Saturday, June 08, 2013

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Star Trek:The Animated Series: "More Tribbles, More Troubles" (October 6, 1973)

It's Stardate 5392.4, and the U.S.S.Enterprise leads a convoy of robot ships and their grain shipment to Sherman's Planet, a developing world where both the United Federation of Planets and Klingon Empire have staked a claim.

The Enterprise must divert course, however, to rescue a single-man spaceship under attack by a Klingon battle-cruiser. Aboard that tiny ship is Cyrano Jones, "intergalactic trader and general nuisance."  

The Klingons, lead by Commander Koloth, accuse Jones of being an "environmental saboteur" and will stop at nothing to secure his capture, including invade Federation space and utilize a new weapon, a "projected stasis field."

While Kirk contends with the Klingons, he must also tussle with Jones, who has "genetically altered" his multitudinous tribbles so that they don't reproduce.  Instead, they merely grow to colossal size...

Cyrano has also brought aboard another animal, a genetically-engineered tribble predator called a "glommer..."

I enjoy tribbles as much as the next Trekker, but the Star Trek: The Animated Series (1973) sequel "More Tribbles, More Troubles" reminds me of a great line from the classic, live-action tribble episode: 

"Too much of anything, even love, is not necessarily a good thing."

Given the possibilities of Star Trek in animation, this is a story that might have gazed at tribbles from almost any viewpoint, or in any environment.  

What if they -- cute little parasites -- got loose on a Federation world and were causing starvation and famine? 

What if the Enterprise found the tribble home-world?  

What if we saw an episode from the Klingon perspective, in which the tribbles represented an environmental threat?

Those are just a few story-telling possibilities that would have extended audience understanding and enjoyment of those delightful, purring little fur-balls.

But instead, "More Tribbles, More Troubles" is content to rehash all the funny scenes from "The Trouble with Tribbles" and hope that the audience will find them funny on witnessing them a second time.  

Some specific examples:

A tribble decides to make a nest of Captain Kirk's command chair, much like one did in the live-action show.  

In this animated episode, the tribbles get into the all-important grain and eat it, just like they did on K-7.  

Here, a put-upon Captain Kirk gets buried in a pile of tribbles, just as he did near the storage compartments of that space station. 

And, in the end, the answer is to beam the tribbles over to a Klingon ship, just as it was before.

Both episodes even end with a play on words from Scotty, replacing "trouble" with "tribble."

I'm mindful that this story was designed for children, to air on Saturday mornings, but Star Trek, even at its lightest ought to be more than play time with tribbles, and most other episodes of this Saturday morning series certainly are.   

There will no doubt be people who note in defense that this episode is supposed to be fun, or just plain funny,  and I agree that this was no doubt the intention.  But the massive, wholesale repetition of concepts and ideas does a lot to mitigate any sense of fun the episode hopes to engender.  

Deep Space Nine's "meta" tribble episode, "Trials and Tribble-ations" is a lot more fun and original than this particular episode of the animated series is.  Overall, there's a self-congratulatory feel underlying "More Tribbles, More Troubles."  It feels like a victory lap instead of an original, self-contained story.

I know the budgets were low on this series, but it's also a shame that the tribbles are portrayed here as identical....and pink. In the original episode, the tribbles showed individuality in size, shape, color and movement. Here, not so, and since they are the focus of the story, their uniform presentation is disappointing.

Also, "More Troubles, More Tribbles" doesn't really examine any of the moral implications of its narrative. 

Kirk stands by and watches as a glommer devours a living tribble, and doesn't say a word, or complain about it being, well, inhumane.  I know tribbles are "just' animals, but for a series that had recently presented a moving story in "Yesteryear" about the bond between human and pet, "More Tribbles, More Troubles" feels like a big step backwards.    

Also, I've never been really happy with the idea of beaming tribbles onto a Klingon ship as the solution of the week.  It got a pass on the live action show because the resolution was funny and unexpected.    But by using it again, "More Tribbles, More Troubles" gives audiences time to think about the implications. 

