A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 332 – Star Trek (2009)

Star Trek (2009) – January 26th, 2011

I have been thinking about this movie all day long. After we watched Wrath of Khan we put this in just because we wanted to see it. We’ve watched it several times. We saw it twice in the theaters. We took my mother to see it. We gave it as a gift. It was so much fun to watch tonight that if it wasn’t so late I’d start it again. And while we have three more movies in our two weeks of Trek, I feel like this is a particularly good way to end the true Star Trek feature films. It’s a great place to be sitting and I am eagerly awaiting the sequel. I like that. I like having something to look forward to.

On my review of Nemesis a friend of ours commented about not being ready to say goodbye to the TNG crew at that point and wanting them to live on in his imagination instead of getting such a “lackluster” send-off. And it got me thinking about how TNG ended with an episode planned to be a finale, and that episode leaves us with a possible future trajectory for the crew. And then the TNG movies just veered in another direction altogether after we’d really already been given our goodbye. So really, a reboot of the entire franchise is a fascinating direction to take here. It’s a transition, really, like what I was looking for in Nemesis and obviously wouldn’t have found. Using Leonard Nimoy’s Spock and an alternate timeline creation plot, there is a clear transition here from the old timeline to the new. It’s a transition on a grander scale than just changing over the crew. It’s changing the history. Letting us begin again. And while I do hope do eventually see a nod or two to TNG, I think the reboot of the original crew has plenty of mileage left before we get there.

I will admit, when I heard about the reboot I was nervous. After all, this is my childhood here. This was my introduction to science fiction – something I love dearly. This wasn’t casual for me. This was risky. And every casting decision made me arch a brow, Spock style, somewhat hesitant and more than a little skeptical. Much as I like Karl Urban and Simon Pegg, I had a hard time picturing them pulling off McCoy and Scotty. I enjoyed Zachary Quinto in the early episodes of Heroes but Spock? A superficial likeness wasn’t enough. Okay, I was totally on board for Zoe Saldana because she rocks and I knew she’d make Uhura just as kick-ass as she needed to be. But I was uncertain. And then in the bar near the beginning Chris Pine as Kirk patted a wall-o-muscle cadet on the cheek and called him cupcake and I was sold. Urban’s speech on the shuttle had me staring at him in awe and well, I should have known Simon Pegg would make Scotty his own. All John Cho had to do to convince me he was Sulu was pull out that sword and oh, Anton Yelchin as Chekhov is so earnest, I can’t help but like him. And then there’s Quinto. I was so worried I wouldn’t be able to not see Sylar. And instead I think were I to go back and watch Heroes I wouldn’t be able to not see Spock (and yes, that is a bizarre concept in my head). The cast is brilliant. They are everything I could want and nothing that I expected (except Saldana, of course).

And really, that’s the heart of the movie. The plot is a little ridiculous but the cast carries it all off effortlessly, so I’m willing to buy every single thing they’re selling. So what if the red matter is ridiculously overpowered? Who cares if Romulan mining ships could apparently totally annihilate the entire Federation if the Romulans ever sent them out instead of war ships? I find myself thoroughly ignoring all of that. It’s a combination of the cast being perfect and the writing working them in together as a team so that they’re all able to play off each other perfectly. If they’d been more split up, had less time on screen together, not been working as a crew, I don’t know if it would have felt right and without the right tone the whole thing might well have fallen apart. After all, this movie had to capture the spirit of the original show and movies with a great deal changed between them and it. There had to be a unifying tone to it all that kept it together. And with the fantastic interactions between Kirk, McCoy and Spock, plus Uhura and Kirk, Uhura and Spock (I’ll get to that too), Scotty showing up and immediately working with Kirk, Sulu and Chekhov slotting themselves right into the team, with all of that? It is a thing of beauty to watch.

But okay, I’ve waxed rhapsodic about the cast enough now. Let’s talk plot, because there are some key elements here that play into the reboot-as-transition thing I mentioned. Some time in the regular timeline, a sun near Romulus goes supernova and threatens the planet. Spock vows to try to save it using something called red matter which can apparently create black holes. But he fails, arriving too late to save the planet. Angered by the loss of his planet (and wife), Romulan miner Nero attacks Spock and both his ship and Spock’s ship end up going through a black hole and ending up in a new timeline. By arriving in the past and destroying the ship James Kirk’s father is on, Nero alters history. He vows revenge on Spock and on the Federation and plots to steal Spock’s ship when it appears and use the red matter to destroy every Federation planet, one by one, starting with Vulcan. Now, the changes here end up meaning that Kirk grows up without his father, which alters his course significantly. But things still come back. Pike captains the Enterprise. Kirk cheats the Kobayashi Maru test. Spock is first mate on the Enterprise. Uhura is there along with Sulu and Chekhov (who is only 17 at the time). Things all line back up. The timeline is trying to re-assert itself. There are tons of little callbacks and references (spot the tribble on Scotty’s desk when Kirk and Spock meet him) and Spock says ‘fascinating’ and Bones talks about being a doctor and Sulu’s got a sword and it’s all just so well choreographed without being a copy.

After all, there was no Uhura and Spock romance in the original series, but I love how it was done here and I think it adds some necessary character development for Spock and a little more material for Uhura to work with (plus it means Kirk so isn’t getting the girl in the end). Chekhov wasn’t on the ship at the beginning, but he’s right there in this movie and I think he belongs there. It’s good to see him right from the start. Kirk doesn’t start out as captain, Scotty needs to be retrieved from snowy exile after a wee transporter accident and by the end of the movie there are two Spocks and no Vulcan. And it’s that original Spock who makes this the transition. Ushering in a new era while simultaneously returning us to everything that was fantastic about the old one. It is a wonderful way to end the movies. For now.

January 26, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | 2 Comments

Star Trek (2009)

January 26, 2011

Star Trek (2009)

This movie is flat out amazing. J.J. Abrams has performed a miracle with this, his brilliant re-imagining and reboot of the Star Trek franchise. We saw this at least twice in the theaters and have seen it many times since it came out on DVD. Indeed we actually threw it in to watch last week just for the fun of it after reviewing Star Trek II.

