“Argylle” stars Henry Cavill, Bryce Dallas Howard, Sam Rockwell, Bryan Cranston, Catherine O’Hara, Dua Lipa, Ariana DeBose, John Cena, and Samuel L. Jackson. Released on February 2, 2024, the film has a novelist getting caught in the espionage world.
The film was directed by Matthew Vaughn, who also directed films such as “Layer Cake,” “Kick-Ass,” “X-Men: First Class,” and “Kingsman: The Secret Service.” Writing novels can bring out endless possibilities in a writer’s mind, especially ones involving spies and secret organizations. However, one book reveals a possibility so real that it’s impossible for anyone to believe. After two weeks of January boredom, we’re finally getting to the good stuff that will hopefully take 2024 by storm. That is if they’re actually good. The streak starts with the latest action-packed film from Matthew Vaughn that introduces audiences to a new spy world that literally jumps right off the pages. It’s no “Kingsman 3,” but anything involving Vaughn and Cavill’s hairstyle is an automatic must-see for me. It’ll keep us occupied until the filmmaker finishes up with the long-awaited continuation of the "Kingsman" franchise, but is it also another bonafide start of a new spy franchise from Vaughn? Let’s find out.
The story centers on Elly Conway (Howard), a reclusive spy novelist. Elly has recently finished her latest book in the eponymous spy series involving its most handsome spy, Agent Argylle (Cavill). However, she eventually gets writer’s block while attempting to finish her next novel. During her train ride to her parents’ house, she encounters a stranger named Aidan (Rockwell), who reveals himself to be an actual spy before saving her from an ambush. Aiden then explains that Elly has become the target of a mysterious organization called the Division, led by Ritter (Cranston), who believes that Elly’s novels can predict the future. Hoping that her creativity can help him defeat the Division, Aiden recruits Elly on a globe-trotting adventure to save the world and provide a happy ending to her larger-than-life book.
“Argylle” had a pretty interesting history leading up to its release that captured my intrigue. It was initially based on an “unpublished” novel written by Elly Conway, who everyone believed existed as a real person and later as Taylor Swift’s pen name. However, those theories were eventually debunked, making the movie completely original. Honestly, that would’ve been as wild as the movie itself if those turned out to be accurate. It can’t hurt to dream. Regardless of its history, it’s enough to be ecstatic for another fun and crazy spy-related ride, especially one from Matthew Vaughn, who’s had a healthy track record since 2010’s “Kick-Ass”. But, of course, as the old saying goes, there’s more to a fun cinematic ride than just the action and visuals.
“Argylle” is a teen-rated version of “Kingsman” regarding its spy action comedy elements, ridiculous fight scenes, and an ordinary person entering the espionage world. However, its story has its own flavor that kept it from being the director’s rip-off of his other spy franchise. One reason is the twists because you can’t have a spy movie without a surprise or two…or three. The best thing I could say about them without giving them away is that they may not impress everyone expecting what the trailers and poster suggested. Personally, I thought they were fine enough to provide more intrigue in its story and characters, even if they were a tad overdone. While I found one of them more predictable than the others, the film’s surprises emphasized Elly’s character arc involving her learning to write her own story in her life. Jason Fuchs’s screenplay may not hit all the bullseyes regarding its story beats and twists. However, it did provide enough entertainment, humor, and energy to rejuvenate its seemingly fundamental plot.
The movie’s energy comes from Matthew Vaughn’s vision. Vaughn is another filmmaker who deserves the credit he’s getting due to his stylistic presentation. His visual creativity in the action scenes and transitions is a smoothie full of vibrancy and slickness that’s delectable enough to consume, and I do love me some smoothies. He’s also not without his approach to the comedic and subtly heartfelt moments involving the characters and over-the-top action. They’re why I enjoyed some of his previous films like “First Class” and “Kingsman: The Secret Service”. Vaughn knew how to make an action movie exhilarating and as stylishly gorgeous as Dua Lipa’s dress, and his direction in “Argylle” is another example of that. The humor was nicely woven together with the action, but I think it would be even better if it focused more on the meta elements involving its tropes. That way, the movie's number of twists would be more forgiving. As for the action scenes, they’re unsurprisingly diverting and expectedly ridiculous despite some of the visual effects looking a tad rough, especially in the first act.
