Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005)

By the end of the origin trilogy, Star Wars had nowhere else to go but up, and George Lucas manages to complete Anakin Skywalker’s transformation to Darth Vader both believable and frightening.

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the SithUSA
3.5*

Director:
George Lucas

Screenwriter:
George Lucas

Director of Photography:
David Tattersall

Running time: 140 minutes

This is one in a series of reviews including:
The Phantom Menace (Episode I)
Attack of the Clones (Episode II)
Star Wars / A New Hope (Episode IV)
– The Empire Strikes Back (Episode V)
The Return of the Jedi (Episode VI)
The Force Awakens (Episode VII) 

“War! The Republic is crumbling under attacks by the ruthless Sith Lord, Count Dooku. There are heroes on both sides. Evil is everywhere.
In a stunning move, the fiendish droid leader, General Grievous, has swept into the Republic capital and kidnapped Chancellor Palpatine, leader of the Galactic Senate.
As the Separatist Droid Army attempts to flee the besieged capital with their valuable hostage, two Jedi Knights lead a desperate mission to rescue the captive Chancellor….”

Lightyears ahead of the two episodes that preceded it, Episode III reinjects colour, real drama and genuine filmmaking flair into the franchise that wilted with Episode I and was beaten to a pulp and left out to dry with the release of Episode II. Besides rounding out a number of character transitions and neatly completing the trilogy, it also answers many of the big origin questions that have hung around for more than 20 years, since the release of the original trilogy in 1977–1983.

From the very first moment, this third instalment in the so-called “prequel trilogy” marks a forceful departure from its dreadful predecessor. It is as simple as an unbroken take, one that is not only visually impressive (it definitely is) but also dramatic in terms of the presentation of its content. Even the opening crawl, provided above, boldly proclaims the nature of the situation in no uncertain terms: “War!”

The elegant unbroken take starts with utter calm, however, as the usual beach of starlight stretches out across the dark skies in front of us. The camera pans downward, as it does nearly every time (the exception was Episode II, when it panned up, but then the film lost its nerve and cut away almost instantly), to the giant dagger-shaped form of a Republic attack cruiser floating in near silence in outer space. The scene is peaceful and calm, and in the background we see the mighty planet of Coruscant with the blinding sun (dis)appearing behind its rim. Two tiny Jedi star fighters whizz towards is, and the camera follows them across the wing as they swoop around the front and down to reveal utter chaos below, where dozens of battleships are shooting at each other.

But this is only the beginning of the fun: The shot, which incorporates very mobile movements as the camera whooshes back and forth past obstacles and even through a cloud of fire, carries on until we spot R2D2 on the wing of a starfighter and immediately deduce this is Anakin’s. Without a moment of hesitation, the film cuts to Anakin’s face inside the cockpit. He is clearly enjoying himself, and for a change (given actor Hayden Christensen’s atrocious performance in Episode II) it is a pleasure to see him because he is fully engaged in the scene.

Anakin and his master, Obi-Wan Kenobi, are on their way to rescue Chancellor Palaptine, who has been kidnapped by Count Dooku, the leader of the separatists. And when they do, a mere 15 minutes into the film, the moment presents Anakin with a major quandary. Having been taunted throughout their fight, with Dooku nudging Anakin to come to the Dark Side, and having seen Obi-Wan injured in the fight with Dooku, Anakin eventually subdues him. He holds the two lightsabers – his own one, which is blue, and Dooku’s red one – in his hands and points them in the form of an X around his throat, trying to control his anger. He is filled with doubt and even says that killing an unarmed man would not be the Jedi way. Palpatine, shackled next to him, disagrees and urges Anakin to decapitate the shocked Dooku. Anakin follows through.

This is but the first of many powerful depictions of the internal turmoil that Anakin has to deal with throughout the development of this part of the story. The soft-spoken but serpentine Palpatine knows exactly how to play the game by gently dangling power in front of Anakin. He feels he deserves it by virtue of the chancellor of the Republic declaring it the right thing. And whenever he feels second-guessed or slighted by the Jedis, who can sense evil in Palpatine’s plans, he sides with the chancellor. But he is always genuinely conflicted as to where his loyalties should lie.

These scenes are riveting, even though we know that Anakin is fast on his way to becoming Darth Vader. This prequel trilogy was never about the destination, however: It was always about the journey, and thus the focus had to be on Anakin’s evolution, which in this episode is sharp and does not have the meandering qualities that made the first two instalments so exhausting.

In visual terms, this instalment leaves the previous two in the dust. Not only do we get the first glimpse of Padmé wearing her hair in the form of two bagel buns on either side of her head (as her daughter, Leia, did in the original trilogy), but the special effects are far superior to the mediocrity of the seemingly ever-present rear projection of Episode II, and the colour palette is colder but stronger: blacks, blues and purples seem to permeate the world this time around.

When Palpatine decides to appoint Anakin, who is not a Jedi master but merely an apprentice, to the Jedi Council (a decision that has major repercussions), they walk side by side inside the chancellor’s office, and shortly before the scene wipes to another location, the lighting makes them appear as two silhouettes – partners in darkness. It is a brief moment but speaks to a visual ingenuity that is unusual for Lucas.

With regard to the editing, Lucas also fashions two remarkable alternating sequences of lightsaber duels. The first contrasts the giant fight between Yoda and Palpatine after he has become the irrevocably evil Darth Sidious, first set inside the chancellor’s office and then in the middle of the Senate, and between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin, after he has gone to the Dark Side and become Darth Vader. The second, only a few scenes later, is an interesting juxtaposition of Padmé giving birth and Darth Vader being fitted with his black armor.

The humour in the film is also much better integrated and does not draw attention to itself, as such attempts failed miserably in the first two episodes. The duel between General Grievous, the commander of the separatists’ Droid Army, and Obi-Wan Kenobi is light-hearted and reminds us that not all fight scenes need to be equally sombre. As Kenobi, McGregor is excellent in bringing this sprightliness to the fight, even in the face of Grievous’s four lightsabers.

Unfortunately, a few awkward attempts at romantic dialogue remain, as in this exchange:

Anakin: You are so beautiful.
Padmé: It’s only because I’m so in love.
Anakin: No! It’s because I’m so in love with you…!

Poor Padmé also spends almost the entirety of the film locked up in her room on Coruscant, where she either waits in anguish for the return of her lover and father of her offspring or confronts him about putting up a wall between them out of fear.

