Saturday, September 21, 2013

20 Years Ago This Week: Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993 - 1996)

“Is that Kryptonite in your pocket, or are you happy to see me?”

Lois Lane in Lois and Clark: the New Adventures of Superman (1993 – 1997)

The Superman films of Christopher Reeve were a product of the late 1970s and the 1980s, starting in the immediate post-Watergate Age. 

However, the legend was reborn in the Age of Clinton with Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, a 1993 romantic/comedy/adventure that shifted and updated the general tone of the franchise, but in a manner that was largely pleasing to mass audiences (if not always to the long-time Superman aficionado).

Developed for TV by Deborah Joy Levine, this series premiered in 1993 -- the same year as The X-Files (1993 – 2002) -- and was scheduled by ABC for Sunday nights at 8:00 pm. 

Lois and Clark competed for audience attention against the successful CBS mystery series Murder She Wrote, and NBC’s new science fiction epic from Steven Spielberg, SeaQuest DSV (1993 – 1996). The new Superman series was not a hit with audiences at first, but it resonated immediately with critics and good word-of-mouth spread until the series began to smash its weekend competition on a regular basis. 

Writing for Commonwealth, reviewer Frank McConnell concluded of Lois and Clark that it is “one of the best things – smart and poignant – you can watch on the tube,” and noted that the series boasted a “sense of high fun…that can’t be faked.” 

At Entertainment Weekly, Ken Tucker called Lois and Clarkthe most human hour of programming that Sunday night has to offer.”  Time Magazine preferred SeaQuest DSV but commented admiringly of Lois and Clark’sgood-humored verve” and “hip facetiousness.”

This nineties-era Superman series stars Dean Cain as Clark Kent/Superman and Teri Hatcher as Lois Lane.  The late, great Lane Smith (formerly of V: The Series) plays Daily Planet Editor-in-chief Perry White, and the series boasts two incarnations of Jimmy Olsen: Michael Landes and Justin Whalen. John Shea menaced Metropolis as Lex Luthor in the first season, and was then seen only sporadically through the ensuing three years before cancellation.

Over the span of four years, Bruce Campbell, Jonathan Frakes, Harry Anderson, Roger Daltrey, Emma Samms, Robert Culp, Drew Carey, Delta Burke, and Bronson Pinchot all showed up to menace Metropolis.  

One of the most popular villains was Lane Davies’ Tempus, a time traveling nemesis who appeared in three different stories.  The series featured many familiar superhero tropes, including an episode in which Lois was gifted with Superman’s powers (“Ultra Woman”) and another in which Superman experienced amnesia, right when he was needed to stop an approaching asteroid, "All Shook Up."  The latter episode was a remake of an Adventures of Superman story, "Panic in the Sky."

Lois and Clark also occasionally featured villains from the comics, like Metallo.  However, the series wore out everyone’s patience, with the Lois and Clark wedding which turned out to be a sham: Clark ended up marrying a frog-eating clone of Lois instead of the real thing.  

The next season, a story called “Swear to God, This Time We’re Not Kidding” got the real nuptials out of the way, but felt like an anti-climax.

The most exciting episodes of the series were likely those that featured renegade Kryptonians arriving on Earth and capturing Smallville so Clark would surrender and take his place as prince of New Krypton.  

This multi-part story included the chapters bridging the third and fourth seasons, “Big Girls Don’t Fly,” “Lord of the Flys” and “Battleground Earth.”  

Although a fifth season of Lois and Clark had been promised by ABC, the network reneged and the series ended with “The Family Hour,” a story which found Lois and Clark suddenly acquiring a mysterious baby…

We had Man of Steel in movie theaters this summer, but in my opinion the very expensive blockbuster movie lacked the heart and humanity of Lois and Clark, which began a four year run twenty years this week.

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Star Trek: The Animated Series: "How Sharper Than a Serpent's Tooth" (October 5, 1974)

STARDATE: 6063.4

The U.S.S. Enterprise tracks the origins of a mysterious alien space probe which recently scanned Earth and headed out into deep space.  The ship encounters on its path a giant space vessel surrounded by an "immense energy field."  

The incredibly-advanced ship, which can transform into a giant serpent, is the home of an alien called Kukulkan.  As ship's navigator Ensign Walking Bear notes, Kukulkan is also the name of a God from Aztec and Mayan legends: a winged being who came down from the sky and brought "knowledge" with him.  Unfortunately, this "God" is also a vengeful one, and demands that the Enterprise crew worship him...

Written by Russell Bates and David Wise, "How Sharper Than a Serpent's Tooth" takes its title from Shakespeare's King Lear.  The rest of the quote goes "How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child."  Therefore, this episode's title takes Kukulkan's perspective, and  refers to humanity as his "ungrateful" children.

This is an important aspect, actually, of Star Trek's creative equation.  On more than one occasion in the franchise, mankind is described as being a "child-like" species, one taking its first steps into a larger universe. 

And simultaneously, in episodes such as "Who Mourns for Adonis Adonais" -- a clear antecedent to this animated entry -- man is seen as ungrateful, but ultimately necessarily so.  None of us can remain children forever, and any parent figure, whether Apollo or Kukulkan, who asks us to do so is asking for something that can't be given.  "We've grown up now," Kirk tells Kukulkan here.  "We don't need you anymore."

Those words are a knife in any parent's heart, to be certain, but also an expression of the fact that the task of parenting has been accomplished in sterling fashion.  The goal of all parents is -- or should be -- to raise self-sufficient, self-directed beings, ones capable of thriving and growing independently.  Still, those words must hurt, and I like that Kirk very much acknowledges that hurt in the coda of this story by referencing the line from Shakespeare.

