Saturday, October 7, 2017

Blade Runner 2049

I had high expectations for Blade Runner 2049, the sequel to the 35 year old Blade Runner.  The early reviews were great and it achieved an 89% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  I went out of my way to see the movie, but I am going to tell you now to save your money and either rent it, or wait for it to get to a discount theater.  About half way through the film I was still waiting to find out what the point was, and about two thirds of the way through I concluded that it had no point.  I thought that maybe we would get something stunning in the last act, but the plot is very thin.  The movie instead chooses to impresses us with its visuals, none of which are that much different than the first film.  In fact, many of the scenes are murky, with dusty desolate landscapes.  There are also a couple of confusing plot points that didn't quite make sense to me.

The first movie had a definite point to it.  If you could engineer biological beings close to human but not quite human, where do you draw the line between what is human and what is not?  What has rights and what doesn't?  What is real and what is not, which is the point of the original novel?  In both films the 'replicants' are used as slaves and have no rights, but in the sequel there is hardly any difference between the replicants and the humans.

It makes little sense to me to have a future world that uses biological beings as slaves, because in the real world we are probably only 10 to 20 years away from having intelligent robots that could do any sort of labor.

The only point of Blade Runner 2049 is that replicants are planning to revolt, which presumably will take place in the next sequel.  As such, it feels like half a movie because there is not that much story here, so there is plenty of room in the picture to include a revolt.  I should also point out that a revolt by artificial beings is not that original; the TV show Dark Matter has a subplot about this, and we have seen it in Star Trek at least a couple of times, and it is the central point of both Battlestar Galactica TV series.

Blade Runner 2049 fails to capture the spirit that made the original Blade Runner magical.  The main character, played by Ryan Gosling, displays mostly only one emotion, which is brooding. 

 There is enough eye candy and barely enough story to make the movie worth seeing, but I wouldn't want to spend $10 to see it.  If you are willing to wait, you can spend a couple of bucks to rent it or catch it at a discount theater.

The film uses nudity to the point of overdoing it.  Seeing 40 foot tall naked holograms on the street might make sense from a science fiction perspective, but it is just filler to distract us from the lack of a great story.

Rating:  * * 3/4.

P.S.  I conjecture that the movie is not called "Blade Runner 2048" because there is a popular smartphone game called "2048."  Personally, I don't like any title that includes a date because it will quickly become obsolete, like "Space 1999", "Death Race 2000", and "2001: A Space Odyssey."

Thursday, October 5, 2017

American Made


American Made is a semi-fictionalized version of the life of Barry Seal.  I say fictionalized, because in the movie Seal is an airline pilot who is using his job to smuggle cuban cigars to the United States from a supplier.  He is then approached by the CIA to take aerial photographs of communist insurgents in Central America.  Later he is told to smuggle weapons to the anti-communists.  However, drug lords pressure him, possibly at the threat of death, to smuggle cocaine to the United States.  So Mr. Seal ends up with quite a profitable business, transporting 'goods' in both directions.

In real life, Seal was a drug smuggler from the outset, who also got fired from his airline job for smuggling explosives, to which he escaped conviction on a technicality.  The producers of the film admit that they took liberties with the truth, and this might make for a more likable main character, but I am bothered by any movie that claims to show historical events, but then distorts those events for entertainment purposes.  

Seal's life did not end well, because he turned informant against the drug cartels and was murdered.  Here the movie shows us the truth, but the ending made me feel disappointed.  It might have been better to have a completely fictional character with a more entertaining ending.

Another place where the movie plays loose with the facts is that it shows a speech by Ronald Reagan, where the president shows the American people a picture of drug lords that also has Seal in the photograph.  In the movie, this is how the drug lords knew that Seal betrayed them, so they sent hitmen after him.  In reality, Reagan showed the picture after Seal was already dead.

Despite all my objections, the movie is fun to watch.   It portrays Seal as someone who starts out fairly innocent, but gets pulled deeper and deeper into more and more dangerous territory.  As such, he really is a fictional character.

