REVIEW: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

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Caution, concern, skepticism, uncertainty. These are just a few words to describe my feelings after hearing a new Star Wars movie was on the way. After all, we aren’t talking about making any old thing. J.J. Abrams was taking what is arguably the most popular brand of any entertainment form and bringing it back to the big screen. He was tinkering with a property known for having the most passionate, the most protective, the most dedicated, and the most outspoken fan base. He was tackling a franchise viewed as more than a simple series of movies by millions of people from practically every demographic. Abrams was making a new Star Wars movie. No pressure.

Let’s be honest, when Disney acquired the Star Wars brand from George Lucas for $4.06 billion there was reason for Star Wars junkies like myself to at least be cautious. The Disney-fication (my new word) of Star Wars worried me. Then J.J. Abrams was given the keys to the new film. Abrams, a guy I have always seen as hit-or-miss, is best known for rebooting the Star Trek film series. But he didn’t only reboot Star Trek. He completely altered the structure, tone, and feeling of the Star Trek universe replacing it with a hip new Hollywood version. That’s the last thing I want in a new Star Wars picture.

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Abrams, a self-admitted Star Wars fanboy, has said all the right things when talking about the new film. He directs, co-writes, and co-produces “The Force Awakens”, which is essentially Episode VII. It is a film positioned as a conduit connecting the old to the new as well as an injection of fresh energy for a new generation. That sounds good, but can it deliver? Can this new era of Star Wars suck me in like the previous efforts. An answer was hinted at once John Williams’ score struck that glorious and familiar opening note.

I was able to avoid spoilers and all story details which made my viewing experience all the better. For that reason I’ll stay away from any semblance of a plot synopsis. But let’s just say the film starts with a bang and we are quickly introduced to the franchise’s new players. Abrams wants us to make early connections with these folks because they are clearly set to be key ingredients in this film and the franchise in general.

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On one side we meet the resourceful scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley). She’s the highlight of the new bunch – a strong independent sparkplug who is remarkably resourceful yet burdened by her past. We get the jittery, disillusioned Finn (John Boyega). He’s the film’s cowardly lion – a man with a conscience but who is too afraid to follow it. Boyega goes full throttle in every scene which isn’t always the best acting choice. And then there is Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), the best pilot in the galaxy. He’s a cool, rousing Han Solo type but with Luke Skywalker’s unwavering devotion to his cause. And then there is the little droid BB-8, an example of a cutesy character done right.

 

In the other corner we have The First Order, an evil Third Reich-ish force risen from the ashes of the Empire. They are led (or are they) by the volatile and dangerous Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). He is driven by an almost maniacal obsession to be the most feared person in the galaxy. There is the smug opportunist General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) whose lust for power rivals that of Kylo Ren. He operates a Nazi-like military force and flexes his murderous muscles at will. But there is also the shadowy enigmatic Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) who we only see in a familiar grainy hologram form.

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And then you have the classic characters who Star Wars fans love. It has been roughly 30 years since the events of “Return of the Jedi” and names like Han, Luke, and Leia are spoken of by many in near mythical terms. Harrison Ford returns as Han and he gets the bigger chunk of screen time. He’s slower, grayer, but ever the cool space pirate. He and his howling compadre Chewbacca feel as if they haven’t missed a beat. Leia (Carrie Fisher) is focused on leading the resistance movement against The First Order. Luke (Mark Hamill) has disappeared after a particularly troubling event. And of course there is C3PO and R2D2. Seeing these characters again is exciting for any true fanboy. I do think there are moments between them that deserved a little more attention, but I’ll leave that one alone for now.

The real trick for Abrams is juggling all of these characters both old and new. To help he brought in writers Michael Arndt and Lawrence Kasdan (who also worked on the scripts for “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi”). The script works mainly because the characters never get lost in a deluge of special effects. Each are given their own moments particularly the new faces who are well-developed and left with enough questions to be intriguing.

Speaking of the effects, there is a ton of CGI yet it never looks overused or blatantly obvious.  As good as the prequels often looked there were many instances where Lucas would visually overload his screen. Not here. Regardless of how fantastical things get, the special effects work to promote the setting, the characters, or the story. The new weapons, vehicles, and technology are fun, much of it based on blueprints from the original trilogy. Star Wars has always been known for its top-notch sound design. Here is no different. And Williams’ score is perfect sometimes feeling plucked right out the earliest films.

