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.

FINAL VERDICT: 6/10

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.

FINAL VERDICT: 2/10

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 | HelloSidney.com
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.

FINAL VERDICT: 8/10

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.

FINAL VERDICT: 4.5/10

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.

FINAL VERDICT: 9.5/10

SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Tom Holland (Chaos Walking), Zendaya (The Greatest Showman), Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game), Jacob Batalon (Blood Fest), Jon Favreau (Chef), Jamie Foxx (Collateral), Willem Dafoe (The Lighthouse), Alfred Molina (Raiders of the Lost Ark), Benedict Wong (The Martian), Tony Revolori (The Grand Budapest Hotel), Marisa Tomei (My Cousin Vinny)

Director: Jon Watts (Cop Car)

Writers: Chris McKenna & Erik Sommers (The Lego Batman Movie)

Runtime: 2 hours 28 minutes

Release Date: 15th December (UK), 17th December (US)

There has probably never been a film as hotly anticipated as Spider-Man: No Way Home since…well, since Avengers: Endgame, and that wasn’t that long ago; I know the pandemic has warped everyone’s perception of time but…wait, where am I going with this? Anyway, ever since the film went into production, the internet has been awash in wild speculation, demanding to know the answers to its biggest secrets whilst also oxymoronically asking not to be spoiled. It’s made it an incredibly tough time for any Spidey fan who has wanted to see the final chapter of this trilogy knowing as little as possible, but whether you want to go in blind or knowing every last detail beforehand (why you would, I don’t know, but to each their own) …you will not be disappointed. No Way Home certainly delivers on almost everything the fans have been asking for, but its greatest strengths lie in its heart rather than its spectacle.

[From here on out, I will do everything I can to avoid giving away the biggest surprises, but it’s literally impossible to review this movie without talking about it a little, so here’s an incredibly mild SPOILER WARNING before you proceed further. If you just want a “yay or nay”, scroll down to my final verdict and make your own decision.]

Spider-Man's Multiversal Villains Return on New No Way Home Poster

Picking up in the immediate aftermath of Far From Home’s shocking mid-credits reveal, the third solo outing for the Spider-Man of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is simultaneously unlike any previous movie adventure for the wall-crawler and yet also a welcome return to the more heartfelt and earnest stories of his earliest outings. Whilst this is still clearly an MCU movie, quippy dialogue and constant self-deprecating abound, it hits an emotional core that Jon Watts previous two outings with Peter Parker only had brief dalliances with. It really focuses on both Spidey’s noblest characteristic and his most tragic weakness: his ability to see the good in people and help them even when they refuse, but also his tendency to cling on to everything he wants despite the sacrifice his superhero life requires. There’s been no film that has not only struck at the core of who Spider-Man is as a character, but done it so masterfully, since the Sam Raimi years, and anyone who’s been missing the sentimentality of those movies will be relieved to know it’s back here.

It’s especially remarkable that Sony and Marvel have pulled off such a powerful character-focused story, because No Way Home also has to contend with being easily the most content-packed Spidey movie ever, and yet it pulls off having a cavalcade of villains and subplots when Spider-Man 3 and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 buckled under less bulky material. Even with a two-and-a-half-hour runtime, there is a gargantuan amount of plot to get through. The first act is actually surprisingly bereft of action as it focuses on the interpersonal drama of Peter and his friends acclimating to their new status quo, but the John Hughes-style teenage angst takes a backseat once the villains start popping up like interdimensional rabbits and fists start flying. Whilst this does lead to some rushed storytelling at points and perhaps one too many coincidences, it’s all so well structured and paced that it’s easy to forgive and just go along for the ride; you can worry about parsing the fridge logic when you get home.

This leads us to what may be the greatest joy of No Way Home, but also its most crippling weakness: its copious amount of fan service. When it’s utilised effectively to move the plot forward or pay off character development, it works incredibly well and uses metatext to say things about Spider-Man as a character that can usually only be expressed in a critical analysis rather than an actual story; it truly is a mind-bending form of deconstructionism that only Into the Spider-Verse can challenge it to. At other moments though, the film gets incredibly self-indulgent and practically ruins any momentum it has so it can make references that feel more like bait for memes and GIFs than actually solid jokes. For the most part, Spider-Man: No Way Home is the dream movie fans have been dying to see for years, but in its weakest moments, it plays out more like the dopey fan fiction speculation of a diehard geek that somehow got mixed into the real script.

New Spider-Man: No Way Home Images Reveal Doc Ock, Doctor Strange And More  - We Got This Covered
Zendaya as Michelle “MJ” Jones Watson and Tom Holland as Peter Parker/Spider-Man in SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME (2021, d. Jon Watts)

Everyone has their personal preferences about who is the best cinematic Spider-Man, but Tom Holland has done a remarkable job in the role and reinvented Peter Parker for a new generation whilst retaining everything that keeps him timeless, and here he gives his best performance as the character yet. Though still in high school and packed with naïve ambition, from his prior adventures he now has the emotional maturity and sense of pathos that the character needs to step forward from those halcyon days into the adult world. Holland may understandably want to step away from the character at some point, but with the path No Way Home sets him on, he could honestly play the character for as long as he wants to. In the continuing spirit of the Homecoming trilogy pairing Spidey with another MCU heavy hitter, Benedict Cumberbatch steps up to the plate as Doctor Strange and, thankfully, the story picks and chooses well when to bring him in and when to let him fade into the background. He’s mostly here just to get the ball rolling on both this movie and his own upcoming sequel, but his scenes bickering with Holland on everything from how to deal with this new band of supervillains to how he should be addressed make for both some fun comedic banter and genuine moments of ideological disagreement. Even though he deals in the mystical arts, Strange is a realist whose dedication to maintaining the safety of reality comes into conflict with Spidey’s youthful impulsiveness and naïve optimism, and seeing Cumberbatch cut him down to size like a reluctant babysitter is a fascinating dynamic.

