Talking Movies [Superman Month]: Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut

In 2013, DC Comics declared the 12th of June as “Superman Day”, a day for fans of the Man of Steel the world over to celebrate Clark Kent/Kal-El/Superman, the superpowered virtue of “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” who is widely regarded as the first ever costumed superhero. This year, I’m spending every Monday of June celebrating the Man of Steel as I expand Superman Day to “Superman Month“.

This review has been supported by Chiara Cooper.
If you’d like to support the site, you can do so at my Ko-Fi page.

Released: 28 November 2006
Originally Released: 9 April 1981
Director: Richard Donner
Warner Bros.
$54 million
Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Terence Stamp, Sarah Douglas, Jack O’Halloran, and Gene Hackman

The Plot:
Having thwarted Lex Luthor’s (Hackman) maniacal plans, Clark Kent/Superman (Reeve) faces a new challenge when intrepid reporter Lois Lane (Kidder) deduces his secret identity. While Clark prepares to give up his incredible powers to be with Lois, General Zod (Stamp) and his cohorts escape from the Phantom Zone and terrorise the planet, forcing Clark to choose between his happiness and his responsibilities to mankind.

The Background:
As detailed previously, producers Ilya and Alexander Salkind and Pierre Spengler convinced Warner Bros. to produce a two-part Superman adaptation back in the late seventies. However, the production of Superman (Donner, 1978) was fraught with financial and creative issues; director Richard Donner frequently clashed with the producers and Richard Lester was brought in as a mediator to allow the filmmakers to focus on the first film, which was a financial and critical success. Despite having shot 75% of the sequel, Donner was ultimately replaced by Richard Lester, a decision that irked star Gene Hackman so much that he refused to return for the necessary reshoots; Lester shot an entirely new opening for Superman II in addition to making numerous changes to emphasise slapstick silliness. Star Christopher Reeve returned after negotiating a better deal for himself but Marlon Brando was excised completely due to his unrealistic financial demands. Despite all the behind the scenes turmoil, Superman II was a critical and commercial success but fans campaigned for years to see Donner’s original vision restored. Donner was understandably reluctant to return to the film but came onboard after Warner Bros’ reached a deal with Brando’s estate as part of the production for Superman Returns (Singer, 2008). Working from the original negatives, Donner oversaw the assembly of a version that best represented his original vision for the film, and even incorporated screen test footage for additional scenes to fundamentally alter the tone and context of the theatrical cut. Following a limited theatrical release, Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut released on home media and was received far better than its theatrical counterpart; the film was praised as a love-letter to the fans and a superior version of the film, while some found the re-cut jarring and little more than a curio.

The Review:
As a kid, Superman II was easily my favourite of the original four Superman movies; it was far more of a spectacle than its slower, more deliberate predecessor and hadn’t yet devolved into outright buffoonery or ridiculousness like its successors. However, I don’t recall having any knowledge that so much material had been cut from the film until around about the time that Superman Returns released; suddenly, some of the odd decisions in Superman II made a bit more sense, though I was actually fine with the first film’s focus being on Jor-El (Marlon Brando) and the second one having more emphasis on Lara (Susannah York) and, as we’ve seen countless times, Superman exhibited loads of bizarre additional superpowers back in the Golden and Silver Age so why not a memory wiping kiss? Still, my philosophy is generally that a great film can only be made better by an extended or director’s cut (usually…) so I was eager to see what the original version of Superman II would turn out like. After a disclaimer alerting viewers that the film contains test footage, and a touching dedication to Christopher Reeve, The Richard Donner Cut opens very similarly to the theatrical cut; however, the scene of General Zod, Ursa (Douglas), and Non (O’Halloran) breaking into one of the Kryptonian council’s crystal chambers and destroying one of their crystals has been excised and we’re instead treated to a reused scene from Superman that re-establishes that Jor-El acted as the trio’s chief prosecutor. Because of this, Zod holds Jor-El directly responsible for their imprisonment in the Phantom Zone and swears that the Kryptonian scientist, and his heirs, will bow down before him.

Lois is so sure that Clark is Superman that she puts her, and his, life at risk to force him to reveal the truth.

After Superman diverted Luthor’s missiles and put an end to his maniacal plot to set off the San Andreas Fault, daring reporter Lois Lane receives the front-page exclusive on the story and is praised by her boss, Perry White (Jackie Cooper). When budding Daily Planet photographer Jimmy Olsen (Marc McClure) offhandedly points out that Clark Kent and Superman are never around at the same time, the gears start turning in Lois’s head and, after crudely drawing a pair of spectacles and a hat on a picture of Superman, she begins to suspect that her timid co-worker isn’t all that he seems. Similar to the theatrical cut, Lois is so sure that she’s figured out Superman’s true identity that she literally puts her life on the line; however, rather than leaping into Niagara Falls, she takes the much more sensible option of leaping out the window of a high-rise office building to force Clark into action, though he’s again able to subtlety use his powers to slow and cushion her fall, thus throwing her off the scent. Interestingly, in this version of the film, it’s made much more explicit that Clark is trying to romance Lois; I honestly never really got the impression that he was actively pursuing her in the original film or its sequel, but here he gives an impassioned, stammering plea that she stop comparing him to Superman and accept him for who he really is, but she’s so adamant that her theory is correct that she fires a gun at Clark to force him to reveal his true self to her. Just like in the Richard Lester version, Superman wastes no time in spiriting Lois off to the Fortress of Solitude so that they can have some privacy; this time, though, they consummate their relationship before Clark decides to give up his powers. Much to the despair of his father’s holographic spirit, Clark chooses his love for Lois over his duties to humankind, and the new footage of Brando really emphasises that Clark’s calling is to serve a higher purpose, one far beyond any one person, even himself. Jor-El even goes so far as to call Clark selfish, and shoot a glaring condemnation at Lois as Clark bathes in the red sunlight that renders him human, and vulnerable. The context of this narrative element remains largely the same, and just as confusing; for me, it always seemed to exist simply as a dramatic device to add additional grief to Clark, and was mostly lost on me since Clark and Lois were a married couple in DC Comics in the mid-nineties when I was watching the theatrical cut so it never made much sense to me that Clark would have to pick one life or the other.

Backed by his loyal followers, General Zod is hungry to rule, and avenge himself on Jor-El and his progeny.

Like before, Clark almost immediately comes to regret this decision not just when he has the crap kicked out of him by abrasive trucker Rocky (Pepper Martin) but when Zod calls out Superman on live television from the White House, forcing the depowered Kryptonian to make the dangerous trek back to the Fortress of Solitude and humbly beg his father for forgiveness. Having been condemned to a lifetime of imprisonment in the Phantom Zone, Zod has sworn vengeance against Jor-El and his bloodline; a megalomaniacal despot who feels it’s his birthright to rule over others, Zod stewed in the Phantom Zone, alongside his followers, for the better part of thirty years, his anger and lust for power and revenge only growing more potent as they drifted the endless void of space. Luckily for them, the Phantom Zone spirals towards Earth and the three are freed from an explosion caused by one of Luthor’s missiles, which Superman diverted to save countless lives on Earth. Upon release, the three are immediately bestowed with the same powers as Superman since, in this original film continuity, Kryptonians require no time at all to gain the superhuman befits of Earth’s yellow sun. The three explore their powers, maliciously killing three astronauts without a second’s thought, with Zod’s followers unquestionably following his enigmatic leadership and every command; Ursa remains fixated by patches, badges, and symbols and a loyal advocate of her General, while Non is still little more than a childish brute easily distracted by flashing lights. Just as Zod quickly tires of the ease with which he destroys a small town in Houston, Texas, the renegade Kryptonian grows equally bored after assuming control of the United States, and the entire world, following his attack on the White House; he is reinvigorated, however, when Lex Luthor tells him that Kal-El, the son of his hated jailer, is on Earth and finds new motivation in breaking his hated enemy’s progeny to prove, once and for all, his physical and mental superiority of his long-dead foe.

Luthor schemes to avenge himself on Superman by manipulating the Kryptonian villains.

As in the theatrical cut, Lex Luthor (finally sporting his signature bald head) is locked up in a common prison with his bungling henchman, Otis (Ned Beatty), who indirectly assists Luthor in realising that Superman has a secret up north. Despite the fact that Luthor’s previous plot threatened to kill her beloved mother, Eve Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine) returns to assist Luthor’s escape from prison with a hot-air balloon (though Otis is left behind in the attempt), and the two again discover the Fortress of Solitude amidst the frozen wastes. There, the irritable and self-conceited criminal mastermind communicates with a holographic representation of Jor-El and learns about the three Kryptonian criminals and is immediately giddy at the prospect of adding their might and lust for chaos to his own devious ends. Although Zod and the others are already master of all they survey, Luthor is able to win them over with his knowledge of Jor-El and the revelation that the mysterious “Superman” who they’ve heard of is actually their foe’s son, and the criminal mastermind is quickly able to earn their trust in return for sovereignty over Australia (and, later, Cuba). Luthor is so consumed with avenging his loss to Superman in the first film that he manipulates the Kryptonians into attacking the Daily Planet and threatening Lois in order to draw Superman out, but quickly comes to realise that the three are far too dangerous and violent to be properly trusted, much less controlled. Superman is, of course, able to exploit Luthor’s deceptive nature to get the better of his superpowered foes and, in this version of the film, makes the odd decision to destroy the Fortress of Solitude to keep Luthor from invading his privacy again…despite the fact that he turns back time and thus undoes this act.

The Nitty-Gritty:
Although John Williams was unable to return to work on this new cut, Donner reused much of his work on Superman to largely replace Ken Thorne’s original score. Some characters also lose their original dubbing (notably Luthor, since Hackman’s original lines and scenes have been restored, and Non, who’s childish squeals are replaced by more monstrous roars). It’s interesting to learn that Richard Donner wasn’t responsible for so many of the scenes that I consider to be integral to the narrative of Superman II. Without actually witnessing a sample of what made three antagonists so reprehensible on their native Krypton, we’re left simply with Jor-El’s vague descriptions of their heinous ways and acts. Simplicity such as this is rife in The Richard Donner Cut, which shows that the three saw Krypton’s destruction from their prison and even spotted the infant Kal-El’s birthing chamber as they spiralled throughout the galaxy; furthermore, the entirely new opening sequence of Lois’s escapades in Paris is completely replaced with footage from Superman’s efforts to stop Luthor’s missiles intercut with scenes of the three tumbling towards Earth. Similar to the theatrical cut, this makes Superman the unwitting saviour of the criminals but directly ties their accidental escape from the Phantom Zone into the events of the first film, thus indirectly making Luthor responsible for their freedom as well.

Jor-El disapproves of Clark’s decision, and then sacrifices himself to re-power his son to full strength.

Conspicuous in their inclusion is the use of test footage of Reeves and Kidder for scenes in Niagara Falls where Lois tries to help Clark be more assertive and self-confident and then shoots at Clark to prove he’s Superman! While the revelation that she was firing blanks makes this a little less disturbing, and it’s a little jarring that Reeves’ hair and glasses change throughout, it’s a much more effective way to force his dramatic unmasking than him simply tripping on a bear-skin rug. Naturally, it’s Brando who’s the most notable reinsertion into the film. Oddly, Brando’s restored footage is rendered in wildly inconsistent ways, appearing both translucent and in an odd, distorted, holographic effect, and his presence completely removes Lara from the film’s narrative to continue the father/son themes and relationship from the first film. While I liked that Superman II gave Lara the chance to be there for her son, here it’s Jor-El who Clark again turns to regarding his love for Lois and the conflict he faces between choosing her or his responsibilities to the world. Jor-El pleads (with about as much enthusiasm as Brando can muster, which is to say not much at all) with Clark to reconsider giving up his destiny, and grieves at having to forever disappear in order to restore Clark’s powers. Although Clark is obviously devastated at having let down his father, and the thought of losing his last remaining link to a family and people he never knew, Jor-El’s sacrifice allows Superman to return to the service of truth, justice, and the American Way and this sequence also gives us the only physical onscreen interaction between Reeves and Brando, fulfilling the Kryptonian prophecy that “The son becomes the father, and the father becomes the son”. Although General Zod still displays the odd ability to levitate objects, many of the bizarre superpowers showcased by the Kryptonians are thankfully missing from this version of the film, meaning we don’t have to suffer through Superman’s weird plastic S-shield attack he did in the theatrical cut or the characters randomly duplicating and teleporting throughout the Fortress of Solitude. On the downside, this means we miss out on the scene of the three rapidly defacing Mount Rushmore, which is replaced by a brief shot of them destroying the Washington Monument, but the trio’s assault on the White House is far more violent and brutal, and even includes an amusing scene where Zod gleefully fires an assault rifle.

The ending is wildly different, with Superman again reversing time to undo Zod’s destruction.

Following their attack on the Daily Planet (which is far less impactful without Thorne’s score, and even replaces the iconic “General, would you care to step outside?” line), Superman again battles his three foes in the skies and streets of Metropolis. You’ll notice a few additional shots here, which are sadly let down by the fact that this project clearly didn’t have much of a budget as the shot composition is even more obviously dodgy than it was in the original film, which was already extremely ambitious in its superpowered brawl. All of the slapstick nonsense is missing from this scene, replaced with a foreboding menace as Superman matches his foes blow for blow until he’s forced to flee to the Fortress of Solitude to keep the three from causing further damage and harm to the city and its inhabitants. Rather than engaging in a battle of strength and skill in the Fortress, Superman uses his wits to outsmart the maniacal Zod; Zod demands that Superman submits to him, becoming his slave for eternity, in exchange for the lives of others and, thanks to Luthor’s deceitful nature, Superman is again able to turn Luthor’s edict of “mind over muscle” against his enemies to render them powerless using the Fortress’s red sunlight. Superman and Lois dispose of the three using lethal means, but the moral quandary of these actions is arguably rendered mute when Superman once again reverses the rotation of the planet to turn back time. This returns Luthor to prison, and the three Kryptonians to the Phantom Zone, but also undoes the relationship he forged with Lois over the course of the film; ultimately, the result is the same, that Superman couldn’t bring himself to put Lois through the pain of knowing the truth and chose to continue living a lie. As I understand it, the original idea was to have the time travel element only in this film, which really makes you wonder how Superman would have undone Lois’s death in the last film, but either way it’s just as much of a cheap trick as the memory-wiping kiss and kind of shows Superman to be a bit of a hypocrite as he takes these extreme actions but doesn’t really learn anything from it as he goes right back to awkwardly flirting with Lois as the bungling Clark Kent (and even pays Rocky back for the beating he gave him earlier, despite the fact that this didn’t actually happen).

The Summary:
I think the main question anyone wants to know about Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut is: is it better than the theatrical version? And, I guess, it technically is; the removal of the more slapstick scenes and continuing the themes from the first movie makes it more cohesive and helps it to act as a more fitting follow-up, but I can’t honestly say that it really trumps the original in a fundamental way. This isn’t an extended version of the film, but rather an alternative cut, one that is the closest we’ll ever get to what Donner originally intended and, had we seen this (or something very much like it), we probably would have had a better overall experience that felt likes two parts of a greater whole but I really can’t say that there’s any scenes or inclusions here that make the film objectively better. A lot of this is due to my nostalgia for the original, which I’m very fond of, and my bias against Brando and his abrasive, difficult attitude which impacted his performance as Jor-El and tainted my perception of him. It’s definitely very poignant to see Jor-El reinserted into the film, and his inclusion offers a little more explanation about how Superman regains his powers, but I liked seeing Lara comfort her son in the sequel and was happy with the implication that the green crystal simply restored Superman offscreen. I’m glad that some of the weirder elements are gone, but there isn’t too much in their place to make up for their removal. I enjoy the extra scenes involving Zod and his crew, but the ending is just as head-scratching as in the theatrical cut (seriously, why destroy the Fortress if you’re going to turn back time?!), so, for me, you can just kind of flip a coin and watch either version and pretty much get the same story, just with a few different scenes and contexts between the two.

My Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Pretty Good

What are your thoughts on Richard Donner’s version of Superman II? Did you feel like it’s superior to the theatrical cut or were you put off by the newly inserted scenes? What did you think to the alterations made by re-inserting Marlon Brando’s lost footage? Were you a fan of the altered ending? What is your favourite Superman story, character, or piece of media? How are you planning to celebrate Superman Day this month? Whatever you think, feel free to sign up to share your opinion below or leave a comment on my social media.

Talking Movies [Jones June]: Raiders of the Lost Ark

Astoundingly, the fifth Indiana Jones film, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny (Mangold, 2023) is due to release later this month. To mark the occasion, I’m dedicating every Sunday to revisiting the movies that made him a household icon in addition to some bonus Indy content on Wednesdays.

This review has been supported by Chiara Cooper.
If you’d like to support the site, you can do so at my Ko-Fi page.

Talking Movies

Released: 12 June 1981
Director: Steven Spielberg
Paramount Pictures
Budget: $20 million
Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, Paul Freeman, Ronald Lacey, John Rhys-Davies, and Denholm Elliott

The Plot:
Renowned archeologist and professor Doctor Henry Jones Jr. (Ford), better known as the adventure-seeking “Indiana Jones” (or simply “Indy”), joins forces with his former lover, Marion Ravenwood (Allen), on a globe-trotting quest to recover the long-lost Ark of the Covenant before the forces of Nazi Germany.

The Background:
Indiana Jones was the brainchild of George Lucas, who dreamt up the concept shortly after finishing American Graffiti (Lucas, 1973). Inspired by the heroic pulp serials of his youth, Lucas initially envisioned the adventurous archeologist as “Indiana Smith” and developed the idea alongside Philip Kaufman before being forced to shelve the project to focus on Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope (ibid, 1977). While vacationing in Hawaii, Lucas met with director Steven Spielberg, who was eager to direct a James Bond-style movie, and the two agreed to work together to on the project. Lawrence Kasdan worked with them to plot out action set pieces using miniatures and changed Indy’s surname to “Jones”, defining him as a fallible, but honest, thrill-seeker. Many compromises had to be made to get the script to an acceptable length, including omitting a minecart chase and large aspects of the romantic sub-plot, and Lucas struggled to find financing before Paramount Pictures came onboard. Insisting that a relatively unknown actor assume the title role, Tom Selleck was within arm’s reach of being cast before being forced to drop out to work on Magnum, P.I. (1980 to 1988); Lucas was reluctant to indulge Spielberg’s suggestion of Harrison Ford, but Ford happily signed on and offered his own insight into the character. Location shooting proved both costly and restrictive, meaning Spielberg favoured fewer takes during filming, and the production was hampered by sweltering temperatures in Tunisia; Ford’s later bout of dysentery also saw a lengthy sword fighting scene trimmed down to a far simpler and now iconic exchange. Finally, Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic and special effects artist Steve Gawley created complex practical effects involving wax blood bags and various camera speeds to portray gruesome melting faces. Raiders of the Lost Ark’s nearly $390 million worldwide gross made it a big hit; it was also met with widespread critical acclaim, with reviews praising the cast, special effects, and pulp escapism on offer. The film kicked off another successful franchise for Lucas and became one of Ford’s defining roles; it spawned not only additional sequels, but also videogames, comic books, and even a prequel series, with the Indiana Jones franchise largely regarded as one of the most influential in all of cinema.

The Review:
Raiders of the Lost Ark does a masterful job of establishing the fortitude of its main character within its first fifteen minutes; framed from behind, in silhouette, and as a confident adventurer who isn’t disturbed by superstition or ages-old boobytraps, Indy leads a small expedition deep into a Peruvian temple. Wily, with his wits ever about him, he’s as capable of defending himself and the map to the golden idol with his crack skill with a bullwhip as he is of braving the temple, regardless of the creepy-crawlies and the dangers within. Unlike the unfortunate Doctor Forrestal, Indy is far more attentive to his surroundings; his whip also doubles as a lasso, allowing him to swing across bottomless pits, unlike his inept guide, Satipo (Alfred Molina, if you can believe that!) Satipo examples the impetuousness of greed and arrogance, a handicap not shared by Indy, thus allowing him to spot the deadly traps that prove Satipo’s downfall. Indy also has the foresight to fill a bag with sand so he can safely retrieve the golden idol from its pedestal and, when this results in the temple collapsing round him, is more than capable of escaping even after Satipo betrays him. Indy is also a professor of archelogy; his ventures are not for personal glory but to bring these long-lost relics into the public eye for the benefit of the museum (though he does profit from his finds). Still, Indy’s reputation proceeds him and sees him directly recruited by the United States military to intervene when it’s discovered that the Nazis are searching for the fabled Ark of the Covenant.

Adventurer Indiana Jones allies with a former flame to uncover the Ark of the Covenant.

Though fully aware of the mythology surrounding the Ark, Indy isn’t one for tall tales and sees the pursuit of the relic as perhaps his greatest challenge, and of incredible significance to the museum, literally laughing off the concerns of his friend and colleague, Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott). Obviously a figure of sexual appeal thanks to his rugged good looks and physicality, Indy has more than his fair share of admirers; his classes are filled with lovestruck teens who are more interested in favouring him with forlorn stares and leaving him notes and gifts than paying attention to his lecture about the dangers posed by temples and local superstitions. He meets his match when his journey inevitably causes him to cross paths with Marion, the daughter of Indy’s old mentor, a strong, feisty, independent woman who owns a bar in Nepal and is more than capable of drinking men twice her size under the table and handling herself in a fight. Though angered at being left heartbroken by Indy some ten years ago, Marion has the medallion that reveals the location of the Well of Souls and demands to join his crusade after his actions see her bar go up in flames. Clearly still infatuated with her, Indy’s usually bold demeanour falters when it seems like Marion has been killed and it’s only the intervention of his old friend, Sallah (Rhys-Davies), that keeps him from throwing his life away seeking revenge. It’s thanks to Sallah, an Egyptian excavator who has no love for the poor treatment his people have receive from the Nazis, and his contacts that Indy is able to decipher the medallion, infiltrate the Nazi dig site, and discover the location of the Well of Souls. Indy is also overjoyed to discover Marion was alive and well in the hands of the Nazis, though he’s forced to leave her behind so he and Sallah can get to the Ark before the Nazis.

Belloq allies with the Nazis to fulfill his own desires for the fabled Ark.

Indy is dogged at every turn throughout the film by René Belloq (Freeman), a rival archaeologist who ends up allying with the Nazis to help them find the fabled Ark of the Covenant. We get an immediate sense of the differences between the two right from their first meeting; while Indy braves the dangers of his pursuits head-on, Belloq patiently waits on the side lines and simply takes what he wants by force without the need for physical dramatics. A twisted version of Indy whose respect for their profession has dissolved completely, Belloq openly admits to being Indy’s dark reflection, delights in flaunting his superiority over his rival at every turn, and is obsessed with perverting the Ark’s power for his own means. Accordingly, though allied with the Nazis, Belloq doesn’t believe in their cause and sees them as merely a “necessary evil”; when they threaten to torture Marion for information, he attempts to coerce her into telling what she knows willingly but is ultimately unable to defy his Nazi partners directly. The primary antagonist force in the movie, the Nazis have been scouring the globe in search of religious and superstitious artifacts to satisfy the desires of Adolf Hitler for power beyond the measure of mortal men. Their primary representative is Gestapo agent Major Arnold Toht (Lacey), slimy, sadistic man who relies on intimidation and torture to get what he wants. Toht is so committed to his Fuhrer’s will that he grabs the red-hot medallion and ends up permanently scarred meaning that, while the Nazi’s fail to acquire the artifact, they are able to produce a replica.

