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Venom: Let There Be Carnage (2021)

Whatever feelings you may have had for 2018’s Venom, I imagine they will only be magnified with the sequel, Let There Be Carnage, where it appears that the filmmakers took the goofy, campy elements from the original and magnified them exponentially. This is a silly, dumb movie that seems almost too aware of its existence as a silly, dumb movie; it reminded me of what a Roger Corman movie might feel like as a modern-day superhero blockbuster. This movie is ridiculous, and that will either be its major selling point of its point of condemnation. I was not a fan of the 2018 predecessor but I found myself enjoying the goofier aspects of Tom Hardy’s performance as journalist Eddie Brock after he shares his body with an alien symbiotic goo. This time we have a second alien symbiotic goo, which is actually what the villain of the first movie was, but this time it’s red and extra trendril-y! The appeal for any viewer is going to be the bonkers buddy film at its core, Eddie Brock and his living id personified as the Venom alien that keeps asking to be allowed to eat people. The movie is almost sitcom-level in it’s portrayal of the two butting heads and going their separate ways to prove they don’t need the other only to learn they were really meant to be. There are some comedic moments that just keep doubling down on silly jokes at the expense of everything else, like the “Not you, Father, you, father” bit that actually made me laugh out loud. Under the guise of actor-turned-director Andy Serkis (Mowgli), the movie is simply a broad cartoon that manages to walk a line between good-bad and laughably bad. It doesn’t always keep that balance but it’s sure entertaining to watch its goofball energy and it’s only a merciful 90 minutes long (almost one half of Eternals). I can’t really tell if everyone attached to the movie is trying hard or really just goofing off on the company’s dime. Regardless, if you were not a fan of Venom before, this movie won’t convince you there’s a compelling character or universe here. Michelle Williams (Manchester by the Sea) is pitifully wasted as Eddie’s ex-girlfriend.  The accents are terrible all around. The new villain is a scenery-chewing serial killing dullard and then transforms into a goop monster. The love story with Woody Harrelson (Zombieland) and Naomie Harris (Moonlight) made me think if someone combined Natural Born Killers with X-Men but short-changed us on both counts. What works in this movie is what worked for me in the previous film, but now all elements feel more in alignment with the goofy energy of star-producer-and-credited-“story by”-writer Hardy. I don’t know if this franchise will ever qualify as traditionally good no matter how successful it proves to be. Maybe what the people really want is a screwball comedy with Hardy mugging alongside a wise-cracking, homicidal alien goo suit. Bon appetite, fans of expensive trash.

Nate’s Grade: C

Eternals (2021)

Chloe Zhao is the biggest name Marvel has gotten yet for its cinematic universe (MCU). Sure, they’ve had major directing names before like Kenneth Branagh and Ryan Coogler, and successful populist genre filmmakers like Jon Favreau and Joe Johnston and Joss Whedon and Shane Black, and quirky auteurs like James Gunn and Taika Watiti. However, Zhao is the first Academy Award-winning director to jump into the Marvel sandbox. Zhao seems like an odd fit for something as mainstream and successful as the MCU, but she was excited to tell a big story with the biggest studio operating in Hollywood. Eternals (no “The”) is just as much about the question over what it means to be human as Zhao’s Best Picture-winning Nomadland, and it’s a lot easier to watch with one hundred percent less Frances McDormand pooping in a bucket in her van (granted, she did win an Oscar for that performance). Eternals has received the lowest critical rating of any MCU film in its thirteen-year history and I’m trying to figure out why.

Thousands of years ago, the Eternals were created by the Celestials, powerful beings that are responsible for birthing new galaxies into the universe. The Eternals were sent to protect the inhabitants of Earth from the Deviants, terrifying tendril-heavy monsters that will consume and overrun a world. The Eternals are instructed by their masters not to intervene in human conflicts; only to intervene to save them from Deviants. Now that the last Deviant has been dead for over 500 years, the Eternals have settled into comfortable lives among present-day humans. Then the Deviants return, evolving with added powers and posing a new threat to humanity and the Eternals, but the real threat might be outside the confines of Earth.

Eternals feels like a different kind of Marvel movie in that stretches feel like it’s a Stanley Kubrick movie, or a Terrence Malick movie, or a DC movie. The plot structure and tone even reminded me of Watchmen. Don’t get me wrong, the standard Marvel elements are recognizable, but this is a much slower, more methodical, more cerebral, and more challenging movie that really feels like a distillation of Zhao’s humanist indie naturalism and the crazy cosmos from Jack Kirby’s trippy source material. I can understand why some people would find this movie to be boring and poorly paced. There are extensive flashbacks and setup. It definitely doesn’t need to be a staggering 157 minutes long, second only to the three-plus hours of Endgame. Granted the movie is introducing a dozen characters, their relationships, their powers, their histories, as well as a new history for the universe that doesn’t relate to anything that came before it. There are assorted references to Thanos and the events of Endgame, bringing half the population back, but this is more a standalone movie that can serve as an introduction for those less well-versed in two dozen movies’ previously on’s. I knew going into Eternals it was going to be slow, and I knew several friends that outright hated it, but I think pacing is more to its benefit and detriment. The scenes feel like Denis Villenueve (Dune) is pacing them, where moments are given more time to breathe and where characters are given space to reflect and absorb. Like a Villenueve film, Zhao wants her audience to take in the grandeur of the moment, but she also wants the characters to be able to take in the drama of their circumstances. Some people will find it all too boring, and while there were points that could be trimmed, I was enjoying myself because of the attention to character perspectives that are given precedence over splashy beat-‘em-ups.

I was drawn in by the character reveals, their conflicts, and the time Zhao allows to examine their emotional and philosophical states. Look, it’s still a big, action-packed Marvel movie with plenty of monster fights and a world-saving cataclysm climax, and while those are agreeably executed, I was more taken by letting the characters pontificate on their problems. There’s Sprite (Lia McHugh), an eternally looking child who can never live an adult life she craves. There’s Druid (Barry Keoghan), a man with the power to control the minds of all humans on Earth but is explicitly instructed to remain hands-off with their conflicts. He is severely torn and emotionally wrecked over watching them slaughter one another and knowing he has the power to intervene and resolve genocide, prejudice, and poverty. That’s the eternal question over why a loving God seemingly chooses to be hands-off, all rolled into one character. There’s Thena (Angelina Jolie), a legendary warrior of physical renown but whose mental state is fracturing and who poses a potential lethal threat to her family. There’s her partner, Gilgamesh (Don Lee), who would rather watch over his love as she suffers and potentially declines than have her lose her identity and erase herself. There’s Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), a man who only wants to help the humans with his technological skills but regrets his contributions and declares humans as unworthy of their keep after Hiroshima. Then there’s a reveal halfway through the Eternals that loads a needs-of-the-many sacrificial debate that positions different characters on different sides of the divide for the final act. I enjoyed that even the villains are presented with their rationale and are tortured over their choices they deem to be necessary for the greater good.

I’ve written a lengthy paragraph all on the meaty character conflicts, and none of them revolve around the goal to gather a magic item or learn a special power. I didn’t mind Zhao’s movie taking its sweet time to allow these conflicts and struggles to be felt because they were evocative, and Zhao’s storytelling shines when she focuses on the noble and often tragic struggles of people being complicated, contradictory, and confusing. Even the big dumb beasts evolve and have a perspective that has an understandable complaint. The final confrontation doesn’t come down to a giant sky beam and an endless army of disposable CGI brutes. It rests upon character conflicts and a romance that spans thousands of years where empathy is the secret weapon. Early on, you think it’s going to be a love triangle, and the movie just teleports out of that trope. I found myself more invested in the ending, even if I could already predict the conclusion. I was more interested in what the conflict was doing to the Eternals as a family fracturing under the weight of their destinies and the consequences of defiance. The film ends on a cliffhanger with significant fallout, and I don’t know how the rest of the MCU is going to square what we learned and accomplished here. This seems in sharp contrast to everything down the road.

