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Monday, 18 January 2016

Monday Night Roundup #11

I ended up getting different writing done over the last week, but did post a Weird Wednesdays review over at Apocalypse Later. It's the fascinating, genre-spanning Japanese pinku movie The Groper Train: Search for the Black Pearl (1984). I also built an index for all my Weird Wednesdays reviews.

Here are brief reviews of some other features I watched this last week that won't end up reviewed on that site any time soon:

Chappie

Director: Neill Blomkamp
Stars: Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Ninja, Yo-Landi Visser, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Sigourney Weaver and Hugh Jackman
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Chappie, from District 9 director, Neill Blomkamp, but it certainly wasn’t what I got out of it. It’s an enticing mixture of the classic and the modern, playing with a variety of time-honoured science fiction concepts but thrown into a heady contemporary setting in a near future Johannesburg.

Early scenes can’t fail to conjure up memories of RoboCop, with crime running wild in South Africa and a weapons corporation, Tetravaal, selling armed robots to the police force to deal with it. They even have a couple of very different designs, the human-sized Scouts and the bulky and horribly beweaponed Moose, which raise obvious comparisons to RoboCop and the ED-209. The only differences are minor: there’s no human being inside the scout suit and instead of the beast being pitched first and failing, so prompting the more realistic alternative, here the realistic alternative goes first. With the scouts doing great work, taking down thirty large scale crime rings in a year, the cops don’t want the clear overkill of the Moose.

Fortunately, this quickly grows beyond RoboCop and I had a blast with the first half of Chappie.

I liked the realism at Tetravaal, which is a far cry from the yuppies and fat cats of RoboCop’s OCP. Deon Wilson, lead developer of the Scout program, and Vincent Moore, who has the same role for the Moose program, sit in standard cubes in the same aisle of an office. They run Linux with a spot on screensaver and software that doesn’t look like it escaped from the Enterprise. Scouts are modular, so if one part is damaged, they can simply replace it and sent the scout back out to work.

I liked the realism in the streets. When the cops arrive to take down heavily armed crooks, the scouts go in first, guns blazing, and the human cops follow, using them as shields. People get hurt. So do scouts, with 0022, who has already been repaired once in this film, getting hit by a rocket and thrown through a wall. It isn’t repairable, with its battery fused to the chassis, so it’s written off as scrap with a believable reject sticker.

I liked the realism in Deon Wilson, who lives his work. After leaving his robotics job at the office, he gets home to be greeted by a few home robotics projects in a down to earth version of J F Sebastian in Blade Runner, then gets to work on his pet project of a conscious artificial intelligence. When he nails it, after 945 days, he blisters in to talk it up to his boss, who rejects it out of hand. Why would a publicly traded weapons manufacturer go for an AI that can judge art, write poetry and enjoy music?

And, while it’s an odd form of realism, I adored the choice of bad guys. Instead of cookie cutter villains, we’re given Ninja and Yo-Landi from the zef group, Die Antwoord. I’m not a fan, but I have a great deal of respect for their integrity and they bring something utterly unique to this film. I’ve never seen a bad guy with a yellow machine gun before, or a pink punching bag for that matter. Odd hair. Weird tattoos. Pastel colours. Why the heck not? It’s better than the usual criminal mastermind with a suave British accent. The third in their gang, Amerika, is a little more traditional, but that works to ground the other two.
Where the story takes us isn’t too surprising. Deon salvages 0022 from the reject pile to take home and upload his new AI into. After Yo-Landi figures that the guy who created the scouts must have some sort of remote control to switch them off, she and Ninja kidnap him and end up with 0022 for good measure. So Deon gets his shot but under the scrutiny of criminals rather than his company, as he can’t call the cops about them stealing what he stole to begin with.

And here’s where the old school concepts start to rear their heads. 0022 wakes up, but as a child. He’s a baby who learns quickly but still needs to be trained. I loved how Deon is totally in the zone as he gives his creation a rubber chicken and he’s not happy when Yo-Landi names it Chappie. By the way, Sharlto Copley is superb as Chappie the sentient police robot, even if he didn’t provide its movements through motion capture, making him a very believable child. He doesn’t just channel kids, he channels childlike adults such as Raymond Babbitt from Rain Man and he steals the show without ever appearing on screen.

So we have the whole robot coming alive concept. Chappie is written wonderfully, grabbing little bits of information and connecting the dots between them as best he can. He makes leaps that make sense to him but may well be completely wrong.

We have the moral angle, with Chappie’s promise to Deon that he won’t commit any crimes working as a simplistic version of Asimov’s laws of robotics. However, as a child, Chappie is easy to deceive, so we’re given scenes of Chappie stealing cars because he thinks he’s merely returning them to daddy. He won’t take part in the heist that will save them, because that’s a crime, but when it’s all explained to him in a different way, he gladly helps out. It’s not merely abuse on the part of this gang of crooks, it’s abuse that the victim doesn’t even know is happening.

We have the question of how to define consciousness. ‘That’s it!’ Chappie says at one point, looking at a digital copy of his neural map, ‘That’s me!’ And after the definition of consciousness, there’s the definition of death. ‘Just a temporary body, mummy. I’ll make you a new one,’ is a glorious line that resonates through its childlike innocence.
In between consciousness and death is the will to live. Chappie’s battery being fused to his chassis is a built-in death sentence; he has five days before it’ll run dry and it apparently can’t be replaced. So this creation learns about birth one day and has to deal with death only four days later. That’s a tough life and it raises a number of other concerns like self worth, sacrifice and moral prioritisation.

All these are explored pretty well, though the technological side does take a lot of shortcuts. This is the near future. I can buy the concept of uploading an entire mind into a machine but I can’t buy that it can be dumped onto a single thumbdrive or transferred in ten seconds. Clearly, serious breakthroughs were made in storage and networking technologies, but they didn’t trickle down to anything else except this. Nah, don’t buy it.

The Moose is an interesting creation. It might look like ED-209 but there’s no brain inside; it’s controlled by a human being via neural transmission, making it like an insanely flexible drone. There are plenty of issues to explore there but they’re rejected in favour of turning Hugh Jackman into a cheap villain set up by an obvious line to do ridiculous things. He clearly enjoyed it and used a few opportunities to his best advantage, but he’s a waste of a character introduced only because of cheap writing.

Similarly Sigourney Weaver is wasted as an inconsequential CEO who gets a few strong scenes early on but soon fades into nothingness. What’s worse, the company she runs does the same thing: it walks the walk in the opening scenes but soon becomes a mess of plotholes masquerading as security holes.

Fortunately Dev Patel is given a better role, playing Deon Wilson as a sort of benign Victor Frankenstein. Chappie calls him Maker but connects to him through the emotions of a very dangerous child. Sadly, it’s not the role it could have been. Then again, with so many concepts in play, some had to be prioritised and this was clearly one that wasn’t. He’s mostly a foil for Ninja because, while Deon wants him to paint, Ninja wants him to walk cool and shoot guns like a gangsta.

I adored Neill Blomkamp’s debut feature, District 9, and clearly should revisit it again. I haven’t seen his second, Elysium, which I should check out soon. This one is a great film for a while, a good film in many respects but ultimately a disappointment because it doesn’t have the courage to finish what it started.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Director: J J Abrams
Stars: Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong'o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew and Max von Sydow

Note: This is a spoiler-free review of The Force Awakens for those who haven't seen it. For those who have, who still believe it's a good movie and who want to try to put their case, I wrote a spoiler-filled version for my Star Wars I-VII Runthrough earlier in the month.

Oh dear, oh dear. The Force Awakens, which is the seventh feature film in the regular Star Wars series, even if it doesn’t include an episode number in its title, is a stunningly safe retread of the entire original trilogy, a complete mess of a story that actually gets worse the more we think about it and, in many ways, a worse film than The Phantom Menace. And, now that I’ve upset everyone who saw it six times and adored it more every time, please calm down and let me explain.

My theory is that J J Abrams was a Star Wars fanboy who adored the original trilogy and went to see the prequels with the sure knowledge that they were going to be the best thing in the history of ever. As we know, they weren’t, though recently watching all seven films in order in seven days suggests that they’re not as bad as we remember. However, when he was given the task of making a new first entry in an official Star Wars trilogy, he knew that he couldn’t make the mistakes that George Lucas made so emphatically with The Phantom Menace, and so proceeded to make the safest film he could to make the fans happy.

And they were. While people went back to see The Phantom Menace again and again because they were unable to accept how awful it was, they went back to see The Force Awakens again and again because it felt like a Star Wars movie and that felt good, dammit! Abrams certainly got the feel right.

Thirty years after Return of the Jedi, the Empire has fallen and been replaced by the First Order, just as the Rebel Alliance is now the Resistance. The same fight is on that we’re used to seeing, merely with different names. Things are a little shakier, a little darker, a little grittier. But there’s Max von Sydow, a very cool new droid called BB-8, a brutal massacre in the Lidice style led by a snappier Darth Vader by the name of Kylo Ren and some intriguing scenes with a stormtrooper catchily named FN-2187.

And then there’s the planet of Jakoo. It's a desert planet littered with Imperial wreckage: downed AT-ATs, downed TIE fighters, even a downed Star Destroyer. A whole community of scavengers has grown up to loot this equipment for parts to trade for food. I adored the scale, which is beautifully shot, as much as the detail. I adored the dirt and the open spaces and the fact that broken things fell out of the sky, all anathema to George Lucas. It’s quintessential Star Wars but all shot in a way we’ve never seen before that pulls at the heartstrings and makes us want to cheer J J Abrams for finally doing it right.

