Film Review: ‘Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’

A celebrated science fiction-fantasy saga comes to its conclusion… 

Star Wars RoS a

The end of a saga nears in ‘Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’ (image credit: Lucasfilm/Walt Disney Pictures).

Spoiler-free review

Starring:  Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Anthony Daniels, Domhnall Gleeson, Richard E. Grant, Ian McDiarmid, Billy Dee Williams

Directed by:  J.J. Abrams / written by:  Chris Terrio & J.J. Abrams (story by Derek Connolly, Colin Trevorrow, Chris Terrio & J.J. Abrams) / 142 minutes

What’s it about?

As the final battle between the forces of good and evil approaches, Rey prepares to complete her training as a Jedi and Kylo Ren investigates the apparent return of Emperor Palpatine…

In review

Forty-two years after it began, the original Star Wars story reaches its conclusion with Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker the final chapter (‘Episode IX’) of what is now known as ‘the Skywalker Saga’.  It’s an entertaining and nostalgic ride that’s undeniably flawed, falling victim to a lack of a cohesive vision and direction for this sequel trilogy which began with 2015’s smash hit The Force Awakens and tries very hard to please fans jaded by the risky creative choices made by writer/director Rian Johnson in the divisive previous entry, 2017’s The Last Jedi.

The story of The Rise of Skywalker picks up in the wake of the events of The Last Jedi and sees General Leia Organa’s diminished Resistance struggling to survive as they continue the fight against the relentless tyranny of the First Order, under the rageful leadership of Supreme Leader Kylo Ren.  As mysterious transmissions from the supposedly deceased Emperor Palpatine are heard throughout the galaxy, the paths of Ren and Jedi-in-training Rey are once again drawn together as the powerful Dark Side of the Force beckons and the final battle between good and evil looms.

Returning director and co-writer J.J. Abrams (replacing Jurassic World’s Colin Trevorrow, who departed the project following creative differences) repeats much of what he brought to The Force Awakens, producing an action packed, visually striking and emotional Star Wars adventure that’s saturated with fan service, inducing the film with heaps of nostalgia that’s enjoyable and pleasing to a certain extent, but this reliance on sentimentality can also prove burdensome to the already convoluted and messy plot.  Abrams certainly builds a series of energetic and exciting set-pieces with land speeder chases, lightsaber duels and explosive space battles all confidently and rightfully in place although the CGI effects-heavy finale makes for a slightly muddled third act (which much like The Force Awakens has a tendency to repeat plot points of previous films, specifically Return of the Jedi).

Star Wars RoS b

John Boyega, Daisy Ridley and Oscar Isaac in ‘Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’ (image credit: Lucasfilm/Walt Disney Pictures).

The cast of The Rise of Skywalker are all solid with standout performances from Daisey Ridley and Adam Driver as Rey and Kylo Ren, respectively, with the pair confidently driving the core narrative.  Oscar Isaac once again enjoys an increased presence as the fearless Poe Dameron, bolstered by the fun camaraderie he shares with John Boyega’s Finn.  Beloved classic characters Chewbacca, C-3PO and R2-D2 are also back (and in a smaller capacity, Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker) and the charismatic Billy Dee Williams makes a welcome return to the Star Wars universe as the ever-buoyant General Lando Calrissian.  As for the return of Emperor Palpatine (last seen plummeting to his presumed demise in Return of the Jedi), Ian McDiarmid is at his scenery-chewing best and provides a devilish and sinister threat, yet the character’s role largely feels like a retread of the past.

Of course, there needs to special mention of the late Carrie Fisher (who, honourably and fittingly, receives top billing) who via the use of unused footage is incorporated into The Rise of Skywalker.  Given the limitations of those cut scenes (particularly in terms of dialogue), Fisher’s appearances can come across as a little distracting at times yet Abrams and his team do well with what little was available to them and ensure that the sequences featuring Leia are both respectful and have an importance to them.

If there is one grand fault of the sequel trilogy it’s that it didn’t take enough time to bring the trio of Rey, Poe and Finn together more and sooner rather than later and although strides are made to correct that in The Rise of Skywalker it feels like it’s too little too late and the sense of unity and friendship between the three can’t hope to match the inseparable familial bond shared by original heroes Luke, Han and Leia.

