In-Depth Movie Reviews & High Quality Trailers

Science Fiction / Fantasy Movies

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

Star Trek Into DarknessThis is a film that I didn’t love, but also, I didn’t hate.  It is a very entertaining, exciting movie, but has a number of downfalls mainly stemming from the rehashing of old ideas and characters while doing nothing to make them fresh or new.  For a franchise that was just rebooted with the last movie, this seems like filmmakers with a dry well of ideas when they should be going warp speed ahead into bold, new directions.

When the crew of the Enterprise is called back home, they find an unstoppable force of terror from within their own organization has brought the fear of war and destruction to the Federation.  With a personal score to settle and sanctioned by the resilient Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller), Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) leads a manhunt to a war-zone world to capture a one man weapon of mass destruction known as John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch).  As our heroes are propelled into an epic chess game of life and death, love will be challenged, friendships will be torn apart, and sacrifices must be made for the only family Kirk has left: his crew.

Now, I did not like the 2009 reboot movie.  I thought it was shoddily written with a lot of plot holes, big holes in logic, a weak villain with narrow-minded motivations, a style over substance approach, and a tone that did more to poke fun at these classic characters than show serious, due respect to them.  If the marketing campaign for this film wasn’t so good, I likely would not have been ensnared into seeing it.  However, despite my best resolve, I was compelled to check out spoilers after a spoiler-free review hinted strongly enough at a certain aspect of this film that I was not agreeable to in rumors.  There will be a spoiler section later to address that, but simply said, if I went into this film clean, without spoilers, I’m sure I would have at least been angry with the movie.  Instead, having foreknowledge of many pertinent aspects of the film allowed me to enjoy it more, and go into it with an open mind instead of a resistant one.  I was willing to let the movie change my mind, and to an extent, it did in how well the general plot is written.  However, there are several problems with story, characters, and concepts that I will address shortly.

On the upside of things, firstly, Star Trek Into Darkness has some stellar and exciting action sequences.  While the physical action with chase scenes and fights is not very traditional Trek, it is still very enjoyable stuff done with remarkable talent evident in all aspects.  It is a little hard to accept Spock running around in an action centric role during the climax since that’s always been Kirk’s role, but Quinto is at least more than capable of the task.  I did especially like the encounter with the Klingons where Harrison unleashes a one man barrage.  We see only one unmasked Klingon, but he does resemble the forehead ridged versions with a slightly different sleekness.  The starship battles are few, but feature excellent visual effects and rousing, perilous action.  The whole sequence with the Enterprise spiraling out of control, and Kirk and Scotty are running through the corridors as the gravity is spinning them all around is also fantastic.  J.J. Abrams, beyond anything else, knows how to create an exciting, action-filled movie aimed to entertain.

Now, the hardest part of assessing Chris Pine’s portrayal of James Kirk is that his version has so many changes to his back story that he’s ultimately not Shatner’s Kirk.  You don’t get that wit, cunning, and confidence that defined Shatner’s performance early on.  Instead, we have a young, brash, impulsive Kirk who does let his emotions get the better of him.  I do like that the film addresses one thing I didn’t like about the first movie.  Fresh from Starfleet Academy, off of one successful mission saving Earth, Kirk is given the Captain’s chair without having earned it through years of exemplary service and hard earned experience.  At one point here, his command is taken away from him due to his lack of respect for the Captain’s chair and Starfleet regulations.  He had the Enterprise given to him without having earned it, and now, he’s sort of put into the position where he has to make tough decisions and earn his command.  He has to challenge authority instead of dismissing it, and I think this element is handled rather well.  On the whole, I think Pine is a good actor, but I don’t think the writing and development of Kirk has yet to match his strengths.  His fiery emotions don’t resonate as strongly as Cumberbatch’s chilling, menacing presence.  Once again, Kirk does feel a little weak to me in this Abrams universe.  It’s that essential element of maturity and confidence of Kirk that’s missing which always made him interesting, and I hope that’s where these filmmakers are pushing him towards.  His arc in this film seems to suggest that, but I do feel it doesn’t get the forefront time it deserved to be properly poignant.

Zachary Quinto is given a rather meaty chunk of material in developing his Spock.  There’s a good weight of emotional insight we are given into him as he explores the ideas and fears of death.  Quinto reflects that depth immensely well, and the building of the Kirk-Spock relationship towards something more familiar is excellent in my view.  However, I do feel the whole Uhura relationship is still unappealing to me.  I’m glad they gave her more to do than operating the communications station, but I don’t see any major potential for that relationship.  In general, all of the regular crew members are given a stronger role here.  Sulu is given a taste of command, which I really loved as a subtle hint at him becoming Captain of the Excelsior in the original continuity.  Even Chekov, who I’m still unsold on the portrayal of, is given the run of engineering having to keep the ship intact in the absence of Mr. Scott.

This time out, I feel Simon Pegg did a far more faithful and solid Montgomery Scott.  In nearly every instance, he felt genuine from James Doohan’s original series portrayal.  He had more dramatic weight to carry, and had a bit of a subplot of his own to deal with.  He has justifiable conflicts with Kirk’s mission, and smartly weaves his way back into the thick of the plot by the third act.  I was far more satisfied with everything Pegg did here which still had moments of humor, but felt respectable overall.  With this character, it thrived from smart writing and a really good acting job by Pegg.

And continuing to prove my insistence that he’s one of the most solid and reliable actors around today, Karl Urban beautifully channels DeForest Kelly as Dr. McCoy.  He feels so authentic to the character while still feeling natural and passionate in his own right.  As with Kelley, Urban gets some of the best lines in the movie to the point where I’d love to just see a Dr. McCoy movie.  I really, wholeheartedly believe that Karl Urban is just on the verge of a major career breakthrough.  I’ve yet to see him do anything less than excellence in every role he’s taken on.  Urban just needs that one high profile leading role, and I cannot wait for that day.  He is the perfect successor to Leonard “Bones” McCoy.

Even Peter Weller does an excellent job as Admiral Marcus, who sanctions Kirk’s mission to take out Harrison, but the plot methodically reveals a lot of subversive dealings in Starfleet.  There’s even a great Deep Space Nine reference in regards to that.  What Weller delivers when those revelations occur is damn good, and fills a very solid part in this plot.  Also, Alice Eve does a nice job as Carol Marcus, the Admiral’s daughter, and strikes a small spark of chemistry with Chris Pine.  However, it doesn’t amount to much at all.  Also, I was rather confused as to why Carol Marcus now has a British accent when her Wrath of Khan counterpart did not, and nor does her father.  It was a distracting arbitrary choice that doesn’t really enhance the character in anyway.  It’s just peculiar.

Now, what really compelled me the most leading up to this film was indeed Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance.  That chilling deep voice with his intimidating, foreboding presence is so captivating.  His villainous character is intriguing with an air of mystique.  He has his secrets to keep and strategically reveal as his own agendas and plots unfold.  He’s written very intelligently, and we even get moments of emotional depth and pain in one scene.  His John Harrison character is certainly more than what he seems to be at first, and has many surprises in store for the crew of the Enterprise and Starfleet.  I really think, on a performance level, he’s one of the best villains this franchise has ever had.  He’s certainly the best movie villain since General Chang in Star Trek VI.  Cumberbatch is clearly an immensely talented actor, and he really owns this movie with a complex and rich portrayal.  However, there is a very important aspect of this character that I have to take issue with that can only be done in the spoiler section of this review.  Many loyal Star Trek fans may indeed find this to be intensely objectionable.

However, before we get to that, the problems of this movie are that it feels like a modern day remake of a vastly superior film.  How it rehashes old ideas that come off as second rate carbon copies that do more to remind you of how they were done better thirty or forty-five years ago are exactly reminiscent of creatively devoid remakes from unoriginal filmmakers.  Star Trek Into Darkness attempts to have original ideas such as Kirk dealing with failure and humility, but they are rapidly overshadowed by the plots involving Harrison and Admiral Marcus.  This theme with Chris Pine’s Kirk is never given enough time to flourish and take a solid foothold in the film when put in opposition to all of these retreaded characters, dialogues, and concepts.  These were likely intended as homages, but they come off as lazy, unoriginal writing.  The screenwriters couldn’t put together a wholly original screenplay with unique concepts, or at least, utilize smart enough writing to take solid ownership of what it does with these revisited elements.  Considering the majority critical opinions of them, I’m not sure what most should expect from the co-writers of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and the screenwriter of Cowboys & Aliens and Prometheus.  Frankly, I thought the purpose of rebooting the franchise with an altered timeline was to take these classic characters into bold, new directions with fresh ideas.  Instead, they just do the same old thing only not done remotely as well.  They are free and open to do whatever they choose, and they choose to do next to nothing new at all.  This makes it seem like they’ve already hit a dry well of ideas, and that doesn’t bode well for the future of this franchise.

Now we come to the SPOILER paragraphs.  So, if you don’t want to get a full disclosure of plot turns and revelations, please, jump beyond the next two paragraphs to remain free of such knowledge.  You have been given fair warning to avert your eyes.  Your temptation is your own, and I know the temptation of spoilers is indeed intense.  So, here we go.

What has been rumored over the last several months that I ultimately took issue with is this.  The villain of this film, portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch, is actually revealed to be Khan Noonien Singh.  Now, the screenwriters integrate him well into the story, weaving all the motivations around him very soundly, and the explanation of his presence absolutely makes sense.  It all ties into the themes of war and Admiral Marcus’ motivations in regards to that by having Khan help Starfleet develop new weapons of war including the Dreadnaught class warship that nearly kills the Enterprise and her crew.  However, we have already had our definitive Khan story with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and the original series episode Space Seed is still a stellar piece of work.  I don’t discount the possibility that another great Khan story could be made, but this one falls behind both of those previous outings.  Furthermore, making Cumberbatch be Khan actually diminishes the quality and potential of what Cumberbatch does here.  Instead of being viewed as a strong, amazing performance of a brand new, fresh villain, he is going to be eternally compared back to Ricardo Montalban, which is a gross disservice to Cumberbatch.  Also, the fact is that his performance bares no resemblance to the Khan we knew.  Khan was a man of passion and regal self-image.  He viewed himself as a Prince bringing order to humanity.  This new Khan comes off like an ice cold, menacing shark of a murderer, a man almost devoid of passion.  The original Khan was a conqueror, a ruler and leader of men.  This Khan is more of the terrorist persuasion acting alone, and really succumbing to the will of others to strike out from underneath their oppression.  Straight up, Khan would never bow to another person’s will, no matter the level of force that opposed him.  In Space Seed, Khan frees his people almost single-handedly, and takes over the Enterprise nearly killing the entire crew in the process.  I could never see Khan acting the way he does in this film.  He was never a lone wolf seeking to terrorize.  He was a proud, cultured man seeking power and stature.  Surely, he wasn’t hesitant to bloody his hands, but him becoming a terrorist against Starfleet doesn’t fit for Khan.  He wanted more to be respected than simply feared.  He was also a man quick to exercise his superiority over others, especially Kirk.  The story works, and the motivation is sound, but the personality is simply not Khan.  Not to mention, Cumberbatch bares no physical resemblance to Khan with his Caucasian complexion and English accent.  I cannot see the character that Montalban originated in Space Seed fitting into the context, personality, and methods of the Khan we see in this film, regardless of how differently events unfolded in this new future timeline.  Everything that Khan was before his resuscitation from cryo-sleep remains the same as it was in the original continuity, and so, he wakes up as the same man in this continuity as in Space Seed.  Thus, I don’t feel there’s enough leeway to allow for Khan’s personality and methods to change so drastically.

Also, the film quotes lines verbatim from The Wrath of Khan, and in the climax, there is a reversal on Spock’s death scene where it is Kirk who rushes into the radiation chamber to restart the engines to save the ship and her crew.  It becomes distracting when Pine and Quinto speak practically the same dialogue that Shatner and Nimoy did back in 1982 only with the roles reversed.  The scene is well acted, but you lose every bit of emotional investment and poignancy of the scene because it is such a blatant carbon copy with no fresh life of its own.  Again, you can’t help but remember how brilliant and powerful it was in The Wrath of Khan when you see this lazy, plagiarist writing realized on screen.  And of course, in poor, unearned fashion, the scene is punctuated with Zachary Quinto’s Spock yelling the infamous line of “KHAN!!!” to very weak effect.  It was done perfectly once, but since then, any other use has always been done in comedic context.  Here, it feels borderline lame because it’s not an original idea for a genuine reaction.  Ultimately, Kirk is revived because Khan’s blood now has some entirely unexplained regenerative properties.  It is setup twice in the film, but it could still be a contentious issue for many.  And literally, it is never explained at all.  It’s just there as a plot convenience, and factors into nothing purposeful enough but to bring Kirk back from death.

Veering towards the technical side of the film, the cinematography of Dan Mindel is very, very good.  He really knows how to use that wide frame to give you a strong cinematic visual with the use of great color schemes, and the action sequences are competently done.  There might be a couple shots that I wasn’t all that keen about due to the more rugged camera work during the space battles or the like, but they were fleeting.  The lens flares are toned down a hell of a lot from the previous movie, possibly due to the intended post-conversion 3D effect.  From a few sources, they say the post-conversion is very good.  And the score by Michael Giacchino is also quite good, but I really would’ve liked to have heard that Alexander Courage theme before the last minute of the film.  Just a hint of it somewhere would have gone a long way.

Overall, I did feel like the story here was a little less than what it could have been despite being well conceived and executed.  It felt like a setup of ideas and scenarios for another film, which would likely deal with a Federation-Klingon war.  It’s setting up this climate of inevitable war from the Klingons encroaching through space and perceived heightening tensions.  Everything is built on that fear of war, and while it is a very good idea which builds upon the events of the previous movie, it didn’t feel like an idea that was used to boost the strength and foundation of this film.  It all felt like the setup for something larger, and in doing so, it partly dismisses this story as a stepping stone.  If the focus was on this story, and doing everything possible with it, including injecting original ideas and dialogue into it fully, this would be a stronger movie.

In short, I think Star Trek Into Darkness will please general audiences, but the loyal Trek fan might have more than a few negative things to say about it.  My apprehension about J.J. Abrams helming the next Star Wars movie is evident here in that he does favor style over substance, and even what substance he has is fairly minimal and not well conceived.  Maybe working with a new screenwriter will resolve these issues, but the last thing that franchise needs, as well as Star Trek, is more creatively disjointed outings that favor flashy visuals over a good, solid story.  Neither franchise will have vibrant, flourishing futures based on work like this.  Again, I did enjoy this movie, especially more than the 2009 film, but I was a long way from loving it.  I was really hoping for fresh, new ideas and an original villain that could stand on his own, but unfortunately, I really didn’t get either.  I do recommend seeing it if you are not apprehensive about some contentious issues with revisited characters and ideas from far superior Trek stories.


Alien (1979)

AlienRidley Scott’s Alien is a remarkable classic that was kind of hard for me to appreciate fully until now.  I did see the director’s cut screening in October of 2003, but it didn’t have the intended effect at the time.  However, thanks the Cinemark theatre chain, I was given the chance to see Alien in its original theatrical cut.  I went into the screening consciously putting myself into the proper mindset intending to experience it the right way.  I have always appreciated the filmmaking and artistic talents of the movie, but now, I can connect with it on a level of beautifully crafted horror and suspense.

When commercial towing vehicle Nostromo, heading back to Earth, intercepts a distress signal from a nearby planet, the crew are under obligation to investigate.  After landing on this hostile planet, three crew members – Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt), first officer Kane (John Hurt), and navigator Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) – set out to discover the origin of the signal which Lieutenant Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and the ship’s computer soon decipher it as not a distress call but a warning.  Onboard a derelict alien spacecraft, Kane discovers a chamber filled with thousands of alien eggs, and in investigating too closely, he is attacked by a parasite.  When he is brought back to the Nostromo, the crew has no idea the danger they have brought upon themselves as this parasite soon gives birth to a vicious organism that is bred for only one purpose – death.

The strongest quality of this film that struck me was indeed the structure and pacing.  While for a modern audience it might be too methodical, Scott makes every slow burning moment count for something.  It’s all building towards something while establishing mood, atmosphere, character, or story.  The best result from this structure is that there are segments where Scott gives the audience a sense of false security.  This is best reflected in both after the facehugger dies and relinquishes its hold on Kane, and when Ripley has safely escaped aboard the shuttle at the end.  You feel as if the danger has past, but especially with the former, you feel like another shoe is waiting to drop creating this lurking uncertainty.  There’s still a long way to go in this film, and you know something much more threatening is waiting to emerge.  When the ship ascends from the planet, it’s signaling the elevation in threat for these characters and the audience.  And this film repeatedly elevates things to a new, unexpected level.