The film regularly returns to the Prophecy, in which Qui-Gon Jinn had believed and which Obi-Wan also trusts, that Anakin will bring balance to the Force. However, while the Force will be brought back into balance thanks to Anakin, Yoda also points out that it is a “prophecy that misread could have been”, meaning the easiest explanation is not always the right one. Three more instalments await, and while Anakin is instrumental in returning balance, he will not do so alone, nor directly.

With the possible exception of Episode IV, this is likely the best Star Wars film that Lucas directed. Although still not far from laughable at many points, Christensen’s performance has improved, and we can hear his character’s frustration in his tired “Yes, master” whenever he is told to wait, to be patient, not to do what it is he feels entitled to do. He is racked with fear, confused and lost, looking for his place, but while the final scenes on the volcanic planet of Mustafar are too long and look rather uninteresting, the climax is exactly what we had been waiting for all along.

Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983)

The first Star Wars trilogy comes to an end with a sputter in Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, which aims much lower and takes far fewer risks than its predecessor.

Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the JediUSA
3.5*

Director:
Richard Marquand

Screenwriters:
Lawrence Kasdan
George Lucas
Director of Photography:
Alan Hume

Running time: 130 minutes

This is one in a series of reviews including:
The Phantom Menace (Episode I)
– Attack of the Clones (Episode II)
The Revenge of the Sith (Episode III)
Star Wars / A New Hope (Episode IV)
The Empire Strikes Back (Episode V)
The Force Awakens (Episode VII)

“Luke Skywalker has returned to his home planet of Tatooine in an attempt to rescue his friend Han Solo from the clutches of the vile gangster Jabba the Hutt.

Little does Luke know that the GALACTIC EMPIRE has secretly begun construction on a new armored space station even more powerful than the first dreaded Death Star.

When completed, this ultimate weapon will spell certain doom for the small band of rebels struggling to restore freedom to the galaxy….

The Ewoks are unduly demonised. These furry little koala-like creatures living on the forest planet of Endor and bubbling with curiosity may have very primitive tools at their disposal, but they quickly rally behind the rebels and ultimately help win the war against the Empire. They are harmless and act as a very effective manifestation of one of the metaphors that run through the franchise: They are the Davids to the Empire’s Goliath, especially as the monstrous Death Star II looms right above Endor. Contrary to their detractors’ assertions, they are not at all comparable to the pitiful Gungans of Episode I.

Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, the third and final film of the original trilogy, may have some of the worst special effects in the entire franchise and acting that is not quite up to snuff, but it gently winds down the story by answering important questions and slaying Luke Skywalker’s two primary nemeses: Darth Vader and the Emperor. Most importantly, it also shows the very real struggle inside Luke, who gets to face his sworn enemies and has to decide whether to yield to anger or not: “Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny.”

On the latter point, a return visit to Yoda, the source of this quotation, proves just as influential and revealing as Luke’s first interaction with the old Jedi master in the previous instalment. Self-deprecating and impish, Yoda is still the same delightful creature we know from earlier episodes. But this is the end of the road for him. His 900 years of existence have caught up with him now that he has set Luke on the path to realise his own potential and draw positive energy from the Force even as he confronts his inner demons:

“No more training do you require. Already know you that which you need … One thing remains: Vader. You must confront Vader. Then, only then, a Jedi will you be. And confront him you will.”

and

“Remember, a Jedi’s strength flows from the Force. But beware. Anger, fear, aggression. The dark side are they. Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny.”

He confirms that Vader is indeed Luke’s father, and before he literally dissolves into the afterlife he mentions that there is another Skywalker, who Obi-Wan confirms is Leia. Of course, this is the film that provides us with Leia’s most celebrated appearance in the franchise: Dressed in a skimpy bikini as crime lord Jabba the Hutt’s body servant, she is manacled next to him but ultimately uses the chains as a means to take sweet revenge.

When Jabba sentences Luke and Han to a grisly death by 1,000-year digestion inside the desert monster called the Sarlacc, we get to see the franchise’s worst special effects in action. In fact, the quality is so bad that even the most recent update to the instalment looks mediocre. Scenes in which the dunes of Tatooine whiz past in the background look like very bad blue screen work, and the visual compositions showing the Sarlacc’s gaping mouth of the Sarlacc (also known as the Pit of Carkoon) are mostly wide shots that make it look small, almost innocuous, and far from frightening.

Luckily, there are the Ewoks who pop up in the final act. They may look cuddly and are not particularly bright, but they do remind us of the goodness in the universe. And their emotions are pure and affecting, as we see them react with unmistakable sadness when any of them dies in battle. Such goodness, of course, is lacking (though not entirely) from Vader, who has to choose whether to side with his son or with the Emperor.

The film’s treatment of Vader is both surprising and deeply satisfying. We know he used to be Anakin Skywalker, but his mask is incredibly effective at dehumanising him. And yet, the mask is also a blank screen onto which we project our own desires. After Luke confronts his father by saying he still feels “the good” in him, the camera stays on Vader. We cannot see his face. We only hear his familiar and unsettling breathing. But we are almost certain that he is anxious and uncertain, that Luke has triggered real, previously suppressed emotions.

Episode VI‘s indisputable action highlight is the exhilarating chase scenes between the rebels and the Stormtroopers that take place at high speed among thick forest foliage. The film struggles to combat some second-rate effects shots, as it did in the Tatooine desert scenes in the first act, but the point-of-view and reverse POV shots of the speeder bikes more than make up for it and get the adrenaline pumping.

This being the final film of the trilogy, however, the screenwriters (and presumably, George Lucas) obviously assumed it should end with a great battle. This is wholly unnecessary, and the “big battle” is both overlong and on too small a scale to make much of an emotional impact. While Vader, Emperor Palpatine and Luke duke it out on the Death Star, Leia, Han, Chewie and the Ewoks are taking on the Stormtroopers on Endor. But both battles keep getting interrupted by the other, thus fracturing and destroying the inherent tension in the one and the anticipation in the other.

With the Emperor and Darth Vader dead and the Death Star destroyed (again), the Empire is no more, and the rebels have won. On Endor, Luke sees the Force spirits (or ghosts) of the three major Jedis: his father, Anakin, Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi. In the restorations since 1997, the final scenes show us celebrations across the galaxy, and in the versions released after the prequels, Anakin’s spirit curiously takes the form of Hayden Christensen rather than Sebastian Shaw.

