REVIEW: Blade Runner 2049

Retro Review by George McGhee

A Blade Runner sequel?! That’s a terrible idea!

Like many, I was skeptical of a sequel to Blade Runner (1982). It’s a brilliant piece of intelligent sci-fi that didn’t require further storytelling. With original director Sir Ridley Scott involved, surely that a reason to be hopeful?… If you have read my thoughts on Prometheus and Alien Covenant, you will realise that they were actually reasons to be fearful!

However once Denis Villeneuve was announced in the director’s chair, with Scott making the sensible move to producer, I was intrigued. I had enjoyed his stylish, but little-seen thriller, Enemy (2013) and thought Sicario (2015) was a solid yet slightly over-rated effort. It was only stumbling across a very early press screening of Arrival (2016), that I was truly excited at the prospect of a Blade Runner sequel. Arrival was one of my favourite films of last year, up there with it’s smart sci-fi siblings, Gattaca (1998), Primer (2004), Moon (2009) and indeed Blade Runner.

I realise the original film is not everyone’s cup of tea – it took me several watches to fully appreciate it.  I had put it off for years due to it’s slow pace, not to mention it always seemed to be shown on TV in the middle of the night. Unsurprisingly, Blade Runner 2049 is not a crowd pleaser either, it’s a slow meditative film, with long scenes with minimal dialogue and lots of characters. Plot aside there’s so much to take in, fantastic set design, costumes, cityscapes and a pounding score (especially loud in Imax) which make it a captivating piece of cinema. It’s an experience that deserves to be seen on the biggest screen available.

The themes established in the first film –  memory, humanity and our place in the world are all present here. In addition, the sequel deals with more current issues of identity, technology, possessions and even the tension between authority and the masses. The film plays with conventions; Ryan Goslings’ character K, is a brooding loner, much like Deckard (Harrison Ford), yet for different reasons. Deckard’s character is impressively developed and despite a late entrance to the film, Ford achieves a lot with limited screen time. The villains of the piece, Leto’s megalomaniac, Wallace and his cold-hearted henchwoman, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) are also used sparingly, which stops them from becoming caricatures.

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The original look and feel of the world Blade Runner is so iconic, yet Villeneuve and DOP Roger Deakins deliver a sequel that feels practically seamless – belying the 35 year gap between films. The special effects team have deliberately kept as much effects practical as possible, sometimes even using miniatures for the cityscapes like the 1982 original. In comparison, one thing that bugged me about Prometheus is that the tech on display felt light years ahead of Alien, despite being a prequel set decades earlier. Much like the more recent Star Wars films, the filmmakers have made the sensible decision to keep as much in-camera as possible, as it’s more immersive than CGI backdrops.

Blade Runner 2049 gives everything a fan could hope for. It’s a loving homage that doesn’t overstep the mark. It builds on themes, introduces new concepts, characters and can stand on it’s own (take note Superman Returns). There’s a lot of familiarity, the neon cityscapes, the endless rain and a soundtrack that veers on being a remix album of Vangelis’ sublime score. A lot has changed since the original 2019 setting, which creates an interesting dynamic between key characters and Villeneuve takes them to new places. A bigger budget and larger plot means escaping the confines of LA to explore almost alien landscapes – from the scrap yards of San Diego or the abandoned ruins of Las Vegas.

Villeneuve has defied expectations and delivered a belated sequel that stands proudly against the original. His next project is likely to be a new adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune, a challenge where others have failed in the past. With Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival under his belt, I think it’s safe to say it’s in safe hands. Intriguingly, Villeneuve is also on the director wish list for the next Bond film, which I would love to see. On balance, his style may not make commercial sense, considering how crowd-pleasing that franchise needs to be. Whatever project he approaches next, I’ll be there, waiting in line!

REVIEW: Air Force One (1997)

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RetroRamble’s George McGhee gives a more in depth look at Air Force One in terms of how it stacks up today.

No time to read the article?  Listen or Download the podcast episode here!

Following the success of Die Hard in 1988, Hollywood tried to recreate that high concept/ elevator pitch “It’s Die Hard in a …” which was pitched one man against the odds (usually of the international terrorist variety) in a confined environment.

Some were successful at copying the template but for every Under Siege there’s a Sudden Death.

Air Force One was one of the last from this phase, two years after Die Hard with a Vengeance, ironically ditching the confined one man army template it had created and one year after fellow air-bound thriller Executive Decision.

I realise there was a bit of resurgence recently with the competing Die Hard…In The White House with White House Down and Olympus Has Fallen – I haven’t seen either, so can’t comment.

So why pick Air Force One? Why does it work?

Well it’s  a combination of great casting, solid direction and some brassy patriotism. Sure, there’s been plenty of films about the POTUS, (real and fictional) but how many of them kill a man with their bare hands and are Harrison Ford?!

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The script has some very cheesy and simplified moments but Wolfgang Peterson is a competent director and he has form delivering tension in a confined space – check out the excellent U-Boat thriller, Das Boot for proof. The snappy script allows Peterson to open with a gripping marine mission, show and tell us what’s special about Air Force One, (the plane is capable of withstanding an action film), it’s passengers and the kind of President James Marshall is.  He’s bloody everything!  He knows everyone’s name, he’s a family man, a loving husband,he drinks beer and loves football. God bless America!

All this establishes the personal stakes at hand, which is the underlying concept – would a world leader sacrifice their political stance if their family and friends were under threat? An intriguing question, especially when the world leader in question can handle machine gun and fly a plane. This military background is neatly provided by a military general on hand in the control room, I like to call him, General Exposition.

Another reason this film holds up is it’s casting – what a support cast! Dean Stockwell (channeling Dick Dastardly) William H Macy at the start of his career and the always dependable Glenn Close the Vice President.

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Trivia: Glenn Close provided her own wig for the movie.

Close does the best she can, staring intensely at a conference phone for the duration of her screentime. It’s good to see a strong female role that isn’t cannon fodder or a damsel in distress – though she does get a bit stressed by the end of it.

Who’s getting Glenn sweaty? Blighty’s very own Gary Oldman, giving us more of  the unhinged menace he delivered in Leon, whilst chewing on a thick Russian accent.

Unfortunately the film slightly loses it’s way once Oldman is thrown off Ford’s plane and the plane changes it’s flightpath to borrow liberally from Top Gun and then Airport 77 before literally crashing into the sea, in a flurry of Playstation 2 level pixels.

Yes, it’s cheesy, unbelievable and gung-ho but Ford still sells in the emotional punch, you really believe this man would sacrifice his beliefs for his family. “I’ll do it, just don’t hurt my family!” Anyone else delivering that line would probably be laughable – except for Kevin Costner, who almost got the role before Ford.

Could this movie be made today? After September 11th? Not likely. With Donald Trump about to move into the Oval Office, it’s highly unlikely he’d be facing Russian terrorists – more likely some angry middle-class Americans…

MVP: Despite the strong cast, this is Ford’s movie.

ALTERNATE TITLE: Get Off My Plane!

FUN FACT: Donald Trump used the theme for his presidential campaign trail….and was politely told to stop using it by Jerry Goldsmith’s Estate.

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What’s your favourite Die Hard in a…. film?

Let us know in the comments!

George McGhee, Retro Ramble 2017

TRAILERS: Air Force One (1997)

Released in the great year that was 1997 and reviewed in our very first Retro Ramble Podcast (Episode 0) check out the theatrical trailer for Air Force One below.

If you’ve not seen it in a while its definitely worth a rewatch.

Obviously, if you’ve never seen it and like Harrison Ford or any type of Action Thriller we highly recommend you don’t waste another minute and watch it here.