‘Blade Runner 2049’ is beautiful, hardcore science fiction, but…

Thirty years is a long damn time, but I suppose it’s still better late than never for the sequel to 1982’s science fiction classic, “Blade Runner.” The sequel, “Blade Runner 2049” is both a faithful imagining of what might have taken place 30 years after the events in Ridley Scott’s original, and a piece of fan fiction that somehow doesn’t quite ring true. It’s hardcore sci-fi, a film of ideas as opposed to non-stop action. If it isn’t as great as the first film – or even a great film in general – well, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t try.

The director this time is Denis Villenueve, who also helmed 2015’s excellent and terrifying “Sicario.” That film was set in the violent world of the Mexican cartels and has many scenes of shocking violence and gripping intrigue that make it one of the best action films of the decade. I don’t know why the Powers That Be decided Villenueve would be the right man to direct “Blade Runner 2049,” but he brings his cold, detached eye and talent for framing just the right shot to the project. Just as its visuals made the original “Blade Runner” a classic, the look of the sequel is absolutely crucial. Villenueve nails it, but in a different way.

The first film, based on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, by Philip K. Dick, imagines a future that has gone to hell. Set in Los Angeles 2019 ( yep, it’s right around the corner), the first “Blade Runner” has cars that fly, constant rain, grimy city streets, ubiquitous neon, and humanoid Replicants (a term the film invented) fleeing from a grim, determined robot killer named Rick Deckard. Deckard, the LAPD’s top “blade runner,” is a violent man whose very humanity is at stake. After killing most of the renegade Replicants, in a series of brutal showdowns, Deckard finally squares off against their leader, Roy Batty, a Nexus 6 powerhouse whose impending death gives him a philosophical bent. Roy ends up saving Deckard from certain doom, then delivers a moving soliloquy before dying. Deckard collects his girlfriend, Rachel – also a Replicant – and flees LA.

This basic story has been put to the test over the years. Originally released as a hybrid film noir/science fiction epic, “Blade Runner” presented eye-popping visual effects that changed the way movies would look and feel for the next 20 years. Scott’s decaying, neon-lit 2019 would influence tons of filmmakers and give the film its classic status. (Who can forget the shot of the flying police car, a Spinner, soaring through the rain past that building-sized, electric Coke sign?) It originally had a much-maligned voiceover by Harrison Ford, who played Deckard. I always liked the voiceover, as it humanized Deckard and lent the film even more of a noir feel (isn’t this supposed to be partly a detective story?), but Scott, in later versions, removed it. No big loss, really.

Scott did more, however, than just kill the voiceover. He also scrubbed up the special effects, added and subtracted scenes, and made clear that, in his opinion, Deckard himself is a Replicant. This has been the subject of intense debate for decades – is he or isn’t he? (It depends on which version of the film you’re talking about. In the original 1982 version that was released to theaters – the one with Ford talking over the scenes – Deckard is most emphatically human. In the 1993 version most people have seen, well, the question comes up.)

Deckard’s status as either a human or Replicant is questioned in an added scene in which the drunk, tired blade runner dreams of a unicorn (actually just an outtake from Scott’s 1986 “Legend”). What’s up with the damned unicorn? Was it an implant? How could any human dream of such a creature? Is Deckard a Replicant?

So, OK, flash-forward a couple of decades, and we have “Blade Runner 2049,” the sequel to the most legendary film of the late 20th century. We don’t have flying cars or Replicants (yet), nor do we have answers to the most burning questions raised by the original film. “BR2049” doesn’t offer much in the way of help. Villenueve has made his own film, raising its own issues. It is set in roughly the same world as the original movie, but is its own animal. Maybe it’s a unicorn.

Here we find Ryan Gosling as K, a blade runner 30 years down the line. There’s no question about whether K is human. He’s not. He’s a Replicant designed to hunt down older-model, presumably defective Replicants. Villenueve kills any suspense or mystery about K’s identity early on. Never mind that in the first film, Replicants were so intolerable that a whole new class of police officer was created to destroy them. In 2049, robots will hunt and destroy other robots. That’s grim, indeed.

