Archive for February 17, 2018

© 2018 G.N. Jacobs

Some movies just land wrong and Blade Runner 2049 is one of them. But, then there’s landing wrong in the sense of belly-flopping off the 30-meter platform at the Olympics and misjudging the last step off the escalator at the bottom of the landing in a London Tube Station. For me, watching this movie on disk well after the theatrical run felt more like the latter.

Scene. We open on the same white over black exposition cards that in the original Blade Runner told us all about the replicants, blade runners and the Tyrell Corporation. This time thirty years have passed and the Nexus 8, a later series progressing from the Nexus 6, have rebelled so often that they were banned driving Tyrell out of business. A new corporation figured out how to hardwire slavish obedience into various newer series of replicants allowing their usage on Earth. Blade Runners still exist to retire any remaining Nexus 8 and other replicant lines that might still be hiding in plain sight on Earth.

A replicant designated Officer K-[lots of letters] (Ryan Gosling) flies his car through the ever present rain that has defined Southern California since whatever ecological damage dumped on the City of Angels before the first movie. He lands near a protein farm that grows edible worms that can be ground up to mimic meat and other more palatable protein sources. K-[lots of letters] gets out into the gray gloom to investigate.

K-[lots of letters] meets Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), an early model Nexus 8 long on the LAPD old case list. After conversation that reveals things like the protein farmer also grows garlic for his own use. To Sapper, the irony of sending a replicant from the newer slave series created by the Wallace Corporation that replaced Tyrell to kill him is funny or tragic depending on how much whiskey the listener had just before entering the farming pods. But, then Sapper says – “Doesn’t matter, I’ve seen a miracle!” – just before K-[lots of letters] puts a big bullet through the big replicant’s head.

And what is that miracle? K-[lots of letters] spots a tree under which he finds a dropped daisy that may or may not be a remembrance for the dead. The various scanners in the tricked out flying car solve that question right away detecting a box buried among the roots. He digs it up and takes it back to the lab for analysis. In the box, the ME finds bones of a woman with the markers of someone likely to have died in childbirth when the emergency C-section went bad and septic. The lab also finds a replicant serial number on a rib, which leads back to the oldest of the outstanding old cases…Rachel (Sean Young).

And so K-[lots of letters] begins a journey that will ultimately lead to him taking the name Joe and reunite Dekard (Harrison Ford) with the child he made with Rachel. And the replicants hiding in the shadows of society are lurking waiting for just the right rallying cry to rise up and demand rights from their creators.

I wanted to like this movie more mostly because of the strength of the original despite my annoyance with original director, Ridley Scott, creating four different cuts of his movie that really didn’t change very much understanding. Denis Villenueve did everything he could as director to call us back to the original film, but ended up giving us a slow moving and long film that couldn’t quite live up to the promise of the premise.

It was in the B-plot between Joe and his holographic helpmeet Joi (Ana de Armas) that I found things to like. Joi names Joe overcoming his clunky K-[lots of letters] designator and she’s always there in her mobile emitter to warmly welcome her man home. And when this culminates in Joi hiring a replicant hooker with whom to merge for a sex scene because holographs need help to have sex, my eyes opened up.

As you might guess, the identity of Dekard’s child is the McGuffin of the movie. K-[lots of letters] was sent to kill the child. Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) is sent by Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) to grab the child alive in order to reverse engineer replicant sexual reproduction to expand the use of replicant slaves in interstellar exploration. By the time, that K-[lots of letters] fully transforms into Joe, we spend a few minutes thinking that he might have been the child due to scrambled genetic records that suggest the child might have been male or female.

As this plot unfolded, I found myself trying to guess the most interesting way to land a huge twist with the reveal. And I thought the choice underwhelming. No, I won’t say what my personal “if I’d written the movie” whine-fest solution was because as a writer/reviewer I can’t think of anything more insulting to another creator than to lecture him about the “proper” way to make his movie. All you need to know is that these concerns exist and move on from there.

I’ve mentioned that the real knock against this movie is the nearly three-hour running time and slow pace that makes said three hours feel like six. Don’t get me wrong, three hours with more gunplay or just scenes that matter more dramatically might come out closer to Lawrence of Arabia, but it was not to be what with K-[lots of letters]/Joe sitting in chairs looking at screens that told him what the next clue was. I’m already clawing out my eyes.

As I write this, I’ve also decided that the evil corporate CEO Niander Wallace proved a character mostly superfluous to the story I saw on my TV screen. Replicant Luv didn’t need an onscreen boss as she tore up the rainy Los Angeles on her mission. This is not me throwing shade at Mr. Leto over his stellar performance but the realization that some roles are just easy to cut out when the audience might like their diet of cyberpunk metaphor served quicker with more film blood.

But, it wasn’t a completely miserable experience. Watching Sylvia Hoeks, Ana de Armas and Robin Wright (LT. Joshi) tear up their individual variations on the female metaphor was pleasurable. Homicidal replicant, loving hologram and human police commander should make for some interesting English papers discussing metaphor and females archetypes in college English classes for the next few years. It helps that all three ladies acted the hell out of their roles; otherwise students won’t care.

