Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets


(BBFC 12A 2Hrs 17Mins)

Imagine a big empty cardboard box. Now imagine that box wrapped in the most astonishing paper, ribbons, bows and gift tags. Got it? Okay, now imagine that the box and wrapping cost the best part of £200 million and you’ll come close to understanding the experience of watching director Luc Besson’s latest sci-fi extravaganza, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (hereafter just referred to as Valerian in this review for the sake of time and word count). It’s a sprawling epic that blasts beyond the screen with eye-popping visuals and aesthetics but, beyond that, it’s a bit like a bubble-headed Love Island contestant, “… full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”, as Lady MacBeth once decried.

Alpha, the “City” of the extended title, is an ever-expanding space station, a repository of the collected knowledge and information of a plethora of CGI and practical effects alien races. Into this neon-infused, candy-crush coloured diaspora arrive Special Agents Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne), a couple in all but name, squabbling and babbling inanely, spreading their own unique brand of “banter” as they try to solve I’m not sure what because I’m not sure why. I didn’t really understand what was going on and I suspect nobody involved in the movie did either, the plot has something to do with a Pokemon dinosaur that poops marbles and the destruction of some kind of “Ibiza” inspired planet full of lithe, pale supermodels and an infection/dead zone spreading through the city/space station. None of it makes any sense and there’s over two hours of it.

But what Valerian lacks in plot, characters or plausibility it more than makes up for in its visuals, every frame is crammed full of invention and mind-bending colour. If you’ve ever wanted to know what Aldous Huxley, John Lennon or Doctor Timothy Leary experienced without the hassle and expense of consciousness expanding drugs? Look no further: Memory consuming jellyfish; a bazaar that exists simultaneously on multiple dimensional levels; Cara Delevingne wearing the Universe’s biggest hat; fat-bottomed frogs; fish in spacesuits… you’ll want to check that bucket of popcorn you’re inhaling to make sure it hadn’t been inadvertently switched out with a huge tub of mescaline.

I’ll be honest here and admit that I’ve never truly been aboard the Luc Besson train, his movies leave me cold, he’s a director whose ideas are vacuous and, whilst almost always visually impressive, as a storyteller he has all the panache and craft of Monty Python’s Mister Creosote forcing a last “wafer thin mint” between his bloated, gluttonous lips: yes, there’s a huge explosion of colour on the screen but ultimately his bacchanalian greed leads to disappointment and emptiness. People may leap to his defence citing The Fifth Element (loopy fairy-tale powered by cliché) or Leon The Professional (amoral and smarmy in its Hollywood excess) or The Big Blue (free divers squabble when not holding their breath, tedious), but even they would have a tough time denying the indulgence and sheer lack of soul in Valerian. For a director steeped in self-indulgence, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets surely represents the pinnacle of his achievements.

There are moments of dizzying invention, for instance a chase scene that crashes through multiple dimensions, but it is dazzling empty spectacle and, unfortunately, nothing more.

Both DeHaan and Delevingne struggle to bring anything based in reality to their characters, neither has the charisma or joie de vivre necessary to carry the film or imbue it with any sense of fun. Dane DeHaan is best known for his moody “outsider” roles such as Chronicle (moody teen become moody teen with super-powers), The Amazing Spider-Man (moody, rich teen becomes moody, rich teen with super-powers) and The Cure For Wellness (moody banker becomes moodier banker but with added incest and eels), Valerian should be a crazy, thrill-ride of a character; as quick with his thoughts, actions and quips as he is with his trigger finger; DeHaan, with his permanently furrowed-brow and slow delivery only manages to convey a sense of fatigue. Cara Delevingne, all pouts and eyebrows, is best known for being a coat hanger and for being easily the most appalling thing in the appalling Suicide Squad; like a personality vacuum, she manages to suck all the life from practically every scene she’s in. Valerian and Laureline sound like ingredients in the latest, miracle shampoo but that’s where any analogy to chemistry ends; they bicker like a couple who’ve been together too long, a pair you’d spend two weeks trying to avoid on your holidays, which makes it all the more bewildering when a “Will they, won’t they…” story thread is introduced. Like I said, “NONE OF THIS MAKES SENSE”.

Oh, and Rihanna, Ethan Hawke and Clive Owen turn up as well. Mostly briefly, mostly looking bewildered.

If, like a toddler who delights in the wrapping paper more than the present, there’s probably plenty to enjoy here. Valerian, for the rest of us is just that big old empty box.

