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There is a key moment in Denis Villeneuve’s sequel to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner when a character learns an important truth. The moment features two figures captured in a two-shot that silhouettes their profiles against a richly textured background. This instance encapsulates the film as a whole, as every frame is saturated with meaning, craft and beauty. Set thirty years after the events of the original film, Villeneuve’s follow up is not a sequel that we needed but it is one that fans of the original deserve, as BR2049 pays homage to the original, one of the most influential science fiction films ever made, while also staking out its own territory. Villeneuve and writers Hampton Fancher and Michael Green’s story of cop K (Ryan Gosling, developing his taciturn roles in Drive and Only God Forgives into something all the more eerie) searching for answers in a dystopian California builds upon the first film and explores many of the same questions about humanity and identity, what it means to be a person, what is the influence of voice, embodiment, obedience, views of self and other. Brilliantly, BR2049 takes these questions in new directions, raising issues of what constitutes procreation and the importance of digitization. Production designer Dennis Gassner and the visual effects team go beyond the huge advertisements of the first film with giant 3D projections in the Los Angeles of 2049, while interactive AI and immersive holographic environments appear throughout the film. Blade Runner 2049 therefore continues to explore the tension between what is real and what is artifice, a line that is progressively blurred and distorted. Interestingly, the film is reminiscent both of the original Blade Runner as well as more recent science fiction such as A.I.: Artificial Intelligence and Her. The recurrence of these themes and tropes demonstrates the eternal recycling of concepts in science fiction, yet BR2049 never feels stale or like something we have seen before (even though, in a sense, we have). The central uncanny conceit operates on a narrative, thematic and stylistic level, and even in the very substance of the film.
Roger Deakins is the true star here, his exquisite visuals spellbindingly beautiful while simultaneously laden with portent. Yet these images are themselves ephemeral, data that has no more physical substance than some of the characters in the film. The viewer’s reaction therefore mirrors the characters. Just as K gazes at holograms with a mixture of wonder and bitterness, so does the film invite awe tinged with scepticism. Some of this scepticism can spill over into criticism – the film’s length and languorous pace is not to all tastes, while aspects of the principal antagonist add little to the proceedings. It also sidelines exploration of its female characters in favour of male questing, which is a shame because the female characters often suggest intriguing alternatives. But overall, these are minor quibbles in a film that largely delivers on the promise of its predecessor, and will likely be analysed and debated for another thirty years.
Rupert Sanders’ remake of Mamoru Oshii’s seminal anime, itself an adaptation of Shirow Madamune’s manga, plays like Blade Runner crossed with The Fifth Element on steroids. Set in a future where cybernetic ‘enhancements’ are commonplace, the eye-scorching Ghost in the Shell focuses on Major (Scarlett Johansson), a special agent of Section 9 that tracks a mysterious cyber-terrorist known only as Kuze (Michael Pitt). Sanders’ film creates a visually arresting vision of the future, with huge buildings sharing the skyline of (presumably) Tokyo with giant holograms advertising the latest technology from the ubiquitous company Hanka. Shots capture the city in the background while the officers of Section 9 perform superhuman feats, the cumulative effect hinting at the uncanny nature of this world, like and unlike our own, while other startling images include Kuze connected to a dense mesh of cables that imply infinite connection. Unfortunately, the film lacks faith in these visuals, often resorting to telling rather than showing with an over-reliance on exposition and laboured storytelling. A more fluid directorial style might have helped, such as that of Luc Besson or the Wachowskis, or indeed the original anime. Further comparisons with the earlier film hurt this one also, as Johansson’s Major forgoes the cynicism of Atsuko Tanaka’s Motoko Kusanagi and the film as a whole lacks the nihilism of Madamune’s version. In the earlier film, cybernetic enhancement is a given and the questions posed look ahead to explore new understandings of life consciousness. This screenplay, by Jamie Moss, William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger, looks backward as Major attempts to piece together her past. Glitches in Major’s perception hint at this past in cumbersome ways, Sanders’ style often buffering the content rather than delivering a steady data stream of plot, theme, character and world-building. Slo-mo and lingering shots of bodies have their place, but here they emphasise artifice rather than express the fusion of biology and technology. While the film does raise many interesting ideas about memory and identity, especially in relation to the controversial ‘whitewashing‘, the end result is a case of too much shell, not enough ghost.
