Blade Runner 2049 Review

It’s difficult to determine whether or not Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) really needed a sequel, or even if modern audiences wanted one, yet it is simple enough to say that Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 is worthy of sharing the title of its cult-classic predecessor. The synth-heavy soundscapes and neon-glowing advertisements of Blade Runner‘s futuristic Los Angeles are back, though most of the events this time take place above the fog-obscured streets. Thirty years later, not only has humanity not solved its replicant problem, but society seems to have merged into a completely unidentifiable state, as the Wallace Corporation, following in the Tyrell Corporations footsteps, continue to issue advanced versions of highly adaptable replicants into it. While the original’s cult status basks in its moral and thematic ambiguities, 2049 makes itself clear from the start; its main character, Officer K (Ryan Gosling), who we follow throughout, is a replicant.

K, a new model replicant, takes the place of Rick Deckard as the new blade runner for the LAPD ever since Deckard’s strange disappearance years ago. His assignment is also nearly the same as Deckard’s was: eliminate expired replicants. However, after his initial assignment is completed, K comes across a new plot which threatens the existence of both humans and replicants. Throughout the nearly three-hour running time, 2049 follows a much more plot-focused investigation than the original. It’s necessary, too, that it’s plot is at the forefront of the humanizing debate concerning the capabilities of replicants, since it might be difficult to make a more character-focused film when you’re protagonist is, identifiably from the start, one of them.

In following K throughout his investigation, 2049 adopts a much colder, emotionally distant tone until much later, making viewers feel the appropriate tone of not only the characters, but the world of the film as well. Since the original took place, hints at a “blackout” are dropped, suggesting that the tragic status of mankind has reached a point where everyone might be dangerous, and to find anything “human” about the world would be difficult. Ryan Gosling’s K comes home to a hologram wife, with little to no illusion that she might be a real person. Her artifice is obvious, and Villeneuve, as a result, raises questions about what being “human” really consists of. Is it biological, emotional, philosophical or some combination of these various elements? And does having any of these qualities make us special? This is the conflict K faces throughout, and if science-fiction is a genre where questions concerning human disaster are filtered through, 2049 closely trails such questions as if it were blade runner chasing a replicant.

Blade Runner 2049 somehow manages to keep its lengthy, investigative plot interesting despite its purposefully detached tone. Villeneuve refrains from imposing emotional preferences or answers, and the script smartly presents its contemplative questions. The presentation of the film’s inquisitive plot is also helped along by Roger Deakins’ profoundly realized cinematography and pulsing soundtrack composed by Hans Zimmer with Benjamin Wallfisch. It’s respectably a more quiet directorial effort on Villeneuve’s part as it lies alongside the visual and audible weight and power of Deakins and Zimmer/Wallfisch’s contributions.

However, this doesn’t mean that Villeneuve’s directorial voice is any less powerful as a result. He finds a valuable balance in expressing the voice of the script and its characters along with the atmosphere found in each unique location. The major performers in the film, consisting of Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Jared Leto, and Robin Wright, just to name a few, each retain a sense of coolness that the film exhibits so well while also delivering on heightened dramatic moments, which is sparsely and necessarily rare. Thus, when these dramatic sequences do occur, they’re successfully intense, surprising, and well performed.

Sometimes, though, there is a sense that the film feels a little too precisely engineered for its own good, as if it were made by a replicant. There are moments when the ambiguity generated by the original, which helped enhance it to its beloved cult status, feels hollow and simply added for the sake of referencing the original. For example, the question of whether or not Rick Deckard is actually a replicant is brought up, yet in a superficial way that doesn’t add any new layers of intrigue and mystery. Answering such a question would the wrong choice too, but 2049 simply feels, at times, intimidated by aspects of its predecessor, afraid to touch on them for fear of tarnishing its legacy.

