Ad Astra (2019)

2020 #10
James Gray | 123 mins | Blu-ray (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA & China / English | 12 / PG-13

Ad Astra

This review contains spoilers (though most of them are in the trailer).

Rad Astra”, “Bad Astra”, “Sad Astra”, “Dad Astra”, “Mad Astra”, “Glad Astra”, “Brad Astra”, “Fad Astra”… the puns came thick and fast when Ad Astra hit cinemas back in September (and, as you may see in some of those links, ever since). I’d love to contribute to the game, but I’m four months late so I think all the puns have been had Astra.*

Resisting the urge to describe the film’s plot using some of those aforementioned puns (considering I already gave into that urge for the email notifications and social media posts promoting this review), I’ll instead do it in an equally pithy fashion: this is “Apocalypse Now in space”. Kinda. After unexplained energy waves from Neptune have disastrous consequences on Earth, astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is informed that his believed-dead father may actually still be alive and be the one causing these waves, and NASA Starfleet his bosses want him to send a message into space in the hope his dad’s out there and it reaches him. But with Earth facilities damaged by the aforementioned energy waves, Roy must travel to Mars, via the Moon, to even send the message. Hence where Apocalypse Now comes into it: it’s about a man travelling ‘up river’ in search of a superior-gone-rogue.

Apocalypse Now is one of my favourite movies. Sci-fi is one of my favourite genres. “Apocalypse Now in space” sounds like a pitch aimed at me. Ad Astra doesn’t score a direct hit, but it gets pretty close. One thing is it’s not just an emulation of the previous film’s plot (which itself is, of course, rejigged from Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness), but also adopts its meditative style. Roy is a man with emotional problems, struggling with the state of his relationship on Earth (with Liv Tyler) and with the comfort the isolation of space brings him. Is it comfort, or is it just escape? And is that healthy? These are the things the film has on its mind.

In space, no one can hear you ponder your own sense of isolation

While it does have something to say about them, I feel like it thinks it’s deeper than it actually is. The final act, in particular, gets a little muddled. Why did his father make the decisions he made? Thematically, what does Roy gain by learning the truth about his father? On a simplistic level, he sees what isolation taken to extremes does to you; but he and his father seem to have fundamentally different attitudes to disconnection anyway. I appreciate that the film dodged the easy blockbuster-y versions of things (it would’ve been a bit pat if his dad was either desperate to be rescued or outright insane and tried to stop the mission), but I’m not convinced what it did instead wholly hung together. Still, as third acts go, “not completely ruining the film” is better than some.

But it does seem like Ad Astra is at least a partially compromised movie. Co-writer/director James Gray has said that he had to make some changes to the ending to get a studio to finance it, and if you watch the trailers again after the film it’s clear that stuff was cut, including much of Liv Tyler’s character. How big an effect that had it’s impossible to say (unless someone inside the production speaks up), but it certainly implies some reworking in post-production. Another thing that makes me wonder this is the film’s use of religion. At times it seems fairly foregrounded — not in a heavy “this movie is about religion” way, but there are lots of references to it, people saying prayers for the dead, that kind of thing — but then the film doesn’t really seem to do anything with that. No one’s actions are different because they’ve found God, nor is caused to find God by the events of the movie, nor rejects God because of them, nor thinks they are God… Religion seems to be this underlying theme (it might be too kind to call it that, even) which ultimately disappears from the narrative just when it should, perhaps, be becoming more prominent.

On the flip side, perhaps it was meant to be this subtle. Ad Astra is certainly trying to say something about our place in the universe (are we alone? If we are, what does that mean? How does the vastness of space, the emptiness, the isolation, the distance from home, affect the mind?), and maybe that’s all implicitly tied to religion and our belief (or otherwise) in an all-powerful creator who made us in his image (and, by extension, no other ‘intelligent’ life). Or maybe the studio got cold feet about tackling religion and made Gray cut that, too.

Moon pirates!

Nonetheless, there’s still a lot more good than bad in Ad Astra. Its depiction of the future is interesting; a plausible extension of the present, where space travel has been at least partially commercialised, the Moon more like a concrete shopping mall than a place of genuine wonder. That groundedness extends to the ‘action’ scenes. I mean, you wouldn’t expect a movie that I’ve described as “meditative” to feature “a chase/shoot-out with moon pirates” — that sounds like the pulpiest thing imaginable — but it’s here, and it’s achieved with what feels like a large degree of plausibility and realism. Personally, I like the way the film mixes together contemplativeness with such spikes of adrenaline — again, it’s quite like Apocalypse Now. There’s also the bold choice not to present sound in space. This isn’t the first film to make that choice, certainly, but it remains a noteworthy decision, and it has a more tangible impact than you might expect. Indeed, that seemingly-simple choice goes a long way towards that feeling of reality, though it is just one of several connected choices that ground the film’s vision of the future and make it plausible.

Ad Astra is certainly a journey into darkness — of space; of mind. Whether it gets to the heart of it, I’m not convinced. But it’s still a trip worth taking.

4 out of 5

Ad Astra is released on DVD, Blu-ray, and 4K Blu-ray in the UK this week.

