Passengers is sleek and polished on the surface but a muddled mess at its core

Passengers’ promising first act is let down by the avalanche of farce that proceeds it

Science fiction is experiencing a bit of a boom lately, no doubt boosted by the power of new Star Wars movies and ever increasing ‘nerd culture.’ But sci-fi is often expensive, CGI heavy and cerebral. Meaning that it can be a difficult genre for a studio to simply cash in on: for every District 9 there are at least ten Battleships. So how can a studio ensure that a generic conglomeration of popular sci-fi tropes and unoriginal visuals makes a sensible profit? Why, of course, by sticking two of the biggest stars on the planet in a spaceship and ensuring that they fuck each other, so they can show it in the trailer. Unfortunately for desperate corporate ploys to capitalise on market research, Passengers has not been the breakout success that was hoped for.

Passengers is a film starring Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence as passengers aboard The Avalon. The ship is taking 5000 paying customers to another planet to escape the husk that the Earth has become, the two wake up 90 years earlier than other passengers and cannot get themselves back into stasis, leaving them stranded on The Avalon together. One positive thing to say about Passengers is that it is at least an original story rather than a reboot or a sequel. However, a negative thing to say about Passengers is that there doesn’t seem to be many original ideas in it outside of its premise. The visuals are refined and clean but unfortunately seem to be almost entirely taken directly from previously successful sci-fi films; Alien, Prometheus and 2001: A Space Odyssey being the three main examples. References and inspiration can be a good thing but too many of them and the film just begins to feel like a stale rehash.

It is not only in the visuals that Passengers feels unoriginal. It also borrows several moments almost verbatim from recent films such as Gravity, Guardians of the Galaxy and The Martian. Now that is not to say that sci-fi has to be 100% original, in fact in most cases it is common to repeat successful movies’ motifs, but Passengers does this with so much frequency that it becomes a Frankenstein’s monster made up of mostly of other films dramatic beats.

The film is a tonal mess that appears to not know whether or not it should take itself seriously and when humour is appropriate. Starring Chris Pratt means that there will of course be comic elements but the film produces what seem like unintentional moments of comedy through strange editing choices and inappropriate dialogue. Jennifer Lawrence’s character Aurora interrupts a sweet romantic moment by stopping mid-laughter and stating in the most deadpan way “for a minute I almost forgot my life is in ruins” and Aurora continues to be an incessant downer for the rest of the movie. The film contains comical pratfalls, facial expressions that would make the Wayan bros blush and a hilariously tactless robot doctor, none of which were intended to be funny. Unless they were, in which case the film should have just been a comedy.

What disappoints me so much about the film is that it is possible that there was at least one good film in there somewhere. There is a heavy theme of isolation a ’la The Shining, blatantly displayed by Michael Sheen’s android bartender, Arthur. This seems to be setting the film up as a psychodrama about a man lost in space slowly losing his sanity. The film jumps straight from this sort of heavy subject matter to a Risky Business/Home Alone style montage and immediately back into goofy comedy. Followed by the introduction of a genuinely tough moral choice and some significant character development the film fails to develop on the ideas and instead turns into a romance before turning back into the most generic sci-fi film possible. The film had set itself up as a combination of Moon and Misery which could have resulted in an interesting film. Instead the second half of the film falls into complete farce, sprinkled with plot holes, Deus-ex-Machina and hilariously bad writing.

Recommendation

There are parts of Passengers that are so bad that they are comical, but not enough to justify watching purely for its shortcomings. The film is a tonal mess with incredibly high production quality, unfortunately poor writing cannot be hidden behind CGI.

There are flashes of three disparate films in Passengers, one a moral dilemma based romance, the second a nervy psychodrama and the final is a by the numbers generic sci-fi. There is enough to like within the film but unfortunately there is way too much space in between it all.

Midnight Special engages in mysteries in the dark

Midnight Special does a lot with very little

Most recently I took issue with the beginning of Rogue One, a film which took too long to get going. By the time that it had established its motives and threats the film had already lost me due to throwing out too much mediocre exposition. I had quickly lost faith in the film. I found a nice counterpart to this in Midnight Special, a movie about faith. It takes a long time to start delivering answers but enshrouds itself in an aura of mystery and character drama.  Allowing connections to be made to the characters and questions to be asked as of people’s goals. The point that this drove home to me is that if a film’s beginning isn’t exciting then it must grab its viewers’ attention by being at least intriguing or cryptic. Midnight Special is both from the first scene.

The first scene is an incredibly efficient scene of exposition, using that age-old method of TV news we are introduced to a kidnapped child being held in a motel room by two gun wielding men. Immediately we must question how are we going to side with these men if these are our protagonists. But the gentle concern in the voice of Michael Shannon’s Roy tells us that cares for the boy and the ambiguity of the viewer is immediately established.

Adam Driver’s Paul is the most traditional, accessible character in the film as he is educated of the situation at the same time as the viewers. In a more traditional film he would be the protagonist. However, this is not a film about information, this is a film about faith and relationships, an ethos which is given form by the terrific performance of Michael Shannon as Alton’s father.