The film also shares a common flaw with the original in its superficial treatment of female characters. Sure, there’s an argument to be had about the depiction of K’s hologram wife, Joi, and the standard gender role she occupies, though I would argue that her role more-so represents the unfortunate nature of a futuristic society only appearing futuristic on the surface, and hasn’t advanced from antiquated gender ideals. Instead, the other female characters of the film only seem to serve a specifically engineered role. Despite Rachel’s human characteristics from the original, the female replicant employee in 2049, Luv, fills the superficial role as an action villain. Other female characters, including a prostitute who crosses paths with K, simply exist for plot reasons, and only toward the end do we get a small, unsatisfactory glimpse into a potentially deeper feminine aspect of the story before it quickly enters its finale. Though, alternatively, the film’s larger question regarding individuality and whether or not genders even matter, can be aimed in a similar way to the male characters as well, especially K. None of them have real names, as they’re only identified by concepts (love, joy) or letters and numbers.

Given the film’s distanced tone, however, Blade Runner 2049 still presents a fascinating plot that explores exciting sci-fi themes worthy of the Blade Runner name, along with the cinematic presentation to accompany it. While it doesn’t fully delve into the possibilities provoked by its most fascinating questions, it nonetheless delivers a transportive cinematic spectacle. It’s also an open invitation for contemplative discussion on topics concerning the flawed nature of humanity in a world where “being human” is, literally, a more complicated affair. When K listens to Frank Sinatra in his own apartment and later again at Deckard’s, we, like him, think about what it truly means to be a stranger in the night.

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Revisiting Before Sunrise

Despite premiering 19 years prior to my first viewing of it, I immediately developed a special, personal connection to Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995), as someone who was the same age as Ethan Hawke’s Jesse, with similar concerns about personal and professional ideals just coming out of college and entering adulthood. I originally viewed the film through an entirely personal and emotional lens, because I related so much to the conversations shared between Jesse and Celine as they roamed the streets of Vienna. At first, the natural, simplistic style of the film mattered little to me and the only other film by Linklater I had seen before was School of Rock (2003), so the loose-narrative and philosophical meanderings of Linklater flew right over my head as established auteur patterns.

Upon revisiting Before Sunrise, as well as its sequels, Before Sunset (2002) and Before Midnight (2014), I’ve found that while I still admire these films, the reasons why have changed. This is due to multiple factors, ranging from my growth as a cinephile who’s learned how to view films in different ways, to personal, as someone who wasn’t the same 23-year old with the same personal concerns of the characters when I viewed the films previously. 9 years from now, re-watching Before Sunrise will surely be a different experience than how I view it now.

Since my first viewing of Before Sunrise, I’ve become more familiar with Linklater’s work and grown more fond of his loose-narrative sense and humanistic approach. Now, my appreciation of Before Sunrise doesn’t wholly reside with the personalities and conversations of Jesse and Celine, and more with the way Linklater depicts idealistic youth in concentrated moments in time. I also think more about the development of Jesse and Celine as characters, with the existence of two more Before entries. It’s interesting that I find myself more affected by the conversations in Before Sunset than I do Before Sunrise, possibly because, age-wise, I’m leaving my Sunrise stage and entering my Sunset stage. Yet, there are other elements of these films that change as I also evolve as a film enthusiast.

While I may have initially been immersed in the dialogue of Before Sunrise, I view the pacing and development of Jesse and Celine’s relationship as a very natural-feeling one. The philosophical content of their dialogue exchanges may have been my primary reason for initially relating to them so much, but now I attribute the natural progression of their relationship to Linklater’s ability to let his characters breathe within the narrative. He provides them with the time and space for their love to blossom, never making the movie feel like it has to hit certain genre beats most movie romances would be obligated to do. I also laugh less at the content of their discussions and more at the way those discussions are charmingly presented and performed by Hawke and Delpy. Seemingly unnecessary scenes and pointless conversations are the moments where the romance feels like its progressing naturally. It’s unfortunate then, that, in a topic fitting as a Jesse/Celine discussion, no human (and therefore, no film) can remain perfect.

