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- Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice : 2 (out of 10)
- Lucy: 3 out of 10
- 300: Rise of an Empire: 4 out of 10
- Ender's Game: 5 out of 10
- Riddick: 6 out of 10
- The World's End: 8 out of 10
- Man of Steel: 5 out of 10
- Star Trek Into Darkness: 5 out of 10
- Oblivion: 4 out of 10
- G.I. Joe: Retaliation: 2 out of 10
Summary: it's terrible. Don't see it.
It's almost hard to believe that Batman v Superman is so bad a movie as it turned out to be. Sure, the trailers were bad, the early reports were awful, and the reviews have been apocalyptic; but the cast was strong, the budget was more than adequate, and Zack Snyder has proven capable of at least basic mediocrity in the past. Unfortunately, Snyder managed to make his worst film yet.
The plot fits into three major stories: a Superman movie involving Lex Luthor and a personal crisis of faith based on how the world perceives him; a Batman origin movie asking how far he will go to protect his world when the rules change; and a superhero-vs-monster summer blockbuster tent-pole. None of these plots were unworkable, but none were given a chance to breathe; rather, these plots were tossed into a blender, parts scooped out more-or-less randomly, and placed into sequential order, plus or minus a few dream sequences. What comes out is tonally, thematically, and (oddly) visually inconsistent and jittery. It just plain doesn't fit together; the stories undermine each other, the protagonists never have a chance to do anything but react, and we're never given a chance to even think about what's going on.
The actors are mostly acceptable. Ben Affleck plays an okay Batman and a pretty-good Bruce Wayne; Henry Cavill is still a perfectly acceptable Superman; Gal Gadot is given little enough characterization to make her kick-ass moments, well, kick ass; Amy Adams may have had her character become a victim, but she at least tries to make something of her role; and Jesse Eisenberg, well, his Lex Luthor is a frigging embarrassment, but that's mostly the writing's fault, at least he tried. As for the secondary cast, well, they don't get enough screen time to be relevant, so it's best not to worry much about poor Laurence Fishburne or Holly Hunter.
The visuals were in large part based on The Dark Knight Returns, which is iconic for a reason; and much of the time they were at least workable, if not inspired. There was one Batman fight scene that reminded me of the Arkham Asylum series of video games, which was worth something; and the otherworldly movements of Superman were eerie and messianic in an impressive way. But the fight scenes were pretty much terrible, in the same way as in Man of Steel, where the only real way that we can keep track of who's winning a fight is with hit point bars.
Some good points: well, they showed the Captain America trailer before the movie, does that count? I liked Alfred. Oh, and LEGO Batman looks cool.
Some bad points:
The timeline didn't work, in a rather lazy fashion. We had things like there being time for a congressional hearing before Superman was able to return from an African nation, or weeks of Superman "lost in the wilderness" while nothing else happens at all. I don't like it when things go too fast and too slow.
The "Superman as Jesus vs Devil" thing was clearly the focus of a lot of discussion, but Snyder failed to actually come to any conclusions about it except that it made for the occasional interesting visual. Take a side, man!
There's a part in the movie where we watch Youtube videos introducing other DC Universe superheroes. They were vaguely interesting, but were handled terribly. I think that they would have made a good DVD special feature; instead, they were tossed into an already-too-long film, breaking what flow we had finally managed to put together.
Some more bad points: there was a lot of casual cruelty for a movie marketed at children. Snyder managed to make Batman into both a passive puppet and a cruel torturer and murderer. Holly Hunter made up the entirety of Congress. Neil Degrasse Tyson put his face in this movie on purpose. Nobody knows how to flee from an apocalypse. After spending the whole movie complaining about the property damage done to Metropolis in the first movie, we end up doing more property damage in this movie.
Snyder killed a major Superman character in the first 10 minutes of the movie just to show off how "gritty" he could be. Batman is a terrible detective. The Daily Planet gets its news from CNN. The government just gives Lex Luthor the body of General Zod from the first movie; and Kryptonian security is a joke. They didn't even bother to explain why Lex Luthor is insane.
There were ~6 endings and ~3 beginnings. Too many dream sequences. Lex's plot was about 3x more complicated than necessary. That network tap. Why didn't Wonder Woman get to do more? And...
Okay, I should stop.
Rating: 2/10 (* 1/2 out of 4); I think I've managed to avoid seeing any worse superhero movies to date, and hopefully this will help remind me in the future.
