Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales – Review

It’s an interesting world we live in today where it seems like anything can be turned into a movie.  In the old days of cinema, you merely had to look to literature or the latest headlines for inspiration when crafting a property for the big screen.  Television shows making the crossover was the next phase.  Now, all media of every kind is fodder for big screen adaptations.  We’ve seen movies based off of commercials (1996’s Space Jam), toy products (2014’s The Lego Movie), and later this year, a movie based on the way we text (The Emoji Movie).  But even more shocking than the sources of inspiration is the sometimes unexpected result of those movies ending up actually being good.  The Lego Movie is a perfect example of a baffling concept of a movie actually paying off, thanks to a smart script and beautifully executed animation.  But, there has been perhaps no bigger unexpected hit made from the unlikeliest of inspirations than Walt Disney Pictures’ Pirates of the Caribbean.  Seriously, when you first heard that Disney was taking one of their theme park attractions and turning it into a full length feature, you would’ve thought they had gone crazy.  And maybe they were a little.  But, it was a crazy idea that somehow managed to manifest itself into a box office and critical hit.  It wasn’t Disney’s first attempt at creating a film themed around one of their theme park rides (The Country Bears, 2002), nor their last (The Haunted Mansion, 2003), but it would be the only one that actually succeeded.  This is largely due to the fact that it was far more earnest in it’s execution and was carried on the shoulders of a career-defining performance from Johnny Depp, who created his most popular character here; the unforgettable Captain Jack Sparrow.

When Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) first launched into theaters, it blew all our expectations away.  It was adventurous, funny, visually stunning, and just all around fun.  It also turned Johnny Depp, who up until that time was seen as more as an indie film actor, into a bankable star.   It gave co-star Orlando Bloom a much needed post-Lord of the Rings boost, and helped to introduce Keira Knightley to the world.  It also featured a deliciously evil performance from Geoffrey Rush, who created an equally iconic character in Captain Barbosa.  Naturally, with the success the film achieved, sequels were destined to follow.  And Disney took the ambitious step of shooting two Pirates films back to back.  The over half a billion dollar project resulted in Dead Man’s Chest (2006) and At World’s End (2007), and both performed even better at the box office.  But, despite being praised for some of their aspects, like the villainous Davy Jones(played by Bill Nighy) and the amazing CGI technology that brought him to life, the sequels were received critically with a mixed reaction.  Some loved the movies, while others felt they were a let down.  Despite what everyone thought, it was clear that the latter Pirates movies suffered from the problem of a bloated production.  People felt that the films lacked the tightly paced thrills of the first movie and that they had become way too long; At World’s End clocked in at nearly three hours alone.  It was enough criticism to drive Disney to reassess the series in the next installment, which resulted in On Stranger Tides (2011), which was a disastrous disappointment.  It was a dismally boring sequel that retained none of the charm of the other movies, and just felt like a pale shadow of it’s former self.  From this, Disney took a long break from the series, but now we have another return to the seas with Captain Jack and crew in Dead Men Tell No Tales.  The question now is if the extended wait helped to calm the seas and right the ship for this series, or did it leave it shipwrecked and forsaken.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales reintroduces us to Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), who we last saw in At World’s End, cursed to command the doomed ship The Flying Dutchman for all eternity.  We see Will confront his son Henry, who vows to free his father of the curse and he tells him that he has searched all legends of the sea to find that answer.  Many years later, a grown up Henry (Brenton Thwaites) believes that if he can find an ancient artifact known as Neptune’s Trident, it might be able to end the curse forever.  His search leads him into an area called the Devil’s Triangle, where he’s brought face to face with a Ghost Ship that is commanded by the haunted presence of Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem).  Salazar tells Henry to deliver a message to Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), telling him that he means to take his revenge once he is out in open waters again, acting on the grievance of losing his life thanks to the trickery of Jack who had trapped him in the triangle many years ago.  Henry finds Jack on the island of St. Martin, along with what’s left of his crew, including the ever loyal Gibbs (Kevin McNally).  Also in St. Martin, they run across a fugitive named Carina (Kaya Scodelario), who is accused of being a witch purely because of her ability to read the stars.  They soon learn that she may have the knowledge necessary to find the location of the Trident, and together they set sail out into open seas.  But, in pursuit is a British warship under the command of the tenacious Captain Scarfield (David Wenham) as well as Salazar, who has allied himself with an old adversary of Captain Jack; the fearsome Captain Hector Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush).  It’s a mad rush to reach the Trident in time, because whoever possesses the trident commands the sea itself, and with it, can break any curse it has put on anyone.

Now that the series is up to 5 films total, one has to wonder if there is any new territory left to uncover with this world and these characters.  With Dead Men Tell No Tales, Disney was far more interested in cutting the fat out of the series and returning it to it’s more modest roots.  They brought on Norwegian directors Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg, who had previously made the acclaimed Kon-Tiki (2012).  Their more adventure oriented tastes seemed like a good fit for the series and would be a welcome change from the bloat of Gore Verbinski’s back to back sequels and Rob Marshall’s limited vision.  But, was it enough to make us care again.  Well, here’s the thing; is it really a series that needs to be saved.  My feeling is that the series had played itself out in the original trilogy. Despite all of it’s problems, At World’s End was an adequate capper to the story-line, and had a great sense of finality to it.  Everything since has felt like nothing more than a shameless cash grab.  Dead Men Tell No Tales falls into this category unfortunately, but at the same time, it is not the worst we’ve seen from this series either.  On Stranger Tides had no redeeming value whatsoever, whereas this has the benefit of some moments that do merit praise.  For the most part, it still feels like it’s not needed at all, but it does entertain periodically.  The tighter plot helps out with the pacing (at a brisk 126 minutes, this is the shortest film in the series, by a long shot).  If only the plot didn’t preoccupy itself with a lot of unnecessary world building.  For a series that is based off of a theme park attraction, they sure have crafted a complex mythology around it.  And even over five films spanning 14 years, I still don’t think the filmmakers have fully grasped all of it.  That’s perhaps the biggest flaw of this film is the fact that it doesn’t streamline the plot mechanisms in any way, and that interferes with us trying to find enjoyment in the ride itself.  A movie like this doesn’t need to explain anything or have to make sense; it can just be a big, loud adventure and we’ll be happy with that.

