Blade Runner 2049


Welcome to your future – breathing is optional.

(2017) Science Fiction (Warner Brothers) Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Jared Leto, Ana de Armas, Edward James Olmos, Sean Young, Dave Bautista, Robin Wright, Wood Harris, Sylvia Hoeks, Hiam Abbass, David Dastmalchian, Mark Arnold, Lennie James, Mackenzie Davis, Carla Juri, Barkhad Abdi, Ben Thompson, Suzie Kennedy, David Benson, Stephen Triffitt, Elarica Johnson. Directed by Denis Villeneuve

 

Some classic films are so perfect, so self-contained that even the idea of a sequel is ridiculous. Why mess with perfection, after all? However, sometimes even beloved classics can have sequels that are as good and maybe some might say even better than the original. It doesn’t happen very often though.

It happened here with this sequel to Ridley Scott’s dystopian sci-fi classic Blade Runner (1982). You’ll recall that the movie was concerned with Rick Deckard (Ford), a Los Angeles cop tasked with hunting down androids – called “replicants” – and killing them – called “retiring.” These sorts of cops are called blade runners for reasons never fully explained. The movie has a wonderful noir edge, terrific performances by Rutger Hauer, Darryl Hannah, Sean Young and Ford, as well as being one of those rare sci-fi films that is entertaining and thought-provoking.

The sequel is set 30 years later and the dystopian rain-soaked future has dried out and become even grimmer which 1982 audiences wouldn’t have thought possible. There are still replicants and blade runners but replicants are no longer used as slave labor since most of the tasks they performed have been fully automated. K (Gosling) is a blade runner who stumbles onto a secret that might change everything – there’s evidence that a replicant father and a human mother conceived a child. This was thought to be impossible but K has to follow the lead, find the child and kill it before its very existence throws civilization into further chaos. Yes, things can always get worse.

The chase leads K to find Deckard who disappeared decades ago. The ex-cop has been hiding out in a decrepit Las Vegas casino, abandoned to the desert sands and nostalgic memories of a bygone age that properly never really existed; however there are forces hard on K’s trail – some looking for their own answers, others looking to make sure that K never completes his mission. And K himself is beginning to have real doubts about the reality of what he’s doing.

Villeneuve who helmed last year’s brilliant and smart alien encounter film Arrival is proving himself to be one of the most truly visionary directors working today. He has delivered another brilliant and smart science fiction film, one loaded with thought-provoking subjects that have to do not only with what it means to be human – a theme thoroughly explored in the first film – but whether it is even preferable being human. There are plenty of topics the film brings up that fans and intellectuals will be arguing about for years to come.

The performances here are strong. Gosling could well get an Oscar nomination again for his performance as the haunted hunter K. He is supported by another outstanding job by Ford resurrecting a classic character he created, as well as Wright as K’s badass boss, Leto as the creepy industrialist who is the main antagonist, de Armas as K’s assistant who is just a little bit different and Hoeks as the malevolent flunky who is out to stop K by any means necessary.

What may impress you most about Blade Runner 2049 are the visuals. I can’t think of a single movie released this year that has created an environment that is so fantastic and yet seems so real and lived in. From the first frame to the last, everything you see onscreen is dazzling. This may well be a slam dunk for an effects Oscar. The only drawback to the film is that it is way too long and could have used a bit more editing.

This is likely to end up on a lot of year end top ten lists and has an outside chance at a Best Picture nomination. The fact that it came out between the summer blockbuster season and the fall and holiday Oscar season may end up hurting it on Academy nomination ballots but as it is close to being released on Streaming and DVD/Blu-Ray (January 16), those who missed it on the big screen (and shame on you – this deserves to be seen that way) have an opportunity to appreciate one of the very best movies of 2017 in their own homes. And for those who already saw it, it will mean a chance to revisit and find new wonders to talk about with movie buff friends.

REASONS TO GO: The story is intelligent and sophisticated. The visuals are absolutely amazing. This is the rare case of a sequel nearly outdoing the classic original.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is way too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, some sexuality, brief nudity and profanity throughout.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The role of K was written with Gosling in mind; no other actor was considered for the part.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Frontier, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/3/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% Positive Reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Dog and His Boy
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
American Made

Alien: Covenant


Speaking of illegal aliens….

