So, I guess I haven’t finished a book in a while, despite the fact that I’ve had time to see plenty of films. But that’s what happens when you go to university for a few weeks then withdraw, and films are only two hours while a book takes a lot longer to get through. Either way, I thought it best to get back into the swing of things by reading something shorter, and the 150 or so pages of All Systems Red seemed like the best place to start (especially seeing as I’m considering possibly tackling Dune next, goodness me).
Following the crew of PreservationAux, a mission to a distant planet goes awry when they discover a conspiracy bigger than anything even their elusive sponsor, known only as ‘The Company’, is willing to ignore. With the help of their SecUnit, which unbeknownst to the crew has become self-aware and calls itself Murderbot, they must get to the bottom of the sinister GrayCris organisation before it’s too late.
One of my favourites aspects of the novel is this: The ambiguity of the level of technology utilised in the narrative does the opposite of the complexity of universe-building seen in books like A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, but to great effect. By this I mean we don’t need to know how advanced civilisation is by this point, because by demonstrating the technology the author gives us just enough information to allow us to determine the scope of the setting. It’s very tasteful, in short, and doesn’t require further explanation because the story is driven by the characters rather than the world around them, in a way. The characters themselves are very well thought-out, and each one has a distinct personality. You can really picture what they look like just based on the way they act, an admirable achievement on Wells’ part. Naturally with the exception of the Murderbot, the primary protagonist, who is on the cover, which is a great shame in my opinion, as more than enough written description is given for the reader, especially one as into sci-fi as I am, to picture it easily. On that note, however, the description itself is very minimalistic in parts, and this is but one factor contributing to why the book is so short, though it works to great effect because it means you visualise it all in your head instead of being told what to picture. Like I said, the story itself isn’t the driving force here, but the interactions between the characters. But I shall continue this in the below section, right about…
To be Improved:
…Now. Although the plot is a mystery of sorts, with lots of strange occurrences eventually leading up to some minor reveals, it all happens too quickly for the tension to really be allowed to build, and there’s lots of running away then going back to where you were but this time with a plan then running away again because it goes wrong but now you know a little bit more than before and ugh! It just gets tedious after a while rather than atmospheric. In terms of specific story elements, there is an all-encompassing company in control of most of the goings-on in the book, which is only referred to as… Well, ‘the Company’. But the problem is that around two thirds of the way through the author refers to said Company’s competitors, shattering the mystery and making me wonder why such a subtle name was chosen if the original so-called Company is not the only one in existence. The author also falls into the trap of writing in a style where yes, if you’re the one who came up with the story, you’ll understand what’s going on, but as the reader these moments sort of go over your head. Moments like the fact that the good guys’ expedition to the planet is called ‘Preservation’, and that’s somehow supposed to obviously signify that the leader of the expedition herself is the political entity controlling it, as opposed to an outside influence like it normally is. Make sense? No, I didn’t think so either. It’s little things like this peppered throughout the novel that sort of attach a weight to the story every time they crop up, ever so slowly dragging it down until you get to the end.
A short and sweet read, ASR whisks you away for a brief outing on a hostile alien planet. I really enjoyed the more toned down yet still atmospheric horror undertones once the conflict really got going. Because I’m a nervous wreck when it comes to anything more than mildly scary (see my Alien review), reading something that went easy on the fear factor but still added elements of scariness constituted major tension in my timid mind, so it worked out really well. Not a spectacular story by any stretch, but certainly an enjoyable one. Besides, even though I didn’t adore it one can plough through Wells’ novella in such little time that I’m definitely going to be picking up the sequel (or prequel?), if for nothing except to see how this tale wraps up.
As soon as I saw the trailer, I was excited for Thor Ragnarok for two reasons. One, instead of being a normal action film like regular superhero movies, it was a sci-fi. And two, it had a kickass neo-80s vibe to its soundtrack. Two of my favourite things in one? Sign me up! Though after the shambles that was, oh I don’t know, every other film I saw this year save for Blade Runner, I once again lowered my expectations. That strategy actually worked this time round, because the god of thunder far exceeded them.
In short, Thor’s sister Hela, Goddess of Death and rightful heir to the throne of Asgard, no big deal or anything, has returned. She seeks to bring about Ragnarok (imaginative title for the film, then) the end of everything. That’s a pretty vague description for the apocalypse but it’s all bad news either way, and it’s up to our unlikely band of heroes to stop the evil Hela once and for all. Classic good versus evil stuff, fairly standard.
