To recast or not to recast?

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for The Book of Boba Fett. Minor spoilers are also present for Solo: A Star Wars Story and Star Trek: Strange New Worlds.

President of Lucasfilm Kathleen Kennedy recently made a statement that has drawn a lot of attention. In an interview with magazine Vanity Fair, Kennedy stated that one of the lessons that the Disney-owned studio learned from the lukewarm response to Solo: A Star Wars Story in 2018 was that recasting classic characters isn’t possible. In her words, “it does seem so abundantly clear that we can’t do that.”

This has kicked off a discussion online, not least among fans of the Star Wars franchise and Solo in particular. Today I want to add my two cents to the conversation and use the debate around Kennedy and Solo to talk about recasting characters in a general sense, as well as touch on some alternatives that studios have turned to in recent years.

Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy.

First of all, I encourage you to read the full piece in Vanity Fair so you’re aware of what was said and its context. Online debate often centres around a single phrase, soundbite, or fragment of a sentence, and it isn’t always clear how someone’s words were intended. In this case, for example, Kennedy seems to have been talking about the need for Star Wars to move on – something I’ve talked about at length here on the website – and expand beyond the confines of the “Skywalker Saga” and the handful of familiar characters who made up those stories.

I absolutely agree with that sentiment! The Star Wars galaxy is such a vast and exciting setting, one with thousands of years of history, an uncertain future, thousands of planets, trillions of inhabitants, and so much potential! So far, the Star Wars franchise has doubled-down on showing us the same handful of characters and the same tiny sliver of that setting over and over again, and I for one am starting to get sick of it! Star Wars can be more than Luke Skywalker – if it’s willing to put in the effort.

Canto Bight, one of many interesting locales in the Star Wars galaxy.

So in that sense, I agree with Kathleen Kennedy! But taken as a starting point for a discussion about recasting characters, I couldn’t disagree more.

It’s profoundly ironic that Kennedy made this statement during the build-up to the broadcast of Obi-Wan Kenobi… a series that centres around a character who was recast from the original Star Wars films! The Star Wars prequel trilogy recast a number of characters – and recast characters were even ham-fistedly edited into the so-called “special editions” of the original films, with the original voice of Boba Fett being re-dubbed, the original Emperor Palpatine being overwritten in The Empire Strikes Back, and most notoriously, the Force ghost of Anakin Skywalker being changed in Return of the Jedi.

Disney and Lucasfilm panicked in the late 2010s. The divisive reaction to The Last Jedi and underwhelming numbers for Solo: A Star Wars Story saw the Star Wars franchise refocused to bring back a lot more of what corporate leadership hopes will pass for nostalgia. This accounts for the existence of shows like The Book of Boba Fett and Obi-Wan Kenobi, as well as certain narrative decisions in The Rise of Skywalker. It isn’t the first time that corporate cowardice has got in the way of entertainment, and it likely won’t be the last.

The Book of Boba Fett is an example of Star Wars recycling characters.

I’d argue that the wrong lesson has been learned from Solo if Disney and Lucasfilm believe that the biggest takeaway is that they should never try to recast characters. Alden Ehrenreich’s performance was far from the worst thing about that film, and if audiences and Star Wars fans felt that he “didn’t feel” like Han Solo, the blame needs to be placed with the way the script was written and the way the story was told. Solo was a fairly clumsy overplaying of the nostalgia card in my view; a film with an interesting premise that was hampered by shoehorning in characters from the original trilogy and that made the same mistake with Han Solo as the prequel trilogy had with Anakin Skywalker: overexplaining his backstory.

But all of that is incidental. Even if we accept the premise that Solo was a failure and that the performance of its lead was a significant factor – neither of which I’m fully on board with, but I’ll grant for the sake of argument – is the right response really to say that no classic characters should ever be recast again? That seems like a horrible overreaction!

Alden Ehrenreich in Solo: A Star Wars Story.

The Star Wars franchise has done some very interesting things with digital de-ageing and CGI character creation. The way Luke Skywalker was brought to screen in The Book of Boba Fett as an entirely CGI character was technologically stunning, and at first I thought I was watching a lookalike. The technology needed to create CGI characters and perfectly replicate the face – and even voice – of real actors is already here, and while Disney may be a pioneer of the technology, they’re far from the only ones to be using it. We’ve recently seen digital de-ageing make an appearance over in the Star Trek franchise, for example.

I’ve had an article in the pipeline for well over a year that I really ought to get around to finishing one of these days! It’s all about CGI characters in film and television, because I’m convinced that we’re not far away from a film or TV series bringing back to life a dead actor to play a leading role. I can already picture a snooty director who insists that the lead role in their film could only ever belong to someone like Lawrence Olivier or Orson Welles and decides to digitally recreate them rather than cast someone else!

A CGI recreation of Mark Hamill was used to bring Luke Skywalker into The Book of Boba Fett.

That’s connected, in a way, to what we’re talking about here. Some actors and performers are so iconic that I can absolutely see a time – perhaps very soon – when a film or TV series will use a CGI lead mingling with real actors. A digital creation with a fake face and fake voice that are indistinguishable from the real thing. And as that technology improves and becomes more accessible, it may even become possible for amateurs to do something similar. Imagine a Star Trek fan-film where a fully-realistic CGI Captain Picard is the lead. We’re edging closer to that kind of reality!

But is Sir Patrick Stewart inseparable from Captain Picard? Is Mark Hamill the only possible Luke Skywalker? Or are these roles – and many others across the realm of entertainment – more than just one actor? Look at Shakespeare as an example: how many actors have taken on the role of Hamlet, Prospero, or Richard III? And even in cinema, how many different performances have there been of characters like Count Dracula or Ebenezer Scrooge?

Is Christopher Lee the only possible Dracula in all of cinema?

If the argument is that certain characters can only ever be portrayed by one person, doesn’t that limit them and restrict them to a single possible interpretation? There have been very different takes on iconic characters over the years, and while audiences may have a preference for one or another, that doesn’t mean that only one interpretation is valid. Taking a character and giving them to a new actor expands the potential of that character.

In the Star Trek franchise we’ve seen the main characters from The Original Series recast for the Kelvin films, and while I know of some Trekkies who absolutely hated that idea, as time has passed since the 2009 reboot, more of those folks have come around. 2009’s Star Trek did a lot of things right as a reboot of the franchise, and a big part of its success was down to the way those classic characters were reinterpreted.

Star Trek hasn’t been shy about recasting characters!

Some Star Trek characters have been recast multiple times – by my count, Strange New Worlds features the fourth actor to play Captain Pike and the third to play Spock. Early reactions to Strange New Worlds have been incredibly positive – and the series has even drawn praise from some fans who hadn’t enjoyed anything else that modern Star Trek has had to offer. Recasting Pike, Spock, and other classic characters has clearly not harmed Strange New Worlds.

And the same could be true for Star Wars. Maybe Solo wasn’t the best film the franchise has put out, but that shouldn’t mean that experimenting with different takes on classic characters should be entirely shut down. There’s scope for new actors to take on the roles of Luke, Leia, and others – just as there was for Ewan McGregor to become Obi-Wan Kenobi or Alden Ehrenreich to become Han Solo. Arbitrarily deciding that recasting can never work off the back of a single underwhelming film is an unnecessary overreaction – especially considering that recasting has already worked in Star Wars, with an upcoming series standing as testament to that fact.

Obi-Wan Kenobi was recast in 1999 – and the recast character was so popular that he’s about to get his own spin-off series.

At the same time, there’s a place for digital character creation, recreated characters, and CGI characters, and I fully expect to see a lot more of that type of thing in the years ahead. For my two cents, digital de-ageing and CGI characters probably work best as side-characters rather than main protagonists – and I think Star Wars has got away with using them in that context so far. It will be a new challenge to see a film or TV series where the leading role is taken over by a CGI character.

So in conclusion, I’m glad that Kathleen Kennedy is finally willing to consider expanding the Star Wars franchise beyond the tiny fragment of its wonderful and vast setting that we’ve seen so far. That part is the good news! However, I don’t agree that there’s no place for recasting characters in a general sense. New actors have the potential to bring a new interpretation to the role, and if you look across at other films, franchises, and TV shows, it’s abundantly clear that recasting can and does work.

All properties and franchises discussed above are the copyright of their respective studio, distributor, corporation, etc. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Looking ahead to Avatar: The Way of Water

It’s been a while since we talked about Avatar. Actually, scratch that. It’s been a while since anybody talked about Avatar and its upcoming sequels, with the sci-fi blockbuster having largely dropped out of our collective cultural conversation in the decade since its release. But with the first of four planned sequels due for release in just a few months’ time, James Cameron’s sci-fi series is kicking off its marketing campaign.

In addition to the film’s official title being revealed, we also got the first teaser trailer. Having caught a glimpse of Pandora and the Na’vi, I thought it could be interesting to look ahead and preview what the film may be when it finally hits cinemas later this year.

James Cameron, director of Avatar: The Way of Water.

I’m not the world’s biggest fan of Avatar. I didn’t hate it or even particularly dislike it, but it was the kind of blockbuster that I just haven’t felt a desperately pressing need to revisit. While its story and characters weren’t bad by any means, nothing Avatar did managed to succeed at creating a world that I can’t get enough of. Avatar was fine – but unlike something like Star Trek or Star Wars, the first film didn’t inspire a huge fan community nor create the sense of scale or the feeling that there’s a great deal more to its world that we desperately need to see.

I re-watched Avatar about eighteen months ago, and I’ve probably seen the film four or five times over the past decade. But could I tell you its plot in any detail or recite some of my favourite lines? How about picking my favourite character(s)… or even remembering the names of the main ones? Aside from the moon of Pandora, is there anywhere else in Avatar’s fictional universe that I’d want to explore? The answer to all of the above is “no,” as you may have guessed.

Official logo for Avatar: The Way of Water.

So that’s the position I’m in as we look ahead to Avatar: The Way of Water (which my brain keeps calling The Shape of Water like that other film from a couple of years ago). But although I might be cruel enough to call some aspects of Avatar “forgettable,” there are reasons for positivity. For one, the science fiction realm always has space for new and expanding franchises, and while I doubt any will ever topple Star Wars or Star Trek, there’s definitely scope to add the likes of Avatar into the mix.

Like its predecessor, Avatar: The Way of Water has a colossal budget, and we will undoubtedly be in for a film whose design, aesthetic, and visual style will be beautiful and immersive. With CGI and other special effects having improved dramatically over the past decade, some of the “video gamey” feel of the first film – with its slightly too smooth and shiny textures – should have been mitigated. While The Way of Water will still be so heavily reliant on CGI as to be basically fully-animated for long sequences, CGI animation in 2022 can look a heck of a lot better than it did in 2009.

A Na’vi taking a swim.

To my surprise, I must admit, the teaser trailer for The Way of Water racked up well over ten million views on YouTube in the 48 hours after it was published there, with several million additional views across other social media platforms. For a time, the teaser trailer was the #1 trending video on YouTube, so there’s clearly still interest in Avatar from the general public – even if most folks haven’t rewatched the first film in a long time!

The teaser trailer itself was a stylised affair, heavy on the soundtrack, that showed off a few interesting-looking locations but that revealed practically nothing by way of narrative or plot. At this stage that could be okay; it’s a tease to renew interest in a franchise that has been dormant for more than a decade. But I wonder if there was enough substance in the 90-second teaser to really kick off a marketing campaign that will need to rebuild interest in the world of Avatar between now and the holiday season.

Sully.

There were a few moments in the teaser trailer that looked genuinely interesting. At one point we saw what appeared to be Na’vi and humans working together, or at the very least Na’vi being shown around a human facility that seemed to be under construction. Whether that means that humanity’s presence on Pandora is growing is not clear. We also saw Na’vi carrying human weapons and wearing what appeared to be body armour; again this could suggest some kind of team-up between at least one human faction and Sully’s Na’vi tribe.

We also got our first look at the much-vaunted underwater motion capture technology, something that has apparently been developed by James Cameron and his team for the new film. The technology wasn’t ready a decade ago, but having worked on it over the past few years, The Way of Water is now leaning on it as a selling-point.

Are humans and Na’vi cooperating?

There have been great underwater sequences in films before, and the very brief clip shown off in the teaser trailer isn’t a lot to go on. I think we’ll have to reserve judgement on how well the underwater motion capture stuff works – as well as how “groundbreaking” or original it makes the finished picture look – until we’ve seen a lot more footage. I don’t want to jump the gun and say it was underwhelming based on a few seconds’ worth of video that was compressed for YouTube!

It’s no bad thing to experiment and try new techniques; that’s the only way that cinema – or any medium, come to that – can ever grow and develop. Whether the gruelling process of underwater motion capture will catch on and become something we see other titles pick up in future is anyone’s guess at this stage. I would say, though, that behind-the-scenes photos and interviews seem to suggest that this particular filmmaking process is hard work!

Underwater motion capture for Avatar: The Way of Water.

James Cameron put a lot of energy into Avatar. A whole Na’vi language was constructed by linguistics experts, and while that isn’t something entirely unique for a sci-fi property (hello, Klingon) it does show how seriously Cameron and others took the project. Seeing Avatar expand beyond its original film and begin to take advantage of some of that hard work is something I’d like to see happen, and there’s always going to be room for more high-quality sci-fi.

Expanding on the story of Avatar – which was left somewhat open-ended back in 2009 – could be fun, and I hope that the story will go in a different and perhaps unexpected direction. The original film took flak for its perceived unoriginality, so this first sequel could be an opportunity to break away from that.

Though I’m not going to rush out and be the first in line for Avatar: The Way of Water on release day, I’m hopeful that it’ll be a decent sci-fi title when it’s ready. As the first of four sequels to the original film, this could be a franchise that we’ll discuss a lot in the years ahead.

Avatar: The Way of Water is scheduled to be released on the 16th of December 2022. The Avatar series – including The Way of Water – is the copyright of 20th Century Studios and/or The Walt Disney Company. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Ten great things about Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for the entire Star Wars franchise, including the prequels, original trilogy, and sequels.

Happy Star Wars Day! Today is the 4th of May – or as they say in America, May the 4th. So May the 4th be with you! Today is a day for positivity in the Star Wars fan community, so I thought it could be fun to take a look at a few of my favourite things from The Last Jedi. It goes without saying that The Last Jedi was a divisive film among Star Wars fans. However, it was one I generally enjoyed. It wasn’t “perfect,” and I don’t think it hit all of the high notes that it was aiming for, but I found it to be enjoyable.

This article isn’t an attack on anyone else’s position or opinion! If you don’t like The Last Jedi or some of the things we’re going to discuss, that’s totally okay. Practically everything in cinema is subjective, not objective, and there’s a range of opinions on practically every film. Because today is about celebrating Star Wars, I wanted to pick out some of the things that I liked from the film and talk about why they worked well for me. If you want to see how critical I can be of Star Wars… check out my reviews of The Rise of Skywalker or The Mandalorian Season 2!

Yoda in The Last Jedi.

With all of that out of the way, a brief introduction is in order, I think! Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi was released theatrically in the UK on the 14th of December 2017 – but I didn’t see it until a few months later in the Spring of 2018. My health is poor, and things like trips to the cinema are no longer practical for me, unfortunately. By the time I got around to seeing the film I’d already heard the outcry from some in the Star Wars fandom, and I set my expectations pretty low for what seemed to be a divisive film. Suffice to say that I was pleasantly surprised to find a film that I enjoyed a lot more than I’d been expecting.

After The Force Awakens had played it very safe two years earlier, The Last Jedi attempted to take Star Wars in a very different direction. Rather than repeating what the original trilogy had done, the film took its characters to completely different thematic places, introduced new sub-plots, and potentially set up the sequel trilogy for a radically different ending. The Rise of Skywalker tried to undo some of the most significant points from The Last Jedi, which was a real shame, but taken on their own merit many of these points succeed. For me, The Last Jedi is the high-water mark of the sequel trilogy, and it’s a film that I firmly believe will be considered much more favourably in years to come. Just look at how a new generation of fans has come to celebrate the once-panned prequel trilogy; The Last Jedi’s best days may lie ahead.

So let’s get started on my list! I’ve picked ten things that I admire about The Last Jedi or feel that the film did well. They’re listed below in no particular order.

Number 1:
A subtle and unexpected Rogue One connection.

Jyn Erso in Rogue One.

How was the First Order able to track the Resistance’s fleet while they were in hyperspace? This was a story point that some fans who weren’t paying very close attention didn’t like – but it was actually something that had been set up a year earlier. Rogue One, which was released in 2016, saw Jyn Erso and a rag-tag crew steal the plans to the Death Star in the days immediately prior to A New Hope. Part of their mission saw them travel to the planet of Scarif, where the plans were kept at an Imperial facility.

While looking for the Death Star plans in amongst other Imperial data tapes, Jyn found a record of the Empire’s research into hyperspace tracking. The scene was very brief, with the data tape quickly being discarded in the rush to secure the Death Star plans – but it was a great moment of connection between two disparate parts of the Star Wars franchise!

Jyn and Cassian with the Death Star plans.

Considering that Rogue One and The Last Jedi were set decades apart, these moments of connection are incredibly helpful to bind modern Star Wars together. Far from being just a throwaway line, the scene in Rogue One established that hyperspace tracking technology was something being actively researched by the Empire – while the destruction of the Imperial facility on Scarif provides a convenient narrative excuse for why it wasn’t successfully rolled out during the era of the original films.

It can be an incredibly difficult task to thread the needle like this; to insert a story element in between the pieces of the story that we already know. But Rogue One and The Last Jedi did this perfectly. If only other story beats in the sequel trilogy had this much forethought and this much setup!

Number 2:
Rey is related to nobody.

Rey learned a harsh truth.

For two years leading up to The Last Jedi, speculation was rife in the Star Wars fan community about who Rey was. Many fans concocted elaborate theories suggesting that she was the daughter or granddaughter of Luke Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Emperor Palpatine, and other Force-wielding characters. But when it was revealed in The Last Jedi that none of those things were true, it was a perfectly-executed twist.

Rey being “no one” isn’t just great because it’s a subversion or because it ignores some pretty mediocre fan theories – it works because it has something important to say. The Force can manifest in anyone, and just because that person comes from a humble background it doesn’t mean that they can’t be important. This is the story that the original Star Wars film tried to tell: Luke was the farm boy from an unimportant backwater world who went on to save the galaxy. That story was muddied by the decision to create a connection to Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back, and completely erased by the time talk of prophecy and “chosen ones” entered the equation.

Kylo explained to Rey that her parents were “no one.”

In that sense, Rey’s parents being no one important and no one familiar took Star Wars back to a narrative space that it hadn’t occupied since 1977. It established that its hero truly could be anybody, that destiny and ancestry don’t matter half as much as we might’ve thought. I found that message to be incredibly uplifting and inspiring, and the idea that anyone could be a hero or do great things without needing to be related to someone important is a message that resonated. In a franchise that has been so thoroughly dominated by a handful of individuals and a single family, it was a narrative worth including.

It also presented Rey in stark contrast to Kylo Ren. Both characters were defined by their family, but in different ways. Rey waited for her parents believing they’d come back for her, only to learn that they didn’t care about her at all – they sold her at the first opportunity. Kylo was both proud of his relationship to Darth Vader and ashamed of the role that his parents played in the Rebellion. Kylo came from Rebel royalty as the son of Han and Leia, but had succumbed to the temptation of the Dark Side and wanted to dominate the galaxy. In contrast, Rey came from nowhere and wanted to save it.

Rey using the Force at the film’s climax.

Rey’s struggle wasn’t to live up to some legacy from Luke or Obi-Wan, nor to rebel against a darker ancestor like Palpatine, but to chart her own path – a new path for herself, for the Resistance, for the Jedi, and for the Star Wars franchise. Rey represented the new against the old, the people against the aristocratic elite, and an unexpected journey for the protagonist of the latest chapter of the long-running saga.

I adored this about Rey. It took her on an unpredictable and open-ended journey, threw out of the window outdated notions of legacy and destiny, but at the same time it returned Star Wars to a familiar place; a place it hadn’t been since Darth Vader and Luke were retconned to be father and son. Had this aspect of Rey’s character been retained, I think the sequel trilogy as a whole could’ve been far more interesting.

Number 3:
Hyperspace ramming.

The aftermath of hyperspace ramming.

In the very first Star Wars film, Han Solo gave us a decent explanation for why travelling through hyperspace was so dangerous. “Without precise calculations,” he told Luke, “we could fly right through a star or bounce too close to a supernova.” Hyperspace, at least according to Han Solo, did not somehow transport ships to another dimension; they could still interact with the rest of the galaxy – with potentially deadly consequences!

This was elaborated on by the old Expanded Universe which explained that charting new hyperspace routes was incredibly dangerous for precisely the same reason: it’s very easy to crash into a star, a planet, or even another starship. So hyperspace ramming has always been possible in Star Wars – even if no one thought of it before Admiral Holdo!

Admiral Holdo.

Hyperspace ramming is the kind of desperate, last-ditch manoeuvre that no one would dare to try unless there weren’t any other options. Here in the real world, aircraft had been around for decades before anyone thought of inventing the kamikaze suicide attack, so I can absolutely believe that hyperspace ramming was either totally new in the Star Wars universe or hadn’t been attempted in hundreds or thousands of years. Nothing about it “broke” continuity, and as stated it was perfectly in line with what Han Solo had told us about travelling through hyperspace all the way back at the beginning of the franchise!

The criticisms of hyperspace ramming felt very nitpicky to me, and I think it’s something that came about because of how other aspects of the film landed for some fans. If hyperspace ramming had made its debut in The Mandalorian, for example, where most fans seem to have been having a good time, I think it would’ve generated a lot less anger!

Holdo accelerates her ship to hyperspeed.

I’m always a sucker for the “doomed last stand” concept in fiction, and the entire hyperspace ramming sequence was executed incredibly well. Admiral Holdo managed to be stoic and brave in the face of death, making the ultimate sacrifice to allow her friends to escape and to give the Resistance a fighting chance.

The cinematography and visual effects used to bring it to life were outstanding, too, and the hyperspace ramming sequence has to be one of the absolute best in all of Star Wars for me. The use of silence at the moment of impact was so incredibly poignant – in part because silence is used so sparingly across the franchise. The CGI animation used to bring to life the crash and its aftermath was likewise fantastic.

Number 4:
Kylo Ren seizes power.

Kylo Ren at the moment of his coup.

The Force Awakens seemed to be setting up Kylo Ren as the “new Darth Vader” – an evil but ultimately redeemable villain. The Last Jedi chose to avoid recycling that character trope and set Kylo on his own path, a path that would lead him to become the Supreme Leader of the First Order. By embracing the darkness within him and extinguishing the pull to the light that he’d been feeling, Kylo Ren cemented his position as the primary antagonist of the sequel trilogy.

After being bullied and belittled by Supreme Leader Snoke, Kylo’s hatred for his master had been building. Blamed unfairly for the loss of Starkiller Base and Rey’s escape, Kylo nursed a grudge against Snoke for practically the whole film, culminating in him killing him in one of the film’s most shocking sequences.

The death of Snoke.

Kylo killing Snoke was not an empty subversion, designed for shock value and nothing else. It was a masterstroke of writing, one that sought to take Star Wars and the film’s main characters to entirely different thematic places than either the prequels or original trilogy had. In the span of a few minutes it seemed that Rey had been able to get through to Kylo, convincing him to betray the First Order… but then that idea was pulled away as Kylo saw his chance to seize power.

Turning the idea of “reaching out” on its head, it was Kylo who asked Rey to join him, to rule the galaxy at his side. Rather than returning to the light, Kylo had taken a massive leap further into the dark – going so far, surely, as to never be able to come back. With Snoke out of the picture, only Kylo and Hux would remain as major antagonists going into the final act of the trilogy, so it seemed like the idea of “Darth Vader 2.0” was well and truly gone.

Rey and Kylo prepare to battle Snoke’s guards.

Again, this was a moment with a message. Part of that message was epitomised by Luke’s line: “this is not going to go the way you think!” and that’s kind of built into the film’s entire philosophy. But beyond that, the concept that someone like Kylo Ren could be irredeemable has merit. There are some people – some fascist leaders, which is what Kylo Ren is at this point – who go “full Dark Side.” There’s no way back for some people, and we shouldn’t want to see a redemption arc for people who have done unspeakably evil things.

It’s also connected to the point above about destiny and ancestry. Kylo came from Rebel royalty as the son of Han Solo and Leia, but instead of using that legacy and power in a positive way he became corrupted, trying to rule the galaxy instead of fighting for freedom. The lure of power can corrupt even the most well-meaning of individuals, and Kylo’s arrogance, elitism, and belief in his own special place led him down a dark path.

Number 5:
The presentation of Luke Skywalker.

Luke with the famous blue milk.

This is a point I’ve tackled before in a standalone essay, but I found what The Last Jedi did with Luke to be absolutely incredible. It was a powerful and relatable mental health story, one that showed how anyone – even heroes – can fall into melancholy and depression. Maybe that story isn’t what some viewers wanted, but I firmly believe it’s a story that was needed – and worth telling.

Not only that, but Luke’s story was a sympathetic and realistic portrayal of mental health; one of the better depictions of depression that I’ve seen in fiction in recent years. Having tried to rebuild the Jedi Order, Luke ultimately failed – and failed in such a catastrophic way that he got people killed. He allowed that failure to fester and turn into depression, ultimately secluding himself and merely waiting around to die, totally uninterested in the galaxy around him.

Luke’s failure and depression was a major focus of the story.

Anyone who’s suffered from depression – regardless of whether there was a cause – can relate to that. The idea of cutting oneself off from everything and everyone, of being unable to face the world outside a small bubble of safety – these are things that people suffering from mental health issues can recognise. And the fact that it happened to someone as powerful, virtuous, and heroic as Luke Skywalker has an incredibly powerful point to make: this is something that can happen to anyone.

As mental health issues – particularly in men – continue to be ignored and stigmatised, this is something that people need to see and hear. The depiction of one of the main protagonists in one of the biggest cinematic franchises around suffering from depression in a realistic and relatable way has done so much to raise awareness of the problem. To me, this is sci-fi at its best: using a fantasy setting to consider real-world issues.

Luke’s death at the end of the film.

As always in these kinds of stories, how Luke was feeling at the beginning is not as important as where he ended up, and the arc he goes through in The Last Jedi provides a genuine feeling of hope. Thanks to Rey’s intervention, Luke found a way to believe in a cause again, and found a way to become a symbol of hope for the entire galaxy. Luke being depressed at the beginning was incredibly important for people to see, but what was just as important is how he found a pathway out of it.

Depression isn’t something easily cured. Luke couldn’t just “snap out of it,” but he came to realise that, despite his failings, despite his flaws, and despite the way he’d been feeling, there was still something he could do to contribute. He could still be a Jedi – and thanks to his intervention, not the titular Last Jedi!

Number 6:
Recognising the massive failings of the old Jedi Order.

The Jedi Temple during the prequel era.

The prequel trilogy touched on the idea that the Jedi Order had grown arrogant and complacent over centuries of peace and after being unchallenged by the Sith and the Dark Side in a major way. But at the same time, characters like Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda, Qui-Gon Jinn, and Mace Windu were presented as the heroes – the paragons of virtue who we were rooting for. The Last Jedi takes a much more critical lens to its examination of the Jedi Order, particularly in the prequel era.

Luke explained to Rey that the hubris of the Jedi is what allowed Palpatine to rise to power in the first place, and that the Jedi Order failed not only at keeping the peace but at preserving the Republic itself. Though this wasn’t something that the film spent a huge amount of time on, I think it was an important acknowledgement to recognise that the Jedi Order – by the time of the prequel films, at least – was not the irreproachable organisation that some considered it to be.

Luke explained how the Jedi Order failed.

This is also something that could inform Star Wars’ future. We don’t know what will become of the Jedi in the aftermath of the sequel trilogy, but it seems to me that one of the lessons Rey learned from Luke is that simply trying to reconstruct the Jedi Order exactly as it was before the Empire is not only impossible, but undesirable as well. What comes next for the Light Side of the Force has to be different – it has to be better.

This potentially opens up the future of Star Wars to go in some very different storytelling directions. Rather than simply a return to the pre-Empire status quo, in which the era of the Galactic Civil War may end up looking like little more than a blip in the grand scale of galactic history, what happened to Luke and Rey could be a turning point for the Light Side of the Force, with a new organisation bound by different rules rising in the Jedi’s stead. Perhaps the name “Jedi” will survive (it’s an integral part of Star Wars, after all), but maybe what comes next will be significantly different from the prequel-era Jedi Order, setting the stage for some genuinely different and unpredictable stories in the years ahead.

Number 7:
Timely social commentary.

The casino on Canto Bight.

How often have we felt that, no matter what we do, the rich always manage to get richer while we stay poor? The Last Jedi took Finn and Rose to one of the meeting places of the galactic elite, showing us how the mega-rich of the galaxy gamble and play both sides in the conflict. To them, who wins the war isn’t important – because they know that either way, they’re going to come out on top.

This isn’t just about the arms dealers who were selling weapons to both sides – although that was a very in-your-face analogy – but really the entire gaggle of the super-rich that Finn and Rose encountered on Canto Bight. Just like the 1% here in the real world, the problems of the galaxy don’t affect them at all. It was, in a sense, a glimpse behind a curtain that we rarely get to see – and the fact that the people of Canto Bight were laughing, joking, gambling, and greedily stuffing their faces seemed to spit in the face of our heroes and their war effort.

Outside the casino.

This was a side of the Star Wars galaxy that we’d never really seen. We’d been introduced to bounty hunters in shady cantinas before, as well as seeing the corrupt decadence of Coruscant’s politicians in the prequels, but it makes sense that a society as complex as the Star Wars galaxy would have these kinds of places inhabited by these kinds of people. They’re the Wall Street gamblers, the bankers, the financiers who survived the Republic, the Empire, the New Republic, and the First Order all by owning and controlling the vast majority of the galaxy’s money.

One of the themes that I took from this side-story is that, in a sense, it doesn’t matter who wins or loses in the struggle for power. Either a new Republic or the First Order will eventually have to cut deals with these people; they’re the real powerbrokers in the galaxy. Their money can shift the tide of the war – it can literally see states rise or fall.

Rose and Finn at Canto Bight.

Perhaps Canto Bight hit too close to home for some folks, or perhaps this look behind the curtain was a little too bleak! But there was something powerful about it nonetheless, particularly in the aftermath of some turbulent political times here in the western world. As above, when sci-fi turns a spotlight on real-world issues, what results can be powerful storytelling if it’s done right.

From an in-universe point of view, Star Wars stories have generally focused on underdogs – scrappy groups of rebels fighting against the powers that be. Even the prequels didn’t explore much of this side of the galaxy – so it was something new, something interesting, and something that could be ripe for further exploration one day.

Number 8:
Porgs!

A small group of porgs.

The Last Jedi introduced us to porgs – beakless bird-like critters that inhabited Luke’s island on the isolated Jedi planet of Ahch-To. Porgs are adorable and they made an excellent addition to the Star Wars galaxy. Was their pretty sizeable appearance in the film purely a merchandising ploy that did nothing whatsoever to service the plot? Well, probably. But Star Wars has always been about the merch!

I had the porg variant of the film’s poster on display for a long time and I also bought a porg plushie, so I guess I’m a sucker for cute merchandise. Paul the porg is now a permanent fixture in my living room, and I have The Last Jedi to thank for that!

Number 9:
General Leia’s leadership.

General Leia speaking with Poe.

The film’s release was bittersweet due to the death of Carrie Fisher a year earlier, making her posthumous role in The Last Jedi all the more poignant. Having had limited screen time in The Force Awakens, which focused more on Han Solo, The Last Jedi became a strong film for Leia’s character, showing her leadership skills and expanding on her role in the aftermath of the events of the original films.

There was a clash between the “hot-headed” Poe Dameron and the cooler, calmer Leia and Holdo at the head of the Resistance. Unfortunately Leia was sidelined for part of that, but her return just in time to stop Poe from sabotaging a carefully-laid out plan was one of the film’s strongest moments – and one that showed Leia’s no-nonsense attitude!

Luke with Leia near the end of the film.

Leia also got a sweet moment with Luke shortly before his last stand against the First Order’s forces, and considering that the sequel trilogy didn’t have many moments where it put the original characters back together, this was all the more significant. Fans needed to see Luke and Leia back together one final time – it was certainly one of the things I wanted from the sequels.

Even in the original trilogy, Leia was no “damsel in distress.” She helped Luke and Han escape from the Death Star, saved Luke’s life on Cloud City, killed Jabba the Hutt, and led the mission to take down the second Death Star’s shield! Seeing her continuing the fight against evil – even when it meant standing against her own son – was incredibly powerful.

Number 10:
Taking Star Wars to new thematic places.

Kylo Ren in his mask.

I talked about this above when discussing Kylo and Rey in particular, but The Last Jedi did more than any film in the franchise before or since to try to take Star Wars to different thematic and narrative places. That’s incredibly important, because without changing with the times and adapting, Star Wars as a whole will remain stuck in place.