* I’m so proud of that gag I’ve already used it on three different social media posts, and now I’ve worked it in here for posterity. ^

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

aka Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker

2019 #147
J.J. Abrams | 142 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12A / PG-13

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Remember those people who tried to crowdfund a shitty fanwank-filled remake of The Last Jedi? Turns out J.J. Abrams let them make Episode IX under his name instead…

Before I expand on that, the ever-important note on spoilers. This review is mostly spoiler free. I say “mostly” because if you want to know absolutely nothing whatsoever, you should look away now (after saving this to read later, natch). I’m going to give my opinion on some things (obviously I am, this is a review), and so while I won’t give away the film’s revelations and surprises, what I say might sometimes indicate that there’s something there to be spoiled… if that makes sense. If you’re less fussy (e.g. if you’ve watched the trailers; if you’re only trying to avoid explicit details of things the film plays as a reveal) — or, of course, if you’ve already seen it — please read on.

I won’t bother to recap the plot, because it launches into what some would consider full-on spoilers right from the start of the opening crawl. Put another way: there’s stuff in the trailers that some thought was a spoiler that shouldn’t’ve been there; but, really, the promos are almost necessary background info, because stuff that was played as a reveal in trailers is simply stated as information in the film itself. So, suffice to say this is the continuing adventures of Rey, Finn, Poe, and their Resistance friends as they fight Kylo Ren and the First Order, and it wraps up the whole nine-film saga. Or it intends to, at any rate. I mean, the sequel trilogy starts with the premise of “what if those bad guys who were defeated… just came back?”, so who’s to say in a decade or two’s time they won’t pull the same trick again for Episode X?

Rey and friends

But, okay, let’s take them at their word for now: this is the end of The Skywalker Saga (as it’s now definitely officially known — presumably so as they can keep producing lots more Star Wars stuff without the awkwardness of the nine-film saga being “real Star Wars” and everything else being “A Star Wars Story” or whatever). For my money, the saga here ends with so many bangs it amounts to a whimper. Abrams, serving as director and co-writer (with Chris Terrio, who seems to still be getting big-name work off the back of his Oscar win for Argo, despite the fact his only produced work since has been Batman v Superman and Justice League) seems to have no understanding of pace or nuance. It starts at a screaming gallop and doesn’t let up, often feeling like little more than a two-hour montage of fan service.

Well, it must have a lot to do, right? Wrong — it moves at that lick so it can cram in far more plot than it needed to. Most of the business here is not a story worth telling, it’s just one MacGuffin chase after another. If Abrams and Terrio had streamlined the story — had cut out all the unnecessary faffing about; the needlessly over-involved running around after various plot-furthering objects — then there would’ve been more room in the running time for light and shade; for such important and welcome things as character beats; even for something as simple as giving the audience a chance to breathe. The only time they step aside from the relentless plotting is to forcibly insert bits that seem to exist merely to look good in trailers. Maybe that’s unfair, but to me it did feel like there were bits where characters all but said, “hang on a minute guys, I’ve just got to go over here and play out something that’ll look super in a teaser.”

This shot doesn't mean what everyone thought it meant

Also awkwardly forced in is Carrie Fisher’s General Leia. We all know the backstory there, and it’s completely understandable they wanted her to have a presence and part in the film, rather than leaving her out or killing her off-screen. Sadly, what they’ve come up with is largely uncomfortable. Rather than recast her part (impossible!) or do a fully CGI recreation (which didn’t go down so well in Rogue One), they’ve taken the more respectful option of trying to cobble something together from offcuts from the last two films. The result unfortunately feels cobbled together from offcuts. Other characters’ dialogue jumps through hoops to set up replies from Leia that are only one or two words long and could just about be said to have some passing relevance to what she’s replying to. That said, there are plenty of other dialogue exchanges in the film that feel similarly forced — perhaps Terrio and Abrams were trying to make the Leia scenes seem more natural by making every dialogue scene as awkward… or perhaps the writing is just crap throughout.

Leia isn’t the only familiar face that’s revived here. This is both the third and final film in the Sequel Trilogy and the ninth and final film in the Trilogy of Trilogies, so of course there’s plenty of stuff from the past. The problem is how these elements are introduced and handled. Familiar faces and rivalries and lines and whatnot are dragged out for a last hurrah, but the film doesn’t really do anything with them beyond trotting them out to say “remember this?” And so they’re not hurrahs, it’s merely empty repetition. I suppose that will satisfy some — the kind of people who didn’t enjoy Last Jedi because they didn’t like how it chose to move things onwards. But if you were unhappy with, say, how little backstory Snoke received in Episode VIII — if you thought writer-director Rian Johnson basically dismissed the character as an irrelevance — then can you honestly claim to be happy with the manner in which Abrams brings back Emperor Palpatine here? Again, some will, because they hated Last Jedi so irrationally that they’re going to find excuses for why Abrams’ “greatest hits” approach is better. But it isn’t. It’s hollow.