“Out, out brief candle”, indeed.

Andy Oliver

Moonlight, Hidden Figures, The Great Wall



(BBFC 15)

A story in three chapters that chronicles the boyhood, adolescence and young manhood of Chiron, a gay black character growing up in a rough, drug riven district of Miami. Moonlight is an achingly beautiful examination of life that transcends its settings to tell a story we can all find meaning in.

Like pebbles dropped in a pool people fall into our lives creating ripples and waves that shape who and what we are. Moonlight posits that we have no control over not only our skin colour, our backgrounds or sexuality but that we have no control over who will enter our lives and the effects they will have upon us. The themes are universal and through them director Barry Jenkins allows us to explore a life so alien and different to our own yet so similar. What is it that makes us “us”?

Centring your thoughts on Moonlight being a black movie or a gay movie is missing the point, the film asks you to look at your own life and the influences that subliminally and consciously have brought you to the place you are today. And what happens to us if we decide to create our own narrative. Whilst Chiron (in the third and final chapter, Black) has allowed his past to shape his present, Kevin finds his “happy” in, finally, ejecting his past and the people he allowed to shape decisions.

Everything about Moonlight is next level. Universally great performances; beautiful cinematography; understated yet powerful writing; a melancholy, yet uplifting, score and poetic and subtle direction all combine to create one of the most nuanced and (though I hate the term) “Important” movies of the year (or many years, for that matter). Where Richard Linklater’s wonderful “Boyhood” focused on a single life, Moonlight has implications for all our lives.

Saying it is a coming of age movie or a black movie or a gay movie or a “worthy” movie is missing the point. Yes, it is all these things, but those are “parts”, what make Moonlight so special is the “whole”.





Hidden Figures tells the spectacularly fascinating, and yet little known, story of the black women who contributed to the early years of NASA’s space program. Unfortunately, it is told in an utterly pedestrian manner that embraces stereotypes and clichés, it’s like buying the very best ingredients and still ending up with egg and chips for dinner.

There’s plenty of solid work from the central trio of Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae, but the movie has so many problems it’s hard to know where to start in dissecting it: tonally, it’s all over the place never sure whether it wants to be serious or amusing; it embraces so many clichés about black people and black culture that it borders on its own racism; it lacks any focus wanting to tell three stories and only really doing one of them any kind of justice (barely any justice at all actually); nobody is ever called to account for their overt or covert acceptance of institutionalised racism and sexism (and even goes so far as to portray all the white characters as nice guys who are simply misguided or absolute straight arrows); about five minutes in you get the first of Pharrell Williams’ faux Sixties soul tracks which continue to jar and annoy throughout the movie.

Add to this, Kevin Costner chewing the scenery (and an endless supply of gum); Jim Parsons attempting to show that there’s more to him than playing a snippy science nerd in The Big Bang Theory (here he plays a snippy science nerd who’s also a bit racist) and a script so shallow you would struggle to get the soles of your shoes wet were you to step in it. It’s everything that was bad about eighties/nineties movies, more Cool Runnings than Selma, less The Right Stuff and more Spacecamp.

Such a shame as the story of these women genuinely needed to be told and admired. Hidden Figures is just not the film to do it.





(BBFC 12A)

The Great Wall, although beautifully designed, is such a weird mix of generic Western and Eastern action tropes, Chinese mythology and Communist ideology (yes, really) that it’s difficult to understand exactly where it’s coming from.

Matt Damon and Pedro Pascal play a pair of European mercenaries who travel to ancient China in search of the secret of gunpowder, only to stumble upon an ongoing war between men and monsters. Should the pair use the chaos of battle to steal the secret they came for or stay and fight?

There’s plenty to enjoy in the film’s design (including the creatures and the colourful costumes of the oriental army) and original ideas (especially the female warriors who bungee jump off the wall to attack the dragon-like beasts below and the well-thought creature hierarchy), less so in the story or characters. The Great Wall is an okay action movie, no more, no less. It’s only when you scratch beneath the surface it becomes ideologically troublesome.

Made by House of Flying Daggers and Hero auteur Zhang Yimou for the state-owned China Film Group, The Great Wall is pretty overt in its politics, ie the blind adherence to the state in the face of outside antagonism over individualism (interesting to see how that plays in 2017 America). The nobility is buffoonish and incompetent whereas the strength and sacrifice of those who hold the line for the greater good seems like a polemic straight out of a certain little red book. Admittedly it’s one hive-mind versus another, it’s just that the outside one wants to devour the other.