The trailer for Lucy that came out a few months ago was fun, at least the first time I saw it. The action looked sharp and stylish, the story seemed cheerfully bare-bones and perfunctory, and Luc Besson's direction and Scarlett Johansson's acting are generally joys to watch. The main downside was the focus on the "humans use only 10% of the human brain" myth, which grated like nails on a chalkboard; but I could still get behind it, if only that part was only being played up in the trailers.
Sadly, the trailer was not exaggerating. The movie really, truly commits to the 10% thing, and extrapolates it all the way up to transcendence and transubstantiation. And this plot contrivance undermines the story, with the story undermining the plot as well. All we're left with is some occasional nice action scenes and some good acting by Scarlet Johansson.
The general plot of the movie: Lucy (Johansson) is turned into an unwitting drug mule for an experimental drug. When the bag of drugs is broken while still inside of her, she gets super powers and starts to transcend. While mourning the loss of her humanity, she then tries to get more of the drug so that she can further transcend. Also, there are bad guys that are generally good at blowing things up that act as mere annoyances to Lucy. Lucy succeeds at transcending. Cue 2001 space baby.
To me, that sounds like a perfectly reasonable plot to an animated movie with about ten lines of subtitled dialogue. There's no real need to explain what's going on here, and any explanation will by necessity cut into the trippiness of the high concept by forcing us to answer questions that we shouldn't have needed to articulate in the first place.
Unfortunately, Besson wanted to focus on that explanation. As such, he cast Morgan Freeman as a professor that specializes in human brain studies (psychologist? Biologist? I don't think we were told), and Freeman proceeds to explain Besson's thesis in detail. Humanity only uses 10-15% of its brain; dolphins use 20%, and that's how they can do echo-location; if we used more than that, we would be able to control our own bodies, the bodies of others, matter, energy, etc, each associated with a specific 5% mark. This all gets tied into evolution and immortal cells and information transfer and other pseudo-science.
By casting Freeman, Besson was forced to use him. And so we end up with the major sub-plot of the film, which involves Lucy coming to Paris to see him for, err, some reason. This ties into a bunch of other silly premises involving the other drug mules, the remarkably-determined bad guys, and something involving Lucy's need for exactly four bags of the drug (no more, no less), coincidentally the number of bags already shown on screen!
This sub-plot serves to undermine the otherwise-straightforward story. Conversely, the story undermines the sub-plot, which probably could have worked out if it wasn't in the service of a trippy action movie.
How about the action? At least some of the individual scenes were pretty and well-directed in isolation, including Lucy's break-out from captivity, the car-chase scene, and the start of the Bad Guy's final assault; but only the first of those scenes really fit into the story, and only the last one fit into the plot. (The car chase scene could have been excised from the movie without effecting either one, but it was at least striking!). But most of the action was fairly forgettable, especially compared to the trippy scenes happening around the action.
All in all, this whole movie felt half-formed and unfocused. I wish that Besson had committed to one type of movie or another, so that we might have ended up with something more interesting than a stylized mess.
Rating: 3 (out of 10)
By the way:
The next few months do not look good. The "highlight" trailer was for 50 Shades of Grey, which just looked terrible in all ways. Other listed movies included November Man, a spy thriller with a former James Bond protecting a former Bond Girl in a small black dress; Dracula Untold, a faux-deconstruction of the Dracula origin myth starring Bard the Bowman; The Judge, attempted Oscar-bait where Iron Man the Evil Defense Attorney must protect his estranged father (Robert Duval) from charges of vehicular murder; and No Good Deed, an Idris Elba home invasion movie that sets off my 'racist' alarm something fierce.
On the other hand, I do want to see Interstellar, because you probably can't go too wrong with Christopher Nolan doing sci-fi; the hated trailer-for-going-the-movies was for Guardians of the Galaxy, which looks like it's going to be lots of fun; and Kingsman: the Secret Service looks like it may understand the style-above-substance problem better than Lucy, at least. So the trailers weren't a complete loss (though I think it's safe to say that eight trailers is too many).
This just isn't as compelling as the source material.
It is generally silly to dwell on a-historical depictions of history and historical characters in Hollywood films, especially one adapting an unreleased graphic novel. But 300: Rise of an Empire is a special case, dealing as it does with events and characters described by Herodotus, the Greek 'Father of History'. Where the original 300 took a single event from his Histories - the Battle of Thermopylae - and adapted it into a recognizable and broad-strokes-accurate story, this sequel chooses to adapt the Persian Wars as a whole. And just as in the original 300, there is a lot to admire when the "true" history of Herodotus shines through. Unfortunately, this sequel falls short both in accuracy and artistic value, usually at the expense of the narrative.