Hollow

Abrams does seem to have taken certain parts of the Last Jedi criticism to heart. I agree with the view that it is in fact a vocal minority of hardcore fans who utterly despise that film (it did well at the box office and has good scores on websites that haven’t been subjected to a negativity campaign, after all), but that group are indeed very, very vocal in certain circles and maybe that’s persuaded someone in the Star Wars camp that they should be listened to. Or maybe Abrams’ own storytelling instincts align with what they were after. So while The Rise of Skywalker doesn’t ignore The Last Jedi in a literal sense (there are nods and references to stuff from it), really Abrams has made a sequel to The Force Awakens here. That’s not always a bad thing (it picks back up on Finn’s past as a Stormtrooper, for example; though, as I say, there’s no time spared to properly dig into character stuff like that), but at others he undoes some of the good ideas Rian Johnson brought. Of course, for those who viscerally hated Last Jedi that will be seen as a good thing. But, like the use of Snoke vs Palpatine, can you seriously say this film’s reveal about Rey’s parentage is better than what Johnson offered? I know some will just because it’s different to the thing they disliked, but… c’mon, is this really better? Is it more surprising or imaginative? I don’t think so.

When it occurred, after I was done groaning, I hoped there was going to be a further twist to come, but no, Abrams doesn’t have that much imagination. I felt the same about various other bits of business too: the film states or shows a thing, and if you’re like me you’ll think “surely that’s a bit obvious and there’s going to be a twist to it”, but no twist ever comes. I suppose that shouldn’t be a surprise: Abrams doesn’t do proper mysteries or twists, he does “mystery boxes” — i.e. we’re told there’s a mystery, but rather than clues for either the characters or audience to piece together for a reveal, all there is to be done is wait for someone to open the metaphorical box and reveal it to us. He tried to set such a game in motion in The Force Awakens. Johnson threw some of those away in The Last Jedi, which I felt he was right to do — simply disregarding those wannabe-mysteries was more surprising and interesting than any ‘reveal’ could’ve been. Here Abrams plays that game again by revisiting some of the stuff Johnson dealt with to give different answers, but I feel like his modified reveals prove my point: they’re not surprising, and they’re certainly not interesting. (This caveat should be obvious, but as it isn’t always: this is all just my opinion. Some will feel these new answers fix mistakes that Johnson made. I don’t. I think we’ll have to agree to disagree on that.)

Goodbye

For all of that, The Rise of Skywalker is not entirely a disaster — there were bits I felt worked. Sure, I thought several of the obvious ‘big moments’ were too corny, and some of the one-shot cameos too cheap, and Keri Russell is wasted, and Naomi Ackie’s character is good but there’s no time to develop her… sorry, this was meant to be positives. So, C-3PO kinda gets an emotional arc that’s quite effective. Tied to that is a new character, Babu Frik, who’s a lot of fun. New droid D-O is a brazen attempt to create toys, as are the red-hued Sith Stormtroopers… Oops, slipped into the negatives again. Adam Driver gives a pretty good performance, but he also gets a bit sidelined. Okay, almost everyone gets a bit sidelined — as I’ve said, there’s too much going on and not enough time to cover it. And yet the film still feels too long — I spent an awful lot of the climax wondering how much more of this could be left.

Following all that criticism, my middling score may look generous. But The Rise of Skywalker is not an entirely incompetent movie, just a deeply flawed and disappointing one. And, frankly, there’s part of me that simply doesn’t want to have to give it 2 stars. I’m not a dyed-in-the-wool Star Wars fanboy, but this saga has been with me throughout my film-viewing life — I don’t want to dislike its finale so much that I give it an outright bad score. Well, I guess I wouldn’t’ve given 2 stars to The Phantom Menace in 1999 either, but I did in 2007. Someday I’ll rewatch Episode IX, and maybe that’ll smooth out the cracks and cement this 3-star rating (I struggle to imagine it’ll go up); or maybe it’ll make the problems even more apparent and I’ll have to accept it’s really a 2 after all.

3 out of 5

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is in cinemas virtually everywhere now.

It featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw For the First Time in 2019.

Colossal (2016)

2018 #117
Nacho Vigalondo | 109 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Canada, USA, Spain & South Korea / English & Korean | 15 / R

Colossal

As it begins, you’d be forgiven for thinking Colossal is just another indie rom-com. Anne Hathaway stars as Gloria, an unemployed writer whose boyfriend (Dan Stevens) kicks her out of their New York apartment, forcing her to move back to her Nowheresville hometown. There she reconnects with childhood friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis) — romance is surely in the air, right? But Colossal has a couple of surprises up its sleeve. One is hard to miss, what with it being on all the posters (and, I presume, in the trailers): concurrent with Gloria’s return home, a giant monster begins to rampage around Seoul, and she comes to realise these two disconnected events are, in fact, connected. Meanwhile, the relationship storyline has a few twists in store too.

Unsurprisingly, given the uniqueness of the concept, the film’s marketing foregrounds the giant monster. But anyone expecting “a giant monster movie” will probably be disappointed, because this isn’t a Godzilla clone. However, anyone open to an indie comedy-drama that uses giant monsters as a giant metaphor (arguably an on-the-nose one, but it’s an effective one also) should find something of interest here. I’m being coy about the facts of that metaphor because I think one of the movie’s biggest strengths is its ability to surprise, and to wrong-foot and unnerve you with those surprises — there are some very uncomfortable scenes, deliberately so. Writer-director Nacho Vigalondo is looking to explore timely themes here, and if you were to be aware of them before viewing I think you’d be looking for signs too early, and that would undermine part of the film’s point, which lies in how events develop.

