Tag Archives: Star Trek

Star Trek Beyond – The phaser, the furious

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Insert captain here: Chris Pine as Captain James T. Kirk, with Anton Yelchin as Pavel Chekov

The rebooted Star Trek universe has become a curious success story. The first entry, 2009’s minimalist-titled Star Trek, gave the franchise new vigour, while breaking the series’ longstanding ‘odds are bad, evens are great’ rule, being the eleventh adventure, and one of the betters. The less said about the 2013 ‘Rehash of Khan’ Star Trek Into Darkness, a cine-cesspool I have already emptied into at length, the better, but it’s fair to say that both films played a major role in giving their director J. J. Abrams the impetus to resurrect the flatlining Star Wars saga with last year’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Star Trek Beyond, the first of the series without Abrams in the captain’s seat, was likely to prove a challenge to succeed, and yet, here we are. It’s a fun ’un!

Originally set to be the directorial debut of Star Trek and STID (and, ugh, Transformers 2) co-writer Roberto Orci, that idea was thankfully jettisoned into space early on, like so much dead Spock. Justin Lin, whose revitalisation of the Fast & Furious franchise (entries 3 thru 6) will no doubt result in statues being built to his memory some day, was brought in to take the wheel. He’s suitably made it the most high-octane entry in the franchise’s history, no matter how much that jars with the legacy of a show about space diplomacy and thinly veiled arguments against racial prejudice. (Actually, come to think of it, given how racially progressive the Fast & Furious franchise became under Lin’s watch, maybe there’s a direct connection there…)

Lin directs from a script by Doug Jung and ensemble member Simon Pegg, which finds the crew of the Enterprise crash-landing on an uncharted planet, with an angry alien warlord hunting them. Our heroes Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) are facing nicely paralleled mortality issues: Kirk has just passed the age his father was when he was killed in film 1; whereas Spock has just learned that his time-travelling alt-future self has died (allowing the film to delicately mourn Leonard Nimoy) – an intriguing metaphysical ball of angst that the film never dares dig into, but deserves much credit for addressing. The idea of the fear of death trickles in and out of the film, but it’s all just basic emotional dressing for the grander set pieces.

The first of these sees the Enterprise grounded as a fleet of compact armoured alien ships tears through its hull, whipping about in a swarm of black darts. It’s frightening stuff, although the speed of the ships (and their being black on black of space) does make it all a tad hard to see. That the starship’s fall to earth is with a crunching thud and not an enormous Bayhemic explosion is a rare but admirable show of restraint. The death toll unclear (thousands?), the villains seize most of the survivors, barring a few of our principles, of course. Scotty, absent for a sizeable chunk of STID, gets the most to do here; perhaps Simon Pegg taking advantage of his new status. He teams up with orphaned alien scavenger/engineer Jaylah (think Newt from Aliens mixed with, um, that guy Laurence Fishburne played in Predators) to help rescue the team and find their way off the planet. Jaylah, played by Kingsman henchman Sofia Boutella, is the film’s crowning glory – impish, stubborn, and extremely competent, never overly sexualised; she sits comfortably amongst the leading ladies of the recent feminist action hero wave.

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You’ve got me on my knees, Jaylah: Sofia Boutella as alien newcomer Jaylah, with Spock (Zachary Quinto) and ‘Bones’ McCoy (Karl Urban)

When the crew finally reunites, it’s a few skirmishes to take down the villain (although thankfully there’s room between them to breathe, which was the undoing of STID). Lin determinedly inserts a motorbike for Kirk to ride both fast and moderately furiously. The Enterprise crew then goes up against the swarm again in a delightful over-the-top (and LOUD) space battle that is one of the most joyous in recent memory. It’s dumb fun made by smart people.

Like too many recent blockbusters, the villain is the weakest element. Played by Idris Elba in alien Nosferatu makeup so thick you’d never know it was him, Krall is another angry-with-the-system rebel, whose rants against the Federation sound more BREXIT than ISIS. As cool as his army of hive-minded spaceships is, his sinister plan to kill lots of people with a bio-weapon is so old-hat you’d imagine it was outlawed in the future along with anti-gay prejudice.

The design is solid, especially the space station Yorktown, which is all crisp white futurism and glass, but toys with gravity like Norman Foster playing Super Mario Galaxy. Lighting is all too dark in some sequences, and the edits during the action can be a little sharp, but mostly it’s a pleasantly bright and thrilling adventure, a strong blockbuster in a summer of flops and stillbirths. Even the acting has gotten better. Pegg no longer grates as Scotty, and Pine finally begins to feel right for the role of captain. Once again, Karl Urban steals the show as Dr. McCoy, given the best of the bantery dialogue to snarl in Spock’s face. Sadly, Zoe Saldana’s Uhura is largely sidelined, as is, more tragically, the late Anton Yelchin’s Chekov, a glorified extra in his last space adventure.

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The old and the new: An iconic reference

It’s curious that the marketing for the film chose so strongly to reference the original 1979 Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the film in this series this latest least resembles. Beyond is a hyperactive adventure, contrasting sharply with the unjustly disliked but criminally overlong TMP, with its true-sci-fi mystery plot. But there are fleeting references, such as the villains in Beyond using old Starfleet probes for reconnaissance, while the “villain” of TMP was the Voyager probe made sentient. One shot, sped up to rapidly circle the entirety of the Enterprise in all its glory, seems to josh TMP’s notorious three-minute ogling of its famous model. Indeed, while Star Trek Beyond opens with Kirk suffering the malaise of his mission, and considering relinquishing the captaincy to become an admiral, TMP saw Kirk’s frustration with the admiralty return him to his rightful place. With Nimoy, and thus Spock-Prime, now gone, the original adventure is truly brought to a close. Star Trek Beyond is just another bump on the new road, but it’s one that offers one hell of a thrill.

3/5

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Star Trek Into Darkness – A failing Enterprise

Heart of Darkness: Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Kirk (Chris Pine) interrogate John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch)

Heart of Darkness: Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Kirk (Chris Pine) interrogate John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch)

There is a scene early on in J.J. Abrams’s 2009 sci-fi reboot Star Trek where the young cadet James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) has a titillating roll around in bed with a beautiful, voluptuous and green-skinned woman who is also the roommate of another romantic interest. The scene more or less sums up the whole film: it’s flippant, sexy, fast-paced, raises the character drama and makes cute reference to the original Star Trek TV series, in which William Shatner’s Kirk once had a similar inter-species dalliance.

Suffering from a brutal case of sequelitis, that caustic condition whereby a follow-up film tries to up the game by doubling-up on what went right the first time, Abrams’s second Enterprise adventure, the grammatically topsy-turvy-titled Star Trek Into Darkness, features a similar scene early on in its duration. We cut to Captain Kirk’s bed-chambers to the double-screech of a scratched record which heralds some contemporary (for us) hip hop music, before the camera pans to reveal Kirk in bed with not one but two sexy aliens. As in the predecessor, this scene neatly sums up Into Darkness, but says very different things: it’s plotless, intellectually vacuous and desperate (and failing) to be cool. It’s also wildly inappropriate for a film that parents will no doubt bring young children to, but that isn’t exactly the case with the rest of the film. Thank heaven for small mercies.

We pick up a few years after the events of Star Trek, where the overly headstrong young Kirk is still captain of the Enterprise, seconded by the emotionally retentive half-Vulcan Spock (Zachary Quinto). Opening with a sequence as fun as anything the first film produced, in which the crew of the Enterprise stage an intervention on a savage planet to save its primitive lifeforms from a bubbling volcano, despite their code of ethics being opposed to such activities. Spock is nearly lost in the process and gets his pointy ears boxed by Kirk and girlfriend Uhura (Zoe Saldana) for not caring about the feelings of others. Thus begins a barely scripted piece of soul-searching for Spock that is somehow drawn out across this film’s 133-minute running-time.

