By general consensus, it’s been 28 years since the world had a truly great Terminator sequel. What has been so challenging for filmmakers to continue this franchise? The absence of creator James Cameron is obvious, as it’s hard to find anybody with the blockbuster acumen to fill that empty director’s chair. I submit that I think it’s because the Terminator franchise is, at its core, a very limited franchise of stories (I never saw the short-run TV series starring Lena Headey as Sarah Connor). It’s about a killer robot after its target. That’s it. There’s some time travel jazz thrown in but that’s never been given tremendous contemplation, especially 2015’s brain-hurting alternative timeline reboot, Terminator: Genisys (with Headey’s Game of Thrones co-star Emilia Clarke as Sarah Connor). Now comes another attempt to revitalize this dormant franchise with Terminator: Dark Fate and this time they’re not just bringing back Arnold Schwarzenegger but also the original Sarah Connor as well, Linda Hamilton. The early trailers and ads did not exactly give me much optimism. It looked like the same. Another killer Terminator. Another good Terminator. I saw little to earn enthusiasm. Then the positive reviews poured in. I’m here to report that Dark Fate is the best of the sequels, a satisfying mix of action, character, and world building, but I’m also ready to let this series go away into its own dark fate.
Sarah Connor (Hamilton) has been hunting down different Terminators for the last twenty years. Her path crosses with Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes), a Mexican autoworker who happens to be a very big deal to a future human resistance against future angry machines. Grace (Mackenzie Davis) is a future soldier sent back through time and given enhanced speed, strength, and endurance. She is to serve as protector for Dani, though Sarah seems to feel she has a claim to that position as well. Together the women will try and outrun a new Terminator model, the Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna) and seek shelter from an unlikely ally, a retired and reformed Terminator (Schwarzenegger).
The Terminator franchise has been one built upon chase scenes, trying to escape a nigh unstoppable being and find refuge while it lasts. Because of that and a generally simplistic “save X to prevent future Y” goal, the franchise can often be reduced to a series of successful or unsuccessful set pieces, and as the movies continued the characterization flattened out, replaced by an influx of humor (Terminator 3), grimness (Terminator 4), or confusion (Terminator 5). What made the Cameron movies special was his magical ability to apply character to action, pushing everything forward so that every set piece felt naturally developed, with organic complications and mini-goals relating to the arcs and needs of the people on screen. The action in Dark Fate gets closest to that Cameron gold standard with some engaging sequences of big screen violence but tailoring it better to specific location and character dynamics. When Grace first rescues Dani, it’s at the factory where, oh great irony, machines are replacing human workers. The machinery of this factory floor gets utilized for the rough and tumble activity. There’s a mid-air collision that goes through a series of stages as things get worse and worse, including an extended sequence of zero gravity fisticuffs that is extremely fun to watch. The action is solid throughout.
Thankfully, the strong action under director Tim Miller (Deadpool) is aided by the storytelling core of three strong women. Arnold doesn’t even come back into the picture until much later. Each of these women has a different style to her, a different personality, and a different goal, whether it’s killing all Terminators first, spare the future leader at all costs, or looking for a sane middle ground that keeps everyone alive. It’s refreshing to watch the franchise return to its roots of strong female lead characters being given the reigns. The screenplay by David S. Goyer (Batman vs. Superman), Billy Ray (Captain Phillips), and Justin Rhodes puts the spotlight where it belongs and tweaks some of the politics of old; Dani is derisively told by Sarah that it’s a woman’s womb that presents the biggest threat to the system, as they share the notoriety of being mothers of future male saviors. There’s a level of polish given to the characters that I appreciated, providing room to have them butt heads in a manner that felt genuine. There are some significant differences that makes this trio interesting but also satisfying when they work together for their common survival. The general mystery around the back-story of our genetically-enhanced human being Grace was a plus rather than another blank slate robot bodyguard.
Hamilton is back and so is Arnold, though he was also pretty central in 2015’s failed alternate timeline reboot. Fortunately for the audience, Dark Fate actually gives them things that matter. Both are given characters going through a sense of loss and rediscovery, working together to rid the world of a common evil, one out of vengeance and duty and the other out of penance. The interplay between them is rich in dramatic potential, as is the prospect of a Terminator model that wants to be moral without having its programming fiddled with by some enterprising human. This is a Terminator that wants to change and adhere to a code of ethics and principles. That’s interesting, and adding layers of personal animus just makes it more interesting. The screenplay lets the characters have enough little grace notes, smaller moments to breathe and remind you that these action stars were also more fleshed-out characters once long ago. I’m not going to say there’s some great lost play somewhere in a Terminator movie, but I was very appreciative of some of the smaller, more contemplative moments that dwelt on accountability and redemption. It’s not just all apocalyptic doom and gloom, there can be room to explore mature characterization too.
Another aspect I was not expecting was how politically relevant Dark Fate would become with the U.S. immigration crisis. Our heroes are traveling north via a caravan of immigrants, and for a while it felt like I was watching Sin Nombre but with killer robots. Then they have to sneak across the border and are captured and placed in crowded detention centers. There’s an entire jail break sequence with Terminators in an ICE-style prison. The evil Terminator makes use of the government surveillance network to track the other characters on their trek along the border, using the machinations of a police state to hunt down these fugitives. There’s not much in the way of commentary to be afforded beyond the simple empathy of watching other human beings struggle for a better life and being treated as less than human by an indifferent bureaucracy. There’s even a mixed-race blended family that serves as a focal point of a change of conscience. There’s a refreshing amount of diversity. I wish the movie had gone even further or staked more with commentary but I also suppose there’s a reason that none of this was seen in advertisements. I suppose the Dark Fate filmmakers didn’t want to turn away the dollars of any sensitive conservative ticket-buyers.
I have some general questions not so much for this movie, though they do apply, but for the Terminator franchise as a whole, and I figure I should address these as a separate section:
1) Why does the future only ever send one killer Terminator robot at once? If the goal is to kill one special target and it seems one Terminator keeps getting foiled, why not send more than one to accomplish the mission? Maybe there’s some technological limitation of time travel where only one machine can be sent at a time and there needs to be sufficient time to recharge. If you’re machines, you got time, and the way time travel works, it would not matter when robots were sent, just that they are arriving at the same date. I began to envision what this might look like and started composing a comedy sketch in my head where a classic Terminator T-100 knocks on a door, asks about seeing John Connor, and then an old landlord says, “Oh, he sure is popular today, come on in.” It’s here where the T-100 would come inside and be seated in a room with other Terminator robots throughout the ages. What would then proceed would be an argument among the many Terminators over who deserved to be the one to kill John Connor. One would say they were transplanted 30 years prior and had been waiting diligently until this moment in time, another would argue they are the most advanced, newer model and would have the best likelihood of success, and another would argue they had gotten the closest to him, etc. I’m sure someone may have already had this same idea but it amused me highly.
2) We’ve had shape-shifting Terminators since the first sequel in 1991 and there hasn’t been too much variance on them after. The problem is once we enter into the liquid metal, body-reshaping era, there doesn’t seem like there’s much more advancements to be had. The Terminator in the third film could also do some technical wizardry. The fifth one made use of nanobots, I think. I’ve tried to forget much of Terminator: Genisys, including the spelling of the subtitle. With Dark Fate, we get a new Terminator who can… have its metal skeleton jump out of its body… and serve as a duplicate? I don’t really know whether once the skeleton leaves if the “body” is more vulnerable or whether there are limitations. It’s unclear world building. Also, there are tentacle-enhanced Terminator robots seen in the future that would be deadlier. Regardless, none of these updates are as big a leap as the T-100 to the T-1000 and its shape-shifting. You have a master hunter that can take on any face, so why does it keep settling on the same face even after its targets know who they should be running from? Why do the shape-shifting Terminators not adopt a host of disguises in order to get closer to their prey? If I knew one face in the crowd to run away from, I would think my predator would not want to keep that face. I can understand from a filmmaking standpoint why you’d want a default look so the audience knows which character is which visually. I feel like these killer robots are undervaluing the shape-shifting.
