Rogue One

The summer releases made it apparent that creating blockbusters that are not steaming piles of crap, is strangely difficult for Hollywood. And so it is with a sense of relief almost that we get Rogue One. It’s almost perfect for what it is – an action sci-fi flick with just enough depth. This issue of depth and surface plagues sci-fi and comic book adaptations. The summer pile up of disasters all suffered from wanting to have more depth than their flimsy structures could contain (Batman vs Superman really can’t make us think about the duality of Christ, particularly in the hands of Snyder). Ironically the best (it was a low bar) of the summer films was Star Trek Beyond, which was all surface. This was a shame since Star Trek has a legacy of being able to tackle philosophical issues with a deft touch.

The original Star Wars came at the end of the golden age of sci-fi, when in cinema and literature it made a case not to be seen as a genre, but as the defining mode of engaging with the zeitgeist (the Rogue One poster deliberately harks back to this period and is a thing of beauty). Star Wars itself was the weak one in this charge – it’s simplistic sword and sorcery in space didn’t compare with the headscratching of 2001, or the novels of Brian Aldiss, Asmiov, Frank Herbert, etc. But over the years this balance has served it well. There’s enough detail in the Star Wars universe to give people points of reference and fans to develop theories, but it’s generally about entertainment. Apart from the prequels. It learnt the lesson that comic book adaptations are learning now with those – don’t go thinking you’re Noam Chomsky.

So, on to Rogue One which is sort of Episode 3B. It has a good lead pair in Felicity Jones and Diego Luna, some solid back up characters (particularly the ultra cool Donnie Yen), and even a sardonic robot that manages not to be annoying. It follows a classic narrative – band of misfits on an impossible mission, that we know not many of them will survive. It is more space western than space fantasy. It’s real delights are the hooks into the original episode 4, including a CGI’d Peter Cushing and life on the Death Star scenes (although not in the canteen). When it ends with the opening scenes of A New Hope you almost want to cheer in recognition.

A funny thing happened after A Force Awakens – everyone went to see it, had a good time, and then came home and realised it was just Star Wars redone. They felt cheated, and cynicism set in. But that is to mistake the purpose of the series. The point of Star Wars is the enjoyment of cinema. And that is a difficult thing to realise, and should be cherished.

Independence Day Resurgence

What a strange mess this film is. It really has no idea what it wants to be, and should be a film studies lesson in knowing what you want from your outcome. I can’t be bothered to detail the fractured plot, but it has multiple threads which seemingly are unaware of an overall narrative. That is not necessarily a bad thing in an art-house movie, but in a blockbuster it feels like they just threw money at 20 different storylines and then decided which ones they’d stick together.

It lacks any narrative arc, tension, characterization but most of all identity. It isn’t sure if it wants to be Star Trek, Deep Impact, Godzilla or even Independence Day. This is fine if you have an alternative, but if your hope is that you can stitch elements of these together and realize something individual then that is akin to grabbing the shredded film scripts from bins and proposing it as Citizen Kane.

Occasionally there are films that cost so much money, and lack any obvious plan, that their mere existence is offensive. If you’re going to make an incoherent mess of a sequel then at least go down fighting – Independence Day 2 could have been a tangential sequel like Cloverfield Lane, or if they’re going to mix in storylines then just crowdsource contributions. At least be experimental, instead of just crap and ill-defined. Imagine being involved in something that costs this much, involves so many people and expertise, and then has not a single redeeming quality.

Suicide Squad

I’m pretty sure that future historians will trace the fall of modern civilisation to the moment when people began to speak reverentially of “the Marvel universe” or “the DC universe”, as if it was the Manhattan project of literature. I mean we don’t talk in sonorous tones of “the Eastenders universe”. Before I went to see Suicide Squad, I knew it had been declared a disaster. Apparently Marvel have got this universe thing wrapped up, but DC is a mess. Indeed I went to see it partly hoping for a clusterfuck, there’s a certain joy in watching (and reviewing) such a film.

