Tomb Raider and character through action

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We’ve seen so many of them – the fast-moving sequence where a character dashes, dodges, darts and dives through one stunt after another, with maybe a pinch of violence thrown in there to spice things up. It’s hard to find an original action sequence these days, and harder still to find one that helps build up character in the process.

Films and stories often do this through dialogue peppered in the action – accusations, questions, and flat exposition while two people slug the crap out of each other. It’s more fun, though, to learn about a character by what they do.

In Tomb Raider, there’s a sequence early on where our protagonist, Lara, is riding a bike as part of a contest, pursued by other bikers. At a certain point, desperate to evade capture, Lara lifts her bike into the back of a moving truck and hides with it. This, while perhaps not strictly against the rules, is definitely against their spirit. We learn, in that moment, that Lara isn’t above doing a bit of cheating to get what she wants.

This might not seem like a big deal, but the move reinforces Lara’s prior actions and shows she’s not afraid of the consequences of being caught. She’s wild, she’s free, and she’s willing to risk her reward entirely for a better chance to win. Those traits come back again and again throughout the movie, and we’re not confused or put off when Lara tries similar gambits in much greater danger, because the story has set us up to believe that’s who she is.

What I really like, though, is the extra thought that goes into how Lara would act in a certain situation. It’s easy to put together an action scene in your head, to plug the characters into their positions and let the movement run. What’s harder, and far more rewarding, is taking that same situation and viewing it through the lens of your character’s eyes. How would they see what’s happening in front of them? How would they, with their worldview and life experience, react?

It’s a challenge. One that, when successful, allows your audience to believe in a character’s actions even when they’re in a setting so far outside the realm of everyday life.

Like, say, an island full of maniacal madmen and mysterious tombs.

A couple things:

  1. Starshot, my next book, is almost done with the editing process (and it’s sequel is closing in on first draft completion). I’m trying a slightly different method with these – namely, writing the first few before releasing any, because it’ll be more fun for readers if the sequel is days away instead of months or years. Either way, I’m having a grand time exploring this strange universe.
  2. Now that it’s warm outside, our cats are clambering to go outside again. We’re not a fan of decimating local bird populations, so we leash them to a stake that lets the two kitties prowl around our little garden and firepit, where they can sunbathe but are otherwise mostly harmless to wildlife. What it really means for me, though, is that every breakfast for the next six to seven months will be eaten to the melodious song of desperate meows from a pair of cats that want nothing more than to sniff their way through grass. It’s a true delight.

Black Panther and the well-drawn side character

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There are numerous reasons to like Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, but if I have to pick one, and given the standard size of these posts, I do – then it’s the full, dynamic characters the movie constructs.

This goes beyond the titular Black Panther himself and Killmonger, the villain. Most stories are going to invest a lot of time in their leads, and this one isn’t much different. Where Black Panther really builds its own quality, though, is through its supporting cast. The players movies bring in for a scene or three to propel the protagonist to the next objective, the ones that often have all the depth of cardboard.

By my improvised count, Black Panther has nine substantial side characters, of which 7 or so have real arcs and motivations. The question here, though, is not what those arcs are, but rather how we can find ways to incorporate similar arcs and depth into our own fiction.

Weirdly, I think the best place to define these arcs is outside of the story you are writing. Instead, take the character into the proverbial void of your notebook paper and sketch them out as if they were the star of their own lives. Put together a quick list of what they want, where they came from, and, maybe, some of their interests. It’s not reams of paper, and shouldn’t take more than a few minutes.

And guess what? You won’t use most of this in what you’re writing. You shouldn’t.

Black Panther certainly doesn’t. What it does, and what you should do, is use pieces from that list to flesh out the scenes in which these characters do appear. This is a minor spoiler from the movie, but one of the side characters remarks, in a scene, that she dislikes having hair. Later, she remarks that “guns are primitive”.

Neither of these remarks are necessary, neither help Black Panther stop the villains, but they add color and dimension to her character. They help us, the audience, form an idea of her world-view, which helps us make sense of her actions down the line. What we don’t get is some elaborate history of why she holds these opinions, or a drawn-out conversation about the lines. The creators may have those in their back pockets, but we don’t need those, because this is still a side character we’re talking about. We’re not that interested, but we should believe in their authenticity.