Undoubtedly a reaction to the reception of The Last Jedi and an attempt to re-invoke much of the praise which greeted The Force Awakens, The Rise of Skywalker ultimately plays it safe and results in an entertaining if not wholly satisfying finale to a long running cinematic serial.  It’s still a superior effort in comparison to the maligned prequels but likely the weakest instalment of the modern Star Wars sequels.

The bottom line:  Visually stunning and boasting some great action sequences albeit encumbered by a problematic narrative and uninspired story choices, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is a flawed but entertaining finale to the franchise’s original saga.

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

Images used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

Flashback: ‘Star Trek’ (2009)

In 2009, the ‘Star Trek’ franchise made a bold return to the big screen…

Star Trek 2009 a

The cast of J.J. Abrams’ ‘Star Trek’ (c. Paramount Pictures).

Year:  2009

Starring:  Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Bruce Greenwood, Ben Cross, Leonard Nimoy, Eric Bana

Directed by:  J.J. Abrams / written by:  Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman

What’s it about?

A young James Kirk and Mr. Spock meet for the first time aboard the newly commissioned U.S.S. Enterprise where they soon find themselves tasked with saving the universe from a vengeful out-of-time Romulan…

Retrospective/review

With the underwhelming box office and tepid critical reception of Star Trek Nemesis in 2002 and the cancellation of television series Star Trek: Enterprise in 2005 due to declining ratings a creative refresh of the Star Trek franchise was needed in order to rekindle fan interest and bring in a whole new audience that would help carry Gene Roddenberry’s creation into the future.

Whilst Star Trek would remain dormant on the small screen until the arrival of Star Trek: Discovery in 2017, it’s theatrical voyages would recommence just four years after the conclusion of Enterprise.  Enlisting J.J. Abrams (together with his Bad Robot production company) to produce, direct and help craft the story – with screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (co-creator and executive producer of Discovery) – Paramount Pictures commissioned Star Trek for the big screen.

Released in May of 2009, received to favourable reviews and a healthy worldwide box office of around $385 million (a fairly respectable figure at a time when $1 billion grossers were few and far between and comparable to Marvel’s Iron Man), Star Trek would prove to be a rollicking action adventure that, although favouring popcorn spectacle and Star Wars-style visual grandeur over the deeper philosophical explorations of previous iterations, excels in its characters and engaging story.  In order to be free from the burden of decades of continuity whilst still tying into the established universe, Star Trek would employ the popular time travel trope by bringing Leonard Nimoy’s (gifting the project with true Trek royalty) Spock back in time in an event that would create an alternate reality – now referred to as the Kelvin timeline – allowing a new series of Star Trek films to forge their own creative path.

Star Trek 2009 b

Eric Bana as Nero (c. Paramount Pictures).

Star Trek opens with the arrival of the Romulan ship Narada, thrust back in time after the destruction of the Romulan homeworld in the wake of a catastrophic supernova, which Ambassador Spock and the Vulcan High Command pledged, and fail, to avert.  The Narada, under the command of the embittered Nero, is discovered by the U.S.S. Kelvin which is subsequently attacked and its captain killed – leaving Lt. George Kirk (a pre-Thor Chris Hemsworth) in command.  The Kelvin’s crew, including Kirk’s wife (played by Jennifer Morrison) – about to give birth to their son, are evacuated as Kirk sacrifices his life to save others.  Jumping forward several years we meet a young trouble-making James Kirk and an equally troubled Spock, struggling to reconcile his half-human/half-Vulcan heritage.  Little do both know that destiny awaits (which for Kirk includes the captain’s chair of a certain starship), events drawing them together as the fate of both their worlds hang in the balance.