3) Why do the Terminators have to work harder, not smarter? You have one target, usually, to murder to wipe out futures, so why take any chances with one assassin limited by their bipedal arms and legs? Why not send a thousand drones to blow up one human from the sky? Why not place a reward on the Dark Web and see how long it might take? Or, even better, why not send a robot with a nuclear bomb in its chest? That way all the Terminator needs to do is get its target in slight visibility and boom. It’s not like the machines seem to be worried about collateral damage.
4) No matter how many Judgment Days are averted, it seems like there will always be another down the line, so is mankind just biding its time before an eventual robot apocalypse? In the timeline of Dark Fate, mankind eventually creates a new A.I. that eventually attacks its human overlords, and it’s a new albeit delayed Judgment Day. Does this mean that the franchise is locked into an endless cycle of repetition, where victory just means postponement? A central theme throughout the series is “making your own fate,” the rejection of destiny, and the fluidity of personal choice and agency, and if the movie says, “Eh, human beings will keep making the same mistake over and over no matter how many interventions,” doesn’t that conflict?
I’m sure there are more questions for the Terminator franchise to be had but I’ll leave it at those. Dark Fate is the most accomplished of the Terminator sequels, post-T2, but this is still one franchise that feels low on creativity and interest. The prospect of another Terminator movie doesn’t fill me with any palpable degree of excitement. Even with this sequel that serves as yet another reboot, I’m not excited for further adventures. If there’s another movie, I’ll see it but mostly out of a sense of obligation. If this was the last we saw any of the original Terminator characters, it works as a fitting sendoff and as satisfying an ending as any before. What started as a special sci-fi series with one of the greatest action sequels of all time has become just another franchise on the decline with a fading brand name that studios keep picking at every few years, reassembling with new pieces that they hope might convince audiences there’s still vitality. Dark Fate is a perfectly good action movie with more thought and polish then I anticipated, finding legitimate reasons for bringing back its stars of old and giving them meaningful things to do. I had a good time with the movie but feel like this is one franchise that is ready for a merciful termination.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Gemini Man is one of those scripts that has been kicked around for decades in Hollywood. At one point Clint Eastwood was attached to be the old and young versions of an elite hitman, which goes to show you how long it’s been in development hell. Part of this delay was getting the technology to a point that it could effectively achieve de-aging an A-list actor, but here’s a thought I’m going to offer for free, as I usually do – why not try makeup? Surely you can find another actor who looks close to your lead and can have practical makeup applied? Or why not have that same actor’s own son play the younger version of him? Or, and here’s an even more daring idea, why not just have a different actor, period? If the premise is a younger clone, who’s to say why that younger clone would appear exactly like an exact representation of the older version. What if younger clone had an accident? Anyway, nobody listened to me and Gemini Man waited and waited, finally landing Will Smith playing two versions of himself thanks to CGI magic. Is the finished film worth the decades of toil and waiting to finally make this vision come alive?
Henry Brogan (Smith) is an elite hired assassin for the government and on the verge of retirement. His handlers (Clive Owen) have misgivings about tying up loose ends and send an assassin to take out Brogan. It just happens to be –wait for it– a clone of himself at 25! Now Brogan must team up with a pair of underwritten government agents (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Benedict Wong) to battle his younger self once and for all.
This movie feels like a dozen screenplays stitched together with every other third scene missing. You can feel the full, tortured, decades-long development process and how it has become an impenetrable force that weighs down the eventual movie and squanders whatever potential its premise could have provided. There is a movie here, that’s for sure. An older hitman confronting a clone of his younger self could make for an excellent personal reckoning as well as present a unique situation where the mature man is trying to outsmart the younger, stronger version of himself. Gemini Man doesn’t seem to know what to do with this concept at all. Why not have the clone of Henry Brogan (I hate this name) respond differently than the old man expects? Because while he’s made of the same genetic material, this younger version doesn’t have the same formative experiences and could have a very different psychology than older Henry, never mind the fact that older Henry has an additional 20-30 years of experiences to make him who he is. That alone could tackle the nature vs. nurture argument in a way that could still be entertaining and surprising. Or the movie could embrace the killing machine nature it veers to later, where our villain talks about selective editing to eliminate pesky things like morality and the ability to feel pain from his highly suggestible super soldiers. If this is even in question, why are we even dealing with clones who might rebel against their requested missions? If you can specifically select DNA abilities, then why is one man’s genetic code even that necessary? Why not make a super soldier that’s part raptor? I’ve never seen a movie before where that went wrong. I don’t even know why we need clone killers in the age of inexpensive drones.
The easiest thing the movie could have done is treat the younger clone as a metaphor for his troubled past he needs to confront. Early into the film, Henry talks about his distaste for seeing his reflection because, you see in a very subtle gesture, he doesn’t want to see the Man He Has Become. Yet, if this were the case, I feel like the movie needed to do a lot more legwork to establish how haunted he has become. He feels like a standard, charming Will Smith hero and less a man tearing up hotel rooms because of his nightmares and more the kind of guy hanging out with shady rich dudes on yachts. The movie even messes up the easiest angle to take, the bad man confronting the literal representation of his bad past and trying to come to terms with his legacy. Gemini Man pays some lip service to this notion but it’s so poorly executed. There’s an almost laughable moment where Henry unloads like a two-minute monologue explaining who his clone is, you know, on the inside, that goes uninterrupted. The movie attaches a strangely paternal father/son relationship for Henry and the clone, where he’s trying to get the young man to sit up straight and fly right in the world of hired killing. It makes for some truly awkward scenes where the two men act like they have a more potent relationship than they should. Just because the older Henry is technically his dad doesn’t mean the clone should feel any sense of fidelity to the old man. Think back on 2012’s Looper. Those weren’t even clones but the past selves murdering their older selves. If you’re being hired to kill, I don’t think an absentee “father” is going to be the one to break through to your underdeveloped moral code.
Somebody had to direct this movie but did it have to be Ang Lee? The man has given us some of the most intimate, impressive, and ground-breaking cinema of the last decade, from Crouching Tiger to Brokeback Mountain to Life of Pi. This feels like it could have been directed by anyone, except for a few quirks that seem entirely Lee’s. Much like Lee’s last movie, 2016’s gone-in-a-flash war drama Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, he filmed this movie at 120 frames per second (industry standard is 24 frames per second). When Peter Jackson released the first Hobbit films, there was a special presentation of them at 48 frames per second, and there were positives and negatives but it never caught on with the public, which is why the last Hobbit movie didn’t even come with the option of the higher frame rate shows. The extra frames take away that dreamlike fluidity we’re accustomed to but do wonders for the immersive nature of the presentation, and I found myself enjoying The Hobbit at 48 frames, even if everyone acted overly caffeinated. When Billy Lynn was coming out, there was only a small handful of theaters even capable of presenting it at the intended 120 frames, which begs the question I have with Gemini Man as well, namely what is the point? What is the point of filming a movie at a frame rate that nobody will ever see? That’s like filming a movie in sepia but it only works if people squint and a super projector plays it onto a special screen. Why bother at that rate? Is this for posterity, and Lee’s sitting back like, “Oh, when we finally get those 120-frame rate super TVs around 2030, you better believe the first movies everybody is gonna buy will be Billy Lynn and Gemini Man.” The higher frame rate feels like the gimmick Lee needed to get out of bed.
