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The Conversations: Star Trek

America’s relationship with Star Trek began before man ever set foot on the moon.

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The Conversations: Star Trek

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

Star Trek

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.

Star Trek

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.)

Star Trek

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?

Star Trek

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.

Star Trek

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?

Star Trek

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?

Star Trek

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.

Star Trek

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.

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Film

Review: Guns Akimbo Squanders a Nifty Setup with Excruciating Humor

Writer-director Jason Lei Howden’s humor might have been tolerable if his film was at least reasonably imaginative.

1.5

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Guns Akimbo
Photo: Saban Films

For much of Jason Lei Howden’s Guns Akimbo, Miles (Daniel Radcliffe) is in his jammies, because getting dressed is difficult when your hands are nailed to pistols. Eating and using the bathroom are no easy feat either. With this, the film hits on an amusing setup for physical comedy, as Miles can do little but stumble about as he strives to drive a car or use his phone with his nose. He also must avoid being shot by Nix (Samara Weaving), his designated opponent in a kill-or-be-killed online competition called Skizm. But the film ultimately fails to capitalize on its concept and gets smothered by its smug, abrasive tone.

Miles is a coder for a video game titled Nuts Bust 2, one of too-many examples of the film’s groan-inducing comedy. He’s also a bizarrely self-aware depiction of an internet troll, as Miles admits via narration that, in order to feel worthwhile, he seeks out arguments in comment sections and reports “offensive content.” When he goes to Skizm’s chatroom to tell the viewers off, he runs afoul of the organization’s facial-tattooed leader, Riktor (Ned Dennehy), who at one point says, “I’m going to do a poo-poo in my pantaloons,” because why not? Those guns for hands and his forced participation in Skizm are Miles’s punishment.

Most of Guns Akimbo’s dialogue squanders an intriguing concept through truly excruciating attempts at humor, oscillating between snide comments, gay panic jokes, and capital-A attitude-laden one-liners. In one scene, Miles remarks that the world looks “so HD” because, with gun-hands, he can’t go outside with his face in his phone.

The humor might have been tolerable if the film was at least reasonably imaginative. Radcliffe really digs into Miles’s sniveling bafflement and the expressive Weaving clearly has a lot of hammy fun as the unhinged Nix. But too much of Guns Akimbo consists of unremarkable car chases and gun fights that hardly feel transformed at all by Miles’s unique predicament. We watch a lot of people fire a lot of guns against a lot of concrete backdrops, except Howden deploys a hyperactive camera style that’s always zooming around the characters in slow motion or fast forward. He appears to be going for the Neveldine/Taylor style of films like Crank and Gamer, except he’s not nearly as inventive and most of his flourishes outright distract from the action choreography, sometimes obscuring it altogether.

Worse, Guns Akimbo strains to be self-aware, with Miles assuring audiences via narration that this isn’t one of those stories where he wins back his ex-girlfriend, Nova (Natasha Liu Bordizzo), in the end. And it’s weirdly self-congratulatory for a film that visibly revels in torturing Weaving’s character and eventually has Nova kidnapped for the big climax anyway. The film has even less to say about the sort of obsessive spectatorship that makes up the story’s backdrop, as though simply depicting reality-TV audiences and internet users as assholes is some profound statement. Luckily, unlike Miles, viewers have a say in the matter. They aren’t bolted to the couch and the remote isn’t nailed into their hands; they’re free to quit watching at any time, or simply opt not to watch this obnoxious film at all.

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Samara Weaving, Natasha Liu Bordizzo, Ned Dennehy, Rhys Darby, Grant Bowler, Edwin Wright Director: Jason Lei Howden Screenwriter: Jason Lei Howden Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 97 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: The Assistant Is a Chilling Portrait of Workplace Harassment

The film is designed so that we feel as starved for rudimentary human emotion as its main character.

3

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The Assistant
Photo: Bleecker Street Media

With The Assistant, writer-director Kitty Green offers a top-to-bottom portrait of incremental dehumanization, and, on its terms, the film is aesthetically, tonally immaculate. The narrative is set in the Tribeca offices of a film mogul, but it could take place in a branch of any major corporation throughout the world without losing much of its resonance. Offices encourage professional functionality as a way of divorcing people from themselves, leading them to make actions without a sense of complicity. What starts small—throwing co-workers under the bus, neglecting friends due to punishing work hours—can blossom over time into people enabling atrocity under the guise of “doing what they’re told.”

With this psychology in mind, Green fashions The Assistant as a pseudo-thriller composed entirely of purposefully demoralizing minutiae. The film opens with a young woman, Jane (Julia Garner), being picked up from her apartment for work so punishingly early that it’s almost impossible to tell if it’s morning or night. By 8 a.m., she’s been making copies, printing documents, reading emails, and tending to office errands for hours. Other employees gradually drift in, talking obligatorily of their weekends off—a privilege that Jane isn’t accorded.

In these early scenes, Green conjures a peculiar, very palpable dread, her precise, anal-retentive compositions suggesting what might happen if David Fincher were to adapt Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” This dread springs from two places, as the visual palette is silvery and moody, evoking a potential corporate thriller, though the film refuses to move beyond the expository stage and gratify this expectation, and so we fear that we may be trapped with Jane in her tedium. We are, and this is by Green’s moral schematic.

The Assistant is designed so that we feel as starved for rudimentary human emotion as Jane. No names are uttered throughout (the name Jane, which brings to mind the anonymity of a Jane Doe, is only stated in the credits), while the film mogul is only evoked via male pronouns (he’s never seen but often referenced and occasionally heard over the phone, usually in a torrent of rage against Jane for her inability to talk down his wife, who knows of his infidelity). Jane brings another assistant the wrong sandwich, and he treats her cruelly; it never occurs to him, or anyone else, to thank Jane for the tasks she performs for everyone in the office. At best, Jane’s co-workers regard her with a kind of pitying befuddlement, as if she’s not quite real. When Jane eats, it’s quickly and without pleasure, and she’s always alert to being watched. No one speaks of their personal lives. Green springs one perceptive, poignant detail after another, especially when the mogul compliments Jane via email just as she thinks he’s reached his limit with her. This is, of course, a major tool of the master manipulator: praise when least expected, and only enough to keep the person in your sphere of influence and at your mercy.

