What a finely balanced thing nature is; what folly it is to claim we have it figured out.
This shouldn’t be too much of a surprise, given how Harrison Ford has always spoken glowingly of Indiana Jones, in stark contrast to his lasting disdain for Han Solo. Perhaps more to the point, the widely-panned Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls made huge amounts of money for Paramount, so Disney knows it doesn’t take much for this particular franchise to pay dividends. Disney’s stewardship of Star Wars has been exemplary, with new directors and actors bringing fresh impetus to a series that was close to being moribund. With Spielberg and Ford returning, there’s not much chance of Disney doing the same here. Indiana Jones is such an attractive character, though, and regardless of how bad Crystal Skulls was I think there’s still enough pull there for it to be another massive hit. I am certainly going to be buying a ticket, no questions asked.
I was a fan of Crystal Dynamics’s 2013 reboot of Tomb Raider. It looked great, had decent combat, and most of all possessed enjoyable traversal1. Tomb Raider iterated on the best movements in third person adventure games to give players a Lara Croft who was a lot of fun to control. It was, however, was a flawed game, and two of the biggest problems were the nonsensical, mystery-free narrative, and the highly distracting and intrusive perks system. It’s unfortunate that Rise of the Tomb Raider, while improving upon the strengths of its predecessor, also retains the same problems.
Where the first game focused on an inexperienced Lara Croft forced to survive in an unfamiliar and hostile environment, Rise of the Tomb Raider (RottR) sees her purposefully chase after an important family legacy. That legacy – her father’s doomed search for the lost city of Kitezh and the secrets of eternal life deep in Siberia – is a perfunctory excuse for Lara to set off on her journey, making little sense and failing to spark even a modicum of curiosity. Compared to the Uncharted games, which while themselves not exactly Oscar-winning material, were at least careful to establish connection to the glamour of well-known real-world figures2; the Tomb Raider reboots also use existing myths and legends, but they feel more obscure and historically lightweight. Another problem that RottR repeats is the way Lara, after arriving at suitably attractive natural location, always seems to spend more time exploring grimy military installations than ancient temples and, yes, actual tombs. This time it’s old Soviet facilities left in ruins, and trying to navigate our heroine past rusting industrial equipment and muddy storage areas doesn’t exactly appeal to our sense of adventure. The worst offender, though, is the nagging notifications for all kinds of perks, upgrades and other sundry items of ‘interest’, another carry-over from the first game. You get separate popups in all four corners of the screen for things like XP increase, ‘Region Summary’, map updates, materials and ingredients obtained, nearly challenge tombs, nearby allies, optional missions, missing gear, new gear acquired, and so on, on top of the ‘Survival Instincts’ triggered with the press of the R3 button which is the ‘highlight’ crutch developers rely on to ensure everyone manages to progress through the levels. All of this means that the player is constantly distracted from being able to just enjoy the game. Worse, these distractions do a poor job of instilling the sense of improvement that skills and weapons upgrades are meant to provide, and the side missions given by Lara’s allies are desultory to the point of obsolescence.
I don’t want to make it sound like RottR is a failure. It’s not. Crystal Dynamics has built another handsome and enjoyable game, and it’s clear that they recognized the lack of tomb raiding in the first installment was a problem, because the environmental puzzles are noticeably beefed up in both frequency and quality. In its best moments, invariably involving Lara on her own, traversing a rugged terrain against a beautiful snowy backdrop to reach a new location, RottR is as compelling as any game in the last year. There are a couple of places in particular (the astrolabe being the highlight) where the combination of the intricacy of the pathfinding, the rich visuals of the environment, and the flexibility afforded to Lara’s movement come together in such a way as to hark back to the glory days of Tomb Raider’s earliest entries. Lara has also added a couple of new movesets, so that she is now able to wield a roped hook to jump further, and most fun of all shoot arrows into walls and then hang or stand on them, further increasing her range. Both of these allow for more sophisticated and involving traversal, which obviously is a very good thing here.
The developers, however, really need to start steering away from the ‘game for toddlers’ approach and put more trust in their players. Players don’t need screen prompts for every little thing that can be interacted with. Players don’t need to be told again and again that they have discovered nth out of so many components for the next shotgun upgrade, especially when the upgrades feel so superfluous. Players don’t need to hear Lara or other characters describe every single action and every single treasure, and explain every single motive – RottR might well be one of the most garrulous games not made by Rockstar or Bethesda.
