Categories
3 Stars Movies

Star Trek: The Motion Picture was always out of step with the times

With a release history more tangled than a TNG time travel plot, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is now finally available on Paramount+ in its most complete form yet: a 2022 4K remaster of the 2001 Director’s Edition of the 1979 film. Got that?

Engadget has the full details, but in short, don’t call it a “restoration”. The original elements have been fully rescanned and regraded, with effects recreated, all suitable for contemporary screens. Thankfully for the Trek completist, the basic edit has not changed — so there is no “new” canonical material to trigger a warp core meltdown in Memory Alpha. After more than 40 years, the movie finally no longer has a “yeah, but…” asterisk attached to it.

But I still just can’t get behind it. While it has many of the typical Trek trappings (cosmic alien first contacts, tension between workplace hierarchies and personal relationships, and an overemphasis on Spock — more on that later), it lacks the core spirit of Star Trek, which for my latinum, is gee-whiz model UN nerds in space.

It was also always fatally out of step with the times. It borrowed all the wrong things from prior landmarks like 2001: A Space Odyssey (the ponderous psychedelia, conflict with artificial intelligence, the too-tight jumpsuits and too-short skirts), but not the Flash Gordon adventurism that Lucas and Spielberg would employ to define action and sci-fi in the coming decade.

Back to Spock: The character is the most overused aspect of Trek, appearing in the original series, the animated series, The Next Generation, Discovery, Strange New Worlds, and almost every movie (including the J.J. Abrams reboots). It’s not fair of me to complain about Spock oversaturation when talking about the very first movie, long before the character was run into the ground. But even so, it all just feels so tedious and simplistic. I understand the character appeals to people on the autism spectrum, but doesn’t the concept of a neurotypical person consciously electing to suppress emotion, out of a cultural/religious impulse, undercut the life experiences of those born that way, without that choice?

The character of Spock may be a challenging exercise for any actor, but on the evidence here, I’m not sure that Leonard Nimoy did much more than simply gaze at everything and everyone impassively. And he’s not the only one who seems emotionless: Ilia (Persis Khambatta) is already an alien ice queen when we meet her, so it isn’t much of a transformation when she is reborn as a walking Siri/Alexa device. And Decker (Stephen Collins) never seems too perturbed when she was abducted and assimilated.

Drinking game: down a Romulan ale every time someone says “Spock!” or “orifice”.

Categories
3 Stars Movies

A time twisty scenario: Interstellar

Interstellar‘s torturously complex premise requires a constant stream of exposition throughout, something I don’t recall being a problem in Christopher Nolan’s other time twisty scenarios like The Prestige and Inception. It’s also less emotionally urgent than either, perhaps indicating that the premise and structure overwhelmed everything else.

If Coop (Matthew McConaughey) — and by proxy, the audience — needs to have everything constantly explained to him (before, during, and after anything happens), maybe he’s not the right person for the job. I know, I know, he’s the pilot, and realistically each member of such a crew would have their area of expertise. But perhaps the protagonist of the film, and the one that is most lauded by humanity at the end, should have been either Murph (Jessica Chastain) or Amelia (Anne Hathaway).

And I think maybe we were supposed to feel sentimental affection for the robots? I couldn’t even tell you how many there were.

Categories
2 Stars Movies

Brad Pitt works out his daddy issues in space, in Ad Astra

Maybe this isn’t fair, but I couldn’t help but associate Ad Astra with Joker. If Joker is a shallow remix of Taxi Driver and King of Comedy, Ad Astra is a bland smoothie of Solaris and Apocalypse Now, with a cavalcade of stars you may remember from Space Cowboys and Armageddon. I half expected Harrison Ford to appear, standing in a corner, creepily ordering Brad Pitt to “terminate, with extreme prejudice” — so it’s more Apocalypse Now than 2001: A Space Odyssey, which at least had the decency to have jokes.

But really, Ad Astra is merely the story of an emotionally repressed mope, working through his daddy issues by haphazardly murdering a bunch of people just like his dad did — as if they were mere bureaucratic red tape stopping the only person in the universe that can save the universe from saving the universe — and then, having saved the universe, finally becoming ready to open his heart to Liv Tyler. Anybody out there have any empathy for someone who can’t open their heart to Liv Tyler? Pure fiction!

And as for its pseudo-sciencey verisimilitude, somewhere, Kim Stanley Robinson is banging his head against his writing desk.

