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

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

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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).

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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: The Motion Picture’

2019 marks four decades since Gene Roddenberry’s ‘Star Trek’ was relaunched on the silver screen…

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Bob Peak’s wonderful poster art for ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’ (image credit: Paramount Pictures).

Year:  1979

Starring:  William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, George Takei, Walter Koenig, Nichelle Nichols, Majel Barrett, Persis Khambatta, Stephen Collins

Directed by:  Robert Wise / written by:  Harold Livingston (story by Alan Dean Foster)

What’s it about?

As a mysterious and hostile force advances towards Earth, Admiral James T. Kirk is reunited with his former crew as he takes command of the newly refitted U.S.S. Enterprise on a mission to intercept the intruder…

Retrospective/review

Celebrating its fortieth anniversary this December, Star Trek: The Motion Picture may not be as popular as its 1982 sequel – Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan – but its place and importance in the history of the franchise shouldn’t be overlooked.  Originally conceived as a pilot for a new Star Trek television series, the production would evolve into a big budget feature film in the wake of the success of Star Wars – although Star Trek: The Motion Picture would take more of a high-concept science fiction approach similar to that of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Produced by Gene Roddenberry (who would write the film’s interesting but slightly bizarre novelisation) and skilfully directed by The Day the Earth Stood Still’s Robert Wise with a story, credited to noted SF author Alan Dean Foster, that echoes elements of classic Star Trek episode “The Changeling”, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is presented on a visual scale that could only have been dreamt of back in the days of the original series.  The film opens as Klingon (the iconic Trek race given a more alien-like makeover for the big screen) warships commence an attack on an approaching force – an expansive and powerful cloud of energy which soon neutralises the aggressors.  As the cloud proceeds on a heading for Earth, an unfulfilled and desk-bound Admiral Kirk (William Shatner) convinces his superiors to place him in command of the newly refitted U.S.S. Enterprise on a desperate mission to intercept and establish contact with the intruder.

Believing the benefit of his experience and leadership will provide the best chance of success, Kirk initially finds himself troubled by an unfamiliarity with the refitted Enterprise and in conflict with her would be captain, Will Decker (Stephen Collins), whose situation is complicated further by the posting of his old flame, Ilia (the late Persis Khambatta, in her introductory film role) as ship’s navigator (Walter Koenig’s Chekov now occupying the post of security chief).

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Admiral Kirk (William Shatner) and the crew of the Enterprise (image credit: Paramount Pictures).

Dealing with engine troubles and a near fatal wormhole encounter before rendezvousing with science officer Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) along the way, the stakes are raised as the Enterprise intercepts the approaching danger – traversing the energy cloud to discover a colossus alien vessel at its centre.  As Ilia is replaced by an android duplicate serving as a representative of the alien ship, Kirk learns that the intruder is ‘V’Ger’, a life-form on a journey to find and ‘join’ with its creator.  It all leads to a startling finale in which (spoilers follow…) Kirk and his crew face V’Ger, which they are astonished to discover is the lost 20th Century NASA probe, Voyager VI – repaired by an unknown machine race and sent on a return voyage to its point of origin where it can complete its programme of “learning all that is learnable” and providing all the information it has amassed to the creator.  Having gained sentience on its journey, V’Ger has reached the limits of its understanding and must evolve by joining with its creator…and one amongst the Enterprise crew volunteers to do so.

The film is commonly criticised for its slow pace (detractors unfairly labelling it as ‘The Slow Motion Picture’) and whilst this may be true, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is best viewed for what it is – a cerebral cinematic experience that reunites an iconic and beloved set of characters, unfolding steadily and subjecting the viewer to some striking visuals as it presents intriguing and intelligent science fiction ideas.  Despite the more conceptual and visually driven story, the cast are all reliably great – especially the central trio: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley, representing, respectively, the celebrated troika of Kirk, Spock and McCoy.  As the main star, Shatner is provided with some decent material as the ever-passionate Kirk wrestles with his regret at accepting promotion and his yearning to return to command of a starship.  Likewise, Nimoy gets to once again grapple with Spock’s conflicted half human/half Vulcan nature, his sensing of V’Ger and an inability to attain ‘Kholinahr’, the Vulcan ritual of complete emotional purging, driving his desire to re-join the Enterprise crew and seek out the mysterious invader.  DeForest Kelley’s Doctor McCoy is once again the cantankerous yet valued conscience and moral centre.

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The glorious refitted U.S.S. Enterprise, designed by Andrew Probert (image credit: Paramount Pictures).