The Nitty-Gritty:
Just like Lucas’s popular sci-fi franchise, Raiders of the Lost Ark is bolstered by another of John Williams’ unforgettable scores; easily one of the most recognisable themes in movie history, the score from Raiders of the Lost Ark perfectly captures the adventurous spirit of the character and the franchise and brings every scene to life with a fittingly bombastic, pulp glory. The set design and visual presentation on offer here are just as important, and impressive, to the film; set in 1936 and in faraway locations such as the jungles of Peru and the sands of Cairo, the film definitely lives up to its pulp roots in its visual aesthetic. The opening sequence alone is a testament to this, featuring a boobytrapped Peruvian temple filed with tarantulas, cobwebs, impaled corpses, great stone walls and, of course, the gigantic rolling boulder that remains one of the most iconic set pieces of not only this film, but the entire franchise. Equally unforgettable are the scenes showcasing Indy’s globe-trotting travels as we see a red line drawn across a map every time he travels from one destination to another when the film could’ve easily relied on less visually interesting techniques like camera cuts, onscreen text, or fancy wipes.

Raiders of the Lost Ark impressed with his visuals and the exciting nature of its action set pieces.

The film gives the very real sense that trouble naturally seems to find and follow Indy wherever he goes, which is exacerbated by the Nazi’s desperate search for the medallion and the Well of Souls. Consequently, Indy is forced to defend himself at all times; handy with his fists and as equally skilled with a gun as he is his whip, it’s Indy’s adaptability that often helps him out in a tight clinch. Despite being outnumbered and outgunned at Marion’s bar, he purposely spreads a fire to even the odds; he’s also not above fighting dirty, kicking opponents in the balls or simply gunning them down. Indy meets his physical superior when trying to escape from the Nazi’s dig site; here, relieved of his gun, Indy’s goaded into a fist fight by a large German (Pat Roach) who easily manhandles him and he’s only able to triumph thanks to the brute being skewered (thankfully offscreen) by a propeller blade in a sequence that also sees Marion take to a plane’s turret to provide cover. While he exudes confidence when out on an adventure and is clearly very learned, Indy isn’t some infallible action hero; he’s fully capable, yes, and highly adaptable, but he generally always has the odds against him, takes his fair share of punishment, and even gets grazed by a bullet. In fist fights, he’s usually outnumbered or facing armed foes and must use his wits to find ways to tip the balance in his favour. Indy also has a very specific Achille’s heel in his crippling fear, and hatred, of snakes; while this is initially played for laughs during his dramatic escape from Peru, Indy’s forced to face his fear head-on in the Well of Souls first to find the glorious solid chest and then to affect his and Marion’s escape by crashing through the walls of the buried stone crypt. Additionally, thanks to Belloq always being one step ahead of him, Indy is forced to think on the fly to intercept the Ark and commandeer the Nazi truck carrying it after a length brawl that doubles as a thrilling chase sequence.

Ultimately, Indy survives the Ark’s destructive power and it’s sealed way by shady government agents.

Victorious in this endeavour, Sallah arranges for the Ark to be transported back to London by ship; onboard, Marion tends to Indy’s wounds, but their intimate moment is soon interrupted by the persistent Nazis, who recapture both Marion and the Ark. Indy manages to slip aboard their submarine and follow them to an island in the Aegean Sea, where Belloq plans to test and witness the Ark’s power before presenting it to Hitler to ensure they have the genuine article. When Indy threatens to blow them all to kingdom come, including the Ark, in exchange for Marion, Belloq calls his bluff; he knows that Indy is just as curious to see the Ark opened as he and, unable to deny it, Indy surrenders to the Nazis. Donning ceremonial robes, Belloq oversees the opening and is initially aghast to find it contains only sand; however, an electrical surge precipitates a wave of malevolent spirits and supernatural lightning that destroys all who behold it. It’s often said that Indy has little to no bearing on Raiders’ plot, that the Nazi’s would’ve been undone by the destructive power of the Ark without Indy’s presence. I’m not sure this is entirely true, however; after all, it’s only because of Indy that the Nazis are even led to the Ark in the first place, which at least accelerates the plot if not directly impacts it, and he’s the one who ensures that it isn’t just left lying around for others to stumble upon. Whatever the case, when faced with the true power of the mythical Ark, Indy orders Marion to close her eyes, sparing them the gruesome, flesh melting fate that befalls Toht and being consumed by the holy fire like Belloq and the other Nazis. Although they survive, and seemingly rekindle their romance, and Indy and Marcus are generously compensated by the United States government, Indy’s frustrated that he’s denied access to the Ark, which has been stored away in a vast warehouse alongside countless other artifacts.

The Summary:
It’s tough to pick between which is Harrison Ford’s more iconic role, Indiana Jones or Han Solo. I suppose it depends greatly on your genre preference; I know a lot of people who aren’t sci-fi fans, so they probably prefer the more pulpy adventures of the world’s most famous fictional archaeologist. It’s not hard to see why; Ford shines in the role, bringing a rugged appeal to the character, who is both very learned and physically capable while also being vulnerable and relatable. He absolutely carries the film, which is only bolstered by a series of impressive action set pieces and special effects, all of which have aged incredibly well thanks to being realised by tried and true practical means and camera trickery. As much as I enjoyed seeing how Indy would get out of each situation, watching him struggle and fight tooth and nail for every advantage, I also enjoyed the dynamic between him and Marion, who’s more than capable of holding her own and gives as good as she gets and really hammers home that, sometimes, Indy is quite a morally grey character. The parallels between him and Belloq were also interesting, if a little one-note thanks to the larger focus given to the more explicitly evil Nazis and the greater narrative concerning the Ark of the Covenant. Ultimately, Raiders of the Lost Ark is adventure in its purest form; a rollicking, enjoyable action-packed romp from start to finish with an alluring main character, a memorable score, and some iconic sequences that deliver as a fresh take on classic pulp troupes made fresh through the film’s undeniable visual presentation.

My Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Great Stuff

Are you a fan of Raiders of the Lost Ark? Were you impressed by Harrison Ford’s performance and what sort of impact did Indiana Jones have on you at the time? Did you enjoy the throwback to the pulp serials of old? What did you think to the dynamic between him and Marion and the parallels between Indy and Belloq? Which of the film’s action set pieces was your favourite? Do you think Indy is largely inconsequential to the main plot? Which of the Indiana Jones movies is your favourite? Whatever you think about Raiders of the Lost Ark, feel free to share your memories of Indiana Jones in the comments or on my social media.

Talking Movies [RoboCop Day]: RoboCop 2

To celebrate the release of the dismal RoboCop (Padilha, 2014) on home media, June 3rd was declared “RoboCop Day” in the city of Detroit. While that movie wasn’t too impressive and had nothing on the original RoboCop (Verhoeven, 1987), this does give us the perfect excuse to talk, and celebrate, all things RoboCop on a specific day each year.

This review has been supported by Chiara Cooper.
If you’d like to support the site, you can do so at my Ko-Fi page.

Released: 22 June 1990
Director: Irvin Kershner
Orion Pictures
$20 to 30 million
Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Tom Noonan, Belinda Bauer, Gabriel Damon, and Daniel O’Herlihy

The Plot:
Former police officer-turned-cyborg law enforcer RoboCop (Weller) becomes embroiled in a scheme by Omni Consumer Products (OCP) to bankrupt and take over the city. Faced with an identity crisis, and interference by psychologist Doctor Juliette Faxx (Bauer), RoboCop also comes into conflict with a vicious gang of drug dealers, led by zealot Cain (Noonan), who are spreading a highly addictive drug throughout the city.

The Background:
In 1987, Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner crafted a satirical take on 1980s commercialisation and media that director Paul Verhoeven turned into RoboCop. A modest hit, RoboCop was met with generally positive reviews and the studio urged Neumeier and Miner to pen a sequel. Unfortunately, mounting deadlines, a writer’s strike, and a breach of contract meant that their tentative plans to have RoboCop battle the complex, satirical politics of the future in RoboCop 2: The Corporate Wars never came to pass. Instead, writing duties passed to noted comic book writer Frank Miller; unfortunately, the gritty violence and scope of Miller’s script was deemed “unfilmable”, though he would cameo in the film and later turn his rejected ideas into a comic book. RoboCop 2’s production continued to be stressful; producer Jon Davison was already against the idea of sequels, and struggled to secure a director for the project since Verhoeven was busy making Total Recall (ibid, 1990). The studio announced a release date before the story was completed, resulting in a rushed filming schedule; even star Peter Weller was reluctant to return and critical of the script, but reportedly enjoyed the shoot and praised the director’s drive and enthusiasm.

Orin Pictures placed enormous pressure on the filmmakers to produce a sequel to RoboCop.

Both special-effects guru Phil Tippett and suit designer Rob Bottin returned to work on the sequel; Bottin gave the suit a sleek new colour scheme and made it much easier to put on and take off, drastically reducing Weller’s time in the make-up chair. RoboCop’s cybernetic antagonist was brought to life using tried-and-tested special-effects techniques such as animatronics, miniatures, and painstaking stop-motion; RoboCain even exuded emotion thanks to a rudimentary computer-generated face. Despite RoboCop infamously making an appearance at World Championship Wrestling’s (WCW) Capital Combat pay-per-view to promote the film, RoboCop 2’s worldwide gross of $45.7 million was noticeably less than its predecessor, and the film was met with mixed reviews. While some praised its allusions to classic sci-fi and horror classics and (like myself) consider it an under-rated entry, critics bemoaned its redundant plot, excessiveness, and the depiction of a child as a violent drug lord. Still, we did get the aforementioned comic book detailed Miller’s rejected ideas, a videogame adaptation, and (eventually) a third film that was way, way worse in almost every aspect.

The Review:
Picking up about a year after the first film, the first thing you might notice about RoboCop 2 is that RoboCop himself has taken a bit of a step back. In the first film, the bulk of the narrative was focused on RoboCop regaining his memories and his humanity, evolving from a preprogramed tool of the malevolent OCP and reclaiming his status as a free-thinking human. However, in RoboCop 2, much of his stoic, robotic demeanour has returned to the forefront; his partner and friend, officer Anne Lewis (Allen), still affectionately refers to him as “Murphy” and he continues to exhibit a modicum of personality in the way he confronts and addresses others, but it’s like he’s been factory reset to where he was about mid-way through RoboCop rather than being the confident, free-minded Murphy we saw at the conclusion of the last film. Haunted by Murphy’s feelings and memories, RoboCop has taken to passing by the home of his former wife and child, Ellen (Angie Bolling) and Jimmy (Clinton Austin Shirley), presumably out of the temptation to reveal himself to them, which results in Ellen being so emotionally tormented that she’s filing a lawsuit against OCP. Despite being fully accepted by Lewis, Sergeant Reed (Robert DoQui), and his fellow officers, all of whom treat him as Murphy reborn, OCP force (basically bullied) RoboCop into admitting that he’s unable to provide for his former family as a man and is “simply a machine”.

Still struggling with his humanity, RoboCop battles drug baron Cain, who’s transformed into a hulking cyborg!

Clearly heartbroken at having to admit this, he’s left with no choice but to lie to Ellen in order to spare her further grief and get OCP lawyer Holzang (Jeff McCarthy) off his back yet, despite his continuing struggles with his humanity, RoboCop continues to maintain order on the streets practically single-handedly. With the majority of the city’s cops on strike, RoboCop, Lewis, and a handful of uniformed officers find themselves continuously outnumbered and outgunned out on the violent city streets. Much of the violence is attributed to the spread of a highly addictive drug known as Nuke, which is manufactured and spread by the messianic Cain and his devoted followers (whom he refers to as his “flock”). Rather than simply being a gang of thugs and street punks, Cain’s inner circle is more like a cult; they hang on Cain’s every word, revere him as a leader and a father-figure, and are absolutely hooked on the “paradise” offered by Nuke. Cain is an enigmatic and alluring figure with a twisted sense of patriotism who exudes a subtle menace and showcases a sadistic streak when he’s wronged by others. Although he’s generally far more hands-off compared to Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith), he clearly takes a perverse pleasure in overseeing the torture, dismemberment, and punishment of his enemies and even forces Hob to observe this without filter. However, Cain gets a leg up on his predecessor when he’s subjected to the RoboCop 2 program after being critically injured by RoboCop. Although he doesn’t consent to this procedure, conniving psychologist Julia Faxx is completely on the money with her evaluation that Cain’s twisted mind makes him a perfect candidate to mentally survive the trauma of literally having his brain ripped from his body and placed into a massive mechanical, tank-like cybernetic body commonly dubbed “RoboCain”.

Hob usurps Cain’s position and plans to pay off the bankrupt city to spread his drugs unopposed.

Indeed, RoboCop 2 has a stringent anti-drug message as the super addictive Nuke is so sought after that Cain and his lead scientist, Frank (Frank Miller), produce it in vast quantities. Interestingly, though, very little time is spent explaining what Nuke’s effects (or side-effects) are; Cain suffers some unsettling effects as a result of a mix-up in the ingredients of the “Blue Velvet” variant, and users are said suffer painful withdrawal symptoms but it doesn’t seem to cause hallucinations or manic episodes. Instead, Nuke seems to induce a state of euphoria that becomes incredibly addictive to the user and people are literally fighting each other in the streets to fund their habit. Not that I’m saying it isn’t dangerous, of course, but we’re never actually shown that it is inherently dangerous, and more time is spent establishing that there’s a far more tangible danger in Detroit thanks to the police strike. Despite their loyalty to their enthralling leader, Cain’s followers are quick to write him off after he’s put in the hospital thanks to the ambitions of Hob (Damon), a spiteful delinquent who is very much Cain’s second-in-command and quickly usurps Cain’s position as Detroit’s top drug lord. He blackmails and manipulates Cain’s devoted lover, Angie (Galyn Görg), into falling in line by threatening to cut off her Nuke supply and seeks to broker a deal with the desperate and bankrupt mayor, Marvin Kuzak (Willard E. Pugh), that will allow him and his gang to manufacture and distribute Nuke without fear of prosecution in return for paying off the city’s debts to OCP. Thanks to being a child, RoboCop is unable to act against Hob, allowing the vicious little brat to continually evade reprisals and he gleefully oversees RoboCop’s dismemberment after the gang subdue the cyborg cop at their hideout. However, Hob’s ambition leads to him being caught in the crossfire when Faxx sends RoboCain to assassinate Mayor Kuzak and Hob, Angie, and many of their cohorts are killed by their former leader. Despite all of the pain and trauma Hob caused RoboCop, Murphy comforts the boy in his final moments and is deeply affected by the misguided youth’s death as Hob is around the same age as his own son.

Thanks to OCP, Detroit’s on the verge of chaos and RoboCop is left screwed up by conflicting directives.

OCP remains a malicious and vindictive corporate entity but, this time around, the Old Man (O’Herlihy) has fully embraced his role as the head of a malevolent organisation; he’s more than happy to inform Mayor Kuzak that the city has defaulted on their contract and is eager to seize control of all of Detroit so that he can finally build Delta City on its ruins. To facilitate this, OCP continue to make life difficult for the city’s police; after numerous threats, the majority of the cops are on strike after having their pensions and salaries cut by their employers, causing chaos in the streets and leaving Detroit ripe for the picking. The Old Man is joined by Donald Johnson (Felton Perry) and Holzang, who advise and support his ambitious corporate takeover of the city, but has many of his decisions influenced by Faxx, who gets close to the Old Man (much to Johnson’s chagrin) and convinces him to screw around with RoboCop’s directives and programming to neuter his threat. When OCP’s efforts to replace RoboCop with a newer, more efficient model are met with constant failure, Faxx jumps in and suggests screening criminals rather than police officers as candidates for the RoboCop 2 program. While the Old Man is happy to keep RoboCop off the streets or otherwise disabled in order to push the city further into OCP’s hands, Faxx seems to get off on manipulating others and weaselling her way into a position of trust and power. While she’s largely successful and appears to have wooed the Old Man with her allure and impressed him with RoboCain’s slaughter of many of OCP’s opposition, her luck runs out by the end as Holzang and Johnson convince the Old Man to make Faxx a scapegoat for the death, destruction, and bad press caused by RoboCain’s rampage. However, little of RoboCop’s focus in the film is on confronting or opposing OCP; Holzang is continually dismissive of RoboCop’s humanity and he is solely concerned with the cost of repairing him and sorting out possible lawsuits caused by his actions, and Faxx is instrumental in screwing RoboCop up with over 250 contradictory directives, but RoboCop’s focus is squarely on Cain and the Nuke problem rather on exposing his creators as an unscrupulous corporate powerhouse concerned only with their own agenda rather than actually helping others.

The Nitty-Gritty:
RoboCop 2 does a decent job of replicating the dark satire of the original through its frequent cutaways to commercials and news program Media Break, which still casually comments on miserable local and worldwide news like it’s no big deal. Although Bixby Snyder (S.D. Nemeth) is sadly missing, the film opens with a particularly lethal solution to car theft, sells OCP Communications as the “only choice” to avoid office workers committing suicide over missed deadlines, and there’s an amusing commercial for “Sunblock 5000”, a product that protects against the destroyed ozone layer but causes skin cancer with frequent use! Although Basil Poledouris’ iconic RoboCop theme is absent, Leonard Rosenman’s new score isn’t anything to sniff at, punctuating RoboCop’s slick shooting and the film’s action sequences with a rousing, almost militaristic fanfare. One thing I do like about RoboCop 2 is how comfortable everyone is with RoboCop; he gets some odd looks of fear and awe from criminals, children, and everyday citizens, but he’s mostly just become a part of the city since the first film. All of his fellow officers refer to him as Murphy and he rallies them in an all-out assault on Cain’s main facility regardless of their money woes purely through the authority and respect his very being commands amongst them.

RoboCop is brutalised by Cain’s men and sapped of his violent edge in accordance with Faxx’s design.

In many ways, RoboCop 2 retreads much of the same ground as the first film; RoboCop struggles with his memories of a life that, arguably, was never his to begin with and has taken to stalking Murphy’s wife and son since he can’t quite let go of the ghosts of his past. When out on duty, RoboCop is all business and his personal issues never impede his duties; he busts up a Nuke production factory, beats information out of crooked cop Duffy (Stephen Lee), and confronts Cain and his followers alone all because that’s what he’s duty-bound to do (and, arguably, because of his three prime directives). However, when at rest, he’s a broken, distracted, confused man-machine who desperately wants to rediscover the love and affection Murphy felt but can’t because he’s simply the leftover echo of Murphy’s life trapped in a largely cybernetic shell. After he’s brutalised by Cain’s men, RoboCop is once again left torn to shreds and barely clinging to life in a startling call-back to Murphy’s vile execution in the first film; this is the perfect opportunity for Faxx to step in and load a whole bunch of nonsense directives into RoboCop’s program based on “consumer feedback” that the cyborg cop is too violent. Interestingly, Johnson actively speaks out against this, and Faxx’s decision to search for potential RoboCop 2 candidates, but more because of the “corporate image problem” than any sense of duty towards Detroit’s safety. Although Murphy initially resists Faxx’s programming thanks to clinging to his former life, she’s able to bypass his opposition by spoon-feeding him instructions, resulting in a far more chirpy, affable version of the cyborg cop who’s more interested in pleasantries and the Miranda Rights than busting heads. This leads to a ludicrous detour from the main plot as RoboCop, now more inclined to speak out against smoking, bad language (which “makes for bad feelings”), and youth violence and delivering impassioned speeches rather than gunning down criminals with his Auto 9. This doesn’t last very long, however, as RoboCop uses the last vestiges of his free will to subject himself to a near-lethal dose of electricity to, once again, erase all of his directives and clear his head of Faxx’s interference.

The film is punctuated by some impressive animatronics and practical effects.

Although RoboCop 2 doesn’t feature such brutal scenes as a man being shot to death by a group of thugs, it’s still gloriously violent and gory in its own right, just in a slightly different way; as such, blood squibs burst with entertaining frequency, it’s fun seeing RoboCop manhandle Duffy in the arcade, and it’s always a thrill to see Peter Weller moving like a slick, efficient machine during RoboCop’s firefights. One of the more alarming scenes in the film comes when RoboCop is subjected to a horrific dismantling by Cain’s cultists, who blast off his hand and then drill through his joints to leave him a mangled mess. As traumatic as this is for Murphy, though, it’s nothing compared to the poor souls selected to undergo the RoboCop 2 program prior to Cain, who are all driven to suicidal insanity by their experience, with one cop left little more than a screaming skull beneath a cybernetic helmet! One scene that always landed with me as a kid was the shot of Cain’s brain and eyeballs suspended in a jar of liquid prior to his transformation, and the casual way his doctor and Faxx handle the drug lord’s facial remains, making for a disturbing scene. Effects-wise, things have been vastly improved this time around; RoboCop’s suit looks better than ever thanks to a shining coat of chrome-blue paint, and seeing him rendered a twitching, quivering mess of wires and armour is particularly harrowing thanks to a highly detailed animatronic puppet. RoboCain is a vast improvement over his spiritual predecessor, the Enforcement Droid-209/ED-209 (which, sadly, is reduced to a mere blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo), being bigger, more versatile, and far more dangerous and capable. A huge, lumbering machine, RoboCain is brought to life through a combination of miniatures, stop-motion, and practical animatronics and, while some of the shot composition hasn’t aged too well, it’s pretty bloody glorious to see this hulking cyborg gun people down with its machine gun arm and crush skulls with its claw-like hands!

After a brutal brawl, RoboCop exploits RoboCain’s dependency on Nuke to end his threat.

With OCP having all but eliminated their opposition and set to seize control over Detroit, manufacture more cyborg cops, and begin construction of Delta City, the climax naturally features a final confrontation between RoboCop and his would-be replacement. Unlike RoboCop, RoboCain doesn’t appear to retain very much of his humanity; after his transformation, Tom Noonan completely disappears from the film and is represented only by a 3D representation and his hulking robotic body, meaning RoboCain is a much more monstrous figure than Murphy and is motivated solely by his need to consume Nuke. Since RoboCain is bigger and far tougher than RoboCop, Murphy opts to bring a Cobra Assault Cannon with him to even the odds and take out some of Cain’s high-powered arsenal. Unlike the shambling ED-209, RoboCain features a massive machine gun arm (which doubles as an extendable battering ram), his own shoulder-mounted assault cannon, a laser cutter, and a number of claw-like appendages that allow him to scale walls, right himself when dropped, and afford him numerous options in combat. In comparison, RoboCop is as clunky as ever and is forced to rely more on his wiles than directly attacking RoboCain, since the former drug lord’s armour is much too tough to be damaged by RoboCop’s standard firearm or base strength. Thus, their battle sees them crashing through the floor, setting off gas lines, collapsing from a rooftop, and involves Lewis charging into RoboCain with an Armoured Personnel Carrier (APC), all of which barely fazes the enormous cyborg. However, RoboCain has one glaring weakness that RoboCop doesn’t share: his dependence on Nuke. RoboCop is able to use this addiction to distract his foe and rip through the plate armour on his back to wrench out Cain’s brain and smash it into mush, ending the would-be messiah’s threat once and for all and reclaiming his position as the city’s resident cyborg.

