Starring: Katherine Waterston (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them), Michael Fassbender (X-Men: Apocalypse), Danny McBride (Pineapple Express), Billy Crudup (Watchmen), Demain Bichir (The Heat), Carmen Ejogo (Selma)

Director: Ridley Scott (The Martian)

Writers: John Logan (Skyfall) and Dante Harper

Runtime: 2 hours 2 minutes

Release Date: 12 May (UK), 19 May (US)

The Alien franchise hasn’t really had anywhere to go in the last twenty-five years. Alien 3 may have initially ended the story on a dampened note, but it was at least definitive. Everything since then has either just repeated what came before or taken it in radically stupid directions. Resurrection was a mutated sore dragging down an otherwise solid trilogy, Prometheus seemed embarrassed to even be associated with Alien when it wasn’t ruining it, and don’t even get me started on the Alien vs. Predator movies. Alien: Covenant seemed like the last shining hope for this series to get back on track; a chance to fix or forget the mistakes of the past and give the fans what they’ve been asking for. Unfortunately, Covenant is ultimately not that movie.

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Covenant functions as both a sequel to Prometheus and a prequel to the original film, though it doesn’t resolve everything from the former or lead directly into the latter. The basic set-up is fairly standard for the series thus far: a distress signal brings a crew down to an unknown planet, leading to death and destruction at the hands of an extraterrestrial monster. The film, however, does eschew a lot of familiar concepts to keep the story fresh. The locales are far more open and natural than the usual confines of spacecraft and industrial facilities, a wider variety of alien species are exhibited, and the whole “evil corporation” angle is finally abandoned. The first half of the film isn’t anything special but it does resemble an Alien film without feeling too derivative. However, once the story brings in all the connective tissue between Prometheus and Alien, that’s where it begins to fall apart. The themes about creation and God get dragged out again in lieu of isolation and dread, the third act liberally lifts elements from across the franchise, several obvious twists fall flat, and the film finally answers the question of the Xenomorphs’ origin in a way that is not only lame but completely disregards huge pieces of series lore. I’m not talking about obscure pieces of expanded fiction that were probably never canon. These are concepts that contradict what has been established in even the original film; huge fans of this series are going to notice, and they will not be happy. I can’t say much without spoiling, but this is mythology-f*cking on the level of midichlorians.

The characters of Covenant are a step-up from the cast of Prometheus, but only because they aren’t as frustratingly idiotic. They are instead a merely bland but inoffensive crew that aren’t even as memorable as the characters in the latter half of the original Alien movies. Katherine Waterston puts in a decent performance as lead Daniels, but she’s ultimately yet another Ripley copy with all the gruff edges shaved off. Billy Crudup shows some initial promise the conflicted captain Oram, but by the film’s second half he ceases to have a reason to exist. Danny McBride is the only other interesting crewmember, downplaying his comedic chops to deliver a blithe but suitably dramatic performance; I’m interested to see what he could do in other serious fare. The rest of the crew is a series of redshirts with varying levels of development, who are neither vexing like in Prometheus or memorable enough like those in Alien or Aliens to get any major reaction when they bite the dust. And then there’s Michael Fassbender as the android Walter. Going into his character in depth is major spoiler territory, so I’ll keep it brief: like in Prometheus his acting is good but his character is lacking, and even if you enjoyed his previous performance I don’t think the direction they take it here is a particularly satisfying one.

Ridley Scott isn’t quite the director he was nearly forty years ago when he made the first Alien, but he certainly hasn’t lost his eye. Like Prometheus, a lot of what redeems Covenant is all in the technical achievements. The film looks gorgeously grim, bringing back some of the grit and murkiness of the original film. The production design is grand and earthy with its ships and temples absorbed under the foreboding vines and rocks of the natural planet; it feels almost like a Miyazaki film at points. The classic Xenomorph design triumphantly returns along with some original variants that, whilst not as creative as some concepts explored in expanded fiction, do feel like a natural part of the species’ ancestry. There is a disappointing lack of practical creature work in favour of CG, which takes away a lot of the menace during the intimate horror sequences, but the gore effects all look genuine and they are fantastic; this might be the most blood-happy Alien film to date. Finally, Jed Kurzel’s score for the film is suitably low-key and haunting, along with a lot of cues from Jerry Goldsmith and Marc Streitenfeld’s compositions from Alien and Prometheus respectively woven in at appropriate moments.

Alien: Covenant is a passable sci-fi horror on its own merits, but explaining why it doesn’t work as an Alien movie without completely spoiling it is tricky. Remaining as vague as I can, I think the reason the film ultimately irks me so is because I get the impression that Ridley Scott really resents everything that happened to the series after Alien. He already began steering the ship in a different direction with Prometheus and, as much as many fans disliked that direction, at least he did so without messing with the main series. In response, Scott has effectively given the fans what they wanted whilst on the surface taunting them with everything they didn’t like. Covenant isn’t just Ridley Scott taking his toys and going home. Covenant is Ridley Scott taking not only his toys but also the toys of James Cameron and David Fincher, going home, smashing those toys to pieces, knocking himself over the head until he falls unconscious, waking up in a daze, rebuilding the toys with the missing pieces replaced with stuff nobody asked for until they look enough like they did yesterday, then taking them back to the park and saying, “Here, play with these instead.” This film really sums up why the Alien franchise should have been left alone ever since Ellen Ripley took that final leap into the furnace, but it seems like Scott has plans to power on regardless. Next time, I don’t expect him to listen to his fans properly. I say let the man do what he wants, but that doesn’t mean we have to enable him by seeing these movies anymore.