For the record, the movie does look brighter than I think it normally would but I didn’t find the visuals to be any more immersive. There is a slight smoothing to the depth of field but this can also play havoc during the action sequences with old and young Henry. Their movements can go by really quickly but in an awkward unreality, like early 2000s where CGI people would slide into action sequences to mixed results (see: The Matrix sequels with the CGI person brawls). The de-aging special effects are the highlight of the movie. The young Will Smith looks remarkably like the 90s super star we remember. Even more impressive is the level of nuance that the animators, and Smith, are able to imbue in his performance. There’s a real subtlety to the eyes that makes the figure feel startlingly real at times. The effects don’t always work well under all circumstances but it’s a worthy technological advance for an eerie process.
Even the action feels recycled from a dozen other, better movies. I wish there was more to keep my attention in Gemini Man like some solid action set pieces, but the final product just sort of goes through the motions in every sense. There is one sequence that might prove memorable for its action but it might be for the wrong reasons. A motorcycle chase starts out partially exciting in Columbia as younger Henry zooms after older Henry. There’s even a fun shot that follows the movement of the bike from a fixed perspective, though this moment was wildly oversold to me in other film reviews (it lasts a total of 20 seconds, people). Later, older Henry is knocked off his bike and the younger clone tries to fight him… with his own motorcycle. Like he tries to sweep the leg with the bike, seemingly kick and punch him with the vehicle, and it’s so weird and specific that I started to chuckle and wonder if the clone was just very particular about his gamesmanship or was just fooling around. Other than that tiny morsel, it’s two hours of rather boring fist fights and gun battles without any real thought given to mini-goals, organic complications, geography, or other essentials that provide the lifeblood of viable action movies.
What does Gemini Man have to offer the discerning moviegoer? Not much. It’s built on the parts of other movies, Will Smith’s past and present charisma, and the idiosyncratic interests of a talented director who definitely seems to be slumming it with this generic, predictable material. I still want to emphasize that the premise could afford a really exciting, contemplative, and engaging action movie, but it needed better writing, better direction, better action, better characters, old and new, and better, well everything now that I think about it. If you’re a gigantic Will Smith fan you might get a kick out of seeing two Big Willie Styles on screen (or more?) as a novelty. The final film just feels so lifelessly inert, bled of anything interesting beyond its core premise. And yet, dear reader, the people sitting in my row clapped when it was over, and no, it was not some rebellious ironic act. Maybe you can find enough to enjoy with Gemini Man if you set your expectations extremely low, but then maybe you and I deserve better movies than this.
Nate’s Grade: D+
I knew early on when I was watching the advertisement for writer/director James Grey’s Ad Astra (Latin for “to the stars”) that this was going to be more a quiet, slower, contemplative movie than the ads were making it seem. Hey, I like quiet, slower, contemplative movies, but I like the ones where they give me an entry point, a reason to care, and a story with characters that make me feel compelled to watch what happens next. Ad Astra does not quite rise to that level.
Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is an astronaut in a near future with a special mission: to find his father (Tommy Lee Jones). The father left Earth decades ago to search for intelligent life and develop an alternative energy source. His discovery has unleashed a series of destabilizing power surges across Earth. Roy is ordered to travel to the outer reaches of Neptune and discover what has happened to his father and his crew who have stopped communicating. If necessary, he is to use all options to correct the problem, including taking his dear deadbeat dad’s life.
Ad Astra is probably the most realistic portrayal of what space travel cold be like in the near future. It’s a grounded approach that feels very detail-oriented without necessarily losing the audience in the schematic output of all those details. It reminded me a bit of a companion piece with last year’s First Man, where the audience saw all the ingenuity, as well as makeshift dangers, of early space flight. The interiors of these space ships and bases are far closer to resembling the plain days of early NASA than anything fancy and gleaming when it comes to futuristic science fiction. When Roy is walking around a giant tower reaching high into the atmosphere, it feels like you are there with him experiencing the dizzying heights, locked into his human-sized perspective of something so massive and intimidating, and it’s merely man-made. Wait until we get to the heavenly bodies. It’s an aesthetic choice that lends the film an authenticity as well as the amazing solar visuals from cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (Interstellar). The scale of space is really felt as Roy keeps venturing further and further away from home, into the cold darkness of the unknown, towards that missing father and sense of resolution. The visuals and stately special effects are beautiful and given an additional level of ethereal glory from a score by Max Richter (The Leftovers). It’s a lovely movie to sit back and watch, and thanks to its episodic structure, it delivers something new every twenty minutes or less. The movie can feel more than a little tedious as it stretches out into the cosmos. There’s something to be said about a film that has the patience to take in the splendor of the universe, and there’s also something to be said about having a more significant story to pair with those awe-inspiring cosmic panoramas.
My issue with Ad Astra is that everything feels to be locked in at a very general level of substance. The story of a son voyaging to meet his absentee father and come to terms with that relationship is a fine starting point, except the movie doesn’t do much more. The idea of a main character living in his famous yet distant father’s shadows is a fine starting point, except the movie doesn’t do much more. The idea of exploring life in the universe is fine, except the movies doesn’t do so much with that either. It feels like you’re watching what must have amounted to twenty pages of script spread out over the course of two hours. If it’s going to be a character study, then I need more attention spent deepening Pitt’s character beyond the pretty rote daddy issues on display. If it’s going to be a contemplative exploration of man’s place in the universe, then I need more sides and angles of perspective throughout the movie. There are no real supporting characters in this movie outside of guest appearances (Hey, it’s Ruth Negga and Donald Sutherland). The father figure is kept more as looming idea or force of nature than human being. Roy’s wife (a barely there Liv Tyler) is more a recorded visual of regret to remind the audience of Roy’s loss and sacrifice, relating to his pursuit of his father. The entire film feels far too sketched in, archetypal, and generalized to noodle around with weighty ideas and concepts that it doesn’t seem fully committed to exploring in meaningful ways.
The problem with a narrative that’s episodic is that not every episode is as interesting. Each Pitt stop (oh, you bet I’m intending that pun) allows a slightly different tale to emerge, but then it’s over and done and we’re moving onward. With Apocalypse Now, those episodes came together to tell a larger mosaic about the madness of the Vietnam War and the physical and psychological toll it was taking. I was not getting that same kind of cohesion with Ad Astra. The most exciting episode involves a lunar chase and shootout. It’s cleverly executed and makes strong use of the limitations of space, in particular the lack of sound. One second your co-pilot is at the wheel and the next he has a soundless bullet hole through the head. It was an intriguing segment because of the unique realities of staging its genre car chase that open up something familiar into something new. Unfortunately, many of these episodic segments just incrementally push the story along, pairing Roy with a new group of people that we’ll shed in fifteen minutes or so. Don’t get attached to anybody because the only characters that really matter in the universe of Ad Astra are Roy and his father. Every other character is merely a representation of some aspect of their relationship. It makes the smaller episodes feel a bit mundane unless they have something fresh, like that lunar chase. Otherwise, it’s more people we’ll be soon getting rid of doing inconsequential tasks.