Tom Cruise as Seal doesn't have his usual movie star persona, but seems more like an ordinary guy who is also a little redneck.  I don't know if this is intentional, or if Cruise has lost some of his charm.

Rating:  * * * 


Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Solaris


Solaris, a 1972 film by the acclaimed Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, is in effect the Soviet Union's answer to 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Although not nearly as grand in its vision, Solaris received high praise from critics, with a 96% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  However, the first hour or so is a real snooze fest.  The first 45 minutes, which you wouldn't miss much if you skipped altogether, involve the main character, Kris, spending a day at his parents house before blasting off into space to venture out to the planet Solaris.  He doesn't have the best relationship with his parents, which creates some tension.  The movie even wastes 5 minutes showing Kris driving his car through a Soviet style city, during which absolutely nothing happens.  The pacing is way too slow.  I set the DVD playback to 50% faster than normal to get through the early parts of the film, which made it feel okay.

After 45 minutes the movie begins in earnest.  Kris arrives at the space station orbiting the the planet Solaris.  Where the planet is, and how long it takes to get there, and by what means, we are never told.  We see a brief shot of a 70's style space capsule and that is all.  Kris finds the space station in disarray and the 2 surviving cosmonauts who are behaving eccentrically.  One cosmonaut refuses to see him, hiding what appears to be a child in his cabin.  The other tells Kris that he should rest and warns him that not everything he will see is real.  Kris, a psychologist, begins to investigate the recent suicide of a 3rd cosmonaut, who apparently killed himself because he was seeing things.
We are told that the planet Solaris is mostly covered by an ocean, which the scientists have concluded is a giant brain.  They have made some attempts to communicate with the brain by beaming radiation at it.

Given all the things that happened up to this point, we are not too surprised when Kris's long dead wife, Hari, shows up in his cabin.  Neither is Kris.  He is maybe a little frightened by this, but he is accepting of his new 'visitor'.  However, he panics at one point and tries to get rid of her by stuffing her into a rocket and blasting her off into space.  (The special effect of the rocket is cheesy,  and I guess the space station must have plenty of rockets to spare, since he wasted one in this way. )  However, Hari mysteriously returns.

Hari is not a hallucination.  She is flesh and blood.  At first she may seem a little alien, but over time becomes more human.  She acknowledges her humanity, like it is a new experience.  However, she comes to realize that she is not the original Hari, who committed suicide because her husband Kris was always cold toward her.  Kris seems determined to not make the same mistake twice, and showers Hari with love and affection.  However, Hari realizes that she cannot return to Earth with her husband, because she is tied to the planet Solaris somehow, and kills herself again, but in a manner that is not clear.  Kris finds her body frozen, but then he sees her thaw and return to life.

All these experiences cause Kris to soften from the cold hard scientist that he was.  The movie asks a few philosophical questions about what makes us human, and whether life is worth living and has purpose?  The movie concludes that love is what gives life purpose and defines our humanity.

When all the 'visitors', and there are more than one, disappear from the station, the crew are puzzled as to what it was that really happened to them?  The final scene shows a more emotional Kris returning to his parent's house and embracing his estranged father, but the scene pans back to show that it is taking place on a small island on Solaris, and therefore is not real.

One cosmonaut philosophizes that humans aren't really looking for aliens, but reflections of themselves.

This is a difficult movie to rate, because much of it is slow and moody.  It looks cheaply made. However, there is some artistry to it.  The last 90 minutes I found pretty intriguing, but the film overall is dated and not completely likeable.  Part of what makes the movie interesting is to get a historical perspective on Russian filmmaking by listening to the commentary on the DVD.

There are things on the space station that seem way out of place for a science fiction movie, like the fact that the characters smoke and drink, and a library with books, wood paneling, burning candles, and expensive works of art.  That's exactly what you would want on a space station.

Rating:  * * 1/2

There is a 2002 American remake, starring George Clooney, that got mixed to positive reviews.