Although some viewers may perceive "How Sharper Than a Serpent's Tooth" as a rehash of other tales, I've always enjoyed this episode of Star Trek: The Animated Series, in part because I like the idea of God as an old, lonely being, a parental figure who doesn't know, in the end, when it is time to let go.  This makes the God in this case rather sympathetic.

Secondly, I like the new character, Ensign Walking Bear character, and his contributions to the story. I suspect that Walking Bear is the first Native American crew member we meet on the Enterprise, though the DC comics of the 1980s also featured a Native American named Bearclaw, if memory serves.  And of course, Chakotay was a major character on Voyager in the 1990s.

From a visual standpoint, this episode of the second season is also, surely, a budget-buster.  Kukulkan not only boasts an alien zoo (replete with a horta...), but a spaceship interior which can re-form into a giant interactive puzzle built from the architectural flourishes of various Earth cultures.

Next week: the final episode of Star Trek: The Animated Series: "The Counter Clock Incident."

Friday, September 20, 2013

20 Years Ago This Week: SeaQuest DSV (1993 - 1996)

"It's because we all came from the sea, and it is an interesting biological fact that all of us have in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean and, therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears.  We are tied to the ocean.  And when we go back to the sea -- whether it is to sail or watch it -- we are going back from whence we came."

The stirring and passionate words printed above come from our late, great Commander-in-Chief, President John F. Kennedy, and they open the inaugural episode of Rockne S. O'Bannon's genre series, SeaQuest DSV (1993 - 1996) on a pitch perfect note.

These poetic words hint at a few of the reasons why many sci-fi fans fell in love with the 1990s TV program, or at least wanted to fall in love with the TV program. 

Like outer space -- the final frontier -- the sea is a realm of seemingly infinite mystery, beauty and excitement.   Personally, I've been obsessed with undersea adventures of submarines and submarine crews since I first read Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea as a child.

The weekly opening narration of Sea Quest DSV also described the mission in satisfactory terms: "The 21st century: mankind has colonized the last unexplored region on Earth; the ocean. As captain of the seaQuest and its crew, we are its guardians, for beneath the surface lies the future..."

I admire and appreciate how that passage is assembled.  It notes that the ocean is not just our past (per the Kennedy quote), but our destiny, our future.  And it marks us, along with the crew of the SeaQuest, as "guardians" of a realm that is constantly in danger because of human pollution and mismanagement.  Again, this is a promising prologue to adventure.

Produced by Steven Spielberg, SeaQuest DSV aired for fifty-seven hour-long episodes over two-and-a-half seasons on NBC, and ultimately sailed through some very choppy waters.  In broad terms, the series is a kind of update and re-imagining of Irwin Allen's Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964 - 1968) concerning a state-of-the-art submarine on missions of scientific exploration, political intrigue and even, from time-to-time, the fantastic. 

Whereas Voyage relied heavily on detailed miniature effects, SeaQuest is truly a product of the early 1990s, overly-dependent on computer-generated images and digital vistas for its special effects.  On this front, Voyage beats out SeaQuest, alas.  I watched the pilot episode of Voyage recently, and the miniature effects and model work featured there were far more impressive than SeaQuest's early CGI efforts, which are murky, occasionally cartoony, and lacking in the requisite detail fans of high-tech subs might hope for.

The SeaQuest DSV pilot, "To Be or Not To Be" lays the groundwork for the series proper.  Directed by Irvin Kershner, it is set in the year 2019, as the newly-formed UEO (United Earth Oceans) attempts to police the seas, which -- because of resource scarcity on dry land -- have become a kind of underwater wild west.   Farmers, settlers and miners have set up facilities all over the ocean floor, but are menaced by "non-aligned" countries and "warrior subs."

The SeaQuest (Deep Submergence Vehicle 4600), a newly-built 1,000 ft. long submarine, is the UEO's ambassador to the underwater world.  It is designed to function "not as a warship" but as "a peace keeper."  The vessel is "the largest deep sea exploration vehicle ever," and outfitted with  a crew of 124 scientists and 88 military personnel. 

Buttressed by state-of-the-art research equipment such as "hyper-reality" probes (think virtual reality) and WSKRs systems (Wireless Sea Knowledge Retrieval Satellites), the SeaQuest also features a hydroponics lab, and even a holographic advisor for the commanding officer.  That advisor, the Professor (William Morgan Sheppard) is designed to serve as a captain's "moral" barometer in times of crisis and tough decisions.   

The only problem, as the series begins, is that SeaQuest's former captain, Marilyn Stark (Shelley Hack) has been removed from command for attempting to start a nuclear conflict over a minor territorial issue.  Admiral Noyce (Richard Herd) wants to recruit the designer of SeaQuest, Nathan Bridger (Roy Scheider) as the new captain, because he believes a "cool head" is required to balance the military and scientific factions on board ship (think: Maquis and Starfleet personnel on Voyager, a few years later). 

At first, Bridger is reluctant to assume command of the SeaQuest, because he wants to honor a promise to his dead wife, Carol, never to return to the military.

But, once aboard the magnificent SeaQuest, Bridger finds himself involved in the mission to stop Captain Stark, who has gone rogue and is now captaining a renegade warrior sub.

After success on this initial outing, Bridger accepts command of the "boat," and leads a top-flight crew into missions of jeopardy and wonder. 

Among the other crew members on SeaQuest are the headstrong executive officer, Jonathan Ford (Don Franklin), the acerbic but brilliant head of science and medicine, Dr. Kristin Westphalen (Stephanie Beacham), Chief Engineer Katherine Hitchcock (Stacy Haiduk) and communications officer Tim O'Neill (Ted Raimi), who is fluent in six languages.

