Archive

Posts Tagged ‘Reviews’

Star Trek: Review: The Captain’s Oath

Star Trek The Captain's Oath coverPaul Simpson of Sci-Fi Bulletin has just posted a nice review of Star Trek: TOS — The Captain’s Oath. (Full disclosure: Paul was my editor on a number of Star Trek Magazine articles I did a decade or so ago.) Here it is:

via Star Trek: Review: The Captain’s Oath

Thoughts on STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER (Spoilers)

I decided to go ahead and see Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker this week. I’m still not in a position to spend much on recreation, but I figured everyone needs a break sometimes, and a matinee showing wouldn’t cost too much. I had a choice between a $6.75 Tuesday discount showing at the multiplex I usually go to or a $7.75 matinee at the nearby university-area theater that usually only shows art and indie films but makes exceptions for really big movies like this. I figured out that the greater driving distance to the multiplex would probably use approximately $1 worth of gas, so it roughly broke even, and thus I decided to go to the local place.

So what did I think of the movie? It was okay. It didn’t surprise, delight, and challenge me the way The Last Jedi did, but I feel it worked reasonably well as a continuation from TLJ, even if I was ambivalent about some of its decisions. It was fairly satisfying on the superficial level of bringing resolution to 43 years’ worth of storytelling and continuity, and as a work of action and spectacle and nostalgia, which is all that Star Wars ever really aspired to be in the first place (though it’s nice when it does manage to be something more). And it mostly served its core characters well, which has always been J.J. Abrams’s strength, even if it’s often been at the expense of plot coherence or logic.

One way TRoS fell short compared to previous Abrams films is that it had a weak opening. That’s a disappointment. The Force Awakens had a very striking opening scene, and Abrams’s Mission: Impossible III had a superb, intense opening. Abrams’s Star Trek films didn’t open quite so potently as those, but they both had reasonably strong action openings that efficiently laid the groundwork for the story and character arcs. TRoS’s opening, watching Kylo Ren fight ill-defined foes in search of some ill-defined new quest dropped on us in the opening scroll, was harder to get into — even kind of dull.

Part of it is the way the transition between movies was handled. I mean, sure, the original movies — pretty much the first seven, really — all started in medias res after a sequence of events we didn’t see, and the sequels all came after fairly long gaps that left plenty of room for events to evolve before we picked back up again. But it’s different with the Sequel Trilogy. TLJ picked up almost immediately after TFA, so the usual pattern was broken (although it’s the only time that it really did match the vintage serial-chapter format the series is meant to homage, with the recap being about the previous installment rather than unseen events in between — well, unless you count Rogue One as the “previous installment” to the original film). And this time, it doesn’t really feel like a lot of time passed between movies, so having a major instigating incident like Palpatine’s return revealed in the opening scroll feels abrupt and incongruous. If you’re going to have a gap between movies with unseen events, then it should feel like a lot of time has passed and the characters’ status quo has evolved, so that having to read about it in the scroll feels reasonable. In this case, though, there’s just the one thing — Palpatine’s return. Everything else, in terms of the character arcs and the Resistance’s status, seems to be picking up a fairly short time after TLJ. Wookieepedia says it’s actually a year later, but it doesn’t feel that long, because the characters’ status is largely unchanged. There’s just not as strong a sense of intervening time as, say, between the original film and The Empire Strikes Back, or between the prequel installments.

Another thing that didn’t work well for me, sad to say, was the way they worked in the late Carrie Fisher. I knew they only had a limited amount of footage to work with in order to incorporate Fisher into the film posthumously, but I was hoping it wouldn’t be quite this limited. All Leia does is utter a few isolated, generic sentences that the other characters’ dialogue struggles to recontexualize as part of their conversations, and it’s often rather clumsy. They’re able to create the visual illusion that Leia is standing there in the scene, but they aren’t really able to sell the narrative or performative illusion that she’s having the same conversation as the other characters, and her single-line contributions are a disappointingly small piece of the whole. Otherwise, most of Leia’s role in the story is written around her absence, with other characters talking about her or reacting to/explaining what she does wordlessly or offscreen. It sadly lessens the effectiveness of Leia’s arc in the film, and though I know this was the best they could manage under the circumstances, it just calls attention to how much Fisher’s loss diminishes what we could have had. Far more effective than the scenes where Leia is supposed to be present are the scenes after her death, when the filmmakers can finally express their grief at Fisher’s departure through the characters’ grief at Leia’s, and let the audience honestly engage with that loss at last. Chewbacca’s breakdown on hearing the news is the most poignant moment in the film.

I wonder if it would’ve been more effective to establish Leia’s death at the beginning of the film — instead of trying to fake her presence, turn her abrupt and unexpected loss into the catalyzing incident of the story. If Palpatine had announced his return by killing General Leia in the opening scene, that would’ve been a far more potent beginning than just some unseen announcement to the galaxy. It would’ve raised the stakes of his return and made the story far more personal. The remaining Fisher footage could’ve been incorporated as flashbacks, or recordings that the characters were rewatching to remember her. Her link with Kylo/Ben to redeem him could still have happened, but she could’ve done it as a Force ghost.

Now, as for the big revelation/retcon that Rey is Palpatine’s granddaughter, I have mixed feelings. I liked TLJ’s idea that Rey wasn’t related to anyone famous, that you don’t have to belong to some elite lineage to be powerful in the Force. I mean, come on, it’s supposed to be the universal energy field that binds all life together, not some special dynastic privilege. So I liked the way Rey’s humble lineage rejected the elitism of your typical chosen-one story. On the other hand, Rey’s arc in TRoS is also a rejection of that elitism in a different way. Yes, she’s exceptionally powerful in the Force because she has the Emperor’s blood — but ultimately that doesn’t matter to her identity. She rejects the idea of heredity as destiny and chooses her own path, and that helps inspire Ben to do the same. So it’s basically the same message, up to a point. I guess it still works, though I liked it better the other way.

