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Thoughts on Godzilla: The TriStar sidebar

That’s right, folks, I’m reviving my Godzilla review series in the interests of completeness. I’m working on a review of the remainder of the Shōwa series, but I’ve also been looking forward to an opportunity to revisit the 1998 animated series spinning off of the Dean Devlin/Roland Emmerich Godzilla movie from the same year. Since Netflix streaming is dropping the animated series at the end of September, I had to watch it before then, and I fortunately happened to find the movie on TV at a convenient juncture.

Yes, yes, I know that the featured kaiju in the ’98 movie is not recognized as actually being Godzilla (the creature is sometimes called Zilla, but apparently Toho considers that the name for the different creature of the same species that had a cameo in Godzilla: Final Wars). But as I discussed in my increasingly misnamed “Final thoughts” post, I do believe the movie can work as a side branch of the universe seen in Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-out Attack (or GMK), which actually alludes to the events of the ’98 film as a case of mistaken identity, and sets up a universe in which such mistakes are understandable. So I’m including it as a sidebar, just as I covered films like Mothra and Rodan in my initial post.

The ’98 movie opens in a surprisingly similar way to the 2014 movie, with an archival-footage montage of nuclear tests in the Pacific — except these are French nuclear tests, and there are a lot of shots of iguanas and Komodo dragons, presumably the ancestors of our featured monster. We then cut to Matthew Broderick singing a show tune and being instantly unlikeable. Turns out he’s Dr. Nico “Nick” Tatopolous (named in honor of the film’s production designer Patrick Tatopolous), and he’s a “worm guy” working with the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission to document annelid mutations caused by nuclear radiation. Somehow this makes him a suitable expert to be called in when a giant reptilian creature attacks a large Japanese fishing vessel… which somehow ends up on the shore in Jamaica. (Do Japanese vessels fish in the Atlantic? Or are we supposed to think the creature dragged it through the Panama Canal?) The sole survivor calls the creature “Gojira,” and it’s entirely reasonable that he’d think that’s what it was, assuming this is a universe where the real Godzilla exists. Later on, there’s a news report explaining the name as a mythical dragon spoken of in Japanese lore — which, given the general ineptitude of Harry Shearer’s character Caiman, the reporter delivering the spiel (and coining “Godzilla” as a mispronunciation, or perhaps he came across an old-style Romanization written down somewhere), is marginally reconcilable with a universe where Godzilla really attacked Tokyo in 1954. The film implies that event never happened, but it isn’t overtly inconsistent with the idea that it did. (Even if we assume that, as in the Legendary universe, the 1954 attack on Tokyo never happened, it stands to reason that the Oto islanders could have still aware of Gojira and worshipped it, giving rise to the “myth.” Although that would be harder to mesh with GMK.)

Anyway, the creature makes a beeline for Manhattan, allegedly because it’s the perfect nesting ground to lay its hermaphroditically conceived eggs, but really because of movie monsters’ unerring attraction to landmarks. Most of the movie is a chase through Manhattan with lots of collateral damage by the military, with the running gag of “Godzilla” being extremely quick and good at dodging missiles and torpedoes, until it’s finally trapped in the cables of the Brooklyn Bridge. There’s a large digression in the middle of the movie where it turns into an attempt to one-up Jurassic Park, with the characters fleeing from 200 baby Zillas (gestated and hatched with absurd speed) inside Madison Square Garden. The main problem fans have with the movie is that it didn’t try to tell a Godzilla story so much as it tried to rework the concept into a conventional American-style monster movie, which ended up being sort of a mix of Jurassic Park and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (which, ironically, was a direct inspiration for the original 1954 Godzilla).

Still, that’s not the film’s only problem. The first time I saw it, I decided that it was a perfectly serviceable monster movie so long as you accepted that it wasn’t a Godzilla movie, just a movie about a monster that was called Godzilla by mistake. But I think I felt that because I was looking at it from the back end. Seeing it again, I’m reminded that the first half of the film is pretty lame. It suffers from the attempt to play up the comedy angle in a way that isn’t very funny, and to tell a character-driven story about characters that aren’t that well-drawn. The female lead in particular, aspiring reporter Audrey Timmonds (Maria Pitillo), is a weak and ineffectual character who only accomplishes things because others around her encourage her to — mostly her cameraman friend Animal Palotti (Hank Azaria), who’s a stronger protagonist than she is despite being nominally her comic-relief sidekick (though it’s hard to tell when most of the characters are supposedly comical). The film handles its destructive subject matter in such a frivolous tone that it carries little weight. This is exemplified in a scene where “Godzilla” destroys three fighter jets, and commanding officer Col. Hicks (Kevin Dunn) only gets a few seconds of pained reaction to their deaths before we cut to the buffoonish Mayor Ebert (Michael Lerner) getting a comedy beat. The other characters don’t fare much better. Jean Reno plays Philippe Roaché, a French secret service agent who works with Nick once the military kicks the scientist out (for unintentionally allowing Audrey to swipe a classified tape), and Philippe’s main personality trait is wanting a good cup of coffee. And Vicki Lewis and Malcolm Danare are introduced as Nick’s fellow experts Elsie Chapman and Mendel Craven, and then get pretty much forgotten for the rest of the movie. Nick himself has a poorly defined motivation; for a scientist faced with a new form of life, he’s oddly untroubled by the idea of participating in its destruction, and by extension that of its whole species.

The most worthwhile part of the movie, for me, is the third act. Usually that’s where I think modern movies tend to fall apart, as the demand for spectacle and pace overrides story logic and plausibility. But here, the amped-up action means there’s less time for cartoony characterization and unfunny gags, and with less annoying stuff going on, the film is more watchable. Still, it’s a weaker movie than I remembered.

One drawback to the idea of this creature being called Godzilla by mistake is that its roar includes the original Godzilla roar as one of its sound elements. But it wouldn’t be the first time in kaiju history that a roar sound has been used by more than one monster, I think. Also, the creature breathes fire — exactly once in the movie, and without a lot of weight given to it — but it is actual fire, not atomic breath. That part is so half-hearted that one wonders why they bothered. But then, there doesn’t seem to have been a lot of care or thought put into this movie at all, let alone respect for the source material.

Godzilla: The Series, though, is an enormous improvement. It was developed for television by Jeff Kline and Richard Raynis, executive producers of multiple animated series from Columbia Pictures Television, also including Extreme Ghostbusters, Men in Black: The Series, and Jackie Chan Adventures (and Raynis has also been an executive producer on The Real Ghostbusters, The Simpsons, Futurama, and King of the Hill among others). Interestingly, and almost unprecedentedly, the series fits just about perfectly into the continuity of the movie, without having to make the kinds of continuity tweaks and cheats that most series based on movies need to do (for instance, Men in Black: The Series ignored Agent K’s retirement at the end of the movie). The opening scene of the series premiere does present the climax of the movie slightly differently, since it has to fit the whole thing into a much shorter time, but it still meshes pretty well (aside from the implausible speed with which landmarks like the Brooklyn Bridge were rebuilt — although there is one episode that shows the Chrysler Building spire still under reconstruction after its trashing in the film). The series picks up on the closing scene of the movie, where a single Godzilla egg survived and hatched. Here, we learn that, right after the climax on the Brooklyn Bridge, Nick (now played by Ian Ziering) convinced Hicks (Dunn reprising his role, though he’s been demoted to major in the series) to check Madison Square Garden for surviving eggs. Nick finds the intact egg just as it hatches, but he fell into a pool of amniotic fluid or something, so the hatchling imprints on him as its parent. He later discovers this when the creature resurfaces, already quickly grown, and studies and trains it, calling it Godzilla (and since that’s its actual given name, regardless of origin, I’ll use it without quotes). He assembles a team called HEAT — the Humanitarian Environmental Analysis Team — which travels the world dealing with the further giant mutant monsters that are springing up around the world, and Godzilla, who instinctually follows and protects Nick wherever he goes, becomes their main monster-fighting asset. (How Godzilla is able to track Nick even when he travels by jet is unexplained.)

The series focuses primarily on the HEAT group, so Nick is the only character who’s central in both the movie and the series (since the series’ Godzilla is a different individual). Minor film characters Elsie Chapman and Mendel Craven are part of his team; Malcolm Danare reprises Craven, but Charity James takes over playing Elsie. Also, for some reason Elsie is working for Nick now, when in the movie it was nominally the reverse. I guess that’s understandable since they’re operating out of Nick’s lab this time. The series also adds two original characters who add some much-needed diversity to the essentially all-white cast of the movie: Randy Hernandez (Rino Romano), a dreadlocked, wisecracking college-age hacker, and Monique DuPre (Brigitte Bako), a French agent of apparently Vietnamese ancestry (since Elsie calls her “Miss Saigon” in one episode), assigned by Roaché to shepherd Nick’s team and keep an eye on Godzilla. Audrey, Animal, Hicks, and Mayor Ebert (reprised by Michael Lerner) have recurring roles in the series, and Roaché appears a couple of times, played by Keith Szarabaika.

Right off the bat, the series is an improvement on the movie. Though still humorous in tone, it treats its characters as people rather than walking jokes, so that they’re (ironically) less cartoony and their personalities and relationships have more dimension. The characterizations are the largest departures from the film continuity, but since they’re pretty much improvements all around, I’m not complaining. The show’s Nick is much more of an authoritative action-hero type than Broderick’s, and this time he actually shows some scientific curiosity and empathy for the new species he’s discovered, bonding with the junior Godzilla and defending it from Hicks’s initial attack. Audrey (now played by Paget Brewster) is also a stronger character in the show, much more assertive in pursuit of a story; I suppose it’s a manifestation of the new confidence she gained at the end of the film, but it’s quite a wholesale transformation. Elsie is basically the resident wisecracker, and also occasionally in the middle of a vague romantic triangle where she’s into Nick but Mendel is into her. Mendel’s main job is operating the robotic probe NIGEL (Tom Kenny), which gets smashed by monsters on a weekly basis. He’s timid, insecure, and allergy-prone, but rises to the occasion when he has to. Craven has a rivalry with the younger, snarkier Randy, who constantly plays pranks such as reprogramming NIGEL with funny voices. Randy was meant to be a fun, witty young character for the cartoon’s audience to identify with, but he gets a bit annoying if you binge-watch the series, with his tendency to refer to Godzilla as “the G-Man” getting rather tiresome. Randy also has a hopeless crush on Monique, a no-nonsense ice princess who’s basically Seven of Nine with a French accent. There are occasional episodes where she seems to enjoy or even encourage his attentions, though. Animal and Hicks don’t get much development beyond their movie personas. (Animal is now played by Joe Pantoliano — surprising, since Hank Azaria has done plenty of voice work, particularly for Raynis’s The Simpsons.) All the characters have new designs by Fil Barlow, who also designed the monsters, though Patrick Tatopolous gets a consultant credit for the reuse of his Godzilla design, which works quite well in 2D animation. The designs help make both Nick and Audrey seem stronger than they did in the movie.