Removing the dominant father/son relationship, Ad Astra is a movie about the search for meaning in life. Roy’s father has exclusively put that meaning upon the discovery of intelligent life in the universe. If human beings are all there is, he questions what’s the point of going on? First off, Mr. McBride is only exploring one portion of space and to paraphrase Billy Bob Thornton in Armageddon, there’s a “big-ass” amount of space. If the man fails to detect any signs of intelligent life, that doesn’t mean it isn’t out there, it only means it hasn’t been found where one person was looking (the Missing Keys Dilemma). On a philosophical note, even if humanity was all there was in the great wide expanse of space, that doesn’t make our existence any less remarkable. If we happen to be the lone representatives of intelligent life, born from heat and rock and millions of years of trial and error getting it just right, then that’s incredible. There are so many variables going against the existence of life on our tiny bubble of air out in the vast vacuum of space, and just because we lucked in and others have yet does not take away from the appreciation and majesty of humanity’s prized situation. Do we put our meaning outside of ourselves or develop our sense of meaning from within? I cannot say whether Ad Astra is keeping this storyline so vague and generalized so that is can stand-in for spirituality, the idea of looking for proof of a higher intelligence, a God, and finding meaning in a grander design rather than the chaos and luck of chemistry and evolution. Or does Roy’s father represent God and Roy is man confronting an absentee creator? Under that interpretation, the ending might make a little more sense, but again I’m doing the movie’s work for it by projecting meaning.
It’s pretty much a one man show and Pitt (Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood) is asked to do a lot without showing much. His character is a reserved man by nature, though that doesn’t stop him from explaining his inner thoughts through intrusive voice over narration, an addition that feels tacked-on after some test screening to better acquaint an audience that was having difficulty staying on board. Pitt is an actor capable of tremendous subtleties through his movie star good looks, and he has moments here where his eyes are telling the story that the movie doesn’t seem interested or committed to tell. If you were going to spend two hours in space with one actor, you could do far worse than someone like Pitt.
Ad Astra is more art film than thriller, more father-son reclamation than sci-fi, and more a drifting homage to Apocalypse Now in Space than something that can stand on its own merits. The expansive cosmic visuals are luxurious on the big screen, the level of detail toward the realities of space travel are appreciated, and Pitt is a sturdy anchor for the project, but what does it all come to? Everything is kept at such a generalized level that the movie feels like it’s skirting the surface and ignoring larger depth. It has a surfeit of directions and choices it can make for greater depth, but we have to keep on trucking, like a ticking clock, entirely constructed to serve one purpose, barreling toward the father/son confrontation and resolution. Except I didn’t care about Roy’s dad because I didn’t feel the impact he had on his son, I didn’t feel the need for some form of closure, the driving force of the movie’s big little universe. And yet we drift onward, like the boat in Apocalypse Now, heading for our destination because we’re told to do so. Ad Astra is an acceptable matinee with some well applied technical craft and a bleak sense of realism but it’s ultimately too empty of an experience to warrant any return trips of value.
Nate’s Grade: C+
It’s a time-displaced mystery where two people, a police detective (David Oyelowo) and his teenage niece (Strom Reid), are trying to communicate across space and time to prevent a personal tragedy, namely the niece’s eventual murder. He’s two weeks ahead time-wise and making use of his advanced knowledge and her insider info to better understand what went wrong that fateful night. If it sounds a bit like 2000’s Frequency, featuring a father and son across the decades with a ham radio, that’s because it’s pretty much Frequency. No matter, this is the high-concept stuff of fun, clever structural gamesmanship, tapping into the past and future to solve a crime. Writer/director Jacob Estes (The Details) has a good first draft but the script needed more work. It starts off rather slow, takes more time than needed to establish its rules, and even after those rules are somewhat hazy, like when Oyelowo gets a download of new memories from his future self. To say the story gets a bit convoluted is an understatement, and the ending feels more like a rush to a finish rather than a carefully planned conclusion. The best asset the movie has is the relationship and performances from its stars. Oyelowo is a man rushed against an impossible task, and his fevered and harried performance does much to communicate the burden placed upon him. Reid (A Wrinkle in Time) is very good as an inquisitive teenager who has to process the looming danger that hangs over her head, plus just being a teen girl in L.A. Both of these actors are at their best when they’re together (via magic phone calls; are texts not magic?) and pushing each other to succeed. There’s great potential in the unlikely partner dynamic with them as well as a resonating personal motivation to drive the movie. I just wish Estes and the filmmakers had slowed things down and given their setup more thought and experimentation. It kind of goes in rather predictable and mundane directions, including having a super killer that seems anything but. Don’t Let Go (a painfully generic title destined to be forgotten) feels like it could have worked a limited run miniseries, or, barring that, a better paced and developed film.
Nate’s Grade: C+
i71 Films is a small collective of filmmakers that came out of nowhere in 2016 for the Columbus, Ohio 48 Hour Film Festival, a yearly timed filmmaking competition, and won several awards. They’ve been flying ever since, and the fact that within two years of essentially being a collective they had a full movie out and available on services like Amazon Prime is ridiculously impressive and inspiring. This is a company that can hustle like few others. They have several other projects in development and I doubt we’ll see them fade from the film community any time soon with the momentum they’re building. With that said, I peeked into their first feature, 2018’s Dark Iris, whose cover looks like something out from the Underworld universe. The description made me think I was in for a Matrix-like sci-fi action thriller of meta-human combat. It’s a genre thriller that doesn’t fully seem comfortable with being a genre thriller, downplaying the elements that would separate it from the pack, and falling back on rote characters, rote action, and rote twists. It’s proof that i71 can make a disposable action movie, but disposable is not necessarily the same as good.
Iris Black (KateLynn Newberry) is a waitress with a bad boyfriend, a creepy boss, and a mysterious woman (Rebekah Hart Franklin) stalking her who may or may not be her long-lost sister. People around her keep winding up dead in ritualistic murders that she seems to know nothing about. The FBI (Marylee Osbourne, Jose W. Byers) begins looking into the unassuming barista that might be more than she seems. Little do any of them know that a secret government program named the Hyde Project gifted 13 individuals with advanced DNA and embedded technology that made them superior hunters. It also made them killers with killer urges. A pair of MI6 agents (Kyle Hotz, Jesi Jensen) is tracking down the living super soldiers and killing them one-by-one, and they believe Iris is their last target.
Dark Iris could instantly improve by pruning its overpopulated cast and narrowing its focus. There are far too many characters to keep track of without being given better identifying characteristics. We have Agent Fry, Agent Roman, Agent Dillion, Agent Mooney, Agent Lee, Agent Lance, Agent Adams, two MI6 agents, their boss, his underlings including Simone who has more pictures on the IMDB page than either lead actress, Iris’ friend and fellow put-upon waitress, Iris’ friend’s mom, Iris’s bad boyfriend and bad boss, a coroner, and a team of masked mercenaries, and all of these people are introduced within twenty minutes. That’s before a hilariously gun-toting reverend shows up too. I challenge anyone who watches Dark Iris to tell me what characters were named what and what they can recall about identifying characteristics for those characters beyond physical distinctions (this guy had glasses). Yes you can argue that these characters are not the main characters, with the exception of the MI6 agents figuring prominently, and therefore not necessary for character development or personalities to stand out, but if that was the case then why do we have so many of them eating away at the time that could be spent on the characters that actually do matter? There is a glut of unimportant characters jostling for positioning in this movie. It feels like something I’ve seen in some other local films and that’s the excuse to squeeze in friends and family into a project. The characters aren’t as important as simply cramming your pals into your movie. When you have masked mercenaries or characters intending to do little else but feature as extras, this can work. Every movie needs its background players. But when these needless side characters begin to overcrowd the movie, and literally overcrowding tightly shot location scenes at that, then you have a story problem.
The question begins to arise whose movie this actually is with the split attention, and I fully believe Dark Iris would have worked better if it was almost completely from Ms. Black’s perspective. A bunch of FBI agents picking up clues aren’t as interesting as a woman who is under investigation and begins to doubt her own sanity. By re-framing the entire film perspective to its heroine, Dark Iris would instantly have more mystery and shave away plenty of unnecessary information and characters. Her point of the story is the emotional core but also the most interesting perspective, because without extraneous side characters filling in exposition at every turn, the audience would be learning just as its heroine does, trying to piece together the clues or what is happening and who they could trust. It would also be a better move because Newberry and Franklin (Code 207, A Wicked Breed) are two of the best actors in the film. From a storytelling standpoint, refocusing to have Iris as the driving perspective better personalizes the film and gives it more emotional punch via a distressed woman whose life is falling apart. You’re not going to feel an emotional connection or loss for the dozen FBI characters and vague villains meeting in the shadows. You will feel for an ordinary woman who is going through hell.
