My Eight Main Questions Upon Leaving The Force Awakens

Star Wars 2Overall, I’d say I generally enjoyed Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens. There were some thrilling set pieces, a scattering of witty one-liners and a couple of very interesting additions to the cast. However, I left the cinema with a number of burning questions, some of which I believe were intentionally left unanswered, but others too that rather undermined by enjoyment of the film. Here are six of the most pressing. Obviously spoilers will follow.

What happened to the other padawans?

Was there another youngling massacre? It is revealed during the movie that Luke was training a new generation of Jedi when one of their number — Kylo Ren, then known to Skywalker as nephew, or Ben — burned everything to the ground. But are they all dead, or did some of them escape and simply abandon their training? The introduction of Rey and Finn (as well as the film’s title) implies that people across the universe — whether scavenger or Stormtrooper — are developing Force powers, while a number of supporting characters appear to have an understanding of the Force that goes beyond simple study. Presumably, they are not alone, and, X-Men style, people throughout history have found themselves imbued with inexplicable power. Would it not have made a more interesting film to explore what they might do with these new abilities, without mentors good or evil to influence them? It certainly would have given The Force Awakens a unique slant, and a more complex morality.

Was that Coruscant?

We first see the full capabilities of Starkiller Base when it fires a sun across the galaxy to destroy the distant Hosnian system, home to the New Republic, and therefore the Senate. We know from George Lucas’ prequel trilogy that the original Senate was based on Coruscant, the city planet that also housed the Jedi Council. From the fleeting footage of life on the surface we see helpless citizens watch on helplessly as their world ends around them, and it certainly has a familiar air. I understand that the prequels are unpopular, and that J. J. Abrams might wish to distance his own films from them, but having spent half of the extant saga on and around Coruscant it seems unceremonious to say the least (more like spiteful) to wipe its entire star system from the galaxy with such senseless abandon. Would it really have hurt the film to base some of its action on the planet’s surface so to at least give the carnage some meaning? Even anonymous Alderaan got that honour, when Darth Vader blew it up in A New Hope with one of its residents — Princess Leia, no less — watching in horror. Remember guys: anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering…

How does Finn’s moral compass work?

According to Finn, he and his fellow Stormtroopers are abducted from their families at a young age and trained to do one thing — presumably to kill, or maybe to miss, it’s hard to say. Why this is easier than using clones bred on site is never really clear, but whatever. He also explains that during his first battle he chose to make a decision, that he would not kill in the First Order’s name. Let’s look past the fact that, if someone really was to be raised in an environment such as this, steeped in the Dark Side, would they suddenly decide that evil wasn’t for them? I suppose it’s possible that he somehow managed to fly under the radar, even with Captain Phasma watching, until adulthood, at which point he was able to orchestrate his escape. What really jars, however, is that having just forsaken murder he is so quick to turn on his own. Having acquired a TIE fighter from one of the Star Destroyer’s hangers, Po at the helm, Finn lays waste to battalion after battalion with obvious glee. So…he’s a good guy now?

What has the Resistance been doing all this time?

Thirty years have passed since the second Death Star was destroyed and Ewoks defeated the Empire, and all that the Rebel Alliance appears to have done in that time is change their name. (The Millennium Falcon has clearly had its deflector dish repaired too, though that might easily have been done by one of its subsequent owners.) Over the course of the original trilogy, having grown from the nucleonic Alliance to Restore the Republic established by Padme Amidala at the end of Revenge of the Sith, the Rebel Alliance clearly grows from a handful of fighters to a full-blown fleet with a veritable smorgasbord of vessels to its name. Worryingly, however, as of The Force Awakens, the newly minted Resistance has since resorted to the same tactics they used in A New Hope, namely to dispatch a dozen or so X-wings and hope that they can stop a planet-killing superstructure before it wipes them from the face of the universe. What’s more, it doesn’t even have Y- wings in its ranks anymore, let alone the B-wings and A-wings that were introduced in Return of the Jedi. We also learn that Han and Leia lost their son to the Dark Side, a trauma so great that Luke fled, Han and Chewie deserted and R2D2 simply switched off. None of this rings true in any way.

