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Underworld: Awakening (2012)

For me, this was a “wait for it on cable” movie.  The premise for this fourth film in the series simply did not appeal to me.  Frankly, it seemed more like another Resident Evil sequel than an Underworld one.  I straight up didn’t like the more science fiction edge to everything.  It seemed to be trading off the wonderful depth of mythology and classy production design for hollow science and sleek, cold settings.  I could not get excited to see this, and from the way the trailers looked, I wasn’t going to spend money to see it.  Ultimately, I didn’t have to, and I’m glad for it.  Underworld: Awakening is not worth spending your hard earned money to see.

The vampire and lycan species have been discovered by humanity, and have waged a war of annihilation against both.  Twelve years later, vampire Death Dealer Selene (Kate Beckinsale) awakens from a cryogenic sleep in an Antigen genetics laboratory, and manages to escape her human imprisonment.  On re-entering this world, she finds that the lycans are almost extinct, but somehow, have begun creating stronger, enhanced lycans.  She also discovers that she has a twelve year old daughter, Eve (India Eisley), who is a vampire/lycan hybrid that everyone either fears or fights to re-capture for their own vile purposes.  While on the run, Selene is aided by vampire David (Theo James) who brings her to a diminished coven hiding underground led by Thomas (Charles Dance), who does not welcome her presence knowing her past, but David stands with her in her fight.  However, soon, all are thrown into danger as those who would use Selene’s daughter for a mysterious antidote abduct her, forcing Selene to take the fight directly back to Antigen, and uncover an unsettling truth.

I will say that the film didn’t turnout to be as bad as I anticipated it to be, but it wasn’t all that worthwhile either.  This franchise feels about a half step away from going direct-to-video.  The only thing that saves this film from feeling as such are the action sequences.  They are still very high grade with big, slam bang stunts and good choreography.  However, there are moments that felt a little too preposterous for me.  Granted, Underworld: Evolution didn’t have the time to really show the potential of Selene’s newfound abilities, but some of them just seemed ridiculous and beyond the laws of physics in Awakening.  Selene might be exceptionally strong now, but I don’t think that someone of Kate Beckinsale’s slim size and weight could possibly ram into a van and barrel it over like a freight train.  Enhanced vampire strength or no, it’s just a little too much for me to buy.  There are other little moments throughout the film that delve into that well of exaggeration.  Some have a mild pay-off like Selene actually reaching into David’s chest and restarting his heart with her bare hand, but most are just there to amp up Selene beyond the suspension of my disbelief.  It’s one blatant sign that the filmmakers have ceased to care about creating an interesting story, and just want to go for ridiculous indulgences.

The CGI might be a little better than the previous film – Rise of the Lycans – but it’s still not all that good.  There are some sequences that are better than others, but on the whole, it’s still distinctly below the exemplary standards of the first two films.  This mainly affects the appearance of the lycans themselves.  Sometimes they look cartoonish and silly, other times they appear more real and believable.  This could be the difference of some practical lycans having been used in some sequences as opposed to others.  Still, it’s all a real lazy job done with them as a whole.  None of the transformations were particularly impressive as they lack the harsh, visceral quality that we saw in the series’ earlier installments.  It really is a mystery why, with more than triple the budget of the first movie and nine years of progress in digital effects, does the CGI here look inferior to that of the original 2003 Underworld.  Maybe too much of that budget went to the 3D aspects of the film, which have no impact on a viewer who doesn’t view films in 3D, such as myself.  The vast majority of the digital effects of this film are a substandard failure.

I will confirm to you that Scott Speedman does not reprise his role of Michael Corvin in this film, but the character does appear.  The filmmakers simply hired a not-so-convincing look alike and used some digital effects to mask that fact, but it’s pretty clear to my eyes what they did.  As a result, Michael is barely seen in the film, and I think that is a severe negative mark against this film.  Firstly, what they did comes off as cheap and obvious.  If they could have gotten Speedman, we could’ve at least had some substantive scenes with the character who was so pivotal to the start of this whole series.  To do what they have done just feels disrespectful to the foundations of this franchise.  Selene developed into the character we now know because of Michael, and everything erupted in this first film over Michael.  To now sweep him under the rug or hide him in the dark corner works against the story that they have here.  It feels like there’s this gaping hole in the film that is never plugged up due to his absence.  It forces Selene into a more isolated and coldly violent state of mind which is a huge step backwards for her.

In the least, this felt like the wrong direction to take the series’ storyline in.  The end of Underworld: Evolution left the possibilities wide open for something radically different and brave to be done.  Instead, what we get is very bland and narrow.  I also remember the filmmakers saying after Evolution that they weren’t going to go the route of Selene and Michael having a child together, but here it is.  Not to mention, it’s done with the least amount of effort possible.  It just feels like they took the creative low road, and it resulted in a cheap substitute for not having Michael present.  There are now very few places they could take another sequel because they have setup a very restrictive world for our characters.  They can’t simply exist in the world as it is.  Any new film has to deal with vampires and lycans being exposed to the world at large, and thus, no film can just be about vampires and lycans anymore.  This is what I do not like about this film’s premise.  It takes the war between vampire and lycan and shoves humans prominently into it.  This makes the human race the dominant aggressors due to manpower and resources.  While the story is able to twist it back around to being primarily between the vampires and lycans, the world is already set as both races being fully exposed and hunted by humanity.  That just drains all the interesting qualities from the base premise of this series.  Compared to how immensely textured and fascinating these vampire and lycan characters had been, making humans such a large and oppressive cog in this dynamic hits like a dull thud to me.  The history of both species are essentially meaningless now.  None of that will be explored any further because it’s about genetics, cloning, and humans trying to eradicate both species like a plague.  There’s no personal depth to humans being the enemy.  The first two films were interesting because they dealt with personal loyalties, deceptions, secrets, lies, and emotional motivations on both sides.  It was a very complex web that was intriguing to see unravel, but now, all of these fascinating characters are dead and none of the new ones have any textured history to explore.  It’s very hollow, and that essentially explains this film in general.  It’s a lot of flash and action with little substance.  The story it tells doesn’t even push the franchise forward.  It leaves it stalled out, dead in the water.  This film really doesn’t care much for developed plots or characters, unlike it’s predecessors.

The actual villains in the film are boring to no end.  There’s nothing on the page or in the performances to make an audience give a damn about what they’re doing or why.  Stephen Rea is certainly a better actor than this film demonstrates.  He’s entirely phoning this performance in.  There’s no passion in anything he does as Dr. Jacob Lane, and the plot twist with him still left me not caring.  No one else around him does anything worth caring about either.  These are pointless, empty, disposable villains.  I can feel the lack of giving a damn coming directly from the script.  Previously, you’ve had Viktor, Lucian, and Markus as powerful, vibrant, and intense foils for our protagonists.  They had a lush depth and emotional vigor that made them compelling to watch.  They were written greatly and portrayed brilliantly by some amazing actors.  They felt dimensional, real, and purposeful.  The supposed villains of this film couldn’t be a more stark opposite to all of that.  When the scripts start falling this far off in quality from where the franchise started, you know the direct-to-video market is not far away.

I will admit that Charles Dance does a rather good job as Thomas, the head of the diminished vampire coven.  Dance puts in the effort to make a poignant impression upon the audience for Thomas to have relevance.  I felt him channeling Bill Nighy a time or two with his line deliveries.  Of course, it would’ve been wiser for him to not keep trying to talk through the vampire teeth, or at least, have him re-record his dialogue in post-production.  It just seemed to impede his performance a little, but overall, Charles Dance did well here with a solid, dimensional performance.  Theo James does a fair job as David, but ultimately, it’s a take it or leave it character and performance.  There’s simply no depth or charisma coming from him.  If he had remained dead, it wouldn’t have mattered to me.  Much the same could be said for the rest of the supporting cast.  They are just there to serve a role in the story, but they’re just disposable and forgettable.  Whether they are given some substance or not, they just have no lasting impact.  Even India Eisley offers nothing to endear herself to an audience.  She should be someone we come to care about, but neither the script nor her performance give you anything to latch onto.  Even when the previous films failed to reach an emotional connection with the audience, it wasn’t for a lack of trying by the screenwriters to give depth to the characters.  Here, everyone just exists in the film for the sake of the plot, and they offer up nothing else beyond those narrow, shallow confines.  I’d almost welcome another prequel film just to have some characters I care about show up again.

The film at least has something somewhat worthwhile for Kate Beckinsale to do.  She’s given a decent emotional range to convey with some tears to shed, and some heartfelt concern to struggle with.  However, again, it feels like a step down from where she was in Evolution where there was the bond with Michael to flesh her out and open her up, emotionally.  Here, she’s even more cold blooded and vicious than ever before killing helpless humans left and right on a rampage to find the person she loves.  As always, Beckinsale looks great, and handles the physical demands of the role excellently.  Still, it is a film heavy on the action and lighter on substance.  In the hands of a screenwriter with some enthusiasm and ambition, a great deal more could’ve been done with Selene in this premise.  Themes could’ve been explored in depth about her uncertainty in this new world, and her finding a new purpose with or without Michael.  The ideas of rebuilding the vampires as a strong species could’ve been grappled with more intensely as well.  Instead, these are just background elements to the bland forefront storyline.  I believe Beckinsale has said she will not come back for another film, and I think that’s a wise decision.  She is a very good actress who should focus on expanding her career instead of shackling it to a franchise that is on a steep decline in creative quality.  Not to mention, the filmmakers and screenwriters seem to have no ambition to push the character to anywhere that challenges Beckinsale.  Rarely is any charisma ever is injected into the character, either.  Any expansion on the character’s range is marginal from film-to-film.  There are leaps and bounds they could take Selene with some powerful new stories, but there is just no place for that in this franchise, four films on.  Underworld has settled into a straight action film franchise with some thin emotional strands and increasingly weaker plots and characters.

I think the problem with the franchise is that the filmmakers have never been confronted with the problems of the films.  Therefore, they have never had critical pressure put on them to improve the aspects that have dragged along unchecked from movie to movie.  The odd thing is that they have all been different problems in each movie.  Whether it’s a lack of emotional vibrancy, thoroughly fleshed out stories, or a prequel that doesn’t just retread the same back story we’ve already been told about, the screenwriters and filmmakers just can’t balance out the vital aspects of these films.  There simply doesn’t seem to be a fire lit under the filmmakers of this franchise to push themselves to do more with it.  They settle for something adequate instead of striving for exceptional.  Underworld: Awakening is a blatant example of that slipping, lax attitude.

I honestly only took the time to watch this film in order to round out my reviews of the franchise.  There was nothing I saw of this marketing campaign that gave me any confidence in this sequel.  It is excessively mediocre in almost every aspect.  While I have never viewed any of the films in this series as great, there has been potential here and there that has just never been put together in the same film.  The best aspects of one film combined with those of another could be forged into just the right mix of story, action, and character to make a fully satisfying film.  Instead, we either get something too oppressive in tone and complex in story dragging the excitement of the film away, or something with a lot of good action and excitement with not enough substance to make it feel like a full film.  Underworld: Awakening is the latter done to an excessive degree in addition to populating itself with an array of forgettable characters and bland performances.  It’s never an outright bad film.  It’s just one I fail to care at all about, same as the filmmakers, evidently.  The creative forces behind this film put forth no effort to improve upon the franchise when there was ample opportunity to do so.  It’s disappointing when a franchise fails to reach its full potential when it has good ideas and good talent to start with.  It’s just plain sad when those in charge of it simply stop trying, and that summarizes my feeling on the Underworld series as a whole.  If another sequel is to come, I deeply hope the studio brings some talented writers and filmmakers on board with some original, ambitious ideas to revitalize this series.


Star Wars (1977)

In 1977, an extraordinary motion picture was released that changed filmmaking forever.  It captured the imagination of millions across the world, and has remained a magical and beloved treasure of cinema for more than three decades.  That film was Star Wars, and I am going to share my love and admiration for this film as it was originally released.  Before a mess of mixed quality digital effects were inserted, and other arguable changes were incorporated into the context of this masterpiece, there was the film I grew up with in the age of VHS and cable television.  This film was a major part of my childhood, and I could not even estimate how many times I have watched it.  This was the first program recorded onto my family’s first VHS tape from when it aired on ShowTime.  So, is it any surprise that this is one of the most important films of my life?

In a galaxy far, far away, a brave rebellion fights against a tyrannical Galactic Empire.  When the ship of Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) is attacked and boarded by Imperials troops, she hides secret plans to the Empire’s planet destroying space station – the Death Star – into the memory banks of an Astrodroid – R2-D2.  Along with his fellow droid C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), the two escape to the barren desert planet of Tatoonie where they come under the ownership of Owen & Beru Lars and their farm boy nephew Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill).  Luke yearns for a life away from this dead end planet, but soon, he finds adventure when R2-D2 seeks out Obi-Wan “Ben” Kenobi (Alec Guiness).  Princess Leia recorded a holographic message for the former Jedi Knight and General of the Old Republic to help her in delivering the Death Star plans safely into the hands of the rebellion.  After securing passage aboard the smuggling freighter the Millennium Falcon by way of the cavalier rogue Han Solo and his wooly alien co-pilot Chewbacca, Luke, Ben, and the droids must evade Imperial troops and starships to rescue the Princess before she is executed by the vile Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing) and the powerful Lord Darth Vader.  Along this journey, Kenobi begins to teach Luke the ways of The Force, a mystical energy field that surrounds all living things, binding the galaxy together, and may hold the power to defeating the Empire.

I believe what captured my young mind with this film is the level of wonder and fun.  Having being born in 1980, I only lived in the era following the innovations of Star Wars, but that doesn’t lessen the amazing cinematic visual brilliance of this film.  I didn’t see a widescreen version until the films started airing on the SciFi Channel in the mid-1990s.  So, that’s saying something special about Star Wars.  The quality of everything is so great with dramatic angles, dynamic special effects, and fascinating locations that even only having half the frame still brought massive impact to my eyes.  Just based on nostalgia alone, I can still watch those old grainy VHS tapes in pan-and-scan for that youthful feeling of watching these films on some quiet afternoon in the 1980s.  Of course, no presentation rivals that of the full widescreen aspect ratio.  The compositions are immensely intelligent and rock solid presenting a film that shows it has a solid foundation in the technical qualities of smart filmmaking.

Simply everything about this film inspired my creativity throughout the years.  George Lucas was an ambitious visionary who knew what he wanted to achieve, but had to do some building to make it happen.  Industrial Light & Magic was created with a slew of young and passionate people who wanted to create innovative special effects.  They had to build the equipment with some of the first computer controlled cameras to do the blue screen visual effects shots, and basically, they had to invent new ways of doing this type of work.  Watching documentary footage of them doing all of this is immensely historic, and it looks like the pioneers of the industry taking those first major steps forward into a grander future.  Every ounce of sweat, hard work, and long hours paid off.  This is one of the absolute finest special effects pictures ever made.  While there had been other films that had done amazing outer space-based visual effects prior to this, they had never done anything as exciting or dynamic as was done here.  The fast paced motion of ships flying by in dogfights had never been seen before, and made this an intense feast for the eyes.  The scope of these effects were awe-inspiring such as the opening shot of the Rebel Blockade Runner being pursued by the relatively massive Star Destroyer, or the Millennium Falcon’s approach to the gigantic Death Star.  These filmmakers knew how to convey size, weight, and scope with these shots to give them a believable reality.  The laser blasts throughout the film, accompanied by the amazing sound design, are vibrant and intense.  They always convey power and danger.  Of course, while the lightsaber rotoscope effects were still a little rough, one could not help but be fascinated and enthralled by their appearance.

In the late 1970s, films were rarely using traditional orchestral scores since disco and synthesizers were so popular.  However, George Lucas knew that something big, epic, and rich was needed to make this a timeless adventure film.  John Williams had already worked with George’s friend Steven Spielberg on the brilliant blockbuster Jaws, and it was Steven’s suggestion to employ Williams for this task.  In retrospect, there surely was no other way to go.  Star Wars is filled with iconic elements, but those gorgeous, masterful themes of John Williams go above and beyond anything else.  Williams has since defined what a rousing adventurous film score is, and that began here.  He captured every single emotion in this film from big and exciting to low and menacing to quiet and meaningful to magical and mysterious to deeply touching.  Star Wars itself does touch on a wide range of emotions and dramatic tones, and every single one is given such depth and soaring richness with this score.  The iconic scene of Luke peering out at the twin suns of Tatoonie yearning for something greater than himself is wonderfully punctuated with a powerful rendition of the main theme.  The flourishes Williams adds throughout just bring such beautiful life to every moment striking the perfect chords every time.  The musical brilliance of John Williams is lushly on display here, and he more than earned the Academy Award for Best Original Score here.  It’s one of the finest achievements of musical art ever committed to film, and he would still be able to build upon and surpass himself later on in this trilogy.

I believe the casting of Alec Guiness was an invaluable one.  He instilled such a wonderful depth of wisdom, warmth, wit, and world weariness to Ben Kenobi.  Guiness carries a sense of history about him that makes Kenobi fascinating and intriguing.  When Ben speaks of the Old Republic, there’s a heartbreaking weight behind it.  You feel the burden of history upon Kenobi’s heart and mind.  While Lucas had not yet concretely decided upon the back story of Star Wars as we’ve come to know it, you can surely read all that we do know into Guiness’ subtle, intelligent, and emotional performance.  His is one of the most powerful and textured performances of the entire saga.  He easily endears himself to an audience with his compassion and good nature.  It doesn’t take long for Ben’s wisdom and caring manner to influence Luke.  While the young Skywalker could still be a little brash, the trust is built right from the start, and it’s very much the tempered wisdom of Obi-Wan Kenobi that guides Luke down the right path.

Now, I have a lot of respect for Mark Hamill as an actor.  Seeing how he grew with the character of Luke Skywalker is a remarkable achievement that I don’t think enough people give him credit for.  Here, he starts out as an eager young man who is in awe of the wide, adventurous galaxy out there, and frustrated with being stuck on this barren world on the outer rim of that galaxy.  Through Luke, an audience is introduced to and experiences the excitement, danger, and wonder of this galaxy far, far away.  Mark Hamill brings that fresh faced youthful energy and desire to the role.  He feels natural and authentic in everything he puts into the role.  He embodies the wide-eyed and open minded innocence of Luke Skywalker perfectly.  Some have called Hamill whiny as Luke.  They’re not looking close enough at what he’s doing opposite such great talents as Alec Guiness and Harrison Ford.  I like the banter between Luke and Han.  The eager, young kid creating friction with the weathered ego of Solo results in some great funny moments that work very well.  Luke has no problem challenging Han’s ego, and eventually, I think Han comes to respect that spirit in him.

Of course, no one else could’ve portrayed Han Solo as well as Harrison Ford.  He brought a cool swagger and sex appeal which really popped off the screen.  The laid back confidence and charisma made the character feel seedy and dangerous.  He’s a guy who could casually fry an alien bounty hunter in a shady cantina without hesitation or breaking a sweat.  He doesn’t wait for Greedo to make a move.  He intends on shooting him right from the start, and only strings Greedo along until the moment is right.  He’s a definite rogue out for himself only, along with his loyal Wookie friend Chewbacca, but I love seeing how that loner attitude slowly softens as he starts to care for Luke.  Ford nicely shows that transition from rugged, egotistical outlaw to reliable, hopeful friend.  I find it sly and clever how Harrison Ford worked off of Peter Mayhew’s Chewbacca.  How Ford leans up against his seven foot tall, lanky frame in certain scenes reinforces that casual swagger of Solo.  These two really felt like two old buddies who had seen it all and been through it all.  They’ll back one another up every step of the way, and aren’t afraid to rush into danger, whether it’s wise or not.

Princess Leia is a great change of pace.  She’s not a helpless damsel in distress.  She can easily handle herself in tough situations whether it’s trading stinging words with the icy Grand Moff Tarkin, or grabbing up a blaster and fending off Stormtroopers in a firefight.  She has solid, inspiring leadership qualities mixed with a sense of warmth and compassion that are strongly brought to life by Carrie Fisher.  It’s great seeing that this young woman can be a very diplomatic, even tempered person in addition to being sternly intelligent and aggressive.  She is not intimidated by Vader or Tarkin, but when others are threatened, you clearly see the humanity that is her core.  It’s also a great dynamic between Leia and Han Solo.  She’s not going to take any of his ego or machismo, and he clearly doesn’t want to suffer any of her insults.  It’s a beautiful piece of writing and chemistry that both Fisher and Ford play up well to comedic effect.  It’s a very nice building block for where the following film would take their characters.

The cast overall is great.  The characters are very distinct and diverse ranging all the way from Anthony Daniels’ sophisticated, yet cowardly droid C-3PO to the amazing Peter Cushing’s razor sharp, authoritative, cold-blooded Tarkin.  It’s interesting that Darth Vader is handled as a secondary villain under Tarkin’s command.  Vader has an undoubtedly powerful, imposing presence that makes him more mysterious and intriguing than Tarkin.  He’s truly a definite dark opposite to Ben Kenobi, but I take nothing away from Peter Cushing’s chillingly theatrical performance.  Having the voice of Vader being provided by the exceptional James Earl Jones was a stroke of genius.  Along with that brilliant respirator sound effect, Jones was integral in making the character as powerful and commanding as he has become.  While he looked immensely awesome and striking, with the wrong voice it never would have worked.

Now, there are people that regard the lightsaber duel between Vader and Kenobi here as the most boring.  I greatly disagree.  It’s actually one of my favorites.  It has a great sense of two old Samurai from a war long ago meeting again to close out unfinished business.  They are not the vigorous young men they once were, but there’s a matter of honor or revenge to settle that neither can deny.  There’s something to prove in one way or another for them both, and it is that aura which elevates the sequence for me.  Their words hold great weight on a very deep personal level, but for Kenobi, there’s something greater at stake than himself.

I believe the writing of humor here is very smart.  It’s always a natural product of the situation or contrasting personalities.  R2-D2 is kind of spunky, and C-3PO is certainly a little uppity.  So, there’s some magical comedic gold which extends from that, but never hijacks the tone of the film.  It adds to the fun and entertainment value.  It accentuates the personalities of the characters, and builds relationships.  The humor is used as an excellent tool to bond these characters together.  They might irritate one another, but eventually, they build a mutual respect through all the shared emotions in these intense life-or-death situations.

The film really does have a wonderful story structure.  We follow these two lowly droids firstly who constantly push the story towards introducing Luke, then Ben Kenobi.  Their actions initiate this slow assembling of an unlikely heroic team built through unexpected situations.  The story nicely transitions into Luke Skywalker being the audience’s guide through this world, allowing us to feel his plight, and incorporating his journey with that of the overall plot.  Ultimately, it comes down to an ensemble piece where each character has a purpose and opportunity to be heroic.  They all have their threads, either plot or character based, that carry them through this adventure, and that’s a clever achievement.  No one’s ever just tagging along without something to contribute or gain from this experience.

The Empire is firmly established right from the start as a dominant, oppressive entity in opposition of the smaller rebel forces.  It’s also a nice juxtaposition where the Imperial Stormtroopers are fully armored, masking their human features while the rebel troopers are clearly human.  It shows that the Empire is rather cold and lacking in humanity while the rebellion is very much about people.  This is a motif carried through the whole film.  Even the TIE Fighter pilots have full respirator gear on while the X-Wing pilots can clearly be seen to the audience.  It’s a very smart visual idea that is realized strongest in Darth Vader.

I also love the seedy parts of the Mos Eisley Cantina sequence.  Touching upon Han Solo’s shady world of smuggling, bounty hunters, and gangsters gives even more flavor and depth to this universe.  It adds an extra layer of danger and treachery to this greater galaxy that we are being introduced to.  The alien designs, while rough with limited rubber masks, still remain effective today.  I can see and understand what George Lucas’ frustrations were with this sequence as he hoped for much higher quality masks and such, it’s still an iconic scene that really captured the imagination of audiences.

While Star Wars is generally a fun, rousing adventure film, it doesn’t shy away from the darker dramatic beats.  The death of Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru is a very striking moment that penetrates deep inside Luke’s heart and soul, as it does for the audience.  It’s an unsettling, grim scene followed directly after by Darth Vader about to implement a very foreboding interrogation upon Princess Leia.  These setup the dangers our heroes have to face that will motivate them forward.  However, it’s great seeing that Luke never goes down the path of vengeance.  He remains true to who he is and to his friends.  He also knows there’s a greater good to fight for, and he is fully committed to that.  These heavier dramatic beats throughout the film create emotional obstacles for Luke.  The loss of family and friends test his strength of spirit, and pushes him further towards believing in The Force.

The idea of The Force is an excellent one that plays into the mystical, spiritual, and magical.  Luke must believe in something beyond himself to tap into this power.  He learns to trust in himself by way of The Force to accomplish great things.  We are gradually shown the extent of The Force with subtle feelings and tricks at first, but it all builds up to and pays off largely in the climax as Luke lets go of the cold technology to embrace The Force to defeat the cold, oppressive Galactic Empire.  Kenobi becoming “More powerful than you can possibly imagine” to guide Luke in this assault on the Death Star enhances the depth of The Force overall.  It’s something greater than any one person or thing, but if you trust in it fully, it can be yours to command to achieve the incredible.

Speaking of which, Star Wars is filled with incredible action that brings back that swashbuckling mentality of those old serials George Lucas grew up loving.  Backed by that thrilling John Williams score, these are sequence that satisfy in a big way.  In an era of film where things had gotten mostly dark, gritty, and explicitly violent, Star Wars made action fun again without sacrificing suspense, tension, or danger.  The heroes keep getting into increasingly more perilous scenarios where they have to be smart and innovative to escape and survive.  It’s one bad turn after another, which brings the film some humor and excitement, but these situations are never played lightly.  There’s always a real, imminent threat.  This maintains a tight, solid pace.  The film simply has exceptional editing along with superb cinematography.  George Lucas had a great approach to the editing in having the edits dictate the rhythm and pace of scenes instead of the performances.  This ultimately created a much sharper and snappier pace.

The entire climactic assault on the Death Star is one of the best space battle sequences ever.  The amazing, dynamic visual effects cinematography creates an exhilarating cinematic experience.  George Lucas has always been fascinated by speed, and he accentuates that with this sequence.  The fighters are always in motion with an environment that blurs by at a breakneck speed.  The dogfights are nothing short of amazing.  It all builds to a nerve racking apex, and how it ends must have had audiences on their feet cheering back in 1977.

Star Wars remains a triumphant motion picture that should stand and be preserved for all time.  It’s a massive part of cinematic history which revolutionized filmmaking in every aspect.  It was innovative and marvelous on a technical level.  Still, despite all these awe-inspiring visual effects and technical achievements, this is a story that is all about its characters.  It never loses sight of the human aspect, and that is what drives this film into excellence.  George Lucas once said that special effects are just a means of telling a story, and that without a story, they mean nothing.  At this point in time, he showed us exactly what that meant.  He crafted a wondrous, exciting, adventurous, and emotional story first, and then, incorporated those groundbreaking special effects to tell that story in the most original and powerful way possible.  For the last thirty-five years, this film has excited audiences like few other films can.  Lucas took classic archetypes of literature and the classic hero’s journey, and molded and melded them into one of the best adventure films of all time.  Audiences at the time had never seen anything like this before, and could never imagine that another Star Wars film could equal, let alone surpass this one.  It would not be an easy feat, but in the right hands, it would become possible.


Masters of the Universe (1987)

There are many things from my childhood that haven’t stuck with me in my adult years.  Various cartoons don’t hold up to those youthful memories, but what has remained an indomitable favorite of mine has been He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.  I own the entire original series on DVD, and I still enjoy those episodes as much today as I did as a kid in the 1980s.  It still rekindles that inspiring morality and heroic admiration in me.  The show had a lot of heart and genuine care put into it, and it did have some smart thematic writing amongst its silliness.  Beyond that, it was a fun cartoon that entertained me.  Obviously, with the success the show had a full scale motion picture was inevitable, but it came at the tail end of the franchise’s 1980s popularity.  It bombed at the box office for more reasons than just the franchise’s loss of popularity.  I grew up watching this movie repeatedly, and while it has its undeniable problems, I still find something entertaining and worthwhile in 1987’s Masters of the Universe.  Beyond anything else, it features one of the absolute best villainous performances in the history of cinema from one incredible actor.

For ages, the Sorceress of Grayskull (Christina Pickles) has kept the universe in harmony, but now, Skeletor (Frank Langella) – the evil lord of Snake Mountain – has taken absolute rule over the Planet Eternia, and Castle Grayskull is under siege from his sinister forces.  Now, the mighty hero He-Man (Dolph Lundgren) and his fellow Eternian warriors are the only hope for freedom, but these courageous heroes are soon transported to Earth via the Cosmic Key – the latest creation from the peaceful inventor Gwildor (Billy Barty).  Stranded on Earth, He-Man comes to the aid of a pair of youths (Courteney Cox and Robert Duncan McNeill), and their two journeys quickly become one as they battle through Skeletor’s mercenaries in the attempt to free the Sorceress and save the universe from the tyrannical domination of Skeletor.

What easily polarizes the faithful He-Man fans are the distinct departures or obvious omissions from the established property.  The Prince Adam alter ego is never addressed.  Dolph Lundgren is He-Man throughout the entire movie, and no mention is ever made of his secret identity.  No one questions where the Prince of Eternia is, and we do not get treated to the bombastic transformation sequence from Prince Adam into He-Man.  Thus, there is no Cringer / Battle Cat.  Orko, the comical sorcerer who floats around in the cartoon, is essentially replaced by Gwildor.  Most likely, that was due to the excessive cost of having an optical composite of a single character appearing regularly throughout the movie.  The only regular cohorts of Skeletor’s that appear are Beast Man and Evil-Lynn.  Blade, Saurod, and Karg are brand new characters that were exclusively created for this movie.  There are other minor things here and there, but those are the meaty chunks.  Obviously, new characters meant new action figures to market and make money from.  So, I doubt Mattel had many qualms about swapping out established favorites for fresh creations.  Of course, for those anticipating a big live action motion picture adaptation of these characters, Masters of the Universe certainly didn’t reach those base expectations.

However, there is still definite quality here that deserves some respect and credit.  Apart from the Earth-based sequences, where there’s not much to show off, the production design is highly impressive.  A great amount of thought and detail went into the matte paintings, sets, costumes, and props.  While budget constraints hindered the story, what we get presented to us shows a lot of hard work and care in what these professional filmmakers did do.  These were people who were trying to give us the best film they could, and I think it shows through the shortcomings.

Skeletor himself and his mercenaries look incredible and frightening due to the masterful work of Michael Westmore.  He is most acclaimed for his work on numerous Star Trek television series and movies.  I constantly find it amazing how exceptional practical creature effects were done on budgets like this film’s $22 million.  Today, even with hundreds of millions of dollars, we continually see digital creature effects fall so far short that it’s sad.  When you have the talent on board to create these physical masterworks, they cannot be beat.  Skeletor is an amazing achievement creating a powerful and textured look that has both a bony and fleshy appearance.  The filmmakers made it a point to allow the make-up and prosthetics the ability to have Frank Langella’s performance show through in detail, and that was absolutely the right approach.  Beast Man can be ferociously terrifying just at the sight of him, not mentioning the violent things he’s capable of doing.  Saurod is just a brilliant creation with a great reptilian style that actor Pons Maar really accentuates with his performance.  The addition of the expanding gills just brings so much realistic life to the character.  Karg is probably the least fascinating on a character level.  He’s written as just a regular team leader, and doesn’t strike nearly as much fear as his cohorts do.  Still, the design of him is exceptionally realized.  However, my favorite character of the bunch, which features no make-up effects, but has a very sharp and dangerous outfit, is Anthony De Longis as Blade.  The character has plenty of vile charisma, and it’s nice to see a character designed to be a challenge for He-Man in a sword fight.  De Longis is an exceptionally accomplished swordsman and a master handler of the bullwhip.  He later appeared in two episodes of Highlander: The Series in some marvelous sword battles.  He was also Frank Langella’s stunt double for the film’s climactic clash.  As far as the bullwhip goes?  He was the trainer for both Michelle Pfeiffer in Batman Returns and Harrison Ford in the fourth Indiana Jones movie.  Anthony De Longis is an amazing talent, and the filmmakers of Masters of the Universe were very fortunate to have him involved.

The visual effects produced by Richard Edlund hold up quite well.  Edlund had already worked on the special visual effects for all three of the original Star Wars movies as well as Raiders of the Lost Ark, Ghostbusters, and Big Trouble in Little China.  His body of work speaks for itself, and this film showed no fall off from his standards of excellence.  The portal opened by the Cosmic Key looks magical and beautiful with its vibrant, swirling colors.  It’s amazing effects work that I don’t think even digital technology could improve upon.  It’s work done by the masters of visual effects, and that quality is richly evident.  The matte paintings are absolutely gorgeous.  I really love a beautifully done matte painting, and this film has a few with Castle Grayskull being the biggest standout.  Its design is a distinct departure from previous depictions, but it looks no less imposing or mysterious in this film.  The optical composites integrating flying objects and vehicles into the live action footage are generally alright.  The process always left a little something to be desired.  In this film, it’s quite good with probably the most strained quality coming in the hovercraft chase between He-Man and the Centurion.  The chase itself is well conceived and flows into the action of the overall sequence well.  The compositing itself is just about as good as it got, but the shots of them flying through the city streets and around buildings definitely lack a sense of real gravity or weight.  However, I can’t confidently say whether or not it could have been done any better than these filmmakers did it at the time.

I’ve heard people criticize the score done by Bill Conti as being a John Williams rip-off of Star Wars or Superman.  Conti did the scores for five of the six Rocky movies and all of the original films in The Karate Kid franchise.  The man has more than proven his worth as a composer to me.  While I clearly hear what it is those critics have pointed out, frankly, there is no other type of score one should expect from a 1980s science fiction / fantasy adventure film.  It entirely suits the tone and style of the film.  It’s very rich, colorful, dramatic, and epic.  It captures that rousing spirit that should come with a He-Man adventure.  There is nothing bad or wrong with the score Conti did for Masters of the Universe.

I do believe that Dolph Lundgren did a fine job as He-Man.  Between the script and his performance, the moral heroic nature of the character is maintained.  Lundgren projects a good depth of heart and compassion for his friends and the innocent.  He’s a hero that will sacrifice himself to protect others, which is purely He-Man.  There were plenty of times on the cartoon where He-Man would risk himself to even save an enemy because he believed all life was worth protecting, and much of that is respected here.  Lundgren did all his own stunts, and it clearly shows.  He handles the demanding and nicely dynamic action of the film very well.  Lundgren made He-Man a solid hero to get behind and believe in.  I know he had a difficult time shooting the film, but in the eyes of a devoted He-Man fan, I strongly feel he did the character great justice and respect.  I also love the quality put into his costuming.  Adding the elegant red cape was a very good choice for a live action version of He-Man.  It gives him a stronger visual aesthetic mixed in with the other finely detailed elements of the outfit.

