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4 Stars Movies

Why can’t Star Trek always be as good as The Undiscovered Country?

“Please let me know if there’s another way we can screw up tonight.”

Not only is Nicholas Meyer’s The Undiscovered Country my personal favorite Star Trek movie, I may go far as to argue that it is the best. It truly ticks every box of what makes Star Trek Star Trek, and comes the closest to getting everything just right.

Watching it back-to-back with its immediate predecessor is especially informative. Director William Shatner’s The Final Frontier is not quite the unmitigated fiasco its reputation would have it, but the biggest and most tragic of its many flaws is its deep lack of dignity. There was no escaping the increasing ages of its beloved cast, but it’s just plain preposterous to open with Kirk free-climbing a mountainside, and then end with him embarrassingly huffing and puffing up a tiny hill. And poor Uhura is treated even worse, in what must be one of the most sexist scenes in Trek’s entire history.

Classic Star Trek was in the process of being eclipsed by the Next Generation TV series, midway through its 1987-1994 run at the time, just hitting its stride in quality and popularity. It would have been heartbreaking for the low point of The Final Frontier to have been the last adventure for the classic Enterprise crew. Thing could have gone so wrong. Thankfully, The Undiscovered Country reclaims everything that The Final Frontier squandered, and allows the full original cast to go out on a high note.

Far from ignoring the cast’s age, The Undiscovered Country instead embraces it. Our former space cowboy heroes have all aged into diplomatic and strategic roles in Starfleet, and their frontier mindsets chafe at the transition. We’re no longer asked to believe William Shatner is possessed of ageless physical prowess. Kirk wins a fight largely through a lucky sucker punch, and when he’s smooched by the much younger Iman, the moment is immediately undercut… twice.

The stakes are high enough to be serious, but not so low that the movie resembles a feature-length television episode, the excuse often made by fandom to apologize for the too-frequent mediocrity of the feature films. The previously thinly-drawn foes the Klingons are here reimagined as canny equals, on the opposing side of an interstellar cold war. Christopher Plummer is superb as a canny political operator — today, we would recognize his paper-thin charm and propensity for brazen assassinations as very Putin-like. The metaphor for US/Russian relations may be unsubtle but it packs a punch, particularly as Kirk struggles to overcome a lifetime of prejudice.

Meyer & Denny Martin Flinn’s screenplay is a thing of beauty, with an airtight plot, crackling dialog, and just the right balance of humor and gravitas; it’s somehow the funniest and the most serious Trek movie. The at-the-time cutting edge CGI special effects are used efficiently and for story purposes instead of mere flash and sizzle (globules of alien blood floating in zero-gravity not only looks neat, but is a significant plot detail). The entire cast is on point, and everyone gets a moment to shine. As if to make up for The Final Frontier, Nichelle Nichols has several standout scenes (including my favorite among many classic Trek facepalms).

It begs the question: why can’t Star Trek always be this good?

four out of five stars

Categories
3 Stars Movies

Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Terry Gilliam is burdened with a number of unfair reputations. First, as a visual stylist more than a storyteller or director of actors — the latter, at least, obviously refuted by the fact that many high-profile stars will repeatedly work with him for pennies. He’s also known as an unpredictable hellion and spendthrift, which are, from the point of view of those that hold the pursestrings, the two least desirable characteristics in a director. He may in fact be concerned more with the integrity of the work than with the business angle, as any artist should be, but he is no wastrel. In fact, all but one of his completed movies came in on time and under budget. A better way to describe him would be as the most unlucky person in the movie business.

After the multiple calamities and misfortunes (that even an atheist might characterize as acts of god) that befell The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, Gilliam made The Brothers Grimm as a commercial concession. Despite it still bearing his unmistakable imprimatur, it remains the sole Gilliam film I actively dislike. One good thing to come of it, however, was a genuine friendship with its star Heath Ledger. Interested in filmmaking himself, Ledger stuck around on the set of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus even when not needed on camera, serving as Gilliam’ apprentice and pitching in whenever possible.

