JASON BELLAMY: America’s relationship with Star Trek began before man ever set foot on the moon. Gene Roddenberry’s creation was born in 1966 and lasted three seasons on TV before dying of low ratings in 1969. Forty years, endless reruns, four live-action TV series and 10 feature films later, Star Trek is alive and well in the pop culture. In just a few days, on May 8, the crew of the starship Enterprise—Kirk, Spock, Bones, Scotty, Uhura, Sulu and Chekov—will hit the big screen yet again in an origin story directed by J.J. Abrams. Star Trek, as the film is simply called, is perhaps the most anticipated movie of the spring. And though its arrival is hardly a surprise in this era of remakes and retreads, the brand’s longevity is nonetheless impressive.
From 1987-2005, there was some form of modern Star Trek on TV. The Next Generation (1987-94) begat Deep Space Nine (1993-99), which begat Voyager (1995-2001), which begat Enterprise (2001-05). All of these series can be traced back to the 1966 pilot that started it all, but it’s safe to say that none of these series would have been possible without the varied yet undeniable success of Star Trek at the cinema. From 1979-91, six Star Trek films were released featuring the recognizable cast and characters of the original TV series. Almost two decades later, these films are cherished by some (“Trekkies” or “Trekkers”), mocked by others and seemingly ignored by everyone else.
Ed, I have invited you to join me in boldly going where so many have gone before, to those first six Star Trek films. Over the course of our discussion, I’d like to explore the factors that make Star Trek beloved and belittled. I’d like to figure out whether Star Trek gets too much respect or not enough. I’d like to debate the series’s impact on cinema. And I’d like to forecast what a successful Abrams adaptation might look like. But let’s begin at the beginning. Tell me: Prior to rewatching the first six Star Trek films, what was your relationship to those films and to the overall brand? Which of these films had you seen, and how long had it been since you’d seen them? What was your stored impression of Star Trek cinema up until a few weeks ago, and what is it now?
ED HOWARD: I’ve never had much of a personal connection to any of the Star Trek films or TV series. Growing up, I was always more of a Star Wars kid—not that one need be just a Star Wars kid or just a Star Trek kid, I don’t think. Or is there some kind of Beatles vs. Rolling Stones type competitiveness between these two venerable sci-fi institutions? But anyway, it was Star Wars that I watched obsessively over and over again on worn VHS tapes, and Star Wars that I was into so intensely that I eventually branched out into the many semi-canonical books based on George Lucas’ universe and characters, some of them surprisingly great, most unsurprisingly trash, but all of them devoured by nerdy me. To put it another way: as a kid, I could’ve told you a lot about Wookies and Bothans but very little about Klingons.
To the extent that I was aware of Star Trek, it was as some peripheral thing, that other big sci-fi series. I saw a few of the movies—I know I at least saw The Wrath of Khan—and I’ve caught random episodes of all the various TV shows at one point or another. I remember some stuff about the Borg (was that Next Generation?), who I thought were pretty cool villains. I remember the famous kitschy/sexy/ridiculous green lady (Yvonne Craig) from the original series, and got a kick out of catching her again on a rerun not too long ago. But my interest in Star Trek has never been what you’d call serious. Watching these first six films for this conversation, I was seeing most of them for the first time, and even with the ones I’d seen before, my memories of them were so hazy that it might as well have been the first time.
So that’s the story of my (lack of) relationship with these films prior to this conversation. Now in a very condensed period of time I’ve seen the first six Star Trek films. So in theory I’m far better versed in this universe than I was before. But I can’t shake the feeling that if you ask me again in a few months, I’ll be more or less back to where I was before. There’s something ephemeral about these films, something insubstantial, like they’ll all just melt away once I stop thinking about them. Maybe it’s because they’re so thoroughly rooted in this weird nostalgia for the original series, a nostalgic feeling that I can’t say I really share. Each of the films has an extended montage, some of them longer and more insufferable than others, in which the camera caresses the glistening surface of the starship Enterprise with fetishistic glee, like a horny dude ogling a naked centerfold or a mid-life crisis case polishing the chrome on his sports car. In the first film, it feels like it takes 20 minutes for everyone to stop just gawking at the damn ship in disbelief. It’s a strange experience to watch these films with all these obvious nostalgic cues—the crew reassembling for each new mission, the familiar faces being highlighted, the bombastic music whenever the ship first appears, the obscure nods to episodes of the TV series—and to realize that I’m not in on the reminiscences of the intended audience.
So I watched these films, and some of them I enjoyed, and some of them I could have gone my whole life without ever subjecting myself to, but all of them gave me the feeling that I was watching something not really made with me in mind. That is, they all seem to be aimed very specifically at an audience of fans who had adored the original series and would now follow the movies as though they were just really long TV episodes. Some of them even begin with a “previously on Star Trek” synopsis of the previous movie before jumping into the action. I’m sure you can already tell, but I haven’t exactly become a converted Trekkie now that I’ve caught up with these movies. There’s a lot to like in this series, and one or two of them I’d actually call, somewhat grudgingly, good movies, but on the whole nothing I’ve seen here has substantially improved my perceptions of the pop culture phenomenon I mostly ignored as a kid and will be happy to resume ignoring as an adult.
JB: Your relationship to the Star Trek series mirrors mine in that growing up my passion was reserved for the Star Wars franchise. Many times I have said that I was raised on Lucas’ Star Wars, and so the difference between me and you is that I can also say that I grew up with Roddenberry’s Star Trek. I became familiar with this sci-fi warhorse through reruns of the original TV series, which my dad would turn on after coming home from work, mostly because my preschool-aged mind found Spock significantly more fascinating than Hawkeye Pierce on M*A*S*H. Even as a kid I was partial to movies over television, and so it wasn’t long before the Star Trek films became the portal through which I formed my relationship with that brand. Certainly, I watched no movie growing up more often than I watched Star Wars (Episode IV), a VHS tape that cost my mom about $100 when she purchased it at the advent of the VCR era, but, as I’ve thought about it recently, the film I watched second-most might very well have been Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, which was a gift from my aunt and uncle. With a limited VHS collection, one watched what one had. (Which would also explain why I’ve seen Romancing the Stone more times than anyone should, but that’s another conversation.)
At the time, what was so appealing about both the Star Wars and Star Trek series was that they were growing with me, and thus Star Trek’s advantage over Star Wars was that the series didn’t go on extended hiatus in 1983. I watched Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) and The Search for Spock (1984) regularly on VHS, dabbled in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986), sampled and loathed Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) and Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989), and then, when I was about to forget about the series entirely, recaptured my affection for the lot through Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991). I’m not a Trekkie by any means, but I know the terms Vulcan, Klingon, Romulan and Tribble. I know that impulse power precedes warp speed. I know how Kirk overcame the Kobayashi Maru. And so I returned to these films having not seen most of them in well over 10 years, the exception being Wrath of Khan, which pulls me in whenever I stumble upon it on TV. I had no expectations for what it would mean to watch all these films again, no deep emotions that needed to be fulfilled or validated. I was simply curious.
What I found in re-experiencing these films matches your thumbnail description. Yes, in many cases the six original-cast Star Trek pictures feel like “really long TV episodes.” Yes, the films are “thoroughly rooted in this weird nostalgia for the original series.” Yes, they are “aimed very specifically” at an already adoring audience. I agree, and I expected that. What surprised me was how often I felt like part of that diehard audience, even for all the moments that I didn’t. For example, that erotic fixation with the exterior of the Enterprise that’s especially alive in the first two films stirred nothing in me. In fact, the scene from The Motion Picture in which the camera ogles the Enterprise with “fetishistic glee”—a scene that does feel like it takes 20 minutes even though it’s less than four—gave me the giggles. But why? It occurs to me that Stanley Kubrick spends at least 20 minutes in 2001: A Space Odyssey eyeballing spacecraft with the lasciviousness of Brad Hamilton spying on Linda Barrett in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. So, what’s the difference? Is the stark, dispassionate nature of 2001 the thing that makes Kubrick’s ogling high art? I’m not looking to compare the greatness of Kubrick’s film against the Star Trek saga. I’m simply wondering if the sentimentality and emotional focus that serve as the key to Star Trek’s charm are also the series’s undoing.
EH: It’s funny that you bring up 2001, because I found myself thinking of both it and Solaris several times during the first Star Trek movie—and it’s not a flattering comparison. That first movie takes a lot of its ideas out of the high-concept sci-fi playbook, and especially from 2001. All those long scenes of ships silently motoring through space are blatant attempts to recreate the poetic effect Kubrick achieved by staging a ship docking like a mechanized waltz. There are a lot of very abstract, nearly dialogue-free sequences derived from the example of 2001, and Kubrick’s also probably to blame for the parts in which the Enterprise flies through streams of trippy colored lights for long stretches of time. Director Robert Wise—who was an admirable journeyman director during the classic Hollywood era and probably should have known better—seems to have believed that boredom is equivalent to art. Neither the script nor the direction here can capture the evocative beauty of Kubrick’s vision. This is a long way for Wise from his crisp, economical boxing masterpiece The Set-Up, one of my favorite noirs, so even looked at from an auteurist perspective this movie is fairly sad.
Now, granted, it’s way too easy to pick on the first Star Trek film, which is pretty much atrocious, but some of the problems with this movie echo through the rest of the series in more understated ways. Like the tendency to confuse solemnity with intelligence and portentousness with emotion. I watched this movie not long after wrapping up our last conversation, and the experience put my complaints about Steven Soderbergh dumbing down Solaris in perspective. Star Trek has, ostensibly, similar themes and concepts, dealing with the quest for knowledge and the desire for an increased understanding of the universe, but all these worthy ideas are treated with as much depth and sophistication as you’d expect from a Three Stooges slapstick routine.
To the extent that the other Star Trek films are better than this first one—and they undoubtedly are, even the lousy fifth installment—it’s not because they get any smarter in dealing with those big themes, but because they compensate for the simplicity and superficial ideas with better action, or more fun moments, or more recognizable humanity in the characters, or a more restrained approach to the big eye-candy shots so that they don’t drag on forever. You’re right about the sentimentality of this series being both an asset and a liability. The second film, The Wrath of Khan, is a much “warmer” film than the first one, which with its spaceship fetish and robotic acting—even before one of the characters is literally turned into a robot, without much change to her personality—is much more clinical and chilly. Khan is one of the better Star Trek films because of its nostalgic outlook; if the film is about anything beyond its frenetic battle scenes, it’s about reawakening fond memories, right down to casting a villain who apparently appeared in a 1967 episode of the original series. It’s hard not to bask in the glow of this sepia-toned nostalgia, but at the same time, even in one of the series’s high points, there’s this lingering suspicion that nostalgia and sentimentality is all these films ultimately have to offer.
JB: I agree with you, at least in terms of the effect; most of the time, nostalgia and sentimentality are the only things these films are successful in achieving. Furthermore, sometimes those feelings are the limit of the attempt as well, particularly in stretches of The Voyage Home and The Final Frontier. What’s so odd about The Motion Picture is how desperately it strives for nostalgia and sentimentality without much actual success. The inaugural Star Trek movie suffers from an identity crisis. Based on a TV series that Roddenberry modeled after Gulliver’s Travels, in which each episode was entirely self-contained, with no significant character development over the course of the series, The Motion Picture is stuck between trying to do what it’s always done (only larger and longer) and trying to compress three-seasons worth of magic into a little more than 2 hours. It’s a film trying to stay true to its roots while also reinventing itself for the big screen. It’s a film intent on achieving the mysteriousness and peril of space as defined by 2001, which came along more than a decade prior, while also tossing in some attempts at gee-whiz futuristic gadgetry in order to keep pace with Star Wars. Thrown together, it’s a sci-fi pot pie that’s almost entirely inedible.
It’s safe to say that very little of The Motion Picture plays well for audiences in 2009, given the film’s languid pacing, goofy outfits and far-from-special-anymore effects. That isn’t surprising. What I can’t get over is the hunch that this must not have played well in 1979 either. The ship-ogling sequence we’ve mentioned is designed to stir the nostalgia of Trekkies, sure, but it’s also a rather surprising miscalculation on the part of the filmmakers, who failed to consider the cultural shift that happened in the decade after the original TV series went off the air. When the Star Trek series debuted, the United States was in the heat of the space race. In that context, shots of the Enterprise suggested that man wouldn’t just reach the Moon (still a far-off concept for many Americans until it actually happened); someday man would conquer space (how thrilling!). In that respect, the TV series as a whole and the Enterprise itself were promises of what was to come at a time when developments in real-world space exploration were happening rapidly. The Motion Picture suggests that its filmmakers failed to recognize that the U.S. hadn’t (and still hasn’t) put a man on the Moon since 1972, that America’s fascination with space was waning and that Star Wars had swept in to fill imaginations with stories from a galaxy far, far away.
