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.
Interview: Lynn Shelton on Honing Her Process for Sword of Trust
The filmmaker discusses how she wants viewers to feel like they’re paratrooping into her characters’ lives.
Lynn Shelton has amassed a formidable body of work between her eight features and countless television episodes. Her latest outing, the comic adventure Sword of Trust, represents her most topical work to date. After pawn shop owner Mel (played by Marc Maron) purchases an old sword, he gets plunged into world of conspiracy culture as the relic attracts legions of online prowlers convinced that the weapon represents proof that the Confederacy won the Civil War. The logline might be Shelton’s wildest yet, but the elements that have made her work indelible for over a decade remain intact: realistic conversations, emotional authenticity, and a commitment to multi-dimensional characters.
I chatted with Shelton on Sword of Trust’s opening day, which saw the director, writer, producer, editor, and occasional actress in great spirits. Our conversation covered her pursuit of Maron for this specific project, how she developed her unique script-development process, and why she wants viewers to feel like they’re paratrooping into her characters’ lives.
Last year on Marc Maron’s podcast, you mentioned that you liked exploring relationships between people who wouldn’t normally interact. Sword of Trust continues in that tradition for you. What keeps bringing you back to these dynamics?
Have you heard of this theory of multiple intelligences, like different types of intelligences we have? I can’t remember the names that [Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner] came up with, I think there’s eight. I know I’m not the brightest bulb on all of these scales, but one way that I think I’m pretty high is in emotional intelligence. I like to think I am, anyway. I’ve always been that close observer of human behavior. I also really love humans. I feel like the thing that makes humans human are their flaws. So, on screen, I don’t like to see people who are too smoothed out, all good or all bad. I’m interested in characters who are essentially good people, but they may be total fuck-ups and well-meaning who may sabotage themselves. Individual fucking up often happens in relation to other people. We may have a pre-determined need to connect to other people, but we’re constantly sabotaging ourselves.
Sometimes, like I said on the podcast, I’m much more interested in unlikely combinations of people because it’s not a prewritten script we’re handed. It’s not like, “This is who would be appropriate for you as a friend. This is the way you should act. This is the box we’ve already determined for you.” Any kind of out-of-the-box way of living one’s life or being surprised by a connection you feel to a human being, all those little happy accidents in life are the things I like to explore. To inspire people, not to just go through life in this sort of “this is what someone else had in mind for me, and I should follow that plan”—that feels very depressing to me. It’s more interesting to open your heart and your life up to other experiences.
To explore relationships in that way makes the everyday more interesting and exciting.
Yeah, exactly. It gives you a reason to stick around.
Having been a guest of Marc’s on his podcast twice, do you see any of his interviewer “persona” having an impact on the person you film on screen? Does training himself to listen and be present have any effect on making him a better screen partner?
Absolutely! The first time I directed Marc was on his TV show Maron, and I was so fascinated by his process. He’s raw and a really natural actor. He steps in front of the camera, and he’s looking at his scene partner and really knows how to listen and engage. A lot of that comes from sitting across from people and staring into their eyes. That’s why he’s such a good interviewer and has the top interview podcast, because he has a genuine conversation with people. And that’s all acting really is too. He also has this weird ability to let the camera and crew and other extraneous details just fade away for him, and a lot of people find all that really distracting and difficult to shut out. He doesn’t know where the camera is half the time. He said to me, “The next thing I want to do as an actor is figure out when the camera is on me.” I said, “What?! That camera’s right there!” He’s like, “I don’t see it. I’m not aware of it. I’m just in this scene with the person.” I’m like, “That is a gift, my friend. That is incredible that you’re able to not see the lights and craziness, just be in the scene.” He’s really able to do it. I think that definitely comes from that same skill set he’s drawing on.
Where does the genesis of your films occur? They usually have some kind of strong conceptual selling point or hook, but they’re often like a Trojan horse to get to deep conversations between the characters about something else.
It is, and the genesis of the vast majority of my films is an actor as a muse that I want to work with. Humpday was Mark Duplass, Outside In was his brother, Jay Duplass, this movie was Marc Maron, who I’ve been really wanting to make a movie with for three and a half years. Then there’s other things, like a territory I want to explore or an element I want to return to, like improvisation, which I haven’t done since Your Sister’s Sister. I’ve done several movies in between that have been scripted, but I wanted to allow myself a new genre. I knew I wanted to laugh because the last movie was a drama, and I was ready to laugh—and let myself really laugh by going into the outlandish and ridiculous, plot-wise. Go into some comedy-caper territory, which I’ve never let myself do before. I’ve been totally real in every moment, and this time I was like, “What if I have real characters who go to a crazy place?” I wanted to make a culturally relevant movie that didn’t make you want to slit your wrists. It referred to what was going on and some of the problematic elements of what we’re dealing with in society. We’re having this peak moment in conspiracy theories. They’ve always been around, but this is definitely where they’ve achieved a peak moment that I find very disturbing. So, it’s usually a territory I want to explore and an actor I want to work with.
How do you research or prepare to authentically treat conspiracy culture?
Well, there’s this thing called a computer and a thing called the internet, and boy, is it all in there! [laughs] We went down a rabbit hole with Mike O’Brien, my co-writer. It’s so fascinating because there’s little in-fighting. They really bonded over Pizzagate and the Twin Towers being an inside job, but then when it comes to hollow earth versus the earth is on fire, they’re at odds and frenemies for life. It’s insane, the shit you find.
