‘Blade Runner 2049’ not only meets the quality of its predecessor, it surpasses it (SPOILERS)

Better late than never, right?

Last month, I dedicated a lot of words to It.

Some say too many words and I would not disagree with them.

There was just a lot personal context I felt needed to be expressed before getting into the nitty gritty of the movie because…well, because frankly I thought said context was important and possibly shaped how I view the final film.

You can bemoan that and I would not fault you. Typically, a film review should not consist of the reviewer inserting themselves into the movie they are writing about. Too frequently do I do that and just as frequently do I attempt to combat that.

Unfortunately, I kind of have to do the same thing with Blade Runner 2049. 

-BABBLING ABOUT THE ORIGINAL BEGINS HERE-

There’s been a lot said about Blade Runner. Like a whole lot. Like almost to the degree that the conversation around the film is almost more interesting than the film itself.

For those interested, there is a plethora of reading/documentaries on all the work that went into making the movie as well as multiple versions of the film itself, allowing for a unique compare and contrast opportunities. I highly recommend it as this movie has gone through quite a lot.

And if you haven’t seen the movie, I would most recommend the 2007 Final Cut (when I talk about the original, this will be the version I’m referring to) as it best cements everything director Ridley Scott intended, for better or worse.

To be blunt, I love just about every single technical aspect of Ridley Scott’s 1982 adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? It’s only when we will look a little bit closer at the story do I really draw issues, particularly in the focus of Rick Deckard and the (added later) aspect that he may or may not be a replicant. I hate this addition because A) it really makes no sense, B) it has no real direct effect on the narrative and C) it’s a certainty now, according to Scott.

Far be it from me to tell Ridley fucking Scott how to direct a movie. I can only attest to my preferences. The overall appeal of Blade Runner to me, in relation to its story, is its ambiguity, favoring no one single interpretation. By retroactively adding a twist (that really amounts to nothing), Scott is in a sense straddling us with an unneeded practice in mental gymnastics.

That isn’t to say I think the story is bad. Not at all. It’s perfectly fine largely and even phenomenal in some areas, but in the years since I was first introduced to it I’ve noticed cracks in the armor of what equates to a technically perfect movie. If anything, I go back and forth on it on what feels like a regular basis.

On one hand, I love how (to a degree) how ambiguous and open to interpretation the whole movie is. Unlike Scott’s later works (coughPROETHEUScough), Blade Runner asks questions but they aren’t maddening questions that take pothole sized chunks out of the story; they’re maddening questions in that they linger in your head and leave room for healthy debate and interpretation. As one Leon says, “Nothing is worse than having an itch you can never scratch.”

It’s also a poignant story about loneliness, focusing on characters in search of meaning and identity in a  modern world.  The real fun is how it uploads old gumshoe troupes into a wholly new, futuristic setting, something that really hadn’t been put on display in a film beforehand.

Some detriments include the “love story,” if you can call it that. Harrison Ford and Sean Young share no chemistry, largely due to the fact the two hated each other behind the scenes. Ford and Scott also feuded so I’m sure that also didn’t lend a hand in making this movie any easier to make.

Once again, not to be harsh or anything. Both are…fine. I think Young may fare better given she’s suppose to act somewhat artificial. Ford has his moments in the film although sometimes his frustration is tangible.

The real stars of the show of the first film are the replicants however, particularly Roy Batty as played by Rutger Hauer.

It’s in these scenes the film flourishes. It’s here, in these moment, we get question of meaning. It is in Batty we see a being resign to his identity happily. His life having closed on a act of compassion and pity, Batty has seen the worth of not only his life, but all life: human and replicant.

So yeah, there are moments where the story gets pretty good and others where it isn’t. It’s only in the visuals, music and all technical aspects does the movie never falter. I’d go so far as to say these are the best effects of the pre-CGI era or at the very least the most influential and definitive. There had been future cityscapes before Blade Runner (in any number of things you are welcome to look up if you want to stick it to me), but I place my money on Blade Runner being the one that defined the look for just about every bit of media to utilize future cities that came afterwards.

TL;DR version: I’m much more in love with all of the technical aspects of Blade Runner than the actual story.

And I can’t be the only one that feels that way, can I? Surely not.

You hear this movie brought up a lot by movie nerds to the degree that I think it may be detrimental to those that come to it completely blind.

-BABBLING (LARGELY) OVER-

In almost every way, for me, this film surpasses the original. I was aghast and torn as the credits popped up. It was the exact same feeling I had at the end of Mad Max: Fury Road. Here we have a sequel to something commonly accepted as iconic. The even notion that a sequel could meet it (or even) surpass the original 30 or so years later is absolute lunacy on paper.

Equally surprising that it is a sequel I assumed would never happen/didn’t really want.

The original Blade Runner is such a seminal work, with influences felt to this day in science fiction and film. However it’s not a movie that initially made a lot of waves and watching the original theatrical version it’s easy to see why. The technical aspects are still masterful, but it’s largely hindered by an intentionally terrible V/O by a “couldn’t be bother” Harrison Ford really hinders it. It’s only after the tinkering I just spent a lot of time harping on did it become something truly special.

Therefore I kind of feared the same happenstance with this film. I fear we’d get something akin to a big budget fan film in the same vein as where it seems like Disney is taking Star Wars (something I’m going to be bringing up quite a bit below). I’m fine with a director and crew being head over heels for their source. If anything, that’s a huge positive. But there’s a line in which some directors/writers/studios can cross in which their fandom serves as a barrier, blocking them from doing anything truly interesting with a property.

There are going to be spoilers all throughout this review. I can’t really get into the nitty gritty of what I wanted to discuss without looking at some of the finer details of the plot. The reason I’m prefacing it here is A) common courtesy and B) I fully respect Blade Runner is a singular, definitive movie for a lot of people, myself included. Also I’m going to sound high/aloof at more than one point I’m sure given just how tired I am while I write this up. I wish I was in a better headspace given this review is going to be the last one for the year (if not ever on this site).

So as always…

I apologize for being kind of bad at this.

The plot:

“Thirty years after the events of the first film, a new blade runner, LAPD Officer K (Ryan Gosling), unearths a long-buried secret that has the potential to plunge what’s left of society into chaos. K’s discovery leads him on a quest to find Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a former LAPD blade runner who has been missing for 30 years.” – Warner Bros. Pictures

The review: 

As with the original film, there is a lot to unpack here.

The two or three of you that actually read this may be wondering why I feel this movie is, in almost every way, superior to its predecessor. Well, let’s break that one down first, shall we?

Denis Villeneuve.

I’m starting to think the man is a replicant himself given just how consistently good the man’s output has been in a relatively short time frame. He’s directed 5 films (including this one) since 2013, all of which have been either perfect or as near to perfect as a film can be. His next project is an adaptation of another seminal science fiction classic, Dune. I can’t think of a director today whose hands I want on that particularly property more than Villeneuve’s.

There was a moment pretty early on whether this movie was in great hands. Apparently this was common knowledge that I was not privy too, but 2049‘s opening is a homage or reference to the original opening to Blade Runner. There’s a shot Scott talked about in a making-of documentary that would have had a replicant (something we don’t know yet) returning home to a farm in the middle of nowhere. As he enters his kitchen, Deckard is already there waiting. It’s a sequence that’s mirrored beat-for-beat here with Ryan Gosling’s K and Dave  Bautista’s Sapper Morton.

