Quick Hits: Blade Runner 2049 and Thor: Ragnarok

Blade Runner 2049

Both these films—but especially Blade Runner 2049—deserve much more analysis than I provide here. But the first has been written about endlessly, and contains enough filmic (and literary) references to support a doctoral thesis. Like its predecessor, it’s a “not what we hoped for” semi-success that will eventually become a cult classic.

It’s a gorgeous film, and will the Academy please give cinematographer Roger Deakins (Skyfall, True Grit, No Country for Old Men plus 10 more nominations) his long overdue win? The production design is mesmerizing, which is the film’s strength and weakness. It’s a beautiful work of art, but except for rabid fans of the original and the idea, it’s not engaging.

It’s a good story, which I generally don’t bother with in these analyses. It pays tribute to the original (which is neither good nor bad), and is fresh and original in its own way, with discoveries and twists and turns that keep the story moving. Except that it moves s-o s-l-o-w-l-y. S-o v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y. Director Denis Villeneuve (Arrival) certainly knows how to tell a slow story (Arrival), but the narrative almost gets lost in the pacing and the stunning beauty of its images, which unlike the original vary greatly from sequence to sequence. Some will appreciate the stately flow of the film, punctuated by occasional violence. But at this point in the film’s run, I offer it as an explanation of its only moderate success, this especially after a nearly unprecedented marketing buildup. The story, as good as it is, isn’t allowed to come to the front of the line and grab the viewer.

The casting is near perfect, simply because Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford. Gosling is of course a very good actor. Yet here, his casual way of being just a few degrees outside of whatever is going on around him fits him here perhaps better than in any other role. In fact, that slight distance from his surroundings adds to the slight detachment the film’s look demands of the viewers, pulling them away from the storyline. Harrison Ford is a must for the film, but the film uses him well, and beyond just iconography. Some may quibble over how the film uses him in the story, but he gives his all with a freshness and energy we haven’t seen in a while.

Story isn’t everything, and I get that the film may be the most visually stunning in many a year. But when the visuals take precedence over the story—even a good one—the film risks alienating a good portion of its potential audience. Regular readers might be asking why I am not sticking to analyzing its artistry instead of evaluating its financial success. It’s because in this case, the visual artistry drowns out the narrative artistry.

Thor: Ragnarok

This one is simple. The movie is dumb fun. It’s wildly uneven, in keeping with trying to balance comic and superhero action tones. But it’s an inside-out version of the earlier Thor films, bringing the humor to the fore and nearly always keeping it there. Chris Hemsworth has always had that comic persona under the muscles, and it’s a joy to see him give priority to goofy humor. He’s an underutilized comedian.

In terms of the other two main characters, there’s a plus and a minus. There’s a lot of Loki (Tom Hiddleston), which is always a good idea. The plot devices used to get him onscreen are not always the most believable, but does it really matter in a Marvel Comics film majoring in silly humor?

The downside is the performance of one of our most talented actresses, Cate Blanchett, and it’s probably not her fault. This double Oscar winner plays Thor’s and Loki’s long-lost older sister, and she plays it broadly. It needs a combination of intelligence, dry humor, and malevolence, which she provides in spades. But the performance is supposed to be the evil balancing act to the goodness and silliness of Thor, and it doesn’t quite fit. Likely this is due to the challenge of creating a world where Thor gets funny, Loki runs hot and cold, the requisite grand final battle plays itself out, and we are asked to believe in all that Asgard baloney. The elements don’t always mix (see the first Avengers film for a study in how to do that well), and it is only due to the consistency of Blanchett’s performance that her character fits at all into the scheme of things.

Probably the greatest success of the film is in its conception rather than its execution. It’s a great idea to pull away from the darkness (see all the DC Comics films) and head shamelessly into fun. It’s hoped that this might offer up some new avenues to explore in future superhero films other than action and a furrowed brow. In the meantime, this film is an uneven, sometimes incomprehensible mash-up of action and humor that if you let it, brings two hours of mindless enjoyment

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About Mark DuPré

Full-time (associate) pastor at a Christian church. Part-time film professor at Rochester Institute of Technology. Husband for 40 years to the lovely and talented Diane. Father to three children and father-in-law to three more amazing people. I preach, teach, counsel, write and plan in my real job. I teach a subject I love at RIT in my "other job," which is a lot of fun most of the time.... I play piano for our local college choir, and sing and play at church occasionally. I also have a film-related website at www.film-prof.com.
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