In that respect, The Motion Picture, which treats even the most mundane aspects of space travel as if they make for thrilling action sequences, came along 10 years too late. The effects trickery clearly designed to wow audiences fails to match not just 1977’s Star Wars but 1968’s 2001, too, making Star Trek a sci-fi brand poorly going where better films had gone before. Still, in fairness I’d like to call attention to a remark Roger Ebert makes about The Motion Picture in his 1982 review of Wrath of Khan: “Although I liked the special effects in the first movie, they were probably not the point; fans of the TV series wanted to see their favorite characters again.” Ebert’s observation confirms the idea that Star Trek has always aimed itself at a very passionate target audience, but at the same time it suggests that the film’s futuristic appearance wasn’t dead on arrival.
EH: That’s a fantastic point about Star Trek playing off of people’s expectations and fantasies about real space exploration. One of the primary differences between Star Trek and Star Wars is that the latter is pure, straight-up fantasy, while the former consistently attempts to relate itself back to the real world. On its surface, Star Wars is also about imagining a time when humanity has become just one of many alien species living in a galactic society, but it defuses these expectations by establishing its setting in the distant past rather than the future, and by placing Earth distinctly outside its universe. It’s not really about a future where humanity travels through space; at heart it’s more like mythology than true sci-fi. Where Star Trek aims itself towards the real world and the future, Star Wars responded primarily to other movies, engaging in a dialogue with adventure serials and samurai epics. This is probably why Star Wars seems so timeless while Star Trek is much more of its time. Star Trek doesn’t just want to tell a rousing fantasy story, it wants to tap into the zeitgeist, though as you point out it often comes along a bit too late. This is true not only of the space travel utopianism of the first film but of the strained political/social references in The Undiscovered Country, which takes the bold stance of coming out against Nazis, race prejudice and Cold War hysteria, all of this in 1991, at the height of glasnost and on the brink of the Soviet Union’s dissolution.
At the same time, even the first Star Trek film is perhaps more sophisticated in its engagement with nostalgia than we’ve suggested thus far. This film actually contains an acknowledgment of the failures of the space program, in that its “villain” is actually the restructured remnants of the Voyager 1 space probe, launched just two years before the film was released. This suggests that the great scientific and space travel advances of the Star Trek universe are not the extension of then-current late 1970s scientific thinking. It presupposes that the Voyager program will be a failure, that the entire NASA program is a dead end and that space travel will only progress to the level shown in these films due to massive changes in technology. In other words, it’s not entirely the utopian dream of the future it sometimes seems to be on superficial examination. And to the extent that it is utopian, its hopes for the future are predicated on a profound distaste for the present, especially as seen in The Voyage Home (the best of the series, if you ask me), which thoroughly mocks late 20th Century medicine, technology, social conventions and ecological preservation.
On another note, it’s funny that Ebert actually singles out the special effects in the first movie as worthy of praise. It’s easy to forget just how much our standards for movie effects have evolved over the years, and this is a striking reminder of how quickly these things can change. Effects that were once acceptable or even stunning can seem dated and cheesy just a few years later. Then again, I do seriously question whether the ridiculous warp sequence in the first movie—during which everything becomes distorted by wavy lines and everyone’s speech is slowed and slurred—was ever considered top-of-the-line filmmaking. This underlines one of the difficult things about judging this series. It’s sometimes hard to tell, from the vantage point of 2009, what about these films only looks bad now because of the developments in film technology and aesthetics over the past three decades, and what would’ve looked bad in any era. Did audiences at the time see that warp scene as exciting, or did they see it the way we mostly do today, as silly and unintentionally hilarious?
These kinds of questions are especially hard to answer with Star Trek, because to some extent the cheesiness and datedness of these films are actually built-in. They’re meant to be somewhat chintzy and rough because that’s what people found appealing about the campy original series. That’s one of my big problems with camp in general: it’s an absence of critical and aesthetic standards, a willingness to laugh at a film rather than with it. And too often the Star Trek films encourage this kind of enjoyment where what you’re enjoying is not the film so much as making fun of the film.
JB: We should probably move on from The Motion Picture before Trekkies who have spent decades trying to forget it feel compelled to get Klingon on our asses. But, since you brought up the concept of unintentional silliness, I can’t leave The Motion Picture without mentioning that shocking first close-up of the freakishly toe-headed crewmember, which is so abrupt and awkward that it feels like a gag out of Young Frankenstein, nor can I resist the urge to call attention to the (accidental? purposeful?) sexual innuendo of Spock’s (Leonard Nimoy) solo encounter with the mysterious entity pronounced “Veejer.” That’s right, “Veejer.”
The, um, climax of The Motion Picture is preceded by Spock’s exploration of a series of cylindrical canals that lead toward what looks like a horizontal space vagina—a space vagina that contains a mysterious “sensor” that shocks Spock with electricity when he tries to mind-meld with it. This is unintentional comedy, I assume, and yet Spock’s narration of his encounter with Veejer might as well be commentary from the peanut gallery on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Says Spock: “I intend to calculate thruster ignition and acceleration rate to coincide with the opening of the Veejer orifice… I have successfully penetrated the next chamber of the alien’s interior… I’m passing through a connecting tunnel, apparently a kind of plasma energy conduit.” You can’t make this stuff up. I can’t figure out if the writers of 30 years ago were as clueless as Fox News analysts of today doing reports on protesters “teabagging” the White House, or if this was intentional symbolism of some sort. (“Veejer” does take on the form of a woman.)
In any case, the Star Trek series got its groove back with Wrath of Khan, which is certainly the most celebrated of the Star Trek films and arguably the best film of the series, particularly if one agrees with Ebert’s assessment that the Star Trek movies (like the Star Wars and James Bond movies) are only as good as their villains. Indeed, Ricardo Montalban’s performance as Khan is tremendous—reviving a character from the TV series and infusing him with the enormousness and flamboyance of a Shakespeare villain, plus the determination and bloodlust of Captain Ahab. Khan is indeed the best of the Star Trek villains, and he brings out the best in William Shatner’s Kirk. Together, these heavyweights are like stars of a space soap opera, puffing out their chests, clenching their jaws and playing to the back row of some distant galaxy. It’s unrestrained, sure, and even silly, if you want it to be. But I could say the same about Humphrey Bogart’s performance in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre or Orson Welles’ performance in Citizen Kane, or any number of classic performances. The reason it works is that there’s no other Star Trek film in the series that’s so sure of itself.
EH: As I hinted above, Khan is not my favorite Star Trek movie, but it’s definitely up there at the top (not that there’s much competition, honestly). And a big part of why it’s so enjoyable is Montalban, whose Khan is not only the best villain in the series but the only one worth a damn until Christopher Plummer’s Shakespeare-quoting Chang, who doesn’t get nearly enough screen time in The Undiscovered Country to seriously challenge Khan’s title as Star Trek villain supreme. Khan’s evil brilliance would be definitively established if his only appearance was that creepy and disturbing sequence in which he implants Chekov (Walter Koenig) and another officer with wormy parasitic insects that burrow into their ears. For a few squirmy, uncomfortable minutes, Wrath of Khan becomes a surprisingly effective horror movie, and it establishes right away that Khan is not a villain to be fucked with.
The rest of the film doesn’t quite reach those heights again, but you’re right that the operatic conflict—and Montalban and Shatner’s epic quest to out-ham one another—makes this a compulsively entertaining spectacle. The film features some of the best action sequences of the series in the space battles between Khan and the Enterprise crew. And considering the black and white morality of these films on the whole, it’s striking to see the casualties of battle treated more or less equally no matter whose side they’re on. In one scene, director Nicholas Meyer cuts directly from wounded crew members on the Enterprise to Khan on the collapsing bridge of his own ship, where he regretfully watches his right-hand man die. The surprising nuance of this moment is refreshing, and the way it treats the loss of “bad guy” lives as tragic in its own right is quite different from the traditional action movie attitude towards human lives, where the enemies are just cannon fodder. The more action-oriented installments in the Star Trek series usually display the same mentality, so this film is an interesting exception in that respect.
Of course, for all its good points, Khan can’t entirely escape the camp factor, and there’s plenty to laugh at for those so inclined. Like Shatner’s manic overacting: “Khaaaaaaaaaan!” Or the gratuitous shot of Scotty (James Doohan) playing bagpipes at Spock’s funeral. What, the accent and nickname aren’t over-the-top enough? Could they not fit a kilt in the budget as well? The funeral scene is like a case study in everything that Star Trek can get right, and everything that it can get so wrong. It’s a heartfelt scene, centered on that haunting image of the crew aligned in rigid rows of mourners on either side of Spock’s sleek black coffin. That image has a certain inherent grandeur and grace that the direction and editing seem intent on sabotaging. It’s typical: these films never trust the emotional or visual simplicity of their best moments. Every emotion, every idea, has to be triple-underlined and then preferably shouted out directly in dialogue by one of the tactless actors. So instead of being a stark, affecting farewell to one of the series’s most iconic characters, this scene is a barrage of emotional clutter: the overbearing music (“Amazing Grace,” of all things), the rhythmically repeated shots of Saavik’s (Kirstie Alley) tear-stained face, the Kirk speech, those damn bagpipes. Watching it, I can see what the scene might’ve been, can enjoy the dramatic compositions, but the compelling images are surrounded by sentimental muck.
JB: That’s all true. And yet, going back to what I said before, the sentimental muck of Khan has a certain strength of conviction that eases (though doesn’t completely erase) the awkwardness of that funeral scene and others. Sure, it’s chuckle-worthy when we spot Scotty playing the bagpipes, but the chuckle I experience is one of appreciation, as in: “Of course Scotty plays the bagpipes!” Khan, like the TV series before it, takes itself absolutely seriously, but it does so within the context of a series that doesn’t take itself seriously at all (The Motion Picture excluded). So, yes, the storytellers behind Star Trek show no shame in handing Scotty a pair of bagpipes, or in having Kirk scream Khan’s name, or in having a choked-up Kirk blubbering about how Spock was so “human” (an observation that sounds nice but makes little sense if you stop to think about it), and yet if you believe that any part of this fantasy could exist, you must concede that all of these overly dramatic flourishes make perfect sense. If Spock died, Scotty would play the bagpipes, Kirk would be a melodramatic mess, and so on. In that way, this takes us back to your previous observation, that these films target their diehard fans. That’s absolutely correct in that Star Trek is an ocean of fantasy that can’t be appreciated by wading in up to your knees; unless you dive in, you might as well stay on the beach. That said, I don’t think nostalgic Trekkies would be the only ones willing to take that kind of two-hour leap of faith.
Maybe this is a backhanded compliment, but I have an obligation to mention that Spock’s death left me emotionally wrecked when I saw Khan for the first time at the age of eight or so. Seeing the film on VHS, I was too young to understand that a franchise like Star Trek wouldn’t kill off one of its two main characters, nor did I recognize the foreshadowing of Spock’s resurrection, because I didn’t fully grasp Project Genesis—either in its scientific principles or its bibilical allusions. And though this admission could be used against the Star Trek franchise, as evidence of shallowness and childishness, my long-ago tear-stained cheeks provide evidence of something else, too: the Star Trek formula works. As with the equally family-friendly Harry Potter series, you buy into the characters and follow them wherever they go, or you don’t. This isn’t to say one Star Trek film is as enjoyable as the next, because that’s far from the case. It means that the intricacies of the plot are mostly incidental. The characters, in all their perversely goofy glory, are the hook. So, on that note I wonder: Has there ever been a bigger shocker-cum-cliffhanger on the big screen than Spock’s death, or is the conclusion of Khan the “Who shot J.R.?” of cinema?