Yimou is a master of composition and large-scale action and, as propaganda, The Great Wall is not short of spectacle or subtlety, unfortunately it lacks enough plot or character depth to make it a memorable cinematic experience.

Andy Oliver

2016. The Cinema Year in Review


2016. A year, let’s face it, that will mostly be remembered for the people and things we lost rather than the quality of cinematic outpourings… especially when it came to the product served up to visitors of our own local Odeon. Yeah, there were bright spots but, in general, it has been a rather weak year (quality-wise) for cinema and the best described as, “Passable, must try harder”.

And yet, in terms of box office receipts worldwide, this has been a record breaking year so, surely, Hollywood must be doing something right, right? Well, the aggressive marketing to emerging markets (primarily China, though we wait to see what the Trump effect will have there), as well as audience familiarity with known and trusted “Brands” (Star Wars, Harry Potter, Marvel Studios and a new Disney “Princess” IP) have helped put bums back on seats. Also, a look at worldwide box office takings reveals that there are quite a few foreign movies doing rather well in their domestic markets (most notably Mei Ren Yu – or Your Name, if you prefer – hovering just outside the top ten and making the equivalent of just over $550 million in its native Japan).

It has been a year of “good enough”. Movies that are just good enough to attract audiences and make a small, but good enough, profit seem to have proliferated. Films that deliver on minimum expectation without ever reaching to be great have scattered the year and, as business models go, it seems to have worked. Movies like The Magnificent Seven, The Finest Hours, Don’t Breathe and Ghostbusters are all perfectly serviceable, good enough pieces of entertainment but lack “rewatch-ability”, once you’ve seen them there’s very little need to go back and watch them again. To a certain extent, good enough movies are critic-proof, they seem more than happy to be 3-star rated because that’s what they were designed to be, no more, no less. What this means for the future, only time will tell but, I suspect, with the continued rise of internet streaming and films released simultaneously in cinemas and on-demand what might be good for the studios may not be so great for cinemas themselves.

Which brings us to the prospect of not one, but two new cinemas opening in Colchester within the next year or two. Curzon is definitely going ahead, albeit slowly, in Queen Street on the site formerly owned by Keddies department store (ask your parents, kids) and Cineworld will be opening their doors to a 12 screen, 3083 seat multiplex (including an IMAX screen and a 4D theatre) though its location, due to legal wranglings and local government ineptitude red-tape (probably) has yet to be finalised. This would take Colchester back to being a three-cinema town, something not seen since the old Cameo Cinema closed its doors in late 1972, but, significantly, there were only three screens between all of them. Supporters of the Curzon project would hope that it will feature a more varied diet than that offered at the local Odeon, but a quick look on the internet at the fare being offered by Curzon’s other out-of-London theatre (Canterbury) shows their programme to be disappointingly familiar. Still, we live in hope. Curzon looks set to open late 2017 and Cineworld? Well, don’t go getting yourself an Unlimited card just yet, I’m thinking 2018 if we’re extremely lucky.

Back to 2016 and, I guess, in the time-honoured tradition of film critics everywhere, I owe you a list of my favourite movies of the year. Please bear in mind that this list is HUGELY subjective (I’m not trying to objectively countdown what was the BEST movies of the year here); these are all films that were on general release AND available to see at the Colchester Odeon; do not reflect the opinions of Simon or any of the other marvellous Colchester101 contributors.

10 The Hateful Eight – Quentin Tarantino’s epic who-will-do-what-and-to-whom? As much a polemic on contemporary America as it is a gloriously twisted, gory and goofy play on everything he has made before.

9 The Witch (or is that The VVitch?) – Definitely a horror movie (despite what some may say) and confirmed a life-long suspicion of goats. Wracks up the tension relentlessly with metaphysical angst and dread, left me glad to step out into the sunlight again (in a good way).

8 Hell or High Water – The Chris Pine/Ben Foster movie which wasn’t The Finest Hours and the film I wish Cormac McCarthy had made rather than The Counsellor. A contemporary Western in which all the hats are shades of grey rather than simply black or white. Also, Jeff Bridges best work in ages.

7 Room – What could have been a depressing wade through the darker recesses of human desire was, actually, one of the most hopeful and emotionally joyous movies of the year.

