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.

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”.

10 Cloverfield Lane

The law of sequels states they will always be inferior to the original, and as films such as Scream 2 and 22 Jump St have spelled out for us, they need to be bigger, but with exactly the same plot. 10 Cloverfield Lane ignores all of these demands. In making a sequel to the enjoyable POV movie Cloverfield, the easy option would be to make Battle for Cloverfield, an all out action, muscular, Independence Day, kick alien ass type movie. But Cloverfield Lane isn’t really a sequel at all, it’s more a tangential film. What is happening elsewhere in the same universe that Cloverfield is occurring? I’ve often been frustrated at the manner in which sequels follow not only the same story but the same tone. I want more tangential films – a romantic drama set when a couple meet in the aftermath of a James Bond car chase through a city, an offbeat comedy about what happens in Stormtrooper training camp, etc.

I remember seeing this discussion programme with Clive Barker, John Carpenter and Roger Corman in the 90s. They knocked around ideas for the perfect horror movie and discussed the idea where the last person left alive is not a hero but evil, and has a body hiding in the bedroom. This is the type of conflict that Cloverfield Lane sets up. The main character, Michelle, is rescued by survivalist nut, Howard. He tells her that there has been an attack, and they must stay in his bunker. We know this (from the title) and gradually Michelle appreciates it too. But that Howard is not a good guy is also quickly evident.

The film is superbly scripted, Goodman’s survivalist is sincere and menacing, and as the audience we are caught in the same dilemma as Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Michelle – is captivity or escape the better choice. The suspense is kept up at just the right pace, and there is one moment that made my mouth genuinely drop open in shock. Having written a very good escape movie, it is brave enough to give us 15 minutes of high impact sci-fi. A movie doesn’t have to be one thing, although too often that is exactly what we expect from them. Cloverfield Lane reminds us that films can be more than one thing: it is simultaneously a psychological thriller and a creature movie, a low budget and then in the last 15 minutes goes big budget, a sequel and a wholly original film.

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.