Trying to balance the adventure plotting with complex mythological themes along with Jack Sparrow’s often slap-sticky shenanigans creates this often uneven tone to the movie, and it spoils most of the experience overall.  By the time the movie does reach the mythical Trident, it has gone through so many shifts and turns that you’re just exhausted trying to piece it together and become numb to it all.  I honestly didn’t care what was going on by the end of this movie, which is a shame because there are some plot developments late in the movie that should’ve carried more weight than they should.  The movie feels more successful in individual scenes than as a whole.  There is an especially great scene early on involving a guillotine that I found very entertaining.  It’s a physical comedic bit that would’ve done Buster Keaton proud, and I’m sure that it gave Johnny Depp an excellent moment to dig into character for.  That and other scenes like it help to lift this movie up from the disappointment of On Stranger Tides, which had maybe only one good scene in the entire film (the mermaid scene), and even that pales in comparison to some of the moments here.  What becomes apparent, however, is that nothing in this movie really justifies it’s existence other than some neat set pieces.  Nothing feels like it adds to the lore of Pirates.  It’s just more of the same.  It’s also clear that the character of Jack Sparrow has run it’s course.  Jack really just feels like a tag-along this time around, as he adds nothing more to the plot than a previous connection to the villain.  It’s not that Jack Sparrow can no longer be entertaining, it’s just that his adventures have long stopped being interesting.

That being said, the thing that does help keep this movie afloat for most of it’s run-time is Johnny Depp’s performance.  He still commands every moment he is on screen, and I managed to never grow old of his shtick either.  Truth be told, the character has lost some of the subtlety that we saw in Curse of the Black Pearl, but even in a more clownish version of the role, Depp’s Sparrow is still a welcome sight.  Depp just feels more at home as Captain Jack and it’s a role that still brings out the best in him.  It’s certainly far better than his awful Mad Hatter seen in the Alice in Wonderland pictures.  But, his routine only works at it’s best when it has other strong performance to work off of.  That was the failure of On Stranger Tides, because he had to do double lifting after bland performances from Penelope Cruz and Ian McShane gave him nothing to work with.   Here, he has Javier Bardem as the villain, who is a marked improvement.  Bardem’s Salazar manages to be both menacing and over-the-top ridiculous at the same time.  You can tell that Bardem loves chewing the scenery here just as much as Johnny Depp, and it makes for a perfect match.  The ghost effect they put upon Bardem is really effective too, and it makes for a striking effect that really sets him apart from other Pirates adversaries.  Geoffrey Rush also makes a triumphant return as Barbosa, reaffirming my belief that he’s the best element of all five films and my favorite character in the series.  Series newcomers Brenton Thwaites and Kaya Scodelario don’t fare quite as well.  They are improvements over the young couple from On Stranger Tides, but not much better I’m afraid.  It’s clear that they are just stand-ins for the original trilogy’s Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), and sadly they fall way short of the appeal of those two.

The visuals are also a mixed bag.  At some points, the movie does have some visual splendor to it.  One scene in particular, involving a run away bank (trust me, it makes sense in the film), has a great epic scale to it, and it did impress me that directors Ronning and Sandberg accomplished it with little to no CGI.  But, later on the film does tend to favor style over substance, and it turns into one messy visual effects extravaganza by the end.   The showdown at the Trident’s resting place might as well had been a cartoon, because it’s so clearly a green screened environment that looks too artificial to every be believable.  One thing that I lament being lost over the years in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies is the sense of time and place.  Sure, these are special effects extravaganzas, but they are period pieces as well.  The first Pirates did an exceptional job of placing you in a different time period, allowing the movie to take it’s time and soak up moments that let us enjoy the beautifully detailed scenery.  I remember the blacksmith shop fight scene being a perfect example of that; where it was clear that period detail mattered as part of the story.  In Dead Man Tell No Tales, we get very little of that.  In fact, Ronning and Sandberg have almost stripped the movie down a little too much, making even the period details feel inauthentic.  The period sets look a tad too clean in this movie, like it’s clear that they were just built only days prior, and don’t feel lived in at all; much like a brand new production set would.  I prefer a period film to have a real, lived in feel, which previous Pirates films have done so well.  Here, the movie reveals itself as very basic and unwilling to fully commit, and it’s the thing that holds it back from feeling like a return to form for the series.

So, sad to say, but this is yet another indicator that the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise no longer has any wind in it’s sails. Truth be told, few of us ever thought more than one of these movies, let alone five.  Somehow, Disney managed to turn their park attraction into a viable franchise, which in turn has become of their most valued titles in recent memory.  Jack Sparrow is now one of Disney’s most popular characters, both in and out of the parks.  Johnny Depp still values the character himself, often appearing in costume at charity events and children’s hospitals, or even just to please the everyday fan unexpectedly (like he did in the actual ride at Disneyland earlier this year).  But, all good things must come to an end, and I think this franchise has overstayed it’s welcome a little too long.  Truth be told, it could have been worse, like On Stranger Tides which still stands as the worst in the series.  But Dead Men Tell No Tales does not make the case for continued adventures with Jack and crew.  Disney seems to think that there might be (an end credit sequence keeps the door open just a crack), but I’m not holding my breath in anticipation.  Honestly, let the series end on this little uptick.  It’s not a saving grace, but it didn’t dig the hole any deeper.  That’s the best that I can say for it.  If you liked all the previous Pirates films before, you’ll probably enjoy this as well. There are a number of serviceable scenes that do harken back to the series’ heyday, and a couple nice surprises as well (including a particularly unexpected cameo from a musical legend), but overall Jack Sparrow’s best days are behind him. Whether or not there is more on the horizon is likely to fall on the wishes of Johnny Depp, and I would suggest to him that it’s better to weigh anchor now before the series really starts to fall into irrelevance.  The only options that would be worth exploring now would be to take the world of Pirates and reinvent it through different mediums.  Maybe an animated film or series; I mean it’s Disney after all.  For now, Dead Men Tell No Tales proves that it’s best for there to be no more tales to tell.  Enjoy what we already have, take it easy, and drink up me hearties, yo ho.  Savvy.

