Tag Archives: Sci-Fi

Alien: Covenant

Alien: Covenant posterSeveral years ago, when Ridley Scott announced his prequel to his 1979 classic Alien, Prometheus, I wondered whether we really needed an explanation for events leading up to a film that already worked so efficiently and effectively.

Now, with the follow-up to that film, Alien: Covenant, that is also another precursor to the original, that question occurs once again.

From the off it ties the two threads of the story together with a prologue featuring Prometheus‘ replicant character David (Michael Fassbender) before we are sent to the colony ship Covenant and meet another replicant, Walter (also Fassbender).

From that point on we get a story that seems to be unsure quite what it wants to do and say. Certainly there are plenty of thrills and chills and a good dose of action and excitement as the crew of the Covenant (and I don’t think this is a spoiler given the title) encounter a version of the Xenomorph Alien (apparently the ‘Neomorph’) seen in the past instalments of the series.

Katherine Waterston - Alien: Covenant - Daniels

Daniels (Waterston)

Along with the action, again much like Prometheus, the film seems to want to deal with some big questions, so we have Oram (Billy Crudup), thrust into the role of ship’s captain and a self expressed man of faith.

The fact this is self expressed is where the problem with this attempt at exploring something really comes to fore as anything Alien: Covenant might be trying to explore is just stated by the characters rather being genuinely explored through the film, so it falls a little flat.

As well as this there is a thread that, like the original Alien and its direct sequels, takes something of a feminist angle with crew member Daniels (Katherine Waterston) echoing original heroine Ripley as the film’s (comparatively) grounded heroic centre as chaos escalates.

Alien: Covenant - Walter - Michael Fassbender

Walter (Fassbender)

Unlike the original though this feels rather too heavy-handed, especially as it’s already an established trope of the series and it just never quite rings as honest and true, particularly when we reach a rather over gratuitous scene toward the film’s climax.

This might be for the very simple reason that, while Daniels is arguably the hero of this film’s story, I couldn’t escape the feeling that the series now belongs to Fassbender’s replicant characters.

It’s fair to say that, as David initially and then Walter, Fassbender has found a way to make these characters that, in the past were often sinister bit parts, into fascinating explorations of humanity and our place in the universe (as much as a big budget sci-fi blockbuster might).

The Neomorph - Alien: Covenant

The ‘Neomorph’ alien

Fassbender is undeniably the most engaging presence here and, as with Prometheus, his performance is phenomenal – to the point where his blankness is at times a little too convincing and genuinely creepy, and makes any outbursts all the more effective, but I may already have said too much.

As a whole though Alien: Covenant, while enjoyable, feels a little too much like a ‘best bits’ of the better past films thrown together, with the attempt at philosophy of Prometheus thrown in, and not quite coming out with an entirely satisfying whole and it’s hard to escape the fact that this is all somewhat unnecessary exposition for a pair of classic films that never needed it.

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Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 posterWhen James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy was released in 2014 it was a breath of fresh air in a rapidly expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe that was already beginning to grow somewhat stale.

Now, three years later, its sequel has appeared with far more anticipation and again the hope that it would help add something new to the now apparently inescapable MCU juggernaut.

From the start Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is very much more of the same as Gunn, once again in the director’s chair, subverts standard action movie expectations as a big action scene takes place as the background to a dance sequence from Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) accompanied by yet another nostalgia heavy musical choice.

While this is all fine and entertaining it sets up something that becomes a bit of a frustration, particularly in the first half of the film. The use of vintage pop songs and irreverent punchlines was a highlight of the first movie but here they often seem a bit too forced and it almost as if nothing can happen without a joke being thrown in at the end.

guardians of the galaxy vol 2 - baby groot

Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel)

Some of these are great but some miss the mark and it starts to feel like Gunn is feeling the need to live up what was most notable about the first film (something that looks to have spread to not only the new Thor film Ragnarok but also the upcoming DC superhero mash-up Justice League, judging by the trailers).

Because of this the first half of the film does drag somewhat, despite a few perfectly serviceable action sequences, as it takes a while for the story to really get going as we are reintroduced to the Guardians and their particular corner of the galaxy, along with a vague maguffin about stolen batteries.