You know from the first ten minutes of this movie what a wonderful ride you’re on. The very first shot in the film is a gritty up close flyby of a starfleet ship which introduces us to the aesthetic of the new movie. It’s got an ultra-realistic look to the special effects (complete with condensation on the lens of the camera) which draws you right into the action. There’s the infamous glare throughout this film which, in combination with a lot of hand-held camera work lends an almost documentary feel to things at times. It is the emotional impact of the start of the film which awes me though. After more then ten viewings over the last year those first ten minutes still never fail to leave me in tears. If you haven’t seen the movie yet then I don’t want to spoil it for you, and honestly I think you are poorer for not having had the chance to watch one of the greatest first ten minutes in action history.

I’m willing to forgive a lot after that opening. Abrams has me by the heart-strings and I’m along for the ride from that point on. I have quibbles about parts of the movie. For example I don’t particularly like the cavernous industrial design of the engine rooms in this movie. (They remind me of the MST3K episode Space Mutiny – where Mike and the Bots wonder if these boilers and septic systems don’t make the ship a little bottom-heavy.) There’s a chase on an alien plantet where CGI monsters pursue Kirk which reminds me of the “always a bigger fish” journey through the planet’s core in Star Wars I: The Phantom Crappiness. And I don’t particularly like the deus-ex-machina trans-warp-beaming trick that is used to get Kirk onto the Enterprise at one point. If you introduce magic tech like that you risk ruining the tension of future stories – it makes it too easy for people to get around. But all this pales in comparison to that first ten minutes. And in comparison with all the other things in this movie that are done so right.

Much has been radically changed in this new Trek universe, but part of what makes this movie so much fun is that there are so many things that are so true to the source material. We get to see Kirk take the Kobayashi Maru test as alluded to in Wrath of Khan. We get to see Pike in command of the Enterprise as in The Cage and in his wheelchair as in The Menagerie. We get to see a red-suited member of an away team meet his inevitable fate. Sulu with his sword, Kirk with his womanizing, Spock with his logic, Chekov with his accent – it’s all so perfectly reminiscent of the original series. From the very first shot of the movie we know this is Star Trek, even if it is radically new, just from the familiar pinging of the instruments on a Star Trek starship bridge.

Abrams and his crew understand something important about Star Trek – that at its core it is not about space battles or time travel or aliens. Sure those things are in a good Star Trek story, but that’s not really the heart of Star Trek. The heart of Star Trek – any Star Trek – is the crew. The crew of the Enterprise (or of DS-9 or Voyager for that matter) are family. For nerds like my wife and myself they are our family. The greatest miracle of this movie is that we get to see our old friends Kirk and Bones and Spock and Chekov and Scotty and Uhura and Sulu having another grand adventure.

It was a tremendous risk – to have new young actors portraying these iconic and oh so familiar characters. This movie’s greatest success is that in absolutely every case the performances we see here not only ring true but are able to bring new life to these characters. Chris Pine doesn’t allow himself to do a Shatner impersonation (except a single syllable line near the end of the movie) and instead shows us the young, brash, impulsive and charismatic Kirk we remember from way back in the original series. Zachary Quinto (who in my first few viewings of this movie I only saw as Sylar with pointy ears) actually does a spectacular job portraying the little quirks of Nimoy’s Spock – so well that in a scene where the two of them actually have a conversation with each other I could really believe that they were both the same character. Karl Urban channels DeForest Kelley so well that it’s absolutely eerie. The rest of the crew are slightly more radical interpretations. John Cho as Sulu is not so much based on George Takai’s Sulu as it is a re-interpretation of the same basic character. Anton Yelchin’s Chekov has the advantage of beiing performed by an actual Russian. Simon Pegg’s Scotty is played mostly for laughs (which was often true of Doohan’s Scotty as well) and is a joy to watch – overblown accent and all. Most impressive is Zoe Saldana’s Uhura. She’s a much expanded character given a lot more to work with than Nichelle ever was, and Saldana is an extremely accomplished actress, so it is a joy to watch her at work. (And thankfully not a fan dance in sight.)

This movie single-handedly resurrected a dead franchise. Now I find myself in a state I haven’t been since the eighties – eagerly awaiting the next Star Trek sequel and wondering just what adventures Kirk and his crew will have next. Sometime next year we’ll find out the answer to that question.

January 26, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | 2 Comments

Move 331 – Star Trek: Nemesis

Star Trek: Nemesis – January 25th, 2011

I had not seen this movie before tonight. I feel bad. I feel like a failed Trek fan. I should have seen this earlier. I mean, it’s been a little over eight years since it was released and this is the first time I’m putting it in to watch it. Andy’s seen it before, but I just never got around to it. I missed it in the theaters and then I heard things and I was never quite in the mood for the things I’d heard. But there’s no putting it off any longer. It’s time to face the last of the TNG movies.

I was spoiled for this movie. I was spoiled well before I started following Brent Spiner on twitter (he’s not for the faint of heart or the faint of humor, so beware), but if I hadn’t been before that, it wouldn’t have taken long. And if you haven’t been spoiled for this movie, I apologize for hinting at it there without a warning, but it’s been, as I mentioned, eight years. If you’re still holding out and want to avoid spoilers, best to hit that back button now.

This movie is, much like last night’s Insurrection, an episode trying to be a film. There’s something off about the scale of it and the tone of it. Something feels reduced and I don’t just mean the budget. But the budget does come into it. It rather feels like the crew’s been moved onto a runabout from the Enterprise and then been told to go have the same sort of adventures they always had. It’s just not big enough or grand enough. There are even moments during the big space battle where I thought it felt far smaller than some of the episodes did. Which is a pity, because the concept is an interesting one that makes me wish that there’d been more done with the Romulans in the movies to lead up to here.

