Rogue One

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

Director: Gareth Edwards,

Writers: Chris Weitz, Tony Gilroy


The Star Wars prequels are more than bad movies, they are a profoundly disappointing missed opportunity. The idea was to expand on the story and the universe that we all loved and knew so well by turning the clock back and looking at where it all started. The tragedy of Anakin Skywalker’s descent into darkness, the truth of Obi-Wan’s greatest failure, the terrible war that led to the destruction of the Jedi Order, the fall of the Republic and the ascent of the Galactic Empire; these were stories that we couldn’t wait to see unfold. Instead we got three poorly written, emotionally hollow, excessively CG’d movies complete with midichlorians, sand flirting and Jar Jar. Rogue One succeeds where these films failed, not just because it’s actually a half-decent flick, but because it actually brought something new to Star Wars and made the franchise as a whole better than it was before.

Set immediately before the events of A New Hope the film follows Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) as she is pulled into the war between the Empire and the Rebel Alliance after being freed from prison by Cassian Andor (Diego Luna). He needs her help to find her father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), the lead architect of the newly-completed Death Star, so that they might learn about the weapon he has created. Aiding them is a team of rebels including the sassy reprogrammed droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), the blind warrior Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen), the cynical mercenary Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) and the turncoat Imperial soldier Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed). Overseeing the completion of the Death Star is Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), whose position is threatened when a security leak threatens to compromise all that he has worked for. From this leak Jyn learns of the existence of a design flaw hidden within the plans of the Death Star. What follows is a race against time as Jyn and her team try to uncover the nature of this weakness before the Empire can use their weapon to impose their will on the Galaxy.

There is a smaller story being told here than in any of the other Star Wars films which Edwards and Weitz try to make work by playing up the emotional stakes. The setup is not unlike The Magnificent Seven (or perhaps Seven Samurai, directed by one of George Lucas’ greatest influences, is the more appropriate comparison) where a team of ragtag individuals are driven by ideals of nobility, duty and morality to take on a perilous mission against impossible odds, along the way accepting that they will not all live to see it through. To this end the film works well for the most part. There is, for starters, a number of enjoyable, colourful characters to root for such as Chirrut, a man of faith whose actions (he believes) are driven by the Force, and K-2SO, who is basically C-3PO if he could also break Stormtroopers’ necks. Some of the motivations and personalities of these characters do leave something to be desired but there is just enough in there to make the film worthwhile. Jyn and Cassian are not exactly Leia and Han when it comes to likeability and memorability but I was happy to follow them for this one movie.

The first two thirds of the film do drag a bit as we jump from generic planet to generic planet waiting for our heroes to kick off the movie’s climax but, once they do, it is every bit worth the wait and is everything a Star Wars fan could possibly want from a climax. An epic space battle: check. The infiltration of an Imperial base: check. The greatest Darth Vader action scene in history: double check! That the film never quite found the time to truly define its characters the way A New Hope did does work against them as our emotional investment isn’t quite as strong as they probably wanted. While we do get to see their story-arcs fulfilled in some very good character moments, it is more affective than it is moving. You’ll be invested enough that the events will register with you, but they won’t really leave any sort of a lasting impact. Still, with that said, the spectacle of this climax is more than strong enough to be worthy of the Star Wars name.

As well as an astounding third act, Rogue One is also worth watching for the ways in which it ties in to A New Hope. By setting out to fix what is probably one of the most famous and often-debated plot holes in cinema, the story at large has become stronger for it. The Death Star’s Achilles Heel is no longer a deus ex machina, it is now an entirely justified plot device that adds a greater context and weight to Luke Skywalker’s fateful assault. Other tie-ins include the glorious return of Vader as well as Grand Moff Tarkin, recreated in the image of the late Peter Cushing. I’m ambivalent on his inclusion. While a part of me does feel uneasy about digitally manipulating a dead man’s image to make a movie, I can’t deny that another part of me was overjoyed to see him again as the marvellously sinister villain that he had played so well. Personally, I think that I can accept this choice as long as Disney and Lucasfilm agree not to make a habit out of it (especially in light of the tragic and untimely death of Carrie Fisher).

