Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge

Cast: Johnny Depp, Javier Bardem, Geoffrey Rush, Brenton Thwaites, Kaya Scodelario, Kevin McNally

Director: Joachim Rønning, Espen Sandberg

Writer: Jeff Nathanson


In the fifth instalment of the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy (somewhere out there Douglas Adams is laughing) there are two openings. One promises the return and salvation of a character from the previous films and the other introduces the latest villain in the franchise. By the time the title appeared, neither of these openings was able to inspire the slightest bit of curiosity or enthusiasm on my part. I was not at all interested in seeing the return of a character who had no business remaining a part of this franchise after the first film nor was I terribly excited to see yet another enormously talented actor put their talent to waste in this shipwreck of a movie series. The overblown plots, the ridiculous action, Johnny Depp’s silliness, these have all become staples of Pirates and all these opening scenes did was assure me that this movie would be more of the same.

Nine years after his last meeting with his cursed father Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), whom he has promised to free from by locating Poseidon’s Trident, Henry (Brenton Thwaites) is serving on a vessel that gets attacked by Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem) and his undead crew. Henry alone survives and, upon learning that he is searching for Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), Salazar leaves him with a message for Jack: that death is coming. Over in Saint Martin Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario) has been accused of witchcraft, due to her knowledge of astronomy and horology, and is sentenced to death. She escapes and gets mixed up in a bank robbery orchestrated by Jack and his crew. When the robbery proves a failure Jack is abandoned by his crew and, in a moment of despair, he surrenders his magic compass for a drink, unwittingly releasing Salazar from his confinement in the Devil’s Triangle. Henry arrives in Saint Martin and becomes entangled with both Jack and Carina, teaming up with them to search for the Trident. Hot on their trail is Salazar who seeks to find Jack Sparrow with the aid of his new prisoner, Captain Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush).

There are several different plots been tackled all at once and the movie jumbles them to the point of incoherence. As always in this franchise there is a plot device the characters are all trying to reach, Poseidon’s Trident, which one would think might allow the film some focus. The plot however is completely lost in the tangled web of stories and sub-plots the movie wants to chuck in to try and convince us that there is a larger, more epic story being told. Henry of course must be the son of Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley, since it’s apparently not enough for him to be his own character, so the film must allocate time towards the Turner family drama. Then there’s Carina and the mystery surrounding the diary she possesses which she received from a father she’s never met (because of course she hasn’t). Then there’s Captain Salazar and the history he shares with Jack Sparrow. Then there’s the matter of recovering the Black Pearl which is still trapped in a bottle from the last film. Then there are a series of obstacles along the way like Jack Sparrow’s death sentence and impromptu wedding which only exist to pad the runtime. That the movie lacks any kind of consistency or focus means that each and every aspect of this story, whether promising, unnecessary or just plain stupid, receives the equal amount of inattention and neglect.

The Pirates movies have always been silly and over the top, but in Curse of the Black Pearl it was fresh and toned down enough and coupled with enough entertaining characters and thrilling action to make for a great popcorn movie. While Dead Man’s Chest may mark the point where the movies got out of control, On Stranger Tides was when this series became unbearably boring. Even after the movies finally dispensed of its two least interesting characters, the continued adventures of Jack Sparrow carried a weary sense of ‘been there, done that’. This film feels the same. Johnny Depp’s performance has lost all of the wit and charm it once had and has been pitifully reduced to a 54-year-old man flailing his arms about and making weird expressions while slurring his words. The adventure meanwhile has lost all of its thrill and wonder as it repeats the same tired steps of having its main character stumble his way through a bunch of implausible and impossibly perilous situations with barely a scratch to show for it. It’s gotten old.

Much of this movie feels more like a blur to me (which, come to think of it, is probably how it felt to Jack Sparrow as well). The one element that felt to me like the movie was trying to do something different was with Carina’s arc as a smart, thinking woman in a backwards time. The idea of having this character whose affinity for science and astronomy makes her an outcast is one that makes Carina more than just a stand-in for Keira Knightley and one that I would have liked to see the movie develop some more. A shame then that her character also had to be used for a mysterious parentage sub-plot and as a subject for innuendoes and double entendres that wouldn’t even be worthy of a bawdy seaside postcard. I wasn’t very hopeful going in but I thought the movie might at least give me a fun memorable villain like Davy Jones to enjoy. Sadly, like Ian McShane before him, Javier Bardem is completely wasted and forgettable in his role. That’s Salazar’s Revenge in a nutshell really, a forgettable waste of time.