This brings me to the core of why I held Before Sunrise in such high regard, as it is no longer the perfect romance movie I once thought it was. While I still admire it for what it meant to me at one point, my own personal views have changed in similar ways that the characters do from Sunrise to Sunset, to Midnight. Re-watching the film forces me to confront scenes that I now view as somewhat boring, and I can’t enjoy them on the personal level I once did. However, I can appreciate these thematically empty moments in a way that’s more meta-textually apt to what Linklater might have been going for. My appreciation has evolved from personal to perhaps more theoretical. What I mean is that there is a sense of wasted time, or rather, a mindset in the film that escapism is a preferred method of existence among youth; a very “Gen-X” sentiment. The premise of the film sounds like an escapist narrative in its very nature, too. However, by the film’s conclusion, the characters are forced to face the scary reality of their temporary situation, and they struggle to find a way to make it last in a practical and realistic way. Then, my heart swelled at the thought of Jesse and Celine never seeing each other again, but now, I appreciate the emotional drama that Linklater’s script and the starring performances manage to pull off from a more critical perspective. As time passes, critical thought sometimes settles in and replaces initial emotional response.

Yet, I would also argue that my emotional responses also change. Specifically, nostalgia also plays a large role in why I love Before Sunrise differently now than then. In a way, the nostalgia I have from remembering how I felt when watching it for the first time provides me with a new emotional response to the film that would have been impossible for me to experience upon first viewing. At its essence, the Before Trilogy is love in motion. As Jesse points out in the moment he convinces Celine to join him in Vienna, it’s a form of “time-travel”. Though, as I interpret it, this “time-travel” is less about imagining ourselves at different points in time, but rather a very simplistic, perhaps Linklater-esque, view of traveling, growing, and changing in real-time with Jesse and Celine on their romantic journey; responding and acclimating to the environments Jesse and Celine find themselves in physically (Vienna, France, Greece) and emotionally (meeting for the first time, reuniting years later, contemplating their marriage). And I predict, as I grow older and my critical views change, Before Sunrise and its sequels will also change upon revisit (not to mention the possibility of a fourth entry down the line). The fact remains though, that for me, the nature of Linklater’s trilogy is how time and experience forces people and their views to change. Thus, the currently shifting perspective I have on Before Sunrise is a perfectly fitting one.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story Review

There’s so much potential in the expanded universe of “Star Wars” for original, thought-provoking movies that aren’t tethered to the over-arching Skywalker saga or numbered episode entries. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, directed by Gareth Edwards, is the first motion picture entry of the franchise’s new line of spin-offs, which have the opportunity to tell their own unique, self-contained stories. This one is about Rogue One, a group of flawed resistance fighters led by Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), on a mission to steal back schematics integral to the development and construction of the all-too-well-known Death Star for the rebel alliance.

Perhaps the biggest flaw of Rogue One lies in its plot description. It struggles to balance any sense of original storytelling with fan service of familiarized Star Wars elements. A cast which provides a great sense of diversity, including actors such as Diego Luna, Ben Mendehlson, Mads Mikkelson, Donnie Yen, and Alan Tudyk to name a few. There are also no Jedis in sight, which provides unique direction for a Star Wars story that doesn’t have to focus on Light and Dark sides, lightsabers, the Force, or large robes. When the film reveals itself to essentially be the causal catalyst for the original trilogy, it abandons the opportunity to express something new. Unfortunately, for the film, the story it tells before finally climaxing in a big “Star Wars” fest of space battles and gunfire, isn’t very worthy.

We’re introduced to Jyn Erso as a child, hidden away and discovered later in a secret cave after an Empire authority forces her father, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelson), to help construct the Death Star due to his background as a research scientist. The story does try to make a notable attempt at personalizing a story with such large-scale ambitions that affect every film in the original and new trilogies. What’s also interesting is that we know these characters won’t appear in the films that Rogue One leads to, so they’ll either die or be given a plot reason why they didn’t continue to fight in the upcoming rebellion. It’s perhaps the reason why the characters finally turn out to be so thin and flat, and that the only character with any redeeming human qualities turns out to be the Alan Tudyk’s K-2SO; a droid. Once the conflict is established, Rogue One becomes a progression of plot contrivances and awkward motivations. Its characters knows they have to succumb to the larger battle at stake, leaving no opportunity for believable character development or personality. The struggle of Rogue One becomes the struggle of Rogue One. They fail, yet they succeed.