6 Hail, Caesar! – The Coen Brothers delivered with this tale of Golden Age Hollywood and reds-under-the-beds with typical Coen Brothers quirk, brio and laughter and I, for one, couldn’t have been happier. Still chuckling about the Ralph Fiennes/Alden Ehrenreich “Would that it were so simple” exchange.

5 Captain America: Civil War – Hands-down, not only the best superhero movie of the year but one of the best movies of the year. Solid story-telling backed with three-dimensional characters, moral complexity, stunning action sequences and respect for the intelligence of the audience.

4 Kubo and the Two Strings – It’s been a great year for family films, Zootropolis, The Jungle Book, Pete’s Dragon, Fantastic Beasts and The Secret Life of Pets could all have made my list, but I decided to plump for Laika Studios’ Kubo for its sheer technical brilliance and the importance of the message it carries. It’s a movie that no one seems to be talking about but deserves so much more attention. I’d urge everyone to seek it out.

3 The Nice Guys – A movie with a big heart, a dirty mind and everything you’d want from a Shane (Lethal Weapon) Black movie. And manages the seemingly impossible act of making Russell Crowe loveable. I loved every twisted, ridiculous minute of it.

1 = Arrival and Moana – I just couldn’t split these two for my favourite of the year. Arrival delivered one of the most intelligent and nuanced science-fiction movies in years and, like all the best sci-fi films, is so much more than the sum of its parts. In terms of pure entertainment Moana represented the most enjoyable 113 minutes of the year and the only movie I wanted to rush back into the cinema and see again.

Now, the bit I’ve been dreading, revisiting those movies that made me want to eat my own head: My most hated movies of 2016!

Yes, I disliked Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad, hated Passengers and London Has Fallen and despised Bad Santa 2, but the bunny-currant on top of the dog-poop ice-cream has got to be the truly abysmal Dirty Grandpa. No other movie made me want to tear my own eyeballs out of their sockets and poke about at the squishy bits inside with a stick more than Dirty Grandpa. Hated hated hated it.

I won’t leave on that sour note. I’ve been fortunate enough to see a few of the movies coming in 2017 and I hope that they are representative of the year as a whole: terrific, intelligent and entertaining films like Moonlight, Manchester by the Sea, The Autopsy of Jane Doe and, the sublime, La La Land.

I’ll continue to try and point you toward the best and steer you from the worst and I hope that 2017 is the one that, against the odds, turns out to be a great one for all of us.

Andy Oliver






(BBFC 12A)

There’s one really important thing you need to know about Passengers: It’s not the movie the trailers and marketing would have you believe. If you were expecting some kind of Titanic-style love story of two (unfeasibly) attractive spirits thrown together in the face of adversity then, boy-howdy, are you ever out of luck.

What the trailers and tv spots would have you believe is that Passengers is all about two travellers into deep space woken from their hyper-sleep 30-years into their 120-year scheduled journey to a new home world; love blossoms between the two who have the run of their pristine, super-swanky spaceship; catastrophe comes-a-calling and the two must save not only their own lives but those of their five thousand fellow (sleeping) passengers. It all looked like a rather sweet (if a little thin) romantic spectacular with plenty of special effects, explosions, excitement and two of Hollywood’s most likeable (and, let’s face it, bankable) stars, didn’t it? So why do I feel so underwhelmed and angry by the movie I actually watched?

What those trailers don’t tell you is that Jim (Chris Pratt) is awoken by a malfunction of his sleeping pod a year before the emergence of Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence), or that she isn’t the victim of another malfunction but of Jim’s sabotage. The first act finds Jim alone, wandering the pristine, mall-like decks and facilities of the Avalon (the ship, we are informed, was designed to wake its cargo four months from its destination hence the opulence), his only friend is bartender android Arthur (Michael Sheen) who listens to Jim’s woes and doles out only pre-programmed, clichéd advice. Jim soon sinks into depression as the knowledge that he will likely die alone long before another soul wakes begins to dawn on him. He begins to obsess over Aurora, laying there like his own personal Sleeping Beauty (hence her name, I guess), watching her pre-recorded video interview and reading her journal. So, he hatches a plan to revive her and tell her that both their pods must have malfunctioned at the same time.

The second act is the romantic bit as Jim woos the object of his affection and manipulates her to fall in love with him, all the while hiding his secret like a contestant on The Apprentice hides the truth about his CV. The truth eventually outs just in time for the all-action, explodey stuff of the final act as the two must come together to save the ship and its slumbering inhabitants.

