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.
– 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.
– 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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, 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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
And am I the only one who thinks Supreme Leader Snoke resembles the Silence from Doctor Who?
In an alternative version of 1985, time travel technology exists and its surgical use to prevent certain past disasters is overseen by the Temporal Bureau. A time agent (Ethan Hawke) receives an assignment to catch a terrorist in the 1970s, and while undercover as a bartender, hears the remarkable story of a woman named Jane who needed gender re-assignment surgery to survive as John (Sarah Snook in both roles). With the involved story told, time jumps and lots of heady twists ensue, and the world-building of the alt-1985 ends up taking a backseat to the mother of all ontological paradoxes. Watch out Looper and 12 Monkeys, Predestination is in town and it’s got time travel shenanigans to spare.
This is one killer time travel thriller, with a cast committed to its insane premise. While Hawke is good as a hardened time traveller, he is not the highlight here. Sarah Snook gives an astonishingly good performance in a double role, as both strident pre-surgery Jane and world-weary “present day” John. Snook brings such a distinct energy to each role (as John, helped by the wonders of make-up to boot) that it takes a very long to sink in that the same actor is playing both parts, even when the audience knows off the bat that Jane and John are the same character. She really is a revelation here, steely and brittle and broken by turns. It’s almost needless to say that she walks away with the movie. (And with Tom Hardy coming out with his own double act in Legend, he’s going to have to knock it out of the park to even match Sarah Snook in this.)
The film is loosely based on a Robert Heinlein short story, and indeed, the construction of the narrative feels like a clever method of adaptation. And very admirably, the film is really interested in presenting a dark underbelly to the 1950s, gee-whiz space travel sci-fi that Heinlein could be so fond of in stories like “The Man Who Sold the Moon”. The gender issues played with create a strong sense of place in the ’50s and ’60s-set scenes.
Early on there’s a fair bit of certain characters trying to coax information out of other characters, and you could cynically read that as reflecting an audience member coaxing coherence out of an opaque film. I say Predestination is not obtuse, but rather assured and whip-smart. Granted, some of the dialogue can get very on-the-nose when the themes reach their payoffs in the third act, but it’s a minor point. And it’s all in the service of a finale in which the twists come fast and furious, each stacking on each other with such audacity you can’t help but go with it.
It’s a dazzling showcase for Sarah Snook, it’s a heady yet thrilling tale of time travel El Mariachi style, it’s a mind-bender, it’s a science fiction gem. Predestination retains its dignity even as it shamelessly fires twists at the viewer, each one a cannonball. And I can almost guarantee this is a more interesting film involving gender re-assignment surgery than the upcoming The Danish Girl. A strong 8/10.
What We Do in the Shadows
There’s an exchange in the show Monk that goes like this: “[He’s] the Prince of Darkness!” “No, he’s not the Prince of Darkness. I’ve seen him vacuuming the ceiling. You wouldn’t see the Prince of Darkness doing that.” What We Do in the Shadows reminds me of that quote, because this hilarious mockumentary is preoccupied with depicting a multigenerational vampire flat, where the bloodsuckers argue over who has to do the dishes, hold flat meetings to iron out issues, and for that matter, iron out their shirts. It’s got lots of domestic comedy, it’s just that the domestics here happen to be able to levitate and cast no reflection. And that’s the other side of what this film accomplishes: it shows with flippant but clever (and at times gut-busting) humor what it might really be like to be a vampire. Does the Prince of Darkness vacuum the ceiling? Well, as you can see in the picture below, vampires do indeed vacuum the walls…
Our tenants are Byronic softie Viago (Taika Waititi, also co-writing and co-directing), 379 years of age; intense and no-nonsense Vladislav (Jemaine Clement, ditto), 862 years of age; insouciant and callous Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), 183 years of age; and most ghoulish of all, ancient Petyr (Ben Fransham), 8000 years of age. Petyr looks like full-on Nosferatu due to advanced age, while the others are free to walk out in the world, provided, of course, the sun has set. The ages are fairly important, because they indicate a generational difference among the vampires – you have bloodsuckers from the dawn of man, the Dark Ages, and the 17th and 18th Centuries living together and conversing just like regular humans.