Finding new actors to inhabit the roles of the beloved original series crew was undoubtedly a daunting task and fortunately, the casting of Star Trek is exceptional.  Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto are perfect choices for the roles of Kirk and Spock, respectively, both actors bringing respectful and recognisable performances to classic characters whilst making it their own and their chemistry helps drive the core narrative.  Likewise, Karl Urban is a revelation as the cantankerous but loyal Doctor Leonard “Bones” McCoy – the final component in the celebrated Kirk/Spock/McCoy troika that was such an important part of the original series.  There are equally strong turns from Zoe Saldana as Communications Officer Uhura, John Cho as Helmsman Sulu, the late Anton Yelchin as the incredibly eager Ensign Chekov and Simon Pegg as Engineer Montgomery “Scotty” Scott.  Bruce Greenwood’s portrayal of Captain Christopher Pike (played by Jeffrey Hunter in Star Trek’s original pilot episode, “The Cage” and by Anson Mount on Star Trek: Discovery) is also a highlight, particularly in his relationship with Pine’s Kirk as he inspires the bright but directionless young rebel by daring him to be better and enlist in Starfleet.  Playing the part of the villainous Nero is Eric Bana, who had previously starred in Ang Lee’s Hulk.  He’s not necessarily the most complex of antagonists but Bana gives it his all, delivering a decent measure of menace.

Star Trek 2009 c

A slick redesign for the U.S.S. Enterprise (c. Paramount Pictures).

The design of Star Trek is exemplary, from the Academy Award winning make-up, costumes and props (both nifty updates from the original series) to the lavish, brightly lit sets by Scott Chambliss and the sleek redesign of the Enterprise herself, providing viewers with a pleasing new look which respectfully adheres to the overall configuration conceived by Matt Jeffries.  Whilst there’s a comforting sense of the familiar, Star Trek also takes some creative risks – primarily the destruction of Vulcan by Nero and his cohorts in retribution for the failure to save Romulus from its own obliteration in the future.  It’s a shocking and dramatic sequence that establishes the highest of stakes to unite the Enterprise crew and allows for a more emotionally vulnerable depiction of Quinto’s Spock.

As director, J.J. Abrams (who made his feature film debut in 2006 with Mission: Impossible III) brings energy and enthusiasm to Star Trek, keeping the viewer invested whether it’s in his execution of action and visual splendour or the tight and attentive focus in the quieter, more intimate character moments.  A good film is always enhanced by a great musical score and composer Michael Giacchino’s soundtrack is a memorable one, exciting, emotional and wonderfully intertwining cues from Alexander Courage’s original Star Trek theme with fresh themes to take the new big screen franchise forward.

Star Trek may have been divisive so far as the fanbase is concerned but there are those that enjoyed it for what it was, a polished and highly entertaining rejuvenation of an ageing franchise that opened up the universe to a whole new audience which is something that shouldn’t be undervalued.

Geek fact!

The story of Star Trek was fleshed out via tie-in comic books from IDW Publishing (and overseen by co-screenwriter Roberto Orci) with prequel titles Star Trek: Countdown and Star Trek: Nero adding a lot of insightful detail and background to the narrative of the 2009 film.

Image(s) used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

TV Review: ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ Series Premiere

The beloved science fiction franchise returns, boldly, to the small screen…

‘Star Trek’ makes a much awaited return to television in ‘Star Trek: Discovery’.

Starring:  Sonequa Martin-Green, Michelle Yeoh, Doug Jones, Chris Obi, James Frain

Series created by:  Bryan Fuller & Alex Kurtzman (based on Star Trek, created by Gene Roddenberry)

Written by:  Bryan Fuller & Akiva Goldsman (“The Vulcan Hello”) and Gretchen J. Berg & Aaron Harberts (“Battle at the Binary Stars”) / Episodes directed by:  David Samel (“The Vulcan Hello”) and Adam Kane (“Battle at the Binary Stars”)

What’s it about?

Investigating an object of unknown origin, Lieutenant Commander Michael Burnham and the crew of the U.S.S. Shenzhou are thrown into a direct confrontation with old adversary, the Klingons.

Episodes review

51 years after the debut of its original series, Star Trek returns to the small screen after an absence of twelve years, following the conclusion of Star Trek: Enterprise – which left the air back in May 2005.  Produced by CBS for their All Access streaming service and rolled out worldwide courtesy of Netflix, Star Trek: Discovery is a lavish and promising addition to the Star Trek universe that feels fresh yet comfortingly familiar for long term fans of the franchise.  Created by Trek veterans Bryan Fuller (writer/co-producer on Star Trek: Voyager) and Alex Kurtzman (co-writer and co-producer of J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness), the series takes place ten years prior to the voyages of the U.S.S. Enterprise under the command of William Shatner’s Captain Kirk.

