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“Star Trek” Classic Movie Retrospective


RavensFilm Productions presents the Forever Cinematic Star Trek Classic Movie Retrospective.  Covered are the first six films of the franchise featuring the full original cast and crew of the Starship Enterprise.  Starring William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelly, James Doohan, George Takei, Walter Koenig, and Nichelle Nichols.  Also starring Stephen Collins, Persis Khambatta, Ricardo Montalban, Kirstie Ally, Robin Curtis, Christopher Lloyd, Laurence Luckinbill, David Warner, and Christopher Plummer.  Reviews by Nick Michalak.

Written Reviews:
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
Star Trek III: The Search For Spock (1984)
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)

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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.


Outlander (2008)

Sometimes, you see a trailer for a movie, and you just have to take a chance with it.  Make a real commitment to what you perceive as an awesome piece of cinematic work, and sometimes, it truly pays off beyond your expectations.  Of course, my luck being what it is, it was not easy tracking down a DVD of this movie in-store.  I ultimately found it in a re-sale store about twenty miles away.  Yes, I could have done an iTunes rental, but I felt so strong about how great this film would be that I felt a purchase was inevitable.  Beyond just the trailer, I have enjoyed some strong works from Jim Caviezel dating back to The Count of Monte Cristo and Frequency to the current hit CBS crime thriller television series Person of Interest.  Caviezel always brings a rich depth to his roles that is highly investing and entertaining.  So, that further fueled my interest as well as the fusion of science fiction and fantasy elements.

709AD, a space craft streaks across the night’s sky and crash lands in Norway with the only survivors being the warrior Kainan (Jim Caviezel) and a deadly alien stowaway.  Before he can track down this enemy, Kainan is captured by viking warrior Wulfric (Jack Huston), and held prisoner in the local village led by King Hrothgar (John Hurt).  He is questioned about his presence, and says he was hunting dragons, but in truth, it is a fiery bio-luminescent beast called a Moorwen from a planet his people attempted to wipe out and colonize.  Grudgingly accepted into the clan after saving the King’s life, Kainan confides in Hrothgar’s fiercely beautiful daughter, Freya (Sophia Myles), about his past.  As the Moorwen wreaks terror and destruction on neighboring villages, the threat of conflict between the clans escalates and Kainan is called upon to kill the creature.  They forge a strategy and weapons to defeat it, but victory will come at a cost and Kainan will find a new future for himself.

Getting right to the point, what satisfied me the most about this movie is how perfect the storytelling and character arcs are.  Every story or character element is introduced, evolved, and paid off with great emotional weight and impact.  As the bond between Kainan and the Vikings strengthens and expands, I felt the need for where this story should end, hoping for the characters to take the paths I anticipated for them.  Nothing is ever lightly given in this movie, nor is any plot development handled weakly.  Every emotion and character evolution is earned by the dedication of the actors and the filmmakers’ to this powerful adventure.

The visual effects are surprisingly awesome and consistent.  There were only two extremely quick moments where the CGI looked a little undercooked, but they are “blink and you’ll miss them” moments.  Every other instance is exceptionally good, and listening to the audio commentary you’ll learn how extensive and seamless these digital effects are.  The Moorwen is wonderfully realized with a brilliant bio-luminescent design making it appear as if it’s made of fire.  It burns throught the darkness of night attracting the attention of its prey. so that it can attack swiftly.  It comes off almost like a creature of legend, like a dragon, but it does have a little more science fiction edge to it.  In its few revealing moments, personality and intelligence come through in its face and actions as well as a fearsome demeanor.  This is a welcome choice as I wholly support the idea of the creature having personality like the Predator or Alien.  It makes them more memorable and effective.  The scenes on the alien planet are especially well done with a striking sense of scope and interesting, unique design.  Lots of creative thought was put into it to give it its own identity to offer up an epic sensibility for the film.  The amber color scheme of the planet is a nice contrast to the greenish-blue daytime scenes on Earth.

Cinematography is gorgeous.  A great deal of care and integrity were put into the photography of this picture giving it scope and weight.  Apparently, production was originally intended to take place in New Zealand with WETA Workshop doing effects on a larger budget, but to my eyes, I see no budget starved areas.  Ultimately being shot in Nova Scotia, Canada, the landscape is beautifully captured with some excellent aerial photography, and various shots which show the breadth and depth of the land which all sell a certain majesty of the film’s setting.  Gorgeous really does encompass it all.  The soft, warm lighting in the Viking Hall is like a master artist’s brushstrokes come to life.  The shadowy and fiery moments at night hunting the Moorwen establish a tense, fearful atmosphere that drives the emotional intensity of the story.  There’s plenty of subtle atmosphere to give the land life.  Outlander was shot with exceptional skill and scope by Pierre Gill, and I applaud his marvelous work here.

Jim Caviezel is an amazingly effective and powerful actor who brings a lot of relatable aspects to Kainan.  First off, there’s the courageous warrior who embodies a great hero’s journey.  He feels a need for redemption for what his people did to the Moorwens, and gradually, he seems to find that salvation with these people.  They come to trust in him and accept him as one of their own through a series of trials, both friendly and dangerous.  Caviezel offers up a growing humanity, an opening of Kainan’s emotions that allow an audience and the other characters to strongly connect with him.  Jim Caviezel also has a natural ethereal, soulful aura around him that serves the otherworldly aspect of the character well.  The strength of Kainan is constantly balanced with his own internal pain and doubts through the competence and thorough devotion of Caviezel to the role.  I simply love how much he digs into the character to bring out elements evocative of the heroes of Highlander and Predator.  Characters with a strong sense of honor, courage, and heart that come off as legendary heroes.  I would certainly say that Outlander could be categorized as a meshing of those sorts of films.  Caviezel himself said the film was “a light mix of Braveheart and Highlander.”  Many have mentioned comparisons to Beowulf.  By the film’s end, I viewed Kainan as a warrior of legend full of depth that was greatly worth investing myself in for 115 minutes.

The supporting cast really begins with Jack Huston.  He’s a great actor here that Caviezel works off of very well.  As Wulfric, Huston brings a youthful brashness to the story.  He’s a warrior with much ambition as the heir to his father’s throne, but he lacks the wisdom and experience to be ready to accept that role.  However, his impulsiveness and character is gradually tempered through this adventure.  Kainan and Wulfric learn much from one another, and they prove to be far better off for it.  They forge a kinship that fuels them into battle and further strengthens the foundation of the story.  Huston is charismatic and finely enjoyable.

I found Sophia Myles pleasantly surprising and powerful.  I really only know her from her role of the self-serving vampire Erika in Underworld.  Here, I absolutely love her!  Her introduction as Freya is strong and aggressive.  She handles the physical demands of Freya in stride in various fight scenes wielding a sword with expert competence.  She’s a woman who can defend herself and her people, if need be, and while she does have a softer, more heartfelt side, that is not how she wishes to be defined.  Sophia is a beautiful woman, especially with that red hair, who brings so much dimension to Freya.  She adds a fine texture and weight to this role which does have its tender areas of compassion and love opposite the pride and strength.  There is warmth and passion in her eyes, selling so much of how she relates and bonds with the male characters around her.  She holds her ground firmly with impressive depth and confidence while forging an amazing emotional core.

King Hrothgar is excellently portrayed by the engaging and insightful John Hurt.  Wisdom and honor mixed with conviction and compassion are what define his performance.  Ron Perlman has a smaller role as Hrothgar’s rival Gunnar which he infuses with gruff brutality and heartbreaking ire.  In general, the whole supporting cast maintains the depth and dimension that the leads established creating a very full and diverse world that feels realistic.

The production design has great detail and vibrancy applied to it.  Everything of the Vikings has a texture that speak of a culture with realistic history.  From the costumes to the sets to their props, they are all cohesive.  They create a complete world for these characters to inhabit.  Again, nothing feels budget starved.  There are large sets built to give scenes visual depth and wonderful lighting setups that bring it all to life.  The advanced technology of Kainan’s world is very well designed with a very consistent aesthetic.  For some viewers, it might take a little getting used to switching between the Viking world and the science fiction tech, but ultimately, everything meshes as well as anyone could expect.

The story here is amazingly well written and interwoven around its amazing characters.  Howard McCain and Dirk Blackman put together an inspired screenplay that turned into a fantastic, thoroughly pleasing feature film for me.  It is great that Kainan enters into a world of characters who have an established history, who have stories already in motion for themselves.  They are already on a certain path, and the arrival of Kainan and the Moorwen merely jump start those stories forward.  All of the character threads tie into each other and the main plot to create great arcs that culminate in something that legends are made of.

Director / co-writer Howard McCain crafted a film full of adventure, action, tension, suspense, excitement, drama, and character depth that thrives on the screen.  Outlander has beautiful and brilliant visual flare that give the film so much vibrant life.  There are so many deeply talented people involved in this film that make it so amazing.  The score by Geoff Zanelli supports the epic scale of this adventure, and enhances the emotion throughout.  This was a movie that easily fell below the radar due to a limited theatrical release by the Weinstein Company.  That is why I am writing this review so that it can gain some more exposure.  I could reiterate many points I made here to push this further upon you, but the best way to promote this is to say I loved it.  This is a thrilling action adventure with plenty of character drama to satisfy a wide spread audience.  The science fiction and Nordic elements come together through the emotional elements which bond the characters together tightly.  This is one film you surely need to personally experience to fully understand its strength, but in more simple terms, Outlander entirely kicks ass!


The Thing (1982)

Right behind Michael Mann, John Carpenter is my favorite filmmaker of all time.  The diverse range of films he has given the world are entirely unique and wildly entertaining.  In 1982, he ventured to pay homage to one of his favorite filmmakers, Howard Hawkes, by helming a re-adaptation of the John W. Campbell, Jr. short story “Who Goes There?”  Hawkes had done so previously in 1951 with The Thing From Another World.  What Carpenter gave us is what I consider the best film he’s ever made.  A grippingly effective science fiction horror film with an amazing atmosphere of slow building paranoia and sickening alien gore.  John Carpenter’s The Thing became a classic of the genre due not only to a solid ensemble cast, but an elite crew that make this such a fantastic film that continues to hold up thirty years later.

In the winter of 1982, a twelve-man research team at a remote Antarctic United States research station discover an alien life form that was buried in the snow and ice for over 100,000 years.  They soon realize that not only is it still alive after a deep freeze burial and a fiery defeat by a Norwegian camp, but that it has the ability to imitate any living thing to exact detail.  Before they know it, the alien organism has infiltrated their camp, posing as any number of these men.  Paranoia and distrust runs amuck in this isolated compound as no one knows who is human, and who is The Thing.

Time always seems to be the best judge of quality.  Upon its release, The Thing did poorly.  This was because 1982 was the summer of Steven Spielberg’s E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial, and many dark science fiction films did badly in the shadow of that wondrous, fantastical film.  Blade Runner, which opened the same weekend as The Thing, also suffered at the box office because of this.  However, since then, The Thing and Blade Runner have become two of the most revered films of the genre garnering massive praise, and are recognized among the best works from directors John Carpenter and Ridley Scott, respectively.  They are both amazing films in different ways, but have both influenced the genre immensely.

Beyond anything, what stands out the most in this film are Rob Bottin’s amazing creature effects.  What he achieves puts him on the same level with the absolute best in the business.  Effects master Stan Winston also lent a helping hand in a sequence or two, but Bottin is the main man responsible for the richly disgusting slimy alien gore and mind blowing physical creations here.  The detail he put into his work to create such twisted and purely alien designs remain as impactful and effective today as they were in 1982.  That’s the work of a master, and it lead to him working on blockbusters such as RoboCop, Total Recall, Se7en, Mission: Impossible, and Fight Club.  It is a massive loss to the industry that he has been absent from it since 2002.  Bottin was a fascinating personality with a wild artistic mind that was ripe with brilliance.  This film is eternal testament to his talents.

Speaking of which, John Carpenter’s pure horror talents have never been more taut or focused than in this film.  It’s the perfect blending of paranoia, creepiness, gory horror, tension, and suspense.  Nobody does it like John Carpenter, and only from his expert direction could this film have become as timeless and consistently effective as it has become.  Also from him comes a perfectly selected cast fronted by Kurt Russell as R.J. MacReady – the cool and rational mind, the level-headed one of the bunch.  Also featured in this ensemble are Keith David, A. Wilford Brimley, Thomas Waites, Richard Dysart, Richard Masur, David Clennon, Charles Hallahan, Peter Maloney, T.K. Carter, and Donald Moffat.  They all inhabit their characters so distinctly and vibrantly.  Each man has their own look, and aren’t easy to mistake one for another.  Their personalities and characteristics set them all apart very nicely, and all of the cast grasped onto the growing paranoia excellently.  A beardless Brimley brings forth a fantastic performance as well as Blair flips out partway through the movie tearing apart the communications center.  He plays crazy to immensely entertaining effect.  Later, he is truly unsettling leading into the film’s climax.  Keith David is constantly entertaining as the gung ho, take-no-crap from anyone Childs.  However, Russell clearly remains the most central protagonist of the film bringing stability to the chaos, and handling all the various dimensions of MacReady awesomely.

The script written by Bill Lancaster is wonderfully constructed.  Sadly, Mr. Lancaster passed away in 1997 due to a cardiac arrest, and was not able to contribute his thoughts to Universal’s amazing Collector’s Edition DVD.  The Thing was the last piece of cinema Lancaster was directly involved with, and at least he could say that he bowed out of filmmaking on a seriously high note.  This happens to be a pure classic in the genre of science fiction & horror.  The dialogue is always great, never ever cheesy or cliché.  There are bits of humor, but nothing that works against the tone of the film or the scene.  Any director would be privileged to work with a script this well-conceived.

The cinematography is an absolute pleasure here, and that is forever to be expected from Academy Award winning director of photography Dean Cundey.  In the opening minutes of the film, we are given stunning shots of the immense arctic landscape that clearly establish how isolated our characters are.  The photography can even prove to be terribly creepy at times such as the storage room scene after MacReady breaks into the compound.  Kurt Russell looks ghostly with the brilliant blue lighting upon his snow covered self.  Cinematography in a Carpenter film has always been a strong point, and you cannot deny its strength here.  It helps evoke the proper emotions at the right times by capturing atmosphere in its compositions and lighting.  Another such element is Ennio Morricone’s score.  Right from the get go, it sets the tone for the entire film.  It grips you and never lets go.  This score is haunting, relentless, brooding, and terribly chilling.  This is such a powerful score, and despite that Carpenter did not compose it, it does have many elements of his own scores in it.  Morricone had scored many “spaghetti” westerns including The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly, and we would later score The Untouchables.  To this day, Morricone continues to score many films, mostly Italian ones.

What makes this film so effective is due to the psychological aspect of the story.  The paranoia slowly develops in the company of these men while trust diminishes.  These characters are nicely setup from the start establishing their relationships and personalities so vividly that later you see how seamlessly the alien has infiltrated their ranks.  No one acts any differently, and it is surprising how complete the disguise is.  Under a human guise, the Thing turns down the chance to take over as the leader of the group.  The life form is not looking to be obvious.  It has no ego, and is possibly doing this out of fear for its own survival.  It wants to hide, be subversive so that it can keep doing what it does without suspicion.  Using covert methods, it can slowly take over the entire camp until it is in total control.  However, when threatened, it is a brilliant idea that each part of it is an individual whole that will fight for its own survival.  This makes it just that much harder to definitively defeat as even one molecule’s survival can be disastrous, in time.  Mixed in with the diverse and dimensional performances, every aspect of paranoia and fear that this film deserved is greatly fleshed out and realized here.

When taking in all of this excellence, one can’t help but realize they are watching a classic piece of science fiction / horror cinema with John Carpenter’s The Thing.  From Carpenter’s expert direction, Bottin’s masterful effects work, the stellar production values, the power of Morricone’s score, the amazing cinematography, and certainly the stellar acting talents of this whole ensemble cast you will get a perfect film.  The atmosphere in this motion picture is something that many filmmakers fail to inject into their own films.  My interest in horror films has waned in past several years.  First, it was the torture porn trend, and now, I just don’t see much of anything out there with this level of atmosphere and craftsmanship.  John Carpenter’s masterpiece gets a perfect, solid rating from me – 10 out of 10.  I did see the 2011 prequel, and while it excelled in the horror and atmospheric areas, it didn’t have the memorable characters or amazing creature effects that set Carpenter’s film apart from the competition.  You surely can’t perfectly imitate a masterpiece.


Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999)

I grew up on Star Wars.  Being born a matter of months before the theatrical release of The Empire Strikes Back made that inevitable.  The first of the films I saw theatrically was Return of the Jedi, and I have vague recollections of the experience with loud noises and the unsettling image of the unmasked Darth Vader (for a three year old, it was like A Nightmare on Elm Street to me).  These films have been part of who I am for as long as I can remember, and I feel it’s about time I share my thorough thoughts on the entire saga.  With the 3D theatrical re-releases on the horizon, it seems timely.  I don’t plan on seeing them in 3D, and I do not own the Blu Rays at this point.  When reviewing the prequels, it will be their original DVD versions.  When reviewing the original trilogy, it will be the original theatrical versions.  I have many editions of the original trilogy on VHS & DVD, but this is about what I grew up on.

For The Phantom Menace, I was part of the madness in 1999.  I stood in line with a lawn chair, a brand new CD Walkman, and a sunburn to get advance tickets for opening night.  I ended up sitting next to a guy dressed as Darth Maul that first night, and I did see the film multiple times in theatres.  However, with time comes perspective and maturity.  I know everything that needs to be said about this film has been said, but this is a forum to share my thoughts.  It also an opportunity to express what these films mean to me.  So, this is not me trying to add to a worn out battle cry against this film.  I’m just here to offer my point of view.  All eight pages worth.

Two ambassadors from the Jedi Order, Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Nesson) and his apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), are sent to the planet of Naboo to resolve a trade taxation dispute.  The politically powerful Trade Federation has setup a blockade of battleships around the planet to force their position, but they are actually working with someone of ulterior motives named Darth Sidious.  Viceroy Nute Gunray works on his behalf to manipulate the young Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) to give into their treaty, but the Jedi soon learn of the Federation’s invasion army.  After surviving a battle droid attack, Qui-Gon & Obi-Wan escape to the planet’s surface where they are joined by the bumbling Gungan outcast Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best), and rescue the Queen and her contingent to escape the planet.  With their ship damaged, they land on the outer rim desert planet of Tatoonie where they try to barter for replacement parts, but they are soon hunted by Sidious’ apprentice Darth Maul.  On this planet, Qui-Gon discovers Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), a young slave of the junk dealer Watto who has unusually strong Force abilities.  Qui-Gon believes Anakin could be the one prophesized to “bring balance to the Force,” and later champions him to be trained as a Jedi.  However, the Jedi Council is apprehensive about the boy’s future sensing danger and fear in him.  Meanwhile, Naboo Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) tries to coach the young Queen in the political matters of the Senate, and manipulates her into forcing Supreme Chancellor Valorum (Terence Stamp) from the head of the Galactic Senate.  Eventually, all things converge back on Naboo where Queen Padmé Amidala attempts an assault to end the invasion and captivity of her people, and for the Jedi to learn the truth of whether or not the Dark Lords of the Sith have returned from a millennia of extinction.