So now that we’ve scattered bits and pieces of our characters on a page, we can look at developing an arc for them. In simple terms, an arc is something that begins at one point and ends at another – in a story, that journey generally results in a change of perspective. In Black Panther, the arcs that characters go through are numerous and varied, though they’re not all complex, and most fit in with the progress of the story.

This last bit is important – you want your characters to develop as the plot moves along, and ideally all of them wind up somewhere different than where they started (otherwise, what’s the point?). But, especially for small characters, you don’t want to derail the narrative with low-stakes side stories just to check that arc box. Rather, try to define their own arcs to fit their role in the larger story.

In Black Panther, one of the characters firmly believes she can do more good by operating on her own than by being part of the established Wakanda government. She wants independence, and to do things her own way. Over the course of the story, in which she finds that her skills are needed in Wakanda to keep the things she loves, well, alive, she changes her mind.

She learns this not by embarking on some random solo journey that sees her absent at a time of great need, but rather by actually being present in Wakanda, where the main action is, and realizing how badly her home needs her there. The main story flows along, we never really leave the protagonist/antagonist, but she completes her arc nonetheless.

Anyway, I’ve rambled on long enough – Black Panther has great characters, most of whom are more than one-scene jokes or plot devices, most of whom feel like real people, which is what makes it a great movie.

Check it out.

Wyoming is Cold

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You rarely see temperate desolation. It’s either scorching desert, or, as in Wind River‘s case, an expanse of Wyoming wilderness where, as Jeremy Renner’s wildlife ranger states, “It’s too cold to snow.”

The movie, which is available on US Netflix now, is a taut, interesting thriller that uses a familiar combination of young, naive hero out of her element and an older, experienced mentor to guide her. The difference, to me, is that Wind River spends far less time with the rookie than with the Renner’s weathered hero.

This turn could backfire – it’s harder, obviously, to convey the history that has made a person who they are than to start with a blank slate. Wind River does this with a mix of show-and-tell, with numerous physical cues in Renner’s appearance, the setup of his house (pictures of unexpected loved ones), and, most interesting, an opening conversation with his ex-wife that immediately sets Renner’s character up as one who both knows the costs of his decisions and accepts them anyway to live the life he wants.

Anyway, it’s worth a look if you want a murder mystery with more character depth than clues to solve. Also, hard to get enough of the shots of Wyoming wilderness. Having been out that way before, it’s definitely gorgeous and worth a visit. Bring your skis and snowmobile.

A couple things:

  • Continuing to love the voice recorder over my phone. Holds a lot more dialogue, and it’s easy to plug into the laptop and transcribe. If you’re serious about dictation, look at getting one of these. I use one by Sony that’s relatively cheap and superb.
  • Starting Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero, which is something like an alternate, real-world version of Scooby Doo where the kids are adults. Giving me IT vibes, but with more comedy.

A Better Aquaman: The Shape of Water

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I saw The Shape of Water recently and found it functioned like a beautifully rendered vision of someone’s dream. Someone who had either been reading a lot of Aquaman comics, or doing a fair amount of drugs while sitting in front of an aquarium. That’s the thing about movies: they are visions. Those of the director, the writer, the actors, the cinematographer, and a whole assembly of people who have come together to enact what was, at one point, a jumbled imagination in someone’s mind.

The Shape of Water executes his vision not flawlessly, but with cracked exuberance. There’s so much joy in its shots; those austere labs, tiny apartments, and diners. The movie spins Soviet intrigue, mad scientists, and the creature from the Black Lagoon together for… love. It works, and it’s fun to watch the plots whirl around because the cast does everything they can to sell their characters.

It all leads to a satisfying, if unsurprising end. I didn’t mind though, because what makes this movie so fascinating isn’t the main plot. It’s the intertwining lives of everyone involved in this madhouse.

There are little details strewn about this movie. Cracks filled in that would normally be left to the void in other films. We get a wholly unnecessary, and yet wonderfully appreciated side story involving the main character’s best friend: an out of work commercial painter. He’s trying to work up to spilling his affections for somebody, and happens to eat a whole lot of pie he doesn’t want to in the process. That, plus his difficult search for a job in this new world of photography, plays out in a few scenes that add a touch of color to the movie. The Shape of Water reminds you that this is all happening in a real world, where everyone has the same problems we do. It’s not Marvel Comics. World annihilation is not on the table.

But there is a water monster. One that obeys the horror movie principle by keeping its mysteries to the edges of the story, where we (and the characters) are free to speculate about what it really is.

So is The Shape of Water good? Is it worth seeing?

I think that depends on your appetite for imagination. There are certain boundaries that are stretched in films like these. In director Guillermo Del Toro’s other work too. If you like Pan’s Labyrinth, or even Hellboy, you’ll find plenty to enjoy about this one. If you find things that stretch realism, well, unrealistic, then perhaps the sight of a merman is enough of a giveaway that this one’s not for you.

There’s silly fun in seeing science-fiction oddities come to screen. To have them so widely nominated for Oscars, as the Shape of Water has 13 nominations currently. Seeing a whole vision come through all the Hollywood machinery intact is a delight in and of itself. Like going to an art gallery and spotting a master’s paintings. Even if they’re not your favorite, you can still respect the craft involved and take some joy in witnessing that kind of effort.

So there we are then. The Shape of Water is a master class in filming a fairy tale. I say go see it. I say open your eyes and ears to something little different, something that is by turns absurd and by other turns heartfelt and by most turns beautiful.

Ben Bradlee and character depth

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There’s a movie out now, The Post, that acts as a sort of prequel to the 1976 film All the President’s Men. Both of these concern The Washington Post and, in major and supporting roles (respectively), the newspaper’s editor at the time, Ben Bradlee. Played by Tom Hanks in the newer one and Jason Robards in the older (in an Oscar-winning turn), the editor certainly received his due from Hollywood. He’s a hero in both stories, and pushes the protagonists towards their eventual goals. That’s fine. That’s swell.

What’s interesting is that Bradlee, in both films, bursts onto the scene and chews it up whenever he’s on camera. Crass dialogue, gruff demeanor, burns through a pack a day. Bradlee takes no prisoners in the name of journalistic excellence. And yet, in neither film do we get much insight into how he became who he was. Neither film follows Bradlee as an origin story. He just is.

I wish it was that easy. That a character could jump fully-formed into the picture and be true to him or herself in every situation. Could act authentic and all that. In my experience, that’s rare. Your newest creation, Deidre Jenkins, might break through the door with a pair of knitting needles and demand her stolen ball of yarn, and the sheer awesomness of that scene might keep the readers around for another few pages, but when Deidre blows off your young knitting hero, telling him that his dream of knitting the perfect scarf is a fool’s errand, you’d better have a reason for her to think that. An experience from her past, perhaps. Maybe Deidre knitted a scarf for her friend, and, when leaving a train, the scarf caught in the doors and… you get the idea.

Point being, Deidre has to have enough of a past, enough real to make her actions plausible. Even if none of this detail (and, in most cases, it shouldn’t) reaches the reader, your work will come through in how the character behaves. In their consistency. In the subtle maneuvers they make, like meeting another person’s eyes or hovering at the edge of a room.

We don’t know a lot about Ben Bradlee from the two movies he’s been in, but he’s still a fully-realized character. We understand why he takes the actions he does, and they fall in line with his character. There’s a great scene in The Post, towards the beginning, where Bradlee asks an intern to help figure out whether the New York Times is getting a scoop. He doesn’t ask the intern to commit a crime, and he’s not advocating the intern bribe or steal things. It establishes immediately that Bradlee is both competitive and, to some degree, honorable.

Now, it’s one thing to say this about a living, breathing person who literally has a history to track and a character defined by what they actually did. Watch the HBO documentary on Ben Bradlee and you’ll get a better picture of what made the editor such a force in the newsroom. Still, taking a few minutes to establish a baseline for your side characters can lend them real authenticity. You’ll keep their actions consistent, and their goals will match (hopefully) with their own reality. That way, you won’t wind up with people randomly changing their minds, pursuing objectives that don’t align with their ultimate desires, or (worst) that seem to do nothing and are there only as foils to help the heroes/villains develop.