Serving as a prologue to the rest of the show’s fifteen-episode first season (the majority of the principal cast and the U.S.S. Discovery herself being absent until episode three), the two-part premiere gets things off to an engaging and intriguing start as we’re introduced to Discovery’s lead character, Lieutenant Commander Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) as she serves as First Officer on board the U.S.S. Shenzhou, commanded by Captain Phillipa Georgiou (martial arts legend Michelle Yeoh) who quickly find themselves thrust into a tense confrontation with a rogue Klingon faction that places the Federation on the precipice of war.  Burnham’s back story is revealed via a series of flashbacks as we follow her from being orphaned as a child to being raised on Vulcan by ambassador-in-waiting and father of Spock, Sarek (Gotham’s James Frain) and her eventual assignment to the Shenzhou.

What’s clear from the outset is that the creators of Discovery have set about establishing something that manages to strike a delicate balance between producing a series that will not only appeal to fans but draw in a whole new generation of viewers.  After 51 years and some 700+ hours of television, engineering a fresh take on an old favourite is no easy task, yet Discovery achieves this quite successfully.  The first major departure is the decision to not have the series focus on the ship’s captain and proves a welcome one with Sonequa Martin-Green (The Walking Dead) turning in a decent performance and demonstrating plenty of potential as a strong and capable lead.  There’s also the heavily serialised nature of the story, whilst a construct employed in previous spin-offs Deep Space Nine and Enterprise it’s utilised to a more intricate degree here in accordance with co-creator Bryan Fuller’s intentions for the storyline to unfold episode by episode like the chapters of a novel.

Sonequa Martin-Green makes for a promising lead in ‘Star Trek: Discovery’.

Michelle Yeoh provides another strong female presence as Georgiou and there’s a wonderfully nuanced relationship between herself and Burnham (affectionately referred to as “Number One” in a nod to Majel Barrett’s character in original Trek pilot “The Cage”), the former bringing an almost maternal quality to her ‘role’ as mentor to the younger officer.  Martin-Green also has some great interplay with Doug Jones’ Lt. Saru, the Kelpien science officer who has a fun sibling-like rivalry with Burnham.  Much like he did in Hellboy and Falling Skies, Jones is once again a master at conveying subtle strokes of humanity through the prosthetics and alien characteristics.  James Frain evokes the requisite measure of wise intellect and cold logic in the role of Sarek (originally portrayed so unforgettably by the late Mark Lenard) and similarly to Yeoh, there’s a paternal element to his dynamic with Martin-Green’s character.

The Klingon threat is spearheaded by T’Kuvma, with Chris Obi infusing the part with the right amount of that familiar warrior instinct, although the redesign of the Klingons themselves is likely to be the most controversial aspect of Discovery.  They’re radically quite different and take some getting used to, yet the make-up and costume design is certainly impressive and gives the iconic race an appearance that’s more alien whilst retaining the overall Klingon ‘feel’ with an adherence to their principles of honour and glory in battle.  What’s interesting here is that the Klingon Empire has fractured into numerous disparate ‘houses’ which T’Kuvma seeks to unite and lead, fanatically, into war against the Federation in the name of Kahless – the forefather of Klingon society itself.  It’s handled in a manner that’s not quite as black-and-white as that sounds and there’s a definite sense that the writers are seeking to add dimension to the conflict by offering a deeper insight into the Klingon’s motivations.

The Klingons are given a new look for this new iteration of the long-running franchise.

Visually, CBS have spurred no expense with feature film quality effects, make-up and set design fully on display.  Perhaps wisely, given the level of the production, the producers have leaned towards a look more reminiscent of the alternate universe established on the big screen by J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek.  As classic and iconic as the look of the original series is, a direct translation wouldn’t hold up to viewers in 2017 and it only increases the scope and cinematic quality of Discovery.