The plot revolves around a mysterious figure, Shinzon, and his takeover of the Romulan senate and eventual plans for the destruction of Earth. Shinzon’s one of those baddies who has some meat to him. He’s not bad just for the sake of being bad. He’s got backstory and motivation, so that’s something, at least. Unfortunately, it’s not as though there’s any groundwork laid for this particular baddie. I mean, yes, we know the Romulans and they’ve been a constant since the original series, but while they showed up in episodes like Gambit and The Chase, they weren’t really a focal point after mid-season 6. Which is a shame, as I quite like the Romulans and always found them to be interesting adversaries for the Federation. But with so many other baddies to deal with and stories to tell, they seem to have rather fallen by the wayside for TNG. So encountering them here seems a bit out of the blue.

If there’d been some more groundwork laid for the Romulans, and for Shinzon, perhaps this movie wouldn’t fall as flat as it does. I mean, there’s some good potential here, with a Romulan plot to replace Picard with a clone, and the uprising of the oppressed Remans in the Romulan Empire. That’s solid stuff there and I love the scenes in the Romulan Senate and I love the politics and insight. But it’s coming out of nowhere. It doesn’t even have a recent plot near the end of the series to point back to. And it could have! There was a lot done earlier in the series, with Spock and reunification and so on and so forth. But then the Romulans sort of seem to have been ignored to make room for the Cardassians. And then here comes a movie – the final TNG movie – with a plot about Romulan plots and schemes and if this had been an episode towards the end of season 7 I would have been thrilled. As a movie it just misses the mark a bit.

Going in, I think I was biased against this movie. I love the show so much, and knowing that this was regarded as one of the rather lackluster additions to the Trek films made me worry that it would feel like a disservice to the series. And in a way it is. If it hadn’t been the last TNG film, or there’d been another film to transition from TNG to something else, maybe it would be so disappointing. But then, what would TNG be transitioning to? By the time this movie was released Deep Space Nine and Voyager had finished their runs and Enterprise was the only show in town, not that it would be something to transition to, given the time periods involved. No, this movie couldn’t be a transition. It had to be a send-off. And in that, it fails, largely because in order to focus on the Romulan plot, with the space battle and Picard clone and politics and all, it loses a lot of character moments. Granted, what’s left grossly slow down the movie, making it move at a snail’s pace at times. But they would have been something more than the clipped and awkward moments that remain. Really, the best of what’s left is between Data and Picard and Data and his never-before-mentioned ‘brother’.

If I’d been captaining this movie, I know I’d have ditched the telepathic Reman and the disgusting and thoroughly unnecessary psychic assault on Troi (the only purpose of which seems to have been to allow her to be a Betazoid Ouija board later on) and kept in more of the character moments. Yes, it would have slowed things down, but it would have given it more of the feel it was clearly going for. Better yet, I’d have tried to find a way to better marry the Romulan plot, with Shinzon’s insistence that Picard is old news, and his fascination with the past and family, with the side plot of the crew we knew breaking up and going their separate ways. I’d have tried to tie Shinzon’s taunts about Picard doing what he wants to do back to Picard’s battle with the Borg and First Contact. But no. Too bad. Because there could have been so much more here. And it does have some moments that genuinely made me tear up.

In the trivia for this movie it mentions that filming for one scene near the end had to be halted due to Patrick Stewart involuntarily beginning to cry. I remember reading an article in TV Guide that mentioned the emotional toll the end of Voyager took on its cast and crying myself just at the description. I remember watching All Good Things… and feeling like a friend had just told me they were moving to Mars and we’d never see each other again. I didn’t get the same feeling from the original series since it was a closed canon by the time I started watching and well, there’s Generations to pass the torch, however sloppily it was done. But this? This is like saying goodbye again, only it’s just a wave and a nod and no matter how much potential was there, it just isn’t the farewell I want it to be.

January 25, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | 2 Comments

Star Trek Nemesis

January 25, 2011

Star Trek Nemesis

For a long time it seemed this was to have been the last Star Trek movie. It’s also the tenth Star Trek movie which means that in accordance with the supposed curse it should have been one of the better films. Sadly this is not the case. This is actually a pretty disappointing send off for the Enterprise E and the Next Generation crew. In many ways it is a blatant rip-off of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan – from its obsessed enemy bent on the defeat of the Enterprises captain to the selfless sacrifice of a crew member at the end. The problem is that it doesn’t do too good a job of it. It has all the tropes and cliches of an action sci-fi movie but its as if somebody collected them in one place but didn’t quite know how to make a movie out of them.

The basic plot here is that a group of Reman rebels (from the shadowy slave mines on Romulus’ sister planet Remus) have overthrown the Romulan senate. They send overtures to the Federation claiming to desire peace – and naturally Jean-Luc Picard and his crew are sent as envoys. Imagine their shock when it transpires that the leader of the rebels is not only human, but is a clone of Picard himself. This is a pretty cool idea, but the movie doesn’t seem to know what to do with it. At first there’s a lot of noise about how if Picard had lived his life as a Reman slave he would have turned out like Shinzon, but ultimately that thread is dropped in favor of using Shinzon’s origin as an excuse for him to hunt Picard to the ends of the galaxy. Shinzon is dying, you see, and he needs Picard’s blood to stay alive. Or something like that. Oh, and Shinzon’s ship, the Scimitar, has an unstable ultimate weapon that could be used to wipe out all life on an entire planet. For no discernible reason, except that he wants to be a bastard I suppose, Shinzon wants to wipe out the entire population of Earth with this doomsday device. The Enterprise must stop him at any cost.

There are a whole bunch of other threads woven into the film as well, but they are supposed to support the primary plot. Although at times they seem slapped on and wedged in. There’s a whole plot about a Soong-type android prototype called B-4 which the crew discover on a desert planet before the main plot gets started. B-4 looks like Data but is simple-minded and childish.

Then there is Ron Pearlman as one of the bat-faced Remans (they evolved in darkness on the side of Remus that faces away from their sun you see.) Not content to have the bad-guys here be a bunch of caricatures that look like monster-movie rejects the film makers felt the need to imbue the chief Reman, Vkruk, with mental powers which he uses to help Shinzon mind-rape Councillor Troi. Why? Because they’re EVIL dammit! The movie tries to make this into some kind of macho thing between Vkruk and Troi’s new husband Will (nee Riker.) Why do they get into a one-on-one hand-to-hand battle in the bowls of the Enterprise during a space battle? Because you need a macho hand-to-hand fight, right?