(2017) Sci-Fi Horror (20th Century Fox) Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demian Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Jussie Smollett, Callie Hernandez, Amy Seimetz, Nathaniel Dean, Alexander England, Benjamin Rigby, Uli Latukefu, Tess Haubrich, Lorelei King (voice), Goran D. Kleut, Andrew Crawford, Javier Botet, James Franco, Guy Pearce, Noomi Rapace. Directed by Ridley Scott

 

Back in 1979, movie posters and trailers proclaimed that “In space no-one can hear you scream” and a classic of science fiction was born, one that changed the entire genre. Alien still reverberates as one of the most influential sci-fi movies of all time.

In this sequel to Prometheus a colony ship called the Covenant suffers a fire that sweeps through the colonist sleep chambers killing the captain (Franco). Taking over is Orem (Crudup), a religious sort who is a bit on the indecisive side. Despite the objections of the Captain’s widow and second officer Daniels (Waterston), the new captain decides to take the crippled Covenant to a planet from which a distress signal is coming – one that incongruously takes the form of John Denver’s “Country Roads.”

Orem takes a team including their android Walter (Fassbender) who is of a similar model to David from Prometheus and Tennessee (McBride), Lope (Bichir) and Karine (Ejogo). They find a beautiful paradise with a disturbing apparent lack of animal and insect life but there are strange alien spores that once they get into a human system hatch nasty little alien neomorphs – a colony of which soon makes their presence known. The neomorphs seem to be not unlike velociraptors only angrier.

Taking refuge in an abandoned city, they discover to their surprise David, the last survivor of the Prometheus incident and David has plans – plans that aren’t going to be so good for the surviving members of the reconnaissance mission.

The big knock against the movie has been that the plot is too close to the first movie but I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. If you’re going to take your plot from a movie, you could do a lot worse. There are some other things that I have issues with but more on that later.

Fassbender has the dual role of the innocent Walter and the devious David and he plays both quite well. Through the magic of CGI the two Fassbenders interact and even kiss – a homoerotic moment that nobody had ever even conceived before although it may well have been simply irresistible to an actor’s ego to seduce himself.

McBride, not one of my favorite actors to date, delivers his best performance ever and shows some real screen charisma that I hadn’t seen in him before but now that I think about it, I think he always had but just hadn’t found the right cinematic vehicle for it. I hope this leads to some new sorts of roles for McBride in the near future.

Scott, now pushing 80, still can direct an action sequence like few others in cinematic history. There’s a battle between Daniels and a xenomorph on a loader ship that really ranks up there among the best in the franchise history and certainly one of the best this year. Waterston is not really known as an action actress but she definitely channels Sigourney Weaver in that sequence and others throughout the film.

Some of the CGI looked unfinished as if the effects houses ran out of time before the deadline and the producers just plugged in what they had. That was a little distressing particularly since Scott has shown comfort with CGI going back to Gladiator and used it well in Prometheus and The Martian as well.

My main issue here is the script. It’s a bit convoluted and at times long-winded. There are also way too many characters here, most of which exist to get picked off by the alien. That gives the movie a bit of a slasher mentality despite the trappings of a fairly intellectual science fiction epic. They may as well have named all of the characters save Fassbender and Waterston “Lieutenant Deadmeat” although I will say not all of them meet a grisly end at the hand of the creature.

Scott has hinted that there will be another prequel (and possibly two) that will tie directly to the first film. At one time that would be exciting news but frankly the franchise feels a little tired here. It could be that the director has wisely figured out that the xenomorph has essentially run its course (his original idea was to steer the series off in a different direction but the studio wouldn’t allow it) but it also could be that Scott needs to pass the torch to someone who could revitalize the series much like James Cameron did with Aliens. I certainly wouldn’t object.

REASONS TO GO: The loader fight sequence is spectacular and the action sequences are well-done overall. Fassbender delivers a fine dual performance and McBride is impressive.
REASONS TO STAY: The story is convoluted and overpopulated with unnecessary characters. Some of the CGI wasn’t up to the standards of the other films.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of violence and gore, profanity and some sexuality and nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first Alien film to be released after the death of H.R. Giger who designed the original alien xenomorph.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/16/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Alien3
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Logan Lucky

Bicentennial Man


Bicentennial Man

I wouldn't say that Robin WIlliams is a bit stiff in this role but...

(1999) Science Fiction (Touchstone) Robin Williams, Embeth Davidtz, Sam Neill, Oliver Platt, Kiersten Warren, Wendy Crewson, Hallie Kate Eisenberg, Lindze Letherman, Angela Landis, John Michael Higgins, Bradley Whitford, Stephen Root. Directed by Chris Columbus

One of the most wonderful things about Isaac Asimov’s robotics stories is that while cloaked in science-fiction terms, what he was really writing about was the nature of humanity. Then again, all the great science-fiction writers always did.