However, what truly brings a bold sense of excellence to this movie is Frank Langella’s masterful performance as Skeletor.  Langella is a brilliant actor that regularly brings a great theatrical style to his performances, as I’ve also seen in his turn as Dracula, and in this role, he dominates the screen with a presence that enthralls and captivates an audience’s attention.  You can feel Skeletor’s lust for supreme power absorbing into every fiber of his being, and how his conquest of Eternia has fueled his ambition.  Langella brings an immense depth and power to a character that had always been cackling and comical before.  Skeletor is finally the frightening figure of villainy and sorcery that he deserved to be.  Vaporizing one of his own mercenaries due to their failure, inflicting vile wounds upon the innocent, and making the heroes suffer under his tyrannical rule are richly evil aspects which build towards a great character.  Under Langella’s talent, Skeletor is intelligent and calculating with a confidence that borders on arrogance.  The overall design further enhances his performance.  The deep contrast between the gorgeous black flowing attire and the stark white skull-like facial prosthetics created a bold, striking appearance that inevitably helped fuel the performance.  In my eyes, Frank Langella portrays one of the absolute best villains in all of cinema.  Between his performance and the depth of pure, unforgiving evil that Skeletor embodies here, I would even elevate it above Darth Vader.  It’s only a shame that it wasn’t in a more critically and commercially successful movie for Langella to get the wide spread recognition he deserved.  Thankfully, in interviews, Frank Langella has stated that Skeletor was one of his favorite roles, and that elevates my respect for the man higher than you can imagine.

Of course, Meg Foster turns in a magnificent Evil-Lynn.  Her naturally haunting, mesmerizing eyes were a perfect fit for this elegantly evil and darkly bewitching character.  She definitely brings a comparable amount of theatrical depth and presence to that of Langella.  She has a great intelligent authority about her which immediately puts someone like Karg back in his lowly place.  Evil-Lynn clearly has a deep desire and admiration for Skeletor that she hungers to have reciprocated, and she goes through a subtle arc in relation to this which is beautifully done.

John Cypher brings a solid seasoned quality to the weather soldier of Duncan, aka Man-At-Arms, and handles the lighter moments just as great as the heavier drama.  Teela is brought to spirited and credible life by Chelsea Field who holds her firmly.  Christina Pickles does a fine, convincing job as the Sorceress with what little she can do while held captive, standing still inside of Skeletor’s energy field.  Even James Tolkan does an immensely entertaining job as the tough, hardened Detective Lubic who is not afraid to jump into action.  The performance is pretty standard for him from similar roles in Top Gun and Back to the Future, but he puts his all into it playing very well off of everyone.  He was definitely having fun on this film.  Courteney Cox and Robert Duncan McNeill have a very genuine and realistic chemistry as Julie and Kevin.  Cox showcases the emotional depth she is well known for today, and McNeill offers up a lot of strength and heart opposite her.

However, I do have to agree with many that Gwildor is not a particularly good addition.  He’s essentially just irritating comic relief boosting the silliness of the Earth based scenes.  Yes, he is a replacement for Orko, but the difference between the characters is simple: charm.  Orko was an unintentional trouble-maker and surely not the wisest of the regular heroes, but he was endearing with a wealth of charm and good intentions.  He was a little guy with a big heart who could be valuable in the right situations, and always was lovable.  Gwildor is just quirky and lacks any endearing qualities in the long run.  Billy Barty does add some value to the character with his performance, but ultimately, it’s not a character that leaves a lasting impression.  In fact, he’s a conduit for a lot of the cringe inducing bad comedy of the film, which I will get into shortly.  To say the least, no one’s ever clamored for Gwildor to be integrated into any other He-Man continuity, and that’s for very good reasons.

Now, the sole major problem with this film is the fact that the bulk of it takes place on Earth.  This is where the budgetary constraints impacted the story that could be told.  Shooting in practical locations and city streets cut down on costs for sets, more matte paintings, and other convincing fantasy elements in the film.  Even elements on Eternia were constantly being cutout due to the tight budget including scenes set at Skeletor’s Snake Mountain.  This isn’t so much like Highlander II: The Quickening where the awfulness of the film stemmed from a poorly conceived script.  Those filmmakers had the money and talent to make something really good, but just didn’t have the sensible creativity to do so.  I believe, if Cannon Films had the lucrative finances to put more money behind this, which was their most expensive movie ever produced, we would’ve gotten a richer and more faithful adaptation of this property.  When you’re shackled by a budget to do less than what the property deserves, one can hardly blame the film’s failure on creative ambition.  The filmmakers wanted to do more, but were entirely unable to do so.  Conceptual artists created numerous excellent drawings for things that were jettisoned including a revamped look for He-Man’s sister She-Ra, and several scripted Eternia-based scenes were never filmed due to the budget.  Simply put, their ambition exceeded their resources, but that didn’t stop the filmmakers from doing the best they could with what they had.

The characters of Julie and Kevin are fine, and their story is just fine on its own.  Courteney Cox and Robert Duncan McNeil put in very good acting jobs with this material making their characters quite likable and relatable.  The fact that they are part of a science fiction / fantasy adventure film is what doesn’t work so well.  Everyone intending to see this didn’t go into it wanting to see some teenage drama about a high school rock band keyboardist and his girlfriend who mourns the tragic death of her parents.  In its own appropriately themed movie, these would be well done character elements for a decent story, but it’s a lot of unnecessary baggage here to force Julie and Kevin more into the forefront.  It gets tied into the main story in a minor illusionary way which was actually done to great comedic effect in Spaceballs, released the same year.  Their roles in the film are very well written, and are purposefully integrated into the overall story.  Admittedly, I’ve never had a particular problem with the characters or their part in the movie, but I’m approaching it from a standpoint of, “Is this what the film really needed?”  The answer is no.  It’s one thing to take the story where they did due to budgetary shortcomings, but another to give Kevin and Julie equal screentime to He-Man and clearly more than Skeletor.  This is not a film that’s supposed to be about these two teenagers.  It’s a film about the heroes and villains of this scientifically advanced and wondrously magical world of Eternia battling for the power of the universe.  That’s what He-Man and the Masters of the Universe is meant to be about, and there’s just a little too much diverted away from that epic concept in this movie.  There is this fascinating array of vibrant characters to explore and spotlight, but the film gives a large portion of its attention to its two least fascinating characters.  It is thankful that good actors were cast in those roles, and they were well conceived and well written characters.  It’s just that they don’t belong in a Masters of the Universe motion picture.  It would be easier for me to gripe about this if the characters were stupid and badly portrayed, but they’re not.  It’s all very well done, but objectively speaking, it’s just not what this movie needed to have to be successful.

Again, the quality of what we get in performance and direction is something I have zero gripes with.  Gary Goddard did a very coherent and solid job balancing out these unconventional elements.  However, it does get quite silly, and it goes a little over the edge at times due to Gwildor’s comedic antics.  Granted, it is nearly impossible to avoid some of this silliness considering there is this stark contrast in juxtaposing a highly fantastical world with one that’s very much grounded in our own reality.  Characters are inevitably going to have peculiar, humorous reactions.  At this time, there seemed to be a running trend of fantasy movies which transposed sword and sorcery characters into a modern day Earth setting.  Beastmaster 2: Through The Portal of Time is probably the next most notable (or notorious) film that did this.  It’s a very strange trend that is difficult to understand how or why it repeatedly occurred.  This usually resulted in rather ridiculous movies that can’t be taken seriously.  Masters of the Universe does fare better because, on the whole, it’s keeping its serious characters on track with the urgent, dramatic storyline, and maintains the integrity of those characters.  The humor is just a by-product of that obvious juxtaposition, but Gwildor doesn’t help to reinforce the drama of the film.  The comedy interplay with the cow, the stealing of the bucket of chicken with a grappling hook, and the horrendous pink Cadillac introduced by him really push the film into stupid territory.  The film could’ve desperately done without those cringable gags.  Gwildor alone could’ve threatened to derail the film into farcical territory if the script had gone off the deep end.  Thankfully, enough restraint was shown, and we are spared that sort of horrendously bad cinema.

Veering back towards the positive is the excellent cinematography.  Listening to Gary Goddard’s audio commentary on the film’s DVD reveals that he had to fight to get the Cinematographer to use more colorful or “hyper-reality” color schemes.  So, it is Goddard to credit with the richer neon lighting and slight haze that gives the film a visual vibrancy or atmosphere in many scenes.  However, the camera work is very solid.  There are plenty of great long shots which sweep around and move in on Skeletor’s face to punctuate a scene, or just one take scenes which smartly keep the actors moving with different shot sizes and compositions.  Camera movement is used very effectively.  The sets and locations are really well displayed with strong lighting, and we get a good amount of scope where it counts.  The film has plenty of artistic visual merit.

There is just some good, solid action in this movie.  He-Man is definitely given some steep odds to combat to sell his greatness as a powerful warrior and hero.  He’s built up nicely as having nary an equal.  He is a valiant champion who fights with all his heart and might.  This makes the build up to the climax even better when Skeletor finally has him as his prisoner, and He-Man must battle back after being beaten down and almost defeated.  This leads to a very good final duel between him and Skeletor.  Surely, something more elaborate was originally intended for this climactic clash, but director Gary Goddard had to plead to get some extra money from Cannon Films, who was in financial trouble at this time, just to shoot this more stylized and limited climax.  It’s certainly not as excellent as say Optimus Prime versus Megatron in 1986’s Transformers: The Movie, but it’s a fine duel that caps off the film nicely.

I didn’t realize how long this review was going to be.  So many people have panned this film outright that I thought I had another Highlander II: The Quickening to more or less talk about, but once I actually started thinking about it, Masters of the Universe is not remotely that bad of a movie.  This is most certainly due to the amazing high caliber talents employed on this picture.  You have an Academy Award winning visual effects producer, an Academy & Emmy Award winning special make-up effects artist, an Academy Award winning film composer, and the Academy Award winning film editor of Lawrence of Arabia that all worked on Masters of the Universe!  There was conceptual artwork done by the amazing artist Moebius, who also did designs for Alien and TRON before this, and later, Willow and The Abyss.  This might have been a Cannon Film produced by Golan-Globus, which were bonafide marks of B-grade 80s action-ploitation cinema, but with that depth of artistic merit behind it, it now does not surprise me that this film turned out as good as it did.  This review started out with the thought of pointing out a few positive marks in an otherwise bad movie that I have always enjoyed, and while this film still had far to go to be the exemplary adaptation it should have been, this is a very well made movie.  While the concept is undeniably flawed, it is generally well written and executed, save for the sillier bits.  Most of the things that are bad in Masters of the Universe are really just bad in concept as the execution is largely very good, even great at times.  I know there are people out there that aren’t going to believe that this movie is not as bad as its reputation suggests.  Expectations definitely feed a lot into one’s overall reaction to a movie, and maybe I have the luxury of growing up on this from age seven onwards to give it this expectation-free point of view.  I still really love the original cartoon to this day, and I might happen to enjoy this movie just a little more now after this in-depth review.

As I’ve just learned, the film will be released on Blu Ray Disc from Warner Bros. on October 2nd, 2012.  It is touted as a “25th Anniversary Edition,” but aside from a high-definition transfer and comparable surround sound audio tracks, it features nothing different than what was on the 2001 DVD release.


Total Recall (2012)

I never cared for the original Total Recall from director Paul Verhoeven.  It has always come off as a little too low grade and too strange for my aesthetic tastes.  So, I had no qualms about this remake or re-adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.”  Plus, trading the corny camp fun of Verhoeven’s movie for a more serious action thriller tone does more consistently appeal to my tastes.  Although, I also did not have high expectations for this movie.  The film seemed mildly worth checking out, and it turns out to be just exactly that.  It’s surely not a bad film by any stretch, just an underdeveloped one that fails to truly grab hold of an audience tightly.

In the late twenty-first century, global chemical warfare has made the vast majority of the world uninhabitable, and Earth is divided into two superpowers, the United Federation of Britain and The Colony, who are locked in a battle for supremacy to unify the world.  Citizens of The Colony and the UFB travel between the two nations via a super massive underground gravity elevator, called “The Fall”, which takes them directly through the core of the Earth, emerging on the opposite side of the planet in under 20 minutes.  Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell) is a factory worker who, despite having a beautiful, loving wife in Lori (Kate Beckinsale), is plagued by violent nightmares and has grown tired of his monotonous life in The Colony.  Welcome to Rekall, the company that can turn your dreams into real memories.  For  Quaid, the mind-trip sounds like the perfect vacation from his frustrating life – real memories of life as a super-spy might be just what he needs.  However, when the procedure goes horribly wrong, Quaid becomes a hunted man.  His wife tries to kill him revealing herself to be a highly trained undercover UFB agent.  Finding himself on the run from the police – controlled by Chancellor Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston), the leader of the free world – Quaid teams up with rebel fighter Melina (Jessica Biel) to find Matthias, the head of the underground resistance (Bill Nighy), and stop Cohaagen.  The line between fantasy and reality gets blurred and the fate of his world hangs in the balance as Quaid discovers his true identity, his true love, and his true fate.

This film showcased some potential.  I think it had some very good talents behind it, and a solid, fresh direction on where to go with itself.  As I said, there is nothing outright bad about this Total Recall.  The action is sensational most times.  There are very inventive action sequences all over this film backed up by some mostly excellent cinematography and editing.  There are few hectic moments where it gets close to that shaky-cam quick cut mentality, but backs off it enough to avoid raising my ire.  The more physically demanding action set pieces are greatly conceived and executed.  Director Len Wiseman has always believed in doing stunts and effects as much practically as possible, and that always adds more punch to his action.  Everything looked like real people doing real stunts, and that is immensely admirable.  More effects heavy sequences are also nicely done with no CGI ever looking cheap.  The visual effects teams did a remarkable job creating a very realistic, seamless futuristic world.  Even the robotic soldiers appeared entirely photorealistic and interacted with the actual actors naturally.  However, despite this, I couldn’t really get into the film like a normal action movie.  Despite seeing it on opening night, the very large theatre I was in was barely one quarter full, if that much, and no one else ever seemed to have any rousing reaction to what was happening in the movie.  It’s not the action that’s the issue, it’s the underdeveloped characters.

I don’t necessarily feel anyone was miscast in the film.  I do feel that the screenplay did very little to develop Colin Farrell’s Douglas Quaid or any of the other protagonists.  The beginning of the film is nicely setup as most anyone can relate to Quaid’s situation.  He’s an everyman that’s a slave to the grind who just has the need for something more in his life, some kind of release.  You can really sympathize with him through this part of the film as every element of it is wonderfully executed with the right emotional touches.  However, once the plot kicks in, and he is thrust into this intense situation where he doesn’t know what’s happening or why, his character becomes terribly lacking in development or depth.  The film has little moments here and there that try to have the audience connect with Quaid, but it’s just never enough.  These moments just fall a little too flat because there’s no real substance behind them.  Colin Farrell can be charismatic and very fun in the right roles.  He does have the ability to give a very strong, dimensional, and entertaining performance.  However, the script just doesn’t give his character enough depth for Farrell to sink his talent into.  I never got all the way invested in Quaid to feel the peril or excitement of the situations he was in.  I truly tried because I wanted to enjoy this movie, but these characters are not exciting.  You never get into the soul of this character to feel his struggle, or wrap yourself up in his potential mind-bending confusion.  While the action sequences are excellent, I just couldn’t get emotionally invested to care all that much of what happened in them.

The exact same goes for Jessica Biel as Melina.  She’s supposed to be the love interest to Quaid’s alter ego, but there’s no spark present.  The screenplay almost never gives the characters a moment to connect for the audience’s sake.  I never felt a single strand of emotional bond between the characters, and that’s such a sorely missed opportunity to give the film some emotional substance.  It’s so hard to even say whether or not Farrell and Biel have any chemistry together because the love interest angle is barely played up at all to know that.  It’s really just 98% action sequences between them, and 2% character development.  Even beyond that, the Melina character just doesn’t bring anything substantive to the table.  Again, there is no emotional depth or scripted material to offer up an exciting performance.  I was left with a rather blank impression of the character.  Again, I don’t think the fault falls on Jessica Biel, it’s a failing of the script.

I also strongly believe that Bill Nighy was criminally underused in this film.  His character of Matthias is meant to be an integral figure in this world, but he has essentially one scene which is not written the best it could have been.  Matthias talks some philosophy about self-identity, but it’s very abrupt and clunky how the conversation starts.  There’s no natural flow to it.  It’s clear that his words are meant to have some meaning, but ultimately, become terribly hollow as the film explores none of the ideas he brings up.  It feels very shoehorned in as a quick attempt to make him an insightful character, but it just came off as rushed and purposeless.  I anticipated a more poignant and climactic meeting between Quaid and Matthias.  I anticipated it being a scene where we learn more in depth about the man that Quaid was to gain perspective on the dichotomy between who he is now and who he was before.  It would be a pivotal moment where Quaid has to make a real decision on who he wants to be, and what path he wants to take from here on out.  No such moment exists in this film.  The screenwriters seemed to give the minimal effort towards the conflict of identity in Douglas Quaid.  There’s more confusion from him over the grand scheme plot than his own internal conflict, which is a gross missed opportunity in a film that seemed to have a lot of potential on the surface.  It was also distracting that Bill Nighy put on an American accent for this role, which seems to have had no true purpose.  He is also greatly low key.  One would think that the leader of a resistance movement would be a naturally charismatic or inspiring individual, but Nighy plays Matthias with none of those qualities.  I will say that it’s a nice change of pace to see the usually more intense and theatrical Nighy put forth a more reserved performance, but it just didn’t seem to fit here.

Conversely, the villains of this film are greatly charismatic, energetic, and very enjoyable.  Kate Beckinsale is easily the best thing about the movie.  Her scenes at the beginning as Doug’s wife are very heartfelt and genuine.  There is no question about the authenticity of their relationship and love.  However, once everything turns around on itself, she becomes an amazing villain.  She drops her American accent and plunges full into her natural British one with a wealth of devilish charisma and dogged motivation.  Lori loves the violent requirements of her job, and takes great, ruthless pleasure in hunting down her prey.  Beckinsale can kick ass with the best of them as she is involved in some fantastic and stunningly impressive fight scenes which are very physically demanding.  It’s amazing what she does in this vicious and entertaining role.  She just eats up every ounce of villainy, and clearly has a wealth of fun in the process.  I consistently loved what the film did with her right from the start all the way through to the end.  I can’t say enough about Beckinsale’s performance here.

Also, Bryan Cranston just storms into the film with authority and charisma.  He portrays a great bad guy in Cohaagen.  He throws a lot of power into the character making him a force to contend with.  You don’t need much convincing that Cohaagen is a cutthroat, menacing bad guy.  He unquestionably feels like a man in power, a man in control that has some very sordid and diabolical plans setup.  This is a role that could have easily gone over the top, but Cranston keeps the character grounded and realistic, as do all the actors.  No one ever indulges in cheesy or corny contrivances.  Tonally, it’s a far more serious and straight forward movie than the 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger version.  That’s a refreshing take, and all the actors really grasp onto that cohesively.  It is great that the villains are very formidable and enjoyable, but when the heroes are downplayed so much, it really takes the overall entertainment value out of the movie.  Had the heroes been as exciting and entertaining as the villains, this would be an immensely fun movie.

I noticed this next thing from the trailer, and it started to hit me more as the film got going.  Total Recall seems almost like a science fiction version of The Bourne Identity.  How Quaid just instinctually takes down all the armored police is dead-on to how Jason Bourne assaults the two police officers in the snowy park early on in The Bourne Identity.  There’s even a secretly hidden safety deposit box number where Quaid goes to obtain passports and other spy trade gear, just like in The Bourne Identity.  There are more vague connections here and there, but this issue dissolves quickly after the safety deposit box scene.  It’s not something that really bothers me much now, but more something that snagged my scrutiny in the moment.

Again, the film mainly takes place in two different locations.  The early part of the film is largely contained within the Colony, and I love the production design of it.  It was nice to see Len Wiseman break out of his monotone funk, and give us a more varied, yet still restrained color palette.  The Colony is almost always seen at night with shadowy lighting schemes which give the film a dark richness.  Colors are not vibrant, but they have a strong atmospheric presence.  Blues, greens, reds, and ambers accented by moody lighting really were a pleasure for my eyes.  Everything had a seedy, almost noir quality to it.  Considering this is all based on a work by Philip K. Dick, it’s no surprise that there is some Blade Runner feel to the design of this world, but it has plenty of fresh ideas to offer as well.  The design of the city’s housing comes off as very utilitarian and modular that is continually built upwards.  It looks very logical as a world that could practically exist in our own possible future.  It also certainly makes for a great design element for the film’s early chase sequences as Doug Quaid is constantly falling downwards to street level as it progresses.  However, it did seem odd that while the Colony actually used to be Australia, everything about the culture seemed more like Tokyo, Bangkok, or Singapore.  I think it’s an amazing world that was created, but nothing is ever explained why Australia now has a predominantly Asian cultural aesthetic.

The United Federation of Britain has a far cleaner, but also sterile and bland design.  While the film starts off with a very moody and dark visual style, it now loses a great deal of visual pop when moving into the UFB.  Those scenes are almost entirely during the daytime, and I do very much understand and endorse showing the visual differences between the low class Colony and the more prosperous UFB.  I just think a little more color could’ve gone a long way to improve the visual flare of this portion of the film.  Everything is very white, very clinical making a lot of locales very indistinct.  There’s no character or personality to anything in this environment.  Much of this is meant to be London of the future, and that is definitely a city with a lot of cultural personality today.  So, it would’ve helped to reflect some of that in these designs since the bulk of the movie takes place there.  As it is, after a while, it all just blends into forgettable backgrounds.

Regardless of these production design choices, director of photography Paul Cameron does an amazing job shooting this film.  It looks very slick and smart all the way through.  His cinematography showcases a great sense of geography and composition in the hectic action sequences, and brings fine visual credibility to the dramatic scenes.  It’s very beautifully shot and lit all the way around giving us a film that shows us where the money went.  I truly got a wonderful cinematic visual sense from this movie.

Everything in these worlds is smartly designed.  The robotic soldiers, the hover cars, the weaponry, and computer interfaces all appear to be part of a cohesive world.  With this futuristic Earth being what it is, there are likely very few corporations or manufacturers, and so, much of this technology would likely be produced and designed by the same organizations.  Everything has a practical and logic design to it.  Nothing’s overcomplicated or ridiculous, which some future-based movies can lose sight of sometimes.

However, ultimately, it all has to come back to the script.  I think Total Recall could’ve done with a little less action and little more time spent focusing on the plot.  The action seems to just whisk an audience away to another part of the plot instead of the plot developing itself.  We get explanations and motivations, but the details of this world are never fleshed out.  We never get the true sense of division between the Colony and the UFB.  We don’t get to know how both worlds live, and what the true cultural divisions are between them.  We never learn if there’s a deep seeded resentment between the two, and “The Fall” is not given any poignancy by the characters.  They never comment on it being a “symbol of oppression.”  That’s only ever stated by news people in the film, and the film shows how the media is easily manipulated.  While the Colony does feel like a lower class lifestyle, I never got the sense from the characters that it was an oppressive society let alone why a resistance movement was necessary.  The story also never gives us a sense of breadth or impact on a larger scale.  I didn’t really fear for the residents of the Colony later on when there’s a invasion force on its way.  The film doesn’t take the time to build up the threat level to a fever pitch, or give us a foreboding sense of dread.  The focus is too narrow and too shallow to make the stakes feel big enough.  Total Recall had the tools and talent in most areas to develop these issues with some purpose and depth, but really didn’t push for it.  Screenwriters Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback have done work on films that I have very highly enjoyed.  Wimmer co-wrote The Thomas Crown Affair remake and Street Kings while Mark Bomback wrote the Hugh Jackman / Ewan McGregor thriller Deception and did re-writes on Constantine.  So, I know they have potential for producing more well rounded and satisfying scripts, but Total Recall feels too focused on action and not enough on substance. That would likely make for a thrilling video game with elaborate action sequences, one different than the last with a lot of unique obstacles, but only moderately developed story strung between them.  It’s certainly not that bad in this film, but you could probably take this exact script and hand it over to a video game developer without changing much.

There is a plot hole that puzzled me in how Cohaagen and his forces were able to locate Matthias.  No reason is ever given on if they tracked Quaid and Melina, or even how they might’ve done it since the two of them traveled to meet Matthias via subway and Cohaagen’s forces all flew in.  They just happen to be there, somehow, and storm in out of nowhere with no explanations.  This is definitely a plot hole that none of the characters attempt to plug up at all.  Total Recall doesn’t feel like a film with multiple plot holes, just a film that doesn’t develop it’s plot details or characters as well as it could have.

I’m sure there are those who will find some excitement and fun with this film.  The action is marvelously well done and inventive.  Len Wiseman has evolved into an excellent director of action.  He knows the mechanics of creating solid and thrilling action sequences with competent, coherent editing and cinematography.  There are absolutely no flaws at all with those aspects of this film.  Leading up to the climax, there’s actually a zero gravity shootout in “The Fall” that was smartly done, but still lacks a sense of wit or rousing action to really rile me up.  There’s plenty here to potentially enjoy, but I just never got enough substance from the film’s heroes to feel gung ho about them kicking some ass.  Had the script given more time to the characters and developing the details of the world of Total Recall, opening it up for more depth, texture, charm, and emotional dynamics, I likely would’ve highly enjoyed myself.  I would not be opposed to a second viewing of the film, but I wouldn’t expect too much of an improvement on my opinion.  I would never classify 2012’s Total Recall as a bad movie, just fairly okay one.  Its potential really shows on screen, but on the page, it just didn’t deliver.


Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005)

So, it all came down to this.  Both  previous prequels were met with mixed reactions, at best, but the advocates for the negative seemed to shout much louder than the positive side.  As I have covered in my own reviews here, there were some improvements from the first to second film, but many glaring problems existed with lapses in logic and intelligence, to be brief.  Coming to Revenge of the Sith, it is difficult to be entirely objective as I have fond memories surrounding the release of this film.  I thought that might impact my review a good amount, but after some refreshers and a deep analysis of the film, I’m going at it just as hard as the last two.  Again, it’s not a stubborn stance of hate against something new or different, it’s an objective point of view of seeing what is good and what is wrong about the film.  One thing that irritates me with sequels is when the filmmakers don’t have enough objectivity to actually fix the obvious problems from one film to another.  So, you know I have a few axes to grind down even further, and there is some summation needed for the overall prequel trilogy.  So, get real comfortable because this is gonna be a lot longer than I expected it to be.

After waging the Clone Wars for three years now, the evil Separatist cybernetic commander General Grievous has boldly kidnapped Supreme Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) from the capital of the Republic.  Quickly sent into action on a rescue mission are Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and Jedi Knight Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) as a space battle is waged above Coruscant.  However, despite their ultimate success in this mission and the death of Count Dooku (Christopher Lee), more foreboding threats lurk ahead for the Jedi and the Republic.  Anakin reunites with his secretly wed wife Senator Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman) who reveals she is pregnant.  This sparks repeated visions for Anakin of her death during child birth, and he becomes consumed with finding a way to avert this event.  As Obi-Wan is sent on a mission to track down and dispose of General Grievous on the planet Utapau, Chancellor Palpatine further manipulates Skywalker towards a dark path which is meant to see the fall of the Jedi and the Republic, and the rise of the Sith Lord’s Galactic Empire.

Let’s just get the bad out of the way first.  The film’s pivotal faltering crux is that Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side is exceptionally weak.  It stems from the foundation of a romantic relationship that made no sense to exist in the previous film, and never felt truly believable to begin with.  It came off more like teenagers in some glorified storybook romance with both having some delusion of what love really was instead of a naturally and organically developed relationship.  Anakin never matures, or really changes as a character at all.  I can take dark, troubled, and brooding, but the reasons behind it are just very one dimensional.  Yes, anyone who had a vision of their loved one that Anakin does here would have a flood of emotional reactions, but what Anakin does because of it and why he believes it will save Padmé comes off as naïve.  All of Anakin’s suspicions are unfounded.  He is disillusioned by his own built-in paranoia and distrust because he isn’t the all-powerful Jedi he was prophesized to become.  A prophecy that no one ever explains where it came from, or who created it.  A prophecy that causes a lot of damage to the conceptualization of the prequels.  Yes, Palpatine constantly puts ideas in his head, but remember what Ben Kenobi said in both A New Hope and Return of the Jedi.  “Vader was seduced by the Dark Side of the Force.”  Nowhere in this film does it seem as if Anakin is “seduced” into turning evil.  He’s a desperate man searching for a long shot desperate solution, and as always, is selfish enough to not care if hundreds or thousands of Jedi have to die for what he wants.  It doesn’t feel like he’s truly tempted or lured there by way of its power tapping into his darkest impulses.  While the opera scene surely tries to support that idea, Anakin clearly states that the only reason he’s joining the Sith is to save Padmé’s life.  That is all that matters to him.  If the Jedi could do the same as Palpatine claims he can do, he’d stick with the Jedi.  There is no seduction involved.

My personal belief is that Anakin should have been a mature, honorable, and confident man who is swayed and consumed by power.  A man who seeks the means to restore order in the galaxy, which aligns with Vader’s statements to Luke in The Empire Strikes Back.  I would expect that his motives are broader, encompassing a larger landscape instead of being manipulated into believing everything he does.  I surely have no qualms about the Emperor being manipulative as that’s always been part of who he is, but Anakin’s fall to the Dark Side is more a result of Palpatine molding him there through lies and deception instead of Anakin making these choices of his own free will.  Darth Vader was a confident, intimidating individual with a sense of self-control.  I would’ve expected to see those qualities reflected in a young Anakin Skywalker.  A man mature beyond his years, and amazingly proficient in the ways of the Force.  Someone to be admired, not tolerated.  His fall is meant to be tragic, but instead, it only comes off as selfish.  It’s difficult to care about a character when he is not likeable in the least, and that is a failing which extends to nearly every aspect of these prequel films.

Thankfully, Anakin’s growing paranoia and suspicions leave us with very few scenes of him and Padmé gushing over one another, but we do get one scene too many.  Personally, said scene is cringe inducing.  The dialogue is horrendous, and the acting from Portman and Christensen do nothing to make it more bearable.  Outside of said scene, Natalie Portman comes off a little more mature than her performance in the previous movie.  This is likely due to her not being forced into a poorly conceived romantic storyline.  However, I do wish the “Seeds of Rebellion” scenes were kept in the film because they actually give Amidala an active storyline to personally involve herself with.  In the film as it is, she essentially sits around her apartment waiting for people to inform her of the latest plot developments and get emotional over them.  Again, Natalie Portman is one of the most talented and diverse actresses around today, but you wouldn’t be able to tell from her performances in these films.  There is some improvement from the flat, hollow Queen Amidala back in The Phantom Menace, but even with strong emotions injected into her character, it still lacks depth.  The relationship between Anakin and Padmé only ever feels fabricated.  It’s presented to us with a minimum of effort put into making it feel earned.  What makes it worse is that Natalie and Hayden have no chemistry whatsoever.  A really good actor can take something not so good and turn it into something worthwhile, but everyone has their limits.  You can’t do it all on your own, and George Lucas seems to have a tough time conveying his ideas to actors.  That is all I can chalk this up to because, outside of these Star Wars prequels, I have yet to see anything less than great performances from Natalie Portman.  She really can do it all, and she always does it exceptionally well.  So, while it sounds redundant, it seems necessary to say that I have to attribute the sub-standard acting qualities in these films to Lucas’ inability to communicate the depth and detail of his characters to his actors.  Of course, the poorly written dialogue doesn’t help matters, either.

With Samuel L. Jackson, I can understand the marketing appeal of casting him in these films, but he wasn’t made for a role like Mace Windu.  The wise, seasoned Jedi Master role would be better filled by a Morgan Freeman, Forrest Whittaker, or even a Laurence Fishburne type.  Jackson does have plenty of talent, but he seems to shine in more passionate roles.  Characters that aren’t conservative with their emotions, but that’s exactly who Mace Windu is.  Windu could have been the elder Ben Kenobi allegory for the prequel trilogy, if written with more perceptive wisdom and cast with a more appropriate actor.  Alas, he comes off just as one dimensional and clueless as all the other Jedi.  Many of his line deliveries are as flat and hollow as they get, especially when confronting Palpatine.  Samuel L. Jackson can be a marvelous actor.  Probably my favorite performance of his is in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, a film I love very much, and his Ordell Robbie is a performance filled with a lot of charisma, wit, and dramatic weight.  That’s the sort of role Jackson shines in, and shows what kind of talent he has to offer.  Mace Windu never offered that for Jackson because, unfortunately, it was never a role designed for him.

Fortunately, Ewan McGregor seems to pull through fine.  This is probably because he has full context of where Kenobi has been and where he will go to draw on.  He knows where to take his performance to sync the character up with Alec Guinness’ portrayal in the original films.  His heart wrenching performance at the start and conclusion of the final duel is everything it should have been.  It’s only too bad that the rest of the prequel films never earned those deep moments of character and emotion.  McGregor makes this younger, yet still wise Kenobi charming, compassionate, and overall a pleasure to spend time with.  He truly had a dimensional handle on the character, and filled it with personality and emotion to spare.  Ewan really gave it his all, and it shows through in every second he’s on screen.  The character might not have been written too greatly in these three films, but Ewan was able to rise above that more than anyone else.

Moving onto fresher ground, some of the lightsaber duels here are rather mixed.  The good ones are the opening duel with Dooku and the climactic Anakin versus Obi-Wan battle.  My main gripe is the sequence where the Jedi go to arrest Chancellor Palpatine.  Lightweight choreography between Samuel L. Jackson and Ian McDiarmid along with some bad editing to terrible close-up shots of cringable facial expressions make it tough to sit through.  Neither actor is convincing as a master swordsman.  Even before that, the editing of Palpatine slaying the other Jedi Masters is clumsy, shoddy.  It makes the movie feel like cheap B-movie schlock that couldn’t hire a competent choreographer or editor to make the sequence look decent.  Then, there’s the horrible line deliveries of bland dialogue at the latter end of the scene which makes the entire thing worse.  At times, it seems like Jackson, McDiarmid, and Christensen aren’t even trying as if the script drained the talent right out of them.  And this is the scene which directly leads to Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side.  I couldn’t ask for a worse build up to the saga’s most pivotal moment.  It encapsulates everything that is primarily wrong with the prequels – bad writing, bad acting, uninspired editing, and poor plotting.  Again, Anakin doesn’t strike out and join the Sith because of a sense of injustice at hand, it’s because Palpatine can maybe save the woman he loves.  He even shows regret and remorse over what he just did to Mace Windu, but still goes along with joining forces with Palpatine because of what he claims he might be able to do to save his wife.  Again, a desperate guy looking for a long shot solution.