Rating:  6/10

Focus on a Franchise – The Alien Quadrilogy

For as long as science fiction has existed as a genre in film-making, there has been a long tradition of movies centered around extra-terrestrial life.  The concept of life beyond our own planet is a compelling one, and there are certainly many avenues to explore with it as well.  There’s the peaceful visitor angle explored in films such as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and of course E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982).  There is also the hostile threat angle explored in War of the Worlds (1953), The Thing (1982), and Predator (1987).  Oftentimes, the most popular alien based movies fall under the monster movie angle, making the creatures symbols of terror meant to frighten movie goers everywhere.  No where else have we seen this type of movie realized more vividly and more frighteningly than in the Alien franchise.  The brain child of writer Dan O’Bannon, the Alien series is among the most of sci-fi pictures ever made, taking the genre out of it’s goofy, B-movie past and turning it into the stuff of nightmares.  This was largely due to the completely earnest efforts of it’s filmmakers to never sugarcoat the terror and to fully immerse the audience in an atmospheric dread the likes of which we had never seen before on film.  The other interesting aspect of the Alien franchise is how it evolved over the years; sometimes in good ways like with the beloved sequel, Aliens (1986), and other times in bad ways, like with the two follow-ups there after.  In this article, I will be looking at what is called the Alien Quadrilogy, which is the set of 4 films that launched the franchise and were centered around the character of Ellen Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver).  So, I won’t be including the Alien vs. Predator spinoff series here, nor the recent prequel films, Prometheus (2012) or Alien: Covenant (2017), since they are unrelated to the Ripley story-line.  So, let’s head into the darkest reaches of space and learn why in space, no one will hear you scream.

ALIEN (1979)

Directed by Ridley Scott

It’s hard to believe now how daring a movie like Alien was when it was made back in the late 70’s.  For the longest time, science fiction was a pool of campiness and cheap special effects.  And only two years prior, Star Wars had revolutionized the genre with an emphasis on action adventure.  But, the makers of Alien had a different outlook on the genre that would end up making it really stand out in the grand scheme of things.  Dan O’Bannon’s original concept called for a vision of alien life that was far darker than anything we had seen before; a destroyer of civilizations and something far better left undiscovered.  While the concept was watered down over many subsequent drafts, the idea still struck a cord in Hollywood, and the film managed to make it’s way into 20th Century Fox, who were already hitting a high after the success of Star Wars.  Thankfully for O’Bannon’s script, Fox brought on board a director who could do justice to the bleaker vision of the story.  That director was newcomer Ridley Scott, a visual artist turned filmmaker with only one other film made before this (1977’s The Duellists).  Scott drew inspiration not from the sci-fi genre during his production, but from horror flicks that were beginning to become popular at the time, such as those from the likes of John Carpenter and Wes Craven.  As Scott saw it, this was a haunted house movie set in space, and it gave him the right frame of tone to craft his movie around.  And to make that vision feel even more effectively disturbing, he called upon the skills of artist H. R. Geiger to design much of the movie, including the alien himself.  Geiger’s neo-gothic designs in particular help to set the Alien movies apart, and their deeply unsettling nature is still iconic to this day.

But, all in all, Alien is an iconic film because it is so thoroughly is confident in it’s identity.  You never feel for once while watching the movie that your experiencing a compromised vision.  It is dark, disturbing, and relentless in it’s tension.  O’Bannon’s deeper mythology may have needed to be parred down, but it doesn’t ruin the experience one bit, and it even makes the film feel more mysterious as a result; making us ask who or what was the Space Jockey and how did this alien creature destroy so much life?  The cast of the film also help to fit within the tone of the film.  Since the story is centered around a group of space freighters, it makes sense that all of them have a grittier sense of character to them, and the movie does a great job of making them all feel authentic and personable, and more than just lambs to the slaughter.  And every death in this movie is more than impactful, especially the iconic chest-burster scene with the late John Hurt.   That moment in particular is probably the first thing that comes to mind when anybody mentions this movie, and really it’s the thing that cemented this film’s legendary status.  Ridley Scott’s direction also perfectly captures the atmosphere of the story.  It’s bleak, but oddly beautiful at the same time.  He not only set a high standard for the sci-fi genre hereafter for this movie, but with horror films too.  His use of oppressive darkness and misty steam filled corridors is amazingly effective.  Not only that, but he has the good sense to keep the “Xenomorph” alien creature hidden in the shadows until shown for maximum impact, like in the vent chase scene.  The first Alien alone is a compelling story of survival, and probably unbeknownst to Scott and his team, the lone survivor of this story, Ellen Ripley, would go down as one of cinema’s greatest heroines; but her time was still yet to come in this series.

ALIENS (1986)

Directed by James Cameron

The success of the first Alien left a strong impression on Hollywood, showing that audiences were willing to see darker films within the sci-fi genre.  It also set the bar pretty high thereafter, leading to a lot of pressure on Fox to make a follow-up sequel that could live up to the original.  After Ridley Scott passed, choosing instead to make films like Blade Runner (1982) and Legend (1986), Fox looked elsewhere for someone to guide the franchise.  James Cameron, who was hot of the success of The Terminator (1984), was tasked with the role of making a sequel to Alien.  To many people’s surprise, not only did he accomplish this, but some would even say that Cameron made an even better movie than the original.  Cameron’s sequel, Aliens, works as well as it does because he made the smart choice to not just copy what had been done before, but instead make a different kind of movie altogether.  Aliens is completely different in tone, style, and plotting than the original film.  Where Ridley Scott attempted to make a horror movie, Cameron instead made an action flick; just set in the same universe.  And it completely works.  The Xenomorph creatures are still just as terrifying, especially the monstrous Queen, but the film spends less time building the dread around them and instead finds it’s energy with the characters engaging these monsters in combat.  The plot is very different too, with less emphasis put on the different ways that the characters will die in the film, and more centered around how they can strategize their chances of survival and be able to destroy these creatures.  We are also introduced in this movie to the idea of the Weyland Yutani corporation as this antagonistic force (personified through a sleazy corporate representative played by Paul Reiser) who we learn are somewhat responsible for spreading the Xenomorph’s presence across the galaxy.  Here we find Cameron injecting some political subtext into the franchise, that more or less enriches a standard good vs. evil plot.

