Sunday, May 31, 2009

What I'm Reading Now: The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings (1981)

"We are not aware of our own folklore any more than we are aware of the grammatical rules of our language. When we follow the ancient practice of informally transmitting "lore" - wisdom, knowledge, or accepted modes of behavior - by word of mouth and customary example from person to person, we do not concentrate on the form or content of our folklore; instead, we simply listen to information that others tell us and then pass it on - more or less accurately - to other listeners."

-Jan Harold Brunvand, The Vanishing Hitchhiker (W.W. Norton & Company, 1981, page 1).

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Biggest Month EVER

Just a quick note to say a humble and sincere thank you to all of you for making May 2009 the biggest month EVER here on Reflections on Film and Television. The number of visitors this May was nearly double what it was for May of 2008, and this month even edged out July 2008 -- the month my X-Files: I Want to Believe -- sort of went viral.

So, my deepest deepest appreciation -- and don't stop coming...the best is yet to come.


Ode to a Delta 88: The Classic Returns!

"He absolutely loved it (the Delta 88), and it kept on getting destroyed, and he would rebuild it. He had a very sentimental attachment to that car..."

-Robert Primes (director of photography, Crimewave).

Once upon a time, director Alfred Hitchcock was famous for making cameo appearances in his films. Today, Sam Raimi is almost as well-known for featuring his beloved car -- "The Classic" (a yellow Oldsmobile Delta 88 from 1973...) -- in his various Hollywood productions.

Ash (Bruce Campbell) piloted Raimi's treasured Delta in Evil Dead (1983), Evil Dead 2 (1987) and even time-tripped with it in Army of Darkness (1993). The director's car was also featured (and virtually destroyed...) in a nighttime car chase in the cult film, Crimewave (1985). More recently, it served as Cate Blanchett's clunker in The Gift (2000),and Uncle Ben's (Cliff Robertson's) car in Spider-man (2002). You can also see it in Spider-Man 3 (2007).

The cinematic love affair between Sam Raimi and his car continues to this very day, with this week's Drag Me to Hell (2009). The 36-year old Oldsmobile returns as the conveyance of diabolical old gypsy, Sylvia Ganush. The Classic even has a good supporting role this time around too: showing up (malevolently) in a darkened parking deck, and later seen quiescently parked in the gypsy's driveway.

When I wrote The Unseen Force : The Films of Sam Raimi in 2004 for Applause Theatre and Cinema Books (now available on Amazon's Kindle...) I had the honor of interviewing several cast and crew members from Raimi's productions, and we inevitably got around to the subject of The Classic. Sheree Wilson, star of Crimewave told me that the car was indeed Sam's "baby" and that she got a lot of special privileges with it, "hanging off...dangling off... "(page 83) of it.

After working on Spider-Man, the great Cliff Robertson told me that Raimi's Classic serves as the director's "signature." Roberson noted he was unaware of the car's deep significance until the "yellow Oldsmobile appeared on the scene" and his character died "in front of it at the Public Library."

Robertson added that it would be "interesting to see" how Raimi is going "to put it in a futuristic movie..." (page 304), but that he was sure that Raimi would "find a way, being the inventive, creative man that he is..."

Let's hope we next see The Classic battling Deadites again in Evil Dead IV...

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK # 87: Star Wars Droid Factory (Kenner; 1979)

Back in the late 1970s, Kenner created a hugely diverse and impressive line of toys based on the original Star Wars (1977). A young fan could play not just with cool action figures by the dozen, but large-scale mock-ups too, such as the Millennium Falcon, the Death Star Space Station, the Creature Cantina, and more.

Under the category of "more" came this most unusual and interactive of the Kenner Star Wars play sets, 1979's The Droid Factory. This industrial droid production center was unique because it was not a reproduction of a set or ship, or even a landscape (like the Land of the Jawas Playset...). Instead, it was an original and very cool setting not seen in the film, one in which you could build your own version of R2-D2. As a child (and even before The Empire Strikes Back), I appreciated this -- it was good for the burgeoning imagination -- because an original toy like the droid factory indicated that there was a larger world "around" Star Wars than the one we saw in the movie.

The Star Wars Droid Factory came in a large box complete with a beige "factory base with swivel crane" plus "38 robots parts." Essentially, you could "build up to 5 different robots at the same time," "make hundreds of different combinations," and just have a hell of a lot of fun with the "interchangeable robot parts." These factory-constructed robots were the same scale as the other figures, so kids could experience the immediate gratification of landing their newly-built droids into the action with Han Solo, Hammerhead, Jaws, Greedo, Blue Snaggletooth or anyone else.

The Kenner Droid Factory also came with a neat "Droid Maker Blueprints" set which offered instructions for building "the 5 basic droids." These were: the Mechano Droid, R2-D2, Tracto-Droid, Quad-Pod Droid, and Rollarc Droid. The last page of the booklet offered details on how to build a goliath "Monster Droid." Clean-up after play was easy too, as the booklet thoughtfully informed parents: "Each part has its own place in the Base. When you are finished playing with your DROID FACTORY, put all the parts back just like you see it here."

The only drawback to this great vintage toy (which I'm now sharing with Joel...since he's become obsessed with R2-D2 and C3PO): there was no way to build Threepio. Yep, Anakin could do it on Tatooine, but you can't do it with your Droid Factory! Clearly, that's a huge oversight in an otherwise very cool toy. Below, you can see the original TV commercial for the Kenner Star Wars Droid Factory.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week

"God help us...we're in the hands of engineers."
Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), Jurassic Park (1993)

Saturday, May 23, 2009

CULT TV FLASHBACK #74: Battlestar Galactica: "The Man with Nine Lives"

I could have picked any number of good, solid Battlestar Galactica (1978 - 1979) episodes to write about for today's cult-TV flashback. The original series roster includes such epic two-parters as "The Living Legend" and "War of the Gods," plus the outstanding, gripping series finale, "The Hand of God."

Yet today, I was in the mood for something a little lighter; a little bit more fun...and I struck again on one of the installments I have enjoyed so much over the years: "The Man with Nine Lives" starring the late, great Fred Astaire (1899-1987). The episode originally aired January 28, 1979...over thirty years ago.

Now first off, I'm a huge fan of the classy Astaire, and I count Top Hat (1935) and Swing Time (1936) as two of my most beloved movies of the 1930s (alongside such titles as Things to Come, Bride of Frankenstein, King Kong and Dracula).

But secondly, this episode of Battlestar Galactica, written by Donald Bellisario, remains a real series highlight, thanks to some clever writing, some good character dynamics involving Starbuck, and the inclusion of a new (and strange) series villain: The Borellian Nomen.

"The Man With Nine Lives" commences some "twelve sectons" after Baltar's surrender and the rag-tag fleet's encounter with Count Iblis and the Light Ship populated by the "Mysterious Ones."

Those aliens provided the Galactica with the coordinates to planet Earth, and now the Colonials -- for the first time since their exodus -- are beginning to express real hope that their odyssey will soon be at a happy end.

The warriors of Blue Squadron are sent on a weekend "furlon" to the Rising Star, where Starbuck (Dirk Benedict) tests a new gambling system that he considers "foolproof" (and oddly, he is allowed to actually use a computerized-calculating device at the casino gambling tables...).

At the same time, however, a mystery man named Captain Dmitri (Astaire) is also aboard the Rising Star, attempting to escape the wrath of three Borellian Nomen on a "blood hunt." It seems Dmitri double-crossed these fearsome men on a live-stock deal and in the process learned that the separatist Nomen were hording weapons and foods for a pitched battle with the fleet.

Instead of informing authorities, however, Dmitri -- who now calls himself Chameleon -- instead claims to be Starbuck's long-lost father. Given his relationship to the orphaned lieutenant, Apollo, Boomer, Sheba and Starbuck escort Chameleon off the Rising Star (and right past the seething Nomen...) to conduct genetic tracing tests. In dedicated pursuit, the Nomen attempt to get aboard the Galactica by enlisting as warriors...

"The Man with Nine Lives" offers a lot of good material for this spectacular Glen Larson series, from a Galactica Recruitment Commercial starring Omega ("We Need You!"), to welcome details about Starbuck's mostly-unexcavated youth.

In particular, we learn how -- after an early Cylon attack -- a young Starbuck was found wandering in the Thorn Forest near the agro-community of Umbra.

Even better, the Borellian Nomen make satisfying and creepy villains in this episode (and they also re-appear, to good effect in "Baltar's Escape"). These strange humanoids -- who don't often mix with the Colonials -- are heavy-browed ascetics who physically resemble, well, Neanderthals. The Nomen imply, by their very costume and appearance, that the 12 Colonies of Man were not "uniform" in population or ethnicity; that there were strange sects and off-shoots that also survived the devastating Cylon attack.

Also, these "fringe" Nomen resemble some of the weirder extremist militia groups we've seen sprout up over the years in America. In particular, they are paranoid and suspicious about the central government and rather...uh...survivalist in nature...preparing for an eventual final war with the establishment.

Another point: The Nomen also live by "The Code," a strict doctrine of "honor" that champions discipline, preparedness (it's against the code to be unarmed...), and patience (the patience of the "Scorpius, in fact..."). Those who break the Nomen Code see their ceremonial sashes stripped from them, and their names stricken from "the Code of the Nomen" for all time.