And it is certainly a very flawed film. There are plot holes so large you wince at their nakedness. The main foe, The Enchantress (played by Cara Delevingne), is about as menacing as someone in the office who has learnt belly dancing and wants to show you their moves. There isn’t much chemistry between the gang, and there is so much idiot-lecture exposition you wonder if these characters have indeed wandered in from a different universe.

But it’s also got some good points. It has a Warriors style gang look and feel. It’s more ‘street’ than any DC or Marvel film (with the exception of Deadpool). Smith is cool and sufficiently human to give his character depth. But it’s Robbie’s film – Harley Quinn gets all the best lines and scenes, and she plays it with the right level of danger, sympathy and comedy. Both Robbie and Smith understand the type of film they’re in – playful nonsense. Leto on the other hand thinks he’s playing Macbeth. Thankfully his appearances are relatively scarce, because every time he is on screen you are desperate for the scene to end. It’s a shame the “universe” demands that he and Quinn are a couple, because a much better ending would be if she put her baseball bat to effective use.

I sometimes see commentators pondering how to ‘fix’ the problem of the poor DC adaptations. The underlying assumption here seems to be that we have to keep making them, as if some law has been decreed. We could just make other types of films you know. In psychology this is known as cognitive inertia – you keep perpetuating the same behaviour despite the lack of success. But the production cycle of Hollywood is already fixed for the next 5 to 10 years on DC and Marvel adaptations. And I guess that is the appeal of the ‘universe’ approach – it is comfortable and reassuring, both for film execs who can plan their hits for the next decade, and audiences who know previously what world their entering. But that’s why they’re boring too.

Suicide Squad is a mess, but it’s a reasonably enjoyable mess. I preferred it to any of the Avengers or X-Men movies. It’s just not as good as other movies.

Star Trek Beyond

I am old enough to remember going to the cinema to see the first Star Trek film in 1980. And that in itself was a reboot of the TV series which was nearly always on rotation on TV. I bumped into some mates from school at that screening and the feeling afterwards was a bit “it was allright, I suppose”. The intervening period has seen those films grow in affection for an audience who views them as almost beyond criticism. The truth is they weren’t very good, lacked much action and rather lumbered along.

If that gang of 13 year olds had been given this movie to view, it would have been our favourite film ever (until the next Chuck Norris flick anyway). As it is, the Star Trek franchise is trying to wiggle a niche of its own inbetween Star Wars, Guardians of the Galaxy and all the other Marvel nonsense. With Star Trek Beyond it seems to have realised this quite successfully. It eschews the fashionable ‘darkness’ so beloved of many films, it has a few moments of humour but it doesn’t attempt the knowing meta humour of Guardians or Deadpool. Instead it’s quite old fashioned, it opts for the character ensemble in space, some decent set pieces and corny messages about unity being important.

There are no cutesy aliens in this, no meme moments, but the interplay between the characters as they come together on an alien planet to defeat the evil Krall, is well played. Bones, Spock, Uhura, Sulu and Chekov (Anton Yelchin’s last role) all capture the originals and look comfortable now in these roles. Even Simon Pegg isn’t too annoying.

Ultimately it’s what you want from a summer blockbuster – big, loud, fun, but not something you’ll bother with a second time, or spend long pondering. Given the turkeys of Batman vs Superman and Suicide Squad though, this now seems like high watermark for summer films. My verdict would be upgraded from the 13 year old’s version to “yeah, it’s allright”.

Batman vs Superman

I think I’ve established my disdain for comic book movies on here. My charge book is: fans take them too seriously; as soon as you take them seriously then you have to take them seriously – and then it’s silly men dressing up in outfits being white vigilantes; they represent the worst examples of flat, boring, CGI battles that are devoid of any tension, meaning or peril; they dominate cinema; I am not 12 years old.

With this baggage I came to Batman vs Superman aware that the comic book fans had hated it, so therefore I was willing to be contrarian and heap praise on it. And for the first half hour I was preparing a review along those lines – the reason the usual comic book audience didn’t like it was because it placed Superman in a real, modern, context. We see him in a middle east, murky dark ops scenario. Is Superman part of American imperialism this asks? But, as every overblown minute dragged on, my triumphant, contrarian review morphed into yet another one despairing at the pompous, self-indulgent, poorly scripted mess of a film it is.