FINAL VERDICT: 4.5/10

Starring: Chris Pratt (Jurassic World), Zoe Saldana (Avatar), Dave Bautista (Spectre), Vin Diesel (Fast & Furious 8), Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook), Michael Rooker (The Walking Dead), Karen Gillan (Doctor Who), Pom Klementieff (Oldboy), Elizabeth Debicki (The Great Gatsby), Sylvester Stallone (Creed), Kurt Russell (Escape from New York)

Writer/Director: James Gunn (Slither)

Runtime: 2 hours 16 minutes

Release Date: 28 April (UK), 5 May (US)

It’s still hard to believe three years later that Guardians of the Galaxy became such a huge hit. What seemed like a film that would appeal only to the most diehard of comic book fans has become a movie that even those otherwise uninterested in the Marvel Cinematic Universe have grown to love. It was my favourite film of 2014, my favourite film in the MCU so far, and one of my all-time favourite comic book movies in general. Topping that is a task that I don’t think anyone would feel up to, but James Gunn proves to be more than up to the task of trying. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 by no means surpasses its predecessor but, thankfully, it is a more-than-worthy sequel that makes all the right choices in all the important places.

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Like its forbearer, Vol. 2 doesn’t factor too heavily into the rest of the ongoing Marvel storyline, but it does rest heavily on your connections to these characters from the first film. The story gets off to a breakneck start and quickly gets into the meat of the story, answering pretty much all of the lingering questions left at the end of the previous movie, and it results in something far more personal and emotionally driven than you might expect. There’s still a lot of action spectacle with the fate of the galaxy at stake, and even more of James Gunn’s unique and exaggerated sense of humour, but it feels far more intimate than before due to its multi-strand structure and a bigger focus on the theme of family. The story splits up the Guardians for a majority of it and, whilst this does allow for the team to sink into new situations and interact with different characters, it does take away some of the unity of the group.

The focus feels spread a little too thin between the various story threads, with some getting more focus than they should when more vital stories feel lacking. There are a lot of scenes of characters sitting down to explain their neurosis and hang-ups and, whilst a lot of the character depth drawn from these moments is extremely satisfying and well executed, it’s a beat that gets repeated far too often; the entire cast might as well be sitting in a trust circle as they spout their inner issues. Gratefully, it all does come together eventually into an extremely satisfying finale on both an entertainment and emotional level. I’d say it’s slightly more comparable to The Wrath of Khan than Empire Strikes Back, but it’s a flattering comparison nonetheless. All in all, it’s still an constantly hilarious and delightful experience that I can see many enjoying even more than the first film, and in many respects it does surpass it in terms of scale and depth, but it doesn’t have quite the same sense of focus and simplicity as the original that allowed its idiosyncrasies to stand out.

The characters are what ultimately made the first Guardians so immensely enjoyable, and here everyone gets more time to develop and add more quotable zingers to their repertoire. Chris Pratt is as lovable as ever as Peter Quill and he obviously gets the most focus as he learns to connect with his father (Russell). It’s a powerful and touching journey that he goes on which pays off in dividends by the climax, one that really drives home why Quill is the way he is, but it does come at the cost of some of his humour. His story is so serious and grave that it sometimes robs Pratt of chances to be the dopey and charming Star-Lord we love, but it’s a payoff that just about balances out before it gets too grave.

Rocket feels like he gets the next-best development as learns to be more of a team player, forming a relationship with Yondu (Rooker) that I wish had more time to develop, and Bradley Cooper’s performance once again helps make this foul-mouthed raccoon come to life in endearing fashion. Dave Bautista continues to be the film’s secret weapon as Drax, providing even more laughs with his blunt honesty and literalism, and he even forms a lovely bond with newcomer Mantis (Klementieff). Zoe Saldana’s Gamora can feel a little sidelined at points, spending her time either trying to reconcile with her sister Nebula (Gillan) or playing hard-to-get with Quill, whilst Vin Diesel’s Baby Groot is pretty much relegated to comic antics and being adorable. Admittedly, that’s not too far removed from his role in the first, but he doesn’t get a “we are Groot” payoff moment in this climax that makes him more than just the butt of jokes.

Michael Rooker is the real show-stealer here as Yondu, building immensely on his character and defining his relationship with Quill in a really honest and heart-warming way; he is the true core of what this movie is about. Karen Gillan continues to be a fun presence as Nebula, especially since she spends way more time with the Guardians here and bouncing off their antics with her bitterness, but she ultimately seems a bit superfluous. She gets some great scenes, especially any moment with Gamora and a really funny bit with Kraglin (Sean Gunn), but it doesn’t connect cohesively back to the main plot like the other side stories do.

In regards to new faces, the big draw is of course Kurt Russell as Ego and yet, even though Russell’s performance itself is as charming as you might expect, the film never quite sells you on the character’s motivations. The moments where Quill and him begin to bond and learn about each other are fantastic, but his ultimate turn lacks the emotional justification he had built up to that point. He’s meant to be misguided and disconnected, yes, but the story doesn’t quite do enough to explain why. Pom Klementieff makes for a great foil to Drax as Mantis, countering his brusque straightforwardness with an endearing emotional honesty and innocence; this is one relationship I hope continues to blossom. Elizabeth Debicki makes for a distinct secondary antagonist as the highly conceited Ayesha, and the film leaves plenty of room for her and her Sovereign followers to grow in future instalments, but their presence feels more like more conflict for the sake of scale rather than anything that connects deeply with the main narrative. Sylvester Stallone’s role (which I won’t spoil here) is basically an extended cameo but it’s fun while it lasts, mainly helping to give more depth to Yondu’s storyline, but it’s a role that also has plenty of potential for expansion in future instalments. There are even more fantastic cameos throughout that I won’t ruin here, but if you’re seriously into your deep lore cosmic Marvel characters then you won’t be disappointed.

