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Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)

Friday 21st June 2013 Leave a comment

(Rewatched 3 June 2013.)

This was, I think, the first Star Trek movie I ever saw. I don’t remember much of that viewing, except that the fact I hadn’t seen Wrath of Khan meant that I didn’t get much out of it.

Watching it now: it’s okay, I suppose. The problem is that it’s very much an in-between film. On the one hand we have the film’s main goal, to resurrect Spock. As dramatic as the idea of resurrecting one of the world’s most recognisable fictional characters sounds on paper, if you look at it another way, the ultimate aim of the movie is merely to return to the status quo: our familiar crew, reunited again. Put that way, it’s really quite a mundane goal around which to base a movie.

That wouldn’t matter too much if there was another interesting storyline going on. But the Genesis Planet aspect of the plot is really just an epilogue to Wrath of Khan; the concept is not developed significantly enough to justify stretching it out and dedicating a whole second movie to it.

So, one storyline is a continuation of something that didn’t really need to be continued from the previous film; the other might seem extraordinary, but is a goal that, rather than moving the series forward, just returns it to the same comfortable setup in preparation for future adventures. Like I said, a bridging, “in-between” film, rather than a satisfying movie in its own right.

Even the death of Kirk’s son David happens in a rather un-dramatic fashion. Perhaps it would have been more interesting if there was a more direct link between Kirk’s efforts to resurrect Spock and the death of his son – the price he pays for the return of his friend?

David is a bland character, and he and the Vulcan Saavik get lots of screen time that would have been better dedicated to other things. For example, McCoy’s conflicts with Spock were one of the fun things about the original TV series, but the idea of them occupying the same body is wasted in this film: we get a couple of minor jokes involving the doctor suddenly coming out with Spock-y logic, but that’s about it.

It’s far from being an annoyingly bad film. It passes the time pleasantly enough. There are things to enjoy: for one thing there’s the novelty of seeing Christopher Lloyd in Klingon make-up (though he’s not the most threatening baddie).

Kirk’s trick with the self-destruction of the Enterprise is probably the best sequence in the film. (Having said that, it does rely on us accepting the idea that a spacecraft that size could be capably run by only a few crewmembers – which, incidentally, also happens to be one of the many suspensions of disbelief involved in watching this year’s Star Trek Into Darkness…)

Fun Fact! Apparently, Frank Welker, animal voiceover god extraordinaire, contributed some screaming noises to this movie! Bit of trivia for you, there.

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Cloud Atlas (2012)

Monday 11th March 2013 Leave a comment

The Fountain.
Magnolia.
Adaptation.
Synecdoche, New York.
A Cock and Bull Story.
The Hours.
Memento.

Look, I admit it – I’m a sucker for cinematic experiments in metafiction and form. Such movies tend to attract critics’ comments like, “All this self-referentiality, not-too-subtle thematic interlinking, and chronological jumbling are mere gimmicks; once you’ve solved the superficial puzzle-box, there’s little of substance to them. They’re not really as profound or interesting as they think they are – they exist only as exercises for writers and directors to smugly say, ‘Look how clever I am!'”

But for me, that clever-clever self-referentiality, not-too-subtle thematic interlinking, chronological jumbling, and puzzle-solving is exactly what wins me over. (Usually.) And it certainly worked in the case of Cloud Atlas!

I have not read David “Not The One From Peep Show” Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas, but before going to see the film, The Fountain was the reference point I had in mind. And sure enough, of the above examples, The Fountain is the film that it most resembles, in its cross-cutting between vastly different time periods in order to emphasise symbolic links between events and characters.

I enjoyed the film very much. The 2144 segment was always going to have the most immediate appeal for someone primarily interested in this film because of the Wachowskis’ involvement, and it’s a relief to see that they have lost none of their flair for action direction. (If, indeed, it was the siblings and not Tykwer who directed that segment’s action scenes: the end credits suggest that they did, but interview comments1 suggest that the credits give a misleading impression of how distinctly the film’s directorial responsibilities were divided.) However, all the stories had something to recommend them (the humour of the 2012 segment; the conspiracy of the ’70s thriller; the interaction between Ben Whishaw and Jim Broadbent’s characters in the 1930s), so that I was rarely disappointed when the film interrupted a story I was enjoying to switch to another one. The abruptness of the transitions between the different stories’ tones and genres was also something that appealed to me rather than a disorientating irritation. Overall I found it a very well-paced movie, flowing along about as well as any non-linear three hour movie ever could. (Although I could have done with a few less solemn, pseudo-profound statements about interconnectedness in the voiceovers.)