The idea of Rey and Ben/Kylo being a “dyad in the Force” is interesting too; it helps explain the unique bond they had in TLJ, and why they have the unique ability to transfer matter physically between their locations when they’re connected — something I initially thought was just symbolic, but turns out to be a key plot point later on, which was pretty well-done. Still, I’m not entirely clear on why they’re a dyad. Okay, it’s Palpatine’s granddaughter and Vader’s grandson, but why does that do it? It’s a little random. But the way the bond between them drives their story is effective. It is a bit reminiscent of Luke redeeming Vader who in turn destroys the Emperor, but the redemption arc is better handled here, since Kylo has been a more conflicted figure from the start and the seeds of his redemption were laid sooner.

I guess the title The Rise of Skywalker has a dual meaning: both the redemptive (and literal, physical) rise of Ben Solo, the last heir of the Skywalkers, and the rise (emergence) of a new, self-adopted Skywalker in Rey, embracing the lineage as the student and effective heir of the Skywalker siblings — and as the, I guess, dyad-sister of Ben? So she’s the Skywalkers’ heir in the Force if not in the genes.

I was unclear on why Kylo repaired his mask and started wearing it again. It seemed like a regression after his “Kill the past” epiphany. Maybe that was what he wanted Palpatine to think, that he’d reverted to being an obedient apprentice while secretly plotting to join with Rey and overthrow Palpatine. That’s how I chose to rationalize it to myself as I watched. But if so, it could’ve been made clearer. It felt kind of arbitrary to walk it back, to restore the mask after the previous film made such a big deal of destroying it.

I don’t think Finn and Poe are served quite as well here as in the previous two films. They do get their moments of maturation, learning to become leaders and such, but their arcs aren’t standouts. Okay, we learn about Poe’s roguish past and how he’s grown into a leader, but that makes him more like Han Solo redux rather than the more distinctive character he was before. I liked the idea in TLJ that it was his image of himself as a great Resistance hero-pilot like Luke that made him arrogant and reckless, that he needed to have his heroic myths deflated and learn that life was more complicated than that. This retcon feels more conventional. And while it does lead to the introduction of a potentially interesting new female character in Zorii Bliss, she never really emerges as more than a means of supporting and advancing Poe’s story.

As for Finn, it’s disappointing that he isn’t paired up with Rose anymore, and that Rose herself is severely underutilized. (I mean, why is Dominic Monaghan even in this film? Why not give Rose his lines? It feels like a victory for the old-boy network at the expense of inclusion.) The new character Jannah that Finn is paired with is lovely, but is too much a mirror of Finn himself, another ex-Stormtrooper with a conscience, to be an interesting foil for him in the way Rose was. Jannah’s also little more than a plot device to assist Finn with his own actions in the story. Overall, this isn’t as strong as the previous two films at giving female protagonists their own independent arcs (the “Mako Mori test“). Even Leia’s arc (such as it is) is ultimately more about redeeming Ben than supporting Rey, and Rey’s arc is as much about helping Ben transform himself and complete his journey as it is about completing her own journey.

Still, one thing I’ll give the film is that it served the core trio well as a trio. All three films have been centrally about Rey, Finn, and Poe, but we haven’t really seen them as a group; technically Rey and Poe never even met in TFA, and Rey was on a separate journey from the others in TLJ. This time, we finally get to see all three of them journeying together and playing off each other for a significant part of the film, and their banter is a lot of fun.

Perhaps part of the reason the individual arcs of Poe and Finn aren’t that well-developed is the renewed emphasis given to some of the Original Trilogy characters in what are probably their final appearances. It’s nice to see Lando Calrissian again (and amusing that Billy Dee Williams is wearing one of Donald Glover’s Lando outfits from Solo), to catch up on what he’s been doing all this time, but that was secondary. No, the character who really shone here (no pun intended) was C-3PO. This was his biggest role in a Star Wars movie in a long time, and it was a fine showcase. He was funnier than ever in his commentary and reactions, but he also got a moment of true poignancy, when the other characters who’d taken him for granted and bossed him around and insulted him for all this time finally stopped and looked at him and gave him a choice, something they should have done all along, and he proved himself to be as great a hero as any of them, if not more so. Although the film kind of cops out later on by having R2 restore 3PO’s backup memory after 3PO insisted he didn’t have one.

It’s also weird that this trilogy (along with the prequels) has insisted on keeping 3PO and R2 mostly separate, rather than reviving the double act that made them so beloved in the OT. Sure, with 3PO, BB-8, and that new little droid that BB-8 adopted, there wasn’t much room for R2, but it’s odd how much he’s been sidelined in this trilogy.

On the villain side, Richard E. Grant is effective as the new villain Pryde, enough to make me curious to see how future tie-ins or animated series will flesh out his background (since he says he served the Emperor in the old days, meaning he was there somewhere during the OT). And though General Hux had a diminished role, it’s amusing that he turned spy for the Resistance purely out of his desire to ensure that Kylo failed. Also amusing that Pryde is genre-savvy enough that he wasn’t fooled by Hux’s “they shot me in the leg” cover story for a second.

Still, I’m not crazy about the reveal that the First Order were just Palpatine’s puppets all along. I liked the idea of the First Order as essentially Neo-Nazis — the new generation that misguidedly idolizes a past evil, that hates the progress and reforms made in its wake and wants to take things back to the good old days when their kind was dominant at everyone else’s expense. That idea gave the sequels a relevancy that this film undermines by reducing the FO to just Palpatine’s pawns. I mean, the same idea is there — the Emperor’s plan wouldn’t have worked if there hadn’t been a lot of people in the new generation who still clung to the Empire’s ways. But the emphasis was shifted here, with the FO basically rendered irrelevant and replaced as the Big Bad. It felt like a step backward.