Now before you stop and say, "Hey, that description sounds just like the Klingons," remember your Star Trek history. Before Star Trek: The Motion Picture in December 1979, Klingons were actually just swarthy human-looking aliens with bad manners (and no heavy brows or bumpy forehead ridges...). These original Klingons boasted no sense of honor whatsoever. They loved war ("it would have been glorious!"), and they believed that rules were made to be broken.

The Klingons were described this way in The Making of Star Trek, co-authored by Trek creator Gene Roddenberry: "Their only rule in life is that rules are meant to be broken by shrewdness, deceit or power. Cruelty is something admirable, honor is a despicable trait." (page 257). [Italics mine.]

So it wasn't actually until The Motion Picture, and then The Next Generation in the late 1980s and early 1990s (and after "The Man with Nine Lives") that the Klingons mysteriously transformed into the now-familiar "honorable" race we associate with Worf and others. So Battlestar Galactica wasn't ripping off Star Trek with these colorful and interesting Borellian Nomen. I thought that might be worth mentioning for those who don't have a good familiarity with the original Battlestar.

The only aspect of "The Man with Nine Lives" that rings false is Starbuck's extreme sense of indignation over Apollo's decision to run a security check on Chameleon behind Starbuck's back. I can understand being angry, but Starbuck basically terminates the friendship, when it's pretty clear that Apollo's intentions are sincere...and arise from a desire to protect, not harm, his friend.

Overall, "The Man with Nine Lives" is also tremendous of fun because Astaire proves so utterly charming and affable as the scoundrel, Chameleon -- a real rascal who boasts Starbuck's way with the ladies, not to mention the gift of gab.

In the end, we learn that Chameleon and Starbuck are not only from the same planet, same tribe, and "related within 10 generations" but actually father and son. Much to Chameleon's surprise. One can easily imagine that if Battlestar Galactica had continued beyond a first season, Chameleon would have returned to make more mischief, but -- alas -- the show was canceled before that could happen...

Friday, May 22, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Godzilla (1998)

With Star Trek successfully -- for the most part -- re-imagined and re-booted (and make no mistake, J.J. Abrams' film is a re-imagination...), I thought it might prove an interesting and illuminating exercise to turn our gaze here on the blog towards other movie re-imaginations of recent vintage.

Unlike Star Trek (2009), most such efforts (almost universally big-budgeted...) have met with fierce resistance from critics, audiences and the fan base alike. That fact makes this year's Trek re-imagination success the exception rather than the rule.

Consider some of the infamous titles that leap to mind here: Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes (2001), Will Smith's The Wild, Wild West (1999), the movie version of Lost in Space (1998). Even last year's Speed Racer (which I thoroughly loved...).

Yet perhaps the most universally reviled of all the recent re-imaginations/remakes remains Dean Devlin's and Roland Emmerich's 1998 extravaganza, Godzilla. The movie made a huge profit worldwide, but was despised by critics and hardcore Godzilla aficionados.

Indeed, we should recall that before Ron Moore's re-imagined Battlestar Galactica came along, there was another production derided by fans as "GINO:" Godzilla in Name Only.

As for me, I screened Godzilla -- a film advertised with the tag-line "Size Does Matter" -- upon theatrical release in the summer of '98. At the time, I felt intense disappointment. My initial complaints were that it was overlong, inconsequential, and a betrayal to the noble legacy of the legendary Toho monster. Although I disliked the film vehemently, something about it still nagged at my mind. I purchased the laserdisc for one dollar in a clearance bin roughly a year after the theatrical release, and have kept it on my video shelf ever since.

So I wondered: has ten years of "distance" from the Devlin/Emmerich film ameliorated my initial dislike of Godzilla? Taken on its own terms, is this ultra-expensive re-imagination a worthy film in any light? Are there good qualities present in Emmerich's film, ones that might successfully rehabilitate this particular work of art? Or was my initial assessment the correct one?

Blame The French: A Dishonest Betrayal of Godzilla's Heritage

For all its various and sundry flaws, Godzilla (1998) actually opens with a series of canny and memorable visuals, not to mention a driving narrative pace.

We begin our journey with grainy yellow film footage, cut in overlapping, successive form as a montage. We see, in short order, various views of nuclear tests being conducted on a lovely island in French Polynesia.

On the soundtrack, we are treated to a countdown to French.

The resonant images of total destruction -- of nuclear mushroom clouds -- are soon super-imposed over images of several hapless iguanas blinking and reacting to the searing light and heat of the deadly atmospheric blossoms.

The final shot included in this brief credits sequence is of an iguana egg perched upright upon a sandy shore. We push towards the nest with a sense of dawning anticipation, and the clear implication is that the nuclear testing has mutated the very nature of the creature within. This is the birth of the movie's Godzilla.

Again, this brief sequence is quite adroit and accomplished in terms of imagery and visual presentation. In terms of meaning, however, the scene's other implication is staggering: the fault for Godzilla's creation rests with those pesky and immoral Frenchmen; those bad, bad cheese-loving, Old Europeans who conducted dastardly and dangerous nuclear tests, opening Pandora's Box in the process.

Although post-911, it has certainly become fashionable to blame the French for everything we don't like about the rest of the world -- and this Godzilla was surely ahead of its time by featuring this perspective -- this plot-point is such a blatant and craven example of "let's blame the other guy" hypocrisy that the thoughtful audience member will shudder at the sheer audacity of the conceit.
So let's just do a little factual tally here, and let the numbers speak for themselves. In our long history, America has test
detonated nuclear weapons 1,054 times. And France has done so...a meager 210 times by comparison. And let's see, which nation is the only one in the world to ever use atomic bombs against a civilian population?

Let me give you a hint: It isn't France.

The original Godzilla films, of course, understood this fact very, very well. When Godzilla: King of Monsters (1954) was imagined by Ishiro Honda, it was forged as a cautionary tale, as an allegory for the very real dangers of the Atomic Age. Between 1946 and 1958, America conducted 20 nuclear tests at the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific, for instance. Critic J. Hoberman, writing in the New York Times, describes the context of the original film this way: "
After a 15-megaton American H-bomb test on Bikini atoll irradiated 7,000 square miles of ocean, the entire crew of the Japanese tuna boat Lucky Dragon developed radiation sickness."

So, in his native country, Godzilla represented nothing less than an atomic bogeyman, a symbol of the arrogant West laying waste to Tokyo and other cities just as America's bombs had laid waste to Nagasaki and Hiroshima. And the threat -- as evidenced by the Bikini Atoll tests -- was spookily ongoing. The brilliant original film also dealt with the idea that the world would soon see even more destructive weaponry arise during the nuclear age, in this case, the fictional "Oxygen Destroyer."

Given this history of symbolism and social responsibility, for the 1998 film to brazenly point to the French as the progenitors of "the nuclear monster" is not only hypocrisy...but pandering of the worst order. One senses that the filmmakers wanted to avoid -- at all costs -- confronting the core American audience with such unpleasant truths. I mean, if people were really to stop and consider America's role in this life-and-death matter, they might not feel like visiting Taco Bell after the movie. Or buying the movie soundtrack (featuring a hit by Sean "P. Diddy" Combs!)

But imagine, just imagine, that the makers of the American Godzilla had decided to be truthful and even just a little bit courageous instead of pandering and dishonest. Then their movie would have concerned something important, the idea of America suffering "blow back" from its bad behavior. Godzilla -- rightly a product of American nuclear testing -- would have literally been a representation of our international "sin" come home to roost: angry, destructive and all-but unstoppable.

This cogent, powerful idea (which would have carried even deeper resonance after 9/11...) would have granted the U.S. version of Godzilla a larger, overarching purpose, and a corollary seriousness to the brilliant (and searing...) Japanese masterpiece. But by taking instead an easy and dishonest route, by making the French (!) the culprit in dangerous nuclear shenanigans, this Godzilla succeeds only in passing the buck. As a result, the entire film is built upon an intellectually dishonest and shady foundation. Accordingly, it is wholly lacking in any sort of deeper or relevant meaning. Godzilla's reign of destruction in Manhattan means absolutely nothing now...America is just a random victim of a random destructive spree.
Again, the Japanese Godzilla films -- for all their miniature city scapes and men-in-monster-suits -- often boasted a powerful sense of social commentary or responsibility, whether the issue was the Nuclear Age or even, in the 1970s, environmental pollution (Godzilla vs. Hedorah [1971]). By shifting the blame to France for Godzilla's creation, the 1998 film makes two grievous mistakes. First, such a shift betrays the very legacy of the original Godzilla film (missing an opportunity to be interpreted as "faithful" to what came before and thus garnering the support of existing fans...). And secondly, the U.S. film cuts itself off from the possibility that its narrative could carry a larger, more relevant sense of meaning and importance.

Welcoming to the dumbing down of Godzilla...a world where point A need not connect with Point B. Or C. Nuclear weapons testing is the cause of Godzilla's birth in the U.S. film, but by movie's end, nobody even remembers or cares about the test. The ashamed French don't vow to stop testing in the future; and the U.S. has no accountability for Godzilla, so it certainly isn't going to stop testing. The nuclear testing of this Godzilla is not a legitimate plot point, nor a carefully considered "context," just a gimmick by which a giant Iguana can be born.

Mass Destruction as a "Once in a Lifetime Opportunity"

Following the opening credit montage (and shifting of the blame to the French...), Godzilla quickly transforms itself into a fast-pace, globe-trotting "mystery."