This is definitely not on the same level as Episode V. The visual effects quality is inconsistent, the Leia–Han relationship has lost its comedic spark, and moments that should be intimate (like Leia recounting her memories of her birth mother, Padmé) are weighed down by dialogue so terrible it could have been written by Lucas himself: “She was very beautiful. Kind. But sad.” On the whole, the film plays it very safe as it moves inexorably towards its happy ending, but it certainly benefits from putting a neat bow on a story that would not continue for nearly 35 years with the release of Episode VII: The Force Awakens in 2015.

Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977)

The first (i.e. the fourth) Star Wars changed the space film forever, and while it makes a few missteps, the strides it took have enriched mass entertainment to an incalculable degree. 

Star Wars Episode IV: A New HopeUSA
3.5*

Director:
George Lucas

Screenwriter:
George Lucas

Director of Photography:
Gilbert Taylor

Running time: 125 minutes

Alternate title: Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope

This is one in a series of reviews including:
The Phantom Menace (Episode I)
Attack of the Clones (Episode II)
The Revenge of the Sith (Episode III)
The Empire Strikes Back (Episode V)
– The Return of the Jedi (Episode VI)
– The Force Awakens (Episode VII)

“It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire.

During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.

Pursued by the Empire’s sinister agents, Princess Leia races home aboard her starship, custodian of the stolen plans that can save her people and restore freedom to the galaxy….”

This is where it all started: in the middle. In 1977, George Lucas, who had turned 33 just a few days earlier, released his third feature film, the first part of what would become a trilogy, and ultimately the first trilogy of three. It featured three main characters – Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia and Han Solo – and would become not just a cult science-fiction but also an incredibly popular film overnight, racking up more than $300 million at the time. For a film made for just $11 million (around $46 million in 2017), that is quite an achievement.

Star Wars has gained a major following over the years, even though its status as a foundational piece of blockbuster entertainment was slightly tarnished by the “origin trilogy” (the so-called prequels: Episodes I, II and III) released 1999–2005. In Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (originally released as “Star Wars“), the cornerstone of the series, the story starts in medias res, and there are frequent reminders of events the viewers of 1977 had no knowledge of. Mentions of the Clone Wars or dramatic irony would only be revealed with the release of the prequels many decades later. Thus, while the film slots well into the overarching story, it can also be rather frustrating for the uninitiated.

But that is quite beside the point. Those unfamiliar with the back story might be slightly misled, but the result is slight mystery instead of confusion, and the effect is a desire to know more. By contrast, Star Wars fans who have seen the earlier episodes will be up to date on the details of the Empire, but the mystery will turn into an appreciation of why certain kinds of information are being misrepresented or withheld. And the experience is at times incredibly moving.

Such is the case with Obi-Wan Kenobi, whom we get to know here as “Uncle Ben”, a solitary individual who has lived for decades deep inside the rocky region on Tatooine called the Jundland Wastes. At the beginning of Episode IV, the small but chirpy R2D2 unit is given a hologram message by Princess Leia of Alderaan to deliver to Obi-Wan. Thus, this droid, along with its gold-plated humanoid robot companion C3PO, arrives on Tatooine, where it is promptly abducted by the tiny cloak-wearing Jawas and sold to the Lars family, to whom Obi-Wan had delivered Luke as a baby.

Luke’s family is his uncle and aunt, and whenever his father comes up in a conversation, usually very obliquely, Luke is all ears, but there is no mention of him beyond his death. Thanks to earlier episodes, we know something the character does not, which is very effective in setting up expectations and creating tension. Viewers of the film back in 1977 did not share this knowledge, and thus the revelation of Luke’s heritage in Episode V would come as a complete surprise. At last, watching this film in the correct chronology (after the earlier episodes), we immediately understand why Obi-Wan responds with such a chilling silence when Luke tells him: “I wanna learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi, like my father.”

Episode IV reveals what an important role the droids, R2D2 and C3PO, play in Luke’s evolution. An orphan raised on an isolated farm somewhere on the dusty planet of Tatooine, he appears to be stuck in a rut until the family needs a new droid. When he and his uncle go shopping, they buy C3PO, but instead of his trusted companion, they opt for R5D4, a red-coloured droid. Fortunately, this R5 unit malfunctions (the film doesn’t show this, but there is widespread suspicion, based on subsequent novelisations and radio performances, that R2 sabotaged the droid on purpose), and R2 ends up in the hands of the Larses.

Arguably, without R2D2, Luke would not have seen the hologram destined for Obi-Wan, in which Leia begs the old Jedi master for help and requests that he go to Alderaan to deliver the plans hidden inside the droid. Taking a fancy to Leia, hearing about the Force from Obi-Wan, receiving his father’s lightsaber and losing his adopted family, he decides to set off for Alderaan. In no small measure, all of this is thanks to R2D2.

But to get there, they need a spaceship and someone desperate enough for money to steer it. They manage to persuade Han Solo, a full-time smuggler (emphasis on the “smug”), who brings along his giant hairy companion, Chewbacca. While Han Solo’s gift of the gab ensures a constant volley of good-natured insults that he lobs with both charm and admirable dexterity, he should not be underestimated. Inside the Mos Eisley cantina, shortly after Han strikes a deal with Obi-Wan, he is confronted by Greedo, a bounty hunter who has come to collect him dead or alive. Han shoots Greedo point-blank without blinking.

Now, it’s worth pointing out that, in the version released in 1977, Han Solo shot first. It is clear as day. Greedo was fighting with nothing but his rhetoric. But George Lucas, who loves to tinker with his own work, creating a new director’s cut as technology allegedly catches up with his vision, had Greedo shoot first (with a gun that appears out of nowhere) in the 20th-anniversary re-release in 1997. In yet another release, the two seem to shoot simultaneously, but Greedo misses. Whether this is of any consequence is a good question, although Lucas seems to think it does. Then again, Lucas has changed or added so many (often extraneous) details that we should honestly ask whether his vision will ever be complete, and whether his vision even matters. Probably not. But this was obviously not a question of technology catching up; this is just blatant re-directing.

What everyone remembers about Han Solo is not his indifference to killing people but his pointed quips, which, whether delivered to an enemy, a friend or a potential love interest (he keeps referring to Leia with variations of “Your Worship”), never cease to entertain us.

Lucas’s streak of comedy here is much stronger than his subsequent, fatally cringeworthy attempts in the origin trilogy, and the only reason is Harrison Ford’s comedic timing. Leia’s unflappable demeanour goes a long way towards establishing her stability amid the adrenaline, the hormones and, frankly, the emotions of the men around her.  