EH: Well, I have to at least give them credit for playing fair with the end of Khan: eight-year-olds aside, pretty much everyone would’ve grasped that they were setting up Spock’s return already at the end of the movie, rather than truly leaving us hanging. That shot of the coffin sitting on Genesis—the planet that creates new life or something—might as well be subtitled, “don’t worry, he’ll be back soon.” Sure, a lot of kids watching it wouldn’t have gotten it, but otherwise it barely even qualifies as a cliffhanger. It was smart, too, in that a two-year layover in which Spock really appeared to be dead would’ve been pretty painful for diehard Trekkies.
Of course, their minds would’ve been set at ease by the title of the next installment in the series, the Leonard Nimoy-directed Search for Spock, which is basically a feature-length retcon of the previous movie. It takes them two hours to unwrite the effects of Spock’s death and eliminate Genesis from the Star Trek universe and also, while they’re at it, to get rid of the son, David (Merritt Butrick), that Kirk abruptly learned he had in the previous film. It’s like they’d introduced too many elements that weren’t part of the original TV series conception, and now they had to struggle to get back to the status quo.
The result is another dull, plodding Star Trek, though it’s dull in a very different way from the first film. Because there are certain things that need to be accomplished here, the plot runs through a checklist in order to reset the franchise. About the only thing left hanging at the end of the film is the fate of the Enterprise, which is destroyed here and not rebuilt until the end of the next film. The fiery death of the Enterprise is one of the film’s best moments, in fact, because it’s one of the few moments that isn’t dedicated to retconning the events of Khan. The ship’s meteor-like descent onto the surface of the planet takes place against a bright orange sky, as the crew of the ship stands silhouetted on a rocky outcropping, watching their beloved ship on its final flight. It’s a genuinely touching image, which isn’t all that surprising: this is a series built on ship porn, after all.
In fact, the destruction of the Enterprise hurts everyone more deeply than the death of Kirk’s son, which mostly just provides an opportunity for some typical Shatner histrionics. Unable to show emotion by crying or modulating his voice or any of the other usual actorly expressions of grief, Shatner decides that he’ll sit down and miss his chair, the idea being, I suppose, that nothing says soul-crushing despair like a good pratfall. It doesn’t help that all of a minute later everyone’s back to their characteristic quipping and joking, as though nothing had happened. These movies continually make me feel bad for laughing at what are supposed to be the big dramatic, emotional moments, but no amount of guilt can stop me from laughing in the first place. That’s one of the things I dislike about these films, the way everything gets churned through this camp grinder and becomes fodder for semi-intentional humor, even (or especially) the most emotional and heartrending parts.
Anyway, I haven’t even mentioned the ineffectual Klingon villains yet, who set new standards of bad acting even for this series (including a makeup-caked Christopher Lloyd of all people—I kept wondering why that one Klingon sounded like Doc Brown until I checked IMDb). And I haven’t mentioned some of the things I like about this movie, because it’s certainly not a total loss. But since I know this was one of the films you watched obsessively on VHS as a kid, whereas I’m seeing it for the first time now, I’m curious to see how your reaction differs from mine.
JB: My reaction doesn’t differ much. The retcon description certainly fits, and that’s essentially what I was referring to with respect to the cliffhanger conclusion of Khan. Maybe “cliffhanger” isn’t quite the right word, but as that chapter ends, even though Spock’s resurrection is foreshadowed, Spock’s death certainly raises the question: “Well, how the fuck is this going to work?” As you suggested, the answer to that question turns out to be: “Not very well.” In addition to the problems you identified, the treatment of Spock’s microwaved physical evolution is peculiar to say the least—lots of whimpering and moaning from various actors playing the rapidly aging Spock, leading up to the uncomfortable scene in which Saavik (Robin Curtis) eases the pain of Spock’s transition into manhood by giving him what I can only describe as a Vulcan handjob.
Still, there are things to enjoy. For example, I love the way that each of the supporting characters is given a chance to shine. The scene in which Uhura (Nichelle Nicols) orders a new recruit into a closet is probably her most memorable moment in the entire series. (Sad, maybe, but true.) The same could be said of Sulu (George Takei) in relation to his encounter with the security guard twice his size. (“Don’t call me tiny.”) And so on. Kirk, with his I’ll-do-it-myself spirit, has a tendency to hog the spotlight, but Search for Spock, like Voyage Home after it, spreads the wealth a bit. Beyond that, I’m a sucker for some of the early shots of the Genesis Planet (snow falling on cacti) that seem like something out of 1959’s Journey to the Center of the Earth; I still get a childlike excitement for the green Klingon Bird of Prey and its cloaking device; and I think the confrontation between Sarek (Mark Lenard) and Kirk, up to and through their mind-meld, is one of the series’s few truly poignant moments.
But, especially upon review, I agree with you that the sequence involving the self-destruction of the Enterprise is the high point. Given all the time the Star Trek series spends jerking off to the ship’s exterior, the swiftness with which the Enterprise meets its demise is both astonishing and exhilarating. There are no speeches, no quiet goodbyes. Instead, Kirk makes a silent decision and enlists Scotty and Chekov as accomplices in the exercise without a word of explanation. Together the men gather around a computer and provide their authorization codes to arm the bomb. And, darn it, it’s thrilling stuff. As with Spock’s death in the previous film, there’s a sense that this can’t be happening. But it is. The true genius of the plot twist is that it subverts our expectations while confirming the one thing we know beyond a doubt about the series’s star character: Kirk will stop at nothing to win.
EH: I too enjoy the little supporting cast moments in Search for Spock, like the sassy Uhura and Sulu spotlights. There’s also the bizarre and fascinating final sequence in which Spock’s mind is finally restored to him. The whole thing with him aging throughout the film is really awkward, and in the process we learn a whole lot more about Vulcan puberty than anyone should ever know. But then the payoff is this baroque ceremony for reanimating his newly reconstructed body, and it’s weird and campy and compelling in the way that only Star Trek can be. Visually, the minimalist set design of the Vulcan temple is striking, and the eccentric shamaness in her outlandish outfit seems like a character from a David Lynch movie. It’s the kind of wild, nutty stuff that this series does so well: too silly to function as the high drama it was doubtless intended to be, but still an unforgettable sequence.
Nimoy takes the helm again for the fourth film in the series, The Voyage Home, which is my favorite of the bunch. I guess that’s not really surprising, since it’s the Star Trek film for people who don’t actually like Star Trek all that much. The characters are all there, but the premise keeps them out of their usual milieu, away from all the Trekkie trappings. I like how it sets itself apart from the other movies: its humor, its willingness to treat its characters and situations as a big joke, its wise decision to soft-pedal the serious ecological themes rather than slathering on the philosophy like spreading butter with a trawl. I don’t take these films too seriously, so I appreciate that there’s at least one entry in the series that acknowledges, very openly, just how silly this stuff is. I laugh at all the Star Trek films, to one degree or another, but The Voyage Home is the only one where I don’t feel bad for laughing, because for once everyone is in on the joke at all times. It’s the only one where I’m laughing because it’s meant to be funny, rather than because Shatner can’t deliver an emotional line without laying on the ham, or because the special effects look like some kid carrying a toy spaceship across a piece of cardboard painted black, or because I’m forced to listen to yet another pseudo-philosophical discourse on God only to discover that God is a giant floating head who shoots lasers out of his eyes. The relaxed atmosphere and fun spirit of the fourth film is refreshing for a series that, despite its reputation as prime camp, too often takes itself deadly serious.
In fact, it’s pretty much a comedy, in the tradition of Crocodile Dundee, which coincidentally came out the same year and shares the same well-worn comedy trope: a misfit or misfits with innocent hearts trying to adjust to the harsh modern age. Everything is played as broad farce, right from the initial premise. I mean, of course they have to travel back in time (by sling-shotting around the sun, whatever that does) in order to find some humpbacked whales, then bring them back to the 23rd Century so that the whales can communicate with an alien probe that is, for some reason that’s never explained, trying to talk to the whales and wreaking havoc upon the Earth in the process. It’s ludicrous, even more so than some of the other ideas the Star Trek franchise has unleashed upon unsuspecting movie audiences. This is a film whose climax consists of a pair of whales being beamed up onto a spaceship. Think about that. But it’s so much fun to see the cast playing it like a standard “culture clash” comedy, wandering around San Francisco in their Starfleet uniforms, actually not looking that much more unusual than your average transplanted hippie or 80s fashion victim. They almost get run over by a speeding cab with a rude driver (an obligatory scene in these types of movies), and Kirk gets to deliver a great catchphrase-that-never-was: “double dumbass on you!” There’s even a near-slapstick sequence where everyone’s rushing around the hospital, maybe in tribute to Woody Allen’s Sleeper, which is as good a template as any for this crazy movie.
The whole actual sci-fi part of the story—with an alien probe that’s more or less just a lazily recycled version of the “Veejer” idea from the first film—is limited to a framing story, almost completely forgotten during the bulk of the film. It’s an excuse for the crew of the Enterprise to interact with 1980s American culture, and the result is the most goofily endearing entry in the entire series.
JB: “Goofily endearing” is quite right. Ebert puts it this way: “When they finished writing the script for Star Trek IV, they must have had a lot of silly grins on their faces. This is easily the most absurd of the Star Trek stories—and yet, oddly enough, it is also the best, the funniest and the most enjoyable in simple human terms. I’m relieved that nothing like restraint or common sense stood in their way.” Amen! By “restraint or common sense,” Ebert certainly means not only the beaming up of humpback whales (and the water around them, don’t forget) but also the time-travel element that makes everything possible. You’d think the latter trick would have come in handy about a thousand times up to that point, so it’s as if Kirk was saving that maneuver for a special occasion. Watching the film again recently, I half expected him to say: “You know, I saw Superman do this once…”
But, as you said, once the crew reaches San Francisco of the 1980s, the reason for being there melts away. The Voyage Home is a comedy, that’s quite right, and it’s a smart comedy at that. In addition to the terrific scenes you mention, there’s Scotty’s confused encounter with a computer mouse, Kirk’s hilarious reaction to spotting Spock mind-melding with a whale (which actually doesn’t look as ridiculous as it sounds) and Chekov’s exasperating effort to find “nuclear wessels.” But the best scene is the one in which Kirk and Spock are sent into a mini Abbott & Costello routine in response to the simple question of whether they like Italian food.
It would be so easy today, after years of send-ups followed by the once omnipresent Priceline campaign, to entirely dismiss Shatner as some kind of talentless hack. But scenes like the ones mentioned above reveal the truth; the guy had skills. And, while we’re here, it’s only fair to point out that the vast majority of Kirk’s countless hammy moments over the course of the series are conceived in such a way that playing them straight wasn’t a realistic option. Then again, to watch the YouTube-popular clip of Shatner performing “Rocket Man” at the 1978 Sci-Fi Awards (whatever those are) is to wonder, really wonder, whether Shatner is on the outside or the inside of his own joke. The bottom line though is that funny is funny. And the difference between the fourth Star Trek film and all the others is that there is no doubt that we’re supposed to be laughing.
Despite its laidback mood, however, The Voyage Home still has its share of cringe-worthy moments. Lest anyone make the mistake of thinking that Shatner cornered the melodrama market, Catherine Hicks, as Dr. Gillian Taylor, has a yelling match with another staffer at the San Francisco Aquarium (actually the Monterey Bay Aquarium) that is staged, shot and performed in such a way that it could easily stand in for the first five minutes of any Murder, She Wrote episode. (Other than when the Enterprise crew walks past one of those yellow signs for Winchell’s Donuts, The Voyage Home never feels more 80s.) Still, the film is a heck of a lot of fun, and Ebert’s suspicion that the writers “must have had a lot of silly grins on their faces” when they finished the script must be right, because at the end of the film, when the crew of the Enterprise is splashing about in San Francisco Bay, even Spock can’t keep from smiling. (Oops.)
EH: You highlight a lot of the best, funniest moments, although I also loved Spock’s misguided attempts to lace his speech with vulgarity in order to fit in better in the 80s. There’s also that kick-ass shot of the cloaked Klingon warship suddenly materializing above a whaling vessel, which really put a silly grin on my face. I’ll even cop to enjoying Catherine Hicks’ tone-deaf performance, which out-Shatners Shatner: Gillian really should have gotten together with Kirk so they could’ve had kids whose acting would be so bad it could be a weapon, causing the very structure of the universe to implode by sheer force of awfulness. Now there’s a sci-fi plot. Gillian’s like this film’s Betty from Mulholland Drive The off-kilter phrasing, the golly-gee fresh-faced complete lack of self-consciousness, it’s bad acting elevated to an artform—although unlike Naomi Watts, I’m sure Hicks isn’t aware of what she’s doing.
