War for the Planet of the Apes – Film Review

Bigger means better has long been Hollywood’s default setting. Larger budgets allow for expanded casts, more exotic locations and mightier explosions to blow up bigger landmarks into even tinnier pieces – all in the name of ensuring people buy more tickets again. That’s why Avengers: Infinity War, the upcoming 19th film in the MCU, is set to feature every Marvel hero known to man – along with a few we’ve never heard of before. How else will audiences be entertained if we don’t constantly bombard them with a constant supply of budget-bulging cataclysmic action sequences?

War for the Planet of the Apes is the antithesis to this preconception. Having already delivered a prequel that wasn’t a complete disaster and a sequel that was deeper and more compelling than the original, the third instalment of the rebooted series again subverts expectations by eschewing the ballistics-heavy battles promised in its title. Instead, it offers a intimate and sombre tale of a highly intelligent ape grappling with his darker instincts. And it’s all the more powerful for it.

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That being said, the movie kicks off with an almighty skirmish as a camo-striped strike force drop into the apes’ woodland hideout and engage in a grim and gritty gunfight among the trees. The soldiers are searching for Caesar, the highly evolved chimpanzee who led his kind to freedom from the humans, who has been so long withdrawn from view that he has taken on an almost mythical status among the human troops. But when the arboreal assault results in unimaginable losses for Caesar, he’s forced to come out of hiding to embark on a revenge-fuelled mission to kill Woody Harrleson’s sadistic Colonel, and end the war once and for all.

This perilous journey ‘upriver’ in search of a psychotic military leader will undoubtedly prompt comparisons with Francis Ford Coppola’s hallucinatory masterpiece Apocalypse Now – indeed, one piece of graffiti scrawled onto the walls of Alpha Omega’s military compound makes the obligatory Ape-pocalypse Now gag. Yet, as Caesar, along with his three closest advisors, Maurice, Luca and Rocket, and a mute young girl they rescue along the way, rides out onto the breathtaking California vistas, War more closely brings to mind epic westerns of the 1950s. Even the likes of Ben-Hur and the Ten Commandments get referenced, Caesar’s quest taking on Biblical proportions as he confronts his demons and becomes tasked with freeing his kind and leading them to a promised land across the desert.

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As the conflicted Caesar, Andy Serkis is a formidable presence, bringing a Shakespearian sense of grandeur to the simian leader. It’s not just the ape-like physicality that he nails, though. So much of Caesar’s troubles are internalised: having spent much of Dawn failing to convince Koba to let go of his hatred towards humans, he now finds himself consumed by rage for the Colonel and has to battle with his baser bloodlust. That Serkis is able to convey these complex emotions by making subtle tweaks to his furrowed brow is truly remarkable. The digital technology has taken another dramatic leap forward – the verisimilitude in the texture of the apes’ damp, matted fur is astounding – yet it would all be for nought were it not for the delicate craftsmanship of the film’s performers.

With so much of the focus on his personal circumstances, it’s somewhat inevitable that the broader divide between apes and humans is not quite as nuanced as we saw in Dawn. Still, many of the humans characters are given enough layers to make them compelling. None more so that Woody Harrelson’s swivel-eyed warmonger, the Colonel. Though initial seen as a cruel, Kurtz-a-like crackpot who’s beyond redemption, he’s granted additional depth by an unexpected plot pivot that lends a reason to his vicious acts. Suddenly, we realise he’s not too different to his anthropoid antagonist – he just a little further along the road to ruin.

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It’s not all bleak introspection and grim determination, though – War offers up a surprising level of comic relief. This mostly comes via Steve Zahn’s Bad Ape, a hermitic chimp who escaped from a zoo after the outbreak of Simian Flu and somehow manages to charm his way into Caesar’s troop. There’s a Dobby-esque warmth to be found in his hapless enthusiasm to help his new friends, and his heartwarming journey from loneliness to valued member of the tribe is a rare fuzzy moment that helps to lighten proceedings when they threaten to become too entrapped in darkness.

Of course, War is not completely without action and when the epic final showdown between the warring species inevitably comes to pass, it’s an exhilaratingly well executed cacophony of fur and fireballs that would make Michael Bay blanche. Yet it remains an entertaining sideshow to Caesar’s more sombre, though no less gripping, attempts to seek redemption. It’s a bold, original, and incredibly powerful conclusion that finally allows Serkis to showcase his so often overlooked talents and also brings this groundbreaking trilogy to a memorable, wholly satisfying close. Turns out, bigger isn’t always better after all.

Runtime: 140 mins (approx.)

Director: Matt Reeves

Screenwriters: Mark Bomback, Matt Reeves

Stars: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Amiah Miller, Steve Zahn

Spider-man: Homecoming – Film Review

After six movies and two reboots in the last 15 years – not to mention a further 16 outings for Marvel’s other heavy hitters since 2008 – fans could be forgiven for growing weary at the thought of yet another Spider-man movie. Thankfully, Spider-man: Homecoming repays audience persistence in spades.

Having already wowed fans with his zingy and zestful cameo in Captain America: Civil War, Tom Holland’s first full outing as the web slinging crime fighter deftly walks a tricky tightrope between paying heed to the larger Marvel machine and offering a fresh and revitalising spin on the typical comic book movie template.

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By far the film’s best move is skipping Spidey’s tired-and-tested origin story, with which we’re already far too familiar. Unburdened by the shackles of dead parents, murdered uncles, cute neighbours and radioactive spider bites, we’re free to jump straight into the action.

Picking up right after that almighty skirmish over the Skovia Accords, 15-year-old Peter Parker is dropped back in Queens by his new mentor Tony Stark and told to wait by the phone for another call to join up with the Avengers. Cut to two months later: Peter’s heard nothing from Stark and his reluctant minder Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) isn’t returning any of his texts, leaving Peter to act like ‘a friendly neighbourhood Spider-man’, catching petty thieves and helping old ladies with directions in return for deep-fried Mexican treats.

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Scaling back the influence of the larger Marvel universe proves to be a masterstroke. Though Downey Jr’s Stark featured heavily in the promos, his appearances here are minimal and fit seamlessly into the story. And with the wider MCU taking a backseat, there’s plenty of room for us to get to know our new hero in greater depth than ever before. The result is something more akin to a high school comedy than a superhero movie as Peter tries to contend with jealous school bullies, getting invited to the cool girl’s party and finding a date for homecoming dance; all the while squeezing a spot of crime fighting between the end of school and his 10pm curfew.

With so much of the focus on the young hero, it’s handy that he happens to be the best on-screen Spider-man thus far. Introduced geeking out in a homemade video after meeting the Avengers, there’s something instantly endearing about Holland’s version of the web slinger. Though he’s gifted with spider-like abilities, he feels entirely relatable. Like any teenager, Peter is reckless, impulsive, dangerously ambitious and refreshingly earnest in his attempts to figure out what kind of person he wants to be.

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He also happens to be appealingly lame as a superhero, struggling to control his powers (understandable, considering he now has more than 500 web settings in his new Stark-modified suit) and frequently falling flat on his face during his hapless attempts to help others. That he remains likeable even when his mistakes have potentially fatal consequences is in no small part due to Holland’s cheeky and heartfelt performance.

Drawing sparky performances out of talented youngsters is quickly becoming a calling card of director Jon Watts. Having caught the eye with revenge thriller Cop Car, which deftly balanced gripping thrills with dark humour, Watts brings a similar lightness of touch to proceedings here. The freshman humour is uproariously on point – there’s a great Ferris Buller gag – and even the action sequences are peppered with quick-witted one liners.

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Yet Watts appears to struggle when dealing with the larger scale demands of helming a Marvel movie. Many of the big set-pieces, while effective and well-executed, feel far too mundane to make much of an impact. And except for a vertiginous rescue atop the Washington Monument, there’s not a single action sequence that sticks in the memory, which falls far below the level of inventiveness we’ve come to expect of a summer blockbuster.