In short order, we see a Japanese fishing vessel in the South Pacific Ocean attacked by a deadly beast of gargantuan (but unseen) proportions. This sequence, in particular, appears faithful to the spirit and content of the Toho series, as it features a sort of ocean-going "early warning" that a monster is fast approaching civilization. Often times in Toho's Godzilla films, the productions would similarly open with a lonely ship at sea and an encounter with monstrous terror.

Then we're whisked off to Chernobyl to meet our hero, "Worm Guy," Nick Tatapoulos (Matthew Broderick), a scientist (and former anti-nukes activist...) who believes that nuclear mutations are responsible for the creation of new species the world over. The epitome of bravery and daring (not!), this hero works hard to effect "change" from within the system, from inside a nuclear regulatory agency.

Nick's introduction in the Ukraine serves as an opportunity for the filmmakers to extrude an unfunny joke about his foreign-sounding name (and the continued inability of the people around him to pronounce it correctly). This joke (the mispronounciation of "Tatapoulos") is repeated four times in approximately twenty-minutes, and adds nothing to the story, characterization, or overall entertainment in Godzilla. It's an in-joke, since Patrick Tatapoulos is the artist who created the design of Godzilla for this film, but one might rightly ask: what's the point?

If you were going to craft an in-joke such as this, why not one related to the Godzilla franchise's history (which fans could have appreciated a bit more). Nick Tatapoulos could have been Nick Raymond (after Raymond Burr...), for instance. If the makers of the film so desperately required an in-joke about "funny names," they could have even named Tatapoulos "Steve Martin," since that was the moniker of Burr's character in the Americanized version of the original 1954 film. This way, you could have had people cracking up over a nuclear scientist named after that "wild and crazy" comedian and star of The Jerk. Again, not really necessary in a Godzilla movie, if you ask me...but better than the masturbatory and pervasive references to Patrick Tatapoulos.

Regardless, Next stop Tahiti. Then off to Panama. Then to Jamaica. Then to the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. We find ourselves following -- again and again, with great anticipation -- Godzilla's progress from French Polynesia to Manhattan. These tightyl-edited sequences are brief, sharp, and portentous, fully engaging our imagination as we see "evidence" of Godzilla's handiwork and presence (footprints, claw-marks, etc.), but don't actually get a view of the monster. Honestly, these scenes were economical and worked for the film, overall. Nothing to complain about.

By the thirty-minute point, however, the movie has landed in Manhattan permanently, and the pace suddenly slows to a crawl following all the international action. After about fifteen minutes in NYC, the sense of anticipation, pace and excitement drains away and a feeling of malaise sets in. Instead of focusing on the mystery or origin of Godzilla, for instance, the film lingers on 1990s workplace sexual politics as an aspiring reporter, Audrey Timmonds (Maria Pitillo) attempts to advance her career, but must deal with the sexism of anchorman boss, Charles Caiman (Harry Shearer). Her friends, including receptionist Lucy (Arabella Field) and Lucy's camera man husband, "Animal" (Hank Azaria) tell Audrey she is just too nice to make it in New York.

The arrival of Godzilla in the Big Apple, however, provides Audrey just the ladder-climbing opportunity she has long sought, since she once dated Nick and so has an "in" to interview him again. She does so, and illicitly steals Nick's top secret cassette-tape of a Godzilla survivor...which she promptly airs on television. Afterwards, because of Audrey's behavior, Nick loses his job hunting Godzilla, and must team with a French group of secret agents (led by Jean Reno).

Concerning Audrey -- As Mick La Salle put it, writing for The San Francisco Chronicle --
"in the '90s, the apocalypse is just another career opportunity..."
Now, I'm not a firm believer that movie characters need be of high moral fiber or do "good things" to be worthwhile or interesting to watch, but Audrey is awful, petty human being. She betrays Nick's trust, and she transmits secret information that could jeopardize soldiers in the field and citizens too. I mean, the world is falling apart around her (the Chrysler Building is destroyed! American citizens have died by the dozen!), and she's just jockeying for a superior position at work. Audrey has no sense of loyalty to anybody outside herself; not even the man she ostensibly "loves."

In generations past, such qualities would have assured that such an immoral, selfish character pay dearly for her considerable trespasses. Think about the fate of the Charles Grodin character, Fred Wilson, in the 1970s remake of King Kong (a film I admired, despite the ubiquitous bad reviews...), Or for a more contemporary example, remember the fate of Saffron Burrows' "Frankenstein"-style character in Deep Blue Sea (1999). Monster movies have almost always boasted a sense of cosmic justice and morality, but again, this Godzilla plays as a betrayal of genre history. This film wants Audrey to be Nick's love interest, after all. So after she sins, Audrey spends the film's last act whining and wallowing in self-pity about what a lousy person she is.
But, importantly, the film doesn't even seem to believe that Audrey has really done anything wrong, or even unusual for that matter. She's just a good person who made a "mistake," according to the dialogue. Yes, but quite a pre-meditated one: Audrey deceived Nick by playing on their intimate relationship, waited till he left his tent, and then stole his top secret property. Then she recorded her own video introduction to the taped material (in which she was the "star reporter") and then passed the tape off again to her superiors at the news station. Then she waited for it to air with excitement. Not until Audrey saw Nick again (leaving the city in a cab, tail between legs...) did Audrey even consider the possible negative ramifications of her behavior. It's one thing to make a little mistake, but if Audrey was just a good person, why didn't she -- at any time during the shooting, editing or waiting for broadcast of her report-- reconsider her actions?

Personally, I think Godzilla should have stomped the shit out of Audrey...

The film's other protagonists are also difficult to like. Take Nick. He is a brilliant scientist dedicated to studying new species...but not once does he seem to recognize how amazing, or how wondrous, Godzilla is. Not once does Nick stand up to the military and state that at least one of the Godzilla hatchlings should be preserved from destruction for future study.

Nick is smart, but like Audrey (and like the film itself...) he seems to boast no moral compass. Nick figures out a way to attract Godzilla (with a pile of smelly fish...) but never stops to consider that he is leading a new species to total annihilation. At least in the monster movies of yesteryear, a wrong-headed scientist (an egghead communist, usually...) would speak-up and talk about the importance of alien contact, or preserving the last representative of a species before he was dismissed out-of-hand as a pacifist Russkie by military heroes. The point was that -- even if you didn't agree with the scientist -- at least the viewpoint was heard. This Godzilla doesn't even offer that much. Nick seems to have no perspective at all on Godzilla, his reign of terror, or the monster's place in the modern world.

Finally, yet another grievous character miscalculation. Two major characters in the film are "Mayor Ebert" (Michael Lerner) and his balding campaign advisor, "Gene." Famously, these men are named after popular film critics Roger Ebert and the late Gene Siskel. Indeed, the characters are cast especially for their physical similarities to the two film reviewers. Apparently, the characters are included in the film as sort of filmmaker's "revenge," since both critics gave thumbs down ratings to previous Emmerich-Devlin pictures, Stargate (1994) and Independence Day (1996).

I must stress, these are not throwaway characters who appear once or twice, or only briefly. These are supporting characters in the film with flourishes of dialogue and a presence in numerous scenes. Despite this, they are merely one-note jokes, offering thumbs up, thumbs down and little else of value. The Godzilla screenplay takes cheap shots over Ebert's weight (two of his scenes involve the mayor's love of candy). But again, what's the point? Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel don't like your you make fat jokes? Is this really the best way to deflect attention from your putting them up on a pedestal and featuring them in major roles in your movie?
Do you know what might the best way to get revenge on Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel for their negative reviews? Make a good movie,of course; one that they would have had to acknowledge as a superior example of the form. Instead, we get Roger and Gene as cardboard figures of ridicule, and the whole thing is just ugly, not to mention exceedingly juvenile. Again, this Godzilla settles for the stupid and obvious when a degree of wit is called for. Put bluntly, when the filmmakers introduced these Ebert/Siskel characters for purposes of revenge, they weren't thinking about the history or tradition of Godzilla. They were thinking about themselves; about ego. Again, not really a great way to show fans of Godzilla that you are taking their cherished icon seriously.

Size Doesn't Matter If It's "Only an Animal"

I realize that some long-time original Godzilla fans are going to be upset (or perhaps enraged...) with me for what I write next, but this Godzilla does feature some rather remarkable special effects (indeed, the best ever in a Godzilla movie up to 1998). And I don't, by reflex, disapprove of the new design of the titular monster, either.

In essence, this is like arguing that the revamped design of the Enterprise in the new Star Trek invalidates that entire film. General audiences in America in 1998 would simply not have accepted a man in a suit as the movie's Godzilla. It made sense to change the monster's appearance. And though certainly different than Toho's design, it seems to me that the monster design of the 1998 film is entirely serviceable and even borderline interesting. For instance, this Godzilla does boast a rather heroic jaw-line, one even more square than Superman's. What I'm arguing, perhaps ineloquently, is that Godzilla here can look "different" from the Japanese original, and the film can still be judged a success. Assuming were true to the spirit and history of the franchise.
Of course, it isn't true to the spirit and history of the franchise.

Indeed, that's the very reason this Godzilla fails so egregiously and thoroughly. It does not in any way, shape or form respect Godzilla's past. There seems to be no respect on the part of the filmmakers -- or the characters in the drama, for that matter - for the titular "monster." Indeed, there's even a line spoken at some point in the film that suggests "he's only an animal."

