As at least one critic has observed, in Episode IX director J.J. Abrams does his level best to ignore or undo everything that happened in Episode VIII. Although the Resistance seemed to be whittled down to about 5 or 6 people by the end of Episode VIII, Episode IX kicks off with General Leia (Carrie Fisher, When Harry Met Sally…) back in charge of a typical, seemingly well-manned rebel base. Villain Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, Frances Ha) destroyed his Vaderesque mask in the last movie, but he solders it back together for this one. The painful love story between Finn (John Boyega, Pacific Rim: Uprising) and Rose (Kelly Marie Tran, XOXO) is mercifully dropped. That stuff about Rey (Daisy Ridley, Murder on the Orient Express) being the orphaned child of a couple of nobodies? Mm, not exactly. And so on.
But there is some continuity: Episode IX continues the recent tradition of strip-mining the original trilogy for material. Remember how Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid, The Return of the Jedi) got killed when Darth Vader hurled him down a bottomless air shaft? Well, you can’t keep a good Sith Lord down, and fifty years on he is rested up and ready for action. But before we get to the inevitable showdown with Palpatine, our heroes have to go on a tedious quest looking for the Magic Crystal of BlizzBlazz that will reveal Palpatine’s secret hiding place. None of the main characters is very interesting. I think Adam Driver is a terrible villain. Poe (Oscar Isaac, Ex Machina) and Finn are just dull. Rey is cute and kind of fun to watch if only because her Force powers far outstrip anything we ever thought even a trained Jedi could do, but she spends pretty much the whole movie scowling. C-3PO is actually kind of entertaining in this outing, and I loved the little muppet guy who has to crack 3PO’s droid head open to get at some secret Sith data. Billy Dee Williams (The Empire Strikes Back) pops up for a couple scenes, looking genuinely amused at being in the film. None of it makes much sense, but I thought the climactic battle between Rey and Palpatine was kind of cool. And the final scene, when Rey goes to Luke Skywalker’s boyhood home on Tatooine, warmed the heart of this old original-trilogy-loving geezer.
Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone (B). I saw this 1983 sci-fi B-movie in its theatrical release, and it left such a big impression on my teenaged self that I could still vividly remember certain scenes and lines today. So you can imagine my glee when I was killing some time at a Fry’s Electronics and found the Blu-ray for around $9. I watched it last night, and it was just as cheesy as I expected it would be—but I still enjoyed it. A spaceship blows up out in deep space (an accident caused by something it really seems like they should have anticipated), and three passengers (attractive women all) escape in a lifeboat and crash on a desolate world where a plague decimated a human colony and turned the whole place into a Mad-Max-ish sort of environment. (I think they filmed the crash scene in Utah’s Goblin Valley State Park, if I’m not mistaken.) A scuzzy Han-Solo-ish space jockey named Wolff (Peter Strauss, XXX: State of the Union) is in the neighborhood and could use the reward money, so he lands his ship and starts rolling across the desert in his Mad-Max-ish SUV. He picks up an orphaned scavenger named Niki (Molly Ringwald, one year before Sixteen Candles came out and two years before The Breakfast Club) and discovers that an old acquaintance named Washington (Ernie Hudson, Ghostbusters) is also on the planet searching for the lost ladies. After some encounters with hostile but not especially competent local mutants, Wolff, Niki, and Washington end up at the Thunderdome-like enclave of the villainous cyborg Overdog (Michael Ironside, Starship Troopers), who has captured the lost ladies, and a climactic showdown ensues. Strauss and Hudson don’t seem to be taking the movie all that seriously, but Ringwald really commits to her role, spewing amusing space slang a mile a minute and generally acting like a petulant American teenager the whole time. And did I mention it’s only 90 minutes long?
So that’s what you’re in for if you can find this lost gem! You’ve been warned!
Aquaman (D). Nicole Kidman (The Killing of a Sacred Deer) stars in a beautiful romance about two star-crossed lovers. She’s royalty from the undersea kingdom of Atlantis; he’s a humble lighthouse keeper in Maine. One stormy night in 1985 he finds her on the shore, badly wounded in the course of escaping from an arranged marriage to some king or other. He nurses her back to health, she eats one of his goldfish, they fall in love, and a baby boy is born. But alas! The Atlanteans catch up with her, and to protect her husband and her son she must return to the ocean and become a fugitive. But, she tells her husband, if she ever finds a way to return to him, she will appear at the end of their dock at sunrise. She swims away. The end.
