Category Archives: Science Fiction

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018) Film Review

In your typical Jurassic movie, the first sighting of a brachiosaurus is a moment of pure wonder. In Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, this moment is framed differently. On Isla Nublar, in the ruins of Jurassic World, Dr. Zia Rodriguez (Daniella Pineda) jumps out of a jeep to observe this majestic herbivore, and the whole moment is minor key, both in terms of Michael Giacchino’s score with its sorrowful motifs and the backdrop of an island in natural chaos; we’re then shooed along to the next scene by another character. The uncharitable reading of the scene is that it’s an obligatory reference to past films in the series, presented with a confused tone, trying to invoke a sense of wonder and subverting it at the same time, and rushed through anyways, so what’s the point? You don’t know which thread to hang onto. Fallen Kingdom is a movie that struggles to cohere its ideas together, even as it remains competently entertaining in the moment.

Brachiosaurus

When Isla Nublar’s now-active volcano threatens all dinosaur life on the island, Jurassic World executive turned committed dino preservationist Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) is recruited by Eli Mills (Rafe Spall, doing his best Ryan Reynolds impression) to help get the dinosaurs to a stable ecosystem. But darker plans, and GMOs (genetically modified organisms), are afoot.

Isla Nublar Eruption

Dinosaurs are great (and the film puts them through the wringer, to an extent that will make some viewers uncomfortable), but we need a connection to human characters to fully engage with these movies. The characters given to us from screenwriters Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow are difficult to invest in, both in this film and previous entry Jurassic World. The biggest problem for the returning players is that it seems like almost everyone’s character has been retconned.

In World, Claire sees the dinosaurs only as “assets”, then learns to respect them as animals. That’s a character arc. In Fallen Kingdom, Claire recalls the first time she ever saw a dinosaur, recalls it as a miracle, and says she “still believes that”. So the writers frame her as retroactively being a dinosaur lover from the beginning. Connolly and Trevorrow, you wrote this character. This isn’t going to fly. Owen Grady’s (Chris Pratt) personal connection with the velociraptors is key, and mined for emotion, but at the top of the movie, he acts like he couldn’t care less about the dinosaurs (seemingly for the sake of a half-baked tough-guy arc). The late John Hammond (the late Richard Attenborough) is quoted as saying, “these creatures need our absence”. This is consistent with his characterization in The Lost World, after seeing his theme park/glorified zoo turn disastrous. But according to corporate heir Simon Masrani in World, Hammond’s dying wish was that the park be finally open and thriving. So when Connolly and Trevorrow need Hammond to give imaginary weight to the idea of the theme park in full swing, it’s one thing. And when they need Hammond to give imaginary weight to the idea of dinosaur rights, it’s another.

Claire Dearing

Something I have to give the writers credit for is not forgetting that it’s Claire, not Owen, who is the lead of these movies. But then again, there’s so little character real estate for either of them, it’s almost arbitrary at this point. New supporting characters don’t improve the ensemble much either. Franklin Webb (Justice Smith) is tech support comic relief, grating more often than amusing. Zia fares better; but the whole scared man and cool, calm, collected woman in the wild double-act felt obvious even earlier this year when it showed up in Dwayne Johnson vehicle Rampage.

Owen Grady Franklin Hall Claire Dearing Zia Rodriguez

When the good guys are such ciphers, once again I gravitate to the scoundrel: Vincent D’Onofrio in World, now Ted Levine’s Ken Wheatley in Fallen Kingdom. Levine is a lot of fun to watch, albeit playing a supremely clichéd mercenary character, and doing a better job twirling his mustache than the other villains of the piece. But the writers have to spoil the fun of his villainy by giving him an obvious President You-Know-Who line. Now I can’t even enjoy him being bad! Character is not this movie’s strong suit.

Owen Grady Tyrannosaurus Rex Claire Dearing

If Fallen Kingdom has a strong suit, it lies in the visuals. I haven’t liked director Juan Antonio Bayona’s other films, but it’s not because they looked bad. World’s gunmetal blue visuals are blown out of the water here, and Bayona adds some flair to some of the money shots. Hands-down the best moment of the movie comes when the dinosaur evacuation is ending. From the dock, a lone brachiosaurus gazes at the retreating boat. The ravaging eruption at her back, smoke billows around her and takes on an orange tinge, suggesting the amber from which the dinosaur was created. Back to amber, dust to dust.

Back to Amber Dust to Dust

The finale at the Lockwood Estate offers a variety of action (in contrast to the uninspiring disaster movie material beforehand). The pleasingly grotesque auction; the stygimoloch rampage (tragically, the name of that dinosaur is never spoken on screen. Throw us a bone!); the most elaborate one-on-one fistfights of the series. Bayona’s flourishes come most into play here, playing up the surreal “haunted house” quality of a raptor on the loose in a domestic setting.

Ankylosaurus Auction

But it’s the missteps that stand out. The T-Rex card is played in the first scene, a sequence in which the stakes aren’t clear. A token animal rights story is more-or-less shelved early on, and I don’t know what central point the movie is trying to make. The “it was all a lie” moment from the trailer doesn’t land with the proper context or motivation. There’s a very dumb twist late in the game; the worst part is that it’s there just to facilitate one inane, facepalm moment. The ending is attention grabbing, but poorly thought-out, an epithet that applies to most of the screenplay.

Indoraptor Lockwood Estate

For all its sins, Jurassic World hangs together more than its sequel. Fallen Kingdom offers some decent visual styling and two likable leads (as a consequence of being smoothed out with a rolling pin), but is also hamstrung by a confused screenplay. While passably entertaining, the film is also no more than the sum of its genetically hybridized parts. After the previous installment slashed a swathe through filmgoers’ wallets the whole (Jurassic) world over, Universal spared no expense here. It was in service of a movie that’s just okay. A weak 5/10.

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Hotel Artemis (2018) Mini-Review

Hotel Artemis

“No water in L.A., but it’s raining assholes in here.” So says the Nurse (played by a whirlwind of Jodie Foster), head of the Artemis, an exclusive hospital for contract criminals. The film Hotel Artemis follows the Nurse, her earnest orderly (an on-point Dave Bautista), and her colorful clients, on one fateful 2028 night marked by blazing water riots on the streets of Los Angeles.

A members-only hotel for killers governed by a strict set of rules – so far, so (John) Wickensian. But Hotel Artemis carves its own identity (occasionally on a human neck). Writer-director Drew Pearce keeps things contained within the evocatively designed Hotel, making the movie a chamber piece that unfolds like a finely tuned play. In a play you need characters it’s a pleasure to watch bounce off of each other, and the film delivers. Sterling K. Brown is a likable, solid-as-a-rock heist mastermind, offering a humane bedrock among the clients. As an effortlessly magnetic French assassin, Sofia Boutella finds maybe her best role yet (and she has pretty good taste). Best of all is the Nurse, animated by a bravura performance from Foster. She injects world-weary humor into this ideal protagonist, forever shambolically running to fix up the next patient, put out the next fire.

Pearce’s screenplay overflows with punchy neo-noir dialogue, enhancing the feeling of Hotel Artemis as a writerly movie. (Another sort of stagey conceit is that all the characters are referred to by codenames; for instance, Bautista’s hulking health care professional is Everest.) Pearce’s near-future world-building is nicely on the fringes; lived-in technology at the Hotel, breadcrumbs of backstory, and the not-so-subtle setup of an L.A. heading for dystopia.

