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.

★★★

Advertisements

Top 10 Films of 2017

Here are my 10 favourite films of 2017.

10. Baby Driver – Edgar Wright

Baby Driver

An irresistibly enjoyable film made by one of the most inventive directors working today. Bringing together the car-chase thrillers of Burt Reynolds and Steve McQueen and the classic musicals of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, Baby Driver is a splendid, song-filled joy ride from beginning to end. Telling the story of a hearing-impaired, baby-faced getaway driver trying to leave his life of crime behind so he can run away with his sweetheart, this is a film bursting to the seams with life and energy. Wright is on top form as he takes through Baby’s musical world with all the creativity and imagination he’s known for. In one scene where Baby is simply walking down the street to pick up some coffee, Wright matches his surroundings with the tone and tempo and song he’s listening to and lines him up with a variety of visual cues. By doing so he is showing us how completely in sync Baby is with the world around him and he brings them together in a perfect harmony. The story itself isn’t anything great, but who cares about that when you’ve got style, character, and heart? This movie has got plenty and it is a delight to sit through. This is an idea that should’ve definitely not worked, but those kinds of ideas are Edgar Wright’s bread and butter. Review here.

 

 9. The Death of Stalin – Armando Iannucci

The Death of Stalin

This was one of the funniest and most agonising movies I’ve seen in a while. Depicting the death of a man who was so feared by his own people that a simple request for a recording of a radio broadcast was enough to send a studio into pandemonium, The Death of Stalin finds humour in the terror and shows the chaotic, morbid aftermath for the horrifying farce that it was. Plots were schemed, backdoor deals were struck, and shots were fired, all in the interest of consolidating power in this tyrannical state where saying the wrong thing (or even appearing to) will get you killed before you can say “long live Stalin”. Even as Stalin lay their on the urine-soaked floor, nobody even dared suggest that he might need a doctor for fear that he would hear them, recover, and regard them as traitors for their lack of faith. It works because the characters do not realise that they are in a comedy, they are simply subjects of the pressures and anxieties of Stalinist Russia scrambling to get ahead of each other by any means necessary. They hatch their diabolical plans and exploit their hapless subordinates and the humour comes with the ever-rising absurdity, desperation and horror of it all. Iannucci assembles a first-rate cast and together they’ve deliver a comedy so unbearable you won’t know whether to laugh or tear your own hair out. Review here.

 

 8. War for the Planet of the Apes – Matt Reeves

War for the Planet of the Apes

I still cannot believe that a movie about sentient apes fighting a war against humankind ended up being one of my favourite films of the year, but here we are. It is the conclusion to an epic trilogy about evolution, survival, and humanity where it all builds up to an all out war between the humans and the apes, both of whom are fighting for their very existence. It is a costly war for both sides and, when Caesar ends up paying a price that is too terrible and tragic to bear, it becomes about nothing more than vengeance. So it is for The Colonel as well, a leader being confronted with the very extinction of his species and responding in the only way he knows how: blood, revenge, and death. Serkis and Harrelson are both excellent at playing these mirror images of each other, two men (so to speak) shaped by a lifetime of violence and misfortune who no longer have anything left to lost except their humanity. It is a brutal and deeply tragic war, more so because in the middle of it all we can see that the possibility for compassion and co-existence is there, if only things had gone differently. Review here.

 

7. Coco – Lee Unkrich, Adrian Molina

Coco

Based heavily on Mexican folklore and culture, Coco marks a bigger departure for Pixar than usual, but one that works wonderfully. Through the story of a young boy with dreams of becoming a musician who ends up meeting his ancestors in the Land of the Dead, the film tells a moving, poignant tale about family and legacy and the power of music to bring people together. Like the best Pixar movies it is complex yet comprehensible, huge yet intimate, and fun yet emotional. It depicts the tale of a journey, again like all Pixar films do, one full of twists and turns, many of which you may very well see coming but which still feel no less touching or rewarding because of it. It captures a tone that you don’t see often in American films (never mind animated or Hollywood films!), one that assumes a distinctly Central-American point-of-view. With the way it expresses its views on spirituality and family, Coco feels like an honest representation of the culture it portrays as opposed to an Americanised version of that culture. The animation is breathtaking, the music is delightful, the performances are wonderful, there is no end to the list of what makes Coco great. It is Pixar doing what they do best: telling great stories to an audience of all ages.