If Luke wants to be left alone, why did he leave a map?

So, since ditching his friends and leaving the galaxy in the hands of Kylo Ren and the First Order, Luke has taken a leaf out of Yoda’s book and exiled himself on a distant planet — one that, somehow, is completely off the charts. For some reason, however, a map exists to his location. Now, I suppose that if he were going to leave directions to a small outcrop off the coast of Ireland he would store them in R2 for safekeeping, but why R2 should then power down (and why he should choose some completely arbitrary point in the future to power up again) doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Was there really no way of retrieving the information from an offline droid? Did Princess Leia even look? (Remember, having already programmed him with information, she clearly knows her way around an R2 unit.) The point that really rankles is made by Kylo Ren, who reveals that the rest of the map was actually recovered from the Empire. What? And, what’s more, it exists as a jigsaw puzzle, part of which was stolen from the First Order by Po. The completely baffling bit comes at the end of the movie, when R2D2 (now conveniently awake and willing to help) projects the map with Po’s piece of the puzzle missing. Was it saved on some sort of shared database, between the Rebellion and the Empire? Again, WHAT?

Are Finn and Po more than just friends?

When it comes to racial and gender politics, Star Wars has had something of a checkered history. The original trilogy only featured one non-white actor (and one non-white actor’s voice), who was revealed to be a traitor, and forced its only notable female character to wear a metal bikini; while the prequel’s came under fire for their depiction of Gungans and whatever Viceroy Gunray was supposed to be as apparent racial stereotypes. The Force Awakens raises a few eyebrows too, namely for a throwaway Han Solo line referring to Asian raiders as “little” and a scene showing Finn drinking from a trough. For the most part, however, thanks to the casting of Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Oscar Isaac in key roles, J. J. Abrams film boasts one of the most diverse casts of Hollywood history, even if it still doesn’t technically pass the Bechdel test. Rey is a capable character who can fight her own battles, Finn overcomes his fears to fight the good fight, and Po is repeatedly described as the best pilot in the Resistance. But there is a chance that it could be even more progressive than that. Whether the script is supposed to be setting Finn and Rey up as suitors or not (after all, there’s no reason that any of the new characters need pair up), the closest it actually comes to creating believable sexual tension is in a handful of encounters shared by Finn and Po. The actors may simply have been aiming for bromance, or perhaps homoeroticism, but their interactions hint at something more. When Finn returns to the Resistance wounded, Po even appears to rush to his sickbed, while Finn’s earlier question to Rey (“Do you have a boyfriend, a cute boyfriend?”) is strangely phrased to say the least. Not only would it be refreshing for a film of this scale to feature gay characters, it’d be worth it just to see the fanboys froth. If anything was going to break the internet, it’d be that.

Who is Rey, really? 

Regardless of how hard you tried to avoid spoilers, the rumour mill had ways of getting to you. With the trailer showing Rey on a desert planet much like Tatooine there was inevitably speculation that she was somehow related to Luke Skywalker, whether genetically or otherwise. The film reveals that Rey — a non-native to Jakku — has been waiting on the planet for her parents’ return, with a Rebel helmet and a hand-stitched doll in the colours of an X-wing pilot. She tells BB-8 that her backstory is also classified, which suggests she is of some importance, while later she notes that the Stormtroopers chasing Finn are shooting at her too. It seems unlikely that she would be Luke’s daughter, not least because she imagines that Jedis and such might be a myth, but there are a number of moments later in the film that imply otherwise. When she is saved from Starkiller Base and returned to Jakku she is greeted with a silent embrace from Leia, despite apparently never having met. They might have had some sort of Force connection (although Luke is described as the last Jedi, Leia is clearly shown to register Han’s death from the other side of the galaxy) but the fact that Leia should send Rey in search of Luke (with Chewie and R2D2 by her side) and not go herself suggests that she knows something that we don’t. Finally, when introduced, Luke and Rey something that JK Rowling might have described as a “meaningful look”.

What would Lucas’ Episode VII have looked like?

The short answer is that we’ll probably never know. When Lucas sold the Star Wars rights to Disney the deal included his treatments for the sequel trilogy, but he has since revealed that they were never used. Meanwhile, the future described in official Expanded Universe materials has also been discarded in favour of a new continuity. However, there are elements of The Force Awakens that follow tangents established in the canon films and the non-cannon literature, not least the fact that Luke founded a new Jedi academy and the son of Han Solo was seduced by the Dark Side. It’s not hard to imagine some of the other changes, either. The film would have probably featured more CGI than Abrams’ does, and it probably wouldn’t have been as well acted or directed. However, it probably wouldn’t have stuck so close to the plot of A New Hope (and therefore The Phantom Menace). Lucas has in interviews described the saga as poetic, so themes and narrative elements recur throughout, but none of Lucas’ films were quite as repetitive as Abrams’. The action starts aboard a shuttle carrying Stormtroopers from a Star Destroyer to the surface of Jakku, then returns to the Star Destroyer, then to Jakku again. It also features a desert planet indistinguishable from Tatooine, a bigger Death Star, and so many captures, tortures and escapes that it is impossible to keep count. What’s more, there is a dearth of memorable ships, planets and leitmotifs — issues (though there were of course others) that even the prequels never had. There is also the very real chance that it might have felt like a more comprehensive saga, with more elements carried over from the prequels. It might have felt a bit more like Star Wars.

Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015)

Star Wars[Spoiler Alert] Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is missing, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) have deserted, leaving the fate of the galaxy in the hands of the New Republic and its Resistance, now lead by Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher). When her star pilot (Oscar Isaac) is captured by the First Order, the new face of the Galactic Empire, he entrusts vital information concerning Skywalker’s whereabouts to a droid who is left on the planet of Jakku. There it seeks assistance from Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger who, along with reformed Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), agrees to return it to the Resistance, steeling a ride aboard an abandoned Millennium Falcon and narrowly escaping the clutches of General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson). The First Order have other plans for the Resistance, however, mostly involving a new weapon that makes the Death Star look like a Jedi training ball. [Spoiler Alert]

When the first of George Lucas’ prequel films was released in 1999 it was met with widespread disdain, with most criticising the fact that the film was too different from the original trilogy. What was once a story about rebellion was now a treatise on trade law; where once the galaxy had felt lived-in and battle-damaged it now sparkled and shone; while what in childhood had once inspired wonderment and awe now seemed to adult eyes childish and insipid. Nobody seemed to notice the similarities: this was once again the story of an inexperienced Jedi, plucked from obscurity on a distant desert planet and thrust into the midst of an apparently eternal struggle between good and evil. For this consistency, for his single-minded determination to make films that served the ongoing franchise he had conceived rather than the fanbase that had adopted it, he was met with ridicule and contempt, and was ultimately forced to relinquish control of his creation. Because in this day and age, even in cinema, it appears the customer is always right.

Disney bought Lucasfilm for $4 billion, and gave J. J. Abrams the job of rejuvenating the franchise, or rather redeeming it in the eyes of the most vocal members of its audience. He had previous experience, having recently restored Star Trek to perceived relevancy with his 2009 reboot, so his appointment was welcomed by many, even as Star Trek‘s own fanbase criticised him for taking too much of a revisionist approach to their beloved continuity. Whether as a reaction to this, or because of his own self-professed love for the original trilogy, Abrams soon sought to reassure fans that Star Wars: The Force Awakens would be a continuation of the saga made by the fans for the fans, even as he avoided referring to it as Episode VII and thus risk placing it in the wider, prequel-recognising series (though this subtitle was thankfully reinstated for the theatrical release). In keeping with this populist approach, stars Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher were re-signed, while all involved took every opportunity to satisfy fans that the less illustrious elements of the galaxy far, far away — the Gungans, Ewoks and midichlorians of Lucas’ world — would not appear. Whether it made sense within the story for them to or not.

