Ant-Man marks a change for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Whereas previous films have steadily upped the stakes, Peyton Reed’s entry scales things down (in multiple ways), delivering a warm, witty and sometimes wacky tale of guilt-ridden fathers and second chances. Ant-Man‘s connection to the Avengers is through plot developments rather than ironic winks, and the film features as many laugh-out-loud moments as Guardians of the Galaxy and also an engaging visual style, as Reed along with DOP Russell Carpenter and production designers Shepherd Frankel and Marcus Rowland make great use of their protagonist’s diminutiveness. Co-writer Paul Rudd makes for a likeable star, his slightly hangdog expression shifting to wry determination as his character Scott Lang embraces his heroic destiny. But the film’s greatest strength is its blending of genres. Much as GOTG was part space opera and Captain America: The Winter Soldier was part conspiracy thriller, Ant-Man plays largely as a heist/caper film. The (clichéd) band of specialized thieves, the last job that will finish their life of crime, the chain of events that lead to this one score (presented amusingly by Michael Peña), the planning that cross-cuts with execution – all these elements are delivered with verve and aplomb. Ant-Man therefore demonstrates one of the keys to Marvel’s ongoing success – rather than simply being one super-powered smackdown after another, the films of the MCU continually re-modulate and reform, developing the genre as well as the franchise.
Some franchises get better as they continue, and some demonstrate the law of diminishing returns. Terminator Genisys falls firmly into the latter category, as it attempts to rewrite a significant part of the franchise’s history and, in doing so, makes various clunking failures that highlight the film’s own redundancy.
Genisys repeatedly raids the Terminator production line, using footage from the 1984 original The Terminator, complete with young Arnold Schwarzenegger before his grizzled contemporary turns up. Nostalgia can be an effective dramatic approach, as in the rebooted Star Trek, but here the replaying of familiar material highlights Genisys‘ own lack of ideas. Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier’s script recycles various plot points from the first two films (ignoring continuity from Rise of the Machines and Salvation), and attempts to create new versions of established characters. The results, however, are anaemic and insipid. Schwarzenegger has been parodying himself for years and this is no exception, except that he is old and regularly reminds us of this (yes, Arnold, you’re old, not obsolete, we get it!). Emilia Clarke’s Sarah Connor is a pale shadow of Linda Hamilton’s guerrilla warrior, while Jai Courtney’s Kyle Reese lacks the feral desperation of Michael Biehn’s original incarnation (and Courtney’s massively buff physique – clearly there are still gyms post-Judgment Day – undercuts Schwarzenegger’s previously exceptional body). Jason Clarke is a bland John Connor, despite the potential for a great inversion of his character, a plot twist infuriatingly exposed by the film’s trailer.
All of these faults would be forgiveable if the film managed to engage with some interesting ideas. The best sci-fi is always concerned with ideas (see this year’s Ex Machina for a recent example), and the original Terminators did exactly this, principally the relationship humanity has with technology. The Terminator showed the omnipresence of technology and Terminator 2: Judgment Day blurred the distinction between human and machine. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines did the same thing badly but the unfairly maligned Terminator Salvation managed to go in a different direction by reversing the awareness of what is what. Terminator Salvation managed to refresh the franchise, but Genisys simply and blatantly replays what we have seen before: more time travel, more old Arnie, more unstoppable (although not really) terminator upgrades, more delays to Judgment Day, more ways to change the past and fight the future, and all for the purpose of stretching out a franchise that was completed perfectly well in 1991. The concepts that make the Terminator mythos interesting are simply referenced without engagement or due attention, resulting in a lazy and lifeless experience. Furthermore, director Alan Taylor demonstrates the same shortcomings he did with Thor: The Dark World, failing to create action set pieces that draw the viewer in or offer anything beyond stuff blowing up and flying around, with an unnecessarily clanking soundtrack that emphasises time and time again that THESE ARE MACHINES! Thanks, Alan, I might have forgotten otherwise.
Perhaps the greatest insult to the original films is the abandonment of their interesting gender politics. Far more than being a “strong female character,” Hamilton’s Sarah Connor was a woman of vision, voice and agency, who evolved from helpless victim to guerrilla commando, almost to the loss of her humanity. Clarke’s Sarah, however, mostly complains about her lack of choice over her future before accepting the dictates of the father and husband figures around her. Worse still, her voiceover is replaced with that of Kyle, making it his story rather than her’s and sidelining one of the most iconic women of action cinema. Depressing.
James Cameron gave his blessing to Genisys and described it as the true next installment. Much as I love Cameron, I have to disagree with him here, as Terminator Genisys is a wretched, retrograde regurgitation that fails to even have enough nostalgic value to maintain its running time. At least someone’s smiling.
It is that time of the year when film critics say “It is that time of the year.” And it is, indeed, that time of the year when I decide what are the best films of the year so far and how shall I rank them, according to my arbitrary and subjective notions of quality.
To clarify, I use UK release dates to determine what is a film of what year, so don’t go telling me such-and-such was really last year. To avoid confusion, I include the UK general release dates according to the IMDb, as well as links to my earlier reviews.
2015: Top Six of Six Months
Birdman Or (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance) (1 January 2015)
A fearless, relentless, tragicomic blasterpiece.
Ex Machina (21 January 2015)
An eerie, beguiling and enthralling exploration of identity, consciousness and personhood.
Blackhat (20 February 2015)
A gripping and enthralling existential thriller of identity in a world of anonymity.
A Most Violent Year (23 January 2015)
A measured, compelling and de-romanticised portrayal of the American Dream.
Danny Collins (29 May 2015)
A warm, witty, hilarious, bittersweet, moving tale of redemption, family and the choices we make.
Selma (6 February 2015)
An intricate, powerful tale of great events told through the lens of shared, social experience.
These six are pretty good and they were hard to pick. Will all or indeed any of them make it into the Top Twelve at the end of the year? Time will tell…
A tribe of weird yellow creatures that babble barely comprehensible gibberish are not the most obvious leads for a movie, especially when their origin is as sidekicks. Nonetheless, the Minions were the breakout stars of 2010’s Despicable Me and, after their enlarged role in Despicable Me 2, they prove themselves more than capable of commanding a whole film, as Minions had me laughing from start to finish. This is largely due to directors Kyle Balda and Pierre Coffin’s talent for slapstick humour, combined with genuine affection for their creations. The exploits of Kevin, Bob, Stuart and the rest of their tribe (all voiced by Coffin) are especially enjoyable because of the film’s affection for them – there is no spite or meanness in the film’s wit and invention. Furthermore, at a time when Jurassic World raises anger over its presentation of women, Minions manages to be surprisingly progressive, as Scarlett Overkill (Sandra Bullock) is a wonderfully realised and rounded character, not defined by gender or hampered by stereotype. Minions manages to be surprising and impressive in its gender politics, while delivering on the laughs and ample instances of “BANANA!”