Does everyone remember the Dark Universe, the attempted relaunch of classic Universal monsters that were going to be played by the likes of Javier Bardem, Angelina Jolie, and Johnny Depp? It’s okay if you do not, though the stars got paid regardless. It was all going to be kicked off with Tom Cruise in 2017’s The Mummy, and one under-performing movie later the entire cinematic universe was discarded by spooked studio bosses. But IP will only stay dormant for so long, and so we have a new attempt to relaunch the same horror figures that first terrified audiences almost 90 years ago. Writer/director Leigh Whannell has a long career in genre filmmaking, having started the Saw and Insidious franchises with James Wan, but it was 2018’s bloody action indie Upgrade that really showed what he could do as a director. He was tapped by powerhouse studio Blumhouse to breathe life into those dusty old monsters, going the route of lower budget genre horror rather than blockbuster action spectacles. The Invisible Man is an immediately gripping movie, excellent in its craft, and proof Whannell should be given the remaining monsters to shepherd.
Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) has recently run away from her long-time abusive boyfriend, Adrian (House on Haunted Hill’s Oliver Jackson-Cohen). Just as she’s taking comfort in friends and her sister, Adrian takes his own life and lists Cecilia as the sole beneficiary, but there’s a catch. She must undergo a psych evaluation and be cleared. Cecilia is ready to move on with her life and start over but she can’t shake the feeling that Adrian might not be dead after all and is still watching her.
Whannell has grown as a genre filmmaker and has delivered a scary movie that is confident, crafty, and jarringly effective. From the intense opening sequence, I was generally riveted from start to finish. The shots that Whannell chooses to communicate geography and distance so effectively allow the audience to simmer in the tension of the moment. Whannell’s visual compositions are clean and smart. Another sign how well he builds an atmosphere of unease is that I began to dread the empty space in the camera frame. Could there be an invisible man hiding somewhere? Could some small visual movement tip off the presence of the attacker? Much like A Quiet Place taught an audience to fear the faintest of noise, The Invisible Man teaches its audience to fear open space. It places the viewer in the same anxious, paranoid headspace as Cecilia. It’s also a very economical decision for a horror filmmaker, training your audience to fear what they don’t see. And there is a lot more in a movie that is not seen. The suspense set pieces are so well drawn and varied yet they all follow that old school horror model of establishing the setting, the rules, and just winding things up and letting them go, squeezing the moment for maximum anxiety. It’s reminiscent of the finer points of another old school horror homage, The Conjuring franchise. At its most elemental, horror is the dread of what will happen next to characters we care about, and The Invisible Man succeeds wildly by placing an engaging character in shrewdly designed traps.
I jumped even during its jump scares and that happens so rarely for me. The jump scares don’t feel cheap either, which is even more impressive. They’re clever little visual bursts of sudden spooks, and they feel just as well developed as the other scary set pieces, complimenting the nervous tension and compounding it rather than detracting. There is one moment that happens so fast, that is so unexpected, that I was literally blinking for several seconds trying to determine if what I was watching was actually transpiring. It was so shocking that I was trying to keep up, and yet, like the other decisions, it didn’t feel cheap. I’m convinced this one “ohmygod” buzz-worthy moment will go down in modern horror history, being discussed in the same vein as the speeding bus in the first Final Destination film. I have this level of praise even for the jump scares.
The movie doesn’t soft-pedal the abuse that Cecilia endures, nor does it exploit her pain and suffering for tacky thrills. This is a socially relevant reinterpretation of the source material. The movie examines toxic masculinity and gaslighting but with a supernatural sci-fi spin, but it never loses the grounding in the relatable plight of its protagonist. Cecilia is a character that has suffered trauma that she cannot fully even process, so that even when she’s on her own, she’s still discovering the depth of how exactly this very bad man has reshaped her perception and fears. We don’t need to see Adrian explicitly abuse Cecilia to understand the impact of his toxic relationship. Within minutes, Whannell has already told us enough with how terrified and cautious she is when making her late-night escape from the bed of her sleeping monster. Her all-consuming fear is enough to fill us in. This is a woman who is taking a big risk because she feels her life depends upon it. Later, nobody believes her fantastic claims about her ex still haunting her and posing a threat, convincing her it’s all in her head, and some of them questioning whether the abuse was made up as well. The correlations with domestic violence and gaslighting are obvious, yes, but this dramatic territory is given knowing sympathy and consideration from Whannell. It’s not something tacked on simply to feel bad for our heroine, or to feel relevant with headlines of monstrous man accounting for years of monstrous actions preying upon women. It’s a complete reinvention of a classic to suit our times as well as taking advantage of what that classic source offers. This is how you can adapt stories we’ve seen dozens of times to feel fresh.