But what really makes Aliens an iconic film more than anything is then character of Ellen Ripley.  Though already established in the previous Alien movie, Ripley didn’t really come into her own as a character until this sequel.  We delve far deeper into her character, finding that she is far more than just a survivor, but a resourceful fighter as well.  Sigourney Weaver makes a triumphant return here, emboldening Ripley with far more grit and resolve than any heroine that we had seen in a movie up to that point.  Strong female protagonists have long been a common motif in James Cameron movies, like Sarah Conner in The Terminator or Rose in Titanic (1997), but Ripley is his true greatest achievement in writing character, and she has since become an influential character for all cinema.  Before, Hollywood didn’t believe that action films headlined by women could never work, and both Cameron and Sigourney Weaver proved them all wrong.  That alone is a great legacy for this film.  Weaver was praised so much for her standout work in the movie that it even earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, the first of her career.  At the same time, her performance is perfectly balanced with a strong cast around her.  Each actor in the ensemble manages to rise above the stereotype of tough guy space marines and actually become interesting individuals in their own right.  Particularly memorable are Michael Biehn as the noble Corporal Hicks and the late Bill Paxton as Private Hudon, who nails some of the film’s sillier lines (“Game Over Man!!”).  There’s also a tender, emotional performance from young Carrie Henn as the orphaned child Newt, who manages to turn into a surrogate daughter for Ripley.  Their relationship gives the movie surprising heart at it’s center, and makes us feel more connected with their plight.  It also gives more weight to the iconic confrontation between Ripley and the Queen, with Ripley uttering the now legendary line of “Get away from her, you Bitch.”  Captivating in it’s action, progressive in it’s themes, and unafraid of changing the course of it’s franchise, Aliens is a textbook example of how to do a sequel right.

ALIEN3 (1992)

Directed by David Fincher

Unfortunately, future installments of this series would fall way short of Aliens example.  A third film in this franchise wallowed in development hell for several years, with no one knowing quite what to do with it.  Several directors were brought on board at various times, including Ridley Scott mulling a possible return.  Eventually, Fox landed the project into the hands of commercial and music video director David Fincher, who was to make his feature film debut here.  Fincher unfortunately found that he had been saddled with a project that was doomed from the beginning.  The film started shooting without a finished script and the entire run of production found Fincher being inundated with a ton of studio interference.  Sigourney Weaver also made a lot more demands this time around as a condition of her returning to the franchise, and some of them (like the insistence of not having gun violence present in the story) ended up neutering the gorier vision that Fincher wanted to put on screen.  It all makes the film feel far more compromised a vision compared to it’s predecessors.  While some of the ideas present are interesting, like Ripley finding herself in an all male prison, which is a scary place on it’s own even without the Xenomorphs, the movie never gels into a compelling film overall, nor works as either horror or action adventure.   Sigourney Weaver is still okay in the film, but it gives her nothing worthwhile to do like Aliens did.   The film even alienated audiences further by killing off the beloved characters of Hicks and Newt right from the beginning, completely wiping all development for Ripley’s character, giving her nothing to fight on for. Fincher’s direction is unfocused, which is not surprising since it’s his first feature.  He has since disowned the movie and now looks back on it as a learning experience in how not to make a film.  Still, the movie does earn points with the extra polish given to it’s visual effects.  The Xenomorphs in this film are outstanding, and genuinely terrifying.  If only the film around them didn’t look so drab, and the story wasn’t so boring.


Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet

Several more years would pass before Fox decided to revisit the Alien well again.  This time, they were eager to return to the more horror driven thrills of Ridley Scott’s original.  And when you think of someone who can pull off a sci-fi horrorshow, you instantly think of the director of Amelie (2001), right?  Okay, French director Jeunet is an odd choice to give the reigns of this franchise over to, but no one can deny that he is a strong artistic eye, something that he showed off well in his earlier films Delicatessen (1991) and The City of Lost Children (1997).  In truth, there are some interesting artistic choices in Alien Resurrection too, but that’s about it.  Resurrection is a very fascinating failure, mainly in the fact that so many talented people involved managed to make such a horrible movie.  The story itself is pointless, finding Ripley revived centuries after her death in Alien3 thanks to genetic cloning.  But Ripley here is not the same Ripley as we’ve grown to love before, mainly due to the fact that her genetic code is mixed with that of a Xenomorph alien.  It could have been an interesting character element, but the movie never explores it fully, instead focusing too much on tired action scenes that we’ve seen a million times before.  Weaver in particular seems very disinterested this time around, and it’s clear that she returned just for the paycheck only.  The movie really is just a whole lot of unnecessary retreading of stuff already done better in other alien movies.  It’s surprising that such a unoriginal script would come from the likes of Joss Whedon, who’s clearly better off working with vampire hunters and Marvel superheroes as his subjects.  But, even with a messy production as it stands, the film does come off as a beautiful trainwreck at times, taking the series into some demented places, which is somewhat better than the dreary dullness of Alien3.  Still, it’s a big drop-off from the stellar heights of where this series began.

Despite the ups and downs that the Alien franchise has experienced over the years, it is still as influential today as it was when it first began.  Countless sci-fi horror blends made in the years since have the original to thank for showing Hollywood that it could work.  The series is also responsible for propelling the careers of two of our greatest filmmakers, Ridley Scott and David Fincher, although Scott looks back more fondly on his experience than Fincher does.  Scott in fact has managed to find his way back into this world and explore it even further with his prequel set of films, finally being able to explain more about this world that he could only hint at before in the original Alien.  Now, some would argue that he was better off leaving some of those things a mystery and that these new films, Prometheus and Alien: Covenant are unnecessary retreads, but that’s up to debate (personally I thought Prometheus was alright; not Alien or Aliens good, but not bad either; I have yet to see Covenant as of this writing).  The best thing about this franchise, however, is that it’s a series that pushed boundaries and changed Hollywood largely for the better.  The original showed that you could make a movie that was horrifically gory without being schlocky.  The franchise also showed that you could switch genres midway through and still retain the same identity.  And most importantly, it made Sigourney Weaver the first ever female action movie star, and showed that in an era dominated by the likes of Schwarzenegger and Stallone that women could headline an action flick just as effectively.  That, in the end, could be Aliens’ most honorable legacy and female action stars today like Charlize Theron and Scarlett Johansson have Sigourney Weaver and Ellen Ripley to thank for that.  In addition, H. R. Geiger’s designs for the Xenomorph alien continue to be a work of pure nightmarish genius.  Honestly, if that design hadn’t captured our imagination as well as it did, there probably wouldn’t have been a franchise at all.  The Alien Quadrilogy stands as a truly iconic series, with daring visuals, one hell of a great heroine, and probably the most terrifying monsters we will ever see on the big screen.   