Directed by Taika Waititi, who also helmed The Hunt for the Wilderpeople, a film I really should go back and review on this site, for once a Marvel film has finally managed to make me laugh out loud. Some of the jokes in the first half are just there for the sake of it, but despite obviously unnecessarily interrupting the action sequences because they’re there for the kids, they’re in no way immature. Finally, I mean god-damn I’d had it up to here with jokes about farts and sex (not at the same time), here’s looking at you, Transformers and GotG 2. But yeah, if you’ve seen Waititi’s 2016 classic then you’ll know that he has a bloody good sense of humour. That said, the New Zealand accent he threw in for the comedic relief Korg (“What’s up, name’s Korg, just a big walking rock but there’s nothing to be afraid of, unless you’re made of scissors – there’s a rock-paper-scissors joke for ya”) does help a lot. So the humour, for the most part, if a little juvenile, is there. What else? Well, I’ve already mentioned the soundtrack. Along with the screaming vocals of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Immigrant Song’, the pounding synths to go along with the appropriately Star Wars trench run-esque spaceship battles were superb. In fact, the whole sort of neon and laser aesthetic is one that I really appreciated, and I’d agree with the many critics calling it the “boldest Marvel film yet”. It certainly is that. Story-wise, honestly, you can’t really praise or criticise anything because it’s legitimately all the same at this point, save for a few clever little bits. Besides, there’s so much to look at with this one as we switch between the sweeping clifftop fields of Norway, sprawling cityscapes of Chicago, sparkling cities and rolling junk-hills of Sakaar, and the glistening gold glory of Asgard. On top of that, there was a particularly beautiful cut where the camera zooms into a view out a window at the stars against the blackness of space, and the stars become lights moving past Thor as he travels forward on a conveyor belt. I know this is a very specific, split-second point to focus on. But in fact, it was such a good shot that it sort of diminished the merit of the rest of the film, and unfortunately reminded me of Enchantress turning June Moon’s hand over in Suicide Squad:
It reminded me of it because we all know that the film turned out to be nowhere near the standard of that clever piece of imagery. However, I’m pleasantly surprised to be able to say that with Thor that is very nearly not the case; it almost manages to match the ingenuity of its brief highlight. Particularly, at least for cosmetic standards, the sequence where we get almost a full minute of slow motion as ranks of gold-plated Valkyries ride gleaming white Pegasuses (Pegasi? Pega… you know what I mean) against Hela before she was exiled, is plain gorgeous. It’s just a scene that, with the synth music, is very epic, and I grinned all the way through it. There are a few moments like this, and they really carry the film because just as it threatens to be getting a little stale visually, a giant dragon will chase Thor through the rainbow space-bridge back to Asgard.
To be Improved:
Let’s start with what stood out most: Blanchett and Ruffalo’s acting. She’s speaking like she’s trying very hard to put on a British accent, which she is, and it shows; and he’s changed the way he normally talks when playing Bruce Banner and is instead using this weird high-pitched panicky Bronx lilt that’s just grating and really doesn’t fit with his character. I know he’s supposed to be timid, but he’s not a quivering mess. In fact, quite the contrary: he’s got seven PHDs, as he’s so eager to point out during the film. On the subject of Hulk, he’s useless now, if I’m being honest. I don’t know why they’ve switched up the character so much, but he looks super weird and sounds nothing like he used to, and none of the rage is there. During Ragnarok he just walks around and, if anything, gets beaten up more than anyone else! Ridiculous. Speaking of characters looking different, the tattoos on the Valkyrie’s face (good lord, I for the life of me can’t remember her name, I don’t think she was even given one! Scrapper 421, I think? What kind of a name for a main protagonist is that?) disappear halfway through the final act. Yes, she goes through a wardrobe change and dons her Valkyrie gear, but that shouldn’t change permanent inking of the skin, right? Right? But it doesn’t stop there. There’s a very jarring moment when Thor confronts Hela and she becomes this weird fake CGI Blanchett that’s all airbrushed and shiny, or at least that’s what it seems to be. As far as I can tell it’s actually the genuine Blanchett reading the lines, so it isn’t even fake and definitely shouldn’t fall into uncanny valley territory. But it does. It makes it look like the actress dropped out of filming early so they had to make a CGI version of her for the last few scenes, and it’s all very odd. Furthermore, Hela’s right hand man is an Asgardian recruited during her takeover of the city, and he’s called… Scourge. So my problem here is Scourge being called Scourge (that’s just… somehow just too much for me, because he’s a good guy before Hela recruits him, so, what, you’re telling me no one suspected a guy called Scourge?!) along with the fact that he has dual M16 assault rifles on Asgard for no discernible reason (if this is his signature weapon from the comics I do apologise, but come on, I know enough about the comics that I recognised Korg and Miek from the Planet Hulk arc, I can’t be expected to know absolutely every little detail). Fenris Wolf is tragically wasted, and I was hoping for a more brutal, ‘King Kong breaking open the jaws of a T-rex’ style death seeing as Hulk was the one fighting him, but we’ve already discussed how useless he’s become as a character. And while we’re talking about Hulk, I guess we’re not finding out if Banner is coming back, so that’s… I don’t know, I guess 2018 will have to tell us with Infinity War Part 1. Weird disjointed cliffhanger if you ask me, and a weird rehash of what they did with Age of Ultron.
