Blade Runner 2049

Through both intention and accident, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, a fascinating oddity of Hollywood cinema, wrenched Hollywood spectacle away from classic Hollywood storytelling and produced a new cinematic vocabulary. That this vocabulary has been largely exhausted by Blade Runner‘s numerous heirs has not diminished Blade Runner‘s place as a singular cinematic experience, in part because Blade Runner–a film that was discovered in the messy and confused process of its own making–allows that cinematic vocabulary to have free reign in a way that its successors do not. Blade Runner has always been a beast that its own creators birthed but could not tame. Its nature is its own.

Director Ridley Scott shepherded the development of the sequel, but ultimately saw fit to hand it over to filmmaker Denis Villeneuve (best known for Prisoners, Sicario, and Arrival), who directs the film from a screenplay crafted (in part) by original Blade Runner scribe Hampton Fancher. Blade Runner 2049 builds a narrative web that expands upon the thematic impulses of the original film, finding new roads into the same dilemmas of memory, identity, and artificiality that ran through Blade Runner‘s veins. But, at its worst, Blade Runner 2049 also feels schematic to the point of becoming canned. Unlike the original, its pieces have all been designed to fit within a clear vision.

Blade Runner 2049‘s best sequences avoid tracing the lines of Scott’s original, embedding its existential anxieties in new narrative and visual conceits. Many of these moments involve a holographic girlfriend, Joi (Ana de Armas), an artificially intelligent app marketed to the lonely citizens of the film’s dystopian Los Angeles. Joi serves as a kind of nexus for all of Blade Runner 2049‘s meditations on desire and authenticity, an embodiment of the gray area that lies between programming and personhood. In one tender scene, Joi’s holographic avatar freezes in mid-embrace on a rainy rooftop, her intangible caresses interrupted by a phone call that arrives through her same application interface. The moment is sad, funny, and a little unsettling, all the anxieties and longings stirred by human technology incarnate in one beautiful image.

Alas, too often Blade Runner 2049 chases after its predecessor. In the 1982 film, its vistas of dystopian Los Angeles and its inhabitants comprised the actual essence of the film, but here, they often seem more like glossy window dressing, filling up time as the film shuffles us from one plot point to the next. Roger Deakins may be one of the greatest cinematographers working today, but his cinematography here feels unusually flat, as though his efforts were overwhelmed by Blade Runner 2049‘s effects work and the extensive pre-visualization demanded by it.

Given that Blade Runner follows a protagonist whose sense of self unravels as he finds himself enmeshed in the mysteries of the past, it seems unfortunate that Blade Runner 2049 never quite breaks away from its narrative engine to give voice to the emotional tempest at its center. To its credit, its mystery plot, which involves a replicant named “K” (Ryan Gosling, who was born to play an artificial human) avoids many of the more obvious pitfalls that often befalls Hollywood storytelling, but the third act, in which the drive for action beats and competing character agendas become hopelessly entangled, ends up distracting from and diminishing Blade Runner 2049‘s fundamental concerns.

The original Blade Runner had no true antagonist. Blade Runner‘s Roy Batty, a desperate replicant-on-the-run, was a second protagonist whose narrative ran on a parallel track with Deckard’s story until the two tracks converged in its climax. Blade Runner 2049 does not replicate this structure, instead offering up something of a traditional antagonist, a supervillain character named Niander Wallace (Jared Leto). Leto cannot make Wallace work, and, admittedly, I am hard-pressed to think of any actors who genuinely could. Wallace is the sort of character who speaks in riddlespeak pronouncements laced with Biblical language, who arbitrarily kills just to let the audience know that he is, in fact, a Bad Guy. He has Big Plans too, plans that require a lot of sinister action on part of his henchwoman, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks, who, to her credit, attacks her part with uttermost conviction). The more prominent Wallace becomes to the story, the more Blade Runner 2049 moves away from the longings that charge its best moments.

Still, even at its worst, this Blade Runner 2049 does no real disrespect to its predecessor, and the new territory it explores is sufficient to justify its existence. At least some of that new territory belongs to Harrison Ford, who reprises his role as Rick Deckard. Even as the film threatens to reduce his character to a mere MacGuffin, Ford delivers his strongest performance in many years, full of palpable regret and resignation. His bittersweet, tearful reaction to an artifact of the past serves as a strong reminder that the greatest spectacle that cinema can ever offer us is the spectacle of a human face.

Alien: Covenant

Since James Cameron’s Aliens, none of the Alien films have known quite what to do with the iconic beast that serves as the series’ distinguishing feature. As early as David Fincher’s Alien 3, the creature’s antics became perfunctory, the beast having been thoroughly demystified by overfamiliarity. Indeed, the lifecycle of the creature has become so rote that later films have felt the need to speed it up in order to assuage the audience’s impatience with it; the creature’s gestation and growth now seems to unfold within a matter of minutes.

Little wonder that the many of the Alien sequels have tried to find ways to divert focus away from the creature, or at least find new ways to contextualize it. Covenant‘s predecessor, Prometheus never featured the alien at all, only gesturing at it through the appearance of its distant relatives. Prometheus created a new monster to serve as its focal point: an android by way of Frankenstein’s monster.

This android, Michael Fassbender’s David, also stands at the center of Covenant, and has now evolved into a mad artist-cum-scientist out to use humanity as raw material for his sinister creative projects. David proves to be much more frightening than the CGI beasts that also populate the film (outside of one or two moments, Covenant‘s beasties–some familiar, some vaguely new–are treated with all the ho-hum obligation that characterized the use of velociraptors in Jurassic Park sequels). David also has a much more complex emotional life than any of Covenant‘s vacuous humans (as with Prometheus, the human beings are sketched using dotted lines). The film never works better than when we get glimpses of the peculiar insanity that motivates David’s attempts to fill the void of his own purposelessness with artistic creation. Covenant keenly accentuates through his interactions with a new android, Walter (also portrayed by Fassbender), who is both David’s mirror image and his foil.

Covenant displays many other admirable touches, from a natural Böcklin painting recreation to smart allusions to Wagnerian opera. Covenant offers striking vistas that few recent blockbusters can match, including a haunting necropolis (the Pompeii-like ruins of an alien civilization) wherein much of the story’s action unfolds. These elements add grandeur to what is essentially a riff on The Island of Doctor Moreau, following after Prometheus‘ variation on At the Mountains of Madness.

Alas, much of Alien: Covenant finds Ridley Scott straining to be James Cameron. Scott has never been particularly suited for the blockbuster sequences that Cameron or Spielberg so excel at crafting. Scott lacks the meticulous sense for geography, of setup and payoff, required for thrilling action spectacle. The larger setpieces in Covenant (which often rehash iconic beats from the prior alien features) only have life when Scott locates a striking image. The connective tissue is so perfunctory, so listless, that it renders the sequence inert.

Scott has been open about his intention to make more films in this series, and Covenant follows contemporary blockbuster convention in teasing yet another installment as it concludes. The lingering questions raised by Covenant aren’t enough to combat the feeling that the series has been suffocated by the staleness of its own conventions.