Bicentennial Man opens in 2005 when the Martin family, led by proud daddy Richard (Neill) uncrate their first domestic robot (Williams). Their youngest daughter (Eisenberg, a moppet best known for a series of Pepsi ads at the time) inadvertently names the automaton when she mispronounces “android.” Andrew’s arrival is greeted with suspicion and even outright hostility, in the form of the eldest daughter (Lindze), but he gradually works his way into the family’s heart.

After the eldest’s attempt to do away with Andrew, Richard informs his family that henceforth they will treat Andrew as a person, and his compassion leads to a miracle of sorts: Andrew begins to develop his own personality, one of gentle curiosity, quiet humor and yes, even love. Andrew chooses to explore the man in the machine, and his journey takes him 200 years (hence the movie’s title) into the future, and through several generations of the Martin family. His creators at NorthAm Robotics take a skeptical approach but eventually the uniqueness of Andrew leads to a whole different relationship between creators and creation.

Not unlike a latter-day Pinocchio, the search is not without pain and joy, but in the end it is a very human tale. Williams is more restrained than usual, but magnificent as always – what inspired casting! Of all the actors in Hollywood, he wears his humanity most expressively on his face. Although he spends much of the movie wearing what must have been an uncomfortable suit and make-up, his performance is greatly nuanced. It would have surprised me if Williams had gotten an Oscar nod given the Academy’s feelings about science-fiction in general, but one would have been richly deserved here – in my humble opinion, his work in this movie was at least as good if not better than the role he did win the statuette for in Good Morning, Vietnam.

There is much to laugh at here as Andrew looks at the world not unlike a newborn baby with his acquired feelings and sensations. He makes mistakes and sometimes misunderstands cliches (a cliche about mechanical men in the movies in itself) but there is also much to cry about as well. A scene near the end when the nearly immortal Andrew chooses humanity and love over eternity is a heartstring puller. Da Queen rated this a four-hankie sniffer, high praise from my wife indeed, who loves nothing more than a good sob in her popcorn.

The ever-dependable Neill gives a solid performance as the family patriarch and conscience and Embeth Davidtz who plays Andrew’s love interests in two separate generations does a good job. Oliver Platt shines as an eccentric roboticist as well but as noted earlier, this is Robin Williams’ show and he shines. Director Chris Columbus also has a fine visual flair as he displays the future in breathtaking cityscapes that are not so farfetched, combining the familiar with the fantastic, and placing the characters in homes that look authentic. This visual flair would serve him well shortly after this was made as he launched the Harry Potter series, his hiring for that job largely based on his work here.

Bicentennial Man is, at heart, a humanist fable, one which appeals to the heart and to the eyes. It asks a tough question – What does it mean to be human? – and the answers are not simple. Because the robots in the story do not exist yet, some might complain that this is a moot point for now, but it is only when we explore ourselves and ask questions like those asked by Bicentennial Man that the real beginning of wisdom manifests itself.

WHY RENT THIS: Oscar calibre performance by Williams and solid support by Platt, Neill and Davidtz. Wonderful cityscapes and believable futuristic homes.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The film’s reach exceeds it’s grasp just a little bit.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of foul language and some sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The headquarters of NorthAm Robotics is actually the world headquarters of Oracle Systems in Redwood Shores.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $87.4M on a $100M production budget; the film was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Surrogates


Rosamund Pike is lying down on the job.

Rosamund Pike is lying down on the job.

(Touchstone) Bruce Willis, Radha Mitchell, Rosamund Pike, James Cromwell, Boris Kodjoe, Ving Rhames, James Francis Ginty, Michael Cudlitz, Jack Noseworthy, Devin Ratray, Helena Mattson, Jeffrey de Serrano, Danny Smith. Directed by Jonathan Mostow

All of us are the sums of our own experiences. When we begin experiencing things by proxy, how real are those experiences? What is the line between our humanity and our bodies?

In the future, most people are electronically linked to androids called Surrogates. These virtually indestructible beings can do amazing things, things humans aren’t engineered to do. These Surrogates live our lives for us while we remain in the safety of our own homes. Invented by the reclusive Dr. Canter (Cromwell), his company VSI had grown to be one of the largest, most prosperous in the world although Canter had long since parted ways with them.

