Hacksaw Ridge is, on the surface, the best war movie in years

Gibson’s dramatic license needs to be revoked

War is a staple of cinema. Since the days of Méliès, Pathe and Edison there has been a desire for films to show what most people will have never seen. Before the invention of cinema, and for some time afterwards, there was no way to see what a battle really looked like. The only interpretations available to the public were in paintings and the written word. War battles gave silent filmmakers an easy shortcut to making something that is fantastical, out of this world, and intensely visual: the people who are dressed differently are the bad guys, the people who fall have been shot. Storytelling is at its core about binary oppositions, about positioning a subject that represents one ideal against a subject that represents the opposite (light side v dark side, nature v technology). This structure is neatly laid out in war, the armies even wear different colours to aid the process. War films in the early days, however, were a guessing game, less based in reality than what we know now. Once wars took place in a world where photo and filmography existed newsreels and photos from the front line allowed for a clear evidence of something that had thus far consisted mainly of eye witness testimony.

Hacksaw Ridge is a real war story about Desmond Doss, a medic who served in WWII at the battle of Okinawa. As a true to life story it has its foot placed firmly in the realm of reality. Andrew Garfield plays the medic, who was a conscientious objector who volunteered himself to support the war effort on the field as opposed to back home. The opposition of the film however, comes not from the opposing side of the war but from the American side, where Doss is refused the right to serve while remaining pacifist and not touching a gun. Here, the binary opposition comes from pacifism v pugilism.

The film is somewhat disjointed due to its clear separation into three acts, the home life section which plays like Forrest Gump’s romance with Jenny and sets the story in motion. The second act is a traditional army training tale that draws influence from Full Metal Jacket and plays out like The Secret War of Lisa Simpson, followed by Doss facing possible court-marshal for his pacifism. Finally, the film becomes an out and out war film a ’la Saving Private Ryan. The film is oddly structured, facing pacing issues by indulging itself too much in its first act and saving all its violence for the final act but all in all the final battle sequences are built up to well with sufficient characterisation driving our desire to see Desmond Doss succeed.

I did have problems with the ending of the film however, detailed here. The film has a positive message of staying true to what you believe in and honours the peacekeeper, yet at times seems to revel in violence and destruction in a way that is at odds with the moral baseline of the film. There are also issues with the film being somewhat too emotionally manipulative, containing a rushed romantic plot that is filled to the brim with clichéd lines of dialogue and many moments where the film stops to state how you should be feeling at the time. The film is brilliantly directed and the visuals do their job so well that words are not always needed yet are always used. In addition, our main character is somewhat too idealised, with no discernible flaws aside from his pacifism. Yet that can be forgiven when a film is made to honour a real-life hero, but it also does appear that the main aim of the film is to win awards.

Andrew Garfield has been nominated for an Oscar for his performance as Desmond Doss and it’s not hard to see why, he imbues the character with a sweet naivety that radiates from his goofy, overactive smile. He remains naturalistic and believable as the only American soldier that isn’t brimming with testosterone. Other performances are straight forward and unflashy and serve to highlight how clearly Doss is in an unfamiliar environment.

The film is an achievement in production design, creating an intensely believable and gritty battleground that has a great sense of space and danger. Plaudits must go to the sound design team, that manages to create a magnificent, breathing 3D world in the final act of the film. Bullets hit as hard as possible, explosions won’t let up and the danger the soldiers face is elevated because of the intense sound within.

Recommendation

Hacksaw Ridge is a film that will play to large audiences, there is not much to use to take away from it on a surface level. It is brilliantly crafted, slickly designed and impressively layered, every facet of the film exudes effort. Where it falls apart is in its generic story beats, however they are executed well enough to excuse themselves.

I, personally, have issues with the unnecessary over-dramatization that is applied but I believe most people will not. If the occasional historical inaccuracy can be forgiven then this is a great film suitable for everyone with only odd pacing and a weak romance subplot to hold it back.