How do you approach shooting improvisational dialogue? There’s a very naturalistic feel to it, but there are hardly any vocal fillers like “um” or “you know.”
Well, you get the right cast, so that really helps. I’ll tell you, you can do a lot in the editing room. You’ll see it on screen, there are these runs of incredible monologues. But if I’m cutting away to another actor for a reaction shot, it’s often because I’m slicing out an “um” or an “ah” or a little bauble. The edit room is the most redemptive place in the universe. It’s incredible what you can do and how you can carve out the right story. Especially with improvisation, it really is where the actual script is written. Our first cut—it didn’t feel fat, it was funny throughout—was two and a half hours long. I was like, “How am I going to cut out five to seven minutes, much less an hour?” And for me, a comedy has to be 90 minutes, so I knew I needed an hour out of there. It was like, “This is hysterical, this is gold, but it’s not serving the story. Ultimately, what is the story? It could be this, or it could include this, but let’s just hone it down to Mel’s emotional arc and make sure we can track it through the craziness.” We want to care about these people just enough and balance it. There was so much work in the edit room.
Sword of Trust is definitely a comedy, but the scene I found most striking was Mel explaining his history to your character, Deidre, and in such a matter-of-fact, serious fashion, in the back of the truck. Did you always intend to set off this important part of the story with such a stark tonal contrast?
No, it wasn’t. When Mike O’Brien really insisted that I be in the movie, I finally relented and thought I was going to be a random customer who came in for five seconds. But then, I realized she could be a device that helps us track Mel’s arc. I was really panicking for a long time because I couldn’t figure out how to make her funny. I can be comedic, but she wasn’t comedic. She was so desperate and tragic. Then I finally realized that I wasn’t going to worry about it. I wasn’t going to try to turn her into some kind of laughing-stock. I was just going to be what she feels like she needs to be. That was an indication that this movie is going to have that real element of heaviness to it, but it happened really organically. I wanted you to care about these people, but I didn’t realize there was going to be that much depth to one of them, so much poignant heart and humanity. That was a nice surprise.
You’ve described your writing process as being “upside-down,” where the script develops alongside the characters. How did you develop this writing style?
I never went to traditional film school. I had this long, circuitous route to get to what I’m doing. I started as a theater actor, then I went to photography and started doing experimental work, but everything as a solo artist. The most important work of the film, making the process of the acting, is obstructed at every turn by the process of making it. You’re out of order. In theater, you at least get to play a story from beginning to end and feel it out. You’re at scene 35 on the first day and like, “What’s happened before this? Where am I emotionally?” And then you’ve got to do it 40 times with the camera in different positions and act like nobody else is there. The whole thing is so hard, unless you’re Meryl Streep! But if you’re not working with Meryl Streep, what do you do as a director? I need real people on screen.
My second feature, My Effortless Brilliance, was a total experiment. I came up with these characters in my head and tried to cast them from a pretty small pool of actors. They were nothing like the characters. I realized, “What if you did it the other way? What if you had a person you wanted to work with…” That was where I started with that idea, and all I cared about was to make it feel like a documentary. I wanted you to turn the TV on and be like, “What am I watching? Am I in these people’s lives?” And people have said they’ve had that experience where they’ll turn it on in the middle of Showtime and have no idea what they’re watching but that it feels like a documentary. Which is like, “Yes! That’s what I meant.”
And then I honed it with Humpday. Once I knew I could work in that way, I upped the stakes. I’ll bring in a few lights. I had said, “No lights! Me and another camera operator with tiny cameras, a boom op, that’s it.” I eliminated the crew. But that was where I came up with that initial impulse, to make it feel really real. If the character fits the actor like a glove because it’s half them or three-quarters them and they’ve developed it with me…I want real humans.
I actually had that experience of picking up one of your movies and not missing a beat. I was late to my showtime of Your Sister’s Sister in the theater, but I didn’t feel like I was lost. Then a few years later I watched it at home from the beginning, which helped it make a little more sense. But I felt I had easily intuited what I had missed.
It’s funny because I want my movies to feel like you’re paratrooping into somebody’s life. We’re taking a little journey down the river of their life for a while, and then we leave again. I don’t like to tie things up too neatly at the end because I want you to get the sense that they’re continuing to live their lives, and who knows what’s going to happen in the future. But you just sort of paratrooped in a little bit later! [laughs]
On that note, there’s a line toward the end of the film where Jillian Bell’s character, Cynthia, takes a deep breath and says, “What a strange experience.” Is that line improvised or scripted? In a lot of ways, the line feels like it sums up where characters often net out at the end of your films.
That was all improvised! It’s all ordinary people going into crazy land, but yeah, ordinary people having weird dramas in their everyday lives. I mean, it can happen. I’ve heard stories of shit happening to random people that feel like…you couldn’t write that shit!
Review: Into the Ashes Brings Nothing New to the Country Noir Genre
Aaron Harvey is prone to pulling back from any moment that might give greater depth to his revenge tale.2
Aaron Harvey’s Into the Ashes is the latest in an increasing string of so-called country noirs set in the dilapidated backwoods of rural America, places ravaged by the opioid crisis and populated by jobless people long ago abandoned by politicians. It has little to distinguish itself, narratively or thematically, from similarly dour films, and it lets generic images of its rundown Alabama locale (rusted trucks, cramped houses, landlines in a wireless world) stand in as symbols of national decline without truly seeping into the complex social rot of the place. Its plot, of a reformed criminal forced to contend with his old gang leader over some stolen loot, is similarly superficial, hitting the typical beats of its genre.