This lack of whizz-bang visuals is more than compensated for by the presence of a surprisingly compelling villain. Like Peter Parker, Michael Keaton’s Adrian Toomes is an ordinary guy trying to cope with extraordinary circumstances. A former salvager who turns to illegal arms trafficking to support his family, Toomes’ motivation is entirely believable, if not forgivable. Even more so when you consider the political context of his actions – Toomes makes angry speech about rising up against the greedy 1% who keep all the money for themselves – which feels incredibly relevant in the wake of President Trump and Brexit.

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It’s not quite perfect. The final showdown between Toomes and Spider-man inevitably descends into the usual blurry CGI slugfest and many of the female characters are completely without their own purpose or agency. Yet these issues feel like minor quibbles in a movie as fresh and invigorating as this. Ditching the overwhelming superhero angst and sludgy pacing which dogged previous incarnations of the character, and replacing it with a fun and breezy coming-of-age comedy, the youthful Spider-man: Homecoming is the most original comic book movie to swing into cinemas in a very long time.

Runtime: 133 mins

Director: Jon Watts

Screenwriters: Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley

Stars: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Robert Downey Jr, Jacob Batalon

Baby Driver – Film Review

Movies like this aren’t supposed to get made anymore. If you believe the perceived wisdom, the one-off, daring dramas that used to dominate the box office have been squeezed out by greedy studios, as they chase the next mega-bucks tentpole. Baby Driver has no truck for convention. A hair-raising joy-ride of sweetly executed car stunts set to a foot-stomping soundtrack, this irreverent musical thriller is real pedal-to-the-metal filmmaking and quite possibly the most original movie you’ll see this year.

From it’s opening set-piece, Baby Driver outlines exactly why it’s so extraordinary. As the finger-tapping beat to Bellbottoms kicks in and Ansel Elgort’s eponymous getaway driver launches into an outrageously inventive car chase through L.A.’s crowded highways, it’s clear that this is a movie that has music stitched into its very DNA. And not it’s not just the action: every single frame is painstakingly choreographed to the thrum of Edgar Wright’s impressively eclectic playlist. Even a morning coffee run turns into a La La Land-esque urban waltz as Baby struts and slides through a busy highstreet to the strands of Bob and Earl’s Harlem Shuffle.

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What’s truly remarkable about this movie, though, is how effectively Wright orchestrates such a relentlessly paced thriller without ever allowing his leading-man to get lost in the tire smoke. A demon behind the wheel who always wears ear buds to drown out the “hum in the drum” caused by a childhood accident, it would be easy for Baby to become a clawing bundle of clichés. Yet he’s disarmingly easy to warm towards because Elgort and Wright wisely imbue him with a genuine heart of gold. Orphaned as a child when his mom died in a car accident, Baby now cares for his deaf foster dad Pops, who only communicates using sign language, and spends his nights making mixes from secret recordings of people he’s come across that day.

As Wright gradually unspools his heartbreaking backstory, we slowly learn how such a decent kid got caught up with a bunch of petty crooks and violent criminals. Before he was old enough to see over the steering wheel, Baby foolish nicked a swag-loaded car belonging to ruthless gang leader Doc and has been forced to work for him every since, paying off his debt one job at a time. Elgort pitches his performance perfectly, displaying just the right mix of roguish charm, cheeky confidence and genuine sincerity that promises much for his upcoming high-profile turn as a young Han Solo.

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The supporting cast are no slouches, either. Jamie Foxx has a ball going fully-blown crazy as unhinged career criminal Bats. John Hamm, playing a former stock broker who ran off with his favourite stripper, strikes up a fun double act with Eiza Gonzalez’s persuasive Darling. Meanwhile, Kevin Spacey is suitably menacing and oddly paternal as bank heist extraordinaire Doc, and he gets the pick of the best lines too (“Putting the Asian in home invasion…”). Every one of them can be relied upon to deliver moments of levity and breezily reel off exposition when required.