The strengths and weaknesses of Rogue One are interesting to look at when comparing it to The Force Awakens. While that film did have misgivings in terms of plot, it made up for those misgivings (for me at least) by virtue of its new, wonderfully engaging characters such as Rey, Finn, Kylo Ren and BB-8. Rogue One has a more individual, better-told story in its favour, but the emotional resonance is not as strong because the characters are not as compelling. They’re fine in that they serve their roles, have a few good moments and keep you invested for the duration of the story, but they don’t have that strong sense of identity or the enduring quality that has made the original characters or their successors as celebrated as they are. Rogue One is, all in all, a very decent film and a creditable addition to the Star Wars canon. By taking us away from the Skywalker story for a little bit, this film has more than any other Star Wars movie shown us how big this universe truly is and how much life there is in its history and civilisations. I look forward to learning more in their future spin-off instalments.

★★★★

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Inferno

Cast: Tom Hanks, Felicity Jones, Irrfan Khan, Ben Foster, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Omar Sy

Director: Ron Howard

Writer: David Koepp


He’s at it again. For the third time Robert Langdon is drawn into a crisis with global ramifications and only by solving a trail of riddles can he save the day. SSDD. That the Dan Brown thrillers have an allure to them is beyond doubt. I was so drawn in by the historical mysteries and artistic secrets featured in his stories as a teenager that I didn’t really notice that he wasn’t a particularly good writer. There is just something so utterly fascinating about discovering that an ancient, secretive organisation like the Opus Dei or the Illuminati could have these great secrets hidden in all of these iconic buildings and works of art. Even when I began to catch on to the absurd and convoluted nature of these stories, the Ron Howard films still did a pretty decent job of making those absurdities and convolutions entertaining. With Inferno though (based on the novel that I didn’t bother to read) it got tiring. I wasn’t thrilled or mystified this time; I was bored and confused.

Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), the Harvard professor of Symbology, wakes up in a hospital room with apocalyptic visions and no memory of the last few days. He discovers that the hospital is in Florence and Dr. Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones) reveals that he is suffering from amnesia due to a bullet wound in the head. When the assassin Vayentha (Ana Ularu) enters guns blazing, the pair make their escape and try to work out what is happening. Among Langdon’s belongings is a small pointer that projects the image of Botticelli’s ‘Map of Hell’, based on Dante’s Inferno. This, they discover, is a clue left by Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster), a billionaire geneticist who believes the Earth’s growing population spells humanity’s doom. Before committing suicide, Zobrist created a lethal virus called Inferno that could decimate the world’s population. Langon and Brooks decide that they must follow Zobrist’s trail and prevent the virus from being released. On their trail is Christoph Bouchard (Omar Sy), an agent of the World Health Organisation, Harry Sims (Irrfan Khan), the head of an organisation that is helping Zobrist with his mission, and Elizabeth Sinskey (Sidse Babett Knudsen), the head of WHO and an old flame of Langdon’s.

That was a convoluted summary to write. The film is just so relentless with the amount of information it dumps and the number of overlapping stories involved. Recounting the plot is a little like listening to a History professor as he drones on and on through an inexorable sequence of “and then… and then… and then…” No “but…” or “therefore…”, just “and then…” There is seldom a moment where a character isn’t running or explaining something or explaining something while running. This is true of The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons as well, but those movies at least had a sense of pacing and suspense about them. Also the second movie had a skydiving Pope, so there’s that. Here everything happens at such dizzying speed that nothing is allowed time to sink in. Before your mind has the time to work out what the Horses of Saint Mark have to do with anything, a big plot twist is revealed and then the characters are on their way to Istanbul. Who knew that a confused, anxious, amnesiac Langdon with a great big pain in his head could be such an appropriate surrogate for the audience?

Hanks (minus the mullet this time) does what he does with the usual amount of wit and charm. As Langdon he is simultaneously the smartest man in the room and the approachable everyman, a balance he pulls off like no one else can. Jones is the movie’s highlight though as she plays a plucky foil to Hanks while also matching him on an intellectual level. Her character follows a wholly ridiculous arc in this film but boy does she sell it. Foster, an actor who is usually excellent at disappearing into his roles, isn’t given enough screen-time or character to put his talents to use. All he does is spout ominous lines about the disease of humanity and the end times, the sort of lines that sound great in a trailer. Irrfan Khan however might be the only member of the cast who actually understands what a ridiculous movie he’s in. Playing the prim and proper leader of a secretive organisation who may or may not be the bad guy, he’s having the time of his life.