Where Into the Ashes gets a boost is in its excellent cast of grizzled character actors, all of whom vibrantly express varying degrees of weariness and rage. Luke Grimes plays the erstwhile ne’er-do-well and ex-con Nick Brenner with the nervousness of a man who’s just learning to let go of his past and give in to hope. The man’s gruff, taciturn nature is leavened by his tender relationship with his wife, Tara (Marguerite Moreau), and he projects his faith in normalcy onto her. Nick relies so heavily on Tara for his emotional wellbeing that he anxiously calls home while on an overnight hunting trip just so he can hear her voice.
Equally human beneath a hard exterior is Nick’s father-in-law, Frank (Robert Taylor), the local sheriff whose intimidating Tom Waits-esque voice and stiff demeanor belie his fumbling, masculine attempts to welcome Nick into his family. Strongest of all, though, is Frank Grillo as Sloan, Nick’s recently paroled and vengeful boss. Grillo is at home playing big-fish-in-small-pond villains, and the actor makes the most of Sloan’s thin characterization, exuding psychopathic menace when Sloan confronts Nick in the latter’s home, drawing out every oblique threat as he circles the subject of the money that Nick stole from the crew’s last job before Sloan was sent to prison. Grillo expertly inflects even the silliest moments of sub-Tarantino dialogue with a disarming venom, such as an extended riff on pie and ice cream.
But if the actors are primed to explore the contours around a basic premise, Henry constantly pulls back from any moment that might give greater depth to his revenge tale. Women exist to be supportive and to become victims, while character-driven conversations between Nick and Frank devolve into asinine ethics debates over justifiable violence. Worst of all, there’s just no sense that the film is saying or revealing much of anything. There’s one moment where Into the Ashes achieves a touch of bleak grace akin to the work of Cormac McCarthy by skipping over the events leading to a shootout and focusing only on its grisly aftermath: bodies strewn about in puddles of blood that look like reflective pools of black ice in the pale moonlight. Then, not five minutes later, we get a flashback showing the lead-up to that carnage. As with so much else in the film, a haunting moment of elision is negated by literal representation.
Cast: Luke Grimes, Frank Grillo, Marguerite Moreau, James Badge Dale, Robert Taylor, Brad Smith, Jeff Pope, Andra Frankle Director: Aaron Harvey Screenwriter: Aaron Harvey Distributor: RLJE Films Running Time: 97 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Stéphane Brizé’s At War Is Politically Charged but Artistically Inert
The film is content to bluntly affirm that corporate attempts at compassion are always secondary to providing profit to shareholders.2
Seven months after the first flare-up of France’s Gilets Jaunes, the nascent populist movement shows no signs of ceasing. Combined with the country’s ongoing Telecom scandal, in which several executives have been charged with “moral harassment” after 35 workers were allegedly hounded into committing suicide, it’s evident that what’s simmering there is an extension of the same unease escalating around much of Europe, and the world at large. It’s a state of affairs that makes At War seem especially of the moment, and which leaves its eventual failure to offer any special insight so disappointing. Provided with a prime opportunity to animate the zeitgeist, Stéphane Brizé’s labor-focused drama instead uses this timeliness to prod along the most obvious of points, its nuts-and-bolts, process-oriented approach never amounting to more than a surface look at the issues it purports to confront.
The film in some ways functions as an unofficial prelude to Brizé’s prior The Measure of a Man, in which an unemployed machinist played by Vincent Lindon finds a new career as a hyper-market security guard, where he’s eventually forced to choose between serving as a traitorous management lackey and losing his job. Here, Lindon’s Laurent Amédéo is still in possession of his original occupation, though things are hanging by a thread, as a last-ditch organizing effort attempts to halt the closure of a manufacturing plant in Agen. Surrounded by a cast of convincing non-professionals, Laurent leads the picket line, refusing to waver from the straight and narrow, an intense figure of principle whose scruples are never in doubt.
At War is largely notable for its steadfast devotion to a kind of mechanistic aesthetic, which unfortunately lines up with its cheerless didacticism, the two qualities cohering in a scene-by-scene summation of a strike action that repeatedly hammers home the same general points. The scenes themselves evince heft, fluidity, and an impressive sense of improvisation, but the staging is static and the eventual outcome is always clear. The game is given away by Lindon’s stoic face and the gradual unraveling of the plot, which envisions internal disintegration—leveraged by outside pressure—as the insidious method by which solidarity is smashed. Despite some genuine drama in this dissolution, it’s always clear who’s right and who’s wrong, which material interests each is representing, and who’s lying and who’s telling the truth.
This didn’t have to be the case, as proven by David France’s procedure-focused documentary How to Survive a Plague, which balanced a similarly diagrammatic narrative with extensive character detail, expanding the stakes while affixing a deeper subtext about the ways the victory of a marginalized group eventually diminishes its radical standing. Intent on emphasizing the connections between callous corporate greed and populist unrest, Brizé’s film is bluntly focused on the bottom line. There’s a certain dramatic function to this technique, as it examines the individual human actions that allow such interests to put their will into practice, but it doesn’t justify the flat, exhortative style of address.
