Sunday, October 8, 2017

Blade Runner 2049 - Review

I'm basing this review of Blade Runner 2049 on my opinions after seeing the film for the first time yesterday and having been a massive fan of the film since about 1989. As I've grown older (and hopefully a little wiser), I've been able to see the original Blade Runner for what it is: a flawed but remarkable work of art.

Before I dive straight into the new film, let me say a couple of things about the first venture into the world of Replicants, the original Blade Runner. The pace was slow, methodical and bordering on uncomfortable. The acting in many places is stiff (perhaps intentionally) and the story comes with few mysteries or twists. It also portrays women (and men) in an unflattering light, which while perhaps understandable considering when it was filmed, isn't excusable nor does it help the film's cultural longevity.

That said, Blade Runner broke a lot of ground thematically and few can argue that it wasn't a beautiful, fully realized and painstakingly crafted world. And I think that's what drew me to Blade Runner 2049 more than anything: the storytelling possibilities in that world are vast.

I'd also like to mention that Denis Villeneuve is one of my favorite newer directors out there, having excellently helmed Siccario, Enemy and Arrival previously. He obviously gets hard sci-fi, has a great grasp on character (far better than Ridley Scott ever has), and has an incredible visual eye. He's on my list of directors that will just automatically get my money.

So, 2049. I went in with a few hesitations. We live in an era of big studios grasping at a chance for nostalgia and rebooted, easy money, franchises. This could easily have been Total Recall or Robocop. I'm not a huge fan of Ryan Gosling. I can't quite tell you why. His acting is...fine. I enjoyed Lars and the Real Girl. But other than that, he doesn't leave much of an impression on me, for better or worse. Harrison Ford was a childhood idol, as he was for most kids of my generation. But in my 40s, I find him mostly tiresome. I wish I could unsee the last Indiana Jones film and he was the least important aspect of Force Awakens for me.

Within seconds of the film starting, all of my hesitations vanished. From the opening shot, Villeneuve demands your attention. Every shot in the ridiculously long film is a work of art, meticulously crafted, framed and contextualized. There's meaning in every word spoken, in every nick knack on every kitchen shelf. Right from the start, my brain said, "He gets Blade Runner."

The themes from the original Blade Runner are here right out of the gate. What does it mean to be human? Who gets to decide that? What value does that designation bestow? What responsibilities? Unlike Rick Deckard in the first film, Ryan Gosling's K has a real journey of self-discovery and takes the themes from the original film and expertly re-crafts them into even deeper questions.




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SPOILERS

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My intention here isn't to recap the plot, but I have to mention a few things that would be considered spoilers. First, by making K a replicant and letting us know right from the start that he is one, Villenueve does two brilliant things. First, it tells the audience that this film isn't going to be about whether or not K is a replicant (every BR fan's favorite bar room conversation). The old is out, Villenueve tells us. This is a new story.

The second thing it does is it makes us lean in to K. As human beings we're hard wired to look for those emotional connections, that desire to empathize. When Robin Wright's human lieutentant character treats him as an inferior species, we recoil slightly at the ugliness. Then we remember that he isn't human, forcing our brain to reflect on why we chose the side of the replicant versus the side of the human.

Villenueve gives us these same choices throughout the film: right vs wrong, ethical vs unethical, courage vs duty. Then he has all of his characters vacillate in ways that so deeply muddle the debate that by the end of the film there is no real discernible difference between humans and replicants.

I'd like to also point out that while a number of characters are 'proven' to be replicants, not a single person in the film is proven to be human. None of them. Here, I feel was Villenueve's big statement about the meaning of humanity as well as to whether or not Deckard was a human or a replicant. His answer? It doesn't matter. The question isn't even relevant.

We see this in K's treatment of his holographic girlfriend, Joi. At first we see her as we would all see such a character - an emulation of a human being made by a complex toy mounted in his apartment ceiling. But K longs to improve his connection, to reach out emotionally to something, to someone. His emulator evolves her, giving her mobility and in just two short hours, we go from thinking of Joi as a complex computer to acutely feeling K's pain when her life ends.

