Film Review: Okja

December 7, 2017 Leave a comment

Okja (2017; Directed by Bong Joon-ho)

The extremely campy and surprisingly moving social-commentary satire of Okja turned its director, Bong Joon-ho, into a vegan (though only temporarily), and an easy, surface-level assumption would be that the Korean/English film’s aim is to turn you into one, too. But such a glib summation would be manifestly unfair to Okja‘s at-once playful, cauterizing, and nuanced critique of contemporary capitalism, of mass production and consumption of meat, and of the limits of both revolutionary activism and human empathy in resisting corporate exploitation.

Okja is not only the title of the film but the name of its central CG-crafted focal point, an affectionate, loyal, intelligent “superpig”, a breed of genetically-modified swine roughly the size of a small Indian elephant. Okja is one of 26 such superpigs raised in accordance with sustainable, organic, and humane swineherding methods by specially-selected local farmers across the world. She lives in blissful harmony in the lush South Korean mountains with her human best friend Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) and Mija’s grandfather Heebong (Byun Hee-bong). Placed there 10 years before by her owners at the multinational Mirando Corporation, the thriving Okja is considered the finest of the superpig specimens and the likely winner of a forthcoming competition to crown the best of the 26 creatures. To be held in New York City, the competition is the public-relations brainchild of the current company CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), who is seeking to improve Mirando’s image with consumers after the damaging tenures of her chemical-weapon-dealing father and her likewise ruthless sister Nancy (also Swinton).

Despite the deep bond between girl and superpig, Mija and Okja are fated to be separated by the competition and whatever follows it, which, headline-grabbing spectacles aside, will very likely be the animal’s death and sickening processing as (apparently very delicious) meat. Mija’s determination to save her big cuddly friend will take her to Seoul, Manhattan, and finally to a sprawling mechanized nightmare slaughterhouse that serves to demonstrate that Mirando’s gestures (and, by extension, those of all corporate entities in the same business) towards humane treatment of livestock are only gestures, and nothing more. She’ll have help from the radical animal-rights activists of the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), led by the thoughtful but sneakily uncompromising Jay (Paul Dano), who seek to expose Mirando’s mass-marketed ruse and the cruel abbatoir realities that lay behind it to a shocked public, but need Okja as an unwitting inside agent to do it.

Like Bong’s inescapably flawed but unquestionably visionary and attention-snatching last Korean/English feature Snowpiercer, Okja casts a withering eye on the disingenuousness of capitalism and its underlying exploitative monstrosity and constriction of choice. However, Okja is a gentler film than the brutal, viscerally gut-punching Snowpiercer. The paradisical glow of the opening act in the Korean countryside infuses Mija and Okja’s odyssey through pain and back to safety and never really leaves the film, despite Bong’s patented drastic shifts in tone; even the climactic visit to the slaughterhouse facility is relatively tame, certainly when compared to the real thing (which Bong witnessed while researching the film, leading to his brief foreswearing of meat).

But Okja is never a preachy or self-righteous film: Mija’s no vegetarian herself (her favourite food is chicken stew), and Bong pokes fun at one of Jay’s ALF comrades who has become weak and pallid from refusing to eat anything due to the ethical and chemical imperfections inherent to nearly all food products. Poking fun, sometimes with a hefty and sharply-pointed stick, is indeed Bong’s core instinct. Unlike the sinister cadre of villains defending the socially-stratified train of Snowpiercer, Okja’s antagonists are clownish (if still malevolent). Swinton’s Mirando sisters personify two sides of the same capitalist coin: constantly-pivoting, desperate-to-please Machivellian corporate spin (Lucy) and old-fashioned unscrupulous trodding on the necks of the vulnerable to maximize profit (Nancy). Bong intelligently associate the slaughterhouse directly with the slower, more grinding killing floors of older Industrial Revolution-vintage manufacturing plants, as Lucy unveils her purportedly kinder and more woke initiative (which is a mere PR cover for industrial slaughter) in the same abandoned factory where her father enriched himself working disposable people beyond count to their eventual graves. Behind quarterly profits then as well as now lies a disavowed continuum of suffering. Furthermore, an initially unrecognizable and completely frothing-at-the-mouth unhinged Jake Gyllenhaal shows up as a supporting Mirando toadie, the Crocodile Hunter-esque TV host and zoologist Dr. Johnny Wilcox; while the character is a broad parody of the degradation of American celebrity, he also presides (with sweat-soaked, inebriated guilt) over a horror-show Mirando experimental lab where Okja is subjected to awful treatment.

This tendency to emphasize the dark absurdity of the modern capitalist world transfers to Okja‘s action scenes, where subversion is the order of the day. The hijacking of the Mirando truck carrying Okja away from Seoul might have taken the form of a Dark Knight-type showstopping setpieces in the hands of another director, but Bong will have none of that here, thank you very much: he troubles the action waters by making a comic point of the ALF’s firm moral principles (“We are not terrorists!” they emphasize from behind their balaclavas; “We believe in non-violence!” Jay declares before ramming the Mirando truck into a tunnel wall) and by interspersing the comic relief of a cynical low-level Mirando truck driver very much not inclined to stick up for his corporate employer. And this is a mere warm-up stretch for when Okja gets loose in an underground mall, a sequence of stumbling, semi-comedic chaos reminiscent of similar moments in Bong’s Korean-language monster movie The Host. Scored by loopy carnivalesque music and finally, in a stupendously hilarious and inspired left-field choice, by John Denver’s “Annie Song”, this scene is neo-capitalist culture run ludicrously rampant, complete with a fuzzy-animal-ear-wearing teen girl equally desperate to escape the rampaging Okja with her life and to take a selfie with the beast.

For all of its varied critiques of capitalism (and of capitalism’s critics), Okja does not offer a cure to its incipient cruelty, nor anything but a pyrrhic emotional victory against the industrial-scale killing factories of the meat business. As much empathy as we feel for Okja, as much as we hope for a happy ending for her and Mija, Bong does not for a moment suggest that our empathy will overcome the inertia of the production line, let alone of the bottom line. Like a lot of critiques of this particular socioeconomic system, Bong’s suggests that the injection of a bit of humanity could go a long way in righting its wrongs. Unlike a lot of such critiques, it doesn’t flatter the capitalist superstructure by even entertaining the possibility that any moral rectitude – whether impelled by facing up to emotional connections like that between Mija and Okja or by being confronted with massive-scale cruelty as exposed by the ALF – could conceivably overcome the lucrative temptations of capital obtained by whatever means necessary. The only value that counts, ultimately, is the exchange value of wealth. That Bong Joon-ho can drop such a pitilessly realistic ideological conclusion and still grant Okja a limited but nonethelessly glowing final emotional boost is quietly impressive. A lot of movies have something on their mind, but Okja summons contradicting and self-challenging thoughts and feelings and gains much more by not resolving them than it could by tying them up cleanly and boldly.