Star Wars hasn’t yet been able to successfully move on from the one story that has been told. Palpatine, Anakin, Luke, Leia, Kylo, Rey, and the other main characters have come to utterly dominate Star Wars in every cinematic and television adaptation so far, even appearing in the likes of The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett. The Last Jedi, as a sequel, obviously had to include many of those same characters, but the way it framed them was as close as Star Wars has got so far to going to different places.

Rey on Ahch-To.

If the franchise is to survive long-term, it will have to find a way to leave Luke, Leia, Anakin, and the others behind; to branch out into different eras with wholly different casts of characters to whom names like “Skywalker” or “Palpatine” mean nothing. There’s a limit to how many different ways the same few characters can save the galaxy over the span of a few short years, and by making massive decisions such as killing off Luke Skywalker, The Last Jedi tried to guide the franchise to a new destination.

The board at the Walt Disney Company is now pushing back hard against that, and we’ve seen the results not only in The Rise of Skywalker, but also through decisions to include characters like Luke Skywalker in The Mandalorian or to bring back Obi-Wan Kenobi for his own miniseries. Partly that’s corporate cowardice – Disney wants to retreat to what it sees as safe, comfortable ground. But that ground is getting overtrodden, and there’s a danger that Star Wars could get bogged down. The Last Jedi, for whatever faults you may think it has, tried to do something genuinely different – and trying new things is how a franchise grows and comes to learn what works.

“Broom boy” at the end of the film.

As the dust settles and the film’s divisiveness abates, I think we’ll start to see a reevaluation of this aspect of The Last Jedi in particular. It may not have succeeded at taking the sequel trilogy to a very different end point, but it stands as a piece of the franchise’s cinematic canon that wasn’t afraid to try different things with its characters and storylines. Perhaps, in time, fans will come to appreciate that – particularly if Star Wars continues to double-down on recycling characters and shining spotlights on increasingly irrelevant chapters of its only real story.

Killing off its main villain early in the story, setting his apprentice on a dark path instead of the path to redemption, tearing down the arrogance of the old Jedi Order, reflecting real-world issues like mental health and the gilded indifference of the super-rich… these are all things that Star Wars had never even considered. The Last Jedi tried them for the first time. Did it all work perfectly? Probably not. But in a franchise that is in serious danger of becoming stale and fixated on its own past, trying new things, exploring new themes, dealing with new character types, and making an effort to stay grounded and relatable are all deserving of praise in my view.

So that’s it!

Luke Skywalker standing against the First Order.

Those are ten things that I think are pretty great about The Last Jedi. Despite the controversy the film generated, there are signs that the Star Wars fan community is coming back together. Shows like The Mandalorian have gone a long way to bringing back into the fold fans who’d been ready to give up on modern Star Wars. And just like the prequels – which are being revisited by a new generation of fans who were kids when they were released – in a few years’ time I think we’ll see a similar reappraisal of The Last Jedi by newer and younger fans who first came to Star Wars during the sequel era.

Although The Rise of Skywalker did what it could to overwrite or ignore some of what I consider to be The Last Jedi’s highlights, I still find it an enjoyable experience to go back and re-watch it. In a way, it’s a time capsule of where the franchise was in 2017 – or a window into an alternate timeline where Star Wars continued on this trajectory instead of panicking and trying to course-correct.

As we celebrate Star Wars day, don’t forget The Last Jedi.

Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi is available to stream now on Disney+ and is also available on DVD and Blu-ray. The Star Wars franchise – including The Last Jedi and all other properties mentioned above – is the copyright of The Walt Disney Company and Lucasfilm. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Film review: Moonfall

This review is in two parts: a spoiler-free section and a section containing spoilers for the story. The end of the spoiler-free section is clearly marked.

Disaster movies are something of a guilty pleasure of mine, so I’d been looking forward to Moonfall since it was announced. I was hoping for some big, dumb blockbuster fun – and Moonfall delivered. This isn’t a film that’s going to win any of the big awards – at least, it doesn’t deserve to! But as an entertaining way to spend a couple of hours, I’d recommend it to fans of science-fiction, disaster films, and brainless summer blockbusters.

Director Roland Emmerich has an established track record in the disaster movie genre, having directed The Day After Tomorrow and 2012, both of which were big hits in the 2000s. Many of Emmerich’s hallmarks are present in Moonfall, including some very familiar character and story tropes. If you were turned off by the “flawed protagonist who loves his family” action-hero character that Emmerich seems to use in all of his films, maybe Moonfall won’t be right for you! But for my money, the film delivered what I wanted it to – and managed to pack an emotional punch even while suffering major contrivances, an utterly ridiculous plot, and dialogue that could be incredibly hammy.

Moonfall is the latest film from director Roland Emmerich.

All of the actors in Moonfall gave it their all, despite the film’s ridiculously over-the-top disaster storyline, and I’d single out the performances of Halle Berry, Eme Ikwuakor, and Charlie Plummer as being especially praiseworthy. I’d never seen John Bradley in anything outside of Game of Thrones (where he played Samwell Tarly), so I wasn’t sure at first how suitable I’d find him for a role in a title like Moonfall. But to my pleasant surprise I enjoyed Bradley’s performance a great deal, and I found him believable as conspiracy theorist KC Houseman.

There were some definite CGI misses in Moonfall, but none were terribly egregious. Water can be a difficult thing for CGI animators to do well, and given that the film had a lot of other CGI sequences that worked, I can excuse those that were wide of the mark. There wasn’t anything catastrophic; rather some sequences that depicted large volumes of water felt outdated – akin to something we might’ve expected to see ten years ago rather than from a blockbuster in 2022.

John Bradley in a promotional photo for Moonfall.

I had a good time with Moonfall, all things considered. It had a plot that was less science-fiction than pure fantasy, and that required any understanding of actual science and physics to go out of the window! But there’s room in the wide world of geeky entertainment for titles like this one, and not every story has to rely on real-world understandings of gravity and physics to tell a fun, exciting, and occasionally emotional story.

If you’ve never liked disaster films, Moonfall probably isn’t the picture to change your mind. And if you like your sci-fi heavier on the sci than the fi, Moonfall will probably be a frustrating experience. Heck, we could nitpick it to death if we wanted to! But if you can suspend your disbelief for a couple of hours – and if you want a film that doesn’t ask too much of you either intellectually or in terms of effort and engagement – Moonfall might just be a fun ride. I know it was for me!

Up next we’re going to talk about some of the story elements in more detail.

Spoiler Warning: This is the end of the spoiler-free section! Expect spoilers for Moonfall from here on out.

So let’s get something straight: Moonfall has a ridiculous plot. Even by the standards of other disaster films – like Volcano’s lava eruption in Los Angeles or the Mayan end of the world in 2012 – what Moonfall brings to the table with its “the moon is an ancient spaceship constructed by humans from another part of the galaxy” story… it’s just plain bonkers. A rogue AI comprised of millions of nano-machines sending the moon crashing into the Earth is likewise utterly silly, and Moonfall asks a lot to get its audience to suspend our disbelief!

But that doesn’t mean it’s one of those “so bad it’s good” films. There’s a lot to love about Moonfall in its own right, including a different take on some familiar concepts. The idea of rogue AI could’ve been explored in more detail if there’d been more time, but it’s a surprisingly timely narrative inclusion given that we may be on the cusp of unlocking that kind of technology right here in the real world. As documentaries such as the brilliant We Need To Talk About A.I. from a couple of years ago have shown, there are legitimate concerns surrounding artificial intelligence, concerns that Moonfall takes to an extreme – but not entirely unfathomable – conclusion.

Astronaut Brian Harper encountered an evil ancient AI.

Many story tropes and character archetypes that Roland Emmerich has used before are included in Moonfall, right down to the “new spouse of the hero’s ex who dies in the disaster.” For folks who’ve seen the likes of The Day After Tomorrow and 2012, characters like protagonist Brian Harper will feel very familiar – perhaps even a little samey. But Emmerich does a good enough job at establishing the stakes for the characters through their connections to their families and friends, adding an emotional imperative to the story that it would otherwise lack.

There are more than just echoes of past Emmerich films through some of these characters. The washed-up hero, the scientist everyone ignored, the gung-ho military leaders, the children of the main protagonists who are trying to get to safety… we’ve seen these people before in different incarnations in other titles. But to me, that was fine. The actors who brought these characters to life did a good job, and I can’t really fault any of the performances. Given that the story was silly – and I’m sure everyone involved could recognise that – there’s a level of professionalism and dedication that deserves to be respected.

Halle Berry as Jocinda Fowler in Moonfall.

As mentioned, some of the CGI sequences – those dealing with the flooding caused by the moon’s activities in particular – weren’t spectacular. It feels as though Moonfall’s creators poured the vast majority of its CGI budget into the “swarm” – the AI nanobots that were the cause of all the trouble. The swarm looked spectacular, giving me a hint of things like the Borg Collective from the Star Trek franchise without being too derivative.

The white dwarf star at the moon’s core was also an impressive CGI feat. Stars in sci-fi can be difficult to get right, and we’ve seen massive improvements in the way they’ve been depicted in the wake of titles like Interstellar. Moonfall managed to get this aspect right, and while the star wasn’t on screen for a huge amount of time, when it was it managed to look exceptional.

Some of the flooding sequences didn’t look great, despite outstanding CGI work elsewhere.

There were some unintentionally funny moments in Moonfall courtesy of some incredibly hammy dialogue, and especially in the first forty or fifty minutes or so of the film I found myself chuckling away at these. When you have legitimately good actors saying, with a straight face, lines like “I’ve uncovered what might be the most important discovery in human history!” or “everything we thought we knew about the nature of the universe has just gone out the window!” it’s hard not to crack a smile.

The forced conflict between NASA, the military, and the film’s protagonists is another Emmerich hallmark, with the authorities refusing to believe the truth, seemingly trying to cover it up, and then launching an overly-aggressive military response at the last minute. Pitting Halle Berry’s character of Jocinda Fowler against the head honchos of NASA and the military was certainly a cliché, especially when there were characters who openly told us that “just following orders” meant that they have blood on their hands, or that they “lied to the American people.” But I can let such things slide in a film that I don’t need to take too seriously.

The protagonists’ kids had to escape the disaster too.

I didn’t come to Moonfall looking for a nuanced or sympathetic presentation of dementia. But even so, the way that the film handled the character of KC Houseman’s mother was pretty poor. It fell into some really unnecessary stereotyping of dementia, showing Mrs Houseman going from lucid to amnesiac in a split-second. As I find myself saying sometimes: if there isn’t time in a film with other priorities to create a more realistic and nuanced presentation of an illness or health condition, it can be better to just skip it altogether. We didn’t gain anything by learning about Mrs Houseman’s failing health, nor did it do much to inform the character of KC. So overall, a bit of a disappointment that a blockbuster would lean so heavily on a pretty clichéd presentation of what is a complex and debilitating illness.

There was quite a bit of product placement in Moonfall – another clear sign of an Emmerich blockbuster. When compared with the likes of 2012, though, the product placement felt a lot more subtle. There were logos and car brands that were clearly being shown off, but for the most part it passed by inoffensively enough. I tend not to get too worked up over product placement if it isn’t too in-your-face.

Houseman, Harper, and Fowler inside the moon.

So that was Moonfall, really. A dumb, stupid blockbuster with a ridiculously silly plot, recycled character tropes, hammy dialogue, and naff special effects… that I thoroughly enjoyed for what it was. Moonfall was never going to be Oscar bait, and I think everyone involved with its production recognised from the start the kind of film they were creating. This was sci-fi that was heavy on the fi, and very light on the sci!

But Moonfall did what it set out to, and it was perfectly entertaining popcorn fare. It’s a film that doesn’t want you to think too deeply about the physics involved, nor the implications for the world left behind for the survivors. Moonfall exists for the two hours that you watch it, and then it’s over. Its characters got to their “happily ever after” moment, and that’s all it has to say. There’s no epilogue, no post-credits scene to tee up a sequel. It’s purely a one-and-done disaster film with sci-fi trappings.

I set my expectations appropriately and ended up having a good time with Moonfall. And I think that’s about all there is to say!

Moonfall is out now to stream for a fee on Amazon Video, Google Play, YouTube, Apple TV, and other streaming platforms. Moonfall will be released on DVD and Blu-ray on the 9th of May 2022. Moonfall is the copyright of Lionsgate Films and ACG International. This review contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Film review: The Batman

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for The Batman.

When The Batman was announced a couple of years ago, I was distinctly underwhelmed. After more than fifteen years of samey presentations of the titular caped crusader going back to 2005’s Batman Begins, I felt uninterested in another “dark and gritty” take on a character whose darkness and grittiness had been done to death.

In addition, as I’ve said on a number of occasions here on the website, I’m not the world’s biggest fan of comic books or their cinematic adaptations. Some are decent enough, but usually the highest praise I can muster for anything in the superhero genre is to call it moderately entertaining; the kind of mindless popcorn action flick that can inoffensively kill a couple of hours.

Batman and Detective Gordon.

That was the mindset I had as I sat down to watch The Batman. Was I about to be blown away and have my mind changed on both of those subjects, convincing me that the world can’t ever have enough dark and gritty Batman movies, and that there’s more to the world of comics than mindless entertainment?

Well, no. But at the same time, I didn’t hate or even really dislike The Batman. It did what its creators wanted it to do, and while I have a few gripes with a story that felt somewhat bloated and muddled in places, as well as a few visual effects that were wide of the mark, overall it was engaging enough to keep my attention. From the point of view of someone who isn’t any kind of Batman or DC Comics superfan, The Batman was good enough. It won’t be my pick for “film of the year,” but it’s unlikely to end up as the worst movie I’ll see in 2022 either.

Batman made his first appearance in 1939.

One point in The Batman’s favour is that it exists in a standalone space and isn’t trying to connect itself to the wider DC Comics “extended universe” – DC’s failed attempt to match the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This allows it to do its own thing without feeling obligated to tie into a dozen or more other titles, and without feeling confusing or offputting for newbies and casual audiences in the way that Marvel films and projects are starting to.

Having seen other Batman films and productions over the years, I felt familiar enough with its world that some of the characters’ names were familiar – Carmine Falcone, Salvatore Maroni, Selina Kyle, etc. – but also I felt that that familiarity wasn’t necessary for anything that The Batman wanted to do. These characters, though they may have familiar names, are new and distinct versions, and their histories, personalities, and connections to one another were suitably explained by The Batman itself. No in-depth knowledge required!

The Batman didn’t insist on a lot of background reading.

From the first moments of the film, The Batman captured the look and feel of Gotham City. From the 19th Century opulent gothic-style architecture to the urban decay inspired by the likes of Chicago, Detroit, and older depictions of New York, I genuinely felt that the version of Gotham City brought to screen in The Batman was real and lived-in; a well-constructed backdrop for the events of the film to unfold in front of.

There was some clever cinematography in The Batman, with well-composed camera shots that felt immersive and highlighted something that would go on to be important later. The film also used light and shadow to great effect, hiding the titular Batman in darkened areas and illuminating scenes in very evocative ways.

The effective use of light and focus was a hallmark of The Batman.

Focus was also part of The Batman’s cinematography, with rain-smeared windows partially obscuring characters and events. The clever camera work would show just enough to build up the tension, as characters could be seen just outside of the camera’s focal area. The sense of movement from these slightly blurry, out-of-focus areas conveyed a sense of mystery that tied in with the theme of a film where the Riddler was one of the key antagonists.

It wasn’t all perfect from a visual standpoint, though. There were moments where the use of green-screens was incredibly obvious, such as a sequence which saw Batman using a wing-suit to escape a tricky situation, when he was dangling from a precarious platform, and later at the end of the film when he was riding a motorcyle. What’s interesting is that this is also something I noted last year in my reviews of two other DC projects: The Suicide Squad and Zack Snyder’s Justice League. This recurring green-screen situation is clearly an ongoing problem that Warner Bros. and DC Films need to work on going forward. These moments looked out-of-place and outdated in The Batman, as if the green-screen sequences had been created twenty years ago without the benefits of modern-day techniques and technologies.

Holy ridiculously obvious green-screen, Batman!

There were some neat musical choices on The Batman’s soundtrack. The score for the film was well-produced, evoking the right feelings at the right moments. Occasionally this could feel a little heavy-handed, as if the music was trying to force a certain emotion onto a sequence rather than letting me experience it for myself, but generally speaking it worked as intended.

I also enjoyed the use of the Nirvana song Something In The Way, which came at the beginning and end of the film, kind of bookending the main events. Apparently director Matt Reeves based parts of the film’s presentation of Bruce Wayne on Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain, who was known for being a recluse.

This presentation of Bruce Wayne was partly based on Kurt Cobain.

Much had been made of the casting choice of Robert Pattinson – a British actor best known for his roles in the Twilight and Harry Potter franchises – in The Batman’s leading role. I felt that Pattinson did a decent job and was convincing as this version of Bruce Wayne; his American accent was fantastic, too.

Zoë Kravitz reprised the role of Selina Kyle/Catwoman from The Lego Batman Movie, though her role in that film was smaller than it was in The Batman. Kravitz likewise did well with this new version of the classic Batman character, and I found her to be convincing in all of her scenes. Indeed the whole cast put in great performances, and I can’t really single out anyone for criticism in that regard.

Catwoman.

If films like The Dark Knight and TV shows like Gotham had never been made, perhaps The Batman would feel like the new yardstick against which other adaptations could be measured. But because it comes on the back of other adaptations of the same source material that exist in an incredibly similar thematic and visual space, it doesn’t feel groundbreaking or original in the way it might. It feels if not downright repetitive then just a riff on the same idea, and with a story that wasn’t groundbreaking either, I guess I just wasn’t bowled over by anything that The Batman did.

The Batman’s messaging was also quite muddled. On the one hand, Batman himself is presented as the hero; the caped crusader who wants to prevent crime and terrorism. Yet the so-called villains of the piece are also vigilantes who are targeting the same corruption and systemic inequality that has plagued the city since before Bruce Wayne was born.

It wasn’t always clear who The Batman expected us to root for.

Themes of white privilege and wealth privilege were bubbling just below the surface in The Batman, but the film wasn’t always clear which side of the fence it came down on, nor how it wanted its audience to interpret these themes. Should we root for Batman, even though his family’s past hid crimes, including murder and involvement with the mafia? Does Batman’s role as an avatar of “vengeance” for Gotham City counteract the misdeeds of his family, including, presumably, how they were able to acquire such fantastic wealth for themselves in the first place?

When the Riddler revealed to Batman that he viewed him as an inspiration in exposing the corruption of Gotham City’s police force, politicians, and other community leaders, Batman had no comeback or recourse. Are we supposed to say that Batman’s insistence on not killing his foes, which wasn’t exactly front-and-centre in this presentation of the character, makes him different enough from the Riddler that we can venerate one while condemning the other?

The Batman.

Frankly, the film posed questions through these narrative threads that it didn’t provide satisfactory answers to. Bruce Wayne comes from a position of immense privilege, but the film doesn’t always know how it wants to handle that. Some scenes glorify Bruce’s unlimited resources as Batman, showing off a range of gadgets and high-tech gizmos. Others openly criticise the Wayne family and Bruce in particular for the privilege he enjoys and how he’s perceived.

This gave The Batman a strange kind of moral ambiguity that came close to equating the goals and methods of its heroes and villains. Can we say that Gotham City would’ve been better off not knowing about the web of corruption that the Riddler exposed? If Batman had his way, he’d have prevented that information from coming to light by stopping the Riddler much sooner. It’s only in the film’s final act, when the Riddler revealed his plan to destroy Gotham City’s coastal defences, flooding part of the city, that there was any sense of a “good guy-versus-bad guy” dynamic – and by that point the story was practically over.

An explosion sends seawater flooding into Gotham City.

The Batman’s main storyline is also unusual for this kind of film in the sense that it ends with defeat. Batman was effectively outsmarted by the Riddler, whose plan was at least partially successful. The action stays focused mainly on Batman and a group of wealthy and privileged city-dwellers, so we don’t even get to see how the flooding devastated lower-income communities. With no advanced warning, it stands to reason that a lot of people would have been injured or killed – but the film glossed over all of that to show us Batman, Catwoman, and Jim Gordon battling the Riddler’s minions to save the new mayor and other members of Gotham’s elite… the same elite that the film had spent the preceding two hours explaining were all complicit in varying ways in the city’s corruption.

The ending of this story felt unearned. Batman spent much of the film claiming to be “vengeance” personified, taking out criminals, gangsters, and stoking fear amongst Gotham City’s criminal underclass – many of whom were the same underprivileged folks (often from minority backgrounds) that other aspects of the film’s storyline seemed to be trying to advocate for. The film’s closing minutes showed Batman as a kind of rallying symbol for the city; the embodiment of hope, perhaps. But this transition seemed to come out of the blue, and I didn’t feel that we’d seen much of anything from Batman himself, or the few friends and allies he had, to inform this change in the city’s attitude toward him.

Batman with an injured Gotham City civilian in the film’s closing act.

I wasn’t wild about one aspect of the presentation of the Riddler. We’ve seen depictions of the Riddler before, in productions like the television series Gotham, in which he was implied to be neurodivergent, and those depictions didn’t always succeed at conveying that in a sympathetic way. This is a problem Batman has had across all forms of media going back to its inception, where people with “mental illnesses” are portrayed as being violent criminals, murderers, scheming masterminds, and so on. The entire concept of the Arkham Insane Asylum – which was also featured in The Batman – is part of that, and the Riddler’s depiction leaned into stereotypes of autism and the neurodivergent that are, at best, unhelpful.

I’m a big advocate for better representations and depictions of mental health in media, and this kind of rather crude stereotype of the obsessive autistic loner who becomes criminally violent is not the kind of positive portrayal that we need to see more of. At its best, I’d say it was right in line with what DC Comics has done with the villains of Gotham City going back to the 1940s. At worst, I might say this depiction of a neurodivergent individual as the film’s primary antagonist is problematic.

I was not a fan of the way the Riddler came across.

On this side of the story, though, I will credit The Batman for trying to make a social point. There are subcultures in secluded corners of the internet where individuals gather to discuss their violent fantasies and conspiracy theories, and this side of the Riddler’s presentation felt timely and realistic. I can buy into the idea that someone like that would gain a following – because we can see it happening in real life with the likes of the QAnon conspiracy theory and incel subculture, to name just two examples.

This presentation stuck the landing, even while the Riddler’s felt a little uncomfortable, and in a film that clearly had the ambition of parachuting a superhero into a “realistic” setting, presenting the villain’s henchmen or followers in this way was a clever inclusion. It’s one element that adds to the immersion of the setting.

A group of the Riddler’s followers.

So that was The Batman. I didn’t hate it, but I stand by what I said at the beginning: it didn’t really bring anything new to the table. It felt like an iteration on not only what Batman films have been doing since at least 2005, but also on what DC Films and Warner Bros. have been doing with all of their recent comic book adaptations. We got a dark, gritty attempt to bring superheroes into the real world – a world rife with criminals, drugs, and other problems. There was nothing fun or light-hearted about that… and I think that’s where DC continues to miss the boat.

Comic books and the worlds they created are aimed at kids, and they bring with them comedic moments, light-heartedness, and positivity. A muddled story that couldn’t quite decide who to root for and how in a setting that was as dark and gritty as they come didn’t provide any of that, so when I compare The Batman to even the least-enjoyable Marvel outing, something was missing.

A sequel already seems to be on the cards, with the film even closing with a tease as to who Batman could be facing off against next time. Perhaps when it’s ready I’ll be convinced to take a look!

The Batman is the copyright of Warner Bros. Pictures, DC Films, and DC Comics, Inc. The Batman is available to stream now on HBO Max in the United States, and on Amazon Video, Google Play, the Microsoft Store, iTunes, and other video-on-demand platforms around the world for a fee. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Tarantino Trek: A missed opportunity?

Spoiler Warning: There are minor spoilers ahead for the Star Trek franchise.

Quite a lot of very famous, very successful people are fans of Star Trek. The franchise has an incredible reach, and has inspired the likes of scientists, engineers, politicians – and many people in the world of entertainment, too. One such Star Trek fan is famed director Quentin Tarantino, who directed such films as Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Kill Bill. A few years ago it was reported that Tarantino had pitched his own Star Trek film, with the aim of it becoming his next project after work on Once Upon a Time in Hollywood wrapped.

That film is now not going ahead, with the cinematic Star Trek franchise seemingly planning a return to the Kelvin timeline – although that announcement, it seems, may have been premature, as some of the 2009 cast were said to have been taken by surprise. But that’s a conversation for another time! On this occasion I wanted to consider Tarantino’s pitch for a Star Trek film, what it might have been, and what it could have meant for the franchise. Will we come to lament the cancellation of this project? Will we look back and say it was a missed opportunity? Or is it better for both Star Trek and Quentin Tarantino to stay in their lanes?

Is it better for Star Trek to return to the relative safety of the Kelvin timeline?

Quentin Tarantino can be a controversial individual, and not just for the violence depicted in his films. He’s been accused of pushing actors to do stunts that they didn’t feel able to do, of gratuitously using certain racial slurs, and of making controversial statements on sex abusers such as Roman Polanski and Harvey Weinstein. Some actors have claimed Tarantino is difficult to work with, and there’s certainly an argument to be made that any long-running franchise might want to think twice about an association with someone like that.

Tarantino also has very limited experience working within the framework of a larger franchise. With the exceptions of a single episode each of ER and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation that he directed, all of Tarantino’s projects have been standalone works, usually that he’s both written and directed, taking charge of every aspect of the story and production. With his most recent directing credit outside of his own projects being more than fifteen years ago, there are definitely questions as to how well Tarantino’s story would fit in with the broader Star Trek franchise, and how well he would be able to work with the creative team at Paramount Global who are in overall control.

Quentin Tarantino directed a single episode of ER’s first season. I bet you didn’t know that!

I confess that I rarely seek out Tarantino’s films, speaking for myself. His violent style and, in some cases, deliberate decisions to ignore real history can make them uncomfortable and difficult to watch, and at the end of the day I guess that kind of film just isn’t usually “my thing.” We all have different tastes and preferences, and having seen most of his films by now I feel comfortable enough to make that kind of subjective judgement.

Given everything I just said, you might assume that I’m happily celebrating the news that Quentin Tarantino’s Star Trek project isn’t going ahead – something that many Trekkies I’ve spoken with or seen on social media seem to be doing. But I’m not – and I really do wonder if we’re going to look back on this decision in the future as being a mistake, perhaps even one that did untold damage to the Star Trek franchise as a whole.

Could cancelling this project be a mistake?

Right now, Star Trek’s short-term future seems assured. There will be new seasons of all the shows currently in production taking us to at least the early part of 2024, at least one and possibly two films in early production, and perhaps as many as three upcoming series (and/or miniseries) that are also being worked on behind-the-scenes. Official announcements for some of these projects may be coming as early as this year.

So Star Trek is busier than ever, which is great news! But things aren’t perfect by any means, and there are problems just below the surface that could prove damaging to the franchise’s longer-term success. The constipated international rollout of Paramount+ continues to be a huge weight around the neck of the franchise, cutting off millions of Trekkies from shows like Prodigy. Paramount Global’s “America First” attitude means that even fans outside the United States who are lucky enough to get Paramount+ still can’t watch all of the latest episodes at the same time as American viewers. Star Trek’s social media, merchandising, and marketing is all ridiculously sub-par, and while there are signs of improvement, there’s still a long way to go.

Star Trek’s social media marketing just plain sucks.

There are relatively few directors with the name recognition of Quentin Tarantino. He directs one film every few years, they usually receive critical acclaim and become wildly successful at the box office, and anything he creates draws a lot of attention and huge audiences. If someone of that stature were to be involved with Star Trek and direct a Star Trek film, we’d quite likely see audience numbers that eclipse even Star Trek Into Darkness – the franchise’s current high-water mark at the box office.

We’d also get huge numbers of people checking out the Star Trek franchise for the first time, and as always happens with every new Star Trek project, some of those people would go on to join the fan community and become huge Trekkies. There are millions of people who are only vaguely aware of Star Trek or who have dismissed it out of hand; someone like Tarantino has the rare ability to reach out to those people and convince them to give it a try. That’s not to say everyone who sat down to watch Tarantino’s Trek would immediately be transformed into Trekkies – but some of them would, and the fanbase could grow much larger off the back of one single film than it’s been able to in years.

Quentin Tarantino directed the critically-acclaimed Pulp Fiction.

That’s the real reason why a project of this nature is worth investing in. It won’t be every day that Paramount Global gets a pitch from someone as undeniably talented and well-known as Quentin Tarantino, so even if he doesn’t seem like a natural fit for the current direction of the franchise, any project with his name attached should be worth considering very seriously. The benefits of bringing fresh eyes to Star Trek and reaching audiences that no other Star Trek film could even contemplate could pay dividends for the franchise in the medium-to-long term. Aside from making a single successful film – which any Tarantino work almost certainly would be – and turning a profit, a Tarantino Star Trek film could potentially expand the Star Trek fanbase in a huge way.

In order for Star Trek to remain successful, there has to be a near-continuous level of growth in audience numbers and in terms of the money it brings in for parent company Paramount Global. If the franchise stagnates and starts to decline, we’ll be back in the position we were in in 2005, with cancellation looming and the franchise potentially disappearing altogether. Projects like Lower Decks and Prodigy have already demonstrated that Star Trek can reach out beyond its usual niche and appeal to new demographics – although the decision to withhold both shows from international broadcast hurt them immeasurably.

Lower Decks is a Star Trek project that hasn’t been afraid to try new things.

So Paramount Global is willing to try new things, which is great. And right now, Star Trek is more diverse than it has ever been – and I don’t just mean in terms of its on-screen faces. Different series are reaching out to completely different target audiences, whether it’s younger kids, comedy fans, or fans of serialised drama. Not every project will hold an appeal to every existing fan, but I think most Trekkies are still willing to give them a try.

That diversity could have been a point in favour of Tarantino’s Star Trek film. If I were in charge of greenlighting these things for Paramount Global, I wouldn’t have necessarily chosen Tarantino Trek instead of other projects. But if I knew the Star Trek franchise was already doing a number of very different things already, I think I’d have taken that risk and found a place for it. Worst case scenario, you get a mediocre film that almost certainly still turns a profit. But in the best case, the Star Trek fanbase grows significantly, and with the renewed attention such a project would bring, more people would be inclined to try out other recent offerings. Combine the release of Tarantino Trek with a decent marketing campaign highlighting Paramount+ as the home of Picard, Lower Decks, Strange New Worlds, and so on, and I think all of the pieces are there for the film to be a launchpad for unprecedented subscriber growth and more new eyes on the franchise than we’ve seen in a long time.

The film could have provided Paramount+ with a nice boost.

This is the same fundamental reason why I supported the Kelvin films when they kicked off in 2009. I have friends who still to this day refuse to watch the Kelvin films because they hated the decision to re-cast The Original Series characters, they didn’t like the aesthetic of the films, and they felt they would be too action-oriented, taking Star Trek away from its roots. I obviously don’t agree with those criticisms, though I can understand where they came from to a degree. But even though the Kelvin films weren’t my all-time favourites in the franchise, they succeeded at rebooting Star Trek.

Star Trek 2009 could be a textbook case study in rebooting a franchise. It got so many things right – and it was rewarded for that with what was, at the time, the highest audience numbers and best box office returns for any film in the entire franchise. It shot past The Wrath of Khan and First Contact, easily overtaking both even when accounting for inflation. And for the casual audience that the Star Trek franchise had been losing by the millions from the late 1990s through to the early 2000s, the 2009 reboot demonstrated that there was still life in the franchise. New fans joined the fan community having seen the Kelvin films, and have since gone back to watch and enjoy older series and films. Tarantino’s film had the potential to do what Star Trek 2009 did – but at a completely different order of magnitude because of the huge name attached to it.

Love it or hate it, Star Trek 2009 reinvigorated the franchise.

I might not have enjoyed Tarantino’s film. But I recognise that he’s a talented filmmaker, storyteller, and director – and someone with undeniable talents in those fields should be the kind of person that Paramount Global seeks to attract to the Star Trek franchise. This isn’t to put down or belittle anyone currently or recently involved with Star Trek – there are some fantastic creative people who’ve told some wonderful stories that deserve more praise than they get, sometimes. Comparing and saying “who’s better” is always going to be a subjective thing with no real answer, but for my money, if the option to have both is on the table – Tarantino and the current crop of Star Trek creatives – then I’d happily find a way to include him.

I confess that I was a little surprised by the reaction to the news that this film isn’t going ahead. There were quite a lot of Trekkies who seemed to be celebrating its demise – and while I can understand some folks may find Tarantino an unlikeable person or might disagree with some of the things he’s said and done, I can’t help but feel that this schadenfreude may be misplaced. In time, we may look back at this project’s cancellation and wonder what might have been if it had gone ahead.

Quentin Tarantino.
Photo credit: Georges Biard via Wikimedia Commons.

