I 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.
The Living Daylights was the debut of Timothy Dalton as James Bond on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the franchise. It also marked a distinct shift in tone from Roger Moore’s more light-hearted approach, and brought Bond back closer to the core of Ian Fleming’s character. With Dalton came a more dangerous Bond who carried more weight and urgency with him, and it is a portrayal that I very much enjoy. While this first outing was generally well received, I believe Dalton’s two film run with the character was unjustly maligned, and I hope this review and that of the following film will detail why.
After James Bond (Timothy Dalton) helps Russian officer Georgi Koskov (Jeroen Krabbé) make a daring defection to the West, the intelligence community is shocked when Koskov is abducted from his remote hiding place. Bond leaps into action, following a trail that leads to the gorgeous Kara (Maryam d’Abo), who plays Bond as easily as she plays her Stradivari cello. As they unravel a complex weapons scheme with global implications, linking up with arms dealer Brad Whitaker (Joe Don Baker) and Russian General Pushkin (John Rhys-Davies), James and Kara escape first to Vienna, then to Morocco, finally ending up in a prison in Soviet occupied Afghanistan as they track down the elements in this mystery.
The opening action sequence is very smart and exciting. M sends three Agents to test the security of a military installation on Gibraltar, but are ambushed by an assassin. I’ve always liked the touch by the filmmakers to cast two other actors who resemble previous Bond actors George Lazenby and Roger Moore before revealing Dalton himself. Obviously, with marketing of the film and all, the trick loses its intended impact, but it’s a clever idea to keep an uninitiated audience guessing as these other agents fall by the wayside. Regardless, this sequence sets the tone for this more action packed and daring approach of this new Bond. It’s really a perfect start to a very promising film that does deliver in many satisfying ways.
The opening credits sequence for The Living Daylights is nothing special or distinct. Watery images and silhouettes really don’t have much to do with the title song from Norwegian pop group A-ha. It’s not particularly bad, just very uninspired. While this musical track doesn’t have as much punch as Duran Duran’s had for the previous film, the high pitched vocals and melodic quality are still catchy and appropriately Bond-esque. I like it quite a lot.
Timothy Dalton injects a seriousness into the role of Bond that I find very compelling. He carries himself with sophistication and integrity creating a strong screen presence. He firmly grounds Bond while still giving him charisma, wit, and a subtle depth of emotion. He can be humorous and charming while never betraying the dramatic intent of the portrayal. Dalton’s Bond is one that grasps the seriousness of situations, and acts with due intelligence and action. There’s definitely a gritty vigor he brings into Bond that makes the film instantly more energetic and exciting. It’s a dimensional performance that is thoroughly enjoyable, and creates a James Bond that can smartly weave in and out of the world espionage. Beyond everything else, Dalton makes 007 a character that can be taken seriously, and allow for serious stakes to be highlighted in his films. While there is room for fun, it is ultimately a better film when there’s real tension and risk at hand. I think Dalton did an excellent job stepping into this role bringing realism back into the fold. Timothy Dalton likely did many of his own stunts, and it really shows through, benefitting the quality of the action immensely.
The action of the film is excellent. The chase sequence through the snowy landscape with the Aston Martin showing many of its “optional extras” is very thrilling and fun. Plenty of explosive moments and clever twists and turns make it a memorable highlight of the film. The foot chase across the rooftops of Tangier was very well done, also. All of the action sequences are very fun and inventive using the unique locations, from the snow to the desert, to great effect. The climactic action scene where Bond hangs off the back of a cargo plane, set to explode in a matter of minutes, while battling the Russian mercenary Necros is very tense and exhilarating. Yet, it doesn’t end there as we get further explosions and a dangerous mid-air escape. Then, Bond still has to finish off Whitaker in a great firefight. It’s an immensely satisfying conclusion that does not hold back on the thrills.