The question of what is human is a continuous one in science fiction. This philosophical topic has been explored and discussed in such films as Blade Runner (1982), A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001) and Never Let Me Go (2010) as well as many others, including the stunning directorial debut of Alex Garland, Ex_Machina. A young coder in a major software company, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a staff lottery to spend a week with the company owner, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Upon arrival, he learns that Nathan wishes him to test an artificial intelligence that Nathan has built: a female-gendered machine named Ava (Alicia Vikander). Caleb and Ava’s conversations along with Nathan’s observations cause Caleb and indeed the audience to question their own expectations about what constitutes consciousness, personhood and humanity.Most of the film consists of this three-hander, which could run the risk of making the film overly dependent on dialogue. Garland, however, makes this potentially staid scenario beautifully cinematic, the uncanniness of the situation encapsulated in Mark Digby’s production design that gives the film locations that feel both inhabited and alienating, as multiple reflections and surfaces that are partially transparent force the viewer to look harder at what may be more than it appears. Rob Hardy’s cinematography also conveys an eerie sense that what Caleb encounters is slightly off, as the play of light on “people” and their surroundings obscures as much as it reveals. This is also true of the characters, who steadily reveal more of themselves in a series of genuinely surprising and disturbing interchanges. Much of Ex_Machina is quiet but it is rarely silent, the ambient hum of technology, especially the inner workings of Ava, permeating the fabric of the film much as it penetrates the very beings of Caleb and Nathan. All three performers are mesmerising, as is a mute performance by Sonoya Mizuno as Koyoko, Nathan’s servant. Vikander especially conveys Ava’s curious interest in humanity, herself and the relations between them with a spellbinding appeal, making Caleb’s actions understandable. But just when you think you have the film figured out, it turns in an expected direction than can leave you re-evaluating what may have just happened and, indeed, what you expect to happen. In doing so, Ex_Machina performs philosophy, as the best science fiction does, illuminating our own expectations and encouraging us to question them.
No surprise here. 2001: A Space Odyssey tops the list of my top five transportive science fiction films with its extraordinary vision that more than lives up to the title of its third chapter, “Beyond the Infinite”. 2001: A Space Odyssey takes the viewer from the dawn of humanity to the birth of a new species, an odyssey few films approach. What makes 2001 top of this list is that it expresses its themes and makes its claims in a specifically cinematic way. The plot is simple, but ideas of humanity and identity, destiny and our place in the universe are all presented through cinematic techniques of image and sound. The opening and closing chapters are entirely without dialogue and remain cinematic touchstones, the stargate sequence one of the most exquisite pieces of cinema I have ever seen. The middle section portrays space travel as both wondrous and mundane, the production design detailing the mechanics of space travel and the logistics of weightlessness and docking. HAL is a definitive example of artificial intelligence, a clear influence on MUTHR in Alien as well as Blade Runner’s replicants. Furthermore, thanks to this film a single red light shall forever be menacing. Despite the detail given to spacecraft and inter-planetary travel, 2001 never explains too much (over-explanation being the major flaw of the film’s recent descendant, Interstellar), relying instead on suggestion and ambiguity. The film maintains a mystery and opacity much like the black monoliths, which is a common feature across the films that constitute this countdown. How human are the replicants in Blade Runner? What is the reach of Eywa in Avatar? What do the extra-terrestrials want in Close Encounters of the Third Kind? How did the alien ship come to be on the planet in Alien (the explanation in Prometheus notwithstanding)? Mystery abounds in 2001 but not to the point of frustration, as enough is suggested by Stanley Kubrick’s precise alignment of production design, cinematography, editing, sound effects and music to give the viewer a sense of what is going on, while leaving enough ambiguity for us to wonder, and indeed, wonder at the majestic mystery of what we behold. After nearly fifty years, 2001 remains the greatest journey undertaken by the sci-fi genre and an unrivalled cinematic landmark.
The penultimate film in this countdown of my top five transportive sci-fi films has some similarities with a previous entry. Like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Blade Runner transports its viewer to a sci-fi environment on Earth with suggestions of the beyond. Unlike Close Encounters, however, Blade Runner is far from a hopeful dream of a journey that we can envy, but a dystopic nightmare of a grim world in which hope, equality and life have been largely devalued. At the same time, it is a hypnotic and mesmerising vision with a haunting, otherworldly beauty. That the presentation of something so bleak could be so beautiful is testament to Ridley Scott’s superb direction, Jordan Cronenweth’s gorgeous cinematography and Lawrence G. Paull’s exquisite production design, as well as Vangelis’ melancholic score. Blade Runner’s Los Angeles is the gloomy city of film noir turned up to 11, with enough rain for an Indian monsoon and enough filtered, neon light to accentuate the expressive mise-en-scene of sets, costume and performers. The combined effect of these cinematic features is to transport the viewer to this city of the damned, in what may be the most detailed and (chillingly) plausible dystopic landscape ever committed to film. Many sci-fi films predict the future. Blade Runner seems to get parts of it right.