 

6. Star Wars: The Last Jedi – Rian Johnson

The Last Jedi

After The Force Awakens played it safe with its revival of the epic sci-fi/fantasy saga, The Last Jedi has sought to take more risks and take the story into new directions. It was a bold move and I think it paid off. The Last Jedi does more than any Star Wars movie since the Original Trilogy to lead the franchise into uncharted waters and expand on the mythos in unprecedented ways. It harkens to the past and considers the role it does and should have on shaping the present before ultimately passing the torch and moving the story onwards into an unknown but promising future. Along the way it provides us with superb action, enjoyable laughs, and incredible character moments particularly where Rey, Kylo Ren, and Luke are concerned. All three characters feel trapped and lost by the traumas of their pasts and through them the film is able to explore fascinating ideas around the themes of legacy, destiny, and redemption. With such sequences as the fight in the throne room and the showdown on the salt planet, The Last Jedi also triumphs as the best-directed, most visually magnificent Star Wars film to date. The Force Awakens left me feeling relieved about the future of Star Wars. Today, The Last Jedi has me feeling excited. Review here.

 

5. Dunkirk – Christopher Nolan

Dunkirk

Probably the single most cinematic experience I’ve had this year, Dunkirk is truly something to behold. The scale of this film is epically immense and it is bursting with breathtaking images and earth-shattering sounds that will shake you to your core. Telling the story of the 1940 British evacuation from Nazi-occupied France across three separate timelines, Nolan has constructed a masterwork in tension and suspense that perhaps not even Hitchcock could have believed. The movie picks up its momentum from the first frame and never lets it go for a second. Even when it appears that things have calmed down for some of the characters, we can never relax because we know that it’s just the calm before the next storm. There is very little of the brutal war imagery that you might have seen in the likes of Hacksaw Ridge, but the emotional turmoil that Nolan taps into through his characters is so agonising and dreadful that Dunkirk proves every bit as devastating as even the bloodiest, most barbaric of war films. And yet, in all of the film’s sheer range and scale, the humanity is never lost. You feel like you really are there with the characters, which makes you root all the harder for their survival. In the end, when the survivors do finally make it out, it’s almost like you’ve been holding your breath the entire time and now, finally, you get to let out a sigh of relief. Review here.

 

4. mother! – Darren Aronofsky

Jennifer Lawrence in Mother! Credit: Paramount Pictures

Honestly, I keep going back and forth on this one and I debated whether to include it on the list at all. On one hand it is a difficult film to watch; it is antagonistically inaccessible, often grotesque, and relentlessly inscrutable. On the other, it is a fascinatingly crafted and dreadfully compelling film that demands to be watched, analysed, and debated. In the months since the film’s release I’ve talked about mother! to numerous people and have yet to encounter a mild or indifferent take on the film. It is an extreme film and everyone who has gone to see it has had an extreme reaction, both positive and negative. Even my initial reaction, indecisiveness, was extreme. The more I’ve thought and read about mother! though, the less interested I’ve gotten in determining whether it is a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ film. It certainly has good aspects; Aronofsky’s direction and Libatique’s cinematography made for a visually engrossing experience and Lawrence was stellar throughout. What’s more important, to me anyway, is that mother! is truly unlike anything else I’ve seen this year (and most of what I’ve seen full stop) and it left me all at once astounded, perplexed, confounded, disgusted, traumatised, and deeply affected in a way that I cannot explain. I will take that over mild amusement any day. Review here.

