploitative men that inhabit the film industry.

Male hubris

His (literal) sidekick, Luv, is another type of cyborg, one with fascist tendencies. She relishes being the ‘best’, as she says after beating up K. She enjoys destroying Joi and is aligned with capitalism when she remarks that she’s pleased K was satisfied with their product.

Another strong female, the cyborg revolutionary named after a Norse goddess, is Freysa and although a sequel in the near future seems unlikely, given 2049’s poor North American box office, it does appear that the human race in the film are doomed. To be honest, from the perspective of the dystopia of 2017, we probably deserve to be.

Roger Deakins’ cinematography is brilliant, particularly the way he’s shot water (which brings us life) whether it’s the drops running down windscreens or the gorgeous ripple reflections in Wallace’s lair.

Hollywood is primarily interested in ‘worlds’ which can be transformed into franchises so, in some ways, box office failure is good as it discourages exploitation of ideas for purely commercial gain. Earlier this year Ghost in the Shell (UK-China-India-Hong Kong-US) attempted to remake the brilliant anime (Japan, 1995) into an origin story and I trust its poor quality (and box office) means that won’t happen. However, it is disappointing that cerebral SF films, that require $150m to make, are not a box office attraction; although it’s performed well in the UK and not bad internationally.

I’ve mentioned a few of ideas that are raised in Blade Runner 2049 but there’s a lot more to say. The ‘father-son’ fight, K and Deckard, played out amongst malfunctioning holograms in a ruined Las Vegas, was a tour de force and the eerie red lit mise en scene was haunting until, bizarrely, the sky turned red in the UK a few days ago as the ex-hurricane Ophelia barrelled up the coast of Ireland. It is a film that needs seeing more than once and, for once, the long running time is a bonus because there’s so much to see and you get time to think.

Climactic apocalypse

One thing that I don’t think the makers have right about the world of the future and that is it will be dominated by Caucasians. Like the original, 2049 has been taken to task for its representation of race. Like the original, most white people have gone ‘off world’ to escape the hellish world. They do so because they can afford it; the ‘little people’ are left behind. One shift of the last 35 years is the declining influence of white American power, accelerating under Trump, and the rise of Chinese and Indian influence. The protagonists of international cinema in 30 years time won’t necessarily be American. However, while North America remains the world’s biggest box office it’s likely that the hegemonic white (and male) perspective will continue.

Blade Runner 2049 is a haunting film that asks big questions and is great cinema.

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Arrival (US, 2016)

The arrival of the uncanny

Arrival was one of the few films I saw in the cinema last year when I seemed to be incapable of enjoying movies. Thought-provoking science fiction; what’s not to like? And I enjoyed it even more on a second viewing.

First contact (with aliens) narratives is a staple trope of SF but what Arrival does differently, based on Ted Chiang’s short story ‘Story of Your Life’, is focus on the mechanics of communication. Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1978) imaginatively used music to cross boundaries; Arrival, though, deals with how language makes meaning. If that sounds dry, Amy Adams’ linguist protagonist ensures we’re interested. I’m not meaning that Adams’ looks are what grab our attention, it’s her character.

The film also uses memories in a particular way that I can’t describe without spoiling; but it is utterly fascinating. Jeremy Renner’s a fine side-kick playing a physicist also deputised to try and understand the aliens. It is interesting to speculate how different the film might have been if they gender of the roles had been reversed.

Unsurprisingly, governments’ first responses are to wheel out the military; in an increasingly belligerent age I’m sure that would happen if only because they have spent too many years of watching ‘first contact’ movies where it’s necessary to ‘kick the aliens’ assess’ – assuming there is one. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) still has plenty to tell us about humanity.

Arrival, relatively, was a box office hit which surprised me because it’s far more a cerebral film than the popular SF that rely on special effects; though they are great in the film. After a summer where Hollywood’s artistic bankruptcy is threatening its domestic box office, though not the rest of the world’s (yet), it’s heartening that an interesting, medium budget, independent film can still find an audience.

Canadian Denis Villeneuve, who directed, is undoubtedly a talent  (Sicario and Prisoners are both worth seeing) and the forthcoming Blade Runner sequel suddenly becomes an enticing prospect.