For all the time that we’ve spent discussing the potential in Tarantino’s film, we haven’t actually talked about what the film itself was supposed to be! All of this has to be taken with a grain of salt, based on interviews and gossip, but it seems as though Tarantino was interested in taking another look at The Original Series classic episode A Piece of the Action. That episode was set on a planet whose inhabitants revered the mob lifestyle of Chicago in the 1920s, and saw Captain Kirk and Spock become “gangsters” – of a sort.

I’ve always found A Piece of the Action to have a campy charm as it mimics, in its own way, the gangster movies of a generation earlier; Hollywood films of the 1930s. The original Scarface, The Roaring Twenties, and G Men are all the kind of titles that A Piece of the Action drew its inspiration from, and while those films are less well-known in 2022, when A Piece of the Action premiered, they were only between 30-35 years old – akin to a viewer today recalling a film from the late 1980s or early 1990s.

Spock and Dr McCoy in A Piece of the Action.

Gangster films have done well in recent years, too. Films like The Irishman, The Highwaymen, and TV shows like Peaky Blinders have all put their own spins on the genre since 2010, showing that there’s plenty of interest even today in this kind of period gangster flick. Tarantino’s film could have easily been on par with any of those, blending humour, drama, and action together while appealing to a segment of the audience that past Star Trek films have failed to reach.

A Piece of the Action might not be my choice to return to, but again that’s thinking about it in isolation. I can happily agree with anyone who says that A Piece of the Action isn’t the best part of Star Trek and isn’t the one thing they want to see more of! But in the context of an expanding, broader franchise, with different projects going in wildly different directions, I think I could find a place for it.

Captain Kirk in A Piece of the Action.

And that basically encapsulates how I feel. On its own, if there was no room for other Star Trek to be made, or if greenlighting Tarantino’s film would mean cancelling something like Discovery or Prodigy, then I’d shoot it down in flames. But as one part of a franchise that has a lot of different projects on the go and that hopes to target different audiences? I really do believe that it could have been made to work. Maybe not every Trekkie would have liked it. But again, if it were a one-off project with a new cast of characters, that’s almost incidental. What would matter far more, in my view, are the new fans it could create, the new eyes it would bring to Star Trek for the very first time, and the potential it could have to repeat and even eclipse the success of the Kelvin films at growing the fanbase. This would, in turn, have the effect of shoring up support for the franchise at a time when the “streaming wars” and the missteps made by Paramount+ have placed Star Trek’s longer-term future in doubt.

There are a number of Star Trek films that never got off the ground for one reason or another, just as there are series concepts and episodes that were likewise never made. Perhaps in future, Tarantino’s project will be just one of many such entries on a list, and it won’t matter that it didn’t happen. If shows like Prodigy and Strange New Worlds succeed at keeping the franchise feeling fresh, I think we stand a good chance of reaching the sixtieth anniversary in 2026 with new films and shows still on the air. But beyond that… it gets harder to predict. I’d hate to be looking back a few years from now, with Star Trek off the air once more, wondering what could have been if Tarantino’s film had gone ahead.

The Star Trek franchise – including all episodes and films mentioned above – is the copyright of Paramount Global. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Star Trek 2023: Back to the Kelvin Timeline

Spoiler Warning: There are minor spoilers ahead for the Kelvin timeline films, Star Trek: Discovery Season 3, and Star Trek: Picard Season 1.

Though the news got lost due to yet more corporate nonsense from ViacomCBS/Paramount dominating the conversation online, one of the more interesting announcements from yesterday’s investor event was the news that Star Trek 2023 is going to involve a return to the Kelvin timeline. Details are still sparse, with some outlets suggesting that “most” of the main cast will return, but it’s definitely an interesting move for the franchise at this time.

The Kelvin films were what Star Trek needed in the late 2000s and early 2010s. After close to two decades of continuous production, the Star Trek franchise had been losing viewers and fans, something that finally came to a head with the cancellation of Enterprise in 2005. The Kelvin films came along a few years later, and for all of the criticism some levelled at them, they succeeded at completely rebooting – and in some ways reinventing – Star Trek for a whole new audience. Some of the folks whose first contact with the franchise came at the cinema with one of these films have since gone on to become huge Trekkies, and the films’ influence continues today in some respects.

The USS Enterprise as it appeared in the Kelvin timeline films.

Without the Kelvin films, it’s unlikely that Star Trek would’ve been revived on the small screen in 2017. I regard their legacy as being a bridge between the faltering years of the early 2000s and the new beginning that Discovery gave the franchise, one which ultimately led to Picard, Lower Decks, Prodigy, Strange New Worlds, and everything else that we’ve got coming our way over the next few years. Without the Kelvin films carrying a torch for Star Trek and bringing fresh eyes to the franchise for the first time, it seems likely that Star Trek would’ve stayed dead after 2005.

Practically every Star Trek production has built on the successes of the iterations that came before, and Discovery in particular adopted noticeable visual elements from the Kelvin films. Picard Season 1 expanded on one part of the plot from 2009’s Star Trek, too, giving us much more information about what happened to the Romulans. The Kelvin films’ cinematography was streets ahead of anything Star Trek had done before on the big or small screens, and Into Darkness became the franchise’s highest-grossing film by a country mile. In fact, all three Kelvin films were profitable and made decent money for Paramount Pictures, albeit with the caveat that Beyond was somewhat less successful than its predecessor had been.

Star Trek: Picard Season 1 greatly expanded the Romulus storyline from 2009’s Star Trek.

We’re lucky that, right now, we’re living through a renaissance for Star Trek. There are different shows catering to wildly different audiences, occupying very different genres and telling very different stories. For the first time, it feels like Star Trek has something to offer to almost everyone, whether they want a tense serialised drama or light-hearted animated comedy. There is a place in that diverse array of content for a new Kelvin film, and hopefully it will succeed in the same way as the first three.

If fans discover Star Trek for the first time thanks to this new film – and some surely will – they will find a much richer, deeper, and more interesting franchise today than they would’ve in 2009. With a plethora of new shows being produced, and Star Trek’s future feeling (fairly) secure, at least in the short-term, there will be plenty of new episodes and series for newbies to jump head-first into.

The titular USS Kelvin.

New fans are the lifeblood of any fan community, and we should welcome the opportunities that a new blockbuster film presents to the Star Trek franchise. With Star Trek continuing to be a major pillar of Paramount+ as the “streaming wars” rumble on, the new film could be important, bringing in new viewers in big numbers for the first time in several years. Shoring up the Star Trek franchise and giving it solid ground going forward are all good reasons to support a project like this one.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t things to criticise with the Kelvin timeline films, of course. I know some Trekkies who have ardently refused to watch any of them for more than a decade now, having been so upset at the decision to re-cast the crew of The Original Series. When I started having these conversations in 2008-09, I tried to put myself in the shoes of a big fan of The Original Series, and ask how I would’ve felt if it were The Next Generation that was being re-cast… ultimately I think I’d be fine with it, but I know not everyone feels the same way!

Kirk and Spock in Star Trek Into Darkness.

With the two former companies that came together to form ViacomCBS now working together, presumably there’s one big money pot from which films, television shows, and everything else are bankrolled. I know entertainment finance is way more complex than that, but at a basic level that’s how these big entertainment corporations work. With that in mind, my most significant complaint is that the budget of a feature film could have easily been spent instead on a season or two of television – perhaps even a brand-new show or a couple of miniseries.

Star Trek’s home, for me, will always be the small screen. And with the technological leaps that have been made in recent years, television shows can be just as good – better, in some cases – as anything the world of cinema could ever produce. The undoubtedly vast sum of money being spent on Star Trek 2023 could have been put to better use elsewhere in the franchise, and if it were up to me I’d definitely be arguing for a focus on television shows over films.

Spock, Kirk, and Dr McCoy (with Uhura in the background).

There are also some issues with the Kelvin timeline itself, and I looked at some of these in my “pros and cons” list a few months ago. For me, I think the biggest drawback – or potential drawback, at least – to making a new Kelvin timeline film is that it overcomplicates an already convoluted franchise that can be difficult for newbies to get to grips with.

Try to put yourself in the shoes of someone brand-new to Star Trek. Just of the shows currently in production, we have five different time periods on the go. Strange New Worlds is a spin-off to Discovery, but Discovery’s massive time-jump means they no longer share a setting. Picard is a sequel to The Next Generation, which was set almost 100 years after Discovery – or 800 years before where Discovery is now. And Prodigy and Lower Decks are both set in the late 24th Century too… but not at the same time as Picard. Throw an alternate reality into the mix and the timeline situation becomes so convoluted that it’s borderline offputting.

The Star Trek franchise is complicated, especially for newcomers.

Then there’s the fact that the basic premise underlying the Kelvin films, which was a big part of the original appeal in 2009, no longer exists. A new Kelvin film, arriving fourteen years after the first one, is no longer going to be looking at “young” Kirk and Spock in their early years at Starfleet Academy. With Strange New Worlds following the adventures of the USS Enterprise on its mission of exploration, there’s a risk that a new Kelvin timeline film will seem repetitive or just unnecessary.

Discovery and Strange New Worlds have successfully brought back characters like Spock and Captain Pike, and between now and 2023 we’ll also spend time with the likes of Uhura, too. Different versions of these characters are present in the Kelvin timeline; this adds to both the problem of repetitiveness, with the new film potentially overtreading the same ground in terms of character stories, and also the issue of an unnecessarily complicated franchise. Having to try to explain to a newbie that Kelvin Spock is different from Discovery Spock, who’s also a young version of old Spock who crossed over to the Kelvin timeline… well, let’s just say it isn’t the easiest story to follow!

How many Spocks is too many?

There’s also a hole in the Kelvin timeline’s cast. The tragic death of Anton Yelchin in 2016, and the promise that the character of Chekov won’t be recast, is a sensitive topic, but from a storytelling point of view it’s absolutely fair to point out that Chekov brought a different perspective and a dash of humour to the three films he appeared in. Of course it’s going to be possible to create a new character to fill that role, but it won’t be the same and his absence will be felt.

There are some advantages to a new Kelvin timeline film, though! For me, the biggest one is the creative freedom that the setting provides, and the opportunity to put Captain Kirk and his crew in very different situations. For example, if fans want to see Captain Kirk versus the Borg, the Kelvin timeline is the place to do it! Free from the constraints of fifty years of canon (well, except for Enterprise) the Kelvin timeline is an open-ended setting. The more it diverges from the prime timeline, the greater the opportunities become to tell radically different stories.

Could Captain Kirk soon take on the Borg? Maybe!

That’s by far the biggest and most significant ace in the hole that the Kelvin timeline has. Its unburdened creative freedom allows it to go in very different directions without treading on the toes of any of the ongoing shows and other projects. In that sense, it’s a self-contained setting perfect for telling one-off stories. My “what if” scenario of Captain Kirk versus the Borg is just one of countless examples that fans have concocted over the years!

So that’s where things sit right now. Star Trek 2023 is planning to bring back the Kelvin timeline for a new adventure, a sequel to 2016’s Beyond. And although it wouldn’t have been my first choice if I was in charge of making the investment in the next Star Trek project, it has merit and it has a lot of potential. I’ll certainly be happy to check it out when it releases in December next year… or rather, a couple of months later when it arrives on a streaming platform! My health, sadly, precludes things like trips to the cinema these days.

Star Trek Beyond clearly teased fans with a sequel in 2016, as the film drew to a close in a very open-ended fashion! It felt for a long time as though we would never get that sequel; that Star Trek had moved on to other projects that were taking the franchise in a different direction. The expanded Star Trek franchise in 2022 feels like it has space for a new Kelvin film, though, so I’ll end by saying that I wish it the best of luck!

The Star Trek franchise – including all films and series mentioned above – is the copyright of ViacomCBS/Paramount. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Munich: The Edge of War – film review

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Munich: The Edge of War and the novel upon which it is based.

Munich: The Edge of War had been on my list of things to watch since last year. It was initially expected to come to Netflix in 2021, but that was pushed back to January 2022. The film made its debut on Netflix a few days ago, and as a history buff I was genuinely interested to see what its take would be on one of the most significant events leading to the outbreak of World War II.

Like many Brits of my generation, I have a family connection to the war. My grandfather served in the British army, having volunteered shortly after the official declaration of war in September 1939. He spent almost four years in a prisoner of war camp after being captured, and my grandmother spent most of the war by herself in London – with bombs raining down! So aside from my general interest in all things historical, I really do feel a family tie to the events of this era.

My grandparents would have been familiar with street scenes like this.

Munich: The Edge of War was not what I was expecting. All I really knew about the film before I sat down to watch it was that it intended to depict the events surrounding the 1938 Munich Agreement, with Jeremy Irons playing the role of now-infamous British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. But the film used those events as a backdrop rather than the main event, and instead told a fictional story of two junior civil servants, setting up an unexpectedly tense spy thriller with some heavy moments of characterisation and drama.

I’m always a little uncomfortable about fictionalising real-world events. Inserting fictional characters alongside real people – especially people who may still be alive or who may have living relatives – can feel a bit perverse, as if writers and filmmakers are trivialising the stories of actual people, or instilling false narratives for the sake of entertainment. There are many examples of how this can go wrong, and how fictionalised versions of real people can be completely different from how they were in real life.

Academy Award-winner Jeremy Irons took on the role of Neville Chamberlain.

In the case of Munich: The Edge of War, I think the film generally avoided that pitfall. It did so, however, by having a completely different focus than I was expecting – one in which very few real-life individuals played significant roles. Even Chamberlain himself, the portrayal of whom had been a big part of the film’s pre-release marketing, was relegated to a supporting role. Chamberlain only really had one big fictionalised moment; the rest of the time he was playing the role we might’ve been expecting.

I’ve always rated Jeremy Irons highly as an actor. His portrayals in films as diverse as The Lion King and The French Lieutenant’s Woman have been fantastic, and of course he’s an Academy Award winner. He definitely brought a much needed gravitas to the role of Neville Chamberlain, and despite the plot of the film focusing primarily on events elsewhere, Munich: The Edge of War was definitely the better for Irons’ portrayal of one of history’s most interesting and, still, disliked figures.

Prime Minister Chamberlain gives a famous radio address.

Neville Chamberlain and the Munich Agreement depicted in Munich: The Edge of War long ago became bywords for appeasement and foreign policy failures. Contemporary political figures of all stripes are wary of comparisons to Chamberlain, and his name is invoked on both sides of the Atlantic when politicians and leaders try to deal with difficult foreign policy situations.

Some of that criticism is earned, of course. But as with any historical figure, there’s more to Neville Chamberlain than one half-baked narrative, and this is something that, to its credit, Munich: The Edge of War touches on. There hasn’t really been an historical reappraisal of Chamberlain and the overall policy of appeasement, and the film is too short and has too many other balls to juggle to really add much to that conversation anyway. But in its presentation of Chamberlain, we at least catch a glimpse of how the situation might’ve appeared from his perspective.

We all know the history surrounding this moment, but the film showed it in a slightly different light.

Neville Chamberlain became Prime Minister in 1937, more than a year after the event that historians widely agree was the “last best chance” to stop Hitler’s aggressive policies and delay or prevent a war. This was, of course, the reoccupation of the Rheinland by German forces, and it came during the tenure of Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, who had set the tone of appeasement during much of the preceding couple of years.

Chamberlain’s remark in Munich: The Edge of War about “playing the cards [he] was dealt” can be seen through this lens. In that sense, the film takes more of a pro-Chamberlain view than many others dealing with the same subject matter would; the Munich Agreement is supposed to be the embodiment of the failures of both appeasement in general and Chamberlain personally, yet director Christian Schwochow – and Robert Harris, the author of the novel upon which the film was based – present both sympathetically.

Chamberlain had to play the hand of cards that he had been dealt – that’s one of the messages the film wants to convey.

Munich: The Edge of War chooses to portray the Munich Agreement not as the pinnacle of failure, but as a temporary reprieve, one which was cleverly employed by Chamberlain to stall for time. Chamberlain comes across not as the bumbling idiot of history who couldn’t see Hitler and the Nazis for what they were, but instead as someone with limited options who did the best he could to avoid an immediate conflict that he felt certain would’ve doomed Britain to defeat.

Whether this portrayal is fair or not is left up to the viewer, naturally, but this is the take that the film offers. It’s still possible to sit through the tense moments in the run-up to the treaty being offered while acknowledging the ultimate futility of it all, but doing so requires us to step out of Munich: The Edge of War and consider where the film sits in the history of the real world. Taken solely on its own merits, these moments of tension and drama work – even though some could feel a little forced.

George MacKay as Hugh Legat.

The role of Adolf Hitler is always going to be a challenging one to cast and to play, and it was here that I felt Munich: The Edge of War hit a stumbling block. Ulrich Matthes felt miscast in the role, and while he did his best to play up the sense of Hitler as a menace, the portrayal never quite landed for me. 1938 should see Adolf Hitler at the absolute zenith of his power, yet in Munich: The Edge of War he somehow felt small; the presence he should’ve had came more from the script than the screen presence.

Hitler was also the only character in the film whose costumes seemed ill-fitting. Ulrich Matthes is not especially short, but he does have a rather slender frame, and several of the costumes he wore as Hitler seemed rather too large for him, giving one of history’s worst dictators the appearance of a schoolboy whose parents had bought him a suit he was expected to “grow into.” Combined with a less-than-stellar performance, this robbed the character of much of the gravitas needed to make the moments where he was centre-stage feel like they mattered. Though Hitler got comparatively little screen time, his actions were the driving force behind both halves of the plot, and we as the audience needed to be able to take him seriously enough to make the rest of the film work. As it is, the best I can say is that this key character didn’t quite fall to the level of damaging the rest of the film – but the way he came across on screen did nothing to elevate it.

Ulrich Matthes as Adolf Hitler.

So we come to the junior civil servants, the fictional people upon whose shoulders the real story of Munich: The Edge of War was carried. I really liked the contrast between the two men – Paul von Hartmann, played by Jannis Niewöhner, and Hugh Legat, played by George MacKay. They came from similar worlds, as the scenes showing them together at Oxford University showed, but they ended up on very different philosophical and political paths, largely (but not entirely) due to circumstances beyond their control.

In a sense, the stories of von Hartmann and Legat stand to represent hundreds of thousands of bureaucrats and minor functionaries on both sides of the war – and by extension the millions of enlisted and conscripted men who ultimately fought in the conflict. People from all social classes, all backgrounds, and all walks of life were ripped out of their surroundings and pitted against one another by great powers and by forces beyond their control. Legat and von Hartmann were swept along by circumstances in their home countries, driven apart by fanatical politics, but ultimately came back together to try to do the right thing. Though their stories were fictional, they represent millions of untold stories of real people in similar situations.

The fictional stories of Legat and von Hartmann can be seen as representing millions of real people throughout the war.

Both of the actors put in exceptional performances. I truly bought into von Hartmann’s enthusiastic and impassioned defence of Hitler when he and Legat argued in a flashback sequence. Jannis Niewöhner brought that moment to life, showing the burning passion that many politically active young people have. It was misguided, of course, as von Hartmann would later come to realise, but as a believable performance of a young man in Germany in that time period I thought it was absolutely outstanding.

George MacKay is someone I’m familiar with from the film 1917, and he put in just as complex a performance in Munich: The Edge of War as he had in the title which had won him critical acclaim a couple of years ago. It isn’t fair to compare two different characters, but in this case I definitely felt echoes of William Schofield (his 1917 character) in Hugh Legat. Both men find themselves thrust into difficult and dangerous circumstances for which they are ill-prepared, and both do their best to rise to meet the challenges in front of them.

George MacKay put in a solid performance as a man who finds himself facing an unexpected and difficult task.

Legat and von Hartmann were both granted love interests by Munich: The Edge of War, and here is perhaps where we ran into a fairly typical issue when condensing the story of a novel into the runtime of a single film. Neither Legat’s wife nor the character of Lena, whose injury seems to have been a driving force behind von Hartmann turning against Hitler, felt well-developed. I’d go so far as to call both extraneous to the plot; the minor roles they played didn’t feel necessary to inform either Legat or von Hartmann, and didn’t really serve to accomplish much of anything.

I’d argue that, in a film about Adolf Hitler and the outbreak of World War II, practically no fictional character needs more motivation to stop Hitler than “because it’s Hitler,” and with the revelation of Lena’s attack and disability not coming until the film was practically over and the bulk of the spy thriller plot had concluded, it didn’t really achieve what it intended anyway. It was, at best, background – and there’s nothing wrong with fleshing out characters and giving them family connections or love interests in a general sense. But in Munich: The Edge of War it was, perhaps, an unnecessary inclusion.

Jannis Niewöhner as Paul von Hartmann.

With the exception of the aforementioned costuming problem, I felt that the visual side of Munich: The Edge of War was handled very well. The few uses of visual effects (such as for a steam train) worked as intended, and the exterior and interior sets all succeeded at transporting me to the 1930s. I particularly felt that the main set used for the Munich conference captured the spirit of Nazi architecture well, and felt sufficiently imposing.

Munich: The Edge of War was definitely the better for the inclusion of German alongside English as its spoken languages. Seeing German characters speaking to one another in German adds a sense of realism that’s important to a piece like this, and switching back and forth between the two languages worked well. Having both principal characters being fluent in both languages allowed for them to mix it up, speaking German in some circumstances and English in others.

The arrival of the delegations at the conference venue.

To wrap things up, Munich: The Edge of War isn’t going to have the cut-through of a film like 2004’s Downfall. In order to appreciate what it has to offer, I think you really need to have at least a passing interest in the Second World War and the events the film aims to depict. Some historical dramas and thrillers can cross over and find mainstream appeal; I believe that Munich: The Edge of War simply isn’t that kind of film. That isn’t to say it’s bad by any means – I had an enjoyable time with it. It just isn’t quite on the same level as films like Downfall.

I arrived expecting to find a film that focused more on Chamberlain himself, but found instead a perfectly entertaining spy thriller that managed to have a few novelties to offer fans of the genre as a whole. The newness of both spies, the real historical backdrop, and the dual nature of its protagonists makes Munich: The Edge of War stand out somewhat in a genre that can feel repetitive and samey. Those elements carried the film far enough to make it an enjoyable experience.

I’d have liked to have seen more of Jeremy Irons’ portrayal of Chamberlain, as I felt he was somewhat limited in the screen time he had in a film that had another story to tell. Other than that, Munich: The Edge of War was entertaining. It was tense enough and dramatic enough in the right places, told a unique story, and gave us a small but different look at an historical figure that we’ve been told for more than eighty years we should vehemently disapprove of.

Munich: The Edge of War is available to stream now on Netflix. Munich: The Edge of War is the copyright of Netflix and/or Turbine Studios. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

The pros and cons of filming back-to-back

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Picard Season 1.

After a short pandemic-enforced break, Star Trek: Picard Season 3 resumed filming a few days ago. Production on the show’s third season has been underway for a while, and was officially announced back in September during the franchise’s Star Trek Day digital event. The interesting thing about Picard Season 3 being so far along in its production is, of course, that Season 2 has yet to be broadcast. This got me thinking about some of the benefits and potential pitfalls of filming back-to-back in this fashion, and that’s what we’re going to talk about today.

There are some great examples of productions that were filmed back-to-back. The Lord of the Rings trilogy of films has to be one of the best examples of this: all three films were shot together in New Zealand, though post-production work and editing continued after the first and second films had premiered. The Lord of the Rings is held in very high esteem even twenty years after it premiered, and is rightly credited with bringing the high fantasy genre to mainstream audiences, paving the way for titles like Game of Thrones.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy was hugely successful in the high fantasy genre.

Being shot back-to-back worked well for The Lord of the Rings then, clearly! The Return of the King – the third and final part of the trilogy – swept the board at the Academy Awards in 2004, picking up a record-equalling eleven Oscars.

In the case of The Lord of the Rings, the practicalities of production meant that shooting all three films together made sense. New Line Cinema had greenlit the entire trilogy and was expecting it to be a success, and the difficulties of setting up production in New Zealand – as well as having the actors travel there – all came together to make filming the entire project at once a practical and sensible approach to production. From the earliest days of pre-production, New Line Cinema intended to do things this way.

Whether in cinema or on television, there are advantages to filming back-to-back. There’s far less of a chance that characters will look noticeably different from one part of the story to the next, for example, as everything from costuming to makeup and even haircuts or simply ageing will not be factors that impact production. Keeping the same behind-the-camera crew will also allow for a consistent production that keeps the same cinematographic style. It makes it easier to go back and re-work parts of the story, if necessary – for example, if a writer or director felt the need to add a scene foreshadowing the ending, or even to change the entire end of the story to better fit what had come before.

There are advantages to back-to-back production.

But there can be drawbacks to this approach, pitfalls that can be very difficult to avoid even with good preparation and the best of intentions. And there’s one reason in particular why Star Trek: Picard kicked off this discussion for me.

Star Trek: Picard started with an episode that’s probably the best series premiere in the history of the franchise, surpassing even Deep Space Nine’s Emissary – the previous high-water mark. Over the course of the next few episodes, its story unfolded slowly and seemed to be building up to an exciting climax. Unfortunately, though, the season stumbled as it approached the finish line, with the first half of its two-part finale in particular being a real disappointment. The way the season eventually ended left several storylines unresolved and at least one gaping plot hole. To be blunt, the finale was weak – and it’s important that the writers and producers receive that feedback and take it on board.

I’m not the only person to have criticised the way that Star Trek: Picard Season 1 ended; the two parts of the season finale are the worst-rated episodes of the show according to review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes.

The Season 1 finale of Star Trek: Picard was by far the weakest part of the story.

So what’s the point of bringing this up? Well, it’s simple: filming back-to-back, as is now happening with Seasons 2 and 3 of Picard, means that the show’s writers and producers will have far less of a margin for error; they’re much more constrained and less able to make changes based on critiques and audience reactions.

Set aside any thoughts you might have about “artistic integrity” or the “vision” of a production’s writers, producers, and directors. In the real world, with very few exceptions films and television shows are adapted – and in some cases changed entirely – based on the way audiences respond to them. This is why practically every film and television series is shown to test audiences before they premiere. Doing so can give production companies the chance to make last-minute adjustments, make cuts, or even rework entire sequences.

ViacomCBS will not have ignored the reviews and discussion surrounding Picard Season 1 and its finale. Those criticisms will have been absorbed by the corporation, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they mandated changes to the story of Season 2 as a result, even if such changes may be relatively minor. Just to pick on one example, the story of main character Narek, which was dropped without a resolution part-way through the finale, might be something that the team in charge of the show insist that Season 2 clarifies.

Narek’s story was just one of several major elements that the season finale failed to pay off.

But if there are issues with Season 2 – whether they’re to do with story, art style, visual effects, etc. – it will be much harder, and much more expensive, to make any changes to Season 3. In all likelihood, Season 3 will wrap up its main phase of production before Season 2 even premieres, and while post-production work and pick-up shoots offer some opportunities to make changes, those opportunities are limited. If a film or series has been ready to go for a year or more, going back to film extra scenes can be tricky; it can be very easy to tell which scenes and shots were filmed and added in later, even in productions with high budgets.

In short, because Picard Season 1 had some very particular and noteworthy issues with its finale, I’m at least a little concerned about the direction of the series heading into Seasons 2 and 3, and the fact that the seasons are being shot back-to-back heightens that. Had Season 1 ended with a stronger finale, perhaps I’d be less concerned. But unfortunately it didn’t – and that leaves the show in a strange place for me. I’m genuinely excited to spend more time with Admiral Picard and the crew of La Sirena, but I’m at least a little anxious about the way the show’s production is being handled.

Where will the admiral and his crew go next?

In a way, this is something we may have to get used to as the pandemic rumbles on. Had it not been for covid and its associated lockdowns in California, it would’ve been possible for production on Picard Season 2 to get underway far sooner, potentially meaning that there’d have been no need to film the second and third seasons back-to-back. But the pandemic continues to be a disruptive force across the world, so productions may have to get used to working when they can and taking breaks when they must – at least in the short-to-medium term.

In some cases it won’t matter. In others, filming back-to-back can provide significant advantages. But there are potential drawbacks to this way of approaching a major production, not least the difficulty in going back and making changes based on audience and critical feedback. It’s the latter point that concerns me when it comes to Star Trek: Picard, and that’s due to the weak ending to an otherwise excellent first season. Perhaps in the days ahead we should go back to the two parts of Et in Arcadia Ego and re-examine what went wrong – as well as looking at what the season finale got right. If I forget, remind me! For now, you can check out the reviews of both episodes on my dedicated Star Trek: Picard page.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy is the copyright of New Line Cinema and/or Warner Bros. The Star Trek franchise – including Star Trek: Picard – is the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Looking ahead to 2022

Happy New Year! As we mark the first day of 2022 (and recover from the last night of 2021) I thought it could be fun to look ahead to some of the entertainment experiences that lie before us this year. There are a plethora of films, games, and television shows on the horizon, and there are sure to be plenty of surprises and new announcements to come as well. On this occasion I’ve picked out ten films, video games, and television shows that I’m personally looking forward to in 2022.

The ongoing pandemic has caused a number of delays, and while most of these titles feel like a safe bet, it’s still possible that additional disruption will mean that we won’t see them all before the end of the year. The further out we get, the more likely such changes are – so titles which are currently aiming for a November or December release could end up slipping back to 2023.

Let’s jump into the list!

Film #1:
Morbius

Up first we have somewhat of a rarity: a Marvel film that I’m actually slightly interested in! Morbius will star Jared Leto as a mad scientist who inadvertently turns himself into a vampire. The film isn’t actually part of the main Marvel Cinematic Universe, as it’s being produced by Colombia and Sony – the latter company having the license to Spider-Man.

From my point of view, the fact that the film isn’t part of the MCU is no bad thing. Keeping up with every Marvel project increasingly feels like a full-time job considering the shared nature of the universe and the frequency of crossovers. So perhaps Morbius will be able to be enjoyed as more or less a standalone piece. I know nothing about the character or comic book source material – but I’m hoping it’ll be a fun, action-packed, slightly spooky adventure.

Film #2:
Lightyear

I was surprised by the trailer for Lightyear – the film looks so much more fun and interesting than its premise alone would have suggested! An “origin story” for Buzz Lightyear, the film purports to show us why Buzz Lightyear figures were so popular in the world of Toy Story! I noted many different visual and thematic elements from mid-century, retro sci-fi; kind of similar to the theme of the Tomorrowland park at Disneyland.

Chris Evans is set to take on the title role, and I’m genuinely looking forward to Lightyear. The film seems to have an element of mystery to it, and from the trailer it looks set to be an exciting adventure with a fun visual style. Check out my full thoughts on the trailer by clicking or tapping here.

Film #3:
The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent

Nicolas Cage is going to play an exaggerated, fictionalised version of himself in a film that looks set to be hilarious – and full of meme potential! I honestly thought this was a joke when I first heard about it, but the trailer already had me laughing out loud. Cage has developed a self-awareness, leaning into his reputation for making B-movies, and I think the result can only be hilarity.

In short, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is either going to be great… or it’s going to be one of those “so bad it’s good” films. There’s simply no in-between! Oh, and The Mandalorian star Pedro Pascal is also in it alongside Cage.

Film #4:
Moonfall

Disaster films are somewhat of a guilty pleasure of mine. They’re usually so far-fetched and over-the-top, but they can also be dramatic and exciting; perfect popcorn fare and a fun way to kill a couple of hours. Roland Emmerich has directed some fun ones: 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow spring to mind first and foremost. So I’m very curious to see what his latest sci-fi/disaster flick will be all about!

The premise sounds bonkers: the moon gets knocked out of orbit and is on a collision course with Earth. The film promises that the moon “is not what we think it is” … so let’s find out what the moon really is, I guess!

Film #5:
Avatar 2

The first of four planned sequels to 2009’s Avatar is scheduled for release in December this year. After more than thirteen years, James Cameron has quite a task on his hands to get people re-engaged with the fictional universe that he created, but if anyone can pull it off it’s him. Despite being an enjoyable film in its own right, Avatar never quite succeeded to the extent Cameron (and 20th Century Fox) hoped, failing to really break into the top tier of sci-fi franchises.

Avatar 2 is the first of four opportunities to change the narrative. There’s always room, in my opinion, for new sci-fi, and Avatar had some successes with its world-building. There are open questions left over from the first film – and although I’m by no means an Avatar superfan, I’m curious to see where the story will go next.

Film #6:
Untitled Super Mario Movie

The Super Mario Bros. film that was a shock announcement at a recent Nintendo Direct broadcast still doesn’t have an official title, but it’s targetting a release around the holiday season (I know we’re still processing Christmas 2021, but still!) Featuring an all-star cast including Chris Pratt, Anya Taylor-Joy, and Jack Black as Bowser, this has the potential to succeed where the 1993 version… didn’t.

Nintendo seems to have invested a decent amount of money into the project, and with a story and animation style that will hopefully be closer to the video game series than the 1993 attempt, this could be the unexpected hit of Christmas 2022!