Los Angeles – indeed, the whole Earth – has changed much in 30 years. The city is wracked by environmental catastrophe. Where Scott depicted constant rain, Villenueve envisions a host of weather conditions, all occurring seemingly at once. There’s rain, snow, fog, storms – anything but sun. It is a poisoned, poisonous atmosphere, probably post-nuclear, dominated by incomprehensible technology. The flying cars are still around, and so are all the old corporate slogans from 1982 – there’s a miraculous shot of an Atari billboard that looks as cool as shit. As with the original film, “BR2049” is fucking spectacular to look at and is a masterpiece on that level alone. I doubt any other film will ever look as good as this one. (Lauded cinematographer Roger Deakins won his first Oscar for his work here.)

The movie nails its cold, bitter, post-apocalyptic setting – this is the most physically impressive science-fiction film I’ve ever seen – but in the story department, things aren’t so great. The story is interesting, and all, but it takes too much time – way too much – to spin out.

K, in the course of murdering an older Nexus 6 Replicant played by the awesome Dave Bautista, discovers a secret in the desert wastes east of Los Angeles. His chief, the tough-as-nails Robin Wright, orders him to destroy all evidence of what he’s found, which is this: proof of a baby born of a Replicant. The mother was Rachel, Deckard’s girlfriend. Where’s Deckard? Who the hell knows. And what of the child? Also a big unknown. K’s first order of business is to find Deckard, who’s been missing for 30 years.

And that’s kind of it. The film is a detective story, yes, and K is a good one, tracking down leads, overcoming obstacles, encountering a host of shady characters, and uncovering a massive conspiracy that could spark a war between humans and non-humans. The problem is that there is absolutely no urgency to his quest. The movie takes a long time getting anywhere, with K bogging down in conversations that don’t add up to much, and Villenueve spending perhaps too much time demonstrating how he gets from Point A to Point B. It’s a beautiful trip through hell, but I’d say a good 15 minutes could have been trimmed to make a leaner, faster, more intense film.

Also, there’s a section in the middle of the second act where K makes a discovery that’s so small and obscure as to be almost meaningless. We’re not quite sure what we’re looking at, or what he thinks about it, or how it fits in with the overall scheme of things, but it has to do with his childhood – or what he thinks might have been his childhood (he knows he’s a Replicants, and so understands that all his memories are implants) – yet I felt very little emotional impact. Villenueve makes the mistake of bathing the scene in absolute darkness, holding on Gosling’s stone expression for too long, and rattling our ears with overly-revelatory music. You just kind of tune out.

In other words, this is a Serious Movie with Serious Ideas, and it runs the risk of Taking Itself Way Too Seriously. I like Gosling and everyone else in the movie, but Scott had a way of making everything visceral and immediate, and Villenueve has made a bit of a self-conscious art film.

Almost nothing left over from the original movie is dealt with, though certain characters are revisited, in certain forms. This brings us to Deckard himself, again played by Ford, whose performance brings up a whole new level of review. He’s almost from a different movie, and that movie would be the first “Blade Runner.” He’s grizzled, mean, angry, spiteful, violent, cagey, crafty, and, from a story standpoint, utterly useless. K finally finds him in a blasted and blown-out Las Vegas (which we spend far too much time exploring), and we finally get an action scene that shows Ford still knows how to sling a punch. But Ford, as good as he is – and he is very, very good – is wasted. Deckard has no part in the overall story. He should have been cut, or given a bigger, more meaningful role. It’s like a visit from an old buddy you always wondered about, but that’s it – we’re not even told whether or not he’s human! The mystery and debate continue!

I haven’t even mentioned the Big Bad in this film, Niander Wallace, played well enough by Jared Leto. Niander is where the movie creeps into fan fiction territory. He fulfills the same story role as the earlier Eldon Tyrell in the first film, but is different in that he’s trying to … well, I’m not sure what Niander’s overall goals are. He wants to create a better class of Replicant by making them breed, I think, but given that Niander only gets two scenes, the character is a bit of an enigma. His big moment with Deckard is a letdown; Deckard is not even allowed to speak.

Niander’s right hand is a brutal Replicant called Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) who goes around killing people in pursuit of Deckard’s love child. She’s a cold character who’s not given any memorable lines – certainly none to rank with Roy Batty’s closing speech about tears in rain.

