How to Fix: Blade Runner 2049

What Went Wrong

Almost nothing. This is a gorgeous movie, an obvious labor of love that evokes the spirit and setting of the original flawlessly.

And yet. There were some plot points that didn’t quite add up for me. Some sour notes in this otherwise perfectly bittersweet symphony of a movie.

Take Jared Leto. No, I mean take him away, please. He’s too young to be playing the character of Wallace, who, if he was saving the world in the mid–2020s, should be in his mid-forties by the time the movie starts. Leto sports a beard, true, but that doesn’t make him look any older. Instead, he looks like a kid that shaved off his dad’s beard and glued it on backwards. Threw me out of the setting every time he was on-screen.

Then there’s the rebels. They pop out of the woodwork late in the third act, and we’re supposed to believe they not only have a plan for a rebellion, but they’re about to execute it…if they can just…get…more…time. And that requires killing a human that doesn’t know anything about them? Because any knowledge Deckard may have had is about three decades out of date.

Finally, Joe’s “conversion” to the rebel cause is a little sudden. Their leader gives him at the end is just a few sentences. Too slender a reed to hang a turncoat on.

How to Fix It

Fixing Wallace’s character is easy: recast him. There’s plenty of middle-aged actors that could give the role the gravitas and menace it deserves. Jude Law. Idris Elba. Mads Mikkelsen. Pick one. (I think it’d be interesting to see the role gender-flipped, as well, though some of the commentary on man-reduces-woman-to-just-her-reproductive-function would be lost, in that case)

Fixing the rebels is harder.

The simplest way would be to just drop that plot thread altogether. It’s only given a few minutes of screen time, and it’d be just as convincing for them to be concerned for the child on its own merits, as well as worried about what Wallace will do if he masters replicant reproduction (a line like “Imagine it. An infinite number of slaves, living forever, never their own.” would fit in fine).

But I think the best way would be for the rebels to reveal to Joe that there’s not just one replicant child. During Freysa’s “join us” speech, she explains that Rachel and Deckard’s baby was just “the first of many.” She steps back, and we get that overhead shot of Replicant after Replicant standing there, all about Joe’s age. Freysa explains that once Rachel and Deckard showed it could be done, they made others, and hid them, too.

And there’s more: because they had real childhoods, the second-generation Replicants can pass the Replicant tests as human. They’re free.

When they have enough for their own off-world colony, they’ll pick some new planet and settle it themselves: a new world, where no Replicant will ever be a slave, ever again.

But that dream will be destroyed if Wallace gets his hands on that first child.

That’s the cause that Freysa and the others were willing to die for. Not one child, but many. Not some far-off rebellion, but a long-waited-for escape.

How to Fix Jurassic World

What Went Wrong

Almost everything. Nothing makes sense: not the CEO that doesn’t care about business, or the way his employees in the lab can just hide information from the rest of the company, or the kids’ parents who shipped them off for a “family weekend” that didn’t include them. The plan to turn velociraptors into weapons is laughable, and the park’s lack of a plan to handle an escaped animal is criminal.

But the worst part of the movie is its treatment of Claire.

At the start of the movie, Claire is the hero. She’s a professional woman who doesn’t have time for children and knows it, who is struggling to find time for her sister’s kids — that were dumped on her, it’s clear she didn’t have any choice about the trip or its timing — and manage a multi-million dollar park, despite a CEO that doesn’t seem interested in business.

She’s surrounded by people that want her to give up and go back to a subservient female role. Her sister wants her to pop out some kids. Her boss wants her to stop caring about her job. Her subordinate (Owen) wants her to take his orders and his termination-worthy sexual harassment.

It’s clear that the movie wants us to find her off-putting at the start (they even dress her in white, for goodness sake, to emphasize her supposed frigidity). The intention is that as time goes on she’ll become more sympathetic, but only as she takes on a more traditional, more subservient, role: she takes off her outer clothing to expose her breasts (despite the chill of the evening), she accepts motherly responsibilities over her (frankly bratty) nephews, and she submits to Owen’s sexual advances.

But every step along the way is a loss of her agency. By the end of the movie, she’s the selfless, unambitious woman everyone wanted her to be, instead of the level-headed boss she was. She’s gone from hero to sidekick, from independent woman to love interest.

How to Fix It

There’s a lot that needs to change.