Bonus Round – Trailer Turmoil:
Ah, yes. Now we come to my main issue with Ragnarok, and it’s not even one that’s to do with the actual film, hence the separate section. It’s going to be quite a long ranty one, so if you don’t feel like reading it feel free to skip to the final verdict, as this section won’t effect my rating of the movie. That said, it’s an issue I’m rather passionate about so I’d appreciate if you stuck around. I’ve started boycotting trailers for films I’m excited for, because, as we’ve all probably realised, these days they just completely spoil the plot. When I go and see Last Jedi in December, for instance, as SOON as I see snow, I know that Imperial Walkers are going to appear at some point. It doesn’t matter that I “don’t know when they’re going to arrive”; it ruins the whole scene if, as soon as it starts, I know what the main spectacle is, so it renders any and all build-up moot. So, that’s why I don’t watch trailers anymore, and I only saw the one for Ragnarok because it came out on YouTube way before I decided to avoid the damn things. With Rogue One, there were issues with the various cuts of the finished movie so, annoying though it was, I can understand why there were some shots in the trailer that were just plain not in the final product. With Thor, however, I fear an even more worrying trend has been started. Or, in fact, not even just started, but carried on. After seeing Force Awakens back in 2015 (man, time flies when you’re waiting for Star Wars sequels), when I went back and watched the trailer I swear they’ve slightly edited some split-second shots so that when you see them in the movie they’re different to the way they were initially. I might be wrong, and even if I’m right the changes are subtle enough that they probably only did it because us eagle-eyed viewers scrutinise every detail of trailers so much these days that we’re likely to spot Obi-Wan Kenobi standing on the bridge of the Star Destroyer that’s taking off in orbit if the producers don’t edit him out. With Thor, on the other hand, they were anything but subtle. They’ve straight up rejigged shots so that they don’t spoil massive moments of the storyline. A standout one is when Thor lands on the bridge to Asgard, lightning coursing through his body. In the trailer, he’s mostly unscathed, but in the film, he’s got a bloody eye missing! There were a few more shots like this, were a massive thing had simply been wiped using VFX, and while some may argue that this is kindness on the producers’ part because it means we don’t get spoilers. “Antlerflax”, I hear you cry, “You said you didn’t want spoilers, and now they’ve taken them out for your benefit, you’re still complaining! What will make you happy?”. I’ll tell you what will make me happy. If filmmakers stop blatantly corrupting the concept of the trailer. They’re just moving further and further away from what they should be, and spoiling more and more of the movies we’re excited for, and now they’re actually bastardising shots from the films themselves just so they can show them a month before you see it on the big screen. If it’s that important, here’s an idea… Don’t even bother showing it in the damn trailer! I tell you, it’s a huge issue, and it’s becoming a larger and larger problem with every new blockbuster that’s released. Trailers have release dates now, for goodness sake. Isn’t it time to stop?
As superhero movies go, this is certainly one of the more enjoyable, though it’s becoming increasingly harder for me to judge these as I get older due to the target demographic being… Well, what I was when I was twelve, which was nearly ten years ago. Despite how far-removed I am from being able to truly appreciate thrill-ride candy-coloured action movies, Thor Ragnarok’s soundtrack, action scenes, little injections of actually laugh-out-loud humour (take notes, everyone else working for the studio) and, honestly, just the sheer fun of it, mean that I agree with what the big reviewers, Empire and the Guardian alike, are saying: It truly is Marvel’s bravest and boldest film to date.
*AS USUAL, HEAVY SPOILERS FOLLOW. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.*
I muted my expectations for Blade Runner: 2049. I was dreading leaving the cinema disappointed, and have been looking forward to this film since the first rumours of a sequel to the original emerged, so kept my hopes low for once. However, there was of course a large part of me that couldn’t help but get butterflies when the lights dropped.
Deckard (Harrison Ford) has gone into hiding after the events of 2019, culminating in Roy Batty’s death and Deckard and Rachel’s escape to the fallout zone in the North. Thirty years in the future, Agent K (Ryan Gosling) is tasked with hunting the missing Blade Runner down, but learns an even darker secret along the way.
Not in probably my whole life have I seen a film that has so stunned me with how good it is. The overwhelming feeling that washed over me as I was lost in the pink neon glare and growling basslines of 2049 was relief. Relief that finally a blockbuster wasn’t pandering to the classic brain-dead Hollywood audience, relief that a writer-director team hadn’t cracked under the pressure and dumbed down the plot in favour of flashy set pieces and cheap gags, relief that for once a classic had been captured so perfectly and expertly, respecting the series’ roots while simultaneously moving forward in a new and innovative direction. Relief that yes indeed, this is Blade Runner.In this vein, the plot twist is that the plot twist you expected isn’t the plot twist, and I can’t come up with a single example of a film which has done this so well. From the first few scenes, me and my girlfriend were sure that K would turn out to be Rachel and Deckard’s kid, but in reality it’s a very minor character that I don’t think anyone would have expected despite what they may say once they know the truth. This is what plots should be like, and it just makes cash-grabbers like Marvel (okay, I understand they’re aimed at kids, but there are plenty of adult fans out there) and especially DC look even more like trash. On top of that, it’s paced so, so well. The fact that scenes can last for minutes at a time with no dialogue, only subtle sound effects or sweeping musical motifs, and are not interrupted by someone making a joke (see every other film review I’ve written this year) is sheer beauty, and so much more satisfying. Case in point: My girlfriend has fallen asleep every single time we’ve been to the cinema together, save for Moana, and she stayed awake for the whole three hours of Blade Runner 2049. Why, you ask? Because it’s so mentally stimulating, and it doesn’t need giant robots and explosions to achieve that. Although, delightfully, there’s no shortage of the latter.