 

3. Get Out – Jordan Peele

Get Out

Perhaps the most timely movie to come out all the year, Get Out is a film that needed to be released in 2017. It takes the story of a young black man meeting his white girlfriend’s left-wing, suburban family and turns it into a horror film. It’s a comedy as well, except the subject is so relevant to what’s happening in the USA today that you can barely bring yourself to laugh for fear you might cry. Peele displays an uncanny understanding of what it really means to be black in America today and he unpacks it here in a terribly clever way while still allowing the film to be enormously entertaining. It pays to rewatch this movie because it is only the second (or third, or fourth, or…) viewing that you start to appreciate the attention to detail in this meticulously crafted story with its subtle clues and expert use of foreshadowing. What is immediately apparent on the first viewing though is the eerie sense of dread and uneasiness that Peele is able to convey that takes us from the fish-out-of-water sensation that Chris feels in this setting to his increasingly overwhelming suspicion that something is seriously amiss. If I could only recommend one movie on this list to everyone, it would be Get Out. It’s too good and too important not to watch. Review here.

 

2. Logan – James Mangold

Logan

This was somehow both the Wolverine film I always wanted and didn’t know I wanted. It delivers all the R-rated cussing and bloodiness that the character has always needed to truly come into his own, but it also tells a profound, sophisticated story through the character that raises him to greater emotional and thematic heights than ever before and it provides an eye-opening commentary on the superhero movies as a genre. Logan was of course Jackman’s final outing as the mutant that made him a star and he has never been better. He is old, haggard and disillusioned and the father-figure who once inspired him is now a raving loony who can no longer control his immensely powerful and dangerous mind. When circumstances force him to escort a young girl to the Canadian border, the journey that unfolds is a turbulent one that forces Logan to confront the ghosts and demons of his past and challenges the superhero mythos that has developed in the 17 years since the first X-Men movie in a way that no other movie in this genre has ever done. The character work done with Logan, Laura and Charles Xavier is wonderful and the film’s deconstruction of superhero movies (the never-ending cycle of violence, the paradoxical morality, the inherent trauma of self-sacrificing heroism) makes it the best contribution to the genre since The Dark Knight. This is great and touching a swan song as you could possibly give a character this popular and iconic. Review here.

 

1. Blade Runner 2049 – Denis Villeneuve

Blade Runner 2049

The most visually stunning film of the year and also, I think, the most profound. A common mistake often seen in ambitious science fiction is this tendency to focus on complex, philosophical themes without taking the time to establish an emotional connection with the audience, resulting in a film that feels convoluted, self-indulgent, and empty. Blade Runner 2049 is an ambitious film but it is also a deeply moving one with great characters and a gripping plot, both of which add emotional stakes to the themes being explored. It takes the ideas of humanity and existence that Scott’s 1982 masterpiece explored so beautifully and expands on them in astonishing ways, aided in no small part by Deakins’ stunning imagery. Every single frame is a breathtaking work of art and the poetry they bring to the story being told is what elevated this film beyond all the others I saw this year. In the scene where K is approached by a giant hologram at his greatest moment of despair, I was moved not just by the beauty of the image but also by how it perfectly encapsulated the devastation and loss he feels in the face of the cost he has had to pay to get to the truth. It is a perfectly crafted film that tells a wonderfully constructed story. Review here.

 