Since I jut touched upon it, I do need to address the technical aspects of these three films, in retrospect.  What really strikes me is how dull the cinematography is.  There’s hardly ever any camera movement to punctuate emotional or dramatic moments, and scenes are blocked and plotted out with no originality.  While the action sequences are dynamically quite well handled, the dialogue scenes are very point-and-shoot, by-the-numbers work.  Very little effort is put into making them visually interesting aside from the CGI blue screened backgrounds.  I think not working on practical sets or locations greatly affected how these films were shot.  There are no environments to envelope the film in, to really move the camera around in to take advantage of what’s actually there.  Shooting in a tangible environment inspires a filmmaker to interact with it, and play with camera angles and movement.  Instead, everything is shot against a flat blue screen which inspires nothing for both the filmmakers and actors.  And as I said before, the editing is also very uninspired.  With the original Star Wars, George Lucas went for a less conventional method of editing the film by having the cuts drive the rhythm of the scene instead of it being dictating by the actors.  It created energy, pace, and urgency in the way scenes unfolded and how the story was told.  With the prequels, Ben Burtt approaches everything very conventionally, very clinically.  It’s just like the cinematography.  There’s nothing original about it, nothing creative in how anything is presented.  It’s all just there.

Another lackluster lightsaber duel is the overly long battle between Kenobi and General Grievous.  There’s some dramatic license taken at the beginning as Obi-Wan just stands there waiting for Grievous to throw off his cape, talk trash, and unfurl four lightsabers before even getting into a fighting stance.  Then, the scene goes on and on from a duel to a ridiculous chase to a more straight up fight.  There is something to be commended for a short, straight to the point action sequence.  Long and elaborate can work when it leads to a point, but the end result is the same here no matter the length.  The Yoda / Emperor duel is entirely pointless, and just sucks up time that could’ve been used to better story-driven effect.  It’s more of that ridiculous action hero posturing from Yoda which is entirely out of character.  Removing this fight sequence from the film would have no effect on the story or characters, and that is the very definition of a frivolous action sequence.

While the Anakin versus Obi-Wan battle is well choreographed, and I enjoy the action quite a lot, the dialogue exchanges within it also terribly lack passion and depth.  One would think it would be the most impassionate confrontation in the entire saga, but it just lacks that visceral emotional intensity.  The entire sequence could have benefited from being a shorter fight with more substantive interactions like the original trilogy duels.  The biggest difference with lightsaber duels in the prequel trilogy versus the original trilogy is the over reliance on high speed fight choreography instead of character-based conflicts.  You can only maintain interest in a high speed fight for so long before it has to boil down to substantive moments with the characters.  This is an impressive sequence, but Anakin and Obi-Wan are so evenly matched that there’s barely any back-and-forth peril.  While Anakin might be more powerful, Obi-Wan has the experience and discipline to compensate, and that’s what ultimately allows for him to defeat Anakin.  The sequence has plenty of merit with the magnificent digital effects, the changing location of the battle, and the slow descent into a hellish environment.  John Williams’ music reaches a major apex here with “Battle of the Heroes,” one of my favorite prequel trilogy cues.  Ewan and Hayden showcase immense physical ability and discipline making this an action highlight of the entire saga.  Despite any flaws, this confrontation has added so much more depth to the Ben Kenobi / Darth Vader duel in A New Hope for me.  It does feel like “the circle is now complete.”  The context now given offers up a more epic atmosphere to it like two old Samurai from an era long past battling for the last time.  Both men have been through this personal history that no one else in the film is really aware of, and so, that adds to the personal strength of it all.

The opening space battle sequence has always impressed me.  I know there are those out there that have their gripes with the entire rescue mission section of the film, and I can understand their issues with it.  There’s some extraneous humor that really isn’t needed with R2-D2, and a few bits and pieces in the space battle that could have been trimmed up or cutout for a tighter sequence.  Plus, it is extremely difficult to discern what ships are fighting on what side of the battle.  There’s no visual context to apply to it, and the scene is very jam packed with all kinds of crossfire and visual depth.  That’s how a space battle should be, but it really just becomes random background to the main action with Skywalker and Kenobi.  I can entirely advocate for all of that criticism, but with the sentimentality I have for the film, it does not bother me.  I enjoy nearly every moment of it because it does feel very Star Wars to me, and I think it’s a welcomed change to start one of these films out with an action sequence like the original film.  For a few of the films in the saga, a slow start works nicely by establishing an appropriate dramatic tone, but others like The Phantom Menace or Return of the Jedi just seem to drag along before anything exciting or interesting occurs.  For Revenge of the Sith, it definitely needed an energetic, dark, and dangerous tone set from the start, and I truly love that aspect of the movie.  Of course, the tone does become rather inconsistent with the humorous bits intercut with the darker or more perilous moments here, and tone has gotten more inconsistent with each subsequent prequel film.

Also, one has to beg the question of what the purpose was of abducting Chancellor Palpatine.  If this was a plot devised by Palpatine and Dooku, I can’t see how that particularly benefits Palpatine’s overall master plan.  Him being abducted removes him from his seat of power in the Republic to manipulate events towards his agenda, and gives the leverage of power to the Separatists in the war.  It’s kind of a long way to go to assume that it was an elaborate scheme meant to result in Anakin killing Dooku.  No guarantees that it would be Anakin being part of the rescue since he and Obi-Wan only just returned from assignments in the outer rim of the galaxy, and no definite guarantee that Obi-Wan would get knocked out for Anakin to potentially give in to killing Dooku.  If it was Grievous’ plan, that makes more sense since he doesn’t seem to know that Sidious is Palpatine, but then again, Grievous is depicted as being fully subservient to Darth Sidious and Dooku.  So, it’s highly unlikely he’d launch an offensive without their approval especially since Dooku is on board the ship.  Of course, as usual, these prequels hardly adhere to any sort of storytelling logic.  Characters do what they do because that’s what the script needs them to do.  This really harkens back to the nonsensical story of The Phantom Menace where the surface plot does not align with the behind the scenes machinations of Palpatine.  If Palpatine is not manipulating events to his benefit, all of this makes good sense, but George Lucas seems to not think beneath the surface of what he’s writing.  He approaches the story from the wrong perspective, and thus, it results in these different elements at play not aligning with one another.

George Lucas leaves a lot to be desired in this film because of many hanging plot threads, character motivations that are not explained, the lack of character development, and the stupidity of certain characters.  For instance, while I am a very knowledgeable Star Wars fan, and even own the Star Wars Encyclopedia, the average movie-goer never has a single thing explained to them about who the Sith are and why they are seeking revenge.  Everything about them is taken for granted as if you just happen to know this, or worse yet, don’t need to know this.  Because I am a knowledgeable fan of this franchise, I generally know that the Sith were driven to near extinction by the Jedi a thousand years ago.  Also, they have had only had a single master and a single apprentice since then because the Dark Lords of the Sith were too power hungry and deceitful to co-exist as a large organization.  They would all backstab one another for their own personal agendas to be furthered, and that contributed to their extinction as well.  However, none of this is ever mentioned or hinted at, let alone explained in these films.  In the original trilogy, the term “Dark Lord of the Sith” is never mentioned either.  So, even the term is brand new to those who’ve followed nothing but the films.  It is a gross oversight that the history of the Sith is never explored or implied in these films to give context to their motivations, and those motivations are the real crux of the entire prequel trilogy storyline.  In The Phantom Menace, the Jedi Council mentions that the Sith had been extinct for a millennia, but go into no detail as to why or how.  It’s a revenge movie that never says what the person is getting revenge for.  Quite frankly, that’s utterly ridiculous.

And of course, several characters go grossly undeveloped.  Count Dooku used to be a Jedi and Qui-Gon Jinn’s mentor, but no one ever gives any background on why he left the Jedi Order.  Just implying that he might’ve had contrasting opinions isn’t enough.  What kind of man was he really before he became a deceitful Sith Lord?  What we see of him is generally an act put on to fool everyone into following him to secretly benefit the agendas of the Sith.  Possibly the only honest scene we see of him is when he has Obi-Wan imprisoned in Attack of the Clones, and he is truly a fascinating character in that scene.  However, we are never given any further true insight into the man.  He’s just another pawn of Palpatine, and with such a talented actor in Christopher Lee, it was a deeply wasted opportunity to not flesh out his character more.

Also, Padmé Amidala might seem to have character development, but in reality, she’s a hollow vessel made to be whatever the plot needs her to be at any moment.  In Attack of the Clones, she consoles Anakin after his Tusken Raider mass murder confession, saying “to be angry is to be human,” and then, later marries him despite this cold blooded act of violence.  In Revenge of the Sith, she learns he killed Jedi Younglings, is shocked and dismayed at hearing this because she can’t believe that he’d do something like that, and then, says she can’t follow Anakin to the dark places he is going.  These are entirely contradictory behaviors and reactions that cannot be reconciled in my mind.  Padmé should be one of the most level headed, clear minded, and intelligent people in these films, but instead, she is written with so many incompatible and contradictory character traits that she should have canceled out her own existence.  Also, her dying of a broken heart or having “lost the will to live” comes off as terrible in this because of this.  Not to mention, she can’t find the will to live so she can raise and love her newborn twins?  Seriously, Lucas could’ve had her dying of a crushed windpipe or hemorrhaging or any number of medical complications from Anakin’s Force choke, but he chose “she’s lost the will to live.”  That puts an ugly nail into a so-called romance that was contrived and ridiculous to begin with.

Back to Anakin himself, it is hard to actually say he has “fallen to the Dark Side” when he’s still the whiny, selfish, impulsive, bratty person he always was.  He’s no different a character when he was a Padawan to when he becomes a Sith Lord.  All his turn to the Dark Side really does is free him up to not have to apologize for being the arrogant jerk he’s always been.  And of course, he contradicts himself as well.  His entire reason for joining the Sith is to find a way to save Padmé from dying in child birth, but once his megalomaniacal streak kicks in on Mustafar, he goes right ahead and tries to kill her himself while jumping to another unfounded conclusion.  There’s just no motivational consistency with these characters.  In many films, I’ve seen someone striking someone they love, but then, they quickly snap out of it when they realize the horrible thing they just did.  They come back to their senses.  Here, Anakin just keeps being an disillusioned arrogant jackass.  Again, this is not the Darth Vader we know from the original trilogy who is confident, intimidating, and in control.  Anakin is the direct opposite of that.

Fortunately, I can give a lot of praise to the Order 66 sequence.  From the newly dubbed Darth Vader assaulting the Jedi Temple to the Clone Troopers turning on their Jedi Generals, the sequence is rich with sorrow, dread, and ominous imagery.  The moment of Jimmy Smits’ Bail Organa witnessing a young Padawan being gunning down on the landing platform is tragic and unsettling.  Right from the start of Anakin marching the troops into the temple to the final shot of smoke billowing out of it the next morning, the whole sequence is really well done.  It’s only a shame that, one, some bad child actor has to have a line of dialogue in it, and two, we don’t get to know any of these Jedi that are murdered.  There was an opportunity in these films to do something with a few of these characters so that an audience could come to care about them to some extent.  While the sequence itself earns my general praise, these are just interchangeable background characters being killed off who never had any emotional resonance on the story or audience.  It’s ultimately less about those who are killed, and more about those either doing the killing or who have to deal with the repercussions of these events.  That’s not necessarily bad or wrong, but it’s just a missed opportunity to have the sequence hit the audience harder on an emotional level.

A rather pointless character comes in the form of General Grievous.  He makes no independent decisions like a General would.  He demonstrates no tactical proficiency or command authority.  He just mindlessly carries out the orders of Dooku or Sidious, and is really just around as a plot convenience.  He’s also a comedic “mustache twirling” type of villain giddily laughing when he cowardly sneaks off to escape, or likes to strut around boasting his unearned ego.  It probably would have been better to have Dooku hang around for a while, and give more weight and purpose to his death instead of burning run time on this CGI waste of a villain.

The Jedi themselves consistently display an almost willful ignorance to what’s going on around them.  Maybe Lucas was trying to present them as having become overly confident in their perception of the absolute clarity and power of the Force, but so much blatantly unfolds right in their face that one would have to be willfully ignorant to not take action.  Every major negative event that impacts the Republic strategically comes to greatly and solely benefit Chancellor Palpatine, and none of the Jedi seem to find it all that suspicious until the war is over and Anakin actually tells them that Palpatine is a Sith Lord.  And of course, by this point Palpatine has almost indomitable control over the entire galaxy.  It’s even worse that it takes them well over a decade to perceive that there is a plot to destroy them at work.  I understand Palpatine is using his Sith powers to cloud peoples’ minds, but I doubt he’s so powerful that he can cloud the minds of every single Jedi throughout the galaxy every hour of every day.  Even then, they hardly need to use the Force to perceive this threat as the obvious evidence right there in front of them.  It never seems like anyone followed up on the investigation into Darth Maul’s origins after his death, or discover any allies he had that could further threaten the Jedi.  Even Obi-Wan’s investigation into the Clone Army is never resolved.  The Jedi never truly discover the hard facts on how or why Jedi Master Syphadias ordered the army, if it actually was him, how Jango Fett got tied up into it, who erased Kamino from the Jedi Archives, or anything else that weaves into and out of that mystery.  The Jedi remain willfully blind to these unanswered mysteries which are clearly ominous signs of a conspiracy that could threaten them and the Republic.  Fett himself says he was hired by a man named Tyranus, who is later revealed to the audience to be Count Dooku.  It’s likely to speculate that Dooku impersonated Syphadias after he was killed, and ordered the Clone Army himself in conjunction with hiring Jango Fett.  So, if the Jedi actually followed the investigation to full conclusion, they would’ve uncovered an elaborate conspiracy against them.  Instead, the plot requires them to be stupid so that these obvious hanging plot threads can come back to bite them in their collective posteriors.

Going both ways on the issue of character is Palpatine.  He is given a good amount of depth and a hint of back story to give him some dimension.  Ian McDiarmid has generally done a good job in the role, but there can be too many instances of disingenuous emotion that just make the character’s façade horribly transparent.  It’s only by way of everyone else being dumb as a post that no one ever notices how obvious Palpatine is every time he opens his mouth.  Also, when he unveils himself as Darth Sidious, McDiarmid starts hamming it up like crazy.  I don’t view that as a good thing.  How he portrayed the Emperor in Return of the Jedi is vastly different in tone than how he is in the prequels.  In Jedi, he was a deeply serious and intimidating villain who was creepy and ominous.  McDiarmid’s chilling portrayal penetrated deep into an audience’s consciousness, and deeply into the heart and soul of Luke Skywalker.  He had a grim, imposing aura to him that was more dreadful than Darth Vader which elevated the psychological threat in the situation.  He was over confident but subtle, and that’s what is missing here – subtlety.  McDiarmid’s performance in this movie is far too obvious and overt.  While he has solid low key, compelling scenes, such as his telling of the story of Darth Plagueis, he simply allows Palpatine’s ego to increasingly overflow throughout the movie.  Instead of transitioning into that fearsome character we experienced in Return of the Jedi, he becomes a cackling, over the top madman.  McDiarmid’s performance in The Phantom Menace was actually far superior and more consistent with his original portrayal.  It was a more serious, dramatic approach to the character with subtlety and intelligence.  Unfortunately, it only went downhill after that.  Also, it’s never explained why Palpatine becomes deformed from the Force lightning.  Nothing of the sort happened when the Emperor unleashed it on Luke Skywalker in Return of the Jedi.  With these prequels, George Lucas seemed more interested in having things cosmetically align with the original trilogy instead of conceptually.  He really can’t have it both ways.

When you go ahead with a prequel you can’t change your mind on the established back story and representation of the characters.  You can only flesh out what’s already there, and bring clarity to the more vague areas of these histories.  George Lucas just failed at that.  Everything about an honorable, noble, and admirable Anakin Skywalker that Ben Kenobi spoke about in those original three films is entirely eradicated in favor of this selfish, egotistical, and violent person that never seems like a hero.  The Jedi never seem like an order of wise protectors of peace and justice.  They come off like short-sighted, dumb as dirt, full of themselves fools who never follow through on any course of action they set out on.  Yoda continually acknowledges a swirl of negative and even violent vibes coming from Anakin, but he continually ignores the severity of what Anakin’s going through.  Considering that the Jedi had a bad feeling about Anakin from the start, one would think they would keep a close watch on him to make sure he doesn’t go off the rails.  Also, after Mace Windu learns that Palpatine is a Sith Lord, he originally goes to arrest him, but then, he insists to Anakin that Palpatine must be killed on the spot.  Beyond just the conceptual inconsistencies in these films, the writing itself can’t keep a character’s motivations and intentions consistent throughout a single scene.  It really is atrocious on so many levels.  Again, the problem is that there is no one to challenge George Lucas’ creative direction.  Whatever he wants, he gets even if it doesn’t make any blasted sense.

Some people say that the anticipation and hype built up for these films could never be lived up to.  I say that’s a pithy excuse for churning out substandard movies.  Plenty of films have been able to live up to immense hype time after time.  You can’t tell me that The Empire Strikes Back didn’t have massive hype around it leading up to its release, and that clearly exceeded all expectations.  It comes down to talented, competent filmmakers putting care and intelligence into what they do to produce a high grade feature film.  Over time, it seems that some filmmakers lose their focus or ambition to be as good as they once were, or in some cases, certain filmmakers lose sight of the fact that film is a collaborative process and they reject anyone’s attempt to offer an alternate point of view to potentially improve the film.  I am a filmmaker myself, and my stance has always been, “I know I have not thought of every great idea in the world.”  I encourage my cast and crew members to always help in the creative process so that we can make the best film possible.  However, George Lucas seems intent on his word being the only one that counts, and that is the first step towards creative failure.

As I’ve alluded to, I have a lot of fond memories from the theatrical experiences I had with this movie.  I saw it twice on opening night with a glorious digital projection screening the following week.  I went to see this in the theatre, at least, four times in 2005, and even did a DVD marathon of the entire saga when Revenge of the Sith came to home video.  I highly enjoyed this movie, and I still find good qualities in it that I continue to enjoy.  However, while all of these fond memories project some sentimentality onto the film for myself, they do not excuse the critical analysis it deserves.

The original Star Wars trilogy captured the imagination and wonder of people all over the world, and for me, it still inspires and entertains me greatly.  Unfortunately, these prequel films have not done the same for me.  They lack the vibrant, memorable, and iconic characters that came to define Star Wars, and are plagued with amateurish screenwriting wrought with underdeveloped concepts.  Lucas was trying to tell a story he didn’t have the skill to competently write.  There were too many elements at play that he could not put into a cohesive whole, nor was he able to flesh these ideas out so they had some depth and relatability.  I have no problems with telling a more complex Star Wars story with political aspects, but it has to make sense.  All three of these films are excellent examples of terrible screenwriting, or in the least, a screenwriter’s ambition outreaching his skill.

There was no ambition behind these movies, or creative drive to make them original or innovative.  More effort was put into advancing the technology of digital effects than crafting a solid, sensical, and lively screenplay.  Everything just reflects a lack of passion from most everyone involved – the wooden acting, the dull dialogue, the clinical non-action sequence cinematography, the by-the-numbers editing, and the clunky plotting.  There are a few positives to credit the films for such as mostly great lightsaber fight choreography, some good action sequences, John Williams’ incredible music, and a few bright spots with the casting such as Ewan McGregor, Christopher Lee, and even Jimmy Smits, for what little he was given to work with.  However, these few highlights are grossly overshadowed by all the poorly executed elements of these movies.  I hope that I never commit myself to reviewing films requiring this deep of an analytical deconstruction, again.  However, I had to complete what I started so that I could move onto the praise heavy reviews of the original trilogy in their original theatrical versions.  Those will come in time, but for now, it’s time to rest my mind.  Thanks for bearing with these excessively long, in depth reviews of these disappointing movies.


Prometheus (2012)

For those not in the know, Prometheus was developed as a prequel to Ridley Scott’s 1979 science ficition / horror classic Alien.  While it still is that, Scott admitted a long time ago that it evolved into something more than that.  After seeing the film, I certainly see the broader canvas that this story is told upon, and how it can branch out beyond that far more narrow storyline of Alien.  I can’t say I was expecting anything specific with this film, just that I anticipated something amazing.  It’s hard to say if I exactly got that, overall, but let’s break it down a little at a time.

In the late twenty-first century, a team of scientists lead by Drs. Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) and Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) discover clues to the origins of mankind on Earth.  With the aid of the Weyland Corporation, headed by the elderly Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), they launch a journey into deep space aboard the spaceship Prometheus.  Cave paintings from various ancient civilizations that had no contact with one another point to a distant star system where these scientists believe the answer to our origins lie.  Among the ship’s crew and other specialists in various scientific fields, the voyage is aided by the advanced Weyland Corporation android David (Michael Fassbender) who is caretaker of the craft who has been learning countless languages in order to potentially communicate with these alien “engineers,” if and when they find them.  Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) is a liaison for the Weyland Corporation itself, and is overseeing the mission to make sure its interests are maintained.  As they explore this alien planet, dubbed LV-223, they face discoveries both amazing and frightening.  Eventually, what they seek becomes not what they hoped for, and they must battle a horrifying reality in order to save the future of the human race.

Before the review starts, which is in the next paragraph, two things about my theatre experience to note are that, one, there were no trailers screened ahead of this.  It went right into the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, and that was it.  No time was given to let the audience settle in and get ready for the movie once the lights went down.  It was exceptionally strange, and it took several minutes beyond the opening credits to sink myself into the movie. Why the theatre did this, I have no idea.  I’m very interested to know if this was an isolated incident or more wide spread.  Someone even had to run out of the theatre to grab a theatre employee because the curtains were drawn for a 1.85:1 aspect ratio when this was the wider 2.40:1 format.  So, for part of the opening credits, the partially drawn curtains were distracting.  The second thing is that I like sitting all the way in the back of the theatre.  Last row, top of the stadium seating.  When I saw The Avengers, the sound was a little low even sitting further down into the theatre.  This time, the surround sound speaker right next to me was very loud, and at times, the film’s score was louder than the dialogue.  And with all the reverb rich environments in the film, it made for a strange audio experience at times.  This certainly got better as the film went on, but early on, it was difficult to understand all of the dialogue sitting where I was.  Because of this, it took a long time to actually catch all of the main character’s names.  Thankfully, for this review, I have website resources to inform me better.  So, now, on with the review of Prometheus.

This is a film with a deliberate, methodical pace.  It certainly takes a while for the film to really get into the meat of the story.  It will certainly require your patience.  I surely do not mind a slow build, but the first act of a story is designed for you to get to know the characters and connect with them.  However, learning their names or not, I really didn’t start feeling much of a connection or distinction with anyone until the final act.  I think this is partly because there are so many characters populating the early half of the film that no one really stands out, aside from David, and so, it’s hard for the film to spend a lot of time with any particular character for long.  For at least the first hour of the film, no one is an obvious protagonist.  In Alien, it felt more like an ensemble piece, and you generally latched onto and cared about all of these characters.  Here, it’s not at all handled that way.  The film feels like it’s waiting for the heard to thin out before giving anyone a moment of prominence, and that contributes to a lack of character driven focus.

Something that contributes to this issue is that no one is explored in any real depth until the panic starts driving the story.  For instance, Dr. Shaw states what she believes this mission is all about, but at no time does she tells us why she believes this.  We’re just supposed to take it for granted that she does, and not ask those questions, yet the entire purpose of the movie is to ask questions.  It’s a scientific exploration, and science is all about being inquisitive.  She wears a holy cross necklace, and I’m not sure if that’s meant to imply that her scientific beliefs should have no more definite explanation than religious faith.  Scientists should be able to explain what they believe, especially when you’re dragging a good dozen or more people on a two year voyage into deep space.  It would add so much more depth and purpose to the character if she actually explained why she believes that the human race was birthed from an alien species to justify this large expedition.

On the stronger side, Michael Fassbender’s android character of David is remarkable.  His performance is the real highlight here.  In him, you see wonder, awe, foreboding, sinister intent, and child-like innocence.  He maintains a nice through line with the performances of Ian Holm and Lance Henriksen as the other droids of the Alien series, but makes David all his own.  He is clearly not human with a unique off-center performance.  No authentic emotion comes from him, but he can still appear personable, thoughtful, and courteous.  He is designed to be indistinguishable from humans, but over time, he clearly becomes well aware of his superior brilliance, making him truly feel superior to them in every way.  He has fascination with everything he observes and consumes.  He is, partially, a character we can see things through, experience them through his sense of amazement.  However, as the film goes on, you see ulterior motives surface in him, and that kept me highly intrigued as I did not know where they were coming from.  Were they his own personal twisted perversions, or part of someone else’s agenda?  The answer was quite satisfying to me, and cohesively tied in with the overall storyline.  Fassbender is truly the standout talent in this film, and David is an impressive creative achievement.

Now, I was rather put off by the fact that Guy Pearce appears here as only an elderly Peter Weyland.  He is only ever seen under heavy make-up and prosthetics to make him appear to be of advanced age.  It seems like an odd choice, but putting that aside, Pearce is excellent.  He has remained a captivating talent through the years, and really brings some poignant gravitas to the role.  Weyland’s motives behind supporting this expedition are entirely relatable, and Pearce’s grounded strength keeps it from being anything obsessive or off-kilter.  When he enters the story, he gives it an injection of weight and dread as his agenda motives everything forward from then on.

Again, later in the film, I really came to enjoy and connect with Idris Elba’s Captain Janek.  The actor himself described the characters as, “a longshoreman and a sailor, with a military background,” and that sums it up nicely.  He has that laid back style of confidence while also only minding the business of the ship and its crew, but clearly has the experience to make decisions like a military man.  As he forms a friendship with Dr. Shaw, you get to see some of his heart and soul, and that’s what clicked for me with him.

Noomi Rapace is the lead of the film as Dr. Elizabeth Shaw.  I don’t want to say she’s a Ripley allegory.  She’s definitely her own character with her own strengths and vulnerabilities, but I’m sure there will be those that try to make that comparison.  Again, it would have drawn me into the character earlier on if I had gained an understanding of her scientific beliefs, and why she is so committed to this expedition.  Just get more into her heart and mind a little.  However, when things start to become unhinged and chaotic, that is when Shaw becomes truly sympathetic and a powerful standout.  She comes to understand the truth of what they have discovered, but few others care about that except Janek.  She’s put through some hell when she has to cut an alien organism out of her own body in an intensely frightening and unsettling scene.  I love what that organism evolves into later on, and you certainly cannot put the pieces together until that later point.  Rapace brings a very compassionate, likeable quality to Elizabeth Shaw.  She’s fascinated by this discovery, at first, and continues to show enthusiasm and curiosity until things go awry.  Rapace is solid in this role showing heartfelt moments with Charlie, and carrying the more intense sections of the film with great skill and composure.  She fights through the maddening fear and physical strain, not giving up at any point.  She’s going to see everything through to the end, and that is the real gravitas Rapace brings to the film.  A very solid lead that does take a while to move into the forefront of the film, but when she does, she easily becomes someone to invest yourself into.

What didn’t grip me much was Logan Marshall-Green’s Dr. Charlie Holloway.  He seems either a little one dimensional or too concerned with himself to allow an audience to get into his character.  It’s partly how the character is written, but still, the actor doesn’t do much to show a real dimensional performance that could make him accessible.  We never come to know much about him, and all we know is what he hopes to find, not why he’s fascinated or compelled by the prospect of it.  We get the evidence that sparks the intrigue, but not why it means so much to him personally.  There’s no context given to Dr. Holloway to make him anything to think much of, and that’s definitely a big negative considering all that happens to him later on in the movie and how it affects Elizabeth.  Much of the supporting cast is the same.  Maybe a little quirk added to them here or there, but ultimately, they are nothing more than what the script needs them to be for the benefit of the story.  Again, there are so many characters in the first half of the film that it would be impossible to dig deeply into all of them, but sometimes, it doesn’t take too much.  Just the right hint of an endearing character trait, and the right actor to convey those elements of humanity.  However, I’m not going to mark this as a negative critical element.  Just a thought that could be used to enhance them further, but considering this is a horror film where much of the supporting cast is going to not survive, anyway, I can give it that concession.

Moving on, the production design maintains aesthetic touchstones with the Alien films, but upgrades them.  Considering we’ve never truly seen a state of the art vessel meant for scientific exploration, this makes sense.  The Nostromo was a freighter, requiring nothing more than the bare minimum technology to do its job.  The Sulaco was a military transport ship which didn’t need anything special to complete its missions.  However, the Prometheus is a science vessel needing the most sophisticated technology available to thoroughly accomplish its mission.  That is a welcomed way for the filmmakers to take advantage of modern day technological advances, and apply them to what a vessel of this sort would be like in eighty years without betraying what was established in the other films (which chronologically take place after this film).  The ship’s interiors as very reminiscent of the Nostromo, but with a little better living conditions and a generally more inviting appearance.  All of the alien technology and architecture is definitely in line with the franchise as H.R. Giger was brought back to expand upon some of his ideas and world.  That absolutely helped to create a wider and richer culture for this species, and yes, the Space Jockeys are extremely integral and vital to the story here.  That had always been one of the big things Ridley Scott had wanted to explore about this mythos, and I’m glad that is the major focus of Prometheus.

The visual effects are truly awe-inspiring.  Nothing low grade here.  They can be very enveloping, and key sequences are likely stunning in a 3D presentation.  As usual, I stick with the standard 2D theatrical experience.  Ridley Scott really allowed the visual effects to live up to his more than three decade long standards.  The more intense effects are immensely effective.  The various life forms they encounter are startling, frightening, and impressive.  They share some design elements with the franchise’s facehuggers and Xenomorphs themselves, but they keep it subtle.  This is clearly a different ship with a different engineering of these creatures.  So, that gave the filmmakers freedom to do more with their ideas, and present something more varied, yet still related to what is familiar.  The more environmental effects of space and the planet LV-223 greatly add to the film’s atmosphere setting the tone for the entire film.  Ridley’s not afraid to make the visuals dark and very shadowy lighted really only with flashlights, and that only enhances the creepy, unsettling nature of the alien structure’s interior.

The cinematography of Dariusz Wolski is very much in line with Ridley Scott’s visual sensibilities.  It’s even more surprising since he’s never worked with Ridley before, but has done some notable work.  He was cinematographer on The Crow, Dark City, Crimson Tide, and all of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.  The lighting and camera is very solid, atmospheric, and effective.  Light and shadow mixed with some of Ridley’s signature smoky environments make for an incredible visual tone.  They create the sense of danger and mystery that these characters are engulfed, but it doesn’t stop with just the visual aspects.

The musical score by Marc Streitenfeld was amazing and enveloping, much like some of the visual effects.  The theme he composed for Prometheus is heard quite often, and it is haunting, enchanting, mysterious, and wondrous.  It sets a perfect tone for the film, and the remainder of the score is equally as rich and effective.  I would highly recommend purchasing the soundtrack which contains nearly an hour of the film’s amazing music.  This really feels like a musical masterpiece as it complements the complex tone of the film so well.

Now, the big question is if this really is a good prequel to Alien.  I believe it is an excellent pseudo-prequel, and I use that terminology because Prometheus is so much more than just a prequel to Alien.  As you’ve probably figured out by now, Prometheus does have more than its fair share of graphic horror and scares.  While Ridley Scott has made a film that has a far larger scope than Alien, he entirely keeps it within the same tone as that film while adding to and expanding upon it.  It’s even more frightening of a film at times because it’s not just alien organisms using human bodies for gestation, we’re dealing with genetic engineering.  Things that can infect your body and transform you into something inhuman.  The film does explore the origins of humanity as a species created by a far more advanced race of beings, and the desire for answers as to why.  This opens the film up to some philosophical discussions amongst its characters that are decently explored, but don’t weigh down the film.  Prometheus is a film that can stand on its own aside from the franchise.  It has its own strength, its own direction, and its own motivations to follow through on that are bigger than the franchise has ever explored.  This could easily branch out into a whole other franchise leaving the facehuggers, chestbursters, aliens, and so forth to their own machinations.

The other question is, well, does this answer the questions one would have walking into this film knowing it is an Alien prequel.  Partially.  It answers a few questions, but leaves many hanging in suspense, capturing, at least, my compelling interest.  Let it be known that this film does not have a definitive ending.  It is truly setup for another dangerous and fascinating adventure with the surviving characters which is far more likely to explore the ideas and questions raised in this film, and hopefully, bring us many of those answers.  I knew this walking in, and that took the edge off an ending which could’ve been a little sour and cheated in my mind.  It’s not an abrupt end as it does segue way nicely into a conclusion, but getting there does feel a little rushed.  In a film that took a gradual pace with establishing everything, the setup for the sequel segue ending is run through with a much faster pace than expected.  It works well mixed in with some frightening action, and maintains character motivation and determination.  The pace was just a little throwing.  This might’ve been because I kept expecting a hanging conclusion to the film, and feared for an abrupt cutaway to credits every so often.  Thankfully, that did not happen.  The ending does have me enraptured to know where this storyline can go, and how a further fleshed out exploration of these ideas and characters can be enhanced through another film.  I surely think a second viewing, more evenly positioned in the theatre, will feel smoother for me.  I have no doubt that a sequel would answer these questions, and not leave the Alien prequel connection unsatisfied.

The only truly spoiler section of this review will be this paragraph, and so, skip over it if you wish to remain free of them.  The film reveals that the human race was created and descended from the Space Jockeys, who have a very pale and human appearance beneath the “exoskeleton” style space suits we saw in Alien.  It is eventually learned that they decided to eradicate humanity with ships full of organisms designed for that very purpose.  It is not answered why they decided on this course of action, which was halted two millennia ago when these organisms broke loose and killed the crew.  However, the thought that ran through my head was echoing Ash’s statement in Scott’s original film – “perfect organism.”  Perhaps, the Space Jockeys finally achieved perfection in genetic engineering, and decided that all inferior life forms they engineered should be wiped out to make way for their ultimate creation.  Still, there does seem to be more rage, more visceral determination with this motive from just how the one still living Jockey acts.  He’s violent, murderous at the sight of human beings, and immediately begins to kill them all.  He appears dead-set determined to complete this mission at all costs, and leave no human living anywhere.  So, while my speculation might have some validity, there certainly appears to be a more personal, primal motivation to their agenda.  And while we don’t get to see the classic title character of the Alien franchise, the Space Jockey does give birth to a similar being.  I would likely call it a prototype Alien.  There are similarities in the design, but it’s much less developed and more angular.  This is the image that closes out the movie, and gives a little fan service that is nicely placed.  Like much of the film, it leaves you hungering for more.  It would have been amazing to see the original creature appear on screen, but if Ridley Scott wants to save that for a sequel to give that film the big pay-off, I can subscribe to that idea.

