Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch (The Power of the Dog), Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene), Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave), Benedict Wong (The Martian), Xochitl Gomez (The Baby-Sitters Club), Michael Stuhlbarg (A Serious Man), Rachel McAdams (About Time)

Director: Sam Raimi (Army of Darkness)

Writer: Michael Waldron (Loki)

Runtime: 2 hours 6 minutes

Release Date: 5th May (UK), 6th May (US)

As Marvel Studios continues rolling out their Phase Four slate and lays the foundation for the next Thanos-level event, one thing is clear: the multiverse is key to all of it. With Loki, What If? and Spider-Man: No Way Home already dipping their toes in the concept, the biggest plunge yet into the realms beyond the cinematic universe we know is now here in the form of Dr. Stephen Strange’s second headlining adventure. Arguably more intriguing than meeting new and familiar heroes from parallel worlds, however, is the return of Sam Raimi to the superhero genre. After essentially creating the blueprint for the modern comic book blockbuster with his first two Spider-Man movies, the venerable horror maestro is a more-than-worthy choice to assume the franchise mantle from Scott Derrickson, but the real question is whether Raimi’s signature style can play nice with the tried-and-true Kevin Feige formula. The result of this marriage, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, is something of a double-edged sword. On one end, it’s an incredibly ambitious, deviously twisted, and boisterously entertaining thrill ride through the dark side of the Marvel universe that only a director like Raimi could pull off. On the other hand, it’s a rushed and unfocused mess of bonkers concepts that is nowhere as deep as it thinks it is and raises more questions about the multiverse than it answers.

Mere moments after the Marvel Studios logo fades away, it’s clear that Multiverse of Madness isn’t wasting anytime. Clocking in at just over two hours, already lean for a modern blockbuster, it’s especially brief for one with so much complex world-building to impart. Whilst the pace is pretty relentless, it’s far from exhausting and has just enough quiet moments for the audience to catch their breath and the characters to plan their next move. After many criticised Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 for being bloated by extraneous subplots, he seems to have taken that to heart and crafted a very streamlined stop-the-bad-guy adventure packed with satisfying twists, a wickedly dark sense of humour, and plenty of crowd-pleasing moments. On that note, it’s also a relief to find the film isn’t the relentless succession of surprise cameos and tie-in teases that many were expecting. Though it certainly has strong ties to Endgame and WandaVision as well as the Derrickson original, it’s far more focused on telling its own story and keeps the fan service contained to the end of the second act.

Whilst it undoubtedly remains an MCU movie, Raimi manages to weave in his idiosyncracies into the film’s DNA in much the same way James Gunn and Taika Waititi have, and not just the ones you might be familair with from his Tobey Maguire days. Multiverse of Madness has touted itself as Marvel’s first horror movie, and though it’s hardly as disturbing as Batman Returns or even Raimi’s own Darkman, there’s enough macabre imagery and heaps of (strategically unseen but heavily implied) gory violence to satiate the Evil Dead fans in the audience and scare younger audiences into hiding under their seats.

Unfortunately, though the story structure and pacing may be simplified compared to Spider-Man 3, the heart and charm that made both his first two Spidey flicks and the best MCU entries work is severely missed. The screenplay, credited to head writer on Loki Michael Waldron, is so focused on keeping the plot mechanics straight that character and theme is a bit of an afterthought. There are fleeting moments of character introspection scattered throughout and it has a dalliance with concepts like living with regret and pondering what could have been, but there’s a frustrating lack of depth and originality to anything it has to say thematically. Whether the meat of these ideas were simply cut for pacing reasons or never there to begin with is unclear, but I for one would have happily sat for an extra ten or fifteen minutes just so I could leave the cinema having gained something of substance. More cynical audiences have complained that all of Raimi’s Spider-Man films were too cheesy and overemotional, but I much prefer a film be too honest about its feelings with me than be too scared or unwilling to express them at all.

(from left to right) Rachel McAdams as Dr. Christine Palmer, Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Stephen Strange, and Xochitl Gomez as America Chavez in DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS (2022, d. Sam Raimi)

It’s kind of weird to realise that though this is only his second solo movie, this is actually Benedict Cumberbatch’s sixth appearance as the (now-former) Sorceror Supreme. After being humbled and learning the responsibility of his powers in his origin film, he’s since become less of a character and more of a function. In contrast to the likes of Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, where their appeal goes far beyond their superheroism, his importance to the MCU has been less about his characterisation and more about how his powers can create or mend narrative problems. That may all be fine and dandy is something like No Way Home, but for Multiverse of Madness you’d hope they would use this reality-hopping adventure to push the character in new directions. Unfortunately, whilst Cumberbatch is still excellent at pulling off Strange’s smug-but-affable demeanour, there’s not a huge amount on the page for him to really dig into. He has two main arcs concerning his regrets about his relationship with Christine Palmer (McAdams) and how best to nurture and help America Chavez (Gomez), but neither really seem to prompt any significant change in Strange or his status quo within the universe; he ends up only slightly adjacent to where he started.

Doing her best to make up for this is Elizabeth Olsen returning as Wanda Maximoff, and whilst her performance here isn’t quite as nuanced or heartbreaking as the one she gave in WandaVision, she absolutely devours every scene she’s in. Fully embracing her status as the Scarlet Witch, Maximoff is a true force to be reckoned with and uses her newfound powers to pull off some truly twisted deeds, but also has more emotional investment and development than any other character in the movie. There’s a fascinating complexity to her inner conflict, her unwillingness to see how her desires would do more harm than good, and how she is blinded and radicalised by her trauma. All of the best scenes in the movie involve Wanda in some form or another, including the most biting exchange of dialogue that will stick in my head for days, and Olsen just sells every deliciously dark moment. Benedict Wong is still just as brilliantly deadpan and hilarious as he’s ever been as Wong, and it’s nice to see Rachel McAdams’ Christine Palmer get in on the action more, but Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Baron Mordo is sadly underused in a perfunctory role that could have been filled by any number of other Marvel characters; hopefully his true return will be a lot more satisfying.

However, the most disappointing character is unfortunately the reality-hopping newcomer America Chavez. Whilst Xochitl Gomez injects the character with a lot of youthful energy that suggests she could become a promising character in the future, here she’s little more than a walking-and-talking MacGuffin for the heroes and villains to fight over. Barring one quick but admittedly effective scene establishing her backstory, she has little agency and the movie is basically over by the time she finds it after a hackneyed and predictable “you gotta believe in yourself” arc. Chavez is an incredibly fascinating character in the comics with huge potential, so hopefully she gets her true chance to shine later down the line.

Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch in DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS (2022, d. Sam Raimi)

Whilst Raimi has perhaps not brought his A-game when it comes to storytelling, on a visual level he’s never one to give anything but his gonzo best. Multiverse of Madness is as much a breath of fresh air to Marvel’s usual aesthetic monotony as Eternals, brimming with imaginative cinematography choices by John Mathieson that only accentuate both the mind-bending and horrific visuals alike. The kaleidoscopic Steve Ditko-inspired imagery returns and is turned up to eleven, especially in the sequences where characters cross dimensions and briefly flash through worlds that will inevitably be picked through frame-by-frame for hidden easter eggs. My only real criticism of the film’s visual design is that the main alternate reality we visit, Earth 838, is a little confused. At first it seems like some bizarre future world where weird plants grow everywhere and there are machines that can replay memories, but later on it just seems the same as the main MCU but with a few timeline tweaks.

The action sequences are enthralling and flow well, helped by strong moment-to-moment editing. The first major battle against Gargantos is a major highlight that immeidately brought to mind the bank fight from Spider-Man 2, the second-act skirmish as Wanda invades Earth-838 delivers a fan-pleasing match-up that’s as darkly funny as it is entertaining, whilst the third act sees Strange using his powers in some surreal and outright skin-crawling ways. Whilst there is the usual Marvel problem of too many locations being obviously green-screened rather than shot on location, when the visuals effects are about creating otherworldly environments or creatures they’re absolutely top-notch, whilst the few bits of practical effects work are quintessential Raimi; you’ll know what I’m talking about when you see it. Oh, and who could forget Danny Elfman’s wonderfully deranged music? Whilst certainly not quite the best MCU score (it’s going to take something transcendant to beat Black Panther on that), it’s easily in the top three as it builds on Michael Giacchino’s themes and, like the film itself, then melds tones and genres to create a wonderful fusion of heroic and horrific soundscapes.

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Baron Karl Mordo in DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS (2022, d. Sam Raimi)

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness certainly lives up to its title in delivering yet another diverting chapter of the MCU, but there’s an unfortunate lack of method to the…well, you know. In its best moments, it reminded me of what was so great about Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy and proved again that Marvel movies don’t have to be homogenous blockbusters when Feige trusts a director to bring their vision to the table. At its worst though, it brought to mind The Rise of Skywalker; a technically well-made movie but one that focuses on plot and spectacle to the detriment of everything else. Its positive qualities ultimately outweigh its negatives, in particular Elizabeth Olsen’s delectably nuanced evolution of Scarlet Witch and the sheer brazenness of some of Raimi’s directorial choices, enough for me to give the film a recommendation but it pains me that I can’t praise it more. I only hope Marvel’s future explorations of the multiverse will have something more profound to say about it.


SONIC THE HEDGEHOG 2 – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: James Marsden (Enchanted), Ben Schwartz (Parks & Recreation), Tika Sumpter (Think Like A Man), Colleen O’Shaughnessey (Digimon), Idris Elba (The Suicide Squad), Jim Carrey (The Truman Show)

Director: Jeff Fowler (Sonic the Hedgehog)

Writers: Patrick Casey & Josh Miller (Transylmania) and John Whittington (The Lego Batman Movie)

Runtime: 2 hours 2 minutes

Release Date: 1st April (UK), 8th April (US)

Synopsis: When the maniacal Dr. Robotnik returns with the revenge-driven echidna Knuckles in tow, Sonic must team up with his plucky new friend Tails to find the all-powerful Master Emerald before Robotnik can use it for world domination.

The first Sonic the Hedgehog was hardly a grounbreaking piece of cinema, but it was an enjoyable and harmless family film that didn’t take itself too seriously and packed in just enough treats for franchise fans to keep them enticed. That doesn’t seem like much, but by video game movie standards it was a breath of fresh air and proved to be a step above the Alvin and the Chipmunks-style disaster most were expecting. Of course, the biggest pop of the movie came in its mid-credits scene teasing the arrival of Sonic’s long-time companion Tails, and now Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is here to deliver on that promise and more. Whilst still far from being a perfect recreation of the games, this sequel certainly leans harder into them and for the better, crafting a more confident and entertaining follow-up that’s sure to please kids and fans of Sega’s mascot.