Categories
2 Stars Movies

Terminator: Dark Fate is a trashcan of exposition

Criticizing the plots of popcorn action blockbusters is usually a fool’s errand. Nobody cares if Hobbs & Shaw makes any sense, but surely it’s fair game in the Terminator franchise, where untangling pseudo-scientific time travel logic is 99% of the fun.

So the biggest disappointment of Dark Fate (other than its singularly unmemorable title, and the cruel execution of a digital Edward Furlong avatar) is that it offhandedly tosses its biggest question marks into a trashcan of exposition. I’m glad this movie revolves around three women, and relegates Schwarzenegger to a supporting role, but it seems to me that if your story involves a robot assassin that reprograms itself for good, after a lifetime of guilt and regret, that deserves more than a few perfunctory lines of exposition.

While we’re on the topic of telling-not-showing: Dark Fate introduces a new, rather creepy idea to the clichéd evil A.I. subgenre. Rather than a diabolical Matrix-style plan to subjugate humanity, the A.I. in Dark Fate simply turns off the world’s power and then sits patiently on its circuitry butt for a few decades while most of humanity kills itself off. Again, like Schwarzenegger’s Cyberdyne T-800 developing a conscience offscreen, this is far more interesting than any of the car chases or plane crashes.

Categories
2 Stars Movies

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker smothers all hope and wonder

My brilliant wife had the following absolutely perfect appraisal of the first two entries in the new Star Wars trilogy, which I will paraphrase here:

“Most of the criticism of The Force Awakens was absolutely correct, but I loved it anyway. Most of the criticism of The Last Jedi was absolutely wrong, but I loved it anyway.”

In other words: yes, we acknowledge the consensus that J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens was a stealth remake of A New Hope, somewhat lacking in imagination, but wow was it thrilling. Then Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi faced an even fiercer backlash: mostly directed at its female characters, its rejection of Star Wars‘ royal lineage nonsense, and for directly addressing the military industrial complex issue that all previous films had ignored. These criticisms infuriated us; these aspects were exactly what made The Last Jedi one of, if not the best of the entire series. (sorry, Empire, I will always love you too)

But after seeing The Rise of Skywalker, this formulation is disrupted. With J.J. Abrams back in the director’s chair, the concluding chapter retreats from the progress made in the second film, and seems to have pulled off the impossible: disappointing everybody. If it’s not the worst Star Wars movie, it’s certainly the most disappointing. Instead of rating it out of five stars, I want to rate it with a countless number of exasperated sighs.

Even more than the unwanted spinoff product Rogue One and Solo, The Rise of Skywalker seems to have been designed by spreadsheet in an antiseptic Disney boardroom, in a misguided attempt to appease a fandom riven by the divisive The Last Jedi. Star Wars is not my personal sentimental favorite story (that would be Doctor Who), but my generation grew up with it and I can’t help but have an emotional attachment. I could enumerate The Rise of Skywalker‘s various plot deficiencies here, but it’s the smothering of wonder and spirit that really hurts.

My thoughts here are a kind of spoiler — not for revealing plot details, but for sending out bad vibes. Hopefully there are some viewers (especially kids) that don’t read complaints like this and get some joy from the movie. Here’s hoping that with time, The Last Jedi is retrospectively recognized as the height of the entire franchise.

Categories
3 Stars Movies

What makes Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds unique also sabotages it

Although easily overlooked among the Steven Spielberg and Cruise filmographies, I actually rather enjoy their 2005 War of the Worlds remake.

Unfortunately, what makes it unique also sabotages it:

It’s practically a requirement for the alien invasion genre that the protagonist be the big hero that saves the world. Refreshingly, Cruise’s character here is just a blue-collar guy trying to survive, minute-to-minute. Trying his best, making errors of judgement, and sometimes just wearily trudging along from incident to incident along with crowds of fellow refugees. Compare and contrast with the hyper-competent expert he typically plays: the world’s premiere spy, race car driver, or fighter pilot.

Although I’ll bet Cruise probably performed much of his own stunts as usual here, the film isn’t structured around major set pieces like much of his later work. Instead of watching Cruise actually jump out of an airplane, free climb, or crash a motorcycle, here he’s mostly seen operating shipping cranes and running away from stuff.

[spoilers for a 120 year old novel] The premise of the source material is inherently uncinematic, even if it is quoted directly in the prelude and coda by one of cinema’s greatest voices, Morgan Freeman. It’s just plain strange that no one from the creative, financial, or distribution teams insisted on reworking the material to give humanity (if not Cruise’s character himself) a more active role in defeating the aliens.

It’s also infected with that weird ultra-grainy cinematography in vogue at the time. I blame Ridley Scott for that, most evident in Hannibal and Black Hawk Down.

Categories
2 Stars TV

Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome fracks it up

“You get an E for effort and an F for fracking it up.”

That just about sums it up. I was a big fan of the mid-2000s Battlestar Galactica reboot and its sister series Caprica, but had somehow overlooked this pilot for a second prequel spinoff. Belatedly seeing it now, the plot seems too slight and insubstantial to possibly set the stage for an ongoing series.

Not only were BSG and Caprica thematically complex (grappling with war, terror, fanaticism, politics, ethics, artificial intelligence, etc.), it was also blessed with a knockout cast (especially the volcanic Edward James Olmos), but everyone in Blood & Chrome is as flat and affectless as the greenscreen virtual sets and digital lens flare.

Worse, Blood & Chrome is near-devoid of the big ideas that drove Caprica, which was probably too smart for its own good. The pop culture hill I will die on: Caprica was a smarter show than the similarly-themed Westworld will ever be. Discuss.

Categories
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
2 Stars Movies

Teenagers shall inherit the world in Wes Ball’s Maze Runner: The Death Cure

While definitely not in the target audience, and without expressly setting out to do so, I’ve still somehow managed to see all three Maze Runners. Their easy availability on streaming services is just too tempting for my chronic addiction to escapist sci-fi.

It’s interesting to see how young adult fiction contrives such scenarios where adults are absent, subservient, or villains. Like Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Hunger Games, the Maze Runner movies are constructed upon the trope of there being one single girl or boy born with the inherent destiny of rescuing a world that the older generation has squandered. I’m sure kids are not blind to how the genre panders to them, but that doesn’t mean it’s not cathartic for them to imagine themselves bearing cataclysmic responsibilities in life-or-death, world-ending situations.

While none of the Maze Runner films are very good, I did appreciate the first’s relatively straightforward Lord of the Flies pastiche (with the caveat that the premise allowed for only one female character — inexcusable in this day and age). As the original title helpfully elucidated, the hero’s journey was to simply escape a maze, which of course came equipped with a minotaur. But the original quest is accomplished, the title becomes essentially meaningless in later installments. To be fair, their subtitles “Scorch Trials” and “Death Cure” are also silly, so I guess cool-sounding nonsense is part of the whole package.

Wes Ball’s The Death Cure is a bloodless PG-13 zombie war movie for kids, and almost preposterously long at almost 2 1/2 hours. But it does boast some exciting action sequences, however wildly illogical and coincidence-dependent. The opening rescue of captives from a caravan is an effective emulation of Mad Max for kiddos, and the aerial ensnare of an entire bus near the end is impressive.

The young cast is… fine, if a little bland except for an impassioned Thomas Brodie-Sangster (doomed to be known as him from Love Actually). Like Kate Winslet in Divergence, Ashley Judd in The Hunger Games, and every grownup in Harry Potter, a handful of respected respected veteran indie actors take up the slack: Patricia Clarkson and Aiden Gillen as baddies-with-actually-rather-complex-motivations, and the Giancarlo Esposito Drinking Game (take a swig every time he says “hermano”, and you’ll be on the floor long before the end).

Categories
1 Star Movies

Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone is bad and bonkers, but never boring

Lamont Johnson’s Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone is definitely a bad movie, but also definitely not a boring movie. Possessed of a slightly bonkers energy, the plot races from one crazy incident to the next. I’m not sure if today’s action movies have this many — or this varied — set pieces: a wild steampunk train raid, an escape from subterranean amazons & their pet sea-snake, a nude zombie attack, a torturous obstacle race, and on and on.

It comes across as shamelessly derivative, until I realized that most of what I thought it was ripping off had not even come out yet: Dune’s desolate landscapes, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome’s vehicle design, and Star Trek: The Next Generation’s borg (note Michael Ironside’s costume). Most notably, it manages to prefigure the basic plot of Mad Max: Fury Road: reluctant male hero helps woman rescue female captives of a pervy, despotic cyborg.

Were it not for the flat staging, witless dialogue, and atrocious acting all around, this might be better remembered as some kind of mad cult classic. Sorry, Molly Ringwald! You were miscast. Love you forever.

one out of five stars

%d bloggers like this: