The Mandalorian Season Two Premiere Review

As the sophomore season of the Disney+ flagship show lands in a sitting room near you at lightspeed, the weight of high expectations and fan theorizing rests heavily on the shoulders of lead creatives Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni, as well as every other creative in front of and behind the camera. If the season two premiere is any indication, it looks like they may have just exceeded each and every one of these expectations in effortless fashion.

In broad strokes, the first few minutes of this episode play out in similar fashion to those of the initial season one premiere. Our protagonist, the titular Mandalorian known as Din Djarin, is on assignment in an alien environment, using nothing but his wits and his personal arsenal of advanced weaponry to survive. The key difference is that whereas before he was operating as a bounty hunter chasing his mark, this time around he has the fan-favourite Child in tow and is seeking information on where he might find other members of his warrior culture. A few world-building moments and fight sequences later, Mando is then on his way back to Tatooine to chase up a lead on a fellow mystery Mandalorian who he hopes can help him repatriate his green and diminutive adopted baby.

While it feels like a logical progression from the season one finale when the Armorer gave him these orders, proceedings are swiftly turned on their head when it transpires that the sighted Mandalorian is hiding out in Mos Pelgo, a township far from the infamous Mos Eisley and absent from any official maps.

Mando and The Child, the father-son duo that the galaxy far, far away didn’t know it needed, but is now grateful to have

Upon arrival he soon encounters the man he seeks, a man acting as the town’s marshal and wearing Mandalorian armour – which franchise fans will immediately recognize as the set previously owned by Boba Fett. Except, Boba Fett is not the person hiding underneath the helmet – it is Cobb Vanth, a character who originally appeared in the Aftermath trilogy of books and is now using the armour as an authoritative uniform. After demanding that he return the armour to a true Mandalorian, but before things can turn hostile, a gigantic Krayt Dragon causes havoc in the township. This encourages both men to put aside their differences and work together for mutual benefit – if Mando saves Mos Pelgo by helping to take out the leviathan along with rival Tusken Raiders then Cobb will voluntarily hand over the armour.

Cobb Vanth, marshal extraordinaire

The premise of the episode is daring in scope when ties to previously-established canon are considered, yet simple in nature when the basic idea of ‘monster hunter saves town’ comes to the fore at the end of the first act and then drives the rest of the episode’s narrative.

Sitting comfortably at over fifty minutes in length this is by far the longest episode of the series to date, and this goes a long way to allow certain moments to breathe and run their course naturally rather than having to be rushed along for the sake of plot. In many respects it is comparable to a mini-movie rather than an episode of television, and that is definitely a large feather in the cap of all those involved behind the scenes – particularly those responsible for the jaw-dropping change in aspect ratio during the climactic Krayt Dragon fight.

The very inclusion of the Krayt Dragon is itself a love letter to Star Wars fans, harkening back not only to the infant skeleton of a mysterious creature in the opening act A New Hope, but also a plethora of other references to the species in the franchise’s expanded media.

The Krayt Dragon and an explosive-wrapped serving of Bantha lunch

However, this being the first time it has been seen onscreen, in all of its destructive and dazzling special effects glory, is just the latest in a long line of inclusions in the series which have rewarded long-time fans of the franchise for their diligence. From a model of storage container first seen on Cloud City in Empire Strikes Back being used to transport Beskar steel, to a Lothal cat hissing from underneath a table on the forest planet Sorgan, the writing team behind The Mandalorian have been careful to include just the right amount of minute details and larger subplots that only an überfan will fully appreciate. Thankfully, this process has been practised to a fine art and while not every detail and inclusion is fully appreciated by everybody, the series can still be watched in a vacuum and no enjoyment or context is lost. This is fan service done right.

“One more episode, barkeep, as quickly as you can!”

From a technical standpoint the series is even more impressive now than it was last season, with the set design, character wardrobes, and prosthetics being as impeccable as ever. The world(s) that are inhabited by this cast of characters feels truly lived in, and even on a familiar planet things still feel brand new.

Part of the commendation must deservedly go to the VFX artists working with The Volume, the on-set technology being used to produce digital backgrounds and special effects in realtime rather than using jarring green screen. As with last season, this has allowed them to continue making CGI look more realistic than ever before, with some of the set pieces during the climax of the episode even putting parts of the franchise’s theatrical outings to shame.

The cherry on top of this spectacular episode is the return of Temeura Morrison as Boba Fett himself, seen watching from afar as Mando rides off into the sunset with his armour in tow. What this means for the future of both characters is open to speculation, but in the meantime fans can rejoice in the knowledge that the character behind everyone’s favourite action figure survived his apparent death in 1983.