While we’re on the subject of bad acting, you’re right that Shatner is often (maybe) in on the joke of his own weird acting style. If anything, he’s certainly in on it now, as his very in-jokey stint on TV’s Boston Legal attests: he’s playing a knowing self-caricature whose personality is perfectly tailored to Shatner-brand ham. And yet at the same time, from the few episodes of that show I’ve seen, he’s capable of being poignant and emotionally complex in ways that Kirk seldom was. So either Shatner has improved as an actor over the years, which is certainly possible, or he consciously never brought much depth to Kirk, who remained throughout the series an iconic figure rather than a fleshed-out human being. That’s true of all the Star Trek characters, of course. None of them exactly have multi-dimensional personalities. They each have one trait that serves them well in all situations: Kirk is driven and stubborn, Bones is skeptical, Spock is unemotional. Sometimes they don’t even have that one trait, sometimes they just have nationalities or ethnicities: Scotty is Scottish, Chekov is Russian, Sulu is Asian. And Uhura is a sassy black lady. These are not, to say the least, complicated characterizations.
JB: No, they aren’t. But I could say the same thing about various characters from the Oscar juggernaut Lord of the Rings trilogy. In that series, Elijah Wood’s Frodo is well-developed, but there’s a pretty steep drop-off after that. Characters like Orlando Bloom’s Legolas and John Rhys-Davies’ Gimli are as boiled down to a look or a skill as is the supporting cast of the Enterprise.
It’s enough to make me wonder how much separates that fantasy series from this one. Sure, Peter Jackson created three epic films that you’d never confuse for camp. On the other hand, the Lord of the Rings series is equally dependent upon a loyalist’s affection for its characters and their universe. Also, while Star Trek eroticizes the Enterprise, the Lord of the Rings movies eroticize CGI battle spectacles. The latter may be more awe-inducing, but that’s today. In 2031, three decades after the release of The Fellowship of the Ring, might those digital spectacles seem foolishly proud of themselves? Might Gollum induce snickers instead of goose-bumps? If the special effects of these Star Trek pictures is now reminiscent of “some kid carrying a toy spaceship across a piece of cardboard painted black” (and I don’t disagree), will it even take until 2021 before the then-state-of-the-art effects of the Rings movies begins to look like crude cartoons?
Is it that these Star Trek films haven’t aged well, or were they only mediocre to begin with?
EH: Well, that’s the thing about empty spectacle: it’s only satisfying for as long as it takes for technology to advance beyond it. If there’s nothing to a film beyond its capacity to produce a visceral “wow” reaction, then it’s obviously destined to be ephemeral, to last only as long as it takes to watch it, and if it’s lucky, to be rehabilitated someday as camp. The alternative is being forgotten altogether; just ask countless now-obsolete “blockbusters” of years past. Giant effects showcases, films that elevate style over substance, tend to have very short shelf-lives, which is part of the problem for the Star Trek films, and might come to be seen as a problem for the Rings films in the not-so-distant future. The best films offer more than just effects. If a film is good, it’ll still be good long after its effects have dated: think of something like Jack Arnold’s gritty, existential Incredible Shrinking Man, which is much older than Star Trek and has some cheesy, primitive effects, but it’s still a sci-fi stunner because it’s such a well-made, intelligent film.
And then there’s something like the fifth Star Trek film, The Final Frontier, which is sabotaged by some of the worst effects of the series (I’m not sure how it’s possible to take this much of a step back, visually, five films into a well-established franchise) and a plot that’s ridiculous and, worse, boring. The Voyage Home already proved that the plots for these films could be utterly silly and improbable without being a problem; as Ebert said, this series doesn’t actually benefit from “restraint or common sense” in its creative impulses. What matters is whether it’s entertaining or not, and The Final Frontier just isn’t. It’s the most infuriatingly dull of these movies since the first one, a drama-less, humorless, action-less, static film that shamelessly recycles ideas from the rest of the series, especially the search for “God” that drove the first film. There, the seeker was the remains of the American space probe Voyager, while in this film it’s Spock’s half-brother Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill), who was exiled from Vulcan as a young man because he believed in emotion and religion, and wanted to find the mythical home of God.
I won’t actually go too much into the plot here, because as far as I’m concerned it just makes no sense, and it’s all ineptly paced and staged. It’d be tempting to blame Shatner, who takes the director chair for his first feature film, but it’s not like any other director could’ve turned this shitty script into gold, and anyway Shatner’s aesthetics don’t really diverge much from any of the other directors who have helmed this series. The Star Trek films aren’t even really concerned with visual aesthetics: the long San Francisco segment of The Voyage Home is all lit and staged like a generic 80s TV show, which I guess is appropriate since it plays out like a really funny and really long sitcom episode. Throughout the series, there are scattered images and sequences of visual interest, but seldom anything sustained or formally satisfying in a deeper way. So I don’t think it matters so much who directs these things, because the franchise drives itself; Leonard Nimoy had never directed a feature before doing his two Star Trek installments, either.
Back to The Final Frontier, though, it’s a treasure trove of awful, campy moments, with some of the most cringe-inducing scenes in the entire long history of the series. On a character level, poor Uhura gets a few of them here, including a jaw-dropping (and not in a good way) naked dance with strategically placed palm fronds covering her up. It’s just bizarre, as is the suggestion that she and Scotty have some kind of previously unmentioned (and, incidentally, never-hinted-at-again) romantic connection. Ah, and then there’s God. As I alluded to earlier, one of the Star Trek films features an incarnation of God as a giant floating head who shoots lasers from his eyes. This is that film. And oh man it’s every bit as horrible as it sounds. I don’t think I could stop laughing for one single second where that monstrosity was on screen. Between the cheesy effects and the portentous booming voice and, oh did I mention the lasers, it’s impossible to take this big dramatic climax at all seriously. In a way, it harks back to the glory days of unintentional hilarity on the original TV show, and that’s nice, I guess, but one would hope that by this point in the series they would’ve moved beyond this kind of silliness. In any event, even to get to this apex of campy craziness one has to trudge through some of the most interminable and plodding stretches since the endless spaceship ogling of the first film, and this bonkers vision of God is really not worth the trip.
JB: God, none of it is worth the trip. Until a few days ago, I hadn’t seen The Final Frontier since its release in 1989. I wasn’t quite a teenager then, and thus I was considerably easier to please, and yet I distinctly remember being bored out of my mind that night at the theater; I even recall being offended by the ridiculousness of the plot, and that’s saying something. In daring to see the film again for this conversation, part of me wondered if in fact The Final Frontier would turn out to be the best film of the series. Perhaps, I theorized, my 1989 disappointment wasn’t attributable to mediocrity but to some bold break from the Star Trek norm that knocked me out of my pre-teen comfort zone. Watching the opening scene, in which the lead singer from Midnight Oil sees a mysterious figure riding up out of the nothingness of the desert, this theory gained momentum. Seemingly borrowing from The Stand, Dune and Lawrence of Arabia all at once, that scene is the only one in the entire series that appears to have been shot by a cinematographer interested in doing anything more than centering the camera on whatever thing we’re supposed to be looking at. I dare say it’s artful. But after that? Ugh.
The Final Frontier is as pathetic as I found it in 1989, and then some. I’d always remembered the ridiculousness of the campfire sing-a-longs, but I’d forgotten that Kirk actually says with enthusiasm, “I love ’Row, Row, Row Your Boat!’” I’d always remembered the image of Kirk free-climbing at Yosemite, but I’d forgotten that Bones (DeForest Kelley) pairs a denim jacket with a silk neckerchief. I’d always remembered the pathetic effects in the (just-end-already!) encounter with God, but I’d forgotten the come-hither look shared by Scotty and Uhura, and Kirk’s brawl with that cat-like creature and the awful Ghost of Traumas Past journeys down memory lane for Spock and McCoy. Especially compared to something like the Lord of the Rings series, the Star Trek pictures could never be mistaken for big-budget, but The Final Frontier looks like it was scraped together from some loose change in a coffee can, featuring a cast of washed-up actors with no dignity left to preserve. To be clear, I’m not saying that’s what this is; I’m saying that’s what it looks like. Beyond the opening scene, the only praiseworthy moment is Spock’s hilarious rebuff of Kirk’s attempt at a hug: “Please, Captain. Not in front of the Klingons.”
Had the voyages of the original crew of the starship Enterprise ended here, it would have cast a depressing shadow over everything that came before it. Thankfully, the sixth film allows the crew to fly off into the sunset (figuratively speaking) with their heads held high. The Undiscovered Country isn’t necessarily the best film of the series (then again, maybe it is), but it at least has flashes of the things the series has done well at one time or another.
Let’s start with the villain: Christopher Plummer’s General Chang is by far the best villain since Khan, and, like Montalban before him, Plummer chews the scenery in such a way that we enjoy the meal along with him. Then there’s comedy: The sixth film is more straight-faced than its previous chapters, but it includes dashes of Star Trek’s signature blend of lighthearted humor, such as the moment Chekov’s “If the shoe fits” accusation backfires. Then there’s politics: The TV series was constantly making references to the political and cultural issues of its era, and though The Undiscovered Country is hardly as groundbreaking as the famous Kirk-Uhura lip-lock that made for American TV’s first interracial kiss in 1968, its examination of the awkward transition into post-Cold War peace is still surprisingly relevant today. Then there are allusions to classic literature, which served the drama well in Wrath of Khan and do so again here. And, on top of all that, the film has the best special effects of the series hands-down and some cool though typically uncomplicated set design in respect to the Klingon courtroom and prison camp. So, sure, the Scooby Doo ending is regrettable. But otherwise, what’s not to like?
EH: I can’t say I’m as impressed as you by the sixth film’s desperate, clumsy stabs at social significance. The references to Nazis, racism and the declining Cold War are just a jumble of historical signifiers rather awkwardly cobbled together. I did like Spock’s line about the “old Vulcan proverb: ’Only Nixon could go to China,’” which inevitably calls up the image of Tricky Dick with pointy ears. And as you suggest, the ending is pretty terrible and rushed, especially after so much build-up: the heroes just suddenly swoop in, save the day and it’s all over.
But there’s a lot to enjoy about this film, which seems very conscious of being the last appearance for the original cast, very determined to give them all a proper send-off with some dignity after the debacle of the previous installment. Curiously enough, then, it’s not the regular cast that makes the most powerful impression in this film, but the guest stars: a roster of some of the strongest supporting turns in the series. There’s Kim Cattrall as the uncharacteristically pert and playful Vulcan Valeris, who despite her supposed lack of emotion can’t manage to hide a smug smirk in every scene—maybe it’s just Cattrall laughing at her surroundings, but in any event it makes her a weirdly compelling character. Also noteworthy is the shape-shifting Martia, who changes from a giant cat-like monstrosity to a little girl to a facsimile of Kirk, but appears most memorably in the form of the model Iman, with bright yellow eyes and a cigar clamped between her lips and a yearning to make out with Kirk. Best of all, there’s Christopher Plummer’s Chang, who really is, as you say, the best villain in the series since Khan, another great melodramatic baddie to square off against Kirk. He speaks almost entirely in quotations from Shakespeare, which is one of those things that makes a complete cycle from awesome to annoying and then back to awesome again over the course of the movie. It’s funny the first few times, then starts to be a little grating and overly cute, but by the time the climax comes around and you realize that, yes, Chang really is going to steal all his dialogue from the Bard, it’s hilarious and brilliant, one of the most satisfying metafictional maneuvers in the series.
Anyway, despite the rushed ending and superficial political references, The Undiscovered Country is a solid, respectable final entry in the series, ending on a relative high note before the series was rebooted with various films featuring the casts from the newer TV shows.
JB: That’s actually a nice segue into a few of the questions I presented at the outset: What, if anything, is the impact of these films? We’ve cited ways in which the Star Trek films were lackluster imitations of better and more complicated films, and we’ve cited ways in which many of these pictures seem a step or two behind their cinematic times. So did these six Star Trek films leave any mark—cinematically or culturally—beyond inspiring the series (TV and movies) that followed them? And does J.J. Abrams’ upcoming origin story reflect Star Trek’s foothold in the pop culture or, instead, a dearth of fresh ideas in Hollywood?