Let's start with the opening voice-over, where Lena Headey, as Queen Gorgo of the Spartans, prophesies that Athens will only be saved by wooden ships. This actually refers to a prophecy of the Oracle at Delphi, which foretold that Athens would be saved by its "wooden walls". The people of Athens originally interpreted this literally, and wanted to expand their walls to defend against the upcoming attack; but Themistocles, an Athenian politician and general, encouraged his people to interpret the prophecy as a metaphor for the Athenian fleet.
The movie's presentation of this prophecy may have the virtue of being short and sweet, but it kills the story-telling potential of introducing Themistocles - who turns out to be the protagonist of the story. We don't hear about his vision for the Athenian navy, or how he had convinced the Athenians to build their ships over the last decade. Instead, we are told that he was the Tortured Hero of Marathon ten years before, when he shot King Darius of Persia (note: this didn't happen). Rather than being shown a compelling and flawed Athenian historical figure, Themistocles is turned into a brooding and lifeless Action Hero fighting for democracy and justice.
Artemisia fares better than Themistocles, but only because her character was so ahistorical as to make the whole exercise of comparing to history worthless. The historical Artemisia was the Queen of Caria, a Greek colony that was under the control of the Persian empire. She was in fact a naval commander under Xerxes, notable because of her gender (women really didn't exist in these circles in the 5th century BC) and because she did stand out at the naval battle at Salamis. Conversely, Artemisia-the-movie-character (Eva Green) was quite effective in her role - colorful, bigger than life, and above all memorable - but she wasn't actually shown as particularly competent in her role as naval commander. Indeed, the only skills that she showed were a) cutting and stabbing anybody around her and b) hating Greeks (and, well, everybody else).
The battles themselves - well, at least most of the battles depicted actually did occur. The depiction of Greek naval warfare was fairly accurate: triremes would ram and sink each other, and if that failed the ships would simply be platforms for hand-to-hand combat. Some of the tactics in the battle of Artemeisium were even fairly accurate. But the battle of Salamis was shown as a typical Hollywood battle - the plucky good guys up against unstoppable odds, holding out bravely against the final onslaught, until unexpected reinforcements arrive to turn the battle in their favor. This is especially frustrating when the actual point of the battle was that strategic and tactical planning can turn the tide against superior numbers - the point, in fact, of the original 300!
And the Spartans - well, let's just say that their depiction in the original 300 was more complete than this.
For all of that, 300 2 (302?) still delivers on what was expected: stylized action and gore, excellent storyboards and well-done cinematography, a scenery-chewing actor (well, actress - Eva Green did by far the best job in this movie), and a strong dose of shallow jingoism. Within its own requirements, it's not a terrible movie. I'm just not sure that I can recommend seeing it.
Rating: 4 (out of 10)
A few other points:
There was a lot of flesh on display, as was probably the point of this exercise. The Athenians were fairly interchangeable as Big Buff Guys With Beards, and oh there sure were a lot of them! As for the female characters, only one that I can recall - Lena Headey - was not topless at some point during the movie. I'm not sure if this is all overall a plus or a minus, but it seems worthy of note.
What was the 'rising empire' in the title, anyway? Persia? They only showed it clashing. Athens? Historically that may be reasonable, but no focus was offered here. Greece as a whole? Maybe that's what they were aiming at, but, again, they missed.
I find it frustrating when movies claim to be adaptations of other media, and that other media doesn't even exist yet. I find it especially frustrating in this case, because I'd like to see this art! Frank Miller is an exceptional artist, even if his work has become especially crazy-in-a-bad-way over the last few years; and given that the true draw of this movie and the original 300 was the beauty of the comic book art used as story boards, it's a shame to not have that comic book art to which to compare.
This movie definitely announced the beginning of the Summer Movie Season with its premiere trailers for Transformers 4 (5/10 - meh, I'll see the movie but the trailer wasn't great) and Godzilla (9/10 - now, that is a trailer). Interestingly, much of the focus was on horror movies - Oculus (6/10 - effective, but far from my style), Deliver Us From Evil (3/10 - drek, with an evil Angry Bird) - which seemed an odd choice for connecting to a standard action movie, but I guess that they don't have that many chances to advertise in front of R-rated movies nowadays.