A scarred Boba Fett, confirmed in live-action to be alive after he was last seen tumbling into the maw of a Sarlacc five years before the events of the series

In conclusion, from script to director’s chair Jon Favreau has delivered an impeccable opening episode to the new season of The Mandalorian. By any metric, be it technical prowess, plot progression, pacing, longtime fan satisfaction, sound design, and anything in-between, this premiere episode was a roaring success. The stage has now well and truly been set for what is surely going to be a rollercoaster of a season, especially with it being all but confirmed that another fan-favourite character, this time of the animated variety, is on her way to making a live-action debut in the coming weeks. If anyone is still undecided on whether or not they should join the masses and follow the adventures of The Mandalorian and The Child, then just know that this is the Star Wars you spent your childhood daydreaming about while playing with action figures.

Final Score: 10/10

The New Mutants Review

Stuck in development hell after numerous delays spanning several years, Josh Boone’s The New Mutants finally hit theatres this month and is one of the first to do so during the global pandemic. Breaking the traditional superhero mould and fusing X-Gene mayhem with YA horror, the biggest question hanging over its head is was it worth the wait?

Warning: Spoilers Ahead

It feels like a lifetime ago when Thor: Ragnarok landed in theatres across the world back in October 2017, accompanied by the first trailer for what would be the final entry in the FOX-Men series of cinematic outings. Had this movie released in April 2018 as originally planned its target audience would still be gushing over Stranger Things and one of its stars Charlie Heaton, they would not yet have been disappointed by Maisie Williams’ final season of Game of Thrones, and they would be eagerly awaiting Anya Taylor-Joy’s next blockbuster outing between the one-two punch that would become Split and its sequel Glass. Instead those ships have all left the harbour a long time ago, and since the planned reshoots never actually happened we have to wonder what was the point of keeping this ensemble of talented young actors on the shelf for so long.

A couple of minutes and one disaster movie intro later after the lights dim and the projector powers up, the audience follows Blu Hunt’s Dani Moonstar to the mysterious medical facility in which she has woken up. Far from a traditional hospital, she finds herself handcuffed to the bed and under constant observation by biometric-scanning CCTV cameras before the initially-soothing Dr. Reyes comforts her new patient and explains her new set of circumstances. Soon joined by her four other fellow patients, or rather inmates, Dani discovers that she is being kept in an off-the-grid facility which teaches dangerous new mutants how to control their powers and reintegrate into society. However, doctoral qualifications aside, Reyes shares very few similarities with the altruistic Xavier over in Westchester.

It isn’t long before the sinister underbelly of Dani’s new home is revealed, with her housemates being kept there mostly against their will long-term with no release in sight.

The exact circumstances of her arrival uncertain, all that is known is that something devastating tore through Dani’s ancestral home and killed all of its inhabitants. She, however, is relatively unharmed and strange things begin to go bump in the night when she becomes agitated during her nightmares. With a healthy dose of dramatic irony at play by keeping the movie’s six characters in the dark until the final act, it is immediately apparent to the audience that Dani has the ability to make a person’s worst nightmare manifest in the real world. This leads to a destructive final confrontation with her inner demons as it takes the form of the Demon Bear from her childhood folklore, killing Dr. Reyes and freeing these five new mutants from under her boot. But not before they get the chance to work together as a team and embrace rather than fear their superpowers to defeat it, of course.

Things don’t look good for the new mutants heading into the final confrontation

In many ways the movie works, making the audience care for each of the teenagers in turn except for Roberto ‘Sunspot’ da Costa, who is an unfortunate victim of sequel setup which will now never happen.

This disappointing oversight aside, by and large Boone has made great use of a short runtime to cover the backstories of four other troubled teenagers whose origin stories contain a mix of survivor’s guilt, Catholic shame, penitent mourning, and repressed sexual trauma. Far from the usual radioactive spider or gamma rays, one thing which Boone does not do with this cast of comic books characters is shy away from what makes them tick. Although it is for the most part implicit context rather than explicit content, the narrative is still served well by the gradual reveals of their individual histories.

That being said, what The New Mutants needed more than anything else is more room to breathe. Claustrophobia aside, which in fact ups the tension as the characters never leave the facility, events and exposition happen one after the other and after another like clockwork, as if a checklist of things to cover is being ticked off one by one. If the rumours of the planned reshoots being used to incorporate more horror elements are true, they would have been a welcome addition if they also brought along with them enough extra footage to bump the runtime up to two hours and allow a world to develop onscreen. Rather than escaping to the world of cinema and becoming immersed in the FOX-Men universe one last time, instead we feel more like casual observers who are simply viewing quick-cut snippets of the characters’ lives.

To make matters worse, even though she is the closest thing to a main character in this ensemble, Dani is overshadowed by Illyana Rasputin in almost every way.