EH: I dare say we’ve already established that the six original Star Trek films couldn’t have left any real cinematic mark, since there’s very little that’s actually “cinematic” about them in the first place, except in the most superficial sense of the term. They’re all shot on film and shown in cinemas, yes, but is there anything aesthetically cinematic about their style, their cinematography, their approach to this material? If anything, these films helped to bring indifferent television aesthetics to the big screen, treating film and TV as interchangeable media. These films are ultimately little more than really long TV shows; sometimes enjoyable, sometimes not, but rarely all that interesting as films.
I think a much better case could be made for the series’s cultural impact, though I’m not necessarily the best person to make that argument. The near-constant presence of Star Trek on either TV screens or in theaters (and often, both) over the course of around 50 years has provided a very visible bastion of sci-fi programming in American culture, even as overall interest in sci-fi has waxed and waned in accord with transitory trends. Star Trek has made the airwaves receptive to all manner of other sci-fi/space exploration shows of varying levels of quality, like Battlestar Galactica or Babylon 5. It’s an institution in American culture, and as an institution it must have had some influence, even if only by virtue of its popularity and omnipresence.
As for Abrams’ forthcoming film, there’s an unspoken rule in Hollywood that, sooner or later, everything will be remade, so I can’t really see the release of a new Star Trek film as anything more than the latest in a long line of remakes, reboots, retreads, etc. From the trailers I’ve seen, it looks like Abrams has amped up the action considerably and re-envisioned the series as an epic effects showcase—exactly the kind of big, empty, easily forgotten blockbuster we were talking about earlier. That’s fitting, I guess; it’s not like the series as a whole has ever aspired very far above that level. But I suspect that if I do see this new film, as much as I’m ambivalent about the six original cast movies we’ve been discussing here, I’ll find myself kind of missing the awkward acting, goofy humor, crude effects and minimalist design.
JB: Yeah, that sounds about right. It will be interesting to see if Abrams can conjure any allure beyond our built-in anticipation of Star Trek fundamentals. How long will it take, for example, until Bones reminds Kirk that he’s a doctor, not a whatever? How long until Spock raises an eyebrow and notes that something is illogical? How long until Scotty pleads that he’s giving the engine room all he’s got? Will Abrams’ origin story provide any joy beyond tracing the breadcrumbs forward to the past—to 1966 and beyond? Maybe that’s where the explosions come in.
I’ve only seen about 30 seconds of the theatrical trailer for Abrams’ Star Trek, and that was months ago. Since then, I’ve done what I always do when encountering trailers for films for which I have even the slightest interest: I close my eyes and try to keep from listening. I know this makes me sound like some kind of pathetic fanboy, but that isn’t the case. (Pathetic, maybe. Fanboy, no.) Believe me, I have no high hopes for Star Trek, nor any emotional investment in its success. If Abrams’ film stinks, I’ll sleep just fine. I take these actions more often than not of late because I like to encounter films as films, rather than as the forgotten afterthoughts of the marketing assembly line or the critical hype machine. Thus, I really have no idea what this origin story will look like beyond the two things that it must be in order to be remade in this climate: bigger and louder.
Can a Star Trek film be bigger and louder and still feel like a Star Trek film? That remains to be seen. I wholeheartedly agree with you that cinematically speaking the original Star Trek sextet did nothing to evolve the series beyond its television roots. Nevertheless, the Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, Uhura, Chekov and Sulu that I catalog away in my brain will always be the ones presented to me at the cinema. Maybe that’s just because I’ve watched the movies more often than the old TV episodes, or maybe longer episodes simply create stronger memories than smaller ones interrupted by commercials. I’m not sure. But even though these aren’t great films, they leave behind an indelible footprint. Even though the plots and characters are so often laughable, I think the Star Trek pictures are worthy of respect and adoration.
It’s impossible to make movies about the future without eventually looking foolish. (The Enterprise’s lack of seatbelts, for example, says more about a 1960s view of the world than a futuristic one.) Then again, for so many of us, Star Trek will always be a beacon lighting the way toward what is to come. Time constantly moves forward, adding to the past, but until we fly in our cars like on The Jetsons or beam from one place to another like on Star Trek, we won’t have reached The Future. For all the silly outfits, embarrassing melodrama and poor special effects that frequently render the first six Star Trek films hard to take seriously, there’s also a warmth of spirit about them that’s timeless. For that reason, if nothing else, at least three of the Star Trek pictures will always be worth revisiting. And if you disagree, well, double dumbass on you.
Jason Bellamy ruminates on cinema at The Cooler.
Ed Howard chronicles his film viewing at Only the Cinema.
Jeonju IFF 2019: Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, L. Cohen, & Introduzione all’oscuro
These are three enigmatic, challenging, and weird works of art by filmmakers pushing at the boundaries of the cinematic form.
Shortly after arriving in Jeonju, the mid-sized Korean city about 200 kilometers south of Seoul that serves as the site of the Jeonju International Film Festival, I pulled my bedraggled, jet-lagged body over to the guest center to pick up my press credentials. As I made my way through the carnivalesque open-air city block known as Jeonju Cinema Town, I found myself, to my surprise, in the midst of a rather peculiar, almost surreal scenario as a bunch of white- and black-suited stormtroopers marched in lockstep toward me, weapons at the ready, flanking none other than the Grand Imperial Poobah himself, Darth Vader.
The group maneuvered around me without incident, eager to pose for selfies with the crowd of locals assembled in the area, but after over 20 hours of travel, the encounter took on a vaguely sinister air, as if the forces of Hollywood monoculture had been dispatched to this relatively remote cinephile retreat to ensure that no one here got the wrong idea: Have fun with your cute little art films, but remember who really wields the power in the world of cinema.
I suppose these are the sorts of strange inclinations that strike you when your body’s circadian rhythms have been shaken up like a snow globe, but, despite the presence of the Walt Disney Company as one of the festival’s premier sponsors, the films I saw—personal, challenging, at times exhilarating work from all across the world—couldn’t have seemed further away from the market-tested franchises that clog American cineplexes. Having said that, it’s with some irony that one of the first films I took in at Jeonju IFF was in fact a sequel—albeit one whose eccentric sense of humor and repetitive, unresolved narrative mean it’s never going to be mistaken for the latest from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The sequel in question is Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, Bruno Dumont’s follow-up to Li’l Quinquin. One of the great left turns in the history of auteurism, Dumont’s 2014 miniseries signaled his transition from austere Bressonian miserablism to a singular brand of deadpan grotesquerie that gleefully explodes the thin line between the clever and the stupid. Dumont doesn’t vary his style too much for the sequel, as it’s another bizarre sunlit mystery set in the windswept countryside of Dumont’s native Nord-Pas-de-Calais. And Dumont has reassembled the same cast of non-professional local oddballs led by Bernard Pruvost as Commandant Van der Weyden, a twitchy, hapless police detective investigating matters way beyond his depths.
Dumont, though, still finds ways to mess with his audience’s expectations, starting with the baffling and completely inexplicable change of the title character’s name. If the earlier film felt like Dumont’s riff on popular international crime dramas like Broadchurch and The Killing, Coincoin turns out to be his spin on The X-Files, a sci-fi pod-people procedural featuring a mysterious black goo from outer space that inhabits its victims and forces them to give birth to their own uncanny clones. Like many stories about body-snatching, the series is a satire—here on provincial racism, the poor treatment of African migrants, and the rise of the French far right—but Dumont isn’t simply interested in topical point-scoring against Marine Le Pen, the anti-immigrant politician who represents Nord-Pas-de-Calais.
Rather, with its ambling, directionless narrative and lackadaisical long shots that perversely undercut the screenplay’s gags, Coincoin evokes a deep-rooted spirit of reactionary malaise, of people whose lives are hopelessly circumscribed by their own fears and prejudices. Dumont rigorously resists developing his plot or deepening his characters: They’re all trapped in an absurd loop, doomed to endlessly say the same things and reenact the same jokes.
Van der Weyden sums up that mentality in a single line: “Progress isn’t inevitable.” There’s a group of black men who periodically appear throughout the film only to be consistently and summarily dismissed in a fit of racist panic. Each time, we expect the film to create some meaningful interaction between the white townsfolk and these migrants, and each time we’re rebuffed—that is, until a final musical explosion of kumbaya-like camaraderie that’s somehow goofy, moving, tedious, and invigorating all at the same time.
Dumont is one of the few artists in cinema willing to risk exhausting his audience to induce a particular effect, but he’s not the only one, as demonstrated by James Benning’s L. Cohen, a 45-minute static shot of a seemingly unremarkable field with a mountain visible in the distance. It’s an elegantly composed frame, reminiscent of an American Regionalist painting and whose centrally located peak perhaps coyly refers to the Paramount logo.
After 20 minutes, even the most hardened cinephiles are bound to be squirming in their seat, at which point Benning reveals his remarkable trump card: As the sky quickly darkens and blackness falls over the Earth, we realize that we’ve been watching the leadup to a total solar eclipse. It’s a moment of quiet astonishment and confusion for anyone who doesn’t know it’s coming, bringing us close to the feeling a caveman might’ve had when the same event occurred. With typical mathematical precision, Benning has placed the eclipse at the exact center of the film, allowing us to explore the subtle shadows that precede and follow it.
The film, however, isn’t just some academic structuralist exercise, as it’s also a meditation on death, a fact highlighted by the next startling moment: the inclusion of Leonard Cohen’s “Love Itself” on the soundtrack, a stark divergence from the ominous drone (identified by Benning during his festival Q&A as the hum of airplanes flying overhead) that fills the rest of the film. This song and the dedication of the film to the recently deceased Cohen add a deeper layer of meaning to Benning’s precisely calibrated study of light and time.
L. Cohen is in essence a meditation on temporality. All things are fleeting, even grand interplanetary ballets. Considering the brief alignment of these celestial bodies puts one in a cosmic mood and calls to mind a cryptic, haunting line from a different Cohen song, “Stories of the Street”: “We are so small between the stars, so large against the sky.”
One could also find the specter of death looming over Introduzione all’oscuro, an expressionistic tribute to director Gastón Solnicki’s good friend, Hans Hurch, the recently departed director of the Viennale, the Vienna International Film Festival. Described by the director not as a film about Hurch, but a film for him, Introduzione all’oscuro dispenses with biography entirely, instead evoking its subject’s buoyant, ragtag spirit in an almost subliminal fashion: through music, film, and the city of Vienna. Hurch “appears” in the film primarily through his letters and through his voice, recorded by Solnicki when he provided notes on one of the director’s previous films. Solnicki does appear on screen: a comically lonely figure visiting some of Hurch’s favorite Viennese haunts—such as the Café Engländer, from which he would periodically steal cups—on a journey that drolly recalls Holly Martins’s investigation into the apparent death of his pal Harry Lime in The Third Man.
Like Solnicki’s Kékszakállú before it, Introduzione all’oscuro is what might be called “slideshow cinema”—a procession of taut, piquant compositions whose relationship to one another isn’t precisely clear but which, when taken together, create an indelible impression of a highly specific milieu. Structured more like a piece of avant-garde music than a narrative work or traditional documentary, the film has a hypnotic yet often dissonant allure. It pulls us into a strange liminal zone where Hurch seems to be simultaneously present and absent, haunting the film like a benevolent spirit. Solnicki simply has one of the best eyes in cinema today, and it’s the pungency of his images which makes the film such an endlessly compelling experience, even when the reasons behind Solnicki’s individual choices remain obscure.
Abstruseness, though, is no crime. In fact, the greatest pleasures of Jeonju IFF were to be found in grappling with “difficult” films such as Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, L. Cohen, and Introduzione all’oscuro: enigmatic, challenging, and even downright weird works of art made by filmmakers pushing at the boundaries of the cinematic form.
The Jeonju International Film Festival ran from May 2—11.