But the director, here as in most of the other episodes he helmed, with the possible exception of Episode III, is hopelessly inept at staging action scenes. Blaster bolts usually shoot into all directions, no matter how much training the one behind the trigger has, and the shootouts aboard the mammoth Death Star space station are particularly slipshod when the images recede behind a blur of seemingly random streaks of red plasma.

In other respects, however, the film’s undeniable visual effects accomplishments had arguably as much of an impact on the genre as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Obi-Wan, in perhaps the most understated but most important line in the franchise, tells Luke, “The Force can have a strong influence on the weak-minded.” In a way, all viewers of Star Wars were uninformed and weak-minded before they laid their eyes on this raucous space opera. But Lucas fixed that, and this single episode would continue to make ripples decades down the line.

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015)

Episode VII: The Force Awakens, the first of three new Star Wars films, offers new hope for a brand tarnished by George Lucas’s prequels by hewing close to the original trilogy.

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force AwakensUSA
4*

Director:
J.J. Abrams

Screenwriters:
Lawrence Kasdan

J.J. Abrams
Michael Arndt
Director of Photography:
Dan Mindel

Running time: 135 minutes

This is one in a series of reviews including:
The Phantom Menace (Episode I)
Attack of the Clones (Episode II)
The Revenge of the Sith (Episode III)
– Star Wars / A New Hope (Episode IV)
– The Empire Strikes Back (Episode V)
The Return of the Jedi (Episode VI)

“Luke Skywalker has vanished. In his absence, the sinister FIRST ORDER has risen from the ashes of the Empire and will not rest until Skywalker, the last Jedi, has been destroyed.

With the support of the REPUBLIC, General Leia Organa leads a brave RESISTANCE. She is desperate to find her brother Luke and gain his help in restoring peace and justice to the galaxy.

Leia has sent her most daring pilot on a secret mission to Jakku, where an old ally has discovered a clue to Luke’s whereabouts….”

“Luke Skywalker has vanished”, declares the first line of the opening crawl in the early moments of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. The text that sets the scene follows the same pattern as in all previous instalments — we get full names, even if the characters are familiar to most of us, and the sentences are presented as three short paragraphs — but that is not where the similarities end.

In fact, in numerous respects, this latest episode was clearly made with the Star Wars fan in mind. Unlike the unmitigated disaster that was most of the “prequel trilogy” (episodes I through III, released 1999–2005 under the direction of series creator George Lucas), Episode VII is cut from the same cloth as the original trilogy, and not just because it uses wipes to transition between scenes. The events may be set decades into the future, and our friends have become old, but this is still the same galaxy, and even the narrative takes its blueprint from the first film, released in 1977 as Star Wars and subsequently titled Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.

In broad strokes, without revealing too much, the plot revolves around the quest to locate Luke, the last remaining Jedi in the galaxy. To this end, characters like Han Solo, Leia and Chewbacca make a return, which is no surprise, as they have featured prominently in the trailers. They join up with some novices, including a disillusioned Stormtrooper, FN-21871 or “Finn” (a mostly winsome but sometimes overly enthused John Boyega), and a young woman named Rey (an absolutely stunning turn by Daisy Ridley) who lives in solitude in the desert landscape of Jakku.

Their enemy is the force that has replaced the former Empire and calls itself First Order, led by a physically towering individual, at least from the looks of his hologram, titled Snoke (created by motion-capture performer Andy Serkis), who serves as the order’s supreme leader. His apprentice is Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who with his black cloak and facemask resembles the man he adulates: the original trilogy’s villain, Darth Vader. Ren’s origin story is one of the film’s big twists, and its shock value almost rivals that of the narrative reveal in Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, namely the relationship between Luke and Darth Vader.

The screenplay, co-written by director J.J. Abrams along with Episode V scribe Lawrence Kasdan and Little Miss Sunshine writer Michael Arndt, marks a pleasant departure from the Lucas tradition of bad sci-fi screenwriting. While the opening line of the series in Episode I was the detached and uninspiring “Captain … tell them we wish to board at once”, Episode VII gives us Max von Sydow as Lor San Tekka, an elder on Jakku who is helping the resistance. We meet him and the young pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) in the middle of the night at a secret meeting where Tekka speaks the first words while handing Poe a small object: “This will begin to make things right.”

In a way, Tekka’s words are applicable to the entire film, which obviously sought to right the ship after Lucas had tarnished his own brand, and Episode VII’s determination to stay close to the original trilogy pays off handsomely. The desert planet of Jakku calls to mind Luke’s home planet of Tatooine; the inside of a bar on Takodana, a planet so verdant it leads Rey to exclaim she never knew there existed so much green in the entire galaxy, looks a lot like the notorious Mos Eisley cantina from Episode IV; and the First Order’s callous, indiscriminate annihilation of entire planets obviously references the Death Star’s destruction of Princess Leia’s Alderaan.

And speaking of Leia, who is now a general, actress Carrie Fischer’s scenes with Harrison Ford — who reprises his role as Han, the galactic cargo smuggler and proud pilot of the Millennium Falcon — have a breathtaking poignancy to them that nonetheless eschews easy sentimentality. Naturally, those who are familiar with the original trilogy will take away much more from these scenes than those who are not, but the honesty of the characters and their deep connection to each other make for some of the most powerful moments in the entire film.

The two other characters whose return is much anticipated are the two droids, C3PO and R2D2, although even diehard fans would be hard-pressed to ignore the loveable new addition, BB-8, which consists of an orange ball that rolls and acts as the “body”, with a small, mobile, domelike structure on top that functions as the head. It is an astonishing feat that we sometimes forget that this droid is merely a machine, and even though it does not have any facial expressions, its sounds and movements are enough to communicate exactly what it is “feeling”.

Whether the faces we see belong to humans, droids or other creatures we recognise from earlier instalments, the moments in which they are revealed are as striking as they should be. It is like a quick blow to the chest when you unexpectedly see an old friend again, and even the appearance of the Millennium Falcon will have this effect on the viewer who watches the film as a longtime fan.

In general, as Abrams did with his reboot of the Star Trek franchise, the action appears to zip along at a much more dynamic pace than was the case with the original films, admittedly made for a pre-MTV, non-ADHD generation. There is never a dull moment in this film, and even the rare examples of less-than-stellar dialogue or overacting, usually featuring Boyega, are kept to a minimum.

