Since Star Wars came out in 1977, all of the successive sequels and prequels that follows have skewed more or less towards a younger market; even The Empire Strikes Back has cheesy puppets and romantic elements which drop the ball, and from return of the Jedi onwards, it’s strictly for kids. Rogue One reverses the trend; it’s a dark, gritty, downbeat epic that tells the story of how the rebels captured the plans for the Death Star, a kind of Guns of Navarone in space. As well as addressing a number of plot holes in the original film, Rogue One feels more like a war film than a family-friendly blockbuster; parents with kids under ten should be warned that the good guys get their asses kicked here. But the formula of the original films is well-adhered to in Gareth Edwards’s one-off adventure; robot sidekick K2-S0 generates some good comedy touches, which are much needed because the storyline and characters are deliberately bleak. The introduction of a CGI Peter Cushing is regrettable, looking more like a video-game character and never resembling the original actor for a moment. But as the narrative builds to a massive multi-layed battle and a brilliant bit of business with a stuck door, Rogue One is the best entry in the series since, well, the original Star Wars itself.
Hidden behind a not-very-expressive title and with poster art that suggests another tee fantasy, Your Name is a worthy follow-on to the ground-breaking Studio Ghibli animations. Starting with a gender-bending body-swap, Manako Shinkai‘s film has more to say than most. The two protagonists, Mitshua and Taki get the fun of interfering with each other’s lives, but the story opens out to encompass a natural disaster as a hunk of rock falls to earth and destroys a peaceful village. Your Name then becomes a time-shifting melodrama, as Taki attempts to avert the catastrophe. This is a ghost story, but also a rom-com, and also an action adventure, all in one package, adorned with stunningly imaginative animation and pop songs. It’s great for kids, but adults will understand and appreciate the gravity of the ideas, even if the presentation is sugar-sweet.
A sequel of sorts to 2008’s Cloverfield, 10 Cloverfield Lane works just as well, if not better, as a stand-alone thriller. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is a perfect Sigourney Weaver-style scream queen, gutsy and vulnerable in equal measures, and the set up is minimal and terse. Fleeing her boyfriend (an un-credited Bradley Cooper in a voice cameo), Michelle gets into her car and drives; a road accident leads her to waking up in the underground bunker of Howard (John Goodman). Howard and his helper Emmett (John Gallacher Jr) are hiding out as new of some kind of surface contamination breaks, so Michelle throws in her lot with Howard reluctantly. Dan Trachtenberg’s taut thriller ratchets up tension, notably during some parlour games, and even when the plot is finally revealed, the director keeps the scale small and the intensity on point. There’s valuable lessons on how to build a homemade hazmat suit, and even though the final tip into sci-fi is predictable, there’s so much to enjoy before that point that it’s hard to begrudge the splattery pay-off. If nothing else, this JJ Abrams production might just be the most intense PG-13 movie ever; any children watching are likely to need the services of a therapist for years to come.
Westworld is a model of what a reboot should be; everything is bigger, better, more thoughtful and more expansive that the original sci-fi cult classic about a futuristic theme park with a Western theme. With Jonathan Nolan and JJ Abrams at the helm, that’s no surprise, but what is very much surprising is the way they’ve moved the narrative on. The early scenes make it seem that James Marsden’s cowboy will play a similar role to Richard Benjamin and James Brolin’s vacationing thrill-seekers in the original; it turns out that Marsden’s character is actually a robot. Similarly, Ed Harris’s Man in Black seems to cut a iconic figure in the same way as Yul Brynner’s android gunslinger, but again, roles are reversed; Harris’s character is actually a tourist on a permanent vacation of sorts. And the biggest reversal of all is that the robots are the heroes, as their AI gives them a self-awareness that slowly reveals that they’re nothing but playthings for a corrupt elite; their gradual understanding of the need for revolution makes for gripping viewing. Evan Rachel Wood is the key identification character in Delores, but there’s an all-round stunning cast, from Thandie Newton to Jimmi Simpson, and best of all Anthony Hopkins as the park’s co-creator, Ford. Sir Richard Attenborough’s last iconic role was as a Jurassic Park owner in another Michael Crichton story, and Hopkins was probably the actor he used most: seeing Hopkins play God as his creations run amok is just one of a myriad of viewing pleasures on offer. And the action, violent and spiky, is cleverly scored to popular classics; if there was a moment in cinema in 2016 to compare to the astonishing Paint It Black scene in the opening episode, we’re yet to see it.
George Miller’s rethinking/reboot/rebirth of the Australian Road warrior previously played by Mel Gibson really does merit the description ‘one long chase’. Tom Hardy fills the leathers well, sharing the duties as lead with Charlize Theron. The feminist subtext, completely missing from previous incarnations, feels surprisingly organic, with seeds and water the new currency in a world where gasoline is only used for local warfare, and wise women and concubines making up the manifest of Max’s group of escapees from the Toecutter and his gang. A model of how a reboot can move with the times and gain more depth, Fury Road picks up nicely where Mad Max 2; The Road Warrior left off.
Christopher Nolan’s epic sci-fi adventure can only be diminished by viewing it on anything less than an IMAX screen; but the craftsmanship and imagination of the narrative still pay dividends for home viewers. Matthew McConaughey brings his usual intensity to Cooper, a pilot enlisted by NASA to travel though a wormhole in time to search for a colonisable planet as Earth is crippled by dust storms. Estranged from his daughter Murph in the process, Cooper misses out as she grows up to be Jessica Chastain, enabling Nolan to develop two strong plotlines of space exploration, and tie them neatly together at the end. The atmosphere is authentically pioneering, with individual moments like the short landing on a planet of tidal waves, and a meeting with Matt Damon’s deceptively motivated colonist, sticking in the mind. And while time travel is a familiar subject, few have explored it as thoughtfully as Nolan and his brother Jonathan; the scene where Cooper watches his family grow up on recorded messages is heart-breaking.
Guy Pearce is something of an actor’s actor, convincing in any role; pairing him with the highly-recognized if inexperienced Robert Pattinson (Twilight) strikes sparks in David Michods’s post apocalyptic drama. After an economic and society collapse, Eric (Pearce) and Rey (Pattinson) form an uneasy alliance as Eric slowly unfolds a vengeful intent. What he’s avenging is concealed until the final scene of actor Joel Edgerton’s story, but there’s rewards along the way in two immersive lead performances, a desolate atmosphere and some gasp-inducing bursts of action. The Rover could use a few more fantasy elements to keep things interesting, but the studied intensity and bursts of grueling lyricism keeps you watching.