Yes, but a rather remarkable animal, wouldn't you say? Measuring 400 feet tall and all...
The shark in Jaws was only an "animal," but look at the myriad ways Steven Spielberg successfully mythologized it utilizing shark lore, the true story of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, and his careful presentation of the beast.

Unfortunately, the only thing this Godzilla gets from Jaws is one line of dialogue. "We're going to need bigger guns," instead of "we're going to need a bigger boat."

Damningly, the screenwriters here provide their movie not a single moment of wonder; of characters expressing awe or even real horror at the presence Godzilla in the modern world or his destructive actions. This is the one flaw the film simply cannot overcome: it doesn't know what to think about Godzilla, and therefore the audience doesn't know what to think about him.
In King Kong, Carl Denham (and later Jack Prescott) had a viewpoint about Kong: he was dangerous, but ultimately pitiable...he was taken from his land and defeated. The Jurassic Park films boasted an opinon about their monsters too (genetically engineered dinosaurs...): that the beasts were simply doing what dinosaurs would do; and that the destruction they caused was the fault of man, who had foolishly resurrected the beasts. Going back to the original Godzilla in Japan -- depending on the point in history -- Godzilla was either a fearsome representation of the Nuclear Age (a villain to be destroyed), or later, Japan's savior from even more grave threats.

Without exaggeration, you could remove Godzilla (the lizard) from every scene in Emmerich's film and replace him with a swarm of killer bees, a Category 5 Tornado, a giant robot from outer space, global warming or absolutely any other threat imaginable...and it would make virtually no difference at all to the characters or storyline. In the final moments of the film, you have no idea if you should root for Godzilla, or for the U.S. Military. Are we supposed to like Godzilla? The human heroes? What should we feel?
Your guess is as good as mine.
Unforgivably, this film candycoats Godzilla's reign destruction so that he doesn't seem "evil" or villainous (as he did in King of Monsters), and yet no human character ever stands up for Godzilla and proclaims, "he's just a parent trying to protect his young," either. The beast is neither fish nor fowl, apparently.

In one scene, the Godzilla offspring are played as silly comic relief, tripping and stumbling all over gum balls and basketballs, and yet in the next moment, they are being viciously blown apart by American bombers without a word of sorrow or regret. Again, there is no coherent attitude towards the creatures. Not even, "I hate to fire these missiles, but it's them or us. And I choose us...!"

This is what Salon Entertainment's Gary Kamiya thoughtfully wrote about the presentation of violence in the film: "They [Emmerich/Devlin] have perfected the depiction of consequence-free violence, suitable for all ages: ApocalypseLite: All the thrill of Death (TM) with none of the finality! "Godzilla" features the biggest and most realistic collisions of all time, with nary a drop of icky and disturbing blood. No corpses are seen, barely even an anguished shriek is heard as Godzilla runs wildly through the streets of Manhattan, smashing 20-story holes in the Pan Am building. The team's universe is as utterly artificial as that of Wile E. Coyote..."
In the original Godzilla, viewers might quite rightly have felt overcome or sickened with the lingering horror of the monster's attacks (the survivors looked positively agonized...) Here, the filmmakers can't be bothered to feature a single death in terms human beings would recognize as realistic. But here's the thing that they missed in blanderizing the beast: take away Godzilla's violence and amazing might and he becomes just a...galloping nuisance -- Johnny Depp wrecking his hotel room, writ large. A nuisance, but not a villain, and certainly not a grave threat. This empty hole in viewpoint and directorial perspective leaves Godzilla to dwell in a strange, uninteresting place: neither villainous nor heroic; neither good nor bad; just a big lizard tearing up jack because...well...he's big and unwieldy.

When Godzilla's radioactive eyeballs finally fade out in close-up at the film's finale, we feel nothing at all -- not even relief -- because the film has never bothered to develop a coherent point of view about the creature. All the good special effects mean nothing in light of this thematic void. We might as well have watched two hours of a hurricane toppling skyscrapers.

Size does matter, and thus we must conclude that the Emmerich/Devlin Godzilla fails on a colossal scale. Some scenes in the film are quite accomplished -- like the giant lizard's chase of a taxi cab near the finale -- but because we don't care about the humans or monsters in the drama, much of this good work is just the equivalent of a train wreck. And we're the rubberneckers, slowing down to watch.

I realized, this time around, that's the very thing that has occasionally nagged me about the film. The extreme technical proficiency in the face of a total lack of immediacy or human feeling.

Hey, there's a huge lizard over there eating helicopters!
There's this almost irresistible (but momentary...) desire to stop and gawk at the sights of Godzilla, but nothing that legitimately holds up as art. Or entertainment, for that matter. Again, for the mighty, long-lived Godzilla to be reduced to the equivalent of a meaningless amusement park ride is a direct betrayal of the monster's history and tradition.

If nothing else, this movie succeeds in making me want to watch two better monster movies instead. The original Godzilla, and 2008's Cloverfield. Those movies aren't afraid to let their monsters (and our monsters) be...fearsome.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Dollhouse Gets Renewed?!

So, The Los Angeles Times is now reporting the unofficial news that Joss Whedon's Dollhouse has been renewed for a second season by Fox.

If true, this is amazing and welcome news for the genre, and for series fans! Dollhouse has gone from being positively iffy to addictive, must-see-TV in the span of just six or seven episodes. So the sky's really the limit here. Can't wait to see what Joss Whedon has up his creative sleeve for a sophomore sortie...

And also, I must give a shout-out to Airlock Alpha, because the site has been counseling cautious optimism on this subjectl for weeks while other major news sources have been insisting renewal chances for Dollhouse were slim and none (and Slim was out of town...). Congratulations to Airlock Alpha for getting the story right (and I hope like hell that this unofficial news becomes official on Monday so I don't have to retract that!!!).

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Star Trek (2009)

Long story not so short: Star Trek is in good hands.

Different hands, to be certain. But good hands nonetheless.

The J.J. Abrams big-budget film, which opened last weekend, accomplishes the very mission many industry insiders and long-time Star Trek fans had judged impossible just half-a-decade ago, during the Berman Era doldrums of Nemesis and the TV series, Enterprise. It actually welcomes new fans -- and general audiences -- into the Trekkie fold with a well-dramatized, beautifully-cast, emotionally resonant tale of Kirk and Spock's youthful beginnings.

This movie is that rarest of birds, a blockbuster summer movie that lives up to the hype. It is fast, fun and frenetic, the very qualities you would desire and seek in an epic space saga.

Penned by Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman, the new movie genuflects appropriately to Star Trek''s storied tradition with the presence of the franchise's elder statesman, Leonard Nimoy, in a significant (and touching...) role. Simultaneously, however, the movie adopts a warp speed trajectory straight for the unknown, essentially re-booting the franchise and the beloved core characters with new and therefore unpredictable destinies

Call this delicate (and dangerous...) dance The Abrams Maneuver: a deft strategy that permits this cinematic enterprise to operate on two levels at once, appealing both to the hardcore aficionados on the basis of knowledge and nostalgia, and to the unconverted masses on the basis of the new cast's pure charm, the dazzling visualizations, and some rock 'em, sock 'em action scenes...the likes of which previous Treks could never have imagined, let alone afforded to execute.

This radical Abrams Maneuver -- creating an alternate timeline while maintaining the beloved characters and core spirit of Trek -- was no doubt deemed necessary because, to utilize a metaphor from author David Gerrold in his Encounter at Farpoint novelization of 1987, commanding the U.S.S.Enterprise has become rather like "making love in a fish bowl." Everyone has an opinion of your performance, and there isn't much room to maneuver.

Ditto for the franchise itself.

In other words, forty-five long years of accumulated continuity, arcane rules and byzantine history had effectively hobbled creativity (and more importantly, spontaneity...) to the point where Star
Trek had dropped out of warp and was suffering from a terminal case of "replicative fading" (a cloning disease named in the Next Gen episode "Up The Long Ladder").

Voyager, Enterprise,
Insurrection and Nemesis all seemed like tired copies of a tired copy of a...well, you get the picture.

The glory days of Star Trek were over, and the once-widely beloved mythos became the sole purview of nostalgic thirty-five year olds (me! me!). But even for many aging fanboys and fangirls, the thrill was gone...or at least slipping away.

I'm a huge Star Trek fan, but dammit Jim, I'm not a masochist! So I was outta there by the time Voyager reached Earth. I watched a few episodes of Enterprise, but didn't really need Star Trek as the visual equivalent of Sominex, and moved on. Whenever people I trusted insisted "it's getting better, really," I checked back in, and you know what? it wasn't getting any better. It was still deadly dull, stodgy, predictable and uninspired.

But with The Abrams' more.

Star Trek
is back.

The new Star Trek of 2009 has injected much-needed youth, vigor, inspiration and spontaneity into the franchise's faltering heartbeat. The Next Gen era of all Starfleet officers getting along, not eating red meat, wasting time on the holodeck and endlessly sitting around discussing tertiary domains of subspace and reversing the polarity of the deflector array is -- at long last, history.

Instead, the characters we see on screen in J.J. Abrams' Trek are recognizably and gloriously human once more, as they were in the landmark, still classic Original Series. These men and women fumble, get drunk, bump their heads, weep, fall in love, make impulsive mistakes, and -- in the finest tradition of Star Trek -- do their ingenious, inventive best for a cause greater than mere self-interest.

