First up, the boring part of the review: Blade Runner 2049 is amazing and you should go see it. It is a very good heir to the original Blade Runner, if only because it compels you to think about the original in a new way. Even down to basic questions like: ‘Could the original Blade Runner be made today?’ ‘How do we feel about the legal/political/social questions of the original movie today?’ and ‘Should we think more closely about the genre of film that seems to be defined by multiplicity of versions?’
It is a beautiful movie that somehow matches sophomoric and boring questions about authenticity with much more difficult questions about technology and sexuality. The movie is closer in substance to the original theatrical cut of Blade Runner than to the Final Cut: there’s very little ambiguity about the content of the movie, and the movie does a lot (too much for my tastes) to make it really, really clear where we’re up to in the story. I would have been happy with many of the movie’s questions to remain unresolved. In a sense, even the biggest questions from the plot don’t really need an answer. I look forward to watching a dozen edits of this movie over the next three decades.
For those of you who unwisely avoid spoilers, here is where you should stop. I want to discuss a few scenes in particular, and why some of the criticism about the film’s sexual and racial aspects are unwarranted.
Procrastination, gentle reader, makes me productive in every way except the ways in which I ought to be.
I’m not joking. I have three books that I need to read by tomorrow, an essay with a deadline that is rapidly approaching, a stack of audio that I should edit, I need to clean out my bedroom, and a shortlist of job applications I need to submit… but the weather is inviting, and there’s a nice cafe down the road, and I have three new books that I’d like to pour over, and there are some movies I’d like to watch at the cinema. I want to write short stories and then delete them so that nobody can see how bad they are. I bought some letter paper a few weeks ago, but it’s too large for writing letters, so I might draw on those instead. And I love reading essays. I want to be a better essayist, but I keep succumbing to the self-doubt that I’m dull and turgid. Maybe I’m the only person left who still gets excited by essays. I want to print out old literary essays on cheap pamphlet paper and slip them into friends’ letter boxes, leave them on colleagues’ desks, tuck them into books at the library for complete strangers to discover.
Of course, I’m not actually going to do this because I haven’t completely lost my biscuits yet.
Having just finished the new season of Twin Peaks, I was caught again in a classic question about cinema: what is it about? Being a narrative dork, my instinctive answer is that cinema is about storytelling. Where once we sat around fires and sang each other heroic epics, or passed on ghost stories at the dinner table, now we watch movies or television.
I freely admit that I privilege narrative over other purposes of cinema, but the risk is that I miss other functions of cinema, like the artistry of composition. Perhaps again revealing my biases and predilections, I am quite fine for a short film or digital media piece to contain absolutely no narrative, but just be beautiful, but that’s because short films and digital media isn’t real cinema. Narrative is king.
Twin Peaks invites a challenge to that view. The narrative takes a back seat to the aesthetic and ideas, challenging the audience to overcome its perceived need for closure, coherence, and completeness. But, again, we are in the area of television (or, perhaps, episodic cinema). Is the fascination with Twin Peaks more that it’s quirky in contrast with ‘real’ cinema/television? It’s nice for a treat, but we really want the substantive stuff?
I tried to test this out by looking at two mainstream movies that prioritised aesthetic over substance… but I suspect I chose poorly. What follows, gentle reader, is a blog post that wasn’t what I intended to write when I watched these two films. What follows is the ravings of a man driven half insane by visions that no mortal man should ever see, visions strange and unnatural, visions of demons that haunt the minds of others deep in the void that exists behind their eyes whose incessant chants call to the Old Gods who, not dead, are long in sleep and whom we dare not wake lest they return to the world of men.
I watched The Neon Demon and Jem & the Holograms and I regret it so much.
There is no way to adequately capture the joy of watching War of the Planet of the Apes. It is a film which plays expertly with the audience’s expectations, deftly swapping between genre of film without ever breaking faith with the viewer. It tackles complex themes competently, and brings enough comedic relief to prevent the film from becoming overwhelmingly bleak.
More importantly, it is a brave film. In an age where we are struggling with our narratives about war and conflict, War of the Planet of the Apes shows how cinema can contribute meaningfully to our public debates.
One of the most difficult things I had to learn was the concept of ‘piping’. My stories are frequently boring; long, meandering anecdotes which demanded a lot of investment on behalf of the audience for very, very little payoff. Piping is the material you have to cover before you get to the meat of the story and my stories had way too much of it.
Valerian has a lot of piping. Long, tedious explanations couched in clunky, awkward exposition. At one point, one of the characters openly asks Siri for random facts about her home city. ‘What is the population?’ she asks. Obviously, she’s going to a trivia night and she’s brushing up on her factoids.
There are lengthy explanations of particular mechanics of the world, only for those mechanics to be used for five minutes and then never mentioned again. Some characters have Tolkienesque introductions, only to deliver thirty seconds of plot before vanishing into the void. And there’s a 30 minute brothel scene.
Simone saves the Spectator a fortune in salaries. Early experiments with using children as columnists had proven unsuccessful. No matter how young the child was. It really didn’t make a lot of sense. Social media would go wild for pithy anecdotes of woke infants telling hard truths about politics, but long form essays written by toddlers rarely went viral. And now the company has started to get the lawsuits. Did we knowingly expose children to hazardous workplace environments? Were we really responsible for the psychological damage to these children? Weren’t they, as we suspected, already severely broken to begin with?
Costs had to be cut, the Spectator had to be saved, and Simone was the solution.
Simone is the perfect replacement columnist: a simulant who recreates the moaning of a right wing pundit. She works for free and produces three flawless opinion pieces per day. Absolutely flawless. The pieces are full of all the usual hateful, spiteful, indulgent nonsense that her human colleagues could produce, but we don’t waste any of the usual time fluffing her ego or managing office politics with her.
I am one of those people who has a list of ‘rules’ about how to construct a story. I think about structural things and the way we use shortcuts to convey meaning. I think about how the audience fills gaps in what they’re being told and how they mapped what they saw to intuitions about bigger issues. And then I use all of these thoughts to compile a list of rules about what works and what doesn’t.
Guardians of the Galaxy vol 2 largely breaks all of the rules. Nothing about this film should work, and yet it really does.
Remember the classic Beauty and the Beast from 1991? Remember how good it was? Go watch that.
We are in a dark age of recreating animated films as live action movies. Cinderella a few years ago explored new areas of body horror with footmen and coach drivers screaming while transforming back into farmyard animals. Last year, we had The Jungle Book and Pete’s Dragon remind us of animated movies that were really great and didn’t need gritty remakes in the flesh. To a degree, Alice in Wonderland and Maleficent also fit into this category.
But Beauty and the Beast is perhaps the most confusing entry to date. For 70% of the film, Hermoine is interacting with an entirely CGI world of dancing pots, pans, and candlesticks. What meaning do we get from watching an actress not make eye contact with any of the people in her world? What new is created?
What if women were actually robots? Ghost in the Shell — a film based on the ideas of the 1989 manga — explores this idea… again. And it’s pretty boring.
I have been tardy. Forgive me. There’s also a script that I’ve read — Zizek’s Antigone — that I will write up separately because that review’s about the challenges of reviewing scripts.
So here we go. Rogue One, Moana, and Zootopia…