To put that aside, Colossal’s biggest weakness comes in its sci-fi/fantasy element, where the rules of the situation don’t quite hang together. I’m not saying it needs an explanation for why the ordinary-woman/giant-monster connection happens — it’s the same reason that, say, the time loop in Groundhog Day happens: it just does. The ‘why’ is immaterial to the film’s purpose. But the rules the film establishes for how it works don’t entirely add up. I could go into specifics but, again, that might spoil things. And, ultimately, my issues are no more than niggles — the way things pan out is about getting satisfaction from the storyline, not adhering to the ins and outs of how a fantasy works. That said, I feel like a couple of logic tweaks here and there would’ve made it faultless.

Who's the bigger monster?

Nonetheless, it’s worth letting those complaints slide, because there’s so much to like in spite of them. The performances, for one. Hathaway negotiates Gloria’s interesting, tricky character with aplomb. By ‘tricky’ I really mean that it’s somewhat hard to put your finger on what her arc is exactly, but I think that’s because her evolution is believably fuzzy, just like real life, rather than conforming to a slick “this is the lesson she learned and now she’s better” movie thing. Co-lead Sudeikis has, I’d wager, never been better. I’ve not seen him in much, but enough to buy other people’s opinion that he’s a bit smug, a bit try-hard, a bit… of a dick, really. But all of those qualities work here, where Oscar is a loser trying to seem cool.

With some polishing up, Colossal could’ve been nigh on perfect; though it’d likely still be a cult favourite rather than any major success. Well, it’s probably still good enough for cult status, though, as a caveat, it will most appeal to those viewers who are prepared to accept a bit of a genre/tone mashup. It’s got an indie-funny quality, but then throws the sci-fi stuff in, before unveiling a serious side too; and, although that does get very dark, it’s really effectively managed — indeed, it’s all the better for how the quirkier first part sets it up. Vigalondo has points he wants to make, and his film gets them across. Whatever else, it’s definitely original and unique, and those qualities go a long way.

4 out of 5

Colossal is available on Netflix UK as of this month.

Battle at Big Rock (2019)

2019 #127a
Colin Trevorrow | 9 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.00:1 | USA / English

Battle at Big Rock

Surprised-announced by co-writer/director Colin Trevorrow on Twitter just a week ago (although, reading about it after the fact, it seems dedicated fans were already aware something was coming thanks to that regular modern blockbuster spoiler source: action figures), Battle at Big Rock is a short film entry in the Jurassic Park/World franchise, which premiered on the US FX channel on Sunday night (early Monday morning for us Brits) and is now on YouTube.

Set one year on from the cliffhanger-ish ending to the last film, Fallen Kingdom, this short presents a vignette in the Jurassic world that will help bridge the gap between the previous feature and 2021’s third/sixth instalment. But aside from that large franchise-minded goal, it’s also a chance to see some different characters have a different kind of encounter within the films’ universe.

Well, I say “different” — dinosaurs fight dinosaurs until humans are caught in the crosshairs, then a big toothy dinosaur goes after said humans. The real difference is that this happens to just an ordinary family out on an ordinary camping trip in California, not people who’ve chosen to go to a remote island filled with giant prehistoric lizards. Of course, they’ve decided to go camping in a region where it’s known a bunch of the aforementioned giant prehistoric lizards escaped a year ago and might be roaming about, but whatcha gonna do? When you gotta go camping you gotta go camping, I guess. Also, they’re not white, which is a notable characteristic in this franchise, unfortunately. (That lack of representation across five feature-length movies is hardly rectified by one short, but I’m certain it was part of the intention.)

A family-sized snack

What Battle at Big Rock lacks in originality it makes up for with brevity. This is a concise hit of dino action, cramming many of the franchise’s familiar thrills into a sub-nine-minute package. It also looks great for a short film. Yeah, sure, it still has the backing of Universal Studios — this isn’t exactly an indie production — but it’s not got the full weight of a theatrically-released blockbuster behind it, either. Nonetheless, it manages to include two species of dinosaur, one achieved via a mixture of CGI and a genuine animatronic, and adventure-movie set-piece-level action. It all looks mighty pretty too, although the nighttime fire-lit photography is no doubt partially about hiding the budgetary limitations.

Indeed, the film’s production is possibly its most impressive aspect. It was actually shot back in 2018, so they’ve kept it hush-hush for the best part of a year. And it can’t be easy to keep quiet a film shot on location, and outside of moviemaking’s usual stomping grounds, in Ireland, where apparently there’s a grove of trees that look exactly like a North Californian national park. Presumably the real deal was a no-go because they’d’ve been spotted even more easily there; but, equally, you’d think a big American production team rocking up in Ireland would attract attention — especially when they had a giant animatronic dinosaur in tow. Maybe the locals just presumed it was Game of Thrones

Anyway, the end result is a success, both as a little burst of dinosaur action for those of us who enjoy such hijinks, and as a tease for events we’ll see in the franchise’s next major instalment. Rumour has it the short’s budget spiralled beyond the limits Universal originally set, but, considering the ill-will generated by the underwhelming Fallen Kingdom, I’m sure they’ll consider audience’s re-stoked interest (a sentiment I’ve seen expressed repeatedly across social media today) to have been a worthwhile investment.

4 out of 5

Battle at Big Rock is available on YouTube.