The production design and special effects for Star Trek: The Motion Picture are reasonably impressive considering their age.  The redesigned Enterprise is simply beautiful, brought to life by the superb model work.  The sets are sparse but have an appropriately futuristic feel to them as do the crew uniforms which are a fitting evolution of those in the original series in comparison to the more military-based attire of the sequels.  In terms of the effects, led by 2001’s Douglas Trumbull and Star Wars’ John Dykstra, they remain a key element, the mesmerising sequence of the Enterprise’s penetration of the cloud, the jaw dropping ‘V’Ger flyover’ scenes and Spock’s ‘spacewalk’ being the most obvious highlights – in addition to the wonderfully executed launch of the Enterprise, of course.  Jerry Goldsmith’s Oscar nominated score is one of the composer’s best and an inseparable accompaniment to the story and visuals, capturing the romance and majesty of space in the 23rd Century, the grandeur of the Enterprise, the eerie mystery of the enigmatic force that threatens humanity and the wonders of the unknown.

It’s no secret that the production of Star Trek: The Motion Picture was troubled by last minute script re-writes, increasing costs (its budget inflating to a then eye-watering $46 million, making it the most expensive feature film at that time) and a tight schedule to meet its 7th December 1979 release date, leaving director Robert Wise with no time to produce a final cut and unsatisfied with the film in its theatrical form.  Much of this was remedied with the 2001 DVD release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture – The Director’s Edition, a superior edit of the film with Wise reinstating some of the more character-orientated scenes missing from the theatrical version whilst trimming down some of the longer and more superfluous moments, a fresh sound mix and new CGI effects to enhance and embellish the existing visuals.  Unlike the Star Wars Special Editions, the changes made were to benefit what Wise felt was an unfinished film and, largely, choices that would have been made in 1979 had the production been permitted the extra time and resources required.

Despite receiving a critical drubbing Star Trek: The Motion Picture would prove a box office success, paving the way for several sequels and an eventual television rebirth of the franchise.  Whilst Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is considered to be closer to the overall spirit of the original Star Trek series with a deeper focus on the characters and emphasis on morality play elements (whilst injecting a larger measure of action and excitement), Star Trek: The Motion Picture is perhaps more cinematic and – especially in its Director’s Edition form – an enjoyable and underrated first big screen adventure for Kirk, Spock and company that’s deserving of a revisit and perhaps a reappraisal as it reminds us that “The Human Adventure is Just Beginning”…

Read the classics review of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan here

Geek fact!

Mark Lenard, who portrayed Spock’s father in the original Star Trek series appears as a Klingon commander in the epic opening scenes of Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

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

It’s a Classic: ‘Alien’

Looking at some of the best pop culture offerings in film, TV and comics…

“Ash, can you see this?”

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The central terror of Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien’.

Year:  1979

Starring:  Tom Skerritt, Sigourney Weaver, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto

Directed by:  Ridley Scott / written by:  Dan O’Bannon (story by Dan O’Bannon & Ronald Shusett)

What’s it about?

Investigating the source of a mysterious transmission, the crew of a commercial starship discover a derelict alien craft which houses a deadly cargo…

In review:  why it’s a classic

Carrying the ominous tagline “In Space No One Can Hear You Scream” and celebrating its fortieth anniversary this year, Ridley Scott’s classic science fiction horror, Alien remains one of the all-time greats of cinema.  Growing from an idea by screenwriter Dan O’Bannon (originally titled “Star Beast”), Alien sees the crew of the deep space commercial towing vehicle Nostromo awakened from hibernation when the ship’s computer intercepts a transmission of unknown origin.  Tracing the signal to a nearby planetoid, the crew touch down and discover a gigantic vessel where an encounter with a parasitic organism leads to unforeseen horrors and a fight for survival against a relentlessly lethal alien life form.

Alien is a benchmark in both science fiction and horror, but whilst there are otherworldly elements and futuristic (but credible) technology, much like Star Wars before it, there is a worn, lived-in quality to the production in respect of the Nostromo and its equipment.  This sense of believability extends to the memorable characters of Alien – essentially wary space truckers bickering about bonuses and regulations, sharply written and wonderfully acted by the cast – comprising Sigourney Weaver in her breakout role as Lt. Ellen Ripley (in turn creating one of the most iconic screen heroines), Tom Skerritt as Captain Dallas, John Hurt as Kane, Ian Holm as science officer Ash, Veronica Cartwright as Lambert and Harry Dean Stanton and the excellent Yaphet Kotto as engineers Brett and Parker, respectively.