If there’s a hang-up with the film, it’s that the screenplay is a little too eager to call back to itself and pay off previous moments and lines of dialogue. (This is a weird complaint, like the movie… fits together too well?) Also, there sure are a lot of life-changing things coincidentally happening on this one night. In the end, it’s safe to call these nitpicks.

Hotel Artemis is a rare beast in that it’s one of those movies that simply radiates “cool”, but it’s also got a lot of storytelling meat on the bones as well as humanity. It’s hard to overstate how marvelous Jodie Foster is in the movie, and Drew Pearce’s script is sharp enough to draw blood. In Pearce’s career prior to checking into the Artemis, he’s been paired with marquee writing talent on excellent blockbusters (with Shane Black on Iron Man Three, with Christopher McQuarrie on Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation), and now his directorial debut establishes him as a significant talent in his own right. I highly recommend this hotel on Expedia, Yelp, or your booking site of choice.

Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018) Film Review

How high are the stakes for Solo: A Star Wars Story? There’s a disconnect between the extreme scrutiny paid to the film from a real-world perspective (largely due to the hiring of Ron Howard to finish the movie after the firing of Phil Lord and Chris Miller), and the movie’s own identity. Solo is a movie of modest ambitions, and it meets them. This is a solid straightforward crime movie in the Star Wars galaxy with a great lead performance, and that’s all it needs to be a success. The fate of the galaxy isn’t at stake on screen, so the fate of Star Wars isn’t at stake off screen.

Han Solo

On the industrial planet Corellia, Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) is unwittingly following in the footsteps of his future father-in-law; he’s indentured to an alien slave driver, and longs to take his skills as a fast driver off-world to be a great pilot. After being separated from his girlfriend Qi’Ra (Emilia Clarke), Han befriends Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and follows the gunslinging cynic Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) into a life of crime.

Qi'Ra Han Solo

The era is ten years before the original Star Wars, a time when the Galactic Empire is a fact of life. Stormtroopers are just dystopian cops. Against this backdrop of oppression, Han is introduced hotwiring a landspeeder, and here Ron Howard takes a cue from his past and paints with an American Graffiti brush, all breakaway teens and hairpin turns. Familiar genre conventions are trotted out because they do the job. Of course there are Mexican standoffs, and a train heist (updated to the high-flying, twisting Conveyex), because this is a space western, get it? Several side characters are wiped out, because that’s what happens when a motley crew gets together in a heist movie and a job goes sideways.

Han Solo Enfys Nest

One stumbling block is that the film is a little top-heavy with action. How exciting can it be for a ship to rock in a vortex filled with abstractions for ten minutes? The action isn’t a particular highlight, but still, Solo is a fun ride. The opening speeder chase is propulsive, and parts of the Conveyex sequence are spectacular (including a stylish little one-on-one fight between Beckett and the masked Enfys Nest).

Tobias Beckett Enfys Nest Conveyex

Everything is held together by the film’s central performance. Ehrenreich is extraordinary, holding the screen with real presence but doing so with subtle actorly choices. He embodies a few of Harrison Ford’s mannerisms, but more importantly, his roguish essence. When we first meet Han, he looks damaged, determined with a face like an open wound, the product of a pained Dickensian upbringing. As the movie goes on, his worldview evolves, from optimism to that familiar front of being above caring.

Another highlight is the droid L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), a (what do you know?) droid-rights activist who, like Rose Tico in The Last Jedi, profoundly represents the spirit of rebellion. However, some odd decisions are made with Solo’s female characters. Maybe Thandie Newton was only free from Westworld for a week or two, but her character Val gets L.O.S.T. in the shuffle (Lack of Screen Time). L3-37 is given such as strong logline for her character but then gets sidelined. And Qi’Ra is taken in a weird nourish femme fatale direction that feels undefined.

Qi'Ra

Another major player is Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), who’s great and larger-than-life, complete with a closet filled with nothing but capes. At one point, Lando and Han are given a little call-forward to the famous “I love you”/”I know” exchange from The Empire Strikes Back, but this and other fanservice moments feel decidedly underplayed, to the point that some audience members won’t even catch it. This is the right decision; there’s a way to wink and nod without contorting your face and giving yourself whiplash. Rounding out the characters, we all know it’s all about Luleo Primoc (aka “Vat Weirdo”) and Aurodia Ventafoli’s soulful, plaintive duet.

Luleo Primoc Aurodia Ventafoli

“Sing once again with me / Our strange duet”

In the build-up to Solo, it was announced that John Williams would compose a musical theme for Han Solo, something he always wanted to do in the past. But what he’s come up with seems like a copied-and-pasted, slightly faster version of his own Poe Dameron theme, another roguish pilot. The main body of the score is written by John Powell, who uses hints of his own percussion-heavy Bourne scores, as well as an Adiemus-meets-Ennio Morricone cue for Enfys Nest’s Cloud-Riders. But Powell would have done well to incorporate some of the rock instrumentation from the Solo trailers to give the score an extra oomph. It’s a bit of a missed opportunity for the man who, with How to Train Your Dragon, gave us some of the greatest film music of this century by marrying atypical film score instruments with an orchestra. Powell does make great use of existing Star Wars themes, however. The “TIE Fighter Attack” cue, last heard during the Millennium Falcon’s flight under Crait in The Last Jedi, gives the Kessel Run a needed punch-up, and will never stop being a pure injection hit of Star Wars. And, asteroids!

Lando Calrissian The Lodge Therm Scissorpunch

Production designer Neil Lamont adds to the saga’s palette of settings well, a couple of his designs being Han’s cool-as-Hoth landspeeder and the rustic and unusual Lodge set, where the stage is set for Lando’s introduction. Also, cinematographer Bradford Young gives Solo an earthy yet beautiful look. His lighting of the film’s five planets give a shape to the story’s structure all on their own: From the grime of Corellia, to the even-darker War-is-hell mud of Mimban, to the brighter snowscapes of Vandor, to the claustrophobic toxicity of Kessel, to a warmer hope for the future on Savareen.

Han Solo Chewbacca Millennium Falcon

Solo, while not featuring the best action or the best character dynamics, carries itself well as a fun space caper movie, and is given a big lift by its make-or-break central performance from Ehrenreich. It hits its themes of freedom and family hard and often. It’s filled with that Star Wars spirit of rebellion, albeit in different forms. I’d venture to say it’s a better Han Solo movie than Return of the Jedi (though not a better movie overall). When Han first sees the Millennium Falcon, I did almost cry. And that’s got to count for something. 7/10.

 

P.S.: YOU CAN’T MAKE THE SPOILER RUN IN LESS THAN 20 SENTENCES!

More than the other recent Star Wars movies, Solo traffics in a delightfully unending stream of offhand references to other elements of the canon. To name a smattering: Aurra Sing (Beckett killed her…!?), Teräs Käsi, Mimban (from the Legends novel “Splinter of the Mind’s Eye”), Colo claw fish (“There’s always a bigger fish…”), we now know how both Lando and Leia got their Jabba’s Palace disguises (see Forces of Destiny), Bossk, the Pykes. But best of all is Maul.