Essentially, Scotty is sending those tribbles over to the Klingons to die.  

Does anyone believe that the Klingons won't start murdering the tribbles --  creatures they consider vermin -- to clean up their battle ship?

Star Trek isn't often about passing your problems on to someone else -- passing the buck, as it were -- so I find it doubly disappointing that this episode repeats all the plot-points of "The Trouble with Tribbles," and then re-asserts a resolution that was borderline questionable in the first place.   

All those tribbles may be a nuisance, and they may be a threat.  But do they deserve to be exterminated by Klingons, when they weren't even responsible for leaving their natural environment in the first place?

Yep, too much of anything, even tribbles, isn't necessarily a good thing...

Friday, June 07, 2013

Superman Week Starts Monday

Don't forget: Monday thru Friday of next week is Superman Week, when I'll be looking back at the TV and cinematic (and toy...) history of the Man of Steel on the blog.  Join me bright and early Monday morning!

Cult Movie Review: Waterworld (1995)

Sometimes, mainstream film critics focus too much on the inside-baseball aspects of filmmaking for my taste. 

I suppose that everyone enjoys behind-the-scenes stories of disagreements between lead actors and directors, and tales of woe concerning films that run massively and catastrophically over-budget.  

It’s impossible to take your eyes off a train wreck, in other words.

And yet the problem with this focus on inside-baseball emerges when the same critics draw an explicit connection between behind-the-scenes strife and the artistic merits of a finished work-of-art.  In other words, some reviewers utilize the inside-baseball knowledge to fit into a specific, pre-drawn narrative. 

Using the former factors (behind-the-scenes strife), to judge the latter (artistic merit), is problematic, I submit, because the relationship clearly isn’t one-to-one.  A difficult shoot doesn’t necessarily result in a bad film.  Going over budget doesn’t necessarily mean artistic disaster, either.  And the opposite is also true: a smooth shoot doesn’t indicate that a film is going to turn out terrific.

Certainly, this unfortunate critical paradigm was exposed with both King Kong (1976) and John Carter (2012), both of which were received harshly by the critical community largely on the basis of behind-the-scenes, inside-baseball factors rather than a judicious consideration of artistic factors.

This fallacy is also true of Waterworld (1995), a film that, upon release, was clearly marked in the press as a troubled production, and furthermore, the most expensive film of all-time. 

Yet seventeen years later, I don’t know that our knowledge of those facts is vital to a fair assessment of the film’s particular strengths and weaknesses.

Eschewing the inside-baseball stats and figures, Waterworld plays as a straight-up and not un-enjoyable transplant of The Road Warrior (1982) aesthetic, only in a world destroyed by global warming rather than by nuclear war. 

Kevin Costner’s gilled, mutant Mariner, in other words, is a wet Mad Max who, like his predecessor, is something of a variation on Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name, a classic movie character featured in A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). 

In short, this archetype involves a “stranger” who rides into town and becomes involved in a conflict not his own, and who, largely, is rather stoic, allowing actions speak louder than words.  Similarly, Waterworld’s Mariner is frequently tagged as a silent brooder, and by film’s end has even become equated with “Death” Himself for his accomplished – if taciturn -- application of lethal force.

From this...

To this...

To this.

Beyond the obvious inspiration the film draws from the Mad Max mythos, Waterworld succeeds mostly because of the “reality” of the world it assiduously constructs. The film is one of the last sci-fi epics to emerge from the pre-digital age of Hollywood blockbusters and, accordingly -- and for all its apparent flaws -- boasts this heightened sense of texture or verisimilitude. 

Everything (or most everything…) our eyes witness had to be arduously constructed and set afloat, and that herculean effort pays off in a visual and imaginative sense.  You can practically smell the salt water and the burning fuel…

In terms of negatives, Waterworld takes an unnecessary dive into sentimentalism, a wrong turn that The Road Warrior never falls prey to, though Beyond Thunderdome certainly did. 