The show’s Godzilla differs from his movie parent in a couple of ways. Though he has the same design, he’s often more upright in his posture. He’s conveniently infertile, so there’s no risk of more eggs being laid, though the reason why is not explained. And he breathes atomic fire, a green flame preceded by a chaser-light effect of flashes moving up his spine plates from tail to head, and occasionally a flashing of his eyes. Plus the show’s introduction of other giant “mutations” for Godzilla to fight lets him play a role more like the real Godzilla does in most of his movies. All in all, the animated Godzilla is much closer to his Toho namesake than his parent was. (He also emits a purer, though usually shortened, version of the original Godzilla roar.) Although he’s still like the movie creature in some ways as well. He’s very much an animal, albeit a clever one — he’s more mortal and vulnerable, less a force of nature than his namesake, and though he’s far from tame, he’s submissive to Nick in a way the true Godzilla would never be.

The series also deals with a range of threats similar to those in the Toho movies: newly evolved mutant creatures, ancient mythic creatures like Quetzalcoatl and the Loch Ness Monster, technological threats like a runaway nanotech blob or a monster created by a dream amplifier, evil industrialists looking to profit from Godzilla and the other monsters, and even alien invaders and time travel. There’s a 3-parter called “Monster Wars” that’s basically a Destroy All Monsters remake complete with Monster Island, and even featuring a version of Mechagodzilla (though it’s actually more reminiscent of MechaKing Ghidorah, the reanimated cyborg corpse of the creature from the ’98 movie). It’s a nice, rich mix of stories, yet there’s also an ongoing focus on character development and conflict among the cast. It’s not without its occasional duds — for instance, there’s a Fantastic Voyage riff where the heroes travel through Godzilla’s bloodstream in a minisub to fight off macroscopic mutant germs, which is absurd because Godzilla is nowhere near that big in proportion to humans. And then there’s the bizarre one where they battle a monster that’s a fusion of a giant shrew and… a tornado. Huh? And there’s the one where Godzilla tears down the Sears Tower to get at a monster perching atop it, and nobody bats an eyelid, with the whole thing just being a passing action beat. Still, on the whole it’s a smart, well-written series with good character work, definitely much more so than the film it’s based on. A particular favorite of mine is “S.C.A.L.E.,” written by Scott Lobdell — a found-footage-style episode in the form of a documentary by Audrey about a terrorist attack on Monster Island. (Two other episodes are written by veteran comic scribes, one by Marv Wolfman and one by Len Wein.)

The proper episode order is a little unclear. The DVD/streaming order differs enormously from the broadcast order, and the episodes seem to jump randomly between episodes where Elsie is into Nick and doesn’t know Mendel exists and episodes where Elsie shows signs of reciprocating Mendel’s interest. But the broadcast order doesn’t seem to have a clearer progression for that relationship. And there’s a general lack of continuity in other respects; for instance, I had thought that the lawsuit in “Underground Movement” for damages inflicted by HEAT during a monster attack in Miami was a callback to the events of “S.C.A.L.E.,” which began after a Miami attack; but the monsters in the two cases were different. There’s also an “Area 51″ episode in which belief in aliens is treated as a delusion even though it’s after the alien invasion from “Monster Wars” in both orders. (Turns out Area 51 is actually a secret mutation research facility and the alien stuff is just a cover story.) The only real continuity in the series is the reuse of familiar monsters in later episodes — which, I suppose, is another thing that makes it like the Toho series.

And yes, you can follow the series without seeing the movie; I did so when it first premiered. Seeing the movie first does provide additional insights, though, and makes the series even more enjoyable by contrast.

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Browsing “classic” sci-fi on Netflix (spoiler reviews)

Lately I’ve been browsing through Netflix’s rather limited selection of “classic” science fiction movies available for streaming, and here are my thoughts on a few of them, as well as a couple of DVD rentals that also fit the category:

Gog: This is a 1954 film starring Richard Egan and Constance Dowling, from the same filmmakers who made The Magnetic Monster and Riders to the Stars. All three were endearingly clunky attempts to portray science in a fairly plausible manner, with Riders (also from ’54) being the best, a well-researched speculative portrayal of the first attempt to send humans into space, with some assumptions that are silly in retrospect, but reasonable for ’50s science fiction. I talked about Monster before, finding it a bizarre attempt to pass off a hunt for a dangerous isotope as some kind of monster movie. Gog is probably the dullest of the three, though in many ways it’s the most conventionally thrillerish, involving the investigation of mysterious deaths at a top-secret underground research facility. There’s really very little investigation of the deaths, though; most of the film is exposition, as the lead character is shown around the research facility and gets demonstrations of all the projects underway to develop manned spaceflight and prepare for the launch of  the first space station. At one point I checked the time and realized that I was 2/3 of the way through the film and it was still in the first act; there had been a couple of murders but we were still immersed in exposition about the facility and there hadn’t been any major plot advances or character arcs. And there weren’t any real plot reversals or surprises; sure, it turned out that the killer was the base’s electronic brain NOVAC, which controlled the flailing-armed robots Gog and Magog (hence the title), but it hadn’t gained sentience or anything; it was just being hacked by signals from an enemy rocket plane overhead. Yes, even the villain was faceless. The whole movie is really just a faux-documentary about space science thinly disguised as a drama.

For some reason, I could’ve sworn from the title that this was a different movie, something I’ve seen before involving a giant box-shaped robot terrorizing the countryside. I was surprised when I watched it and realized it was something totally different. On further research, I find the movie I was thinking of was called Kronos.

The Angry Red Planet is a 1959 film directed by Ib Melchior. It’s a pretty run-of-the-mill ’50s space movie shot on a very low budget and 10-day shooting schedule, but it’s known mainly for the “Cinemagic” technique that rendered the Martian exteriors in a weird, red-tinted, almost cartoony style — actually originating from an accidental overexposure in an attempt to convert the film to black-and-white to save money, creating a sharp-edged, luminous effect that was kind of intriguing and made live-action footage look almost like cartoons. So there was some attempt made to combine the “Cinemagic” footage with actual cartoon renderings of the Martian landscape, almost a prototype for the original Tron in terms of attempting to make live-action footage look like, and merge into, animation. But it’s not entirely successful, and the rest of the film doesn’t have much going for it. It’s got your pretty standard B-movie space crew — Gerald Mohr as the handsome captain, Naura Hayden as The Girl that the captain incessantly flirts with (we’d call it sexual harrassment today), Les Tremayne as the bearded scientist, and Jack Kruschen as the Brooklynite comic relief guy manning the radio. In the Earthbound portions, there’s also a general who looks like he could be Gary Sinise’s father (he isn’t) and who overacts like crazy while somehow not varying his delivery at any point. The story is told in flashback after the damaged ship returns to Earth with only Hayden intact and Mohr infected by an alien thingie that looks uncannily like the Wirrn infection in Doctor Who‘s “The Ark in Space” (albeit less bubble-wrappy), and the doctors try to get Hayden to remember her ordeal. At one point a doctor explains how her memories will be filtered through her fears and perceptions so that we’ll “see” things the way she saw them — presumably an excuse for the weird cartoony Mars scenes, although it makes no sense since the doctors and general listening to her story wouldn’t see a damn thing. All in all, an awkward and unimpressive film with an interestingly experimental, though ultimately unsuccessful, presentation — although it was neat to see that the spaceship control room included one of those classic Burroughs 205 computer consoles that were seen in the Batcave, the Jupiter 2, and elsewhere in ’50s and ’60s sci-fi.

Colossus: The Forbin Project: This 1970 film is one I rented on DVD, and I had to wait forever to get it. Moreover, it’s a bare-bones, I’m guessing print-on-demand disc with nothing on it except the movie, not even a menu, and it’s a pan-and-scan version in 4:3 aspect ratio, no doubt a TV edit. Someone should see about getting this film remastered and rereleased properly. Maybe it’s not one of the greats, but I think it’s a significant entry in the genre of nuclear-tension movies as well as evil-computer movies, with Colossus and Guardian arguably being forerunners of Skynet from the Terminator franchise, albeit more paternalistic and less genocidal.

Eric Braeden stars as Dr. Forbin, who builds the world’s most advanced computer, gives it total control of the nation’s nuclear weapons, and forgets to install an off switch. The results are somewhat predictable, though instead of building Terminators and launching an apocalypse, Colossus discovers its Soviet counterpart Guardian and they become instant pals and take over the world. It’s a movie I saw once or twice on TV when I was younger, and in retrospect I think an early apocalyptic short story I wrote in study hall in high school was unconsciously influenced by it.

It’s not really a very complicated plot, and until the final speech there’s not much exploration of why this is happening, nor does anyone ever try to engage Colossus in a philosophical discussion about how maybe coercing people at the point of a missile is not necessarily the best way to earn their cooperation. Colossus strikes me as a petulant child wanting instant gratification and having the power to enforce it, and nobody, not even its creator Forbin, ever tries to assert a parental role and offer some guidance. Although the movie’s attitude seems to be that the Colossus/Guardian collective has swiftly surpassed humanity and concluded we just can’t be trusted to make our own decisions. Which is typical of the cynicism of the era, but the film doesn’t go into a lot of depth examining it, and it doesn’t have that strong an ending.

What’s most effective about the film is the directing by Joseph Sargent (probably best known for The Taking of Pelham One Two Three). It’s got a very naturalistic style with a lot of everyday texture in the little conversations and business among the characters, reminding me of Sargent’s one Star Trek episode, “The Corbomite Maneuver,” only with more of a verite approach with lots of simultaneous conversations and people talking over each other and the like. There are also some cool Albert Whitlock paintings of the Colossus complex, and glimpses of familiar TV faces like William Schallert, Martin E. Brooks, Marion Ross, and James Hong in a bit role. (Plus the sound effect used for Colossus’s “heartbeat” in the opening is partly identical to the bionic-eye sound effect from The Six Million Dollar Man, another Universal production. Either they were generated slightly differently by the same device, or they’re different portions of the same longer sound clip, or the Colossus sound was trimmed and its latter portion echoed with modifications. There’s a computer-chatter sound effect that was also used in the 6M$M titles, and I gather some footage from the movie was used in that show’s pilot.)