That’s what I mean about this movie going through the motions of being an action movie. It has Riker and Vkruk dangling over a bottomless pit net because it makes any sense to have a bottomless pit inside the Enterprise but because that’s the sort of thing that happens to a macho hero. Why at the start of the film do Picard, Data and Worf land so very far away from the positronic readings they’re investigating? So they can tool around in a Worthog from the Halo series and have a Mad Max inspired chase (the end of which apparently Joss Whedon stole for Serenity two years later.) Why are the corridors on the Scimitar so oddly spacious? So that Picard can fly a captured fighter craft through them (in a scene which was unintentionaly hilarious to me because it looked like the opening credits to a Naked Gun movie.)

Furthermore, after having watched nothing but Star Trek movies for more than a week before this one there’s a distinct feeling of having seen a lot of this movie before. The ship that can fire on the Enterprise while still cloaked? Star Trek VI. The character death at the end of the movie? Star Trek II. The enemy bent on the destruction of Earth? Star Trek I, IV, and First Contact. A spectacular and lengthy scene of the Enterprise crashing? Star Trek Generations. I really didn’t feel like this movie had anything new to contribute. Unless you count the kind of cute wedding scene at the beginning of the movie – but if I want to see Enterprise crew members pairing off I’ll just read some fanfic. I don’t need a movie for that.

The odd thing is that there is clear groundwork laid for a Search for Spock style sequel to this movie but nothing ever came of it. The entire franchise had run out of steam it seems and for eight long years after this movie there were no new Star Treks in theaters. There had been one every two or three years since 1979 and then… silence. It’s like a loved one taken off of life support – you can’t bear to see them go but they were only a pale shadow of what they once were. Then, suddenly, in 2010 – the resurrection. But that’s tomorrow’s review.

January 25, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | 1 Comment

Movie 330 – Star Trek: Insurrection

Star Trek: Insurrection – January 24th, 2011

Last night as I was going to bed I kept trying to remember what this movie involved. I knew I’d seen it and I knew that I’d been able to remember it earlier in the day, but I’d totally blanked on it by evening. It just didn’t make much of an impression on me, I suppose. Rewatching it tonight, I can sort of see why. I mean, it’s not bad, honestly. Take a dash of Thine Own Self, a touch of Who Watches the Watchers, a bit of First Contact (the episode) and a plot tool from Homeward and then toss in some unnecessary fiddling with time and baste it with sinister overtones vaguely reminiscent of Coming of Age and Conspiracy (though without the parasites) and you’ve got this movie. And really, when the best way to describe a movie is to list the middling-ish episodes of the show the movie is based on that are similar in feel? That should tell you something.

I’ll come right out and say it: I don’t dislike this movie. Take out the time fiddling and the super wise 12 year old kid and honestly? I’m totally fine with it. It’s just that, like the episodes I mentioned above, it’s not really super outstanding. Sure, those episodes have some good moments (and the Data-centric Thine Own Self stands out for me as above the rest), but do they really stack up against the best of the series? It would be impossible. I can even see some hints of The Inner Light being attempted, with a romantic storyline for Picard and the idyllic setting that he can’t stay in. But it just doesn’t succeed like that episode did. For one, there’s too much action. For two, it tries too hard. And it doesn’t fail completely. It just doesn’t hit the mark it’s aiming for.

I blame the time fiddling. See, the plot revolves around a botched attempt by the Federation and new allies the Son’a to relocate the Ba’ku, a group of 600 or so people living on a remote planet in a cluster of nebulae known as the Briar Patch. The planet has a concentration of a particular type of radiation that has regenerative and restorative powers on organic life. The Son’a have found a way to harvest it but it means making the planet uninhabitable. Since the planet is in Federation space they’ve managed to enlist the Federation’s help. But the mission goes awry when Data learns of what’s really going on – not the simple observation mission he was led to believe it was – and tries to interfere. The Enterprise comes running and soon the crew figures it all out too and decide to help out the Ba’ku, who are also not what they appeared. Turns out the Ba’ku have warp capability. They just don’t care to use it or any other form of technology, preferring to live simple agrarian lives on their amazing planet that slows down their aging process. When you barely age, why not take decades to perfect a skill such as weaving or carving or whatnot? Oh, and they can make time stand still.

What’s that, you say? They can do what? Yeah, they can make time stand still. There’s some babble about it from one of the Ba’ku, Anij, whom Picard has rather fallen for, and she goes on about how it took the Ba’ku centuries to figure out that they don’t need centuries to appreciate a single moment and single moments can last as long as a century or something like that. It’s nonsense. It’s ridiculous. And it has no purpose in the plot other than to save Anij herself later in the movie when there’s a thoroughly unnecessary cave-in and Picard has to stop time where they are so the rest of the crew can save them. Yeah. I know. I wish I could explain it. I kept thinking I’d forgotten it being used during the climax or something but it never came up. It’s just sitting there mid-film, padding out the romantic plot and taking up space. It’s like making a point to set one’s phaser to kill and then never firing it (that would be Pavel Chekhov’s Phaser, ha ha).

I’m of somewhat mixed opinion when it comes to the larger plot and mood of the movie. For one, I think it’s uneven. After all, on the planet’s surface you have the paradise, as proclaimed by the movie’s poster, with Georgi’s eyes suddenly working and Worf going through Klingon puberty again, Riker and Troi acting like teenagers in love and so on and so forth. And there’s the romantic plot, with Picard and Anij and the time stopping. And then up in space there are battles and ships fighting and tricky maneuvers through the nebulae and the two plots just don’t fit together terribly well. They aren’t balanced like the surface/space plots were in First Contact (movie this time). Maybe without the romantic plot it wouldn’t feel like the two parts are so opposed, but it got shoehorned in anyhow, like trying to wedge Lessons into Journey’s End and then tacking the mess that made onto any episode involving a space battle.