The Predator (2018)

2019 #28
Shane Black | 107 mins | download (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA & Canada / English & Spanish | 15 / R

The Predator

Some films take me a while to review because I just don’t get round to them. Some take time because I need to coalesce my thoughts. Others, I barely have any thoughts in the first place. The trickiest are the ones where I feel like there are many thoughts, but I have little idea how to express them. The Predator is definitely in that final camp. Why? Well, I thought it was quite a poor film… but I also sort of enjoyed it. Not in a Gods of Egypt way (that was kinda “so bad it’s good”; or maybe “so strange it’s good”), nor in a “I can see what they were going for, they just couldn’t quite get there” way, but in a… well, there’s the rub. The film undoubtedly has its problems, but it also has bits I was okay with; liked, even. What it feels like is a decent, middle-of-the-road-ish sci-fi actioner… that they then, for some unfathomable reason, deliberately dicked around with to make it kinda bad.

The reason I put it that way is the film’s sense of narrative, which is really messy. It feels like someone decided the movie was too long and so got the running time down by just pulling out scenes at random. There’s an extensive IMDb Trivia entry here that broadly explains what was changed in the edit and via reshoots, and that suggests it feels like a lot of stuff was chopped out because, well, it was. Other movies have survived such tinkering, but here it feels cack-handed. The end result doesn’t flow. You can follow it, but it’s oddly disjointed.

Other aspects suggest perhaps there were compromises on things like the age certificate. For example, at one point a female character is spared by the Predator because she’s naked. A vital piece of information for later? Um, no, it doesn’t come up again. So it’s gratuitous nudity? Well, not really, because it’s carefully shot so we don’t see anything. The film ended up going for an R, but perhaps they thought they’d have to make it PG-13? Either way, why is that ultimately pointless scene still in the movie?

“I don't care if you point a gun at me, so long as you don't get your tits out again!”

It’s not just the story and logic that’s mangled, there’s a real mishmash of tones as well. Writer-director Shane Black did such excellent work shepherding mixed moods in the superb Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, the perfect Nice Guys, and the best Iron Man film, but here he seems to have lost his handle on how to deliver the required blend of action, horror, and humour. Personally, I quite liked the humour, but sometimes it does just barge in out of nowhere. People who like their alien hunter action movies to be po-faced will not be impressed.

So, it’s an odd case all round. It’s an impossible movie to recommend because it’s certainly not good, but I also didn’t hate it as much as I feel I should’ve. It’s kind of a disaster, but it’s also… fine. Put it this way: one day I expect I’ll rewatch the Predator movies, and while I’ll probably skip AvP Requiem, I’ll include this one. Faint praise, I know.

Nonetheless, I really hope they make another Predator movie… mainly so I can see what they come up with for a title. Okay, sure, it’ll probably just be Predator: Meaningless Subtitle, but I live in hope they’ll continue this trend of adding a little something (pluralisation; the definitive article) and it’ll be called, like, Predatoring or something. (Hire me, Hollywood!)

3 out of 5

The Predator is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Aquaman (2018)

2019 #55
James Wan | 143 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 2.40:1 | USA & Australia / English | 12 / PG-13

Aquaman

DC Comics have had a turbulent time of it on the big screen these past few years. After Zack Snyder’s Marmite Superman reboot Man of Steel they tried to get in on the Marvel-inspired “cinematic universe” boom with the unfairly-derided Batman v Superman and the behind-the-scenes mess that was Justice League, in between which the similarly “buggered about in post” Suicide Squad did them no favours. But they also attracted a lot of praise for Wonder Woman, mainly because it starred a female superhero (not unheard of, but a rarity on screen, and even rarer for a female superhero film to be good), and, earlier this year, Shazam! So maybe their fortunes are on the up again, especially as anticipation is high for both of their 2020 efforts, February’s Birds of Prey and June’s Wonder Woman 1984.

In amongst all of that, in pretty much every respect (release date, critical standing, etc), we have Aquaman. Like Wonder Woman, its tied to the Justice League attempt at launching a shared continuity between these films; but, also like Wonder Woman, it doesn’t seem to have been tarnished by that association, grossing over $1.1 billion at the box office (Justice League maxed out at just over $650 million). While something about it obviously clicked with the general audience, in some respects it’s as much of a Marmite film as Man of Steel — although, tonally, they could hardly be further apart.

For thems that don’t know, Aquaman is Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), a half-human half-Atlantean chap, who was raised as the former by his lighthouse-keeper dad but has the underwater fish-communicating powers of the latter, which he uses to do superheroic things like rescuing submarines from pirates (those being modern high-tech pirates, natch). Arthur also has claim to the throne of Atlantis, but he doesn’t want it and there are plenty in the kingdom who would dispute it. But when the current king, Orm (Patrick Wilson), attempts to unite the undersea kingdoms to attack the world of men, his betrothed, Mera (Amber Heard), goes in search of Arthur, to convince him to return to his rightful place and blah de blah de blah.

Searching for something. An understanding of the plot, probably.

Yeah, the plotting is mostly sub-Game of Thrones fantasy gobbledegook, attached to an Indiana Jones-inspired quest plot that sends this sea-based superhero to the Saharan desert (in which he arrives to a rap-based cover of Toto’s Africa. I shit you not). That’s just one reason the film stretches out to a mind-boggling 143 minutes (aka almost two-and-a-half hours). It does feel like several movies stitched together; like someone couldn’t quite decide whether they wanted to do “medieval fantasy but under the sea” or “a globetrotting Indiana Jones adventure”, so just did both at the same time.