Increasingly unsettling details seep into this deadening atmosphere. Jane finds an earring in the mogul’s office, which is repeatedly seen from a distance through its open door and becomes a chilling symbol for the mogul himself, suggesting his unshakable presence even in absence. There are jokes made about his couch, which Jane cleans. Young, beautiful women are brought into the office at late hours, and are referenced by both male and female employees with contempt. Growing fearful for one of the women, Jane tries to complain to an unsympathetic H.R. officer who sets about gaslighting her. It becomes evident that we’re watching—from the perspective of a powerless yet ultimately complicit person—a parable about rich, insulated predators like Harvey Weinstein, and Green’s grasp of Jane’s indoctrination into this perverse world is impeccably believable.

Yet The Assistant also feels too narrow, too comfortable with its thesis. The rendering of the mogul as an unseen specter is effective but also dime-store lurid in the tradition of mediocre horror movies, and this device also conveniently absolves Green of having to wrestle with how a Weinstein type might live with himself. George Huang’s similarly themed 1994 film Swimming with Sharks, which is mostly inferior to The Assistant, benefited from such a friction, as its own Weinstein surrogate (played by Kevin Spacey) had a magnetism that complicated and enriched the script’s anger. There’s also something insidious about Green’s evasion, as the mogul’s absence elevates him, mythologizes him, which reflects how people low on the power ladder see powerful exploiters. But Green physicalizes this idea without standing outside of it, challenging it, or contextualizing it; she traps us in a monotonous hell and leaves us there. Her fury with Weinstein and his ilk contains an element of awe.

Cast: Julia Garner, Matthew Macfadyen, Makenzie Leigh, Kristine Froseth, Jon Orsini, Noah Robbins, Stéphanye Dussud, Juliana Canfield, Alexander Chaplin, Dagmara Dominczyk, Bregje Heinen Director: Kitty Green Screenwriter: Kitty Green Distributor: Bleecker Street Media Running Time: 87 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Benh Zeitlin’s Wendy Is a Half-Hearted Spin on Peter Pan

Wendy veers awkwardly and aimlessly between tragedy and jubilance, never accruing any lasting emotional impact.

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Wendy
Photo: Searchlight Pictures

Like Beasts of the Southern Wild before it, Wendy unfolds through the eyes of a child. Benh Zeitlin’s sophomore feature puts a new spin on Peter Pan, and not only because it takes on the perspective of a 10-year-old Wendy Darling (Devin France). The film’s modern-rustic settings and costumes and relative lack of fantastical elements—notwithstanding the presence of a majestic, glowing sea creature, referred to as “mother,” who may hold the secret to reversing time—also play a large part in re-envisioning J.M. Barrie’s classic. But Zeitlin’s brand of magical realism strains in its conflicting desires to both demystify Neverland (never mentioned by name in the film), chiefly by grounding it in a rather prosaic reality, and imbue the story with all the enchanting qualities we’ve come to expect from fantasies of everlasting childhood. Like its version of Peter (Yashua Mack), Wendy wants to fly, yet, because of its self-imposed restrictions, it never quite gets off the ground.

Across this tale of a child lurching toward adulthood, there’s a sense of wonder and awe to the sea creature’s brief appearances, and to Wendy’s initial encounters with the free-spirited Peter, who playfully eggs her on from atop the train that regularly roars across the barren, rural locale that houses her family’s rundown diner. But Wendy’s whimsical flourishes, from Dan Romer’s incessantly rousing score to Wendy’s breathy and all-too-mannered voiceover, brush awkwardly against the film’s dour conception of a Neverland drained of all its magic and grandeur. Despite this, Zeitlin strives to capture an unbridled sense of childlike exuberance as kids cavort around the rugged cliffside vistas of the remote volcanic island that Peter calls home. But lacking any of the mystical features typically associated with them, Peter and his cohorts’ behaviors appear overly precocious to the point of ludicrousness; it’s almost as if they’re performing a twee, optimistic rendition of Lord of the Flies.

Unlike Quvenzhané Wallis, whose magnetic presence imbued Beasts of the Southern Wild with a pervasive warmth and soulfulness, Mack is an unfortunately listless presence as Peter. Several years younger than Wendy and her twin brothers, Douglas (Gage Naquin) and James (Gavin Naquin), Peter appears, more often than not, like a six-year-old playing dress-up. His utter lack of charisma and gusto renders him an ill-fitting avatar for boisterous youthfulness, while his occasionally domineering, yet still unimposing, demeanor hardly makes him out to be the inspirational figure that the film ultimately wants him to be. Not only does he allow one boy to drown at one point, he chops off the hand of another to prevent him from aging.

Such events position Wendy as a twisted take on Peter Pan, but these moments are never given room to breathe. Rather, they’re uniformly undermined by the film cutting back to the idyllic adventures of children, in lockstep with Zeitlin’s relentless pursuit of galvanizing his audience through a gleefully idealized vision of the world. This jarring intrusion of darker elements into the story makes for bizarre clashes in tone, leaving Wendy to veer awkwardly and aimlessly between tragedy and jubilance, never to accrue any lasting emotional impact. When Peter buoyantly declares that “to grow up is a great adventure,” one is left to wonder not only why the boy who never grows up would, out of nowhere, embrace this worldview, but why Wendy, or any of the other children, would want to follow such a troubling figure on that journey.