Unfortunately, there’s bound to be a weakness hiding within Vaughn’s strengths, which happens to be the length. Vaughn’s previous two “Kingsman” movies suffered a bit from their overstuffed two-hour-plus runtimes, mainly “The Golden Circle”, which clocked in at a jaw-dropping two hours and 20 minutes. While I still consider them entertaining, they did overstay their welcome with their concepts. Sadly, Vaughn still hasn’t learned that lesson in “Argylle” due to its two-hour-and-19-minute runtime. While the pacing is consistent enough to keep my attention, the movie didn’t have a good reason to be as long as Elly’s novel franchise, especially since it didn’t have many more creative ideas to fill its remaining voids.
But what about its all-star cast, you ask? Were some of its well-known actors charming enough to make “Argylle” more watchable? The simple answer to those questions is a resounding “yes”. Sam Rockwell is the best of the bunch, in my opinion. Rockwell’s charismatic acting skills perfectly fit the role of Aidan, an impatient yet caring spy sent to help Elly. He’s hilarious to watch regarding the dialogue, and his chemistry with Bryce Dallas Howard, who was also good as Elly, was a genuine eye-opener. Henry Cavill and John Cena were also solid additions to the cast as Argylle and Wyatt, respectively, despite not being in the movie as much as Elly and Aidan. Bryan Cranston as Ritter was a mildly diverting antagonist, and Samuel L. Jackson never fails to impress me regarding his performance as Alfred Solomon.
Overall, “Argylle” is a stylistic and mildly entertaining approach to the spy genre that’s as delightful as reading a good book or, in this case, a spy novel. It’s far from refreshing regarding its hit-and-miss screenplay and overdone twists, and its runtime can be excessive. Besides that, this is another spy movie that accomplished its objective of being a fun yet flawed action-packed ride that’s visually impressive and humorously enjoyable. Thanks to its decent cast, Vaughn’s direction, solid humor, and energetic action, the film is another worthy addition to the popular spy genre that’s as well-cut as Argylle’s hair. It’s worth a watch if you’re a fan of the actors and the spy genre, but make sure you lower your expectations just in case.
“The Underdoggs” stars Snoop Dogg, Tika Sumpter, Andrew Schulz, Mike Epps, Kal Penn, Kandi Burruss, and George Lopez. Released on Prime Video on January 26, 2024, the film has a former NFL player coaching a youth football team to avoid prison.
The film was directed by Charles Stone III, who also directed films such as “Drumline,” “Mr. 3000”, “Lila & Eve,” and “Uncle Drew.” You can tell that I was scraping the bottom of the barrel for more content to review because the last week of January was as empty as a hole. Sure, we had a new movie featuring Jenna Ortega making her teacher’s life a living hell, but other than that, we didn’t have a lot of exciting stuff to look forward to until February. In times like this, you had to resort to desperate measures, and that’s relying on our streaming services to fill our empty void. That’s how I stumbled upon this adult comedy with rapper Snoop Dogg playing football—the words we never expect to hear in 2024. Well, I guess anything’s better than doing nothing all week. Let’s see if I made the right choice.
The story follows Jaycen Jennings (Dogg), a professional football player at the top of his game. However, that all changed when his popularity began to wane due to his arrogant attitude, and an incident landed him in hot water. Jaycen is sentenced to community service in his hometown of Long Beach, California, where he’s hired to coach an unruly, foul-mouthed pee-wee football team. Despite the odds stacked against him, including the team’s lack of experience, Jaycen sees this as an opportunity to turn his career around. While attempting to lead his young team to the championship, Jaycen is forced to reconnect with his past and rediscover his love of football.
If you can’t tell by the film’s plot and title, it’s another scenario involving a washed-up sports player or coach leading a team of misfits to victory and learning to become a better person. Plenty of sports movies rely on this formula to provide a feel-good essence to their audiences, like “The Mighty Ducks” and “Rebound.” Some of them are entertaining regarding the cast and direction, while others are underwhelming due to them not adding anything new or fresh to the structure. Based on that information, I didn’t have high hopes for this, but I watched it anyway because of my soft spot for sports movies, especially ones made for adults. While I wasn’t expecting anything refreshing from its tried-and-true formula, I should at least have a fun time watching “The Underdoggs.” Unfortunately, it surprisingly lacks the skillsets to pull off this easy play.