The film’s final act also consists of one generic action movie trope after the other, from the hero’s ability to outpace blossoming fireballs, to last minute, physically impossible rescues.  These almost cartoon-like moments tend to mark Waterworld as a product of eager-to-please Hollywood, and make it rather decidedly unlike its spare, gritty, Australian source of inspiration.

Still, some of the overt sentimentalism and action clichés in Waterworld might be overlooked because of the film’s absolutely original setting, and the skill with which that setting is presented.  The film’s lead characters -- when not grinding the gears of expected generic conventions -- are interesting enough to spend two hours with, certainly.  In keeping with the tradition of the post-apocalyptic genre, Waterworld also makes an earnest statement about man’s self-destructive nature.

“Dry land is not just our destination, it is our destiny!”

In a world of the future -- a world of ubiquitous oceans -- the silent, rugged Mariner (Costner) seeks to re-supply at a nearby atoll.  Unfortunately, he is arrested by the local Elders as a “muto” (or mutant) because he has webbed feet and gills behind his ears. 

The Mariner’s arrest comes at a bad time, because the leader of the eco-unfriendly Smokers, The Deacon (Dennis Hopper) is planning to launch an attack there and grab young Enola (Tina Majorino), a girl with an indecipherable map to the mythical “Dry Land” tattooed on her back. 

Enola and her stepmother, Helen (Jean Tripplehorn) free the Mariner from captivity in exchange for passage out of the atoll on his boat.  They barely escape with their lives, and the Deacon commits to pursuing them.

On the high seas, the Mariner and his “guests” have difficulty getting along at first, but soon he becomes fond of the women, and they of him.  One day, the Mariner takes Helen to the bottom of the sea and shows him man’s drowned cities there.  That lost world is the only (formerly) “dry land” he knows of, he insists.

When the Deacon captures Enola, it’s up to the Mariner to rescue her, and more than that, to lead other rag-tag survivors to “Dry Land.”  Enola’s map, properly understood, holds the key to man’s future…

“He doesn't have a name so Death can't find him!

The quality I admire most about Waterworld is its physicality.

That may not be the best word, but it gets the job done in a pinch.  I could also describe this ingredient as “texture” or “atmosphere,” perhaps, but physicality better gets at the film’s rugged and powerful sense of setting, of place.  I love the Rube-Goldberg-style devices, the trinkets from the “old world” re-purposed for Waterworld’s tech, and the sheer mechanical nature of the world.  It’s a place of whirring hydraulics, tugging pulleys, fold-out sails, and endless, ubiquitous sea.  As a whole, I find it all rather compelling and even believable. 

As I noted above, most of this setting, at least in terms of the human dwellings and conveyances, had to be constructed and then set afloat.  I like the tactility and verisimilitude of this world, and realize that if the film were made today, it would be a different beast all-together, one “rendered” with digital landscapes and CGI.  

In other words, it would likely seem a whole lot less real.  But some of the little, almost throwaway touches in the film are really quite spectacular, and contribute to the idea that "Waterworld" is a real place, and one boasting a deep and long history.

A world that you can touch.

A world that had to be built.

A world that works.

And a world that speaks of another time.
In terms of the post-apocalyptic sub-genre, Waterworld  escorts the audience on an ominous trip to the bottom of the sea, and provides a haunting view of an old metropolis turned to dust at the ocean floor, a clear analog for the Statue of Liberty moment in Planet of the Apes (1968) or the “empty cities” of The World, The Flesh and The Devil (1959) or Night of The Comet (1984).  But that’s as close to conventional end-of-the-world imagery as Waterworld gets, instead setting its action on an unending, dangerous, but eminently beautiful sea.  I have always been impressed by the visual qualities of the ocean, a realm that is both beautiful and incredible dangerous.  And the ocean, as we detect in the film, also does a good job of burying secrets…

In terms of its narrative, it’s plain that Waterworld owes a great deal to The Road Warrior, and indeed, the entire Mad Max cycle.  The Mariner, like Max, is a man who lives outside of human society and who boasts some disdain for it. 

