Solo: A Star Wars Story

Cast: Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson, Paul Bettany, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, Thandie Newton

Director: Ron Howard

Writers: Jonathan Kasdan, Lawrence Kasdan

Another year, another Star Wars movie, and this time it’s all about everybody’s favourite stuck-up, half-witted, scruffy-looking nerf herder. As far as Star Wars prequels go, Solo is probably a movie that didn’t need to be made. Unlike Rogue One, this film does feel like there’s a little more puppeteering going on as it recounts the early years of Han Solo’s (Alden Ehrenreich) life with some of the key moments that we know happened from the original films. We see Han meet Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), we see him win the Millennium Falcon from Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) in a card game, and we see him complete the Kessel Run (a sequence that goes out of its way to fix a screenplay error in the 1977 film where ‘parsec’ was mistakenly used as a unit of time). Fans of the original movies know that these moments have got to happen and it does somewhat steal away from the sense of freedom that Rogue One had with a story and characters that were mostly divorced from the events of the official saga, but I don’t think that’s a fatal flaw. Solo is basically high-budget Star Wars fan-fiction and it’s pretty fun for what it is.

We meet Han as a young street rat living in the slums of an industrial planet with his sweetheart Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) where circumstances beyond their control force them apart. Han, left on his own, adopts the name Solo and enlists in the Imperial Navy where he’s sent to fight in the front lines of battles reminiscent of the trench warfare in such World War One movies as All Quiet on the Western Front and Paths of Glory (a clever way of signifying this movie’s position in the Star Wars timeline as years before that of original trilogy which was itself heavily influenced by Second World War cinema). Han deserts his post and joins a team of smugglers led by Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and Val (Thandie Newton). They are contracted to perform a train heist like something out of a John Ford movie (another key influence for Lucas) which goes south. They are brought before the displeased crime lord who hired them Dryden Voss (Paul Bettany) and his right hand woman, none other than Qi’ra. She persuades Dryden to give Han and his team one last chance and sends them off on a suicidal mission.

When Han Solo embarks on the quest that will one day lead him to the Mos Eisley cantina on Tatooine, you can almost visualise in your mind the checklist that the movie is ticking off with each step. With every story beat you can see the strings being pulled and the gears being turned as they manoeuvre their way towards the numerous scenarios from Han’s past that fans have heard of but never got to see depicted on screen. It’s difficult enough to create scenes that exceed the imaginations of those who have visualised their own versions for years, what’s more difficult is getting us to those scenes in a way that somehow feels organic and surprising, as if we’re really watching a story we haven’t ever seen unfolding before our eyes. Indeed, the moments where the film works best are usually when it’s not constrained by the machinations of what we know has to happen and is able to do its own thing. The new character I remember the most vividly is L3-37, a zealous droid voiced by Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller-Bridges who is defiantly devoted towards the cause of droid emancipation. This is a character who didn’t need to exist in a Han Solo origin story and that is precisely why she stands out so much.

When it comes to playing the past incarnation of iconic Star Wars characters, Alden Ehrenreich is not Ewan McGregor but he’s not Hayden Christensen either. To me, it isn’t nearly as important for the actor playing Han to look or sound like Harrison Ford as it is for him to be able to evoke the character and there were definitely moments in Ehrenreich’s performance when I saw glimpses. He’s got the cockiness, the swagger, and the charmingly roguish grin that Ford originally brought to Solo. What he doesn’t have is that sharp edge to his character, the aura of dishonour and danger that you get from a scoundrel who has had it rough, is only out for himself, and who will do whatever it takes to stay ahead of the curve. Ehrenreich is just not severe enough or brazen enough to feel like he could one day become that antihero who calculatingly shot a bounty hunter point blank when his back was against the wall and who only agreed to rescue a captive princess when he realised there was money to be made. It’s a charming and likeable enough performance and it’s enough to carry you through the film, but Ehrenreich is not the Han Solo of your dreams. (On a side note: One thing that would have made me very happy indeed is if they had somehow worked in the line, “Would that it were so simple”.)