This episode is better than at least three (some might even say all four) of the episodes that Lucas directed, and it is a very robust work of entertainment, but newcomers might be a little nonplussed at all the fuss. It remains to be seen how the two subsequent episodes, scheduled for release in 2017 and 2019, will develop the setup that culminates here in an unforgettable cliffhanger.

Those who were mumbling “I have a bad feeling about this” had no reason to worry.

Wind River (2017)

When a young Native American girl is found dead and barefoot in the snow inside the Wind River reservation, her death brings back terrible memories for one officer whose daughter met a similar fate years earlier.

Wind RiverUSA
3.5*

Director:
Taylor Sheridan
Screenwriter:
Taylor Sheridan

Director of Photography:
Ben Richardson

Running time: 110 minutes

Everything the characters in Taylor Sheridan’s début feature film, Wind River, do happens against the backdrop of crushing whiteness. Even in spring, snow is ubiquitous inside the expansive Wind River Indian Reservation, which is more than twice the size of Rhode Island and located in the middle of Wyoming. And besides the handful of Indians (Native Americans) living off the land and according to their own rules and often abusing alcohol or harder drugs, the demographic landscape is as white as the physical one. Officially, the reservation is Indian territory, but the most gruesome things here are inevitably inextricably linked to the more powerful white population.

The opening scene is enough to send a chill down our collective spines. A young woman, visibly terror-stricken, is running through the snow barefoot as she tries to get away from something we can’t see. It is dark, and she is exhausted, but she keeps running, until she inhales the cold night air but exhales only blood. We never see anyone, or anything chase her.

The following day, by pure luck, a wildlife officer and professional hunts find her corpse as he tracks a puma that has been killing a nearby farmer’s steer and bringing its young along to teach them how to hunt. Although he is white, the officer, Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), knows the reservation like the back of his hand and has a child with a Native American. We soon learn another child, his daughter, had died under similar circumstances a few years earlier. This is federal land and not under his jurisdiction, but he focuses his attention on solving this mystery of the barefoot woman, named Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Asbille).

The autopsy reveals that Natalie died from a pulmonary haemorrhage, just as Cory had suspected. But more shockingly, we also learn that Natalie had likely been raped shortly before dying in the snow. Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), a fish-out-of-water FBI agent used to much warmer climes, is sent to investigate, as the bureau has jurisdiction in the case of a homicide on the reservation.

Unlike in Sicario, however, which Sheridan also wrote, the female character is not the prime focus. Women and their grim prospects on the reservation are an unmistakable undercurrent, but Cory’s silent struggle to cope with the loss of his daughter intelligently informs the way in which this plot develops. He may be a white character, but the death of his own daughter is no less important than Natalie’s death is to her father, Martin (Gil Birmingham).

The stern but soft-spoken Martin turns out to be one of Wind River‘s star attractions. The first time we meet him, he is very reluctant to share any of his thoughts or emotions with Jane, who is a stranger to the area. The atmosphere inside his house is cold, and all her attempts to gather information are fruitless. But then Cory arrives, and Martin’s tough façade suddenly crumbles. The entire scene offers a masterclass in gradually revealing the layers of emotion that can be hidden just beneath the surface but require the right person to draw them out.

This is a tight-knit community dealing with many problems relating to poverty and the lack of prospects all the way from cradle to (usually, an early) grave, and with a local police force of just six officers patrolling an area thousands of square kilometres in size, many crimes, from petty to gruesome, tend to fall through the cracks. Wind River is loosely based on a true story but is more effective if viewed from farther away, as a closing title card underscores how little the United States’ justice system thinks of its original peoples: Crime statistics are not compiled on the number of Native American women who go missing every year.

One big mistake the film makes is on the level of form: Towards the end of the film, it provides us with the point of view of an odious rapist. For a few inexplicable seconds, we see events from his perspective, which makes absolutely no sense in the context of this otherwise cautious and respectful production.

On the whole, however, Wind River‘s heart is in the right place. It surprises us in subtle ways and tells us its characters are complex, even if we don’t necessarily get to see what this complexity entails. A flashback towards the end of the film is gruesome but reveals that one individual is much more sensitive than others had said, which underscores the importance of digging for the truth. And the truth is that Native Americans in the United States, a little more than 100 years after the Congress rejected the idea of allowing the proposed Indian state of Sequoyah to join the Union, continue to be treated as a matter of the fringe. This has to be remedied if the country is ever going to be serious about forming a more perfect Union.

Loveless (2017)

Loveless is mostly about a boy from a broken home who goes missing, but somehow it also wants to be about Russia and Ukraine’s broken relationship.

LovelessRussia
3.5*

Director:
Andrei Zvyagintsev

Screenwriters:
Andrei Zvyagintsev
Oleg Negin
Director of Photography:
Mikhail Krichman

Running time: 125 minutes

Original title: Нелюбовь
Transliterated title: Nelyubov

Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Loveless has something to do with the conflict in Ukraine. But every time we think the director is about to make the connection clear, he lets go of the chain. This game of hide and seek perfectly suits the material he is working with: Minutes into the film, a 12-year-old boy, Alexey, runs away from home, where his parents are about to divorce, but neither wants to take him along on the ride to a brighter future. For the rest of the film’s 2-hour running time, he remains missing, even though the camera constantly lingers on empty scenes just to tease us with the possibility he will suddenly appear from out of frame. But he never does.

Thanks to snippets of radio programmes we hear in cars, we can deduce that most of the story takes place at the end of 2012, as (then–opposition leader, now the late) Boris Nemtsov is in the news and there is mention of an Obama–Romney debate. In the film’s final coda, the action moves to 2014, around the time of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the Russian television news networks flood the airwaves with stories about death and destruction in the country’s small neighbour to the West, all allegedly the fault of the newly installed government in Kyiv.

However, despite these political undertones, which only surface intermittently, the film lacks the furious anger that made Zvyagintsev’s previous work, Leviathan, so ambitious and affirmed him as one of the bravest big-name filmmakers working in Russia today. On the whole, Loveless wants us to focus more on the story of the lost boy rather than the allegorical implications the narrative might (or might not) entail, but for both emotional and structural reasons, that is not always easy.

The film certainly lives up to its title. Drained almost entirely of colour, the story initially takes place on the outskirts of a remote Moscow suburb, where monotonous Soviet-era high-rise apartment blocks permeate the landscape and winter has turned the local park into a lifeless morass scattered with monstrous dead branches. In the scenes that follow, Loveless sketches Alexey’s ice-cold domestic situation in broad strokes that make us want to bolt from the apartment as quickly as possible.

