Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Arguably the biggest of Disney’s gambles following their purchase of Lucasfilm, Rogue One is the inaugural standalone film, the first to fall outside of the main saga episodes. Without that built-in Skywalker name recognition, would audiences still show up?


Rogue One is a smart choice of story for a standalone, as it dovetails directly into A New Hope. It’s a tight, simple plot, the inspired brainchild of ILM effects legend John Knoll, who realized that one of the lines from the crawl in the original Star Wars would make an excellent movie: the story of how a daring team of rebels stole the Death Star plans.


With that as the starting point, the story team and filmmakers (including writers Gary Whitta, Chris Weitz of Twilight: New Moon and American Pie fame, and director Gareth Edwards) set about creating that rebel team, and their deadly mission.

The movie underwent significant reshoots, with the Bourne movies’ Tony Gilroy taking on some writing and possibly directing duties too, all in the name of making this the best movie it could possibly be. This generated a lot of noise about whether the movie was “in trouble”… but look, here’s the thing: most movies get reshoots to some degree. The Bourne Identity reshot for almost a year, and that was a nailed-on classic. In Rogue One’s case? Although we’ll never know what the original version was like, you gotta assume the reshoots were a good thing, because the end result is a great movie.

However, the first viewing is slightly disconcerting. The early trailers were made before the reshoots, and as such they contain many lines of dialogue, beats, shots and entire scenes and sequences that are not in the final movie, meaning we can see just how drastic some of those changes were, particularly to the final act.


One of those moments that’s gone. Still love this line.

That first time around is frequently an experience of expecting something that you’re not going to get.

The second viewing does a Death Star test shot on your preconceptions, and shorn of those expectations, is a much purer experience.

Because the final version of this movie is something to behold.


Intense, thrilling, moving, fun when it wants to be, bleak most of the time, but always, always, with those true Star Wars vibes. The team of rebels is compelling and well-drawn. Jyn Erso is a gutsy, bold female lead, brought to emotionally vivid life in Felicity Jones’s brilliant, affecting performance. Diego Luna is perfect as the morally compromised Cassian. Riz Ahmed caps off a stellar year for him (The Night Of, The OA, the Hamilton Mixtape and a Swet Shop Boys album) with a great turn as a defecting Imperial pilot. Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen are fantastic as the blind force-sensitive Chirrut and his laser cannon-wielding protecter Baze. And Alan Tudyk does a fantastic job as the ultra-snarky K2-S0.

The team get pulled together in challenging, thrilling ways as the clock ticks on the Empire starting to unleash the Death Star’s full, planet-killing potential. The core of the story is, smartly, an emotional one: Jyn’s relationship with the father who was taken from her at a very young age. This drives her choices and the arc of the movie, within that tight heist structure. Although the beginning of the movie is a little stuttery, starting with a disconcerting stab of horns on the soundtrack, and jumping around fast between locations and timelines, once it settles in, it MOVES, and that final act, which leads up to just before New Hope starts, is outstanding (SPOILER: seeing Darth Vader going wild in full Terminator mode might just be the greatest scene in the movie), and, in the end, powerfully moving.


Cue the waterworks.

Is it perfect? Not quite. There are some issues. The aforementioned stop-start of the opening, some of the musical cues being jarring (e.g. the super-triumphant scoring of the two star destroyers scene near the end, and the actual theme of the movie over the title card), the need for more humor (the droid is hilarious, but there were still several moments where you long for a some extra biting sarcasm). The skipping between timelines short-changed Jyn’s character somewhat, making her motivations a little scattershot to start with. And Krennic’s character was relegated from the powerful villain promised by the trailers, to a frustrated, powerless bureaucrat who is only the third most important Empire figure in the movie (fourth if you count the not-seen but mentioned Emperor); which is a shame, because Ben Mendelsohn was magnificent in the role, and deserved a more iconic villain to sink his teeth into.

However, those are minor niggles, and overall, Rogue One is a powerful, exciting, hugely enjoyable experience, full of those sweet Star Wars feelings, with a genuinely epic third act that sends you thrillingly headlong back into the original trilogy.

And as far as the future of the Star Wars standalone movies goes?

Rogue One more than gives you hope.

And, unexpectedly, it serves as a beautiful final tribute to Carrie Fisher, whose tragic, devastating passing affected us all in so many ways. RIP to one of our most beloved, iconic, smart, inspiring and humble heroines. She will be missed.



Star Wars Rebels: Shroud Of Darkness

Star Wars Rebels is one of those rare shows that blasted out of the gate knowing exactly what it was, and what it wanted to be. In the hands of Dave Filoni, Simon “all the franchises” Kinberg, Henry Gilroy, Kiri Hart and Carrie Beck (and the rest of the amazing writers room), Rebels has outdone itself time and time again, tapping into that sweet, sweet Original Trilogy vibe for sure, but also doing a perfect job of integrating everything that was great about the prequels and the Clone Wars too.

Okay, yes, fine Obi-Wan, many of the truths we cling to may well depend on our points of view… but even subjectively, Rebels started magnificently, and has only gotten better from there. Season one was fantastic, but especially so in the second season, the show has powerfully accessed the dark, mystical and  beautiful currents that have always flowed through the Star Wars universe.


Shroud Of Darkness somehow managed to eclipse last week’s The Honorable Ones, which was itself a powerful series highlight. Both episodes accessed what is greatest about this world: the conflict between light and dark, complex moral situations, humor in the face of challenges, entertaining droid action, and really, seriously awesome sound effects. Shroud Of Darkness takes all that much further.

The episode opens with a ferocious four-way lightsaber battle (which isn’t even the craziest lightsaber battle in the episode), and brings back many old friends as the story progresses. It’s full of thrills, fear, danger, and a great Freddie Prinze Jr / Sarah Michelle Gellar moment. It also clearly reveals the threat to Ezra’s future that has been hinted at before, while also making things a whole lot more difficult for the Ghost and its crew, and further setting up that truly epic showdown that we’re all waiting for. You know the one.

No spoilers here: it’s just a really, really great episode. It’s everything this show is aiming for, and it’s a rare show that almost always exceeds its target: Rebels does it consistently.

Rating: five out of five cool lightsaber sounds

2015 in review

2015 was a great year for pop culture — even aside from the multi-platform global pop culture-consuming behemoth that was Star Wars, this year was inspiringly full of rich, exciting and immersive books, TV shows, music and movies. And awesome droids.

So let’s get to it.


Star Wars Episode VII The Force Awakens. Could the movie of the year have been anything else? Spoiler: no. It was beautiful, full of wonderful old and new characters, and so many emotions. And no, Rey wasn’t a Mary Sue — she was a complex, capable woman whose entire life had prepared her to be ready when the call to action came (if you don’t believe me, read Greg Rucka’s excellent Before The Awakening, which gives you backstories for Finn, Rey and Poe. Rey’s is particularly engrossing — she really is one of the great characters of the Star Wars universe. (Here’s my full spoiler-free Star Wars review)

Kingsman: The Secret Service. This was fresh, inventive, stylish, witty, engaging, with rich characters and a propulsive story, and a genuinely and gloriously bonkers sense of fun and glee. It also showed us how devastatingly great a Matthew Vaughn-directed Bond movie would be… but if he had made one of those (he came close to making Casino Royale), we wouldn’t have this. And we needed this. Colin Firth kicked ass entirely convincingly, and newcomer Taron Egerton delivered a swaggering, young Han Solo-like breakout performance. Genius all round.

The Martian. Yes. Yes yes yes! Ridley Scott scienced the shit out of this, giving us one of the great space movies of all time, taking Drew Goddard’s sharply funny script and giving it the bad-ass disco soundtrack we never knew it needed. Expertly shot, brilliantly acted by Matt Damon (the majority of whose scenes were alone and direct to camera), and the best Lord of the Rings reference you’ll ever see.

Inside Out. This was Pixar to the power of infinity. This was heart-achingly emotional, which you’d expect since it’s a movie about emotions, from the company who brought you the most emotionally devastating opening to a movie EVER (Up). What you might not expect was how heartfelt, humorous and bitter-sweet it all was, plus how the mesmerizing story managed to be utterly profound as well as relentless entertaining. Warning: contains achingly funny moments, and some that are utterly gut-wrenching. You will cry.