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Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Justice League

November 28, 2017 Leave a comment

Justice League (2017; Directed by Zack Snyder)

Five films into the hastily-assembled DC Extended Universe (DCEU), Justice League, a massively expensive blockbuster featuring some of the most recognized and iconic superheroes in comics, has belatedly managed to ascend to the level of a lower-tier Marvel Cinematic Universe entry. Like, maybe Ant-Man or Iron Man 2, let’s say. That’s certainly better than it was when we last caught up with most of these characters, in director Zack Snyder’s frequently misfiring Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, but nowhere near the surprising heights reached by Patty Jenkins’ elevating Wonder Woman (which only came out this summer but already feels like a venerable classic from years before). Benefitting slightly from lowered expectations resulting from the DC Films stable’s weakness since Christopher Nolan finished his Dark Knight Trilogy, Justice League puts concerted effort into being a fun movie after several DC films with dour tones (not that the tone was their main problem). It largely succeeds, but lets down its characters left, right, and centre, while being saddled with no lack of other problems as well.

Chief among these problems is its stiff, planet-threatening supervillain (surely the nadir of this by-now common Achilles’ heel of the recent hegemonic wave of superhero films), the inadvertently-hilariously-named Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds). Descending from a column-like dimensional portal with a horned helmet, glowing battle-ax, and swarms of airborne, fear-sniffing, zombie-bug Parademons to do his evil bidding, Steppenwolf (I kept hoping that Snyder, well-known for his extremely direct pop music soundtrack choices, would just give up the ghost and let rip with “Magic Carpet Ride”; I hoped in vain) is in search of a trio of potent McGuffins, the Mother Boxes, which when brought together in “the Unity” grant him the power to reduce whole worlds to volcanic hellscapes. Encouraged by the uncertainty and weakness of Earth in the wake of the death of Superman (Henry Cavill) at the conclusion of B v. S, this deep-intoning baddie seeks the Boxes hidden on our planet: one guarded by Amazons on the hidden island of Themyscira, another underwater by Atlanteans, and another in the midst of a research lab erected on the site of the Kryptonian ship which figured in that last film.

In the (obviously temporary) absence of Supes, Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck, beefed up and silver-haired but still faintly ashamed at this whole enterprise) pulls the trigger on the assembly of the planned super-squad hinted at in B v. S to counter Steppenwolf’s apocalyptic intentions. Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), still undercover in the Louvre’s antiquities department and nursing the wound of the death of her human lover Steve Trevor (which, although it only happened in the most recent DCEU movie, was a century ago, after all), understands the gravity of the situation when Themyscira is hit and the Box stolen, and helps Batman with the rest of his recruits. There’s Barry Allen/The Flash (Ezra Miller), the young, brilliant, but socially awkward son of an incarcerated falsely-convicted murderer (Billy Crudup) who can also move at the speed of lightning; Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa), the gruff but charismatic heir-in-exile to Atlantis’ throne, whose underwater mastery is mostly employed saving imperiled fisherman in a remote Nordic coastal village; and Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher), a deceased football-star son of a scientist (Joe Morton) who uses advanced technology to reanimate his offspring, most of whose body is consumed by alien metals and digital doo-dads. And, in what is probably technically a spoiler but has been so poorly concealed as to become common knowledge by now, they will also attempt to revive Clark Kent to aid the defence of his adopted world.

There’s certainly some good about Justice League, as intimated. Even without executive-level interference from Warner Bros. after B v. S‘s unfriendly reception to contend with (two films were reduced to one, among other reported and rumoured mid-stream alterations) and Snyder’s departure from the late stages of the production due to a family tragedy, it is clear that Snyder has clearly degenerated as a filmmaker from the painterly male-power-fantasy iconography of 300 or his flawed but still beautiful and fascinating Watchmen or the pulpy, problematic, but well-meaning wrestling with female agency and rape culture in Sucker Punch (and those films all contained hefty kernels of degeneration in their core ideas, however great they looked).

But Snyder can still craft grandly gorgeous aesthetics and superficially meaningful images: Wonder Woman standing astride a statue of Lady Justice, Aquaman walking into a crashing tumult of waves in slow motion to the sound of the White Stripes’ “Icky Thump”, Clark Kent standing in a Kansas cornfield at sunset, Parademons swarming like bees out of the cooling tower of an abandoned nuclear plant in Russia that Steppenwolf claims as a home base. His action sequences, too, are electrifying marvels, masterfully segueing from furiously fast clarity of movement to composed hero poses to elegant slo-mo; his action style is strong and defined but has somehow never slipped into self-parody. Battles with Steppenwolf and his flying undead legions on Themyscira, in tunnels underneath Gotham harbor, and in the environs of the Russian nuclear plant are, it has to be said, pretty hugely entertaining affairs, as is a briefer sequence of Diana Prince thwarting some hostage-taking terrorists In London.

The dialogue and inter-character work has improved from the stultifying utterances of B v. S as well, no doubt thanks to the contributions of Joss Whedon (credited as screenwriter along with Chris Terrio, Whedon wrote reshoot scenes and basically finished directing the film in post-production after Snyder’s departure), a man well-versed in superheroes (especially super-teams of them) on page and screen and generally noted for his skill with witty banter. It’s a little jarring at first to hear snatches of snappy Whedonspeak issuing from the mouths of screen figures more recently characterized by lead-balloon Nietzschean proclamations and stilted action-movie one-liners. Those latter lines haven’t gone away, mind you, but they’re certainly less stilted, and, when issuing in a bro-ish timbre from the swaggering Momoa, occasional rather delightful. Miller is the comic relief focal point, with Allen firmly Spectrum-ized and his nerd-ish social gracelessness played for laughs. A budding bromance with Fisher’s moody, Byronic Cyborg, his fellow outcast in the League, sprouts from the dirt they shovel together while exhuming Superman’s body, the kind of witty, humane, gallows-humour exchange that MCU films are full of but that earlier Snyder DCEU entries (or the execrable Suicide Squad, for that matter) could never have managed.