Scott also does an amazing job immersing an audience into the subtle sense of isolation and unsettling calm of the Nostromo.  This has as much to do with the cinematography as it does the amazing sound design.  The ship always has this ambient sound of probably the power running through it, which further unnerves an audience.  And when things get loud, it gets very loud to evoke the terror and visceral rawness of the moment.  This all creates a contrast of audio where Scott makes things extremely low and quiet when he wants to engage your attention and put you on the edge of your seat.  Then, he blasts something onto the soundtrack to jar you out of your seat.  I don’t find this to be jump scares.  This is an excellent manipulation of suspense and tension to effectively and skillfully scare an audience.  It’s putting you right in there with the unnerving feeling these characters are experiencing.

How Alien is shot is perfect in its use of wide compositions to reflect scope and solitude early on, especially during the excursion to the derelict spacecraft, and later on, how the cinematography moves in closer to highlight the claustrophobic nature of the Nostromo.  Even more intense is when Scott has the shot get right into the actor’s faces during the peak of fear and terror to where you can see every bead of sweat on their skin.  There’s some great and beautiful camera work from the large movements revealing the Space Jockey and using steadicams for sweeping movements.  Yet, I also love the subtle handheld work that creates a sense of unease and rawness at times.  The lighting schemes also create the signature Ridley Scott noir mood and atmosphere.  Light and shadow are used to stellar effect enhancing all the unnerving, heart pounding sequences, and Scott is known for immersing his films in thick darkness.  As the immediacy of everything reaches its apex as the self-destruct is counting down, the blasting exhaust vents and flashing lights intensely reflect the chaotic nature of the third act.  It’s shocking to me that director of photography Derek Vanlint has an extremely short filmography shooting only six films over a thirty-four year span.  Apparently, the bulk of his career was spent on television commercials.  What he did here would make you believe he had a largely notable film career because it was indeed the work of a master cinematographer.

Ridley Scott was very much inspired by the sort of “used future” production design of Star Wars.  Instead of the clean and polished aesthetics of a 2001: A Space Odyssey, he wanted something that felt gritty, textured, and lived in.  The Nostromo is a very utilitarian craft with very few sleek designs.  It was created to be functional and practical to maintain a sense of relatable realism for the audience.  It has the feel of a factory, oil rig, or submarine with all of its enclosed tight spaces and metal gratings.  And the design of the alien spacecraft and all things related to the Xenomorph by H.R. Giger are truly alien in all aspects.  It has a dark, gothic elegance to it.  Giger always meshes together this sexualized aesthetic with his fascinating and twisted designs, and it creates this unsettling undercurrent of sexuality to all of these creatures that victimize our characters.  Many have read a lot into these elements, but for me, it simply makes for a frightening and completely unique biology.  The Alien feels threatening in every way with all of its fanged teeth, exoskeleton design, and ultimately, it’s black as night sheen.  This is a creature meant to inhabit the darkness as an animalistic hunter.  How Ash describes it as the “perfect organism” has always struck me powerfully selling every single-minded quality about it.  It will use you to breed, and then, the others it will kill.  It has no other purpose to exist but to destroy.  I also love how the film constantly takes you by surprise as we witness the Alien’s life cycle.  First, it’s this tiny little creature, but next time we see it, it’s seven feet tall!  There’s an added shot in the director’s cut that I always liked when Brett goes looking for Jones the cat, and while he’s cooling himself off with the dripping condensation, there’s a shot of it hanging from the chains above.  This is before we know what the Alien now looks like, and so, you wouldn’t pick up on it unless you already knew.  Now, it did take a little bit of effort to put Prometheus out of my mind just to experience the originally intended mystique and fascination with the Space Jockey, but I was able to get there.  I still enjoy Prometheus, but I wanted to experience Alien in its purest form.

Now, despite this being a serious film of horror and atmosphere, the interactions of these characters portrayed by this excellent cast create some much needed moments of levity.  I constantly found what Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton were doing to be immensely pleasing and funny.  Parker and Brett are these two jokers who maintain the ship’s functions, and feel quite underappreciated for their hard work who try to leverage that out with some delightful exchanges.  Kotto and Stanton have a great chemistry that brings some rich personality into the fold.

Tom Skerritt is very solid as Captain Dallas.  He has that sense of authority and responsibility which clearly has him stand out as a leader.  Yet, he’s fallible making decisions out of passion instead of adhering to regulations, but also, owning up to those decisions and errors.  At the end of it all, he’s just a guy who wants to do his job and get home, but is forced to deal with something beyond his experience that ultimately does terrify him.

Then, we’ve got Sigourney Weaver who was an unknown talent at the time, and that played to an audience’s surprise.  This one person that they are unfamiliar with in the cast is actually the heroin of the piece, and Weaver shows her stellar talent every moment she’s on screen.  She holds her own opposite everyone very well projecting authority, strength, conviction, and decisiveness as Ellen Ripley.  Yet, of course, the absolutely soul shattering terror that Ripley experiences is powerful through Weaver.  She is vulnerable, but she can fight through it for her own survival.

This is unlike the constantly panicked Lambert who paralyzes with fear in the face of the alien, but her fear is entirely genuine and real with Veronica Cartwright’s fantastic talents making it something other than a potentially annoying character.  Many would find themselves reacting like Lambert does, and it’s a testament to the characters that are able to keep their fear and emotions in check to carry onward.

Ian Holm’s performance is brilliant.  It’s one of those things where you pick up on more in repeat viewings after you know the twist of Ash.  You see the sinister probing eyes that observe a situation like it’s some lab experiment.  Once you know who Ash is and what his purpose happens to be you can see his secret intent, especially during the chestburster scene.  This twist is carefully setup throughout the movie in how he repeatedly enables the safe passage of the alien aboard the ship.

The great thing about these characters is that, despite the futuristic setting on a spacecraft, these are relatable people.  They seem plucked straight out of our time and lives as rugged, blue collar space truckers.  They’re regular people just doing a regular job, but it’s only that they’re towing ore across interstellar space instead of a highway or the like.  They have realistic relationships such as Parker and Brett having some friction against the bridge officers because they get paid less even though the ship wouldn’t work without them.  These people all have conflicts, friendships, and complicated dynamics between them, and this is further aided by very realistic and honest dialogue.  The film surely doesn’t take time to explore the depth of these characters, but it is their behaviors and interactions that inform us of all we need to know about each one of them.  That’s really how you write an ensemble movie, much like John Carpenter’s The Thing.  You don’t need to get their life stories, you just need fully realized characters portrayed by great, suitable actors.  And I would be remised if I didn’t mention John Hurt here.  While he has the shortest screentime of anyone here, he puts in a solid performance that has a few moments of levity, but overall, is as authentic and strong as anyone else here.

The late Jerry Goldsmith seemed to regularly have conflicts with the filmmakers he worked with on how his scores should be crafted.  Oddly, I find that in these cases, what it is that he’s pushed towards creating is ultimately the better choice for the film overall.  Here, we get some great cues with the main theme being the best which exudes an aura of mystery, intrigue, and spookiness.  It’s a subtle melody that does a lot to make things feel lightly ominous and dangerous without ever being overt.  Simplicity can sometimes do so much in conjunction with how a film is shot and plotted.  The music that Goldsmith composed here is exceptionally effective even if how most of it was used went against how he thought it should be.

Usually, when you know a horror film well enough, knowing where the scares are coming and everything, it tends to become less effective.  However, upon this theatrical screening, many moments were still startling and scary.  I really feel that experiencing Alien in the immersive environment of a movie theatre is the best way to do it.  Maybe if you have a large HDTV and a stellar surround sound system, you could achieve that effect, but seeing all of the visual mastery on that large cinema screen was more than I could have imagined.  It just gave me the amplified experience I was looking for with this movie, and why I was compelled and excited for this experience.  Now that I’ve had that experience, my home viewing experience will be richer and more engaging.

It is undeniable that Alien is an eternal classic, but now, I am able to hold it up to that level of awe and recognition myself.  Scott took what was a B-movie horror idea and turned it into an A-grade picture full of masterfully crafted artistry in all aspects with the cast being a glowing example.  Ridley Scott is known for taking great care in creating immersive worlds not just on film, but for the actors and crew to live inside of.  He locks you into this enclosed maze of a dark spaceship where the Alien could be hiding anywhere, and you feel the claustrophobic tension eating away at you.  It can be a haunting, disturbing film for many, and while it has violence and blood, it is strategically used to intense effect.  The same can be said about the Alien itself – only seen it shadows, in pieces.  Scott only once or twice gives you a full fledged look at it.  He keeps it like a startling nightmare – brief glimpses that horrify, much like Jaws.  Unlike Jaws though, it wasn’t out of a necessity of the creature not working or being well designed, it was an artistic decision that worked brilliantly.  There’s a lot of crap that was spawned from this film with bad sequels, poorly conceived crossovers, and a prequel that has proved divisive for many.  Still, I can watch this film as a self-contained entity, and when done so, you can immensely appreciate that Ridley Scott and his vast team of highly talented artists and filmmakers made a stunning and iconic piece of science fiction horror.


The Shadow (1994)

The ShadowI have LOVED this movie since I first saw it.  I know this was met with mixed reactions upon release, and it was not a real lucrative success in theatres.  Frankly, I am baffled by this.  The Shadow, to me, is a marvelous film that is perfect Russell Mulcahy style, second only to Highlander.  It’s also a film that was never given its due justice on home video, but thanks to iTunes, I can now enjoy this film in beautiful high-definition widescreen!  I believe The Shadow to be a solid piece of work in every aspect as well as an immensely enjoyable superhero action film.

In 1930’s China, Lamont Cranston (Alec Baldwin) is known as Yin-Ko, a murderous opium warlord, who is reformed by a Tibetan mystic who teaches him how to use his keen mental powers to manipulate others.  As penance for his past misdeeds, Cranston masquerades as a New York City playboy by day and secretly plays the heroic Shadow by night, staving off evildoers with a network of agents and a cab-driving sidekick (Peter Boyle).  A greater challenge arrives when a new enemy presents himself in Shiwan Khan (John Lone), the final descendent of Genghis Khan, who has received training from the same Tibetan master who instructed Cranston.  Khan desires to have the once savage Cranston join him in his conquest of the world through use of an atomic bomb, but finds only an adversary.  Meanwhile, Cranston encounters the alluring and intriguing Margo Lane (Penelope Ann Miller) who also possesses unique psychic abilities that complicate his life, but soon, they join together to combat the powerful Shiwan Khan.

Mulcahy shrouds this whole film in this wonderful mystique and atmosphere that is perfect for this sort of character.  The entire presentation of the Shadow reinforces the supernatural element of him – the smoke, illusions, and psychic perceptions.  He’s enigmatic to a vibrantly fascinating degree bordering on frightening.   I love the lighting trick of enveloping Cranston in shadow when he utilizes his psychic abilities.  The mystical and surreal visions we get as we delve into his psyche are stunning.  This film really envelopes an audience fully and deeply into Lamont Cranston’s mind which is endlessly fascinating, if not quite disturbing.  It also doesn’t bog us down with a lengthy origin story.  It’s quite succinct, telling us all we need to know, and even touching back upon it as the film goes on.  This way, it can jump right into the meat of the story.  While I’m sure something like a 120+ minute film could be made from this material, like a Batman Begins, walking us through Cranston’s change from the barbarous Yin-Ko to the heroic Shadow, I like the straight to the point mentality of this film.

I honestly believe Alec Baldwin was a dead-on perfect casting choice.  He has the dapper charm and charisma for Lamont, but with a tinge of shadowy mystique at nearly all times.  As Yin-Ko, he is a chilling, violent warlord who is hedonistic in his bloodletting.  He never ceases to satiate his lust for barbarism.  In the middle of Cranston and Yin-Ko, we find the Shadow where Lamont uses the darkness within to battle evil wherever it hides.  I love that Baldwin embraces and envelopes himself in that darkness, and even adopts a bit deeper voice, at times, that is both haunting and unsettling.  His eyes are also magnificently piercing with that intense, razor sharp stare.  Overall, I think Alec Baldwin put together a stellar and dynamic package here with a darker tinged hero with charisma, charm, and an edginess.  His performance here made me believed that Alec Baldwin could also have been a great Bruce Wayne / Batman.  He takes a character of complex depth and grim history, and makes him a nearly larger than life entity of justice.

Baldwin has such great chemistry with Penelope Ann Miller forging a unique but very pleasing romantic, lively relationship.  That Margo also possesses psychic abilities makes her an intriguing counterpart to Lamont Cranston.  She’s not going to be manipulated by his powers, and she can see directly into his mind, picking up his thoughts.  It forces them together, much to Lamont’s dismay, but this allows for a unique synergy between them.  They never have a love scene, but their bond goes so deeply into their psyches that a love scene would seem almost unnecessary.  Miller brings a great deal of spirit and assertion to Margo Lane making her both an elegant beauty and lovely character to invest your time in.

And oh, do I love John Lone as Shiwan Khan.  He has such theatrical presence that commands every scene he appears in.  He has such passion with his performance embodying Khan’s admiration for Yin-Ko, but also, the lust for violent conquest.  He hungers at the thought of the power and the barbarism.  He’s a perfect villain who reflects upon Lamont as the man he was and is still haunted by.  Khan challenges Cranston as an equal tapping into the deepest, darkest parts of his being, and even being superior to him in certain ways.  Shiwan Khan is an intelligent, calculating villain with patience and the merciless will to enact his plans of destruction.  It is an immensely satisfying portrayal from a very talented actor.

Tim Curry does a wonderfully pleasant job as the weasely Farley Claymore.  He embraces this sleazy, cowardly, power hungry character with great zeal.  He’s loving every minute of it, and he creates this great second foil that an audience can’t wait to see get what’s coming to him.  Curry is always just so much fun to watch in whatever he does, and this is no exception at all.

This film makes gorgeous use of both digital and optical effects.  For one, the filmmakers do an amazing job seamlessly recreating 1930’s New York with various matte paintings, back lots, miniatures, and more.  This creates a fully enveloping  reality for the film’s setting that has the feel of something made in that time period of cinema.  The visual effects used to cloak the Shadow in various instances, and even to morph Baldwin’s face from Cranston to the Shadow are simply fantastic.  I can’t really recall any film marrying optical and digital effects.  It was either one or the other all the way, but I think Mulcahy saw the value in both technologies utilizing each to their best results.  Even Jurassic Park only used CGI dinosaurs when it was necessary, and relying on animatronics for the rest.  Here, it all comes together for a stunning and masterful visual experience.

The production design on The Shadow is simply astounding.  It has rich, detailed art direction and production values fashioning an elegant 1930’s look.  Everything feels authentic to the time with beautifully dressed sets.  Khan’s majestic room at the top of the hotel is gorgeously draped with bold Asian designs in fabric, and the Cobalt Club is so elegantly realized.  The costumes are excellent, especially those for Penelope Ann Miller who looks classy and gorgeous in those dresses.  The look of the Shadow is awesome with the long brimmed fedora, black cloak, overcoat, red scarf, and the twin shoulder holsters.  It’s a solid, yet simple iconic look that makes a striking impression.  I love how the cloak flows giving the Shadow a floating quality that reinforces the wraith-like glimpses we occasionally get of him.  Even the atomic bomb has a great art deco design.  This art department really did an amazing job here leaving no detail unpolished.

While the story is rather typical of a superhero film, bad guy wants to conquer the world, it’s really the characters and their motivations that make it different.  I always wonder what exactly a villain would do once they’ve taken over the world.  What’s left to do when everyone is your enslaved servant?  For Shiwan Khan, it’s not about being the ruler of the world, but indulging in the barbarism that comes with that power.  He doesn’t want to sit back and enjoy himself.  He wants to see the world tear itself apart in savagery and war.  He wants to strike terror into humanity, and see it descend into fear and butchery as he pits one army against another army.  The added dynamic between Khan and Cranston makes the story all the more compelling to me.  When you’ve got a hero and villain so tightly interwoven and connected like this, it creates a great sense of depth and intrigue.  Lamont must battle an adversary who is his superior, but gradually, must grow his abilities to eventually match those of Khan.

The film also features some smart, timely, and appropriate humor.  Mulcahy balances the darker atmosphere and peril with some quirky moments that never take you out of the vibe he’s running with.  The rhythm and chemistry between Baldwin and Miller creates plenty of levity, and there are even a few jovial bits with the now late Jonathan Winters, who portrays Lamont’s Police Commission uncle.  Mulcahy keeps the movie fun while still delivering thrills and intrigue on a grand tapestry.

The climax is just stunning from when the Shadow enters the Monolith Hotel to when he and Khan finally clash.  It’s a visually awesome sequence with some great effects shots.  All the shattering glass creates an amazing dramatically intense impact.  There’s a great sense of triumph for Lamont here as he is now taking the fight directly to Khan instead of lagging behind him, and the touches of character growth are excellent.  Alongside that, you’ve got some fun yet perilous moments with Margo and her scientist father, portrayed by Ian McKellan, trying to chase down and disarm the ticking time bomb that will nuke the city.  It’s fun stuff that still maintains tension in this solid climactic sequence.