As another example of how well this kind of economic criticism can be carried off, there are the dazzling docu-essays of German filmmaker Harun Farocki, who routinely found surprising intricacies in the cold façade of modern capitalism, while offering empathetic alignment with workers as a matter of course. At War, on the other hand, merely summarizes what its audience already knows, affirming that corporate attempts at compassion are always secondary to providing profit to shareholders, and that genuine humanity and integrity are liabilities when confronting such an unfeeling monolith. Like Ken Loach’s recent Palme d’Or winner I, Daniel Blake, it’s a film whose political principles are hard to disagree with, yet which leans so heavily on this moral certitude as to render itself entirely inert.
Cast: Vincent Lindon, Melanie Rover, Jacques Borderie, David Rey, Olivier Lemaire Director: Stéphane Brizé Screenwriter: Stéphane Brizé, Olivier Gorce Distributor: Cinema Libre Studio Running Time: 115 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Bottom of the 9th Strikes Out with Too Much Plot Incident
Raymond De Felitta’s film offers a sampler course of formulas, which creates a strangely unfulfilling tension.1.5
Raymond De Felitta’s Bottom of the 9th offers a sampler course of formulas, which creates a strangely unfulfilling tension. Just when you expect the film to go in a certain direction, it goes in another, only for it to again switch routes, though there’s never a sense of expectations being deliberately challenged or tweaked. Rather, the filmmakers merely seem to be indulging a variety of passing fancies, which is a shame because the actors here are game and occasionally imbue the shopworn scenes with liveliness.
Sonny Stano (Joe Manganiello) is the perfect hero for either a noir or a redemptive sports film, a man approaching middle age who just served a 19-year sentence for manslaughter. Famous in his Bronx neighborhood for being drafted by the Yankees, only to flush his life down the toilet, Sonny is attempting to patch his life together while doing a perpetual apology tour on behalf of friends and strangers alike. He’s initially hired by an old friend, Joey (James Madio), to work in a fish market that seems to be a front for something. Joey has a cagey energy, and this narrative isn’t without intrigue, but De Felitta and screenwriter Robert Bruzio unceremoniously lose sight of it in succumbing to a number of clichés.
Of course, Sonny is revealed to have a woman who got away, Angela (Sofia Vergara), who one day runs into her old beau at a market. They clearly have chemistry, as do the actors playing them, but their dialogue is composed of nothing but redemptive platitudes. In these scenes, Manganiello and Vergara are stuck in a worst-of-all-worlds situation. Their characters are relentlessly mousey, which is appropriate to the awkward context of Sonny and Angela’s reunion, but which also robs these sexy actors of the opportunity to enjoy playing off one another. Meanwhile, said mousiness isn’t poignant either, as the characters haven’t been imagined beyond the respective stereotypes of the fallen man and jilted woman.
Bottom of the 9th then flirts with a narrative similar to that of Bull Durham and Major League, in which Sonny is hired by a local minor league ball team to rein in the fiery, egotistical talents of a rookie named Manny (Xavier Scott Evans). Evans is ferociously charismatic, suggesting a young Wesley Snipes and giving Manganiello a kinetic vibe to play off of, and so the film finally begins to come to life, with great character actors like Michael Rispoli and Burt Young riffing on the sidelines. However, this conceit is also left hanging, as the film shifts into a story of the unlikely comeback, with Sonny’s own talents taking center ring.
De Felitta might’ve gotten by with these contrivances if he were a natural showman, but the filmmaker displays little interest in the Bronx setting in which his characters live, or in rendering their experiences in a fashion that refutes screenwriterly index-card portraiture. For instance, a prison flashback in which Sonny gets into a fight during a ball game is reduced to trite and melodramatic close-ups, while much of the remainder of the film is composed of medium shots designed to accentuate only the largely uninteresting dialogue. There’s truly nothing in Bottom of the 9th but plot incident, and the leisurely, impersonal one-thing-after-another-ness of the film’s construction is stifling.
Cast: Joe Manganiello, Sofía Vergara, Denis O'Hare, Burt Young, James Madio, Yancey Arias, Michael Rispoli, Vincent Pastore, Dominik García-Lorido, Michael Maize, Kevin William Paul Director: Raymond De Felitta Screenwriter: Robert Bruzio Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 111 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Crawl Is Fun and Economical but Lacks Go-for-Broke Inventiveness
The film is more straight-faced than Alexandre Aja’s prior work, trading absurd kills for narrow escapes from gaping alligator jaws.2.5
Unlike the giddily crass Piranha 3D, Alexandre Aja’s Crawl is a quiet beast of a film. It’s built not on a foundation of over-the-top gore, but on a series of escalations. As a hurricane barrels toward Florida, ace swimmer Haley (Kaya Scodelario) becomes worried after her father, Dave (Barry Pepper), doesn’t return her phone calls. She travels to her old family home and finds him unconscious in the house’s flooded crawl space, with large alligators swimming in the water.
Early on, the camera often lingers on the deceptive stillness of the rising water for maximum suspense. Haley and her father are trapped in the house with no more than the tools they can find or already have on hand, MacGyvering their very survival out of shovels, flashlights, and flares. The best parts of the film slyly set up those tools and other objects, including a swing set and a rat trap, only to bring them back at some later, climactic moment.