Now it shouldn’t be a surprise given Scott’s producer credit, but this subtle nod (to a concept scene that wasn’t even filmed) told me this was going to be a treat in more ways than one. I’d like to think this can be credited to returning screenwriter Hampton Fancher (who was a credited screenwriter on the first film although he too had issues with a Scott). He, along with Michael Green, recapture a lot of the same malaise that defined the story Fancher helped bring to life all those years ago.

Much like the earlier movie, 2049 is a visual masterpiece. No ifs, ands or buts about it. As far as I’m concerned, it should be a clean sweep for every technical award next year. It builds upon the foundations of the future L.A. we were treated to in the earlier film without exceeding plausibility. Every visual feels like the natural next step to something we saw in Scott’s movie.

I’m not exactly sure if it’s fair to say the effects are better this time around given the astronomical leap movie effects have made since 1982. I will say the effects carry the baton rather nicely however, keeping to pace with the innovation of the earlier model. Some of the effects heavy sequences are just utterly jaw-dropping. The synchronization sequence by itself may just be the most beautiful effects sequence of the year, allowing for a since of play I don’t think I’ve seen in a effects-driven scene for a little while. It’s up to par with what we got last year in Doctor Strange.

There’s also nice little world-building treats sprinkled throughout. We get to see where replicants’ memories are made and who makes them for example, similar to how we visited where they get their eyes in the previous movie. We don’t go to the off-planet colonies (a visual that I’m personally glad our filmmakers decided to avoid), but we do travel beyond L.A. to get a better scope of this crestfallen world. As A.A. Dowd writes, “If Blade Runner gave us the world, Blade Runner 2049 has come to fill in the universe.”

And it doesn’t stop at what they did in the film either. Three shorts were released online prior to the film’s release with each serving as a piece in the puzzle in terms of linking the 1982 film to 2017’s. The best of these (directed by Cowboy Bebop director Shinichirō Watanabe) gives us some insight into the much discussed earlier black out in the film.

It’s not necessary per se but it allows for more stories in a world I’m very interested in seeing more of. The world of Blade Runner (as established in the 1982 film) is one of untapped potential. And I don’t mean exclusively cinematically either. Quite the opposite actually. Given just how wide this (now) series’ influence is entrenched in science fiction, you’d think it’d provide so many creators a massive sandbox in which to define and expand. For what it’s worth, these shorts (particularly the one above) are great and I wish more studios would implement similar marketing tools.

It’s all stuff like this that make this such a good sequel and sets itself apart from other nostalgia-mining outputs (Rouge One: A Star Wars Story, Jurassic World) as those movies prefer to play it say, feeding audiences what they know will get a cheap applause. Villeneuve opts to explore uncharted territory however all while recognizing the original has fans for a reason. Harrison Ford, Edward James Olmos and Sean Young (via some visual trickery) all return in some way, shape or form but their appearances aren’t to illicit applause. Reactions for sure, but not for the simple sake of a reaction. Unlike this bullshit…

And it goes beyond just involving older elements, like Ford. It’s about utilizing them to an effect that is at once meaningful without shamelessly pandering.

I fully anticipated/fear this movie was going to flat out give us an answer regarding the whole Deckard being a replicant situation in the same way Scott thinks we, as an audience, want.

Villeneuve however decides to do something infinitely more interesting (and my opinion better) and posits the question, adds new layers to it and rests it in our laps to decipher for ourselves.

Story wise, we also get much more of a detective story than the first film. Whereas our time is split between the fugitive replicants and Deckard in the first film, we largely remain with K in 2049 leaving an air of mystery the first film kind of lacked. We know the replicants plot in Blade Runner and we basically just watched Deckard try to play catch up. We’re largely on the mission with K here and it adds more suspense to the overall narrative.

Other technical aspects worth raving about:

Roger Deakins. Basically the star (for me) in any movie he has a hand in. As a cinematographer, I believe Deakins remains unparrelled. What the man does with light and shadow is nothing short of miraculous.

I may have been hesitant going into this one, but I was absolutely foaming at the mouth to see what Deakins was going to present this world and he did not disappoint one iota. It’s almost tempting to just fill this post with screen shots from the film accompanied with text reading “OOOOOOOOO” and “AAAAAHHHHH.’

The bigger task was meeting the music of the original. Vengelis’ score is, without a doubt, my favorite film score of all time to this point. It transcends beyond a perfect film score and relays into the realm of just great music. It’s the music of a dream made tangible, while also perfectly underscoring this exact futuristic world that is at once foreign yet recognizable, grim and ugly yet hopeful and beautiful.

It should then be considered no coincidence the music in Blade Runner has apparently been sampled in music more than any other film of the 20th century.

(NOTE: this video refers to original 2049 composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, who is Villeneuve’s go-to-guy for a trio of his films. Since this video was released however, the two split as Villeneuve felt the”movie needed something different, and I needed to go back to something closer to Vangelis.”)

Whoever was going to take up that task had mighty big shoes to fill. Luckily, Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch take the reigns almost effortlessly. There are echoes of that iconic score peppered throughout (and whenever it hit, I felt near tears every time) but they do such a spectacular job at making this score their own without betraying the masterwork Vengelis gave us all those years ago. There are times when Zimmer’s bombastic assault on the speakers threaten to cannibalize the more subtle ebbs and flows of the synth, but luckily those moments are few and far between.

As this is a sequel, we also get a plethora of new characters. Many are great while others kind of register more of exposition machines (heh, heh). But there is one major standout and thankful that is our lead. I think K may just be one of the best additions (character-wise) to science fiction we’ve gotten this year.

Man, I love the character of K (Gosling). His arc throughout the movie is so tragic yet uplifting. Right off the bat, we are told he is in fact a replicant. There’s no dancing around the issue here.

He also stands apart from Deckard. I was largely worried we’d be tasked with a relatively similar character and they certainly do mirror each other in a couple of ways, but K largely stands on his own and I’d say he’s even a more tragic character.

His relationship with hologram girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas) is manufactured. He is tasked with hunting down his own kind for the sake of a populace that largely hates him. A highlight for him is getting an upgrade so said hologram can follow him around and unlike Her where the question of a program is called into question, 2049 all but confirms that Joi is in fact not much more than 1’s and 0’s in quietly devastating scene later in the movie.

Need more depression?

K’s arc is a complete subversion of the “chosen one” arc (character is plucked from obscurity to be the leader for a great wave of change), but in subverting it the movie elevates itself to something truly spectacular.

K is ultimately just another replicant, sharing some of the same memories as so many other replicants. In fact, he’s simply a decoy for the real hero this universe purportedly needs. That hero being the first child born to a replicant.

However…

In K’s role as a blade runner, he was the first replicant to end up in a respective memory i.e. the chance to actually test if their memory was legitimate. (This “test” being the sequence where he “returns” to the orphanage and finds the wooden horse.)

Much like Deckard, K is on a goal to find something that is not tangible. In Deckard’s case, we had a man (I’m retracting my earlier statements. I don’t give a fuck what you say, Ridley Scott. EVERYONE else in the production says he was not a replicant. HE’S NOT A REPLICANT.) looking to reclaim some semblance of his soul. With K, we have a replicant looking to see if he has a soul at all.

Once K witnesses the miracle he was told he had not witnessed earlier, he begins to rebel. While it may have been the wrong conclusion, a miracle does take place through his actions. We, as an audience, are with K. I don’t wish to speak for you, but if you’re like me you too bought into his supposed importance by this point. We sympathize with him, now believing him to be human.

In the end, it doesn’t matter whether K was just a decoy or the chosen one: the only thing separating K from having a soul, so to speak, was his and the audience’s shared belief that he was in fact naturally born. He broke the “wall” that was spoken about by Robin Wright’s character at the beginning, without even knowing it.

