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
Secretary of State Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron) is preparing for the moment she feels her whole life has been leading up to: a presidential run. the current president (Bob Odenkirk) has decided not to run for a second term and wants to endorse her. Charlotte and her team of dogged, loyal assistants (June Diane Raphael, Ravi Patel) are sifting through ways to improve her negatives as a candidate, and that’s where Frank Flarsky (Seth Rogen) comes in. He’s an activist journalist that has just been fired and he also happens to personally know Charlotte; she was his babysitter. He comes aboard her campaign with the condition that she really fights for what’s important and not cave to the powerful lobbies and interest groups. He rewrites her speeches and the two of them grow closer together, bonding over their past and a possible future, not just as president but as boyfriend-girlfriend. They must keep their feelings a secret for the time being. If the press found out it might kill her candidacy before it ever really began.
The film’s biggest strength is the emphasis with the leading characters and the crackling chemistry between Rogen and Theron. It’s a fairly familiar dynamic between the more buttoned-up personality learning to cut loose and the more wild and impulsive personality learning a degree of self-restraint and responsibility. And to be fair Long Shot does pull from this familiar foundation for a starting point with its odd couple dynamic. However, it goes further by making their differences more attuned to politics and compromise. Fred is unwilling to back down for the things he knows are right and would rather have nothing than a watered-down version of the important issue he had been fighting for. Charlotte is more the political animal and used to working with others, including scoundrels and morons, in order to affect change. She’s about incremental, pragmatic change for the greater good and he’s about ideological purity as a moral imperative. This isn’t just a small character quick either; it’s a defining conflict between both characters and a subject that gets further examination as Charlotte confronts the realities of running for president and the many compromises of self and vision may or may not be needed.
Being a woman running for president is an obstacle course of having to deal with latent sexism and other people’s expectations of what is socially appropriate. Charlotte is going to be judged harsher for the same behaviors men will be excused for; this isn’t a new observation by any means (apply your favorite double standard here) but the film makes you understand the pressure and scrutiny that befalls her at every turn. It defines her character, which is why finding someone she can unwind with and be her true self away from the cameras is such an understandable and desirable escape valve. She’s running to inspire little girls that they too can be president but at she also has to assess the cost of how much she’s willing to hide or lose from herself in order to get across that finish line, and if she does, what will be left? That’s the role for Alexander Skarsgard, the Justin Trudeau-like Canadian prime minister, who represents what is left of a person after bowing to opinion polls. Again, this isn’t new material, especially as anyone who can recall the 2016 presidential election will recall the questions of physical and mental fortitude that only seemed attached to one candidate and not as much the other. What this political reality does is provide a relevant substance for the romance and comedy portions of the film, making the characters feel more human. When Fred is articulating just what he must do to serve as a secret boyfriend for Charlotte, and a potential future they would have, you can hear his heartbreak with each new syllable. You also realize that he shouldn’t have to endure that and maybe these two are destined not to be together because of how unfortunate our politics and media environment have become.
Rogen and Theron are a blast together and have a fun rhythm they play off each other for unexpected comedy beats. His mellow vibes and good-natured joviality, as well as general awkwardness around people in power, are a nice fit with her sterner self. The best parts of the movie are just watching both of these actors enjoy their company. I won’t say that the romantic spark became overly apparent but what was undeniable was how well they paired as an onscreen buddy duo. With each new movie and every different role, Theron proves she’s one of the best actors of her generation. She can kick your ass, she can make you cry, she can win your heart, she can make you bust a gut. In short, Charlize Theron can do anything. She has several disarmingly funny moments, like when she’s high on ecstasy and pulled into an international crisis and has to maintain her cool. Rogen could easily fall back on his ease playing the oafish, insecure, crass characters of his past, but he does a fine job imbuing his charm, energy, and authenticity with Frank. Rogen is an anxious and generous scene partner who typically elevates his costars, and he and Theron as so good together that it sells their romance even better than the writing.
Thankfully, Long Shot is consistently funny and bases much of its humor on the characters and their needs and developments. The movie isn’t just a retread of the incredulous fantasy of some ugly dude successfully romancing a beautiful woman. We’ve already had this dynamic explored in another Rogen comedy, 2007’s Knocked Up (in another universe where Katherine Heigl’s career didn’t stall, I could have seen Long Shot serving as an unofficial reunion for her and Rogen). There are jokes to be had about the unbelievable nature of this central romance and Rogen’s overall appearance, and that’s expected. What made me happier was that these wisecracks served a purpose to highlight how professionally damaging this potential relationship could be for Charlotte’s chance of winning office. They didn’t just feel like gratuitous put-downs. The joke emphasis is heavily tilted in favor of our two leads but there are nice moments with the supporting cast, like Raphael’s constant passive-aggressive comments, Bob Odenkirk’s buffoonish sense of betrayal with TV being turned against him, Randall Park’s frankness, and Skarsgard’s awkward and obsequious flirting. I don’t think the filmmakers fully knew what to do with O’Shea Jackson Jr. and provide some last-minute character shading that felt clumsy.
Long Shot follows the Judd Apatow rom-com formula closely and demonstrates that if you get funny, talented people together, provide them solid characterization and realistic conflicts, you can produce a winning romantic comedy that matters. Rogen and theron make an excellent team, the political content is savvy without getting too far into the weeds, and the romance is sweet and agreeable, with two genuinely enjoyable people coming to realize what they would be willing to risk for the other person. Long Shot is a reliably funny, bawdy, and heartwarming little movie with a little more on its mind than gross-out comedy set pieces. It’s worth seeking out this summer. I’d happily vote Theron for anything, especially if she was running for elected office as Furiosa. That’s a candidate that get results.
Nate’s Grade: B
Sometimes second place might as well be last place in the film industry. Pity Andy Serkis and the years he spent making a live-action, mo-cap enhanced version of The Jungle Book only for Disney to scoop him years in advance and deliver a billion-dollar hit. It’s impossible not to compare the two and unfortunately Serkis’ passion project is found wanting in many areas. For starters, there’s far less Shere Khan (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), which is a shame. He’s really only in the film for very little. I think Cate Blanchett is miscast as the voice of the snake, Kaa, who acts like a grand keeper of the jungle’s history and future. I’m not sold on Serkis as Baloo, a grumpy paternal figure present from the beginning that trains the wolf pups so they can join the pack. The middle half-hour Mowgli spends in the company of man with a kindly poacher also feels like the movie is spinning its wheels. It keeps the rest of the jungle on hold. There are some rather dark asides that can be quite surprising, from wolf pups plummeting to their doom, bloody scars, cute severed heads to haunt your dreams, and three separate occasions where characters will watch the light vanish from a dying animal’s eye. It’s definitely a more brutish, cruel, and dangerous world, but at what greater expense? The characterization doesn’t add up to much. The character relationships are minimal. The CGI creatures and settings look unfinished. The whole enterprise feels rushed even though it’s been on the shelf for some time, which may be why the studio was eager to sell it to Netflix for a cool $90 million. You’ll watch Mowgli and nod, generally entertained, but questioning whether it’s 90-million worth.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Black Panther is unlike any other Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) film prior. It’s unlike any other super hero film prior. Yes, there have been African-American leading men in comic-based movies, notably Wesley Snipes’ half-vampire-all-badass Blade. However, this is the first movie I can think of with this kind of budget, this kind of backing, and with this kind of ownership over its cultural heritage and the heavy burdens it carries.
We last saw T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) in Captain America: Civil War mourning the loss of his father, the king of the African nation of Wakanda. The outside world does not know that Wakanda sits on a vast supply of virbanium, the strongest and more durable metal in the world and the key to Wakanda’s impressive technology. Under a holographic cover, Wakanda is a thriving metropolis with flying cars, skyscrapers, and next gen weapons. T’Challa goes home and must earn the right to the throne. However, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), a former top-level black ops solider, is looking for his own path into Wakanda and onto the throne. Killmonger teams up with arms dealer, Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), to force Wakanda to deal with being cut off from the world.