Many people have complained of being distracted by the make-up, and Tom Hanks’ attempts at certain accents – it’s true that I was distracted by those things too, but with only a couple of exceptions, keeping an eye out for the different roles each actor took on was an enjoyable distraction.

Hugo Weaving has said in interviews that roles in mainstream blockbusters no longer really appeal to him as an actor. If that means he won’t be doing any more of them, then at least we have Cloud Atlas to represent the ultimate culmination of all his villain-portraying! (Although: yeah, he does resemble the Hitcher from The Mighty Boosh at one point…)

[4 out of 5]

1 See Lana Wachowski’s comment in this AV Club interview:

We keep trying to explain to people that, first of all, the credit you see in the movie was this kooky thing invented by the Director’s Guild, because they couldn’t understand how three people could direct a movie together. And they have this convention that the only way directors can be multiply credited on a film is if it’s an anthology, so they invented this bizarre credit to allow their rules to make sense for our film.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

Wednesday 22nd August 2012 1 comment

I haven’t seen many of the Star Trek films: First Contact, the 2009 reboot, and Wrath of Khan (plus Search for Spock, too long ago for me to remember any of it). Prior to watching Star Trek: The Motion Picture, pretty much all I knew of it was that it had some links to a failed attempt to resurrect the TV series in the ’70s, that it was directed by the director of The Day the Earth Stood Still, and that it contains lots and lots and lots and lots of very slow and elaborate special effects sequences.

That point turned out to be very true. We really do spend a very long time admiring the Enterprise, wormholes, and the movie’s Big Dumb Object, which tends to cause reviewers to use words like “interminable”. Now I’m someone who’s a big enough SF/SFX nerd to have watched all the raw model shot footage included on the Red Dwarf DVDs (and found it interesting!), but even I’ve gotta admit that as lovely as all these sequences look (and sound), they don’t half go on a bit. It felt to me as if the lesson Robert Wise took from watching 2001: A Space Odyssey (and Douglas Trumbull took from making it!) is that the key to making a science fiction movie seem Serious is to slow all your special effects down to a glacial pace!

They’re very good special effects, though – even given the fact that I watched the original version, and not the Director’s Cut with its CGI additions. I imagine that if the film was remade today, a lot of the special effects shots would look broadly similar, but would just be achieved using different methods. Sets and shot compositions are nice, too.

I’m all in favour of more science fiction movies about exploration of weird alien phenomena, rather than action-packed battles against conventional baddies. But here, the plot’s a fairly thin version of the Mysterious Alien Artefact Threatening Earth of countless sci-fi tales: trim down the special effects sequences, speed up the pacing, and the whole thing could quite comfortably be told within a 45 minute TV series episode. The film’s not as smart as you’d hope from something that includes Isaac Asimov’s name in the credits. However, towards the end of the film the true nature of said Big Dumb Alien Artefact is revealed, and I found it a fairly surprising and effective twist.

There’s lots of potential in the conflict between Kirk and Decker: the question of whether it really is in everyone’s best interests for Kirk to take charge of the Enterprise, or if he’s just nostalgic for the thrill of command. Unfortunately, not much is made of it: presumably it would’ve helped if the Decker character had been played more forcefully by a better actor. Like so much else, the idea of Kirk’s nostalgia for being a Captain rather than an Admiral was handled better in Wrath of Khan.

The film spends some time reuniting the crew. Athough I’ve only seen a very small proportion of the original series episodes and feature films, I am fond of these characters, and their rapport is good to watch, so there’s a genuine sense that something feels very wrong – a piece of the puzzle’s missing – when Spock turns up acting even more brusque and unemotional than usual. There’s a good line from McCoy (“Why is any object we don’t understand always called a ‘thing’?”), and the very first thing that the character of Ilia dues upon meeting Kirk is emphasise her oath of celibacy – which I took to be a self-referential joke about Kirk’s reputation as an alien ladies’ man!

Unfortunately, there’s not really enough of that sort of thing. Most of the scenes on the bridge consist of the crew standing around either watching special effects, or formally issuing and reacting to commands. DeForest Kelley in particular gets almost nothing to do; as Stephen Rowley put it*, “Bones always did hang around the bridge too much (probably because that was the only decent set), but this becomes particularly embarrassing here.” In its attempts to challenge 2001‘s claim to the title of “proverbial ‘really good’ science fiction movie“, Star Trek: The Motion Picture removes a lot of the fun ’60s-ness of the TV series.

Although this review sounded really negative, I did enjoy the movie: I was curious to know the answer to the central mystery of what V’Ger really was, there were plenty of likeable individual moments throughout the movie, and most of the sci-fi ideas were solid even if they were underexplored.

