A Good Year?

We’re rushing into that time of year when we all start to realise that the year is fast becoming a whole new last year, and inevitably begin to take stock. For my part, it’s begun to dawn on me that it hasn’t been a bad year at all for movies.

We have, after all, seen the release of Blade Runner 2049, and it was everything any Blade Runner fan could have hoped for.  Its struggles at the American Box Office, as if in direct opposition to wondrous reviews, just add more to it somehow, an added pathos. If nothing else, it likely means we won’t have to worry ourselves silly over a third entry anytime soon. Maybe. Alcon did spend a lot of money for the rights, and it is still a well-known IP, so I’d rule nothing out- maybe we’ll see a smaller, less-blockbuster-budget outing next, or even a series on some cable channel.

Beyond the long shadow of BR2049, which has frankly ruined me for any other cinema outings this year (I saw it THREE times!)  and leaves me rather burned-out in the face of another Star Wars entry (still not excited, and it’s only weeks away now), there have been some pretty nice surprises this year. Genre films like Logan, Kong: Skull Island and War for  the Planet of the Apes have all impressed me greatly. Even the live-action Ghost in the Shell was rather fun with a lot to offer once you get your head around a live-action GITS existing in the first place.

On the tv front, things may have been even more impressive- Westworld was fantastic, as was The Leftovers, but another long-remembered favourite (with just as huge expectations/fears as the big-screen’s BR2049), the new Twin Peaks, proved to be utterly sublime. 18 hours of prime David Lynch, a labour of love as scary and bemusing and funny and baffling as anything he ever did. David Lynch at his very best, on tv for goodness sake- who needs cinemas? I just got the blu-ray box this week, can’t wait to plunge into it all over again (just want to rewatch Fire Walk With Me first this time).

The latest Game of Thrones season suffered from its headlong rush to the finish line of season eight. It was just three episodes too short and risked jumping the shark with a few of its questionable plot-turns. Here’s hoping the last season delivers when we finally see it. Back on the movies front, Ridley risked losing the plot along with his nerve, when his Prometheus 2 became Prometheus 1.5 with 0.5 of an unnecessary Alien prequel thrown in. Maybe he was right about Giger’s alien being all done- if Ridley can’t make the Alien scary again, who can? Meanwhile while Marvel soared (particularly with the triumphant Spiderman: Homecoming) DC floundered yet again with the frankly risible Justice League. Maybe an Ultimate Cut will fix that… who knows?

So yeah, an interesting year and one that 2018 will struggle to live up to, I suspect. Afterall, new Blade Runner films and Twin Peaks series don’t come along every decade, do they, nevermind every year. Hell, if those two projects were the only worthy efforts of the year, it would still have been a Good Year.

And I haven’t mentioned the new two-disc Close Encounters of the Third Kind soundtrack on its way across the pond, possibly in time for Christmas….


The Doom that came to 2049

br2049aWell, actually, BR2049 doesn’t really deserve that Lovecraftian post title- yet. The film has stumbled to a global box-office total of $240 million this week, and while that still entails something of a failure and loss of money for the film’s chief backers, Alcon Entertainment, it isn’t really too bad at all for a near three-hour sci-fi tone poem about humanity rated R in the States and a 15 here in the UK. It was hardly a feel-good high-octane blockbuster for the masses, after all. My main concern over the box-office tally is that if the film is deemed a failure this will impact on the film’s success during Awards season, because, rest assured, this film deserves awards and it would be a worse crime that it gets shunned at Awards season than the audience apathy at the box-office. If ever the film fails to get the artistic and technical consideration awards-time that it deserves, that really would be a Doom of Lovecraftian proportions. I can feel my blood-pressure rising already.

But what a miracle that we got a sequel to Blade Runner at all and that, beyond all hope, it turned out to be a masterpiece almost equal to the original. Indeed, I’ve heard some say they feel 2049 is superior to the original and while I don’t personally feel that way myself, I can understand such sentiments from viewers. It’s a great film.