The Handmaid’s Tale (US, 2017)

Piece of resistance

We are living in extraordinary times, politically; this is particularly obvious in the Trump presidency and the openness of neo Nazis in America. Canadian Margaret Attwood’s 1985 novel seemed to me, when I read it at the time, to be out of its time. How naive of me and how prophetic of her. Like all SF (I don’t care she doesn’t like the term that’s what this is) Attwood wasn’t prophisizing but writing about trends in the contemporary world. Bruce Miller’s adaptation, he’s credited as series creator and wrote some of the scripts, obviously updates the source material but Attwood’s premise, of how patriarchy is based on ownership of women and violence, is horrifyingly of the moment. Beware spoilers ahead.

Many of the 10 episodes are written and directed by women, a smart move by Miller for this is a story of oppression of, and ultimately rebellion by, women. Especially powerful were the scenes of sexual exploitation and, without having closely analysed the making, I suspect this is because they were shot from a female perspective. Similarly, in the final episode, when Moira reaches Canada her experience as a refugee is brilliantly realised.

The ability of art to place us in others shoes, and hence encourage empathy, is ‘soft power’ that enrages those on the right, when the texts are liberal, and encourages them to march with their hard power – guns and violence. The monolithic and individualist world view of the right seems to express a mental fragility that cannot cope with anything different to themselves.

The acting is superb throughout; even Joseph Fiennes, who I usually find insipid and weak, has been superbly cast. The direction and cinematography is superb, which is increasingly the case in ‘quality TV’. The dull palette, and freezing weather, contrasted by the blood red cloaks of the handmaidens, is a perfect setting for a world empty of love and passion. I doubt I’ll see anything better on television this year.

Ghost in the Shell (Japan-UK, 1995) and (US-India-China-Japan-Hong Kong-UK-New Zealand-Canada-Australia, 2017)

What am I?

It was great to be able to see the original on the big screen. Apart from the ability to see the awesome detail of the cityscape more clearly, it was Kawai Kenji’s score that had significantly more impact when compared to TV viewing. As I understand it, Ghost in the Shell was a prestige (expensive) production that attempted to rekindle the west’s (relative) enthusiasm for anime that had flared with Akira (Japan, 1988); hence Manga Entertainment’s UK involvement in the production (it’s now owned by Lionsgate). Whilst Studio Ghibli’s productions continued to have a fanbase in the west, there was a gap in the market for a more action orientated film (presumably for fanboys). Whilst anime remains a minority enthusiasm this side of the globe, anyone who saw The Matrix (US, 1999) was seeing the fruits of Ghost’s impact on the Wachowski brothers.

Ghost in the Shell continues to be influential in 2017 not only because of its visuals but in its portrayal of a society where the division between humans and technology is becoming extremely blurred. It wouldn’t have been surprising if this aspect of the film had dated because of the rapid pace of technological development over the last 20 years. However, if anything, it’s even more telling now because although we are not yet able, as humans, to exist online, many people don’t feel they are whole unless they are on the network. Young people, in particular, are wedded to mobile social media. The division between AI and humans, a topic that is ever more relevant as the Internet of Things invades our homes, is central to the film’s concerns.

I can’t, however, say I entirely understand the film; and its brilliant sequel Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (Japan, 2004) is even more opaque. Philosophy is difficult but it isn’t so much the ideas Ghost that perplex, rather what is going on for some of the time. Whilst the complexity may be wilful it can also be read as being about an increasingly incomprehensible world where actual news may be ‘fake news’; for example the fact that Britain and America are complicit in atrocities in Yemen is barely reported. In the UK we voted to leave the EU for reasons not based on truth (and there are many arguments why the EU is not fit for purpose) but on lies. However, Brian Ruh’s detailed plot summary in Stray Dog of Anime: The Films of Mamoru Oshii confirms that the narrative is entirely coherent.

Although there is plenty of narrative drive in the film, it is a three-minute montage of cityscape that is most mesmerising. Colin Marshall offers some interesting analysis of this sequence (here); he explains that the emphasis on the space of the city is linked to cyberspace and shows how the boundaries between the real world and virtual reality is blurring; I’ve yet to look as his other videos. What Marshall doesn’t mention is Kusanagi is present in some of the montage, on her own , in parts of the montage giving us, I think, a sense of her loneliness.