The weirdest trailer was the red band trailer for Arnold Schwarzanegger's Sabotage, which focused on the joy of being a red-band trailer rather than being an actual preview for the movie. There were breasts, several exploding heads, and an absurd amount of cursing for a 90 second trailer, and there was no emphasis on story, characters, or plot. Meh. (4/10)
Finally, there was a trailer for X-Men: Days of Future Past. I don't think this trailer is standing up to repeat viewing that well, but I'm still excited to see the movie, so I guess it's working okay. (6/10)
The commercials for Ender's Game did not impress me. The advertising campaign focused on two things: on the propaganda surrounding the Formic War, and the movie's final battle. This focus on space combat was visually impressive, but were almost besides the point of the source material; and given that there were plenty of visually impressive pieces of the source material that could have adequately represented the source material, my expectation was that the film makers had completely missed the point.
Luckily, the commercials for Ender's Game do not reflect the movie. In fact, the movie is a fairly faithful retelling of the book, and many of its faults lie in that accuracy.
Both the movie and the book focus on Ender Wiggin, a child expressly born and bred to be a child officer in fleet defending Earth. The story focuses on Ender fighting his way through the ranks of an orbital Battle School, the distrust of his peers, and the adult's attempts to control. This isn't necessarily heady or subtle stuff, but it turns out to be a bit too complex for a 90 minute movie. Most movies would address this problem by leaving out less-important parts of the story; Ender's Game addresses the problem by just giving most of these parts of the story short-shrift.
One simple example: a good portion of the book is spent focusing on Ender's older siblings Valentine and Peter. The movie has precisely one short scene with Peter. While this isn't necessarily a huge loss, this did take time that could have been better spent on establishing other characters.
Another, and more pressing, example: the most striking part of the book was the concept of the Battle Room - an open, zero-gravity arena in which the children battle in army formations to conquer their opponent's gate. The battles themselves have been fascinating to imagine and to mentally extend for decades, and the slogan "The Enemy's Gate Is Down" sticks with me to this day. And I was not disappointed when the movie introduced the Battle Room or showed us the first battle; but, sadly, the movie didn't give the Battle Room the time it deserved. Instead we only got three Battle Room battles, each inexpertly combining together several scenes from the book. I could have watched a whole movie of nothing but the Battle Room (Hunger Games 4, perhaps? Or how about a video game?), but instead we were merely tempted.
Thus disappointed, I spent much of the movie focusing on what the movie could have been if time had been available to really focus on the parts that needed focus. I eventually decided that an 8-to-10 part HBO-style mini-series could have done the movie justice; the book was just episodic enough to support the material with appropriate A-and-B plots, some of which would involve and justify both Peter and Valentine.
Still, there was much to praise. The child actors were really quite good, to the extent that I was willing to forgive that they were all ~4 years older than the original novel called for. (Well, except for Peter.) The diversity of the cast was striking. The special effects were effective. The thematic material was stronger than I expected, even if it was hurt by the necessary elisions. And the final space battle was impressive, to the extent that I was not upset that so much time had been spent on it. And the anti-war and anti-bullying messages still came through, though not with the same poignancy as the original book.
To summarize: Ender's Game is not a bad movie, but it is not as good as it could have been, or perhaps should have been.
Rating: 5 (out of 10)
Overall, the trailers were quite unfocused, seemingly indicating that the movie studios didn't quite know what to make of this movie. It was especially striking that there were no trailers for sci-fi movies.
Vampire Academy: not only does the movie look terrible, but the trailer was inconsistent and useless. I know I'm not the target audience for these kinds of things, but still, this is an embarrassment. I'm sure it will make plenty of money. 2/10
Mr Peabody & Sherman: I am also not the target audience of this kind of kid's movie, but this at least looked watchable. The trailer did a fair job of explaining the story (as such) and sampling the jokes, though not perhaps explaining why we need a full 75 minutes of this kind of nostalgia. I rather expect to like the Rocky & Bullwinkle short more. 4/10
Anchorman 2: the trailer itself wasn't particularly well put together, sadly; it worked on the "string a bunch of jokes together" principle. Luckily, the jokes looked pretty good, especially the ones with Steve Carell. I'll probably see this. 6/10
47 Ronin: this movie would look a whole lot less embarrassing if Keanu Reeves was not involved. It's still visually impressive and does a good job of being a self-contained story; but I also come out of seeing this every time feeling like the trailer is actively trying to deceive me about its movie's contents. 4/10
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug: this trailer doesn't really have a lot of work to do; its target audience is going to see the movie regardless. As such, this just focuses on vignettes and visuals, rather than being a stand-alone work on its own (like, say the first trailer from the first Hobbit movie, with its focus on the Dwarven song). 6/10
I, Frankenstein: the movie looks horrible and fun to watch, and there's a pretty good chance that the trailer is going to be more fun than the movie itself. Over-the-top gothic fantasy horror may well be a hoot; if I see this movie, it'll almost certainly be because of the implied craziness of trailers like this. 7/10
I barely remember Pitch Black or The Chronicles of Riddick, but those few remaining memories are fairly fond ones. Both movies were entertaining and better than expected, the first one in the sci-fi-horror genre and the second sci-fi-epic; and I heard fairly positive things about the video game Escape from Butcher Bay as well. But that said, I didn't have any particular intention to go see the new movie, Riddick, until well after the (mixed) reviews started coming in. And I'm happy I went, because this is a solid, medium-budget action-sci-fi movie.