The downside creeps in with the progression of the story, because it feels rather familiar. Von Sydow is here because he has documents stolen from the enemy. He gives them to a member of the Resistance who, under fire from the First Order and their dark helmeted commander, secretes them into a droid and lets it loose on a desert planet to seek help. Yes, this is A New Hope all over again, but it doesn’t stop there. Without trying to throw out spoilers, it proceeds through The Empire Strikes Back and ends up in Return of the Jedi territory with the Resistance aiming to destroy the shield generator to Starkiller Base, which is a gigantic superweapon the size of a planet.

And so those millions of us who grew up on the original trilogy start to wonder if they actually wrote a new script or just changed a bunch of names in the old ones. We already know that the First Order is the new Empire and the Resistance is the new Rebel Alliance. Well Jakoo is the new Tatooine. Kylo Ren is the new Darth Vader and Supreme Leader Snoke the new Emperor. Poe Dameron is a male Princess Leia and BB-8 is a round R2-D2. Starkiller Base is the new Death Star, just even bigger and even more dangerous. Rey, the movie’s lead, is a female Luke Skywalker, even if she isn’t let in on much of why during the film and has to figure a lot of it out for herself. FN-2187, soon renamed Finn, could even be a new Han Solo until the real one shows up.
Which he does. And it feels awesome. This is what Abrams does in The Force Awakens. He feeds us a lot of recycled material, but watered down to make less sense. But he does it with cinematic style that awes us. And then he throws another bone to the fans to make us happy. A bunch of favourite characters are brought back and every one of them is re-introduced in an entrance that combines emotion and style. The Millennium Falcon gets the first cheer, rescued from a junkyard and immediately put through its paces. Then it’s Han and Chewie, who have been working as smugglers again because it’s what they know best. Then it’s Leia, now serving as the leader of the Resistance. Then it’s a chipper C-3PO and a drained R2-D2. Eventually, it’s Luke, who’s the MacGuffin of the piece rather than a player in it. I adored every entrance and wanted to cheer at the screen.

And then I thought about what I was watching. Nothing here makes sense. In the original trilogy, those stolen documents were the plans to the Death Star, an unprecedented superweapon. Here, they’re the map to Luke Skywalker. Now, who the heck makes a treasure map to a person? Who can move around whenever he wants. Who would give it to the bad guys? And break it into two parts? Why would anyone even care, given that the majority of the universe apparently believe that the Jedi order and even the Force are mythical stories. This is all clearly ridiculous. Why are the Resistance fighting the First Order, given that the Republic is apparently back in play? Who are the Resistance if they’re not the Republic? What’s going on in this universe? Did we blink and miss a movie? Is this Episode VII or Episode VIII?

A little less ridiculous is the story of Rey, which is completely unexplained and left for the next movie to cover. She’s an orphan, having been dumped on Jakoo as a child, where she’s grown up to be a talented scavenger. As things happening around her start to drag her in, she turns out to be something more. A Jakoo scavenger wouldn’t be able to fly like that, for a start, and a Jakoo scavenger wouldn’t have a wild connection to certain things that I won’t spoil. She’s clearly someone important but we aren’t let in on that secret yet.

Fortunately, Daisy Ridley, who plays Rey, is a revelation. Her character may be nothing but a new Luke or Anakin, but she nails her role absolutely and dominates the film. She’s better than Mark Hamill and much better than Hayden Christensen. In fact she’s the best actor in the entire franchise who isn’t an old white man. I’ll be seeking out her previous work because she’s definitely going to be a huge star.

Her co-star is Finn, the one original idea in the movie as a stormtrooper who can’t be part of the opening massacre and tries to get as far away from the First Order as he possibly can. He’s a great character as he’s a blank canvas for morality to paint on. He’s not the bad guy they want him to be but that doesn’t mean he’s the good guy he could be. He spends the film trying to run away only to find that he might be more than he ever thought possible. John Boyega, who was so great in Attack the Block, is just as great here too.

Sadly, the other major character for the trilogy looks like being Kylo Ren, who’s supposed to be the new Darth Vader but comes across more like the new Jar Jar Binks and that’s not good. I don’t think it’s really Adam Driver’s fault as the actor stuck in the Vader Halloween suit, but he’s acutely embarrassing and often laughable. It’s like Darth Vader, the personification of evil for an entire generation, was revealed to be nothing but a spotty little oik. Kylo Ren is Alan Partridge playing Severus Snape with a vague Tom Hardy as Bane voice, less effective than Rick Moranis as Dark Helmet. My better half burst into giggles every time he took off his helmet because she expected him to introduce himself as Vinnie Barbarino.

Kylo Ren excepted, I understand why Abrams did what he did here. He made something that pleased the fans and got them on board for the Disney trilogy. All the old guard got another moment in the spotlight, Harrison Ford in particular being better than ever as Han, and BB-8 is going to make toy companies rich. But this is a glorious facade that hides an astounding lack of substance. It’s like a gigantic chocolate egg of goodness that looks amazing but only shows us that it’s hollow after we take a yummy bite.

Surely the next film, Episode VIII, will be more substantial and it’ll get the crowds that Attack of the Clones missed out on, having to follow The Phantom Menace. I want to know what Finn gets up to. I want to know who Rey is. I want to see Kylo Ren’s arm cut off, though I’d prefer that it be his head that meets a lightsaber. But I also want it to not suck. So I’m going to go with my fingers crossed.

Ex Machina

Director: Alex Garland
Stars: Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia VIkander, Sonoya Mizuno and Oscar Isaac
This was clearly the best of the three science fiction films I’m reviewing tonight and the one which most deserves to be called science fiction instead of sci-fi. It’s sad to see a frequent description of the film as ‘smart science fiction’ as that infers that the genre nowadays fails to be smart by definition instead of by frequency.

It’s a neat intellectual puzzle, written by Alex Garland, the writer of 28 Days Later, Sunshine and Dredd, who also debuted as a director here. It revolves around the Turing test, which can be considered passed only if an artificial intelligence can convince an observer through conversation that it’s human.

The setup is that a billionaire CEO runs a competition within his company, apparently for an employee to spend a week with him on his massive estate. The company is Blue Book, which has multiple meanings but to most people will translate to something similar to and as successful as Google and Facebook put together. The CEO is Nathan Bateman, who exudes the confidence of a young genius who’s already conquered the world. The winner is Caleb Smith, a talented young computer programmer, who promptly has to sign a non-disclosure agreement because there’s something else going on here.

Once done, Bateman tells Smith that he’s here to be the human component in a Turing test, tasked with judging whether Ava, an AI he’s created, could pass that test. A number of flags immediately arise, the most obvious of which is raised by Caleb himself, namely that Ava is obviously a humanoid robot, given that her arms, legs and torso are transparent and show her inner cabling. If he knows that she’s artificial, how can he conduct a fair Turing test?

So, of course, we start asking questions in our heads. The obvious setup is that Ava isn’t the real focus of the test, which is surely Kyoko, the Japanese housemaid who speaks no English. However, that’s a little too obvious and she doesn’t actually speak at all, so we dig deeper and become rather engaged in this intellectual puzzle. Given that Caleb isn’t stupid, he realises this too, especially given that this wonder of a research facility is apparently subject to convenient power cuts. So Caleb asks these questions as we ask these questions. My better half and I came up with a few theories, which to my mind hold water. The good news is that the one that Garland pursues wasn’t any of them but it still makes complete sense. To my mind, that’s the best sort of puzzle, one whose solution isn’t obvious but is clear and concise once revealed.

Garland is clearly the star of the show, having both written the script and directed the film. There’s a lot of clever detail here, so read the Wikipedia page and the IMDb trivia. I caught a few of these little details, like the riffing on the alien tones in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and a number of references to the man becomes god motif highlighted by Robert Oppenheimer when he built the atomic bomb. However, I missed other references and was blind to quite a lot of it, making this a learning experience as well as an enjoyable viewing.
However, Garland isn’t the only star of the show. The technical aspects are consistently strong, though I didn’t feel like I was watching a Stanley Kubrick film as I get the impression I was occasionally supposed to. More obviously, there are four actors with prominent parts who all prove very capable indeed.

Domhnall Gleeson from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows gets a lot more opportunity here as a bright and awestruck young programmer than he did as General Hux, the commander of Starkiller Base, in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, though I’m sure he made a lot more money from the latter. He had a wonderful 2015, also starring in Brooklyn and co-starring in The Revenant, meaning that he made four pictures with multiple Oscar nominations. He’s a precocious young man here, uncomfortable for much of his time in a rich man’s house but willing to continue with the experiment he’s tasked to perform. The way he moves in and out of control is fascinating.

Oscar Isaac from Inside Llewyn Davies is arguably even better here. He was also in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, playing ace pilot Poe Dameron, but I didn’t even recognise him here. He’s very believable as a child prodigy and a rich man, mildly eccentric and socially awkward but very direct. He’s often a little the worse for drink and often inappropriate but he’s always in charge. He has the beard and glasses of a nerd but the muscles of a jock and he capably walks the line between the two, making him at once predator and prey.

Alicia Vikander from The Man from UNCLE plays the robotic young lady at the heart of their interaction. She’s calm and composed, but obviously thoughtful and with a clear agenda of her own. She’s also both prey and predator, stuck behind glass in an experiment she doesn’t like but notably able to turn Caleb’s questions around on him.

Backing them up in a much smaller role is Sonoya Mizuno, a ballerina and model who debuted on film as Kyoko. She does a good job too; she merely had much less to do.

The heart of the film revolves around artificial intelligence and the Turing test. The questions asked are good ones, examining what consciousness means in a very different way to Chappie. This is old school science fiction, often reminiscent of Frankenstein, but with some modern twists to keep things up to date for the 21st century, such as how things go when an AI turns the Turing test round on a human being. There are also side issues raised that are well worth debate, like the idea of using search data from a large enough search engine as a map of how people think or whether there can be consciousness without a sexual component. I’m sure both of those ideas will be used more and more over the next few decades.