All these are distractions that add little to the game, and their continued presence betrays a lack of confidence in the central things that RottR gets right. Now is the time to put Lara in isolated environments full of mystery and danger, with puzzles and challenges offered not by modern technology3 but by ancient civilizations. Give her enough time to roam and wander exotic and hidden areas, undisturbed by prompts, notifications or inane chatter. Let her fight against a select number of interesting opponents (animals, mythical creatures, the decay and outgrowth of time) rather than battalions of faceless human goons who populate supposedly remote regions (Siberia temporarily achieves population density not too far off from commute-time Tokyo, before getting summarily whittled down by our heroine). After two games full of hedges and crutches, it’s now time for Crystal Dynamics to let Lara stand on her own.
Rogue One is a pleasant surprise in more ways than one. It was reshot – not always a bad thing but not ideal either – and by dint of it being a Star Wars prequel had to deal with the inevitable comparisons with George Lucas’s reviled prequel trilogy. It also felt like the story of how the Death Star design came to be in the hands of the rebel alliance at the cost of many Bothan lives was something that was best left in the margins, a heroic sacrifice made more poignant by our imagination filling the gaps. Most of all, these types of ‘gaiden’ movies don’t tend to carry a lot of artistic merit, as the likes of The Scorpion King and Minions show.
Rogue One overcomes the negative expectations with a downbeat tale of the rank-and-file Star Wars rebels, who we had come to assume certain familiarity with, fighting not for hope and freedom but to compensate for loss and displacement. We get to see things that were always secondary to the heroics of the Skywalkers and their friends, the everyday grunts who prop up the rebel infrastructure, and even dissension amongst the various rebel leaders who – aside from Admiral Ackbar – had always seemed such uninteresting cookie-cutter good guys. For this alone, Rogue One is a valuable addition to the Star Wars lore, but there are other things to enjoy. It starts slow – even slower than A New Hope – and takes some time to introduce all the major players1: Jyn Erso, played by Felicity Jones, is the heroine, who is thrust into the centre of the events due to the identity of her father Galen, a rogue Imperial scientist (Mads Mikkelsen in yet another role that doesn’t make full use of his charisma) who is crucial to the building of the nascent Death Star. Reacting to the rumours of this superweapon, the Rebel Alliance tasks Cassian Andor (a well-cast Diego Luna in a sombre role) to use Jyn first to gain access to a fundamentalist rebel (Forest Whitaker in a curiously curtailed role) for some apparent reason, and then to Galen himself. After it becomes clear that the Death Star is a reality the rebels cannot afford to ignore, and after some of the rebel leaders display a level of ready pessimism that would make Marshall Petain blush, Jyn, Cassian and their friends decide to Dirty-Dozen it into enemy territory to steal the Death Star design. If the film had dragged in the early goings, and the father-daughter narrative is uninteresting, the last hour of Rogue One really picks up steam and provides some of the most exciting – certainly the least predictable – moments in the whole series.
Star Wars had become, through decades of franchise world building and fan worship, more beholden to inward tradition than most, and Rogue One doesn’t fundamentally change that. It is yet another film with the Death Star as the big macguffin, an orphan as the hero, X-Wings battling it out with Tie Fighters, talking droids with awkward gait, and the Force as the unseen yet abiding spiritual presence for all concerned. But within those prescriptions director Gareth Edwards is able to bring some fresh perspective which turns Rogue One into more than just a routine series filler. The Death Star’s destructive power is more limited this time but is made much more intimate and real; the orphan doesn’t have a destiny to follow but is rather a pawn amongst bigger players, trying to make the best of the hand she’s dealt; in K-2SO, we finally have a talking droid with an actual personality as well as good lines, making up for four films of C-3PO’s blithering antics. The Force is freed from the exclusive preserve of the Jedi: non-Force users believe in it, rally around it and are guided by it. The biggest achievement of Rogue One, however, might be that it restores some of the mystery and terror to Darth Vader, whose aura had been much diminished by Revenge of the Sith as well as endless exposure to non-canon commercial ventures.
It’s difficult to tell how the other ‘Star Wars stories’ will turn out, though Disney will no doubt exercise their usual care and attention that has now firmly revived the cinematic relevance of the franchise. In a way Rogue One was the riskiest undertaking, because of the lack of a recognizable protagonist on the level of Han Solo or Boba Fett2. But this very fact allows the film to go in directions that would simply have been off-limits otherwise, and so we benefit from a Star Wars film that can at times feel genuinely fresh.