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Sigourney Weaver as Lt. Ripley.

Another standout aspect of Alien is undoubtedly the incredible ‘bio-mechanical’ designs of Swiss artist H.R. Giger, startling and unsettling gothic creations used to bring the Alien and its world – principally the mysterious derelict ‘bone’ ship found by Dallas and co – nightmarishly to life.  The central creature itself (which would become known as a ‘xenomorph’ in James Cameron’s outstanding 1986 sequel, Aliens) is a thing of horrific beauty, intricately detailed and all the more terrifying thanks to Carlo Rambaldi’s Alien head effects and Bolaji Badejo’s simple but effective performance, making it something more than just the staple ‘man inside a rubber suit’ of old SF and horror ‘B’ pictures.  With Giger’s work and Michael Seymour’s production design there’s a lot of fine craftmanship on display and coupled with the meticulous model and miniature effects (the team including Brian Johnson, who had previously worked on 2001: A Space Odyssey and on Gerry Anderson’s Space: 1999 television series) that provide a tangible sense of reality in a way that CGI just cannot replicate.

Scott’s direction is flawless, gently leading the viewer through darkness and shadow then catching them off guard with several shocks and scares.  That approach, with the serious attention to detail and ambition for the project, coupled with Giger’s designs lifts Alien above the more primitive and potentially schlocky imaginings of Dan O’Bannon’s initial concept.  Music is of equal importance and Jerry Goldsmith’s eerie, tense and atmospheric score is the perfect complement to the visuals, accentuating all the terror, unease and chills of Scott’s unforgettable haunted house in space.

Standout moment

Exploring the cavernous belly of the derelict alien ship, Kane stumbles across a cargo of egg-like objects.  Taking a closer look at one of the eggs, Kane sees signs of movement from within…

Geek fact!

H.R. Giger would later contribute designs of the xenomorph in director David Fincher’s second sequel, Alien 3.

If you like this then check out…

Aliens : James Cameron’s sequel pays reverence to Scott’s film without repeating it as Lt. Ripley returns to the planet where her nightmare began with a unit of marines.

Predator : a spiritual sibling to Alien, John McTiernan’s science fiction action classic sees Arnold Schwarzenegger and his crack military team being hunted by a deadly extra-terrestrial.

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

Flashback: ‘Battlestar Galactica’ – “Saga of a Star World”

Looking back at the epic series premiere for Glen A. Larson’s SF TV cult classic…

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Epic SF on the small screen: Richard Hatch, Lorne Greene and Dirk Benedict lead the cast of the original ‘Battlestar Galactica’ (image credit: Universal, used for illustrative purposes only).

Year:  1978

Starring:  Lorne Greene, Richard Hatch, Dirk Benedict, John Colicos, Terry Carter, Herbert Jefferson Jr, Jane Seymour, Maren Jensen, Laurette Spang, Noah Hathaway

Series created by:  Glen A. Larson

Written by:  Glen A. Larson / Episode directed by:  Richard A. Colla

What’s it about?

As the Twelve Colonies of Man prepare to establish an armistice with the Cylon Empire, the crew of the Battlestar Galactica discover that a massive attack is about to be unleashed…

Retrospective/review

Following the cultural explosion of Star Wars in 1977, audiences were hungry for epic science fiction whether it might be on the large or small screen.  Premiering in September 1978, Glen A. Larson’s Battlestar Galactica brought grand Star Wars style space opera to television, launching with the triple-length series opener “Saga of a Star World” which sees the Twelve Colonies of Man on the threshold of peace with the machine race known as the Cylons, who ultimately mount a devastating surprise attack, forcing survivors to flee their home star system.

Heading up the cast is Lorne Greene as the wise and noble Adama, commander of the ‘Battlestar’ Galactica who finds himself leading a fugitive caravan of ships carrying colony survivors away from the Cylon aggression.  Adama, ably supported by Terry Carter’s Colonel Tigh, brings hope to the remaining people of the Twelve Colonies as he announces his intention to lead them on a journey to seek out the fabled thirteenth Colony of Man…a place called ‘Earth’.  This quest drives the core mythology of “Saga of a Star World” and the rest of series as it unfolds against the backdrop of science fiction action and adventure.

Playing Adama’s son and chief pilot of the Galactica’s Viper fighter squadron, Apollo, is Richard Hatch who would receive a Golden Globe nomination for his role and would go on to portray the terrorist Tom Zarek in Ronald D. Moore’s 21st Century reimagining of Battlestar Galactica.  Hatch (who passed away last year) gives a committed performance and Larson’s script serves him well as he forms a relationship with Serina (Jane Seymour) and becomes a surrogate father to her son, Boxey (Noah Hathaway).