I think the best compliment I can give Prometheus is that, even sixteen hours after seeing it, my mind is still alive thinking about it.  Synapses are still sparking, and I think I need to see this again.  There is so much to absorb and process that additional viewings are certainly needed to let it all settle into my mind.  Even as long as this review is, I don’t think it thoroughly covers every thought I should have about it.  However, for allowing a reader to determine whether it’s worth their while, I’m sure I’ve said plenty.  While there are aspects that could have been done better in terms of making the characters stand out more and allow the audience to get to know them better sooner, overall, I think this is an exceptionally successful film.  It is a very intelligent work of science fiction and horror that screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof and producer / director Ridley Scott should be commended for.  It’s been too long since we’ve gotten a science fiction film of this caliber with some sophistication, artistry, imagination, and intellect.  I’m sure there will be many mixed reactions out there, and again, I’m still uncertain of my final perception on it, but I am definitely hooked into what Prometheus has to offer.  It’s only unfortunate that it appears to be only one half of a whole, and with Ridley Scott already having two other film productions upcoming, including the sequel to Blade Runner,  it’s going to be a good couple of years before we get a continuation for Prometheus.  Thankfully, Ridley seems to churn out films pretty quickly.  There’s rarely more than a two year gap between his films, sometimes all of a single year, but by no means, do I desire for him to rush anything along.  Prometheus was a film a long time coming, and I think it was a generally worthwhile wait.  We’ll just have to see if that second half of the whole makes good on the potential shown here.


Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002)

With Attack of the Clones there was some improvement in the prequels, but many of the stinging problems from The Phantom Menace still exist here.  The pace is generally improved with some more action sequences, some better characters, and more interesting locales to explore.  However, the supposed “love story” between Anakin Skywalker and Padmé Amidala couldn’t be more contrived or agonizingly acted.  Of course, there are frivolous character and story elements peppered throughout which have no bearing on anything at all.  So, let’s jump into it, and deconstruct Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones.

Set ten years after the events of The Phantom Menace. Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman) is now the Senator of the planet Naboo, and is leading the opposition to creating an army of the Republic.  This is in response to a faction of political separatists, led by former Jedi Count Dooku (Christopher Lee), who want to breakaway from the Republic.  After an assassination attempt on the Senator’s life, Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and his Padawan learner Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) are sent to protect her.  After the assassin strikes again with the Jedi thwarting the attempt, they capture the assassin, but she is killed by a bounty hunter named Jango Fett (Temuera Morrison) before they can obtain any answers.  The Jedi Council then send Obi-Wan and Anakin on separate missions with Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) fearing for Senator Amidala’s safety.  Anakin is sent with Padmé to Naboo as a protector.  However, their feelings for one another slowly stir to the surface causing emotional conflicts for them.  Worse yet, nightmares of his mother trouble Anakin enough to return to Tatoonie in an attempt to save her from dire peril.  Meanwhile, Obi-Wan’s investigation ultimately leads him to the planet Kamino where he uncovers a deeper conspiracy involving this assassination plot, the Separatist movement, and a Clone Army which could lead to all-out galactic war.

While there are various negatives I wish to point out here, let me counter-balance the review of Episode I by starting out with some positive aspects of this film.  Mainly, the visual effects are far improved and much more consistent than what The Phantom Menace offered.  It’s hard to believe that CGI evolved so much in such a short span of time, but the industry required it.  Bigger films were being made now because filmmakers saw what could be accomplished, and the technology and artistry of these effects houses simply pushed hard to match up with the demand.  Everything is generally more detailed in Episode II, and the story allowed for a more vast and diverse set of locations, vehicles, props, and alien creatures.  So, there was more of a canvas to apply the improvements in digital filmmaking.  Still, the movie is starved for more practical locations.  Granted, many don’t exist in reality, but the constant filming against blue screens begins to wear thin.  It takes away from the potential depth of the frame, and the tangibility of the environments they inhabit.  So much of it just feels fake because it is fake.

On a better note, George’s decision to shoot in high definition digital video was something I was supportive of, same as with Robert Rodriguez.  That evolution in video camera technology has actually allowed for my independent filmmaker career to exist.  Unfortunately, I did not see Attack of the Clones in a digital projection theatre.  That experience would have to wait for Revenge of the Sith.

Another positive is that there is more life with a few characters.  Ewan McGregor steps into the mentor role of Obi-Wan Kenobi well injecting some nice dimension into his scenes.  He feels more fleshed out and comfortable this time around.  A little chuckle here, some urgency there go a long way to show the depth and personality of his matured Kenobi.  He truly feels like a good leader, a fine Jedi, and an interesting character to follow now.  His single scene opposite Kenobi’s alien friend Dex shows more intelligible and relatable character traits from him than most anything displayed in The Phantom Menace.  It shows both a jovial, friendly side, but also, the inquisitive mind of the character.  McGregor is surely an excellent actor with a wide range, and I am glad that his talent was allowed to be more in the forefront here.  Of everyone in the prequels,  his performances feel the most natural and dimensional.  I feel he sells Anakin’s downfall more that Hayden Christensen does.

The legendary Christopher Lee gives us a villain with some substance in Count Dooku.  I only find it unfortunate that he doesn’t show up until half way through the film.  This would be better if he was built up more to create mystery or anticipation around him, but he’s barely mentioned in that first half of the movie.  And where Darth Maul had nothing to say for himself, Dooku has plenty, and Lee works his scenes very well.  There’s enough ambiguity about Dooku to build suspicion and doubt over what he claims to be truth.  Lee’s performance rides the fence of a man who could either be a straight out villain or a controversial strong leader who has a valid point of view.  He’s just shady enough to keep it all uncertain.  His scene opposite the imprisoned Kenobi is quite rich with juicy character interactions.  It is a pleasure indeed.

Unfortunately, from there, the quality of the performances start to get more one dimensional and hollow.  Natalie Portman, again, is reflected as a far lesser grade acting talent than she truly is with poor characterization and awkward, ineffective emotions.  While she has a generally good show of emotions, they seem to lack depth or realism.  The romance, of sorts, between Padmé and Anakin never feels earned, only forced.  For the life of me, I cannot rationalize why a young woman dedicated to peaceful, intelligent solutions would ultimately marry a man who confessed to a rage filled slaughter.  Tusken Raiders or no, Padmé has always sought out the way of peace in all situations.  She never comes off as someone in favor of blind hatred or rage, and in all other instances, appears to have a distaste towards unwarranted violence.  She didn’t murder Nute Gunray at the end of the last film.  She retook her throne and put him into the custody of the authorities.  She believes in justice, and resolving conflicts with negotiation and rational thought.  However, she marries a man who is volatile, insubordinate, emotionally unstable, immature, and supports tyrannical political ideals.  There is no rational reason they would be attracted to one another side from the physical aspect.

Now, I really don’t know any of Hayden Christensen’s other work to offer a perspective on his talents.  Granted, the characterization of Anakin Skywalker is not his fault at all.  He played the character that was on the page.  There’s nothing different he could’ve done with what he was given to make Anakin a better character.  Still, there are many moments where he comes off as wooden.  Much of his intended “serious” or “mature” dialogue is delivered with a drab, downtrodden empty quality.  As with Portman, there’s no depth behind what is said.  Anakin Skywalker should have been a rich character with many sides from the brave and honorable to the conflicted and troubled.  Considering the entire saga is ultimately his story from innocent child to conflicted Jedi Knight to the evil Darth Vader to redemption through his son, Anakin Skywalker should have been the most fascinating character of all six films, but he ultimately comes off as one of the least interesting and most annoying in these prequels.  So, what Lucas gives us is a very immature and flat character who has little for an audience to emotionally invest themselves in.

There are other characters which I do have things to say about, mainly the Jedi Masters, but they are best left for my summation in the Revenge of the Sith review to avoid redundant criticisms.  However, to briefly touch upon those thoughts, I have to say that if Yoda has nothing intelligent or pertinent to say, he ought to keep his mouth shut.  So much of his dialogue ultimately makes him seem like a short-sighted fool.  He has plenty of opportunities to act upon the bad vibes coming off of Anakin, but he never takes any action in response to them.  And I do believe having Yoda engage in frivolous lightsaber battles is a terrible idea.  Instead of criticizing the cringe inducing visual of Yoda flying around like a video game character and acting like some dim-witted action hero parody, I want to point out the purpose of lightsaber battles in the Star Wars saga.  They are a plot device used to twist the storyline into a new direction, and that is not at all a negative thing.  However, that is not the case with Yoda’s duels.

For example:  the climactic saber duel in The Phantom Menace results in the death of Qui-Gon Jinn which gives way to Anakin being less-than-well trained by Obi-Wan.  The death of Darth Maul opens the way for Dooku to become the new Sith apprentice, and setup the circumstances for the Clone War.  In Attack of the Clones, Anakin charges into battle, gets his arm chopped off, and begins to lose more of his humanity from this loss.  This motivates him to kill Dooku in Revenge of the Sith, and his death makes way for the rise of Darth Vader.  Then, Obi-Wan destroys Grievous, and thus, motivates the end of the Clone War, the attempted arrest of Palpatine, and Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side of the Force.  Vader versus Obi-Wan in that same film results in the half-man, half-machine Sith Lord, destroying Anakin Skywalker further.  Ben Kenobi’s death in A New Hope allows him to become “more powerful than you can possibly imagine” by becoming one with The Force, and helping to guide Luke anywhere at anytime.  The duel in The Empire Strikes Back clearly sets up a whole host of character and plot twists to the point where in Return of the Jedi, the final duel between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader becomes the catalyst for Luke to put down his arms, and ultimately, instigate the event that turns Darth Vader back into Anakin Skywalker.  So, you see, lightsaber duels are never gratuitous action scenes.  They serve a very specific plot purpose.  That is except for all of Yoda’s lightsaber battles.

They do absolutely nothing to further the saga along.  Here, he fights Dooku, only to lose.  In the following film, he fights the Emperor, only to lose.  By showing that Yoda is unable to defeat a Sith Lord in battle makes it difficult to believe he’s the right one to train Luke in The Empire Strikes Back.  Not to mention, in that marvelous film, Yoda talks entirely about how the physical is inconsequential to one’s power with the Force, but in Attack of the Clones, he does nothing but resort to physical means of combat when a few minor Force tricks do nothing against Dooku.  And once he has lost, he is apparently so worn out from the battle that he has to strain his Force abilities to lift a piece of machinery from crashing down on Obi-Wan and Anakin.  In Empire, Yoda lifts the whole X-Wing fighter from the swamp and onto land with amazing grace and ease.  There, all that mattered was the will and confidence to achieve such a feat.  This is another obvious example of George Lucas’ change in philosophy that occurred between the creation of the two trilogies.  Yoda’s physical strength should not have an effect on his power with the Force.  If Yoda can only call on his Force powers in short bursts and it exhausts him to do so, that only shows that his power is very limited.  This is in direct contrast to Yoda’s teachings in Empire that, because the Force is his ally, he is powerful beyond physical strength.  By failing to defeat any Sith he opposes, and straining to do what should be easy for him with his purported Jedi mastery, it only proves that he’s no more capable than any other Jedi.  Yoda is supposed to be the most accomplished and powerful Jedi around, but if this is the extent of their power and wisdom, it is no wonder the Empire was able to wipe them out.

Another thing that is eradicated, again, is intelligence.  I mentioned in The Phantom Menace the absurdity of how the Senate was run in that one outspoken statement from any one representative immediately causes sweeping change in the Senate.  That returns here, and in cringe inducing fashion.  As Senator Amidala returns to Naboo to hide from her assassin she leaves Jar Jar Binks to act in her place with her Senatorial power.  Representative Binks is then manipulated into going before the Senate and propositioning the Senate to vote emergency powers to the Chancellor so he can authorize the creation of a Clone Army.  This one vote from one STAND-IN for a Senator immediately allows for it to happen.  Meanwhile, throughout the rest of the film, the Senate is entrenched in conflict over whether to create an army or not, and Amidala has been the leader of the opposition to this.  I find it highly improbable that the majority of the Senate and Amidala’s supporters would suddenly roll over because this dim-witted fool speaks up.  I mean, it’s not like they didn’t just have Padmé on a holonet transmission where she could speak on her own behalf in front of the Senate.  Not to mention, why is everyone talking about going to war the whole film when, until Obi-Wan uncovers the Separatist’s plans, no hostile action had been taken against the Republic?  As far as the Republic knows these people simply want to become a separate autonomous alliance of worlds.  Sure, the Republic being split in two would cause some controversy and unease, but immediately jumping to the prospect of war is a little rash when they have no evidence of violent intentions from the Separatists.

I also have issue with what was done to Boba Fett in Attack of the Clones.  I’m a general fan of the character, and I find him interesting and exciting.  However, Lucas does another frivolous, pointless change to a character.  Making Boba Fett a young clone of Jango Fett is inane as it serves no purpose towards the plot or the characters of Jango or Boba.  There is no reason Boba Fett couldn’t have been a regular offspring of Jango, and be given his own unique identity instead of being just another clone out of thousands or millions.  I also find it quite creepy that Jango is raising a clone of himself.  It almost sounds like the strange machinations of a mad scientist to being doing such a thing.  Speaking of pointless things, the assassin Zam Wessel had no purpose to being a shape shifter.  Again, it serves no purpose to the character or plot.  It actually could have been used intelligently with Zam changing form and escaping into the crowd, and creating an actual challenge for Obi-Wan and Anakin.  Instead, it’s just there to make her more “alien” and to show off another little visual effects gag.

Digging into Jango Fett a little more, I did enjoy what Temuera Morrison brought to this role.  He’s both a cunning, dangerous bounty hunter and a smooth gentleman.  Morrison has some restrained charisma in this role allowing Jango to come off as a smart and savvy villain that is confident without being arrogant.  He has a very nicely played scene opposite McGregor as Fett and Kenobi size each other up in a stand-offish exchange of words.  It’s a strong first true impression of Jango that really sparks an interest, and Morrison handles the overall demands of the role exceptionally well.

On the technical side of things, Ben Burtt should be ashamed of some of the editing in this film.  The one part that stands out is the saber duel between Anakin and Dooku.  The close-up shots of the two swinging their blades around actually have no continuity to them at all from one shot to another, and hardly look like they’re clashing blades.  It looks more like an interpretive dance than an aggressive battle.  It’s shoddy work.  There are other instances where editing should’ve been tightened up to maintain immediacy in character reactions, or maintain rhythm in certain action sequences.  However, the sound design in the film is excellent.  The sonic charges deployed by Jango Fett in the asteroid field create one of the most awesome speaker blasting sound effects I’ve ever heard.  The city sounds on Coruscant are excellently crafted to create a nicely enveloping world, and the end battle scenes are well balanced for fine clarity where the sound effects don’t simply become an indiscernible onslaught.

What I also do like about this film is the added atmosphere tying in with the mystery elements of the story.  The various night scenes create a neo noir visual aesthetic that really appeal to my tastes greatly.  The stormy environment of Kamino was an excellent choice that further heightened the mood of the film.  As Kenobi gets deeper into the mystery, the more treacherous his surroundings become, and it culminates in a stellar fight between Obi-Wan and Jango.  The slippery aspect of the landing platform added a different dynamic which keeps the sequence exciting and unpredictable.  Obi-Wan doesn’t get to rely on the lightsaber as much, and has to be more innovative and cunning to survive.  This is more akin to classic Star Wars were characters were made intelligent to figure their way out of tight situations.

Of course, pulling directly from the original trilogy is not entirely the most successful approach as the end duel between Anakin and Dooku demonstrates.  It tries to recreate some of the smoky light and shadow effect of the climactic duel in Empire, but it comes off as forgettable and mild.  It really comes down to a buildup of characters, emotions, and plot points.  In Empire, the visual of the carbon freezing chamber with its smoke and orange and blue lighting enhanced the tone of the story being told.  It is dark, mysterious, foreboding, and ominous.  Everything built up to this, and it sends a chill down the spine of many viewers.  Here, it’s just a nice visual.  There’s nothing inherently bad about it, but it’s just another hollow throwback to a better film.  The duel itself is not that impressive, either.  Conversely, I’ve never had an issue with the asteroid field battle in this film.  It’s entertaining and exciting.  While it is a throwback to Empire, it works for me as it is a logical progression of the plot, and showcases some of Obi-Wan’s cunning combat skills.

While the plot is more sensical than The Phantom Menace, there is both padding to make up for a lack of plot developments and hanging plot threads that never get tied up, ever.  Obi-Wan’s investigation into the poison dart should really end with the scene where he meets Dex who tells him its from Kamino.  Instead, it goes on for another two scenes where he investigates the planet in the library, and then, since he can’t find it there, he goes to Yoda for answers.  Yoda has none, but the little kids he’s training do.  This not only unnecessarily pads out the film, but also makes Obi-Wan Kenobi look stupid because he can’t figure out something a five year old who can’t act could.  It’s never explained who deleted Kamino from the Jedi Archives, or how they did it.  Also, everything about Jedi Master Sifo Dyas ordering the Clone Army despite having died around the same time is never cleared up or resolved.  I could speculate on the truth, but that is all that can be done.  Lucas lays no clues to come to a confident answer, and no one in the film tries to figure it out.  It’s entirely forgotten by the next action sequence.  It is also curious that the Sandpeople would hold Shmi Skywalker captive when they’ve always been murderous scavengers, and there is fan conjecture over this saying it was orchestrated by a third party.  However, there is hardly anything within the context of the films to perceive it as anything more than it appears to be.

Again, the romance storyline between Anakin and Padmé really doesn’t hold together.  The dialogue is stilted, the performances are wooden, and the entire interaction is more like a screenwriter’s naive perception of love.  The Han Solo and Princess Leia relationship worked because these were two well developed characters with strong personalities and honest, realistic emotions.  It felt like a natural, organic relationship that evolved and grew between them.  Plus, they didn’t fall in love and get married within the course of a few days.  Anakin and Padmé feel like an immature teenage high school couple who over dramatize their so-called romance because they have no genuine grasp on what real love truly is.  They think that what they have is love, but they would be wrong.  What they have, at best, is the illusion of love built upon teenage style angst and physical attraction.  And again, Padmé is subjected to Anakin whining about Obi-Wan, blaming him for everything that’s wrong in his life, being insubordinate to his superiors, bitching her out in front of the current Queen of Naboo, and confessing to the mass murder of not just the Tusken Raider men, but the women and children, too.  Quite frankly, in any other film, Anakin Skywalker would be the psychotic villain, and Padmé would be running away from him screaming in horror.  I can’t imagine that she is meant to be a moronic idiot, but that’s exactly how she continually comes off considering all of this nonsensical madness.  No woman in her right mind would be so eager to love and marry a man like this.  It also makes no sense to me why Padmé is so vehemently opposed to just being involved with a man.  She keeps saying she loves Anakin, but then, says she can’t love him because she’s a Senator.  That doesn’t compute in my brain.  No other reason is ever given.  She’s a Senator, and so, she can’t go out on a date.  That’s her entire reason.  No expansion on that at all.  It’s ridiculous.

Never minding all of that, Attack of the Clones has plenty of good action sequences.  While not all come off as rational, like Obi-Wan uncharacteristically jumping out the window to grab the assassin droid (couldn’t he have just used the Force to disable it and bring it to him?), the scenes are well structured and choreographed.  They are all different and maintain good momentum, to a point.  The previous movie had a serious lack of compelling action scenes, and traded them off with long, drab dialogue scenes.  Here, it seems like they have to milk the action scenes for as much as they’re worth because the plot lacks enough threads to weave throughout the 120+ minute run time.  While the droid factory sequence is decent, it is ultimately another piece of run time padding.  It could be a much tighter sequence, if you had to have it, but it needs to be long to stretch the story out.  This is the case with most of the action scenes especially the speeder chase through the nighttime of Coruscant.  It’s not a bad action sequence, but an action scene is best when it’s tightly paced and gets straight to the point.  If you’re going to have a chase scene, make it count with a solid pay-off.

Again, there are some cringable attempts at humor here, but this time, it falls on R2-D2 and C-3PO.  I won’t get into it.  It’s brain dead idiotic slapstick gags that would even be bad in some television program for kindergarteners.  This crap has nothing to do with anything in story, action, or character development.  It’s gratuitous garbage filled with horrible puns, and that’s all I’m going to waste my time mentioning it because this review is too long as it is already.

I really hoped to say more positive things about this movie, but the more I dug into it, the more flaws I saw.  It’s frustrating to me that I want to enjoy more about this movie, but it’s designed to backfire on me.  I’m not going into these films with the intent of tearing them down, and I hope the praise I have offered up reflects that mentality.  I don’t have any memories that stick out about my theatrical experiences with this movie, unlike the other two prequels, and so, I can’t recall my early feelings on it.  I did purchase the John Williams score CD the same day, and so, that says something.  Of course, regardless of the quality of the films, I do own all of the soundtrack CD sets.  Anyway, while Episode II makes some improvements from Episode I, some problems are exchanged for others, and some of the biggest ones are never fixed.  Again, I don’t want to hate on George Lucas, but the man is not helping me to avoid doing so.  I can forgive certain underdeveloped aspects of a film depending on various factors, but the rampant stupidity of some characters and the horribly contrived love story are too much to forgive.  Thankfully, I do have very fond memories of Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, and so, I have more sentimental leeway to offer it.  But that’s another review for another time.  As Attack of the Clones stands, it’s a long way from greatness, but at least, I can sit through it.  I can’t say the same for The Phantom Menace.


Outlander (2008)

Sometimes, you see a trailer for a movie, and you just have to take a chance with it.  Make a real commitment to what you perceive as an awesome piece of cinematic work, and sometimes, it truly pays off beyond your expectations.  Of course, my luck being what it is, it was not easy tracking down a DVD of this movie in-store.  I ultimately found it in a re-sale store about twenty miles away.  Yes, I could have done an iTunes rental, but I felt so strong about how great this film would be that I felt a purchase was inevitable.  Beyond just the trailer, I have enjoyed some strong works from Jim Caviezel dating back to The Count of Monte Cristo and Frequency to the current hit CBS crime thriller television series Person of Interest.  Caviezel always brings a rich depth to his roles that is highly investing and entertaining.  So, that further fueled my interest as well as the fusion of science fiction and fantasy elements.

709AD, a space craft streaks across the night’s sky and crash lands in Norway with the only survivors being the warrior Kainan (Jim Caviezel) and a deadly alien stowaway.  Before he can track down this enemy, Kainan is captured by viking warrior Wulfric (Jack Huston), and held prisoner in the local village led by King Hrothgar (John Hurt).  He is questioned about his presence, and says he was hunting dragons, but in truth, it is a fiery bio-luminescent beast called a Moorwen from a planet his people attempted to wipe out and colonize.  Grudgingly accepted into the clan after saving the King’s life, Kainan confides in Hrothgar’s fiercely beautiful daughter, Freya (Sophia Myles), about his past.  As the Moorwen wreaks terror and destruction on neighboring villages, the threat of conflict between the clans escalates and Kainan is called upon to kill the creature.  They forge a strategy and weapons to defeat it, but victory will come at a cost and Kainan will find a new future for himself.

Getting right to the point, what satisfied me the most about this movie is how perfect the storytelling and character arcs are.  Every story or character element is introduced, evolved, and paid off with great emotional weight and impact.  As the bond between Kainan and the Vikings strengthens and expands, I felt the need for where this story should end, hoping for the characters to take the paths I anticipated for them.  Nothing is ever lightly given in this movie, nor is any plot development handled weakly.  Every emotion and character evolution is earned by the dedication of the actors and the filmmakers’ to this powerful adventure.

The visual effects are surprisingly awesome and consistent.  There were only two extremely quick moments where the CGI looked a little undercooked, but they are “blink and you’ll miss them” moments.  Every other instance is exceptionally good, and listening to the audio commentary you’ll learn how extensive and seamless these digital effects are.  The Moorwen is wonderfully realized with a brilliant bio-luminescent design making it appear as if it’s made of fire.  It burns throught the darkness of night attracting the attention of its prey. so that it can attack swiftly.  It comes off almost like a creature of legend, like a dragon, but it does have a little more science fiction edge to it.  In its few revealing moments, personality and intelligence come through in its face and actions as well as a fearsome demeanor.  This is a welcome choice as I wholly support the idea of the creature having personality like the Predator or Alien.  It makes them more memorable and effective.  The scenes on the alien planet are especially well done with a striking sense of scope and interesting, unique design.  Lots of creative thought was put into it to give it its own identity to offer up an epic sensibility for the film.  The amber color scheme of the planet is a nice contrast to the greenish-blue daytime scenes on Earth.

Cinematography is gorgeous.  A great deal of care and integrity were put into the photography of this picture giving it scope and weight.  Apparently, production was originally intended to take place in New Zealand with WETA Workshop doing effects on a larger budget, but to my eyes, I see no budget starved areas.  Ultimately being shot in Nova Scotia, Canada, the landscape is beautifully captured with some excellent aerial photography, and various shots which show the breadth and depth of the land which all sell a certain majesty of the film’s setting.  Gorgeous really does encompass it all.  The soft, warm lighting in the Viking Hall is like a master artist’s brushstrokes come to life.  The shadowy and fiery moments at night hunting the Moorwen establish a tense, fearful atmosphere that drives the emotional intensity of the story.  There’s plenty of subtle atmosphere to give the land life.  Outlander was shot with exceptional skill and scope by Pierre Gill, and I applaud his marvelous work here.

Jim Caviezel is an amazingly effective and powerful actor who brings a lot of relatable aspects to Kainan.  First off, there’s the courageous warrior who embodies a great hero’s journey.  He feels a need for redemption for what his people did to the Moorwens, and gradually, he seems to find that salvation with these people.  They come to trust in him and accept him as one of their own through a series of trials, both friendly and dangerous.  Caviezel offers up a growing humanity, an opening of Kainan’s emotions that allow an audience and the other characters to strongly connect with him.  Jim Caviezel also has a natural ethereal, soulful aura around him that serves the otherworldly aspect of the character well.  The strength of Kainan is constantly balanced with his own internal pain and doubts through the competence and thorough devotion of Caviezel to the role.  I simply love how much he digs into the character to bring out elements evocative of the heroes of Highlander and Predator.  Characters with a strong sense of honor, courage, and heart that come off as legendary heroes.  I would certainly say that Outlander could be categorized as a meshing of those sorts of films.  Caviezel himself said the film was “a light mix of Braveheart and Highlander.”  Many have mentioned comparisons to Beowulf.  By the film’s end, I viewed Kainan as a warrior of legend full of depth that was greatly worth investing myself in for 115 minutes.

The supporting cast really begins with Jack Huston.  He’s a great actor here that Caviezel works off of very well.  As Wulfric, Huston brings a youthful brashness to the story.  He’s a warrior with much ambition as the heir to his father’s throne, but he lacks the wisdom and experience to be ready to accept that role.  However, his impulsiveness and character is gradually tempered through this adventure.  Kainan and Wulfric learn much from one another, and they prove to be far better off for it.  They forge a kinship that fuels them into battle and further strengthens the foundation of the story.  Huston is charismatic and finely enjoyable.

I found Sophia Myles pleasantly surprising and powerful.  I really only know her from her role of the self-serving vampire Erika in Underworld.  Here, I absolutely love her!  Her introduction as Freya is strong and aggressive.  She handles the physical demands of Freya in stride in various fight scenes wielding a sword with expert competence.  She’s a woman who can defend herself and her people, if need be, and while she does have a softer, more heartfelt side, that is not how she wishes to be defined.  Sophia is a beautiful woman, especially with that red hair, who brings so much dimension to Freya.  She adds a fine texture and weight to this role which does have its tender areas of compassion and love opposite the pride and strength.  There is warmth and passion in her eyes, selling so much of how she relates and bonds with the male characters around her.  She holds her ground firmly with impressive depth and confidence while forging an amazing emotional core.

King Hrothgar is excellently portrayed by the engaging and insightful John Hurt.  Wisdom and honor mixed with conviction and compassion are what define his performance.  Ron Perlman has a smaller role as Hrothgar’s rival Gunnar which he infuses with gruff brutality and heartbreaking ire.  In general, the whole supporting cast maintains the depth and dimension that the leads established creating a very full and diverse world that feels realistic.

The production design has great detail and vibrancy applied to it.  Everything of the Vikings has a texture that speak of a culture with realistic history.  From the costumes to the sets to their props, they are all cohesive.  They create a complete world for these characters to inhabit.  Again, nothing feels budget starved.  There are large sets built to give scenes visual depth and wonderful lighting setups that bring it all to life.  The advanced technology of Kainan’s world is very well designed with a very consistent aesthetic.  For some viewers, it might take a little getting used to switching between the Viking world and the science fiction tech, but ultimately, everything meshes as well as anyone could expect.

The story here is amazingly well written and interwoven around its amazing characters.  Howard McCain and Dirk Blackman put together an inspired screenplay that turned into a fantastic, thoroughly pleasing feature film for me.  It is great that Kainan enters into a world of characters who have an established history, who have stories already in motion for themselves.  They are already on a certain path, and the arrival of Kainan and the Moorwen merely jump start those stories forward.  All of the character threads tie into each other and the main plot to create great arcs that culminate in something that legends are made of.

Director / co-writer Howard McCain crafted a film full of adventure, action, tension, suspense, excitement, drama, and character depth that thrives on the screen.  Outlander has beautiful and brilliant visual flare that give the film so much vibrant life.  There are so many deeply talented people involved in this film that make it so amazing.  The score by Geoff Zanelli supports the epic scale of this adventure, and enhances the emotion throughout.  This was a movie that easily fell below the radar due to a limited theatrical release by the Weinstein Company.  That is why I am writing this review so that it can gain some more exposure.  I could reiterate many points I made here to push this further upon you, but the best way to promote this is to say I loved it.  This is a thrilling action adventure with plenty of character drama to satisfy a wide spread audience.  The science fiction and Nordic elements come together through the emotional elements which bond the characters together tightly.  This is one film you surely need to personally experience to fully understand its strength, but in more simple terms, Outlander entirely kicks ass!


Aliens (1986)

It was an ambitious prospect to develop a sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1979 science fiction horror classic Alien.  However, Twentieth Century Fox was highly pleased with what burgeoning filmmaker James Cameron was putting to paper that they waited until he finished production on The Terminator to have him complete that script.  It became a huge blockbuster hit in the summer of 1986, and earned several nominations and awards.  Unfortunately, for me, there has always been something about this film I never quite liked, something that made it nowhere near as great as people made it out to be.  Add to that the disdain I’ve developed in recent years for James Cameron.  I don’t think he makes films as good as he thinks he does, he has a huge unwarranted ego, and his pioneering of 3D digital technology really burns me.  I hate the trend, and I hate Cameron for igniting it.  I will truly brush these feelings aside, and critique this film as it is to pinpoint my issues with it.  There’s plenty for me to deconstruct here.

Lieutenant Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), the sole survivor of the alien attack on the mining ship Nostromo, is awakened by a salvage ship after drifting through space in cryo-sleep for fifty-seven years in her escape pod.  After her rescue, officials at the Weyland-Yutani Corporation (regularly referred to as “The Company”) give her a cold reception by revoking her flight license.  Much to her horror, they reveal that planet LV-426, where her crew discovered the alien, has since been colonized without incident.  However, when communication with the colony is lost, Ripley initially refuses to help, but her recurring nightmares and coxing by a representative of the Company, Carter Burke (Paul Reiser), convince her to accompany a group of Colonial Marines to investigate the situation.  What awaits them all is a swarm of Xenomorphs that have infested the colony, the likes of which these marines are not prepared for, but Ripley will ultimately not be deterred from confronting and destroying the horror that haunts her.

I hate to start off on a bad note because there are highly admirable qualities to credit in this film, but this is an exploration of me understanding what I haven’t like about this film for so long.  Only now, by way of actually analyzing the film, can I pinpoint those reasons.  However, that doesn’t mean I have all bad things to say of it, but let me get the nagging issues out of the way first.

I feel Aliens is downgraded by its aesthetics.  Part of that problem was the choice of film stock used in the Kodak Eastman type that was only in use for a very brief period of time.  The reasons for that begin with excessive grain and ends with a difficulty in processing blue screen effects.  Aliens is a very grainy film, and in addition to that, has very bleached out colors.  The color palette is very flat.  Blacks aren’t black, and with a film of this sort, creating light and shadow contrast is very important.  This creates a rather visually bland presentation that fails to match the highly atmospheric quality of Ridley Scott’s 1979 original.  I believe that some of these problems have been rectified on the Blu Ray release which Cameron himself supervised.  I wish I could view that version so that, maybe, some of my gripes with the film would evaporate.  However, that’s not all, but I will cover those later when I address the visual effects.

I have to take issue with some of the characterizations in this film.  Sigourney Weaver, Paul Reiser, Lance Henriksen, & Michael Biehn are all excellent, and inhabit their roles well.  Their roles are also well written and well conceived.  Them, I have no issues with.  It’s the arrogant, chest pounding, and sometime weak-willed Colonial Marines.  Yes, they are big, colorful characters that are memorable and quotable.  That doesn’t mean they’re well conceived characters.  For example, let’s compare these marines to the elite team from Predator.  A group that is memorable, quotable, full of personality, but also, not a bunch of guys you’d ever want to cross.  They are not arrogant, just confident, but know how to respect a dangerous situation when they enter it.  They operate like a cohesive unit, follow orders, have great respect for one another, and keep their mission objective clearly in view.  They get the job done, and never flex any ego.  The marines from Aliens do nothing but talk tough and act as if they’re invincible bad asses.  I understand the intent of showing them as if they believe themselves to be so great that nothing can best them, and then, get dropped into a situation of a cold, hard reality check.  The same thing happens in Predator, and I think it’s done better in that film because you see how realistically capable these soldiers are.  They’re the real deal, and when you see that these seriously experienced, professional soldiers are afraid of what’s out there, it sells the situation even more.  As for that reality check shocking the marines down to size?  You still have Bill Paxton’s Hudson acting like a buffoon all the way through the film.  Someone of this weak will and lack of backbone would never make it into any military organization today, and Hudson does more to sell the incompetence of this team than anything else.  These marines also don’t follow orders when they’re given, and instead, subscribe to foolish, egotistical behavior to satisfy their own ignorant bravado.  It’s the character I have issue with, not Paxton.  I believe Bill Paxton to be a very good actor that eventually was given to chance to break out of this buffoonish stereotype, and that was a very thankful turns of events.