Chasing the Dark Knight – How DC’s Blockbuster Left a Dark Shadow on Cinema

Movies go through many different phases as the years go by.  As changing attitudes evolve in our culture, cinema reflects back those changes in the market place.  And usually what prompts the changes in the market is the presence of the unexpected blockbuster.  Sure, there are plenty of movies that end up being big hits that fall into the expectations of the audience and the industry itself.  But, then you have those other blockbusters that become unexplained phenomenons, tapping into a previously unseen element that ends up making the rest of the industry take notice.  These are the benchmark blockbusters that create a tidal wave of new perspectives within the film-making community, and with them, a slew of imitators and copycats, all trying to capitalize on what this new film has done.  You see films of this kind emerge in every generation and they are often what ends up the generation of cinema that follows in it’s wake.  Star Wars (1977) is a perfect example, because it’s the movie that launched the era of the blockbuster that would dominate much of the 1980’s, and a good part of the 90’s.  Before that, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather marked the beginning of an era where auteur driven, counter-culture cinema was dominate.  In the 90’s, Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) created a boom for the independent cinema market, as well as sparking interest in a lot of dialogue driven action films.  Every era seems to have that one defining film that changes the direction of the industry, sometimes for the good and othertimes not so much.  The era we live in now is dominated by comic book adaptations, as well as the concept of shared cinematic universes.  And the movie that clearly turned the tide in this direction more than any other would be Christopher Nolan’s iconic Batman blockbuster, The Dark Knight (2008).

The Dark Knight is justifiably regarded as a masterpiece, not just of it’s genre, but of all cinema as well.  Made as a sequel to the also highly praised Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight continued to build on the Batman mythos through the unique and ambitious style of Christopher Nolan.  Up until this point, superhero films had been largely hit and miss as a viable genre in Hollywood, with some hitting the mark like Tim Burton’s original Batman (1989), while others failed miserably (the Ben Affleck headlined Daredevil from 2003).  After achieving modest success with Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan set out to create a Batman movie that fulfilled the full potential of the character, and he not only managed to do just that, but it blew away everyone else’s expectations.  Pitting Batman against his archnemesis, The Joker (played by the late Heath Ledger), had been done before, but never depicted in such a visceral, grounded way as seen in this movie.  Nolan’s Dark Knight transformed the genre, stripping away the comic book campy-ness that had come before and made his Batman feel as authentic as possible.  It was a bleaker, more complex superhero movie; one in which the stakes felt very real.  As a result, people responded to the movie very well, seeing it as a revelation compared to what they were used to from the genre.  Grossing half a billion domestically alone, The Dark Knight became one of the biggest success stories of it’s era, and when the smell of big money out there, you know that Hollywood will begin to swarm in.  Since it’s debut, The Dark Knight has since been imitated not just in the comic book genre, but in other unexpected places as well.  Hollywood seems to believe that the key to it’s success was a grittier style and bleaker story-line.  But, as we’ve observed over the years, what works for Batman might not necessarily work for everything else, and that has unfortunately led to a not so positive legacy for this groundbreaking film.

But, to understand what led to The Dark Knight’s bold statement, it pays to look back on what preceded it.  For years, comic book movies had been more or less been undervalued by the industry.  Studio execs recognized the potential of comic book characters as viable big screen icons, but never quite understood how best to translate them from the page to the screen.  Oftentimes, you would see a lot of compromises being made with regards to the characters.  Costumes would be altered to make the superheroes seem less campy and more “realistic.”  We have yet to see any of the X-Men don their brightly colored gear from the comics in any of their film adaptations for example.  Sometimes, the characters would luck out and be matched up with a filmmaker who believed in authenticity with the characters, like Richard Donner with Superman (1978) or Sam Raimi with Spider-Man (2002), but even their movies felt compromised in other places.  For most of the time, comic books and superhero movies never felt liked they belonged together.  This became particularly true with the Batman movies, which felt closer to being realizations of their director’s visions rather than a faithful adaptations of the comics.  Tim Burton’s style was serviceable enough for Batman, but once Joel Schumacher stepped behind the camera, Batman was buried underneath a colossal neon, overproduced mess.  After hitting rock bottom with Batman & Robin (1997), the Batman franchise went through an identity crisis, ultimately leading to the hiring of Christopher Nolan.  Nolan, best known then for gritty thrillers like Memento (2001) and Insomnia (2002), brought the character back to his roots, taking inspiration from Batman’s darker tales like Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns series.  He in turn created a more acceptable, grounded version of Batman, which would hit it’s full potential in it’s middle chapter, The Dark Knight.

And while the success of The Dark Knight was warranted and deserved, the industry unfortunately took the message in the wrong way.  The movie was perhaps too good of a course correction for the genre, making it appear that the only reason that it succeeded was because it was a darker movie as a whole.  That’s not necessarily the case.  Yes, both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight had a darker tone than anything we’ve seen before in the genre, but it was a necessary change that needed to be made specifically for this character.  We had all but lost faith in the caped crusader because his last few outings had turned him into a cartoon character, and not a threat.  Christopher Nolan brought the character back to his roots; a crusader shaped by tragedy destined to right the wrongs of the world.  It also helped that Nolan’s re-imagining looked outside of the superhero genre for inspiration.  His movies are heavily influenced from crime thrillers of the 80’s and 90’s; in particular, the films of Michael Mann.  Just look at the opening bank robbery scene with the Joker, and tell me that doesn’t remind you a little of the movie Heat (1996).  It was a perfect way to revitalize the character for a new generation, and most importantly, it made Batman a character worth taking seriously again.  But, there in lies some of the issues with how the industry responded to the character.  Hollywood looked at the new Batman and believed that this is what they needed for their own franchise characters.  In the decade since it’s release, we’ve seen The Dark Knight become the inspiration point for what many call “gritty re-imaginings.”  But, not everything needs to have a gritty side to it, and yet that hasn’t stopped Hollywood from taking the opportunity for a cash grab.  All of this has led to an unfortunate legacy for this iconic film.