Another standout character (and probably the show’s most popular) is hotshot Viper pilot, lady’s man and Apollo’s best friend, Lt. Starbuck – played by future star of The A-Team Dirk Benedict.  The brotherly camaraderie between the two is a highlight of the original Battlestar and enriches the feeling of family between the principle characters, bolstered further by Hebert Jefferson Jr’s Lt. Boomer.  Despite the tragic circumstances that play out in “Saga of a Star World”, there’s still some light relief – principally Starbuck’s entanglement in a love triangle with Adama’s daughter Athena (Maren Jensen) and the enchanting Cassiopeia (Laurette Spang).

Adding to the Cylon threat is the treacherous Baltar (the excellent John Colicos, who would reappear throughout the series), whose collaboration with the Cylons leads to the downfall of the Twelve Colonies.  The Cylons themselves are a memorable and formidable enemy (that iconic swooshing red LED ‘eye’ later repeated in another of Glen A. Larson’s creations, Knight Rider).  They are commanded by the mysterious Imperious Leader, voiced by Patrick MacNee (famous for his role as John Steed in cult British fantasy spy series The Avengers) who also narrates Galactica’s opening monologue and would go on to play Count Iblis in the “War of the Gods” two-parter.

Battlestar Galactica was blessed with a large production budget (which ultimately lead to the cancellation of the series after 21 episodes, although it was shortly revived as the risible Galactica 1980) and thus for a late 70s SF television production the special effects for the time are fairly impressive – no small wonder given that they were produced under the supervision of Star Wars effects maestro John Dykstra – and numerous space battle sequences keep the viewer engaged in between the drama as the Galactica and the rag-tag fleet of survivors head out into deep space and on to their search to find Earth.  “Saga of a Star World” unfolds at a steady pace, following the opening decimation of the Colonies time is taken to flesh out the characters and deal with the crisis the survivors face in the wake of the Cylon attack.  Given the protracted running time it can feel a little slow in places but the pace picks up after the Galactica’s sojourn to a casino planet, whose hosts harbour a terrifying secret (adding a touch of horror to otherwise family-friendly proceedings) and leads into an action packed finale as Apollo and his fellow pilots take on the pursuing Cylon fleet.

This is Disco-era SF TV so there’s an element of camp when viewed today that may need to be excused on occasion but taken in context and with an open mindset the original Battlestar Galactica is actually quite a lot of fun and through its adventurous spirit and likeable characters it doesn’t fail to entertain and no doubt for viewers at the time, scratched that Star Wars itch.

Geek fact!

An edited version of “Saga of a Star World” was subsequently released theatrically and is available on home video as Battlestar Galactica: The Movie.

Elsewhere on WordPress, you can read the insightful Starloggers anniversary tribute to Battlestar GalacticaBattlestar Galactica: The TV Space Saga Turns 40

Film Review: ‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’

Ron Howard and Alden Ehrenreich punch it as they chart a young Han Solo’s journey to the Kessel Run… 

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Alden Ehrenreich leads the cast of Lucasfilm’s ‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’  (image used for illustrative purposes only and remains the property of the copyright owner).

Spoiler-free review

Starring:  Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, Joonas Suotamo, Paul Bettnay

Directed by:  Ron Howard / Written by:  Lawrence Kasdan & Jonathan Kasdan / 134 minutes

What’s it about?

Dreaming of becoming the greatest pilot in the galaxy, Han Solo embarks on an adventure where he meets his future co-pilot Chewbacca and is pitted against Lando Calrissian as he seeks to obtain his prized ship, the Millennium Falcon for use in a daring intergalactic heist…

In review

Following all of the behind the scenes drama surrounding the exit of original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller and extensive reshoots implemented by Lucasfilm with the hiring of Ron Howard, it’s fair to say expectations were somewhat soured for this latest standalone Star Wars story chronicling the early adventures of a young Han Solo.  A film that many a Star Wars fan would argue they never even wanted in the first place, Solo rises from the ashes of those initial issues of its troubled production and via the talents of director Howard, a surprisingly witty and charming lead and scintillating visuals proves to be an enjoyable addition to the Star Wars cinematic canon.

