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.
Review: Bombshell Is a Collection of Quirks in Search of a Trenchant Criticism
The film is too irreverent in tone and narrow in scope to place Roger Ailes’s criminality in a larger, more meaningful context.1.5
With Bombshell, director Jay Roach and screenwriter Charles Randolph make heroes of the women who brought down Roger Ailes, the late chairman and CEO of Fox News who was accused by several former employees—including star anchors Megyn “Santa Just Is White” Kelly and Gretchen Carlson—of sexual harassment in 2016. The filmmakers keenly depict these women’s courage and fixate on the toxic culture at Fox that fostered so much fear and intimidation, but Bombshell is too irreverent in tone and narrow in scope to place Ailes’s criminality in a larger, more meaningful context.
The film begins in the summer of 2016 with the Republican Party presidential debate in Iowa, where Kelly (Charlize Theron), the moderator, confronts Donald Trump with highlights of his long history of misogyny. This grilling, and her increasingly—if relatively—feminist stance on the Fox News daytime program The Kelly File, is met by backlash from the ascendant Trump cult, as well as Ailes (John Lithgow), whose professional relationship with Kelly at first seems productive in spite of its combativeness. Meanwhile, Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is fired from another Fox program, The Real Story, possibly for her own newfound—if, again, relative—feminism, and counters by filing a sexual harassment suit against Ailes.
Waiting for colleagues to make similar accusations in order to bolster her case, Carlson is left twisting in the wind by a collective fearful silence—a silence that even fierce former victim Kelly obeys—while Ailes and his litigation team prepare a defense. A third storyline involves “millennial evangelical” Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), a composite character representing the many ambitious young women who suffered Ailes’s demeaning treatment in order to get ahead at Fox and the other organizations for which he worked.
Bombshell operates in a style that has become numbingly de rigueur since Oliver Stone’s W., in which political and corporate corruption are presented in a dramatic yet amiably humorous style that takes the edge off any potentially trenchant critique. Fourth walls are broken, jokes punctuate scenes, and the ambiance remains oddly congenial despite the purportedly suffocating and repressive environment of the Fox News offices.
Thankfully, there are moments when the actors transcend the too-casual tone. Lithgow portrays Ailes not merely as a dirty old man, but as a pitiful control freak whose disgusting actions unwittingly reveal a deep insecurity. The tensely coiled Kelly is a mass of contradictions, and one argument that she has with her husband, Douglas Brunt (Mark Duplass), over an embarrassingly fawning follow-up interview with Trump is memorable for allowing Theron to reveal the strain imposed on Kelly by conflicting personal, professional, and political allegiances. Robbie—frequently playing off a versatile Kate McKinnon’s co-worker/lover—moves from bubbly naïveté to painful humiliation with convincing subtlety.
And yet, Bombshell is predicated on several dubious ideas that ultimately blunt its power. The film relishes the downfall of a public figure, as well as the growing chaos of a divided Fox News. By the end of the film, we’re expected to feel righteous satisfaction when justice comes to Ailes in the form of a disgraceful resignation. But such a response can only feel hollow when the country continues to suffer from widespread problems cultivated by Fox from the same sexist, callous, and exploitative worldview at the root of Ailes’s behavior. The film only briefly and tangentially explores this worldview, and mostly uses it to simply highlight conservative hypocrisy and the general sliminess of the Fox organization.
Bombshell also delights in referencing battles fought among high-profile public figures, emphasizing the kind of inside baseball that the media routinely focuses on instead of more complex and endemic manifestations of national issues. Rather than understand Ailes’s harassment in relation to the sexism so deeply embedded in American corporate media and culture, the filmmakers reduce that sorry tradition to the confines of the Fox News offices and elite legal channels. This approach allows viewers to understand the organizational and legal pressures that made it so hard for Carlson and others to speak out about Ailes, but once Carlson files her charges, the abuse that she and others endured becomes overshadowed by competitive backroom negotiations and maneuverings.
The film reinforces this emphasis with gratuitous appearances by actors playing famous Fox News personalities (Geraldo Rivera, Neil Cavuto, and Sean Hannity) who are tangential to the narrative, as well as cutesy direct-address segments meant to make us feel in the know about the world of Fox. This is the stuff that Roach, who’s mostly directed broad comedies, and Randolph, who co-wrote The Big Short, clearly relish, but rather than connecting with the viewer through these strategies, Bombshell mostly feels insular, remote, and superficial. It would be nice if for once an accessible mainstream film took on the institutional powers that detrimentally shape our world with anger and incisiveness rather than a bemused concern.
Cast: Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, John Lithgow, Kate McKinnon, Mark Duplass, Connie Britton, Rob Delaney, Malcolm McDowell, Allison Janney, Alice Eve Director: Jay Roach Screenwriter: Charles Randolph Distributor: Lionsgate Running Time: 108 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Richard Jewell Leans Into Courting Conservative Persecution Pity
Ironically, Clint Eastwood is as condescending of Jewell as the bureaucrats he despises.2.5
Marie Brenner’s 1997 Vanity Fair article “American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell” is a detailed cataloging of rushed judgements, lazy assumptions, and unforgiveable abuses of power. Richard Jewell was the security guard who spotted an Alice pack loaded with pipe bombs under a bench at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. The bombs exploded, directly killing one woman and injuring over a hundred others, but Jewell’s preemptive actions undeniably reduced the scope of atrocities. Jewell became a national hero, though a tip from a bitter former boss led the F.B.I. to aggressively investigate him as the prime suspect in the bombing. The news outlets ran with this information, leading to a “trial by media” that ruined Jewell’s life. In Richard Jewell, director Clint Eastwood uses this story as fodder for what he clearly sees as a fable of the evil of the F.B.I. and the media, who take down a righteous, implicitly conservative hero out of classist spite.
Richard Jewell is a political horror film that serves as a microcosm of the “deep state” conspiracies that the Republican Party trades in today. The media is represented here by essentially one person, a reporter named Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) who learns of Jewell’s investigation by sleeping with an F.B.I. agent, Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm), who serves as the film’s more or less singular representation of our domestic intelligence and security service. As such, the media and the F.B.I. are literally in bed together, and they see in the overweight, naïve, law-enforcement-worshipping Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) a readymade patsy.