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Seasoned Star Wars fans will notice several nostalgic throwbacks, entertaining Easter eggs, and cool bits of fan service, but in a sense this contributes one of the film’s few problems. It plays it too safe specifically in the final act. Don’t get me wrong, I love the fan service. It struck a strong chord with me. But at the same time it kept the big ending on a relatively short leash. It was way too familiar down to certain details. Not bad by any means, but very familiar. It could be that Abrams feared alienating the tough-minded and vocal fan base. I can respect that. Now that he has expressed himself as a Star Wars loyalist I’m hoping the next installments will take us into some newer directions.

But enough of that. I am so happy to be able to stand up and tip my hat to J.J. Abrams. Talk about a bold and pressure-filled undertaking. Taking the reigns of the biggest entertainment franchise in the world was gutsy and the pressures to deliver a new yet faithful sequel were intense. But he does it. “The Force Awakens” is a fun, action-packed tablesetter for a new era of Star Wars. It has heart, emotion, and a childlike exuberance that should spark a flicker of excitement in even the most hardened person’s heart. But most importantly it FEELS LIKE a Star Wars movie. That may sound a bit silly to the more casual audience, but Star Wars fans know exactly what I mean and that may be J.J. Abrams’ single greatest accomplishment with this film.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4.5 STARS

5 PHENOMENAL MOVIES THAT I LIKE BUT NO ONE ELSE DOES

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Ok, I’m opening myself up to tons of mockery and ridicule but that’s the nature of the Phenomenal 5 right? After a break for the holidays I thought it would be fun to start the Phenomenal 5 back up with a list that should have people letting me know how nutty my taste in movies can sometimes be. I’m listing five phenomenal movies that I really like and enjoy but that few others seem to care for (ok “phenomenal” may be a stretch but just go with it). There have been a few movies over the years that I (and apparently I alone) have really liked that simply wasn’t liked by anyone else. In fact, I bet we all have some of those films in the backs of our minds. I mean just here recently I took some good ribbing over my positive review of “Snow White and the Huntsman”. Well you won’t find it on this list but I’m offering up five flicks that I’ve seen multiple times and still thoroughly enjoy even if no one else does.

#5 – “WATERWORLD”

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It’s not that “Waterworld” is hated, but it’s safe to say that few people really appreciate the movie as much as I do. Everyone knows the story. At the time, “Waterworld” was the most expensive movie ever made and it never actually made a profit until well into it’s home video release. I’ve always believed this played into the reason why this this film never impressed a lot of people. It’s certainly not the most polished movie but as for creative post-apocolpyptic sci-fi goes, I found it to be a lot of fun. It didn’t do Kevin Costner’s career any favors and it’s still laughed at by some and deemed utterly forgettable by others. But I still feel “Waterworld” is clever and unique and I can watch it today and still have a good time.

#4 – “JOHN CARTER”

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I honestly still struggle in understanding the backlash against this year’s “John Carter”. Like “Waterworld”, it wasn’t the most even and polished movie that you’ll see, but it was far from being a terrible film. And to be honest, I had a great time watching “John Carter” on the big screen with my son and it held up after a second viewing. This isn’t a movie that has any chance of making it on my top 10 of 2012, but I thought it to be a visual feast of cool effects and futuristic creativity. I also found myself interested in the story throughout even though there were a few rough patches. This movie was slammed by critics and moviegoers alike but it’s a movie that I liked and that I can appreciate despite its few flaws.

#3 – “STAR WARS EPISODE 1: THE PHANTOM MENACE”

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Okay, it’s probably safe to say that not everyone hates this movie. But it’s also safe to say that millions of Star Wars fan boys, a group that I proudly consider myself a part, took great issue with this movie. In fact, many people still blast this film as a devilish plot to kill the Star Wars franchise. I certainly don’t consider this movie to be as good as any of the three films in the original trilogy. But it does feel like a Star Wars movie to me and it has its own special moments that set it apart. Yes, I hate Jar-Jar and yes, midichlorians are absurd. But the space sequences never looked better and it probably gave us the best light saber duel in the entire franchise. It was a no win situation for Lucas, but for me he pulls it off.