So it seems the Sequel Trilogy echoed the OT straight to the end, with the middle film being the most challenging and unconventional and the third film being entertaining but relatively weaker and lighter. Still, TRoS did a decent enough job resolving its main character and story arcs, though it fell short in some respects and took fewer risks than it could have. It chose to emphasize nostalgia over innovation, which really is in keeping with the overall Star Wars phenomenon, since the whole thing is basically the result of George Lucas’s nostalgia for the things he liked as a child (Flash Gordon serials, WWII movies, samurai movies, Westerns, fast cars, etc.). It’s just that now it’s gotten to the point that the nostalgia in Star Wars is directed toward earlier Star Wars, since now it’s become the thing that today’s filmmakers loved as children. (It’s kind of wild how long the series has lasted while maintaining such consistency in style, right down to the near-identical opening and closing themes and credits fonts.) Still, I would’ve liked it if the series had ended in a way that looked more toward the future than the past, that expanded the mindset of the franchise and broke new conceptual ground the way TLJ did. TLJ felt like the franchise was starting to grow up, but this film took a more conventional path. It was fun, but it was less than it could have been.

Another really bad ’70s SFTV movie: THE TIME MACHINE (1978)

I was recently reminded of the existence of a movie I saw on TV as a child and rarely since: the 1978 NBC adaptation of H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, starring John Beck as the Time Traveller and Priscilla Barnes as Weena. The main thing I remembered about it was its distinctive design for the time machine, which basically took the general idea of the machine from the classic 1960 George Pal movie, modernized it, and replaced its ornate circular design with a more high-tech triangular design. Well, that and John Beck’s very ’70s mustache and hairstyle. As for the actual story, I remembered virtually nothing. So out of curiosity, I went looking for it on YouTube. My options were a blurry print of just the movie, or a somewhat clearer copy with videotape tracking glitches (Beta, I think) and most of the commercials left in, as well as the introduction and main cast credits that are left out of the other version. I actually remembered a couple of the commercials from my youth, and getting a nostalgic glimpse of the advertising of the era was more entertaining than the film.

I mean, this movie is bad. Really, really bad. I thought I had somewhat fond memories of it in my youth, but it just goes to show that I had no taste back then, because it’s horrible. Really, I don’t know how this monstrosity came to be. It was apparently made as part of a series of TV-movie literary adaptations and historical films under the Classics Illustrated banner, though the intro glossed over the fact that those were comic books and tried to pitch it more as a Masterpiece Theater knockoff. Anyway, its writer, Wallace C. Bennett, had only a few previous writing credits, and its director, Henning Schellerup, had a prior filmography consisting exclusively of porn and exploitation films, though oddly he would later go on to direct a number of Bible-themed documentaries (while not entirely giving up the porn), plus a couple more films in the Classics Illustrated series and a Thomas Edison biopic. The directing is unremarkable, with slow pacing, flat performances, and mediocre effects work, but the writing is just awful and had me constantly wondering what the hell they were thinking and who thought any of this was a good idea. I’m writing this review just to get my frustration off my chest.

First off, it takes forever to get around to adapting the novel. It opens in space with a Soviet satellite being knocked off course and coincidentally heading straight for Los Angeles, where its nuclear reactor will detonate on impact (which is not how nuclear reactors actually work). The only computers powerful enough to let the military intercept it in time belong to a defense-contractor megacorporation whose name is actually Mega Corporation. Our hero Neil Perry (Beck) works for Mega, though he doesn’t show up until 9 minutes in, just in the nick of time to figure out why the computers are malfunctioning (it’s because they’re heat-sensitive and there are too many people in the control room) and correct the intercept missile’s course. Then he takes some time with his secretary to lament having to work on superweapons (what, a genius like him couldn’t get hired somewhere else?), before getting called in to the boss’s office to justify why he’s late developing the “Laser Death Ray” (that is literally its official name) yet has spent 20 million of Mega’s dollars on something else. The big bosses are played by Andrew Duggan and Parley Baer, but Perry’s direct supervisor, the most sympathetic exec of the three, is played by the stalwart Whit Bissell, a veteran of the 1960 The Time Machine as well as a regular in Irwin Allen’s The Time Tunnel (and John Zaremba, another Tunnel regular, appears briefly as well).

The meeting is the first scene that has anything to do with the book, since it’s the updated version of the iconic scene where the protagonist demonstrates his invention of time travel using a working miniature of his machine. (Bissell gets to flip the switch on the model this time, rather than just watching as in 1960.) But nothing about it makes sense. At first, Perry seems surprised that he’s being asked to account for the redirected funds, yet a moment later, jarringly, he says he anticipated the request and has brought a model. He then tells the execs about his time travel research for the very first time, which made relative sense for an 1890s gentleman inventor showing off his self-funded achievement to his friends, but makes no sense for a 1978 scientist-engineer reporting to his own direct supervisors within a corporate hierarchy. How has he gotten as far as a working model and full-size prototype without any of the prior theoretical and engineering groundwork being made public? Especially since we learn that he has subcontracted the construction of the power unit to another branch of the company, so there’s no way this is something he’s done all by himself. It just makes no sense within this context.

In any case, Perry’s bosses are underwhelmed by his demonstration and order him to abandon his time machine and go to work on inventing an antimatter bomb (because naturally he’s the kind of fictional scientist who’s an expert in every field at once instead of a single specialization). He’s disheartened, but the aforementioned power module gets finished a month early, so he decides to take a time trip to prove the value of his work. Rather than going forward as in previous versions, Perry starts out by going backward, and the rest of the first hour is wasted on a brief, pointless interlude in 17th-century Salem (where he’s burned as a witch and escapes from the pyre in the time machine) and an interminably long, equally pointless interlude in the Old West (where he gets accused of claim-jumping, shot at, arrested, and chased a lot), all merely to pad the film and presumably make use of some available backlots. All of history to choose from and they went for two of the most obvious, lazy cliches. Note that this version abandons the idea that the machine stays in one place relative to the Earth’s surface, even though it uses a crude approximation of George Pal’s stop-motion effect of buildings being built or unbuilt around the traveler. This is another thing that makes no sense.