Everything you love that made Guardians of the Galaxy such a distinctive film in the superhero landscape on an aesthetic level returns here on an even bigger scale. There are oodles of imaginative designs here for aliens and planets and spacecraft and weapons, all captured with mounds of brightness and colour that make it feel like a comic book come to life. The action sequences are gigantic in scale and they run the gamut from intense one-on-one scraps to intergalactic dogfights that look like a game of Galaga come to life; the break-out sequence on the Ravager ship and the final destructive showdown on Ego’s planet really take the cake. Guardians wouldn’t be anywhere near as memorable without its music and, along with yet another rousing score from Tyler Bates, the soundtrack selection for Awesome Mix Vol. 2 is an interesting selection of 70s and 80s tunes. There aren’t quite as many well-tested classics as in the first mix, opting instead for more offbeat choices, but they feel more intimately connected to the story at hand; a finely tuned emotional playlist rather than a jukebox of party hits.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 doesn’t quite match up to the original, but it’s still a fantastic movie well worth seeing in the cinema for anyone who loves these characters even in the slightest. What it perhaps lacks in originality and focus is a result of a slight adjustment in priorities, and instead delivers a touching and intimate story about the nature of family; it’ll make you cheer, it’ll make you laugh, it might even make you cry (I certainly did). It feels like a distinctive beast from the first film, a natural evolution rather than just a bigger version of the same movie, and that ultimately helps me to forgive some of its shortcomings. The Guardians still have a lot of interesting places to go and this film certainly sets up a lot of possibilities for a whole new slew of cosmic adventures they could go on, but more imminently it’s going to be interesting to see how they fit in when Infinity War finally rears its head next summer.

FINAL VERDICT: 9/10

Starring: Vin Diesel (Riddick), Dwayne Johnson (Central Intelligence), Michelle Rodriguez (Avatar), Tyrese Gibson (Transformers), Chris “Ludacris” Bridges (Max Payne), Charlize Theron (Mad Max: Fury Road), Jason Statham (Crank), Nathalie Emmanuel (Game of Thrones), Scott Eastwood (Suicide Squad), Kurt Russell (Escape from New York)

Director: F. Gary Gray (Straight Outta Compton)

Writer: Chris Morgan (Wanted)

Runtime: 2 hours 16 minutes

Release Date: 12 April (UK), 14 April (US)

How did we get to this point? Here we stand sixteen years later with eight Fast & Furious movies, each one more ridiculous than the last. However, in a rare twist of fate, it’s a franchise that only became good once it decided to jump the shark and has become the guilty pleasure of many a film fan since. But every franchise starts to suffer from fatigue eventually and, though Fast & Furious 8 (known as The Fate of the Furious in the US, because I guess puns sell) does begin to show some signs of weakness, it still manages to be at least as satisfying a blockbuster as its last three outings.

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The Fast Family has somehow seamlessly transitioned from street racers to a car-centric team of GI Joe action figures, but even with all they’ve faced Fast 8 still manages to raise the stakes even further. Dominic (Diesel) has been turned against his team, the family now forced to ally themselves with former enemy Deckard Shaw (Statham), and the world hangs in the balance at the hands of a hipster cyber-terrorist by the name of Cipher (Theron). It’s a preposterous spectacle full of soap opera melodrama, giant holes in logic, and action sequences that border on parody, but somehow it all manages to hold together because of the self-aware approach the film takes; nobody could take this seriously at face value. Where the film falters is that it’s just a little too bloated. It’s two hours plus like all the recent Fast movies, but it doesn’t quite have the same momentum as some of its predecessors. Some of the more dialogue-heavy scenes go on too long and the climax, whilst as entertaining as you’d expect, does begin to outstay its welcome. What’s most surprising about Fast 8 is how it manages to carry the emotional elements of Furious 7 onwards, giving the film a little more dramatic heft than expected, but don’t expect it to dampen any of the fun. This is a film that balances so many tones and ideas so well, it might as well be an anime.

The cast will never quite be the same with the loss of Paul Walker, but Fast 8 does a good job of retaining the irresistible camaraderie of these characters and even manages to develop a few of them in interesting ways. Though Dom spends most of the film working for the wrong side, his motivations soon become clear and they are more than understandable. Vin Diesel does a good job of showing some emotional vulnerability with the character, though unfortunately the same hasn’t been done to him physically. He’s still an unbeatable mean machine at every turn no matter the odds, and if the franchise is to evolve then he needs to be taken down a peg somehow; at least let him lose a race for once. His relationship with Michelle Rodriguez’s Letty is really put to the test here and, though they curtail a certain issue between them without acknowledgement (it would be a spoiler to explain), it helps their bond in a way that could prove to compensate for Walker’s absence. Tyrese Gibson and Ludacris continue to provide solid comic relief as Roman and Tej, though their characters still haven’t advanced much since Fast Five. Nathalie Emmanuel’s Ramsey proves key at a few moments and even gets in a few pot shots at the expense of Roman, but she does feel a little wasted. Considering the film’s villain is a hacker too, it felt like Ramsey and Cipher should have had more of a rivalry than the brief scene they spend out-hacking each other.