Heath Ledger in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
“Can you put a price on your dreams?”

Gilliam’s fabled bad luck first reared when he was hit by a bus and cracked a vertebra, as reported in Wired. Ledger died during production, followed by producer William Vince before post-production could begin. If one untimely death could possibly be said to be any more of a shame than another, Ledger’s accidental overdose at the age of 28 might be truly unfair. He was riding the crest of a wave of appreciation for his performances in Brokeback Mountain and Batman: The Dark Knight, and had just begun to stretch his muscles as a director with music videos for Ben Harper and Modest Mouse.

The production was very nearly halted, but Gilliam realized it could be salvaged and re-conceived if Ledger’s part were partially recast with Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell. Gilliam stuck to one simple and absolute criteria: all three actors must be personal friends of Ledger, leading him to reportedly turn down an overture by none less than Tom Cruise on the basis that he hadn’t known Ledger. Depp and Law actually do quite resemble Ledger onscreen, at least with the aid of eyeliner and costuming. However, Farrell most captures Ledger’s physical presence and mannerisms. Charmingly, the movie is credited not to Gilliam but to “A film from Heath Ledger and friends.”

Lily Cole in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
“Voila!”

The eerie synchronicity between Ledger’s death and the film’s themes of mortality are, remarkably, coincidental. Gilliam co-wrote the script with Charles McKeown (also of Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, which this movie most closely resembles). According to Collider, the story is based on Gilliam’s own feelings of artistic frustration, particularly after the reception of his controversial film Tideland, which many found not just difficult but even offensive.

As its title makes plain, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is set literally in a world of imagination, a place we have visited before in nearly every single Gilliam film. Most famously, Brazil riffs on James Thurber’s 1939 short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” The few exceptions include Jabberwocky and The Brothers Grimm, in which fairy tales exist matter of factly in the real world. In 12 Monkeys, it remains ambiguous if James Cole’s (Bruce Willis) future (his present) or the present (his past) might be real or delusions.

Tom Waits in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
“He’s come to collect.”

It would be a huge mistake to expect any Terry Gilliam film to make total logical sense. Such pedestrian expectations would weigh down an artist we love for his unique, vivid flights of fancy. But perhaps even the wildest Gilliam fancy ought to be internally consistent to a degree. If something doesn’t make sense, is it a tantalizing conundrum left open for the viewer to mull over, or is it evidence of sloppiness? The central question left unanswered for me has to do with the core conceit of the film itself: people are drawn into the mind of Dr. Parnassus through his magical mirror. In his mindscape, they must choose between entering a building maintained by the Devil (Tom Waits), or… what, exactly? Of those few that reject the Devil, we see their blissful, unencumbered state upon leaving Dr. Parnassus’ mind. What exactly happens to them that makes them happy? Also, there’s the side effect of them shedding their possessions. They may have been freed of their own earthly materialism, but that doesn’t stop Parnassus from conveniently enriching his own troupe’s coffers, giving the whole process an air of a scammy confidence game instead of spiritual awakening. Reflecting the theme of insincerity is the cornball tune “We Are the Children of the World” which appears as a ringtone in the film, and at the end of the closing credits.

The apparent protagonist turns out to be an unredeemable villain, unlike virtually all of Gilliam’s previous heroes, in particular Kevin in Time Bandits, Jack Lucas in The Fisher King, Sam Lowry in Brazil, James Cole in 12 Monkeys, and Jeliza-Rose in Tideland. Which leaves us with Dr. Parnassus, who ends up a little bit like Parry (Robin Williams) as we meet him at the beginning of The Fisher King: homeless and seemingly permanently locked in a position of want. Both are hobos, rendered apart and invisible from a world of beauty and wealth. Parnassus’ longings are embodied by the beautiful Valentina (Lily Cole), whom may or may not be his daughter, now seen ensconced in an enviously blissful nuclear family. Parnassus remains forever tempted by the Devil.