Back on Earth, Kirk is given a dressing down of his own for disobeying orders, and is relieved of his command – this happens to three major characters in this film, and all are back at their posts by the story’s end; hitting the reset button and putting everyone back to where they were last film round is so much easier for writers than to come up with genuine obstacles the characters might face. But just as Kirk is getting used to being first officer again, disgruntled Starfleet officer John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) begins a wave of terrorist attacks that puts the Federation on high alert. Enraged at the assault, Kirk is spurred towards taking a fiery vengeance on Harrison by militarist admiral Alexander Marcus (Peter Weller). Several increasingly superfluous action sequences follow.

The first 40 minutes or so of Star Trek Into Darkness zips along at a solid pace with some amusing scenes. Banter between Kirk and Spock about the latter’s failure to grasp basic concepts of human emotion provides some easy laughs, while a three-way argument on the same, drawing in Uhura, displays the finest dialogue the film has – a witty, Whedonesque scene of sniping back-and-forths.

But things shift for the worse when the Enterprise arrives at the Klingon homeworld, where Harrison is hiding out, safe from the Federation’s reach. But Admiral Marcus doesn’t care about the dangers of starting a war, and Kirk doesn’t care about rules. After a thrilling shuttle craft scene, a diplomatic incident on the Klingon planet turns into one of the messiest gun battles ever shown on screen – with Hunger Games levels of camera shaking and awkward cutting. In the aftermath, Harrison surrenders; anyone who’s seen a blockbuster in the last five years will know well what this means.

Courage under fire: Uhura (Zoe Saldana) in action

Courage under fire: Uhura (Zoe Saldana) in action

Long before its midpoint Star Trek Into Darkness descends into cliché, with the crew facing two antagonists and learning all too late which is the greater evil. Neither villain is properly defined, and much of the threat is based around knowledge of events that happened in the TV series and original films, which were set in a different universe to begin with. It’s like making a version of A Christmas Carol and forgetting to tell us why Scrooge is a miser (or for that matter, that he’s a miser). The film’s writers, returning duo Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, and Prometheus-defiler Damon Liondelof, have taken almost no effort to recreate these characters, copying and pasting from earlier works. A late scene is a direct re-enactment of one of the finest scenes from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, with none of the emotional or dramatic weight of its predecessor. Two famous lines are recycled from that film; the first cleverly, the second showing a failure on behalf of the writers to grasp basic concepts of drama, language or time. All this is is regurgitation; swallowing a feast of adventurous sci-fi and ejaculating it in a flurry of bile back onto the screen – then flaring the lens with enough lights so you can’t see the gooey chunks.

Sure, the crew are all fine, but they’re very much on auto-pilot following their first outing together. John Cho’s Sulu gets one great scene, but it is stolen from him by Karl Urban’s Dr. McCoy, which continues to be the stand-out performance in this series. Simon Pegg’s Scotty has more direction this time, and more to do, but the character is still played far too much for laughs.

As for Cumberbatch, one of the finest actors of his generation, he does good work here. His downcast, beady eyes inspire a menace that the script cannot back up. When Harrison weeps, we see Cumberbatch acting so well at weeping, but cannot believe in the character despite the performer’s great work. Hopefully this will not be the villain role for which Cumberbatch is remembered. There are many out there better for him; indeed his dual villainous roles in The Hobbit may yet inspire the right level of dread.

Star Trek Into Darkness looks divine, for the most part, and it’s hard to fault the production design. The futuristic updates of London and San Francisco look superb, the former putting the future London of last year’s Total Recall to shame. The design of the Klingon ships is some of the best spacecraft design seen since Return of the Jedi. The most dazzling moments come whenever the Enterprise enters into warp speed, leaving behind it a luminous blue vapour trail that lingers in the vacuum of space before dissolving – it’s a superb image that captures the grandeur of the Star Trek universe.

