Back once again with another quickfire set of film reviews. This time we’re looking at the big films that came out at the start of the summer period. You know - that one about the First World War being the workings of a jealous Greek god, that one about Kurt Russell being a planet, and space idiots staring into freakish-looking alien eggs, thinking “NOTHING BAD WILL HAPPEN HERE”. Those ones. All other movies can be considered mundane in comparison.
So if you’d like to know how Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Alien: Covenant and Wonder Woman turned out, you’re in the right place. Read on, noble word-comprehender.
Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2
The first Guardians of the Galaxy movie was, by most accounts, an absolute triumph. Ditching all the introspective navel-gazing that Marvel’s movies do, and replacing it with both riotous comedy and a rock n’ roll attitude resulted in a box-office smash that deserved every bit of its success. If one was expecting its producers to be of a shrewd mind, they’d likely stick to the same formula in the next instalment - and that’s exactly what they do, for better or worse.
Better, because besides all the wisecracks and slapstick that continue to dominate the sequel, we also get some much-needed character development for Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and his band of unlikely universe saviours. With their status as galactic heroes pretty much confirmed after the events of Vol. 1, the Guardians now find themselves doing a bit of monster extermination on behalf of their latest client: the powerful, genetically-engineered race known as the Sovereigns. The Sovereigns are willing to trade them some lucrative ‘anulax’ batteries, plus Gamora’s (Zoe Saldana) captive sister Nebula (Karen Gillan), for ridding of them of a rather large, multi-tentacled creature giving them grief on their home planet. Naturally Star Lord and company honor their end of the deal with minimum (ok, some) fuss, and receive their payment in full. Just one issue arises - Rocket Raccoon (voice of Bradley Cooper) decides to pinch a few more of these batteries than the Sovereigns are willing to part with, much to the ire of his team-mates, and the wrath of their client.
In the frenetic space pursuit that ensues, it seems all but a formality that the might of the Sovereigns’ drone fighter fleet will overwhelm Quill and his team. That is until a mysterious man turns up in another ship and entirely wipes out the Sovereign force, allowing the Guardians’ room to crash-land on a nearby planet. The man (Kurt Russell) reveals himself to be Ego, a Celestial - beings with powers of creation worthy of regarding themselves a god (which he does, repeatedly). But not only does Ego possess a sense of self-congratulation worthy of his name, he also has a very good reason for saving Peter. He’s his father.
This revelation serves as the backdrop for just one of Vol. 2’s numerous plot threads. Alongside all the bonding Peter undergoes with his new-found dad, plus their eventual conflict as he discovers Ego’s real reasons for tracking him down, the rest of the Guardians have their own strife to deal with. Both Rocket and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) are captured by Yondu Udonta (Michael Rooker) and his ex-Ravager mercenary team, who have been hired by the Sovereigns to bring the Guardians in - even in the midst of being banished from their faction. Gamora meanwhile also has to deal with her sister Nebula getting free and looking for vengeance. In the typical Marvel fashion, it’s a whole bunch of threads and loose ends weaved among each other to make a larger whole. Thankfully though, with Guardians being the easy-going, comedic member of the Cinematic Universe, it’s also unravelled in comprehensive, thoroughly entertaining fashion.
For this is still very much the same blueprint as the first movie - outrageous action sequences, daft skits and endless references to the cult rock music and pop culture of the 70s and 80s . Anyone expecting as such will find this latest escapade a blast, especially when it all comes with an adorable - and incredibly destructive - baby Groot in tow. Besides Kurt Russell, the additional casting is also surprisingly apt. It is genuinely surprising just how well Sylvester Stallone as Stakar, the Ravager commander responsible for Yondu’s exile, fits into all the proceedings. Pom Klementieff as Mantis, Ego’s empathic assistant, also makes for some great comic relief. Her charmingly naive interactions with the Guardians - Drax (Dave Bautista) in particular - are a particular highlight. But overall, the best thing that Vol. 2 manages to achieve is by giving every single one of its ‘support’ characters ample screen time for them to develop into deeper figures. It’s a decision that has had a great knock-on effect on the Guardians’ universe as well. With the Sovereigns now on the landscape and the Ravagers given much more importance, all currently known parts of this galaxy now feel interconnected, and thus more narratively intricate.