Questions of what it means to be a live, questions of what it means to be “important.” It’s all material that define all truly great pieces of science fiction. There’s so many fucking great little touches sprinkled throughout that nearly demands a second viewing right after the first.

The scene near the end of K watching snowflakes softly hit his hand, realizing what it’s like to be human only to smash cut to the Ana with fake snow at the end, a real being unable to feel those same things. Or how about the fact that sinister yet malevolent CEO Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) has whited out eyes, fueling speculation he may in fact also be a replicant that has burnt out his eyes to remain undetected. It’s all makes for good after movie discussion and it’s the exact reason I still hold the original to such high regard even in the wake of script issues.

The main detriment for 2049 is, as you may have guessed, is its length. The movie runs at about 2 hours and 40 minutes. That’s quite a hefty runtime. It’s a movie so long you almost have to plan your day around it. It’s hard to argue given the depth of beauty we’re treated to, but I’d be lying if I said some scenes didn’t linger just a tad too long.

We have an extended sequence of K wandering around Las Vegas, now decimated by radiation. It’s jaw dropping but, man, it goes on for a bit without any sort of narrative action taking place.

There are moments where a huge revelation would occur and instead of proceeding the movie would loopback around to basically spoon feed us why the revelation was important. This is something that could make more sense if it were flashing back to an earlier movie but flashing back to events that occurred IN THE SAME MOVIE seems a bit gratuitous to me.

I’m not sure if I am in the minority in regards to thinking this movie is superior. Among my friends, I know I’m not. I don’t really get a common consensus for the world at-large however.

I’ve read a lot of trite regarding why this movie “failed” at the box office. Ranging from stupid and meaningless click-bait (Not enough women went to go see it apparently.) to pretty accurate (the marketing really did not have a handle on how to sell this one).

I really, really liked Blade Runner. Like I said, it’s everything I liked about the first movie amplified marginally and largely corrects many of the elements I didn’t.

So to me, it’s not a stretch to call this a great sequel. I think it’s a little hasty to be calling it one of the best of all-time however. I always am hesitant to say anything is the best of anything this close to release however. You kind of a need a year or two (in my opinion) to properly access something’s place in the canon.

2049 is a movie of the moment however, both personally and at-large. I see a future like this being all but plausible, (not so much in the flying cars) where things worsen before they get better. Where we drift further and further away from one another. Where meaning is reduced to lines of data in a computer. Where individuality is largely thought of as an illusion, progress defined by the backs of foundations to get us there.

Loneliness is already a known symptom of modernity. You see it in just about every daily aspect if you’re looking for it. At least I do and becomes more and more apparent everyday. It’s hard not to place yourself in K’s position, hoping you, as an individual, mean something more. To be special.

By what is special any more these days? How can one actually be considered special in such a crowded market place. I certainly don’t feel important or special all the time and it may be a mistake to think this but it’s true to a degree. I don’t matter and I’m not special. The list of people that’ll remember me when I’m gone will be short and effects of my web short-lived.

Think of it this way, in what way does this blog stand out? It’s written by me? But who am I? Why does my opinion matter in a sea of others that seem to have some value, whether intrinsic or carved out.

I guess all that matters is not whether we have meaning or not but whether we ourselves are meaningful. That’s really the best any of us can do, right? Do we let ourselves define who and what we mean or do we so ourselves? I don’t think there’s a right answer there. K finds himself at this crossroads and it’s this aspect I think I connected with most. Not many of us are very special and those that are face a similar gap in the sense what is that going to mean in millions of years?

It’s nihilistic yet also poignant, conflicting ideas that have all but defined what makes up the world of Blade Runner and now 2049.

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A perfectly imperfect organism: The beautiful metamorphosis of the ‘Alien’ quadrilogy

“Strange fascination, fascinating me / Changes are taking the pace I’m going through” – David Bowie, Changes

“If you are not willing to risk the unusual, you will have to settle for the ordinary.” – Jim Rohn

“The saddest journey in the world is the one that follows a precise itinerary. Then you’re not a traveler. You’re a f**king tourist.” – Guillermo del Toro

“Do what you haven’t done is the key, I think.” – Ridley Scott

Over the past few days there has been quite the influx of retrospectives regarding the Alien franchise. Such is the cycle of a franchise, particularly one that’s been around as long as this one.

Surely there will be much to be said of the first two film’s influence. There will be in-depth histories into the making of each, focusing once again (most likely) on the first two films and rightly so. Both Alien and Aliens are absolute masterclasses, representing the pinnacle of what can be achieved in their respective genres and their influence is obvious in just about subsequent, similar film that came afterwards. Released in 1979, Alien remains the standard of the wonders of horror and science fiction. Its sequel, Aliens, bares one of the distinct honors of being a rare sequel that meets the level of success its iconic predecessor if not wholly surpassing it. Much can also be said about the franchise’s refreshing and outright progressive steps in showcasing a genuinely badass female protagonist in the form of one Ellen Ripley, who actually showcases characterization outside of “badass female protagonist.” -COUGHJYNERSOCOUGH-

Reviewers will be quick to praise the success of these two films, all while quickly dismissing the two films that followed them (Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection respectively). Now while these films are far, far, FAR from perfect, I argue they are also very far from terrible and in some respects even almost secretly phenomenal. Now you are well within your right to argue to the contrary but I posit that each and every one of these movies have merit and that’s what I’m here to convince you of here and now.

I’m here to put forth that this franchise deserves commendation for a reason I don’t see cited all that often by critics or fans and if I can somehow convince you to see this series out, then I call that a win for both of us.

The first four Alien films stand singularly as a franchise benefited by multiple cooks in the kitchen, not least of which is the fact that each sports a different director at the helm with Ridley Scott tasked with the first film, James Cameron the second, David Fincher the troubled-third and Jean-Pierre Jeunet bringing in the rear with the utterly insane (once thought to be) final chapter. The utterly unique thing about them combined is that none remotely resemble each other in regards to their tone. Each perfectly represents what their respective director brings the table and I absolutely love that. I’d argue it may just be the most director-driven franchise we’ve yet to see.

Much like the xenomorph itself, each entry adapts to the vision of its host or in this case, the director. Over the years, this monster has evolved and warped to whoever oversaw it. Like the Mad Max films, there isn’t too much of an emphasis on continuity but there is, at the very least, a through-line through the first four; that being Ripley (Signourney Weaver), the Weyland-Yutani Corporation and the xenomorph itself. So there is a cannon and I’m all for that, but there’s also wiggle room to take the story in directions free from the constraints of your typical, more episodic narrative. I’d almost argue the DVD/Blu-ray collection should be called the Alien Anthology rather than the Quadrilogy.

Now it’d be ridiculous to fully credit each of these movies to the efforts of a single person. As someone whose never fully subscribed to the auteur theory, I think the individuality of each entry can be attributed to small armies worth of folks both in-front of and behind the camera. Watch the bonus features on the Alien Quadrilogy box set (perhaps the greatest DVD/Blu-ray release of the past decade given the absolute wealth of material) and you’ll lose track of just how many people played in important part in each, a fact we often lose sight of with every movie. The BTS material on this set covers every single aspect of the production of each film, beginning with their origins and spanning all the way to the final product’s release and reception. Every individual interviewed is refreshingly candid, unafraid to share their personal thoughts regardless of whether it paints them in a pretty picture. The making of each entry is as interesting (if not more so) as the films themselves.