The film generally has three parts. The first part shows the titular Riddick struggling to survive on a hostile planet upon which he has been left for dead; this is a mostly-silent affair, with regular threats and montages and the occasional cute puppy. This was the most "sci-fi" and "acting" part of the movie, and was rather understated and interesting. It could have gotten boring, but it didn't outstay its welcome.
The second part of the film brings down the rest of the cast, two crews of bounty hunters that have come to kill Riddick, but turn out to be stalked and taunted by Riddick instead. This is familiar ground for many an action movie, and it was fairly well implemented. The characters were distinct and (mostly) plausible, the dialogue was simple but generally amusing, and the knowledge that this was only part of the movie gave it an interesting focus, since we didn't have to see every character die.
The third part has everybody that's still alive struggling to survive as the planet's ecosystem turns on them - basically, Pitch Black again. This was perfectly serviceable sci-fi-horror, and I have fairly little to say about it. It fits in well with the other parts, and it again ends before we have the time to get bored with it. That's all I could hope for.
My biggest gripe had to do with how Katee Sackhoff (Starbuck) was handled. While it was refreshing to have a woman (lesbian!) sniper bad-ass in amongst the standard mercenary-bad-ass crews, the writers still used the excuse to treat her as a sexual object, and only occasionally to good effect. Sure, it was nice to see her turn the tables (read: punch) on those trying to harass her the first couple of times; but did we really have to see a rape attempt get so far?
(For that matter, did we really need to have the rape attempt at all? If the goal was to show us how despicable the attempted-rapist was, we had already had this shown to us earlier in the film, and we were shown this again just a few minutes later; did we really need a full three this-character-has-to-die crimes? Sheesh.
I'll admit, I was less bothered by Riddick himself treating her as a sexual object. Not only did the banter make some sense in context, but he didn't actually "turn her straight", even though that's what the banter was about, and I saw no particular impression that he wanted to. I'm chalking this up to the fact that Riddick is meant to be an ass, more Conan than John Carter of Mars. Anyway, digression over.)
In short, this was a perfectly solid sci-fi-horror movie. The plot was simple and nothing special, the special effects were perfectly adequate, the characters were fine, the connection to the franchise was virtually non-existent, and the aliens were striking enough. I'll probably see the next sequel if/when it ever comes.
Rating: 6 (out of 10)
Trailer thoughts: the trailers before the main movie clearly understood that this was a sci-fi action adventure, but were otherwise nothing horribly memorable. There were two stand-out trailers:
Next year's Robocop remake. This was a stylish trailer, showing the new look and design while contrasting it directly with the original; and it had Samuel L Jackson talking, which is a plus. But it was also a "give us the whole plot" trailer. Still, it wasn't so bad as these things go, and it did the job of making me at least somewhat interested in a year's worth of marketing. 6/10 for the trailer.
Gravity. I was decidedly unimpressed with the teaser trailer for this movie, but this was much better, even though this full-length trailer is essentially just a longer version of that teaser from the other character's POV (Sandra Bullock instead of George Clooney). I think that the difference was that they had a chance to acknowledge my concerns before: yes, of course they don't stand a chance. I now intend to see this movie. 7/10.
I love the combination of Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost. Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz are two of my all-time favorite movies, and their TV show 'Spaced' is a classic in its own right. As such, my expectations were absolutely sky-high for their new movie, The World's End, and there was nothing that I could do about it. And so I have to admit that I was a little bit disappointed in TWE - but it was still probably the best movie I've seen this year by a fair amount.
The premise of this movie revolves around a bar crawl in a mid-sized British town, recreating a similar bar crawl from 23 years before. This core supports the main premise of the Wright/Pegg movies to date: show the repetition of previous actions from a decidedly different perspective, with said premise involving a major film trope. Shaun compared daily working life to a zombie plague; Hot Fuzz compared small-town life to a big-budget action movie; and TWE compares visiting our old childhood haunts to an alien invasion.