But there’s bad (or at least less-good) about Justice League, too. Whedon’s scrub-job on the dialogue does not transfer to the film’s invocation of social and political circumstances. In the wake of Superman’s demise (one too-cute gag flashes a tabloid headline in the Watchmen-esque opening credits sequence – soundtracked by Norwegian singer Sigrid’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows” – that crassly analogizes his death to those of David Bowie and Prince, asking if they’ve all returned to their home planets), the world is consumed by hopelessness, anxiety, and anger, with nostalgic glances back to a better time when the Kryptonian hero was still around. This tone, I think, intends to be contemporary and relevant, but comes across as a sub-Alan-Moore, what-a-crazy-world-it-is-these-days slice of lazy reaction analysis, like a crabby old man getting angry watching cable news (which is basically what the President of the United States is now, so maybe it’s more relevant than I give it credit for).

But some of the bad rubs off on the iconic DC Comics superheroes. The consistent low-simmer feminism and female-centric perspective that made Wonder Woman so refreshing and heartening throws the persistent male gaze of Snyder’s (and Whedon’s too, it must be said) camera in Justice League into sharper relief. Not only is Gadot’s Diana defined fundamentally by her relations to men in this film (Steve Trevor, Bruce Wayne, even Clark Kent), her visual objectification is greatly increased: her non-hero wardrobe is all push-up bras, plunging, cleavage-revealing necklines, and skin-tight pants, Snyder’s eye lingering ickily on every feature.

Affleck’s Batman, besides feeling bad about his role in Superman’s death and getting older, is barely held together by any prevailing principles. Certainly not his completely canonical antipathy towards guns, one of which killed his parents and made him what he is, psychologically, vocationally, and otherwise: in Justice League, Batman fires each and every gun he can get his hands on, without qualms (it doesn’t help either that his Alfred, played by Jeremy Irons, is such a black hole, devoid of the character’s usual loyal, humanizing, world-weary decency). Superman even goes out-of-control violent and hostile after his resurrection, requiring all the powers of the assembled League (and the love of his life, Amy Adams’ Lois Lane, another self-reliant woman defined here entirely by her relationship to a man) to keep him from going rogue and destroying the world completely before Steppenwolf can reduce it to a charred wasteland.

During that group effort, the nascent League laughably leaves the sole remaining Mother Box not in their world-threatening enemy’s possession sitting unguarded on the hood of a car, where it is easily snatched by Steppenwolf. Justice League, when parsed, is full of those kind of crippling oversights and under-developments. It’s a movie of half-realized, half-executed half-measures. If the result of its constraints and failures is not nearly as disastrously bad as it could have been, considering its creative pedigree and production history, then it isn’t nearly enough either. This movie needed to be a knockout to begin to span the wide gap between the DCEU and the MCU, to make up for lost time and lost ground. Justice League is no knockout; in both its mixed reviews and its catastrophically disappointing box office, it’s far from even a modest success. Indeed, the element of the film that is likely to be the most cultural penetrative and memorable is the extremely hilarious controversy over Cavill’s digitally-removed mustache, an effect that is distractingly non-seamless in at least a couple of scenes. The most interesting thing about Justice League is something that isn’t even present in the film, and it couldn’t even get that thing right. Not-quite-invisible mustache as defining metaphor: in the intermittently-engaging mess that is Justice League, that seems to basically sum it up.

Categories: Comics, Film, Reviews

Film Review: Hidden Figures

November 25, 2017 Leave a comment

Hidden Figures (2016; Directed by Theodore Melfi)

A surprise hit historical/inspirational drama and multiple Oscar nominee, Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures engages racial and gender discrimination in ways at once fresh and contrived, subtle and predictable. It’s generally a broad crowd-pleaser in the old-fashioned Hollywood tradition, with heavy-handed themes of hard-won progressive social justice amplified by largely invented incidences of prejudice dialed up to frequencies that can hardly be believed. Still, it’s redeemed in no small measure by the effusive charm of its trio of female leads, as well as its (largely fictionalized, but still pertinent) illustration of the sometimes less-than-heroic everyday mechanisms of social change.

Hidden Figures focuses on (and partly mythologizes) the stories of three African-American women who played important roles in the American space program in the 1960s, based out of a NASA research facility in southern Virginia. Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer, Oscar-nominated for her supporting role) supervised a computing team at NASA and became one of the first supervisors (female, African-American, or otherwise) of the workers running calculations on the agency’s pioneering IBM supercomputer. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) was NASA’s first black female engineer, who also broke through the segregation line at a Hampton, Virginia high school in order to take the classes and obtain the necessary degree for the position. Most importantly, Katherine Johnson (née Goble) (Taraji P. Henson) was a key mathematician on the Project Mercury program that eventually made astronaut John Glenn (aged down here and played by Glen Powell) the first American in space in 1962.

Although these three women worked in different divisions at NASA and may not have even crossed paths, Hidden Figures (its screenplay is by Melfi and Allison Schroeder) makes them friends and car pool mates who rise out of the all-black-female computing unit. Their individual charisma is combined and amplified in their intermittent scenes together: bantering about work in the car, noticing attractive men (namely Katherine’s future husband Major Jim Johnson, played by Mahershala Ali) at church picnics, and drinking and dancing together in off hours. Henson is superb at invoking Katherine’s reticence in professional interactions as a combination of intellectual concentration and the limiting pressures of workplace segregation, while Spencer is by now an old hand at polite but firm resistance to quotidian injustices (she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for The Help, which this film resembles in numerous respects). Monáe is the real revelation, though, a sprite of energy and poise that the film uses far too sparingly.

Although it seems strange to say this about the forever-glossed-over conditions of race in America, Hidden Figures in truth depicts segregation of African-Americans and discrimination of women as worse than it really was, at least in the very specific case of NASA. Spencer’s Dorothy struggles to impress her reluctant white overseer Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) with how much she deserves to be promoted to supervisor, when the real Dorothy Vaughan was made a supervisor in 1949, before the agency was even called NASA. Mary is shown presenting an eloquent and impassioned petition in court to a state judge to be allowed to attend classes at segregated Hampton High School; the real Mary Jackson asked for and received an exemption from the city, no court order required.

Katherine’s struggles in the Space Task Group, where she is assigned due to her skills in analytic geometry, are more involved and even more elaborated-upon. In a room full of white men crunching numbers to calculate atmospheric exit and re-entry speeds for the sub-orbital and fully orbital spacecraft, her abilities are doubted, her accomplishments diminished, her problems linked to her difference simultaneously disavowed and exacerbated. There is no real villain in Hidden Figures (besides the unseen, distant Soviets, always the ultimate motivating Cold War bogeymen), but the closest the movie comes is the STG’s head engineer Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons of The Big Bang Theory), who becomes the personification of the smugly superior patriarchal bigotry that cossets Katherine: he bids her to re-check his math despite classified redactions making it technically imposssible, chastises her for listing herself as co-author on reports she mostly calculated and prepared herself, and maximizes the inefficiency of her work by refusing the allow her to break protocol and enter top-level meetings on the latest mission preparations. These obstacles he erects are not openly motivated by racism or sexism, and especially in the latter case, Stafford’s reticence creates inefficiencies under tight, high-pressure deadlines that it seems any professional engineer would realize were only getting in the way and ought to be swiftly swept aside. Still, casting Parsons as such a character demonstrates that Melfi has a keen sense of how expertly odious and irritating he can be as a performer, to which anyone who has watched even a few minutes of his sitcom can attest.