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Alien: Covenant

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demián Bichir

Director: Ridley Scott

Writer: John Logan, Dante Harper


Alien: Covenant is one of those times when I felt like I was watching a great film trapped in a mediocre film. The film as a whole is objectively the third best in the Alien franchise, but that’s not saying much. It suffers from the same sort of inauthentic Nolan-esque dialogue that made Prometheus such a chore to sit through as its characters spend much of their time spouting vaguely important sounding declarations explaining what is happening or what they are feeling. The film also suffers from a sense of sameness as it follows most of the beats we’ve come to expect from the Alien films to the point that it isn’t worth even getting to know the minor characters since we already know they’re only there to serve as cannon fodder. In the middle of all that though, there is a genuinely great story being told about death and creation, birth and parenthood, and man and monster. All of the scenes that focused on Michael Fassbender made this movie worth the price of admission.

Set a decade years after the bloody events in Prometheus, the colonisation ship Covenant is en route to a remote planet with its crew in hibernation while Walter (Michael Fassbender), a new version of the synthetic David from Prometheus, monitors them. A disaster occurs that requires Walter to bring the crew out of stasis and results in the captain’s death. After the first mate Chris Oram (Billy Crudup) assumes the role of Acting Captain, the ships picks up a transmission from a nearby planet that exhibits signs of life ideal for colonisation. Despite the objection of Daniels (Katherine Waterson), the captain’s widow, the crew decides to investigate this planet rather than go back into hibernation and continue their journey. Things of course go wrong when the ground team arrives on the planet and are attacked by vicious creatures, but they are presently rescued by a figure who turns out to be David (Fassbender again). As he explains to them the nature of the threat they face, the crew must work out how to escape.

Fassbender delivers a remarkable dual performance as Walter and David and it is these two characters and the relationship between them that makes this movie stand out from all the other Alien movies that came before. David has changed (or evolved as he puts it) in the years he has been stranded on this planet and has achieved what he views as a higher state of being. David is essentially a Frankenstein’s monster who has over time grown into a new Dr. Frankenstein, intent on creating new life to fulfil the purpose for which he believes he was created. He therefore sees Walter as some sort of a twisted combination between a brother, a son, and a lover and sees within him the potential to transcend humanity the way he has. In this way Covenant has more in common with Ridley Scott’s magnum opus Blade Runner than it does with the other Alien films. The bond David shares with Walter and the philosophical and psychological themes that they explore gives this movie an emotional core that was absent in Prometheus. My favourite scene of theirs was when David teaches Walter to play the recorder, a moment that is all at once compelling, funny and even weirdly seductive.

I wish I could have seen more of David and Walter because the rest of the film was about as typical as you could expect an Alien prequel to be. We get callbacks to the original film, generic characters making stupid decisions that get them killed, and plenty of carnage at the hands of the Giger-designed xenomorphs. The film is certainly watchable enough, but it offers little to all but those viewers who have not seen Scott’s original 1979 horror. One of the positives is Waterson as probably the film’s only compelling human character, a grieving widow set on fulfilling her late husband’s dream of building a new home, only to find all her hopes dashed by the desolate place and their forlorn situation. The design is also good, particularly that of the dead city where David has been hiding for the last decade. This forsaken ruin of what had once been a great civilisation has exactly the right air of foreboding and isolation that you would what for a movie such as this.

If Ridley Scott had set out to make a film about a synthetic being with a god complex (a Roy Batty movie maybe?), this could have been something special. As it is, Alien: Covenant is a competently made rehash of the first two Alien movies with a marvellous story lurking within the otherwise derivative plot. As far as being a prequel goes, I’m not sure whether the movie adds anything that will actually affect how I watch Alien or Aliens. As fascinating as the David and Walter narrative was, the question of whether it will add any sort of significance to the Ellen Ripley stories remains to be seen. In and of itself though, it was an excellent storyline that deserved more time and focus. The survival horror movie stuff that came in between was entertaining enough that I was willing to watch it while I waited for the movie to return to the Fassbender bots, but that’s all it did for me. Although this is one of those times when a star rating is grossly inadequate to reflect my mixed feelings on this film, on balance I’ve decided on four stars as a testament to the strength of the David/Walter story against the rest of the film.