The film is dense and insane, but then so are the two previous films. This time however it’s just too much. The complicated puzzles, the leaps in logic, the haphazard twists and turns along the way; to quote a clueless emperor in his appraisal of a genius’ masterpiece, “there are simply too many notes”. Worst of all is the climax, an entirely incoherent mess both intellectually and visually. In the struggle that ensued I resigned myself to indifference, as I had no discernable way of telling who was who or who was winning. The production is pretty great, allowing us to see some neat sights including Il Duomo, St. Mark’s Basilica and the Hagia Sophia, so audiences looking to see more of Langdon’s trademark explorations of artworks and buildings will get their fill. What they won’t get is the gripping suspense of The Da Vinci Code or the enjoyable outlandishness of Angels & Demons. What they’ll get instead is two hours of excessive running and explanation, and they will exit the film knowing less than when they entered.

★★

The Theory of Everything

Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Charlie Cox, David Thewlis, Simon McBurney, Emily Watson

Director: James Marsh

Writer: Anthony McCarten


Last year I saw a documentary about Stephen Hawking which introduced me to his remarkable story. I was deeply moved by the extraordinary life that he has led and was very much looking forward to seeing his story realised in a dramatic form. However I do realise that a remarkable story does not necessarily make a remarkable film and shall attempt to assess this film based on its own merits. With that in mind, The Theory of Everything is in itself a rather moving film that admirably depicts the struggle of a man with a brilliant mind suffering from motor neurone disease and the struggle of his equally brilliant wife in her effort to support him.

The film starts off at Cambridge University in 1963 where an astrophysics student named Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and a literature student named Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones) meet at a party. Stephen is shown to possess a very advanced mind and a keen thirst for knowledge as he reveals his greatest aspiration to be the search for the answer to life and existence. Jane meanwhile shows herself to be a very learned and cultured woman who is fascinated by Stephen’s intelligence but is not daunted by it as she challenges him on his dismissal of God’s existence. The two are smitten with each other and soon embark on a romantic relationship. The way this is done is a bit too romanticised for my liking (eyes meeting from across the room and all that), but the chemistry this couple shares is captivating and so I find myself willing to overlook this.

While this is happening Stephen starts showing the early signs of his disease as he has difficulties picking things up and stumbles slightly as he walks. He shrugs off these symptoms and attends a lecture on black holes which finally gives him the inspiration he needs to form a working theory about the creation of the universe. As he begins his pursuit of this theory he has an accident that leads him to visit the hospital. It is here that he receives his crushing diagnosis. Stephen is told that he has a degenerative disease that will deprive him of the control over his body and is given two years to live. Despite his attempt to push Jane away in order to spare her from pain and heartbreak, she finds out the truth and resolves to make the most of what little time they may have together. The rest of the film portrays the difficulties that Stephen’s disease brings to his work and marriage as he and his wife fight tooth and nail not to let his disease defeat them.

Eddie Redmayne delivers a breath-taking performance as Stephen Hawking both emotionally and physically. His portrayal of the effects of motor neurone disease on the way he walks, talks, looks and behaves are so convincing and so harrowing to watch that one often forgets that he is in fact an actor playing a part. He shows great conviction as Stephen in his effort not to let his condition prevent him from becoming one of the greatest minds in scientific study.Felicity Jones delivers a formidable performance as a woman struggling to cope with the life that she has chosen. She gives up her own ambitions so that Stephen might realise his as she dedicates herself to Stephen’s care and to raising their children. Jones depicts her character’s struggle with such heart and turmoil that it becomes all too apparent that this disease has just as heavy a toll on Jane as it does on her husband. Through Jane the film raises compelling questions about love and marriage and what exactly it means to love someone in sickness and in health.

It is often the case with biopics that the screenwriter and director merely attempt to recreate the key moments of the subject’s life, almost like a greatest hits compilation, without attempting any insight into the people themselves or what they did. The Theory of Everything is not one of those films. The director James Marsh and the screenwriter Anthony McCarten do not merely attempt to portray the struggle that this couple endured, they attempt to understand it by showing how it affected them. Stephen copes with the loss of his body by using the one resource that he still controls, his mind. He focuses all of his efforts onto his work so that he might do the one thing he knows he can do well and not allow himself to be limited by his disease. By doing so he neglects Jane who in turn must seek love and affection where she can find it, all the while never forgetting her duty and responsibility to her husband. This does not go unnoticed by Stephen, nor does he judge her for it.

The Theory of Everything is a wonderfully sensitive film that provides insightful reflections on these two characters and the marriage that they shared. It raises the challenges inherent with being unable to love someone or to be loved by their hearts’ desire. It depicts a powerful story of mind over matter. It provides an inspired and honest portrayal of a truly remarkable man and his remarkable life and marriage.

★★★★