Simply put, if you don’t have a lead character that you care about in a world of crazy killers, then it feels like the impetus was to make your own version of Wanted or any late-night action clone that confused style for substance, preening for perception. And if that’s the way you want to go, with a collection of killers, then we need people who have personalities that pop. I’m not saying they need to be broad Batman villains but it would help if more attention was made to consider how to make them full characters rather than Human Holders of Guns. Just because you slap a Russian accent onto one character doesn’t mean she now has a distinctive personality. The better way of doing this is to link characters to theme when possible. If this character represents a specific point of view, then you can better tailor them to that perspective, so that each character can represent something different. Dark Iris suffers because it’s not devoting enough time to the character with the most dramatic potential and it’s not devoting time to making its other supporting characters stand out or connect more meaningfully.
Much of the world-building of this story in the opening text amounts to nothing. We have super assassins with super biology mixed with super computers who then have super urges to kill because they feel like gods. The most we get from this is a lackluster fight scene and some easily duped people who are decidedly less than super. If you’re providing this sort of starting point, there should be some appeal to the dark side, the idea that embracing what makes you special is to fully live, coaxing our nervous heroine who doesn’t feel like she can become who she was born to be if it means succumbing to her baser impulses. There should be characters who present different points of view, who demonstrate the highs of their powers, and act as a temptation for Iris, but Dark Iris has none of this. The entire opening could be rewritten as, “A group of genetic experiments were created, then released, and now the government is looking to clean up its mistakes by eliminating the last living evidence of the project.” Boom, I just saved you multiple screens of text. One would think they would bring back the doctor who created the 13 super killers who then disappeared, but nope. There’s no reason for the science fiction elements to even be here if they are just going to be so readily forgotten and inconsequential.
The action, when it does happen, can be pretty underwhelming. I was willing to forgive the low budget if the filmmakers utilized ingenuity to their advantage. There’s a cat-and-mouse moment in a church, where one character is hiding behind pews, and I was thinking the movie would make use of drawing out the suspense, making smart choices with its shot selections to play with the distance, using sound as a useful tool to maximize suspense. None of this happens. Instead the character pops up and starts firing. Much of the action consists of two people at opposite ends firing guns at one another. The action isn’t tailored to locations or character skills and lacks organic complications to change things up. When the movie does focus on its fight choreography, the camera is so close to the action and the editing is jumbled that it’s hard to even understand what is going on. There was one moment where two people were fighting in the background and somebody got stabbed to death, but I only knew this because of an additional “stab/dying” sound effect that communicated what the scene by itself left vague. If you have the time to showcase a fight, wouldn’t you want to devote a shot for the audience to savor one character triumphing over another, especially if it’s good guy versus bad guy?
I have a theory to possibly explain the slapdash nature of the action and I think it amounts to simply running out of time. The production for Dark Iris has professional lighting (occasionally overdone with certain looks, like a set of window blinds that must be behind the brightest Bat signal) and cinematography. However, I started noticing that many of the scenes consisted of a lot of only two angles alternating, like the filmmakers only had enough time for two shot setups and had to forgo more coverage. There are dramatic reveals that made me wish I had a closer shot on a person’s face to watch their response, or some awkwardly framed angles that made me wish the characters moved to different blocking or there were more options how to visually compose this specific scene. It feels like they only had so many selections to use because they ran out of time. There are more shots and coverage of people arming themselves for battle than typically the battle itself; that equation should be reversed. If the production knew it was limited with its time and locations, I feel like there are clever workarounds, namely thinking through the stakes of each action scene, what its goal is, how to throw in new challenges, and how it can relate to the personal journey of the good guys and reveal the skills of the bad guys. Action doesn’t have to be just a bunch of people repeatedly firing guns and moving to a new spot to repeat the process.
The biggest asset Dark Iris has is its cast and there are three standouts. Newberry (Widow’s Point, Notes from Melanie) is a tremendous talent who provides a great emotional anchor for the story. She’s nervous and alarmed and confused by much of the movie and Newberry sells every scene in a manner that feels appropriate and even natural despite the unnatural circumstances. She draws your attention immediately and creates a connection even when her character’s purposely left in the dark. Another reason I wanted Dark Iris to re-calibrate is because I can see that Newberry has so much more she can offer as an actress, so it would behoove the movie to give her even more challenges. Newberry has risen to prominence in such a short amount of time in the Ohio indie film scene and with good cause. Look out for her name, folks, because she’s going to be famous and deservedly so. A real surprise was Hotz (The Penitent Thief, Operation Dunkirk) who, while not given material to separate himself from the pack, does so thanks to the innate charisma and presence of the actor. He has a weariness to him that tempers his scenes of violence and contemplation. He’s deserving of his own starring action vehicle. And finally, we have Dan Nye (Harvest Lake, Bong of the Living Dead) who wins the award for doing the most with the least. He’s just another one of those many FBI agents, but he becomes the much-needed comic relief. He has a few offhand lines that made me chuckle, but he also gets a big hero’s sendoff, which is strangely played as a dramatic high-point for a character that doesn’t really earn that emotional curtain call. Nye has a fun nonplussed nature to him and little asides that can elevate more mundane moments.
Dark Iris is the first film from i71 Films, and it’s impressively assembled with professional-looking technical aspects and some damn good actors, as well as a story that has plenty of exciting elements, from super spies to special powers to serial killers to psychological disassociation. It’s got the potential to be a fun action thriller to showcase the skills of this up-and-coming production team, but unfortunately Dark Iris cannot fully tap that larger potential. It’s too cluttered with interchangeable characters, the focus needed to be tighter, the action needed to be more distinguishable and given more consideration, the mystery is a bit predictable (the movie is called “Dark Iris” after all and the tagline says she has a “dark secret”), and the story of who is doing what is kept rather vague or undeveloped, as if the filmmakers themselves are silently acknowledging that the story is in service of just making a slick product. The pieces were there; a woman who can’t trust her own senses and memory, a group of elite killers who could tempt her into their amoral lifestyle, a chance at cool and memorable anti-heroes and rogues. The production doesn’t have the desire to embrace exploitation film elements, so we’re left with cool parts of a story that never quite assemble together into a satisfying and engaging whole. Dark Iris serves as proof that i71 Films has unbelievable hustle and determination. I hope their future endeavors also employ more attention to storytelling and making the best use of their available resources.
Nate’s Grade: C-
It took nine movies but we can now put the Fast and Furious franchise to rest, and that’s because we now have Hobbs & Shaw, the spinoff that took the best parts of the franchise and ran away. What started as a film about underground street racing in 2001 has morphed into an over-the-top superhero spectacle where their superhuman power is being really good with cars, as well as not adhering to any laws of physics. Now they’ve cordoned off The Rock and Jason Statham, attached the director of Atomic Blonde and give me Idris Elba as the villain, who openly proclaims himself to be “black Superman.” Why do we ever need to go back to Vin Diesel and his pit crew ever again? Hobbs & Shaw is a big blast of action overkill fun. It’s not without its flaws and limitations but it’s exactly what it set out to be.