Once Ego arrives though things do pick up.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 - Kurt Russell - Ego 2

Ego, The Living Planet (Kurt Russell)

Played by Kurt Russell in a way that is at once one of the film’s biggest 80s nostalgia trips and a genuinely effective character, Ego is something of a rare thing in Marvel’s films of feeling like something a bit different.

Known as ‘The Living Planet’ he expands on the more sci-fi end of the MCU in both visual and character terms and there are some genuinely impressive moments focussing on him that do a great job of translating comic book ‘splash page’ style imagery onto the big screen.

While this leads to a big smash bang action sequence as is the Marvel standard, the connections between the characters, old and new, give this something a little different to keep it interesting enough, if not truly ground breaking.

Much like the first film one of its strong points is in the design of the MCU extraterrestrial world.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2 - Chris Pratt

Peter Quill, aka Star Lord (Chris Pratt)

With ships clearly strongly influenced by artist Chris Foss and a somewhat psychedelic sense to its space-scapes it builds in what was set up first time round as well as in the Thor and Doctor Strange films and suggests the upcoming Avengers films that it would seem will focus on Thanos have the chance of some epic visuals.

Laced through with cameos and a strong sense of 1980s nostalgia Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 may be not feel as fresh as its predecessor and be hampered by trying to live up to its own hype, but is entertaining and really picks up in the second half to be one of the better films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

I think this is helped by still being totally separate to the ongoing Avengers saga it seems destined to collide with sooner rather than later and having a solid directorial vision from Gunn (who has already been announced as directing the third Guardians film) rather than the often slightly too homogenised feel of the rest of the series.

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Star Trek: Insurrection

Star Trek Insurrection posterThere is a famous theory about Star Trek movies that if it is an even-numbered ‘episode’ it will be good and if it is odd-numbered it will be less so, to an extent The Wrath of Kahn, The Search For SpockThe Final Frontier, The Undiscovered Country and First Contact demonstrate this as being true.

Approaching Star Trek: Insurrection, the ninth instalment in the cinematic series, then my hopes were not high, based on the rule and my vague memories from seeing it in the cinema back in 1998. This was not aided by the opening credits stating that this one was directed by Jonathan Frakes, aka Commander William Riker.

The story of the film concerns two opposing alien races and what appears to be a kind of ‘fountain of youth’ type maguffin and the crew of the Enterprise have to sort things out. This is a fairly standard sounding plot for Star Trek, and it feels like it; though normally this would be one of the more disposable weekly 45 minute episodes rather than an hour and forty minutes of film time.

To try to make it seem bigger a few extra twists are thrown into the tale which largely just serve to over complicate the story in a totally unsatisfactory way so any revelations simply fall flat at best or at worst just make no sense at all.

Star Trek insurrection - Picard

Captain Picard (Stewart) has a ‘humourous’ encounter

Away from the story, which incidentally is entirely self-contained and strangely distant from the ongoing Dominion War raging in the then ongoing TV series Deep Space Nine, the entire production of the film just feels a little off.

The script is riddled with moments that appear to be adding a lighthearted air to proceedings but sit entirely at odds with the rest of the story while also being totally out of character for these very well established parts and the apparent internal explanation never quite rings true.

Added to this is the fact that Frakes direction makes the whole thing feel just like a bad episode of a TV show. At the time when Deep Space Nine was starting the development of the television series into the sort of thing it has become now with the likes of Game Of Thrones, this film feels more like a relative of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, just without being an intentional spoof.

Star Trek Insurrection - F Murray Abraham as Ru'Afo

F Murray Abraham as the forgettable villain Ru’Afo

It also seems Frakes and the writers felt the need to include a clumsily handled side plot about Riker’s beard which is simply surplus to any requirements, while another romantic entanglement for Picard just feels like repetition of several similar threads from the past – neither have the weird presence of William Shatner to pull off these sub-Kirk shenanigans.

To their credit it looks like the actors are having a good time doing something a bit more lighthearted than their previous cinematic efforts but with the script failing them so badly even the usually reliable Patrick Stewart is left with little and so hams it up a treat and little else.