Transcendence does what the best science fiction stories do – gives big ideas the big treatment. This is both the great strength and the great pitfall of the genre: if the dramatisation of these ideas is effective, extraordinary cinema can be created (see 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, The Matrix). If it is ineffective, you can be left with little more than tedious, pseudo-philosophical, techno-babble (see The Matrix Reloaded, The Matrix Revolutions). Transcendence falls somewhere inbetween, as it engages with its grand ideas with conviction and creativity, director Wally Pfister showing a keen eye for the tiniest details, both of nature and technology. At times, the overall scale of the events is not made clear, while several of the characters are essentially cyphers, and these features can undermine the drama. Overall though, the film’s conviction wins out, as Transcendence pursues its questions about humanity, identity, mortality and the dangers of good intention to their logical and, at times, unsettling, conclusion.
The Hunger Games was a delight in 2012, merging elements of Winter’s Bone, Battle Royale, The Running Man, Blade Runner, Never Let Me Go and quite a few others to create a grim and compelling vision of the future. The only thing that bugged me about Gary Ross’ film was the excessive use of shaky cam, which distracted from the sense of oppression and fear intrinsic to the setting. Happily, the cinematography of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is, as one satisfied viewer put it, as steady as the bow of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), allowing greater appreciation of the wide vistas of the various districts, as well as the malevolent jungle of the arena in which the Quarter Quell Games take place. A stark colour palate conveys the sombre situation of District Twelve, where Katniss along with fellow victors Peeta Malark (Josh Hutcherson) and Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) prepare for their victory tour. Meanwhile, Katniss must balance her growing feelings for Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) with the need to protect her family, especially as President Snow (Donald Sutherland) responds to the stirrings of rebellion.
In an early scene, Snow asks Katniss if she would like to be in a real war, indicating the wider ramifications of this instalment. We see more of Panem this time around, including the other districts and the oppression they suffer, as well as the decadence of the Capitol, where a far more garish mise-en-scene emphasises the excess and over-indulgence of the inhabitants who take purging agents to make themselves sick enabling them to eat more, while people in the districts are starving. This sociological dimension is one of the strongest elements of The Hunger Games franchise, as its dystopia is based upon class divisions held in place by an iron fist. As the seeds of rebellion begin, the ironically named Peacekeepers crack down on dissenters, whipping people in the streets and, at one point, threatening to shoot Katniss where she stands until Haymitch points out the negative publicity.
The media presence of the Hunger Games victors, and indeed the media as a tool in Panem, is for me the other key elements of the franchise, explored in greater detail on screen than on the page. I read Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games after seeing the first film, and am reading Catching Fire at the moment (I’m funny with books). Being a first person, present tense narrative, Collins’ prose never wavers from Katniss’ perspective, and while a lot of detail can be included in Katniss’ internal monologue, the films take a wider perspective and show events beyond her experience. In particular, scenes of the control room and interactions between Snow and his advisors, especially the new head game-maker Plutarch Heavensbee (the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman), demonstrate the mechanics and predictions of propaganda, such as Plutarch’s chilling line: ‘I agree that she should die but in the right way’ – i.e. on television. While The Hunger Games emphasises the malevolent ideology of having children fight to the death, Catching Fire demonstrates the power of the media to both the state and the populace, a power that is all too apparent in contemporary society.
Catching Fire, therefore, builds upon the premise of its predecessor, doing what all good sequels do – expand the world, give us what is familiar but also what is different. The legacy of the first film appears as trauma, as Katniss wakes from a nightmare and, when it is announced that the tributes for the 75th Hunger Games will be drawn from the pool of winners, makes a desperate, futile flee into the woods, the scene palpably expressing her panic and horror. To have been through hell and then be informed that you’ll be doing it all over again (she is, after all, the only living female victor in District 12) would be horrendous, and the film conveys the fear and dread of such an ultimatum, with the added understanding that this is an act of political oppression conceived by Snow and Plutarch. Here is the greater scope of Catching Fire, the development of the initial premise to allow a fuller understanding of the fictional world.
Some interesting features, that were not evident in The Hunger Games, become apparent in Catching Fire. In the first film’s reaping scene, a video is shown that recounts the historical Uprising, including footage of nuclear blasts. When I saw this, I took it to be stock footage or simply special effects put into the propaganda film by the Capitol’s producers. But when Snow threatens Katniss, he reminds her of District 13, which was reduced to a radioactive ruin during the Uprising, and remains a potent symbol of the Capitol’s power. Furthermore, once the Games begin, Catching Fire does not simply repeat the survival drama of the first film, with Katniss battling the various perils and other tributes as they come at her. Catching Fire has plenty of action set pieces during the Games, including ferocious baboons (much like the ghastly After Earth), poisonous mist, forcefields and gigantic waves, but also an element of mystery as the other tributes assist her and each other to a surprising extent. Having not read the book, the final revelation and its resultant cliff-hanger came as a genuine shock, opening the tale even wider. Fans of the books report that Mockingjay is the weakest of the trilogy, but I eagerly anticipate where the story will go from here.