Speaking of which, Charlize Theron’s Cipher brings the franchise something it’s always lacked: a truly threatening villain. Though she is disappointingly physically inactive, never once stepping behind the wheel and controlling the events remotely instead, her means of manipulating Dom and others to get what she wants give her a captivating twisted edge over the series’ previous mix of drug lord and terrorist adversaries. Kurt Russell returns as Mr. Nobody but unfortunately doesn’t add much beyond his own natural charm, allowing his new protégé played by Scott Eastwood to handle most of his business. Eastwood proves to be a non-starter on screen, lacking personality and any semblance of chemistry with the cast; he’s intentionally an outsider to the crew, but he fails to connect in even a negative way. However, what Eastwood lack in rapport is more than made up for by the fantastic banter shared between Dwayne Johnson’s Hobbs and Jason Statham’s Shaw. Their antagonistic relationship does feel a little cut short, but whilst it lasts it becomes the most entertaining aspect of the film and the two remain consistently entertaining on their own too. I don’t want to say much more, but Statham gets an action sequence set on a plane that truly puts the franchise’s sanity to the test. Top it all off with some fun cameos from familiar faces from both within and outside the franchise, and you’ve got a solid cast that knows exactly how seriously to take this material.

Gary Gray already has ample experience with cars thanks to his remake of The Italian Job, but the spectacle on display here makes that film look like a set of Hot Wheels in comparison. Though none of the action sequences here have quite the initial pop of scenes like the vault chase from Fast Five or the skyscraper sequence from Furious 7, they are all equally bombastic and compelling in execution. The chase through New York piles up enough cars to put Blues Brothers to shame, the much-hyped submarine battle proves all kinds of ridiculous, and there’s even enough room for an old-fashioned street race through Cuba that brings back memories of the earlier films of the franchise; even the non-car set pieces are a lot fun, like Hobbs and Shaw fighting through a prison riot or the aforementioned plane sequence. The film looks vibrant and explosive from a visual perspective, but I was disappointed to see CGI become overused in the franchise again. Some of it isn’t even very convincing, like the obvious added-in cold breath in the Russia sequence. CGI is always necessary for some of these preposterous stunts, but these films are at their most fun when as much of it is as practical as possible. Given how each film continues to ramp up the spectacle, keeping that balance right in future instalments will prove difficult, but the results really do show on screen.

As of writing, I’m still unsure where I’d rank Fast & Furious 8, but it’s definitely amongst the better films in the franchise. You should know already whether these are movies for you, and if you’re a fan you are going to get exactly what you are looking for with a few sweet surprises. I’m excited to see where this franchise goes next, but I do certainly feel like another major change-up is in order. The series needs to evolve in some way somehow, I’m not enough of a mad genius to conceive how, but it needs to something that reinvigorates it in the same way Fast Five set these characters on a whole new path. Fast 8 get my hearty recommendation now, but I just hope that by the inevitable ninth instalment they don’t begin treading water.

FINAL VERDICT: 8/10

WARNING: Major spoilers for the 2017 film Ghost in the Shell follow

Paramount’s live-action adaptation of the legendary manga Ghost in the Shell debuted over the weekend to lukewarm reviews and disappointing box office, and there are a lot of reasons why it may have failed to find an audience. The marketing sold the film on its visuals but did little to promote its story or ideas, it’s been released right between the monster hit that is Beauty and the Beast and potential monster hit The Fate of the Furious, and the fact that Ghost in the Shell isn’t a highly recognised brand to mass consumers in the way that most studio blockbuster fare is. But more importantly, it just wasn’t very good.

But of course, there is also the racial controversy that may have dampened its initial reception. Ever since it was announced that Scarlett Johansson would play Major Motoko Kusanagi in the film, the Internet went into uproar. Some saw it as yet another example of Hollywood whitewashing, whilst others (including the filmmakers obviously) defended the decision by saying that Johansson was simply the best fit for the character.

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But the real answer is far more simpler: financial security. Not only are there very few female Asian stars in America, there are definitely none who can sell a major Hollywood blockbuster. Ghost in the Shell is a high-concept movie that requires a large budget, and investors aren’t willing to back a picture without some guarantee of success. Attaching a star is one easy way to do that, and Scarlett Johansson is someone who most certainly fills that criteria. The filmmakers aren’t inherently racist, but they are working in a system that isn’t exactly doing much to curb it.

From a personal perspective, I wasn’t up in arms about Johansson’s casting. I would have greatly preferred a Japanese actress in the role, but in all honesty The Major isn’t a character who is particularly defined by her ethnicity. Her struggles with identity and reality are universal concepts relatable to all walks of life, and her detached but determined personality is certainly within Johansson’s wheelhouse as seen in her performances as Black Widow. Given the state of affairs, this is an issue I was willing to let by. If this is the concession that has to be made for Ghost in the Shell to be made, I can just about accept it. But then they had to go and draw attention to it in the worst way possible.

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First, a little bit of context. Johansson’s Major goes by the name of Mira Killian and has no memory of her past life before the terrorist attack that killed her human body, with her human consciousness now transplanted into an artificial shell and working for the counter-terrorism group Section 9. She only sees brief glimpses of what may have been her origins, and her lack of memory leads her to feel more robot than human; she has no connection with her own identity. As the film goes on, it’s revealed that what little Major was told about her past was a lie so she could be manipulated into joining Section 9, but she is handed the key to her real past. It turns out her brain originally belongs to a young Japanese girl called Motoko Kusanagi, an anti-augmentation radical abducted by robotics company Hanka and used as a test subject for their experiments into full-body prosthesis. So essentially, our main character has been literally whitewashed within the story.

Making the issue even more troubling is the fact this revelation is played without any comment on the race issue. Major seems no more troubled by this than Jason Bourne discovering something about his past, and the fact that no one ever even comments on this discrepancy makes the decision seem even more tone-deaf. It’s almost like the filmmakers wanted to pay tribute to the original but, like how the film glosses over the more philosophical aspects of the source material, they didn’t linger on the unfortunate implications of their decision. They would have been better off leaving the issue alone, but now they’ve only gone and made it larger. At first I felt disgusted by this, leaving me feel uneasy throughout the rest of the film, but on further thought I realised something. Under better circumstances, this idea could not only have worked, but in a way that helps break down the diversity issue rather than accentuate it.