Like most auteurs, Eastwood’s films are animated by his politics, in his case often featuring singular heroes who’re targeted by bureaucrats who know nothing of in-the-field work, but the productions are often complicated by the magnitude of his artistry. Sully takes simplistic swipes at regulations that save lives, glorifying the notion of the individual, but its most muscular scenes serve as startlingly beautiful celebrations of community, suggesting an ideal of a functional state that nearly refutes Eastwood’s own beliefs. By contrast, Richard Jewell finds the filmmaker more comfortably mining MAGA resentments. The film is rife with conservative Easter eggs. When we see Jewell’s attorney, Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), in his office, Eastwood highlights a sticker in a mirror that says “I Fear Government More Than I Fear Terrorism.” The film is dotted with guns, Confederate flags, and religious artifacts. And the real perpetrator of the bombing, Eric Randolph, a bigoted domestic terrorist who might interfere with Eastwood’s conservative reverie, is kept almost entirely off screen, reduced to a shadow.
Of course, Richard Jewell is set in the Bible Belt, and many of these details are pertinent. As Brenner’s article states, Bryant is a libertarian, and so that sticker accurately reflects his beliefs. But Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray rig the story so severely, in the service of courting conservative persecution pity, that even truthful details feel contextually false. Per Brenner, Jewell was a victim of many colliding interests, from the fading power of The Atlantic-Journal Constitution, which employed Scruggs, to internal clashes within the F.B.I.
In the film, the cops and journalists are desperate elitists just looking to finish a job, and their power is uncomplicatedly massive. The timing of Eastwood’s insinuation is unmistakable, suggesting that Jewell, the conservative Everyman, was railroaded by the government and the media in the same fashion as Trump, for possessing an uncouthness that offends “tastemaker” ideologies. The notion of political convictions as informed by image, particularly of culture and attractiveness, is a potentially brilliant one, and Eastwood’s portrait of liberal condescension isn’t entirely invalid, but he keeps scoring points at the expense of nuance.
In Brenner’s article, the F.B.I. is embarrassed to search the house of Jewell’s mother, Bobi (played here by Kathy Bates), where he lived. In the film, though, the officers storm the house in a smug and self-righteous fashion. Jewell was once actually in law enforcement and had many friendships and even a few girlfriends, while in the film he’s a pathetic wannabe eager to screw himself over for the sake of flattery. Sentiments that are attributed to Jewell in the article are transferred over to Bryant in the film, so to as to make the protagonist a more poignant fool. Ironically, Eastwood is as condescending of Jewell as the bureaucrats he despises. (The filmmaker also, weirdly, elides real-life details that would serve his demonization, such as the F.B.I. lying about there being a “hero bomber” profile.)
Even with Eastwood so explicitly grinding an ax, Richard Jewell has the visceral power of his other recent political fables. Eastwood refines a device from The 15:17 to Paris, surrounding an unknown, unpolished camera subject, in this case Hauser, with attractive famous actors so as to inherently express the profound difference between the ruling class—embodied to the public in the form of celebrities—and the eroding working class. This idea is particularly evocative when Hauser is paired with Hamm. Hauser is painfully vulnerable as Jewell, as there’s no distance between him and the character, no sense that he’s “acting.” And this impression of defenselessness, when matched against Hamm’s polish, is terrifying. Such juxtapositions fervently communicate Eastwood’s furies, however hypocritical they may be.
Eastwood continues to be a poet of American anxiety. The Atlanta bombing is boiled down to a series of chilling and uncanny details, from the public dancing to the “Macarena” before the explosion to the scattering of nails along the ground in the wake of the pipe bomb’s blast. When Scruggs pushes for the Jewell story to be published, her eyes glint with anger between the shadows of window shades—an intellectually absurd effect that emotionally sticks, embodying Eastwood’s conception of a national castigation as a noir conspiracy set in shadowy chambers populated by a mere few. Later, when Jewell is free of his ordeal, he weeps with Bryant in a café booth, a moment that Eastwood offers up as an embodiment of America stabilizing right before reaching a cultural breaking point. As stacked and calculating as Richard Jewell is, it’s a fascinating expression of the divided soul of a gifted and troubling artist. It’s a rattling expression of American bitterness.
Cast: Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell, Olivia Wilde, Jon Hamm, Kathy Bates, Nina Arianda, Ian Gomez Director: Clint Eastwood Screenwriter: Billy Ray Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 131 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Cunningham Obscures the Voice That It Wants to Celebrate
This colorful but remote-feeling documentary functions almost as though it were taking orders from the late Merce Cunningham.2.5
Alla Kovgan’s colorful but remote-feeling documentary about modern dance legend Merce Cunningham functions almost as though it were taking orders from the late choreographer himself. The film quotes him saying in various forms that he didn’t feel it appropriate or necessary to describe what his dances were about, and as such it feels appropriate that Cunningham leaves it to the dancing to deliver his story. But the problem with that approach is that it’s likely to leave many viewers, especially those who aren’t already dance aficionados, feeling somewhat at a remove from the subject matter.
Focusing on Cunningham’s works dating from 1942 to 1972, and his longtime collaborations with composer John Cage and other artists from Robert Rauschenberg to Andy Warhol, Kovgan balances loosely sketched biography with artistic recreation. The former sections are in some ways more engaging, as their often scratchy-looking archival footage provides at least some context for the sparse, ascetic, cold-water-flat milieu Cunningham was operating in. The latter sections, in which Kovgan stages a number of Cunningham’s pieces in settings ranging from a subway tunnel to a forest and are filmed in 3D with luscious colors, have a look-at-me showiness that cannot help but feel something like a betrayal of their source’s intentions.
Ascetic in approach but sometimes playful in execution, Cunningham in many ways functioned as the tip of the spear for avant-garde dance from the time he started producing work in the ‘40s. As related by the archival interviews played in the film, he didn’t appear to have much of a grand unifying theory behind his style. Rejecting the idea that he was some kind of modernist pioneer, he insists to one interviewer that he was simply “a dancer” and that he was really more interested in expanding the repertoire of movements available to performers by combining the techniques of ballet with what was already happening in modern dance in the postwar era. Quoting Cage in an old audio clip, Cunningham states with an emphatic flourish that “I have nothing to say and I am saying it.”
As you watch the dances staged in Cunningham, you may find it hard to argue with that perspective. In describing the reaction to one of his dances, Cunningham says with a barely concealed glee that “the audience was puzzled.” After a performance in Paris, food was hurled at the dancers (Cunningham joked that he looked at the tomato on the stage and wished it were an apple: “I was hungry”). Confusion about the lack of an underlying story or intent to deliver a singular emotion is understandable. Making less sense is the dismissal noted in the documentary of many of Cunningham’s pieces as “cold” and “passionless” (a charge that’s leveled at boundary-pushing art to this day). The pieces staged here by Kovgan are indeed sometimes airy and insubstantial or gangly and jagged. But just as often they’re lush and buoyant, like in “Summerspace,” in which the dancers’ fluid pivots spill over with a joy that is heightened by the bright spotted costumes and Rauschenberg backdrop.
In some of those segments, it’s hard not to feel as if Kovgan is aiming for a big splash that could introduce the rarely seen work of an oft-cited avant-garde pioneer to a wide audience, as Wim Wenders aimed to do with Pina. But unlike that 3D extravaganza, with its cunning staging and breathtaking moves, Cunningham is simply working from less accessible source material. Even when Cunningham’s work is less abstracted, such as that bouncy floating maneuver that is something of a signature, it doesn’t exactly catch one’s attention.
Time and again in the film, we hear or see Cunningham reiterate his principle that the dances aren’t intended to reference anything. Interpretation is up to the audience, he said. In this way, he isn’t far from the take-it-or-leave-it sensibility of Warhol, whose silver balloons he incorporated into one piece. But by amplifying Cunningham’s dances with sun-dappled backdrops and 3D gimmickry, Kovgan deviates from their creator’s principle in a way that almost seems to betray their original intent. By taking so much focus away from the dancers, the film’s stagings come close to obscuring the voice it’s trying to celebrate.
Director: Alla Kovgan Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 93 min Rating: PG Year: 2019
Review: The Two Popes Carefully and Dubiously Toes a Party Line
There isn’t anything in the bleeding-heart positions espoused by Jorge Bergoglio that complicates Pope Francis’s public persona.1.5
Fernando Meirelles’s The Two Popes is quick to acknowledge that Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) is a humble man of the people. The film opens with a scene that fades in on Bergoglio, recently anointed Pope Francis, as he attempts to order a plane ticket over the phone. Assuming she’s being pranked when the caller gives his name and address, the Italian operator hangs up on the generously bemused head of the Catholic Church. After centuries of pomp, the scene suggests, the world’s Catholics were unprepared for a genuine article like Francis, a corrective to an episcopal hierarchy that had drifted too far away from the people. So goes the thesis of The Two Popes, reiterated in a number of subsequent scenes: Unlike previous generations of pontiffs, Francis engages with the actual state of the world, watches soccer, listens to pop music, and speaks to economic inequality.
This brief prologue’s slight humor and documentary-style presentation give an accurate idea of where the film is headed, both thematically and formally. Throughout, Meirelles embellishes the screenplay’s often dry conversations with pseudo-improvised camerawork—unsteady framing, sudden tilts, and emphatic snap zooms—familiar from his prior films, most notably City of God and The Constant Gardner. But what seemed, in the early aughts, fresh and well-suited to gangster movies and spy thrillers, feels dated and out of place in a film that amounts to two powerful octogenarians having a series of conversations. By abruptly adjusting the lens’s focal length at almost arbitrary moments, Meirelles transparently attempts to add dynamism to a film in which powerful actors are stuck reciting staid, safe dialogue.
The hagiographic Two Popes shuffles through moments in Bergoglio’s life. Some scenes are set in Argentina in the 1970s, a tumultuous time for the country, but the film mainly focuses on the development of Bergoglio’s relationship with Joseph Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins), Pope Benedict XVI, during the early 21st century. Flashing back to eight years before the prologue, the camera travels through the narrow alleys of Buenos Aires, arriving at an outdoor sermon that Bergoglio is delivering. Unattached to the air of benevolent superiority Catholic priests are expected to exude, Bergoglio tangentially speaks of his support for the San Lorenzo soccer team, at which revelation his congregation feels comfortable booing their diocese’s bishop.
Meanwhile, John Paul II has died, and as a cardinal, Bergoglio must return to Rome to help elect a new pope. There he encounters Ratzinger, at the time a conservative Bavarian cardinal who haughtily insists on speaking to Bergoglio in Latin when they meet in a Vatican bathroom, and who turns up his nose when the Argentinian begins humming ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” to himself while washing his hands. The inclusion of an ABBA song makes for a lighter tone that The Two Popes will unevenly revive at various moments across its running time; the film will transition between scenes using out-of-place lounge jazz and ‘60s pop, then abruptly drop the levity for dialogic lessons on the state of Catholic theology.
The dogmatic Ratzinger’s election as pope later that year would signal an end to years of liberalization within the Catholic Church, a back-to-basics gesture that ultimately failed. His short reign would be dominated by controversy, as members of his inner circle were indicted for financial crimes and a long-brewing scandal over church cover-ups of sexual abuse came to the fore. Meirelles handles this historical context through aural and visual montages of archival news reports, which fill the gap as the story fast-forwards to a moment in 2012 when Pope Benedict calls Bergoglio, his unofficial rival from the church’s liberal wing, back to Rome.
Benedict aims to convince the bishop not to resign, as it would look to the outside world—as Benedict professes it does to him—that the liberal Bergoglio is renouncing his cardinalship in protest. Strolling through the lush gardens of the Vatican, or speaking in low, strained voices in its resplendent halls, the two debate their opposing theological and political philosophies. A mutual respect develops between them, with Benedict gradually opening himself to the outside world from which he has stayed aloof; one scene has Bergoglio teaching him about the Beatles, and in another the Argentine convinces the stiff German to try out the tango.
That’s all very cute, surely, but it’s also evidence that, despite courting a gritty reality effect with its documentary-inspired aesthetic, The Two Popes is carefully toeing a party line rather than exposing any hidden truths. Though it includes (rather hammy) flashbacks to Bergoglio’s morally ambiguous interactions with the Argentinian military dictatorship of the ‘70s, there isn’t anything in the bleeding-heart positions espoused by Bergoglio that complicates Pope Francis’s public persona. For his part, Ratzinger comes off as the best version of the man one could imagine, given the turmoil that marked his tenure: old-fashioned but authentic, perhaps just a bit too aged and attached to the institution to weed out its excesses.
As, in scene after scene, the heads of the world’s most powerful religious institution neatly summarize their philosophies to one another, the viewer may sense a misdirect: What happened to the corruption? Where are the meetings about how to handle the child-abuse scandals? Such issues, which presumably would have been the subject of many a Vatican City discussion, turn out to be little more than background material to the individualized and sentimentalized story of two men with differing views becoming friends. Even when they do come up, our attention is directed elsewhere. The flashbacks to Bergoglio’s spotted past begin soon after the sexual abuse scandals are first mentioned, redirecting our piqued concern with institutional sins toward the drama of an individual man’s fateful misjudgment.
The second time the pair’s conversations drift toward the simmering abuse scandal, Meirelles actually drowns out the dialogue with a high-pitched whine on the soundtrack, and for no discernable story reason. It’s as if Bergoglio’s hearing has been impaired by the explosive truth. The moment feels less like the filmmakers protecting us from a truth too awful to hear, and much more like them shielding us from one too dangerous to be heard.
Cast: Jonathan Pryce, Anthony Hopkins, Juan Minujín, Sidney Cole, Thomas D. Williams, Federico Torre, Pablo Trimarchi Director: Fernando Meirelles Screenwriter: Anthony McCarten Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 125 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: Empty Metal Grapples with the Efficacy of Activist Violence
The film is greater in its confrontational force than the sum of a dozen festival breakthroughs lauded for their fearlessness.3
The idea that violence can be an effective or even necessary form of activism is one of the last remaining taboos in a contemporary discourse that holds civil debate up as the highest virtue. Empty Metal, meanwhile, reaffirms independent, artist-made cinema as a natural arena for wading through these kinds of uncomfortable notions. Greater in its confrontational force than the sum of a dozen festival breakthroughs lauded for their fearlessness, and certainly more potent than Todd Phillips’s Joker, it takes on the ambitious and possibly risky task of exploring what activist violence means in the context of a modern world where ambient forms of hostility—militarized police aggression (specifically toward people of color), mass surveillance and ongoing, never-ending wars—subtly dictate our lives.
Collaborating for the first time on what constitutes for both of them a narrative feature debut, Adam Khalil and Bayley Sweitzer have fashioned a topical lightning rod with Empty Metal, though not in a manner that suggests willful provocation. Assembled on a meager budget with friends, family, and members of the filmmakers’ extended artistic circles, the film progresses with an untamed energy and disregard for convention that suggest the manifestation of creative impulses feeding, unchecked, off one another. Juggling multiple intersecting storylines with passages of visual lyricism and diegesis-breaking reminders of contemporary injustices, Empty Metal offers an anarchic collage that careens between narrative storytelling (Sweitzer’s background) and documentary and video-art instincts (Khalil’s backgrounds).
Central to the story of Empty Metal are Rose (indie noise musician Rose Mori, a.k.a. PVSSYHEAVEN), Pam (Sam Richardson), and Devon (Austin Sley Julian), a trio of disaffected electro-punk rockers gigging around Brooklyn under the moniker of Alien. But to call them protagonists undercuts the degree to which Khalil and Sweitzer frame them less as independently motivated agents than as ciphers ushered along a path over which they appear to exert little control. More instrumental to the film’s evolution are the clairvoyant, vaguely ethereal figures—a Rastafarian chef listed in the credits as King Alpha (Oba), an older indigenous woman (Irma LaGuerre), and several of their younger accomplices—who watch over the trio and ultimately size them up as eligible candidates for a criminal plot.
Rose, Pam, and Devon are to assassinate three infamous white cops who’ve gotten away with murder, then go off the grid. Neither the names of the targets nor their specific infractions are clarified, though the connections to real-life analogues are made more or less self-evident in the series of crude 3D renderings of police violence that are periodically inserted into the middle of scenes. On the eve of a domestic Alien tour, Rose is approached at the band van by a member of King Alpha’s clan, who leans into the would-be rebel to impart a telepathic message paraphrased, as with a number of the film’s longer monologues, from William S. Burroughs’s novel The Place of Dead Roads: “I will teach you to dissociate gun, arm, and eye.”
Intuitively reading between the lines, Rose promptly loses interest in the tour and recruits, with little resistance, her bandmates to the cause. This sequence of events, along with anything else having to do with the transition of these hitherto merely frustrated musicians to insurrectionary vigilantes, hardly stands up to dramatic scrutiny, due in equal parts to Mori, Richardson, and Julian’s stilted line deliveries and the insufficient time their characters are afforded in the editing to acquire anything like psychological plausibility.
Nonetheless, there’s something of a poetic logic to the characters’ transformations, an unnerving illustration of the idea that the gap between ambient frustration and radicalism is but a short cognitive leap. There’s also a sense of fatalism that hangs over the proceedings, of an inexorable historical duty that can’t or shouldn’t be resisted. In an ominous sequence of self-actualization, Rose recites the names of historical dissidents from Ulrike Meinhof to Osama bin Laden with a mix of clinical dispassion and reverence as archival footage and animated representations of their violent acts fill the screen.
By contrast, Khalil and Sweitzer stage a lighter scene around the mid-forest meeting of King Alpha, LaGuerre’s character, and a European monk (Pawel Wojtasik) previously seen only in excerpts of a de-contextualized courtroom taping. Here, it’s casually implied that the three characters—who suddenly claim to have last seen each other at either the “L.A. riots” or Wounded Knee—are merely the corporeal containers of activist spirits who weave through the centuries, cyclically reuniting to nudge willing souls toward more proactive forms of rebellion.
Taking its title from a description of drones given by Rose in voiceover, Empty Metal questions if perhaps these transhistorical agitators have met a new and unconquerable challenger in the surveillance state, armed as it is with high-tech weaponry and vast intel on its populace. Certainly, the right-wing militia shown in another chilling subplot offers no compelling resistance to this monolithic force, even as they stash up on firearms and embark on austere training. The figurehead of this self-determined group (Jon Nandor) happens to be the son of Wojtasik’s monk, and it’s a quiet dinner table scene between the two of them that stands out among all the jarring associative edits and flicker-frame embellishments as one of the film’s strongest effects. As the father dismantles his son’s second amendment convictions, he’s left unable to contemplate an adequate alternative, and it’s telling that even a sage, potentially immortal mystic seems perplexed by our current predicament.