Opening on the crime ridden streets of the planet Corellia, Solo introduces us to a younger version of the iconic scoundrel some years before his fateful encounter with Luke Skywalker and Obi Wan Kenobi in A New Hope (aka 1977’s original Star Wars) as he attempts to escape to a better life with girlfriend Qi’ra (Game of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke).  Events taking a bad turn, Solo soon finds himself disillusioned and without cause as he fights for the tyrannical Galactic Empire – but the future hero of the Rebel Alliance gets another chance as he joins the devious Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and his ragtag group of outlaws (amongst them Westworld’s Thandie Newton as Beckett’s wife, Val) on a raid to steal a valuable fuel source and deliver it to the Crimson Dawn crime syndicate.

With Harrison Ford so universally adored as one of the most beloved Star Wars characters – one who is a cinematic icon, regardless – fears of anyone else stepping into the role would not be unfounded.  Rest assured that Alden Ehrenreich (Hail, Caesar!) is a worthy successor and a great fit for the part, charismatically conveying the swaggering mannerisms and cocky attitude (ably assisted by the writing from veteran Star Wars scribe Lawrence Kasdan and his son, Jonathan) without coming off as a mere imitation of Ford’s take on the loveable rogue, more of an embodiment than an impersonation and much like Chris Pine in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek is afforded some latitude to add his own mark without betraying the essence of such a memorable character.  Emilia Clarke is fine enough as Qi’ra (but certainly no Carrie Fisher) but Ehrenreich is at his best when playing off against new pals Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and Lando Calrissian (The Martian’s Donald Glover similarly channelling original actor Billy Dee Williams whilst equally making the part his own).  The ever reliable Woody Harrelson makes an impression as Beckett and shares some great moments with Ehrenreich but it’s a part that’s maybe not as fully realised as it could’ve been.  Paul Bettany (Avengers: Infinty War) is another high point in the role of Crimson Dawn’s leader Dryden Voss, which the actor tackles with some glorious scenery chewing might.

Jon Favreau (director of Marvel hits Iron Man and Iron Man 2, also appointed to oversee the forthcoming live action Star Wars television series) adds to the fun as the voice of Beckett’s pilot, CGI character Rio but it’s the motion capture performance of Phoebe Waller-Bridge as Lando’s faithful droid companion L3-37 that stands out, although admittedly filling the void left by Alan Tudyk’s K2-SO in Rogue One, Waller-Bridge is similarly wonderful as L3 and delivers some genuine laughs…and even a little bit of heart.

Overall, the plot manages to maintain momentum and delivers an almost continuous string of excitement in a fun and visually striking adventure.  Where Solo does falter however is in some of its predictability borne out of the demands of being an origin story, whilst it can (together with the numerous nods to the history of the franchise) often enrich the experience for Star Wars fans, the potential scope of the narrative is restrained a little by the need to check off certain items as well as a couple of surprisingly unsurprising twists.  There’s also not a huge deal of development to the character of Han Solo beyond what we already know but that’s arguably down to the placing of the film in the Star Wars timeline.

Those flaws notwithstanding, Solo is never less than a highly entertaining space adventure and is bolstered by quality production values and epic visuals that only enhance its action sequences, which includes a gripping mountain top train heist but the highlight undoubtedly being the infamous Kessel run as Han and Chewie take control of the Millennium Falcon for the first time – John Powell’s score effectively evoking a sense of nostalgia as he employs those classic John Williams themes that are so intrinsically connected to the Star Wars mythos.

Solo is by no means the greatest Star Wars film but it’s a pleasingly solid and fun ride that may even serve as a palette cleanser for those who were not so enamoured by Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi.

The bottom line:  Han shoots first in Lucasfilm’s enjoyable Solo: A Star Wars Story which features a likeable lead performance and some tremendously executed action sequences.

Solo: A Star Wars Story is in cinemas now.

Film Review: ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’

Disney whisks viewers off on another journey to a galaxy far, far away…

Spoiler-free review

 

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The ‘Star Wars’ saga continues with Rian Johnson’s visually astonishing ‘The Last Jedi’.

Starring:  Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis

Directed and written by:  Rian Johnson / 152 minutes

What’s it about?

As the Resistance fights for survival against the First Order, Rey seeks to learn the ways of the Force and draw Luke Skywalker out of exile in the hope of restoring peace to the galaxy…

In review

Following the colossal success of The Force Awakens and Rogue One, Disney unleash their latest cinematic Star Wars adventure with the ominously titled The Last Jedi, episode VIII of the main saga which focuses on the story and legacy of the Force-strong Skywalker family.  Helmed by Looper director Rian Johnson, the title of this latest chapter may imply that all is hopeless with nothing but darkness beyond, yet despite some desperate stakes and high drama there’s still an overriding sense of optimism and a good dose of fun and humour (albeit some of the latter at times feeling out of place) along with the requisite spectacle that’s an essential element of any Star Wars outing.