Star Trek is heralded for its ability to delve into the human condition and comment on the issues of the day and in this era of social and political concerns and the rising threat of terrorism and religious extremism, Discovery is no different and deftly weaves these themes throughout.  This is what Gene Roddenberry and the writers of the original Star Trek always intended, coupled with rich characters and a vision of a hopeful, inclusive future for humanity – even in times of conflict – and there’s great potential for Star Trek: Discovery to continue that tradition.

The bottom line:  Star Trek makes a confident return to television with a visually dazzling premiere, bolstered by a promising lead and the potential to explore real-world topics in an engaging and entertaining manner.

New episodes of Star Trek: Discovery (as well as post-show discussion After Trek) can be seen weekly via subscription services Netflix (worldwide) and CBS All Access (U.S. only).

What did you think of the ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ premiere? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!

 

TV Review: ‘Westworld’ S1 EP1 “The Original”

Starring:  Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris, Evan Rachel Wood, James Marsden, Jeffrey Wright, Thandie Newton

Series created by:  Jonathan Nolan & Lisa Joy

Written by:  Jonathan Nolan / Episode directed by:  Jonathan Nolan

What’s it about?

The futuristic theme park ‘Westworld’, populated by artificial beings called ‘hosts’, allows its visitors to live out their greatest fantasies against the backdrop of the Old West.  When an update to the hosts’ programming triggers strange and unruly behaviour, the park’s creators find their efforts to improve realism may have produced dangerous results…

Episode review

Based on the cult classic 1973 film written and directed by Michael Crichton (mastermind author of noted SF works Jurassic Park and The Andromeda Strain), HBO’s television adaptation of Westworld has been developed for the smaller screen by Jonathan Nolan (Person of Interest) and Lisa Joy (Burn Notice) together with co-producer J.J. Abrams.

The concept of Artificial Intelligence and how it relates to human nature is something that has been explored endlessly in science fiction and in various forms of media.  HBO’s Westworld necessarily expands on what could only be touched upon in Crichton’s 88-minute film and like Ronald D. Moore’s reimagined Battlestar Galactica, what’s presented here is much more complex and cerebral.  On a particular level it’s unnerving as the robot (or more precisely, android) ‘attractions’ of the Westworld theme park – known as ‘hosts’ – are becoming more realistic and virtually indistinguishable from genuine human beings as their creators strive for that perfection of realism and efficiency – something that is firmly entrenched in the zeitgeist of the technologically driven age we live in.

Written and directed by Nolan, “The Original” assembles a strong cast which includes Evan Rachel Wood, James Marsden, Thandie Newton, Jeffrey Wright and most impressively Anthony Hopkins and Ed Harris.  Much of the episode’s focus centres on Wood’s Dolores and it’s via her ‘character’ and newcomer Teddy (Marsden) that we learn of the Groundhog Day like existence of Westworld’s A.I. lifeforms as they are programmed to reset and repeat the same patterns day after day, with little variation, to service the stories implemented by the park’s engineers.  It seems here that Wood is being positioned as the series’ main protagonist and the True Blood actress proves effective in being naturally emotive, switching her performance as she becomes subtly more machine like when events lead to questions of the hosts’ existence and ultimate purpose.

Yet it’s the critically lauded and awards worthy Hopkins and Harris that provide the biggest draw.  As Westworld’s founder, Dr. Robert Ford, Hopkins conveys the intellectual qualities and complexities of the character with absolute aplomb as we meet a man at the leading edge of technology, constantly pushing the boundaries of perfection to deliver a more efficient and more capable ‘product’.  Ed Harris (sharing some truly chilling scenes with Wood and Marsden) is equally compelling as the mysterious ‘Man in Black’, providing a presence that’s as foreboding as it is unsettling.

The visual scope of Westworld is astounding, the grand, sweeping outback landscapes beautifully captured and arguably rivals the cinematography of some of cinema’s most beloved Westerns.  As a director, it’s to Nolan’s credit that he is skilful in presenting the more intimate character moments, especially in the cold, sterile lab settings where the hosts are examined and ‘questioned’ about their abnormal behaviour.  It’s here that Nolan utilises, to great effect, numerous close-ups that capture every nuance of the actors’ facial expressions.