What really downgrade the quality of this film, for me, are the visual effects.  Keep in mind that James Cameron comes from a visual effects background as I point out these issues.  Firstly, and briefly, the use of rear screen projection backgrounds come off as low grade.  Even George Lucas tried using this in Star Wars, but when he saw how bad it looked, he swore it off never to be attempted again.  Cameron uses it here instead of blue screen effects, likely, because of the aforementioned crappy film stock he chose to use.  Again, this is from a filmmaker who started in visual effects.  Next up, the miniature vehicle photography is not convincing.  Miniatures are small and lightweight, but the photography of them is meant to fool you into perceiving them as full-sized versions that weigh, sometimes, thousands of pounds.  Filmmakers tend to shoot them at a higher frame rate that when transferred to 24 frames per second, create a slower moving object with a lot of mass to it to sell their realism.  Here, all the vehicles and ships move about with no realistic weight.  They fly around or drive across the planet’s surface with no gravity or mass about them.  The drop ship banks, lands, and takes off like a radio controlled toy.  The armored personnel carrier throttles around and bangs into corridors like a go-cart.  Something with a lot of mass, like these vehicles should have, would maneuver slower with bigger, wider movements.  More mass means more power is needed to propel them.  Think of how an eighteen wheeler, a humvee, or a helicopter move.  They maneuver slower than lighter weight vehicles, but that is not translated into this film.  I also have had this exact same problem with the future war sequences in Cameron’s Terminator films.  SkyNet’s huge Hunter-Killer gun ships flying through the air and making hair-point turns always looked incredibly awkward and unrealistic to me.

An extension of all this is the lack of visual atmosphere used to hide the limitations of sets, miniatures, and visual effects. Ridley Scott and his team achieved this visual disguise greatly with Alien using light, shadow, and smoke to disguise any budgetary limitations, or to blend miniatures, live action, and visual effects into a seamless whole. Clearly, something Scott continued on with in Blade Runner. The bonus of this in Alien is that it created a rock solid mysterious horror atmosphere that intensifies the overall unsettling nature of the movie.  Here, you can see the lack of depth and scope in the shot where you know it’s a soundstage set when it’s supposed to be a convincing alien planet landscape.  I’d expect that from an old episode of Star Trek that didn’t have the budget or technical knowledge to disguise these production shortcomings.  I would not expect that from a film that had an even BIGGER budget than Ridley Scott’s film which achieved better results on a smaller budget.  Again, James Cameron comes from a background of visual effects where he should know how to blur those lines, but what is displayed here would not at all reflect that experience.

James Horner’s score is somewhat mixed for me.  The cues he uses for the marines early on are very thin and weak.  His snare drum track sounds like a demo recording done in someone’s garage.  Again, I have to refer to Predator as Alan Silvestri really brought a powerful, meaty militaristic theme to that film.  Since Aliens really is more of a science fiction action picture than a horror genre creation, I can’t critique a lack of suspenseful cues, but it could’ve helped.  The score services the big action moments well, but despite what praise it has been given in decades past, I never found it all that compelling or exceptional.

Sigourney Weaver surely earned the respect and praise she received from her performance in this film.  The evolution of Ellen Ripley here is entirely on the mark.  Being the sole survivor of such a horrific experience, she would be a haunted woman waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, and be determined to see this species wiped out of existence.  She’s traumatized, but is able to battle through that.  She takes her fear, and uses it to focus her eventual leadership skills.  You constantly see her battle against her intense fear in order to see her real world nightmare end.  Weaver also projects a warm, motherly sensibility while caring for the equally traumatized Newt.  The makeshift family they create with Hicks is rather brilliant.

Speaking of which, Michael Biehn brings his great, natural humanity to Corporal Hicks.  He shows the character to be a natural leader with confidence, decisiveness, and intelligence.  Hicks is definitely the guy that will have your back all the way.  Just as he was in The Terminator, Biehn shines through as a wonderfully dynamic and emotionally powerful actor.  His warmth and chemistry with Sigourney strikes the right, soft chord.  They work extremely well together with a mutual respect that penetrates through the screen.  I’m not sure that the original casting choice of James Remar would’ve embodied those qualities so strongly or naturally.  Michael Biehn was an amazing, fortunate happenstance in this instance.

Paul Reiser had some nice breakout roles in the 1980s including his appearances in the first two Beverly Hills Cop movies.  Here, I love his performance!  Burke is the textbook company man working his public relations angle with a compassionate façade while hiding a smarmy corporate mentality.  Reiser plays both ends of that spectrum well, and he allows them to mesh into a cowardly weasel who always seems a slight bit suspicious.  At first, he comes off as a genuinely decent fellow, but as the story unfolds, Reiser gradually peels that back as Burke gets closer to his goal.  It’s a nicely subtle piece of acting that rides a fine line,, but it surely is effective.

At this point in time, Lance Henriksen was making an impact with some unique, standout performances.  Bishop is a career highlight, indeed.  “Artificial person” so fits the description of him.  He has human qualities, but they are slightly off.  Again, subtlety enters the approach with an air of eerie creepiness to the droid Bishop.  Not in a malevolent way like Ian Holm’s Ash from the previous film, but as something just uneasy, unsettling about him.  At first, he doesn’t appear to be anything but human.  However, the more time an audience spends with him, the more these peculiar aspects nag your attention.  Because of Ripley’s own unease around a droid, an audience can also gain an uncertainty about him, but it’s great how the relationship between Ellen and Bishop builds towards a place of trust.

Now, James Cameron bringing in Stan Winston and his team was a brilliant, logic move.  You would need someone of Winston’s caliber to put together something impressive like the Alien Queen.  The improved designs of the egg, facehugger, and chesterburster are excellent bringing more articulation and realism to them all.  Now, I don’t have a preference between the original “smooth head” Alien from Ridley Scott’s film or the more “ridged head” Aliens featured here.  I think they both work fantastically, and surely suit the demands and lighting aesthetics for their respective films well.  Here, the more detailed and ridged craniums give the drones more character with a few little highlights here and there to make them standout more against the darker environments.   Stan Winston was a legend in this field, and his contributions made the industry what it is today.  He will be missed beyond words due to his passion, personality, skill, and artistry.  He left behind a legacy of respect and admiration.

I have zero problems with the story in Aliens.  It is a great progression and a smart direction for a sequel.  Following Ripley through this journey from a troubled woman trying to avoid her trauma to one who confronts it head on to defeat it with intense courage is a powerful story.  She finds her strength through the new emotional bonds she forges with Newt and Hicks.  The more action oriented approach is something I don’t have much of an issue with, but a little more suspense and terror could’ve gone a long way here.  There are those moments, but they’re more “jump out and scare you” bits instead of finely crafted suspense.  Aliens has some exciting sequences that are well conceived.  The climax has become a cinematic classic with Ripley squaring off with the Alien Queen in the powerloader.  It was a very original, massive crowd pleaser that put Ripley into a great, forceful position.

I’ve only ever watched the Special Edition of Aliens as it is James Cameron’s preferred version of the movie, and while it has all the substantive character depth and proper storytelling elements, it does feel too long at just over two and a half hours.  Cameron seems intent on making overly long films that lack the rhythm and pacing he so excellently captured in The Terminator.  Once he got a big budget, he started over-bloating his scripts and cutting down on storytelling innovations.  Sometimes, the restrictions of a smaller budget and limited resources force a filmmaker into creating a better, tighter product than when they are given access to all the tools with free rein to use them how they wish.  I feel that is the case with Jim Cameron.  As time went on, he seemed less interested in making compelling stories and more interested in flexing his budgetary ego.  I respect the innovations he has motivated in the realm of digital visual effects, but great special effects alone do not make for a great film.  However, all he seems interested in is pushing technology forward at the expense of quality storytelling.

All of this began here with Aliens.  He still was creating a quality story backed by a few strong, solid actors, but he surely could’ve tightened it up in areas during scripting.  Still, what irritates me when watching this film are many of the technical issues with visual effects, rear screen projection, the photography of the miniatures, and the poor choice of film stock.  Furthermore, the poorly conceived Colonial Marines, aside from Hicks, are cartoonish buffoons that like to stroke their own egos instead of getting serious in a serious situation.  These are all elements that make a substantial negative impact upon the film for me.  It has plenty of good qualities to it from the strong lead performances and practical creature effects, but with a film so long, the negatives inevitably linger to repeatedly damage my enjoyment of the movie.  Maybe, one day, I will watch the theatrical version and feel differently about that shorter cut, but if I was to judge this the way I intended, it had to be the director’s preferred version.  This is an off occasion where I didn’t review the film for the sake of opening people’s eyes or rousing anyone’s interest.  It really was just so I could deconstruct what always bothered me about this movie, and see the shortcomings that have prevented my full fledged enjoyment of it.  I’m sure many would not perceive these same issues, but if everyone had the same point of view on everything, it would be a very uninteresting world.


The Thing (1982)

Right behind Michael Mann, John Carpenter is my favorite filmmaker of all time.  The diverse range of films he has given the world are entirely unique and wildly entertaining.  In 1982, he ventured to pay homage to one of his favorite filmmakers, Howard Hawkes, by helming a re-adaptation of the John W. Campbell, Jr. short story “Who Goes There?”  Hawkes had done so previously in 1951 with The Thing From Another World.  What Carpenter gave us is what I consider the best film he’s ever made.  A grippingly effective science fiction horror film with an amazing atmosphere of slow building paranoia and sickening alien gore.  John Carpenter’s The Thing became a classic of the genre due not only to a solid ensemble cast, but an elite crew that make this such a fantastic film that continues to hold up thirty years later.

In the winter of 1982, a twelve-man research team at a remote Antarctic United States research station discover an alien life form that was buried in the snow and ice for over 100,000 years.  They soon realize that not only is it still alive after a deep freeze burial and a fiery defeat by a Norwegian camp, but that it has the ability to imitate any living thing to exact detail.  Before they know it, the alien organism has infiltrated their camp, posing as any number of these men.  Paranoia and distrust runs amuck in this isolated compound as no one knows who is human, and who is The Thing.

Time always seems to be the best judge of quality.  Upon its release, The Thing did poorly.  This was because 1982 was the summer of Steven Spielberg’s E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial, and many dark science fiction films did badly in the shadow of that wondrous, fantastical film.  Blade Runner, which opened the same weekend as The Thing, also suffered at the box office because of this.  However, since then, The Thing and Blade Runner have become two of the most revered films of the genre garnering massive praise, and are recognized among the best works from directors John Carpenter and Ridley Scott, respectively.  They are both amazing films in different ways, but have both influenced the genre immensely.

Beyond anything, what stands out the most in this film are Rob Bottin’s amazing creature effects.  What he achieves puts him on the same level with the absolute best in the business.  Effects master Stan Winston also lent a helping hand in a sequence or two, but Bottin is the main man responsible for the richly disgusting slimy alien gore and mind blowing physical creations here.  The detail he put into his work to create such twisted and purely alien designs remain as impactful and effective today as they were in 1982.  That’s the work of a master, and it lead to him working on blockbusters such as RoboCop, Total Recall, Se7en, Mission: Impossible, and Fight Club.  It is a massive loss to the industry that he has been absent from it since 2002.  Bottin was a fascinating personality with a wild artistic mind that was ripe with brilliance.  This film is eternal testament to his talents.

Speaking of which, John Carpenter’s pure horror talents have never been more taut or focused than in this film.  It’s the perfect blending of paranoia, creepiness, gory horror, tension, and suspense.  Nobody does it like John Carpenter, and only from his expert direction could this film have become as timeless and consistently effective as it has become.  Also from him comes a perfectly selected cast fronted by Kurt Russell as R.J. MacReady – the cool and rational mind, the level-headed one of the bunch.  Also featured in this ensemble are Keith David, A. Wilford Brimley, Thomas Waites, Richard Dysart, Richard Masur, David Clennon, Charles Hallahan, Peter Maloney, T.K. Carter, and Donald Moffat.  They all inhabit their characters so distinctly and vibrantly.  Each man has their own look, and aren’t easy to mistake one for another.  Their personalities and characteristics set them all apart very nicely, and all of the cast grasped onto the growing paranoia excellently.  A beardless Brimley brings forth a fantastic performance as well as Blair flips out partway through the movie tearing apart the communications center.  He plays crazy to immensely entertaining effect.  Later, he is truly unsettling leading into the film’s climax.  Keith David is constantly entertaining as the gung ho, take-no-crap from anyone Childs.  However, Russell clearly remains the most central protagonist of the film bringing stability to the chaos, and handling all the various dimensions of MacReady awesomely.

The script written by Bill Lancaster is wonderfully constructed.  Sadly, Mr. Lancaster passed away in 1997 due to a cardiac arrest, and was not able to contribute his thoughts to Universal’s amazing Collector’s Edition DVD.  The Thing was the last piece of cinema Lancaster was directly involved with, and at least he could say that he bowed out of filmmaking on a seriously high note.  This happens to be a pure classic in the genre of science fiction & horror.  The dialogue is always great, never ever cheesy or cliché.  There are bits of humor, but nothing that works against the tone of the film or the scene.  Any director would be privileged to work with a script this well-conceived.

The cinematography is an absolute pleasure here, and that is forever to be expected from Academy Award winning director of photography Dean Cundey.  In the opening minutes of the film, we are given stunning shots of the immense arctic landscape that clearly establish how isolated our characters are.  The photography can even prove to be terribly creepy at times such as the storage room scene after MacReady breaks into the compound.  Kurt Russell looks ghostly with the brilliant blue lighting upon his snow covered self.  Cinematography in a Carpenter film has always been a strong point, and you cannot deny its strength here.  It helps evoke the proper emotions at the right times by capturing atmosphere in its compositions and lighting.  Another such element is Ennio Morricone’s score.  Right from the get go, it sets the tone for the entire film.  It grips you and never lets go.  This score is haunting, relentless, brooding, and terribly chilling.  This is such a powerful score, and despite that Carpenter did not compose it, it does have many elements of his own scores in it.  Morricone had scored many “spaghetti” westerns including The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly, and we would later score The Untouchables.  To this day, Morricone continues to score many films, mostly Italian ones.

What makes this film so effective is due to the psychological aspect of the story.  The paranoia slowly develops in the company of these men while trust diminishes.  These characters are nicely setup from the start establishing their relationships and personalities so vividly that later you see how seamlessly the alien has infiltrated their ranks.  No one acts any differently, and it is surprising how complete the disguise is.  Under a human guise, the Thing turns down the chance to take over as the leader of the group.  The life form is not looking to be obvious.  It has no ego, and is possibly doing this out of fear for its own survival.  It wants to hide, be subversive so that it can keep doing what it does without suspicion.  Using covert methods, it can slowly take over the entire camp until it is in total control.  However, when threatened, it is a brilliant idea that each part of it is an individual whole that will fight for its own survival.  This makes it just that much harder to definitively defeat as even one molecule’s survival can be disastrous, in time.  Mixed in with the diverse and dimensional performances, every aspect of paranoia and fear that this film deserved is greatly fleshed out and realized here.

When taking in all of this excellence, one can’t help but realize they are watching a classic piece of science fiction / horror cinema with John Carpenter’s The Thing.  From Carpenter’s expert direction, Bottin’s masterful effects work, the stellar production values, the power of Morricone’s score, the amazing cinematography, and certainly the stellar acting talents of this whole ensemble cast you will get a perfect film.  The atmosphere in this motion picture is something that many filmmakers fail to inject into their own films.  My interest in horror films has waned in past several years.  First, it was the torture porn trend, and now, I just don’t see much of anything out there with this level of atmosphere and craftsmanship.  John Carpenter’s masterpiece gets a perfect, solid rating from me – 10 out of 10.  I did see the 2011 prequel, and while it excelled in the horror and atmospheric areas, it didn’t have the memorable characters or amazing creature effects that set Carpenter’s film apart from the competition.  You surely can’t perfectly imitate a masterpiece.


Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999)

I grew up on Star Wars.  Being born a matter of months before the theatrical release of The Empire Strikes Back made that inevitable.  The first of the films I saw theatrically was Return of the Jedi, and I have vague recollections of the experience with loud noises and the unsettling image of the unmasked Darth Vader (for a three year old, it was like A Nightmare on Elm Street to me).  These films have been part of who I am for as long as I can remember, and I feel it’s about time I share my thorough thoughts on the entire saga.  With the 3D theatrical re-releases on the horizon, it seems timely.  I don’t plan on seeing them in 3D, and I do not own the Blu Rays at this point.  When reviewing the prequels, it will be their original DVD versions.  When reviewing the original trilogy, it will be the original theatrical versions.  I have many editions of the original trilogy on VHS & DVD, but this is about what I grew up on.

For The Phantom Menace, I was part of the madness in 1999.  I stood in line with a lawn chair, a brand new CD Walkman, and a sunburn to get advance tickets for opening night.  I ended up sitting next to a guy dressed as Darth Maul that first night, and I did see the film multiple times in theatres.  However, with time comes perspective and maturity.  I know everything that needs to be said about this film has been said, but this is a forum to share my thoughts.  It also an opportunity to express what these films mean to me.  So, this is not me trying to add to a worn out battle cry against this film.  I’m just here to offer my point of view.  All eight pages worth.

Two ambassadors from the Jedi Order, Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Nesson) and his apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), are sent to the planet of Naboo to resolve a trade taxation dispute.  The politically powerful Trade Federation has setup a blockade of battleships around the planet to force their position, but they are actually working with someone of ulterior motives named Darth Sidious.  Viceroy Nute Gunray works on his behalf to manipulate the young Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) to give into their treaty, but the Jedi soon learn of the Federation’s invasion army.  After surviving a battle droid attack, Qui-Gon & Obi-Wan escape to the planet’s surface where they are joined by the bumbling Gungan outcast Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best), and rescue the Queen and her contingent to escape the planet.  With their ship damaged, they land on the outer rim desert planet of Tatoonie where they try to barter for replacement parts, but they are soon hunted by Sidious’ apprentice Darth Maul.  On this planet, Qui-Gon discovers Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), a young slave of the junk dealer Watto who has unusually strong Force abilities.  Qui-Gon believes Anakin could be the one prophesized to “bring balance to the Force,” and later champions him to be trained as a Jedi.  However, the Jedi Council is apprehensive about the boy’s future sensing danger and fear in him.  Meanwhile, Naboo Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) tries to coach the young Queen in the political matters of the Senate, and manipulates her into forcing Supreme Chancellor Valorum (Terence Stamp) from the head of the Galactic Senate.  Eventually, all things converge back on Naboo where Queen Padmé Amidala attempts an assault to end the invasion and captivity of her people, and for the Jedi to learn the truth of whether or not the Dark Lords of the Sith have returned from a millennia of extinction.

What really strikes me about this story, beyond plot holes born out of illogical actions, is that there is no central main character.  With the original Star Wars, it was crystal clear that Luke Skywalker was our hero that would guide us on this journey through a galaxy far, far away.  It was his arc that was mainly at play as he goes through emotional trials that would forge him into a heroic figure.  I have never seen any character arcs in The Phantom Menace.  No one ends up any differently from when the film began to when it ended.  They don’t evolve and grow into something more than they were before.  The film has no prominent focus on any one character.  Looking at the saga as a whole, perhaps it should have been Obi-Wan Kenobi’s arc.  The film would show an eager, young Padawan who matures from student to mentor, truly earning his stature as a Jedi by the end by facing the breadth of this adventure alone.  Unfortunately, he’s left out of the meat of the story and action so much that he ultimately has little to say for himself.  Ewan McGregor is an exceptional actor with a wide range of talent who could’ve carried this film quite well, as he demonstrated in the following two films.  He does have flourishes of endearing charm that create some bright moments, but his potential is sadly suppressed to a minor supporting character.  Earlier drafts had it where Obi-Wan actually was the one mainly involved in the story on Tatoonie, and he forms a bond with Anakin championing his path to becoming trained.  That would actually follow what was stated in Return of the Jedi¸ but for whatever reason, George Lucas decided to overhaul continuity in the prequels.  It is clear that the way Lucas potentially envisioned the prequels in the early 1980s was very different from how he saw them in the late 1990s.

Anakin is an even less likely main character since he doesn’t enter the story until forty minutes in, and once they’ve left Tatoonie, he becomes mostly a background character.  Jake Lloyd certainly didn’t have the spark of great talent that Lucas’ friend Steven Spielberg is usually able to find in his child actors.  Lloyd makes Anakin almost a nuisance in the film.  He can become quite annoying acting like some kid on a rollercoaster ride instead of someone of mythic potential.  I would’ve anticipated a slightly more matured Anakin, despite his youth.  Someone that showed not just strength with the Force, but someone with the character traits to be the “great Jedi” Obi-Wan speaks of in the original trilogy.  Ultimately, Anakin never stops being the whiny annoyance he started out as until he is voiced by James Earl Jones as Darth Vader.  Here, not having Obi-Wan or Anakin as a main character works to the detriment of the prequels since their relationship is the linchpin of the saga.

This leads us over to Qui-Gon Jinn.  I really have a generous amount of respect for Liam Neeson.  He always does admirable work, and I have enjoyed his wave of action thriller successes in recent years.  With Qui-Gon, it’s hard to say much about him.  He’s stoic and little else.  There are brief, light touches of heart, but they lack substantial depth to be impactful.  Knowing Lucas’ direction style, I would definitely have to say that Neeson wasn’t given the proper direction to breathe appropriate life into the character.  Given the right context and perspective on Qui-Gon, I believe Neeson could have brought more depth to him.  Qui-Gon is the mentor, and I suppose he is meant to act as some form of main protagonist, but there’s not enough bold dimension in the characterization for him to standout amongst the blandness of the film.

Another amazing actor that occasionally comes off like a dull wooden board is Natalie Portman.  Anyone who has seen Léon (aka The Professional) knows that Natalie has had a wealth of stunning acting ability from an early age, and that talent has continued to flourish to this day.  She is one of the finest actresses around, and has been so for a long time.  She could’ve done so many impressive things with Amidala had she just been given something of substance to work with.  Instead, it’s all dry political ramblings that never give Portman an opportunity to break out and show some character depth.  There’s a little of that in her scenes with Anakin where the humanity of the character surfaces, but that’s not in the forefront of the picture.  It’s definitely there to lay the groundwork for the following two films where Anakin and Padmé develop a relationship, but outside of that, she seems almost robotic.  As the Queen, her line deliveries are entirely monotone, reflecting no humanity, concern, worry, or urgency.  I believe some of her dialogue was overdubbed by another actress due to Lucas’ intention to maintain the ruse of the bodyguard decoy scenario.  As Padmé, Portman does have more natural warmth, but I know she’s capable of much more than what I saw here.

George Lucas is not an actor’s director, and that tends to be his biggest failing.  I think he’s a great producer.  He manages all aspects of production with confidence, decisiveness, and skill, but he just doesn’t know how to bring greatness out his actors.  An actor brings their own talent to the table, but it is the director’s job to focus and filter that talent into a unique performance.  Without that, an actor has no guidance to know what to put into their character.  George’s writing also leaves something to be desired.  Sometimes, you get a Harrison Ford who just gets it right from the start because the character practically wrote itself, but for potentially more complex roles, it needs more on the page.  You can’t expect every actor to simply see more than what’s written.  It requires the director’s input to make it more than that, but Lucas simply doesn’t know how to approach those interactions.

However, the one actor who really shows something of substance and nuance is Ian McDiarmid.  While the story follows no reason or logic with the schemes of Palpatine / Sidious, McDiarmid captures a subtle subversive quality that makes him intriguing.  While the film never blatantly states it, the two are one in the same, and McDiarmid clearly integrates that into how he plays Palpatine.  He’s a man with sinister motives playing out in the back of his mind while keeping up the friendly personae of Senator, observing and manipulating people and events to achieve his goals.  McDiarmid brings Palpatine’s ominous perspective into his performance adding the right touches of restraint and foreboding malevolence to draw in an audience’s attention.  You can see in McDiarmid’s subtle expressions the moments where Palpatine’s plan is coming together, and he relishes it with silent restraint.  Conversely, as Darth Sidious, McDiarmid captures a straight up villainous and intelligent performance that is quite unsettling.  As the prequels went on, Ian surely delved wholly into the character playing up the feigned sincerity nicely, and having a broader canvas to work with than others were given latitude to do.

Now, the original trilogy were groundbreaking films in special effects that revolutionized the industry.  That’s a big reputation to live up to, and the success here is a little mixed.  This was 1999, the same year The Matrix was released, and while I’m no major fan of that film, it’s achievements in digital effects were more consistent and eye opening than The Phantom Menace.  It’s difficult to be entirely fair since the DVD transfer of Episode I is not the best.  The film comes off a little too grainy to grasp the clarity of the visual effects, and it has this odd pinkish hue.  Generally, the visual effects are quite good for 1999, but the leaps and bounds taken in CGI evolution would allow the following two prequels to be vastly superior in that area.  So, in comparison, The Phantom Menace looks a little undercooked in the visual effects realm.  It’s not a constant, but as I said, it is a mixed bag.  Most stuff is great, but some things just lack detail and depth.  Many of the hover tanks in the Gungan-Droid battle often look like an animatic or something from an old video game.  I would hope that these issues would be resolved with the Blu Ray and 3D releases, but Lucas doesn’t always fix what you think he will.  On the positive side, many of the computer generated characters are impressively detailed, creating very finely textured creations.  While Jar Jar is an insufferable character that grates on my nerves incessantly, visually, he is an amazing achievement.  If he had been as good of a character as Gollum from The Lord of the Rings, maybe people could give more credit to the CGI work put into him.

Production design here is quite impressive.  Naboo is certainly a world with a lot of culture and sophistication, and that comes out in the architecture and their design of technology.  The capital city of Theed is exceptionally picturesque partly due to the location shooting in Caserta, Italy.  Coruscant entirely captures the intended scope and scale that Lucas always wanted for Star Wars.  There is an inevitable Blade Runner influence here, but instead of smog, rain, and industrialism bearing down upon the environment, Coruscant is a perfectly wondrous planet that stands as a beacon for the entire Republic.  However, I can’t say I care much for anything surrounding the Gungans.  Every element of them just seems to pander to the child audience.  It is sufficiently alien, but there’s just too much of a cartoonish element to all of it to accept it as anything but child oriented.  There is nothing about them that I can take seriously in their culture, characterizations, or dialogue.

Focusing more on the story itself, I find it quite dull and illogical.  I could probably write, at least, ten pages worth of criticism about the plot holes in this film, but let me dig into what’s most annoying to my intellect.  The actions that different characters take have no sense to them.  Darth Sidious orders his minions along a certain course of action that should lead to the opposite outcome for himself, but because all the characters apparently just read the script so that they can follow along an illogical course of action, it all works out right in the end.  Sidious wants the Trade Federation to force Queen Amidala to sign a treaty making their blockade legal to the point of invading the planet, but if they had succeeded in doing so, Palpatine could not have achieved placing himself as the head of the Galactic Senate.  Palpatine could not have foreseen all these plans going awry where the Jedi Ambassadors survive the Federation’s assassination attempt, escape to the planet, run into Jar Jar, make a deal with the Gungans for passage through the planet core to arrive in Theed just in time to rescue the Queen, and escape the planet through the blockade of battleships so that Amidala could reach Coruscant to ask for a vote of no confidence in Chancellor Valorum.  That is an impossible series of events to foresee or predict when your plan is clearly setup to kill the Jedi and keep Amidala locked up in a prison camp while keeping the Senate blind to what’s really happening on Naboo.  My only conclusion that allows this to make any sense is that Palpatine and Sidious are split personalities with conflicting motives intent on screwing each other over like a pair of warring siblings.  Obviously, that’s not the truth of the matter, but I can’t find a rational stream of consciousness to resolve this issue.  If Palpatine was playing both sides, pretending to help the Trade Federation as Sidious while actually focusing his success on Queen Amidala’s side so that he can ultimately seize control of the Senate, that would’ve worked brilliantly.  He would really use the Trade Federation as ignorant pawns who were always meant to fail for Palpatine’s further success.  He would get them to setup the blockade, but then, sabotage their plans from the inside out so that Amidala can easily escape to Coruscant and set the political stage for Palpatine to ascend to Supreme Chancellor.  Instead, every action Palpatine initiates is towards the ends of supporting the success of the blockade.  Sending Darth Maul to hunt down and attempt to kill the Jedi and drag the Queen back to Naboo to get the treaty signed is entirely counteractive to Palpatine’s endgame.  And this is the entire plot of the movie!

Other plot holes arise from the need of Lucas to make the characters dumb as a post so they make moronic decisions that move the so-called plot forward.  A single vote of no confidence from one representative of one planet out of thousands of governments, star systems, and planets immediately usurps Chancellor Valorum from office, and forces a new Supreme Chancellor to be voted into service.  I always say that the system works, it’s just the people within it that make it suck.  Here, the system sucks, and the people within it are stupid.  I can’t imagine how a government body like this could actually function if all it takes is for one person to voice their loss of confidence in its leadership.  You’d be voting in a new Chancellor every week.  Worse yet, this is not the last time this ridiculous plot device will rear its ugly head.

Further ridiculousness comes on Tatoonie as Qui-Gon goes to one dealer to find the parts they need, and then, since that dealer, Watto, won’t accept Republic currency, Qui-Gon simply gives up trying to locate the parts elsewhere.  Just because Watto says no one else would have these parts doesn’t make it true.  I wouldn’t trust Watto to be an honest businessman for a nanosecond, especially when he has a young boy and his mother as slaves with explosive devices implanted in them.  He’s clearly not moral or ethical.  So, why trust him to be an altruistic salesman?  Qui-Gon could’ve attempted to charter passage off Tatoonie like the elder Obi-Wan and Luke did in the original Star Wars, but again, the script requires the characters to be intellectually stunted so that the incoherent plotline can be furthered.  Because of this, all cunning and ingenuity that could’ve been injected into these characters to make them smart and innovative in tight situations is discarded.  These brain dead moments happen again and again and again in nearly every scene.  I have seen hundreds of films, and many bad, horrible piles of cinematic trash.  However, I can’t recall experiencing a film with such a shoddy script with dozens upon dozens of plot holes that mutilate all common sense from its pages.  It’s not like the plot is that interesting to really sacrifice intelligence for it.

I also have to say that Anakin Skywalker being the creator of C-3PO was ridiculous.  It adds nothing to anything in the saga, and is a pure fan service addition that, again, has no intelligent thought behind it.  A protocol droid is good for language translation and little else.  Shmi Skywalker has no practical use for such a droid, and I don’t know how anyone could believe otherwise.  And the fact that he builds the exact same droid that is mass produced throughout the galaxy seems stupid.  A real world allegory is that when people build their own custom personal computers, they don’t go constructing exact replicas of something they could’ve bought at Best Buy.  They customize it to their needs so it is a optimal tool for the work they need to do.  If Anakin had any ingenuity, he would’ve built something entirely original that could assist his mother with daily chores.  A protocol droid is not designed for manual labor.

Of course, I also have to address the sad attempt at humor in this film.  You see, in the original trilogy, the humor really arose from conflicting personalities and witty banter in heightened situations.  It could be a little immature, but Han Solo was a little immature at times and Luke was on a journey to maturity.  So, it fit the personalities of the characters.  Here, the supposed humor is so blatant and in your face, it’s not funny.  It’s like a bad stand-up comic trying too hard for a laugh through cheap physical comedy.  Jar Jar is here only for stupid comedic antics.  Yes, he is a conduit for certain plot developments, but this film already demonstrated that logic holds no substance here, so, I’m a little surprised he has any plot related function at all.  Everything he does is clumsy slapstick humor which couldn’t be more out of place for this saga.  Star Wars was originally created with the idea of bringing mythology into the modern era as adventurous films for the whole family.  I’m sure poop and fart jokes were not part of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces, a book of mythological archetypes that heavily inspired Lucas.  It really is sad how far George had degraded his standards for entertainment here.  He went from creating a fantastical world of colorful, iconic characters and thematic mythology-inspired stories to a world of flat, dull, lifeless characters that are devoid of intelligence and humanity in ass-backwards stories that follow no reason or logic.

Despite all this, people still thought there was something cool and awesome to be had in this movie in the form of Darth Maul.  I respect Ray Park’s athletic talents immensely, but it is only that mixed with a very stunning character design that makes Maul cool.  He has no character.  He’s a plot device to make a few action sequences dynamic.  He’s a henchmen with nothing to say for himself, and nothing of substance to add to the story.  Maul exists because Sidious needs a competent ally to go out into the field and do his dirty work him.  Yes, he makes himself intriguing through an air of mystique, but frankly, as soon as he departs the film, none of it matters.  He’s a disposable villain whose loss makes no impact on the story because he never added anything to it.  This is different from Boba Fett who had a cunning role in The Empire Strikes Back by outsmarting Captain Solo’s escape plan, and actually had something to say for himself that reflected a sense of character, personality, and attitude.

The action sequences are a little mixed, but mostly excellent.  All the lightsaber battles are amazing!  The choreography of these segments show what fully trained Jedi could do, and what a fully capable Dark Lord of the Sith could accomplish.  They are dynamic and exciting, but they can seem a little too choreographed at times.  I see many behind the scenes featurettes on action movies where they strive to maintain a spontaneity to their fight choreography.  While it is all well rehearsed, the choreographers, stunt performers, and actors focus on keeping it real in the moment.  They inject character and emotion into those moments so it never looks to be so ‘by the numbers.’  The lightsaber battles can tend to come off like a dance instead of a physically intense series of actions and counteractions where a single error could cause doom.  It lacks emotion and danger.  It also lacks a psychological aspect due to the absence of dialogue.  Before, there would be Darth Vader or later Dooku trying to play mind games through cunning dialogue and strategic intimidation.  They would try to put their Jedi opponents off-guard this way, and it made for a more multi-dimensional fight.

Meanwhile, the space battles are okay.  There are very few of them, and none of them really capture that urgent speed and suspense that most others in the saga have offered.  The climax ultimately gets sliced up too thin between four interconnected action sequences to really give enough coherent importance to more than one.  That being the Jedi versus Sith lightsaber duel, and it’s the least consequential fight of the film since there’s nothing at stake between Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, and Maul.  Regardless, its speed and physical intensity give it the rousing action sensation that was needed in more abundance here.  The film starts so slowly and flatly laying out plot elements and briefly introducing a few characters while pouring out redundant dialogue that there’s not enough momentum to keep the film going.  It has a consistent pace, but that pace is a bit too sluggish here without anything of importance happening.  A methodical pace is workable when, like in The Empire Strikes Back, you are getting character development.  The Phantom Menace has no substantive character development.  Anything you learn of them is really surface stuff, very one dimensional insights.