This kind of “following the leader” mentality has resulted in some unusual decisions in franchise reboots.  Did you ever think that goofy brands like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Power Rangers were in need of darker tone?  Yet, somehow, we’ve seen these once colorful characters re-imagined in grittier, more action packed visions from the last couple years.  No where is this more evident than in the same comic book genre that The Dark Knight has risen out of.  To follow in the footsteps of the blockbuster film, several other studios have tried and failed to give their own characters a darker tone as well, including DC, the same people who started this in the first place.  Many people have complained that DC’s insistence of riding the Dark Knight coattails with regards to tone has zapped out all the fun from their favorite characters.  Many want a more warm-hearted version of the beloved Superman, but with Zack Snyder at the helm, DC seems to not only desire to move the Man of Steel closer to their Dark Knight, but also make his world even bleaker.  It’s even worse in other studios who completely miss the mark.  Sony failed to relaunch their Spider-Man character with their Amazing Spiderman series.  The problem with their adaptation is that they thought focusing on the character’s tragic backstory would deepen the experience, but instead it just made Spider-Man a moody and unsympathetic loser.  Even worse, however, is Fox’s tone deaf re-imagining of Fantastic Four (2015), which remarkably managed to be the most dismal and bleak super hero movie ever made, using characters that are by design supposed to be colorful and heartwarming.  If there is anything that all of these movies prove is that darker doesn’t always mean better.  It’s too easy to just look at Batman’s success and instantly think that it’s the magic touch to renew interest in your franchise.  Batman is dark by design.  The rest of these franchises shouldn’t have been so eager to rewrite the book in order to follow The Dark Knight‘s example.

It’s not only in tone where we see a long legacy of influence that The Dark Knight has left on the industry.  If there is any one thing in the film that you can see imitated the most throughout the industry, it is the depiction of it’s villain.  Heath Ledger’s Joker is iconic in every way possible.  He not only blew away our expectations and silenced naysayers who objected to his casting with his performance, but his Joker has since gone on to become the high water mark for all future comic book villains on the big screen.  His untimely death before the film’s premiere also raised the iconic stature of the role, and he earned a posthumous Oscar as a result.  This, however, has led many in the industry to view Ledger’s Joker as a template for creating the ideal, iconic villain.  The Joker in the Dark Knight is defined primarily by his nihilistic nature, as well as his obsession with Batman himself.  Not only that, but he is also characterized by his unhinged, demented state as well, and his ability to rationalize his insanity with meme worthy philosophizing.  Ledger redefined the character for a new era, but that unfortunately led to a slew of imitators; some of who are re-imaginings themselves.  Sometimes you would find an interesting imitation, like Javier Bardem’s Silva from Skyfall (2012), creating one of James Bond’s most interesting and dangerous foes.  And then other times you get the re-imagined Khan from Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), whose Joker like motivations feel slightly out of character based on past interpretations.  While not every version of this type is bad, it nevertheless feels like Hollywood is lessening the power of these villainous characters by sticking too close to the Heath Ledger Joker model.  The reason his role was so iconic was because it was so unpredictable.  Now, with the recent stream of imitators, nothing seems as random as it used to, making these villains feel far too familiar when they shouldn’t.

It’s one of the reasons why The Dark Knight’s legacy has become so problematic; because all the imitators are sapping the original film’s impact by reusing it’s formula way too much.  This is only just compounded more now that a different model has emerged in the last couple years.  If there has been any company that has bucked the Dark Knight trend, it is Marvel Studios.  While most Dark Knight imitators strive to be grittier, Marvel is embracing it’s more light-hearted tone; which has benefited them very well.  Still, Marvel isn’t immune from the same kind of pitfalls that has plagued the fallout of The Dark Knight.  With so many different companies now trying to launch their own cinematic universes to compete with Marvel’s, your seeing a new troubling trend of diminishing returns in it’s wake.  DC contains the worst of both trends right now, trying to play catch up to Marvel with their own cinematic universe that unfortunately is still adhering to the Dark Knight formula.  One would hope that Marvel is not undone by it’s own success, with audience fatigue setting in over time with the market continually being over-flooded with new cinematic universes being launched.  The only thing that helps to overcome this feeling of fatigue is variety.  As long as new films take inspiration from things like The Dark Knight and Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, but puts their own spin on it to make it still feel original, audiences will embrace it the same way.  In the end, the biggest problem is the lack of diversity in too many of these imitators.  The Dark Knight’s legacy was perhaps too strong for the industry and we found ourselves too overwhelmed by such a quick succession of imitators.

If anything, I think that the one negative outcome of the post-Dark Knight is that it created a generation of unnecessarily bleak and dark movies.  For a while, movies forgot how to be fun and entertaining.  That’s not to say that The Dark Knight ruined cinema as a result.  The movie still stands as an unparalleled masterpiece that holds up to this day.  The problem lies more with Hollywood, and how it responds to success.  What they thought was the key to The Dark Knight’s success proved to be exactly the wrong thing to exploit and that was the darker tone.  The Dark Knight, by design, is perfectly matched with a grittier tone, and trying to shoehorn it into other types of media only ends up leading to disaster.  Not every imitator fails, but to see the industry return to that well far too many times makes the original impact feel much less effective.  We don’t need to see a tragic, brooding backstory for every hero.  The villain doesn’t always need to be this unhinged psychopath with an unhealthy obsession with the hero.  It would also help if some of these movies added a little color to their design as well, and not have everything washed out in grays and dark blues.  Thankfully, companies like Marvel are proving that the flip side of the coin also works wonders for the genre, and hopefully this direction can help bring some balance to a super hero genre that’s still hung on trying to figure out the Dark Knight’s formula.  Overall, The Dark Knight is a great film that unfortunately has to be associated with a terrible legacy, none of which is it’s fault.  Hollywood should understand that movies are meant to entertain, and that entertainment doesn’t always come in one size fits all packaging.  The Dark Knight had grit, but the way it used it was what ended up entertaining us.  If you try to force a similar entree into a meal that doesn’t support it, then you ruin all of our appetites.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 – Review

