(On Blu-ray, April 2017) As much as I fear that Disney’s plans to release one Star Wars movie a year for forever will dilute the impact of the original trilogy, I’m relatively happy with the results so far. While neither The Force Awakens nor Rogue One are great movies, they’re decent films and, in the case of Rogue One, actually try something somewhat ambitious. As a putatively standalone story (but a backdoor prequel to the original film), Rogue One plays with big icons and sets a war story within the context of the Star Wars universe. It’s far from being perfect: the characters are rather dull (although it’s nice to see a Zatoichi homage in the Star Wars universe), a lot of plot-building moments are merely serviceable and there’s a scattershot nature to the plot that may be explained by the rumoured production difficulties of the movie. There are far too many dull moments where we’re waiting for the next thing to happen—and the longer you think about some of the set-pieces, the less they make sense. On the other hand, there’s a lot of stuff to like. The battle of Scarif repurposes iconic images in a tropical context and makes them feel fresh again. Many of the special effects are terrific. The production design and cinematography make impressive efforts (down to the grainy film stock) to deliver a conclusion that fits seamlessly with the 1977 original. The diverse cast is a welcome evolution. I also like the daring of using an entire film to bring further dramatic heft to the original film, transforming a few vexing plot holes into plot engines along the way. The attempt to digitally re-create two actors of the original film is admirable, even though the result doesn’t look quite right. Diego Luna, Donnie Yen and Alan Tudyk deliver good performances—I wish I could say the same about Felicity Jones, but her character is written so flat as to be playable by just about anyone. Director Gareth Edwards obviously has some fun as an ascended fanboy, but I look forward to later editions of the film detailing the reshoots and arguments whispered about. Rogue One certainly could have been significantly better (tighter, punchier, wittier) in other hands, but what actually made it to the screen is surprisingly effective in its own way. Despite stiff odds, it looks as if Disney knows what it’s doing so far with the Star Wars series—now let’s see if other standalone stories will be as effective.
(On Cable TV, February 2015) The American 1998 Godzilla film may be nearly two decades old, it’s still enough of a cautionary tale to lower expectations about the 2014 version. Fortunately, this latest iteration of the character doesn’t need lowered expectations: Ably helmed by director Gareth Edwards (making the jump to multi-million moviemaking right from the clever low-budget Monsters), Godzilla is an imperfect but satisfying take on the classic character, updated to the latest expectations but old-fashioned in its willingness to deliver the basics of a monster movie. One of the best demonstrations of this film’s understanding of the Godzilla mythos is its explicit willingness to treat Godzilla as a force of nature, an anti-hero to be used against bigger threats rather than a threat in itself. Relatively daring is the decision to keep Godzilla half-seen until late in the film, occasional glimpses of his bulk being enough to keep us satisfied until the climax. Coming in late in the monster-movie game, Godzilla can also afford to skip over the expected parts, showing us the resulting destruction as a highlight news reel rather than the main sequence itself. The way the mythology is explained is quite successful, instantly raising the credibility of the film with some entertaining confabulations. The Japanese origins of the character are treated with respect (who better than Ken Watanabe to be the voice of reason?), and there are a number of small mythos winks (from 1954 to Mothra) to keep even casual fans entertained. Where the film doesn’t do as well is with its human characters: While Aaron Taylor-Johnson isn’t bad as the protagonist (showing a far more respectable image than in the Kick-Ass films or Anna Karenina), he’s a bit underwritten, and that also goes for the other characters. The fast-moving nature of the film offers few opportunities for credible character involvement, and some of the plot tricks get far-fetched after a while. Still, let’s not be overly critical: This Godzilla is a pretty good treatment of the character, and it offers a steady succession of small thrills along the way. Not bad at all.
(On DVD, March 2011) Some movies are best admired than enjoyed, and someone simply watching Monsters won’t get as much out of it than after finding out how cheaply the film was made. Reportedly shot for under half a million dollars with mostly-improvised dialogue in existing settings supplemented by computer imagery put together by the director, Monsters is more impressive for what it achieves under the circumstances of its production than what it actually delivers to a demanding audience. It’s also more interesting as another of the no-budget SF thrillers made possible by cheap digital cameras and cost-effective CGI: Following Paranormal Activity and Skyline, we’re seeing a reinvigorated line of B-movies that allow individual creators far more creative freedom in presenting their concept on the big-screen with decent production values and fantastical thrills. What’s more unfortunate is that their scripts are often even less polished than their blockbuster brethren: While improvised dialogue allows directors to shoot fast, cheap and “fix it in post”, the trade-off is a thin plot that meanders along a generic story with little depth and none of the intricate payoffs that strong scripts can deliver. Writer/director/effects-supervisor Gareth Edwards’s Monsters features some breathtaking cinematography, an intriguing look at the normalized aftermath of an alien invasion and some arresting visual effects… but it also feels repetitive, inconclusive and even meaningless. (The film takes its alien-invasion cues from pandemics and environmental degradation rather than failed imperialism, making “victory” an illusion from the first few moments. Even survival is a dicey proposition.) Those who realize that the first scene is the climax of the film won’t necessarily feel better than those who see the film as open-ended. The protagonist couple may be married in real-life, but little of this chemistry carries through to their performances: even by the end of the film, they still feel like two strangers thrown together by circumstances, and this standoffishness doesn’t help make the film better. It all amounts to an interesting, but not really enjoyable film. Science Fiction fans interested in the increased democratization of SF movies will certainly want to take a look at the film and then lose themselves in special features of the two-disc DVD set. Anyone else may want to ask themselves if they really want to spend 90 minutes watching a meandering and pessimistic look at an alien invasion that nothing is ever going to stop. On the other hand, keep an eye on Gareth Edwards’s next effort, whatever that might be.