It occurred to me to wonder if this film was meant as a backdoor pilot for a series, with Perry’s sojourns in the past being samples of the kind of weekly adventures he could have. But they’re just too superficial and plotless to work as “episodes” in their own right, since Perry hardly interacts with anyone except to be captured, threatened, or chased by them.

Anyway, Perry eventually gets back to the present, coincidentally just in time for a random co-worker to present him with a report suggesting that — shocker — the weapons Mega Corporation is building might devastate the Earth’s environment! Why, the ozone layer might start to become eroded as soon as the 30th century! Oh, my stars and garters! But according to the random co-worker, the bosses have dismissed the projections, saying there’s no proof what will happen in the future. With this convenient motivation just handed to him by a plot puppet, Perry hops back in his machine to get the “proof” — although he doesn’t think to bring any camera, recorder, or instruments forward with him to gather it!

It isn’t long (in more than one sense) before he sees nuclear explosions go off around him and lands in a radioactive wasteland, less than a century in his future. You’d think that would be enough proof to take back (if he’d bothered to document it in any way!!), but he has to get around to the novel’s plot eventually, so he gratuitously keeps going forward until the vegetation recovers and he winds up in the Eloi-Morlock future at last, although it’s only in the early 3000s instead of 802,701 AD, and the Eloi speak perfect English (despite a gratuitous fakeout scene where Weena initially remains mute for no good reason so that we’ll be surprised when she does speak). Also, despite not knowing what fire is, these Eloi are not passive, pampered sheep, but are descended from a segment of the population that chose to come up from underground and risk the hardships that the Morlocks feared. So they bear little resemblance to Wells’s Eloi. They even have a very good understanding of their history, thanks to a convenient local museum of weapons and war records that Weena shows Perry — complete with a display of a futuristic hand weapon with a card next to it saying “Laser Death Ray invented by Neil Perry.” Yes, really. Then, this simple, backward Eloi who’s never heard of fire shows Perry how to activate the museum video that explains the whole history of the end of the world with crisp narration and an unending orgy of military stock footage (including plenty of fiery explosions) — and I kept wondering, if this is how civilization collapsed, who the hell made the video documentary about it afterward???

Anyway, then the Morlocks attack and take several Eloi captive, so Perry goes down to rescue them and discovers that the Morlocks use them as livestock to consume. So the movie’s anti-war theme gets thrown out the window as Perry decides that the only hope for humanity’s future is to commit genocide, exterminating the Morlocks with the conveniently intact plastic explosives in the war museum. So he teaches the peaceful, idyllic Eloi how to commit mass murder with bombs, yay. (Okay, granted, the 1960 film had a similar beat of the Eloi learning to fight back. Still, it was less thematically muddy than this.) He then hops back in his time machine to bring his “proof” to his Mega bosses — though he doesn’t think to bring back any of those convenient video records from the future and has no proof except a totally unverifiable anecdotal account!!

Which… somehow… his bosses completely believe without question, without a shred of actual proof!! Aaaahhh!!

Yet they don’t care about his warnings of apocalypse, instead wanting to exploit the time machine to get ahead of their competitors on new weapons breakthroughs. Which Perry is suddenly opposed to once more, so he pops back off into the future before his bosses can take the time machine away from him. Instead of the ambiguity of the original and the 1960 classic, we see him happily reunited with Weena and the Eloi, who will now be able to rebuild human civilization… with a breeding stock consisting exclusively of blond white people. Oh dear. And just before that, to further remove any ambiguity, Whit Bissell was given a closing speech in which he expressed utter certainty that Perry and the Eloi would be able to rebuild a perfect society in the future. Try not to think about the implication of an all-white, all-blond civilization being humanity’s perfect future, or of getting there as the result of the total extermination of the only other race on the planet. I doubt the filmmakers intended that implication on purpose, though, because nothing whatsoever about this film had any real thought put into it.

(Meanwhile, if he left permanently for the future, then how did he finish the Laser Death Ray? Is the timeline mutable in this version? Maybe the sign in the museum just meant that he designed it and others finished it.)

This was just… so… bad. I’ve seen some lame ’70s sci-fi TV over the past few years (plus of course when it first aired in my youth), but this may be the worst example I’ve rewatched in recent memory. It’s just staggeringly inept and does no justice to its source material. It’s almost an insult to Whit Bissell to include him in this, rather than the tribute they presumably intended. (At least the insult to H.G. Wells and his classic would be made up for the following year with Nicholas Meyer’s Time after Time.) The story barely honors the source material except in broad strokes — which isn’t a bad thing if the original material has worth in its own right, but in this case the writing is incredibly thoughtless, directionless, and lazy, with its attempt at an anti-war theme sabotaged by its own incompetence. John Beck is miscast as the lead, never convincing as a brilliant scientist and never conveying a trace of the emotion he should feel when faced with the downfall of civilization. Priscilla Barnes is lovely as Weena, but not called upon to be anything more, and these Eloi are so mundanely human and show up so late in the movie that there’s little to say about them. The character-acting stalwarts like Bissell, Baer, and Duggan do their usual workmanlike job with what they’re given, but what they’re given isn’t much. I have to wonder why the people involved even bothered to make this. Or why I bothered to watch this. Seriously, folks, just go see the George Pal version again, or Time after Time.

Two of my stories made the Tangent Online 2019 Recommended Reading List!

My editor at eSpec Books, Danielle Ackley-McPhail, has just let me know that the Tangent Online 2019 Recommended Reading List has been released, and its short fiction recommendations include work by a number of eSpec authors, including yours truly. I was pleasantly surprised to see that I made the list twice — for the Troubleshooter story “The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of” in Footprints in the Stars (which they reviewed here) and for my fantasy debut “The Melody Lingers” in Galaxy’s Edge #39 (which they reviewed here).