The atmosphere is decrepit; in fact, the film could just as well have been called “lifeless”, although the two main characters – Alexey’s parents, Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin) – provide for riveting, stunningly tense scenes whenever they are in the same room. We also get to see, as Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin demonstrated brilliantly, that children born from a mother who would rather see them aborted are bound for tragedy from Day 1.

There are no two ways about it: Zhenya is a terrible mother. Always more interested in her phone than in her son (or almost anything else, for that matter), she stares at her device from morning till night. But the director takes care to show us that she is not unique in this respect: In restaurants and elsewhere, Moscow’s young women can’t get enough of seeing themselves in their selfies. The difference, of course, is that Zhenya has a family, at least for the moment. There is a distinction to be made with the older generation, as a scene in which Zhenya’s own loud-mouthed mother steamrolls over her with a flood of rhetoric that leaves us reeling with admiration because someone has finally put her in her place.

Although we see him for a very short amount of time, which includes a revelation that stabs the viewer right through the heart, we can completely empathise with Alexey and understand why he chooses to run away. Zvyagintsev is also very attentive in his depiction of the police, who are surprisingly sincere about the situation, even though Zhenya doesn’t deserve it. 

But this is the kind of film only those who prefer their mysteries open-ended will appreciate. Zvyagintsev will likely lose many a viewer during some of the slower and more drawn-out scenes that do not lead very far and certainly don’t head in the direction of solving the central puzzle. One take that lasts for several minutes, in which the camera barely moves, shows Zhenya and her new boyfriend together in bed while she recounts the story of her pregnancy with Alexey. This could have been much shorter and simply integrated into another scene, when she and her husband are trapped in a car for several hours.

By the time Loveless reaches the scene from 2014 in which the Russian televisions are hysterically blaming the supposed violence in Ukraine on the West, it feels like Zvyagintsev is heading into different territory. But when we see Zhenya, who by the looks of it is still as cold and narcissistic as before, donning a bright-red tracksuit clearly labelled “RUSSIA” and seemingly unaffected by the violence onscreen, we know there is a connection with the domestic carnage that went before. Unfortunately, the link is just too tenuous to grasp.

Baby Driver (2017)

Baby Driver is filmic synaesthesia – a film with sexy car chases whose songs are mined for beats to correspond to and coincide with their on-screen counterparts.

Baby DriverUSA
3.5*

Director:
Edgar Wright
Screenwriter:
Edgar Wright

Director of Photography:
Bill Pope

Running time: 115 minutes

It’s called synaesthesia: that kind of marriage between image and sound. Not in a poetic but in a very palpable sense. It’s when the movement inside the images seems to be choreographed to or even reflect the music being played on the often non-diegetic soundtrack. The most famous example is Mickey Mouse, the apprentice, commanding the magical broomstick to carry heavy buckets of water to the beat of Paul Dukas’s “L’apprenti sorcier” in Fantasia’s “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” episode. The movements on-screen correspond to the music’s rhythm on the soundtrack to create the impression of symbiotic unity and underline both the artistic aspirations of the staging and the feeling that everything “belongs together”.

This same approach informs the entirety of Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, and as a side note, it is noteworthy that the screenplay itself was prefaced by the instruction that “Every scene in this film [be] driven by music”. This technique is most clearly on display in the post–opening credits scene: In what appears to be an unbroken take (although the complete lack of a camera reflection in shop windows exposes the influence of visual effects), the titular getaway driver, Baby (Ansel Elgort), walks the streets of Atlanta while his Classic iPod pumps Bob & Earl’s “Harlem Shuffle” into his ears and onto the soundtrack. All the while, we notice words from the song sporadically but physically appear embedded in the environment at exactly the moment we hear them. Later on, the songs will gel with the movements of a car in a chase or even the shooting of a bullet to form a whole and prevent us from figuring out whether sound or image orientates the composition of the other.

The film is ostensibly a 2017 interpretation of Jean-Luc Godard’s famous maxim that “All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun” (« Tout ce dont vous avez besoin pour faire un film, c’est d’une fille et d’un flingue »), but one that is set to rapturous music instead of half-baked philosophical voice-overs. Also, the opening car chase that serves as the film’s ignition spark is one of the most thrilling in a very long time.

The girl is Debora (Lily James), a waitress at Bo’s Diner, an establishment that Baby, her own beau-in-waiting, visits on a regular basis. When Baby hears her sing his name – as part of Carla Thomas’s “B-A-B-Y” – he is immediately smitten. He is deeply involved in the world of the gun, although just like Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill character in GoodFellas, we never see him pull a trigger, which sets him apart from the rest of the gang and endears him to us. He works as a getaway driver for “Doc” (Kevin Spacey), a shadowy loner who hires freelancers to take part in heists he plans out in great detail. Baby has been on the payroll since he was barely a teenager and is the only constant in the ever-revolving teams that Doc puts together.

Baby Driver, not unlike American Graffiti, is a musical without being a musical: It is inextricably linked to its music, and luckily it is the cars that dance and not the characters. Actions are arranged by both the lyrics and the sounds, as Baby slams the brakes when we hear The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion yell “I’m gonna break!”, while traffic light changes or gun shots are orchestrated to visually underscore a particular musical beat.

But for all the clever gimmicks it deploys to slot the world of the ear into the world of the eye, the film fails to grab us by the throat or crawl into our heart. Sure, the back story with Baby’s mother is pretty sad, but Debora’s character is underdeveloped and left to sulk (admirably, she seems unwilling to do that) alone at the diner once too often. Her interaction with Baby shows chemistry and enormous promise for the future, but there is too little to work with. The plot would have been served better by a proper development of this relationship instead of the addition of an equally flimsy story in the margins involving Baby’s adorable blind godfather.

Furthermore, the final act’s sudden shift in tone, initiated by Baby directly causing the gruesome killing of a dangerous sidekick, is like shifting from fifth back to first gear on the open road. The whiplash is so bad I nearly burst out laughing at the absurdity of the moment. The film keeps up this pace for a full 10 minutes amid a hectic car chase and shoot-out until a horror movie–like “just when you thought the villain was dead, he comes back one last time” climax.

Baby-faced Elgort is well-cast as the odd-man out whose choice of music, it can be argued, literally saves his life on many an occasion. Director Edgar Wright clearly had fun directing this music video of a film, but Baby Driver’s first two acts are far superior to its third, and while some of the songs on the soundtrack are destined to become tied to their on-screen visualisations, the concatenation of set pieces ultimately sputters to a bizarrely cloying final coda.