Nolan’s script is packed with quality dialogue that delivers intrigue, character drama and thought provoking, existential SF ideas which combined with those sumptuous visuals and a stellar cast demonstrates strong potential for the series ahead.  HBO have been looking for their next big hit to follow Game of Thrones and Westworld could certainly be it.

You can read the GBUK review of Michael Crichton’s Westworld here.

The bottom line:  Westworld opens promisingly as a superb cast helps introduce a world filled with thought provoking ideas and great dramatic potential.

Westworld airs in the UK Tuesday at 9pm on Sky Atlantic.  U.S. viewers can catch it 9pm Sunday on HBO.

HBO's 'Westworld' looks set to add new layers to the well-worn subject of artificial intelligence.

HBO’s ‘Westworld’ looks set to add new layers to the well-worn subject of artificial intelligence.

Quick Review: ‘For the Love of Spock’

Featuring:  Leonard Nimoy, Adam Nimoy, William Shatner, George Takei, Nichelle Nichols, Walter Koenig, Nicholas Meyer, J.J. Abrams, Zachary Quinto, Chris Pine, Simon Pegg.

Directed by:  Adam Nimoy

What’s it about?

A documentary charting the life and career of actor Leonard Nimoy and the character of Mr. Spock…

In review

Declared as the most successful Kickstarter campaign ever, Adam Nimoy’s celebration of his father Leonard’s career and most significantly the creation of the iconic Star Trek character, Mr. Spock, arrives just in time for the franchise’s 50th anniversary.  Enlisting the thoughts and opinions of family, friends, colleagues and fans (celebrity and none), For the Love of Spock is affectionate, funny (including some brief pondering of that hilarious and infamous Kirk/Spock ‘slash fiction’ with Leonard’s Star Trek co-star George Takei), candid and even, in moments, a little tear-jerking.

Via the guidance of Adam Nimoy, For the Love of Spock digs deep to explore the man behind Spock and how he ultimately created and refined the character who is beloved by millions all over the world.  Incorporating archive footage of Leonard (who passed away last year) and newly recorded interviews with the likes of fellow Star Trek stars William Shatner, George Takei, Nichelle Nichols and Walter Koenig along with the principle cast of the reboot film series, directors Nicholas Meyer and J.J. Abrams, scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson, The Big Bang Theory star Jim Parsons and Leonard’s daughter, Julie the documentary is insightful in its dissection of the cultural impact of Spock and why a fictional character would mean so much to so many (its perhaps J.J. Abrams who encapsulates it so perfectly as he talks about the outsider in all of us).

For the Love of Spock is also a very personal endeavour for Adam Nimoy as he discusses, quite honestly, the often strained relationship he had with his father and the effect that fame had on the young Nimoy family.  It’s to the benefit of the project that Nimoy is open about this and is not reticent to attribute how issues in his own life contributed to the schism between father and son and is ultimately triumphant in celebrating their reconciliation in the years before Leonard’s death.

Technically, For the Love of Spock is well-structured and deftly assembled with clips from the original Star Trek series and spin-off films interspersed neatly between the various interview segments and archive footage – including a treasure trove of family home movies.  There’s not a great deal that’s new for die-hard Star Trek fans but ultimately, Adam Nimoy delivers an unmissable celebration of a man and his legacy.

The bottom line:  For the Love of Spock is a fitting tribute to the late Leonard Nimoy that’s lovingly crafted and an essential insight into an important cultural icon.

For the Love of Spock is available to download/stream now via iTunes, Amazon and a host of other video on demand platforms.

Man and icon: Adam Nimoy's 'For the Love of Spock' is a fitting tribute to his father and the legacy of Mr. Spock.

Man and icon: Adam Nimoy’s ‘For the Love of Spock’ is a fitting tribute to his father and the legacy of Mr. Spock.

Fim Review: ‘Star Trek Beyond’ (spoiler free)

Star wreckin’…

Starring:  Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Idris Elba, Sofia Boutella

Directed by:  Justin Lin / Written by:  Simon Pegg & Doug Jung / 120 minutes

What’s it about?