This is a movie populated almost entirely by black faces, notably black women (more on that later), and they are given a mainstream platform that celebrates its multitudinous African roots and traditions thanks to co-writer/director Ryan Coogler (Creed). This movie is proudly black, which will rankle some on the fringes of society, as if celebrating one’s own identity is somehow denigrating those who do not apply to that status. Black Panther is not an exclusionary movie because of its content and execution; this is a very accessible movie to a mass audience, even those who haven’t been paying attention to every nitty-gritty detail in the previous seventeen MCU entries. There are only two characters from other MCU films that appear, one as a post-credits cameo and the other an officious representative (Martin Freeman) of the outside’s clandestine organizations. This is a unique world isolated from the long shadow of colonialism. Wakanda has never known, to our knowledge, the depravity of the European and American slave trade. They have continued to develop uninterrupted by conquerors, slave traders, and the crippling aftereffects of racism. The Wakanda people could very easily be the conquerors themselves. They’re the most technologically advanced nation on the planet and hide as a “third-world nation,” utilizing the ignorance of the Western world to its security. The world of Wakanda is a fascinating, awe-inspiring, and defiantly independent nation.
The larger theme is over the responsibilities inherent to those with privilege. The nation of Wakanda is vastly successful by all conventional metrics. T’Challa must wrestle with whether to continue their exclusionary stance, ignore the plight of the larger world and say it’s none of their business or engage with the world, potentially putting his own kingdom’s peace and prosperity at risk. It’s a simple enough theme and yet it has tremendous weight to it especially when you account for those on the other end of the Wakanda borders. The character of Killmonger is a direct reflection of this. His experiences in Oakland are not the ideal pairing with the luxury of Wakanda. Killmonger sees Wakanda’s great influence as a way to protect beleaguered black citizens of the world and especially in the United States. It’s a way to prevent more senseless deaths from black citizens who were slain as a result of the fear of just being black (a powerful example was Coogler’s debut film, Fruitvale Station). It’s a pointed political statement that doesn’t get too heavy-handed (even though I would have preferred that). It questions the value of isolationism especially when suffering can be prevented. Killmonger works as a villain because you can understand his point of view. He goes beyond the need for vengeance. The wrongs he wants to right are larger and historical. Even Killmonger’s last line really attaches itself to this theme. T’Challa offers him a way out but with imprisonment. “No,” Killmonger declines, “My people were the ones who leaped over the sides of the slave ships. They knew death was better than bondage.” The emphasis is “his people,” not T’Challa’s, not Wakanda. His people were the ones who suffered from slavery. Could Wakanda have possibly prevented it?
Another wonderful surprise of Black Panther is its incredible all-female ensemble that provides expert support to their king. T’Challa has the good fortune of four strong women, each of them having a different and vital relationship to him. The standout will be Danai Gurira (TV’s Walking Dead) as the fierce chief of security, Okoye. She has a swagger that vacillates between being intimidating and being brashly enjoyable. Okoye has many of the best lines and she throws herself into every fight. There’s also a sense of duty that transcends a single man that challenges her loyalty. Letitia Wright (TV’s Humans) plays Shuri, the Q of this world, the top scientist and creator of many a gadget. She’s T’Challa’s little sister and their interplay is very competitive and teasing. She’s looking to be more involved in the action and a highlight is when she teams up with her big bro. Lupita Nyong’o (The Jungle Book) is Nakia, a former flame of T’Challa’s who comes in and out of his life as an undercover spy. All three of these women have a powerful sense of agency and are integrated in important and essential ways. Even though Nakia may slide into that romantic interest role, she still has a vibrant life outside whatever feelings she may or may not have for the hero. Then there’s T’Challa’s mother, Ramonda (Angela Bassett), who radiates strength and fortitude. These women gave me some of the biggest moments of entertainment in the entire 135 minutes of movie.
Now some careful readers might note that I haven’t done much to emphasize the actual action of the super hero action movie, and that’s for a good reason. Black Panther stands stronger on theme and character than it does its actual action sequences. Coogler had a wonderful sense of scale and verisimilitude with 2015’s Creed, relying on long takes to put the audience in the heightened drama of the boxing ring. With Black Panther, the action sequences can lose a sense of immediacy. Many happen at night or are filmed and edited in ways that diminish some of their impact, like hand-to-hand combat in splashing water where the splashes obscure the activity. Other scenes felt like a video game CGI cut-scene. Speaking of video games, Black Panther’s suit has a crazy ability to absorb the kinetic energy of weapons, which means the stakes take a dip when our hero can merely just stand and allow himself to get shot repeatedly. The payoff for this absorption is a giant energy shockwave but it plays out like a fighting game’s special feature. It’s an aspect that’s not really utilized in a satisfying or unique way. The final showdown between Black Panther and Killmonger feels too weightless in execution. It’s meant to even the playing field by nullifying their extra abilities, but if they both have the same “Panther powers” isn’t the field already even? The third act, the usual punching bag for MCU critics, is the best part of the movie from an action standpoint. It utilizes the characters in significant ways and allows for organic complications while still maintaining its wider sense of spectacle. Plus it’s one of the few action sequences that allow all the pyrotechnics to be enjoyed during the visibility of day.
Boseman (Marshall) was an excellent choice for a stoic and too-cool-for-school character that can glide right on by. The ageless Boseman is at his best when he’s working off the other actors, especially his female posse. He has a couple of very effective emotional confrontations as he learns of his family’s secrets. As steady and soothing a presence as Boseman can be, this is Jordan’s movie. Michael B. Jordan (Creed) has been Coogler’s cinematic good luck charm and we’re still benefiting from that divine kinship. His character is at the heart of the central thematic question. While T’Challa is ultimately the one who has to decide, it is Killmonger who embodies that need for change and the desire to rectify the past. There’s a flashback with Jordan that got me to tear up, and this guy was the villain! It’s one of the film’s biggest mistakes sidelining Jordan for far too long. After his introduction, Killmonger is strangely absent for the next hour or so of the movie, ceding the spotlight to Serkis (War for the Planet of the Apes), a more antic and goofy scenery-chewing baddie who has a few regrettably “faux hip” lines of dialogue that land awkwardly. Serkis is having a blast but can feel like a holdover from a different film.
Much like last summer’s Wonder Woman, this is a movie that is going to mean a lot to a lot of people. It has a personal significance that I will not be able to fully tap into, no matter the expansive powers of empathy. Black Panther, as a long-awaited cultural moment, will have many ripples of inspiration. After my early screening, I sat back and watched an African-American boy, no older than seven or eight, walk out of the theater in a daze. His eyes were wide, his mouth agape, and he said in astonishment, “That was the best movie ever.” That kid has a hero he can call his own. That matters. Black Panther, as a work of art, is rich in topical themes and has a wide supporting net of exciting, robust, and capable women. I enjoyed how personal and relevant and political the movie could become, folding new and challenging ideas onto the MCU formula. Coogler is a marvelous director and storyteller showing rare acumen for being able to handle the rigors of a Hollywood blockbuster and deliver something hearty. The action has some issues and there are some structural hiccups that hold it from the MCU’s upper echelon (I enjoyed all of the 2017 MCU movies better). Black Panther is a winning movie when it features its sterling cast celebrating their virtues and solidarity and a still respectable enough action spectacle when called upon for big screen duty.