“The Underdoggs” has a simplistic, by-the-numbers formula that would’ve easily made for a heartfelt and entertaining depiction of the importance of friends and family over success. It’s also about the love of the game that unites us and makes us better people. Sure, it has some corny moments we’ve seen multiple times, but if they make me smile with their charm and heart, that stuff hardly matters. With “The Underdoggs” being an R-rated comedy, it had the task of providing those similar qualities from its structure while balancing them with the raunchiness, such as the language and sex references. Spoiler alert: the kids perform these similar actions, and they drink. Sadly, its execution got way more penalties than it should have.
The screenplay by Danny Segal and Isaac Schamis was an extremely fundamental genre list that checks all of the underdog sports trope boxes, including a washed-up, self-centered sports celebrity and a team of outsiders. It resulted in plenty of predictable moments that you can catch on the fly before they happen, which isn’t too surprising considering how popular and relatable the plot is. However, its biggest crime was how uncharismatic and repetitive the dialogue turned out. While it wasn’t risque enough to be an uncomfortable watch, it got highly tiring way too quickly with its several one-trick ponies that weren’t that funny. Those include the formulaically mediocre characters and the language. Look, I get it. It’s an R-rated comedy, and people are allowed to swear multiple times to show that it’s not a Disney movie. But that doesn’t mean the adult language can be used almost every few seconds. I’m not saying that adult language isn’t funny, as several adult comedies proved that characters dropping “F-Bombs” can be humorous. But when used way more than it should have without combining them with fresh and fun ideas, it can make the characters’ personalities more tedious and irritating than amusing. “The Underdoggs” easily fits that bill, mainly for Jaycen, who I just wanted to strangle every time he cusses repeatedly. In short, the film gets penalized for its unnecessary barrage of unfunny adult language.
Charles Stone III is no stranger to sports movies, especially ones that fit the comedy category. I haven’t watched his other movies except for 2018’s “Uncle Drew,” but it’s enough for me to admire his approach of delivering an enjoyable mixture of comedy, sports action, and heart. Sure, “Uncle Drew” had the same issues as “The Underdoggs” narrative-wise, but Stone relied on its cast and charm to make its formula surprisingly watchable. So, it made sense he was hired to direct this movie. Unfortunately, he couldn’t perform the same trick play he performed for “Uncle Drew” to save “The Underdoggs” from being a tasteless and bland experience from start to finish. The charm and heart in Stone’s direction were almost nonexistent, mainly due to the unlikeable characters and the inclusion of genre tropes that lacked the spirit they’re known for. There have been some attempts to turn this game around, but they’re quickly wasted on the desire to make the kids swear up a storm. The second half wasn’t as bad as the first regarding the direction of the adult language, but the journey of getting to that point was like nails on a chalkboard. It’s ear-gratingly exhausting.
If there’s one thing I learned from “The Underdoggs,” believe it or not, it’s that Snoop Dogg is a big sports fan, especially football. The film was inspired by Dogg’s youth football league (Snoop Youth Football League), which he’s been operating since 2005 and was explored in the Netflix docu-series “Coach Snoop.” So, I can see why he wanted to get this movie made. It's too bad the movie wasn’t special enough to admire his love of the sport. To be fair, Dogg has a respectable presence as an actor outside his rapping career, and his performance in “The Underdoggs” is no different. While his role as Jaycen was passable at best, it’s not enough to overshadow the character’s irritatingly charmless personality that’s intentional but poorly handled. The rest of the cast deserved way better than what they were given despite their efforts in carrying the movie. Mike Epps tried way too hard to be annoyingly funny as Kareem that it came off as...well, annoying. Tika Sumpter was the most tolerable of the bunch, but only because her character, Cherise, has the most common sense than the rest of them.