Also, my interest in movie special effects meant that I found it interesting to look at examples of 1979’s state of the art optical techniques, even when they seemed to be done for the sake of it, rather than because they served the story. Judging by this film, my tolerance for interminable FX sequences is very high!

[3 out of 5]

* His review of this film and quite a few others seem to have been removed from the current version of his site. 😦

Escape From New York (1981)

Tuesday 24th July 2012 Leave a comment

(Watched for the first time, 16 June 2012.)

Snake? Snake? Snaaaaaake! (Da da de dadada – da da DAH!)

I don’t feel any particular affection for the musclebound he-man action movies of the ’80s. It takes something of the quality of a Terminator or a Die Hard (or at the very least a Predator) to win my heart. This one, I was disappointed to find, didn’t.

The high concept – “New York is a giant prison!” – is great, but from that premise, I could predict the broad strokes of how it would play out: there would be rival factions, and rampaging feral people. Most of the obstacles placed in Our Antihero’s way I just found tedious: oh look! a gladiatorial fight to the death, here we go again.

That was my biggest problem with the movie: I’ve seen its concepts and production design elements duplicated so many times that it was hard for this setting to capture my imagination. I knew in advance that the film was the origin of numerous sci-fi dystopia tropes (in particular, it ranks alongside Aliens and The Matrix as part of videogame developers’ very small pool of setting and design influences). But although I could appreciate the movie for being such an influential source, I didn’t get as much enjoyment from it as I expected.

What did I notice as I watched the film playing “spot the influence”? Well, I was well aware of the Metal Gear!? series’ debt to the movie – but I didn’t realise that Perfect Dark swiped its Air Force One presidential escape pod from here too! And it wasn’t just video games that the movie affected, either: after I’d watched the scene in which Snake gets injected with devices that will kill him within a time limit, I wasn’t surprised to learn that William Gibson had acknowledged the movie as an influence on Neuromancer.

Few of the characters really made much of an impression on me, and even fewer of them earned my sympathies. I didn’t find much humour in the movie, unless you count giggling at the fact that the whole thing looked like a hair metal video.

None of that would matter so much if the movie had really outstanding action to make up for it, but punches never convincingly connect, and gunfire has no recoil. (Having said that, there’s a pretty tense sequence in which the protagonists’ car is attacked by people lining the route on either side.)

Since watching the film I’ve read several reviews – such as this – that praise the movie for its (and Carpenter’s) nihilsim, cynicism and general anarchic subersiveness. Personally I couldn’t see much that could be read into the setting or characters’ actions that was particularly profound or revolutionary. (Although no doubt some people could write whole essays on the metaphors at play when the film concludes with a white President gunning down a black character attempting to escape from his predicament…)

There were a few bits I enjoyed: the atmospheric buildup as Snake wanders through the city with no-one in sight (except for the occasional shadow running past an alleyway) was good; good enough to overcome my natural aversion to ’80s synths! I also enjoyed getting fooled by the surprise turnaround as the woman I assumed would be Snake’s female ally got bumped off as soon as she was introduced. (It’s a shame that the only female character to appear later does absolutely nothing at all except show off her chest.)

2.5/5

The Fountain (2007)

Tuesday 24th July 2012 1 comment

Rewatched 22 April 2012.

Really enjoyed this film when I saw it at the cinema; rather less impressed rewatching it now. For one thing, the film’s Hollywood Cancer, Hollywood Medical Research, and Hollywood Dialogue bothered me more than they did last time. Fortunately, the excellent music makes it easy to forgive issues with the film.

There’s no question that the film contains an immense quantity of interlinked and repeated images and motifs. The question is whether they add up to anything meaningful, or whether Darren Aronofsky just threw as many motifs at the screen as possible and watched to see how many of them would stick. I have seen readings of the film that do manage to sort it out into a coherent whole, so I lean toward the former.

3.5/5

Categories: Films, Reviews Tags: , ,

A Sustained Gravitas Deficiency (a review of Iain M. Banks’ Excession)

Thursday 24th June 2010 Leave a comment

The last few days have been something of a sci-fy-y sort of week for me.  On Saturday we had the penultimate episode of the first Steven Moffat/Matt Smith series of Doctor Who, and the day after its broadcast I both finished watching the finale of Battlestar Galactica season 1 (which I’d been renting from Lovefilm) and downloaded the first Mass Effect game from Steam while it was on special offer.

But a couple of days before all that, I had finished reading Iain M. Banks’ Culture novel Excession for the first time. It’s the fourth of his novels I’ve read (after Consider Phlebas, The Player of Games and Use of Weapons — all “M. Banks” genre fiction), and it was blummin’ brilliant.

[Some spoilers below]

Read more…