I’m also conflicted about the mood because of the sinister overtones I mentioned earlier. The Federation and Starfleet in this movie are far darker and less noble than the organizations we know from earlier material. These are not organizations still upholding the ideals they were founded on. Or rather, they are, but only in public. Behind the scenes they’re shown to be as ruthless as their enemies, willing to ally with rogues using banned weapons and destroy civilizations if they’re in inconvenient places. I admit, I never got into Enterprise and I lost track of Deep Space Nine before Section 31 was brought in, but everything I’ve heard and read about it makes me think that this movie was pointing in that direction. And in just about any other universe I’d be all over the morally gray stuff that entails. But in the Trek universe I want my ideals. I want the gray moral areas to be more about specific situations, not about entire organizations going gray from the inside.

Like I said, I don’t dislike this movie. But I am conflicted about it. I like a lot of the components to it. I like the blocks it’s built from just fine. They’re not my very favorite blocks, but they’re solid and all. It’s just that they don’t quite come together to form a good movie. I know I’ve named a lot of episodes in this review and that’s really quite intentional. I think this movie is an episode. It’s a perfectly fine middle-of-the-road episode. It’s not one I’d come back to over and over and over, but it’s also not one I’d go out of my way to avoid. If I passed it on television I’d stop on it, but at the next commercial break I might flip away from it, just like quite a few episodes. If it wasn’t for that ridiculous time stopping thing I might stick around, but hey, if they can stop time then maybe they’ll still be there when I flip back.

January 24, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Star Trek Insurrection

January 24, 2011

Star Trek Insurrection

I remember being underwhelmed by this movie when I first saw it. This was the first Star Trek movie since Star Trek IV which I had not seen in the theater, so maybe part of the problem is that I’ve only ever seen it on the small screen. As I watched it tonight, however, in the context of having watched all the other Star Trek movies in this past week or so, I couldn’t figure out quite why I was so down on this movie. The truth is that it has some good action, many of the best special effects in any of the Star Trek movies, and some fun comedic moments for all the members of the crew. Perhaps the issue is that after the adventure of First Contact this movie has much smaller stakes – it feels less epic and more intimate.

This movie starts out with a mystery. Why has Data suddenly gone haywire and sabotaged the observation of a pre-warp society? Who are the Son’a – the sinister race that the Federation have allied themselves with and just what is going on with them? Why does everybody have so many parentheses in their names? I have always liked being thrown into a story and having to figure out what’s going on, and this is the only Star Trek movie that really takes that route. In keeping with the mystery theme there are secrets to be revealed as this movie plays out. Nothing is precisely as it seems, and that’s probably my favorite part of this movie.

There are no universe-ending stakes here. This is a story of the Enterprise bridge crew defending six hundred Ba’ku from forced deportation from their planet, which the Son’a and Federation crave for some reason. Against direct orders from a superior officer. It’s pure simple fun, but it doesn’t have the same tension or power as First Contact.

As a result the movie feels smaller, less grand and more intimate. It’s perfect for the small screen. It’s like going back a few years after the TV show ended to see what our old Next Generation friends have been up to since we last saw them. When we catch up with Picard and the rest of the Enterprise crew they are swamped with work, buried in ambassadorial work with hardly a moment between missions (as wonderfully conveyed with a great shot of Picard and crew walking through the corridors of the Enterprise hashing out schedules and preparing for a big reception they’re hosting for a newly inducted race in the Federation.) Worf shows up from nowhere with no real explanation as to why he’s not on DS-9 except that he needs to be in this movie, and Data is off on his mission on the Ba’ku homeworld.

There are a lot of great special effects in this film. More than in most of the other Star Trek movies. Particularly the chase through the nebulous gasses that surround Ba’ku and all the cloaked operatives on their observation mission, who are visible only through monitors in the duck blind where the Son’a and Federation have been watching from. Jonathan Frakes once again shows himself to be a competent action director, and his familiarity with his cast makes for a great collection of performances. There’s nothing as demanding as the powerful emotions in First Contact, but still everybody gets a chance in the spotlight. There’s a nonsensical but fun duet between Picard and Data as they sing a song from HMS Pinafore. There’s fun flirting between Riker and Troi which feels reminiscent of Encounter at Farpoint (even more so when Riker shaves off his beard.) Data forms a bond with a child on the planet’s surface. Picard forms a bond with a woman on the planet’s surface. Worf goes through puberty. Geordie watches a sunrise and Beverly talks about her boobs. (I suppose Gates McFadden has the smallest role here – maybe she had other commitments at the time?)

One problem with the Next Gen movies is that they’re each a sand-alone piece. They have no continuity or mythos that builds from one film to the next. If it were not for the destruction of the Enterprise D in Generations, the change from visor to implants for Geordie, Data’s emotion chip, and the “character death” in Nemesis these films could be watched in pretty much any order. I think they suffer because of that. There’s no evolution for the characters. As a result this movie, while fun to watch and perfectly acceptable is not particularly memorable. At least this one is an odd numbered Star Trek movie that didn’t completely suck. Tomorrow: an even numbered Star Trek that wasn’t particularly overwhelming either.

January 24, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | 1 Comment

Movie 329 – Star Trek: First Contact

Star Trek: First Contact – January 23rd, 2011

Another night, another Star Trek movie. But tonight? Tonight is a really really good one. It is, in my opinion, the best of the Next Generation movies (though I have yet to see Nemesis, I’ve heard enough to stand by my opinion) and I think it easily stands next to Wrath of Khan and I’ll get to why in a moment. It’s well done on so many levels and it’s an utter joy to watch it again tonight.

This movie came out when Andy and I were dating. I don’t remember when I first saw it, though it’s likely we saw it in the theater together. Andy thinks we probably did and he’s probably right. I just remember loving it. I remember thinking it was fantastic and miles ahead of the first TNG movie. It had everything I could want from a TNG movie. Plenty of screen time for my favorite characters, fantastic bad guys, history, action and just the right amount of humor. Part of this – a large part – is that it’s solidly written and plotted. There are two major storylines going on as part of the larger plot and they’re handled well and balanced perfectly.