If Crawl, then, is an easily digestible piece of workmanlike thrills, its only real bit of gristle is its po-faced father-daughter bonding. Haley and Dave are somewhat estranged; the family home was meant to have been sold off after Dave’s recent divorce from Haley’s mother; and flashbacks to childhood swim meets show father and daughter tempting fate with flagrantly ironic use of the term “apex predator.” In the face of certain death, they cobble their relationship back together through Hallmark-card platitudes while sentimental music plays on the film’s soundtrack. It’s the absolute thinnest of familial drama, and it will do little to redirect your emotional investment away from the survival of the family dog.
Between these family moments, of course, the flood waters run red as people get got by gators. Aja is prone to lingering in prolonged closeup on things like a protruding bone being shoved back into place, but he otherwise seems to have gotten the most inspired bits of underwater violence out of his system with Piranha 3D. Crawl is more straight-faced than his prior work, trading absurd kills for narrow escapes from gaping alligator jaws. And while these moments are suspenseful, with nail-biting scrapes involving a handgun, some loose pipes, and one particularly clever shower-door maneuver, there’s precious little of the go-for-broke invention or outrageousness that might have made the film more than a fun and economical thriller.
Cast: Kaya Scodelario, Barry Pepper, Ross Anderson, Morfydd Clark Director: Alexandre Aja Screenwriter: Michael Rasmussen, Shawn Rasmussen Distributor: Paramount Pictures Running Time: 87 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: The Farewell Thoughtfully Braids the Somber and the Absurd
The film taps into universal truths about the passage of time, the inevitability of loss, and how we prepare one another for it.3.5
In the opening scene of writer-director Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, a Chinese grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen), affectionately referred to as Nai Nai by her family, and her Chinese-American granddaughter, Billi (Awkwafina), have a warm, affectionate phone conversation in which each woman incessantly lies to the other. A professionally adrift, financially bereft millennial whose writing ambitions have come to naught, Billi lets her grandmother believe her life is busy and full of social engagements; for her part, Nai Nai insists that she’s at her sister’s house, rather than in a drably decorated doctor’s office. Wang frames Nai Nai against the kitschy, oversized picture of a lagoon that hangs on the wall, as if to emphasize the flimsiness of the illusions the pair is painting for one another.
The sequence calls to mind the advantage of audio-only phone calls: for allowing us to more easily maintain the falsehoods that comprise a not insignificant portion of our relationships. Given that minor mistruths prop up our most basic social connections, Wang focuses The Farewell on the moral quandary of whether a big lie—specifically, culturally contingent situations—might actually be an expression of genuine love. The film takes up the question with a tone of melancholic drollery, a sense of irony that doesn’t lose touch with the human feelings at its core. The Farewell is “based on an actual lie,” evidently an episode from Wang’s life, and its careful mixture of the somber and the absurd rings true to life.
As it turns out, Nai Nai has terminal lung cancer, but Billi’s father’s family elects to lie to the woman about her MRI results, an action that’s evidently within the bounds of Chinese law. But as Billi’s assimilated immigrant father, Haiyan (Tzi Ma), points out to his brother, Haibin (Jiang Yongbo), during a crisis of conscience, such a thing is both frowned upon in America and prosecutable. Struggling even more with the decision, of course, is the more Americanized Billi, who can’t reconcile her Western notions of love and the sanctity of the individual with the widespread practice of lying to family members about their impending deaths.
To create a cover for a family visit to Beijing, the family forces Billi’s cousin, Hao Hao (Chen Hanwei), who lives in Japan, to marry his girlfriend, Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara), of three months. This plan provides plenty of fodder for Wang’s dry humor, as the family attempts to maintain the veneer of celebration while also bidding farewell to their ostensibly clueless matriarch, who’s confused by Hao Hao and Aiko’s lack of affection and the generally dour mood that predominates in the lead-up to the wedding. It’s potential material for a farce, but even in its funny moments, Wang’s film is contemplative rather than frenetic, preferring to hold shots as her characters gradually, often comically adjust to the reality that Nai Nai will soon be gone.
Awkwafina, hitherto notable mostly for her comic supporting roles, gives a revelatory lead performance as Billi, the thirtysomething prone to bouts of adolescent sullenness. Perhaps playing a Bushwick-based, first-generation-American creative type isn’t much of a stretch for the Queens-born rapper/actress, but she immediately brings to the role the depth of lived experience: We believe from the first frames in the long-distance love between Billi and her grandmother, and the existential crisis the young woman feels as she negotiates two cultures’ differing approaches to death and disease. In taking us to Beijing through Billi’s eyes, which are often blinking back tears as she says goodbye without articulating “goodbye,” The Farewell’s morose but not hopeless comedy taps into universal truths about the passage of time, the inevitability of loss, and how we prepare one another for it.