Certainly, it can be argued it’s a more polished film than the original, at least comparing their initial releases; BR2049 feels fully-formed, complete, while Blade Runner back in 1982 was always flawed.  It’s curious to compare the release of the two films. Alcon gave Villeneuve final cut, let him spend a big budget and let him deliver it at near-three hours. They didn’t insist on preview screenings that would have instilled a panic such as the original film was subjected to- so we didn’t get it shortened or tacked on with narration or explanatory dialogue reshoots or a happy ending, all of which the film might well have been suffered. The original Blade Runner in 1982 should have been pretty much the 2007 Final Cut (compare the workprint to the Final Cut and they are pretty much identical), as it was it took decades to get there, whereas with BR2049 we got there first time. BR2049 is a final cut, and yes, its bloody brilliant.

(We don’t need any recuts and we won’t ever get any, but I would love to see an even longer cut someday- well, some of us are never happy, eh?).

Of course some might argue that previews and resulting edits, maybe even a lower age rating, may have ramped-up the pacing and resulted in a more ‘audience-friendly’ film and more success at the box office… but that wouldn’t have been BR2049, would it?  It would have been, oh, something else.

So anyway, here we are just over a month after its release. I’ve seen the film three times at the cinema. Three times. Well, had to do my bit for the box-office, and the film will be a long time on disc/television and rarely on the big screen, if ever again (over the years, I’ve seen Blade Runner five times at the cinema, but I doubt I’ll get such opportunity with BR2049). But yes, it’s been just over a month and I’m just getting my head around the very existence of the film and that it turned out so good.  What can I say? It swept me up. I expected it to look pretty (most films do, these days) but what surprised me was the depth to it, thematically, visually, artistically. The kick in the chest I felt when Rachel returned. The haunting pace, the great performances, all the stuff it left rattling around in my head, which dragged me back to that second and third viewings, and I have to hold myself back from going to a fourth showing. The home release is coming about February, by all accounts, just in time for my birthday, so I can hold out until then.

I do hope that the unfair box-office of BR2049 doesn’t translate to it being ignored come awards season, or that it will somehow impact negatively on Villeneuve’s next project, the much-anticipated Dune. Can you imagine how good that film might be, if he cracks the script and is given creative freedom somehow in spite of what happened with BR2049?  One can only hope that the industry recognises the critical successes of the film, and its technical and artistic accomplishments, rather than dwell on perceived failures financially. It might not have been a huge global success but you’d have to expect that given time, looking at its long-term prospects, BR2049 will have plenty of life in it for years to come, and draw audiences to its charms long after most films released this past month or two are forgotten and consigned to the bargain bin.

Quality wins out, eventually. Time enough, as Batty said….



Of Things and Replicants

th1One of the pleasures/appeals of both The Thing and Blade Runner originate from their…. I hesitate to call them ‘mistakes’, but in all honesty it’s hard to consider them deliberate constructions.  Both films somehow created genius from chaos, perfection from accident. One of the timeless appeals of Blade Runner is the question of whether Deckard is human or Replicant, but during the making of the film it wasn’t a deliberate conceit, more one created from the melting-pot of the films confused conception. The writers wrote the character as human, the actor played him as human- the idea of him actually being that which he was hunting was an idea that appealed to director Ridley Scott and is one he has played upon ever since, particularly in subsequent re-edits of the film.  The strength of it is the ambiguity of it’; there seems no definitive answer, only hints and suggestions and contradictions which are left for the viewer to decipher.

I suppose it raises the issue of authorship; who is the central creator of a film and whose opinion really matters. Or maybe it’s all about teamwork which even includes the viewer as a participant in that teamwork and authorship.

In the case of The Thing, the role of the viewer as author is based upon the films confusion regards who is the Thing and what constitutes the Thing in the first place, all of which predicates on how one ‘sees’ the ending of the film. The film is never clear (except perhaps in two or three cases) who exactly is the Thing or when the they ‘became’ the Thing. A strength of this is the rising state of paranoia and conspiracy as the events unfold, but one might also view it as confusing and a lack of control by the film-makers. It establishes that the Thing ‘infects’ a subject and on a cellular level absorbs or replicates that host, but on a macro level demonstrates that it feeds and destroys that host as it duplicates it (what it does to the dogs in the kennel early on, or how we see it attacking some of the humans later, or leaves torn and bloody clothing in its wake). I have often felt that much of this stems from Rob Bottin and his creature effects crew dreaming up ever wilder and graphic set-pieces which, while spectacular, are almost at odds with the more subtle suggestions from the screenplay.