Cast: Rose Mori, Austin Sley Julian, Sam Richardson, Oba, Irma LaGuerre, Pawel Wojtasik, Jon Nandor Director: Adam Khalil, Bayley Sweitzer Screenwriter: Adam Khalil, Bayley Sweitzer Distributor: Factory 25 Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Beniamino Barrese’s The Disappearance of My Mother
It’s fascinating to see Benedetta Barzini in academic action, like an ethnographer of the patriarchy herself.3
Domestic ethnography typically sees a filmmaking member of a family turning the camera inward to investigate, or rewrite, a family’s history. This means that the filmmaker in question can occupy the inconvenient position of unearthing the ancient dirt on top of which the family is founded. In The Disappearance of My Mother, director Beniamino Barrese is less interested in wrestling with the maternal function in the drama of a household than in the mother’s status as his muse. The film is a love letter to the filmmaker’s mother, Benedetta Barzini, a 76-year-old former supermodel and the first Italian woman to grace the cover of American Vogue, now a feminist fashion studies lecturer in Milan. The constellation of the family is rendered useless here, as what matters to Barrese is the love affair between mother and son, forever mediated by the camera lens.
The tragedy here isn’t to be found in the regrettable actions of yore or the repressed feelings that both constitute and undermine a home, but in the unfairness of time. The film seems to say that a mother must age, a mother must die, and some of them may even want to. And it seemingly recognizes something tragic in an external world that’s obsessed with all of the things Barzini doesn’t value, despite having been a fashion industry commodity in the 1960s: beauty, youth, luxury, and cleanliness (she hardly ever showers or changes her bedsheets).
Barzini’s feminist stance appears as her most consistent motif in old interviews, in the strangely theatrical way she used to pose with garments in fashion shoots, and in her present-day statements captured in the film, both verbal and sartorial (she shows up to receive an award in her stay-at-home clothes). She is, from the beginning of her career, vocally aware that the femininity she’s paid to display is a playful one, removed from her actual self, which is itself, Barzini argues, unphotographable. She knows the existence, and persistence, of beauty stereotypes caging women to be due to the fact that men invent women through a series of prescriptions. And that they thus invent them as Jessica Rabbits, she argues at one point, wondering out loud whether it may not be best if women’s bodies disappeared altogether.
It’s fascinating to see Barzini in academic action, like an ethnographer of the patriarchy herself, bringing back news from its most glamourous yet rotten core. She lectures young college girls about the symbolic relationship between fashion, youth, and man’s fear of death, holding magazine ads in her hands as irrefutable evidence. She asks them questions like “What does ‘old age’ mean?,” “Why do imperfections bother people?,” and “What is the point of continuing to sell our bodies without any quality or talent?” These moments of pedagogical passion occur when Barzini’s presence is allowed to take over the frame precisely because the filmmaking son fades into the background. And they’re in striking contrast to Barrese’s instances of shoving the camera into his mother’s reluctant face.
That stance, though in line with some sort of undying teenage streak, reveals a misguided desire to force his mother into his cinematic paradigm. Although Barrese purposefully allows for a great degree of transparency, showing us his failed attempts to get his mother to change outfits for continuity’s sake, for instance, these sequences feel contrived when compared to those where the mother is allowed to perform in an uncontrolled fashion. When we hear him ask her, “Is there anything you want me to put in the wash?,” or “Mom, what bothers you so much about images?,” it’s impossible not to see the air of spontaneity as calculated artifice.
Many times, Barrese acts like a vulture taking something from his mother that she doesn’t want to give. Or does she? Barzini calls him a petit bourgeois for appreciating her articulations only inasmuch as they fit his filmic narrative. And she yells, “Put the camera down! Put it down!” He obeys her for a couple seconds but leaves the camera running, then grabs it back to continue interrogating her. And she lets him. Mother and son relations are often like this—full of theatrics, ambiguity, and teeming with seduction. Neither could afford losing the other’s love. And they both know it. Which forces Barrese to keep pushing the limits. He even shoots her when she’s asleep. Or, at least, when he thinks she is. It turns out that following mom is a habit from childhood. And ever since then she’s been protesting his advances. “I want to disappear, not to appear,” she says, because “the lens is the enemy.”
In a beautiful sequence toward the end of the film, after Barzini speaks about dying and the shame of belonging to this world, so sullied by white men, Barrese asks her to spin around in her courtyard, holding her dress. She says she will get dizzy. He finally listens to her and lets her stand still, spinning with his camera around her himself. She smiles, enjoying the moment. She’s happy standing still, courted in the courtyard by her child’s contemplation. Mother eventually asks her son: “Are you done playing?” He’s not, and neither is she.
Director: Beniamino Barrese Screenwriter: Beniamino Barrese Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 94 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Interview: Eddie Redmayne on The Aeronauts and Accessing Physicality
Redmayne discusses everything from calibrating his physicality in rehearsals to cultivating his imagination on a barren set.
“I can’t believe you wrote your dissertation on Les Misérables,” Eddie Redmayne says in a complete non sequitur midway through our conversation. I had a feeling it might come up at some point, so I had to lead with telling him that he featured prominently in the video essay portion of my senior thesis on how Tom Hooper’s 2012 film adaptation collapsed boundaries between stage and screen. As legend has it, Redmayne made a suggestion in post-production that led to the film’s close-up-heavy editing, a choice which sparked intense discussion around the aesthetics of the musical genre.
The episode captures something about Redmayne that sets him apart from other actors who operate in a similarly demonstrative, showy register. He’s genuinely thoughtful about the full cycle of how a performance gets created and transmitted to audiences, in everything from the rehearsal process to the editing bay. After winning an Academy Award for 2014’s The Theory of Everything and another nomination for 2015’s The Danish Girl, Redmayne took a turn toward blockbuster fare with two outings playing Newt Scamander in the Fantastic Beasts series. But now he’s back to the period dramas that made his name with The Aeronauts, an old-fashioned movie adventure that reunites him with his The Theory of Everything co-star, Felicity Jones. As scientist James Glaisher and pilot Amelia Wren, Redmayne and Jones, respectively, spends the majority of the film confined to the tight space of a gas balloon’s basket as they rise to 37,000 feet in the air in an attempt to make meteorological breakthroughs in 1860s Britain.
Redmayne’s role is a fitting lens to discuss not only The Aeronauts, but also his recent career. His craft is just as much a science as it is an art. Our conversation got into the weeds of technical details as he discussed everything from calibrating his physicality in rehearsals to cultivating his imagination on a barren set. But, first, we had to discuss Les Misérables, given the pivotal role his behind-the-scenes behavior played in my academic career.
During post-production on Les Misérables, I read that while in the editing room you encouraged Tom Hooper to hold longer on the close-up of Anne Hathaway during “I Dreamed A Dream,” setting into motion the film relying on them so heavily.