#2 – “CLASH OF THE TITANS”

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Talk about a movie that I spent a lot of time to defending! With the exception of my lovely wife and 10-year old son, I don’t think I found another person that I know who liked this movie. It was criticized for everything from the cheesy dialogue to Sam Worthington’s haircut. But I still think people completely missed what this movie was aiming for. I grew up adoring the “Sinbad” movies, “Jason and the Argonauts”, and of course “Clash of the Titans”. This remake was a simple tip of the hat to that past movie genre. It wasn’t trying to be new or groundbreaking. It was a fun, creature-filled action romp that took me back to my childhood. It’s sequel is utter crap, but I still proudly stand by this one, and I still thinks is does more things right than it’s given credit for.

#1 – “THE TIME MACHINE”

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I really like every movie that I’ve mentioned, but this is the one film on the list that I truly love. It’s hard to explain especially because I recognize that this film has several flaws. It’s a shining example of how a movie with a great lead performance and a handful of wonderful scenes can be a genuinely memorable experience. Look, I admit the special effects are sometimes laughable and it flies a little off the rails in the second half. But I love Guy Pearce’s performance and I buy into everything his character is doing and feeling. It’s authentic and heartfelt from the opening sequence to the beautiful final shot. And while most people have dismissed this movie, it still moves me each time I watch it.

So go ahead, get your verbal guns ready. I’ve made myself an easy target. Which of these movies have I lost my mind defending? How about you? What are some movies that others hate but you adore? Please share your thoughts and please….go easy on me.

THE THROWDOWN: Han Solo vs. Indiana Jones

Wednesday is throwdown day at Keith & the Movies. It’s when we take two movie subjects and pit them against each other and see who’s left standing. Each Wednesday we’ll look at actors, actresses, movies, genres, scenes, and much more and see how they stand up one-on-one. And it’s not just my opinion that counts. I’ll share my take and then open up the polls to you. Visit each week for a new throwdown. Vote each week to decide the true winner!

Harrison Ford has the honor of being the centerpiece of the very first Keith & the Movies Throwdown. This week it’s Ford’s two most iconic roles putting on the gloves and duking it out. It’s the scoundrel turned hero of the Star Wars universe Han Solo taking on everyone’s favorite whip-weilding archeologist Indiana Jones.

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Harrison Ford really took off in the 8o’s mainly thanks to two fantastic roles that were a part of two fantastic franchises. Han Solo was and is my favorite Star Wars character. Ford’s cocky and wisecracking smuggler was compelling from the first moment you see him onscreen. He has many memorable moments with his furry best friend Chewbacca and his relationship with Princess Leia provides some romance as well as some of the series’ funniest scenes. But Han doesn’t just talk the tough talk, he walks it too and a case could be made that his story of redemption is one of the most intriguing of the franchise.

Then you have the great Indiana Jones, an archeologist with a snapping whip and a knack for ticking off Nazis and cultists. Indy crosses the globe in search of some of the biggest treasures all while finding himself in some of the stickiest situations. But like a true action hero, he gets out of his predicaments through some of the wildest means. With the exception of the most recent Indiana Jones picture, these moves were filled with cool action and some great humor and I still get giddy whenever I see Indy in a pit full of snakes, holding on to a collapsing swinging bridge, or running from a giant boulder.

There are your choices. Now it’s time for you to vote. Both are characters that I have affection for going all the way back to my youth. So now I place them in your hands. Cast your vote and share your thoughts. Han Solo or Indiana Jones?

5 PHENOMENAL MOVIES FROM 1980

A few weeks ago I decided to do a Phenomenal 5 centered around the movies of 1987. The choice of the year was completely random but it was a fun list to do. So staying in the 80’s, I’ve decided to look at 5 phenomenal movies from 1980. Over the next several months I plan on sprinkling in several of these lists that look at the best movies the years had to offer. So let’s get started. Naturally, when you’re dealing with an entire year’s worth of movies there are plenty to choose from. Therefore it would be pretty crazy to call this the definitive list. But there’s no doubting that these 5 movies from 1980 are absolutely phenomenal.