The core character of the movie is Gary King, a 40-year-old druggie burnout who is still living out his high school years. He is clearly a pathetic creature, pitied or hated by every major character (including himself); yet, there is something compelling about him, and you can see why his friends would have respected him and the past and feel drawn to him now. He is not, and cannot be, the hero; he is simply the catalyst for all that happens around him. And he made me feel as personally uncomfortable as his friends in the movie.
The first third-to-half of the movie revolves around Gary gathering his friends to go on the bar crawl, and everyone recognizing just how pathetic he is. The rest of the movie is the action.
Yes, this is a sci-fi action movie, with even fairly-reasonable science fiction (perhaps modelled a bit after the Culture books shown in the backgrounds of Hot Fuzz). As such, we can judge this movie based on semi-standard action movie guidelines, and on this things look good:
The action scenes are well-choreographed and consistent. We are clear as to the current state of the chases and fights.
The audience is always clear as to the sides and the stakes.
The special effects are effective and only as obtrusive as necessary.
The action scenes are there for the sake of the story; the story is not there just for the sake of the action scenes.
Things look similarly reasonable on the science fiction front:
Only one major thing has changed, and other things follow from it. These things are somewhat-vaguely-sensible.
The implications of this change are at least partially thought through, and the implications are there that you could do so again.
The associated action scenes are related to the science-fiction bits.
The metaphors make sense and are thought-through, too.
That said, the biggest problem with the movie was that the two parts of the movie were not tied together very tightly. I suspect that many of the connections will come out on a second viewing, but I didn't feel as much like the second part of the movie followed from the first part, and that overall made it less interesting.
Also, there is an epilogue (and I liked it!), but it felt even less tight as the rest of the movie. I had the sense that the epilogue was the point of the main two parts of the movie, but it came across as a sequel instead. I can't see how the two halves of the movie would hold together at all without the epilogue, but what we got still felt frustratingly ham-handed.
Still, though I came out somewhat disappointed, this was still a great movie, and well worth seeing. I will see it again, probably many times. And I still hope that the group gets together and does another one of these movies again some day - but perhaps it would be okay if this remains in the past, too.
Rating: 8 (out of 10)
Trailer thoughts: the trailers before the main movie were confusing; only one trailer really stood out - About Time, a British sci-fi romantic comedy - and the others just felt like they were filling up space. I'm worried that they didn't know how to market this movie.
I highly recommend the first trailer for TWE itself. It spoils a few things about the movie, but not as many as you'd expect, as long as you don't try to analyze it frame-by-frame. It both summarizes the movie and acts as a nice little piece of short cinema on its own. This is top-tier trailer creation.
I should also note that I saw this movie as part of a general showing of 'The Cornetto Trilogy', which included Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. I recommend this, but I don't think I can handle that many hours in the theatre very often. There were plenty of stylistic and thematic continuities mixed into the movies, not to mention shared props and cast members that I hadn't spotted before.
A significant point of most modern Summer Blockbusters is the spectacle of the Final Fight, in which The Hero finally catches up with The Villain and they battle until one of them drops. This generally involves chases through intricate landscapes, multiple points of view, significant death tolls, and a whole lot of punching, along with a significant expenditure on special effects budgets. And while this occasionally all comes together into something interesting, it more often collapses into incoherence and sensory overload.
Man of Steel is a poster child of this problem. Its interminable Final Fight ends in Superman and General Zod simply punching each other, back and forth, destroying their surroundings but otherwise showing no pain, only occasionally stumbling upon the devastation that was wrought earlier in the battle. It was dark, heavy, and frustratingly long; and once complete, it was obvious that the movie didn't want to address the large-scale effects. In short: incoherent sensory overload.
This was disappointing in large part because the first part of the movie had actually gone pretty well. Knowing that this was yet-another superhero origin story, the directors chose to elide many of the power discovery/training montages and focus on characters and themes. This was aided by good casting: Russell Crowe as Jor-El showed a useful mix of gravitas and bad-ass, and Kevin Costner and Diane Lane showed love and concern without saying a word. Clark/Kal-El could simply be defined in relationship to these characters, and that worked.