In terms of his returning supporting cast, everyone here is as good as they’ve ever been. Zendaya remains a delight as MJ, with her chemistry with Holland having bloomed from awkward flirting into a completely heartfelt romance that rivals those of his predecessors, and she is more involved in the action here than she’s ever been. Likewise, Jacob Batalon’s Ned remains the amiable but flustered best friend that sticks by Peter no matter what, still finding the time to shine even as the multiversal madness of the story threatens to completely take over. Jon Favreau is as charming as ever as MCU mainstay Happy Hogan, J.K. Simmons absolutely makes the most of his screentime as the MCU’s modernised take on Jameson, whilst Marisa Tomei’s Aunt May finally gets to step off the sidelines and be a part of the adventure to exciting results. There’s a lot of other characters who unfortunately step away from the spotlight this time around (Angourie Rice’s Betty Brant is little more than a cameo), but even their small parts to play are memorable. Tony Revolori’s Flash Thompson is still the conniving little posh boy he’s always been and takes advantage of Peter’s situation in exactly the way you’d expect, whilst the brief scene with teachers of Midtown High (played once again by Martin Starr, J.B. Smoove, and Hannibal Burress) is a hilarious aside and I hope the MCU finds some way to keep them around in some form.

Really though, you’re probably more itching to know more about not those who have returned from the Tom Holland films, but about those from Spider-Man movie history’s past. Saying nearly anything about them would be giving away too much, but they are responsible for some of the movie’s most memorable moments. Alfred Molina’s Doc Ock, who has for years held the title of best Spidey movie villain ever, holds on tight to that belt and is as simultaneously charming and frightening as he was back in 2004. Jamie Foxx certainly walks away as the movie’s greatest redemption, reinventing his Electro without just throwing away what the Webb series established when they easily could have started fresh. What was once a cringeworthy and laughable villain is now a force to be reckoned with, and Foxx absolutely eats up every piece of scenery he can grab. Sandman and Lizard don’t get quite the same love their fellow rogues get, but they still have their moments to shine and seeing them interact with all the other villains makes the idea of a Sinister Six movie even more tantalising. At the end of the day though, without saying too much more, Willem Dafoe’s return as the Green Goblin is the true MVP. What they do with the character here will absolutely delight fans of both the Raimi incarnation and his comic book inspiration. It’s just…just…*chef’s kiss*

Tom Holland as Peter Parker/Spider-Man and Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr Stephen Strange in SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME (2021, d. Jon Watts)

When it comes to the action in Jon Watts’ MCU entries, they are honestly amongst their weakest aspects. Sure, they’re entertaining and dynamic and Holland just exudes fun throughout them, but they lack the sense of wonder and high-flying thrills that Raimi’s films (and even Webb’s, to an extent) had in spades. The same, thankfully, can’t be said for the fight sequences in No Way Home. The much-advertised battle with Doc Ock on the highway is a great example, jumping expertly between Spidey battling the villain whilst rescuing civilians and trying to reason with his attacker that immediately brings back memories of Spider-Man 2’s legendary train in the best way…and just the tip of the iceberg. Really diving into detail on any of the others would be stepping into dangerous territory, but suffice to say that the brawls here can get pretty brutal by MCU standards as the stakes are raised and emotions fly high, and the climactic battle is one no Marvel fan is going to forget any time soon.

The whole film is just a visual treat, livened up especially by the integration of Doctor Strange’s trippy power set that leads to some pretty creative fight choreography and action geography. This movie is a true blockbuster on every level that makes Homecoming look like a mumblecore flick by comparison, bolstered further by Mauro Fiore’s stellar cinematography and some mind-blowing visual effects (apart from some occasionally dodgy compositing, that is). Once again, the way the film integrates elements of Spidey’s history into its aesthetics is a highlight, especially in how it recreates and updates the looks of the classic villains, and how Michael Giacchino’s music subtly and effortlessly weaves in melodies from previous Spidey films and his own Doctor Strange score to great emotional effect.

How Doctor Octopus Is Different In Spider-Man: No Way Home
Alfred Molina as Dr Otto Octavius/Doctor Octopus in SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME (2021, d. Jon Watts)

Is Spider-Man: No Way Home the best Spidey movie ever? To put it bluntly, no. It’s too reliant on nostalgia to reach the heights of Spider-Man 2, Into the Spider-Verse or Far From Home, but as a celebration of the character, it’s a sumptuous feast of superhero fun. All of the razzle-dazzle of the returning characters and further exploration of the multiverse may be what gets butts into seats, but what’s really stuck in my mind is the emotional arc of the wall-crawler himself. His journey from his humbler beginnings in Civil War and Homecoming to here feels gargantuan despite it all having happened in the past five years, and seeing him truly grow into the role of Spider-Man will stick in my heart and mind longer than any pop culture reference will. If this was the last time Holland ever donned the mask, it would be a satisfying way to say goodbye to the character, but it’s pretty clear both Sony and Marvel want to keep going. Let’s just hope they can continue to do it as civil partners and not risk another messy divorce.

FINAL VERDICT: 8/10

RESIDENT EVIL: WELCOME TO RACCOON CITY – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Kaya Scodelario (The Maze Runner), Hannah John-Kamen (Ant-Man and the Wasp), Robbie Amell (The Babysitter), Tom Hopper (The Umbrella Academy), Avan Jogia (Zombieland: Double Tap), Donal Logue (Gotham), Neal McDonough (Captain America: The First Avenger)

Writer/Director: Johannes Roberts (47 Meters Down)

Runtime: 1 hour 47 minutes

Release Date: 24th November (US), 3rd December (UK)

Considering it takes much of its inspirations from horror cinema, you’d think the Resident Evil series would be one of the easier video game franchises to adapt, but reality unfortunately rarely makes that much sense. Between 2002 and 2017, modern schlockmeister Paul W. S. Anderson delivered six “adaptations” that merely used the characters and iconography of the games as window dressing to showing off his badass OC protagonist Alice, coincidentally played by Anderson’s wife Milla Jovovich. Whilst the Anderson series had their moments of gonzo stupid brilliance, they were a far cry from what fans of the series wanted: a faithful adaptation of the core storyline of the games. Well, it seems Sony have decided to grant that monkey’s paw wish, as the reboot Welcome to Raccoon City does deliver where the originals failed in looking and feeling like Resident Evil. It’s just a shame that the movie is otherwise a bit crap.