Both characters live as scavengers and traders, contacting civilization only to re-supply.  Both the Mariner and Max form meaningful relationships or friendships with children (Enola, and the Feral Kid, respectively), and both eventually come around to the idea of “helping” an endangered civilization find a new home (either Dry Land, or the gasoline truck’s promised land destination in The Road Warrior).

Finally, both sagas end with that new home established, but the warrior himself returning to the “wasteland” arena to continue his lonely travels.  Mad Max and the Mariner are violent men with a code of ethics, and so they both realize it is better for them to remain “outcasts” in the wild rather than to seek domesticated lives inside a new culture. In Beyond Thunderdome, the new city-dwellers light candles for the wanderers who haven’t come home; in Waterworld, Enola and Helen watch as the Mariner returns to the sea, the realm that nurtured him.   

In both The Road Warrior and Waterworld, a central scenario depicted is the “siege” of a pre-existing civilization.  Outsiders on a variety of crafts try to “break in” and pillage either Oil City or the Atoll.  The beleaguered city, naturally, fights back, but the walls are breached by attacking vehicles, either flying motorcycles or launched jet skis.  Both cities eventually fall, leading to a dedicated trek to new home. 

These factors -- the siege and the trek – make the films origin stories of a mythic type.  As Aeneas had to flee fallen Troy to found Rome, so do Max and the Mariner lead homeless survivors to greener pastures…literally in the case of Waterworld.

In one moment in Waterworld, we even get a deliberate mirror image composition of a famous frame from The Road Warrior.  There, in the first harrowing action scene, we saw the savage Wez perched on his motorcycle, another goon seated behind him on the bike, looking at his prey.  We see very much the same framing in view here (also in the first action scene), except, of course, on a water craft instead of a motorcycle.

Despite the obvious aping of the Mad Max universe, Waterworld’s unique, water-bound setting gives it a lot of “juice,” at least visually speaking.  The images are so lush and convincing you can make yourself forget, essentially, that the movie is a pastiche.

A city shall fall.

And so will this one.

And a child shall lead the people to a better future.

And so will this one.

The bad guys watch.

And so do these bad guys.

As we have come to expect from post-apocalyptic films, there is an environmental message in Waterworld that suggests man’s self-destructive nature.  The “Ancients” caused rapid global warming, and now, similarly, the Smokers are running through the last of their oil, trying to sustain an unsustainable lifestyle. 

Their need to live that life-style of relative leisure (replete with cigarettes, electricity,and even cars…) dooms the Smokers to a life of war and conflict, stealing what they need from other nation-states/atolls at the barrel of a gun.  The fact that the Smokers inhabit the Exxon Valdez, a poster-child for environmental irresponsibility, pretty much says it all.  And this too is America's fate, if we don't tap alternative energy sources.  We'll have to fight resource wars to maintain our culture's high standard of living.

Even the film’s villain plays into this leitmotif.  At one point, the Deacon attempts to flick a lit cigarette into an open oil tank, an act which could have instantaneous, catastrophic results were he successful.  The message is clearly that he is self-destructive, but there’s more.  By wantonly, thoughtlessly using up the Earth’s resources, we’re essentially lighting a spark that could destroy everything we hold dear too. 

We outgrew it,” one Smoker says of the Exxon-Valdez, and indeed that’s precisely fear of many environmentalists.  What happens when we outgrow the planet’s capacity to sustain us?

This environment message is leavened some by the film’s many action sequences, which grow progressively less satisfying and less convincing as the film continues.  The opening battles on the sea and at the atoll are genuinely awe inspiring, and feature death-defying stunts.  By the end of the film, however, rear-projection and cartoony explosions dominate the proceedings and some element of reality is sacrificed.