But through the naturalistic lens of these characters, lots and lots of vampire mythology gets put through the mockumentary wringer, making for some great matter-of-fact comedy. And at certain point the scale is cleverly dialed up, which translates to charmingly low-budget action setpieces that end up being damn memorable. (Look out for a hallway fight straight out of Inception!) So the laid-back production pays off, and seeing the boom mic in frame isn’t a low-budget gaffe, but a part of the film’s conceit of documentation. I should mention, the doc conceit of the movie doesn’t really make sense, and some pedantic viewers might be bothered by that. But the fact that the film lampshades this at several points makes it work comedically if not logically.
And that’s the ambition of What We Do in the Shadows. To craft a really clever comedy but not to get too hung up on a few of the details. The film is a haven for puns, satire, and even a couple scares, all involving endearing and insecure characters who we see deal in the mundane aspects of being vampires. It’s a gem. A strong 8/10.
P.S.: Taika Waititi is in final negotiations to direct Thor: Ragnarok for Marvel. It’ll be really fascinating to see his vision if he stays with the project.
Desk-based and terminally under-appreciated CIA agent Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy) guides her field specialist partner Bradley Fine (Jude Law) on missions far and wide, until one day Fine lands into some serious trouble with notorious terrorist Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne). With a nuclear missile in play and all known field agents’ identities compromised, Cooper is very reluctantly sent on a mission to stop the deployment of the nuke. Can a woman all but ignored by her superiors for years get the job done when the stakes are so high? And can comedic writer-director Paul Feig do for spy movies what he did for buddy cop films in The Heat?
The humor of Spy is a bit scattered and random at times, but it hits the mark often enough. As the film begins, there are very obvious Bond pastiches (Theodore Shapiro’s John Barry-esque main theme, the title sequence), but all kinds of broad physical humor as well as off-center banter find their way into the mix. Some of it doesn’t work, most of it does; it’s really a function of keeping the jokes coming on a conveyor belt, as it’s almost inevitable that there are misses in there.
What does work unequivocally is the thematic framework on which the jokes are hung. Susan Cooper is super-competent at her job, but people constantly underestimate, judge and treat her based only on her appearance. So while the jokes are flying, something deeper is being portrayed. It’s only reinforced further when you see that the villain has under-appreciated grunts/employees as well, making for lots of gags that also work thematically. The whole situation is also like a reflection of Melissa McCarthy’s rise in Hollywood, with the hotshot star agent roles taken up by men and one token conventionally beautiful woman (Morena Baccarin), before the situation arises for McCarthy/Cooper to shine.
The supporting cast all commit admirably to their parts. Law has a lot of fun adopting an exaggerated American accent and portraying the false bluster of an agent who appears invincible but is in reality useless when relying on his own senses. Allison Janney, Byrne and others also heighten their performances well, but the entire supporting cast is overshadowed by Jason Statham’s fucking hilarious parody of his usual type of action-badass role. He’s a consistent comedic highlight, especially when he rattles off various over-the-top episodes from his spy career (think the Most Interesting Spy in the World) with bug-eyed conviction.
The film has flaws other than its joke hit rate. There’s some confused geography in the action; I think Feig can keep the jokes coming but I don’t know about his visual style. There’s also slightly shaky editing at times, and the third act gets too plotty for its own good; we have to care a bit about who’s doing what, but not that much.
In any case, Spy does what it sets out to do and more. It’s a funny spy genre romp/take-off (in a year littered with spy films), but its real triumph are the themes that its surface-level jokes illuminate around its central character. McCarthy and Statham own the film, and while Spy isn’t the funniest nor the most well-made comedy around, it’s good at its job. A weak 7/10.