The rest of the characters are a mixed bag. Qi’ra is meant to come across as this perfect foil to Han, a rogue cut from the same cloth who changes allegiances with the wind and who always has something hidden up her sleeve. Clarke however, like Ehrenreich, doesn’t bring enough darkness or boldness to her performance to really sell it (she’s also the third white, British brunette in a row to be cast as the female lead in a Star Wars film, which makes it all the harder for her to distinguish herself). I’m also not a fan of the way that the movie tries to invest us in this doomed romance when I’m already satisfied that Leia is the great love of Han’s life. Harrelson, Newton, and long-time Howard collaborator Bettany are all seasoned pros who couldn’t deliver dull performances if they tried but none of them really bring anything unique or remarkable to their roles to make them stand out. The only on-screen performance to accomplish that is Glover’s as Lando, the coolest, suavest, most debonair man in the galaxy. The casting choice is so perfect here that I think they probably should have given Lando his own movie rather than Solo. I, for one, am much more interested in learning how a space hustler became an entrepreneur with his own mining colony than I am in learning how a kid from the slums became a smuggler. He steals every scene he’s in and is only prevented from running away with the whole movie by limited screen time.

It’s not perfect and, for me, it’s probably the weakest of the ‘good’ Star Wars films but Solo is enjoyable enough and it’s a miracle that it got there at all considering how messy it got behind the scenes. The fan service is more blatant than it was in The Force Awakens and the movie doesn’t even dare to be as irreverent (or sacrilegious if you prefer) or as contemplative as The Last Jedi was, but that’s all fine if you know that’s what you’re signing up for. The film wears its heart on its sleeve and leads you by the hand all the way through, but it does it with enough style and spirit that you’ll enjoy getting there anyway. I’ll have to watch it again before I can appreciate its visual craft because the cinema where I saw it left the 3D filter on during its 2D screening, making everything look unnaturally dark, but it is a film that I will watch again sometime quite happily.



Me Before You

Cast: Emilia Clarke, Sam Claflin, Janet McTeer, Charles Dance, Brendan Coyle

Director: Thea Sharrock

Writer: Jojo Moyes

This is a film that has targeted itself towards a particular audience and, for all the girls and women out there looking for a melodramatic, tearjerker romance, Me Before You will hit all the right notes for them. It has a bubbly, socially awkward young woman as its protagonist. She meets a young, handsome lad with a tragic disability that has rendered him withdrawn and unfeeling. He has given up all hope of ever being happy again, but perhaps this kind, pretty and caring woman he’s grown rather fond of despite his initial resistance can bring him back from the edge. Although they are from two completely different worlds, they share a deep connection unlike any they’ve ever felt before. If these characters had been given American accents, I’d have sworn that I was watching a movie based on a Nicholas Sparks novel. Me Before You thankfully isn’t quite that trite but I did find it pretty schmaltzy at times.

Lou Clark (Emilia Clarke) has recently lost her job at the local café and needs to find a new one to help her family meet ends. She learns of an opening as a caregiver for Will Traynor (Sam Claflin), a son in a wealthy family who two years ago became completely paralyzed after a motorcycle accident. While Will already has a doctor called Nathan (Steve Peacocke) to attend to his medical needs, Lou’s job is to keep him company. His parents Camilla (Janet McTeer) and Steven (Charles Dance) are concerned with his cold, withdrawn demeanour and hope that the presence of a kind and pretty girl might help to restore his spirits. Will initially treats Lou with hostility but they gradually warm up to each other. Before long they start to develop feelings for each other despite the presence of Lou’s athletic boyfriend Patrick (Matthew Lewis). When Lou learns that Will is intent on going to a euthanasia clinic in Switzerland, she makes it her mission to inspire within him the will to live.

