Told in multicolor hues that would make a frappuccino unicorn whinny and packed to the gills with gee-whiz gadgetry, action and laughter, James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (B+) is most successful when it examines the unconventional family dynamics of Marvel’s outer space superheroes. With baby on board (Groot, that is, and his highjinks are precious), the Guardians’ shipmates encounter Peter’s father and Gamora’s sister, among assorted new characters, and must reflect on their place in the universe. Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana and Dave Bautista display natural chemistry and charm. It’s like a Corleone saga with blasters and dick jokes. The new planets and plot lines are full of intrigue, and the dialogue is witty and wise. It’s an early summer movie that delivers the goods.
There are few phenomena more fascinating in Hollywood than a sophomore slump. And for Norwegian director Morten Tyldum, who was Oscar nominated for his first English language feature (the brilliant biopic The Imitation Game), the fact that his follow-up flail is Passengers (D) must be some cosmic poetic justice of miscalculation. In terms of extremes, there’s rarely been as handsome a physical production – all art deco parlors, digital automats and infinity swimming pools overlooking a galaxy – so sullied by such a misbegotten story. (Note: I’m not sure if something is a spoiler if it’s laid out in a movie’s first twenty minutes, but this film is different than advertised; so read on at your peril). The tale of a lonely mechanic (Chris Pratt) accidentally awakened from hypersleep and adrift as the only man left in a spacecraft on a near century-long voyage who wakes up a sleeping beauty (Jennifer Lawrence) to keep him company knowing full well that reanimating her is sentencing her to death has to be the worst Meet Cute in the history of cinematic love stories. Pratt employs his goofball everyman humor in an attempt to wrestle likability from an impossibly written character. His unfortunate portrayal is akin to Bill Cosby making his Pudding Pop funny-face while readying a shiny platter of roofies. Lawrence fares only slightly better as an author who gets more than she bargained for; after Joylast year, we’ve come to expect this prized actress to cook up a holiday turkey. Unsure of whether it’s an Adam and Eve story with the betrayal placed before the couple could even discuss it or Titanic with rohypnol instead of the blue jewel, Tyldum’s “very special episode” riff on sci-fi is a colossal catastrophe of an idea. The two to three times when the movie’s tone careens into romantic montage or adventurous befuddlement are rare respites in a tale not unlike Dr. Lecter’s drug-hazed final act of seduction in Hannibal. Careers will survive this, and the two principal matinee idols are gorgeously filmed, but Passengers isn’t what space pioneers meant when they promised to boldly go where no one has gone before.
Over the years as latter films in the Star Wars pantheon have produced diminishing returns, there’s been a bit of a grading curve – “pretty good acting … for someone in a Star Wars film,” “fairly cool action scene … in an otherwise lackluster prequel” and the like. So it’s good news indeed that J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (A-) earns its accolades outright in terms of solid acting, layered characters, genuine high stakes, some earned comic relief and relentless action. The film achieves most of its delirious highs in the first hour as it splendidly introduces four fantastic new characters (Daisy Ridley as fierce scavenger warrior heroine Rey, John Boyega as naive reformed Stormtrooper Finn, Oscar Isaac as cocksure pilot Poe and the precious spherical astromech droid BB-8). There’s considerable descent into incomprehension (alas Abrams gets rather Lost) during the final acts with strange pop psychology that only works in spurts and some tedious retreads of some action moments already depicted in six previous films. Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren makes for a so-so villain, albeit with an awesome lightsaber, and his CGI mentor is a bit of a misfire. Harrison Ford is a highlight reprising his role as everyone’s favorite rakish scoundrel Han Solo, this time showing more of his soft side along with his trademark quips. The art direction and physical production are gloriously rendered and are such a welcome return to form: sequences in the desert are lush and the first glimpse of evil TIE Fighters sleek indeed. The film works best when it functions as an archaeological dig into the myths and iconography of the original trilogy; in fact, much of the most spectacular parts of the quest – rescuing antiquities, piecing together lost maps, being chased in the desert and around sinister corners and plumbing the well of characters’ souls – resemble an Indiana Jones installment. The fresh storyline of new characters is actually the film’s novelty since Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill are shamelessly underused. But it’s hard to begrudge a big studio enterprise that is this packed with thrills and adventure, good characters and surprises. It largely hits the mark and sets the stage for some great new revelations.Save
The Wachowskis’ Jupiter Ascending (D+) commits the biggest sin in the movie universe: it was a bore to the planet core. Cribbing elements from Dune, Flash Gordon and others in the space opera milieu, this talky tale of an Earthling (Mila Kunis) who gets engulfed in a galactic struggle with a campy villain (Eddie Redmayne) and wrapped up in a forbidden romance with a wolf-eared servant on flying sneakers (Channing Tatum) is lumbering and uninspired.