Other notable crew members and passengers on the first season of SeaQuest DSV include the shifty morale officer and con man, Krieg (John D'Aquin), teenage genius and computer wiz, Lucas Wolenczak (Jonathan Brandis) and Darwin, a dolphin who can communicate verbally with Bridger and the others using a new universal-translator-styled device called a "vocorder."  The ship's security chief is a traditional navy man, Chief Croker (Royce D. Applegate).

The highest rated new program of its premiere week (with 16.9 million viewers watching), SeaQuest DSV started off very strong, and attempted a very delicate alchemy that, eventually, became unbalanced with the second season.

In the first season episodes, by and large, there was a dedicated attempt every week on SeaQuest to marry a hard-science concept or mission, with some small but more fantastical aspect of the sci-fi genre. 

In "Treasure of the Mind," for instance, the SeaQuest discovers the lost Great Library of Alexandria intact at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea, and Bridger must mediate a world summit in which several Middle East nations, including a hostile Libya, seek to gain ownership of the library's treasures.  This "A" plot is coupled with a sci-fi element, however, when several "mediators" with light ESP skills come aboard SeaQuest to help Bridger negotiate from a position of strength. One of them, played by Lindsay Frost, attempts to reads Bridger's mind.

Another episode, "Hide and Seek," brings original Star Trek star William Shatner aboard SeaQuest as a former brutal dictator from Eastern Europe. SeaQuest's mission is to transport him to the authorities for trial, but something strange ultimately draws Bridger, the SeaQuest crew and Shatner's character together: they are all sharing the same, slightly unsettling dream about Darwin.  And that dream also concerns Shatner's autistic son...

It wasn't until relatively late in the first season, episode 21, "Such Great Patience," that SeaQuest DSV left behind pedestrian stories of rescues at sea ("Bad Water") and high-tech intrigue ("Photon Bullet) for more overt or "far out" genre story telling. 

In this segment the SeaQuest encounters a 900,000 year old spaceship on the ocean floor, and attempts to salvage it.  Kent McCord guest stars as a UEO officer who leads the first Earth team aboard an alien craft.

By investigating the craft, the team accidentally activates an alien anti-tamper system and hologram sentinel, which then threatens SeaQuest.  Although this story features a splendidly-designed spaceship and alien creation, it still plays as relatively realistic.  Such would not always be the case in Season Two, when monsters like giant crocodiles and the like were often encountered.

The critical factor about virtually all of the season one stories -- and this is a difficult balance -- is that they all tried (and yes, sometimes failed) to convey an authentic sense of wonder about the ocean, and life in the ocean. 

An illustrative point of comparison might be Star Trek: The Next Generation.  There, the crew of the Enterprise D would often encounter a weird space anomaly or phenomenon, but the mystery would quickly prove dangerous and imperil the ship, leading very directly to a sci-fi story of adventure and peril. The element of space science was just an introduction to a sci-fi story, not necessarily something to be explored in and of itself.

On SeaQuest DSV, Bridger's ship would study the polar ice caps (Games") or hydro-thermal vents -- mother nature's "birth canal" ("The Devil's Window") -- at length, and the narrative was always pretty much about the science and wonder of such mechanisms and locations. 

There was usually some jeopardy too, of course, but it never seemed the whole or primary focus of the drama.  Rather, SeaQuest DSV seemed legitimately jazzed by scientific discovery for the point of, simply, scientific discovery. 

To further support this aspect of the series, each and every episode ended with a brief epilogue and lecture from the show's science advisor, oceanographer Dr. Robert Ballard.  His monologues would frequently point out how elements of the preceding episode were based on fact; and then encourage viewers to learn more about the subject.

For some viewers, this focus on hard science and a sense of wonder may prove grating.  Others may find the novel approach rewarding if they apply a little bit of patience.  One thing I truly miss in some recent sci-fi TV (the re-made BSG and Enterprise, for instance) is just this very sense of wonder and curiosity about the universe and how it works.  For all the mistakes SeaQuest DSV undeniably makes, at least it doesn't make that one.

Also making every hour more tolerable, SeaQuest DSV was notable for featuring terrific genre guest stars, from the aforementioned Shatner and McCord to Charlton Heston ("Abalon"), to David McCallum ("SeaWest") to Topol ("Treasure of the Mind.")

In terms of continuing characters, SeaQuest's first season really only was able to focus on a few of the main characters in the severely over-populated cast.  Roy Scheider presents very strongly as Nathan Bridger, a good man with a real sense of heart and bravery.  At first blush, Bridge might seem like a Captain Picard knock-off because of his age and intellectual demeanor, but Scheider is tremendously powerful in the role in the first year, and boasts a self-effacing, easy quality that the more pretentious and prickly Picard lacked.   Bridger is no military martinet in SeaQuest, and no egg-head scientist cliche, either.  He's a well-rounded individual who fights for the causes he believes in.  All in all, a model leading man and model captain.

Darwin the dolphin is probably SeaQuest's Mr. Spock...the resident alien.  In the first season, Darwin nearly dies from a mysterious disease ("The Devil's Window"), plays tag with a warrior sub ("To Be or Not to Be") and finds a way to inhabit the dreams of his crew-mates ("Hide and Seek").  

In "Such Great Patience," he is also the object of the alien creatures at the ocean floor.  They came to Earth all those years talk to dolphins.

Though he was widely mocked at the time of the show's airing, Darwin is actually a pretty strong character in an unconventional sort of way, and the series perpetually makes the point that Darwin -- as a non-human -- can't really "talk" with the human crew.  The vocoder can transmit simple ideas, but when Darwin discusses death ("the dark") and loneliness, for instance, such concepts are harder to translate accurately.  This idea of inter-species communication (often ignored in sci-fi TV...) actually makes Darwin something of a genuine alien and story wild-card: a crew member who doesn't always respond as expected to, or as ordered.