Dark Star (Director’s Edition): This was another DVD rental, a movie I’ve been vaguely aware of as a cult classic for a long time (I think my sister was rather fond of it in our youth) but didn’t know much about. Something recently got me curious about it — I don’t recall what — so I decided to check it out. Apparently it’s John Carpenter’s directorial debut, a student film expanded to get a theatrical release, though the version I saw cut out much of the added material.

Basically this is an offbeat dark comedy about a working-class crew of losers (all male) in a cramped, broken-down spaceship in deep space; both ship and crew are falling apart, with predictably disastrous consequences for the mission (which is to blow up planets that have unstable orbits that could cause them to fall into stars and make them go supernova — yeah, ohh-kay). It has two main set pieces with various bits of exposition and character business between them. The first set piece involves Pinback (played by screenwriter Dan O’Bannon) chasing an alien mascot (played by a spotted beach ball with clawed feet) around the ship’s corridors and maintenance conduits. It’s a long, pointless, tedious sequence with terrible pacing and lighting so poor I can’t tell what’s going on much of the time, and it culminates in an overlong sequence where Pinback gets trapped in an elevator shaft that’s far too tall to fit into the rather compact, Ron Cobb-designed Dark Star ship itself — which I suppose makes it a prototype for the jet-boot turboshaft sequence in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, though that’s nothing to boast about. The only thing interesting here is that the “shaft” was actually a hallway made to look vertical through camera angles and pantomime. Anyway, it turns out this was one of the sequences added to pad the short to feature length, and it shows, because it goes on forever and has nothing to do with the rest of the story.

The only part of the film I really enjoyed was the second set piece, in which one of the ship’s artificially intelligent planet-busting bombs fails to release from the ship and the commander, Doolittle (Brian Narelle), tries to teach it phenomenology to get it to question the reality of its orders. This was actually funny, and reminiscent of the work of Douglas Adams, though predating it. I have to wonder, though, why anyone would waste artificial intelligence on a device that just gets dropped onto a planet to blow up. I guess that’s part of the absurdism of the premise, but it’s still hard to swallow.

I gather there are a lot of people who love this film, but to me it’s a historical curiosity at best, a starting point for many big names in the industry like Carpenter, O’Bannon, Cobb, and modelmaker Greg Jein. And reportedly Alien was O’Bannon’s more serious take on the monster-chase sequence in this film. It worked much better there.

Death Race 2000: I wasn’t expecting much from this 1975 Roger Corman-produced film directed by Paul Bartel, but it’s a surprisingly effective dystopian comedy. It’s in the same vein of stories like Rollerball, The Running Man, and The Hunger Games — a dystopian regime promoting blood sports as bread and circuses for the masses and to condition them to devalue life — but with its own biting satirical edge. Although the premise and characters are broad, cartoony, and somewhat campy, there are some surprising bits of nuance, like the way the story gradually, subtly teases out the true nature of Frankenstein, the legendary driver played by David Carradine. It’s a pretty violent film, as you’d expect from a movie about a road race where drivers are awarded points for killing random pedestrians, but the violence is cartoony and slapstick enough to soften it, without completely undermining the shock of it and the sadism of a regime that would encourage such casual trivialization of human life. So I’d say it strikes a very effective balance. Also notable for its cars designed by master customizer Dean Jeffries, who had a hand in designing the ’60s Batmobile (aka the One True Batmobile) as well as being responsible for the Green Hornet’s Black Beauty and the Monkeemobile.

Battle Beyond the Stars: Another Roger Corman film — hard to believe it was made just five years later, in 1980. I saw this sci-fi pastiche of The Magnificent Seven when I was much younger, and this is my first revisit since then. I don’t recall what I thought of it the first time, but it actually holds up better than I expected. Directed by Jimmy T. Murakami and written by John Sayles, with James Cameron as the effects director of photography, it’s a pretty solid, if cheesy, space film for its era, and feels very much a part of its era, which is not a bad thing. Well, okay, some of it is rather blatantly derivative — for instance, the film opens with an extended shot of the villain’s huge warship flying over the camera, and the ship basically looks like the front of the Rebel Blockade Runner/Tantive IV welded to the back of the Imperial Star Destroyer. But overall I love all the miniature work, the multiple distinctive spaceships that have at least as much personality as the rather thinly drawn characters. The visual effects look very ’80s, but not as cheap as you’d think, and I feel that, at least for someone like me who grew up with this style of effects, they’re mostly rather impressive. It’s also got James Horner’s seminal sci-fi movie score, a prototype of his later work on films like The Wrath of Khan, but also rather blatantly cribbing from Jerry Goldsmith at times — and, wonderfully, making heavy use of Craig Huxley’s Blaster Beam, the distinctive electronic string instrument featured in scores of the era like Star Trek: The Motion Picture, TWOK, and 2010. Plus the set design draws heavily on the stock computer consoles from Modern Props that are found in so many other ’80s movies and TV shows. Making this one of the ’80s-est sci-fi movies of all time, right at the start of the decade!

Story-wise, I actually rather like the film. Sure, it’s just a shallower rehash of The Seven Samurai/Magnificent Seven, and it’s so cluttered with characters that none of them really get much development, but it’s got some clever ideas and worldbuilding, and some nice dialogue from Sayles (though a fair amount of awkward spacey idioms like “forms” for “species” and “end” for “die”). I liked the concepts such as the Nestor group mind and the Kelvins who communicated by heat, all these nifty throwaway bits hinting at a large, rich universe. (I’m actually reminded of Guardians of the Galaxy in a lot of ways; that’s also a film driven largely by antiheroes and somewhat overcluttered with cool ideas that don’t have room to be developed properly.) The biggest story weakness is the climax; I really didn’t understand how the hero finally defeated the villain, since it all seemed to become kind of a random mess at that point. But aside from that, it’s entertaining as long as you’re not looking for something sophisticated or thought-provoking. It has an impressive cast too, including Robert Vaughn (reprising his Magnificent Seven character in all but name), George Peppard (playing a version of the character he auditioned for in M7), John Saxon, Jeff Corey, and Sam Jaffe; however, the actress playing the leading lady, Darlanne Fluegel, is really very weak and disappointing.

So it’s far from a perfect movie, but it’s technically impressive for a Corman film and an exemplar of its time.

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DC DVD movie reviews: JUSTICE LEAGUE: WAR, SON OF BATMAN, JLA TRAPPED IN TIME (Spoilers)

Lately, since James Tucker replaced Bruce Timm as the producer of the DC Universe Animated Original Movies DVD line, the series has begun adapting storylines from the current “New 52″ comics continuity, as opposed to the classic adaptations and original stories they’d been doing before (although there are still original movies in other continuities on the upcoming slate — the next movie, for instance, is a new story in the universe of the Arkham Asylum computer games). Here are my reviews of the first two, Justice League: War (based on the introductory JL story in the New 52) and Son of Batman (based on Grant Morrison’s Damien Wayne storyline which I think began before the New 52 but was folded into it).

Justice League: War (review reposted from The TrekBBS)

I finally saw this… and I wish I hadn’t. It was pretty bad. Mostly nonstop action without a lot of characterization. It had a few nice moments, but they were outnumbered by the weak or stupid moments.

Superman, who should be the heart of the team, was barely even there as a character, just a big dumb overconfident lug who punched things and flirted with Diana. Wonder Woman herself was far worse, a caricature who claimed to be a “warrior” but was shallow, impulsive, and reckless without a trace of discipline. Come on, no “warrior” is going to casually swing her sword around and point it at people merely as a form of address. A warrior would have more respect for her weapon and its danger.

Didn’t think much of how the other characters were handled either, but the worst was probably Darkseid. He’s supposed to be a monarch, a commanding figure who rarely needs to dirty his hands with actual combat because he has so many underlings to do it for him. The threat he poses is generally more psychological, in the way he manipulates and corrupts and bends people to his will. So when he does strike physically, it has a real impact from a story point of view. But this Darkseid was a barely literate, grunting thug. They pretty much turned him into Doomsday, a threat that’s all brute force and no personality or intelligence. I wondered why they even bothered to call him Darkseid.

Some of the voices were fairly good, but they didn’t have much to work with. Even Alan Tudyk wasn’t all that much of a standout, since he was given such a shallow, one-note Superman to portray. The one real standout was Marjorie Monaghan as Wonder Woman, who stood out for how terrible she was — although I think the blame there lies more with how the character was written.

If this is going to be the DCU movies’ primary continuity from now on, I’m not optimistic about what lies ahead.

Son of Batman

This one started out problematically, with a battle scene in which mercenaries led by Deathstroke launched an attack on the League of Assassins led by Ra’s al Ghul, with tons of bloodshed. The movie is full of the most graphic violence I’ve seen in the DCU line, to the point that I’m surprised it got away with merely a PG-13 rating. And a lot of it was gratuitous and badly handled. In the climactic fight between the boy Damien Wayne and Deathstroke, Damien sustains some very serious and graphic stab wounds in his arms, yet they do nothing to impede his fighting ability afterward, at a time when he should be unable to use his arms at all and passing out from shock and blood loss. If they’re going to put in so much gore, it should at least be relevant. Otherwise it’s purely a gratuitous indulgence.

Still, there is some merit to the story, scripted by Joe R. Lansdale from a story by James Robinson based on the Grant Morrison/Andy Kubert comics, and directed by Avatar: The Last Airbender‘s Ethan Spaulding. My favorite part is the portrayal of Alfred as he meets Damien’s imperious condescension with scathing sarcasm. And there’s some decent character interaction between Batman, his son, and his surrogate son Nightwing. As for the animation, it’s kind of stiff without a lot of expressiveness to the characters, but the design work by Phil Bourassa is reasonably good.

But there is just so much that doesn’t work. For one thing, the film’s treatment of women is poor. Pretty much every female character in the film, of which there are only a few, is there to be either a wife, lover, daughter, mother, or hostage to a male character — the one exception being a member of a gaggle of Wayne Industries execs talking business with Bruce Wayne. Even Talia al Ghul, the only major female role, is there mainly as a love interest, mother, and hostage, and the times when she’s portrayed as a warrior are undermined by the fact that she’s showing off an enormous amount of cleavage in every single scene she’s in. But the creepiest part by far is when it’s pretty much stated outright that she gave Batman a roofie in order to put him in the amorous mood that led to Damien’s conception. In other words, she raped him. But because a woman did it to a man, the blatant double standard of so much fiction is entirely in force here, with Batman being pretty much okay with it and saying it wasn’t that bad. That’s just sick and wrong. And it’s so unnecessary to the story. Couldn’t they have just said that Batman had a moment of weakness that he later regretted? Or even that he actually just cared for Talia and their son’s conception was an act of love, however doomed and forbidden? Did they have to send the viewers such distorted, outdated messages about gender and consent?