Nate’s Grade: B
As I stated in my review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, “The first mission for Episode VII is to reset the course, to wash away the bad taste of the prequels that haunt many.” Mission accomplished, mostly, though the biggest criticism for J.J. Abrams’ resurgent sequel was how all too closely it hewed to the original plot beats of its own past. It was an overcorrection, a swing too far in the other direction and turned a reboot into “a loving homage that approaches facsimile.” I enjoyed the new characters, the next generation of Star Wars heroes, and wanted to see what would happen to them next. I just hoped the franchise could steer a course of its own. Having a talent as unique as Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper) as the writer/director of Episode VIII certainly portends to that. The Last Jedi is a better movie, structurally and even emotionally than Force Awakens, but it’s flawed and definitely less fun and is driving so many fans to the dark side.
The First Order is crushing the last vestiges of the puny Resistance. General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) is chasing the last ships of General Leia (Carrie Fisher) through the galaxy. Finn (John Boyega) is looking for Rey (Daisy Ridley) who is missing. He is teamed up with Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), a plucky mechanic, to find a master code breaker to thwart the First Order’s tracking system so everyone can safely escape. Meanwhile, Rey has sought out the last Jedi, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamil), who agrees to train her just to teach her why the Jedi are wrong and he will not help the Resistance. She’s also been psychically linked to Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who is still struggling with his own identity as a pupil of the dark side. Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) has lost his faith in Kylo, who he feels is too weak to embrace his darkest impulses. Kylo believes he can convince Rey to join him, and Rey believes that Kylo can be saved and turned into an ally. The Resistance is looking to survive another day and rebuild their rebellion in the hearts and minds of the downtrodden.
I was hopeful Johnson would be able to tread safely away from the undertow that is the pull of Star Wars nostalgia, and he did so, both to the movie’s great benefit and oddly to its peril at different points. Episode VIII is not a repeat of the plot beats of Empire Strikes Back, though there are some thematic similarities that go along with a middle chapter in a trilogy, like separating the heroes, experiencing losses, etc. Clearly, once Johnson received the handover from Abrams, there were certain Star Wars storylines setup in Force Awakens that he had no interest in continuing. I won’t specify what they are for the sake of spoilers but Johnson definitely undercuts the expectations of extraordinary developments with ordinary, mildly indifferent responses. Certain characters fans may have thought would be more important are gone. It’s as if Johnson is saying to the audience, “Did that thing really matter to you? Who cares?” It’s not Johnson’s fault the fanbase spun off intense theories. He undercuts your expectations throughout. The characters are allowed to fail. The reported saviors don’t want the responsibility. By upsetting the balance of the force, if you will, Johnson has injected a sense of uncertainty into the Star Wars mix, a badly missing element ever since the original trilogy. When a major character looks ready to sacrifice his or herself, you start to believe that this genuinely may happen. When the characters finally fulfill their mission and track down their special contact, they’re denied their goal. You can tell Johnson is having fun with misdirection and, as one character says, “letting the past die.”
However, that same sense can also get Johnson into trouble. From a narrative standpoint, we’re not much further by the end then where we began. From an emotional standpoint, I don’t know if we’re that much farther either. There are elements you can clearly tell that excited Johnson, namely the Rey/Luke/Kylo moments. That relationship, dynamic, and hidden history is easily the best part of The Last Jedi. The decision to psychically link Rey and Kylo seems cheesy at first but works out beautifully, synching up the two force wunderkinds forces them closer and each one looks at the other as a potential kindred spirit. They each think they can save the other, and so it becomes a far more concrete battle over the soul of our characters rather than just a philosophical exercise. It opens up more of a literal dialogue between these opposites and deepens their chemistry. Luke might be following a typical hero’s journey/acceptance of the call, but it’s still an interesting path because he’s bitter and lost his faith in the moral primacy of the Jedi.
On the flip side, there are also elements where you can clearly tell Johnson had less excitement. The middle section involves a side mission onto an alien casino, and it feels like filler, especially with where it eventually goes and what it opens up about the world. I think it’s meant to showcase the exploitation of the underclass, the rich getting richer off war profiteering and the subjugation of civilizations. It doesn’t land and detracts from the other, more interesting storylines. The cutsey comic relief characters inserted to sell toys are not overpowering but they clearly feel like a studio requirement. At least I’m giving Johnson the benefit of the doubt that he didn’t decide that his Star Wars movie needed winged, big-eyed guinea pig creatures. The concluding half hour also could have been eliminated considering the second act break feels like a more climactic ending. The premise of an elongated chase through space that exhausts fuel supplies and where an enemy ship can track light speed jumps is oddly reminiscent of the first episode in the Battlestar Galactica reboot series (maybe Johnson was a fan). There are things the Force is able to do that we’ve never seen before. It begs questions over what exactly are the parameters of this invisible made-up zen power. Also, if you just solve things by saying “new Force powers” then it becomes a Star Wars cheat. There are also nobodies that could have been, and should have been, replaced by other higher-profile characters. There’s a moment of pure unchecked badassery that should have been someone else taking the sacrifice. By cramming in all of this other material, Johnson is trying to find things for his various characters and storylines to do, and not everything is on the same plane. Finn and Poe (Oscar Isaac) recede into the background all too easily. This is the longest Star Wars movie in franchise history and it could have easily been cut down by 20 minutes.
Fortunately for us, Johnson’s eye for striking visuals and strong, punctuated character moments is still alive and well, and The Last Jedi has moments that left me awed. There are a handful of visuals that are burned into my memory. A multi-dimensional shot of action that pans over to a frantic eyeball. A blast of light that cuts through space like a razor, with the sound dropping out for that extra degree of awe. Speeding ships kicking up red plumes. A slow-motion team-up that all but dares you not to pump your fist. Johnson’s unique sense of visual composition is still present an accounted for. He also reveals a strong handle over the coordination of action sequences, an unknown quantity for him until he landed on this biggest stage. The opening sequence is a great showcase for Johnson with multiple points of action both macro and micro. The X-wing fights are snazzy but the simple struggle of pilot trying to reach a detonator is terrific tension. Abrams, and now Johnson, have brought the feel of Star Wars back, where the alien settings are real and not just a green screen warehouse like the prequels. The light saber battles (all two of them) are given personal stakes. The fights matter. Unlike the prequels, we have people that behave and fight like human beings and not cartoons that leap off walls, do thirty flips in the air, and take leaps off 100-foot canopies. The characters and their conflicts don’t get lost among all the special effects wizardry and explosions.
The characters with the best material are also the ones who give the best performances. Hamil (Sushi Girl) is fantastic as the old curmudgeon, the bitter man who’s lost his faith. There are later moments where all of his acting is performed through his eyes and little twitches over his face, and he communicates so many emotions. Ridley (Murder on the Orient Express) continues her flinty determination while being somebody who isn’t as instantly adept at every new challenge. Her one-on-one sessions with Luke and Kylo are made better from her charisma. She’s a star. Driver (Logan Lucky) is still compelling as a villain struggling with being a villain. I enjoy having a bad guy who is sloppy, tempestuous, and not fully immersed in the dark side. It makes scene-to-scene more interesting and it plays better to the film’s theme of trying to save one’s soul from the power of influence. Driver has less “woe is me” moments than Force Awakens and feels more committed to his character’s ultimate journey. Kelly Marie Tran (XOXO) is the newest edition and makes quite a favorable impression as the crafty, thoughtful Rose. She’s got some key emotional moments and Tran nails them. She’s also an eager fan of the heroes of the Resistance, namely Finn, and when the reality doesn’t quite match her fantasy, she mimics the Star Wars fandom in her dejection. While the movie doesn’t find the most useful places for her inclusion, I was happy to watch Rose make her case as a new and valuable addition to the franchise. The actor I felt worst for is Gleeson (Goodbye, Christopher Robin). His character is simply an officious weasel we’re not really meant to take seriously, and this is further accomplished by Gleeson’s screeching voice. I worried the man was going to give himself an aneurysm.
This is also the last time we’ll see Carrie Fisher in the Star Wars universe, barring the misbegotten CGI version of her that resembled a chalky blow-up doll in Rogue One. Fisher died almost a year ago and that knowledge hangs over every one of her scenes. You wonder if there will be any sense of closure with her character in this universe. Johnson provides a scene between Luke and Leia that is so poignant and shot so tenderly that it feels like the perfect sendoff for Fisher. He even kisses her forehead before slowly departing, feeling the urge to stay, while a burst of light halos her face. If you were going to cry at any point in The Last Jedi it will probably be this moment to remind you of Fisher’s passing. Leia does have a couple other appearances after this moment but it’s really this scene that serves as her effective curtain call from this massive franchise.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi is an exciting transitional chapter, and this movement seems to be chaffing many fans, bringing forth the question of whether the fanbase will allow there to be a different Star Wars. This is a movie that discards storylines and characters with the wave of a hand, that subverts expectations and plays with misdirection. This is Rian Johnson’s response to nostalgia in place of genuine emotional responses. As Kylo Ren says, “Let the past die.” It’s not the movie’s fault that people devoted countess hours to speculating about possible film theories that were deemed relatively inconsequential. Johnson refocuses on the characters that matter most, Rey and Kylo, by pairing them up as twin forces. While The Force Awakens definitely has more of a brash sense of fun, I find Last Jedi to be the better movie. It’s not quite up to par with the original trilogy. Johnson gets a little overburdened by trying to add too many things, including a casino subplot that feels like a unsatisfactory side mission in a video game. The new Star Wars films have lacked the bold unpredictability of the original trilogy. There’s nothing quite as seismic as Darth Vader being revealed as Luke’s father or even Han Solo captured and locked in carbonite. Even the major deaths in the new films feel anticipated, like in Episode VII, or less momentous, like in Episode VIII. There are some fake-outs with major deaths that many will deem cheap gambits, and I won’t disagree. I was entertained throughout The Last Jedi. I enjoyed the new characters. I enjoyed the action sequences. I even enjoyed the porgs. This is a movie that is looking for balance between the light and dark, and Johnson establishes a Star Wars that resets the table in exciting and frustrating ways. With J.J. Abrams now onboard of Episode IX, we’ll see how he brings home the characters that he brought into the universe a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. I imagine the fans grousing this new direction might be more forgiving of nostalgia.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Matt Reeves is a director who seems to have found his true calling refashioning the work of others. He remade the Swedish film Let the Right One In and improved it in several areas, though having Richard Jenkins and Chloe Grace Mortiz and a complete lack of CGI cats certainly helps. Then he inherited the new Apes franchise with 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and the fledgling franchise didn’t miss a beat. I’ve been pleasantly surprised about these damn dirty apes ever since the 2011 prequel kicked things off. Reeves took control of the franchise and deepened it, following a very non-Hollywood playbook that embraced subtleties, patience, and quiet moments. It had its crazy apes action but it was a movie in service to its characters first and foremost. Reeves, serving as co-writer once more with Mark Bomback, brings the franchise to its natural and thrilling conclusion. War for the Planet of the Apes is a blockbuster with soul.
It’s been fifteen years after the outbreak of the devastating Simian Flu. Mankind is dwindling and falling victim to a secondary virus as well. There are only pockets of humans left and small militias taking the fight to the super-intelligent apes. Caesar (Andy Serkis once more in mo-cap) and his followers have taken refuge near a waterfall. The ape community is ambushed by soldiers led by The Colonel (Woody Harrelson). With their home exposed, Caesar splits up the remaining numbers and sends them out to find a new shelter. He is determined to seek out the Colonel for vengeance. Eventually the other apes are captured and put into a slave labor camp and Caesar and company must rescue them and flee mankind’s last gasp at staying atop the food chain.
This may be one of the bleakest blockbusters in recent memory, especially when you consider that you’ll be actively cheering for the relative extinction of mankind by the end credits. Human beings are on the brink of extinction and this has drawn out the worst fight-or-flight instincts in the remaining numbers. This is about a final fight for survival on a visceral, us versus them level, and after two movies it should be abundantly clear what direction this is all heading. Even as humankind is doing a terrific job of wiping itself off the planet, humans still present a clear threat to the remaining apes. The second film explored how a working trust was improbable and unfathomable to many on both sides of the conflict because of the injustices. That’s pretty heady for a talking ape summer blockbuster. War closes the series with an even bigger and bleaker scenario, as humanity is entering the hospice phase of its social dominance. Roger Ebert referred to the movie theater as an empathy machine, and it’s amazing how far you will empathize with non-human characters. You will feel their triumphs, setbacks, loss, and anger, and you will root for the demise of mankind. We had a good run but maybe it’s time for a different species to become the caretakers of dear Mother Earth.
This is a final film that makes allusions to some of the darkest aspects of human history including, but not limited to, slavery and the Holocaust. It doesn’t traffic in black-and-white moral absolutes. There is good in some humans, several of whom were thrown into military service unprepared, under-trained, and simply existentially lost. There are apes that have made the calculation that it’s better to work with the humans than be killed. That’s right, there are collaborationist apes, and Reeves doesn’t look down on them. They too are allowed complexity and nuance and even the possibility of redemption. No one, man or ape, is beyond the capacity for compassion. You strongly feel their shame brought from moral compromises. It’s hard not to think about real-life analogues like the Jewish police that chose to work at the behest of their Nazi oppressors. They’re all still victims.
There is great suffering and vengeance on display with War, and it’s all too easy for characters to justify it on a literal specist argument (“Apes aren’t people, and they would have done the same to you”). Caesar is trying his best to manage a fragile co-existence, though this becomes untenable with every new attack. It’s a cycle of violence that only knows recriminations and fear. This struggle is personalized for Caesar as he wrestles with his own selfish, self-destructive impulses to seek out vengeance at the potential cost of the greater good for apekind. Caesar is still haunted by the ghost of Koba (Toby Kebbel, in a welcomed albeit brief appearance), the ape he slew in the previous film. Koba could not let go of the hatred he carried for mankind for their myriad abuses. It consumed him at great cost. Caesar is battling these same impulses but is self-aware about his responsibilities as the leader of his people, but even that might not be enough to dissuade him. To have that kind of emotional conflict within a CGI animal who happens to be the protagonist in a major Hollywood production is simply remarkable.
I don’t want to scare people away. War for the Planet of the Apes is still a very entertaining and gripping movie that can easily warrant stuffing your face full of popcorn. It’s also a blockbuster with tremendous weight. At a steep 140 minutes long, I still could have used even more of this movie. Reeves displays an uncommon sense of patience for a blockbuster filmmaker given a big studio’s checkbook. A majority of this movie is silent and this doesn’t panic Reeves. The director tells his story in a visually appealing and accessible way that doesn’t scrimp on characterization and depth. For long stretches the only communication on screen is ape sign language (small quibble: the apes too often fail to look at one another when they do this). There’s a lingering hush over much of the film, allowing the audience to immerse themselves fully. When the action does heat up, the sounds and music matter more. The solemn silences, hunting parties, and tense standoffs should remind people of Westerns and prisoner-of-war movies. This is the second big-budget 2017 movie making direct Vietnam parallels concerning a man-vs-apes conflict. The prison escape structure of the second half is immediately compelling and just as well developed as what came before. The multiple points needed for an elaborate escape are presented one-by-one and organically. The mini-goals and geography are clear at all times. It leads to an all-out assault climax that is thrilling on multiple levels but also deeply satisfying because of the extensive legwork.