Much of the film rests upon Moss (The Handmaid’s Tale) and she is truly fantastic. We’re living in an exciting new era where horror movies have reclaimed their social relevance, and they are providing talented actresses to unleash Oscar-caliber performances (Florence Pugh in Midsommar, Lupita Nyong’o in Us, Toni Collette in Hereditary, Ana Taylor-Joy in The Witch). The role requires Moss to demonstrate much through a series of emotional breakdowns. It’s not just getting glassy-eyed and looking scared. Cecilia is a survivor struggling to regain her security while also being heard, and her breaking points of sanity and desperation cannot be one-note. Moss is no stranger to enduring the indignity of condescending men from her TV roles, and she was beautifully unhinged in a memorable moment from Us. She’s the perfect actress to take Whannell’s character and give credence to her vulnerability, uncertainty, and inner strength.
The movie isn’t perfect but it accomplishes a clear majority of its artistic aims with confidence and style. It’s too long at over two hours. I’m glad Whannell doesn’t waste too much time whether or not Cecilia believes her bad man has gone invisible. The supporting characters are a bit underwritten and utilized primarily as Sympathetic Figures Turning to Concerned Figures and then as Potential Targets. This extends to the relationship between Adrian and his brother (Michael Dorman). There has to be more that could have been explored there, especially as it relates to Cecilia. The musical score is heavy on loud, ominous tones and rumbling interference. The special effects are sparingly used, and the invisible suit was initially a design that made me shake my head. In practice, it actually looks pretty interesting and threatening. There is one misstep that feels glaring. Before the end of the movie, there have been a few “hey what about… ?” instances, but they were easy to put out of mind. Whannell drops one major announcement late in the movie but seems to gloss over the extra leverage it provides Cecilia, and her inability to capitalize on this turn of events seems odd considering her antipathy for her attacker as well as the weakness that she can exploit.
As I walked out of my screening for The Invisible Man, I kept reviewing just how many different moments, elements, sequences, and choices added up to a thoroughly suspenseful, satisfying, and entertaining trip at the movies. Whannell has a natural feel for genre horror as well as how to treat it in an elevated manner where it can say real things about real issues while also doing a real good job of making you really anxious. Intense from the first moment onward, this is a streamlined, finely honed horror movie for our modern age. Even the jump scares work! This is already turning into a promising year for indie horror, and The Invisible Man is the first great film of the new year and the new decade.
Nate’s Grade: A-
Color Out of Space is based on one of the short stories by famous horror author H.P. Lovecraft, but what’s even more noteworthy is that this is the first feature film from director Richard Stanley in 24 years. Stanley made a name for himself with early 90s gory cult movies Hardware and Dust Devil. Hollywood came calling and he was given directing duties on 1996’s The Island of Doctor Moreau, a production so plagued with troubles that Stanley was fired, replaced with John Frankenheimer, and then Stanley disguised himself and snuck onto the set again as one of the animal-human hybrids. There’s a fascinating documentary about the whole disastrous clash called Lost Soul that’s well worth watching for any fan of behind-the-scenes exposes (it would make a great double-feature with 2002’s Lost in La Mancha). Stanley has never been a man to put on airs about the material he gravitates to. He likes weird genre stories, and as a lover of weird genre stories, I’m glad to see that the man has broken from his sabbatical. Color Out of Space is a mostly successful, eerie, and occasionally stomach-churning little horror movie, and hopefully its release will make it that much easier for Stanley to deliver the next one.