What really strikes me about this story, beyond plot holes born out of illogical actions, is that there is no central main character.  With the original Star Wars, it was crystal clear that Luke Skywalker was our hero that would guide us on this journey through a galaxy far, far away.  It was his arc that was mainly at play as he goes through emotional trials that would forge him into a heroic figure.  I have never seen any character arcs in The Phantom Menace.  No one ends up any differently from when the film began to when it ended.  They don’t evolve and grow into something more than they were before.  The film has no prominent focus on any one character.  Looking at the saga as a whole, perhaps it should have been Obi-Wan Kenobi’s arc.  The film would show an eager, young Padawan who matures from student to mentor, truly earning his stature as a Jedi by the end by facing the breadth of this adventure alone.  Unfortunately, he’s left out of the meat of the story and action so much that he ultimately has little to say for himself.  Ewan McGregor is an exceptional actor with a wide range of talent who could’ve carried this film quite well, as he demonstrated in the following two films.  He does have flourishes of endearing charm that create some bright moments, but his potential is sadly suppressed to a minor supporting character.  Earlier drafts had it where Obi-Wan actually was the one mainly involved in the story on Tatoonie, and he forms a bond with Anakin championing his path to becoming trained.  That would actually follow what was stated in Return of the Jedi¸ but for whatever reason, George Lucas decided to overhaul continuity in the prequels.  It is clear that the way Lucas potentially envisioned the prequels in the early 1980s was very different from how he saw them in the late 1990s.

Anakin is an even less likely main character since he doesn’t enter the story until forty minutes in, and once they’ve left Tatoonie, he becomes mostly a background character.  Jake Lloyd certainly didn’t have the spark of great talent that Lucas’ friend Steven Spielberg is usually able to find in his child actors.  Lloyd makes Anakin almost a nuisance in the film.  He can become quite annoying acting like some kid on a rollercoaster ride instead of someone of mythic potential.  I would’ve anticipated a slightly more matured Anakin, despite his youth.  Someone that showed not just strength with the Force, but someone with the character traits to be the “great Jedi” Obi-Wan speaks of in the original trilogy.  Ultimately, Anakin never stops being the whiny annoyance he started out as until he is voiced by James Earl Jones as Darth Vader.  Here, not having Obi-Wan or Anakin as a main character works to the detriment of the prequels since their relationship is the linchpin of the saga.

This leads us over to Qui-Gon Jinn.  I really have a generous amount of respect for Liam Neeson.  He always does admirable work, and I have enjoyed his wave of action thriller successes in recent years.  With Qui-Gon, it’s hard to say much about him.  He’s stoic and little else.  There are brief, light touches of heart, but they lack substantial depth to be impactful.  Knowing Lucas’ direction style, I would definitely have to say that Neeson wasn’t given the proper direction to breathe appropriate life into the character.  Given the right context and perspective on Qui-Gon, I believe Neeson could have brought more depth to him.  Qui-Gon is the mentor, and I suppose he is meant to act as some form of main protagonist, but there’s not enough bold dimension in the characterization for him to standout amongst the blandness of the film.

Another amazing actor that occasionally comes off like a dull wooden board is Natalie Portman.  Anyone who has seen Léon (aka The Professional) knows that Natalie has had a wealth of stunning acting ability from an early age, and that talent has continued to flourish to this day.  She is one of the finest actresses around, and has been so for a long time.  She could’ve done so many impressive things with Amidala had she just been given something of substance to work with.  Instead, it’s all dry political ramblings that never give Portman an opportunity to break out and show some character depth.  There’s a little of that in her scenes with Anakin where the humanity of the character surfaces, but that’s not in the forefront of the picture.  It’s definitely there to lay the groundwork for the following two films where Anakin and Padmé develop a relationship, but outside of that, she seems almost robotic.  As the Queen, her line deliveries are entirely monotone, reflecting no humanity, concern, worry, or urgency.  I believe some of her dialogue was overdubbed by another actress due to Lucas’ intention to maintain the ruse of the bodyguard decoy scenario.  As Padmé, Portman does have more natural warmth, but I know she’s capable of much more than what I saw here.

George Lucas is not an actor’s director, and that tends to be his biggest failing.  I think he’s a great producer.  He manages all aspects of production with confidence, decisiveness, and skill, but he just doesn’t know how to bring greatness out his actors.  An actor brings their own talent to the table, but it is the director’s job to focus and filter that talent into a unique performance.  Without that, an actor has no guidance to know what to put into their character.  George’s writing also leaves something to be desired.  Sometimes, you get a Harrison Ford who just gets it right from the start because the character practically wrote itself, but for potentially more complex roles, it needs more on the page.  You can’t expect every actor to simply see more than what’s written.  It requires the director’s input to make it more than that, but Lucas simply doesn’t know how to approach those interactions.

However, the one actor who really shows something of substance and nuance is Ian McDiarmid.  While the story follows no reason or logic with the schemes of Palpatine / Sidious, McDiarmid captures a subtle subversive quality that makes him intriguing.  While the film never blatantly states it, the two are one in the same, and McDiarmid clearly integrates that into how he plays Palpatine.  He’s a man with sinister motives playing out in the back of his mind while keeping up the friendly personae of Senator, observing and manipulating people and events to achieve his goals.  McDiarmid brings Palpatine’s ominous perspective into his performance adding the right touches of restraint and foreboding malevolence to draw in an audience’s attention.  You can see in McDiarmid’s subtle expressions the moments where Palpatine’s plan is coming together, and he relishes it with silent restraint.  Conversely, as Darth Sidious, McDiarmid captures a straight up villainous and intelligent performance that is quite unsettling.  As the prequels went on, Ian surely delved wholly into the character playing up the feigned sincerity nicely, and having a broader canvas to work with than others were given latitude to do.

Now, the original trilogy were groundbreaking films in special effects that revolutionized the industry.  That’s a big reputation to live up to, and the success here is a little mixed.  This was 1999, the same year The Matrix was released, and while I’m no major fan of that film, it’s achievements in digital effects were more consistent and eye opening than The Phantom Menace.  It’s difficult to be entirely fair since the DVD transfer of Episode I is not the best.  The film comes off a little too grainy to grasp the clarity of the visual effects, and it has this odd pinkish hue.  Generally, the visual effects are quite good for 1999, but the leaps and bounds taken in CGI evolution would allow the following two prequels to be vastly superior in that area.  So, in comparison, The Phantom Menace looks a little undercooked in the visual effects realm.  It’s not a constant, but as I said, it is a mixed bag.  Most stuff is great, but some things just lack detail and depth.  Many of the hover tanks in the Gungan-Droid battle often look like an animatic or something from an old video game.  I would hope that these issues would be resolved with the Blu Ray and 3D releases, but Lucas doesn’t always fix what you think he will.  On the positive side, many of the computer generated characters are impressively detailed, creating very finely textured creations.  While Jar Jar is an insufferable character that grates on my nerves incessantly, visually, he is an amazing achievement.  If he had been as good of a character as Gollum from The Lord of the Rings, maybe people could give more credit to the CGI work put into him.

Production design here is quite impressive.  Naboo is certainly a world with a lot of culture and sophistication, and that comes out in the architecture and their design of technology.  The capital city of Theed is exceptionally picturesque partly due to the location shooting in Caserta, Italy.  Coruscant entirely captures the intended scope and scale that Lucas always wanted for Star Wars.  There is an inevitable Blade Runner influence here, but instead of smog, rain, and industrialism bearing down upon the environment, Coruscant is a perfectly wondrous planet that stands as a beacon for the entire Republic.  However, I can’t say I care much for anything surrounding the Gungans.  Every element of them just seems to pander to the child audience.  It is sufficiently alien, but there’s just too much of a cartoonish element to all of it to accept it as anything but child oriented.  There is nothing about them that I can take seriously in their culture, characterizations, or dialogue.

Focusing more on the story itself, I find it quite dull and illogical.  I could probably write, at least, ten pages worth of criticism about the plot holes in this film, but let me dig into what’s most annoying to my intellect.  The actions that different characters take have no sense to them.  Darth Sidious orders his minions along a certain course of action that should lead to the opposite outcome for himself, but because all the characters apparently just read the script so that they can follow along an illogical course of action, it all works out right in the end.  Sidious wants the Trade Federation to force Queen Amidala to sign a treaty making their blockade legal to the point of invading the planet, but if they had succeeded in doing so, Palpatine could not have achieved placing himself as the head of the Galactic Senate.  Palpatine could not have foreseen all these plans going awry where the Jedi Ambassadors survive the Federation’s assassination attempt, escape to the planet, run into Jar Jar, make a deal with the Gungans for passage through the planet core to arrive in Theed just in time to rescue the Queen, and escape the planet through the blockade of battleships so that Amidala could reach Coruscant to ask for a vote of no confidence in Chancellor Valorum.  That is an impossible series of events to foresee or predict when your plan is clearly setup to kill the Jedi and keep Amidala locked up in a prison camp while keeping the Senate blind to what’s really happening on Naboo.  My only conclusion that allows this to make any sense is that Palpatine and Sidious are split personalities with conflicting motives intent on screwing each other over like a pair of warring siblings.  Obviously, that’s not the truth of the matter, but I can’t find a rational stream of consciousness to resolve this issue.  If Palpatine was playing both sides, pretending to help the Trade Federation as Sidious while actually focusing his success on Queen Amidala’s side so that he can ultimately seize control of the Senate, that would’ve worked brilliantly.  He would really use the Trade Federation as ignorant pawns who were always meant to fail for Palpatine’s further success.  He would get them to setup the blockade, but then, sabotage their plans from the inside out so that Amidala can easily escape to Coruscant and set the political stage for Palpatine to ascend to Supreme Chancellor.  Instead, every action Palpatine initiates is towards the ends of supporting the success of the blockade.  Sending Darth Maul to hunt down and attempt to kill the Jedi and drag the Queen back to Naboo to get the treaty signed is entirely counteractive to Palpatine’s endgame.  And this is the entire plot of the movie!