Serkis (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) has been the beating heart of this franchise and his work as Casaer has been a monumental achievement in the advancement of special effects (the series has never won an Oscar for its VFX). Caesar is a fully formed character with relatable flaws and doubts, and thanks to the wizards at Weta, you can see the nuances flash across his face. Serkis brings an impressive range of emotions to a non-human character that’s piercingly silent often. It’s a performance that deserves shared credit to the animators and to Serkis, who is deserving once again of awards consideration that I know will unfairly never come. Harrelson (Now You See Me 2) is definitely evoking a Colonel Kurtz homage, a man given over to the darkness. I appreciated that his character has a credible back-story that informs his actions. He’s not simply a maniacal madman. He respects Caesar and the apes, but views life as a zero-sum game, which makes genocide an appealing last-ditch option. The pleasant surprise among the cast is Steve Zahn (Captain Fantastic) who plays Bad Ape. It’s a character that seems prone to comic relief non-sequitors, but he’s scarred from his own survival experiences. This is an ape still going through PTSD and that presents even the comedic with a twinge of tragedy. The unseen actors behind their mo-cap performances breathe startling life into the numerous non-human characters, bringing unparalleled realism to this sci-fi realm.
As the conclusion to the Apes prequel trilogy, you will also experience plenty of powerful emotions. I full-on cried twice and teared up about four other separate occasions. I cannot even remember another major summer tentpole that triggered that kind of emotional response (maybe a Pixar title or two). We’ve traveled with Caesar and several of these apes for three movies and six years. We’re emotionally invested. I knew I was going to lose it if anything happened to the orangutan, Maurice (I won’t confirm his fate). The community and empathy we’ve shared with these characters for three movies comes to a gratifying conclusion that feels appropriate, sizeable, and aching with potential for further adventures in this new and exciting world.
War for the Planet of the Apes is a movie so rewarding, so engaging, that you walk away angry that other Hollywood blockbusters can’t be this good or aren’t even trying to be. It’s emotionally rich and resonant, hitting you in the heart just as often as it quickens your pulse. Because of the investment in the characters, and their ongoing progression, we genuinely care about what happens like few blockbusters. The characters don’t take a backseat to the plot mechanics. Serkis and his amazing cast of mo-cap performers have delivered performances that rival live-action actors. There are clever nods to the original series that fans will enjoy but this Apes franchise has been its own beast from the beginning. This is a thoughtful, reflective, and contemplative film that fits well for such a thoughtful and contemplative series, and yet it still knows how to deliver stupendous sci-fi action (our lives are just that much more complete having watched an ape fire dual machine guns while riding a horse). I would declare Dawn as the best action of the trilogy, but I think War is the best movie because of how much everything matters and finishes. I think once the initial dust settles, it’s time to start thinking about this new Apes trilogy place among the all-time great movie trilogies. It’s been consistently enthralling from the beginning and has treated its animal cast as equally worthy of the greatest stories movies can deliver. War for the Planet of the Apes is powerful proof of what blockbuster filmmaking is capable of offering at its absolute finest.
Nate’s Grade: A
May 19,1999 is a day that lives in infamy for legions of Star Wars fans. The day hoped died. I remember trying to convince myself that The Phantom Menace was good but a second viewing confirmed my earlier fears. These movies were not going to be the same as the original trilogy, and George Lucas confirmed that with each successive release. I’ve had debates with teenagers who swear that the prequels are better films. They aren’t. This isn’t a matter of opinion; this is fact. After Revenge of the Sith was released in 2005, you could sense that Lucas was burned out and had no desire to further awaken the ire of the fandom. Then in 2012 he surprised everyone by selling the Star Wars empire, along with other properties like Indiana Jones, to Disney for four billion dollars. Immediately Disney let it be known that they wanted to get new Star Wars movies into production ASAP. They tapped J.J. Abrams to spearhead the first steps in a new direction. No other movie has felt the weight of hype and expectation like Episode VII: The Force Awakens. Fans don’t want to be hurt once more by someone they loved. For millions of fans that grew up on the original trilogy, The Force Awakens will be the Star Wars movie they have long been waiting for. It erases the bad feelings of the prequels and re-calibrates the franchise. However, it is also flawed and seems too indebted to nostalgia. It’s certainly good but I cannot put away my nagging reservations (far, far less than what I felt with the prequels).
Thirty years after the events of Return of the Jedi, the First Order has risen in place of the evil Empire. The First Order is lead by General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and aspiring sith lord Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). They’re searching for the droid BB-8 and its owner, Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac). The droid has a map that leads to the whereabouts of the last known Jedi – Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamil). A Stormtrooper who adopts the name of Finn (John Boyega) runs away from his mission and joins forces with Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger waiting for her family to return to her world. The duo finds BB-8 and seeks to return the droid to the Resistance. They run into Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and a few other familiar faces on their journey to the Resistance base and to escape the reach of the First Order.
Abrams has captured the essential magic of what made the original trilogy so enjoyable and timeless. The prequels carried the burden of setting up characters we had come to love, and so as we watched younger versions of them or characters integral to their development, it was hard to ignore just how little we cared. It didn’t feel like Lucas himself cared that much, more content to direct his green screens than his actors. The special effects had improved but for much of the three prequels it felt like watching disinterested actors recite poorly written lines while they run around fake environments with no semblance of reality. The details that Lucas emphasized were ones that were unnecessary, like treaties and trade tariffs and the notorious midichlorians, which made the force into a blood disorder. The prequels harmed the legacy of the franchise. It takes only seconds for you to feel like you’re in better hands when you read the opening text crawl. No trade disputes. No galactic senate. It sets up its central chase and the important players in three brief paragraphs. And then we’re off and the movie rarely lets up.
We pass the torch to a new generation of characters and it’s here that Force Awakens is able to leave the large shadow of the original trilogy. The characters are great. Finn gives the viewer an entry point into a world we’ve never explored onscreen in any real depth, the life of a Stormtrooper, the cannon fodder of the series. He has moral crises and goes AWOL from the duties he has been raised to do. He doesn’t want to be a mindless killing-machine and forges his own destiny. Watching him embrace a sense of individuality is entertaining. He’s charming and excitable but also fearful of what may catch up to him. Then there’s the hero’s journey with Rey, a plucky heroine who comes of age over the course of the movie’s 135 minutes. Ridley has the presence and poise reminiscent of Keira Knightley, and the screen just adores her. It also helps when her character is easy to root for. Boyega (Attack the Block) and Ridley are terrific and even better paired together. They have a great chemistry and much of the humor is born from the characters rather than lame visual gags like in the prequels. It’s fun to hear characters verbally spar with actual good dialogue. Driver was the first actor hired and it’s easy to see why. If you’ve been watching the man on HBO’s Girls, you’ll know that he has a magnetic presence that separates him from the herd. He plays a villain that so badly wants to follow in Vader’s footsteps but the thing that holds him back is the “temptation of the light.” In one moment, a badass and imposing villain with super force powers had now also become an interesting character wrestling with his influences. Isaac (Ex Machina) is suave and cocksure as an ace pilot. His affection for the other characters is touching, particularly the robot BB-8. This little guy is going to be the toy that every child on Earth demands for the holidays. BB-8 is adorable from its first moment on screen and made me forget about R2D2. The big worry with Force Awakens was that its new characters would be compelling on their own. After one movie I’m looking forward to more adventures with the new kids on the block.