Agent Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) is trying to enjoy some rest and relaxation with his daughter but the world isn’t going to be save itself. He’s recruited to team up with the wily Deckard Shaw (Statham) to recover a missing sample of a super virus that can be programmed to kill anyone on the planet. The key is finding MIA MI6 agent Hattie (Vanessa Kirby), accused of killing her team and absconding with the virus. She also happens to be Shaw’s estranged sister. The real villain is a super mercenary Brixton (Elba) who is engineered to be a superior killing machine. His mysterious employer wants to recruit Hobbs and Shaw to the cause, but in the event of their refusal, death is always an option. The Shaw family reunion makes the majority of the movie a three-person chase film that ultimately pushes Hobbs to go back home to the Samoan family he left behind decades ago and they haven’t forgotten their prodigal son.
Once again, the main draw of a Fast and Furious movie are the eye-popping action set pieces, and Hobbs & Shaw has its fair share of excitement and satisfaction. There are a couple standouts, notably a climactic helicopter face-off involving a chain of racing vehicles and the concept of lift, but really none of the action will displace the top moments from this increasingly insane franchise. Director David Leitch (Deadpool 2) doesn’t have any signature moments that stun like that extended, fatigued fight sequence in Atomic Blonde, but he definitely taps into the moment-to-moment fun and absurdity. A chase down the side of a building is not remotely realistic, but with Leitch there’s an added sense of comedy by making it another contest between Hobbs and Shaw. That macho posturing can liven up an already enjoyable scene and give it a personal edge that ties into the charisma of the stars. So even when the action is cooking at a lower level, focusing on that charisma elevates the sequence. The action pumps at a constant pace with plenty of explosions, tumbles, and powerful fists. The movie follows the latter Fast and Furious mold by not even trying to resemble reality. When Brixton’s super hands-free motorcycle acts more like a living Transformer, it doesn’t matter because the movie isn’t building a reality where something like that would seem like an exaggeration. I laughed more at moments like that and smiled rather than scoffing at its disconnect from crafting some kind of baseline sense of reality.
I will say the action beats could be shaved down, especially as the movie teeters to 135 minutes long. It’s not exactly the kind of action cinema like Mission: Impossible where the set pieces are so brilliantly constructed with organic complications. These aren’t quite at the level of spectacle or immersion of a Fury Road or even the Justin Lin-era of Furious land. There are few sequences that couldn’t be pared down because often the beats are the same beats just with more of them. I wished there had been a greater variety of action sequences or at least an interesting series of complications, the lifeblood of great action movies. There are a few standout moments with larger-than-life imagery but mostly the action has a very same-y quality that can feel repetitive. That’s where the comedic perspectives can help. A hallway fight is enjoyable but lacks impressive fight choreography, but what saves the scene is the comedic exasperation at the end for Shaw and again tying it to the ongoing competition with Hobbs.
Beyond the explosive action, the real draw is the cast and they are overloaded with charisma. There’s a reason somebody at Universal decided to slice off these two characters because they are clearly the only characters many people ever cared about, because both actors have an innate charm that pops off the screen. Watching the two of them butt heads and trade insults and glares is an ongoing pleasure. It reminds one how big personalities can effortlessly carry big Hollywood action movies when you have the right stars together. They do form their own sort of combative bond and understanding by the end, but one wonders if their banter will get old if it doesn’t evolve over the inevitably commissioned assembly of sequels. The Rock and Statham get some big laughs and hearty entertainment squaring off and working together for even bigger destructive power.
Kirby (Mission: Impossible – Fallout) is a terrific addition as a strong-willed, kickass heroine first and a potential love interest for Hobbs second, which amusingly upsets Shaw. Kirby has an above-it-all air to her that makes her seem like a natural match as a sister to Statham. Elba (Molly’s Game) is settling into a groove as a go-to heavy (Star Trek Beyond, The Jungle Book) and even while threatening a global pandemic he can’t help but be smooth and charming. This is the best cast ever assembled for a Fast and Furious movie, and you throw in unexpected comedy cameos, Helen Mirren, and an extended Samoan family, and the movie begins to stake out its own claims on a world separate from Diesel’s boring “family.”
Hobbs & Shaw is a combination of 80s action movie attitude, 90s bombast, and 2010s outrageous set pieces, lead by two of the more charming men Hollywood has at its punching-kicking disposal. That’s actually a pretty good word, “disposal,” because the movie is designed as nothing more than a breezy two hours at the movies with your biggest tub of popcorn. Of course the studio has larger plans and envisions it as a way to keep the Fast and Furious franchise alive and diversified. Hobbs & Shaw has little more on its mind than giving its audience a good time, and it easily achieves that aim. I may not feel the need to watch Fast and Furious movies again like I do other action franchises that provide more emotional investment, practical stuntwork, and structural brilliance, but that doesn’t mean I won’t happily consume the next entry. As long as The Rock and Statham are in place and feeling good, so too will the eventual audience.
Nate’s Grade: B
The one movie more of my friends have cited as their favorite of 2019, besides Avengers, is a small little indie that left theaters as quickly as it arrived. High Life is a challenging, provocative science-fiction movie by French director Claire Denis (Let the Sunshine In), making her English-language debut. High Life is set in the deep of space with a crew made up of prisoners serving life sentences. We follow Monte (Robert Pattinson) along with a baby and we’re left to determine how they got here. The following two hours will explore the hazards of space, the fragility of man, and the weirdness of French people.
I knew I was in troubled territory when the movie spends a whopping 18 minutes (18!) to set up that Pattinson is alone in space with a baby and everyone else on his crew is dead. I understand establishing a mood, a day-to-day sense of the grunt work operations this guy has to do to stay alive, but this is simply excessive latitude to convey the same information. It was a bad indication of what was to come.
Fortunately, the movie picks up as we transition into the flashback of life with the crew and the growing anxiety and tensions that would seal their doom. I was waiting for some taut tension. We know they’re all prisoners serving life sentences so I also expected some combustibility with them trapped, together, for years on end, and subjected to strange experiments. I expected some prisoners to lose their minds into madness and others to be distraught and others to be excitable. What I wasn’t expecting was that everybody would simply be masturbating the whole time or raping each other. There’s a hard turn into explicit sexuality and the movie starts to resemble a more insidious soft-core flick. There’s a masturbation room though its overall importance escapes me. Juliette Binoche’s character is performing fertility experiments and has her eyes set on a specific DNA combination. This leads to some bizarre and almost unintentionally hilarious moments where she stalks the halls with syringes of sperm. The psycho-sexual aspect of the movie feels like it should be more important but Denis doesn’t seem to be articulating its importance, only using it as an excuse for characters to act on their carnality as if this is commentary on the human condition alone and without context. “Sex is the only freedom,” she says, as if this is a unique observation.
I suppose there’s the concept that these people have been disposed of by larger society, jettisoned out of the solar system in the name of scientific discovery but perhaps just as a means of cleaning out Earth’s prison population. These people are all atoning for something, or so we’re told, and you would think the existential solitude and knowledge that they will likely never see Earth again would be a prime starting point for some really interesting and introspective examinations on these people, their conceptions of themselves, and their actions and place in the universe. We get little glimpses of this but mostly the other characters are kept at an unreachable distance; they’re strangers to the audience, so when they start being dispatched one-by-one the emotional response is simply that of indifference. Another character we never got much of a sense of is gone. Oh well.
The characterization by Denis and her four other co-writers (five people wrote this!) keeps everyone underdeveloped with the exception of our protagonist, who seems to be the model for the character journey the movie was setting up. He’s trying to live a life free from urges but ultimately comes into care of a little baby. Their father/daughter survival could be the stuff of great drama that pushes his character into uncharted realms. Unfortunately, once Denis has killed off everyone the movie zips ahead to the baby now as a teenager and then it abruptly ends in what seems like a suicidal confrontation of oblivion that could have just as likely happened at any point. It feels only so much an ending because there are credits afterwards.