Review: As Teen Comedy, Booksmart Is Sweet and Nasty in Fine Balance
It’s an R-rated teen comedy that proves that you can center girls’ experiences without sacrificing grossness.3
An uncharitable way of describing Olivia Wilde’s feature directorial debut, Booksmart, is as a gender-flipped version of Superbad. Like Greg Mottola’s 2007 film, it concerns a pair of best friends who’ve spent their high school years as outsiders but, at the end of their senior year, decide to attend the biggest, coolest graduation party imaginable. As in Superbad, getting to the party devolves into an almost picaresque gauntlet through suburban nightlife, consisting of comical encounters with outlandish characters (both films even feature a “creepy car guy”). Booksmart and Superbad also share a ribald, R-rated sense of humor and a sex scene interrupted by vomit—even the same casting director (the venerable Allison Jones).
For all that, Wilde’s film is less a derivative of Mottola’s teen comedy than a corrective to it. Its exaggerated universe is less mean-spirited than the one depicted in Superbad, where so much of the humor depended on Jonah Hill loudly proclaiming his character’s misogyny. Booksmart isn’t above getting laughs from sex jokes that land somewhere between honest and outrageous—there’s a recurring bit about Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) masturbating with her stuffed panda doll—but it does show that teenage conversations about sex can be funny without being demeaning. And its belief in its main characters as more than just stand-ins for the most distorted beliefs that virginal high schoolers have about sex gives the film a fuller, more satisfying arc.
Amy and her best friend, Molly (Beanie Feldstein), are their elite Valley High School’s A-type-personality do-gooders, well-meaning in their ambition and their wokeness, but with streaks of haughtiness and self-righteousness. Beanie is class president, the kind of kid who pushes the school principal (Jason Sudeikis) to arrange a budget meeting with the juniors on the last day of class. In contrast to the brashly assertive Molly, Amy is meek, barely able to eke out syllables when talking to her crush, Ryan (Victoria Ruesga), but she’s also intensely woke, adorning her denim jacket with feminist-slogan patches and her car with “Elizabeth Warren 2020” bumper stickers. The pair are so close that they’re often mistaken for being a couple (Amy has been out since the 10th grade), and they definitely don’t party.
As school is letting out, Molly discovers that her and Amy’s monk-like approach to high school life has been for naught. Although the two pride themselves on respectively getting into Yale and Columbia, it seems that virtually all of their classmates have a similarly propitious future lined up. Even the horny goofball Theo (Eduardo Franco), who repeated seventh grade three times, was recruited for a six-figure job with Google. Molly adopts partying as her new project, dragging the reluctant Amy, all the more anxious because Ryan will be at the party, along with her. The problem is that, not being a part of their school’s social scene, they have no idea where the party actually is, and limited means of figuring it out.
The obliviously indefatigable Molly is a star-making role for Feldstein, who keeps let her highly dynamic character—Molly can be both very rigid and very foolhardy—from feeling inconsistent, or leading to broad caricature. As the quieter Amy, Devers’s role is mostly reactive, but, in the tumultuous climax, she supplies the film’s most poignant and relatable moments. As the omnipresent Gigi, a troubled party girl who inexplicably appears at each of the girls’ wayward stops on their journey to the party, Billie Lourd channels a chaotic energy, becoming the film’s strung-out jester. Lourd is just part of an altogether impressive ensemble that also includes Jessica Williams as the teacher who loves Amy and Molly perhaps a bit too much, and Will Forte and Lisa Kudrow as Amy’s super-Christian, super-supportive parents.
For the most part sharply written, and tighter and more consistently funny than the fragmented improv-style Superbad, Booksmart nevertheless has a couple of stretches that don’t quite land. There’s a claymated ayahuasca-tripping sequence that neither suits the rest of the film nor is followed up on in any way by the narrative. And the film’s conclusion is more than a little formally messy, with Wilde relying on a too-rapid succession of non-diegetic pop songs as emotional accents and to fast-forward the plot—at one crucial moment even drowning out the dialogue. But despite these small missteps, Booksmart feels like an innovation, an R-rated teen comedy that proves that you can center girls’ experiences without sacrificing grossness, and that you can be gross without being too mean.
Cast: Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein, Jessica Williams, Jason Sudeikis, Billie Lourd, Diana Silvers, Mason Gooding, Skyler Gisondo, Noah Galvin, Eduardo Franco, Lisa Kudrow, Will Forte, Mike O’Brien Director: Olivia Wilde Screenwriter: Olivia Wilde Katie Silberman, Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins Distributor: Annapurna Pictures Running Time: 102 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Terminator: Dark Fate Official Trailer: Going Back to the Well with Sarah Connor
Linda Hamilton at least makes a killer impression as Sarah visits fiery justice upon Gabriel Luna’s terminator.
Today, Paramount dropped the trailer for the sixth entry in the Terminator series, Terminator: Dark Fate, which promises to deliver…more of the same? With this film, Deadpool director Tim Miller aims to give the series a reboot: by pretending that none of the films that came after Terminator 2: Judgement Day ever existed (sorry, Rise of the Machines fans), maybe even Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. “Welcome to the day after judgment day,” reads the poster, promising the badass return of Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor. And on that front, the film looks to deliver, as Hamilton certainly makes a killer impression as Sarah visits fiery justice upon Gabriel Luna’s terminator.
But based on everything else that’s on display throughout the trailer, we’re worried that there’s not anything new that a film in this series stands to bring to the table besides running and gunning, with the occasional wink thrown in for good measure. Cast in point: Mackenzie Davis stars as Grace, an “enhanced human” who looks to fill the hanger-on role to Connor that Edward Furlong’s John Connor did to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800, now apparently living in woodsy retirement, and at the ready to give sage advice. In short, we’re not impressed, and that also holds true of that cover of Björk’s “Hunter” by some zombie man singer.
Watch the official trailer below:
Paramount Pictures will release Terminator Dark Fate on November 1.
Review: Woodstock Offers a New Look at the Three Days that Defined a Generation
Throughout, the era-defining yet problem-plagued music festival astounds in large part for all the disasters that didn’t occur.3
According to Woodstock: Three Days that Defined a Generation, the 1969 Woodstock festival seemed fated to fail. But a rare convergence of good luck, good intentions, and good vibes somehow snapped into place and crystallized over a few days in August the aspirations of a counterculture about to hit its peak. The festival’s planners, mostly promoters and music-industry pros, talk off-camera throughout this gloriously gleeful documentary about their somewhat spur-of-the-moment concept in a purposefully overlapping mosaic that makes it difficult to determine who’s saying what. Their original idea was simply a big concert that would celebrate the opening of a recording studio in the bucolic artist community of Woodstock, NY and take advantage of the musicians living nearby.
That conceit ballooned into a sprawling three-day cultural amoeba of feel-good psychedelia billed as “An Aquarian Exposition” to be held in a bucolic setting. It would ideally seem, according to one organizer, “like visiting another world.” Creating that gateway to paradise, however, hit one snag after another. Conservative fears about an invasion of hippies led to much anger among locals and triggered permitting issues. Original desired stars like Bob Dylan, the Doors, and the Rolling Stones all passed on the vent. Months’ worth of construction at the original site in Wallkill, NY had to be scrapped at the last minute.
But Woodstock shows also how both lucky circumstances and in-depth planning saved the day. The lineup swelled with a killer roster of acts whom David Crosby defines simply as “everybody we thought was cool”: Jimi Hendrix, the Who, Sly and the Family Stone, Santana, Creedence Clearwater, Janis Joplin, and so on. According to writer Bob Spitz, interest grew as the organizers put the word out through the underground press, and though their top estimates of attendance topped out at 150,000, the eventual total was closer to a potentially unmanageable 400,000. Seemingly foolhardy ideas like hiring Wavy Gravy’s Hog Farm commune to handle what they termed “security” and what Wavy defined as trying to “spread grooviness,” helped the increasingly massive enterprise maintain an appealingly mellow tone. Then, a Republican dairy farmer named Max Yasgur, who just happened to have a visually gorgeous sweep of land shaped like a natural amphitheater, agreed to host the festival.
Just about everyone interviewed in Barak Goodman and Jamilia Ephron’s documentary still marvels a half-century on at the scope and tranquility of what happened, though the potential for disaster provides some dramatic grit to the narrative. Much of the festival’s harmoniousnes was a result of on-the-spot empathetic resourcefulness, from Hog Farm’s thrown-together Sunday-morning “breakfast in bed” and “freak-out” tents for people on bad acid trips to the previously resentful locals who spontaneously emptied their pantries to feed the long-haired kids who had been tromping through their front yards. The crowds were soothed by the reassuring voice of the festival announcer, whose “we”-focused addresses over the PA system strengthened the communal spirit, which is then echoed in the film’s starry-eyed reminiscences of interviewees who all sound as though they wish they could go back.
Woodstock cannot hope to supplant Michael Wadleigh’s more symphonic and experiential 1970 documentary. But conversely, its tighter, narrower focus on narrative and context ultimately tells a bigger story at roughly half the length. Co-director Goodman has shown in some of his darker work for PBS’s American Experience, like his episode about the Oklahoma City bombing, a knack for building suspense. He deploys that skill here marvelously when showing the sea of humanity converging on Yasgur’s farm, balancing a fear of impending disaster (short supplies, last-minute glitches, a crowd many times larger than the highest estimates) with the dawning realization that things might just work out.
That tightrope-walking drama is maintained through the actual concert portion of the movie. The musical highs, Hendrix’s squalling “Star-Spangled Banner” and Richie Haven’s raucous two-hour jam (filling the gap while helicopters ferried musicians in over the blocked roads), play out while the vast crowd contends with food shortages and an unexpected rainstorm. But even though the attendees rushed past the mostly unbuilt fencing and by default created what organizer John Roberts here terms “the world’s greatest three-day freebie,” he and his partners appear now happier about the instant community that metamorphosed in the mud than the fact that as a business venture the concert was “in deep shit.”
Woodstock hits many of the expected notes about the concert’s place in the nation’s cultural history. But it’s refreshingly less self-satisfied than awestruck at the simple beauty of what happened at the Woodstock festival and the utopian example it provided to the world. Though unmentioned here, the disastrous music festival that occurred four months later at Altamont Speedway, in the hills of Northern California’s East Bay, where the organizers’ callous indifference to advance planning led to chaos and multiple deaths, shows just how rare the event that occurred in Bethel across three days back in August ‘69 remains to this day.
Director: Barak Goodman, Jamila Ephron Distributor: PBS Distribution Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir Is a Knotty Trip Down Memory Lane
Its stylistic fluctuations are a sign of a filmmaker really wrestling with how she became the woman and artist she is today.3.5
True to the mission of its protagonist, a well-meaning student filmmaker working on a thesis feature about a community foreign to her, writer-director Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir is engaged in a running dialogue with itself around the notion of how—and how not—to make a personal narrative. Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) is a London-based, upper-middle-class young woman coming of age in Margaret Thatcher’s England who feels a moral imperative to transpose her own experiences onto a fictional story set in working-class Sunderland, and she’s given ongoing opportunities in her film workshops to try to articulate why that is. Hogg, who based the character on her own early experiences as an artist, views Julie’s trajectory tenderly but through the lens of a greater maturity, dotting the young woman’s path with interlocutors who challenge and redirect her inclinations. Gradually, Julie’s certitude seems to fall out from under her, transforming Hogg’s film in the process.
Pivotal among these forces is Anthony (Tom Burke), a spectacularly smug older man with ambiguous professional and personal affiliations who becomes inexorably drawn to Julie, and she to him. When he first appears on screen across a table from Julie at a café, Hogg frames the scene in the kind of spacious, sophisticated master shot that defined her 2013 film Exhibition, snapping The Souvenir out of the close-up-heavy, fly-on-the-wall aesthetic with which it opens. The shift in style registers the exhilarating impact Anthony has on Julie, who is up to that point seen as a wallflower at college parties, taking photos and rolling a Bolex in the corner while bouncing in and out of conversations. Sizing up Julie’s film project with suave dismissiveness, Anthony suggests that she might heed the influence of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who were able to express personal emotions free of the constraints of realism, and later proposes that “it’s not enough to be sincere or authentic.”