Rogue One shines when it’s not being dreary and uninteresting

The new Star Wars is let down by weak writing and uninteresting characters

Where to start when it comes to Star Wars? The subject is so wide ranging, controversial and comprehensive that there really isn’t any point summing anything up, if you’re reading this then you are already familiar with Star Wars. Rogue One is a spin off and Disney’s first big swing at diversifying the Star Wars cinematic universe, something which up until now has had a very strict structure applied to it. Rogue One is the first of three semi related side projects designed to be released in between the episodic features that are the mainstay for the franchise. We’re halfway to Episode 8 so it’s time to remind everyone what Star Wars is about… In case they forgot.

It is not a stretch to imagine that Rogue One is merely a cash grab designed to fan the flames of fans and to sell merchandise. In a sense this does come through the screen but merchandise, fan service and Star Wars are so interwoven at this point it is hard to tell where Star Wars ends and where the vertical integration begins.

For this review, I would like to put aside merchandise. I would like to put aside Storm Trooper redesigns and the fact that there is a melee weapon that turns into a crossbow just like my old Power Rangers toy used to. Let’s put aside the new hype for Episode 8 and let’s shut the hell up about diversification of races and genders in Star Wars. Let’s look at Rogue One on its own merits as “A Star Wars Story.”

Rogue One follows the team of rebels and their journey to steal the plans for the Death Star. The team is made up of six characters of which we are introduced to over the first hour. The characters then spend five minutes talking to each other and fighting Storm Troopers before deciding to band together to fight for the rebellion.

Where Rogue One succeeds is in its battle sequences. The magic of Star Wars is the ability to retell any story with a fantastical gloss over it and some scenes in Rogue One really feel like they are embracing that. One battle scene is set in a middle eastern looking market town and has a rougher, grittier feel to it than Star Wars usually does, as insurgents rush a Storm Trooper tank and throw explosives.The Battle of Scarif is a great sequence, although it must once again recycle A New Hope’s style, it does feature some great visuals and fun additions. The Skyhammer is a welcome addition, a space ship designed to crash into and push other ships, which creates the most visually marvellous moment of the movie. What is unique to Rogue One is that it embraces a soldiering aesthetic for large portions of its battles. At times the film looks like it is taking place in war town Iraq and towards the end could be ripped right from a Vietnam movie; only with space ships and lasers. For short periods, Rogue One is everything Star Wars can be.

However the tone is inconsistent and the soldiering allusions come out of nowhere. The film is not set up in a way where the final confrontation seems to meld with the introduction. The first twenty minutes of the film is nothing but long drawn out exposition, yet it fails to deliver the essential emotional connection to the character of Jyn Erso. Without her doing anything remotely likeable or cool or funny or resourceful or smart there is no reason to side with her or care about her. She is an amazingly flat character played with zero charisma. At least four planets are visited within the first twenty minutes of the film and character names are thrown out like confetti. I understand that world building is nuanced but Rogue One essentially vomits out a glossary of words as soon as it can get away with it and loses valuable time that could be spent on making us care about its characters.

Star Wars has always been a kid friendly series, it is a way to channel your inner child and have fun watching what you can only imagine, yet Rogue One is consistently let down by its characters who are so unbelievably drab and two dimensional it borders on offensive. The scenes that link together the action scenes are slogs pieced together by basic dialogue delivered in monotones by actors with no expressions. I had the same thought while watching Batman Vs Superman; any kids watching will be bored out of their mind by everything but the fight sequences. The only source of levity in the film is the mechanical sidekick K-2SO. K-2SO is a robot that has had his inhibitions removed and so is capable of insurmountable levels of sass. He is the source for 100% of the films comedy and does well to carry the entire cast. Yet his jokes and remarks are completely ignored by the entire cast, there is zero chemistry between the six leads, but at least K-2SO is trying to lighten the mood.

Recommendation

If you still get shivers when you hear a lightsabre turning on; If you love space battles and AT-ATs and Darth Vader; If you want to see tie ins and cameos and spot hidden references; If you just want more Star Wars, then this is the film for you. If you are fully on board with the film’s premise from the get-go, you’ll probably enjoy it.

It looks fantastic, the designs of the cities and robots and characters are magnificently rendered. It is soiled by bad acting and awkward pacing and never really feels independent of its franchise. Rogue One is a passable appetizer for a 40-year-old main course.