Taekwondo (2016)

Two Taekwondo training partners who know little about each other spend a few days in the company of seven other men. Are we just imagining it, or is there a spark between them?

TaekwondoArgentina
3.5*

Directors:
Marco Berger

Martín Farina
Screenwriter:
Marco Berger

Director of Photography:
Martín Farina

Running time: 105 minutes

If you’re a gay man, you’ve often wondered whether a particular guy is gay. When you finally find out he is, you tell yourself, “It was glaringly obvious all along!” Perhaps you even pat yourself on the back and praise your own “gaydar”. And when you find out he’s not, it suddenly seems just as self-evident. While we’re wondering, the possibilities often appear to be both endless and contradictory.

Marco Berger specialises in warm, friendly tension resolved at the very last moment thanks to the briefest of happy ends. His films focus almost exclusively on unspoken desire capped by a tender moment of contact that makes us feel like everything will work out in the end if we are just patient enough for it to happen.

The Argentine filmmaker’s latest feature, co-directed by Martín Farina (whose homoerotically charged football documentary, Fulboy, Berger co-edited), is titled Taekwondo and features a real ensemble cast for the first time in his career. The entire film is set in a large house in the countryside, where a group of nine strapping young men – all friends of the affable, curly-haired Fernando (Lucas Papa) – are hanging out. It’s December, and summer is already in full swing. This means a lot of lazing around, primarily in and around the swimming pool, and mostly in very skimpy clothes. Sometimes, none at all.

In the charmingly verdant, near-symmetrical opening shot, we see a newcomer arrive at the house. Germán (Gabriel Epstein) is an acquaintance of Fernando’s from their Taekwondo class and is joining the gang for a relaxing, fun time. He is the odd one out from the beginning because the eight have known each other for a long time. Fortunately for him, Fernando makes a point of finding him wherever he is, speaking to him, sitting next to him in larger groups, lying next to him by the pool and even sleeping in the same room. We quickly learn that Germán is gay, but what is the deal with Fernando?

This is a question that lingers for most of the film’s 105-minute running time. It always hangs in the background but is pushed centre stage every time Germán peeks at him (we know why), or he glances at Germán (does it mean what we think it means?), or the scantily clad men around them playfully call each other “cocksuckers”. The film also raises a few related but more general questions – ones that almost anyone who is gay has asked themselves at one time or another: What does it mean when someone looks at me? When does a look become a stare? And how do I distinguish between a stare born out of simple curiosity and a stare that is meaningful?

Taekwondo is divided into three interwoven sections: the delicate, silent dance between Germán and Fernando; the many conversations between Diego, Fede (nicknamed “Fatso”), Juan, Lucho, Maxi and Tomás, the majority of which concerns sex with women; and the questionable intentions of Leo, who stalks around in an attempt to get Fernando’s attention.

The film’s major flaw is its handling of the many speaking parts. The second section mentioned above, which consists of loose discussions between various speakers, is particularly problematic because beyond Germán and Fernando, the characters are simply not memorable or well-defined. In fact, it will likely take a second viewing to recognise all the men at the house.

Taekwondo does go overboard by pelting us with close-ups of crotches both covered and exposed, even when the point of view is not connected to anyone in particular. This kind of ogling by the camera, while not exactly comparable to the gross gaze that Abdellatif Kechiche deployed in Blue is the Warmest Colour, is pointless and voids whatever sensuality the shots may have generated if used more discreetly.

If the two directors had utilised the camera as a substitute for specific characters’ point of view, the film would have been infinitely more engaging and immersive. But the gratuitous abundance of full-frontal close-ups simply leads nowhere and becomes annoyingly repetitive. By contrast, scenes like the one in which all nine of the men squeeze into the sauna drip with sensuality precisely because there are no full-frontals. 

All the while, we are grateful that someone as captivating as Epstein was cast to play Germán and that he portrays him as someone who is careful but never pitiful. Germán has no problem being gay, but because he is unfamiliar with the other guys’ sentiments about homosexuality, he doesn’t bring it up. The film’s two comical highlights are the scenes in which he shares his feelings with another gay friend – once over the phone and another time in person.

Berger has always been at his most effective when his stories are simple and focused on two main characters. This was the case in arguably his two best films to date: Plan B and Hawaii. Taekwondo loses time by presenting non-essential storylines and characters. It also negates some of Berger’s trademark sunshine by including a marginal character clearly uncomfortable with his own sexuality. His presence taints the otherwise laid-back, albeit sometimes sexually tense, atmosphere.

But it is fun to see how Berger and Farina work to tease us to breaking point with the promise of something happening. Viewers will have to bide their time, but those who know Berger’s films (this is Farina’s first fiction film behind the camera) can also rest assured that he always delivers in the end.

It might appear that time is standing still in this idyllic summer film, but the small steps that Germán and Fernando take always make us smile out of pure exhilaration for them to realise and benefit from something that is clear to almost everyone else. Taekwondo would have been served better by having fewer in-your-face crotch shots and more clear-cut characters, but the easygoing ambience and the playful camaraderie make for an environment the viewer can easily get used to.

Look out for Marco Berger making a cameo appearance halfway through the film as an anonymous character whose companion is hit in the head with a tennis ball.

God’s Own Country (2017)

God’s Own Country borrows so much from Ang Lee’s famous cowboy romance it should have been titled “Brokeback on the Moors”.

God's Own CountryUK
3.5*

Director:
Francis Lee

Screenwriter:
Francis Lee

Director of Photography:
Joshua James Richards

Running time: 105 minutes

Two strapping young lads herding sheep by day and making love to each other one night out in the field? Check. Do we see spit being used instead of lube? Yes. Is there an awkward silence the next morning? Absolutely. Does the one deliberately look in front of him while the other changes his underwear in the background? That, too. And is there evident yearning when one of them smells a piece of clothing left behind by the one who is no longer there? Yes, even that.

God’s Own Country, an often assured feature-film début by British director Francis Lee, borrows whole-cloth from Brokeback Mountain without adding much of its own, although the story has been altered slightly for the sake of updating and transposing Ang Lee’s landmark 2005 film to the grittier moors of the English countryside.

The central character here is Johnny Saxby (Josh O’Connor), a farm boy barely out of his teens, whom we first lay eyes on late one night when he is throwing up in the toilet bowl of his parents’ farmhouse in Yorkshire. The next morning, we learn this is a regular occurrence, and we soon realise why: In this small farming community, being gay is not yet entirely acceptable, and even though Johnny has frequent encounters (penetration, never kissing) with whoever locks eyes with him at the bar or an auction, the idea of a relationship with a man is a foreign concept to him.