Top all of this with a fantastic Jerry Goldsmith score, and I personally believe you’ve got a great, fun film on your hands.  I have never had any criticism for this film as I enjoy and love it thoroughly.  It’s a solid superhero film with a retro feel that is realized with vibrant vision by Russell Mulcahy.  He was the right choice for The Shadow bringing his great eye for cinematography and fantasy with an air of mystique to this very mysterious and fascinating character.  Anyone who has not seen this film is someone I strongly urge to do so.  I don’t understand where the negativity came from over this.  I think it’s a grand example of Mulcahy’s best work, and what made him the filmmaker that I love.  He gets great performances out of everyone in this cast, and just hit the style, tone, and atmosphere just perfect as far as I’m concerned.  The Shadow feels like a film that should have been a surefire hit, and be held in great admiration to this day.  Instead, it has merely a cult following, and has been saddled with a full screen DVD release.  Fortunately, it will finally receive a widescreen Blu Ray release this June.  Until then, you can rent it from iTunes or Amazon Instant Video.


Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983)

Star Wars - Return of the JediAs it has been announced since the Disney acquisition of LucasFilm Ltd, this will, apparently, will not be the chronological end of the Star Wars movie saga after all.  A sequel trilogy following the exploits of the original cast is on track for a 2015 release helmed by J.J. Abrams.  What will come of a new trilogy remains to be seen, but for the original trilogy, it ended on a very good note even if it lacked a little something.  I think this is the one movie of the original trilogy that has declined over time for me.  There is so much depth and peril in The Empire Strikes Back that this movie feels a little starved for that, on the whole.  Yet, it is still a highly entertaining, rousing, and powerful film where it truly counts.  And no, I’ve never had a negative disposition towards the Ewoks.  I certainly understand the issue people have with their part in the film, but it’s never really bothered me.  So, let us journey back to a galaxy far, far away one more time.

Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) must travel to Tatooine to free Han Solo (Harrison Ford) by infiltrating the wretched stronghold of Jabba the Hutt, the galaxy’s most loathsome gangster.  Once reunited, the Rebels team up with tribes of Ewoks to combat the Imperial forces on the forest moon of Endor.  Meanwhile the Emperor (Ian McDiarmid) and Darth Vader conspire to turn Luke to the dark side, and young Skywalker is determined to rekindle the spirit of the Jedi within his father.  The Galactic Civil War culminates in the ultimate showdown, as the Rebel forces gather to attack the seemingly defenseless and incomplete second Death Star in the battle that will determine the fate of the galaxy.

This was actually the first Star Wars movie I saw theatrically, and I was all of three years old at the time.  All I remember from the experience was getting scared by the loud noises and the scared visage of Anakin Skywalker.  At that age, you can hardly blame me.  This film does follow up rather nicely on the cliffhanger plot threads of The Empire Strikes Back.  Scenes of Luke visiting Yoda and Obi-Wan are given substantial weight and the comfort of time to play out with importance.  Many were in disbelief at Darth Vader’s revelation in the previous film, and they required reliable confirmation.  There were no two better characters for that than these Jedi Masters.  This is the main crux of Luke’s storyline as he struggles with trying to pull his father back from the Dark Side, and it provides the weight of emotion throughout the picture.  It is a little unfortunate that some scenes were cut from the beginning of the film that would have made this a far more constant and overarching element of the film.  As it is, none of this is addressed until forty minutes into the movie in favor of the action set pieces of Han’s rescue from Jabba’s Palace.

Never get me wrong.  The Jabba’s Palace scenes are expertly done featuring some of the highest grade puppetry in live action films.  CGI has never done Jabba the Hutt justice over the original tangible puppet by Phil Tippett of ILM’s Creature Shop.  The palace scenes subject audiences to an eclectic menagerie of fantastical aliens that demonstrate a fertile imagination and talented ambition.  While everyone holds the Cantina scene from the first film as the groundbreaker, George Lucas truly made this the new gold standard, and achieved something amazing with his dedicated team at Industrial Light & Magic.  The atmosphere of the sets is almost classic noir with the smoke all around in this den of seediness and crime.  The Rancor scene, matte lines or no, is still an impressive piece of work that has always been an action highlight for me.  This is a great example of 1980s fantasy film visual effects where more organic, large scale creatures were integrated into live action.  And yes, indeed, I do vastly prefer the original musical numbers by the Max Reebo Band.  I am reviewing the original theatrical versions for a distinct reason here beyond just the fact that those are the ones I grew up with and fell in love with.  Overall, this entire section of the movie is amazingly well done in every aspect, but unlike the previous movies, it takes quite a while for the story, action, and drama to pick up.  Even with Empire, while it didn’t have a rousing opening, it still had danger and peril to create dramatic momentum.  Return of the Jedi feels like it lacks an element of excitement and momentum from its outset.

The one thing that I really have come to notice lately about the structure of the film is a marked lack of intercutting storylines.  The previous two films used this story structure technique to maintain a tight rhythm and up tempo pace.  This made it feel like plots were progressing, and characters were converging.  With Return of the Jedi, there’s barely any such regular intercutting until the final third of the film.  Anything we do get before then is slowly plotted.  The entire Tatoonie sequence, which runs thirty minutes long, is presented without a single cutaway or linking element to anything else in the film.  It runs along as its own isolated adventure.  While it is smartly written, beautifully executed, and tightly edited, it is this structural issue that makes the film feel too compartmentalized.  There are a lot of long sequences in this film that tend to drag the pace of it down, but in the least, they have character building and storyline progressing purposes.  Still, maybe it’s just the familiarity of time, but that more deliberate pace seems to work towards the more somber tone for the end of a trilogy where character and story reach their ultimate juncture.  They take on a far more important role than action, which is commendable.  I’ve felt that the film has lacked something poignant or substantive for the longest time, but maybe it’s not so much an issue of what’s not there but how what is there is presented in terms of structure and rhythm.  Just about everything that needs to be there is there, but maybe it could’ve used some greater peril to give it more punch.

I think I have to agree with Harrison Ford and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan in that the film really needed a genuine low point.  Both of them firmly believed that Han Solo should have died to give the film that grave sense of peril and consequence.  This is probably the film where Solo has the least substantive things to do with no arc to traverse, and he does seem like he’s more just along for the ride instead of having much poignancy to the plot turns.  I’m certainly not saying that I would have wanted to see Han die, but I understand where Ford and Kasdan were both coming from.  In A New Hope, there were the deaths of Aunt Beru, Uncle Owen, and Ben Kenobi to give the film peril and gravity, and in The Empire Strikes Back, there were low points abound creating an emotional contrast and sense of real danger for the characters.  Luke surely has his dark moments in his confrontation with Vader and the Emperor, but they only resonate for about a moment.  The triumph of the heroes would hold more weight if we had felt some strong sacrifice or loss from them.

Now, there is a question of who really directed the bulk of this film.  While Richard Marquand is the credited director, many claim George Lucas was far more hands-on throughout production as many of the actors did not respond well to Marquand.  To me, there doesn’t appear to be any noticeable evidence to this effect.  This is a well-directed movie.  The Empire Strikes Back is a brilliant movie in all aspects for many reasons.  With Jedi, any problems it does have are really not a fault of direction, just a slower pace that may not have given quite as much prominent screentime to the Vader-Luke plot.  What we get of it is substantive and right-on-the-mark, but there’s not much thematic material in the film beyond this.  Rescuing Han from Jabba, or running through the forest with Ewoks is just fun adventure stuff.  The crux of this saga at this point is what is transpiring both internally and externally amongst Luke and Vader, and with so much meaty depth built-up between them in The Empire Strikes Back, I would’ve liked to have more of that spread throughout this movie.  I would’ve liked to see more of that internal conflict show through and be dealt with.  Ultimately, the film feels a little too light too often for what dramatic weight it is building up to in order to conclude the trilogy.

Regardless, this film features some of the best action scenes in the whole saga.  The rescue from Jabba’s sail barge is a rousing, fun, swashbuckling adventure piece where everyone gets their moment of heroism and excitement.  It’s great to see the full team of heroes together fighting against a large force, and faring better than they ever have before. This triumph is a great counterbalance to how we left them at the end of the previous movie.  It also builds up Luke as we know he was the architect of this plan, and the carefully crafted quality of it all demonstrates his maturing role as a leader and Jedi Knight beautifully.  The speeder bike chase is still fantastic making fine use of blue screen effects and optical composites to create this dangerous, high speed sequence.  And I hold the entire space battle sequence as the best I’ve ever seen.  What impresses me is the depth of elements piled into this energetic and dynamic battle above the moon of Endor.  Yet, they never clutter the frame, only add to the scope and visual storytelling of this climax.  The technical achievement of this sequence is amazing in the age of optical composites, and it still holds up solidly to any CGI creation made today.  This is further reinforced by this film’s Academy Award win for special achievement in visual effects.  Beyond just that, it has great tension, danger, and stellar dog fighting.  The entire three-way intercut climax gives everyone something purposeful to do, and no one ever gets lost in the mix.  Nor does it bog it down with any extraneous story elements.  It’s all evenly balanced and clearly conveyed to an audience.  It’s the most hair-raising, exhilarating, and epic climax in the saga, to date.

Now, again, I’ve never had an issue with the Ewoks.  I just always accepted them.  If I have any qualm about Endor is that it never feels sufficiently alien.  At least Tatoonie had alien creatures and felt like a full barren world, much the same for Hoth.  Meanwhile, Dagobah was lush with its own vibrant, otherworldly life.  Endor just feels too terrestrial with no unique personality.  There are times when it has a nice, moody feel, but that occurs in scenes that were surely shot on a soundstage.  There’s good production design with the Ewok village and a few nice matte paintings, but overall, Endor is a bit of a visual letdown.

The final confrontation with Luke, Darth Vader, and the Emperor is fantastically crafted and executed.  I like that the lightsaber battle is almost ancillary to the emotional and psychological struggle playing out between these three characters.  As I’ve mentioned in a previous Star Wars movie review, the lightsaber battles are really a plot device to motivate characters and events forward.  The action is not really the focus, it’s the character interactions and dynamics.  The temptation from the Emperor is masterful and devilish, and Ian McDiarmid plays it so damn good.  He never treads the line of over the top acting.  He keeps the Emperor a very real and frightening threat.  He has all this power over so many, and he barely has to raise a finger to exercise his will.  His power is in McDiarmid’s dark mystique and subtle, brilliant villainy.  What we see in this climax is a seduction to the Dark Side done correctly.  A little push here and there, edging Luke towards the unleashing of his emotions shows the cunning psychological manipulation that the Emperor possesses.  The symbolism we get when Luke finally lashes out and severs Vader’s hand is just brilliant.  The strength of Luke’s character and belief in his father shines through with inspiring honor as he throws down his arms and refuses to give in to the Dark Side.  He’s able to resist the temptation because he is not a selfish person.  There are good people that he believes in, and those that believe in him.  I like that even Obi-Wan tells Luke that his emotions do him credit.  Coupled with his maturity, Luke’s loyalty and emotional connections can lead him to the right decisions where we later saw that Anakin’s more intense, selfish emotions were his downfall.  I also like the motif of Luke’s attire.  In the first movie, it’s all white, in the next, it’s gray, and in Return of the Jedi, he’s all in black.  It shows a certain spectral progression for him, but ultimately, his journey is not towards darkness but bringing his father out of it.

The maturing of Luke Skywalker is one of the beauties of this trilogy for me.  Mark Hamill matures with the character from an eager young man desiring adventure to a far wiser, confident, and intelligent adult.  Luke’s learned a lot from his first encounter with Vader.  He’s no longer impatience and impulsive.  He makes calm, calculated, and selfless decisions towards ends he believes in with his heart and mind.  He’s more than just a respectable leader at this point, he’s a true Jedi that has taken the best qualities of those that came before and of himself.  Each film evolved Luke Skywalker another step forward which resulted in this wonderful, noble, and honorable hero.  Mark Hamill brings a fresh strength and air of subtle mystique to the role in this film.  He taps a little into what Alec Guiness had in the original Star Wars, but with the added aspect of optimism and hope.  He has not been weathered by defeat, but instead, made stronger and more decisive by it.  I think very highly of Mark Hamill’s acting talents, and I am excited to see what he will be able to achieve in this new sequel trilogy.

The ultimate pay-off in this movie is the beautiful way that Vader redeems himself.  I’m not going to analyze this in relation to the prequels.  I’m going to say that this has always been one of my favorite moments of the saga.  The silent contemplation, the internal struggle you can read so deeply into Vader’s scuffed up mask while Luke is on the verge of death from the Emperor’s Force lighting is just brilliant and gorgeous.  Vader doesn’t have to say a word, his actions speak emphatically for him.  The unmasking of Anakin Skywalker is beautifully touching, and the funeral pyre has always been a beloved moment for me.  John Williams’ score is amazingly heartfelt and wonderful here.  I also love the chorus-backed score in the climax.  His work is fantastic throughout this film, as always.  This saga would lose something immensely profound if John Williams had not been involved, and I hope that the sequel trilogy will maintain the integrity of his musical brilliance.

There is a great deal of good content in Return of the Jedi, but I wish the film had a stronger opening to pull me in more.  That’s what usually turns me off, initially, to the movie.  It takes a while for it to get exciting, much longer than most of the Star Wars films, but once it gets there, it’s great stuff!  This film has all the elements it needed, and delivers spectacularly on the plot threads and conflicts established in The Empire Strikes Back.  In the end, I do wish there was a little more meat on the bone to bring those aspects of character depth and conflict more into the forefront of the film instead of lingering in the background for most of the runtime.  Regardless, this is a fine conclusion to the trilogy that does satisfy on many levels, especially on fresh action scenes and emotional pay-offs.  Despite any shortcomings, this is still a pure, fun, and exciting Star Wars adventure that you cannot go without experiencing!


Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

Terminator 2 Judgment DayTerminator 2: Judgment Day is still one of the best action blockbusters ever made.  There was no equal in 1991.  I hadn’t even seen the film until a few years later, and I knew all the catch phrases and iconography from it.  This movie almost instantly came into the pop culture vernacular.  Many films today are huge blockbuster successes, but they don’t make the impact that T2 did.  While I consider The Terminator to be the best of the franchise and of Cameron’s career, this is one amazing second best to have that is massively better than most peoples’ number ones.  A few years ago I even had the pleasure of seeing Terminator 2 on the big screen thanks to a regular retro summer film series as my local Marcus Theatre, and it still felt like an event to me.

Over ten years after a killer cyborg was sent back in time to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), her son John (Eddie Furlong), the future leader of the human resistance, is targeted by a more advanced Terminator – the T-1000 (Robert Patrick), a liquid metal based machine able to take on nearly any form.  John’s only hope for survival is a re-programmed Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) sent by his future self to protect him.  Meanwhile, Sarah has become a quintessential survivor who has been institutionalized for her warning of the nuclear holocaust she knows is inevitable.  When these heroes converge while eluding the T-1000, the idea is sparked that Judgment Day could be averted by wiping out SkyNet’s entire existence.

Terminator 2 is one of those blockbuster movies that you really can’t call yourself an action fan if you haven’t seen it.  It is a masterfully crafted and executed piece of sci-fi action cinema that melds together the key signatures of James Cameron’s style.  It has heart, humanity, emotion, depth, character, thematic weight, and bombast all in plentiful amounts.  While I love the first movie for its killer pace, storytelling innovations, and intensity, this really is the big budget James Cameron style refined and smoothed out.  Aliens was his first foray into that style, but I think that film did drag in too many places killing the pace and momentum of the narrative frequently.  This film is a vast improvement over that.  While we don’t get that same innovation of storytelling like imparting exposition during a frenetic chase sequence, considering the complex nature of the T-1000, I think having a calmer scene to convey those “harder to wrap your head around” ideas is the better way to go.  The film has more important things to deal with overall than the frenetic action sequences, mostly.

Now, I may have had the Special Edition in my mind too prominently when thinking about the overall pacing of the film when writing my review of The Terminator.  While that cut does have many great additional scenes that build character and story beautifully, it loses some tighter editing and storytelling cohesion that the theatrical cut possesses.  For these reasons, Jim Cameron considers the theatrical version to be the better cut of the film.  Where the Special Edition lags a lot in the second act, giving us a lot more slow scenes of character building and such, the theatrical version is much tighter.  It moves along in a more streamlined fashion allowing a few bits and pieces to be logically filled in by the audience, and to direct the focus of the story more consistently on John, Sarah, and the T-800.  All of these additional scenes are well conceived and well executed, and I surely endorse watching the Special Edition for a more expanded view of this amazing story.  Still, it is the theatrical cut I am focusing on for this review because it is Cameron’s preferred version, just like with the Special Edition of Aliens.

It’s great that the movie begins very similarly to the first.  We get the future war sequence showing us more than before, but instead of a paragraph of text on screen, we get the Sarah Connor narration that sets the epic, emotional mood greatly.  Then, we see the T-800 appear and assault some people while seeking some suitable attire, just like in the original.  While many know going into the movie that Arnold plays the good Terminator in this film, Cameron sets it up as if you do not have that knowledge.  It treats both Terminators as potential lethal threats.  Yet, while the T-800 gets a shot of levity with the George Thorogood track “Bad to the Bone,” the T-1000 is given a far more threatening vibe throughout.  Still, Kyle Reese was initially presented in a dangerous, threatening capacity as well.  So, someone watching this cold could not wholly be certain when paralleling this sequel to the original movie.