Attacked during a rescue mission in uncharted space, Captain James T. Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise find themselves stranded and fighting for survival against Krall, an enemy who seeks to destroy the Federation and the way of life its citizens hold dear…

In review

Arriving as the beloved science fiction franchise approaches its 50th anniversary, Star Trek Beyond is the third (with a fourth already confirmed) cinematic instalment set in the rebooted ‘Kelvin Timeline’ featured in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek (2009) and sequel Star Trek Into Darkness (2013).  Directed by Fast & Furious veteran Justin Lin, Beyond proves a worthy continuation of this new series of Star Trek films that’s crowd pleasing fun if not as wholly cerebral as some of the franchise’s highpoints.

Whilst Abrams is arguably the better filmmaker, Lin is a credible successor who does a commendable job of crafting a commercially viable summer blockbuster, his affection for the franchise and its characters clear as he deftly balances an eclectic ensemble with large scale action and jaw dropping visuals.  Although this is a Star Trek for the era of serviceable billion dollar blockbusters, Beyond offers something a little more with a script (by Simon Pegg and Doug Jung) that delves into themes of unity and the strengths found in diversity, reflecting on the social concerns of today.

Via the two J.J. Abrams outings, audiences have grown to love the characters of Kirk, Spock, McCoy et al thanks to a wonderful cast, melding nuances of their own personalities with the legacies of these established characters.  Thankfully that continues here and we get some great character moments amongst the spectacle and social commentary where everyone (albeit some more than others) gets an opportunity to shine.  Zoe Saldana, John Cho and the late Anton Yelchin (as Enterprise crewmembers Uhura, Sulu and Chekov respectively) all feature in the action and have relevance in the story (Simon Pegg’s Scotty is also served better beyond being mere comic foil).  Idris Elba makes an imposing villain with physicality and gravitas, although the character of Krall could have warranted further exploration he delivers a fair measure of menace and threat.  Fellow guest star Sofia Boutella (Kingsman: The Secret Service) also provides a memorable and enjoyable turn as Jaylah, the alien ‘badass’ that a stranded Kirk and company enlist for help against Elba’s Krall.  Once again, though it’s the three main stars that compel the most with numerous standout moments for Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto and Karl Urban.  Through Pine we get a universe weary Kirk, with Quinto a contemplative Spock and Urban a McCoy who’s irascible as ever and provides both humour and the supportive conscience Kirk and Spock need as they face their respective emotional dilemmas.

Against the backdrop of story and character, Justin Lin brings his Fast & Furious credentials to the fore during the action of Star Trek Beyond with big budget CGI and explosive pyrotechnics marrying to produce some jaw dropping spectacle (most significantly the decimation of the poor old Enterprise, as already depicted in the film’s pre-release trailers).  It’s a little frantic at times, but no different from what you would experience in any modern blockbuster.  In addition to all of this, there’s a plethora of references, tributes and respectful call backs to the history and legacy of Star Trek that all in all make for a pleasing and fitting celebration of one of pop culture’s most beloved and enduring franchises that will most definitely continue to go boldly.

The bottom line:  Star Trek Beyond is an enjoyable and fun blockbuster that has something to offer both fans and casual viewers alike and proves a fitting tribute to the legacy of the franchise on the eve of its 50th anniversary.

Star Trek Beyond is in cinemas now.

Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) prepares to lead the fight in Paramount Pictures' 'Star Trek Beyond'.

Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) prepares to lead the fight in Paramount Pictures’ ‘Star Trek Beyond’.

Film Review: ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ (spoiler free)

The Force is strong once more…

Starring:  Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac

Directed by:  J.J. Abrams / Written by:  Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams and Michael Arndt / 135 minutes

What’s it about?

As the evil First Order rises, young defector ‘Finn’ crosses paths with Rey, a scavenger who comes into possession of a star map that will lead them to the mythical last Jedi, Luke Skywalker…

In review

Unarguably the most anticipated cinema release of this year, perhaps even this decade, The Force Awakens – Episode VII of the Star Wars saga – is unleashed upon global audiences on a wave of positive buzz and record breaking opening box office numbers.