But it’s not just the plot that’s expertly crafted. The neon glow of the Earth we came to love from the original Blade Runner is back in all its glory, with plenty of new environments to satiate our appetite for a deeper look into the setting. Sweeping birds-eye-views of glass-shrouded farmland, towering holographic billboards, rolling oceans, bombed out cities forming gargantuan deserts, these are all so breathtaking to look at and executed wonderfully. Pair this with the positively thunderous bass notes and electronic tones that are such a great callback to Vangelis’ original score that it hurts, and you have some world-building to be proud of. Hats off.
Speaking of honouring the past while embracing the future, this film does all that and more. A moment where K asks Deckard if his dog is real and the veteran replies “I don’t know, ask him” perfectly respects the key themes of the book (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep) that if you can create artificial life that’s so realistic you can’t tell the difference, what is the difference? Furthermore, there are just enough little nods to the first film (an audio snippet of Rachel and Deckard’s first conversation, the towering ziggurat of the evil corporation formerly known as Tyrell, and an interview with an aged Gaff, still making his little origami animals) to satisfy fans but not detract from a new audience’s enjoyment. That said, I would of course still highly recommend seeing the original before you watch 2049. There’s also a cheeky moment where Deckard runs for his signature Spinner, only for an incoming missile to completely obliterate it. Seconds later, a new and improved Spinner, sleek and glistening, flies in and lands. If this isn’t symbolism for doing away with the problems of the original in favour of the innovation of the sequel, I don’t know what is.
To be Improved:
Once more, a film with so few issues means unfortunately that those issues must be examined in depth. That’s just the way I like doing things, because imperfections in a masterpiece stick out like nobody’s business.
Let’s start with the villain. I feel bad for Jared Leto, because once again he has been cast as a character who has about as much screen time as he did in the trailers. We all know which character I’m talking about, and though he plays the sinister Niander Wallace well, he is genuinely in just two scenes, which mainly consist of him monologuing. What’s worse is that to add to how underdeveloped his character is, we are given what I shall be calling Chekhov’s Chips. Wallace’s assistant opens a case and selects one of six or so microchips, which she then inserts behind Wallace’s ear, allowing him to see (he is blind) through the use of small, black, hovering robo-pebbles. A cool concept, but what I’m left wondering is what the other five chips do. Why show us if it’s not going to be explained? It’s not even a subtle shot, but a relatively extreme close-up of the contents of the case. Either way, there’s a ‘P’ word I don’t use often when it comes to this sort of thing, but I’m going to have to say it: Blade Runner 2049 is a movie with a pointless antagonist, and it hurts the narrative.
On a technical aside, Rachel’s cameo, though studios are now getting incredibly close to nailing CGI humans, tipped unfortunately into uncanny valley territory. In fact, I’m sure the only reason the animation held up was because she barely moved save for her walk up to Deckard, during which she was mostly shrouded in shadow anyway.
But to get back to the subject of the overarching narrative, like the original loads of things are left to the imagination and single throwaway lines are used to cover up massive plotholes. After being saved from drowning, Deckards tells K “You should have let me die out there” to which K replies “I did”. A single exchange that in the moment is simply an interesting way to stop Deckard from being hunted, but because it’s just come after the climactic battle you forget that it solves a lot of other unanswered questions. Why Gosling doesn’t carry out his initial plan of killing Deckard, for instance, or why Wallace’s company will now immediately forget about a man they sought out for years. Someone online recently pointed out that the Blade Runner franchise has always favoured themes and imagery over a thorough plot, but in a film where (as discussed earlier) the twists in the story are so well thought through in some places, it’s such a shame that it falls down in others. For instance, a scene where Joi, K’s holographic girlfriend, sort of merges with a real prostitute so that K can properly make love to her given physical form, is impressive insofar as it’s visually interesting, but to me it lasts far too long and simply sets up the prostitute placing a tracker in K’s jacket (a move which will later be ignored and glossed over completely, because she doesn’t work for the villains at all). There are lots of moments like this and they create threads that seem only there to distract from, rather than convey, any useful information.
All my other film ratings are to be ignored, and this is where I particularly find that the rating system falls down. I give films ratings out of ten based on the individual experience, not in comparison to other movies. Lots of this is aided by nostalgia, yes, like my 9.5 awarded to this year’s Ghost in the Shell, arguably a 6/10 if I unclouded my judgement. This is what I’ve tried very hard to do with Blade Runner: 2049.
To give the film a 9/10 would assume that it is near-perfection. As much as I wish it was, this is not the case. It’s incredible, visually, musically and narrative-wise, and there are so many amazing scenes, though as my girlfriend pointed out, the problem is that they only work as standalone moments, not a whole string of consciousness. The film plays more like a series of wonderful, mildly-interlinked shorts than a whole film. Sure, the nearly three hour runtime doesn’t get boring at all, because it’s paced so elegantly. What’s up for debate is how much is crammed into that runtime, and whether or not they pull it off. Honestly? Though I’m still on the fence, I’m leaning towards yes. Let’s give credit where credit is due: It says a lot about how great a film is that I firmly believe it is one of the best I’ve ever seen even with room for improvement… but sadly that also means that it isn’t perfect.
Cutting yourself shaving was a lot worse when trying to shave one’s eyebrows.