Also important to note that I’m really only going to get into the first four films as well as a little on Prometheus later on so that means no Alien vs. Predator or its equally terrible sequel.  I don’t really consider either of those movies to be honest-to-Ripley sequels because outside of featuring xenomorphs, they largely stand apart. The sooner I, and the world, can forget about scenes like the one below, the sooner we can heal.

Also those movie are lack any sort of merit beyond just being bad and I’m trying to bring us up rather than down…at least in relation to the first four films. There will be plenty of Prometheus-bashing soon.

I’m not divulging that in-depth in relation to the plot of these movies but there will be some frank discussion about plot points in each film in the series meaning of course the ending or major twists will come up at one point or another.

So yeah there are some spoilers, Nick.

Alien

The gist:

“After a space merchant vessel perceives an unknown transmission as distress call, its landing on the source moon finds one of the crew attacked by a mysterious life-form, and they soon realize that its life cycle has merely begun.” – IMDb.com

So here’s our template, the movie that sets the tone for all that comes afterward. Almost all the major beats that take place a viewer from today may pass off as cliché neglecting the fact this is the film that not only created the cliché but perfected it. Typically, when EVERYTHING about a movie is iconic, it’s because more than one person was doing their job.

But another thing it deserves all the credit in the world for is just how dadgum relatable everything is. Yeah, I know. It takes place in space. Yeah, I know. There’s a face-hugging, chest-bursting monster at the center of it all. But as with the rest of these films, it’s really smart in its execution.

Our crew isn’t a group of scientists like in Prometheus. Nor are they an elite group of marines as in Aliens (with the term “elite” being used very, VERY liberally in this instance). They’re space truckers, and only one of them makes it out alive by the end. Even then, it’s by the absolute skin of her teeth. I think a lot of this reflects on the time this came out in the 1970s, where there was this larger push for the realistic; where films began to mirror documentaries in their presentation. Like A New Hope, Alien does not exist in a pristine future. It’s a world that’s been lived-in, where dated technology still exists and the grime carries over. This goes hand-in-hand with the way our character’s talk to one another. A lot has been said of the subtle yet noticeable way the crew talks over one another, similar to the way large groups of people do in real life. This is due to Scott trusting his actors in this case, allowing them to play off one another rather than fully adhering to the script.

It’s also incredibly important to point out how simple the whole affair is. The original theatrical cut clocks in at 117 minutes, chump change compared to today’s standard tent-pole but by no means a breezy movie either. But I can count only one hand how many major plot points there are, and I stress that the movie isn’t filler. It all comes down to the power of good pacing, matched with clever dialogue and stunning presentation.

In more cases than not, simple is the best option. Scott was setting out to make Dune (an adaptation he was originally supposed to direct funny enough before opting to do Blade Runner instead). There’s a much larger world in Alien, yes, but it’s at the service of the characters first. Go back and watch Alien and make a point to notice how all (or most) of the world-building is subjected largely to the background. That’s because Scott, at his best, is a MASTER CLASS world builder. When matched with a great screenplay, I argue he works best. It doesn’t hurt that he had the insight to bring in Swiss surrealist artist H. R. Giger to form his monster but everything involving the alien, ensuring a visual consistency on LV-426 and the crashed Space Jockey ship. I could go on but YouTuber kaptainkristian spoke in-depth on the matter and I’ll pass the baton off to him.

Another reason just about everyone loves (snobs and paupers alike) is that it appeases everyone’s sensibilities without ever once being condescending. It’s moody and dark, building tension to white-knuckle levels (Dallas in the vents), and it provides the ever-important gore (the chest-burster). Science fiction fans love the hardware, but those who don’t are never bored with techno-babble. It’s progressive in how it doesn’t fit any of its character into a box. No one is a damsel or tasteless stereotype. 

It checks off every box, making for as perfect of a film as there ever has been. I’d be lying if I thought it even needed a sequel let alone a franchise. But seeing as it made an estimated ALL OF THE MONEY in 1979, a sequel was all but assured. The question was however would said sequel be more of the same, but on a bigger scale or a different experience altogether set within the same world. The answer was a resounding….yes/no.

Aliens

“Fifty seven years after Ellen Ripley survived her disastrous ordeal, her escape vessel is recovered after drifting across the galaxy as she slept in cryogenic stasis. Back on Earth, nobody believed her story about the “Aliens” on the moon LV-426. After the “Company” orders the colony on LV-426 to investigate, however, all communication with the colony is lost. The Company enlists Ripley to aid a team of tough, rugged space marines on a rescue mission to the now partially terraformed moon to find out if there are aliens or survivors. As the mission unfolds, Ripley will be forced to come to grips with her worst nightmare, but even as she does, she finds that the worst is yet to come.” – IMDb.com

Hard to ever really accurately gauge but if I were to make an informed guess, I’d say Aliens is the fan favorite. I’d certainly argue this as I’d say it is hands-down my favorite two films as well.

Something that’s been noted in recent years is that Aliens, for all its bells and whistles, is practically the exact same movie as Alien in that it hits a lot of the same narrative beats. The key difference is where Scott took us inward, favoring claustrophobia and paranoia; director James Cameron went much bigger, favoring action beats and encompassing scope. The connecting tissue (at least thematically) is that bigger themes weren’t lost in the shuffle.

Cameron took the mantle from Scott effortlessly, taking the world he had established without going too large. This is a tight-rope too many sequels fall short of, simply taking a “bigger is better” approach. Aliens growth all flows naturally. Informed by the insect-like design of the monster, Cameron built on that and made his monsters hive-based going so far as to have a queen. Informed by the treachery of Ash in the last film, Cameron plays with our expectations with Bishop and allows for ready-made tension. 

For all intents and purposes Aliens is an action blockbuster but as with a majority of Cameron’s films, it is an exceedingly intelligent one. Too often I see folks criticize the space marines for being one-dimensional, but Cameron and the cast do an incredibly skillful job at characterizing them all. Who is to say we really need to hear the life-story of all of these guys and gals? There’s a great deal many more of them than there were Nostromo crew members, so efficiency is key. Largely, we get all the info we really need within a few seconds of meeting each new squad member.

I love, love, love that most action-oriented of the series is the most about female empowerment as well. The image of Ripley we so often see is the one she becomes in this movie, and the great thing is that it doesn’t just happen. Ripley just barely survived the film and it had a great deal to do with luck. This is Weaver’s best outing with the character by a large margin reflected by the fact she received a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her efforts; something typically unheard of for science fiction and horror.

She plays Ripley as a woman looking to find her footing in an unfamiliar world. In the Director’s Cut, we learn that her daughter died while she was floating around in space. The only thing left to her is her cat (who really needed an epilogue now that I think about it). Deciding to return to LV-426, she finds a new purpose in Newt and in doing so reclaims that lost motherhood.

This plays larger into her conflict with the Alien Queen during the film’s climax (given Ripley saw fit to torch all of her babies), which boils down the movie to a knock-out, drag-down war for motherhood told through the prism of an old-fashioned war story.

It’s easily the most accessible of the four as well. Where Alien and Alien 3 may (wrongly) be accused of being “boring” and Resurrection too weird, Aliens is just the right mix of action/horror/comedy that reaches a wide audience. It’s no coincidence that, in many cases, some saw this movie before Alien.

And that accessibility without sacrificing genuine storytelling is something I don’t think Cameron gets nearly enough kudos for.  He’s been credited for raising the bar of where effects can take us time and time again, but he always does so in a way that compliments the story too. Sure, he can be written off as unoriginal but more often than not he’s falling back on the grand tradition of acquiring a previous work and running with it.