There is a suggestion, for instance, that one does not know one is the Thing, while also a suggestion that the Thing knows who is the Thing (due to glances between characters like Palmer and Norris). The latter would infer that at the films conclusion, at least one of Childs or MacReady must be human because they don’t ‘know’ each other’s real identity of human or Thing (because if they were both the Thing they would be triumphant and content to wait out eventual rescue). We are offered alternatives- they are both human but suspicious of each other, or one is the Thing and content to let the human die while it is content to freeze and thaw out later upon rescue, or both are The Thing and don’t know it. It could be any of those possibilities. Should the film be settling upon one and establishing it?

The blood test sequence is a highlight of the film and it is based upon the mystery of not knowing who is the Thing or indeed if oneself is the Thing- witness the relief on characters faces when they pass the test, a fantastically paranoid conceit which which means nothing if the Thing knows it is the Thing.  But whilst it establishes that Palmer fails the test and is indeed the Thing (betrayed by his own blood cells, which raises other questions of what constitutes the Thing and hive mentality etc), it always raises questions in me regards why he/it doesn’t act sooner, why he allows himself/itself to be tied up and cornered like that. Unless he doesn’t know, but this itself seems at odds with his apparent resignation just prior to being discovered as the alien. And yet a little earlier when he delivers his famous line “You’ve got to be fucking kidding!” he seems so human and so shocked at what Bottin magic he is witnessing. Its as if the script and the film is wrestling with itself, a chaotic mess from which order may or may not emerge.

All this confusion and apparent lack of control allows room for the viewer to step in and interpret things (sic) as he wishes. A critical view might suggest that this ambiguity is a weakness in Carpenter’s direction, that perhaps he himself lost control of who is the Thing and when, and indeed what the Thing actually is. But it undoubtedly becomes the films strength, when even at films end, viewers can have opposing views of what it all means or what has actually just happened. Happy accident/coincidence? Or just the viewer repairing a broken film?

SomeTHING Arrow this way comes…

thing1The other night when I watched this, it was dark early and getting cold outside and I commentated to my wife that it was a perfect night to watch The Thing. “Who on Earth would consider releasing this in the summer?” I said, shaking my head. “But of course, they did- in the middle of June in fact.” My wife is hardly concerned with the vagaries of film releasing and marketing, but even she can see the insanity of releasing a horror film such as this in high summer.

I suppose studios back then thought -and maybe they still do- that big films simply have to be released in the summer per the example set by Jaws and all those summer hits that followed annually ever after. But The Thing is such a winter horror movie its frankly mind-boggling to consider audiences walking out of a showing reaching for ice cream and a chilled coke in dazzling hot sunshine. It’s almost indecent.

Anyway, this edition of The Thing is simply perfect. The film has never looked or sounded better and all the old extras are there as well as a few new ones. Well, to be fair the new ones are a bit meh – I turned the new commentary track off after about twenty minutes of inane podcast-worthy chatter. Maybe I’ll give it another go, see if it settles down, but how does anyone do a lousy commentary track for a film like The Thing? Incredible. Someone give me a microphone and I’ll show how a quality commentary track should be done for a film such as this. A new feature-length doc has a welcome focus on the original short story and the Howard Hawks film, but offers little new regards the Carpenter film. There’s an interview panel with a few of the cast from 2017. A featurette about all the genre films from 1982 and how they suffered the wrath of a cute ugly alien suggests a nostalgic glow but slips into a talking-heads piece offering, again, little new. But in anycase, its the film that matters and it’s indeed never looked as good as this. Its a real pleasure to watch it looking so amazingly good.

Oh, and there’s a particularly good fan-short, The Thing: 27,000 Hours,  inspired by the film that is just brilliant and a lovely hint at what a sequel might have been like…

Blade Runner 2049: Have you ever seen a miracle?

2049d2017.50: Blade Runner 2049

He would have loved this film, so I’ll begin by paraphrasing the late John Brosnan: Blade Runner 2049 is a masterpiece, much to my surprise. So too,  I am sure, would Sara Campbell, and I just wanted to mention them both, for this film has been 35 long years coming, and not everyone who deserves to see it are still here to do so. There is a sadness knowing that, a reminder of the sense of mortality that permeates both (both! Still can’t get my head around that!) Blade Runner films, and a reminder of how lucky we are now, how remarkable this is. This film, Blade Runner 2049, should not exist.