Film #7:
Uncharted

The adaptation of the Uncharted video game series will star Spider-Man’s Tom Holland as adventurer (and discount Indiana Jones) Nathan Drake – and if you’ve been a regular around here for a while, you might recall that it made my list of films to watch in 2021 last January! But after being delayed, Uncharted looks all but certain to get a release this year (one way or another).

I had fun with the Uncharted video games on PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4. I’m cautiously interested to see how well the adaptation will work – condensing the story of even one video game into the runtime of a single film can be tricky. But I think there’s the potential for a solid action flick if all goes according to plan.

Film #8:
Jurassic World: Dominion

The legacy of Jurassic Park continues with the third entry in the reboot Jurassic World series, with Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard reprising their roles. Details of the plot are sparse at this stage, with director Colin Trevorrow keeping a lid on things, but if the story picks up in the aftermath of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom then we can expect to see dinosaurs roaming free – and not just in their island park!

A lot of fans are excited for the return of the original trio of characters: Sam Neill as Dr Alan Grant, Laura Dern as Ellie Sattler, and Jeff Goldblum as Ian Malcolm will all be making appearances in the film. An extended trailer (called the prologue) was recently released, and it’s well worth a watch!

Film #9:
Everything Everywhere All At Once

Michelle Yeoh (Star Trek: Discovery’s Philippa Georgiou) stars in this very weird-looking film about a woman who can cross over to infinite parallel universes. Evelyn seems to be tasked with saving the entire multiverse from an unknown threat, travelling to different realities and exploring different versions of herself and her own life.

The trailer was chaotic, and the plot may be tricky to follow, but Everything Everywhere All At Once looks like a wild, bonkers ride. It could be a ton of fun, so it’s one I shall watch with interest!

Film #10:
Sonic the Hedgehog 2

2020’s Sonic the Hedgehog exceeded my (admittedly rather low) expectations, and in a pandemic-disrupted year was actually one of the few cinematic highlights. Following its success will be no easy task for this sequel, but there’s definitely potential in this return to the universe of Sega’s cute mascot.

The stars of the first film (including Jim Carrey) will be returning, and the addition of other characters from the Sonic franchise looks set to expand the fun.

Video Game #1:
Six Days In Fallujah

Six Days In Fallujah is a controversial game. It intends to depict, in as realistic a manner as modern games engines will allow, the Second Battle of Fallujah, which took place in 2004. I was surprised to see the extent of the backlash that the game’s announcement received last year, not just from the expected sources like right-wing politicians, but from some games commentators and gaming outlets too.

In short, I think that it’s important to create art, particularly when the subject matter it tackles is difficult or controversial. It’s possible that Six Days In Fallujah will add nothing to the conversation around the Iraq War, but it’s equally possible that we’ll get something more than just mindless shooting. Video games can be art, and art can and should tackle difficult and complex topics. To see my full thoughts on Six Days In Fallujah, click or tap here.

Video Game #2:
Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora

Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora was a surprise announcement at last year’s E3, but with the Avatar sequels kicking off this year it makes a lot of sense to have a video game tie-in of some kind as well. Frontiers of Pandora doesn’t seem like it will be a direct adaptation of either the first or second films in the series, but rather a standalone title.

The world of Avatar seems well-suited to a video game adaptation, and with Ubisoft’s resources at its back there’s potential in this title. Taking on the role of a Na’vi warrior sounds like fun, and I’m definitely going to check out Frontiers of Pandora when it’s ready.

Video Game #3:
Mario Kart 9

At this stage there’s been no announcement of a new game in the long-running Mario Kart series. But Mario Kart 8 was released almost eight years ago, and with 2022 being the series’ 30th anniversary, the timing feels right for a new game. Nintendo loves to celebrate anniversaries with big releases, after all!

Mario Kart 8 has been one of the Switch’s big sellers since the console’s launch. But the game has a limited roster of tracks and playable characters, and after such a long wait in between titles, a growing number of players are looking for something new. 2022 would be a great time to launch Mario Kart 9 – so watch this space.

Video Game #4:
Stray

Stray is a game that lets you play as a cat. Do I need to say more? Publisher Annapurna Interactive has a great track record, having released wonderful and emotional narrative journeys like What Remains of Edith Finch and Gone Home. Indie developer Blue Twelve Studio has been working on the game for a while, and its unique premise and beautiful setting have already piqued my interest!

The game entices players to unravel an ancient mystery and figure a way to escape a decaying cyberpunk city populated by robots. The stray cat at the centre of the game will have their own robot companion, too. This game looks adorable – but it also has an unsettling, otherworldly feel that could make for a fascinating and unique adventure.

Video Game #5:
Star Trek: Resurgence

I’d been desperately hoping for a new single-player Star Trek game for years; it’s been almost a decade since the last one failed miserably. With Star Trek being back on our screens in a big way, I’m glad that ViacomCBS is finally licensing video games again. Resurgence is the single-player story-driven game I’d been hoping for – and the trailer looked great!

New developer Dramatic Labs has pedigree – many of its employees used to work for Telltale Games, whose narrative adventures were highly-praised. Telltale worked on a number of adaptations, including Batman and Game of Thrones, so Dramatic Labs seems perfectly positioned to bring a brand new Star Trek game to life. I’m really rooting for Resurgence to be a success.

Video Game #6:
Starfield

Starfield has been in development for almost a decade. Bethesda had ideas for space-themed games going all the way back to the 1990s, and even pitched a Star Trek game at one point, so in a sense Starfield has been a very long time coming! At 2021’s E3, the company was finally able to announce a release date, and while details about the game are still sparse, we have begun to learn a little more about some of the factions and locales.

Bethesda chief Todd Howard has literally promised players “Skyrim in space,” so Starfield has big shoes to fill! After Bethesda has stumbled in recent years with the likes of Fallout 76, the game also has a lot of work to do to rehabilitate the company’s image. Anything less than an exceptional game could leave the Microsoft-owned studio in trouble. I want to be excited for Starfield… but I’m trying to avoid boarding the hype train.

Video Game #7:
Saints Row

I initially wrote off the Saints Row games as being “Grand Theft Auto knock-offs,” but the truth is that they’re so much more than that. The setup is unquestionably similar – players take on the role of a criminal in an open-world city – but developers Volition brought a distinctly comedic style that made the original Saints Row and its sequels stand out.

Saints Row is a reboot, one which will supposedly bring the game back to its roots. Given that Rockstar seemingly still has no plans to release Grand Theft Auto 6 any time soon, Saints Row could be the game that scratches that open-world itch.

Video Game #8:
Test Drive Unlimited: Solar Crown

It’s been almost a decade since the last Test Drive game was released, so Solar Crown is coming late to the party! But following on from the success of other open-world racing games (like Forza Horizon 5, for example) it could be well-placed to take the racing crown this year.

Solar Crown is set in Hong Kong, and developers KT Racing have promised a 1:1 full-scale recreation of the entirety of Hong Kong island. That sounds incredibly ambitious, but I’m hopeful that they can pull it off. The result could be one of the best racing games in a long time.

Video Game #9:
Pharaoh: A New Era

I adored Pharaoh in the early 2000s. An Ancient Egyptian-themed city building game, it had all of the micromanagement you’d expect from a game of that type, but with additional features derived from its setting. For example, the Nile river could flood – so making use of flood plains became an essential gameplay element.

Pharaoh: A New Era aims to bring the game into the modern day, updating its graphical fidelity but retaining the original game’s trademark visual style and gameplay. I think it has a lot of potential to be a wonderful nostalgia trip for me – and if you missed the original twenty years ago, it could be brand-new fun for you!

Video Game #10:
Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order II

At this stage we don’t know whether Jedi: Fallen Order II is even in development – though it’s heavily rumoured to be well underway. It’s a possibility for 2022, though, so I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed waiting for an official announcement. After the disappointment of Battlefront II and The Rise of Skywalker, Jedi: Fallen Order did a lot for the Star Wars franchise. It was an engaging story with some great characters – most of whom should be returning.

I’m really interested to see where Cal Kestis and his friends will go next. What adventures lie in store for them? And will we find out their ultimate fate – perhaps explaining why Cal and the others played no part in the Rebellion or the events of the Star Wars films? So many questions… but I’ll settle for another fun Star Wars adventure, even if it doesn’t answer all of them!

TV Series #1:
House of the Dragon

Despite being underwhelmed by the first trailer (and bitterly disappointed by the final season of Game of Thrones) I’m nevertheless curious to see what House of the Dragon will bring to the table. The new series has the not insignificant challenge of proving that Game of Thrones wasn’t a one-hit wonder, and that Westeros truly can be expanded into an ongoing franchise.

Honestly? The jury is still out. The television landscape has changed immeasurably since Game of Thrones’ 2010 debut, and in the big-budget high fantasy genre, House of the Dragon will face some serious competition. There’s potential in the series… but right now, I can muster curious interest rather than outright excitement.

TV Series #2:
Star Trek: Picard Season 2

After a longer-than-planned pandemic-enforced break, Picard will finally be back on our screens before too long. It isn’t clear yet whether Discovery’s unexpected mid-season break will delay Picard Season 2 from its planned February premiere, but that seems likely. Regardless, time travel and old adversaries are on the agenda for Jean-Luc Picard and the crew of La Sirena.

I confess that time travel stories aren’t always my favourites in Star Trek, so I’m perhaps less excited for Picard Season 2 than I hoped I might be. But a chance to spend more time with Picard himself, especially after the wonderfully complex presentation of the character in Season 1, is something that I’m truly looking forward to.

TV Series #3:
Star Wars: Obi-Wan Kenobi

There’s a lot of Star Wars content to come this year! Obi-Wan Kenobi is taking place in between the prequel and original trilogies, and will see Ewan McGregor reprise his role as the famed ex-Jedi. What adventures will he be able to have during his exile on the planet of Tatooine? And will those adventures feel natural or tacked-on? I guess we’re about to find out!

McGregor’s portrayal of Obi-Wan Kenobi was definitely one of the better elements of the prequel films. I’m not sure I’d have chosen to make this series if I were making the big decisions for Disney and Lucasfilm, but I hope to get a fun action or drama series that respects the boundaries of the original 1977 film and doesn’t tread on its toes.

TV Series #4:
Amazon’s Lord of the Rings

This series made my list last year, as I had originally expected to see it in 2021. Amazon has found some success with its adaptation of The Wheel of Time, but in a sense that show feels like an appetiser before the main course! Few other properties have such potential to bring in audiences as Tolkien’s Middle-earth, and there’s going to be a huge amount of interest in what is going to be the most expensive television series ever made.

With so little information about the characters or plot, it’s hard to know what to expect. The series isn’t going to be a new adaptation of any of the familiar books, instead drawing on a period in Middle-earth’s Second Age, millennia before the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Amazon appears to be greatly influenced by Game of Thrones in the way the show’s casting and production have been handled; hopefully that’s a good thing!

TV Series #5:
Star Wars: Andor

A prequel to a prequel, Andor will focus on the character of Cassian Andor who was first introduced in 2016’s Rogue One. A Star Wars story that steps away from the Jedi and the Force is something I’ve been hoping the franchise would do more of for some time, and I feel that Andor could be a good vehicle to show us more about the Star Wars galaxy away from space magic.

The series may also show us a bit more about the early days of the Rebel Alliance, something we glimpsed in Rogue One. As a standalone piece it could be an interesting and dramatic spy thriller – and I’m hopeful that it’ll be entertaining at the very least.

TV Series #6:
Foundation Season 2

Season 1 of Foundation may not have been perfect, but it broadly succeeded at adapting a fairly dense work of sci-fi, bringing it to the small screen in an understandable way. Jared Harris put in a wonderful performance, and this complex story with some pretty deep themes ended up as a thoroughly enjoyable season of television.

We already knew that Apple TV+ had greenlit a second season of the show, and production has already begun. If Foundation can do more of the same, it’ll be a fine addition to this year’s television lineup.

TV Series #7:
The Last Of Us

The Last Of Us is one of the finest video game stories I’ve ever played through. It’s a vivid, dramatic, and occasionally harrowing story of a road trip across a hauntingly beautiful post-apocalyptic United States. Its central conceit of mushroom zombies may sound silly, but the cordyceps infection serves as the backdrop to set up an amazing character-focused story. And now it’s being adapted for television.

A TV show will suit the long and complex narrative far better than a film ever could, so in that sense I think the right decision has been made. I don’t know whether the story will be broken down into seasons or whether The Last Of Us will try to tell the entire story of the game this year – I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

TV Series #8:
Tokyo Vice

I’ve been greatly looking forward to this adaptation of a true story. Journalist Jake Adelstein spent part of his career in Japan working on crime stories in Tokyo, and his book told the true story of working for a large Japanese newspaper and the various cases and investigations he was part of.

HBO has a great track record when it comes to these short-format miniseries, and I think that Tokyo Vice has the potential to be 2022’s answer to the likes of Chernobyl – a true story adapted in a dramatic and exciting way.

TV Series #9:
The Wheel of Time Season 2

Amazon’s second high fantasy series on this list already has a full season under its belt. I enjoyed The Wheel of Time’s debut season, even though the story was quite cluttered and may have been hard to follow for some viewers. With more than a dozen books in the series left to adapt, Season 2 has its work cut out to keep up the pace.

The Wheel of Time had some great moments of characterisation and some well-crafted visual effects. Combined with a strong story I feel that the series is off to a good start – even if not every critic agrees. With Amazon’s own Lord of the Rings adaptation coming this year, Season 2 will be drawing comparisons to that show whether it wants to or not. Time to step up!

TV Series #10:
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds

More than three years after Ethan Peck and Anson Mount won the hearts of Star Trek fans during Discovery’s second season, the highly-requested “Captain Pike show” is finally going to be broadcast! Strange New Worlds has promised Trekkies a return to a more episodic format, and the show could be the one to finally hook in the remaining holdouts who have been unimpressed with the franchise’s recent output.

This isn’t a ranked list, but Strange New Worlds is probably the show I’m most looking forward to this year – assuming it will be available to watch here in the UK. ViacomCBS doesn’t have a good track record when it comes to making its shows available outside of North America! But if that hurdle can be surmounted, I have high hopes indeed for Strange New Worlds.

So that’s it!

As we look ahead to some of the entertainment experiences of 2022, there’s a lot to be hopeful for. As a Trekkie, 2022 is arguably one of the biggest and most important years for the franchise in a very long time. Not only are there new and ongoing shows, but a brand-new video game and an increase in merchandise too. All of these things will hopefully cement Star Trek as ViacomCBS’ main franchise, securing its future in the longer term. I’ll be doing my best to support Star Trek this year – as long as ViacomCBS does its part too.

I hope you had an enjoyable New Year’s Eve! Now that the holiday season is more or less over, things can start to settle down and get back to normal. I adore the Christmas season, but it’s also nice to be able to unwind after what can be a stressful time of year.

All titles listed above are the copyright of their respective owner, company, studio, broadcaster, developer, distributor, publisher, etc. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

End-of-Year Awards 2021

Spoiler Warning: Minor spoilers may be present for some of the entries on this list.

It’s the end of 2021, so it’s time to look back on a few of the entertainment highs (and lows) of the year! Like I did last year, I’ve picked out a few of my favourite entertainment experiences from the worlds of cinema, gaming, and television, and I’ll be giving each a totally official Trekking with Dennis award!

Most categories have a winner and a runner-up; some just have one title and in those cases they’re the winners by default. I’ve put Star Trek episodes into their own category, otherwise I’d just be saying that every TV show that I liked this year was Star Trek!

Caveat time! Obviously I haven’t watched or played anywhere close to everything that was published or released this year! The exclusion from these awards of titles such as The Last Duel or For All Mankind doesn’t mean they aren’t good; I just have no experience with them so I can’t comment. It goes without saying that everything here is entirely subjective! This is just one person’s opinion – so feel free to disagree vehemently with some or all of my choices!

With that out of the way, let’s get started!

Best Documentary:

🏆 Winner 🏆
Half-Life Histories series; Kyle Hill

There have been some interesting documentaries this year, but I wanted to highlight a semi-professional series that has been quietly ticking up views on YouTube. Kyle Hill has crafted a series of absolutely fascinating documentaries about nuclear power, nuclear weapons, and nuclear accidents – some of which were familiar to me, but several of which actually weren’t.

Nuclear weapons are an incredibly controversial topic, of course, but nuclear power is something I firmly believe that we as a species need to embrace. At least in the short-to-medium term, nuclear power offers a reliable way for humanity to meet our growing power needs while phasing out fossil fuels.

Kyle Hill’s documentaries show how early nuclear experiments could and did go wrong, but they aren’t alarmist. Hill has a gentle, almost understated style that tells these serious (and occasionally fatal) stories with due dignity and gravitas, but without sensationalising the events in question. For anyone interested in the likes of the Chernobyl disaster or the early history of nuclear weapons and nuclear power, the entire series is well worth a watch.

Best Web Series:

🥈 Runner-Up 🥈
The Jimquisition; Jim Sterling

I’d like to highlight a fellow non-binary creator here. Jim Sterling – also known as James Stephanie Sterling – is a video games critic on YouTube. Their main weekly series, The Jimquisition, often highlights bad practices in the games industry and draws attention to misbehaving corporations. The Jimquisition was one of the first shows to criticise the practice of lootboxes a few years ago, for example, and this year Sterling has worked relentlessly to call out the likes of Ubisoft and Activision Blizzard.

Too many publications – even blogs and social media channels – now work hand-in-glove with big corporations in the video games industry, leading many so-called independent publications to, at the very least, be cautious in what they say about both their corporate friends and the games they review so as to maintain their level of access. The Jimquisition has always been different because it’s self-funded, leaving Sterling free to criticise as they see fit.

On a personal note, seeing Jim Sterling come out as non-binary was one factor among many as I made my own decision earlier this year to discuss my gender identity in public for the first time, and I want to thank them for their brave decision.

🏆 Winner 🏆
Tasting History with Max Miller

There really isn’t anything quite like Tasting History. There are a plethora of cooking shows and channels online – many of which are fantastic! And there are some great history shows as well, everything from mini-documentaries to living history re-enactments. Tasting History blends these two things together, as host Max Miller cooks a variety of different historical dishes, and uses those as an entry point to talk about some of the historical events and personalities associated with the food.

I love history and I love cookery shows, so Tasting History is absolutely the kind of thing that was going to appeal to me! But a fun premise alone wouldn’t be enough, and Tasting History has a well-spoken host who makes both sides of the show entertaining as well as interesting. I’ve learned a lot about different dishes and historical cultures this year, things I never would have found out about if not for Tasting History.

Best TV Special:

🥈 Runner-Up 🥈
Lego Star Wars: Terrifying Tales

After 2020’s Lego Star Wars Holiday Special had been a ton of fun, I was pleasantly surprised to see Disney+ bringing back Lego Star Wars for another outing this year. Terrifying Tales was a fun Halloween special, one which drew on many classics of the thriller and horror genres for inspiration while maintaining a child-friendly atmosphere. I’m not a huge fan of horror, so this lighter tone was just perfect for me!

Focusing on Poe Dameron, Terrifying Tales used a frame narrative to tell three different spooky stories set in all three of the Star Wars franchise’s main eras. The first short, which focused on Kylo Ren, contained more backstory for the character than the entire sequel trilogy – and I would argue that it was actually better than the minuscule character development that Kylo/Ben Solo got in the films!

Palpatine was hilarious in the vignette that featured him, and I adored the way that Terrifying Tales used the character. The third and final vignette was a parody of a Twilight Zone episode and featured Luke Skywalker, and that was pretty fun to see as well. Overall, Terrifying Tales was a cute, funny, and lightly spooky way to get ready for Halloween!

🏆 Winner 🏆
The Grand Tour: Lochdown

As we approach the pandemic’s second anniversary, we need things like Lochdown to poke fun at what’s been going on in the world. In a unique way that only Hammond, Clarkson, and May can really pull off, The Grand Tour’s special episode made a trip to Scotland one of the funniest and most entertaining bits of television I enjoyed all year.

The trio have found great success at Amazon, and free from the constraints of the BBC (both financially and in terms of content), I’d argue that The Grand Tour is leaps and bounds ahead of Top Gear. As the show has switched its focus to these kinds of special episodes, there’s been a lot of fun to be had!

I’m not really a car person. Cars have always been a means to an end for me; a mode of transportation. But the enthusiasm of the three hosts for their vehicles is infectious, and the fun they have on their wacky adventures always manages to succeed at pulling me in and making me feel like I’m right there with them.

Worst TV Series:

🏆 “Winner” 🏆
Rick and Morty Season 5

After four pretty strong and funny seasons, Rick and Morty stumbled this year. It felt to me like the writers had become a little too aware of the show’s success and place in pop culture – and didn’t really know how to handle that. Season 5 was bland and forgettable, with several episodes that didn’t even win a smile, let alone a laugh.

Rick and Morty crossed over from being a fun series with a cult following and really hit the mainstream somewhere around its third season, and clearly that’s been a double-edged sword. Too many of the attempted jokes this year came across as either desperate or else simply as gross-outs or edginess for the sake of it.

Though the show had a few successful moments, such as the scenes between Rick and Birdperson toward the end of the season, Season 5 has to be considered a failure.

Best TV series:

🥈 Runner-Up 🥈
Foundation

The first season of Foundation was imperfect but nevertheless good. The novels upon which Foundation is based are incredibly dense works that can, at points, feel more like philosophy than sci-fi, so bringing something like that to the small screen was no small challenge – but Apple TV+ stepped up.

Jared Harris put in a wonderful performance as Hari Seldon, and was joined by several actors with whom I was less familiar – but who all did an outstanding job. Foundation is also a visually beautiful series, one which makes great use of Apple’s high CGI budget. A second season has already been confirmed – so that’s something to look forward to in 2022!

🏆 Winner 🏆
The Wheel of Time

The Wheel of Time was the first of Amazon’s two big-budget fantasy shows to make it to screen. We’ll have to wait until next year for the corporation’s Lord of the Rings prequel/adaptation, but The Wheel of Time is definitely a show worth watching in its own right. It has struggled, at times, to break out from the shadows of both Game of Thrones and the aforementioned Tolkien adaptation, but I’m so glad that I gave it a chance to impress me on its own merits.

Outside of the Star Trek franchise, The Wheel of Time is unquestionably the best television show I’ve seen all year. Amazon managed to adapt the first part of a long and complex story in a way that was understandable and easy to follow, bringing a new high fantasy world to the screen for the first time. There are some fantastic performances from Rosamund Pike and Madeleine Madden in particular, making The Wheel of Time a series to get lost in.

The first season concluded recently, and a second is already on the way! I can hardly wait.

Worst Video Game:

🏆 “Winner” 🏆
Mass Effect: Legendary Edition

This is a difficult one. There were plenty of bad games this year – games with horribly intrusive monetisation, overladen with bugs, or that just plain sucked. But for me, the year’s most egregious video game failure is a so-called “remaster” that was lazy, that didn’t feel like much of an upgrade, and that left me incredibly disappointed when I consider what might have been.

Mass Effect: Legendary Edition contains a number of bugs that were present in the original versions of its three constituent games; bugs that BioWare failed to fix. Its visual upgrade, coming less than ten years after the third game in the series, was already going to be a hard sell, but there seem to be many textures that BioWare either didn’t touch at all or else did the absolute bare minimum to.

And that’s Mass Effect: Legendary Edition in a nutshell: it’s a “remaster” that tried to get away with doing the absolute bare minimum. The sad thing is that I adore the Mass Effect games – but this version was so much less than it should’ve been.

Best Video Game:

🥈 Runner-Up 🥈
Road 96

Road 96 is quite unlike anything else I’ve played all year – and probably for quite a long time before that too! The game focuses on characters, introducing players to dozens of completely unique NPCs during a branching quest to escape a totalitarian state. It’s a road trip game… but that definition scarcely does it justice.

Road 96 has a beautiful art style, too, one that really brings to life its characters and American Southwest-inspired locales. There’s a wonderful soundtrack that accompanies the game, one with a definite ’80s inspiration – which I’m totally there for! It’s hard to go into too much detail without spoiling Road 96, and it’s an experience I really think you should try for yourself in as unspoiled a manner as possible.

🏆 Winner 🏆
Kena: Bridge of Spirits

When I was thinking about my pick for “game of the year,” there was never any doubt in my mind that Kena: Bridge of Spirits would take the trophy. It’s one of the most visually beautiful games that I’ve ever played, bringing an almost Disney-esque art style to life in the most fantastic way possible.

Kena: Bridge of Spirits is a modern-looking game with a distinctly old-school feel to it. The game combines elements of puzzle-solving and 3D platforming with some tight, focused combat, and the addition of the Rot – little critters that accompany Kena – is both adorable and incredibly useful. Collecting things in video games can feel like busywork, but because Kena’s power grows with every Rot she picks up, even this aspect of the game manages to feel worthwhile.

Kena: Bridge of Spirits had been one of my most-anticipated games of the year. It didn’t just meet my expectations – it surpassed them by a country mile.

Worst Film:

🏆 “Winner” 🏆
Zack Snyder’s Justice League

Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a film that tried to be dark and edgy and in doing so ended up robbing its source material of any of the fun and entertainment value it could’ve had. DC Comics has struggled to compete with Marvel, failing to recognise that it’s Marvel’s blend of humour and action that makes those films so appealing to many viewers. Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a case in point – and a great example, in my opinion, of a film that completely misses the mark.

Perhaps to distinguish it from the likes of The Avengers, Zack Snyder’s Justice League was packed with gimmicks, too. An incredibly dark and boring colour palette drowned the film in grey, black, and brown tones, and some scenes were so poorly-lit that following the action became difficult. It was also shot in a weird 4:3 aspect ratio – again, seemingly for the sake of a gimmick.

I’m genuinely happy for fans of DC who worked hard to secure the so-called “Snyder Cut” after a long campaign. But the end result was, for me, the worst film I’ve seen all year. And this was a year where I watched Space Jam: A New Legacy.

Best Film:

🥈 Runner-Up 🥈
Raya and the Last Dragon

I paid a lot of money (by my standards, at least) to watch Raya and the Last Dragon on Disney+! Maybe I should’ve waited the extra couple of months, but I was genuinely interested to see the latest big Disney animated picture. The one surprise was the lack of any musical numbers, but despite that I had a good time with Raya and the Last Dragon.

Kelly Marie Tran put in an outstanding performance as the titular Raya, a young woman on a quest to restore the life of a dragon and reunite a fractured land loosely based on Southeast Asia. The film was dramatic and exciting, with a fun cast of characters. It’s also noteworthy that all of the main characters – heroes and villains – were women.

Now that it’s on Disney+ (and out on DVD and Blu-Ray) it’s definitely worth a watch.

🏆 Winner 🏆
Dune

I was worried that Dune would once again prove to be too difficult to adapt, but I was thrilled to see that I was wrong! Dune is a sci-fi masterpiece, and if its second instalment comes anywhere close to living up to this first part, I think we’ll be talking about the duology alongside the likes of The Lord of the Rings in years to come as being an absolute classic.

Dune is a long and occasionally dense book, so condensing it down and keeping a cinematic adaptation with a large cast of characters easy to follow was no mean feat. Director Denis Villeneuve did an outstanding job, and every aspect of the film, from its dialogue to its visual effects, are pitch-perfect.

I’ve had a review of this one in the pipeline for a while, so stay tuned in the new year – I might finally get around to finishing it!

Most Exciting Announcement:

🥈 Runner-Up 🥈
Wicked

Picture Credit: Wicked the Musical London.

I was very lucky to have seen Wicked on the stage in London early in its run, and the soundtrack has to be up there as one of the best modern musicals. The announcement of a film adaptation came as a truly welcome surprise this year, and I will follow its progress with anticipation!

A spin-off from The Wizard of Oz, Wicked purports to tell the story from “the other side” – i.e. the Wicked Witch’s point of view. Disney in particular has shown in recent years that this concept can work exceptionally well, and Wicked pulls it off. The musical and the book that inspired it are very different, but both are enjoyable in their own ways – and I hope the film will be as well!

🏆 Winner 🏆
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic Remake

Early in 2021 there were rumours of a Knights of the Old Republic game being in development, but it wasn’t until September that its existence was finally confirmed. A full-scale remake of the first game in the series is being worked on, and the idea of being able to go back and replay one of my favourite Star Wars games of all time is a truly exciting one!

So far all we’ve seen has been a CGI teaser, so the game is probably a couple of years away. But it’s still good to have something like this to look forward to! After several years of very limited success under Electronic Arts, Star Wars games are now being tackled by more developers and publishers – meaning we should see more from the franchise in the years ahead. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a remake of Knights of the Old Republic II after this one!

Best Star Trek Episode:

🥈 Runner-Up 🥈
There Is A Tide…
Discovery Season 3

There Is A Tide is basically “Star Trek does Die Hard!” If that sounds like fun to you, then we are definitely on the same page! Featuring a desperate plan to re-take the USS Discovery following its capture by a villainous faction, Michael Burnham, Tilly, and several members of the bridge crew all get their chances to be action heroes.

It isn’t an entirely self-contained episode, as it brings to a head Starfleet’s conflict with the aforementioned villainous faction that had been running for much of the season, as well as containing other ongoing story threads. But it works well as a single episode, too, with an explosive and action-packed story that feels like it was lifted right out of an action blockbuster!

There Is A Tide is a great episode for Michael Burnham, but it’s also good for Admiral Vance as well. He truly seems to embody the values that Starfleet and the Federation have always held, and anyone who feels that Discovery has placed less of an emphasis on that should pay attention to Vance’s scenes in particular.

🏆 Winner 🏆
First First Contact
Lower Decks Season 2

First First Contact is an incredibly well-done episode of Lower Decks. The series’ trademark sense of humour is still present, but we see the entire crew of the USS Cerritos working hard to overcome an incredibly difficult challenge and save not only an ailing Starfleet ship but also an entire planet. The crew rise to the occasion as we always knew they could, and First First Contact hits all of the emotional highs you could ever want from an episode of Star Trek.

It’s also an episode that truly embraces the spirit of the franchise. The Cerritos’ crew aren’t faced with some horrible monster or alien to defeat, instead the puzzle that lies before them is scientific – and the solution to it has to be as well. All of the main and secondary characters get moments in the spotlight, and First First Contact even found time to further advance the relationship between Ensign Mariner and Captain Freeman.

Finally, there was an incredible moment of symmetry toward the end of the episode, as the Cerritos saved the day in a very similar fashion to how it had to be saved in the Season 1 finale. That moment was pitch-perfect – and I won’t lie… I teared up!

So that’s it!

We’ve dished out a handful of awards to some of the best – and worst – entertainment experiences of the year. 2021 is a difficult one to summarise. The ongoing disruption caused by the pandemic has been noticeable, with delays and even some cancellations getting in the way and spoiling the fun. But there were some fantastic projects across cinema, television, and video games too – including some brand-new titles that I feel have the potential to lead to ongoing franchises, or to be talked about a lot in future as classics of their various genres.

As 2022 approaches, I hope you’ll stay tuned for a lot more to come from Trekking with Dennis! In the days ahead I plan to look forward to some of the films, games, and television shows that we could enjoy throughout the coming year, so definitely stay tuned for that! And I have a number of reviews and other articles in the pipeline.

So the only thing left to do is to wish you a very Happy New Year! Whatever you have planned for tonight, I hope you have an amazing time. See you next year!

All titles listed above are the copyright of their respective owner, company, studio, broadcaster, developer, distributor, publisher, etc. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.


Check out reviews or articles featuring some of the films, games, and TV shows mentioned on this list by clicking or tapping the links below:

Lego Star Wars: Terrifying Tales

Rick and Morty Season 5

The Wheel of Time

Mass Effect: Legendary Edition

Kena: Bridge of Spirits

Zack Snyder’s Justice League

Raya and the Last Dragon

Wicked

Knights of the Old Republic Remake

Discovery 3×12 There Is A Tide…

Lower Decks 2×10 First First Contact

The Matrix Resurrections – film review

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for all four films in The Matrix series.

It had been a while since I watched The Matrix and its sequels. The 1999 original has become somewhat of a sci-fi classic, with several themes and rhetorical devices entering popular culture and our shared lexicon – albeit not always in the ways the filmmakers intended! Phrases like “a glitch in the Matrix” to refer to déjà vu (or anything else that looks or feels odd), and of course the famous blue and red pills as metaphors for comfortable ignorance versus unpleasant truths have taken on lives of their own far beyond The Matrix and its sequels.

Coming almost two decades after The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, there were questions facing The Matrix Resurrections. Could it live up to its predecessors? Could it recapture the magic of “bullet time” and the blend of metaphor and philosophical themes with sci-fi action? With the story seemingly concluded and several main characters dead, what else was there to explore in this fictional universe? From my point of view as someone who’s been exploring my own gender identity and identifying with The Matrix’s core concept of living a false life, I was very interested to see what the film would have to say about trans and non-binary issues as well.

Are you ready to re-enter the Matrix?