Aliens represents a sequel done not just well, but perfectly. Anything that followed would have considerable shoes to fill. Unfortunately, the series really never recaptures the glory of its first two films. But as I said before, that doesn’t mean the two final films were failures. In fact, I argue they’re secret successes.

Alien 3

“After escaping from the alien moon, the ship carrying Ellen Ripley crashes onto a remote and inhabited ore refinery. While living in the ore refinery until she is rescued by her employers, Ripley discovers the horrifying reason for her crash: An alien stowaway. As the alien matures and begins to kill off the inhabitants, Ripley is unaware that her true enemy is more than just the killer alien.” – IMDb.com

When I talk about Alien 3, I get kind of defensive due in no small part to the involvement of director David Fincher, a man for whom I give a great deal of admiration to.

I’ll concede that the theatrical cut is a bit of a mess, a clear victim of retooling and cuts. The effects are also a series low point when it comes to seeing a dog-like xenomorph (or a cow as is the case in the Director’s cut) fully in motion. This is something I think speaks more to the limitations of technology at the time and its an admittedly a cool idea to give us a new type of creature, enhanced by a canine rather than a human. It branches out the mythos in a subtle way rather than immediately throwing elephant xenos or tiger xenos. That said the effect looks pretty bad even by early 90’s standards and probably could have used some re-tooling.

I’m mainly drawing from the 2003 Assembly Cut, a version of the film that is exactly what it sounds like. Adding in about 37 minutes of new or unused footage, this version fits in line more with Fincher’s original vision. Now it too isn’t a perfect movie, but I’d wager it’s a much more complete, comprehensible of the narrative. Not that I fault the studio all that much for making the cuts they did.

If one watches the BTS features on the Quadrilogy set (something I once again whole heartedly recommend), you’ll pick up on the fact that making each one of these movies was an absolute nightmare. Based on the production stories from Alien 3‘s surprisingly frank making-of documentaries, it’s a minor miracle that the either cut of the film is watchable at all.

Where Aliens was a big, loud, bombastic statement, Alien 3 brings everything inward; it cleans the slate, bringing everything back to a simplistic core. What it lacks in scope however it more than makes up with lofty ideas and imagery. It’s the closest the series has to an art film, something I attribute to Fincher and the early involvement of Vincent Ward, who brought forth a lot of religious context and themes to his original vision before Fincher took over. Fincher, to his credit, scaled things back considerably in favor of taking the series back to its roots. 

The last film sought to build Ripley up, elevating her to the badass we see often in the iconography.  Too often we neglect Alien 3 however, the movie that brought her right back down to lowest point we had yet to see her.

I think a lot of the hate this movie receives deals largely with the fact it is almost nothing like its largely revered predecessor. It’s in no way a fun movie and it isn’t a summer blockbuster. Hell, our movie opens with the death of Newt and Hicks. In the Assembly Cut, Newt’s autopsy is a critical scene for Ripley. There are very, very few scenes of levity to balance everything out so it is a really long, dour affair at the end of the day. I argue Fincher’s best stuff is pretty bleak though. He’s dabbled in darker comedy (Fight Club) and even prestige, feel-good whimsy (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), but his greatest movies (Seven, Zodiac, Gone Girl) match his (presumably) dark soul.

In Fincher’s hands, Alien 3 is an excursion into nihilism on a dilapidated, claustrophobic prison planet populated by celibate fundamentalist prisoners so it at least removes the immediate threat of sexual violence where they’re concerned which is refreshing. The xenomorph, in all its forms, is kind of one big sexual allegory any way so to add that unpleasant layer would have in no doubt been a major detractor given this series is sort of built upon “subtle” sexual imagery due in no small part to the involvement of Giger.

However I must concede that Alien 3 never fully recovers from just how bleak it is. Still there is a lot to be said about its stylistic bravado and the courage it has in taking the series’ darkest turns. Killing of Ripley was a bold, fitting move and one almost wishes this had been the final chapter. She and the xenomorph go down together, their fates forever entwined and closed.

But alas, nothing ends in Hollywood as long as there is money to be made.

Alien: Resurrection

“200 years after the conclusion of Alien 3, the Company is able to resurrect Ripley through the process of cloning and the scientists successfully take the Queen Alien out of her. But, Ripley’s DNA gets mixed up with the Queen’s and she begins to develop certain alien characteristics. The scientists begin breeding the aliens, but they later escape. Soon the Xeno-morphs are running amok on the ship, which is on course to Earth. The Queen then gives birth to a deadly new breed of alien, which could spell disaster for the entire human race. It’s up to Ripley and a band of space pirates to stop the ship before it reaches Earth.” – IMDb.com

At last, we arrive at the black sheep of the family.

Alien: Resurrection is hands down one of the most insane wide-releases I think a major studio has put out in the past 3 or 4 decades. It’s just so utterly bizarre it deserves a litany of think-pieces examining just how this storm came together.

Weirdly enough, it’s also the one that seems to have gotten the least amount of studio notes.

Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet had only done two movies at this point and had yet to complete the film for which he will forever be associated: Amélie.

Suffice to say, he doesn’t automatically scream franchise material. Let alone the million dollar behemoth that the Alien franchise represented at the time and unlike Fincher, I don’t think the studio hired him to be some puppet to blindly accept notes. I think this movie really only represents Jeunet’s single stab at making a Hollywood movie, and it’s really fun to see what exactly he brought to the table having since seen him find his groove outside of the system.

Oh and did I mention the screenplay comes from nerd messiah Joss Whedon? Now this may seem like an odd fit, but if you actually watch the movie you see Whedon’s finger prints all over the damn thing with all of its quippy dialogue (at inopportune times) and playful jabs at genre conventions. There’s even a pre-Firefly wacky family dynamic with the crew of the Beatty; not to mention Whedon inherits one of the most empowered female leads in cinematic history, something he made a staple throughout his work. (That said, it makes no logical sense to have Ripley be in this outside of just finding an excuse to include Weaver and the reason provided for Ripley’s “resurrection” is quite the stretch. Then again, a stupid cloning aspect fits in perfectly with all of the other stupid shit celebrated therein.)

To be fair to Whedon, he’s gone on record more than once that he’s not a fan of the final product. He’s quoted as saying:

“It wasn’t a question of doing everything differently, although they changed the ending; it was mostly a matter of doing everything wrong. They said the lines…mostly…but they said them all wrong. And they cast it wrong. And they designed it wrong. And they scored it wrong. They did everything wrong that they could possibly do. There’s actually a fascinating lesson in filmmaking, because everything that they did reflects back to the script or looks like something from the script, and people assume that, if I hated it, then they’d changed the script…but it wasn’t so much that they’d changed the script; it’s that they just executed it in such a ghastly fashion as to render it almost unwatchable.”

All credit to Whedon and he is fully entitled to his own opinion (it is a screenplay he wrote after all), but I humbly disagree. I think this a movie exudes a confidence that a lot of others of its scale at the time lacked and in that we find the spectacle.

You can almost get the sense Jeunet wanted to go crazier but was limited by plausibility and budget…probably the studio to a degree as well. This is the rare entry that probably could have used a bit more supervision to be sure. Frustratingly enough however, its utter insanity is what most elevates the movie from a forgettable chapter to arguably the most memorable if only for what your mind is assaulted with. It carries an odd integrity, consisting more of half-formed ideas combined with the ambitions of a French madman.

The one (of many) stupid things that probably could have used a touch up was….this stupid thing.

Look at its stupid face.