I’m very gratified by this news, and thankful to the reviewers at Tangent Online. Hopefully I can produce other worthy stories in the year ahead.

GENESIS II/PLANET EARTH addendum: STRANGE NEW WORLD (1975)

Back in 2013, I posted my thoughts on Gene Roddenberry’s two failed pilots from the early 1970s, Genesis II with Alex Cord and its retooled version Planet Earth with John Saxon, both about a 20th-century man named Dylan Hunt who awoke from cryogenic suspension in a post-apocalyptic future and working with an idealistic organization named PAX (or Pax, depending on the version) to try to rebuild civilization. In that post, I made the following remarks:

Planet Earth didn’t succeed as a pilot any more than its predecessor did… However, in 1975, ABC attempted to rework the post-apocalyptic premise one more time without Roddenberry’s involvement, keeping Saxon as the lead and retaining the name Pax, and using the Trek-inspired title Strange New World, but changing the rest of the premise and the character names… So it doesn’t count as part of the same series and I haven’t bothered to track it down.

Well, on a whim, I finally decided to track Strange New World down on YouTube and see if it was as bad as I’d heard. And it certainly is a mess. Nominally, they changed the premise and characters enough to make it legally distinct from Roddenberry’s creation, so he’s not credited for the production in any way. Which seems iffy, since the idea clearly did originate with Roddenberry, but it seems to have been an amicable arrangement, with Roddenberry moving back to Paramount to work on reviving Star Trek while allowing Warner Bros. to carry forward with this retooling of his concept.

But it’s a half-hearted retooling. They didn’t even bother to film a proper introduction to the new characters and ideas. Instead, the first 3 1/2 minutes of the 2-hour pilot (an hour and a half without commercials) are a prologue in which Saxon’s new lead character Anthony Vico tells the whole backstory through narration. In this version, PAX is a 20th-century organization that Vico works for along with co-stars Dr. Allison Crowley (Kathleen Miller) and Dr. William Scott (Keene Curtis, who would later play Grand Moff Tarkin in the NPR radio adaptation of Star Wars). The three are in experimental cryogenic stasis in a space station, which saves them from a cataclysmic, entirely offscreen “meteor” bombardment that destroys civilization (not sure whether they dropped the nuclear war to differentiate it from Roddenberry’s premise or to avoid controversy). They wake up 180 years later and descend to Earth to search for the PAX base where their friends and families await them in cryosleep (reminiscent of the Logan’s Run series leads searching for “Sanctuary,” even driving a similar ground vehicle). It’s a lot less effective to be told all this through narration than it would’ve been to actually see the characters’ initial reactions to waking up to find civilization in ruins.

The prologue is followed by what are essentially two routine hourlong episodes, and would probably have been re-edited as such had it gone to series. It feels like they’re trying to have it both ways, loosely continuing from the Planet Earth setup without actually using that setup. Oddly, there seem to be two different versions of the movie available, showing the two halves in the opposite order from one another.

In the version I saw on YouTube, the first “episode” turns out to be ten months after the prologue (despite some initial narration that makes it seem like mere days) and carries its own title, “Animaland.” It’s a rather dismal piece in which the trio winds up in the ruins of a nature preserve and get caught in a longstanding conflict between its protectors, who follow a holocaust-era game warden’s manual as their holy writ, and the near-savage poachers who have to hunt the game to survive. Allison gets captured by the wardens on suspicion of poaching and tries to win over their leader (Ford Rainey) and his heir apparent (Gerrit Graham) with her talk of being from the past and having knowledge to share, while the men end up convincing the poachers to help them break in to find Allison, with Vico making the incredibly reckless choice to give the head poacher (Bill McKinney) a deadly flare gun if he helps them. Eventually, the trio win the trust of the game wardens, then stay to help defend them from the poachers’ attack that Vico essentially caused, then convince them to change their rigid laws to make peace. I lost interest halfway through, then came back later and watched a lot of the rest at accelerated speed. The whole thing was quite darkly lit and slow-paced and not at all good.

The other half is a completely unconnected episode, though no separate title is shown onscreen. It’s a moderately more interesting, more sci-fi story where the trio are captured and subjected to eerie high-tech medical scans (involving solarization/overexposure effects to create some effectively weird and surreal images), then wake up in a utopian society called Eterna, albeit one that dresses them up in faux-Roman robes (with Vico in an oddly skimpy red toga). Their leader, the Surgeon (The Andromeda Strain‘s James Olson, not to be confused with Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen), and his assistant, Tana (two-time Bond girl Martine Beswick), seem welcoming enough, but Vico doesn’t trust the situation and hotheadedly beats up and accidentally kills a guard (Reb Brown), who later sits up in his coffin at his joyous “funeral.” Turns out this is a group of immortals who’ve lost the ability to reproduce and have survived by cloning themselves and harvesting their clones for replacement parts — an idea similar in some respects to Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s “Up the Long Ladder” 14 years later. The Surgeon is actually a 200-year-old former student of Dr. Scott, now suffering from the onset of dementia (though they still called it “senility” then) and hoping Scott will replace him as leader. Scott is tempted by Eterna’s scientific advances, leading to a rift with the aggressive, mistrustful Vico. But the cloning has cost the Eternans their natural immunity — they only survive thanks to a decontamination field that keeps germs out — and they hope the immunity factors in the trio’s un-cloned blood can cure them. So Scott participates in forcing Vico and Allison to become unconsenting blood donors — so much for medical ethics. But when the less invasive Plan A fails and Plan B calls for taking all of their blood at once (pretty shortsighted, since they could make more if kept alive), Scott helps Vico break free, and Vico starts a fight that gets ridiculously out of hand and destroys all the clones and the decontamination field, so all the Eternans die instantly from germ exposure. Yes, our hero just committed genocide. It’s a rather ghastly, morally bankrupt ending to a story that, while somewhat cliched, did have some interesting character work with Scott and the Surgeon.

