“It’s a sequel to a videogame adaptation,” is probably a sufficient review of Sonic 2. The first Sonic the Hedgehog teased the introduction of Tails in the sequel, which also incorporates Knuckles the echidna. Although welcome faces from the games, having three CG characters undermines the first film’s primary strength, which was the believeable relationship between its humans and the anthropomorphised hedgehog. The human leads now share virtually no screen time with Sonic at all and many scenes are entirely digital. Although it is unclear how much of this was imposed by COVID filming restrictions, the result is a flashy spectacle with a fraction of its predecessor’s grounding, so that making it live action feels all the more unnecessary. Hiring professional voice actor Colleen O’Shaughnessey as Tails also serves to highlight the limitations of big name casting for the other virtual characters. At best, Sonic 2’s inoffensive but entirely forgetable mascot mayhem may distract younger kids for two hours, despite there being insufficient plot to fill even half the running time.
“All gods and monsters outlive their original purpose and are reduced to metaphor.”
The appearance of djinn in Western fiction is oddly liminal, fantastic and yet somehow more plausibly grounded in their foreign exoticism. Such is the appearance of a djinn in the hotel room of professor Alithea on a trip to Istanbul. Granted the traditional three wishes, she is professionally cautious as her study is in global narrative mythology and she knows all too well that in stories wishes always serve as cautionary tales. Cinema feels at times a clumsy medium for this self-referential story about stories (itself adapted from a short story), wonderful as Idris Elba’s deeply intoned narration may be. This is not to say George Miller does not present us with impressive sounds and sights, with evocative use of colour and magical effects constructed from shifting sands and vapours (incidentally visual elements that suffer the most from streaming compression). Three Thousand Years of Longing explores the ways in which we can be trapped by desire, and the foolishness of love at the expense of oneself, but the emotional tone is one of solitude and loneliness, with a longing to be seen as much as for freedom (“We exist only if we are real to others”). There is also an overarching comment that — even as science may reduce our reliance on fictional deities — stories remain how humans understand the world and how we interact with one another, and your enjoyment of the film is likely to reflect how interesting or pretentious you find these ideas.
“You all keep talking about the city like it’s their prison. It’s not. It’s their kingdom.”
Lilly (The Coyote)
In the saturated zombie genre, the proposition of a heist movie set in an infested Las Vegas sounds like a refreshingly fun time. Unfortunately Army of the Dead‘s neon-filled advertising is misleading; the set-up is enjoyable but by the time the crew is ready to enter the city, the atmosphere has already turned dour, heist elements swiftly falling by the wayside amidst familiar zombie action. Whilst it often feels derivative, the film owes more to Aliens than to other zombie films. I routinely forget that Zack Snyder’s debut feature (and one of his best) was the strong 2004 remake of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. Zombies as a representation of mindless consumerism has been a genre staple for 40 years, and scaling up from a shopping mall to the Las Vegas Strip is a logical conclusion. This being a Snyder flick, the allegory is either very on the nose (money raining down during a casino firefight) or rather confused (it is the humans who are motivated predominantly by greed, whilst the “intelligent” zombies have other motivations). It all makes for a competent action film with plenty of gore and a few shocks, but there is little that we haven’t seen done better before.
“Maybe a man who broods in a cave for a living isn’t cut out to be a recruiter.”
After the chore of Batman v Superman, I had no interest in seeing another grimdark Zack Snyder superhero movie, but — having avoided the 2017 theatrical version of Justice League — curiosity finally has the better of me. I will readily accept that this is a better version of the movie as there would simply have been no way to condense this material into the two-hour film mandated by the studio. The new cut runs to nearly four hours and, whilst that is certainly too long, much of this was needed to introduce three new heroes and a villain. The Flash is introduced effectively through a concise rescue sequence that showcases both his powers and personality, but the other hero introductions are fragmented and inefficient: we see more brooding than character, piecing things together from what others say. Steppenwolf is a generic hulking villain in spiky CG armour that is intricate but uninteresting; the character is little more than a vehicle to introduce Darkseid as a future antagonist (Snyder’s extended epilogue further telegraphs what he would like to have done with the DCEU but introducing yet more characters in a film already overcrowded with new faces is unhelpful). Most of the action is hollow and repetitive, predominantly characters punching or throwing each other into walls, interspersed with slow-motion hero poses and computer-generated particle effects. It occurs in locations that are intended to be vast and epic, but frequently feel like the empty backdrops of a fighting game rather than organic, connected spaces. Snyder’s use of a 4:3 aspect ratio has been derided and “preserving his vision” of IMAX framing does seem self-indulgent for a film that is only available on streaming services. In practice, it is easy to forget and little use is made of the additional frame height to actually warrant the unusual choice. When it comes to tone, there is something to be said for not falling into the MCU pattern of undercutting more serious moments with levity. Nolan’s Batman trilogy showed how well grittier realism can work but, when every moment becomes bleak and overbearing, the experience is turgid and exhausting. Ultimately, Zack Snyder’s Justice League will not change anyone’s mind about his take on the DC universe: Snyder fans will see this release as vindication, whilst others will consider it another incredibly expensive testament to style over substance. With his name in the title, this is plainly a very personal project for Snyder, showing brief flourishes of excellence but mostly feeling soulless, whilst making grand promises about theoretical future films that are unlikely ever to be realised.