Other plot holes arise from the need of Lucas to make the characters dumb as a post so they make moronic decisions that move the so-called plot forward.  A single vote of no confidence from one representative of one planet out of thousands of governments, star systems, and planets immediately usurps Chancellor Valorum from office, and forces a new Supreme Chancellor to be voted into service.  I always say that the system works, it’s just the people within it that make it suck.  Here, the system sucks, and the people within it are stupid.  I can’t imagine how a government body like this could actually function if all it takes is for one person to voice their loss of confidence in its leadership.  You’d be voting in a new Chancellor every week.  Worse yet, this is not the last time this ridiculous plot device will rear its ugly head.

Further ridiculousness comes on Tatoonie as Qui-Gon goes to one dealer to find the parts they need, and then, since that dealer, Watto, won’t accept Republic currency, Qui-Gon simply gives up trying to locate the parts elsewhere.  Just because Watto says no one else would have these parts doesn’t make it true.  I wouldn’t trust Watto to be an honest businessman for a nanosecond, especially when he has a young boy and his mother as slaves with explosive devices implanted in them.  He’s clearly not moral or ethical.  So, why trust him to be an altruistic salesman?  Qui-Gon could’ve attempted to charter passage off Tatoonie like the elder Obi-Wan and Luke did in the original Star Wars, but again, the script requires the characters to be intellectually stunted so that the incoherent plotline can be furthered.  Because of this, all cunning and ingenuity that could’ve been injected into these characters to make them smart and innovative in tight situations is discarded.  These brain dead moments happen again and again and again in nearly every scene.  I have seen hundreds of films, and many bad, horrible piles of cinematic trash.  However, I can’t recall experiencing a film with such a shoddy script with dozens upon dozens of plot holes that mutilate all common sense from its pages.  It’s not like the plot is that interesting to really sacrifice intelligence for it.

I also have to say that Anakin Skywalker being the creator of C-3PO was ridiculous.  It adds nothing to anything in the saga, and is a pure fan service addition that, again, has no intelligent thought behind it.  A protocol droid is good for language translation and little else.  Shmi Skywalker has no practical use for such a droid, and I don’t know how anyone could believe otherwise.  And the fact that he builds the exact same droid that is mass produced throughout the galaxy seems stupid.  A real world allegory is that when people build their own custom personal computers, they don’t go constructing exact replicas of something they could’ve bought at Best Buy.  They customize it to their needs so it is a optimal tool for the work they need to do.  If Anakin had any ingenuity, he would’ve built something entirely original that could assist his mother with daily chores.  A protocol droid is not designed for manual labor.

Of course, I also have to address the sad attempt at humor in this film.  You see, in the original trilogy, the humor really arose from conflicting personalities and witty banter in heightened situations.  It could be a little immature, but Han Solo was a little immature at times and Luke was on a journey to maturity.  So, it fit the personalities of the characters.  Here, the supposed humor is so blatant and in your face, it’s not funny.  It’s like a bad stand-up comic trying too hard for a laugh through cheap physical comedy.  Jar Jar is here only for stupid comedic antics.  Yes, he is a conduit for certain plot developments, but this film already demonstrated that logic holds no substance here, so, I’m a little surprised he has any plot related function at all.  Everything he does is clumsy slapstick humor which couldn’t be more out of place for this saga.  Star Wars was originally created with the idea of bringing mythology into the modern era as adventurous films for the whole family.  I’m sure poop and fart jokes were not part of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces, a book of mythological archetypes that heavily inspired Lucas.  It really is sad how far George had degraded his standards for entertainment here.  He went from creating a fantastical world of colorful, iconic characters and thematic mythology-inspired stories to a world of flat, dull, lifeless characters that are devoid of intelligence and humanity in ass-backwards stories that follow no reason or logic.

Despite all this, people still thought there was something cool and awesome to be had in this movie in the form of Darth Maul.  I respect Ray Park’s athletic talents immensely, but it is only that mixed with a very stunning character design that makes Maul cool.  He has no character.  He’s a plot device to make a few action sequences dynamic.  He’s a henchmen with nothing to say for himself, and nothing of substance to add to the story.  Maul exists because Sidious needs a competent ally to go out into the field and do his dirty work him.  Yes, he makes himself intriguing through an air of mystique, but frankly, as soon as he departs the film, none of it matters.  He’s a disposable villain whose loss makes no impact on the story because he never added anything to it.  This is different from Boba Fett who had a cunning role in The Empire Strikes Back by outsmarting Captain Solo’s escape plan, and actually had something to say for himself that reflected a sense of character, personality, and attitude.

The action sequences are a little mixed, but mostly excellent.  All the lightsaber battles are amazing!  The choreography of these segments show what fully trained Jedi could do, and what a fully capable Dark Lord of the Sith could accomplish.  They are dynamic and exciting, but they can seem a little too choreographed at times.  I see many behind the scenes featurettes on action movies where they strive to maintain a spontaneity to their fight choreography.  While it is all well rehearsed, the choreographers, stunt performers, and actors focus on keeping it real in the moment.  They inject character and emotion into those moments so it never looks to be so ‘by the numbers.’  The lightsaber battles can tend to come off like a dance instead of a physically intense series of actions and counteractions where a single error could cause doom.  It lacks emotion and danger.  It also lacks a psychological aspect due to the absence of dialogue.  Before, there would be Darth Vader or later Dooku trying to play mind games through cunning dialogue and strategic intimidation.  They would try to put their Jedi opponents off-guard this way, and it made for a more multi-dimensional fight.

Meanwhile, the space battles are okay.  There are very few of them, and none of them really capture that urgent speed and suspense that most others in the saga have offered.  The climax ultimately gets sliced up too thin between four interconnected action sequences to really give enough coherent importance to more than one.  That being the Jedi versus Sith lightsaber duel, and it’s the least consequential fight of the film since there’s nothing at stake between Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, and Maul.  Regardless, its speed and physical intensity give it the rousing action sensation that was needed in more abundance here.  The film starts so slowly and flatly laying out plot elements and briefly introducing a few characters while pouring out redundant dialogue that there’s not enough momentum to keep the film going.  It has a consistent pace, but that pace is a bit too sluggish here without anything of importance happening.  A methodical pace is workable when, like in The Empire Strikes Back, you are getting character development.  The Phantom Menace has no substantive character development.  Anything you learn of them is really surface stuff, very one dimensional insights.

The Gungan-Droid battle is uninteresting to me since I don’t care about the Gungans or the Droid Army.  It also comes off highly cartoonish and pathetically unfunny.  I wish like hell there was a way to excise this from the film, but Lucas himself realized that plot elements were too interwoven to do such a thing.  Another frivolous action sequence is the pod race.  It’s gratuitous in my eyes.  Theatrical or DVD cut, it’s far too long for such a minor element in the story.  This is not some sports movie where the entire film builds up to this critical sequence where everything is laid on the line, and all character, story, and emotional threads tie into it to make it pivotal and crucial.  Yes, it determines whether Anakin goes free or not, but Qui-Gon had already well demonstrated how much he was willing to cheat and manipulate events to get what he wanted.  I have no doubt that he would’ve done something unethical to free Anakin even if he had lost the race.  Simply said, the pod race overstays its welcome, and once it is done, it has no further relevance to the film.  Never has such a fast paced sequence slowed down a film so much.

On the brighter side, as is always a highlight that elevates the quality of any movie is John Williams’ score.  “Duel of the Fates” still is a brilliant, operatic piece that gives the climax a sweeping, epic majesty.  It was a perfect composition that has always marked what I call, “where the movie really begins.”  The only thing the score lacks is due to the lack of it in the picture is rousing adventure.  The action sequences are few and far between, and so, it requires the score to be more in the background instead of crashing into the surround sound with heart soaring excitement.  Regardless, I own two versions of the CD soundtrack including the two disc ultimate edition, and it is a fantastic listen.  So, I give it high marks all around.

The only other thing to address are the midichlorians.  You see, the Force used to be something entirely spiritual where it required great commitment and discipline to master.  It’s a power anyone can tap into it if they are willing to open their minds and trust in it fully.  Yoda spoke to this perfectly in The Empire Strikes Back in that the Force doesn’t rely on the physical.  It’s all about the character of the person which determines how great of a Jedi they could become.  Now, George Lucas tells us that everyone’s ability to use the Force is based on how many of these microscopic organisms are present in your bloodstream.  This means you are biologically limited to how potent of a Force user you can be, and you can never become anything greater than that.  No amount of spiritual strength or Jedi training you go through will make you as good as someone with more midichlorians in their body.  That entirely crushes the sensibility the Force was originally built upon, and that is another terrible idea injected into a film already ripe with terrible ideas.  Before, it was an inspiring idea and philosophy that added a fantastical quality to Star Wars that captured and enthralled peoples’ imaginations.  Now, it’s cold science.  Just like how I don’t need to know where immortals came from in Highlander, I don’t need to know the clinical origins of the Force.  Magic is magic, and that’s all I need to know.  And the fact that Lucas uses these midichlorians to say that Anakin Skywalker is the result of a virgin birth created by the midichlorians themselves is just a smack in the face to me.  There was never any need to inject such an idea into the saga, and it has extremely little relevance to anything.  It is only ever mentioned again in Revenge of the Sith by Palpatine, and it’s practically glossed over entirely by Anakin in that same scene.  I suppose it’s meant to give Anakin a more mythic or prophetic aura around him that neither Jake Lloyd or Hayden Christiansen ever remotely live up to.  While I’ve never had an overt issue with the whole “prophecy” aspect, it is another idea that Lucas developed exclusively for the prequels.  This revisionist mentality is no surprise to anyone now, but frankly, it gets to being a bit aggravating in the prequels as George keeps altering the original trilogy to accommodate it.

