Recent Movie Roundup 27
The blockbuster movies of 2017 are winding down--there's really only The Last Jedi left to go--and then it'll be time for Israeli movie theaters to furiously start scheduling the year's Oscar movies before the ceremony (still bereft of release dates: The Shape of Water, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Lady Bird, and probably several others I'm forgetting). Here are my thoughts on a few of the stragglers (though really, only one of them has proven to be a bona fide blockbuster) in what has proved to be a strong year for solid popcorn entertainment, even if there have been no genuine exceptional examples of the genre (except possibly Get Out, which is really more of a horror movie).
- Blade Runner 2049 - I have trouble deciding how I feel about Denis Villeneuve's 35-years-later follow-up to Ridley Scott's cult classic. On the one hand, this is a beautiful, evocative work of science fiction of the kind one doesn't get to see in the movie theater very often. On the other hand, it's self-indulgent, overlong, and most importantly, adds almost nothing to the original movie. You see this most distinctly in the film's decision to reveal, in its opening minutes, that this iteration's blade runner, the cop tasked with "retiring" runaway replicants, is a replicant himself. There's an obvious argument for choosing to front-load this shift to the story, thus forestalling much of the debate that has come to consume the original movie (which is especially valuable since "is Deckard a replicant" is literally the most boring, pointless question you can ask about the original Blade Runner; no matter what answer you come up with, it tells you nothing about the character, his world, or his story). But it also means that the already-not-particularly-deeply-buried subtext of the original movie--that this a world in which the distinctions between human and inhuman are imposed by the demands of capitalism, and have nothing to do with how human replicants actually are--is right there on the surface. The same is true of the film's backbone of story, in which Officer K (Ryan Gosling) must track down a child born to a replicant, and brutally suppress the knowledge that such a thing is even possible. It's a profound reduction of the original Blade Runner's humanism--which extended to recognizing the personhood of flawed, murderous beings like Roy Batty or Pris--to suggest, as Blade Runner 2049 does, that replicants can only "prove" their humanity if they have fertility (which, in typical Hollywood fashion, is treated as interchangeable with female fertility).
Or maybe the problem lies with the original concept. Villeneuve has shown himself to be an exceptional director, including of SF stories, and he pulls out all the stops with 2049, all-but gorging the viewer on cyberpunk cityscapes, dust-covered ruins, junk deserts populated by dehumanized scavengers, and the corporate-architecture-on-acid interiors of the offices of Wallace corporation (the inheritors of the original movie's now-defunct Tyrell). But it doesn't take very long in this rather overlong movie to realize that all this splendor is in service of very little in the way of ideas. As Aaron Bady wrote last year about another work, all robot stories are ultimately about slavery, and there's really not that much you can say about that concept when your starting position is "are slaves human?" Blade Runner 2049 keeps teetering on the verge of interesting SFnal ideas, such as the fact that K spends much of the movie trying to convince himself that he is the child he's been looking for. Or his holographic live-in girlfriend, Joi (Ana de Armas), an AI playing house with a robot, each trying to convince the other that they are real people even as they consume each other like the products that they are. Or the idea that the world's economy now includes replicants like K or the prostitute Mariette (Mackenzie Davis), who live as pseudo-humans, consuming resources such as food and living space even as they're viewed as subhuman. But the film is too caught up in homages to the original movie (including a brief and not very satisfying appearance by Harrison Ford) to ever give these ideas the space they deserve. For all its visual expansiveness, its world feels narrow and predictable. It never manages to be more than a retread of what came before it, a variation on a theme.