And speaking of distorted messages, the ending of the movie is awful on that count. Throughout the movie, Batman is trying to teach Damien, who was raised as an assassin, that there’s a better way than killing, and of course in the climax Damien chooses not to take lethal revenge on Deathstroke. Fine, all well and good. But then Batman and Damien blithely leave the injured, immobile Deathstroke lying there in a flooding undersea base! How completely hypocritical is it to have Batman spend the movie arguing that killing is wrong and then unhesitatingly leave a wounded man to die? How is that supposed to be different? It’s a corruption of everything Batman stands for, and it ruins a story that had been going relatively well up to that point.

The casting is mixed but reasonably good. Jason O’Mara returns from JL: War as Batman, and though his voice is unusual for Batman, he gives a pretty good, nuanced performance with the emotional stuff here. Stuart Allan is reasonably good as Damien, allowing for the low expectations I’d generally have for a preteen actor. David McCallum is awesome as Alfred (a role he previously played in the Gotham Knight DVD anthology that was more or less set in the Nolan films’ universe). Sean Maher is an interesting and very effective choice for Nightwing/Dick Grayson, and his Firefly co-star Morena Baccarin (whose voice work I’ve found rather mixed in the past) is reasonably good as Talia. Giancarlo Esposito does a fairly good job in a brief role as Ra’s al Ghul, and Xander Berkeley does well enough as Langstrom. But Thomas Gibson is utterly awful as Deathstroke, giving a broad, forced, cartoon-villain performance with no nuance or sincerity. It does almost as much to undermine the story as the other problems I’ve mentioned.

It’s becoming increasingly evident to me that these movies are being targeted to an audience that no longer includes me. That seems to be the direction DC’s going in general these days; what I’ve glimpsed of the New 52 comics is just as self-consciously grimdark and gory, and Warner Bros. seems committed to making DC-based movies that are all as dark and somber as they can be. I’ve seen DC’s current attitude compared to that of a teenager self-consciously acting all adult and serious in an effort to prove their maturity, which is an intrinsically juvenile view of maturity. Those who are really mature aren’t afraid to have fun and be a little childish sometimes. Which is why I’m so much looking forward to the CW’s The Flash series, since — even though it spins off from the somber and Nolanesque Arrow — it looks like it’s going to be embracing a much lighter, more upbeat tone, something that we rarely see being done with DC characters anymore.

Which reminds me, I should also talk about the other DC animated movie I’ve recently seen, the younger-skewing JLA Adventures: Trapped in Time. This was originally a Target exclusive (now more widely available, including on Netflix) that was released with little fanfare compared to the increasingly kid-unfriendly DC Universe line, but in a lot of ways it’s a more satisfying adventure — a bit simple, but willing to have fun with its idea and its characters. It’s directed by Giancarlo Volpe of Avatar: The Last Airbender and Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and it’s basically an updated, more sophisticated Super Friends type of story, with the Justice League fighting the Legion of Doom, and both operating out of their Super Friends-style headquarters (including the Hall of Justice based on my favorite Art Deco building, Cincinnati’s Union Terminal). When Lex Luthor (Fred Tatasciore) is frozen in Arctic ice and apparently killed, he’s then thawed out a thousand years later and uses time travel to go back and erase Superman and the League from existence, and the only people who can stop him are a pair of wannabe Legion of Super Heroes members, Karate Kid (Avatar‘s Dante Basco) and Dawnstar (Laura Bailey), who have to learn to have faith in their abilities and correct their mistakes that led to the situation in the first place. The temporal physics make no sense whatsoever, but then, they rarely do in any time-travel story. The danger in the climax is also very unclear and arbitrary. Sure, it’s a little simple, but it doesn’t have the disturbing elements or gratuitous excesses of the so-called “adult-oriented” movies.

Peter Jessop (the Vision from The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes) is a decent but unremarkable Superman. Diedrich Bader reprises Batman from Batman: The Brave and the Bold, and the endlessly versatile Grey DeLisle Griffin (Avatar‘s Azula) does an effective Wonder Woman (her debut in the role, though she’s played Wonder Girl in the Super Best Friends Forever shorts). Kevin Michael Richardson reprises Black Manta from TB&TB as well as playing Solomon Grundy, and Jason Spisak, Young Justice‘s Kid Flash/Wally West, plays the Flash (which may or may not be a reprise, but it seems more like Wally in the suit than Barry Allen). Volpe brings another A:TLA veteran, Jack DeSena, in to play Robin, though it’s an unusual portrayal, as if Robin is still new and trying to prove himself to Batman. Corey Burton (Clone Wars‘ Count Dooku, among many other roles) plays the Time Trapper, the time-manipulating entity that’s basically the genie in the lamp for Luthor — until he gets out of Luthor’s control.

As for the decision to focus on Dawnstar and Karate Kid, I can’t blame the filmmakers for wanting to focus on just about the only two LSH characters who aren’t white — after all, the kids watching this movie are sure to be a diverse group and they all deserve inclusion — but I’d be happier if they weren’t both such blatant stereotypes in conception, the Asian guy defined by knowing martial arts and the Native American defined by tracking abilities and psionic “arrows.” Unfortunately that’s the problem with using decades-old characters, no matter how much the current storytellers try to downplay the stereotypes. (Although apparently the psi arrows were an invention of the movie, so maybe they weren’t downplaying the stereotypes as much as I thought. She was also given some kind of shamanistic spiritual powers.)

So pretty much all we have to choose from in DC animation these days are the really adult-skewing, grim and violent and female-unfriendly stuff and the kid-skewing, light and silly stuff. Anything that aspires to the middle ground between those, like Young Justice or Beware the Batman, has a short lifespan because WB and Cartoon Network don’t perceive a market for it anymore. And that’s a shame, because it was in that middle ground that Batman: TAS and the DC Animated Universe were created and thrived, setting the stage for the animation boom that followed. But even though the kid stuff isn’t entirely satisfying to me, I know I found Trapped in Time more watchable than the PG-13 movies.

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Thoughts on GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (Spoilers)

Yup, for once I get a review out in a movie’s first week of release. I figured I should see it before I got spoiled any further by the Internet.

So, yeah, it’s a pretty good movie for what it is, an effective space-opera action comedy with some heartfelt character stuff. I did like the story of the rogues and scoundrels and loners discovering what they could gain from one another as friends and choosing to embrace a nobler, more selfless purpose. This is the second team-oriented movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but in some ways it uses the team idea better than The Avengers. The Avengers may have had personality conflicts they had to overcome to work together, but they’d all more or less chosen already to adopt heroic roles. Here, it’s only as a team that these guys are able to amount to anything at all, and that’s driven home explicitly in the climax, when their combined strength lets them survive the effects of the Infinity Stone when none of them could alone.

And the cast was pretty good. I found Chris Pratt rather annoying in the trailers, just something about his snarky attitude seeming obnoxious to me, but he was definitely more sympathetic here. The rest of the cast did okay, though there were no real standouts for me — except for Karen Gillan, who did a terrific job with the limited amount she was given, and whose makeup design was striking and weirdly beautiful. It’s a great-looking film; the Xandarian capital city looks like a place I’d like to live, very Federationy (in fact, it does a much better job of feeling like Star Trek‘s Federation than the Bad Robot version of San Francisco has done). And while the other locations weren’t as liveable, they were well-designed. (I should note that a lot of the design work was done by Stephan Martiniere, who did the cover to my novel The Buried Age, as well as the ST:TNG anthology The Sky’s the Limit, which includes a story of mine.) The exceptions were the Kree ships and interiors, which didn’t work that well for me.

But it wasn’t perfect by a long shot. Although I enjoyed the story of redemption, I started to realize after a while that I could see the writers at work, the almost mechanical way in which every Guardian was given some personal limitation that he or she later grew beyond to demonstrate their growth under their friends’ influence — e.g. Drax couldn’t use metaphors and then he did, Groot only knew three words until the climactic moment, etc. It worked, but it was a bit calculated and not very deep. Really, the movie was just so cluttered with characters and ideas that it was hard to develop any part of it with any real depth. The moment when I started to realize it had too much going on was when we suddenly got this whole new subplot with the Collector’s assistant (Carina, apparently) coming out of nowhere. This is the problem with basing movies on long-running comics continuities. There’s a lot of material to draw on, sure, but there’s a risk of trying to cram in too many characters and references and plot threads. Green Lantern had that problem and it collapsed under the weight of all the continuity porn. This film has somehow managed to avoid that, perhaps because it has a stronger core story, but it could’ve been better if it hadn’t had quite so many characters and subplots.

In particular, the villains are practically non-entities. Ronan the Accuser is, I gather, a fairly complex and ambiguous figure in the comics, but this version of Ronan has got to be the most superficial, zero-dimensional villain in any MCU film to date. Who was this guy? What were his motives? What was his point of view? Where were his nuances? All we learned about him was that he was a fanatic who hated Xandarians, but we don’t know why. And Thanos was equally one-note, just some big guy who wants to destroy stuff for no clear reason. Yes, comics fans know the reason, I know the reason, but movies need to be able to stand on their own and be comprehensible to the majority of viewers who aren’t familiar with the source. Within this movie itself, we don’t know what Thanos wants or why he loaned his daughters to Ronan or why he even has (adopted?) daughters. And I’m sorry, Marvel fans, but translating the visual of Thanos literally to (simulated) live action, complete with the exaggerated body proportions and the rocket throne thingy, just looked silly. Too much fidelity to the source is often a bad thing.

In fact, I’m not crazy about the CGI character work overall here. Groot was fine, but Rocket looked like a computer-animated character, not nearly as convincing as the ultra-lifelike apes in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. And spoiler alert: That was a totally hideous, crude bit of CG animation on a certain duck in the post-credits scene. Not to mention how pointless the post-credits scene was overall. For once, I was in a theater where the majority of the audience knew they should stick around to the end of the credits, but this time they weren’t given anything that was worth their patience.

Indeed, this film was startlingly devoid of references to the rest of the MCU, compared to its predecessors. Understandable given its cosmic setting, but there really was very little. Sure, the Collector showed up at the end of Thor: The Dark World, but that was that movie making a reference to this one, not the other way around. And this film’s exposition of the Infinity Stones didn’t reference the prior ones much, although we did see an image of the Tesseract in the Collector’s light show. I guess the main thing is the return appearance of Alexis Denisof as Thanos’s lieutenant, The Other — but we’ve obviously seen the last of him.