While I wasn’t quite won over by the film’s romanticism and sentimentality, I can understand why someone would be. There is definitely some chemistry between the two leads and the romance they share is whimsical enough that I can see why someone could be swept away by it. The film takes the time to form a believable bond that is built from Lou’s affectionate care for Will and the eye-opening introduction he gives her to a world that she has never known in her sheltered existence. Together they watch foreign movies (the film they show is Of Gods and Men which is a magnificent picture), attend fancy concerts where they get to dress up and travel to exotic locations. Will prides himself on having always lived life to the fullest, something he is no longer able to do, and implores Lou to start doing the same. There are some tired clichés that have to be endured through it all though like the initial reluctance before the blossoming of the romance, the boyfriend who turns out to be a jerk (because of course he does) and the idealised carpe diem message. Those who have fallen under the film’s spell won’t care about such things but those who haven’t will be rolling their eyes at certain intervals.

The two leads certainly put their all into the film and deliver performances that made the cornier parts of the movie more bearable. Emilia Clarke is sufficiently delightful as the vivacious, clumsy, caring Lou who has spent her entire life putting other people’s needs ahead of her own. Opposite her is the dashing and charming Sam Claflin playing a broken man unable to bear a life trapped in a wheelchair. Both actors deliver the attraction and the tears when they are needed and share a spark that comes across rather well. The actors are however victims of the film they’re in and must bring the schmaltz where it’s needed as well. The film also contains a number of big names in British TV working with far too little to really put their talents to good use. The exception is Joanna Lumley who kills it in her fabulous 60-second cameo.

Me Before You is soppy, mushy and romantic and it’ll either work for you or it won’t. The leads are likable but conventional. The romance is charming but sentimental. The tragedy is clear but a little forced. The film avoids any attempt to provide a challenging and thoughtful discussion on euthanasia and instead uses it as a simple means of generating sympathy and sadness. In essence the film is a fairy tale, albeit not exactly a happy one, and its success depends on whether or not you fall for its spell. Although I myself wasn’t wholly moved by this film, there was certainly no shortage of girls and young women sniffling and wiping away tears in the cinema. Me Before You is the quintessential ‘movie that your girlfriend will love’ and has all the right ingredients for appealing to that demographic. As a simple movie it is pretty hackneyed and schmaltzy but isn’t without charm.


Terminator Genisys

Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jason Clarke, Emilia Clarke, Jai Courtney, J.K. Simmons, Dayo Okeniyi, Matt(hew) Smith, Courtney B. Vance, Lee Byung-hun

Director: Alan Taylor

Writers: Laeta Kalogridis, Patrick Lussier

As far as the Terminator series goes, I think I’m just about in the same camp as everyone else. I think that The Terminator is an all-round great film and that Judgement Day is the mind-blowing sequel that managed to surpass the original in almost every conceivable way. Rise of the Machines is when things went downhill and when the franchise started to lose the plot. However I will say this for the threequel, I remember it. I remember it being really awful and really stupid but I still remember it. The most I can say about Terminator Salvation is that I’ve seen it. Beyond that there is nothing else to say; I cannot for the life of me remember what the hell happened in that film nor did I care to remind myself. Thus, with two great films and two bad films hanging in the balance, the fifth instalment in the Terminator series could potentially make or break this franchise once and for all. A shame then that Genisys has turned out to be such a soulless ill-executed film that ranks amongst the worst in the franchise.

In the futuristic apocalyptic world where man and machine are engaged in a devastating war John Connor (Jason Clarke), with Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) at his side, has led humanity to the verge of victory. Skynet has chosen this moment to employ its secret weapon, a time machine, and has sent a T800 back to 1984 to kill John Connor’s mother. Kyle is sent back as well to protect her but something goes wrong when John is suddenly attacked by a mysterious figure (Matt(hew) Smith). He lands in an alternative 1984 where Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) is already aware of Kyle Reese and his mission and ends up saving him from the T1000 (Lee Byung-hun) with the aid of Pops (Arnold Schwarzenegger), an aged T800 that was sent back to save Sarah during her childhood. That is more or less the point where the plot stops making sense.