As Wendy stumbles into its final act, where adult pirates attempt to use Wendy as bait to catch the giant sea creature, it becomes even more convoluted, contradictory, and murky in what it’s trying to say about growing up. Wendy eventually begins to stand up to and question Peter, both for his mistreatment of her brother and his harshness toward the adults Peter has excommunicated to an impoverished community on the outskirts of the island. But no sooner does she chide Peter than she’s back on his side, cheering him on as he fights off an admittedly cleverly devised Captain Hook. It’s as if she, much like the film, can’t seem to settle on whether Peter’s a hero or a borderline psychopath, or if childhood is a magical time to live in permanently or a necessary step on the way to adulthood. Rather than meaningfully subverting audience expectations, Wendy instead plays like a half-hearted twist on the familiar tale that ultimately doesn’t change the moral at the core of countless other Peter Pan adaptations: childhood is magical, and growing up is scary but inevitable.

Cast: Tommie Lynn Milazzo, Shay Walker, Devin France, Stephanie Lynn Wilson, Ahmad Cage, Gage Naquin, Krzysztof Meyn, Gavin Naquin, Romyri Ross Director: Benh Zeitlin Screenwriter: Benh Zeitlin, Eliza Zeitlin Distributor: Searchlight Pictures Running Time: 112 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020

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Review: Philippe Garrel’s The Salt of Tears Forecloses Feeling for the Sake of Fantasy

Garrel illustrates the absurdity behind the myth of the complementary couple without humor or wit.

1.5

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The Salt of Tears
Photo: Berlinale

Two strangers, a man and a woman, meet at a bus stop in Paris. He’s from the countryside and has come to the city to live out his father’s dreams, which in Philippe Garrel’s The Salt of Tears means taking an entrance exam for a top carpentry school. He insists on seeing her again, and they meet for coffee after his test. They want to make love but have nowhere to go; he seems upset that she can’t host, and ends up taking her to his cousin’s place. She isn’t comfortable with all his touching, perhaps afraid that if he makes love to her right away he’ll have no reason to come back. Indeed, she seems more invested in the future of their encounter, what it can become, than in the encounter itself, whereas he sees no reason for her to stay if she won’t put out. By the time he kicks her out, she’s already in love.

The strangers’ names are Luc (Logann Antuofermo) and Djemila (Oulaya Amamra), but they might as well be called Man and Woman. That’s because The Salt of Tears unfolds like an archetypal narrative of heterosexual impossibility where Luc is the everyman and Djemila is interchangeable with Geneviève (Louise Chevillotte), Luc’s subsequent fling, or whatever woman comes next. He seems fond of collecting rather than replacing lovers. In the course of his brief encounters, which are nevertheless always long enough for the women to get attached and promptly burned, Luc is inoculated from heartache. His only emotional allegiance seems to be to his father (André Wilms), which tells us a thing or two about heterosexuality’s peculiar tendency to forge male allegiances at the expense of women, who circulate from man to man, father to husband, husband to lover, like some sort of currency.

We’ve seen, and lived, this story a million times—in real life and in cinema. You, too, may have waited for a lover who never showed up after making meticulous plans for an encounter, wrapped up in the sweetest of promises, like the one Luc makes to Djemila when he says, “For the room, I’ll refund the whole amount.” It’s then that she takes the train to see him. At a hotel, she puts on her prettiest nightgown, powdering her face in preemptive bliss. But Luc never shows up. And when Djemila goes to the hotel lobby to ask for a cigarette from the night porter (Michel Charrel), we see that the scenario, the woman who waits, is quite familiar to the man as well. “I’ve seen women wait for their men all their lives,” he tells her.

And yet, despite so much identification, and despite the fact that some of the best films ever made, from Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage to Rohmer’s A Summer’s Tale, are precisely about masculine cowardliness and feminine despair, why is it that The Salt of Tears makes no room for genuine emotion to emerge? Which is peculiar given that Garrel so recently, with In the Shadow of Women and Lover for a Day, documented the impossibility of monogamy with not only a no-nonsense sensibility but also profound gravitas. Maybe the failure of the film is in Garrel’s use of melodramatic music during transitional scenes, a device at odds with the detached style of the rest of the film. Maybe it’s in the overtly fable-like structure that reduces the characters to not just archetypes, but cutouts. Maybe it’s in the omniscient voiceover narration that punctuates the film with such disaffection and irregularity.

Garrel illustrates the absurdity behind the myth of the complementary couple with the same cynicism that permeates his previous work but none of the humor or wit. He thus elevates The Salt of Tears to the status of a work to be enjoyed only intellectually, as if, like Luc, he, too, had learned to foreclose feeling for the sake of some fantasy of self-preservation or pride.

Cast: Logann Antuofermo, Oulaya Amamra, André Wilms, Louise Chevillotte, Souheila Yacoub, Martin Mesnier, Teddy Chawa, Aline Belibi, Michel Charrel, Stefan Crepon, Lucie Epicureo, Alice Rahimi Director: Philippe Garrel Screenwriter: Jean-Claude Carrière, Philippe Garrel, Arlette Langmann Running Time: 100 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Greed Is an Unsubtle Satire of Global Capitalism’s Race to the Bottom

The film takes occasional stabs at comic grotesquerie, but it’s brought back to earth by an insistent docudrama seriousness.

2.5

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Greed
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

A morality tale about a piratical fast-fashion clothing entrepreneur, Greed takes occasional stabs at comic grotesquerie. Each time, though, it’s brought back to earth by an insistent docudrama seriousness. That uneven mixture of tones, not to mention its easy and somewhat restrained shots at obvious targets, keeps writer-director Michael Winterbottom’s film from achieving the Felliniesque excess it strives for.

Steve Coogan plays the discount billionaire villain as a more malevolent variation on the smarmy selfish bastard he’s polished to a sheen in Winterbottom’s The Trip films. Sir Richard McCreadie, nicknamed “Greedy” by the tabloids, is one of those modern wizards of financial shell games who spin fortunes out of thin air, promise, hubris, and a particularly amoral strain of bastardry. He made his billions as the “king of the high street,” peddling cheap, celebrity-touted clothing through H&M and Zara-like chain stores. Now somewhat disreputable, having been hauled before a Parliamentary Select Committee to investigate the bankruptcy of one of his chains, the tangerine-tanned McCreadie is stewing in semi-exile on Mykonos.