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The filmmakers were essentially forced into casting Johansson for financial reasons due to the lack of bankable Asian actresses, but decide to reveal that their seemingly Caucasian character is actually Japanese after all. Why not take this unfortunate situation and use it as a wake-up call to Hollywood? The film could have so easily used the concept of an Asian character transplanted into the body of a white person as meta-commentary on the lack of diversity in American cinema. Major should be mad at Hanka for not only taking away her memories, but for warping her identity into something she inherently is not. You could have Ouelet (Juliette Binoche) question why Motoko had to be transplanted into a white shell. Perhaps Cutter (Peter Ferdinando) could have insisted upon it for the sake of “image”? What if the reason Kuze (Michael Pitt) and all the other failed experiments didn’t work because their brains were being transplanted into incompatible bodies; the wrong race, the wrong age, the wrong gender?

These ideas not only compliment the source material’s established themes of feeling at odds with your identity internally and externally, but it would have been a genius way of playing by the rules of the broken system whilst simultaneously giving it the finger. “Yeah, we were forced to cast an American in the part,” the personification of this movie would say. “But we’re not happy about it and it’s pretty f*cked up that we had to, right?” It would have given the film a new layer of context beyond the intentions of the original and, if the audience showed support to the idea with their wallets, perhaps make Hollywood executives take pause about the ingrained diversity problems within the industry.

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Get Out recently woke up moviegoers to the indwelling racism still present in our society and, if you’ve seen the film, perhaps now you might realize that it and Ghost in the Shell have more in common than you might think (though the former’s subtext is definitely intentional). This movie could have made a statement on that excellent film’s level if it was even half as smart as it think it is. Maybe there was some intention of this ilk considering how the filmmakers blunder all of the other subtleties of the source material in its adaptation, but I sincerely doubt it. As is, Ghost in the Shell comes off as completely clueless and misses the opportunity to be more than yet another example of Hollywood mining a property without understanding what makes it special.

Starring: Scarlett Johansson (Avengers: Age of Ultron), Pilou Asbæk (Lucy) Michael Pitt (Seven Psychopaths), Takeshi Kitano (Battle Royale), Chin Han (The Dark Knight), Juliette Binoche (Clouds of Sils Maria)

Director: Rupert Sanders (Snow White & The Huntsman)

Writers: Jamie Moss (Street Kings) and William Wheeler (Queen of Katwe) and Ehren Kruger (Transformers: Age of Extinction)

Runtime: 1 hour 47 minutes

Release Date: 30 March (UK), 31 March (US)

Western adaptations of manga and anime haven’t been as prolific as adaptations of video games, but they have a similar reputation for being subpar; just look at Speed Racer and Dragonball Evolution. Ghost in the Shell represents Hollywood’s biggest attempt at a manga adaptation in a while but doing so has only led to racial controversy. But going in I was less been focused about casting choices and more about the complex themes of the source material. Would a Western adaptation aimed at a large audience be able to capture these ideas about identity and humanity and turn it into something digestible but manageable? The short answer: no, they haven’t. Ghost in the Shell is yet another example of a foreign property being mishandled by Hollywood, resulting in a heavily diluted adaptation that is unlikely to please fans or newcomers.

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This new Ghost in the Shell isn’t a strict adaptation of any particular iteration of the franchise, though it takes most of its cues from the 1995 Mamoru Oshii anime film alongside smaller elements from Innocence, Stand Alone Complex and Arise. However, most of what it adapts feels like aesthetic nods inside an otherwise original story, but when I say “original” I mean “not original at all”. The basic plot is pretty much a cyberpunk version of The Bourne Identity with elements of Blade Runner and Equilibrium thrown in, but with none of the depth of either those films or the source material. It takes only the most surface-level examination of the themes of the manga, simplifying philosophical concepts about whether humanity can survive in an artificial world and questions of what even makes us human down to “emotions good, no emotions bad”. Instead of anything of real substance, we get a generic techno-thriller with obvious twists and little to no moral ambiguity in a plot so formulaic that I figured out the whole story before even the prologue was over.

There are several moments where scenes from the Oshii film are recreated almost shot-for-shot but, as cool as it is to see these iconic moments brought to life in live-action, they aren’t integrated well into the new story they’ve created. It feels like they picked out these scenes because they look cool and then worked out the plot around them, with loads of interesting story world concepts brought up and then abandoned in the same scene just because they were in the original. This could all be forgiven if the film was at least entertaining, but it’s so glum and poorly paced that it fails at even that. Ghost in the Shell was never particularly fun to begin with, but it remained engaging because of its unique story and message. Instead, it feels like the filmmakers thought anything that makes you think would be too complicated for a general audience to understand and dumbed it down, but forgot to compensate for it with anything of interest.

The casting controversy of Scarlett Johansson as The Major has been a touchy subject since its announcement and, whilst I wish I could say that those concerns should be quelled, the film doesn’t exactly let you forget about that elephant in the room. Saying much more would be delving into spoilers, but essentially it feels like they wanted to justify the race change in-story out of respect and instead have only created more problems that are sure to piss off certain people; they would have been better off not addressing it at all. But getting beyond that, Johansson’s performance is passable. She does a good job of capturing the character’s robotic nature with her rigid movement and stone-faced demeanour, and there are a few good scenes focused on her trying to understand her humanity, but she doesn’t do much to elevate the material handed to her or make it her own; most actresses of any race could have delivered the same exact performance.