#5 – “FRIDAY THE 13TH”

Over time the “Friday the 13th” series became more of a cinematic joke. To be fair, it has been loved by its large number of fans and completely brushed aside by others. It’s sometimes easy to forget that the series was launched by a pretty solid first movie that set the table for Jason Vorhees and his appetite for killing brain-dead teenagers as well as a whole genre of rather mindless slasher flicks. But in the original it’s all about his mother and this first film probably features more genuine scares than the other movies combined. It’s not a flawless movie by any stretch but it is a significant movie for horror fans.

#4 – “THE BLUES BROTHERS”

When I first saw John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd as Jake and Elwood Blues I was just a kid. But I remember thinking they were both hilarious and extremely cool. “The Blues Brothers” is one part comedy, one part musical, and one part amazing, blow you away, car chase. The brothers are trying hard to save the orphanage they grew up in from being closed down. Their “mission from God” puts them at odds with neo-nazis, a crazed bazooka-wielding Carrie Fisher, and every single Illinois law enforcement officer in the state. The result is a wonderful and wild ride that’s still fun today.

#3 – “AIRPLANE!”

Airplane!” remains to this day one of my favorite comedies of all time. It’s absurd, brash, and over-the-top and I love it. The hilarious cast makes this nutty material work, none better than Leslie Nielsen, Peter Graves, and Lloyd Bridges. “Airplane!” is a steady barrage of corny jokes and gags and the movie never (and I do mean never) takes itself seriously. This parody of the big-budget disaster pictures is still funny today and I can’t name a modern comedy that comes anywhere close to delivering the laughs of this true comedy classic.

#2 – “THE SHINING”

While I’m not a big Stanley Kubrick fan, he knocks it out of the park with the chilling horror thriller “The Shining”. Jack Nicholson shines as the caretaker of a creepy hotel with a very disturbing history. He and his family are trapped in the hotel after a huge snowstorm and soon the supernatural presence sensed by his ESP endowed son makes itself known. “The Shining” features so many memorable scenes and it’s still as spooky as when I first saw it. This is one of the best adaptations of a Stephen King novel and even though it was met with very mixed reviews at first, it’s now considered a horror classic.

#1 – “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK”

Call me a fanboy, I don’t care. But for my money, “The Empire Strikes Back” is one of the greatest sequels in cinema history. Yes, I’m a huge Star Wars fan so my judgement may be tainted, but this film blew me away when it first hit the theaters in 1980. In fact, I was only 9 years old but I still remember seeing it on the big screen and being amazed by the special effects and deeply wounded by the sad and up-in-the-air ending. But there is a great story that unfolds as the movie progresses and for me this was the film that really gave the series a sense of weighty importance. I’ve seen this movie so many times and if I’m surfing the channels and see it on TV, I’m probably going to stop and watch it again. It’s that good.

There ya go – 5 phenomenal movies from the year 1980. What did I miss. Hey, even if you weren’t born then you’ve probably seen several that I didn’t mention. Please take time to share your thoughts.

5 PHENOMENALLY OVERRATED MOVIES

I thought it might be fun to do a Phenomenal 5 that should surely spark discussion. I’m going to list five movies that I feel are incredibly overrated. Now I know there are many people who love the movies I’m listing and they have been defended as great films by many who are smarter than me. But for different reasons I didn’t find them to be the cinematic classics that they are heralded as. Some aren’t necessarily terrible movies. But none of these films worked for me. I actually found there to be more movies to consider than I thought there would be but I’m very comfortable with these five. As always I wouldn’t call this the definitive list. But for me, there’s no denying that these are 5 phenomenally overrated films…or are they?