Maryam d’Abo is probably not as alluring or sexy as most other Bond girls, but she is definitely a good actress that had a lot to bring to Kara Milovy. She’s very likable and relatable as an innocent and talented young woman deceived by her deceitful boyfriend Koskov. Maryam brings a strong will to the role, but also finds the vulnerability in Kara. Kara and James share some moments of strong emotion that d’Abo conveys remarkably well. She was a very good fit for this initial outing for Dalton as she satisfies on stronger levels than mere sex appeal.
I feel the only downside to the film are the villains. Joe Don Baker is decently charismatic, but never really develops into a serious threat. Opposite a more formidable acting talent in John Rhys-Davies, whose character is implicated as the true villain by Whitaker and Koskov, it’s even harder to perceive Whitaker as someone to contend with. He’s portrayed as a man who doesn’t take anything too seriously, but any hint of arrogance or ego that could have been there, simply is traded off for a character that’s lacking in formidable competence. Thankfully, he’s not a forefront villain. Jeroen Krabbé’s General Koskov does definitely go down the path of arrogance, but it takes quite a while before he becomes intimidating at all. He’s certainly the better quality villain of the two, ultimately, and at least has more of a detestable element to him due to how he eventually treats Kara. Yet, he still could’ve used a lot more work. I feel it’s more the near insurmountable odds that Bond faces which make the film tense and exciting than the villains he faces. They are nothing major to contend with. It’s just the forces they command are what create the danger the film needs.
I really like that the plot features a tangled web of deceit for Bond to unravel. He has to tread cautiously amongst those he encounters before he can determine who he can trust, if anyone at all. He works his way through a deceptive abduction, a faked assassination, opium trade, arms deals, and rebel fighters in the Middle Eastern desert to uncover the depth of this plot, and to stop it dead in its tracks. It’s an excellently crafted story that never falls into a lull. There’s a consistent development and progression of plot while never leaving our main characters of James and Kara in the dust. Their motivations remain clear, and their relationship develops very solidly. Despite James having to lie to her while attempting to determine her role in Koskov’s plan, Kara is able to eventually trust him, and they forge a convincing romantic relationship. Everything is smartly wrapped together in a very satisfying package making for an entertaining ride.
I was very pleased by John Barry’s score for this franchise entry. He gave a little more edge to the traditional Bond theme in a few of the action scenes, and nicely incorporated the melody of the opening title track into the score during the third act. It’s a very tight, very good piece of orchestration that complemented the film’s tone and pace strongly. It was a very fine and respectable final bow for Barry as this was the last James Bond film he worked on.
Ultimately, The Living Daylights is a very good film in this franchise. There is more than enough action to spare while still delivering a very smart and well plotted story. It brings espionage more skillfully back into Bond’s world, and the film is better off for it. The real cog of success was Timothy Dalton who made the character honest and real, again. Between his presence and beautifully deeper voice, you get that sense of dramatic tone from him throughout the film. He simply made the film more exciting and interesting. While there is a more gritty, dark style to this film, it still has plenty of fun moments to smile at that do not betray the tone veteran Bond director John Glen was going for. If the film had strong villains, or simply stronger performances from the villains, I could really give this a very strong endorsement. They just lack that edge of intimidating and formidability to push them over as a major threat on their own. The excitement and engaging narrative is due to the twisting and turning mystery Bond has to weave through, and it’s all done with expert quality and precision. The Living Daylights is definitely a big step up from A View To A Kill, and for those desiring a more traditional Bond film from Dalton, this is definitely the one to check out. I do very highly recommend the film despite any shortcomings it has with the villains. It’s a fun, thrilling ride that will entertain you. Next up, James Bond will return in Licence to Kill.
Adapted from the novel by Stephen King, and directed by David Cronenberg, The Dead Zone is definitely one of the best films based on King’s work. It has always been heralded with acclaim for many excellent reasons. Not the least of which is an incredible lead performance from Christopher Walken.
Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) is a young and charming school teacher with a bright future ahead of him with a woman he loves and intends to marry. Yet, after leaving her home one night, he is involved in a car accident which leaves him in a coma for five years. Upon awakening, Johnny discovers he has gained the power of psychic visions where he see the past, present, and future with just the touch of a hand. This frightens Johnny, and he feels only more isolated from the world when he learns that Sarah (Brooke Adams), the love of his life, has married another man and had a child with him. After Johnny physically recovers from his coma, he becomes more and more reclusive until Sheriff Bannerman (Tom Skerritt) enlists his help to find the vicious Castle Rock Killer. However, when Johnny later shakes the hand of young and upcoming political candidate Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen), he is confronted with a frightening vision that shakes Johnny down to his core.
To say the least, Cronenberg has been a very original director with a unique perspective and style which comes out in science fiction or horror fare. Although, what he gives us with this film is a much more subtly clever and psychologically powerful over overt strangeness. Instead of going for the throat like he did with Scanners or Videodrome, he really hones in on the heart of this story, and he does it magnificently well. Every element he brought together truly merged with the heavy, somber tone he was going for. That was an excellent direction to envelope the film in as it puts us right into Johnny’s headspace. I think it was a stroke of genius that he made Johnny’s visions fully enveloping. He put Johnny inside the vision as if he was right there as it happened, but unable to affect change within the vision. It created a far more strained experienced for the character than if it just appeared as a dream state. With the first vision, he could probably feel the heat and flames just as if he was there in the burning house. During the vision of the Castle Rock Killer, Johnny is adamant how he was right there watching the murder, but unable to stop it. This forges Johnny into a darker, more reclusive state.
This is the earliest film I’ve seen of Christopher Walken’s career, and it shows that, no matter the age, Walken delivers his all. Johnny starts out as a kind, lively man fully in love, but the accident forces a turbulent change in him. He feels like a man out of sync with the world, and is now haunted by his new abilities. He’s angry that five years of his have been taken away, and that the woman he loved moved on with her life while he has none to return to. Walken is able to convey the deep emotional turmoil of Johnny with so much humanity that you can’t help but feel his pain. The tragic sense of the character really comes through in such strong, brilliant ways. Walken subtly mixes in the charm of the pre-accident Johnny underneath that somber, unstable exterior. The well of emotion in his face and eyes honestly becomes heartbreaking many times over. When the visions occur, Walken goes into an intense trance which is immensely riveting. Walken actually had Cronenberg fire off a gun, loaded with blanks, to elicit his startling reaction in those moments, and that was greatly effective. Walken can be very intense, at times, as the fear of his knowledge of the future boils over, but he’s always able to return to that heartfelt side. I could really go on and on about all the nuances and profound qualities of Christopher Walken’s performance, as he is always so rich with, but suffice it to say, he is absolutely stunning in this role.
Another great talent on display is Tom Skerritt who brings his strong presence of authority and sense of compassion to Sheriff Bannerman. He feels very authentic as the lead police officer of a small New England town. He really invests you in Bannerman’s plight where he has exhausted all avenues of investigation, and is willing to put his faith in the extraordinary to protect the people of his town. Herbert Lom does a very interesting and relatable performance as Dr. Sam Weizak with the genuine care of a physician. I really like the candor and humanity he brings to the role as Johnny’s doctor. He’s about the only one Johnny can confide in about his abilities, and that creates some very strong scenes which show Johnny’s pain and struggles. It’s very strong and intriguing work. Brooke Adams is very lovely and beautiful in the role of Sarah. She is very sweet and smart showing a simple, very caring woman that would endear herself to the younger Johnny who was bright and full of life. Adams does the same to an audience showing warmth and tenderness, and really striking up a genuine, heartfelt chemistry with Walken. The great Anthony Zerbe has an admirable turn as Roger Stuart, who hires Johnny to tutor his son, and also, bridges Smith with Stillson. Zerbe has a screen presence of respect, intelligence, and sophistication which serves the character excellently.