Cast: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo, Chen Hanwei Director: Lulu Wang Screenwriter: Lulu Wang Distributor: A24 Running Time: 98 min Rating: PG Year: 2018
Review: The Lion King Remake Finds Its Place in the Circle of Consumption
This ostentatiously expensive remake is reliant on our memory of the original to accentuate every significant moment.1
It’s somewhat paradoxical to critique Disney’s recent series of “live-action” remakes for precisely repeating the narratives, emotional cues, shot sequences, and soundscapes of their earlier animated versions. More than young children, who might well be content watching the story in vibrant 2D, it’s the parents who are the target audience of this new take on The Lion King, which aims to light up adults’ nostalgia neurons. In this sense, Jon Favreau’s film achieves its goals, running through a text beloved by an entire generation almost line for line, and shot for shot—with some scenes extended to reach the two hours seemingly required of Hollywood tentpoles. Throughout, though, one gets the impression that there’s something very cheap at the core of this overtly, ostentatiously expensive film, reliant as it is on our memory of the original to accentuate every significant moment.
The new film differs from its source in simulating a realistic African savannah and wildlife through digital animation and compositing, but it doesn’t provide anything resembling a genuinely new idea, visually or dramatically. Favreau meticulously recreates the framing and montage of 1994’s The Lion King as he runs through the unaltered storyline. The young lion prince Simba (voiced as a cub by JD McCrary and as a grown lion by Donald Glover) witnesses his father Mufasa’s (James Earl Jones) seemingly accidental death by stampede. Unknown to Simba, his uncle, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), murdered his own brother, but the jealous would-be heir manipulates the rambunctious young lion into accepting the blame for his father’s death. In self-exile, Simba represses his guilt by adopting the carefree philosophy of meercat Timon (Billy Eichner) and warthog Pumbaa (Seth Rogen), until his long-lost betrothed, Nala (Beyoncé Knowles-Carter), happens across him and convinces him to return to reclaim his throne.
The film’s world, as conceived by Favreau’s camera and an army of CG animators, is far less expressive than the one Disney’s original artists created in 1994. Tied to the idea of recompositing a reality, the filmmakers take less license in making the elephant graveyard where malicious hyenas Shenzi (Florence Kasumba), Azizi (Eric André), and Kamari (Keegan-Michael Key) live a fantastical, nightmarish terrain, and they constrain the choreography of the animals during Simba’s performance of “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” to the bounds of actual animal physiology. Such musical sequences suffer under the regime of realism: Scar’s villainous exposition song, “Be Prepared,” appears in a truncated version spoken more than sung by Ejiofor, effectively robbing the original song of its devious exuberance.
The characters’ faces are also less pliable, less anthropomorphized—their demeanor harder to read—than in the traditional animation format of the original film. This isn’t necessarily a hindrance to crafting an affecting story (see Chris Noonan’s Babe), but the closeness with which Favreau hews to the original film means that the moments crafted for the earlier medium don’t quite land in this one. Scar isn’t nearly so menacing when he’s simply a gaunt lion with a scar, and Nala and Simba’s reunion isn’t as meaningful when their features can’t soften in humanlike fashion when they recognize each other. The Lion King invites—indeed, attempts to feed off of—reference to the original but consistently pales in comparison.
There’s another important difference one feels lurking in the margins of this film. The attitude of the first Lion King toward nature approached something like deference. The original film isn’t flawless: In its depiction of a patrilineal kingdom being saved from a usurper and his army of lazy serfs by the rightful heir, it questionably projected human politics into a nonhuman world. But it was an ambitious project by the then comparatively modest Walt Disney Studios to craft an expressive, living portrait of the animal kingdom. In contrast, there’s a hubristic quality to this CG-infused remake, as if Disney is demonstrating that its digitally fabricated imagery can fully capture the reality of a healthy, autonomous animal world—at a historical moment when that world is in danger of being totally snuffed out by the human race’s endless cycles of production and reproduction. The subject of this tiresome retread is ultimately less the “circle of life” and more the circle of consumption.
Cast: Donald Glover, James Earl Jones, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, Billy Eichner, Seth Rogen, Keegan-Michael Key, Eric André, John Kani, JD McCrary, John Oliver Director: Jon Favreau Screenwriter: Jeff Nathanson, Brenda Chapman Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 118 min Rating: PG Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack
Review: Rojo Is a Chilly Allegory for the Distance Between Classes
It masterfully sustains a sense of “wrongness” that will be felt even by those unfamiliar with Argentina’s history.3
With Rojo, writer-director Benjamín Naishtat conjures a haunting aura of debauched boredom, evoking a climate in which something vast yet barely acknowledged is happening under the characters’ noses. Though the film is set in Argentina in 1975, on the cusp of a coup and at the height of the Dirty War, when U.S.-backed far-right military groups were kidnapping, torturing, and killing perceived liberal threats, these events are never explicitly mentioned. Instead, the characters do what people choosing to ignore atrocity always have, talking around uncomfortable subjects and focusing on the mundane textures of their lives. Meanwhile, Naishtat expresses Argentina’s turmoil via symbols and sequences in which aggression erupts out of seemingly nowhere, actualizing the tension that’s hidden in plain sight. Throughout the film, Naishtat masterfully sustains a sense of “wrongness” that will be felt even by audiences who’re unfamiliar with Argentina’s history.
The film opens with a home being emptied of its belongings—an image that will come to scan as a metaphor for a country that’s “cleaning house.” Naishtat then springs an odd and creepy encounter between a famous attorney, Claudio (Darío Grandinetti), and a man who will eventually come to be known as “the hippie” (Diego Cremonesi). Claudio is sitting at a stylish restaurant minding his own business and waiting for his wife, Susana (Andrea Frigerio), when the hippie storms in and demands that Claudio give up his table. The hippie reasons that he’s ready to eat now, while Claudio is inhabiting unused space. Claudio gives up the table and proceeds, with his unexpected civility in the face of the hippie’s hostility, to humiliate this interloper. And this scene reflects how skillful Naishtat is at tying us in knots: In the moment, Claudio is the sympathetic party, but this confrontation becomes a parable of how people like the hippie are being pushed out—“disappeared”—by a country riven with political divisions.