Eternals is also an often beautiful-looking movie with Zhao’s penchant for natural landscapes and magic hour lighting. The editing and photography feel nicely matched and allow the viewer to really soak up the natural splendor and the impact of the battles. The action is kept at a human level with the camera tethered to the characters even when in flight. There is the occasionally eye-opening shot of a landscape, or Zhao’s use of visual framing, or the special effects revelations that reminded me of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s certainly not the most breezy, action-packed movie in Marvel’s lengthy canon of blockbusters, but it’s not devoid of spectacle.

So then why has Eternals scored so low with film critics and a significant portion of general audiences? Some wonder if the level of diversity and inclusivity of the movie is a factor; we have many non-white characters including a deaf character and a gay male character in a committed relationship, with a genuine and loving onscreen kiss no less (your turn, Star Wars franchise), and that seems like a trigger point for certain fans that grumble about “woke culture.” I’m sure for some that’s a factor. I think the length will be a factor too. I think the elevated emphasis on emotional stakes and philosophical conflicts might be another factor. This doesn’t feel like any Marvel movie that has come before. It’s much more comfortable with silences, with patience, and with cerebral matters (again, not to say the dozens of other MCU entries were absent these). This one is just different, encompassing the directing style and humanist attentions of Zhao and looking at a far larger scope of drama than toppling one super-powered being. I saw this in theaters with my girlfriend’s ten-year-old daughter and her friend and they both said they enjoyed it, so I won’t say it’s too mature or impenetrable for younger viewers. Eternals might be too boring for some, too long, and too different, but I was happy to endure it all.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Tomorrow War (2021)

Amazon’s new movie, The Tomorrow War, is the costliest original blockbuster of the summer, and it’s skipping theaters entirely. The $200 million-dollar sci-fi movie was originally slated for theatrical release in December 2020, then pushed to summer 2021, then sold to Amazon streaming for the cost of its production budget. It’s easy to grasp the excitement of its premise and how it could translate into engrossing escapism. At the 2022 World Cup, a flash of light transports a team of future soldiers who need enlistments. In a matter of months, the world will be facing a war between alien monsters, and by 2050 we will be on the verge of losing for good. Dan Forrester (Chris Pratt) is a science teacher/ex-veteran who is conscripted into the future war, along with some other unlikely soldiers, and thrown into the future. His tour will last one week and then he’ll be sent back to 2022, if he survives, and only twenty percent come back.

Perhaps it was the allusions or homages to Starship Troopers, but I found the first act and the action before the action to be the most interesting part of The Tomorrow War. I was hoping with its time travel premise of a future war fought by the past that there would be some attention paid to the world building and implications of its premise, at least before it became hunting down monsters and shooting in corridors, and thankfully the movie actually takes some sweet time to lay its foundations before being conscripted itself into action movie spectacle. Much like Starship Troopers, we have people unprepared for a war against an alien species and essentially being tossed into basic training as cannon fodder for the military industrial complex. I enjoyed that the screenplay by Zach Dean (Deadfall) actually plays out some of the larger effects that its future confirmation would stir. Effectively, humanity knows that in thirty years it’s all over. There is a definitive end date. Knowing that thirty years is all civilization has remaining would cause all sorts of global, social, and psychological upheavals. Why bother going to school if it’s all over in thirty years? Why try and start that business if it’s all over in thirty years? Why start a family if your children will be doomed in thirty years or less? Society would be irrevocably changed, and sectors and populations would refuse to go back to the way things were, and instability would flare up with generations sore over their lack of Earthly inheritance.

That’s just one factor that gets attention during this first 45-minute section. The nature of the future conscripting people of the past to fight their war has plenty of political commentary about generational conflict, proxy wars, and how the poor are disproportionately affected with less choice. The soldiers being taken from the past are older and an unorthodox pool of candidates that wouldn’t meet contemporary military recruitment standards. This is because the people being sent to fight are already dead by the time 2050 rolls around to avoid any time paradox concerns. There are interesting implications here. It’s like their own governments are saying, “Well, you’ll be dead anyway, so you might as well die now rather than much later and maybe you’ll provide a more immediate need other than taxes. Thank you for your service, now die.” Again, the psychology and ripples of that can be fascinating. I’m skeptical why more 2022 Americans are not disputing why they should fight 2050’s war with their own flesh and blood. I suppose I wanted this intriguing premise to be played out more in the span of an ongoing TV series, something along the lines of the elegant existential bummer of HBO’s The Leftovers. As a feature, The Tomorrow War gets beaten into blockbuster shape to become another noisy sci-fi spectacle, but the potential of its premise and the bombshells of its world-building deserved even more deliberate consideration.

When the action picks up, The Tomorrow War follows a predictable path of alien invasion military thrillers. Dan’s unit must go into enemy territory and retrieve an important thing before the aliens overrun the facility as well as before the Army firebombs the block. There are many ticking clocks built into the plot mechanisms, from Dan’s week-long sojourn into the future ticking clock, the overall “humanity’s last stand” ticking clock, the ticking clock of getting needed lab components before destruction, the ticking clock of synthesizing a magic alien cure, and there’s likely others I haven’t even noticed. That cluttering of urgency extends also to its personal exploration of two sets of frayed familial relationships, father/daughter and father/son across three generations. It’s simply too much and detracts from more time and attention being given to the elements that demand the most development. The father/daughter relationship has the most meaningful drama considering it covers multiple periods of time and pushes Dan into thinking more critically about sacrifice and legacy. The broken father/son relationship between Dan and his absentee dad (a buff J.K. Simmons) is unnecessary and put on hold for too long and then hastily tied together. The Tomorrow War is an unlikely candidate of having too many conflict elements and points of urgency that they can dilute one another.

This also gets into an extended third act that feels entirely tacked on. After a critical climax, I grabbed my remote to pause the movie with the belief that things were wrapping up shortly. I was shocked to see I still had another 30 minutes left to go. The mountain-set final action set piece feels like a late studio addition rather than an outgrowth of what was established in the screenplay. Strangely, the characters don’t seem to be acknowledging the reality of cancelling out the alien-invasion nightmare future with their actions. If Dan has the magic elixir to thwart aliens, and goes back to 2022, then he can prevent the billions of eventual deaths. I suppose that does nothing for those in 2022 that got zapped into 2050 and died in the line of duty, but it spares everyone else from 2023 onward. I started yelling at the screen that preventing the terrible future meant good things.

As far as the quality of action, it’s a cut above thanks to director Chris McKay (The Lego Batman Movie), making his live-action film debut. I’ve noticed with other directors who primarily got their start in the realm of animation that they have such a great command of filling up the screen. Brad Bird, Travis Knight, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, and Tim Burton, all of them have an extra artistic sense of how to use the space of the frame to immerse the viewer. I greatly appreciated that many of the sequences where the soldiers fight the alien monsters use long takes and clear editing. There’s one scene where soldiers are trying to wrangle a monster as a hostage and all the fighting and buckling is impressively presented with sufficient distance so we can see the soldiers react and go flying. The introduction of the alien monsters is drawn out of the shadows, but from that moment onward the movie presents the monsters clearly, and I enjoyed the squid-meets-feline creature design enough that I welcomed more closeups. There’s also a horrifying and darkly comic tech mishap where the future accidentally zaps its new recruits into 2050, but instead of re-materializing five feet above the ground it’s 100-plus feet high, so we watch people hurtle to their awful deaths. McKay can replicate standard studio action movie grist seen in plenty of other big-budget blowouts (there are multiple examples of characters slow-motion jumping out of the way of explosions), but more often McKay has a natural eye for visual compositions and how to bring out more with his sci-fi spectacle.

One of the bigger miscues of the movie was the hiring and prominence of Pratt (Jurassic World) as the lead. He’s got the presence and build to be convincingly ex-military, but he’s not a good fit for an everyman, let alone a family man everyman scientist. He’s a high school science teacher going through personal malaise because he feels like he’s meant for something bigger (what’s bigger than saving humanity, guy?) and this ordinary life just ain’t cutting it. Except Pratt can do charming and affable, he can even do heroic, but this part does not play to the actor’s strengths, so Dan often comes across as plain and bland. He’s stuck as the square-jawed straight man for the movie and is boring once he goes into action or thinking mode.

