“Everyone keeps telling me how my story supposed to go.”
Across the Spider-verse embraces its multiverse glitching conceit from its opening logos which flash between styles, displaying a time-consuming attention to detail that is the hallmark of this bigger and bolder sequel that once again outdoes the majority of its live-action counterparts. Whilst Miles Morales originally took us Into the Spider-verse and remains front and centre in the marketing, Across the Spider-verse feels as much Gwen Stacy’s story. She embodies the themes of isolation (“This line of work, you always end up a solo act,” she explains after quitting her band) and Hailee Steinfeld’s voice acting captures a yearning for the understanding and acceptance she found in Miles. In a more overt way than the Loki TV series, we are presented with an interesting view of “the canon” as either inescapable destiny or a restrictive refusal to try to change things — it reflects the artistic conundrum of entertaining audiences with nostalgic familiarity retold in a new guise or seeking growth with something new that could result in disaster. Lesser-known, bumbling villain Spot provides the story’s catalyst, but it is Miguel — the severe leader of a Spider-Society working to protect the canon — who acts as Miles’ chief antagonist. Unfortunately, Miguel remains largely unknown even as the credits roll and this feeds into the film’s structural weakness as an incomplete story: by not marketing itself as a two-part story, Across the Spider-verse is likely to leave many unsatisfied by a truncated ending to be concluded in next year’s Beyond the Spider-verse. Everything else is an elevation of its predecessor’s artistic flair, irreverent comedy, and earnest narrative. The anarchic Spider-Punk is a perfect example, initially feeling about four decades out of date with his newsprint styling, but becoming both characterful and plot-relevant in his anti-authoritarianism. Deeper and perhaps less joyful than its predecessor, Across the Spider-verse is another high water mark that highlights the staleness of the live action superhero genre.
“Dreams make good stories, but everything important happens when we’re awake.”
Creating an epic space opera without “Star Wars” in the title is a financially risky proposition, and the chief criticism of Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is that it tells only half a story if its A-list cast fails to attract a wide enough audience for the second film to be made. I approach the film as a fan of the director rather than Frank Herbert’s novels but the script maintains the rich political intrigue between the familial houses laying claim to desert-planet Arrakis. The scenes of violence and war are always in service to that story. Timothée Chalamet is an excellent choice for Paul Atreides, making him seem vulnerable despite his lineage and skills. This is a man driven by dreams and visions, a storytelling device that I always find less compelling on screen than in writing, an indulgence detrimental to pacing. Nevertheless, Villeneuve’s own uncompromising vision is evident in almost every frame, from the ruggedly realistic clothing and stark geometric sets to the insect-inspired vehicle designs and a desaturated colour palette so tightly controlled that merely seeing green on Arrakis comes as a shock. Indeed the inhospitable world of Arrakis is utterly absorbing (even as the plot slows) in a way I have not felt since Avatar‘s Pandora, but the rest of the galaxy feels strangely empty — we may see large armies on different planets, but there is no sense that these are living, populated places. Dune is beautiful in its detailed grandeur which excels on the big screen but it can also be sluggish and bleak, held back from greatness by an ultimately unsatisfying ending, even if there are thematic justifications for where the line was drawn.
“This will be the final word in the story of Skywalker.”
The Rise of Skywalker is a bloated, unimaginative conclusion in which a lot of stuff happens but for no particular reason and largely without consequence. With JJ Abrams back at the helm, this all feels very familiar. I was forgiving to The Force Awakens‘ blatant retread of A New Hope because some nostalgic connective tissue was necessary to bridge the gap between old and new. If The Last Jedi was Rian Johnson’s response to this over-reliance on nostalgia and mystery boxes, looking to a future of fresh stories in this vibrant universe, Abrams uses the final film of the saga to reassert himself with disappointing results. He leans heavily on Return of the Jedi, restoring the importance of Rey’s heritage in an interesting twist, but the ultimate payoff is non-existent for such a central plot point despite all manner of ways it could have been satisfyingly concluded. Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren remains fascinatingly conflicted but the film’s most interesting character is largely wasted in this outing. The side-plots, often derided in The Last Jedi, feel even more perfunctory here. There are positives: the CG is first rate, Rey and Kylo’s scenes together are engaging, and children will probably be entertained. Meanwhile the returning characters from the original trilogy are relegated to trite, disjointed cameos (the subtler return of Wedge Antilles being the only truly welcome one). This slavish devotion to the past, coupled with setting a third of the film on desolate rocks, means the Star Wars galaxy has never felt so empty. This entire mess is ultimately Disney’s fault. Embarking on a trilogy in a $4 billion franchise without charting the major story beats in advance was an exercise in stupidity, particularly when compared to the carefully coordinated construction of Marvel’s Infinity Saga over 23 movies, but such is the way when strip-mining an IP for profit is placed above artistic merit.
“If you succeed, for the first time in our history we will judge our executioner. And we will warn off any who wishes to follow his example. If you fail, he escapes justice, perhaps forever. I beg you. Do not fail.”
A historical thriller based on the capture of notorious Nazi officer Adolf Eichmann (a major organiser of the Holocaust who escaped to Argentina after the war) to stand trial in Israel, Operation Finale is at its strongest in its quiet moments. Ben Kingsley as Eichmann and Oscar Isaac as Peter Malkin, one of his captors, perform compellingly as their conversations in a Mossad safehouse form a tense game in which they probe one another for weaknesses. Kingsley provides a measured portrayal of Eichmann as dispassionately remorseless rather than a frothing monster (what Hannah Arendt described as “the banality of evil”) and the film avoids melodrama in its restrained Holocaust depictions, though some will doubtless find the result too sympathetic to one who facilitated so much death. Eichmann’s personality is contrasted against the the visceral anger and desire for revenge felt by the Mossad agents forced into proximity with their enemy, as well as the guilt that haunts them for past crimes. Little time is spent on the trial itself, and the impact of worldwide broadcast of holocaust eyewitness testimony is somewhat lost in favour of the hollow sense of personal vindication.
“As a psychologist, I think you’re confusing suicide with self-destruction. Almost none of us commit suicide, and almost all of us self-destruct.”
Another thoughtful science fiction story from Alex Garland, Annihilation has much in common with Monsters, featuring a group of humans journeying through the “shimmer”, an area abandoned following an extraterrestrial impact. Garland’s unwillingness to compromise is to be praised, particularly with a female team of scientists filling most of cast, but unfortunately he fails to produce characters of more than sketches. Nevertheless, the narrative has a surprisingly effective payoff and the film offers something to muse regarding the beauty and fragility of DNA.