Only Lily James feels short changed as Baby’s dreamy love interest Debora. A young waitress who dreams of jacking in her dreary life and hitting the highway with no plan of where to go, Debora’s useful as a symbol of everything Baby desires, but she’s completely without a backstory or agency. She’s simply just along for the ride, unwisely clinging on to Baby’s tire tracks even as his predicament spirals into increasingly dangerous – not to mention illegal – territory. It’s a shame because James does solid work as Debora, being suitably desirable but with a wit, charm and strength all of her own.

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If there is one real criticism of Wright’s work here, it’s that the familiar story – a good kid trapped in a bad situation – unfolds pretty much as you would expect. Yet the fact that we’ve heard most of the story beats before hardly matters when the notes are played with such a refreshing verve and style. And when Baby Driver squeals into its break-neck, gas-guzzling, bullet-strewn final act, you’ll be enjoying the ride far too much to remember that you already know where the journey will end up.

Runtime: 113 mins (approx.)

Director/Screenwriter: Edgar Wright

Stars: Ansel Elgort, Jamie Foxx, Kevin Spacey, John Hamm, Lilly James

Country: USA

Star rating: 4/5

Doctor Who: World Enough and Time – TV Review

After months of anticipation, fevered fan-speculation and increasingly bombastic promos, the first part of the series 10 finale has finally arrived. And not a moment too soon. Although the current run of episodes started promisingly, it feels like the series has been coasting towards the finish line of late, with a few too many fun-but-fruitless episodes that have done little to advance the larger series’ arc.

That’s not an accusation that can be levelled against World Enough and Time, which boasts a Doctor-Missy team-up, the return of a classic Doctor Who foe and the ’surprise’ resurrection of one of the Time Lord’s greatest enemies in an action-packed plot. And yet, while there’s no denying this is one of the most marvellously audacious episodes of recent memory, it still manages to underwhelm, largely because it blew all of its major plot-twists before the episode even aired.

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The opening moments fly by, though. A dramatic foreshadowing of the Capaldi’s upcoming regeneration swiftly swerving into a brisk and breezy sequence where an apparently repentant Missy, with her “disposables” Bill and Nardole in toll, tries to save a ginormous space ship from being sucked into the event horizon of a black hole.

It’s an unexpectedly fun, lighthearted sequence for a series finale, with Michelle Gomez back to her whimsically scathing best as a Doctor-in-training. The scene also boasts some gorgeous CGI work in the realisation of the space ship, which really wouldn’t look out of place on the big screen.

And then, Moffat punches the air out of us by literally blowing a hole through Bill’s chest. In a heart-stopping scene, the Doctor desperately pleas with a trigger-happy crew member who wants to kill Bill before an unseen, human-hunting monster comes to take them all, but he can do nothing to stop the inevitable. Her near-fatal wounding is devastating, exposing the Doctor’s steadily growing recklessness and altering Bill’s relationship with the Time Lord in potentially irrevocable ways.

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It’s here that World Enough starts to falter. We all know Moffat is fond of time-wimey plots with multiple, interlocking timelines and his obsession with the device seriously hampers the story this time. Firstly, we’re ripped away from Bill’s horrific attack for a needless flashback to the Doctor and his companion breezily planning Missy’s training exercise. We then spend the rest of the episode cutting between Bill’s time in the ship’s creepy medical wing and Doctor’s rapid attempts to find her.

Moffat at least gives this structure an intriguing twist where, due to the effect of gravity on time, Bill and the Twelve experience time at different speeds, meaning a minute for the Doctor equates to weeks of waiting for Bill. It’s a neat concept, yet it adds almost nothing to the plot other than taking us away from Bill’s harrowing experiences in the grim doldrums of the ship in order to watch Capaldi repeatedly attempt to explain the science behind the time difference to Missy and Nardole.