Because of the way that Les Mis was shot with live singing, you couldn’t get between different tracks because of the variation. What Tom did was make sure that you could always have the whole scene cut from one setup: a wide, a mid, [and a close-up]. There were three cameras on at the same time. He was editing the film, and the studio had put out a trailer they edited themselves that was more of the close-up. Tom and I had a discussion, and I think I mentioned that it could hold. What I find so interesting is that everyone has a specific opinion on Les Mis, whether it worked—and, of course, the close-ups are something people bring up a lot. But the live singing process dictated the way it was shot. We couldn’t shoot outside a lot because, when you shoot outside, the voice disappears. So, we had to build the barricades in a studio.
What you did with Les Misérables speaks to just how much a performance gets remade in the editing room. Are you still actively involved in that final step of the process?
What’s weird about making films is you create so much of it in a vacuum. It’s not like theater, where actors get together for months and work things out. Often you meet the person playing your mother or father two hours before [shooting]. Often you don’t know the director, meeting them a day before you start working with them. You have an idea of what the character’s arc is, and, of course, part of the joy of making films is giving over that. You put that down and hope the director observes that. But a director can often observe something different that’s more interesting! What I like to do, and I’ve been lucky enough to do, is make work and, if I’m allowed into the editing process, have a dialogue with that director. Provided you know they see what you intended, whether they use that or not is obviously their choice.
I do find that dynamic really interesting, and I’ve been lucky enough with James Marsh on The Theory of Everything, Tom Hooper, and [director] Tom Harper and [screenwriter] Jack Thorne on this. Felicity and I worked together with Jack and Tom for a couple of months beforehand working through the intricacies of the script, and Tom allowed us that bit because it’s so intimate between the two of us, almost like [working on a play] with the writer and director. He allowed us the intimacy in the process the whole way through. The reason I do it is because, as an actor, you’re never happy with what ends up in the finished product. But while you can still shift and change things, I enjoy being a part of that process.
As someone who came up through theater, where you have so much less mediation between your performance and how an audience receives it, have you found comfort in the editing process?
It was a massive adjustment because I got into acting through theater. For many years, I couldn’t get cast in TV or film because I was playing to the back of the stalls in my audition. When I did start working, it’s all been a massive learning curve.
How do you approach acting out of sequence? In both The Aeronauts and The Theory of Everything, you’re tasked with building a full and continuous character arc, but that seems tough you’re stopping and restarting.
Quite often, directors will try and keep as much in chronology as possible. A lot of the stuff we did in the basket in The Aeronauts was shot chronologically. It’s the other bits that aren’t. What you have to do is see how the director is filming it, what their process is and work out what’s best for you. For example, on The Theory of Everything, all the exteriors we were shooting in the first two days in Cambridge when all the students weren’t there. That meant that any time Stephen was outside in the entire film, we were shooting in the first two days. Which meant we had to do all different physicalities at different moments of his life in the first two days. Which meant [I] had to be able to access those different physicalities very quickly, which in itself dictated the process. I wasn’t going to spend hours getting into the zone, I have to slot into these. For me, I said, I need months to rehearse, and I need to rehearse the movement like a dance so that [I] can access it quite quickly. It’s all about the stuff you do beforehand so you’re ready when you’re working the other actor to be completely free.
You shot some of The Aeronauts outdoors in the gas balloon and then some on a soundstage against a blue screen. How did you all work to keep the authenticity consistent in your performances?
We were lucky that the first thing we shot was the real stuff. We went up in the real balloon—we had this accident, it was really terrifying—and the notion of the stakes were weirdly embedded with us from day one. Ultimately, it always feels horrendously fake when you’re in a giant basket surrounded by blue screens, but they did things like [freezing] the studio for our breath. We were shooting in the summer in the U.K., and then you had cast and crew in jackets because we were in a giant refrigerator. They also gave us freezing buckets with ice to plunge our hands into beforehand. The director really gave us everything he could to make it feel [right]. Because they had gone up in helicopters and shot the skyscapes beforehand, they had very clever technology on an iPad that lets you look at the balloon to see where the sun was and what the weather was. They spent a long time working in pre-production about how to not make it look fake, and one of the things was that it could look real, but if your eyes are totally open, the fact that there’s blinding sunlight…of course, you can look at a big, bright light without it being a stretch. It was to learn to squint a bit [to avoid] the giveaway.
Between The Aeronauts and the Fantastic Beasts series, you’ve been doing quite a bit of acting in synthetic spaces.
That’s not a value judgment! How do you go about using your imagination to bring the surroundings to life in your head while maintaining the same specificity as if you were there?
I try and do a load of research, so even if it’s on Fantastic Beasts, it’s talking to the animators, going and looking at drawings and set designs. Trying to do all of that early so it’s not in your imagination. The other process I tried to learn from Dan Fogler, who’s in Fantastic Beasts and very free. He’ll try lots of different things, and I watched him on the first film and thought he was brilliant. It’s a mixture of doing your research, then throwing it away and trying things.
Has it gotten easier over time? Like a muscle that has to be trained and toned?
Yeah, it definitely does. For example, with Pickett [a small plant creature his character keeps as a pet] on Fantastic Beasts, I was so concerned with talking to something that’s not there and make it feel real. I would over[act]. [Reenacts staring intently at the creature on his hand] You never normally look at people when you talk to them. You can have a conversation with Pinkett on your hand and not really look at him.
You’ve mentioned that the basket became like another character in the film because you and Felicity shared such tight quarters with it. How do you make spaces feel natural for your characters to inhabit?
That is rehearsals. That’s why we did them. What I love about this film, hopefully, is that it’s this thrilling adventure on a big scale. At the same time, it’s also an intimate little drama. That space is the size of a sofa. We had weeks working of thinking how to make things visually interesting for an audience. Each time the camera comes back to it, it needs to have transformed or changed. We rehearsed on it so we could find different ways: whether it was sitting on the floor or one of us up in the hoop, different angles, getting rid of carpets or some of the tools. They add character to this battered, bruised vessel that’s been pummeled.
Does that mean you all were really working out specific shots and angles within the rehearsal process?
When we were rehearsing the scenes over and over again, Tom would have suggestions and ideas from watching with the cinematographer. One of the things he found is that, early on, if the camera was ever outside of the balloon—even centimeters out—it doesn’t feel real. Any moments that are caught inside the balloon, apart from a few moments where drones fly and take close-ups, the cinematographer was always inside the balloon. He was moving with the movement. The camera, similarly, was like another character in the piece. Because just one centimeter outside, since we can’t suspend ourselves in mid-air, felt unreal.