I wished the movie had been retold from the point of view of Charlie, played by reliable comic Sam Richardson (Veep, Werewolves Within). He’s a welcomed voice of panic and reason among the avalanche of sci-fi, science, and military jargon. He’s a widower, losing his wife on her own tour of duty, and he feels greatly out of place. The actor is so amusing and the character so unexpectedly entertaining that I wish Pratt’s hero had bit the dust early as a meta head-fake (think of Seagal getting killed off early in 1996’s Executive Decision) and we were left to follow Charlie as humanity’s unexpected savior. Along the conversation of waste, Betty Gilpin (The Hunt) is shortchanged as Dan’s wife in 2022 world. They introduce a plot point that family members can be conscripted in place, and then there’s the transport glitch that kills all but a few, so I assumed that an actress of Gilpin’s kick-ass capability would find herself in the future fighting too. Alas, dear reader, Gilpin is just here to be the concerned wife at home waiting for her man to return.

The Tomorrow War is an original story though it’s built from older, recognizable parts, a little Independence Day here, a little Alien there, and a dash of Edge of Tomorrow. It’s derivative but it still has its own points of interest, chief for me is the world building and premise. The action is solid and filmed well. The scope of the special effects fits comfortably in the blockbuster studio range. It’s a good-looking movie with plenty of action and enough time travel quirks, though your attention may also flag as the movie lurches to a protracted close with its extended third act. It does more right than wrong as blockbuster spectacle. I think it had offshoots of better potential that could have been tapped, but as a big screen entertainment ported to your smaller home screen, The Tomorrow War is destined to win fans with lowered expectations and 140 minutes of free time.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001) [Review Re-View]

Originally released July 11, 2001:

Final Fantasy is an exciting venture in the history of animation. It’s the second video game to be turned into a feature film this summer, though exponentially better than Tomb Raider. It took the makers of Final Fantasy four years and the creation of new technology to capture what will be a benchmark in animation for years to come.

The story concerns a future Earth where aliens have crashed and invaded long ago. These “phantoms” are slightly invisible energy creatures of different size and roam around various areas with the ability to suck the life force or soul from a human being. General Hein (James Woods) is trying to convince the Earth council to allow him to fire a satellite called the Zeus Cannon to obliterate the alien menace. In opposition to Hein is Dr. Sid (Donald Sutherland) who believes with his adventurous pupil Aki Ross (Ming-Na) that the Zeus Cannon will obliterate the “spirit” of Earth. Their solution it to collect eight spirits in whatever forms they might be including plants and small animals to gather together and… do something that will send the alien life force repelling.

Now I know Hein is supposed to be the bad guy as he’s a military man complete with the evil looking black leather cloak, but I couldn’t help but find myself agreeing with his logic. He wants to use something that has already been proven to kill the aliens whereas these two new age scientists want to collect a bunch of plants and animals and have their collective spirits ward off the interplanetary menace. I’d stand in my chair and say thank you to Hein when he dismisses the doctor’s plot. I know that Aki and Sid are the heroes and of course whatever theories they have will be proven true, but hell, I found myself agreeing more with General Hein than these two.

Complicating matters Aki is infected with a piece of the alien phantom that is slowly taking control over her body. Along in her quest to discover the final spirits is aided by a military commander Grey (Alec Baldwin) and his company of men. Turns out Grey and Aki are former sweethearts, so of course expect them to reconcile before the end credits.

The plot consists of something that could be an average episode on Star Trek: Voyager but does meander along at times. The dialogue is typical sci-fi buzzwords like “Fire in the hole” “The perimeter’s been breached” and the sort. Final Fantasy does have great excitement to it and some terrific action sequences better than most anything this summer. The ending is a disappointment as all the action hinges on two globs of energy propelled against one another. Globs or energy are not exciting. I thought we would have learned this by now.

Final Fantasy is a landmark in animation. Never has so much detail been put into a movie and pulled off so amazingly well. To the nit-pickers out there the animation isn’t exactly the Holy Grail of photo-realism, but it’s closer than anything ever before. At times the characters come off as too plasticy (like Jude Law in A.I.) and tend to move too much, notwithstanding that their mouths don’t always follow the words coming out of them. Put aside these small grievances and what you have is stunning animation that makes one constantly forget it is animation. There are numerous moments of eerie precision like when a character’s nostril flares and their nose scrunches up in response, and the movement of every one of Aki’s 60,000 strands of gorgeous hair, to even a kiss between two characters. Even inanimate objects like a crumbled wall, a glass of alcohol, or a gun and its rounds are given startling accuracy. Backgrounds and scenic vistas are beautifully rendered with great care. There has been nothing ever like Final Fantasy before and it is the first movements toward an exciting area in animation.

The discussion must be raised can actors be phased out by computers now and will they ever? No, never. Actors can portray nuances that computers will never be able to master. Despite some actors best attempts to prove otherwise, we will always need actors. Now that you have the near photo realism one might be led to question what is the greatness of creating a fully realistic looking CGI tree when one can just be shot on film for millions of dollars cheaper. The all CGI world will not replace the real world of film making.

The mediocre story can be excused by the awe-inspiring animation. Despite the clunker of a plot Final Fantasy is entirely enjoyable because it always gives the viewer something to sit in wonder and take in. There’s always something to mesmerize the eyes on screen.

Nate’s Grade: B

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

There was a time where the world wondered whether 2001’s Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was going to put actors out of business. The Columbia/Sony animated feature, the first the studio released theatrically since the second Care Bears Movie, was a big technological leap. Square Studios, the makers behind the extremely popular video game RPG series, opened a new studio stationed in Hawaii to enter the realm of Hollywood, and they devoted four years and countless hours of processing to create photo-realistic visuals. This was still at the dawn of CGI animated features taking over the landscape and the leap was impressive. None other than Roger Ebert wrote in his review that he considered the movie a milestone along the lines of the first talkies. Before its release, there was scuttlebutt whether or not this was the wave of the future and actors would be replaced with computer versions, never mind that vocal actors were still being employed. The lead “actor,” Aki, was depicted in a swimsuit on a Maxim cover as an icky promotion. The 2002 movie S1mone satirizes this concept further, with Al Pacino fed up with temperamental industry actors so he secretly uses a photo-realistic computer program instead.

I don’t really know why people got so worried. There are nuances that humans can convey that machines cannot, but even beyond that distinction, it’s simply a lot cheaper to hire an actor, put a costume on them, and record them than to build a model from scratch in a computer and toil for hours just to get the right look of the character raising an eyebrow. The listed budget for Spirits Within is $137 million, though has been rumored to be as high as $170 million (even more than Waterworld). For reference, the budgets of other 2001 movies include $125 million for the first Harry Potter, $93 million for Jurassic Park 3, $100 million for the Tim Burton Planet of the Apes, and $93 million for The Fellowship of the Ring. Even if you view Spirits Within as paving the way for motion-capture animated movies, the kind Robert Zemeckis spent a decade of his career slaving over, even those were eventually deemed too expensive for their returns. I think we can, at least for the time being, put this question to rest. Beyond the complexity that real actors can bring to performances, there’s the ease and cost that cannot be beat by a computer. Maybe in time this will change but for now rest easy Tom Hanks. You’re not going anywhere.

Twenty years later, the animation that once inspired awe now feels dated and surpassed. That’s the nature of the speed of technological advancement; even the company had to redesign scenes from the movie as they finished because the tech improved dramatically over the four-year development process. The visuals of the movie have become the norm for modern-day video games. There are aspects of the animation that are missing or just unable to be fully formed at the time. The faces look too slick and plastic, absent grooves and pores and imperfections that provide texture to people’s faces. The human appendages move like rubber. The hair seems to flow like it’s captured from a bouncy shampoo ad (apparently a fifth of the processing power went to animate the lead heroine’s 60,000 follicles). The character’s mouths look to be wired shut and unable to articulate their words. From a 2021 standpoint, the animation looks more like an extended video game cut scene from late 2000s. Its innovation has become commonplace.