What a payoff for fans of the wider Star Wars canon. What a tribute to the writers of The Clone Wars and Rebels TV series and Maul’s two comic miniseries, who against all odds created a real character out of the cipher in The Phantom Menace. That’s not to mention Ray Park (from the films) and Sam Witwer (from the TV shows), whose distinct approaches to Maul were melded together into one performance here. And this is exactly where Maul would be, as per TV and comic continuity: orchestrating criminal syndicates, and in opposition to the Pykes, who abandoned his service. That little strain of “Duel of the Fates” comes on, and Maul ignites his lightsaber. There you go, that one moment means that every Star Wars movie still includes a lightsaber.

A Wrinkle in Time (2018) Mini-Review

A Wrinkle in Time

Early in A Wrinkle in Time, two teacher characters are having a conversation with the most awfully stilted “as you well know” expositional dialogue, and the child who overhears them righteously yells, “Shame on you for talking that way!”

Quite so.

But really, the two teachers are setting up the two core conflicts of the film (while throwing shade on our heroes). Young Meg’s (Storm Reid) scientist father (Chris Pine) has mysteriously disappeared for four years after postulating interstellar travel via pure thought; and Meg has a lack of self-confidence that over the course of the movie will have cosmic consequences. Being as it’s calibrated for kids, the message of loving and accepting yourself just as you are is hit home constantly with a velvet mallet. The film is a monument to earnestness. There’s value in that, but as they say, your mileage may vary. I mainly object to the songs (not good enough for this not to matter), force-fed into the body of the film to inject emotion.

And I swear, director Ava DuVernay shoots this movie like Aronofsky’s mother!, full of intentionally disorienting extreme close-ups and subjective use of space. The focus is on creating empathy for the young protagonists, and thankfully the close watch of the camera finds able actors. One of them being Levi Miller as Calvin, a casual acquaintance of Meg who, to the surprise of even himself, shows up to get swept up in the adventure purely because of what we might call “fate” or “the script”. Is there something to the idea that this type of matter-of-fact fairy tale logic, so beloved in, say, The Princess Bride, finds a more skeptical eye from modern audiences?

Part of that dissonance might be because A Wrinkle in Time exists in the space between fantasy and science fiction, between flights of magic fancy and the application of complex equations. It’s The NeverEnding Story (Villain duties go to the It, like The Nothing) meets Interstellar. Even that latter movie and A Wrinkle in Time agree that love opens fifth-dimensional portals.

Even though the film doesn’t strictly speaking work overall (and in kind of an intangible way that’s unexciting to work through), calling something uneven implies it’s got good parts – and that certainly applies here. The standout sequence revolves around a suburban nightmare of conformity. The visuals are often appealing, with nice show-off-y costume changes for the cosmic beings. The fate of Michael Peña’s character is a really cool moment. There’s a magical flight that looks like it wouldn’t be out of place in the World of Avatar at Disney World. I often say that flight sequences bring out the best in composers, and while Ramin Djawadi’s music isn’t a patch on his own dragonriding music from Game of Thrones, it still does the trick.

Whether the movie as a whole does the trick for you depends. For me, this moralizing, space wrinkling, Hamilton referencing blockbuster is a mixed bag that fits in a tradition of heart-on-its-sleeve children-oriented fantasy without necessarily bettering it. In the future, let’s hope for better movies aimed at this demographic.

The Once and Future Pauper: Reconstructing Star Wars in The Last Jedi

Contains full spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

“Something inside me has always been there… but now it’s awake.” – Star Wars

Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the longest film in the franchise, appropriately has a lot on its mind, but also uses its cinematic flair for an exciting popcorn ride. More than just a good eighth installment, it’s the type of sequel that reignites the appeal of what came before. It does this by giving itself wholly over to the core appeal of Star Wars, while expanding our understanding of those basic elements.

Rey

What’s quickly apparent is that The Last Jedi puts the Wars in Star Wars. Never before have detailed military tactics and big picture strategic chess moves played such a big part in these films. Attention is paid to the interacting dynamics of shields, propulsion, maneuverability, fuel reserves, and the role of fighters versus the role of bombers. When Paige Tico desperately tries to reach a detonator (an easy ask of a Force user), it feels like something out of World War II. Forget Rogue One, this is a star war. So, the core martial aspect of Star Wars is laid out with clear stakes and a greater detail than ever before.

Resistance Fleet

The good guys.

This film’s portrayal of the heroic Resistance actually stands somewhat in contrast to the other Disney-era films. Whereas The Force Awakens reframed the Rebellion vs. Empire conflict into the Resistance vs. First Order because that underdog setup is just what works, The Last Jedi leans into that echo hard. With their backs constantly up against the wall, the Resistance is simply referred to as the Rebellion several times (the literalization of this being when the Resistance sets up shop with analog Rebel Alliance technology on Crait, including barely-hanging-together ski speeders), and the alt-right, neo-Nazi, fragile-egoed white supremacist-type character Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) is a young man trying to live up to the glory of the old Empire. Rogue One was all about complicating the central conflict, with corruption in the Rebellion facing off against a long-suffering middle manager in the form of Krennic, but The Last Jedi decisively returns to simplicity while also making the conflict dramatically engaging. We know the black-and-white, good vs. evil storytelling of the original Star Wars – here it is again, familiar and reinvented at the same time.

First Order Walkers

The bad guys.

On a related note, The Last Jedi further defines the spirit of rebellion, this idea we’ve cheered for ever since an overly excited Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) asked C-3PO if he knew of the rebellion against the Empire. As the trip to casino city Canto Bight illustrates, rebellion is not just about fighting “evil”, but injustice. And this is why Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) is so vital to the movie.

Finn and Rose

An introverted gearhead with a passionate sense of right and wrong and an affinity for the underdog, Rose converts Finn (John Boyega) to the Cause. Because before, Finn was swept up in events for the sake of his friends, having “imprinted” on Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) as the first people to treat him like one. Arriving at Canto Bight, Finn learns from Rose that you don’t have to wear First Order jackboots to be one of the bad guys. The menagerie of wining and dining war profiteers make this a very clear class fable – when Rose shows an abused stableboy that her ring carries the symbol of the Rebellion, we are given a rare and welcome indication of just who the good guys are fighting for.

General Leia

Releasing the exploited fathiers at Canto Bight is save-the-cat screenwriting at its best. Rose’s purity of heart contrasts other characters’ cynicism very well, but there is bitterness and pain as well. She has the line of the movie (hell, a contender for line of the saga) when she says, “I wish I could put my fist through this lousy, beautiful town”. Rose wears her heart, and the symbol of rebellion, on her sleeve.

Poe Dameron

Also at the nexus of Canto Bight, the greying of the central galactic conflict is represented by DJ (Benicio del Toro). This free agent neither good nor evil (“It’s all a machine – don’t join”) brings up some valid points but is ultimately portrayed as a villain. His selfishness is instructive for Finn, who has his hero moment, motivated positively by Rose and negatively by DJ, to proudly call himself “Rebel scum”. Now we feel even more what this means.

Finn

Even in small ways, central tenets of Star Wars are reinforced. When Rey reaches out with her feelings we are given a poetic Terrence Malick-ian montage that portrays the Force more completely than before. And speaking of the Force, let’s talk about our hero and villain, so dangerously strong with it. The teasing of Rey to the dark and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) to the light could not have been handled any better. The cinematic device of their long-distance Force phone calls they want to hide from dad (Luke and Snoke) is genius, allowing true connection. After the fantastic dark side mirror cave sequence, Rey confides her deep-seated need to see her parents not to Luke but to Kylo Ren.