Overall, “The Underdoggs” lacks the trick plays and team spirit needed to elevate its painfully crude and boringly predictable game. While it isn’t without Snoop Dogg being his usual self onscreen, it’s not enough to make its bland, by-the-numbers sports formula more fun and exciting than it should have. Instead of being another flawed yet watchable underdog movie filled with silly laughs and heart, “The Underdoggs” is a charmless, vulgar, and tedious genre blueprint that offers neither the humor nor the soul of the similar films that came before it. The only admirable thing about the movie is that I learned how much of a football fan Snoop Dogg is. Otherwise, this is one of the worst films of 2024 regarding its formulaic screenplay, repetitive adult humor, unlikable characters, and weak direction. If you like watching sports underdog movies regardless of the quality, you might get some enjoyment from this one, but there’s a good chance you’ll forget about it in a day after watching it.
“Lift” stars Kevin Hart, Vincent D’Onofrio, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Úrsula Corberó, Billy Magnussen, Jacob Batalon, Jean Reno, and Sam Worthington. Released on Netflix on January 12, 2024, the film has a thief and his team joining forces with an Interpol agent to rob an airplane.
The film was directed by F. Gary Gray, who also directed films such as “Friday,” “A Man Apart,” “Be Cool,” “Straight Outta Compton,” and “Men in Black: International.” If there’s one thing I learned from watching heist movies, it’s that people can steal stuff from anywhere. Banks, trucks, and even secret organizations. But it’s rare to see characters try their hand at robbing things from 40,000 feet in the air. That all changed as Netflix kickstarted the new year with a new heist team led by comedian Kevin Hart. It’s not what I expected to have on my list of New Year goals, but hey, many strange things have happened throughout the past few months, so I shouldn’t be surprised that we got something like this. This latest Netflix movie had F. Gary Gray returning to the heist genre for the first time since the 2003 remake of “The Italian Job”. Based on the reception of that film, we could be in for another sky-soaring treat from the filmmaker. With that said, let’s take to the skies and see if it marks a solid start to Netflix’s 2024 season.
The story follows Cyrus (Hart), a renowned international thief with a record of performing secretive heists. However, his recent heist was foiled by his former fling, an Interpol agent named Abby Gladwell (Mbatha-Raw), landing him and his crew in hot water. But instead of landing behind bars, Cyrus and his gang are tasked by Abby and her superior, Commander Huxley (Worthington), to capture a criminal mastermind named Lars Jorgenson (Reno), who’s staging a terrorist attack in Europe to make a profit through stock manipulation. Jorgenson’s plan involves the payment in gold bullion being shipped to his bank in Zurich via a commercial airliner. With Abby and his trustful crew by his side, Cyrus attempts to foil Jorgenson’s terrorist plot by robbing millions of dollars in gold, but with a catch. He and his team must perform this dangerous task during the airliner's flight.
You might wonder why I decided to review something like this on Netflix. It’s not just because of my interest in the heist genre and Hart’s involvement. It’s also due to me not reviewing many streaming movies as I used to throughout the past couple of years. It could be my lack of interest interfering with those plans or the amount of low-quality films that don’t require my full attention. I’m not sure. Since 2024 has plenty of exciting content coming out on the streaming service, it didn’t hurt for me to start getting back to streaming reviews or, in this case, attempt to do so. Please don’t blame me; blame my scheduling. Of course, what better way to start this new year’s goal than watching Kevin Hart rob an airplane?
I have my standards on what makes a heist movie entertaining. It needs to have a plot that’s not too complex but not too straightforward to the point it becomes tedious and underwhelming. It also needs to have characters that are charming enough to excuse their by-the-numbers characteristics. Finally, it’s got to have the action. You can’t have a heist without having to punch someone willing to interfere with the robbery. These elements are why I enjoyed some of the other films from that genre, including “Fast & Furious” and the underrated “Dungeons & Dragons” movie from last year. “Lift” is obviously nowhere near the heights as these movies and many others, with its hit-and-miss story holding itself back from reaching its potential. However, if you don’t mind much about its plot and want to see Hart be an action star for under two hours, you might have a decent time with this film.
Those hoping for “Lift” to be a groundbreaking achievement in the heist genre won’t find that much gold in its storyline. One reason is the screenplay, which doesn’t offer much to its formulaic and simplistic structure. The movie’s writer, Daniel Kunka, took many elements from the heist movies of yesteryear and applied them to “Lift,” similar to organizing a fake bomb using the same parts as the previous missions. That includes “Fast & Furious 6” with a heist crew cooperating with the authorities to bring down a common foe. In other words, if you’ve watched the other films from the same genre, you will get exactly what you offered in “Lift." However, what really matters to me is whether the plot’s fun enough to soar over its derivative narrative and straightforward characters. After watching the film, it’s safe to say that I enjoyed it well enough to add it to my “Netflix and Chill” collection.
Part of the enjoyment comes from the cast, which provides suitable talent and charm to make this by-the-numbers crew likable. It’s easy for me to admit that Kevin Hart has made some interesting choices recently to avoid becoming a one-hit wonder. Besides comedies, he’s made some ambitious attempts at being a dramatic actor, and now he’s making his way to action stardom, joining those like Jason Statham and Dwayne Johnson. While his role as Cyrus may not be enough to convince me he’s ready to take on the action genre, Hart maintained the charismatic essence he’s known for to keep this flight running smoothly. Gugu Mbatha-Raw was also decent as Abby, and Billy Magnussen has enough humorous moments to make Magnus one of my favorite parts of the film.
F. Gary Gray is one of the filmmakers whose vision can be hit-or-miss depending on the script’s execution. His direction can provide gold in specific movies like “Friday” and “Straight Outta Compton”, my personal favorite from Gray. On the other hand, he can sometimes prove that all that glitters is not gold regarding films like “A Man Apart” and “Men in Black: International”. But one thing is certain: Gray knows how to provide entertainment when the right opportunity arrives, regardless of the quality. “Lift” is a movie with a mixture of gold and bronze that’s tolerable enough to steal, with Gray providing a slick and energetic presentation to coincide with its ludicrous concept and charm. There were a few scenes that immediately reminded me of Matthew Vaughn’s stylish presentation, mainly the “Kingsman” movies. Although I wouldn’t say it’s as great as Vaughn’s direction, I still found it worth noting for providing an engaging flavor to its standard narrative.
Overall, “Lift” may not be the biggest heist of the century, but it has enough gold for viewers looking for by-the-numbers entertainment to steal. Regarding the heist genre, I would place this in the category of movies that deliver fun and charismatic appeal amid a less-than-stellar narrative. It often suffers from turbulence in its screenplay and characters. However, its enjoyable cast, Gray’s direction, and diverting action keep this flight soaring long enough to provide a mildly diverting experience. It’s worth watching on Netflix if you enjoy watching heist movies and Kevin Hart, regardless of the story.
“Rebel Moon - Part One: A Child of Fire” stars Sofia Boutella, Charlie Hunnam, Ray Fisher, Michiel Huisman, Djimon Hounsou, Doona Bae, Jena Malone, Ed Skrein, Cleopatra Coleman, Fra Fee, and Anthony Hopkins. Released in limited theaters on December 15, 2023, followed by a Netflix release on December 22, 2023, the film has a young woman attempting to save the galaxy from a ruthless regent.
The film was directed by Zack Snyder, who also directed films such as “300”, “Watchmen,” “Man of Steel,” and “Army of the Dead.” Aside from family-friendly cartoons, feel-good stories, and movie musicals, the holiday season wasn’t without an imaginative sci-fi adventure to excite the movie-going audience. Disney has Star Wars, and James Cameron brings his creative mind to the world of Pandora in “Avatar”. Now, it was Zack Snyder’s turn to bring an intergalactic adventure to life during the winter season. After making a solid comeback with his first Netflix movie since leaving the DC universe behind, Snyder joined the streaming service once more to deliver an original space opera full of corruption, war, and violence. In other words, it’s “Star Wars” if Zack Snyder had his way. If hanging out with an aquatic superhero wasn’t on your holiday to-do list, then it’s possible that exploring Snyder’s grim galactic world might be. But was it exciting enough to continue Snyder’s winning streak with Netflix? Let’s find out.