While McCreadie plans an extravagantly tacky Gladiator-themed 60th birthday for himself featuring togas and a seemingly somnolent lion, the film skips back in time episodically to show how this grifter made his billions. Although specifically inspired by the life of Philip Green, the billionaire owner of Top Shop (and who was also investigated by Parliament for the bankruptcy of one of his brands), Greed is meant as a broader indictment of global capitalism’s race to the bottom. Cutting back from the somewhat bored birthday bacchanal—Winterbottom does a good job illustrating the wallowing “is this all there is?” dullness of the ultra-rich lifestyle—the film shows McCreadie’s ascent from Soho clothing-mart hustler to mercantilist wheeler and dealer leveraging a string of tatty bargain emporiums into a fortune.

Linking the flashbacks about McCreadie’s up-and-comer past to his bloated and smug present is Nick (David Mitchell), a weaselly hired-gun writer researching an authorized biography and hating himself for it. Thinking he’s just slapping together an ego-boosting puff piece, Nick inadvertently comes across the secret to McCreadie’s success: the women hunched over sewing machines in Sri Lankan sweatshops earning $4 a day to produce his cheap togs. The Sri Lanka connection also provides the film with its only true hero: Amanda (Dinita Gohil), another of McCreadie’s self-hating assistants, but the only one who ultimately does anything about the literal and metaphorical casualties generated by her boss’s avarice.

With McCreadie as a big shining target, Winterbottom uses him to symbolize an especially vulgar manifestation of jet-set wheeler-dealers who imagine their wealth has freed them from limitations on taste and morality. That means giving McCreadie massive snow-white dentures, having him yell at the lion he’s imported sending him storming out on the beach to yell at the Syrian refugees he thinks are spoiling the backdrop for his party. He’s the kind of man who, when his ex-wife (Isla Fisher) calls him out for cheating by using his phone to look like he’s reciting classical poetry by heart, shouts proudly and unironically, “BrainyQuote!”

Greed isn’t a subtle satire. But, then, what’s the point of going small when the target is the entire global clothing supply chain, as well as the consumerism and celebrity worship (“adding a bit of sparkle to a $10 party dress,” as McCreadie puts it)? Despite his deft ability to authentically inhabit numerous geographical spaces without condescension (the scenes in Sri Lanka feel particularly organic), Winterbottom often has a harder time summoning the kind of deep, gut-level emotions needed to drive home an angry, issue-oriented comedy of this kind. But even though he isn’t able to balance buffoonery and outrage as effectively as Steven Soderbergh did with his Panama Papers satire The Laundromat, Winterbottom at least knew to pick a big enough target that it would be nearly impossible to miss.

Cast: Steve Coogan, Isla Fisher, Shirley Henderson, David Mitchell, Asa Butterfield, Dinita Gohil, Sophie Cookson Director: Michael Winterbottom Screenwriter: Michael Winterbottom Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 104 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: With Saint Frances, the Rise of the of the Abortion Comedy Continues

It has almost enough genuine charm and heart to compensate for the moments that feel forced.

2.5

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Saint Frances
Photo: Oscilloscope Laboratories

Even for American liberals, abortion has long been a touchy subject. “Legal but rare” is the watchword of cautious Democratic candidates, and popular film has long preferred to romanticize the independent women who make the brave choice not to terminate a pregnancy (see Juno). With Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child and, now, Alex Thompson’s Saint Frances, we may be seeing the emergence of something like the abortion comedy. The very concept of such a thing is probably enough to make a heartland conservative retch, which Thompson and his screenwriter and lead actress, Kelly O’Sullivan, no doubt count on.

Bridget (O’Sullivan) is a white Chicagoland millennial who, like so many of her generation, finds herself still living the life of a twentysomething at the age of 34. Messy and a little irresponsible—qualities that could be largely chalked up to the inert decade of post-college poverty she’s endured—she struggles to admit in conversation with her ostensible peers that she works as a server at a greasy diner. In the film’s opening scene, a tidy encapsulation of the tragicomedy of being an underachieving hanger-on in bougie social circles, she’s brought to the verge of tears when a yuppie dude she’s chatting with loses interest in her after her age and employment come up. She immediately pounces on Jace (Max Lipchitz), the next guy who talks to her, after he casually reveals that he, too, works as a waiter.

Fortunately, Jace turns out to be an indefatigably cheerful and supportive 26-year-old who comes across as perhaps a tad too perfect until the precise moment in Saint Frances that the filmmakers need him to come off more like a Wrigleyville bro. At some point during their initial hook-up, Bridget gets her period, and the couple wakes up fairly covered in blood. (Bridget’s nigh-constant unexpected vaginal bleeding and the stains it leaves will serve as both metaphor and punchline throughout the film, and it works better than you may think.) Amused but unphased by the incident, Jace will also prove to be a supportive partner when Bridget chooses to terminate her accidental pregnancy later in the film, even though Bridget remains openly uncertain about whether or not they’re actually dating.

In the wake of her abortion, Bridget is taken on as a nanny for Maya and Annie (Charin Alvarez and Lily Mojekwu), a mixed-race lesbian couple who need someone to look after their unruly daughter, Frances (Ramona Edith Williams), while Maya cares for their newborn. Frances is a self-possessed kindergartner whose dialogue sometimes drifts into “kids say the darnedest things” terrain, even though it can be funny (“My guitar class is a patriarchy,” she proclaims at one point). But O’Sullivan’s screenplay doesn’t overly sentimentalize childhood—or motherhood for that matter. One important subplot involves Bridget’s mother’s (Mary Beth Fisher) reminiscing that she sometimes fantasized about bashing the infant Bridget’s head against the wall, a revelation that helps Maya through her post-partum depression.