The Force Awakens is an important film not only to entertainment goliath Disney, following their $4.5 billion purchase of Lucasfilm, but also legions of Star Wars fans eager to see the beloved science fiction film franchise return to its former glories.  Turning to director J.J. Abrams seemed a wise move, not only a great filmmaker whose reputation was solidified when he refreshed Star Trek for a new generation with epic big screen reboots Star Trek (2009) and Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), but more significantly a life-long fan of Star Wars himself.

With The Force Awakens, Abrams and his production team have delivered a pleasing new entry in the Star Wars saga that restores much of the magic diluted by George Lucas’ overly polished, CGI littered ‘Prequel Trilogy’.  Whilst it’s all a touch familiar with several plot elements repeated from earlier instalments (mainly A New Hope) and some heavy doses of fan service, The Force Awakens reigns triumphant thanks to a rich mix of engaging characters, edge of the seat drama (peppered with a smattering of humour) and thrilling battles, bound by Abrams’ skilled direction and the quality craftsmanship on display.

Set some 30 years or so after the events of Return of the Jedi (1983), The Force Awakens presents the heightening threat of the First Order which has risen from the ashes of the Galactic Empire and seeks to continue its plans to dominate the galaxy, far, far away.  Luckily the Rebellion, which has now become known as the ‘Resistance’ survives to fight the forces of evil and it’s this conflict and the search for last Jedi Luke Skywalker that serves to reunite old heroes as well as introduce new ones.  Of the returning cast of the Original Star Wars Trilogy, Harrison Ford’s Han Solo (together with pal Chewbecca, with Peter Mayhew once again donning the fur) that is given most prominence – it’s great to see him in action once more – yet The Force Awakens really belongs to its new cast of heroes – lead by Rey (Daisy Ridley) and defecting Stormtrooper ‘Finn’ (Attack the Block’s John Boyega) together with daring Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac, villain of the forthcoming X-Men: Apocalypse) and his faithful (and adorable) droid BB8.  Feeling the draw of the mystical Force, the new generation are thrown into the path of the First Order and central villains Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who has been seduced by the Force’s ‘Dark Side’, Stormtrooper commandant Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) and General Hux (Domnhall Gleeson), their quest for galactic domination lead by Supreme Leader Snoke (a creepy CGI motion capture creation brought to life by Andy Serkis).

The new cast is great and it will be exciting to see their characters develop over the course of this ‘Sequel Trilogy’ much in the same vein as we saw the likes of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Princess Leia grow.  It’s true that some characters are given more time in the limelight than others but it’s obvious that The Force Awakens is merely the beginning and we’ll no doubt see more of them in the next instalment.

The Force Awakens is a well-crafted visual feast with J.J. Abrams leading the charge of melding CGI with practical filmmaking, the elaborate physical production design complemented by computer generated elements rather than overwhelming it.  With the era of practical miniatures largely surpassed by CGI, Abrams brings a real, weighty feeling to the requisite spaceship battles and stages some truly thrilling action sequences that will please and wow fans as well as casual viewers, from X-Wing dogfights to the Millennium Falcon’s hyperspace jumps to lightsabre duals – it’s all here and offset nicely against John Williams’ music score.  There’s also some beautiful imagery from director of photography Dan Mindel, enhanced by Abrams’ insistence on the use of physical 35 and 65mm film (the latter for the film’s IMAX sequences) with the blistering deserts of the planet Jakku being a particular highlight.

Overall, The Force Awakens is only hindered by that slight touch of familiarity (and to an extent it’s dangling threads reserved for Episode VIII), yet it was never intended to reinvent the wheel and J.J. Abrams and his cast and crew have delivered the Star Wars sequel many were hoping for, whilst not quite the masterpiece that A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back are, it’s at least as good as Return of the Jedi and superior to the controversial prequels and a great new start for an enduring franchise.

The bottom line:  The Force Awakens is a triumphant, if at times familiar, new entry in the Star Wars saga that will please and thrill both fans and novices alike.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is in cinemas now.

Director J.J. Abrams stages some thrilling action in 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens'.

Director J.J. Abrams stages some thrilling action in ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’.