And my problem is more of nitpick because this…thing is supposed to be a half xenomorph/half human hybrid….even though the xenomorph is already supposed to be a half human hybrid. That said, I give it a pass because we get to see it die in a fashion that remains unmatched in the annals of cinema.

An element worth commendation that the movie never really executes is how it finally somewhat explores  the series-long thread of weaponizing the xenomorph. There’s a truly unsettling scene early on where the military is “farming” the aliens with live, human hosts they’ve essentially kidnapped. Unfortunately really never goes too in-depth with this aspect. It’d be interesting if a future movie examined this further.

While Resurrection is probably the weakest movie of all four, it features enough strong scenes like the one I just mentioned to keep it from devolving into simple schlock. It’s a roundtable movie, demanding discussion that all fall prey to it.

So while far from perfect, the Alien franchise had submitted its place as perhaps the most diverse cinematic franchise up to that point in that each entry represented something new, something different, something exciting. No two entries were ever the same. They didn’t always land, but they were distinct. In a world where studios are more concerned with consistency and inter-connecting episodic threads rather than something so risky, these movies would be downright revolutionary. 

Then Ridley Scott came back and fucked everything up…

Perhaps it’s unfair to join the masses in beating a long dead horse, airing my complains about a movie I’ve made sure to harp on in the past so I’m going to be as concise as I can before I send you out on your way. I could dedicate more than a few thousand words regarding plot holes, but that would be screaming into the abyss at this point. Add in the fact redlettermedia took on that task much more eloquently and concisely than I ever could.

Unlike AliensPrometheus doesn’t take risks with tone. It plays things safe, something no other entry had done up to that point. I can’t really stand on a chair above it, pretending I know what would have made a better movie or even that it’s a lazy movie. The production design and effects, for what they’re worth, clearly had a lot of effort put into them. It’s nice to say basic effort at least carried over where the visuals were concerned.

It would be unfair to say the movie is without merit and had it nothing to do with the world Scott helped begin all those decades ago, I’m sure my displeasure with it would have been tempered. In fact, I may have even enjoyed it a little bit more…not by much, but at least a little. The notion of Scott returning to a genre he helped define was enough to make one giddy. However it instead came off as Scott painting-by-numbers rather than be the innovator we all know him to be.

It was Alien but with a shittier coat of paint. Sure, it looks nice and new but the old layer hadn’t remotely begun to chip yet. There’s nothing distinctly praise-worthy about Prometheus outside of its visuals, a couple of half-baked unanswered questions and Michael Fassender’s turn as the android David, a character so developed and nuanced he’s a disservice to everyone else who comes off as flat and one-dimensional.

The comparisons to its forebear would have been there with Scott’s involvement alone but instead its hitched its trailer to a franchise it initially appears to share very little connective tissue with outside of its hard R-rating. I think this can possibly be faulted to pre-release build up that really wasn’t clear whether the film was indeed a prequel rather than a science fiction in the same vein as Alien. Given we now know it is a prequel, I believe comparisons are completely fair.

I hate accusations that a lot of hardcore Alien fans dismiss this movie because it “breaks from the formula.” This is something Scott has said in promoting the newest film, adding this is what led to said film’s creation and implying he’s “giving us what we want to see.”

I’ll get into it more in a bit, but this is probably the thing that enrages me most about Prometheus as a whole. It suggests we want to be spoon-fed rather than surprised. I could be wrong given how much money movies like the Beauty and the Beast remake make every year. It suggests audiences typically only want the same thing time after time. Sure, we love familiarity but there’s room for new stuff too…he said kind of simplistically.

Well if you want the same thing, look no further than Prometheus; a movie that could best be described as if Alien thought its audience consisted of nothing but morons. Where Alien had characters that felt like actual people, Prometheus “elevates” itself with dialogue no human being (not even a scientist) would utter.

Maybe it just falls back to personal preference. Where the characters in Alien were largely concerned about things like overtime and pay checks, the Prometheus crew are concerned with intangible concepts. “Is there a God?’ “Who made us?” “Why did he/she/it make us?” “Did I leave the stove light on?” These are not inherently boring ideas. They could be pretty interesting if framed properly. But Prometheus doesn’t really go for that. It largely hinges on the mystery. But in asking so many questions, it never really feels the need to answer any of them, leading to frustration. In a way, it undermines what made the original so great in the first place, complicating things that shouldn’t be all that complicated.

And it extends to matters beyond just dialogue as well. Whenever a new threat presents itself, the crew of the Nostromo make a point to map out to a degree their next course of action and in turn this allows us a chance to know them specifically as characters. The Prometheus crew, which I must remind you we are led to believe is a group of trained scientists that represent the highest potential in their respective fields (otherwise why else would they be recruited for potentially THE SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT DISCOVERY OF ALL TIME), lumber around like idiots, never really taking any time to discuss any intimidate action. We’re granted plenty of questions, but literally no payoff.

Hence my lack of excitement for the impending release of Alien: Covenant, yet another entry by Scott. From the grapevine I hear word that it is a soft reboot, meaning it is a reboot in everything but name so therefore could also be considered a prequel and/or sequel. There’s connective threads to what came before, but everything else is entirely new. Think of the Force Awakens, Jurassic World or the movie I just got done bitching about Prometheus as recent examples.

I have yet to see it, but I predict my reaction may be akin to how I gradually felt about Jurassic World, another soft reboot. I’m excited at first, seeing a franchise return to its roots but cools every single time I watch afterword.

Given it’s attached to Prometheus (thereby….sigh….attaching the two franchises), I also assume it’s a prequel. If there’s anything I didn’t need it was where the xenomorph came from. Maybe I’m in the minority here, but this is a monster that was much more interesting when my mind was allowed to fill in the gaps. Given they’re creatures that we’re not really ever asked to feel sympathy for (well, most of the time), in what instance is an origin needed.

One of the great joys in Alien is our characters land on LV-426, find a downed space ship they know nothing about. All we know is some insane parasitic creature has killed everyone on said ship, thereby making the jump to humans. Who is to say what they originally looked like? That’s never been a question lingering in my mind. I always viewed as this brilliant/terrifying coincidence that humans ran into this species at all. And as kaptainkristian pointed out so truthfully in his video essay, this is a creature we understand without any explanation. Thanks to the design, we fundamentally understand all three life stages of the xenomorph without all our characters gathered around a table to exposit each stage’s purpose.

And that’s why it sucks (to me) why Scott has saw fit to apparently take this series back under his wing, favoring a unified vision rather than experimentation. I fear we’re only going to get the same variation of the same movie year after year, joining the rank-and-file series it once set itself apart from. This isn’t to say I’m not in favor of a director overseeing an entire series. Without going down the entire list we have Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, James Gunn with the Guardians of the Galaxy and Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy for some prime examples. I’m simply arguing we could use more room for franchises that mix things up by letting new directors with different visions mess around and not in the same way as the James Bond series does, a franchise so beholden to its own formula it’s a point of humor in later installments.

Imagine how much more interesting if the Pirates of Caribbean series would have been if it ditched an over-arching narrative in favor of new directions with each entry? Much like the Back to the Future films, it dedicated its second and third to go hand-in-hand, leading to two movies that just sort of bleed into another without each really making a substantial impression. Whereas I argue the latter BtF films are marginally better, Pirates kept going after its original trilogy and appears to be going for something I’d initially consider a step in the right direction. Unfortunately it kind of comes too late. On Stranger Tides was so forgettable I struggle to remember a single thing that happened in or if I saw it all, and Dead Men Tell No Tales looks to be in the same vein. What that series could have benefited from is a new director each time, maybe focusing on someone other than Jack Sparrow and ditching a traditional arc; opting instead to bring us to new locales and adventures each outing.