We’ll start with Claire. We gender-swap the company manager and animal trainer roles. Now Owen’s role — velociraptor-whispering wilderness bad-ass — is filled by a woman, and Claire’s role — overworking manager who’s lost their sense of wonder — is filled by a man.

The manager’s character arc shifts away from forcing an ambitious person to fit into a traditional gender role. Instead, the manager, in contact with the kids and the trainer, and getting to see more of “his” park than usual, rediscovers his sense of wonder. Through their adventures — which have to include some moments of peace and reflection now, instead of pure destruction and death — he reconnects with the reason he took the job in the first place. By the end of the movie, he hasn’t abandoned his career for a family, but the park’s creatures become more than just assets.

We also change up the villains, which will let us give the trainer the character arc that’s missing in the original version of the film.

The villains are animal rights activists that want to free the dinosaurs and return them to the wild. They’d planned to do the release at night while no one was at the park, but their leader (still played by Vincent D’Onofrio) convinces them to take advantage of the chaos of the I. Rex’s escape to move ahead of schedule.

Now instead of mustache-twirling military villains, we’ve got real people with real concerns — the treatment of the dinosaurs at the park, their restrictions on breeding, etc — that you could make sympathetic arguments for.

In fact, at the start of the movie, the trainer is sympathetic to their arguments, and perhaps has a fight with the manager about it. Over the course of the movie, though, as she sees the destruction caused by their actions, she rejects the activists’ extremism and comes to appreciate the balance between commerce and science that the park represents.

As for the CEO, we make him a Costa Rican native that was educated in the US before joining Hammond’s company. A real up-by-your-bootstraps guy, he cares about the business and making money, but he chose to build the park as a way of giving back to Costa Rica: the construction jobs, the tourist money, etc. Each one of the workers that dies is someone he knows, each one hits him hard because it’s one of his countrymen.

Finally, we need to change the kids. They’re no longer siblings, and they’re not here as part of a family “retreat”. Instead, the older kid is American and deaf, the younger is Costa Rican and autistic. Both are there as part of a therapy camp for disabled kids the CEO wanted to host.

The manager’s grumpy about the camp, since it’s more work for him. But the American deaf kid is his nephew; he got him into the camp as a favor to his sister.

As part of the camp, the kids are sequestered in a part of the park that’s herbivores-only. Within this safe zone, they can roam around inside the bubble cars as much as they want.

Most of the kids want to spend time outside of the bubbles, except for the autistic kid. He feels comfortable there, spends more time exploring in the bubbles than anyone else. This is how he finds a hidden route that leads to the velociraptor enclosure. He meets our trainer there, and develops a bond with the raptors.

He uses this bond later in the movie, when the raptors have turned against their trainer: it’s the kid that gets the raptors to back down, and gives the humans time to escape.

The deaf kid is too cool for most of the other kids — and can’t communicate with most of them, since he insisted on not having an interpreter — but the autistic kid finds a way to communicate with him using the HUD built into the bubble cars.

The two become friends. Eventually the autistic kid shows him how to get out from the confines of their camp, which is why they’re MIA when the I Rex vanishes, kicking off the trainer and manager searching for them.

It’s a lot of changes, but now we’ve got a movie where every character is sympathetic — even the villains — and they’ve all got story arcs that have them growing and changing over the course of the movie. And with the CEO knowing most of his employees, each death has meaning, each disaster is something personal. And since our antagonists are real people, causing real but preventable havok, we can end the movie with the park damaged but intact, having survived this attack, and the manager and CEO vowing to recover and rebuild.

We can do something that hasn’t been done in a Jurassic Park movie before: end on a note of hope.

How to Fix Riddick

I love Pitch Black. It’s an almost perfect B movie to me, all horror and snark and very little fat left on the bone.

After the bloat of Chronicles of Riddick, I was hoping the third movie would be a return to form, stripping away the mythology of the sequel to reveal the basics that made the original great.

Instead, Riddick is just another male power fantasy, embracing every cliche possible, from “one man against the wilderness” to “masculine man of manliness converts lesbian to heterosexuality.”

What a mess.

But it’s not hopeless. There’s a good movie buried in there. We get flashes of it in the dialog given to the grunt mercs, which is cynical and darkly funny. We see more of it in the early scenes of Riddick hunting the mercs down, a horror film where Riddick is the monster.

It’s this film we need to strengthen.

We start by dropping the entire first third of the movie. I don’t care how Riddick ended up marooned on the world. The fact that he is marooned is what’s important, and that it happened after the events of Chronicles of Riddick. But I can learn he’s marooned there from the mercs’ dialog when they talk about someone setting off the emergency beacon, and I can deduce this is happening after Chronicles when I see Riddick wearing his Necromonger armor.

Instead of starting with backstory, the movie should open with the mercs landing. By starting there, all the mystery they encounter gives the movie tension. We know (or think we know) Riddick’s going to show up at some point, but we don’t know where or when or how. And when we find out he called the mercs there, and we read his note, we wonder when the bodies will start to fall.

The entire first half of the movie should be given over to this Alien-like horror sequence, with the mercs pitted against Riddick, the monster in the night.

Given more room to breathe, this part can tell us all we need to know about Riddick’s time on the planet. We can see him use his dog to trick the mercs. We can watch him use the water monsters’ poison to kill one or two of the others (and let him explain in an off-hand remark that he’s immune to their venom). By using the planet as part of his arsenal, we’ll get the sense that Riddick’s been there a while, that he knows his way around, and that the mercs face an uphill battle.

For the final half, we can introduce the rain storm. This twist forces Riddick to reach out to the (reduced to maybe one or two remaining) mercs for a truce, and now we get the scenes of a captured Riddick escaping and the tension of the mistrust between the two groups.

Finally, Dahl’s character should have a consistent sexuality. Either she should be — and remain — a lesbian, and the sexual talk between her and Riddick rewritten into a form of oddly respectful banter, or her line to Santana should be changed to “I don’t f— little boys,” and it made clear that she’s attracted to men that could their own against her in a fight (maybe by hitting on Diaz). Either way, their lines to each other need to be rewritten to show some chemistry — either friendly or otherwise — between the two.

Aliens vs Predator: Which is the Better Movie?

A friend of mine last week insisted that Aliens was a better movie than Predator. Having fond memories of both of these movies from my younger days, I didn’t believe her at first. I thought the movies were very different but equally good sci-fi films.

I re-watched both movies to test her thesis, and man, was I wrong. Aliens is far and away the better movie, and not just because Sigourney Weaver can out-act the former governor.

Both movies turn out to be very similar to each other, but the writing and structure of Aliens is much better, much better.

How They’re Similar

Both movies follow a military team into an uncertain situation. This uncertain situation turns out to contain an alien threat.

The alien threat in both cases clearly outmatches the resources of the team.

Both squads have an Outsider Who Is In Charge along with them (Dillon in Predator, Burke in Aliens). This Outsider has a different moral code than the rest of the team, being concerned with either profit or enemy intelligence above everything else.

The original mission in both movies is supposed to be rescue, but we find out the team has been tricked, and they’re really there to advance the Outsider’s agenda.

The Outsider is karmically punished for their betrayal of the team by the alien threat.

The climax of both movies is a one-on-one fight between the protagonist and the main alien threat.

What Aliens Does Better

Almost everything.

The Team

Let’s start with the team, since that’s who we spend most of the movie with. This is supposed to be a tight-knit group of people who have worked together for a long time, and we’re supposed to root for them throughout. So the film needs to take every chance it has to communicate that to us.

Aliens succeeds. Its marines seem to actually like each other, and function as team. We get to see them joking and talking as they come out of hyper-sleep and while they’re eating before the mission briefing. They continue to banter using their radios as the mission starts (before things go haywire).

We also get a clear sense of the hierarchy and role for each member of the team: we know who the sergeant is, which people are carrying the heavy guns, who’s got the radar for spotting, etc.

Predator fails to do any of this. The members of the team don’t seem to like each other at all. We don’t see them bantering, but we do see them do some macho posturing, which is not a substitute.

What’s more, none of the team members really seem to have a clear role. They all carry basically the same weapons, they don’t work in groups, and they all have the same skills.

The one exception is Billy, the tracker, but he’s so close to the “wise Native American hunter” stereotype that it doesn’t serve to flesh out his character, it just makes him more of a caricature.

The Betrayal

Next, the “turn” or “betrayal” moment, when we find out the Outsider has tricked the team.

In Aliens this is a real betrayal. Burke locked two of them in with an alien in the hopes it would impregnate one of them, and was ready to kill the others so he could take off on his own (with the alien and its host). The Outsider turns out to be a real threat to the team, and there’s conflict generated both in overcoming his betrayal and deciding how to punish him for it.

