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!
The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell (1996). How about a science-fiction novel about first contact with an alien species that is chock full of religious talk? That’s what The Sparrow is. In the near future, a radio telescope discovers unmistakable signs of intelligent alien life on a planet in the (relatively) nearby Alpha Centauri solar system. Remarkably, the Jesuits (a Catholic religious order) are the first to mobilize after this discovery, putting together a team of priests and lay people to pilot an asteroid-turned-starship to this alien world. The author’s style didn’t really grab me, especially the many scenes that I guess were supposed to be humorous. Also, the story takes a long time to get going because Russell starts out telling it on two tracks: the story of the discovery and mission preparation, and, some 50 years later, the story of the Jesuits’ attempt to figure out what went wrong by interviewing the mission’s sole survivor and returnee. But after bouncing between these two narratives for a while we eventually get to the first-contact adventure, and I must admit that part of the story held my attention. Although I can’t say I loved the book–there’s some fairly gruesome/lurid stuff in the first-contact-adventure part of the story–I sort of want to read the sequel to find out what happened next….
Ad Astra (C). This movie has done very well with other critics—currently scoring 80 out of 100 on metacritic.com—but I was underwhelmed. It’s a sci-fi flick set in the near future. Brad Pitt (Burn After Reading) stars as Roy McBride, an astronaut so unflappably cool he makes Neil Armstrong look like a bowl of quivering jello. Strange, deadly energy pulses from Neptune start threatening life on Earth (and on the moon and Mars, which have been colonized), and it seems that Roy’s father Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones, The Homesman), who disappeared on a scientific mission to Neptune years before, may have something to do with it. Before you can say “2001,” Roy is blasting off from Earth on a mission to contact dear, old dad and, with luck, save the world(s). Lots of critics have compared Ad Astra to Apocalypse Now, which is fair, but to me the more obvious comparison is the 2007 space thriller Sunshine. Anyhoo, I found the movie visually appealing but much lacking in the story and character departments. Roy is so locked down he is hard to empathize with. Donald Sutherland (Forsaken) pops up in a small role, and Liv Tyler (That Thing You Do!) has the tiny and thankless task of flashing on the screen a few times as Roy’s estranged wife.
Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley (1932). I read this classic dystopian novel a long time ago and was inspired to re-read it by an episode of the National Review podcast called “The Great Books.” It is a weird story, much weirder than I remembered it. Huxley set his tale in the distant future and predicted a caste-bound society in which people are created in laboratories and subjected to extensive physical and psychological conditioning so that they will be perfectly adjusted to their eventual caste and status in life, whether the lowly, semi-intelligent worker class or the higher classes who do the finer work in the bio-factories and conditioning centers. (The caste descriptions are, unfortunately, pretty racist.) Everyone, save only the tiny group of world-governing Controllers, is kept mindlessly content with a feel-good drug called soma, constant entertainments, and endless recreational sex. But off in the wilds of New Mexico is a reservation of people who still live the old way, and the action of the tale is sparked when a reservation dweller called the Savage makes his way into modern society and questions everything he sees. Definitely worth a read. The volume I got also featured a subsequent Huxley essay called “Brave New World Revisited,” but I found it very tiresome and couldn’t finish it.
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.