When the armour and sword come out, you run

With the most explicit backstory and substantial script material to work with, Anya Taylor-Joy easily puts in the best performance of the bunch and makes this another successful footnote in her growing filmography. Not that fellow sci-fi franchise veterans Charlie Heaton and Maisie Williams are pushovers, nor are the rest of the cast, but it is a simple case of another character ultimately being more compelling and entertaining to watch than the one who is supposed to be the audience’s eyes and introduction into this new world. Add in miniature dragon Lockheed, a gigantic glowing Soulsword, teleportation portals into Limbo and suddenly you find yourself just lamenting the fact that we will likely never see Magik link up with her famous metallic brother Colossus of Deadpool fame.

Rahne ‘Wolfsbane’ Sinclair midtransformation – try to scorch her with a hot brand at your own peril

The aforementioned Williams also produces some of the best acting in this outing, her strong Catholic faith contrasting nicely with the real-life horror movie unfolding in front of these fictional characters. Sharing a number of touching scenes with Blu Hunt’s Dani as they explore their sexual identity and budding romance, in many ways they link up to form the heart of the movie.

Tragically, this great performance is overshadowed in some scenes by shockingly bad special effects in an otherwise impressive movie CGI-wise. Made famous for being a werewolf in an X-Man suit in the source material, here Rahne Sinclair deviates between being a regular wolf and Maisie Williams with extra tufts of fur around her neck and longer nails. In a project which contains a building-sized nightmare bear, a teleporting girl with a sword and a pair of boys who can spontaneously combust and charge through the air at extreme speeds, this is unfortunately a distractingly disappointing effort which will not age well for a character who the audience spends a lot of time connecting with and is portrayed by such a fan-favourite actor.

Also disappointing is the absence of the true villain behind Dr. Reyes and the facility, implied through context to be the infamous X-Men villain Mr. Sinister when it is revealed that Essex Corporation is the governing body. No doubt setup for the rest of the trilogy along with the pleasantly surprising connection to Logan, given that this movie is now just a one-and-done affair it instead reeks of unfulfilled opportunities.

A little worse for wear and severely traumatised, but at least the world is now their oyster

Plagued by studio-mandated pushbacks and delays that killed any momentum the project might have had in the first place, The New Mutants caps off the FOX-Men Cinematic Universe with a whimper rather than a bang. Although it is full to the brim with young and talented actors, an appropriately eerie atmosphere, mostly-perfect special effects and a drive to do something different, this outing is weighed down by failings which are too glaring to ignore. It’s hurried runtime robs the audience of the quieter moments which are well-executed when present, its traditionally superhero-esque third act marks a tonal shift so out of left field that it gives the audience whiplash, and its efforts to tie together other projects containing an X-Gene are unfortunately too little too late and leave longtime fans of the franchise craving something that is now never going to see fruition.

Final Score: 6/10

Project Power Review

The latest original blockbuster to land on Netflix since The Old Guard took the streaming service by storm last month, Project Power once again proves that the big screen feel can be condensed into your living room.

For many years now some of the highest grossing films every summer have been those featuring heroes with spectacular superpowers. In 2020, however, there has been something of a drought. You won’t find this film in a cinema near you, nor will you find anyone in it particularly heroic when compared to their genre competition at Marvel Studios and Warner Brothers. Their powers do not come from a radioactive spider or the radiation from an orange star either, instead being the byproduct of a dangerous new drug flooding the streets of New Orleans. The only thing standing in its way? An ex-military Jamie Foxx in search of his daughter, a vengeful Joseph Gordon-Levitt looking to level the playing field for the NOPD, and an out-of-her-depth Dominique Fishback caught up in the middle of this drug war as she tries to provide for her and her disadvantaged mother.

From the very beginning Project Power is all flash, and thankfully for the viewers at home there is also a healthy dose of substance to go along with it. Impressive CGI aside, the story opens with a mysterious benefactor gifting large quantities of Power to local drug dealers, a pill which grants the user a random animal-based superpower for just five minutes. From bulletproof armadillo skin to chameleon invisibility, the possibilities are endless. So, too, is the potential for chaos on the streets of New Orleans.

Officer Frank, about to survive a gunshot to the head after taking a Power pill

Enter high schooler Robin who is one of the locals enamoured with the money on offer for pushing this new product, conscious of the fact that it is just her and her mother against the world and that she needs an avenue out of her current life to greater things. Rounding out the trinity is the mysterious Art, who the police believe to be the source of Power but who is instead out to take it off the streets and find his kidnapped daughter in the process. If anyone has any doubts as to how Jamie Foxx can take on a superpowered drug dealer then look no further than poor Newt, temporarily portrayed by rapper Machine Gun Kelly.

Nothing good happens when it turns out that The Human Torch isn’t actually fireproof

Straddling the fine line between thrilling action and heartfelt character moments, Project Power manages to juggle the best of both worlds and produce a well-balanced narrative. Just when it feels like the story is getting bogged down along comes a new scene-stealing superpower, and when it all gets just a little bit too gratuitous another layer is peeled back on a main character to further our emotional attachment to them.