*AS USUAL, HEAVY SPOILERS FOLLOW. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.*
I’ve been at university for the past two weeks, how about that? After I’d moved in and met all my flatmates, one of the first things we decided to do before we even knew each other properly was to go to the cinema. I ruled out Stephen King’s IT immediately because, as we’ve learned from my Alien: Covenant review, I despise horror. That sort of only left one more thing we could conceivably see, and that film was Kingsman: The Golden Circle.
This is a direct sequel to the original film (Kingsman: Secret Service) from 2014. One of the recruits from the original agent programme has returned for revenge, working for an insidious drug lord, Poppy (how original), who runs a sinister organisation called the Golden Circle. She injects all her drugs, which are distributed worldwide, with a virus, and after the Kingsmen are all but wiped out they are are forced to activate the Doomsday Protocol and team up with their American cousins, the Statesmen (imaginative, I don’t think) to save the world.
There was a lot to be said for the refreshing take on the spy movie offered by the original. The fast pacing, imaginative and multi-layered characters, if a little cliche in places, and overall aesthetic were enjoyable, it must be said. Unfortunately, as with Guardians of the Galaxy 2 (*shudders*), this sequel takes all that was good with the first one and runs with it to the extent of over-saturation. But we’re not here to discuss the negatives, at least not yet, so let’s crack on with a few of the things which were actually interesting. There are some lovely scenes with puppies, which were enjoyable to look at. Some of the little nods to the movie’s form, like naming the two robotic guard dogs of a 70s-America recreational villain hideout ‘Benny’ and ‘Jet’. These little details are very clever, and the film is… Not that full of them, at all, and this is in fact the only example I can think of. Moving on, there is a very cool three second shot of a fighter jet called the ‘Silver Pony’ as it soars through the skies. We all know how much I adore the Transformers franchise, so I’m a sucker for moments of military tech glinting in the sunlight. There were also a few cool moments in action scenes which really flowed, like a suitcase folding out into a riot shield. Interesting, but less a silver lining and more a single pinprick of sunlight smothered by dogshit-brown clouds.
To be Improved:
There’s no easy way to do this, and I don’t particularly want a repeat of the huge paragraph of pessimism you had to read in the GotG 2 review, so I shall just list the negative points for easy access:
The constant whirling of the camera during fight scenes, which (though it has become the style of the Kingsman movies and is impressive because it is usually all one shot or at least looks like it) is nausea-inducing and looks CGI (translation: fake) as hell.
Like Guardians of the Galaxy, the constant ruining of epic moments for a little shot of humour (“That’s the only decent shit I’ve had in three weeks” springs to mind) is infuriating, and as soon as it started happening I knew I was going to hate the film.
It’s entirely and utterly predictable.
The characters are all uninspired and, for the most part, unlikeable. Besides, Channing Tatum’s ‘Tequila’ (his character was named after one of the liquors, I don’t even remember, give me a break) is put on ice, quite literally, when he is cryogenically frozen so we don’t even really get to know him, making him pointless.
The overuse of the song ‘Country Roads’ for almost every establishing shot is ridiculous, and my opinion was not helped by the friendly scouser sitting behind me and singing along every time it played.
There was just something dead about the action sequences. Perhaps it was the fact that, as mentioned above, it all looked FAKE AS HELL. But in all seriousness, the climactic fight ended at the same meat grinder that was already used to chop a person up at the beginning of the film, meaning there was no satisfaction whatsoever, and whenever a character entered a room you could tell what was going to happen simply because of what was around them. Eggsy holds a vial of antidote in front of him; it’s obviously going to get smashed. Benny (robotic dog) chases Harry into the salon where the Golden Circle members are given their solid gold tattoos; it’s obvious that molten gold and metal don’t mix. The list goes on, but I’ll spare you the pain.
Let’s not even talk about Elton John. His lines were almost as bad as Cogman, the ninja robot butler’s in Transformers: The Last Knight. But nothing could ever be quite as bad as “Move, bitch, get out of my way” in an aristocratic English accent, so Golden Circle earns a few points for… Not being the absolute worst, I guess? Whoopty-do.
The plot itself was so… dead-ended. It all came full circle (a golden one, perhaps?) but not in a way that the story was satisfyingly resolved. More in the way that it ended exactly where it started with nothing different than it was at the start. Except Eggsy’s now married to the princess he… did anal with at the end of the first film. Incredible, guys, really.
Scenes like the one where a tracker can only be placed on a female victim by putting it directly into her uhm… Well, you can guess, are vile. Look, I’m all for a bit of sexual banter (sort of, in the right context) but when you force me to watch a shot of a tracker implanting itself into literal uterus walls, you’ve done something wrong.
In case those last few points didn’t give a single indication as to what I thought of this film, let me spell it out: it was utterly dire. Watching Golden Circle, I found myself in the same situation I’ve been in for what are now my last three cinema trips. That being the fact that I walk in, sit down incredibly excited to see what promises to be an amazing movie, and enjoy about ten minutes, but then find my expectations shattered by a throwaway line or moment that makes me cringe like (as I think I said in my Last Knight review) I’ve just torn a massive chunk out of a lemon. Cinema truly is dying, and I will now enter every film without watching the trailers and with little to no anticipation lest it be destroyed by computer-generated (as aforementioned: fake) action scenes, appalling plot choices and disgustingly awful writing.