Nor have I mentioned that K has a love life. His “girlfriend” is the film’s most fascinating and tragic character, Joi, who’s not even a Replicant, but a hologram controlled by a small device K carries in his pocket. Joi, played by the lovely Ana de Armas, is a bit of a fairy tale creature who just wants to be free. Unfortunately, she’s just an electronic projection. There’s an astonishing moment where a version of Joi that’s nude and 50 stories tall visits K at a crucial moment in his journey. If nothing else, the visuals make the film riveting even when the story seems to be on hold.

Everything culminates in a scene filmed in total darkness, with rain and heavy waves battering the combatants, who beat each other to a pulp. It’s a depressing end to a film that has been light on humor and humanity. No philosophical questions have been discussed; there’s only a battle between two indestructible humanoids, with Deckard waiting to drown in the background. The final scene at least provides one of the characters some closure, or at least, a chance to start again.

I waited a long time to see this movie – longer than any other long-awaited sequel. I still remember the first “Blade Runner” in theaters (I was too young to be allowed in); a relative of mine went to see it, and came back describing it as dark, violent and weird. I finally saw the original on cable and was blown away by it. Since then, it’s been a constant in my viewing experience. I might have seen Scott’s original “Blade Runner” more times than any other movie, and yes, that definitely includes “Star Wars.”

I doubt I’ll be able to say the same of “BR2049.” As gorgeous as it is, and as gripping as its few scenes of action might be, it just doesn’t have Scott’s signature storytelling style. Villenueve takes too long; his film is opaque, inscrutable. Physically, it’s a masterpiece – the technology, sets, practical effects, costumes, lighting, sound effects, music, etc., are all top-shelf, worthy of every Oscar there is – but the screenplay raises and answers topics I was never all that interested in to begin with. Couldn’t Deckard have gotten more than a guest role? Wasn’t there room for Rachel? Couldn’t they have done more with Bautista’s Sapper Morton? If I sound disappointed, I am. I’ve watched this movie maybe three times, and feel like that is enough, at least, for now.

Maybe one day, I’ll come back to it. I don’t dislike it; I admire it for its grand visual and imaginative accomplishments. I just can’t say the same about the screenplay. Fan fiction can only go so far … and this feels like that.

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

We are in peril

It’s not often that I go on a political diatribe, but what is happening in this country is one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever witnessed – easily the scariest since 9/11 and its immediate aftermath, when I along with, probably, millions of other Americans woke up every morning convinced I was going to die.

The plain and simple fact is that Donald Trump must be removed from the White House. He must be impeached. Congress needs to act NOW.

Unfortunately, this morning, hours after his treasonous press conference with Vlad Putin in Helsinki, there does not seem to be a sufficiently rising tide of outrage on the part of our “elected leaders.” Trump will be allowed to return to American soil, and vent one of his abominations on Twitter (which so far lacks the guts to terminate his account, or shut down completely as a sign of good will toward humanity), and we will go on with this monstrous clown tearing down what took decades in the aftermath of WWII to build.

That would be Western civilization – NATO, the United Nations, Europe, the US intelligence system, the justice system – all of it.

Acting on orders from Vlad, Trump has done everything in his power to not only undo what Barack Obama managed to accomplish – against overwhelming Republican opposition – in just eight too-short years, but reverse the liberal progressive order. That’s because Trump and his cronies associate the word “liberal” with Pinko Commies from the Vietnam era, failing spectacularly to realize that in this context, “liberal” is used instead of “dictatorial,” “repressive,” or “genocidal.” You know, as in the opposite of what the Nazis represented? That kind of liberal? Never mind.

Trump, a lifelong con artist, has revealed himself as a joke of a human being and a sham of a president. Standing alongside a murderous thug who also happens to represent the entirety of the KGB – Putin is nothing if not a professional spy, and the whole fucking world knows it – Trump committed outright treason Monday against the United States. He took a shit on our system of justice, our Constitution, and the free people he supposedly represents. He did it while Putin stood to one side, barely able to keep from smirking (seriously, watch the video).

Rather than be allowed to return to our country on Monday, Trump should have had his passport, travel  visa and citizenship revoked, and been told by Congress to either stay in Europe or go home to Mother Russia. Or, as soon as his toe touched the holy ground of America, he should have been arrested, placed in shackles, and hauled off to whatever dark hole this country has reserved for those who betray it. (I know one exists – it’s the same dark hole into which Republicans would like to throw Hillary Clinton. Yeah, that one.)