The movie takes place in a futuristic universe, which is controlled by the Motherworld. The Motherworld uses its military army, the Imperium, led by the tyrannical ruler Regent Balisarius (Fee), to maintain “order” across the galaxy. It’s like the Empire from “Star Wars”, but more ruthless. The story centers on Kora (Boutella), a former member of the Imperium seeking redemption for her past. When the Imperium threatens the moon of Veldt, Kora and her farmer ally Gunnar (Huisman) travel across the galaxy to recruit the universe's most formidable warriors to aid them. The members include former general Titus (Hounsou), mercenary Kai (Hunnam), and cyborg sword master Nemesis (Bae). With her crew in tow, Kora makes a stand against the Imperium as she attempts to overthrow Regent Balisarius and bring peace to the galaxy and herself.
Like my experience with the previous Netflix films I reviewed recently, I didn’t find the time to watch “Rebel Moon” until now due to my holiday plans. There were plenty of things in the film that caught my interest, including Snyder and the film’s ambitious sci-fi presentation. Sadly, my Christmas plans got the better of me because, again, nothing’s more important than spending time with family. Man, I’m just about one step away from becoming Dominic Toretto. Thankfully, my recent plans were spaced out enough (no pun intended) for me to finally check it out, especially since part two is releasing in April. With the film being split into two parts and expanded into a franchise, this could mean that Snyder might be cooking something special for our science fiction taste buds. Of course, the only problem that made a huge difference was that he’s releasing an R-rated extended cut of the film soon. After finally watching this gorgeously bleak sci-fi epic, I can definitely see why. While it’s another movie that emphasizes Snyder’s visually stunning presentation, it’s not enough to overcome its familiarity on a narrative and thematic scale.
One of the most common things I heard about “Rebel Moon” is that it’s a cross between “Star Wars” and Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai”, with the former centering on a rebellion against those with power. It also happens to be inspired by Heavy Metal, with its logo paying homage to the magazines. I only heard about “Seven Samurai” through my research, but I am a pretty big fan of “Star Wars,” so that’s more than enough for me to get attached to “Rebel Moon" easily. These inspirations allowed Snyder to create something unique and mesmerizing with his world-building and characters to differentiate from those that came before it. Unfortunately, Snyder instead used them as shortcuts to craft a subpar, by-the-numbers space opera with neither the charm nor the emotion of the classics that inspired it.
Part of that is due to the screenplay Snyder wrote with his collaborators Kurt Johnstad and Shay Hatten. I have no doubt Zack Snyder has ambition in his filmmaking skills, especially when handling the cinematography and speed-ramping sequences. His passion for creating epic storylines through his artistic presentation, style, and visuals is still something I admire. However, “Rebel Moon” showcased that his writing struggled to reach the same amount of ambition as his admirable direction. The script had plenty of intrigue in these characters and themes, especially its depiction of redemption and hope amid a controlled society ruled by those with power. Those themes reside in the film’s protagonist, Kora, whose quest led her to regain her belief in hope following her actions working for the Motherworld. Sadly, it didn’t do much to emphasize the depth of those elements regarding the dialogue and genre tropes.
It’s easy to see why Snyder wanted to release the R-rated extended cut of “Rebel Moon” because it felt like it left out several parts that could’ve made them more well-rounded. In addition to several sequences edited to fit the PG-13 rating, the movie also lacked the desire to showcase more of its supporting characters, making them one-dimensional expendables. I think if they remade it as a television series instead of a feature-length film, it would’ve given the creators more opportunities to expand their characters and the world built for “Rebel Moon” and provide actual stakes to get more people interested in the brand. Don’t get me wrong. The production designs were pretty darn good for its bleak, galactic locations. It’s that there’s not enough of this universe for me to get myself fully invested. Maybe that’ll change once part two and the film’s extended cut come out, but we’ll see.
While the characters don’t have enough moments to be memorable, the cast behind them made the most of this predicament through their performances. They’re not spectacular, but I wouldn’t call them terrible, either. Sofia Boutella has had a pretty interesting career as a supporting actress since she made herself known to the public in “Kingsman.” By that, I mean she played an alien warrior in “Star Trek Beyond” and an undead Egyptian princess in the failed “Mummy” reboot. “Rebel Moon” saw Boutella taking on the challenge of carrying the film as the main character instead of taking the back seat regarding her role of Kora. The best thing I can say about Boutella’s performance is that she captured Kora’s ruthless yet internally troubling personality reasonably well. Djimon Hounsou and Anthony Hopkins also provided some decent moments as Titus and Jimmy, a mechanical knight, respectively, despite the latter having a minuscule role. However, I would say that Michiel Huisman was the weakest of the bunch, as his performance as Gunnar was as flat as an intergalactic pancake.