Sinking into the clouds: The Enterprise in peril

Sinking into the clouds: The Enterprise in peril

But despite all the gloss (there are thankfully fewer lens flares this go-around, though still too many), the stylish design and Michael Giacchino’s enthusiastic score can’t save the pacing. The final half hour is given over to an endless tirade of action sequences that call to mind the seemingly never-ending finale of Star Wars: Attack of the Clones. Beginning with an excellent sequence in which Kirk torpedoes himself through space from one ship to another, this moment is rapidly followed by a fist fight, a shootout, a photon bombardment, a ship crash, a foot chase and another fist fight. To add insult to injury, this rigmarole of energy culminates in a deus ex machina so ridiculous it would cause J.K. Rowling to spit up blood.

What grates the most is the story, which laboriously draws on recent memories of the War on Terror for inspiration. A vicious terrorist is tracked into hostile territory, but the militant wing of a force for good in the universe decides to hunt him there no matter the cost. It’s all 10 years too late – not to mention how ridiculous the idea of a military junta seizing power in San Francisco is. Star Trek Into Darkness displays the political knowhow of a civics paper written by a 15-year-old whose abiding memory of 9/11 is of the news-coverage cutting into his favourite cartoons. Hiccoughs in the first Star Trek screenplay could be blamed on the Writers’ Strike of 2007/’08. Here there is simply no excuse for this inane refuse.

Plodding, under-written, over-produced, with exhaustingly endless action scenes and “clever” references to previous film properties, Into Darkness is the Van Helsing of Star Trek films, a beautiful misery that will excite as many as it will disappoint.

2/5

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Argo – Hollywood’s finest exodus since The Ten Commandments

Big decisions: Affleck and Cranston in Argo

With tensions increasing in the Middle East as Iran comes ever closer to developing the bomb, this quite brilliant, witty political thriller seems very timely, despite being set over 30 years ago.

Argo, the latest from one-time Hollywood poster boy/laughing stock Ben Affleck, now a respected director of punchy, entertaining if until now slight films, tells the so-improbable-it-must-be-true tale of a CIA operation to evacuate six American diplomats during the Iranian hostage crisis of ’79-’81 by pretending they are members of a science fiction film crew. In its unlikely fusion of genres, the film manages to lampoon the audacity of Hollywood while also racking up the tension as the crisis escalates.

Affleck himself plays CIA consultant Tony Mendez, a so-called “Moses”, whose expertise is in extracting American civilians from international hotspots. During the crisis which follows the Iranian Revolution, six of the staff members at the American Embassy in Tehran escape the embassy, the centre of the crisis, and hole up in the residence of the Canadian ambassador to Iran.

With no hope of smuggling them across the border into Turkey, Mendez comes up with the plan of sneaking them out in broad daylight through Tehran’s airport, by coaching them to pose as a Canadian film crew doing a reccy in “exotic locations” for a sci-fi B-movie, called “Argo”. To sell the deception, Mendez teams up with (fictional) one-time Hollywood big leaguer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and real-life Oscar-winning make-up effects artist John Chambers (John Goodman), who worked on Planet of the Apes and the original Star Trek series. Hosting gala events in service of their Star Wars knock-off (which most closely resembles 1980’s Flash Gordon movie), the trio land an ad for Argo in Variety and generate buzz for the fraudulent film. All that has to be done then is for the terrified embassy staff to keep their nerve.

Full of punchy one-liners, especially from Goodman, Arkin and Bryan Cranston as CIA boss Jack O’Donnell, Argo’s script jets along at a very enjoyable pace before its nerve-wracking finale. Editing tricks cut between the film and documentary footage to emphasise the remarkable reality that lies behind the story. The almost excessive period detail, shot in bright ’70s colours, sells the movie to its audience even better than Mendez sells his film to the Iranians.

I’ll drink to that!: Goodman and Arkin (also Affleck, just about)

Acting is mostly solid across the board, although Affleck is perhaps not the strongest actor who might have fronted it, and he fluffs some of his best lines. Goodman and Arkin have remarkable fun as the pair who see through the “bullshit business” while also doing remarkable pro bono work for their endangered countrymen. Cranston, so hot right now it burns the eyes, has a strong go at the “disapproving chief who’s actually incredibly proud of his renegade underling” role, and it’s a treat to behold. The rest of the exhaustive cast is assembled from some of the best TV and movie character actors out there; Victor Garber, Kyle Chandler, Zeljko Ivanek, Bob Gunton, Philip Baker Hall, Richard Kind, Titus Welliver… the list goes on and on.