It should be no surprise that the script went through numerous rewrites. All the attention for Sony and Square was on the technical achievements and much less so on the story, which I guess they assumed would come together at some point. The project began with the Final Fantasy writers coming up with the initial plot, which would make sense until you realize the RPG fantasy series isn’t known for its sense of realism or cohesion. The plot of Spirits Within is not very in keeping with the more fantastical Final Fantasy series world. Screenwriter Jeff Vintar (I, Robot) was asked to read the script because the studio reportedly did not understand the project at all. His analysis was that they should completely start from scratch. The studio asked if he wanted to rewrite the script and gave him three weeks. His words were translated from English to Japanese and then back into English, which left something lost in translation a couple times over.

It’s surprising that the movie is even slightly coherent with everything it’s been through. It’s still a mess of a plot, with aliens having crashed onto Earth and made parts of the planet uninhabitable by their presence. They’re also revealed to be ghosts. So… alien ghosts. And there are eight horcruxes, I mean, um, spirits that need to be found to… something. The screenplay, under all of its laborious mutations, is really about a military team and a pair of scientists collecting MacGuffins and trying to use dreams to thwart a fascist from using a doomsday laser. It is simultaneously overly simplistic and overly complicated and quite silly. The villain, voiced by James Woods, even gets the full Nazi wardrobe but his viewpoint seems logical considering he’s pitted against scientists saying they need to break through to the “spirit of the Earth.” It’s hard to take their claims and wild speculation seriously in this more realistic world. Apparently, there was a plot development where Aki was revealed to be pregnant and her unborn child was the eighth and final spirit needed. You can still see its place in the plot. Reportedly, this storyline was cut because it was deemed “too Japanese” and I have no idea what that means.

The real reason to ever watch The Spirits Within has come and gone. It’s now a footnote in animation history and a mild curiosity at best. I suppose you can still try and think how cool everything must have been to experience in 2001, and then your mind will wander because the nonsensical story will do little to hold your attention. It was such a financial disaster that Square Studios closed down and the company went back to focusing on video games full time with the occasional CGI direct-to-DVD movie (2004’s Advent Children and 2016’s Kingsglaive). Square Studio did make one of the CGI animated segments for 2003’s Animatrix, a concept paving the way for other ambitious animated anthologies like Netflix’s Love, Death, and Robots. The entire emphasis of this expensive production was slated onto its visual decadence, but the story was muddled, confusing, trite, and alien to the source material and the fanbase it was appealing to. I want to give my 2001 self a high-five because I’m happy that even at 19 years old in my original review I could see the evident faults of the mediocre storytelling as well as the arguments for replacing real actors with virtual facsimiles. Back in 2001, I said Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within had the benefit of always giving the viewer “something to sit in wonder and take in.” Twenty years later, that lone benefit has all but disappeared. Conversely, video games have become so much more ambitious, artistic, and emotionally engaging since 2001. So skip the movie and just play a game instead.

Re-View Grade: C

Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)

Zack Snyder had a unique situation that many filmmakers would never get close to fulfilling. He departed the 2017 Justice League movie in the wake of a family tragedy, Joss Whedon was hired to direct and rewrite extensive reshoots that totaled an estimated additional $30 million dollars, and the world was given the strange amalgamation of two different filmmakers, along with the nightmare-inducing CGI baby lip to replace actor Henry Cavill’s mustache. The 2017 theatrical release of Justice League was meant to be a significant milestone for the DCU, launching an all-star assembly of superheroes and setting up future solo adventures and franchises. It was meant to be a major kickoff and it was simply a major shrug. The general public was indifferent to the 2017 League, and it seems like the DC brass is positioning for a cinematic universe do-over, retaining the elements they liked (Jason Momoa, Gal Gadot) and jettisoning the other pieces to start anew. In the ensuing years, fans have been petitioning for the fabled “Snyder Cut,” a theoretical version of Justice League that was closer to Snyder’s original artistic vision before the studio intervention and interloping of Whedon. It became a joke on social media and then one day it became real. Warner executives, seeing opportunity with the rabid fanbase, decided to give Snyder an additional $70 million to finish his version of Justice League. It would be an exclusive to their new streaming platform, HBO MAX, and Snyder could complete his version without artistic compromise. The resulting four-hour version, titled Zack Snyder’s Justice League, is less a movie than a mini-series, and a rare chance for a director to complete the story they wanted to tell without artistic compromise. After having watched the full four hours, along with re-watching the 2017 version again for comparison, The Snyder Cut just feels like the original version only longer. I would actually advise people that if they haven’t watched either Justice League to simply catch the 2017 version. At least its mediocrity is half your time investment.

Once again, months (?) after the death of Superman (Cavill), Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) is traveling the world and recruiting a very specific group of job candidates. He needs serious help to combat an oncoming alien adversary, Steppenwolf (voiced by Cirian Hinds). The cosmic Big Bad is looking for three special boxes, a.k.a. mother boxes, to destroy the world and make way for his master, Darkseid. Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) helps Batman convince the half-man/half-machine hybrid Cyborg (Ray Fisher), underwater dweller Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and hyperactive speedster Flash (Ezra Miller) to form a league of sorts to thwart Steppenwolf.

I think it’s unfair to judge the 2017 film to the Snyder Cut as a movie simply because this version never would have been released in theaters. No studio would have released a four-hour version. The two edicts that Whedon was given by the studio when coming aboard the project was that it could not be over two hours and to lighten it up. Imagine what the 2021 Snyder Cut would look like if Snyder was then tasked to cut it down to a more manageable two-hour running length. I predict many of the same scenes being eliminated or dramatically trimmed down. That’s the main takeaway from the Snyder Cut, that there is more room for everything, and quite often too much room. I swear a full hour of this movie might be ponderous slow-motion sequences. Plot-wise, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is pretty close to what was released in theaters in 2017. The action sequences are extended longer (Steppenwolf’s attack on the Amazons has increased from six minutes to a whopping twelve minutes) but I don’t know if they’re dramatically improved. Instead of two punches there’s four; instead of one chase, there’s two. It’s that kind of stuff, filling out the sequences but not really elaborating on them in an exciting fashion that reorients the moment. I liked some additions, like the inclusion of blood during the underwater Atlantis fight because it added a neat visual flair, but the added action is often obscured by visual decisions that dis-empower the experience (more on that later). I found myself growing restless with the movie. All that added time allows some sequences and plot beats to breathe better, but it also allows Snyder to meander to his greater indulgence (more on that later as well, notably on the multiple epilogues). The four hours feel like Snyder’s kitchen sink approach, and with the benefit of years of hindsight from the critical and fan reception of the 2017 version, he’s able to spend tens of millions to correct mistakes and improve a flawed film.

I hate how this movie looks for multiple reasons. The most obvious difference is that the aspect ratio has been altered to a 4:3 ratio more reminiscent of pre-widescreen television. Why is this the case? Snyder has said he cropped his movie to this boxy format so that it could be played on IMAX screens. That’s fine, but why crop your movie now months if not possible years before it will ever play on IMAX screens? When it comes time to adjust for the IMAX screen, adjust then. Why must every viewer see this limited version now on their widescreen televisions at home? It’s just so bizarre to me. It would be like if Quentin Tarantino reasoned that his movies will eventually play on airplanes, so he better get ready and cut back his widescreen into a flat, pan-and-scan mode, and he might as well include alternate takes and scenes to cover for those that would be deemed too profane or intense for the all-ages captive audience of an airplane, and then that version was the one he released to all audiences and we were stuck with it. Snyder had millions of dollars to reshoot his epic and he lopped off the edges, meaning you’re getting more movie but also less (at least the footage predating the new reshoots) in every second because of the framing. The grandeur of the superhero saga is also extremely hampered by the drab color palette. Snyder has always preferred muted colors to his movies but his Justice League drains all life and vibrancy. Everything is literal shades of grey. Color is not allowed to exist in this universe. A sunset is almost comical. Apparently, there’s going to be an official black-and-white version but we’re already practically there. Some could argue the oppressive grey is meant to evoke the grief and heaviness of the picture, and I’ll give you some leeway with that, but the drab colors also nullify the visuals. It’s simply harder to see everything that’s happening even during the daytime, and then you tack on the ugly CGI that makes everything look like a fuzzy video game. For a movie that has cost potentially over $350 million dollars combined, Justice League looks so phony. Maybe that’s part of Snyder’s overall stylized look, he’s never really been one to visually ground his operatic action spectacles, but I feel like the aspect ratio and color palate just make it worse. For those four hours, this is often a very visually unappealing movie to watch.