As we saw last year with Westworld, trying to tell a slave story with robots almost inevitably skews the racial and gender politics of your story to an extent that can render it worse than useless. Once again, these are issues that 2049 could have done interesting things with. The fact that almost all the replicants we meet are white, or that non-white humans seem to have been relegated to the outskirts of even the degraded, dystopian society at the film's center, could have been a commentary on how racial prejudice plays out in a society in which it is possible to manufacture an underclass. Instead, it's treated as so unremarkable as to not even require an explanation. Similarly, the increasingly oppressive images of female commodification and objectification that keep cropping up in the movie--the giant, holographic naked women that K walks past in the city, the statues of equally naked women he encounters in the ruins of Las Vegas, the naked female replicant that Niander Wallace (Jared Leto in a distracting, tedious performance) fondles and then murders--end up feeling cynical and self-satisfied. Yes, the film is calling attention to the misogyny of its world (and a premise where sexbots, again almost always female, are de rigueur), but once again it has nothing to say about the issue once it's raised it, and its actual female characters are mostly devoid of personality. Joi, for example, can only "prove" that she is a person by expressing devotion to K that goes beyond her programming and eventually gets her killed, while Mariette proves hers by being catty to Joi, reminding her that she isn't real. It's enough to make you root for the film's villain, Wallace's assistant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), a replicant who seems to realize just how disturbed and monstrous her boss truly is, but who nevertheless kills remorselessly for him because it's her only way to express her anger at her enslavement. It's only in Luv that 2049 achieves anything close to the complexity of the original Blade Runner, and it's fairly typical of this latter-day repetition's shallowness that it doesn't seem to realize this.
- Thor: Ragnarok - Marvel has spent several months pumping up Taika Waititi's attempt to revitalize its least successful (critically and artistically, if not financially) sub-franchise, bombarding us with lush posters and trailers that parade its psychedelic, 80s-arcade-inspired visual style and irreverent sense of humor. It's perhaps inevitable, then, that the actual film, enjoyable and fun to look at as it is, doesn't quite live up to the hype. Waititi and the film's writers make several very smart choices when they come to craft the third solo outing for their title character. They play up the fact that he's a bit of a dimwitted jerk, and they constantly put him in situations in which these qualities get him into trouble, as he bites off more than he can chew and incorrectly assumes that everyone around him will be impressed by his pedigree and fighting prowess. Ragnarok quickly wraps up the dangling threads of plot left by The Dark World, and then sends Chris Hemsworth's Thor and Tom Hiddleston's Loki on a quest to find their missing father, which quickly becomes more serious when they encounter Hela (Cate Blanchett, chewing the scenery with tremendous and exhilarating gusto), their hidden older sister, who wants to claim the throne of Asgard and use its armies to conquer the multiverse. This, through yet more convolutions of plot, leads to the brothers being dumped on a junkyard planet, and to Thor being made to fight in gladiatorial combat against the reigning champion, who turns out to be Mark Ruffalo's The Hulk.
It's all a lot of fun, but also a bit much, especially when you consider that there's a parallel storyline about Hela's takeover of Asgard, and a redemption story for lost Asgardian Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson, fantastic despite the really unfortunate choice to attempt an accent) who has been drinking away her traumatic memories while procuring fighters for the fey, casually psychopathic Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), the majordomo of the games arena. These are all great performances who make the film feel vital and exuberant, not to mention extremely funny (though it must be said that every genuinely funny joke, there's at least one moment that's more like "isn't it funny that we chose to make a joke, here, where another movie might be serious?"). Taken together, however, they're a bit of an assault, and the film doesn't really give any of them enough time to shine. Despite what the film's trailers promise, Ragnarok isn't really a buddy comedy--the Hulk is only prominent for a few, albeit extremely funny, scenes in the middle of the movie--but instead yet another journey of self-discovery for Thor, as he remembers that beneath his bluster, he genuinely cares about his people and the fate of the world. And while the choice to stress (and puncture) Thor's arrogance, even as it reaffirms his sense of responsibility and his courage, means that Ragnarok is a much more satisfying iteration of this story than either Thor or The Dark World, it is still, ultimately, the same story we've seen before and probably will again, albeit in a much shinier and more humorous guise. That might be enough for MCU fans who are more attached to the character than I am, but for those hoping that Ragnarok will seriously break the mold, it might be wise to manage expectations.