Every character, even Deidre and her knitting needles, deserves to be, even just a little bit, real.

Pottersville: Finally the Furries get some Respect

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There’s a Netflix movie, at least I recently saw it on Netflix though I don’t know that it’s actually their own, called Pottersville. It concerns, among other things, furries.

Attacking weird concepts is a great strength of comedy. If you inserted, say, characters who like to dress up as costumed animals into a serious drama, you would feel compelled to make being a furry something of relevance. Something of, perhaps, metaphorical importance. A drastic personality trait with layers upon layers of meaning. A furrie cake, if you will.

Instead, in Pottersville, it’s simply something people like to do. Just as you might enjoy a morning jog, or I might enjoy going to the play at the theater. These people go to the middle of the woods, light a few fires, and dance around while dressed like bunnies and wolves and foxes. It’s all good.

Pottersville does a great job of giving this the same treatment as any other odd hobby. In general, the film does a great job presenting the quirks of a small town without judgment. Characters within the movie have personalities, goals and dreams that seem just as real and relevant as those in steamy New York romances, and gritty crime dramas. They’re just as desperate to find the lives they want. Just the stuff is desperate to find a story to be a part of. And that’s cool. It is, in fact, funny and engaging.

One of the beautiful things about being creative is that you can take your story, your vision and make it whatever you want. My laptop, right now, has as its background girl writing a flying sea turtle over some sort of urban coast. This eternal has wings instead of fins. Does it make any sense? Of course not. But then, to whom ever created, and must’ve presented itself. A vision to be made something more.

That’s a Pottersville is. Someone came up with the story, wrote it down in a number of other folks banded together to film and. It’s pretty neat that they can take something so small and weird and turn it into something, well, slightly larger and still weird.

Sidenote: It’s often funny to me to look up a movie after I’ve seen it (particularly one I didn’t know existed till it showed up on Netflix and we chose it at random) and find out that critics generally thought Pottersville was boring and unoriginal. In this case, I’m glad I saw the film before reading the reviews, or I’m sure we wouldn’t have watched it. Differing opinions are par for the course in a subjective medium, I suppose.

A brief, late word on Star Wars: The Last Jedi

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There’s not really much to say that hasn’t been said about Star Wars: The Last Jedi. The film has been talked about to death by just about every media outlet, twitter feed, and squawking parrot out there.

And you know what? That’s good. It’s supposed to happen to a cultural phenomenon. It’s something that, I think, any creator would love to have happened to their project.


I looked at it, as I look at all of the new Star Wars films as they come out, as some sort of culmination of a childhood spent wishing I could fly among the stars. It’s a condition from which I can’t be cured. Dashing between the planets with Han Solo, Luke Skywalker and the rest held a prime place in the pantheon of childhood dreams.

George Lucas’ vision represented an escape that my life, relatively easy as it was, certainly didn’t merit, but that I pined after anyway. Action, adventure, galactic consequences with, seemingly, a perfect ending (for the original trilogy, anyway).

So part of me expects, when I see those big bold yellow letters splash across the screen, is the infinite possibilities of childhood. Which is why I’ve enjoyed The Last Jedi more every time I’ve seen it. As if my adult self is gradually filtering those impossible childhood dreams and letting me enjoy the movie for what it is.

The takeaway, I think, is that we will always see pieces of our past in new movies, books, and TV. When those new works inevitably fail to measure up to the rose-colored history, stop.

Take a breath.

Then watch it again. Preferably with popcorn. Or a loved one/friend that doesn’t have the same baggage you do.

Now here’s the real trick – after it’s over, argue for it. Be a fan. See the film in a positive way (this can be difficult if the thing is actually terrible, but maybe that makes it more fun?).

And you might find it’s better the second time. You might find that, in fact, it’s not your childhood at all but is, instead, its own story and you’ve just made new memories.

And yet…

I’m sure I’ll forget all this when the next one comes out.

Thor: Ragnarok and making stereotypes triumphant

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An action-packed November meant, despite all the enthusiasm, a viewing of Thor: Ragnarok eluded me until this past weekend. With the ol’ MoviePass in hand, Nicole and I settled into the front row and had our faces melted by the Thunder God and his green Hulk friend. Action aplenty, of course. CGI-drenched. One liners flying hot and heavy. In other words, everything you’d expect from a Marvel flick. And, as ever, what makes it work are the characters.