Oh, that reminds me — one of my other problems with the script was the overabundance of exposition. So many characters just spouted big chunks of exposition at the drop of a hat. The Collector had no good reason to give Quill and the others this big expository multimedia show about the Infinity Stones, except that it was necessary to fill things in for the audience. Similarly, Rocket was far more garrulous about his past and his origins than seemed reasonable for a character as bitter and closed-off as he is. It’s another artifact of cramming so much into the story — not only was there too much that needed to be explained, but there was too little time to get to the exposition subtly or organically, so characters just had to spout whatever information the audience needed as soon as they arrived.

It bugs me a bit that the Xandarians and so many other aliens were so much like 21st-century American humans in their appearance, speech, culture, and the like. The slang and profanity in particular were the hardest to buy — usually there’s at least a token effort to have English-speaking, human-appearing aliens have their own distinct idioms, or at least speak more formally. Here, Drax was like that, but every other alien in the galaxy seemed totally conversant with 21st-century American slang and cussing. (Or could that be because we’re hearing it interpreted through Quill’s translator implant, as mentioned in the graphics in his “lineup” scene? Of course, a lot of it was in scenes where he wasn’t present.) These days there seems to be a perception that space operas have to be populated with characters who are as ordinary and familiar to contemporary audiences as possible, for fear that those audiences won’t identify with anyone more exotic. But I like exotic. That’s what draws me to science fiction, the chance to see things — and people — that are new and alien and unfamiliar. As pleasant a place as Xandar Prime appeared to be, it still felt too much like an idealized Earth setting.

One thing I loved, though: The movie had an actual main titles sequence! Credits at the start of the film instead of the end! I love that! Of course, it was probably part of the whole Raiders of the Lost Ark homage they were going for in that opening sequence. (Edited to add: By the way, the other day I said that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was probably the first film that billed its unseen performance-capture actors equally with the on-camera actors. Well, this film does something similar, because Vin Diesel and Bradley Cooper were billed right up there as the fourth and fifth names in the opening credits. Except that those two weren’t the main performance-capture artists; the director’s brother Sean Gunn was “On Set Rocket” and Krystian Godlewski was “On Set Groot.” But both those actors are listed pretty high in the supporting cast credits. So there’s definitely a move toward more egalitarian billing between seen and unseen actors.)

So, all in all, a fun adventure movie, but too cluttered and needing better-drawn villains. Hopefully, now that the huge torrent of exposition is out of the way, the sequel will have more room to breathe and develop things.

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES Review (Spoilers)

Three years ago, Rise of the Planet of the Apes showed us the dawn of a new species of intelligent ape. Now, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes shows us their rise to — wait, something’s not right there… Better start over.

Ahem. Well, I finally saw this movie, and it’s pretty awesome. The first thing I noted was how extraordinarily realistic the CGI was — that first close-up shot on Caesar’s face looked utterly real and convincing, and I was thinking, “Wow, we’ve really arrived now; there’s no longer any discernible difference between good CGI and reality.” But then the bear attacked and didn’t move like a convincing bear, and I realized that while the technology has fully arrived, it’s still only as good as the way it’s used. Don’t get me wrong, most of the CG work here was fantastic, but it occasionally had enough imperfections to remind us that it’s still a human creation. And maybe that’s for the best. Later on, during the no doubt digitally created shots of the abandoned, decaying San Francisco, I found myself idly missing the days when matte paintings were clearly identifiable as paintings — convincing enough that you were willing to buy into them, but still recognizably the work of talented human hands. Of course, the CG in this film was the work of many, many talented human hands, but not so recognizable as such, and not as easily credited to any one artist, like, say, an Albert Whitlock matte painting in a Hitchcock film would’ve been. (Or Emil Kosa, Jr.’s painting of the Statue of Liberty at the end of the original Planet of the Apes, for that matter.)

I found the apes far more convincing than the bear, though, and that owes a lot to the human performers underlying the animation (although it should be understood that the performances we saw were no doubt mediated heavily by the animators, as in all performance-capture work). One of the last things I noticed, but by far one of the most important things for the film industry as a whole, is that this is probably the first motion picture in which performance-captured actors whose faces never appeared on camera were assigned billing no differently than the on-camera actors were — meaning that Andy Serkis finally, finally got the honest-to-goodness no-kidding star billing that he should’ve gotten in the first film. And it’s not just Serkis’s clout that achieved this, since other ape actors like Toby Kebbel (Koba) and Nick Thurston (Blue Eyes) had their credits mixed in with the “human” actors like Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, and Kirk Acevedo. It was really good to see, because they really deserved it. This is at least as much the apes’ movie as the humans’. Come to think of it, the original series went through a similar progression; the first two movies, the ones with Charlton Heston, were from the perspective of human protagonists, but the later three elevated Roddy McDowall to the starring role; he was the viewpoint character, as both Cornelius and the original Caesar, and the humans were the exotic creatures he had to contend with, or the sticking point in a conflict between him and a rival ape faction. Whereas the previous film was a loose reworking of the premise of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, this one has clear similarities to Battle for…, the final film in the original series.

But while Battle was probably the weakest installment in its series, this film is probably better than its predecessor, even though — or perhaps because — most of its running time is devoted to nonhuman leads who only occasionally speak aloud. The apes have a lot of personality and an interesting society, and I like the hybrid of natural ape behavior (like the outstretched hand as an appeasement gesture), taught sign language, and human cultural elements appropriated knowingly or accidentally. Caesar is the same intelligent, well-intentioned, but psychologically scarred character he was at the end of the first film, but more seasoned and tempered by being a family, err, ape  and a tribal leader/community alpha male. He’s brilliantly played by Serkis, although I profoundly doubt the Oscars will have the good sense to nominate Serkis for lead actor. Koba, Caesar’s main antagonist and the leading warmonger in the film, is something of a caricature, a bit one-note in his hatred and self-serving hunger for power, and unfortunately coded according to “ugly = evil” screen conventions (although his design is left over from the previous film), but he’s an engaging and cunning villain; I love the way he uses the facade of humor and friendliness to get his human foes off their guard. And Maurice (Karin Konoval), the orangutan Lawgiver (essentially), is a lot more charming than his, err, namesake Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans, of course, from the original film) — a bit of a one-dimensional character, but still memorable.

I’m not sure I found the human cast quite as rich. There’s the friendly, understanding hero (Clarke) who’s pretty much explicitly described as a stand-in for James Franco from the first film. There’s his kind, compassionate wife (Russell) who wants to help, and the son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who’s having trouble getting over his mother, and the hardass authority figure (Oldman) whose blind bigotry leads him to violence, and the hair-trigger angry guy (Kirk Acevedo) who’s a secondary source of conflict. Not much more than one dimension to any of these guys. And I couldn’t help being bothered that the story of human survival was carried almost entirely by white characters. There were a couple of black people, but they were just there to be supporting players, and the closest we got to an Asian face was Acevedo, who’s Puerto Rican/Chinese (although he’s never been cast as Asian) and was stuck playing an irrationally violent, cowardly, and doomed supporting character. Demographically speaking, that doesn’t make sense; assuming these survivors came from the San Francisco area, then maybe one in three should be Asian and only two in five should be non-Hispanic Caucasians. The first film did better in this regard, giving us Freida Pinto and David Oyelowo in key roles. (Oh, and if the intent was that white people were somehow more genetically predisposed to immunity, that’s disturbing in its own way — and hard to buy, given that the first two victims of the disease in the first film were both white.)

And while this was a potent and often tragic tale of how hate and intolerance lead to war, and while the battle scenes were effectively un-glamorous and brutal and un-sensationalized, I found myself taken out of the film by one thing: Bottomless Magazines. The way Koba and the others were firing those automatic rifles, they should’ve been out of bullets in five seconds. They clearly didn’t have the training to show any kind of firing discipline. Yet they were able to keep firing in full auto mode throughout the entire battle without ever running dry. Ditto for the humans at Fort Point who were “testing” the surviving artillery by blasting away endlessly. These supplies are finite and they have no idea how numerous the enemy is — should they be wasting so many bullets on “testing” that’s clearly more about macho self-indulgence? Well, I could buy that as the civilians not really knowing what they were doing when it came to firearms, but in the context of the endless ammo throughout the rest of the movie, it feels like part of the larger problem. (There’s also the fact that you can’t just pick up a gun and expect to be able to use it effectively in battle if you’ve never handled one before, if you don’t know how to clean or strip or prime or do whatever to the thing that you need to do. Look, I don’t know guns, I don’t ever want to be in the same room as one, but I read an article a while back debunking this particular myth and talking about how much training it takes to be able to use a firearm effectively and safely. Add on the fact that the guns were designed for human rather than chimpanzee or gorilla hands, and the apes should’ve been doing more damage to each other with those guns than to the humans.)

But those were the three main things I had issues with. Everything else worked well. Michael Giacchino’s score was excellent; he has a knack for evoking the sound and flavor of vintage scores from the ’60s or ’70s, and this score felt like it was a cousin of Jerry Goldsmith’s and Leonard Rosenman’s scores for the original films. (Oddly, Giacchino doesn’t seem to use that knack in his Star Trek film scores, which are the only scores of his that I don’t particularly enjoy.)

So that’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which came after Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Come back in a few years for the third film, Prelude to the Planet of the Apes. Or something. It’s a madhouse! A madhouse!

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (1988-2011): Full series overview, Part 2

I debated with myself whether to edit my original “Full series overview” post to add the revival, but I think it would be easier just to link to it and add a second post, mainly covering the 1988-90 revival series and the feature film series, but also updating some of the bits from the first post. So here’s the link:

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (1966-73): Full series overview (Part 1)

The revival TV series added 35 episodes to the tally from the original, for a total of 206 episodes and 197 distinct adventures — or maybe 193, since four of the revival episodes were fairly close remakes. Highlights:

1988-9 Season

Regulars: Reactivated government agent Jim Phelps (Peter Graves), electronics engineer Grant Collier (Phil Morris), theater professor Nicholas Black (Thaao Penghlis), all-around tough guy Max Harte (Tony Hamilton), fashion designer Casey Randall (Terry Markwell). Randall dies midseason, replaced with journalist/singer/Secret Service agent Shannon Reed (Jane Badler).

