Double Feature Film Review: A Tale of Two Ridleys -- Revisiting Modern Sci-Fi Classics Via Prequel Alien: Covenant, and Sequel Blade Runner 2049

So-called “genre films” -- isn't every film in some genre? -- have never been shy about replacing their charismatic leads and carrying on with the core iconography (or IP): Bela Lugosi eventually played Frankenstein's monster; the original Planet of the Apes begat its first sequel featuring another astronaut who vaguely resembled Charlton Heston (“I'm Brent!”); and nowadays few people on Earth haven't portrayed a Jedi, a Sith, or Batman. In 2017, a female Mummy flopped, yet more Apes prevailed, the third big-screen Hulk smashed, and we got a disappointingly recast prequel and sequel, respectively, to original films by never-say-no director Ridley Scott which revived and emboldened science fiction decades ago -- but alas, these new installments merely punch the clock, at best.

It took me a month to force myself to sit through Blade Runner 2049, suddenly-brand-name director Denis Villeneuve's 35-years-later (in real time) sequel to the cult-fave original I somehow as a kid got myself in to see on opening weekend, and sincerely liked without, then, fully grasping it (whereas Ebert disliked it while barely grasping it). Yes, despite abhorring violence, I kept buying the stylistically sensational Blade Runner on used VHS tapes throughout the hideous '90s while its vestiges of mainstream popularity went south along with most of pop culture -- but I'm also not snobby: even an absurdly late sequel (exec-produced by Scott) would’ve been welcome, were it good. The problem is, Blade Runner 2049 is only worthy in little chunks -- and the protracted remainder, inferior to the 1995 sequel novel, plays like turgid, pricey-looking fanfic.

My reluctance outweighed my excitement for specific reasons: 1. No returning Sean Young (as a hellishly unpleasant “surprise,” it turns out they CG-Carrie-Fishered her into this thing); 2. No Vangelis (instead the “score” of Blade Runner 2049 sounds like Trent Reznor‘s diarrhea); 3. Unappealing male leads Ryan Gosling and Jared Leto are merely dime-a-thousand waiters I wish I didn't have to tip; and 4. That queasy dread I learned from the Star Trek reboots: that they're related in name only, and dissonant to the point that they should have just called the films something else. I'm puzzled why so many artificially exalted fanboy directors are hot to scribble over other people's creations. Guys, profits or no, you're doing it wrong.

The plot of Blade Runner 2049 is that it's 30 years later (in movie time), and Gosling is instructed to mope in interminable scabby close-ups for a couple of hours until we get a glorified cameo from grizzled Harrison Ford (from the original movie), finally showing up like Santa Claus the following October. Ha. I kid. Sort of. Mopey Gosling's “Blade Runner” cop is actually a self-aware replicant (human-like android), designed to “retire” (kill) older-model replicants, en route to kinda solving a terminally bland mystery (Who Is Replicant Rachael's Baby?) featuring no oomph whatsoever. Meanwhile he's in “love” with an adorable, retail-ready AI (Ana de Armas) — they throw in a cutesy “Real Girl” aside — plus he tangles with unconvincing-villain Leto's extremely inconsistent henchwoman (Sylvia Hoeks): who weeps as Leto graphically guts one naked female replicant, but cheerfully blows another's brains out herself. Boring with spasms of viciousness: whee.

Honestly, I was ready to enjoy Blade Runner 2049 if appropriate, but it's so aggressively non-compelling that one simply sits for two and three-quarter hours, enduring faux-provocative dialogue (”Sometimes to love someone, you gotta be a stranger”), and patiently admiring intermittent depressing exteriors among a few weird, wet rooms and several dismayingly drab interiors. The couple of glued-on Mayan Revival tiles copied from the original -- and I counted but two luminous umbrella rods -- signal a pretentious director only deigning to throw fans a bone (or a box of them: Rachael's). As for the script, it feels like returning screenwriter Hampton Fancher has himself been cloning “genre films,” as we get Agent (Officer) ‘K’ (Men in Black), romantic AI (Her), and yucky protein bugs for the resistance (Snowpiercer).

The good bits? Mostly shots of barely futuristic design and construction, so I'd like to praise the populace of Hungary, as, judging by the lengthy credits, every Hungarian citizen ever born worked on this movie. Edward James Olmos returns for a few seconds, curiously attired as Colonel Sanders (what? no chicken origami?) Also it's briefly amusing -- Blade Runner 2049 is so witless it makes Chris Nolan seem like Mel Brooks -- that the “spinners” (flying cars) are explicitly branded as Peugeot; plus of course the holographic jukebox is by Sony (who else?) The scene of the two Blade Runners reduced to fisticuffs in the midst of a misfiring electronic Vegas showcase featuring holographic showgirls, Elvis, Marilyn, and Liberace is encouraging, as Blade Runner 2049 fleetingly pulls its pompous head out of its nihilistic ass and affords us the decency of being entertaining. And in its last two minutes, this movie almost develops a pulse. That's it. Blade Runner 2049 mistakes dull, overlong shots for “depth,” sadism (especially alarmingly fetishized misogyny) for “action,” and random tears for “emotion.” I emerged more disappointed than expected, feeling perplexed that anybody is donating the potentially successful Dune reboot-reboot to the obviously confused, money-losing Villeneuve.

More idiotic, but in its dismal way more engaging, is this year’s Alien: Covenant, directed by the long-ago master himself, Ridley Scott, who seems determined to destroy the mystique which made Alien (1979) a perennial classic. Paralleling Passengers, we get the subgenre of colony-ship movie: wherein yet another central-casting crew yet again do outrageously stupid things on yet another glaringly dangerous planet -- cut to icky creatures eviscerating everybody, badass brunette showdown, yadda-yadda. Covenant's screenplay is garbage (“Get his shirt off!” “Why?!” “So the camera can see the bitchin’ 'backburster' we cannot possibly anticipate and know nothing about!”), and I took more pleasure in watching the Red Letter Media guys shred Covenant -- as they did Scott’s even-lamer prequel, Prometheus: thus far, budget-to-satisfaction, the worst major movie of this century -- than in watching Covenant itself.

Yet Covenant, despite being framed -- clichéd tip to clichéd tail -- as an Alien rehash, is really the better of the two “replicant” movies being considered here. I'm not a Mike Fassbender fan, but his dual, dueling, semi-homoerotic androids (fascist David and aw-shucks Walter) steal this movie’s middle and prove significantly more amusing than the gobs of artificial-human pabulum smeared arbitrarily through Blade Runner 2049. (Btw, thanks for that third-act resistance subplot!) Neither of these movies arrives as more than a shadow of their respective antecedents, but -- improving a tad after his embarrassing mistakes on Prometheus -- it's as if Ridley Scott decided to shove all his tropes into one basket, and the jumbled, nonsensical result in Covenant is, at least, generous toward the audience; whereas dreary 2049 is not “meditative,” but meandering. Now bring on Pacific Rim: Uprising, because that preview -- damn.

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