Another element that elevated “Rebel Moon” was the visuals. As I mentioned earlier, Zack Snyder can do no wrong with his engaging stylistic choices regarding his direction and cinematography. However, he’s also no stranger to making the visual effects coincide flawlessly with his presentation, and “Rebel Moon” is no exception. From its bleak and expansive galactic environments to the creature designs, “Rebel Moon” is science-fiction art that’s engrossing and grimly imaginative, something that only Snyder can accomplish. This film and the upcoming second part shared a budget of $166 million, further showing that you don’t need to spend more than ten mansions’ worth to provide this type of visual craft in a blockbuster. With how grand and impressive the visual effects looked in “Rebel Moon”, it’s still upsetting that it didn’t play at the cinema closest to my location during its limited theatrical run.
Overall, “Rebel Moon - Part One: A Child of Fire” lacks strong narrative reinforcements to rebel against its familiarity and underwhelming genre tropes despite coming equipped with its visually stunning presentation. There’s no doubt Snyder remains a respectable filmmaker with plenty of ambition in his gloomy yet stylish vision and visual flair. However, there’s still much to be desired regarding his storytelling, as he relied heavily on its shortcuts to craft a narrative structure instead of using the cliches to make a great one. Regarding its passable cast, decent cinematography, enjoyable action scenes, and strong visuals, the movie is a subpar beginning of Snyder’s sci-fi universe that’ll likely impress his fans. Sadly, the film’s derivative plot, formulaic screenplay, weak characters, and mediocre attempts at providing emotion made it one of the director’s weakest entries in his filmography. Fortunately, my disappointment isn’t enough to damper my interest in the extended cut and the upcoming second part, slated for release in April. Hopefully, these releases will be enough to change my mind about this potential sci-fi franchise for Netflix.
“I.S.S.” stars Ariana DeBose, Chris Messina, John Gallagher Jr., Maria Mashkova, Costa Ronin, and Pilou Asbæk. Released on January 19, 2024, the film has a group of astronauts confronting each other aboard the space station.
The film was directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, who also directed “Blackfish,” “Megan Leavey,” “Our Friend,” and “The Grab.” Space isn’t without a breathtaking view of our home planet, Earth. However, as the previous space-related movies I’ve watched depicted, it also houses dangerous scenarios like being attacked by aliens and drifting endlessly into the galaxy. This film may not have any of those things, but it does have a nightmare worse than death: humanity. The final two weeks of January looked pretty empty from a theatrical and streaming perspective regarding the number of releases. However, this weekend does have one that has piqued my interest since the trailer came out, and it’s a space thriller involving people fighting for control over a space station. I guess in space, we can hear more than just people’s screams. This film sees Gabriela Cowperthwaite returning to feature film territory for the first time since 2019 with “Our Friend”, hoping to get more people to remember her existence, including me. With that said, let’s head into space and see if this thriller is out of this world.
The story centers on a group of American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts aboard the International Space Station. They consist of Dr. Kira Foster (DeBose), Gordon Barrett (Messina), Alexey Pulov (Asbæk), Christian Campbell (Gallagher Jr.), Nicholai Pulov (Ronin), and Weronika Vetrov (Mashkova). Amid the relaxing and peaceful get-together between the two countries, the group eventually discovers that Earth is in the middle of a worldwide conflict between America and Russia. They also learned that they received orders from the respective countries to take control of the space station. As a result, these friends are pitted against each other as they take drastic measures to assume possession of the I.S.S.