Picking up roughly eight months after the events of the first movie, Sonic 2 wastes little time in re-establishing the world and characters and, for the most part, moves as quickly from there as the Blue Blur himself. Learning a good lesson from the first film (and most adaptations of this ilk), the new story wisely relegates Sonic’s human supporting cast to the sidelines and focuses in more on the title character and his fantastical friends and foes. The scale here is immense compared to the first film’s road trip approach, turning the adventure into a globe-trotting treasure hunt with a lot more action and world-ending stakes. That’s not to say the movie hasn’t abandoned the family comedy aspects, with the human characters getting their own subplot at a Hawaiian wedding and a totally superfluous dance number in the second act. These moments can occasionally feel like padding to fill out the simple save-the-world plot, but they’re luckily over before they wear out their welcome and there’s enough solid humour in them that they’re far from a total waste.

Ultimately though, the key question is simple: is Sonic the Hedgehog 2 fun? The answer is just as simple: yes, quite a bit. It’s not nutritious or always logical, but it knows its audience and caters to them with aplomb. There’s never a dull moment, it moves at a solid pace, the humour is quippy and cartoony in a good way, and the final act delivers the exact kind of go-for-broke bonkers finale you’d want out of a Sonic movie. Top it all off with another mid-credits tease that outdoes the first, and you’ve got yourself honestly the best movie you could reasonably expect about Sonic the Hedgehog.

(from top to bottom) Sonic (voiced by Ben Schwartz) and Tails (voiced by Colleen O’Shaughnessey) in SONIC THE HEDGEHOG 2 (2022, d. Ben Fowler)

Though James Marsden still oddly takes top billing despite getting less screentime than almost every other named character in the movie, Sonic 2 unequivocally belongs to Ben Schwartz as the titular speedy mammal. Whilst not every joke lands, Schwartz throws them out with such speed and exhuberance that it’s hard not to laugh along with him, but this time around he also gets a lot more opportunites to humanise Sonic and give him a little more emotional depth. It’s hardly anything revolutionary, but it’s more than you’d expect and does a lot to heighten the film. Tails, unfortunately, doesn’t get quite the same love. Whilst it’s lovely to hear Colleen O’Shaughnessey reprising the role and she imbues him with a lot of innocence and devotion, Tails as a character is sorely underdeveloped. His origins and motivations are explained very hastily, and his purpose in the story is mostly perfunctory; if it wasn’t for the first film bigging him up, you could easily write him out and not lose much. Thankfully, whilst Tails is a bit of letdown, Knuckles is easily the film’s best new addition. He’s basically a more kid-friendly version of Drax from Guardians of the Galaxy: a hulking brute driven by revenge but who doesn’t understand sarcasm and empathy. It’s a bit that keeps getting funnier every time it’s about to wear out its welcome, and Idris Elba’s deadpan delivery just makes it even more hilarious; it’s easy to see why they’ve already greenlit a Paramount+ spin-off series for him.

On the homo sapien side of things, Jim Carrey continues to ham it up as a more visually-faithful take on Dr. Robotnik, turning his unhinged levels up to eleven and just has a blast. As said before, Marsden’s Tom Wachowski is mostly relegated to cheerleading duties as Sonic’s surrogate dad, but surprisingly it’s the rest of his extended family that gets more to do. Tika Sumpter has a more active role as Tom’s wife Maddie, and for a good ten minutes the movie basically turns into a side vehicle for Natasha Rothwell as her sister Rachel. It’s an amusing bit and Rothwell really sells the pissed-off Bridezilla vibes, but it’s a plot cul-de-sac that resolves as quickly as it’s introduced and never comes up again. Adam Pally and Lee Majdoub also return as Tom’s bumbling deputy Wade and Robotnik’s sychophantic aide Agent Stone respectively, but the movie doesn’t really know what to do with them. Pally shows up sporadically throughout to do his usual awkward comedy shtick, and whilst Majdoub gets a big reintroduction and hints at some evolution in his relationship with Robotnik, it ends up going nowhere with the vague promise it may be resolved in a third film.

Jim Carrey as Dr. Ivo Robotnik/Dr. Eggman in SONIC THE HEDGEHOG 2 (2022, d. Ben Fowler)

When it comes to spectacle, Sonic 2 is a massive upgrade from the first film. Though they’ve showed off a good chunk of them in the trailers, there’s a great deal more action set pieces here and they’re all executed with a lot of flair and imagination. The initial battle between Sonic and Knuckles as they tear up the Wachowski home is good and the Siberian snowboarding avalanche chase is even better, but nothing tops the finale back in Green Hills that really brings the speed and madness of the games to life. When it’s just the animated characters and Robotnik, the movie is a real visual treat, but again when it comes back to the humans it looks like a pretty standard studio comedy and it doesn’t gel as well with the video game elements. It’s so bizarre to see how they’ve upgraded the aesthetic of one half of the film whilst left the other basically the same, and hopefully in the next one they can make it a more seamless blend of styles.

The visual effects are mostly pretty solid for what are very cartoony designs, with a lot of great animation details on Sonic, Tails and Knuckles, though there are a few shots where I swear the models looked a little grainy like they were rendered at the wrong resolution. There’s also some shoddy compositing and rotoscoping around Robotnik during the action scenes; there’s some shots where I swear they’ve feathered his edges way too much. Despite those little nitpicks, the movie overall is a solid improvement on an aesthetic level, and capping it off with another 16-bit-inspired end credits sequence is a nice way to send the audience home nostalgic.

Knuckles (voiced by Idris Elba) in SONIC THE HEDGEHOG 2 (2022, d. Ben Fowler)

In my review of the first film, I hoped that a Sonic sequel needed to meet the “apologetically dumb fun” levels of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows and the 2017 Power Rangers movie; two other retro franchise adaptations that knew what they were and revelled in their goofiness. Well, I’m pleased to say the final result meets those desires. Sonic the Hedgehog 2 isn’t quite the best video game movie yet, but it’s very comfortably in the top five at least. It embraces its source material more wholeheartedly and does a admirable job of bringing in more of what the fans expect whilst still fitting within the groundwork set by its predecessor. Those who who didn’t find charm in the previous movie will likely not be swayed, but it takes the franchise in the right direction and sets the stage for a promising third installment.


MORBIUS – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Jared Leto (House of Gucci), Matt Smith (Last Night in Soho), Adria Arjona (6 Underground), Jared Harris (Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows), Al Madrigal ([Finding] The Way Back), Tyrese Gibson (2 Fast 2 Furious)

Director: Daniel Espinosa (Safe House)

Writers: Matt Sazama & Burk Sharpless (Gods of Egypt)

Runtime: 1 hour 44 minutes

Release Date: 31st March (UK), 1st April (US)

Synopsis: After taking an experimental serum derived from bat DNA in an attempt to cure his debilitating disease, Dr. Michael Morbius becomes imbued with superhuman abilities but also an ever-increasing thirst for blood.

When Sony decided to start exploiting their rights to Spider-Man by making movies about his supporting cast, it feels like they didn’t really know where else to go with it after Venom. I mean, we’re apparently getting movies about Kraven the Hunter and Madame Web next, with projects featuring Black Cat, Silver Sable, Silk, and Jackpot (no joke, I’m serious, bloody Jackpot!) in various stages of development too. Of all of Spidey’s associates though, it’s baffling yet fitting that their next choice after Venom was Morbius the Living Vampire, probably the only other character in that roster who has enough history away from the wall crawler to stand on his own. The final product unfortunately, after a long string of delays from its original July 2020 release date, is a dull, formulaic and overproduced nothingburger of a movie with some of the worst universe building since 2017’s The Mummy.

Right from its opening moments, Morbius follows in the footsteps of the first Venom by feeling like a superhero movie made roughly twenty years ago, constantly in a battle with itself over tone and genre. Its premise is a basic sci-fi horror yarn ripped straight from the Jekyll & Hyde playbook and plays out with no real surprises, treating its plot less as an opportunity to explore its characters or world and more like a shopping checklist of tropes from superhero and vampire flicks. There’s no real nuance and depth to any of its storytelling choices, and despite trying to present Morbius as a conflicted anti-hero, the morality of the film is incredibly black-and-white and negates the internal conflict that makes the character intriguing in the first place.

The structure and pacing is all over the place, exhibiting the telltale signs of a troubled production like important plot beats happening off-screen and copius scenes from the trailers missing in the final product. Despite running at a light but healthy 104 minutes, there’s little meat on the bone here that isn’t recycled from a plethora of better films, and its teneous connections to the Marvel universe are mostly fleeting…until the inevitable post-credits bonus. Without a doubt, these two scenes are the most random, underwhelming, confusing and desperate examples of expanding a cinematic universe since…ever, to be honest. The fact they spoiled this reveal in the very first trailer (which has clearly been dropped and reshot since) is evidence enough that Sony knew they had a non-starter on their hands and just gave up, but these scenes would have fallen flat even if they had remained a secret until release.

Adria Arjona as Dr. Martine Bancroft and Jared Leto as Dr. Michael Morbius in MORBIUS (2022, d. Daniel Espinosa)

It’s hard to think of an actor more unpopular and unsuited to being the lead of an aspiring blockbuster franchise than Jared Leto, especially given his last stint as a comic book character didn’t go over so well. It’s also surprising he took the role because, as a method actor known for his bold and bonkers choices, the character of Morbius on paper doesn’t give him much to play with. Seperated from his disability, he’s seemingly a smart and sweet but boring guy, and whilst his early flippancy with scientific ethics makes it seem like he’s going to be this morally complex character, that angle is abruptly dropped once he gains his powers. After just one scene of giving into his vampiric thirst, Morbius is chugging artificial plasma and basically in control of his bloodlust for the rest of the movie, robbing the film of the horror and suspense a good man-or-monster movie craves. In their attempts to make Morbius likable, they’ve way overstepped the mark and turned him into a high-and-mighty, hypocritical, melodramatic bore. I thought it wasn’t possible to make a vampire movie this dull, but accomplishing that dubious feat is the only original thing Morbius succeeds in.