Meanwhile the usually reliably Brent Spiner as Data is also left floundering with little that really fits his character and it seems the recently bereaved Worf (Michael Dorn) has just been crowbarred in and reset to his role at the end of The Next Generation TV series with barely a mention of his ongoing exploits.

Star Trek Insurrection - Riker and Troi

Riker (Frakes) loses his trademark beard thanks to Counsellor Troi (Marina Sirtis)

In the end of course all is sorted out and the status quo remains after a less than exhilarating battle both in space and on planet making Star Trek: Insurrection undeniably continuing proof of the evens and odds rule for the series and, while it may not be as bad as Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, it is probably a close second for worst Trek movie.

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Ghost In The Shell (2017)

Ghost In The Shell posterSince it’s release in 1995 the anime of Ghost In The Shell has become one of the touchstones of not only Japanese animated films breaking through into western culture (along with the likes of Akira and the Miyazaki films) but has become a heavy influence on science fiction cinema of many sorts from The Matrix to Dredd and beyond.

So now, some 22 years later, the long developing ‘Hollywood remake’ has hit the multiplexes with Scarlett Johansson leading an international cast, also including Juliet Binoche and ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano.

The story here concerns Johansson’s Major Mira Killian, a cyborg member of a kind of top-secret law enforcement agency, and her teams mission to take out a mysterious new threat who is killing off high level scientists from the company who created the Major’s robotic body. From there things head into a fairly predictable conspiracy plot.

While there’s nothing wrong with the plot per se, and it does use the conspiracy to explore a similar notion to the earlier animated version, it is hampered hugely by a near total lack of definition in the characters all of whom are at best two-dimensional renderings of fairly well-worn stereotypes – even Major who of all the roles has the most scope for something more.

Scarlett Johansson as Major Mira Killian - Ghost in the Shell

Johansson as Major

While this same criticism could be levelled at many of today’s blockbusters everything around the central group of characters just feels somewhat bland with a script that relies too much on spoken exposition to both move the story on and labour its point with visuals that, while technically impressive, never wow like it feels they should and display no sense of flair or originality.

Given the fact at least some of the cast are known talents it’s hard not to conclude that a major part of the problem lies with director Rupert Sanders, the man previously responsible for Snow White And The Huntsman which had many similar problems.

On top of this came the fact that there is a sense that Ghost In The Shell was produced somewhat ‘by committee’, trying to simultaneously target both the mainstream American (western) movie audience, the increasingly important Chinese market, the Japanese market and fans of the original.

Ghost in the Shell - Batou and team

The rest of Major’s team

While the original anime version of the film helped establish new tropes of future urban dystopia this version does little to build on that, strangely giving it a feeling that it is copying the very things the original influenced both visually and in terms of its story and characters.

This all comes together to leave a film that, while not technically bad, just feels flat and uninspired which, given the legacy of its progenitor, makes it a massive disappointment and a missed opportunity that probably arrived two decades too late, if it ever even needed to arrive at all.

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2010: The Year We Make Contact

2010 The Year We Make ContactWhile it has been divisive since its release and has been described as everything from plodding and wilfully obscure to visionary there’s no deny that Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was and remains a unique work in the sci-fi film canon. At its conclusion however while it certainly asked more questions than it answered I wasn’t left wondering what happens next.

Arthur C. Clarke, the original film’s writer and originator, though had other ideas and several sequels have since emerged in print, one of which, 2010 Odyssey Two, was made into a sequel to the original movie in 1984 as 2010: The Year We Make Contact.

From the start it’s clear that Peter Hyams’ film is much more down to earth and straight forward than its predecessor as we arrive on earth in the titular year and meet Dr Heywood Floyd (Roy Scheider), the originator of the Discovery mission from the first film.

From there he joins a mission to investigate the loss of the Discovery led by a joint group of Russian and American scientists and astronauts – unfortunately at the same time the two countries stand on verge of war, the Cold War seemingly not having been resolved as occurred in the real world.