It must have been a very unusual action movie for audience and critics alike back in 1988. John McClane was not muscle-bound like Arnold and Dolph, for one thing. He was not a borderline psychopath like Martin Riggs. He wasn’t trying to overcome mild racism or other fashionable social issues like the many other Eighties action heroes. He was a fairly well-adjusted normal guy, a man who loved his two daughters, who wanted to patch things up with his estranged wife, a man who couldn’t even bring himself to manage more than a mild retort to patronizing on-flight neighbours.
It is surprising how much of a slow-burn the beginning is: there’s a disaster-movie flavour to Die Hard, something that many of the subsequent ‘Die Hard on a XX’ copycats failed to emulate. McClane doesn’t exchange gunfire (he never fires at Tony, the first baddie he kills) until 45 minutes in. The movie goes to some lengths to give each character their own time as distinct entities, so that not only do we remember John and Holly and Hans but the more minor characters like Ellis and Theo and Argyle tend to stand out.
There’s a nice rhythm to how the movie plays out. The cadence: character introductions (quiet) – the ‘terrorist’ infiltration (action scale 1) – John and Holly’s conversation (quiet) – the armed takeover (action scale 2) – John’s escape and Takagi’s death (quiet, with a flash at the end) – John’s fight with Tony (action scale 3) – ‘Now I have a machinegun, ho-ho-ho’ (quiet) – gunfight on the roof (action scale 4) – Al Powell’s introduction (quiet) – body drops on the police car (action scale 5) – extended period of conversations between John and Al, Thornberg introduction, police siege, etc (quiet, stage setting) – police attack and the criminals’ counter (explosive action scale 8) – Ellis’s death, more media tomfoolery and the wait for the FBI (quiet) – ‘Shoot the glass!’ (action scale 6) – the vault opens (quiet) – fight between John and Karl (action scale 4) – FBI helo action leading to explosion on the roof leading to the final showdown (action scale 10). Basically every action scene is followed by a slow scene that sets up the next action. This is the opposite of one of my least favourite Hollywood tropes, something I’ve dubbed ‘The Van Helsing syndrome‘ where some very misguided filmmakers believe that non-stop action (action scene followed by more action scene with no respite in between) is the way to go. Die Hard, though, is masterful in how it handles the flow of action, and is the case study in how films in the genre should be made.
Another thing that really lifts Die Hard is its generous amount of not just conventional action movie humour (think cheesy one liners) but a strong streak of over-the-top satire. The savage portrayal of police and FBI incompetency (the lion’s share of the best lines either go to or are about Paul Gleason: “Want a breath mint?”; “We’re gonna need some more FBI guys, I guess”) wouldn’t be out of place in an episode of The Simpsons. The Helsinki Syndrome scene works rather deliciously on multiple levels (a critique of the media, a satirical jab at the so-called ‘experts’ who get wheeled out in front of the TV for noteworthy events, and the actual audience of the film itself who will laugh at the hapless news anchor even though the actual name of the syndrome is the capital of Sweden. All this on top of Alan Rickman’s superb turn as Hans Gruber.
No doubt it’s one of the best action movies ever made. You can argue whether Die Hard or Predator is the better action film from the 1980s, but Die Hard with its relatively normal hero and the focus on problem-solving through guile not firepower is the first post-Eighties action movie, and set the template for all subsequent films from the genre for the next decade until The Matrix shook things up. Die Hard freed action heroes from the need to be ubermensch and delivered them back to earth. Under Siege, Cliffhanger, Passenger 57, Speed, Executive Decision and Air Force One are all in its debt. Culturally it is firmly a film of its time: off-duty cops carrying guns on flights, smoking in airports, the fear of Japanese economic power, the unbridled coke-sniffing excesses of corporate executives, etc. But in terms of how to pace a movie, and how to weave humour into the action while still keeping it complementary to the main action, Die Hard remains simply peerless.
I’m not getting good feelings about this. Looks like a close remake of the first Alien movie. Say what you like about Prometheus, and people have pointed out its own resemblance to Alien, but there were some quite interesting new things going on there. It would be a shame if Ridley Scott reverted back to the safety of a proven formula because of the mixed reception to Prometheus. Still going to watch, though.
One of the most pleasantly surprising things in cinema in recent years is how the rebooted Planet of the Apes franchise went from a James Franco-starring curio to a superb series of intellectually stimulating blockbuster movies. And there’s not many more compelling Hollywood characters than Caesar. He also had awesome one-liners in each of the first two movies (the ‘Koba weaker’ comeback in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is hair-raisingly good). So much to look forward to next summer.