A strange meteor crashes into the family estate of the Gardners. The parents, Nathan (Nicolas Cage) and Theresa (Joely Richardson), are struggling to make life “in the sticks” work with their family. Mom is trying to advise stock portfolio clients. Dad is tending to their prized alpacas. A land surveyor (Elliot Knight) is testing the drinking water and its safety after the meteor hits. Strange things begin to happen almost immediately. Young son Jack (Julian Hillard) is hearing voices and talking to an entity living in the well. Bright explosions of pink color come and go, followed by an oppressive cloud of static. And the animals are behaving differently, gaining pink glows in their eyes, and becoming more violent and deranged and dangerous.
This is the kind of movie that you want to be weird, unpredictable, and terrifying, and Color Out of Space achieves these desires with a florid, downright Cronenbergian relish. There are several kinds of horror movies here mashed together, which don’t fully gel as a whole but it does exacerbate the overall effect of how screwed these characters are. There’s the cosmic invasion/outbreak angle with small weird changes going around the environment, from pink-hued flowers spreading to the bizarre effect it has on the wildlife. There’s a descent into insanity angle as the parental figures seem most affected and are tearing away the security of the kids. Cage’s character seems to be mentally slipping into his grandfather’s snitty persona, either implying mental illness, some degree of ghostly resurrection, or just general creeping madness. There’s the alien nature of being able to trust your own senses and body, as characters will lose hours of time in the blink of an eye and not be fully cognizant of their own actions. There’s the isolation of the invading force shutting down escape routes, blocking telephone calls (anyone want to try texting?), and trapping the family inside this hot zone. And then there’s the body horror as creatures begin physically merging together in nauseating displays that conjure the best/worst of the nightmares from John Carpenter’s The Thing. Stanley elects to build the horror and then dwell on it. There’s a scary development with a specific pair of characters, and Stanley lets the unknown of what will happen, as long as the dread of what seems to be happening, make it worse. He punctuates this moment with some gut-churning cries of anguish that run on a loop, to the point that you might be thinking yourself whether a merciful death was advisable. To the film’s credit, it switches back and forth between these different threats and alternating styles of horror. It allows a movie with a limited plot (meteor hits, bad things happen) to feel bigger.
A draw for any lower budget indie horror movie starring middle-aged Nicolas Cage is the desire to see the gonzo actor unleashed. You get tiny glimpses early, with his off-key line deliveries that might incite a few giggles. It’s halfway through where he starts to crack, breaking into an effete British accent, gesticulating more wildly and theatrically with his hands, and then breaking into protracted screaming fits. His references to the alpacas got some genuine goofy laughs out of me, as does passing moments where it feels like he’s channeling John Travolta in his performance style. The cult of Crazy Cage that found much to love with 2018’s moody Mandy should find extra enjoyment levels with Color Out of Space. These Cage-isms don’t detract from the movie or rip you out of the reality because it’s all about disintegration, mental and physical, so deploying Nicolas Cage losing it actually better serves the film’s cracked tone.
Being a Lovecraftian horror adaptation, there is some leeway to be had for its incoherence. We’re dealing with a life form that defies our understanding by its inter-dimensional nature. Some of this will be mitigated simply by having to transpose Lovecraft’s more ethereal concepts into a functional visual medium. Characters call the strange incidents a “color, it’s only a color” but it’s not really just a color when you turn that literal concept into a movie. On the page, you can get away with something more obscure and abstract, but movies require a visualization, and so the “monster” of the film isn’t “just a color” but essentially a sentient neon energy cloud. I was reminded frequently of 2018’s Annihilation, a movie I admired but was indifferent to, just like its intended lesson about nature’s relationship to man’s existence. It’s a takeover that defies explanation because our puny human brains aren’t capable of perceiving what is happening. Therefore, when weird nonsense happens, we don’t need a tidy explanation. The breakdown of the family unit, both figuratively and literally, is enough to anchor our attention. We might not know why these things are happening but they are destroying this family slowly like an infection, and we’re watching them break down one-by-one, and that’s what matters. As the movie started picking up momentum and getting weirder and grosser, I wondered what possible ending could even be presented that might work. I think Stanley finds a workable solution that mostly suffices. Nobody wants to be in the business of explaining too much and damaging the reality of the movie (see: Us) but you still want to provide some set of rules, even if the larger picture is an incomprehensible design. Color Out of Space keeps things relatively vague but keeps to the few clues it offers, which at least makes the overall production feel forgivably vague.