Straight Outta Compton. Director  F. Gary Gray delivered a breathlessly gritty and fiercely kinetic look at the birth, rise and fall of Compton’s NWA, from their loose beginnings to the evolution of their personal empires (Dre’s Beats, Cube’s movie career). The heart of the movie was Jason Mitchell’s cherubic, charismatic and ultimately heartbreaking performance as Eric “Easy E” Wright; his story is the true center of the movie, with the others woven tightly around it. It gives you the thrill and danger of the music, the harsh realities that made it necessary, and the often uncontrollable dynamics within the band. A great script kept tight control over the sprawl of events, and excellent performances from the actors playing the band (including Ice Cube’s son playing Cube) made this utterly gripping.

Honorable mentions:

Avengers Age Of Ultron / Ant-Man. Marvel’s two movies this year both came with some serious baggage. Ultron had to follow up the massive success juggernaut that was Avengers, but do it even bigger this time, while Ant-Man had a hugely troubled production with the removal of Edgar Wright weeks before filming was due to start. Both films were mandated by the studio to fit the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe: oddly, Ant-Man fared better with this, given extra resonance and benefiting from being bolted into the MCU, while Ultron seemed to suffer from one extra layer too many in a movie that was jam-packed with too much greatness — it’s a long movie that actually would have been better with an even longer four hour extended cut. There’s just so much Joss Whedon genius-level awesomeness to love and not enough time to truly love it. Ant-Man, on the other hand, was short, sweet, quick on its feet, and full of Edgar Wright DNA (no one handles exposition like him. No one!). Both movies were fun; Ant-Man was just a little more so. But Ultron was still a wonderful Whedon-fest, and a towering achievement of screenwriting and direction.

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation. The best of the MI bunch. Written and directed by Chris McQuarrie, this was tight, entertaining, and it barreled along through plot points and set pieces without ever releasing its grip on us. A huge amount of fun, with crowd-pleasing performances, hair-raising stunts, and the type of twisty-turny plotting you’d expect from the man behind The Usual Suspects.


Book of the year: Illuminae, by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff. This was one of those books that make you realize all the many beautiful possibilities of what books can be. Composed of emails, security logs, and many other things that I won’t spoil, this was an utterly engrossing sci-fi story, rich with complex characters you immediately care about, viscerally thrilling space stuff, and fiendish plotting. Totally unputdownable. Full review here.

Close competition: Patrick Ness’s The Rest Of Us Just Live Here, and Robert Galbraith’s Career Of Evil (Galbraith is actually J.K. Rowling). Two perfect five star novels here. Ness delivered his usual blend of thrills and compassion, while Rowling gave us her most exciting Cormoran Strike novel yet, with an absolute kicker of a throw-the-book-across-the-room ending. *shakes fist at J.K. Rowling!!*

Honorable mentions:

Lost Stars, by Claudia Gray; The Weapon Of A Jedi, by Jason Fry; Smuggler’s Run, by Greg Rucka; Moving Target, by Cecil Castellucci and Jason Fry; Before The Awakening, by Greg Rucka. AKA, the Star Wars novels. Lost Stars (reviewed here) was stellar, Jedi, Run and Target were beautifully written standalone adventures featuring Han, Luke and Leia during the Original Trilogy, and Before The Awakening focused on key Finn, Rey and Poe backstories. Fascinating, entertaining stuff.


Two artists dominated: Adele with her insanely anticipated beautiful powerhouse of an album, 25, and Carly Rae Jepsen with her EMOTION album, which was light years ahead of her previous effort. While Adele did exactly what you’d expect her to (albeit brilliantly, beautifully and flawlessly, of course — with I Miss You and The River Lea as particular standouts ), it was Jepsen who delivered the year’s biggest surprise: an extraordinary, gorgeously 80s, mesmerizingly hook-y set that didn’t have one filler — full of massive choruses drenched with bittersweet melancholy and honesty, all delivered with gloriously soaring vocals. Why this wasn’t on more year-end best-of lists is a mystery. It’s brilliant.


Special mention for Downton Abbey‘s magnificent final season and majestic final ever episode, which was this year’s Christmas special (for those who have seen it… it airs in the US in January). The perfect send-off, full of warmth, wit, and, yes, feels.

Supergirl. This show is bright, beautiful, full of verve, grit and hope — all about finding your truest self and being it. Melissa Benoist embodies all of that in a vulnerable, complex, utterly engaging performance. She brings Supergirl to life in a way that makes perfect sense.