At the risk of coming across as an angry fanboy rather than a dissatisfied viewer, this film really pissed me off. Admittedly the many flaws in this film probably would not have bothered me as much if the title did not contain the word ‘Terminator’, but that’s the price of tackling a beloved franchise. Living up to the high expectations of an impassioned fan-base is no easy task which is why the studio better be sure that the creative minds behind the film actually care about the franchise and adequately understand how it works. Failure to meets these requirements will be regarded by the fan-base as more than a let-down, it will be regarded as an insult. Jurassic World may not have been everyone’s cup of tea, but the audience can at least recognise that some care and effort went into its inception. Thus when a film like The Last Airbender comes along, an uninspired film that demonstrates a severe lack of any regard for the franchise or its fans, it is met with the utmost aggression. It is not enough for fans of Star Wars to hate the prequels; legions of them, almost religious in their devotion to the original trilogy, have dedicated themselves to deconstructing the prequels right down to the barebones and pointing out every single conceivable thing that’s wrong with them. Terminator Genisys is therefore much more than a bad film; it is an insipid, lacklustre, faithless affront to everything that was good about the original Terminator films.

Now that I’ve got my fanatical ravings out of my system I’ll delve more into what was wrong with this film in a more (hopefully) constructive way. I think perhaps the film’s biggest mistake was thinking that the secret to making a good sequel is to make allusions and references to the original films. Thus we are presented with revived catchphrases and reconstructed scenes that ended up doing little to capture the excitement and thrills of the original films. So focused were the filmmakers on inserting references to the film’s predecessors that they forgot to add the interesting characters, compelling stories and the mind-blowing action that made the originals classics in the first place. The characters in this film may have the same names as their original counterparts, but they share little else in common. Arnold Schwarzenegger probably comes the closest to capturing the character he so effectively portrayed in the originals, but he has considerably aged since then. The film does address this, describing their incarnation of the T800 as “old, not obsolete”, but I simply wasn’t convinced that this was the same intimidating, unstoppable force of machinery that he originated so long ago. The film’s versions of Sarah Connor, John Connor and Kyle Reese do little to provide their actors with workable material as they barely manage to display a single characteristic between them.

The Terminator franchise is famous for having one of the most confusing and erratic timelines of all time and this film only makes it worse. The very idea of this Back-to-the-Future-II-esque alternative reality is a lot for the viewers to wrap their heads around but from there it only gets even more convoluted and confusing. The tired exposition and nonsensical scientific mumbo-jumbo does little to clarify what follows as the film ventures from the silly to the ridiculous. The plot twist involving John Connor that the filmmakers saw fit to include in the trailer is just as absurd as the advert promised. The action sequences are generically ho-hum for the most part and fail to offer anything new or creative. One clunky fight scene involving two T800s springs to mind that only served to remind me of how much Arnold Schwarzenegger has really aged. Overall it boils down to one gargantuan mess of a film.

Looking back on what is probably the harshest review I’ve ever written about a film thus far, I wonder whether I’m being too harsh on this film. It is fair to say that I have actively allowed my feelings on the original Terminator films to shape my judgement on this new instalment and so perhaps I should have made more of an effort to criticise this film on its own terms. On the other hand this film has so inextricably linked itself to its predecessors that I didn’t feel like I could bring myself to isolate it. When I saw the bland offerings of the formerly iconic characters of the franchise and the many forced allusions and references to the original films, all I could think about was how much I’d rather be watching The Terminator or Judgement Day than Genisys. I’m not going to pretend that the original films are flawless and do not have their own fair shares of plot-holes and faults, but the fundamental difference is that I was completely invested in those films because of how much there is to enjoy and get excited about in them. Genisys offers nothing of worth to its audience. This film is utterly devoid of thought, reason and heart. It may not objectively be the worst film to come out this year and may not even be the worst sequel this series has spawned, but it is an unworthy addition to the franchise and we as an audience deserve much better.