Also registering strongly in the first season are Stephanie Beacham's wonderful Dr. Westphalen and Brandis's enthusiastic Lucas.  Unfortunately, fine actors such as second-billed Haiduk, Franklin, Applegate, and D'Aquino are given only scraps from the table, and have precious little time to build strong characterizations.  It's not for lack of trying when an opportunity arises.  Haiduk's Hitchcock goes undercover in "SeaWest" as a nightclub singer at an underwater mining town, to free a family in jeopardy.  And Raimi has some good moments in both "Such Great Patience" (in which O'Neill confronts his religious upbringing and how it clashes with belief in extra-terrestrials) and "The Devil's Window."

Probably the finest episode of the first season is indeed the two-hour pilot, which looks and sounds almost like Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan underwater, with a rusty Bridger assuming command of SeaQuest and being forced to battle his ex-student, Stark, for domination of the seas.  This episode hums along at a nice clip, includes some jaunty, spirited dialogue and  features a tense undersea confrontation between two evenly-matched subs armed for war. Kerhsner's direction is pretty strong.  With a tweak here or there, it's not hard to imagine this as a SeaQuest movie.

In Season Two, much of the good, if incredibly uneven work of SeaQuest Season One is undercut.  Half the cast left the show (Stacy Haiduk, John D'Aquino, Stephanie Beacham) and their replacements were resident aliens, Counselor Troi-like empaths and other rejects from Starfleet.  And the focus on science -- along with Dr. Ballard -- was gone, replaced by giant monsters and more aliens from the bottom of the sea.

In a notorious interview during the second season, Roy Scheider lambasted the new direction of Sea Quest.  He said he was "ashamed" of the series, and noted that the new stories were "junk."  He also said that the series was "not even good fantasy. I mean Star Trek does this stuff much better than we can do it. To me the show is now 21 Jump Street meets Star Dreck.''

You know you're on a sinking boat, when the lead actor is loudly telling the press he's ashamed of his own series. 

Still, in its first and best incarnation, the engaged viewer can readily detect that SeaQuest DSV is trying to carve out a unique identity and approach for itself.  If the series had stayed on its promising original trajectory, it might have lasted several more years, and garnered an even larger and more passionate following.   Instead, SeaQuest features three seasons, three formats, and three approaches to storytelling.  Not a single season is perfect, but season one gets closest to the spirit of that great John F. Kennedy quotation.

Hard to believe it has been 20 years since SeaQuest's journey began...

Last Week of Summer 2013 Movie Round-Up #8: World War Z

Based on Max Brooks’ 2006 best-seller, Marc Forster’s World War Z is a lot like a zombie, the popular monster it depicts.  In short, the movie starts out alive and kicking, filled with shocks, surprise, and terror.  But by about the film’s mid-way point, World War Z grows increasingly less alive and less interesting by degrees, until it finally lumbers -- reflexively and walking-dead like -- to its predictable and generic conclusion: the inevitable set-up for an obligatory sequel.

World War Z is possessed of an unusual creative schizophrenia, perhaps because it was re-conceived and re-written several times.  There are two opposing ideas at work, and in combination they just don’t cohere as successfully as one might hope they would.  In the first case, the film is structured as an “I-was-there-when-the-walls-of Jersualem fell” tour of the zombie apocalypse.  Accordingly, the film jumps from picturesque city to picturesque city to reveal, in truly epic and awe-inspiring fashion, the savage downfall of mankind.   I will be blunt: the movie succeeds marvelously on this front, and it feels like we are witnesses to living history.

But oppositely the film also serves as star vehicle for actor Brad Pitt, here playing former UN investigator Gerry Lane.  With (a somnolent) Pitt starring in the lead role, his character must apparently stand at the center of all the action.  But both Pitt’s ubiquitous presence and his character’s continued survival in extreme circumstances undercuts the believability of the movie in dramatic and irreparable fashion.

So a film that starts out as a brilliant, multi-faceted examination of a global pandemic becomes, in essence, a franchise action picture for a star, something akin to the Mission: Impossible movies starring Tom Cruise.  The problem is that the very presence of a “big” star only manages to dramatically downplay World War Z’s sense of menace, fear, and anxiety. The movie hews safely along its PG-13 guidelines, meaning that Pitt and his family are never in any real danger, and happy endings await. 

In short, World War Z chooses again and again to play it safe when its story is about a world in which no one is safe for very long. 

Former United Nations investigator Gerry Lane (Pitt), his wife and two girls, are unexpectedly caught up in a strange pandemic, an outbreak of zombie plague in Philadelphia. As the Lane family flees to Newark for a roof-top evacuation by military helicopter, Gerry learns that the same phenomenon is repeating in other American cities. New York is falling. Boston is lost. The President is dead, and the Vice President is missing.

With his family safe on a Navy ship in the Atlantic, the Argus, Gerry is tasked with finding the plague’s patient zero, possibly a person in South Korea.  He finds there, however, no clue as to the origin or nature of the zombie outbreak.  Instead, Gerry learns from a CIA agent (David Morse) that Israel has survived the first days of zombie pandemonium more or less intact, and he soon flies there to find out why.  Almost immediately after Gerry arrives, however, Jerusalem also falls, but not before the investigator discovers a clue about zombie behavior based on his observation of the zombie hordes and two sick people. 