Do you find it liberating to work within such tight confines like the basket? Does it force you to be more precise and conscious of your movement and blocking?
Yeah, it does. Because you’re confined, the freedom is in the minutiae. You can’t be making big, bold gestures. I think the intimacy plays to its favor in some ways.
The Aeronauts has a theme of looking up for inspiration amidst troubling times. The last few films you’ve made generally have some kind of optimistic feeling about them. Is that a conscious running thread running through your filmography?
I never relate my films to each other, but what I think is interesting is that the only way I choose work is by reacting to it. So maybe there’s a sense of that [optimism]. The reason I wanted to do The Aeronauts is because I got to that last passage where Felicity’s character is standing on top of the world, and I just thought I would love to see that. I loved the idea of working with Felicity again. I loved this old-school adventure thrill to it. I felt like you’ve seen space investigated, but I hadn’t seen the sky. Sometimes, on a cold, horrendously miserable day, there’s something ecstatic about a break through the clouds. And whether you can retrain an audience who’s so used to seeing the sky from planes to make it feel like something new, all those things were curious to me. I don’t specifically go looking for optimistic pieces, although there was a period in my career when I was playing incestuous teenagers and schizophrenic psychos, so maybe I need to go talk to a therapist about that!
I know some actors like Meryl Streep or David Oyelowo, just to name two that come to mind, say that they deliberately only put work out into the world that they think can make it a better place.
That’s really interesting. I haven’t read that, but I’m probably not that…selfless. It tends to be something I just react to. There’s a weird moment when you read a script and suddenly feel a bit sick. That’s when you transfer yourself from imagining it to imagine yourself doing it. That’s the reality of the responsibility.
Review: Midnight Family Is an Intimate Look at Mexico’s Ambulance Crisis
It’s the mix of the humane and the calculating that gives the film its empathetic power.3
Director Luke Lorentzen’s Midnight Family opens with a startling statistic: In Mexico City, around 45 public ambulances serve a population of over nine million people. Picking up the pieces are private ambulances, such as the one owned and operated by the Ochoa family, whom Lorentzen follows over several nights as they pick up patients from accident sites, provide immediate medical service, and deposit them at various hospitals. Every element of this process is a negotiation, and Lorentzen captures a multitude of damning and haunting details. Following this family, Lorentzen fashions a documentary that serves as a wrenchingly intimate portrait of a country’s wide-reaching healthcare crisis.
For the Ochoas, particularly their portly paterfamilias, Fernando, and his charismatic 17-year-old son, Juan, the ambulance is firstly a business—a means of barebones survival. The Ochoa ambulance often resembles a kind of medical food truck, as it roams Mexico City looking for customers, who are, of course, individuals in pronounced danger and pain. Lorentzen vividly captures the chaos of the accident sites, including the maddening array of traffic lights and people wandering haphazardly among the twisted ruins of crushed vehicles and property. Into this chaos, Fernando, Juan, and others enter with a kind of cleansing purposefulness, though they also have to watch out for cops who are looking to shake them down for pay-offs. (The legality of private ambulances is somewhat vaguely rendered here; the Ochoas may or may not have the right paperwork, though they definitely need official license plates.)
It’s the mix of the humane and the calculating that gives Midnight Family its empathetic power. While saving lives, the Ochoas must focus on means of payment. They’re not ghouls, as we come to see that their next meal, and their ability to keep the vehicle running, depends on a night-by-night payout, which is threatened by the police as well as rival private ambulances. Since the Ochoas run a private business, patients can apparently refuse to pay them without recrimination from the government, which occurs often given the poverty of their largely uninsured clientele. Lorentzen is bracingly specific about money: One pick-up, of a teenage girl battered by her boyfriend, costs 3,800 pesos, at which her well-off mother balks.
Across Lorentzen’s documentary, viewers also learn of the equipment that the Ochoas need to pass regulations, and of the consequence that expense has on their ability to eat. In one evocative illustration of the effect of their profession on private life, we see the Ochoas at a gas station making tuna salad, which they eat on saltines. This meal occurs after an elaborate debate on whether they can afford to eat more than two tacos apiece.
Yet Lorentzen doesn’t turn the Ochoas into objects of our self-congratulatory pity. The filmmaker captures the despair as well as the adventure of such a livewire way of life, especially as the Ochoas race other ambulances. Fernando places a poignant amount of trust in young Juan, who daringly drives the ambulance, cutting off other vehicles with various improvisations of navigation. These chases are filmed by Lorentzen in a mixture of first-person and mounted-camera compositions that emphasize the limitation of a driver’s sight, establishing a sense of immediacy and danger that is far more thrilling than the standardly detached, alternating coverage of a conventional action film. In this fashion, Midnight Family sometimes brings to mind the brilliant chase sequence in James Gray’s We Own the Night.
Given the privacy of the scenes we witness in Midnight Family—moments of carnage, need, poverty, corruption, and love—the invisibility of Lorentzen’s presence comes as a mild disappointment. This project begs for an examination of how the filmmaking process informs the behavior of its subjects. This quality, or lack thereof, is especially evident when a family member of a patient is seen weeping in the front passenger seat of the Ochoa ambulance. How does she feel at being filmed at this moment of extremity? Midnight Family is a rich and textured film, but it stints on this kind of auto-critical answer.
Director: Luke Lorentzen Screenwriter: Luke Lorentzen Distributor: 1091 Media Running Time: 80 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: The Aeronauts Takes to the Skies, Without Much of a Dramatic Hook
As a suspense film, it’s so sluggishly structured that it borders on the avant-garde.1.5
Tom Harper’s The Aeronauts is such a sluggishly structured suspense film that it borders on the avant-garde. James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne), a 19th-century meteorologist, is attempting to prove that man can predict weather patterns, and he plans a hot-air balloon ride high into the Earth’s troposphere to conduct high-altitude measurements. With no available technology for breathing apparatuses or other modern safety equipment, James’s gambit is a bold one, but he hopes that by traveling so high he can use the most accurate measurements to prove his meteorological theses. Accompanying him is Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones), a daredevil aeronaut with experience flying balloons at extreme altitudes. They’re practically a study in contrasts. James, humorless and bookish, talks rapidly and in fussy detail, mostly holding conversations with himself and putting others in the position of needing to interject to get a word in edgewise. Amelia, meanwhile, is filled with a certain joie de vivre, literally arriving to the balloon launch doing acrobatics to liven up the assembled crowd.