That’s really the perils of making prequels.  How do you introduce something new to the story that hasn’t already been said without betraying what has already been established?  It is not impossible, especially considering Ben Kenobi’s line about “a certain point of view.”  There are many things Lucas could’ve altered that could still be true if looked at from a different perspective, but nothing about prophecies, midichlorians, Qui-Gon (not Obi-Wan) discovering Anakin, or anything else can be taken in that way.

As I said, I could go on and on about the flaws and failures of this film that bother me, but this has already been an obscenely long review as it is.  Still, it feels like I’ve only barely scratched the surface of it all.  There are people who think we just don’t “get” the prequels as if we’re unable to accept them for what they are, and that’s why we rag on them.  The truth is that we are fans who just expect a product with a little thought, care, and integrity be put into it.  A plot that makes sense with smart, entertaining characters.  Frankly, that is not difficult to deliver, but somehow, George Lucas failed on all fronts.  Again, I enjoyed the film upon release in 1999 because I was just in awe of the spectacle, but as I have matured, I can see beyond that to focus on how poorly conceived this film was at its most base level.  I’ve said for a while now that if this was the original first Star Wars movie, it would not have sparked the same phenomena that we have enjoyed for the last 35 years.  It just doesn’t have the rousing adventure aspect or lively, iconic character qualities that made Star Wars so successful in the first place.  I don’t enjoy watching this movie, and I don’t believe seeing it in 3D would give it any more actual dimension or entertainment value.  My reviews on the entire saga will continue as the prequels do improve beyond this point, but flaws still exist.  In one case, my fondness for one prequel film will allow for some forgiveness.  In the least, I believe my following reviews will be no more than half as long as this one, thankfully.


Timecop (1994)

Time travel is the biggest pain in the backside to comprehend.  It can become circular logical trying to make sense of the contradictions, continuity resolutions, and potential paradoxes.  Timecop certainly has these problems due to half thought-out ideas, but where these issues would normally sour the entire film to me, Timecop has just enough entertainment value to dwarf those concerns.  Peter Hyams, who shot and directed this film, clearly deserves much credit for bringing the right talents and elements together to achieve a result that is satisfying on all other levels.

In 1994, time travel is made possible, and upon learning of this, the U.S. government forms a confidential agency called the Time Enforcement Commission (TEC) to police time itself, and prevent changes in the past.  Washington, D.C. police officer Max Walker (Jean-Claude Van Damme) accepts an assignment to this new agency, but on this very day, he and his wife Melissa (Mia Sara) are attacked.  This results in Melissa’s death and the destruction of their home.  Ten years later, Max Walker grieves still, but has become a respected TEC Agent.  Max ends up having to take in Atwood, his own ex-partner, for tampering with the past with the stock market.  When coxed about who hired him to do this, the name Senator Aaron McComb (Ron Silver) is named, but Atwood refuses to testify to this fearing for the lives of his family.  McComb is a presidential candidate who has been stealing from the past to fund his campaign so that he can essentially buy the presidency.  McComb quickly learns of Walker’s knowledge, and continually seeks to eliminate him and shut down the TEC entirely.  Max becomes determined to expose the Senator’s criminal actions, which come to include multiple murders, but his TEC superior, Matuzak (Bruce McGill) keeps Max from going too far without evidence to support his claims.  However, all things become interwoven as McCombs’ manipulative plans take Walker back to 1994 where his past and future come into peril.  Can Max change history before it repeats itself?

There is just something about the old action heroes that is missing today.  While Jean-Claude Van Damme has amazing physical ability with remarkable martial arts talent, he also has plenty of charisma and heart to really make his roles empathetic.  He gives them enough dimension and charm to be someone an audience can thoroughly enjoy watching.  The young Max Walker is a warm, light-hearted man with a lot of passion and love.  The older Max Walker is more rough around the edges.  He’s a lonelier man that is very dedicated to his job, and takes his commitment to it very seriously.  He has a strong ethical and moral center that doesn’t allow him to back down from McComb.  Still, he retains the charm and wit of his younger self, but with a tinge of conviction.  Van Damme plays both versions nicely, and keeps an emotional connective tissue between them.  He carries the film with plenty of heart, humor, and dramatic weight.  He also has excellent chemistry with his co-stars.

Primarily among them is the late Ron Silver who made for an excellent cold blooded villain as McComb.  His charisma is very sharp as he commands the screen with intelligence and conviction.  He is very imposing and intimidating.  McComb is a man driven by the need for power, and everyone in his path towards it is expendable.  With the advantage of time travel, he can essentially prevent anyone from ever existing, but in some cases, he hardly sees a need to be so severe.  He also doesn’t mind doing his own dirty work.  He just can’t do it all himself.  The younger Senator McComb has ambition and vision, but is not hardened, yet.  His elder presidential candidate self is very cutthroat.  Silver brings immense weight to the picture that fuels the dogged motivation in Van Damme’s performance.  The two have very good chemistry playing off one another many times in the film.  They have a very effective counterbalance that keeps the movie compelling and entertaining.  They exchange several sharp, humorous remarks that entirely fit their characters, and maintain a tension between Walker and McComb that injects urgency into the plot.

I am continually impressed by Bruce McGill’s talent.  I was first introduced to him on MacGyver as the humorous con man Jack Dalton, but since then, I have seen the vast range and depth he is capable of.  From roles in The Insider, Collateral, The Last Boy Scout, Quantum Leap, and a very memorable episode of Miami Vice, I can seriously say that he is one of the best character actors around.  As Matuzak, he holds his ground very easily as Walker’s boss with the weight of authority and a quick witted levity.  He cares a good deal about Max, but he always keeps his priorities and responsibilities in check.  He never lets his friendship compromise his position, at least, not until circumstances become desperate and Matuzak has to stretch his trust in Walker.  McGill and Van Damme also have thoroughly entertaining chemistry that livens up the film, smartly.  Walker and Matuzak are good, tusted friends with a lot of history behind them which adds to the depth of the story.  Van Damme and McGill reflect that nicely giving the film some funny interactions that only a couple of good, long time friends could offer up.

Mia Sara is beautiful beyond just the physical.  As Melissa, you have zero trouble believing in Max’s deep love for her.  She’s compassionate, seductive, and lovely.  The love for Max is always in her eyes, and definitely connects through to an audience.  Mia Sara projects every emotion with heart-gripping depth.  Her interactions with Jean-Claude are wonderful, as are all the relationships in the film.  The whole cast really does a superb job playing off one another, hitting the right dramatic and tonal marks.  The performances are very consistent and complementary.  It’s almost surprising, but pleasantly so.

The visual effects are kind of mixed.  The optical composites putting two Van Dammes or two Ron Silvers into the same frame at the same time are generally pretty good, and the time travel “ripple” effect is well done.  There is also a wicked cool moment where Walker kicks the young McComb in the face, and then, the scar from it morphs onto the face of the older McComb.  These little flourishes are exceptionally nice, and add some originality to the film.  However, the more complex digital effects are rather primitive.  I can only imagine this was due to budgetary constraints.  CGI was likely still highly expensive in 1994 as only Steven Spielberg and James Cameron blockbusters got to make elaborate use of them.  This wasn’t Industrial Light & Magic at work here.  While there are only two such moments in the movie, one of which is a very critical moment that I cannot say how it will affect your enjoyment if you’re just watching Timecop now for the first time.  I’ve known what to expect since Timecop originally hit VHS in the mid-1990s, and so, it doesn’t bother me at all.  For a modern audience, it might be a sour note.

Finally discovering and getting my hands on the first ever widescreen release of this film on DVD, I can properly enjoy the wonderful cinematography by Peter Hyams (who also directed the feature).  I can definitely tell it was shot by him due to the use of contrast through heavy light and shadow.  The movie has plenty of visual atmosphere, but it never goes too far.  There’s a certain noir aspect to much of Hyams’ lighting and cinematography in addition to my beloved 2.35:1 aspect ratio that give Timecop some solid production values.  It also gives the film some distinctive identity and edgy dramatic weight.  Hyams captures and directs the action very, very well.  He has his pacing and composition crafted beautifully creating a very coherent string of action sequences that are thoroughly satisfying.  Hyams puts Van Damme’s talent nicely on display.  Jean-Claude has many awesome moments flexing his agility and ability.  The shot of JCVD jumping and doing the splits on the countertop to avoid the stun gun was a memorable moment from the trailer, and remains as such within the film.  His martial arts skills make for a unique and hard hitting style that really gives the film a lot of kick.  The choreography is plotted out greatly to make the scenes develop logically and organically.  The knife fight alone is a nice change of pace, adding to the creativity of the action.