Overall, Strange New World is a massive failure as a pilot. Vico is much less appealing than Dylan Hunt; he’s a dumb macho hothead quick to violence and paranoia, with no evident conscience or concern for anything except his own group’s self-interest. He’s basically a caricature of a generic 1970s action hero — right down to being given a gratuitous, completely unmotivated and chemistry-free makeout scene with Martine Beswick merely because such things were mandated for ’70s action heroes. As for Allison, though she does some effective reasoning/peacemaking with the game wardens in “Animaland,” she’s basically just there in the Eterna segment, and the actress does nothing of note with what little she’s given. Dr. Scott has the most interesting characterization of the three, though mainly in the Eterna segment and largely by default.

What’s surprising is that this pilot was directed by Robert Butler, who also directed the pilot episodes of Star Trek and Batman (and later Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman). He had a reputation as a go-to pilot director, yet the directing here was weak and lackadaisical, like he was phoning it in. Maybe he was uninspired by the script. Of the credited writers, Ranald Graham and Walon Green were both novices with no former science fiction credits (though Green would later co-write WarGames, Solarbabies, and RoboCop 2 before eventually becoming an executive producer on Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue, and several Law & Order series), and Al Ramrus was mostly a documentary writer who’d plotted one episode of The Invaders.

It goes to show that, while Gene Roddenberry had his weaknesses as a writer and never managed to get any SF shows other than Star Trek off the ground, he was still better at SF than most of his contemporaries in ’70s TV, save his own former collaborators like D.C. Fontana and David Gerrold. SNW followed the same essential format that G2/PE would have, aside from the altered backstory and characters, but the results are much shallower and dumber.

It’s interesting how many mid-’70s shows had this same general format of characters wandering a post-apocalyptic landscape and encountering a variety of weird, isolated cultures-of-the-week — see also Ark II (1976) and the TV adaptation of Logan’s Run (1977), as well as the 1974 Planet of the Apes TV series to an extent. Come to think of it, all three of those aired on CBS, the network that had previously turned down Genesis II. Maybe CBS’s execs just liked the premise and kept trying to make it work. Though apparently getting ABC interested was a harder sell.

It occurred to me briefly to wonder if maybe ABC and Warner Bros. might have gotten far enough along with Planet Earth to commission additional scripts or story outlines, or to sign up John Saxon for some sort of additional commitment, before the network decided to pass on it. If SNW had just been a way to amortize their investment in a pair of additional scripts, I figured that could explain the halfheartedness, and why the pilot is just two standalone episodes glued together. But on reflection, the stories don’t really feel like they were based on Planet Earth proposals, since the characters are too different.

More likely, it’s just that Strange New World is a cheaper version of the premise. It’s the same format as PE but with three leads instead of four, a simple ground vehicle instead of the more elaborate subshuttle sets and miniatures, and no PAX headquarters sets or recurring cast members. Relegating the space station sequence to a few shots in the intro was a lot cheaper than doing a proper origin episode (and the space FX shots may even have been stock footage, though I can’t find evidence of that). Making a pilot movie that could be recut into two standard episodes would also save money. So would hiring less experienced writers and producers. So that’s probably what it all boils down to — Warner Bros. retooling the premise to be cheaper in the hope that it would then be more appealing to a network.

Anyway, I have now put far more thought into analyzing Strange New World than it really deserves. It’s a weird, half-hearted afterthought of a project, a mere footnote to G2/PE, far less worthy of attention than its preceding pilots or its contemporary post-apocalyptic shows (and none of those were all that great anyway). If not for the peripheral Star Trek connection, it would probably be entirely forgotten. I was right to skip it the first time.

Thoughts on DARK PHOENIX (or is it X-MEN: DARK PHOENIX?) (spoilers)

Thanks to my library, I’ve finally seen the last film in Fox’s X-Men series (discounting the not-yet-released spinoff New Mutants), which was shown theatrically under the title Dark Phoenix, with the X-Men supertitle restored for home video. Written and directed by Simon Kinberg — who co-wrote the franchise’s first attempt at the Dark Phoenix story, X-Men: The Last Stand from 2006 — it’s his attempt to use the rebooted timeline of the later X-Men movies to take a mulligan and try to get it right this time.

I actually thought The Last Stand was a decent film, though a flawed one. A major flaw was that its original goal of telling a cinematic version of Chris Claremont’s classic Dark Phoenix story (building on what was set up at the end of the second film) was hampered by the studio’s insistence on merging it with the mutant-cure storyline that Joss Whedon had introduced in Astonishing X-Men a few years earlier, so that Jean Grey’s story arc was reduced to a B plot for much of the film and didn’t have room to breathe. The new film lets Kinberg focus solely on Jean’s story this time out.

Dark Phoenix was a box-office and critical failure, so I didn’t go in expecting much. But I was pleasantly surprised. Certainly the film has flaws, some that I only realized after the fact and a few that stood out right away and took me out of the film. But overall, I found it to be a reasonably effective story, and on balance I’m satisfied with how it played out.

In some respects, the film uses the same beats as The Last Stand. It keeps the idea that Jean Grey always had extraordinary power that Charles Xavier suppressed with mental blocks, tarnishing his pure image and turning Jean against him when she finds out and the barriers in her mind fall down. (In that version, the Phoenix was purely an outgrowth of Jean’s own exceptional power. Here, it’s a cosmic force that merges with her, but it’s her exceptional power that draws it to her and enables her to survive the merger.) But the way it plays out is very different, feeling like a deliberate counterpoint to TLS’s choices, and I prefer this version, which turns out to be far more optimistic and better serves the characters and their relationships.