The Summary:
Even now, I genuinely feel lie RoboCop 2 is underserving of the dismissal it is often met with. While RoboCop might’ve been lightning in a bottle in many ways, I honestly think RoboCop 2 is a more than worthy follow-up as it does a decent job of replicating the mixture of satire, action, and metaphysical commentary of the original. While it’s admittedly disappointing that RoboCop’s character is walked back a bit and essentially undergoes exactly the same character arc (beginning as a stoic law enforcer, regaining his sense of self, and ridding himself of his directives) rather than starting off in the same place we left him, I found the further exploration of RoboCop’s humanity to be fascinating and heart-breaking. Here we have a cyborg police officer with the memories and feelings of a dead man, whom everyone treats as Murphy reborn, but the fundamental question of whether RoboCop actually is Murphy or if Murphy is just a ghost in the machine is endlessly intriguing to me and RoboCop 2 explores that in interesting ways. I also enjoyed RoboCop’s increased screen time, which made the film a bit more action-packed than the original, and the traumatic call-back to Murphy’s violent death in RoboCop’s dismantling, but what really impresses me about the film is the slugfest between RoboCop and his would-be successor. An under-rated triumph in practical effects filmmaking, an impressive mixture of animatronics, stop-motion, and traditional filmmaking techniques makes this sequence a thrilling and exciting climax and I am continually impressed with the RoboCain effects, which really up the ante as far as cyborg-on-cyborg action goes. For those who have slept on RoboCop 2, I definitely recommend looking at it again, as the Old Man would say, with “a fresh perspective” as it’s a more than worthy successor to the first film and, at the very least, isn’t handicapped by trying to appeal to a younger demographic like the third film.

My Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Great Stuff

Are you a fan of RoboCop 2? Would you agree that it’s under-rated or did it retread too much of the same ground for you? What did you think to RoboCop’s character arc, his struggles with his humanity, and the influx of crazy commands he receives? Did you enjoy seeing him tangle with a more competent cyborg opponent and what did you think to the effects this time around? Which RoboCop movie is your favourite? How are you celebrating RoboCop Day today? Whatever you think about RoboCop 2, feel free to drop your thoughts below or leave a comment on my social media.

Talking Movies [Dinosaur Day]: The Lost World: Jurassic Park

Sixty-five million years ago, dinosaurs ruled the Earth. These massive beasts existed for about 180 million years and came in all shapes and sizes, before finally going extinct following a cataclysmic event that forever changed our world and rendered these creatures mere fossils to be discovered and studied. Fittingly, “Dinosaur Day” is actually celebrated twice a year, giving dino fans the world over ample opportunities to pay homage to this near-mythical titans.

This review has been supported by Chiara Cooper.
If you’d like to support the site, you can do so at my Ko-Fi page.

Talking Movies

Released: 23 May 1997
Director: Steven Spielberg
Universal Pictures
Budget: $73 million
Jeff Goldblum, Julianne Moore, Vanessa Lee Chester, Pete Postlethwaite, Vince Vaughn, and Arliss Howard

The Plot:
Four years after escaping from Isla Nubar and left disgraced after speaking out about the chaotic events on Jurassic Park, Doctor Ian Malcolm (Goldblum) is forced to head to the park’s “Site B”, Isla Sorna, to rescue his girlfriend, Doctor Sarah Harding (Moore). However, Malcolm’s worst fears about the genetically engineered dinosaurs soon come to pass when the immoral InGen seek to transport them from the island and to a new attraction in downtown San Diego!

The Background:
It was only fitting that Steven Spielberg helmed the big-budget adaptation of Michael Crichton’s bestselling Jurassic Park (ibid, 1990) since the book quickly caught Spielberg’s eye and, thanks to inspirations from classic movie monsters and special effects wizards Stan Winston, Phil Tippett, and Dennis Muren, created not only one of the biggest blockbuster releases of all time but also pioneered many of the CGI techniques we still see in Hollywood today. Bolstered by a huge merchandising campaign, Jurassic Park (Spielberg, 1993) grossed over $1.030 billion at the box office and was swamped with overwhelmingly positive reviews, so naturally there was a talk of a sequel. However, both Crichton and Spielberg were reluctant to work on a direct follow-up; Crichton due to having never written a sequel before and Spielberg due to a general fatigue from big-budget productions. After Crichton caved to fan demand and began writing a second book, however, Spielberg and writer David Koepp began pre-production on the sequel, which ditched Spielberg’s initial ideas and differed noticeably from the book of the same title to feature a more dramatic and visually entertaining finale that Spielberg originally envisioned for a potential third movie.

Jurassic Park‘s groundbreaking special effects contributed to its incredible box office success.

Although the film featured an entirely new cast of characters, Jeff Goldblum was elevated to the leading man (despite his character dying in the original book) and a slew of new dinosaurs were added to the script alongside fan favourites like the Velociraptor and Tyrannosaurus rex. While the film still utilised a number of practical effects and animatronics, far more emphasis was placed on digital creations from the likes of Industrial Light & Magic and Stan Winston to bring these extinct titans to life. Two of the film’s biggest effects sequences involve the T. rex, with one having the actors dangling precariously over a cliff edge in the pouring rain and the other showcasing the T. rex rampaging through downtown San Diego, both of which required the use of miniatures, animatronics, and CGI to make everything work seamlessly. Like its predecessor, The Lost World: Jurassic Park was accompanied by a massive marketing campaign and, while its $618.6 million box office was noticeably less than the first film, it still broke several box office records and became the second highest-grossing film of 1997. Reviews, however, were somewhat mixed; critics were impressed by the special effects but disappointed by the characterisations. While Jeff Goldblum’s performance and the larger role of the T. rex was praised, even Spielberg felt the film failed to match expectations and the film is generally regarded as being inferior to the original. While its reputation is far stronger than that of its third entry, it wouldn’t be until 2015 that the franchise once again properly wowed audiences.

The Review:
I mentioned in my review of Jurassic Park that I didn’t care for the book; I found it dry and dull and lacking in the visual spectacle offered by the big-screen adaptation, which took the concept and filtered out all the boring waffle and focused on overdelivering on the concept of dinosaurs being brought back to life through genetic engineering. If you’re hoping that I preferred The Lost World then you’re sadly mistaken; I found it to be just as bad, and actually worse in a lot of ways as it was essentially the exact same book except there were a few different characters and the they had a bigger, fancier truck. While a standout supporting character in the first film for his eccentric personality and scene-chewing performance, Dr. Ian Malcolm is now thrust into the spotlight. Despite his injuries from the first film, he’s physically fine but his reputation is in the gutter as he refused to adhere to the non-disclosure agreement he signed before visiting Jurassic Park and was branded a fraud as a result. Already a somewhat cynical individual, Malcolm is incensed to learn that Doctor John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) had a second dinosaur island all along, a far less restrictive breeding ground where the dinos would be incubated and bred before being transported to the main park. While Malcolm is no longer prone to expositing Chaos Theory, he’s still just as prone to judging Hammond’s poor decision-making skills and inability to understand or recognise that he’s still tampering with powers outside of his control. Vehemently refusing to visit the island and vowing to warn off the team that Hammond has convinced to document the thriving dinosaurs, Malcolm’s objections turn to fear and panic when he learns that his girlfriend, Sarah, is already there, pushing him to lead a rescue mission.

Despite his repeated warnings, Ian’s family insist on venturing onto Hammond’s second, more dangerous island.

A running thread throughout the film is Malcolm’s repeated attempts to warn those around him of how dangerous the dinosaurs and Hammond’s islands are and everyone simply ignoring him; if they’re not outright dismissing his claims as paranoia, they’re fixated on the wonderous nature of witnessing dinosaurs up close and personal, meaning he gets multiple chances to rub it in their faces when his warnings turn out to be true and to feel further vindication of his objections when the body count rises. Although he spent much of Jurassic Park doped up on morphine, he brings with him knowledge and experience of the dinosaur’s habits, nature, and aggressive tendencies that are repeatedly ignored, leading to people constantly provoking or antagonising the dinosaurs and incurring their territorial wrath as a result. Even Sarah, despite having heard all of Malcolm’s horror stories, completely waves off his concerns for her safety; an experienced wildlife photographer, she leapt at the chance to document the dinosaurs in the wild and seemed to be confident to the point of arrogance in her ability to stay out of sight and undetected. While it can be argued that Malcolm’s frantic search for her was to blame for disrupting this and almost causing her to be killed by a herd of Stegosaurus, Sarah’s common sense and intelligence is somewhat unpredictable throughout the film; she chastises Nick Van Owen (Vaughn) when he rescues a baby T. rex from being used as bait to satisfy the corporate desires of Hammond’s nephew, Peter Ludlow (Howard), she doesn’t hesitate to help fix its broken leg and doesn’t realise until it’s far too late that her shirt is covered in the baby’s blood and thus attracting the attention of the adult T. rex’s. while Malcolm would rather never set foot on a dinosaur island ever again and Ludlow’s team are determined to transport them to a zoo in San Diego, Sarah is one of the many voices calling for the dinosaurs to be left to thrive in their own unique ecosystem and views them with an awe and respect that turns to abject terror as the more ferocious dinos begin hounding them. Malcolm’s desperation to get her off the island and to safety is so great that it means missing out on time with one of his many daughters, Kelly Curtis (Chester), a pouty and ignorant teenage girl who simultaneous adores and resents her fair-weather father after a lifetime of unreliability. Partially out of spite and partially as a lark, she sneaks her way onto the island and is a constant burden thanks to her argumentative, oblivious impetuousness. She does, however, eventually prove to be somewhat useful when she (or, at least, her stunt double) uses her gymnastics skills to kick a ‘raptor out a window but this is the one time she does anything worthwhile and it’s probably the most unrealistic and overly elaborate aspect of the entire film.

The Lost World certainly isn’t short on characters, with Roland being one of the few standouts.

One thing The Lost World isn’t short on is characters; the movie is absolutely stuffed with actors as we follow Malcom’s rescue team and Ludlow’s capture team, following their different experiences on the island and seeing their storylines converge. Malcolm joins Eddie Carr (Richard Schiff) and Nick as they prepare to join Sarah on the island; Eddie is the field expert, though his satellite phone is more than a little temperamental and his “High-Hide” seems laughably impractical since it’d put its inhabitants in easy biting reach but actually proves quite effective during the T. rex attack. The team has this big, decked out truck full of all the equipment that require but it mainly exists to dangle precariously over a cliff while the T. rex makes a meal out of poor Eddie, and the movie expects us to believe that Vince Vaughn, of all people, is this bad-ass animal right activist sent by Hammond to disrupt Ludlow’s efforts to get the dinosaurs off the island. He succeeds only in disrupting their operating, endangering and indirectly costing the lives of many of Ludlow’s team through his actions, but we’re encouraged to root for him because he knows the value of the dinosaur’s lives and rights to freedom and Ludlow’s group is a little disreputable in their methods and motives. Ludlow himself is every slimy, corporate sleazebag you’ve ever known; while Hammond at least had some appreciation of the grandeur and beauty of his creations, Ludlow is concerned only with the bottom line and getting Jurassic Park – San Diego up and running to make a tidy profit. His troop is primarily made up of an assortment of unnamed victims and mercenaries, with Dieter Stark (Peter Stormare) being a rare standout for his cruelty to a Compsognathus which comes back to literally bite him when he’s separated from the others and viciously attacked by a pack of the tiny dinos. The sole standout of Ludlow’s team is veteran big-game hunter Roland Tembo (Postlethwaite); having hunted every animal on the face of the Earth and longing for the chance to hunt a male T. rex, Roland is largely dismissive of Ludlow’s dreams and the promise of financial compensation and a somewhat ambivalent character since he sees the jaunt as just another job. However, he shows an attentive side towards Sarah, a desire to shield Kelly from any death, and is so devastated by the death of his best friend, Ajay Sidhu (Harvey Jason), that he abandons his lifestyle completely after bagging his prize, finding no joy in his victory and having grown weary of being surrounded by death.

Dinosaurs old and new thrive, hunt, and breed in this makeshift ecosystem.

Once again, though, it’s the dinosaurs who are the real stars of the show and what we all came to see. The film starts somewhat similarly to the last one with a dinosaur attack but, this time, it’s the Compies who get the opening kill in a sequence actually lifted from the first book and which establishes right away that the dinosaurs are not afraid of man and can attack without provocation. There are a number of new dinosaurs in the film, including a fiercely protective Stegosaurus herd and a stampede of rampaging Pachycephalosaurus, whose powerful headbutt is played for laughs as Roland desperately tries to remember the names of the dinosaurs while capturing them. Many of the smaller and less aggressive dinosaurs are quickly rounded up by Roland and his team and showcased by Ludlow to InGen’s investors, but Nick sets them all three and causes them to run wild through the enemy camp, and decides the best course of action when finding the injured, captured baby T. rex is to bring it to their trailer for medical attention. Although Sarah has to guess the dosage of pain medication and Malcolm is concerned that the baby’s cries will attract its parents, the baby T. rex is patched up and returned to its parents, but the adult T. rex’s are driven to attack the trailer, driving it over the edge, and continue to hound the human characters as they desperately try to escape the island. Along the way, they have to pass through a large expanse of tall grass teeming with Velociraptors, which have a surprisingly subdued role in this film; in the first one, they were very much the primary antagonistic dinosaur but, while they are responsible for a pretty high body count here and deliver one of the film’s more terrifying sequences as they pounce on the characters as they race across the grass, they’re used sparingly this time around. The T. rex crops back up a couple more times, drawn to the scent of its offspring, leading to a harrowing sequence where it tramples people to death underfoot and gulps down InGen’s dinosaur expert and walking dino exposition machine Doctor Robert Burke (Thomas F. Duffy) after he’s spooked by a snake, of all things. In the end, Roland is successfully able to capture alive T.rex but it…somehow…manages to kill off an entire ship’s crew and then return to the cargo hold to make its dramatic appearance once the ship reaches San Diego so it can go on a rampage through the city.

The Nitty-Gritty:
It’s a shame that The Lost World never followed up on the lingering plot thread of the cannister of dinosaurs samples stolen and dropped in the first film; this could’ve been a natural jumping off point for Hammond’s rivals to be behind the new island and thus take Ludlow’s place as the main antagonists, which would’ve have changed the film all that much but would’ve felt a little more natural. The plot point of Hammond’s nephew trying to usurp and exceed his aspirations is somewhat interesting, as it shows there’s division within InGen, but I find it difficult to believe that Hammond is so wealthy that he can buy not one, but two islands, kit them out with all the facilities and equipment they need, and also just abandon a San Diego zoo project beforehand. And even if he could do all that, the losses and financial backlash caused from abandoning these projects, losing all of Jurassic Park’s dinosaurs to the lysine contingency, and presumably compensating or covering up the deaths from the last film would’ve surely bankrupted or heavily crippled InGen. Of course, this doesn’t happen and we get to visit Site B, which is where the dinosaurs were properly bred before being transported to Jurassic Park; the island is a curiosity to  the likes of Hammond and Sarah as, despite all the odds, the dinosaurs have been able to adapt and thrive there, changing sex to breed and overcoming their lysine deficiency and finding a way to survive without the interference of their human breeders, but for Malcolm it’s just another example of Hammond’s arrogance and a place no one should ever willingly visit due to the inherent danger posed by nature itself.

On paper, this had the potential to be a bigger, better film but it’s bogged down by pacing issues.

On paper, The Lost World has everything it needs to be bigger and better than the first film; more cannon fodder to add to the body count, more dinosaurs, and more action should’ve meant that it was even more of a visual spectacle and, in many ways, it is. The dinosaurs still look fantastic and, thanks to many of the bigger action sequence staking place at night and/or in the rain, they’re just as believable as ever and even more formidable. We get not one, but two T. rex’s, there are more instances of herds of dinosaurs grazing, living, or running in the wild, and the final shot even shows all kinds of different species living side by side in their makeshift ecosystem. However, the film suffers from incredibly dull pacing; it’s only a few minutes longer than the last film but it drags so much and so often that even the big dinosaur sequences can’t save it and I find myself tuning out and growing bored waiting for something to happen and to care about these characters. The story is just far too bloated; there’s too many throwaway mercenaries on Ludlow’s team, too few interesting and engaging characters in general, and even the amazing Jeff Goldblum can’t carry this to an enjoyable experience. In fact, he’s actually something of a detriment here; rather than playing an eccentric character, he’s just full-on quirky Goldblum and it’s actually quite distracting. Neither the always-dreadful Vince Vaughn or the incredibly miscast and aggravating Vanessa Lee Chester make for compelling performances and, if it wasn’t for Pete Postlethwaite, there wouldn’t be anyone interesting at all in the cast.

The film’s climax is certainly striking, but feels tacked on and should’ve had far more focus.

It’s a shame as the dinosaur sequences can be very entertaining; The Lost World is much more of a horror/monster film than its more subdued predecessor, even though numerous attempts are made to emphasise that the dinosaurs are just acting out of instinct and to protect their young and territory. The T. rex’s rip poor Eddie to shreds, squash nameless goons, and tear limbs off; one even eats a dog during the finale, which is always a step too far, and yet Nick goes out of his way to take Roland’s bullets away from him! The Compie attack, while somewhat comical, end sup being pretty terrifying as Stark is eaten alive just out of frame and the ‘raptor attack in the grass is an equally tense and distressing sequence sadly undermined by Kelly’s ridiculous athletics. The finale, which sees a T. rex go on a rampage in downtown San Diego, feels unnaturally tacked on (mainly because it was…) and I’m torn between wishing we’d seen more stuff like that to differentiate the sequel from the original or omitting it entirely. It does result in some of the best looking shots of the film; the juxtaposition of this massive, prehistoric beast barrelling down the street, crushing cars, and chomping on terrifying pedestrians is quite striking, but it’s very rushed and by the time it happens you’re just wanting begging for the movie to be over. In the end, Malcolm and Sarah manage to retrieve the baby T. rex and use it to lure its Mama or Papa (it’s not really made clear which it is) back to the boat, where Ludlow is left in the cargo hold as a tasty snack for their journey back to the island. It’s not made clear who, if anyone, is piloting the boat back but the incident becomes public knowledge, bringing a mainstream awareness of the island and the existence of dinosaurs, but the movie ends with Hammond imploring mankind to take a step back and let life find a way, which is presented as though he’s finally learned a lesson but could just as easily be an attempt to once again avoid any legal repercussions for his research.

The Summary:
When I was a kid, The Lost World: Jurassic Park was my favourite of the Jurassic Park films; the first one had been such a spectacle and made such a huge impression that anticipation was high for the sequel and I think I associated the success and appeal of the first movie to mean the sequel had to be just as good, if not better. I was (and still am) a massive Jeff Goldblum fan as well, so that just added to the appeal of the sequel since he took a lead role, but it can’t be denied that The Lost World is inferior in almost every aspect. Even the dinosaurs don’t always look as good; the CGI, while still impressive, is far more noticeable in a lot of shots, even though the animatronics and the likes of the T. rex look fantastic as ever. Unfortunately, the film is overstuffed with uninteresting, forgettable characters, bland and uninspiring performances, and is such a slog to get through that I find myself growing increasingly bored every time I watch it. The spectacle and allure is just missing, or dulled, despite how hard the film tries to recapture the magic of the first movie; it’s much more like a generic monster film in a lot of ways and borrows a little too much from the last film to really stand out. The areas where it is a bit more unique are sadly underdeveloped; the idea of a rival company building their own dinosaur island or theme park could’ve been interesting, as could dinosaurs running amok in the city, but it’s all just kind of crammed in here with very little rhyme or reason and not sense of urgency. It’s a shame, really, as there was such potential in a Jurassic Park sequel, but there’s just very little substance to The Lost World; it’s still technically very impressive at times and it has moments where its bigger and more impressive than the last film, but it falls flat overall and ends up being this plodding, lifeless affair filled with inane characters, bone-headed decisions, and lacklustre action that feels too much like a desperate, corporate attempt to make lightning strike twice rather than a genuine attempt to match the spectacle and wonder of its predecessor.

My Rating:

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Could Be Better

What did you think to The Lost World: Jurassic Park? Do you think I’m being too harsh on it and that it’s actually just as good, if not better, than the first film? Are you a fan of the book and, if so, did you still enjoy the film or was there too much changed in the adaptation process? Were you happy to see Ian Malcolm return and which of the new characters was your favourite? What’s your favourite dinosaur, either in this film or in general? Were you a fan of the finale or do you agree that the film suffered from pacing issues? Which of Jurassic Park’s sequels is your favourite or do you consider the first one to be the best? How are you celebrating Dinosaur Day this year? Whatever your thoughts on The Lost World: Jurassic Park, and dinosaurs in general, sign up to leave them below or drop a comment on my social media.

Talking Movies [HulkaMAYnia]: The Death of the Incredible Hulk

Since his explosive debut in May 1962, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s gamma-irradiated Jade Giant has been one of their most recognisable and successful characters thanks, in large part, to the Incredible Hulk television show (1977 to 1982) catapulting the Hulk into a mainstream, pop culture icon. The Hulk has been no slouch in the comics either, being a founding member of the Avengers and undergoing numerous changes that have made him one of their most versatile and enduring characters, so what better way to celebrate all things Big Green than by dedicating every Sunday in May to the Green Goliath?

Released: 18 February 1990
Director: Bill Bixby
New World International
Bill Bixby, Lou Ferrigno, Elizabeth Gracen, Andreas Katsulas, and Philip Sterling

The Plot:
Desperate to rid himself of his destructive alter-ego, the Hulk (Ferrigno), Doctor David Banner (Bixby) poses as a janitor to gain access to a research facility he believes may be the key to finding a cure. However, when the kindly scientists assisting him are kidnapped, he must join forces with an unlikely ally and once again rely on his monstrous persona to rescue them.  

The Background:
The brainchild of Marvel Comics legends Stan Lee and Jack Kirby after learning of a hysterical mother exhibiting superhuman strength, the Hulk initially struggled to find an audience with Marvel readers but shot to fame thanks to his popular television show, The Incredible Hulk (1977 to 1982). The show ran for eighty episodes and firmly established the Green Goliath in the cultural consciousness thanks to coining the unforgettable “Don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry” line and standout performances by star Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno, who would forever be associated with the character. About six years after the series finale, the first of three made-for-television movies was produced; apparently intended as a backdoor pilot for Thor (Eric Kramer), The Incredible Hulk Returns (Corea, 1988) was successful enough to warrant a follow-up that was also hoped to be a pilot for a potential Daredevil spin-off. The Trial of the Incredible Hulk (Bixby, 1989) was met with mixed reviews, but a third film followed regardless; initially believed to have featured the debut of Jennifer Walters/She-Hulk, The Death of the Incredible Hulk ultimately spelt the end for the long-running series following Bixby’s untimely death and plans for a fourth film that would’ve merged Banner’s intelligence with the Hulk’s strength were shelved.

The Review:
Growing up as a kid in the nineties, it was kind of tough for comic book fans such as myself; DC Comics characters received the most representation in live-action media at the time, so we mostly had to console ourselves with the awesome Marvel cartoons that aired during this period. If we wanted to see live-action interpretations of Marvel’s colourful heroes, we had no choice but to turn to the made-for-television efforts of the seventies and eighties but, honestly, I remember being awestruck seeing the likes of Peter Parker/Spider-Man, Steve Rogers/Captain America, and the Incredible Hulk brought to life in live action. Expectations were much lower then, and I was just a naïve youth who had no idea that these characters would come to dominate cinema screens so successfully; plus, The Incredible Hulk wasn’t airing on any channel I could watch at the time, so having access to these TV movies was seen as blessing. I say all this to provide a little historical context for the nostalgia I feel towards Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno’s efforts on The Incredible Hulk; while I actually have come to find many of the episodes I have watched to be quite laborious, I have a great appreciation for the TV movies giving me the briefest glimpse of the potential these characters had in live-action.

Banner finds himself with a surrogate family who enthusiastically try to help rid him of his curse.