The result is a film that bears a closer resemblance to A New Hope than even The Phantom Menace (there’s no pod-racing or choral choirs to distinguish The Force Awakens). Lucas often spoke of the poetry of his Star Wars saga, of a story that echoed down the generations, and there is an undeniable symmetry to the original and prequel trilogies. With Lucas gone, however, disharmony has crept in, and there’s an element of confusion to this latest stanza, the discord of an imperfect rhyme. The Force Awakens features familiar worlds with unfamiliar names, recognisable characters with unrecognisable faces, and traditional themes refracted in non-traditional ways. It’s uncanny at times, particularly where the returning characters are concerned. Like pastiche, like pantomime, there is a celebratory, self-congratulatory quality to The Force Awakens that feels out of place in a universe used to such high stakes, of galaxy-obliterating super-weapons and fatal family feuds. Everyone seems too happy, too eager to please, with past conflicts forgotten in favour of an out-of-place comfort. Even the perennially pessimistic C-3PO seems uncharacteristically content, as if scared to upset the film’s fervent following and therefore risk expulsion from future instalments. After all, who would want to be the next Jar Jar Binks?

None of this is to suggest that The Force Awakens isn’t enjoyable, because it undoubtedly is, or that is doesn’t take any risks, because it does. The film is fast, frenetic fun, J. J.  Abrams ensuring that the pace doesn’t let up long enough for the plot holes to register, while his decision to cast trained actors instead of matinee idols pays dividends in the work of the key newcomers, who break the blockbuster mould in a number of refreshing ways, even if their talents rather outshine those of the established cast. Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Oscar Isaac are all terrific actors, the best (and most diverse) the series has ever seen, but they’re somewhat hamstrung by characters who don’t make a whole lot of sense. Their backstories and motivations are either concealed or contrived, so that Rey keeps alluding to a childhood trauma that is never elucidated on and Finn is left to make decisions completely at odds with everything we know about his background. Abrams just doesn’t have the same flair for iconography that Lucas did, and has made a career out of playing with other people’s creations. Jedi has become a recognised religion, while the ships, worlds and even jargon of Star Wars transcend not just the series but cinema itself. Even the prequels registered and resonated with the public consciousness, with their battle droids, padawan learners and Order 66 entering the wider lexicon. Nothing invented specifically for Abrams’ film makes quite the same impression — except perhaps BB-8.

At times The Force Awakens feels more like fan-service than film-making, and come film’s end it’s questionable whether Abrams’ has added anything new to the Star Wars mythology. It’s strange, therefore, that he should have been so wary of spoilers getting out in the first place. As with Star Trek, he pre-empted this not just with heightened security but with misinformation, so that he wasn’t just mollifying audiences but misleading them. That’s not all it has in common with Star Trek (and, for that matter, Star Trek Into Darkness), for only in its last few moments does Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens promise anything resembling a new direction, by which time everyone’s too relieved to criticise such an unsatisfying ending. The Force may have awoken, but to what end is not yet clear.


Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

Star Trek Into DarknessDemoted after an attempt to save an alien race results in the U.S.S. Enterprise breaking the Prime Directive, James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) finds himself playing First Officer to Christopher Pike’s (Bruce Greenwood) newly reinstated Captain. When Starfleet headquarters is attacked by a rogue officer called John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), The Enterprise is given the responsibility of tracking the terrorist to an uninhabited region of the Klingon homeworld and destroying him with a payload of special, long-range photon torpedoes. When Spock’s (Zachary Quinto) unease convinces the Captain to capture rather than kill Harrison, however, the very future of the Federation is thrown into jeopardy. Read more of this post

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)

Freshly sprung from a high-security Russian prison, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is no sooner accepting impossible missions than he is once again running for his life. When a Kremlin-set mission goes explosively awry, Ethan and his makeshift team find themselves disavowed and alone in stopping a plot to begin nuclear war. With Benji (Simon Pegg) eager to prove himself in the field, Jane (Paula Patton) looking to settle an old score and Brandt (Jeremy Renner) harbouring agendas of his own, Cruise must learn unite his new team-mates if they are to stand any chance of preventing Kurt Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist) from effectively rebooting the human race. But only after he’s climbed the largest building in the world.

“Mission: Impossible 4”, I hear you ask, confused, “why the fuck would I want to watch Mission: Impossible 4?” Two reasons, actually, and they’re both rather convincing. Firstly, while it might once have been acceptable simply to dismiss the latest Ethan Hunt (come on, his surname doesn’t even begin with a B!) adventure out of hand, the franchise has since made quite a name for itself, with J. J. Abrams taking the series by the premise and shaking some good old-fashioned Philip Seymour Hoffman into it. Abrams’ third instalment was both anti-Bond and anti-Bourne, an action movie that was as fantastical as it was frenetic, and which introduced the cinemagoing world to the still-glorious sideways explosion.

Secondly, taking over the reins for M:I4 is none other than Brad Bird: Pixar extraordinaire. Having directed the likes of The Iron Giant, The Incredibles and Ratatouille, if the release of Bird’s first ever live-action movie isn’t enough to tempt bums onto seats then it is unlikely that anything ever will. With three arguable masterpieces to his name, it is not exactly inconceivable that he might produce a film every bit the match of Abrams’ own.

Alas, it was not to be. While I fervently argue that you see this movie – it is event cinema at its most eventful, after all – it is nevertheless one of the most disappointing cinematic experiences of 2011. Dropping everything that set Mission: Impossible 3 apart from the previous instalments – a handle on the zanier aspects, a winning group dynamic and the aforementioned sideways explosion – Bird takes an unfortunate step backwards by effectively resetting the story (Simon Pegg returns but everyone else is essentially written out of the film ) and returning it to its distractingly OTT roots.

That said, while Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is almost entirely unremarkable, it is at least entertaining. Bird, unsurprisingly, has a great proclivity for comedy, and makes full use of it throughout in a bid to laugh off the more unbelievable aspects of the plot. Pegg is an absolute joy as the film’s comic relief (Jeremy Renner less so in his misjudged attempts to play against type), the character responsible for a number of laugh out loud gags that ensure that while rarely amazed, you are constantly amused. Sadly, the rest of the cast fail to make much of an impression, with Paula Patton’s incidentally attractive special agent and Michael Nyqvist’s rent-a-villain treading water while Cruise disappears for a quick lengthy frolic in the sand. It is only in the few scenes utilising the desperately under-used Josh Holloway (in what essentially amounts to a cameo) that you are able to glimpse the movie that could have been.

Fun, loud, but ultimately forgettable, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is little more than the latest entry in the Mission: Impossible series. With my largest issue with Brad Bird’s fourth instalment addressed in the final few minutes, however, M:I4 is simply a harmless, a missed opportunity to pick up where Abrams’ left off, and a disappointingly imperfect live-action début from an otherwise acclaimed directorial talent.

Films of the Year – 2011

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but one year ago, in a fit of madness, I started a blog. In deciding to name that blog popcornaddiction, I hoped to convey not only a truth about my unrecommendable diet, but also aspects of my palette that were decidedly more cinematic.

I like my movies big, brash and full of the kind of high-octane emotion that leaves women crying incoherently on the floor and men spitting loudly into telephones. Although I like so savour masterpieces and worship at the feet of the auteur as much as the next person, my tastes are predominantly more mainstream. Having worked in a seven screened multiplex for most of my university career, I love nothing more than to have my blocks busted and popcon flicked by the latest tent-pole release.

I realise that this probably makes me less of a critic, and more of a drooling fanboy, but this is my blog and while I do pride myself on relatively broad horizons I have no intention of pandering to some ideal that dismisses 3D and thinks children’s movies are just for kids. As such, my favourite films of the year are unlikely to be representative of other bloggers, critics and journos, and for that I do not apologise. Other opinions are available, but in my own personal opinion they are wrong; X-Men: First Class was fine, Drive was perfectly alright and True Grit was, well, a bit rubbish actually For me it was a year notable for the welcome return of Scream, a surprisingly decent Footloose remake and – don’t judge me too harshly – the ludicrously entertaining Fast Five. In that vein, my pick of the year’s best are as follows:

10. The King’s Speech

I know The King’s Speech has undergone a bit of a kicking since its January release, but still, it won an Oscar didn’t it?  Tom Hooper’s film, which starred a stutteringly brilliant Colin Firth and a surprisingly sane Helena Bonham Carter, proved as profoundly moving as it did achingly funny. Aided ably by Geoffrey Rush’s elocutionist, the filmmakers managed to tell a grand story against a grandiose backdrop while maintaining a humour and humanity which managed to charm even the Fuck Police. A compelling script, subtle direction and triad of exceptional performances conspire to create one truly unforgettable movie with magisterial presence and timeless elegance.