I definitely plan to revisit this movie in a year or so to see how it stands up now that I know what happens. I’m acutely aware that there’s a meta level here with Alex Garland using me as the human component in an imaginative Turing test by tasking me with figuring out which and how many of his four characters are really human and which are artificial. If I’m rating this film highly today on the basis that he successfully manipulated me, then I’m likely to lower that rating on a second viewing. If I’m rating it highly because I appreciate how he played with these ideas, then I’m likely to keep it high, unless flaws become obvious with a second look. I’m eager to see which it’ll be.

Saturday, 16 January 2016

In Memoriam

I wrote these reviews with the plan of them constituting my Monday Night Roundup on the 18th, but it quickly became obvious that every one of them represented a tribute to an actor who had died. It's been a tough year thus far. After losing Lemmy at the end of 2015, two weeks of 2016 hit us with David Bowie, Angus Scrimm and Alan Rickman. Each of the films covered here is reviewed in tribute to them.

Now Dan Haggerty has joined that number, but he chose a couple of films for my Make It a Double project, so I'll post those two reviews at Apocalypse Later over the next week.

The Hunger (1983)

Director: Tony Scott
Stars: Catherine Deneuve, David Bowie and Susan Sarandon
The world lost David Bowie on 10th January, less than two weeks after it lost Lemmy, two genre-spanning musical icons whose stature is immeasurable. In tribute to Bowie, we watched The Prestige and The Hunger as a double bill, which was an interesting experience. He may be the weakest link in the former, playing Nikola Tesla, but is perhaps the most resonant performer in the latter, even though it features a lesbian scene between Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon.

I’ve seen The Hunger before, but not since it came out and I’d forgotten the entire story, remembering only that it was a vampire flick put together with a particularly unique style by mainstream filmmaker Tony Scott. Perhaps that’s because the story is by far the weakest angle, Scott and his scriptwriters only paying lip service to Whitley Strieber’s source novel and then riffing off it in cinematic experimentation.

It’s that style that shows up first and dominates throughout. The film begins with Bauhaus performing Bela Lugosi’s Dead in a club, which is an astoundingly good way to kick off a vampire movie. Cutting back and forth between Peter Murphy performing from behind a wall of chicken wire and the young and beautiful getting their groove on is a touch of class. Everything here is stylish to the degree that these aren’t actors playing characters but performance artists eliciting an effect. There are visual devices in and amongst all this, so that we’re given an impressionistic connection between sex and violence in a fetishistic way. ‘Forever and ever,’ Bowie tells Deneuve in the shower after they kill a young couple and drinking their blood. It’s like the conclusion of a ritual.

Scott’s film doesn’t go into the background that Strieber’s novel does, as it never seems particularly interested in that sort of thing. It merely highlights that Deneuve is Miriam Blaylock, an elegant and ancient vampire, if a wooden one who sometimes reminds of one of the ancient marble busts in her shadowy and underlit house. Bowie is John, her husband, who she turned once upon a time. We have to read up on the background to discover that she’s an ancient Egyptian and he’s merely a French cellist whom she fell for a couple of hundred years ago.

The plot revolves around Strieber’s concept of inheritance in which, while Miriam may well be immortal, those she turns are not; they’re merely long lived, but once age starts to catch up with them, it catches up quickly. That’s happening to John as we join his story and he’s scared. After two full centuries of apparently being thirty years old, he doesn’t like the idea that he’s not going to remain young for much longer. Miriam gives him a week and she’s optimistic, so off he goes to see Sarandon.

She’s Dr Sarah Roberts, a gerontologist studing progeria, a disease that prompts aging at an unnatural rate and kills children of old age. The vampires know of her book, Sleep and Longevity, which suggests that ‘age is a disease which can be cured.’ Of course, they can’t cure it yet as, while her team at the Park West Clinic are good, they ‘can’t promise everlasting life.’ What they can’t imagine, of course, is that there’s someone out there who has already conquered the aging process, at least in herself.

Probably the best scene of the film has Sarah leave John in the lobby because she thinks he’s a kook, only for him to age decades in the couple of hours that pass. He’s struggling to pass for thirty when he goes in but, two hours later, he looks like a Stan Lee cameo. The make up effects are superb and Bowie sells the progression magnificently. His dismissal of Sarah when she finally realises that he’s for real is stunning and he keeps that standard up until he’s too old to do anything. Later that day, when Alice, his violin student of a year, shows up at the house, he’s aged so much that she thinks he’s his own father. When Miriam gets home and he calls her on ‘forever’, it comes out as a croak because he’s more like a hunchback Dr Phibes.
Apart from Bowie, there’s little acting going on. I’ve seen what Deneuve can do in other films, so have to assume that she underplayed Miriam deliberately, perhaps because she’s frustrated at losing another lover to age and refuses to deal with it, knowing that if she ignores the situation it’ll go away quickly while she focuses on finding a new lover, namely Dr Sarah Roberts. I understand that Sarandon is a skilled actress too, but I’ve never been a big fan and she left me dry here as well. There are much more sexy and erotic vampire films out there for me than this one, even if these two get behind Scott’s omnipresent fluttering transparent curtains to get down and dirty. I think I enjoyed the brief appearance of Bessie Love, one of my silent film favourites appearing in her very last role, and an almost as brief appearance of Willem Dafoe, very young but much more recognisable while earning only his second credit, more than the two leading ladies.

There’s even less story going on. I love the concepts in play here, but they all belong to Strieber rather than Scott and nobody involved with the film seems remotely interested in exploring them.

For a start, the idea that a vampire story should involve someone professionally studying how aging works ought to generate an interesting progression, but it doesn’t here. The idea that a vampire is stuck in the vicious cycle of seeking out lovers, turning them, spending centuries with them, only for them to leave her through a process that she’s conquered but is unable to truly gift them, is a sad and brutal one. I was reminded of the treatment that Highlander took, where Connor Macleod was advised against taking a mortal lover because they’ll age and die when he wouldn’t. This is even worse, because the process isn’t consistent but merely an unknown time followed by an abrupt ending. At least the Highlander could prepare! Yet again, this is avoided almost deliberately, John being Miriam’s focus until, well, he isn’t and, well, Sarah is. That rejection is an utterly brutal thing, as is what she the ndoes with him and did in the past with his predecessors. The idea that she has no power over this is yet another one that’s woefully underdeveloped.

The positive side is almost entirely on the stylistic front. There’s style everywhere here, but it ends up being almost entirely over substance. The film is very dark, less in the thematic sense than in the one that there’s very little light. Unless the characters are outside, the lighting is turned down low and nobody seems to care. Perhaps it’s just to make Deneuve look younger than she was. The point isn’t to play with shadows in some expressionistic way but just to render the whole picture moody. It’s also bathed in blue, maybe to play to the age motif by reminding of a tinted silent movie or maybe to subtly play up the connection between erotica and the colour blue. Scott paints this like a modern dream rather than the old masters that his brother Ridley is so good at staging. It’s thoroughly eighties in its feel.

And that’s about it. The worst thing is the end, because the regular finalé is shot poorly, albeit with very good effects work, and the actual finalé was pointlessly tacked on by the studio and makes no sense whatsoever. Leaving the film in such a poor way merely reminds of how well it started and how it just gradually slid from one extreme to the other throughout. I enjoyed it thoroughly until I didn’t, then it merely passed by until I realised how poor it was and, finally, the ending underlined that. Just because a cult following has built around The Hunger, mostly because of its slow but stylish visuals and the use of lesbian vampirism, doesn’t mean that it’s any good.

RIP Mr Bowie.

Phantasm

Director: Don Coscarelli
Stars: Michael Baldwin, Bill Thornbury, Reggie Bannister, Kathy Lester and Angus Scrimm
Another actor we lost recently is Angus Scrimm, who died on 9th January, another horror genre icon to leave us after Wes Craven and Gunnar Hansen. Scrimm acted in more films than David Bowie, which will always make me wonder which two movies he might have picked for my Make It a Double project, but he was more tied to one role, that of the Tall Man in the Phantasm series, which he played five times if we include Phantasm: Ravager, which is currently in post-production. I’ve reviewed this film before but back in 2007 when I was mostly writing notes for my own benefit, so, in tribute, here’s some better coverage.

The film starts well for Tommy, given that he’s getting some from a blonde number in the Morningside cemetery. It doesn’t continue so well, though, given that she promptly stabs him to death with a knife. From that point on, writer/director Don Coscarelli seems more interested in setting a freaky tone than unfolding a story and he does a solid job by setting us up with a whole host of freaky components from which he can hang that story when he’s ready to start telling it.

There’s a huge white funeral home, the exterior of which we only seem to see from a distance. There are a lot of freaky passages inside that are lined with identical memorial stones with reflective labels. There’s an odd thirteen year old called Michael who rides a dirt bike between the gravestones, stalks his brother and spies on people through binoculars because apparently he has no life. There are little creatures in robes like jawas which chase him and infect his dreams. There’s a tall man whom he watches effortlessly lifting a loaded coffin into a hearse on his own. There’s a blonde in lavender who seems to like to make out with guys on top of gravestones. There’s a repetitive but catchy theme that sounds very much like a riff on Tubular Bells, which had worked so well for The Exorcist. There’s a sign with only a red hand on it, outside the home of an old wheelchair-bound psychic woman who looks rather like Ozzy Osbourne with her black clothes, round glasses and a star on her forehead; she lets her granddaughter speak for her. There’s an ice cream man who’s bald on top but wears a short ponytail like he’s a lounge lizard. There’s even a bar, the Dunes Cantina, with a horse on the balcony; not a real one, but still.