The main showcase episode of Katherine’s travails against racial and gender norms of segregation involves a seemingly mundane workplace reality elevated to civil rights grandeur by Melfi: bathroom breaks. With no coloured women’s washroom in the STG’s building, Katherine must rush off to her old West Computing stomping grounds across the Langley base, taking half an hour or more out of her daily time-crunch workday at a time. When confronted about this by her boss Al Harrison (Kevin Costner in Southern-accented, sugar-and-spice, all-American decency and dedication mode) in front of the entire group, the pent-up frustration explodes – understandably but, given the segregation-era expectations of African-American conduct in the society, perhaps unrealistically – and her male coworkers’ dismissive treatment of her is openly called out. Harrison responds by taking a crowbar to the “Coloured Women Only” sign outside the bathroom in question, thus unceremoniously desegregating the NASA base in the process.

Let’s leave aside that this entire episode is invented (Mary Jackson did use a distant coloured washroom at the facility, while Katherine Goble simply employed an unlabelled washroom intended only for whites, ignoring the only complaint that she received), or that it casts Costner’s Harrison (a composite character of various STG administrators) in a benevolent white saviour role (it’s also his intervention that gets Goble admitted to the Pentagon meetings, where she wows the assembled men with her math wizardry; Melfi continues the Hollywood tradition of treating advanced mathematics like pure magic). It gets to the core point about civil rights and racial discrimination being made in Hidden Figures, and it’s a point that ought not to be discarded too lightly.

What is this point? Namely, that the structures and practices of official and unofficial racial discrimination are just as susceptible to the pragmatic concerns of productivity culture and individual interpersonal relations as they are to organized, public political action. Goble/Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson are presented as pioneers, but not street-marching revolutionary agitators: Jackson’s husband (Aldis Hodge) is more socially conscious and radical in his dedication to civil rights but comes to respect his partner’s specific skirmish for her rights, while Vaughan is shown ushering her children away from a civil rights demonstration, telling them that it has nothing to do with them. Of course, it does has everything to do with them and their lives, but Hidden Figures argues that driven, intelligent black female math geniuses gaining respect and accomplishing wonders in the space race has plenty to do with them and their lives, too.

Hidden Figures takes this somewhat-milquetoast and more than a bit complacent point, which values orderly, labour-based boundary-pushing over open demands for equality and justice, and endows it with the magnificent justification of space-conquest myth. Granting African-American women a starring role in sending an American into space – and, eventually, to the moon, that symbolic pinnacle of scientific exploration of last century, if ultimately one whose benefits are more emotional than strictly practical – likewise grants them a key participatory role in America’s self-aggrandizing mythos, which more than any other factor of American life (voting very much included) essentially entails immutable citizenship.

This full and equal citizenship is what segregation (and the more disavowable but no less constraining set of social and political conditions that replaced it) denied to African-Americans, just as sexist practices and laws denied (and still deny) to American women. Hidden Figures has undeniable weaknesses, relying too heavily on feel-good tropes and scrubbed-up boomer-vintage conceptions of the civil rights movement as a group of determined but entirely well-mannered and polite black activists patiently awaiting enlightened white uplift. But if one had to choose a single solidly-built element of the film with which to anchor an argument for its importance (besides the fact that it allowed this photo to come into being, of course), it would be that Hidden Figures makes a firm symbolic and emotional case for the centrality of African-Americans in a strain of the American myth to which they have previously been denied open access. Accepting such access makes America a stronger and better place. If a mere movie, however contrived it might sometimes be, contributes even in a small way to that process, then we should be glad to have it.

Categories: Film, History, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: The Square

November 19, 2017 Leave a comment

The Square (2017; Directed by Ruben Östlund)

One bracing, galvanizing scene in Swedish arthouse director Ruben Östlund’s ambitious and over-indulgent The Square fulfills and exemplifies its arch, too-clever-by-half satire of the contemporary art world and, by extension, contemporary neoliberal capitalist social conventions and moral behaviour. During a swanky black-tie gala dinner for Stockholm’s X-Royal art museum in a grand ballroom filled with wealthy donors and dignitaries, performance artist Oleg (Terry Notary) provides the night’s cultural entertainment by approximating the movements, sounds, and predilections of an ape. What is initially greeted by the well-heeled attendees as an amusing if convincing trifle of an animal impersonation grows swiftly confrontational and uncompromising, a sharply uncomfortable demonstration of the aggressive trangression of social etiquette, personal space, and acceptable public conduct.

Skin-crawlingly gauche as the sequence becomes before its conclusion, it’s remarkable cinema from conception to execution. Based on similar, controversial dog-performance antics by Ukrainian/Russian artist Oleg Kulik (give his Wikipedia page a quick scan, it’s wild, unparodiable stuff), Östlund’s employment of Notary is inspired, as is the actor’s performance: a former Olympic gymnast and movement coach for The Hobbit Trilogy, Notary has become one of the most successful of Andy Serkis’s motion-capture acting disciples and has already played apes in two of this year’s most potent blockbusters, War of the Planet of the Apes and Kong: Skull Island. His performance as Oleg in this scene distills all of Östlund’s self-satisfied ideas about Western democratic society’s smug hypocrisy and renders it as brazen, all-up-in-your-business agit-prop. It is, without question, one of the scenes of the year.

Unfortunately, The Square contains two-and-a-quarter hours of more scenes saying essentially the same thing, sometimes well, often less well, frequently with a repetitive sneer. Using the Swedish museum’s Danish curator Christian (Claes Bang) as its center, the film follows three storylines exploring and challenging social conventions. In one thread, an edgy marketing campaign for a forthcoming contemporary conceptual exhibition at the museum goes controversially viral when a video ad is released featuring something bad happening to a cute homeless girl; in another, Christian’s wallet and mobile phone are stolen, and he and his assistant Michael (Christopher Læssø) become embroiled in a chaotic situation when they print and distribute accusing letters at an apartment building where the phone’s GPS tracking indicates the thieves are based; and finally, a one-night stand between Christian and American journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss, wonderful as always) leads to a few more squirming scenarios.