Abrams has restored the sense of fun and awe that resonated from the original trilogy and the biggest compliment is that Episode VII feels like a Star Wars movie (more on which below). The action sequences are quick and filled with great visuals and shot arrangements. For those worried about Abrams’ penchant for lens flairs in the Star Trek reboots, they are completely absent in Force Awakens (Fun fact: for Star Trek Into Darkness, computer effects had to go in and take out lens flairs because Abrams later admitted he had gone a bit overboard). There are some beautifully orchestrated shots and sequences all around here. The first 40-minutes is the best part of the movie, before the older stars come back for their due. The rest of the film is enjoyable, no doubt, but I was more pleased with the original material. The technical expertise has never been higher. Like Mad Max: Fury Road, there’s a joy with watching characters interact with a real world of practical effects. Watching the characters run around real environments and real sets rather than immense green screens just makes it feel more real and vital. I enjoyed how worn and weathered the technology in this world comes across. The special effects are judiciously utilized and are excellent as anticipated. It’s easy to sense the reverence that Abrams and others have for the series as well as their determination to not repeat the mistakes of the prequels. The first mission for Episode VII is to reset the course, to wash away the bad taste of the prequels that haunt many. Abrams has gone back to what works with these movies and recreated the playbook. It’s a movie that will satisfy the hardcore fans and reawaken their love for the series.
And yet it almost feels like Force Awakens is a swing too far in the other direction, an overcorrection to the prequels that turns a reboot into a loving homage that approaches facsimile. I was amazed at just how closely Episode VII follows the plot beats of A New Hope (mild spoilers to follow – for real, if you don’t want to be spoiled in the slightest, and I’m no monster and won’t dare include anything that would substantially deter your viewing, skip to the spoiler safe area). Here goes: once again we start with an escape from an evil starfleet ship, only to land on a desert planet. The hunt is for a droid with valuable information. Our dispirit band of characters collect on the desert planet and flee, only to be eventually pulled back to the evil base of operations, which once again is a giant floating orb that specializes in planet destruction and this orb seems to have the same pesky design flaw that plagued Death Star 1.0 and 2.0. How does this one design flaw still exist? Are there not backups and redundancies? It would be like Titanic 3.0 going down by hitting another iceberg. There are more parallels involving the characters and personal revelations that mirror Episode IV but I won’t go into detail on those (end of spoilers). Suffice to say, it felt like I was watching a cover act remind me how much I enjoyed the first Star Wars release. Perhaps Abrams felt his rabid audience needed to go backwards before going forward, pay homage to what had been built by practically reliving its plot in a galaxy not so long ago as it once was (it still is likely the same distance: far far away). It’s a movie that cannot escape the nostalgia of its predecessors, and so it indulges it instead. In deferring to fan demands, Force Awakens has moments that waver into the dangerous territory of fan service. This will harm its overall staying power once the glow wears off from audiences overcome with relief.
Thankfully, the new main characters are compelling and I’ll be happy to follow their continuing adventures with Episodes VIII and IX and who knows. Abrams and company have set up the next generation of fan favorites that have the chance to grow out of the sizable shadow of the original cast. However, not all elements are given that same nurturing care. The Force Awakens is so briskly paced that it rarely has time to establish the new history of its universe. We get character relationships and reunions but I couldn’t help but feel that the larger plot they inhabited felt rushed. The First Order seems rather vague and their rise to power needed at least some explanation. Instead we’re dropped right into a timeline with an Empire knockoff. It’s just easy fascism placeholder. Why are the Republic and the Resistance two separate entities? The villains with the exception of Kylo Ren are pretty one-note and also callbacks to the bad guy types from Episode IV. Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) is in the movie for a lousy three minutes. I’m also not a fan of either of the two motion-capture performances courtesy of Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) and mo-cap pioneer Andy Serkis (Rise of the Planet of the Apes). I hated Nyong’o’s character and her performance. The character design for both of these creatures is rather weak and weirdly unimaginative. There’s also a habit of characters being naturals at things that would ordinarily require expertise. The worlds we visit and the creatures we encounter are all a bit too similar to earlier sources and distinctly unmemorable. We don’t learn much via our locations and geography and so it feels a tad interchangeable and meaningless, which is a shame.
The Force Awakens is a mostly exciting return to the rich world of Star Wars with characters we care about, old and new, lively action that feels substantial and real, and a sense of fun that isn’t at the expense of your full brainpower. Abrams had two missions: 1) eliminate the disappointment over the prequels, and 2) set up new characters and stories for future installments. Both have been accomplished. Abrams may have been the perfect candidate to restart the Star Wars series as he has a history of making films as loving homage to his cinematic influences. Super 8 was Abrams’ homage to Spielberg, and Episode VII is very much homage to Episode IV. The well-trod story allows for the series to reset comfortably while setting up its new characters to take a greater storytelling burden from here on out. I hope future installments give us more development to make the worlds and the history matter just as much as Rey, Finn, Kylo, Poe, and BB-8. This may be an unpopular opinion but I feel that Abrams’ rollicking 2009 Star Trek reboot is a better Star Wars movie than The Force Awakens. Abrams and company prove you can make a new and good Star Wars movie. Now my own new hope is that writer/director Rian Johnson (Looper) will be able to steer the franchise into a fresher direction with Episode VIII. In the meantime, fans can sleep well once again.
Nate’s Grade: B+
The Avengers wasn’t just a blockbuster it was a mega-blockbuster and rewrote the Hollywood playbook in the summer of 2012. It wasn’t just about powerful franchises anymore. Now it was about franchises that would link into a super franchise. Sony got anxious to expand their Spider-Man universe in a similar fashion as Marvel had done in buildup to The Avengers. After one poor movie, that plan was scuttled and now Spider-Man is being rebooted for the second time in five years, this time with active help from Marvel itself (look for Spidey to appear in Captain America 3). Writer/director Joss Whedon (TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer) was the mastermind behind the jaunty smash-em-up fun of The Avengers and was quickly signed on for a sequel after the billion-dollar mark was crossed. With great success comes great risk of upsetting that continued success. It feels like Whedon’s hands were tied to the greater forces at work. As a result, I shouldn’t be surprised but I’m still disappointed with how muddled and overstuffed as Age of Ultron comes across.
The Avengers are cleaning up the last remnants of HYDRA, taking them to a castle in a fictional Eastern European country. The HYDRA doctor has been genetically experimenting on volunteers, birthing Wanda “Scarlet Witch” (Elizabeth Olsen) and Pietro “Quicksilver” Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). She can tap into people’s minds and he can run super fast. They’ve got a grudge against the Avengers, particularly industrialist Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.). Stark takes a piece of alien technology and plugs it into his home system to build a super fleet of automated robots to patrol the world. In no time, the A.I. has taken form in the shape of an insane robot named Ultron (James Spader) whose mission is to save the planet by eliminating mankind. He builds an army of robotic soldiers with the assistance of the Maximoff twins. Tony, along with Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Bruce “The Hulk” Banner (Mark Ruffalo), must stop Ultron while not destroying much of the world themselves with their collateral damage.
Eleven movies into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), a movie of the size of an Avengers sequel cannot simply be a movie. It’s too important to the overall vision of the MCU, and so it has to set up and establish other characters, franchises, and the many monetary tributaries that keep the world of superheroes going. It’s already got a slew of superheroes and it adds even more new faces into the mix (I guess we needed an Avengers B-Team). The development of Ultron is also far too rushed; it’s literally minutes from being plugged in that he’s already settled into kill-all-Avengers mode. The movie barely has any time to even contemplate the perils of artificial intelligence before Ultron is already proving their fears correct. While Ultron is a fun villain (more on that later) his plan feels quite haphazard. His biggest strategic advantage is his duplication, the fact that he can exist without a physical body and can inhabit many bodies at once. Except for a hasty escape via the Internet and a climax stuffed with CGI robot mayhem, this advantage isn’t really explored. Why does a self-replicating creature beyond the bounds of physicality need or even desire a physical body? If you’re made from a nigh indestructible metal and can control numerous beings at once with a hive-mind intelligence link, why would you want to be turned into flesh thanks to what amounts to a 3D printer? The introduction of The Vision (Paul Bettany, this time in the flesh) is quite muddled and confusing. The incorporation of the Maximoff twins is awkward and they feel more like accessories than needed additions. This Quicksilver doesn’t come anywhere close to the memorable prankish Quicksilver from Days of Future Past. The pacing of the film is so ramped that it feels like the movie is falling over itself to get to the next large-scale action set piece. At 140 minutes, they could have removed one or two action pieces and devoted more time to streamlining and cleaning up the narrative.