Kylo Ren

But Rey and Kylo Ren each end the film disappointed in the other. Rey correctly foresaw Kylo Ren kill Snoke and took this as evidence of light, and Kylo Ren thought that when he revealed the truth of Rey’s parents to her she would join him, but each was mistaken. It’s that old chestnut, “from a certain point of view”. (We even get a Rashomon-style triptych story of the night Kylo Ren destroyed Luke’s old Jedi temple, so the tradition of Star Wars referencing Kurosawa is still alive.) What we have here with Rey and Ren’s kind of dance is a fresh take on that familiar Star Wars trope of “turning” people to the light or dark side. We can experience that thrilling glimmer of hope for Kylo Ren as he kills Snoke – and the language of Star Wars says, that’s it, he’s on the side of good now – but it’s not that simple. Again, the same, but richer.

Snoke Tortures Rey

It should be noted that this part of the movie contains one of the most badass action sequences in the franchise, the two-on-eight Praetorian guard dustup. (Rey and Kylo Ren each briefly use the other’s lightsaber, which has shades of Obi-Wan using Asajj Ventress’ red lightsaber in The Clone Wars TV series.) And after the dust settles, we learn that Rey’s parents were, in the grand scheme of things, nobodies. This is how Star Wars grows beyond the Skywalker Saga, beyond the idea of dynasty. If a powerful Force user, but more pertinently a great hero, can come from the humblest beginnings, there is hope for the galaxy.

The Force

So Kylo Ren takes over as Supreme Leader of the First Order, and if you thought his temper tantrums were bad before… He comes face-to-face with Luke, and Kylo Ren figures after Han Solo and Snoke, it’s time to kill the final father figure, the one who failed him all those years ago. When he and Luke face off, they don’t need to trade blows and hack off each other’s limbs for it to be thrilling. The wide-shot of their samurai standoff is stunningly beautiful, Luke a picture of determined calm and Ren a coiled lion in a cage. It turns out that Luke is projecting his image through the Force, and it’s vital that he’s not there; Kylo Ren can never get the satisfaction of finally killing this man he hates. Luke projects himself as a younger man, exactly as Kylo Ren remembers him. That’s salt in the wound. If Luke had been there and been killed by Ren, that’s a semblance of closure. As it is, Luke looks up at twin suns and becomes one with the Force, Rey finds her place with friends and fugitive heroes, and Kylo Ren has all the power he could want except the means to be rid of his pain.

Kylo Ren Samurai

Over and over The Last Jedi recontextualizes but also celebrates the building blocks of Star Wars. Far from a deconstruction, it adds vital detail and nuance to the elements that have always been there. But beyond all the themes and deep character work, just look at the moment when the Millennium Falcon takes a hard turn into the crystalline underground on Crait and John Williams deploys his classic dogfighting music. The Last Jedi shows an instinctive understanding of Star Wars in that instant. It clicks with our lizard brains. So The Last Jedi is also funny, exciting, pretty-looking blockbuster entertainment. If it wasn’t that, it just wouldn’t be good Star Wars.

2017: A Spoof Odyssey – Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 as Whoopee Cushion with a Heart

Contains full spoilers for, and forensic analysis of, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. See the movie, read the essay.

“More of the same, but different.” That’s the balancing act that most sequels are judged by, and it’s hard to think of a clearer example of that axiom in practice than Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. A psychedelic smorgasbord of color, it’s an inwardly focused character movie with the window dressing of a space opera. But the thing is, Vol. 2 is a brazen spoof of that genre, to an extent unheard of in a major summer tentpole. Over and over, the film undercuts elements that would be played straight in most other movies, including its own predecessor. The spine of Vol. 2 is the drama between Peter Quill and his wayward father Ego the Living Planet, as well as the dynamic of the Guardians team. Because the character side of things is established as the core element, elsewhere the film consistently takes the audience into the realm of spoof.

– The violent battle with the many-tentacled Abilisk cedes the foreground to Baby Groot dancing to Electric Light Orchestra.

Gamora Baby Groot Hi

“Hi!”

– A self-described “massive space battle” – or space chase, for the Milano, like Serenity before it, has no weapons – takes a backseat to the alpha male competition of Peter and Rocket Raccoon, fighting over the wheel like some people fight over the TV remote.

– In perhaps the most explicit parody motif, the Guardians are chased by remote-controlled drones, piloted like arcade video game cabinets.

– During the Abilisk fight and Ravager massacre, Rocket insists on playing diegetic 1970s pop-rock as a soundtrack – after all, the Disney-approved slaughter of an entire pirate crew would be laid bare without it.

– Space travel is given a Looney Tunes twist with the hilarious jump point sequence.

– The iconic and overly dignified group shot is quickly subverted.

Guardians of the Galaxy

Pre-pratfall.

– And of course, Groot bumps into the camera.

I can imagine a different version of the movie where Nebula’s monologue isn’t undercut, and where Taserface’s name passes without comment. (In Avengers: Infinity War, Nebula’s vengeance won’t lead into a joke about hats.) In fact, going back and rewatching the first Guardians of the Galaxy makes for a shocking contrast. Vol. 1 has unconventional elements in service of a conventional action movie, filled to the brim as it is with one-on-one showdowns, henchmen to punch, and mini-bosses to overcome. With maybe a couple subtle spoof-like moments here and there, Vol. 1 plays out on a much wider (and, I would say, more bloated) canvas, and while Vol. 2 lacks that scale, its intimacy is an asset. And again, it’s because the core of this sequel is laser-focused on character that a lot of the plot stuff is free to go off the reservation and embrace parody.

Nebula

Indeed, in Vol. 2, the action is just a delivery system for therapy. My favorite scene of the movie is Nebula and Gamora’s fight/extremely violent sisters’ therapy session. In this particular face-off on Ego’s Planet, something mysterious happens where the copious CGI, and the very exaggerated, external things the two sisters are doing become the perfect embodiment of what they’re feeling. When Nebula jaggedly crashes her ship through the cave just to desperately close the distance between her and her hated sibling, all those pixels are in service of something real. When Gamora fires the absurdly large mounted gun, it’s a metaphor for what people feel like they want to do to their family members in moments of frustration. The audience feels this on a primal level. And so Nebula in particular gains the roundedness that was only hinted at in the first film in this most well executed subplot of Vol. 2.

Gamora Big Gun

Of course, this movie exists to put Peter Quill through the emotional wringer. The villain is his own father, played with saucy gravitas by Kurt Russell, casually owning up to the murder of Peter’s mother. Peter goes from suspicion of Ego’s true nature, to embracing it, to wrath at Ego’s capricious killing of the woman he claims he loved, to acceptance of space pirate Yondu as his true “daddy”, to grief at Yondu’s sacrifice. When Peter turns on Ego on a dime at the revelation that Ego introduced Meredith Quill’s cancer, he might as well have said “I don’t care – you killed my mom” like another Marvel hero.

Peter Quill

However, this moment of high drama gives way to the negative side of spoofery, as in a case of tonal whiplash we go from “you killed my mom” to a David Hasselhoff cameo in a matter of seconds. Similarly, the film’s audaciously intimate final shot (Rocket crying as he realizes that his friends will always love him even after he risks pushing them away by acting like a grade-a asshole) would have had more impact if we didn’t go almost directly to a jokey first credits scene. And fans of Drax in Vol. 1 will be mixed on whether turning him almost exclusively into a comic relief character in Vol. 2 is a change for the better. These examples might show that the parody moments work better when subverting genre tropes and plot mechanics rather than the actual characters we’re here to see, but in the end these are minor demerits.