2 New Posters for Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City

There were plenty of promising starting points for a new Resident Evil film to take; they could have adapted a more standalone story like 4 or 7, tackled the origin of Zero, or just told their own story that interweaved with the main timeline. Instead, Welcome to Raccoon City takes the wildcard approach and decides to mush together the plots of the first two games into one story. This idea might have worked in different circumstances (e.g. combining the second and third games, as they take place simultaneously), but what we get instead are the CliffsNotes of two already barebones stories that remove any of the meaty content that make them interesting. What’s there is relatively faithful to both the story and themes of the games, but there’s no time to actually explore any of it in detail, as the plot rapidly flits between these two mostly unrelated narratives. That’s not to say the film is fast-paced, as the story takes its time establishing the characters and setting whilst creating an impending sense of dread.

It’s during this calm before the storm where Welcome to Raccoon City is at its strongest, and as the action slowly ramps up it captures the horror of the series in ways the gun-toting Anderson films rarely ever did. Unfortunately, the movie is unable to deliver on any of its promises, with character arcs cut short and plot threads quietly abandoned as the film speeds towards its piddly and unsatisfying conclusion before doing the expected sequel bait in a mid-credits stinger. There is absolutely much more Resident Evil in this one movie than in the entirety of the previous series, but much like those films what’s there is mostly just the surface level elements. If the filmmakers had instead focused on adapting one of these two games, they might have at least managed to flesh out the characters and included more of the meaty subtext about corporate America and the pharmaceutical industry. In trying to do too much in too little time, they’ve once again made a film that will confuse newcomers and anger the fans it’s trying to pander to.

Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City images offer first look at Leon,  Claire, and more | GamesRadar+
Avan Jogia as Leon S. Kennedy and Kaya Scodelario as Claire Redfield in RESIDENT EVIL: WELCOME TO RACCOON CITY (2021, d. Johannes Roberts)

There are a lot of iconic characters in the Resident Evil franchise, and every fan has their favourites. In compressing the two games into one, a lot of them have been cut or had their functions lumped into other characters; don’t expect appearances from the likes of Barry Burton, Rebecca Chambers or either version of the Tyrant. The characters are the main area Welcome to Raccoon City has attempted to flesh out the mythos and differentiate these often-interchangeable heroes, but the results are somewhat mixed. Claire Redfield is the story’s ostensible protagonist and probably the closest to her game incarnation out of anyone, and Kaya Scodelario does a solid job of embodying her confidence in the face of danger and her unrelenting disdain for the big bad Umbrella Corporation. Jill Valentine has been reimagined here as a more brash and trigger-happy character, and whilst Hannah John-Kamen does a solid job of making this version endearing, she’s basically unrecognisable beyond her name and outfit. Chris Redfield was always the blandest of the games’ core cast and he remains so here, with the script and Robbie Amell’s performance doing little to elevate him beyond being a beefcake with a gun. That said, at least the film doesn’t do him a disservice, which can’t be said for this reboot’s version of Leon S. Kennedy. Though he was admittedly an inexperienced rookie in both versions of Resident Evil 2, Avan Jogia’s Leon is a complete buffoon played mostly for comic relief, sleeping through literal explosions and barely even able to handle a gun. This could have been acceptable if used as part of a character arc, which seems to be have been the intention, but it gets completely side-lined and Leon suddenly turns from confused simp into wise-cracking badass seemingly between scenes.

Out of the core cast, Tom Hopper easily fares the best as Albert Wesker. The future archenemy of the franchise was always something of a cipher; a character who, from the moment you saw him in the first game, you knew was evil. Here though, the filmmakers have tried to humanise and develop Wesker into a more grounded character whilst leaving the door open for him to become the villain fans know him as. Hopper does a solid job making Wesker a conflicted and potentially fascinating presence whenever the script finds him some breathing room, though the decision to include a limp love triangle between him, Jill and Chris is a little jarring. Reliable character actor Donal Logue is a welcome addition as Chief Irons, carrying the film’s comedic undertones where Jogia fails to and just relishing the opportunity to play an over-the-top police captain; a moment where he chews out Wesker was the only scene I got a genuine laugh out of. Neal McDonough is all the film has in terms of a human antagonist as Dr William Birkin, and though he makes ample appearances throughout and they’ve crafted this whole backstory connecting him to Claire and Chris, he leaves little impact. Even worse, Birkin’s daughter Sherry is an incredibly core component of Resident Evil 2, and whilst she’s here as played by Holly de Barros, she’s a complete nothing character with maybe two lines and no emotional connection to Claire or any of the other heroes; why even include her if she’s going to do nothing? There are minor roles here for other game characters like Richard Aiken, Brad Vickers and Ben Bertolucci, and whilst the film sets up Lisa Trevor in its opening and throughout as if she’s going to be important, the story completely drops her by the third act. That seems to be the main recurring problem with Welcome to Raccoon City: everything feels slapdash and unfinished. The often-drastic character changes would be fine if the story justified them or they satisfyingly evolved into their game counterparts, but they don’t, even when it seems like that was the intention. Again, if the filmmakers had just adapted one game instead of trying to Frankenstein two of them together, this might have been less of an issue.

Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City' coming to cinemas in December –  watch the trailer – Entertainment Focus
Robbie Amell as Chris Redfield in RESIDENT EVIL: WELCOME TO RACCOON CITY (2021, d. Johannes Roberts)

Writer/director Johannes Roberts has stated in multiple interviews that his main inspiration for Welcome to Raccoon City were the films of John Carpenter, in particular Assault on Precinct 13, and that influence is clear in the film’s presentation. Though set in 1998, the film very much captures the look and feel of indie genre flicks from the 1970s, and that veneer of old school horror does a lot to ground the film and differentiate itself from the slick, Matrix-inspired sheen of the Anderson films. The camerawork feels ripped right out of the Dean Cundey playbook, with a lot of long handheld shots as we follow characters down dark hallways to the next fright. At the same time though, it sometimes feels like this approach is more out of necessity than creative intention. Not even taking inflation into account, this is the lowest-budget Resident Evil movie yet, and that lack of cash really shows in a lot of the cut corners. Raccoon City itself has turned from a bustling metropolis to a Podunk ghost town, there’s barely ever more than about ten zombies on screen at a time, and whilst locations like the Spencer Mansion and the police station lobby look game-accurate, they feel like empty sets rather than real places.

Whilst the camera aspect of the cinematography is solid, the lighting and colour grading is utterly amateurish; a real surprise, considering DOP Maxime Alexandre has done solid work on a number of horror flicks and even blockbusters like Shazam! Much of the film is awash in this dirty brown hue that’s meant to make it look old but just makes it dull, and so many sets are underlit seemingly to create ambience but it just makes it hard to see what’s going on. Most of the Spencer Mansion sequence is lit like this, and there’s even an action sequence where the only light source is Chris Redfield’s gun as he fires into the dark at zombies; this is the type of amateur filmmaking you expect out of Uwe Boll. Even if the cheap sets and obvious practical effects were an intentional nod rather than lack of funds, that old-school aesthetic is really thrown off once the CGI monsters come into play. On a design level they look straight out of the games…but not in a good way. The animation is chunky, the render quality is extremely low, and again their presence completely upends any attempt at looking nostalgic. It’s clear that Roberts is a big fan of both the Resident Evil games and John Carpenter movies, with plenty of Easter eggs for fans of both to find, but whether he lacked the budget or the skill to execute it properly, the final result sits somewhere between cheap studio schlock and overly-ambitious fan film.

New Creature-Filled 'Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City' Trailer Is a  Straight-Up Nightmare! [Video] - Bloody Disgusting
Marina Mazepa as Lisa Trevor in RESIDENT EVIL: WELCOME TO RACCOON CITY (2021, d. Johannes Roberts)

Is Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City better than the original films? Yes. Is it more faithful to the games? Yes. Does it have some interesting new ideas of its own? In theory, sure. Does that mean it’s a good movie? Unfortunately, no. Try as it might, this reboot simply bites off more than it can chew in attempting to sandwich two great games into one subpar movie. It certainly feels like a well-intentioned film rather than a cash-in, the cast give it their all even when the script fails them, and the grungy grindhouse approach has its aesthetic charms, but it just goes to show that one fatal flaw can unravel everything else going for a movie. Given how low-budget this effort was, there’s a chance Welcome to Raccoon City may scrape together enough coin to get a sequel, and if it does I hope they at least take to heart that main issue and focus their next entry on just one game. Otherwise, let’s see if the upcoming (and wholly unrelated) Netflix series can deliver something more worthy of this franchise’s reputation.

FINAL VERDICT: 4.5/10

ENCANTO – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Stephanie Beatriz (In the Heights), John Leguizamo (John Wick), María Cecilia Botero, Diane Guerrero (Orange is the New Black), Jessica Darrow, Angie Cepeda (Love in the Time of Cholera), Wilmer Valderrama (That ‘70s Show)

Director: Byron Howard & Jared Bush (Zootopia)

Writers: Jared Bush and Charise Castro Smith

Runtime: 1 hour 39 minutes

Release Date: 24th November (US, UK)

Wow, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s having a pretty damn good year. I have admittedly not seen his Sony/Netflix animated musical Vivo yet, but In the Heights finally made it to the silver screen in spectacular fashion and his feature directorial debut tick, tick… BOOM! was a fantastic re-imagining of Jonathan Larson’s semi-autobiographical stage show that proved Miranda has talent behind the camera as well as on the page and the mic. So after all that newness, him reteaming with Disney to write songs for another animated film shouldn’t feel as surprising or special; Moana was great, so this was bound to be at least pretty good. However, much like its protagonist Maribel Madrigal, Encanto is far more special than it seems on the outside. What begins as seemingly another typical Disney flick with a little Hispanic flavour evolves into one of their deepest and most emotionally-resonant films yet, and will likely take the titles of 2021’s best family film and best musical.

Much like Pixar’s Luca earlier this year, what helps Encanto feel so warm and intimate is how relatively contained its scope is. The story rarely goes more than a few miles away from its central locale, all of the prominent characters are members of the same family, and whilst the conflict and stakes may be huge for said household, in the grand scheme of things they are far from world-ending. That certainly doesn’t mean its story could have been told in live-action or without all of its fantastical elements, because that’s where the film’s energy and imagination lies, but the emotional core of the film is a tale that everyone in the audience will be able to connect with. Whilst the studio has been actively trying to diversify and buck the formula since at least Frozen, Encanto feels like a true departure in how much it places character development and interpersonal conflict over external driving forces. There’s no great evil mastermind driving a rift between Maribel and her family, or some lost MacGuffin she needs to find that will save her home from falling to ruin. Instead, everything she needs to save the day and resolve her issues, when you put aside all the fantastical elements, ultimately just comes down to talking things out (or, because this is a musical, singing them out).

It’s also the first time I’ve seen any kind of film aimed at kids, especially Disney, tackle subjects like mental health and burnout. It’s perhaps not quite as spelled out as, say, the subtext regarding prejudice in Zootopia, but it’s handled with just as much care and these are vitally important messages to get across to kids about taking care of yourself and not letting what others have or think make you feel lesser. There’s honestly very little to critique here other than maybe some subplots get a little less attention that I would have liked, but they are such minor gripes when everything in the grand scheme works as beautifully as it does. All in all, it expertly achieves what every great family movie should be: a fun and entertaining adventure for the kids, but one that imparts to them, and everyone else watching for that matter, a positive and motivational message.