Half an hour in, we still have no idea what’s going on but we know it’s going to be freaky. This isn’t like any other franchise horror flick we’ve seen before. It’s no slasher film, it’s no monster movie and it’s no serial killer flick. It’s something a little different that clearly tells us that there’s something going on at Morningside and if we we’re horror nuts, we just have to know what it is. Inquisitive little Michael has to know too, so he breaks in to find out and that’s when the infamous metallic ball, the most memorable icon of the series even over the Tall Man, shows up. It flies of its own accord, generates blades to stick into people’s skulls, then extrudes a drillbit to siphon the blood out of their bodies until they’re dead. I adore this little thing; it’s genius design and it ratchets up the freaky factor to new levels.
The freakiness is a good thing, not only for its own sakes but because the budget is clearly low and the acting hardly a major achievement. Most of the cast members tend to appear predominantly in Don Coscarelli movies, which highlights that they like to work together but also that they either don’t have a heck of a lot of ambition or other people aren’t that interested in hiring them. Both ideas are believable, because most were amateur actors hired for a cheap independent production and they combine coarse acting with slow and methodical delivery and minimalist sets of expressions. A few even play characters with their own names.

Michael Baldwin is surely the best of the cast as the precocious Mike, even though the studio blocked Coscarelli’s plans to bring him back for the first sequel. He was only fourteen when he made this movie but he’s believable with his weird obsessions, in his growing terror and in his determination to face it. Sure, he’s a little annoying but having a sort of young Marty Feldman flavour actually makes that work. By comparison, Bill Thornbury sleepwalks through the film as if he’s a cardboard cutout of Han Solo and the various young ladies, refreshingly all wholesome girl next door types, don’t do much at all beyond looking like wholesome girl next door types. Reggie Bannister gets a little substance as the ice cream vendor, though, and I can’t fault Scrimm for looking and acting agreeably sinister. Coscarelli cast him because he’d been intimidated by him on a previous film and felt that he would make a great villain. He was right.

The freakiness that’s everywhere does gradually coalesce into a story, which is minimalist but weirdly compelling. The dialogue is cheap and oddly sparse, but there’s no arguing that this is one of the more original genre movies of the era, however little budget it had to play with. It plays as a dreamlike horror movie throughout but betrays science fiction sensibilities (the placement of a Roger Zelazny paperback on Mike’s bedside table has to be deliberate) and it ends up as a philosophical meditation on death and the mourning process. I won’t spoil why, but keep your eyes open for the ending. This mashup of genre elements is heightened by the editing and very deliberate camera movements that include zooms and pans for specific effect. Coscarelli took care of all that himself because he couldn’t afford to hire anyone else.

It was released in 1979 and sits well in that no mans land between the psychological seventies and the gory eighties. That’s one reason why it stands up today but the biggest reason is surely Don Coscarelli, who had the imagination to write this script, the dedication to direct it as an independent movie and the will to continue with a concept that strongly connected to people through three sequels thus far and a fourth to come. I’m a confirmed fan of his unique output, especially this and Bubba Ho-Tep but also John Dies at the End and even Survival Quest, so I really ought to delve into the relatively few other features that he’s made thus far.

RIP, Mr Scrimm.

Galaxy Quest (1999)

Stars: Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman, Tony Shalhoub, Sam Rockwell, Daryl Mitchell, Enrico Colantoni, Robin Sachs and Patrick Breen
Finally, we also lost the great Alan Rickman, almost the template for British Hollywood villains and so much more, on 14th January.

It feels very strange, given how many conventions my family and I work, attend or run nowadays, to think that the last time I watched Galaxy Quest was so far back that it predates my attending one. Autographs at $15 a pop? Clearly I discovered them too late.

What this means is that while I understood the film intellectually back then, I didn’t grok it. I didn’t realise its depths and understand how David Howard, who wrote the story and turned it into a screenplay with Robert Gordon, got most things very right indeed. Nowadays, even though I’m no trekker, I’d like to think that I understand a lot more.

The concept is rather like The Last Starfighter squared. Instead of a young man who’s trying to escape from a trailer park, only to get a lot further away than he dreamed when his video game playing skills brought him to the attention of an alien race fighting a space war, here we have the cast of a sci-fi TV show who are trying to escape their success, only to get a lot further away than they dream when their fictional exploits bring them to the attention of an alien race fighting a space war.

The humour, of course, stems from the fact that unlike Alex, who with a stretch of credulity, actually has the skills needed to fight Xur and the Ko-Dan Armada, the cast of Galaxy Quest have no skills to bring to bear at all because they’ve just been acting all this time. Or do they? This is the same idea that would later drive My Name is Bruce, but the different genre changes up the humour. Instead of R-rated horror, this is sourced from PG science fiction and digs very deep in its exploration of Star Trek and what it has meant to people over the decades.

Howard’s story is the biggest reason that this film succeeds. It finds the humour in geek fandom without ever offending the geek fans and it presents it in such a way that it found an audience beyond fandom, albeit not as sizeable an audience as it deserves. It’s also backed up by one of the most appropriate casts that I’ve seen assembled.

I’m not a Tim Allen fan by any stretch of the imagination but he plays Jason Nesmith perfectly, the actor who plays Capt Peter Quincy Taggart on Galaxy Quest. As a womanising egotist who had the world in the palms of his hands because of one iconic character, but has only found depression since the show was cancelled and he couldn’t play him any more, he’s both William Shatner and Tim Allen. While the trekkers would focus on the similarities between Taggart and Kirk and between Nesmith and Shatner, I’d argue that it’s actually the parts where Allen is playing himself that resonate the most because they bring a sadness to the character that is all too true. It’s not Jean Claude van Damme in JCVD, but there is a connection.

And, of course, Taggart is the star of the show so Nesmith is the star of the cast and it’s naturally to him that the alien race of Thermians from the Klaatu Nebula reach out for help. They are real aliens, octopoid creatures who can disguise themselves as humans, and they have no concept of fiction. When they show up at a Galaxy Quest convention, they don’t understand that it’s all made up. They picked up broadcasts of the show out there in space and, believing the episodes to be ‘historical documents’, fashioned their entire culture around the philosophy and technology that they saw. Now, with Sarris, a powerful warlord, about to destroy them, they are reaching out to their last hope, the legendary Taggart and the legendary crew of his legendary ship, the Protector.

That crew is superbly cast. Sigourney Weaver is Gwen DeMarco and Lt Tawny Madison, whose entire job on the Protector is to repeat what the computer says. The part says a lot in itself, and she looks good in blonde, but casting Weaver also invites comparisons with the character which she’s played most on film, Ripley from the Alien series. Alan Rickman is Alexander Dane and Dr Lazarus of Tev’Meck, the token alien crewman with a culturally odd weapon and a overblown catchphrase. Again, beyond the part saying much in itself, Rickman personifies the traditional Hollywood treatment given to British Shakespearean stage actors and he nails his disdain as only a craftsman of his calibre can. ‘I was an actor once,’ he repeats and it resonates.
Tony Shalhoub is Fred Kwan and Tech Sgt Chen, even though he doesn’t look remotely Asian. He’s magnificently matter of fact throughout, even though everyone else is utterly thrown for a loop by the discovery that the world they occupied in fiction is also real. He has one minor crisis of faith but it’s quickly solved and he even falls for one of the alien women, tentacles and all. Daryl Mitchell, who I didn’t know at all, is strong as Tommy Webber and Lt Laredo, filling both the token black spot and the token child prodigy spot, having begun his role as the pilot when very young indeed. He’s the least prepared because he never took the role remotely seriously and one of the best scenes is the extended scraping of the Protector 2 as he only just manages to navigate it out of the docking bay.

In addition to these core crew members, there are three other major players.

Sam Rockwell is gifted with a magnificent part as Guy Fleegman, who we meet as an MC at the Galaxy Quest convention, and only discover later when he’s transported up to the Thermian ship with the crew that he was a redshirt in one episode. This gives him a great deal of opportunity, which he lives up to superbly. While his companions are trapped within their famous Galaxy Quest roles, the show is his only claim to fame. While they are inherently invulnerable as major crew members, he feels imminent death just because he isn’t. And he gets to be the one guy that nobody knows, nobody recognises, nobody acknowledges. He doesn’t even have a surname. While Galaxy Quest the TV show is all about them, Galaxy Quest the movie is, in many ways, more about him.

Robin Sachs is hidden behind some superb make up effects and prosthetics as Gen Roth’h’ar Sarris, the villain of the piece, named for the film critic Andrew Sarris. He has very little substance, as was the norm for such sci-fi TV show villains, but he gets to bellow and posture a lot, all of which is notably cinematic. The character design is magnificent, a cross between insect, lizard and human, a B-movie creation with A-movie quality.

And, finally, there’s Enrico Colantoni, who steals the entire show in my book with an absolutely fantastic performance. He plays Mathesar, the leader of the Thermians not only in title but in fact; they all follow him at every point and in everything. He has a memorable look, a memorable voice and a memorable way of moving, all of which they copy. The voice is best of all, but close behind it is his inability not to smile, even under insane danger. He plays Mathesar like he doesn’t quite understand the human body and how it works, which is appropriate for an octopus that is merely appropriating the form. I adored his entire performance.

There’s a lot of success here for a film that could easily be written off because of what it appears to be. It’s actually one of the funniest comedies I’ve seen from Hollywood, a clever drama in science fiction clothing and a meta piece that works on a number of layers. It’s telling that a Star Trek convention actually voted it the seventh best Star Trek movie, but it’s also better than merely being something obviously related to that show and its appeal should be wider than merely those who understand that Tim Allen’s bathroom scene, where he overhears fans explaining how he’s a joke and doesn’t realise it, was a real life scene for William Shatner back in 1966.

It’s perhaps most successful when riffing on the connections between actors, the characters they play and how fans perceive the two as the same thing. However it’s less successful when delving deeper to themes from the golden age of science fiction, which, after all, had prompted the creation of Star Trek to begin with. I was reminded of Robert A Heinlein’s Methuselah’s Children, in which the human race invents the solution to a problem only because they believed that it already existed and it was being withheld from them. This applies very much to the Thermians, but runs much deeper than Mathesar’s inevitable discovery that he already is what he’s trying so hard to copy. In focusing so much on the people, it fails to develop the ideas properly, resulting in a fun, touching and affectionate but ultimately nonsensical finalé.