The first act - Krypton - perhaps went on longer than necessary, but they more-or-less worked. There was a feeling that this was a both high-tech and alien world, and that its inhabitants had sown their own destruction - so far, so good. The next acts - Clark Grows Up and Clark Meets His People - were also better than expected, keeping Clark a cipher as he tries to understand his relationship to human society and decide just how much he should be using his powers to help others.
But things had pretty well fallen apart by the time that we entered the final act: FIGHT FIGHT FIGHT. This was generic, overblown, and full of plot contrivances, characters acting stupidly, and poor time continuity. By the time it was done, most of my goodwill for the first half of the movie was used up.
Rating: 5 (out of 10)
One positive thing I can say is that there were a few moments when the Kryptonian powers truly showed potential, mostly shown by Faora, the mostly-faceless second-in-command to General Zod. She dove into buildings instead of using the door, she moved faster in battle than her enemies could respond to, and she consistently used the environment as a weapon. She even showed her warrior bona with a quip on how it's good to die in battle - more than could be said for anybody else in her cohort. If the rest of her cohort had been as well developed (on a per-screen-time basis), we would have ended up with a better movie.
There is frustratingly little that can be written about Star Trek Into Darkness without either falling into blatant spoiler territory, regurgitating the trailers, or just griping about the specifics. So let's focus on one specific gripe: a blatant disregard for geography.
It is relatively common for movies to place all locations are exactly as far away from each other as is necessary for the plot to maintain its momentum; but it is the mark of a good script and editor that these locations can still feel "connected", rather than just being separate sets. A few examples of action movies that get it right: Raiders of the Lost Ark with its varied settings and maps that provide a sense of scale; Die Hard, which makes its setting the most important character of the movie; and The Wrath of Khan, which provides a baseline for all "good" Star Trek movies thereafter. And the best counter-example I can think of is the TV show 24, in which different sections of LA are always precisely a single commercial break away.
Star Trek Into Darkness falls decidedly on the latter side of this continuum. The movie clearly cares about its large-scale locations, as it moves from a distant star system, to London and San Francisco, and then back to the edge of Federation space, then (somehow) the moons of Jupiter get involved, and finally back to Earth again. But the journeys are inconsistent - it takes days to go one direction, and then hours (minutes?) to return. But we're still expected to take the concepts of a warp-speed chase seriously.
Annoyingly, there was little reason for this. The majority of these gripes could have been managed with a simple change: setting most of the action within Earth's own solar system, or perhaps including a single neighbor stellar system. The alien threat would be more threatening for being so nearby, and the internal threats more logical for the immediacy of the external danger; the lack of other Federation ships could be explained by having them either too far away to intervene or unable to leave their defensive posts; and the variable travel times could be explained by specific navigation hazards. The geography could have worked in the film's favor, rather than pulling me out of action every time I was forced to think "err, where are we exactly?".
(On a smaller scale, the internal geography of the Enterprise was a problem as well, I would have liked to have some spatial understanding that, say, the brig was near to sick bay but further away from Engineering; but at least that may be explained in a technical blueprint somewhere.)
I'll let the rest of the Internet dwell on the other problems: poor character development, terrible and internally-inconsistent physics (often involving transporter limitations/lack thereof), an off-putting cameo, foolish deus ex machinas, and the standard problem of putting a crew of cadets in command of the flagship of the entire Federation.
There are positive things to say about the movie, mind. The special effects are pretty, if annoyingly over-committed to lens flares (more so than the last movie); the action scenes themselves are pretty well put together; Simon Pegg and Zachary Quinto steal the show, at least amongst the regulars; it's amusing having both Sherlock Holmes and Robocop in a movie; the significant-to-the-point-of-insult levels of fan service were relatively amusing the first time; I did like the variety of background alien races; and we will get more sequels, which I'll probably still want to see.
But this movie will not age well. And it's only just barely better than any Next Generation movies.
Rating: 5 (out of 10)
And, if you're curious as to my (rough) rankings:
The Wrath of Khan
The Undiscovered Country
The Voyage Home
The Search for Spock
The Motion Picture
The Final Frontier
A key point in the marketing of Oblivion is that the movie is based on a graphic novel. I found this an odd point to brag about for two reasons: I didn't understand how this can be a "plus" in today's movie marketing environment, and I didn't recall seeing this graphic novel before the movie came out. As it turns out, these observations closely tied to my core problems with the movie: the film values form over substance (which is apparently what Hollywood currently thinks about graphic novels), and the film was just as half-baked as the book, which was never actually published (or, for that matter, written).