There is very little that works in Passengers: Tonally the movie is all over the place, it just has no idea what it wants to be or where it is supposed to be going; as likeable as the two leads are individually, they have little to no chemistry between them; Jennifer Lawrence’s role in particular is hugely under written that one of the most talented actresses of her generation struggles to make Aurora believable (but, then again, she’s not a character, she’s a plot device or worse, a sex fantasy); it’s full of super-massive plot-holes that you could fly the Starship Enterprise through and still have enough room for a couple of Millennium Falcons.

But it’s the central conceit that troubles me the most. Jim is a liar, a cyber-stalker, a kidnapper but we’re supposed to forgive him because he’s lonely? He condemns Aurora to die alongside him because he’s horny? By his actions he rips away everything she ever hoped for and dreamt of and then manipulates her to fall in love with and sleep with him, but that’s okay because Chris Pratt(?). Imagine how you would feel if a film like the excellent Room asked you to side with the guy who kept Brie Larsen locked up as a sex slave?

Director Morten Tyldum (who it should never be forgotten managed to crowbar a heterosexual subplot into the story of Alan Turing in his last movie, The Imitation Game) and writer Jon Spaihts bungle the “promised” love story completely. What they have delivered is one of the most toxic pieces of misogyny outside of the dark side of the internet. If Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival was the shining ray of hope for the world in 2016, Passengers is the alt-right fantasy we should be railing against.

Passengers flubs the big questions it asks and worse, it doesn’t even acknowledge that it’s asking them.

Andy Oliver

Gilly Looks Back… When AC/DC came to Colchester

Can you imagine one of the world’s biggest rock bands playing at a cinema in Colchester? Colchester legend DJ Gilly looks back at the night he roadied for AC/DC when they came to town.

ABC Colchester

It may be hard to, but it actually did happen on Thursday 18th May 1978. The band that night was AC/DC and the venue was the old ABC Cinema on St John’s Street, now the Playhouse pub. This was to be the first of two visits to our town, the second coming in October when they returned for a gig at the University as part of the BBC’s Rock Goes To College series. On this occasion though John Hessenthaler, a local promoter, had booked the Aussie heavy rockers, and yours truly was asked to go along and work as a roadie helping the band’s own road crew unload, and later reload, their truck full of amps, guitars, drums and other gear.


It was an exciting afternoon mixing with the band’s own crew, and even meeting AC/DC themselves, including Angus Young and original vocalist Bon.


Scott who tragically died less than two years later in London after a night of heavy drinking.

By the time AC/DC took to the stage that evening I was now working in my dual role as part of the security team protecting the band. The show was everything you would expect from them, LOUD and full of energy, the highlights for me coming when Angus disappeared from the stage only to reappear a couple of minutes later in one of the boxes up on the circle playing a guitar solo. He disappeared a second time too with Bon Scott, reappearing together from the back of the auditorium with Angus playing away at his guitar, dry ice pouring from his satchel, whilst sitting on Bon’s shoulders as they made their way back to the stage.

Bon Scott

It really was an amazing day which finally ended, once all the gear was safely back on the tour truck, with me eating pizza, which had been bought by the band, with the rest of the crew.

So next time you are in the Playhouse maybe stop for a moment, cast your eyes towards the stage, and imagine Malcolm, Phil, Bon, Angus and Cliff up there belting out Whole Lotta Rosie, Let There be Rock…

For those AC/DC aficionados amongst you 101 readers the set list that night consisted of:

  1. Riff Raff
  2. Problem Child
  3. Hell Ain’t A Bad Place To Be
  4. Rock ‘n’ Roll Damnation
  5. Dog Eat Dog
  6. Bad Boy Boogie
  7. Down Payment Blues
  8. The Jack
  9. High Voltage
  10. Whole Lotta Rosie
  11. Let There Be Rock
  12. Rocker

I couldn’t find a video of the ABC Cinema gig, but there are a few on YouTube of the university gig. So just to prove AC/DC really did come to town… Let There Be Rock




Our resident movie critic Andy Oliver is fresh back from a trip to the Odeon to see Stephen Spielberg’s big screen production of Roald Dahl’s much loved children’s book The BFG. This is what he thought of it.