Martin Sheen is awesome as Greg Stillson. While he is perfectly stereotypical of a politician, and seemingly an exaggerated one, it entirely works for the role. Stillson is megalomaniacal, as is revealed to Johnny. He’s full-tilt insane, and Sheen revels in that madness. He has thinly veiled unhinged mentality which many voters would perceive as zeal, passion, and charisma, but Zerbe’s character perceives the danger he poses, which is a very nice touch to motivate Johnny’s and Stillson’s paths to cross.
While I have not read the novel, it seems like it had just a series of generally episodic events, which could have proven complicated to translate into a coherent screenplay, but I believe the filmmakers did an excellent job of weaving them together with Johnny’s plight being the through line. How he goes from feeling angry and cursed to slowly realizing the potential good he can do with his powers is a fascinating approach. Yet, he’s never really a man at peace. There’s always an emotional or psychological turmoil swirling inside him. Because of this, The Dead Zone is more a character-driven movie as there is no overarching main plot, aside from Johnny’s internal struggles. The film gives us a series of otherwise unrelated events that deeply affect and mold Johnny towards a powerful ending. While it could use a little more meat on the bone, in terms of a more rigorously involved plot in the Stillson centric segment, this really seems like the best approach to the material, and it is done exceptionally well.
The film’s score was done by the late, great Michael Kamen, who was a masterful composer and musician. Here, he produced a brilliant score that is powerful and haunting. It really has a strong presence which really digs deep into the emotions abound in the film, reflecting the sad, bittersweet feeling Cronenberg captured on screen. Even in the beautiful moment, he still manages to keep that heavy, foreboding tone present. It’s really a mesmerizing piece of music which is undeniably one of Kamen’s finest and distinct works.
The winter setting of The Dead Zone is marvelously brilliant. It reflects the cold, lonely, isolated sensibility that come to define Johnny Smith. It also perfectly Stephen King. Cinematographer Mark Irwin shot this film amazingly well. There are some sequences with wonderfully moody lighting such as the tunnel crime scene with the headlights reflecting off the ice, or the green tinge inside the Dodd residence. Johnny’s visions are all very visually strong, especially the ice break sequence. Overall, Irwin captures the power of this picture beautifully and compellingly.
The horror aspects in this film are very psychologically and visually based. Certainly the most graphic and startling is the Castle Rock Killer segment. We get violence and some disturbing imagery with this part which is very expertly executed. The rest of the film focuses on the fearful knowledge that haunts Johnny, and creates a troubling foreboding tone which leaves the audience unsettled. It’s a cerebral film built on a solid, somber atmosphere that can leave you saddened. I do think it’s a film that goes beyond the confines of horror, and pursues something much more fascinating and deeper. That was much of King’s intention. He wanted to write a story that didn’t delve into creatures or spirits or other things that come out to scare you in the dead of night. The Dead Zone was a sad, turbulent journey for a man that never asked for these extraordinary powers, but had to somehow cope with these experiencing jarring, haunting premonitions of death. They lead him down a chilling path that would be frightening for anyone.
As is obvious, I really like The Dead Zone. The only thing that pulls it away from a perfect rating is that I don’t think the build up to the climax is quite strong enough. A bit more time taken for Johnny to deep down struggle with his decision, or to really reflect upon himself would’ve given it a more dramatic swell. The ending is excellent, though. It really hits the right, powerful emotional beat. I wouldn’t change a frame of it. Christopher Walken puts in a rock solid performance that runs through a wide array of emotions that he brilliantly wraps into a single package. David Cronenberg had already proven he could go way far out with his concepts, and really deliver very bizarre, yet profound films. Here, he proves he get deep into the soul of a story and character, and deliver something equally profound on a much more intimate human level. I really, strongly recommend this film. It is expertly crafted by a great team of wonderfully talented film artists.