Of the two storylines – Picard and the crew on the Enterprise dealing with the Borg invasion and Riker and the crew on Earth getting Zefram Cochrane’s ship ready – I like the Picard plot best. But the Cochrane plot is fantastic too, largely, I think, because it’s handled with both humor and admiration. Cochrane turns out to be nothing like what Riker, Troi or Geordi expected. He’s a heavy drinker and easily discouraged who turns out to have started the warp drive project with hopes of selling the technology and retiring somewhere tropical. The crew’s reactions to him (and his reactions to them) are comical, yes. But they still know that regardless of what he appears to be, he’s also a genius and the man who managed warp drive, making possible the world they know. And when the Phoenix makes the jump and they turn around to look at Earth, James Cromwell as Cochrane has this moment of awakening, realizing that what he said he wanted and what this actually means aren’t the same thing at all. The ending, with him playing Roy Orbison for the Vulcans and pouring them shots, shows he hasn’t changed that much, but that moment in the cockpit makes me believe that his aims have. And the crew’s reactions to being a part of this history they’ve known and revered for years are wonderfully played by all. They’re clearly in awe of the situation, but frustrated by the reality of it. It’s all just so very nicely done and I have to credit the writing, directing and acting, because any of the three being off would have ruined it.

Really, though, it’s the Picard and Borg plot that makes me truly love this movie. I’ve always found Picard to be a compelling character and his arcs in storylines like The Best of Both Worlds, I, Borg and Starship Mine (and The Inner Light, which I think is the best Picard character story ever) as well as his interactions with Data in Measure of a Man and The Offspring lay some solid groundwork for his character here. With the Borg attacking Earth, using a temporal vortex to go back in time and disrupt first contact so as to be able to assimilate the Human race, you can see all of Picard’s motivations. With the Borg involved there’s no way it couldn’t be personal for him. And that gives the whole movie an immediacy and intimacy that I love. Yes, it has a big space battle and it has a sweeping scale to the plot, but the series made Picard’s relationship with the Borg so painfully close that it’s the perfect thing to use to give the movie a character-driven plot. As I said, it stands with Wrath of Khan for me and I think the personal involvement of the captain of the Enterprise is a big deal there. It’s an important note in the overall scheme of things.

There are some fantastic moments in this movie. Picard’s conversation with Lily (played amazingly by Alfre Woodard), with the Moby Dick quotations and his breakdown in the face of realizing just how personal this all is to him? It’s one of my favorite Trek moments of all time. Patrick Stewart can get away with quoting Melville and shouting about drawing lines and it works for him. It works for Picard. There’s some fantastic stuff between Data and the Borg queen as well, tying into Data’s quest for more humanity. And on the other end of the spectrum there’s Geordi and Cochrane and every interaction they have. Geordi’s clearly got a bit of hero worship and Cochrane’s freaked by the whole idea of becoming a hero to be worshipped in the first place. It adds a warmer human connection to the movie than the cold and angry Borg and Picard bits. All in all, it’s just plain wonderfully done, with fun cameos and good action to round out some truly great Trek storytelling.

January 23, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Star Trek First Contact

January 23, 2011

Star Trek First Contact

Tonight we watch the best of the Next Generation movies. It’s a kind of combination of the best bits of Wrath of Khan – with its single minded and unstoppable foe from the old television series – and a fun time-travel plot as seen in The Voyage Home. It is full of great action, fun humor and thrilling tension. Once again the very existence of the entire Human race is at risk, and only the crew of the Enterprise can save to world.

There is a big epic space battle in this movie, but it is right at the very beginning. The Borg, that evil race of cyborgs that once captured Picard and nearly destroyed the Earth before have returned. If this were any other sci-fi movie the climactic battle with the Borg cube would be the rousing end to the film, but here it’s just the beginning. The Enterprise E returns to Earth to battle the cube and is able to wrest victory from the jaws of defeat at the very last minute. Because of some lingering connection Picard has with the Borg he is able to point our a weakness in the cube and it is quickly dispatched. Just before it explodes though a small sphere flies out of it and with the Enterprise in close pursuit it dives backwards through time.

The Enterprise crew soon understand that it is the Borg plan to kill Zefram Cochrane, the inventor of the warp drive, and thereby stop the first contact between Humans and friendly aliens which would result in the formation of the Federation of Planets. They need to follow that Borg sphere back and stop it from altering history to save the entire Human race.

There are several plots going on simultaneously here. On the surface of the planet there’s Commander Riker, Troi, Geordie and a handful of engineers attempting to repair the Phoenix – Cochrane’s prototype warp capable starship. Meanwhile on the Enterprise the Borg have managed to infiltrate the engineering deck and are slowly taking over the Enterprise from the inside, subduing and assimilating the crew as they go. The Borg Queen, a being we never knew about before this movie who somehow IS the Borg and is present on every one of their ships it would seem, captures Data and begins to assimilate him in reverse. Rather than grafting technology onto him as they do with all their biological conquests the Borg begin to graft living tissue onto Data, bringing him closer to his goal of being more human. Jonathan Frakes does a great job following all these different plots, intercutting between them and never allowing them to become confusing or jumbled. In general in fact I would say that Frakes (who of course plays Riker as well as directing here) has a very straight forward and direct style, which works well with this material. He also does a great job keeping the tension going throughout.

There is a tone to this movie that isn’t really present in the rest of the Star Trek movie series. Part of it comes from the Borg themselves. They are such a wonderfully sinister and unstoppable enemy. The notion of them insidiously taking over the Enterprise deck by deck is treated almost as horror movie material. They are the ultimate conformist boogeymen, and their intrusion into this beautiful, new, shiny Enterprise is terrifying. But more than that it’s the intense performances of the cast that bring this movie to a higher level than other perfectly good but not quite great movies (like Undiscovered Country for example.)