The Martian is one of the greatest science fiction movies of the 21st Century, especially when considering the word “science” in that phrase. The film constantly champions scientific ingenuity, by depicting the far-flung but still very practical puzzles that stand between survival and death for Mark Watney, an astronaut stranded on Mars, and the contemporary efforts of earthbound characters to bring him home. Its reverent but relatable use of science may actually inspire fledgling scientists among the audience, while also delivering one of the most breezily entertaining movies of the year. Gifted with this tricky balance, The Martian as written by Drew Goddard and directed by Ridley Scott is absolutely addictive viewing. Scott has dipped in SF before, of course. But let me just say: Alien. Blade Runner. The Martian. It’s that good, to stand right alongside minted classics of the genre.
It’s about 20 years in the future, and NASA has sent the Ares III crew to Mars via the Hermes spacecraft. The crew includes commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain), botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon), and four other specialists. Operating out of an artificial habitat or “hab”, the crew is gathering soil samples about a third of the way through their scheduled mission time, when a massive storm separates the crew from Watney. Apparently dead, Watney is left on the planet as the Hermes leaves orbit, but of course the abandoned Watney has survived. When he contacts Earth, NASA director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), Mars mission director Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and many other key players must figure out the logistics of a potential rescue. All the while, Watney has to make the limited resources left in the habitat keep him alive indefinitely. Because he’s not going to die alone on Mars.
The filmmakers have described The Martian as a love letter to science, but I’d say it’s more of a wet French kiss with science. The joy of the film is watching good-natured, well-humored and smart characters problem-solve, and the momentum of that is rocket-paced. The science has an ideal delivery system as well, as the film’s greatest weapon is probably its sprawling cast that you fall in love with quickly and consistently. Even a few characters who are only few-scene-wonders make a lasting impression. And this is a Ridley Scott film?!? Traditionally, the dramatis personae of Scott’s movies are cold and clinical companies, but not so here, because screenwriter Drew Goddard is in the house!
At the center of everything, Watney is sarcastic, funny, calmly authoritative, and a bit rebellious. Matt Damon is basically firing on all charm cylinders as he’s alone on an entire planet, while also making sure that the appropriate levels of desperation are there as well. Commander Lewis and her crew all feel like rounded and determined people. Bureaucratic NASA director Teddy Sanders is pragmatic but also likable (in Roland Emmerich’s The Martian, he’s the villain). Vincent Kapoor is probably the prime mover of the earthbound action, and you couldn’t ask for a more pleasant character to follow. The list just goes on. Even more minor characters like Donald Glover’s antic whizkid have their turn in the sun. Everyone here is so approachable that it’s almost unrealistic, but I really don’t care to entertain that as a negative thing. The humor and humanity of the script touches everything here. It’s the most likable cast of characters ever wrangled by Ridley Scott (with a deferential nod to Thelma and Louise).
It really comes down to Goddard’s writing. It explicitly laces humor through everything, and that’s of course very apparent. But his greatest trick is the way he balances the danger and “intensity” with giddy resourcefulness. The thing is, in a survival movie like this, you know there will be certain phases of “shit going wrong”, but The Martian is not brooding or often downbeat. I love that while there’s a mutiny in this movie (not a spoiler because it’s in the trailer), that conflict is almost downplayed because at the end of the day every character is working toward the same interests.
Other aspects of the presentation are effective as well. Harry Gregson-Williams’ score really sells Watney’s Martian isolation, but with an added chaser of wonder. The film has got a fantastic retro soundtrack to boot (David Bowie, ABBA, etc) that I think serves this space film better than Guardians of the Galaxy‘s own chart-topping soundtrack (come at me, bros). Dariusz Wolski’s Jordan-based Martian cinematography is beautiful. Arthur Max’ production design of the habitat and the slightly futurist Earth is exquisite. And the Hermes spaceship itself is a thing of beauty.
The Martian is addictive to me. Sitting there in the theater, the pacing of the science-y action and the ingenuity of the characters almost made me want to see Mark Watney stranded on Mars a while longer. It’s an intoxicating blend of danger and unmitigated fun, thanks to Drew Goddard’s script. Scott’s visual tableaus are vast and stunning, but above all this cast deserves all my accolades. The Martian is brilliant. (And it’s got the most obscure Lord of the Rings reference I’ve ever seen in a movie.) 10/10.