Where Östlund’s previous social satire Force Majeure masterfully examined a breakdown of family connections and social assumptions as a result of an avalanche at a ski resort with deadpan humour and sneaking empathy for human weakness, The Square is a meaner, colder film that refuses to build back up what it tears down. When that tearing down is directed at the hopelessly puffed-up realm of contemporary art, it’s generally a punching-up delight. Dominic West appears as an arch, insufferably casual Julian Schnabel clone whose showpiece exhibition is called “Mirrors and Piles of Gravel” and features, yes, actual piles of symmetrically-arranged gravel (a museum cleaner accidentally sweeps up a portion of one of the piles). His inflated image is punctured by the profane exclamations of a Tourette’s sufferer during a name-dropping Q&A appearance, then by Oleg, who satisfyingly chases this alpha-male rival from the ballroom (before things get really troubling). Anne asks Christian about a prior seminar about “the exhibitable and the non-exhibitable” with an online summary from the museum website that is indecipherable quasi-intellectual nonsense.

Less effective and more snide is Östlund’s commentary on bourgeois indifference to poverty and homelessness, which feeds into the faux-avant-garde controversy-baiting of the viral video ad. The Square doesn’t seriously examine the issue any more than the clip that it mocks does; for all of Östlund’s nicely-composed interspersed shots of beggars and street people, both the film and its diagetic YouTube video use their transient suffering as an arch cudgel to provoke a reaction from the bourgeois establishment. Perhaps this is intentional, and Östlund is aware that his beautifully-shot arty film, Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or firmly in hand, is as much a symptom of society’s painful lack of self-awareness and humaneness as it is an analgesic for it. The Square, to be fair to it, might be in on its own joke, especially given that the core titular art piece – a lighted square embedded in the pavement in front of the museum (in place of a bronze equestrian statue that is clumsily removed by shambolic workmen) that is a “sanctuary of trust and caring” where “we all share equal rights and obligations” – is based on an installation that Östlund himself collaborated on.

There is plenty to like about The Square. The performances, often semi-improvised at the director’s urging, are uniformly good. As a filmmaker, Östlund has a wit both verbally sharp and visually sly, and many of the film’s best gags are placed out of the centre of focus in the frame, to be discovered by the sharp-eyed. Some of these jokes are buried in the wardrobe: West’s Schnabel-esque artist wears what appears to be a pyjama onesie with a sport jacket over it, the nattily-attired Christian sports a knotted scarf like a culture-industry tie proxy, and Anne smooths down an admission sticker on her lapel while haltingly flirting with the curator. My favourites involve the judicious application of animals: the homeless girl in the viral video holds a button-nosed kitten, which merits a whole column of its own in the multi-page newspaper spread about the controversy; the museum director (Marina Schiptjenko) is followed everywhere by a perceptive Italian Greyhound, whose withering glances at the bloviating Christian in the wake of the video ad flap mirror her own; and Anne shares her apartment with an artistically-inclined chimpanzee whose presence she doesn’t acknowledge in the slightest.

When its satirical volleys land on target, The Square can be scabrously funny and definitely thought-provoking. But it’s a bit bloated and messy and even misdirected, often as frequently as it’s on track. The storyline revolving around the theft accusation letters begins with some good stuff lampooning Christian and Michael’s giddy wine-fed bravado at the scheme that devolves into panicked haste to get the awkward thing over with, but beats a dead horse thereafter. It’s supposed to be the equal of Force Majeure‘s rich central relationship-destabilizing scenario, but while it drives Christian to distracted anxiety and guilt, it doesn’t shift his axis in any serious way. The art-world satire is so much stronger, it seems a significant miscalculation for Östlund to spend so much of his film’s running time focused on something else.

But then this, too, is part and parcel of Ruben Östlund larger thesis in The Square. The negative public reaction to the exploding-girl viral video shifts from outrage at the violent insensitivity of the imagery to an excoriation of Christian and the museum for disowning the ideas therein as disturbing self-censorship by an institution supposedly dedicated to artistic free speech. It’s unsubtly suggested in this thread, and much more spectacularly in Oleg’s disturbing performance, that the purported public demand for art that is challenging and that subverts our social, cultural, and political assumptions is insincere, hypocritical, or just plain bullshit. Art that gets up in our grill and upends our understanding of our place in the world is not welcome unless it renders that upending in acceptable form, in digestible morcels. The Square is often not acceptable or digestible, to its superficial credit. But it can be a bit too hard to choke down, too. Is that more of a censure on its creator, or on the movie audience whose prejudices and assumptions he conceives himself and his film as challenging?

Categories: Art, Culture, Film, Reviews

Film Review – Thor: Ragnarok

November 14, 2017 Leave a comment

Thor: Ragnarok (2017; Directed by Taika Waititi)

Seventeen films into the sprawling, movie-marketplace-dominating Marvel Cinematic Universe comes a movie that finally, belatedly gets superhero comics. Thor: Ragnarok is not the best film to come out of the MCU, though despite the phalanxes of clickbait ranking lists rattling around online media, updated with each new installment’s release, there isn’t really a meaningful consensus on that question anyhow (most would say Iron Man or The Avengers, though I would stump for either of the last two Captain America movies). It is, however, the one most in tune with the silly grandeur, the chromatic crackle and pop, the cartoon punch-up violence, and the broad-to-specific-to-broad thematic see-saw that defines superhero comic books in general and Marvel Comics in particular. Thor: Ragnarok is fun and spectacular and overstuffed and expensive-looking and full of funny jokes and and busy action sequences and world-class thespians having the time of their damn lives or, because they’re world-class thespians, convincing you that they are, at the very least (Ms. Blanchett, I’m looking in your direction).

Directed by Taika Waititi with a deft professional hand but precious few hints of the brand of loopy semi-deadpan New Zealand comedy of the mundane that defined his past films like Eagle vs. Shark, What We Do in the Shadows, and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Thor: Ragnarok feels about as loose and semi-improvised as an impeccably planned and focus-grouped $180-million Hollywood superhero blockbuster can reasonably feel. As a simultaneously sequel to at least three previous MCU films (Thor: The Dark World, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Doctor Strange, with the star of the latter, Benedict Cumberbatch, popping up to help the titular hero on his way) and setup to probably just as many future installments, Ragnarok is hassled with as much short- and long-term expository heavy lifting as any MCU episode. Still, the weight doesn’t sit deep on its shoulders. Waititi’s comedy background doesn’t just elevate the jokes here, it relieves some measure of the pressure inherent to any MCU movie (which is also quite detectable despite their usual light, jocular tone).