Unfortunately while 2001 is, for the most part, timeless, 2010 feels immediately dated, not just by its ongoing Cold War setting but by the production design that couldn’t look more 80s if it tried.

Roy Scheider

Roy Scheider

Usually I find this easy to look over but something here made that hard, possibly it was the rather obvious story that, while described as a thriller, never really thrilled on any level and any political intrigue that could have existed never properly manifested.

Meanwhile the mystery of the monolith felt like a side-show until the third act at which point its effect became a bit too obvious – particularly when compared to the enigmatic climax of 2001.

Despite a strong cast featuring Helen Mirren, John Lithgow and more alongside Scheider it was hard to really get more than an archetypical view of their characters and it was only the returning voice of HAL 9000 and Keir Dullea’s lost astronaut David Bowman that had any real presence.

As they only show up in the third act properly (though are hinted at throughout) this made the first part harder work than it should have been.

Leonov encounters Discovery

Leonov encounters Discovery

Though the climax came with some nice Jupiter based visuals I couldn’t escape the feeling it was all a bit too obvious, and while it left avenues for more sequels and its message of unity is an important and worthy one, compared to both its predecessor and other sci-fi of the time 2010 falls somewhat flat.

So, while it’s not a total disaster and was mildly diverting it was nothing more, which I couldn’t help but feel disappointed by.

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Eraserhead

Eraserhead posterWhere does one start with David Lynch’s debut feature film, Eraserhead?

So much has been written and said about it since 1976 this may well be redundant and as I write I’m still in something of a state of shock following such a mesmerisingly intense experience.

The story follows a young man named Henry (Lynch regular Jack, here credited as John, Nance) who we (and he) discover has fathered a child with a girl named Mary (Charlotte Stewart another member of Lynch’s ensemble of players). After a quick marriage Mary moves into Henry’s rather basic apartment with their baby, and so on.

All that sounds rather normal when described like that but, surrounding a plot that could easily come from a fairly standard drama, or even soap opera, Lynch constructs a world like no other, part post-apocalyptic hell, part internalised nightmare-scape, part 1950’s Americana.

The nearest touchstone I could think of during the first part of Eraserhead was Richard Lester’s surreal vision of post-nuclear war London, The Bed Sitting Room.

eraserhead elevator - Jack Nance

Nance as Henry takes the elevator

From there though Lynch’s work adds layer upon layer of questions with absolutely no answers making the audience find what they will in the building torment of Henry.

From the start it’s hard to not conclude that everything here is designed to unsettle. The clash of standard dramatic conventions with nightmare visions is the broad stroke of this, but it comes in many forms with a non-stop barrage of noise, all seemingly diegetic but often unexplained, with volume levels often entirely mismatching what we are seeing on-screen. 

Equally the set design, limited though it is to a few rooms and exteriors, all shot in black and white, is unapologetically stark but with a decrepit industrial richness that defies its low-budget origins.

eraserhead dinner

Mr X and Henry at dinner

Moments like the early family dinner scene are at once wholesome in the way of 1950s middle America and horrifically corrupt with its man-made mini-chickens – here in particular the idea of maintaining normality in the face of extreme horror, as seen in The Bed Sitting Room, springs to mind.

And then there is the baby… I don’t think there are words to describe or translate this creation without seeing it in action but suffice to say it is at once astonishing and agonisingly atrocious, not because it’s poorly constructed, but because it is quite so convincingly real and never fully explained.

Nance’s performance as Henry is a largely understated tour de force that helps the rest of the film with creating its own sense of totally unnatural naturalism and he is as mesmerising as the visuals with his innocent, wide-eyed expression leading us through what may be his own nightmare.

Eraserhead exterior

Henry takes a walk

The second half of the film just turns this all up even further and there are moments that suggest things to come in Lynch’s later work on Dune, Twin Peaks and Lost Highway before it all comes to a sudden, enigmatic, haunting climax.

Words like unique and visionary are bandied about all too regularly but with Eraserhead David Lynch created something that is certainly both of things.

As much a work of art as it is a horror film and as much a soap opera as it is an exploration of a broken society, it sets the scene for much of Lynch’s work to come as it asks many questions and emphatically refuses to give any answers – and believe me I don’t have any either!