In other ways, though, the characterizations are a weak point of the film. It’s relatively short by modern standards, only about 100 minutes of story once you subtract end credits, so most of the ensemble cast gets only cursory attention and the plot is raced through. Some of the character transitions and motivations are too abrupt and extreme. Jean turns on the team too quickly after learning Xavier lied to her about her childhood, although to be fair, it is shown that she has no control when her newly unleashed rage takes over. But when she accidentally kills Mystique (to accommodate Jennifer Lawrence being too big a star now to be available/affordable for the whole thing, I reckon), both Magneto/Erik and Beast/Hank jump way too quickly to wanting to murder Jean in retaliation. It’s kind of silly the way it plays out with Magneto. Erik: “I stopped killing because I realized revenge didn’t make the pain go away.” Hank, a couple of scenes later: “Raven’s dead.” Erik: “REVENNNNNNGE!” Hank’s motivation doesn’t work much better — the film seems to suggest a romance between him and Raven, which I don’t think is something ever suggested in previous films (I could be wrong), and is unnecessary because their long friendship going back decades should be enough.

(That’s another flaw in the film, by the way — it’s set in 1992, three decades after First Class, and there’s no attempt to age the actors up.)

Some of the plot points advance in a similarly arbitrary and unbelievable manner. Mainly, the film is set in a time when the X-Men are admired worldwide as superheroes, mutants are accepted, and the President of the US has an actual X-Phone hotline on his desk… but as soon as one mutant, Jean, goes wild and attacks some local cops, all of a sudden the POTUS is ghosting Xavier and the TV news is talking about proposals for mutant internment camps. That’s way too abrupt a change in response to a single incident, and it badly undermines the film’s credibility. Yes, there would be a surge of bigotry flaring up after something like this, but it wouldn’t lead to such an instantaneous change in government policy; it would take time for anti-mutant pundits and politicians to shift the Overton window far enough.

A better alternative for setting up the climactic sequence — where the military takes the X-Men captive on a train where the bad guys attack them — would’ve been to spend more time on the machinations of said bad guys, the D’Bari (named after the alien species that Phoenix carelessly destroyed in the original comics, but here retconned into Skrull-like shapeshifters who want to capture the Phoenix Force that destroyed their world and use it for conquest). The D’Bari leader Vuk is played by Jessica Chastain (in the likeness of a woman Vuk killed and impersonated), but Elementary‘s Ato Essandoh plays her second-in-command, impersonating an FBI agent. It would’ve worked better if, say, Essandoh’s character had been shown pushing for a more aggressive stance against the X-Men and faced resistance from officials who still believed in them. I wonder if something along those lines was cut for time and replaced with the sloppy, throwaway voiceover line about internment camps.

One more weakness of Dark Phoenix, unfortunately, is the casting it inherits from the previous film. This time, Sophie Turner as Jean and Tye Sheridan as Scott/Cyclops have a much heavier burden to carry than in X-Men: Apocalypse, and it shows that they’re the weakest members of the ensemble. Turner has her occasional moments (though is nowhere near as appealing as her predecessor Famke Janssen), but she’s out-acted by Summer Fontana, who plays Jean’s 8-year-old self in flashbacks. Sheridan is completely dull and one-note as Cyclops; it’s a role that demands a strong actor to make up for being unable to see Scott’s eyes, and Sheridan totally fails to deliver. What’s more, he and Turner have no romantic chemistry to speak of. It weakens the impact of what should be a core relationship in the film.

Still, what ultimately works for me is how much more optimistically the Phoenix story plays out than in the original film version. In TLS, Magneto wanted to exploit Jean as a weapon for his war on non-mutants; here, he tries to keep the peace and stops her from harming a group of soldiers — and his desire for revenge only lasts for the second act before he chooses a nobler path. In TLS, Jean was so overcome by her runaway power and madness that she killed both Cyclops and Xavier, the two people she was closest to; here, it’s their love for her that reaches her through her pain and bitterness and reminds her of who she is. In TLS, Jean lets Wolverine execute her to stop her from killing her family, but here, she makes her own sacrifice by choice, embracing the power and evolving into something higher in order to save her family. Not only that, but the mature entity she becomes at the end is a really beautiful rendering of the Phoenix in its full flaming majesty, the sort of thing I kept hoping for in the original films but never got. Throw in the additional optimistic beat of that one soldier choosing to trust the X-Men and release them to help defend against the attacking D’Bari, and the upbeat turn the film takes in its last act does a lot to make up for its shortcomings, and works well as a rebuke to the nihilism of TLS.

The action in the last act is also excellent. The train attack sequence was very well-made, I thought, with some very creative uses of superpowers. I’m not crazy about superhero fights where the goal is to ruthlessly kill a whole army of attacking aliens — I prefer superheroes to save lives rather than take them — but the action was intense, frenetic, and creative. It’s the one place where the breakneck pacing did the most to help the film rather than undermine it.

By the way, one odd thing Dark Phoenix shares with one of its predecessors is an apparent desire to homage Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The climax and final scene of X2: X-Men United were deliberately meant to evoke TWOK’s ending, with the closing shot having the same kind of hint of the sacrificed character’s resurrection, a voiceover from said character, and a very similar musical sting leading into the end credits. Here, there’s a sequence where Vuk is tempting Jean with the power of the Phoenix and showing her a mental simulation of using its power to bring life to a lifeless world, and it’s essentially a higher-quality recreation of the Genesis simulation from Carol Marcus’s project proposal in TWOK (the first entirely CGI sequence ever used in a feature film, though beating TRON to the screen by only a month). Interesting to see the same idea executed with technology 37 years more advanced, though it seems a bit incongruous in this film. (As well as making me feel really old — has it really been 37 years?)

So, all in all, Dark Phoenix is a very flawed and inconsistent film, but it’s been a very flawed and inconsistent series. It’s far from the best film of the lot, but far from the worst, and for me the parts that work outweigh the parts that don’t. Despite its cursory, rushed storytelling, I feel it succeeded in its goal of getting right the aspects of the Dark Phoenix story that The Last Stand got wrong. And though it fills the same role of bringing about the end of an era for an X-Men team and film sequence, it does so in a better, more upbeat way that brings closure yet leaves more hope for the future (well, as long as you don’t think about the future Logan established, which may or may not be in the same timeline as this). I think that’s a reasonably satisfactory way to conclude Fox’s long, turbulent X-Men film series.