There are elements I wish Stanley had fleshed out further or curtailed more. The supporting authority figures are mostly empty suits, including the willfully ignorant mayor running for re-election played by Q’orianka Kilcher, if you’re curious what she’s been up to since playing Pocahontas in 2005’s The New World. They don’t even qualify as “characters here just to be killed gruesomely later.” Then there are interesting personal aspects to the Gardners that deserved more integration into the story, like the teen daughter’s (Madeleine Arthur) interest in Wiccan spells and unorthodox spiritual practices. What does she fully believe? She’s trying to tap into something elemental to spare her mother, who is a recent cancer survivor who lost both breasts to the disease. When her husband begins to get physically intimate, she pauses, expressing that she doesn’t know if she still feels like herself, or desirable, after her surgery and recuperation. This is meant to serve as a launching pad for the body horror that will arrive later, with the mother already feeling violated by an entity, but it feels like something that should be more integral to the demonstration of the character than her angry demands to get the wi-fi fixed. Tommy Chong appears very briefly as an aged hippie living on the Gardner estate, and I wish that the movie had more to do for him besides slotting him as more or less Neighbor #1.
For fans of Lovecraft, indie horror, body horror, Nicolas Cage, practical effects, atmosphere, and even Stanley’s past titles from long ago, there’s something to enjoy with Color Out of Space. It’s a movie that can get under your skin on its own terms, even if I wanted it to go deeper at points. It’s the right kind of airy atmosphere, switching styles and horror threats to keep things interesting, as well as not overstaying its welcome. It uses confusion and curiosity to its sneaky advantage and Stanley finds new ways to make old genre tropes still feel spooky. It’s nothing revelatory but Color Out of Space is a fitting visual translation of Lovecraft’s elemental nightmares and madness-inducing chaos. I don’t think it will take Stanley another 24 years before another production decides to take a chance on his next directing effort.
Nate’s Grade: B
It may be rather derivative but Underwater is a solid genre thriller that is streamlined to deliver an enjoyable 90-minute ride. You start off right in the middle of conflict, as we follow a group of undersea scientists and workers trying to escape from a deep sea drilling station under attack. The movie is atmospheric and effective because that deep underwater is basically like pitch black night. As they stumble from one clearly defined and varied set piece to another, the movie plays into the elemental fear of the dark, coupled with a rising claustrophobia. Kristen Stewart is genuinely terrific as a steely action leading lady and the other supporting roles, rounded out by the likes of Vincent Cassel, T.J. Miller, John Gallgher Jr., and Jessica Henwick, create a cast of characters that I was rooting for even if they aren’t exactly fleshed out. It’s a trade-off. More time could have been spent finding room for added characterization and history, but when we know the majority of these people are slated to die from monsters, it feels like the movie made the better choice to jump into the thick of things. Yes, this is a monster movie, as the drilling potentially unsettled an unknown species, and their creature design is nice and creepy. There’s a wonderful moment where a hungry monster swallows a person whole, like a snake unhinging its jaw to consume an antelope. In Act Three, Underwater gets even bigger in its scope of the threat, and I won’t spoil the circumstances but, suffice to say, it approached epic. For a PG-13 monster thriller released in January, the usual dumping ground of studio losers, this is a far better movie and a far more entertaining experience than you would be lead to believe. It’s nothing spellbinding but there should always be room for smart, effective B-movies performed with grit and acuity. It looks like it was based on an anime, from the setup to the monsters to especially the design of the heavy undersea suits that look like mech armor, but no. This is an original film. Well, it’s an original story building off the foundation of other movies, mostly from James Cameron. Underwater is a slickly made, tense, atmospheric little thriller that is worth the dive.
Nate’s Grade: B-
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
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