Christopher Nolan’s ambition exceeds his reach in the often glorious and dizzyingly satisfying outer space adventure Interstellar (B+). Matthew McConaughey valiantly anchors the film as a widowed father and retired pilot living on a midwest farm who gets activated into a journey to find an inhabitable planet for the future of the human race. The stakes couldn’t be higher, setting the stage for epic human emotion and a plot that operates on a dual time continuum of earth and a place beyond the stars, not all that unlike the director’s Inception in which the latter realm was the dreamscape. Michael Caine, Wes Bentley, John Lithgow and David Gyasi are among a very effective ensemble bringing credibility to an often arcane and sometimes pondrous story. In contrast, Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain inhabit somewhat problematic characters with odd intentions and impenetrable subplots, respectively. The film’s first and second act are near perfection both visually and thematically, and the final act just can’t sustain the sense of wonder. Still, the early earthbound segments have the heft of Steinbeck by way of Spielberg, and the bulk of the outer space sequences glisten with the majesty of Herbert by way of Kubrick. The film’s heady mix of science and mental puzzles is infinitely resonant and adds up to a near-masterpiece. But as the space dust settles, there are inconsistencies, unexplained motivations and other overlong passages that reflect missed opportunities. Overall, an intriguing premise, fine acting, an engaging story and incredible technology effects put this film in hyperdrive against any others in its category and make for a splendid voyage of mind-boggling proportions.
A technical tour de force and a wonder to behold, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (B) is nonetheless weighed down by an oppressive storyline, stock characters and a script marred with a touch of self-importance. Both Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are bit characters eclipsed by incredible outer space floating effects. It’s highly recommended as a showcase for 3D and efficient as a thriller with some nail-biting moments, but it’s also far-fetched and ultimately orbits a black hole of melodrama. Clooney basically plays Buzz Lightyear. Bullock’s CGI face and tears seem like they’re emoting pretty well, but in space, no one can see you act. Gravity barely gave its characters the acumen to operate an Easy Bake Oven, while a simultaneous release Captain Phillips depicted complete technical mastery amidst the maritime brinkmanship.
J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek Into Darkness (B-) missed its mark in building upon the high standard set by its predecessor. Still, it starts off very exciting and has very nice stunts and effects along the way. Benedict Cumberbatch doesn’t get much to do in a throwaway role, but Chris Pine shines once again in the lead. There are just lots of missed opportunities given some homages made to the original series that don’t pay off with as rich an emotional effect as expected.
J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek (A-) is a spectacular reboot of the classic franchise with Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto stepping in nicely as Kirk and Spock, respectively. We step back to Starfleet Academy and origin stories and now have a parallel path wormhole device so that new installments can exist in their own universe. On top of the thrilling warp speed action, there was massively funny humor, especially as the chief protagonists both romance Uhura (Zoe Saldona).
Suppose you created a gorgeous CGI world with breathtaking 3-D vistas and amazingly life-like aliens, and then you drop in a formulaic story, wooden actors and snooze-worthy dialogue? You get James Cameron’s Avatar (C), and I want my three hours back. Actually much of the action is rousing and many of the creative sci-fi effects engrossing, but the epic polish largely conceals that the emperor of the world is sporting a threadbare ensemble.
Finally, the mess of a prequel trilogy gets some moments of badass as George Lucas’s Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (B) restores some dignity to the series. Hayden Christensen’s Anakin Skywalker and Natalie Portman’s Padmé Amadala are still the soapiest of characters – and now they are pregnant with Luke and Leia (guess it’s not a spoiler alert when you’re already in a prequel!) – and Anakin is still ticked at Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor) for not making him a full Jedi. Lots of battles occur, and ultimately we get the anticipated volcano fight when Anakin finally transforms fully into part-man, part-machine Darth Vader. Of course, Lucas almost spoils that with a strange Frankenstein homage (the Ewoks weren’t available for a chorus of “Yub Nub”?) There’s at least some symmetry in this film that helps match it to the classic trilogy and foreshadows the continuing Skywalker saga to come. Did we care much about any of these prequel characters? Not really. There were some cool effects, and I guess it’s better to have a Star Wars movie than not (at least in some of Episode II ‘s case and most of Episode III). Fans will appreciate the plunge into darkness and the higher stakes than usual, even though the characters are still pretty undercooked.
George Lucas’s Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (C) upgrades the effects and the action from its prequel predecessor but leaves at its centerpiece a burgeoning and head-scratching love affair between Hayden Christensen’s pouty Anakin Skywalker and Natalie Portman’s listless Padmé Amadala that is so poorly written and acted that it threatens to bury the whole franchise in the sands of Tatooine or the waters of Naboo. Some bounty hunter espionage helps put a spring in the film’s step, and Anakin gets to show a darker side when he kills some Tuskin Raiders (hey, aren’t those guys bastards anyway?); and the action of the passive voice title seems to partially occur. It’s largely an attack on good sense. John Williams’ love theme is pretty but underscores a Harlequin romance. Ewan McGregor is again wasted as Obi-Wan Kenobi solving a parallel mystery.
It’s the prequel turkey that will live in infamy: George Lucas’ Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (D). Presenting virtually no interesting characters that inhabit early galactic life and a storyline about tax disputes, the film sends two Jedi knights (Ewan McGregor and Liam Neeson) with mullets and rat-tails and their piercingly annoying CGI sidekick Jar-Jar Binks to pick up a bratty kid (Jake Lloyd) and an inexpressive queen (Natalie Portman). It’s not clear what they’re supposed to do then except bide time between now and when this moppet becomes an angsty teenager. Meanwhile, there’s an interminable pod race, a cool double-edge lightsaber battle and some revisionist history about how you activate the Force in your bloodstream. Lucas’ clunky direction and dialogue miss the mark in each and every way in this very embarrassing opening salvo to the prequel trilogy.