Thoughts on AQUAMAN (Spoilers)

I finally got a copy of James Wan’s Aquaman from the library. I’m very impressed. It’s a solid action-fantasy movie, not only with spectacular visuals and worldbuilding and very imaginative action choreography, but with pretty solid characterization and writing too. The plot is a pretty by-the-numbers quest narrative moving from one set piece to the next, but the characters have depth (no pun intended) and nuance, and even the villains have sympathetic qualities and at least partly valid reasons for their actions.

Most of all, I’m pleasantly surprised by Jason Momoa. Pre-Aquaman, I knew him only as Ronon Dex in Stargate: Atlantis, and back then, he barely seemed capable of enunciating vowels and consonants with any clarity, let alone conveying any degree of emotion. But he’s grown far beyond those mushmouthed beginnings and actually gave a really solid performance as Arthur Curry — still in the same basic gruff, tough-guy wheelhouse, but with much more skill, expressiveness, and nuance. If anything, I’d say he was one of the better lead actors in the film, although that’s mainly because both Amber Heard as Mera and Patrick Wilson as Orm/Ocean Master were fairly bland. Wilson in particular gave a flat, robotic, dead-eyed performance that kept his role as the main villain from being as strong as it could’ve been, though I suppose it helped convey his coldness and sociopathy to a degree.

Although what really made Orm despicable was something the movie depicted but never overtly called out as such — his racism. All his talk about Arthur being a “half-breed mongrel” is rooted in the fantasy backstory of Aquaman being half-Atlantean and half-human, but it gains an extra weight and relevance with the casting of the Polynesian Momoa as Arthur and the pale, blond Wilson as Orm. I guess that casting makes the point without the dialogue having to come out and say it. It underlines that, for all that Orm makes a valid point about humanity’s depredation of the seas, his persistent fixation on Arthur’s “impure” blood exposes the real hate and egocentrism driving his push for war. Indeed, given the diversity of the undersea races that Orm tries to force into an alliance, including fishy mer-people and crustacean-people, it’s clear that his intolerance of difference would’ve made him a bad leader. Which, again, feels very relevant right now.

I thought it was very interesting how they made Black Manta, here named David Kane (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a sympathetic figure through his close relationship with his father (Michael Beach, who voiced the Black Manta equivalent Devil Ray in the animated Justice League Unlimited), even while simultaneously painting them both as murdering pirate scum, and gave him a legitimate grievance against Aquaman for the latter’s callous refusal to save his father’s life, a decision Arthur would come to regret later on. It’s too bad, though, that the need to save Black Manta for the sequel kept the plot thread from having any real payoff. I suppose it paid off in Arthur’s decision at the end to take the more heroic route and spare Orm, but there should be payoff connecting more directly to Manta.

Back to the technical side, I was very impressed with the visual design. Lately I’ve come to feel that modern CGI movies are just too cluttered with things onscreen, and sometimes I get tired of the sheer visual overload. There were certainly plenty such images in this movie, but they didn’t seem as bothersome to me. Perhaps it’s because I saw them on my old, non-HD television and couldn’t see the details that clearly anyway, but maybe it’s because the images were so creative and unusual. It wasn’t just a horde of soldiers or orcs or whatever, but a wealth of exotic, novel, fanciful images of different types. And they weren’t all the same either — different sequences had different color palettes and thus different tones and styles. It was really refreshing how vividly colorful this movie was, unlike a lot of its DC Extended Universe predecessors and a lot of movies in general. The “Ring of Fire” battle sequence was the only time it fell victim to the “make everything blue and orange” fashion of so many modern films. Although one of the most stunning sequences was nearly monochrome — the “feeding frenzy” sequence with the Trench creatures underwater, lit only by the red of the flares. That was a truly amazing visual sequence unlike anything I’ve seen in a movie before.

It was also nice to see a DCEU film remembering to focus on the civilians. This was more a fantasy epic than a superhero film, but it did take time here and there to show Arthur saving people, or at least to show how bystanders were affected by the action, as in the Sicily sequence. Zack Snyder would’ve contrived some way to evacuate the town so he could blow up a bunch of architecture without having to bother acknowledging the existence of human beings, but the reactions of the townsfolk as their homes are barged into and trashed are an integral part of the flavor of the Sicily sequence — though it would’ve been nice to see some aftermath and cleanup, maybe Mera hydrokinetically hauling up some sunken treasure to help pay for repairs.

If I had a problem with the film, it’s that it was too fond of having quiet or personal scenes suddenly interrupted by explosions and villain attacks as a quickie scene-transition device. I think that happened three or four times, and it got a bit repetitive. The film was also a bit too in love with its elaborate CGI continuous-shot time cuts and swooping camera moves, which generally worked pretty well but were a bit self-conscious at times, as swoopy CGI shots usually are. Also, I’m just generally not a fan of stories about destined kings or chosen ones, although this one did a decent job of subverting that trope by stressing that Arthur was the least likely, least worthy king possible and well aware of it, and that his value was greater as a bridge between worlds and a hero to everyone than as a hereditary elite or whatever.

Also — ending spoilers here — why is Arthur the king if Queen Atlanna is still alive? Shouldn’t she be the ruler and he just the prince? Or is Atlantis a sexist society where only a man can rule? Well, to be generous, maybe he’s king because he defeated Orm in combat. Anyway, I wouldn’t be surprised if he left Atlanna to rule Atlantis in his stead while he continued to operate as Aquaman out in the world.

So anyway, Aquaman is the sixth DCEU film I’ve seen (I’m on the library’s waiting list for Shazam!), and the third one I’ve liked, since I actually liked Justice League better than most people did. Although I liked that one with reservations, whereas Wonder Woman and Aquaman are both solid, enjoyable superhero films. Anyway, it does seem like the DCEU is finally on the right path.

Categories: Reviews Tags: , , ,