This is going to be much more metaphorical and subtextual science fiction, so I was waiting for the eventual themes to emerge, and I just kept waiting. The first 18 minutes is watching Pattinson play take-your-daughter-to-work-day on the space ship. The next hour is almost a mad scientist drama with a bunch of expendable characters meeting unfortunate ends. There’s also a lot of sexual violence here. Once we get caught up in the timeline, the last twenty minutes is pretty mundane until one final fateful decision that we established earlier is the physical equivalent of suicide. That’s about it. It feels like pieces of more meaningful ideas and conversations are left as scattered detritus, demanding that an audience not just put the pieces together but also project their own meaning onto that puzzle. I don’t mind a movie that makes me work but there’s a difference between being ambiguous and being empty and vague. I don’t know what Denis and her movie is trying to say and it’s generally hard to follow when we don’t get to know people and situations before jumping around in time. There’s definitely a vision here, but to what?
High Life often looks gorgeous, with large swaths bathed in moody lighting and artfully styled shot compositions. A masturbatory “dance” into something dream-like feels like what would happen if David Lynch tried his hand at erotica. The performances are rather blank as if Denis had precious little to explain about their characters. There’s a stretch where they’re all highly sedated as well, which only makes them seem like slightly sleepier versions of who we have seen up to this point. Pattinson has really impressed me with his recent indie output working with eclectic artists, especially his live wire performance in 2017’s Good Time as a hapless criminal trying to get out of an increasing mess. Pattinson burrows into his character’s monastic aim in an attempt to tap into something deeper. It just isn’t there, so he looks longingly at the stars, thinks furtively about his past, and goes through his routine. These people too often feel like vacant shells of human beings, zombies walking the corridors in habit. The only other actor worth noting is Binoche (Ghost in the Shell) who gives it her all, especially during a masturbatory sequence that reminded me of a riding bull. Get ready for lots of extreme closeups of her pubic bone as well.
High Life feels like Annihilation in space but even lacking that movie’s attuned sense of purpose about mankind’s relationship with nature and its general indifference to us. It fails to come together for me into something more cohesive or engaging or just even understandable. This is operating more on a metaphorical level than a hard science level, though the asides with black holes are depicted with intelligence. Mostly I was watching the movie and I kept waiting for the actual movie to kick in. There’s a dispirited collection of ideas and images and a general lack of hurry to get around to saying little with clarity. It’s frustrating because the movie has so much potential with its premise and setting and different narrative pieces, but ultimately it feels too lost in space when it comes to larger meaning and substance.
Nate’s Grade: C
Spider-Man: Far From Home arrives as the tasty dessert to the epic five-course meal that was Avengers: Endgame. It picks up weeks after the events of the climactic chapter, starting right away with the consequences in a clever, albeit light manner. Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is excited to go on a class trip to Europe and has big plans to confess his true feelings to his crush, MJ (Zendaya). He’s pulled into hero work by a testy Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) who needs Spider-Man to stop a group of inter-dimensional elemental monsters. Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal), dubbed “Mysterio” by the Italian media, is the last survivor of that other dimension and looking for assistance to thwart them and save this Earth. Peter tries to live a “normal life” and balance his superhero duties, but his secret life is increasingly intruding upon his actual life, especially as the world looks for the next superhero to step up in the absence of Tony Stark. Far From Home is an enjoyable road trip movie that feels like Junior Spy Hijinks for the first half. It’s funny but I definitely felt like the filmmakers weren’t fully engaged in telling that story, so I was left a tad disengaged. There’s a big reason for this and it’s a turn that comes halfway through, and from there out the movie is mostly great. The action sequences are directed with flair and even better visual acuity by returning director John Watts (Cop Car), there are some vivid nightmarish hallucinations that are glorious and disorientating. Gyllenhaal (Nightcralwer) becomes much more interesting in the second half and makes better use of the actor’s comic and dramatic range. It almost feels like some of the staid back-story from the first half is a satirical point of the second half, but you have to get through it all first. This bait-and-switch storytelling structure leads to certain pluses and minuses, and had it gone on much longer it would have more negatively affected the overall enjoyment factor. The first post-credit scene is definitely a game-changer in the world of Spider-Man and has a fantastic character debut that made me cheer and will be big especially for fans of the recent hit PS4 game. Far From Home doesn’t have the polish and brilliant structure of 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming but it’s a Spidey sequel that doesn’t lose track of the characters, presents an interesting villain as something we haven’t quite seen before, and has a good sense of humor while still being able to thrill and chill. The MCU is in a different world now after Endgame and with Holland and company leading the way, I could use more of this Spider-Man pronto.
Nate’s Grade: B
Dark Phoenix is the end of the X-Men as we know it. The franchise is arguably the reason that Disney bought Fox, to combine its Marvel properties under one creative universe, and hastened its ultimate demise. The franchise kicked off in 2000 when nobody knew what a Hugh Jackman was. Over the course of 19 years we’ve had ten total X-films (the original trilogy, four prequels, three Wolverine solo films — I’m not counting the two Deadpool entries) of varying quality. Dark Phoenix is longtime series writer Simon Kinberg’s debut as a director and was originally intended for a fall 2018 release before it got pushed back for extensive reshoots. There was even some doubt whether Disney would release Dark Phoenix or shunt it to its new streaming service (that’s my prediction for the long-delayed New Mutants, which released its trailer… in 2017). Ultimately this is the final X-Men movie, as we have known them for 19 years, and it’s the equivalent of a mayonnaise sandwich at room temperature: something nobody really wanted and delivered in a package not designed to satisfy.
In 1992, the X-Men are called upon by the president when the government is left with no other options. Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) watches over as shape-shifting Mystique/Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) leads the younger X-kids, Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) and Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Storm (Alexandra Shipp), into space to save some astronauts. A strange cosmic energy cloud zaps Jean Grey and supercharges her telekinetic powers. At first she feels more alive but is losing control and worrying her friends. After a tragic confrontation, she runs off to find Magneto (Michael Fassbender) while a mysterious alien woman (Jessica Chastain) seeks to gain the “phoenix” powers.
Thoroughly mediocre, Dark Phoenix is a pitiful ending to a franchise that kicked off the superhero era of the twenty-first century. This is a pretty sad ending to a franchise that has admittedly had more downs than ups (I’d say four of the ten X-Men movies have genuinely been good, two were fine, and four have been different levels of bad). What’s even more peculiar is this is Kinberg’s second attempt at the Dark Phoenix storyline, arguably the most famous in X-Men comics, and it doesn’t work — again. At least 2006’s The Last Stand had other storylines that presented topics of interest, like the choice over taking a mutant cure and whether this should be a choice after all. The problem with Dark Phoenix is that it’s nothing but Dark Phoenix with little variation but it doesn’t ever expand on the Dark Phoenix dilemma. Act Two of the film seems to consist of the same scene on repeat, where Jean Grey complains about her power struggles to some character, warns them, doesn’t want to harm people, and then something bad happens and more characters elect to try and murder her. It’s like watching the same TV show recycle the same plot but just changing the characters. It makes for a saggy mid section that loses momentum and cannot regain it. The last act feels like a different movie because… it is. Thanks to late reshoots, the final act is a series of clashes aboard a military train. There are some fun moments of mutant-power action, especially Magneto and Nightcrawler. It doesn’t make much sense to what came before (when questioned why Magneto is trying to save Jean after literally trying to kill her ten minutes earlier, he says, “I had a change of heart”) but the sequence is at least diverting and visually playful in a way the rest of the movie had been missing. By the end of the film, much of it feels rushed and little feels earned, especially the time you’ve spent watching it.
