Blade Runner 2049 is gorgeous and deliberate

Let’s start with the straightforward recommendation part of the discussion here: if you like the original Blade Runner, you will most likely love Blade Runner 2049. The last few years have seen many years-separated sequels come out to huge reception, and the successful ones have taken a variety of routes. Star Wars and Creed, for example, essentially played as tweaked remakes of the originals with the elder characters acting as guides for the new recruits. Trainspotting 2 was directly about the distance in time from the original, a sort of meditation on nostalgia. Mad Max Fury Road took its low-budget roots to high-budget fever pitch, amplifying all its existing elements to eleven.

Blade Runner 2049 is very much made in the same spirit as the original, but the plot links are secondary at best and distracting at worst. They are both movies much more about tone and ponderousness than actual plot, although 2049 is an even more visual movie than the original (which gave us Roy Batty as a fantastic monologue-delivery device). They both stop short of outright explaining what they’re about, but provide a nice amount to chew on and sort out. But, perhaps most remarkably, 2049 manages to stake out new thematic territory. While the original was about what it means to be human, what it means to face a definite mortality, and ramen, 2049 views most of those questions as closed by the original and expands its philosophical space even further. Instead of bothering to question whether the replicants have human feelings, 2049 makes no secret of the fact that Ryan Gosling’s K is both a replicant and a being with desires and wants. Instead, 2049 focuses on, among other things, the importance of personal history, questions of duty and self-autonomy, and most strikingly what makes relationships real. A side plot involving K’s relationship with the holographic software Joi starts off feeling like a minor distraction from the central mystery, but slowly becomes the beating heart of the film, even if its only a couple degrees removed from Her.

That central mystery is where some complaints might arise, as the second half’s need to involve Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard actually ends up significantly distracting from K’s arc, and so many balls are being juggled at a point that the ending can’t help but feel a little anticlimactic. But, like the original, plot details matter very little, because the tone is sold so well. Hands down, Blade Runner 2049 is the most beautiful film of the year, and should absolutely lock down the overdue Oscar for cinematographer Roger Deakins. The mystery angle involves a fair amount of trekking across dystopian California, and Deakins and Villeneuve give each location a distinct feel. A deserted sand-covered Las Vegas suddenly takes on the feeling of an Egyptian ruin, only all the monolithic statues are wearing heels, and set the stage for an absolute wonder of a fight scene with intermittent appearances from an Elvis hologram. The protein farms on the outskirts evoke the manufactured landscapes of Burtynsky. A junkyard brawl recalls Children of Men, contrasting strewn metal and dirt with bright red blood. A late scene nearly directly calls back to Drive in its brutality, frigidness, and beach setting. Jared Leto’s villainous millionaire lectures his subjects in a shimmering golden pool, which may be the best Bond villain lair that never was. The sound design and score match perfectly the lackadaisical, exploratory mood, merging the synthy Vangelis score with the unmistakable Hans Zimmer bwahm, along with a more ambient, contemplative core. Given the thematic meat, audio trance, and visual splendor on display, its easy to forgive some wonky plotting.

A-

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Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Starring Ryan Gosling, Ana de Armas, Robin Wright, and Harrison Ford
Rotten Tomatoes (89%)

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Blade Runner 2049 is gorgeous and deliberate

Alien: Covenant is more self-mimicry than return to glory

The first horror setpiece of Alien: Covenant is a masterpiece of panic, a frantic and terrifying piece of body horror that builds a lack of communication, a lack of understanding, and a lack of precaution into a slowly unrolling disaster. It’s monster doesn’t look horribly convincing, but it doesn’t matter; the actors sell the hell out of the moment, and the camera movements put us right in the thick of it with them. It sets the film off to a fantastic start that it never comes close to reaching again. Afterwards, Alien: Covenant switches between a cheaper version of the extraterrestrial slasher (complete with a crew too dumb to live), a high-flying space trapeze act, and a half-baked pontification on birth and creation. It’s supremely unsatisfying on all counts. While Prometheus was flawed but promising, Alien: Covenant is proof positive that it’s time to put this franchise back on ice.

Notably, the aforementioned early setpiece does not involve the Alien series’ titular killing machine. The most surprising thing about Alien: Covenant might be that, after years of waiting and the tease of Prometheus, seeing the xenomorph again isn’t thrilling, scary, or even enjoyable. At least the Alien v Predator movies were moderately self-aware in their shallowness; Covenant aims to the standard of Alien and Aliens (particularly the first), but the central beast feels much lesser. Perhaps it’s because it spends most of its time in the open air rather than as a home invader; perhaps it’s because Covenant mimics iconic bits of its predecessors (rendering the intruder as a blinking dot on a map, multiple uses of construction equipment). Maybe it’s because the crew is particularly dumb this time, ignoring basic common sense by constantly splitting up in a crisis and investigating a mysterious planet during a high-force hurricane. Maybe it’s because the xenomorph is viewed in full light more often, making it look faker despite forty years of technological development.

Most likely, though, it’s because director Ridley Scott doesn’t seem to care about the xenomorph anymore, and every time it appear it feels like a distraction from is true intentions. Alien has always acted as a powerful rape metaphor, which in turn set up its hero well to become a feminist icon, and Covenant merges this not-entirely-unsuccessfully with Prometheus‘ undercooked exploration of creation. Covenant acts as a tale of impotence, as a dark-mirrored tale of man’s anger at their inability to create life, as told through Michael Fassbender’s dual performance. This provides Scott with fodder for plenty of eccentric scenes, which he made the most of in his heyday with Alien and Blade Runner but feel forced and awkward here. Alien took sexual anxieties and fears of personal invasion and spun horror out of it. Covenant tries to extend it a bit too far and in doing so exposes the limits of its structure.

D+

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Alien: Covenant (2017)
Directed by Ridley Scott
Starring Katherine Waterson, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, and Michael Fassbender
Rotten Tomatoes (77%)

Alien: Covenant is more self-mimicry than return to glory