The supporting cast equally struggles to rise above the tepidness of their characters. Michael Pitt’s Kuze, who has been amalgamated with The Puppet Master from the 1995 film, shows some initial menace but his performance eventually devolves into what sounds like Max Headroom doing an impression of Microsoft Sam. He’s the closest thing this film has to the ambiguity of the original, but it’s all pretty much moot because the film’s real villain Cutter (Peter Ferdinando) is the most generic and obvious “evil businessman” character ever; he might as well have “bad guy” tattooed on his forehead. Juliette Binoche does a decent job as the motherly mentor to Major, but the film quickly drops any complexity her character could have had. Takeshi Kitano seems bored playing the chief of Section 9 (side note: he only ever speaks in Japanese, despite everyone else talking to him in English. Why?), and the rest of Major’s fellow officers have barely a character trait between them. The only actor who comes out with something resembling a personality is Pilou Asbæk as Batou, who manages to somewhat capture the gruff but lovable character from the original despite the film giving him very little to do.

If Ghost in the Shell does anything right, it absolutely captures the world of the manga; I’d say it’s the first live-action film to do so without looking silly. Everyone involved in designing the sets, costumes, props and visual effects all deserve a pat on the back because it all looks fantastic. The cinematography is gorgeous and captures an environment that feels gaudy and saturated and yet murky and lived-in, and though the score by Clint Mansell and Lorne Balfe will never be as iconic as Kenji Kawai’s music for the Oshii film they do fit the movie incredibly well. It really does feel like all of the effort went into creating the visuals of the movie and, whilst the results are wonderful to behold, I wish the same amount of effort had gone into the meat of the film.

Ghost in the Shell may be better than most manga/anime adaptations, but that’s not saying much. The source material was the perfect balance of style and substance, but this new version completely throws the scales over to the former. It’s too generic for an intelligent audience to enjoy, too boring for newcomers to get involved, and too simplified to satisfy fans of the original; it pleases no one. It’s the first film of its kind to capture anime in live-action without looking ridiculous, so it at least proves that these adaptations aren’t impossible from a visual perspective, but it fails to understand the core of what made that source material so interesting.

FINAL VERDICT: 4/10

Starring: Dacre Montgomery (Stranger Things), Naomi Scott (Terra Nova), RJ Cyler (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl), Becky G (Empire), Ludi Lin (Marco Polo), Bill Hader (The Skeleton Twins), Bryan Cranston (Godzilla), Elizabeth Banks (The Hunger Games)

Director: Dean Israelite (Project Almanac)

Writer: John Gatins (Real Steel)

Runtime: 2 hours 4 minutes

Release Date: 24 March (US, UK)

Like many kids who grew up in the 90s, I was a big fan of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and kept up with the show for many years after that era (I think the last iteration I actively watched was Wild Force). I watched the show and the movies constantly, I owned a whole bunch of the action figures, and I even had a Green Ranger costume that I’d run around the house in and make swooshing noises as I practiced my karate moves. Like Transformers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles before it or Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh! since, Power Rangers is one of those properties that never went away but is still very much associated with the era it was birthed in, making it one of those treasured “nostalgia properties” Hollywood loves to mine these days. Speaking of which, the new Power Rangers movie. Is this yet another example of a classic IP being misused for the sake of nostalgia dollars, or is this a reboot made with some actual heart? Short answer: yes, but with certain provisos.

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The basic set-up of this new Power Rangers is pretty close to how it was back in the Mighty Morphin days, but with some updates and inspiration drawn from other areas of the franchise. It takes more of a traditional superhero origin approach to the story, with the focus being on the Rangers learning to gain their powers instead of being suddenly handed them, but even with these changes it is unmistakably a Power Rangers movie. It tonally takes a more grounded approach but it doesn’t feel completely ashamed of its campy, toyetic inspiration; it is based of a show that was essentially Saved by the Bell mixed with Gamera, after all. It takes a few knowing jabs at the premise and doesn’t take itself too seriously, and whilst some of the humour sometimes falls into the sophomoric it never reaches a level that makes you feel intellectually insulted.

For those looking for an all-out action romp, you might be disappointed as all of the traditional Ranger action is contained within the third act, but surprisingly it doesn’t drag the movie down. The character drama between these teenagers learning to become a team and get over their issues does actually manage to hold the film together, and so once the action does arrive the build-up feels worth it and it delivers a worthy update of classic Power Rangers action. I wish there was a little more time spent with the Rangers in their prime, especially given that there’s only one major on-foot fight scene with them in-costume, but the film more than promises sequels and if they arrive then I think they’ve laid solid groundwork for more to come. [on a side note, though it isn’t a comic book movie, there is a mid-credits scene that fans should probably stick around for]

Let’s be real for a moment: the original cast of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers weren’t exactly the best written or acted. They were twenty-somethings pretending to be high school kids with the broadest 90s TV one-dimensional personalities you could think of, and that would not fly today. But the new Power Rangers has a surprising diametric difference here: the characters are actually the best thing about the movie. Sure, this new team is essentially the cast of The Breakfast Club as reimagined by The CW, but they feel fully realised and relatable to a modern audience in a way the originals weren’t even in their era.