This is the second time that Redmayne and Jones have starred in a film together, but familiarity has done little to deepen their stilted chemistry. James and Amelia don’t converse so much as recite their respective credentials at each other. This might have worked if The Aeronauts gave the characters specializations that the other lacked, yet each has similar strengths: James, the less experienced balloonist, nonetheless knows enough about piloting the craft to not need instruction, while Amelia understands enough about meteorology to not require James to dumb down his scientific jargon. As a result, the pair’s dynamic is devoid of inherent conflict, which might have distracted them from the monotony of their balloon’s ascent into cloud-studded skies, which Harper stages as if in real time.
Of course, sitting in a vehicle that slowly drifts upward as its two occupants engage in, at most, haughty disagreement makes for moribund drama, so Harper fills time with flashbacks to show how James and Amelia got to this point. Anyone who’s ever seen a historical fiction about a scientific pioneer will know what to expect of James’s backstory: repeated scenes of the man explaining his ideas to academic administrators with sideburns large enough to count as mating displays, all of them mirthfully wagging their turkey necks as they respond to James’s hypotheses with sayings like, “Hitting the sherry a bit early this morning, aren’t we, Glaisher?”
Meanwhile, across a series of frenzied, chaotically edited memories of trauma, Amelia relives the death of her husband, Pierre Rennes (Vincent Perez), in a ballooning accident. It’s a hysterically lopsided distribution of character motivation. We get a few shots of Amelia and Pierre tenderly embracing, but otherwise the dead man is a mere device, and all that she can say of him to James is that “his most enduring quality was a deep, true love for the beauty of the world,” which, as far as eulogies go, is about two steps above “He loved to laugh.”
George Steel’s cinematography, namely the way it captures the balloon’s ascent, is the film’s strong suit. Especially noteworthy is when James and Amelia break past the cloud layer and are left in direct sunlight that’s rendered with brilliant white light that washes out the frame even as it communicates the rapidly falling temperatures at that altitude. And that temperature drop becomes the first catalyst for actual drama when James lets slip that he didn’t pack a warm enough coat out of concerns for the balloon’s weight, setting up the last act’s belated decision to include some kind of suspense in order to give the film a dramatic hook.
Indeed, the film’s last hour, in which James and Amelia find themselves increasingly starved for oxygen as their balloon rises higher into atmosphere, is its most engaging. Here, a violently shivering James transforms into the reckless adventure, while Amelia becomes the more anxious and fearful of the two. As she urges caution in the face of falling oxygen levels, the mild-mannered scientist is suddenly overcome with delusions of grandeur and fame and does everything to keep them rising. The camera begins to blur at the edges to reflect the characters’ fading consciousness, while a series of desperate last-ditch efforts on Amelia’s part to save them both is mounted with real tension. Still, the film’s wonky, flashback-heavy structure puts so much emphasis on the by-the-numbers backstory of the characters that the actual drama of the balloon flight itself is muted, making the eventual turn toward chaos less of a narrative culmination than a last-minute recalibration of the film’s inert quality.
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Phoebe Fox, Himesh Patel, Vincent Perez, Anne Reid, Tom Courtenay, Tim McInnerny, Rebecca Front Director: Tom Harper Screenwriter: Jack Thorne Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 100 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: Jennifer Reeder’s Knives and Skin Limply Aspires to the Lynchian
The film gets so lost in its affected idiosyncrasies that it stops probing any discernible human feelings.1.5
Something terrible has happened to Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley). But unlike Twin Peaks and its plastic-wrapped Laura Palmer, Knives and Skin makes it immediately clear what occurred to her: She was left bleeding and without her glasses in the wilderness by a vengeful jock, Andy Kitzmiller (Ty Olwin), because she wouldn’t have sex with him. She never makes it back. This transpires near the start of the film, and what transpires after this point is a dreamy, neon-tinted vision of a town overcome less by grief than ennui.
Throughout Knives and Skin, writer-director Jennifer Reeder draws heavily from the style of David Lynch, cycling through the townsfolk and their weirdest tendencies. Carolyn’s mother, Lisa (Marika Engelhardt), insists that she can smell her daughter on Andy. Andy’s sister, Joanna (Grace Smith), sells underwear to Principal Markhum (Tony Fitzpatrick), cash only. The girl’s father, Dan (Tim Hopper), who’s cheating on his wife (Audrey Francis), is seen at one point emerging from between a waitress’s (Kate Arrington) legs while wearing clown makeup. And Grandma Kitzmiller (Marilyn Dodds Frank) pesters everyone for weed. Certain objects glow, and the girls’ choir practices a series of haunting pop song arrangements, its members whispering to each other one by one while the rest of the ensemble keeps singing.
Other than Lisa’s persistent, unfounded hopes that her daughter is still alive, Carolyn’s disappearance seems to intentionally leave little impression on anyone. Everyone is wrapped up in their own concerns and pursuits, struggling to hold down jobs or dealing with disinterested partners. They’re united only by their vaguely odd feelings and a sense of being trapped, as one boy (Robert T. Cunningham) does when he stands on the roof of the high school; he doesn’t intend to jump, he just wants to see the highway that leads somewhere else.
But in untethering itself from what happened to Carolyn Harper, Knives and Skin ends up unfocused, shambling from one moment of self-conscious weirdness to another. Its themes, like the constant and varied violations of consent going on throughout the town, get lost in favor of things like the talking tiger T-shirt and the hamburger meat lobbed at a vehicle in protest until the entire purpose of these surreal flourishes seems to melt away.
The film is intermittently striking with its heavily stylized lighting and wistful electronic score, but it creates little sense of place. The town where these people all live, which seems to be affecting them to such a profound degree, is so nondescript beyond a few anonymous landscape shots that it stops evoking a place they would want to leave because it doesn’t really seem like a place at all. Rather than explorations of individual oddness, Knives and Skin becomes a rather tedious mood piece with an ethereal atmosphere so remote, so lost in its affected idiosyncrasies that it stops probing any discernible human feelings.
Cast: Marika Engelhardt, Raven Whitley, Ty Olwin, Ireon Roach, Haley Bolithon, Aurora Real de Asua, Grace Smith, Marilyn Dodds Frank, Tim Hopper, Audrey Francis, James Vincent Meredith, Kate Arrington, Kayla Carter, Robert T. Cunningham, Alex Moss Director: Jennifer Reeder Screenwriter: Jennifer Reeder Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 111 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
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