The supporting cast unfortunately doesn’t fair much better. Adria Arjona does a fine enough job bringing fellow scientist and love interest Martine Bancroft to life, but she’s something of an empty vessel with no real sense of her own life outside of her relationship to Morbius. The only time she even comes close to seeming well-rounded is when she’s on good enough terms with a bodega clerk to convince him to thrown an FBI agent off her scent, but that’s really stretching. Speaking of the FBI, Tyrese Gibson and Al Madrigal plays said agents hunting down Morbius but they add next to nothing, especially because we know early on that Morbius is mostly innocent. At least Madrigal has some sense of character with his vampire supersitions and Alan Alda-like voice, because Gibson’s Simon Stroud is a complete empty shell role. Given that he signed a three-picture deal and said in a 2020 interview that his character was a superhero with a high-tech arm, those reshoots must have been incredibly drastic.

Similarly wasted on this film is Jared Harris as Morbius’ mentor and father figure Emil Nikols, who appears so sporadically that you forget he was even in the movie every time he shows back up. The only actor who seems to be having any fun here is Matt Smith as the friend-turned-villain Milo. Yes, the character is a pretty generic “evil mirror of the hero with the same powers” adversary (and the only other trope they’ve ripped from modern Marvel fare), but Smith’s indulgent performance is so wonderfully daft that you just wish he was the one playing Morbius instead of Leto. To put it simply, and with pun fully intended, he properly vamps it up.

Matt Smith as Milo in MORBIUS (2022, d. Daniel Espinosa)

The reported budget of Morbius may be $75 million, but most of the time it looks like it cost about half that. The visual effects are firmly stuck in the late 2000s, with horirble scene compositing and laughable vampiric face warping on Leto and Smith ripped right out of a Video Copilot tutorial. Much of the action looks like a pre-rendered cutscene from a PS3 game, especially the scenes where Morbius flies across the city in a manner eerily similar to Alex Mercer from Prototype, and that’s when you can even tell what’s going on. The lighting is so minimal and the camera whips around so much, combined with the overuse of fog and neon, that you can only tell what’s actually happening when the action slows down in faux-Zack Snyder style. Heck, the entire climax is essentially rendered unwatchable by a gigantic swarm of bats obscuring the fight! On the plus side though…um…Jon Ekstrand’s score is decently eerie, I guess, and…I liked the look of the credits. I mean, the whole vaporwave aesthetic seems like an odd choice for a vampire superhero movie, but…nice job, whoever put together the credits? I think?

A blood-hungry Morbius takes on a mercenary aboard a freighter in MORBIUS (2022, d. Daniel Espinosa)

The anti-hype was right for once, folks: Morbius is exactly the big-budget misguided flop everybody’s been predicting it would be. With the exception of Matt Smith’s performance, which mostly seems like him just having a bit of a laugh for an easy paycheck, there isn’t a single positive thing to say about this film that isn’t grasping at straws or doesn’t come with huge caveats. It doesn’t even have the so-bad-it’s-good qualities that made Venom morbidly enjoyable, quickly placing it amongst the worst recent examples of the genre alongside X-Men: Dark Phoenix and 2015’s Fantastic Four. What exactly Sony thinks they’re accomplishing with these Spidey-less spin-offs other than playing keep away with Marvel Studios is beyond me, because all they’ll end up doing is devaluing the brand. Yes, Sony just made a boatload off the back of No Way Home, but it would only take a few more duds like Morbius to bomb the Sonyverse and send Ol’ Webhead into the hands of Uncle Walt.


AMBULANCE – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal (Nightcrawler), Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (The Matrix Resurrections), Eiza González (Baby Driver)

Director: Michael Bay (Transformers)

Writers: Chris Fedak (Chuck)

Runtime: 2 hours 16 minutes

Release Date: 25th March (UK), 8th April (US)

Synopsis: When their heist goes haywire, flustered criminal Danny and his reluctant accomplice/brother Will hijack an ambulance, holding jaded EMT Cam and an injured police officer hostage as they are chased by law enforcement across Los Angeles.

Whilst the public perception of his career is still (and most likely forever will be) dominated by his Transformers movies, Michael Bay is a much more interesting filmmaker than people give him credit for. He’s not particularly introspective or nuanced, but he has filmmaking instincts and a distinctive style that still set him apart from the copycats and journeymen that dominate the action genre. The issue with much of his filmography is a lack of restraint on his worst instincts. His two best films, The Rock and Pain & Gain, were respectively made in either his early career when he didn’t yet have total freedom, or a much smaller picture that didn’t have the scope or budget to go too far off the rails. In summary, Bay excels when he doesn’t have too many toys to distract him and sticks to a simple narrative, which makes a contained action thriller like Ambulance a perfect vehicle for his talents.

Ambulance | Universal Pictures

Taking the base premise of the 2005 Danish original (which I have not seen, so I cannot compare) and jazzing it up with a Hollywood sheen, Ambulance is one of those movies that’s easy to explain with a “blank-meets-blank” comparison; in this case, Heat meets Speed. It wastes no time in getting to the action, explaining the motivations and dynamics of its three central characters in two scenes or less each, and then immediately leaps to the central heist and doesn’t let go of the accelerator from then until the final moments. It’s a frantic and occasionally exhausting experience as the film moves at a sprinter’s pace for over two hours, and it easily could lose a good twenty minutes of that runtime around the start of the second act, but it’s nigh-impossible to claim that it isn’t engaging or tense. In a rare move for a Bay movie, where plot and spectacle reign over character and theme, Ambulance does actually make just enough room for those humanising elements even as the chase remains ongoing. It’s a basic but solid exploration of family, morality, purpose, and the choice of whether to let those attributes define us or push them aside. It’s really the only Michael Bay movie that I can think of that has anything positive to say that isn’t wrapped up in jingoism or cliches, and whilst that may be a basic ask for most filmmakers that Bay probably should have figured out decades ago, it’s a point in the film’s favour nonetheless.

Ambulance (2022) - IMDb
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Will Sharp and Jake Gyllenhaal as Danny Sharp in AMBULANCE (2022, d. Michael Bay)

Whilst there are plenty of other characters floating about connected one way or another to the plot, our core attentions remain pretty focused on the three conscious occupants of the titular vehicle. With the brief amount of time the story gives the leads before literally cutting to the chase, the filmmakers establish our central characters thusly: Jake Gyllenhaal’s Danny is quick-tempered and cruelly sardonic, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s Will is desperate and morally conflicted, and Eiza González’s Cam is a committed professional but lacks genuine empathy. For much of the film’s first act, these basic character traits are exploited ad nauseum and it quickly threatens to make the experience even more strenuous. Luckily, that monotony is thankfully broken before it gets tiring and the characters start expressing complexity and developing beyond those core traits. These arcs honestly don’t go anywhere other than the way you may expect, but they are satisfyingly punchy mainly thanks to the solid performances.

Gyllenhaal channels the same manic and unpredictable energy that made him delightfully devilish in Nightcrawler and Spider-Man: Far From Home, and though he certainly does threaten to go OTT there’s always a sense of humanity to his insanity. Yahya continues to show himself as one of the best new talents in mainstream cinema, squeezing every last drop of empathy from a character who could have easily been rote, whilst González is immediately engaging and threatens to steal the show from her male co-stars. There’s not a whole lot to say about the supporting cast, who are mostly made up of the usual stock characters like the rookie cop, the angry captain, and the smug FBI agent, but there are at least a few decent one-liners and interesting quirks amongst them. Also, just wanted to note: Michael, well done on including a prominent gay character and NOT making his sexuality a punchline. Again, this really shouldn’t need congratulating, but just glance back at Bad Boys II for a moment and…yeah, you’ve come a long way, Bay-by.

Eiza González's New Action Film 'Ambulance' Drops Trailer
Eiza González as Cam Thompson in AMBULANCE (2022, d. Michael Bay)

When it comes to action in Michael Bay movies, audiences should really know what to expect at this point, and by his standards this is easily the most coherently-made of his explosion fests he’s put out in a while. The camera is constantly moving whether it’s justified or not, the editing is frenetic and full of random shots that feel like they were left on the timeline by accident, and it all remains smeared in that putrid and oversaturated orange-and-teal colour grade that every Bay movie has had since Armageddon. As visually cacophonous as the viewing experience may be at times, there’s no denying that the unrepentant energy is intoxicating, with enough memorable moments to stop it all smushing together in your mind like a big Autobot-shaped blob. Ambulance certainly isn’t for the squeamish as there is a lot of bloodshed, particularly in one gruelling moment as Yahya and González engage in high-speed emergency surgery, and who could deny the absurd awesomeness of a remote-control lowrider fitted with a minigun? Top it all off with some wildly inventive use of drone shots that may upset a few stomachs, plus a solid action score from Lorne Balfe, and what you have here is one of the best examples of pure Bayhem in a long, long time.

Ambulance (2022) Photo | Movie photo, Universal pictures, Ambulance
Jake Gyllenhaal as Danny Sharp in AMBULANCE (2022, d. Michael Bay)

I think it’s time to stop expecting Michael Bay to conform to standards he has no interest in following, and instead encourage him to the best version of who he is. Ambulance still isn’t the best movie he’s ever put out, but it’s absolutely the kind of film he should focus on making and he’s certainly matured out of some of his worst sophormoric habits. Those who just inherently can’t get on board his style need not apply, but if you’re one of those who grew frustrated by his continued flaggelation of his own credibility on the Transformers movies and just wished he’d return to more grounded action, this is probably what you’ve been waiting for. Maybe don’t pay full price for it, but if you’re going to see it, see it on the biggest screen you can and just go along for the ride; you might want to bring a barf bag though.


THE BATMAN – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Robert Pattinson (Tenet), Zoë Kravitz (Divergent), Paul Dano (Ruby Sparks), Jeffrey Wright (Casino Royale), John Turturro (Barton Fink), Peter Sarsgaard (Flightplan), Andy Serkis (Black Panther), Colin Farrell (Seven Psychopaths)

Director: Matt Reeves (War for the Planet of the Apes)

Writers: Matt Reeves and Peter Craig (The Town)

Runtime: 2 hours 56 minutes

Release Date: 4th March (US, UK)

Synopsis: When masked killer The Riddler starts murderering Gotham’s elite and exposes their darkest secrets, Bruce Wayne/Batman must reconcile his family’s legacy with his obsessive crusade for justice before the city is consumed by corruption.