Predator‘s betrayal is much lower key. The team’s capture of the rebel camp seems effortless, with not much risk to any of the team members. Dillon’s betrayal is just an ulterior motive for getting in the camp. He never directly puts anyone’s lives in danger, and so the protagonist’s treatment of him feels overblown and melodramatic. There’s no real punch to it.

It would have been much better to make Dillon’s betrayal more serious. Imagine if Dutch’s team made it to the camp only to find that everyone was dead, with Anna the only survivor. She won’t talk, but they decide to take her back with them anyway. As they head back to the evac point, the team start getting picked off by the Predator. Eventually only Dutch, Anna, and Dillon are left.

Dillon finally confesses what’s really happening: he knew about the Predator, and contracted Dutch’s team under false pretenses because his first pick got wiped out by the alien. He wants to capture it, which is why he hasn’t been shooting to kill when he sees it. He’s ready to admit that he was wrong, though, and wants to help kill it so they can all get home.

Now Dutch has got a real moral problem: should he trust Dillon and work with him to defeat the predator? Or should he punish him for betraying his team and getting most of them killed?

Either choice is interesting, and would have a significant impact on the plot.

The Climax

Finally, the climax of Aliens is done better. I don’t just mean the robot-on-alien action (which is objectively awesome).

I mean that in the Predator climax, the alien gets progressively dumber. He starts out as this advanced warrior, but eventually ditches all his advantages — his armor, his gun, his helmet — to take on the protagonist in one-on-one combat. Against such a willfully dumb and weakened adversary, how could the protagonist lose?

In Aliens, the alien queen gets smarter as the fight goes on. We originally see her as just an egg laying machine. But she escapes from the power station before it blows up, stowing away on the ship. Once on the ship, she waits until they’re docked with the main one before emerging, and when she does she goes after the humans for food (Well, and maybe a little revenge. She does seem pissed off). She uses every advantage she has, all her strength and cunning, which makes Ripley’s victory even more impressive.

Rewatching: The Matrix Trilogy

I was happy to find that the first movie still holds up. I think part of why it works is because it is largely set in a 1999 that is frozen in time. It also helps that the basic structure of the movie is classic: naive youngster is shown a wider world, told of a prophecy where they will save the world, then begins to fulfill that prophecy.

The relative roles of the other main characters in the story bothered me this time, though, where they didn’t before. Morpheus is still amazing, but step back a bit and he’s one more wise black man guiding a white kid to a greatness that he can’t achieve. Trinity kicks ass, but squint and she’s a kung-fu wielding female who’s only there to fall in love with and support the male hero. For a film set in the future with a nominal theme of breaking down mental boundaries, these elements feel distinctly old and out of place.

The second and third movies are still complete failures, though. I enjoyed the second movie at the time, and remember hating the third one along with everyone else. But rewatching them showed me how much the two final films are really one film, and it’s not a good one.

I think a large part of the problem with the last two movies is that they violate the narrative expectations set by the first movie. The trilogy sequence setup in The Matrix was: a nobody becomes special (first film), then learns more about their specialness (second film), then pursues and achieves the mission for which they became special (third film).

But they skipped the second step, and padded the third step out over two movies. Mistake.

There’s a whole chunk of story missing, where we’d normally see Neo rescuing people from the Matrix — maybe getting frustrated that he can’t convince more people it’s fake? — and learning about what he can and can’t do. For example, he can’t do the Keymaker’s trick with doors: if we saw other people do it for an entire movie, but didn’t know how they were doing it, the Keymaker reveal would have a lot more punch.

Skipping that piece of the story prevents us from watching Neo learn and grow, and drops an opportunity to deepen the characterization of the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar along the way.

Given the current structure — and the large narrative hole in it — the last 2 movies should have been compressed into one. Cut out Zion, the attack on Zion subplot, the scenes with the last stand on the docks, etc. Stick to the thread of Neo and his crew chasing down the Keymaker and getting to the Source, then Neo taking a ship to the Machine City and ending the war.

Everything else — the machines attacking the docks, the sabotage of the ships by the Smith-infested human — can come to us as reports that Morpheus relays to the crew. This lets us keep the focus on Neo’s story, since we don’t have time to give the other plots and characters their due. Trying to squeeze them in — like the second and third films do — weakens Neo’s plot and doesn’t deliver any emotional heft. There’s simply not enough screen time.

The best course would have been to make the second bridging movie that’s missing, and then made the trimmed down third movie to wrap it up. Instead, we get one and a half good movies: the original Matrix, and the half a movie buried inside the latter two.