One of the most embarrassing aspects of Batman vs Superman is the cringing, naked spectacle of someone going beyond the intellectual capacity, without anyone telling them they’re regurgitating cliches. The whole religious, turgid, digging clay rhetoric of Snyder is like an over indulged 6th former telling you earnestly “yeah, but I think religion is the cause of all wars”. You can’t help but roll your eyes, and ruffle their hair.

There are some good points to the film – the aforementioned realistic situating of Superman (this works less well with Batman), an effective Lois Lane portrayal, Ben Affleck has some weight as an ageing Batman and there is an attempt at a monochromatic style with echoes of Blade Runner. But these are outweighed very heavily by the negatives: a completely contrived central conflict (it’s in the title so it must be good). When Batman says “if there’s 1% chance he’s our enemy we have to assume he is” seems entirely unconvincing; A Godawful Lex Luther portrayal from Eisenberg, all twitchy pyschopath by numbers; it’s just fucking boring, oh for an editor, a narrative arc you care about.

I turned it off after Lex Luther screams (while twitching psychopathically) “bring me the head of the bat!” because Pointless was starting on TV. Pointless just about sums it up.

In the Heart of the Sea

There is an odd surface quality to Ron Howard’s recounting of the tale of the whaleship Essex, which famously inspired Moby Dick. It is a fantastical tale in itself, but Howard directly adds in the Moby Dick literary weight in the mix, by having the tale retold to Melville. Moby Dick certainly has its detractors, but it is undeniably a book of depth and substance. It seems strange that with such a rich list of ingredients, something so based entirely on the surface should have been constructed. It’s like taking port, lard, venison and aged stilton and somehow managing to bake a light, airy souffle.

Sometimes this surface quality adds to the film – the colouring of Nantucket recalls the artificial, but nonetheless artful sets of 1950s epics. But the CGI whaling scenes do not generate the sense of peril and substance. You do not feel the oppressive claustrophobia and seafaring griminess that, say, Master and Commander generated. Hemsworth does a decent job at standing on ship decks and shouting, but he’s all together too rugged a hero. “Why doesn’t he just wrestle the whale or blast it with a bazooka?” your genre addled brain demands. Caught between Jaws, Mutiny on the Bounty, Alive and Moby Dick itself the film never quite finds its own footing, like a greenhorn destined to be shark fodder. It’s a reasonable Sunday afternoon watch, but then so was the TV movie, The Whale.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

In Germany there is a black and white 1963 British film called Dinner for One, which is shown across most of the major TV stations, every New Year’s Eve. Up to half the German population watch it, every year. It is quite pointless to review Dinner for One in isolation, as just any other film. Indeed, what it is like as a film is almost irrelevant. It is part of the cultural fabric of Germany, its lines are well known, shorthand pieces of social glue that are shared by all.

The same is true of the Force Awakens to some extent. It is more than the film. It is also about the joy of cinema itself. With this reboot much more than the prequels we have cross generational excitement. Parents have raised children on the original films and both are equally excited to see the new version.

But even so it was important that they didn’t blow it. And Abrams is the ideal candidate for not blowing it. He may not give you an innovative vision, but he does know how to handle this stuff with love and care. In Rey the audience finally (after the abysmal missteps of the prequels) gets the hero they deserve. Feisty, likeable and with a cool steampunk, graphic novel look she is a direct descendant in tone from the well delineated characters of the original. Finn is a good foil, and the use of old characters treads just the right side of nostalgia. Maybe the whole thing does have a feel of being produced by focus group, but it bundles along decently enough. The point is not whether it’s a great film on its own, but whether it is good enough to sustain the social momentum. And it is.

You could criticise this film – I mean, another death star type thing gets blown up? Come up with a different ending, FFS. But it would be churlish to do so. Incidentally, the 40 Star Wars Plot Holes are not plot holes, they’re plot devices used in nearly all films. I’m not in love with Star Wars the way the 9 year old me was, but you’d have to hate cinema not to be warmed by the sight of so many people across all generations and cultures queuing up to see a film. And I don’t. Hate cinema that is.