The movie opens to find Banner now posing as “David Bellamy” and disguising his genius behind the persona of a well-meaning, but a mentally-challenged, janitor in order to secretly access to Doctor Ronald Pratt’s (Sterling) research on human healing. This masquerade allows Banner to win the hearts and sympathies of his co-workers, the security guards, and Dr. Pratt, who all see him as a harmless, if forgetful and easily confused, middle-aged man. Interestingly, Banner maintains this masquerade outside of work, and this, as much as the pocketful of cash, makes him an easy target for a group of street punks. Naturally, this triggers a transformation into the Hulk, which only accelerates his search for a cure; it turns out that Banner has been watching the routines of the guards, meaning he’s able to trick them with a tape recorder into thinking he’s left for the night, and has access to Dr. Pratt’s lab thanks to knowing his keycode. Luckily for Banner, the facility doesn’t have any security cameras, so he’s free to work throughout the night using Dr. Pratt’s resources, making corrections to his formulas in the hopes of finally discovering a cure to his monstrous affliction. Banner’s alterations to Dr. Pratt’s formulas do not go unnoticed, however; he’s stumped to find his notes changed for the better and incredulous when his wife, Amy (Barbara Tarbuck) suggests that his invisible partner is a ghost. Determined to find out who has been able to slip past the facility’s “high security”, Dr. Pratt hides out in his lab late one night and is shocked to find David is his mysterious helper; however, he’s even more shocked when David reveals his true identity, and is eager to hear about Banner’s research and what’s driven him to such desperate measures. Sympathetic to Banner’s plight, and believing that he can cure him while also potentially benefiting others by studying the Hulk’s incredible healing abilities, Dr. Pratt convinces Banner to work with him and, over the course of a heart-warming montage, Banner is taken in by the Pratt’s and becomes something of a surrogate son to them. After so many years alone and on the run, Banner is clearly grateful to have friends around him for the first time in forever; he forms a fast friendship with Dr. Pratt and Amy, who welcome him into their home and work with him to construct a machine capable of containing the Hulk and turning his strength against him. Dr. Pratt is infuriated when his superiors threaten to shut his experiments down unless he turns his research towards military applications, and they’re thus given one chance to rid Banner of the Hulk forever, and Banner is fully accepting that the procedure could cost him his life.

Jasmine, mistress of disguise, faces stern reprisals when she fails to steal Dr. Pratt’s research.

Unfortunately, Dr. Pratt’s Gamma research attracts the attention of Kasha (Katsulas),a powerful underworld figurehead who wishes to obtain the doctor’s secrets and sell them to the highest bidder. To fulfil this objective, he blackmails Eastern European spy Jasmine (Gracen) into taking on the assignment; having “served” Kasha since she was fourteen, Jasmine believes that she has completed her duty to her employers, who seem to be a kind of vaguely defined religious organisation. Somewhat akin to Natasha Romanoff/The Black Widow, Jasmine is a much-accomplished spy whose favoured tactic is to adopt a series of disguises and false identities to get close to her targets, usually luring them in with her sexuality, and take information from under the noses. Although she has no wish to further serve Kasha, she is easily overpowered by his sadistic henchman, Zed (Joh Novak), and compelled to obey when Kasha reveals that their sect’s mysterious new leader, Ashenko, threatens the life of Jasmine’s beloved sister, Bella (Anna Katarina). Jasmine throws on her best wig and fake accent to seduce one of the facility’s security guards and take his fingerprints, then disappears amidst the crowd with a simple costume change in order to pose as Betty (Chilton Crane), another of the lab’s security guards. Unfortunately for Banner, Jasmine chooses to carry out her mission at the exact moment that he’s strapped in to Dr. Pratt’s machinery, forcing Dr. Pratt to shut down the experiment and costing Banner his last, best chance at a cure. Naturally, this causes Banner to Hulk-out and his monstrous alter ego to be blamed for the resulting destruction and Dr. Pratt’s injury, despite the fact that he carried the comatose scientist to safety, and Jasmine is reprimanded for having failed in securing the data Ashenko required.

Banner and Jasmine’s romance is cut short when he’s compelled to save his loved ones.

Amy is as devastated by Dr. Pratt’s condition, which sees him lost to the slumber of a deep coma, as she is concerned for Banner’s safety; she covers for him when federal agents finger him as one of three terrorist infiltrators (with Jasmine and the Hulk being the other two) and creates a distraction so he can slip away. However, with Dr. Pratt incapacitated, Jasmine’s only lead is also Banner, which leads to him being pursued by Kasha’s minions; having seen her efforts to try and pull Dr. Pratt to safety in the lab, and unable to simply allow Kasha’s men to kill her in cold blood, Banner lashes out when she’s ordered to be killed and she’s left both distraught and shocked when her friend and minder, Pauley (Mina E. Mina), tells her with his dying breath that Ashenko is Bella and has taken control of their cause. Banner aids Jasmine after she she’s injured by a gunshot; despite her horror at Banner’s affliction, Jasmine helps Banner to get to Dr. Pratt in gratitude for his assistance and, thanks to his knowledge of Dr. Pratt’s work and life, Banner’s able to help wake him from his coma with an emotional plea. After Banner Hulks-out and Jasmine sees the tortured horror of the Green Goliath, the two enter into an unexpected romance in her secluded cabin; both are being hunted, both have spent years alone and being used or forced into being a weapon, and both are eager to escape from the world. However, their hopes of starting a new life together are dashed when Jasmine’s past comes back to haunt her; Bella has Dr. Pratt and Amy apprehended in the hopes of discovering his formula, and Banner is compelled to intervene, a decision that not only causes great dismay to Jasmine, who simply wants them to run away together and be free, but also ultimately spells the end of Banner’s long nightmare.

The Nitty-Gritty:
It’s a bit of a shame that The Death of the Incredible Hulk is lumbered with this uninterested spy-story subplot; maybe if Jasmine had been the Black Widow, that might have made it a bit more compelling (and also would have tied into the TV movies guest starring other Marvel heroes), but Jasmine’s not an especially interesting character and it’s difficult to really care to much about the cause she once served. The mid-movie reveal that Bella is the mastermind behind this malicious organisation doesn’t really carry too much weight for me as Banner was constantly running afoul of the criminal underworld and they took many different names and forms. It also doesn’t help that Bella, despite her steely demeanour and cold-hearted vindictiveness, isn’t as charismatic as Kasha or alluring as Zed, so she doesn’t make for a very interesting villain since all we really know about her is that she wants Dr. Pratt’s formula and will do anything to get it, including ordering her sister’s death.

The Hulk remains a highlight, and performs a number of heroic feats despite his reputation.

As ever, it’s the Hulk himself who proves to be the main highlight of the film for me; Lou Ferrigno absolutely dominates the screen with his stature, physicality, and animal fury and there’s some fun scenes of him tossing around street punks, crashing through walls, bending steel, and holding back two diggers to help sell the Hulk’s rage and strength. More than ever, the Hulk is treated as a devastating affliction that Banner is desperate to be rid of; obviously, by this point, Banner has lived with the Hulk or many years, and been on the run so long and lost so much that he’s literally at the end of his tether and just wants to be rid of the beast. In recounting his arrogance and impatience to harness humanity’s capacity for superhuman strength, Banner muses that the Hulk is a mutation, something inhuman, and perhaps a missing link in mankind’s evolutionary process, which firmly paints the beast as a disease that could one day cause serious harm to others. Thanks to Dr. Pratt’s experimentations, Banner is able to see the Hulk for the very first time and is utterly horrified by the beast’s rage and monstrous appearance, and yet there is still the capacity for good within the Green Goliath; not only is the creature generally depicted as either reacting ins elf-defence or coming to the aid of others (such as Jasmine), but it’s superhuman ability to heal wounds potentially spells a medical breakthrough for Dr. Pratt’s research. Indeed, both Banner and Dr. Pratt are not just in awe but almost terrified at the Hulk’s healing ability, which has left Banner without a physical scar but also haunted by his uncontrollable alter ego, which is functionally immortal. Banner theorises that catastrophic damage to the creature could kill it, but he’s more focused on ridding himself of the beast so that he can be fully human again, which leads to a series of tests being conducting by the two scientists to better understand the nature of the Hulk. Thanks to Dr. Pratt’s resources, the beast is effectively caged behind an energy field, and the movie goes a little further than its predecessors in examining the complex relationship between Banner and the Hulk since he sees it as a threat to others that has stolen his life, Dr. Pratt sees it as a once in a lifetime chance to potentially cure all diseases, and Amy believes that the creature is more human than either of them will admit.

Ultimately, the fall is too devastating for even the Hulk and Banner finally finds his freedom.

At first glance, it seems as though the movie’s title is referring to the fact that Banner will finally be rid of his monstrous alter ego, however it quickly becomes apparent that Dr. Pratt’s research is yet another dead end for the ill-fated Banner thanks to the machinations of Kasha and Bella. When Dr. Pratt and Amy are kidnapped, Banner’s last chance to escape the world with his newfound love is dashed as he cannot simply walk away from his surrogate family, and Jasmine begrudgingly leads him to an airfield, where Bella uses every means at her disposal to try and forcibly extract the information she requires from Dr. Pratt. Although Jasmine is unable to reach her sister, who has fully bought in to the brainwashing of her righteous cause, the two lead the Feds to the airfield, providing them with the backup and firepower they need to stave off Bella’s men; in the fracas, Bella guns down Kasha, the Pratts are rescued, but Bella and Zedd manage to escape in a small aircraft. The horror of seeing the two trying to run down jasmine is enough to trigger one last Hulk-out in Banner, who sprints across the landing strip and confronts the two aboard the plane. Naturally, Bella tries to fire on the Hulk but succeeds only in destroying the craft in mid-air, causing the Hulk to dramatically and tragically plummet to the cold concrete below. Having suffered a catastrophic fall, the Hulk is barely clinging to life and even his incredibly healing powers aren’t enough to save Banner this time; as Dr. Pratt and Amy look on, heartbroken, Jasmine begs Banner to stay with her and he bids her an emotional farewell, seemingly grateful to finally be free of his nightmare in death. Sadly, as poignant as this moment is, it is somewhat undermined by the ridiculousness of the Hulk’s plummet; filmed in slow motion and accompanied by a melancholy song, it’s hard not to focus on Ferrigno’s eye-popping face expressions. Thankfully, Banner’s final words (“Jasmine…I am free…”) and Joe Harnell’’s “Lonely Man” theme kick in just in time to allow Banner’s death to have the required emotional impact (there’s a definite sense of relief that he’s finally found the freedom he’s long searched for), but I can’t help but feel a slower, more tragic rendition of “The Lonely Man” would have been soundtrack enough for the character’s unexpected swansong.

The Summary:
Well, this was a sadly anticlimactic, disappointing, and forgettable end for the Jade Giant. It’s a shame that so many compromise shave to be made to appreciate The Death of the Incredible Hulk; obviously, there was no budget or the technological ability to have the Green Goliath go out in a blaze of glory like we’d see in the comics, making for an inconspicuous death that’s really selling the Hulk short. Long-term fans of the TV show, however, or those with little knowledge of the character outside of the show, would potentially have more to gain from this final outing. The story being told is decent enough; Banner has clearly reached a point that’s beyond desperation where he’s willing to accept the freedom offered by death if it means being rid of his curse. The exploration into the Banner/Hulk dynamic was interesting, and one not really explored in the same way in the previous two films, but isn’t capitalised on as well as it could have been. I think I would have preferred to see a less literal death and maybe more of an understanding between the two where Banner accepted that the Hulk was part of him and thereby, maybe, overcame his rage and hinted towards a merger of the two characters. Instead, that’s kind of swept aside in favour of reinforcing what we already know about the Hulk; he’s once again a rage-filled monster who’s ruined Banner’s life but it’s pretty clear that he just wants to be left alone, only lashes out at those who seek to harm him (or were harming Banner), and goes out of his way to protect others. Ultimately, the Hulk chooses to pursue those who’ve hurt his friends and loved ones and it costs him his life, but I think it might’ve been equally interesting if the Hulk had sacrificed himself to allow Banner to survive the fall, thereby proving Amy’s theory that he’s more human than anyone would care to admit. Sadly, we never got to see Bixby reprise his iconic role or to see the surely bat-shit crazy way that the producers would have undone this ending, which remains a relatively tragic finale for the character that really belongs in a far better movie.

My Rating:

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Could Be Better

Have you ever seen The Death of the Incredible Hulk? What did you think to the relationship between Banner and the Pratts? Were you hoping to see Banner finally cured of his affliction? Did you enjoy the spy subplot and what did you think to Jasmine? Did you believe her romance with Banner? What was your reaction when the Hulk plummeted to his death? What’s your favourite Hulk story, character, or piece of media? How are you celebrating the Hulk’s debut this month? Whatever your thoughts on the Hulk, feel free to leave them below after signing up or drop a comment on my social media.

Talking Movies: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3

Talking Movies

Released: 5 May 2023
Director: James Gunn
Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Budget: $250 million
Stars: Chris Pratt, Bradley Cooper/Sean Gunn, Chukwudi Iwuji, Zoe Saldaña, Karen Gillan, Vin Diesel, Dave Bautista, and Will Poulter

The Plot:
Still reeling from the death of Gamora (Saldaña) and the subsequent return of a past version of her, the Guardians of the Galaxy are attacked by superpowered bounty hunter Adam Warlock (Poulter). With Rocket (Cooper/Gunn) critically injured, Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Pratt) leads the Guardians in discovering their friend’s horrifying origins, which brings them into direct conflict with the deranged High Evolutionary (Iwuji).

The Background:
Although they’re one of Marvel’s more obscure properties and have undergone numerous changes over the years, the Guardians of the Galaxy turned out to be a massive financial success when they made their live-action debut in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) with Guardians of the Galaxy (Gunn, 2014). To capitalise on this, and to promote the team as being as integral to the MCU as the Avengers, the cast and crew returned for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (ibid, 2017), which proved to be an even bigger financial success than the first film despite being met with mixed reviews. Despite having had plans for a trilogy right from the start, director James Gunn seemed to flip-flop on whether he’d return for a third movie; however, after completing a script and entering pre-production, his involvement was placed in serious jeopardy when he was fired after a series of offensive tweets made the headlines. Gunn publicly apologised for the tweets and fans and cast members rushed to his defense, and he was eventually brought back to helm the project later that year. However, much had changed in those few months; stars Dave Bautista and Zoe Saldaña expressed a desire to retire from their roles and Gunn was later named as the creative force behind a reboot of the rival DC Comics cinematic universe, not to mention Gunn’s displeasure at Gamora’s unexpected death in Avengers: Infinity War (Russo and Russo, 2018). Still, he worked around these issues and was even allowed to film a short, holiday-themed passion project surrounding these characters and craft an emotional finale for the franchise. While visual effects naturally played a large part in the third film, Gunn also strived to include more practical effects to bring the surreal locations and creatures to life; though he was largely kept in the dark about the character until shooting began, Will Poulter was cast as Adam Warlock to kick-start further explorations of the character in later MCU films, while Chukwudi Iwuji was cast as the High Evolutionary, beating out fellow cosmic villain Annihulus to create the MCU’s cruelest villain to date. As of this writing, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 has made nearly $344 million at the box office and been met with positive reviews; critics lauded the film as the best MCU movie in recent memory for its emotional and visually imaginative presentation, though it was also criticised for its depiction of animal cruelty and for its surprisingly brutal tone.

The Review:
As much as I enjoyed Guardians of the Galaxy (and I really did; it’s surprising how well it works as this bizarre, sci-fi/action romp, especially as it introduces a whole team of characters and explores a side of the MCU that’s so divorced from some of its more grounded action), it took me a few views to appreciate Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. I was expecting bigger and better, only to find it was a more character-driven film that explored the dysfunctional family dynamic of the titular team; once I realised this, subsequent viewings allowed me to appreciate it more, especially the growth of the complex love/hate relationship between Gamora and her semi-psychotic, cyborg sister, Nebula (Gillan). Fate saw the Guardians of the Galaxy play a pivotal role in Avengers: Infinity War, one that actually ended up dooming half the life in all the universe for five years or so, but Avengers: Endgame (Russo and Russo, 2018) ended with the suggestion that the team would find new life searching the galaxy for a time-displaced Gamora alongside Thor Odinson (Chris Hemsworth). Unfortunately, this “Asgardians of the Galaxy” team didn’t really come to pass beyond a brief inclusion in Thor: Love & Thunder (Waititi, 2022); I do feel like there’s a bigger story to tell there with those characters, however, and hope that we get some kind of animated short or interlude that explored the adventures they got up to between films. Instead, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 picks up not long after the end of their Christmas special; the team operates out of Knowhere, the severed head of a Celestial that houses an entire community under their protection, and they’re still trying to wrap their heads around the fact that the Gamora they knew is dead, yet another version of her is still out there in the galaxy. This is particularly difficult for Quill, who has turned to alcohol and depression not just because he’s lost the love of his life, but because of a deep-rooted feeling of abandonment and pain as everyone he’s ever known and cared about has died. His surrogate family, the Guardians of the Galaxy, are on hand to care for him and support him, but they’re individually too maladjusted to properly communicate their feelings too him.

When Rocket’s life is endangered, Quill and the others embark on a quest that sees Quill confronting his fears.

Drax the Destroyer (Bautista) is far too literally a thick-headed, living tree Groot (Diesel) is far too simplistic, and abrasive Rocket much too aggressive. Nebula, however, offers a surprising amount of support, caring for him in a way we’ve never seen before since she’s now come to regard the Guardians as her family and truly cares about them, even if her traumatic past makes it difficult for her to express emotions beyond violence. Quill takes some solace in his empathetic half-sister Mantis (Pom Klementieff), but her naïve optimism and observation that Quill has family waiting for him on Earth also do little to ease his pain. Luckily for Quill, the team is attacked by Adam Warlock, the child-like superhuman champion of the golden-skinned Sovereign; I say “luckily” as this brings the team together to fend off Warlock’s attack and defend Knowhere, a task they struggle to accomplish given his power, resulting in Rocket being critically injured. Faced with the stark reality that his self-professed best friend may die, an enraged Quill refuses to accept this and resolves to seek out Orgocorp, a highly advanced scientific research centre, in order to deactivate the kill switch attached to Rocket’s heart and keeping them from helping him. This sees them crossing paths with Gamora since Nebula arranges for Gamora and her Ravager allies to help the team infiltrate Orgocorp. This again forces Quill to be faced with the harsh truth that this Gamora isn’t the one he knew and loved; even Drax points out that she’s “dead to them” since this Gamora never hooked up with the team and has none of the memories or attachments to them. While this is a pretty simple prospect, even for the otherwise simple-minded Star-Lord, the film spends a lot of time reinforcing that he and the others don’t really understand what’s going on with Gamora; often, they talk about how she “doesn’t remember” them and Quill futilely tries to jog memories that just aren’t there and takes every opportunity to tell anyone within earshot about their complicated history, needlessly hammering home that this isn’t the same Gamora from the previous Guardians films. I understand it in a way; a big part of the film is Quill having to come to terms with death and loss, but it starts to get a little grating when he constantly harps on about it to everyone in earshot. This Gamora is much more cold-hearted and harsh compared to her counterpart; she has more in common with how Nebula used to be and there’s an interesting reframing of their narrative here as Nebula states that Gamora was “always like this” and Gamora is shown to have this dark, violent side to her that casts as more of an anti-hero. She begrudgingly helps the Guardians at Orgocorp but despairs of their ineptitude, constant bickering, and Quill’s insistence that he knows anything about her. She softens towards them over the course of the film after seeing how hard they fight to help Rocket and protect others, but nevertheless remains her own distinct character, separate from them, and it’s a testament to the film that it doesn’t just repeat the same will they/won’t they character between her and Quill from the first film.

Though aggravated by her teammates, Nebula and the Guardians strive to help even their misguided enemies.

As for the rest of the team, Drax is mostly relegated to being the comic relief and mindless muscle of the group; his stoic demeanour allows him to process Gamora’s loss in a more productive way than Quill, but it’s clear that he misses her in his own way, too. He continues to have an attachment to Mantis and the film does explore how, despite her objections to the contrary, she uses her empathic abilities to manipulate him in ways that he’s not aware of. For example, she defends Drax’s infantile nature to Nebula, who lashes out at both of them for their incompetence, and he seems genuinely upset to learn that Mantis thinks he’s stupid (even though she loves him regardless) so she simply has him forget hearing that. despite Nebula’s anger at the two for endangering the group on countless occasions, Mantis and Drax prove their quality in the final act of the film where Mantis is able to tame the ravenous Abilisks and Drax is able to calm and communicate to the children held in the High Evolutionary’s ship since he not only unexpectedly speaks their language but also is a natural father. This theme of underestimating those around you is a prominent one in the film; even Kraglin (Sean Gunn) embodies this since he continues to struggle with mastering Yondu Udonta’s (Michael Rooker) arrow and proves invaluable in aiding the rescue effort at the end of the film, but it’s most prominently seen in Adam Warlock’s character arc. Having been born prematurely, Warlock is little more than a child in a man’s body; he’s been created as a perfect being, a living weapon to enact the will of his mother, the Sovereign High Priestess Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki). While my knowledge of Warlock is somewhat limited, I was surprised to see him characterised as a childlike fool, but he undergoes a surprising journey in the film; he feels regret after incinerating space creature Blurp’s owner after a misunderstanding and adopts the cute little critter, then briefly abandons his crusade against the Guardians in an unsuccessful attempt to save his mother when the High Evolutionary callously obliterates her along with his “Counter-Earth”, and becomes an unexpected ally of the team by the film’s conclusion since his former enemies make efforts to save his life rather than leaving him to perish.

For his callous and cruel animal experiments, the High Evolutionary is easily the MCU’s most detestable villain.

For me, the High Evolutionary ends up being easily the most reprehensible villain in all of the MCU so far. While he still doesn’t get a huge amount of screen time or backstory and the exact nature of his gravity-based powers is a little vague, this is a villain who has absolutely no redeeming qualities; we’re given no reason to sympathise with him or to understand his perception of the galaxy, and this is perfectly acceptable given his heinous actions! The High Evolutionary is a maniacal despot obsessed with “perfection”; he sees the flaws in life and God’s plan and uses his superior intellect and scientific acumen to step in to correct these flaws. His ultimate goal isn’t conquest or destruction, it’s to create the “perfect” society, which has led to him being regarded as a God by many of his creations, like the Sovereign. However, while the Sovereign are basically the embodiment of beauty and perfection, the High Evolutionary is never satisfied and the majority of his experiments are geared towards creating anthropomorphic beings and semi-cybernetic monstrosities! These live out normal lives on an exact replica of Earth, yet while he was able to suppress their natural animalistic urges and craft a society that’s a mirror of ours, he wasn’t able to create a utopia, so he habitually exterminates his creations like a child bored of a toy. While this ritualistic genocide and the High Evolutionary’s unstable, erratic God complex are bad enough, what makes him so irredeemable and reprehensible compared to other MCU villains are his callous experiments on animals. Animal cruelty is at the forefront of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 as Rocket, near death, experiences a series of flashbacks to his time as one of High Evolutionary’s test subjects. A strangely curious raccoon, he was subjected to horrific procedures that grafted mechanical parts to his body and increased his intelligence and awareness, all under the pretence that he and his fellow prototype anthropomorphs would have a place in the “new world”. However, when Rocket’s intelligence exceeded the High Evolutionary’s for a split second, the madman ordered Rocket dissected and the execution of his friends, leading to the terrified and heartbroken creature to enact a daring escape that left him traumatised and the High Evolutionary gruesomely disfigured.