You can see what I am

The first buzz I heard about the American remake was that the film offered another example of Hollywood ‘whitewashing’: Caucasian actors taking the role of minority ethnic characters; as for example in Doctor Strange (US, 2016) and Aloha (US, 2015). In this case it was the casting of Scarlett Johansson as Major Kusanagi. The charge is potent, the white dominance of executive positions in the film industry guarantees a monocular view of what audiences want: BAME, not to mention female characters, won’t appeal to a wide audience’ goes the ‘logic’ despite the evidence to the contrary – see Hidden Figures and Moonlight. See also: ‘Screenplay analysis shows that even in films with strong female leads, the number of lines by men far outweighs those by women’. However, the charge is weak in this case. Japanese anime conventionally doesn’t necessarily draw its characters as Japanese; the one obvious Japanese character in the original, Arimaki, is play by Kitano Takeshi in remake. There’s also a plot point that emphasises Kusanagi’s ethnicity.

Although I’d liked the trailer I was doubtful whether Ghost in the Shell would benefit from the Hollywood treatment and so it proved. Ironically, given the original’s purpose was to appeal to western audiences, the necessity to appeal to a very wide audience to justify the $100m+ budget drains the narrative of its fascination. The philosophy is barely present and the ending is ridiculous. The producers are looking to produce an ‘origin story’ to make the Major, as she is known in the film, as a new superhero. Fortunately poor box office returns suggest this won’t happen.

As noted above, Hollywood has already remade the original in The Matrix that managed to weld gung-ho action to philosophical questions. 1995’s Ghost in the Shell, though, through its eerie beauty and embrace of the human/AI interface, is the film for the 21st century.

PS Cineworld managed to leave us in the dark at the end: excellent. However, the masking was incorrect; this site suggests the problems endemic.

High-Rise (UK-Belguim, 2015)

The depths of civilization

Director Ben Wheatley has a big reputation but I’ve never warmed to his work; however this adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel is quite brilliant. I am a fan of Ballard, though I did most of my reading of him during my teenage years. At that time even though I found it difficult to make sense of, what has come to be known as the Ballardian, the strangeness of his worlds obviously attracted me. I read High-Rise recently and, as far as I can remember, the film makes the themes of the book more obvious. It may be the nature of the filmic image that necessitates pulling what’s on the novel’s page more into focus. This could also be a consequence of Amy Jump’s adept adaptation. If this sounds like I’m playing the book against the film then that’s not the intention; the film is a great interpretation of the book.

Central to the film’s success is setting it in the time in which it was written. The high-rise flat itself, in Ballard’s particular design, did not exist in the ’70s however it was typical of his novels to take familiar bourgeois tropes and intensify them to show their destructive nature. Mark Tildesley’s production design ensures the mise en scene reeks of the decade, as does the costume design, replete with killer sideburns; the latter most befitting Luke Evans’ character, Wilder.

Wild thing

Ballard’s names are melodramatic. Wilder is, as his name suggests, a wild card that rails against restraint, not for political reasons but for the macho fun of it. Tom Hiddleston’s protagonist is Robert Laing, which references psychiatrist R.D. Laing who gained some fame in the 1960s with his suggestion that the (bourgoise) nuclear family created mental illness. The film’s Laing is a physiologist but the parallel is clear. Jeremy Irons plays the high-rise’s architect and lives on the top floor: he’s named Royal. His swept back, greying hair, and hobbling gait (except when he plays squash) give him the ghoulish look of Boris Karloff; a suitable monster to oversee the descent into chaos the building causes. It was during the 1960s that the failure of high-rise flats, as a cheap form of accommodation for the working classes, became apparent: they were soulless, lacking in community and often unsafe. Ballard’s high-rise, however, is home to the bourgeoisie: on the upper floors the posh reside (Laing attends a fancy dress party where everyone, except him, is dressed as 18th century aristocrats); lower down the aspiring middle classes try to buy their way into perceived sophistication through consumer culture.

Laurie Rose, Wheatley’s regular cinematographer, gives the film’s colour palette the look of a polaroid photograph (a ‘must-have’ gadget of the time) its shot in impressive 2.39:1 widescreen. The roving steadicam (not of its time) is reminiscent of Kubrick’s pioneering work in The Shining (UK-US, 1980) adding to the surreal spookiness of the atmosphere.

It’s an excellent cast also including Sienna Miller, Elizabeth Moss and Keeley Hawes. The women are somewhat marginalised; but that was the ’70s. I particularly liked the line, delivered by Moss when she’s having sex with Laing, that he is a good utility; not sure that was in the original but well done to Jump to putting it in. Miller’s very good at conveying the slightly vacant beauty that the patriarchal 1960s expected of its attractive women.