Thor has something of a Superman problem – at first glance, anyway. He’s a god, with all kinds of superpower and a feel of (despite not actually having) immortality. He flies around, shoots lightning, and throws people for hundreds of yards. Thor wants for a weakness. Something to make him relatable. In the movies, Marvel chose to do this by making Thor, uh, less than savvy. He’s not necessarily a moron, but Thor doesn’t exactly light up the room with his intricate schemes or deep introspections. Still, being a little on the simple side isn’t enough, and the first two Thor films struggled with giving the lightning guy much of an arc, despite the fact that Chris Hemsworth’s rendition was always fun to hang with.

Thor doesn’t have Tony Stark’s personal journey from billionaire playboy to haunted, avenging inventor, nor Captain America’s endless supply of justice in a world that has none to draw from. Rather than invent something, though, Thor: Ragnarok allows, finally, Thor to just be who he is. The movie is less about some terrible external threat and more about Thor just doin’ Thor things, with the understanding that it’s damned fine if you’re a super-strong lightning god that happens to like fighting and helping people. And it’s fun! The movie doesn’t try to make itself into some grand evolution about power and blah blah blah. Nah. None of this makes sense anyway, and our lead is a dude who likes to smash stuff with a hammer, and failing that, his fists.

So what’s that word “Stereotype” doing up there in the title?

There are two (for this example anyway) types of stereotypes – negative and positive. We’ve already established that Thor: Ragnarok is a positive flick, and so it’s concerned with taking Thor’s stereotype as the “dumb jock” and letting it ride. What happens if your dumb jock happens to have a good heart and enough strength to get the job done? Turns out, makes for a pretty entertaining movie.

We so often view stereotypes in a negative sense – the idea that something’s been done before, or that a character is going to act a certain way just because that’s the simplest way to present them, that it’s refreshing to see the other side. To see what is so often pictured in the negative brought to the positive. Hulk does the same thing – essentially an even more severe version of Thor, Hulk too smashes and bashes around and it’s a grand time because everyone’s having fun. Hulk’s not getting served some moral lesson for loving to fight. We’re not bemoaning the fact that Hulk doesn’t look at the broader implications of a life lived devoted to violence. Nope. Hulk’s here to destroy stuff, and that’s what he does.

Which, ultimately, brings us back to the point of the movie (or book, or painting, or whatever). Namely, if you want to have a stereotype in your story, consider making it a positive one, or twisting a common negative trait into a positive light (or even the defining trait that allows the hero to overcome their antagonist). It’s much more fun and interesting to see things that are normally faults play turn into causes of success.

Oh, and if you haven’t seen Thor: Ragnarok, and have any interest in superhero flicks or comedies, check it out. You’ll have a grand time.

Coco and the non-essential villain

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Yes, Coco is a good movie. It’s fun, it takes on a unique culture and history with reverence, seeking to entertain and inform and succeeding on both counts. You walk away with a better idea (if you didn’t know already) of why the Day of the Dead is such an important holiday. It’s a movie about a young boy who discovers his family is much more than he thinks it is. It’s a story about those same family members realizing that, perhaps, their own grudges aren’t worth keeping.

Coco also keeps up taut tension without ever having a single, primary villain until the very end (and even then, this isn’t a villain that’ll have you quaking in fear). In fact, for most of the movie, there’s not a whole lot of risk involved to the boy, Miguel, himself. Yet, despite the lack of a hard antagonist, Coco doesn’t let you get bored. Coco succeeds despite its missing antagonist for a couple of main reasons, both of which are worth looking at incorporating into my (or your) own works:

