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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.
Allegiance to what we see or what sees us? Vision is a recurring conceit throughout Allegiant, third in The Divergent Series. After the lacklustre Insurgent, Allegiant is a welcome return to the political uprising/growing pains drama of Divergent. Across the first two films, there was a constant sense of there being more out there, literally as Chicago is surrounded by a wall, but also narratively as to how the series’ faction system came about and what it truly means to be divergent or otherwise. Allegiant expands this dystopic world, with various explorations of vision intertwined with the trials and tribulations of heroine Tris (Shailene Woodley), her lover Four (Theo James), brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort) and loyalty shifter Peter (Miles Teller). Illusions (literally) shatter, fields of vision are expanded by technology, and revelations abound. As questions are answered fresh ones are raised, while new characters including David (Jeff Daniels), Matthew (Bill Skarsgård) and Nita (Nadia Hilker) add to the mix of followers and rebels. The film’s most striking moments are its explorations of vision, casting watchers and the watched in new lights and suggesting aspects of our relationship with what we see. Director Robert Schwentke, DOP Florian Ballhaus and production designer Alec Hammond render these explorations in a richly detailed future world, showing that there’s yet more to find in the young adult dystopia. Roll on Ascendant!
Insurgent posed high expectations because I enjoyed Divergent very much, finding the dystopia as metaphor for teenage isolation compelling and effective. Unfortunately, Insurgent falls apart in its expansion of the central premise into a wider society facing a growing insurrection. Inevitable comparisons with The Hunger Games highlight the problems with the Divergent series. In The Hunger Games, the titular games are only a part of the wider oppressive society, and through them the narrative moves into a broader tale of rebellion. In the Divergent series, the conceit of a faction society based on personality types (Dauntless, Erudite, Candour, Amity, Abnegation) sustains a single film that is concerned with one young woman finding her place in the world, but proves too flimsy for a second film with a broader tale of rebellion. Shailene Woodley remains a very engaging screen presence and the presence of Kate Winslet, Naomi Watts and Octavia Spencer in non-gender specific roles, make the film interesting from a gender perspective. But in spite of some competent action sequences, Insurgent lacks enough dramatic material to sustain its running length.
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.
The Hunger Games (Gary Ross, 2012) has proved very successful with critics and audiences, including fans of the books by Suzanne Collins as well as those unfamiliar with the material. I have not read the book, and my original intention was to see the film cold with very little knowledge. But this didn’t work out as I heard both a radio review and an interview with the film’s star, Jennifer Lawrence, so I read further reviews and went into fairly well informed, which is the normal way I see a film.
Not that there’s anything wrong with knowing what to expect, it doesn’t stop me having a good time, and I was very impressed with The Hunger Games. It was a compelling story, convincingly performed, well-handled by Gary Ross, and struck just the right thematic balance. A major portion of the film’s action is an extended set piece consisting of the eponymous games themselves, and this is thrilling and gripping and, in places, suitably nasty. Yet to watch these sequences is to be ambivalent, as on the one hand there is gripping action with its attendant visceral thrill, but on the other it is very disturbing to watch children kill each other for the purposes of entertainment. This tension is maintained throughout the Hunger Games section of the narrative. In an early scene, characters discuss the perversity of watching actual people die, or perhaps watching people at all. It is to the film’s credit that it does not labour this point, leaving the viewer to ponder the ethics.
Overall, the film succeeds as a chilling vision of the future, although this vision could be improved by changing the one area that I thought did not work. Much of the film is shot with hand-held cameras, commonly known as “shaky cam”, which for some has the effect of inducing nausea and motion sickness. I wasn’t queasy, but the shaky cam aesthetic was irritating and jarred me out of the film in places. This was not always the case – once the Hunger Games are underway, the unsteady cinematography was effective in conveying the unpredictability of the hostile environment, the sudden outbursts of violence and the constant threat of death to our heroine Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence). But in the opening sequences that establish the world of the film and the circumstances in which the Hunger Games take place, a more composed aesthetic would have been more effective. The reason for this is that wide angled, static shots can convey oppression visually, capturing the subjugated inhabitants of District 12 within the shot composition. Show the oppressed proletariat within the vision of the panopticon, and the sense of oppression can be made all the stronger. Aside from these cinematographic infelicities though, this is an impressive and enjoyable piece of work.
Furthermore, The Hunger Games is especially interesting in terms of the tropes and themes it brings together. Reality TV and its cinematic incarnations, such as The Truman Show (Peter Weir, 1998) and EdTV (Ron Howard, 1999), form a lineage that feeds into The Hunger Games, as well as more violent treatments such as Battle Royale (Kinji Fukasaku, 2000) and The Running Man (Paul Michael Glaser, 1987). To me, however, a more interesting lineage is a couple of sub-genres that I’ve recently researched. One is Rural America, on which I wrote an essay for the Directory of World Cinema: American Independent Cinema. The subject of such films as Monster’s Ball (Marc Forster, 2001), Frozen River (Courtney Hunt, 2008) and Undertow (David Gordon Green, 2004) is poor, (mostly) white, broken families, plagued by inertia. A film that creates an obvious link between this sub-genre and The Hunger Games is Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, 2010), which stars Jennifer Lawrence as a teenager who has to take charge of her family (sound familiar?). While The Hunger Games has a bigger budget, wider distribution and far higher exposure than these “indie” offerings, the concerns of family responsibility and entrapment are just as apparent. The rural environment emphasises self-sufficiency, through Katniss’ bow-hunting, as well as community since all district inhabitants seem to know each other.
As a contrast with the rural districts, the Capitol that governs them is a city, filled with prosperous people who express their wealth through flamboyant attire. The state of “Panem”, where the story is set, declares a clear hierarchy between the urban and the rural, which demonstrates the second sub-genre that feeds into The Hunger Games, what I call “class-topia”: a dystopia that is explicity built upon class divisions. The legacy goes back to Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927), in which the proletariat workers slave for the benefit of the upper class, a trope seen again in Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982) that features a replicant slave race. More recent examples include Never Let Me Go (Mark Romanek, 2010) and The Island (Michael Bay, 2005), in which the underclass provide those above with organs, and Children of Men (Alfonso Cuaron, 2006), in which immigrants are cast as an underclass to be abused and removed. WALL-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008) features an artificial underclass while humans sit in permanent consumption, and In Time (Andrew Niccol, 2011) draws class boundaries between those who literally do and do not have time to live. In much the same way, The Hunger Games presents classes divided explicitly for the sake of power – those of the districts are governed and oppressed by the Capitol and forced into the maintenance of their oppression as aptly named “tributes”. Here is rural America, designated as an underclass in a dystopia that demands their death and suffering as entertainment: it’s Winter’s Bone meets In Time meets Battle Royale!
The “class-topia” sub-genre highlights the richness of class divisions for dramatization, and the ever-present opportunities of science fiction to draw attention to elements of contemporary culture. In the case of The Hunger Games, it is extremely positive that the film is disturbing, as has been noted by audiences and reviewers (the phrase “the hunger games is disturbing” yields over 4 million results on Google). It should disturb us, not only to see children fighting for the death, but for the underclass to be coerced into roles for the maintenance of an unjust system.