The concept of superhero fatigue comes up alot in current movie discourse, and if there’s any comic book crime fighter we should be all sick of by now, you’d think it would be Batman. Instead, he seems more popular than ever. He’s practically been the face of the genre since 1989, his history in cinema consists of some of the highest highs and lowest lows, and fans will still endlessly argue about which version of the Caped Crusader was the best. He’s a character that means something different to everyone, malleable to interpretation more than any other superhero, and it seems like every generation will get at least one definitive portrayal. So what does Batman mean in 2022? What does yet another perspective on such a well-worn character have to say about the source material, the genre itself, and beyond? Matt Reeves’ sprawling epic clearly has these questions and many more on its mind and, whilst it doesn’t answer all of them perfectly, what it does deliver is one of the finest depictions of The Dark Knight on screen since…well, The Dark Knight.

The Batman Official Poster Unmasks the Truth About Gotham City

Whilst it began its life as a DCEU project, The Batman is completely divorced from that universe and sets itself in a more grounded but still stylistically heightened reality. On both a visual and tonal level, this is easily the darkest interpretation of the comics on screen, but it avoids both the dedication to realism of the Nolan trilogy and the Frank Miller-inspired neo-fascistic undertones of the Zack Snyder version. Where it most sets itself apart, however, is in its approach to genre. Previous entries certainly incorporarted Batman’s status as The World’s Greatest Detective, but they were primarily action movies with occasional mystery elements. Reeves’ vision, in contrast, is a straight-up crime thriller with shades of socio-political intrigue and even elements of horror in what is probably the closest thing we’ll ever get to a David Fincher superhero movie. There is plenty of high-flying spectacle and the familiar elements you’d expect from a Batman movie, and there’s never a sense it’s ashamed of being a comic book movie (*cough* Joker *ahem*), but it does feel less concerned with being a crowd-pleaser and more with delivering a unique yet faitful take on the source material.

The central mystery is a genuinley intriguing and character-driven detective story that unravels Gotham’s underbelly and psychologically tests Batman more than any previous film, and the sheer quality of it all secures it a place as one of the best Batman films ever brought to the screen. What perhaps holds it back from being absolute perfection is its length and pacing, both of which may test general audiences expecting a more typical blockbuster. Clocking in at nearly three hours and taking its sweet time to unravel its intricate and sprawling murder mystery, it at times plays out less like a movie and more like a truncated season of True Detective, and though slow-paced it still seems rushed and lacks the time to properly explore certain characters and scenarios. That said, it’s hard to fault a movie that leaves you wanting more in such a positive way and, whilst it mostly avoids any kind of MCU-style teasing, it’s clear that they don’t intend for this to be a one-and-done. Now that the expectations have been set and the puzzle pieces are all in place, hopefully the next chapter of The Batman can refine the formula in much the same way The Dark Knight did for Batman Begins.

The Batman 2022 - Official Images - 01
Robert Pattinson as Bruce Wayne/Batman and Zoë Kravitz as Selina Kyle/Catwoman in THE BATMAN (2022, d. Matt Reeves)

Another Batman, another casting choice that sent corners of the fandom into a frenzy where, thankfully, they’ve been proven wrong again. Only more time under the cowl will confirm it, but based on this performance alone, Robert Pattinson may be the best live-action version of The Dark Knight yet. He’s certainly the most eccentric take on the character since Michael Keaton, portraying him as a brooding loner with no social life and an all-consuming fixation on vengeance. He’s an incredibly weird and off-putting presence in all the best ways, accentuated by how many characters are baffled by his mere presence, but at the same time he’s easily the most human version of Bruce Wayne too. It’s one of the few stories where Batman is not only pushed to his limits but forced to reckon with his methods and change for the betterment of Gotham, and both Pattinson and Reeves have done a fantastic job of portraying that inner conflict and dogged self-righteousness. It’s also the first time since Begins that Batman himself hasn’t been overshadowed by his co-stars, and whilst his civilian side doesn’t get a huge amount of screentime, Pattinson’s presence looms large and finally proves himself in front of a mainstream audience that he’s more than just “that sparkly boy from Twilight“.

However, a Batman is only ever as good as his villains and allies, and the supporting cast of The Batman is certainly worthy inheritors of such revered characters. Jeffrey Wright makes for a compelling Jim Gordon and his repartee with Pattinson feels instantly familiar and yet strikingly fresh; they feel very comfortable with each other and yet distant enough not to fully trust the other. Andy Serkis doesn’t get a huge amount of time as Bruce’s loyal butler Alfred but he makes the most of what he has, especially in a heartbreaking scene where he recalls to Bruce his father’s greatest mistake. Whilst it’s always going to be hard to top Michelle Pfeiffer’s portrayal in Batman Returns, Zoë Kravitz’s Selina Kyle stands wonderfully on its own as a more nuanced and modernised take on the classic femme fatale, and her emotionally-charged performance makes for a great contrast with Pattinson’s dogged stoicism. John Turturro makes for a charming but still unnerving Carmine Falcone, whilst Colin Farrell is utterly unrecognisable as Oz Cobblepot and brings a wickedly sleazy energy to the classic villain, even if his performance at times teeters into Dick Tracy territory; seriously, his accent sounds like Al Pacino doing a Robert DeNiro impression. All that said, the real standout here is Paul Dano’s demented version on The Riddler, who runs with the “familiar yet different” remit of the film to its extreme. He’s easily the most unsettling take on the character yet, far removed from the popular conscience’s vision of Frank Gorshin and Jim Carrey, and yet once the mask comes down he’s still recognisably the puzzle-obsessed weirdo comic books fans have known for years. If this is the standard moving forward in this potential franchise, I can’t wait to see how Reeves reimagines more of Batman’s legendary rogue’s gallery.

The Batman 2022 - Official Images - 04
Paul Dano as Edward Nashton/Riddler in THE BATMAN (2022, d. Matt Reeves)

Because Gotham City is a fictional location, it has been reinterpreted almost as many times on screen as Batman has himself in a way that often reflects the current interpretation of the character itself. Reeves’ version of the crime-ridden metropolis sits somewhere between the gothic cacophany of Tim Burton’s Gotham and Christopher Nolan’s more grounded take (i.e. basically just Chicago and New York mushed together), bathing the streets and alleys with grime, shadows and neon. It is dripping with atmosphere like a graphic novel come to life, and yet it feels real enough that it’s easy to get lost in its spell. Greig Fraser’s cinematography is a huge part of this effect, and whilst at times the visuals can be underlit and disorienting, it creates an immersive aesthetic so thick you can practically smell the fog and steam that coats the city.

The set and costume design is absolutely top notch, with one of the most practical yet page-accurate Batsuits ever put to film, and a Batmoblie that thankfully eschews the tank-like design of recent years; it looks cool and dangerous, but it still feels like a real car you could feasably buy and modify. There isn’t a whole lot of action here, but what’s there is executed with a irresistable stylistic flair that emphasises the forboding fear of Batman himself, with the Batmobile chase against Penguin and the climactic shown in the heart of the city being the easy standouts. Tying it all together is Michael Giacchino’s haunting score that clings to your ears and oozes with atmosphere on every note, including a simple but instantly memorable new theme that more than earns its place next to the compositions of Danny Elfman, Elliot Goldenthal and Hans Zimmer. The film’s use of Schubert’s “Ave Maria” as a chilling leitmotif is an especially dark touch, plus “Something in the Way” by Nirvana is brilliantly deployed as basically the soundtrack to Bruce’s inner monologue.

Colin Farrell as Oswald “Oz” Cobblepot/Penguin in THE BATMAN (2022, d. Matt Reeves)

The Batman isn’t the best Batman film ever, but captures the essence of the character in a way that no other adaptation has dared to, crafting an evocative and emotionally-rich thriller worthy of such a vaunted character. Yes, it is lengthy and may test the patience of those wanting more comic book spectacle, but the world of Gotham is so thick and all-consuming that it’s easy to just get lost in its gloomy aura. This is absolutely a Batman movie that reflects our modern anxieties and fears, shows its heroes and villains as being far more morally uncertain than ever before, and leaves things open for further expansion without feeling like it is begging for it. If you’re tired of all the cinematic universes and cookie-cutter storytelling of the current superhero landscape, The Batman is a welcome change of pace that reaffirms the genre has plenty more to offer when it diversifies and broadens its horizons.


UNCHARTED – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Tom Holland (Spider-Man: No Way Home), Mark Wahlberg (Deepwater Horizon), Sophia Taylor Ali (Truth or Dare), Tati Gabrielle (The 100), Antonio Banderas (Desperado)

Director: Ruben Fleischer (Venom)

Writers: Rafe Lee Judkins (The Wheel of Time) and Art Marcum & Matt Holloway (Iron Man)

Runtime: 1 hour 56 minutes

Release Date: 11th February (UK),18th February (US)

Synopsis: When approached by swindling treasure hunter Victor Sullivan with the key to finding the lost treasure once sought by his estranged brother, aspiring thief Nathan Drake embarks on a globe-trotting adventure following the footsteps of Magellan whilst being hunted by a ruthless magnate who believes the treasure is his by birthright.

The Uncharted series sits in a bit of a weird position when it comes to video game-to-film adaptation, as it is both so story-driven and cinematic that it makes for a smooth transition, and yet too cinematic that all a movie version could end up being equivalent to just watching someone else play the game. Regardless, an Uncharted movie has been in some form of development for over a decade, seemingly as cursed as some of the artifacts intrepid adventurer Nathan Drake has sought over the years. Heck, it’s been in the pipeline so long, Mark Wahlberg was originally attached to play Drake back in 2010, and that was just the first iteration of a project that’s been through multiple directors and writers since. Finally unleashed to theatres as the first of a planned slate of adaptations from PlayStation Productions (they’ve even got a fancy Marvel Studios-esque logo and everything), can Uncharted take advantage of everything great about the games without falling the usual video game movie traps? In short: yes, but not without major caveats.

Uncharted: New Movie Poster and Images Revealed - IGN

Rather than adapting one of the games outright or telling a wholly original story in the margins of the canon, Uncharted splits the difference by taking inspiration from the games (mostly A Thief’s End with touches of Drake’s Deception) whilst crafting its own take on the series outside established continuity. It’s highly comparable to how 2010’s Prince of Persia and 2018’s Tomb Raider took elements of their respective games but recontextualised them, and the result is a movie that is entertaining enough on its own merits, but the number of fundamental changes to core franchise elements may irk anyone expecting a fully faithful translation. The plot is nothing to write home about, being just another rehash of the usual treasure hunt tropes that filmmakers have been cribbing from the Indiana Jones playbook for decades, but the games did much the same so it doesn’t feel nearly as jarring.