Ego

In fact, desperate as Vol. 2 is to entertain by any means necessary, it’s also another thematically engaging Marvel movie. When Ego identifies as a “small g” god, we are invited to notice he has much more than a “small e” ego. Ego’s evil master plan that threatens the whole universe™ is to make everyone an extension of him, which is an exaggeration of a recognizable impulse. Why can’t other people understand me? Why do they have to see things differently? Mantis, the very embodiment of empathy, is the only thing that can give the pure expression of Ego any form of rest from its apocalyptic egocentrism. And so, Ego’s forced homogenous connection with others comes into conflict with the explicit diversity of the Guardians. The Guardians are the good guys here because they find empathy with other people: when Gamora and Nebula learn to view their dark childhoods from the other’s perspective; when Yondu and Rocket find they recognize the same insecurities in each other even while retaining their own distinct identities. All three villains in the film (Ego; Ayesha, pursuing a grudge across the galaxy to the ruin of her fleet; Taserface, insisting that his judgment as captain is best) are egos out of control. Their justification for evil comes only from their inflated sense of rightness, particularly Ego, who in a pleasingly unusual scene of lyrical analysis uses the song “Brandy” to explain that he will always choose selfishness over other people. Unlike Nebula, Yondu, Mantis, and even Kraglin, a person like Ego would never be “welcome to the frickin’ Guardians of the Galaxy”.

Ego's Planet

Staying tethered to character-based humor and drama gives Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 license to take a page from the Airplane!/Monty Python and the Holy Grail book and go wild with the tropes of its genre. Its spoof elements feel natural with its world, even if it laughs at its own jokes a bit much, and after the dust settles this sequel makes its predecessor look grounded by comparison. It’s a risky way to thread the needle of “more of the same but different” but I expect nothing less from the franchise peopled by the biggest-hearted a-holes in the galaxy.

 

P.S.: Guardians of the Galaxy, with its spaced-out aesthetics and unhinged humor, has a kindred spirit in the Australian science fiction TV show Farscape, so it’s only appropriate that Farscape star Ben Browder appears in Vol. 2 as one of the gold-painted Sovereign. Speaking of them, I love that in the finale “Wham Bam Shang a Lang” becomes an absurd villain theme for the Sovereign.

P.P.S.: Something that bothered me when hinted in Vol. 1, and becomes even more deflating now that it’s confirmed in Vol. 2, was that Peter was only able to hold an Infinity Stone because he’s part Celestial. In Vol. 1, Peter and the other Guardians contained the Power Stone with the power of friendship. This colossal monument to their constructed family is now a plot point for Peter’s biological one. For a movie so attuned to theme over plot, this stands out as a poor retcon.

Look-Alikes:

Aleta Ogord Hela

Michelle Yeoh as Aleta Ogort = Cate Blanchett as Hela? Aleta even says, “Hell yes.”

Martinex Night King

Martinex = The Night King from Game of Thrones?

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017) Mini-Review

For about five minutes at the beginning of Luc Besson’s latest gonzo science fiction romp, we are shown the building of a utopia. A montage of diplomacy, this opening shows how earthbound nations begin to cooperate in the arena of space, and then without skipping a beat, how humanity goes on to welcome various alien races as friends. The International Space Station gradually becomes bigger and bigger as more and more cultures add to its diversity; the core of the City of a Thousand Planets is already in Earth orbit. It’s a sequence of humanism to rival anything in the Star Trek archive (recalling as it does the show Enterprise’s title sequence chronicling the progression of space travel). And while Valerian goes on to dazzle with visual wonders, the opening title sequence is so much the standout that you can be forgiven for walking out right then and there.

Alpha

Diversity as pure addition – it doesn’t have to mean subtraction for anyone.

The case for the rest of the film is weakened quite a bit by the vapid lead characters. Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevigne play agents Valerian and Laureline, titular heroes of a vintage French comic strip now adapted into this $175 million-plus-budgeted blockbuster. Their corny sub-pulp fiction banter and flirtation feels like the throwback it was intended to be, but rests entirely on a chemistry that isn’t there, and absent emotions. Co-star Rihanna may not be a professional actor, but she still shows more humanity in 10 seconds than either lead does throughout the entire movie. DeHaan is much more at home navigating sinister sanatoriums and playing the antihero than he is as a Buck Rogers-esque action hero, and Delevigne continues her quest to convincingly show an emotion on screen. At least Jane Fonda as Barbarella, who shows that there’s precedent for bizarre 1960s French pulp heroes to translate to film, had screen presence and was more in on the cosmic joke.

Laureline Valerian

Our sickly leads. Maybe Dane DeHaan never left the Volmer Institute from A Cure for Wellness?

Trailers for Valerian billed it as based on the “legendary graphic novel”, but it’s more accurately a comic strip. And to match that, the film has a very episodic structure, all the better to slideshow its various spaced-out visual ideas and high-concept action scenes (interdimensional shopping!), all falling out of a very big and French piñata. This is the raison d’être of the movie, and the splendor of the world(s) is undeniable. It’s just a shame that a film so production designed to death didn’t invest the time to create characters worth caring about, and while there are interesting thematic elements to the plot (disrespect to one sentient race – incidentally with a coded transgender Emperor – becomes a nameless darkness that threatens the entire utopia), a story tying it all with a bow. There have been other significantly flawed but visually stunning movies this year, such as Kong: Skull Island and Ghost in the Shell. Let’s hope that future efforts balance the equation.

Draag Pearl

French visions of the alien

P.S.: Other aesthetic notes: As you can see above, long stretches of the film resemble nothing so much as a live-action take on René Laloux’ Fantastic Planet. Besson’s own Fifth Element gets a couple nods here in the form of a restaurant name and an equivalent sequence to the legendary “diva dance”. And in an ADR fail, I’m almost certain that for one important line, Laureline speaks while her mouth stays completely still.

P.P.S.: This is a semi-new category of review for the site, alongside the larger-scale film reviews with pretty pictures, editorials, franchise flashback, TV talk, and end-of-year review stuff. Mini-reviews are designed to take less time out of my schedule and hopefully a lot more are coming soon. As I see more and more movies every year (at time of writing, I’ve seen 55 2017 releases), my review productivity has gotten worse and worse. Mini-reviews are a new way to get more movie thoughts up on the site efficiently, but at the same time not just for new releases. And I know it’s a bit odd that this is the movie with which I’m coming back; there’ve been some heavy hitters I’ve missed reviewing. Perhaps pieces on some recent big names will turn up eventually; right now I’m at work on a big full-scale Fate of the Furious review. Happy viewing!