Honourable Mention: Twin Peaks: The Return – David Lynch

rr-21097.r

I could not in good conscience include Twin Peaks in my top 10 film list because it is, despite what Lynch himself says, television. Even so, I still want to take the chance to write about this 18-hour tour de force because I found it to be my most emotionally tumultuous viewing experience of the year. At times I loved it and at others I hated it. Sometimes I felt like I could see the order and meaning beneath all the madness and at others I found myself utterly baffled and completely lost. And yet, no matter how confusing, frustrating, or downright impenetrable this show got, I was captivated by every single second of it. Rejecting the rules of traditional storytelling, Twin Peaks is instead more like a composition of dreamlike images and sounds that follow their own internal logic and it is a series that defies categorisation and convention. Lynch has always been one of those directors who has never had any interest in straightforward narratives or playing to an audience and he has only gotten more cryptic with age. Here he takes countless unprecedented chances with the absolute confidence of a master and has created something truly new, strange and transcendent unlike anything else in the history of television. From the mystery of the Black Lodge to the silliness of Dougie Jones to the darkness of the atom bomb and the evil force it created, this was a wild rollercoaster of a series and was more challenging and confounding than anything I saw in the cinema, but also more fascinating and overwhelming.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Cast: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Lupita Nyong’o, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Gwendoline Christie, Kelly Marie Tran, Laura Dern, Benicio del Toro

Director: Rian Johnson

Writer: Rian Johnson


The reception The Last Jedi has proven to be rather divisive, perhaps more so than even the prequels, and I must confess that I myself wasn’t sure what to make of it at first. In that kind of situation I think it is important to consider what exactly it is you expect of a film such as this going in. With The Force Awakens for example, with the prequel PTSD still making itself felt, I went in hoping to see a movie that looked, sounded, and felt like the Star Wars I loved as a child. If that meant playing it safe and recycling plot points from the previous movies then so be it because I walked out feeling elated in the way that only Star Wars can make me feel. This time, with my child-like faith now restored, I hoped to see a movie that would take more risks and would take the franchise in new directions. The Last Jedi did exactly that and it caught me completely off guard the first time I saw it. On the second viewing I loved it more than I loved The Force Awakens.

The film picks up immediately after Episode VII with what’s left of the Resistance, led by General Leia Organa (the dearly departed Carrie Fisher), fleeing the First Order. A counter-attack by Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) allows them a chance to escape, but Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and his fleet remain relentlessly hot on their trail. After an attack led (but not executed) by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) leaves his mother incapacitated, Leia’s command is assumed by Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern). Disapproving of her inactive strategy Poe, Finn (John Boyega), mechanic Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), and BB-8 concoct a plan to disable the device that allows the First Order to track their fleet through light speed. Meanwhile Rey (Daisy Ridley), having arrived on Ahch-To with Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and R2D2 in search of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), find him living there in a self-imposed exile, disillusioned by his own failures and with the teachings of the Jedi. It falls onto her to inspire Luke to complete her training and to help them save the Resistance from the wrath of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and the First Order before it’s too late.

Making a great sequel is a tricky thing, especially with an iconic property like Star Wars. It’s a matter of making things feel old and new at the same time; giving the audience what they want and also what they didn’t know they wanted. The Force Awakens did this by reviving a familiar story while throwing in new, compelling, likeable characters. The Last Jedi does this in a more challenging but ultimately more rewarding way. It harkens back to the past, sometimes nostalgically, sometimes humorously, and sometimes unsentimentally, and provides arcs for the characters that parallel what we’ve seen in the original trilogy, but it also builds on the new elements that were introduced in the prior instalment and allows the torch to be passed into the hands that promise to lead the franchise into an unfamiliar but promising future. The movie tackles themes of legacy and questions whether the past is something that we should allow to shape us and define us or if it is something that should be rejected so we may be allowed to decide our own futures. The answer, the film shows us, is somewhere in the middle and it is fascinating to see how the it gets there.

This is evident in Rey’s anguish over not knowing who her parents are and not knowing her place in the galaxy and in Kylo’s agony over destroying those for whom he cares in order to forge his own destiny, two arcs we get to see mirror each other wonderfully in the telepathic conversations they share. Both feel broken and lost and they find within each other the potential to overcome their past traumas and build a greater future for themselves (for light and for dark). Luke meanwhile, having already grown from a young and naïve dreamer to a learned and capable warrior, is now old, cynical and haunted by his past in a way that Rey can recognise but barely begin to understand. Hamill delivers one of the greatest performances in the epic saga’s decades-long history as a Luke who failed to live up to the promises of Return of the Jedi and has spent the years since punishing himself for it. The fulfilment of his arc at the end is moving and profound in a way that only a story told over several years with a reflective, poetic sense of theme and character can possibly be.