9. Life in a Day

Life in a Day – the cinematic experiment executive produced by both Ridley and Tony Scott – is an extraordinary and ambitious insight into a day in the life of the human race. Compiling and consolidating over 4,500 hours of amateur footage, from 80,000 submissions and 140 nations, director Kevin MacDonald has created a coherent, compelling and delightfully accomplished snapshot in time, an invaluable time-capsule to chronicle the YouTube generation. Babies are born, deaths are mourned, teeth are brushed, animals are slaughtered, rituals are practised and crimes are committed. Thrilling, you might easily scoff. But it is.

8. Midnight in Paris

Having come to terms with the fact that I might never ‘get’ Owen Wilson, it certainly came as a surprise when a collaboration with Woody Allen had me drawn swiftly to my senses. Leaving the cinema at midnight, in Nice, I was utterly enchanted by this tale of nostalgia for some ever-changing Golden Age. Midnight in Paris tells its story with a verve and emotionality that handles the rampant nostalgia with expert precision, boasting enough wit, charm and cameos to keep even the stubbornest Francophile entertained, quickly atoning for the bloated pictorial prologue that precedes it.

7. Thor

The first of two fledgeling Avengers to receive the big screen treatment this year, Thor was always a much more intriguing prospect than July’s Captain America movie. Trapped in development Hell for years, it was always going to be a difficult endeavour breathing cinematic life into one of Marvel’s most outlandish properties, made ever more unfashionable with Christopher Nolan’s recent reign of darkness. With director Kenneth Branagh (an inspired decision on Marvel’s behalf) refusing to shy away from the goofier aspects of the character’s mythology, Thor is a very different – a very necessarily different – superhero movie. And it is all the better for it.

6. The Troll Hunter

Following a slight case of found-footage fatigue – hot off the tails as we are of REC and Cloverfield – you could be forgiven for thinking the genre overcrowded and the format flagging. Rather than feeling tired or derivative, however, The Troll Hunter is an engaging and innovative return to form for a technique caught up in an endless cycle of American remakes and Paranormal Activity sequels. Thrilling, funny and absolutely breathtaking, The Troll Hunter is an unmissable piece of stand-out cinema from director André Øvredal’s. Even if I’m still not entirely sure what it’s called (The Troll Hunter? TrollHunter?).

5. Melancholia

How many times has the world ended now? Ball-point figure? While we have seen it attacked by aliens, riddled with comets, conquered by apes, ravaged by virus and infested with zombies, I for one can’t say I have ever seen the end of the world through recognisably human eyes. Or through the eyes of anyone eighteen or over. While it is undoubtedly not for everyone, Melancholia is a masterpiece in mood and menace, building to a sense of completely hopeless acceptance as Dunst, Gainsbourg and Sutherland’s characters deal with the inevitable apocalypse in different and yet wholly realistic ways.

4. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II

To say I cried at Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II would be an understatement of Grawp-like proportions. The biggest compliment I can bestow on this final chapter is that it hit me like a bat-bogey hex. It is testament to not only the work of Yates and his team of filmmakers – Alexandre Desplat, I love you – but the underestimated talents of Radcliffe, Watson and Grint that a story so high on Pumpkin Juice should ever deliver an emotional punch of such ruthless affect. As we leave Hogwarts for the last time – awash with rubble and barely recognisable – it is with the utmost closure on what really has been the motion picture event of a generation. I’m welling up again just thinking about it.