It’s not a perfect film though and The Last Jedi doesn’t always fulfil its ambitions, there are certainly some wisely employed creative risks and surprising twists but the plot becomes burdened by one sub plot too many and a pace that drags momentum from time to time.  There’s also some commercialism at play, where it seems clear that Disney have one eye on potential merchandising revenue.  That being said, The Last Jedi is at least as good as The Force Awakens, even outshining it some instances though ultimately, it doesn’t achieve the same lauded status of ‘masterpiece’ awarded to classic instalments A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back.  Still, The Last Jedi, on the whole, is undeniably a good Star Wars film.

Picking up where The Force Awakens left off, General Leia’s Resistance faces annihilation by the First Order as Leia and her forces are relentlessly pursued by General Hux (a slightly cheesy but enjoyable Domhnall Gleeson) who seeks to eagerly prove himself to the sinister Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis).  Leia’s only hope is that Rey can convince Luke Skywalker to cease his self-imposed exile and help end the First Order’s tyranny once and for all.

There is a jumble of sub plots along the way as the story shifts between Rey’s time with Luke and her exploration of the Force, the plight of the dwindling Resistance fleet, Kylo Renn’s continued slide into darkness and Finn’s (now recovered from the injuries he sustained in The Force Awakens) secret mission to a Casino planet.  It all hangs together in the end but it does result in some uneven pacing.  Thankfully, viewers are rewarded with an exciting, emotionally charged and epic final act that can be considered amongst the greatest Star Wars moments ever.

Where The Last Jedi can sometimes stumble in keeping its narrative concise and properly focused, it excels in its characterisation, actor performances and visual appeal.  Firstly, Mark Hamill is superb in a surprisingly more tortured, less hopeful take on Luke Skywalker, here a grizzled, brooding recluse who sees himself as much more of a failure than the legend he is purported to be.  Hamill is given some of the best material to work with and it leads to one of the finest performances of his career.  Likewise, the late Carrie Fisher is captivating in her final screen role with a turn that’s poignant and enlightening and together with Hamill provide The Last Jedi with a strong, satisfying and nostalgic emotional core.  The newer generation of characters are once again a delight, Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver are the clear standouts but there’s, pleasingly, an increased function for Oscar Isaac’s fearless Poe Dameron who, beyond more daring feats in the cockpit of an X-Wing, gets to butt heads with Laura Dern’s Vice Admiral Holdo.  John Boyega, again, brings a neat balance of fun and seriousness to Finn and although his adventure to Canto Bight is one of the weaker and more unnecessary plot elements it facilitates the introduction of Kellie Mary Tran’s Rose and Benecio Del Toro’s shady convict ‘DJ’.  Andy Serkis turns in another fine motion capture performance as Snoke and is a decent enough villain but it doesn’t feel as though the character quite lives up to the bleak threat that seemed promised in his brief appearance from The Force Awakens.

Director Rian Johnson (who also writes) is a masterful storyteller, delivering some astonishing visuals.  The expected space battles, ground assaults and lightsabre duels are all there and executed with attention and skill but it’s in the quieter, more emotional character focused moments, tied together with some rather trippy Force-infused sequences, that give The Last Jedi its own unique voice and originality – there are things in this film that have never been seen in a Star Wars film before and The Last Jedi is all the better for it.

Anticipation for The Last Jedi has been feverishly high and it’s unlikely to please everyone but as it stands, it’s a strong entry in the Star Wars franchise that’s not without flaws but is a highly enjoyable if not instantly classic SF Fantasy adventure.

The bottom line:  The Last Jedi has its flaws but is without a doubt a good Star Wars film and a highly enjoyable blockbuster that is a worthy addition to the series.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi is in cinemas now.

Film Review: ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’ (spoiler free)

Starring:  Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Alan Tudyk, Donnie Yen, Wen Jiang, Ben Mendelsohn, Forest Whitaker, Riz Ahmed, Mads Mikkelsen

Directed by:  Gareth Edwards / Written by:  Chris Wietz & Tony Gilroy (story by John Knoll & Gary Whitta) / 134 minutes

What’s it about?