And the action sequences start off with a bang but they invariably fizzle out. The opening sequence begins with a Birdman-styled tracking shot to connect all our fighters, and it’s a fun way to kick things off while visually tying together the team. The Hulk vs. Iron Man brawl is fun for a while, partly because it harkens back to the pleasures of the first film, namely watching our heroes battle each other as much as the villains. After a while, the CGI onslaught becomes overwhelming and just dulls the senses. You’re watching CGI smash into other CGI and then keep smashing, with little variation. The disappointment with the action is that it too often feels weightless and hollow. It has glimmers of fun but it can’t hold onto these glimmers because the action doesn’t change. It gets bigger and more chaotic, yes, but it doesn’t develop with organic complications and real attention to setting. These big battles could happen anywhere because they almost all descend into simply fighting amidst rubble. Even Iron Man 3 found ways to spice up its action set pieces through complications, limitations, and clear differentiation. Perhaps this is a larger outcry of fatigue with the overall state of CGI overkill in effects-driven films. The concluding fight versus Ultron and his many copies just feels like the same scene on repeat but in slightly different locations. Whedon has shown an affinity to coordinate exciting and satisfying action sequences, but you just feel like the pressure and demands get the better of him.
However, every moment with Ultron onscreen is a highpoint because of the malicious cattiness of Spader (TV’s The Blacklist). He’s a perfect fit for a character who is at turns childish and petty, bonkers, and condescending. In some ways he’s like a giant robotic teenager who thinks he’s just above the rest of these so-called adults. It’s such an enjoyable villain, an area of real need in most MCU films (Loki can’t be everywhere for every movie), that I wanted more and more of him. My friend and critical colleague Ben Bailey describes Ultron as the villainous alternative Tony Stark, and Whedon does a fine job of laying out the parallels, especially with regards to ego. It’s a weird reunion for the stars of 1987’s Less Than Zero.
The most boring characters, i.e. the humans, are the ones that get the biggest expansion for character development, with mixed results. Let’s face it, Hawkeye is never going to be anyone’s favorite Avenger. I think even he acknowledges this in a moment that almost breaks down the fourth wall (“None of this makes sense. I’m fighting with a bow and arrow.”). Hawkeye’s personal life is given a spotlight and it sets up an obvious worry that he’s going to bite it by film’s end. If there was an expendable member of this team, it would have to be Hawkeye. The added attention and personal attachments seem like a dead giveaway that he’s going to be dead. I don’t think I was any more invested in his character knowing about his hidden life outside the Avengers, but I certainly played a game of, “Is this gonna be it?” as the film continued. Black Widow started as an interesting character, a spy trying to make amends for her bloody past, or the “red in [her] ledger,” as they referred in the previous film. Her budding romance with Banner makes some sense but it still feels like the character is being forced into Romantic mode not because of her character but mostly because she has a vagina. Any romance with a guy who turns green and monstrous seems like it might be best as unrequited. She’s also defined by a past trauma that, while upsetting and cruel, is also a bit too tied into her identity as Woman/Mother. It’s an unfortunate positioning for what is an inherently interesting character (the slut shaming of the character in promotional interviews by certain Avengers cast members is also highly unfortunate). Can’t we get a Black Widow movie yet, Marvel?
An aspect of Age of Ultron I did enjoy was how conscious the heroes are about mitigating collateral damage and especially human casualties. At every turn, the Avengers are thinking about saving those caught in the cross-hairs first. They go out of their way to save those left behind. I think, and I’m not alone in this conclusion, that Whedon is directly responding to the disaster porn that was Zack Snyder’s miserly Man of Steel. The latest Superman movie bothered me with how callous it was with human life, treating devastating city-wide 9/11-style destruction as mere entertainment. As Superman and Zod were colliding through every damn building in Metropolis, you knew thousands if not millions of unseen people were perishing in this rather pointless melee. Whedon’s band of heroes places a priority on human life regardless of region.
It would be disingenuous of me to say Age of Ultron is not entertaining. Whedon is still a terrific storyteller and that still shines through the troubled areas and spotty plotting. The action makes good use of the various heroes and their abilities, providing fun combos like Cap hurling his super shield so Thor can redirect it further with his hammer. The use of humor was one of the bigger enjoyments of the first Avengers, and while it’s still abundant and enjoyable here as well I’d say it’s overdone. When every character is cracking quips every fourth line of dialogue, it pulls you out of the movie and the stakes feel lesser. The running joke where the Avengers make fun of Captain America for his prudish sensibilities on profanity is a joke that works at first but then loses all sense of fun as it’s pounded into the ground on repetition. The larger set pieces each have their moments to delight, especially the opening and the Hulk vs. Iron Man battle. Age of Ultron isn’t a bad movie and it has some truly great moments and great character moments and payoffs, but it’s only moments. The plot meant to connect the dots is too labored with the burden of setting up several Marvel franchises. In the MCU pecking order, I’d place Age of Ultron right around Iron Man 2 quality (another movie compromised by the extra burden of setting up other movies, namely The Avengers).
It’s sure to set box-office records and I imagine fans of the original will happily lap up another super team-up, but Avengers: Age of Ultron is something of a disappointment for me. The more I think about it the fun parts become a little duller and I find more areas of criticism. It’s just not as fun a movie experience, and that’s due to the rushed and muddled story and too many characters. After the critical and commercial success of the first film, I doubt that Whedon could have produced a film that would live up to the sky-high expectations, but that doesn’t excuse the finished product. It feels like Whedon had to struggle to pull this one off, especially with the added demands, and I can’t blame him for wanting a break from the MCU. The Russo brothers who so dazzled audiences with their direction of Captain America: The Winter Soldier will be stepping in to direct the next Avengers sequel(s). I hope they’re up to the task because the burden of carrying a billion-dollar franchise with its tendrils connected to other franchises appears to have been overwhelming for one of the greatest storytellers of a generation. Enjoy Age of Ultron but be wary of what the future holds for the larger MCU.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Anyone else think the titles of these Apes prequels should be retroactively switched? Coming off the heels of the surprisingly excellent flick Rise of the Planet of the Apes, those damn dirty apes are back with another summer blockbuster that’s just as mature, engrossing, emotionally resonant, and visually remarkable. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes takes place ten years after the events of the previous entry, with mankind devastated by the “Simian Flu,” the same bug that has kick-started the evolution of the primates. Caesar (Andy Serkis in motion capture) is leading a fairly conservative life; he has a home, a family, a wife, and a community he’s trying to build. Then a group of humans wander into their territory needing access to the remains of a dam for a power supply. The apes do not trust the humans, but Caesar accepts their terms, looking to avoid war. However, fear, resentment, and hate fester on both sides, and it’s not long before it’s apes vs. humans and you witness one of the greatest things your eyeballs will ever see – an ape firing two machine guns while riding a horse. Plot-wise, this film is more a bridge to a larger conflict between the two factions. The human characters (including Jason Clarke, Keri Russell, and Gary Oldman) are given short shrift. And that’s fine because the movie belongs to the apes; they are the stars rightfully. Half of this movie is in subtitles for ape sign language. Director Matt Reeves (Let Me In, Cloverfield) dwells in the moments other blockbusters don’t have time for. He lingers in the shadows, with silences, and we slowly integrate into the world of the apes and their own power dynamics. The all-out action of the third act doesn’t feel like a natural fit for the thoughtful movie that has played out until that point. The visual effects are again top-notch and the motion capture tech captures a stunning range of human emotions that you can witness play out across the CGI creations. Toby Kebbell (Wrath of the Titans) portrays Koba, the more hawkish member of the ape tribe, and he is just as good as Serkis, which is saying a lot. I’d still call Rise a better overall film, but Dawn is a more than worthy follow-up that reminds audiences what great storytelling can achieve with the right people behind the scenes.