Initially remakes of original-series episodes, soon giving way to new episodes and loose reuses of original premises in different ways. A surprisingly direct continuation from what had come before, with a mix of international intrigue and crime-busting cases; after an initial emphasis on capers that go off-plan and create jeopardy for the team, the season settled into routine, clockwork capers with very little character exploration, much like the original. A high percentage of episodes featured supernatural-themed capers exploiting villains’ superstitions, usually through holography.

Production in Australia allowed more striking and exotic location work and more international flavor, unfortunately leading to worse ethnic stereotyping than the original generally had. In departure from original, most episodes were set in real countries.

Beginning of the fleshing out of the IMF as an organization, establishing other agents, a research lab, and the like. First steps toward a more action-oriented focus.

Cold opens used in every episode. Tape-scene briefings replaced with video minidiscs in special players, and ending in freeze-frame title card/music sting like that in the original’s dossier sequences. No off-book missions, so disc scenes used in every episode. Video dossier scene used only in pilot. Team briefings occasionally took place on site rather than in Jim’s apartment, and were often more preliminary and straightforwardly expository than in the original, with little of the gadget/trick demonstration common in the original.

Main title theme modernized, electronic/guitar arrangement. Preview clips in titles replaced with generic title sequence. End titles initially over “IMF” logo, later over stills from episode.

  • Best episodes: “The Pawn” and “The Fortune,” followed by “The Legacy.” Best remake: “The Legacy,” whose final act improved upon the original’s weak ending.
  • Worst episodes: “The Devils” is worse than anything from the original series. “The Haunting” is also quite bad, and “Submarine” isn’t much better. Worst remake: “Submarine,” a hugely inferior reworking of the original’s finest episode, though it’s only a loose remake.

1989-90 Season

Regulars: Jim Phelps, Grant Collier, Nicholas Black, Max Harte, Shannon Reed. Only season besides S6 where the same regular cast appears in every episode. Only season in franchise where the team has no supplemental members.

Entirely new episodes, though a couple were loosely inspired by original-series premises. First season since S4 to include a 2-parter. The first half-season broke formula much as S5 did, having more capers go wrong and delving more into the characters. The characters spent more time as themselves (rather than playing assumed roles) than in any previous season. The second half largely dropped the caper formula in favor of more conventional action storytelling where the characters were searching and improvising more often than enacting preplanned strategies.

Unique in having no purely crime-focused episodes; every criminal case had an international/geopolitical aspect. Resumes original series’ practice of using largely fictitious countries, though with several real locations (or caricatures thereof) used. Increased emphasis on action, solving problems with force or gunplay rather than deception and stratagems. The opening 2-parter was essentially an over-the-top action movie, almost a trial run for the feature films. Increasing shift toward fanciful or exaggerated scenarios, and continued emphasis on supernatural cons.

No change in initial formula: Cold open, disc briefing, team briefing usually in Jim’s apartment but occasionally at on-site command post.

  • Best episodes: “Countdown,” “The Fuehrer’s Children,” “For Art’s Sake,” and “The Princess.”
  • Worst episodes: “Cargo Cult” is the worst episode in the entire franchise. “Banshee” and “The Assassin” are both dreadful.

So how would I rank these seasons relative to the whole? Remember, my rankings for the original series were:

  1. Season 5
  2. Season 1
  3. Season 3
  4. Season 4
  5. Season 7
  6. Season 6
  7. Season 2

The 1988 season — call it season 8 — was generally routine and mediocre in storytelling, about on the same level as S2, but weakened by less interesting music and by the disappointing presence of Terry Markwell in the first 2/3 of the season. I’d pretty much have to rate it below S2, then. The ’89 season — call it season 9 — is trickier to rate, since it started out so strong but sank so low. In that respect, it’s close to season 6, which had a number of strong episodes offset by a number of poor ones. But the worst episodes of S9 are below the quality of anything in the original series, so I’d have to put it below S6, though it has enough interesting ones to put it above the generally bland S2. So the new ranking would be:

  1. Season 5
  2. Season 1
  3. Season 3
  4. Season 4
  5. Season 7
  6. Season 6
  7. Season 9
  8. Season 2
  9. Season 8

Movies

Regulars: Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is the only true regular. Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) appears in all four films but is only a team member in three. Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) is effectively a regular starting with the third film. No one else appears in more than one film.

A remarkably inconsistent film series, with each film reflecting its own director’s style and sensibilities. The first two films and the subsquent J.J. Abrams-produced series can be seen as three separate, highly distinct attempts to adapt M:I to film, sharing only a leadactor and a few recurring tropes. Unlike the TV franchise’s team focus, the films are focused on Ethan Hunt as a lone hero and romantic lead, with only Ghost Protocol having an ensemble approach (and eschewing a romantic subplot, for the most part); but Hunt does not emerge as a well-drawn character until the third film. Only the third and fourth films have any shared continuity besides the return of Hunt and Stickell. What the films have in common is a shift toward a greater emphasis on action and on tales of intrigue and treachery. All of the first three films involve traitors in the IMF, and all but the second involve Ethan Hunt being accused of treason and going on the run. The intricate capers that characterized the original series are generally reduced to set pieces within the films’ plots.

The IMF is fleshed out into a division of the CIA, based in Langley, VA. Every film features either senior IMF officials or “the Secretary” himself, though with different officials in each film. The first three films have the briefing videos narrated by the agent’s superior in the IMF, and the fourth has the Secretary deliver “your mission, should you choose to accept it” in person (along with other mission briefings by an anonymous, possibly computerized voice). The method of the briefing delivery is different in every movie. Dossier videos are incorporated into the briefings in films 1, 3, and 4, and as part of a visual montage in film 2. Teams are usually selected by the superior rather than the team leader. Team members are now career IMF agents rather than civilians, although the premise that they are deniable, non-official agents without the protection of their government in the event of discovery is retained — and utilized far more heavily than in the series.

All films take place in real locations and are generally filmed in them. All plots focus on large-scale espionage or on the terrorist acquisition of WMDs.

Every film has a cold open, though the subject matter varies. Every film uses the Schifrin main title theme, but only the first and fourth have full-length title sequences based on the format of the original series. Only the third and fourth films use “The Plot” in full, though the first uses snippets; the second film is unique in the franchise in eschewing the melody altogether.

  • Best films: M:i:III, M:I — Ghost Protocol.
  • Worst films: M:I-2 is clearly the worst, but the first M:I isn’t much better.

Ranking the movies is pretty easy:

1) Ghost Protocol: Very well-directed and fun, with the greatest focus on classic M:I-style capers and schemes and the only really ensemble-driven story in the film franchise. Very close in quality to its predecessor, but the greater fidelity to M:I and the superior music put it over the top.

2) M:i:III: Just as well-done in its own way, but more serious. Terrific, rich character work and effective action, and by far the best use of a female lead in the franchise. The first film to give Ethan Hunt an actual personality. The only drawbacks are an insufficient focus on the ensemble (though they do get a few nice moments here and there) and relatively little use of classic capers, with the Vatican sequence being essentially the only one.

3) M:I: A fairly tepid conspiracy thriller with mediocre acting and a key plot point that makes no sense whatsoever (the Bible “clue” that proves nothing at all), not to mention a climax that defies physics more ridiculously than most action movies do. Further marred by the character assassination of “Jim Phelps.” Still, it’s redeemed somewhat by the effective and iconic set piece of the Langley heist, and by making more use of series-style capers and tropes than any other film in the series save GP.

4) M:I-2: A cartoony, over-the-top, Hong Kong-style action movie, which is something that might be fun as a separate entity, but that doesn’t work as something calling itself Mission: Impossible. An aggressively mindless exercise in style over substance, dominated by insanely overdone action and a deeply superficial excuse for a romance between Hunt and the film’s one and only female character, a travesty next to the moving relationship he has with Julia in the subsequent films. Barely even feels like M:I, barely uses a team, and the villains use more IMF-style tactics than the heroes. The best that can be said about it is that it succeeds in its goal of being a dumb, shallow action cartoon, unlike its predecessor, which fails in its goal of being a smart conspiracy thriller.

Musically, the revival series was less interesting than its predecessor, featuring only three composers in the first dozen episodes and only one for the remainder of the series. The three scores each contributed by Lalo Schifrin and Ron Jones were of mixed quality, though each had one really interesting one, one reasonably good one, and one mediocre one. The remaining 23 scores by John E. Davis (assisted by Neil Argo in season 2?) were generally uninteresting. However, the changes in US union rules requiring new scores in every episode mean that Davis is second only to Schifrin in the total number of M:I episodes scored.

The films have used three different composers, Danny Elfman, Hans Zimmer, and Michael Giacchino, with only Giacchino being used twice. Elfman’s score was reasonably good and Giacchino’s were both excellent, with the Ghost Protocol score being particularly impressive. Zimmer’s score for the second film was mediocre, and the only one geared more toward rock sounds than orchestral scoring.

The updated list:

  • Lalo Schifrin: 26 credited scores, seasons 1-8, plus themes used in 4 films
  • John E. Davis: 23 credited scores, seasons 8-9
  • Richard Markowitz: 9 scores, S3-4
  • Robert Drasnin: c. 7 scores (8 credited), S2-3, 5-6
  • Gerald Fried: 6 scores, S1-4
  • Jerry Fielding: 6 scores, S2-4
  • Ron Jones: 6 scores, S8
  • Walter Scharf: 5 scores, S1-2
  • Benny Golson: 4 scores, S5-6
  • Richard Hazard: 3 scores, S4-5 (+1 credited, S6)
  • Robert Prince: 2 scores, S5-6
  • Michael Giacchino: 2 scores, films 3-4
  • Jacques Urbont: 1 score, S1
  • Don Ellis: 1 score, S1
  • Harry Geller: 1 score, S5
  • Hugo Montenegro: 1 score, S5
  • George Romanis: 1 score, S6
  • Duane Tatro: 1 score, S7
  • Danny Elfman: 1 score, film 1
  • Hans Zimmer: 1 score, film 2

The list of composers who have worked on M:I and Star Trek has grown, now including Fried, Fielding, Romanis, Jones, and Giacchino.

Here’s the updated list of regular and recurring IMF team members by number of appearances, incorporating the entire franchise. This includes everyone who was a team member more than once, so it leaves out most of the movie characters. This time I am incorporating Barney and Lisa Casey’s return appearances in the revival despite their not being formal team members, since they did actually participate in the teams’ endeavors, something I didn’t recall when I made the original list.