We are in a perilous moment here, perhaps greater than we were on Sept. 12, 2001. Trump is in the pocket of the KGB, and who knows what the hell that means? The “how” and “why” no longer matter. His own words incriminate him. It’s all on the record, impossible to deny. He committed treason by sympathizing with a foreign enemy, one that has boasted for decades about blowing the United States off the face of the planet, that has thousands upon thousands of atomic warheads aimed straight at us. Yes, Russia is the enemy, the declared enemy, that in the 1960s said would destroy America “without firing a shot.” Well, that plan has been put into action. Trump is either a willing tool or a useful idiot. It doesn’t matter which, though. He is a Russian sympathizer who denounced our country on foreign soil.

The consequences should be invoked before it is literally too late.

As far as I could reach

waves

I relaxed more than expected at Orange Beach over the course of the family vacation.

I took several long walks along the shore, watching kids and their parents dig large pits for the live jellyfish washing up out of the Gulf.

balcony view

I swam in the warm coastal waters, letting the waves pound me into submission, watching the whitecaps loom.

I buried my feet in the sand instead of my head.

couple on beach

I watched sunsets and birds. Once, a hawk glided past my vantage. It was cool.

One day, the water would be glassy and calm, the next, churning sufficiently to garner red flag warnings. That was when the water was especially invigorating.

night beach

I took a wild boat ride to watch my wife parasail. The bottom of the boat clapped hard against the surface as it leapt from wave to wave.

I felt tiny stings in the water only to learn later that disembodied jellyfish tentacles still have the power to jolt. I’d thought I was floating in seaweed.

parasailing 2

I carried heavy beach equipment across sands that weighed and dragged me down. I would frequently stop just to let the burn leak out of my legs.

I rinsed sand off my legs and feet with a hose. The boardwalk is incredibly hot when you are not wearing shoes.

beach scene 2

I clambered up the shelf that forms at high tide.

I saw millions of sea shells and collected as many as I could reasonably carry. How can the ocean keep spitting them up?

no mans land

At night, the Gulf looks like the black emptiness I see when I contemplate death. My mother is out there somewhere, and my father, and their parents, and quite a few friends of mine. They signal to me like the lights on the far-off oil platforms, earthbound stars on the farthest edge of the horizon. By day, the platforms look like small cities. My folks are out there, too.

“Like every breaking wave/on a shore/this was as far as I could reach.”

bridges1

 

Colonizer, pirate, Martian

Ridley Scott’s 2015 “The Martian” might have been the best-directed film of that long, eventful and memorable year, though he was not nominated for a directing Oscar. That’s a shame; Scott is one of our greatest living filmmakers, a stubborn, edgy, multi-faceted creator who can do science fiction as easily as he can historical dramas or crime thriller. He’s responsible for several great films (“Alien,” “Blade Runner,” “Black Hawk Down,” even, yes, “Gladiator”) and several that are underrated (“The Counselor, “All the Money in the World,” “Alien Covenant”), and this surprising crowd-pleaser.

It stars Matt Damon in probably his best performance and offers Scott the chance to show off all his formidable skill behind the camera. Damon, as fictional astronaut Mark Watney, gets stuck on Mars when his crew mistakes him for dead, and Scott creates an otherworldly environment for him that looks, feels and sounds completely real. The most amazing thing is that you’d swear Scott actually took a camera to Mars and shot on location. That this movie didn’t draw more attention than it did means that 2015 was either A) overcrowded with too many great movies or B) we’re just not paying enough attention. (Probably both are true.)

Scott makes a character-based epic focused on dialogue and performance, not just awe-inspiring visual effects. This makes “The Martian” unique in his catalog. His films can be intense, violent, and suspenseful, but rarely are they funny. It has a huge cast of big names, including Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Jessica Chastain, and Michael Pena, who’s everywhere, and they’re all great, filling roles large and small with equal panache. They and Damon take the foreground while those awe-inspiring visuals help tell the story. The more wondrous the effects, the more believable the action. (We’re usually asked to just go “wow!” at the screen as CGI wonders flash by.)