And Villeneuve knows this. He knows what our reaction will be when Joi is crushed under Luv's boot. Just as he knows how we'll feel when K see's Joi's giant holographic advertisement and the hologram refers to this unknown pedestrian as 'Joe', his Joi's personal name for him.

But all this was dressing on Villeneuve's greatest trick. The subversion of the 'the one' trope. Used to death in cinema and even moreso in science fiction, the one is the dullard's view of the world. That everything has to have greater meaning, that we're somehow chosen or destined for greatness. The director takes care to slowly craft a world around K that hints at something larger, something grander. Is K half-human? Is he the miracle child? Is he the son of Deckard, our Blade Runner god?

Nope. He's no one. Just another assembly line robot put to work killing other robots. The one? Inconsequential character we meet as part of K's investigation. Does her reunion with her father start the replicant uprising and free the replicants from slavery? Maybe. But Villenueve says it's not important. It's only mildly of note that it's someone who is (possibly) half replicant is responsible for creating the dreams of so many other replicants.

He doesn't address this uprising or rebellion because it's not important. The revolution may or may not happen. Instead, he says, what matters are the choices that we make. Do we choose love, violence, hate, fear, destruction, hope? K wasn't 'the one' and that is incredibly vital to this story. Because Villenueve believes that we all make the truly vital decisions in the here and now. K didn't crumple under the knowledge that he wasn't the Christ. Instead, he chose selflessness and bravery.

There was never a scene where Niander Wallace is killed or defeated because he isn't the villain. Niander Wallace is just nature, he's just inevitability and change masquerading as a man. Even if someone were to kill him, life, in some form, would march on.

The real villain, who is so aptly named, is Luv. She's a mockery of Rachel (in both appearance and demeanor) and she sheds tears as she murders without hesitation. She's expediency. She's the 'greater good'. She's the righteous and the unquestioning. She's all of humanities failings and sins, codified into our own creation. But K eventually defeats her. Through sheer determination, sheer will, he drowns her.

Therein lies the beautiful message of this film. Every one of us wins when we take those small steps toward empathy, toward love. Sometimes we don't get rewarded for that. K certainly didn't. But the world notices. Deckard noticed. The final shot of the film confirms it.

And what better message can a film give us, especially in these dark times, than: Don't worry about what we call ourselves or each other. Just be kind.


POST NOTE: I've only seen this film once and it certainly demands repeat viewings. With that in mind, I may change or enhance my opinion on some aspects with repeat viewings. That said, this may be the best 'sequel' ever (ranking possibly above The Empire Strikes Back, Godfather II and Aliens),

I also have one small potential gripe: The way women are portrayed in this film is very different from the way they are portrayed in the first film. Here, women are agents of creation and destruction, they are leaders and followers, killers and caretakers. Which is great. Women inhabit every part of this world. But they're also shown naked frequently and are often framed as objects of desire. That in itself isn't necessarily a problem. But there is a thin line between a director presenting a world in which women are still objectified and the director admonishing that view. I think I need to see the film again before I decide, but I'd love to hear from female fans of how each film portrayed women.


Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Alien Covenant

Spoiler filled review of Alien Covenant!


I knew about twenty minutes in to watching the latest film in the Alien franchise, that I would have to write about it. I've seen every film in the series, have an Alien tattooed on my back, and wrote a massive review of Prometheus (I was an outlier in that I enjoyed much of it). 

Walking out of the theater, I wasn't just disappointed, I was actually angry. Angry at Ridley Scott. I decided to wait a few days before I put down my thoughts on digital paper. I wanted them to stew a bit and crystallize. Then, something interesting happened. I watched the first episode of the third season of Twin Peaks.

Much like Scott, director David Lynch has a storied and respected filmography. They even have some funny connections (read up on Jodorosky's Dune and Scott's Alien). I'll jump back to my thoughts on Lynch and Twin Peaks at the end of my review. For now, just store it as a little nugget in the back of your brain.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Terminal Thoughts



This is a write up on my thoughts about Terminal Directive, the ambitious new expansion to Android: Netrunner from Fantasy Flight Games. After the large red spoiler tag, there will be spoilers. Prior to that tag, I ruin it for you.