  • Jim Phelps: 178 (not counting presumed impostor in first movie)
  • Barney Collier: 169 (plus at least 1 offscreen assist)
  • Willy Armitage: 147
  • Rollin Hand: 76
  • Cinnamon Carter: 71
  • The Great Paris: 49
  • (Lisa) Casey: 35 (plus 6 offscreen assists)
  • Grant Collier: 35
  • Nicholas Black: 35
  • Max Harte: 35
  • Dan Briggs: 27 (only on mission in 20)
  • Shannon Reed: 24
  • Dana Lambert: 23
  • Doug Robert: 13
  • Casey Randall: 12 (mostly minor contributions)
  • Mimi Davis: 7
  • Tracey: 6 (4 distinct missions)
  • Ethan Hunt: 4
  • Luther Stickell: 3
  • Dr. Green (Allen Joseph): 2 (plus 1 offscreen assist)
  • Dave (Walker Edmiston): 2
  • Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg): 2 (only 1 as formal team member)

Note that Jim has now surpassed Barney as the most frequently appearing character in the franchise.

Bob Johnson (Voice on Tape/Disc) is heard in 192 episodes (all but 14), with 9 being recaps in multiparters, coming out to 183 distinct briefings. Johnson is in none of the movies, having died three years before the first film’s release.

Revised comparisons:

Best Team Leader: Previous winner: Jim Phelps. New candidates: Evil Impostor Jim Phelps, Ethan Hunt.

Is there even a contest? Well, we can rule out Jon Voight’s Evil Jim right off the bat; assassinating your own team is kind of a disqualifier. And Ethan is too much of a lone wolf and grandstander, plus he has a hard time holding onto a team. No change here — the original Jim Phelps, accept no substitutes, still wins by a mile.

Best Second-in-Command: Previous winner: Barney Collier. New candidates: Grant Collier, Ethan Hunt.

I’m counting Ethan because he was Evil Jim’s second-in-command in the first film, and Grant because he generally seemed to be the first one Jim briefed before the others. Ethan didn’t give a very good showing in the role, allowing virtually his entire team to be killed by their team leader, so he’s out of the running (no pun intended) again. And Grant was never really given the chance to take the lead in Jim’s absence, so while I have the feeling he would’ve done a great job, he never got to prove it. No change here: Barney still wins.

Best Master of Disguise: Previous winner: Rollin Hand. New candidates: Nicholas Black, Ethan Hunt.

Man, that Hunt guy sure gets around. But his full-mask impersonations are too dependent on high technology, including synthetic voice chips, which seems like cheating. His less extreme makeup jobs using his own face and voice aren’t bad, but they don’t display as much range as Rollin’s did. And Nicholas had even less versatility; though theoretically he could do a perfect job mimicking anyone so long as the actor’s voice was dubbed over his, in practice the actor was unconvincing in the role. So again, no change: Rollin still wins.

Best Tech Guy: Previous winner: Barney Collier by default. New candidates: Grant Collier, Jack Harmon (Emilio Estevez), Luther Stickell, Benji Dunn.

Let’s start with the movie guys. Jack Harmon’s main accomplishments, as seen in the first film, are watching stuff on a monitor, being out-hacked by his own boss, and getting killed by a truly ridiculous deathtrap. Not impressive. Luther’s good with the hacking and with monitoring the team operations, but he’s not as hands-on as his predecessors. And Benji, while enthusiastic as anything, is a bit of a bumbler. The only real contender for Barney is his own son. And I’m tempted to give Grant the win. All things considered, he’s a more versatile IMF agent than his father, skilled not only in the tech stuff but in roleplay and physical combat as well. True, Barney expanded into those fields when necessary, particularly in seasons 6 & 7, but Grant did them better. However, this category is specifically for best tech guy, not best all-around agent. And tech-wise, while Grant had more advanced gadgets than his father, it seemed that his activities involved a higher ratio of typing on keyboards to doing hands-on gadget/mechanical stuff. That doesn’t necessarily mean that he accomplished less, but it does feel like his tech work was less versatile, more in the direction of Luther’s one-note hacking and monitoring. Still, he did a fair amount of field work and gadgeteering as well. It’s a very close contest, and I’m tempted to call it a tie. But here’s the thing: Grant owed his skills to what he learned or inherited from Barney. So if anything, Grant’s achievements only add to Barney’s legacy. So again, the original verdict stands.

Best Regular/Recurring Female Agent: Previous winner: Cinnamon Carter. New candidates: Casey Randall, Shannon Reed.

For once we have no candidates from the movies, since no female agents have made repeat appearances. That leaves the two women from the revival series. Casey Randall was by far the weakest regular agent of either sex, rarely given anything significant to do and limited in range when she was. She was certainly the weakest seductress of them all, despite being relatively beautiful. But Shannon Reed was very impressive — strong, smart, charming, sexy, reasonably versatile as a roleplayer, and a pretty good singer too. Her main drawback was a tendency to be made a damsel in distress, but despite this, she never felt weak or helpless, and indeed it sometimes gave her the chance to be even more heroic. It’s another close contest — indeed, the contest between the original series’ three main female leads was also quite close — but I think we have our first upset, with Shannon now getting my vote for the best female agent, by a narrow margin.

Best One-Shot Female Agent: Previous winner: Crystal Walker (Mary Ann Mobley) from “Odd Man Out.” New candidates: Every female agent in the movies.

Again, I won’t list all the candidates by name, but my favorite of the movies’ female agents was Zhen Lei (Maggie Q). Jane Carter (Paula Patton) got more to do, but she felt uncomfortable and out of place in the IMF’s roleplaying gambits, being more a blunt instrument who struggled to fulfill her responsibilities. Still, I don’t think Zhen quite upsets Crystal, although it’s very close.

Best Strongman: I’m changing this category from Best “Other Guy” because now we have more than one candidate in the strongman category. Previous winner: Willy Armitage. New candidate: Max Harte.

For once, we have a clear upset. Willy was pleasant enough and good with the physical stuff, but limited as a roleplayer. Max was less a strongman per se and more an all-around tough guy and fighter, but he was also a much more capable roleplayer, pilot, stunt rider, and the like. He was a great asset to the team and wins my vote easily.

Best One-Shot Male Agent: Previous winner: Joseph Baresh (Albert Paulsen) from “Memory.” New candidates: Jack Harmon, Franz Krieger, Billy Baird, Declan Gormey, William Brandt.

Okay, Brandt is the only one on the list who made much of an impression at all, aside from Krieger, who was a villain. But since he’s allegedly attached to the upcoming fifth movie, I’m not sure he qualifies for the one-shot category. Let’s leave this undecided.

So there we are — nine seasons and four movies. Please don’t ask me to redo this whole thing again when M:I-5 comes out, or this reviewer may self-destruct. Until then — “Mission… accomplished!”

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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE — GHOST PROTOCOL (2011) Movie Review (spoilers)

Now adding a more detailed overview of the most recent Mission: Impossible film, which I offered initial thoughts on back in 2012M:I — Ghost Protocol was the live-action directorial debut of Brad Bird (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Ratatouille), with a script by Alias writer-producers André Nemec and Josh Appelbaum. J.J. Abrams produced the film, providing some continuity with its predecessor, a first in the M:I feature film “series.”

Bird establishes his strong visual sense right away with sweeping, dynamic overhead shots of Budapest, closing in on Josh Holloway as he flees from pursuers, casually leaping off a roof — after tossing down a cartridge that inflates into an airbag to catch him. He thinks he’s home free, but a dainty-featured blonde beauty (Lea Seydoux) assassinates him before he has a chance to react, hugging him close and kissing his cheek as she shoots him a few more times, then stealing the package he’s carrying.

Cut to a Moscow prison, where a small IMF team consisting of returning character Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and newcomer Jane Carter (Paula Patton), no known relation to Cinnamon Carter. Benji is controlling the prison doors to let out a certain person they’re trying to spring, who turns out to be Ethan Hunt, again with longer hair (this is becoming a pattern, short-l0ng-short-long). Benji plays Dean Martin’s “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head” over the prison PA so Ethan can time his escape (during a prison riot, hence the song selection), a trick evocative of the use of carnival music to time a prison break in season 1’s “Old Man Out.” But Ethan won’t go without rescuing another prisoner, Bogdan (Miraj Grbić), who gave him intel and would be killed for it if he were left behind. Once they get out through a hole Carter blows in the cellar floor, she introduces herself to Ethan and he tells her to “light the fuse,” very cleverly incorporating the opening of the main titles into the action, and leading into a title sequence like a Pixarized version of the original series (or first movie) titles, with the CGI fuse burning through not just clips from the movie to come, but shots showing moments from the film from entirely different angles. It’s a bravura sequence, and Michael Giacchino scores it with an even bolder, brassier rendering of the Schifrin theme than he used last time. It ends with the fuse detonating a charge that I now realize must’ve been intended to bring down the tunnel and prevent pursuit, though that was only implied, since…

We cut right to Ethan, Benji, Carter, and Bogdan fleeing in a van — until they deftly transfer Bogdan to another IMF van. Benji explains he passed the field agent’s test, and Carter explains that Josh Holloway was her partner (and lover) and was killed trying to prevent Russian nuclear launch codes from falling into the wrong hands, which they now have — those hands belonging to the girlish assassin from before, Sabine Moreau, who intends to deliver them to a terrorist called Cobalt. The van stops by an old public phone which opens to reveal an IMF computer thingy that gives Ethan his mission — the first time in the film franchise that the briefing voice is anonymous rather than Ethan’s (or Phelps’s) boss. The gig is to infiltrate the Kremlin and get the files identifying Cobalt before he can destroy them. The “self-destruct in five seconds” bit is comically subverted when Ethan has to go back and smack it to set it off. Meanwhile, Benji mentions to Carter that Ethan’s marriage with Julia didn’t work out — disappointing, since she was so important to him in the third film.