This all wraps into why I’m here today, making a case for a series many dismiss as formulaic when in fact it’s a franchise (that once) was something special, something that changed from movie in the way a musical artist plays around with different genres; artists like Kanye West, Childish Gambino, Lady Gaga, David Bowie, Gorillaz and Bob Dylan.

I think we’ve largely grown complacent with sequels that barely register as mildly entertaining, and for what’s worth that’s not exactly the worst thing, but it also doesn’t really get the blood-pumping in a serious way either.

When you look back at the original four Alien films, you see a new vision each time. You see risk rather than safe, lazy imitation. For all its faults, Fox inadvertently created a highly, unique franchise (something that’s clear given they kept trying to bring back Scott and Cameron throughout the years), set apart from just about anything else of its scale in the Western studio system.

Does everything work? No. Not by a long shot but in a cinescape dominated by the “safe” and “episodic” there should still be room for a series that doesn’t adhere to a code, and mixes things up even if there are mistakes. So what if every beat doesn’t always land when the jump was completely watchable?

I argue these movies are anything but formulaic. There may be beats you expect, but tonally they could not be any more different. They match the tastes of four incredibly masterful and diverse directors, each sporting an entirely different feel than the last.

I can’t sit here and tell you what I want out of an Alien movie because my “dream Alien film” is one that I wouldn’t expect or at the very least one that is set apart from its predecessors. It would be one that does what this series and its monster (used) to do best: evolve.

‘The Martian’ and ‘Sicario’ highlight the best and worst humanity has to offer

Curious how two major releases this past weekend would, while being utterly different, compliment each other so well.

As I write this, I am laying on my bed hating life. Today I had to have 5 cavities filled and I now know the valuable lesson of going to the dentist every six months. (Ah to have dental coverage again. I’m going to  soak it up as long as I can.) I write this only as an excuse to how drug-addled my ramblings are about to be.

Let me be upfront and say that you aren’t going to go wrong with either one of these movies. It just boils down to what you’re in the mood for. If you’re ready for some hope, excitement, and fun than I’d say The Martian is probably your best bet. But if you’re in the mood for some white-knuckle tension, haunting yet often-time stunning visuals and a cinematic experience that will stay with you long after you’ve left the theater, than give Sicario a shot.

The Martian 

martianf

The plot:

“During a manned mission to Mars, Astronaut Mark Watney is presumed dead after a fierce storm and left behind by his crew. But Watney has survived and finds himself stranded and alone on the hostile planet. With only meager supplies, he must draw upon his ingenuity, wit and spirit to subsist and find a way to signal to Earth that he is alive.” – IMDb.com

The review:

I am in no way, shape or form a scientist. I do not claim to be an expert in any sort of scientific field. If anything, I take the Jesse Pinkman route when it comes to understanding any given science. I know very little but what I do know I get very excited about…

Or better yet…

That being said, I love a good “Huzzaw for science!”  movie. They’re starting to come out with a somewhat relative frequency, particularly ones that take place in space. Last year we saw the release of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar and the year before that we got Gravity. (I’m sure I’m missing some fantastic examples in the interim but let’s keep it general.) The Martian is the newest addition to the canon (if we can even call it that) and it may just well be the most enjoyable of the bunch. (I still love Gravity but I’d be a stone-faced liar if I didn’t say that is a movie not made for viewing on anything less than the biggest screen possible.)

Ridley Scott may just be the most prolific director Western cinema has to offer. You name a genre and the man has dabbled in it one way or another. Perhaps what he is best associated with though is his work in the science fiction genre. That being said, a great deal of his cinematic output over the past decade has been less than stellar to say the very least. I cannot stress this enough: RIDLEY SCOTT HAS NOTHING TO PROVE. He can make whatever he damn well pleases and I will see it nonetheless. I wouldn’t go so far as to say this is a return to form for the man. I mean, it’s Ridley Scott, but this movie is the return of Ridley Scott having fun or at the very least the fun he is having is being conveyed by the movie itself and the us, the audience, being allowed to have fun as well.

The Martian is a fairly simple story with a lot of complicated science thrown in that held the possibility of alienating a grand portion of the audience (myself included). Luckily the movie never (well sometimes) talks down to the audience for the most part. None of the scientists (well except one played by Donald Glover) act like this…

They work like actual scientists. There are only brief glimpses of nerdy high horses here. (One being an admittedly hilarious scene with Lord of the Rings references dropped made all the more hilarious with involvement of Sean Bean.) We also get a very likable main character that we actually want to see make it through this ordeal.

Matt Damon is perhaps the best choice to play Mark Watney. Like Tom Hanks in Cast Away, Damon has this everyman charm that really sells the fucked situation he now finds himself in. It’s rather important we like the character (and actor) that we are about to be stuck with for the next two hours, and Damon’s Watney is that right mix of really smart but lighthearted enough to where we actually want to see him make it through this and not feel like being with him and him alone is a chore. Damon does a really good job at keeping the situation light by cracking a lot of jokes (the guy is an incredibly underrated comedic actor as his 30 Rock appearances would attest) but he is a good enough dramatic actor to sell us on some of the more dire scenes as well. There is a scene after an airlock explosion when he’s trying to count potatoes during the storm just floored me. He has created flimsy protection to cover the gaping hole that is now in his shelter. He knows full well that if his makeshift repair gives out, that’s it he’s dead. He portrayed that raw emotion of refusing to give in yet knowing that he could literally die at any moment amazingly well. Their is an incredibly annoying noise from the tarp reminding him how close to death he is while he’s trying to concentrate was so clearly grating on him without him saying anything or even looking at it. I doubt he’ll be in the Best Actor race come awards season but he did a great job here in a role that could have easily been annoying or bland.

The rest of the cast (Watney’s crew mates on the Aries III returning back from Mars and NASA back on earth) is comprised of characters that basically serve as means to an end but are played by some of the best actors and actresses Hollywood has to offer. Scott pulled no punches in casting this thing. Big names like Jessica Chastain, Kristin Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Pena, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kate Mara, Sean Bean and Donald Glover all appear and if this movie were to have any sort of major flaw it would be that some of these utterly great talents feel kind of wasted. It’s like casting Bryan Cranston in your movie and killing him off 30 minutes in. 

Having just read the bestselling book this movie is based over the summer, I still have a pretty good handle on what the filmmakers kept and did away with in the adaptation process and for the most part everything made it through. There were some tweaks here and there (the climax is a bit different here and goes a bit more fantastical than the science-first stance the book takes) but all of the major beats are the same with even some of Mark’s best one-liners coming to life such as the now famous, “Science the shit out of this” and “Fuck you, Mars.”

Speaking of Mars, this movie is assisted immensely by the decision not to show Mars as a CGI-exclusive landscape. Instead, the filmmakers opted to go out and use actual (remember those?!) locations in Jordan as well as enormous sound stages. The immensity and barrenness of these locations help add a further isolation to Watney’s situation as well as give some stunning visuals assisted by CGI rather than depending on them.