With the added time, there are definite benefits and characters that are lifted by the extra attention. Chief among them is Cyborg, a character that felt like a Swiss army knife in the original who was just there to perform whatever techno jazz the movie required at a moment’s notice. With the Snyder Cut, the character becomes more engaging and given a fuller arc relating to the relationship between father and son. The father’s placement in the story actually matters and Cyborg has more of a personal journey coming to terms with his new abilities. There is a back-story with his frayed relationship with his father, his accident that caused him to become the creature he is, and a reoccurring theme of a son blaming his father and the father trying to reconnect with the son he refused to part with. I still think Cyborg ranks low on the list of superheroes, but the additional scenes give the character more weight, more tragedy, and more intrigue. Another added benefit is that Steppenwolf’s motivation is improved as well as his look. He’s now outfitted with a herring-bone armor that twitches over his body. It’s a more intimidating look than what he had going on in 2017. I also appreciated that he now has more motivation other than “conquer the universe” because now it’s “conquer the universe to get back in the good graces of the boss.” Steppenwolf is trying to repay a debt and make amends, and that makes him slightly more interesting than his generic motivation in the original theatrical cut.

However, not all the new editions are as smooth or as helpful. The added time with the rest of the Justice League doesn’t seem to have added anything to their characters. Each one’s arc is more or less the same from the 2017 version, except now we have even more scenes of Wonder Woman wondering whether she needs to get off the sidelines and be more involved (the events of WW84 conflict with this timeline) and Aquaman rejecting his call to adventure from the Atlanians. Neither is a richer portrayal and the scenes are redundant. Take Wonder Woman finding out about Steppenwolf’s attack. In the 2017 version, her mother lights an arrow and it sails into Greek ruins, signaling her daughter, who knows what this means. In the Snyder cut, the arrow still lights the Greek ruins, but now Wonder Woman visits the ruins, she gathers a stick, she wraps a cloth around it, she dips it in kerosene, she lights it on fire, she enters a secret room because of the arrow, she jumps down a cliff, she finds a hidden temple with hieroglyphics warning about Steppenwolf and the mother boxes and Darkseid. Even if you really wanted the end where she sees those hieroglyphic warnings, why did we need these many steps to get there? The opening hostage/bank heist scene is given far more attention, with multiple scenes of hostages being terrorized, and then Wonder Woman literally vaporizes the chief terrorist. A little girl looks at her, likely traumatized for life by the whole experience, and says wistfully, “I want to be like you when I grow up.” She wants to be a murderer? In Snyder’s universe, Superman kills people, Batman kills people, so why not Wonder Woman too?

The revised introduction of Barry Allen is also regrettable. He’s applying for a dog walking job and a car accident occurs and he saves the day, but not before slowing down time in a frustrating manner. This is because he seems to be dawdling while the rest of the world is frozen, which makes the event seem less special. His movements seem less urgent than Quicksilver in the X-Men films when he would perform the same memorable slow-mo set pieces. I disliked that the Flash’s big involvement in the final showdown was literally running around in a circle, a repeat of what he had done prior. Also making the slow-mo save introduction less special is the fact that the Flash picks up a hotdog floating in midair for silly reasons. It’s drawn out with interminable slow-motion and the song choice is baffling, a common theme throughout Snyder’s movies. I think he’s been smarting ever since he painfully paired Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” with a sex scene in 2009’s Watchmen, and now we must al endure similar awkward auditory pairings. Every song inclusion just feels wrong here. As Aquaman is drinking and walking along a pier, in slow motion, we hear “There is a Kingdom” by Nick Cave, and it just doesn’t pair right, especially in contrast with the hard-rocking guitar riffs from The White Stripes in the 2017 version. For good measure, Snyder even includes another “Hallelujah” cover by the end for good measure, as if he’s still fighting this same battle over musical taste.

And then there’s the barrage of epilogues, each the start of a story never to be continued, and it approaches the realm of self-parody (spoilers to follow). We get three endings, the first an extension of the post-credit scene from the 2017 version where Lex Luthor (Jessie Eisenberg) suggests the formation of a Legion of Doom for villains. He even shares with Deathstroke (Joe Manganiello) that Bruce Wayne is Batman. Well, that could be an interesting next step, but we know it’s not to be so it becomes just a teasing preview. The next ending cuts forward in time to the dusty, apocalyptic vision that Batman had in Batman vs. Superman, and he’s got a crew including an older Flash, Meera (Amber Heard, why does she have a British accent now?), and even Jared Leto’s Joker. They’re facing off against a villainous Superman who has been driven mad by the death of Lois Lane (Amy Adams), which is pretty much the plot of the Injustice games. The Joker is antagonizing Batman with some references to killing someone close to the Dark Knight, and this whole sequence amounts to Snyder basically saying, “Hey, here’s where I wanted to go with things but you’ll never see it.” Then there’s a third ending, because the second is revealed to be another dream/vision for Batman, where he meets Martian Manhunter, a character that, other than diehard comic aficionados, no one cares about and has been given any reason to care about. The guy just introduces himself and Batman is like, “Oh, cool,” and that’s the ending Snyder decides to close his four hours with. There is a literal half-hour of epilogues and false endings to finish with and I was exhausted. I owe Peter Jackson an apology.

In my original review of the 2017 Justice League, I wrote, “I think I might have actually preferred Joss Whedon not being involved and simply releasing the full Zack Snyder cut. It would have been stylistically more coherent. Much of the Whedon reshoots do not feel like they are for the better. To be fair, he came in late and this franchise behemoth had already gone too far to fully alter its fate. There are small moments that work but the big moments are what fail. This movie is missing setups, payoffs, and character arcs. It’s missing pathos and emotion. It’s missing memorable action sequences that are exciting and varied. It’s missing basic internal logic. It’s missing a greater relevance.” Some of those issues are resolved with the four-hour Snyder cut and too many others still remain. At the end of the day, this is still just a longer, bloodier version of a mediocre superhero movie, except now we get stuff like Batman saying the F-word, so I guess that’s cool. I have more of an artistic appreciation for what Whedon had to pull off to even wrangle this beast into two hours. I’m happy Snyder was able to fulfill his complete vision and that HBO MAX offered a platform that would provide such a rare opportunity of expensive art unencumbered by studio meddling. I can’t say it’s worth your four hours, nor can I say it’s dramatically better than the 2017 version because whatever benefits it offers are weighed down by the extraneous, the redundancies, and the length. As it stands, I feel I have no choice but to grade Zack Snyder’s Justice League the same as the 2017 Justice League.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Vast of Night (2020)

If you had told me that The Vast of Night was based upon a radio play or a narrative-driven podcast, something like the popular Welcome to Night Vale, I would have completely believed you. This is a very dialogue-driven story where the movie seems to hit pause and allow a speaker unfettered time to tell their tale in patient monologue, like a sci-fi edition of This American Life (I’m coming up with a lot of comparisons here). It’s a more high-concept, cerebral, imaginative-dependent science fiction.  In 1950s New Mexico, a small-town radio DJ and a teen switchboard operator, both with dreams of leaving the town for bigger things, discover a strange signal and eyewitness reports of something in the sky. Over the course of one night, the characters investigate the signal and those who experienced it before. The Vast of Night flies right out of the gate, long takes giving space for fast-paced dialogue exchanges. The direction is very assured with long tracking shots to maintain the tightrope walk of a live theater performance that the screenplay imbues. I was always interested in what was happening but I can see many other viewers failing to click with the material and its narrative restraints. I do think the movie could use more of a resolution and errs by having the wrong combination of characters for a climax, denying the only real emotional catharsis that was offered by the screenplay. I’m sure many will simply find this movie slow and boring (it’s only 89 minutes but even that might be pushing it for many). The Vast of Night feels like an extended Twilight Zone episode, for better or worse. I applaud the ingenuity of the director and screenwriters on a small budget but I would not be surprised that bigger and better things lie ahead for each of these creatives.