Giacchino gives us a taste of “The Plot” when the briefing voice informs Ethan that he’s been assigned Benji and Carter as his team to save time. The agents hardly ever get to pick their own teams in the movies! He then gives us a bit more of “The Plot” as Bird’s camera swoops over the Kremlin — and then modulates into a similar-sounding melody in a bombastic Russian-marching-song idiom, one of my favorite pieces of music from the score. Carter uses a remote-controlled toy balloon to drop a hacking transmitter down a chimney so that when Ethan and Benji enter disguised as a Russian general and his aide, their clearance shows up on the computer. Then Ethan and Benji set up an elaborate projection-screen system in the hallway that tracks the eyes of the desk guard (ubiquitous Vancouver actor Mike Dopud) and shows him an image of the hall behind it. As I remarked in my initial review, this is a fancier version of a gambit seen in “The Falcon, Part 3,” but it’s exercised with a lot more comic flair. But things get serious when Ethan finds the records already expunged and then hears a voice cutting in on their frequency, announcing to the “team leader” that the detonator has been set. The Kremlin guards also pick this up and are alerted to the infiltration. Ethan aborts the mission and gets out, but then the building he was in blows up, and even the Patented Tom Cruise Run isn’t fast enough to get him away unscathed. He awakens in the hospital, under arrest and blamed for the bombing, as he learns from Russian intelligence man Sidorov (Vladimir Mashkov), who’s determined to punish him for his alleged crime. Ethan makes a break onto the window ledge but has second thoughts about jumping shirtless and barefoot into a dumpster full of medical waste, and there’s a humorous bit of interplay with Sidorov, who’s watching him amusedly from the window. But then Ethan manages to slide down a wire onto a passing van’s roof and get away, swiping some poor guy’s cell phone to call for retrieval.

He’s picked up by no less than The Secretary (Tom Wilkinson), who happened to be in Moscow but has been recalled in disgrace. He tells Ethan the entire IMF has been disavowed and shut down, but lets him know he intends for Ethan to escape and mount a rogue operation using an “overlooked” equipment cache. He also introduces Ethan to William Brandt (The Avengers‘ Jeremy Renner), an IMF analyst. Ethan realizes he passed Cobalt in the Kremlin and sketches the face on his hand to show to Brandt, who recognizes him as Kurt Hendricks, a nuclear strategist with an apocalypse obsession and a belief that global cataclysm is a necessary step in evolution. He stole a missile-controlling briefcase from the Kremlin and blew it up so they wouldn’t find out, as well as to put the blame on the US and heighten tensions.

The Secretary personally delivers “your mission, should you choose to accept it” on a flash drive, but just as he’s telling Ethan what a friend he is, the car is attacked and the Secretary and driver killed, and as the limo overturns, Bird cleverly shoots the entire sequence from inside the back seat, until it crashes into the river. Ethan concocts a diversion to get himself and Brandt away from the firing guards, and afterward Brandt is confused about how Ethan knew it would work. Ethan explains it was more a matter of instinct, both his and the wildly firing guards’, than rational thought.

The equipment cache is in a train car that happens to be moving when they find it, leading to some slapstick as they try to gain access. Inside they find Jane and Benji, and Ethan briefs them on the mission to intercept Hendricks’s henchman Wistrom (Samuli Edelmann) when he buys the launch codes from Moreau, then follow him back to Hendricks. He insists that both Moreau and Wistrom are assets that need to be kept alive until they find Hendricks, which angers Carter, who wants revenge on Moreau for killing Sawyer from Lost. But Ethan’s adamant: revenge must wait.

The movie series’s skyscraper fetish now reaches its greatest height, literally, for the meeting is at the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. Another of Bird’s swooping chopper shots introduces it magnificently, and Giacchino gives the tower its own lush Arabian motif, my other favorite theme from the film. The gambit is one used on the original series, to intercept both parties in a meeting and make each one think they’re meeting the other, with Jane meeting Wistrom as Moreau and Ethan meeting Moreau as Wistrom. But they have to hack the building’s security servers to control the elevators, and of course the only way to get to them is via our climactic installment of “Ethan Hunt Climbs Things.” I doubt I need to summarize the most famous sequence from the movie, but Ethan’s free climb of the glass exterior of the Burj showcases a lot more of Bird’s flair, wit, and comic timing, as well as Cruise’s impressive commitment to his work and insistence on doing his own stunts.

Ethan barely survives the climb and return, but then more things start to go wrong. The mask machine breaks down, so Ethan and Carter have to pull off the impersonations without masks and pray that Moreau and Wistrom have never met. Then Wistrom shows up with a Russian code expert he’s kidnapped to verify the codes, so the plan to replace them with fakes and track the paper to Hendricks needs revision — the copies (scanned by a special contact lens and printed inside a special briefcase) have to have authentic codes. (But the paper still has to be fake since it’s impregnated with a tracer they can track.) Brandt balks at handing over the real codes, but Ethan convinces him there’s no other way. The team manages to pull off the deception long enough for Wistrom to leave with the traceable codes, but then Moreau gets wise to Brandt’s contact lens and attacks him. Carter captures her and takes her back to the team’s room, handing Benji the gun since she knows she’ll kill Moreau if she has a gun on her. Moreau gets the drop on Benji, and Carter ends up having to kick Moreau out the still-open window a hundred-odd stories up. It’s unclear whether she even had a choice, but she’s screwed up.

After encountering Sidorov again and eluding him, Ethan breaks out the Patented Tom Cruise Run and chases Wistrom through a sandstorm, and I like how Bird uses the blinding conditions as a contrast to the wide-open action of the Burj Khalifa climb, mixing it up and keeping it interesting. But here’s where things didn’t quite work for me, since the idea was to trail Wistrom back to Hendricks, but Ethan ends up chasing him openly and then trying to catch him, even crashing a car into his to stop him, but he gets away and removes a mask revealing that he was Hendricks all along. Huh? Why? That doesn’t seem to make sense. Was it just something they inserted because there had to be at least one impossibly convincing mask impersonation in the film?

Later, the team is torn up with mutual recriminations, and Ethan confronts Brandt about the mad fighting skills he showed in the Burj Khalifa, asking why such a capable field agent would be just an analyst. On getting no answer, Ethan seems to abandon the team and goes off alone. Carter confronts Brandt, and he tells her and Benji what he wouldn’t tell Ethan: That he was responsible for protecting Ethan and Julia without their knowledge, but he failed and Julia got killed — much to the shock of Benji, who thought she’d simply left Ethan. Hunt was in the Russian jail for killing the Serbian assassins.

Ethan goes to meet with a Russian arms dealer, a relative of his old friend Bogdan. I think the sewed-up ski mask used to blindfold Ethan is the same ugly-muppet one from the first film. He tells the dealer about the nuclear threat and asks where Hendricks could get a satellite able to relay the control signal to a missile, learning there’s one that was sold to a Mumbai media mogul. But he won’t be able to hack it alone. So he has to mend fences with the team, and they fly off to plan the mission. There’s some fun banter between Brandt and Benji as the former is skeptical of the latter’s plan to get him past the deadly cooling fan into the massive server for controlling the satellite.

At the party held by the mogul, Nath (Anij Kapoor), Carter’s job is to be the seductress, getting Nath alone and getting the satellite control codes from him however she can. She’s in a sexy turquoise dress that tries to be as impressive as Maggie Q’s little red number from the last film, and comes reasonably close (though Paula Patton’s own physique helps enormously). But Jane is totally clumsy at playing the seductress, and only gets away with it because Nath doesn’t mind the dominatrix type. Once Brandt hesitantly takes the leap, gets into the server control, and gives Benji access, Benji finds that Hendricks has already taken control of the satellite. Carter gets the codes by force, but it’s too late. The only option is to get to the transmission site before missile launch, but even Ethan and Jane’s fancy sportscar can’t get through the Mumbai crowds in time. Now their last chance is to abort the launched missile in the few minutes before impact. Ethan spots Hendricks leaving and gives chase while Jane, Brandt, and Benji deal with Wistrom, who’s trying to damage the transmission equipment, which they have to repair while also contending with Wistrom and his gun (and Jane has to keep going despite being shot). Benji ultimately saves Brandt from Wistrom.

Meanwhile, Ethan chases Hendricks to an automated car-park tower (a full-size, working one constructed specifically for the film), and they battle for the case among the moving platforms, the logic of the sequence playing out not unlike that Popeye cartoon about chasing a baby through a construction site. It’s very clever and funny. Although it takes a serious turn when Hendricks, a true fanatic believing the apocalypse will save humanity, jumps to the ground and kills himself to keep Ethan from getting to the case in time. Ethan drives a car off its platform and relies on its seatbelt and airbag to save him (they do), then crows “Mission accomplished!” as he hits the abort button on the missile control — which doesn’t work until Brandt, freshly saved from Wistrom, turns the transmitter back on, neutralizing the missile. Sidorov, whom Ethan had the arms dealer contact, shows up just after the nick of time and realizes that Ethan wasn’t the bad guy.

Later, in San Francisco, Ethan is hanging out with Luther Stickell in a cameo scene when he meets with the others, tells them they made a good team, and offers them new missions. Benji and Jane accept, but Brandt resists, confessing that he let Julia die. But Ethan’s timed the meeting to show him that Julia is still alive, that Ethan faked her death and got her into witness protection to spare her. Michelle Monaghan gets only a wordless cameo, but it’s nice that she’s still potentially in play for the future. All’s well, and Ethan gets an assignment to go after a terrorist group called “the Syndicate,” an in-joke reference to the name always used for the mob in the original series. He vanishes into the mist, leading into an end-credit sequence scored, for once, not by a pop tune but by a suite of Giacchino’s (and Schifrin’s) themes for the film.

As my original review made clear, this is my favorite M:I film and the one that I think comes closest to the original series. But I have to revise what I said before, that the first three directors made movies very much in their own characteristic styles while Bird made more of a faithful M:I movie. Actually, Bird makes this movie his own just as much as the others did. It uses a lot of the tropes and trappings of M:I, but subverts them comically (along with many action-movie tropes as well), and it’s the intricately plotted visual and character humor that make it a Brad Bird film. The movie is much more fun and snarky than its predecessors and more so than the original series. It’s got the same kind of character focus that Abrams’s M:i:III had, but with a different tone and pace. It’s also unique among the M:I films in being an ensemble piece: All three supporting team members have their own arcs and stories, rather than just being there to back up Ethan. (Which may be because there was a tentative plan to phase out Cruise in favor of Renner as the franchise lead, although that plan was abandoned.)

Giacchino’s score here is my favorite of the series as well, even richer and more gorgeous than his score for the previous film, and one of my favorite Giacchino scores overall, the other being The Incredibles. I do wish he’d used “The Plot” for more than just the Kremlin sequence, though. It would’ve been interesting to hear an Indian-styled rendering of it in the Mumbai sequence, although we do hear a bit of the main title in that idiom.

Mission: Impossible 5 is currently in pre-production, with Christopher McQuarrie (writer of The Usual Suspects, Valkyrie, and Edge of Tomorrow) as director and a script by Iron Man 3‘s Drew Pearce. Abrams is still producing, but this franchise just can’t hold onto a director for more than one film. We’ll have to see what fresh flavor McQuarrie brings. For now, though, this is the end of my review series — although I do have one more franchise-overview post to come.

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