His father has suffered a stroke and realises his son is not up to the job of taking on his role on the farm. Thus, a (presumably) low-paying position as a temporary farmhand opens up, and this is when a brooding young Romanian migrant, Gheorghe (Alec Secăreanu, who looks like he could be Oscar Isaac’s brother) arrives on the scene, not without his own baggage. Things develop more or less as we expect, although these two characters are much more secure in their sexuality than Jack and Ennis the cowboys, their famous fictional counterparts from the early 2000s, who were admittedly a product of their time.

Lee’s handling of the relationship is very sensitive at the outset, and the two characters complement each other in just the right way: the immature Johnny, whose idea of the world only extends as far as the closest pub, has had plenty of sexual encounters but no intimacy, while Gheorghe, who has travelled to the United Kingdom on his own and seems much wiser about the ways of the world, takes on the role of both lover and father to the slightly awkward Englishman. The scene in which the two finally kiss, after much reluctance from Johnny, is paced just right and a striking testament to Gheorghe’s patience and tenderness.

Unfortunately, the film’s final moments are an absolute travesty – the kind of fairytale development that lessens the film’s thoughtfulness and is wholly at odds with the rest of the plot. It feels almost like it was tacked on as an afterthought for the sake of greater viewer satisfaction and commercial success, but the resolution to the climax’s dramatic complication is a myopic idea of romance that one character is too callow to deserve and the other is too good to concede.

The ending is a big disappointment, but the rest of the film does a good job of making the rough contours of a relationship seem less sharp-edged.

All in all, while the meaning of its title remains an enigma, God’s Own Country is mostly a compelling reworking of a tale we have seen before, and the reason lies primarily with the small group of very committed actors. Besides O’Connor and Secăreanu, Ian Hart as Johnny’s stern but paternal father and Gemma Jones as the devoted grandmother both warm our hearts with their candid but caring interactions with Johnny.

Viewed at the 2017 Berlin International Film Festival.

Arrival (2016)

Arrival makes its mark with an ingenious use of the concept of time and a curious portrayal of aliens, but the soppiness of a central relationship is this work’s major flaw.

ArrivalUSA
3.5*

Director:
Denis Villeneuve

Screenwriter:
Eric Heisserer

Director of Photography:
Bradford Young

Running time: 115 minutes

Despite its ever more sentimental bent and its simplistic good guy/bad guy dynamics, Denis Villeneuve’s science-fiction film Arrival is a cleverly constructed tale of first contact between humans and aliens and has a satisfying twist at its core.

The twist has to do with time, and more specifically with viewing events not in bits and pieces advancing from A to B to C, from one day to the next, but as an all-encompassing whole seen all at once. In this way, the domino effect is no longer at play, and cause and effect disappear into a new space-time continuum that until now had been illustrated the best by the “Cause and Effect” episode of the Star Trek: The Next Generation television series, which depicts the shaping of the present thanks to future events being anticipated through contact with the past.

The film’s emotion-laden opening sequence, which introduces us to single mother and renowned linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams), quickly moves from one beat to the next as her baby daughter grows up and turns into a teenager before suddenly falling ill and dying of a rare illness. This episode is firmly in our heads not only because it kicks the narrative into gear but also because Villeneuve returns to it again and again and again throughout the rest of the film. But while Banks’s recollection of these moments is perceived as melancholy memories, something else is happening, and we have to recalibrate our sense of time in a clever way.

The idea of viewing a story – never mind one’s own life – as a whole rather than in its constituent parts is an intimidating proposition, but such an approach is central to communication (and action) in Arrival, because the aliens that arrive in their gigantic grey shell-shaped pods and touch down in a desolate expanse of land in Montana communicate in precisely this way.

Their signs consist not of distinct words but of circular signs that convey a complete overview of both meaning and feeling and can range from the basic to the hypercomplex. And for Banks to understand their message, her brain needs to start thinking about life in such a way, too, affirming the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis that language also transforms our perception of life itself. Thus, by acquiring a language that sees the beginning and the end rolled up into one, she starts seeing her own life that way as well, including events she is yet to experience.

Of course, she needs a foil in the shape of research partner and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). Renner’s part is woefully underdeveloped, however. Beyond wanting to jump straight into asking the aliens about Fibonacci numbers without understanding that mathematics is not a particularly useful language for basic communication, he appears not to do all that much except support Banks on her surprisingly successful English as a Foreign Intergalactic Language course with the aliens. These two are sent by the government to ascertain the purpose of the visit by the aliens, which have landed at 12 spots on the globe but remained hidden inside their shell-shaped spacecrafts.

Villeneuve, whose film has traces of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, particularly in the scoring by master composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, with whom he also collaborated on Sicario, uses Steven Spielberg’s well-known technique (from Close Encounters but most famously from Jaws) of delaying a major introduction. The aliens themselves (which, unlike in most other films, are not particularly anthropoid but look very much like the spider in Villeneuve’s Enemy, albeit with seven instead of eight legs, thus earning them the label “heptapods”) are almost never completely visible.

But more generally, the director does not do justice to the intelligence of his story. He beats the relationship between Banks and her daughter to death with too many inserts while failing to convey Banks’s perception of the frequency of these images. But with the exception of a life-changing, humanity-saving flash-forward in the final act, an exception that proves the rule, he doesn’t cast his net any farther to provide other interesting examples of using consciousness about time past, present and future in an unexpected way.

Villeneuve, who captured the suspense in Sicario so well, is surprisingly inept when it comes to creating tension, and he creates a Hunt for Red October moment by having the camera point straight at a team member who will betray them all. And he does this not once but multiple times. In fact, it is much more blatant than the infamous introduction to the cook (later revealed to be a traitor) in John McTiernan’s 1990 film.

The film has some beautiful moments, including the already mentioned flash forward during the climax, as well as a voiceover delivered by Renner to explain the heptapods, much like he is narrating a documentary about them years into the future. But its presentation of the global collaboration and suspicion between the groups trying to investigate the aliens is incredibly stilted, and when we hear that the Sudan is planning to attack the aliens, it is difficult not to burst out laughing.

The sentimentality in Arrival may be a bit much to stomach, and there are simply too many inserts with Banks and her daughter, but the flexibility of time and the way in which it is made visible in the film bring us another perspective that might just trickle down into other science-fiction films in the future.