Where to begin? Well, have you seen 2049? If not, stop reading now, go see the movie. You need to see it and it seems the film needs your patronage. And you really don’t need to read the spoilers that follow. If you have seen the film, you won’t mind the spoilers, and I hope you can give me your time, share with me my thoughts, offer some thoughts back. Sitting comfortably? This could be a long post. Time enough, as Batty might say.

First of all, I really have to say how strange an experience it was. Anybody who has read this blog will be aware of how much of a big deal the original Blade Runner is for me. I first saw the film in September 1982, and it remains the most intense cinematic experience of my life. Thursday night may have been the most bizarre cinematic experience. You see, Blade Runner has been my favourite film for some 35 years – years in which it grew from box-office failure and obscure cult film to a video favourite and critical darling. For all those years until just awhile ago, the very idea of a sequel was ridiculous.

Yet here it was. I’d pre-booked my tickets for the first evening of its release, and was going with my long-term friend Andy who had been there with me back on that Saturday afternoon in 1982 when we saw the film for the first time. The tickets were 75p each back then, markedly rather more now. 35 years is half a lifetime ago and much had changed, but we both still shared our love of this particular film, and here we were for its sequel.

Of course I was nervous. The film had been the subject of much hype and early word on Twitter last week was frankly ecstatic. But what do critics and people who weren’t even born back in 1982 know? A good film doesn’t necessarily mean a good Blade Runner film, was this film made for modern audiences or for the fans who have lived this film since 1982? I cannot possibly explain the impact the film had back in 1982, in just the same way I cannot possibly explain the impact of the opening Star Destroyer shot in Star Wars on audiences back in 1977/1978 to people now. Films are of their time and while they may impress years later…  it’s hard to recapture that impact. I consider myself lucky to have experienced the original in 1982. It was of my time. It’s in my blood.

So here we are 35 years later and watching Blade Runner 2049 was an utterly bizarre, almost out-of-body experience. Yes I enjoyed it, I was fascinated and awed by it, but also there was an almost detached point of view of it, from outside almost. Interrogating it like some Voight-Kampf test of it being a ‘real’ Blade Runner film as opposed to some second-rate modern Hollywood replicant. The relief, of course, was overwhelming. 2049  is indeed a great Blade Runner film, but more than that, its a great sequel, a film that both informs and expands upon the original, in the same way as The Empire Strikes Back with Star Wars, or indeed The Godfather Pt.2. Watching Blade Runner again in the future might actually be improved by having seen 2049. Imagine that. 2049 might actually make Blade Runner better.

I’ve been thinking of Philip K Dick and of his astonishment at seeing twenty minutes of Blade Runner footage shortly before his death where he couldn’t work out how they got those images out of his brain.  For the past few days the film has been rattling around in my head as if I have been in some kind of post-traumatic fugue, trying to make sense of it. Was this how PKD felt when he had seen that Blade Runner footage? It’s not that I saw things Thursday night that I had imagined before, it was simply that they existed at all. Blade Runner 2049 is… well, in some ways it should not exist. It’s a near three-hour long arthouse movie made with a blockbuster budget, and a sequel to that strange dark sci-fi film that flopped spectacularly over three decades earlier. More than that, it’s a cinematic love-letter to all the films fans for all those years. And it’s quite brilliant.

2049fTo be clear, 2049 is not perfect, it’s not without its faults. But 2049 is also quite extraordinary. It raises more questions, cleverly sidesteps others. We are no longer simply asking how real or human a Replicant is, but also how real or human a hologram, or an AI can be? Can an AI fall in love? Can it feel empathy for another? Can it dream of electric sheep?

The film has the pace of a dream, is slow and hypnotic… shots, scenes, linger… maybe too long, I’m not sure, but it’s a long film and modern audiences get impatient with that. Not me, anyway, as it harks back to the Golden Days of ‘Seventies American cinema when American film was, well, better. But yes, it’s long, and its pace would seem to be utterly alien to most cinemagoers today. As expected, everything is beautifully staged and the cinematography is sublime- surely Roger Deakins will get his Oscar at long last. Speaking of Oscar….well, dare I say it, Harrison Ford actually turns in a performance I thought he was incapable of. It might even be the greatest performance of his career, oddly confounding any suspicion that any Best Supporting Actor Oscar nod might be a consolation gesture for that long career. The guy probably deserves to actually win it.