Galaxy Quest might look like a simple Star Trek pastiche, but it’s much more than that and it deserves more attention that it’s been given. However, it could have been much more again, only to find that it didn’t quite look far enough.

RIP Mr Rickman.

Friday, 15 January 2016

January Reviews at the Nameless Zine

I write book reviews for The Nameless Zine, an online zine run by the Western Science Fiction Association (WesternSFA), a non-profit fandom group based here in Arizona.

As the Nameless Zine follows a graphical indexing system, I also maintain my own text index of what I've written at my own website. You can find it here at the Reviews at the Nameless Zine page.

Reviews at the Nameless Zine post monthly on the 15th of each month and January's batch are now online. I reviewed six books this month:

Mortal Gods



I was surprised at how much I enjoyed Antigoddess, given that it was a YA book. I didn't know that when I picked it up and, frankly, it didn't matter. It just meant that the vocabulary was a little less ambitious, but the story was fun and the prose was capable.

It was the first book in the Goddess War trilogy, which continues with this one. Kendare Blake's basic concept is that the Greek gods are real. They're still alive, as you might expect for immortal beings, but they're also starting to die, as you might not. They're struggling to coming to terms with the idea themselves, because after thousands of years, dying isn't exactly top of their agenda.

Antigoddess focused their struggle into a war between two factions, each of whom believes that killing the other side might just stop the process. Complicating the situation are a group of humans who are reincarnations of people who fought in the Trojan War. They're potentially showing up as weapons for the gods to use, starting with our heroine, the modern reincarnation of Cassandra.

This second book starts to explore what this situation really means. The gods, or at least the ones who survived the first book, grow as characters because their apparent mortality brings other changes too, leading to some real frustration on their part. The humans grow as characters too, because while the gods are losing their power, they're gaining some. It's a really interesting situation for both sides and the fact that they have to work together causes agreeable conflict. With the war a constant background but rarely a focus, we concentrate predominantly on this growth and that's a good thing for a middle volume.

For more, visit my review at the Nameless Zine. I also reviewed the first book at the Nameless Zine: Antigoddess.

Ungodly



And with the second book in the Goddess War trilogy out of the way, here's the third one, which I enjoyed most out of the three for a few reasons.

One is that the people caught up in this war finally figure out what's really happening and what they need to do about it. Another is that this means that things get serious; as much as they fight, many of these gods have been trying to hide from their apparent mortality and that can only work so long before other feelings start to really take effect. And that means that the key characters get out there and follow their particular agendas, rather than stay at home in Kincaid, NY and wait for things to happen.

I liked this move for the tougher. It progressed things nicely and it wrapped them up nicely too. I had some problems with the series but mostly enjoyed it. I don't read a lot of YA so it was good to find a series that worked for adults too, even if it meant that it was missing the depth that a serious adult author could reach.

New characters come into play here for the final act, some of whom have to for the story to work and others who have to only for some of those we know to progress properly. One negative is that a bunch of prominent gods don't make an appearance and that seems rather odd given the magnitude of what is going down.

For more, visit my review at the Nameless Zine. I also reviewed the first two books at the Nameless Zine: Antigoddess and Mortal Gods.

The Fractal Prince



Here's another trilogy whose first volume I'd previously reviewed for the Nameless Zine. It's the Jean le Flambeur trilogy from Finnish-born advanced mathematician, Hannu Rajaniemi, and it's so complex that there's little chance of providing a synopsis for one book let alone all three.

Put absurdly simply, we're in a post-human future where we've colonised the solar system but not in ways that traditional science fiction has suggested. Instead we've followed different paths that aren't entirely compatible, have already led to one war and are heading towards another. There are the Sobornost, a hive mind attempting to conquer death by uploading copies of everyone's minds to dump into bodies as needed, often into millions of them. There are the zoku, descended from MMORPG guilds who see everything in terms of game theory. There are those in the walking city of the Oubliette on Mars who have built their world around privacy provided by quantum level encryption.

And here we meet the humans in Sirr, the last city on Earth, who are as high tech as the people I've just mentioned but cloak it within concepts we know from ancient fantasy: flying carpets, jinni, gods, exorcism, jewels, secret names and hidden words of power. I found this Arabian Nights approach fascinating, as each time honoured concept is explained in technological terms, reminding of Clarke's Third Law.

Onto Earth comes Jean le Flambeur, gentleman thief, but his quest is nestled within stories inside stories inside stories. The Fractal Prince is as much a puzzle as it is a novel and it's a fascinating one to unwrap. This book might work as a standalone, but I'd recommend reading this trilogy in order and together. It's that dense with concepts.

For more, visit my review at the Nameless Zine. I also reviewed the first two books at the Nameless Zine: The Quantum Thief.

The Causal Angel



And with the second book in the Jean le Flambeur trilogy out of the way, here's the third one, The Causal Angel, which ratchets up the scale to points that might surprise even those of you who can think big.

With previous books unfolding on Mars and Earth, this one shifts mostly out to Saturn to look at how the zoku work. They're groups of people descended from MMORPG guilds, which means that they see everything as a game, even the most serious threats imaginable. Another neat touch is how they connect to each other in an emotional way, ensuring that their actions aren't merely in their own best interest but also that of their zoku. This is very different to the hive minds of the Sobornost who are coming to fight them again, but still more than human.

One thing that leaps out of these books is how varied our race could turn out to be once we reach the singularity and become post-human. It isn't just a single step and we're done. It's a gateway that opens up many possibilities and this trilogy offers a fascinating glimpse at a number of them.

While this is the most ambitious but also the most accessible book in the trilogy, it's perhaps also the least engaging because the ideas take over from the characters. The most resonant to me are dead or gone, while the ones that remain are cyphers or less interesting. Fortunately the ideas are on overdrive and if you like your science fiction idea-heavy, this is your dream world.

For more, visit my review at the Nameless Zine. I also reviewed the first two books at the Nameless Zine: The Quantum Thief and The Fractal Prince.

The Warlord of the Air



Regular readers will know I'm a steampunk fan and that I'm keen to look back to the proto-steampunk books that help shape the genre. There are a few that sit in between the old days of Verne and Wells but before the founding triumvirate of Blaylock, Jeter and Powers. The Oswald Bastable books of Michael Moorcock are a great example. There are three of them and this was the first, back in 1971.

It's written in the style of the Victorian scientific romances and sits well alongside such philosophical science fiction works as The Time Machine because it takes a character into the future (or here an alternate future) and lets them discover utopias and dystopias and figure out how they came about.

Oswald Bastable is a British soldier fighting in northern India when an escape within the vast Temple of the Future Buddha sends him into 1973. Neither world war happened, so empires didn't fall. Instead a balance was found between the British, French, Japanese, Russian and American empires and each progressed in their own way. However, the disparity between the colonists and the locals eventually finds its way to war and that brings things back full circle to events we know about but in different times and places.

Beyond Bastable, characters include some that would go onto other Moorcock works and alternate versions of real people as diverse as Mick Jagger, Enoch Powell, Joseph Conrad and Lenin. Ronald Reagan, then just the governor of California, is hilariously awful and ably highlights which way the American empire went with Europe as strong as ever.

It's a lot of fun, for those who appreciate the scientific romances of the Victorian era and I'll be back with a review of its sequel, The Land Leviathian, next month.

For more, visit my review at the Nameless Zine.

Quest of the Spider



I've been reviewing a Doc Savage novel every month, working in the order they were published in the pulps rather than the Bantam paperbacks. Third up is Quest of the Spider, from May 1933, which has often been talked down in fan circles as a weak entry. I partially disagree.

It's a much more conventional ride than the previous two books, with the swamps of Louisiana replacing the lost worlds we've seen thus far. It has a weak villain in the Gray Spider and a really dumb disguise for Doc at one point.

However, it's also a more grounded mystery focused around an attempt to take over the lumber mills of the south for sheer profit. It has good tension, finally some work to do for Doc's men and some scenes of real power at a couple of points, one when Doc appears to have died at the hands of an alligator and another when a good deed prompts one of the villain's subhuman henchman to see the light and sacrifice himself for others.

There's also an actual mystery, given that the big boss could easily be either of two people, making up for the clearly obvious villain of the previous book and the giveaways of the first. And Doc is a little less superhuman here too, much more capable than the rest of us but more believably so than in the second book where he could effortlessly achieve feats that nobody else in the world could manage.

I liked it and felt that, after an establishing novel for Doc but not his men and then a weak follow up, the series was starting to move in the right directions. Next month's thrilling episode is The Polar Treasure, which is better yet and proves that things were getting better and better for Doc!

For more, visit my review at the Nameless Zine. I also reviewed The Man of Bronze and The Land of Terror.

Monday, 11 January 2016

Monday Night Roundup #10

I haven't posted any reviews to Apocalypse Later this week, because I've been working on my Star Wars Runthrough here at Apocalypse Later Now!

Here are brief reviews of some other features I watched over the last couple of weeks that won't end up reviewed on that site any time soon:

Dark City (1998)

Director: Alex Proyas
Stars: Rufus Sewell, Kiefer Sutherland, Jennifer Connelly, Richard O’Brien, Ian Richardson and William Hurt

I’ve seen Dark City before, but not for many years and my memories of it were hazy. A new viewing was as refreshing for this as for The Crow, the previous film Alex Proyas directed. Both are innovative pictures with moods that resonate. Having just seen the trailer for Gods of Egypt, his new film, I really can’t say the same. I may skip over that entirely and wait for The Unfortunate Profession of Jonathan Hoag, which is in pre-production. That’s apparently a full adaptation of the unusual Robert A Heinlein novel, which served as an influence on Dark City.