Along the way, some of it is thoroughly cheesy — the dialogue, the outright fantasy-ness, the vibrant colour palette, the music choices (see above). It’s hard to know if it’s being deliberately cheesy, or if someone felt this stuff was a good idea in seriousness. Whether or not it works is a matter of personal taste, but at least it’s noticeably different from its po-faced label brethren or the slick factory-produced adventure-comedy tone of the Mouse House competition.

There’s an odd vein of ’80s-ness, too: some of the plot directions, Rupert Gregson-Williams’ score, that aforementioned song choice again (whether you despise that song or find it kinda tackily amusing is perhaps a bellwether for your opinion of the film.) This feels like the kind of undersea adventure movie someone would’ve made in the wake of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Conan the Barbarian, if only they’d had the effects tech back then. Except, of course, by using all the CGI that current tech allows, it’s also very much a modern graphics-laden blockbuster. Those two eras, the 1980s and the 2010s, kind of butt up against each other — it’s not being outright an ’80s emulation like, say, Stranger Things; it’s more this weird influence that sometimes rears its head.

Imagine this in IMAX 3D. Just imagine.

That includes in some of the action scenes, which were shot on real sets with real actors (gasp!) Not all of them, naturally (there’s a mindbogglingly massive undersea battle involving thousands of soldiers and sea creatures), but those that were done for real are incredibly staged and shot — a running rooftop fight in Italy is beautifully done. The general imagery is often fantastic, too. Not always (sometimes it’s just fine; sometimes it’s too much), but there are incredible, impressive, comic-book-panel-on-screen shots here. So it’s a real shame that Warner have forced a choice between 3D or a shifting IMAX aspect ratio on Blu-ray. As regular readers know, I enjoy 3D and I love a shifting aspect ratio, so being forced to pick is upsetting. Marvel normally tick both those boxes by including the IMAX ratio only on their 3D releases — annoying for 2D-only IMAX fans, I know, but I’m well set. Warner have done the opposite, however, with the 2D releases including the IMAX ratio and the 3D remaining locked to 2.40:1. To say I’m disappointed would be an understatement, because the 3D adds so much to the big sequences, but I can imagine the IMAX ratio shift would too — together, they’d be perfect, but Warner won’t let us have that. So, I did enjoy the film’s 3D a lot, but at some point I’m going to make time to watch it again in 2D for the ratio shifts. I’ll plump for it in 4K too because, considering that the film’s colours are already pretty vibrant in SDR, I bet they’d pop delightfully with HDR.

Setting format complaints aside, I had a lot of fun with Aquaman. The spectacle is so genuinely spectacular, and the humour and/or cheesiness is so don’t-know-whether-to-laugh-or-groan fun, and the overlong running time stuffed so full with so many different ideas, that I couldn’t help but find the whole heady mix downright entertaining.

4 out of 5

Aquaman is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Rampage (2018)

2019 #61
Brad Peyton | 107 mins | download (HD+3D) | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Rampage

A big-budget live-action movie adaptation of a 32-year-old arcade game that I’m pretty sure only old and/or hardcore gamer geeks remember? Was that the wisest moviemaking decision? I mean, there’s nothing wrong with being old, but is a PG-13 CGI-fest like this really aimed at that age group? Well, I guess these days it is, so maybe it wasn’t such a poor commissioning decision after all — and it made over $428 million at the box office, so someone knew what they were doing. And, before this year, Rampage was tied for the honour of being the best-reviewed video game adaptation ever made… though as it achieved that with a Rotten Tomatoes score of just 52%, it’s certainly damning with faint praise.

Anyway, I don’t really care about all the video game-y stuff. I’m here because it’s a The Rock movie, and I tend to find his stuff pretty entertaining nowadays (as do many others — I bet he’s a bigger part of that $428 million than “based on a video game” is), and it’s about an ape, a wolf, and a crocodile who get mutated into giants and set about destroying Chicago. I mean, who doesn’t want to see that? (Yes, I know: well-adjusted adults who actually grew up.)

If you think I’m being facetious, nah, that’s the plot; or it’s the climax, anyway, and the rest of the film exists as a way to find a narrative reason for said climax to happen. Naturally, with such a batshit barmy climax as the end goal, the story that gets us there is thoroughly daft also. It involves corporate skullduggery and genetic experimentation and all kinds of stock plot-building stuff like that, but at least it’s all executed with a certain amount of humour. No one is taking this too seriously.

Monkeying around

So it’s a little odd, then, how gruesomely violent and gory it gets, and sometimes kinda unnecessarily cruel with it. But there are no nipples and only one use of “fuck”, so, sure, PG-13! I would describe the gore, but a lot of it is kinda spoilery so I’ll refrain; but the film’s opening shot features a drop of blood floating into a dead guy’s empty eye socket, and later we see people ripped in half, one character falls into the mouth of a monster in slow motion, we see another get beheaded and the head get eaten… Yeah, okay, it’s all ridiculous CG BS, but still.