Maya and Annie live in Evanston, the Chicago suburb where Northwestern University is located, and Bridget counts as an alumna of sorts, though in conversation she emphasizes that she was only there for a year. She clearly views the town as the epicenter of her shame; underlining this is that the couple’s next-door neighbor turns out to be Cheryl (Rebekah Ward), an insufferable snob who Bridget knew in college, whose “lean in” brand of upper-class feminism doesn’t preclude her from treating her erstwhile peer like an all-purpose servant. Frances’s smarmy guitar teacher, Isaac (Jim True-Frost), also embodies the moral ickiness of the privileged, as he takes advantage of Bridget’s foolhardy crush on him.

Bridget’s relationship with Frances and her parents changes her, but the film isn’t making the point that she learns the majesty of child-rearing and the awesome responsibility of parenthood. It’s that Bridget finds strength in intersectional and intergenerational solidarity, emerging from the isolating cell she’s built herself out of quiet self-shame. If that approach sounds academic, it’s true that at times Saint Frances is staged too much like dramatic enactment of feminist principles—a public confrontation with an anti-public-breast-feeding woman ends up feeling like an after-school special about conflict mediation—but it has almost enough genuine charm and heart to compensate for the moments that feel forced.

Cast: Kelly O’Sullivan, Charin Alvarez, Lily Mojekwu, Max Lipchitz, Jim True-Frost, Ramona Edith Williams, Mary Beth Fisher, Francis Guinan, Rebecca Spence, Rebekah Ward Director: Alex Thompson Screenwriter: Kelly O’Sullivan Distributor: Oscilloscope Laboratories Running Time: 106 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Disappearance at Clifton Hill Is a Well-Sustained Trick of a Thriller

What distinguishes the film from much of its ilk is Albert Shin’s ongoing taste for peculiar and unsettling details.

2.5

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Disappearance at Clifton Hill
Photo: IFC Films

Throughout Disappearance at Clifton Hill, director Albert Shin nurtures an atmosphere of lingering evil, of innocence defiled, that shames the ludicrous theatrics of Andy Muschietti’s similarly themed It movies. Set in Niagara Falls, Ontario, the film opens with its finest sequence, in which a young girl, Abby (Mikayla Radan), runs into a frightened boy in the woods. One of the boy’s eyes has been gauged out, and he wears a bloodied white bandage over it. (Perversely, the square shape of the bandage and the red of the coagulated blood make it seem as if he’s wearing a broken pair of 3D glasses.) The boy gestures to Abby to keep quiet, and soon we see pursuers at the top of the hill above the children.

Much of this scene is staged without a score, and this silence—a refreshing reprieve from the tropes of more obviously hyperkinetic thrillers—informs Shin’s lush compositions with dread and anguish. Just a moment prior, Abby was fishing with her parents (Tim Beresford and Janet Porter) and sister, Laure (Addison Tymec), so we feel the shattering of her sense of normalcy. The boy is soon scooped up, beaten, and thrown in the trunk of a car, never to be seen again.

Years later, the thirtyish Abby (now played by Tuppence Middleton) has yet to settle into herself, as she’s a loner who haunts the nearly abandoned motel that her deceased mom used to run. By contrast, Laure (Hannah Gross) has married a sensible man (Noah Reid) and has a sensible job as a security manager at the local casino, which looms above the town surrounding Niagara Falls like an all-seeing tower. The casino, run by the all-controlling Lake family, is in the process of acquiring the sisters’ motel. Looking through old pictures, Abby finds a shot that was taken the day she ran into the kidnapped boy, and she becomes obsessed with solving the case, descending into the underworld of her small, foreboding community.

Shin and co-screenwriter James Schultz’s plot, and there’s quite a bit of it, is the stuff of old-fashioned pulp. But what distinguishes the film from much of its ilk is Shin’s ongoing taste for peculiar and unsettling details. A local conspiracy theorist, Walter (David Cronenberg), is introduced bobbing up and down in the water behind Abby as she investigates the site of the kidnapping, emerging in a wet suit from a dive to look for potential valuables. It’s a hell of entrance to accord a legendary filmmaker moonlighting in your production, and it affirms the film’s unease, the sense it imparts of everyone watching everyone else.

When Abby’s sleuthing leads her to a pair of married magicians, the Moulins (Marie-Josée Croze and Paulino Nunes), they memorably turn the tables on her smugness, using sleights of hand to intimidate her and illustrate the elusiveness of certainty. And one of Shin’s greatest flourishes is also his subtlest: As Abby surveys the hill where the boy was taken in the film’s opening scene, a bike coasts across the road on top, echoing the movement of the kidnappers’ car decades prior, suggesting the ongoing reverberations of atrocities.

Shin does under-serve one tradition of the mystery thriller: the unreliable protagonist. Abby is understood to be a habitual liar, a fabulist who’s either a con woman or a person wrestling with issues of encroaching insanity. Given the luridness of the boy’s disappearance, and the way it conveniently meshes with Abby’s unresolved issues, the notion of the mystery as a terrible, self-entrapping fabrication is credible and potentially revealing and terrifying—suggesting the wrenching plight of the doomed investigator at the heart of Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island. But for Shin, Abby’s fragile mental state is ultimately a red herring, relegating Abby to an audience-orienting compass rather than a true figure of tragedy. Which is to say that Disappearance at Clifton Hill isn’t quite a major thriller, but rather a well-sustained trick.

Cast: Tuppence Middleton, Hannah Gross, Marie-Josée Croze, Paulino Nunes, Elizabeth Saunders, Maxwell McCabe-Lokos, Eric Johnson, David Cronenberg, Andy McQueen, Noah Reid, Dan Lett, Tim Beresford, Mikayla Radan Director: Albert Shin Screenwriter: James Schultz, Albert Shin Distributor: IFC Midnight Running Time: 100 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: With Onward, Pixar Forsakes Imagination for Familiarity

While Onward begins as a story of bereavement, it soon turns to celebrating the payoffs of positive thinking.