So much of the popular press still terms Waterworld a bomb (though it eventually made back its budget and more), but this is hardly a terrible science fiction film. Waterworld may not be a truly great science fiction film, but nor is it the epitome of Hollywood disaster, as many still make it out to be. 

Waterworld’s biggest problem, I submit, is that the film’s first half elaborately sets up a world and characters of tremendous interest, and then the last half spends all its time blowing things up, and resolving all the conflicts with fireballs and explosions.  In other words, it’s lot like many other examples of mainstream 1990s filmmaking.  And yet, the film doesn't open that way at all.  In fact, Waterworld's opening is a kind of brilliant "screw-you" to conventional  standards and decorum.  How many Hollywood blockbusters can you name that open with a shot of an established star, like Costner, pissing into a cup, refining his urine, and then drinking it?

And in terms of last shots, Waterworld finishes strong. The Mariner heads off to the next horizon and the next mystery.  Perhaps it’s the mystery of his very creation, or the mystery of the end of the world.  It’s kind of a shame we never got to see that second adventure. 

After all, Mad Max and The Man with No Man each got three attempts to get the equation right…

Movie Trailer: Waterworld (1995)

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Collectible of the Week: Clash of the Titans Action Figures (Mattel; 1981)

In 1981, Mattel acquired the license to the epic Ray Harryhausen fantasy film, Clash of the Titans, and produced a nice line of 3-inchaction figures and toys based on the stop-motion spectacle. 

Today, many of these toys -- particularly the Greek mythology-inspired “monsters” or “beasts” -- are worth a pretty penny and considered collectors’ items.

In terms of the action figures, Mattel produced Perseus -- Harry Hamlin’s character -- described on his card as “The Hero Son of Zeus,” and the film’s secondary villain, the deformed, devil-like Calibos (“Lord of the Marsh.”) 

It also produced Thallo (“Captain of the Guard”), and Charon (“The Devil’s Boat Keeper.”)  I had all of these figures, except for Charon.  I still have them in my home office, sharing a shelf with figures from Captain Power, Mork and Mindy, The Black Hole, and Dune.

Mattel also manufactured a Clash of the Titans set featuring Perseus and Pegasus (“The Winged Horse), and best of all…the monstrous destroyer of cities, the Kraken.  I remember being in fifth grade and wanting that Kraken toy more than anything, but I never managed to get my hands on one.

I don’t know that these Clash of the Titans figures were all that successful commercially, but they came with nice accouterments (like gold shields and swords), and I always hoped for a second release featuring action figures like Medusa, Bubo, Andromeda, Zeus, Poseidon, and so on.  

Model Kits of the Week: The Batmobile

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Cult-Movie Review: After Earth (2013)

When I was a young boy, I received for Christmas one year a book with the (now politically-incorrect…) title Adventures for Boys

After avidly reading the selections within that anthology, I devoured other, similar stories of outdoor adventure such as Jack London’s (1876 – 1916) The Call of the Wild (1903), and White Fang (1906). 

Those tales featured genuine simplicity -- or clarity -- of theme and morality, and to this day, I find that writing voice and style appealing.

Almost universally set in a harsh climate or natural terrain, these “adventures for boys” also concerned,  specifically, a character’s rite of passage, even if the character in question happens to be a canine.

M. Night Shyamalan’s new and much-maligned science fiction movie After Earth (2013) is an affair in an almost identical vein. It’s a boy-against nature, rite-of-passage movie, and one uncluttered by story fat or extraneous plotting and incident.

In fact, After Earth is a stream-lined, enjoyable adventure for boys and girls.  And likes its literary antecedents, the film even focuses on a very specific philosophy of life, and explores that (spiritual) way of knowing with a surfeit of clarity, even grace.  And I'm not talking about Scientology, either.