The paradoxical irony of this film is that its success is also its failure. Surprisingly, the third act of this film is when it finally becomes truly fun and entertaining. Not because of the characters and what they’re doing, but because of the audio-visual spectacle of “Star Wars”. X-Wings, Star Destroyers, AT-AT Walkers, Stormtroopers. It was a kid playing with his toys; I couldn’t help but be impressed at the sheer scale of a Star Destroyer’s slow, destructive descent into a shield generator. To be frank, the final battle in Rogue One is one of the most impressive action sequences I’ve seen in ANY Star Wars film. The CG and visuals illustrate stunning color and cinematography. The sound design is also worthy of such praise. It is surely an amazing experience when viewers look down that dark corridor and hear nothing but the measured and terrifying breath of Star Wars’ greatest icon. Darth Vader appears and receives perhaps the action sequence he’s been deserving of every since the original films and prequels just could not give him, for technical and story reasons. The scene is brutal and amazing. It’s just too bad that the emotion the film expresses in its final moments are subject to the criticism of “fan service” rather than belonging to the characters we’ve followed for the past two hours. In the end, we don’t remember Jyn Erso and Rogue One; we remember Darth Vader, the climactic battle on-ground and in-space, and that final image which is sure to make many viewers shed bitter-sweet tears.

What it all comes down to, I suppose, is that Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is just too Star Wars and not enough Rogue One. If we’re not able to develop a meaningful relationship with these original characters, then why should we care when about these spin-off films? Not to say that these spin-offs can’t include more prominent characters from the larger canon or succumb to fan service here and there, but these stories are set out to be unique departures from the main entries. Diversity and originality are the biggest advantages these films may have to differentiate themselves from the main entries of the franchise, but Rogue One: A Star Wars Story just uses them for its own superficial gain. The final words spoken in the film ring true however. Rogue One might face defeat; but there is still hope.

Battle of the Sexes Review

Directing duo Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’s Battle of the Sexes covers the major 1973 “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match between the top female player at the time, Billie Jean King (Emma Stone), and male tennis veteran Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell). In addition, it also aims to highlight the fight for gender equality not only in sports, but in American society as well. Such attempts to parallel these societal issues face varying success. Unfortunately, such themes require a weight and power which the film fails to express, resulting in a more mechanical type of Hollywood biographical production than a worthy picture of interest.

Emma Stone and Steve Carell excel at delivering solid performances; one more quiet while the other more theatrical, respectively. However, it’s a bit confusing as to whether or not the overall direction of the film gives a sense of focusing on a specific character. Most people will likely go into this expecting a biopic about Billie Jean King, but it seems as though Steve Carell’s Bobby Riggs receives more background attention and screen time; his home life certainly does. At times, Bobby Riggs is depicted as a misunderstood figure with a gambling problem and marital issues, while his more distasteful characteristics paint him as the villain. It’s unclear whether or not the film wants to make a gendered criticism towards Riggs’ behavior or simply express his character as is, without closer examination.

Taking place in 1973, the film makes satisfying use of the period aesthetic through sets, props, and fashion. While generically standard in most of its cinematic approach, the film makes slight effort to look like it’s from the period it’s depicting. This works to its advantage by also including television broadcasts of the events that really occurred then and recreations of photographs and moments, revealed during the film’s credits as some biopics often do. It all helps in building the context needed to understand the social relations at the time, even if a bit heavy-handed in its approach when the period-specific pop songs are employed. While it succeeds in presenting an enjoyable aesthetic to chew on, the film is lessened through its attempts to make obvious parallels between now and then in the social issue that this event represented.

Within the film’s framing of gender and queer issues, as depicted through King’s career and relationship with her hairdresser, Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), it strikes an obvious chord with both 1970s and present-day. Especially considering recent political events, Battle of the Sexes makes a clear connection between past and present regarding feminism and the battle for gender equality. King’s quest for equal pay among male and female tennis athletes is clear indicator of the film’s present-day social awareness. Eventually, her quest evolves into something much more broad and necessary as to why she finally agrees to face Riggs in a match. It no longer becomes an issue of pay and personal interest, but an issue of mutual understanding and respect between men and women’s capabilities.