Encanto (2021) - Photo Gallery - IMDb
Maribel Madrigal (voiced by Stephanie Beatriz) in ENCANTO (2021, d. Byron Howard & Jared Bush)

Mirabel Madrigal is the best kind of modern Disney protagonist, in that she is a far cry from the lovestruck princesses of old and yet still neatly fits into that same pantheon. Plenty of family films feature an outcast as their main character, but few of them explore it as well as Encanto, with the entire film’s narrative thrust forward by Mirabel’s desperation to be accepted by her family for who she is. It’s a parable that will appeal to and comfort all kinds of shunned children, not to mention teaching parents how to raise and support them to be the best version of themselves, and so much of that lies of the shoulders of Stephanie Beatriz’s phenomenal vocal performance. She imbues Mirabel with a bouncy and immediately amiable energy that works wonders for both comedy and the musical numbers (two areas Beatriz has excelled in previously), but it’s in her more sombre moments where she really impresses and Mirabel evolves from simply a great protagonist into the new standard for Disney animation.

That said, Encanto is a film about family, and the rest of the Madrigal clan are all fascinating in their own ways. María Cecilia Botero makes for an equally genial and intimidating presence as the matriarch Abuela Alma, perfectly capturing the spirit of that family member you resent but yearn to earn the respect of; c’mon, you all have that one. John Leguizamo is nearly unrecognisable as the mysterious and similarly spurned uncle Bruno, Diane Guerrero has impeccable big sister energy as the golden child Isabela, and Jessica Darrow brings a wonderful dimensionality to the brawny Luisa. The rest of the cast don’t get nearly as much focus, but they are all fantastic whenever they get their moments to shine, and there’s simply too many of them to compliment all in one review. Needless to say, whilst Beatriz’s Mirabel is the easy standout performance, the entirety of the family Madrigal is what uplifts Encanto to instant classic greatness.

Disney's "Encanto" Teaser Trailer Looks Magical
(from left to right) Pepa Madrigal (voiced by Carolina Gaitán), Dolores Madrigal (voiced by Adassa), Abuela Alma Madrigal (voiced by María Cecilia Botero), Félix Madrigal (voiced by Mauro Castillo) and Antonio Madrigal (voiced by Ravi-Cobet Conyers) in ENCANTO (2021, d. Byron Howard & Jared Bush)

With Moana, Lin-Manuel Miranda was able to wonderfully capture the spirit of the classic Disney musicals whilst still retaining his signature flow and hip-hop influences, and he brings that exact same approach to the infectious bops here. Their frantic tempo and rapid-fire lyrics may make them hard for fans to drunkenly sing along to on karaoke night, but they are just as catchy as anything Miranda has written and will immediately bring a smile to any viewer’s face. It’s hard to pick a real standout song because they’re all so great for completely different reasons, but in terms of breakout potential, I think “Surface Pressure” is the one most audiences will glom onto. A ballad sung by Luisa about overcompensating and inner exhaustion, it’s easily the most recognisably Miranda song of the bunch and, whilst perhaps not as upbeat as Moana’s “You’re Welcome”, it has a similarly infectious flow and its subject matter will appeal to anyone who has ever pushed themselves too far. “The Family Madrigal” is a bouncy and witty introduction to all of the characters that sets the tone perfectly, “Waiting on a Miracle” is a beautifully tragic reinterpretation of the perennial “I want” song for Maribel, and “What Else Can I Do?” gives her and Isabela a wonderful duet about being more than what is expected of you. Delightfully complimented by Germaine Franco’s fantastical Latin-inspired score, and this is an absolute treat for any fan of musicals.

On an aesthetic level, Encanto also takes Walt Disney Animation Studios to new heights in regards to visual and technical mastery. The character designs and animation style are most reminiscent of The Princess and the Frog, but brought to life in 3D whilst still capturing the bounce and rhythm of 2D animation; even some of Disney’s best CG-animated films don’t recreate that feel as well as they do here. Though the film mostly takes place in and around one house, it is an enchanted home of course, and that still allows the designers and animators to imagine gorgeous locales as we visit each Madrigal’s unique Tardis-like rooms. It is a film exploding with colour and life from every corner, which alone makes it a must-see on the biggest screen you can, and after so many of their recent animated releases have been made exclusive to streaming or hard to see in theatres, it’s simply wonderful to be able to experience Encanto the way it’s designed to be. However, if going to the cinema still isn’t a viable option for you, the film will be available on Disney+ come Christmas Eve, so there really is no excuse to miss it completely.

Introducing Walt Disney Animation Studios' Next Movie, Encanto
Maribel Madrigal (voiced by Stephanie Beatriz) and Julieta Madrigal (voiced by Angie Cepeda) in ENCANTO (2021, d. Byron Howard & Jared Bush)

Encanto is everything you could want from a Disney movie and more, delivering the fun and the thrills but also a heart-breaking family story and a wonderfully inclusive message about difference and defying expectation. Disney always tends to release their animated features around Thanksgiving in the States, but this one is more apt than ever, and will hopefully help families in turmoil like the Madrigals put aside their squabbles and learn to become the support system they need to be for each other. It’s too early to tell where it will land in the pantheon yet, but if Encanto doesn’t become an instant classic on the same level as Beauty and the Beast or Frozen, it will absolutely reign supreme as its greatest hidden gem. It is admittedly perhaps not best suited to the youngest of children (I’d say kids 6 and up will get the most out of it), but this is truly that perfect kind of family film that has something for everyone. Don’t wait on a miracle, and go see Encanto at your earliest convenience!

FINAL VERDICT: 9.5/10

P.S. The accompanying short film Far From the Tree is also a gorgeous 2D wonder and certainly not worth missing, and is easily one of the most thematically complimentary shorts when paired with its feature presentation.