The Gungan-Droid battle is uninteresting to me since I don’t care about the Gungans or the Droid Army.  It also comes off highly cartoonish and pathetically unfunny.  I wish like hell there was a way to excise this from the film, but Lucas himself realized that plot elements were too interwoven to do such a thing.  Another frivolous action sequence is the pod race.  It’s gratuitous in my eyes.  Theatrical or DVD cut, it’s far too long for such a minor element in the story.  This is not some sports movie where the entire film builds up to this critical sequence where everything is laid on the line, and all character, story, and emotional threads tie into it to make it pivotal and crucial.  Yes, it determines whether Anakin goes free or not, but Qui-Gon had already well demonstrated how much he was willing to cheat and manipulate events to get what he wanted.  I have no doubt that he would’ve done something unethical to free Anakin even if he had lost the race.  Simply said, the pod race overstays its welcome, and once it is done, it has no further relevance to the film.  Never has such a fast paced sequence slowed down a film so much.

On the brighter side, as is always a highlight that elevates the quality of any movie is John Williams’ score.  “Duel of the Fates” still is a brilliant, operatic piece that gives the climax a sweeping, epic majesty.  It was a perfect composition that has always marked what I call, “where the movie really begins.”  The only thing the score lacks is due to the lack of it in the picture is rousing adventure.  The action sequences are few and far between, and so, it requires the score to be more in the background instead of crashing into the surround sound with heart soaring excitement.  Regardless, I own two versions of the CD soundtrack including the two disc ultimate edition, and it is a fantastic listen.  So, I give it high marks all around.

The only other thing to address are the midichlorians.  You see, the Force used to be something entirely spiritual where it required great commitment and discipline to master.  It’s a power anyone can tap into it if they are willing to open their minds and trust in it fully.  Yoda spoke to this perfectly in The Empire Strikes Back in that the Force doesn’t rely on the physical.  It’s all about the character of the person which determines how great of a Jedi they could become.  Now, George Lucas tells us that everyone’s ability to use the Force is based on how many of these microscopic organisms are present in your bloodstream.  This means you are biologically limited to how potent of a Force user you can be, and you can never become anything greater than that.  No amount of spiritual strength or Jedi training you go through will make you as good as someone with more midichlorians in their body.  That entirely crushes the sensibility the Force was originally built upon, and that is another terrible idea injected into a film already ripe with terrible ideas.  Before, it was an inspiring idea and philosophy that added a fantastical quality to Star Wars that captured and enthralled peoples’ imaginations.  Now, it’s cold science.  Just like how I don’t need to know where immortals came from in Highlander, I don’t need to know the clinical origins of the Force.  Magic is magic, and that’s all I need to know.  And the fact that Lucas uses these midichlorians to say that Anakin Skywalker is the result of a virgin birth created by the midichlorians themselves is just a smack in the face to me.  There was never any need to inject such an idea into the saga, and it has extremely little relevance to anything.  It is only ever mentioned again in Revenge of the Sith by Palpatine, and it’s practically glossed over entirely by Anakin in that same scene.  I suppose it’s meant to give Anakin a more mythic or prophetic aura around him that neither Jake Lloyd or Hayden Christiansen ever remotely live up to.  While I’ve never had an overt issue with the whole “prophecy” aspect, it is another idea that Lucas developed exclusively for the prequels.  This revisionist mentality is no surprise to anyone now, but frankly, it gets to being a bit aggravating in the prequels as George keeps altering the original trilogy to accommodate it.

That’s really the perils of making prequels.  How do you introduce something new to the story that hasn’t already been said without betraying what has already been established?  It is not impossible, especially considering Ben Kenobi’s line about “a certain point of view.”  There are many things Lucas could’ve altered that could still be true if looked at from a different perspective, but nothing about prophecies, midichlorians, Qui-Gon (not Obi-Wan) discovering Anakin, or anything else can be taken in that way.

As I said, I could go on and on about the flaws and failures of this film that bother me, but this has already been an obscenely long review as it is.  Still, it feels like I’ve only barely scratched the surface of it all.  There are people who think we just don’t “get” the prequels as if we’re unable to accept them for what they are, and that’s why we rag on them.  The truth is that we are fans who just expect a product with a little thought, care, and integrity be put into it.  A plot that makes sense with smart, entertaining characters.  Frankly, that is not difficult to deliver, but somehow, George Lucas failed on all fronts.  Again, I enjoyed the film upon release in 1999 because I was just in awe of the spectacle, but as I have matured, I can see beyond that to focus on how poorly conceived this film was at its most base level.  I’ve said for a while now that if this was the original first Star Wars movie, it would not have sparked the same phenomena that we have enjoyed for the last 35 years.  It just doesn’t have the rousing adventure aspect or lively, iconic character qualities that made Star Wars so successful in the first place.  I don’t enjoy watching this movie, and I don’t believe seeing it in 3D would give it any more actual dimension or entertainment value.  My reviews on the entire saga will continue as the prequels do improve beyond this point, but flaws still exist.  In one case, my fondness for one prequel film will allow for some forgiveness.  In the least, I believe my following reviews will be no more than half as long as this one, thankfully.


Real Steel (2011)

I really liked this movie!  It always seemed entertaining, but I was never sure if it was exactly for me.  Turns out, it absolutely was, and I wish I had seen it in theatres for that big rousing experience.  Real Steel is a heart warming story with a lot of exciting action, lovable humor, and strong emotional drama.  This is a crowd pleaser, and a wonderful family oriented film.

In the near future, boxing as we know it has changed from human athletes to robotic competitors.  This has left former boxer Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) down on his luck shopping his worn out bot fighter Ambush around to small time fairs and events.  He’s broke with large debts hanging over his head to many people, and his con man bravado constantly gets him in over his head.  However, his life is about to change when the mother of his estranged eleven year old son passes away, and her sister, Debra (Hope Davis) wants to claim fully custody of Max Kenton (Dakota Goyo).  Charlie negotiates a deal with the clearly well-off Uncle Marvin (James Rebhorn) to take the kid for the summer with a $50,000 price tag up front while Debra and Marvin take off to Italy.  Charlie uses the cash to buy a new robot, but Max will not be dumped off with Charlie’s girlfriend Bailey (Evangeline Lilly) who tries to keep her late father’s boxing gym open.  So, he joins Charlie out on the bot fighting circuit where they constantly come into odds with one another, but when their big time Japanese bot gets mutilated during a main event bout, they head to the junkyard to scrap together parts for a new fighter.  Here, Max discovers Atom, an old sparring bot, buried under the mud, and Max dedicates himself to fixing up and championing Atom as their new fighter.  Charlie doesn’t have faith that Atom is worthwhile, but eventually, their combined efforts and warming attitudes help lead them all to great success.  The two reach great heights with Atom and as a family.  Although, they hit many turbulent moments that tear them apart, but also, bring them closer together to forge a father-son bond that is stronger than steel.

I have to hand it to everyone involved in this movie.  I don’t think it could’ve been better.  Director Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum) certainly had great input from producers Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis to create such a well balanced film.  There are many elements in Real Steel that are very akin to the films they made back in the 1980s.  It is very heartfelt and endearing with plenty of enjoyable, well developed characters.  Listening to Levy’s audio commentary, I can’t help but to love his passion and love for what he does.

I’ll certainly get to Hugh Jackman, but I absolutely wanted to credit Dakota Goyo.  This young actor makes this film work beyond expectations.  It is so often that child actors grate on an audience’s nerves due to unnatural attitude or overt, sickening cuteness, but Dakota is nothing of the sort.  He comes off as a sharp, intelligent, mature, and charming kid.  He has vast potential, and so much of that is fleshed out here.  He carries his equal weight opposite Jackman, and their chemistry is amazingly fantastic!  They keep each other on their toes, demanding higher and higher standards from one another throughout the story.  Max brings out the best in Charlie and so many others through his confident, ambitious, yet still youthful spirit.  He does have attitude, but it works to show that Max isn’t going to back down from Charlie, who needs someone to kick some sense and maturity into him.  And how Max bonds with Atom is amazingly heartfelt, like a boy bonding with his dog.  Atom certainly is given that personality of a kid’s best, loyal friend, and the child-like innocence of that relationship is beautifully realized.  In the hands of any lesser of a talent, the film would’ve had a fatal weak point, but Goyo truly elevates the film.  He projects sympathy at key moments, and while he is a tough kid, he does have his vulnerability.  He can elicit a wide range of emotions from an invested audience.  I love the fact that Max is just looking for someone who will fight for him, to be needed and loved by someone so bad, and the moment he reveals that is heartbreaking and powerful.

Hugh Jackman gives Charlie Kenton an extra dimension that allows him to be likeable even when, by all rights, he shouldn’t be.  Again, with any less of an actor, Charlie would’ve been despicable and obnoxious.  Instead, Jackman brings a slightly sympathy to Charlie which allows him to be forgivable and redeemable.  This story truly is an evolution for Charlie from a guy at rock bottom that’s entirely self-serving without a genuine, honest relationship to a father who comes to care deeply for his estranged son who wants to do all things right by him.  Charlie starts out a little pathetic, but not entirely innocent of the problems that befall him.  He talks a good game, but his bravado gets the better of him.  He’s a man that had his taste at greatness, but the change in the fight game abruptly ended those dreams.  So, he feels broken, and wants to avoid showing his feelings by masking with an arrogant, if immature demeanor.  However, the more time he spends with Max, the more Charlie’s hardened swagger softens.  Jackman beautifully captures those moments of Charlie’s heart and compassion breaking through the surface such as a moment where Charlie saves Max from a mudslide fall right before they discover Atom.  Dakota’s performance pulls out these qualities in Jackman’s character forcing him to come to terms with his past and character flaws.  Charlie becomes a better person because of Max, and Jackman plays that subtle development brilliantly.  He only puts in what charm and swagger that are needed at any given moment.  He finds the perfect balance between the old Charlie and the new Charlie in every scene as he journeys from one end of that spectrum to the other.  Beyond all else, Hugh clearly had a fun time making this movie, and shared a lot of respect with Dakota.

The father-son relationship is the entire core of this film, and casting these two deeply talented, smart actors was the best, first step to achieving success.  They were fully committed to the story and characters here.  Both of their performances become painfully heartbreaking, but also immensely exciting.  There is so much nuance to their performances allowing them to work off of each other, and create that charming bond which drives the whole film.  I simply cannot say enough about them that you will have to experience them yourself.

Rounding out the core cast, Evangeline Lilly’s Bailey is excellent as well.  Bailey tries to keep from having to sell her father’s old boxing gym, but Charlie’s debts to her make that difficult.  However, Charlie has enough charm with her to slide by, but she never makes it too easy for him.  Evangeline has a lot of energy, enthusiasm, and passion to inject into the movie.  She plays off of Jackman exceptionally well as his love interest.  The relationship is playful, intimate, and honest.  Bailey is an easy going woman that you can entirely see the history and connection she shares with Charlie, and how her hope in him grows as the story builds.  She is very easy to connect with, and remains strongly tethered to the heart of the film.  Her visceral moments cheering on Atom during the fights are awesome, and that likely reflects the audience’s enthusiasm to see our heroes achieve glorious victory. There is just so much heart and emotion that pours out of this film, and these actors saturate it with incredible performances.

The supporting cast strongly hold the smaller areas of the film together.  Hope Davis as Max’s Aunt Debra is very caring and protective of her nephew.  His Uncle Marvin, played by the solid James Rebhorn, is not unappreciative of Max, but is also not ready to drop everything to be his father figure.  Kevin Durand portrays the Texan Ricky with a slick, ill-favored attitude, but he’s just enough of an intimidating yet foolish character to be amusing.  The smug, arrogant duo of Olga Fonda and Karl Yune as Zeus’ owner and creator, respectively, are great foils for Charlie & Max who are full of humanity and determination.  These nicely textured characters, backed by solid acting talents, add a strong foundation to build these great character dynamics upon that are the substance of this film.

Mauro Fiore’s cinematography is stunningly gorgeous and powerful.  The frame holds substantial weight and emotion with brilliant, beautiful lighting.  The subtle movement in the more tender emotional scenes brings class and sophistication to the film.  There are also many great shots that show off the scale, production quality, and depth of the film.  Levy and Fiore brought a great artistic detail to the visual quality, and production designer Tom Meyer also deserves credit for creating such a visually appealing world for them to capture.  The selection of locations and aesthetics of the slightly futuristic world is highly impressive and enveloping.  Each scene is given importance and artistic resonance.  The boxing scenes are greatly captured with coherent motion that respects the action it is capturing.  Again, the film shoots for higher standards by dismissing cheap shaky cam nonsense for solid camera movement and cinematic integrity.

The robots themselves are such a delight.  The personality and fun these filmmakers put into these designs are so pleasing.  They are not hard edged designs like Transformers, but more marketable, vibrant, engaging designs that would bring smiles to a wide audience.  This gives the film so much character and entertainment value.  Every robot boxer has their own distinct identity to give each fight a certain tone.  Midas is a very punked-out underground fighter bot that reflects the gritty, dirty environment he battles in.  Twin Cities, a two headed bot, is a very inventive design that Charlie & Max have to be innovative in order to defeat.  Zeus is effectively intimidating with his bulk, strength, and square jawed design.  Charlie’s first bot, Ambush, is like an old faded out car that once had its day, but is far from top of the line now.  Noisy Boy, the former big time bot Charlie buys on the black market, is sharply designed with a Samurai motif.  He’s very showy with sleek lines and bright LED colored lights, but Atom is the real marvel.  He feels like the underdog as he’s not big and bulky or particularly showy, but the strength of the design is how an audience can project whatever they feel into Atom’s face.  The big glowing turquoise eyes are very endearing, and the welding scars on its screened face work as a makeshift smile and nose.  He’s a little wounded, beat up, but he has an innocent, youthful quality to him.  This is also due to the sound design of Atom’s little murmurs and wails.  He’s a wonderful creation that embodies the heart and determination of the story, and with his shadow mode, he reflects upon the qualities of Charlie and Max repeatedly.

The effects of Real Steel took a very smart approach by building and using practical robots for many purposes, and interchanging them with digital effects.  This ultimately allowed for far more photo-realistic fighting robots that interact with their surroundings seamlessly.  They used motion capture on real boxers for all of these fights to give the robots realistic movement and unique personalities.  These performers were supervised by the great and legendary Sugar Ray Leonard.  Learning that Levy had all these great collaborators on this film, including Leonard, Spielberg, and Zemeckis, that makes it easy to see how Shawn Levy was able to create such a powerful and impressive film.  He had the right studio backing him up, and a wide array of fantastic, top line talents guiding the creative process along.  These visual effects are excellent standard bearers, and many filmmakers should look to the methods and skills used in Real Steel for future effects-filled features.

Now, I surely must have missed large chunks in the evolution of Danny Elfman’s film composer career.  While I know him best from films like Batman, Mission: Impossible, and Spider-Man, I never knew he was capable of something of this caliber.  Director Shawn Levy said that the list of composers who could do what Elfman did is extremely short.  He creates a wide range of depth to the score between the guitar strumming ambience to the rousing big fight action cues.  This entirely compliments the overall emotional landscape of the movie from the visuals to the acting and beyond.  How Levy orchestrates the timing of these cues is very original as he delays the punctuation of these moments.  I feel this allows the emotional beats to be more raw and tender which only enhances them further.  This is really the sign of a great filmmaker with a strong, clear vision of what he wanted to achieve, and he got it.

The story itself is not new, but as is the real skill, it’s how effective and fresh a filmmaker can make a well treaded story which makes it special.  I believe that was successfully achieved here.  Emotions are finely crafted around the character relationships and internal personalities.  And where a normal boxing movie is more violent and brutal, the robot boxing allows for the fights to be fun, exciting, and enjoyable.  There’s so much adrenalin pumping action that it is bound to please almost any audience.  The film always seems to find character building moments in its plot developments.  I also love how the film doesn’t start with a boat load of exposition.  It allows an audience to ease into the story and characters, and only later, after they have been comfortably established does the history of robot boxing and Charlie’s own boxing career get detailed.  It shows what the true focus is here – the characters, and that it is its greatest strength.

Overall, Real Steel is a real winner!  I was thoroughly entertained and surprised by this movie over and over again.  The climactic fight between Atom and Zeus is stellar, genius stuff!  While the film clearly had templates of other boxing and sports movies to follow, the advantage of the robots and technology allows for an unexpected turn during the final round that gives Charlie his moment to shine and gain redemption for his boxing career.  Everything is beautifully crafted wrapped with heart, humor, and humanity.  There really is so much I can say, but it’s not easy to articulate it.  Sometimes, you just have to experience it to comprehend the depth and excellence of a film.  To everyone involved in the making of Real Steel, you have my deepest respect and highest praise!  I loved it!


Timecop (1994)

Time travel is the biggest pain in the backside to comprehend.  It can become circular logical trying to make sense of the contradictions, continuity resolutions, and potential paradoxes.  Timecop certainly has these problems due to half thought-out ideas, but where these issues would normally sour the entire film to me, Timecop has just enough entertainment value to dwarf those concerns.  Peter Hyams, who shot and directed this film, clearly deserves much credit for bringing the right talents and elements together to achieve a result that is satisfying on all other levels.

In 1994, time travel is made possible, and upon learning of this, the U.S. government forms a confidential agency called the Time Enforcement Commission (TEC) to police time itself, and prevent changes in the past.  Washington, D.C. police officer Max Walker (Jean-Claude Van Damme) accepts an assignment to this new agency, but on this very day, he and his wife Melissa (Mia Sara) are attacked.  This results in Melissa’s death and the destruction of their home.  Ten years later, Max Walker grieves still, but has become a respected TEC Agent.  Max ends up having to take in Atwood, his own ex-partner, for tampering with the past with the stock market.  When coxed about who hired him to do this, the name Senator Aaron McComb (Ron Silver) is named, but Atwood refuses to testify to this fearing for the lives of his family.  McComb is a presidential candidate who has been stealing from the past to fund his campaign so that he can essentially buy the presidency.  McComb quickly learns of Walker’s knowledge, and continually seeks to eliminate him and shut down the TEC entirely.  Max becomes determined to expose the Senator’s criminal actions, which come to include multiple murders, but his TEC superior, Matuzak (Bruce McGill) keeps Max from going too far without evidence to support his claims.  However, all things become interwoven as McCombs’ manipulative plans take Walker back to 1994 where his past and future come into peril.  Can Max change history before it repeats itself?

There is just something about the old action heroes that is missing today.  While Jean-Claude Van Damme has amazing physical ability with remarkable martial arts talent, he also has plenty of charisma and heart to really make his roles empathetic.  He gives them enough dimension and charm to be someone an audience can thoroughly enjoy watching.  The young Max Walker is a warm, light-hearted man with a lot of passion and love.  The older Max Walker is more rough around the edges.  He’s a lonelier man that is very dedicated to his job, and takes his commitment to it very seriously.  He has a strong ethical and moral center that doesn’t allow him to back down from McComb.  Still, he retains the charm and wit of his younger self, but with a tinge of conviction.  Van Damme plays both versions nicely, and keeps an emotional connective tissue between them.  He carries the film with plenty of heart, humor, and dramatic weight.  He also has excellent chemistry with his co-stars.

Primarily among them is the late Ron Silver who made for an excellent cold blooded villain as McComb.  His charisma is very sharp as he commands the screen with intelligence and conviction.  He is very imposing and intimidating.  McComb is a man driven by the need for power, and everyone in his path towards it is expendable.  With the advantage of time travel, he can essentially prevent anyone from ever existing, but in some cases, he hardly sees a need to be so severe.  He also doesn’t mind doing his own dirty work.  He just can’t do it all himself.  The younger Senator McComb has ambition and vision, but is not hardened, yet.  His elder presidential candidate self is very cutthroat.  Silver brings immense weight to the picture that fuels the dogged motivation in Van Damme’s performance.  The two have very good chemistry playing off one another many times in the film.  They have a very effective counterbalance that keeps the movie compelling and entertaining.  They exchange several sharp, humorous remarks that entirely fit their characters, and maintain a tension between Walker and McComb that injects urgency into the plot.

I am continually impressed by Bruce McGill’s talent.  I was first introduced to him on MacGyver as the humorous con man Jack Dalton, but since then, I have seen the vast range and depth he is capable of.  From roles in The Insider, Collateral, The Last Boy Scout, Quantum Leap, and a very memorable episode of Miami Vice, I can seriously say that he is one of the best character actors around.  As Matuzak, he holds his ground very easily as Walker’s boss with the weight of authority and a quick witted levity.  He cares a good deal about Max, but he always keeps his priorities and responsibilities in check.  He never lets his friendship compromise his position, at least, not until circumstances become desperate and Matuzak has to stretch his trust in Walker.  McGill and Van Damme also have thoroughly entertaining chemistry that livens up the film, smartly.  Walker and Matuzak are good, tusted friends with a lot of history behind them which adds to the depth of the story.  Van Damme and McGill reflect that nicely giving the film some funny interactions that only a couple of good, long time friends could offer up.

Mia Sara is beautiful beyond just the physical.  As Melissa, you have zero trouble believing in Max’s deep love for her.  She’s compassionate, seductive, and lovely.  The love for Max is always in her eyes, and definitely connects through to an audience.  Mia Sara projects every emotion with heart-gripping depth.  Her interactions with Jean-Claude are wonderful, as are all the relationships in the film.  The whole cast really does a superb job playing off one another, hitting the right dramatic and tonal marks.  The performances are very consistent and complementary.  It’s almost surprising, but pleasantly so.

The visual effects are kind of mixed.  The optical composites putting two Van Dammes or two Ron Silvers into the same frame at the same time are generally pretty good, and the time travel “ripple” effect is well done.  There is also a wicked cool moment where Walker kicks the young McComb in the face, and then, the scar from it morphs onto the face of the older McComb.  These little flourishes are exceptionally nice, and add some originality to the film.  However, the more complex digital effects are rather primitive.  I can only imagine this was due to budgetary constraints.  CGI was likely still highly expensive in 1994 as only Steven Spielberg and James Cameron blockbusters got to make elaborate use of them.  This wasn’t Industrial Light & Magic at work here.  While there are only two such moments in the movie, one of which is a very critical moment that I cannot say how it will affect your enjoyment if you’re just watching Timecop now for the first time.  I’ve known what to expect since Timecop originally hit VHS in the mid-1990s, and so, it doesn’t bother me at all.  For a modern audience, it might be a sour note.

Finally discovering and getting my hands on the first ever widescreen release of this film on DVD, I can properly enjoy the wonderful cinematography by Peter Hyams (who also directed the feature).  I can definitely tell it was shot by him due to the use of contrast through heavy light and shadow.  The movie has plenty of visual atmosphere, but it never goes too far.  There’s a certain noir aspect to much of Hyams’ lighting and cinematography in addition to my beloved 2.35:1 aspect ratio that give Timecop some solid production values.  It also gives the film some distinctive identity and edgy dramatic weight.  Hyams captures and directs the action very, very well.  He has his pacing and composition crafted beautifully creating a very coherent string of action sequences that are thoroughly satisfying.  Hyams puts Van Damme’s talent nicely on display.  Jean-Claude has many awesome moments flexing his agility and ability.  The shot of JCVD jumping and doing the splits on the countertop to avoid the stun gun was a memorable moment from the trailer, and remains as such within the film.  His martial arts skills make for a unique and hard hitting style that really gives the film a lot of kick.  The choreography is plotted out greatly to make the scenes develop logically and organically.  The knife fight alone is a nice change of pace, adding to the creativity of the action.

Now, if it wasn’t for all this good talent elevating the quality of this film, it would not be a winner.  Again, there are so many confusing issues that arise from the underdeveloped time travel concepts and plot turns in this, that you cannot hold the screenplay as a gold standard of the genre.  The general story works very well supported by the acting talents involved, but analyzed at all and its mechanics fall apart.  It’s too complicated to dissect here, but simply said, the space-time continuum should’ve imploded by the end of this movie.  Paradoxes are abound with people being killed, partially erased from the timeline, resetting timelines, and people retaining knowledge of multiple timelines despite the continuity changing constantly with new incursions into the past.  There’s never any constant in what makes for a good time travel story as there’s always some inherent technical complications.  Even those that have a well stated theory of time travel can often fall apart, often with their sequels taking too many liberties with the plot.  There’s no Doc Brown or Sam Beckett type characters present to really speak to the screenwriter’s theories of time travel.  So, the film generally avoids getting too deep into it, and thus, it’s best to avoid rationalizing the logic of it all.  In any case, for a little more insight into this matter you can visit an old favorite website of mine which takes a few moments to breakdown the basic flaws: Temporal Anomalies in Popular Time Travel Movies.

The production design is very good with some large sets that offer up some additional scope.  The entire TEC facility has a slight futuristic quality, but retains a utilitarian mentality which grounds it.  The control room, offices, and launch bay retain a purely functional design idea that would be akin to a secret government facility.  It also allows Peter Hyams to create the aforementioned shadowy, noir inspired lighting schemes.  The only area where the “futuristic” time of 2004 crashes and burns is the design of these butt ugly automobiles.  I’ve never seen a concept car that took the armored, blocky design approach, and indeed, I’m glad that these filmmakers did not accurately foretell the future in this aspect.  Aside from that, the art direction is very good, and maybe a little reflective of 1990s visual aesthetics (something that I have no problems with).

The good fortune of this film is that the filmmakers and cast worked hard to make it entertaining and enjoyable.  The screenwriter abandoned any serious logic in the temporal mechanics so that the plot could work how he wanted it to.  That’s never a good thing, but there’s enough quality put on screen to mostly cloud that shortcoming.  Van Damme is great handling all the demands of the role smoothly from dramatic to humorous to emotional to the physical.  The supporting cast is just as strong keeping the film consistently entertaining.  The characters are well written, and even better realized with solid casting choices.  Peter Hyams deserves a lot of credit for creating a film that features high production values with appealing performances and action sequences built on a script that didn’t make much sense, but was satisfying nonetheless.


Star Trek III: The Search For Spock (1984)

There is a myth in Star Trek lore that the even numbered movies are good and the odds numbered ones are bad.  That’s fairly simplistic, and not entirely a fair statement.  Yes, the franchise has had poorly conceived and problematic films in its lineup, but that hardly means that all the lesser entries are terrible.  Star Trek: The Motion Picture has a lot going against it, but as evidence by it, the talents of Shatner, Nimoy, and Kelley have always been able to add redeeming qualities to all the original cast films.  Their chemistry, charm, heart, charisma, and depth have always shone through.  While there is a potential future review from me for Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, I wanted to delve into the follow-up to the franchise’s most critically successful film.  I wanted to address Star Trek III: The Search For Spock.  While the first and fifth films have very obvious problems that have been well vocalized, I feel Trek 3 gets too much of a bad wrap.  I can pinpoint and agree with the reasons why, but I believe it’s been overly beat up because of it being in the shadow of The Wrath of Khan.  Time for someone to give it a more fair viewpoint.

The starship Enterprise is heavily wounded in the aftermath of her battle against Khan, but her crew survives by way of the sacrifice of Captain Spock (Leonard Nimoy).  His body is launched from the ship in a memorial ceremony, and crash lands on the Genesis planet.  As the Enterprise and her crew arrive home to Earth, Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner) finds his close friend and confidant Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy (DeForest Kelly) in Spock’s sealed quarters talking crazy, and eventually finds himself in lock-up after trying to charter passage to Genesis.  The hits keeping coming as Kirk learns that the Enterprise is to be decommissioned as the Starfleet brass believe her day has passed.  This is ever more apparent with the experimental new U.S.S. Excelsior ready to begin trial runs, ushering in a new era of Starfleet engineering.  However, Kirk is soon paid a visit by Spock’s father, Ambassador Sarek (Mark Lenard), who tells him that Spock’s katra (i.e. everything that is not of the body) still lives, and they determine that Spock mind-melded with McCoy before his death.  This commits Jim Kirk to a course of action that could cost him his career by stealing the Enterprise to rescue Spock’s body from the newly formed Genesis planet, and reunite it what’s in Leonard McCoy’s mind.  Meanwhile, a ship of rogue Klingons, headed up by the cunning and merciless Commander Kruge (Christopher Lloyd), seek to learn the secrets of the Genesis Device for the protection of the Empire with the science team on U.S.S. Grissom, including Kirk’s son David (Merritt Butrick) and Lieutenant Saavik (Robin Curtis), caught in the crossfire.  The sacrifices of the crew of the starship Enterprise will be dire as they endeavor on their search for Spock.

I believe why this film is not as highly regarded as others is the lack of a strong theme.  In The Wrath of Khan, there was a prominent exploration of age, life, and death.  What they all mean in context to one another, and how someone like Jim Kirk dealt with them.  Here, there was enough room left open for strong themes to be explored, such as sacrifice and rebirth, but the opportunities are not taken with much ambition.  Considering all Kirk has battled through from Khan to the death of his friend, ship, and son, the story was ripe for deep resonance.  Of course, The Voyage Home doesn’t have such dramatic elements to it, and it has been widely beloved.  The Search For Spock is a segue between the tones of the films its sandwiched between.  It has its strong, dramatic elements, but also a lot of fun and light-hearted charisma.  One would think it would be praised for that fine blend, but it does lack the ambition that those other two films had.  They took some chances, pushing themselves for higher standards, and they succeeded.  While this second sequel doesn’t have much scope, I do gain enjoyment from it.  There are many aspects that I find are worth commending.

I love how the film is able to show the loyalty of the Enterprise crew.  Admiral Kirk gives them the opportunity to walk away before getting too deep into this rogue mission, but they have no hesitations in voicing their loyalties.  They are willing to stand by Kirk, regardless of the repercussions, because of  what they owe him, and ultimately, what they owe Spock for his sacrifice.  That strong, indestructible bond is not something that all Star Trek casts have been able to achieve, and that history amongst the crew of the original U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701 sells so much of Kirk’s motivations here.  Even if the film doesn’t dig deep enough to show how it penetrates to his soul, a seasoned viewer already knows it.  Tying into that is the always solid chemistry amongst the regular cast members.  They work as an ensemble that is very cohesive, and always on the mark.  Regardless of the quality of the film they are making, or how troubled the production may have been, the actors never get lazy or sloppy.  They respect their characters and the legacy they leave behind.  No pun intended, but Shatner puts in an admirable performance giving the film its constant pace through his wit and charisma.  He adds in the right touches of humor, as do his co-stars, but focuses the drama of the screenplay when it’s needed.

This film was really the dawn of the revamped Klingons.  The makeup redesign happened in the first film, but here, they finally explore the revised culture of the warrior race.  The concepts of honor, guile, and glorious death are well explored through Christopher Lloyd’s excellent Commander Kruge.  While the character himself is not explored with as much depth as he could have, Lloyd plays a surprisingly solid villain.  He’s cunning, deceitful, intelligent, and treacherous.  Lloyd has been known for a wide range of eclectic characters, but here, he delivers an excellent, calculated performance with a fine operatic screen presence.  Essentially, all Klingon actors followed in his footsteps as he laid the foundation and template for them right here.  I also enjoyed Kruge motives, which could have been the basis for fleshing the character out.  Like with Khan, Kruge sees the potential for Genesis as a weapon, but instead of using it as an instrument of revenge or tyranny, the Klingon Commander seeks it to protect his people.  He will not let the Federation have sole claim to something that could be used to commit genocide on his people, and he will stop at nothing to learn its secrets.  It could almost be an allegory to the nuclear arms race if Genesis was created as a weapon instead of as a terraforming device.  Kruge is calculating, and accepts nothing but the absolute best from his crew, lest they be met with fatal punishment.  Lloyd as Kruge was also the first to use the fully realized Klingon language.  It was great having the alien race’s culture more fleshed out and developed for this film to give the actors something solid and powerful to work off of.  The always impressive John Larroquette is here as one of Kruge’s subordinates, Maltz.  It’s a minor role, but he embraces it with his usual full commitment and high quality.  This film also introduced one of my favorite Star Trek starships – the Klingon Bird of Prey.  It’s an amazing design that is fierce and dangerous.  The green paint job was a smart departure from all the dull grey ships we had seen until then.  It gives the Klingons more personality from the moment the ship de-cloaks.  It is given an imposing, threatening introduction that serves the Klingons thoroughly.

I have always held Mark Lenard as Sarek in high regard.  You never get to meet the parents of the other Enterprise crew members, but for Spock, it has always been important to his character to see his family.  Lenard has always been able to portray Sarek’s wisdom and logic with a touch of heart.  While it’s hard to link emotional terms with the performance of a Vulcan, I would say that Sarek shows his soul in this film.  Losing his son is like losing a part of himself, as is the same with Kirk.  So, they share a rare moment which only Spock’s death could compel from them.  While Sarek & Spock’s father-son relationship has had its conflicts, Sarek is still a fine father that cares for his son more than he can ever allow himself to express.  No parent should see their child’s life end before their own, and Sarek sees a chance to reverse that tragedy.  Any parent would take that chance, no matter the odds.  Mark Lenard gave Sarek his wisdom, grace, conviction, and noble depth of character.  He was an incredible, inspiring actor that forged a legacy in this franchise that will stand for all time.

A possible issue of contention with this movie is the recasting of Saavik.  The role was originated by Kirstie Alley in The Wrath of Khan, but financial demands from her agent prevented her reprisal.  Instead, it went to Robin Curtis.  Both actresses play the role differently, but it was necessary to keep Saavik to maintain the character and story threads from the previous movie.  Both Alley and Curtis offer unique and admirable performances.  Alley’s Saavik was decently Vulcan with a subtle emotive quality.  She was a very untested Starfleet cadet with promise.  She came to grow over the course of the adventure, earning her keep.  Curtis’ Saavik is more confident and capable with a stronger Vulcan characterization and a sensitive nature that proves to be a strength.  She has a stronger will and sharper intellect to create a more complex character.  With the guidance of director Leonard Nimoy, she was given the freedom to make the character her own without the baggage of Kirstie Alley’s portrayal.  In the Vulcan legacy of Spock and Sarek, she adds great depth to Saavik beneath the surface.  Alley’s version entirely served the needs of The Wrath of Khan while Curtis’ portrayal suits the demands of The Search For Spock just as perfectly.

The visual effects are solidly up to the levels of the first two Star Trek films, as handled by Industrial Light & Magic.  They are definite proud achievements that hold up excellently today.  Model work and optical effects, when done by the master craftsman of the era, entirely stood the test of time, and should always remain available as milestones in cinematic history.  What doesn’t quite stand up over time are the scenes on planet Genesis.  The limitations of the budget are painfully evident with the obvious soundstage sets and painted backdrops.  Because of the limited budget, the filmmakers obviously couldn’t fly their actors to exotic locales around the world to feature all the diverse climates of this manufactured planet.  I can’t say that there was a feasible way to do this better at the time this movie was made, but even if it was the best solution, it’s still a detractor to the film’s production quality.  This is not a constant for every scene on Genesis, but the evidence is frequently apparent, regularly reminding you of this fact.