The film demonstrates far more interest in telling the story it wants to tell rather than playing to audience’s expectations (not least of which is its complete and total indifference for fan theories), and that can be understandably unfulfilling and even alienating for fans who deeply love this franchise and its characters. Those who love the hopeful ending to Return of the Jedi and the state of redemption and enlightenment that Luke is able to reach after all he’s been through might not be able to reconcile themselves with this disheartened, pessimistic Luke whose triumphs were defeated by his own failures. But if we truly want Star Wars to continue and evolve as a franchise, we must necessarily open ourselves to ideas and directions that go against our expectations, whether or not we ultimately agree with and embrace the road taken. Personally, I found the direction taken by The Last Jedi to be not only great but also true to the spirit of the franchise and to the characters in it.

The debate over whether The Last Jedi is the best or worst movie in the Star Wars canon is one that will continue to rage many, many years after we’re all dead, buried, and forgotten, but everyone can surely agree that this is the most visually stunning Star Wars movie ever crafted. The set-pieces we see such as Snoke’s throne room, dominated by a shade of red so dreadful and sinister it could’ve been lifted straight out of a Roger Corman film, or the climatic battle on the salt planet, where the white surface is brushed aside to reveal an under-layer of crimson, almost as if the planet itself were bleeding, are masterpieces of colour and composition. Another visual highlight involves a starship going into hyperspace in a way that is as blindingly striking as it is emotionally powerful (and it involves a character we only just met!). Johnson, in my eyes, has secured this movie’s position as the best directed Star Wars movie in the series not just for his inspired visual realisation but for how he handles the story as well. Using the lessons he presumably learned from his tenure on Breaking Bad, he unravels the story with the confidence of a director who trusts that the different plot threads will come together and that everything that has been set up will come through, even when it appears the movie has seemingly miscalculated and leads us down a worrisome path. It all pays off in the end and is all the more powerful for having been doubted by us in the first place.

There are imperfections, as there always have been with Star Wars. The quest undertaken by Finn and Rose feels like more of an aside than it does a major part of the plot (even if it does ultimately get them where they need to be by the time we reach the climax), there is an early scene involving Leia that I’m still not sure how to feel about considering her untimely death, and the resolution to the conflict between Poe and Holdo doesn’t really make much sense. However, after the film’s marvellous work of character development done with Rey, Kylo and Luke, the bold story, the stupendous action, the sharp sense of humour, and all the emotionally overwhelming moments that follow, I’d have been willing to forgive a lot more. This is a movie that fulfils the promise of taking this universe into uncharted waters, expanding on the mythology in unprecedented ways, and bringing a beloved chapter of this franchise to a satisfying close so that we might follow it into a promising and exciting future. It is also an enormously thrilling, funny, moving film that delivers all a Star Wars fan could possibly want and more. As I beheld the image of a sunset that recalled Luke’s last night on Tatooine before the start of his great adventure, I felt that same sense of wonder, sensation and awe that makes Star Wars so special.

★★★★★

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.

★★★★

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Cast: Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, Max von Sydow

Director: J.J. Abrams

Writers: Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams, Michael Arndt


This is the film I’ve been waiting all year to see. Honestly, I was more excited about this film than I was about Christmas. Like most Star Wars fans I absolutely love the original films and despise the prequel trilogy. I cannot think of any other series of films that has accomplished what the original trilogy did. Not only did they create three incredible films complete with timeless characters, an epic story and groundbreaking visual effects, they created an entire living, breathing universe. Through ingenious storytelling, astonishing creativity and amazing imagination the Star Wars films transported viewers to another world and took on a life of their own. The cultural impact Star Wars has had and its influence on cinema as we know it is astronomical. It is no small task for any film to live up to that kind of legacy and, after an entire trilogy of films that threatened to destroy it, many people including myself were hopeful yet cautious about this film. While the adverts showed much promise I didn’t want Star Wars to let me down again. Thankfully whatever reservations I had were relieved as soon as I saw The Force Awakens.