The Nitty-Gritty:
Like the last two Guardians of the Galaxy movies, music plays an important role in this film, both diegetically and non- diegetically; Quill is almost irrationally protective of the Zune gifted to him by his father-figure, Yondu, which Rocket borrows without asking to find solace in the songs contained within it. Almost all of the film’s action and fight scenes are accompanied by music tracks, as is James Gunn’s signature at the point, but they weren’t as memorable for me and seemed to be a little more random rather than sticking to one era or genre of music. However, the film is very much a culmination of the character arcs began in the first one; there’s always been a question hanging over Quill about why he never returned to Earth when he clearly has the means to do so, and it’s always come down to fear disguised as lust for adventure in space. Earth is where his mother died and he has no desire to return there, especially as his memory of that day is skewed to paint his grandfather, Jason (Gregg Henry), as having pushed him away, when the reality was they were all grieving their loss. Drax, whose life was upended when his family was killed, quickly found a new purpose with his surrogate family and struggles with the idea that the team parts ways by the finale, only to rediscover his true calling not as a destroyer, but a father. Even Mantis unexpectedly decides to forge her own path after years of just doing what she’s told, Nebula grows from this unyielding, murderous assassin into a caring (if blunt) matriarch whose priorities now extend to all of Knowhere, and the film’s events eventually lead Quill to realise that this Gamora is forging her own path with the Ravagers.

The film explores Rocket’s tragic and horrific backstory in gruesome detail.

However, while Rocket spends most of this film at death’s door on an operating table, this is Rocket’s film through and through. The team is united in going to any lengths, even infiltrating the notoriously heavily guarded headquarters of Orgocorp, challenging the might of the immensely powerful High Evolutionary, and killing anyone who gets in their way, to help their friend even if it costs them their own lives. We’re treated to some incredibly emotional flashbacks that show Rocket’s time as a simple test subject, one of many of the High Evolutionary’s efforts to increase the intelligence of animals and anthropomorphise them into the “perfect” society. Rocket shares his cage with three other sentiment animals, each one horrifically mutilated by cybernetic enhancements: otter Lylla (Linda Cardellini), who Rocket becomes particularly attached to, simple minded walrus Teefs (Asim Chaudhry), and hyperactive rabbit Floor (Mikaela Hoover). Despite their gruesome appearances and the traumatic experiments they’ve been subjected to, the four are generally in good spirits; they genuinely believe that the High Evolutionary is improving them and that they’ll have a place in his new world, and Rocket impresses of them all with his unprecedented ingenuity and aptitude for mechanics that allows the High Evolutionary to perfect his technology. In their dank, cramped cage, the four dream of having a home under the sky, of flying away together and being free, and it’s absolutely devastating when the High Evolutionary violently chastises Rocket for having the gall to outthink him…even though his goal is for his creations to have independent thoughts! Insulted and enraged, he cruelly rejects Rocket and his friends and orders them to be killed, forcing Rocket to affect a daring escape using a cobbled-together key card. Sadly, the High Evolutionary anticipated this and personally shoots Lylla in cold blood right before Rocket’s eyes, driving him into an animalistic rage that leaves the High Evolutionary’s face gruesomely mangled, his friends dead in the chaos, and Rocket a deeply traumatised and embittered abomination of science. It really is an abolsutely harrowing backstory, one that was hinted at in the first film but really paints the High Evolutionary as a despicable villain, an egotistical hypocrite who simply toys with animals for his own sense of gratification and it’s extremely satisfying to see the Guardians come together to beat the piss out of him in the finale.

The Guardians unite with allies old and new to put an end to the High Evolutionary’s heinous experiments.

Indeed, there are some stunning cosmic scenes in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3; some really fun practical and special effects help to bring an even more bizarre flavour to the MCU (though I did feel like the scene at Orgocorp dragged on a bit too long), especially when they visit Counter-Earth and encounter all these weird anthropomorphic creatures. At first, I thought that safeguarding this world against the High Evolutionary’s reprisals would be the focus of the finale and the driving force behind galvanising the team but, no…the High Evolutionary just destroys the planet on a whim, murdered its countless misshapen inhabitants, and prepares to populate a new world with his latest creations. However, despite having rejected Rocket in the past, he’s come to see that Rocket is the only one of his creations that showed true, independent ingenuity rather than following pre-programmed patterns, so he becomes obsessed with reacquiring the specimen, to the point where even his loyal followers turn against him and he’s forced to kill them without a second thought to get what he wants. To counter the High Evolutionary’s cybernetic army and immense ship, the Guardians call in Kraglin to bring Knowhere to them for a massive final showdown, once that sees all of the Guardians lay waste to an entire corridor of the High Evolutionary’s soldiers before attacking the main man himself. As mentioned, it was deeply satisfying to see him take a beating and be left for dead, literally unmasked and a quivering, deposed wreck on the floor, though it did somewhat diminish his threat since he was previously seen as nigh-untouchable. With the High Evolutionary’s ship going down in flames, Rocket begs his friends to help save not just the children but the innocent animals held captive in his cages, a campaign that appears to leave Quill dead in the frozen vacuum of space! Luckily for him, Warlock comes to his aid, but I feel this should’ve happened before Quill’s body froze solid and was disturbingly bloated as he’s clearly dead or would be left severely injured from exposure. Instead, he survives…in fact, everyone does, which I was really surprised by; there’s a moment where it seems like Nebula might die piloting the High Evolutionary’s ship, Drax is almost killed in the Orgocorp battle, Groot is left a severed head by Warlock, and obviously Rocket’s life hangs in the balance throughout the entire film but, surprisingly, they all survive by the film’s end. However, they’re not left unchanged; Quill finally returns to Earth, Drax and Nebula pledge themselves to safeguarding Knowhere, Mantis goes off on a journey of self-discovery, and Rocket, Groot, Kraglin, Warlock, and one of the children they rescue form a new Guardians of the Galaxy team after bidding a heartfelt farewell to each other to bring their story to a definitive (if open-ended) close.

The Summary:
There was definitely a sense of foreboding heading into Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3; knowing that many of the actors and even the director were openly stating that they were done with the MCU and seeing the way the trailers were purposely produced to suggest that one of more of the titular characters would meet their end in the film, I was extremely taken aback to find that they all survived to the end, and were better for it after their adventures together. As disturbing as it is to endure the horrendous treatment Rocket and his fellow animals suffer at the hands of the High Evolutionary, it gave the film an emotional weight that’s often missing from MCU movies and really presented the High Evolutionary as an absolutely despicable person with no redeeming qualities. He was a maniacal character, obsessed with perfection but ruled by a cruel, vindictive childishness that saw him callously disregard everything, even his own creations, if they don’t immediately meet his expectations. This was a fantastic counter for the dysfunctional Guardians to throw themselves up against and unite to oppose; they’re all flawed, both collectively and individually, but still strive to do the right thing and protect people, even their enemies or horrifying abominations of science and torture. As is always the case with these films, the core conceit revolved around the family dynamic of the team; they’re really struggling with the whole Gamora situation and willingly risk their lives to help Rocket, who’s tragic backstory perfectly juxtaposes with the present-day action. While I would’ve liked to see a bit more involvement from Adam warlock beyond yelling and being a strange, overpowered man-child, it’s clear that he’s being setup for bigger things going forward and I think there’s a definite sense that we’ll see these characters again in some way, shape, or form later down the line. Phase Four of the MCU was a little hit and miss but Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is a terrific return to form; funny, action-paced, and filled with emotion that’ll have even the most soulless detractor teary-eyed, this was a fantastic swansong for the team and tied up their stories in a very fulfilling and moving way.  

My Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Great Stuff

Did you enjoy Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3? Were you surprised that it included the debut of the MCU’s first f-bomb? What did you think to Adam Warlock’s portrayal, and would you have liked to see more of him? Did you enjoy the focus on Rocket’s backstory and were you moved by his traumatic origins? Were you surprised that the team made it out alive? What did you think to the new depiction of Gamora? Where do you see the team going from here? I’d love to know your opinion on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, so go ahead and leave your thoughts below or on my social media, and be sure to check out my other Guardians of the Galaxy content.

Talking Movies [Turtle Tuesday]: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III

The first issue of Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (TMNT) was published in May of 1984. Since then, the TMNT have gone on to achieve worldwide mainstream success thanks not only to their original comics run but also a number of influential cartoons, videogames, and wave-upon-wave of action figures. This year, I’m emphasising third entries and time travel shenanigans in the popular franchise every Tuesday in May!

Talking Movies

Released: 19 March 1993
Director: Stuart Gillard
Distributor: New Line Cinema
Budget: $21 million
Stars: Brian Tochi/Mark Caso, Corey Feldman/Jim Raposa, Tim Kelleher/Matt Hill, Robbie Rist/David Fraser, Vivian Wu, Sab Shimono, Stuart Wilson, Paige Turco, and Elias Koteas

The Plot:
When reporter April O’Neil (Turco) purchases an ancient Japanese sceptre that allows those simultaneously holding it in different centuries to switch places in time, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles travel to feudal Japan to rescue her from the clutches of the villainous Lord Norinaga (Shimono), teaming up with rebel leader Misu (Wu) and, in the process, opposing Norinaga’s oppressive campaign against her people.

The Background:
As I’ve detailed previously, the TMNT were originally created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird to be a violent pastiche of comic book troupes before being catapulted to mainstream success by the unbelievably popular 1987 cartoon. It was probably inevitable that this would lead to a live-action feature film, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Barron, 1990) proved to be both a technically impressive financial success and a cult favourite. Although Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze (Pressman, 1991) received comparatively mixed reviews, it still did well at the box office and I, for one, regard it as an under-rated entry in the franchise. The TMNT’s brand remained popular and successful, however, but there were a number of noticeable changes made for the third live-action film; first of all, Jim Henson’s studio was no longer involved in the production, and the animatronics created by All Effects Company were far less impressive. Secondly, their most iconic enemy, Oroku Saki/The Shredder, was entirely absent due to a slight case of death; and, finally, the film featured a time travel plot that took the narrative out of the sewers and often has it erroneously referred to as Turtles in Time. Although some of the original cast members returned after skipping the second film, and despite debuting at number one at the U.S. box office, TMNT III’s $54.4 million worldwide gross made it the least successful of the films so far, and the film was universally panned. Thanks to its dumbed down plot and characterisations, nonsensical narrative, and childish humour, TMNT III is widely regarded as one of the lowest points in the franchise; plans for a fourth film were scrapped and it would be nearly ten years before the TMNT made it back to cinema screens.

The Review:
Rather than opening up on the streets of New York City, a location more than prominent to the TMNT and the previous films, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III begins in 1603 Japan and finds Prince Kenshin (Henry Hayashi) being captured by samurai warriors as Mitsu watches on helplessly. We’re then reintroduced to the TMNT, still in their awesome abandoned subway lair, not through a fun or gritty action scene but, instead, through a musical montage that has the four show off their dance moves alongside their ninja skills. Sadly, this is one of the few times that the TMNT will actually use their weapons in the film, and an early warning sign that the film is going to be focused much more on slapstick buffoonery than its predecessors. Things haven’t changed too much for the TMNT since the last film; they’re still pushed to hone their ninja skills by their master and father figure, Splinter (James Murray), still obsessed with pizza, and Raphael (Kelleher/Hill) is still the gruff hot-head of the group who’s constantly frustrated that all of their efforts to keep people safe go unrecognised by the general public since they’re forced to hide underground. Because of this tantrum, he storms off in a huff and misses the gift that their ace reporter human friend April O’Neil shows off to them: an ancient Japanese sceptre she bought from a flea market.

The TMNT travel to feudal Japan to rescue April and end up winning over a group of rebels.

Back in the past, Kenshin, the son of powerful warlord Lord Norinaga, also stumbles upon the same sceptre alongside a scroll depicting the TMNT (or “kappa”, as he calls them) and reads aloud the inscription on the sceptre. This activates the sceptre in the present time and causes April and Kenshin to switch places (and, inexplicably, clothing thanks to the sceptre’s magic); since Donatello (Feldman/Raposa) “does machines”, he’s somehow able to use his computer to study the sceptre and work out that it operates by switching individuals of equal mass and weight in time. Oh, and there’s also an arbitrary time limit on how long the TMNT have to rescue April, meaning they only have sixty hours to complete the mission before the space/time continuum goes “out of sync”. Swapping places with four of Lord Norinaga’s Honour Guard, the TMNT find themselves garbed in ceremonial armour and in the middle of a raid upon a nearby village and, in the confusion, Michelangelo (Rist/Fraser) is captured by Mitsu and her fledgling rebellion. Luckily, he and the others soon earn the respect and admiration of the rebels after they save the life of young Yoshi (Travis A. Moon), one of the few things that Leonardo (Tochi/Caso) gets to do beyond showcasing his bizarre lack of brainpower. This, as much as the purity of the unpolluted landscape, brings Raphael a serenity he never knew existed; he also forms a bond with Yoshi, surprising himself by imparting advice about the boy’s temper and desire to fight rather than have fun and enjoy his childhood. While Donatello and Leonardo are determined to construct a replica sceptre to return them home, Mikey and Raph are actually tempted to remain in the past, where they’re accepted and revered.

While Lord Norinaga uses the old ways and Walker opts for artillery, neither are intimidating villains.

There’s no question that Lord Norinaga is a poor substitute for the far more intimidating Shredder; I think one of the most undeniable failings of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III is that it lacks a strong, iconic villain like the Shredder for the TMNT to go up against. A proud man who believes in maintaining his position and family name through power, Lord Norinaga is a power-hungry warlord shamed by his son’s rebellious ways and with a staunch belief in the might of his army. Lord Norinaga is aided by Walker (Wilson), an unscrupulous English trader who gleefully supplies him with gunpowder and other armaments and resources for his war. Walker scoffs at the Japanese clan’s ancient superstitions and their out-dated ways and is more of a futurist, believing in the unrivalled power of guns and artillery rather than ancient relics and fantasies. Surrounded by a gaggle of underappreciated buffoons, Walker is nevertheless intrigued by April’s spontaneous arrival in feudal Japan and goes to great lengths to track down the missing sceptre, including sacking a nearby village using his superior weapons and manipulating Lord Norinaga into purchasing his cannons and ammunitions in order to fend off the “demons” who now threaten his empire. A sneering, manipulative, and calculating opportunist, Walker delights in the fortune and power recent events bring him but is more of a pantomime villain than a truly intimidating foe; Michelangelo likens him to Clint Eastwood, but he’s more like the late, great Rik Mayall in his appearance and mannerisms.

Despite the bigger cast with new and old faces, most of them really don’t get much to do.

Although she played a prominent supporting role in the previous two films as an audience surrogate and a valued ally to the TMNT, April gets quite a bit more screen time in this third entry; when transported to the past, she’s branded a witch by Lord Norinaga and locked in a dungeon and the TMNT’s entire motivation this time around is going back in time to rescue her. Although April spends much of the film either locked in a cell or in need of rescue, April proves herself to be rather feisty and capable; she tries to play upon the superstitions of her captors to in an attempt to intimidate them and frequently hurls abuse their way. Since the TMNT need to swap places with those from the past, Michelangelo brings in their old ally, Casey Jones (Koteas), to watch over Splinter, their lair, and the time-displaced Japanese warriors. Sadly, this means that there really isn’t anything substantial for Casey to do in the film except babysit and be used for questionable comic relief, but Koteas does play a dual role in the film as April finds herself locked up alongside Whit after he unsuccessfully tried to lead a mutiny against Walker. The film is also populated by a number of new characters; Kenshin is the rebellious son of the warmongering Lord Norinaga, who openly opposes his father’s dreams of conquest and is anxious to get back to the past and reunite with Mistu. Though the headstrong leader of a vastly outnumbered rebellion, Mitsu also ends up becoming little more than a damsel in distress when Whit betrays them and takes her, and the real sceptre, to Lord Norinaga in a misguided attempt to broker a deal with Walker.

The Nitty-Gritty:
On the surface, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III tries to coast off of the success and reputation of its predecessors and the mammoth franchise as a whole; it recreates the subway set from the second film, returns many of the same voice actors from the last two movies, and even reuses the soundtrack from the first film, none of which really help to improve its presentation. While the first movie was (and, in my opinion, still is) the perfect blend between the violent source material and the more family-friendly cartoon series, the second leaned a bit more into humour and cartoony shenanigans; however, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III takes all of these latter elements and brings them right to the forefront. No longer are the TMNT shrouded by the darkness of night (which really doesn’t help hide how inferior their suits are) and they’ve been distilled down to the most basic of characterisations. Even Leonardo, typically the level-headed and intelligent leader of the group, is portrayed as a complete idiot here, and the focus of their dialogue is now firmly on cringey pop culture references, catchphrases, and idiotic statements that will probably make little kids laugh but will leave older viewers rolling their eyes. It is, essentially, a live-action cartoon and, while there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, it is a noticeable downgrade considering the first movie was also a live-action cartoon but it didn’t treat its audience like they were juvenile idiots or pander to the lowest common denominator. Here, all nuance is completely cast aside; the TMNT are generally too busy making fools of themselves and messing about, so when heartfelt moments like Raph’s bond with Yoshi do occur they fall flat because of all the tomfoolery that proceeds them.

The suits are bad, the dialogue corny, and the film’s lumbered with an out of place time travel gimmick.

It’s undeniable that the TMNT suits, while still impressive practical and animatronic effects, have taken a noticeable downgrade. The actors seem to be able to move more freely in these suits, to be fair, but they look far less believable and much more like plastic, rubbery outfits than in the last two films. The heads are easily the worst aspect; the eyes are far less expressive, the mouths don’t sync up as well, and everything just feels much more cheap and low quality. By far the worst offender, though, his Splinter; not only does the wise old rat sensei look far worse than his previous incarnations, but he’s rarely ever shown in full body in a clear attempt by the filmmakers to hide his limitations and mostly just peeps out through window frames or sits in his chair. The action sequences are equally underwhelming this time around; while the TMNT are far more spritely in this film, and fights are filmed in full daylight, the TMNT continue to use their weapons either defensively or for comedic effect and everything seems far more choreographed and dumbed down, which is a shame considering how many more armed opponents the TMNT have to contend with in this jaunt. Additionally, the film is lumbered with an inexplicable time travel plot that really doesn’t seem to gel all that well with the atmosphere of the previous films; obviously, the TMNT have endured similar fantastical plots in the cartoons and comics but, for me, the natural next step is either interdimensional travel or facing an otherworldly, sci-fi threat like Krang and Dimension-X. Clearly, the decision to set the film in feudal Japan was a budgetary one, and that’s a shame as there was no way that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III could hope to out-do the mutated opponents the TMNT faced in the last film when they’re stuck in the 17th century for the majority of the runtime.

Ultimately the TMNT are victorious and opt to return home for another cringey dance number.

With time fast running out, the TMNT have no choice but to join forces with the rebels in an all-out assault on Castle Norinaga in order to rescue Mitsu and reclaim the sceptre. This leads to them discovering that Lord Norinaga’s ancestor was previously defeated by four legendary kappa, and the odd insinuation that they’re somehow descended from these mythological creatures. It also involves a number of fight scenes pitting the TMNT and Mitsu against Lord Norinaga’s guards, and the rebels against his forces, though any kind of tension or danger is largely mitigated by an overuse of comical sound effects and embarrassing one-liners. Leo finally gets something significant to do, however, when he gets into an intense sword fight with Lord Norinaga that sees the warlord trapped in a giant bell after being bested. All the fighting bizarrely stops when Walker and his men hold everyone at gunpoint, such is the fear of his weapons, but he flees in terror after Leo ducks into his shell to avoid being killed by his cannon. Although Walker distracts them by throwing the sceptre at them to cover his escape, Whit ultimately finishes him off by blasting him with a flaming projectile and sending Walker plunging to his poorly-realised demise in the sea below.  Afterwards, the TMNT briefly debate whether they should return to the present; while Donnie is eager to return home and Leo considers staying, Mikey and Raph are strongly tempted to stay since Raph feels appreciated there and Mikey has, apparently, fallen for Mitsu. Ultimately, after a brief fake-out, all four return home, with April, and the status quo is restored, with Kenshin and Mistu being reunited and the TMNT enjoying one last embarrassing dance number to bring this mess to an end.

The Summary:
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III was one of the first movies I remember seeing at the cinema; like almost everyone back then, I was a big TMNT fan and excited to see them on the big screen, but I honestly don’t remember what I thought to it back in the day and barely even remember going to see it. In the years since, I’ve rarely returned to the film since there are far better TMNT options out there, so it seems redundant to waste my time watching one of the more inferior productions. It doesn’t help that everyone and their mother has talked at length about how bad this film is compared to its predecessors, which really doesn’t make me excited to drop the disc in when I could just watch the first, and infinitely superior, movie instead. I guess there’s enough here for little kids to find some enjoyment; it’s very cartoony and full of one-liners and slapstick and daft fight scenes, but it’s just depressing to see how the property got some dumbed down so quickly. The whole production looks and feels so much cheaper, from the suits to the voice acting and the plot, and I’ll always find it odd how the comics and animated stories were able to do a better job appealing to their core demographic than a big-budget live-action production. Even die-hard TMNT fans will struggle with this one, and it’s best left to gather dust on the shelf.

My Rating:

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Could Be Better

Did you enjoy Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III? How do you think the film holds up against the other TMNT films? Which of the TMNT is your favourite and why? What did you think to the time travel plot and the increased emphasis on comedic slapstick? Would you like to see another live-action TMNT film using modern technology to create more practical versions of the TMNT? How are you celebrating the TMNT’s debut this month? Whatever your thoughts on the TMNT, leave a comment down below.

Talking Movies: The Fast and the Furious (2001)

Talking Movies

Released: 22 June 2001
Director: Rob Cohen
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Budget: $38 million
Stars: Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Rick Yune, Jordana Brewster, Michelle Rodriguez, and Matt Schulze

The Plot:
Dominic Toretto (Diesel) enjoys the adrenaline of street car racing and his fans treat him like a rock star. After a blazing encounter with the ruthless Johnny Tran (Yune), Dom decides to take racing newcomer Brian (Paul Walker) under his wing, unaware that Brian is an undercover cop who’s investigating both Dom and Tran’s involvement in money laundering and hijacking.

The Background:
It’s easy to forget nowadays that the outrageously bombastic Fast & Furious franchise (Various, 2001 to present) originally started out as a grounded thriller revolving round street racing and knock-off DVD recorders, but the film’s origins can actually be traced back to a Vibe magazine article about street racing titled “Racer X” and more than a few influences from the similarly-themed Point Break (Bigelow, 1991). After coming to an agreement with Roger Corman, who released a film of the same title back in 1954, the producers initially reached out to rapper Marshall Mathers III/Eminem and Timothy Olyphant for the lead roles before settling on rising musclebound star Vin Diesel (who later became a driving force behind the franchise) and the late Paul Walker. Director Rob Cohen was adamant about including the right cars to reflect the no-holds-barred nature of the street racing scene; the sheer amount of vehicular muscle involved for the film’s notable “Race Wars” scene attracted over 1500 import car owners and enthusiasts to San Bernardino International Airport, where the scene was shot. Bringing in nearly $210 million at the box office, The Fast and the Furious was a massive hit, a success it emulated when it became the second-highest single-day DVD release of all time. Critics were somewhat divided, however; while some lauded it as a mindless, high-octane action picture and praised Diesel’s performance, others criticised it as unexciting and idiotic, Still, The Fast and the Furious kicked off one of the most successful film franchises of the modern era; by going bigger and more brazen with each entry, transitioning into a heist series and even incorporating bombastic, almost sci-fi logic, the franchise has become almost unexpectedly popular despite criticisms regarding its later over-the-top nature.