  1. Plenty of shifting, minor threats – rather than one big enemy, Coco presents a number of smaller dangers throughout the movie. None of these have the deadly possibilities of most antagonists, but any and all, if successful, would cause significant setbacks to our hero. And because Coco never lingers on any of these too long, mostly because Miguel has overcome the threat in some fashion, we never have the chance to get bored by the lack of doom. Coco keeps up the tension through a shuffling cup game – never quite letting us know where the next conflict will come from, which keeps us from caring about a core villain.
  2. A vibrant world we want to explore – Miguel takes the viewers on an exploration through the world of the dead, and it’s a fascinating, colorful place to visit. The wide shots, teases and tastes of how this magical place works are simply too much fun – there’s no time to worry about where the danger’s coming from because we’re too busy taking it all in. This, I think, plays better in film than in the written word, where pages and pages of description, no matter how wonderful, can leave readers falling asleep or thumbing ahead to the next gunfight.
  3. Compelling B Characters  – Coco has a brilliant cast of side characters. Miguel’s family, who make up the stars of Coco, along with Miguel himself, all have personality. They have goals, problems, and arcs. They aren’t talking exposition dumps, or one-note caricatures (for the most part), and they expand to fill the space a villain would otherwise occupy. By the time the actual evildoer is revealed, I almost didn’t care. I wanted more time with the goofy collection of characters we’d already met.
  4. A central mystery that isn’t tied to a villain – Coco‘s core plot revolves around a mystery, and while the resolution of that mystery eventually brings Miguel to encounter the villain, his journey to answer the question serves in place of a direct counter. I’d put this down as essential whether or not you have a hard, active villain, and while Coco‘s mystery isn’t exactly original, it’s compelling enough to keep the story moving forward.

The point of all this, of course, is that it’s entirely possible to craft a compelling narrative without a strong villain, especially if you have a protagonist or setting that doesn’t encourage an active antagonist. Coco could have made itself into a frenetic action movie, with plenty of cartoon violence and chase sequences throughout the land of the dead. Instead, through Miguel, we experience the setting slowly, let its wonder seep into us, and when the plot eventually catches up, it’s almost disappointing. Would that more movies did as much with their worlds as Coco does.


Blade Runner 2049 and the beautifully slow

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There was a certain moment while I sat there in the comfy recliners (most main theaters in Madison have swapped to this style of bigger chairs and reserved seating – I don’t mind) and recalled, with technical wonder zipping by in front of me, that Harrison Ford was supposed to be in this movie. The film had been playing for a while by this point, longer than some entire movies and far more than most go before introducing their main plot twist, let alone a major character.

What’s more important, though – I didn’t care.

There’s a phrase, coined by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “suspension of disbelief”.

Often, we use those words to describe how we have to silence our niggling inner selves when watching, reading, or taking in most stories of any kind. Looking for fallacies in entertainment is likely to ruin it. However, the entertainment must also make its contract with the audience – namely, it’s not going to waste your time with one implausible event after another. It’s going to earn that suspension.

Blade Runner 2049 earns it. And it does so by not rushing you through its universe. There’s audacity behind the shots, the scenes, the methodical introduction to all the various facets that have made this story’s world what it is. You feel the dystopia. The constant rain and haze, the prevalence of things both real and virtual designed to take you away from the dreary place. Little touches jar you ever so slightly – a farmer describing garlic to someone who hasn’t experienced it, the people hanging in an apartment stairwell with nothing better to do, the massive corporate ads blasting through windows – all of these act as helping hands to get you to buy into the Blade Runner universe.

So when the action picks up, though Blade Runner 2049, like its predecessor, is more about moments of heavy action than long sequences of violence, you’re invested. You understand the world, the stakes, and why those within it do what they do.

Which isn’t to say that there aren’t weaknesses – the villains, especially, lack much depth. They’re blandly characterized in techno-villain style; crusaders with an ends-justify-the-means ethos. It’s never really explained why they have to be so brutal in their pursuit, but then, they’re not the stars of the show.

Gosling’s character acts as the lens for us, and it’s a reserved one. A character that rarely lets emotion come to the surface, much like the world he inhabits. At first, it feels similar to his character in Drive – a person more often quiet than not, willing to do what needs doing and damn the consequences. But there are cracks in that facade that widen as the story gets told. Cracks that ultimately bring their own power to the central question of the Blade Runner films – are replicants and humans truly different?

Whatever the answer , Blade Runner 2049 is worth your time. Preferably in a dark room or theater, where the atmosphere can build over its nearly 3 hour runtime and you find yourself utterly within the grips of its world.