The film plays on your misconceptions of being uncertain which time traveler is the threat, and it’s an even greater scene when Sarah herself encounters the T-800 during her attempted escape from the mental hospital.  Giving Arnold the line of, “Come with me if you want to live,” is excellent creating a surreal moment for Sarah, but one that resonates with her and the audience.  We already know this Terminator is here to protect, but making even the slightest connection of trust between Sarah and the Terminator is immensely important.  The scene is also excellent in that all of our main characters have converged, and finally sets the story along on its ultimate path in exciting fashion.

Everything I praise this film for goes along with praising James Cameron’s directing abilities, but also, I think this is probably his best screenplay.  It’s very smart taking the ideas of a formulaic sequel and making tweaks and twists here and there to keep the ideas fresh.  Cameron then builds upon every idea from the first film and expands upon it for a much larger story that digs even deeper into the humanity of these characters and ideas.  I do have one critique to get to much later on that affects the climax, but with the substance of the characters, themes, and story, I don’t think anyone could’ve done a better job developing and fleshing out these ideas.  Cameron really wrote a fantastic screenplay alongside co-writer William Wisher.  On the Cameron-Wisher audio commentary the Extreme Edition DVD, Wisher states that he has never worked on a film before or since that so precisely realized on screen what he envisioned in his head while writing it.  That’s a testament to Cameron’s filmmaking abilities, and the excellent quality of this motion picture.  He knew how to hit it directly on the head, and translate his vision to film in a near flawless fashion.

It is amazing how the film is able to humanize Arnold’s Terminator.  He eventually becomes our full-fledged hero, and the one we are wholly rooting for.  This is accomplished through so many elements.  From early on, John is instilling little pieces of morality and humanity into the T-800 that slowly pay-off.  The shift in the character is entirely seamless.  In almost every scene there is a subtle evolution that molds him from that cold, stoic cyborg into a character of personality and humanity.  You feel for this machine like you would for any noble, honorable, compassionate hero.  The relationship built between John and the Terminator becomes powerful and heartbreakingly emotional by the end.  The final moments between Sarah Connor and the Terminator are powerful, and her final words of narration are amazing.  It seems like something you’re not even aware of happening during the course of the movie, but once you’re there in those moments, you do feel something poignant for this character who was just a one dimensional bad ass who is now complex and dimensional.  It is surely one of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s finest, most subtle, and nuanced performances.  He is exceptional throughout this movie.

Linda Hamilton is scary here.  She goes from that wholesome, tender, but tough woman we saw with Kyle Reese to this near psychotic, militaristic, violent woman, and she makes it work stunningly.  If you knew the exact date that the world would suffer a nuclear holocaust, you would go a little insane and violent as well.  Especially if everyone you told didn’t believe you.  Hamilton got into such intense physical shape she even scared Arnold a bit.  She handles the physical demands of this film with shocking ability and precision.  The training she went through in every aspect honed the character into the hardened, effective weapon we see.  Performance wise, Linda Hamilton is amazing all the way through showing the profound inner turmoil and despair that has enveloped Sarah, but also the psychological mess that she has become living with this imminent apocalyptic knowledge.  Everyone around her is a walking corpse to her.  They’re ghosts who don’t know that they’re dead, yet.  That’s a scary mindset to live in, and Linda Hamilton goes full boar into the depths of Sarah’s corrupted psyche.  She has lost hope for herself and humanity, but she goes on a journey here to regain that hope.  Even when she attempts to kill Miles Dyson, despite trying to be as cold as the Terminator herself, when forced to look Dyson in the eye face-to-face, her humanity will not allow her to take an innocent life.  Hamilton is just a whole different animal in this movie, and it is a complex and powerful character that she brings to life.

Eddie Furlong is quite impressive in this, his first acting role.  He had a lot of help along the way to bring out his talent and mold it for this performance.  His John Connor has a fine arc going from this rebellious punk kid who respects no form of authority, and has little emotional attachment to anyone, to forging some massively strong bonds with both his mother and the T-800.  We see a vibrant emotional range from Furlong, and he meshes perfectly with Hamilton and Schwarzenegger.  He never gets lost amongst them as the film has so much pertinence for his character, and he holds the weight of that role strongly and profoundly.  I also highly endorse Cameron’s idea of never having John Connor fire a gun in the film.  He handles them, reloads ammo, but never discharges a weapon.  Cameron wanted John to be perceived as an intellectual leader instead of a brute force one.  Of this trio, he is the one with the most level headed mind and clear perception of morality.  He stabilizes the cold, amorality of the Terminator and Sarah’s erratic, psychologically fracture mentalities.  He might seem like a supporting character because of his age, but John Connor is a central, pivotal character in this story that anchors the humanity of all.  Furlong is tremendous all the way through this performance.

The performance of Robert Patrick as the T-1000 is just uncanny.  I like Cameron going back to the idea of the Terminator being far more average looking so it can be a cipher amongst humans.  Patrick has the right slender, average build, but is able to conjure up so much menace in a different way than Arnold did in the first movie.  He feels like a shark relentlessly hunting his prey where he can be silent and subversive, but ultimately, be efficiently lethal.  Even when Patrick is portraying the T-1000 as the kindly police officer, there’s something so subtle about what he does that puts his portrayal just slightly off-center.  You can’t put your finger on it, but there’s an odd quality to his manner that still evokes the menace and cold machine underneath.  His physical ability is incredible.  When he’s rapid firing a gun, he doesn’t blink once.  He runs with stunning speed, and maintains that fluidity of motion throughout.  He creates a complete character with brilliant nuances that are subtly and directly effective to an audience.  It also love that Robert Patrick’s career didn’t get pigeonholed into this unique sort of role.  He scored some meaty dramatic work after this movie, and has continued to have a very successful and diverse career to this day.  His dedication to a role is clearly evident here, and shows how much of a physical actor he can be when tested.

And on a final casting note, I believe Joe Morton was a remarkable choice for Miles Dyson.  This was the first thing I ever saw him in, and it set a standard of excellence with Morton that he has never failed to live up to.  He’s an actor that is able to channel a deep well of emotion and sympathy in such honest, human ways.  When you see Dyson, he is a man that is enthusiastic about his work, and in a scene from the Special Edition, he talks about all the good this technology could do for humanity.  He’s not a malevolent man.  He’s a wonderful family man with all the best intentions in the world, but when he learns the truth about his future history, it takes him about the length of a heartbeat to realize what must be done.  Joe Morton instills such passion and empathy into this character that even though he is a supporting character, he adds such poignant emotional impact and weight to the film.  Sarah realizes that the solution to SkyNet is not to destroy the people that created it, but to destroy the building blocks of it and allow humanity to survive.  And of course, Dyson’s final moments on screen are powerful due to Morton’s amazing acting talents.

At the time, this was probably the most bombastic action movie to date with the biggest special effects ever seen.  I remember news broadcasts covering the Cyberdyne building explosion, and shows going behind the scenes to show us how all these mind-blowing effects sequences were done.  It was massively fascinating.  This was the dawn of the digital age of visual effects, and we were able to be awed by it all.  The opening future war sequence blows away what we saw in the first film by miles.  It shows us a legion of T-800 endoskeletons stomping through the landscape, and large scale shots that really sell the scope of this movie.  The T-1000 CGI effects were amazing at the time, and still hold up pretty damn well today.  They brought to life something we had never seen before, nor something we ever could have seen before.  I believe, as the film goes on, the digital effects become better and more impressive due to how they interact with the physical reality around them.  It was a tremendous feat that revolutionized the visual effects industry.  Of course, you can never take anything away from the masterful practical effects created by Stan Winston Studios.  There was no equal in this field, and rarely a man better to embrace these new technologies and imaginations than Stan himself.  This film was a big part of the legacy he left behind, and he even directed the original teaser trailer which showed the construction of Arnold’s T-800 Terminator.  Pure awesomeness!

A great marriage of miniatures, practical effects, and visual effects were showcased in the Judgment Day scenes.  The nuclear explosion scenes are horrifying and have the deep penetrating impact upon an audience that they needed.  The film opens with a tease of it, showing us the world moments before, and shortly thereafter with the playground engulfed in an inferno.  It shows us what is at stake in Sarah Connor’s mind, the nightmare that she knows is coming.  Then, eventually, we see that dark reality that haunts her every moment of every day, and it is shocking beyond imagination.  Judgment Day is no longer an abstract concept to the audience, we see the near annihilation of humanity in a thermo-nuclear holocaust.  It is terrifyingly dark, but it motivates everything forward and sells the necessity of our heroes’ actions.  Overall, this is one of those great films that uses stunning and innovative special effects to tell a substantive story.  It doesn’t make itself all about the spectacle, it gives you something meaningful to invest yourself in, and then, blows you away with everything it achieves in every facet of filmmaking.

Terminator 2 is filled with some excellent action sequences that really drove the bar higher right near the outset of the 1990s, but kept it grounded with dramatic weight and peril.  There were plenty of big, over the top action movies, but this film gave you big, explosive action while maintaining the integrity of danger and drama.  The initial chase sequence down the storm drain has some awesome stunts and great tension.  The Cyberdyne building sequences are excellent as well with the Terminator unleashing the mini-gun and grenade launcher on the LAPD, or the showdown with the SWAT team.  All of the action in the film is exceptionally well done with some highly impressive stunt work and practical explosions.  Today, so much is done digitally that we don’t tend to see a lot of practical pyrotechnics or a real stuntman doing things not against a green screen.  Seeing all that done here just gives that extra sense of weight and realism to this film.

Brad Fiedel immensely improves on his score from the original giving it a wider, more epic orchestral style.  Watching the film this time, I swear I picked up on more cues that I hadn’t noticed before, and I didn’t even have the surround sound on.  I have owned this score on CD for longer than I can remember, and I clearly haven’t listened to it a long time.  This is terrific, gorgeous work all around.  The main theme is given its best rendition here over the opening credits, but Fiedel adds in many great themes and cues throughout.  The T-800 has a very metallic clanging theme while the T-1000 is given a more subversive, fluid sounding one highlighting the difference in styles of both Terminators.  Yet, the score soars during the most emotional parts of the film giving us the depth of humanity that is signature Cameron.

Terminator 2 is a beautifully shot, large scale film.  When I watch this, I constantly get the feeling of this is what an action blockbuster is meant to look like.  There’s just great camera work all over this film giving it a dramatic and cinematic visual beauty.  The strong blue tones really came to define a widely seen look in the early-to-mid 1990s, and it started here with some gorgeous cinematography by Adam Greenberg.  There are so many stunningly lit scenes that create beautiful mood and dramatic quality throughout.  Every single shot is composed masterfully and they each have a storytelling purpose.  Where the first film was a little rough edged and had an intense, raw energy to it, T2 is an epic scale film producing big, high quality shots while still pinpointing and highlighting the emotional depth of the story.  The action scenes are shot so amazingly well giving us strong dramatic moments, and maintaining a solid sense of geography amongst how it is shot and edited.  The most visually stunning sequence is indeed the steel mill climax with the beautiful use of vibrant blue and orange lighting.  It’s just great seeing that many of the same vital artists and filmmakers who worked on the first film were brought back for this sequel, and they had all evolved and improved upon their craft to such a marvelous degree.

I do very much like how James Cameron, again, takes a lot of the content from the first film, but presents it to us in a different context.  The role reversals of giving a lot of Kyle Reese’s dialogue to Arnold’s Terminator was a great idea that plays on the preconceptions of the audience, and to twist around the characters’ perceptions.  Even the T-1000 takes on some of the T-800’s dialogue from the first film in particular moments.  I think that gives everything a very intriguing quality of the presentation of the characters and the storytelling.  While the “I’ll be back” line doesn’t have quite as much dramatic impact in this film, it’s still used in a very telling way.  In most cases, these moments are cleverly done so to form a resonance with the audience.  They hit a familiar chord in the hearts or minds of the viewer, and they work really well.

However, if I have one major complaint, it’s that at a certain point it seems Cameron goes from paralleling events from the first film to almost outright remaking them.  There’s no need for the climax to mirror that of the first film with a car chase leading into a cat-and-mouse game in an industrial complex.  These are not poorly made sequences, but for me, they leave something to be desired, creatively speaking.  For this, and another reason, I feel the climax is a little less than it should be.  It feels like a retread of what we got the first time.  I really like the helicopter chase, but it is the tanker truck chase that feels like a lazy rehash.  I would have preferred a little more originality so we got something distinctly different instead of three successive chase sequences.  All of the necessary elements of the liquid nitrogen and the steel mill could still work with a little more innovative thinking to keep the ideas fresh.  The other reason that I feel the climax is lacking is that, after the first hour, the T-1000 almost becomes an ancillary part of the film’s plot.  The film becomes strongly and rightfully involved in the attempt to change the future by destroying Dyson’s research and any trace of the original Terminator’s technology.  It abandons the T-1000 for a lengthy period of time because he no longer is pertinent to where the plot is going, now.  The T-1000 has no thematic purpose in the story.  He’s just there to kill and nothing more.  The climax feels lacking to me because the movie has already dealt with its big plot points and thematic material, and now, it just needs to resolve the hanging thread of the other Terminator.  The film is about something thematic and poignant, but then, it just becomes about more action sequences until it has eliminated the T-1000 altogether.  Then, it gets back to the substance of the story.

This is not to say the climax is not good.  The fight between the two Terminators in the steel mill is really great.  Seeing the T-1000 using its morphing abilities to adapt and re-mold itself around the T-800’s attacks is awesome.  It creates a situation that the lower grade model is unable to sufficiently combat.  In terms of physical power, they are about matched, but the T-1000 can take more punishment because of its nature.  The T-800 cannot find anyway to physically damage this liquid metal advanced prototype, and this battle is great because of this dynamic.  Even though the T-1000 shows signs of malfunctions, he still proves to be a superior adversary that none of our heroes seem to stand a chance against.  If it weren’t for his malfunctions, he might very well have succeeded in his mission due to his cunning and mimetic abilities.  He never stops being a lethal threat, but is not indestructible.

The emotional conclusion to this film is powerful and unforgettable.  Never mind the obligatory action, what matters most is the journey these characters go on together which evolve them in ways they never could have imagined.  It’s also a tragic and sad end, but one that instills hope that no subsequent sequel was ever able to honor or live up to.  I am uncertain if I will get around to reviewing the other two sequels, but for the record, I thought Terminator 3 was a bad movie.  I wrote a review of it ten years ago, but I would prefer doing a fresh review.  However, I have no desire to actually watch that movie ever again.  Terminator: Salvation I did like quite a bit, and I do wish to revisit it.  So, you might see me jump straight to that one at some future point in time.  I will also say that the Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles television series was excellent, even if it was unceremoniously canceled by Fox, and on the mother of all cliffhangers, no less.  This is why I no longer watch shows on Fox.

Anyway, do I really need a summation for this review?  I think I’ve hammered in all that is so great about Terminator 2: Judgment Day.  Unlike modern day summer blockbusters, like from Michael Bay, that deliver on huge visual effects action, but lack even a halfway decent screenplay or even just a semblance of substance, T2 gives you all of that.  It delivers on every level giving you shots of adrenalin alongside a compelling, emotional, and epic story that is all about the characters.  This is the biggest grossing film of the franchise and in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career at over half a billion dollars.  Sometimes, the box office does reflect quality in a film, and that is surely the case with Terminator 2: Judgment Day.  Thank you for enduring this very lengthy review, but for a film of this exceptional quality, there was no way I could boil it down any simpler.


The Terminator (1984)

The TerminatorI have had a rather unusual view on The Terminator for the longest time.  I do consider it James Cameron’s best movie, and the best of this franchise.  These are for reasons of pacing and innovative filmmaking.  Yet, what I mainly consider this film as is not so much a science fiction movie, but essentially a techno-slasher film.  You’ve got a hulking, invincible juggernaut of a killer stalking and hunting down an innocent young woman.  That’s a bare bones plot description for both The Terminator and a Friday The 13th sequel.  The vibe of the movie is very relentless and evokes a very techno-horror hybrid ideology.  Beyond that quirk of perception, I do have many things to praise this film for that I feel James Cameron severely abandoned afterwards.

In the post-apocalyptic future of 2029, SkyNet, a super computer defense system wages a losing war against a human resistance which it is intent on exterminating.  In their desperation, the machines send an indestructible cyborg known as The Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) back in time to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), the woman whose unborn son will become mankind’s only hope.  In hopes of preserving humanity’s future, the human resistance sends soldier Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) back in time as well to protect Sarah.  But does he even stand a chance against the most unstoppable killing machine ever created?