Now, if it wasn’t for all this good talent elevating the quality of this film, it would not be a winner.  Again, there are so many confusing issues that arise from the underdeveloped time travel concepts and plot turns in this, that you cannot hold the screenplay as a gold standard of the genre.  The general story works very well supported by the acting talents involved, but analyzed at all and its mechanics fall apart.  It’s too complicated to dissect here, but simply said, the space-time continuum should’ve imploded by the end of this movie.  Paradoxes are abound with people being killed, partially erased from the timeline, resetting timelines, and people retaining knowledge of multiple timelines despite the continuity changing constantly with new incursions into the past.  There’s never any constant in what makes for a good time travel story as there’s always some inherent technical complications.  Even those that have a well stated theory of time travel can often fall apart, often with their sequels taking too many liberties with the plot.  There’s no Doc Brown or Sam Beckett type characters present to really speak to the screenwriter’s theories of time travel.  So, the film generally avoids getting too deep into it, and thus, it’s best to avoid rationalizing the logic of it all.  In any case, for a little more insight into this matter you can visit an old favorite website of mine which takes a few moments to breakdown the basic flaws: Temporal Anomalies in Popular Time Travel Movies.

The production design is very good with some large sets that offer up some additional scope.  The entire TEC facility has a slight futuristic quality, but retains a utilitarian mentality which grounds it.  The control room, offices, and launch bay retain a purely functional design idea that would be akin to a secret government facility.  It also allows Peter Hyams to create the aforementioned shadowy, noir inspired lighting schemes.  The only area where the “futuristic” time of 2004 crashes and burns is the design of these butt ugly automobiles.  I’ve never seen a concept car that took the armored, blocky design approach, and indeed, I’m glad that these filmmakers did not accurately foretell the future in this aspect.  Aside from that, the art direction is very good, and maybe a little reflective of 1990s visual aesthetics (something that I have no problems with).

The good fortune of this film is that the filmmakers and cast worked hard to make it entertaining and enjoyable.  The screenwriter abandoned any serious logic in the temporal mechanics so that the plot could work how he wanted it to.  That’s never a good thing, but there’s enough quality put on screen to mostly cloud that shortcoming.  Van Damme is great handling all the demands of the role smoothly from dramatic to humorous to emotional to the physical.  The supporting cast is just as strong keeping the film consistently entertaining.  The characters are well written, and even better realized with solid casting choices.  Peter Hyams deserves a lot of credit for creating a film that features high production values with appealing performances and action sequences built on a script that didn’t make much sense, but was satisfying nonetheless.


Star Trek III: The Search For Spock (1984)

There is a myth in Star Trek lore that the even numbered movies are good and the odds numbered ones are bad.  That’s fairly simplistic, and not entirely a fair statement.  Yes, the franchise has had poorly conceived and problematic films in its lineup, but that hardly means that all the lesser entries are terrible.  Star Trek: The Motion Picture has a lot going against it, but as evidence by it, the talents of Shatner, Nimoy, and Kelley have always been able to add redeeming qualities to all the original cast films.  Their chemistry, charm, heart, charisma, and depth have always shone through.  While there is a potential future review from me for Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, I wanted to delve into the follow-up to the franchise’s most critically successful film.  I wanted to address Star Trek III: The Search For Spock.  While the first and fifth films have very obvious problems that have been well vocalized, I feel Trek 3 gets too much of a bad wrap.  I can pinpoint and agree with the reasons why, but I believe it’s been overly beat up because of it being in the shadow of The Wrath of Khan.  Time for someone to give it a more fair viewpoint.

The starship Enterprise is heavily wounded in the aftermath of her battle against Khan, but her crew survives by way of the sacrifice of Captain Spock (Leonard Nimoy).  His body is launched from the ship in a memorial ceremony, and crash lands on the Genesis planet.  As the Enterprise and her crew arrive home to Earth, Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner) finds his close friend and confidant Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy (DeForest Kelly) in Spock’s sealed quarters talking crazy, and eventually finds himself in lock-up after trying to charter passage to Genesis.  The hits keeping coming as Kirk learns that the Enterprise is to be decommissioned as the Starfleet brass believe her day has passed.  This is ever more apparent with the experimental new U.S.S. Excelsior ready to begin trial runs, ushering in a new era of Starfleet engineering.  However, Kirk is soon paid a visit by Spock’s father, Ambassador Sarek (Mark Lenard), who tells him that Spock’s katra (i.e. everything that is not of the body) still lives, and they determine that Spock mind-melded with McCoy before his death.  This commits Jim Kirk to a course of action that could cost him his career by stealing the Enterprise to rescue Spock’s body from the newly formed Genesis planet, and reunite it what’s in Leonard McCoy’s mind.  Meanwhile, a ship of rogue Klingons, headed up by the cunning and merciless Commander Kruge (Christopher Lloyd), seek to learn the secrets of the Genesis Device for the protection of the Empire with the science team on U.S.S. Grissom, including Kirk’s son David (Merritt Butrick) and Lieutenant Saavik (Robin Curtis), caught in the crossfire.  The sacrifices of the crew of the starship Enterprise will be dire as they endeavor on their search for Spock.

I believe why this film is not as highly regarded as others is the lack of a strong theme.  In The Wrath of Khan, there was a prominent exploration of age, life, and death.  What they all mean in context to one another, and how someone like Jim Kirk dealt with them.  Here, there was enough room left open for strong themes to be explored, such as sacrifice and rebirth, but the opportunities are not taken with much ambition.  Considering all Kirk has battled through from Khan to the death of his friend, ship, and son, the story was ripe for deep resonance.  Of course, The Voyage Home doesn’t have such dramatic elements to it, and it has been widely beloved.  The Search For Spock is a segue between the tones of the films its sandwiched between.  It has its strong, dramatic elements, but also a lot of fun and light-hearted charisma.  One would think it would be praised for that fine blend, but it does lack the ambition that those other two films had.  They took some chances, pushing themselves for higher standards, and they succeeded.  While this second sequel doesn’t have much scope, I do gain enjoyment from it.  There are many aspects that I find are worth commending.

I love how the film is able to show the loyalty of the Enterprise crew.  Admiral Kirk gives them the opportunity to walk away before getting too deep into this rogue mission, but they have no hesitations in voicing their loyalties.  They are willing to stand by Kirk, regardless of the repercussions, because of  what they owe him, and ultimately, what they owe Spock for his sacrifice.  That strong, indestructible bond is not something that all Star Trek casts have been able to achieve, and that history amongst the crew of the original U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701 sells so much of Kirk’s motivations here.  Even if the film doesn’t dig deep enough to show how it penetrates to his soul, a seasoned viewer already knows it.  Tying into that is the always solid chemistry amongst the regular cast members.  They work as an ensemble that is very cohesive, and always on the mark.  Regardless of the quality of the film they are making, or how troubled the production may have been, the actors never get lazy or sloppy.  They respect their characters and the legacy they leave behind.  No pun intended, but Shatner puts in an admirable performance giving the film its constant pace through his wit and charisma.  He adds in the right touches of humor, as do his co-stars, but focuses the drama of the screenplay when it’s needed.

This film was really the dawn of the revamped Klingons.  The makeup redesign happened in the first film, but here, they finally explore the revised culture of the warrior race.  The concepts of honor, guile, and glorious death are well explored through Christopher Lloyd’s excellent Commander Kruge.  While the character himself is not explored with as much depth as he could have, Lloyd plays a surprisingly solid villain.  He’s cunning, deceitful, intelligent, and treacherous.  Lloyd has been known for a wide range of eclectic characters, but here, he delivers an excellent, calculated performance with a fine operatic screen presence.  Essentially, all Klingon actors followed in his footsteps as he laid the foundation and template for them right here.  I also enjoyed Kruge motives, which could have been the basis for fleshing the character out.  Like with Khan, Kruge sees the potential for Genesis as a weapon, but instead of using it as an instrument of revenge or tyranny, the Klingon Commander seeks it to protect his people.  He will not let the Federation have sole claim to something that could be used to commit genocide on his people, and he will stop at nothing to learn its secrets.  It could almost be an allegory to the nuclear arms race if Genesis was created as a weapon instead of as a terraforming device.  Kruge is calculating, and accepts nothing but the absolute best from his crew, lest they be met with fatal punishment.  Lloyd as Kruge was also the first to use the fully realized Klingon language.  It was great having the alien race’s culture more fleshed out and developed for this film to give the actors something solid and powerful to work off of.  The always impressive John Larroquette is here as one of Kruge’s subordinates, Maltz.  It’s a minor role, but he embraces it with his usual full commitment and high quality.  This film also introduced one of my favorite Star Trek starships – the Klingon Bird of Prey.  It’s an amazing design that is fierce and dangerous.  The green paint job was a smart departure from all the dull grey ships we had seen until then.  It gives the Klingons more personality from the moment the ship de-cloaks.  It is given an imposing, threatening introduction that serves the Klingons thoroughly.

I have always held Mark Lenard as Sarek in high regard.  You never get to meet the parents of the other Enterprise crew members, but for Spock, it has always been important to his character to see his family.  Lenard has always been able to portray Sarek’s wisdom and logic with a touch of heart.  While it’s hard to link emotional terms with the performance of a Vulcan, I would say that Sarek shows his soul in this film.  Losing his son is like losing a part of himself, as is the same with Kirk.  So, they share a rare moment which only Spock’s death could compel from them.  While Sarek & Spock’s father-son relationship has had its conflicts, Sarek is still a fine father that cares for his son more than he can ever allow himself to express.  No parent should see their child’s life end before their own, and Sarek sees a chance to reverse that tragedy.  Any parent would take that chance, no matter the odds.  Mark Lenard gave Sarek his wisdom, grace, conviction, and noble depth of character.  He was an incredible, inspiring actor that forged a legacy in this franchise that will stand for all time.