The story is not dissimilar to “Cast Away” (2000): a man gets marooned in a distant locale and is forced to rely on his skills and intuition to survive. Watney, trained in biology, might not be the prototypical superhero type; his brain is the best thing about him, and he puts it to good use, figuring out how to grow potatoes in Martian soil and rig up water-and-oxygen-generating machines using only the parts at hand. (“Tony Stark built one of these in a cave! From a box of scraps!” I digress.) Unlike his counterpart in “Cast Away,” Watney is able to eventually communicate with home, where NASA masterminds an Apollo 13-style rescue attempt. Various mistakes, on Earth and Mars, threaten Watney, who’s never hanging by more than a thread. Finally, a last-ditch, improvised “plan” sends Watney’s crewmates back to Mars (risking mutiny!), and there’s a spectacular climax above the atmosphere of the Red Planet.

This is, at heart, a good-old-fashioned adventure movie, in which the hero must apply every last scrap of gray matter to every problem, lest he succumb to the elements or starvation. Critical thinking is the most crucial tool – unusual, as we are used to seeing heroes fight their way out of any situation with a gun or other explosive device. Watney uses math and engineering, grit and determination, to survive where any ordinary civilian would be destroyed. (We must not overlook the fact that Watney got to Mars in the first place because he is, obviously, smarter than almost anyone else.)

In a movie filled with good dialogue, my favorite line comes when the stranded astronaut stares directly into a digital videorecorder and, faced with yet another seemingly impossible task, announces, “I’m gonna have to science the shit out of this.” It sums up both the theme of the movie – survival via STEM – and the essence of the human spirit.

Some “critics” pointed out that no one in the movie, at any point, prays to God for assistance. Watney is never seen praying, though one character (safely earthbound) does ask another if he believes in God. (The answer is “yes.”) I would say that this is all beside the point. The movie is about astronauts and NASA; the clergy has no place in the story and makes no appearance. It is about thinking one’s way out of a life-threatening emergency and using the tools at hand to stay alive. I’m all for movies about the spiritual life, but this is not one of those movies. (Besides, we live now in an era where “sending thoughts and prayers” is derided as a heartless shirk when others are in real jeopardy.) A movie cannot be about anything other than its subject. Why didn’t anybody complain when “I Can Only Imagine” failed to stick a science lesson into the middle of its “song from God” story?

If there is a fault with “The Martian,” it lies somewhat in its light-hearted approach. There are tons of jokes in the screenplay, and most of them land. I appreciated Scott’s levity, which he grounds with a serious approach to the problem-solving aspects of the story. Still, I was a little disappointed by the first conversation between Watney and his former crewmates, who aren’t told of his survival for several months, and blame themselves for his predicament. Additionally, Watney’s first line to his rescuer is … well, let’s just say that if I were her, what he says isn’t necessarily the first thing I’d want to hear.

But that is picking nits. “The Martian” is a terrific movie, a riveting entertainment, and proof positive that Ridley Scott is working at the very height of his considerable powers.

 

 

 

Killing them with kindness in ‘The Invitation’

I’m a sucker for any horror film based in reality, and there’s nothing more intriguing than a horror movie that explores how a cult might operate. “The Invitation” (2015) is one of those, and it is a creepy pleasure.

I’ve seen this movie twice, and while I wasn’t quite as scared the second time around, I was just as absorbed in the horrifying possibilities. The movie was directed by Karyn Kusama and stars Logan Marshall-Green as a grief-stricken man who slowly begins to realize the dinner party he’s attending (at the invitation of his ex-wife and her new husband) is not what it seems.

This is the kind of film where small details add up; the littlest clues suggest terrible motivations, and every line of dialogue seems to have a double meaning. The cast is limited to just a handful of mostly unknown actors, but they’re effective in portraying friends who’ve known each other for years and are now thrown into a horrific situation. The story examines grief and forgetfulness, and suggests that forcing yourself to forget the past only makes things worse.

I was reminded of the 1962 French film, “The Exterminating Angel,” in which people at a dinner party can never leave, and the more recent thriller, “Get Out,” in which an innocent man is tricked into attending a social event that turns into a nightmare. The people in this film can’t leave, either, but that’s because their annoyingly polite host, David, keeps surreptitiously locking the door. Greene, as the hero, Will, calls him out on it, and draws stern, suspicious looks from the other oblivious guests. Will is the only one who thinks there might be something sinister lurking under the surface.