- Justice League - There's a part of me that thinks that in another year, Justice League might have been received more positively. I think we've gotten all we're going to get out of the (richly deserved, but in hindsight a little overwrought) collective hate-on of the DC movies occasioned by Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad. And with Wonder Woman's success and the behind the scenes upheaval at Justice League indicating that WB have definitely gotten the memo, a little indulgence might have been in order. The problem is, Justice League comes to us at the tail end of what has, completely unexpectedly, been a truly excellent year for superhero movies. Think about it: until the third week of November, the worst superhero movie of 2017 was Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, which wasn't bad so much as redundant and a little mean-spirited. And aside from that, we've enjoyed a slew of extremely well-made crowdpleasers such as Wonder Woman, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Thor: Ragnarok, as well as some more adventurous fare like Logan and Colossal. That Justice League, in comparison, is merely rather dull, with a tepid villain and character work carried almost exclusively by its actors, might have been enough in a weaker year, but it won't fly in 2017.
Justice League wastes little time in assuring us that it's changed and eager to do better. After an opening scene that feels almost like a coda to Batman v Superman, and especially its Nietzsche-for-dummies take on Superman as a living god whose existence gave humanity a sense of purpose, the film jettisons all that thematic weight in favor of pure comic book storytelling--an alien villain who wants to destroy the world. The problem is that as tepid and juvenile as Zack Snyder's ideas were in Batman v Superman and Man of Steel, they were at least ideas. When Justice League abandons them, it's left with nothing but warmed-over Avengers. And unlike that movie, it lacks humanizing points of interest to make us care about its shopworn, underwritten plot. The villain, Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds in motion capture as some sort of horned demon), has no personality, and his motivations are as generic as they come. His plan--to collect a set of McGuffins with which he can construct a mega-McGuffin--is so boring that the film itself can't be bothered to take an interest in it, quickly racing through the interim acquisitions so that it can get to the main event. But this, too, is fairly perfunctory, a CGI extravaganza with little flair or excitement. Joss Whedon, parachuted in to freshen up the film's script (and take over directing duties from Snyder after a family tragedy, which can't have improved the film's action scenes) tries to recreate the magic he managed with Avengers with some very obvious Whedonisms. But these almost invariably fall flat, and in a few cases, are actively skeevy.
Justice League thus ends up resting on the shoulders of its characters, which is to say its actors. This is not the worst thing. Gal Gadot and Ben Affleck continue to do good work as the grown-ups in the room, weary soldiers who recognize the enormity of the task before them but also the necessity of seeing it through. Jason Momoa is given almost nothing to work with as renegade Atlantean Arthur Curry, aka Aquaman. One senses that his backstory is being held back for his own movie, but in Justice League this means that Arthur comes off as blustering and thoughtless. Happily, Momoa has so much charisma that he manages to make even this underwritten type leap off the screen, but Aquaman's handling is typical of how Justice League approaches its characters, reducing them to types instead of making a case for them as complicated heroes in their own right. Ezra Miller's Barry Allen, for example, is laden with the bulk of the film's comedic moments. He's up to the task, but along the way the film loses sight of Barry as a person, and his only dramatic scenes are retreads of material only recently (and more effectively) covered bin The Flash. The most interesting character is Victor Stone, aka Cyborg (Ray Fisher), but even that comes down to the actor's choices, amping up Victor's ironic detachment as he's slowly taken over by an alien machine. (Henry Cavill's Superman, who returns halfway through the story, is probably Justice League's biggest misstep. There's a palpable attempt to move away from the brooding, joyless Superman of the Snyder movies, but Cavill can't seem to unbend sufficiently to actually make Superman heroic, or even likable. He ends up coming off as a condescending jerk.)
Buried deep in the core of its underwritten character interactions is Justice League's sole claim to originality, the barest hint that it has an idea of how to distinguish the DC movies from the MCU without wallowing in unearned angst. As in Wonder Woman, this comes down to the difficulty of continuing to fight for an inherently broken world, and there are some solid and refreshingly unsensationalistic exchanges between Batman and Wonder Woman over the figures they could both cut in a world without Superman. Unfortunately, Justice League is completely the wrong movie for these conversations to happen in. Unlike Avengers, it can't figure out how to tie together its characters' personal problems and the threat to the world. It becomes, instead, a story of how its heroes kicked a nondescript villain's ass and along the way got their groove back, but this is far too thin a frame on which to hang not just this overlong, CGI-heavy movie, but an entire cinematic universe.