A possible issue of contention with this movie is the recasting of Saavik.  The role was originated by Kirstie Alley in The Wrath of Khan, but financial demands from her agent prevented her reprisal.  Instead, it went to Robin Curtis.  Both actresses play the role differently, but it was necessary to keep Saavik to maintain the character and story threads from the previous movie.  Both Alley and Curtis offer unique and admirable performances.  Alley’s Saavik was decently Vulcan with a subtle emotive quality.  She was a very untested Starfleet cadet with promise.  She came to grow over the course of the adventure, earning her keep.  Curtis’ Saavik is more confident and capable with a stronger Vulcan characterization and a sensitive nature that proves to be a strength.  She has a stronger will and sharper intellect to create a more complex character.  With the guidance of director Leonard Nimoy, she was given the freedom to make the character her own without the baggage of Kirstie Alley’s portrayal.  In the Vulcan legacy of Spock and Sarek, she adds great depth to Saavik beneath the surface.  Alley’s version entirely served the needs of The Wrath of Khan while Curtis’ portrayal suits the demands of The Search For Spock just as perfectly.

The visual effects are solidly up to the levels of the first two Star Trek films, as handled by Industrial Light & Magic.  They are definite proud achievements that hold up excellently today.  Model work and optical effects, when done by the master craftsman of the era, entirely stood the test of time, and should always remain available as milestones in cinematic history.  What doesn’t quite stand up over time are the scenes on planet Genesis.  The limitations of the budget are painfully evident with the obvious soundstage sets and painted backdrops.  Because of the limited budget, the filmmakers obviously couldn’t fly their actors to exotic locales around the world to feature all the diverse climates of this manufactured planet.  I can’t say that there was a feasible way to do this better at the time this movie was made, but even if it was the best solution, it’s still a detractor to the film’s production quality.  This is not a constant for every scene on Genesis, but the evidence is frequently apparent, regularly reminding you of this fact.

Another thing that I don’t care for here is James Horner’s score.  I’ve always been underwhelmed by his music for Star Trek.  For me, Jerry Goldsmith will always be the one and only master when it comes to cinematic Trek.  What John Williams is to Star Wars, Jerry Goldsmith was to Star Trek, in my view.  He ultimately defined the vast, sprawling, epic musical landscape of the franchise for me on the big screen.  Horner’s themes and cues are fine work, but they never became signature, identifiable themes for Star Trek.  Evidence of this is that Goldsmith’s theme for Star Trek: The Motion Picture became the theme music for Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Jerry was brought in to score five total films in the series over thirty-four years.  Horner was kept around for a total of three films, but I never cared all that much for the music he produced.  It was never outright bad, but it just never lived up to the musical potential of what Star Trek demanded.  It’s nicely arranged and gives the film some character, but it simply never does enough for me.  In this film, I seriously miss one of my favorite Goldsmith themes – the Klingon theme.  I can only imagine how awesome it would’ve been to see that Bird of Prey swooping around for the kill with that glorious fanfare in full orchestral breadth.  Kruge surely deserved a verbose and powerful theme to accompany his commanding presence, but James Horner makes no attempt to give the Klingons any presence in the film’s score.

The screenplay was written by producer Harve Bennett who was more akin to writing for television (such as The Mod Squad and The Bionic Woman) which, at the time, didn’t explore big thematic storylines with strong emotional resonance.  So, the scope of the film feels small for that reason.  As I said before, the limits were not pushed here to be ambitious and reach for something bigger or deeper.  That doesn’t mean the script is bad.  It certainly has its moments.  I truly like the part where the Excelsior’s Captain Styles tells Kirk that if he goes ahead with stealing the Enterprise, “You’ll never sit in the Captain’s seat again.”  Kirk doesn’t even flinch as he  just orders, “Warp speed.”  The first two films made a definite point that Kirk’s worth in life is directly tied to being a starship captain, but there’s something far more important at stake here.  He’d rather lose everything in his career if there’s a chance to bring Spock back to life, and restore McCoy’s mind to peace.  The dialogue is good and entertaining while encapsulating the characters perfectly.  The action scenes are nicely conceived, especially with the fight between the Enterprise and the Klingon Bird of Prey.  Seeing how the old NCC-1701 is overmatched because it is wounded and undermanned being run on automation was a fine touch.  It is entirely realistic that she can’t take the pounding.  While it would have been a glorious moment to see Admiral Morrow proven wrong with his statements of how old and outdated the ship is by seeing it triumph against such steep odds, I think it better fuels how much Kirk has to sacrifice to get his friend back.

While, clearly, I’ve said much about what is sacrificed on Spock’s behalf, but McCoy is at risk as well.  Jim Kirk has one friend dead and another in turmoil.  These two men – Leonard McCoy & Spock – are pieces to the whole that is James T. Kirk.  I always enjoyed the moment in Star Trek: The Motion Picture where Kirk drafts Bones back into service because he can’t do what he has to do alone.  “Dammit, Bones!  I need you!” says Kirk to McCoy.  Only after he has the wisdom, perspective, heart, and soul of these two men at his side can he succeed.  They bring balance to his ego, passion, guile, and intellect.  They re-enforce and focus his confidence.  They help him reflect upon himself.  Leonard McCoy is a vital piece of that formula bringing passion and humanity to the table.  Kirk can’t allow to see his friend’s mental state deteriorate, and lose him as well.

Regardless of anything else, ultimately, I have to praise Leonard Nimoy on his feature film directorial debut.  It was both a tough and enviable position for him to be in.  On one hand, he was unproven as a movie director, and had scrutinous limitations and supervision put on him in the shadow of a critically and commercially successful film.  However, he was working largely with a cast he had known for over fifteen years who knew their characters thoroughly, and that could allow Nimoy to direct with a built-in sense of respect.  I’m sure he had his difficulties, but his talent is clear to me.  He surely was allowed to soar with Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home based on his success here.  It is a serious cinematic disservice that his career as a feature film director ended before it had a chance to soar.  He started out with solid hits including Three Men and a Baby.  However, he faced a crushing defeat, both critically and commercially, in 1994 with the comedy film Holy Matrimony which grossed less than $800,000 (less than 20% of its production budget).  Leonard really appeared to be a wonderful filmmaker with a great handle on action, drama, and humor.  I believe he would’ve had a lot to offer in a lengthy career had he gotten the right projects to his credit as a director.  Here, he delivered a very consistently paced and well balanced film that keeps is story elements in focus.  While there are likely plot holes in the reasoning of some characters here and there, they are minor bits and pieces that are relatively inconsequential.

At the end of this, I feel Star Trek III: The Search For Spock should not be viewed as a “bad movie.”  It doesn’t live up to the thoroughly solid thematic work of the previous film or the fun adventurous spirit of its follow-up, but it’s a nicely enjoyable film that had potential to be more than it was.  It has plenty of action, drama, and humorous moments to make it a consistent, satisfying and entertaining film.  The screenplay could’ve benefited from getting in deeper to the soul of the story.  It certainly touches upon it several times, but doesn’t stay there long enough to really develop the underlying themes in the story.  As it is, there is no reason to rank it poorly in the franchise.  It was commercially successful, and remains a fine classic Trek adventure for the original cast.  It merely in contrast to the exceptional and vastly superior films it is sandwiched between that give it a perceived smaller stature, and that I can understand.  But sometimes, you need to take things a little out of context to give them their proper due respect.


Green Lantern (2011)

DC Comics have certainly languished behind Marvel Studios in bringing their popular characters to the big screen in the last decade.  At times, I had thought it was because Warner Bros. wanted to take their time to do things right, and make good movies instead of cheap, fast cash grabs.  Marvel has had plenty of those.  Of course, you need to have not just good talent, but the right talent behind a project to make it all it should be.  With Batman firmly established and a Superman reboot rigorously in the works, Green Lantern would’ve been the springboard for other DC Comics film adaptations, but its box office performance was not what was hoped for.

There have been many Green Lanterns throughout the decades, but Hal Jordan has been the most popular one for over fifty years.  I have some fond history with Hal Jordan originating back to the time of The Reign of the Supermen event which set him on a path from fallen hero to super villain to spirit of vengeance to redemption and resurrection.   I enjoyed this journey which took a whole decade to see fulfilled.  It has since made me a fan of Hal, and I became a supporter of having a Green Lantern movie made.  We finally got one, but it wasn’t all I had hoped for.  The resulting film has some serious flaws in it, but very satisfying elements do exist.  Let’s set the stage, first.

Billions of years ago, the Guardians of the Universe divided the universe into 3,600 sectors to be policed by their Green Lantern Corps, assembled from the most fearless beings throughout the universe to maintain order and justice.  When one of their finest, Abin Sur (Temuera Morrison) is attacked by the yellow fear-essence entity Parallax, he is mortally wounded, and crash lands on Earth.  He commands his ring to find a worthy successor here.  That person is the reckless and cocky aircraft test pilot Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds) who is no stranger to fear.  As Jordan slowly learns to use his power ring when he is whisked off to the planet Oa, the home of the Green Lantern Corps.  Here, he is trained by the best Lanterns including Sinestro (Mark Strong) and Kilowog (voiced by Michael Clarke Duncan), but also has his failings and fears brought to light.  Meanwhile, Parallax creates death and destruction as it moves through the universe towards Oa.  The Corps’ attempts to thwart this enemy fail with more casualties, and they consider harnessing the yellow power to fight fear with fear.  On Earth, scientist Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard) is summoned by his father Senator Robert Hammond (Tim Robbins) to do an autopsy on Abin Sur’s body at a secret government facility, and is infected by the yellow fear entity developing telepathic and telekinetic powers.  Hal returns home where he must combat Hector’s increasingly dangerous and villainous behavior, and confront his own insecurities before he can become a true Green Lantern.  Soon, the fate of Earth and the entire universe will be in the hands of Hal Jordan.