There is. As the guests laugh it up over some really good wine, a mysterious fellow named Pruitt shows up and just kind of … hangs around in the corners of the frame. Nobody knows Pruitt, but Pruitt is not part of the old gang. He glowers in the shadows, known only by David and his Stepford wife, Eden, who shares a tragic past with Will. Indeed, the party is being held in Will’s former home – David has simply moved into it with Eden. Seemingly every room and tight corner contains a sad memory for Will, whose pain is still raw. Eden, however, has anesthetized herself by joining a “movement” based in Mexico. As the centerpiece of the evening, she and David show the group a video that seems to be making some kind of weird sales pitch – is this an Amway party, or what? No, it’s something darker, as demonstrated by an actual death captured on the video. “There’s nothing to be afraid of,” Eden smiles, as her guests react with disgust.

Then Pruitt, unprompted, tells a story that truly shocks everyone … yet they do not leave, nor do they feel compelled to. Only Will finds this behavior out of line. He hurls accusations and attempts to walk out (along with his girlfriend, who wants everyone to just get along). David and Eden, of course, talk him down. “Please, stay. We’re sorry. We don’t mean to offend. Don’t go.”

A woman disappears, there’s a disturbing revelation, and a little later, David and Eden are breaking out the Kool-Aid. The film builds to a climax of startling violence, as Pruitt’s true mission is revealed, and the aims of David and Eden come to pass. A lantern on Eden’s back patio suggests an even larger crisis.

This is a low-budget (probably micro-budgeted) film that relies on surprise and innuendo to get the job done. It effectively portrays cultists as the nicest people in the world. They are your friends. They know that death is just another part of life, and that there is nothing to be afraid of. Oh, don’t mind that locked door, and if you don’t care for snuff videos, well, that’s your problem, not ours. Here, try the punch, it’s to die for.

(One other similarity with “Get Out,” the 2017 Jordan Peele film that won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay – its opening scene. “The Invitation” begins with a man and a woman – boyfriend and girlfriend, one black, the other white – on their way, somewhat reluctantly, to a dinner party. On the drive over, their car hits an animal, and they have to climb out and finish off the whimpering creature. Sound familiar? This is the same opening as “Get Out,” the plot of which follows a similar trajectory. I’m sure it’s all a coincidence. Or … is it?)

 

 

The bizarre creations of ‘Annihilation’

Alex Garland’s trippy science fiction film “Annihilation” is one of the more interesting releases of the past several months and one that deserves careful thought and consideration as opposed to mere consumption. It’s also the kind of movie you might want to let sit awhile before attempting to watch again. Like a lot of other “adult”-oriented action-adventure films (including “The Revenant”), it’s not something I’d consider an evening’s entertainment.

Natalie Portman stars as a professional soldier/biologist called upon to investigate a weird space-bubble that lands in the form of a meteorite and seems to be devouring a swamp somewhere on the United States East Coast. A lighthouse, for reasons unknown, is Ground Zero for The Shimmer, so dubbed by the military, which is at a loss to explain, defeat or destroy this thing. Portman’s husband, played by Oscar Isaac, has disappeared, only to mysteriously re-appear early in the film, not quite himself. He has no memory of what happened to him on his Top Secret mission (he, too, is an Army soldier), but soon is spitting blood.

Jennifer Jason Leigh turns up as a government official who explains, sort of, that Isaac was the first person to ever emerge from The Shimmer. He’d been part of a team send to investigate the phenomenon. None of the others made it back, but Isaac somehow did. She wants to know how and why, and find a way of understanding this strange presence before it takes over everything. Portman reluctantly joins Leigh and three other female soldiers on an expedition.

Once inside The Shimmer, things get weird. The alien force field is playing tricks with the DNA of plant and animal life, resulting in combinations that do not and should not exist in nature as we know it. Why is this happening? We’re never told, but some of the deformations include bizarre flora and actual physical threats to the human team that result in a few truly terrifying action sequences. “Annihilation” might be an acquired taste for some, but it is never anything less than gripping.