Obviously, The Terminator has been widely praised since its release, and so, there’s not much I have to tell you that hasn’t already been said.  Regardless, most of these reviews are about what these films mean to me and the nature of cinema, in general.  James Cameron previously worked in the special effects world working on numerous lower budgeted pictures, but after a great deal of hard work and determination he scored his first major directorial job with this film.  The budget was tight, but with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s growing star power from the Conan films, there was a lot of credibility and weight put behind this.  Still, it wasn’t an easy task getting it made.  The restrictions of budget and resources really did work towards the film’s benefit.  It forced Cameron to be innovative and a bit of a guerilla filmmaker.  It’s a perfect example of better creativity through adversity.  As I mentioned in my Aliens review, I think once Cameron got a big budget and a lot of freedom as a filmmaker, he lost that edge and began to indulge in overly long films with far laxer pacing and storytelling techniques.  He was still innovative in the technical realm, but not so much in the creative one where tight storytelling was concerned.

What I find to be so intelligent and original with what Cameron did with The Terminator is how he maintained tension and a tight cohesion of the plot.  The main exposition in the film is dealt with in the midst of a car chase.  The excitement and danger are high, keeping the audience intently invested in every second, and Cameron uses that time for Kyle Reese to impart a great deal of exposition about himself, the T-800, and the future war.  In the vast majority of films, the exposition scene is a slow paced, quiet scene that is regularly the most derided scene in the film from the director’s perspective.  Cameron changes that all up, and makes it one of the most captivating scenes by melding it with an intense chase sequence.  From there, even the slower, character building scenes maintain some degree of urgency or dramatic electricity to never allow the film to lose your interest or attention.  If not in the hands of James Cameron’s innovative and visionary filmmaking talent, I could surely see this movie slipping down into a B-grade sci-fi film that you’d see premiere on late night Cinemax.  Believe me, those films do exist, and were heavily inspired by this far superior film.  Having the right director at the helm can make a severe difference in whether a movie is brilliance or cheap exploitation fare.

This film is expertly shot with strong, sharp focus on every detail and bit of action.  The night scenes are definitely gritty creating a dangerous edge and energy that wholly serves the tone and vibe of the picture.  It brilliantly reflects the “tech noir” theme of the movie, showing us the dark side of technology.  Cameron and his director of photography Adam Greenberg do a marvelous job all around.  All of the action is shot with skill, dramatic weight, and great storytelling ability.  Just in the way it is shot, The Terminator looks and feels like a 1984 film, and in all the best ways.  It might have its rough edges here and there, but they work so excellently towards the energy of the picture.  Overall, you can see the great, deliberate insert and close-up shots that establish and enhance the mood and tension of the film.  The slow motion sequences are beautifully and masterfully done creating so much tension and dramatic anticipation.  The editing of Mark Goldblatt is some of the tightest, most dead-on-the-mark work I’ve ever seen.  There’s not an extraneous frame anywhere in the runtime of this movie.  Every shot has purpose and cohesion to the kinetic and emotional beats of the story.  Action directors of today should go back and watch this movie to see how you competently direct, shoot, and edit an action sequence.   The car chases are great, but the entire police station massacre is insanely tense and masterfully shot and edited.  It’s a major action set piece of the film, and it could not have been executed any better than it was.  Yet, the climax is able to top that with a long series of action sequences from a car chase to the explosions to the final industrial plant confrontations.  It continues to hammer home the seemingly indestructible nature of the Terminator as it continues to come back from one fiery explosion after another.  It’s a frightening action climax where the monster simply will not die while our heroes continue to suffer more and more injuries hindering their ability to continue running away.

Michael Biehn is absolutely amazing as Kyle Reese.  What strikes me first is the weathered, war torn quality of his performance.  Reese does seem like a guy who has been through the darkest parts of hell on earth with both the psychological and physical scars to show for it.  Biehn also has great physical intensity such as during the initial car chase where Reese is imparting the exposition to Sarah.  There’s a depth of urgency, fear, and heart with every word he delivers.  It creates someone that’s not just an action centric soldier, but a man with a solid core of humanity.  The pain of Kyle Reese is deep seeded, and the trauma and pain that he has endured comes through in the texture of Biehn’s performance.  This is a guy who does initially seem like an intimidating threat, almost serial killer like, but that intensity and frayed exterior are molded into a fascinating, sympathetic character that an audience deeply cares for before too long.  Biehn’s romantic chemistry with Linda Hamilton is wonderful, and the tenderness that forms between them makes this so much more than just a testosterone fueled action picture.  It has a lot of depth that has always been a strength of James Cameron’s films.  He always seems to create very dimensional lead characters which enhance the nature of the films they populate.  Why Michael Biehn’s acting career didn’t soar to greater heights after this movie is a mystery to me.  It certainly did for Hamilton and Schwarzenegger.

It goes without saying that this was one of Arnold’s defining roles.  While Conan the Barbarian was a big success, this propelled him into a whole new level of stardom.  What he does at The Terminator was instantly iconic with only eighteen lines of dialogue.  The deliberate movement and restrained mannerisms he devised for this Terminator create a cold, threatening, dominating screen presence.  I have seen other lower grade actors attempt to approximate this sort of robotic performance, but Arnold just had something special.  It’s the whole package from his size and build to the choice of punk or leather attire to the calculating way he surveys a scene.  You can view a methodical yet relentless intelligence behind everything the Terminator does, and Schwarzenegger just hit it perfectly on the mark.  There’s not a moment where you don’t take him as a serious, menacing threat, and after that is all solidly established by him, it carries over seamlessly when the flesh is burnt off and it’s just Stan Winston’s animatronic endoskeleton.  While almost everyone seems to love when Arnold does the cheesy action films, I feel his best work is in the more serious roles because it creates a challenge for him.  He has to dedicate himself to a far stronger character, and create something that stands out in a dramatic fashion.  There are a lot of cheesy action heroes out there, but not many who can pull off the really serious, iconic roles such as Conan, the Terminator, or Dutch in Predator.  Arnold can do both equally well, and that’s much of why he’s the action movie legend that he is today.

This film was especially pivotal to Linda Hamilton’s career, and the reasons why are vibrantly evident.  While, as Sarah Connor, we see a great deal of panic and fear, it is all mixed in with a genuine sense of humanity.  Sarah’s an average woman thrust into an extraordinarily intense and dangerous scenario, but ultimately, we see her inner strength shine through.  When you first see her as a lowly waitress, you could never imagine she could come to survive and fight through this frightening, lethal experience with as much resilience as she ultimately displays.  Hamilton gives us the full spectrum of emotion in an impressive dimensional performance that also adds in a layer of romanticism.  The build up to the love scene between Sarah and Kyle is beautifully touching, and would be able to squeeze tears out of the more emotional audience members.  That tenderness and depth of love and passion triggers the greater strength of the film that I mentioned before.  It is a love scene that is not there for the sake of skin and titillation, but for the sake of love itself.  At the film’s end, you can see the subtle seeds of what we will see Sarah become in Terminator 2: Judgment Day.  In this film, Linda Hamilton is absolutely excellent giving us a sympathetic and strong character that stands the test of time.

And I have to mention the excellent performances of Lance Henriksen and the late Paul Winfield.  Henriksen has some great humorous dialogue that is just enough off-kilter to be memorable.  We’re so used to seeing Henriksen playing rather dark, disturbed characters, and so, it is a wonderful treat seeing him enjoy this upbeat, charismatic character.  Winfield was always a stellar, sophisticated acting talent, and while Lieutenant Traxler has his streetwise qualities, he is a compassionate and intelligent commanding officer.  He strikes the perfect balance between entertaining, charming character and capable, seasoned cop.  Many films like this would paint all the cops as unlikeable fools, somewhat like Dr. Silberman is (appropriately enough), but instead, Cameron maintains his sense of humanity in these characters along with casting superb actors to realistically embody those qualities.

While the animatronics, stop motion, and optical effects work largely appears dated next to today’s sleeker digital effects, especially with the work done in the sequels, I think that gritty, rough edged effects work here benefits the overall style and feel of this movie.  The stop motion animation in the climax evokes more of that techno-horror feeling taking the scary skeleton of the haunted house and meshing it with a dark science fiction menace.  Stan Winston did an amazing job with all the physical effects further cementing his stature as an effects wizard and master of creature designs.  Having clocked in stunning work with the Terminator, Predator, and Alien franchises, his quickly earned legendary status is no surprise.  The visual effects were handled by Fantasy II, and for a mid-80s low budget science fiction picture, they did an excellent job.  Combined with Cameron’s vibrant vision, they achieved something that really grabbed audiences’ attention at that time, and truly captivated their imagination.  The brief future war sequences are stellar.  The only thing I ever mark as a negative is the use of rear screen projection, which Cameron would use again in Aliens.  It just never looks convincing, especially when compared to good quality blue screen composites.  Regardless of that, these were very eye-opening effects in 1984, and they entirely serve the film’s dark, gritty tone.

The synthesizer based score done by Brad Fiedel encapsulates that tense, dark atmosphere of The Terminator.  The compositions alone are excellent, and the main theme has become iconic.  The use of the metallic percussion reflects the cold, mechanical heart of the Terminator, and gives us a rather chilling, ominous feeling whenever it appears.  So many other cues are done with great feel for the intensity of their respective sequences maintaining the weight of the drama and action.  Many instances again evoke a high tension horror atmosphere such as whenever the Terminator is seconds away from killing Sarah.  The synthesizer sound perfectly fits for a 1984 tech-noir action film as it simply enhances that oppressive technological theme, and is an obvious sign of the times.  However, it can get elegant and beautiful during the aforementioned love scene.  Fiedel takes that heavy, almost claustrophobic type main theme, and rearranges it into a piano love theme that is sad, touching, and wonderfully gorgeous.  While Fiedel would blow it out of the water with his work on Terminator 2: Judgment Day, what he does here is a solid, excellent fit for the kinetic energy and tense danger that is so tightly wrapped in this film while highlighting the depth that the film has to offer.

The Terminator is really amazingly well written.  As I said, Cameron is able to raise the concept above the standard action movie fare by injecting dimension and emotional depth into his story and characters.  They live and breathe as realistic people that an audience can attach themselves to, and that makes the rather fantastical story gritty, believable, and gripping.  The dialogue is honest and real showcasing distinct personalities that leave a lasting impression, and with the stellar casting, it couldn’t be any more pitch perfect.  It’s not just those iconic one-liners from Schwarzenegger or Biehn that make it great.  It’s every nuanced quality of the characters and depth of the story being told that have made The Terminator a classic.  Arnold Schwarzenegger has done movies with far more quotable dialogue, but they do not match the filmmaking quality and intelligence of this one.  That is all due to the innovative creativity and artistic talent of James Cameron.

James Cameron had a vibrant vision for this movie, and was intensely driven to realize it on film.  While he hasn’t lost vision, I do think he’s lost a number of exciting qualities that made The Terminator so exceptional.  He used to be able to tell amazing and captivating stories in innovative and exciting ways.  Even if the storytelling rhythm and cohesion became more lax in his subsequent films, we were still treated to things we hadn’t seen before, and were given stories that ignited our imaginations while still touching us deep in our hearts.  The Terminator is an excellent example of what made Cameron a fascinating and awesome filmmaker for many years.  However, as his budgets got bigger and his ego became overinflated, I just think he stopped caring about the story and characters, and was just more enamored with the evolution of visual effects and filmmaking technology.  I would really wonder if someone gave James Cameron a $6.4 million budget today, could he still make a film as well made as this one.

This if my favorite film of the entire Terminator franchise, and I consider it the best film James Cameron has made.  This is for the reasons of the tightness of the storytelling where not a scene, moment, or frame is wasted.  While even Terminator 2 took the time it needed to tell the story it had to tell, I just love the relentless momentum of this movie.  It has its character building scenes wrapped up nicely between and within the action sequences.  No part of the film ever drags on.  Coupled with all the amazing talents from the actors to the special effects mastery to the cinematography and editing, The Terminator is a lightning strike of stardom and awesomeness.  I take nothing away from its 1991 blockbuster sequel, but there is just something so riveting about the lean and smart storytelling in this film that sets it apart for me.  It’s that guerilla filmmaker mentality of better creative through adversity and budgetary restraints that sparks my love for The Terminator.  Cameron showed the talent he had despite the restrictions of the production, and made a big impact when this hit theatres.  Everyone who worked on the film believed strongly in it and Cameron’s ability to make it happen.  It’s that ambition and hard working dedication which can set the exceptional filmmakers apart from all the others.  This is a film that should be on every action and science fiction film fan’s must-see list.  And while it’s not my favorite Schwarzenegger movie, it is one of his best.


Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Star Wars - The Empire Strikes BackIt was an enormous task to make a second Star Wars movie.  To follow up that explosion of a success, that immense phenomenon must have been terribly challenging on so many levels.  What these filmmakers did with The Empire Strikes Back was a masterstroke of genius.  Instead of retreading the same tone, pace, action, and style of Star Wars, George Lucas and Irvin Kershner, along with screenwriters Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan, chose to make this a film about character development and darker consequences as a second act in a trilogy.  Characters would mature, the dangers they faced were more dire, there would be heavy losses, and some major revelations would surface.  Whether it was the general consensus or not, I would still state that this is the best Star Wars film to date.

Despite the destruction of the Death Star, the Rebel Alliance still flees from the might of the Galactic Empire to the remote, barren ice planet of Hoth.  There, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) receives a vision from a ghostly Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guiness) to seek out Jedi Master Yoda on the planet Dagobah.  When the Empire finally locates the rebel’s base, an imperial assault drives them to evacuate in a crippling loss.  Captain Han Solo (Harrison Ford) escapes with Wookie co-pilot Chewbacca, Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), and the protocol droid C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) aboard the Millennium Falcon, but with their hyperdrive damaged, they are forced to evade the Imperial fleet in an asteroid field.  Later, they seek sanctuary at the beautiful Cloud City from Han’s old gambling and smuggling buddy Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams).  Meanwhile, Luke begins his training with the wise and unexpected teacher in Yoda.  However, with the evil Lord Darth Vader vehemently intent on finding young Skywalker, Luke races to save his friends from a painful vision, against Yoda and Kenobi’s warnings of temptations of the Dark Side of The Force.  What awaits the Jedi-in-training is a startling revelation and great peril for him and his heroic friends.

I really like the reversal of structure on this film.  It starts out with the bigger adventure aspects, and the major battle between the Rebellion and the Empire.  Then, it descends into the more character driven aspects building towards very deep personal conflicts and resolutions.  It satisfies your expectations up front with some peril and fun, and proceeds to exceed them with a much more emotionally powerful storyline.  Where the first film had our heroes all gradually coming together for an adventure against a large scale threat, this one has them separate so to further explore their own personal journeys.  Ultimately, they come out of it wounded and changed.

The film really wastes no time in establishing the darker, more dangerous tone as Luke is attacked by a Wampa Ice Creature while on patrol.  It adds some well crafted fear and tension into the film.  This perilous sequence further builds the bonds of friendship between Han and Luke as Captain Solo risks his life to save his friend’s.  Luke’s ultimate escape from the creature’s cave gave us our first look at what The Force can do.  Before, it was mind tricks and a sort of second sight.  It was all very abstract and mystical, but when Luke uses The Force to pull his lightsaber to his hand to free himself, we see what that power can physically and practically do.  It’s a wondrous moment that sparks the magic of Star Wars.  Yet, the film shows us the true depth and nature of The Force when Luke seeks out Yoda, and brilliantly expands upon the vague ideas we got in the previous movie.  Yoda teaches him to change his perceptions in that the physical has no bearing on the potential of The Force, merely your will and clarity of mind are relevant.   Yoda shows Luke that it’s his own self-imposed perceptions and limitations that are the instruments of his own failures.  The tests Yoda puts him through are difficult ones that are meant to confront him with frightening truths of where his path may take him if he follows his impulses and passions.  Luke may have matured somewhat, but he still has an impatience and impulsive quality that puts him into danger.  He’s allowing his emotions to guide him without the wisdom or experience to temper those emotions.  It’s a fascinating journey that Luke takes in this film as he does begin to understand the philosophy of a Jedi, but the dire peril of his friends is something he cannot shake from his mind.  He knows it’s likely a trap, and is unprepared for what Lord Vader has in store for him.

The Battle of Hoth is excellently done giving us a land battle to contrast the space battles of the original Star Wars.  We see the rebels utilize some strategy in attempting to topple those awesome Imperial Walkers to buy time for the evacuation of Echo Base.  It’s a big, impressive, and exciting opening to this film that has Star Wars again showing us something that had never been seen before.  This sequence showcases the evolution in effects work by Industrial Light & Magic.  They really achieved something exceptional here, and continued to do so throughout the film.  They truly exceeded their own standards of excellence here.  The first Star Wars was groundbreaking in the realm of visual effects, and ILM was motivated to keep pushing the boundaries of what was possible.  The asteroid sequence is spectacular, as is so much from top to bottom here.  The Go-Motion effects with the Tauntauns remain excellent, and the model effects are still some of the most impressive in cinema history.  It is no wonder that this won a Special Achievement Award for Visual Effects at the Academy Awards.  They, without a doubt, earned it with every new fantastic sequence of thrilling imagery.  And furthermore, the matte paintings are stunningly gorgeous, and are beautifully integrated into the rich visuals of the film.