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is the gift that keeps on giving to both fans and to Disney, the company responsible for making them.  Marvel’s track record has been the envy of the industry, with seemingly everything they touch turning into gold.  What I find most pleasing about all this is the fact that Marvel is not just succeeding on the backs of their most notable characters, but they are amazingly diving deep into their extensive catalog and giving the lesser known characters in their library the spotlight.  Who would’ve imagined a decade ago that characters like The Vision, or the Falcon, or even Rocket Raccoon would make it to the big screen and become popular in their own right.  Not only that, but long gestating films for some of Marvel’s more popular characters who had yet been given their own movies are now finally coming to us with great regularity; such as last year’s Doctor Strange (2016) and next year’s Black Panther (2018).  It seems like no subject or character in the MCU is unworthy of a cinematic treatment, because their brand is so strong right now that every ship they have is rising with this enormous tide.  That’s not to say that everything in the MCU has been flawless.  A few missteps have happened along the way, like Edgar Wright’s controversial departure from Ant-Man (2015), the disappointing plot twist of Iron Man 3 (2013), and from what I hear the entire first season of the Iron Fist Netflix series (I can’t judge yet, because I have yet to watch it).  But, for the most part, Marvel’s formula has worked amazingly well, and has managed to successfully launch new franchises into cinemas from some unlikely places.  And that is true no more so than in one of their crowning achievements to date; Guardians of the Galaxy (2014).

When it was first announced that Marvel was turning their Guardians of the Galaxy comic book series into a film, it left quite a few people surprised.  Sure, Guardians had a fan-base, but it was a minor title in the Marvel catalog compared to say the likes of Spider-Man, Iron Man, and Captain America.  Not only that, but the one tasked with adapting the comic was a young writer/director named James Gunn, who had only directed two films before, and neither of which were huge in scale on the level that we’d expect from Marvel.  And yet, Marvel seemed pretty confident with their project, and when it premiered in the late summer of 2014, we finally saw why.  Guardians of the Galaxy was a transcendent hit, proving that even a more obscure title like itself could click with audiences when given an inspired and confident treatment.  James Gunn showed remarkable talent as a storyteller, making the movie feel both unique and fresh, even when given the requirements to stay close to the source material.  Even more impressive is the fact that Guardians is regarded by many to be Marvel’s best film to date, even exceeding the reputation of their beloved Avengers franchise.  That’s quite an achievement for a comic title that few people had even known about beforehand.  Now, people who had never read the comic are familiar with the likes of Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket Raccoon, and of course, Groot.  It’s the broad appeal cross-over hit that Marvel was always hoping for, and one that would open the flood gates for so much more.  Which put’s enormous pressure on following that up with an inevitable sequel.  Luckily, James Gunn and crew are back with their ambitious follow-up; the appropriately named Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.

Picking up directly after the events of the first film, we find the Guardians working as mercenaries for hire.  After defending a high value target from a monstrous creature’s attack, the Guardians are rewarded by a genetically engineered super race called the Sovereign.  Unfortunately, Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) deceptively stole some of the Sovereign’s sacred treasure, which causes the Sovereign’s leader, High Priestess Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) to launch a warship attack on the Guardians.  The Guardians manage to miraculously escape once the Sovereign’s ships are destroyed by a mysterious being who calls them to a nearby planet.  There, he introduces himself as Ego (Kurt Russell) and reveals that he is in fact the father of Guardian member Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) aka Star-Lord.  Ego asks for Peter to accompany him to his home planet, which he reluctantly does along with Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Drax (Dave Bautista) by his side.  They leave Rocket behind to fix their broken ship, along with their prisoner Nebula (Karen Gillan), Gamora’s disgruntled sister, and Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), who’s slowly regenerating after sacrificing his adult form in the last film.  When they reach Ego’s planet, they soon learn that Ego is not only the man they see before them, but the planet itself, having been made from the same particles.  While on this living planet, Star-Lord learns more about his past, but Gamora and Drax begin to grow suspicious, especially when Ego’s only companion Mantis (Pom Klementieff) begins to worry for them.  Meanwhile, the Sovereign calls upon Star-Lord’s former employer Yondu (Michael Rooker) to hunt him down, which becomes more problematic when his own crew rises up in mutiny against him, because he still holds a soft spot for the kid he once raised up. With alliances coming into conflict, and Peter Quill becoming more aware of his destiny, everything begins to culminate into one cosmic adventure.

The first Guardians was not only a high water mark set by Marvel, but it could also be argued that it’s one of the best films of the last decade.  I for one put it at #2 on my list of the top films of 2014; only bested that year by Birdman, and believe me it was a tough choice between the two.  Which makes the bar extremely high for a sequel to clear, let alone match.  I tried to tamper my expectations somewhat, and would have accepted anything from this same team, just as long as it was entertaining.  Thankfully, it was more than just that.  I’m pleased to say that Vol. 2 is remarkably just as good as the first film, and even manages to improve upon it in many ways.  Everything that made the first movie great can be found here intact; the hilarious banter between characters, the often jaw-droppingly beautiful visuals, the often explosive action sequences, the subtle but always exciting Easter eggs to other Marvel entities, and of course the killer retro soundtrack.  Thus far, Marvel has done a fairly good job of making their sequels work as perfect continuations of what’s been done before, allowing the extra time spent with these characters work as a way of exploring new territory.  What is interesting here is that Vol. 2 does expand on this universe in some ways, but also reigns a lot of stuff back in.  Unlike the first Guardians, which devoted a lot of time towards establishing larger Marvel Universe elements like Thanos and the Infinity Stones, this Guardians actually leaves a lot of that out, staying more focused on the characters and their continuing stories.  This is a far more standalone story for the Guardians characters, and that’s somewhat refreshing from Marvel, given their whole leadup these last few years towards the inevitable Infinity War.  For the most part, this helps Vol. 2 feel freer than it’s predecessor, acting more as it’s own thing than part of a larger whole.