I’ve mentioned that the film’s relatively straightforward to follow but there are some fabulous montages of the decadent chaos the high-rise descends into. I liked the final touch where we hear Margaret Thatcher espousing that only with private sector capitalism can we have true freedom. She probably believed it but Ballard didn’t.

A final plaudit must go to producer Jeremy Thomas, who was also responsible for Crash (Canada-UK, 1996), the only other film that has managed to come close to staging Ballard’s SF brilliance.

The Matrix (US, 1999)

They needed gun

They needed guns

The Matrix was a landmark special effects film; I still remember my awe when Trinity (above left) leapt in the air and froze as the camera tracked around her. Bullet time had arrived just before the turn of the century and CGI started its rule of Hollywood. The Matrix was more than a special effects extravaganza though, its subversive plot was seamlessly integrated with the digital wizardry and the knowingness of the action sequences justified their hyperbole.

I hadn’t seen the film for a number of years but it has stood up well. It was the Wachowski Brother’s second feature (after the superb Bound, US, 1998) and they integrated their cinephilia superbly into the mise en scene. The noir narrative is fully complimented by the set design. They haven’t managed much since unfortunately.

Privilege (UK, 1967)

Some targets hit

Some targets hit

Peter Watkins’ first feature followed two brilliant drama documentaries made for the BBC: Culloden (1964) and The War Game (1965). The latter so convincingly showed the consequences of nuclear war, and Britain’s ridiculously inadequate preparations for it, that it was banned and was only broadcast on Channel 4 (if memory serves) in the 1990s. He’d clearly not lost any of his anti-Establishment fire in Privilege, a dystopian world (‘in the near future’) where government and businesses manipulate pop music to control the masses. Paul Jones, of Manfred Mann, plays a suitably catatonic, or is it ’60s’ ‘cool’ indifference, pop star whose show consists in him being chained and beaten by the police. This stimulates manic ‘Beatlemania’ style screaming from young women. Fashion icon of the time, Jean Shrimpton, plays his ‘love interest’ who might redeem him from his alienation (if such a thing can be done). Add to the mix the Church getting involved in a quasi-fascist rally at the National Stadium and it’s clear Watkins is not holding back in his critique of late ‘560s Britain. Predictably the film was rubbished, as are most works of art aimed at a mass audience that challenges Establishment values, and Rank pulled it from distribution. This Bright Lights article gives excellent detail on the film’s reception.

As to the film itself… Whilst I admire Watkins’ determination to challenge the status quo I think his conflation of pop music with ‘mindless entertainment’ is as reactionary as the Establishment targets he takes on. At the start of the film the vapid close ups of women in tears suggest they are being dehumanised by their adulation of a pop star. Whereas, in the early sixties at least, embracing pop music was an, if not radical, oppositional position to take. Primarily it was an embracing of youth culture as reaction against their parent’s generation. Of course, by the mid-sixties this had been thoroughly commodified though music has managed to go through a variety of anti-Establishment reactions since – Punk, Acid House, Grime – it has always been recouped for the dominant ideology. Such is the logic of capitalism.

I was struck, haven’t recently visited Krakow, Vienna and Prague, how youngsters in the UK seem, more than their Eastern European counterparts at least, to be fashion conscious in a conformist way. On a recent visit to Liverpool (though I did spend some time in the prime shopping area Liverpool 1 so it was a self-selective sample) I was gobsmacked by the uniformity of look (‘C’m on Liverpool! Rebel!’). Maybe Watkins had a point…

Privilege, another of the BFI’s superb ‘flipside’ series, is certainly worth a look. Although it’s not a dramadoc, Watkins uses the same faux documentary voiceover (himself) as in his previous two works. Whilst this was effective on television, its rather intermittent usage, and lack of a particularly realist visual style, works against the immersive effect of film (particularly in cinema). It doesn’t appear to be a Brechtian device, to alienate the viewer from what they’re watching so and engage their thought, as the film would have worked better if it had engaged the emotions more directly. It is difficult to care for Jones’ Steven Shorter who seems to be as alien as David Bowie’s in The Man Who Fell To Earth (UK, 1976). Privilege is an interesting contribution to Britain’s science fiction cinema (notwithstanding Durgnat’s attempt to deny the genre’s qualities – mentioned in the Bright Lights article) and a sidelong glance at the Swinging Sixties though nowhere near as potent as films like Performance (UK, 1970) and Deep End.