Rescued from imprisonment, Jyn Erso is enlisted by the Rebel Alliance for a mission that will lead to the retrieval of the plans for the ‘Death Star’, the Empire’s new planet-killing weapon…

In review

Following the colossal success of The Force Awakens, Rogue One sees Disney/Lucasfilm unleash the first of their standalone ‘Star Wars Story’ anthology films to help sate the cravings of audiences whilst they await Episode VIII.  Such a project could easily be labelled as greedy and corporate minded, but luckily Rogue One proves its worth as a satisfying and engaging addition to the Star Wars universe.

Set prior to the opening events of 1977’s Star Wars – now retroactively known as Episode IV: A New HopeRogue One slots comfortably between the prequel trilogy and those much beloved and iconic original films without feeling contrived or unnecessary as it embellishes A New Hope by telling the story of the Rebel Alliance’s daring mission to retrieve the plans for the ‘Death Star’, the evil Empire’s new devastating, planet-killing weapon.  Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything) is a strong and capable lead as convict-turned-Rebel ally Jyn Erso, daughter of Imperial Scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) who, together with Rebel Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) assembles a rag-tag band of fighters including Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), a blind man who is strong with the force, his companion Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) and defecting Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) to battle against Ben Medelsohn’s Orson Krennic and the forces of the Galactic Empire.

Whilst Jones and Luna are clear standouts and best served by the screenplay’s characterisation, it’s reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO – voiced by Firefly’s Alan Tudyk – that often steals the show with a snarky and cantankerous attitude that provides much of the film’s dark humour and even some of its heart and soul.  Mads Mikkelsen (most recently providing the villainy in Marvel’s Doctor Strange) makes the most of his limited screen time but at least gets to make more of an impression than Forest Whitaker who is criminally underused as the gruff Rebel fighter Saw Gerrera, a face from the Erso’s past who would’ve warranted further development along with Jyn’s earlier years to further flesh out her ‘rebellious’ backstory.  Small quibbles aside, despite a slightly sluggish start Rogue One jumps to hyperspace once we get to the central plot, sending the viewer on an epic, action-packed ride that makes amends for any earlier narrative shortfalls and pacing issues.

This is most definitely still a Star Wars film yet one that is more grounded in the nitty gritty of warfare (with subtle shades of Saving Private Ryan and Platoon) and doesn’t shy away from the grey areas of ‘good vs evil’, the more mystical elements of the franchise mostly restricted to Imwe’s sporadic ramblings concerning the force.  It’s certainly all in the favour of Rogue One, mining some largely unexplored territory that enriches it all the more.

Director Gareth Edwards (Godzilla) stages some incredibly exciting and visually impressive set pieces that easily rival the action of The Force Awakens, much like what J.J. Abrams achieved there’s a real sense of heft and physicality to the film’s elaborate space battles as well as its ground focused combat as Rebel soldiers take on the Empire’s Stormtroopers and X-Wings swoop in to tackle Imperial walkers.

Rogue One not only looks great but also via its production design and costumes faithfully replicates the era of A New Hope as it was created by George Lucas and his team back in 1977.  Yes, it can still be taken as a standalone story but for fans of Star Wars, it’s actually Rogue One’s connectivity to the overall universe and saga – complemented by numerous easter eggs and lashings of fan service (some more pleasing than others, with the inclusion of Darth Vader handled particularly well) – that is perhaps one of its greatest appeals.

The bottom line:  The Star Wars franchise continues confidently with the highly enjoyable and epically realised Rogue One, providing plenty of excitement for fans and casual viewers alike.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is in cinemas now.

Felicity Jones leads a rebellious bunch against the Empire in Disney/Lucasfilm's 'Rogue One: A Star Wars Story'.

Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) leads a rebellious bunch against the Empire in Disney/Lucasfilm’s ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’.

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’.

Film Review: ‘Interstellar’ (spoiler-free)

Far beyond the stars…

Starring:  Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Cain

Directed by:  Christopher Nolan / Written by: Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan / 169 minutes

What’s it about?

As humanity faces extinction on an Earth ravaged by environmental catastrophe, former NASA pilot Cooper’s discovery of a scientific anomaly leads him on a journey that will take him to the stars…

In review

In 1968, Stanley Kubrick (with Arthur C. Clarke) took audiences on “The Ultimate Trip” with 2001: A Space Odyssey – a cinematic experience widely considered as the apex of cerebral and imaginative science fiction.  It proved triumphantly that science fiction cinema could be realised in a serious, thought provoking and technically proficient manner – a world away from the plethora of cheap (though in many cases, still enjoyable) ‘popcorn’ B-movies of the 1950s.  With Christopher Nolan at the helm, Interstellar follows Kubrick’s lead and melds the expansive imaginings of 2001 with human drama and exploration of modern scientific theory.