The Empire is presented perfectly here.  The reveal of the fleet and the Super Star Destroyer creates a sense of scale and power to their presence.  To me, they feel like an even more formidable military force than they were in the previous film.  We have more troops, more ships, more personnel, and more resources, and their early victory over the Rebellion sets a tone of desperation and danger for our heroes.  Darth Vader himself is clearly unleashed in this film.  He’s not held back by Tarkin or the Emperor.  He’s assuming complete command over everything, and stops at nothing in attempting to crush the Rebellion and obtain what he wants.  There’s no one stopping him from Force choking Admirals, and promoting people to take their place, putting the fear of death into them to motivate their success.  Once the Emperor does endorse his quest to capture Luke Skywalker, Vader uses every resource at his disposal, such as the bounty hunters, and becomes an even more frightening threat.  This is a major part of why I think this is the best film of the franchise.  The villains are out in full force, not hiding behind protocol or deception, and showing their near ever-present might.  Nowhere else in the saga do the antagonists feel so hell-bent on crushing our heroes, and they’re nearly winning for most of the film.  It’s said that a hero is only as great as the enemy he faces, and this film shows us the vast scale and threat of the Empire like no other.  Our heroes are left with a steep failure to rise back up against for the next film.

I do like that, for all the darker tone and subject matter, the film never forgets to inject fun and humor at appropriate moments.  We still get the overly excited panic of C-3PO, the cute moments with R2-D2, and the humorous quips and sharp banter between the other heroes.  Even Yoda is given a nearly hilarious introduction into the film as he plays with Luke’s misconceptions, and has a playful time with him and his droid friend.  It’s all handled wonderfully to keep the film lively while never intruding upon the more dramatic and dire aspects of the film.  It’s a perfect balance, and it wouldn’t feel like Star Wars without it.

Speaking of Yoda, he proves to be an inspirational achievement.  I can definitely understand the apprehensions of the filmmakers in putting what was essentially a Muppet on film, and hoping it will come off as life-like.  However, with the amazing work of designer Stuart Freeborn and performer Frank Oz, this magical character came to stunning life.  Every word spoken had the weight and gravity of the most talented and credible actor behind it.  There are many subtle expressions worked into Yoda that further created a believable character that an audience never questioned the realism of.  This was all vitally important due to Yoda’s poignant role in the film in training Luke in the ways of the Jedi, and bestowing upon us the deeper ideals, wisdom, and philosophies of The Force.  Because of the brilliant work of all these fantastically talented effects masters and performers, he were treated to one of the most fascinating, insightful, and endearing characters of this saga.  We were previously intrigued by The Force, but I feel that Yoda truly made us believe in its power beyond all imagination.  He opened up our minds to its possibilities, and the potential it had within Luke.  Through Yoda, The Force was wondrously mystical and magical, and taught us the weight of commitment and responsibility to becoming a Jedi.  Everything that needed to be known about The Force was revealed to us in this film by a rubber puppet, and we never doubted it for an instant.  That is the magic of cinema.

The Empire Strikes Back is filled with some tight pacing and urgency.  The signature intercutting between storylines creates that great rhythm which keeps the film engaging without drawing any one scene out too much.  There’s almost always something interesting developing even if it’s not a rousing action sequence.  This is greatly helped by the expert, tight editing by Paul Hirsch.  He and director Irvin Kershner knew when to cut to the right angle, and when to let a shot play out.  And the film is shot so dramatically perfect with solid compositions and superb camera movements pushing in at the right moments and giving the film scope and scale with sweeping and subtle camera work.  Lighting is always excellent giving personality and mood where needed to the appropriate scenes.  Irvin Kershner really helped up the visual storytelling in The Empire Strikes Back, and the refined, polished quality enhances the overall picture immensely.  George Lucas was the executive producer and did have creative input, but he allowed Kershner to make the movie his own.  So, while it is generally Lucas’ story, this is Kershner’s film through and through.

This truly is an emotionally powerful film hitting us with a vast array of pain, fear, sorrow, heartbreak, and disturbing revelations and insights.  Our heroes are put through a maelstrom of hell in their journeys.  Luke learns the most from it on the most personal of levels which challenge him right down to his core.  I love seeing the maturity take form in Return of the Jedi showing that he has learned a great deal from these events, but he had to experience some terribly hard learned lessons.  Sometimes, we can only learn to commit ourselves to change when faced with the absolute worst of consequences, and that’s Luke’s journey here.

Even Han and Leia are faced with their own pain and heartache.  Their love for one another is apparent almost from the start.  They wouldn’t be so mad with one another if they didn’t care so much, but it takes a series of worsening pitfalls and dangers for them to begin to genuinely show that affection.  This is punctuated like a dagger through the heart in the Carbon Freezing Chamber scene where they have the most heartbreaking of parting words.  It is undoubtedly this moment, where we see the severe anguish on Leia’s face, that motivates Lando into taking action.  Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher have amazingly sharp chemistry in all their scenes together selling every nuance of Han and Leia’s relationship.  It’s a very emotionally natural progression of two characters who really did not like each other at first trying to hide their feelings through conflict, but their true emotions break further and further into the surface.  It is glorious work on both actors’ parts as well as Irvin Kershner’s detailed and masterful direction.

The returning cast shows a lot of growth.  Primarily, Mark Hamill matures with the character of Luke Skywalker.  He carries the heaviest weight in this film with a great deal of subtle emotions and deep rooted fears.  You feel the honest depth of Luke in Hamill’s performance as he struggles with his training, and the thread of fear that is ever present as he battles Darth Vader.  He tries to mask and control his fear, but he slowly realizes how outmatched he is as Vader gains the upper hand.  Hamill delves deep into a real well of pain and desperation by the end which really penetrates powerfully into an audience.  Mark Hamill was required to stretch his acting abilities much further than the first Star Wars film demanded, and he rose to the task admirably and successfully.  The wonder of Yoda is also sold through Hamill’s performance, and the urgency of the latter half of the film is driven by his remarkable acting.

We also get Harrison Ford maturing Han Solo as well.  He shows a lot more responsibility to himself and his friends, conveying respect to his fellow rebels, and leaving behind that “out for himself” arrogant attitude.  The more juvenile aspects only really show up in the heated moments when rash action is necessary, or when he’s arguing with Leia or 3PO.  However, when circumstances become more grim, Han shows that he is a far more matured character handling the situations with a lot of earnestness.  Ford probably puts in his best performance as Han Solo in this film because it has the most for him to work with between the romantic arc with Leia, the comic timing with Chewbacca and C-3PO, and dealing with the betrayal of Lando.  It was a strong and diverse spectrum for Ford to work with, and by no surprise, he achieved it with ease.

I truly love the addition of Lando Calrissian.  Where Han Solo was a very roguish outlaw, Lando’s a gambler.  He can come off as a legitimate businessman, but is able to manipulate people and events to his liking.  With Vader, he succumbs to the might of the Empire only until the stakes are too high where not acting is too costly of a choice to make.  Even with appearing in less than half the film, Lando has a strong character arc to traverse.  He tries to bargain everyone’s way out of a worse scenario while betraying his friends to the Empire, but as I said, when he sees the price of bowing to their demands, he shows who he is deep down inside by trying to save Han’s friends from a potentially terrible fate.  Billy Dee Williams puts in an excellent performance showing off Calrissian’s smooth charisma, but also reflecting the frustration and dire weight of Lando’s situation.  He walks the line of friend and adversary very masterfully.  Lando’s struggling with the effort to do right by everyone, and you can see that painful internal conflict play out in Billy Dee’s performance.

And of course, many fans would be remised if I did not make mention of Boba Fett.  The fascination with this bounty hunter really stems from something like Clint Eastwood’s The Man With No Name character.  A gritty, mysterious man who doesn’t speak much, but when he does, it carries a great deal of weight.  Fett is someone who only speaks when he has something important to say.  That creates intrigue.  It makes him standout because it creates a certain looming presence.  Also, the original voice for Fett provided by Jason Wingreen was absolutely perfect with its right amount of grit and vile attitude.  A voice can tell you a lot about a character’s personality, and get that with Wingreen’s voice work.  Additionally, Vader tells Boba Fett, specifically, “No disintegrations.”  That lays an air of ruthlessness on Fett, and smartly spotlights him amongst the other eclectic bounty hunters in that scene.  Plus, where everyone else has failed to capture Captain Solo and the Millennium Falcon, Fett succeeds using some subversive cunning of his own, which demonstrates the character’s intelligence.  He’s a subtly developed character that quickly builds that air of mystique around himself.  Furthermore, all of this is done without Fett ever having to fire a blaster.  He physically does very little in the movie, but it’s the results of his actions which count.  It surely helps that he, like Darth Vader, is hidden under a mask and armor.  It makes you wonder more about who he is.

I honestly believe this film features John Williams’ best work of the Star Wars saga.  With the more character driven story, he is given a broader canvas to work with, and to create a more diverse and powerful score.  The beautiful compositions pull at the heartstrings making one feel the immense weight of emotion throughout the film.  Every moment of magical wonder, ominous threat, romantic richness, and rousing excitement is lushly and gorgeously on display in every note he commits to this score.  “The Imperial March” is the most notable debut here creating a militaristic musical presence for the oppressive Galactic Empire, and is one of my absolute favorites.  However, Leia’s theme gets a sweeping enhancement accentuating the film’s romantic feelings.  I own the scores for all six films on CD, but this is the one I listen to most often because of its wider breadth of artistry and cinematic beauty.

The Empire Strikes Back also showcases a lot of great imagination in its production design.  It’s great seeing the scope of the Echo Base hangar with the full size X-Wings and Millennium Falcon there along with various other Rebel Alliance vehicles.  The integration of the ice caverns into the technology of the base is done with a lot of attention to detail for an interesting visual aesthetic.  However, the most notable environments are the swamps of Dagobah and the immaculate Cloud City of Bespin.  Yoda’s adopted home gives us a location full of lush life where one would imagine that The Force is very strong here, as life is what creates it and allows it to grow.  This was all created on a soundstage, and that is just a fantastic accomplishment.  This makes me think why the same effect of depth and all encompassing realism couldn’t have been achieved for the Genesis Planet sequences in Star Trek III: The Search For Spock.  In that film, similar environments were created on a soundstage, and are blatantly obvious as being set on a soundstage.  Here, Dagobah looks and feels like a wholly authentic environment.  Never does it feel like a fabricated set.  That’s the immense care and hard work that were put into these films by exhaustive crews and talented artists.

Still, it is Cloud City that is my favorite Star Wars environment.  I’ve never seen another design in science fiction quite like it.  The rounded buildings and corridors with their subtly textured stark white walls give us a very picturesque locale.  It also feels like something elegant and futuristic that would come out of the era of 1980.  It feels like a peaceful city, and is surely a new, unique, and welcoming world to visit.  However, once things turn ill for our heroes, we are plunged deeper into the more industrial bowels of the city where it just gets darker and darker both literally and figuratively.  I think the overall design is beautifully inspired, and I am so glad to own the book The Art of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.  I fond memories of reading through this gorgeous large format book, and being inspired by the designs and matte paintings.  It made me want to run home and watch the movie that night.

While there is not as much action here as there was in the first Star Wars, there is no shortage of imagination.  I absolutely love the asteroid chase sequence as the Millennium Falcon weaves its way through this near certain death trap to evade the forces of the Empire.  John Williams’ score in this sequence is another one of my favorites which reflects both the rousing adventure aspect and the high tension and danger of it.  What Han does after escaping the asteroid field to further elude the Empire is ingenious, and perfectly on-the-mark for Solo’s craftiness.  It shows his intelligence and sharp thinking that define the cunningness of his character.

The entire climax is just brilliant all the way through.  Lando, Leia, Chewie, and the droids escaping Cloud City is wholly exciting giving us some fun and dramatic beats along the way, but ultimately, a sense of elation as they fly away on the Millennium Falcon.  However, it is the confrontation between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader that is the centerpiece of the film.  The dark tone reaches its pinnacle in the shadowy, smoky Carbon Freezing Chamber where their duel begins with a chilling line from Vader, “The Force is with you, young Skywalker, but you are not a Jedi, yet.”  That dark environment, with its moody orange and blue lighting, establishes an ominous, foreboding atmosphere that is only heightened in the latter two parts of their escalating duel.  While it was never clear in the context of the film, after seeing a schematic of Cloud City, I could see that Luke actually does descend further and further into the depths of the city until he literally falls out the underside of it.  That descent is such a perfect metaphor for what is actually happening to Luke in this battle with Vader.  For the first two sections, it’s Vader testing Luke, seeing how proficient and resourceful he is.  He wants to be able to inform the Emperor of how advanced Skywalker is in his training, and how susceptible he is to the Dark Side.  However, the final part on the gantry is Vader letting loose entirely, and we see how truly outmatched Luke is against the dangerously aggressive Dark Lord.  Here is where Luke pays the price for rushing headlong into this confrontation without the proper training.  Yet, the action is not the ultimate pay-off.  The legendary and climactic revelation in this scene is shocking, and I’m sure, back in 1980, this left audiences stunned and in disbelief.  Mark Hamill’s acting in this scene is intense, and couldn’t be more perfect.  It’s a culmination of all the emotional trials he has battled through this entire film, and it hits him with all the dread in the universe.  It creates that final emotional stinger which carries the momentum of dire peril through to the film’s end, and leaves an audience in suspense for the resolution of everything in Return of the Jedi.

The Empire Strikes Back is an absolute masterpiece of cinema, in my honest opinion.  I would not change a single frame from the original theatrical release, period.  The late director Irvin Kershner did a marvelous job focusing this film so tightly and strongly on the characters, making their development the core of the story without losing what makes Star Wars entertaining and rich.  All that was crafted for this film from the screenwriters to Kershner’s input, made this not a sequel, but a second act in a trilogy.  That opened up the possibilities far wider allowing for growth to occur, and consequences to be faced that would require a final chapter to resolve fully.  The characters are hurt physically and emotionally, but also, they learn a great deal from their defeats.  The film may have a down ending, but that final scene where everyone is gathered back together, mending their wounds and setting plans to rescue Han, leaves an audience with hope that they will return for further heroics and redeem their losses.  As time has gone on, my choice for favorite film of the saga has shifted from the original Star Wars to The Empire Strikes Back due to the depth of character, emotion, and consequence in the story.  Even more so now, I can vastly appreciate the level of filmmaking artistry and talent on display here from all involved, and it should be always heralded as one of the finest works of cinema.


Fire in the Sky (1993)

Fire in the SkyIt’s unusual to review a movie of this sort.  Fire in the Sky is based on a true story of alien abduction.  I know there are skeptics out there about this sort of thing, understandably so, and my stance is that I’m willing to believe, same as with the paranormal.  I can’t apply the same approach to a film of this sort, talking about characters like they’re fictional creations, or how clever the story is conceived and executed.  This is about how well the reality of these peoples’ lives are conveyed on screen, and the quality in which these events are portrayed.  What we have here is a great, solid movie that I really should have watched a lot more over the years.  I first saw it as a VHS rental back in the late 1990s.  I owned the DVDs for probably five or six years before I actually watched it.  So, I can accurately say that for this review, I watched Fire in the Sky for the third time, ever.

Six men saw it.  One man became a prisoner inside it.  But who would believe them?  In 1975, logger Travis Walton (D.B. Sweeney) and his co-workers discovered a hovering UFO.  Walton’s pals fled, but Walton was not so fortunate.  Whisked aboard the strange craft, he was subjected to a painful, unearthly medical study.  This is the amazing tale of that ordeal, and of the contempt and ridicule endured by his co-workers as they try to explain Walton’s mysterious disappearance.  Skilled investigator Frank Watters (James Garner) suspects their story may be a murder cover-up, but these men, led by Travis’ best friend Mike Rogers (Robert Patrick), stand by the extraordinary events they recount.  When Walton is returned in a severe traumatic state, questions become even more fantastical with the answers being more disturbing than they could imagine.

This film is smartly structured starting out with the aftermath of the abduction, and then, having Rogers and the other loggers fill in the story with their own words.  Everything that is shown about Travis pre-abduction is done in lengthy flashback, and I feel that was the perfect way to start out the movie and present Travis – show him through the eyes of his best friend.  This also presents the idea of witness accounts showing us the story from a subjective point of view, and sets up the real life oppositions these men had to face from their fellow townsfolk.  Next to no one would believe such a wildly fantastical story, and the police would surely look for criminal motives for Travis’ disappearance.  They have to fight for every ounce of credibility they can get, and the film takes us on that journey while focusing very deeply on their emotional turmoil.

D.B. Sweeney does a wonderful job in these flashback scenes showcasing a very lively, fun, and enthusiastic young man full of aspirations.  He’s clearly the brightest personality amongst these men with the biggest heart.  Showing the audience these substantive glimpses into Travis makes the impact of his traumatic abduction all the more terrifying and disturbing.  The abduction scene itself is frightening, and still gave me choked up chills.  This is a credit to the realistic, grounded, and textured nature of the film.  Director Robert Lieberman makes the danger feel paralyzingly real, and gives the film honest, emotional weight.