Instead of the extreme goody-two-shoes nature of the originals that made them feel like the cast of a drug PSA, these Rangers are troubled, reluctant and often at odds with each other; they are teenagers with attitude, but not necessarily good-natured ones. Dacre Montgomery gives Jason a personality that overcomes the usual banality of the “leader” role, admitting quickly to his faults and taking command when others won’t. Naomi Scott’s Kimberly takes the original valley girl characterisation of the character and turns it on its head, showing regret for her Mean Girls-esque actions and ultimately wanting to make up for them. Ludi Lin’s Zack may not be as iconic a rebel as his John Bender inspiration but he makes for a lovable rapscallion, and though Becky G’s Trini drifts the furthest from the source that’s a good thing. Her new characterization as an anti-social, identity-questioning teen adds some much needed depth in an area that very few films aimed at kids dare touch.

But the real star here is RJ Cyler as Billy, who is far more than the stereotypical nerd character he was before. He is the real heart of the team and steals every scene he’s in with his passion and scatter-brained attempts at humour, and making him autistic not only gives context to his technobabble ramblings but also creates a much-needed hero for kids on the spectrum. But like the heroes themselves, what ultimately makes these characters work is how they interact. All of the cast feel like they have genuine chemistry with each other, learning to get along and help each other through their personal angst, and by the film’s climax you really feel like these kids have earned their heroic status.

The supporting cast isn’t quite as strong as our stars, but they all do a more-than-satisfactory job. Bryan Cranston’s Zordon is a little bit more than just the generic mentor he was on the show, showing frustration with the Rangers and not always encouraging them in the right way. As much as the film is about the Rangers learning to become a team, it’s also about Zordon coming to accept that these are the heroes of today. Bill Hader does a good job of removing Alpha 5’s more cloying personality traits, but in the process it doesn’t leave him with much to work with; he has a few funny lines here and there, but I felt like he could have been a little more sassy or excitable. Elizabeth Banks easily edges closest to traditional Power Rangers acting as the new Rita Repulsa, constantly cackling and waving her hands around, and though sometimes it can be tonally at odds with the rest of the film it remains entertaining. It’s easy enough to chalk up her eccentric behaviour to the fact she’s gone insane and just enjoy watching a respectable actor ham it up as a supervillain. My only real gripes with the cast are the ones who aren’t really there: Goldar has been reduced from Rita’s second-in-command to a generic monster, and though the film has plenty of opportunities to do so there is absolutely no Bulk & Skull anywhere to be found. Oh well, I guess that’s just another thing for them to add in the sequel.

On a technical level, the film doesn’t do a huge amount to impress but it’s still a massive step-up from even the most recent episodes of the show. The visual effects aren’t as detailed or photorealistic as the recent Transformers movies or Pacific Rim, but the more exaggerated and colourful designs make up for it. The Ranger suits themselves are a little flashy and odd at first, but in motion the designs feel more practical and visually interesting than the spandex of the past; again, close enough to the original whilst still feeling fresh. Brian Tyler’s score feels suitably epic, several times reminding me of Daft Punk’s score for TRON: Legacy with its mix of classical and techno, but the use of pop music is a little less consistent. Whilst the occasional soundtrack choice works, especially when they find a place to play that classic theme song, a lot of them feel forced in to appeal to a teen audience. However, the film’s biggest fault is one I rarely ever bring up but here it needs addressing: product placement. There’s only one big company on display, but it’s so key to the movie that it’s actually a plot point. I can’t believe talking about a film’s product placement actually counts as a spoiler, but just don’t be surprised if you have a craving for doughnuts after watching this movie.

Here’s the real big question as to whether you’ll like this movie or not: do you or did you ever like Power Rangers as a kid? If you never did, this movie probably won’t appeal to you. If you maybe did but have written it off since, I’d still probably not recommend it. But if there is any part of you that still holds a candle for this goofy series or, better yet, you are still actively a fan, then this is a movie you are at least going to like, if not love. Does it always work? No. Is it goofy and weird and over the top? Yes. But is it entertaining? Absolutely! This is by no means a spectacular movie that’ll go down in the history books, but it accomplishes its goal admirably and was just a lot of fun to watch.

Though sometimes held back by those typical Hollywood changes, it feels like it was made with effort from people who at least understood the show if not necessarily being fans of it. Beyond just doing a solid job of updating the source material, the film actually pays attention to things like character development and thematic meaning, which immediately puts it above and beyond most movies of its ilk; take notes, Michael Bay. I was willing to settle for something much stupider in the vein of GI Joe: Retaliation or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, but Power Rangers worked so well for me that I was able to actually enjoy it unironically. If you’re a “serious” person, go ahead and knock a few points of the score below. But if you’ve come to Power Rangers just to enjoy yourself, I believe you’ll have a morphenomenal good time.

FINAL VERDICT: 7.5/10

Starring: Emma Watson (Harry Potter), Dan Stevens (The Guest), Luke Evans (Fast & Furious 6), Kevin Kline (A Fish Called Wanda), Josh Gad (Frozen), Ewan McGregor (Trainspotting), Ian McKellen (X-Men), Emma Thompson (Love Actually)

Director: Bill Condon (Dreamgirls)

Writers: Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) and Evan Spiliotopoulos (The Huntsman: Winter’s War)

Runtime: 2 hours 9 minutes

Release Date: 17 March (US, UK)

Disney continues to mine its animation catalogue for live-action adaptations, and at the moment their success has been mixed to say the least; for every The Jungle Book, there’s a Maleficent. But Beauty and the Beast is not only the most recent of their classics they’ve attempted to remake but also one of the most difficult because, at least in my opinion, it’s the best animated movie they’ve ever made. How on earth can you top a film that is already so damn near perfect? Thankfully, whilst it still doesn’t reach the lofty heights of the original, this new Beauty and the Beast is a worthy adaptation that updates the classic just enough to be fresh whilst being smart enough to preserve what is already superb.