Nate’s Grade: B

Sonic the Hedgehog (2020)

When the first footage of a live-action Sonic was unleashed, it became the Internet’s new nightmare, until the Cats trailer was released. The strange, unsettling design made the classic Sega speedster just creepy to behold, and you could count his baby teeth in his human mouth. The producers did something unheard of in response to the onslaught of negative criticism — they listened. They redesigned the character to be more akin to a familiar 3D model from the games and delayed the movie several months in order to accommodate the special effects time crunch. The new and improved Sonic the Hedgehog movie benefits immensely from this redesign, though I routinely kept imagining what the original nightmare-inducing design would look like at different points in the film (a side-by-side DVD special feature, eh?). This is a kids movie very much geared toward that audience but I was mostly charmed by the inclusion of Sonic (voiced by Ben Schwartz) into our world. He’s paired with a straight-laced small-town cop (James Marsden) and given a road trip to retrieve his portal-creating magic rings. Jim Carrey plays Dr. Robotnik, a mad scientist hired by the U.S. military to find and capture the alien responsible for the mysterious power surges. Carrey’s unrestrained, intense physical performance is a nostalgic delight for 90s kids who grew up on his rubber-faced silliness, and he often made me laugh through sheer force of personality alone. However, I appreciated that the screenplay actually shows effort. There are sly, unexpected jokes that didn’t have to be there and yet the filmmakers didn’t rest on their laurels. I enjoyed the buddy dynamic between Sonic and Marsden and the more mawkish moments didn’t make me gag. It’s not anything groundbreaking or operating on higher levels of sophistication like Pixar, but it’s a generally enjoyable and brisk experience that’s colorful, fun, and accessible to Sonic fans and non-fans alike. Perhaps this will signal a new age where studios are more beholden to the demands of a noisy fanbase, and perhaps that’s not exactly the best thing moving forward for art. But it worked in this instance. The fans won.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Color Out of Space (2020)

Color Out of Space is based on one of the short stories by famous horror author H.P. Lovecraft, but what’s even more noteworthy is that this is the first feature film from director Richard Stanley in 24 years. Stanley made a name for himself with early 90s gory cult movies Hardware and Dust Devil. Hollywood came calling and he was given directing duties on 1996’s The Island of Doctor Moreau, a production so plagued with troubles that Stanley was fired, replaced with John Frankenheimer, and then Stanley disguised himself and snuck onto the set again as one of the animal-human hybrids. There’s a fascinating documentary about the whole disastrous clash called Lost Soul that’s well worth watching for any fan of behind-the-scenes exposes (it would make a great double-feature with 2002’s Lost in La Mancha). Stanley has never been a man to put on airs about the material he gravitates to. He likes weird genre stories, and as a lover of weird genre stories, I’m glad to see that the man has broken from his sabbatical. Color Out of Space is a mostly successful, eerie, and occasionally stomach-churning little horror movie, and hopefully its release will make it that much easier for Stanley to deliver the next one.

A strange meteor crashes into the family estate of the Gardners. The parents, Nathan (Nicolas Cage) and Theresa (Joely Richardson), are struggling to make life “in the sticks” work with their family. Mom is trying to advise stock portfolio clients. Dad is tending to their prized alpacas. A land surveyor (Elliot Knight) is testing the drinking water and its safety after the meteor hits. Strange things begin to happen almost immediately. Young son Jack (Julian Hillard) is hearing voices and talking to an entity living in the well. Bright explosions of pink color come and go, followed by an oppressive cloud of static. And the animals are behaving differently, gaining pink glows in their eyes, and becoming more violent and deranged and dangerous.

This is the kind of movie that you want to be weird, unpredictable, and terrifying, and Color Out of Space achieves these desires with a florid, downright Cronenbergian relish. There are several kinds of horror movies here mashed together, which don’t fully gel as a whole but it does exacerbate the overall effect of how screwed these characters are. There’s the cosmic invasion/outbreak angle with small weird changes going around the environment, from pink-hued flowers spreading to the bizarre effect it has on the wildlife. There’s a descent into insanity angle as the parental figures seem most affected and are tearing away the security of the kids. Cage’s character seems to be mentally slipping into his grandfather’s snitty persona, either implying mental illness, some degree of ghostly resurrection, or just general creeping madness. There’s the alien nature of being able to trust your own senses and body, as characters will lose hours of time in the blink of an eye and not be fully cognizant of their own actions. There’s the isolation of the invading force shutting down escape routes, blocking telephone calls (anyone want to try texting?), and trapping the family inside this hot zone. And then there’s the body horror as creatures begin physically merging together in nauseating displays that conjure the best/worst of the nightmares from John Carpenter’s The Thing. Stanley elects to build the horror and then dwell on it. There’s a scary development with a specific pair of characters, and Stanley lets the unknown of what will happen, as long as the dread of what seems to be happening, make it worse. He punctuates this moment with some gut-churning cries of anguish that run on a loop, to the point that you might be thinking yourself whether a merciful death was advisable. To the film’s credit, it switches back and forth between these different threats and alternating styles of horror. It allows a movie with a limited plot (meteor hits, bad things happen) to feel bigger.

A draw for any lower budget indie horror movie starring middle-aged Nicolas Cage is the desire to see the gonzo actor unleashed. You get tiny glimpses early, with his off-key line deliveries that might incite a few giggles. It’s halfway through where he starts to crack, breaking into an effete British accent, gesticulating more wildly and theatrically with his hands, and then breaking into protracted screaming fits. His references to the alpacas got some genuine goofy laughs out of me, as does passing moments where it feels like he’s channeling John Travolta in his performance style. The cult of Crazy Cage that found much to love with 2018’s moody Mandy should find extra enjoyment levels with Color Out of Space. These Cage-isms don’t detract from the movie or rip you out of the reality because it’s all about disintegration, mental and physical, so deploying Nicolas Cage losing it actually better serves the film’s cracked tone.

Being a Lovecraftian horror adaptation, there is some leeway to be had for its incoherence. We’re dealing with a life form that defies our understanding by its inter-dimensional nature. Some of this will be mitigated simply by having to transpose Lovecraft’s more ethereal concepts into a functional visual medium. Characters call the strange incidents a “color, it’s only a color” but it’s not really just a color when you turn that literal concept into a movie. On the page, you can get away with something more obscure and abstract, but movies require a visualization, and so the “monster” of the film isn’t “just a color” but essentially a sentient neon energy cloud. I was reminded frequently of 2018’s Annihilation, a movie I admired but was indifferent to, just like its intended lesson about nature’s relationship to man’s existence. It’s a takeover that defies explanation because our puny human brains aren’t capable of perceiving what is happening. Therefore, when weird nonsense happens, we don’t need a tidy explanation. The breakdown of the family unit, both figuratively and literally, is enough to anchor our attention. We might not know why these things are happening but they are destroying this family slowly like an infection, and we’re watching them break down one-by-one, and that’s what matters. As the movie started picking up momentum and getting weirder and grosser, I wondered what possible ending could even be presented that might work. I think Stanley finds a workable solution that mostly suffices. Nobody wants to be in the business of explaining too much and damaging the reality of the movie (see: Us) but you still want to provide some set of rules, even if the larger picture is an incomprehensible design. Color Out of Space keeps things relatively vague but keeps to the few clues it offers, which at least makes the overall production feel forgivably vague.

There are elements I wish Stanley had fleshed out further or curtailed more. The supporting authority figures are mostly empty suits, including the willfully ignorant mayor running for re-election played by Q’orianka Kilcher, if you’re curious what she’s been up to since playing Pocahontas in 2005’s The New World. They don’t even qualify as “characters here just to be killed gruesomely later.” Then there are interesting personal aspects to the Gardners that deserved more integration into the story, like the teen daughter’s (Madeleine Arthur) interest in Wiccan spells and unorthodox spiritual practices. What does she fully believe? She’s trying to tap into something elemental to spare her mother, who is a recent cancer survivor who lost both breasts to the disease. When her husband begins to get physically intimate, she pauses, expressing that she doesn’t know if she still feels like herself, or desirable, after her surgery and recuperation. This is meant to serve as a launching pad for the body horror that will arrive later, with the mother already feeling violated by an entity, but it feels like something that should be more integral to the demonstration of the character than her angry demands to get the wi-fi fixed. Tommy Chong appears very briefly as an aged hippie living on the Gardner estate, and I wish that the movie had more to do for him besides slotting him as more or less Neighbor #1.