GHOSTBUSTERS: AFTERLIFE – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Carrie Coon (Gone Girl), Finn Wolfhard (It), Mckenna Grace (Gifted), Paul Rudd (Ant-Man), Logan Kim, Celeste O’Connor (Freaky), Bokeem Woodbine (Spider-Man: Homecoming), Tracy Letts (Lady Bird)

Director: Jason Reitman (Juno)

Writers: Gil Kenan (Monster House) & Jason Reitman

Runtime: 2 hours 5 minutes

Release Date: 18th November (UK), 19th November (US)

The legacy of Ghostbusters is a bizarre one when you look back in retrospect. Whilst it has the scale and effects of a typical blockbuster of the era, when you get down to its core it’s really just another 80s comedy in much the same vein as Stripes or Animal House, and that was part of the gag. Its central conceit is “what if supernatural investigators were comparable to blue-collar exterminators?”, and all of its talk of ancient evils and pseudo-scientific technobabble is mostly in service of giving Saturday Night Live and SCTV alum something preposterous to riff off of. In the simplest of terms, it’s not supposed to be taken seriously.

However, in much the same way as other joke properties of the era (e.g., Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), Ghostbusters has been dissected and deified as if it were akin to Star Trek, and that perception has warped the perspective of certain sections of the fanbase. If anything, the real reason the 2016 reboot failed to find an audience isn’t because it changed too much, but because it understood its core conceit as a comedy and tried to modernise that, when what the fanbase was demanding was a movie that worshipped the original as much as they did. Ghostbusters: Afterlife positions itself as that film the fans asked for, delivering a truckload of nostalgia and a genuine reverence for the material, but in execution it is nothing more than a hollow and unoriginal cover song that misses the forest for the trees.

New international Ghostbusters: Afterlife poster features a huge surprise -  Ghostbusters News

Right from its opening moments, it’s clear that the movie Afterlife wants to be is Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and that’s not an entirely bad idea as a starting point. The original film itself was basically a play on the screwball, snobs vs slobs comedies of its time, and taking that off-beat approach to a legacy storyline has plenty of material to mine. Unfortunately, it also quickly becomes obvious that Afterlife is completely and blindingly sincere in its convictions. This isn’t a parody or a comedic twist on that formula, but just another example of it, and treats its source material with a completely unwarranted grandiosity. It’s hard to describe, but basically imagine if they made a sequel to The Princess Bride today, but treated it as if it were a Lord of the Rings-style epic fantasy; that’s how badly Afterlife misses the point. That’s not to say it takes itself completely seriously, but the comedy here is secondary to the story, with the humour treated in much the same manner as a Marvel movie. Jason Reitman’s influence as director is felt in the quieter, character-focused scenes that make up its better moments, but as soon as the action kicks in it feels like just any other blockbuster and it goes straight for the obvious answer every time.

The entire film is just one giant pop culture reference, chucking in every call back to the original it can possibly think of. They are sparing with them at first, and there’s a few more subtle ones worthy of a chuckle or a knowing smile, but by the end there are scenes that are just straight-up remakes of bits from the first film; there’s maybe a sly wink or a tiny twist for the sake of a gag, but they feel like little more than a lampshade. Even if you accept its totally earnest and unironic approach to the material, as a sequel it has even less originality than Ghostbusters II, which itself was criticised at the time for being a cookie-cutter follow-up. That film at least brought new concepts to the table and expanded the lore, but Afterlife is more than content to just throw recognisable iconography at the screen and call it a day. It’s hard to go into more detail without getting into spoiler territory, but the entire third act plays out like trite fan fiction that attempts to go for the heart but falls completely flat, and even in this supposed emotional finale they can’t help but keep being self-referential. All in all, Afterlife certainly wants to be The Force Awakens, but what it ends up being instead is The Rise of Skywalker; seriously, they basically have the exact same ending.

Ghostbusters: Afterlife - There's something strange in these exclusive  images | GamesRadar+
(from left to right) Logan Kim as Podcast and Mckenna Grace as Phoebe in GHOSTBUSTERS: AFTERLIFE (2021, d. Jason Reitman)

With all that said, the first two acts that are less weighed down by constant self-satisfaction have their moments of joy, and those are mostly found in the performances of McKenna Grace as the socially-unattached prodigy Phoebe, and Logan Kim as her happy-go-lucky, conspiracy theory-obsessed sidekick Podcast. These are two characters who feel like they’d work in a movie completely unrelated to the busting of ghosts, and whether playing around with proton packs or just making awkward small talk they are consistently hilarious and entertaining to watch. Whilst Kim is mostly here just for comic relief and do so with exuberant aplomb, Grace does a fine job of balancing the comedic side of her character with the dramatic heft needed whenever the movie remembers that it’s directed by Jason Reitman. Grace has been doing phenomenal work in parts big and small for the past few years, and if nothing else, hopefully this film gives her enough of a spotlight to make her the household name she deserves to be.

The rest of the cast, unfortunately, aren’t so lucky to have characters with as much depth or humour. Carrie Coon is saddled with a pretty one-note role as downhearted mother Callie, whose dialogue entirely consists of three topics: “I hate my dad”, “I hate science because I hate my dad”, and “I don’t get you, Phoebe”. More than anything, she just feels like a self-insert for Reitman to vicariously vent about his own issues with his father and the series. Finn Wolfhard’s Trevor is also mostly a perfunctory role, with his only real motivation being his hopeless pursuit of Celeste O’Connor as local girl Lucky, and he spends most of the film off in his own unresolved sub-story before getting dragged into the main plot with little more than a shrug. Paul Rudd is at least his usual charming self as summer school teacher Gary Grooberson, but the character is otherwise so indistinguishable from Rudd’s own personality that he might as well just be playing himself. Other recognisable faces, like Bokeem Woodbine as the town sheriff or Tracy Letts as a hardware store owner, are little more than bit parts that could have been played by anyone, and then there are a few others in more subtle roles that I’ll let you discover by either watching the movie or reading the end credits. Some will delight you, some will make you shrug, and others will just have you going “Why did they bother?”