Disclosure: I know personally at least one person involved in the making of this film.
“It’s a videogame adaptation,” is probably a sufficient review of Sonic, although that downplays its unusual journey to the screen. After the first trailer met near-universal criticism for Sonic’s horrifying half-human appearance, the film was pushed back for the character to be redesigned — as a result, it was released a month before the coronavirus pandemic shuttered cinemas globally, making it one of the highest grossing films of 2020. In terms of quality, however, this elevated the movie only to abject mediocrity, filled with predictable plotting and derivative action — like a bar fight that replicates Quicksilver’s memorable scene in X-Men: Days of Future Past. Like Dwayne Johnson in Rampage, James Marsden deserves credit for creating a genuine sense of rapport with his animated co-star. Jim Carrey’s scenery-chewing Robotnik injects some freshness, arguably the strongest aspect of the film except when he seems like Ace Ventura in cosplay. Ultimately, a cute, energetic mascot will appeal to younger children, but even older children are likely to lose interest by the halfway mark.
“This is just a body. It’s not bad or good. That part’s up to you.”
Dr Dyson Ido
Alita is two thirds of a good origin story, spoiled by an unexpectedly truncated ending that provides no resolution. Despite the heavy CGI at play, Rodriguez’s direction keeps the majority of the film impressively grounded, and the action sequences in particular benefit greatly from characters that feel like they occupy physical space (e.g. a cyborg roller derby shot using the camera techniques used for NASCAR). Ending aside, the biggest flaw is an artistic choice that fails to pay off. Whilst virtually all of the cyborgs have human faces — even where attached to monstrous mechanical bodies — Alita’s is motion-captured CGI to mirror her manga origins and provide a slightly otherworldly appearance. The cartoonishly large eyes are expressive, but the overly smoothed skin and features fall heavily into the uncanny valley, undermining many of the films slower paced, emotional story beats. The fact that the effects work so well on the human-faced cyborgs only reinforces that this was a deliberation decision, if an unfortunate one.
Written by Fran Walsh and Peter Jackson, and directed by Jackson’s protégé, there were clearly high hopes that Mortal Engines would spark a new blockbuster fantasy film franchise. There is creativity in the absurd notion of roving motorised cities in a post-apocalyptic landscape, and seeing a monstrous London chase down and swallow a smaller town whole provides breathtaking spectacle. The world building on display is truly impressive. Unfortunately the script struggles to balance this against compelling storytelling — when we don’t care about the characters as individuals, the stakes drop considerably. Hugo Weaving is the film’s strongest presence, charismatic and driven. Fresh big budget spectacle is a welcome change in an industry beholden to sequels but Mortal Engines fails to justify further investment.
When Oscar-winner Alicia Vikander was cast as the iconic Lara Craft, many hoped that Tomb Raider might finally crack the elusive high-quality videogame-to-film adaptation. Sadly, those hoping for more than a generic action movie will be disappointed by the results. Although it broadly follows the story beats of the 2013 videogame reboot, the script presents this as an uninspired origin story in which our orphaned heroine bizarrely spends the first half hour moping around London as a bike courier, presumably in an effort to make the heiress more relatable. Meanwhile it omits many of the scenes that demonstrate Lara’s transformation into a survivor. Vikander does what she can with the material, but apparently “this kind of Croft” is bland and largely passive until she returns to London in the film’s final few minutes. It is telling that even Walton Goggins struggles to make his villain in any way memorable. Ultimately the film is strongest in its fan-service moments, which is rarely a mark of quality.