That isn’t to say that the film is without its flaws. The elements of Art’s background concerning the government conspiracy behind Power sometimes descends into tedium, and not all of the special effects are as gorgeous as the trailer would have you believe. One instance of extreme gigantism borders on the ridiculous and is more akin to the CGI you would find on network television rather than a Hollywood production. Nevertheless, the shortcomings are little more than nitpicks and are soon overlooked as soon as the next scene enthrals the viewer once more.

The worldbuilding present adds a lot to the narrative. Every television report and newspaper article about a superpowered attack makes the world feel that much more lived-in. Joining the ranks of The Old Guard and Bright, this is another Netflix Original film which would benefit greatly from either a straight sequel or even a television series follow-up.

Art and Robin, the dual emotional heart of proceedings

In conclusion, Project Power is another impressive arrow in the quiver of Netflix’s catalogue of original content. Balancing a cast of A-listers and relative unknowns, impressive set pieces and intimate character moments, and contrasting the allure of superpowers against the sometimes-horrifying consequences, this is one film which fans of the genre dare not miss.

Final Score: 8/10

Doctor Aphra Audio Drama Review

From guest-starring in the Darth Vader comic series to headlining her own forty-issue run, from a crossover with Skywalker and Co. to a second volume of her own series which is now well under way, Dr. Chelli Aphra is certainly popular in four-colour print. But can she make the switch to a sightless medium?

To the relief of her legion of fans, the answer is a resounding yes. Since blasting onto the scene in early 2015 a handful of different artists and writers have put their stamp on everyone’s favourite archaeologist since Indiana Jones. This audio drama adaptation of her first set of appearances in the Darth Vader comic series where she finds herself under his employ puts the focus on her own perspective, in addition to adding some bonus content which before now would have been left to the imagination of the reader. In concept it is intriguing, and in practice it is thoroughly enjoyable.

Scribed by seasoned author Sarah Kuhn, the voice and chaotic neutral energy of Aphra is captured perfectly in this five-hour adventure. While it may take some getting used to for listeners who are unfamiliar with our (anti?)heroine, this new venture is as faithful to the character as fans could have hoped. Featuring a handful of delightful scenes which allow Triple-Zero to remind us all why we love his murderous tendencies, listeners are soon reminded just how important sound can be when stirring our imaginations.

Sarah Kuhn, the latest in a long line of authors to leave their mark on characters residing in a galaxy far, far away

The voice acting lends itself very well to the narrative with impressive performances found here from the majority of the cast. Emily Woo Zeller is a convincing and praise-worthy Aphra, Sean Kenin is a suitably-sociopathic Triple-Zero, and Marc Thompson is a worthy successor to the role of Darth Vader. One downfall of the voice work is the inclusion of the trio of heroes who are synonymous with this far, far away galaxy. Despite their best efforts none of the actors portraying Luke, Han, and Leia do so to a degree which would be considered seamless coming from their live-action appearances. While this has no impact on the actual story per se, it does unfortunately take the listener out of the moment and forces them to readjust.

First appearance of Doctor Aphra in Star Wars: Darth Vader #3

The story itself moves along at a swift pace which somehow manages to never feel rushed. Framed as a series of flashbacks from the perspective of a later Aphra retelling her escapades to a voice recorder, the listener benefits from enjoying her adventure while also being exposed to some of her regretful hindsight which comes after the fact. This includes, but is not limited to, a touching apology to her former lover Sana Starros which is beautifully acted-out by Zeller.

Clocking in at nearly half the length of Audible’s recent venture The Sandman and being more akin to their trilogy of Alien audio drama adaptations in length, Doctor Aphra still manages to pack an awful lot in to its disappointingly-light runtime. Unfortunately, it is still beat-for-beat almost identical to her first appearances in comic book form despite promises to the contrary. For a universe as expansive as that of Star Wars and a blank canvas painted by the original source material, one would have hoped that the additional narrative content would have been a bit more substantive than what is presented here. Although constrained by the course of events that are set in stone, given that this piece is surely designed to attract new readers to the character it would have been prudent to offer more than close to the exact same story that has already existed for nearly five years in print even if that meant upping the runtime.

Nevertheless, if it were not for the promise of an expanded story which goes relatively unfulfilled there would be little to fault in this audio drama. Gripes with the original heroic trio aside, it offers both stellar performances for the most part, amazing sound effects throughout, and a narrative which keeps you on the edge of your seat. If the production quality of Doctor Aphra is any indication of things to come, fans will surely be clamouring for other fan favourite characters who have yet to receive the live-action treatment to step into the recording booth.