In my last post I mentioned that The Force Awakens was like a comfort blanket for Star Wars fans- what I meant was that the film contained familiar faces, music, places, objects, and was complete with a familiar plot that was like a greatest-hits package of all that had come before it. The whole film is designed to please, to wrap fans in a nostalgic return to childhood while lapsing into the calculated stupidity of so many contemporary blockbusters.

2049 isn’t like that. Yes its a Blade Runner film -sing the praises from the the highest rooftops!-but it’s quite utterly disturbing, particularly for Blade Runner fans.. well, certainly for me anyway. When that crate was dug up and its contents put on display in the LAPD morgue, I knew immediately whose bones they were. I just knew and it cut me deep. It was Rachel. This was Rachel, her skull…

For 35 years Sean Young’s Rachel has been frozen in time, a vision of utter beauty, a replicant of impossible perfection, the magical chemistry in celluloid of a beautiful actress, Jordan Cronenweth’s gorgeous cinematography, stylish make-up and costume design. I have seen Sean Young many times in films since but she never really looked or sounded or acted quite like Rachel. For 35 years she has existed in that one film, a creation as timeless and permanent as any iconic performances of Rita Hayworth or Marilyn Monroe. But here she was, a skull, some bones. It felt brutal, cold.

I’m not certain why, but throughout the film that really creeped me out. That feeling seemed to inform every scene. A sense of horror, of mortality, of melancholy. Later on when Jared Leto’s enigmatic (under-used?) villain Neander Wallace held Rachel’s skull in his hand before Deckard, it felt like something utterly monstrous. And when the inevitable happened, and that 35-year-old vision walked into the scene as if 35 years had never happened and the impossible had been given form, I nearly freaked out. My jaw dropped. I think I may have moaned. This was Pure Cinema. It was like a nightmare. I saw the pain and horror etched on Harrison Ford’s face and the torture was complete, palpable. I felt it too.

It was horrible. It was perfect. This film, I realised, should not exist.

And I’m thinking again about PKD’s reaction to seeing that Blade Runner footage. His astonishment. His reaction: “How is this possible?”

2049bHow is this possible that 35 years after Blade Runner, they made this huge slow enigmatic study of the nature of humanity and existence? The protagonist is a Replicant who has a relationship with a hologram. Two artificial intelligences sharing… love? Debating the validity of implanted memories? Discussing the possibility of being ‘real’? It’s a genius twist of the original film- here we  know that Officer K (a brilliantly nuanced Ryan Gosling) is a replicant, but does that make him any less real? As the films events unfold and he finds cause to question his implanted memories, and begins to think he may not be more human than human, but actually human, if not some kind of hybrid, the sadness of the eventual truth is heartbreaking.  And yet, like Batty in the earlier film, he reaches some self-awareness, some humanity that is undeniable. What is human anyway?

(This film even has a great joke, a funny one: as he considers Deckard’s dog, K asks, “Is he real?” and Deckard deadpans “Ask Him.” I guffawed. But that joke sums up the film. Is it real? What is real?)

We live in thrall to technologies intended to serve. People cannot seem to live without their smartphones. The hologram Joi is the natural extension of the smartphone, what it may evolve into. An AI assistant, a diversion, a replacement for human company. We may never have the flying cars of Blade Runner, but I suspect AI like Joi is inevitable- indeed, barring the holographic flight of fancy, it’s almost already here. But is it real, can it feel, can it aspire to be human?

Consider this:  an Hologram AI has purchased/arranged a pleasure-model Replicant to have sex with the Holograms owner/lover who is a Replicant itself (himself/herself/itself, how does that work with Replicants?). While I try to get my head around that, add this to the mix: the pleasure model that Joi hired is part of the resistance/uprising who uses the opportunity to plant a tracker in K’s coat, so is Joi a part of that resistance all along? Is K being steered by unseen forces all along?