Julie takes such counseling in stride even when it comes from her casually condescending professors (also men), giving her a headstrong resilience that Swinton-Byrne beautifully underplays. But Julie’s toughness doesn’t equate to stubborn pride, and soon The Souvenir turns away from its portrait of early filmmaking ambition and toward the knotty dynamics of Anthony and Julie’s strengthening relationship—itself modeled off a fling in Hogg’s past. The director orchestrates this formal shapeshift with sly subtlety, first introducing the couple’s scenes together as elliptical diversions from the central storyline, then gradually lengthening them until the sequences set in and around Julie’s film school take a backseat entirely. Now sharing an apartment, Anthony and Julie go through the growing pains of coexistence—the former posits a “Wall of Jericho” made of pillows in a reference to It Happened One Night to solve his discomfort in bed—but nonetheless find a strange harmony in their dissonant personalities, with his brutal honesty charming her and her placidity disarming him.
In Anthony’s case, however, this apparent personality yardstick proves misleading, as it turns out that he’s frank about everything but his own life. Talk of a vague government job creates an impression of a posh background belied by Anthony and Julie’s trip to visit his parents, and later, an offhand remark made by one of Anthony’s friends when he’s in the bathroom yields the startling revelation—cued by spatially disorienting mirror shots and the gentle use of Dutch angles—that Julie’s boyfriend is a heroin addict. Hogg omits the scene where Julie confronts Anthony about this revelation, but the mark it leaves on their relationship is implicitly, delicately apparent in every part of The Souvenir moving forward. The neatly organized, white-walled apartment where much of the action takes place becomes charged with tension, not only from the threat of dissident bombing that percolates outside its windows (a reality contemporaneous to the film’s early-‘80s setting), but also from Anthony’s frequent, unexplained comings and goings, which starkly contrast Julie’s more fixed physicality as she spends her time hunched over a typewriter.
The Souvenir flirts with a few conventional movie premises—the doomed romance, the spiral into the hell of drug addiction, the pursuit of self-actualization—without ever fully engaging one, which doesn’t indicate an uncertainty on Hogg’s part so much as a supreme confidence in the intricacies of her own material. Likely to some viewers’ dismay, Julie’s story isn’t one that ever comes to hinge on an a-ha moment, a sudden realization that she’s strayed from her artistic passion in her entanglement with a toxic partner. Rather, Hogg evokes both the seductive appeal of an irrational romance and the less sexy but nonetheless potent comfort of falling into the role of nurturer, a discipline shown in a few touching scenes to be inherited by Julie from her mother (Tilda Swinton). What’s more, it can’t be said that Anthony’s influence is purely deleterious, as his bouts of real vulnerability, carried off with a persuasive display of wounded pride by Burke, repeatedly push Julie toward greater sensitivity and awareness.
Perhaps ambivalent herself to Anthony’s recommendation that Julie seek inspiration from Powell and Pressburger’s work, Hogg shoots in a grainy, underlit 16mm palette that has less to do with period fetishism than with draining the sparkle from Julie’s privileged upbringing. The Souvenir is shot from a measured distance, often with the camera in rooms adjacent to the actors so that walls and other objects populate the foreground, and the resulting sense is of being simultaneously immersed in the spaces of Hogg’s early adulthood and at an intellectual remove from them, a fusion seemingly reflective of the director’s own mixed emotions in revisiting this story. In this case, however, that quality of fluctuation isn’t a deficiency but a virtue, a sign of a filmmaker really wrestling with how she became the woman and artist she is today, and the mark of a film that’s beholden to no recipe but its own.
Cast: Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton, Jack McMullen, Frankie Wilson, Richard Ayoade, Jaygann Ayeh Director: Joanna Hogg Screenwriter: Joanna Hogg Distributor: A24 Running Time: 119 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Aladdin Is a Magic Corporate Ride to Nowhere Special
Guy Ritchie’s live-action remake is content to trace the original’s narrative beats with perfunctory indifference.1
Compared to a few other recent live-action remakes of Disney’s animated films, which at least attempted to bring striking story wrinkles or an auteurist perspective to bear on their interpretations, Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin is a remake in the most literal sense. Much of the film’s first act traces the narrative beats of the 1992 animated feature, and in shot-for-shot fashion: Thieving street rat Aladdin (Mena Massoud) meets and charms the princess of his native Agrabah, Jasmine (Naomi Scott), and ultimately runs afoul of scheming grand vizier Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), before obtaining a magic lamp containing a genie (Will Smith) who has the power to transform the young pauper into a prince worthy of Jasmine’s station.
The steadfastness with which every aspect of the original is replicated by this new Aladdin makes Ritchie’s film a grueling example of the streaming-era notion of art as content. Because there’s no chemistry between Massoud and Scott, the legitimacy of Aladdin and Jasmine’s flirtations is largely sold on the basis of the viewer’s preexisting knowledge that these two will become a couple. Elsewhere, the relationship between Jafar and the Sultan (Navid Negahban) is an even paler imitation. In the original, Jafar’s viciousness was at least partially driven by his hatred of the Sultan, who issued inane commands to his grand vizier in all sorts of parodically infantile and buffoonish of ways. Here, though, the Sultan is a negligible figure, neither callous nor especially influential, thus robbing his subordinate of a compelling motive. The Jafar of this film is evil simply because he’s been designated as the story’s big bad.
If the dogged faithfulness of Ritchie’s film to the original proves consistently stultifying, it’s the most noticeable deviations that ultimately damn the remake. In an attempt to give Jasmine something to do other than be the object of men’s affections, Ritchie and co-writer John August blend the character’s traditional frustrations at being trapped behind palace walls with a newfound resentment over how her capacity to rule as sultan is thwarted by traditional gender roles. Nonetheless, her desires to lead are bluntly articulated and reflective of a broader tendency among the film’s characters to express their awareness of their own repression by tilting their heads back and staring off into the distance as they speak extemporaneously about their dreams. Poor Scott is also burdened with the film’s big new song, “Speechless,” an instantly dated empowerment anthem that suggests the sonic equivalent of that old woman’s botched restoration of the Ecce Homo fresco in Borja, Spain.
The film does come somewhat to life during its musical numbers. Though these sequences are marked by simplistic and unengaging choreography, they don’t quell the verve of Howard Ashman and Tim Rice’s original songs. Less successful is Smith, who, unable to match the intensity of Robin Williams’s performance as the Genie in the original film, leans into his signature drawling sarcasm to bring his spin on the character to life, effectively draining the Genie of everything that made him so memorably larger than life in the first place. Even when portraying some of the Genie’s more antic behavior, Smith mostly takes the path of least resistance, injecting just enough energy into his performance to hint at Williams’s memorable take on the character but without seeming as if he’s actually working up a sweat.
Elsewhere, Massoud mostly goes through the motions in establishing Aladdin as a rakish pauper, but the actor comes alive in a comic scene that sees his street urchin, newly styled as a prince by the Genie, presenting himself to the Sultan’s court. Having never been trained on any points of social graces, Aladdin can only stammer out pleasantries, using strange honorifics to refer to the Sultan as he curtsies instead of bows. Later, the Genie helps Aladdin perform an elaborate dance by controlling the young man’s body in order to wow the Sultan’s court. Impressively, Massoud manages to perform complicated steps while looking as if every movement is done against his will, giving Aladdin’s flailing motions a slapstick quality.
Such flashes of personality, though, are few and far between in this remake. Certainly there was a lot of room to bring a contemporary perspective to this material—to counter the original’s problematic representation of its Middle-Eastern milieu and deepen its characters. Instead, the film settles for telling you a joke you’ve already heard and botching the delivery.
Cast: Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Will Smith, Marwan Kenzari, Navid Negahban, Nasim Pedrad, Alan Tudyk, Frank Welker, Billy Magnussen Director: Guy Ritchie Screenwriter: John August, Guy Ritchie Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 128 min Rating: PG Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack
Review: Brightburn Is a Soulless Mishmash of Disparate Genre Elements
The way the film shuttles through its 90 minutes, it’s as if it’s been stripped of its most crucial narrative parts.1
Like a lot of kids squirming through puberty, Brandon Breyer (Jackson A. Dunn) is an asshole. Unlike most, however, he’s from outer space and possessed of formidable superpowers. Soon after learning of his abilities, he stalks a classmate, Caitlyn (Emmie Hunter), who consoled him in class after he was teased for his incredible smarts. Brandon makes a show of controlling Caitlyn’s laptop before appearing outside her bedroom window, eerily floating in the air. By this point in director David Yarovesky’s Brightburn, one is still optimistic that Brandon’s creeper tendencies will be the most insidious of his problems. But when Caitlyn calls him a pervert, after letting him fall to the ground during a “trust fall” exercise in gym class, Brandon crushes the bones in her hand after she’s forced to help him up. By the end of the film, Caitlyn will prove to be one of the lucky ones.
That Yarovesky and screenwriters Brian and Mark Gunn don’t exactly push the link between Brandon’s pubescence and his growing self-awareness isn’t the first sign that something is amiss here. Right out of the gate, Brightburn reveals itself unwilling to animate its characters’ emotional dramas, using visual shorthand to simply hint at them. In the opening scene, set more than 10 years in the past, the camera pans across a bookshelf full of fertility books, informing the audience that Brandon’s parents, Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle (David Denman), really want to have a baby. Later, while helping his dad with chores, Brandon accidentally throws a lawnmower halfway across the family farm. This is when he recognizes that he has superpowers, but rather than prolong the kid’s doubt across more than one scene, the film zips straight to the moment where he’s about to shove his hand into the lawn mower’s spinning blades to confirm his suspicions that he’s nothing short of invincible.
More genre films—more films, period—could stand to have a lot less fat on their bones, but the way Brightburn shuttles through its 90 minutes, it’s as if it’s been stripped even of its most crucial narrative parts. Outside of one pulpy hallucination sequence, the film stubbornly refuses to give a concrete sense of the desperation that drove Tori and Kyle to adopt Brandon, just as it can’t be bothered to give shape to the mythology of his creation—or rather, his arrival. For a spell, though, this suggests a purposeful show of evasion. Much is made of the red light that peeks out from the floorboards in the family barn and to which Brandon is drawn throughout the film. If you’re a fan of Larry Cohen’s canon, you may wonder if the kid will be revealed as a kindred spirit of the ever-glowing human-alien antagonist from God Told Me To, here to make sport of our biological urge to procreate in our increasingly decaying world.
No such luck, as Brightburn is a meaningless mishmash of disparate genre elements. The truth of what lurks beneath the floorboards turns out to be of no particular consequence—not exactly a red herring, just a bit of hogwash that confirms Brandon to be a gene splice of Damien and Superman. Maybe a sense of majesty, of mythic grandeur, might have made him feel as if he was less arbitrarily willed into being, though Yarovesky certainly conveys the weight of the kid’s killing spree. Not its existential weight, only its repugnant force. At one point, one of his victims struggles to hold up the lower part of his grotesquely shattered jaw, as Brandon pulls off the mask that he wears because, presumably, he understands that that’s what someone with superhuman powers should do. Brightburn never shows us how Brandon came to such a realization, but it does let us glimpse the stone-cold delight he takes in erasing human life—a spectacle of violence that exists for its own soulless sake.
Cast: Elizabeth Banks, David Denman, Jackson A. Dunn, Jennifer Holland, Matt Jones, Meredith Hagner, Becky Wahlstrom, Gregory Alan Williams, Steve Agee, Emmie Hunter Director: David Yarovesky Screenwriter: Brian Gunn, Mark Gunn Distributor: Screen Gems Running Time: 90 min Rating: R Year: 2019
The Nightingale Trailer: Aisling Franciosi and Sam Claflin Star in Jennifer Kent’s Follow-Up to The Babadook
Today, IFC has released the first trailer for the film, which is set during the colonization of Australia in 1825.
Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale, the Aussie filmmaker’s much-anticipated follow-up to The Babadook, premiered way back in September at the Venice Film Festival, and to mostly positive notices. Today, ahead of its U.S. theatrical release in August, IFC has released the first trailer for the film, which is set during the colonization of Australia in 1825 and follows a young Irish convict settler, Clare (played by Aisling Franciosi), who, after finishing her seven-year sentence, struggles to be free of her abusive master, Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin). According to the studio’s official description of the film:
Clare’s husband Aidan (Michael Sheasby) retaliates and she becomes the victim of a harrowing crime at the hands of the lieutenant and his cronies. When British authorities fail to deliver justice, Clare decides to pursue Hawkins, who leaves his post suddenly to secure a captaincy up north. Unable to find compatriots for her journey, she is forced to enlist the help of a young Aboriginal tracker Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) who grudgingly takes her through the rugged wilderness to track down Hawkins. The terrain and the prevailing hostilities are frightening, as fighting between the original inhabitants of the land and its colonizers plays out in what is now known as “The Black War.” Clare and Billy are hostile towards each other from the outset, both suffering their own traumas and mutual distrust, but as their journey leads them deeper into the wilderness, they must learn to find empathy for one another, while weighing the true cost of revenge.