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Hello America by JG Ballard

Hello America by J.G. Ballard book coverIt seems that the notion of The American Dream is one that keeps cropping up in my reviews recently, most notably with La La Land and Straight Outta Compton, so it feels natural, if strangely coincidental, that I now look at a book that seems to take that dream and turn it into a kind of twisted nightmare.

While J.G. Ballard is well-known for his dystopian science fiction visions from the likes of High-Rise and Crash, Hello America was not one I was familiar with when its blurb and cover caught my eye, but from the off its clear that it bears certain resemblances to the story of Lang in the tower block.

Here our hero is Wayne, a young stowaway from a back to basics Europe of the 2100’s, who has snuck aboard a vessel sailing for an evacuated USA. It’s 100 years since North America was abandoned in the face of an energy crisis as oil ran dry and the once most powerful nation on Earth was laid to waste by climactic devastation.

Arriving in this New World wasteland Wayne and the members of the expedition head off from a derelict New York to Washington DC and beyond.

The journey and the relatively mysterious lead male protagonist are certainly familiar from High-Rise, though Wayne feels far more sympathetic than Lang and the eventual arrival of the equivalent to Royal reveals a far less sympathetic antagonist. Along with this the general sense of growing disaster as the story goes on is similar to High-Rise but on a far grander physical scale.

JG Ballard

JG Ballard

What sets it apart is a sense of optimism, particularly in the first half, where Wayne’s vision of ‘The American Dream’ is infectious and really sucked me into the adventure, much as it does some of his fellow travellers, and the way Ballard paints the landscape of the ‘Great American Desert’ is masterful and hugely visual.

The first half of the book builds the tension to breaking point with what feels like a climax in the depth of the desert before Ballard throws a marvellous curve ball that almost resets things but goes on in eventually more disturbing and absurd ways as Wayne’s dream becomes a real American Nightmare – to say much more would be too much of a spoiler.

The fact that Wayne dreams of being 45th president of the USA is particularly pertinent given recent real world events, but that’s just a ‘happy’ coincidence, but there is clearly a political message at the heart of Ballard’s writing coming as this did at a time when a former film star had recently entered The White House.

Hello America original artwork

The cover of the first edition of Hello America

As well as the politics there is an ecological message which is writ large and obvious throughout though has lost none of its necessity and power since the book was released in the early 1980s and some slightly heavy-handed consumerist points add another layer.

All of this does make Hello America‘s purpose a little unfocused but it is certainly trying to say something and, generally, succeeding.

Where it doesn’t succeed quite so well is in the second half of the story that almost becomes too absurd to take seriously, though it just about holds things together as it reaches a hugely tense and surprisingly cinematic climax – I’m amazed no one has twisted this into a big budget blast-a-thon blockbuster.

This makes Hello America a book that, while easier to read than High-Rise, less physically controversial than Crash and a little unfocused, is none the less enjoyable and bridges hard sci-fi ideals with readable adventure in a very satisfying fashion.

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Star Trek Beyond

Star Trek Beyond posterBack when JJ Abrams rebooted the Star Trek franchise with the ingenious time twisting Star Trek back in 2009, adding a modern, action-adventure edge to the formula laid out by Gene Roddenberry in the mid-1960s and developed through to the 1990s, it seemed the series had found a new life.

However following Star Trek Into Darkness, a film that while enjoyable was riddled with plot inconsistencies and riffed a little too much of the series stone cold classic The Wrath Of Kahn, it seemed it had all lost steam as Abrams headed off to breath new life into Star Wars with The Force Awakens.

With Justin Lin at the helm Star Trek Beyond hit cinemas in 2016 with somewhat less fanfare, dwarfed by ‘the other Star franchise’, and so catching it now at home my expectations were somewhat lower…

Left to right: Chris Pine plays Kirk, Sofia Boutella plays Jaylah and Anton Yelchin plays Chekov in Star Trek Beyond from Paramount Pictures, Skydance, Bad Robot, Sneaky Shark and Perfect Storm Entertainment

Kirk (Pine), Jaylah (Boutella) and Chekov (Anton Yelchin)

Interestingly for those of us who’ve followed the series for a long time, Beyond starts out three years into the Enterprise’s first five-year mission as Kirk and his crew are exploring the boundaries of the Federation.