I must also shout out for the cinematography that has always been a hallmark of the franchise. Roger Deakins found every shadow needed to help put me visually into the dystopian Los Angeles where it always rains like present-day Seattle and I can’t say enough good things about how beautiful the darkness is even when the darkness becomes an orange blur in the nuclear wasteland that is Las Vegas.

Pretty much a shorter and more violent version of this movie with more replicants getting “retired” might have been more fun. A shorter and more violent movie that lets Joe and Joi go out for a bad date that then forces changes to society and their relationship could also work. A shorter and more violent movie that sees Niander Wallace kept off screen in favor of Luv also might fly. Shorter and more violent…got it!

And with that…review’s over go home!

© 2018 G.N. Jacobs

Some war movies have helped define filmmaking for generations to come. Other war movies miss the presumed good version of the why and divide the audience into the “it’s a movie and war is part of our shared experience” and “how dare you produce such obvious pro-Government militaristic toxic masculinity propaganda” camps. The recent movie 12 Strong is no Hurt Locker in that choosing to depict a generally successful true-ish to life operation there are going to be fewer highly emotional War is Bad scenes “approved” for viewing for the latter camp.

When the soldiers win a quick three-week campaign as Special Forces advisors to the Afghan Northern Alliance starting in the two weeks after 9/11 there aren’t going to be very many scenes of fear, hurt and aftermath that can either make for great filmmaking or drag a war movie down in being unwatchable in its darkness. What came out on screen in this story of twelve Green Berets going to war to strike back for 9/11 lands squarely in the middle between giving both sides of the argument plenty of fuel for the next year or so.

While it says, “Based on the Book Horse Soldiers by Doug Stanton” on the credits and promotion materials, all the names except for Afghan General Abdul Rashid Dostum have been changed for the movie. This is what gives the How Dare You camp much of its ammo. The movie as presented on screen takes liberties that might have observers of how Special Forces foreign internal defense missions (advisors) actually operate spitting up their coffee.

For starters, there were more Americans on the ground in the real campaign to take a key city in northern Afghanistan from where the Taliban held sway. The Air Force really doesn’t like taking bombing adjustment orders from non-Air Force personnel and trains Combat Controllers to operate with ground forces no matter the level of training of the ground unit. And the CIA sent a few Paramilitary Officers. But, it’s a simpler and presumed better story if just twelve guys go to slay the Taliban/al-Qaeda dragon.

One problem with the fictionalization that landed on screen is that Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) is really the only American character that gets enough airtime in order to reach the viewer in his/her seat. He kisses the wife goodbye as he asks for a transfer back to his old unit now that there is a real war on. He highlights the difficulty inherent in advisor missions that live and die on making nice with the local commander, General Dostum (Navid Negahban) in this case. The two men finally agree on the ultimately successful course of action to take Masar-i-Sharif sooner than planners expected.

And most of the other Americans on the team despite being played by a small handful of recognizable actors like Michael Peña are cardboard cutouts. They board the helicopter entering Afghanistan singing Barry Sadler’s Green Beret Theme, a product of the one movie ever to make the case that Vietnam is Good…John Wayne’s The Green Berets.

But, the filmgoer doesn’t get the sense if these moments were intended by the filmmaker as ironic or not, that these professional warriors make fun of what the public assumes about their job based on past movies in our shared database. Or do we see the camaraderie of highly trained true believers going into battle sure of the rightness of the cause? This is where the filmmaker has to let the audience know his/her personal philosophy concerning these things and I feel in this case someone ducked a question that needed answering.

My ambivalence is also rooted in my earlier statement that successful operations that fit into Napoleon’s quote about short and victorious wars simply may not be as dramatic. When we think about the really great war movies derived from past wars whether invented from whole cloth or somewhat truthful to events, these stories have moments that stick with us that spring from dramatic reversal. We remember Chef’s head dropped into Willard’s lap while held prisoner in a tiger cage, a moment that just screams All is Lost from Save the Cat.

We have the relationship between team leader and local general that could have consequences if things go south. We also have what starts out as a slipped disk in the back of the team’s second in command that later is made worse when the same character takes a bullet. The rest of the movie describes the kind of dramatic arc where the bad things that do happen are too minor to be very interesting to the drama addicts that make up the American movie going public. The real mission described was only three weeks and everybody made it home.

But, on the positive side for people like myself who can appreciate war movies at many levels, including that things move and blow up, 12 Strong delivers a fast ride through the desert trying to capture an important enemy city.

Now how do I feel about this movie beyond being a middling war movie that moves and blows shit up? As you may guess from me trying to keep my opinions relevant to the actual movie seen on the screen, I see both sides. I see war movies and war itself as part of the condition of our species and don’t mind so much about the rah-rah war movie as escapism. However, the war movie that understands the cost of that glory is a whole lot of pain more likely to play out two years after the soldier rotates home to get on with life is inherently more dramatic. This is because the events likely to inform a soldier’s PTSD seem to be the best moments to stick into the dramatic reversal slots as instructed by certain structure heavy writing manuals. Somewhere out there is the movie that does both…