*AS USUAL, HEAVY SPOILERS FOLLOW, ALTHOUGH THIS REVIEW ADDRESSES MANY MORE THAN MY OTHERS. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.*
First Ghost in the Shell, next, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (though I’m loath to count that), then Transformers: The Last Knight. Now? Alien: Covenant. I have been spoilt rotten by 2017 when it comes to science fiction, my absolute favourite genre, and will continue to be so with the upcoming releases of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Thor: Ragnarok, and Blade Runner: 2049 come the end of the year. However, every single one of them is a sequel or a remake (yeah, wow, would you look at that, it really is all of them), and so far they’ve both totally enthralled and utterly disappointed, so from here on out my expectations of these movies will be torn between excitement and unpleasant apprehension.
This was a tough one for me. I absolutely despise horror and jumpscares, much to the chagrin of an American Horror Story-loving girlfriend, but I owed it to myself as a sci-fi fan to push through that fear and see this. I never ended up seeing it in the cinema as for some reason the price never seemed to drop below £12.50, a little too expensive compared to the tenner I’m used to forking out. But that’s probably a good thing, as I don’t think I’d be able to handle boo moments on the big screen, and it’s nice owning the DVD as now I have the whole Alien set. The story follows the crew of Covenant, a ship somewhat similar to Prometheus in design but one which differs in its purpose. This is to be the first ever large-scale colonisation of an extra-solar planet. Naturally, highly-trained military scientists forget to wear their helmets on a strange alien (pun intended in every sense?) world, and disaster strikes in the form of angry, hungry, black-shelled Xenomorphs. Delicious.
Some unfairly delicious shots (strange description I know, but I just love sci-fi and they really are gorgeous) are peppered throughout the film. David talking to Walter (basically Michael Fassbender being two androids, one American and shiny and new, the other English and living alone on a planet for decades) is so disjointed and good. Teaching him to play recorder, talking about their creator together, they’re some of the best scenes in the movie, clinical and tense. This is because the new version of the android has had a feature taken out of it; the ability to create. “They made the following models with fewer complications.” It lends both positive and negative credit to the film that these two characters have the most chemistry out of the entire rest of the cast, and they’re both played by the same actor. Although I will confess that some of the other characters have vaguely touching moments, I really can’t stress how good the scenes between the androids are. Case in point: “Why did you sacrifice your hand to save her life? What is that if not love?” asks David. “Duty.” Walter responds. On top of this, the fact that the updates to the system are eventually what allow Walter to defeat the evil David. And seeing Fassbender kill himself (not in the original meaning of that phrase) twice in one film is… odd, but enjoyable? Is it offensive to say that? Perhaps I’m the wrong person to review this sort of thing because the more of this aspect, the more I find myself unable to watch a film; but the tension is definitely there. I had to watch a few scenes on silent simply because I didn’t want to be startled by the Alien obviously standing behind someone. The inevitable facehugger scene is obvious and one of the most horrible in the series yet, of course, so if you’re into this sort of thing the horror is really well done. Seeing the vicious, glistening black xenomorph is amazing, the first time you see it, and I sort of wish there were more moments because it’s truly wasted. It’s death is rushed and haphazard.
To be Improved:
As usual, scientists are effing stupid and make ridiculous decisions resulting in massive crew and equipment loss. It seems unrealistic and is just so lacking of the intrigue and subtlety of the original. The film practically opens with a horrific moment of having to watch someone see their lifelong partner burnt alive mere minutes into the film sets up a tone that is more gratuitously violent than necessarily poignant. Speaking of violence, though Covenant is not among the types of films I normally watch, so my bar isn’t very high, it is without a doubt the most violent film I’ve ever seen in my life. To the point of making me feel physically sick. I wasn’t a happy bunny, I can tell you that, and I’m not really going to factor this point into how good the film is because this is just personal taste. But I think it’s useful to point out how sort of… Unnecessary it is, though it does terrify which I guess was the point. For some reason they’ve made one of Michael Fassbender’s characters (he plays multiple androids) American, even though we all know that his accent, though he does put a lot of effort in, is always overridden by his native one. The writers kill not one but five crew members in one scene, each in a different way, meaning that the effect is sort of lost. Sure, the effect of the violence is not lost, but any emotional impact short of sheer fear is blown out of the scene in the explosions. There’s a really, really weird cut when David is going to be killed by Walter, which sets up for the twist that the opposite has happened and the evil android prevails. But it’s just so weird! You see David reach for a knife then it really does just hard cut to something else. It just leaves you distracted for the rest of the film as you wonder about it until the reveal. I will say, this itself is done astonishingly. The pacing of the film is really odd. I couldn’t tell when the end was gonna happen, and after the sort of ‘climactic battle’ which is more anti-climactic (see above mention of xenomorph death), of course, there’s a sudden tense moment and you’re like oop… Hold on… This doesn’t appear to be the end. It goes on for another twenty all-over-the-place minutes. This just means that it’s jarring, and the rest of the film follows this trend. Finally, the characters, save for the androids, are all incredibly poor. There are literally no heroes to root for, especially when, as already mentioned, they get killed off so quickly.