I won’t describe more of the story because there are quite a few surprises – not twists, but genuine thrills – that should be experienced fresh. I will say that one scene in particular features a genuinely scary animal mutation that ranks up there with the “Alien” movies in terms of originality and horror. And the climactic events are clearly aiming for “2001” territory, as Portman encounters the secret at the heart of The Shimmer and learns the truth of what happened to her husband. Only later will you be able to backtrack through the strange events and understand, sort of, what might have happened, but as you are experiencing it, you’ll only be able to ask one question: WTF?!?

As I said, this movie won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. It’s slow, arty, contemplative, moody, and has an eerie, unsettling tone that director Garland maintains all the way to the end. It’s a remarkable achievement, and one of the most hardcore sci-fi films I’ve seen in a long time, ranking up there with “Blade Runner 2049” and “Ex Machina” (which Garland also directed).

Garland illustrates the point that not all movies are designed to be likable. Most science fiction films, for example, are built as audience pleasers, and those are certainly valuable, but movies like this one and “BR2049” want us to think and recoil, and have their own value. I’m not sure exactly what Garland is saying here about humanity or the nature of death and dying (there are some interesting philosophical conversations about self-destruction being hardwired into our DNA), but his ideas are intriguing. The movie is also visually striking – beautifully photographed, with spectacular special effects, sets (and sound) design, and creature effects. I don’t have warm and fuzzy feelings toward this movie, but then, it doesn’t encourage them. This is a movie to be admired if not loved. Nonetheless, it comes with the highest recommendation.

Why, “Criminal”?

There are times when nothing will do but a cheesy action movie, and in many respects, “Criminal” fits that bill. This movie would probably have been much better received in the mid-to-late Nineties, back when stars Kevin Costner and Tommy Lee Jones were popular, but today it’s a bit too much of a dinosaur to be any good.

Tell the truth, the whole movie is a bit of a mystery. Why it attracted not only Costner and Jones but no less than Gary Oldman and Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman) is a real head-scratcher. It’s not Oscar material, it’s not a huge summer release, it’s just kind of a space filler, product to put on the DVD shelf or to rent via VOD on a lazy Saturday night. Why all the star power?

“Criminal” is your standard spy movie, albeit one with a really crazy twist, which, in the end, does little to distinguish the proceedings. Costner plays a monstrous maniac with a dead spot in his brain that enables him to feel nothing in the way of ordinary human emotions or empathy. He becomes the guinea pig in a science project that will marry the memories of a fatally injured CIA agent (played briefly by Ryan Reynolds) to his own damaged, psychopathic brain. The government (never mind which one, the movie is set in London, but Reynolds and Costner are Americans) will then question its Frankenstein’s monster about the whereabouts of a terrorist (I think) known as the Dutchman, who may or may not be on the verge of plunging the world into nuclear war.

Costner gets free after killing a bunch of guys, but then starts experiencing the memories of the CIA agent, and is influenced by his emotions and personality, as well. In effect, he is becoming the dead agent, who, we can assume, was a “good guy.” He would have to be, as his wife is played by Gadot, one of the loveliest and most charismatic actresses alive today, but I digress! Meanwhile, the government and the bad guys are all in a race against time, and there’s a ticking clock, and it all comes together in a tidy shoot out. Oh, and Gary Oldman yells a lot.

This is a vaguely entertaining, gory action movie. Its brain-switching plot, which is as old as the hills, doesn’t do much to liven up the script, which has too much cross-cutting to be followed. The movie is heavy on “good guy” actors but doesn’t have a single memorable villain …. with the exception of Costner’s female co-star from “Man of Steel,” Antje Traue, a German actress whose angular features and big, intelligent eyes are a welcome addition to any action film.

Costner grunts his way through a monosyllabic role, but still isn’t half-bad, though I can’t imagine why he took this movie, other than the check. Oldman’s shouting fails to have much impact. Tommy Lee Jones looks either distantly amused or bored and irritated, depending on the take. Gadot doesn’t have a great role but she does the most with what she’s got, which is always a lot. Hollywood will probably never find the perfect script for her talents, unless it wants to just give her the entire “Mission: Impossible” franchise, which I’d be down for.

This ain’t a great movie. Oh, and who is the criminal of the title?