In short, the film is more enjoyable, and worthwhile than I anticipated it would be, and much more so than most reviews have indicated.

After Earth is set in the distant future. Man has left Earth behind after polluting and ruining it.  

One thousand years after that exodus and re-settlement on another world, Nova Prime, man has established himself as an interstellar presence. 

Unfortunately, a competing alien race has bred monstrous predators called the Ursa who can smell our fear, and who are engineered to do nothing but hunt and murder humans.

On a routine space mission aboard a ship called the Hesper, a hero father, Cypher Raige (Will Smith) and his estranged, troubled teenage son, Kitai Rage (Jaden Smith) face danger when their ranger ship encounters an “asteroid storm.” 

The ship crashes on wild, untamed Earth, after cracking into pieces.  Alas, a rescue beacon is located on the tail section of the ship…located more than fifty miles away from the fore section’s crash site.

Side-lined by a severe leg injury, Cypher must send his inexperienced son into the wild alone to retrieve the rescue beacon and send a distress call to the authorities. 

Making matters more dangerous, the Hesper was carrying in its hold a deadly Ursa captive, a creature now unloosed on Earth and ready to resume hunting human survivors.

Cypher has mastered the art of “ghosting,” of suppressing his fear so that the Ursa can’t detect his presence.  But his son, Kitai, has no such experience…

In my introduction above, I wrote about After Earth’s central, fully-explored theme or philosophy. That philosophy of life -- short and sweet -- is mindfulness: the attentive awareness of the reality of things; of the happenings of the moment.  It’s a Buddhist belief, but also one that has been adopted in contemporary psychological counseling.

Mindfulness is considered one way of understanding life, and of vanquishing emotions that aren’t important, or serve no useful purpose.  And in After Earth, mindfulness is the gateway to adulthood and the key to survival in a frightening situation. 

Specifically, Cypher delivers a lengthy monologue about the nature of fear, and how, via the auspices of mindfulness, he was able to subtract fear from his mental gestalt.  Cypher describes danger as “real” but fear as nothing but a choice, an emotion that is “imaginary.”  

Hence, it can be controlled.

Cypher’s key to short-circuiting the un-real aspect of fear, as he describes it, is his recognition of his immediate, surrounding environment.  He describes a terrifying battle with an Ursa, and how fear left his body.  His eyes registered sunlight.  He describes the sight of his own blood.   But Cypher distanced himself from his emotions even as he tuned into his environment, so he could survive. In a crisis, Cypher suggests, we must deal with what surrounds us, instead of imaginary boogeymen that are unreal, and therefore unrelated to the life-and-death struggle at hand.

Mindfulness is the philosophy that guides and informs After Earth, but the mode of that philosophy’s transmission is of equal interest to the message itself.  This is a film about generations, and about fathers-and-sons, specifically.

Indeed, one might gaze upon the film in its entirety as a metaphor for fathering (or on a bigger scale, parenting in general).  Here a father must share with his child the way he sees the world, and then hope that this very knowledge will be useful when that boy must stand up and fight alone.  

Without being maudlin about it, the movie is about the wisdom we impart to our children.

And, of course, it’s absolute murder to see the boy stand up and fight alone, when it’s clear that Cypher wants nothing more than to fight Kitai’s battles for him. 

That’s an urge all parents feel and yet, in some important instances, must resist.  We send our children out into the world knowing that we can’t always be there for them, but that, hopefully, the things we taught them will resonate and prove meaningful. Those seeds will sprout in their memories, and they will survive and endure, and then -- one day -- pass on their version of that knowledge to the next generation.

The father-son relationship in After Earth is emotionally-moving because even a helpful philosophy such as mindfulness can be perceived, in certain situations, as negative.  

From the outside, it looks a lot like distance, or the lack of feeling...the lack of love. As Kitai's mother suggests, he is a sensitive, intuitive, feeling boy, one who needs a father, not a philosopher or commander.  He doesn't understand why his father is so remote.  There is a price to pay for mindfulness, for always living life in the "ghosting" mode, in the film's vernacular.