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It’s a shame because when it focuses on Bill’s traumatic period waiting for the Doctor to save her, World Enough really soars. The eerie hospital setting, complete with creepy patients robotically shouting out in pain, is fantastically evocative of The Empty Child and director Rachel Talay takes full advantage, utilising creaking door hinges, shadowy hallways, and jump scares to ramp up the fear factor.

Most chilling of all are the Mondasian Cybermen. Faithfully recreated in every detail, these classic man-bun sporting foes are scary as hell, their ghostly masks and human-looking hands making for an unsettling sight. Moffat has also delved deeper into their macabre conversion method to create something that is both disturbing and tragic – you almost feel sorry for these pitiful-yet-petrifying creatures.

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Of course, the Cybermen aren’t the only bad guys in town this week. It’s no secret that John Simm’s maniacal incarnation of the Master is the one who’s really pulling the strings behind the scenes and his big reveal towards the end of the episode is worth the wait. Newly goateed and having ditched the hooded-hobo look from The End of Time, Simm is back to his teasingly machiavellian best, introduced toying with an unsuspecting Missy before gleefully revealing his diabolical plan. It’s a short appearance but it’s one that holds plenty of promise ahead of a fuller outing next week.

The only problem is we see all of this coming.

You don’t need to have obsessively trawled through message boards in search of spoilers to know that the Mondasian Cyberman and the Master feature heavily in this episode – it was right there in last week’s preview trailer. Yet Moffat insists on acting like we have no idea what’s coming, slowly building up to what are intended to be shocking reveals, when in fact we already knew what to expect before the episode even aired.

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It leads to a bizarre scenario where we spend the majority of the episode watching Simm parade around disguised as Bill’s kind hearted friend Mr Razor. Simm is mightily impressive in the role, imbuing Razor with warmth, kindness, and slightly off-kilter charm, but it’s all for nothing. Even most absent-minded viewer wouldn’t need long to work out its Simm hiding behind the mountain of prosthetics. Likewise, Bill’s early demise and subsequent transformation into a Cyberman are so clearly signposted that they lose all impact. World Enough feels like a surprise party where you can see feet poking out under the curtain and your nan’s head peaking from behind the sofa.

On the plus side, with Master back in full flow and Bill trapped in the casing of a Cyberman, the stage is set for a spectacular series finale next week. World Enough got so many things right – the pace, the tone, emotional resonance were all marvellously handled. If only it hadn’t all been spoiled by an over-abundance of pre-publicity, it could’ve been one of finest episode of modern Who. Instead, if feels like one massive missed opportunity.

Doctor Who: The Eaters of Light – TV Review

One of the most enjoyable features of Doctor Who’s tenth series has been the old-school vibe brought to many of its episodes – see last week’s 60s-tinged Empress of Mars. It feels fitting, then, that the final standalone adventure of the Capaldi – not to mention Moffat – era should welcome the return of ‘classic’ Who writer Rona Munro, who penned the final episode of the original series. It turns out to be a mixed blessing, however. Though it possesses some intriguing mysteries, breathtaking visuals and a promising monster, The Eaters of Light lacks much of the high stakes energy we’ve come to expect of modern Who and it feels lacklustre as a result.

This week’s reason for the Doctor abandoning his guard of Missy’s vault is the need to settle a history-based spat with Bill. Both have their own theories as to what really happened to the Roman Ninth Legion, who historically disappeared under mysterious circumstances, and so they naturally hop in the TARDIS for a quick trip to second century Scotland to find out who is right. Of course, it’s not long before the time-travelling team find themselves getting involved in the usual interdimensional scrapes. As the Doctor and Nardole find themselves captured by a tribe of hostile Pictish warriors, Bill falls down yet another hole and uncovers a band of surviving Roman soldiers who are hiding from a strange creature that only comes out at night.