The first solo appearance of Doctor Aphra, accompanied by her delightfully devilish supporting cast

All in all, Doctor Aphra is a fine audio drama which Random House Audio can be proud of. Despite its shortcomings in certain guest performances and a promise of more content which did not quite reach expectations, it still manages to offer a thrilling adventure from a unique perspective. Augmented by pitch-perfect performances from its main cast and sound effects which bring immersion to new heights, this is one story that effortlessly takes your imagination far, far away.

Final Score: 7.5/10

Red Noise Review

Bending the western genre beyond almost all recognition with a sci-fi coat of paint, Red Noise is the best cowboy novel to see print in years.

Engineer-turned-author John P. Murphy may have just cracked the code on how to make cowboys in space anything other than ridiculous. While it may substitute a saddle-back horse for a spaceship and dust-filled 19th century Americana for a pitstop out amongst the stars, Red Noise is immediately flagged as the latest in a line of expectation-subverting westerns – in case you missed all of the other clues, the sprawling-yet-claustrophobic Station 35 is formally named after John Wayne himself.

John P. Murphy

When we first meet our protagonist, a hardened ex-military veteran whose body is riddled with cybernetic augmentations, she is making her way towards the nearest station which her dwindling fuel reserves can reach in order sell the ore she has spent months mining in solitude.

Referred to as ‘Jane’, short for Jane Doe, ‘Mickey’, short for Mickey Mouse, and more often than not as simply ‘the Miner’, we never learn a whole lot about this terrifyingly-cold warrior, which is exactly the way she prefers things. What we do learn an awful lot about, however, are the myriad of colourful characters who plague and enrich her life within the confines of Cpt John Wayne Koganusan Station, grandiosely named that instead of simply ‘cowboy fortress’. Ranging from a drunken, washed-up stationmaster to a three-way gang war for supremacy to all of the unfortunates caught up in the whirlwind of violence, Murphy has crafted a cast of characters who each bring something different to the table. Be it Takata’s sage observations, Ditz’s melancholy reflections, Feeney’s manic obsessions, Angelica’s string-pulling, or McMasterson’s moustache-twirling scheming, there is quite literally never a dull moment.

From the second our protagonist first steps foot on Station 35 she is getting the lay of the land, and it isn’t long before she realises that the whole damn place is rotten to the core, a core that needs to be excised with an expertly-wielded samurai sword. The parallels to works by such icons as Kurosawa are blatant, and we follow the Miner as she plays each of the three sides against each other while occasionally publicly switching sides herself. What ensues is an often-frenetic and sometimes-chaotic cacophony of violence which metaphorically splits the station in half, and almost manages it literally when the mythological heir-apparent Nuke struts back onto his turf in the wake of his sister’s bloodied wedding ceremony.

The book is not without its flaws, however. For every few minor character interactions which flesh out the world around us, there is one which breaks the pace of the narrative. While the story is well-crafted and keeps the reader on the edge of their seat, somewhere around the middle it starts to become middling before the tension and stakes return as it races into the final third. The book’s ending, though favourable, is a little bit too rushed to be as satisfying as it could have been. Then again, being fast-paced and abrupt is keeping itself consistent with everything else that came before it.

All things considered, this is still an excellent book which effortlessly transports you to a world beyond our current realm of possibility, while still making it entirely familiar because of the people who populate it. Although she may not be the female version of a John Wayne-esque cowboy, that probably suits the Miner right down to the ground – she is instead much more interesting and intimidating.

Final Score: 7.5/10

The Old Guard Review

The latest sci-fi offering from the film division of streaming behemoth Netflix is equal parts engrossing and expertly assembled.

If your expectations for The Old Guard do not extend beyond yet another middling Friday night B-movie offering from Netflix then think twice – director Gina Prince-Bythewood hasn’t just broken the mould, she has smashed through it with aplomb. Based on the much-loved Image Comics series penned by Greg Rucka, The Old Guard is about a group of immortal mercenaries who have done their best to make the world a better place throughout history. Now in the present day, the first new immortal warrior in two centuries has unlocked her abilities and the CEO of a pharmaceutical company is hell-bent on obtaining their DNA in order to give modern medicine the kickstart it needs to become future medicine. With so many spinning plates in this film there is certainly a lot to unpack and not a lot of time to do it.

Yet somehow during the span of a two-hour blockbuster enough nuance and character development is packed-in to make this the most emotional sci-fi action thriller to grace our screens in a long time.

The crew as they originally appeared in print

This is thanks to Prince-Bythewood’s expert handling of the impressive cast that has been assembled in front of her, as well as the heroic efforts of fight coordinator Daniel Hernandez and the tight screenplay provided by original writer Greg Rucka. All of these elements come together beautifully to give us a film which dedicates appropriate time to each character, allows them to gel onscreen as a unit, and contains some of the best fight choreography in recent years which does not need to rely on quick cuts to hide its shortcomings.