The pacing is incredibly tight as the plot moves briskly whilst still finding moments for the characters to breathe, and it absolutely makes sure to cram in as many elements from the games as it possibly can. Overly complex puzzles and scavenger hunts that require constant checking of journals? Check. Pseudo-intellectual exposition dumps? Check. Both heroes and villains constantly double-crossing each other? Check. Action sequences that tempt the laws of physics and feature so much casual killing that it makes you question Drake’s morality? Double check. Seriously, the only things they’ve left off the checklist are some dark twist about the hidden treasure and watching Drake die constantly as he (or, more accurately, the player) misidentifies what is a climbable ledge. If that’s all you want from an Uncharted movie, you’re probably going to be satisfied, but without that sense of player connection that made the games more than just interactive movies, it’s not an experience you’ll remember for long.

Uncharted movie: release date, trailer, Tom Holland talks Nathan Drake, and  more | GamesRadar+
(from left to right) Mark Wahlberg as Victor “Sully” Sullivan and Tom Holland as Nathan Drake in UNCHARTED (2022, d. Ruben Fleischer)

There was some doubt when it was announced Tom Holland would don the iconic half-tucked Henley of Nathan Drake, especially from those who were still dead set on casting Nathan Fillion (guys, the man is 50 and he already did that fan film, so please just leave it be). Thankfully, Holland ends up being the glue that holds the movie together when the action can’t. Playing a younger Drake just starting his career as a plunderer of lost treasure, he’s given a certain amount of leeway to not be an exact imitation of Nolan North (who gets a nice tip-of-the-hat cameo), but from his cocky quips in the face of danger to his penchant for knowing the exact historical trivia to solve a puzzle, he’s recognisably Nathan Drake regardless. It’s a role Holland certainly has room to grow into, and in future installments, they’ll hopefully incorporate more of Drake’s obsessive and thrill-seeking tendencies. On a similar note, Sophia Ali captures the essence of series mainstay Chloe Frazer to a T, from her teasing sarcasm to her inability to trust anyone (or be trustworthy herself…). In the villain’s seat is Antonio Banderas as the brutal Moncada, and whilst he’s certainly an intimidating adversary at first, he’s barely in the movie. Most of the actual antagonising comes from his lieutenant Braddock (who I’d bet hard cash was Nadine Ross from A Thief’s End and The Lost Legacy in early drafts), who lacks any of the history and connection to the treasure that Drake and Moncada have, nor has much of a personality beyond being tough.

The film’s most frustrating casting, though, comes from Mark Wahlberg as Drake’s mentor Victor Sullivan. Though he has a solid report with Holland and by tale’s end starts to take on the iconographic traits of his digital counterpart, he completely lacks that “cool uncle” wit and charm that makes Sully such a memorable presence in the games. Wahlberg might as well be playing any number of his interchangeable action heroes from over the years, and most of his attempts at being charming come off as smarmy rather than endearing. At the same time though, it’s his character arc of slowly becoming more trusting of Drake that serves as the emotional backbone of the story. Despite a throughline of following the trail of his missing brother Sam, Nathan’s progression is mostly relegated to becoming a better treasure hunter and helping Sully be a better person rather than any personal fulfillment. Wahlberg is not an untalented actor and playing a lovable scoundrel like Sully is in his wheelhouse, but neither he nor the filmmakers have made the effort to bring that character to life beyond a brief promise they may eventually.

Sony Drops New 'Uncharted' Videos and Images | Animation World Network
(from left to right) Tom Holland as Nathan Drake and Sophia Ali as Chloe Frazer in UNCHARTED (2022, d. Ruben Fleischer)

The developers at Naughty Dog have prior said that they usually come up with the set pieces of each Uncharted adventure first and then construct the plot around them, and it often feels like a similar approach has been taken to the action in its celluloid counterpart. The film opens with a bang in typical Nathan Drake fashion with a flash-forward to later in the story as our hero is in the midst of some death-defying situation; in this case, a faithful recreation of the famous crates-hanging-out-of-an-airplane sequence from Drake’s Deception. It sets expectations quite high for thrills to come, but it takes a long time for anything comparable to that tease to arrive. Other than a brief display of acrobatics during an auction house robbery inspired by A Thief’s End, Drake and Sully spend most of the film in basic foot chases and henchman brawls you could find in any action blockbuster. Some are a little more imaginative, such as when Drake has to fend off Moncada’s thugs in a crypt-turned-nightclub whilst Chloe frantically solves a puzzle, but compared to the average life-or-death situation you’d find in the games they pale in comparison. Thankfully, the finale does a lot to make up for it by creating a set piece wholly original to the film and yet would make for an epic level of the games. If the film had at least one more action beat that impressive nestled somewhere in the first two acts, it would be easier to forgive its more pedestrian moments.

As a technical package, Uncharted looks about as slick as any typical Hollywood blockbuster but that also means it has many of the same faults, most evident in its overuse of CGI. Whilst both the plane sequence and the final battle are a blast, it’s blatantly obvious how much of it is being done on a soundstage with digital doubles stitching together the more ludicrous stunts. Perhaps the borderline-insane antics of the recent Mission: Impossible have spoiled us, but it’s hard to settle for Tom Holland jumping on boxes in front of a green screen when you know Tom Cruise has done more dangerous stunts practically. Much of the rest of film’s aesthetics have a similar expensive-but-expected approach, with Chung-hoon Chung’s cinematography capturing the exaggerated cinematic look of the games but with much of the grit and playfulness softened at the edges. It all feels too focus-tested and corporate, which isn’t made more obvious than in a scene where Sully conveniently finds a keyhole to solve a puzzle inside a Papa John’s; easily the most egregious use of product placement since Krispy Kreme in 2017’s Power Rangers. This is all topped off by Ramin Djawadi’s score the, whilst the way it slowly incorporates the familiar Uncharted theme as Drake grows as a character is a nice touch, otherwise lacks the adventurous John Williams-like feel of the game’s music and opts for a more rock-infused soundscape comparable to Djawadi’s work on Iron Man and Eternals. No disrespect to the composer, I love most of his other work, but I’d certainly love to see a rescored version using Greg Edmonson and Henry Jackman’s compositions from the games.

Photo de Antonio Banderas - Uncharted : Photo Antonio Banderas - AlloCiné
Antonio Banderas as Moncada in UNCHARTED (202, d. Ruben Fleischer)

Uncharted is at least spiritually faithful to the games and makes for a decent bit of matinee fun in the vein of National Treasure or 1999’s The Mummy, but without the controller in your hand, it lacks the magic ingredient that makes it so special. It’s a triumph when compared to most video games movies, but stacked against the best of them (none of which would garner above a 7/10 from me) and it’s probably not even in the top five. Whether the potential sequel decides to more closely follow the games or go off on their own tangent, what it really needs to prioritise is to find its own niche in the genre beyond OTT action and self-deprecating repartee. I think that’s the real hurdle that has hit almost every video game adaptation: satisfyingly replacing what’s lost by removing player agency. Resident Evil isn’t as scary when you aren’t the one opening that creepy door, Mortal Kombat isn’t as brutal when you aren’t the one pulling off that fatality, and Uncharted isn’t as thrilling when your quick thinking isn’t what gets Nathan Drake out of a jam. Whenever they figure out how to compensate for that loss, that’s going to be when video game movies can go beyond being tribute acts and become great films in their own right.


MOONFALL – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Halle Berry (Bruised), Patrick Wilson (The Conjuring), John Bradley (Game of Thrones), Michael Peña (Ant-Man), Charlie Plummer (All the Money in the World), Kelly Yu (One and a Half Summer), Donald Sutherland (The Hunger Games)

Director: Roland Emmerich (Independence Day)

Writers: Roland Emmerich & Harold Kloser (10,000 BC) & Spenser Cohen (Extinction)

Runtime: 2 hours 10 minutes

Release Date: 4th February (US, UK)

Synopsis: When Earth’s moon falls out of orbit due to an unknown extraterrestrial threat, a disgraced astronaut must team up with his former partner and the conspiracy theorist who saw it coming to discover the secrets of The Moon before it destroys the planet.

Does anyone really expect a Roland Emmerich film to make anything other than trashy? I say that as someone who thoroughly enjoys trash, but Emmerich’s films can range on the spectrum from good trash (Independence Day, White House Down) to mediocre trash (The Day After Tomorrow, Midway) to just plain trash classic (10,000 BC, Independence Day: Resurgence). The key to his better movies is when their ridiculousness is outmatched by their charm and fun factor, usually thanks to some good casting or a hell of an action set piece, which can make it easier to forgive its weaker elements and just go along for the ride. But what else can the modern master of disaster throw at us at this point? He’s destroyed the earth with aliens, giant monsters, Mayan prophecies and global warming; where else is there to go? Well…how about the whole bloody moon? It’s an immediately tantalising premise that promises action, suspense and utter stupidity, but can it overcome that threshold to be considered good trash? The short answer: no. In fact, Moonfall falls so far off the Emmerich spectrum that it deserves a category all of its own.

There are many tropes to a Roland Emmerich disaster movie, and Moonfall diligently ticks them all off by the end of its bloated two-hour-plus runtime. It’s got conspiracy theories, divorced parents, government cover-ups, destroyed monuments, noble sacrifices, an incompetent trigger-happy military, nerdy scientists, a kid who hates their parent, the asshole stepparent who turns out to be not so bad; honestly, the rest of this review could just be me reciting the entire checklist. So yeah, Moonfall basically does nothing to innovate on a storytelling level, simply slotting in its preposterous lunar disaster into a stock script that might as well have been written by MadLibs. The film starts pretty high on the insanity scale and just keeps rising as the plot gets progressively more frantic and preposterous, reaching a huge crescendo in the third act as the whys of this cataclysmic event are revealed and even the most generous suspension of disbelief is thrown out the window.