It’s too bad that the film at times seems to lose faith in its major performers, lessening the impact of such issues. The scripted dialogue is a bit heavy-handed and the conflicts at play become generic encounters. One character, who appears as a one-dimensional misogynist, is simply present so that Riggs doesn’t appear as bad as he seems. The supporting cast also deliver satisfying performances, yet their scenes fail in delivering effective drama as needed. The formulaic romance sub-plot between King and Marilyn presents potential for tension between King, her crew, and her husband, especially. As it boils to the point of discovery, it resolves itself in a whimper of unspoken resolution. Perhaps, as a result, it’s wise to bring the focus back to King and Riggs match by the end.

In exploring an American figure with American values, the film heavily succumbs to the narrative trappings of most large Hollywood Biopics. If you’ve seen any major Hollywood biopics in the last twenty years, you know what to expect here in terms of progression and pay-off. Sometimes, these elements are not necessarily shortcomings simply because of their presence, since biographical films can still deliver emotionally satisfying conclusions and powerful moments of performance. Battle of the Sexes is simply a victim to them because it uses them exactly as expected in no noticeably effective ways. The end result is a film that seems like a historical drama of the events leading up to the famous tennis match, rather than being a film solely about it’s hero, Billie Jean King.

Overall, Battle of the Sexes is a decent attempt at an entertaining Hollywood biopic with important issues and concerns at its core, but nothing more. It seems more concerned with simply making a statement considering the similar climates of 1973 and 2017 while never digging deeper into what makes such a comparison resonant. Billie Jean King’s actions surely do resonate through history, though I suppose the film’s makes it obvious that, even though it advertises itself as a Billie Jean King biopic, it isn’t the film that offers the true, personal recognition she deserves. In the end, Battle of the Sexes simply volleys itself into too many courts instead of the one it’s standing in.

Connecting with Her

One thing I find really interesting about Spike Jonze’s Her is the aesthetic choices and the role that physicality plays in the film. It seems almost seems as if there’s an unconscious need for the physical among humans, despite its depiction of people interacting more deeply and internally with technology than externally with others from the outside world. There’s the obvious aesthetic style in regards to fashion, scenery and the semi-futuristic style of the setting which suggests, at least to me, that the central romance between Theodore and Samantha could never work because it’s missing that human element of physical presence, or at least something that’s identifiable to the human eye. The surrogate partner scene covers this even though it ultimately expresses the impossibility for Samantha to merge with the body of this ‘other’, in an effort to immerse Samantha into Theodore’s physical world.

In a way, it’s a very cinematic type of conflict. The failure to create a specific type of illusion that Theodore needs to ‘feel’ and touch, through the synchronization of Samantha’s voice with this other woman’s body, somewhat illustrates the relationship between a spectator perceiving an “image” and connecting with what they see in front of them. How can Theodore directly interact with Samantha if he can’t perceive her as a visual or physical presence? Or, does he do so in his mind? Does this, in turn, potentially question the task that cinema (or certain forms of cinema) has in establishing narrative immersion for audiences?

In spectating a cinematic narrative, developing a connection to said narrative is often a goal for the spectator. Even though Theodore can be viewed as the relatable, identifiable protagonist within the film, the sequence discussed above also offers an insight into this struggle to connect with narrative in a meaningful way; specifically, through the woman who plays the surrogate. After the attempt to combine Samantha with the surrogate woman fails, the surrogate breaks down because she’s faced with the realization that she can’t directly connect with the narrative of Theodore and Samantha’s romance, as she so desires to. I think it’s possible to interpret this sequence in regards to cinema’s role as a medium of wish-fulfillment; but, as this sequence suggests, it doesn’t always succeed in fulfilling such wishes.

To take this theme a step further, it seems at first that Samantha is designed to fulfill the wishes of Theodore in an unconscious way. The foundation of their relationship is built upon the “code” of Theodore’s personality, so that Samantha’s responses are meant to make Theodore aware of his flaws in an effort to improve his situation and potentially alleviate his personal problems. It’s as if she’s initially a secretary for Theodore’s mind, until the trajectory of their relationship develops to the point where it’s unable to identify whether or not Samantha is becoming an independent entity or simply a reflection of Theodore’s inner concerns.