Jessica Jones. Epically gritty, dark and messed up, but sweetened with some killer sarcastic putdowns, a damaged and soulful performance from Krysten Ritter, and a horrifyingly charming villain in David Tennant’s brilliantly played Kilgrave. Thrilling TV throughout, perfectly paced, full of heart and rage and loss and becoming the person you’re meant to be.

Supernatural. 11 seasons in, it’s still slaying. Here’s my breakdown of why this show STILL kicks ass.

Honorable mentions:

The Walking Dead. This half of the current season delivered three monster, high octane, real-time  episodes that were likely the greatest consecutive episodes in the show’s run… then pulled out of that very suddenly and slowed things way down for the standalone Morgan flashback episode, before reconnecting with the current storyline again. Although Here Is Not Here contained great writing, beautiful character work, and killer acting, it really did stop the momentum in its tracks at a particularly tense moment, and consequently the show took a while to pick up speed again. But by the mid-season finale, it was BACK. It’s the best it’s ever been, and that’s saying something.

Quantico. One of the greatest new network shows in a long time, this is gripping, unstoppable, incredibly tense, and twist and turns and twists and turns, and then does that some more. The cast gives deeply accessible and charismatic performances, and the story just does not quit. Very, very addictive, very tightly written (the show has two ongoing strands, past and present, which interweave and comment on each other and keep the story flowing), and very addictive.

But, if I had to pick the ultimate “things of the year”….

  • Star Wars
  • Illuminae
  • Jessica Jones
  • Carly Rae Jepsen’s EMOTION

And, if I could only pick one thing overall… It’s pretty clear… this little guy won 2015!


The breakout star of Star Wars (with fierce competition from the fresh and energetically  great performances of Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Adam Driver), BB-8 owned 2015. The little droid was the heart and soul of Episode VII, and we loved him. Let’s be honest, we would all happily sit there and watch a  two hour movie that was JUST BB-8 AND NOTHING ELSE. Search your feelings… you know it to be true.

So, hope you enjoyed 2015… Have an awesome 2016!!!

LOST STARS by Claudia Gray: Journey to Stars Wars The Force Awakens

LOST STARS is Claudia Gray’s latest novel, and her first in the Star Wars universe, part of a raft of novels published to bridge the gaps between the original movies and The Force Awakens. It’s YA, focusing on two teenagers, Thane and Ciena, both growing up on the forsaken Outer Rim planet Jelucan, both dreaming of flying across the stars for the glorious Empire.

Lost Stars

The novel follows them as they grow up, go through training, and discover that the Empire is not all that it seems. The story weaves deftly through the original trilogy timeline, giving us glimpses at many moments from Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and The Return Of The Jedi, but all from angles and perspectives we’ve never seen before. This is one of the novel’s many strengths: if you’re a fan of the movies, you’ll get a kick out of seeing all-new Darth Vader scenes (what happened after he went spinning off into space at the end of Star Wars? You’ll find out!), deep dives into the Empire and the Rebellion from the inside at key moments including the blowing up of the Death Star, and a hugely thrilling take on the final space battle around Endor, to name just a few. But even if you’re not a huge fan, it’s ok, because Gray makes all of this make sense in a genuinely affecting and involving love story between two passionate, driven individuals who ultimately have to choose between wildly different paths.

Gray is great at making you FEEL the angst, the love, the passion, the hope, the despair, the excitement that Thane and Ciena feel as their story brings them together and throws them apart. Gray keeps the action and characters moving and developing, and brings the whole thing to an epic conclusion, before zigging off in a direction you wouldn’t expect, but which works really well.

It feels like a Star Wars novel, in all the right ways. It captures that sense of wonder at the distant stars, the thrill of space, the terror of the Empire, the fierce idealism of the Rebellion. It also has like, cool aliens and robots and shit. The only critique is that Gray doesn’t put you in their heads enough at the start of the novel — Thane’s burning desire is to fly a TIE fighter, but we never get to see or feel his first time at the controls of one, which is a shame, because any reader who is a Star Wars fan would love to see what that feels like. Yes we all know the Empire is bad but damn it flying a TIE fighter would be bad-ass! While she doesn’t give us that, by the midpoint on, we do get the visceral nature of Thane and Ciena’s experiences, and she dives into the Endor battle with gusto and force.

This book truly evokes the spirit of the Original Trilogy, magically weaving itself into the narrative tapestry of the OT.