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Onward
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Pixar specializes in tales of people, animals, and artificial intelligence coping with loss: of a spouse (Up), of human contact (the Toy Story films), of love (WALL-E). But like a lot of Hollywood dream-workers, Pixar’s storytellers also believe in believing. And faith in something, anything, is essential to the studio’s latest feature, Onward, as the heroes of this comic fantasy are two teenage elves who go searching for the magical gem—and the self-assurance—needed to briefly resurrect their departed and sorely missed father.

Ian and Barley Lightfoot’s (Tom Holland and Chris Pratt) 24-hour quest is lively and sometimes funny but seldom surprising. Writer-director Dan Scanlon and co-scripters Jason Headley and Keith Bunin have assembled a story from spare parts of various adventure and sword-and-sorcery flicks, and topped it with a sentimental coda about the value of a male role model. Mychael Danna and Jeff Danna’s drippy score pleads for tears, but viewers who sniffle are more likely to have been moved by personal associations than the film’s emotional heft.

Blue-haired, pointy-eared Ian and Barley live with their widowed mom, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), in a neighborhood that’s a cross between Tolkien’s Shire and a near-contemporary California suburb. A prologue explains that “long ago the world was filled with magic,” but enchantment succumbed to a diabolical adversary: science. The invention of the light bulb is presented as this toontown’s fall from grace. What’s left is a Zootopia-like cosmos where such mythic creatures as centaurs, mermaids, cyclopses, and, of course, elves live together in stultifying ordinariness. Most stultified of all is Ian, who meekly accepts the torments of high school. He’s nearly the opposite of brash older brother Barley, a true believer in magic who crusades to preserve the old ways and is devoted to a mystical role-playing game he insists is based on the world as it used to be. (A few of the film’s supporting characters appear by courtesy of Wizards of the Coast, the game company that owns Dungeons & Dragons.)

It’s Ian’s 16th birthday, so Laurel retrieves a gift left by the boys’ father, who died before the younger one was born. The package contains a magical staff and instructions on how to revive a dead soul, if only for 24 hours. It turns out that Ian has an aptitude for incantations but lacks knowledge and, crucially, confidence. He casts a spell that succeeds but only halfway, as it summons just Dad’s lower half. A mysterious crystal could finish the job, so the brothers hit the road in Barley’s beat-up but vaguely magical van with a gear shift that reads “onward.” Barley is certain that his role-playing game can direct them to their shadowy destination.

Like most quest sagas, Onward is an episodic one, but it doesn’t make most of its pitstops especially memorable. The supporting characters are few and most are easily forgotten, save for a once-terrifying but now-domesticated manticore, Corey (Octavia Spencer), and Mom’s cop boyfriend, Colt Bronco (Mel Rodriguez), who may be a centaur but strikes his potential stepsons as embarrassingly bourgeois. Both join a frantic Laurel on her sons’ trail.

Onward doesn’t have a distinctive visual style, but it does showcase Pixar’s trademark mastery of depth, light, and shadow. As in Scanlon’s Monsters University, the fanciful and the everyday are well harmonized. That’s still a neat trick, but it’s no more novel than Ian and Barley’s experiences. Animated features often borrow from other films, in part to keep the grown-ups in the crowd interested, but the way Onward recalls at various points The Lord of the Rings, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Ghostbusters feels perfunctory and uninspired. And it all leads to a moral that’s at least as hoary as that of The Wizard of Oz or Peter Pan. While Onward begins as a story of bereavement, it soon turns to celebrating the payoffs of positive thinking. That you can accomplish whatever you believe you can is a routine movie message, but it can feel magical when presented with more imagination than Onward ever musters.

Cast: Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer, Ali Wong, Lena Waithe, Mel Rodriguez, Tracey Ullman, Wilmer Valderrama, Kyle Bornheimer, John Ratzenberger Director: Dan Scanlon, Jason Headley, Keith Bunin Screenwriter: Dan Scanlon Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 103 min Rating: PG Year: 2020

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Interview: Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson on Working Together on Ordinary Love

It’s to the immense credit of these two great actors that Ordinary Love is so inspiring.

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Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson
Photo: Bleecker Street

It’s to the immense credit of Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson that Ordinary Love is so inspiring. As Joan and Tom, the couple at the center of Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn’s drama about a couple tested by the wife’s breast cancer diagnosis, their naturalism and comfort never waver while the characters stare down the disease.

Despite having never collaborated prior to their brief rehearsals for the film, these two celebrated actors settle authentically into the quiet dignity of longstanding companionate affection. Both performances hum with grace notes as the actors imbue even the most quotidian moments with compassion and wisdom. Ordinary Love speaks to how Joan and Tom maintain the strength of their relationship in spite of cancer, not because of it.

The bond that appears effortless on screen, however, was quite effortful, as I learned when talking to the two actors following the film’s limited release. The organic chemistry was evident between Manville and Neeson, who both spoke softly yet passionately about their approach to forging the connection at the heart of Ordinary Love. The two performers came to the film with storied careers and full lives, both of which contributed to how they approached bringing Tom and Joan’s tender marriage to life.

Lesley, you’ve said that Liam was the big draw for you to board this project. I’m curious, to start, what’s your favorite of his performances and why?

Lesley Manville: Oh my gosh! I’ve got to say the right thing here. I wish I’d have seen you [to Neeson] on stage. I never have. Schindler’s List, I think, really is up there. Had the [Ordinary Love] script been awful, then I wouldn’t have wanted to do it despite Liam. But the script was great, and they said Liam was going to do it, so I said it sounded like a good one, really.

Liam, do you have a favorite performance of hers?

Liam Neeson: I’ve seen Lesley in a couple of the Mike Leigh films. She struck me, and I mean this as a compliment, as like, “Oh, that’s someone who just walked in off the street and is playing this.” She was so natural and so great as an actress. And I did see her on stage, I thought she was wonderful.