I think, as a result, Her presents many relevant questions that are tied to cinema’s ability to form a relationship with its audiences by offering something that they can question, connect with, and form something personal with. It’s a film that, despite it’s seemingly outlandish story of a man falling in love with an operating system, still explores themes that aren’t unrelatable or completely detached from the human experience (i.e. recovery, happiness, jealousy, companionship, etc.) However, while it succeeds in presenting these questions, it never really provides answers; determining “why” or “how” the central relationship develops in the way it does becomes an exercise in audience participation through interpretation. In an ironic twist of fate, the inability for us to directly understand what’s going on in Samantha’s “mind” and identify with her as a human presence simply leaves the spectator questioning the events of the narrative in binary terms: “Did something happen for ‘this’ reason, or for ‘that’ reason?”

Le Bonheur: Objective Distance and the Subjective Gaze

The idyllic introduction to Varda’s Le Bonheur (1965) places spectators in a familiar narrative situation when it comes to traditional norms. The coupling of a Mozart arrangement with a husband, wife and their children in the woods is an ideal example of what many might expect happiness to look like. Throughout the film, however, Varda lifts the veil back for spectators “to enter directly into the cinematic world and use their own experiences and definitions of happiness to color their reception of the movie.” (Hottell 64). The spectator can decide whether or not the resulting happiness of the characters is justified based on their own subjective beliefs. In this manner, the film depicts a clashing of objectivity and subjectivity through form and camera gaze.

To establish this conflict between objectivity and subjectivity through the gaze is to first illustrate it visually through Varda’s use of color. The film begins and ends with the frame being consumed by color, starting with red and concluding with yellow. These frame-consuming transitions happen periodically throughout the film with different colors, but with no explicit explanation as to why or what they mean. While interpreting the meaning behind Varda’s use of color requires spectators to exercise their own subjectivity onto the film, the use of color presents an objective visual tool to do so. Color is static and definite in its presentation, which aligns it with a sense of objectivity in how spectators view it. Subjectivity in what the colors represent and how color is used within the film’s setting is something always up for discussion, however by presenting an entire image with nothing but one singular color, spectators all view the same objective image. These moments seem to happen more as formal transitions or pauses in between moments when time and narrative move forward. Varda’s color inserts, when removed from any narrative context, then become objective images; spectators can agree that red is red and yellow is yellow, etc. Of course, while “red” might physically appear differently to some people than to others, they can still agree that red is red through their own understanding of what “red” is. This anomaly between assessing the image as objective or subjective through the gaze of the individual, then becomes the essence of Le Bonheur‘s thematic conflict, or at least the conflict that stems from our own viewing perspective.


In blurring these lines, there are instances in Le Bonheur when Varda inserts seemingly unrelated, possibly non-diegetic shots and transitions. These moments force the viewer to question whether or not they are gazing at something that is or was real within the film’s narrative setting. For instance, while Francois drives to work in his van, inserts of lions looking back at the camera are shown, yet they have no narrative significance because Francois never actually interacts with them. It might be implied that Francois is driving past a zoo from a geographical construct behind the vehicle, which lends the association that these lions are real things that live within the same world as the characters. Once the scene transitions to the post office where Emelie works after she says “What a pretty bird!”, after an image of birds is shown, spectators might assume that the characters are in fact at a zoo looking at the same birds that we are looking at. What is then revealed is that Emelie is actually referring to stamps with illustrated birds on them. When looking at the stamps, the gaze seems as if it might be from a character’s subjective perspective, such as Emelie’s, though it’s revealed to be from no one’s perspective because the camera is placed in between two separate figures, Emelie and her co-worker, who are revealed to be the only characters looking at stamps in the following shot. By confusing the spectator and presenting something that may be objective truths about this fictional world or subjective views from a character, gazing assumes the position as a genderless, disembodied activity that the spectator experiences. In essence, it makes them aware of the distance between them and the narrative space they’re watching.