Unsurprisingly, we find ourselves in a dark city, but it’s an odd one. An alien race known as the Strangers can alter physical reality using will alone, which they call tuning. However, they’re dying and have abandoned their own world in a quest for a cure to their mortality. They stay out of the way while we humans wander about and live our lives, but they’re there underneath it all tuning away in experimentation.

Dr Daniel P Schreber, who is not a Stranger, helps them conduct their experiments. He’s a very noirish Kiefer Sutherland, with a serious breathing problem, a limp and a pair of round glasses, like a stereotypical Gestapo stooge. He has trouble getting a whole sentence out at once, something that has put off some viewers but which plays well for me as a unique and memorable approach.

Everything else is very noirish too. It’s dark, it’s shadowy and it’s claustrophobic. It seems like we’re in the 1940s, full of worn suits, smoky jazz and lived in faces. And it all stops at midnight: the cars, the trains, the people, everything except Dr Schreber and a man named John Murdoch, played by a coarse but effective Rufus Sewell, whose eyes are wide for most of the film.

The latter wakes up in the bath with blood on his forehead. His suitcase carries the initials KH, which aren’t his, and a postcard marked, ‘Greetings from Shell Beach’. There’s a corpse in the room, of a young lady. And, as he reacts to all of this mystery, Schreber rings him up to tell him that he’s lost his memory, that people are coming for him and that he must leave now. Oh yeah, that’s a good way to start a film noir!

It’s also a good way to start a science fiction movie. Those people are tall, bald and freaky, very white but dressed in black and notably similar in appearance. To add to the freakiness, as if it were needed, one of them clicks like an insect and another is a young boy. It’s no surprise to find that Proyas based this on a recurring nightmare. These are Strangers, of course, and the rest of them are living beneath the city, looking like nothing more than a Cenobite choir. If The Crow cemented Proyas a place in dark cinematic history, Dark City underlined it. It’s even more dark but less stylistically so, more of a film than a comic book.

The noir touches keep on coming. Officially, the trauma of discovering that his wife had an affair sparked Murdoch’s amnesia, but it doesn’t ring true. And, while he doesn’t stop when midnight strikes and the city changes, other characters who do are struggling with memory too. The corpse in the room with Murdoch is the latest victim of a serial killer targetting hookers, so the cops have him as their primary suspect. However, the man in charge, Insp Frank Bumstead, doesn’t buy it at all and his predecessor, Det Eddie Walenski, has apparently gone insane, scrawling spirals on the walls, the floor and the ceiling and trying to remember his past.

The cast is amazing, Sewell and Sutherland only the beginning. Murdoch’s wife is Jennifer Connelly. Those cops are William Hurt and Colin Friels respectively. The three key Strangers, intriguingly named Mr Hand, Mr Book and Mr Wall are Richard O’Brien, Ian Richardson and Bruce Spence. Talk about cult credentials: that’s key players in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Brazil and The Road Warrior thrown together as a trio! While these actors get varied amounts of screen time and thus provide varied impact to the film, they’re all as excellent as their backgrounds would suggest.

As we ought to expect from the director of The Crow, there’s a huge amount of mood here. Setting the film entirely at night was a great choice, for a number of reasons. Beyond its importance to the story, it allows for a lot of play with shadows and provides a great disorientation factor. ‘When was the last time you remember doing something during the day?’ is a gloriously resonant line. The sets are an industrial nightmare where the steam rises and the smog pools. The claustrophobia grows during the tunings as the city changes. It’s a freaky experience for Murdoch, who watches it happen, but it’s freaky for us too and must have influenced the city visuals in Christopher Nolan’s Inception. The effects work at the end of the film is especially gorgeous.

What stands out to a fresh viewing is how thoughtful the script is, not just because it’s well thought out but because it’s literally full of thought. The real question isn’t about how the tunings affect Murdoch or us but how they affect the people who don’t know that they even happen. The Buddha said, ‘With our thoughts we make the world,’ and that resonated with me throughout Dark City. The Strangers are looking for the human soul by trying to understand how our memories work, but Proyas is asking, ‘Are we more than the mere sum of our memories?’ The way he does so echoes Philip K Dick; this isn’t one of his stories but it easily could have been, as the layering of reality reminded me of Time Out of Joint and We Can Remember It for You, Wholesale.

There must have been something in the air in 1998 because this feels reminiscent of a couple of other films that were actually released shortly afterwards, making this the first. There’s a lot of The Matrix here, for instance, except that came a year later, so it would be truer to say there’s a lot of Dark City in The Matrix. In fact, Proyas ought to have got a credit on that film, given that it could be easily described as Dark City in The Crow’s clothes. There are lesser but still valid comparisons to The Truman Show too, which was released four months after this.

Of course, a clever scriptwriter could spin the confluence of all these films asking their questions about reality around the same time into a new story about what reality might mean. I could be a less palatable Truman Burbank. We could all be living in the Matrix. Or we could be reinvented each night at midnight and forget about it. When was the last time you remember doing something during the day?

The Last Starfighter (1984)

Director: Nick Castle
Stars: Lance Guest, Dan O’Herlihy, Catherine Mary Stewart and Robert Preston

Here’s one that I didn’t catch back in the day, which is surprising for a major sci-fi movie from the early eighties. This is when my parents were taking me to see these things in the cinema. It’s very much a product of its time; like Tron, with which it bears some similarities, it couldn’t be mistaken as coming from any other time, even though both films used state of the art graphics work that pushed the envelope forward. The music sounds like a remix of John Williams’s scores for Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark. The visuals could have been lifted from any sci-fi movie from that decade. The opening credits remind of Superman.

When they’re over, we find ourselves in a similarly quintessential eighties town, like a cross between those of Tremors and The Goonies. This one is Starlite Starbrite, a trailer park nestled amongst gorgeous scenery, a friendly place where everyone knows everyone else but our hero, Alex, really wants to leave. His attempts are blocked at every turn, because he’s like Val and Earl from Tremors in one high school movie body, so he finds his escape in the Starfighter arcade game that isn’t sitting on the back porch of Chang’s Market but might as well be. It doesn’t hurt that he’s really good at it.

And, as you can imagine from the title, it has further meaning. When Alex pops in his coin and it tells him, ‘You have been recruited by the Star League to fight against Xur and the Ko-Dan Armada,’ he just thinks it’s part of the game, but it’s more than that. When the neighbourhood shows up en masse to watch him break the Starfighter record, it isn’t just that they need something better to do or that this deaf, dumb and blind kid sure plays a mean pinball, it’s a hint at what’s to come.

First to come is a strange man called Centauri, who drives up in a wildly futuristic car. He invented the game, he says. He’s looking for the man who broke the record. He talks in the third person. He leaves his ‘assistant’, Beta, behind when he drives off with Alex. At over 300 mph. On mountain roads. It’s no shock when he starts flying. Or when he takes off his face to polish his eyes. Before you know it, he’s talking in an alien language to land on the alien planet of Rylos. Xur and the Ko-Dan Armada are real. The Star League is real. They need Alex to fight for them in real life as well as he did in the videogame version.

The graphics we see are pretty damn cool for a 1984 movie but they’re pretty basic texture maps today. Anyone with the right software could whip this stuff up on their home PC in half an hour, even if the studio needed to render them on a Cray X-MP back then. Wikipedia says that this, along with Tron, was one of the first films to use CGI to represent actual objects instead of just digital graphics and I can believe that. It all feels like the best thing ever for the time but nothing of any note today. We’re going to need more than the graphics for Centauri to sell us on this trip.

Of course, we know where the story is going to go, but it doesn’t quite play ball and takes us on a few side trips that are as annoying as they are welcome. From one angle, I’m happy that the film didn’t just do what I expected, bringing us back to Earth in alternating scenes to see what Beta, a robot clone of Alex, is screwing up for him with his little brother and his girlfriend. From another, that’s really not what I want to see. I want to see Alex as the Last Starfighter, saving Rylos and the Star League from Xur and the Ko-Dan Armada.

And while we do see that, because duh, it’s almost like an afterthought and that whole story is woefully underdeveloped and massively clichéd. We’re given yet another scene where spaceships chase through an asteroid field. We’re given idiotic consistency errors like Alex’s gunstar running low on power and forcing him to use the special weapon, the Death Blossom, which expends even more power than the normal weapons would if they had any. We’re given unrealistic battle scenes with routine crap from the choreography to the numbers to the weapons to the physics. Logic is broken entirely, right up until the very last scene which makes no sense whatsoever from any standpoint except the feelgood one.
If this sounds like I hated the movie, that’s not true. I just wanted it to be something a lot more than it was, but there was good here to be found. Those graphics are, like, so yesterday, man, but my nostalgia kick liked them anyway. The basic concept is a lot of fun and plays into the wish fulfilment fantasies of most boys of the era. And there a number of actors who shine.

Lance Guest, who plays Alex, is pretty decent, if nothing spectacular. He does his job in a sort of mildly whiny Mark Hamill style, which is, frankly, what we all expect, having seen scores of eighties sci-fi movies with their interchangeable lead actors. It’s those who support him who shine brightest. Robert Preston is great in a Darren McGavin sort of role as Centauri. He’s an outsider even out there, the sort of conman that journalists were in thirties movies, with a wardrobe to match. Dan O’Herlihy is even better as Grig, the alien who flies the gunstar that he shoots from. He has a dry humour matched only by his very cool mask.

So I enjoyed this but with that part of my brain that kicks in whenever things get too juvenile and my adult brain switches off. It’s fun, but it’s definitely a movie for kids. I think I’d have enjoyed it a lot more if I’d have seen it when I was eight. Unfortunately, when it was released in 1984, I was thirteen and too old for the magic to work properly even then. At that age I’d have seen through most of the same things that I saw through today.