Here they encounter a new alien aggressor with, as one would expect, a suitably weaponised maguffin to kick off the kind of action adventure we’ve come to expect.

As expected it is Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Bones (Karl Urban) who provide the main core of the film but even more so than previously the rest of the main crew are all part of the action, particularly Scotty (Simon Pegg), Uhuru (Zoe Saldana) and Sulu (John Cho) all having more pivotal roles. On top of this we meet new character, Jaylah (Sofia Boutella) who fits in well with the established cast.

star trek beyond krall

Krall (Elba)

Scripted by Pegg and Doug Jung, Beyond is, for the most part, all fairly formulaic and never really does anything to break the mould of either the previous two films, or big budget blockbusters in general but for the most part is a fun romp. That said it relies a little too heavily on the action side for Star Trek which loses something of what makes the original series what it is.

On top of this it suffers from having an antagonist who never really feels properly threatening as, while Idris Elba’s Krall starts off looking fairly mean and nasty, it’s not long before he becomes somewhat ineffectual leading to a denouement strongly reminiscent of Into Darkness but I never had the sense that Kirk and co wouldn’t prevail.

bones and spock

Bones (Urban) and Spock (Quinto)

There are also moments that put this clearly post-Guardians of the Galaxy giving it an occasional ‘wacky’ tone that doesn’t really suit, including a fairly major and pivotal music cue.

Despite all this Star Trek Beyond was a fun way to spend a couple of hours and while it won’t stick in the memory like some of its forbears, it maintains some of their essence, but for a third film in a row the highlight is Quinto’s Spock.

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Star Trek: First Contact

Star Trek First Contact posterBack when JJ Abrams and Paramount Studios partially rebooted the Star Trek franchise in 2009 I embarked on my own now considerably more than five-year mission to rewatch the entirety of Trek.

That’s taken me to peaks (Start Trek II: The a Wrath of Kahn, the climax of Star Trek: The Next Generation) and troughs (Season 3 of The Original Series, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier) but now I’ve reached probably the highlight of my cinematic Trek viewing (I was too young for Kahn first time round), Star Trek: First Contact.

As this movie was something of a highlight of my teenage cinema going I’m pleased to report it stands up pretty well, enjoyment-wise. Taking the most popular villainous alien race from The Next Generation TV series, The Borg, and reuniting the cast last seen together in Star Trek: Generations it contains many of the standard tropes of Trek with much talking and debate, time travel and moral dilemmas aplenty.

In this it manages to be one of the most action packed of the original run of the Star Trek films with a spectacular space battle in the first act that sees a decimated Federation fleet going up against a single Borg cube and kick starting the story of the Enterprise crew heading back in time to save the future.

Picard, Data and some less fortunate crew members

Picard, Data and some less fortunate crew members

While it’s all very enjoyable for a Trek fan like myself, it’s hard to avoid the fact that, once the main story really kicks in, the movie does revert into feeling a bit too much like a longer, bigger budget, version of a TV episode.

It’s hard to put a finger on exactly what causes this but part of it is the way director Jonathan Frakes (also Cdr. William Riker) has the film shot.

I get the feeling much of this was to try to create a claustrophobic feeling on board the invaded ship, but it serves to make it look far cheaper and smaller in scale than it could be.

Along with this the scenes in the mountains of Montana on Earth come with very few establishing shots or cinematically impressive views of the bunker complex which continue the TV budget feel and Frakes doesn’t really come with a great pedigree in cinema before or since.

Thankfully many of the performances keep it enjoyable and lively.

Borg cube battle

The battle with the Borg

Patrick Stewart as Captain Jean-Luc Picard does exactly what he does best throughout while the continuing story of Commander Data’s ‘becoming more human’ gives Brent Spiner the chance to continue his always mesmerisingly eccentric turn as the android officer.