The Rock is truly the closest thing we have to a genuine Movie Star right now, I think — a guy who can still lead a movie on the strength of his name and likeability alone (look how many original or near-as-dammit-original movies he’s done in the past few years that’ve made bank). He’s got just the right level of charm to keep us engaged and on side without it tipping over into smarminess. He also has a remarkable skill (or at least I think he does) whereby, without breaking character or immediately undermining what’s happening, he lets us know that the story and its antics shouldn’t be taken too seriously because, hey, it’s just an action movie. Or maybe that’s just something I inherently infer from his very presence, considering the kinds of movies he stars in and the fact he always plays more-or-less the same character. Anyway, in this one he convinced me that he had a tight brotherly bond with a giant CGI ape, and consequently made me care about the fate of said collection of pixels, so that’s an achievement in itself.

“Jeff, stop chewing the scenery — that's the CGI's job.”

This time, most of the rest of the lead cast are in on the gag too, with Jeffrey Dean Morgan chewing more scenery than the monsters as a cowboy-ish government agent, and Malin Akerman and Jake Lacy hamming it up as the corporate bitch villain and her halfwit brother. Naomi Harris pops up as The Rock’s love interest cum sidekick, who’s a clever scientist lady and can hold her own in a verbal slanging match with him, but, yeah, is still primarily there to be the love interest.

Rampage is not big and it’s not clever, but it is kinda fun. Although it is actually quite big — that’s kinda the point. But anyway, it’s mostly big dumb fun, and naturally a lot of that looks pretty awesome in 3D. I liked it as a thoroughly ludicrous, brain-off entertainment.

3 out of 5

Stalker (1979)

aka Сталкер

2018 #100
Andrei Tarkovsky | 162 mins | Blu-ray | 1.37:1 | Soviet Union / Russian | PG

Stalker

Described by the blurb on its Criterion Collection Blu-ray release as “a metaphysical journey through an enigmatic post-apocalyptic landscape”, Stalker is… probably that… I guess…?

Adapted from the novel Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (which, according to critic Mark Le Fanu in Criterion’s booklet, is more hardboiled pulp than artistic thinkpiece), it follows a professional ‘Stalker’ (Alexander Kaidanovsky) — someone who can enter and navigate a mysterious restricted area known only as the Zone — as he guides two latest clients, a depressed writer (Anatoly Solonitsyn) and an inquisitive professor (Nikolai Grinko), into the Zone and to the attraction at its heart: the Room, a place which is rumoured to grant a person’s innermost desires.

That’s the plot, anyway. Considering it’s over two-and-a-half hours long and I just summarised most of the story, you know it’s About more than that. But suffice to say I didn’t get it. It’s just some blokes wandering around, being depressed, occasionally philosophising about bugger all; then the ‘stalker’ chap is depressed even more by his clients’ attitude at the end, for some reason; and then we see his kid has telepathic powers because… um… People think director Andrei Tarkovsky’s previous sci-fi film Solaris is slow and obtuse, but it’s pacy and its meaning is crystal-clear compared to Stalker. Indeed, watching this just made me want to watch Solaris again — that was a slow Soviet sci-fi I actually found thought-provoking and interesting. One inspired thought I will credit it with is the notion of what “innermost desire” actually means. We might think we know, but do we? If the Room grants, not what we choose to ask it for, but our true innermost desire, then it reveals the truth of our self to us… and we might not like what we find.

Some blokes being depressed

The film “resists definitive interpretation” says Geoff Dyer in a featurette on Criterion’s Blu-ray. It’s “a religious allegory, a reflection of contemporaneous political anxieties, a meditation on film itself […it] envelops the viewer by opening up a multitude of possible meanings,” adds the blurb. Oy. So is it profound or just pretentious? I think the lack of clarity — the lack of definitive interpretation — can be used as evidence for both sides. Its acclaim would suggest most think it profound, so I’m the one missing something. That’s always possible. Also, I’m always wary of calling something “pretentious” — that’s become too much of a catch-all criticism for people who don’t understand an artwork and want to blame the work itself rather than their own intellectual capabilities. So we’ll have to settle on me just not understanding it.

Some of it does look good, at least… which is handy when long stretches of it are just staring at things in unbroken takes (there’s something like 142 shots, which is about one cut every 88 seconds). Whatever the film is or isn’t trying to say, I feel fairly certain it didn’t need to take so much time to say it.

Equal parts Annihilation but without the exciting stuff, privileged white male angst, and flicking through a photo album of deserted urban environments at someone else’s too-slow pace — with strange dashes of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and X-Men Origins: Jean Grey for good measure — Stalker is… definitely something.

2 out of 5

Stalker was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2018 project.

Zathura: A Space Adventure (2005)

2018 #67
Jon Favreau | 97 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Zathura

Before Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle there was Zathura, which is sort of a sequel to Jumanji… but more of a spin-off, I guess… well, really it’s a completely unrelated movie with the exact same plot. Inspired by another book by the same author, it sees two kids (Jonah Bobo and a very baby-faced Josh Hutcherson) discover an old board game that comes to life with terrifying consequences, and the only way to make it stop is to finish the game. But this game is about space, so it’s completely different, obviously.

Unsurprisingly, it’s difficult to avoid assessing the film’s quality in comparison it to its predecessor. The thing that struck me most was it feels less consequential than Jumanji, somehow. In the previous film the stakes feel high — you worry they won’t beat the game or make it out alive. Perhaps that’s because of Robin Williams’ character getting trapped in the game at the start, which makes you believe things can go wrong. Whereas here, it just feels like crazy shit will keep happening until they finish. It may also be because you can infer ‘rules’ in Jumanji — we know monkeys are going to be mischievous, tigers might eat you, etc — whereas in Zathura, because it’s sci-fi, it’s all made up. And it feels made up as it goes along, too — because it’s not based on real life or an existing brand, we don’t know the characters, the monsters, etc.