2049eI really need to see the film again. All sorts of thoughts and observations have been rattling around in my head for the days since. A sign of a good film is one that lingers in your head. I am sure 2049 will reward repeat viewings, possibly for years. But I really need to see it again on the big screen before it slips across to disc (the thought that six months from now I will be used to simply rewatching it at home whenever I like is a frankly salivating prospect).

They show you someone weaving memories together in this film. Its breathtaking, like fashioning dreams with a strange (very PKD) device that looks part-camera, part bus conductor ticket machine. They show a Replicant having her nails done whilst orchestrating rocket fire from some automated weapons platform hanging unseen in the sky. A giant hologram selling an app steps out of the skyline to accost our protagonist who has already loved and lost that product, the giant hologram’s blank unfeeling stare utterly at odds with the loving sincerity of the eyes that he loved.  A wooden horse replaces the origami unicorn of the previous film, but seems to represent the same question: what is human? Can you trust your memories in a world that can have them woven like dreams and implanted? What is the meaning of the final shots where a dying K stares up at the falling snow and watches it fall into his hand, while Dr. Stelline in her glass world nearby fashions memories of snow falling out of nowhere?

This film should not exist.

Sadly, as I write this it seems the Box-Office for the film has been very disappointing, particularly in America. I feel a sense of history repeating, and it seems awfully unfair that the bravery in making this film so sincere and ‘honest’ to the original won’t be rewarded financially, and we won’t get a third film. Not that we should even measure quality by box office anyway, or that we even need a third film, but its seems cruel that, when we finally get a quality adult sci fi film, it stumbles at the box office, as if we’re being haunted by the lessons of 35 years ago all over again. In a genre swamped by huge empty-headed spectacle or superhero comic movies… Well, it’s very frustrating and quite utterly depressing and disappointing. 2049 deserves better from audiences, but at least it got the love of (most) critics. So it’s doing better than Blade Runner there, at any rate.

The question still rattles around in my head: this film should not exist, but it does. How is this possible? PKD would have loved that.


The Movie Art of Syd Mead

syd1Here’s a timely arrival, considering it’s clearly Blade Runner week here- Titan Book’s The Movie Art of Syd Mead. It’s a large-format, full-colour hardback totaling something like 256 pages, covering all of Mead’s work on movies over the past few decades, with the inevitable meat of the book (pages 88 – 153) concerned with his most famous project, Blade Runner.

I must say, I’m surprised to find there are pieces here I have never seen before, and others rarely printed, and even the pre-production paintings so familiar over the years are (mostly) printed from great scans and often spread over two pages, unveiling new details. (There is one painting, for Sebastian’s apartment, that is only printed at half-page size and looks to be from an older, inferior scan from the others, which likely explains its reduced size). There are, surprisingly, a few pieces actually missing so its is by no means complete, though the rarities/’new’ pieces are consolation.

For Blade Runner fans, this is a great opportunity to obtain a pretty definitive collection of Syd Mead’s sketches and paintings for the film. If ever a film deserved an ‘art of’ book, it was Blade Runner, and I know there have been a few attempts to get such a work published over the years but various rights issues nixed them. Considering Mead’s importance to the film, I guess this book manages to complete half of such a project (a ‘proper’ art of book would also need the matte paintings, the Ridleygrams, the storyboards etc). In any case, it’s a wonderful way to rediscover Mead’s Blade Runner artwork with most of it all in one place- the omissions are a little annoying, but I suppose they may be due to some pieces being in the hands of private collectors and/or the available scans not being good enough for inclusion (oh, oh- that doesn’t mean a ‘Movie Art of Syd Mead: The Final Cut’ will be due in a few years? It’d almost be poetic considering the many different versions of the film itself).

It even has a surprise at the end- a few pieces that Mead completed for Blade Runner 2049, for which he did designs for the film’s Las Vegas setting. I had no idea that Mead was in any way involved in the new movie. Incidentally, Blade Runner 2049 is getting its own ‘art-of’ book, currently due before the end of this month (conveniently delayed so as to avoid spoilers around the film’s release). So I guess it trumps the original film in that way at least (actually, it’s also getting a soundtrack release too so…).

Anyway, barring the odd omissions it’s a great book. I’d have appreciated a bit more text/ Mead commentary but that’s just being a bit picky, the artwork is the real draw and the reproductions are pretty great. It’s just over £20 at Amazon currently so well worth it.