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On the surface, at least, the Eaters of Light has all the makings of an entertaining Who episode. It’s a fun, light-hearted and slightly-strange adventure, featuring an enticing conundrum that blends folkloric mysticism with a timey-wimey plot device (the story revolves around a set of Cairn stones that encase a temporal rift). There’s also plenty of sweeping landscapes, with director Charles Palmer (Oxygen) making excellent use of real locations as opposed to the creaky set work we suffered through last week. The themes, too, will be strongly strongly evocative for fans: the futility of battle, the power of fear, and the benefits of working together for a greater good.

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The only trouble is, the story doesn’t pull you to the edge of your seat and get under your skin in the way it should. As with many episodes this series, the Eaters of Light is more than happy to take its time, allowing the mystery to unfold gradually while it digs deeper into the lives of its main characters. The difference this time is that the characters are not particularly interesting. Bill, the Doctor and Nardole aren’t asked to do much beyond their usual roles – although Peter Capaldi and Matt Lucas do get to exchange some superb banter, mostly at the expense of the Highland setting (“It’s Scotland, it’s supposed to be damp!”).

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Meanwhile, newcomers Rebecca Benson and Brian Vernel don’t fair much better, with the latter’s Roman solider Lucius only required to pointlessly lust after Bill in another needless reminder of her sexual preference. Benson, in particular, feels like a missed opportunity. Her character Kar, the spirited leader of a Pictish tribe, is put at the centre of an interesting moral quandary, having allowed the monster out of the rift in the hope it would kill the advancing Roman army and save her people. Yet this plot point feels completely underfed because Munro never explores the pressures Kar feels in trying to protect her people or the guilt that is caused by instigating the monster’s mass slaughter.

Apart from a few instances of people poking pointy objects at each other, the episode is also lacking in action to help move the plot along, and it drags as a result. Part of the problem is that the monster is barely a part of the action. A glow in the dark dragon with sentient tentacles, the monster has an impressive, and no doubt expensive, CGI realisation, which perhaps explains its long absences from proceedings. That leaves it feeling somewhat peripheral to the plot, however, and severely diminishes its impact as an enemy to the human race, especially given its motivation seems sketchy at best (apparently it needs to kill all humans so that it can eat stars, or something). Without this basic threat level, there’s a noticeable lack of tension in the plot which is desperately needed to propel proceedings forward.

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Overall, the Eaters of Light offers some intriguing concepts, beautiful exteriors and a few fun character exchanges to enjoy, but it suffers due to an undercooked script that would’ve been greatly aided by fleshing out it’s core characters. Instead, it remains a solid but unspectacular episode that will be swiftly forgotten come the first instalment of series 10’s two-part finale next week.

The Mummy – Film Review

Curse the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Ever since a smug Tony Stark and his team of leather-clad meatbags took over the world with an outrageously entertaining series of interlocking movie franchises, studio execs across the multiverse have been racing to kick-start their own interconnected cash cow.

Universal’s The Mummy is just the latest to leap onto the super-powered bandwagon. Aiming to lump together classic movie monsters – Frankenstein, the Invisible Man, Dracula – into what’s been unimaginatively dubbed the Dark Universe, this reboot of a reboot has the unenviable task of delivering a high octane summer blockbuster that can compete with the established heavy hitters while also setting up a whole new world where well-known literary monsters actually exist. It’s hardly surprising, then, that this speedy hatchet job most closely resembles something cooked up in the lab of Dr Jekyll (here played by apparent Ray Winstone impersonator Russell Crowe): a mind-boggling miss-mash of competing personalities that can never work together as a satisfying whole.

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Things start off in promising fashion. Opening with a lively sequence in which Tom Cruise’s Indian Jones-type rogue Nick Morton is found fleeing ISIS gunfire after liberating a precious antiquity from the terror group’s Iraqi stronghold. The grace of a US military airstrike saves Morton from certain death and also uncovers the hidden tomb of Amhanet (Sofia Boutella), an Egyptian princess buried alive after selling her soul to the evil god Set in return for power.