Tack on a typically blistering and surprisingly emotional climax (which in some part is thanks to Rooker’s underrated performance as Yondu), and Marvel has yet another rampant success on its hands. As much of a hoot as this exaggerated space epic continues to be though, there are times when you just feel it’s trying a little too hard to bring the laughs. There’s a few too many moments when seemingly serious conversations derail into punchlines, and a number of running gags get stale long before the film knows when to give them up. But this is a movie franchise that could never take itself seriously, one with the sole mission of delivering non-stop action and leaving you with a smile on your face come its end credits. Even those are good, silly fun - and provide a worthy closure to a film that, just like its predecessor, is a thrill-packed ride from start to finish. 9/10
Alien: Covenant marks the sixth instalment of Ridley Scott’s xenomorph saga - a saga that hasn’t had the best of the times since, well, the Eighties, of all things. With the franchise’s reputation faltering thanks to the mediocrity of Resurrection and Aliens vs Predator, Prometheus was supposed to be the moment that the franchise got its chest-bursting mojo back. Instead, the potential for such a revival ended up half-squandered thanks to some over-philosophizing and a thoroughly irritating cast. Covenant therefore has the difficult job of trying to build on the ill-contrived foundations of its predecessor, and at the same time justify a reason for letting this whole thing continue. Against all odds though, it does actually manage to pull this off, leading to the first decent Alien movie since James Cameron’s Aliens. There’s just been one small catch - Covenant also decides to rewrite good chunks of the franchise’s mythos, and that may just be too much to bear for hardcore fans of the saga.
There’s nothing too revolutionary about its start though. Covenant sees the advent of another spaceship and its crew arrive at a ‘strange unknown’ planet - practically identical to the one from Prometheus - to investigate an unidentified radio signal. It’s actually a diversion from their original mission, which was to colonize the far-off planet Origae-6, with a group of 2,000 settlers (still in deep sleep) in tow. Such a detour is guaranteed to get them all killed if the events of Prometheus is anything to go by, but stand-in ship captain Oram (Billy Crudup) believes it to be a handy shortcut to achieve their goal of settling on a new frontier. Also, he’s only in charge because the previous captain, Jake Branson (James Franco with the briefest of cameos), died during a freak malfunction during wake-up from stasis. Previous Alien movies often tried to be slow and subtle with its spelling of doom for their protagonists, so give Covenant a pat on the back for at least trying to be different - at least we don’t have the pretense of waiting for its characters to start dying horribly.
It’s also a mild relief that the film doesn’t waste much time giving depth to its ample menagerie of space cadets. We all know most of them are going to cop it anyway, and the crew from Prometheus were all pretty awful thanks to their inane conversations alone. Scott seems to have picked up on the flaws of that film’s script, meaning Covenant is blessed with writing that might still have its plodding moments, but is definitely more direct and definitive - resulting in a far less annoying set of characters. Of particular note in this group is Daniels (Katherine Waterston), the ship’s terraform expert and wife of the now-deceased Captain Branson. No marks for guessing, but she’s also the ‘Ripley’ of the movie too. There is at least some distinction here though - Daniels isn’t quite the rifle-toting, all-action heroine that Sigourney Weaver made her archetypal character into. She’s a bit closer to the Ripley of the first Alien, fearful of the full horrors lurking on this strange planet. And on the back of losing her husband too, she’s also the first genuinely vulnerable protagonist since that opening entry too. Of course, she still ends up battling aliens anyway, but while it’s exactly the same pattern of character development, Waterston lending her character a softer nature at least out-manoeuvres the franchise’s expected stereotyping - and makes Covenant feel closer in spirit to its better entries.