Another thing that I don’t care for here is James Horner’s score.  I’ve always been underwhelmed by his music for Star Trek.  For me, Jerry Goldsmith will always be the one and only master when it comes to cinematic Trek.  What John Williams is to Star Wars, Jerry Goldsmith was to Star Trek, in my view.  He ultimately defined the vast, sprawling, epic musical landscape of the franchise for me on the big screen.  Horner’s themes and cues are fine work, but they never became signature, identifiable themes for Star Trek.  Evidence of this is that Goldsmith’s theme for Star Trek: The Motion Picture became the theme music for Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Jerry was brought in to score five total films in the series over thirty-four years.  Horner was kept around for a total of three films, but I never cared all that much for the music he produced.  It was never outright bad, but it just never lived up to the musical potential of what Star Trek demanded.  It’s nicely arranged and gives the film some character, but it simply never does enough for me.  In this film, I seriously miss one of my favorite Goldsmith themes – the Klingon theme.  I can only imagine how awesome it would’ve been to see that Bird of Prey swooping around for the kill with that glorious fanfare in full orchestral breadth.  Kruge surely deserved a verbose and powerful theme to accompany his commanding presence, but James Horner makes no attempt to give the Klingons any presence in the film’s score.

The screenplay was written by producer Harve Bennett who was more akin to writing for television (such as The Mod Squad and The Bionic Woman) which, at the time, didn’t explore big thematic storylines with strong emotional resonance.  So, the scope of the film feels small for that reason.  As I said before, the limits were not pushed here to be ambitious and reach for something bigger or deeper.  That doesn’t mean the script is bad.  It certainly has its moments.  I truly like the part where the Excelsior’s Captain Styles tells Kirk that if he goes ahead with stealing the Enterprise, “You’ll never sit in the Captain’s seat again.”  Kirk doesn’t even flinch as he  just orders, “Warp speed.”  The first two films made a definite point that Kirk’s worth in life is directly tied to being a starship captain, but there’s something far more important at stake here.  He’d rather lose everything in his career if there’s a chance to bring Spock back to life, and restore McCoy’s mind to peace.  The dialogue is good and entertaining while encapsulating the characters perfectly.  The action scenes are nicely conceived, especially with the fight between the Enterprise and the Klingon Bird of Prey.  Seeing how the old NCC-1701 is overmatched because it is wounded and undermanned being run on automation was a fine touch.  It is entirely realistic that she can’t take the pounding.  While it would have been a glorious moment to see Admiral Morrow proven wrong with his statements of how old and outdated the ship is by seeing it triumph against such steep odds, I think it better fuels how much Kirk has to sacrifice to get his friend back.

While, clearly, I’ve said much about what is sacrificed on Spock’s behalf, but McCoy is at risk as well.  Jim Kirk has one friend dead and another in turmoil.  These two men – Leonard McCoy & Spock – are pieces to the whole that is James T. Kirk.  I always enjoyed the moment in Star Trek: The Motion Picture where Kirk drafts Bones back into service because he can’t do what he has to do alone.  “Dammit, Bones!  I need you!” says Kirk to McCoy.  Only after he has the wisdom, perspective, heart, and soul of these two men at his side can he succeed.  They bring balance to his ego, passion, guile, and intellect.  They re-enforce and focus his confidence.  They help him reflect upon himself.  Leonard McCoy is a vital piece of that formula bringing passion and humanity to the table.  Kirk can’t allow to see his friend’s mental state deteriorate, and lose him as well.

Regardless of anything else, ultimately, I have to praise Leonard Nimoy on his feature film directorial debut.  It was both a tough and enviable position for him to be in.  On one hand, he was unproven as a movie director, and had scrutinous limitations and supervision put on him in the shadow of a critically and commercially successful film.  However, he was working largely with a cast he had known for over fifteen years who knew their characters thoroughly, and that could allow Nimoy to direct with a built-in sense of respect.  I’m sure he had his difficulties, but his talent is clear to me.  He surely was allowed to soar with Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home based on his success here.  It is a serious cinematic disservice that his career as a feature film director ended before it had a chance to soar.  He started out with solid hits including Three Men and a Baby.  However, he faced a crushing defeat, both critically and commercially, in 1994 with the comedy film Holy Matrimony which grossed less than $800,000 (less than 20% of its production budget).  Leonard really appeared to be a wonderful filmmaker with a great handle on action, drama, and humor.  I believe he would’ve had a lot to offer in a lengthy career had he gotten the right projects to his credit as a director.  Here, he delivered a very consistently paced and well balanced film that keeps is story elements in focus.  While there are likely plot holes in the reasoning of some characters here and there, they are minor bits and pieces that are relatively inconsequential.

At the end of this, I feel Star Trek III: The Search For Spock should not be viewed as a “bad movie.”  It doesn’t live up to the thoroughly solid thematic work of the previous film or the fun adventurous spirit of its follow-up, but it’s a nicely enjoyable film that had potential to be more than it was.  It has plenty of action, drama, and humorous moments to make it a consistent, satisfying and entertaining film.  The screenplay could’ve benefited from getting in deeper to the soul of the story.  It certainly touches upon it several times, but doesn’t stay there long enough to really develop the underlying themes in the story.  As it is, there is no reason to rank it poorly in the franchise.  It was commercially successful, and remains a fine classic Trek adventure for the original cast.  It merely in contrast to the exceptional and vastly superior films it is sandwiched between that give it a perceived smaller stature, and that I can understand.  But sometimes, you need to take things a little out of context to give them their proper due respect.


Green Lantern (2011)

DC Comics have certainly languished behind Marvel Studios in bringing their popular characters to the big screen in the last decade.  At times, I had thought it was because Warner Bros. wanted to take their time to do things right, and make good movies instead of cheap, fast cash grabs.  Marvel has had plenty of those.  Of course, you need to have not just good talent, but the right talent behind a project to make it all it should be.  With Batman firmly established and a Superman reboot rigorously in the works, Green Lantern would’ve been the springboard for other DC Comics film adaptations, but its box office performance was not what was hoped for.

There have been many Green Lanterns throughout the decades, but Hal Jordan has been the most popular one for over fifty years.  I have some fond history with Hal Jordan originating back to the time of The Reign of the Supermen event which set him on a path from fallen hero to super villain to spirit of vengeance to redemption and resurrection.   I enjoyed this journey which took a whole decade to see fulfilled.  It has since made me a fan of Hal, and I became a supporter of having a Green Lantern movie made.  We finally got one, but it wasn’t all I had hoped for.  The resulting film has some serious flaws in it, but very satisfying elements do exist.  Let’s set the stage, first.

Billions of years ago, the Guardians of the Universe divided the universe into 3,600 sectors to be policed by their Green Lantern Corps, assembled from the most fearless beings throughout the universe to maintain order and justice.  When one of their finest, Abin Sur (Temuera Morrison) is attacked by the yellow fear-essence entity Parallax, he is mortally wounded, and crash lands on Earth.  He commands his ring to find a worthy successor here.  That person is the reckless and cocky aircraft test pilot Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds) who is no stranger to fear.  As Jordan slowly learns to use his power ring when he is whisked off to the planet Oa, the home of the Green Lantern Corps.  Here, he is trained by the best Lanterns including Sinestro (Mark Strong) and Kilowog (voiced by Michael Clarke Duncan), but also has his failings and fears brought to light.  Meanwhile, Parallax creates death and destruction as it moves through the universe towards Oa.  The Corps’ attempts to thwart this enemy fail with more casualties, and they consider harnessing the yellow power to fight fear with fear.  On Earth, scientist Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard) is summoned by his father Senator Robert Hammond (Tim Robbins) to do an autopsy on Abin Sur’s body at a secret government facility, and is infected by the yellow fear entity developing telepathic and telekinetic powers.  Hal returns home where he must combat Hector’s increasingly dangerous and villainous behavior, and confront his own insecurities before he can become a true Green Lantern.  Soon, the fate of Earth and the entire universe will be in the hands of Hal Jordan.

What I need to say first is that I do not believe Ryan Reynolds was miscast as Hal Jordan.  Yes, there could have been better choices, but Reynolds was not a bad choice.  I have seen him in dramatic roles such as in Buried where he portrays a man buried alive in a coffin in the middle east.  The raw, wide range of emotion he put on display in that film solidifies my faith in his acting abilities.  The problems in this film that diminish his effectiveness here were far beyond his control.

The main problem here is how unbalanced the film is, and I can entirely pinpoint all the aspects.  Fundamentally, the film is divided between the Earth-based scenes and the intergalactic ones.  They both follow different plotlines and carry different tones and scopes.  Everything involving the Green Lantern Corps on Oa or elsewhere in the universe has a serious urgency to it, and a vast wondrous visual landscape for an epic adventure to take place in.  The Earth scenes have a lighter tone with no such urgency to the storytelling process and a fairly contained scope.  Events in one setting do not have enough effect on those in another.  It can feel like two different films meshed together with Hal Jordan as the only linking thread between them.  There is no cohesion to bring the plotlines tightly together, and when they do converge at all, it’s done too late.  To boil it down simply, everything that didn’t take place on Earth happened to be the best parts of the movie.  Every time the film cuts away from the cosmic, intergalactic part of the story, I couldn’t wait to come back to it.  I had no such anticipation for the Earth-based scenes.

The story involving the Green Lantern Corps and Parallax is so compelling because it deals with a threat on a large, epic scale.  Billions could die, and so many have already perished in its wake.  Therefore, every action and decision the Corps makes has the weight of that menace bearing down upon it.  There are strong characters and fleshed out personalities in these extraterrestrials that easily dwarf those of the human characters.  Sinestro stands out as the strongest and most compelling character in the entire film for me.  I would’ve liked more time spent with him than anyone else to delve deeper into his psychology and emotions.  Knowing that Sinestro becomes an enemy of the Green Lanterns in the comics, he would’ve been a deeply fascinating character to explore in detail before he became that enemy.  Mark Strong does an amazing job with him reflecting many subtle nuances, and he does leave me wanting a hell of a lot more.  It’s a wasted opportunity that more wasn’t done with such an excellent actor in this strongly written role.  On the lighter side, I’m sure fans gained enjoyment from Kilowog, who is particularly entertaining.  Michael Clarke Duncan has a good amount of fun playing this character that he is so much a fan of.  The Guardians themselves have some gravitas to them because of their looming, stoic manner.  They are mysterious, but much can be read into them, as Hal does late in the movie.  They set a very ominous tone that is integral to building up the threat of Parallax.

The visual effects that create these alien landscapes are beyond gorgeous!  In those respects, I can see where all those millions of dollars went in this inflated budget.  They are breathtaking vistas filled with rich depth, color, and textures to create worlds that are enveloping.  Green Lantern is given a strong cosmic sense to it with a universe filled with millions of years of deep history.  The visuals offer a massive scope along with a perfect visual tone to compliment the story.  I have not often seen interstellar science fiction cinema with this amount of extraordinary, beautiful detail.  They surely put the CGI in the Star Wars prequels to shame, in most regards.  All of the CGI aliens in the Corps are fantastic looking!  They all have their own textures, body language, and unique character traits that give the film a wealth of visual personality.  Although, the motion capture animation can tend to appear lacking in realism, mostly in wider shots.  There is not enough weight (or mass) given to their movements in these instances is what I perceive.  However, it’s only in brief, sparse moments.  Conversely, when the shots get in close on Reynolds while wearing the energy suit, the effect is not very convincing.  It can look cheap at these moments, and since Hal Jordan is the main character with a generous amount of close-ups, these moments are frequent.

Over on the Earth based story, so much feels like throwaway content.  It might be necessary content to develop Hal’s character, in theory, but so much fails to have any worth.  The girlfriend is the girlfriend.  Carol Ferris provides the usual emotional support, and she has some amusing moments.  However, I failed to see much depth in the character.  She fulfills a role in the story, but there doesn’t appear to be much potential for her to be more than that.   She’s also the damsel in distress that the hero must save because she must be used as a hostage for the useless villain in Hector Hammond.  Peter Sarsgaard certainly does an excellent job with the quirky, bizarre, and twisted Hammond.  Everything he does is great and dead on the mark, but Hector really has no purpose in the story.  His sinister actions do add a certain dynamic to this part of the story as he slowly mutates into this whacked out super powered agent of Parallax.  It creates conflict amongst a few ancillary characters, but his inclusion gives way to a bunch of unnecessary elements that get in the way of the main plot.   There was no need for the covert organization Checkmate or Amanda Waller in this story.  They exist here only as a conduit for Hammond to become accidentally infected by the yellow fear entity via an autopsy on Abin Sur.  Waller herself is not presented well.  Angela Bassett has all the skills to bring Waller to powerful life, but she’s not given enough meat to sink her teeth into.  Pam Grier did a perfect job with Waller on Smallville, but Bassett could’ve given her an impeccable performance to rival.  Still, what matters here is that the story of Hal Jordan becoming a hero and defeating Parallax requires neither the presence of Hector Hammond, Amanda Waller, or Checkmate.  Hammond is there as a physical adversary for Hal to combat until Parallax actually arrives on Earth, but once that occurs, Hammond is disposed of promptly.  While he does a serve a purpose in attracting Parallax to Earth, a creative screenwriter could’ve easily reworked plot elements to achieve that same result if Hammond were excised from the film.  I feel it would’ve been wiser to save Hammond for a more focused story in a later sequel.  Frankly, all of these extraneous elements only serve to chop up the story, creating more fundamental problems.  There are too many subplots going on detracting from the potential streamlined flow of the main plot.

The unevenness of the movie is further attributed to the more lackadaisical pace of the Earth-based story.  While there is impending doom tearing through the universe, Hal Jordan returns to Earth to talk with his jokey friend, deal with his girlfriend, and have some fun being a superhero.  No dramatic pressure is put on Jordan until the final act when Parallax diverts to Earth because of its link to Hector Hammond calling him there.  This should’ve happened much sooner in the film.  If so, it would’ve put that needed pressure on Jordan to overcome his fears in face of an inevitable doom over a longer period of time, and thus, creating a correlating urgency with the rest of the film.  As it is, the fear element in Hal’s character evolution is not well executed, and the ending feels weak and rushed.

I can’t help but compare Green Lantern to Batman Begins due to this similar theme of fear.  Where Batman Begins explored the concept very thoroughly as both an internal conflict for Bruce Wayne to overcome, and then, an external element to be utilized and combated, Green Lantern just kind of talks about it over and over again.  Nothing is really explored or exploited.  You never see Hal actually be defeated by or struggle with fear.  It is something talked about.  He talks about being afraid, and others talk about him having the courage to overcome it.  You don’t see the struggle he has to face to actually triumph over those things.  It should have been a weakness that takes away his confidence while battling an enemy.  It would force him to face a crushing defeat that would motivate Hal to rise back up as a confident hero by the end, but it hardly happens.  There should be emotional conflict to punctuate this story element, considering it is fear.  Batman Begins showed us, in many ways, how Bruce Wayne confronted fear, overcame it, and was able to turn it back around as a weapon against his foes.  There is not enough adversity thrown at Hal Jordan either by his own internal struggles, or anything external to really build up dramatic suspense or tension in his ascension to superhero.

Breaking away from plot elements, I do want to credit the score by the always impressive James Newton Howard.  It truly gives the film the big, epic scale it demanded with some strong and mysterious themes.  Everything Howard seems to do is sure gold, and he truly reaches for the stars on this one.  Like all great film composers, he is able to adapt himself to the needs of the picture pulling on all his diverse musical skills to create a unique experience.  It is surely one constant throughout the film that did not falter.

Action sequences are nicely handled.  Martin Campbell has done two James Bond films before along with other rousing action pictures, and so, he has the skills to put together coherent action sequences.  Dion Beebe’s cinematography maintains an integrity throughout by not giving into clichés of the genre.  His cameras hold to the grand scope of the story by giving us shots with depth and patience.  This is a stark contrast to the work he did on the mostly handheld digital video-shot Michael Mann movies Collateral and Miami Vice.  As with Howard, it seems Beebe is able to adapt his style to the needs of the picture.

Making my final story related notes, there is a lot of repetitive dialogue reiterating exposition as if we didn’t get it the first or second time.  The script really could’ve been tighten up to make way for more poignant character or story elements to be fleshed out.  Not to mention, tightening the script could’ve balanced out the urgency of the plot.  The character stuff is very drawn out, and the plot elements are very short.  The good things were really good, but too much of the film is too light and clunky for the good elements to win out.  It was enjoyable, but it’s a little too forgettable.  I don’t think it has anything to do with Ryan Reynolds.  It’s all in the script and direction.  Reynolds can pull off the kind of performance this film needed, but he either just wasn’t pushed into it or the script didn’t call for it.  The movie needed more dramatic momentum to make itself work right.  Director Martin Campbell has had many excellent and successful films to his credit including GoldenEye, Casino Royale, & The Mask of Zorro.  Of course, he has the off-the-mark Mel Gibson revenge thriller Edge of Darkness more recently to his credit, but Green Lantern is even further from the mark.  It really is a combination of an unrefined screenplay, loose editing of the various plotlines, and his direction that leave the movie feeling lopsided and ineffective.

Green Lantern had the makings of a really good movie, but it didn’t go deep enough with the characters to make Hal Jordan’s ascension and success epic enough.  It had potential, but it was too uneven to succeed.  There are other bits and pieces I could criticize, but they are pretty inconsequential when there are such larger problems to address.


Highlander II: The Quickening (1991)

By no means am I here to say this film is not worth the scorn it has received from day one.  Highlander II: The Quickening absolutely conceptually butchered most everything that made the original fantasy adventure film so amazing.  However, there are certain elements that people don’t give this film credit for in spite of its storyline and screenplay failings.  Of course, it’s one of the worst sequels ever made, and it has more wrong with it than any one reviewer should torture him or herself to detail.  So, I am exercising restraint to not scrutinize everything that is wrong with it.  While I will blatantly point out why this film was a failure, I do want to give credit to what I feel are highly admirable qualities for the film.  However, the bad outweighs any good you can find in this film, and while so many have covered why, it’s time to offer my perspective and insight into this notorious motion picture.

By the end of the 20th century, the Ozone layer has been damaged severely, and Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert) is the one who brings all the great minds together to create a protective energy shield around the Earth.  However, a quarter century later, humanity lives in a perpetual nighttime world as the sun’s rejuvenating, life-giving rays do not penetrate the shield, and the world is in a state of depression.  They’ve lost hope in this dreary world.  Because of this, Louise Marcus (Virginia Madsen) and her anti-shield team break into one of the Shield Corporation’s stations, and discover that the radiation above the shield is normal.  This means the Ozone layer has healed itself, and the shield is no longer needed.  Of course, it is a corporation, and they are just interested in capitalistic greed.  Louise is the only one of her team to escape alive.  Connor is now an old man, having become mortal after defeating the Kurgan to win ‘The Prize.’  While enjoying a night at the opera, he has flashbacks (similar to those during the wrestling match in the first film), but instead of the Scottish Highlands, he remembers his life as a rebel on the planet Ziest (or from a distant past on Earth, depending on which version you watch).  Here is where he met Ramirez (Sean Connery), and battled the evil General Katana (Michael Ironside).  For their rebellious acts, they are exiled to different points in time on the planet Earth where they will be immortal, and have to battle other immortals until only one remains.  The winner will have the choice to return home to live out the rest of their lives.  Despite the fact that MacLeod has been mortal for nearly forty years, and is a matter of months away from inevitable death by natural causes, Katana is not willing to wait any longer to see his enemy die.  He sends two comical spiky haired warriors to assassinate Connor, but it backfires making MacLeod immortal again, taking into two Quickenings.  One restores his youth, and the other allows him to resurrect Ramirez back in Scotland.  By this time, Louise has found Connor in an effort to use his influence to get the shield shut down.  Now, with his youth restored, they become sexually involved, and he becomes invested in her mission against the corporation.  Meanwhile, Katana decides to dispatch his enemies first hand.  He forges an alliance with the major tool that is Shield Corporation CEO David Blake (John C. McGinley) to combat MacLeod, Ramirez, & Louise.  With two over the top villains, one more ridiculous than the other, our heroes don’t exactly have their work cutout for them, but that’s the least of this film’s problems.

Okay, this is actually not the worst Highlander film ever made.  That dishonor belongs to Highlander: The Source.  If you’ve seen it, and I surely hope you have not, I don’t see how you could disagree with that assessment.  You thought it was impossible to sink below Highlander II, but you were proven wrong.  Regardless of that, here’s why this film is so reviled.  At its most basic, this first sequel takes what was pure wondrous fantasy, and turns it into cheap science fiction.  There was a simplicity to the mystery behind immortals in what screenwriter Gregory Widen created with Highlander.  “It’s a kind of magic,” offered up a sense of charm and wide eyed wonder to the idea.  For me, the origin of immortals is unimportant.  Through all the other films and the television series, where they came from was never as important as their journey to wherever they were going.  The story of Highlander is one of adventure, love, legend, pain, heart, wisdom, and magic on an epic scale that spans countless centuries.  Watching how our Clan MacLeod heroes battle through it all, and how it molds them into more seasoned, weathered, and wiser people is what it has all been about.  It was never about aliens from another planet, time travel, shield generators replacing the Ozone, or weirdo assassins flying through the air cackling like hyenas.  The premise of this sequel was fundamentally flawed from the beginning, and no matter which version you watch, it’s still a failure in that department.

The only thing Highlander II has going for it in its defense is that the production was full of problems, conflicts, money issues, and creative differences.  That can explain the clusterfuck of bad execution, but still, people signed on board due to the screenplay and premise that this film was built upon.  They have no defense for that.  Christopher Lambert supposedly would only do the film if they brought back Sean Connery, and that resulted in a very peculiar resurrection.  While Lambert and Connery have fine chemistry which provides the film with a good deal of fun, I have to admit that Ramirez was rather shoehorned into this.  The entire film would likely flow along far better without him at all, and make room for more relevant elements to be fleshed out.  Ramirez has some decent wisdom to impart that works itself into the story by the end, but it would be easy to write around, if needed.  Still, it is good entertainment seeing MacLeod & Ramirez interact on more of an equal footing like friends or brothers instead of the student-teacher relationship they had before.  Of course, I could’ve done without the out-of-place excessive humor resulting from Ramirez’s inclusion.

Now, Michael Ironside is indeed a fine actor that is able to stretch out into a wider range than he is typically typecast into.  The failing of many Highlander feature film villains is that the screenwriters try to make them carbon copies of the Kurgan.  They are given similar crazy scenes, over the top characterizations, and even all their names start with a ‘K’ – Katana, Kane, Kell.  The television series ultimately became the real treasure trove of fascinating and original villains including my favorite in Xavier St. Cloud.  Here, Katana is hard to take seriously most times.  He is over the top, almost badly comical in certain scenes, and all for the wrong reasons.  The original film handled its characters with weight and respect.  It made them dimensional, textured people, or at least with the Kurgan, formidable and frightening.  Katana constantly comes off as the bad guy whose already lost, and is just lashing out because of a bruised ego due to that loss.  He seems desperate, and incapable of truly being a singular threat.  He’s certainly not intelligent, as the film eventually and blatantly reveals, which I will get back to.  He doesn’t have the bravado to truly become the adversary he needs to be to confront and take down MacLeod.  I do not lay too much fault on Ironside.  This is what the screenwriters and filmmakers gave him, and he did what was demanded of him.  Still, I know he’s such a better actor, and definitely capable of being a better villain than this film allows him to be.  John C. McGinley is the same way.  I have seen him put in so many performances over the last twenty or so years that I know he can do better than this.  He has even regretted how he portrayed this role.  I am always glad when an actor can look back on their work, and make an objective assessment of what they did wrong.

Lambert is his usual charming self, but I feel all the world weariness and haunting sense of Connor MacLeod was lost.  On one hand, I can see him becoming a lighter weight character due to having slain the Kurgan, and come to peace with much of what he’s lost.  Still, we see that even more heartache has befallen him since then, and while he demonstrates mourning for it, it doesn’t carry with him throughout the film.  Even the accent Christopher used in the first film is abandoned, and frankly, would never reappear with Connor ever again.  Still, Connor MacLeod remains a character to invest yourself in.  He’s still handled in a decently well rounded fashion.  It’s the just the horrible “origin of immortals” scenes that really damage it all.  It sort of makes all we knew of who Connor was in the first film nearly inconsequential, not to mention, wholly confusing to a mind boggling degree.  That plot point alone creates more contradictions and catastrophic problems with the entire established mythos to the point of wondering, “Why the hell did they go forward with it at all?”  And again, why they went back to an “origin of immortals” story with Highlander: The Source when it failed so miserably the first time?  Of course, there are no good answers to those questions.

Anyway, Virginia Madsen is probably the only genuine, grounded talent in the whole film.  She always turns in a solid, pitch perfect performance, and she does so here.  She’s a fine love interest with a dash of action ability.  She and Lambert work well together, but not amazingly so.  It’s well handled and well played, but there is a missing romantic aspect that I think every Highlander love should have.  The entire base concept of Highlander has a very romanticized nature to it.  There is a sexual encounter here, but there’s not much intimacy between the characters to really forge a deep emotional connection.  There’s just too much plot getting in the way for that, and of course, they needed to shove Sean Connery into the mix to detract from that relationship.  You see, for every potentially good idea, there’s something else thrown into the film to detract from it.  The potential of the elements that could be used to improve the film are limited to make room for something that brings down the film.

For instance, Russell Mulcahy, in these earlier years, always made gorgeous films with such enveloping cinematography.  However, where the first film was able to mostly thrive in practical locations and expansive sets, in this film, the first major action sequence that is supposed to be a large area of the city is confined to a soundstage, and it looks like a soundstage.  The scope and scale of it is so small, you can’t help but see the limitations of the production, and it detracts from the visual aspect of the feature.  Sequences may be shot with great angles, unique lenses, and inspired camera moves, but you can almost always tell when they shot it on a cramped back lot or soundstage.  A real city street has depth and scope with block after block of buildings, skyscrapers, and movement crisscrossing in the distance.  It has character from its history and people over the decades and centuries.  None of that can be seen here, and it only begins to sell how inferior this sequel is to its predecessor.  And even for all the improved practical effects, and more visually impressive Quickenings, the bulk of the visual effects (pre-Special Edition) are not up to standards for a film that came out the same year as Terminator 2: Judgment Day.  Regardless, when you get outside of that, and onto the truly beautiful and well designed interior scene sets, the production design and cinematography SHINES.  Mulcahy’s music video-born artistry finally comes to glorious life, and you see that classic grand Highlander style manifest itself.  The lighting is very theatrical, moody, and atmospheric at times.  However, it seems a little heavy on the Blade Runner influence in both lighting and production design.  Still, big dolly and crane shots really bring forth that epic, large scale cinematic feel which is why I am attracted to Mulcahy’s 1980s & early 1990s films on through to The Shadow.

The score by Stewart Copeland does have a lot of depth and richness.  It is highly orchestral bringing a unique identity to this film as it is quite different from Michael Kamen’s score for the original Highlander.  Like with Connor’s character, gone are the haunting or mysterious qualities in the music.  And while there is essentially no Queen in the soundtrack, we do get a fine closing credits song from Lou Gramm of Foreigner titled “One Dream.”  Gramm formed a band called Shadow King at this time, but it was very short lived.  The song is hard to find commercially as no soundtrack was released in the US, but I have come to enjoy “One Dream” as much as any other Highlander musical staple.  Now, I’ve always been put off that the final battle between MacLeod & Katana has next to no music behind it at all.  Not to mention, it’s a rather brief duel.  Anti-climactic indeed.  It’s almost as if it’s there because it needs to be, and they just want to wrap up the film as quickly as possible.  There’s no epic quality to it, no passionate intensity.  It’s a bunch of dull clanging back and forth for a few moments.  Still, the score has gained some good respect from the franchise’s fans, and Stewart Copeland is an exceptionally talented and diverse musician from his work as the drummer for The Police on through to many other film and television scores.  He surely gave this feature a wide, full sound that may have been more than it deserved.  It’s not always entirely to my liking, but I can respect the musical quality and artistry of it.

What I can’t respect is the creative process behind the idea of this movie.  Okay.  They wanted to do a sequel.  That’s understandable, but that’s also the problem.  The first film ends definitively.  Connor wins ‘The Prize,’ and thus, there are no more immortals left in the world.  There’s really no credible way around that ending, and making a prequel about Connor is foolish because there’s no mystery of who would survive.  Gregory Widen wrote a fantastic, self-contained screenplay with no allusions for a sequel.  Even still, how these filmmakers conjure up the idea of all immortals being aliens from another planet shatters all logic because everything they develop in the sequel contradicts everything from the original film.  In later revised cuts of Highlander II, the immortals are changed to being from Earth’s distant, forgotten past.  So, now they are time travelers which makes even less sense, but as I concluded sometime ago, there is absolutely no way you can re-cut this film to have either premise make any real sense.  Every fiber of this plot is fundamentally flawed from every angle.  The plot holes are atrocious, and are blatantly stated by the characters in the movie itself!  How do you write a screenplay with such plot holes, do nothing to mend them, but have enough awareness about them to have the characters spell them out in detailed discussion?  It sounds like a screenwriting paradox that could unravel the very fabric of the universe, or drive one totally insane trying to make sense of it.  MacLeod states to Katana that he was ready to settle down and die peacefully, but then, Katana sends his cackling henchmen to change all that.  Now, he’s immortal again, just where he didn’t want to be.  Katana would’ve had his victory of MacLeod dying if he just sat on his ass and did nothing!  Even his idiot henchman caught onto this, and Katana just slaps him in the face for having a rational thought.

The theatrical cut even made Russell Mulcahy walk out of the cinema within fifteen minutes.  The editing in it was an abomination of continuity.  They tried splicing together two different duels for one massive end battle, but it features Connor using two different swords in two different outfits.  Subsequent re-edits such as the Renegade Version or Special Edition had more linear coherence, but hardly resolve any of the base issues with the movie.  Frankly, as I said, that is impossible.

Flushing away the adventurous fantasy for idiotically conceived science fiction explanations leaves a horrible, bitter taste in any fan’s mouth.  Beyond just the irresolvable continuity contradictions, this is a contradiction of all that Highlander was based upon, and later re-established itself as through the television series.  Highlander II: The Quickening became so reviled that it was disassociated from all continuity.  That’s not a regular occurrence for a franchise when millions of dollars are poured into a feature film, but it seems like it was an experience many would have rather forgotten in part, if not in whole.

While there are admirable technical qualities in the film, there is surely nothing within it that can hope to redeem this epic failure.  It’s become legendary and notorious to the point where it’s awfulness has transcended through pop culture as a benchmark for a bad film.  Christopher Lambert remains a solid lead for the franchise with an enjoyable performance, but as with so many aspects of the movie, it’s more indulgent in itself than really bringing something memorable to the table.  Connery’s presence alone is self-indulgent, and Katana is a generally weak, one-dimensional villain played up more for laughs than as a cunning, intimidating adversary.  The producers can continue to update the visual effects and refine the editing, but it’s only making a pile of garbage easier to look at.  This is not a film where I say watch it for yourself to make your own determination apart from its reputation.  Even on its own merits, it’s not a good movie.  In itself, it has unforgivable failings, obvious limitations, and baffling errors in logic, to say the extreme least.  It certainly wasn’t the only controversial misstep in Highlander, but it was the first.  And for that, it will remain a stigma on the franchise for all time.


Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)

To say that the Halloween film franchise has been a very mixed bag with very debatable highs and lows would be putting it mildly.  Probably the blackest sheep of the family is Halloween III: Season of the Witch.  After burning Michael Myers alive in the second film, John Carpenter decided to take the franchise into an anthology format.  Each new entry would be generally unrelated to one another except for sharing a Halloween theme.  It failed, dismally.  Does that mean the film is particularly bad?  Well, that’s complicated.  The non-sequel was panned by critics and fans alike, and there is true reason to that.  In recent times, it has gained more respect apart from its franchise ties.  However, before I go further, let’s layout the plot first.

Dr. Daniel Challis (Tom Atkins) is a physician at a northern California hospital.  One October night, a man named Harry Cambridge is carted into the emergency room in hysterics.  Grasping a Silver Shamrock Halloween mask and screaming “They’re going to kill us all”.  Naturally, he seems to have lost his sanity, but when Harry is murdered in his hospital bed later that night by a mysterious man (Dick Warlock) who shortly thereafter enters into a car & blows himself sky high, Dr. Challis becomes very curious as to Harry’s claims.  His interest is furthered when Harry’s daughter, Ellie, tells Challis what drove her father into hysterics.  Harry Cambridge was investigating the origins of the Silver Shamrock masks, and to why no orders were being taken for the following year.  Daniel & Ellie trek to Santa Mira (the home of the Silver Shamrock Company) to find the answers they seek.  They are horrified when they discover that the company owner, Conal Cochrane (Dan O’Herlihy), has implanted microchips, partially made from mysterious Stonehenge rocks, into the masks, and when the Silver Shamrock commercial plays with its special jingle, it will kill countless numbers of children across the country in a horrific manner.  As the night goes on, time draws short, and Daniel Challis must attempt to thwart Cochrane’s evil, sinister, dreadful plan.  Through relentless android assassins (who all look like Dick Warlock), a treacherous factory, and more, Dr. Challis desperately races against time to stop this living nightmare from happening.

This film is good, but not great.  It has a tense and suspenseful story that plays out with some shocking visuals and lots of android gore (they ooze yellow fluid).  It’s sort of clever that the film still maintains the opening shot of the jack-o-lantern, but as a video graphic, thus, supporting the film’s technology motif.  The film starts off with a suspenseful and mysterious chase sequence which sets up an eerie tone for the film.  However, while there are several strong moments of horror and unsettling atmosphere, they feel very far between with little going on in the meantime to maintain a driving plot.

While the score is very identifiable as a John Carpenter / Alan Howarth creation, I think its main shortcoming is a lack of an iconic theme.  The music is either a pulsating, rhythmic vibe or just eerie underscore to enhance the danger and creep factor.  When the original Halloween is playing late in the film on a television set, the music from that film more than overshadows the original music for this film.  Still, this is certainly far from being a bad score.  It’s perfectly creepy and ominous from two master composers, but knowing the other work they have done, it seems a little lacking in creativity.  The incessant repeat usage of the Silver Shamrock jingle surely becomes irritating very quickly, adding another negative mark against the film.