Right away, we can sense such a shared history of the couple. Surely some of it came from the script itself, but how did you collaborate to ensure you were on the same page about where Tom and Joan have been?

Manville: Sometimes it’s hard to manufacture that or try to cook it up. I guess the casting of the two of us was pretty good and a fluke to some degree. We could have not got on. The warmth we have for each other is a bonus. We couldn’t predict that until we’d met. We’re quite similar as actors, really, we see what’s on the page and try to make it as truthful as possible. But day one, we were shooting scenes of them on the sofa, watching telly, not doing much, 30-plus-year relationship…you just have to plow in and do it. We’ve both lived a fair amount—

Neeson: We didn’t really “plan” anything. There’s a saying, “If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.” That foundation stone of the script was beautiful.

Was there a rehearsal period, or did you just jump right in?

Manville: We had a couple of afternoons in New York, didn’t we?

Neeson: Yeah, we did.

Manville: Liam lives here, and I was doing a play. Lisa and Glenn, our directors, came over and we spent a few afternoons mostly eating quite nice lunches.

Neeson: Yeah, those were nice lunches. But we certainly didn’t “rehearse” rehearse it, did we?

Were they more like chemistry sessions?

Neeson: Yeah, just smelling each other, really!

Liam, you’ve said that part of what drew you to the film was the ability to play someone like yourself, a nice Northern Irish man. Is it easier or harder to play something that’s less like a character and more like yourself?

Neeson: I think if you’re playing a character that’s not you, i.e. thinking of doing accents, there’s a process of work you have. Be it an American accent or a German accent, there’s a process. Then I try to do that and ignore it. So, whatever comes out of my mouth comes out. If a few Irish words come out, if it’s supposed to be German, I don’t care. You can fix it a little bit in an ADR department, but I hate doing a scene with a dialect coach there.

I have to tell you a funny story. I did this film Widows with Viola Davis a couple years ago. And myself and Colin Farrell have to be from Chicago. I met with this lovely lady, the dialect coach. My first scene was in a shower, right, and into the bathroom comes Viola with a little drink [mimes a shot glass] for her and I, it’s a whole process we do before I do a heist job. It’s a little ritual we do, and she has a dog, a tiny wee thing. When we finish the scene, I’m supposed to go “rawr-rawr” to the dog. I did this a couple of times, and the dialect coach literally ran in and says, “Liam, you’re doing the dog sound wrong, accent wise! It should be ‘woof-woof,’ use the back of your throat.” I thought, “She’s pulling my leg! The dog’s that size [puts hand barely above the ground].” But she meant it.

Manville: Oh dear, she needs to take a check, doesn’t she?

Neeson: But being the professional I was, I went “woof-woof.”

When you’re playing characters who are “ordinary” or “normal,” as the final and working titles for the film have suggested, do you start with yourself and fit into the character? Or is the character the starting point and you invest little pieces of yourself into it?

Manville: Certainly, for me, there’s a lot about Joan that’s not a million miles away from me, although there are obvious differences. I just thought, there’s this woman, they’ve had this tragedy in their lives, they’ve lost their daughter, getting on with things, their lives have reduced down to this co-dependent small existence—it’s all about the ordinary stuff. And then you’ve just got to layer onto that the fact that this horrible diagnosis happens. But, in a way, I felt that took care of itself because I—touch of wood [knocks on the wood frame of her chair]—have not been through breast cancer. I’ve had a sister who did, but the women in the [hospital] scenes, the technicians and the surgeons were all real, and they were very helpful. They were wonderful women, and they helped me hugely just walking me through it. I just thought, “There’s Joan, and you’ve just got to be Joan as these other things are happening to her.” Of course, all bits of your own experiences and life stuff comes out. But it’s almost not conscious. I’ve had a lot of life—a lot of ups, a lot of downs, as has everybody. That’s nothing exceptional. Nothing more different than the average person. Our job is we lock those feelings away somewhere inside of us, and they’re there to call upon if we need to.

Neeson: Yeah, that’s a great way of putting it. James Cagney used to have an expression when an ingénue would ask him how to do a scene. He famously said, “You walk in the room, plant your feet and speak the truth.” That was always his answer. It’s true.

There’s a moment during chemo where Joan makes a remark that she thought the experience would change her more but feels relatively the same. Lesley, I’m curious, do you believe her at that moment?

Manville: Yeah, because you’re always you, no matter what’s happening. I guess that kind of statement is probably quite particular to people who go through a big health thing like that. You expect it’s going to really alter you, shift you, but actually it’s still you underneath. Because it’s just you with this epic thing happening to you. Nevertheless, it’s you.

Is it tough as an actor to depict that kind of stasis while also bringing some variation?

Manville: I think there’s enough in the scenes. A good point in the film is when they [Tom and Joan] are having a row about nothing—which color pill. But it’s bound to happen. They’re a great couple, yet something gives way because that’s human. I felt that was quite well charted throughout the script.

We don’t really get a similar moment of verbal reflection from Tom. Do you think the same sentiment of feeling unchanged might apply to him?

Neeson: There’s one scene where he visits their daughter’s grave and talks about how scared he is. And I think he is. But he’s “man” enough to put up a kind of front that everything’s going to be okay, and I think he really believes that too. But he’s terrified that he might lose his life partner. It might happen. Without getting too heavy about it, I know Lesley has experienced loss in her family. I’ve had four members of my family die. It was wrenching for the family—very, very wrenching. It’s a horrible disease. Lesley was saying to me last night, in America alone, one in eight women are going to suffer some form of breast cancer, which is an astronomical number. We are all one degree of separation from someone who has it.

Manville: But the survival rate is very impressive now.

It’s nice that the film is about more than just the struggle of the disease but how life continues in spite of it. We even start the film more or less where we ended it in the calendar year.

Neeson: Just that minutiae of life. Going to a grocery store. You still have to eat! Save up your coupons, that minutiae, I love that it comes across the script.