P.S.: A very mild spoiler… Can I say how much I adore the fact that each member of the cast gets a curtain call? It fits right into the charm offensive that is The Martian. Or, you know, Science: The Movie.
Despite Ant-Man being a founding member of the comic Avengers, and also despite a power set opening the door to fun/creative/unique action, the prospect of Ant-Man the film was met with more than a little skepticism. What Marvel Studios has crafted is a well-cooked palette cleanser after the operatic mayhem of each of their films since 2012’s The Avengers. Ant-Man scales back on scope, but that doesn’t mean it scales back on quality or payoff.
At San Quentin, petty thief and absentee father Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is being released, ready to reconnect with his daughter and former partners in crime including Luis (Michael Peña). Nearby across the San Francisco Bay, Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) watches as Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) is shown the fruits of technology he created back in the Cold War era, now weaponized by unbalanced mogul Darren Cross (Corey Stoll). And plans are drawn up to bring everyone together in a web of superpowered shrinking suits, heists, daddy issues, and wacky comedy.
Straddling all four of those elements is Rudd, anchoring the film with his everyman Scott Lang. As both the butt and deliverer of jokes, he’s an appealing lead, equally at home showing off MacGyver-esque chops in a remarkable heist sequence as he is internalizing more dramatic beats. As Ant-Man, his power set is used brilliantly for visual gags and straight action. And no spoilers, but the shrinking and enlarging mechanism of this power is used for a couple extraordinary, punch-the-air moments in the Third Act. You’ll know them when you see them.
As an ant does, the supporting cast also carry more than their weight and taken in ensemble make for an impressive wall of protagonists. Douglas is not trotted out for a few token scenes, but rather given a full, vital, present and active character with an edge and an arc. Lilly is given a strong character in Hope – often female characters in tentpoles are presented more as archetypes than realistic people; to be crude about it, either cuddly or cold. But Hope is in the middle spectrum; confident, knowing her own value, with her ultra-competence offset by snarky as well as warm humor. And let’s just say she looks to have a bright future in this universe. Leading the comic relief, and stealing every scene he appears in, is Peña as Luis. Having established dramatic chops elsewhere, Peña is the MVP in bringing a great Ant-Man-specific comedic energy to the film, precisely because his character is so broadly played.
Speaking of broad performances, Stoll as the villainous Darren Cross fits into this. The only real fun to be had with Cross is with Stoll’s performance. For example, he’s given the ridiculous-as-scripted line, “You tried to hide your suit from me, and now it’s gonna blow up in your face”, and delivers it like a petulant child, making the line sort of work on that level. The big problem here is indeed the character as written. Stoll has said in interviews that Cross’ motivation changed from draft to draft, and boy howdy does that show. There are facets of his character we are constantly told about without being shown; he doesn’t convince as a scientist, and much more importantly, neither as a mentee of Hank Pym. And there are twists in the Third Act about Cross’ character that are worth as much as the added-in-post flimflam that they are.
The villain is weak, and so are parts of the screenplay’s setup and structure. In the early section of the film there are a handful of on-the-nose lines that land with a clang as clumsy exposition. But the bigger picture problem I have with the First Act is that it feels like there are two movies being run in parallel: the hi-tech machinations of Cross with Hank Pym’s countermoves, and the story of Scott Lang and his band of “cute criminals”. And rather than having them symbiotically feed on each other, they feel like each is paying for the other. As if the screenplay wants to counterbalance the straight-faced with the wacky, rather than bringing them into harmony. This is not to mention the half-assed shoehorned romance, which feels profoundly unnecessary.
So with the bad out of the way, Christophe Beck’s score is pretty great. It supports the heist element, and when the main theme is aired, parts of it are like Lalo Schifrin writing for a Disneyland roller coaster! Returning to the use of Ant-Man’s unique power set, its use is really a lot of fun (particularly in a Second Act training sequence) and I feel comfortable leaving the thrill of the ride to the viewer rather than describing it on the page.