Ghostbusters: Afterlife': The Sequel To The '80s Hit Movies Drops New  Trailer | Tatler Asia
(from left to right) Paul Rudd as Gary Grooberson and Carrie Coon as Callie in GHOSTBUSTERS: AFTERLIFE (2021, d. Jason Reitman)

The only way Afterlife majorly differentiates itself from prior entries is in its aesthetic. Moving the story from New York to a Podunk town in Oklahoma gives it at least an air of freshness, though it doesn’t play as much with the new setting as it could have. It visually goes for a more cinematic look rather than the locked-down cinematography of its more comedy-focused forbearers, which does lead to some pretty shots but it still feels workman-like in its attempts to feel more like a blockbuster. The visual effects are top-notch, using a good mix of practical and CGI that feel like an upgrade to the original but without completely changing the wheel; I wish this level of effort and craftsmanship went into the effects in the 2016 film. However, from a design perspective, the ghosts here that aren’t just pulled from the 1984 original are just slight variations on them. There’s the mischievous poltergeist Muncher, who is basically just Slimer but blue and he eats metal instead of food, and the heavily-marketed Mini-Pufts who are just here to remake Gremlins for one mildly amusing scene. However, the most disappointing aspect of the film on a technical level is its music. There is not a single tune by Rob Simonsen I can actually recall, because most of the score is just repurposed tracks from Elmer Bernstein’s compositions for the original. It’s great to hear these classic refrains again, but they mostly feel slapped onto the movie and don’t really fit with the rest of the movie’s more grounded aesthetic; it’s like a Spielberg movie with Seinfeld stings.

Why Finn Wolfhard Didn't Think He'd Be Cast In Ghostbusters: Afterlife
(from left to right) Mckenna Grace as Phoebe, Logan Kim as Podcast, and Finn Wolfhard as Trevor in GHOSTBUSTERS: AFTERLIFE (2021, d. Jason Reitman)

Ghostbusters: Afterlife is the reason why you shouldn’t always listen to fans. Instead of doing something clever or refreshing with the material, it just throws references at the screen whilst convincing itself it’s original because it sometimes looks like an indie flick. Jason Reitman has laboured his entire career to differentiate himself from Ivan Reitman, and whilst I can’t say he’s just outright copied his father’s work for a quick cheque, he certainly doesn’t have a career as the next JJ Abrams if that’s what he’s contemplating. Whether you liked the 2016 version or not, you have to concede that it at least tried to do its own thing whilst still paying tribute to the originals. Afterlife, though, is the cinematic equivalent of a mass-produced T-shirt that’s been dyed to look faded and had holes purposefully ripped in to make it seem vintage; it wants you to think it’s trendy, but it’s just another bit of corporatized product.

Oh, and in case you are wondering, there is both a mid AND a post-credits scene, because of course there is!

FINAL VERDICT: 5/10

ETERNALS – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Gemma Chan (Humans), Richard Madden (Bodyguard), Kumail Nanjiani (The Big Sick), Lia McHugh (Songbird), Brian Tyree Henry (Godzilla vs Kong), Lauren Ridloff (Sound of Metal), Barry Keoghan (Dunkirk), Don Lee (Train to Busan), Kit Harington (Game of Thrones), Salma Hayek (Desperado), Angelina Jolie (Maleficent)

Director: Chloé Zhao (Nomadland)

Writers: Chloé Zhao and Chloé Zhao & Patrick Burleigh (Peter Rabbit 2) and Ryan Firpo & Kaz Firpo

Runtime: 2 hours 36 minutes

Release Date: 5th November (US, UK)

It’s hard to imagine that, less than a decade ago, Guardians of the Galaxy was seen as a risky prospect for Marvel Studios. Now, it’s one of the most popular and recognisable parts of the franchise, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe has only continued to get bolder and weirder since. As Phase Four continues to show what a post-Endgame MCU looks like, the studio takes yet another step into the less explored parts of its source material to present Eternals to the masses. A property than even most comic book fans have little more than a passing familiarity with, it represents an opportunity to really break the conventions of the series and present something wholly unique, and if that was the brief then they have succeeded. Whilst it’s certainly not going to be to everyone’s taste, and far from the conventional crowd-pleaser audiences may be expecting, Eternals adds complexity, nuance and diversity sorely needed in a series that has gotten all too predictable.

Eternals on Twitter: "Check out the official poster for Marvel Studios' # Eternals. Arriving in theaters November 5.… "

Right from its opening moments with a foreboding opening crawl and stunning shots of deep space and prehistoric Earth, it’s obvious that Eternals wants to set itself apart from its forbearers. Its epic story spans centuries, its tone is more contemplative and world-wearier, its pacing more precise and composed, and it takes as many cues from the likes of Terrence Malick and Alejandro Jodorowsky as it does modern blockbusters. Though it certainly connects itself to the past, present and future of the MCU, for the most part it stands on its own and has far more interest in exploring its own ideas than riffing on those that have come before. In a franchise that has such a pre-established format that it often more resembles a television series, having such a completely different perspective this time around is thoroughly refreshing. However, it does face some growing pains.

The first half is noticeably weaker than its second, as it struggles to find the right balance between its Hollywood and artistic influences. The stop-start nature of the plotting and pacing is jarring at times, with many scenes either dragging on far too long or brushing past moments that needs more room to breathe. Much of the present-day story is spent simply assembling the cast, jumping from one locale to the next to introduce yet another character, interspersed with flashbacks throughout history to show the Eternals in their prime and explore how they disbanded. That said, once the film finds its groove and starts digging deeper into its multifaceted characters, timely commentary on socio-political and environmental collapse, and philosophical exploration of concepts like morality and determinism, Eternals finally begins to be the movie it set out to be. It’s a film far more interested in asking questions than providing answers, which may frustrate more mainstream viewers, but after so many spoon-fed good vs. evil stories it’s wonderful to have a blockbuster that leaves the audience the chance to think about its content rather than simply react. In spite of its barren setting, the third act is an absolute feast as not only the action reaches its peak, but the character conflicts and thematic undercurrent empower it all to a satisfying crescendo and a fittingly bittersweet aftermath. By the tale’s end, it becomes clear that Eternals’ true aspiration is to be an arthouse blockbuster in much the same vein as the works of Denis Villeneuve and The Wachowskis. Whether you think that its connection to Marvel is holding it back from being truly itself, or that it strays too far from the MCU formula to feel like a contiguous part of the grander tapestry, that is for you to decide.