I first heard of this film from the trailer that played before “Godzilla Minus One.” Its concept immediately reminded me of the previous movies involving people in closed spaces, which I enjoyed for their use of claustrophobic tension. That’s one reason for my interest in “I.S.S.” The other is director Gabriela Cowperthwaite. The last movie I watched from her was “Megan Leavey” in 2017, which starred Kate Mara as the titular character. Long story short, I thought Cowperthwaite did a great job honoring the female Marine with her direction and storytelling. I also heard that “Our Friend” and her other documentaries are just as good, but I haven’t watched those movies. Hopefully, that might change sooner or later. Based on her track record, we’d assume that “I.S.S.” could become another attention-grabbing hit for the filmmaker, especially in the sci-fi thriller genre. Instead, it became a one-hit wonder that may be worth seeing once.
“I.S.S.” is one of those movies that left me conflicted, like choosing between two of my favorite foods at a restaurant. On the one hand, it has a few moments that benefit from the unnerving feel of being in the same station with someone you may or may not trust. On the other hand, the movie doesn’t offer much else to elevate its stirring ideas and characters. As a result, “I.S.S.” becomes a test of discomfort that struggled to decide between being a thrilling and emotional depiction of war affecting humanity or a straightforward piece of popcorn entertainment. It bounces back and forth between the two, leaving no room for the movie to become its own identity. That’s not to say the film is as terrible as “Night Swim” because I enjoyed a few things that kept “I.S.S.” from crashing down early. However, I will say that I’m a little disappointed that I didn’t love it as much as the early reviews suggested.
One of the things benefitting the movie was the cast. While there weren’t any standouts in this small lineup, I was impressed with their efforts in capturing the characters' fear and dread and keeping the story from being too dull. Ariana DeBose continues to impress me again, thanks to her solid performance as Kira Foster, a scientist caught in a space feud. She may not be a big box office draw recently, but DeBose is another star with enough talent to compensate for it. Based on what I’ve seen from her so far, I believe it’s something that shouldn’t go unnoticed. Chris Messina and Pilou Asbæk were also decent as Gordon Barrett and Alexey Pulov, respectively.
Another element was Gabriela Cowperthwaite's direction. The crucial part of making a single-location movie is capturing the authentic feeling of fear, loneliness, and danger. It reflects the claustrophobia of being trapped in a single room or building with no sign of help, whether you're alone or with someone you don't trust. It’s also not without the fear of not knowing what’s happening in the outside world. In this case, “I.S.S.” depicts a devastating war occurring on Earth, but the group has no clue if any of their friends and family survive. A thought like that can really make a person lose their marbles. Cowperthwaite was the latest filmmaker to tackle this narrative approach, and I thought she did pretty well. Was it as groundbreaking as her previous movies like “Megan Leavey”? No. However, she understood the objective of reflecting the authenticity of a space station regarding its production design and passable visuals and accomplished it.
Unfortunately, the only downsides to Cowperthwaite’s direction were the dramatic tension and Nick Shafir’s screenplay. The movie is a steady-moving thriller drama focusing on representing the characters during the first act before it has them at each other’s throats. It’s a suitable way for the audiences to know them and their motives, but once the film reaches the breaking point, it falls a tad short of being a jaw-dropping experience like the other single-location films. There were a couple of times when the tension-filled scenes worked wonderfully, but the rest of the movie couldn’t quite preserve that intensity long enough to truly capture the fear and isolation. Some parts of the film were a bit too safe regarding its violence and drama. Additionally, the screenplay lacked any more fresh or exciting ideas to maintain my interest in the concept despite its attempt at making the cosmonauts more than just stereotypical Russian antagonists.
Overall, “I.S.S.” easily benefited from the talent in front of and behind the camera, but it struggled to complete its objective of being an unforgettably frightening experience. This is one of the movies that took me minutes to think about instead of seconds after I left the theater. I admired some of the filmmaking aspects of “I.S.S.”, especially Cowperthwaite’s approach to the single-location storyline. However, I was left feeling as empty as space itself, not because of its depressing and dark tone but because its execution of the concept did not impress me as much as I had hoped. Regarding its hit-and-miss tension and Shafir’s average screenplay, the film felt more like an “okay, that was an experience” than a “Wow! What an experience!” Fortunately, its engaging cast and production design were decent enough to prevent it from drifting off into the cold outer reaches of space. I didn’t hate it as much as “Night Swim”, but I was pretty bummed that it wasn’t great. I would say it’s fine enough to be watched once if you enjoyed the other single-location thrillers.