Ant-Man is a very enjoyable action-SF-comedy that inverts the stakes of more typical Marvel movies (just look what happens to a big building towards the end). It gets by on plenty of heart and even more humor that together create a fairly unique tone among superhero films, plus it’s not afraid to get a little weird, with sequences that resembles Interstellar and The Rocketeer of all things! Especial props go to the cast, with Rudd, Douglas, Lilly and Peña making for a formidable bouquet of likable heroes. Ant-Man admirably fills in its little corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and its small hero accomplishes big things. 8/10.
P.S.: Edgar Wright, bastion of visual humor and my personal favorite living director, was for the better part of eight years attached to Ant-Man, eventually forced out through creative differences with Marvel Studios. Obviously I would have preferred he stayed on; equally as obviously, I can’t compare the finished product to a movie that was never made.
P.P.S.: I want to talk a bit about the interesting way that Ant-Man is at war with its marketing. We heard over and over again in the trailers jokes that were pretty much saying, “See Ant-Man! And yes, we realize that name sounds ridiculous!” There was even a version of the gag where Scott Lang says, “Iron Man was already taken”. It was a bit savvy, but also more than a little insecure. Now observe how in the film proper, jokes of that type are nowhere to be found! Another fun undermining of the marketing: you see “tough-guy” shots in the trailer of Scott in the prison brawl, but the movie turns that on its head for a neat little gag.
P.P.P.S.: The MCU’s “second phase” closes with Ant-Man, and I noticed something sort of interesting about my opinions of the Phase 2 films’ villains. Iron Man 3‘s Aldrich Killian (good villain); Thor: The Dark World‘s Malekith (bad villain); Captain America: The Winter Soldier‘s Alexander Pierce (good villain); Guardians of the Galaxy‘s Ronan (bad villain); Avengers: Age of Ultron‘s Ultron (good villain); Ant-Man‘s Darren Cross (bad villain).
In 2012, young filmmaker Josh Trank directed the excellent Chronicle, a found-footage tale of three teens who unexpectedly gain superpowers. It’s one of the greatest “off-brand” superhero movies out there, and Trank has continued the theme of his career with Fox’ reboot of the Fantastic Four. But the game is different now – cinematic experimentation must marry with adaptations of Marvel’s First Family. The question of the film’s success in flaunting a stretchy dude, a partially-visible woman with mastery of force fields, a man on fire, and a rock monster with many chips on his shoulder, is polarizing. But in a binary world, sometimes it’s best to inhabit a middle ground.
Reed Richards (Miles Teller) has a dream: to crack teleportation technology. Supported by his best friend Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell), his prodigious efforts get the attention of the Baxter Foundation’s Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey). Dr. Storm’s adopted daughter Susan (Kate Mara), his biological son Johnny (Michael B. Jordan, formerly of Chronicle), along with his wayward genius protégé Victor von Doom (Toby Kebbell), help in the project, and the path to another dimension is opened. A new world, and a new life for all concerned, awaits.
The greatest resource in this science-heavy blockbuster is the super-talented and rising-star cast. Teller (Whiplash) plays both foppish wunderkind and newly-minted authority well, with the best comedic timing of his peers. Mara (House of Cards) and Bell (Snowpiercer) are given the weakest material, but make an impression nevertheless. And Jordan (Fruitvale Station) brings as much energy to the traditionally bombastic Johnny Storm role as he can given the film’s grounded context. Tying everything together is Cathey as Dr. Storm, even as his role as the team’s father figure is all but drilled into our heads. It’s a shame that the team dynamic is overall under-nurtured, as I do believe this cast is capable of much greater and more effervescent things given more screen time to win the audience over.
A film about the Fantastic Four carries some basic connotations to the average moviegoer, who likely expects a fun super heroic adventure. This Fantastic Four goes for a different tack entirely, a David Cronenberg weird-science-body-horror theme. And there are scenes in this film all but stolen from Scanners and The Fly, but still working in this context. So this is fine by me, because I’m a fan of Cronenberg, but if the SF-horror conceit had gone even further the film could have really worked for those looking for a good film in and of itself irrespective of the Fantastic Four.