Next, Gerry heads to a laboratory in Cardiff, Wales, where he hopes he can use a lethal pathogen to create “camouflage” against the zombies. His efforts are thwarted en route, however, when a zombie breaks loose on the plane in flight and it crashes…

The globe-hopping aspect of World War Z -- the journey from Philadelphia to Newark, to an Army base in South Korea, to Jerusalem, to Cardiff, to Freeport, Nova Scotia -- is the very thing that makes this film special and intriguing. Each destination is treated differently by the filmmakers, as a separate and unique set-piece, as it were.  The sequence in Philadelphia, with Gerry and his family stuck in traffic at the onset of the plague is incredibly effective, in part because it trades deliberately on post-911 anxieties.  Here, a major city falls under attack and normality -- in this case, mid-day gridlock – turns abruptly to chaos, confusion, and destruction.   The mayhem of this scene, from car accidents to zombie hordes, is convincingly rendered.

Better and more effective even than this sequence, however, is the set-piece at Jerusalem.  Here, thousands of zombies form an undead, coruscating ladder hundreds of feet high so as to scale the city’s protective walls.  Moment after moment, step after step, zombies succeed in their quest to surmount the apex, and they pour into human-occupied territory by the dozens…with horrific results.  The special effects and settings here are astounding, and the action exists on a scale heretofore unimagined in a zombie film. By the time Gerry’s plane is moving down the runway, the whole city is overrun, and your blood pressure will be through the roof.

I should note too, that World War Z starts off with flourishes of intelligence and crafty plot-twists.  We are introduced to a doctor, early on, for example, who seems optimistic about finding a cure to the zombie plague and thus ending it.  He delivers an impassioned and hopeful speech about understanding Mother Nature, and how – like a serial killer – she wants to be caught. This brilliant physician explains how Mother Nature parades her weakness before their eyes as strength, and that this is the key to beating her.  The ultimate use this character is put to in the film is a total shock, and an “Oh Shit!” moment the likes of which I have not seen in a major PG-13 release for some time.  Suffice it to say, this character’s introduction and disposition establish, almost as ably as the attack on Jerusalem, the panic and confusion of this world.

The movie continues along this clever track for some time, with Pitt’s character noting that “movement is life,” a recurring theme in the film, and encountering a government official in Israel who explains the country’s preparation for the zombie plague in historical terms, referring to something called The Tenth Man Paradigm.  Again, all of this material plays as both fresh and thrilling, and overall contributes to the sense that World War Z knows where it is headed, and why it is headed there.

But all the globe-hopping soon creates a new problem.  Gerry is one of five people to escape from Newark alive. He is then one of two people to make it out of South Korea.  Then, again, he is one of two people to survive a disastrous, catastrophic plane crash.  He actually ends up within walking-distance of his destination in Cardiff!  Next, Gerry injects himself with a lethal pathogen at random, but luckily doesn’t pick one of the hand-full of such diseases that could kill him instantly. 

In short, right after Gerry leaves Jerusalem all tension and suspense drains out of the picture because it is apparent that the character is either a superman, the luckiest damn man on the planet, or a star named Brad Pitt. 

Indeed, in terms of history, there are few actors who have “starred” in serious zombie movies because zombie movies tend to be ensemble pictures that eschew traditional concepts of heroism.  We met rag-tag groups of the living in Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and so forth, right up through The Walking Dead.  But the zombie threat is such that nobody stays alive for long in these productions, especially since zombies are usually everywhere. In fact, zombie films have gone to great lengths, historically-speaking, to intentionally undercut or subvert the Hollywood paradigm of “hero.”  The heroine of Night of the Living Dead was catatonic, remember, and the hero, Ben, got shot in the head by rednecks when the undead threat abated.  So in some important way, the mere casting of Brad Pitt in World War Z harms the movie’s sense of reality.  Imagine, instead, if Pitt starred in the film, but he met the fate of the doctor I mentioned earlier, and then that doctor became the protagonist in South Korea  The film would have felt a lot more surprising, and a lot more dangerous. 

Indeed, World War Z might have seemed a lot more realistic, scary and faithful to its literary source material if it had focused on a succession of lead characters, one in each city, essentially, who survives to solve a piece of the puzzle, but then must hand that jigsaw piece -- relay race-like -- to the next survivor in the next location.

Instead, World War Z asks audiences to believe that Gerry Lane survives a plane crash, injection by lethal pathogen, not to mention the terrifying and visually-impressive fall of Jerusalem.  Frankly, I find it hard to believe that the character would have made it out of both South Korea and Jerusalem in on twenty-four hour period, never mind the plan crash, the long walk to Cardiff (while wounded in the gut), the lethal injection, and so forth.

The movie also raises some other questions of believability that aren’t answered.  The doctors in the film -- including newly-minted Time Lord Peter Capaldi -- establish that those who are infected are indeed zombies.  By definition this means they are dead people brought back to ghoulish life.  And yet, by the same token, we learn that the zombie plague is a bacteriological infection, and can produce zombie-behavior in a new host in between ten and twelve seconds.  But this means that just one bite must both kill the host and ten revive him in that span, since we see directly in the film that many bites are not enough to kill the host.  Logically, this must mean that the zombie plague kills and re-animates host in 10 seconds flat and frankly, there’s simply no precedent for that kind of speed of infection in nature, at least that I’m familiar with.  This point could have used some clarification in the film.  At least in the living dead films, those who are bitten have to die first before becoming zombies.  World War Z seems to jump over a crucial step in the process.

Finally, World War Z ends with a terrible voice-over narration insisting that “this is not the end. Not even close,” thus threatening the inevitable sequel.  But if I were Brad Pitt --and if you’ve seen my photo, you know I’m not -- I’d pull a Charlton Heston Beneath the Planet of The Apes trick here and demand that his character and at least one of Gerry’s family members perish in the first act of Chapter Two.  

This would-be franchise needs to re-establish an authentic sense of danger and unpredictability fast, and I can think of no better way to do it.  Otherwise World War Z will just be World War Zzzzzzz.