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) Film Review

Rogue One, the first standalone Star Wars film, is in many ways not a standalone at all. It is a direct prequel to the original movie from 1977, and features scores of deep-cut references, allusions and easter eggs that only hardcore fans will appreciate. So Rogue One is big-budget fanservice. But crucially, it’s more than that. It’s fanservice that also happens to have great original characters and takes a lot of risks. The trick of Rogue One is that it’s a love letter to Star Wars (and works as such; the ending made me cry), but it also fundamentally changes its texture.

death-star

The Empire rules the galaxy with an iron fist, and seeks to solidify its reign by constructing a planet-killing superweapon. To complete work on the Death Star, Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) coerces the scientific genius Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), father of Jyn (Felicity Jones), into service. When Galen sends a secret message to the reeling Rebellion tipping them off to a structural weakness in the Death Star, a scrappy guerilla team must steal the Death Star plans. The team: Jyn; lethal Rebel intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna); sarcastic tactician droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk); desperate Imperial defector Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed); blind warrior-monk Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen); and his cynical companion Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen). But in this war, can any hope survive in the grime of Imperial domination?

underdogs-in-rebellion

In the lead-up to the movie, the talking points were obvious. “Puts the Wars in Star Wars.” “The gritty side of the universe”, blah blah blah. It’s one thing to hear the sound bites, but to see this saga taken out of the good vs. evil fairy tale realm so elegantly is something else entirely. That tale is great, it has its place, but Rogue One complicates it. There’s ethical compromise in the Rebellion, represented by Cassian. There’s a pecking order in the Empire, an elitist element that Krennic must constantly prove himself to. There are extremists on both sides. Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker)’s methods are disavowed by the Rebel establishment, while his opposite number, Darth Vader, plays enforcer for an unstable galaxy. Star Wars has always worked best as an underdog story (witness how The Force Awakens recreates the Empire vs. Rebellion conflict by another name), but the main characters here are underdogs even within the Rebellion. And Krennic, the villain they face, is an underdog even within the Empire.

orson-krennic

Krennic stands amidst his achievement.

None of this thematic stuff would click if the character work wasn’t there, and thankfully it is. All the characters resonate, but standouts include comic relief monstrosity K-2SO (think C-3PO with a two-by-four in place of an etiquette program), and apathetic loner to inspirational leader Jyn Erso. But my favorite character is Cassian Andor, who embodies what makes Rogue One work so well. The co-leading hero in the film, Cassian is exciting because he’s tainted. Pretty much the first thing you see him do is shoot an unarmed ally in the back because he would be a liability! (And you thought Han shot first?) He personifies the risks that the film is willing to take, introducing a Rebel officer as a morally compromised hero. The main characters are allowed to be impure or damaged, and Krennic, while ruthless, has to deal with bureaucratic and browbeating BS from superiors more evil than he. The idea is that the Rebellion’s purest heroes and the Empire’s purest villains are more background players, and we get to spend time with relatively complex characters.

cassian-andor

Cassian shot first.

Rogue One manages to stuff a lot of character into what is perhaps too compressed an amount of time. This does have downsides. Jyn’s character arc is good, but feels like it has a middle and an end while missing part of the beginning – we’re told Jyn’s rap sheet but we don’t see her struggles fending for herself brought to life. The first act has a lot of quick planet-hopping setup and so probably works better on a rewatch. Conversely, while the action in the third act is alternately breathtaking, tense, and emotionally powerful, it still feels like a little paring down might have made it pop even more.

jyn-erso

But flaws aside, the storytelling always has something up its sleeve. This is a surprisingly emotional movie, largely owing to how the light contrasts all the more against the desperate circumstances. Chirrut’s reverence of the Force becomes poignant precisely because the Jedi have passed into myth. Put Obi-Wan Kenobi on the team and the everyman quality to the group crumbles. In a stroke of genius, the first test of the Death Star’s awesome destructive power is made intimate and personal. The pacing and atmosphere is far removed from the propulsive, almost manic The Force Awakens (which is great in that context). It’s Star Wars sung in a different key in a different time signature, and I ate it up.

chirrut-imwe

Technically speaking, Rogue One has much to commend it. I love how the CGI Star Destroyers as near as damn them look exactly like physical models. The cinematography, and vaguely documentarian aesthetic courtesy of director Gareth Edwards make the action and emotion hit home. And considering composer Michael Giacchino only had a couple months to score the film after replacing Alexandre Desplat, his score contains some solid motifs.

cgi-star-destroyer-model

Rogue One commits to its war movie aesthetic brilliantly. The acting ensemble is outstanding; even tertiary characters like the leery General Draven feel rich. This is a smart, weird, exciting, occasionally sloppy, and surprisingly emotional blockbuster, which enriches Star Wars in a two-hour salvo. It will be remembered for playing with what the franchise can do, while also blowing stuff up real good. 9/10. — If you’re a fan of the saga, there’s a good chance you’ll get emotional at the last scene. But after certain recent events… it might wreck you.

 

P.S.: *SPOILER-FILLED STRAY NERDY OBSERVATIONS*

So this is a mainstream blockbuster where every main character dies. With a sweeping gesture out of Shakespearean tragedy, the board is cleared and only characters on the fringes live to carry on. Disney will sugarcoat anything.

scarif

The beach, before it’s strewn with bodies.

Darth Vader. Giving him an imposing evil tower immediately casts him in the same company as Sauron (with lava planet Mustafar standing in for Mordor). It codifies his status as an iconic villain. But it’s worth noting that a castle for Vader isn’t a new idea; it was proposed in concept art for the original trilogy and was even considered for inclusion in The Force Awakens. Vader’s first scene with Krennic perhaps isn’t everything it could have been. It ends with what I call “stand-up comedy Vader”, but even though it feels a bit weird in the moment, it’s not too far off from his “Apology accepted, Captain Needa” brand of humor. Vader’s other scene is just terrific. Add the hint of his vulnerability and his weird Riff Raff-esque butler, and Rogue One does some interesting things with this Dark Lord of the Sith.

darth-vader

When the Empire puts up the shield in orbit of Scarif, an X-Wing can’t pull up and crashes into it. Which is exactly what should have happened in Return of the Jedi when the Rebel fighters are flying to the second Death Star thinking the shield is down.

Star Wars isn’t known for romance. It has a few, but they’re either dreadfully stilted community theater (Anakin and Padmé) or a whirlwind flirtation carried by bickering and banter (Han and Leia). So am I alone in thinking that Rogue One contains the hottest moment in all of Star Wars? When Jyn and Cassian are in close quarters in the elevator, and it’s filmed like they might kiss, and they don’t?

If Rogue One came out when I was in junior high, it would have been the biggest deal in the world that Garven Dreis and Dr. Evazan are in the movie. Now, it’s just really cool. But in junior high, I wouldn’t have caught the significance of Chirrut and Baze being Guardians of the Whills, which is a reference to George Lucas’ original title for his Star Wars screenplay: The Adventures of Luke Starkiller as Taken from the Journal of the Whills, Saga 1.

Star Trek Beyond (2016)

2016 is the 50th anniversary of Star Trek. This puts the onus on Star Trek Beyond to be something more than an entertaining ride, and as it turns out, Beyond gives the franchise a big wet kiss for a birthday present. The film feels very Star Trek-ky, like a story of the original 1960s show on steroids. It’s a dizzying action bonanza, it’s a meaningful tale of ideals being lost and found in space, and it’s surprisingly engaged with what Star Trek means. While still flawed, Beyond has charm to spare, delivering as both a blockbuster and a subtly nerdy filibuster on what the franchise represents.