From the points of view of visual effects and cinematography, The Matrix Resurrections delivered pretty much everything I could have wanted or expected – but it didn’t really go beyond that. The original film was groundbreaking in 1999 with its incredibly dense yet beautifully-choreographed action sequences and, of course, the pioneering use of the aforementioned “bullet time.” Resurrections brought those same elements back to the table, and I thoroughly enjoyed them all over again. It didn’t feel pioneering or new any more, and perhaps in that sense some of the magic of the original film was missing. But asking every film to do something completely brand-new – especially the fourth film in a series – is probably too much.

Many films – probably most – don’t pioneer brand-new ways of filmmaking or never-before-seen visual styles, and we still enjoy them! So I don’t want to be too harsh on The Matrix Resurrections: it does its action sequences, its “bullet time,” and the rest of its visuals and special effects exceptionally well, far better than many titles released over the past two decades. Lana Wachowski has lost none of her edge as a filmmaker and director, and the way she frames some of the densely-packed action set-pieces, combined with the series’ use of its signature “bullet time” works just as well in Resurrections as it ever did.

Visual effects were great in The Matrix Resurrections.

I don’t know what the reasons are behind the re-casting of characters Agent Smith and Morpheus, so I don’t want to speak out of turn or criticise individual actors, the director, or anyone else involved in the casting. Looking at the way these characters are used in Resurrections itself, though, I can’t shake the feeling that bringing back the original actors would have had far more of an impact. One big part of what makes Resurrections work so well is the on-screen chemistry between Keanu Reeves’ Neo and Carrie-Ann Moss’ Trinity. Morpheus and Agent Smith were big parts of that story too, and the recasting is, at the very least, noticeable. At worst, it feels out-of-place and even detracts, at points, from our big return to this fictional universe.

This isn’t a criticism of either Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, who has taken over the role of Morpheus, nor of Jonathan Groff, who took over as Agent Smith. Both characters are different iterations of the characters we met in the original films, and both actors do a wonderful job. It just feels that, in a story that’s partly about the past, breaking away from the past, and how past events in one’s life can cast a shadow, recasting these two key characters took away something valuable.

The re-casting of key characters was noticeable.

Setting aside the story for a moment, let’s talk about The Matrix Resurrections in terms of theme, metaphor, and the film’s philosophy. It was only on re-watching the original films having heard other people talking about its transgender allegory that I really came to understand how well it works. The conclusion of The Matrix Revolutions saw Neo (as The One) bring the Matrix itself to a screeching halt, shattering the false world and liberating himself and those around him. To continue the transgender metaphor, this can be argued to represent a closeted trans person breaking out of either their self-imposed or societally-imposed shell, liberating their true self and being able to live openly as the person they are – and always needed to be.

Resurrections, if it were to continue that allegory, had to find a way around what is a fairly typical issue that many sequels face. I’ve called this the “Disney problem” on more than one occasion, as many Disney films struggle to find a way to make a successful sequel, and it’s summarised thus: what comes after “happily ever after,” and how do you tell that story without tearing down the successes and emotional high points of the original work? The Matrix Revolutions didn’t really leave an opening for a sequel, at least not one featuring Neo and Trinity, so Resurrections had to find a way around this. Both narratively and thematically, the film absolutely nailed it.

Figuring out why Neo was back in the Matrix, and how he’d survived, were hurdles that Resurrections easily overcame.

Yes, there’s sci-fi fun going on. The Machines quite literally resurrected Neo and Trinity, putting them back in their shells and using them to power an new and improved version of the Matrix, one which was better and more efficient at keeping people trapped. But beyond that, there’s also the continuation of this important and inspirational trans journey.

And some people, judging by some incredibly offensive and provocative comments online, have reacted very poorly to that. The usual arguments about “wokeness” have emerged – seemingly directed at the fact that the film has a trans director, even though the film itself contains practically no overt mentions or depictions of any LGBT+ characters. What’s present is there at a thematic level, partly because companies like Warner Bros. want to make stripped-down films that they can sell in markets where homophobia and transphobia are rife. In fact, that was one of the things that I was surprised and perhaps a tad disappointed about with The Matrix Resurrections: although it’s a film with a transgender director and two gay main cast members, there was practically no open mention of LGBT+ issues nor any significant depictions of LGBT+ characters. Despite that, some so-called “critics” seem to only have this to say about The Matrix Resurrections when attacking it online:

(Yes, that’s an actual line from Family Guy…)

The Matrix Resurrections is, if you look at it on the surface, somewhat regressive. It takes Neo back to his closeted status, undoing three films’ worth of progress and a “coming out” analogy that many trans people found to be powerful. But as a standalone piece, the depiction of Neo’s life inside the Matrix at the beginning of Resurrections is so much more powerful and meaningful than it was in any of the original films – or indeed in all three combined.

I can barely find words to express how much the depiction of Neo at the beginning of the film resonated with me. Both from the point of view of mental health and as someone who has only recently began to make cracks in my own “shell” as a non-binary person, the way Neo was written and the way he comes across is so much more impactful in Resurrections. His struggles, his dependence on medication, his therapy sessions and questioning who he is and where he fits in this world are all incredibly powerful moments. At several points I had to pause Resurrections to catch my breath or wipe away tears. Seeing Neo in this way felt real – it felt like seeing a reflection of myself through Keanu Reeves’ incredible performance and Lana Wachowski’s beautiful writing and directing.

The blue pills are a returning rhetorical device.

The Matrix in 1999 either didn’t intend to depict this aspect of living a lie in such detail, or else brushed it under the carpet to get to the action. But Resurrections builds up to the action slowly, deliberately spending more time with a trapped Neo, someone who realises something is wrong but who seems desperate to push those feelings down – taking inordinate amounts of blue pills as medication to help with that. One of the early sequences with Neo and his therapist – played in a wonderfully nuanced performance by Neil Patrick Harris – truly embodied the struggle that many gender-nonconforming people go through. Seeing such a powerful depiction of something that I can relate to – because I’ve felt that way too – has been an incredible experience.

I didn’t come to The Matrix Resurrections for mindless action. In one of its more meta, self-aware sequences, the film itself pointed out that mind-numbing action isn’t “on brand” for the series. I’d argue that any adult who’s shown up for Resurrections expecting nothing but sci-fi and action has kind of missed the point: The Matrix as a series has always had a strong philosophical bent to it, one that can be interpreted in as many different ways as there are viewers. For transgender and non-binary people, these aspects of the story come to the fore. For other viewers, though, the film’s messages can be read through a lens of mental health, of escaping an unsatisfying or boring life, of finding a second life through online interaction, anti-capitalism, and many more besides.

I found the film’s depiction of Neo to be very relatable.

An unexpected inclusion in Resurrections was the coming together of liberated humans and machines – now known as synthients. The idea that the conflict between humans and machines wasn’t totally black-and-white, and that some machines could become friends and allies to humans was an interesting one – but one that Resurrections perhaps didn’t take as far as it could’ve. There’s a great kernel of an idea, but in a film that had a lot of other narratives to cram into its two-and-a-half-hour runtime, this rebel machine angle didn’t go as deep as some of the others. The reasons why some machines rebelled, and why those rebels sought out humans as allies, were never fully addressed. Perhaps that’s something a future sequel could pick up, as I feel there’s potential in a storyline about overcoming conflict and learning to let go of hate.

Speaking of sequels and The Matrix as a franchise, the film had some incredibly meta moments of self-reflection. Some of these were played almost for laughs, but others had a distinctly unsettling feel, as if the film was getting inside my head and blurring the lines between reality and fiction – itself a theme present in the film’s opening act. I wasn’t expecting this meta commentary on the nature of sequels, franchises, and the state of the entertainment landscape in 2021 – nor was I expecting a self-referential comment about Warner Bros., the company behind the film. Maybe this is a comparison that no one else will get, but I felt it was the second time this year that I’ve seen this kind of self-referential meta commentary from a Warner Bros. picture; the company did something similar in, of all titles, Space Jam: A New Legacy.

There was a lot of meta commentary about filmmaking and sequels.

One really interesting visual metaphor that the film made use of was the mirror. Mirrors cropped up many times, serving as portals within the Matrix. Again, speaking as someone who is non-binary, I haven’t always liked the reflection in the mirror. The clever use of visual effects to show Neo in particular looking in the mirror and not recognising himself, or seeing flashes of someone else that he didn’t recognise, is something that spoke to me in a way I was not expecting.

When I’ve looked in the mirror, the person looking back hasn’t been the person I want to be; it isn’t a reflection of my true self, the version of me that I want to be. Many people can relate to that in various ways, I have no doubt about that; we all have features or imperfections we’d like to change if we could. Just like with many other themes present in Resurrections and the entire Matrix series, this can be read differently by different viewers. Trans and non-binary viewers, I would suggest from my own experience, will relate very strongly to the way mirrors are used, though. A mirror is supposed to be a totally accurate reflection of oneself – but speaking from experience, a mirror can also be something to be avoided; a harsh reflection of someone we don’t identify with or wish was fundamentally different.

Mirrors became an important visual metaphor throughout the film’s opening act.

Let’s conclude by talking about the film’s actual narrative and story. The reason for Neo and Trinity being back in the Matrix – and the Matrix itself being bigger and more powerful – was kind of technobabbley, but I didn’t hate it. It was a gateway to something significant, and without it the film itself wouldn’t have been possible. I think as a narrative point it does work, but the film was definitely better for not spending too much time trying to over-explain how Neo and Trinity came to be trapped again and what the Analyst’s plans were.

The new character of Bugs was fun; a clever riff on a character concept from previous entries in the series who felt distinct, yet familiar. There was a bit of forced drama in the conflict between Bugs and Niobe – the latter now in command of the new human-synthient settlement of Io. That particular story beat didn’t really go anywhere; Niobe was concerned about the safety of the settlement, yet it never really felt as though it were under threat nor in any danger, despite the plan Bugs, Neo, and Morpheus came up with to rescue Trinity.

I didn’t feel this conflict was the film’s strongest narrative choice.

I liked seeing Agent Smith as a character outside of his usual role. He was definitely still an antagonist, but the addition of the Analyst as the program in control of the Matrix had untethered Smith. His desire to remain free from outside control was understandable at first – but was subsequently traded away for a redux of the Neo-versus-Smith battles from earlier films. It was still neat to see an unexpected team-up, however brief, between Neo and Smith – though I come back to what I said earlier: this would’ve worked a lot better if the original actor had been able to reprise the role.

The Analyst was a wonderfully nuanced character, and Neil Patrick Harris put in a great performance. The Analyst had taken over the Matrix, rebuilding it around Neo and Trinity and using their emotional connection to manipulate people and thus make the Matrix even more efficient. This gave the story the necessary explanation to function, and served as a decent motivation for the Analyst’s character.

The Analyst made for a great antagonist.

The synthient Sati – played by Priyanka Chopra Jonas – gave us a lot more information about the synthients, and was the best and most interesting machine portrayal in the film. She also had a connection to the original films, having briefly met Neo years earlier. Her motivation to rebel and to seek to see the Matrix shut down was easily understood: having seen her parents killed, she essentially wanted revenge.

None of these characters – or the other secondary characters – felt flat or uninteresting; I was genuinely curious to learn more about them and the places they occupied in this dystopian world. Each felt distinct, each had a purpose, and they were all written sympathetically. The story was complicated in places, and I think casual viewers or those not up to speed on the events of the original films will struggle in places to follow some of the denser moments which rely on lore and backstory to make sense. But The Matrix Resurrections is a sequel – part four in a series. Even though it’s coming almost two decades later, you can’t expect it to spend all of its runtime re-explaining events from the past!

The film relies on earlier entries in the series to make sense of its storylines.

Resurrections included a fair amount of footage from the original Matrix films, some of which were very brief clips that were only on screen for a second or two. This abrupt editing was a risky choice – it could have felt cheap or even lazy; a direct appeal to fans of the original films. However, I don’t believe this is how it comes across. It continues that feeling of being unsettled, of feeling that there’s another life that one could or should be living. In Neo and Trinity’s cases, these came in the form of memory and flashback – which is where the very literal use of clips from the original films come in. In the case of trans and non-binary people, to continue that theme, these clips could represent the true self that exists outside of the shell, bubble, or closet in which one is trapped.

I found The Matrix Resurrections to be a deeply emotional experience – and a film I’m incredibly grateful to have been able to see. As I continue my own gender identity journey as a non-binary person, films like Resurrections are important and helpful. Seeing moments that I could relate to depicted as visual metaphors in a film laced with analogy and allegory was powerful, but also absolutely fascinating.

Fans of the original films will find something to like – if they’re prepared to give Resurrections a fair shake on its own merits and not get bogged down in arguments about “wokeness” and the like. Though there were things I felt missed the mark, overall I have to say that Resurrections is one of the most complex, raw, and brutally honest films I’ve seen all year. It retains all of the signature elements from the original films, and for people who aren’t interested in a metaphorical or philosophical reading it’s possible to enjoy Resurrections as a work of action-sci-fi. For me, though, the powerful themes resonated with me, and made The Matrix Resurrections a film that was both an entertaining watch and, at times, a deeply emotional and cathartic experience.

The Matrix Resurrections is out now in cinemas and is available to stream on HBO Max. The Matrix Resurrections is the copyright of Village Roadshow Pictures and/or Warner Bros. Pictures. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

A handful of older films, games, and TV shows that I enjoyed in 2021

Spoiler Warning: Minor spoilers may be present for some of the entries on this list.

At this time of year, practically every outlet – from dying newspapers to new social media channels – churns out list upon list of the best entertainment products of the year. The top threes, top fives, top tens and more of 2021 abound! I have something similar in the pipeline, but today I wanted to take a look back at a handful of films, games, and TV shows from previous years that I found myself enjoying in 2021.

I have long and seemingly ever-growing lists of films, games, and TV shows that I keep meaning to get around to! I still haven’t seen Breaking Bad, for example, nor played The Witcher 3, despite the critical and commercial acclaim they’ve enjoyed! I also have a huge number of entertainment properties that I keep meaning to re-visit, some of which I haven’t seen since we wrote years beginning with “1.” In 2021 I got around to checking out a few titles from both of these categories, and since there are some that I haven’t discussed I thought the festive season would be a great opportunity for a bit of positivity and to share some of my personal favourite entertainment experiences of 2021… even though they weren’t brand-new!

Film #1:
The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-03)

We’ve recently marked the 20th anniversary of The Fellowship of the Ring, the first part of Peter Jackson’s epic adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s magnum opus. The passage of time has done nothing to detract from these amazing films, and this year a 4K Blu-Ray release has them looking better than ever before.

The early 2000s had some serious pitfalls for film and television. CGI was becoming more mainstream and many filmmakers sought to take advantage of it, but just look to the Star Wars prequels and how outdated the CGI in those titles is; it hasn’t held up well at all. The majority of the special effects in The Lord of the Rings were practical, and combined with clever cinematography even incredibly dense and complex battle sequences still look fantastic two decades on.

Though I don’t re-watch The Lord of the Rings every single year without fail, I’m happy to return to the trilogy time and again – and I almost certainly will be for the rest of my days! The Hobbit and Tolkien’s Middle-earth was one of the first fantasy worlds I encountered as a young child; I can vaguely remember the book being read to me when I was very small. The conventional wisdom for years was that The Lord of the Rings was unfilmable – but Peter Jackson proved that wrong in some style!

Film #2:
Despicable Me (2010)

I spotted this while browsing Netflix one evening, and despite having seen at least one film with the Minions, I hadn’t actually seen the title that started it all. I have to confess that I didn’t have particularly high expectations, thinking I was in for a bog-standard animated comedy. But Despicable Me has heart, and there were some genuinely emotional moments hidden inside.

The Minions got most of the attention in the aftermath of Despicable Me, and can now be found on everything from memes to greetings cards! The critters are cute, but they’re also somewhat limited – and I think it’s for that reason that I didn’t really expect too much from Despicable Me except for maybe a few laughs and a way to kill an empty evening. I was pleasantly surprised to find a much more substantial film than I’d been expecting.

There were still plenty of laughs and a ton of cartoon silliness to enjoy and to keep the tone light-hearted. But there was a surprisingly emotional story between the villainous Gru and the three children he adopts – especially Margo, the eldest. I can finally understand why the film has spawned four sequels, fifteen shorts, and a whole range of merchandise!

Film #3:
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)

The Final Frontier has a number of issues that I’m sure most of you will be aware of. It arguably suffered from a little too much involvement from William Shatner, who sought to put Captain Kirk at the centre of the story at the expense of others. But The Final Frontier has some truly great character moments, including one of the final times that Kirk, Spock, and Dr McCoy would be together before The Undiscovered Country brought an end to Star Trek’s original era.

The film has some truly funny moments, too: the scene where Uhura catches Chekov and Sulu pretending to be caught in a storm being one, and Scotty’s moment of slapstick being another that never fails to win a chuckle. The Undiscovered Country was a great send-off for Star Trek’s original crew, but it was quite a heavy film with a lot of tense moments and high-octane action. The Final Frontier brings more light-hearted moments to the table, and that’s something I can appreciate when I’m in the right mood.

There are some exciting sequences too, though. The shuttle crash is a very tense and dramatic moment, and the final confrontation with the entity at the centre of the galaxy, while silly in some respects, does succeed at hitting at least some of those same dramatic highs. Though I wouldn’t suggest that The Final Frontier is anywhere near the best that Star Trek has to offer, it’s well worth a watch from time to time.

Game #1:
Control (2019)

Though hardly an “old” game, I missed Control when it was released in 2019. It had been on my list for a couple of years, and I was pleased to finally get around to playing it this year. The game had a far creepier atmosphere than I’d been expecting, with protagonist Jesse having to battle an unseen enemy called the Hiss.

One thing I really admire about Control is the way it made incredibly creative use of some fairly plain environments. The entire game takes place in what’s essentially a glorified office building, and rows of cubicles or the janitor’s workspace could, in other games, come across as feeling bland and uninspired. But Control leans into this, using the environments as a strength, juxtaposing them with incredibly weird goings-on at the Bureau of Control.

I also liked that, for the first time in years, we got full-motion video sequences in a game! FMV was a fad in gaming in the early/mid-1990s I guess, primarily on PC, and titles like Command and Conquer and Star Trek: Starfleet Academy made use of it. It had been years since I played a game with FMV elements, and it worked exceptionally well in Control – as well as being a completely unexpected blast of nostalgia!

Game #2:
Super Mario 64 (1996)

Despite the serious limitations of Super Mario 3D All-Stars on the Nintendo Switch, which I picked up last year, I can’t deny that it’s been fun to return to Super Mario 64. One of the first fully 3D games I ever played, Super Mario 64 felt like the future in the late ’90s, and even some titles released this year, such as Kena: Bridge of Spirits, owe parts of their 3D platforming to the pioneering work that Nintendo did with this game.

Super Mario 64 is and always has been good, solid fun. There doesn’t need to be an in-depth, complex story driving Mario forward to collect stars, because the game’s levels and bosses are all so incredibly cleverly-designed. Jumping in and out of different painting worlds is relatively quick and feels great, and the sheer diversity of environments is still noteworthy in 2021. Mario goes on a journey that takes him through snowy mountains, a sunken shipwreck, sunlit plains, cities, clouds, and more.

I can’t in good conscience recommend Super Mario 3D All-Stars. The way these games have been adapted for Nintendo Switch isn’t worth the asking price. But even so, going back to Super Mario 64 has been one of my favourite parts of 2021, a chance to reconnect with a game I played and loved on the Nintendo 64. If you’ve never played it, track down a copy and give it a go. You won’t regret it.

Game #3:
Red Dead Redemption II (2018)

I’d been meaning to get around to Red Dead Redemption II for three years – but I’d always found a reason not to pick it up (usually it was too expensive!) It took forever to download on my painfully slow internet connection, but it was well worth the wait. I’ve had a fascination with America in the 19th Century for as long as I can remember – I guess partly inspired by playground games of “the wild west” that were fairly common when I was young. I even had a cowboy hat, toy gun, and “Davy Crockett” hat when I was a kid!

Red Dead Redemption II transported me to that world in a way that I genuinely did not think was possible. Films and TV shows can do a great job at pulling you in and getting you lost in a fictional world, but the interactive element of video games can add to that immersion – something that was absolutely the case with Red Dead Redemption II. The amount of detail in the game’s characters and open-world environments is staggering, and having finally experienced it for myself I can absolutely understand why people hail this game as a “masterpiece.”

I wasn’t prepared for the many emotional gut-punches that Red Dead Redemption II had in store. In many ways the game tells a bleak and even depressing story, one with betrayal, death, and many examples of the absolute worst of humanity. But every once in a while there are some incredibly beautiful moments too, where characters sit together, sing, play, and revel in their bonds of friendship. Red Dead Redemption II gave me the wild west outlaw fantasy that my younger self could have only dreamed of!

TV series #1:
Star Trek: The Original Series (1966-69)

I’ve re-watched quite a lot of The Original Series this year, probably more episodes than I’d seen in the past few years. Because of its episodic nature, it’s easy to dip in and out of The Original Series, firing up an episode or two to spend an hour with Captain Kirk and the crew without feeling the need to commit to an entire season of television.

The Original Series started it all for Trekkies, and I’m always so pleased to see that modern Star Trek hasn’t lost sight of that. In this year’s episodes of Lower Decks and Discovery we’ve gotten many references and callbacks to Star Trek’s first series, keeping the show alive and relevant as we celebrated its fifty-fifth anniversary – and the centenary of its creator, Gene Roddenberry.

Though dated in some ways, many of the themes and metaphors present in The Original Series are still relevant today. Society has changed since the 1960s, but in some areas we’re still fighting the same or similar fights for acceptance, for equality, and so on. The Star Trek franchise has always had a lot to say about that, being in some ways a mirror of society and in others depicting a vision of a more enlightened, optimistic future.

TV series #2:
Fortitude (2015-18)

I went back to re-watch Fortitude this year, for the first time since its original run. The series starts very slowly, seeming at first to be little more than a murder-mystery in a different setting. But it builds up over the course of its first season into something truly unexpected, crossing over into moments of political thriller, action, and even horror.

There are some truly shocking and gruesome moments in Fortitude, and it can be a harrowing watch in places. But it’s riveting at the same time, and I managed to get hooked all over again by the complex characters, the mysteries and conspiracies, and the bleak but beautiful arctic environment.

Fortitude featured some star names among its cast, including Michael Gambon, Stanley Tucci, and Dennis Quaid – the second-most-famous Dennis to be featured on this website! Although it was fun to watch it weekly during its original run, Fortitude is definitely a show that can be enjoyed on a binge!

TV series #3:
Family Guy (1999-Present)

Family Guy’s sense of humour sometimes runs aground for me, dragging out jokes too long or failing to pay off neat setups with decent punchlines. But with the full series (up to midway through Season 20 at time of writing) available on Disney+, I’ve found myself putting it on in the background a lot this year. The short runtime of episodes, the lightheartedness, and the way many of the jokes are often disconnected from whatever nonsense plot the episodes have going on all come together to make it something I can dip in and out of while doing other things.

There are some insensitive jokes, and some entire storylines in earlier episodes have aged rather poorly. But Family Guy seldom strikes me as a show punching down; it satirises and pokes fun at many different groups. In that sense it’s kind of halfway between The Simpsons and South Park; the former being more sanitised and family-friendly, the latter being edgier and meaner.

I rarely sit down and think “gosh, I must watch the latest Family Guy episode.” But if I’m in need of background noise or something to fill up twenty minutes, I find I’ll happily log into Disney+ and put on an episode or two.

So that’s it.

There have been some great films, games, and television shows that were released in 2021. But there were also plenty of entertainment experiences from years past that, in different ways, brightened my year. As we gear up for New Year and for everyone’s end-of-year top-ten lists, I wanted to take a moment to acknowledge that.

I hope you had a Merry Christmas, a Happy Holiday, or just a relaxing day yesterday! I did consider writing something to mark the day, but I found that I had remarkably little to say that was different from the piece I wrote last year. 2021 has been “2020 II” in so many respects, unfortunately. However, unlike last Christmas I will be able to visit with some family members – I’ll be seeing my sister and brother-in-law later this week, which will be a nice treat! So here’s to 2021’s entertainment experiences – and as we enter the new year, it’s worth keeping in mind that we don’t only have to watch and play the latest and newest ones!

All titles on the list above are the copyright of their respective broadcaster, distributor, developer, network, publisher, studio, etc. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Five films (and TV specials) to watch this Holiday Season!

Christmas is edging closer by the day! The main event itself is now only a couple of weeks away, so we’re well and truly in the wintery grip of the Holiday Season. This time I thought it could be fun to take a look at five films and television specials that make for great festive viewing.

Although I’m not a religious person by any stretch, Christmas has always been an event I look forward to… beginning as early as September! Though not every Christmas was perfect when I was a kid, I have some pretty happy memories of this time of year, and there’s something about the juxtaposition of the cold, dark winter going on outside with the warmth and the twinkling lights of a Christmas tree inside that really makes this time of year feel special, almost magical!

Christmas is coming!

Between the lights, decorations, and festive pop hits, I think it’s fair to say I’m all about the secular, commercial side of Christmas; Santa Claus, not Jesus, stands out to me as the season’s main character! So that’s my mindset as we go into this list.

Please keep in mind, as always, that this list is wholly subjective. If you don’t like any of these Christmas films and television specials, that’s perfectly fine. I’m not trying to pretend that these are the “all-time best ever” Christmas specials, or anything of the sort!

With that caveat out of the way, let’s dive into the list!

Number 1:
The Polar Express (2004)

The titular Polar Express.

When it was released in 2004, The Polar Express received criticism for its “creepy” CGI – but I think it’s safe to say that its semi-realistic animated style has aged pretty well. Tom Hanks stars in this modern animated classic, and takes on several different voice roles across the film. Not providing names for main characters is a risk (not to mention something you’d get a failing grade for in most creative writing classes!) but that doesn’t actually hamper The Polar Express. The nameless protagonists are arguably more relatable as a result, allowing the audience to project themselves onto the characters with ease.

There may have been a couple of Christmases when I was very young where I did, in fact, believe in Santa Claus (or Father Christmas, as we call him here in the UK). But my parents didn’t do the whole “all of your gifts come from Santa” thing, and among my earliest Christmas memories I can remember writing thank-you notes to family members for the gifts they’d given me. These things vary from family to family, though, and while I wouldn’t like to speak outside of my own experience, I think a lot of you probably have some recollection of believing in Santa Claus and subsequently losing that belief. It’s a theme that many different Christmas films have tackled – but The Polar Express gets it right. The protagonist learns, over the course of his adventures, to keep believing – a metaphor, perhaps, for valuing one’s childhood and remaining youthful.

The nameless protagonists.

I’ve always liked trains, and The Polar Express shows us a beautiful CGI rendition of an old-fashioned steam locomotive. Trains – model trains in particular – have somewhat of an association with Christmas, but this method of transporting kids to the North Pole was certainly unique! It gives The Polar Express a sense of adventure that road trip films and other films about long journeys often capture so well, with scenes like running around on the train roof and the train skidding across the ice all playing into that.

The Polar Express is a film with heart, but it’s also something a little different from the typical “let’s go and meet Santa Claus” fare of many other shows and films aimed at children. There’s a sense of scale in the journey we see the protagonists undertake, and because it’s told from a child’s perspective, there’s still some of that mystery and wonder; the sense that the kids don’t really know how everything works on the train. That magic is part of what makes the holidays so special.

Number 2:
The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special (2020)

Promo image for The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special.

I’ve had a review of this one in the pipeline since last year, but for various reasons it got buried under too many other writing projects in the days before Christmas! Stay tuned, though, because I daresay I’ll get around to a full write-up eventually! For now, let’s hit the key points. The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special is hilarious, and I found it to be a great palate-cleanser after The Rise of Skywalker had been such a disappointment.

Unlike this year’s Lego Star Wars Terrifying Tales, which focused solely on Poe Dameron, The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special brings back all of the main characters from the sequel trilogy – then takes a wild ride through all three of Star Wars’ main eras thanks to some well-timed space magic! Star Wars fans should appreciate many, many callbacks to past iterations of the franchise – not least the notorious Holiday Special, which was released in 1978 to critical derision!

Finn, Rey, Poe, Rose, and Chewbacca.

The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special is full to the brim with gentle jokes and parodies that poke fun at the Star Wars franchise without ever coming across as mean-spirited or laughing at fans. Some humourless fans, or those who want to lose themselves in that world, might find that offputting, but I reckon that a majority will be able to enjoy The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special for what it is: non-canon fun.

I was pleased to see that Disney+ is intent on doing more with the Star Wars brand than just serious projects like The Mandalorian, and in some respects I think we can argue that The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special – and other Lego Star Wars titles too – fill a niche similar to Star Trek: Lower Decks over in another wonderful sci-fi franchise. No Star Trek holiday special yet, though… but maybe one day!

Number 3:
I Won’t Be Home For Christmas
The Simpsons Season 26 (2014)

The Simpsons’ house all decorated for the season.

The Simpsons has undeniably lost its edge in recent seasons, and it’s increasingly rare to pluck out a genuinely good episode from the ever-growing pile – something I found out when I put together a list of a few of my favourite episodes earlier this year. But every now and then The Simpsons can still produce an episode somewhat akin to those from its more successful past. I Won’t Be Home For Christmas is, in my view anyway, among them.

Perhaps it’s the holiday theme that elevates what might otherwise be a less-enjoyable episode, but I find that there’s something very relatable about I Won’t Be Home For Christmas. A few years ago, when I was suffering with undiagnosed mental health issues and in the midst of a divorce, I found myself wandering the dark, empty streets on Christmas Eve – trying to clear my head. The sequences in which Homer does something similar in this episode really hit home for me because I’ve been in a similar position myself.

I found this presentation of Homer to be very relatable.

When you’re watching what feels like the whole rest of the world closing their doors and enjoying the holidays without you, life can feel incredibly lonely. Homer meets a number of characters on his own journey, but that sense of loneliness and missing out on what’s supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year is still a prevalent theme that runs through the entire story.

On a more positive note, I Won’t Be Home For Christmas features a couple of genuinely good jokes and laugh-out-loud moments. It also kicks off with a Christmas-themed reworking of the show’s famous opening sequence, so if you’re watching on Disney+ don’t hit the “skip intro” button! You’ll miss something fun if you do. In a lot of ways I feel echoes of Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire in I Won’t Be Home For Christmas – and not just because of its holiday setting. The episode feels like a throwback to earlier seasons, when The Simpsons as a whole was doing far better at producing stories like this one.

Number 4:
Winnie the Pooh and Christmas Too (1991)

Is that Santa and his reindeer?

My younger sister received a VHS copy of Winnie the Pooh and Christmas Too as a Christmas present (I would guess in 1992) and watched it endlessly! As a result, it’s probably one of the Christmas specials that I’ve seen most often – it was a mainstay in our house in the run-up to Christmas for several years in a row! What’s more, the original Winnie the Pooh books by A. A. Milne were permanent fixtures on my childhood bookshelf, and I’m sure those books were read to me when I was very small. So the entire Winnie the Pooh series is something I have a great fondness for!

Christmas is a time for nostalgic steps back like this, forgetting the modern world and all of its troubles for a while. Winnie the Pooh and Christmas Too is an incredibly sweet Christmas tale set in the Hundred Acre Wood, perfect for a few minutes wrapped up in Christmas-themed cuteness and escapism. Or is that just the nostalgia talking?

Eeyore, Piglet, Tigger, and Pooh.

Because Winnie the Pooh has always been pitched at very young children, the story here is rather basic. There’s a kerfuffle surrounding Christopher Robin’s letter to Santa, and Pooh tries to save the day. Despite those limitations, though, the story is incredibly cute, really sweet, and full to the brim with Christmas fun.

Winnie the Pooh and Christmas Too isn’t something I go back to year upon year; doing so would probably ruin the magic. But every once in a while I treat myself to this blast of very personal ’90s nostalgia and enjoy my memories of Christmases past. As 2021 looks set to be the second Christmas in a row where we may not be able to do everything we’d want, I think finding moments like that might be very important for a lot of folks.

Number 5:
Phineas and Ferb: Christmas Vacation (2009)

The special’s title card.

As a childless adult, Phineas and Ferb is a series that shouldn’t have had much appeal for me! But as I’ve said many times before, the best kids’ shows have something to offer adults as well, and when I sat down to watch Phineas and Ferb for the first time back when I had the Disney Channel, I found a truly engaging and fun little cartoon.

That extends to the Christmas special too, which is one of the high points of the entire series – in my subjective opinion, naturally! I’m a total sap for the “Christmas is in danger, someone needs to save it!” plot cliché, and Phineas and Ferb: Christmas Vacation puts the series’ trademark spin on that familiar premise. It’s a lot of fun!

Perry and Dr Doofenshmirtz.

I never miss an opportunity to talk about Phineas and Ferb. The show finished its run in 2015, but last year returned for a one-off Disney+ original film, which was absolutely fantastic too. Unlike some of the other entries on this list, which I’ll happily rewatch on occasion, I return to Phineas and Ferb: Christmas Vacation every year without fail – something I’ve done for a decade now!

Phineas and Ferb: Christmas Vacation keeps the series’ trademark twin storylines – the boys and the other kids on one side, Perry the Platypus and Dr Doofenshmirtz on the other. Both stories come together in one connected narrative, but the show sticks to its two angles throughout – and what results is a story with moments of excitement, high drama, and emotion as the boys race to save Christmas.

Bonus:
Animal Crossing: New Horizons
Nintendo Switch (2020)

Promo for New Horizons’ Christmas event.

If you’re an Animal Crossing player, Christmas Eve is where it’s at! But throughout December it’s possible to buy special seasonal items, to see your island all decorated for the holidays, and to take note of what some of your island friends might want by way of gifts! The Christmas event is known as Toy Day in the world of Animal Crossing, and while it’s possible to ignore it and get on with your regular island life, it’s a bit of fun to play through these one-off events.

As December dawns on your island – at least if you’re playing on a Northern Hemisphere island – snow will start to fall. You’ll be able to build a snowman every day – and building the perfect one unlocks special ice-themed items. There are snowflakes to catch, which are used as DIY ingredients to craft new seasonal items too.

A wintery New Horizons island!

Later in December, Isabelle will announce that she’s decorated some of the island’s trees – but only the pine trees. When I played last year not every pine was decorated, but those that were looked adorable with their little festive lights! Shaking these trees also provided yet another crafting material which could be used to create holiday-themed items.

I’ve been critical of New Horizons for its longevity in particular, but there are few games that offer this style of gameplay. Last year I played through the Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year events on my island, and I have to say I had a lot of fun with all of them. The Toy Day event on Christmas Eve (not Christmas Day!) is the kind of sweet Christmassy fun you’d expect from a game in the Animal Crossing series, and if you missed it last year it’s well worth playing through at least once.

So that’s it!

It’ll be the big day before we know it!

I’ve got a few more holiday-themed ideas for the website between now and Christmas – which is getting closer and closer by the day. I hope you like the festive banner and the little Santa hat on the website’s logo, too! I had fun messing around and putting those together.

There are lots of great festive films and holiday specials that I didn’t include on this list, so have a browse through the television listings or your streaming platform of choice. I’ll probably be checking out a mix of old favourites and new entries – there are always plenty of new holiday films every year. I’ve heard good things about 8-Bit Christmas this year, for example! I hope this list has been a bit of festive fun as we continue to get into a holiday groove!

All titles mentioned above are the copyright of their respective studio, distributor, broadcaster, streaming platform, etc. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

What a Wicked-ly good idea for a film!

Spoiler Warning: There are minor spoilers ahead for Wicked.

It’s just been announced that the popular musical Wicked is getting a film adaptation – and I think that sounds like a brilliant idea! Wicked is exactly the kind of musical that should make for a wonderful work of cinema, and it’s amazing in a way that it’s only now, almost twenty years since it made its Broadway debut, that a film adaptation has been greenlit. You’d think it might’ve happened sooner!

I was very fortunate to see Wicked when it came to London’s West End (the name for the city’s theatre district) in 2006. Idina Menzel – better known in recent years for her role as Elsa in Frozen and Frozen II – played the lead role, and I feel incredibly lucky to have seen her perform live. There’s something about seeing a musical like Wicked on the stage that really elevates it and makes it incredibly memorable – I miss being able to go to the theatre far more than I miss the cinema sometimes.

Idina Menzel in 2007’s Enchanted. She played the role of Elphaba in Wicked on the stage.

We can’t talk about Wicked without at least acknowledging its popular progenitor: the 1939 film adaptation of The Wizard of Oz. L. Frank Baum’s series of children’s books about Oz had been popular in the early part of the 20th Century, but the film adaptation of The Wizard of Oz is still what most people bring to mind first when they think about the fantasy setting. The film is an icon of cinema, and is responsible not only for the continued popularity of the setting, but was also hugely influential in the creation of the 1995 book Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West – upon which the popular musical is loosely based.

If you’re interested in a novel about existentialism and that deals with adult themes like cruelty and the treatment of people who are perceived as “different,” then check out Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. It’s a difficult, dense, and occasionally harrowing read – one that’s very different in many ways from the musical that it inspired. But it’s a fascinating look at the concept of a genuine outsider – and takes the Wicked Witch (who its author names Elphaba, in honour of L. Frank Baum) to completely different thematic places. Far from being a one-dimensional cackling villain, she’s given nuance and understandable motivations for behaving the way she does.

Cover for the 25th anniversary edition of the novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West.

I came to the book after having seen the musical – I believe I bought my copy then and there in the theatre – and I was genuinely shocked at the complex themes and adult tone. Wicked is a beautiful musical, but many of the novel’s subtler themes are lost amidst the glitz, glamour, and greasepaint of the stage production.

Given today’s entertainment and media landscape, I feel all but certain that the film adaptation of Wicked will touch on these darker themes. An examination of what it means to be looked down on, mistreated, and pushed to breaking point are all themes which the novel encourages readers to consider, and while they may have felt too dark for a stage play in 2003, for a film in 2021 they feel pitch-perfect. Audiences have come to expect dark deconstructions of classics – and Wicked absolutely fits that mould.

Advertisement for Wicked outside the Apollo Victoria theatre in London circa 2006.
Photo Credit: Trekking with Dennis.

Wicked can also be seen to follow on from Disney productions like Maleficent and Cruella as a film that will make the villain its star. The Wicked Witch of the West is most famous for her villainous role in The Wizard of Oz, but Wicked puts her centre-stage and tells her story through a generally sympathetic – or at least understandable – presentation. It’s a deliberate twist on The Wizard of Oz, flipping the script to show heroes as villains, villains as heroes, and the grubby shades of grey in between both.

Nuance, shades of grey, and supposedly-realistic depictions of individuals are what has driven modern cinema – and modern entertainment in general. Audiences don’t want or expect to see “boring” heroes who are totally perfect and virtuous, nor villains who are purely evil for the sake of it. The ideas that there are two sides to a story, and that which side we root for is entirely dependent on who’s telling the story, are intrinsic to the source material of Wicked – and I’m sure that’s one of the most appealing things about the project to its writers, producers, and director.

Elphaba and Glinda from the London stage musical.
Picture Credit: Wicked the Musical London.

The film adaptation will be a musical, so we can expect at least some of the stage production’s classic hits to reappear. Defying Gravity is the show’s standout song, and it closes the first act in the theatre. Encapsulating a sense of individualism, self-reliance, and of course defiance, the powerful ballad sees the Wicked Witch set her choice in stone and fully commit to her rebellion against the Wizard.

Seeing Defying Gravity performed live is something I’ll never forget, and perhaps some folks will say that no cinematic adaptation of that scene could ever live up to its stage equivalent. But I’m more than willing to give it a chance – today’s cinematic visual effects are improving in leaps and bounds, and I’m genuinely intrigued to see what a film with a big budget can make of that exceptional moment.

Defying Gravity performed in London.
Picture Credit: Wicked the Musical London.

There can be a snobbishness to stage productions and the theatre, and perhaps this should be a longer discussion on another occasion. But as someone whose disability now precludes theatre visits, I get sick to the back teeth of hearing that a stage production is “irreplaceable” and that “one simply must see a production live” to get the best effect. The theatre has been beyond the reach of many people – physically and financially – for a long time, and there’s nothing wrong whatsoever with cinematic adaptations. If anything, Wicked will reach far more people in the weekend after its release as a film than the stage production has been able to in almost twenty years – and bringing such a powerful and beautiful production to more people and spreading art around should be celebrated, not denigrated.

But we’re drifting off-topic, and that discussion may be best saved for a longer article on another occasion.

There have been a number of attempts over the years to return cinema-goers to the Land of Oz. 1985’s Return to Oz was a financial flop – albeit one that has since picked up a bit of a cult following. I personally enjoyed what 2013’s Oz the Great and Powerful brought to the table, and that film fared significantly better in financial terms – but wasn’t much of a hit with critics and reviewers. But no title since The Wizard of Oz can be said to have truly succeeded at bringing in audiences to the Land of Oz; Universal Pictures and director John M. Chu are clearly hoping to change that.

Mila Kunis and James Franco starred in Oz the Great and Powerful in 2013.

Wicked will have a lot of buzz around it simply because of the success of the musical. The stage production is one of the most successful musicals of all time, and aside from closures due to the pandemic has been running continuously since its 2003 inception. A lot of fans of the stage musical – myself included – will be very curious to see what the film adaptation will bring to the table.

The casting of pop music superstar Ariana Grande as Glinda and Cynthia Erivo as Elphaba has also raised a lot of interest. Grande’s name in particular will be a big draw, and while I’m not terribly familiar with her acting work there’s no denying she’s an incredible talent when it comes to singing.

Ariana Grande will star in Wicked.
Picture Credit: Ariana Grande via Instagram.

Wicked is one of those projects that you almost feel should have been made already! The source material – both the book and musical – are so great and so genuinely different that it seems like a no-brainer. Apparently the project has been kicked around for some time, languishing for a while in the dreaded “development hell” before being officially greenlit. But now that it’s official, I think it’s absolutely something to look forward to.

There have been some high-profile musical misses in recent years. 2019’s Cats adaptation shows just how badly wrong a film can go, and also proves that big names are no guarantee of success. Cats should be a warning to the producers of Wicked – and a warning to anyone involved in cinema in general, but that’s beside the point! As long as Wicked can avoid the numerous problems and pitfalls which befell Cats… actually scratch that, it’s too low of a bar. Let’s just say that I hope Wicked will be a success!

So that’s all, really. The film is in pre-production and we won’t see it any time soon. But it’s one to keep an eye on – I think it has a lot of potential.

The novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West is the copyright of Gregory Maguire and/or HarperCollins. The musical Wicked – including its songs Defying Gravity et al. – is the copyright of Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman. The film adaptation of Wicked is the copyright of Universal Pictures. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Pixar’s Lightyear looks great!

Spoiler Warning: There are minor spoilers ahead from the Lightyear trailer.

We’re firmly in an era of sequels, spin-offs, and franchises. One type of story that a lot of companies are creating to squeeze another title out of their most popular creations is the “origin story” – basically a prequel that goes into detail about the background of a particular character. The Star Wars prequels showed how overexplaining a classic character can be more of a negative than a positive, but franchises push on regardless. From Willy Wonka to Hannibal Lecter, backstories abound in fiction.

Buzz Lightyear is not a character I would have ever chosen to write an entire origin story for. For one thing, Buzz Lightyear is a toy – he doesn’t have an origin story; he was made in a factory and shipped out to a toy shop where Andy’s family bought him! But I guess Lightyear isn’t taking that approach!

Buzz Lightyear has come to life!

The film’s trailer, which was a surprise release a couple of days ago, seems to show a “real” Buzz Lightyear inhabiting a sci-fi world. All of the elements that we know of were present: his rocket-ship, his colourful spacesuit, Star Command, and even his unrealistically large Desperate Dan-esque chin. But instead of simply being a toy for kids to play with, Buzz seems to be a fully-real person in his own right.

This isn’t actually the first attempt at that concept. Though I haven’t seen it, there was a short-lived television series called Buzz Lightyear of Star Command which aired in 2000-2001 and even spawned a video game adaptation for the PlayStation, Dreamcast, PC, and Game Boy Colour. The series might be one you remember, but it doesn’t seem to have been as big as some of the other Disney projects of the era – I hadn’t even heard of it until researching the topic for this article!

2000-2001 television show Buzz Lightyear of Star Command had a similar underlying premise.

It’s possible that Buzz Lightyear of Star Command’s remaining superfans might be treated to an easter egg or two in the new film, so if you fall into that category keep your eyes peeled! Disney and Pixar have a longstanding habit of harkening back to older titles and past iterations of their popular franchises, so I wouldn’t be shocked at all if a couple of sneaky references or callbacks to Buzz Lightyear of Star Command make it into the final cut of the film!

The trailer itself was exciting and surprisingly had more of a dark tone than I might’ve expected. There were some moments that clearly set up dangerous moments for Buzz as he goes on his adventure, and the dark, engraved door opening to reveal a red glow was incredibly well-done and provided a lot of tension. It almost gave me a Doom vibe – odd as that might sound!

Who will emerge from this door?

Buzz Lightyear as a character has, since his inception, been a uniquely Disney take on mid-century sci-fi. The likes of Flash Gordon, Forbidden Planet, and even Star Trek: The Original Series are present in his characterisation and aesthetic, deliberately so. But of course the biggest influence over Buzz Lightyear’s charmingly retro design comes from Walt Disney’s Tomorrowland and Epcot concepts – which have since been brought to life at Disney’s theme parks.

Anyone who’s ever ridden Space Mountain can see clear evidence of its inspiration in the trailer for Lightyear – Buzz’s rocket-ship resembles the ride vehicles and even the launch platform looked an awful lot like the track of the ride. The rings Buzz seemed to be flying through at one point also bore a striking resemblance to Space Mountain.

I definitely got Space Mountain vibes from the trailer.

A big part of the trailer concerned Buzz Lightyear taking a trip in his rocket-ship. There were influences from a lot of astronaut films and television shows in the way he was preparing for the journey, and he seems to have a colleague or friend at Star Command who’s helping him with his mission; perhaps someone who will serve as a point of contact at mission control.

The animation in the trailer was outstanding. Seeing Buzz’s ship slingshotting around the star was truly striking, and reminded me that Pixar is renowned as one of the world’s best animation studios for a reason! As a Trekkie that moment reminded me a lot of slingshot effects in both Star Trek: The Original Series and more significantly in the 1986 film Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, but there was also more than a little influence from more modern sci-fi titles like Interstellar in the way the star in particular was presented. Overall it was an astonishingly beautiful sequence.

The slingshot sequence was especially cool.

We have no idea at this stage what the story of Lightyear might be. Chris Evans – of Marvel fame – will star as the titular hero, but we don’t know who will play the film’s villain, Emperor Zurg. Zurg has been part of the mythos of Buzz Lightyear since his first appearance, but had a more fleshed-out role in Toy Story 2. Just like it’ll be interesting to see a “real-life” version of Buzz, so too will it be interesting to see how Emperor Zurg makes the jump from toy to real person.

If we continue the mid-century sci-fi analogy from earlier that we know Buzz Lightyear as a character draws from, I see Emperor Zurg as filling a role similar to the likes of Flash Gordon’s Ming the Merciless – but with an aesthetic inspired by early depictions of robots and even Darth Vader. I’ll watch for a casting announcement with trepidation – getting the right person who can play the character in suitably over-the-top style could be crucial to the film’s success!

Buzz’s classic spacesuit.

I’m not sure what to make of the toy cat in the trailer. Lightyear has been described by Disney and Pixar as “the definitive origin story” of the character, and while we’re assured that he is fully human (or at least not a toy) in the film, the presence of what seemed to be a toy cat – whose name is Sox – made me wonder! Is there something else going on here?

On the other hand, Pixar’s press release talked about the original inception of Buzz Lightyear during the creation of Toy Story. They specifically talked about how they envisioned the toy Buzz Lightyear as being merchandise for a blockbuster movie about an action hero – and how Lightyear is that movie! Kind of a film-within-a-film thing, except that Lightyear is a feature-length title in its own right!

What’s the deal with this cat?

The trailer was genuinely one of the best and most interesting that I’ve seen in months, and Lightyear is firmly on my list of titles for 2022! The film is currently scheduled for a June release window, and will presumably hit cinemas first before heading to Disney+ after a month or two – barring any pandemic-related delays or closures.

The retro sci-fi vibe that Lightyear seems to be wholeheartedly embracing appears to give the film a delightfully old-school charm, with clear influences from Disney’s Tomorrowland in particular. That alone would be enough to pique my curiosity, but the fact that there were some amazing visual effects and what seems to be a slightly mysterious and interesting story has seen Lightyear come from nowhere to rocket its way onto my list for next year. I’m genuinely looking forward to this one now!

Lightyear is scheduled to be released on the 17th of June 2022. Lightyear is the copyright of Pixar and The Walt Disney Company. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Five horror films to watch this Halloween

Spoiler Warning: There are minor spoilers ahead for the titles on this list.

With Halloween fast approaching, it seems like a good time to once again dabble in the spookier side of cinema! Horror has never been my favourite genre, but at this time of year I’m not averse to the occasional spooky film.

This short list is a follow-up to a similar list I wrote last Halloween, so if you’d like to see five more horror films that I recommend, you can do so by clicking or tapping here.

It’s about to get spooky!

Horror as a genre can be incredibly varied. From jump-scares to the psychological terror of something unseen, and with such diversity of monsters, ghouls, and creepy critters, there are a lot of different titles that put their own spin on the horror concept. Whether you’re looking for serial killers, vampires, zombies, or demons, chances are you can find an excellent horror film that successfully brings them to screen!

I confess that I’m particularly sensitive to jump-scares, and now that I don’t feel the same kind of pressure to join in with horror titles as I did in my younger years (when watching horror films was almost a rite of passage!) I tend to favour films that don’t go for that style. Despite that, I hope you’ll find a varied mix of titles on this list!

Number 1: The Birds (1963)

Those birds are up to something…

Alfred Hitchcock is still considered one of the greatest directors of the horror and thriller genres, and for good reason. His pioneering style put viewers right at the centre of his stories, and every shot and every sequence was meticulously planned and crafted to maximise suspense and fear. The Birds is one of Hitchcock’s later films, coming toward the end of his career and following on from the likes of Vertigo and, of course, Psycho.

As a kid, I can remember being terrified by The Birds. The slow, tense build-up that Hitchcock’s films are known for is on full display in the title, with every scene and sequence gradually ramping up the threat to a terrifying climax. But more than that, the sheer randomness of birds as the “villain” of the piece is genuinely unsettling.

Birds are generally harmless. The worst a bird might do is steal your chips at the beach, but The Birds asks a question no one ever thought to ask before: what if they were working together to a menacing and aggressive end? It’s this premise – taking something harmless that we generally pay little attention to and making it scary – that makes the film succeed.

Number 2: Sleepy Hollow (1999)

Johnny Depp as Ichabod Crane in Sleepy Hollow.

Johnny Depp stars in this adaptation of the famous Washington Irving story, and the film brings the Headless Horseman to life in genuinely frightening fashion! The story of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman is an old one, dating back to the early 1800s, and Washington Irving is considered one of the first great American authors.

Unlike the earlier Disney adaptation, Sleepy Hollow takes a distinctly adult horror tone. Director Tim Burton makes a number of changes to the source material, making the film an unpredictable ride even for those familiar with the original short story. Johnny Depp puts in a wonderful dramatic performance as Ichabod, too.

There’s something inherently frightening about the undead, and the first time the Headless Horseman is seen on screen manages to capture that feeling pitch-perfectly. Johnny Depp manages to perfectly convey Ichabod’s fear as well, ramping up the tension and making Sleepy Hollow a truly scary and spooky watch!

Number 3: The Omen (1976)

Gregory Peck as Robert Thorn in The Omen.

The Omen is an outstanding example of how to build up fear and tension without resorting to too many jump-scares or a lot of gore! It’s also a deeply disturbing film because of the implications of shadowy cults and conspiracies – and that’s before we even get to the birth of the literal anti-Christ!

When I first watched The Omen I was left unsettled for days afterwards. There’s a specific scene that I won’t spoil for you, but the build-up to a particularly shocking reveal in an Italian graveyard – and the implications it had for the film’s protagonist – left me stunned and disturbed! That particular memory is still vivid for me now, decades later.

As a film about demons, Satan, and the anti-Christ, The Omen was designed to be shocking and unsettling, especially to folks with any kind of religious convictions. And it succeeded beyond its wildest ambitions, becoming an absolute classic of the horror genre and spawning a franchise that still gets periodic updates and instalments today. Oh, and if you’re looking for a Star Trek connection, the film’s lead, Gregory Peck, was the grandfather of Ethan Peck – star of Discovery Season 2 and soon to be appearing in Strange New Worlds!

Number 4: 28 Days Later (2002)

The infected are coming!

With 28 Days Later, director Danny Boyle reinvigorated the zombie genre in a new and truly terrifying way! Prior to the film’s 2002 release, most zombies in cinema followed a pattern first popularised by George A. Romero in Night of the Living Dead – slow, shuffling, mindless creatures that were scary en masse but could be outrun by anyone fit enough. 28 Days Later introduced us to the infected – humans who were still alive but infected with a virus that turned them into killing machines… killing machines that could sprint!

Seeing the zombie horde running after the film’s protagonists was a new and incredibly shocking experience in 2002. Though a number of titles have used this more aggressive style of zombie in the years since, for me the portrayal in 28 Days Later remains one of the best and most frightening.

Technically not a “zombie” film as the infected aren’t undead, 28 Days Later nevertheless has a post-apocalyptic feel that is present in a lot of zombie fiction. Anyone who’s seen The Walking Dead (or read the original comic books) should note an eerie similarity in the way 28 Days Later opens… and remember that the film was released before the first issue of the comics!

Number 5: The Shining (1980)

Here’s… a classic horror film!

The Shining is an adaptation of a Stephen King novel, and as such it’s an unpredictable and very disturbing ride. Stanley Kubrick directed one of his last films, and adapted the book in truly inspired style. Some of the best-known moments in The Shining, including the famous line referenced above, weren’t present in the original book, and the film adaptation is arguably a rare example of a film surpassing its source material.

The film features some truly outstanding special effects. The “blood flood” scene has gone on to become iconic, and was shot in miniaturised form using detailed scale models. The practical special effects give the film a unique charm that today’s CGI can’t match, and in some cases the use of incredibly realistic practical effects ramps up the fear factor.

Jack Nicholson gave the world one of cinema’s most iconic scenes. But The Shining is so much more than that, and his character’s slow descent into madness is what makes the film so tense, exciting, and frightening.

So that’s it! Five horror films to get you into the Halloween spirit.

Don’t have nightmares…

Remember to check out last year’s list for five more horror titles you might enjoy – you can find it by clicking or tapping here. And if you’re interested to see my review of last year’s television adaptation of another Stephen King work, The Stand, you can find that by clicking or tapping here.

I tried to put together a collection of films with different themes, styles, and subjects! Horror is an incredibly varied genre, and just in the five films above we have the natural world turned against us, an undead horseman, Satanism, technically-not-zombies, and finally a film with ghosts and a mad man. And we’ve barely scratched the surface!

Halloween is almost upon us, so stay tuned over the next few days – I have a couple more spooky ideas before the main event rolls around!

All titles included on the list above are the copyright of their respective studio, distributor, production company, broadcaster, etc. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

The odd duality of the Alien franchise

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for the entire Alien franchise, including films and video games.

Perhaps Ridley Scott’s 1979 film Alien wasn’t supposed to spawn a decades-long franchise. It was a great standalone horror film, but even as the credits rolled there was a sense that its Xenomorph – the titular alien – was a one-trick pony.

A while ago we discussed one of the problems Star Trek has had with the Borg. In short, even the most intimidating villain can end up feeling tame once we’ve seen our heroes defeat them over and over and over again, and certainly by the latter part of Voyager’s run the Borg had fallen into that trap. The Daleks in Doctor Who have likewise lost almost all of their intimidating factor. For the Alien franchise this is compounded by the Xenomorphs being the only real adversary – and the focal point of the franchise’s films and video games.

The Alien franchise only really has one kind of alien.

Speaking of video games, it was the recently-launched Aliens: Fireteam Elite that prompted this article and this consideration of the peculiar duality of the Alien franchise. Aliens: Fireteam Elite is a co-op game that sees players team up to take the fight to the Xenomorphs, killing the titular aliens by the dozens. It’s very much an action-shooter game, and the cannon fodder getting in the way of players’ guns are the Xenomorphs.

Contrast this to the single Xenomorph that Ripley encountered in Alien, or even the Xenomorph that provided the jump-scares in 2014’s Alien: Isolation video game. A single alien is all it takes in those titles; one Xenomorph is a significant adversary for a whole crew of humans. Some entries in the franchise go down this route, making the Xenomorphs out to be almost invincible, unstoppable killing machines. Other entries portray them as weaker, more easily-defeated creatures that are often little more than a bump in the road for our heroes on the path to victory.

The new video game Aliens: Fireteam Elite prompted this article.

This is the duality of the Alien franchise; a franchise that perhaps doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. On the one hand we have the horror vibe of the original film, followed up in titles like Alien: Isolation. These horror-style Alien films and games bring with them a single Xenomorph at a time – or at most a small group – and shows how utterly unprepared and incapable humans are of defeating them in combat. On the other hand we have action-oriented entries in the series – kicking off with Aliens and epitomised by titles like Fireteam Elite – where multiple Xenomorphs can be seemingly easy to defeat.

Many sci-fi properties can manage this kind of dual tone. There are moments in Star Wars, Star Trek, and others which fit both the action or horror moulds at different points, but the key difference is that those franchises aren’t trying to use the same alien race in both cases. Some alien adversaries can be all-conquering, unstoppable foes – like the aforementioned Borg or Daleks. Others can be cannon fodder that are easily dispatched – like Stormtroopers.

Doctor Who’s Daleks have been worn out as a threatening adversary by too many stories and too many defeats.

Imagine a Star Wars film or video game where a single Stormtrooper was painted as a terrifying villain. It would work on some level, perhaps, depending on how well the story had been set up and who the protagonist was. But it’d be difficult to pull off successfully because of how we’ve come to see Stormtroopers over past iterations of the franchise – as easily-killed cannon fodder.

As Star Trek and Doctor Who began to wear out the Borg and the Daleks respectively, the fear factor these once-mighty aliens inspired started to evaporate. At the back of our minds we felt that it was only a matter of time until our heroes prevailed – because they’d done so on so many past occasions. Like with Stormtroopers in the analogy above, we stopped fearing what had come to be seen as cannon fodder.

Stormtroopers have never felt particularly threatening in the Star Wars franchise due to the role they play.

And that’s where the Alien franchise is today, at least in some respects. Every action-heavy entry in the franchise diminishes the threat and fear factor of the Xenomorphs. That doesn’t mean that making another horror title in the franchise will become impossible, because good scripts and clever writing can go a long way to carrying a film. But it does mean that the Xenomorphs themselves feel less intimidating with every outing, and will eventually reach a point where they feel played out.

I’ve recently argued that Doctor Who should probably go back on hiatus. Sixteen years have passed since its 2005 revival, and the show has pretty much run its course. The Alien franchise is a little different, because it releases fewer instalments further apart, but eventually it will reach that point if care isn’t taken to remain in control of the kinds of stories it wants to tell.

The Xenomorph Queen in Aliens.

Aliens: Fireteam Elite didn’t need to be a game with the Alien franchise license. It could’ve swapped out the Xenomorph textures for generic aliens or monsters, or it could’ve swapped them out for Borg drones and slapped a Star Trek label on. Nothing about the game looks or feels particularly “Alien” except for, well, the aliens. The story, such as it is, wouldn’t have to make many changes if the Alien license weren’t used. And under those circumstances, I have to question why it was released and why the Alien franchise continues to confuse its messaging.

Though Prometheus has made a creditable attempt to expand the lore and mythos of the Alien franchise, the Xenomorphs remain its principle alien monster. Unlike Star Trek or Doctor Who, which are able to draw on many different aliens, monsters, and settings, Alien really just has the Xenomorphs to offer. This means that the danger the franchise is in from the cheapening and diminishing of its only real foe is all the more significant.

Too many games like Aliens: Fireteam Elite will change the way audiences perceive the Xenomorphs – and make it harder to tell scary stories involving them.

Alien doesn’t work without the Xenomorphs any more than The Creature from the Black Lagoon would work without the creature from, y’know, the black lagoon. Alien doesn’t have to always use the same horror tone for its films and video games, but the move to an action-focused story naturally requires a more disposable cast of adversaries. With only one alien around, the Xenomorphs are dropped into that role; a role which, I would argue, does not really suit them nor fit with many of their depictions in the franchise.

Video games like Doom and films like Men in Black show how much fun it can be to have an action-heavy title that cuts down swathes of monsters or aliens. That concept works well in both forms of media, and audiences lap it up. But I guess it feels fundamentally different to what Alien offered in 1979, and even though its sequel Aliens in 1986 had already begun the process of transforming the franchise into something more action-oriented, that feeling persists.

1986’s Aliens had already started to transform the franchise – and the Xenomorphs.

Perhaps if the Alien franchise had stuck firmly to action after 1986 we wouldn’t be having this conversation. But in films and in video games, the franchise continues to try to do both action and horror. It almost seems as though every other title will come out with an alternate theme and tone; horror one time, action the next. This leaves the Xenomorphs in an odd situation. Their original appearance in Alien is still frightening, but every subsequent appearance in action titles, where they’re far more easily dispatched, has turned them into something less terrifying. There’s no longer a sense that Xenomorphs are truly unstoppable.

How will this play into the upcoming Alien television series? I’m not sure. But if you ask me, the people in charge of the Alien franchise need to very carefully consider their next moves. The style and tone of upcoming titles is incredibly important to get right – and once settled, it’s important to stay consistent. Right now it feels like there are two kinds of Xenomorph: the terrifyingly unstoppable ones seen in Alien, and the cannon fodder of games like Fireteam Elite. The danger is that the cannon fodder perception will creep into productions that want to have a horror vibe, and that could absolutely ruin them.

The Alien franchise – including all properties mentioned above – is the copyright of 20th Century Studios and The Walt Disney Company. Some promotional artwork courtesy of the aforementioned companies. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

The Suicide Squad – film review

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for The Suicide Squad and other recent DC titles.

I always caveat my reviews of comic book films by saying that I’m not really a huge comics fan. I never read comic books as a kid, and while there have been some cinematic adaptations that worked well, for the most part the highest praise I can give most comic book films is that they’re moderately entertaining action fare.

My most recent encounter with a DC Comics film was Zack Snyder’s Justice League – and I really didn’t enjoy that film. But in 2016 I’d watched the first Suicide Squad and enjoyed it for what it was, so I figured I’d check in with this film to see what it had to offer. First, though, I had to figure out what The Suicide Squad is. Is it a sequel? A reboot? A soft reboot? In short, what’s going on with the confusingly similar title?

Poster for The Suicide Squad.

DC has struggled to compete with Marvel in terms of film adaptations, despite having just as many well-known and well-regarded superheroes at its disposal. Following disappointing results with some of the films of the DC Extended Universe, including the original cut of Justice League, DC opted to rework its cinematic offerings, and I think that’s why this film is called The Suicide Squad instead of Suicide Squad 2. DC hasn’t done a good job of communicating all of this, though, at least not to casual viewers. Hardcore DC fans who follow all the ins and outs of the brand and its news will know what to expect from The Suicide Squad, but there’s no doubt in my mind that its confusing name and the deeply muddled state of DC’s film universe is going to be baffling to many would-be viewers – if not outright offputting.

Compounding this was the fact that most of the cast of Suicide Squad didn’t reprise their roles this time around. Will Smith, Cara Delevigne, Jared Leto, and several other big names either chose not to return or saw their roles cut when the DCEU’s plans changed.

Though The Suicide Squad is tonally similar to its predecessor, when compared to the likes of Zack Snyder’s Justice League – a film which tried so desperately hard to take itself seriously that it became unintentionally funny – there’s a wild shift in tone. The dark humour and lack of seriousness in The Suicide Squad is a massive improvement over a film like Zack Snyder’s Justice League, and a far better fit for its source material, which was something I appreciated! But it does make DC’s recent cinematic output feel completely disjointed; wild jumps in tone and style make the two films feel like they couldn’t possibly be part of one supposedly-connected, ongoing world. Marvel comparisons again abound because that franchise handles this so much better. Marvel projects are generally consistent in basic things like their style and tone, and it’s seldom the case that one comes away from a Marvel film feeling it’s wildly out of kilter with other parts of the franchise.

The Suicide Squad had a light-hearted tone and knew what kind of film it wanted to be.

Humour is a very subjective thing, and not every joke or comedic moment will have landed for every viewer. But for me, the film’s sense of humour was generally on point. The Suicide Squad didn’t strive to take itself too seriously, and at the same time was able to successfully communicate the stakes involved for the protagonists. That isn’t a line that’s easy to walk sometimes, yet the film broadly stayed on the right side of it.

Keeping a relatively lighthearted tone throughout was to the film’s benefit. Not only was it appropriate for a story that bordered on the ridiculous (a giant starfish from outer space) but it provided The Suicide Squad with plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. A lighter style allowed the film to embrace much of the silliness that comes from comic book characters and their visual styles, and compared to other DC titles The Suicide Squad leaned into campiness in its costuming and took in its stride some truly wacky concepts, characters, and premises.

The Suicide Squad has a pretty wacky and silly premise, and the film leaned into that in a big way.

There were some definite visual misses in The Suicide Squad. The CGI and green-screen work was far from perfect, and though the worst moments were few and far between, in a film with a budget of more than $180 million that really shouldn’t be happening in the first place. There were some “uncanny valley” moments with the CGI, particularly CGI moments involving the film’s human characters. Then there were some moments where the use of green-screens was just incredibly obvious to the point of being offputting.

Interestingly, these issues also plagued Zack Snyder’s Justice League. In my review of that film I wondered if some of the visual effects misses might’ve been due to the lower budget afforded to the re-editing of the film. It now seems as though that wasn’t the case; DC just isn’t especially good at green-screen and CGI moments. In a film that relies heavily on visual effects, this isn’t just noticeable – it actively detracts from the experience and can completely ruin suspension of disbelief.

One of several green-screen moments that missed the mark.

After his recent controversy for apologising to the Chinese dictatorship, it was ironic – no, it was grotesque – to see John Cena playing a character whose defining characteristic is is love of freedom and peace. Though this character was always presented as a semi-antagonist, something about the casting really got under my skin. Cena’s portrayal of Peacemaker was fine – competent, even. But knowing how the actor favours Chinese money over basic human rights, seeing him spouting lines like “I would do it for liberty” was vomit-inducing.

Idris Elba took the leading role in The Suicide Squad and put in a creditable performance as a mercenary “with a heart of gold;” taking on the dangerous mission for the sake of his daughter. Giving Bloodsport this extra motivation added an extra dimension to the character and kept him believable – despite the wacky situation and the chaos that unfolded around him. Elba had previously played Krall, the villain in Star Trek Beyond, and it was fun to see him in a different role on this occasion.

Idris Elba’s Bloodsport was the main hero of the piece.

Margot Robbie got top billing alongside Idris Elba, but in 2016 I felt her forced “American” accent as Harley Quinn was just plain awful, and unfortunately that situation has not improved in the slightest in the years since. Robbie put in an otherwise impressive performance as the damaged, psychotic Quinn, but her accent was never believable and that did detract from the character at points.

The surprise star for me was Portuguese actress Daniela Melchior, who played Ratcatcher 2. Her deeply emotional portrayal cut through what was a strange and even silly premise to become an unexpectedly impressive performance in a film laden with established stars. Her character arc, coming to terms with the loss of her father and finally putting to use his odd invention, was elevated far beyond what it could’ve been by Melchior’s performance, which is even more impressive considering that The Suicide Squad is one of her first ever English-speaking roles. She provided vulnerability and emotion to the character – and the paternal relationship between Bloodsport and Ratcatcher 2, while not fully developed, really formed the film’s entire emotional core.

Daniela Melchior put in an amazing and emotional performance as Ratcatcher 2.

The decision to begin the film with a fake-out – setting up a secondary “suicide squad” and then watching them get slaughtered – was a bold decision. Setting up a different crop of characters, and framing that part of the film from the point of view of one of them, did succeed at setting up Harley Quinn’s storyline and at communicating the stakes involved and the level of risk to the main characters. But at the same time it felt cheap; setting up minor characters – redshirts – to be killed off allowed most of the other main characters to survive their so-called suicide mission. Only one of the principal characters on Bloodsport’s team ended up dead by the film’s end, which might not be enough for a film literally called The Suicide Squad.

Perhaps the decision for all but the Polka Dot Man to survive is DC’s way of teeing up another sequel. If that’s the case, I would definitely be interested to see Bloodsport and Ratcatcher 2 return for another outing. The disjointed way DC still runs its cinematic arm makes me wonder if they have any such plans, though – and if they do, whether it’ll ever happen!

The characters from the film’s opening act were all killed (except one).

In a film with a larger cast, some characters can end up feeling underused, and Peter Capaldi’s Thinker definitely fell into that trap. Set up early on in the film as one of the main villains of the piece, he ended up being little more than a one-dimensional hurdle for other characters to blaze past on their way to completing their mission. Peter Capaldi is an actor I’ve admired in the past, yet in recent years he never seems to land roles that are honestly worthy of his time. His tenure in Doctor Who saw lacklustre stories, and now his role in The Suicide Squad was, at best, a run-of-the-mill “mad scientist” trope.

It was a little disappointing we didn’t spend more time with the Thinker, nor really learn what he was doing at Project Starfish. A brief scene showed off a number of caged folks infected with the Starfish’s face-huggers and a few gory-looking but unexplained experiments. Yet the Thinker, despite being the closest The Suicide Squad got to a supervillain, had no motivation, no real accomplishments, and seemed to exist simply to fill a hole in the script.

Peter Capaldi’s character of the Thinker felt underused.

The Suicide Squad wasn’t shy in its criticism of American foreign policy, particularly the way the United States can be selective when it comes to favouring liberty and human rights. There were echoes of American policies toward Cuba and nations in Central America in its portrayal of Corto Maltese, as well as the United States’ general policy of supporting “pro-American” dictators all over the world.

These themes have been explored better and in more detail in other films, and while their inclusion in The Suicide Squad wasn’t necessarily bad, it didn’t exactly make for biting satire either. Nor was it particularly original; the political themes present in the narrative had things to say that have already been said both in entertainment and non-fiction on many other occasions, and the film added nothing to this conversation that hasn’t already been discussed and dissected in many other projects. In that sense, the political stuff was a bit unnecessary. It added little to the film except to elevate the ambiguous morality of Viola Davis’ character of Waller, the leader of the suicide squad programme.

The political themes didn’t really add a lot to the film, and similar criticisms of American policies have been done better in other titles.

Seeing Waller get her comeuppance from members of her own team was satisfying, and perhaps this was the best-executed moment on that side of the film. Waller had been presented as ruthless in the first Suicide Squad, but on this occasion we saw her team grow increasingly uncomfortable with the way she handled the squad and their mission, culminating in her getting wacked on the head. It was definitely a satisfying moment, but as with a couple of other storylines it feels as though there was no real resolution to what happened between Waller and her team.

Even the post-credits scene, which revealed that the Peacemaker survived, didn’t see Waller getting her own back or even interacting with her team in any way. After being knocked unconscious she never says another word on screen to any of them, and that conflict, which had been expertly built up in a number of sequences across the film, feels like it reached its climax then fizzled out. Perhaps it’s something else to be addressed in a sequel?

Perhaps a future sequel plans to look at the conflict between Waller and her team in more detail?

The Starfish alien, which was the reason for the story, was definitely one of the weirder villains I’ve seen in any comic book film to date. It was familiar enough to not be frightening in its appearance, yet it was also eerie in the way it moved. The face-hugging smaller starfish were like something right out of sci-fi horror classic Alien, but despite being unoriginal were still intimidating enough at first to seem to offer a degree of threat.

The fact that the suicide squad themselves were so easily able to fight off the smaller, mind-controlling starfish was poor, though. I’ve said this before, but the concept of a zombie virus, Borg assimilation, or anything else that can control minds and turn allies into enemies is deeply frightening; the thought of losing control of one’s body is, for many folks, a fate worse than death. Yet when it really could’ve mattered, The Suicide Squad wasted this concept. The only characters we saw get caught by the face-huggers were nameless goons (and one villain). As a result, the Starfish alien lost its only genuinely threatening aspect pretty quickly.

The smaller mind-controlling starfish only seemed to harm minor characters and extras.

It was still a giant monster to fight, and the squad had trouble taking it down. Because of the name of the film there was a sense that any of them could’ve been in danger, yet as noted only one character ended up being killed off during this climactic final battle. I had become somewhat attached to the likes of King Shark and Ratcatcher 2 (and the adorable Sebastian the rat) so on the one hand I’m glad that they all made it. On the other, it feels as though there could’ve been more casualties.

A film called The Suicide Squad and which sets up the premise of a forlorn hope type of mission seems like it should’ve ended with more casualties. Even one of the characters who appeared dead – Peacemaker – was later revealed to have survived, so at least part of the film’s premise doesn’t feel fulfilled. Though losing a protagonist is almost never fun, in some stories it feels right – and The Suicide Squad was certainly a story that could’ve seen more of its protagonists fail to make it home.

The main characters (bar one) survived to the end of the film.

Other superhero films using a team-up premise often set up at least some of their characters beforehand. As a result we know going in what to expect from them. In the case of The Suicide Squad, one negative point against the film is that none of the characters really felt like villains. We didn’t know any of them (except Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn) before the film started, and though we heard from Waller and others that some of them had done bad things in the past, that never really came across on screen; none of them felt like bad people.

To me, this chips away at the premise of The Suicide Squad. It wanted to throw anti-heroes at a far worse villain, allowing us as the audience to feel like they were redeemable and not all bad. Yet because of the way the film started and the way the characters were introduced, none of them ever really felt like bad people or even people who deserved to be imprisoned. Perhaps if we’d seen for ourselves a montage of some of their worst moments earlier in the film that sense could’ve been present, and the moral ambiguity it would’ve brought to the film might’ve elevated it into something more complex. Instead we were given that fake-out sequence with the suicide squad B-team.

The titular suicide squad – and friends.

Overall, I had a good time with The Suicide Squad. It wasn’t the perfect film by any means, but it was funny when it wanted to be, it leaned into its over-the-top storyline in a way that was in keeping with its comic book origins, and featured a couple of truly outstanding emotional performances that I wasn’t expecting.

Though DC continues to struggle and not really know what kind of films they want to make, I would say they should try to make more like this one! It was everything I expected from a comic book film, and thanks to the emotional performances of a couple of its main characters, maybe even managed to be something more. There were some visual misses, some underdeveloped characters, and a childish storyline featuring a weird alien, but under that fluff I found a decent action-comedy that I decidedly enjoyed.

The Suicide Squad is currently available to stream on HBO Max in the United States. The Suicide Squad is the copyright of DC Films and/or Warner Bros. Pictures. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Jungle Cruise – film review

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Jungle Cruise.

Any review of Jungle Cruise on Disney+ needs to take into account the film’s price tag. Right now Jungle Cruise costs £20 in the UK or $30 in the United States to “unlock,” and thus the film’s value will vary from viewer to viewer. For my two cents, unless you’re a huge fan of the original Jungle Cruise ride at the Disney theme parks or a particular fan of either Dwayne Johnson or Emily Blunt, this is probably a film to wait for. In a matter of months, and certainly by Christmas, the film will be added to the regular Disney+ lineup, and though I had a decent enough time with Jungle Cruise, I’m not sure that I necessarily got £20 worth of enjoyment from it. If you’re on the fence, trying to decide whether to pay up or wait, I think this is one you can safely wait for.

That being said, Jungle Cruise was enjoyable. I’ve said this before, but in 2002-03 when Disney was talking about adapting Pirates of the Caribbean into a film, I thought it sounded like an atrocious idea! How could a theme park ride possibly translate to the screen, I wondered? I was wrong about Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl then, and if I had similar doubts about Jungle Cruise eighteen years later then I was wrong again! The film was decent, and paid homage to a classic ride which has been part of Disneyland since the very beginning.

Jungle Cruise poster.

If you’re fortunate enough to have ridden Jungle Cruise, you’ll recall that there is a “story” of sorts to the ride itself. Obviously the film takes liberties with this, chopping and changing things to make the story more suited to the screen rather than a semi-interactive theme park attraction. But I was surprised at just how well Jungle Cruise captured the feel of the original ride, with Dwayne Johnson’s character of Frank taking the role of the Disneyland boat captain from the attraction.

There were nods to other aspects of the ride as well, particularly in the film’s opening act with Frank’s literal jungle cruise entertaining the tourists with the same mixture of dad jokes and props as the ride itself. As the story went on, the film naturally stepped away from being true to the ride to focus on a story that was not dissimilar to the aforementioned Pirates of the Caribbean film, complete with cursed undead sailors, a magical macguffin, and lashings of aquatic adventure.

Quila hits the rapids!

There were several surprisingly poignant and emotional moments in Jungle Cruise which I wasn’t expecting. Aside from the typical Disney happily ever after ending (complete with a fake-out sad ending which preceded it) the tastefully handled moment where Jack Whitehall’s character of MacGregor came out to Frank was a very sweet inclusion. Not only did it add personality and dimension to both characters – MacGregor gained a backstory of rejection and further reason to follow Lily, and Frank came across as accepting and kind – but it was a huge step for representation and inclusion. Seeing MacGregor experience rejection yet find acceptance in the most unlikely of places is a powerful message, and the mere act of LGBT+ representation in a blockbuster film is always fantastic to see. Such a message is especially important for younger viewers.

While we’re discussing some of Jungle Cruise’s deeper themes, the film took a dim view of wealth, aristocracy, and closed societies – despite practically all of its main characters being drawn from the upper classes of their day. MacGregor’s unease at having to experience life away from his home comforts was initially played for laughs – though he did become more comfortable with it as the film reached its end. The villain of the piece being a German aristocrat was also a continuation of this theme, as was the initial depiction of Frank as the last independent river boat captain – and the poorest.

Dwayne Johnson as Frank, the riverboat captain.

Having seen a number of films with British villains over the last few years, the decision to make the German Prince Joachim the main adversary to Frank and Lily was actually a bit of a change. There was a time a few years ago where villains in cinema were often German – or of German extraction. But enough time has passed and enough other villains have come and gone that the return to a German villain didn’t feel like stereotyping or a trope in the way it might’ve done had Jungle Cruise been made in the recent past.

The story itself took a couple of unexpected twists. The revelation that Frank wasn’t who he seemed to be definitely came as a shock – but in a good way! Sometimes twists of this nature can feel rushed or like they jolt the story in an unwanted direction, but learning Frank’s true origin managed to avoid that pitfall. It made his character feel more rounded and gave him motivation. We learn why he wanted to take Lily upriver – and why he was so convinced she wouldn’t succeed in her quest to find the Tears of the Moon.

Lily was seeking the Tears of the Moon.

Frank’s “betrayal” of Lily and MacGregor – which he apparently set up off-screen with Trader Sam and her tribe – was perhaps the weakest moment in the story. It did nothing to endear us to Frank, and while it was arguably in character for him it robbed what was initially set up as a tense moment of practically all of its drama. Though the threat and peril were restored after a brief respite, the way the film handled this moment was poor overall.

Representation of native peoples and their relationship to colonists has come a long way in recent years, and when looking back at past Disney depictions of indigenous peoples – such as in Peter Pan or even the original incarnation of the Jungle Cruise attraction – the way the “headhunter” tribe was presented was an improvement. Considering the tribe played a relatively minor role in the film, what we saw worked well. The depiction retained some of the mystery that westerners have of indigenous peoples – something that the original ride drew on for part of its threat – yet at the same time made at least one key character relatable.

The tribal chief.

Jungle Cruise also didn’t shy away from depicting the brutality of colonisation, showing Conquistadors savagely attacking a tribe of native people even after being offered shelter, food, and medicine. However, the film then immediately strayed into once again mystifying the tribespeople by giving them magical powers seemingly connected to the Tree of Life. Overall, the way Jungle Cruise handled its characters’ interactions with indigenous people was better than in some Disney titles, particularly older ones, but arguably imperfect and verging into some of the tropes commonly associated with such tribes in fiction.

Aside from the opening act, which was set in London, and a few other scenes near the beginning of the piece, Jungle Cruise broadly stayed true to its premise as a film about a voyage on a riverboat. The boat itself had character, being old and beaten-up, and was memorable for the way it looked while again retaining some of the charm of the original Disneyland attraction. Quila (Frank’s boat) was not only the characters’ home and method of transportation, but also played a key role toward the end of the story by blocking the river water and saving Lily and MacGregor. Giving the boat more to do in the story than simply be an ever-present stage for the characters made a huge difference to the film, and made its setting feel meaningful.

Quila – the boat – was almost like an extra character in the film.

Though the Conquistadors wanted to kill Frank – and later Prince Joachim – they seem to have had similar objectives when it comes to acquiring and using the Tears of the Moon, and as a result some of the moments toward the film’s climax felt rather forced. Obviously Lily and MacGregor had an incentive to stop the Prince and his gang of German submariners, as they clearly had nefarious intentions for the magical macguffin. But the Conquistadors had basically the same objective as Frank – to lift their curse – and it felt like there could have been a moment near the end of the film where they had all realised that they didn’t need to fight. In fact I initially wondered if Prince Joachim’s betrayal of the Conquistadors was going to set up precisely that kind of storyline. It feels like a miss that it didn’t, as the film basically ended with the heroes defeating two parties of villains.

There’s always room in fiction for that kind of narrative; not every story has to depict an emotional coming together and teaming up to defeat a worse villain. But the disturbing implication to the way Frank’s story ended is that he simply left the Conquistadors to endure endless torture; they’re unable to die and it didn’t seem as though he took action to lift their curse. Perhaps this is Disney leaving the door open to a sequel?

Did Frank and Lily condemn the Conquistadors to eternal torture?

Speaking of the way the film ended, with Frank and Lily only able to pluck a single petal from the tree, all Lily really got to do was write up her adventure and land herself a job. In the male-dominated world that the film depicted that is unquestionably a victory for her – but her original ambition had been to use the Tears of the Moon to “revolutionise medicine” and save countless lives, not least in the ongoing First World War. It seems as though this ambition was thwarted, yet the film skips over this point.

Jack Whitehall is not someone I would have expected to see in a film like Jungle Cruise, but he put in a creditable performance as MacGregor. His stand-up act often draws on his self-styled “posh” image, and his character felt like an exaggerated version of that in some respects. Emily Blunt was outstanding in the role of Lily, bringing real personality to the character and crafting a heroine that we as the audience wanted to get behind. Dwayne Johnson seemed at first to be playing a fairly typical “Dwayne Johnson” role, but the addition of an unexpected backstory for his character of Frank took the character to a different place and forced him to step out of his comfort zone and play things differently as the film passed the two-thirds mark. Though perhaps it wasn’t an Oscar-worthy performance, I found Frank to be a believable protagonist and someone I wanted to see succeed.

MacGregor and Frank shared a genuinely touching moment in Jungle Cruise that I wasn’t expecting.

Jungle Cruise relied heavily on CGI almost throughout, and not all of the animation work was as realistic as it could’ve been. Recent productions, even on television, have seen some truly outstanding CGI work, and while nothing in Jungle Cruise was awful or even immersion-breaking, there were quite a few elements that didn’t look quite right. At a number of points I felt that some of the CGI had that “too shiny,” plastic look that plagued CGI a few years ago, and I really thought that animation – especially cinematic animation – had begun to move past that particular issue.

I would’ve liked to have seen more physical props and practical effects, and the fact that a large portion of Jungle Cruise was filmed with green screens and other modern tricks wasn’t as well-concealed as it might’ve been. And perhaps this final point on visuals is a bit of a nitpick, but the fact that a number of the so-called “jungle” sequences were filmed not in South America but in Hawai’i was apparent to anyone who knows their flora! Different biomes do look different from one another, and a few scenes in particular which supposedly took place on the banks of the Amazon were very clearly filmed elsewhere. I know that’s a minor point that won’t have bugged many people, but I found it worth noting.

Happily ever after for the main characters!

So that’s about all I have to say, I think. Jungle Cruise certainly compares to the likes of Pirates of the Caribbean and other fantasy-adventure titles. It was fun, emotional at points, and set up its trio of main characters for a story that was easy enough to follow for kids while still having plenty to offer for adults as well. It stands up well against many adventure films, including classics of the genre like Indiana Jones – which Jungle Cruise was clearly channelling at points!

I had an enjoyable time with Jungle Cruise, and it was a fun way to spend a couple of hours. Whether it will be worth the cost of admission on Disney+ is something everyone will have to decide for themselves, but I think it’ll still be an enjoyable watch in a couple of months’ time. Jungle Cruise presented a fun story that drew inspiration from the likes of Pirates of the Caribbean, yet stayed true to its origins as a theme park attraction. It was a fun ride down the river with Frank, Lily, and MacGregor, and I’m sure I’ll have fun watching the film for a second and third time in the future; it’s definitely one to return to when I’m in the mood for adventure!

Jungle Cruise is available to stream now on Disney+ Premier Access (for a fee). Jungle Cruise is the copyright of Walt Disney Pictures and The Walt Disney Company. Some promotional images courtesy of The Walt Disney Company. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Space Jam: A New Legacy – film review

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Space Jam and Space Jam: A New Legacy.

I don’t think I’ve re-watched Space Jam since I saw it at the cinema in 1996… so it’s been a while! But the film is adored by many, and has a following of its own within the broader Looney Tunes fandom. I’m not sure I’d go so far as to call it a classic of the 1990s, but I daresay a lot of self-proclaimed “90s kids” would – even though many of them were born far too late to truly warrant the label. But we’re off-topic already!

The original Space Jam was a unique offering. A blend of live-action and animation, a mixture of comedy and sport, it’s a film that’s hard to define and pigeon-hole, and as a result of its premise – and wacky, child-friendly humour – it’s well-remembered and held in high regard even a quarter of a century later. Going back to that premise for a second time always felt like a risky move for Warner Bros. simply because it can be very difficult to recapture the magic of such a genuinely different, one-of-a-kind title.

Promo poster for Space Jam: A New Legacy featuring the Road Runner.

But this is the reality of modern cinema. In the realm of kids’ films – a genre Space Jam: A New Legacy is surely included in, despite its appeal to the millennial generation – Disney has pushed the boat out ever further with its recent slate of remade classics, and in a broader sense the idea of reboots, soft reboots, and remakes is something practically every major film studio is throwing money at. In a sense, Warner Bros. doesn’t really care whether anyone actually likes Space Jam: A New Legacy, because they know that the name and branding alone will convince many fans of the original to turn up and see it no matter what the critics say. The film is, to use an outdated movie industry term, “bankable.”

I recently had this conversation with a family member who lamented the existence of Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story – which is due out later this year, in case you care. They were despondent at the idea that one of their favourite films of all time was being remade, and I can sympathise. Remakes, by their very nature, are aiming low. They can only ever hope to be considered “just as good” as the original, but never even try to surpass it.

LeBron James in Space Jam: A New Legacy.

But remakes serve a purpose, at least from the point of view of corporations. They’re easy money, because film studios know that millions of fans of West Side Story or Space Jam will turn up for the new version – even if only out of morbid curiosity! There’s also an argument to be made that, in some cases, younger audiences aren’t interested in watching films that they deem to be “too old.” Thus a remake can, from an artistic point of view, be argued to bring a story or a setting to a new generation of prospective fans. Whether that’s the case with Space Jam: A New Legacy is debatable; the film isn’t a straight remake. Nor is it really a sequel, instead I think it’s best described as a riff on the original concept, taking some familiar and some new characters and throwing them into a similar – but not identical – story.

That’s the area that Space Jam: A New Legacy occupies. Not a sequel, not a remake, but a riff. A shaken-up copy made a quarter of a century later with, let’s be honest, business and financial reasons at its core. It’s not an artistic piece; it wasn’t made because its director or writer had a burning passion for the wonderful, underexplored universe of Space Jam. Nor was it made because the original film was desperately crying out for a sequel or an expansion. It was made purely because corporate executives at Warner Bros. were looking through their back catalogue in search of something to monetise, and Space Jam caught someone’s eye. If we were being cruel, we might say that Space Jam: A New Legacy is soulless.

Space Jam: A New Legacy could feel, at times, very corporate.

One of the reasons I was curious to see Space Jam: A New Legacy – beyond the vague interest in a follow-up to a film I remember with fondness from the ’90s – was the involvement of Sonequa Martin-Green. Martin-Green plays Michael Burnham, the main protagonist of Star Trek: Discovery, and like many Trekkies I’m always interested to see other projects involving stars of Star Trek. Though I haven’t always felt that Michael Burnham was the easiest protagonist to root for in the franchise, there’s no denying Martin-Green’s talent and hard work, and just like she excelled in The Walking Dead a few years ago, she put in a great performance in Space Jam: A New Legacy. Though her character played a supporting role, it was still great to see her and her performance elevated the film.

I’ve seen more Space Jam films than I have basketball games. Basketball isn’t a big sport here in the UK, and while I have tried it in PE lessons at school way back when, it isn’t a sport I follow, nor do I know much about it beyond the basic rules. LeBron James is among the few basketball players whose names I’ve heard, but that’s really where my familiarity with the sport ends.

Sonequa Martin-Green as Kamiyah James.

Space Jam: A New Legacy felt, at points, like a love letter to its star, which was a very strange thing to watch. Some films can feel like vanity projects – John Travolta’s Battlefield Earth, Kevin Costner’s The Postman, and even to an extent William Shatner’s Star Trek V: The Final Frontier all cross that invisible line, and Space Jam: A New Legacy comes close. The introduction of Don Cheadle’s Al-G Rhythm is a scene which has him reading aloud a list of James’ accomplishments on and off the court, and the film’s title sequence is likewise a flattering summary of his career. For a film where this man is the star, it makes watching those sequences feel more than a little weird.

I didn’t have high expectations for LeBron James as an actor, and while he won’t be winning an Oscar anytime soon he did, to my surprise, manage to put in a solid performance. His early scenes left me concerned that I’d find him too flat and wooden, as many sports stars and athletes can be when they try acting for the first time, but when the plot got going and he and his son were transported to the Warner 3000 server-world, the quality of the performance definitely improved.

LeBron James finds out that he’s been turned into a cartoon.

While we’re discussing the acting, Don Cheadle was clearly having a great time as Al-G Rhythm, and embraced the opportunity to play a cartoonish, somewhat over-the-top villain for a change! It was fun to see him in the role, and he did a creditable job. Cedric Joe, who took on the challenging role of young Dom James (a character inspired by LeBron’s real-life son) put in a great performance. He was believable as a young man who felt rejected by his father and overshadowed by his legacy, and his struggle to get his dad to “let me be me,” as he put it, was the emotional core of the narrative.

The voice cast who played the Looney Tunes did a good job, but I have to caveat that by saying that none of them really got much material to work with. Most of the ‘Tunes weren’t even secondary characters, but were relegated to background roles. They all got to show off their greatest hits from past Looney Tunes outings, but even the two main players – Bugs and Lola Bunny – didn’t get an awful lot to do for much of the film.

Most of the Tune Squad didn’t have a lot to do.

At the centre of Space Jam: A New Legacy, underneath the cartoon comedy and basketball trappings, was a story that aimed to be uplifting. It was trying to send a message to kids that everyone has different passions and different talents, and not being good at sports doesn’t mean you have no worth. The film also wanted to tell a story to parents about allowing their kids to step out of their shadow and embrace the things they like, to experience different things and figure out their own path. Those messages are important in a film like this, and their inclusion made it feel like Space Jam: A New Legacy had purpose.

However, that purpose was in danger of getting lost in a film that was very commercial. There was a lot of product placement in Space Jam: A New Legacy, including things like E3 (a video game industry event), Red Vines (an American candy), a whole lot of Nike, Mercedes, Dell, Bose, and many, many mentions of Warner Bros. itself. It’s been a long time since I saw a film so heavy on product placement, and there were moments where this marketing ploy felt overwhelming. It adds to the sense I mentioned above that Space Jam: A New Legacy is a corporate product first and an artistic work second.

Space Jam: A New Legacy had a lot of product placement.

I literally cannot fault the visuals and animation work in Space Jam: A New Legacy. For a film to incorporate fully live-action scenes, traditional cartoon animation, 3D computer animation, greenscreen CGI sequences, and even footage from older films is a monumental task, and the animators, CGI artists, and editors did an amazing job not only on the individual segments but at blending it all together. The film’s climax is the basketball game, and this sequence features real actors and CGI creations alongside each other, and it works seamlessly.

Space Jam: A New Legacy is thus a visually impressive film. Not every element is unique or beautiful in its own right, but the technical skill required to bring so many different things into the same project is truly impressive. Aesthetics are a matter of personal taste, and I’m sure some folks will criticise some of the designs used for the characters and settings, but on the whole I felt what was presented on screen looked fantastic, and unlike in many CGI-heavy titles, I honestly couldn’t find fault; there were literally zero moments where the animation work didn’t hit the target it was aiming for. That’s something I find quite amazing.

The film did well to blend so many different elements seamlessly.

There were a lot of callbacks and references to other Warner Bros. properties, including a number of scenes from famous films that the characters were inserted into à la Forrest Gump. This was unexpected, but many of these scenes and cameo appearances were funny and added a lot to the film. Space Jam: A New Legacy has a pretty childish sense of humour, but sometimes that’s perfectly fine, and its comedy generally stuck the landing as far as I’m concerned.

Seeing characters from other franchises, like the Night King from Game of Thrones or the titular characters from Rick and Morty meant that there was something for adults to laugh at too, and though the humour was hardly sophisticated, it was, at points, more than simple cartoon slapstick. Perhaps younger viewers will cringe at things like Porky’s awkward rap battle, but you know what? I’m going to admit right now that I found that whole sequence – and many others – hilarious!

LeBron James and the Tune Squad.

In fact, despite initially having pretty low expectations for the film, there were plenty of enjoyable moments under the corporate fluff, and I found myself chuckling more than I thought. Though the narrative was silly – playing a computerised basketball game in order to win freedom – the basic premise underlying it was a father learning to connect with his son and embrace what makes him special instead of trying to push him in a certain direction. That story shone through the cartoon wackiness at key moments, and was just enough of an emotional force to make Space Jam: A New Legacy a more enjoyable film than I might’ve thought.

Was it the perfect film, or the perfect vehicle for telling this kind of story about bridging the gap and coming to an understanding? Perhaps not. Its commercial aspects certainly detracted from that message at points, which was a shame. Also, in a film which was supposedly half about basketball and half about the Looney Tunes, the cartoon characters themselves didn’t exactly get much time in the spotlight. That was perhaps the biggest let-down for me, as it made the film feel less like “basketball meets Looney Tunes” and more like a LeBron James vehicle with some cartoon trappings.

Despite that, however, I had fun with Space Jam: A New Legacy. It probably wasn’t as good as the original – as films of this nature seldom are – but it was visually impressive, had a narrative that was relatable for kids and for adults, and the quality of the acting performance from its lead took me a little by surprise. All in all, it was a perfectly entertaining way to spend a couple of hours.

Space Jam: A New Legacy is out now in cinemas in the United Kingdom, United States, and certain other countries and territories. Space Jam: A New Legacy is available to stream on HBO Max in the United States, and will come to streaming platforms in other countries and territories at an unspecified later date. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League – a non-fan’s perspective

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Zack Snyder’s Justice League. Minor spoilers are also present for other DC films and comic books.

Generally speaking, I’m not someone who cares too much about comic books or their associated films. Sometimes comic book/superhero films make for decent popcorn flicks – such as The Avengers and a few other Marvel titles. And the Dark Knight trilogy of Batman films were decent. But as someone who didn’t grow up reading comics, that’s about the highest praise I can heap upon their cinematic adaptations. That’s what I mean when I say I’m coming at Zack Snyder’s Justice League from the perspective of a non-fan.

I can’t actually remember if I’ve seen the original version of Justice League; superhero films tend to be somewhat forgettable, and judging by reviews and fan reaction, Justice League wasn’t one of the best. I’ve definitely seen other films in the DC canon, though, including Suicide Squad, Man of Steel, and about half of Batman vs. Superman (before I got bored and switched it off). In short, I’m not comparing the so-called “Snyder cut” to the original version of Justice League – because it was so forgettable that I’ve quite literally forgotten if I’ve even watched it.

Promotional poster for Zack Snyder’s Justice League.

Before we get into the meat of my review, I need to hold up my hands and admit to being utterly wrong about something. I never believed for a moment that DC fans would succeed in getting this version of the film released. The hashtag #releasethesnydercut trended online in the aftermath of Justice League’s lukewarm reception a few years ago, and I just dismissed it. These things often die down once the initial controversy over a film has had time to abate, and just like Disney and Lucasfilm were never going to edit or remake The Last Jedi, I felt certain that DC and Warner Bros. would simply ride out the criticism and move on with the rest of their planned releases. I was wrong, having underestimated the strength of feeling and persistence on the part of DC fans, and the fact that Zack Snyder’s Justice League exists at all is testament to their refusal to quit. In the age of social media – where stories and controversies often last a mere 24 hours before vanishing without a trace – that’s impressive.

It’s also indicative, in my opinion, of companies taking fan feedback more seriously than at almost any point in the past. In addition to Zack Snyder’s Justice League I’d point to Star Trek: Strange New Worlds – the so-called “Captain Pike series” – that was commissioned purely because of the overwhelming fan response to Anson Mount and Ethan Peck’s portrayals of Pike and Spock in Star Trek: Discovery. More than ever, big entertainment companies are listening to feedback, and that can only be a net positive for fans of any franchise or series.

As the movement to get this version of the film released gained momentum, even the actors joined in.

Onward, then, to Zack Snyder’s Justice League. This film was supposed to be DC’s answer to The Avengers, and any team-up story has to walk a line between relying on what previous entries in the franchise set up and charting a path casual viewers can follow. In that sense, Zack Snyder’s Justice League didn’t do an especially good job. There were a lot of story elements that built directly on top of past DC films, and for a casual viewer or non-fan coming to the film without all of that background knowledge, some events were hard to follow. When I reviewed the Marvel miniseries The Falcon and the Winter Soldier recently, I pointed out that, although returning fans would certainly get a lot more out of the series than I did due to references and callbacks to past films and shows, that wasn’t overwhelming and the production stood on its own two feet. Zack Snyder’s Justice League doesn’t – it feels like a direct sequel.