The last time I watched Fire in the Sky I made a note reminding me of just how great of an actor Robert Patrick is.  He really is the lead for most of the movie holding the weight of emotion on his shoulders, and doing so in masterful fashion.  The absolute depth of pain and fear is soaked into every fiber of his performance with his eyes selling so much.  Patrick is both very sympathetic as well as full of conviction and fire.  As Mike Rogers, he is both a confident, passionate leader and a man dealing with his own internal fears and grief.  There is so much humanity and strength in what he does here that this should stand as one of Patrick’s best performances.  He genuinely made me feel every emotion that he poured out of his soul, and it was a very wide and complex range of humanity offered by him.  It is only a shame that the only accolades he was offered for this film was a Saturn Award nomination.  He clearly deserves a lot more notoriety for having this level of talent.

This film is also packed with a strong supporting cast.  James Garner puts in a very solid performance as the consummate investigator Frank Watters.  You can sense the fair and just manner of Watters from everything Garner does on-screen.  He never jumps to conclusions or to condemn these men.  Even at the end, he’s not convinced of what they all say is the truth as the evidence is simply not there for him to make a conclusion.  He’s simply willing to wait and see.  Peter Berg and Henry Thomas greatly portray two of Travis’ friends, David Whitlock and Greg Hayes, both with their shaken qualities.  Yet, both actors showcase strength where needed to show that these men were standing by their statements.  Craig Sheffer has a surprisingly excellent turn as Allan Dallis, one of the loggers who has a bad attitude and doesn’t get along with anyone.  I’ve only seen Sheffer in some really poor Dimension Films direct-to-video sequels, and has never impressed me before now.  I think he did a very solid job making Dallis a very strong element in this story as a sort of wild card in the mix.  Dallis almost went out of his way to make it known he didn’t like Travis, and Sheffer’s performance really brings that friction and tension to the forefront.  Lastly, Noble Willingham fits very comfortably into the role of the local Sheriff Blake Davis bringing a trusted, honest, firm quality.  Overall, every performance feels very authentic with both obvious and subtle depth throughout.

In the latter third of the film, when Travis Walton does return, he’s in a terribly traumatized state with Sweeney putting in a great performance.  The lively young man that he once was has been entirely eviscerated leaving only a shell of a man behind.  This abduction experience forges a hard, deep wedge between Travis and Mike.  Travis is so traumatized that he resents Mike for running away from the scene of the abduction instead of helping him when he had the chance.  Unfortunately, this aspect is not given much screentime as the film shifts its focus deeply towards Travis’ struggles.  I certainly would’ve liked to have seen that strained friendship drama play out more to see how hard it truly hit Mike, and the process of how it damaged his life.  Fortunately, the film doesn’t forget about this as it is given its proper due by the end remembering that it is the people and their lives that mean the most here.

When we are finally shown what Travis Walton experienced during those five days, it is the most visceral and terrifying alien abduction sequence ever committed to film.  The production design is stunning like something out of your most dreadful nightmare with its surreal qualities and purely absorbing, grim reality.  It is something that would leave you scared out of your mind, and leave you never being the same person you once were, if you experienced it in reality.  This is a very elaborate and long sequence that will freak you out down to your very core.  This is possibly the most paralyzing sequence I’ve ever seen in a film.  Even after it ended, it took me a minute or so to ease myself out of it.  To even consider that this might have actually happened to another human being is unfathomable.  Industrial Light & Magic did an unspeakably remarkable job on this entire sequence.  The aliens themselves are so finely detailed and textured that you’d swear they were real, and this adds further to how visceral this all is on film.  It is stunning work down to the smallest nuanc.  So much so that this deserved special awards recognition at the time as well, but sadly, received none.  Of course, it’s very little in terms of visual effects as it is an overall collective work of production design, cinematography, physical effects, animatronics, sound design, and music that made this sequence so chillingly effective.

And of course, the cinematography is damn good all the way through.  Bill Pope and director Robert Lieberman clearly worked very hard to create a look for Fire in the Sky that was firmly grounded in reality.  There is such texture and weight to every shot to maintain that solid grip on the fact that this is based on a true story, and directly avoid injecting even the smallest sense of fantasy into this.  I know that sounds a little peculiar due to the alien abduction nature of the story, but even that feels shockingly real down to the grittiest of details.  This film is shot exceptionally well with wonderful angles and compositions which complement the dramatic scope of the story, both internal and external.  In all technical qualities, this is a superbly executed film made by a very solid crew of creative forces.

Now, the thing that tends to make films based off of true events different than fictional films is that there’s rarely a traditional conclusion to them.  The lives of these people continue on, and not everyone gains closure from what is documented in the movie.  So, there’s only so much of a complete story the film can offer.  Thus, Fire in the Sky is more focused on the people involved instead of a traditional three-act structured plot.  I’m sure there were a few tweaks to reality, such as the filmmakers reducing the number of loggers from seven to six for ease of storytelling, but I’m sure the human emotion of what happened remained very much intact and accurate.  Also, unlike many true stories, this one still requires the audience to believe in something they may not be inclined to believe in terms of extraterrestrial life.  However, even if you are not a believer, there is still a very strong, human story to experience in Fire in the Sky.

This is an amazingly effective and masterfully executed movie that brings more impactful reality to an alien abduction story than I’ve ever witnessed on film.  A viewing is highly worth it for two things  – Robert Patrick’s deeply emotional performance and the entire terrifying sequence aboard the alien spacecraft.  Even the film’s trailer is scary featuring only brief glimpses of that sequence along with a very foreboding voice over.  Ultimately, this is a hell of a great movie that is definitely worth your time, if this genre is your thing.  Again, I would’ve liked to have seen more of Mike Rogers in the aftermath of Travis’ traumatic return to give their reconciliation more pay-off, and to follow through on how this entire experience affected Mike, in detail.  Still, what we are given is solid, fascinating, and disturbing.  Fire in the Sky is a unique film that surely deserves more credit than time has seen fit to grant it, and I hope my words of praise here will help a little in that regard.


Transformers: The Movie (1986)

Transformers The MovieOutside of Star Wars, this is the film I grew up on, and loved with a severe passion.  I never owned the VHS as a child.  It was only by renting it incessantly over many, many years that I ever got to see it after the theatres.  My dad actually took me to see this in 1986 at the discount theatre that actually closed down about a decade ago, much to my dismay.  There were countless wonderful memories at that theatre in addition to the video arcade across the way in that mall.  In the late 90s, I found a Canadian website selling new VHS tapes of the movie featuring the American version, and with the help of a friend, I was able to purchase it. I prized this tape, and you couldn’t imagine how excited I was when I happened upon a DVD release of it years later.  So, what is it about this movie that has kept it a beloved favorite of mine for more than a quarter of a century?  Read on and find out!

It is the year 2005, and the battle between the heroic Autobots, led by Optimus Prime, and the evil Decepticons, led by Megatron, has escalated all the way to their home planet of Cybertron, which the Decepticons have reclaimed.  The Autobots secretly plan to retake the planet from secret outposts, but the Decepticons move to thwart their efforts by waging a full-on assault against Autobot City on Earth.  Here, a new generation of heroic Autobots stand ready to fight including the young, impulsive Hot Rod, the consummate soldier Ultra Magnus, the elderly war veteran Kup, the compassionate Arcee, the triple changing Springer, and many more.  However, a greater threat to them all looms closer in the form of the evil entity known as Unicron, who’s ready to consume anything that stands in its way, but the only thing that he fears is the Autobot Matrix of Leadership.  Along the way, lives are lost, battles are fought, an old enemy is re-forged by Unicron, and a new Autobot leader is born as another dies.

This movie really was the pinnacle of any six year’s old life at the time.  You had a big, epic story with huge consequences, and the most climactic final confrontation between the heroic Optimus Prime and the vile Megatron.  To me, this was bigger than Luke Skywalker versus Darth Vader, bigger than anything else on the planet!  Prime was the ultimate John Wayne style hero, always sticking to his principles and morality, but able to throw down with the best of them.  Megatron was the most deceitful, ruthless villain around, and after two seasons of the television series, you finally got to see them collide like never before.  The movie was even marketed as showcasing their final battle, and it did not disappoint.  It starts with Prime proclaiming that, “Megatron must be stopped.  No matter the cost,” and then, proceeds to plow down and blast away a whole slew of Decepticons.  It firmly establishes that Optimus is a real bad ass worth rooting for.  This is the big hero of the Autobots, and anyone who gets in his way has got a real problem.  The fight between Megatron and Prime is them putting it all out on the line, and it couldn’t be more climactic.  It’s also an awesome looking sequence with great dramatic angles, and an awesome Stan Bush song backing it up.  Then, it ends on a wholly unexpected note.  The filmmakers really hit you for a big one in more ways than one.  Optimus Prime dies.  However, it happens within the first third of the film creating a sense of ultimate peril for everyone.  If Optimus Prime can perish in this movie, then, nobody at all is safe, and even before this, the Deceptions slaughter an entire ship of Autobots in fairly graphic fashion.  This film tells you just about from the start that it’s taking no prisoners, and the danger is real and imminent.  This creates huge odds for the surviving Autobots to overcome, especially in the face of Unicron.

With so many of the classic characters dying, the movie introduces us to a group of new Autobots which hooked me in immediately.  I loved Hot Rod, and was really behind him all the way through the story.  Judd Nelson did a great job voicing him giving the young, brash Autobot a lot of charm, charisma, energy, and humor.  Yet, where it counted, Hot Rod was heroic, and did show some depth to really rise up and come into his own.  The weathered and seasoned warrior Kup is given great texture by Lionel Stander making him a fun character with his incessant war stories, but also striking a good chemistry with Nelson’s Hot Rod.  The older mentor and the young hero is nothing new, but here, it feels like these two were friends more than teacher and student, which makes for a fun pairing.

Springer feels like a solid lieutenant in the Autobot ranks as the reliable, capable soldier, and has strong characterization with dashes of levity.  And you can say what you will about Ultra Magnus.  He’s certainly not the inspiring leader that Optimus was, but he was voiced by the late, great Robert Stack.  Being an old school Unsolved Mysteries fan, I could never slight Mr. Stack’s performance.  He does give Ultra Magnus some humanity and a steady confidence, but I think, by design, the filmmakers didn’t want Magnus living up to Optimus’ stature.  This becomes apparent by the film’s end.

The villains are given some new life with two impressive names added to the cast.  First, there is Leonard Nimoy voicing Galvatron in amazing fashion giving the new Deception leader an even more vicious streak than he had as Megatron.  After his brutal fight with Optimus Prime, Megatron is recreated as this far more powerful Galvatron, and that injects a far more menacing and cutthroat villain into the story.  Nimoy pushed his voice into a deeper, more guttural place for this performance, and it really served the character beautifully.  Galvatron is Megatron pushed to the next level, and I really love that idea.  However, the real major name involved here is Orson Welles as Unicron.  This was actually the legendary filmmaker’s final performance.  His heart attack death occurred five days after finishing this voice work.  Reportedly, Welles was pleased do the job stating an admiration for animated films.  While Welles could be an intimidating man, I’ve seen interviews of him being very friendly, humble, and enjoyable.  Still, that voice was gold, and there were not many actors who could’ve naturally given such a booming, massive presence to Unicron’s voice as Welles did.

With all these great characters, old and new, we are given endlessly quotable dialogue.  Nary a scene goes by without a great line being said which became a classic amongst fans.  These range from the dramatic to the comedic, and are all executed perfectly by this great voice cast.  They really deserve a vast amount of credit for inhabiting the personalities of their characters, and meshing so well together.  It sounds like every single one of them gave it their all, and likely had a real fun time working on this animated movie.  The regular cast of voice actors maintain their usual high standards, especially Peter Cullen and Frank Welker, among others.  The Dinobots are especially funny while still remaining formidable.  This is some very exceptional casting and voice directing in my opinion.

What really strikes me about the movie today is how briskly paced it is.  There is nary a slow point in the whole thing, and at 84 minutes long, one could hardly expect one.  Surely, these days, I would’ve loved to have seen it reach a full 90 minutes because that third act really hits you before you know it.  Regardless, the steady pace and rhythm of the movie creates so much excitement and fun.  There is no shortage of action, and any scenes of exposition are very succinct.  The regular progression of the story taking our heroes to new worlds and environments keeps it interesting.  Both the planet of Junk and of the Quintessons are dangerous in their own unique ways with great visual designs.  They give the film scope that was rarely offered on the television series.  Everything about this movie is amped up substantially from the episodic cartoon, and the action is no exception.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie, animated or live action, jam pack this much stellar and original action into such a compact run time while still maintaining such a rich sense of character and competency in its plot.  There’s so much energy pulsating through this movie it’s almost unreal, and it never becomes a mess.  Screenwriter Ron Friedman did a rather admirable job on this script, and it was put into the right hands to make it a reality.

Now, granted, there’s hardly a major through-line plot for our heroes.  In the most part, the Autobots are just trying to survive every new threat that surfaces in their path while Unicron sort of looms over everything in the background.  The action really just pushes them along from one dire scenario to the next until they must confront Unicron.  These are adventures which have the heroes proving their merit to the audience more than to each other.  It’s about us learning about the characters, and coming to care about them instead of developing them at length.  Transformers: The Movie doesn’t have the character growth or thematic exploration of something like Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings, but for what it is meant to be, a fun and exciting animated movie for kids, I think it is rather exceptional.  It doesn’t go much into heavy subject matter, save for the deaths early on, but it doesn’t treat its young audience as stupid.  It’s a smartly written story that keeps it simple enough to follow, but exciting enough to keep it interesting.  This is definitely a film that can be entertaining from the age of six all the way through to thirty-two.

One thing that strongly helps in that aspect is that the animation style is still amazing to my eyes today.  At the time of the film’s release, it was a style and quality not previously seen by mainstream American audiences.  The detail, shading, and dramatic, epic imagery created a vast cinematic visual impact.  The film remained vibrant and colorful despite having some very dark moments, and could have real moments of beauty.  While there are occasional animation gaffes and shots of lower grade artwork, on the whole, the artistry on display is really stunning adding a sense of edge and texture to everything never before given to the cartoon series.  This feels like a major motion picture event, and in comparison to the series, you can clearly see the vast amount of time and hard work put into the visual quality of this movie.

Probably the biggest thing that kept the film alive in my mind and heart between rentals was the amazing rock soundtrack!  I cherished that audio cassette for over a decade.  I made the vow to myself that when the tape eventually broke, I would buy the CD immediately, and that’s exactly what happened.  Most of these acts were generally unknowns like Lion, N.R.G., and Kick Axe (who were credited as Spectre General by decree of the record company), but contributed very solid songs that gave a lot of hard and heavy excitement to the film.  Of course, “Weird Al” Yankovic was quite well known at the time.  He contributed his quirky track “Dare to be Stupid,” which fit the catch-phrase referencing Junkions perfectly.  Stan Bush’s tracks have probably become the biggest hits amongst fans with the driving rock rhythm of “Dare,” and the inspirational “The Touch.”  The latter is a song that has come to really be able to pull me through into a stronger, more determined mindset when I’m feeling down.  It pushes me back up on my feet, and it does much the same within the context of the movie highlighting the biggest standing tall moment for our main heroes.  This is one of my favorite soundtracks ever, and it is only enhanced further by Vince DiCola’s very dynamic, electronic style score.

The climax of Transformers: The Movie is just flat out amazing!  I like the intercutting between the battle outside of Unicron as he fends off the attacks from Cybertron, and the multiple stories going on inside of him.  However, it hits its great crescendo in glorious fashion when the Autobot Matrix of Leadership comes into the right hands, and signals a new era for the Autobots.  The movie is filled with great, iconic moments such as this, but few as great as this.  In retrospect, it’s only a shame that the movie ends so quickly after this, but I suppose, in that regard, it’s a film that leaves you wanting more.  That’s rarely a bad thing, and it’s far better than overstaying its welcome or leaving itself open for any letdowns after such a great climax.

Despite the efforts of Michael Bay, this still remains the absolute best Transformers movie in existence.  It features a tight, exciting, and heroic story centered on the Autobots and Decepticons themselves that is vibrant as well as genuinely funny and entertaining for the whole family.  Of course, most versions contain a swear word or two that are surprising they made it into the PG rated film in 1986, but for fans, they wouldn’t want the movie any other way.  This 1986 movie treats its characters with respect and integrity, and gives many of them poignant weight at their most pivotal moments.  The new characters are just as exciting and colorful as the classic ones, and they give the film a real boost of energy and sense of discovery.  You’re going along for the ride with them as they rise to the epic task before them.  As I said, I was hooked in with Hot Rod from the start, and unlike many who saw the film as a kid, I actually didn’t cry during Optimus Prime’s death scene.  It’s unheard of, I know, but I was just enjoying the living hell of this movie.  At one time, I definitely would have listed this as my favorite movie of all time, and it is still among my favorites, as this review has undoubtedly shown.  While the film bombed at the box office, it has gained immense popularity throughout the fan base, and remains a major high point in the franchise.  All around, this is just a wildly fun movie that I will never get tired of.  While the television series doesn’t hold up nearly as well, this movie feels damn near timeless to me, and I don’t believe I am alone in that feeling.


Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)

Star Trek VI The Undiscovered CountryI have heard a few extensive reviews of Star Trek VI in recent times, all of which praising it glowingly with nary a blemish.  This is definitely one of the better films of the franchise, and the first Star Trek movie I ever saw, on cable no less.  It used to be my favorite, but over time I’ve come to feel as if this film lacks a certain something to get it all the way to greatness.  I certainly know what that is, but let’s give you a plot first before I share that with you.

On their way home from their first assignment, the U.S.S. Excelsior, now at the command of Captain Hikaru Sulu (George Takei), monitors a massive explosion on the Klingon moon Praxis, the Empire’s key energy production facility.  This incident signals an eventual crippling of the Klingon Empire within fifty years, and thus, motivates a push towards peace between the Federation and the Klingons, championed by Captain Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and Chancellor Gorkon (David Warner).  Starfleet orders the U.S.S. Enterprise to escort the Klingon Chancellor to a peace conference on Earth.  This does not sit well for Captain Kirk (William Shatner) who is vocally opposed to the idea of peace for many personal reasons, not the least of which being the murder of his son by the Klingons.  However, despite his efforts to support the peace initiative, the hope for it is soon crushed when the Chancellor’s ship is fired upon and Gorkon himself is assassinated.  A malicious conspiracy becomes evident as all evidence supports that the photon torpedoes and assassins originated from the Enterprise.  Meanwhile, Captain Kirk and Dr. McCoy are arrested and convicted for the crime, and banished to the frozen penal asteroid of Rura Penthe.  Now, the crew of the Enterprise must expose this plot, and rescue their comrades before all hope for peace in the galaxy is destroyed.

Before I actually point out the shortcomings of the film, I think it’s fair to detail a few behind-the-scenes points first.  Mainly, this film was rushed, to an extent.  Paramount Pictures wanted this out to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Star Trek, and it just made it with a late December, 1991 release.  So, the filmmakers didn’t have an abundant freedom of time to really develop this film fully, but this is not some train wreck where you can tell things were slap dashed together.  This is quite a well-made and conceived movie.  I merely say that if they had the luxury of no forced deadline, perhaps a few of my concerns with the script could have been resolved.  They are not glaring issues, but ones that I feel take away from the potential of the movie which require some in-depth analysis.

Let me also say that there is plenty of greatness in this film.  The ideas of prejudice and the struggles of overcoming those feelings for the cause of peace are very relevant.  This film was made at the time of the fall of Soviet Russia and the tearing down of the Berlin Wall.  So, our world was going through a change of perspective and socio-political ideals.  The Klingons here were essentially Soviet Russia, and Praxis was an obvious allegory for Chernobyl.  This was a necessary story to be told considering that the Federation and the Klingon Empire became allies by the time of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and I feel this story was handled very well, in general.  For both sides, who had gotten used to hating one another, to finally have to reach an accord of peace and allegiance would not be easy at all.  Kirk is portrayed excellently in this story with him having to overcome his prejudice from the murder of his son David by Klingon hands and a life full of distrust towards them.  He truly goes through an arc that re-instills the outlook of hope and humanity that Star Trek has always strived for.

This film also rebounds amazingly well from the poorly executed and conceived Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.  The serious tone is brought back with very solid and respectable performances by the entire cast.  Every regular cast member is given some forefront time, and I love the exchanges between Spock and McCoy in the climax.  Spock asks if McCoy would assist him with surgery on a torpedo, and McCoy responds with, “Fascinating.”  It’s a nice sly piece of dialogue that shows the respect and camaraderie between two characters that have not always seen eye-to-eye.  It’s also a treat to have seen Sulu be promoted to Captain, and given command of the U.S.S. Excelsior.  I like that Scotty gives praise to the ship now because of its captain when he was ragging on it back in The Search For Spock.  It’s another subtle show of growth for these characters, and the cast embodies those moments beautifully.

Now, there have been extended cuts of the film released on home video, and each cut of the film has their advantages.  The original theatrical version is quickly paced punctuating some dramatic beats a little better, but the extended versions make the film feel a little fuller.  The extra scenes don’t amount to too much with characters or plot, but sometimes, it helps to draw sections of a film out for more prolonged build up, such as going into Kirk & McCoy’s trial.  The pacing of the film in any incarnation is quite consistent, even if it is rather gradual.  What the film really lacks is a sustained sense of urgency.  I believe this stems from the fact that no one knows who the villains are until the final thirty minutes or so of the movie.  If the villains either don’t have a sustained presence in the film to maintain a threat level, or you don’t have them actually doing anything in opposition to the protagonists, you lose urgency in the plot.  The mystery plot isn’t enough without the dramatic pressure of active villainy going on around it.

Since Nicholas Meyer also directed Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, I feel it’s appropriate to draw a comparison to that film.  In Star Trek II, the film was able to establish its villain in Khan and build him up as a substantial threat, and continually cut back to him to keep tension and suspense present throughout most of the movie.  As long as Khan was out there plotting his next move, there was a near constant sense of unease and immediacy throughout the film.  In Star Trek VI, the villains are completely hidden from us during the vast majority of the runtime.  There is surely an adversarial quality to General Chang, but all the way up to and through the trial, he’s never seen acting outside the bounds and expectations of his military position.  He’s not an overt villain until he’s revealed to be one until the end of the second act.  And while this film has the same general runtime as Wrath of Khan, it feels much slower and thinner.  There’s not all that much developing in the plot to build up momentum or create dramatic tension.

Since there is no urgency, there’s also an extreme lack of action and excitement in the film.  It would’ve helped to put more dramatic pressure on the crew of the Enterprise to uncover the evidence in their investigation either by way of a time constraint or consequence.  While Starfleet keeps demanding they return to Space Dock, it’s really a hollow plot device since there are no consequences or conflict involved with them constantly making up excuses to not return home.  It would’ve added a sense of urgency if there was more risk put upon them for disobeying orders, such as in The Search For Spock.  Even when the Enterprise infiltrates Klingon space to rescue Kirk and McCoy, there’s no real threat to contend with.  Throughout Star Trek, we’ve always seen Klingon ships patrolling the Neutral Zone border, protecting their Empire, but the Enterprise whisks in and only needs to fool some lowly Klingon at a patrol station with clearly the most primitive sensors around since they cannot even identify what ship it is detecting.  It doesn’t help that the entire scene is done humorously.  If it was handled as a tense and serious situation where they had to evade and strategically slip passed Klingon ships during their rescue mission, it would have, again, created urgency.

Tying into this is the lack of impact with the conspiracy and mystery.  Aside from one character who was briefly featured in The Voyage Home, none of the conspirators are anyone of note or poignancy to an audience.  They are just one-off characters that either don’t matter or are of no surprise that they are villainous.  The mystery of discovering who the assassins are has a strong setup, but eventually falls flat due a lack of tension.  The crew knows that treasonous murderers are on board, but no one ever feels a sense of unease aboard the Enterprise.  No one worries that two assassins are lurking on their ship capable of further ill-doings.  The assassins themselves are also throwaway, nobody characters.  Aside from Chang, there’s no real time spent with most of these characters to build them up one way or another to give their role in this conspiracy any weight.  In most part, they could have been just about anyone and it wouldn’t have made any difference.  It’s surely an aspect of this script that could’ve used a lot more work to integrate some character development and substance into this revelation.  I could’ve seen a plot like this working nicely during a season long arc on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine where the writers could take their time to build up numerous characters in twisting arcs, and have a startling reveal later on.  In a 110 minute movie where relatively very little time is spent with anyone but the regular cast, it’s not likely to work out very well.

My other main bother with the film is the portrayal of the Klingons.  While the very honorable Next Generation Klingons could get tiresome and stereotypical after several years of overly treaded concepts, this film was made right at the strong suit of that portrayal.  While it had room for flexibility and expansion, these Klingons, in general, appear to have little substance or texture to invest any interest in.  Firstly, their uniforms had long been set in place as very hard and metallic, but here, most of the Klingons are wearing very soft, padded outfits which take away a lot of their visual edge.  It’s the only appearance of these outfits that I know of, and it doesn’t suit this aggressive alien race that has always been very vocally opposed to softness and comfort.  They are a harsh race never indulging in luxuries, but that ideal is not supported by this costume design.  Their attitudes are also watered down somewhat.  We already had the cunning and verbose Commander Kruge, the outspoken and aggressive Klingon Ambassador from The Voyage Home, and the rather brash and hard-headed Captain Klaa generally establishing the attitude and personalities of Klingons in this time period.  However, The Undiscovered Country simply tones them down far too much for my taste.  The bold and intimidating qualities which have made them such a great fan favorite are generally evaporated.  The fierce, proud warrior isn’t there.  While they are mostly political officers, I would expect more conviction and assertiveness in these portrayals.  Furthermore, the Klingon make-up is scaled back severely.  At this time, the great Michael Westmore was heading up all of the special make-up effects work and designs on The Next Generation, and the special make-up results here would’ve been far better if the filmmakers had employed his talents.  The vast majority of the alien prosthetics lack a sense of fine detail or organic feel to give them a sense of life and texture.  The Klingon forehead ridges are all too smooth and toned down.  They mostly appear rather obviously fake and rubbery.  It further adds to the out of place feel of these Klingons.  They simply do not fit into what had come before or after in the chronology of the franchise.  At times, they seem like a cheap imitation of a Klingon.  Gene Roddenberry himself was displeased that the Klingons came off as generic villains with no exploration of their society or cultural viewpoints, and Leonard Nimoy later agreed with him after the film’s release.  I agree with him as well.  Time has shown the vast potential of exploration for the Klingon culture, and I think not caring to acknowledge that here results in a very flat and uninteresting presentation of the Klingons, in general.

Now, I do very much like what Christopher Plummer did as General Chang, who is a distinct exception to my Klingon gripes in this film.  Right from his first moments, you can tell that he is someone to contend with.  He’s a definite skilled warrior with an intimidating quality.  He doesn’t give into hostility, instead he projects a patient and cunning demeanor.  Plummer works excellently in the trial sequence prosecuting Kirk and McCoy with great zeal.  He brings a fine theatrical sensibility to the character which allows him to command many scenes, and truly is the one that makes that trial compelling.  However, at no fault of his, but of the screenwriters, is Chang’s painfully excessive quoting of Shakespeare.  The bit was good for a little while, but it wears thin very quickly.  Eventually, the vast majority of his dialogue is directly quoting lines from Shakespeare plays.  I agree with Ira Steven Behr, who recorded a commentary track for the theatrical cut, that it’s simply lazy screenwriting.  The screenwriters couldn’t come up with anything original or freshly poignant for the character to say, and so, they just flippantly copy lines verbatim from another literary work.  When Khan was quoting literary works in Star Trek II, it did have a thematic purpose.  His obsession for vengeance or pain of exile were parallels to Ahab in Moby Dick or Lucifer in Paradise Lost, respectively, and these quotes were used at generally the most purposeful moments.  They had weight and meaning behind them for Khan.  With Chang, he just spouts these lines out randomly.  They hold no thematic weight or meaning at all because he has no thematic purpose in the film.  He might as well be quoting anything, or saying nothing at all, because it really makes no difference what he’s saying.  This lazy screenwriting becomes very irritating during the film’s climax.  Even Dr. McCoy says, “I’d give real money if he’d shut up.”

The film also makes blatant references to 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, Sherlock Holmes, and the only one I really thought was worthwhile, Peter Pan.  It eventually feels like too much referencing of other material instead of the screenwriters strengthening their own original material.  Whether they are appropriate references or not, it just feels as if almost every poignant piece of dialogue is lifted from another source, and that reflects a major weakness in the dialogue of the script.  Nicholas Meyer can be a great screenwriter and filmmaker, but at times, I feel he doesn’t view Star Trek to be good enough to stand on its own.  He has to prop it up by injecting ideas from other sources to make it great.  It worked brilliantly in The Wrath of Khan, but it simply does feel like lazy, uninspired writing in The Undiscovered Country.

The great and always respectable David Warner does a fine job as Chancellor Gorkon.  Nick Meyer envisioned the character as a meshing of Abraham Lincoln and Mikhail Gorbachev.  The Lincoln aspects definitely show through with both the make-up design, and Warner’s regal, wise performance.  However, I do believe Gorkon was grossly underused in the film.  His goal of peace is the crux of this story, and we are barely given any substantive time with him to grasp his ideals and values.  Essentially, all we know is that he wants peace, period.  This feels like another mark of an underdeveloped script.  Surely, the script had a good, solid foundation, but given some more time to refine and flesh it out, it could’ve had so much more dramatic impact, exciting tension, and a far wider scope.  This film feels like it needed a tighter pace and an extra half hour of runtime to fully flesh out and setup all of its ideas, characters, and conflicts for maximum effectiveness.

I certainly don’t want to be misunderstood with my critiques.  This is a mostly well-conceived and nicely executed film.  Production values are great as is the cinematography.  This truly looks and feels like a high grade film with a very polished cinematic style.  The acting overall is exceptionally good across the board with the entire regular cast giving it their all.  Even Kim Cattrall is very impressive as Valeris utilizing subtly in her performance, and striking a fine chemistry with Nimoy especially.  Not to mention, there’s plenty of fun dialogue and moments throughout.  The film lightly pokes fun at Kirk with the scenes opposite the shape-shifting Martia on Rura Penthe who continually seduces Kirk’s trust, and the brute of an alien that Kirk fights in the prison.  Even Kirk fighting Martia after she takes Kirk’s form harkens back to the original series episode The Enemy Within.  There, Kirk was split in two by a transporter accident, and he does battle with himself.  These bits pay tribute to classic Trek moments and Kirk traits for this, the twenty-fifth anniversary, without betraying the film’s tone in anyway. Star Trek VI has plenty of character building moments for James T. Kirk as he comes to terms with his prejudice and resistance to peace.  Spock gets a few moments of depth and growth, primarily with Valeris and Kirk.  The Undiscovered Country has a wealth of great qualities which both vastly succeeded in their potential, but also some that didn’t quite get developed as deeply as they could have been.

The visual effects from Industrial Light & Magic are some of the best of the film franchise.  Granted, the floating CGI blood in the zero gravity sequence leaves a little to be desired, but it’s certainly up to the standards of 1991’s other big special effects in Terminator 2.  Of course, I believe phaser fire should cauterize a wound, and not allow blood to go gushing out like this is a slasher film.  All other effects are superb.  The model work on all the ships is amazingly detailed holding up to great scrutiny, and being photographed beautifully.  The Praxis shockwave is a stunning feast for the eyes that starts the film off on a powerful note.  All the way through, you can see the remarkable quality that ILM was worth, and what Star Trek V was lacking without their talents.

With previous franchise composers James Horner and Jerry Goldsmith both turning down this project for their own vehement reasons, Meyer had to seek out someone new to provide a musical landscape for this darker toned film.  Cliff Eidelman delivered something right on the money.  It’s certainly not the rousing fanfares of old, but surely appropriate for the heavier subject matter and dangerous implications of the story.  He nicely throws in the right lighter cues at the perfect moments.  When Kirk and Spock have a discussion just before the third act, Eidelman brings out a poignant, warm feeling in his score.  His work complements the film’s various dramatic facets beautifully, and the film concludes with a gorgeous composition that sends the original crew out with class and style.

I find it difficult to express a counter-balance to my criticisms to support my opinion in that this is still a good movie.  I will never deny that is, but I think it succeeds only well enough instead of exceeding where it could have.  Simply put, what I’m saying about Star Trek VI is that it is a good film that still had plenty of room for improvement.  It’s themes are smart and topical for the time, and still have some resonance today.  Peace is a difficult thing to strive for, and some people are more comfortable with continuing to be at war with a lifelong enemy than try to learn to co-exist with them in peace.  These are ideals that primarily Kirk has to deal with and overcome, and that is the best handled thing about this entire movie.  While there has been a lot of criticism in this review, it’s simply to point out that many of the good aspects of this movie could have been great, if given more time to fully develop them at the script level.  As I said, I have felt as if there was something lacking in this movie, and in short, that something was a lack of tension and urgency in the plot as well as a need for more substance added into many of the newly introduced characters.  It has great, strong subject matter which felt like a necessary story to be told in the annals of Star Trek, but for as much as you can read into them, there’s just as much that didn’t end up on the page or the screen to flesh out those details.  This is a movie I still like very much, and I think it is a respectable send-off for the original cast of Star Trek.  I give it a very strong recommendation.  Again, being that it was the first Trek film I ever saw, I think this is one that could draw you into the franchise, and show you it does have substance and relevance to offer.