★★★★

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2

Cast: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Elizabeth Debicki, Chris Sullivan, Sean Gunn, Sylvester Stallone, Kurt Russell

Director: James Gunn

Writer: James Gunn


The original Guardians of the Galaxy has become such a monster hit in the years since its release that it’s easy to forget how little audiences were expecting from it at the time. Even though it was a Marvel property, the vast majority of viewers knew nothing about who these characters were or about the universe they lived in. All they really knew going in was that it starred the chubby guy from Parks & Rec and had a talking raccoon and a tree man fighting bad guys in space. People were so convinced that this movie with its strange premise was going to be Marvel’s first flop that they were taken completely by surprise when it turned out to be one of the funniest, most entertaining and awesome films of the year. Now that Guardians has lost that element of surprise, its sequel must somehow inspire that same reaction again while also managing the audience’s now eager expectations. Few films can live up to that kind of expectation, and I suspect that some will be inevitably disappointed when they find that this movie isn’t quite the gamechanger that the first film was. For me though, Vol. 2 is exactly the kind of sequel I hoped it would be.

Now renowned as the Guardians of the Galaxy, the movie opens with Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) protecting some valuable batteries for the Sovereign race in exchange for Gamora’s sister Nebula (Karen Gillan). When Rocket steals some of the batteries for himself the Guardians must go on the run and end up crash landing on a planet where they are met by Ego (Kurt Russell), who reveals himself to be Peter’s father. He invites Peter, Gamora and Drax to his home planet while Rocket and Groot fix the ship and guard Nebula. Meanwhile Yondu (Michael Rooker), now outcast by the Ravagers for child trafficking, is hired by Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), the leader of the Sovereigns, to track down the Guardians and capture them, a task he accepts but is reluctant to carry out.

The opening sequence sets the tone perfectly for this sequel. The Guardians are gearing up for a big fight with a giant CGI tentacle monster only for the battle to occur in the background as we instead follow Baby Groot around as he dances along to ‘Mr. Blue Sky’. Not only is it a clever and funny twist on a trope we’ve seen in countless other blockbusters, it reminds us at the outset that Guardians of the Galaxy isn’t and has no interest in being a generic, interchangeable action-driven movie void of character and plot. Guardians has character, whimsy and heart and wants to showcase them to its audience. There are certainly great moments of action that occur from Yondu taking over a ship with his whistling arrow to Gamora’s ultimate showdown with her sister. However, much like how the best scene in Age of Ultron was when the Avengers were just hanging out in Tony Stark’s apartment, Guardians is at its best when it allows its characters to just be themselves.

At its core Guardians of the Galaxy is about family and that theme becomes most prominent when Star Lord finally meets his estranged alien father (who, of course, is played by an 80s icon). Thus, with the revelation of who he really is and where he comes from, it isn’t long before Quill finds himself torn between his biological family and his makeshift one. The movie however expands on the same theme with its other characters, bringing equal attention to the combative sisterhood shared by Gamora and Nebula and the surrogate father-son bond Quill shares with Yondu. Rooker in fact was the biggest surprise for me as he gives this movie, and perhaps the whole MCU, its most touching and heartfelt performance. Although there may not be any real question about what the film’s resolution will be, which is that family is who you’re with and not where you’re from, the way that it gets there is still compelling and, in the end, moving.

When a property is as big and as successful as Guardians has become in the last few years, it becomes so easy for studios to decide that all they want to do is ride on that success and phone it in. This is why the movie’s best quality is how earnest and sincere it all feels. The effort that Gunn and his team put into this movie is evident not just in the attention and care they put into the story and its characters but in the visuals as well. The movie is teeming with radiant colours that movies like those in the DCEU don’t think exist, the set-pieces such as Ego’s home planet are wonderfully designed and the film is rife with striking visuals such as those in the space jumping scene. The movie does become cluttered and even a little by-the-numbers in the third act but Gunn does such a great job of keeping the focus on the characters and all of their motivations that it doesn’t really slow down the film for me. Even though Vol. 2 doesn’t have the surprise factor that made the first movie such a mind-blowing revelation, I actually enjoyed it even more. Not only is Guardians of the Galaxy a great work of pure entertainment, but Vol. 2 is also one of those rare sequels that took everything that was good about the original and made them even better.