The Future Begins

The new Star Trek depicts the story of a very angry Romulan named Nero (Eric Bana) who -- after the destruction of Romulus in a cosmic disaster (a supernova) -- inadvertently travels back in time 130 years and sets out to destroy the young Federation, starting with charter members Vulcan and Earth.

Nero's accidental temporal journey brings him back to the year (and moment, actually...) of Jim Kirk's birth aboard the Federation starship U.S.S. Kelvin.

When Kirk's heroic father is killed aboard the Kelvin, events diverge from the "prime" time line we remember from the Original Series. Without a father to guide him, Kirk (Chris Pine) grows up to become aimless and rebellious, the "mid-west's only genius level repeat offender," as Captain Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood) calls him. Kirk's story is cross-cut effectively with the development of the young half Vulcan, Spock (Zachary Quinto), who is torn between his human and alien natures. Both men are brilliant, but both are also incomplete...

Eventually Kirk and Spock find their way to the Enterprise bridge and -- despite their vastly-different natures -- battle Nero for the survival of the Federation. Another visitor from the future, elderly Ambassador Spock (Leonard Nimoy) helps to nudge fate back in the right direction, doing everything in his power to bring the hot-headed young Kirk and the repressed, logical Spock to an awareness that they need one another to be successful, to be complete. This is where the script works at its symbolic best. Kirk, lacking a father, needs the advice of a tempering, prudent man like Spock. And Spock, now absent his human mother, requires the inspiration and human unpredictability of the tenacious Kirk.

I have considerable reservations about many specific elements of this Star Trek story (which I will explain below, in detail), but as is the case for many Star Trek episodes and films of years past, the movie is ultimately more than the sum of its individual (and sometimes faulty...) parts.

Overall, this Star Trek is emotionally satisfying and enormously affecting (particularly Elder Spock's heartfelt, nostalgic send-off to the Enterprise). And the new cast seamlessly (and I mean seamlessly) takes over from the Original Series cast, and the performers are all so likeable, game, and enthusiastic that you feel a surge of good will towards them.

So yes, if you're wondering, lightning has been captured in a bottle again: there's a familiar joie de vivre about and amongst this group of performers that frankly hasn't existed in Star Trek since The Undiscovered Country's send-off in 1991. This chemistry, this joy, this exuberant sense of fun, glosses over many of the movie's largest problems. Just as in the old days, you're swept away by the colorful, well-drawn characters and their extraordinary travails, even if the individual journey raises a few questions.

This is Not Your Father's Star Trek?

The new Star Trek movie boasts a 96% percent critical "approval" rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which is practically unheard of. And indeed, I also approve of it.

However, it isn't nitpicking or being contrarian to point out that major elements of the Orci/Kurtzman script are, quite frankly, a mess. I'm not talking about specific lines of dialogue or even character motivations...but rather breathtaking gaps of situational logic that you could fly a space armada through.

First and foremost, let us discuss the nature of Nero's weapon of choice, the red matter. It can generate huge, destructive black holes in space. Fine, I accept that. I can even accept that starships can safely travel through said black holes and move back and forward through time. No problem.

But why must Nero go to all the trouble of dropping red matter into the core of a planet like Vulcan or Earth with that lovely but not terribly-effective drill device?

The drill not only wastes time and is highly ineffective (as we see in the movie's finale), but it is also...entirely unnecessary. Just eject that little red matter blob in orbit, Nero, and planetary destruction will surely ensue.

Black holes are so powerful that nothing, not even light can escape their crushing force. So even if you dropped a black hole near our moon, we'd be in some deep bantha poo doo (sorry, wrong franchise...). Putting the red matter at the Earth's core, or Vulcan's core, just seems like gilding the lily to me.

And actually, I'm a bit concerned that at the end of the film, a black hole has been formed relatively close to Earth (in our solar system, if I'm not mistaken). That's...uh...asking for trouble. (We know this too, because McCoy gives a very convincing lecture, early in the film, about the hazards of space flight under even normal conditions.)

And also, you're telling me that a 24th century Romulan can't just upfit photon torpedoes with the red matter and blast away at Earth or Vulcan from a safe distance, rather than going to all the trouble of deploying that unwieldy drill and being tethered to it? If you believe that, Harry Mudd has some happy pills he'd like to sell you too...

Basically, the red matter threat is inconsistent and poorly-thought out. It is made to seem so all-powerful that it can destroy planets and cause time travel(!), but if that were indeed the case, you wouldn't have to delicately send particles down that drill's esophagus to a planet core, right?

That's not even the worst offense, however.

During his mind-meld with Kirk, Ambassador Spock notes that the safety of the "galaxy" was threatened by "a supernova." Huh? A supernova is dangerous a solar system. Maybe two solar systems, tops, on a really bad day. But an entire galaxy? I don't think so. The Enterprise escaped from a supernova by going to warp speed in "All Our Yesterdays" and the galaxy was never imperiled, just the local star group.

This is another classic mistake, and what I find ironic (and yet oddly poetic...) about it is that derisive Star Trek fans have ridiculed series like Battlestar Galactica (original) and Space:1999 for forty years based on the fact that those series occasionally made such basic errors in astronomical nomenclature (confusing solar systems and galaxies.) At most, a supernova could have threatened Romulus. But it's a novice mistake to indicate it could do harm to a galaxy. This is science fiction, and again, some flights of fancy are permissible, expected and desired. But so basic an error in science (about something we already know about), is troubling.

Another novice mistake: Spock actually sees Vulcan implode from the night sky of Delta Vega (a world now oddly transformed into an ice planet, though it was just kind "Where No Man Has Gone Before.") Just think about this for a minute. Would we be able to see in our night sky a planetary implosion in another solar system? Of course not.

Why, Spock isn't even using binoculars when he sees the catastrophe! Rather, Vulcan is apparently no further away from Delta Vega than we are from our moon. Before you suggest Delta Vega must actually be a Vulcan is established in Star Trek lore that Vulcan has no moons. Additionally, Star Trek lore establishes that Delta Vega is near the edge of the galaxy, and so remote a planet that Starfleet only visits the lithium-cracking station there once every quarter century. So how did Delta Vega move to within eye-shot of Vulcan?

Orci and Kurtzman's "re-boot" (set off by Nero's arrival) didn't change planetary orbits or positions. There's no way Spock could watch Vulcan's destruction from Delta Vega. Again, you suspect that these writers don't really understand the vast distance involved in outer space....that every planet isn't merely a stone's throw from another. The writers could have saved themselves a lot of heartache if they hadn't named this planet Delta Vega, which already has an established nature, geography and location in Star Trek history.

These days, especially with J.J.'s terse advice to "purists" to "stay home" and not see the movie, it's convenient and easy to deride criticism like mine as coming from an anal-retentive fanatic who lives in his parent's basement and catalogues crew member serial numbers.

On the contrary, I'm merely extrapolating from the ground rules the writers have established. Their screenplay makes it explicit that the time scape has changed as a result of Nero's intervention. Unless Nero is moving planets, or has changed the nature of "supernovas," "black holes" and other such objects (like planets...) these changes are inconsistent and impossible. Plainly, they're sloppy, easily-avoided mistakes.

However, my admiration for past Star Trek doesn't preclude me from stating the obvious here: this isn't the first time in history Star Trek has made stupid technical or plot blunders.

In The Wrath of Khan, U.S.S. Reliant visits the wrong planet by accident, and ends up finding the evil Khan. (Oh, you wanted Ceti Alpha 6! Oopsy!) And in Generations, the Nexus threat is every bit as ridiculous and inconsistent as the Red Matter is here. I mean, if Soran wanted to get inside the Nexus Ribbon, why didn't he just steal a thruster suit and fly in all by himself (instead of, say, destroying an ENTIRE planet and killing billions of people)? And Star Trek VI tells us Excelsior is carrying equipment to catalog gaseous anomalies, but in the film's last act, the Enteprise is miraculously carrying the same equipment for the same mission! Convenient!

So see, I really am being objective here. The new Star Trek makes the same dumb errors that the old Star Treks often did. That doesn't make the mistakes excusable in either scenario. All instances represent...sloppy writing. But by the same token, these mistakes certainly don't disqualify the films from being good, either.

Unfortunately, this new Star Trek doesn't inherit a more noble quality of the original: a sense of the universal human condition. In previous Star Treks, the scripts always remembered Earth history and great literature, often drawing parallels between events of the 24th century and our long recorded past as a species. Khan quoted Melville in Wrath of Khan. Chang quoted Shakespeare (in the original Klingon...) in Undiscovered Country. Spock even quoted John Masefield ("All I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by") in the much-maligned Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. These moments in the franchise were not elitist; were not simple affectations for the intelligentsia. They represented an explicit connection to the past that reminded viewers that no matter how far we travel into the final frontier...we take our history and legacy along with us.

By contrast, this new Star Trek pulls all of its vital quotations from Star Trek history (even Spock's Sherlock Holmes quote from The Undiscovered Country...which isn't attributed here), instead of from the wide, majestic history of human literature and myth. As a result, an important Trek idea is all but lost here. The film refers to franchise history and legacy, but nothing outside it, which makes it feel a bit insular.

Also, I must wonder why we couldn't have seen a five minute scene (or hell, a one minute scene...) involving Kirk in a history class at Starfleet Academy, listening to some instructor report about the peaceful, pioneering spirit of Starfleet. Or IDIC (Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations) for that matter.

Or even how the troubled Earth outgrew its "infancy" and had matured to join an interstellar community. Something -- even a token mention -- would have sufficed to remind us that Star Trek is about a future of growth and evolution.

Again, some people may state that my complaint is nitpicking, but the essence of Star Trek is optimism, the hope for a better tomorrow, and the belief that we can outgrow our violent infancy to achieve amazing things. This Star Trek has its moments of optimism, to be certain. I enjoyed seeing a man of Middle Eastern descent, Captain Robau (Faran Tahir), command a starship, for instance. But again, I believe that if we'd had one little, tiny moment in which Kirk was in class -- kind of being an arrogant prick while an instructor discussed Starfleet philosophy -- his spontaneous idea to asist Nero and the Narada at the film's climax would have been more dramatically resonant. We would have known, as viewers, that the philosophy of Starfleet had "sunk in." That Kirk had embraced it.

The destruction of the planet Vulcan is another sticking point, honestly. I understand why it was considered necessary from a structural and dramatic standpoint. The destruction of Vulcan dramatically establishes the seriousness of the red matter/Nero threat, and it also "shocks and awes" the audience into realizing that the future in this alternate universe is indeed going to be rather different from the voyages we are already familiar with. Yes, I get it.

But still...six billion Vulcans die in the incident. And make no mistake, Vulcan too has been a symbol of optimism and brotherhood in Star Trek for almost fifty years. The Vulcans on Star Trek are equals to humans (and Earth) in importance, even though they are so very different from us in their nature. Indeed, their differences show us up a bit. As Amanda declares in "Journey to Babel," the Vulcan way is "better" than ours. The Vulcans were the living embodment of pacificism; of diversity; of the creed that we need not be carried away by violence or anger or any other primitive human emotion. Now they are reduced to an asterisk in history.

From a practical standpoint, the destruction of Vulcan and the genocide of the Vulcan race also seemingly closes off as many story avenues as it opens up for future writers. Now there shall be no Kolinahr ritual for Spock (and importantly, no failure of the Kolinahr); there shall be no Mount Seleya and "Fal Tor Pan," and no "Amok Time" return to Vulcan for Spock's Pon Farr. More importantly, every time Bones decides to say "are you out of your Vulcan mind" or quip about "green blooded hobgoblins" in future Treks, isn't he going to feel at least a sliver of shame, given that, in Spock's own words, the Vulcans are now an endangered species? The fact that six billion Vulcans are dead sort of takes the air out of McCoy's insults. Spock can just turn to him and say, "It is unfortunate, doctor, you find genocide a source of comedy." That ought to shut Bones up.

The loss of Vulcan to the Star Trek universe carries grave dramatic repercussions, and I'm not entirely convinced that the shock and awe in this particular story was worth the destruction of so major and rich a source of lore and mythology in Star Trek canon. When you couple the destruction of Vulcan with the writers' stated desire to destroy the Enterprise in this movie as well, you start to wonder about their emotional maturity and stability. You know, guys Khan just wanted to take over the Enterprise in "Space Seed" and he was pretty damn threatening. Janice Lester switched bodies with Kirk, and that was pretty scary in "Turnabout Intruder." One episode, saw the crew face a personal apocalypse when they began to age rapidly ("The Deadly Years.") A little more cleverness would be welcome here; not necessarily more grand gestures like destroying whole planets.

I can't write here, in my capacity as an honest, objective reviewer, that all these flaws -- the inconsistent red matter threat, the technical inaccuracies, the lack of several important Star Trek ingredients -- don't matter. Indeed, they do matter, very much. The most difficult part for me is that all of these problems could have been rectified with just one more polish of the script.

On the other hand, I can also tell you that I sat through five of the most dreadful, brain-dead theatrical trailers I've ever seen in my life, waiting for Star Trek to start (for Year One, GI Joe, Night at the Museum 2, Inglorious Basterds, and Transformers 2, respectively). I'm afraid my IQ dropped several points just being exposed to them. If that's the state of the competition, and of movie making in 2009, then Star Trek even without Shakespeare is still...Shakespeare.

You've no doubt read several other reviews of Star Trek by now, in which new cast members are alternately lauded or derided (some people like Karl Urban, some don't; some people approve of Chris Pine; others not so much, etc.) I thought everybody did a terrific job. This is a talented bunch, and I'm ready to see this fantastic cast engage in a sequel. Down to a person, I found this new crew impressive and charismatic.

Who Was That Pointy Eared Bastard?
Okay, I've shared with you -- at some length, actually -- my reservations about this bold new Star Trek. I haven't pulled my punches, either.

Now, I want to write about the reasons Star Trek is still a good film (perhaps even a great film).

First, I must praise the writers, Orci and Kurtzman, whom I was just cursing out and damning a moment ago. Overall, they have done a fine job of incorporating myriad elements of Star Trek lore both famous and obscure, and blending them all into a strong and cohesive narrative.

Here you will find mentions of figures like Admiral Komack and Admiral Archer. Here you will witness Kirk's mythic third go at the Kobayashi Maru "no win scenario" test, and Spock's much-discussed but never seen confrontation at the Vulcan Science Academy. Amanda spoke of other boys teasing Spock in "Journey to Babel," and again, we finally get to see for ourselves the bullying in live-action here. And It's not just the obvious stuff the script gets right, like Kirk bedding down a green Orion Slave Girl. Instead, I believe the writers did a fine, thorough job of extrapolating from Trek history some interesting and unique twists. I very much liked, for example, their origin for the nickname "Bones."

Another case in point: Uhura. In this film, Spock and Uhura share a romantic relationship, and though some people complained about it, I felt this was easily a relationship that could have blossomed between those characters (and I found it much more believable in nature than the Scotty/Uhura romance of Star Trek V, for instance).

To buttress this belief, I go back to three specific instances in which Spock and Uhura shared something more than mere "official" business in The Original Series. In "The Man Trap," Uhura and Spock bantered about Vulcan and the lack of moons, as well as Uhura's boredom with constantly opening hailing frequencies. In "Charlie X," Uhura teased Spock with a flirtatious song (in which she commented on his devil ears and devil eyes...). And, in some other episode that I can't remember now (D'oh! Is it "Who Mourns for Adonais?"), Spock revealed a special confidence and tenderness towards Uhura in a tense moment, noting that if anybody could accomplish something difficult, she could.

Given such interactions in the Original Series, a romance between Spock and Uhura is not that much of a jump. And, in fact, it's delightful. You see, this is where Orci and Kurtzman are far cleverer than the hacks who wrote the recent Star Trek movies: they don't just blindly rinse and repeat old chestnuts hoping to elicit the same reflexive responses (Spock died in Star Trek II, so Data should die in Star Trek: Nemesis, etc.). On the contrary, it's clear they've pondered Star Trek lore a great deal and considered, in Spock's words, that there are always...possibilities. This film absolutely dwells and revels in those possibilities. What if Spock and Uhura got together? What if Chekov wasn't just a young apprentice to Spock, but a genius in his own right? What if the seeds of Scotty's weight problem began with his hunger on Delta Vega? (Kidding about that last one...).

Also, I believe a very strong case could be made that, overall, Star Trek is really and truly the story of Mr. Spock and his life-time journey towards enlightenment. Spock began life as a derided outsider in two worlds. On the original five year mission, he found a place of acceptance and friendship on the Enterprise, but still longed to prove himself as a Vulcan. After his encounter with V'Ger, Spock came to a point of new understanding, an epiphany that logic was "not enough" and that without emotions, people can be "barren," and "cold." By the time of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, he had gone far enough to realize that logic was the "beginning of wisdom, not the end."

What I find amazing (and touching...) about the new Star Trek is that Orci and Kurtzman have given us Spock's final chapter at the same time they have provided us his first chapter, thus wackily making their one-of-a-kind film a prequel and a sequel simultaneously. Miraculously, they pull it off too, with Spock confiding in his younger self that in the future he should just do..."what feels right."

Indeed, I can see plainly why Leonard Nimoy returned for Star Trek for this opportunity. Ambassador Spock serves an important role in the story, and his long journey towards "complete personhood" (with nudges from a fella named Jim Kirk...) reaches a logical conclusion and destination. I found it shocking and sad how wavering and weak Nimoy's voice has grown, but I nonetheless felt all his scenes granted the film a real sense of heart. To see Old Spock sending off the Enterprise on its maiden voyage was, well...overwhelming to me. A beautiful, beautiful moment. I also loved the fact that Spock gets to put into words what his friendship with Jim Kirk has meant to his life. I could not imagine a better ending for Leonard Nimoy's Spock than this one. This aspect of the film is superb.

I also rather enjoyed the fact that this Star Trek found time for a few goofy moments, such as Kirk's "inflated" hands (an allergic reaction to a vaccination) and Scotty's watery ride through an engineering tube. Goofy humor has been part and parcel of Star Trek since the very beginning; since episodes like "I Mudd," "A Piece of the Action" and "The Trouble with Tribbles." I liked that this Star Trek felt confident enough to get silly. It's a good signal that the makers of the movie understand just how multi-faceted the franchise can be.

Finally, I loved that the fate of the galaxy and the future -- as usual -- seemed to depend entirely on Kirk getting Spock emotionally riled up at the right (or wrong...) moment. Again, that's very true to the series and its history (think "Thgis Side of Paradise") but not so similar to what came before that it feels hackneyed. I could go on and on about the fun moments I enjoyed here: the pit-bull nature of Kirk (never surrender, never say die), the moment Sulu forgot an important launch procedure, the portentous first view of the gorgeous new Enterprise in space...etc.

Again, I feel strongly that the overall joyful aura of the film outweighs the specific and numerous deficits.

His Pattern Indicates Two-Dimensional Thinking

Last thing: Do you remember how in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Spock informed Kirk that Khan's battle strategy indicated "two-dimensional thinking?"

Alas, the same could be said of the Star Trek franchise's approach to depicting space battles over the years. How come the Enterprise always encountered Klingon Birds of Prey right-side up? How did various ships know which way they should position themselves to align with other traveling ships? Why did they always come at each other face to face, like lumbering elephants, or jousting knights?

Well, J.J. Abrams gets that problematic trope out of the way in this film's first scene, showing us, for perhaps the first time in Star Trek history, a legitimately three-dimensional playing field, one in which starships approach, retreat and combat one another using the full-scope of the interplanetary arena. This is an arena where Abrams has improved the franchise with his aesthetic approach, and it's fair in my review to note that fact too.

Even better (and compensating for some of the script's scientific errors), Abrams remembers that there is no sound in space and occasionally adopts a perspective outside the hulls of the warring vessels. He lets the sound go silent (save for the roaring, martial soundtrack...) and we achieve a strange sense of distance from the attack; standing back and marveling at the epic quality of the scene. It's amazing and inspiring, actually, and lends credence to the opinion that this is the best visualized Star Trek yet forged.

I absolutely hate the use to which the Romulan drill is put, but that "space jump" scene is another fantastic bit of action filmmaking...better than anything I've seen for some time. Kathryn, who is a little less jaded than I am, told me she jumped out of her seat a few times during that tense sequence alone.

And I guess, at long last, that brings me back to my opening point. Star Trek is in good hands. J.J. Abrams, Orci and Kurtz seem to have recognized the very qualities that Star Trek requires to "live long and prosper" at this juncture in pop culture history. Those qualities are: (in random order): vigor, excitement spontaneity, camaraderie, humor and a sense of fun...all writ large. This movie is not without significant flaws, but all in all, it's quite a proper shakedown.

How do I know? Well, I walked out of Star Trek yesterday -- and for the first time in a very long while -- I felt...young.

Friday, May 15, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Logan's Run (1976)

Before George Lucas's Star Wars (1977) changed the face and feel of cinematic science fiction forever, the Saturn Award-winning (and Nebula-nominated) Michael Anderson film, Logan's Run, was likely the standard-bearer for the genre in the malaise days of the 1970s.

In many ways, the bicentennial-released Logan's Run serves as a kind of critical "bridge" production of the turbulent disco-decade: blending the Dystopian qualities of such film predecessors as Soylent Green (1973) and Planet of the Apes (1968), with the elaborate, expensive visual effects of the Space:1999 - Star Wars epoch.

Logan's Run is based on the William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson novel of the same name, which was first published in 1967. The novel depicted a bizarre world set post-"Little War," in which the ascendant youth society of the turbulent late 1960s (think student demonstrations and sit-ins) had grown to become the globe's dominant social force. In an attempt to stave off overpopulation, starvation and poverty, a new society of the young was forged in which the mandatory age of death was 21 years of age. It was "never trust anyone over thirty" (or 21 here...) as a governing philosophy.

Citizens of this New World Order had "palm flowers" embedded in their hands which displayed their age and their chronological proximity to "Last Day." On said "Last Day" (their 21st birthday...) they would willingly report for mandatory termination at a local Sleep Shop. Those who didn't choose death would illicitly "run" instead, seeking escape through an underground railroad, in search of a place called "Sanctuary." Policing the populace and destroying these rebellious runners is the bailiwick of a young, fascist military force called "Sandmen."

In the book, a dedicated Sandman named Logan 3 teamed with a female runner named Jessica to locate Sanctuary, but he was secretly a double-agent for the government, tasked with the destruction of Sanctuary. Logan was pursued on his "run" by a Sandman friend named Francis, who also boasted a secret Ballard, an ally of runners and the man who knew where Sanctuary was actually located. In the book, Sanctuary was but a rocket trip away, on Mars...

Many aspects of Nolan and Johnson's brilliant novel were significantly altered for the blockbuster film (which earned back over 50 million dollars on a cost of less than 10 million...).

Michael York's Logan 5 (not Logan 3) was the new hero of the silver screen, and his Sandman comrade, Francis (Richard Jordan), became a dogged enemy and Agent of the State instead of a secret aide to the Runners. Also, the Sleep Shops (actually seen in Soylent Green....) were replaced with the bizarre but impressive public spectacle of Carousel, a festival in which those aged thirty (not twenty-one) would be blown up before the eyes of excited crowds who believed that the doomed were actually being "renewed" (reincarnated...).

The general setting was changed too. In Logan's Run, the movie, a nuclear war rather than a "Little War" precipitated the creation of the City of Domes, meaning that the world outside the City was almost entirely rather than merely futuristic.

Perhaps the most significant change in the movie was that there was no real place of safety and peace for the runners. Instead, Sanctuary was just a myth...

Despite these radical changes from the excellent source material, Logan's Run survives (and thrives...) as a worthwhile, exciting, and intriguing science-fiction artifact in 2009, for quite a few reasons.

Instead of aging the film and rendering it irrelevant, the disco-era visualization and tenor of Logan's Run -- the aura of hedonism and "anything goes" -- continue to ably support the didactic narrative. The glittering, sexy-but-shallow production design -- abundantly rich in neon and mini-skirts -- originally helped to define the City of Domes culture in terms of "Me Generation"-style self-centeredness. However, in the 21st century and the vanity-driven Age of Facebook, that "Me Generation" looks rather quaint by comparison. Therefore in 2009 viewers can still easily and immediately recognize the City of Dome-ers as a surrogate for "us." In fact, we are much closer to the callow youth culture of Logan's Run today than we were in 1976.

Perhaps more trenchantly, after eight long years dealing with a protean authoritarian state -- years replete with Orwellian double-talk like the "Clear Skies Initiatives" and "Operation TIPS (Terrorism Information and Prevention System) -- it is more obvious now how a seemingly benevolent government can actually become totalitarian; working against the very people it is sworn to protect and nourish. Again, given context, Logan's Run seems more in tune with us in the 21st century than it did even in its original bicentennial context.

One for One: Dogma, Double-Speak, Euphemisms and Jargon in The City of Domes

Perhaps the finest aspect of Logan's Run is indeed the film's capacity to build in the viewer's imagination a believable and frightening future dystopia. The City of Domes and its byzantine laws and practices fit the very definition of an authoritarian or totalitarian state. Let's look at what the pieces of that definition are, and how Logan's Run successfully conforms to them.

First, a totalitarian state "creates myths, catechisms, cults, festivities and rituals" designed to "commemorate" the State.

The central myth of the City of Domes, of course, is "Renewal," the State-supported lie that upon death the souls of the fallen (those who attend Carousel) will transmigrate to new, young bodies.

This lie is reinforced by the numbering system employed to "name" individual citizens (Logan 5, Jessica 6, Francis 7, etc.) These numbers (which replace last names in this future society) explicitly indicate the march of generations; that a new baby is actually a "new" version of a person who has already existed, "died" and "renewed." The numbers are also, as The Prisoner's Number Six would no doubt remind us, totally de-humanizing.

The Carousel "festival" -- a state-sponsored celebration of "Last Day" -- is attended by all citizens of the City of Domes, and is essentially the equivalent of, for example, a contemporary NASCAR race, only govt. run. The people down on the track or field (those who are ostensibly to be renewed...) circle around and around, and many of them "wreck" before our eyes, blown apart by a ceiling-mounted laser device that resembles a crystal.

Spectators watch and cheer for Carousel participants to "renew," but what they are really cheering for is the violent, explosive deaths of friends and fellow citizens. The State has thus turned a mandatory death sentence into the very "ritual" or "festival" inherent in the tradition of totalitarianism, one that actually reinforces (or "commemorates" as the definition goes), the Law of the State: mandatory death at 30. Economically, this ritual of Carousel combines the "bread and circuses" aspect of Rome's gladiator games -- satisfying the blood lust of the crowd -- with a "spiritual" or "religious" church function: the honoring of the dead (or dying); the belief in transmigration or reincarnation.

This ritual of Carousel is also supported by a State-created and encouraged catechism -- an education in the faith meant to indoctrinate -- here termed "One for One." In the film, we witness Logan and Francis debate the dogma/doctrine of "One for One." Francis accepts it blindly (by simply repeating it) while Logan questions it...the first sign of his independent streak.

This easy-to-remember phrase means -- in simple terms -- that one person dies/one person renews. It's the seamless, simple transmigration of the soul or spirit from the dead to the living. From Logan 4 to Logan 5. From Francis 5 to Francis 6. It's so simple that there can be no denying it. It's essentially programming through mnemonics and repetition, though; a phrase/teaching/sound-byte repeated so often and so widely that it is accepted blindly for "truth."