I also need to go out on the record and say this movie was so much easier to sit through than last year’s Interstellar. While it may not be fair to compare the two, the have similar themes beyond just being “space movies.” Whereas that movie often felt almost too self-important (Love truly is the only thing that transcends time and space, guys!) and often monotonous, this movie was pretty breezy and never once felt its length. I attribute that to neither of the parallel story-lines (one in space, one back on earth) felt more important and more entertaining than the other. In Interstellar, the earth sections felt unnecessary and could have easily been trimmed or cut completely. Here, both stories are compelling enough to sustain their own respective film but this movie finds that sweet spot where both play off one another in way that neither is cheated for time. This movie also doesn’t force a contrived villain in the story (which Matt Damon played in the earlier movie ironically enough). The only “villain” is space, and the conflict is survival. It’s rather refreshing to have a movie where scientists are allowed to act like scientists and face actually scientist problems. There are no cliched asshole politician characters nor another survivor on Mars that is trying to kill Mark for his supplies.

And that leads me to this film’s biggest strength (at least in my non-professional opinion) and that is how much it fucking cheers for humanity. More often than not, science fiction is genre that speaks to our failings as a species. It serves as a commentary for whatever short fall we find ourselves in now. There isn’t a lot of hope in our future according science fiction. So it’s refreshing to see a quasi-movement in the genre to fight for a better tomorrow.  While it was flawed, Tomorrowland was another movie that tried to spell out how fucking great humans can be when we get past our in-fighting and such nonsense. Similarly, The Martian gives us a world where people of different nationalities put aside all the bullshit to bring back one guy safely. When we see someone in trouble, the best of us rise to the occasion. When we see some psycho has committed some heinous deed, we shouldn’t look to the pathetic asshole committed the crime but the people stepping up to undo the damage. When a natural disaster hits and we see the devastation; don’t look to the wreckage, look to those rushing in asking what they can do to help. This isn’t a “Fuck yeah, USA!” movie. This is a “Fuck yeah, the human race!” movie, and I often need a reminder of how great, just how fucking great, we can be sometimes even if it has to take place in a fictional world where NASA is acutally afforded the money to reach its potential.

Sicario

sicario

The plot:

“When the drug raid worsens in the USA and Mexico border region, the USA government sent a passionate and idealistic FBI agent, Kate Macer in a mission to eradicate the drug cartel network of Manuel Diaz, who responsible for a bombing which killed the members of her team- with the help from Alejandro, a hit-man- which in Spanish called ‘Sicario’.” – IMDb.com

The review:

God, I love a good bleak movie to counterpoint all that “hope” from the last movie. I love a movie that sings a siren song to the bitter, slimy, heaving, little pustule that is my cynical heart. Oh, Sicario. Sing me your bleak, drug-funded, blood-soaked melody!

Denis Villeneuve has risen to the ranks as one of the best directors currently working today. His last four films (IncendiesPrisonersEnemy and now Sicario) are all bitter pills but all equally stunning in different ways. As a director, he reminds me of David Fincher (not in a copycat way, but in his choice of scripts and the way his movies are paced and directed as well as his constant collaboration with only the best cinematographers in the business) which if you know anything about my taste in movies that that is a very, VERY good thing.

Speaking of Fincher, this movie reminded me a lot of Se7en, in that this movie is incredibly tense and incredibly bleak. All those looking for a movie to provide you with a happy little narrative bow need not apply as you will not find it here. This movie is an unflinching look at the War on Drugs, and without spoon feeding or sugar coating it for the audience, and informs us just how fucked up and utterly hopeless the situation is.

The action is played for tenseness(?) instead of spectacle which to me is a million times more effective. For example, there is a shootout that takes place on a crowded highway. A more conventional director probably would have actually had the focus be the shootout with guys doing badass moves highlighted with flashy, over-the-top editing or lots and lots of slow motion. Here, the build up to the shoot out is the main course with the actual shoot out being the cherry on top. Like any good horror movie, it is almost a billion times more memorable to raise the tension so high that aftermath is almost irrelevant. You need to feel like you have literal anchor in your stomach that only gets heavier with each passing second. That tension is what sucks you into the scene. The release will come but until then you are the utter mercy of the director, editor, and all involved. A truly talented team makes this shit look easy buy pulling you in so close that you forget you’re watching a movie only have them surprise you with a knife right to the heart.

Before I get to the actors, I have to talk about who the most obvious star of this movie is and that is of course Roger Deakins’ cinematography. I think I’ve spent more time drooling over this man’s work than any other person (director, actor, actress, screenwriter, etc) working in the film industry. It’s just absolutely incredible what this man does with lighting, camera placement and tracking. AND HE STILL HAS YET TO WIN AN OSCAR.

I highly expect him to get nominated next year only to lose once again to Emmanuel “I have won two years in a row” Lubezki’s work on the upcoming The Revenant, which by all accounts is going to be revolutionary. (Hard to argue given what we see in the trailer AND the fact that the man only worked with natural lighting which is just downright insane given this movie appears to take place exclusively outdoors.) Still, Deakins delivers visuals that escalate the story beyond anything a lesser cinematographer would have brought to the table. His flyover shots here. Be still my beating heart. The pair (Villeneuve and Deakins) are apparently set to team up once again for the upcoming (and no longer unnecessary given these two are working on it) Blade Runner sequel.

Now onto the cast. All are great but I want to speak specifically about two in particular. A lot has been said about Emily Blunt’s role here. Some say its sexist how she’s edged out of her own movie in favor of a man. Others counter that it is a larger statement on women’s role in the world as a whole. I can’t argue for either. I personally saw her as the perfect lead (until a point) for the kind of story being told here. Much like the audience, she isn’t informed on the situation. When she gets information, so do we. She isn’t some unstoppable badass. She’s someone who is good at her job, but not an unstoppable force.  She is an audience surrogate and a very-well written and acted one at that.

-Mild Spoilers Ahead-

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It should be no secret (as the marketing has made it pretty clear) that there is something rather..let’s say shady about Benicio del Toro’s Alejandro. Well there is, and then some! I won’t spoil the reveal (although it isn’t THAT big of a shocker if you’ve seen any movie or television show relating to the cartel) but it is dramatically important that viewers not be spoiled given some of the big surprises this movie throws at you with his characters involvement. Throughout the most of the movie, he is a presence. His often lurking silently, more of a presence than a character, only giving us little glimpses at the man beneath instead of the animal we eventually see the U.S. has unleashed upon cartel. (Never have I seen a wet willy used so menacingly.) It’s about the last quarter of the movie where the film switches perspectives from Blunt’s character to del Toro’s and once it happens the film kicks from an already high 10 to an incendiary 11. The scene at the dinner table combined with the scene back at Kate’s apartment will have to fight it out as the flat out most tense scene of the year, and the power from the both truly stem from del Toro’s performance, and that isn’t to take away from Blunt’s performance either. She gives a career best performance here and the switch off from her character’s perspective to  del Toro’s makes complete thematic sense.

It’s been a good long while since del Toro has had the opportunity to really shine in a role. Hell, he hasn’t had a staring role in a major release since 2010’s The Wolfman. He’s been great in the few supporting roles he’s appeared in since then, but this guy deserves to be back in the big leagues with actors like George Clooney and Brad Pitt. Given he’s just been cast in the upcoming Star Wars: Episode VIII, Hollywood seems to agree. I’m hoping this role leads to another Best Actor nomination for him, because he is just phenomenal here. His last shot in the movie is an absolute stunner and the testament to the “less is more” approach to acting. He says nothing yet everything with one look.

-Mild Spoilers Over-

I guess it should go without saying that I rather enjoyed this movie. I like movies without easy answers. Movies that challenge you and shake you. While it sports a rather simple (I’d even go so far as to say cliched at times) story, Sicario is a movie made by some of the best in the industry with the acting needed to elevate it from your average, run-of-the-mill cartel movie.