The effect of this release valve shows most clearly on the film’s star, Chris Hemsworth, as the titular Asgardian god of thunder and wielder of an indestructible flying hammer. Cast as the bluff, square-headed action hero not just in the role of Thor but practically everywhere he turns, Hemsworth has a nascent goofball comedian side, a keen willingness to upend his handsome hunkery with self-deprecation (as he did in last year’s Ghostbusters reboot). The first Thor movie accomplished that to some extent by pulling him out of his familiar space Viking milieu and stripping him of much of his prodigious power, and it’s a method that Ragnarok resurrects. After confidently escaping imprisonment at the hands of an apocalyptic fire demon known as Surtur (Clancy Brown) with apocalyptic designs on Asgard, Thor returns home to find his aged, increasingly unreliable father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) absent and being impersonated by the adopted brother he believed to be dead, the trickster god Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Fortunately, the sometimes-evil Loki has done nothing more malevolent than build a statue of himself and stage hagiographic theatricals to his self-sacrificing glory (I wouldn’t dream of spoiling the star cameos of the actors in this play-within-a-movie, each one an in-joke on some level). Still, Odin must be found to assure Asgard’s stability, and when he is located (with an assist from Doctor Strange) and disintegrates into the sea air off the Norwegian coast, his expiration leaves Asgard vulnerable to the return of a dire existential threat.

This would be Hela (Cate Blanchett in full, gleeful villainous vamp), the goddess of death and Thor’s long-exiled sister. The right-hand enforcer of Odin’s long-ago conquests of the Nine Realms, Hela desires to extend Asgard’s dominion and, drawing her dark power from their home realm itself, flicks aside her thunder-god brother and Loki as well. As Hela destroys Asgard’s defenders and takes the fill-in Bifrost transportation portal minder Skurge (Karl Urban) as her main lackey (usual Bifrost sentry Heimdall, played again by an underutilized Idris Elba, is in hiding leading a resistance movement), Thor and Loki are stranded on the junkyard planet Sakaar with other sentient detritus of the universe. Captured by a boozehound bounty hunter and former Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson, summoning a tremendous, appealing swagger that you just want to see more of), Thor is compelled by Sakaar’s capricious pleasure-hound dictator Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum, hedonistically louche as all get-out) to battle for his life in his galactic gladiator stadium against the grand champion.

The revelation of this champion opponent would be a fantastically fun surprise had it not been spoiled in trailers and other ads. It is, of course, the Incredible Hulk, in whose form Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) has been stuck for two long years since departing Earth after the Sokovia incident at the end of Age of Ultron. A thunderous (literally) dust-up between the two of them followed by a bit of buddy comedy, then a few getting-the-team-together scenes and a breakneck spaceship escape, and Thor, Hulk, Loki, Valkyrie, and some others besides are banding together to stop Hela leaping off from snatching up Asgard to malevolent galactic domination.

Thor: Ragnarok‘s plot is far more complicated than this, but Waititi is keen enough to recognize that it’s all so much nonsense between bursts of moving-comic-book delight. Ragnarok is full of such delight, and becomes a full-motion annal of absurd pleasures which can be effectively recorded in point form.

  • Thor’s opening fight with Surtur’s fiery legions is set giddily to Led Zeppelin’s Viking-invasions-themed “Immigrant Song”, a soundtracking choice repeated during the climactic battle with Hela’s army of the dead in Asgard which commences with a splash-page frame that is among the most memorable single comics-adapting images anywhere in the MCU (aurally otherwise, Mark Mothersbaugh’s score is a left-field marvel of big orchestral themes and pulsating stellar electronica).
  • The aforementioned spaceship chase, besides being a spectacular coming-out party for Thompson’s chip-on-her-shoulder badass Valkyrie, also features the loopy idea of our heroes’ escape craft being the Grandmaster’s orgy-party space-yacht (complete with orgasmic pyrotechnics), as well as frequent Waititi collaborator Rachel House as the Grandmaster’s bodyguard Topaz, pursuing them with silent determination. At one point, Waititi cuts to House in the cockpit of her spaceship, her steely gaze focused straight ahead, and she points a single, possessive finger at her quarry. It’s maybe the funniest moment in an often very funny movie.
  • Speaking of funny, Waititi himself plays a revolution-obsessed rock-being gladiator acquaintance of Thor’s named Korg, and gives him a mild, polite, and wildly, incongruously hilarious rural New Zealand accent.
  • Where Asgard was not always highly detailed in previous appearances, it’s given added dimension and design here. The digitally-extended sets are grand and semi-medieval (the production designer is Lord of the Rings alum Dan Hennah), and a ceiling fresco with echoes of medieval Christian art both Roman Catholic and Orthodox figures prominently in Hela’s account of Odin’s whitewashing of his brutal conquests. A burnished neoclassical history-painting look also pervades Valkyrie’s reminiscence of her last battle with Hela.

Taken in full, Thor: Ragnarok is most notable in both the MCU and in superhero movies in general for not only these delights but for how, contrary to most products of the medium-dominating genre, it leans into its comic-book silliness instead of disavowing it, embraces its pulpy material instead of rendering it in terms analagous to reality. All of this, the characters and the costumes and the settings and the fights and the narratives and the themes, is utter nonsense, ultimately. Taika Waititi recognizes this and draws out the inherent weird awkwardness of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe enterprise, making it fodder for cathartic comedy and celebratory abandon. This is what superhero comics fundamentally are, and despite the artistic ambitions of many writers and artists who seek to make them more than that, it’s still the form’s purest terms of expression and criteria for enjoyment, and it’s the purest appeal of Thor: Ragnarok as well.

Categories: Comics, Film, Reviews

Film Review: Crimson Peak

November 4, 2017 Leave a comment

Crimson Peak (2015; Directed by Guillermo del Toro)

The initially seductive Crimson Peak ultimately fails to live up to the deep promise of its evocative design and syncretic root-network of influences. In doing so, it suggests with a troubling persistence that the rich litany of varied ingredients that inspire writer/director Guillermo del Toro’s visually dense, weirdly poetic, and symbolically detailed films (reflected in a touring exhibition of his personal collection currently at Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario) can dispiritingly add up to less than the sum of their parts. Not a proper horror film so much as an atmospheric and significantly chromatic gothic romance with elements of the ghost story, Crimson Peak stumbles from a drawn-out establishing passage into a relatively and disappointingly conventional conclusion. It’s not a case study of del Toro’s acclaimed vision being constrained, however, but an uneasy suggestion that his alchemist’s vision has limits and blindspots that display a tendency to let it down, in the breach.