The Review:
If I’m being brutally honest, the Fast and the Furious franchise has never really been of much interest to me; I’m a big fan of Vin Diesel, especially his under-rated science-fiction efforts, despite his obvious limitations as an actor and bizarre off-camera antics, but cars and car racing just aren’t really my thing. The closest I come to enjoying anything about cars is watching old episodes of Top Gear (1977 to 2001; 2002 to 2012, specifically), though I was more interested in the hilarious shenanigans of its presenters than the cars themselves, and even the twist that this first film is more of an action/thriller as opposed to the more over-the-top nature of its sequels can’t really outweigh the fact that I’m just not all that thrilled by car-based action. For me, the franchise has always had its appeal in its outrageous action and stunts, the macho bravado on display, and for playing around with the genre in fun ways, such as inserting jump cuts to pedals being pressed and gears being changed instead of punches and kicks like in traditional action and fight scenes. Yet, I have had an on again/off again relationship with the franchise, mainly because two of my close friends are big fans, and I’ve had some enjoyment from it, but it’s always interesting coming back to this first, far more grounded entry after seeing how bonkers it became over time. For example, rather than opening in the sweltering heat of Brazil or a dramatic, high-speed escape from a prison van, The Fast and the Furious opens in the sweltering heat of downtown Los Angeles and with the dramatic, high-speed heist of a truck carrying a cargo full of electronics (televisions, DVD players, and the like). We don’t actually see the faces of any of the drivers involved in this heist, which creates an air of mystery surrounding the crime that is central to the main plot of the movie; Dom and his crew are extremely proficient high-speed drivers, after all, so they’re natural suspects for these types of unusual, road-based crimes.

Fresh-faced wannabe racer Brian ruffles a few feathers amidst Dom’s crew of street racers.

Next, we’re introduced to Brian Spilner and given a taste of the film’s depiction of racing; basically, this involves a lot of shaky camera work, cutting to the actors inside their souped-up vehicles, and inserts of them changing gears and stamping on pedals while the cars race along, drift, and careen past gorgeous scenery. Although clearly skilled behind the wheel, Brian is frustrated at his inability to get up to top speed on the track, something he’ll need to improve at if he hopes to stand a chance in the city’s illegal drag races. To blow off steam, Brian heads to Toretto’s, a family-run diner where he regularly visits to order the same tuna sandwich from gorgeous proprietor Mia Toretto (Brewster). Although Brian is clearly flirting with Mia, who makes no bones about sugar-coating how mundane her job is but has little time for bullshit in her life, he’s oddly fascinated by her grim, musclebound brother. However, Brian’s constant presence at the diner and obvious fawning over Mia raises the ire of one of Dom’s crew, the abrasive Vince (Schulze), who clearly has a thing for Mia himself; unimpressed by Brian’s “faggot” attitude, Vince starts a brawl in the street and it’s up to Dom to separate the two. While Dom is embarrassed by his friend’s actions, he also takes an instant dislike to Brian; he not only orders him to stay away but his clout as a famed racer almost costs him his job at the Racer’s Edge garage, which supplies fuel, add-ons, and the famed Nitrous Oxide Systems (NOS) that can give even the slowest car an almost supernatural boost of speed at the twist of a valve. Luckily for Brian, the owner, Harry (Vyto Ruginis), plays peacemaker, though he advises Brian that he needs to work on his driving technique rather than pump his car full of NOS. However, Brian feels he needs the boost if he’s ever going to have a chance at competing in the night-time races and impressing the likes of Dom; though he sticks out against the other racers primarily for his fresh-faced good looks and lack of an entourage, he manages to ruffle a few feathers by inserting himself into the race by putting up his modified 1995 Mitsubishi Eclipse as collateral.

Street legend Dom is the patriarch of his crew but is up to more than just racing for cash and pride.

Dom’s reputation as an expert racer proceeds him; everyone at the races knows him, women drool over him, and men both respect and envy him. Dom’s such a prominent face at the events that he’s able to set the rules of engagement, the buy-in price, and the rewards for the participants; while Brian has to psyche himself up for a race and packs his car full of NOS to try and compete, Dom is cool as a cucumber and unnervingly confident, carefully unleashing his supply of NOS at just the right time to out-race his opponents. Victorious, Dom immediately shoots down Brian’s happiness at almost pipping him to the post; Dom offers a scathing criticism of Brian’s driving, his overreliance on NOS, and his arrogance to assume that he would’ve won had his car not failed him, delivering easily one of my favourite lines of the film (and the franchise) when he bluntly tells him that “almost” isn’t good enough in a street race. Luckily for Brian, Dom’s notoriety extends to the cops; when he’s spotted on the streets, Dom is forced to accept Brian’s offer of a ride to escape to safety, which is enough to get him in Dom’s good graces and invited into his social circle. Having served two years hard time in the past for almost beating a man to death, Dom has no desire to return to prison, but the Corona-loving brute can’t deny himself the thrill of street racing; banned from ever having the chance to race legitimately, the only true freedom Dom has left comes from the inescapable exhilaration of a quarter-mile drag race. Dom’s story about his troubled youth exposes layers to him that surprise even Brian; portrayed as a tough, methodical force with an unbridled rage seething beneath his muscles, it’s surprising to find a vulnerability to Dom, who’s been forced to set aside whatever dreams he might’ve had and become this paternal, inspirational figure who, as Mia describes, pulls people towards him “like gravity” through his sheer charisma. Of course, it turns out that Dom’s garage and diner are just the front for his real operation; to fund his racing projects, he and his crew have been pulling off death-defying heists and selling knock-off electronics on the side, an operation that is causing truckers across the city to start arming themselves for protection and has attracted more police attention than his nightly drag races.

While Dom’s crew is fiercely loyal, Brian’s presence irks Vince, who has his own sights set on Mia.

Dom’s crew is comprised of hyperactive statistician Jesse (Chad Lindberg), glorified lookout Leon (Johnny Strong), the aforementioned Vince, and Dom’s main squeeze, the only one tough enough to match him on the road and in the bed who doesn’t have a dick, Letty Ortiz (Rodriguez). Jesse acts as the team’s primary mechanic and is generally there to spout off the specifics of different cars (probably to keep Vin Diesel from having to remember any complicated lines), but this is instrumental in convincing Dom to allow Brian to race since the car he wagers is an attractive prospect and also in relaying Brian’s “history” to Dom through a quick internet search that is vital to Brian infiltrating the crew. Letty is clearly enamoured by Dom and in awe of both his physical presence and his driving skills, but their relationship is a little more complex than you might think; Dom appears almost dismissive of her in their first interaction, but eventually intervenes in the fight between Vince and Brian when she and Mia yell at him long enough, yet he acts quite sheepish when Letty later warns off the “skanks” sidling up to him. While Dom’s frustration with his crew at running to the hills also extends to Letty, but she endures his ire and curries favour with him by offering her body as stress relief. While Vince is pissed to find Brian invited into their social circle, Dom vouches for Brian since he was the only one to step up when the cops came calling. Although Brian infiltrates the crew and finds himself “owned” by Dom since he owes him a ten-second car, he continues to butt heads with Vince, especially after Dom publicly humiliates the tattooed Neanderthal; he gives Brian evils at Dom’s sumptuous barbecue and throws a tantrum when Mia drops her rule about dating Dom’s friends to go out with Brian. Thus, Vince is naturally aggrieved when he finds Brian snooping around a garage and immediately pegs him as a cop, a situation that Brian is barely able to talk himself out of, but Vince is left with his life literally in Brian’s hands after he’s shot during a later heist.

Brian’s true nature as an undercover cop changes his interactions and enrages Dom.

Things look bad for Brian after he’s apprehended by the cops, but rather than being taken to prison, he’s taken to a cushty safe house and asked for an update by Sergeant Tanner (Ted Levine) and given a grilling by agent Bilkins (Thom Barry) of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for losing his Mitsubishi. Yes, it turns out that Brian Spilner is actually Brian O’Conner, a Los Angeles cop who’s been sent undercover to find out who’s behind the recent spate of hijackings, which have reached around $6 million worth of goods. Promised a promotion to detective for his efforts, Brian is faced with a ticking clock as the truckers are close to taking matters into their own hands but is confident that following Dom is the best way to figuring out whether he or someone else is the culprit. This reveal fundamentally alters the entire perception of Brian; previously quite aloof and a bit of a naïve goofball, he’s actually quite the snarky and intelligent cop. His longing to be part of Dom’s crew is reframed as the most efficient means of finding a lead, and his affection and interactions with his team, Mia especially, appear to simply be part of the job. Mia is intrigued by Brian; she’s surprised that he frequents the diner so much when their tuna is so famously bad and is aggravated by Vince’s dislike for the handsome goof yet is also clearly quietly impressed when he puts it all on the line to take part in the races in an effort to earn the respect of the other drivers. While she acts coy around him, Mia is clearly into Brian, and while Dom warns Brian not to break Mia’s heart, he doesn’t oppose their relationship; she’s genuinely happy to be put first for a change, and even showcases her own driving skills before ultimately ending up in bed with him. Mia is understandably hurt and angered when Brian is forced to reveal his true nature to her when Dom, Letty, and Vince head out on another heist, but begrudgingly agrees to lead him to them in order to protect her friends and family from being shot by armed truckers and hounded by every cop in the city.

Although Tran is clearly positioned as the bad guy, it’s Dom’s crew who are the true culprits.

After escaping from the cops when their drag race is interrupted, Dom and Brian accidentally drift into the territory of a rival racing gang led by Johnny Tran and his cousin, Lance Nguyen (Reggie Lee). Packing heat and favouring motorcycles, Tran’s gang has a tumultuous agreement with Dom to stay out of each other’s way and he delights in intimidating Dom by opening fire on Brian’s car and blowing it up. This first meeting is just a teaser for their upcoming showdown in the Race Wars, a massive drag race event for big money and fast cars that’s due to take place out in the desert, but the issues between Tran and Dom are as personal as they are professional since they fell out over a shady business deal and Dom getting a little too frisky with Tran’s sister. While investigating one of Tran’s garages, Brian watches as Tran and Lance sadistically torture Ted Gassner (Beau Holden) to get their engines for the Race Wars but is stunned when it turns out that Tran’s gang weren’t behind the hijackings. Indeed, when it’s confirmed that Dom and his crew are actually the culprits, these shady racers who we’ve been following and grown attached to throughout the film could actually be said to be the true villains of the piece. However, the term “anti-hero” is probably far more appropriate as they’re not out to maliciously hurt or kill anyone, and even the reprehensible Vince earns himself some sympathy when he’s shot by a trigger-happy trucker during what is meant to be the team’s last heist. Morality is further blurred when Tran, incensed by the bust at his house and the disrespect he feels has been thrown his way, publicly accuses Dom of being the one who called the cops on him; when he easily outraces Jesse at the Race Wars, Tran’s anger overflows when the heartbroken mechanic flees rather than part with his father’s MK3 Volkswagen Jetta and the two gangs get into a brief scuffle. Tran’s retribution is malicious and brutal; he and Lance ride past the Toretto home and viciously gun Jesse down, forcing Dom to face his fears and chase after them in his father’s Dodge Charger.

The Nitty-Gritty:
While themes of family eventually became so synonymous with the Fast and Furious franchise that it’s something of a running gag these days, it’s a reasonably subtle theme here; Dom’s crew is like his family and he acts as their undisputed patriarch, protecting, advising, and even scolding them when necessary. He issues orders with a gravelly tone and his word is the law since he’s the biggest and the best of them all; it’s very much a hybrid of a traditional, catholic Italian family unit and almost a mob situation as they look to him for guidance and direction and must follow his lead whether they agree with it or not. Of course, family is more explicitly represented in Dom’s protective relationship with his little sister, Mia; while showing off the pimped out 1970 Dodge Charger R/T he built with his father, Dom tell Brian how his father crashed and burned to death before his eyes, showcasing a vulnerability from the obvious trauma of this incident, which left him openly afraid to drive the Dodge Charger and driven into a mindless rage to punish the man responsible. Trust and loyalty are very important to Dom and key elements of the film; this, of course, makes things extremely difficult when it’s revealed that Brian is an undercover cop, something Vince takes great pleasure in learning since he had his suspicions about Brian from the start. However, while he realises that he’s jeopardised his relationships with Dom and Mia by deceiving them, Brian becomes so attached to the two that he’s forced to re-evaluate his position and set aside his orders to help Dom chase down Tran and Lance in the finale. One thing I do love about The Fast and the Furious is how utterly 2001 it is; this is reflected not just in the nausea-inducing shaky cam and perpetually sweaty, outrageously attractive cast and their loose-fitting clothes, but also the heavy rap-centric soundtrack (including one of my favourites, “Rollin’ (Urban Assault Vehicle” by Limp Bizkit). This hip-hop influence is reflected in the portrayal of many of the supporting characters, with rapper Ja Rule featuring in a small cameo, and in the thumping beats of the score; The Fast and the Furious even had the best of both worlds by releasing a second, more nu-metal-themed soundtrack that’s much more my jam.

Car racing is more of a spectacle than a selling point, with the races being mostly low-key thrills.

The opening heist gives a taste of how versatile and proficient the drivers are; not only is Dom’s team capable of driving at high speeds in the dead of night in modified cars, but they’re also packing large grappling hooks to anchor and rappel themselves to other vehicles, and wield both regular and tranquilizer guns. Their skills at driving are so sharp that they’re able to outrace most regular cars and Letty slips between and under trucks when bombing along at breakneck speeds. In The Fast and the Furious, the city’s nightly street races are a commonplace annoyance for regular citizens; Leon monitors a police scanner, and the drivers immediately disperse when they’ve been discovered, adding an element of danger to the proceedings that makes things all the more thrilling. And yes, the film’s racing is very thrilling; the first drag race pits Dom against Brian, Edwin (Ja Rule), and Danny (R.J. de Vera) and sees their exhausts literally spitting fire (thanks to an atrocious CGI sequence where their engines explode like rockets!) as they barrel through the city streets on a makeshift track. Though it’s often painfully obvious that the actors aren’t actually blasting along at nearly two hundred miles per hour and it’s pretty hilarious when Brian engages his NOS and enters warp speed, there’s an exciting sense of speed here and things only get more intense as Harry’s warnings come to pass and Brian’s car literally breaks apart from the extreme speeds. Interestingly, actual car racing is more of a side plot than a selling point of the film; much of the middle portion revolves around Brian working with Dom’s crew to get his ride ready for the Race Wars event and the mystery of who’s behind the hijackings. Considering how much it’s built up throughout the film, you’d expect that the Race Wars would be the climactic finale but it’s actually little more than a means to escalate the tensions between Dom and Tran; Brian and Dom don’t even race in the event, instead it’s just Jesse stupidly ignoring Brian’s warnings and being outclassed by Tran’s coveted Honda S2000. This leaves the team one man short for their last heist, which sees Vince clinging to and hanging from a truck as the others desperately race around trying to help him, leading to Brian dramatically jumping to the truck from a speeding car and being forced to call in emergency medical aid for the wounded Vince, thus exposing himself to Dom and the others.

Cars and sex go hand in hand here, with sparks flying between Brain and both Torettos!

The Fast and the Furious is openly, unapologetically, and explicitly car porn. If you like your cars, then this is the film for you and the movie goes to great lengths to introduce and showcase them as being as important as any of its characters. Indeed, the cars are extensions of the characters, representing their ego, bravado, masculinity, and reputation on the streets; when you hear these cars coming and see them come bombing along, you’re supposed to look up in awe and be impressed, and nowhere is this more explicit that at the drag races, where drivers stand proudly by their cars, engines exposed, and boast about their tunings and refinements. It’s a very sexual and sordid presentation; semi-naked woman and well-cut men accompany these vehicles, and the camera lingers on both with a perverse fascination; they are both to be lusted after and coveted, and this is reflected in Brian’s admiration for certain cars and desperate need to have a car powerful and capable enough to impress in the races. This, by extension, would not only raise his stock amongst the thugs, lowlifes, and braggarts who take part in the races, but also earn him Dom’s respect and Mia’s eye; in this regard, the races are not only metaphorical dick-measuring contests, a way to prove how macho and capable each racer is, but also an almost ritualistic form of courting since it’s not enough to simply “stand by your car” and look cool. Indeed, sex and cars go hand-in-hand in The Fast and the Furious; a racer’s attractiveness is explicitly related to the type of car they drive and their skill behind the wheel; this is most obviously expressed when Edwin is promised sex with his sumptuous babe (Tammy Monica Gegamian) and is denied this (and a proposed threesome) when he loses the race. It’s also seen in Dom’s relationship with Letty, which is based as much on her ability to hang with her male counterparts as it is their intense sexual chemistry, and in the way Brian desperately longs for Dom’s approval and respect. There’s an undeniable homoerotic nature to their relationship; Brian gazes at Dom with a mixture of awe, admiration, and shyness and is desperate to show that he has what it takes to hang with him and his crew. Sure, it’s all part of his cover and part of his assignment to infiltrate Dom’s inner circle (not a euphemism…), but he develops a real kinship and sense of respect for the hulking racer that directly informs his more rebellious actions in the film’s final act.

A mission of revenge unites Dom and Brian, before Brian lets his target go free out of respect…and love…

Despite spending the entire film preparing for the Race Wars, Dom and his team never get the chance to race against anyone at the event, much less Tran and his lackeys. Instead, Jesse has a short and unsuccessful fun in the desert and ends up going into hiding rather than give up his father’s car. This leaves Dom a man down for his last heist, which sees an armed trucker open fire on him, totalling his car, Letty sent careening into the desert, Vince left severely wounded, and Brian’s cover completely blown. Although clearly seething at this revelation, Dom is forced to focus on keeping Vince alive and stable but gets into it with Brian when he goes to his house to confront him thinking that he’s going to go off half-cocked. However, after sending Letty and Leon to safety, Dom’s plan is to grab a gun and fire up his father’s Dodge Charger so he can find Jesse before Tran can get to him, but things get very heated between the two former friends before a desperate Jesse arrives begging for Dom’s protection and is gunned down by Tran and Lance. In that moment, Brian chooses to pursue the two rather than bring Dom in and he races after them through the hilly streets of suburban Los Angeles. Enraged by Jesse’s death, Dom joins the pursuit and sends Lance tumbling down a hillside while Brian manages to anti-climatically shoot and kill Tran; with the score settled, Brian immediately leaps back into his car and pursues Dom when he makes his big getaway. Dom challenges Brian to follow him in a quarter-mile drag race across a railroad line and, realising that Toretto would truly rather die than go to jail, Brian has no choice but to accept; thanks to his NOS, Brian’s able to keep up with the Dodge Charger and avoid being smashed by the train, but a spot of engine trouble and the sudden appearance of a truck see Dom taking what is clearly a life-ending barrel roll across the road. Of course, Dom survives with only minor injuries, but his beloved car is wrecked; with sirens closing in on them, Brian takes one last, lingering look at the man he’s come to admire so much and decides to hand over the keys to his car, thereby gifting Dom the ten-second car he owes him and allowing Dom to evade capture and head out to Mexico to start his life anew.

The Summary:
As I said up top, I’ve never really been a massive fan of the Fast and Furious franchise or car-based action films; hell, I’m not even really a big fan of Point Break, which kind of bored me by about hallway through. Injecting cars and high-octane races into the Point Break formula definitely makes it more appealing, though, and I’m surprised by how much I enjoyed The Fast and the Furious. It’s not a film I watch very often, even amongst the others in the franchise, but there’s something comforting about revisiting this simpler time in the series where character moments, low, far more personal stakes, and thrilling bursts of nonsense car action were the order of the day before physics-defying, superhuman feats. Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy the mindless nonsense of this action/car/spy mash-up franchise, but the first film hits a little different; maybe it’s the 2001 trappings such as the fashion and music, maybe it’s how young and slim (though still buff) Vin Diesel looks, and maybe it’s just that there’s a gritty tension to The Fast and the Furious that’s missing from later films. There’s a constant sense that everything could just explode at any moment; scenes between characters are charged with sexual and emotional tension that often results in heated exchanges and fist fights, the streets are depicted as a dangerous place to be because of gangs, shootings, illegal drag races, and armed truckers, but the real meat of the piece is the allure of Brian’s dual nature. Once it’s revealed that he’s a cop, the complexion of the movie and his interactions change and it’s interesting seeing his layers be revealed in this way, almost as much as realising there’s more to Dom than just being a rough, gruff brute. There’s definitely a sense of danger to everything, from the races to Brain’s investigation as the context provided is of a violent life and violent people, meaning characters can get hurt, shot, or even killed at a moment’s notice rather than just shrugging everything off. While some of the effects haven’t held up too well and I would’ve liked to see a bit more racing, especially at the Race Wars, there’s a surprising amount to like here; it’s sexy and sweaty when it needs to be, bursting with content for car aficionados, and a decent enough action/thriller to throw on with a few beers Corona and a pizza barbecue when you have some friends over.

My Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Pretty Good

Are you a fan of The Fast and the Furious? How do you think it compares to later entries in the franchise? Do you prefer this more grounded, gritty approach or do you prefer the more outrageous, bombastic nature of the sequels? What did you think to the relationship between Brian and Dom? Did you enjoy the street races on show here and were you also disappointed by the Race Wars? Which of Dom’s crew is your favourite and what did you think to the rivalry between him and Tran? Let me know your thoughts in the comments and tell me your favourite Fast and Furious movie on my social media.

Talking Movies: Dragonball Evolution

Released: 10 April 2009
Director: James Wong
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Budget: $30 million
Stars: Justin Chatwin, Emmy Rossum, Chow Yun-fat, Jamie Chung, Joon Park, and James Marsters

The Plot:
After breaking free from two-thousand years of imprisonment, Lord Piccolo (Marsters) begins scouring the world for the seven legendary Dragonballs, which he intends to gather to summon a magical dragon and gain immortality. After his beloved grandfather is killed protecting the four-star Dragonball, young outcast and martial arts prodigy Son Goku (Chatwin) teams up with a head-strong inventor Doctor Bulma Briefs (Rossum) and eccentric martial arts master Muten Roshi (Yung-fat) to track down the Dragonballs and avert word-wide disaster!

The Background:
I might be a day early for “Piccolo Day” (or “Goku Day” if you prefer) but I’m never one to pass up a good excuse to celebrate all things Dragon Ball, which debuted in the pages of Weekly Shōnen Jump back in 1984. The creation of writer and artist Akira Toriyama, Dragon Ball originally borrowing many elements from Journey to the West (Cheng’en, 1592) before delving into a far more science-fiction-orientated approach with is successor series, Dragonball Z, which would come to define the entire franchise in popular, mainstream media. Dragonball Z was first licensed by Funimation in 1996; despite the omission of its often graphic and violent content, Dragonball Z was a massively popular anime and even led to several feature-length animated films, though these were generally produced without Toriyama’s direct involvement and often failed to align with established canon as a result. Development of a live-action Dragon Ball movie can be traced back to 1995, when noted Hong Kong action star Jackie Chan expressed an interest in taking on the iconic role of Son Goku; Toriyama himself would late state that Chan would have been his choice for the role if the actor was younger, but development of a live-action adaptation wouldn’t properly get underway until 2002, when 20th Century Fox acquired the rights and set to work developing a script and finding a director. In the end, it was youngster Justin Chatwin who won the lead role, and the production was forever condemned for “white-washing” as a result. James Marsters took on the role of the film’s antagonist, Lord Piccolo, and was particularly enthusiastic about the project given his love for the anime, though both he and co-star Cow Yun-fat were unimpressed to find they’d been duped into thinking the project had a higher budget and that director Stephen Chow would be in charge of the film. Dragonball Evolution’s $58.2 million worldwide gross meant it was a box office bomb, and the reviews were scathing across the board as critics bemoaned the lacklustre story and characterisations, its lack of fidelity to the source material, and it was slammed as being a surreal mess full of poor special effects and overacting; even Toriyama was disappointed by the adaptation, and plans for a number of sequels were subsequently cancelled.