Watch the official trailer below:
IFC Films will release The Nightingale in NY and LA on August 2.
Cannes Review: The Lighthouse Is a Hilarious and Grotesque Genre Pastiche
Robert Eggers loosens the noose of veracity just enough to allow for so much absurdism to peek through.3
Willem Dafoe farts and Robert Pattinson masturbates vigorously in Robert Eggers’s creepy and unexpectedly, if grotesquely, hilarious follow-up to The Witch. Set in 1890s New England, The Lighthouse finds Eggers again mining the past for an air of mythic portent but loosening the noose of veracity that choked his meticulously researched yet painfully self-serious debut just enough to allow for so much absurdism to peek through.
From the moment that lighthouse keepers Thomas Wake (Dafoe), an experienced old “wickie” with a shuffling gait and a hair-trigger temper, and Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson), his handlebar mustache-sporting assistant, set foot on the tiny island where they’re to spend the next four weeks, they start to get on each other’s nerves. Wake is a slave driver who’s said to have made his last assistant go crazy, and who ignores any and all regulations, while Winslow, who’s on his first assignment as a lighthouse keeper, refuses to drink and be merry with Wake, which causes its own problems. Before long, the two men kick into motion a game of one-upmanship, a raising of the stakes to see who will be the first to drive the other to madness—with flatulence and horniness among the many, many factors fueling that pursuit.
Eggers’s willingness to get goofy, and to not worry about humor defusing his narrative’s macabre horror—as in, say, the cartoonish pummeling that a devious seagull receives—makes The Lighthouse something of a breakthrough for the filmmaker. Diverging from the formula of coiled tension followed by sudden and jolting release that’s favored by so many contemporary arthouse horror films, Eggers parcels out the action in the film, steadily and methodically building toward the psychological breaking point of his characters.
Dafoe and Pattinson are crucial to selling that trajectory, ensuring that every moment here bristles with performative bluster. Dafoe’s surly former sea captain is a blowhard who’s given to sentimental reverie whenever he gets hammered, while his foil is played by Pattinson with slyly vacillating docile subservience and scheming spitefulness. The veteran character actor and dressed-down movie star play off each other exceptionally well, especially when, as is often the case in a two-hander, they have to pull-off a tricky role reversal.
Taking advantage of a bigger budget than The Witch, Eggers shot The Lighthouse on 35mm film. He’s also utilized the 1.19:1 Movietone aspect ratio, which was briefly standardized in the 1920s and is tighter than the already boxy 1.37:1 academy ratio, as a means of emphasizing his vertical compositions and the at times literally stratified relationship between his main characters. At one point, Dafoe’s old codger refuses to share lantern duty, while Winslow toils down below, swabbing decks and maintaining the dilapidated station.
Eggers successfully approximates F.W. Murnau’s stark and dynamic use of light and shadow in images that ensconce his characters in darkness and place them in geometrically unbalanced positions within the frame. But the quirkiest influence on this film is Night Tide, Curtis Harrington’s 1961 supernatural farce of a noir, which Eggers cribs from blatantly in a surreal sequence where Pattinson’s character has an erotic fantasy about a mermaid, and in a delirious body-horror montage—realized through largely practical effects—that co-opts Harrington’s hybridization of Roger Corman and Kenneth Ager’s stylings.
And like Night Tide, a send-up of beach-party movies and cheap ‘50s sci-fi, The Lighthouse aims for self-aware pastiche and pulls it off without smugness. Unlike Harrington’s film, though, it doesn’t register much affection for the forms it’s working with, and can come off like a calculated exercise. Still, Eggers’s ability to take the piss out of his inflated genre movie pastiche, without lapsing into parody, is an impressive and an entertaining feat.
Cast: Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe, Valeriia Karaman Director: Robert Eggers Screenwriter: Robert Eggers, Max Eggers Distributor: A24 Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Maryland Film Festival 2019: The Hottest August, Donbass, & American Factory
This year’s selections exhibit a scope and ambition that should continue to draw adventurous filmgoers for years to come.
Judging from the enthusiasm of the surprisingly high number of New York filmmakers and critics this writer met in Baltimore this past weekend, the Maryland Film Festival isn’t seen as a pale shadow of Big Apple filmgoing. Rather, it’s a vital supplement to it—a program that compresses many of the festival season’s essential offerings into a manageable four-day run in an easily walkable city with comparatively chill crowds.
Those who made the commute to Baltimore for the festival this year had the chance to encounter one of the more trenchant New York-set films of recent memory in Brett Story’s The Hottest August, an essayistic documentary made in the intellectually vagrant spirit of Chris Marker. Shot in August of 2017 around a principle of “organized spontaneity,” per producer Danielle Varga, the film spans New York City’s five boroughs while adhering to a nebulous, difficult-to-define but nonetheless valuable objective: to take the temperature of the times we live in and tease out the collective mood of the country’s most densely populated area.
Willfully biting off more than it can chew, The Hottest August features rich people, poor people, scientists, skateboarders, entrepreneurs, intellectuals, barflies, artists, and more waxing extemporaneous on topics including climate change, economic inequality, automation, racism, and the future. The mood is off the cuff, conversational. A pair of women in lawn chairs joke about how their street’s rat population has swelled as a result of gentrifying construction in adjacent neighborhoods. Two former cops reframe the term “racism” as “resentment” in a sports bar just moments after demanding that no politics enter the hallowed space of the drinking hole. A loft-dwelling futurist pontificates on what the tax system might look like if the country embraced robotics instead of fearing it as a job killer. Occasionally we hear the filmmaker off screen, tersely prompting her subjects with open-ended questions, but mostly this is an ensemble of eager talkers, their openness running contrary to the old chestnut about closed-off New Yorkers.
Finding form in this seemingly disconnected mass is editor Nels Bangerter, who managed a similar feat with Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson. The film drifts subtly from subject to subject, pointedly using B roll not just to evocatively provide a sense of place, but to extend someone’s thought or offer counterpoint. Three streams of information exist at once: whatever opinion is being put forth by the person on screen; whatever in-the-moment perspective Story takes on her subject’s response through the questions she asks or the camera angles she chooses; and the question of how that segment ultimately interacts with the film in its final form, where images have been invested with meaning through context.
The Hottest August is a film that’s constantly “thinking,” and that thought isn’t fixed or authoritative, but rather in flux and negotiable. Story isn’t setting out to answer any pressing political issues so much as capture the tactile sense of how those issues permeate everyday settings. Hers is a form of ambient reportage that feels very welcome in our contemporary moment, when the daily barrage of information can sometimes make it difficult to recall how one felt about something two days earlier, let alone in that turbulent August of 2017.
Similarly macro in its approach is Sergei Loznitsa’s Donbass, which adopts a sprawling, vignette-driven structure as it catalogues the miseries and grotesqueries of the eponymous eastern Ukrainian territory. A region occupied by pro-Russian paramilitary forces (specifically the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics) ever since the Ukrainian Revolution in 2014, present-day Donbass is a morass of conflicting sympathies and ideologies that Loznitsa doesn’t so much seek to clarify with this film as reflect in all its muddy complexity.
In fact, Loznitsa goes so far as to call into question the very possibility of the truth of this situation he captures on camera. Whenever reporters appear on screen, they’re portrayed as ineffectual stooges waiting to be chewed out as propaganda peddlers by their political opponents, and the film’s bookending sequences, set at the trailer park of a movie set, build toward a thesis statement on the dubiousness of contemporary reporting with its tendency to stage and reframe reality according to the mandates of whatever affiliation is being placated.
Cameras, we’re repeatedly reminded by the mise-en-scène, are violators, as they merely augment the dangerous power of the person wielding them. Donbass’s most harrowing elucidation of this theme comes in a scene on a public street, where a Ukrainian loyalist, tied to a telephone pole by a pair of armed separatists, endures a humiliating beating at the hands of a growing mob of passersby, one of whom decides to record the grisly spectacle with his smartphone. As Loznitsa’s camera circles the action, the heckler’s phone presses right up into the face of the prisoner, relishing in the man’s suffering, and we get the sense that the escalation of violence may have never come to pass in quite this way were it not for the spontaneous idea to turn it into a video meme. Later, the recording gets shown to a hooting crowd of Novorossiya sympathizers at an absurdly overemphatic wedding celebration, assimilating smoothly into the atmosphere of nationalist fervor.
Donbass is fueled by such collisions between the grave and the comic, a tonal oscillation mastered by Loznitsa in his documentaries and carried over here to support a vision of a society cracking under the weight of its own inconsistencies, corruption and mob mentalities. Less tightly structured than Loznitsa’s preceding fiction work, the film adopts the immersive observation of films like Maidan and Victory Day with a more active, roving camera but a similar degree of durational endurance. In one scene, Loznitsa even seamlessly integrates an extended use of documentary language into a longer fictional setup when his camera descends into a cramped and overcrowded bomb shelter, where a local host, lit by a camera-mounted source, walks us through the destitution of those living inside. As with the later street scene, the dreariness is eventually spiked by a dash of absurdism, but the counterpunch isn’t intended to lighten the mood so much as further disorient, ultimately giving Donbass an unnerving precarity that must come somewhat near the feeling on the ground.
If these two films, content as they are to revel in ambivalence, seek to grasp the experience of the now in all its bewilderment, Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar’s American Factory takes a more committed stance on an issue that’s equally topical. Fuyao Glass America, an outgrowth of a global glass manufacturer owned by a Chinese billionaire, opened in Moraine, Ohio in the shell of a shuddered General Motors plant toward the beginning of the decade, persisted financially for years while pursuing its awkward goal of unifying Chinese and American work cultures, and then inevitably ran up against controversy in 2017 when safety concerns and low wages encouraged the local employees to vote to unionize.
American Factory charts this entire compelling history with surprising comprehensiveness: When a late scene plays out as an illicit audio recording from an employee over a black screen, it stands out for being one of the only instances when the filmmakers don’t appear to have unencumbered access. But this sprawl has its downsides. Though briskly edited and tonally varied, Reichert and Bognar’s documentary skims over the surface of some of its most fascinating threads while in pursuit of a rousing decade-long tale.
The American workers depicted in the film, disgruntled by their diminished earnings and recalling a recent past with less bureaucratic oversight, too often blend into one undistinguished mass of Midwestern homeliness, and the few individuals who do get singled out for attention—a woman living in her relative’s basement and a rancher who befriends one particular Chinese co-worker—often get neglected for long stretches of time. The Chinese are perhaps even less differentiated, their insistence on dogged work ethic and company allegiance repeatedly emphasized almost to the point of xenophobia. That Fuyao chairman Cao Dewang, who weaves through the film as an amusingly oblivious villain for its majority, eventually gets a moment to fondly reminisce on China’s pre-industrial past and contemplate his own complicity in the country’s shift to globalized capitalism comes across as penance for the film’s occasional treatment of foreigners as misguided corporate drones.
What American Factory ultimately amounts to, however, isn’t an exploration of culture clash or a penetrating depiction of rust belt dejection, but rather a rallying cry for worker solidarity (in America, if not across the globe), a message it pulls off resoundingly in the final hour. Reichert and Bognar smartly detail all the insidious ways in which corporate messengers mischaracterize unionizing as a threat to individual liberty, and the populist filmmaking vernacular they employ as the union vote nears—fluid crosscutting between different intersecting narratives, plenty of emotional close-ups, a score of almost Spielbergian grandiosity—gives the documentary a genuine shot at trafficking radical politics to a relatively wide audience. If it’s any indication of future success, American Factory was one of the most well-attended screenings I went to during my time in Baltimore, but it’s a testament to the Maryland Film Festival’s outreach that healthy crowds congregated throughout the weekend. Though modest and inviting, this year’s selections exhibit a scope and ambition that should continue to draw adventurous filmgoers for years to come.
The Maryland Film Festival ran from May 8—12.
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