The particular strain of immortality which flows through the veins of our protagonists is akin to that of Wolverine’s abilities from the Marvel universe. Damage can be done to their bodies and kill them temporarily, however moments or minutes later they will recover and heal their wounds in suitably grotesque fashion. Putting a twist on the concept which prevents the stakes from being removed altogether is the drawback of this immortality eventually expiring. This is shown to have happened to other immortals within the history of this fictional world, and it is now happening to Andromache ‘Andy’ of Scythia, perfectly portrayed by Charlize Theron.

Andy sure does love that handheld weapon of mass destruction

At the beginning of the film Andy is cold and distant, having grown weary over the centuries of helping mankind and seeing the world still be a hive of villainy. She is then drawn back into the fold by the lure of a humanitarian crisis offered up to her by CIA agent Copley, the impressive Chiwetel Ejiofar. This is revealed to be a trap set to capture the group, which then goes awry as we get a violent glimpse of what they are capable of.

From the very beginning the film is at full throttle, and within ten minutes the concept has been explained, the premise is clear, a taste of the action has been provided, and the audience is ready to enjoy the next two hours of their evening. But make no mistake, seeing the damage that these characters can sustain and inflict is not the only allure of this film – the characters themselves are equally enticing. Andy herself is the cautionary tale, showing what happens when years have gone by and eventually humanity means little to you after closing yourself off from it. Booker shows that watching your children grow old and sick while you are still eternally youthful takes its toll, and sometimes you wish that it would all just end. Joe and Nicky embody the benefits of immortality after finding each other, and an impassioned speech by Joe in the face of danger conveys their love beautifully. Finally, Nile is the eyes through which we see the film as adjusting to this new life is both scary and exciting, before realising that you will outlive your family and friends.

Joe, Booker, Andy, Nicky, and Nile. Not quite The Famous Five, but close enough

That being said, there are some drawbacks to this film. While the fight choreography is stunning and a sight to behold, it has a habit of sometimes being accompanied by a jarring soundtrack which tends to ruin the moment. These odd musical choices also make their way into other scenes, which unfortunately distract the audience rather than set the mood. Additionally, the villain who is hounding our gang of warriors is rather unconvincingly played by Harry Melling, who does not quite suit the role he has been given although he does put in a good performance like everyone else in the cast. There are also a couple of head-scratching moments throughout the film, such as the gang’s aversion to wearing any sort of body armour or protection. Yes, they can heal from their wounds, but it has been shown that they are still easily incapacitated by live ammunition. Wearing protective gear would surely help rather than hinder them, and its absence seems like an excuse to show off yet again just how badass they are.

Nevertheless, these gripes are minor in comparison to the triumphs celebrated by the rest of the cast and crew and can be overlooked in the moment. It is only really upon reflection that they stick out and prevent this film from being a flawless blockbuster.

Merrick isn’t quite as intimidating as a gang of immortal mercenaries

The Old Guard manages to make its audience feel both compassion and exhilaration as its narrative balances both gory violence and heart-wrenching trauma. Although headlined by Charlize Theron and Chiwetel Ejiofar, the rest of the cast all rise to the challenge and come together effortlessly, making this an impressive ensemble action thriller which is certainly not expendable. With a satisfying conclusion and sequel-tease before the credits, The Old Guard will hopefully become The New Franchise to rave about.

Final Score: 9/10

Firewalkers Review

Sci-fi thriller or novella-sized cautionary tale – why not both?

Adrian Tchaikovsky is no stranger to the sci-fi genre; his Arthur C. Clarke award for Children of Time in 2016 is proof enough of that. His latest outing, Firewalkers, depicts a world in which young men and women of the titular profession must venture out into the sometimes-deadly, often-times fatal scorched Earth that is now their home to fix vital systems and equipment in the hope of receiving fresh food and water from those in charge. And those people in charge? Mere puppet leaders, left in place by the rich and the elite who have long since evacuated to a spaceship in the upper atmosphere, connected only by an elevator which must be kept operational so that they can be joined by the last few straggling rich and elite.

It is here that we meet Mao, a Vietnamese nineteen-year-old who is far from his ancestral home, living at the base of this almost reverent elevator shaft out of necessity so that he can provide for his family as a Firewalker. Oh, and because everywhere else on the planet is either burning at sixty degrees Celsius or flooding under Noah’s Ark-levels of water, presumably due to the polar icecaps being no more than an urban legend at this point in the future.

Adrian Tchaikovsky

On the face of it, Firewalkers sounds and even reads like the sort of cautionary tale that you might expect to find in a future-set bottle episode of Doctor Who, a comparison that is made as a compliment rather than a criticism. Due in part to both its genre as adult sci-fi and Tchaikovsky’s ruthlessness as an author, however, the tale itself is much darker than one you might find on pre-watershed BBC. In the space of the first chapter, Tchaikovsky sets the scene, the status quo, our main character’s motivations, and also the fictional history of the dystopian world we find ourselves delving into within this novella.