The Review:
I was a bit late to the Dragonball Z party as a kid since it took me a while to be able to watch it (satellite television isn’t cheap when you’re income is low), but I’ve been a long-time fan since I was a teenager and the idea of a live-action adaptation was quite exciting. However, right off the bat, I (and the wider audiences) were having to temper our expectations; many of us in the West grew up watching Dragonball Z and, arguably, that’s still the most popular iteration of Toriyama’s long-running franchise, but it wouldn’t make a huge amount of sense to do a big screen movie that skips of Goku’s time as a youth and establishing the fantasy world he lives in, so right away the idea was that we’d have to get through an “origin” story before we started to see Super Saiyans and alien, technological, and God-like beings challenging our heroes. I get the idea in principal but there is a counter argument to that thinking: start with Goku as a young twenty-something and do a truncated version of the Saiyan Saga since that’s what many people wanted to see and, if it’s successful, you can maybe do a prequel later down the line. Instead, though, Dragonball Evolution opted to focus more on reconfiguring the lesser-known Dragon Ball anime for its story, specifically elements of the Emperor Pilaf, Tournament, and Piccolo Sagas…which is pretty convenient for me since I’m much more familiar than the start and end of Goku’s childhood journey than the middle parts. Like all great movies, Dragonball Evolution opens with an opening narration that tells the legend of a maniacal tyrant known as Lord Piccolo, who terrorised the world alongside his monstrous minion, Ōzaru, before finally being sealed away using the mysterious “Mafuba” enchantment. Thankfully, Goku is only too aware of the Piccolo/Ōzaru legend thanks to the wise and benevolent teachings of his beloved grandfather, Gohan (Randall Duk Kim).

Despite his grandfather’s best efforts, Goku just wants to fit in and be able to talk to girls.

Unlike in the manga and anime, Goku has lived only a semi-sheltered life; he essentially lives out in the countryside, not far from the main city, and has been taught martial arts, legendary scripture, and the basics of ki by his elderly grandfather, a playful and mischievous old man who delights in sparring with his grandson in frankly ludicrous displays of green screen and “wire-fu”. Although Goku is a formidable opponent, Gohan emphasises that he relies far too much on his senses rather  than the strength within him; Goku’s difficulty at mastering his ki to perform air-bending techniques is a recurring element in the film and part of his larger character arc of realising the true potential that dwells within him and turning it towards good. Sadly, however, Justin Chatwin isn’t really that great of a fit for Goku; he’s got the youthful charm, for sure, but lacks the physical stature and believability to really fill out the role. Not only that but he’s really not that great an actor; some of his line deliveries are embarrassingly cheesy and not in a good way. It’s strange as he does a decent job of conveying Goku’s frustrations and social awkwardness, but whenever he has to be “serious” he stumbles quite noticeably, making for an inconsistent and disappointing depiction of the goofy Saiyan fighter. Still, Goku is depicted as overtly superhuman, easily able to dodge and subdue even multiple opponents at once without even throwing a punch. However, he’s also as an outcast and, while grateful for his grandfather’s teachings, he longs to be accepted by his peers and to get the girl; in this case, the cute and attractive Chi-Chi (Chung). Although Chi-Chi has apparently been claimed by Goku’s long-time tormentor, Carey Fuller (Texas Battle), Goku is besotted by her but even more stunned to learn that she knows about ki. Clearing interested in him, she’s sympathetic to the abuse he suffers in school and invites him to her house party, which means he isn’t there when Piccolo comes calling for the Dragon Ball and kills Gohan. Chi-Chi continues to be full of surprises when Goku and his allies travel to the Stone Temple, only to find it a training ground for the fights of the World Martial Arts Tournament; there, Goku learns that Chi-Chi is actually an admirable fighter in her own right, with designs on taking part in the tournament, and the two grow close when she helps him to focus his ki. As the battle to recover the Dragon Balls escalates, Chi-Chi gets to show off some of her fighting prowess, but ultimately end sup the victim of Piccolo’s machinations when his shapeshifting ninja-like henchwoman, Mai (Eriko Tamura), assumes her form in order to get closer to Goku and steal his Dragon Balls.

Bulma and Yamcha are two of the film’s few high points but even they can’t save it from mediocrity.

Although Gohan told Goku that gathering all seven Dragon Balls will summon the mighty dragon Shenron and grant “one perfect wish”, it seems he didn’t fully believe this story, or the threat of the Nameks, until Piccolo kills his grandfather. Although devastated by this loss, Goku vows to protect his grandfather’s Four-Star Dragon Ball from falling into the wrong hands, which causes him to form an unlikely alliance with the headstrong Bulma, who attacks Goku after thinking he stole her Five-Star “Promethium Orb”. Although she has her Dragon Radar, Bulma is smart enough to agree that she needs backup and agrees to help Goku find Gohan’s old friend and master, Roshi, but holds Goku to his promise to help her locate her missing Dragon Ball. Bulma’s technology is essential to their group’s quest; not only can she locate Dragon Balls with her radar, but she has the vehicles to transport them vast distances and can even hold her own thanks to her pistol. While she is unimpressed with Roshi’s lewd attempts to get close to her, she attempts to charm Yamcha (Park) into helping them out when they crash into a whole, only to be spurned since the desert bandit set the trap specifically to try and rob them. A selfish, arrogant thief, Yamcha is initially dismissive of Roshi’s (literal) campfire tales about the coming danger but is convinced to help them out first by being impressed with Roshi’s incredible physical prowess and then by the promise of payment. I can’t explain why, but Yamcha is one of my favourite non-Saiyan characters from the anime and, while Joon park certainly doesn’t look anything like the character, he brings a certain appealing energy to the role that, while bordering on the ludicrous, makes him a far more charismatic character than Goku. Bulma and Yamcha remain the standout characters for me, and not just because I have an unapologetic crush on Emmy Rossum or a bias towards Yamcha; they have a decent amount on onscreen chemistry (certainly more then Chatwin and Chung, despite the latter’s best efforts), capture the spirit of the characters pretty well, and I even appreciate the little blue streak in Bulma’s hair as a nod to the source material.

Roshi endeavors to teach Goku to harness his ki, a technique markedly different in this adaptation.

Another relatively faithful highlight is Master Roshi; although he lacks the character’s trademark bald head, sunglasses, and beard, he at least wears the same loud Hawaiian shirts and exhibits a lewd, playful personality. An aloof and unusual master of the martial arts, Roshi is only too familiar with the threat posed by Piccolo and Ōzaru, which heralds the coming of the apocalypse. Distraught to learn of Gohan’s death and Piccolo’s return, Roshi insists on coming along and teaching Goku how to refine his ki: this involves forcing him to run through the desert carrying all of their supplies, performing one-handed headstands, and learning to master two things at once. While he’s definitely an oddball character, Roshi is dead serious about the threat posed by Piccolo and Ōzaru and can effortlessly hold his own in most fights; however, his primary purpose is delivering exposition regarding the Mafuba (which claims the lives of those who use it) and training Goku to harness his ki and learn the most powerful of all air-bending techniques, the Kamehameha Wave. It’s interesting that the depiction of ki is quite different here than in the source material; it’s more akin to what is seen in Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005 to 2008) in that characters are manipulating elements using their inner energy rather than literally channelling that energy into destructive attacks, and I’m not entirely sure why the change was made beyond a cursory implication that Piccolo favours for fire-based energy attacks since his attacks are often depicted in red. While Roshi pushed Goku’s strength and skills to the limits through rigorous and unorthodox training methods in the source material, it’s only through the encouragement (and the incentive of a kiss) from Chi-Chi that Goku is able to pull off the Kamehameha for the first time here. Fully aware that Goku won’t be ready to face Piccolo in time, Roshi turns to Sifu Norris (Ernie Hudson) to prepare the Mafuba once more, fully prepared to sacrifice himself to save the world from destruction.

It’s pretty sad to see one of Goku’s fiercest rivals and foes reduced to a one-dimensional villain.

Another commendable aspect of Dragonball Evolution has to be James Marsters as Lord Piccolo; released from his confinement offscreen by Mai, Piccolo is a grim and ruthless individual who has no compunction about raising entire villages to smouldering ruins in his search for the Dragon Balls. Regal and menacing in his posture, Piccolo is a villain of few words and even few wasted movements; he sees all life as beneath him and wants nothing more than to enact a merciless revenge upon the world that imprisoned him for so long, and personally crushes Goku’s home using his immense power, killing Gohan in the process and thus making their antagonism very personal. Piccolo is a fearsome opponent; not only can he lay waste to entire areas and dry up bodies of water in a single blast, but his blood can also spawn monstrous minions to cause minor inconveniences to the protagonists. Indeed, Piccolo spends the majority of his time just posturing and floating around seemingly in no hurry to find the seven Dragon Balls despite literally being on a deadline. Although he’s not afraid to get his hands dirty in the search, he continuously leaves Mai to screw around impersonating Chi-Chi to steal the heroes’ Dragon Balls rather than simply take them by force like he did the others and wastes his time delivering villainous monologues rather than just bringing forth the dragon when he has the chance. He literally jumps at the chance to lord himself over Goku, especially after he’s transformed into Ōzaru, and  prioritises fighting with the boy rather than locating the scattered Dragon Balls. Ultimately, Piccolo lacks any of the menace or subtle nuance of either his father or his more well-known son/reincarnation; he’s ridiculously one-dimensional, being “bad” for the sake of it, and is defeated with depressing ease when all’s said and done. While Marsters may have hoped to return and do the character justice in future sequels, and Piccolo is shown to have survived, it’s difficult to envision this version of the character ever being more than a one-note kids’ villain in a regrettably poor adaptation.

The Nitty-Gritty:
Although Dragonball Evolution appears to take place in our world, or at least the near future, it’s actually surprisingly faithful to the source material in a lot of ways. Sure, there’s no anthropomorphic characters and a lot of the more fantastical elements are excised or subdued, but there’s a decent attempt to including such concepts as the Capsule Corporation’s wearable technology, Piccolo travels the world in a futuristic and elaborate airship, and Bulma not only carries her trusty Dragon Radar but also rides a bike not a million miles away from her manga counterpart. Characterisations are far more on point than some people give credit for, too; sure, this “teen” version of Goku has a bit more in common with his teenaged son, who also struggled a bit to fit in at high school, but Goku has the same voracious appetite and aptitude for martial arts in the source material and is just as wide-eyed and naïve in a lot of ways (although here that’s reconfigured as a shy awkwardness around Chi-Chi rather than a general naivety towards life outside of his sheltered upbringing. Bulma is pretty on point as well; she’s as stubborn and forthright as in the source material, but also far more independent and capable. She’s searching for the Dragon Balls to use them as an unlimited energy source for the world rather than to wish for a boyfriend, is nowhere near as objectified or insufferable, and actually proves to be a valuable asset to the quest.

Despite some half-hearted attempts, the film fails to capture the fun and action of the source material.

There are a few other notable allusions to the source material as well: Goku can sense ki, which alerts him to his grandfather’s death; he also takes up Gohan’s bō staff (a far more grounded interpretation of the extendable Power Pole Goku wielded as a child in the source material), and eventually dons a keikogi that’s admirably faithful to his traditional attire. While Master Roshi doesn’t live on a small island in the middle of nowhere, his house is on an isolated “island” of sorts in Paozu City and he’s just as excitable and inappropriate as his admittedly more iconic counterpart. While Piccolo is freely identified as a Namek rather than a demonic entity as was originally implied in his first appearances, there’s a definite sense of otherworldliness to him that hints at threats from beyond the stars; however, one of the most interesting alterations to the established Dragon Ball lore is the depiction of the Great Ape, Ōzaru. Here, Goku is able to look at a full moon without fear (potentially because of his lack of a Saiyan tail), but the impending solar eclipse triggers his transformation into a much smaller version of the iconic monster, one far closer to the Wolfman than King Kong. While the film presents Ōzaru as being a destructive monster sent to destroy the world, it also positions the creature as another of Piccolo’s henchmen in a bit of a bizarre and confusing alteration; the film’s rushed and ugly finale attempts to present a version of the usual story surrounding the Great Ape (that the Saiyan loses control of their senses and must be subdued or calmed down to stop their rampage) by indicating that Goku’s memories of his grandfather and friends allows him to master Ōzaru’s power, and thus gain mastery of his ki, but it’s a bit of a messy execution and I honestly think the film (and the effects budget) would have been better off just omitting Ōzaru entirely.

Despite some fun references to the source material, the film’s fights and CGI really let it down.

These references are tenuous at best, however, and amount to little more than Easter Eggs; Dragonball Evolution thus ends up being an adaptation that tries far too hard todumb down or omit the more fantastical elements of its source material and simply drop in a few sly winks and nods for the knowing audience. This probably wouldn’t be so bad if the film made up for it with some thrilling and visually interesting fight sequences but, sadly, there’s a disappointing lack of actual martial arts in the film. The opening sparring match between Goku and Gohan, while fun, is hardly what you’d call ground-breaking fight choreography; Dragonball Evolution takes its cue very much from films like Bulletproof Monk (Hunter, 2003) for the depiction of its martial arts, emphasising unnatural camera angles, quick cuts, and a light-hearted bending of the laws of physics. There’s a very “floaty” feeling to all the moves that means characters bend and twist and flip in ways that go against everything you’d expect in the natural world and, while this is a sour point for fans of more traditional or visually interesting martial arts films, it does fit rather well with Dragon Ball’s whimsical and over the top nature. The franchise has never really been one for realism; characters routinely float, fly, teleport, and perform superhuman feats that have no basis in reality, and Dragonball Evolution is clearly made for a younger audience who aren’t expecting long, continuous, brutal sequences like those of Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior (Pinkaew, 2003), so I don’t begrudge the film for utilising such a farfetched visual direction for its fight scenes. Still, having said that, the film really falls off a cliff around hallway through when the characters inexplicably tunnel through the dirt in the arid wastelands and find themselves at a raging volcano! While I applaud the use of practical effects to render Piccolo’s rock-like henchmen, they’re dispatched with ridiculous ease and the editing is almost as bad as the green screen.

Embarrassingly bad special effects bring this laughable effort to a merciful end.

Things only get uglier and when the film reaches what is supposed to be a dramatic conclusion and instead becomes a disappointingly underwhelming light show where the actors are clearly flailing around on a green screen and throwing poorly rendered blasts of light at each other. It gets even worse when Goku transforms into Ōzaru; thanks to fan backlash regarding the creature’s initial design, which seemed far more practical despite looking nothing like an ape, Ōzaru is rendered as a monstrously ugly CGI creature that stands out like a sore thumb even amidst the shoddy computer-generated landscape. To the film’s credit, it at least attempts to recreate the kinetic battles from the anime, some of the camera shots even evoke those from the source material and Piccolo and Goku certain throw their fair share of energy blasts at each other, but by this point it all just looks like a bad videogame. It’s amazing to me how, in a post-Matrix (Wachowski Brothers, 1999) world, Dragonball Evolution fails to even remotely capture the tangible thrill of two hated rivals exchanging blows in mid-air and crashing through rocks. Obviously, The Matrix Revolutions (ibid, 2003) had a much higher budget than this dreck of a film but it also came out six years previously and you’d think that even a throwaway kids’ movie like this would be able to learn something from its approach. While I appreciate the attempt to try and recreate Lord Piccolo’s death from the source material, the scene of Goku channelling the Kamehameha and Ōzaru’s energy into himself to launch his final attack at his foe is laughably awful and looks more like a bad fan film than a big-budget release. Even more incredible is that Goku wastes his one wish on resurrecting Roshi (why not wish for all lives lost at Piccolo’s hands to be restored, thus returning Gohan and all those senseless killed by Piccolo to life?) and that the film ends with sequel bait!

The Summary:
I was actually quite sympathetic towards Dragonball Evolution when I first saw it at the cinema. I enjoyed Bulletproof Monk for what it was and the similarities between the two films, and the references to the source material, were enough for me to consider it a decent enough kids’ movie that tries its best to capture some of the spirit of Dragon Ball. But, over time, those positives have dulled and this has become nothing less than a painful chore to sit through. It’s pretty amazing how awful this film is when you consider that Casshern (Kiriya, 2004) released about five years before this and did a far better job of crafting a live-action anime on a far smaller budget. It’s not as if Dragonball Evolution is elevated by the quality of its cast; Emmy Rossum and Joon Park aside, the film is full of inconsistent, lacklustre, and over the top performances that only serve to give it a mixed tone. If it had fully committed to being an action/comedy or a fantastical martial arts tale, maybe it would have landed better but it’s just all over the place and it’s difficult to really care about the stakes as a result. Dragon Ball often has its whimsical and comedic elements but, when the battle for the world starts, things usually always get pretty serious but, here, they just become an unimpressive and ugly CGI light show that makes everyone look like a complete fool as they scream against a green screen and are awkwardly jerked around in the air in a poor attempt at recreating the intensity of the anime. I definitely feel like there’s potential for a live-action Dragon Ball, but this reeks of corporate mandates and just comes across as a cheap cash grab that tries to pay homage to the source material but ultimately fails to appeal to fans of the franchise by dumbing everything down to the point of insult.

My Rating:

Rating: 1 out of 5.


What did you think to Dragonball Evolution? Were you a fan of Justin Chatwin’s portrayal of Goku? Which of the characters was your favourite? What did you think to the changes made to the source material? Were you also put off by the muddled tone and poor special effects? Would you like to see another live-action Dragon Ball some time? How are you celebrating Dragon Ball day today? Whatever your thoughts on Dragonball Evolution, or Dragon Ball in general, sign up to leave them below or feel free to leave a comment on my social media.

Talking Movies [May the Sith]: Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens

While May 4th is known the world over as Star Wars Day, many also choose to extend the celebrations of the course of three days, with one of them being the “Evil Star Wars Day” of May 6th (as in “Sith”). This year, I’ve been using the three Star Wars Days as the perfect excuse to go plug a few holes in my Star Wars reviews.

Talking Movies

Released: 18 December 2015
Director: J. J. Abrams
Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment
Budget: $259 to 306 million
Stars: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford

The Plot:
Thirty years after the Galactic Empire was defeated, the galaxy comes under threat once again when the remnants of the Empire and the Sith rise to power as “The First Order” and begin constructing a devastating, planet-sized superweapon. With the New Republic decimated, the galaxy’s only hope lies in Rey (Ridley), a prodigy from a backwater planet, and Finn (Boyega), a reformed First Order Stormtrooper. Alongside crack Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Isaac), they race to recover a long-lost map that leads to reclusive and disgraced Jedi Master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and are hounded by the First Order’s malevolent and brutal enforcer, Kylo Ren (Driver).

The Background:
It’s safe to say that the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy struggled to live up to the lofty expectations set by George Lucas’ original three Star Wars films; although relatively profitable ventures, the films were divisive, to say the least, and lead to one of the most beloved spin-offs in the franchise, Lucas was so burned by the experiences and backlash that he refused to make any further films. In 2012, Lucas sold his lucrative franchise to Disney for $4 billion and they immediately set about developing a series of spin-off feature films to further flesh out the Star Wars saga, spearheaded by a long-awaited seventh entry in the space opera saga. Although he consulted with Lucasfilm’s new president, Kathleen Kennedy, on story ideas for their new trilogy, he was hurt when they discarded his input and proceeded without him, bringing in J. J. Abrams to direct, contribute to the script, and help lay plans for the trilogy. In addition to bringing back as many names from the Original Trilogy as possible, Abrams brought in fresh, young, up-and-coming faces to be part of his new film, which relied just as much on practical effects as it did CGI to evoke the spirit of the films that started it all. Naturally, anticipation was high after even the most basic of teaser trailers, and the film’s $2.068 billion worldwide box office made it the highest-grossing film of 2015. The film was also met with overwhelmingly positive reviews; critics praised the film as a return to form for the franchise, the balance between nostalgia and new content, and even heralded it as the best Star Wars film since the Original Trilogy. Others, including Lucas, found it somewhat derivative, but Disney ploughed onwards with their Star Wars plans, for better or worse, regardless, producing two additional sequels as well as new videogames and spin-off movies to turn a profit from their acquisition.

The Review:
I’d like to make one thing perfectly clear right off the bat: I’m a big Star Wars fan. Growing up, the franchise was something of an elusive enigma for me; my friends were huge fans, we all played the games and enjoyed the Expanded Universe novels, but actually watching the Original Trilogy was pretty difficult in the mid-nineties. Even when then the remastered versions were released, it wasn’t exactly cheap to buy or rent them, so expectations were pretty high for the Prequel Trilogy. Sadly, they largely killed off a lot of the excitement I had for the franchise; they screwed up or outright erased the Expanded Universe novels, replaced fun space adventure and action with wooden performances and dull subplots, and generally failed to meet the standards of the Original Trilogy. I was therefore glad when it seemed like we wouldn’t get any more Star Wars films, and extremely pessimistic when Disney announced the production of a new Sequel Trilogy. I found the first teaser trailer incredibly underwhelming as it showcased basically nothing except another desert planet and the return of fan favourites Han Solo (Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew/Joonas /Ian Whyte), and I was more than a little annoyed that the new films wouldn’t be drawing inspiration from what I still consider to be the “real” Sequel Trilogy, Timothy Zane’s Thrawn books (1991 to 1993). However, the secrecy surrounding the film had me intrigued and I was excited at the prospect of seeing how the Star Wars universe had changed thirty years after the Rebellion defeated the evil Galactic Empire. Sadly, The Force Awakens gets off to a bad start right from the opening crawl: Luke’s disappeared and, without him, there’s apparently nobody to oppose the uprising of the First Order. Consequently, Princess Leia Organa (Fisher), now a General in the New Republic’s Resistance movement comprised of new allies and former Rebels, sends her best pilot, Poe, to meet her old ally, the hitherto-unknown Lor San Tekka (Max von Sydow in a completely throwaway role), to get information on Luke’s whereabouts to help turn the tide.

While the Jedi may have passed into myth, Poe is determined to oppose the First Order as part of the Resistance.

So, immediately, there’s a sense that everything that’s old is new again; I honestly thought this film would be a chance to see the roles reversed a bit and have the remnants of the Empire be reduced to a rag-tag group of ships and terrorists trying to strike back against the overwhelming benevolence of the New Republic but, instead, the Empire is essentially back in the First Order, which is somehow so powerful that it threatens the entire New Republic! Not only that, but Luke is gone, despite Mark Hamill being so prominent in all the promotional materials for the film, and his absence is another in a long list of misguided decisions by the filmmakers in this film and its sequels. One thing I found particularly aggravating was just how quickly everyone forgot important concepts like the Jedi and influential people like Luke Skywalker. Just like at the beginning of Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope (Lucas, 1977), the Jedi are all but extinct and they, and even Luke, have passed into myth because, apparently, thirty years is enough time for people to forget anything. However, I think a lot of people miss that it’s only been two years since Ben Solo sacked the Jedi Temple and drove Luke into exile. While I can understand someone like Rey, who lives a remote and isolated life, thinking Luke was only a myth, this seems to be the prevailing thought amongst many of the side characters and there’s a definite sense that Luke’s been missing for far longer than he actually has. One decision I do agree with, however, is the introduction of fresh, new blood to the franchise and I have absolutely no issue with having new protagonists take centre stage as it brings us such brilliant characters as Poe Dameron, a hot-shot Resistance pilot who is both completely loyal to the ideals of the New Republic but also somewhat reckless out in the field. Still, he’s not an idiot; when Kylo Ren slaughters Lor San Tekka and his villagers on Jakku, Poe is smart enough to leave the map he received from Lor with his trusty droid companion, BB-8 (Bill Hader and Ben Schwartz), but feisty enough to backtalk Kylo Ren (he even takes a shot at him in a failed attempt to save Lor’s life) even when he’s painfully left at the dark tyrant’s mercy. Poe’s reputation as the best fighter pilot in the Resistance proceeds him, and even Kylo Ren is impressed by Poe’s resilience; this, alongside his skills as a pilot and his defiance, is a defining trait of Poe’s but even he’s only able to escape from the First Order’s clutches thanks to morally conflicted Stormtrooper FN-2187. Excited at the prospect of a daring, action-packed escape (and at piloting a TIE Fighter), Poe jumps at the chance and quickly forms a bond with the desperate FN-2187, whom Poe nicknames “Finn”. Although Poe seemingly perishes in their escape attempt, he randomly turns out to be alive later in the film, leading to an emotional reunion on Takodana with his newfound friend, BB-8, and the coming together of our three new protagonists to assault Starkiller Base.