In terms of family issues, Cypher and Kitai both experienced a tragedy involving a family member, and Cypher doesn’t know how to handle his guilt.  So he deploys mindfulness in his family life too, but there is a cost to those around him.  

Cypher -- adhering to the stoicism of mindfulness -- can’t reach out emotionally, because he believes emotions don’t help in a crisis.  Cypher has been practicing mindfulness in his personal life for so long that he forgets what it means to really connect with someone.  In other words, the very philosophy that keeps him alive is the thing that keeps him from truly connecting with his son.

Accordingly, After Earth reaches its zenith of emotion during its climax, when Cypher attempts to express his new-found regard and respect for Kitai in a kind of socially-acceptable but ordered and restrained gesture: a military salute.

Delightfully -- and outside of movie tradition -- Kitai doesn’t reciprocate.  

Instead, he hugs his father, an absolute assertion that sometimes emotionality, not mindfulness, is the key to life.   

Thus, like all children, Kitai has taken his father’s “lesson” and interpreted it in a way that is meaningful to him as an individual.  

That is the very rite-of-passage meted in the film: Kitai’s ability to understand his father’s choice, and then to make his own meaningful choice about whom he hopes to be.

The movie is about nothing more and nothing less than that kernel of an idea: one man’s way of seeing the world and his son coming to understand that “vision..." and divine his own belief system from it.

Sadly, you likely won’t read about any of this thematic substance in the majority of mainstream critical reviews.  Instead, the reviews for After Earth have been harsh, even savage.

That rampant negativity is a result, I suspect, of a perfect storm of bile and jealousy: the continuing backlash against Shyamalan (because he dared to trick us with The Sixth Sense [1999] and then minted a fortune), and the relatively fresh backlash against Will Smith and his son Jaden.

So if hating is the game, After Earth is a two-fer!

I should also state this fact: After Earth isn't a movie about Scientology.  I've read reviewers insist it's about Scientology because -- wait for it -- there's a volcano placed prominently in the action.  I suppose this means that Star Trek: Into Darkness and Revenge of the Sith (a whole planet of volcanoes there!) are also about Scientology.  Who knew?

Perhaps more to the point, even if After Earth did feature principles of Scientology, would that fact immediately, a priori, render it a bad film?  Does the same rule apply to Catholicism or other branches of Christianity, or only to unpopular religions?

But I'm not in the business of defending movies, only watching them, interpreting them, and presenting my analysis.  Having seen and enjoyed the film, I conclude that it is a well-made, enjoyable “adventure for boys” (and girls too…) -- nothing more, nothing less --  with an authentic sense of humanity. It is a simple, straightforward "shipwreck" movie, and parts of the adventure reminded me of Robinson Crusoe and Swiss Family Robinson.  The production design is original and compelling, and the location shooting transforms Earth into the most vividly dangerous of wildernesses.

We live now in a culture of noisy, hectic movie blockbusters, where event piles upon events, where there are feints and counter-feints, and where “surprises” and reversals come at the audience by the dozen (and often in 3-D to boot).  We leave the theater after such films not exhilarated and moved, but throttled.

Refreshingly, After Earth doesn’t care about throttling you, or layering on a multitude of high-intensity incidents.   Instead -- and much like The Call of the Wild or White Fang -- the film simply and directly vets its adventurous tale of extraordinary survival, and of a father and son discovering each other.

The key is that After Earth accomplishes those tasks with heart, and a considerable degree of humanity.  It's a shame people aren't looking at the movie with open eyes and open hearts, but bitterness instead.  It's more fun, I suppose, to fit the movie into another edition of the "M. Night Shyamalan-has-lost-it" narrative than to grapple with the ideas the movie actually presents.

Frankly, I think the critics could use a lesson in mindfulness.  