What I need to say first is that I do not believe Ryan Reynolds was miscast as Hal Jordan.  Yes, there could have been better choices, but Reynolds was not a bad choice.  I have seen him in dramatic roles such as in Buried where he portrays a man buried alive in a coffin in the middle east.  The raw, wide range of emotion he put on display in that film solidifies my faith in his acting abilities.  The problems in this film that diminish his effectiveness here were far beyond his control.

The main problem here is how unbalanced the film is, and I can entirely pinpoint all the aspects.  Fundamentally, the film is divided between the Earth-based scenes and the intergalactic ones.  They both follow different plotlines and carry different tones and scopes.  Everything involving the Green Lantern Corps on Oa or elsewhere in the universe has a serious urgency to it, and a vast wondrous visual landscape for an epic adventure to take place in.  The Earth scenes have a lighter tone with no such urgency to the storytelling process and a fairly contained scope.  Events in one setting do not have enough effect on those in another.  It can feel like two different films meshed together with Hal Jordan as the only linking thread between them.  There is no cohesion to bring the plotlines tightly together, and when they do converge at all, it’s done too late.  To boil it down simply, everything that didn’t take place on Earth happened to be the best parts of the movie.  Every time the film cuts away from the cosmic, intergalactic part of the story, I couldn’t wait to come back to it.  I had no such anticipation for the Earth-based scenes.

The story involving the Green Lantern Corps and Parallax is so compelling because it deals with a threat on a large, epic scale.  Billions could die, and so many have already perished in its wake.  Therefore, every action and decision the Corps makes has the weight of that menace bearing down upon it.  There are strong characters and fleshed out personalities in these extraterrestrials that easily dwarf those of the human characters.  Sinestro stands out as the strongest and most compelling character in the entire film for me.  I would’ve liked more time spent with him than anyone else to delve deeper into his psychology and emotions.  Knowing that Sinestro becomes an enemy of the Green Lanterns in the comics, he would’ve been a deeply fascinating character to explore in detail before he became that enemy.  Mark Strong does an amazing job with him reflecting many subtle nuances, and he does leave me wanting a hell of a lot more.  It’s a wasted opportunity that more wasn’t done with such an excellent actor in this strongly written role.  On the lighter side, I’m sure fans gained enjoyment from Kilowog, who is particularly entertaining.  Michael Clarke Duncan has a good amount of fun playing this character that he is so much a fan of.  The Guardians themselves have some gravitas to them because of their looming, stoic manner.  They are mysterious, but much can be read into them, as Hal does late in the movie.  They set a very ominous tone that is integral to building up the threat of Parallax.

The visual effects that create these alien landscapes are beyond gorgeous!  In those respects, I can see where all those millions of dollars went in this inflated budget.  They are breathtaking vistas filled with rich depth, color, and textures to create worlds that are enveloping.  Green Lantern is given a strong cosmic sense to it with a universe filled with millions of years of deep history.  The visuals offer a massive scope along with a perfect visual tone to compliment the story.  I have not often seen interstellar science fiction cinema with this amount of extraordinary, beautiful detail.  They surely put the CGI in the Star Wars prequels to shame, in most regards.  All of the CGI aliens in the Corps are fantastic looking!  They all have their own textures, body language, and unique character traits that give the film a wealth of visual personality.  Although, the motion capture animation can tend to appear lacking in realism, mostly in wider shots.  There is not enough weight (or mass) given to their movements in these instances is what I perceive.  However, it’s only in brief, sparse moments.  Conversely, when the shots get in close on Reynolds while wearing the energy suit, the effect is not very convincing.  It can look cheap at these moments, and since Hal Jordan is the main character with a generous amount of close-ups, these moments are frequent.

Over on the Earth based story, so much feels like throwaway content.  It might be necessary content to develop Hal’s character, in theory, but so much fails to have any worth.  The girlfriend is the girlfriend.  Carol Ferris provides the usual emotional support, and she has some amusing moments.  However, I failed to see much depth in the character.  She fulfills a role in the story, but there doesn’t appear to be much potential for her to be more than that.   She’s also the damsel in distress that the hero must save because she must be used as a hostage for the useless villain in Hector Hammond.  Peter Sarsgaard certainly does an excellent job with the quirky, bizarre, and twisted Hammond.  Everything he does is great and dead on the mark, but Hector really has no purpose in the story.  His sinister actions do add a certain dynamic to this part of the story as he slowly mutates into this whacked out super powered agent of Parallax.  It creates conflict amongst a few ancillary characters, but his inclusion gives way to a bunch of unnecessary elements that get in the way of the main plot.   There was no need for the covert organization Checkmate or Amanda Waller in this story.  They exist here only as a conduit for Hammond to become accidentally infected by the yellow fear entity via an autopsy on Abin Sur.  Waller herself is not presented well.  Angela Bassett has all the skills to bring Waller to powerful life, but she’s not given enough meat to sink her teeth into.  Pam Grier did a perfect job with Waller on Smallville, but Bassett could’ve given her an impeccable performance to rival.  Still, what matters here is that the story of Hal Jordan becoming a hero and defeating Parallax requires neither the presence of Hector Hammond, Amanda Waller, or Checkmate.  Hammond is there as a physical adversary for Hal to combat until Parallax actually arrives on Earth, but once that occurs, Hammond is disposed of promptly.  While he does a serve a purpose in attracting Parallax to Earth, a creative screenwriter could’ve easily reworked plot elements to achieve that same result if Hammond were excised from the film.  I feel it would’ve been wiser to save Hammond for a more focused story in a later sequel.  Frankly, all of these extraneous elements only serve to chop up the story, creating more fundamental problems.  There are too many subplots going on detracting from the potential streamlined flow of the main plot.

The unevenness of the movie is further attributed to the more lackadaisical pace of the Earth-based story.  While there is impending doom tearing through the universe, Hal Jordan returns to Earth to talk with his jokey friend, deal with his girlfriend, and have some fun being a superhero.  No dramatic pressure is put on Jordan until the final act when Parallax diverts to Earth because of its link to Hector Hammond calling him there.  This should’ve happened much sooner in the film.  If so, it would’ve put that needed pressure on Jordan to overcome his fears in face of an inevitable doom over a longer period of time, and thus, creating a correlating urgency with the rest of the film.  As it is, the fear element in Hal’s character evolution is not well executed, and the ending feels weak and rushed.

I can’t help but compare Green Lantern to Batman Begins due to this similar theme of fear.  Where Batman Begins explored the concept very thoroughly as both an internal conflict for Bruce Wayne to overcome, and then, an external element to be utilized and combated, Green Lantern just kind of talks about it over and over again.  Nothing is really explored or exploited.  You never see Hal actually be defeated by or struggle with fear.  It is something talked about.  He talks about being afraid, and others talk about him having the courage to overcome it.  You don’t see the struggle he has to face to actually triumph over those things.  It should have been a weakness that takes away his confidence while battling an enemy.  It would force him to face a crushing defeat that would motivate Hal to rise back up as a confident hero by the end, but it hardly happens.  There should be emotional conflict to punctuate this story element, considering it is fear.  Batman Begins showed us, in many ways, how Bruce Wayne confronted fear, overcame it, and was able to turn it back around as a weapon against his foes.  There is not enough adversity thrown at Hal Jordan either by his own internal struggles, or anything external to really build up dramatic suspense or tension in his ascension to superhero.

Breaking away from plot elements, I do want to credit the score by the always impressive James Newton Howard.  It truly gives the film the big, epic scale it demanded with some strong and mysterious themes.  Everything Howard seems to do is sure gold, and he truly reaches for the stars on this one.  Like all great film composers, he is able to adapt himself to the needs of the picture pulling on all his diverse musical skills to create a unique experience.  It is surely one constant throughout the film that did not falter.

Action sequences are nicely handled.  Martin Campbell has done two James Bond films before along with other rousing action pictures, and so, he has the skills to put together coherent action sequences.  Dion Beebe’s cinematography maintains an integrity throughout by not giving into clichés of the genre.  His cameras hold to the grand scope of the story by giving us shots with depth and patience.  This is a stark contrast to the work he did on the mostly handheld digital video-shot Michael Mann movies Collateral and Miami Vice.  As with Howard, it seems Beebe is able to adapt his style to the needs of the picture.

Making my final story related notes, there is a lot of repetitive dialogue reiterating exposition as if we didn’t get it the first or second time.  The script really could’ve been tighten up to make way for more poignant character or story elements to be fleshed out.  Not to mention, tightening the script could’ve balanced out the urgency of the plot.  The character stuff is very drawn out, and the plot elements are very short.  The good things were really good, but too much of the film is too light and clunky for the good elements to win out.  It was enjoyable, but it’s a little too forgettable.  I don’t think it has anything to do with Ryan Reynolds.  It’s all in the script and direction.  Reynolds can pull off the kind of performance this film needed, but he either just wasn’t pushed into it or the script didn’t call for it.  The movie needed more dramatic momentum to make itself work right.  Director Martin Campbell has had many excellent and successful films to his credit including GoldenEye, Casino Royale, & The Mask of Zorro.  Of course, he has the off-the-mark Mel Gibson revenge thriller Edge of Darkness more recently to his credit, but Green Lantern is even further from the mark.  It really is a combination of an unrefined screenplay, loose editing of the various plotlines, and his direction that leave the movie feeling lopsided and ineffective.

Green Lantern had the makings of a really good movie, but it didn’t go deep enough with the characters to make Hal Jordan’s ascension and success epic enough.  It had potential, but it was too uneven to succeed.  There are other bits and pieces I could criticize, but they are pretty inconsequential when there are such larger problems to address.