What the film does that no amount of perusing declassified State Department documents can do is truly get at the heart of the movie business, and give it a deserved ribbing. From the moment the film opens with the red Warner Bros logo from the 1970s, you can tell this is a film gleefully in love with a different age of moviemaking. Much of the opening preamble, bringing clueless audiences up to speed on the history of Iran (think Persepolis, but less sweet), is explained using storyboards. When Mendez reaches Hollywood, the hokey sets, ridiculous costumes and obnoxious self-promoters seem far more alien than Iran itself.

While Iran is the villain of the piece, so to speak, Argo is not overly critical of the nation, refusing to demonise it as it underlines the need for change that resulted in the Iranian Revolution. Using Istanbul as its shooting location, it paints the country as one of massive contradiction, where US flags are burnt while Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants are found on the high street.

Despite its energy, Argo slumps a little in the middle, as it struggles to define the characters of the six refugees, who are even more over-shadowed by the titanic performances of Arkin and Goodman than Affleck is. As the nail-biting finale approaches, the film blatantly goes beyond the real history and artificially raises the tension without any need. Yes, it’s intense, but for the only brief moment in its two-hour run-time this impossible story becomes unbelievable.

Affleck’s finest film to date, Argo is an endlessly witty, powerful and thrilling drama. With skilful craft in recreating an age almost out of memory, it has a unique honesty to it that is far more interested in the individual figures involved than flag-waving patriotism. A spy movie without guns or sex, Argo is nothing less than a ridiculous adventure with fine, clever characters and a fist-chewing climax like few others.

Be sure to stick around during the closing credits where actual photos from the real-life Argo exodus are placed side-by-side with images from the film. It is a final testament to the remarkable work Affleck and his team put into telling this story.

4/5

(originally published at http://www.filmireland.net)

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Boldly going where all of these people have gone before…

I could never call myself a Trekkie, but that’s not to say I could never have been one. What I saw of the original Star Trek series as a child never turned me off particularly – albeit I was bemused by what threat plasticine blobs and Nazis could offer a heavily armed starship – but it was ironically my obsessive nature which stopped me from becoming a devout Trekkie in the first place.

In order to have become one, I would have had to have seen every episode from start to finish in rough order, and not just pick and mix on alternating weekends at my father’s house. Had I ever properly gotten into Star Trek, you would all fear me and the wrath of my über-geekdom.

Strangely  I have always had a passion for The Next Generation for the very reason cited above; I was able over the years to catch almost every episode on the telly as they came and went, and for those I missed I borrowed a complete guidebook from a neighbour and studied it diligently (and embarrassingly).

So yeah, as Trekkies go, I am FAIL. So much so that I only saw The Wrath of Khan for the first time last summer. I have never seen The Motion Picture, nor a single episode of Enterprise. But I do rank the TNG episode ‘Cause and Effect’ (the déjà vu one) to be one of the best episodes of a TV drama ever made (other members of that esteemed list are Lost’s ‘Deus Ex Machina’ and The West Wing’s ‘Two Cathedrals’).

So it would be fair to say I never had particularly high hopes for JJ Abrams’s revamped Star Trek, and I was never one to hide my criticism. But it wasn’t out of love for the originals or a feeling of treading on sacred ground that it bothered me, but simply a lack of timeliness to the project that made it feel wrong for now. The last two TNG films had been so poor (from the snippets I saw while angrily ignoring them) that throwing a new Star Trek into the mix that was looking backward rather than forward seemed strange to me. Does one have to go back to the beginning to fix what only went wrong along the way? Let’s hope not, or George Lucas will be announcing a reboot of the original Star Wars trilogy within days of now.