Though she’s lived a sheltered life, Rey is a gifted pilot, mechanic, and a potential Jedi!

With Poe presumed dead, BB-8 is stumbled upon by scavenger Rey who, at this point, has no idea of her true heritage and believes that she was simply abandoned when she was a child (Cailey Fleming). Rey lives a hard life on the arid sands of Jakku, one that sees her foraging derelicts for meagre portions of food and living a life of solitude in the remains of an All-Terrain Armoured Transport (AT-AT). However, although she longs to journey to the stars, very much like Luke in A New Hope, she’s compelled to stay in the hopes that her parents will return for her. Self-reliant and strong-willed, Rey is something of a savage; she’s naturally paranoid and suspicious of others since she’s clearly spent her whole life fighting for what little food and possessions she has but does have an affinity for droids, which eventually causes her to fall in with Finn when he comes looking for BB-8 to honour Poe’s final wish. This finally gives Rey the opportunity to leave Jakku and she does so in style by piloting the dilapidated Millennium Falcon, which just so happens to not only be on Jakku but also the only ship available to them. Even more conveniently, Rey is not just the jack-of-all-trades but, seemingly, the master of them all; she’s able to speak multiple languages (including “droid speak” and Wookie), can repair, fix, and build machinery, is a naturally gifted pilot, and is also strong in the Force! It’s therefore not surprising that many have labelled her a “Mary Sue” since Rey just seems to magically be able to do everything because the script demands it and is quickly befriended by faces old and new alike. However, I don’t really have that much of a problem with Rey; sure, Daisy Ridley is the weakest of the main three actors for me and I personally found Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) a far more compelling female lead in Disney’s new Star Wars films, but I enjoyed her wide-eyed hero worship of characters like Luke and Han, her feisty independent spirit, and her overall presentation as a lonely young woman trying to find her place in the galaxy and realising that she has far more potential than she ever realised.

While Finn isn’t the Jedi he’s hinted to be, his strong moral compass is admirable and BB-8 adds to the charm.

BB-8 is more than just the newest cutesy mascot for the franchise, it’s a whole character in its own right; since R2-D2 (Jimmy Vee/Kenny Baker) is in standby mode for the majority of the film, and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) is mainly just a glorified cameo who keeps banging on about his red arm (that’s never explained onscreen and disappears by the next film), BB-8 takes centre stage as the main robotic character of The Force Awakens. Despite only communicating in electronic bleeps, it’s absolutely exuding personality; you can tell that it greatly cares for Poe as a friend and is saddened when it thinks he’s died), and is both suspicious and amusingly supportive of Finn when they join forces with Rey. As fantastic as it is to see BB-8 realised as a largely practical effect (I still have no idea how they were able to pull off its rolling movement so seamlessly), it’s a bit odd that many characters understand its “droid speak”, which seems to be a lazy convenience by the writers. This is paralleled by perhaps the most intriguing of the three new protagonists, Finn. Those who have watched Star Wars’ many spin-off media may be familiar with Clone Troopers and Stromtroopers having individual identities and (probably) consciences, but this was the first time we’d seen a Stormtrooper be anything other than a nameless, faceless minion for the heroes to gun down in cold blood. Inducted into the First Order at an early age and forced into war, Finn is no mere pre-programmed clone or mindless soldier; he’s a frightened young man in over his head who is horrified at the merciless slaughter of innocents and the First Order’s oppressive ways. Finn is desperate to escape their wrath but frees Poe not just because he needs a pilot but because it’s the “right thing to do”. This edict guides Finn throughout the remainder of the film; moved by Poe’s apparent demise and trust, Finn takes up not only his newfound friend’s jacket but also his mission to return BB-8 and the map it contains to the Resistance. However, conscious that he will be unfairly judged if he openly admits that he’s a former First Order Stormtrooper, Finn desperately feigns being with the Resistance i to quickly earn Rey and BB-8’s trust, something he’s clearly unhappy about but his absolute terror of the First Order overrides his doubts. He’s seen first-hand what they’re capable of, and what they’re building, and is focused only on getting as far away from them as he can by any means necessary, but is morally unable to simply leave his newfound friends to wage a suicide war against Starkiller Base without his expertise.

Kylo Ren is a tortured, surprisingly complex, and explosive angry young man lashing out at everything he sees.

Another notable aspect of the film is new villain Kylo Ren; played with a magnificent imposing menace by the fantastic Adam Driver, Kylo Ren may look like a cheap knock off of Darth Vader (David Prowse/James Earl Jones) but that’s actually kind of the point and he’s much more than that. Considering that, beneath the imposing mask, he’s actually Ben Solo, Force-sensitive son of Leia and Han and grandson of Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen), it makes sense that he’d model himself after the infamous Sith Lord and the fact that he keeps the shattered remains of Vader’s helmet just goes to show just how twisted his perception of reality is. Kylo Ren makes an immediate impact not just with his emotionless helmet and deep, semi-cybernetic baritone that oozes menace, but also by exhibiting a command over the Dark Side that we haven’t really seen before as he freezes a blaster bolt in mid-air. Kylo Ren showcases a knack for forcibly drawing information from his victims using the Dark Side of the Force, penetrating their mind and feelings in order to both torture and manipulate them and learn what he needs, but he’s also an extremely explosive and unpredictable individual. Originally a Jedi prodigy, he was a student of Luke’s but found himself seemingly betrayed by his master, destroying the Jedi training grounds, and killing all but a few similarly inclined Jedi and recruiting them into his poorly defined “Knights of Ren”. Thanks to the influence of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), Ben is turned against his friends and family and assumes the role of “Kylo Ren” but remains a tortured and conflicted young man who lets his anger and insecurities get the best of him. Overwhelmed by these dark feelings, Kylo Ren regularly lashes out in volatile anger when he’s bested and is seemingly driven by an innate desire to destroy all remnants of his past, no matter how badly it pains him to do so.

Sadly, the film squanders many of the First Order’s more promising elements.

The First Order is largely comprised of obedient Stormtroopers and extremist military commanders, just like the Empire, but there are a few standouts amongst their ranks: first and foremost is General Hux (Gleeson), the young and cruel-hearted commander of the First Order’s military forces. A proud and stubborn man, Hux believes whole-heartedly in the training standards of his Stormtroopers and the might of his military (he’s particularly proud of his ludicrous planet-destroying Starkiller Base) and delivers rousing speeches of hatred and vitriol in a pretty explicit allusion of Adolf Hitler’s public addresses. General Hux and Kylo Ren have a tumultuous relationship, to say the least, in which they both vie for the attention, and approval, of Supreme Leader Snoke; this means they continually butt heads over the best methods to advance the First Order’s cause and have a professional rivalry that borders on antagonistic since they have little respect or liking for each other. However, all in all, The Force Awakens really squanders some of its new characters; Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) looks visually impressive and intimidating with her striking reflective Stormtrooper armour and blunt commanding voice, but she does literally nothing except exist on the periphery and be easily coerced into helping the heroes infiltrate Starkiller Base. It’s not even more explicit whether she perishes in the planet’s destruction or not, and I have no idea why the filmmakers didn’t have it be her who confronts Finn on Takodana rather than a random Stormtrooper. Perhaps the most glaring and almost insulting inclusion in the film is the First Order’s malformed and malevolent figurehead, Supreme Leader Snoke; seeming to be a mutilated giant thanks to only appearing as an ominous hologram, this poorly-veiled stand-in for the far more enigmatic and memorable Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) irked me no end when I first saw the film and continues to vex me now not just for how poorly his story was cut off at the knees in the subsequent sequels but because he really wasn’t necessary to the films at all. For me, including another wizened, decrepit, malicious Sith Lord just took away from the agency and independence of Kylo Ren’s character. Once again, it was a case of the same old thing as a promising Jedi recruit fell under the sway of a dark influencer and pledged his fealty to this supposedly all-powerful Dark Sider and I just feel like characters like General Hux and Kylo Ren would’ve been stronger without this puppet master looming over them and allowed them, and Captain Phasma, to take the spotlight as the three main figureheads of the First Order.

The film’s new characters are joined by all the familiar faces, now older but larger in their same roles.

After escaping Jakku, Rey and Finn conveniently run across old favourites Han Solo and Chewbacca; having lost the Millennium Falcon some years prior and returned to his smuggling ways, Han walked away from the Republic after Ben’s turn to the Dark Side, with Chewie in tow due to his unending loyalty. Where he was once a sceptical, self-serving smuggler, Han is now a jaded veteran who has seen more than his fair share of conflict and knows the extent of the Force only too well. Both he and Chewie take an instant like to Rey over their mutual appreciation of the Falcon’s capabilities and their piloting and mechanical skills, but Han is initially more concerned with retaking his ship than joining the battle against the First Order. He’s swayed to aid them, however, after seeing the partial map BB-8 possesses; he grimly relates a version of Luke’s self-imposed exile, omitting key information like his relationship to Kylo Ren (which is just dropped in our laps with little fuss of fanfare by Snoke), and leads them to Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o). This centuries-old sage very much fills the role of a Yoda (Frank Oz) archetype: she’s perceptive and wise, well versed in the nature of the Force, and even inexplicably has Anakin’s lightsaber, which Luke lost during his time in Cloud City. Han’s time on Takodana also reunites him with Leia after the Resistance fend off the First Orde’s attack; while Han is just as cynical as ever thanks to having lost his only son to the Dark Side, Leia remains the strong-willed beacon of hope that she always was. She commands respect from her Resistance fighters, who follow her lead without question and with unfaltering loyalty, and she also quickly forms an affectionate relationship with Rey. Her reunion with Han is one of both regret and joy; Han expresses remorse for all the wasted years he spent away from her, and (just as Luke did with Vader) she still maintains the hope that there’s good in Ben. Han promises to try and reach him, which ultimately proves to be his downfall; in an emotional confrontation, Han pleads with Ben to give up his crusade and ends up run through by Kylo Ren’s lightsaber in the troubled youth’s frantic desire to cut off all emotional attachments to his past. However, in his last moments, Han shows nothing but affection for his misguided son and, though it costs him his life, his sacrifice wouldn’t be in vain and would pay an integral part in Ben’s eventual (if questionable) redemption.

The Nitty-Gritty:
Despite my dislike for many of the decisions made in this film and the sequels, I do have to praise the script; character dialogue is especially entertaining, with the rapport between Poe and Finn being a notable highlight. It’s not just lines like Poe’s “who talks first?” line and Finn’s “I am with the Resistance” exchange with Rey that stand out either; BB-8’s hesitation at trusting Finn and then giving him a “thumbs up” is not only a sweet moment that influences the droid with more personality than I ever could’ve imagined but also extremely amusing, and little touches like Stormtroopers slowly backing away when Kylo Ren is losing his shit and cameos by the likes of Daniel Craig really help to elevate the script and even the most insignificant characters far beyond the stilted delivery churned out in the Prequel trilogy. Indeed, the performances are commendable across the board; the wit and banter exhibited is natural and amusing, Kylo Ren’s menace is threatening and imposing, General Hux is suitably over the top, and even Harrison Ford seems to be enjoying himself. Not only that but the film is peppered with little moments that help to I remember coming out of the film the first time I saw it and being won over by the character interactions alone; The Force Awakens was a breath of fresh air after the often wooden and awkward line delivery of the Prequel Trilogy, though don’t let this fool you into thinking that the actual plot is anything other than a shameless rehash of the best and most memorable aspects of the Original Trilogy.

The film does a fantastic job of recreating the look and feel of the Original Trilogy.

Another massive positive of The Force Awakens is its visual presentation. The abundance of practical effects is greatly appreciated; the First Order Stormtroopers actually wear suits, there’s physical ships, sets, and locations for characters to get into and interact with, and even BB-8 is a wholly practical effect. While there’s obviously a great deal of green screen and CGI involved in the film, it’s nowhere near as noticeably as in the Prequel Trilogy, which makes everything much more enjoyable to watch as it feels like things are actually happening rather than being created. Even now, despite my many issues with the film and its sequels, I can’t fault the special effects; it’s pretty bloody cool to see Rey scavenging a crashed Star Destroyer and to see it buried deep in the sand, the Millennium Falcon’s exhilarating escape from Jakku is as thrilling as any of the other space battles in the film, and there’s clearly been a great deal of love and care put into recreated the “lived-in”, practical feel of the Original Trilogy to juxtapose the limited resources of the Resistance and backwater worlds like Jakku with the technological might of the First Order. When CGI is used, it’s presented far less like some PlayStation 3-era videogame and in a way that allows ships and creatures to seamlessly appear part of their environment thanks, largely, to existing alongside traditional practical make-up effects and animatronics. This makes everything feel much more “real” and believable as characters are actually, physically in a space and at the controls of their crafts, which makes the many space skirmishes and action sequences all the more exciting. Perhaps the only real downside is the baffling inclusion of the monstrous Rathtars aboard Han’s new smuggling vessel, an inclusion simply made to get Han and the others out of a bind that didn’t need to exist as calling Han’s issues with the gangs looking to collect on him really doesn’t go anywhere, but seeing all the classic Star Wars ships in action once again was an undeniable thrill made all the more commendable by them having imperfections and being presented faithfully to their original depictions abut augmented, rather than overwhelmed, by CGI.

Of all the derivative aspects from the Original Trilogy, Starkiller Base is the most glaring inclusion.

However, I remain aggravated by the many allusions to the Original Trilogy that are peppered throughout the film; I enjoy nostalgia as much as the next person but The Force Awakens pulls so much from the first three films that it’s easy to see why so many found it derivative. Rey is a lonely girl living on a desert planet who dreams of the stars (just like Luke), there’s a mystery around Luke and the Jedi that’s almost exactly like Luke experiences at the start of his journey, and the First Order is just the Empire in new clothing as they pilot the same ships and are a malevolent and overwhelming force for the heroes to fight against. It doesn’t end there, though: Han’s confrontation with Kylo Ren is very reminiscent of Luke’s iconic run-in with Darth Vader in Cloud City, Poe hides a vital piece of information in a droid just like Leia did, Kylo Ren is introduced in a manner very similar to Darth Vader and even interrogates Rey much like Vader did to Leia, Maz’s castle very much evokes the same feeling of danger and debauchery as the Mos Eisley Cantina, and even the disgusting Unkar Plutt (Simon Pegg) isn’t a million miles away from Jabba the Hutt (Declan Mulholland/Scott Schumann). But perhaps the most glaring of all is Starkiller Base itself, a planet-sized weapon capable of destroying the New Republic’s core worlds in one shot, apparently regardless of where those planets are located in the galaxy. As ominous and dangerous a threat as the Death Stars were, those were merely the size of moons; Starkiller Base dwarfs them in comparison (because bigger is always better, right?) and is five times as dangerous with its ludicrously power and impractical main cannon. It makes you wonder how the First Order are able to aim their weapon; like, what if their targets are further away, or on the other side of the planet? And how in the absolute hell did the First Order find the time and resources to build such a preposterous weapon? It took the Empire thirty years to build the Death Star and, in less time, the First Order were apparently able to partially hollow out a planet, install all their machinery, and develop the technology to harness the power of a star all to destroy five worlds. Starkiller Base is not only far more impractical and far more immobile than the Death Stars, its power is also much more finite as surely it will eventually suck that star dry? And, to make matters worse, the First Order learned nothing from their predecessors and failed to account for glaring weaknesses in their doomsday weapon that allow a rag-tag fleet of Resistance fighters and ground troops to destroy it from the inside out (a victory that you would think would spell the end of the First Order but, somehow, they’re apparent stronger than ever in the sequel despite surely the vast majority of their forces being stationed on that world?)

For me, the film really wastes a lot of the potential to do something new with the franchise.

However, The Force Awakens’ problems go beyond just banking on nostalgia; I can understand that, but what I can’t understand (and still can’t understand) is just how off the mark so much of its narrative is. As great as the new characters are the as heart-warming as the call-backs and attention to detail is, the execution is just so bafflingly off in so many ways that just caused a ripple effect that messed up the subsequent sequels as well. This includes annoyances like Kylo Ren’s unmasking not being saved for his confrontation with Han rather than being wasted on Rey’s interrogation, not getting a sense of how the galaxy has changed since the New Republic was formed, not seeing Luke training new Jedi, Han and Leia being separated, Rey’s origins being left vague simply as a sequel hook, and not getting to see anything of the last thirty years of these character’s lives. Hindsight is a beautiful thing, and it’s easy to say what they “should have” done, but I was restructuring this movie in my head within minutes after leaving the cinema. I would’ve had Leia and Han be together as supporting characters and highlighted their new struggles as politicians rather than freedom fighters so we could see them as new characters, rather than the same ones but older. I would have had Rey and Ben be cousins or siblings and Luke’s finest students and have Ben’s turn to the Dark Side be a gradual thing that peaked in the second movie. Or I would have removed Snoke completely and restructured the First Order so that Hux commands the military, Kylo Ren leads his acolytes as the “muscle” (maintaining their professional rivalry), and given more screen time to Captain Phasma as the front-line commander of the troops. I definitely would have had the First Order be a small, but aggressive, terrorist force that attacked key targets (and named them something a bit less obnoxious), and maybe had Kylo Ren seek out Luke’s scattered Jedi to kill or recruit them. I would have definitely made more of Finn being Force-sensitive and carry it through, possibly even at the cost of Rey’s Force ability, and absolutely would have changed the depiction of Starkiller Base! The focus of the film should have been on intercepting a vital component or power source for an unrevealed First Order weapon; we should see only the interior and glimpses of their hidden base and recruitment centre until the finale and Starkiller Base should have been saved for the third film as the ultimate threat. The Resistance could have then destroyed a factory or facility the First Order had overtaken, not built, on a moon for a similar finale. I’m okay with Han dying but I do think it should’ve been saved for the next film so we could get more screen time with Ben and Rey and just a better sense of why we should care that this random new character turned bad beyond him being Han Solo’s kid.

Han’s sacrifice pushes Rey to find her true self, and allows the Resistance to pinpoint Luke’s location.

To be fair, though, Han’s death causes anguish not just for Leia and Chewie, but also for Rey, who had very quickly come to see him as not just an icon but a father figure of sorts. This only exacerbates her hatred and vendetta against Kylo Ren, who intimidated her, tortured her, threatened her newfound friends, and embodies all of the wanton destruction and evil of the First Order. Thanks to Han’s sacrifice, the shield generator around Starkiller Base is lowered, allow Poe to strike the thermal oscillator and set off a chain reaction that tears the planet apart; despite this, and being injured, Kylo Ren purses Finn and Rey into the nearby woods and a final confrontation goes down. Unfortunately for Finn, he’s not the potential Jedi the film leads us to believe he is and he suffers a seemingly devastating injury at Kylo’s hands; Kylo is then stunned when his attempts to reclaim his grandfather’s lightsaber are met with failure and the blade instead finds itself into Rey’s hands. Incredibly, despite having absolutely no training with the weapon and the unpredictable nature of her Force powers, Rey is able to more than hold her own against Kylo Ren, who is fascinated by her and the potential she has and attempts to sway her towards the Dark Sides. However, Rey is so incensed at Kylo’s actions that she angrily rebukes his offer and attacks with everything she has; Kylo’s fighting style is far more refined and deliberate and much different to other Force users we’ve seen so far. His lightsaber is styled after a traditional medieval sword and literally splitting with energy, but his movements are heavy-handed and fuelled by strength and rage, something he only exacerbates by repeatedly beating his chest and worsening the pain from his injury to increase his pain and anger. Ultimately, their duel is interrupted by the destruction of Starkiller Base but, while Kylo lives to fight another day, he’s left with an absolutely brutal scar across his face and the Resistance is finally able to complete the map and pinpoint Luke’s location. The ending then becomes this really rushed finale as Artoo is reactivated and Rey takes Hans place aboard the Millennium Falcon to confront Luke on the remote world of Ahch-Toh, where the film ends with an awkward stare down between the two. Personally, considering that Luke really wasn’t in the film at all, I think it would’ve been better to end the movie with the Resistance completing the map and save Rey’s trip to Ahch-To for the sequel as it really fell flat for me, despite how cool it was to see Luke as a wizened hermit.

The Summary:
I find myself conflicted over Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens. On the one hand, it’s a brilliant love letter to the Original Trilogy, dusting off all the familiar ships and characters and tropes that made George Lucas’ films so iconic. The use of practical effects is incredibly appealing, and the use of physical sets, props, and locations really helps to capture the same feeling evoked in those first films, before Lucas went all crazy with the CGI. The new characters are great as well; they all exude a great deal of chemistry and charisma and have a great rapport with each other. The friendship between Finn and Poe, and Finn and Rey, was far better and more believable than any relationship seen in the Prequel Trilogy and Kylo Ren made for a surprisingly complex villain who did in one movie what three films struggled to do with Anakin Skywalker. Equally, I have few faults with the dialogue and characterisations; even one-dimensional villains and periphery characters show some personality either through some snappy line delivery or a striking visual look, and BB-8 was a fantastic little droid to add to the Star Wars ensemble who managed to stand out as unique amongst its peers. However, on the other hand, there’s the sheer banality of the whole thing; at its core, it’s just A New Hope again, with elements of the other two films tossed in and weaved into the narrative simply to cash-in on nostalgia and familiarity.  There’s no real sense of progression here; yes, we have fresh new faces, but the galaxy seems to be exactly the same as we last left it except that the characters we grew up idolising have gotten older, wearier, and largely walked away from their responsibilities. We’re told a few things about what happened in the interim, but I know that I, personally, would much rather have seen it or at least seen some indication of it rather than just falling back on a safe status quo but with a new coat of paint. I think that sums up my feelings on The Force Awakens quite well: it’s too safe. There’s no real attempt to try anything new, just rehashing what we’ve seen before and underdelivering on potential new storylines as a result, and it’s especially disappointing given how experimental and different Disney’s Star Wars projects would eventually become after their Sequel Trilogy failed to live up to expectations. It’s probably still the best of the Sequel Trilogy for me, but that’s really not saying much, and The Force Awakens continues to just be a huge missed opportunity to try something new that spiralled into a nosedive with the next two sequels.

My Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Pretty Good

Are you a fan of Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens? Did you find it to be a decent start to the Sequel Trilogy and how would you rank it against other films in the Star Wars saga? Which of the three new protagonists was your favourite? Did you enjoy seeing a Stormtrooper have a crisis of conscience? What did you think to Rey and did you find her a little too perfect as a character? Were you a fan of Kylo Ren? What are your thoughts on the use of nostalgia and did you like the narrative presented in the film? Were you shocked by Han’s death and annoyed that Luke was basically a glorified cameo? I’d love to see your thoughts on The Force Awakens in the replies below or on my social media, so feel free to share your opinions, good or bad, and thanks for joining me for three more days of Star Wars!