And even so, this is not Fantastic Four in name only. Dude’s name is Victor von Doom. Dude says, “Flame on” without irony. There’s an undeniable moment of chills when all four zoom into frame with their powers set. However, all these elements are hung on the framework of an origin story, which at times doesn’t feel fresh. It feels like this movie would have played better five or six years ago, which isn’t a strike against the film itself, of course, but our reaction to it. And Fantastic Four more than most comic book movies ends up insecure about our reactions; the corny, chaotic, rushed and admittedly entertaining finale is wedged in seemingly as a sop to certain Avengers fans who might have been bored by all the science-whyency stuff.
Not that the setup is flawless either, though. The lead character being the ridiculously stretchable Reed Richards is appropriate, because the storytelling apparatus of Fantastic Four is pulled in different directions to gymnastic effect. The narrative is made to contort to accommodate a leisurely-then-fast-forwarded origin story, plus complications along the way. At the film’s midpoint there’s an obvious trick to fold the story into a 100-minute runtime, with the consequence of short-circuiting a few character arcs. The mess left by the cutting-room is regrettable.
Fantastic Four is too abstract and colorless for kids, too divergent from super heroics for comic book fans, and too simplistic and rushed for Cronenbergian film aesthetes. It ends up being a film for no one, but that does not mean it’s bad. Parts of it work quite well, particularly the moments where it does lean into body-horror. Indeed, strong genre identity is what’s needed to pre-empt comic book movie fatigue among audiences. And this cast is solid as the superhero team that had formed a bond before their powers lumped them together. It would be a shame if this was all we got of them, since now that everything’s set up, the story could go anywhere. Fantastic Four is not fantastic, but neither is it terrible. And I’m not looking for a different film at the core, but a better version of what we got. A strong 5/10.
P.S.: Remember that scene in CRAPPiE where Hippo steals a bunch of PS4s, and that other scene where Chappie uses a PS4 console to transfer a sentient consciousness? Well, there’s actually a similar moment here where a totem of N54s are used as part of young Reed’s teleportation device. Also, the use of a test chimp for inter-dimensional travel is appropriate given the presence of Toby Kebbell, who played the villainous ape Koba in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Longtime readers will know I’m not a fan of the character, but Kebbell’s performance as Koba is unimpeachable.
You know, the genre label of “comedy” is no excuse for laziness. If anything, the creation of a good comedy film should be a task of some precision and thought; you’ve got to keep the laughs coming, you’ve got to invest the viewer in the situations they’re laughing at and with. I’m just going to drop the pretext and tell you the deal. Pixels is a film that on a great number of occasions just throws its hands up and all but says to the audience, “We don’t care. Our jokes, and the plot on which they hang, don’t have to make sense. Now laugh.” The film relies on mean-spirited “humor”, hackneyed schtick, lots of shouting, and even more half-assed randomness. It ain’t good. And now that the cards are on the table, the plot.
Back in 1982, then-young video game whizzes Sam Brenner (Adam Sandler), Ludlow Lamonsoff (Josh Gad) and Eddie Plant (a slumming Peter Dinklage) competed in an arcade game championship – in the same year NASA sent out a probe containing elements of popular culture including games such as “Centipede” and “Pac-Man”. In the here and now, aliens have misinterpreted the games as declarations of war, and have come to invade the earth with partially-rendered nasties taken from these classic games. It’s up to the 1982 arcade competitors, plus Sam’s love interest Violet van Patten (Michelle Monaghan), to use their retro gaming skills to save the world from certain pixellation.
Honestly, pixellation would be the ideal scenario here. I say this because the film’s bad, sure, but also because the visual effects of the arcade game characters is quite effective… And in those few words I’ve exhausted the film’s unequivocally positive qualities. Granted, there are a couple performances that could have worked with a different modulation. Dinklage commits to his performance as a maverick gamer, and given (much) better jokes his character could have taken off. Brian Cox also lends the film a little class in a relatively decent role as a military blowhard, but in time his role is reduced to shouting in a desperate bid for a laugh, before he’s dumped from the film entirely. Other miscellaneous sins of Pixels: Adam Sandler’s lead performance is one of the most bored-looking I’ve ever seen, filled with inert schtick and anti-jokes. The film has no understanding of dramatic structure, with the heroes-on-the-ropes section of the story reduced to something like two blink-and-you’ll-miss-them minutes. The cameos are determined not by what would be funny but by who happened to be available to shill.