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If you know the 1991 original back to front, the basic plot is exactly as you remember it. This is easily the most literal translation of one of their films Disney has done with no subversions on the story or drastic tonal reinvention, with even much of the original dialogue making it through intact, but honestly there’s no reason why they should change it. Given that they’ve also kept it as a musical, the light tone and exaggerated aspects drawn right from the animation doesn’t at all feel out of place in live-action. Instead of drastically reworking the story, the film opts to simply touch up the material already there, like adding new character beats or fixing up plot holes from the original. For the most part the changes work, but equally the movie wouldn’t be much better or worse without them. Expanding on the effects on the curse on its inhabitants or delving into the fate of Belle’s mother do add some interesting detail and dramatic heft, but the original worked just as well without them. However, the subtle fixes they’ve done here and there, like explaining why no one in town knows about the castle or the inconsistencies regarding The Beast’s age and how long he’s been cursed, should be much appreciated by fans of the classic who’ve noticed these things over the years. As a whole, the film goes for the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach and, though some may see the final product as too similar to the original to warrant existence, it succeeds in recognizing what needed a polish and what can stay exactly as is.

The real change in this Beauty and the Beast comes not from the format translation or story expansion, but from the new life these actors bring to their iconic roles. At their core, they are still the same timeless characters you know and love but they now feel subtly but noticeably different to reflect the new era it has been made in. Belle has always been one of Disney’s most forward and dimensional leads and doesn’t need a major revamping like, say, Cinderella did, but Emma Watson gives her a modern feminist touch-up that makes her feel fresh again. They’ve really expanded on the trailblazing nature of the character, giving her an eye for invention and a contemporary attitude to relationships that feel like a natural extension of her traits from the original. Dan Stevens’ interpretation of The Beast also feels suitably updated, using the character’s spoilt superficial upbringing as more of a justification for his initially volatile behaviour and gives an extra dimension to his character’s arc; as much as Belle learns to look past Beast’s monstrous form to see the man inside, he learns to look past her beauty to see the smart and capable woman she is.

Concerning side characters, Luke Evans and Josh Gad constantly steal the show as Gaston and LeFou. This is easily the most impressed I’ve been with a performance from Evans ever, who channels his inner Bruce Campbell to give a marvellously egotistical performance that can switch from funny to threatening in a heartbeat. Gad’s LeFou, meanwhile, has been greatly expanded from a mere comic foil to an awestruck follower too blinded to realise he’s idolising the wrong man. [To briefly address the “controversy” surrounding the character (which I shouldn’t really have to because it’s 2017, but this is still newsworthy apparently), it’s played fairly low-key and doesn’t warrant the entire hubbub it’s caused. Honestly, it’s only a step or two more overt than the subtext in the Batman/Joker relationship in The LEGO Batman Movie. It’s certainly there, but it’s the kind of a thing a younger audience will probably not even notice.] Kevin Kline is fun as Belle’s doting father Maurice, his kookiness brought down a notch and played more as loving if somewhat eccentric. The various servants at Beast’s castle are all played with aplomb by an all-star cast, though some feel a little more inconsequential than others. Ewan McGregor and Ian McKellen may not hold a candle on the timeless camaraderie (yes, both puns intended) of Jerry Orbach and David Ogden Stiers’ portrayals of Lumiere and Cogsworth, but they more than apply themselves to the roles and prove to be entertaining in their own way. Similarly, Emma Thompson’s Mrs Potts doesn’t quite match up to Angela Lansbury’s interpretation, but she brings her own personal charm to the character that feels as suitably caring and sweet. However, the relationship between Lumiere and Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s Plumette and the new romance between Audra McDonald’s Garderobe and Stanley Tucci’s Cadenza both feel rather superfluous; I’d like to have seen the latter dropped and the former given more development.

Of course, you can’t talk about either version of Beauty and the Beast without talking about the wonderful music by Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman. All the songs from the original have made the jump to live action and, whilst the original recordings shall always remain the iconic versions of these songs, the new renditions are still all-around staged and performed wonderfully; “Belle” and “Gaston” feel the most reinvigorated in their new forms, with Watson and Gad’s performances giving some new subtext to the familiar lyrics. The new songs from Aladdin lyricist Tim Rice however, like the additions to the plot, are done well enough but aren’t exactly necessary. “Days in the Sun” feels a little too much like padding and effectively serves as a stand-in for “Human Again”, a song cut from the theatrical version of the animated film because it was exactly that: padding. “Evermore” fares better considering it gives Beast the solo he never got in the original, as well as some context to his decision at the end of the second act, but again you could skip it and miss nothing. On a visual presentation level, it has that similarly grand “fairy tale come to life” feel the new Cinderella really nailed, with lavish sets and beautiful costumes that really help transport you to a fantastical world. The visual effects are noticeably less detailed than in last year’s Jungle Book, especially on The Beast, but are still well above average compared to most modern VFX and is more forgivable considering the more heightened aesthetic of this film comparatively.

Watching this new Beauty and the Beast is like watching a new production of a played you saw and loved many years ago: you still enjoy it and appreciate what is different about it, but nothing compares to that first time. It thankfully recognises that the original film is just as effective today as it was twenty-five years ago, seeing no need to drastically alter the story through needless subversion (I’m still looking at you, Maleficent). What it does choose to update are small but much appreciated refinements, and even though many of the larger changes are perfunctory none of them drag the movie down significantly. Younger audiences who may have never seen the original are going to love this, and older fans are going to appreciate seeing a piece of their childhood given respect and offer them a chance to see it fresh again. The experience can often feel like déjà vu, but not in an unnerving way. More like an “I’ve just gone back to a happy memory and appreciate being reminded of it” sort of thing. If that makes any sense to you.

FINAL VERDICT: 8/10