Tom Greer (Willis) works as an FBI agent. He and his partner Lorene Peters (Mitchell) are called to the scene of a crime where a mysterious motorcyclist (Noseworthy) – whose name, we later find out, is Miles Strickland – caused a car to slam into a group of Surrogates waiting to get into a nightclub. Not much of a crime really – destruction of property. The real problem materializes when it turns out two of the Surries (Smith and Mattson) had been hit with some sort of electric feedback device, blowing out their ocular devices, their chips and, as it happens, their operators as well.

Greer realizes quickly that they are dealing with a homicide, the first in a decade or more. Although his boss Andrew Stone (Kodjoe) is skeptical, the evidence looks pretty incontravertible. Things begin to get really messy when they find out that the male victim was in fact the son of the legendary Dr. Canter.

Greer has problems of his own. His son died recently in a car accident and his wife Maggie (Pike) has retreated further and further into the world of her Surrogate. The gulf between the two of them is widening, and he doesn’t know how to begin to bridge it.

When Strickland is spotted, a chase ensues that leads into a human’s only zone – an enclave of Luddites that have turned their backs on the Surrogacy technology and live simply, following the words of a semi-religious leader known as The Prophet (Rhames). They are called, somewhat snidely, Dreads by the Surrogacy-plugged humans and not for their choice of hairstyles, although the Prophet has plenty of those. This refers to a perceived fear of technology.

Despite the ban on Surrogate presence in the Dread zones, Greer chases Strickland in there anyway (not that he has a choice – the helicopter he’s riding in crashes there after Strickland turns the feedback weapon on the pilot of the ‘copter) and his Surrogate is destroyed before he can get the weapon away from Strickland.

However, now Greer is without a Surrogate and has to enter the real world for the first time in a very long time. Vulnerable, terrified and unused to his own body, he must investigate this crime and find out who’s behind it before the weapon is unleashed on millions of innocent people.

The movie is based on a Top Shelf graphic novel. Mostow, who has a fine resume of solid action movies, delivers again here. Basically, he realizes that the technology here is just taking existing surveillance, communications and social interaction technology to the next level. Surrogates are merely physical manifestations of the avatars we use in programs like Second Life and YoVille. Beyond that, the world onscreen is pretty much recognizably the world outside our door.

As intriguing as the premise is, it needs a decent cast to pull it off. Willis has made a career out of roles like this, the imperfect cop. He’s not the superman who leaps tall buildings in a single bound (although his avatar comes close to that); he has an Achilles heel, his personal life is a mess and while he has great instincts, he doesn’t always get his man – at least, not right away. Radha Mitchell is impressive here. She is one of those actresses that don’t get considered for plum roles, but whenever she does get onscreen, you scratch your head and wonder why she isn’t getting that consideration. She’s a marvelous actress and as she shows here, she cleans up rather nicely too.

The action sequences are pretty impressive. There are two main chases; the one where Greer’s Surrogate chases Strickland into the Dread zone and one later where the human Greer chases a Surrogate through the streets of Boston. It’s a marvelous juxtaposition, and Mostow handles it masterfully. There are some special effects, but this isn’t a movie overloaded with them. Mostly, he leaves it to the make-up artists who do a great job of making Willis look younger (with a little help, no doubt, from some CGI) and the Surrogates look nearly perfect.

There are a few quibbles. I found myself wondering why the FBI would be called in on what was ostensibly a destruction of property call, one that the local police would normally handle. The next time I see some teens defacing our development’s fence with graffiti, I’ll be sure to call our local Bureau.

This time of year the multiplexes are filled with summer leftovers and movies that the studios want to get into theaters as quickly and as quietly as possible. Surrogates is a good choice for those looking for a newer movie with a goodly amount of quality that won’t leave you feeling like you just wasted the last two hours of your life when you leave the theater. In September, that’s about as good as it gets.

REASONS TO GO: An intriguing premise handled well with some decent action sequences. Willis inhabits a role that must feel familiar to him. The world depicted here is realistic and believable.

REASONS TO STAY: Not a lot of amazing effects for a science fiction film. There are a few head-scratching moments in terms of logic.

FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of violence, some foul language and some implied sexuality. Suitable for most teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the scenes inside the VSI building, one of the video screens displaying VSI commercials shows the rotating head of a T-800 Terminator from Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines which Mostow also directed.

HOME OR THEATER: If you’re looking for a decent film in the multiplex this time of year, this one fits the bill. Otherwise it’s fine on home video.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Visitor