I’m going to declare that the villains in Dark Phoenix are actually the worst in the entire universe of X-Men movies. They’re aliens adopting human form and they talk… so… slowly… and in unshakable monotone. They’re an alien species that wants the powers of the super space cloud. That’s it. That’s all you get. I have no idea what attracted Jessica Chastain (Molly’s Game) to this role and almost feel like it must have changed at some point. She walks around in a zombie-like daze with a giant platinum blonde wig that makes her look like an albino. At no point are any of these aliens interesting. At no point do they present personalities. At no point does their overall powers become clear. They seem invulnerable to anything, except when the script needs them not to be, and their vaguely defined powers seem limitless. Because of the creative choices with Jean Grey and how she developed her Dark Phoenix powers, extra emphasis is placed on the villains to carry the burden, and they could be eliminated entirely and not be missed in the slightest. It’s genuinely hilarious to watch them walk so stiltedly and then break into a run. The best thing Chastain does is strut in stilettos while taking a dozen blasting firearms to the face.
There are just some weird moments in this movie. Apparently Charles Xavier watches the students have their beer blasts in the woods and also keeps a thermal heat analysis of them during these moments (“That student’s really hot… I mean… getting really hot…, uh…”). That’s so weird and possibly perverted. There’s a running clothing item with blood that never gets changed. You’ll listen to “whose blood is that?” close to ten times. It’s always been inherently goofy watching these trained actors make silly strained faces while pretending to do things with their mind powers. Except this movie it goes a step further. There’s a moment of goofy strain face versus goofy strain face while the actors thrust their arms out, and there’s a scene where Jean Grey only has one arm out and then, to power up, she throws out her second arm. That’s not how mind powers work. There are several character jumps that seem rushed and unearned, like Charles becoming a focal point of disdain amongst his fellow X-people over his catering to public relations. Everyone is so quick to jump on the murder wagon when it comes to Jean Grey, which makes me wonder if they never really liked her and have just been waiting for a good excuse to kill her. The seesawing public support on mutants can be extremely confusing. The action sequences are filmed in a very haphazard way with replenishing bad guys to be disposed. During key stretches of the movie, I didn’t know who was on screen, where they had come from, and what relations they were to one another until punches started being thrown.
Continuity has never been a thing the X-universe cherished, especially once you started throwing in time travel with 2014’s Days of Future Past. However, Dark Phoenix complicates matters with its disregard for the overall continuity. Firstly, I am not a fan of the idea that these prequel films all take place in separate decades. It worked with First Class which tied the cultural revolutions and changing mores to the characters and their selfI identity, plus the Cold War paranoia. It even worked for Days of Future Past being set in the early 70s, during the malaise of the optimism of the 1960s. That related to the character arc for Raven on her quest for vengeance and the individual versus society. But what did Apocalypse have to gain by taking place in 1983? What does Dark Phoenix gain by taking place in 1992? Plus it means that these characters have hardly aged in 30 years and in less than a decade James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender are going to look like Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen (no offense to McKellen, but that’s quite a sudden, precipitous drop). Let’s even say the older movies are eliminated from the timeline after the reboot of Days of Future Past. Just in the LAST movie they established that Jean Grey had the powerful phoenix spirit and abilities within her, as it was the final push to topple the bad guy.
Allow me to get into more detail why this disregard is so troublesome and erroneous. Judging from the trailers and marketing, I thought Dark Phoenix was going to be an addiction metaphor, with Jean Grey embracing a self-destructive thrill that made her feel good even as it pushed others away and forced her down a darker path. Despite the ads emphasizing this aspect, the actual movie ignores this addiction metaphor for a cosmic illness she contracts. Kinberg and the filmmakers have dropped that Jean Grey had this power within her and have made her a victim of an external force from space. This is far less interesting because it makes the story of Jean as reactive from external forces taking over. Space clouds resembling a pink Parallax (the poop cloud monster from 2011’s Green Lantern) did it all. That’s boring.
Think of the stronger version already within reach that examined the power within her that Charles has been keeping limited thanks to withholding her memories of her parent’s deadly accident. Because she was denied this essential part of her past she was never able to process her trauma and work through it. The man she trusted, the father figure telling her how to best control her feelings and powers has been inhibiting her the whole time and manipulating her. That betrayal could reignite the power already within her, and her journey would be about self-discovery while also confronting the gaslighting by those she trusted. You could even go further and have Charles eventually revealed as a villain for psychically altering people’s memories and minds to his ideal of what is right. That’s the better movie. They might as well have gone all-out and ended with the destruction of the Earth and the death of everybody we know because why not? What we get with Dark Phoenix is a woman who glows a lot thanks to an inscrutable pink space cloud.
It’s hard for these talented actors to hide their disinterest; some have been eyeing the exits since the last film. I challenge every reader to look at the painting of Chastain’s face on the very poster, which to me reads loudly, “Let’s just get this thing done with.” Turner (HBO’s Game of Thrones) is the best thing in the movie and yet the screenplay doesn’t give her an actual character arc with depth. It feels like she has three or four stages in the movie where Kinberg just asks her to repeat the same note over and over. Many of the actors that have been here since 2011’s First Class feel like they’re on autopilot. It’s simply another level of mediocrity that ends up defining this disappointing movie.
If you asked writer/director Simon Kinberg, in private so he could be truly honest, whether he would have repeated what happens in Dark Phoenix as the very last X-Men movie, and I legitimately think he would say no. That’s the problem with the movie is that it’s a double dip that, surprisingly, doesn’t get better. The story is boring and repetitive, the action is bland, the characters are at the mercy of a story that has no interest in them, and the resolution does not provide any satisfying finality. It feels like the close of a weekly television episode that knows more is to come except it’s been cancelled. The X-Men movies have been at their best when they’ve been about something, when they’ve gone inside their characters and the conflicts of living in a society of oppression and prejudice and fear. The franchise lends itself to being more than spandex-clad superheroes fighting each other. The division between the good X-Men movies and the bad X-Men movies is wide and clear; nobody is going to put Logan and Apocalypse in the same grade. It’s easy to tell when the plots connect to character and have exciting themes to go with their exciting action sequences. Coming to a shrug-worthy series conclusion, I think I’d rather rewatch The Last Stand than the second go-round of the Phoenix saga. The X-Men ultimately go out with a whimper but that doesn’t take away from the greatness of the other films. It’s been nearly two decades, and I’m grateful for the ride, but it’s a shame it had to end this way.
Nate’s Grade: C-
Godzilla: King of the Monsters is the sequel to 2014’s American re-launch, and the biggest complaint I had with that other film was how frustratingly coy it was with showing Godzilla. I wanted more Godzilla in my Godzilla movie, and King of the Monsters at least understands this need and supplies many of the most famous kaiju in the franchise, like Mothra, Rodan, and the three-headed King Ghidorah. The human drama is just as boring with characters I have a hard time caring about. Vera Farmiga plays a scientist who lost a child during the 2014 monster brawl in San Francisco. She develops a sonar device to communicate and domesticate the giant monsters (now totaling 17 plus). She and her teen daughter (Millie Bobby Brown) are kidnapped by eco terrorists that want to… destroy the world and leave it back to the ancient monsters? It’s a bit jumbled. I felt more for a monster than I did any living person. The plot does just enough to fill in time between the monster battles, which can be fun but are also lacking a few key items. Firstly, the sense of scale is lost. That’s one thing the 2014 film had in spades, the human-sized perspective of how enormous these beasts are. Also the fight scenes are shot in pretty dark environments that can make things harder to watch. There is a simple pleasure watching two giant monsters duke it out on screen, and King of the Monsters has enough of these to satisfy. It’s still a flawed monster mash but at least it sheathes the itch it was designed for, and if you’re a Godzilla fan and feeling generous, that might be enough to justify a matinee with a few of your favorite fifty-story pals.
Nate’s Grade: B-