But for all the xenomorphs and facehuggers that are guaranteed to be in store for Daniels and company, one figure looms more ominously than all others. David (Michael Fassbender), that one member of the Prometheus who was actually worth the screen time, also makes a return for this entry. Greeting the crew of the Covenant with the same veiled pleasantries he offered to those of the Prometheus, the only other mystery surrounding his presence on the planet is that his fellow survivor from the last movie, Elizabeth Shaw, is nowhere to be found. The answers to both questions provide the entire basis for Covenant’s eventual climax, but it’s telling just how much of the movie’s pull is dependent on the motives of Fassbender’s android. His performance here is undoubtedly the most arresting of any of Covenant’s cast, and it also cements his character as one of the quintessential components of the Alien universe. It’s also such an impressive effort that it’s not too surprising that he’s actually cast twice here - with Walter, the Covenant’s own resident android, essentially being David’s body double. It gives Fassbender the opportunity to offer us a contrasting figure away from his morally ambiguous counterpart. Walter himself provides a conscientious, dutiful yin to David’s ethically unsound yang. Their interactions with each other - especially their confrontation over David’s ambitions for life on the planet - are definitely the film’s biggest highlight. Whether good or evil though, Fassbender has a blast playing them both, and is reason alone to justify Covenant’s viewing, as well as to set up another sequel along the way.
Oddly, it’s the very subject matter of the franchise that provide Covenant with its predictable element. Once the aliens do make an appearance, we’re pushed down the same old path of our heroes having to vanquish the ‘perfect killing machine’ just like so many times before. It feels like a pastiche of all the previous entries too; Alien for all the slow-cooked suspense built up in the first half, Aliens for the hi-octane climax, and Alien 3 for the ludicrous amounts of CGI used to animate the monsters in question. The Prometheus factor is also present, with some members of the Covenant being just as frustratingly dumb as anybody in that film too. But even if the mystique surrounding the franchise’s titular beast has long evaporated, and the presence of David now providing a fanbase-dividing reason for its origins, Alien: Covenant is still a solid return to form. Best of all, it actually does give credence to Prometheus’ nonsense and makes a strong case that we may not be done with this enduring sci-fi epic just yet. 7/10
In amongst the mess that was Batman v Superman, there was a little glimmer of hope that a cameo of a certain superheroine could be the catalyst for an improvement of fortunes for DC Comics’ stuttering movie machine. Wonder Woman has thus been met with some serious hype. And that’s not just coming from watchers of BvS who believed Gal Gadot was the best thing about that movie, but also from the global feminist collective; the latter group hoping that the Amazonian’s modern big screen debut will be the moment that female action leads finally get the respect they’ve been due for years. To that alone, I say: don’t hold your breath, ladies. Not because Wonder Woman isn’t great, but because currently, the nation’s horde of cuck-spouting manchildren are still feeling tetchy enough to complain about woman-only screenings for movies. It’s going to take a lot more than a good one to shut those whiners up, as much as the world would be done a favour that they were.
Pointless gender wars aside though, Wonder Woman is indeed a great movie. It might be a bit cookie-cutter in that it’s just another origin story for another big comic book character, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a huge amount of fun. Away from all the standard Heroine Rises From Anonymity To Their True Calling™ tropes, we also get plenty of Amazon warrioresses kicking ass on horseback in a way that Xena would be proud of (look that one up, kids). At its core, it might not contain anything we haven’t seen before, but it is in how it delivers its thrills - with style, panache and an excellent lead - where it is able to rise above its peers, and give DC the shot in the arm that it badly needed.
For the uninitiated, Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) is in fact Diana, daughter of Zeus and Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), and Princess of Themyscira - a kingdom partitioned off from the real world via a dimensional rift. Themyscira itself is inhabited and ruled by the Amazons - a female-only warrior race created by the Greek gods to protect humanity. Of course, Greek gods being Greek gods, not all of them are happy with this arrangement. Ares, god of war and also son of Zeus (and thus, Diana’s half-brother), would actually prefer to see humanity tear itself apart than live in harmony, and so sets about attempting to corrupt them - a move that the rest of his deity kin regard as a rather dickish one. A brutal war among the gods begins, with Zeus himself succeeding in casting Ares away into the world of men, but not before being mortally wounded. Before succumbing to his injuries, he bestows upon the Amazons with a weapon - named the ‘Godkiller’ - that will ensure that Ares can be defeated for good should he ever try to rise again.