Movie Trailer: World War Z (2013)

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Last Week of Summer 2013 Movie Round-Up #7: Man of Steel

[Spoilers! Beware]

There is one -- and only one -- moment of humanity in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel (2013).

It arrives near the very end of the over-long, over-stuffed film, and provides the blockbuster enterprise a final, long-missing, and much-needed quality of soul. 

Specifically, Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) relates to his Mom (Diane Lane) that he wishes his deceased dad could have seen him become the man he grew into.  

Ma Kent replies with earnestness that Kent does see, and then the film cuts to this incredibly tactile, incredibly human moment (from years earlier…) in which Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) is fixing his pick-up truck on the family farm while young Clark is nearby. 

Jonathan gazes up over the vehicle's hood to see his boy -- his young son -- playing at being a superhero in the nearby yard. Unobserved, the innocent boy plays his game with abandon, and here -- at long last -- we see, and sense, and truly feel some rush of genuine emotion: the love a father feels for his child; and a bit of the anxiety associated with that paternal love too. 

Encoded in this beautifully-shot grace note in Man of Steel is the idea that all fathers both love their sons and mourn their own mortality in relation to that powerful love.  

For -- because of the particular nature of our life-spans -- we can only catch glimpses of the future and shall not always know, in the end, what kind of men our sons will become.  We can have confidence.  We can have optimism.  But we aren’t necessarily going to be physically present to see that boy’s final chapter of maturity.

The final miles our sons must walk without us....  

He will have our words and our lessons, and his memory of us to guide him in times of difficulty, but not our presence, not our reassurances.  As much as we want to be there, we can’t stand with him in those last years. There's a deep pain associated with these facts, and this short sequence beautifully expresses that feeling of melancholy. Of simultaneous joy in the boy, and mourning for the time when we cannot be with him.

This brief, lyrical scene in Man of Steel features no dialogue yet is visually powerful and more importantly, intimate on a breathtaking scale.  The moment feels almost like a lost or forgotten memory, and is truly, uncompromisingly, superb.  It embodies the reason I generally admire Zack Snyder's work as a director.  He can craft images of real emotional power when given the opportunity, and the right script.

I very much wish there were more moments like this one in Man of Steel.

But there are not. 

Instead, the film is dominated by action on such a ridiculously grand scale that you can't relate to it.  And there is not one moment of this destruction, death, fire, rage, or combat that touches the human heart in the way that this single, elegiac sequence manages to do.

Indeed, this small, human sequence pops up -- like some unwanted ghost or glitch in the machine -- in what is otherwise an incredibly generic, incredibly excessive demolition derby of cinematic destruction that lacks soul, humanity, humor, and most of all, hope. 

Make no mistake: this 2013 franchise film is actually embarrassed by the very name of its hero -- “Superman” -- and goes out of its way to eliminate or subvert long-enduring aspects of the franchise so as to somehow render its familiar origin story “new and fresh.”  Much material, a lot of history -- and almost all humanity --are entirely sacrificed in this rush to make the Man of Steel seem “relevant” or "timely."  

Yet seeing the uninspiring results, this was a fool's errand.  The audience never connects on a human scale with the titular character, or even the constantly-screaming, bulge-eyed villain.

In short, The Man of Steel is a colossal, robotic, lumbering disappointment, a non-stop industrial machine that relentlessly extrudes destruction and despair as a substitute for entertainment and humanity.  

“You're not just anyone. One day, you're going to have to make a choice. You have to decide what kind of man you want to grow up to be…”

On distant Krypton, the great scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) warns the planet’s ruling council that the mining (or fracking?) of the planet's core has caused irreversible geological instability.  In short, the planet will soon destroy itself, and the technologically-advanced culture it has long-nourished. 

Jor-El boasts a plan to save the planet’s genetic “codex” and restore the Kryptonian race on another world, but the Council rejects his idea.

At the same time, General Zod (Michael Shannon) attempts a bloody coup.  While pandemonium reigns on the planet, Jor-El and his wife Lara launch their new-born son Kal-El -- the first child born naturally on Krypton in generations -- towards Earth, where he shall live out his life.  

Although General Zod and the ruling council don’t know it, Jor-El also downloads the Kryptonian genetic codex into Kal-El’s very bloodstream....

Following Zod’s banishment in the Phantom Zone, Krypton explodes, and Kal-El begins his new life on distant Earth.

In Kansas, Kal-El (Henry Cavill) is raised by corn-fed farmers Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane).  They raise him to hide his alien powers, fearing that the human race is not ready to accept an alien in its midst.  After graduating from high school, Kal-El holds down lonely, odd jobs, and seeks some clues as to his alien nature.  He gets one in the Arctic, where a Kryptonian spaceship -- buried in the ice for 18,000 years -- is discovered.

Using a command key from his own spaceship (which remains stored in the Kent homestead’s barn...) Kal-El activates the systems on the scout ship, and meets a hologram image of his father, Jor-El.  Jor-El provides him a special Kryptonian suit to wear, and informs him that he is now a child of two worlds.  

Unfortunately, the command-key has also sent out a homing signal, one which General Zod and his fanatical, militaristic followers are able to trace back to defenseless Earth.

Even as a reporter, Lois Lane (Amy Adams) begins to track down the mystery of Clark Kent, Zod and his forces approach Earth with the agenda of finding the genetic codex, establishing a new Krypton, and wiping out (or at least enslaving…) the human race.

“Make a better world than ours, Kal.

Sometimes, I wonder if the ubiquitous “geek” or “fan” culture has been done a grave disservice by the Internet, where its loudest (and sometimes most radical...) members declare what they want, desire and demand out of Hollywood adaptations of favorite properties.  