From very early on we feel as if we know all of the ins-and-outs of where some of the last survivors of the human race are huddled together in Ankara Achouka, a multicultural melting pot in the equatorial desert which has last seen better days a very long time ago. Tchaikovsky introduces us to our cast of characters consisting of Mao himself, as well as Lupé, an engineering prodigy, and Hotep, an albino former-elite from high above in the Grand Celeste spaceship who was cast down to Earth due to undiagnosed special needs labelling her as ‘less than’ when it comes to those who are worthy of escaping the burning rock we call home. The latter picking up her nickname due to an uncanny resemblance to a certain monster from Bubba Ho-Tep when wearing her life-saving bandages to hide from the scorching rays of the Sun (instantly earning a +1 in our assessment of the novella) is a constant reminder of the future which might lie ahead of us should climate change continue in its current downward spiral.

Tchaikovsky wastes no time with this novella; clocking in at just ten chapters spread over roughly two hundred pages, he really doesn’t have the time to do so. In a concise and often thrilling fashion, the reader is brought on an odyssey through the equatorial desert which will soon encompass the entire world, meeting the occasional straggling pocket of society along the way as a reminder that not everyone suckles at the teat of the elevator shaft for scraps from those up high – except those that don’t are the ones who are the closest to extinction. The irony of meeting a man named Bastien who is the last survivor of a protein factory which produced genetically-modified insects that now roam the skies at the grand size of three feet in length is not lost on us.

When our trio finally reach their destination, an old scientific research facility that has been leeching precious electricity from their homestead, the task of fixing it is made considerably difficult by the presence of a rogue artificial intelligence with a grudge against the elite who abandoned both it and the Earth; but mostly for the former. An ethical debate here and a daring escape from a swarm of metre-long locusts there and the team return home, a thumb drive containing a veritable kill switch for the holier-than-thou spaceship in tow, to find their town in chaos as the metaphorical ladder has been pulled up behind the last person to ascend to the Grand Celeste.

The novella ends on a sombre note. After raging against the dying of the light, our heroes give in to temptation and enact the plan proposed to them by the AI and put in motion the deaths of everyone aboard the spaceship so that the cursed down below can ascend and take their place. When we last see Mao he is weighed down by guilt over the deaths of so many innocents, but hopeful at the prospect of love with a simulated human interface he became smitten with back on Earth given human form in a cloned body by the now-benevolent AI. The very same AI which now runs the spaceship up there and is in charge of terraforming the world down here over the course of centuries so that some day humanity can once again live on the planet which we pillaged for its resources and burned to a cinder as a result.

In conclusion, Firewalkers is an incredibly-engrossing read which hits the mark in all categories. The worldbuilding is second to none, with every slang term being simultaneously alien and familiar and every futuristic invention remaining believable and feasible. The divide between the rich who receive salvation and the poor who receive damnation is a heart-wrenching status quo that is all-too-familiar to an unfortunate amount of people, as is their pained ‘grass is always greener’ mindset. The people whose lives we catch a glimpse of would and do literally kill for water in this scorched landscape, and yet half a world away another pocket of humanity drowning from another result of climate change would do the same for a patch of dry land. The simulated human who Mao falls in love with is tragically beautiful in its existence, innocent and perfect by design but lacking the self-awareness of its AI creator, perhaps signalling the end of the cycle of creation. God put humans on the Earth, who in turn created AI, which in turn created a simulation that is not capable of creation. Funny, then, that it is the AI who inherits both the Earth and the last home of humanity. Although a sequel exploring these themes even further would be welcome, Firewalkers is more than satisfying as a stand-alone novel. Sometimes it is okay for stories to be finite, just like the resources man so unforgivingly pillages from the ground beneath our feet.

Final Score: 10/10

Star Trek Picard Season One Review

Now that the season finale has aired and Trekkies once more have to play the waiting game for their next Starfleet fix, was revisiting Jean-Luc Picard worth the effort?

One thing is for certain about the first season of Star Trek Picard – it is stylish beyond belief. Clearly a great deal of care went into the visual side of making this television series a reality, but the more pressing question is did the same amount of thought go into conceptualisation and screenwriting? What started off strong, grew weaker, and then eventually came around again towards the finish line, indicates that perhaps this latest outing from CBS would have benefited from another round of revisions in the writer’s room.

Jean-Luc prefers to have man’s best friend for company in sunny France

When we meet (former) Captain Picard for the first time since Nemesis it is 2399 and he has retired to the vineyards of France. A synth-related catastrophe on Mars has brought taboo to the existence of such beloved characters like Commander Data, and Starfleet’s handling of the destruction of Romulus in 2387 has made intergalactic relations a little frostier than they were before.