3. The Guard

I don’t really like comedies. I tend to find studio offerings like Tower Heist and Just Go With It too broad to make anything approaching an impact, while this year’s Bridesmaids embodied everything that isn’t funny about genre maestro Judd Apatow’s sense of humour (except the bit where they all shat themselves, LOL). John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard, as with his brother’s sister movie In Bruges, however, managed to deliver solid, hearty laughs without ever resorting to the ruinously try-hard schtick that plagues most contemporary comedy. Lampooning cop shows, subverting comedy conventions and gently poking fun of Irish culture, The Guard was unarguably the most fun you were likely to have in the cinema this year.

2. We Need to Talk About Kevin

Something has happened. Something bad. Lynne Ramsay’s Kevin is – almost from birth – a truly terrifying creation. Ezra Miller’s performance is cold, calculating and counter-intuitively compelling; he is perfectly horrifying without once raising his voice, jumping out of the shadows or making that petrifying clicking noise attributed to cursed Japanese children. From its matter-of-fact title to Ramsay’s bi-linear adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s epistolary novel, this is no-frills masterpiece-making at its most devastating. There is no period dress, no operatic over-emotionality and no delusions of grandeur, just an exquisitely unrelenting build-up of tension that deserves – heck, demands – your recognition. All of it.

1. Super 8

Super 8 has it all: production values, solid stakes and performances that more often than not leave you utterly speechless. The film – both within the film and the feature itself – is as fun to watch as it looked to make, the nostalgia and unreserved love that has gone into each frame making it onto the big screen. In a sea of superheroes and sex-comedies, Super 8 is a breath of old air; compelling, heart-stopping and packing some seriously impressive performances, J. J. Abrams’ latest is the best Spielberg movie Spielberg never made. And then some.

Star Trek (2009)

Born in the heat of battle, when an ambiguous Romulan threat destroys the U.S.S. Kelvin with one acting captain George Kirk (Chris Hemsworth) still aboard, James Tiberius Kirk (Chris Pine) is left to pursue a few decades of rebelliousness in his patriarch’s absence. Talked into joining Starfleet by Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood), Kirk is soon butting horns with the Academy’s resident Vulcan (Zachary Quinto as Spock) over the latter’s “Kobayashi Maru” simulation. When Nero (Eric Bana) rises again, however, the two must join forces if they are to save Earth from annihilation, rescue Pike from his Romulan captors and put into motion a friendship that once upon a time persuaded a group of loyal fans to don prosthetics and teach themselves fluent in Klingon.

If there’s one word I could use to describe J. J. Abrams’ 2009 reboot of the Star Trek, well, phenomenon, it would be kinetic. From the Federation’s first contact with Eric Bana’s disgrunted Romulan, the film picks up a staggering momentum that doesn’t let up until the film’s massively satisfying finale. Carried by a soundtrack that – parden the pun – hits all the right notes, Star Trek takes a group of well-worn characters and their famous vessel and reconfigures them into something fresh and contemporary while maintaining the same sense of infectious optimism originally envisioned by Gene Roddenberry all those years ago.

If there is another word – or more accurately words – I would use to encapsulate this reimagination, it would have to be Star Warsy. Star Trek has never been particularly high on cool, until now anyway. Taking a leaf tree out of George Lucas’ book, Abrams has peppered his movie with elements of the former’s once great creation without falling into the same pitfalls, such as the over-reliance on greenscreen and a preference for jargon over dialogue. As such, we have blasters rather than the more traditional phasers, rather more exotic aliens, space battles to hail home about and a half-decent “there’s always a bigger fish” moment without Gungan intrusion.  Oh, and the film culminates in a desperate attempt to prevent the destruction of a planet. The Force is strong with this one.

Throw in characterisation that successfully navigates the fine line between interpretation and caricature, enough lens flares to light the final frontier and some truly iconic sound design, and you have a movie which is almost impossible to dislike. Taking the time to honour what came before (there’s a welcome nod to Captain Archer’s beagle) while forging ahead on a new, creatively licensed adventure that is high on jeopardy and thrills, Star Trek is the ultimate remake, the rare reimagining which actually adds to the original. Bana might be wasted and a few plot points may hinge on some pretty convenient contrivances, but when you’re able to traverse 25 years (from Kirk’s birth to his promotion to Captain – never mind the 129 rewritten by Spock senior) of narrative with such expert dynamo and fluidity, such niggles are forced into perspective.