Nate’s Grade: A-
I owe the makers behind Rise of the Planet of the Apes a huge apology. I have been vocally dismissive of a new Apes film from the first moments I heard about the project. I just thought rehashing this material was a stupid move. Then I heard James Franco (127 Hours) was going to be the lead, and I sighed. Then I saw the trailers and verbally impugned them in my theaters. Upon the conclusion of the trailer I yelled, “You can still shoot them!” and my criticism drew applause from those around me. The concept that we suddenly made apes smarter and they could now enter the Bronze Age, brandishing spears, didn’t overwhelm me. Just because the apes suddenly had tools didn’t seem like enough to topple mankind from the top of the evolutionary ladder. So in the months and weeks ahead I sneer, jeered, and overall dismissed Rise of the Planet of the Apes. And then the reviews came out and they weren’t just good, they were ecstatic. I went begrudgingly into the theater, waiting to hurl my own feces at the screen (figuratively, of course). Then I was completely taken aback by how much I unabashedly loved it.
Will Rodman (Franco) is a young scientists working hard at create a miracle cure for Alzheimer’s. His corporate company has been testing their drugs on chimps to mixed results. One day a promising ape, made smarter by a dose of ALZ 112, goes bananas and is put down by security. The lady ape left behind a baby ape that has taken on traits from the ALZ 112. Will takes the little chimp home to care for the “company property.” But then he ends up adopting the chimp, which his ailing father (John Lithgow) names Caesar. Due to the super drug, Caesar shows remarkable intelligence and looks to be getting even stronger. It looks like Will might have found his cure, and his boss (David Oyelowo) will make billions. But then complications ensue, as they always do, and Caesar is taken to an animal preserve facility run by a crooked father/son team (Brian Cox and Harry Potter’s Tom Felton). Caesar is mistreated and distraught to adjust to a life in pens. He makes plans to escape but then decides to rally his fellow imprisoned apes to a greater cause with the help of some of the ALZ 112.
Even through Franco is the headliner he’s really nothing more than a supporting character, a catalyst. The real star of the movie is undoubtedly Caesar the chimp. After about he 45-minute mark, Franco is reduced to making frowny faces while he scowls, trying to ascertain where his favorite monkey is. His dialogue is mostly reduced to different iterations of yelling Caesar’s name in different locations (the guy even manages to smirk in his sleep in one scene). But the major surprise is that Caesar is not only a compelling leading character but also a well-developed one at that. This is a living, breathing character brought to life thanks to top-notch computer wizardry and the talents of Andy Serkis, the leading authority for soulful motion-capture performances. Caesar may be the greatest single special effect of all time, not because of its life-like quality (it’s close, but again the creature’s features seem too waxy). But the reason Caesar is so impressive is because of the depth of emotion that can be read onscreen. This is a textured performance where you can read varying emotions through the looks of eyes, the twitching of facial muscles, the biting of lips. The emotions are genuinely recognizable; he flashes guilt, anger, frustration, heartache, disbelief, betrayal, fear, shame, just about everything in the book. From a DNA standpoint, chimps and humans share 96 percent of the same genes, so it’s understandable that we can relate to the plight of our distant relatives. Serkis is responsible for providing the groundwork for CGI creations like Gollum and King Kong, so he’s the world’s go-to guy when it comes to providing a framework for animators (Robert Zemeckis, why have you never called this guy?). It’s an amazing special effect accomplishment and works side-by-side with the storytelling to make Caesar a complicated, interesting, and deeply empathetic hero. He’s a terrific center for the movie and a figure that you root for, even with the tacit understanding that cheering on the apes’ escape is also tantamount to cheering the decline of the human race. But by God, during the apes-run-amok climactic sequences you are cheering for mankind’s downfall hardcore.
The Planet of the Apes saga (six films) is, let’s be honest here, rather abysmal. Everybody loves the first movie but the quality sharply drops from there, with four sequels in four years each managing to answer the depressing question, “Can this thing really get any worse?” The 2001 Tim Burton “re-imagining” was just embarrassing and filled with loopy logic (how can the apes take over Earth’s past when Marky Mark crashes on a DIFFERENT planet in the FUTURE?). Given that, the filmmakers behind Rise of the Planet of the Apes did not have to achieve much to separate themselves from the monkey-stank of the sci-fi franchise. The film serves as a prequel to the series but it’s easily the best film since the original. Easily. For one, the storytelling is not overwhelmed by the allegory of sci-fi packaging. The world is decidedly our own and the problems the characters grapple with are fairly relatable. Will may be responsible for the annihilation of the human race but his motivation is pure – he wants to save his ailing father. That’s a believable motivating force that would push the character to action over caution, testing his special serum without fully examining all the side effects. You know what they say about the road to Hell (my friend Eric Muller always suspected Franco would be linked to the end of civilization)? But in a Planet of the Apes movie there is a wealth of thoughtful human drama. Animal rights are one of the more obvious messages the movie deals with, but the film takes a character-driven approach following the animal himself. You care about these characters and when one CGI ape was cradling a dying CGI ape, I swear I was getting choked up over those computer pixels. That’s how emotionally involving this new Apes film can be. It’s refreshing to have a Hollywood action film that has more on its mind than blowing stuff up all good like.
But when the action shapes up, mostly during a stirring man vs. apes climax, the film easily delivers. The nimble screenplay by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (their first film since 1997’s Relic!) is a terrific example of economical big-budget pacing. Every scene moves the story forward and doesn’t waste a frame. The final running time is only 105 brisk minutes but it squeezes in so much entertainment and emotion. Director Rupert Wyatt keeps the thrills coming on a human-scale, never letting the enormity of the events getting too out of hand. Sure suddenly there are like 500 apes all of a sudden and all of them are super smart, but I can roll with that. The stakes are always clear and the action is easy to follow and easier to get swept up in. There are a few shout-outs to the original film’s iconic lines, which will either come across as fun or ham-handed. And thankfully a plausible scenario is put forth to explain why the humans would be overtaken by the apes. That’s not to say that everything is smartly woven into the narrative. Several of the side characters are but crude renderings. Frieda Pinto’s (Slumdog Millionaire) underdeveloped love interest could be completely taken out with minimal effect on the plot. Likewise the Evil Business Head seems to have nothing but speeches that remind you his sole interest is making lots of moolah.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a Hollywood movie with a soul. Finally late in the summer a major studio movie emerges that has the right balance of brains, brawn, and thrills. It’s an exciting action movie, a poignant drama from an animal’s point of view, a tour de force of special effects that manage to make the film more emotionally involving, and a sci-fi prequel that’s actually worthy of its name. Serkis’ gifts for physical performance are invaluable to the emotional core of the movie. By going back to its DNA, Rise of the Planet of the Apes has given new life to a franchise whose best days were 40 years ago. I don’t see where the series can go from here. A prequel to the prequel seems superfluous. A sequel would only really showcase the waning days of humanity and also seem superfluous. Then again, until the moment I was watching Rise of the Planet of the Apes I would have said this very movie was superfluous too. Instead this is the finest summer spectacle of the year and destined to make my top ten list for the year. If you can’t beat them, join them, damn dirty apes and all.
Nate’s Grade: A