STAR TREK BEYOND

In the 23rd Century, the USS Enterprise is more than halfway through its five-year mission of exploration and diplomacy. Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) feels the ennui of life in deep space, while first officer Spock (Zachary Quinto) receives some disheartening news. A distress signal to the Federation’s advanced starbase Yorktown leads the Enterprise into a deadly trap, engineered by the primal Krall (Idris Elba). With the crew grounded on an alien planet, can Kirk and company save them? And can communications officer Nyota Uhura (Zoe Saldana) unravel the mystery of Krall?

MVP Leonard McCoy

Perhaps the greatest strength of this current sequence of films is the cast, admirably filling the shoes of venerated actors who originated the roles. Beyond pulls off a nice trick, being much more of an ensemble movie than its two predecessors. Whereas before laser focus was on Kirk and Spock, here every main character gets at least a couple moments to shine. Screenwriters Simon Pegg (also starring, as engineer Scotty) and Doug Jung facilitate this by splitting up the cast into pairs and letting the characters play off each other. So a contemplative Kirk mentors young ensign Chekov (Anton Yelchin, tragically no longer with us); Scotty bonds with resourceful alien Jaylah (Sofia Boutella, endearing); Uhura and Sulu (John Cho) learn what the villains are about; and best of all, Spock and sawbones Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban, always the MVP) balance their delightful verbal sparring with a lot of heart.

Uhura

So checking in with the heroes is a lot of fun. But also, the screenplay is not afraid to pepper wonderfully moral and dorky Star Trek goodness throughout. There’s something really cool about hearing the heroes of a massive action tentpole dole out fortune cookie wisdom about unity, peace, humanism, and the importance of diplomacy. And when these characters have been established as relatable and endearing, this stuff is even more important, because it’s aspirational. By starring relatable characters living in an enlightened time, Star Trek is saying that the future of humanity is brighter, and presents this as a matter of fact.

Yorktown

The technology on display factors into this as well. The Yorktown is a great location, an M.C. Escher painting of a starbase, where gravity bends to the architecture. But just by being there and being so impressive, the base symbolizes how far humanity can go when united. Fittingly, the approach to Yorktown is the most spectacular sequence in the film. With jaw-dropping SF visuals and Michael Giacchino’s truly lovely score, it’s really something.

Krall

But of course, the Federation’s idealism is challenged by Krall. The problem with Krall is that he’s better in concept than in execution. A foil for the utopian Federation who believes that only struggle and chaos breed progress, he creates a twisted parody of the Federation by bringing down ships from different cultures and feeding on diverse species for his own personal gains. The idea is there, but it’s not more than half-cooked in the movie proper. (Krall’s character does take an essential turn, but I can’t say more about that twist without boldly going into spoilers. See the P.S.) Krall isn’t a total loss of a character; but what we have on screen for most of the runtime is a handicapped Idris Elba, feral and growling, looking for MacGuffin #14 to make generic superweapon #82 to enact stock villainous plan #47.

Captured Enterprise Crew

No one said that stopping the stock villainous plan couldn’t look good, though. Director Justin Lin goes above and beyond crafting the action, spinning the camera on its axis and defying gravity with great energy. A particular highlight is the harrowing, if slightly overlong, attack on the Enterprise sequence. (In my first viewing I sometimes lost the geography of these dynamic scenes, but a second go-round rendered them more coherent.) Because Lin had come off directing four Fast and Furious spectacles, his hiring was a subject of a lot of snark and sarcasm. But what’s lost in these discussions is that the true draw of that freewheeling franchise is not the surface stuff, but the teamwork of people who love each other. And that’s very Star Trek.

The Trio

Beyond exudes a constant love of Star Trek, from an understanding of its tropes to numerous easter eggs for fans. A few favorites: When Kirk fights Krall, the music resembles Fred Steiner’s (in)famous fight music from the original series. The Yorktown was the name of the Enterprise in Gene Roddenberry’s original Star Trek treatment. There are explicit references to the era of the underseen Enterprise TV series. And the approach to Yorktown reminds me of the absurdly long, lingering and loving approach to the Enterprise in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, just more narratively economical.

Scotty

Engineer. Brewer of moonshine. Moonlighter as a writer.

The humor is also on point throughout, which is no surprise considering co-writer Simon Pegg’s previous credits on extraordinary dramedies like Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, The World’s End, and TV sitcom Spaced. Much of the entertainment value here just comes from seeing the ensemble play off each other, with McCoy and Spock in particular spinning earnestness into comedy gold. The character work and action are on form, supported by a big heart. And even as an element like Krall and his faceless swarm is rough around the edges, the way Beyond gets the Star Trek of it so very right is nothing (for Keenser) to sneeze at. A weak 9/10.

 

P.S.: *TO EXPLORE STRANGE NEW SPOILERS*

The Balthazar Edison twist is absolutely in keeping with the tropes of the original show, where several starship captains went native and insane. (See “Patterns of Force”, “The Omega Glory”, “Bread and Circuses”, and “Whom Gods Destroy”.) So when Kirk is fighting Edison he’s fighting us, the aggressive and tribalistic human nature that the Federation has risen above. Speaking of that scene and its meta-conflict, “That’s what I was born into” gives me chills and may go on to become an iconic Star Trek quote. I love that this message of idealism is the Trek equivalent of an action movie one-liner.

That's what I was Born into

“I’d rather die saving lives than live with ending them. That’s what I was born into.”

Meanwhile, following the death of Leonard Nimoy’s Ambassador Spock, Zachary Quinto’s Spock considers quitting Starfleet and picking up where the elder Spock left off. And the young Spock finds in the Ambassador’s possessions the cast photo from Star Trek 5: The Final Frontier. So it’s the very idea of Star Trek, and the community of that original group of characters, that convinces Spock to continue in Starfleet. Fascinating.

Spock Chekov

There’s a bit where Scotty says that he didn’t want to beam Spock and McCoy up at the same time, for fear of “splicing” the two. Trek fans know that splicing the two would result in someone resembling one James T. Kirk.

And finally, the twin dedication to Leonard Nimoy and Anton Yelchin is poignant. Especially when Kirk’s “To absent friends” toast cuts right to a shot with Chekov. To the stars they return.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

What may be the most highly anticipated film of all time is here, continuing the most popular film series of them all. So after all the hype, what are we left with? Impressive restraint. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is something I would have hardly expected: a movie whose ambition largely doesn’t exceed its reach. It’s a high wire act, where the small-scale interpersonal drama (with unprecedented levels of character development for this franchise) is just as important as the large-scale space opera. Star Wars is back, with all its old trademarks of pulpy dialogue, a lived-in world, humor, and screen wipes, all energized by an exciting new cast of characters.

Rey

It’s thirty years after the Empire was sent scurrying to the Outer Rim after the Battle of Endor; a New Republic governs, but remnants of the Empire have come together as the First Order, countered by a paramilitary Resistance led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher). On the desert planet Jakku, Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) recovers a key piece of intelligence, before he’s beleaguered by Kylo Ren’s (Adam Driver) force of stormtroopers (including John Boyega’s reluctant trooper Finn). Poe hides the information in his droid BB-8, and as the little BB unit comes across a scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley), the hunt is on for the droid. Because both the First Order and the Resistance covet what’s hidden inside it…

Finn

The Force Awakens’ greatest strength lies in its new characters (which in and of itself is a kind of best-case scenario for this franchise reintroduction). In Ridley and Boyega’s Rey and Finn, Star Wars has hit upon a pair with exceptional chemistry together, and charisma apart. She is technically minded and self-sufficient, with abandonment issues. He is stubborn in his desire to do the right thing in all cases, with a tendency to get in over his head. Together, they’re a fun pair to follow into the future of these films, especially given that they feel like real and relatable people in a universe where that’s not necessarily the norm.