I ask you: Who is this movie for? The jokes are pitched at the preteen level of sophistication, and yet the entire selling point of the film is nostalgia for 1980s pop culture. So in the end the target demographic seems to be middle-aged folks who have warm memories of arcade games and who have the entertainment standards of their 10-year-old selves. I’m sure Sony also felt Pixels would appeal to the “nerd demographic”, but I can tell you that the portrayal of nerds in the movie is, well, not so great! Josh Gad’s super-coded nerdy Ludlow Lamonsoff character is representative of this.
Ludlow is loud, obnoxious, “hilariously” socially awkward, an off-the-wall conspiracy theorist, a literal basement-dweller, an obsessive fetishist of an 8-bit video game character, a man prevented from being arrested for a variety of petty crimes only because he ends up being too inept to carry them out, and finally, a walking cringe-worthy gay joke until the movie decides that it doesn’t want to go that way and instead serve him up a wife who is literally referred to as a “trophy” and is incapable of speech. We’re supposed to care about this annoying worse-than-stereotyped caricature and his ridiculous shenanigans? It leaves you wondering if the studio executives wanted to bet on how successful they could make a film that alienates its main demographics.
That’s not to mention alienating still others while it’s at it; for one thing, the man-child characters gawk at women and are sadly rewarded for it in incredibly elaborate ways, as I allude to above. This trophy wife payoff is two things: probably the worst thing I’ve seen in a movie this year so far, and a spoiler. But come on, this is Pixels. You shouldn’t give one crap about getting spoiled! Okay, so, there are two things set up early on. One, since childhood and through the present, Ludlow has an extreme infatuation with the (fictional) arcade game warrior woman Lady Lisa, and two, as the humans win various game-based challenges the aliens throw at them, they get “trophies”; one of the trophies is Q*bert. Now in the final battle, Ludlow is fighting the pixel aliens on the ground and of course Lady Lisa appears and starts to fight him. For no reason, she turns from pixels to a flesh-and-blood person. For no reason other than Ludlow declaring his love for her, she drops her swords as she’s about to deal him the killing blow. For no reason, she betrays her comrades and fights with the humans, until the other heroes beat the aliens at the source and Lisa enters pixel oblivion like all the other video game characters… except Q*bert. He’s a trophy you see, and the humans get to keep trophies. For no reason, Q*bert (who is a character who has interacted with the humans for a while and has a personality and identity as Q*bert) morphs into Lisa. For no reason, Lisa agrees to marry Ludlow on the spot. And in a post-credits scene, Lisa and Ludlow have had children: little baby Q*bert children, donchaknow. As I write this, I can’t believe someone came up with this tripe and thought it would fly. Sure it’s offensive, but it’s so lazily offensive. Every beat of this subplot represents the movie simply shrugging its shoulders and declaring its apathy for logic, entertainment value and good taste. It just doesn’t care, and when the movie doesn’t care, why should we credit it as anything other than a waste of time?
Just by the law of averages you might chuckle once or twice throughout the 105-minute runtime, but at the end of the day, this soulless Sony shit isn’t worth the trouble it took to produce. Just edit together the visual effects into a sizzle reel and call it an editing job well done. Pixels is bad, like replace-one-of-the-main-character’s-love-interest-with-an-inflatable-sex-doll-and-virtually-nothing-changes bad. It’s a lazy product, and Sony willfully ignored that when it comes to products the greatest selling point it can have is quality. 1/10.
P.S.: Dr. Toru Iwatani, creator of Pac-Man, is a character in the film, as can seen in the trailers. The part is played by an actor by the name of Denis Akiyama. Now, the funny thing is, the real Dr. Iwatani is in Pixels, cameoing as a repairman. I’m sure the reasonable explanation for Dr. Iwatani not playing himself is that he probably doesn’t speak English. In any case, it’s a notable little factoid.