The sound of a falling bin in the dead of night usually alerts us to the midnight hunger of the neighbourhood cats or the occasional urban fox, but for young, insomniac orphan Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), there is something far, far larger that disturbs her wee small hours. A giant stalks the London night and, once seen, he has no choice but to kidnap the curious youngster for fear that she will reveal his existence to a world he secretly fills with dreams and wonder.

A relationship that begins with fear and suspicion blossoms into a warm and loving friendship, the giant and the little girl finding in each other that which they are both missing in their lonely existences. The Big Friendly Giant (Mark Rylance) lives in a world where he is bullied and threatened by bigger giants, he needs a friend as much as Sophie needs a family, they are two halves of one greater whole and, together, they are an unstoppable force for everything that is good and brave and decent. Together, the BFG and Sophie must figure out how to stop the larger, more vicious giants from eating children and how to live in a world where both are exceptionally sensitive to the pain of others.

As much as Sophie and the BFG are bound by their kindred spirits, so are Roald Dahl and Steven Spielberg: Two of the greatest storytellers ever to grace their respective, artistic fields. Dahl is one of the treasures, if not the crowning jewel of children’s literature and Spielberg the undisputed master of a cinema that speaks to the child in all of us. Forget Batman and Superman or The Avengers, this is the team-up to beat all team-ups.


Working from a script by the late Melissa Mathison (who wrote ET), based on the Dahl’s favourite of all his stories, Spielberg creates a vision that, although narratively slight, is a beautiful love letter to both writers and, also, a statement of his own body of work. The BFG takes Sophie to a magical realm where he harvests the dreams that flit around like technicolour fireflies, remixes them to his own recipe and distributes them to the world of slumbering human beans (sic). If that’s not metaphor for the work of the writers and of himself, then I don’t know what is. A lesser director might have mined their back catalogue for nods and winks, but Spielberg is way too savvy to use obvious (and over-used) Jurassic Park tumbler of water/approaching footsteps gags or overplaying the giants’ fear of going in the water.

The film is a mixture of live action and wildly inventive computer effects, the giants and their world standing just on the right side of cartoonish. The opening scene, a sweeping, descending shot of London at night and the production design (especially of the idealised architecture) both recall Mary Poppins, a live action/animated classic that also perfectly nailed this mix. The effects are seamless and carry you on a journey that enters through wide eyes and nourishes the soul, it is a landscape of wonders beautifully realised.


Mark Rylance, who brings the BFG to life through motion capture performance is wonderful. He delivers his Dahl-isms with a charming, and occasionally heart-breaking, bumpkin accent (“Use your titchy little figglers”) and slowly brings you into the head of a character that you initially distrust to that of someone suffering crushing loneliness and a desperate need to connect. Whilst in Ruby Barnhill, Spielberg has found another natural gem of a young actress, she’s sassy, tough, smart and caring as Sophie and has charisma to spare. The Flight of the Conchords’ Jermaine Clement is marvelously evil as the movie’s big bad, Fleshlumpeater and Penelope Wilton puts in a wonderfully understated performance as The Queen.


The BFG is squarely aimed at children but there’s much to enjoy for mums and dads too, though Spielberg doesn’t throw in any sideways winks of adult humour. There’s fun and scares and wonder and fart gags aplenty (three of the Queen’s corgis realising, in unison, that an explosive exhalation of bottom-gas is on its way is going to take a lot of topping in the laugh stakes this, or any, year). Yes, there’s a bit of a pacing issue (the film occasionally dips) but you’d have to be a World-class cynic not to enjoy anything The BFG throws at you. Unless it’s a Snozzcumber.

Andy Oliver

Andy Oliver

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

After months of endless speculation since its release date was announced, Colchester 101’s Andy Oliver was one of the very first to see the Christmas blockbuster. Here’s his review.

Star Wars

The Force Awakens is a sprawling, expansive, space-opera epic that will have Star Wars fans leaving the cinema with huge grins, empty pockets and a sense that their franchise has been rescued from the mire of the unsuccessful prequels. There’s huge star-ships, alien worlds, straight-arrow good guys, dark as night villains, laser guns, light sabres, a sense of humour, exciting battles… and a sense of familiarity that is both its strength and its weakness.

There’s a new Death Star in this movie. Starkiller* Base is not a space station this time but an entire planet, seventeen times larger than those seen in earlier movies. When I tell you this, I don’t mean it as a spoiler but a clue to where The Force Awakens sits, it’s as much a complete reboot of Episode IV: A New Hope as it is a sequel, played on a vastly expanded scale. There’s lots of familiar plot beats, but with a twist on them: There’s not a princess hiding a secret in a droid, but an X-Wing pilot; the central hero lives on a desert planet but she’s not happy about leaving it; there’s a Stormtrooper dressed as a rebel; there’s a villain dressed all in black who’s… well, that would be telling.