So you may love After Earth, or you may hate it, I guess.  But when you watch  the film, at least do this much: drop your expectations and biases, be in the moment, and judge the work for yourself.

Movie Trailer: After Earth (2013)

Theme Song of the Week: The Invisible Man (1975)

Monday, June 03, 2013

Ask JKM a Question: Ranking the Star Trek Movies, post Into Darkness?

Regular reader and commenter SGB writes:

"How do you now rate the twelve Star Trek films best to worst #1 to #12?"

Great question, SGB, especially since I loved the new Star Trek film, and think it lands in the top tier.

Here is my revised tally:

Tier One (Meaning Classic, or Great)

1.      Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

2.      Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)

3.    Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

4.      Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013)

Tier Two (Meaning good)

5.      Star Trek (2009)

6.      Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)

7.      Star Trek: First Contact (1996)

8.      Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)

Tier Three (Meaning, not-so-good, and sometimes downright awful)

9.      Star Trek: Insurrection (1998)

10.      Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)

11.  Star Trek: Generations (1994)

12.  Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)

Cult-TV Theme Watch: Clouds

A cloud is a visible mass of chemicals suspended in the atmosphere above the surface of a planet.

Clouds of all shapes, colors, and sizes have appeared frequently throughout cult-tv history, and often have portrayed as alien life-forms.

In the Star Trek franchise, the appearance of a "space cloud" is something of a semi-regular occurrence.  For instance in the Original Series (1966 - 1969),  the Companion -- an ionic cloud -- appeared in the second season episode "Metamorphosis," dragging a shuttle down to a mysterious planetoid.  

Similarly, another space-traveling cloud appeared in "Obsession."  In that case, the cloud was also a life-form, albeit a dangerous vampire.

In Star Trek: The Animated Series (1973 - 1974), in the episode "One of Our Planets is Missing," the Enterprise encounters a gigantic cloud that has wandered into our galaxy and is consuming planets at the edge of known space.  The Enterprise pierces the cloud, and finds that it possesses a quasi humanoid anatomy, replete with a nervous system and digestive system.  Spock (Leonard Nimoy) mind-melds with the intelligent cloud and it is able to understand human nature.

In a first season episode of Deep Space Nine (1993 - 1999) called "The Storyteller, Chief O'Brien (Colm Meaney) and Dr. Bashir (Alexander Siddig) battle a strange atmospheric cloud, the Dal'Rock, which seems to be a nexus of psychic energy.

And n the sixth episode of Star Trek: Voyager (1995 - 2001), titled "The Cloud," Voyager explores a nebula in the Delta Quadrant that isn't actually a nebula, but rather another sentient life-form.  After the ship accidentally harms the creature, Captain Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) becomes responsible for its health, and setting things right.

In the second season episode of Space: 1999 (1975 - 1977) titled "The Beta Cloud," Moonbase Alpha is attacked by a space-going cloud that camouflages a deadly and sinister alien intelligence.  The cloud first infects Alpha with a "lassitude" sickness, and then sends a fierce warrior to steal the base's life-support system.  When the Alphans, led by Maya (Catherine Schell), finally defeat the cloud, the roiling mist seems to retract and dissolve in  outer space, perhaps returning to its own dimension.

In the short-lived 1970s series The Fantastic Journey (1977), colorful, storm clouds represent portals through time and space near Evoland, a giant land-mass in the Bermuda Triangle.  In "Vortex," the series pilot, a green cloud at sea captures a sea-going vessel and deposits its inhabitants on the island's shore.  In a later episode, "Beyond the Mountain," the series protagonists encounter another such portal, but this time the cloud glows red instead of green.

Clouds also make a comical appearance in the finale of The X-Files episode "Rain King."  Here, a shy man with psychic powers -- and the ability to change the weather with his mind -- envisions only sunny skies (and happy clouds) when his unhappy personal life turns out the way he hopes, at long last.