Picking up thirty years after The Return of the Jedi, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has gone missing and the Galaxy is now in the midst of a civil war between the First Order and the Resistance. When the scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley) comes across BB-8, a droid holding the secrets to Luke’s whereabouts, it falls onto her and Finn (John Boyega), a rogue stormtrooper, to deliver BB-8 to the Resistance. Along the way they encounter Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) who agree to help them in their quest. Meanwhile a search for the droid is underway led by the dark Jedi Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) of the First Order. Together they command the Starkiller Base, a great weapon of planetary destruction that threatens to destroy the New Republic. As Rey and Finn are drawn further into this conflict they both must decide who they truly are and whether this is a cause they are willing to fight for.

The biggest criticism I’ve heard about this film is that the story is essentially a retread of A New Hope and so I thought I’d start by addressing it. While I do agree that the film borrows heavily not only from Episode IV but from all three films, I wasn’t as bothered by it as other people were. Now, if there is one positive thing to be said about the prequel trilogy it is that Lucas did introduce a lot of original and creative ideas that showed promise. Those ideas however were let down by his failings as a writer and director. Since the prequels caused so much anger and hate amongst Star Wars fans (insert joke about path to the Dark Side here), I think it does make some sense for this film to try and relieve that resentment by bringing fans back to the original trilogy. While I certainly would have liked a more original story with some newer ideas, my biggest concern going into this film was whether or not it would actually be a good Star Wars film. If showing everyone that they could make a good Star Wars film meant recycling plot elements from the original trilogy, then I can live with that. I’m very happy with the result and am now optimistic about the future of this franchise.

Once it gets started the film makes the clever decision not to show us any of the familiar characters from the original trilogy until we’re a good half hour into the movie. This allows the audience the opportunity to get to know the new characters a bit before they’re allowed to welcome back Han and Chewie and all the others. I am very thankful that this film opted for this route because it was the new characters who ended up selling this film for me. Rey and Finn are both fun and interesting characters and I enjoyed following their journey every step of the way. I also enjoyed Kylo Ren who I thought provided Star Wars with a unique and fascinating villain. While I don’t think the criticism about Rey being a Mary Sue is necessarily without merit, I also don’t think it necessarily makes her a bad character. While it’s true that she is unusually resourceful and does succeed at just about every task she sets out to do, I think the struggle is still there. I felt like there was a lot of effort and investment behind her actions which is why none of her victories felt unearned to me. I was very much invested in her journey and thought that she was a terrific protagonist for the film.

With that in mind the inclusion of the old faces of Star Wars was very welcome indeed. I thought the film handled them in just the right way by employing them when they were needed to serve the story without ever making them the central focus. Harrison Ford is particularly good as an old Han Solo who has remained a scoundrel at heart but has been noticeably wearied by the events that followed Return of the Jedi. Carrie Fisher has also returned as Leia who is now the leader of the Resistance. Fisher falls naturally into her new role as a general and is still able to convey the same resolve and spirit that Leia possessed in the original films. Despite the amount of time that has gone by I had absolutely no problem believing that these were the same characters that they played all those years ago.

Is this film perfect? No. Does it rely too heavily on plot elements from the original trilogy? Probably. Is it the best Star Wars film ever made? Absolutely not. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have some issues with this film. However at the end of the day they don’t really amount to much more than nit-picks. The Force Awakens is a fun, exciting and wondrous space adventure that boasts of great characters, thrilling action and stunning visuals. The film’s decision to utilise real sets and practical effects pays off beautifully and allows for an engrossing and absorbing spectacle. Whatever issues I may have with it, The Force Awakens looks and feels like a Star Wars film and is one of the best viewing experiences that I’ve had all year. It has captured the magic of the original trilogy and I look forward to seeing where this series goes next.

★★★★★