Black Snake Moan

Director: Craig Brewer
Stars: Samuel L Jackson and Christina Ricci
I've had the 27x40 poster above on the right on my office wall for a few years now but I'd never got round to watching the actual movie. As soon as I did, I found that it's one of the more unrepresentative posters I've ever seen. While what it depicts is certainly in the movie, it captures the opposite message to what it should. No wonder the film wasn't as well received as it should have been! It sold to the wrong audience.

The audience who wants to see a movie in which Samuel L Jackson enslaves Christina Ricci would surely have been confused from the very get go, with Son House defining the blues in an old interview. It comes around, he tells us, when two people are in love and one of them cheats on the other. Then again, this audience probably wouldn't recognise the film's title as a song by Blind Lemon Jefferson. This audience probably won't even have heard of Blind Lemon Jefferson.
After that, we're quickly introduced to the key players.

Two of them are in love, or at least in lust. As they writhe around, we might just recognise Ricci with the blonde hair and Justin Timberlake with the tattoo. He's Ronnie and he's being deployed to the National Guard. She's Rae and she's white trash, with little more on when she says goodbye to Ronnie than when she was in bed with him.

Another two of them used to be in love. That's Samuel L Jackson walking into a café to talk to his wife. He's Lazarus, she's Rose and they're a marriage that's over. 'I got living to do!' she tells him. Just in case he didn't get the message, she adds, 'I don't love you no more,' and leaves him for his brother Deke.

Rae and Laz clearly have impulses.

Rae can't get enough of the men and, as soon as Ronnie is gone, she's ringing up Tehronne, a big black drug dealer, to get some on the side. There's a party soon after and she takes whatever pills will make her forget, then lets some guy do her right there in the field in front of her friends. She's really not picky.

Laz responds to his wife with anger but he's a Bible-fearing man. He settles for driving through a rose garden with his tractor. When Deke comes to see him in a bar to make peace, he threatens him with a broken bottle, goes home to get drunk and throw his wife's stuff out of the house. Then he settles down to play his guitar. The blues, of course.

It's when Ronnie's friend, Gill, tries to take Rae home from the party that the two sides of the film connect. He gets upset with her, hits her a few times and, when she's utterly unresponsive, he kicks her out of his truck and leaves her in the dirt. He's a real prize.

She's still there, passed out in a halter top and panties, when Laz walks outside in the morning and sees her. He takes her in, thinking that she's just beaten up, but when she steals a kiss and writhes around on the floor, he clearly thinks that she's possessed.

Now, this isn't a horror movie and, the poster notwithstanding, it's no exploitation flick either. This is a tough Mississippi drama and we're soon let in on what those chains are for. First we get to watch Christina Ricci act, something that I now realise that I haven't done too often.

I saw her at the beginning of her career and watched the Addams Family movies enough to recognise her anywhere, but I was surprised to find that I've only seen her in a half dozen movies. Clearly that's an oversight I should rectify, because she's very good here indeed, hallucinating, raging and rebelling, then turning on the charm to get what she wants. Clearly there's a lot of torment in her, which is why she wakes up from her drug-induced stupor after two full days to find herself chained to Laz's cast iron radiator. 'God seen fit to put you in my path,' he tells her, 'and I aim to cure you.'

There's a lot of opportunity here for Ricci and she lives up to it, but there's just as much for Jackson and he lives up to it too. The two of them might be an unlikely screen pairing but their scenes are dynamic and riveting. It's especially great to see him in something of real substance, given how many Hollywood blockbusters he's in nowadays. With the Marvel movies, Star Wars prequels, Jurassic Park and the rest, it can't surprise that his films have made more money than those of any other actor in history.

His character here is faced with a couple of challenges, which he combines. Seeking out the one name he gets out of her, he's quickly let in on what's wrong with Rae. 'Girl got a sickness,’ Tehronne tells him. She has to get some or she’ll go crazy. That’s why she’s not picky. So he hauls out the chain and aims to cure her, both as something that needs to be done and, though he surely doesn't realise it, as a way to cure himself of the blues his errant wife has left him with. She's his salvation.

The weak link in all this is Justin Timberlake, who has problems of his own, enough of what the Guard calls 'severe anxiety' to get him sent home after only a week. What he finds, of course, is an empty house and he has to search to track down his girl. What happens then is as predictable as we might expect but then takes a side road that we probably won't. Timberlake looks and sounds like a naïve little kid, which actually works well for the character he's playing, but hardly gives him a chance of dominating scenes with Gill, played by Michael Raymond-James, so memorable as Rene Lanier in True Blood, let alone Ricci, Jackson or, God forbid, both.

Other actors are much stronger in support. John Cothrun plays the Reverend R L, the name a tribute to bluesman R L Burnside, to whom the film is dedicated and whose grandson plays the drums for Lazarus when his blues picking makes it to a stage. Cothrun gets some great scenes, some tough like a brief showdown with Jackson (not many could get away with saying such things to a Jackson character) and some utterly surreal (such as when Laz lets him in on what's going on in the house). Kim Richards is also strong as Rae's mother, in a role about as far from the little girl in the Witch Mountain movies as could be comfortably found. S Epatha Merkerson provides an easy grace in one of the least focused love interest subplots I've ever seen.

And, of course, the real story begins when Rae's chains come off, because everyone has to find their own salvation here, that path merely being a little less lonely in this film than usual because people can be alone together.

Some of this plays obviously into Jackson's screen persona, from the showdown with the Reverend R L to the profanity laced version of Stackolee that feels like it was written for him. It's surely no accident that it's told in the first person rather than the usual third. I'm sure that writer/director Craig Brewer thought that it would add to the gritty tough feel of the film, but I think it distracts a little because at points we're watching Samuel L Jackson rather than Lazarus.

Another problem is the timeframe. I don't have a problem in what happens at all, as unlikely as it is, but I do have a problem with how quickly it actually happens. It could easily have taken a lot longer and I think it should have done so to maintain its credibility. Fortunately we're never really told how long it takes until the end, so unless we're following how quickly Rae's bruises heal, we won't notice.

Pretty much everything else helps the film, which is very strong on many fronts. The acting is magnificent, with the caveat of Timberlake, whose problems are inherent in his character rather than his talent. The visuals are evocative, even if we're watching Tennessee rather than Mississippi. The sound aids the visuals wonderfully, as we can easily close our eyes and soak in the locations without even seeing them.

And then there's the blues, which pervades the film far beyond Laz being a bluesman. Perhaps the most powerful scene combines a raging storm, his slide guitar and two recognisable but underrated actors as characters with serious problems to burn out of themselves. It isn't the only powerful scene, but I'd argue that it's the best because it's exactly what the movies are for: the point where sound, visuals and humanity merge to create something memorable.

The film as a whole can’t maintain the power of that scene but it does give it a heck of a shot. This is a gem of a drama that refuses to do what we expect, makes us both uncomfortable and satisfied and which deserves an audience that will appreciate it for what it is rather than be confused by what it isn't. It's time for a new poster, I think.

Saturday, 9 January 2016

The Force Awakens (2015)

Director: J J Abrams
Stars: Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong'o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew and Max von Sydow

This is the seventh and last entry in my Star Wars I-VII Runthrough, which aims to look at the entire series of feature films with three things in mind: quality, progression and the fan theory of Jar Jar Binks as ultimate villain. Hello, Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens!

While the other six films have been out for years, if not decades, this one is still playing in theatres. Unlike my regular reviews, this runthrough contains major spoilers. If you haven't seen the film, I'd recommend that you don't read this until you have seen it. Instead, check out my regular review which does not contain spoilers. It'll post here as part of Monday Night Roundup on the 11th and at the Nameless Zine.

Brief Synopsis


Thirty years after Return of the Jedi, the Empire has fallen and been replaced by the First Order. The Rebel Alliance is now the Resistance and one of its pilots has acquired a map to the location of the last Jedi. However, under immediate attack, he has to secrete it inside a droid and let it go, hoping that it will find its way back to the Resistance.

The primary players are Han Solo, now an old smuggler still working with Chewbacca; General Leia Organa, leader of the Resistance; Luke Skywalker, the last jedi, now in seclusion in parts unknown; Snoke, the Supreme Leader of the First Order; Kylo Ren, major player in the First Order who uses the dark side of the force; Poe Dameron, a resistance pilot who acquires a map to Luke Skywalker; Finn, a stormtrooper who flees the First Order; Rey, a scavenger on Jakoo who is searching for her family; and Maz Kanata, who runs a cantina on Takodana.

Quality


From moment one, the horror stories that resonated out of the first viewings of The Phantom Menace were forgotten.

There's much that impresses quickly here, even after watching the previous six movies in six days. Things are initially a little shakier, a little darker, a little grittier. But hey, there's Max von Sydow and a very cool new droid called BB-8, a brutal Lidice type massacre led by a snappier Vader named Kylo Ren and some intriguing scenes with a stormtrooper with the catchy name of FN-2187.
But it's the planet of Jakoo that shines brightest early on. It's a desert planet crammed full of Imperial wreckage: fallen TIE fighters, AT-ATs, even a downed Star Destroyer. A whole community of scavengers has grown up to loot this equipment for parts to trade for food. I found these scenes utterly gorgeous and refreshingly realistic (cue the crossover fan films that place Mad Max on Jakoo). They're also the first time we've really looked at the banal aftermath of the galactic conflict we've been following. They're especially for everyone who watched the destruction of the new Death Star in Return of the Jedi and wondered why nothing rained down onto Endor. I also liked how there's a lot of room on Jakoo, especially as George Lucas can't fill it up for a Special Edition any more.
But this awesome environment gets quickly reminiscent of A New Hope. Jakoo is clearly another Tatooine, just as Kylo Ren is a modern take on Darth Vader and Supreme Leader Snoke is the new Emperor. It doesn't take much to extend the comparison given the little story details that emerge. Poe Dameron is a male Princess Leia, who places secret plans into a droid called BB-8, who's the new hot Christmas item version of R2-D2, and Rey is a female Luke Skywalker, even if she isn't let in on much of why during this film and has to figure a lot of it out for herself. We could even stretch FN-2187, renamed Finn, into a new Han Solo until the real one shows up.