Director Tommy Lee Wallace doesn’t have the artist strength of John Carpenter, and while the cinematography of Dean Cundey goes a long way to boosting the visual quality of the film, there’s still a definite fall-off in suspenseful innovation.  Furthermore, several of the sets and props seem budget-starved. and the $2.5 million budget re-inforces that statement.  The lesser grade production values really damage the film’s potential for being taken seriously.  If the film had double that budget, perhaps such things would’ve looked better, but it wouldn’t have saved the film.  There are simply far more fundamental problems with Halloween III that could’ve been salvaged with the right person at the helm.  Thankfully, the special make-up effects are of an excellent gory quality.

Now, Tom Atkins puts in a strong, well-rounded performance here.  He shows the desperation of Challis well, and even more so, the intense fear at the film’s finale.  It’s a good performance as this womanizing doctor, but at times, you may feel as if he is is out-of-place.  Atkins is a big, tall guy, and having him play a less than physically capable man comes off as awkward on screen.  He easily does well with what he’s given, but there’s not much of a character on the page for him to appear unique or compelling.  Challis doesn’t have a particularly distinctive personality to really distinguish him strongly enough in the story.  This is pretty common with every character.

For instance, Dan O’Herlihy does a decent job as the insidious and sadistic Cochrane, but it’s not a great performance.  Granted, he’s convincingly evil, but barely more than that.  We are given a preview of Cochrane’s intended fate for the youth of the country, and it is truly shocking and horrifying.  Unfortunately, that alone doesn’t amplify the character of Cochrane.  I feel he needed to be more devilish, more demonic, more purely evil, but O’Herlihy’s performance does not reflect that.  His motives are horrific, but the man himself acts exceptionally casual.  He exudes very little emotion beyond a slight foreboding tone when he explains his motives and intention to Dr. Challis.  Cochrane shows no anger, no contempt, no vindictiveness.  Considering his motives, one would expect a more driven, more passionately evil character to come through on screen.  A casual evil can entirely work, but it needs more under the surface to make it truly disturbing.  One part of it is the script, but the other is the direction.  O’Herlihy might’ve been capable of more, but Wallace does nothing to motivate a stronger performance.  Basically, there’s no true depth to the performances.  You can look back at the wonderfully subtle work of Donald Pleasance in John Carpenter’s 1978 film to see what dramatic depth truly is, and how a great actor can inhabit a role well with the aid of a talented director.

I personally feel that this movie had potential, and if someone were to be bold enough to revamp it into a modern day production, I think it could meet that potential.  These days, one never knows what Hollywood will want to pillage next.  The premise of mixing mystical forces with a science fiction tinge sounds great to me, but it wouldn’t be an entirely new.  I simply believe that, with a proper budget in the hands of a talented director and an updated script, Season of the Witch could be an exponentially better film.  As it is, we’ve got a low budget B grade horror film with a fading stain of spite.

So, in the end, we are left with an intensely fearful cliffhanger as Challis screams at the television station over the phone to shut off the final commercial.  It’s a thrilling and suspenseful finale, and it should stick with you for sometime.  As I said at the start, we have a mixed bag.  The story worked, and the film had it’s frightening and thrilling moments.  However, the production faltered.  Tommy Lee Wallace isn’t a real visionary director, and the score was truly sub par for both Carpenter & Howarth (latter of which would do great scores for the next three Halloween films).  There are a couple of films I like just based on their potential despite the film not realizing that potential.  I believe this is one of them.  I can enjoy certain elements of it, but Halloween III: Season of the Witch just doesn’t captivate me all the way.  In the least, I suggest checking it out just so you can make your opinion of it instead of blindly buying into the scorn of decades past.


Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem (2007)

Paul W.S. Anderson’s Alien vs. Predator was a disastrous, pathetic, and lame piece of garbage.  I won’t even get into it, but after seeing it at the theatre, midnight showing no less, I wanted my money back.  Unfortunately, I got into the showing via a free movie pass from purchasing the Predator Special Edition DVD.  So, I couldn’t even get that satisfaction.  I don’t think I’ve ever held a film in such disdain as to have the desire to demand my money back.  Instead, I wish I had those two hours of my life returned to me.  When things were developing for AVP2, obviously there was a lot of speculation and negative light upon it.  Though, with Anderson nixed, the film seemed to have some hope.  I was very interested in seeing the film theatrically, but then, I heard scores of negative reviews.  It really made me back away from it.  I see now that was a mistake.

This film picks up directly after the conclusion of the previous AVP film.  A Predator-Alien hybrid is born, and begins to wreak havoc on board the Predator space craft.  It soon crash lands in a small Colorado town.  All Predators on board are killed, and the Xenomorphs are set loose on the population.  The crash landing is monitored from the Predator home world (seen for the first time ever on film), and a veteran warrior departs to clean up the mess.  Face huggers attack many of the townspeople, giving rise to further Aliens to ravage the town.  The lone Predator attempts to hunt and eliminate every trace of the Xenomorphs’ presence.  The residents do all they can to defend themselves, but it’s a Catch-22.  Anyone with a gun is immediately a target of the Predator, but without firearms, you stand zero chance against the Aliens.  Eventually, humans, Aliens, and the Predator collide after dark, and all hell breaks loose.  Even help from the National Guard is short-lived, and ultimately, more extreme measures are necessary to eliminate this escalating threat.

Yes, I enjoyed this film (the unrated cut), and kept waiting for something totally bullshit to happen to justify all the god-awful reviews.  It never really came.  There are definite problems with it, but it’s not deserving of being saddled with the statement that “this isn’t even as good as the first Alien vs. Predator.”  I could provide a very long list of how AVP-R is superior to its predecessor, but that’s not the point here.  Though, brief comparisons will be made.  I am not at all saying AVP-R is of the same caliber as Alien or Predator, but at its lowest, it’s no worse than Predator 2.  I’d probably put it a notch higher than Alien 3 (either the theatrical or special edition cut).  But let me get into the meat of things.

My first impression of the film was how excellent the cinematography and lighting was from Director of Photography Daniel Pearl (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 1974 & 2003).  There’s a definite cinematic feel to this film with good use of angles, cranes, and camera moves.  The film really pushes to give itself a grander scale and impact with its visuals.  The few shots on the Predator home world are marvelous.  Somewhat reminds me of the scenes on Vulcan in Robert Wise’s ‘Director’s Edition’ of Star Trek: The Motion Picture.  The lighting itself can be intriguing and amazing, at times.  Thin layers of fog and smoke add atmosphere in select scenes.  The best looking visuals are mainly the scenes inside the space crafts, and the daytime sequences.  Problems arise during the far darker scenes in the subterranean tunnels and the rain.  At times, the lighting is so minimal and the framing so tight, it is difficult to follow the action.  As the film goes on, the framing gets better as the creatures are better revealed, but never in full light.  They essentially remain as silhouettes throughout the movie.  This is much more akin to the original Alien – only showing glimpses of the monster.  Still, the majority of the film is very dark, and whenever frenetic action begins, it can be a chore to keep track of it all.  Maybe, a high-def presentation might lessen this problem marginally, but standard-def is my current situation.

One thing that I’m sure would be truly enhanced by a high-definition viewing is the excessive, yet welcomed gore levels.  This absolutely goes back to John McTiernan’s 1987 film that introduced the merciless Predator.  Bloodshed is everywhere, and people are killed indiscriminately.  Only one person survives who you’d swear should be dead, but other than that, people are slain left and right.  The film is very satisfying in that aspect because the filmmakers, aside from the just mentioned situation, don’t go out of their way to keep people alive in the face of certain death.  If it looks like they’re gonna die, they die.  No dodging hits at the last second or anything of the sort.  Children die, pregnant mothers die, old guys get their arms acid burned off.  There’s really no holding back, which can’t be said of its PG-13 predecessor.  The makeup and visual effects are simply astounding.  Some of the gore and creature moments are even down right grotesque and sick.  The opening shot of Earth from space with the sun glaring in the background seems to have such an old school quality to it.  It doesn’t appear to be so much of a digital composition.  It really looks more like similar shots from Predator, Aliens, or even John Carpenter’s The Thing.  There’s just such depth of detail to the shot, and impressive sense of scale that you rarely see nowadays.  I was captivated by this shot.  Subsequent CGI shots are also presented with such a standard.  Nothing ever felt like a digital effects shot.  It all blended smoothly and seamlessly with the live action.  The movement of the Predator or Aliens never seems goofy, awkward, or over the top.  It’s very much in line with the characters’ presentation from the seminal films of each, separate franchise.  CGI versions of them are only used when it is necessary.  Everything else is practical, physical effects.

Speaking of such things, AVP-R presents both alien races with a great deal of respect.  The Predator, this time, is a definite seasoned warrior.  He knows how the hunt is played, and takes on a good dozen Aliens on his own.  The only one that really kicks his ass is the PredAlien.  He’s not some punk rookie Predator in some training ground.  It’s a real situation with him taking it upon himself to clean up this mess, and proves to be exceptionally capable.  Though, this doesn’t mean the Aliens get busted up like a bunch of bitches.  They hold their own, stalking and attacking with intelligence and ferocity.  This is much like James Cameron’s Aliens.  They work as both a cohesive whole and lethal individuals.  They are indeed an infestation that continues to grow out of control, and is never made easy for the Predator.  I really feel the filmmakers treated both sides with great respect.  I love how we see the Predator work, even before he even begins the hunt.  How he gathers his gear, and investigates the crash site.  The film treats him like a proper character with a keen mind and cleverness, not a one-dimensional ugly beast rampaging through scenes.  Just the level of intelligence both alien races are given says so much.  Just as the Aliens set traps for others, the Predator shows he’s able to do the same.  It’s a very pleasant surprise.

Now, I found the music to be appropriate to the film.  I wouldn’t say it is exceptionally memorable, but it served the purposes of the movie.  It is jarring, tense, and explosive.  Thought did go into it, and you’ll notice the end credits theme is a mixture of the original Alan Silvestri Predator theme and the James Horner Aliens theme.  It is titled ‘Requiem.’  I felt there was a good level of suspense in the film.  Not a great deal, but in certain scenes, there is build up and tension towards a pay-off.  I think the subterranean sequence is probably the best and most cleverly crafted one in the whole film.  The fight choreography is inventive and imaginative.  The staging of the cat-and-mouse hunting / stalking scenes are continually creative.  It’s far more of what I would’ve wanted from the first film, and it is as an Aliens vs. Predator film should be.  It’s quite fascinating as they are both the hunter and the hunted at the same time.  Kill or be killed, it seems.

The acting certainly comes up as a negative on the reviews I’ve scanned over.  Not every film can have the caliber of acting of a Scorcese or Coppola film.  Like Francis Ford Coppola version of Dracula, sometimes you get Gary Oldman, and sometimes you get Keanu Reeves.  The acting here falls within that deep gap.  Essentially, it is solid enough to serve the purposes of the film, and I never felt that it turned ridiculous or annoying.  You, honestly, don’t need Robert De Niro or Marlon Brando quality acting in an Aliens vs. Predator film.  That’s not me discounting the wonderful performances we’ve had in the Alien & Predator films, but what are you really expecting from this film?  The content and context of the film do not call for such glorious depth of acting ability.  This is not to say that the acting here is crap.  This is far above standards of something like Jason X or Freddy’s Dead.  Those films feature a cringable lack of acting talent.  What you get here is good, and allows you to enjoy the meat of the film.  I didn’t feel like the film was dragged down by any of these characters, or their own, individual stories before the action begins.  It helps the pace of the film to build up slowly as all elements begin to converge.  I know Steven Pasquale from the cable television series Rescue Me, and John Ortiz I’m familiar with from the 2006 Miami Vice feature film.  Both present characters with identifiable, relatable, and likable traits.  They certainly show range to me, knowing those other roles they inhabited, and I found them to be worthwhile characters to spend my time with.  These characters are quite human, but have a good deal more depth than your standard slasher film fodder.  The filmmakers and screenwriters seemed to treat these new characters with respect.  They easily could’ve gone with the fodder that Anderson’s AVP film offered, but chose to spend some decent time to develop their personalities on-screen.

The film’s ending needs to be addressed, and is certainly a borderline turn.  It could either keep you hooked or lose you completely.  The filmmakers could’ve really botched it up if they had everyone taken out, but there are survivors.  So, that eases the tension.  Still, there are elements that could be called cheesy or stupid.  I, personally, don’t agree with that.  You have to remember that while these are sequels to the Predator films, they are prequels to the Alien films.  Events need to fall in line with that continuity to preserve certain knowledge of the Xenomorphs amongst humanity.  Government cover-ups are necessary to serve that purpose, and the extra tag at the end was nice, if not somewhat predictable.  Where in AVP, you met Weyland, this time, you meet Yutani – whose two corporations eventually form the infamous ‘Company’ from the Alien franchise.  As I said, things of this nature could potentially lose an audience who perceive it as fanboy bullshit.  They need to realize that this film was made because of fanboys (as much as I hate the term).  Without them, these films would’ve died out a very long time ago.  The ending might not be the most universally satisfying, but it is a logical and appropriate one.  I could go further into depth about it, but suffice it to say, it helps to avoid continuity conflicts with the Alien films.

Colin & Greg Strause made a conscious effort to stay true to both franchises, and make this a real tribute to the fans.  I think they succeed, to a point.  It is a gorgeous film at times, and also a very grotesque feature, as well.  It’s simply more technical elements of lighting, composition, and editing in certain scenes that lessen the effectiveness of those scenes.  The film is terribly dark, visually, and the addition of a rain storm can complicate matters.  It would’ve helped to cast some extra light on the battling alien beings to better distinguish them from each other.  Still, at the most pivotal and impactful moments, the filmmakers allow for the shots to play out more dramatically.  They hold on the shots longer, and the action therein is better defined.  Beyond those shaky aspects, I feel this is a far superior film to 2004’s AVP.  Everything is handled with a great deal more respect and weight.  No ‘buddy cop’ Predator sidekick moments, no rookie Predators getting their butts kicked, and no skimping on the gore.  While this doesn’t equal the caliber of Alien or Predator, it doesn’t fall very far below those standards.  A classic this won’t be, but I feel it’s a worthy addition to your DVD or Blu Ray library.


Alien: Resurrection (1997)

With Alien: Resurrection, it became painfully obvious that Twentieth Century Fox was now less interested in making credible sequels and more so in just bleeding this franchise dry.  Let’s try to put this into perspective.  Joss Whedon, as many know, is the creator of Buffy, The Vampire Slayer, Angel, & Firefly.  He’s a proven great screenwriter and director.  He is the screenwriter for this film as well, but by his own admission, the filmmakers executed every aspect of his script wrong.  Everything imaginable was done wrong from Joss’ written vision.  Various other aspects were introduced by the film’s shitty French director Jean-Pierre Juenet.  This, mainly, includes all the bad, stupid humor.  The worst part of it is the fact that he’s very proud of all the stupid comedic bits, thinking it makes the film more entertaining and fantastic.  This is the sort of thing that flushes the film down the toilet.  Watching the DVD Special Edition cut, other things become obvious.  His originally intended main title sequence is stupid, irrelevant, and directly setups a terrible tone for the film.  It comes off as total, stupid B-movie cheese, and the cheap CGI effects drag it down to even lower levels.  The theatrical cut sets a much better tone, but it hardly sets you up for how abhorrent this film really is.  So, by that train of thought, the Special Edition introduction fits the quality of this motion picture much better.

After killing herself to prevent the government from taking the monstrous Alien to Earth, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) awakens 200 years later to find she has been cloned in order for scientists to withdraw the Alien DNA living inside her.  As the world around her begins to fall apart and the terror begins again, Ripley realises that the scientists who cloned her may not have fully removed the Alien from her, at the same time that she is, once again, perhaps the only one who can stop the horrific infestation from reaching Earth.

Alien had Ridley Scott, Aliens had James Cameron, and Alien 3 had David Fincher – filmmakers who have all gone onto very high profile, blockbuster, and critically acclaimed careers.  Jean-Pierre Juenet is about third class next to them.  Where the previous three films gave the franchise a real weight and emotional depth, this film becomes a badly done and clichéd comic book adventure.  It shows nothing of subtlety or intelligent originality.  It’s all BIG camera moves, BIG action, BIG (yet shallow) characters.  It also features over-the-top and cheesy performances by all but two cast members.

Ron Perlman and Michael Wincott are exceptional actors who are always reliable for bringing the goods.  Wincott tends to bring a mysterious and engaging quality to his performances.  Top Dollar in The Crow is probably his most high profile role.  Here, it’s more low key, but that just makes him more intriguing.  I think he could shine well in a classic film noir feature.  Unfortunately, he has very few scenes, and gets killed relatively early.  Ron is a bad ass, plain and simple.  There’s a definite reason why he got such a role in Blade II, and more importantly, as Hellboy.  He’s good at ass-kicking, gung-ho roles.  This outing is no exception.  Although, most casting choices are uninspired.  One might be used to Dan Hedaya in more comedic roles, but he has fit into a dramatic feature well, such as The Usual Suspects.  Here, you might think that his character would be made to hold more dramatic weight, but it’s 99% bad humor.  General Perez does not come off, remotely, as a serious military officer.  He comes off as a mentally stunted fool.  Compared with Apone or Hicks from Aliens, he’s a buffoon.  I’d sooner be led by Bill Paxton’s Hudson.  If Perez is representative of humanity’s military, then it’s a sad state of affairs for the human race.  Winona Ryder is no Carrie Henn, in terms of a vulnerable female role, and is no Lance Henriksen or Ian Holm, in terms of a peculiar android (or ‘artificial person’).  Simply said, she fails to provide Annalee Call with any true depth or fascinating quality.  There’s no reason for her to be here, let alone anything for her to do in this role.  Brad Dourif provides nothing but over-the-top goofiness.  You can’t take him seriously for a second.  Good over-the-top Dourif is The Exorcist III, this is Dourif on the opposite end of the quality spectrum.  Doing it with all the weight of a feather, and being god awful in a role you want to forget in short order.  So many of these roles are cliché, paper thin characters meant to fit a cardboard cutout archetype to service the poor plot.  You need the evil military guys, the mad scientists, the gruff mercenaries – all check.  So, there is a need to scrutinize Joss Whedon’s script.  I know he’s capable of far more diverse, complex, and interesting characters than this.  I just don’t understand how he was responsible for such a lightweight, flat, and uninspired script.  I can understand the filmmakers botching up the execution of the script, but I can’t believe they drained depth and character from it to where Joss would still accept a screen credit.  Much of it would have to be Mr. Whedon’s fault, unfortunately.

Now, you have to ask where does Sigourney Weaver fit into all of this?  She’s not playing Ellen Ripley.  Not the Ripley we came to know and evolve with through the first three films.  This is a hollow shell of a character with the memories of Ripley, and slight emotional traces thereof.  But she’s not the weary, battle hardened, desperate character that Alien 3 left her as.  Nor is she the strong, assertive, and haunted woman of Jim Cameron’s film.  Sigourney does give us a rather creepy character, but it’s nothing recognizable to the franchise’s fans.  Her character is truly alien.  The emotional state of this Ripley Clone is sporadic and erratic.  It’s all over the map, not allowing an audience to connect with the franchise’s heart and soul.  It also plants Weaver, firmly, in the mud.  She has no place to expand or grow with this dead role.  Ellen Ripley’s character arc concluded with Alien 3.  Closure was had, even if it was bleak.  She went through all kinds of hell, saw so many die, and the pain and loss was absorbed into every fiber of her being.  She was as human as any character you will find, and her end came with pathos and poetry.  You might not have liked it, but within the context of that story, her death was appropriate and purposeful.  It should not have ended any other way.  Then, they go ahead and piss all over that with this cold, hollow “resurrection.”  It is D.O.A.  Sigourney Weaver’s role is one you cannot emotionally invest yourself in because she has very little emotion to offer.  It’s about the stark opposite of the real Ellen Ripley we saw in the first three films.  Suffice it to say, this film easily could’ve been scripted and shot without Sigourney Weaver or anything including Ripley since this really isn’t Ripley, not in spirit.  She’s a stranger amongst strangers, and a stranger to her fans.

Moving on, and as I said, the film is filled with BIG everything.  Every shot in the film is something complex and highly involved.  There’s always movement, and extremely little, if any, subtlety in its cinematography.  This forces the film to be less grounded and more overly dramatic.  Dutched angles are seen throughout.  Some scenes have one after another after another after another, for no effective reason.  Juenet and cinematographer Darius Khondji were painting with broad strokes to show off their budget and gimmickry.  Just them trying to make the film look artistic and interesting while achieving neither.  Furthermore, every action sequence is over shot.  Push-ins, sweeping crane shots, steadicam madness, low angles, high angles, dolly tracks.  Khondji just throws all the tricks into every sequence, turning them into a massively over worked mish-mash, and not trying to differentiate one from another.  Once the action begins, it’s shifted into hyperactive mode.  It’s like Michael Bay on steroids – everything done to maximum capacity and minimum reality.  At least with Michael Bay, he does it to give his films an epic feeling, this all falls flat for me.  Also, the film is saturated with this sickly green tinge that is simply too much, and makes the film exceptionally unattractive to watch.  When it’s not green, it’s this deep brown which is equally unattractive.  Just adds to the excessively stylized comic book visuals that only further flushes the film down the crapper.  There’s no beauty or inspired photography in the look of this film, ever.

Like I stated before, there are stupid concepts in this film, some minor, some major.  A minor one also shows the lack of thought put into the futuristic setting.  In several hundred years, why would we still be using paper currency?  Even today, in the early 21st century, we’re mostly relying on debit and credit cards.  Most people don’t handle tangible currency, it’s mostly computer based funds.  Bills are paid online, plastic cards are swiped to make purchases.  Three or four hundred years from now, paper currency will be an ancient concept.  Also, a pinhole crack in a space ship’s hull (or window) would not cause the effect seen in the film’s climax.  It is simply against the laws of physics and intelligence.  But it fits in with the complete stupidity of the film.

Far larger dumbass ideas culminate in the abomination called ‘The Newborn.’  I won’t even bother commenting on its design as I think ‘abomination’ says enough.  It’s just pathetic that one of the most merciless, relentless, and fearsome creatures in the history  of science fiction cinema is dwindled down to this lame ass, mutated, embarrassing mess.  Twisting the knife further, it actually says, “Mommy.”  A further slap in the face is how helpless the Alien Queen is depicted as, and the fact that this regurgitated beast bitch slaps her to death.  James Cameron and Stan Winston have been insulted.  As bad as all that is, the French hack makes it even worse – Ripley makes love to the damn Alien!  You may vomit now.  It’s nothing graphic in detail, but the implication alone is enough to make you sick.  And the complete hack director of Catwoman, Pitof, is the film’s special effects supervisor.  Seems French hack director socialize with other French hack directors, both destined for bankrupt American filmmaking careers.

The film’s effects are a divided issue.  The CGI is obvious and substandard.  I keep wondering how, in 1993, at the dawn of digital filmmaking, we got realistic, flawless, seamless computer generated dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, but over fifteen years later, we continue to get cheap, crappy CGI effects in countless films (even for high profile, big budget films).  This film was all of five years later, and the computer generated Aliens and effects are hardly seamless.  There is no effort involved in picking them out from their live action surroundings.  The physical effects, on the other hand, are definitely up to standards.  This is due to Amalgamated Dynamics Incorporated – mainly Allec Gillis and Tom Woodruff, Jr.  They worked with Stan Winston on Aliens, and took over with their own company, ADI, on Alien 3.  I’m not keen on the brown, veiny Aliens, but the quality of the physical and practical effects, across the board, are of a high standard.

You can talk about the film’s score, but it’s nothing exceptional.  Standard fare, forgettable horror-action cues.  Which rather sums up the film.  The entire problem with this film is that it takes a fairly serious franchise constructed by three serious filmmakers who injected it with strong layers of suspense, terror, and character depth, and then, deteriorates it into one-dimensional, one note characters and over worked action sequences.  Suspense and terror barely fit into the mix.  It’s all replaced by poorly conceived ideas, and a badly interpreted and executed script.  It is one bad turn after another that beats the credibility of a once great franchise further into the dirt until it’s six feet under, and then, spits on the grave for good measure.  If this was some terribly troubled production with all kinds of creative differences (i.e. Alien 3), some of this might be forgivable, or at least, understandable.  But it absolutely was not.  Director Jean-Pierre Juenet loves this film with all his heart, and thinks everything he did was wonderful and fantastic.  Perhaps, even brilliant.  The reality is that he made an abomination of a film that drove the final, hot, sharp nails into the coffin of the franchise.  It could’ve ended with Alien 3 without much argument, at least, in light of Alien: Resurrection, but alas, the Hollywood money machine kept on milking it.  Paul W.S. Anderson went on to beat the dead horse further with AVP, and unfortunately, put a bullet through the heart of the Predator franchise as well (which hardly had been run into the ground).  AVP-R, in my opinion, helped to turn the tide a bit, but it all remains to be seen.

This film, on its own, is pathetic and badly done.  When compared to its predecessors, it’s a terrible piece of cinema that never should’ve been.  A fourth Alien film, if it needed to be done (which it didn’t), could’ve been put into the hands of any number of far more credible, talented, and higher quality filmmakers.  How it landed in the hands of a Frenchman who had never made an American film before, let alone anything in the realm of straight horror, is beyond me.  It failed on every level.  There are very brief bits of goodness here, but they are crumbs that will not satisfy your hunger for another well-made Alien film.  This is a straight shoot ’em up splatter fest devoid of the suspense and character depth each previous entry had instilled in the franchise.  Nothing is improved upon in the Alien Quadrilogy DVD Special Edition cut.  It just prolongs the agony, and there’s not enough of a distinct difference to offer a separate review of it.  This one review covers enough, and you can feel free to send it down the refuse, again.  This could rival Highlander II, Freddy’s Dead, & Jason X as the worst genre sequel of all-time.  It really was and is a letdown in light of where the film series began and evolved to.  This sequel is a poor afterthought for a franchise that still had a decent measure of credibility remaining.  Thankfully, you can still watch the first three films as a complete trilogy, and easily ignore Alien: Resurrection in its entirety.


Cowboys & Aliens (2011)

Unlike many, I wasn’t anticipating this film for a long time.  It was only when I saw the trailer before Transformers: Dark of the Moon that I became interested and excited for it.  It seemed like a very original film in style and concept populated by a fine cast, and helmed by a proven director in Jon Favreau (Iron Man).  The film does have merit with some fine performances and entertainment value.  However, I was disappointed that the concept was not realized to its fullest extent.

In 1873, Arizona Territory, a mysterious loner (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the middle of the desert with no memory of who he is, where he came from, or how the high tech device got latched onto his forearm.  After dispatching of some ill meaning folk, he proceeds to the small town of Absolution where is tended to by a local preacher, but soon makes trouble for the unruly Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano).  Things go further awry when the local law enforcement recognize him as Jake Lonergan, a wanted criminal.  Percy’s rich cattleman father, Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), comes to collect his son, and Jake for stealing his gold.  However, the stand-off is cut short when the town is mysteriously attacked by alien flying crafts.  The device on Lonergan’s forearm starts beeping and flashing.  The ships abduct various townspeople, but not before the device helps Lonergan blast one out of the sky.  This sets Dolarhyde, Lonergan, and several other townsfolk on a mission to recover their lost loved ones.  Taking a particular interest in Jake is Ella (Olivia Wilde), who has some secrets of her own that she needs Lonergan’s help in resolving.  They all set out on this adventure of danger together for different reasons, but towards the very same goal.

The positives of this film start with Daniel Craig.  He has great presence like the western anti-heroes of old who doesn’t need to speak much to impact a scene.  Lonergan is a man of action, and those actions speak quite clearly for him.  Of course, he is also intelligent and cunning, but not without a dash of charm and compassion.  Craig is a perfect lead handling all that befalls his character with perfect reactions, and acting like a hero you can take stock in.  Another highlight is Clancy Brown appearing as Meacham, the town’s preacher.  The character has a very refreshing philosophy on his religion.  Things such as you have to earn God’s presence.  You have to make the effort to do good deeds, to improve yourself before he’ll grace you with good fortune.  Meacham seems to believe God is more of a guiding force that helps you along the journey instead of laying it out for you to walk without question.

Harrison Ford stars here as a former Colonel named Dolarhyde who pretty much runs things around these parts.  Ford’s had an amazing career playing so many versatile roles, but I have not seen him in anything much since The Fugitive.  Here, Ford is crusty, hardened, and mean-spirited.  To a certain point, that works for the character, but Ford barely deviates from that characterization to show us what the script is trying to do with the ex-Colonel.  In concept, Dolarhyde is meant to win over an audience by showing that he’s not as bad of a man as we think, it’s just history and circumstances that have jaded him.  That’s the intention, but Ford’s performance doesn’t show that depth.  He speaks the words, but there’s no variation of emotion when he does to convey a sense of a dimensional character.  He just exists in the film.  Ford handles the action of the piece well with guns, horses, and so forth.

Olivia Wilde is about what you expect from her.  It’s no breakout performance, and it might not be everything that it should be.  However, it’s not bad.  Things in the film tend to range from mediocre to great.  Of course, too much languishes on the lower end of that spectrum.  Wilde services the role decently enough making for an all right female lead, but next to Craig, she falters.  His is such a strong character and performance that she doesn’t stand out as well as him.  The character has a nice arc, and secrets of her own to reveal.  However, like much in this film, it’s played too safe.

The supporting cast is a little mixed.  Walton Goggins is his always entertaining and memorable self as a member of Lonergan’s former band of thieves.  Paul Dano is very entertaining and a nice fit for the immature, unruly, and troublemaking Percy Dolarhyde.  He’s mostly a comic foil to contrast Craig’s harder edged character in their few scenes together, and plays it perfectly.  However, Adam Beach comes off far too flatly.  It’s clear that, by the end, we’re supposed to have some emotional resonance with the character, but there’s nothing within Beach’s performance to grasp onto.  He seems like a plain supporting cast member.  Attempts are made throughout the film to have him bond with Ford’s Dolarhyde character, but as I said, Ford doesn’t give much to help his character be anything of anything.  Sam Rockwell portrays the local bartender who has tried to make a new beginning for him and his wife here, but faces trouble every step of the way.  He’s a man facing circumstances he doesn’t have the courage or confidence to overcome.  To me, he seemed like the guy that gets dragged along on the journey even though he has nothing to contribute.  So, they slap some clichéd story arc on him of a man that’s never handled a weapon, never fired a gun, and finally comes through at the end to save someone’s life by firing a shot.  It’s terribly by the numbers.

As I said, the premise and concepts of Cowboys & Aliens should’ve been pushed further for a more fantastical experience, but that never happens.  I just felt like everything was held back.  That they had a fertile idea here that never went beyond the basics of cowboys clashing with aliens.  While meshing western and science fiction genres is not a new thing, I have not seen this particular premise played out before.  The closest would be Joss Whedon’s Firefly, which married the two concepts well in a futuristic setting.  It meshed the ideals and themes of a western into a futuristic science fiction setting, and maybe that’s where the strength of the idea lies.  Aliens abducting people from old west towns seemed cool at the beginning of the film, but the premise falters a little when you find out why the aliens are even here at all.  It was ridiculous to me that all they wanted was to mine for one natural resource because it’s valuable to them.  It’s not like it’s a fuel they need to power their machines, or a precious resource they need to sustain their species.  They just want it because it has monetary value.  That comes off as a very weak idea that someone thought up in two seconds, and never decided to evolve further.  The aliens create their own problems by coming out and abducting people.  Had they just stayed hidden in the mountains, no one would have ever known they were around.  Had they been discovered, and were almost fighting back in defense of themselves, that would be something.  Unfortunately, the aliens just come off as foolish through and through.  Their motives and methods really have no rationale or logic behind them.  Humans posed no threat to them until they unnecessarily revealed their presence, and started abducting them for the sole purpose of the learning the weaknesses of a enemy that knew nothing of their existence.

I’m also rather tired of the personality deprived alien concept.  Predator got it right by making the alien silent, but also having it demonstrate a great deal of character and personality.  That is birthed mainly from having the right person inside the suit along with someone brilliant like Stan Winston behind the design of it.  CGI has robbed us of a performer’s nuanced quality when it comes to creatures like this.  One comes off no different than another, and that is just from a lack of creativity.  They are just creatures designed to fill up the plot, and serve as a physical enemy to combat.

The visual effects are about mid-grade.  They are generally okay, but they won’t win any awards.  They service the story, and that’s about it.  They are better in some instances than others, depending on the setting and what the effect actually is, but yeah, there’s not much to really say about them all.  They definitely could be far better to improve the overall quality of the film, but that’s hardly the only shortcoming of this movie.

Another thing that I felt kept the film from reaching its full potential is a lack of atmosphere with the visuals.  The sound design and score are really solid.  I love the meshing of musical styles in the score, and I think that achieved more than the film itself did in combining western and sci-fi themes.  However, with the marketing campaign as it was, showcasing a lot of colorful, shadowy, and moody visuals, I had hoped there would be more of it than we got.  Those such scenes are handled excellently.  They are lit and shot in a very effective way as something conceptually evocative of Ridley Scott’s Alien.  However, much of the film unfolds in broad daylight scenes which offer no stylized vibe to them.  Yes, it suits the western side of things fine, but again, if this is a meshing of genres, the lines should be blurred between them.  It should be that the two styles mix to create something unique and consistent instead of switching from one look and tone to another as it shifts from the western plot elements to science fiction ones.  The film is rarely ever both a western and a science fiction film.  It’s either a western, or it’s a science fiction movie.  It doesn’t really deliver on the potential of the premise by meshing them both together in smart, clever ways.  Generally, this is a film where style and substance should have reigned in abundance, and they skimped on both.

Favreau does handle the action scenes very well.  They are compelling sequences filled with suspense, tension, and excitement.  The initial nighttime abduction scene is stellar all around with the sharp visuals, beautiful colors, and exciting tone.  Later, when everyone is hiding in a ravaged and upside down river boat, and a lone alien comes stalking, all is handled with style and horror movie level tension.  Favreau’s skill in this matter does help build up the intimidation level with the aliens.  I only wish they did make them more than just monsters to fight.

Again, Cowboys & Aliens has its bright points with Craig in the lead role, and a few of the supporting roles.  Now, the movie doesn’t become outright bad.  It’s just underdeveloped by the filmmakers, or underplayed by certain actors.  What felt like it should have been a rather memorable and remarkable genre-bending film really never takes off at any point.  Nothing is delivered on to its fullest extent, and the ending feels a little short on emotional impact for the characters.  It is an enjoyable and generally entertaining film that is worth some of your time, but expectations need to be wrangled back before watching it.