There’s absolutely nothing of substance here on even the barest emotional level, because not only are the stakes so outrageously overblown that you can’t relate to the situation, it’s all so hackneyed and obvious that you know the gist of what’s going to happen three scenes before the characters do. This is absolutely a film designed for those who’ve turned their brain off at the door, but one could only imagine someone finding enjoyment in it if they’d literally never seen a Roland Emmerich film before. Literally, there is absolutely nothing of value here that you couldn’t find a better version of in one of Emmerich’s previous films, and at this point it’s just insulting. The director has been trying to make lighting strike twice ever since Independence Day was such a big hit by rehashing the same formula with slight tweaks, but Moonfall makes Independence Day: Resurgence look original by comparison. At least that film took advantage of its premise and expanded its universe, even if it did so poorly, whilst this is just a rehash of those same decade-old ideas with a bad paint job and an ironic sticker slapped on top.

Halle Berry as Jocinda “Jo” Fowler and Patrick Wilson as Brian Harper in MOONFALL (2022, d. Roland Emmerich)

Another trope of the typical Emmerich film is that they have a cast of thousands and, though Moonfall is certainly on the slimmer side of most of the director’s call sheets, there are still far too many characters and most of them are played by no-name actors so there’s not even cheap recognisability to make you care. The story is mostly split between two or three narratives with characters shifting back and forth between the streams, but our main focal points are Patrick Wilson as disgraced astronaut Brian Harper, Halle Berry as his former partner and NASA higher-up Jo Fowler, and John Bradley as amateur scientist and moon truther K.C. Houseman. Wilson and Berry are true professionals and don’t bat an eyelid at their preposterous situation, but there’s nothing particularly compelling about their characters.

Despite his understandably frustrating situation, Harper comes off as belligerent and kind of unlikable during the first act, whilst Berry is given little to work with other than “I have a son and an ex-husband”. Bradley is saddled with not only much of the exposition but also most of the comic relief, and to his credit he manages not to cross into annoying territory; I can only imagine the horrifying screeching we would have gotten if Josh Gad has remained in the part as originally planned. He’s still a pretty pathetic caricature of a nerdy conspiracy theorist, but he at least has a few chuckle-worthy lines and a consistent character arc, and for this movie that’s a lot. Michael Peña is wasted in the role of Harper’s wife’s new husband, Charlie Plummer is pretty flat and disposable as his son, Kelly Yu gets the one genuinely on-purpose funny joke as the nanny to Fowler’s son, and Donald Sutherland is only here for one pointless scene of exposition and then disappears from the movie. C’mon, if you’re going to hire Donald Sutherland, give him a good line or a memorable death or something; anything!

John Bradley as K.C. Houseman and Halle Berry as Jocinda “Jo” Fowler in MOONFALL (2022, d. Roland Emmerich)

With a budget of $146 million, Moonfall is apparently one of the most expensive independently-funded movies ever made, and it’s clear that the money is on screen. Bar some occasionally dodgy compositing, it absolutely looks just as polished and professional as any Hollywood blockbuster. However, looking expensive doesn’t mean looking good, because in terms of imagination Moonfall looks incredibly plain. The whole production is just awash in dull, pale colours and bog standard design choices, and anything that doesn’t look boring is a visual idea stolen from another movie (e.g. the evil swarm that moves and forms shapes eerily similar to the Sentinels from the Matrix movies). The cinematography is bland, the costumes are bland, the sets are bland, and even the music is, you guessed it, bland. At least there’s some cool action sequences to make up for it all, right? Honestly…no. Again, there is absolutely nothing here you haven’t seen before, and the movie doesn’t even really take advantage of the possibilities of what the moon falling out of orbit and cracking to pieces could do. Really, it’s just a bunch of the usual natural disaster beats with characters running away from tidal waves or earthquakes or whatever, and then occasionally the oxygen levels drop and the gravity goes a bit wonky. That’s it.

Patrick Wilson as Brian Harper in MOONFALL (2022, d. Roland Emmerich)

Moonfall is mind-numbingly dumb by even Roland Emmerich’s standards, and it’s simply nowhere near entertaining enough to make up for its ridiculousness. It really does feel like a movie made by an AI trained on previous Emmerich films, chucking in every cliché and the kitchen sink too in his most shameless attempt yet to repeat the success of Independence Day. Its few fleeting moments of value are mostly unintentional as you find yourself laughing at its sheer impudence, but it’s not even bad in a unique enough way to be enjoyed ironically. What else really needs to be said at this point? Moon fall, movie bad, ‘nuff said.


SCREAM (2022) – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Melissa Barrera (In the Heights), Mason Gooding (Booksmart), Mikey Madison (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood), Dylan Minnette (13 Reasons Why), Jenny Ortega (Insidious: Chapter 2), Jack Quaid (The Boys), Marley Shelton (Sin City), Jasmin Savoy Brown (Yellowjackets), Sonia Ammar, Courtney Cox (Cougar Town), David Arquette (Never Been Kissed), Neve Campbell (Skyscraper)

Directors: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin & Tyler Gillett (Ready or Not)

Writers: James Vanderbilt (The Amazing Spider-Man) & Guy Busick (Ready or Not)

Runtime: 1 hour 54 minutes

Release Date: 14th January (US, UK)

Synopsis: Ten years after the last series of murders in Woodsboro, a new killer dons the mask of Ghostface and terrorises the teen relatives of those involved in the previous killings, revealing untold secrets about the legacy of Ghostface and once again drawing back the original survivors to the cursed town.

As much as they might make light of the trends and fads of the horror genre, the Scream franchise itself has succumb to plenty of them over the years. The original film was an instant classic to many and helped define what the genre was heading into the new millennium, whilst Scream 2 helped buck the trend of the inferior sequel by being pretty good in its own right. After that though, the third entry completely fell apart and just became the cliché-ridden mess the series was meant to satirise, and whilst the belated fourth instalment brought plenty of fresh ideas to the table, the execution was a little muddled and it ultimately didn’t do well enough to keep the franchise alive. Scream 4 also sadly ended up being the last directorial effort of horror legend Wes Craven, and with his passing it finally seemed like we wouldn’t see the streets of Woodsboro again.

However, no intellectual property stays dead in the current Hollywood landscape, and so fittingly the series’ reins have been handed over to a new generation of horror filmmakers. The fifth entry, simply titled Scream just to confuse you (and yes, of course they make light of this in the movie itself), is from its opening moments clearly made by people who love these movies but have enough distance to twist the formula. The result is quite possibly the best entry since the original, bringing the franchise back to its roots whilst still finding a way to say something new about the current state of horror.

Scream (2022) - Photo Gallery - IMDb

In many aspects, the new film is essentially a do-over of Scream 4: there’s another Ghostface killer on the loose in Woodsboro, and a new generation of teens try to solve the mystery whilst the original trio are drawn back in to assist. That said, it uses that same framework to make something tonally and thematically quite different and the comparisons quickly dry up as the story goes down its own path. As usual, the film uses its plot as a meta-commentary on whatever the tropes of Hollywood filmmaking are at that moment, and this Scream bluntly takes aim at what it dubs “requels” (films that function as remakes/reboots of a franchise whilst still taking place within the same continuity). In this regard, the film actually does a better job of being a “requel” than many sincere examples of them, packing in plenty of fan service but ultimately favouring new ideas that expand upon the themes of the previous films.

What ultimately pushes the film over the line from endearing tribute act into its own mature beast is how it expands its critique from the films themselves to the wider culture surrounding the genre. From calling out the snide elitism of the term “elevated horror” to plenty of digs at toxic fandom, this truly does feel like a Scream for 2022 that manages to stay on topic, as opposed to Scream 4’s last-minute swerve into a critique of internet celebrity culture mostly removed from horror tropes. As usual, it’s hard to get into detail without spoiling the film’s best surprises, but be assured there is intelligence and love put into every moment; you can really tell this was made by the same team behind Ready or Not. That said, this is far from a perfect film, but most of its issues are ones the franchise has had since the beginning. The dialogue can be incredibly on-the-nose especially in moments of foreshadowing, there are lapses in logic that go beyond parody and into just bad writing, and there are story threads that ultimately feel unresolved. Again, can’t say too much, but one major example is there’s a character who is having visions that suggest a fractured psyche, and whilst it plays into the story thematically, it feels a step too far in an otherwise grounded story and it’s never really resolved; its point was perfectly made without hammering home with a cliché like that.

Scream (2022) | Scream 5 » Photo, Picture Gallery |
Melissa Barrera as Sam Carpenter in SCREAM (2022, d. Matt Bettinelli-Olpin & Tyler Gillett)

One major improvement over the fourth instalment here is whilst that film attempted to set up a fresh batch of teen victims but ultimately ended up just focusing back on Sidney, Dewey and Gale, the new Scream is definitively about its new cast whilst the legacy heroes are firmly in supporting roles. Melissa Barrera takes the lead as Sam Carpenter and gives a compelling and endearing performance, even if the character on the page is a little lacking; there’s a lot of talk about her being a reckless troublemaker in her past, but that rarely comes across on-screen. Her greatest strength comes from her tumultuous relationship with Jenny Ortega as her sister, as the pair attempt to reconcile their disrupted childhood whilst fending off the machinations of the killer. Much of the rest of the supporting cast fill out the Scream archetypes but with their own little tweaks. Mason Gooding and Jasmin Savoy Brown as especially fun as twins Chad and Mindy, with Brown filling in for the Randy Meeks film expert role with exuberant aplomb, whilst Jack Quaid as Sam’s boyfriend Richie brings much of the same grounded “outsider flabbergasted by exceptional events going on around me” energy that’s made him so endearing on The Boys.

In terms of the familiar faces, David Arquette gets the most to do as Dewey Riley filling in as the reluctant mentor type often found in these legacy movies, and he does a solid job playing a more downtrodden and sloppy version of his usually straight-laced character. Neve Campbell is as pitch perfect as ever as Sidney Prescott, once again showing herself to be an all-time great final girl, but it’s also a relief to see her take a step back and avoid being thrust into the spotlight to the detriment of its main cast. Unfortunately, Courtney Cox’s Gale Weathers comes out of this one a bit underserved. She gets one admittedly solid emotional scene reuniting with Arquette, but afterwards the film finds little for her to do but be someone for Campbell to talk to and exchange “I’m getting too old for this shit” gags with. It’s far from a complete disservice, and it’s honestly great to see how Weathers has evolved from her tabloid days into a more mature and respectful reporter, but I wish the writers could have given her a bit more to do than be a soundboard.