Beyond that the guest stars feel like they’re going through the motions with James Cromwell’s Zephram Cochrane being rather one-dimensional, but fun, and Alice Krige’s Borg Queen doing little but giving a physical form to an antagonist previously notable for its lack of individual physical form, so somewhat spoiling the effect.

All this, if I’m totally honest, makes for a bit of a rough ride of a movie in many ways as it’s probably a bit too self-referencing, but comes with a certain extra joie de vivre often missing from Star Trek that makes it an entertaining couple of hours, even if it does feel like it could have been a TV special rather than a full-blown movie.

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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story posterOver the last 40 years it’s fair to say that the galaxy of Star Wars has become something of a safe space for family friendly action adventure cinema – certainly there has been plenty of peril but in the end it’s always been a good old romp of heroes overcoming villains in the most ‘white hat’ wearing of ways.

So, as the famous line ‘A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…’ appeared on the screen at the start of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story there was a familiar sense of anticipation for more of the same.

As soon as that faded though it was clear this wasn’t exactly what we’ve come to expect from Star Wars – gone was the orchestral blast and iconic, scene setting ‘crawl’ as we were dropped to a new, fairly desolate, planet and a new set of characters, in this case the Erso family, hastily followed by new Imperial officer Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) and a squadron of Death Troopers, a kind of black clad, amped up version of the Stormtroopers of old.

Here we meet our hero Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and, along with her, witness the death of her mother and apparent capture of her father, Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), followed by here being rescued by mysterious apparent-Rebellion member Saw Gerrera (Forrest Whitaker).

Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones)

Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones)

While this has overtones of the introduction of Luke Skywalker in A New Hope the whole thing has a much greater sense of danger, and this is something that continues throughout the movie as Jyn and her rag-tag band of rebels visit various planets new and old in their hunt for the plans to a rumoured Imperial super weapon.

While this story is all very exciting there are moments where it lapses into video game plotting but for the most part these are easy to overlook.

Despite the inter-planetary setting and background of the rebellion against the empire Rogue One has a much smaller feel than the main run of the series with a focus on Jyn’s story as she discovers the rebellion with the help of pilot Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and Krennic’s role in the creation of the Death Star.

This gives a lot of background to things we’ve heard mentioned in past films so, while not integral to the over arching plot (that chronological begins in The Phantom Menance and, at this stage, continues to The Force Awakens) it is interesting to see and with predominantly new characters doesn’t feel like it’s treading on the toes of the Skywalker saga like some other prequels have done.

Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn)

Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn)

Added to this, also setting it apart from the previous Star Wars films, is a genuinely political edge. While the Empire remains undeniably ‘evil’ (how could anything led be Darth Vader and The Emperor be anything but), shades of grey are added to the Rebellion.

While this doesn’t cause any effect to the grand run, it gives Rogue One a slightly different angle on things that makes it feel more down to earth and, in a sense, more grown up, reflecting, as it goes, something of real world religious and ideological conflict (though it is more general in this than specific).

Even if some of the new characters are somewhat basically drawn, much like side characters in the other Star Wars films, their stereotypical nature make them easy to get behind so, when we reach the third act, there is a genuine sense of tension, even though we have a fair idea of the final outcome.

Battle of Scarif

Battle of Scarif

This third act also includes some of the bravest story moments since The Empire Strikes Back and possibly even tops that, something rare to see in a world of ‘happily ever after’ blockbusters from the likes of Marvel.

Where the film falters is in its overuse of call backs to the original trilogy. Hints and suggestions would have been nice but a few are just too on the nose and detract from the final product.

Most notable among these are a slightly too uncanny valley computer generated version of Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin (surely he could have been seen as a hologram thus losing any realism issues) and a Darth Vader who somehow just doesn’t feel quite right, though finally getting to see his much rumoured Sith Temple/castle was a nice if unnecessary touch.

Death Star strikeWhat this all amounts to is a genuinely exciting ride with enough grit around the edges to make it something a bit different while maintaining enough of what we love about Star Wars to make a fine couple of hours in the cinema, though this one may not be for all the family in the way that the main series is.

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