I was surprised then when the reviews started coming back so extremely positive. How could this be? Well, I should have seen it coming, what Abrams’s Star Trek has going for it is something decidedly simple but unique – it’s a blockbuster!

And no, I don’t mean to slam the previous Star Treks (since when has being a blockbuster been definitively a good thing?), nor imply weak box offices across the board. But there has always been something decidedly B-movie-ish about the majority of Star Trek films; they never lost touch with the fact that they were glorified episodes of good TV shows. Sometimes it worked delightfully, and other times it didn’t.

But Star Trek is undoubtedly an enormously mainstream, high-concept, high-budget ($150 million?!), audience-pleasing movie machine. Its CGI rivals the best the Star Wars prequels ever offered, its script is full of punchy dialogue, and there’s a sexy young cast who fit so snugly into their already worn roles that one suspects genetic tampering has been used to clone a second superior generation to crew the Enterprise. Just think – somewhere out there a hairless baby is being bred to be Jean-Luc Picard in forty years.

What they’ve done here is take an original idea and make it brighter, faster, sharper, funnier, surprisingly less camp, and suspiciously likable. There’s no doubt that this is the Star Trek film that anyone can enjoy with ease. The young characters are all introduced as new – there’s a few gags for the fans but baring the time-travel subplot not much that would require any foreknowledge of the series.

It’s not without its faults. Eric Bana as the Romulan villain Nero stoops almost as low as he did as Henry VIII in The Other Boleyn Girl – it’s a desperately written role, but he has nothing to bring to it that couldn’t be performed by a lobotomised Nicolas Cage.

The monster action sequence on an ice planet has vomit-inducing echoes of The Phantom Menace and seems determined to satisfy awkward cinemagoers who time the interval between action scenes and leave if unsatiated.

Similarly, much of the comic relief could have been left out – Simon Pegg makes a surprisingly impressive Scotty, but making him act the complete fool is an insult to the character, the actor (and his forebear) and most of the isle of Britain. Pairing him with a sidekick who is the freakish offspring of a Jawa and one of those coral people from the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels hardly helps. The ‘Scotty in the water pipe’ sequence is so painfully out of place it deserves a right booing, but then it seems to be there to satisfy both the comic relief seekers and those who think a potential death is “exciting” or even an action sequence.

Speaking of potential deaths for characters who will clearly not die, young Kirk dangles from a precipice a total of three times in this film, not including his battle with a giant bug thingy on an ice slope.

In hiring an almost perfect cast for the Enterprise, Abrams has allowed himself to get away with a lot. Essentially by rewriting the past he has all but deleted four TV series and ten films from the Star Trek canon, allowing himself and his successors to craft an entirely new universe in which to boldly go. Leonard Nemoy’s rather charming cameo is used as the royal seal to decree this new Star Trek law.

Thus, what’s most unfortunate about the project is that it essentially fails to deliver on its own premise. Star Trek was billed as an origin story for a series epic in scope. It would explain how these characters that have been adored for forty years now came to share the deck of this starship. But it simply doesn’t do that, because the time is all wrong.

The very rewriting of the time frame by Nero’s evil nastiness changes the events that Trekkies were promised by this film in the first place. This is not how Kirk came to be in Starfleet, because Kirk had a father who raised him right, while this one does not – and if we learned nothing else from The Boys from Brazil it’s what a difference a dad makes.

Similarly Spock never lost his mother (Winona Ryder, oh how you shoplifted your career to death) nor his home planet. And how did Scotty actually come to be a member of the Enterprise crew when not prodded by alternate universe Kirk and future Spock?

Abrams has created an origin story to a completely (well, not completely!) different series; a series he will no doubt helm for some time (coincidently his former pet project Lost has been hammering home for months now that time-tinkery is ultimately fruitless).

One hopes he will continue to do a decent job with it, and that in time the Trekkies will either come to love it – or rise up in rebellion and demand their universe be put to right.

Regardless, if in fifty years time I see an alternate universe reboot of Star Trek: Voyager I will be the first to hunt down the aging Mr Adams and break both his crumbling knees.

3/5

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