Fast forward a few years and everything seems pretty peaceful in Themyscira, with Diana now an adult and a full-fledged warrioress. In the world of men though, things are anything but tranquil - it’s 1918, and World War One is hitting its endgame. American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) is on the run from German forces and somehow manages to break through the dimension rift between Earth and Themyscira with his biplane, crashing into its ocean and facing certain death from drowning in it - until Diana rescues him. Given that the Amazonians are then forced to defend their land from the German pursuers who come through after him, they view Steve with a palpable mistrust and contempt in the aftermath of the battle - and promptly take him captive. When interrogated, Steve informs them of WW1 and the machinations of a certain Erich Ludendorff (Danny Huston), high-ranking commander in the German military. His plan to develop a lethal new bioweapon with chemical weapons specialist Dr. Isabel Maru, aka Dr. Poison (Elena Anaya), puts not only the world of men at threat, but potentially Themyscira as well. While Hippolyta and the rest of the Amazonians are unconvinced, Diana is certain that the development of such a war can only be the work of Ares. She insists on travelling back to Steve’s world to vanquish the disgraced god once and for all, and not even Hippolyta’s own wishes can stop her. Lasso of Truth on one side and Godkiller sword at the other, she sets out with Steve at night - not only to put a stop to her half-brother’s plans, but also to discover the full scale of Ludendorff’s - and Man’s - barbarity, god-borne influences or otherwise.
From there, Diana joins up with the rest of Steve’s espionage unit in London, and we’re treated to a superhero movie that runs just like the best of them: suspense, action and a bit of feminist commentary on top. The backdrop of a smokey 1918 London where male dominance was the status quo - even with the Suffragette movement in full swing - is a well-set contrast to Diana’s own bold Amazonian nature in the outset, and provides for some amusing (and thought-provoking) early scenes about the attitudes of the time, particularly during Diana’s interactions with Steve and his secretary Etta (Lucy Davis). Patty Jenkins has done a wonderful job directing here, ensuring that the crucial feminist undertones present throughout Wonder Woman are as present as its lead character is, without ever devolving into simple man-bashing. Steve and his fellow team of special agents are never made to look any less capable than Diana herself is, but the film definitely treats them as secondary characters. At the forefront of every major plot development, it’s Diana herself that’s central to every shift. It’s subtle and mature, and also necessary. This is a movie about the first superheroine to break the comic book gender barrier after all, and crucially, it’s a strategy that works.
Aside from the deft handling provided by those in charge of the script, it also works simply because Gadot is nigh-on perfect in the lead role. Any of the promise she hinted at with her short cameo in Batman v Superman has been delivered on with interest here. It helps too that her on-screen chemistry with Chris Pine is fantastic - there is definitely a bond between these two that few other comic-book couples have - and that she suits the character’s look down to a tee. Her suitability as a flagship film heroine probably isn’t surprising either, given both her time serving in the Israeli Defense Force, and her insistence for doing her own stunts during her time in the Fast and Furious franchise. If anything, the role of Wonder Woman feels like a natural step, and it’s definitely one that DC will be glad they put her in. On the weight of her performance alone, they now have a franchise they can bank on for a few sequels to come.
Couple Gadot’s performance with action sequences notable for their eye-catching choreography, and an equally pleasing performance from Pine and his fellow spy operatives (Said Taghmaoui as Sameer, Ewen Bremner as Charlie and Eugene Brave Rock as Chief Napi), and you have a film for which there is never a dull moment, despite its length. And even if they don’t really break out of their comic-book molds, the villains are just as creepily entertaining (Anaya as Dr. Poison especially) too. David Thewlis, however, does look a little bit too daft as Ares - a figure known for his aggression and lust for battle - with his twee British moustache, and offers an unusually subdued performance for the main bad guy. But this is still a triumph - as much Gadot’s as it is DC’s - and it could well be the moment that Marvel start to wonder if their status as top dogs in the superhero movie stakes could be contested one day. 8/10