Bright, fun and thoughtfully executed, Star Trek is a massive success for Abrams and his team. It is nothing short of a new hope for a failing franchise, as well as a beacon of light in a blockbuster season otherwise lost in the shadows.

Super 8 (2011)

Four months after having lost his mother in a gruesome mill accident, 13-year-old make-up artist and model builder Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) is trying hard to help best friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) finish his movie. Using the skills of leading man Martin (Gabriel Basso), special effects meistro Cary (Ryan Lee) and Preston (Zach Mills), and having hired Alice (Elle Fanning) – the daughter of the man largely blamed for the death of Joe’s mother – as the film’s talented heroin, the budding filmmakers find themselves shooting a military train wreck for some precious production values. Catching footage of an escaped creature, the friends must work together and overcome their parents’ biases if they are to survive the devestation and finish their Super 8 mm film.

It’s no secret that Super 8 owes a great debt to Spielberg’s work of the ’80s; heck, the man even serves as producer. Paying dividends to everything from E.T. to The Goonies, Super 8 is a glowing love letter to the decade’s family adventure movies, a kids’ film to grow old with and a powerful meditation on love and loss (not unlike last month’s Potter) rather than the contemporary equivalent starring talking animals and that guy from Mall Cop. It feels almost vintage, a two hour vacation from adulthood that harks back to everything you remember loving as a child, a few lens flares and pixels away from being an actual blast from the past.

This is Abrams’ movie, however, and his fingerprints are all over it. Lens flares aside, it is a film about passion, adventure and daddy issues, all wrapped up in an ensemble piece of filmmaking that has sometimes startling emotional integrity. Bringing the same sense of family to this as he has done previously with Star Trek and even Mission Impossible 3, it is an absolute joy to spend time in these kids’ company, the film’s heart characteristically enveloped in a stunning Hollywood sheen and pitch-perfect soundtrack.

After all, if it wasn’t for Abrams’ young cast Super 8 would just be one big special effect. Though the creature when it is finally revealed does manage to impress – the purposeful graininess of the print helping to hide any CGI design shortcomings – it is the kid cast that ultimately keeps you from nit picking. Many have said it, but even if a giant alien monster hadn’t crash-landed in their town Super 8 would still have been a hugely satisfying piece of filmmaking, so strong were the ensembles’ performances.

Courtney’s Joe is the perfect cipher; an every-kid who acts as a likeable control, he draws attention to his friends’ idiosyncrasies while grounding the fantastic in relative normality. He may not be the director, but this is nevertheless his movie and is all the better for it. Earnest, steadfast and heroic, Joe is countered by an assortment of outcast-types who share his enthusiasm and appreciation for film. While Fanning junior shoulders most of the heavy-duty emotion, and to truly gut-wrenching effect, Griffiths, Basso, Lee and Mills provide much of the comic relief, though each with enough character to affect as well as amuse.

However well played these relationships may be, however, Super 8 is by no means ruined by its science fiction pretences. As tense as it is touching, the film teases its big bad with the utmost capability. Like Cloverfield’s monster, Super 8‘s creature may lack the iconic pizzazz of other creature feature favourites, but it serves its purpose with an understatement and competence that befits the film’s thematics. Called Super 8, the film’s loyalty lies elsewhere, the creature serving beautifully as catalyst rather than jarringly as the film’s core.

One thing’s for sure, J. J. Abrams knows how to make a great movie. Super 8 has it all: production values, stakes and performances that more often than not leave you utterly speechless. The film – both within a film and the feature itself – is as fun to watch as it looked to make. In a sea of superheroes and sex-comedies, Super 8 is a breath of fresh – if welcomingly old fashioned – air. Compelling, heart-stopping and packing some seriously impressive performances, Abrams’ latest is the best Spielberg movie Spielberg never made. And then some.