Tensions between Claudio and the hippie escalate, and the hippie eventually shoots himself in the face with a pistol. Rather than taking the man to the hospital, Claudio drives him out to the desert, leaving his body there and allowing him to die. What’s shocking here is the matter-of-fact-ness of Claudio’s actions; based on his demeanor, Claudio might as well be carrying trash out to the dump, and he moves on with his life, returning to work and basking in the adulation that his profession has granted him. In a conventional thriller, this moral trespass would be the driving motor of the film, yet Naishtat drops the incident with the hippie for the majority of Rojo’s running time, following Claudio as he networks and engages in other scams.
Naishtat emulates, without editorializing, the casualness of his characters, and so Rojo is most disturbing for so convincingly suggesting idealism to be dead—with gritty brownish cinematography that further suggests a sensorial muddying. With little-to-no sense of stability, of faith in a social compass, the characters here often emphasize what should be trivial happenings. Susana’s decision to drink water at a gathering, rather than coffee or tea, becomes a kind of proxy gesture for the resistance that her and her social class are failing to show elsewhere, while a comic disappearance during a magic show macabrely mirrors the government’s killing and kidnapping of dissidents. Rojo’s centerpiece, however, is an eclipse that engulfs a beach in the color red, as Susana wanders a wooded area lost while Claudio, lacking sunglasses, blocks his eyes. The color red is also associated with communism, of course, as if the targets of this regime are demanding to be recognized.
Rojo eventually reprises the hippie narrative, as a famed Chilean detective, Sinclair (Alfredo Castro), comes hounding Claudio for answers, yet this development is soon revealed to be an elaborate fake-out. Out in the desert, one’s primed to expect the ruthlessly intelligent Sinclair to provide the wandering narrative a catharsis by forcing Claudio to take responsibility for something. But these men, both wealthy and respected, are of the same ilk. Though they’re each bound by routine and pretense, the death of lower classes means equally little to both of them. At this point, it’s clear that Rojo is less a thriller than a brutally chilly satire, concerning men who have the privilege, like other people who haven’t been deemed expendable by their government, to playact, offering ceremonial outrage that gratifies their egos while allowing a diseased society that benefits them to carry on with business as usual.
Cast: Darío Grandinetti, Andrea Frigerio, Alfredo Castro, Laura Grandinetti, Rafael Federman, Mara Bestelli, Claudio Martínez Bel, Abel Ledesma, Raymond E. Lee Director: Benjamín Naishtat Screenwriter: Benjamín Naishtat Distributor: Distrib Films Running Time: 109 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Review: The Art of Self-Defense Totters Between Raw Ferocity and Lifeless Comedy
The dojo of this film is the ultimate unsafe space, a place of deadpan irony and appalling brutality.2
Writer–director Riley Stearns is a fan and practitioner of jiu-jitsu, which he’s credited with making him healthier and less lazy. Yet the filmmaker’s sophomore feature, The Art of Self-Defense, would seem to posit martial arts as the epitome of toxic masculinity. The dojo here is the ultimate unsafe space, a fight club stripped of Fincherian chic, which Stearns replaces with deadpan irony and appalling brutality.
The film centers on an accounts auditor, Casey Davies (Jesse Eisenberg), the platonic ideal of a hypomasculine twerp. He tells people his name like it’s a question, and his favorite music is “adult contemporary.” Even his pet dachshund reads as a loser: scrawny, with disproportionate features. Such meekness attracts the ire of bullies: his inanimate answering machine surreally berates him; French tourists in a coffee shop laugh at him (in French, which they don’t realize he understands); and, most seriously, a motorcycle gang nearly beats him to death. He’s just that kind of guy, so contemptibly inadequate that people want to hurt him.
Wandering the lonely streets of his unnamed city, Casey happens upon one of the film’s few populated spaces: a karate studio where Anna (Imogen Poots) provides a group of children with the affirmation and social support system Casey so desperately craves. “I want to be,” he says, “what intimidates me.” When he joins the adult class, he gets something extra from the studio’s sensei (Alessandro Nivola): a heaping side of male chauvinism. Soon, Casey is studying German—a manlier language than French, says the sensei—and listening to metal. He also stops petting his dog, so as not to coddle it, changes his desktop wallpaper at work to bare breasts, and punches his accommodating boss in the throat for being friendly.
Nivola dominates The Art of Self-Defense as his sensei does his loyal students, achieving alpha-male status with well-articulated arrogance, while Poots provides a valuable counter voice as Anna, calling attention to the preposterousness of that sexism as a talented and powerful woman, held back by the gender roles ingrained in this system of unarmed combat. (A scene in which Anna recounts an attempted sexual assault against her at the dojo, for which she was subsequently blamed and punished, is particularly affecting.) And Eisenberg’s Casey is the easily influenced straight man caught between the two, drawn to the pride and confidence offered by the sensei but also to the compassionate strength embodied by Anna.