Ha! If only! Unfortunately the director spends only about ten minutes on the Kidman love story and then assaults us with over two hours of sublimely ridiculous blather about the superhero Aquaman (Jason Momoa, TV’s Baywatch: Hawaii) and his quest to recover the super-duper magic trident of Old King Blizz Blazz, take his rightful place as king of Atlantis (which involves one-on-one combat strongly reminiscent of Black Panther), and stop an all-out war between the Atlanteans and the human race. On the plus side, Aquaman does have a gorgeous sidekick in the person of Princess Mera (Amber Heard, The Rum Diary). On the minus side, there is everything else. And, by the way, Princess Mera seems every bit as competent as fishboy. Why can’t she grab the golden trident and take care of everything? Is it just because she’s a girl? For all their awesome technology, the Atlanteans sure aren’t very woke.
P.S. If this movie means that Nicole Kidman is going to start appearing at comic cons, I take it all back.
Bumblebee (B+). After the original Transformers movie (2007), this would easily be the next best movie in the bunch. Directed by Travis Knight (Kubo and the Two Strings), this movie takes place in the late 80s as Bumblebee first makes his way to Earth. The movie has nostalgia, humor, heart, a little drama, and just the right amount of action. Hailee Steinfeld (The Edge of Seventeen) does a great job carrying this film. Even my mom liked this movie. Check it out.
Solo: A Star Wars Story (C-). I saw the original Star Wars when I was about 10 years old, so I should be the perfect audience for an origin story about the coolest dude in a galaxy far, far away: the one and only Han Solo. Sadly, I was bored. I think Alden Ehrenreich (Hail, Caesar!) is probably a good actor, but his Han is unfortunately bland. Emilia Clarke (TV’s Game of Thrones) is pretty but otherwise makes no impression as Solo’s love interest. Donald Glover (The Martian) does a little better as a suave Lando Calrissian, but I could never forget I was watching Donald Glover, who was so funny on TV’s Community. Woody Harrelson adds another major franchise to his collection (Hunger Games, Planet of the Apes), but he doesn’t really give the story any juice either. In sum, Solo is a forgettable movie. My favorite pop culture podcast, The Weekly Substandard, has devoted two whole episodes to Solo, and I’m looking forward to hearing what those critics have to say about it.
Annihilation (B-). This new sci-fi movie starring Natalie Portman (Thor) is loosely based on a novel from just a few years ago. I think I liked the book better (see my review here). As in the novel, a weird phenomenon kind of like a dome has descended on some remote, swampy area (Florida maybe?), and weird stuff is going on inside. The government occasionally sends a team into the mysterious area to investigate. (Almost) no one ever comes back. Portman plays a soldier–biologist named Lena who joins the latest mission, a five-woman expedition led by psychologist Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Margot at the Wedding). Once they venture into Area X, it turns into sort of a horror movie, so don’t go if you’re squeamish! Anyhoo, I didn’t like it as well as director Alex Garland’s previous effort, Ex Machina, but Annihilation still held my attention.
I saw Annihilation at a new Alamo Drafthouse here in Dallas, and I caught most of the pre-show. It included a couple of old music videos of a children’s rock band that featured . . . a nine-year-old Natalie Portman! It was pretty entertaining.
Black Panther (C). I don’t know, maybe it’s just comic-book-movie fatigue, but this flick left me feeling like I’d just watched a 135-minute-long video game. Chadwick Boseman (Captain America: Civil War) stars as King T’Challa of the poor African nation of Wakanda. Only it’s not really poor; it’s sitting on a mountain of an alien metal called vibranium and has mastered all sorts of advanced technology, including some sort of cloaking device to conceal it all from the outside world. But bad guys in the outside world are trying to get a hold of some vibranium, so T’Challa (who is also superhero Black Panther) and a few sidekicks leave Wakanda to stop them. And then they have to deal with another bad guy after the first bad guys. It all felt so weightless that I just couldn’t bring myself to care about any of it. Also stars Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) and features Angela Bassett (How Stella Got Her Groove Back), Forest Whitaker (Rogue One), and Martin Freeman (The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug).