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The Cumberbatch Maneuver

May 18th, 2013 No comments

Star Trek Into Darkness is a movie about which I find it difficult to be objective. I have tremendous affection for the ’60s TV show, and so adored what director J.J. Abrams did to revitalize Captain Kirk and crew in his 2009 Star Trek movie reboot that the four-year wait for a sequel felt interminable. There are other films I’m anticipating this summer, but Into Darkness was number one with a photon torpedo in terms of my level of interest.

And I’m going to need to see it a second time to be sure how I feel about it.

There’s certainly a lot to like. The old/new cast are back, full of youthful exuberance and familial banter. From the start, they’re the fully-integrated ensemble that the original TV actors only intermittently became.

Chris Pine’s Kirk may be the center of the action, but Zachary Quinto’s Spock effortlessly carries the film’s emotional weight. The core of the ’60s series was a triumvirate with Kirk at its head, flanked by rational Spock and emotional McCoy, but I’d argue that the nuTrek dynamic places Spock in the middle, with Kirk and Zoe Saldana’s Uhura each appealing to different aspects of his human half. The affection between the three fuels Into Darkness even more than its over-complicated, conspiratorial storyline.

There are big laughs and spectacle aplenty. It looks and sounds fantastic. For the first two-thirds, it’s as good a Trek as we’ve ever seen on the big screen.

It’s the final third that left me pondering the whole, and I’m afraid that the rest of this review crosses the Neutral Zone into massive spoiler territory. So, if you don’t want to know more, go no further than the U.S.S. Enterprise spiraling out of control…

For the past couple of years, IDW has published a comic book of the continuing voyages of the nuTrek crew. Early issues were fairly straightforward retellings of ’60s episodes, with minor divergences demonstrating the rippling of the timeline caused by the arrival of future villain Nero in the 2009 film.* As the comics have progressed, the changes have become more pronounced and the stories, while still obviously inspired by specific incidents from the TV series, play out very, very differently.

And that’s what happens in Into Darkness. Except when it doesn’t.

The first rumors about the secretive sequel’s plot involved Khan, the genetically-modified ubermensch played memorably by Ricardo Montalban in the 1967 installment “Space Seed” and the 1982 film The Wrath of Khan. I immediately thought, “Oh, God, no.” Retelling past stories is fine in a monthly comic book, less so in a film franchise with chapters four years apart. Furthermore, both the 2009 movie and its predecessor, Star Trek: Nemesis, already seemed like bald attempts to replicate Khan’s revenge-driven villainy.

There was a final consideration: The Wrath of Khan is largely seen as both the dramatic and emotional high point of  the Trek films. A remake was unlikely to live up to it.

Despite attempts at misdirection and ever-wilder theories about other returning foes,** it turned out to absolutely no one’s surprise that yes, Benedict Cumberbatch’s “John Harrison” is really Khan.

And for a while it works. As with recent issues of the comic book, the storyline is more “inspired by” than “remake.” This Khan has a new backstory and motivation. I was starting to believe that they might almost do the unthinkable and make him Kirk’s stalwart ally against a common foe.

But once Khan does a heel turn and seizes control of a powerful Federation starship, we’re back to Wrath of Khan 2.0. Even some of the dialogue is cribbed from the previous film. The difference here is that it’s Kirk who performs the act of sacrifice to save the Enterprise from destruction, with Spock left to mourn outside a radiation-proof door.

Reversing the roles is sort of clever, but it’s not enough to save the scene from feeling like a lesser imitation. We know that Kirk’s not going to die, and not just because he has script immunity. We were shown the solution–the regenerative power of Khan’s blood–in the first act. The stakes just aren’t there.

Fortunately–aside from an ill-considered shout of “Khaaaaaaaaannnn!”–the rest of the movie plays out differently, with Spock and Uhura tag-teaming the villain in an exciting climax set in future San Francisco.

Perhaps now that the production team have gotten out their remake ya-yas, the next time we’ll finally go where no Star Trek film has gone before.

*While both the films and comics suggest that the timelines of old and new Trek began to diverge when Nero killed Kirk’s father, I’d argue that Nero arrived in an already-altered reality. The changes in costumes, technology and even species (the reptilian Gorn in the canonical Star Trek video game appear nothing like their classic counterparts) strike me as more than reasonably can be pinned on the “butterfly effect” created by the destruction of the U.S.S. Kelvin. (On the other hand, the inclusion of models of the Phoenix from First Contact and Jonathan Archer’s Enterprise suggest that much of this new timeline’s history played out as before.)

**The goofiest was the fan theory that John Harrison was one of the androids seen in 1967’s “I, Mudd.” I can see where they got the idea, as con man Harry Mudd’s daughter showed up in the comic book prequel; it’s her commandeered ship that Kirk pilots on the Klingon homeworld in Into Darkness. The theory was that the android’s pseudonym was a bastardization of “Harry’s son.” Urg.

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The Worst Jobs In The Multiverse #2: Baron’s Harkonnen’s Boil-Popper

March 12th, 2013 No comments

As seen in director David Lynch’s version of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi epic Dune

‘Nuff said.

The Days After

December 20th, 2012 No comments

In honor of Saturday, the day after the day that the Maya never claimed would be the end of the world, no matter what any moron tells you, here are some of my favorite pop culture post-apocalypses…

Planet of the Apes (1968)

The Road Warrior

John Christopher’s Tripods trilogy (image from BBC’s The Tripods)

In the Mouth of Madness

The Twilight Zone “Time Enough at Last”

Fallout 3

Wizards

Logan’s Run

Robot Monster

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If You Keep Picking At It, It’s Going To Bleed

June 10th, 2012 No comments

My anticipation of the Alien prequel/not-a-prequel Prometheus was tempered by a nagging doubt. Did I really want to know more about the gigantic “space jockey” briefly glimpsed at the controls of the horseshoe-shaped vessel with its cargo of alien eggs? Much of what makes the first half of Alien so effective is its unfathomable otherworldliness. And yet, after five sequels of (mostly) diminishing returns, the only aspect of the Alien universe still worth exploring is surely this mysterious third race.

As information about the secretive Prometheus project trickled out, it was clear that–despite director Ridley Scott’s protests to the contrary–it really was an Alien prequel. The space jockeys and their horseshoe ship featured prominently in the commercials. And the spectacular crash scene seemed to promise that by the end of Prometheus the tableau would be in place for the later visit of the ill-fated crew of the Nostromo.

MASSIVE SPOILERS AHEAD. DO YOU WISH TO SELF-DESTRUCT? (Y/N)

Except…as the Onion’s A.V. Club points out, it drives right up to the edge and then veers off. This isn’t the same planet from Alien, even though it too orbits a giant, ringed world. And this isn’t the same ship, even if it looks identical and winds up in a similar state as the original derelict. It’s frustrating. If Prometheus truly wasn’t intended to set the table for Alien, then why does so much of it play out in exactly the manner one would expect from a direct prequel?*

These defeated expectations are only part of the reason I feel a bit let down by Prometheus. Some of this film’s mysteries seem less deliberately unexplained than not thought through. If the “Engineers” (the new name of the space jockeys) really were pointing us toward a specific star cluster, why was it one of their military bases and not their home? The Earth pictographs suggested a then-harmonious relationship between humans and their creators. If it was a trap from the get-go, why bother? Why not just drop a cargo of biogenetic death on us thousands of years before we achieved interstellar travel?

The actions of the scientific expedition were equally baffling. It’s one thing for the crew of a space tug to go around foolishly poking things with a stick, another thing entirely for a group of scientific experts. It’s not just that these people had never seen an Alien film, it’s that they lacked even a sensible hesitation about touching things that are literally oozing with dark portents. Look, I am not a biologist, but I’m pretty sure that if I encountered a snake with a vagina for a head that was rearing up and hissing, my first inclination would not be to try to pet it. And folks, just because the air is breathable does NOT mean that you remove your helmet and take in a big lungful of extraterrestrial pathogens. Really, these people simply could not leave shit alone.

I’m not going to be totally down on Prometheus. It was gorgeous to look at and full of foreboding.** The callbacks to the original Alien were appreciated.*** And Michael Fassbender was fascinating to watch as David the android. I’d likely see Prometheus 2 just for more of his character. But if you’re an Alien fan, temper your expectations and be prepared for a lot of idiotic behavior.

*I believe that the ties may have been much more explicit in early drafts. An alleged synopsis, leaked to the web and quickly denied by the studio, reads suspiciously like a rejected draft, going so far as to play up the “Paradise” angle that Ridley Scott has mentioned in recent interviews.

**So full of foreboding that it plays like the first half of Alien stretched out to feature length.

***The kidney bean-shaped corridors of the so-called “pyramid” recalled set designs from the original derelict ship. The pyramid itself appeared to be based on an H.R. Giger painting of an alien “egg silo” cut from Alien before filming took place. Oddly, it also resembled one of Giger’s designs for the aborted Dune movie of the 1970s.

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The Fourth Is Not With This One

May 4th, 2012 No comments

According to some marketing team somewhere, today is to be celebrated as Star Wars Day. Why? Because it’s May 4th. As is “May the 4th be with you.”

I refuse. I may love Star Wars, but I will not play along with a commemoration that’s based solely on a dumb pun.

Besides, everyone knows that Star Wars Day is May 25.

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Final Frontier Five

February 16th, 2012 No comments

For no reason other than the fact that I’ve been listening to a lot of Star Trek soundtrack music in my car as of late, here are my choices for the top 5 Trek feature films. They aren’t necessarily the ones you’d expect.

However, the first one most certainly is.

#1 – Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Every once in a while, someone may try to convince you that The Wrath of Khan isn’t the best of the Trek movies. This person is wrong, and should be shunned.

While Star Trek: The Motion Picture had its strong points–notably, its epic scope and interest in actually exploring strange, new worlds–it was rightfully criticized for its stiffness. It was missing the bombast and fun of the original series.

The Wrath of Khan has both of these, and how. The thunderous, scenery-chewing duel between Captain Kirk and his inadvertently wronged nemesis Khan understandably takes center stage, but the reasons for the movie’s emotional resonance are its central themes of age and the acceptance of death. Kirk’s past catches up with him on multiple fronts, and he learns that he can’t cheat fate indefinitely.

That doesn’t mean that he isn’t given plenty of opportunity to demonstrate that his real value to Starfleet isn’t his legendary alien-punching or -boffing prowess, but his ability to trick his way out of (almost) every desperate situation.

#2 – Forbidden Planet

“But wait!” I hear you saying, “Forbidden Planet is not a Star Trek movie!” To which I reply, “Hey, take it up with Gene Roddenberry.” The original Trek TV series cribbed a great deal from MGM’s feature film of the previous decade. You can see the show’s DNA in Planet‘s circular starship bridge, its colorful planetary environments and its scandalously short skirts.

The crew of the star cruiser C-57D doesn’t have the ethnic diversity of the U.S.S. Enterprise, but the familiar triumvirate of captain, science officer and medic are front and center.

And what really makes it a Star Trek story is the mix of gee-whiz space heroics with mystery, exploration and thoughtful examination of the human condition. Plus a hot babe and a robot.

#3 – Star Trek (2009)

The critical success and fan acceptance of 2009’s reboot is ironic given the enormous rage leveled against the first attempt at a Kirk-and-Spock origin story. In 1990 producer Harve Bennett, looking at both the box-office failure of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier and the ever-increasing corpulence of the original crew, mooted a Starfleet Academy film with younger actors. The big difference back then, I suppose, was that the old cast were all more-or-less willing and able to continue in their roles. They spurred their fanbase into furious fury, and the project was scuttled in favor of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.

With Roddenberry, DeForest Kelley and James Doohan all long gone, new producer/director J.J. Abrams encountered less resistance. This, it turned out, was a very good thing, as the casting of the 2009 Star Trek is spot-on. Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto and Zoe Saldana are uniformly excellent as Kirk, Spock and Uhura. Karl Urban as McCoy and Simon Pegg as Scotty channel the spirits of the departed Kelley and Doohan. Even John Cho’s Sulu and Anton Yelchin’s Chekov are given moments to shine.

The film itself deftly straddles two worlds, serving as a sequel to the original series (complete with extended Leonard Nimoy guest appearance) and a new reality which charts its own course. Pairing Spock and Uhura? Disintegrating the planet Vulcan? The most recent Trek boldly goes, and I can’t wait for next year’s follow-up.

#4 – Galaxy Quest

It may appear that I’m fudging here, but hear me out: Galaxy Quest is more Trekkish than most things with Trek in the title. A big, sloppy love letter to the original series, it’s a credible space adventure, a hilarious comedy and a clever examination of the relationship between sci-fi heroes and the fans who love them.

Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Tony Shaloub and Alan Rickman play the cast of a cancelled TV show forced to eke out a livelihood of embarrassing personal appearances.  A group of over-enthusiastic fans turn out to be members of an alien species unable to comprehend the concept of deception. They’ve mistaken the televised adventures of Galaxy Quest for “historical documents” and want “Commander Taggart” and his crew to save them from the warlord Sarris.

The conceit of interstellar fanboys and -girls doggedly re-creating a fictional TV spaceship is taken to its logical conclusion when the reluctant actors are required to navigate a dangerous corridor full of nonsensical “chompy, crushy things” that serve no purpose other than to reproduce a particularly bad episode.

While Galaxy Quest gently mocks Trek‘s tropes, it also allows “Taggart” to engage in some highly-Kirkian derring-do. Unfortunately, the further adventures of Galaxy Quest suggested by the film’s coda exist only in comic book follow-ups and unanswered dreams.

#5 – Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

It’s a bit of a toss-up between this one and the Next Generation-era film Star Trek: First Contact, but I’m an old-school Trekkie and must give the nod to the final hurrah of Kirk and company. Having the actors (in their final appearance together as the Magnificent Seven) literally sign off at the end may be a bit much, but really, who can legitimately complain?

This one last ride into the sunset sees the Enterprise gang confront their own racism as they play unwilling hosts to an attempt to broker peace between the Federation and the Klingon Empire. There’s a political assassination, a jailbreak and a rousing battle with an invisible starship.

The murder mystery is not as strong as it could be, chiefly because of the failure to woo back actress Kirstie Alley to reprise her Star Trek II role of Spock’s protege, Lt. Saavik.

Still, it’s a final helping of all the stuff that made Shatner’s time in the captain’s chair so enjoyable, as Kirk beds one more alien, battles his evil twin and crosses wits with a Shakespeare-quoting villain.

Happy New Year…From Spaaaaaaaaace!

December 26th, 2011 No comments

Futuristic New Year’s Eve festivities from the 1965 Italian sci-fi film War of the Planets. May your own new year be every bit as inspiring.

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31 Monstrous Failures #24: The Thing

October 24th, 2011 No comments

In the interest of fairness, I will admit that I have not seen the subject of today’s entry. But I firmly believe that first-hand experience is unnecessary to declare that the 2011 version of…

The Thing!

…is one of the most unnecessary follow-ups ever.

I’m not the biggest fan of either of the previous adaptations of John W. Campbell, Jr.’s novella Who Goes There? Howard Hawks’ 1951 The Thing from Another World has excellent direction and a terrific score, but it drops the shapechanging alien of the original story in favor of James Arness in Frankenstein makeup. John Carpenter’s 1982 The Thing is a more faithful transfer, but it emphasizes gross-out effects at the cost of anyone worth caring about. That said, the ’82 film is well-regarded and it was perhaps inevitable that someone would make another one.

However, rather than a sequel or a remake, the 2011 Thing is a prequel to Carpenter’s movie. Now, what you need to know about the ’82 film is that the initial discovery and revival of the alien (from a crashed spacecraft buried in Antarctic ice) occurred off-screen. Unlike the ’51 version–which detailed the recovery and thawing of The Thing–Carpenter had his characters explore a wrecked Norwegian base where all of the initial running and screaming had already taken place. In other words, the most important thing about the Norwegians was that they were already dead.

That’s why it boggles me that Universal would drop 38 large to tell the story of the hapless Norwegians. Who (SPOILER) all die. If you have seen the ’82 Thing, you know more or less exactly what happens in the ’11 Thing. If you haven’t seen it, you probably couldn’t care less about the Norwegians.*

Apparently a lot of folks agreed, and the new film made only about $11 million domestically in its first week. Some Things are better left alone.

*No offense, Norway.

Beneath The Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes

April 15th, 2011 No comments

The first trailer for the upcoming Planet of the Apes sequel/remake is out.  The project–formerly known as Caesar and/or Rise of the Apes–has been redubbed Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Furthermore, this new title has been lovingly rendered in the original film’s typeface. I approve.

What of the trailer itself? It looks like a film that could go either way. It has the benefit of being a quasi-remake of one of the better entries in the original Apes cycle, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. On the other hand, it appears to be going the traditional route of science-gone-wrong rather than tackling the civil rights allegory of that earlier film.

And it must be said: the problem with Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes “reimagining” was not that it needed more realistic monkeys.

Admittedly, it never quite made sense to me that the ape servants of Conquest‘s near-future world already resembled the creatures that Charlton Heston encountered in the nuclear-blasted 40th Century. Rise looks as if it will avoid that potential disconnect while at the same time providing an explanation for the primates’ rapid evolution.

I suppose that Peter Jackson’s WETA special-effects crew will work the same magic they did with Gollum, and that the performance of Andy Serkis–who plays Caesar, the leader of the ape revolt–will show through his digital avatar just as it did in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Still, a big part of the charm of those old films was the (groundbreaking for the time) monkey makeups.

As I said, this one could go either way.

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Draw A (Giant, Prehistoric) Bird Day

April 8th, 2011 No comments

Apparently, Draw a Bird Day is a thing that happens. So here’s Rodan.