In particular there are several fantastic scenes between Captain Picard, who is haunted and driven by his memories of having been assimilated by the Borg, and Lily Sloan, a human from Cochrane’s time who finds herself on the Enterprise during the invasion. Patrick Stewart is in peak form here and has great material to work with. It’s rare to see the character of Picard so broken, and it results in some fantastic moments. Then there’s Alfre Woodard as Lili, who at first doesn’t understand what’s going on, but very quickly shows herself to be a woman able to stand up to Picard and tell him things that nobody on his crew is able to. The tow of them work so well off of each other that every scene involving them is pure gold.

Brent Spiner also gets a few chances to shine as the conflicted Data. It was a great idea to have his constant quest to be more human become the wedge that the Borg attempt to use to turn him to their side. It’s fun to see Data coping with new emotions and sensations, and his interactions with the Borg Queen are great.

What’s great about this movie is that although it has a lot of fantastic action scenes like the initial space battle and the zero-gravity fight on the outside hull of the Enterprise, it is the intense character drama that really brings the movie to life. The humor of the crew dealing with the stubborn Cochrane on the planet’s surface is fun too, as are the clever cameo appearances of members of the crew of the Voyager. (Robert Picardo reprises his role as the emergency medical hologram complete with his catch phrase “please state the nature of the medical emergency” and Ethan Phillips appears as part of a holodeck program that Picard lures a couple Borg into.)

I’m pretty sure that this was the first Star Trek movie Amanda and I saw in the theater together. It was a wonderful experience. I can still remember going back to the car afterwards with her and both of us exclaiming over how exciting and thrilling the movie had been. It wonderfully captures everything I love about Star Trek in a single exciting package.

January 23, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 328 – Star Trek Generations

Star Trek Generations – January 22nd, 2011

Ah, the end of an era. And I say that with both regret and good cheer, because I find I am capable of loving both original and next generation flavors of Star Trek, so the passing of the torch is a bit mixed. On one hand, I do so love The Next Generation. On the other hand, there’s something so iconic and fantastic about the original cast and the world they inhabited. But as the finale of TNG says, all good things must come to an end. Which is rather the point of this movie. It’s all about moving on and new beginnings. I only wish they’d made it a little sooner.

I fully understand why this particular storyline was done post-TNG. After all, they destroy the Enterprise. That’s a big fucking deal, you know? But at the same time, according to the trivia for this movie, DeForest Kelley couldn’t join the cast because his failing health made it impossible for him to get on-set insurance. Things like that make me sad that there couldn’t have been a better send off for the whole crew. I realize that having a fully realized plot along with a goodbye to a whole cast would be tricky, but it could have been done. I’m sorry Sulu’s not there (even though the character’s daughter shows up). I’m sorry Leonard Nimoy’s issues with Spock’s lines in the script couldn’t be rectified in time for him to agree to join the cast. I’m sorry Uhura isn’t there. I love Kirk and there are some great lines and moments between him, Chekhov and Scotty, but something just feels missing to me, and I suspect it’s the rest of the original core cast. Still, given the timing and the inevitable focus on the newer cast, it is understandable.

And really, there is some great stuff here for the newer cast. Granted, by the time Generations was released, TNG was over. The last episode aired in May of 1994 and the movie was released the following fall. That’s not too big a gap there, which I liked, because man, did I miss the show. I mentioned in my review of the first movie that I watched TNG in its original run. I only missed episodes when it got pre-empted for things like football (those nights were unhappy ones in my home, with only my brother unfazed by it) and by the time the last episode aired, I’d grown up with it. Seven years is a long time when you’re the age I was and I cried when it ended. So the movie was more than welcome and at the time I was only too pleased to have just a taste of the older cast. After all, they were my parents’ crew. Mine were all on screen (except Wesley) and I loved it. But tonight, coming out of six nights of original cast movies, I’d simply have liked a bit more. One more scene with Sulu. One more exchange between Kirk, Bones and Spock. Ah well.

But enough maundering about my feelings regarding the overall tone. Let’s talk time travel. To be honest, this movie has some glaring holes. Time travel plots are tricky to execute well and hole-less and there are certainly some issues here. If Kirk and Picard, once in the time vortex, can exit whenever they want, why not go back to any point they want? Why not go back to keep the trilithium away from Dr. Soren? Why not save the Enterprise? Unless you put some sort of internal logic on your time travel method, you open yourself up to all sorts of issues. And what about duplicates? That seems like prime material for mucking with! After all, take a look at Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and the use of two versions of a single person, one version knowing what the other is doing and creating a paradox wherein they influence their own actions. That’s what makes time travel plots fun! And this movie rather ignores it all. It’s not so much a time travel plot as a convenient tool to allow Kirk’s presence and some rather maudlin scenes wherein we learn that Picard wants a family. It’s sloppy, to be honest.

The whole plot revolves around the character of Dr. Soran, an El-Aurian who’s spent decades trying to find a way back into the Nexus, which is a time vortex in which you can do anything. You can relive moments from your past or create the life you always wished you had. A gigantic ribbon of energy seems to be the only way into it and so Soran has made a deal with the Klingon sisters Lursa and B’Etor for their aid in acquiring the right materials to get the ribbon to do whatever he needs it to do to actually get in contact with it. Kirk was lost to the Nexus when the ribbon hit the Enterprise B during her maiden voyage. So sixty-odd years later, when the ribbon shows back up and the Enterprise D goes to investigate an attack on a solar observatory, it’s up to Picard to stop Soran from destroying everything and so on and so forth. I’m feeling rather Men in Black about the whole “the fate of the galaxy is at stake!” here. It’s always at stake. I sort of ignored the details. I’m sure they were excellent sci-fi technobabble. In any case, there’s a big explosion and the Enterprise has to separate the saucer section and crash land it on a planet. Meanwhile, Picard’s having a very Victorian-feeling family Christmas in the Nexus, where he has a bunch of curly-haired moppets and a wife and a small-but-rideable carousel in his living room. Kirk, on the other hand, is having visions of settling down with a woman named Antonia. And they both leave it all behind to go save the day.

