Don’t Call It a Comeback

At the movies: Battle of the Sexes and Blade Runner 2049

Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton’s new film, Battle of the Sexes, is a fascinating anomaly. It’s a tennis movie not all that interested in sports, a feminist allegory not all that interested in society, and a historical drama about events it seems to argue could’ve happened last week. What it is, primarily, is easy to watch, occasionally visually stunning, masterfully edited, and ultimately predictable—which, of course, doesn’t matter.

It’s 1973, and women’s singles champion Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) faces off against Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) in an intersex clash of the titans at the Houston Astrodome before a TV audience of ninety million. The match itself takes up perhaps ten minutes of screen time; mostly, we luxuriate in the lead-up. (I’d like to see a triple feature of this film, 2008’s Frost/Nixon, and 2016’s Elvis and Nixon, all gloriously seventies, all mostly about desperate but somehow flashy preparation.)

We follow King, as she helps found a women’s tour and explores her sexuality, and Riggs, as he deals with the dissolution of his marriage and his rampant gambling addiction. The titular battle, we learn, serves different purposes for each—King, the more high-minded, has something to prove on behalf of women’s lib. Riggs, more of a buffoon than an outright sexist, is merely excited at the prospect of the spotlight and the prize money. We laugh along with him throughout, until we see male fans at the Astrodome holding signs bearing the slogan “I Am a Male Chauvinist Pig”— Riggs’s mantra. The film’s interest is not solely in the flamboyant sexism of, say, tennis exec Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), but also the kind that reminds us that the words and attitudes of individuals matter—and resonate. The movie is ground-level: It’s King’s success, rather than the broad-based success of women generally, that drives the more aspirational elements of the plot.

It’d be obvious even to the historically illiterate viewer that King is fated to win from the get-go (as she did, in straight sets), and yet, remarkably, both Riggs and King come off as remarkably complex, flawed, and sympathetic. Stone and Carell are live wires; it seems cruel that, in both this film and in Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011), they share only momentary screen time. In the latter picture, Stone shows up at a birthday party thrown by Carell, where the two barely talk, and, in Sexes, their longest conversation occurs by telephone. Perhaps they are to be this generation’s Pacino and De Niro in Heat (1995), dancing around each other at a distance, only with rackets instead of handguns. What’s new here—and what belies this film’s title—is that somehow, barely interacting, both Stone and Carell each manage, through sheer dogged excellence, to support and justify the other’s performance, and the film itself, from afar and within. Stone’s sweetness gives the unconventional Carell a springboard, while Carell’s blithe ignorance gives Stone’s freedom fighter a reason to exist. Thus one of the film’s more surprising, and interesting, themes—symbiosis.

**

Talk about symbiosis—Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) and the newly released sequel, Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049, both begin with an extreme close-up of a breathtakingly green eye opening, and both end with an image of an uncertain Harrison Ford: in Scott’s film, his face behind a closing elevator door, and in Villeneuve’s, behind a plate-glass window.

2049 is its own film, though, self-evidently so. In the first Blade Runner, Scott’s future world, where androids called replicants, indistinguishable from humans, roam the earth, leaned on visual themes of inaccessibility and claustrophobia; in the process, it was innovative in literally every frame. Villeneuve’s sequel, by contrast, is visually wide-open, letting K (Ryan Gosling), the spiritual follower of Ford’s Rick Deckard, fly in his hovercraft above the same cityscape that hemmed in the world of the first film. In place of innovation, per se, 2049 is cool, relentlessly cool, from start to nearly-three-hours-later finish. This may sound dismissive, but it’s not meant to be. We need more sweep and more sprawl in science fiction, and the first step is to look gorgeous. Villeneuve (who also directed Arrival), and cinematographer Roger Deakins, have that in the bag.

The story doesn’t handle the sprawl quite as well. Hampton Fancher, who co-wrote the first film, takes screenplay duties here along with Michael Green (Logan), and his world-building is agreeably complex and difficult, but there’s a lot that just doesn’t add up. Thematic threads are taken up and abandoned (a prospective rebellion comes to mind), twists are disappointing or manipulative, and eventually we move definitively into the realm of traditional sequel box-checking: Harrison Ford, it seems, must in every reboot or reimagining have an uncomfortable reunion with his offspring. Admirably, both Fancher and Green and Villeneuve seem totally committed to the vision of the film, and the mosaic is conceptually total even if imperfect, which is a rarer and rarer quality in modern sci-fi. But the awkward moral argument that replicants are basically parallel to slaves plays even less convincingly here than in the original. “If a baby can come from one of us,” intones Hiam Abbass, as a replicant rebel leader, “then we are our own masters.” Really? Who says?

It should be no surprise that Ford and Gosling have the chemistry that was so lacking between Ford’s Han Solo and John Boyega’s Finn in the most recent Star Wars picture; after all, the stars of 2049 appear to have been hewn from the same block of faintly smirking granite. But Sylvia Hoeks, as a replicant who does double duty as a corporate executive and an assassin, is, in her terrifying weepy blankness, the best thing in the film. The cherry on top is that her character’s name, in an instance of triumphant ridiculousness, is Luv; Ana de Armas also pops up as a hologram named Joi. Presumably the other five dwarves were unavailable. Jared Leto, as Niander Wallace, Luv’s boss and the ostensible big bad, is by comparison a bore, spouting the same pseudo-religious gobbledygook you might expect to hear passing Jared Leto on the street. Many stretches of this film drag a bit, but watching Leto, and imagining the method antics he got up to on set, is like Chinese water torture.

The film is constantly probing and ambitious, but it’s truly exciting only in one sequence, set on what’s left of a beach in Los Angeles. In one delicious moment, Hoeks and Gosling, rolling over one another as they fight to the death, slip under a crashing wave, and you hold out hope they’ll emerge in a lovers’ embrace, like Lancaster and Kerr in From Here to Eternity. (2049, to its credit, seems obsessed with Frank Sinatra, so this isn’t as far out as it sounds.) Alas, they merely continue to strangle and stab one another, in the style of high-concept action movies—which, one comes to realize, is basically what 2049 wants to be. As the tussle continues, Ford, trapped in a car rapidly sinking into the surf, rolls his eyes and emits an audible sigh. This guy can have fun anywhere.