Star Wars

There’s also moments you’ll recognise from Episodes V an VI (Empire and Return of the Jedi): A small group of rebels have to knock out a shield generator so the main force can attack the Super Death Star; there’s a cantina scene; a forest planet; an ice planet; stuff too spoilery to go into. Some of the scenes feel more like forced attempts to crowbar in familiar concepts and conceits than an attempt at organic story telling. The sense of magic, of discovery that the original movies shared is missing here. Whilst some may welcome this forced familiarity, those looking for new, weird worlds to explore will probably be mildly disappointed.

Star Wars

But, while the plot feels rather under-nourished and a bit “been there, seen that”, the characters deliver on a massive scale, especially the new ones and they are the best reason for revisiting this series again. Like Luke, Han and Leia in the original trilogy, Rey, Finn and Poe are the reason you’ll want to come back. For every too-on-the-nose callback to the originals there’s a great character moment from one of these guys that make you smile from ear-to-ear at how magical and alive these characters feel.

Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac from Inside Llewyn Davis and Ex Machina) is the first of the new heroes we meet. Dameron is a straight-arrow good guy, an X-Wing pilot version of a Nicholas Sparks leading man: he’s good to his friends and robot and probably sands down boats with his shirt off. A lesser actor might seem a little Dudley Do-Wright in the role, but Isaac plays him with just the right balance of a square jawed man of action and vulnerability; a good old-fashioned, two-fisted pulp hero.

Star Wars

Attack The Block’s John Boyega plays Finn, a character cursed to give a damn. Finn is originally FN 2187, a Stormtrooper who refuses to do the wrong thing and finds himself turning from The First Order (as the successors to the Empire are now called, I don’t know why, hey, I thought the rebels won at the end of Jedi) and fighting for the Rebel Alliance. He’s equal parts heroic, terrified and full of bluster and steals the majority of the film’s funny moments.

If the original trilogy made stars of relative unknowns Hammill, Ford and Fisher, then Daisy Ridley (as Rey) emerges as the new star of The Force Awakens. Rey is very much the emotional centre of the movie, abandoned on the backwater desert planet, Jakku, as a child by her family and terrified to leave in case she misses her chance at reunion. It is her compassion and the compassion she receives from others that sets her free. She’s the movie’s single-most capable and self-sufficient character and, although her story arc feels a little rushed, you feel the whole saga will pivot upon her. Ridley is great and her on-screen chemistry with John Boyega is worth the ticket price alone.

Star Wars

Of the returning characters Harrison Ford has the lion’s share of the screen time and looks like he’s finally having fun again. Han and Chewie are back in the smuggling game but the Empire and The Force are not done with him yet. Carrie Fisher’s General Leia is basically reduced to standing at the central command console at the rebel base, which is a shame and a waste. The first line of the usual screen-crawl states, “Luke Skywalker is missing”, so don’t expect too much of Hammill and what there is is eye-rollingly predictable.

But it’s Adam Driver (another Llewyn Davis alumni and Frances Ha) as the central bad guy, Kylo Ren, who really steals the show. Where Rey, Finn and Poe feel like Star Wars characters, written with bold strokes, Ren is psychologically underpinned in complex and thrilling ways. He’s a man drawn to the dark side of The Force, praying to Darth Vader to resolve the conflict within him; he wants to be consumed by darkness but the light won’t let him go. He’s petulant; his confidence is illusory, a mask behind which his lack of self-esteem festers. He’s a furious ball of emotions, scary and sympathetic and, when the mask is off, he’s a cauldron of conflict. Where George Lucas failed with Anakin in the prequels, Driver triumphs.

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Director JJ Abrams keeps The Force Awakens moving along at a cracking pace, but ultimately it is the dearth of new ideas that holds it back from being a great movie. Too often it riffs on the original trilogy’s action and emotional beats and refuses to be its own beast.

Ultimately, how you feel about The Force Awakens will depend on how invested you are in Star Wars lore, die-hard fans will probably love it, but there’s a little too much fan service for the casual viewer.

*George Lucas’ original name for Luke Skywalker was Starkiller, apparently


Andy Oliver

Andy Oliver