Del Toro sets the latter half of Crimson Peak in the titularly-nicknamed manorial pile in Cumberland, England (all of it, mind you, filmed in Southern Ontario, where most of his recent productions have been based). This closing setting, Allerdale Hall, is envisioned as a classic Victorian Gothic construction, a rambling haunted mansion of pointed arches, restless spirits, unfriendly corridors, and blood-hued red clay literally bubbling up from its foundations like an uncontainable violent buried history. It’s a symbol of the slow decay of aristocratic privilege, with Industrial Age accoutrements stitched Frankenstein-like onto its failing body. Del Toro’s reference points for this house of horrors are numerous and probably ultimately known only to himself, but the titular house in Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre‘s Thornfield Hall, Dracula’s castle, and even the Overlook Hotel of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining stand among them.

Before he takes his story there, however, del Toro provides as an introductory contrast the robust American capitalist respectability of fin-de-siècle Buffalo, New York. This is the hometown of his heroine Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), a clever but romantically naïve aspiring novelist and daughter of wealthy industrialist Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver). Haunted (quite literally) by the memory of her mother’s death, her romantic aspirations are appealed to by a visiting English aristocrat, Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), who with his just-a-bit sinister sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) is seeking the Cushing père‘s financial backing for a clay-mining contraption of the tinkering Thomas’s own invention. Carter doubts the viability of Sharpe’s scheme (especially given the discouraging discoveries of his private investigator Mr. Holly, played by del Toro semi-regular Burn Gorman) and sharply disapproves of his courtship of Edith, withholding his approval of Thomas’s marriage proposal. The elder Cushing’s objections will be, shall we say, firmly overcome, however, as will those of Edith’s childhood friend Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), and newlywed Edith will be swept away to Allerdale Hall, where she will find herself in quite a horrible and not at all romantic situation indeed.

Del Toro’s rich wellspring of sources and inspirations colours the establishment of this onscreen world, spanning haunted house movies of the Studio Era, English Gothic literature, and jump-scare modern horror flicks. Crimson Peak‘s ghosts, reflecting cultural sources as much as personal ones, are its creepiest and perhaps most resonant creations. “Ghosts are real. This much, I know,” intones Edith in narration at the beginning and end of the film, but she also tells a prospective publisher that the ghosts in her novel are metaphors. For del Toro, ghosts are both literal and metaphorical, horribly tangible revenants of past agony and regret and love and tenderness as well as spectral symbols of such fading sentiments galvanized by the mortal fear of death. Edith is warned by the ghost of her mother, clad in the black clothes of mourning (and based on the ghost of del Toro’s own grandmother, who evidently visited his mother after the older woman’s demise), about a dire “Crimson Peak” that she must avoid, and is further bedeviled by a blood-red ghoul at Allerdale Hall, which emerges from the floor like the consuming crimson clay.

Colour is vital to Crimson Peak‘s intended affect (the cinematography is by Dan Laustsen, whose most notable visual work was on the bonkers French genre mash-up Brotherhood of the Wolf and who is also lensing del Toro’s forthcoming The Shape of Water), but it works best in small, well-observed moments of character-arc foreshadowing more than in the grand, baroque, violent (and unfortunately tedious) climax. The best example is a quiet but key scene between Edith and Lucille in a Buffalo park. Observing delicate, beautiful butterflies dying from the approaching winter chill, Lucille tells Edith of the black moths back home, “formidable creatures” which “lack beauty” but “thrive on the dark and cold” and consume butterflies. Their wardrobe symbolically identifies them with these contrasting insects: Edith’s hat, parasol, blouse, and skirts visually echo the colour-markings of the butterflies, while Lucille’s black dress and deep-red rose carnation align her with the predatory moths she describes.

Intricate weavings of cinematography, editing, wardrobe, dialogue, performance, and subtextual ideas as displayed in this scene define del Toro’s work at its best (it must be said, however, that only Chastain, revelling in Lucille’s waxing villainy, stands out at all among the cast). Sadly, Crimson Peak, for all of the splendour and the near-novelistic density of its visual world, never quite comes together in the way his strongest films do (I’m thinking, of course, of Pan’s Labyrinth, above all). The tense horror-thriller sequences of Edith being stalked by the ghosts are impeccably paced and orchestrated, but are of secondary or even tangential significance compared to the pulpy central plot of the Sharpes. This is a trademark of del Toro’s treatment of fantastical or supernatural elements in his work, granted: the magic he conjures is grand and beautiful and dangerous and terrifying, and it certainly does not abide by concrete human-conceived rules of logic or causation.

But in Crimson Peak, these elements seem at once to be stitched onto a different body of a film and to act as a pestilent virus seeking to take over its host. There’s a better film buried inside the tangled intertextual vines of Crimson Peak, struggling to free itself. There is no doubting the breadth and depth of del Toro’s vision here as elsewhere, but whether for budgetary or generic or imaginative reasons, Crimson Peak doesn’t unfold the possibilities of that vision so much as narrow its focus as it proceeds. This is what it looks like when Guillermo del Toro gets lost in his own head and takes a wrong turn. Those of us who have admired the products of his mind and his imagination in the past do fervently hope that he rights his path again.

Categories: Film, Literature, Reviews

Film Review: Blade Runner 2049

October 29, 2017 Leave a comment

Blade Runner 2049 (2017; Directed by Denis Villeneuve)

The first thing worth knowing about Blade Runner 2049, and quite frankly the last thing as well, is that it is incredibly beautiful. Directed by Quebeςois prestige-film dynamo Denis Villeneuve and shot by the venerable English cinematographical master Roger Deakins, the 30-plus-years-hence sequel to Ridley Scott’s seminal, influential, and lingeringly divisive 1982 science-fiction opus replicates and indeed surpasses its feats of visual invention, forward-looking production design, and neo-noir neon-infused chiaroscuro mood lighting. As recent James Bond series highlight Skyfall demonstrated, when Roger Deakings is armed with a blockbuster budget, he delivers stunningly-lit images of striking, memorable magnificence. Indeed, Skyfall‘s knock-out sequence of Bond taking out a foe at night in a Shanghai skyscraper with a blue neon jellyfish reflecting off of its glass facades seems now like a dress rehearsal for Deakins’ similar work with the high contrasts of harsh artificial light and deep, encompassing darkness in this film.

I could expend hundreds, perhaps thousands of words describing Blade Runner 2049‘s most gorgeous moments: pinnacles must include a pursuit and fight in an abandoned casino ballroom while a projected hologram Elvis and a chorus of showgirls flicker in and out onstage, the wavy, dappling light filtering through an artificial lake into the Brutalist/pharaonic/neo-German Expressionist premises of a powerful corporation, and an emotionally-charged encounter with a towering, pink-hued advertisement of a naked woman. But the slowly-enfolding wonder of Villeneuve’s and Deakins’s alchemical imagery in Blade Runner 2049, which for my money surpasses Scott’s often turgid and borderline-pretentious original in nearly every vital way, is how it functions as a poetic encapsulation and artistic fulfilment of the film’s themes and ideas. One might rightly contend that this sequel’s philosophical depth doesn’t approach that of the 1982 film, which located a crisis of identity and human authenticity in a depersonalized dystopia of the near-future and grounded it in classical myth and Freudian psychology. But like Arrival, Villeneuve’s science-fiction triumph of last year, Blade Runner 2049 intelligently and sometimes movingly synthesizes intellectual concepts and emotional swells into a powerful work of cinema that understands and advances the notion that these seemingly opposing impulses are in truth two sides of the same cosmic coin.