#5 – “TOY STORY 3” (2010)

I can’t think of another movie review that I have written that stirred more people up than my take on “Toy Story 3”. The movie was incredibly popular and it was a gold mine for Pixar. It not only won the Best Animated Feature Oscar but it was also nominated for Best Picture. What surprised me even more is that the film found it’s way on countless Critic’s Top 10 lists for the year 2010. My biggest beef with “Toy Story 3” is that it’s pretty run-of-the-mill. The film is bookended by an outstanding opening and a touching ending but it’s everything in between that stumbles. It’s a repetitive drag that’s really nothing more than a typical loud cartoon. The middle has some serious issues with tone and it could have easily been 15 minutes shorter. Now “Toy Story 3” isn’t a bad movie but it’s also not one that I feel deserved the accolades it received. It has it’s share of flaws and I certainly feel it’s overrated.

#4 – “ANNIE HALL” (1977)

I have heard “Annie Hall” called the greatest romantic comedy of all time. I can’t say I agree. This much-loved film won several Academy Awards including Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture for Woody Allen. It’s also heralded as the 35th Greatest Movie of All Time by the American Film Institute (taken for what it’s worth). Now don’t misunderstand me, I did find “Annie Hall” to be funny in places. But I also found it to be repetitive and eventually a tad boring. It sometimes comes across as a standup comedy routine that uses the same material but presents it in slightly different ways. I can appreciate Allen’s wit but here he milks that cow dry. “Annie Hall” certainly isn’t terrible but I have a hard time calling it one of the best of all time. In fact, for me it’s not even close.

#3 – “EASY RIDER” (1969)

“Easy Rider” is considered a landmark counterculture movie and it ushered in a new style and method of filmmaking. It received several Oscar nominations and even today it’s listed as The American Film Institute’s 84th greatest movie of all time. Well, I have to disagree. Not only did I find “Easy Rider” flat and muddled but also annoying at times. It’s the hippie movement’s self-portrait that features more pot smoking and free spirit babbling than entertainment and enjoyment. Jack Nicholson is fun to watch and there is some good camera work and locations. But to be honest, I never connected with “Easy Rider”. It feels dated and features one of the most annoying movie scenes I have ever seen (the drug trip in cemetery). I know many love this movie. I’m not one of them.

#2 – “APOCALYPSE NOW” (1979)

I don’t have room to list all of the accolades, honors, and positive reviews that Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” has received. It was nominated for around 8 Academy Awards winning two. It hauled in three Golden Globe Awards and sits at #28 on AFI’s 100 Greatest Movies list. Almost every prominent film critic has praised the movie. Roger Ebert even goes as far as to call it “one of the greatest of all films”. For me, “Apocalypse Now” is a mixed bag. It’s starts off well enough before really getting good when Robert Duvall hits the screen. The Air Calvary helicopter attack while “Ride of the Valkyries” blares from loud speakers is fantastic and Duvall’s nuttiness is a blast. But the movie flies off the rails with one of the most off-the-wall and numbing endings you’ll find. Look, I understand Coppola is saying a lot under the surface, but at some point I want to be entertained when watching a film. The hallucinogenic jungle cult, severed heads, and philosophical mumblings made “Apocalypse Now” a difficult movie for me to finish. I know that the film broke new ground in terms of filmmaking. It also tries to be too clever for it’s own good.

#1 – “AVATAR” (2009)

James Cameron’s box office juggernaut “Avatar” was an unequivocal critical and commercial success. It was nominated for 9 Academy Awards and at the time became the highest grossing movie of all time. Even fellow filmmakers like Steve Spielberg praised the movie comparing it to “Star Wars”. Through all the hype, I sat stunned at all of the obvious flaws that were overlooked and the passes that the movie was given for it’s shortcomings. To start out let me give it a little credit. Technically, “Avatar” is a stunner. It was the first movie to really show 3D as a powerful cinematic storytelling device. The motion capture technology was marvelous and the CGI action sequences were unlike anything I had seen before. But for me that’s all “Avatar” offers. First there’s nothing all that original about the story. It’s basically a sci-fi “Dances with Wolves”. It’s completely predictable and you know exactly how things are going to play out in the first 15 minutes. Then there’s the script. It features some of the silliest, cheesiest  lines particularly from the poorly portrayed military and the evil corporate head. Stephen Lang is laughably bad as the stereotypical soldier gone bad in what may be the worst performance of the decade. The movie also bludgeon’s the audience to death with Cameron’s forced environmental and political preachiness. He slams the military. He slams big corporations. He force feeds us his concepts of planet worship. And all of it is incredibly heavy-handed. Yes, “Avatar” is a technical milestone but you must have a good story to match. Instead, “Avatar” has a crappy story covered with a shiny coat of paint. That’s not enough for me.