It’s fascinating to see the psychology of the Empire (and the Rebellion to a lesser extent) laid bare. We really see how so many decent, intelligent people could be led to think that the Empire was a force for good, even as it begins to take ever-darker actions. Speaking of the force, the book also does a  great job showing how little impact the force has on the everyday folk. Luke really is the last Jedi, and not many people even believe that to be true.

LOST STARS also contains clues about The Force Awakens. If you’ve seen the second trailer, you’ll enjoy one of the revelations in particular (although the book cover does kind of give it away…)

All in all, this is an engrossing, engaging, exciting read, a thrilling look at the universe we know and love from a genuinely fresh angle we’ve never seen before.


Four out of five Original Trilogy references

Jupiter Ascending: The Wachowskis in space

The Wachowskis first original story since The Matrix Trilogy is a boundlessly inventive, sprawling space opera, full of none-more-Wachowksi elements (blue-haired cyberpunks on space-bikes, gravity defying martial arts, a chosen one), as well as many surprises (Sean Bean as some kind of bee-master, Channing Tatum as a wolf-man with jet-boots), and a vampiric Eddie Redmayne. It’s completely over the top; shamelessly, beautifully so, and, as such, is hugely entertaining.

Doona Bae as a cyberpunk biker

Doona Bae as a cyberpunk biker

Mila Kunis is the titular Jupiter, the chosen one here, a humble cleaner of toilets who turns out to be something far more important. Multiple factions are hunting her for various reasons; only Channing Tatum’s wolfy Caine Wise can truly protect her from the warring, intergalactic Abrasax family and their treacherous, genocidal ways.

It plays as a frenetic, gorgeous melange of Star Wars (partly the original trilogy, partly the prequels), Guardians of the Galaxy, Speed Racer, Flash Gordon and The Matrix, with a massive injection of  Wachowski imagination and verve. Brilliant ideas collide and explode in a nonstop orgy of concepts and action; there’s a really f**king great movie in here, but there’s also a less impressive one too. It feels like the script could have done with a couple more drafts to really bring out the ideas and the awesomeness to their fullest potential.

They set out to write a story featuring an empowered, kick-ass heroine, hence the title. What they inadvertently ended up with is something that probably should have been called Caine Ascending, since Tatum’s character has the most complete and satisfying arc of anyone in the film, frequently relegating Kunis to the role of scared bystander in need of constant saving. It’s a shame, because a movie about Jupiter actually ascending would have been very cool. If the Wachowskis had switched those character genders, making the movie about a female Caine protecting a male human chosen one, and staging it from her perspective, the Wachowskis would have had their female-led powerhouse movie.

Still, there is much to love here. The Wachowskis do pulpy, visceral sci-fi thrills better than almost anyone, and it’s frequently glorious to behold. The aerial chase scene across the Chicago skyline at sunrise (filmed in six minute batches over many weeks to get the light perfect) is beautiful.

Chicago chase scene

Chicago chase scene

The various species and spaceships are visually stunning — the angry flying dinosaurs are bad-ass! (Yes, there are flying dinosaurs). Michael Giacchino’s score is often lovely. There’s a brilliantly manic Terry Gilliam cameo. And by god, no one, I mean NO ONE, can ground a scene and make it gritty and real like Sean motherf**king Bean. MVP. He has some crazy exposition to say, including the immortal line “bees don’t lie” (much like hips, I presume), and he makes it INTENSE. He could have played the scene in squeaks and grunts and we’d still buy it. He is the man. Him and Tatum come out of this movie with full honors, as both of them are all in, in terms of performance and committing to their roles.

Tatum and Bean. Truthful bees not pictured

Tatum and Bean. Truthful bees not pictured

Overall, this is a freewheeling, entertaining couple of hours from two of the most original and exciting filmmakers around. Could it have been tighter? Yes. Did it need more work to bring out a more propulsive, emotionally connected story? Kinda. Is Sean Bean a bad motherf**ker? You know it. And you should go and see this movie. Original stories need our support, and this is fully worthy of a trip to the cinema. The Wachowskis are legends at this point, having brought us two of the greatest movies ever made (The Matrix and Cloud Atlas). They have incredible imaginations, visceral creativity, and a wholly unique position in Hollywood; let’s help them keep it. Because I want more Wachowski movies.

Lots more.


Rating: Four out of five flying dinosaurs