Now, I’m not saying I don’t enjoy this movie. I enjoy it a hell of a lot. But I don’t enjoy it for the plot. The plot, to me, feels somewhat incidental. Sure, yeah, the universe is in danger, rogue Klingons want a weapon of horrible power, time ribbon, mad scientist. It’s got holes and I honestly think the series did a better job dealing with Picard’s regrets and life choices than the movie does. So what I enjoy about it is the acting and the character interactions and the visuals, which are nicely done. It is fun to see Kirk and Picard on screen together, even if the means to do so is a little wonky. I like seeing the newer crew get a feature and there’s some fantastic over-acting from Brent Spiner as Data, who uses his new emotion chip and finds it difficult to control. I like the saucer separation and the evacuation scenes, because I love seeing how a ship like the Enterprise D, with all of its civilians and the like, deals with a crisis. I like that the movie exists. It could have been so much better, but it was a bonus taste of TNG when I was missing it and so while it might be nostalgia talking, I like it. Holes and all.

January 22, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Star Trek Generations

January 22, 2011

Star Trek Generations

This movie represents not just the first film involving the cast of the next generation but also the first Star Trek movie to give up on using the numbered system. This made for fun times when I was still working at Blockbuster and a customer would want to know the order of the movies. Of course I know it, but most of the time they would not. For the average non Trek fan there’s no way to tell which comes first: Generations or Insurrection. It also means that we’ll never see Star Trek XII: So Very Tired. Even though the next Star Trek movie to come out will be the twelfth.

Now I’ve watched a lot of Star Trek the Next Generation. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen every episode. (Well, I might have tuned out for large parts of Shades of Gray.) When the show first started airing I recorded every episode on VHS and watched them over and over again. That first season was pretty awful at times, but it was the only Star Trek on television and I loved it for that. In college I and a small band of nerds and recluses would emerge from our rooms once a week to watch new episodes in the common room as they aired. Amanda and I own all seven seasons of the next generation on DVD in their entirety. I mention this simply to stress that I think I know pretty well how to recognise an episode of TNG. Which is what this movie is. It may have played in theaters and been filmed in Panavision, but in almost every regard it feels like a long episode of the show.

It features actors and characters from the original series, as in the episode Relics. It has a scene of silliness on the holodeck that brings to mind episodes like A Fistful of Datas. It features plot threads from the TV show such as Data’s ongoing attempts to become more human and the emotion chip his creator Dr. Soong left for him. It even features the Klingon sisters Lursa and B’etor who appeared multiple times in the show trying to take over the Klingon high council and causing trouble for Worf.

In general I would not even say that it is among the better episodes of the series. It doesn’t have the end-of-the-Earth stakes of The Best of Both Worlds or All Good Things. It doesn’t have the emotional heft of The Inner Light. It doesn’t have the mind-bending coolness of Remember Me or Parallels. And the show had done a better job, in my opinion, of bringing Montgomery Scott and Spock into the 24th century world of TNG than this movie does of bringing Kirk to the future.

One problem this movie has is that it is so transparent in its attempts to bring captains Picard and Kirk together for a single epic confrontation with evil. The movie centers around a wandering temporal vortex called the Nexus which back at the end of Kirk’s career slammed into the Enterprise-B and absorbed Kirk in the process and has been floating around the galaxy ever since. Inside the Nexus not only is time immaterial (which means that for Kirk no time at all has passed) but all your deepest desires are granted. Eventually Picard gets absorbed into the Nexus as well while fighting a madman named Soran who has been trying ever since the incident with the Enterprise-B to get back into the Nexus. Picard and Kirk decide to leave the Nexus and fight Soran together, which should be a rousing moment of Star Trek fan wish fulfilment with the two Enterprise captains together, but for me is overshadowed by the many plot holes and inconsistencies created by the Nexus as a plot device.

Let me get this off my chest: the Nexus makes no sense. Inside the Nexus Picard meets an expository “echo” of Guinan, who had also been absorbed by the Nexus at the same time as Dr. Soran. Now I can get past the notion of a part of Guinan being left behind in the Nexus, or even the notion that since time in the Nexus has no meaning that her brief stint in there took place at the same time as Picard and Kirk’s time inside. But the exposition her character spouts (some of which has the feeling of having been recorded in post and not part of the original screenplay) implies that this echo of her that’s left behind in the Nexus somehow knows Picard (whom she will not have met for another eighty years or so after the incident on Enterprise-B) and remembers being on his Enterprise-D. You can kind of explain that away by saying that Guinan has a sort of supernatural sense of the timeline that goes far beyond that of Humans (as established in Yesterday’s Enterprise) but there are other problems with the Nexus too. For one – Guinan tells Picard that he can return to any time when he leaves the Nexus – so why did he choose to return just a few minutes before he went into the nexus instead of going back further and stopping Soran before any of the rest of the damage he and the Klingon sisters caused had happened? Picard doesn’t usually make his choices that poorly. Furthermore, why does Picard have such a sense of urgency about getting Kirk out of the Nexus? If they can re-appear at any time why don’t they live out their fantasies until they’re completely sated before going back? (I kind of think that there is potential in a series depicting the never-ending adventures of the two captains side-by-side in the Nexus defeating every possible enemy they could ever imagine. Some day, when they’re both just tired of that perfect life, they can leave the Nexus and deal with Soran and the real world.) But the thing that irritates me most, of all the plot holes introduced by the Nexus, is that there should be TWO PICARDS at the end of the film! Why, if he has gone back in time and appeared just before his climactic battle with Soran, does the him who was already there battling just disappear? It drives me crazy!

Oh, I’m not saying that I hate this movie. Far from it – it has some cool action set-pieces such as the massive crash of the Enterprise saucer section. It has some humor that I enjoy – mostly from Brent Spiner’s great portrayal of Data trying to cope with his unleashed emotions. There are plenty of lesser episodes of TNG that I like just fine, and this movie kind of sits with them in my mind. It’s not in my top ten, but it’s still perfectly fine TNG fun. I’m really looking forward to watching tomorrow’s movie though – which IS among the best next generation plots.

January 22, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | 2 Comments