It’s hard for me to find any flaws to speak about in this film, since it gets so much right that any flaws feel really insignificant when looked at together with everything else.  If I were to maybe single anything out, it’s that some story-lines outshine others, and that’s largely due to some of those other plot-lines just feeling generic compared to the more creative ones.  For instance, the interaction between Star-Lord and Ego, while still entertaining for the most part, feels a tad too familiar, because it’s a plot thread that we’ve seen perhaps too many times in other movies.  To the movie’s credit, it still plays around with this plot element in a way that does make it feel unique, including probably the funniest spin I’ve seen on a game of catch in any movie.  The extended final climactic showdown also kinda feels a little bloated, but again, it is flavored with enough creative bits that you’ll end up not feeling bored at any time.  And that’s the biggest strength from this film, is it’s incredible sense of balance.  Any time you start to think that the movie is going to lose it’s footing, it manages to surprise you with an unexpected treat.  That’s a great testament to James Gunn’s abilities as a writer and director.  There is so much creativity thrown into every scene of this movie, with physical and verbal gags hitting their mark frequently.  One sticking point with some viewers is that some of the jokes and visual references might fly by too quickly, especially for those unfamiliar with the comics and their lore.  I’m sure that quite a few people are going to wonder why Sylvester Stallone is in this movie, and who he’s playing (classic Guardian character Stakar Ogord) for those who are wondering.  But, few, if any of these more confusing and weaker elements ever ruin the enjoyment of watching this film, which remains a consistent delight.

Of course, the strongest element of the film is the thing that also made the first movie great, and that’s the flawless cast that’s been assembled.  The returning cast is just as solid as ever, and are given even more time to flesh out their characters more fully.  I’m still amazed at how these movies manage to evenly divide time between all of their disparate characters, and never once make it feel like any of them got short-ended.  In fact, many of the supporting characters are even given an upgrade; in particular, Michael Rooker’s Yondu, who honestly is the film’s standout.  Yondu was a great character in the first movie, but here he plays a far more integral role that really endears him to the audience and brings him to his full potential.  Rooker’s performance is so good here, and it could even be the best work of his already stellar career.  He also delivers probably one of the funniest line deliveries I have ever heard (one regarding a famous British nanny), and it left me in stitches after hearing it.  The other returning cast are also exceptional, including Chris Pratt and Zoe Saldana taking their career boosting roles to the next level.  The vocal work of Bradley Cooper as Rocket is also still top notch, and it still amazes me that Vin Diesel is able to get so much emotion out of a character who only speaks in three words.  Baby Groot, by the way, is as adorable as you’d expect, and even gets to feature in the opening credits dancing to an ELO song.  Of the new characters, Kurt Russell really shines as Ego, which is not an easy character to adapt to the screen.  How do you play a living planet?  Well, Russell found a way and it’s just by playing a version of himself; charming and quirky, but hiding many secrets underneath.  Pom Klementieff is also wonderfully sweet and innocent as Mantis, someone who disarms with her inner beauty, while repulsing with her outward appearance; something which Drax hilariously keeps discussing throughout the movie.   Guardians is defined by it’s great characters, and this sequel proves that more equals more with regards to it’s story.

One other thing that I love about this franchise is the incredible visuals that are on display.  James Gunn has shown that he’s just as adept at creating a visual feast as he is at writing a clever humorous bit.  The first Guardians wowed with it’s impressive space ship battles and this sequel gives us that as well.  But, it also delivers some really impressive elements that we have yet to see before.  The visuals of Ego’s planet, for example, are stunning; filling every space with Technicolor splendor.  DC and Warner Bros. should take note; not everything needs to be washed out and drab to make an action scene feel exciting.  Guardians of the Galaxy uses color and light as an essential tool of it’s world building, and it’s something that really sets it apart from the rest of the field.  There is one sequence in particular, with Yondu taking out his mutinous crew with his whistle controlled arrow, that is one of the most beautiful action scenes that I’ve watched in a while.  As the floating arrow moves through the ship, it leaves a neon trail of light behind it, creating a striking ribbon of destruction in it’s wake.  It’s one of my favorite moments in the entire movie, and one that I’m happy that the filmmakers devoted a good amount of time to.  The film also uses it’s CGI very responsibly, supporting the storytelling instead of just showing off.  With a film that’s no where near earthbound, it’s pretty much a necessity to use visual effects to make it come alive, but in lesser hands, this movie could have become more style than substance.  Thankfully, visual effects are abundant, but restrained here; only aiming for extravagance when needed.  And there’s some impressive effects work here too, like Ego’s manipulation of the planet late in the film, a hilarious over-the-top and surreal portal traveling sequence, and the fore-mentioned arrow scene.  Also, the animation used to create Rocket and Groot is still impressive, getting great expressiveness out of the two.  Like it’s predecessor, Vol. 2 is unparalleled in it’s visual splendor.

In total, there is little reason for you to not go out immediately and watch this movie.  If you loved the first Guardians, you are going to love Vol. 2 as well.  It’s amazing to think that this once obscure collection of comics is now the Crown Jewel of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe.  Not only that, but it managed to maintain that same level of quality over two separate movies; hopefully with a third one on the way in the post Infinity War phase of the MCU.  I expected a sequel from this same team to be good, but I didn’t expect it to be as great as this one.  It will take me time to consider which Guardians I like more, because they honestly are really on par with each other.  I think the original has the benefit of novelty, but Vol. 2  does take smaller elements from the first film and expands on them in spectacular ways.  For one thing, it’s great to see characters like Yondu get more development this time around, as well as exploring new territory with some of the more central characters too.  Both die hard comic fans and casual viewers are going to cherish this film as well.  I know people who have never read a Guardians comic book who now consider the original their favorite superhero movie, which just shows you the transcendent appeal that Marvel has tapped into with these movies.  Just like our actual universe itself, the MCU is inexplicably speeding up in it’s expansion when it should be slowing down, and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a prime example of it’s forward momentum.  It’s stellar cast, incomparable vision, and complete confidence in it’s own identity has made it the envy of the entire superhero genre and a franchise that stands strong on it’s own.  There’s little doubt that this will stand as one of the best sequels ever, and for right now, it is this summer’s must see hit.  I doubt very few of you need any coaxing from me to go see this movie, but I can tell you that personally it has been incredibly rewarding going ’round the galaxy once again with these Guardians.

Rating: 9/10