For fans of Lovecraft, indie horror, body horror, Nicolas Cage, practical effects, atmosphere, and even Stanley’s past titles from long ago, there’s something to enjoy with Color Out of Space. It’s a movie that can get under your skin on its own terms, even if I wanted it to go deeper at points. It’s the right kind of airy atmosphere, switching styles and horror threats to keep things interesting, as well as not overstaying its welcome. It uses confusion and curiosity to its sneaky advantage and Stanley finds new ways to make old genre tropes still feel spooky. It’s nothing revelatory but Color Out of Space is a fitting visual translation of Lovecraft’s elemental nightmares and madness-inducing chaos. I don’t think it will take Stanley another 24 years before another production decides to take a chance on his next directing effort.

Nate’s Grade: B

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

In 2017, there was a great disturbance in the Force when Star Wars Episode 9 director Colin Trevorrow (Jurassic World) was unceremoniously jettisoned. He had spent over a year developing a script for the concluding film in this new Star Wars trilogy (he’s still listed in the credits for story) and I guess the producers must have had some strong feelings. Trevorrow was out and J.J. Abrams returned to close out the saga he had kicked off with 2015’s The Force Awakens. It felt like a safe choice, the return of an artist best known for dabbling in other people’s established worlds. 2017’s The Last Jedi, written and directed by Rian Johnson (Knives Out), was, to say the least, divisive with the fanbase. It made sense to jump back in with Abrams who had delivered a fun, lively kickstart that made box-office records. Surely Abrams and his army of magicians would steer the franchise into safe territory and provide a satisfying ending to the character he created?

Note: I promise to keep this review free of significant spoilers beyond some minor plot points. If you want to avoid reading anything further until after having seen the film, I understand.

The Emperor (Ian McDiarmid) is alive and well and offering a fleet of planet-destroying starships if Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) will kill Rey (Daisy Ridley). She’s trying to uncover hidden clues about her parentage and still believes she can reform Kylo from the dark side. Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) are chasing after a series of artifacts to find the secret location for the Emperor’s secret planet and rebuild the fledgling resistance. Kylo and Rey are headed for a final confrontation to determine whether they turn to the light side or the dark side.

It is with a heavy heart that I feel like I have to admit that there wasn’t a single storytelling choice that I enjoyed in The Rise of Skywalker. It feels like Abrams and company were in a mad panic after the divisiveness of The Last Jedi and retreated to the safety of nostalgia and fan expectations. This feels like the producers made a list of fan demands and then acceded to them. It certainly feels like an overblown course correction, let alone discarding major changes and characters from Episode 8. Now fan service in itself is not a negative; there is such a thing as good fan service and bad service. The difference is that bad fan service relies heavily on pandering and reference points, leaving an audience unchallenged, and that certainly feels like Episode 9, a movie ever beholden to its calcifying past. My anecdotal evidence already tells me that many fans will love this movie, more than likely the same contingent that found such stinging fault in Episode 8, and I don’t wish them ill. I’m happy for them. For me, Episode 9 is a mess of bad plotting, rushed pacing, truncated character arcs, useless cameos, and a reheated Return of the Jedi climax that was as boring as it was exhausting and dispiriting. It’s supposed to be an end to this new trilogy, and a trilogy of trilogies, but the backwards-looking franchise will never be done paying homage to its cherished past while it eats its own tail until it vomits. This movie is so eager to please as many fans as possible that it feels like an anxious hostage.

I think it was a major mistake for The Emperor to come back into play this late. The very reappearance already cheapens the sacrifice Darth Vader made in Return of the Jedi, and it begs the question what has this evil old man been doing for three decades? Has he just been hanging around his completely empty rock planet sitting on his uncomfortable rock throne? Abrams throws some haphazard lip service that Palpatine was really behind everything, we just never knew it, but that feels cheap. It’s like in 2015’s Spectre when Christoph Waltz emerges and says, “Hey James Bond, while you’ve never met me until this moment, I’m responsible for every bad thing that happened in your life, not those other bad guys, and I just didn’t feel like saying anything.” It wasn’t a satisfying plot development then and it isn’t now. The “boss’ boss” manipulating in the shadows is simply an aggravating shell game. If Palpatine lived even after the second Death Star exploded, then what’s to say if he can ever be defeated? Even if he is toppled in Episode 9, what’s stopping him from being resurrected in Episode 12 to serve as another quick excuse for a major villain? This decision to bring him back to life also taps into a further reverence for bloodlines that The Last Jedi was valiantly fighting against. Star Wars may take place in a different galaxy but it frustratingly feels like only three families populate it. The Last Jedi proposed that you didn’t have to come from select magic bloodlines to be somebody important, that your past was irrelevant, and now Abrams and company sharply reverse course, hugging the concept of the Chosen One until it bursts. It feels creatively starved.

Too much of the movie’s 142-minute run time was devoted to hasty, convoluted plotting that served little else than to fill time. By the concluding movie in a trilogy, there should be no moments left to fill time, nor should we really be introducing new worthless side characters rather than using the people we’ve already established. The first 90 minutes of this movie could be condensed to “get a thing to get a thing.” It’s one superfluous obstacle after another, one item to gain another, that reminded me of video game fetch quests. Even worse, none of it felt like setbacks or difficulties because the movie was rushing through every sequence. If we have to rush through to cover four abbreviated action set pieces, why can’t we consolidate to two really good and developed action set pieces instead? A great way to make your movie forgettable is to cram it full of disposable plotting and short action sequences that never take off. I kind of liked one lightsaber battle along the surf of the ruins of a Death Star (of course there has to be another Death Star!) but that was it for the action. There wasn’t anything onscreen that even came close to replicating the thrills or suspense from Episodes 7 and 8. I felt more suspense in The Last Jedi for Rose’s doomed sister than I did for anyone in Rise of Skywalker. There was space where Abrams and company could have expanded and developed important themes and given characters room to grow, but the pacing feels so breathless in order to distract from the hasty plot retreats.

Characters feel like they zapped to the end of their character arcs because that was what was expected, but why they reached these milestones feels arbitrary from a plotting standpoint. It reminded me of, I’m heartbroken to even say, the final season of Game of Thrones; fans didn’t object on their face to character destinations but the journey to reach these points felt like it was missing key moments to serve as connection. Why redemption now? Why tempted by the dark side now? It plays more like Abrams said, “Well, we ran out of time folks, so let’s skip to the end.” Looking back on the trilogy, it was clearly Rey and Kylo’s story first and foremost, but the supporting characters ultimately feel abandoned and wasted. Finn had a great perspective, a Stormtrooper who defects, but that unique position is cast aside by introducing a new side character that serves no purpose other than to remind you that Abrams must have really not liked Rose (Kelly Marie-Tran). Seriously, Rose is sidelined to study monitors. Abrams tapped an old Lost alum, Dominic Monaghan, for this thankless duty, so why can’t Rose at least be the sidekick? We don’t need another new sidekick this late. Poe is another wasted character. He learns greater responsibility and teamwork in Last Jedi, but he’s really just a Han Solo stand-in, the rakish rogue quick with a quip. Episode 9 gives him an old flame but not much in the way of additional characterization. He feels the same from his first scene in Episode 7. Oh, and all the forced cameos Episode 9 makes time for feels almost like a Star Wars reunion special. That’s including the awkward use of existing General Leia footage to cobble together something for her. I’m wishing more and more that it was Leia that went badass kamikaze in Episode 8 as her exit.