Avengers Endgame briefly became the highest-grossing film of all time. It did so on the back of casual viewers, not Marvel superfans who show up for every film and series. And because the Marvel producers recognised that, they did what they could to ensure the film didn’t rely excessively on past iterations of the MCU. Maybe the original version of Justice League balanced things better, but Snyder’s cut of the film relies very heavily on other DC titles, and as a result parts of it are nigh-on inaccessible to the casual viewer or non-fan.

Many elements of Zack Snyder’s Justice League – like the fate of Superman – relied 100% on viewers having seen prior films.

The film was very dark – and I mean in terms of lighting, not thematically. If you remember some of the criticisms fans levelled at parts of Game of Thrones Season 8 for poor lighting in some sequences, well Zack Snyder’s Justice League has the same problem almost throughout, as if Mr Snyder forgot to turn on the stage lighting – or deliberately ran the entire film through a crappy Snapchat filter. On a particularly fancy OLED television the darkness may be fine; it was occasionally irritating on my cheap and cheerful LED set. While we’re talking about visuals, it was odd to me to see a modern film shot entirely in the outdated 4:3 screen format. HBO claims that it was a creative choice… but it feels like it was done for no other reason than to give the film a gimmick and talking point.

Such things add nothing to cinema for me; I’d rather see a well-written, well-executed film in a standard widescreen format with proper lighting and colour temperature. These things are gimmicky in the extreme, and while that may be all well and good for arthouse films or Oscar-bait, in what is essentially an action film about superheroes from comic books made for children, these attempts at cinematographic “artistry” fall flat on their face. They’re indicative of a film taking itself far too seriously. Not only that, but the bland colour palette drowned in brown and grey tones; splashes of colour were desperately needed to liven things up.

Why make the film so dark, with such a boring palette? And why the 4:3 resolution? One word: gimmick.

Until just a few weeks before it was released, the plan had been to broadcast the film as a four-part miniseries; having seen it I think it could certainly have worked in that format. At over four hours (including the credits), Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a long film. That’s sometimes true of directors’ cuts, which is what this version of the film is, but it certainly makes it better-suited to streaming than to the cinema.

Speaking of streaming, the film is only available on HBO Max in the United States, and is accessible on a patchwork of other streaming and/or pay-per-view services in the rest of the world. This messy approach is caused, of course, by the fact that HBO Max is a US-only service at present. In short, where you live will determine how and even whether you can access Zack Snyder’s Justice League, which is never the best way to go about releasing a film, let alone one that was the subject of international fan attention. Sometimes companies need to be reminded of a simple fact: there’s a world (and an audience) outside of the United States!

Zack Snyder’s Justice League is available on HBO Max if you’re fortunate enough to live in America.

Everything about Zack Snyder’s Justice League feels like it’s deliberately made to stand in direct contrast to The Avengers and other Marvel titles. Marvel films have tended to embrace much of the light-hearted campiness that comes with the territory for a comic book adaptation, and though doing so can lead to some odd tonal moments where brightly-dressed superheroes find themselves in warzones or other semi-realistic scenarios, the sense of humour and lighter tone can work. DC films in general – and Zack Snyder’s Justice League in particular – seems to hate everything fun and light-hearted about comic books.

What I mean by that is that here we have a film that is going out of its way to be as gritty and dark as possible, to leave behind any of the joy and humour one might expect in a medium originally intended for kids and teenagers. I said earlier that the film takes itself far too seriously, and this is a case in point. These are cape-wearing superheroes of children’s fiction, yet Zack Snyder’s Justice League treats them as though they were hardened characters straight out of a gritty drama about a real-world war. In that sense, I would argue it’s a film that doesn’t know what it’s supposed to be; a film defining itself in opposition to two other projects – the original version of Justice League and Marvel films like The Avengers – but without knowing what its own identity is. What is there to fill the void?

The titular Justice League.

Because of how desperately seriously Zack Snyder’s Justice League tries to take itself, it became unintentionally hilarious at points, and I found myself chuckling at some of the lines and even character moments – the actors played the material they were given so deadpan and straight, and because of that, some moments that were meant to be important, tense, or dramatic ended up just being laughably funny.

Some of the names used for the heroes and villains just aren’t on the same level even as Marvel. “Thanos” has a somewhat poetic or classical quality to it; “Darkseid,” in contrast, does not. The fact that Darkseid is visually similar to Thanos, and his aim – to capture magical macguffins and conquer Earth – is not too far removed from Thanos’ ambitions either, makes the main villain of the piece feel like a knock-off. Maybe that’s unfair – the original version of Justice League was released before Avengers Infinity War brought Thanos to the fore. But even so, watching it after seeing the best Marvel has to offer leaves me with the distinct impression that DC has a long way to go to catch up.

Discount Thanos.

All in all, I found the plot to be rather pedestrian. There’s an ancient supervillain who’s able to return thanks to the Mother Boxes – another silly name for a macguffin – and he’s dead set on conquering Earth. One superhero isn’t enough, so Batman tries to get them to team up. Despite initial resistance from some of them – which was flat and one-dimensional at best – the heroes eventually get together to hatch a plan: bring Superman back to life as he’s the only one who can stop the bad guys.

Bringing someone back from the dead only to discover they aren’t the same as before they died is a trope as old as the written word. We see it in everything from ancient legends of necromancy and witchcraft all the way through to modern works like Stephen King’s Pet Sematary. So the Superman storyline wasn’t anything different or innovative, and the fact that Superman quickly returns to his old self after an encounter with his true love is a rather Disney-esque take on what could’ve been a theme that played out in a much darker way.

All he needed was a hug. Aww.

With Superman being so much more powerful than the other superheroes, Zack Snyder’s Justice League has a challenge to make their inclusion in the story after his resurrection feel worthwhile, and the film fails to rise to meet it. There’s simply no escaping the fact that the resurrected Superman didn’t need the others – he was perfectly capable of stopping Steppenwolf and the other villains on his own. The other heroes got moments, of course, as the film neared its climax, but the way Zack Snyder’s Justice League chose to present its own story and its own characters made it patently obvious that all but Superman were surplus to requirements.

Speaking of characters, I didn’t feel like any of the heroes or villains really saw any significant character development, despite the film’s four-hour runtime offering plenty of time for satisfying arcs to play out. Cyborg/Victor is the character who came closest, and was clearly wrestling with his feelings toward and about his father for much of his time on screen. But the others – Batman, Flash, Aquaman, Wonder Woman, and even Superman once he got over his initial shock at returning to life – were basically the same at the end of the film as they had been at the beginning. We know that these are heroic characters, people who will shoulder the responsibility of saving the world and put the needs of others before themselves. But in a film where several of them felt like spare parts already, having five almost-identical character types doesn’t make for the most interesting setup.

Several of the main characters felt very similar to one another.

The main storyline involving Steppenwolf and Darkseid seemed to be built on very shaky ground. In short, Zack Snyder’s Justice League asks us to believe not only that powerful aliens capable of travelling the stars were beaten 5,000 years in the past by the combined forces of Earth – including humanity, barely out of the stone age – but that they then somehow forgot the location of Earth, despite their obvious abundance of technology. If the villains in the film were the descendants of those who fought and lost millennia ago, I could kind of understand that they might not be aware of where these Mother Boxes were, but they’re supposed to be the same people – yet they didn’t even know what planet to go to.

The film tries to explain that the boxes only awakened after Superman’s death as there was no longer a force powerful enough to prevent the attack on Earth. But there are two problems with this premise: firstly, Superman is what? 35 years old or thereabouts? The boxes had millennia before Superman ever arrived on Earth when they could have awoken. And secondly, Darkseid, Steppenwolf, and the others should have always known that they were on Earth, even if they didn’t know the precise location of each box.

One of the magical macguffin boxes.

The Mother Boxes are, as mentioned, little more than magical macguffins to allow the story to flow and to give teeth to the villains. But the logical inconsistencies in their story makes it difficult to accept them as the foundation for the film’s narrative. How did Darkseid and Steppenwolf “lose” the location of Earth when they’d literally been here before? The film doesn’t explain or acknowledge this, yet it feels like a pretty major omission.

Compared to a lot of villains out there, both in comic book/superhero fiction and beyond, Darkseid’s objective is incredibly basic. He seems to want to conquer and kill for no other reason than “because.” He’s an evil-for-the-sake-of-it kind of villain, and those kinds of characters just don’t stand up to villains with more complexity and nuance. If I were being rude I might say that asking for complexity and nuance from a superhero film is too much, but there are many decent examples of villains in the genre whose motivations are understandable and hold up to scrutiny. Even if the overall objective is the same – conquering Earth – some villains just have a better reason for doing so than Darkseid. The film tries to throw in a revenge plot, saying that Darkseid’s earlier defeat is spurring him on, but that doesn’t answer the most basic of questions: why does he do what he does?

Steppenwolf, Darkseid’s henchman.

It was a profoundly odd choice for this version of the film to end with a long epilogue sequence that clearly set up a sequel – a sequel that we’ve known for four years isn’t going to happen. DC has completely reworked its film output, partly due to the perceived failings of the original version of Justice League, and several of the actors who took on the roles are done. Batman is being rebooted without Ben Affleck, Superman without Henry Cavill, and as far as I know there are no plans for Ray Fisher to reprise his role as Cyborg. Wonder Woman 1984 received mixed reviews, and while there are plans for a film involving this version of the Flash, as well as for a sequel to Aquaman, it seems all but certain that this version of the Justice League is finished.

Under such circumstances, I question the decision to end the film in this manner. It’s clearly teasing a sequel, but at the time Zack Snyder’s Justice League was being edited and compiled, Snyder and everyone involved knew that no sequel would be forthcoming. It feels almost mean-spirited to end on this note; it leaves the whole story feeling unfinished. And unfinished it is, as Darkseid wasn’t defeated and his planned invasion is coming – but it seems unlikely we’ll ever see that on screen.

The film’s final moments set up a sequel that everyone knows isn’t ever going to be made.

There were some great special effects and CGI moments in Zack Snyder’s Justice League, but there were also some awful visual misses. Cyborg is firmly in the uncomfortable uncanny valley, with half a human face and half a CGI face on a CGI body, and the two halves don’t mesh well at too many points. There were dozens of moments where the use of green screens was patently obvious; just off the top of my head I’d pick out several close-up shots of Barry/Flash running at high speed, and the queen of the Amazons on horseback as some of the worst examples of this. Although Justice League had a huge budget, perhaps some of these visual misses are due to the fact that this director’s cut had less money to work with? That’s a guess on my part but could explain some of the issues.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a film that tried very hard. At various points it wanted to be The Avengers, The Dark Knight, and even The Lord of the Rings. Though it clearly took inspiration from better films, the way it put them together and brought them to screen makes it a substantially weaker film than any of them; a popcorn action flick with delusions of grandeur. If this is what fans wanted, I’m genuinely happy for them, and the fact that I’m not really a comic book/superhero fan was perhaps always going to colour my impressions of Zack Snyder’s Justice League. Even with that caveat, however, I have to say I’ve seen far better comic book films.

So that was Zack Snyder’s Justice League. It’s probably the worst film I’ve seen so far this year. I don’t think I need to say anything more than that.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League is available to stream now on HBO Max in the United States, on Sky or Amazon in the UK (via pay-per-view), and via a patchwork of other streaming services internationally. Zack Snyder’s Justice League is the copyright of Warner Bros. Pictures and DC Films. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

The Tomorrow War – film review

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for The Tomorrow War.

Well this is a rarity for me – reviewing a film while it’s still new! I have to hold my hands up and confess that I was completely unaware of The Tomorrow War’s existence until about a week ago when previews started popping up on the Amazon homepage. But after watching the trailer it seemed like the kind of thing I might like, so almost as soon as it was available to watch I gave it a shot.

Though I like sci-fi in all of its forms, time travel stories have never been my favourites. They’re exceptionally difficult to get right, and when they go awry they can lead to narratives which are confusing or just plain annoying. With a title like The Tomorrow War, there was no way this film was going to be about anything other than time travel – and unfortunately it did contain one of the dumb time-loop story elements that I really don’t find enjoyable or satisfying. However, it managed to avoid many of the other pitfalls that time travel stories can succumb to, so it gets credit in that regard.

Publicity image for The Tomorrow War.

Chris Pratt is not a typical action hero, yet following his role in Guardians of the Galaxy he’s been tapped to take on a broader array of action-heavy roles. And as the film’s lead and main character he puts in a creditable performance. There were fewer moments of humour than in some of his other roles, and as an actor with great comedic timing that was a bit of a shame as one of his strongest suits was not put to use. But as an actor, taking on different roles is all part of the job, and Pratt did a solid job as the film’s protagonist. He was emotional at the right moments, strong and gung-ho at others, and fit the bill as The Tomorrow War’s action hero.

The rest of the cast likewise were competent in their roles and believable. We didn’t really get a broad cast of secondary characters; aside from Dan and Muri, everyone else played a comparatively minor role in the story, limited to a few scenes and generally one or two settings. JK Simmons, Sam Richardson, Edwin Hodge, and Betty Gilpin all played their parts well, with the caveat that their characters were limited by the script to bog-standard supporting roles.

Yvonne Strahovski and Chris Pratt were The Tomorrow War’s leading pair.

Among these characters we have Dan’s father, the conspiracy theorist-veteran-mad scientist, whose seemingly unlimited set of skills allowed Dan and the crew to get to Russia at a key moment later in the film. Other than the personal drama between them, which was performed well, this character was a pretty basic plot device. Dan’s wife, whose name may have been mentioned but I can’t actually remember, was an absolutely run-of-the-mill character type, the spouse of the soldier-hero, and didn’t get much to do beyond tell him she wished he didn’t have to go and greet him when he returned.

Charlie and Dorian were perhaps the most interesting of the film’s secondary characters, and each brought something different to the table. Charlie was comic relief, but his moments of humour were well-used and injected some light-heartedness into a film that definitely needed it. His moment in the stairwell was hilarious, and went a long way to making the first on-screen introduction of the whitespikes – the film’s alien antagonists – much more memorable. Dorian, the other African-American character, was much more serious, and there’s something relatable in the story of a terminally ill man wanting to choose his own time and method of dying.

Sam Richardson’s character of Charlie provided The Tomorrow War with just about the right amount of comic relief.

The very intense, loud musical score feels like typical action movie fare – until it comes to moments of near-silence, which are expertly used to create tension at key moments. The soundtrack made neat use of The Waitresses’ 1982 Christmas hit Christmas Wrapping right at the beginning, and I guess we could argue that The Tomorrow War’s Christmas-themed opening qualifies it – along with Die Hard – as a Christmas film! Speaking of the film’s opening moments, was that supposed to be Scotland playing in the World Cup Final?! Someone’s being incredibly optimistic if that’s the case… sorry, Scotland!

Any story about war is going to come with political themes, and The Tomorrow War is no different. In Dan’s draft, for example, we see criticisms of the way the United States handles its own military draft, and in the technology implanted in his arm we see fears about how technology and our personal data are used and tracked.

The dire warnings about Dan’s arm implant/bracer could be taken as a critique of the way data is used today.

The film had one very strange tonal moment. After returning to the present day from his tour of duty, Dan – and by extension the film – treats what happened as a defeat. Despite the fact that he saved the toxin, which was his objective in his final hours in the future, everything in the minutes afterward is set up to feel as though he was too late, or that it didn’t matter with the jump-link being offline. But anyone who’s ever seen a time travel story can tell you that going back in time opens up new possibilities; even Muri knew this, as among her last words to Dan were to “make sure this war never happens.” The only way he could do that was by producing the toxin and using it in the present day (or else storing it in time for the invasion).

This sequence chips away at the film’s premise and exposes one of the major flaws in time travel narratives in general. I can believe, for the sake of the story, that the future scientists were only able to create one functioning wormhole, tethered to their present and our modern day. But it seems as though there were better ways to use it than recruiting everyday people to be footsoldiers – like giving the people of Earth advance warning so they could do everything in their power to prepare for or even prevent the invasion. This is what Dan and his team scramble to do at the film’s climax, but it really does begin to stretch credulity to think that they’re the first and only people to put the pretty basic pieces of this puzzle together and figure out what happened.

A handful of untrained people manage to figure out how to stop the aliens in less than a day when the rest of the world couldn’t in several years? Hmm.

It takes Dan and his wife all of five minutes to figure out that “they were already here” – a theme present in alien invasion stories going all the way back to The War of the Worlds at the end of the 19th Century. You’d have thought that someone else might’ve come to that realisation sooner! The Tomorrow War gives this old premise a modern twist by involving climate change, and we could entertain the argument that the entire film is thus an analogy for the dangers in unchecked and unsolved anthropogenic climate change. In the film’s story, the aliens were buried in Siberian ice, and the melting ice set them free. Out here in the real world, the consequences of man-made climate change may not be quite so gory and extreme, but are nevertheless dangerous.

We can definitely expect to see more of these kinds of climate change stories in future, I think. A Song of Ice and Fire, upon which the television series Game of Thrones was based, is likewise a climate change analogy according to its author, and these kinds of stories can be powerful. I’ve spoken on a number of occasions about how the Star Trek franchise uses its sci-fi lens to look at real-world issues, and while climate change was not exactly front-and-centre in The Tomorrow War, it was present, and the film was better for the inclusion of this theme.

The team inside a glacier.

There were two twists in the narrative of The Tomorrow War, but both were rather pedestrian and easy enough to figure out ahead of time. The first is that the character who speaks to Dan on the radio immediately upon his arrival in the warzone was Muri, and the film didn’t succeed in any way at concealing that. Perhaps it didn’t want to, but the fact that it seemed obvious for much of the preceding twenty minutes made the ultimate reveal of Muri’s identity at the military base far less impactful; we as the audience knew well before Dan did.

The second twist came along like something out of Star Trek – the aliens never meant to invade Earth, and in fact the whitespikes aren’t even the “real” aliens; they’re animals being transported by whoever owned the spaceship. Their feral, animalistic behaviour and seeming lack of weapons, clothing, or a language, as well as their nesting behaviour all spoke to this, and though there was a moment aboard the wrecked alien ship where the team encountered a dead alien pilot that was well-executed, the twist itself seemed apparent well in advance of the characters making that discovery.

I quite enjoyed the reveal that the alien invaders never meant to come to Earth and were essentially just animals – even if it wasn’t exactly well-hidden earlier in the film.

Some action films can go all-in on the guns-blazing killing, and it was a nice change of pace for The Tomorrow War to step back and present a semi-scientific solution to the characters’ alien invasion problem. To continue the climate change analogy from a moment ago, this is the film’s way of saying that science is the key to finding a solution. For a film largely about war, with the word “war” literally in its title, that’s a surprisingly anti-military message!

There were some solid visual effects in The Tomorrow War, and Paramount, Skydance, and Amazon made good use of the film’s $200 million budget in that regard. Any film involving monsters – or aliens, in this case – will fall flat on its face if the creatures are not sufficiently realistic and threatening, and the whitespikes, while not exactly groundbreakingly original in their design, managed to look fantastic on the screen.

One of the whitespikes – the invading aliens.

So I think that’s about all I have to say about The Tomorrow War. It was solid, perfectly entertaining sci-fi fare. The plot was fairly standard-issue for a time travel film, complete with some of the problems that brings, at least from my point of view. But it was well put-together, featured some good performances by its leading duo of Chris Pratt and Yvonne Strahovski, and kept me entertained for a couple of hours.

Given the film’s unexpected Christmas-themed opening, it might be one I return to at that time of year in future! I didn’t really know what to expect, as The Tomorrow War wasn’t even on my radar until very recently, but I’m glad I gave it a shot. It’s a film with some ideas and themes buried beneath its alien invasion storyline, and those themes elevate it to something a little more than just a basic sci-fi action flick. Not every element works, and I would have liked to see better use of perhaps a slightly smaller secondary cast instead of a collection of underused characters who feel more like plot devices than fleshed-out people. But the pair of leads did well and carried the film, and in particular Dan’s motivation to save the world for his daughter’s sake transcended some of the sci-fi waffle and dragged the film’s worse elements over the finish line.

If you’re an Amazon Prime subscriber, The Tomorrow War is already in your library and you might as well give it a shot. Is it the one film that will overwhelm the hardened resistor and finally convince them that they need to sign up for Amazon Prime Video? No. It’s not worth it on its own merit. But it’s enjoyable enough for what it is, and I respect The Tomorrow War for at least trying to be something more than just a basic action sci-fi title, even if it doesn’t completely succeed.

The Tomorrow War is available to stream now on Amazon Prime Video. The Tomorrow War is the copyright of Amazon Studios and Paramount Pictures. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

We’re halfway through 2021!

It’s the last day of June, and as we bid goodbye to the month we also mark the halfway point of 2021. I think that makes it a good opportunity to take stock and look ahead to the entertainment experiences that lie before us between now and Christmas.

Pandemic-related disruptions continue across the entertainment industry, but after more than a year of evolving working practices due to coronavirus, I think it’s not unfair to say that many more projects have managed to enter or remain in production over the last few months than were able to at this point last year. This bodes well for upcoming titles across film, television, and video games, and today I’m going to pick out a small selection of each that I’m looking forward to before the end of the year.

Television:

It’s probably television that has the most to offer – at least for me personally – in the second half of 2021. There are several big shows coming up that I can’t wait to get stuck into, and I’m sure you can probably guess what some of them are!

Number 1: Star Trek: Discovery Season 4

Discovery’s third season was an entertaining ride, and succeeded at establishing the 32nd Century and the Federation’s place in it. In the aftermath of the Burn – the galaxy-wide catastrophe which devastated known space – and the shortage of dilithium, Season 4 will hopefully see the crew beginning to pick up the pieces.

The trailer for Season 4, which was shown off in April as part of Star Trek’s First Contact Day digital event, also showed Captain Burnham and the crew facing off against a “gravitational anomaly” which seemed to be wreaking havoc with the ship and the Federation at large. What is the “gravitational anomaly?” I don’t know – though I have a few theories! We’ll find out more when Discovery Season 4 premieres on Paramount+ (and on Netflix internationally) in the autumn.

Number 2: Star Trek: Lower Decks Season 2

After a hilarious first season, Lower Decks is returning to our screens in August – and this time Star Trek fans the world over should be able to watch the show together. Season 1 had the difficult task of taking Star Trek into the realm of animated comedy for the first time. Having proven to be a success with that concept, Season 2 can let its hair down and really double down on what fans loved last year.

There are a couple of lingering storylines left over from the Season 1 finale that I’m genuinely interested in seeing resolved. But beyond that, I can’t wait for more wacky Star Trek-themed hijinks with Mariner, Boimler, Rutherford, and Tendi! Luckily we won’t have to wait too long for this one; Lower Decks Season 2 will debut on Paramount+ (and on Amazon Prime Video internationally) on the 12th of August – barely six weeks away!

Number 3: Star Trek: Prodigy

This one has to be tentative. Upcoming children’s show Star Trek: Prodigy has been suggested for a 2021 broadcast, but with no date confirmed as of yet, and with the aforementioned Lower Decks and Discovery taking up the Star Trek broadcast slots for much of the rest of the year, I don’t know where ViacomCBS plans to fit Prodigy in.

Despite that, as we continue to learn more details about the series, it sounds genuinely interesting and looks set to be a lot of fun. The best kids’ shows manage to have something to offer adults as well, and I hope Prodigy can manage to do that while retaining an atmosphere that’s fun for children. Out of all the recent Star Trek projects, Prodigy feels like it has the most potential to introduce the franchise to a new generation of fans. There’s currently no date on the calendar, so watch this space.

Number 4: Rick & Morty Season 5

We’ve already had two episodes of the fifth season of Rick & Morty, but there are eight more to come over the next few weeks! The trademark brand of wacky, non-sequitur humour that the show is known for is still present, and it continues to be a barrel of laughs! Rick & Morty paved the way in some respects for Star Trek: Lower Decks, and there are similarities between the two shows in terms of sense of humour and animation style.

Rick & Morty’s largely episodic nature keeps the show fresh, and while there are some jokes and storylines that perhaps take things too far, on the whole the show has largely avoided the trap of going over-the-top or falling into being offensive for the sake of it. You know the formula and main characters by now, and Season 5 seems like it’s shaping up to offer more of the same – and that’s a compliment. Rick & Morty Season 5 is ongoing on Adult Swim in the United States (and on E4 in the UK).

Number 5: Foundation

Isaac Asimov’s genre-defining epic is being adapted for the small screen by Apple, and it will star Jared Harris. Harris was fantastic in Chernobyl and also put in a stellar performance in The Terror, so I can’t wait to see what he’ll bring to the role of Hari Seldon. Foundation is an incredibly ambitious project; the seven-book series spans hundreds of years of galactic history and deals with some very deep and complex themes.

Apple TV+ is very much a second-tier streaming service. This is its first big push to change that; Apple’s first real foray into big-budget scripted television. I hope the company can use its phenomenal financial resources to do justice to one of the seminal works of science fiction.

Number 6: Dexter

I watched several seasons of Dexter in the mid/late-2000s, but eventually the series started to feel repetitive so I switched off. I’m curious, however, to see what the passage of time will do for the show and its titular anti-hero when it returns in what has been variously billed as both a “reboot” and a “continuation” depending on who you ask! The concept of Dexter was interesting when it kicked off in 2006, and hopefully the new season can recapture the magic of those early years of the show.

The idea of a show about a serial killer where the killer is known to us as the audience, and not only that but is the protagonist was genuinely different. Dexter’s work with the forensic team was a big part of what gave the show its unique mix of police/detective series along with gritty, violent drama, and I’ll be curious to see where the new season has taken the character – as that will be the key to its success.

Number 7: The Dropout

If you aren’t familiar with the story of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos, it’s one that’s simultaneously riveting and frightening. Holmes and her startup Theranos promised to revolutionise the way blood testing works, enabling people to take blood tests without needing to visit a doctor and in a less-painful way. But it was a fraud: the technology didn’t work and Holmes and her team covered it up.

There have been several great documentaries and news broadcasts going into detail on the Theranos case, and with Holmes and others still awaiting trial it remains unresolved. This adaptation of an ABC News podcast will be the first dramatisation of the events of the Theranos scam, and despite some production setbacks it looks like it has the potential to be truly interesting when its broadcast on Hulu (and on Disney+ internationally) before the end of the year.

Number 8: Amazon’s Lord of the Rings series (full title unknown)

I’m beginning to wonder if we’ll see the first season of this incredibly expensive television show this year. With half the year gone, there hasn’t been much news about Amazon’s Game of Thrones-killer. That aside, a return to Middle-earth sounds incredible, and by taking the action away from most of the characters we’re familiar with from the films, hopefully what will result will be a genuinely different experience that doesn’t try to mimic the films too heavily.

Amazon has thrown cinema-level money at its Lord of the Rings adaptation, so I’m expecting to see something incredibly impressive for that investment.

Number 9: The Witcher Season 2

I’ve never played The Witcher 3 or any of the other games in the series. But the first season of Netflix’s adaptation of the original novels was great, and it’s always nice to see a high-budget fantasy project make it to screen! The first season debuted in late 2019, and I had half-hoped to see Season 2 before now. It’s still possible it won’t happen before the end of the year, but a recent teaser from Netflix suggests that Season 2 is in post-production and progressing nicely.

After such a long break, I feel like I should probably re-watch Season 1 before sitting down to see any new episodes! Henry Cavill will reprise his role as Geralt, and all being well Season 2 will be just as good as Season 1.

Number 10: Tokyo Vice

This true-crime series is based on the memoir of an American journalist, Jake Adelstein, who spent several years in Tokyo. In short, he documented a lot of police corruption during his tenure as a newspaper reporter in the 1990s, and given HBO’s pedigree at making high-budget series, I think there’s a lot of potential here.

Speaking as a westerner, Japan can be somewhat of a mystery. Romanticised by some, ignored by others, the truth is that many folks who’ve never set foot in Japan don’t know the first thing about Japanese life – and Tokyo Vice may just blow the lid off the seedier underbelly of Japan’s capital city in a big way. I’m calling it right now: this show could be 2021’s Chernobyl.

Film:

An increasing number of films are coming straight to streaming platforms – or being released digitally at the same time as heading to the box office. This is great news for me personally, as I’m not able to go to the cinema in person. There are some interesting titles coming up in the second half of the year.

Number 1: Jungle Cruise

In 2003 I felt that making a film based on the Disneyland/Disney World ride Pirates of the Caribbean was a stupid idea. Shows what I know, eh? Pirates of the Caribbean was great fun, so I’m hopeful that Disney’s latest ride adaptation will be as well. The Jungle Cruise ride takes theme park guests on a riverboat through – you guessed it – a jungle!

Hopefully the excitement that the ride offers will translate well to the screen. Parts of the trailer looked very CGI-heavy, and I hope that won’t be too offputting or problematic. Otherwise all I can really say is I’m looking forward to seeing what the film has to offer.

Number 2: Free Guy

Ryan Reynolds stars as a video game character who becomes sentient. I don’t know what else to say other than that sounds like a hilarious premise, one well-suited to Reynolds’ comedic style.

Video games have been the subject of many different films over the years, both as plot points and as direct video game adaptations. But no film so far has taken this approach; Free Guy looks set to be a unique experience when it arrives on the 13th of August.

Number 3: No Time To Die

This is the third or fourth time I’ve put No Time To Die on a list of “upcoming” titles. But this time it really is going to be released! Right?! Delayed by almost two years at this point, Daniel Craig’s final outing as 007 looks set to be an explosive and action-packed experience, and hopefully will bring down the curtain on his tenure in the role in suitable fashion.

The film will feature Academy Award-winner Rami Malek as its main villain, and I’m very interested to see what he’ll bring to the table. All being well, No Time To Die will be released at the end of September – and I’m curious to see whether it’ll be released on Amazon Prime Video as well, following Amazon’s acquisition of MGM.

Number 4: Encanto

We don’t know too much right now about Disney’s next big animated film. It’s set in Colombia, so there’ll be a Latin/South American feel. The film will focus on a girl who’s the only one in her family unable to use magic. I think we can expect an uplifting story of someone learning to be themselves and discover their own talents!

Lin-Manuel Miranda, who composed the soundtrack to 2016’s Moana (as well as Hamilton, In The Heights, and many others) is collaborating with Disney for a second time on the soundtrack to Encanto. That alone makes the film very exciting and worth checking out. Currently Disney aims to release Encanto in cinemas with no word on a Disney+ premiere.

Number 5: The Green Knight

I’ve long had an interest in the legends of King Arthur, and this film adaptation of one of the lesser-known Arthurian works looks set to be interesting at the very least. I got almost a horror or supernatural vibe from the trailer for The Green Knight, and while I’m not a big horror fan personally, I think the film has potential.

I’m not familiar with the director or most of the cast, so I can’t comment on the film’s pedigree. But with a decent budget and solid source material, this could be an interesting one to watch when it arrives at the end of July.

Number 6: Space Jam: A New Legacy

I don’t think I’ve re-watched the original Space Jam since it was released in 1996. But despite that, the idea of a sequel to the fun basketball-meets-Looney Tunes flick seems like it’ll be a lot of fun! Starring Star Trek: Discovery’s Sonequa Martin-Green alongside basketball legend LeBron James, the film looks set to follow a similar formula to its famous ’90s predecessor.

Nostalgia is a big deal in entertainment at the moment, so I’m not surprised to see ’90s hits like Space Jam being brought back. Hopefully A New Legacy can live up to the original film when it’s released in just a couple of weeks’ time.

Number 7: Dune

As with Foundation above, Dune is an adaptation of an absolutely iconic work of science-fiction. Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel has been notoriously difficult to bring to the screen, and while this version is the first part of a duology, in many respects the complicated story might be better served as a television series than in the cinema.

Despite that, however, I’m looking forward to Dune’s November premiere. A huge budget, visual effects that look outstanding, and a star-studded cast will hopefully all come together to make this latest adaptation a success.

Number 8: Top Gun: Maverick

It’s been a long time since I saw Top Gun, the film which propelled Tom Cruise to superstardom. To produce a sequel 35 years after the original film is, in some respects, a risk. But as already mentioned, nostalgia is a huge driving force in the modern entertainment industry, and with Cruise stepping back into the shoes of fighter pilot Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, there’s already been a huge amount of interest.

Top Gun: Maverick will come to Paramount+ shortly after its theatrical release, which will hopefully give the streaming platform – Star Trek’s digital home – a nice boost.

Number 9: The Matrix 4

Although The Matrix 4 remains on the schedule for 2021, with so little information about the production – not even a name – I think we have to call this one tentative. 2003’s Reloaded and Revolutions seemed to bring the story to a pretty definitive end, so I’ll be interested to see where a new instalment takes the sci-fi/action series.

Most of the original cast are reprising their roles, and Lana Wachowski is set to direct. After the Wachowskis came out as transgender and completed their transitions, many critics have re-evaluated The Matrix and its “red pill, blue pill” analogy through the lens of trans experiences. As someone who’s recently been exploring my own gender identity, I’ll be very curious to see what the fou