And he does, wonderfully, highlighting that this is a fan film first and foremost and what follows is precisely what a lot of people want to see. Clearly J J Abrams was one of those Star Wars fans who Lucas pissed off with The Phantom Menace, so he played this as safely as he could to make the fans happy. From that angle, he didn't just succeed; this is the best film ever made. It features everything we want to see in 2015 technology with an insane budget to make it work. It's glorious stuff.
Unfortunately, the cracks appear the moment we stop fanboying out and start thinking about things. Sure, all the wild plot conveniences that proliferate like Tribbles could be explained as the Force awakening, given that the title pushes that at us from moment one, but the rest is tougher to swallow.

For a start, the entire plot revolves around a secret map that contains the location of Luke Skywalker, the last Jedi. Whoa! Why does such a thing even exist? Who creates a treasure map to a human being, who can and probably will frickin' move around over the years, especially if he's trying to remain hidden? Why is it broken into multiple pieces? That suggests that someone expects someone else to put those pieces together. Where did it appear from and why?

It's easy to skip over this, at least initially, because we want to know where Luke is, given how the rest of the old gang have already shown up and also because of the increasingly mythic angle given to the force. Is Luke a myth? Are Jedi a myth? Is the force a myth? It sure seems that way to the vast majority of people a generation after the last Jedi vanished. But, if we actually start thinking about it, it makes no sense whatsoever and this whole house of cards falls.
There is more good here, especially from that fan perspective. We're given the usual wide range of planets, aliens and tech, all of which looks amazing. Rey sets some particularly awesome monsters loose on Han's smuggler vessel: giant rolling tentacle balls of death. Oh, I want one of those! There's a really cool use of future technology when Rey expands a muffin and I thoroughly appreciate that it's treated utterly as routine and not worthy of mention in dialogue. Maz Kanata's cantina on Takodana is a enjoyable modern homage to our old favourite in Mos Eisley. The explosions are the best of the series by far. There's a good, sparing use of the old themes in the score by John Williams. I even liked the Apocalypse Now imagery when TIE fighters fly out of the sun.
But there's more bad too. The story is relentlessly too routine, too reminiscent, too recycled. And it's not just a rerun of Episode IV, whatever people might suggest; it's really a rerun of Episodes IV to VI, from the initial hiding of important plans in a droid let loose on a desert planet, stolen from the early scenes of A New Hope, all the way to the attack on the Starkiller Base after its shield generator is destroyed, stolen from the end of Return of the Jedi. Those cool new planets we see play like Hoth, Endor and Tatooine. In fact, I often felt that I was watching a reinvention of the original trilogy in a similar way to how Terminator Genisys reinvented the first two Terminator movies.
And who came up with Kylo Ren? He's obviously set up to be the new Darth Vader, with his black cape and helmet and a tricked out lightsaber, but then he takes off that helmet to highlight that he's an escapee from Twilight in a Darth Vader Halloween costume and had absolutely no reason to wear the thing in the first place. I'm sure Adam Driver is a talented actor who did what he was asked to do, but he's like Alan Partridge playing Severus Snape while attempting a Tom Hardy as Bane voice and he's an utter joke.

I couldn't believe what I was seeing and my better half burst into giggles every time he took off that helmet because she thought he would introduce himself as Vinnie Barbarino. It's like Darth Vader, the personification of evil for a generation of moviegoers, was revealed to be nothing but a spotty little oik. Frankly, I bought Rick Moranis as Dark Helmet more than I bought Driver as Kylo Ren and he annoyed me more than Jar Jar Binks ever did. There's absolutely no way that this guy could ever be the son of Han and Leia!
Fortunately the other new stars are on the other end of the spectrum. I appreciated John Boyega in Attack the Block and he brings a lot of the depth he showed there to Finn. It's easy to see why Abrams wanted him and he lives up to his casting. He's also the only really new thing here; as much as he's a modern Han Solo, he comes from a completely different background and brings something utterly new to the Star Wars universe. Finn is not merely the first black stormtrooper (like anyone knows what colour any of the others were), but the first who takes off his helmet, the first with PTSD, the first whose perspective we're given to follow, the first to be named, perhaps even the first to actually hit something he aimed at. He does have the possibility of fading through the next two movies, his key contributions done and dusted, but I'm hopeful that he's going to go from strength to strength.
And Daisy Ridley is an absolute revelation as Rey. She's much less of an original character, clearly the new Anakin or Luke to ride the trilogy, but she nails her role absolutely. She doesn't fall into a single one of the many traps Hayden Christensen found in the prequels and, to my mind, she's much better than even Mark Hamill was in the original films. I haven't seen her in anything before but I'm going to seek out her previous three features because there's no doubt that's she's about to be a huge star and I want to see how that talent grew.
To my mind, Harrison Ford rocked Han Solo here, surely giving his best performance of the entire series, partly because his snarkiness plays even better when delivered by an old and worn face. Yet, Daisy Ridley stole the film out from under him, even when hamstrung as a lead character who's full of questions but who doesn't have a single answer forthcoming until, presumably, the next movie. That's very strange writing indeed.

Progression


As a standalone movie, this might actually work. Lucas started with Episode IV of an imaginary series. Imagine Abrams starting with Episode VII of an imaginary series and maybe it improves. As part of the Star Wars universe though, a movie with no less than six others preceding it in chronology, it feels like we're missing a movie, especially when we consider the template set thus far.

Given that the prequel trilogy depicts a rise, fall, rise for the Empire and the originals depict a rise, fall, rise for the rebels, then this should be a rise, fall, rise for the First Order. Instead, we get the middle film first, the Resistance taking on the First Order, even though both feel like they've been conjured up out of thin air. We feel like we're supposed to care because it's clearly another rebels vs Empire story, just in different clothing. It didn't take long for me to realise I was watching Episode VIII not Episode VII.

What's oddest, from a progression standpoint, is that, before the First Order start exploding planets with their powerful new superweapon du jour, we're told that the Republic is back in effect and it's apparently been running things for a while. So why is there even a Resistance? Why aren't we watching the Republic take on the First Order? This doesn't make sense.
Background is notable primarily by its absence here. The First Order only have substance because they're copied even more from the Nazi template than the Empire was and there's as much overt reference to Triumph of the Will as Lucas ever included in his films. However, they're just thrown in as the token bad guys without any real explanation to what they are, what they stand for and where they came from. Who's Snoke, their Supreme Leader, and why is he in charge? In fact, what is he, given that he's never on screen except as a gigantic godlike hologram? How did he turn Kylo Ren to the dark side? Why have we been dumped in midway through the stories of all of these characters?

Abrams is more successful at re-introducing old favourites. He brings back a whole host of characters from previous films to give them new life and entrances combining emotion and style. This pageant begins with the Millennium Falcon and proceeds through Han and Chewie, Leia, C-3PO, R2-D2 and, eventually reaches Luke, who's the MacGuffin of this film but will surely help to shape the next one. The droids get very little screen time, replaced for the most part by BB-8, who serves much the same purpose without any bickering.
Incidentally, Mark Hamill got old too, just like Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher, but while they look like older versions of themselves, he looks like the love child of Anthony Hopkins and Peter Dinklage.

I've wondered about the pace of technological change in this universe for a while and this film gets even more inconsistent. The First Order have a new superweapon that's a massive leap forward, but they're still flying TIE fighters out of it and taking on X-Wings. The Millennium Falcon was junk thirty years ago and it's still junk today, but it's somehow still able to outfly everything else in the universe. After six movies of R2-D2 leaping into any vehicle like there's a universal connector standard for droids across the galaxy, BB-8 does the same thing here. Of course, the bad guys are still building startlingly long and thin walkways over vast chasms without thinking about adding railings. Apparently nobody gets vertigo in the Star Wars universe.

Oh, and following up on yesterday's realisation that Return of the Jedi was an absolutely ridiculous title for that film, it's precisely the title that should have been used here. In Episode VI, no Jedi return from anything (except Luke to his training under Yoda that never happens) and we leave the film with half as many Jedi alive as when we start it. Yet in Episode VII, the Jedi order has become a myth because most people, at least on the planets we visit, aren't even sure if they were ever real. They believe in the Force like they believe in the Easter bunny. Yet the core of this script is the search for the last Jedi who is finally tracked down in the last seconds of the film. If we could retitle Episode VI to The Force Exits Stage Left, then we could dub this one Return of the Jedi, because it's the only title that actually makes any sense.

Jar Jar Binks


No, Jar Jar doesn't show up in The Force Awakens, as far as I could tell. If the capital planet of the Republic that's blown up by the First Order is actually Coruscant, maybe he was there in the brief scene we see of people waiting for the beam to hit.

However, the fan theory that he's really been behind everything the dark side has done is still consistent.

We have a new big boss bad guy, Supreme Leader Snoke. We have no idea who he is, where he is or even what he actually looks like, given that we only see him in the form of a gigantic hologram that is clearly playing at being God and compensating for something in the process. No background is ever provided, so Snoke could be Jar Jar as much as he could be anybody.

What's more, if we expect the sequel trilogy to follow the rise, fall, rise pattern of the other two trilogies, the only way that fits is from Snoke's perspective because it's the dark side's turn. As he's only ever a transmission, we can only assume that he wasn't on Starkiller Base when it was destroyed, so he'll be back in the next film to show us what other tricks he has up his godlike sleeve. Only time can tell!