Despite the obvious warning signs (Amhanet’s tomb is submerged in mercury and guarded by giant spiders), Morton and ambitious archeologist Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis) extract the sarcophagus and prepare to transport it back to Blighty (lord knows we love a stolen artefact). Naturally, events quickly take a turn for the worst when the plane is bombarded by a swarm of angry crows, causing a crash that seemingly kills Cruise’s character mere minutes into the movie he supposedly leads. And that’s where things start to get really weird…

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The Mummy’s biggest problem is that it can never quite decide what it wants to be. In part, it’s a zombie horror movie, with Boutella’s resurrected queen feeding on unsuspecting humans to regenerate her decomposed body and using her nebulous powers to recruit an army of the undead to aid her ascension to power. But it’s also a brisk and breezy action adventure, complete with plenty of daring set pieces, as Cruise sets about locating a set of mystical McGuffins that will save the world. And most strangely, the plot occasionally veers into vengeful-ex-girlfriend/phsycho-thriller territory as Ahmanet, for reasons unexplained, seeks to use Morton as a replacement vessel to bring Set into the world of the living. Because none of these elements gel together, the movie swings wildly between tones and style, which results in bizarre scenes, such as Tom Cruise debating with an imaginary zombie while stood in the ladies room of a traditional English pub.

It’s Cruise who looks most uncomfortable with this arrangement. We all know he’s well-equipped to play the charming-but-reckless action hero, but his status as the a-typical all-American hero makes it near impossible to accept him as a morally conflicted scoundrel who may well sell out the human race to ensure his own survival. Boutella is a much better fit as Ahmanet. A subtle mix of seductive and deadly, Boutella fully embodies the role of a manipulative, power-hungry empress who’ll stop at nothing to regain power. The only disappointment is that the narrative so often reduces Boutella to a clingy ex-girlfriend as she spend much of her screen time chasing after Cruise in the hope he will help Ahmanet achieve her destiny. Wallis, meanwhile, is lumbered with a rote damsel in distress role, required only to give Morton a reason to reveal his good side.

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It’s not entirely joyless, of course. Director Alex Kurtzman delivers several well-mounted set-pieces – including an underwater escape through the catacombs beneath London that’s breathlessly tense – and there’s a cheeky vein of deadpan humour which prevents proceedings from feeling too po-faced. Yet any momentum that’s been built up comes grinding to a halt when Crowe’s Jekyll, here cast as the untrustworthy head of a secret organisation designed to link the film series together, rocks up to spout endless exposition about Egyptians, the Crusades and some guff about magical McGuffins buried beneath the Jubilee Line. This is the fatal flaw in trying to rush through building a cinematic universe, rather than allowing it to evolve naturally. The entire plot has to stop to allow Crowe to put the action into context. It’s attention-sapping stuff and no amount of Crowe’s cockney-geezer interpretation of Hyde tossing Cruise around like a soggy chew toy can get it back on track.

None of this is necessarily ruinous for the Dark Universe – after all, the DCEU recently overcame a faltering start to deliver one of the most popular blockbusters of the year. And with The Bride of Frankenstein, a Van Helsing reboot and a Johnny Depp-starring Invisible Man movie all looming on the horizon, Universal will have plenty of opportunities to tweak their formula. If they can just figure out what they want this universe to be, there’s plenty of fun to be had in this frightening new world of gods and monsters.

Runtime: 107 mins

Director: Alex Kurtzman

Screenwriters: David Koepp, Christopher McQuarrie, Dylan Kusshen

Stars: Tom Cruise, Sofia Boutella, Russell Crowe, Annabelle Wallis

Doctor Who: Empress of Mars – TV Review

With the Earth now safe from a zombified dictator-led alternate reality following last week’s conclusion to the Monks trilogy, series 10 of Doctor Who gets back to basics with a largely standalone adventure, Empress of Mars. Featuring rickety sets, a bizarre story involving Victorian soldiers camped on an alien planet, and the return of a classic foe, there’s a charmingly old-school feeling to Mark Gatiss’ latest (and possibly final) Who tale. Fleeting waves of nostalgia aside, though, Empress of Mars is a fairly uneventful episode that tells us very little that we didn’t already know.