I think it’s safe to say that, any nostalgia out of the picture, the Alien movies went downhill after the first one. Perhaps a very unpopular opinion, but I believe it to be true. Covenant follows that trend, though is somewhat more enjoyable than Prometheus and isn’t as cheesy in its emotion or as wishy-washy in its story. I mean, damn, despite some odd tonal choices and honestly just as many poor scenes as Prometheus, thank god the story at least actually flows and has a beginning-middle-end. I can’t really tell what’s wrong with it. Perhaps it’s how much is left to the imagination, though a darn sight more is explained when it comes to Covenant, which is a joy. Overall, it’s simply nothing special.
I was never into the idea of the Ninjago sets. Ninjas are cool and all, but to me they just don’t work as Lego sets. I think it’s to do with the fact that they don’t really have anything going for them except palaces and other stationary objects which, like that famous scene in Big (featuring the lovely Tom Hanks), are things a kid is going to be able to swoosh around or play with properly. The Ninjago Masters of Spinjitzu line moved in the complete opposite direction, with sickening candy-coloured sets and the cliche evil skeleton baddies, so again didn’t appeal to my tastes. But where the Lego Ninjago Movie was concerned, the trailer had my attention… And the subsequent line of sets (sitting snuggly in between the two previous Lego Ninja extremes) really peaked my interest.
The Flying Jelly Sub comes with the eponymous sub, a Hammerhead pilot complete with mug of tea and bladed fish, Jelly himself complete with harpoon fish, Kai complete with his kusarigama (yes, I did have to look up ‘blade on end of chain’), and a fisherman named Takuma rowing his gorgeous little boat with his oar.
For a £24.99 set, I’m honestly very surprised that they included such a well thought out little fishing boat. I expected a few brown pieces messily slapped together to form some semblance of a floating contraption. But Lego have put, dare I say it, more thought into the companion vehicle than the titular one! And I love it! I expect this much more often from Lego in the future!
The minifigures surprised me. Though the Hammerhead’s eyes are far too comical for my taste, I guess that’s a silly bone to pick when you look at the Ninjago line on the whole. Jelly’s headpiece is wonderfully designed aesthetically (we’ll see my other problem below). Kai and the rest of the ninjas aren’t really my favourites as characters because, like Power Rangers, they’re whiny, cliche-filling teenagers. But Jay is blue, my favourite colour, and though I was originally skeptical of such a chunky blade piece for such a small figure, his kusarigama is the funnest thing about this set. You can whirl it around effortlessly and it hardly ever actually collides with the minifigure, meaning you can truly get your ninja on in your role-playing sessions.
Lots of lovely individual pieces included, something I’m taking greater note of as I get older, like the trans-orange chains, the two light royal blue fish, and the many brown and dark brown pieces for the boat.
Speaking of great pieces, the inside of the Sub cockpit is just charming. You get a little mug and cupholder for Hammerhead, and the printed control panel is lovely. I’m not particularly fussy when it comes to stickers, and only really find it a problem when there are as many included as there are in sets like the Ferrari, but it’s great to get printed ones of smaller items.
The colour scheme for the sub is very appealing, all those sand blue pieces are great.
Because there’s two flick-fire missiles, it means that enough tension is created to properly fire them, something I think is probably less to do with Lego and more to do with the fact I have big enough thumbs, but still a positive.
To be Improved:
Jelly’s headpiece rattles around far too much for my liking, although that does mean he’s good for spinning during fights.
Takuma doesn’t receive a second, more neutral head-print, meaning he’s either constantly being harassed by the Jelly Sub or he just really hates his job.
I don’t see why Jay’s headpiece even receives a double printing if we’re not given his hair as well as his ninja mask.
The Jelly Sub in its entirety is far too complicated to swoosh around and has too many independent moving parts, meaning that it easily gets tangled or jammed or bits fall off it. The tanks are easy to accidentally knock off the back, the legs aren’t fixed in place so always spin unevenly meaning that they often stop the whole thing from being able to move, and because there’s no stand included for the Sub the chains are always sort of just plonked on the ground. And don’t even get me started on those headlights. Whenever I pick up this set it hardly ever has both of them attached. The matching character has similar flimsiness with his wobbly helmet, which is distracting as well. This is simple to write so makes it look like the criticisms are sparse, but when you consider the fact that these are major constructional flaws with the biggest item in the set you start to see how big an issue it is.
I don’t really see why the harpoons on the Sub aren’t flick-fire. If they’re just aesthetic, they’re too stubby to actually do anything.
This is a hard set for me to put a rating on, because aesthetically it’s so pleasing to me, and I love so many of the little touches and intricacies that Lego actually bothered to put in, and play-value-wise you get two villains, an innocent to protect, a hero with a wonderfully ergonomic weapon, and two vehicles. But… It just falls down in a few too many places where the same level of thought paradoxically hasn’t been put in! I feel like if the ungainliness of the sub were fixed, this review would lean much more in favour of the set, but when you look at the overwhelming number of positives on my Republic Fighter Tank, you’ll see that the 6 is fair for this one. Bring on the next wave, perhaps it’ll finally redeem Ninja-oriented Lego themes for me.