Kylo Ren Battleground

But in my mind the film’s breakout character is its villain, Kylo Ren. He is as ragged as the untamed blade of his red lightsaber, always playing at being more than he is, more implacable, more dominant, more evil. He has spectacular Force-assisted temper tantrums. And when the mask comes off, Driver reads his lines with this beautiful mixture of menace and ineffectuality. Because The Force Awakens gives nearly equal time to developing its villain as it does its heroes, Kylo Ren is given space to shine as a fascinating character, and while he may idolize and model himself after Darth Vader, Kylo is a different beast altogether.

Triumph of the Will

Kylo Ren puts on the mask because he wants to be larger-than-life. But in good guy Poe Dameron and bad guy General Hux, we have characters here that legitimately are. Poe is a semi-flamboyant, ultra-charismatic top gun X-wing pilot, given little room for particular depth but lighting up the screen because of his mere “coolness”. On the flip side, Domhnall Gleeson’s Hux is a tyrannical yet jealous, conniving yet pretentious, General in the First Order (or should I say in my best all-caps staccato English accent, “the FEHST AWERDEHR”). There’s a total Triumph of the Will scene involving legions of stormtroopers and Hux’… particular rhetorical style, bringing the First Order in line with the Third Reich as much as possible in a galaxy far, far away. Hitler at Nuremburg, much? The movie pushes the Nazi thing far, but Gleeson’s work as Hux makes it work, and he’s a character I’m particularly interested to see progress in future installments.

General Hux

It must be said that stormtrooper Captain Phasma is a waste of Game of Thrones’ Gwendoline Christie’s talents at this point, but again, the future should hold good things for this chrome trooper. If Phasma is developed well, Star Wars will have a very symmetrical balance of a trio of great heroes (Rey, Finn, Poe) opposing a trio of great villains (Kylo, Hux, Phasma). For now, in Rey and Kylo Ren, we have a hero and villain both still learning, still rough around the edges, and that’s exciting.

TIE Fighters

If there is a worry in The Force Awakens, it’s that this is a movie that doesn’t really cut loose its imagination. There are no big space battles. In Jakku we have a desert planet like Tatooine. In Takodana we have a forest planet complete with old temple like Yavin 4. In Starkiller Base’s surface we have an icy landscape like Hoth. The locations are not the most imaginative, but their groundedness also gives them cinematographic beauty – their relatability is a strength, but being earthbound could also could give the impression of a fan film. I think these choices mostly work for The Force Awakens, though, because it’s bringing an interesting hybrid of zaniness and realism to the Star Wars universe.

Battleground

After all, these decisions also give us a dynamic shooting style courtesy of director J.J. Abrams. On Takodana, we have a thrilling oner that goes from a character scrambling on the ground, up to a kinetic dogfight in the sky, back down to the ground; it’s fluid and energetic in the best way. These decisions also give us a visceral and fresh take on lightsaber dueling. No 20-foot Force jumps here. A bruiser, pitted against a defensive combatant using a lightsaber almost like a rapier at times. Breathlessly exciting peaks and valleys in the flow of battle. There are a couple moments in the duel that do for lightsaber dueling what Creed did for boxing, both films shooting its action with hard immediacy and empathy for its characters.

Finn vs Kylo Ren

Scaling back to the big picture of plot, The Force Awakens is nothing revolutionary. (I don’t weigh plot so much as character and quality of writing.) There are a few clear similarities to beats from the original trilogy, but I maintain that they’re superficial. The whole tenor of the beats, as well as how characters interact around them, is wildly different in context. The one noticeably weak plot element is Starkiller Base. There’s a bit where its size is compared with the Death Star, and that moment is kind of dumb and rote. But the Base is merely a backdrop, incidental in the face of its own destructive power. The real ballgame is what’s going on with the characters: Rey, Finn, Kylo Ren, and by this point, Han Solo and Chewbacca.

Smugglers

Yes, old characters have moments to shine in The Force Awakens, and it’s a credit to the movie that it took me this long to mention them directly; the film’s fresh blood is so good, I don’t have much to say about their predecessors. Suffice to say that they’re all present and correct, and welcome sights. It’s been 30 years since we’ve seen them, and a lot of history has happened in the meantime. The movie obfuscates a thing or two (the politics and beliefs of the First Order are quite unclear), but on the whole takes the right tack: hinting at things that have happened in that time gap without feeling the need to lengthily exposit on them. In the old days throwaway references were expanded into whole spinoff novels; a similar thing will undoubtedly happen now.

Rey and Finn

Episode VII: The Force Awakens reintroduces Star Wars through an exciting new cast. Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, and especially Adam Driver inject extraordinary energy into their roles, making the movie a great ensemble piece. The old elements are there, but they’re not the focus, and Star Wars can now look entirely to the future with a new creative regime. Let’s just get more imaginative in Episode VIII. (Stay tuned for the spoiler P.S. for more.) Unlike certain other films in the franchise, The Force Awakens stands as a synergistic work of craftsmanship, with solid cinematography, music, production design, writing, and directing. These elements lay the groundwork, and the characters jump off the page and carry the day. 9/10.

 

P.S.: May the SPOILERS be with you

In 1983, Harrison Ford wanted to be killed off in Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. I presume he wanted the door closed so he didn’t have to return to the character. But thank the Maker he didn’t get his wish, not only because it freed him to have a last hurrah and interesting death in Episode VII, but also because Episode VI would have been a terrible swan song for him. (As far as I’m concerned, the writing and Ford’s goofy performance in that movie barely qualify as Han Solo.) So Han is dead at the hand of his son Ben. I like the death for Han because it’s such unfamiliar territory for his original character: dealing directly with dark side corruption, and intensely personal as opposed to a blaze of glory. But what I like most about the scene is that Kylo Ren’s plea to Han is entirely genuine. Far from being some kind of cheap fake-out, by looking directly into Ben’s eyes, Han really is giving his son the strength to take decisive action. It just happens that that action is patricide.

Kylo Ren

That kind of irony appears elsewhere in the film; Kylo Ren unwittingly has a large role in awakening the Force within Rey. And that duel is one for the ages. Firstly the slight misdirection in the marketing about Finn works a charm (the cross guard blade digging into Finn’s shoulder! Ouch!). And then when Kylo Ren tries to summon the lightsaber, and it proceeds to arc to Rey, is a crowning moment of triumph that left me physically shaking. The duel is great, and I think Rey’s moment of calm at the cliff edge is vital, because it’s something that Kylo Ren could never achieve. It’s a beautiful point to all those discussions about whether the Dark or Light side of the Force is stronger (expressed here as aggression vs. inner peace).

Rey vs Kylo Ren

So the macguffin of the whole movie is the map to Luke Skywalker, in his hermitage on an island in a vast ocean. I’m totally fine with the relative lack of Luke; that just means a bigger role in the next movie. And how about that look on Luke’s face when the sees his old lightsaber? Like a look of profound sadness? Roll on Episode VIII! I’m rooting for you, Rian Johnson.

Rey and BB-8

And am I the only one who thinks Supreme Leader Snoke resembles the Silence from Doctor Who?

Silence