Bryan Singer's Superman Returns (2006), for instance, was met with widespread fan scorn because it was, overall, a human-scaled story, featuring a human villain, and a sensitive hero.  It resolutely did not feature the world-shattering, city-destroying action that some fans of Superman, apparently, desired.  

The fans want super villains and super-battles!

Well, the overall message of Man of Steel must certainly be a  cautionary one: Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.

With this proverb in mind, Man of Steel is an endless, tiring -- nay numbing -- paean to falling skyscrapers, vehicles tossed into the sky, and super-powered people throwing each other into the air at near warp-velocities.  

The rampant destruction continues for such a long time in the film -- and is so colossal in scope -- that, in the end, not a single action scene actually packs much of a psychic punch, or has the tiniest emotional impact.  The makers of this film never heard that less can be more, apparently.  And their choice to make the third act of Man of Steel all-action-all-the-time consumes precious moments (or hours?) that would have been better spent establishing the characters and their lives.

In fact, Man of Steel’s climax eventually becomes unintentionally funny.  The whole of Metropolis -- literally entire city blocks -- are destroyed and aflame, but Superman rescues Lois Lane in the nick of time from a singularity that has been intentionally opened-up over the city (good grief…).  Superman lands her on the rubble, safely and a Daily Planet intern soon shouts triumphantly: “He saved us!

This is an optimistic opinion, for there are precisely four people left standing and visible in the frame: Perry White, the intern, another Daily Planet reporter, and Lois.  

Meanwhile, the city smolders, and the landscape appears positively post-apocalyptic.  The "he saved us!" line actually elicited laughs in the theater from other patrons because the staging -- and the overt, monumental destruction --suggests that Superman hasn't really “saved” much at all.  

Of course, we must assume there are other survivors beyond these four, but Metropolis now looks like the victim of 1,000 9/11 attacks, and a hundred super-storm Sandi-type incidents.  I half-expected to see in the background some graffiti that read: "Roland Emmerich was here."  

Despite the fact of rampant destruction, the screenplay does not provide a single line -- not one word -- about the herculean task of re-building the city, which now looms.  Indeed, the film ends with Clark Kent merrily taking his place at the Daily Planet, which looks clean and if nothing ever happened.  

Just think for a moment about how long it took to clean up Ground Zero.  Now multiply that destruction times a thousand and start to reflect on the size of the job at hand...

Perhaps Superman could help with the efforts, but again, the film might make note of that fact.  Given what our lying eyes show in Man of Steel, it would be years -- perhaps decades -- before anybody was even going to work in Metropolis again, or frequenting the Daily Planet building.

The entirety of Man of Steel’s last act is filled with oversights of this dramatic and clumsy nature.  As I noted above, the plan to get rid of Zod involves creating a singularity -- a black hole, essentially -- just a couple of hundred feet over downtown Metropolis.

Yes, you read that right.

Fair is fair: I complained in my review of Star Trek (2009) when a singularity was opened in the Earth's solar system, but the proximity of the singularity here to a major city is much more egregious, and much more dangerous.  And again, the film never includes even a single line of dialogue to suggest how the singularity is to be closed.  

All that is discussed, if memory serves, is the connecting of two phantom drives to create the black hole in the first place.  Still, you’d think that “opening a singularity” would require, as well, an exit strategy.  

Also, in one of the film’s more far-fetched moments, Lois Lane falls away from the opened singularity, even as material is being sucked up from the ground, towards it.   So...she weighs more than a car? Or a huge chunk of asphalt?

This isn’t just bad’s Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987) bad writing.  But because the special effects are so good, no one comments much on the gaps in situation logic.

I’ve written about blockbusters of this type before, and it saddens me to see the Superman franchise to succumb to this sad trend.  In short, this movie all about pummeling the audience with destruction, with special effects depicting massive carnage.  Incident piles upon incident and the writers clearly hope that the viewer will be so throttled, so overwhelmed, that he won’t notice that there’s no plan to close the singularity opened over Metropolis proper.  Or that the very idea of opening up a black hole over a city is really, really reckless..

Or that Superman “saving” Metropolis actually ends up being the greatest loss of human life and treasure since the bombing of Hiroshima or Nagasaki.  

My point is not that the movie can’t feature rampant "super" destruction; but that it shouldn’t feature such destruction, and then turn around to end the movie, moments later, with Clark happily joining the Daily Planet staff.  The latter scene boasts no credibility if this much destruction actually occurred.   Cities can be easily destroyed and re-built with CGI effects, but real life is much more problematic in this regard. 

Man of Steel possesses no sense of verisimilitude at all.  It's just explosive eye-candy, with frayed connective tissue occupying the small spaces between action scenes.

The same problem of clumsiness recurs with the depiction of the Kryptonians.  One of Zod’s underlings informs Superman that he is crippled by morality, but that she is not.  This is a throwaway line, but it causes all kinds of problems.  Are all Kryptonians sociopaths by nature?  Has Clark escaped that fate because of his human upbringing?  Or does the line about possessing no morality apply only to genetically engineered soldiers? Again, the problem here is follow-through: the line has no explanation, and therefore nothing beyond a momentary resonance.  It means nothing in the scheme of things, and raises questions that needn't be raised.

The desire and willingness to bury Man of Steel in special effects sequences also leads to other bad creative decisions in terms of storytelling.  In many depictions of the Superman origin story, Jonathan Kent dies of a heart attack (think Superman: The Movie [1978] or even Smallville [2001 – 2011]).  

Here, he literally gets sucked up into a Category Five Tornado that is spitting out cars and other debris with typical CGI efficiency.  