At every point, the movie seemed determined to undercut itself when it came to themes, when it came to character growth, and when it especially came to sacrifices and stakes. There are four fake outs when it comes to deaths. What’s the point of sacrifices when it can just be reversed with little explanation? What’s the point of learning when the Force can just serve as a magic hand-wave solution for anything you need? There are some pretty remarkable leaps in what exactly the Force can do in Episode 9. The Rise of Skywalker even resets some pretty inane things, like Kylo Ren gluing his smashed helmet back together or a certain character getting a long-overdue medal for valor. The themes Abrams works with are extremely broad and lack the questioning of the inerrancy of the Jedi order from Episode 8. It’s also confusing when the theme is that your destiny is not written by your station when the movie repeatedly elevates the mythic at the expense of the nuance and human. It’s like saying your past doesn’t dictate your future while slavishly venerating the past at the expense of the present story.

Given the budget, talent involved, and Abrams’ natural pedigree for blockbuster filmmaking, Rise of Skywalker still has moments of grand spectacle and fun. The actors are still enjoyable to watch and Adam Driver (Marriage Story) is the definite MVP of this new trilogy. His character is, by far, the most interesting and the one that goes on the biggest emotional roller coaster. Abrams slides in some rather pleasing visual compositions. The score by John Williams serves as kind of a greatest hit collection of his many themes over the course of the 40-year saga. The denouement feels right, even if I quibble with the final line spoken. There are things to like, plenty, and I know many fans will find even more, but the good is trounced by the mistakes and miscalculations which just happen to be the really big stuff (plot, resolutions, characterization, action development, structure, payoffs, etc). Abrams himself has joked that he’s really good at starting stories and not so great at finishing them, so maybe choosing to have Episode 9 function as a conclusion not just to three movies but to three times three was overburdening.

I’ve seen it twice now and given some time to think it over, and I think I’ll declare Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker as my least favorite of the nine core movies. I know these are inflammatory words, and for an easily-inflamed fanbase, but my level of disappointment is immense. I’ve enjoyed both of the previous Star Wars saga installments but I wasn’t quite expecting this. I groaned throughout the movie more than I laughed. Even the much-derided Phantom Menace had less at stake, and that’s why I hold the disappointment of Rise of Skywalker as the more grievous of the two. It had much to accomplish and much to payoff and its missteps cast a shadow over the previous movies. It also reconfirms for me my worry that there will only be a small world for Star Wars, a set of pre-approved parameters that creatives must adhere within, taking the same pieces and delivering variations of the same story. There are definite ideas that could work here with Episode 9, but the rushed pacing, inconsequential plot filler and side characters, and its use of nostalgia as a heat shield (look at that cameo please!) doom its execution. As much as Abrams wants to reject destiny, his Star Wars are still driven by a devotion to destiny. We won’t be getting another Star Wars for several years until 2022 and I think that’s a good thing (also without the Thrones writing team now too). The producers need some distance to determine where to go next. I just hope they understand they have an awfully big universe of untapped stories at their disposal and a wealth of eager storytellers with fresh ideas. Star Wars will always be Star Wars but it can also be much more if it wanted to be.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Dead Don’t Die (2019)

If you’re a Jim Jarmusch fan, you can probably stop reading now. I encourage you to continue but I don’t know if anything will be of help for you from here on out because, frankly, I don’t understand you. Jarmusch is a longtime staple of indie film and I’ve watched three of his films (Only Lovers Left Alive, Broken Flowers, Ghost Dog) and disliked all three to varying degrees, and that’s fine. There are plenty of hallowed names in filmmaking that are just beyond me, like Terrence Malick and Nicolas Refn, but I can at least partially understand what the fans of those auteurs value, an immersive visual, sensory experience at the sacrifice of narrative and coherency. When it comes to Jarmusch, I just don’t understand the appeal whatsoever. This is a man who found a way to make vampires crushingly boring, and now he finds a way to do the same with zombies. The Dead Don’t Die is the widest release of his career and it might be the worst movie I’ve seen in a theater all this year. It certainly feels like the longest.

In a sleepy small Ohio town, the police force consists of Chief Robertson (Bill Murray), Ronnie (Adam Driver), and Mindy (Chloe Sevigny). They’re going about their typical day, warning Hermit Bob (Tom Waits), listening to the alarmist worries of Farmer Frank (Steve Buscemi), and picking up supplies at the hardware store run by Hank (Danny Glover) and Bobby (Caleb Landry Jones). There’s a traveling group of students, lead by Zoe (Selena Gomez), as well as a group of kids in a juvenile detention center. Then the dead come back and small-town life will never be the same.

Anyone walking in expecting a zany comedy from the premise and cast, not to mention marketing materials, will be sorely disappointed, because what The Dead Don’t Die better resembles are the humorless anti-comedies of late-night Adult Swim blocs. It’s not so much that there are jokes, it’s more the absence of jokes, and somehow that might be the joke? The humor is stuck in one mode throughout the film. A character will slowly say something understated or obvious (Example: “That’s not good”) and then the reaction of others will be delayed, and then after that nobody will say anything for several painful seconds later. That’s about it, folks. It’s hard to find humor with that. The deadpan jokes are too obvious and too uniform to really strike any potent comedy targets. The consumer “satire” is brittle to the point of breaking. Various zombies will shamble around and say one-word items of whatever was important to them, ranging from “Coffee,” to, “Fashion,” to, “Chardonnay.” It’s like the one-word utterances are the entire joke (Hey, this dead guy liked fishing, isn’t that a riot?). It’s not satire and it’s not funny. How about the characters of Rosie Perez and Tilda Swinton being named Posie Juarez and Zelda Winston? Is that the kind of humor that sounds appealing? How about Tilda Swinton flexing a samurai sword to slice and dice the undead. Is that supposed to be cool? Is it supposed to be funny? Is it supposed to be funny that it’s trying to be “cool”? What is anything?

Later, the film inserts a new comedy element with meta asides where people seem to know they’re in a movie, and yet again the jokes are obvious and uniform, except now it’s even lazier, relying upon the meta recognition to simply stand in the place of a joke. If anything can happen in the small town, especially toward its crazy end, then why do these things have to happen? Or better yet why don’t better things happen? Because of the deadly pacing it makes every attempted bad joke feel that much more unbearable.

This movie is only 105 minutes but it felt so much longer. the pacing not just as a whole but scene-to-scene and even line-to-line from conversations is deadly still. Every moment feels stretched out but it doesn’t ever feel like you’re going anywhere. Characters will be introduced and given meet-cute moments and little indicators they might be significant players later, and then we’ll just find them dead. Other characters will be introduced and then never leave their locations, having no bearing on the larger story. It’s rare that I could honestly say there are entire supporting swaths of this movie that could be cut completely and not impact the story at all. It makes the many storylines we hopscotch across feel like they don’t matter and are generally wasting our valuable time.

Then there’s the ending where Jarmusch just instructs Tom Waits to unleash a torrent of narration bemoaning how society deserves whatever downfall it incurs and that we’re all just zombies anyway. It’s so clumsy and overbearing and unearned after an entire movie where the cultural criticism amounted to a racist saying he doesn’t like his coffee black and then pointedly staring at the only black man in the movie. Even if we got more moments like that I might say some of the ending vitriol is justified, but the commentary gets muted in the middle until Waits has to finally tell us what the point is. There are scant political and environmental references but they feel like tossed asides themselves.

I don’t blame the cast for any of this although I can’t say what on the page must have seemed attractive. Murray is always going to be an amiable screen presence and Driver is a fun partner, slipping into a skillful deadpan and straining to find humor where there is precious little. Everyone feels wasted on screen because even if you’ve never seen these actors before you know, instantly and instinctively, that they have been far better.

The Dead Don’t Die is further proof that I am not a Jim Jarmusch fan. I can’t fathom how someone can actually be a fan of this writer/director. I was tempted to walk out at several points but I held in there. The jokes are too obvious and barely jokes, the pacing is awfully slack, and the whole movie is reprehensibly boring. Even when it has moments of weirdness it finds ways to make it boring. The structure does little to nothing with a large ensemble of very good actors. The movie and premise had potential. The idea of a zombie outbreak in a small town where everybody knows everybody is ripe for comedy and tragedy. Ultimately The Dead Don’t Die feels like one egregiously long in-joke that the audience isn’t privy to. The joke’s on us, folks.

Nate’s Grade: D

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