★★★★★

Ghost in the Shell

Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Michael Pitt, Pilou Asbæk, Chin Han, Juliette Binoche, Beat Takeshi

Director: Rupert Sanders

Writers: Jamie Moss, William Wheeler, Ehren Kruger


When a film has generated such widely publicised controversy as Ghost in the Shell has, it’s often difficult to divorce the topic from the movie itself. As a critic it is my duty to evaluate each film I watch by its individual flaws and merits. The reality however is that no film is released in a vacuum and, as a viewer, I cannot help but have my perception altered by the circumstances surrounding a movie’s release. With that in mind, I’m not going to turn this review into an essay about feminism, whitewashing, or about America’s view of Japanese culture because I am not nearly smart or qualified enough to write one. Ghost in the Shell is a movie first and foremost and that’s how I plan to approach it. It isn’t a good movie but it is a visually stunning one. It is also a movie with poorly thought out morals and philosophies, insubstantial character development and a troubling relationship with race.

Set in a future where cybernetic enhancements have become a norm for human beings, the movie follows Major Mira Killian (Scarlet Johansson), a human whose brain was placed inside an entirely mechanical body after her own was damaged beyond repair in an accident. Now working for the anti-terrorist bureau Sector 9 with Batou (Pilou Asbæk) under Chief Daisuke Aramaki (Beat Takeshi), she combats threats and keeps the country safe. However she starts experiencing hallucinations and is puzzled by their meaning and significance. Her designer, Dr. Oulet (Juliette Binoche), dismisses them as glitches, but Major suspects they might be related to her past, of which she has little memory. Her confusion, as well as her suspicion that her friends and colleagues are lying to her, lead Major to start questioning her humanity and her place in the world. This existential crisis comes in the wake of an attack carried out by a terrorist known as Kuze (Michael Pitt), whom Major must track down and stop.

The anime this movie was based on had a compelling story that raised complex questions about what it means to be human. This film discards much of that complexity and depth in order to focus on how heroic and unique Major is, thus, intentionally or not, providing a quintessentially American type of narrative. Time and time again the movie periodically reiterates how special Killian is and how she is the only person (machine? being? entity?) of her kind without ever going deeper into the larger questions raised by her existence, or indeed by the very nature of the world they live in. What does identity mean to these people, especially Major? Where does one draw the line between human consciousness and artificial intelligence? What effect has technology had on the concept of race and gender? The film raises and alludes to all sorts of questions along these lines but never provides any detailed exploration or genuine insight.

The debate over whether the actress playing the main character of a Japanese manga should reflect their racial origins is one that I’m not prepared to go into. Johansson has proven herself in the past, both as an actress (Under the Skin, Her) and as an action star (The Avengers, Lucy), so I suppose it’s fair to say that I was prepared to accept her casting should she give a performance worthy of the character. The performance doesn’t work however because she was never able to form a convincing emotional connection with her character. Maybe this is because the character is tied so strongly to Japanese culture that no Caucasian actress could have built that connection, or maybe the fault lies elsewhere. In fairness, I don’t think the rest of the ensemble fared much better. Besides Batou I honestly cannot remember a single member of Killian’s team. Binoche does a decent job as a character whose presence hints at an intriguing mother/daughter relationship that I wish could have been explored more, but alas the film was too busy focusing on Major and how special and unique she is. Pitt as the villain is just bland and forgettable.

The movie is poor enough on its own. The characterisations are weak, the story is dull and the themes lack depth. What really kills Ghost in the Shell though is its problematic relationship with race. Perhaps the film could have survived the controversy if it merely side-lined any matters of race and just focused on the story it was trying to tell. Instead it fully addresses the issue in perhaps the most awkward, misguided way it could possibly have chosen. Far from allaying any concerns viewers might have had, the film ends bringing even more attention to the problem and throwing fuel onto the fire it started. I suppose the film should get some credit for at least trying to be representative by going to lengths to depict Japanese culture in its futuristic setting and featuring a not insignificant number of Asian actors in its cast. It is telling however that four out of five of the main characters are played by white actors. The film is often visually beautiful and has some great action as well, but narratively it feels soulless and empty. Kind of like a shell without a ghost.

★★