I read Ninefox Gambit again to prepare for this, read the whole thing. All while Raven Stratagem sat on my shelf, taunting me, tempting me to just open it, cast the first book aside and find out where the story goes instead of reminding myself where it had already been. But I finished Ninefox, which meant I could, at long last, dive into the sequel.
Brevet General Kel Cheris’ fleet has been destroyed, and she has bonded with the undead general Shuos Jedao, stripping herself of her faction and taking over another Kel swarm for herself. Only Kel Brezan, a crashhawk and formation breaker, manages to wrench himself from the General’s influence, and seeks to destroy his swarm’s captor once and for all. But is Jedao trying to defend the Hexarchate, or is he putting into motion an even more sinister plan… A betrayal four centuries in the making?
One of the main positives of Raven Stratagem, which, as we shall see, is a staple of sci-fi sequels, is the fact that there are many chapters which explore the origins of certain protagonists. These are much more interesting and fun than the muddled nature of some from the first book, offering insight into the background of a character and adding more consistent and grounded lore to the story on the whole. Other than that, honestly, short of flat out copying and pasting the paragraph from my review of Ninefox Gambit praising Ha Lee’s writing style, I have nothing more to say about Raven Stratagem. So… Let’s do just that, shall we? This is going to be a very short paragraph otherwise. Here we go:
“All of the imagery, description, names of the ships and weapons, it’s superb, it really is. It’s just so well-written. I’m going to have to get specific here, so let’s just list some things. The imagination that has been required to come up with all the weapons, ships, factions and imagery throughout is just staggering. Boxmoth troop transports, Cindermoths equipped with Erasure Guns and Dire Cannons, Kel Ashhawks, Threshold Winnowers, it goes on and on. And they never start to get boring, that’s the main thing. So much new weaponry is introduced that drastically turns the tide of battle (and that’s really what this book is about on the whole, so it just adds to the gritty feel) but none of it done cheaply in dull ex machina fashion.”
There! That was easy. But in all seriousness, it’s a problem in and of itself that Raven Stratagem is just consistently good throughout. It becomes sort of… blandly enjoyable. Like a superhero movie, or a dessert that tastes good but is far too big to finish by yourself so you’re left forcing yourself to get through it because you know that even though you feel sick now, it was nice originally so it should be worth it. There are no moments whatsoever that stand out, and whereas with Ninefox I could tell you about Cheris’ duel, the carrion glass flashback sequence, the fungal canister disaster, or the battle with the kaleidoscope bomb. With Raven Stratagem… What happened in this book again?
To be Improved:
Immediately, I actually regretted having read the first book again before picking up this one, because there were many instant discrepancies between this and the ending of Ninefox Gambit. It seems a lot of moments have been tailored for people who decided not to reread the first book so need a little nudging reminder every time something is mentioned. Ah yes, that’s what “lucky unlucky four” is, ah yes, now I remember who the main character is, ah yes, that’s what a boxmoth is. It’s tiresome, and one would think anyone with some semblance of memory wouldn’t need these little prompts. But to go through a more jarring example: Cheris still wears her gloves, despite taking them off in the closing paragraphs of Ninefox Gambit, dramatically stating that she would be Kel no longer. Ooh, scary, but the impact of this is decidedly dulled by the fact that she is now back, once again donning the gloves. To say nothing of the fact that no one is at all surprised to see Captain Cheris alive and well, simply letting her aboard and allowing her to walk straight into the command centre with all her weapons, despite the fact that the entirety of her fleet wasjust bombed into oblivion. She should be dead and the fact she isn’t should be an immediate cause for concern, yet everyone is hunky-dory about letting an armed captive into the room where all the highest ranking officers are. This is just one example, but it really sticks out and makes me wonder if Yoon Ha Lee even remembered what happened in his own novel before starting its sequel. Very odd. Also, from the first few pages there are spelling mistakes and grammatical errors. This is becoming more than a little tedious, as we saw in my review of Ninefox, so I shall say no more on the matter. Raven Stratagem, on the whole, sees Yoon Ha Lee fall into the same trap as Jeff Vandermeer with the Area X Trilogy, and indeed William Gibson with Neuromancer‘s sequel, wherein the second book in the series is way more political and wooden than the first. It does mean that we get to explore the wider workings of an already-established universe rather than getting bogged down in more of the same, yes, but when the original was as amazing as it was, a little similarity would have gone a long way rather than move backwards. This means that it’s a great shame that Raven Stratagem is as comparatively boring as it is. Many mysterious characters we wanted to know more about are introduced unsubtly and suddenly, obliterating any impact they would otherwise have had, and the characters we know from Ninefox who make a return are bland and lack continuity in relation to how they were before (see above glove example).
Nothing is wrong with Ha Lee’s writing, it must be said. And this book is an enjoyable one to read, unlike Vandermeer or Gibson’s sequels that I couldn’t even get halfway through. However, I should have taken a hint when it came to those two juggernauts, as Raven Stratagem was of course not worth the wait, like my mum told me it wouldn’t be, because sequels hardly ever top the original (perhaps with the exception of Empire Strikes Back). And of course it has left me completely devoid of any excitement or desire to read the finale of the trilogy, if indeed there is going to be one at some point. After Ninefox Gambit, I had so many burning questions that I needed answers to. Those I harbour after Raven Stratagem are embers at best. Sorry, Yoon.