As befits its (theoretical) graphic novel roots, the movie is visually impressive. Tom Cruise plays a drone repair technician in a war zone, living in a high-tech, luxury-but-sterile eyrie far above the war- and natural-disaster-torn landscape near New York City. The movie delights in the contrast between the technological marvels of his home and the devastated environments in which he works. It's a more empty and quiet post-apocalyptic landscape than we're used to seeing, but it is not sterile. This part was well-imagined, and I can imagine that it connects to its concept art quite nicely.
Unfortunately, these visuals do not quite connect to the underlying story. We are told that the world's water is being taken away in its entirety, and that the devastation is too great for humanity to survive; Tom Cruise even makes a point of bringing home an apparently-rare patch of grass that he found in his journeys. But just a few minutes later, we are shown a beautiful lake-front cabin with lush grass and flowers and trees. The movie doesn't seem to consider this, even though it spends a fair effort on pushing these juxtapositions before.
The story is clearly derivative of a variety of other, better movies - Moon, Wall-E, and The Matrix come immediately to mind - but this isn't necessarily a terrible thing. The problems arise because the film's creators seemed to recognize that the visuals were not enough to carry the entire story, but couldn't come up with any other ways to handle it. The movie is littered with expository voice-overs, explaining the background of the world to us rather than letting us see it for ourselves; this undercuts the audience's willingness to take in what they're seeing and think for themselves. It also offers many opportunities to examine the many damning plot holes. (Really, you've got a network of free-roaming drones, but you can't set up a satellite network so you can continue communication at all hours?)
Still, the movie was generally competently put-together, well-acted, and it had a good soundtrack, so it wasn't all bad. There was probably even a coherent and interesting story to be told here; I'm just not sure that this was the way to tell the story. Perhaps a shorter movie could have provided more focus; a mini-series could have given the time to flesh out the ideas and characters; or maybe an actual graphic novel could have emphasized the necessary plot beats and art without dwelling on the flaws.
Rating: 4 (out of 10)
In the 2009 Star Trek, a major planet is destroyed by the villain as part of his plan for vengeance. This was a Big Deal, both because of the scale of the violence and because it showed the stakes involved in stopping the movie's villain. Unfortunately, it appears that Hollywood took the wrong lesson from this escalation, and decided that genocidal violence is okay for use as a casual threat. Thus, in G.I. Joe: Retaliation, the creators decide to completely obliterate a major world capital just to show that villain is serious (and to show off some special effects). And once done, this is never mentioned again.
This is not the only example of the use of genocide as a game within the movie, but it is the most egregious example.
To be fair, this is a movie about a toy line (which, as I have previously mentioned, I did not play with as a child), so perhaps some latitude is in order. But the previous movie felt more like a game, with a straightforward (if silly) plot that matched the tone of the potential play. Retaliation spent its time focusing on the acts of terror, rather than the underlying plots or characters, and it suffered for it.
The genocide issue isn't the only significant problem in the movie. From a creative perspective, it's pretty obvious that there were far too many people tinkering with the movie, as plot-lines are inexpertly sewn together, characters are developed and then quietly discarded, and story points are provided and then ignored. An example: in between the filming of the movie and its release, Channing Tatum gained significant prominence in Hollywood. Significant focus was applied to move his character front-and-center - but he's only in the first 20% of the movie, so this character work was wasted. And the time was taken away from the other characters, who actually needed development.
The timing of the movie vis-a-vis current political events was at least interesting. The movie focused on North Korea as a nuclear power quite a lot, generally making the country the brunt of the jokes; this felt a bit odd during a week where the DPRK has threatened the nuclear destruction of several US cities. The idea of nuclear disarmament is played as a joke. The president gets significant support from the American people for sending armed forces into foreign nations. And the movie spends significant effort displaying and guns and military equipment, during an ongoing national discussion of gun control. If there had been any sense that the timing of these messages was intentional, I may have given the movie a few points just for its chutzpah.
Instead, the movie gets what few points it does get from its hilarious ninja scenes. A plot regarding Storm Shadow (bad guy) and Darth Maul In Black (good guy) that has been going on for decades is explained to us in rapid dialogue by RZA. There are black-and-white flashbacks; an Evil Grandmother Ninja first heals a fellow ninja and then fights a Good Female Ninja whose name I didn't catch; dozens of ninja fall to their deaths off of cliffs for some reason; and then they team up for some reason. These scenes were probably the worst of all, but I laughed uproariously through most of it. I hope that this forces various Adult Swim cartoons to up their game.
Even if you enjoy that kind of thing, though, this was a bad movie - worse than its predecessor, and almost as bad as Transformers 2.