In the desire to “throttle” the audience, the movie-makers thus skip one of the most critical life lessons for Clark Kent: that there are some things, and some deaths, that he can’t avert

Even as Superman, he can’t control everything.   Clark can’t save his father because he is not master over all life and all death.  Being "super" doesn't mean being God.  This simple human truth is Clark's most important connection to humanity on Earth. Ultimately, no matter our planet of origin, we are all the same when it comes to dealing with the mortality of our loved ones.

By replacing a heart attack with a scene-stealing tornado -- that Clark can stop, but doesn’t -- the film misses this key moment in Kent’s maturation process,  A human scene has been replaced with spectacle, and the spectacle, ultimately, has no point.  

What precisely was the lesson learned here?  As the state-of-the-art special effects so adroitly dramatize at other junctures in the drama, Clark can move so rapidly that he could have picked his father up in a blur, rescued him, and not revealed himself to anyone.  The Kent death scene in Man of Steel carries no psychic weight as drama, because Jonathan's death is arbitrary.  It's just another opportunity for good effects work, not for character growth.

I wrote about this a little in my introduction, but it seems to me that the whole “re-imagining” of the Superman legend as seen in Man of Steel originates from a point of vast insecurity and embarrassment about the character.  

First, the film tries to (over)compensate for the perceived failings of Superman Returns by featuring city-shattering action by the boatload, instead of actual human interaction.  

Secondly, it won’t even let characters say the word “superman” without making it a joke, as if the Man of Steel’s superhero name is any cornier or cheesier, intrinsically, than Batman, Spider-Man, Iron Man, or Hulk.  

Thirdly, the film skips the whole concept that Lois Lane does not know that Clark and Superman are one in the same.  Why?  Well, it’s a defensive and insecure posture too: how could anyone believe that mere eye- glasses could hide a person’s identity...especially from a Pulitzer Prize-winning author?  

Well, how could any author write the words “to see what is under one’s nose needs a constant struggle?” 

Indeed, that's another dramatic point and theme of the Superman myth.  Supermen hide among us all the time: everyday heroes whom we might dismiss as a nerd or klutz, but who -- in a moment of crisis -- rise to the occasion.   We dismiss them, on a regular basis, as ordinary Joes.

This huge change in tradition will have serious ripple effects in the movie franchise.  Now Lois boasts no defining struggle as a character, no hurdle to overcome. She can’t even be jealous of or competitive about Clark’s journalistic skills, because she knows she would be competing, essentially, with Superman.  And that would be foolish, wouldn't it?

Of course, iterations of the myth, across the long years, have reached the point where Lois knows the truth about Clark Kent.  But that knowledge is almost universally hard-won.  

Not so here.  

Here it is the starting point, and thus there is no sense of character conflict between Clark and Lois.  This Lois is even -- gasp -- warm-hearted and soft.  She decides not to pursue Clark’s story after meeting him, when he convinces her (in one brief conversation...) that he should be left alone.  Again, she doesn't know him at this all. So why go all wobbly?  Because he's "kinda hot," in the film's vernacular? 

In 2013 -- especially with all the battles about the role of the press in security and privacy --  to feature a Lois Lane who is so weak virtually qualifies as writing malpractice. The Man of Steel does feature a character called "Woodburn" (an amalgamation of "Woodward" and "Bernstein"), but it the truth is that the movie has approximately zero curiosity in the ideals of journalism (free speech, etc) which have been a key component of the Superman mythos for decades.   

Instead, there are just more buildings to blow-up, and more trains to throw in the air...

Finally, I find it spectacularly lacking in creativity and imagination that Man of Steel ends with Superman breaking Zod’s neck, rather than finding a way to neuter him, banish him, or otherwise defeat him.  I can’t fathom how Superman can be said -- in this film -- to be a figure of “hope” when he pulverizes half of Metropolis (and Smallville too) with his own hands, and then, for his last act, commits murder.

People wouldn't be inspired by this Superman.  They'd be terrified of him.  

The merits of Zod's murder can be debated, of course, given the specifics. There was a human family to rescue, and Zod clearly wasn’t going to stop fighting, no matter what.  

Essentially, he picked suicide by Superman as his manner of death. 

Yet virtually by definition, being “Superman” means finding good, creative, meaningful alternatives to murder in times of crisis, pain, and suffering.  On top of all the excessive carnage highlighted in the film, the murder of Zod simply confirms the film’s ugly, dark, misunderstanding of a great American icon. 

What Man of Steel profoundly misses is that Superman is designed to be symbol of all that is good in America, and all that is right.  He represents a romantic but worthwhile ideal (truth, justice and the American way...), and is supposed to be a role model for children and adults alike.  To have him in his first re-booted adventure pulp a city, a small town, and mete out death to his enemy with his bare hands, suggests the kind of “reboot” of a beloved character I simply can’t get behind.  Star Trek Into Darkness handled this idea far better.  You aren't a hero at all when you descend to your enemy's level of barbarism. 

Instead a man -- especially a superman -- must take the hard route and be better than his enemies.  He must be smarter, more creative, and more merciful.  But the shadow of the Dark Knight is a considerable one, and these days, all superheroes most be tortured, dark ones apparently, even beacons of hope like Superman.

Man of Steel might more accurately titled Heart of Steel, because no light, no love, no humor, no soul is allowed -- except for one brief interlude -- to shine its light in the film.  The result is a movie that is both computerized (in terms of effects) and robotic (in terms of story and character).

So, if you want to believe a man can fly -- and that a movie can soar -- check out Superman: The Movie.  

If you want to see skyscrapers collapse, jets hit the ground and explode, trains fly through the air and then land on people, and super-strong people punching each other at high-speed velocities, this is the Superman interpretation  you've been waiting for.