Scream (2022) - Photo Gallery - IMDb
Neve Campbell as Sidney Prescott and Courtney Cox as Gale Weathers in SCREAM (2022, d. Matt Bettinelli-Olpin & Tyler Gillett)

In terms of actual frights, the Scream movies are rarely that creative; it finds a hell of a lot of different ways to stab someone, but it’s still just stabbing no matter how you cut it. This new entry doesn’t mess with that formula too much, but there are some standout sequences where they ratchet up the tension and do Wes Craven proud. These include a frantic race against the clock as Judy Hicks (Marley Shelton) as rushes home when Ghostface threatens to kill her son (Dylan Minnette), and a genuinely haunting and nail-biting sequence as Tara gruesomely winces through her injuries whilst trying to escape a hospital wing. The gore is perhaps not as over-the-top as in other entries but the blood certainly looks thicker, and the kills themselves have a little more imagination to them even if using familiar tools.

On an aesthetic level, the filmmakers have done a fantastic job of emulating the look of the old films whilst still giving it a modern lens, with certain familiar locales recreated so perfectly and yet shot in a way that you may not even realise you’re somewhere you’ve been before until it’s too late. Brian Tyler takes over scoring duties from franchise mainstay Marco Beltrami and he does a strong job making his own foreboding tracks whilst working in familiar cues to good effect, and the soundtrack smartly picks a lot of modern songs that have a retro feel to evoke the late 90s setting of the first film. Also, it has probably the most inventive use of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ “Red Right Hand” in the whole series, hands down.

Scream' 2022 Officially Rated "R" for Ghostface's Favorite Thing: "Strong  Bloody Violence"! - Bloody Disgusting
Jenny Ortega as Tara Carpenter faces off against Ghostface (voiced by Roger L. Jackson) in SCREAM (2022, d. Matt Bettinelli-Olpin & Tyler Gillett)

2022’s Scream may cut deep into the issues with legacy reboots, but it ends up being a solid example of how to do one right; it’d honestly make a great double feature with The Matrix Resurrections of all things. It’s perhaps a little too derivative to match the originality of its main inspiration, but rivals Scream 2 for second place and stands confidently above the third and fourth. Whether new and younger audiences who may not have experienced the original will connect with it is unclear (that’s honestly what may have doomed Scream 4 after such a long gap), but franchise fans should find it a satisfying watch unless they themselves are a toxic fan who doesn’t like how the movie shines a mirror on them. There’s surprisingly not any other horror fare out compared to the average January so it’s not like you have a choice, but if you’re looking to see a scary movie, you can’t go too wrong with the new Scream.

I mean, seriously though: why not call it Scream 5? Yes, I get it, it’s a meta joke the movie itself points out as an annoying trend, but now it’s just perpetuating…OK, I’ll shut up now.


THE KING’S MAN – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Ralph Fiennes (Skyfall), Gemma Arterton (Tamara Drewe), Rhys Ifans (Notting Hill), Matthew Goode (Watchmen), Tom Hollander (Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl), Harris Dickinson (Maleficent: Mistress of Evil), Daniel Brühl (Rush), Djimon Hounsou (Gladiator), Charles Dance (Last Action Hero)

Director: Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass)

Writers: Matthew Vaughn & Karl Gajdusek (Oblivion)

Runtime: 2 hours 11 minutes

Release Date: 22nd December (US), 26th December (UK)

So Kingsman: The Secret Service was a pretty good movie, wasn’t it? It was brutally entertaining and knew how to be controversial without giving into tastelessness, but it also had a good heart and a timely message about the class system that was essentially “f*ck off Tories, you don’t have to be an upper-class tit to be a superspy!” It’s a shame then that the sequel The Golden Circle squandered its franchise potential by just being a lame duck rehash of the first film, eschewing evolving the story in favour of reverting the status quo just so they could bring Colin Firth back; it truly was Men in Black II all over again. Now a third entry is still apparently on the cards, but in the meantime Matthew Vaughn and company have opted to make a prequel exploring the origins of the titular Kingsman organisation. Aptly titled The King’s Man, it finally makes its way to cinemas after a cavalcade of delays (some COVID-related, some not), but has all that extra time mean the filmmakers have learnt from their mistakes and made a Kingsman film that lives up to the original? Short answer: no, but at least they made new mistakes.

Whilst the founding of the Kingsman Agency was discussed in the first film, they never went into explicit detail about the hows and whys beyond “a bunch of rich people who lost loved ones during World War I decided to pool their resources to create an independent espionage bureau”. The King’s Man though, as the title implies, is more of the story of one person than of an organisation, focusing in on Orlando Oxford (Ralph Fiennes) and his journey to becoming a key founder. The idea itself is sound enough, but the film quickly stumbles out of the gate due to its confused approach to historical accuracy. The first two films were set in a world mostly like ours but dealt with supervillain crises only allegorically similar to those we face in real life, but the prequel instead opts to interweave its spy game antics into the fabric of real-world events. This could have worked and even been a bit of anarchic fun if it went down the Inglorious Basterds route by clearly marking itself as alternate history fiction, but it cares too much about fitting into the logic of real events that it comes off as not only stupid but (and remember, the first movie avoided being this) tasteless. By the time it reaches its preposterous mid-credits reveal, it feels less like a clever piece of historical revisionism and more like the ravings of a conspiracy theorist who only vaguely remembers bits of trivia from high school history class.

This issue, however, is really just a microcosm of the film’s completely inconsistent tone. Of the many problems with The Golden Circle, one of them was that it went too far into the realm of the ridiculous and forgot to put as much care into the characters and themes. The King’s Man, meanwhile, has overcorrected on that front and is instead an overly serious mess that seems to forget what kind of movie it’s supposed to be. There are long stretches where if you walked in without context, you’d assume it was a completely serious historical drama, and whilst this does occasionally add some weight to proceedings, it needs an effective counterbalance. It’s only in the story’s final throws where the film seem to remember it’s a Kingsman movie and starts actually having fun, but by then it’s too little too late and it just doesn’t gel with the movie that proceeded it. It’s a movie that mistakes seriousness for earnestness, missing that sense of ironic detachment that made the first film so joyous in its ridiculousness; it was a love letter to the Roger Moore era of Bond movies, but one that knew they were silly and dated. I’m willing to accept a movie where WWI is sparked by a shadowy SPECTRE-like organisation made up of a bunch of villainous historical figures led by a raving anti-capitalist Scotsman, but when you play it as straight as The King’s Man does, it stops being fun and honestly comes off as more disrespectful than if they’d given in completely to batsh*t fiction.

Images | UK Press
Harris Dickinson as Conrad Oxford and Ralph Fiennes as Orlando Oxford in THE KING’S MAN (2021, d. Matthew Vaughn)

A lot of what carried the first Kingsman, and its sequel to a lesser extent, were the lead performances by Taron Egerton and Colin Firth as new recruit Eggsy and his mentor Harry. Whilst The King’s Man initially seems to be setting up a similar dynamic between Fiennes’ Orlando and his headstrong son Conrad (Harris Dickinson), this never really comes to pass. Fiennes is charming enough in the role and occasionally gets to utilise that dry wit that made him so funny in The Grand Budapest Hotel, but he spends far too much of the film with a stick up his arse fretting over the safety of Conrad. It’s a dry and repetitive conflict as Orlando constantly beseeches his son not to go to war and does everything he can to stop him, whilst Conrad argues back about his pride and need to be of use to his country.

It’s hard to blame Dickinson, who seems to be a fine enough actor, but the part of Conrad is a bland and one-note character who only starts to get interesting as his story is coming to an end. Far more compelling are the Oxford’s servants and confidants Polly (Gemma Arterton) and Shola (Djimon Hounsou), who imbue a lot of charisma and fun into the film whenever they get the chance, especially in the action-packed climax. The rest of the performances are just as tonally confused as the film itself, with the only actor who understood the assignment being Rhys Ifans as a particularly repellent Grigori Rasputin; I just wish he were the actual main villain, whose identity remains shadowed for much of the runtime. Tom Hollander does a solid enough job that I didn’t realise he was actually playing three roles, whilst great actors like Daniel Brühl and Stanley Tucci are wasted in bit parts that seem to be here for the sake of setting up a sequel to the prequel (please, just don’t). Oh, and this is a pretty consistent criticism of mine, but there’s not enough Charles Dance. Filmmakers, please: stop wasting his time if you’re not going to give him a decent part.

The King's Man: New Images Released
Rhys Ifans as Grigori Rasputin in THE KING’S MAN (2021, d. Matthew Vaughn)

Another defining aspect of the previous Kingsman films were their over-the-top action sequences, with the legendary church fight from the first having become something of a meme in the years since. Unfortunately, much of that brazen dynamism seems to be missing from The King’s Man. There are only two action sequences where the film actually feels like a part of the franchise: a three-on-one brawl as Orlando, Conrad and Shola attempt to take on a surprisingly-spry Rasputin, and a properly brutal fight where Orlando attempts to take control of an elevator from a gigantic henchman. Outside these two standout moments, there’s honestly not even that much action to speak of beyond one scene set in the trenches that can’t help but seem weak in comparison to other recent WWI-set action films like 1917 or Wonder Woman. The whole aesthetic of the film feels like a bit of damp squib, grounding things much more in reality than the other films and only sparingly indulging in playful spy camp; it does, however, include a sword which is also a gun, and that’s always a plus. The colour palette is just a mush of browns and beiges, the camerawork lacks energy even when the action pops off, and the score is bland and unmemorable. In a current blockbuster landscape where even the weakest and most cookie-cutter examples are at least technically impressive, there’s nothing really to wow in The King’s Man that isn’t just a fleeting reminder of what the series used to be.

Gemma Arterton hoped for more action in 'The King's Man' (exclusive)
Gemma Arterton as Polly in THE KING’S MAN (2021, d. Matthew Vaughn)

It’s such a shame that a franchise that began with so much potential to revolutionise a genre has now become another staid example of one, but that’s where we are. The King’s Man is far from an awful movie, but it’s just an aggravatingly bland one that adds little of value to the series’ mythology. In its attempt to counteract the excess of the prior entry, it instead becomes a confused and po-faced slog that only occasionally remembers it’s supposed to be an action-packed spy caper. The entire point of the Kingsman franchise was to be a fun alternative to the increasingly serious modern Bond movies, but in a bizarre twist of fate, this year’s No Time to Die honestly has far more in common with The Secret Service than this supposed prequel to it. Vaughn and company say they still intend to finish off the series with one more adventure with Eggsy, but at this point it’s hard to really care. If this franchise wants to redeem itself and go out on a high note, it seriously needs to buck up and deliver a finale that lives up to the high standards of its progenitor.


THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Keanu Reeves (John Wick), Carrie-Anne Moss (Memento), Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Aquaman), Jessica Henwick (Love and Monsters), Jonathan Groff (Frozen), Neil Patrick Harris (Gone Girl), Priyanka Chopra Jonas (Quantico), Jada Pinkett Smith (Girls Trip)

Director: Lana Wachowski (Speed Racer)

Writers: Lana Wachowski & David Mitchell & Aleksandar Hemon (Sense8)

Runtime: 2 hours 28 minutes

Release Date: 22nd December (US/HBO Max, UK)

Every five years or so, a movie comes along that redefines the style and aesthetic of Hollywood filmmaking; Jaws and Star Wars are popular examples of this. It’s not always necessarily for the best (the first Michael Bay Transformers flick is one moment we’re still feeling the aftershocks of), but they’re the kind of movies that become commonly used as a frame of reference and studios blindly copy the cosmetics of in a feeble attempt to follow trends. 1999’s The Matrix most definitely counts amongst them, popularising slow motion, black leather, and Hong Kong martial arts that ended up defining much of cinema in the early 21st century. What stuck with audiences who saw beyond its cool coating, however, was its infusion of transhumanist philosophy into its more traditional hero’s journey narrative, in turn making the film into a potent allegory for capitalism, patriarchy, and the transgender experience. That didn’t stop right-leaning audiences taking completely the wrong message from it though, hence the alt-right “red pill” movement.

After its sequels Reloaded and Revolutions doubled down on its philosophical musings in a way that deepened its themes but alienated general audiences, the franchise has remained mostly dormant and its creators Lana & Lilly Wachowski made perfectly clear they never intended to return to it…until now, that is. Whilst The Matrix was a trendsetter back in its day, The Matrix Resurrections is instead something of a rebuttal to today’s trend of franchise revivals, continuing the saga of The One but in a defiant and unorthodox fashion one could only expect from a Wachowski sister. The final result is a piece of cinema truly unlike any other in recent memory, delivering everything a Matrix fan could ask for whilst weaponizing its own nostalgia to say something about the series and Hollywood filmmaking in general.

Neo Employs His Signature Move on The Matrix Resurrections Poster

It’s difficult to get into detail about Resurrections without immediately jumping into story spoilers that the trailers have cleverly avoided divulging, so please excuse me as I try to remain vague. Suffice it to say, whilst the film is very much a sequel to Revolutions rather than a fresh start, it does use certain tropes of reboots to its own ends, with its opening moments being an eerie recreation of the first movie but with a fun perspective twist that cleverly foreshadows things to come. What follows is quite possibly the most meta film ever conceived, simultaneously functioning as a fourth entry in the series but also a deconstruction of itself, its predecessors, and the concept of franchises in general. Whilst it certainly takes a moment to readjust to its unconventional approach, once the story starts clicking into place and the lines between fantasy and reality start to become a little clearer, it becomes undeniably compelling and doesn’t let up from there.

It is a film as thematically deep as any of the previous entries if not more so, further exploring and expanding on the recurring concepts of the movies whilst adding on new ones (queer fans, rest assured: this is still a deeply trans film), but it avoids a lot of what bogged down the other sequels. There’s a better balance between story, action and philosophy, and it communicates its complex ideas about free will, identity and perception of reality in more understandable terms rather than the impenetrable jargon of academia (Ergo, concordantly, vis-à-vis. Sorry, couldn’t resist!). That self-awareness carries into the tone of the film itself, often bordering on a satire of itself as it drops a lot of the pretention and delivers a more earnest and heartfelt coda to the original trilogy. When you pull away the dystopian musings and cyberpunk trappings, The Matrix Resurrections is a love story about rediscovering what makes you happy in life in spite of logic and societal expectations, in turn reminding you why you fell in love with the first film. The closest comparison one could make between this and another blockbuster is Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and if you had any problem with how that film threw out the rule book and deconstructed that franchise…what were you expecting? This is a Matrix movie! They’re never been what you expect them to be. Needless to say, you won’t like this one.

Neo & Trinity Reunite In New Matrix Resurrections Photo
Keanu Reeves as Neo and Carrie-Anne Moss as Trinity in THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS (2021, d. Lana Wachowski)

Though he has plenty of iconic characters under his belt, Keanu Reeves will always be remembered first and foremost as Neo and his return to the role here is more than welcome. When we are first reintroduced to Thomas Anderson, he is practically (and, in some cases, literally) unrecognisable as a man who has lost touch with his own identity and reality, depicting depression and suicidal ideation in a bold and effective manner as his sanity is tested by the repetitiveness of his everyday life. This only makes his journey to becoming the Neo we remember all the more satisfying, but even so this is still a wizened Neo with a different outlook who still can’t quite live up to who he used to be. Carrie-Anne Moss’ Trinity receives a complementary arc, going on her own identity crisis as reuniting with Neo makes her question her own supposedly idyllic life. Even after nearly two decades apart, Reeves and Moss’ chemistry still burns and more brightly than ever, and it’s clear both actors are having a blast revisiting characters they and we thought would never return. The only other major returning face (if not necessarily a returning character) is Jada Pinkett Smith as Niobe in a role comparable to the late Carrie Fisher’s in the Star Wars sequels, but she is honestly given more gravitas and weight in this one film than Princess Leia was in most of those; amazing for a character who got more screen time in the tie-in video game than the actual movies. There may be another certain familiar face in the film who has mostly been left out of the marketing, so I won’t spoil it here, but fans of the sequels should get a kick out of seeing this character back in a startling fashion.

Whilst it is accurate to say Yahya Abdul-Mateen II plays Morpheus in The Matrix Resurrections, that doesn’t necessarily mean his character is the Morpheus; you’ll have to see the movie to understand what that means. Regardless, he absolutely nails playing this slightly warped version of the character, emulating aspects of Laurence Fishburne’s portrayal whilst still making him his own; he’s funny, charming, slightly unhinged, and just an all-around badass. Jonathan Groff is having an absolute blast hamming it up as a sleazy tech executive that astutely updates the Agent Smith persona for the modern era, and saying too much about Neil Patrick Harris’ role as Neo’s therapist would give the game away but he is an absolute revelation here; why have we been wasting his talents in dumb comedies again? The film also introduces a new generation of runners and operators, and whilst their roles are mostly perfunctory, they honestly still get more personality and screen time than the original crew of the Nebuchadnezzar (and most of them being played by cast members of Sense8 also makes them seem immediately familiar). The only standout of them, and quite easily the film’s best addition to the franchise, is Jessica Henwick as the youthful and rebellious captain Bugs. Whilst not necessarily the heart of the film, she is the glue that holds it all together and is just an immensely endearing and awesome audience surrogate who is as invested and excited to be here as the audience.

The Matrix Resurrections Debuts Stunning New Stills | CBR
Keanu Reeves as Neo and Jessica Henwick as Bugs in THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS (2021, d. Lana Wachowski)

The visual language of The Matrix is still found in the blockbusters of today, so it might be easy to assume its offspring wouldn’t look too out of place in the modern landscape, but once again Resurrections defies expectations. This is an absolutely otherworldly cinematic experience that riffs on the previous films, sometimes even outright copying shots from them but never quite exactly. This eerie sense of “almost, but not quite” is felt even in the music, with familiar extracts from Don Davis’ old score weaved into the new compositions by Johnny Klimek & Tom Tykwer, which is overall a more ethereal, Phillip Glass-inspired soundscape than the techno-heavy music of the originals. The whole experience is kind of like a big-scale version of Neil Cicierega’s “Bustin”: you recognise all of the elements, but they’ve been muddled up and reorganised to make something new and yet undeniably familiar.

Unlike the muted greens and blues of the trilogy, this movie embraces colour and light to create an almost dreamlike look to the world of The Matrix, whilst scenes set in the real world have the familiar palette but are deepened by harsher shadows and contrasting tones. The work of the Wachowskis has always been heavily inspired by anime, and here Lana keeps up that tradition with a visual language and energy that wouldn’t feel out of place in 2D animation; there’s even a recurring visual motif where the framerate is lowered to an anime-like speed. It really takes advantage of the artificiality of its world, which slyly lampshades any criticism of its visual effects as looking unrealistic because…yeah, none of it is real, so why not go all out? There’s just an unbridled sense of artistic expression here you don’t get in films of this size, and whilst that does mean the movie isn’t quite as refined and carefully thought-out as the originals, the sheer unbridled creativity of it all makes up for when it colours outside the lines. This is most evident in the fight sequences, which abandon the complex wirework and precise cinematography for a more visceral and up-close-and-personal dynamic, but there is a comparable dynamism and spectacle to them that retains that Matrix magic but makes it feel fresh again. Yes, it is disparate from the previous entries, but that’s kind of the whole point. It wants you to feel off-kilter, it wants to notice what’s different and what’s the same, and in doing so it is weaving the themes of the narrative into its technical presentation. That, plain and simple, is good filmmaking no matter how unorthodox the execution.

The Matrix 4 actor teases different tone to the original and the answer to  Morpheus' recasting | GamesRadar+
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Morpheus in THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS (2021, d. Lana Wachowski)

The Matrix Resurrections is the sequel fans have always wanted but never knew to ask for. It is both a celebration and a castigation of the series, essentially revolutionising how franchise reboots are made whilst simultaneously criticising everything wrong with them. It recontextualises the original trilogy and irons out their flaws in a way that retroactively improves them, rediscovering that perfect balance between entertainment and education the sequels lost, and affirms the themes of the first three reinforce them against the toxic interpretations of their worst fans. It reinvigorates the series in a way that could open it up to further stories, but it also works as a perfect capper to the saga and it’d be perfectly understandable if Lana Wachowski wanted to leave things on this triumphant note. If nothing else, it reaffirms that Wachowski is far from a has-been, but instead an idiosyncratic genius who deserves as many chances as she’s willing to take. It’s perfectly understandable that general audiences may not be on board with its multiple eccentricities, but if you now or ever have had an affection for The Matrix, it’s certainly worth going down that rabbit hole for one last time.