Nolan’s first post-Batman work is more Inception than The Dark Knight Rises, offering more of the reality altering and mind-bending imagery achieved in the former than the intense comic book action of the latter – though that’s not to say that Interstellar doesn’t include a fair share of edge-of-the-seat moments, it simply balances them against its other diverse elements.

Interstellar introduces an Earth that has been environmentally decimated, with humanity having turned its back on technological and other pioneering pursuits in favour of sustaining a desperate existence.  McConaughey plays Cooper, a widowed father of two and a former NASA pilot who once pondered about humanity’s place in the universe and forced to give up his dreams to take up a life as a humble farmer – dreams that have sparked the imagination of his daughter, Murph (Mackenzie Foy).  Unexplained events lead Cooper and Murph to a chance meeting with Professor Brand (Michael Caine) and the hard, but necessary decision Cooper decides to take by leaving his family to join an interstellar mission through a recently discovered wormhole to find humanity a new home – before it’s too late.

Whilst Interstellar generally takes the ‘hard SF’ route of 2001, there’s actually a surprising amount of emotional depth to proceedings played primarily via Cooper’s relationship with his daughter and her despair at her father’s decision to leave her (and her bother) behind to embark on a journey from which he may never return.  At turns heart-wrenching and heart-warming it provides the story with a resonance and a humanity that sets Nolan’s film apart from 2001 and ventures closer to the likes of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Naturally, Interstellar presents us with Nolan’s customary ‘heightened reality’ and the hard SF route is taken via the scientific theories of wormhole and space-time postulated by physicist Kip Thorne and as a result there is some heavy exposition that may leave traditional blockbuster audiences jaded and perhaps threatens to distract the more learned viewer, therefore it is the afore-mentioned emotional core that Nolan employs deftly to seek a balance between the intellectual moments and the human drama.

Nolan has once again assembled a fine cast of actors who successfully infuse their roles with the awe and wonder that the journey of Interstellar demands of them, juxtaposed against that human drama and presenting high stakes and challenges for their characters to dare to overcome.  McConaughey continues his resurgence of recent years, bringing a likeable and relatable quality to Cooper who is both a striving pioneer straight out of The Right Stuff and loving father struggling to reconcile with the anguish of leaving his family behind for the ‘greater good’.  Similarly, Hathaway puts in another strong performance as scientist Amelia Brand, who also has her own personal grief to bear.  Among other casting highlights are the ever reliable (and Nolan regular) Michael Caine who makes good use of his relatively small screen time as Amelia’s father, Professor Brand, some well-placed levity from droid ‘crewmember’ TARS, voiced by comedian Bill Irwin and a surprise cameo from…a well-known actor.

2001 aside, Nolan has cited a variety of influences that are present throughout Interstellar – from the world-building of Star Wars to the worn ‘lived-in’ aesthetics of Ridley Scott’s Alien, enriched by a commitment to practical elements of set design and location shooting (boasting some striking photography by Hoyte Van Hoytema which demands the extra cost of an IMAX ticket).  It’s an ode to the genre and the overall possibilities of good, practical, film making in the digital age.

Hans Zimmer complements the visual and emotional elements with another wonderful, wondrous, score (can he do any wrong after his incredible compositions for Inception, The Dark Knight Rises and the Nolan-produced Man of Steel?), although there are moments where the sound mix seems to be out of balance as Zimmer’s music threatens to muffle some of the dialog – hopefully this will be rectified for the home video release.

Despite grand intellectual themes and incredible imagery, Interstellar provides a decent measure of excitement with a number of set-pieces to rival Inception, with the colossal tidal wives and ice clouds of the worlds the film’s characters voyage to and a particularly tense, edge-of-the-seat orbital docking sequence among the highlights.  True, some may find the near three hour running time challenging (and at times it does verge on that feeling) and those not familiar with Nolan’s previous works or appreciative of the cerebral SF of 2001 might be baffled by the mind-bending final act but for fans of such things, Interstellar is bound to delight and inspire.

The bottom line:  As strong as any of his previous works, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is visually arresting, imaginatively expansive and emotionally resonant.  Prepare for a thrilling journey that Messrs. Kubrick and Clarke would envy…

Interstellar is in cinemas now.

Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) embarks on a journey to save the human race in Christopher Nolan's 'Interstellar'.

Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) embarks on a journey to save the human race in Christopher Nolan’s ‘Interstellar’.

What did you think of Interstellar?  Share your spoiler-free thoughts below!