The idea of "One for One" (and catechism) is part and parcel of entrenched absolutism (or totalitarianism) because it is representative of a "cliche-ridden language whose formulaic utterances are designed to impede ambivalence, nuance and complexity." People don't die in the City of Domes, they "renew" (as if they are just TV programs, not living human beings.) The light on your palm which signals your death is not a "death clock" but, tellingly, a "life-clock." Sandmen don't kill. No, they never kill, according to Logan. They simply "terminate" Runners. and Runners are like "Terrorists" aren't they? Just a bogeyman...not real flesh and blood people. And additionally, the day of your death isn't called "Death Day or "Execution Day," but known by the pleasant euphemism of Last Day.

This is exactly how Orwell's double-speak, jargon and euphemisms work, and every single one of us should recognize the nature of them with some sense of shame or anger. For we Americans know them as "Stay the course," "As they stand up, we'll stand down," "We're fighting them there so we don't have to fight them here," "Shock and Awe," "Mission Accomplished," "The New Way Forward," etc. These phrases are widely-disseminated simplifications designed to impede questioning; to preserve and nurture an authoritarian regime and its agenda.

A totalitarian state is also one with a "culture of military solidarity" in which "the pursuit and elimination" of Enemies of the State has become a primary purpose. Again, it's easy to see how Logan's Run fits this aspect of the definition of totalitarianism. In general, the Sandmen lord it over the non-military personnel of the City of Domes, as Francis specifically does when an innocent civilian bumps into him at Arcade. If looks could kill.... And, according to City of Domes-style catechism, the Sandmen (the military of this State) are elevated above other citizens in matters of transmigration too. "Sandmen always Renew," the catechism goes.

The enemies of the state are termed "Runners," but they are those, simply, who question the status quo and consequently opt out of Carousel, attempting to live longer than their allotted thirty years. The Sandmen are in place to destroy the Runners and prevent all knowledge of "Sanctuary" from the distracted populace. Runners can't be imprisoned (that would imbalance the population control system); they have to be "terminated" on sight. And again, the State employs euphemisms like terminate (instead of "kill") to make the act palatable. When a runner dies, the corpse is melted down by strange hovering, futuristic machines, but this gory act is euphemistically termed "cleaning up." As in "clean-up in Arcade" or as we know it from our super markets "clean up in Aisle 6." It's just a mess, after all...not a human body. If we were to see the destroyed human body and count it as such (as we were forbidden from seeing our dead return home from Iraq...) we might begin to question the government's simplifications and slogans, not to mention the status quo.

Logan's Run succeeds as a film in no small part because of the carefully designed and constructed totalitarian state that our protagonists, Logan and Jessica flee. This world -- run by unfeeling computer -- is so inhuman, so callous, that it does not even permit mothers and fathers to raise children. No, families create a sense of loyalty outside of loyalty to government, and that cannot be tolerated in a totalitarian state. A good villain goes a long way towards making an effective movie, and in Logan's Run we have a great one; a 23rd century Big Brother ordering mandatory executions and destroying humanity's spirit.

Note too, that like many real life dictatorships, the City of Domes is carefully erected on lies and deceit. Inherent in the system of the City is the belief that one does not need to work or produce (the people are occupied entirely with leisure). This lie (one even beyond the lie of Carousel/Renewal...) is laid bare when Logan visits the outer workings of the city and finds that a mad robot called "Box" has frozen the 1,056 unaccounted for runners to be used for the city goers. He ran out of plankton and animals some time ago, and now has resorted to capturing and storing unlucky humans in stasis. So the City of Domes is actually feeding on itself to survive. The self-sufficient system (which demands death at 30) is not so self-sufficient after all.

Never Trust Anyone Over Thirty: Life in A 23rd Century Shopping Mall

If the City of Domes is a cage for its people, it's rather definitively a gilded cage. The people who dwell there, according to the film's opening card "live only for pleasure." And that's another core aspect of the Totalitarian/Absolute State: distraction. The government wants your mind on "other things," not the government, not the way things are.

Again, we can detect this aspect of life creeping into modern America. Remember what we were told to do as patriotic Americans after 9/11? Were we called to greatness? To military service? To higher taxes (so as to pay for our soldiers' body armor or health care)? To energy conservation so as to deny our terrorist enemies in the Middle East funding?

Nah, we were to told to...go shopping.

The people of the City of Domes have been told to go shopping too: in perpetuity. Their beautiful City is actually a colossal shopping mall, and the film was, in fact, shot in a shopping mall in Texas. This Arcade offers every manner of distraction and entertainment imaginable. So if you're feeling vain, why not head over to the New You Shop, where you can get a quickie face lift (or tummy tuck) and come out looking absolutely fabulous? If you hurry, you can make your work-out at the gym this afternoon too (as Logan and Francis do during one critical scene...).

If you seek companionship, head over to another part of the mall: the Love Shop -- the 23rd Century equivalent of Studio 54. There you can take legal (and safe!) mood-altering drugs called "lifts" (think Prozac or Xanax). Then, you can have casual sex with gorgeous strangers (all under 30!).

If you want to stay in your deluxe Sandman apartment tonight instead (conveniently located right off the mall's promenade...), Logan's Run even offers the 23rd century corollary to our Internet Porn: the so called computer "circuit" which materializes sexual partners (male or female), right at your doorstep.

What does all this mean? Well, clearly the City of Domes is consumed with youth, beauty, sex, and hedonism. Again, a pointed reflection of our culture in the 1970s, and even more so today. Who cares if the world is burning. We want our MTV!

So we can be at war with two foreign countries, our economy economy can be in tatters...but did Jennifer Aniston get a face lift? Did Miss California get a breast enhancement? Meanwhile, our movie and TV icons grow younger and younger too, whether it's Superman (Smallville), Captain Kirk (Star Trek), the Doctor (Doctor Who), Or Darth Vader (Star Wars).

In fact, the City of Domes may actually be the old WB Network gone wild: Katie Holmes, Joshua Jackson, James Van Der Beek and Michele Williams can have anything they want...except they can't be renewed after their thirtieth birthdays...

While the City of Domes government kills its citizens, forbids families, and squashes the truth, it asks its people to have a good time. Live for the now. Live for today. Just have fun. Fuck everybody else (literally). Again, go shopping, dude! Take a Xanax. man!

What I find affecting about all this is that in many cases totalitarianism arises out of what appear to be good intentions. And make no mistake, Logan's Run is about a leftist power grab (and I've used examples of a right wing power grab here).

In both cases, however, good intentions have had disastrous results. In real life, we've fought two wars we can't afford, broken the Geneva Conventions and seen a lapse in Civil Liberties...but the original cause was surely just: protecting the country from harm. In the world of Logan's Run, overpopulation was the motivating problem, but de-humanization was the outcome. In both cases, ideological over-reach led to disaster (either a world at War and the Great Recession or a New World Order.) This may be Logan's Run's most important lesson.

Logan's Run's solution to the dystopia may be naive, however, especially today. The film espouses, among other things a renewal of the natural order: a return to the re-born outside world, and a prscribed departure from computers, climate-controlled, shopping-malls and 24-hour-a-day leisure. I don't think that's a genie you can put back in the bottle (which is one reason I found the last episode of Battlestar Galactica so utterly intellectually dishonest: no one who has enjoyed running water and air-conditioning is going to willingly turn his back on all technology). Although Logan literally sees the "light of day" when he leaves the City of Domes (his first vision of the natural world is an apricot-colored sun rise...), it is not until he encounters The Old Man (Peter Ustinov) that the pieces of a re-born future start to come together. In the end, I think the message of Logan's Run is that with age might come wisdom, but - heck! - "older" leaders were the ones the original youngsters of the City of Domes inherited the mess-up Earth from in the first place.

One thing is for certain: Logan's Run favors humanity over machines. When faced with the reality that Sanctuary is but a fairy tale...a dream, Logan and the humans go on to (hopefully) construct a better society, a new "Sanctuary" where death is not mandatory at 30. By contrast, the Computer that runs the City of Domes is not able to conceive of such a silly ideal -- a fantasy utopia and paradise -- and it goes haywire in response; short-circuited Once again, we see imagination as a critical human quality; but it is a heritage that Logan's people have flargely neglected for hedonism. It takes the odyssey outside by Logan and the return visit to the City by the Old Man to rekindle it.

Those who watch Logan's Run and deride it as cheesy or outdated have missed the point. Perhaps they have not gazed deeply enough at the world it so confidently creates. The film -- for all its silliness and outdated special effects -- reveals what might happen to a society that finally turns irrevocably inward; becoming obsessed with youth and beauty at the expense of wisdom.

If we let that future become reality, then Washington D.C. and all those beautiful national landmarks there will end up but monuments to irrelevancy; artifacts of an age when liberty and intellect actually meant something. Indeed, that's what they have become in Logan's Run: meaningless, empty ruins from another epoch.

So in the final analysis, Logan's Run is a good cautionary science fiction film, one that reminds us to hold Big Brother accountable. And to -- at least every now and then -- peer out of our happy little gilded cages and ask, precisely, what the hell is going on in our names. Totalitarian States believe you are either with them (and Carousel) or against them (Runners), but Logan and Jessica find that a rich life exists beyond dogma, sound-bytes and jargon. After their visit to the ruins of Washington D.C., they find that, at the very least, life has...nuances. And that -- with human experience and age -- again, should follow...wisdom.

National Twilight Zone Day: "Come Wander with Me"

There are, perhaps, several episodes of Rod Serling's classic   The Twilight Zone  (1959-1964) more sharply-written, more morally-valuab...