Blade Runner 2049 is the latest in a recent spate of Hollywood franchise sequels/reboots to incorporate the elapsed decades between the previous and current installments into the textual narrative itself. Much of the expository work covering the 30 years between Scott’s Blade Runner (set in 2019) and Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 is achieved by an opening title card: the rebellious replicants – bioengineered humanoids intended as slave and servant labour on Earth and in off-world colonies – encountered by Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) in the original film were discontinued after persistent revolts and a catastrophic social, biological and technological infrastructure failure known as “the blackout” a year or two after Deckard escaped Los Angeles with Rachael (Sean Young), the replicant he had fallen in love with.

The bankrupted creators of the replicants, the Tyrell Corporation, was bought up by Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) and his Wallace Corporation, whose wealth is based on world-saving mass agriculture technology. The Wallace Corporation has resumed production of a new series of replicants programmed strictly to obey their masters. Wallace himself has one such right-hand servant, a steely enforcer named Luv (Silvia Hoeks), and another Nexus-9 replicant, K (Ryan Gosling), toils at Deckard’s old “blade runner” job with the LAPD, tracking down and “retiring” the remaining rogue Nexus-8s at the behest of his human superior, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright). During one such call at a California farming facility maintained alone by a Nexus-8 named Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), K discovers a series of clues leading to a replicant-related “miracle” connected to Deckard and Rachael – and, K begins to suspect, intimately connected to himself – that is of revolutionary import to ever-tense human-replicant relations.

This summary doesn’t come close to encapsulating the imaginative and symbolically-charged world-expansion that Villeneuve engages in here, working from a screenplay by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green. From the opening wide-shot panorama of K’s squad car flying over seemingly endless solar power plants to the dark smoggy sprawl of future L.A. to the post-nuclear, radioactive-fallout-strewn ghost-town of Las Vegas to a gigantic post-industrial junkyard in the ruins of San Diego sifted through in a neo-Dickensian workhouse by thousands of orphaned children, this is a grand nightmarescape of structural decay and physical alienation evocative of social, political, and psychological dislocation.

The protagonist K, his replicant status certain in contrast to the continued ambiguity about Deckard’s true nature, embodies this dislocation. K was built to destroy his own kind and is reviled as a “skinjob” by the humans he is meant to be protecting; even his superior Joshi, although she values his ability and shows a modicum of personal interest, ultimately conceives of him as her servant or her trained pet (“Good boy,” she tells him at one point, like a dog who has fetched successfully). His only non-cop-shop personal relationship is with a Wallace-manufactured female holographic companion named Joi (Ana de Armas), whom he cares for dearly but whose reciprocation of those feelings resides ambivalently in between the programming of her corporate designers and tantalizing hints of sentience and self-determined love. This ambivalence is delicately poised in K’s pre-climactic meeting with the monumental ad for Joi, which might have served to dishearten him at a critical juncture in his quest with its suggestions that their connection was artificially constructed but instead seems to stiffen his spine with a fond reminder of the tenderness of that connection (Gosling plays exquisitely to the ambiguity in this moment, mind you).

K’s feelings for the simulation Joi echoes Deckard’s love for the replicant Rachael, which is at the core of the plot and is sorely tested by the blind, ambitious Machiavellian Wallace (this is too good a film to be derailed by any one performance, especially one consisting of a mere two scenes, and if the usually preening Leto isn’t great, he at least damps it down a bit). When the detective K begins to suspect that he himself might have been the product of this love, his existence gains a measure of significance; when this measure is wiped away, an underground revolutionary replicant movement restores it in altered form, with the politicized promise of sacrifice for the cause of liberation. But even these interlinks are suggested to be coincidences of programming, breadcrumbs implanted in his mind by a gifted designer of memories, Dr. Stelline (Carla Juri). Perhaps this was done intentionally as part of a wider plan, perhaps not.

Free will and determinism, being born and being built, a sentient being with a soul and a self-aware machine with a pre-set functional purpose. These are the dichotomous themes of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, and of Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 as well. Their sharp opposing contrasts and their permeable bleeding edges are the subject of both films, a metaphorical focal point made aesthetically manifest in their visual design and in their intertextual referentiality. In the movie-long unfolding of Deakins’s stunning cinematic imagery, his starkly-delineated contrasts of light and dark lose this firm definition, and in the process gain something more indefinable and compellingly ambiguous. In the way that, according to screenwriter Fancher, K moves from being a sort of rule-bound instruction manual to an embodied poem through his experiences, the film itself undertakes a similar journey towards poetry.

This poetry is infused into Blade Runner 2049 with a literal (and literary) reference to Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, including an excerpt of a poem discovered by the novel’s protagonist and repurposing it as part of K’s “baseline” debriefing programming process. A kind of post hoc version of the original Blade Runner‘s Voigt-Kampff test used to identify replicants, the baseline test isolates K and repeats back phrases from the Pale Fire poem (“a system of cells interlinked within / Cells interlinked within cells interlinked”) as well as confrontational, difficult elaborations on those phrases, expecting to compel and maintain emotionless replies and a lack of empathy and engagement on the part of the replicant. K fails at this ongoing technical indoctrination if even his microreactions are hesitant, if his experiences imprint themselves upon his perceptible self.

How can we not be changed, not merely in our perspective or reactions but in our fundamental state of being, by exposure to the world, to love and pain, joy and suffering? The human (or human-like replicant) self is produced and moulded by the stimuli it encounters, formed like rocks under erosion by emotional and intellectual forces beyond its control or resistance. The irony of employing Nabokov’s poem as a fixed-point calibration for replicants is that its conclusion offers a harbour-in-the-storm image of stalwart beauty standing athwart the depersonalized blackness: “Against the dark, a tall white fountain played.” Blade Runner 2049 crafts tall white fountains amidst its dystopian dark, and provides a heartening illustration of how deriving meaning from those comforting structures, which gain significance and dimension of feeling through our engagement with them and not through the separate intentions embedded in their design and manufacture, shapes our identity amidst the unceasing torrent of a hard world.

Categories: Film, Reviews