The whole cast, however, struggles with Stearns’s overarching tone, and his screenplay’s occasional wit is usually delivered by the actors in such a deadpan that it flatlines. The contrasting flashes of ultraviolence, on the mat and off, thus have no counterbalance, leaving The Art of Self-Defense tottering between raw ferocity and lifeless comedy.
Stearns’s 2014 feature-length debut, Faults, was a tightly constructed and alluringly mysterious riff on similar issues, about the malleability of a man who lacks confidence. But it was unpredictable in its depiction of the slowly changing power dynamic between its characters; the film broke down and unmoored its audience along with its protagonist, a deprogrammer of cult members tricked into becoming one. In this film, though, the plot twists are telegraphed early. The hero is overly coded as pathetic, and we’re invited to laugh at him with the French tourists, not only to shake our heads at his brief, incel-like transformation into an overcompensating bro, but finally to find comfort in his use of violence to depose his violent sensei. The stakes seem low: Casey rejects the manipulative madman, a blackmailer with a black belt, who harnessed karate’s power for ill, but Steans is careful to vindicate karate itself, which might please its admirers but leave everyone else feeling indifferent.
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, Imogen Poots, Phillip Andre Botello, David Zellner, Steve Terada Director: Riley Stearns Screenwriter: Riley Stearns Distributor: Bleecker Street Running Time: 104 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Sword of Trust Is an Amiable Look at Southern Disillusionment
Marc Maron’s commanding aura of regret gives the film, despite its missed opportunities, an emotional center.2.5
Like most Lynn Shelton films, Sword of Trust is amiable and humanistic almost to a fault. The filmmaker has a gift for oddball humor, and for allowing her actors to form memorable and moving rapports, yet with the exception of Your Sister’s Sister, there often seems to be little at stake in her work. Sword of Trust often feels similarly slight, even though it’s about the legacy of the American Civil War and the “post-truth” crisis that’s currently plaguing the country. An engaging tension between tone and theme animates the film, but you may wish that Shelton had approached her material with more focus.
Much of the film is set in an Alabaman pawn shop presided over by Mel, who’s played by Marc Maron and who resembles every character the actor-comedian played since enjoying a career resurgence with his series Maron (episodes of which Shelton directed). Like Maron himself, Mel is a lovable curmudgeon, a recovering addict who utilizes his past troubles as a signifier of his hard-won wisdom and humility, which he laces with acidic humor and sharp timing. Since Maron, a spin-off of his “WTF” podcast, Maron has grown astonishingly as an actor, with a rumpled charisma that suggests 1970s-era legends like Elliott Gould. Unlike most comedians acting in films, Maron isn’t afraid to slow down his performative biorhythms, which is especially evident in a lovely early scene in Sword of Trust when Mel sees an ex (Shelton) and silently trundles toward the front of the shop closer to her, clearly weighing his words.
Shelton takes her time acclimating the audience to life in Mel’s pawn shop. Mel has a lackadaisical millennial assistant, Nathaniel (Jon Bass), who’s enthralled with internet conspiracy theories, and he enjoys ice teas with Jimmy (Al Elliott), an elderly African-American man who runs a nearby restaurant. These loose observational moments are Shelton’s specialty, and she subtly allows us to grasp the sadness of her characters. These people have forged a kind of liberal bohemian idyll in the middle of a red state, but they’re lonely, drifting through life. Maron telegraphs this loneliness in how he has Mel appraise objects, with a weariness that suggests a need for both connection and money.
Kicking the film’s plot in gear is a couple, Cynthia (Jillian Bell) and Mary (Michaela Watkins), who inherit from Cynthia’s deceased grandfather a Union sword that a cult of truthers believes to be evidence that the South won the Civil War. This is a spectacular idea for a satire of our modern age—in which memes and online mythology warp discourse—that Shelton reduces mostly to an inciting incident and a MacGuffin. Cynthia and Mary partner with Mel to sell the sword to the cult, which leads to a few surprisingly scary-flaky scenes that momentarily jolt the film’s easygoing vibes. Particularly eerie is a scene with Hog Jaws, a truther henchman who’s played by Toby Huss with an unusually casual sense of menace. This is a man who doesn’t need to threaten people because he understands he’s inherently threatening.
Given its narrative involving a Jewish man pretending to take reactionary Southern values seriously, Sword of Trust at times suggests a kind of sketch-TV version of BlackKklansman. Shelton sees the truthers as bigoted buffoons, as symptoms of people’s current need to follow their own ideology, regardless of facts and carefully nurtured online, but with few exceptions, she doesn’t bring the tension between the liberals and the good-old-boys to a head. The filmmaker comes very close to suggesting that everyone has their reasons, even hateful fanatics—a potentially explosive implication in itself that, in this context, deflates the satire. One wishes that the film’s political textures had been nurtured, as they are essentially window dressing for what becomes a miniature coming-of-age road-trip comedy, the sort of indie that used to be common in the ‘90s. Yet Maron’s commanding aura of regret gives Sword of Trust an emotional center despite its missed opportunities.
Cast: Marc Maron, Jon Bass, Jillian Bell, Michaela Watkins, Toby Huss, Dan Bakkedahl, Lynn Shelton, Al Elliott, Timothy Paul, Whitmer Thomas Director: Lynn Shelton Screenwriter: Lynn Shelton, Michael Patrick O’Brien Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 88 min Rating: R Year: 2019
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