Before I dive in to the nitty gritty though, some background. I've been playing ANR since 2014. I've been running a league for almost as long in West Seattle. I'm what you could call a fanboy. I own two sets of all the cards (three of the core, of course), all the books, Android related board games and even the World of Androids art book - the pre-order version with the art prints and the playmat. So yeah, I love me some Netrunner.

Like many folks who love the game, I've been having a hard time lately. Some of the card pool has been dangerously wonky bordering on un-fun. Cards like Sifr, Faust, Sensie Actors Union and a few others have made the game a bit of a downer. I'm not going to get into that further in this review. I just wanted to point out the state of things as we all waited for Terminal Directive.

Okay, here we go...

Let's start with the superficial good stuff. The regular, tournament legal cards in TD are a lot of fun and really inject some life back into the metagame. Combined with the recent change to the Most Wanted List (the list of cards that are restricted in tournament play), and suddenly the game feels fresh again. Weyland especially feels like it got some love this time around. The faction had been in dire need of a leg up dating all the way back to the core set.

Besides the new card pool, the rest of the (ridiculously over-sized) box was supposed to be all about the (Pandemic) Legacy-style narrative campaign play that would tell a story. This is where we're going to get into the meat of my review.

My friend Kyle and I decided to play together. We'd each purchased Terminal Directive so for the campaign portion we just decided to use my card set.

  • Problem 1: We both bought TD because we want to own the tournament legal cards. Once we decided to play together, we had an entire extra set of campaign cards not being used. Awkward.
I chose Weyland and he chose Steve Cambridge and we agreed on a first time and place. Each campaign comes with a deck of stickers and cards broken down into numbered sets which are to be opened and activated upon certain triggers. 

Netrunner can be described as complex or fiddly depending on your perspective. Terminal Directive adds a whole extra layer of triggers, rules and abilities. That's not really a plus or a minus, but it might be for some folks. I can't really recommend this as a product for new players. They are going to miss half of their triggers which might actually ruin the narrative play.
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SPOILERS
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Each player has a PAD, a card board display where you keep track of various stickers and modifiers for the game. The story involves a murder mystery where it seems a bioroid has committed a murder, despite its theoretical protective programming. The runner wants to aid the NAPD in capturing the murderer while Weyland wants to snag the bioroid for use in its Hunter Seeker program.

We both had the two same basic triggers to start with - Win 2 games to open set X or lose 4 games to open set Y.  Additionally, upon setup, I was given three new agendas that I had to insert in my deck, replacing three cards of my choice (keeping the deck legal for regular Netrunner rules.). This was my first taste of new campaign cards. 

Our first day, we played three games. Kyle won the first one pretty easily. The second game I won with a Sea Source/Scorch combo, but I barely pulled it off. The third game, Kyle won again, allowing him to open his second set of objectives.
  • Problem 2: While I theoretically was allowed to change my deck between each game, I hadn't brought extra cards with me as I wasn't aware that it would be needed. Very few folks play a single game of Netrunner at a time and very few folks bring binders of cards with them. Some warning as to this situation might have been helpful. For example, "Be sure to have cards that you might want to swap into your decks between rounds."
Kyle and I decided to call it a day after that. I went home a little deflated. My one win didn't get me anything which means that my PAD looked exactly the same as it had after I'd set it up. Three games in and I hadn't touched my stack of stickers or cards outside of three new agendas I'd gotten at the start.

After changing up my deck, we agreed on a second day to meet a few days later and I went in re-invigorated and ready to play. One of the reasons that I picked Kyle to play against is that we are pretty evenly matched so I figured it was my turn to steam roll him for a bit.

Our third game was close for a little bit. One of the things I struggled with was agenda flooding (remember, no Jackson Howard as we were playing with the suggested rules of the cards in the TD box, plus one core set). There were very few times when I didn't have two agendas in HQ. Kyle was always ahead of me in cash which meant SEA Source was a dead card. He was rich enough to continually break my ice, which meant that installing and advancing was a sure fire way to lose an agenda.