Whilst the film is overall a moving and emotive one with a heart of mystery the answers at times do not satisfy. It seems as if Midnight Special was made to not have any solid answers, yet the film gives away half-answers in the form of flowery dialogue, sometimes to a fault.

The purpose of the journey seems to become muddy in the middle, with the main driving factor being Alton’s infrequent episodes and panic attacks. The reasons for which are kept vague for all too long and like the team of runaways the film follows, viewers too are kept in the dark a bit too long. This leads to waning interest when the film should be building up to its conclusion.

The film wears its relatively muted budget beginnings on its sleeves, creating tension out unspectacular set pieces, an example being an extremely dramatic scene late in the film set in a traffic jam and a prolonged sequence involving a road block. Moments which would be 30 seconds long in a typical blockbuster are stretched out for five minute chunks that squeeze every last drop of tension out of the situation.

Midnight Special does a lot with very little. This is to its own credit for the most part but it does mean that there are moments that can lack that penetrative quality. Most notably the flashing eyes of Alton are visited repeatedly but fail to ever look any more than an After Effects overlay. Perhaps it looks so far out of place simply because the film is so gritty and modest in its effects that the eyes stand out like a sore thumb.

Recommendation

It is not Spielberg, Midnight Special is not for everyone, the air of mystery sometimes gives way to the entertainment value and can at times be frustratingly vague

Sci-fi fans will be disappointed by the lack of fantastical elements and thriller fans may be underwhelmed by the few set pieces. The film boasts great acting on all fronts and a nervy contemplative atmosphere that will engage fans of films that do things differently.

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.

Dr Strange plays it safe but looks good doing it

Marvel’s latest is a visual spectacle when it decides to deviate from it’s simple formula

Marvel movies are a huge part of modern cinema and with 2-3 movies expected each year for the next five years it is hard to see the end of the trend. So, with this saturation of the market is it possible that the company can keep things fresh to counter the inevitable superhero fatigue? There is an answer given to this by Dr Strange and the answer is an assured ‘eh, maybe.’

The film is a harbinger of times to come for Marvel as one of the first ventures into B-string heroes. Although there will be comic fans that defend him, the fact cannot be argued that Dr Strange has never been a hero that has hit the mainstream in the way that it’s previous movie tentpoles have done.

There remains one outlier, in the form of Marvel’s best film yet, Guardians of the Galaxy, wherein Marvel had their favourite shortcut to entertainment seized from their grasps. In Guardians of the Galaxy they could not rely on the moment of easy movie magic where the hero finally puts on the mask, where they become the hero that everyone is anticipating. This could not happen in Guardians of the Galaxy because most people watching had no prior knowledge about these heroes. Dr Strange suffers from the same limitation, luckily he wears a magic cape, so viewers can still be treated to the moment of apotheosis that defines the origin story.

But enough about Marvel, what about the film.

The film follows Benedict Cumberbatch as Steven Strange, an arrogant surgeon who has watched too many episodes of House. He is rich, selfish and inconsiderate to those around him until he is involved in a 100mph car crash and loses the use of his hands transforming him into a rich selfish and inconsiderate man obsessed with fixing his hands. His journey takes him to a Nepalese mountain village where he is introduced to the world of magic… And then there’s an evil plot by an interchangeable villain using this magic that Strange must help fight against. In many senses, it is the same story we have seen before, only the characters and setting have changed. It is a MCU movie base layer with a Batman Begins/ House MD filter applied.

Where Dr Strange shines is in its embracing of its magical origins, there is a trend in Marvel movies to over explain the science behind certain occurrences, often grounding it in an unneeded reality that is a residual effect of Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. In a scene in Dr Strange, Tilda Swinton’s all-knowing guru The Ancient One continually knocks back Strange’s attempts to find a scientific explanation for magic. This is one of the best, most self-aware moments of the film in which the film announced that it is something new and different and it is immediately followed up by the stand out moment of the film, where Strange is taken on a journey through the multiverse and shown the level of understanding that he is completely unable to comprehend. It is a scene that’s a showcase for some incredible visual effects more akin to Enter the Void than Iron Man and a promise of things to come later in the movie.

However, other than a few fight scenes which exploit Inception style city bending and trigger happy fractals the multiverse is left in the background, serving as a stage for fight choreography and as a servant to the on-Earth drama. There is an attempt to bring the multiverse into the story but it is shoehorned into the end, a great touch and end to a film that did not precede it. Easy comedy beats fall flat, Rachel McAdams and Mads Mikkelsen are more than wasted and the desperation to make Stephen Strange the next Tony Stark are blatant. There are multiple great moments in the film that enthral but stink of wasted potential.

Recommendation

Ultimately it does not use enough of what makes it stand out to make a great film but my faith in Marvel’s future remains intact. They continue to be entertaining, but entertaining in the same way, a way that can become tiresome but has not completely crossed that line yet.

Dr Strange leaves the formula as is but changes up the visuals enough to be new and interesting. It takes some risks but not enough. On the whole it is less than the sum of its parts, but some of its parts are fantastic.