So there you have them. 5 movies that have received plenty of praise but that I feel are overrated. I’m sure many disagree with my takes on these films. Please leave you comments about these movies or other popular films that you feel are overrated.

5 PHENOMENAL MOVIE TOUGH GIRLS

There’s plenty of action pictures featuring movie tough guys. In fact, an entire action genre centered around muscle-bound movie tough guys in the 80’s and early 90’s. But we do a disservice if we fail to recognize that there have been some tough-as-nails women that can hold their own against any of the guys. So I thought it would be fun to give the ladies their due by listing 5 Phenomenal Movie Tough Girls. It may surprise you but there are a lot more tough girls to choose from than you might think. So after much deliberation here are my top five. As always, this isn’t the definitive list. But there’s no denying that these 5 Movie Tough Girls are absolutely phenomenal.

#5 – ALICE (“Resident Evil” Series)

While the movies are far from great, Milla Jovovich’s Alice has evolved into a very recognizable movie tough girl. Through several sequels she has punched, kicked, sliced, and shot her way through hordes of zombies and creatures. Jovovich has used shotguns, rocket launchers, swords, and special powers and she does it with the same sneering gravitas that many of the better male action stars used. Even though she doesn’t have the best material to work with, there’s just something too cool about watching Alice in action.

#4 – MALLORY KANE (“Haywire”)

Gina Carano blew me away with this year’s “Haywire”. She plays a government black ops agent who is double crossed and on the run. Director Steven Soderbergh puts Carano’s MMA background on display as she kicks butt from New York to Barcelona to Mexico. She has attitude to spare and her ability to fight is undeniable (just ask the likes of Michael Fassbender, Ewan McGregor, Channing Tatum, and Antonio Banderas). If you doubt that Mallory Kane belongs on this list, check out “Haywire”. It just came out on DVD.

#3 – SARAH CONNOR (“Terminator 2: Judgement Day”)

In the first Terminator picture, Sarah Connor was your basic girl on the run from danger. Boy how things change in “Terminator 2”. Linda Hamilton bulks up and gives Sarah a harder edge and an almost militaristic personality. Knowing the war that’s coming, Sarah fights alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger and more than holds her own. Whether it’s with her fists or with machine guns, she blasts away at anyone who gets in her way including the new T-1000 terminator. This new Sarah Connor certainly qualifies as a movie tough girl.

#2 – PRINCESS LEIA (“Star Wars” Series)

When watching the original “Star Wars”, it doesn’t take long to see that Princess Leia is as tough as they come. We see her open rebellion against the evil Galactic Empire and her unwillingness to compromise with them in the movie’s first scenes. It also doesn’t take Han and Luke long to see that she’s a no-nonsense woman who tells it like it is. She’s handy with the laser blaster and she doesn’t mind putting herself in danger. She plays an intricate role in saving Han’s life and it was Leia that kills Jabba the Hutt. Carrie Fisher’s Leia is as surly as any tough guy and she has the smarts to make things happen. Leia is the quintessential tough girl.

#1- ELLEN RIPLEY (“Alien” Series)

It’s been argued that Ellen Ripley is the best female movie character of all time. I don’t know about that but I do think she’s the toughest female character of all time. And regardless of what other role she may play, anytime I see Sigourney Weaver, I automatically think of Ellen Ripley. In the first Alien picture she was the only survivor of her ship’s crew and she single-handedly killed the alien. In the second film we see just how tough Ripley is. She uses grenades, flamethrowers, pulse rifles, and even a robotic crane to kill a load of aliens and even the queen. In the third film she even kills herself to keep the alien inside of her from getting out. Throughout the series Ripley encounters a variety of so-called tough guys. Isn’t it interesting that she is the one that actually survives. Sounds like she’s the one that’s truly tough.

There you have it. There were several others that I considered but these were the five that stood out the most. Do you agree or disagree with my list? Do you see someone who I left off? Who would you include on your list? Please take time to comment and share who is your favorite tough girl.