In the end, Kyle won the fourth game and then the fifth.

But after losing four games, I was finally able to break open a new set! I was really excited because during the course of his games Kyle's PAD had literally FILLED with stickers and triggers. He had all kinds of conditions, cautions and fun things to do during his turn. Mine hadn't changed since we'd started playing.

Of course, losing four games was a sign that I was doing poorly in the narrative. The condition on my PAD triggered and I opened a NEW set of cards! My new cards were three new agendas. They were 2/0's and the story card that came along with Corporate Oversight (the new agenda) explained that I'd been doing so badly that Weyland had to step in and take matters into their hands.

But the cards didn't really help me. In fact, despite the new agenda's ability to rez a piece of ice for free when the agenda was scored, I found my effective card pool even thinner. But I wanted to give it a try and we played on. 

We played a sixth game, which I lost, and then a seventh which we didn't finish because Kyle completed his last objective and won the campaign. 

The end.

  • Problem 3: I was punished so severely for losing game after game that there was no story element for me and no chance to re-balance things. This feels like poor playtesting on FFG's part.
  • Problem 4: I was now looking at a stack of cards and stickers that I wasn't going to be using and were just ...trash. This was a huge waste of card board in so many ways. 
  • Problem 5: For me, the entire story of TD went like this: "There's a murder and you need to solve it. You didn't. The end." There were no beats in between. That's not a story, it's just a result.
  • Problem 6: If you take out the one game that I won, it means that the entire narrative could have played out in just six games. That's about 3 hours worth of play. Not much meat on those bones.
  • Problem 7: There were massive editing failures at all levels in TD. Confusing and unclear rules and triggers from a game perspective and just sloppy copyrighting. The whole game feels rushed and not properly play tested for balance or clarity.
My sticker sheet at the end of the game:

My PAD at the end of the game: (Those are 8 empty slots)

For comparison: On the left - An unused full stack of corporate cards and stickers.   In the middle- The cards and stickers I didn't use or see during the campaign.  On the right - the cards and stickers I saw and used in the campaign. 


Now, you might be tempted to say, "Connor, you're just sore because you lost six of seven games." You'd be partially right. I was sore. But I wasn't sore because I lost those games (Well, any more than any of us would be against an opponent we're usually evenly matched against). I was sore because this was supposed to be about a story. One I'd been waiting almost a year to embark on.  To say that it was flat, disappointing and a let down would be an understatement. Kyle gets lots of credit for building a solid deck, but I also have to wonder if there were inherit balance issues.


BUT

Let's talk about some good things. Netrunner is a great game and the idea of adding a narrative into an already existing game is brilliant! There's so much room to improve here that I'm thrilled at the possibilities.

Imagine: Quarterly data packed sized story adventures that come out, maybe between or in conjunction with regular data packs (This month: A Mars story!). They have a fold out sheet, a narrative a list of triggers and cards and stickers that come in packs. It's a role playing game in a box! Bring back old characters! Have crazy powerful cards! Go nuts because they're only allowed in the narrative games. Make an over arcing story that connects between packs! Create an online component! So many things you could do here that would require little investment on FFG's part and would create a second mini-community within Netrunner, one that would inspire the stay-at-home players to feel more involved as well as giving the competitive community more to salivate over.

Netrunner is my favorite game (and I can safely say I am a hard core gamer). Terminal Directive has some great cards and the seeds of some good ideas. In general, I think FFG does a solid job. They make mistakes, and TD is one of them. But that doesn't mean good things can't come out of this.

If you're thinking about buying TD, my suggestion is: Do it. If you're planning on playing the narrative, my suggestion is: Do it. *But* - bring your cards with you. Rebuild after each play. And don't use just one core. Use whatever card pool you and your opponent agree upon.  

In the scheme of things, we got some great new cards for four of the factions and FFG took a chance on something new and creative. It didn't pan out this time. I wish they'd handled the whole thing a little differently.

Doesn't mean I'm not working on my latest Skorpios deck as we speak.

Cheers, 
Connor