Eternals Movie Trailer Reveals Marvel's Ancient Superhero Team In Full  Costume
(from left to right) Lauren Ridloff as Makkari, Don Lee as Gilgamesh, Angelina Jolie as Thena, Richard Madden as Ikaris, Salma Hayek as Ajak, Gemma Chan as Sersei, Lia McHugh as Sprite, and Bryan Tyree Henry as Phastos in ETERNALS (2021, d. Chloé Zhao)

It certainly took far longer than necessary for Marvel to diversify its world, and it certainly has plenty of opportunities to improve, but Eternals has certainly one of the more fascinating and distinctive cast of characters in the series yet. Even with its beefy runtime, the film has a lot of new faces to introduce and not all of them get the attention they deserve, but it’s hard to say anyone turns in a bad performance. After being short-changed by her blink-and-you’ll-miss-her role in Captain Marvel, Gemma Chan gets a second shot at superheroics as nominal lead Sersei and does a fantastic job as the emotional core of the team. She’s perhaps not got the most eccentric or unique personality compared to her co-stars, but Chan brings a relatable and down-to-earth perspective as someone truly caught between two worlds. Richard Madden fits comfortably into the boots of Ikaris, who functions as much as an allegory for the prototypical superhero as he does his mythological namesake, giving a reserved but commanding performance that takes on new meaning as we learn more about his past. Angelina Jolie is perfectly cast as warrior goddess Thena, bringing both gravitas and vulnerability to a character struggling with trauma in an all-too-human way, whilst Salma Hayek makes the most of her limited screentime as the nurturing and wise Ajak.

Despite being the youngest cast members, Lia McHugh and Barry Keoghan are saddled with the most morally complex characters as the trickster Sprite and the manipulative Druig, with McHugh showing an intelligence beyond her years that brought to mind Kirsten Dunst’s star-making turn in Interview with the Vampire. There’s also plenty of comic relief to go around courtesy of Kumail Nanjiani as the boisterous but self-obsessed Kingo, but even he too has his moments of introspection that ground him, as does his valet/ sidekick Karun (played wonderfully by Harish Patel). The short straws are ultimately drawn by Bryan Tyree Henry as inventor Phastos, Lauren Ridloff as speedster Makkari, and Don Lee as tank Gilgamesh, but they all get at least one standout moment and the actors acquit themselves with gusto; it’s great to finally see queer and disabled heroes brought to the MCU, and the representation is brief but tastefully done. Then there’s Kit Harington as Chan’s love interest Dane Whitman, who might as well have a giant “I’ll be important later” sticker on his forehead for the whole film, because his role here is little more than an extended cameo. If you know your comics, you’ll know Whitman’s importance to the Marvel lore and that Harington is an apt choice, but it’s the one element of the film that really feels like a relic from a more conventional MCU version of this story.

Who Is Kingo? A Look At Marvel Comics' Eternals Characters - Comic Years
Kumail Nanjiani as Kingo in ETERNALS (2021, d. Chloé Zhao)

Throughout its production and marketing, it’s been stressed that Eternals is as huge a step away from the MCU formula on a technical level as it is story-wise, and that is certainly reflected in the aesthetic presentation. Though of course still stuffed to the brim with state-of-the-art CGI, the line between fantasy and reality is certainly more blurred by the increased amount of on-location shooting and natural lighting compared to most modern blockbusters. Director Chloé Zhao’s independent eye is all over every frame of Eternals, managing to show her directorial influence in a way few other MCU helmers have other than Taika Waititi and James Gunn, and it’d be fascinating to see what else she could accomplish if she continues down this big-budget path. Despite being having been behind the camera on four prior MCU outings, cinematographer Ben Davis gives the film a distinct look that retains a similar palette to previous films but ups the grit and verisimilitude of the visuals. The production design is audacious and inventive, especially the cold halls of the Eternals’ spacecraft and the grotesque look of the Deviant race, and Ramin Djawadi returns to Marvel for the first time since Iron Man to deliver a suitably sombre but triumphant score. It’s absolutely amongst the most visually satisfying films in the franchise so far, and one can only hope Marvel starts to allow its future filmmakers similar freedom to go beyond the boundaries and experiment with more flavours beyond the base MCU taste.

Eternals': Kit Harington Suggests Dane Whitman Won't Have Powers & Isn't  Aware Of Black Knight's Future In The MCU – THE RONIN
Kit Harington as Dane Whitman and Gemma Chan as Sersei in ETERNALS (2021, d. Chloé Zhao)

Eternals doesn’t always succeed in its ambitions and will likely leave some viewers cold, but for those who can get past its shortcomings and see the potential beneath, it’s an experience absolutely worth seeing on the biggest screen possible. Zhao absolutely has the chops to compete in the blockbuster space should she so wish, and hopefully the stumbling blocks of pacing and focus are ones that’ll be overcome in future ventures. Even if it doesn’t end up being a property as popular as The Avengers or Guardians of the Galaxy, the Eternals themselves are characters crying out for further exploration and will hopefully find a comfy corner of the universe to call their own, and they’ve certainly set the stage for a lot of potential threads to come. If you’re already on the MCU train, you’ll have likely decided to see this movie long before you read this or any other review and can appraise it for yourself. However, if you’re someone who has never really gotten the fuss or become tired of the formula, Eternals is certainly worth a gander. You may not end up liking it, but it’s hard to argue that it’s at least one of the most unique blockbusters of 2021.

FINAL VERDICT: 8.5/10