Similarly, the characters benefit from way too much luck. The kids keep not reacting fast enough to stop or save things, but then something fortunate happens so things go their way. Maybe you could sell this as a deliberate thing — like, the game wants to be finished — but that’s not how it plays out. They just keep getting lucky, in a not-great-screenwriting way. Perhaps I’m projecting problems where there are none in these observations, but it’s just another factor towards not feeling jeopardy like I did in Jumanji. Overall, Zathura was just more… pleasant.

Play the game

That said, I had some more specific niggles. For a film that should’ve been trying to avoid accusations of being a rip-off, they invite it further by (spoiler alert!) giving one character a backstory that’s a riff on Robin Williams’ from the first movie. Zathura comes at it from a different angle, at least, but that’s a mixed blessing: it doesn’t have the same emotional effect because we only learn about it belatedly, but at least that means it isn’t ripping off Jumanji’s entire narrative structure, and also allows for a neat twist later on. There’s some time travel stuff that doesn’t wholly hang together, but then does it ever?

Equally, you can clearly tell they weren’t paying enough attention to every aspect of the screenplay: the older sister (played by a pre-fame Kristen Stewart, by-the-by) gets put in hibernation for five turns, but it takes eight turns before she wakes up. How no one noticed that is baffling — did they not think to just count it in the script? Even if they somehow missed it until post-production, all it would’ve taken is a dubbed line or two. “Five turns” sounds like a lot of gameplay to miss, so maybe they just thought “eight turns” would sound too ridiculous, but did they not think someone would spot it?!

Plot logic aside, at least the film has some great effects and design work. Jumanji has aged badly in that respect (the CGI is pretty ropey), whereas Zathura still looks great, in part because there’s actually a lot of props and models involved. The performances are pretty decent, too. Director Jon Favreau clearly has a talent for working with kids — the pair here; Mowgli in his Jungle Book; Robert Downey Jr… But in all seriousness, he gets really good performances out of these children.

Holy meteors!

Also worth noting is that the UK version was originally cut to get a PG… and remains cut, because the uncut rating wouldn’t just be a 12, it’d be a 15! That’s because of “imitable techniques”, which in this case means using an aerosol as a blowtorch to set fire to a sofa. The main thing I find interesting about this is that presumably the original cut shows the Astronaut setting fire to the sofa, whereas in the UK version it just suddenly cuts to him stood beside a sofa on fire, which is so much funnier. Hurrah for censorship, I guess.

And so we come to the score. Zathura is one of those films I find a little awkward to rate, because I did enjoy it — in some respects, more than I enjoyed Jumanji when I rewatched that recently — but it also doesn’t feel as polished and complete as its predecessor in terms of story and characters. Even as I had fun, I saw many things I felt could’ve been sharpened up. For that reason, I’ve erred towards a lower rating.

3 out of 5

Upgrade (2018)

2019 #44
Leigh Whannell | 100 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Australia / English | 15 / R

Upgrade

Leigh Whannell is best known for co-creating the Saw and Insidious franchises, so he steps outside of his horror stomping ground to write and direct this cyberpunk action-thriller. It’s set in the kind of near future where we have self-driving cars (and similar tech), but there are still people who prefer the old ways, like mechanic Grey (Logan Marshall-Green), who makes his living restoring classic cars for people like tech genius and entrepreneur Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson). After an incident leaves Grey paralysed, Eron offers to help by implanting him with a cutting-edge top-secret chip he’s developed called STEM. It works even better than expected, and Grey begins to use his newfound abilities to hunt for the men who did this to him.

On one level, Upgrade is a straightforward sci-fi action-thriller, following Grey’s investigation as it leads him to some shady figures who have near-future tech of their own, and then they fight. While that may seem simplistic, it’s full of neat little touches, particular in the action’s choreography — it almost begs a rewatch just to see everything that’s going on in the frantic fight scenes. I don’t mean “frantic” in the over-cut, can’t-see-shit sense of so many action sequences in the last couple of decades — in fact, Whannell often uses wide shots and long-ish takes — but there’s so much going on, with the characters making decisions at such speed (boosted by that body-modifying tech), that parts do become a bit of a blur.

Change can be painful

On another level, the film has something to say about the technology that drives its storyline. Okay, maybe it doesn’t have a lot to say, and if you’re well-versed in sci-fi they’re not necessarily original comments either, but it poses questions and makes you think about what could be just around the corner, and what value it might have, or what danger it might pose. Plus it pushes the story into some interesting places; places a low-budget Australian-produced movie can go that other mainstream-minded sci-fi/action flicks wouldn’t dare. If you’ve ever seen a Saw film then you can guess that Whannell likes twists, especially of the “sting in the tail” variety, and Upgrade has more than its fair share of last-minute switcheroos. How many you see coming is up to you — one seemed glaringly obvious to me, but anticipating that ‘reveal’ blinded me to some more that came after.

Combining those two levels renders Upgrade a strong mix of straight-up action thrills and thought-provoking near-future sci-fi. A definite must-see for genre fans.

4 out of 5

Upgrade is available on Sky Cinema from today.