It was surprising to see the recent trilogy of movies referenced in such a way, as fans of the franchise will no doubt remember seeing the aforementioned destruction of Romulus on-screen in the J. J. Abrams-helmed Star Trek over a decade ago. The first episode does well to introduce the audience to an aged Picard, haunted by the sacrifice of his synthetic friend (the death of whom we do not see, and for good reason by the time the finale rolls around) and also of the tragedy resulting from billions of Romulans around the universe suddenly lacking a homeworld. It is not long, however, until we meet Dahj, and from here a hint of action is injected into the otherwise slow and methodical narrative.

Dahj is a synth, identical in almost every way to her sister Soji, pictured right. Although we do not get to know her for very long once her killer instinct is activated and faces off with some very angry Romulans, it is Soji who captivates the audience for the remainder of the season.

Soji, the latest fan-favourite synthezoid

Making Soji a scientist on a repurposed Borg Cube, with no knowledge of her true origin until it is crushingly revealed to her an episode or two later than would have been preferable, is a classic The Next Generation B-plot, and it is wonderful to see another side to the terrifying Borg. ‘The Artifact’ as it is known by its inhabitants is more a rehabilitation centre for former initiates into the Collective, and while we never quite get to see it in all of its former glory the presentation of this battle station is testament to the visual effects department at CBS. Taking a deep-dive into The Next Generation‘s history books and having Hugh, or Third of Five, be in charge of the station is a nice connection to the franchise’s past as it forges a new future for itself.

The friendliest Borg you could ever meet

Unfortunately, this particular B-plot ends up dragging the show down somewhat. Serving little to no purpose for the remainder of the show after Soji’s epiphany, ‘The Artifact’ feels more like the show runners making use of an already-built set rather than actually advancing the plot.

This seems to be a running theme with Picard – spending a little too much time fleshing out the world around us and not enough actually getting on with the main story. Already shorter than the two seasons of Discovery that have graced our screens, Picard might even have been easier digested had it been eight, or even six episodes instead of the sometimes-dragging ten that it took to reach its conclusion. When your B-plot spawns a C-plot, and maybe even half of a D-plot, then you have a problem. Still, if it wasn’t for the Borg then we would not have been treated to the best use of indulging in fans’ nostalgia than making Seven of Nine a recurring character.

Not missing a beat from the last time she showed up in Voyager, this particular member of the Collective is still quite capable of kicking ass, taking names, and lending a sense of gravitas to any scene she steals.

Seven of Nine is still ten (out) of ten on the ass-kicking scale

Although brief, her stint as friendly Borg Queen will surely go down as one of the show’s most iconic moments, making it all the more tragic that nothing of note actually came of it. Another victim of fan service overpowering the show’s narrative.

Riker still rocks a Starfleet uniform even all these years later

That doesn’t mean that all of the show’s fan service is bad – far from it. When ex-commander William Riker takes the captain’s chair in the USS Zheng He in the finale to come to Jean-Luc’s aid, fan service is finally used in a way that is serviceable to the plot. It’s just a shame that it took ten episodes to do it.

What really makes the show shine, however, as with all entries in the Star Trek franchise, is the crew. The very definition of rag-tag in the beginning, by the finale viewers will have fallen in love with each member of the crew aboard the La Sirena for a variety of reasons. Be it Raffi’s past trauma, the gruff, Han Solo-esque nature of Rios, Elnor’s delightful use of absolute candor, or even Agnes’ amazement at even the most mundane elements of spacefaring, what will keep viewers waiting for next season is not the CGI or the space battles, but the people. People who, by the looks of things, have a lot of romancing to do after the high-stakes season finale if the hand-holding between Raffi and Seven of Nine and the long-teased kissing between Agnes and Rios is anything to go by. If this means more time can be spent developing Elnor and Soji as individuals then all the better for it. Even the final death of Data, more human and emotional than anything which could have been attached to his off-screen sacrifice, reminds us that you don’t always need fast-paced action to keep viewers glued to their screens.

Ready to boldly go into Season Two

Was Picard perfect? No. Far from it, in fact. But that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t worthwhile. With a plot revolving around synthetic life learning what it means to be human being reminiscent of other recent media such as Blade Runner 2049 and Westworld, the story being told in this short season of Trek is ambitious to say the least. While it might miss a step here and there, when it lands it does so in captivating fashion. Whether or not the omnicidal synthetic overlords briefly seen in the finale will tie-in to Control in the time-hopping third season of Discovery is yet to be seen. However, for the time being fans can rest easy knowing that Patrick Stewart is just as impressive as Jean-Luc Picard now as he ever was.

Final Score: 7/10

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