A lively opening sequence sees the Doctor and Bill sneak into a NASA control room at the very moment a team of flummoxed scientists are expecting to receive the first communication from a new space probe orbiting Mars. When the images finally download – evidently BT is yet to roll out 4G to neighbouring planets – they discover the message God Save the Queen spelt out in rocks on the planet’s surface. Naturally, the Doctor, Bill and Nardole (who’s presumably given up on trying to keep Twelve within the vicinity of Missy’s vault) hightail it straight the Mars in 1881, the year the rocky SOS first appeared. Upon their arrival, they find things are not quite as they expected: oxygen is freely available, there’s a roaring camp fire and a squad of Victorian soldiers are using a giant space cannon to blast the Red Planet’s innards in search of precious minerals.

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Earlier this week Gatiss described the episode as the kind of thing he’d like to watch on a bank holiday Monday, and there’s certainly something about the Victorians on Mars set-up that feels quintessentially Whovian, almost like it could’ve fallen straight out of the Hartnell or Troughton eras. The retro feel is most definitely felt in the special effects work, which often feels like it was made in the 1960s. Some fancy CGI shots of the Red Planet aside, much of the episode supposedly takes place in a cramped cave below Mars’ north pole, but there’s no escaping the knowing feeling that it’s really just a sound stage in Cardiff. That’s not intended as a criticism of director Wayne Yip, who does an able job with the budget available. A sequence where the Ice Warriors rise up out of the dirt is particularly effective.

Where the dodgy effects work does cause problems, though, is in the design of the Ice Warriors. Cold War wisely took the Jaws approach to making a monster scary in spite of a lacklustre budget, keeping a lone Warrior off screen for as long as possible as he slaughtered the crew of a nuclear submarine from the shadows. Empress of Mars makes the mistake of bringing back the enemy in its full, lumbering glory, and the results are hardly intimidating. Rather than an advanced race of highly skilled invaders, the Warriors look more like someone has slapped a waste paper basket on an extra’s head and told him to walk like he’s got a pole shoved where the sun doesn’t shine. And their new method of offing their enemies, which involves turning their target into a bundle of dirty laundry, looks a lot sillier on screen than Gatiss and Yip probably envisioned.

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Even the introduction of the queen of the species, Adele Lynch’s titular Empress Iraxxa, does little to offset the naffness of the story. Lynch brings an entertaining mix of grace and venom to the role, but the opportunity to bring a female perspective to the species is sadly squandered – she’s really just another war-hungry commander who’s more concerned with swinging her military might around than working towards a peaceful resolution.

The crux of the plot sees the Doctor trying to broker peace between the Victorian army, who are seeking to claim Mars in the name of Queen Victoria, and the Ice Warriors, who had been hibernating on the planet for millennia until the meddling Red Coats rudely woke them from their slumber. There’s potential here to explore the Doctor’s split loyalties between the human invaders and the indigenous species. Yet, much like last week’s episode, which rushed a chance to examine Twelve’s darker side, Gatiss only gives this tension surface-level attention in what feels like a largely weightless adventure.

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It does, however, give Gatiss a chance to take pot shots at Britain’s empirical past. This largely achieved through Ferdinand Kingsley’s delightfully unctuous Catchlove, a smug Victorian solider who appears completely oblivious to the fact that he’s in the wrong and who bellows things like “Don’t belong here? We’re British!” with enough righteous indignation to make Nigel Farage leap to his feet to salute.

After the grand scale and high-stakes drama of the last three episode, Empress of Mars feels like a huge dip in quality, disappointing with its unimpressive special effects, harmless villains and an undercooked script that lets down its main players. This is yet another Gatiss-penned episode that fails to deliver the goods.