You’ve both worked with some incredible directors in your time. Is there anything in particular that you took from them for Ordinary Love, or do you just clear out your memory in order to execute what Lisa and Glenn want?

Neeson: I think Lesley said in an earlier interview—forgive me for jumping in, darling—that you absorb it through osmosis if you work with really good people. And bad people too. You just allow it to come out. You’re not, “What was it Martin Scorsese said? I must remember that. Or Steven Spielberg”—I don’t do that.

Manville: Also, they get a lot from you too. A lot of people think directors are like dictators. If they employ two actors like us, they’re expecting a collaboration of some sort. Hopefully they get something from us too.

In this more recent stage of your career, you’ve each had roles that have exploded and become beloved by the Internet—Liam with Taken, Lesley with Phantom Thread. How do you all react to something like that making such a big splash where people turn your work into a meme?

Manville: I didn’t know what a meme was until quite recently. Somebody told me I was a meme.

Neeson: What is it? I honestly don’t know. I’ve heard the word, but I don’t know what it means.

Manville: They just take a bit of a performance…

Yes, snippets of a performance and use it as a response to something else. Recontextualized.

Neeson: Oh, I see. Like “release the kraken.”

Or “I have a very particular set of skills” from Taken. I see that, and I see bits of Cyril a lot online.

Manville: Apparently, I’m a bit of a gay icon. So that’s new. Never thought I’d reach my age and be that. But I’ll take it!

Is that just a nice thing to keep in the back of your head? Does it enter into the process at all?

Manville: No! Listen, I think there’s a myth that actors, however successful they are, wander around in some sort of successful bubble. You’re just not! You’re having your life like everyone else. I understand that our jobs are quite exceptional, and other people view our jobs with some kind of halo over them. But personally speaking, when I’m working, I’m working. The rest of my life is incredibly regular.

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Review: The Call of the Wild Provides a Resonant Take on a Classic

The film’s avoidance of cruel Gold Rush realities is more than made up for by its spirited kineticism.

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The Call of the Wild
Photo: 20th Century Studios

The latest cinematic adaptation of Jack London’s The Call of the Wild is a surprisingly thrilling and emotionally moving adventure film. Its surprises come not only from director Chris Sanders and screenwriter Michael Green’s dramatic overhaul of the classic 1903 novel for family audiences, but also from the way their revisions make London’s story richer and more resonant, rather than diluted and saccharine.

It’s worth recalling that London’s vision of man and nature in The Call of the Wild is anything but romantic; indeed, at times it’s literally dog eat dog. In his story, the imposing yet spoiled Buck, a St. Bernard and Scotch Collie mix, is kidnapped from his wealthy master’s California manor and sold to dealers in Yukon Territory, where the Gold Rush has created high demand for sledding dogs. Buck’s initiation into the culture of the Northlands involves severe beatings at the hands of his masters, brutal rivalries with fellow sledding dogs, harsh exposure to unforgiving elements, and an unrelenting work regimen that allows for little rest, renewal, or indolence. What London depicts is nothing less than a Darwinian world where survival forbids weakness of body and spirit, and where survivors can ill-afford pity or remorse.

Not much of that vision remains in Sanders and Green’s adaptation. Buck is still kidnapped from his home and sold to dog traders, but his subjugation is reduced from repeated, will-breaking abuse to a single hit. In this Call of the Wild, dogs never maul one another to death, a regular occurrence in London’s novel. And minus one or two exceptions, the human world of the story has now become uplifting and communal rather than bitter and cutthroat. In the first half of the film, Buck’s sledding masters are an adorable husband-and-wife team (Omar Sy and Cara Gee) in place of a rough pair of mail deliverers, and in the second half, John Thornton (Harrison Ford), Buck’s last and most beloved master, isn’t revealed to be hardened treasure-seeker, but a grieving man who finds redemption in the great outdoors.

The film’s avoidance of cruel Gold Rush realities is more than made up for by its spirited kineticism and by its deepening of the man-dog bond that forms the heart of London’s story. This Call of the Wild relies heavily on a CGI Buck (and other virtual beasts) to create complex choreographed movement in labyrinthine tracking shots that would be impossible to execute with real animals. One might expect the artifice of even the most convincing CGI to undermine Buck’s palpable presence, as well as the script’s frequent praises to the glory of nature, yet the film’s special-effects team has imbued the animal with a multi-layered personality, as displayed in joyously detailed, if more than slightly anthropomorphic, expressions and gestures. And the integration of Buck and other CGI creations into believable, immersive environments is buttressed by the cinematography of Janusz Kamiński, who lenses everything from a quiet meadow to an epic avalanche with lush vibrancy.

In the film’s first half, human concerns take a backseat to Buck’s education as he adapts to the dangerous world of the Northlands, but in the second half the emergence of Ford as Buck’s best friend adds to the film a poignant human dimension. Thornton rescues Buck from a trio of inept, brutish, and greedy city slickers (Dan Stevens, Karen Gillan, and Colin Woodell), and Buck in turn saves Thornton from misery and drunkenness as he pines away for his late son and ruined marriage while living alone on the outskirts of civilization.

This is a welcome change from London’s depiction of Thornton, who possesses on the page a kind heart but not much else in the way of compelling characteristics; the summit of his relationship with Buck occurs when he stakes and wins a fortune betting on Buck’s ability to drag a half ton of cargo. In this film version, Thornton and Buck’s relationship grows as they travel the remotest reaches of wilderness where Thornton regains his sense of wonder and Buck draws closer to the feral origins of his wolf-like brethren and ancestors. Ford lends gruff vulnerability and gravity to Thornton in scenes that might have tipped over into idyllic cheese given just a few false moves, and his narration throughout the film forms a sort of avuncular bass line to the proceedings lest they become too cloying or cute.

A paradox exists in The Call of the Wild, which is indebted to advanced technological fakery but touts the supremacy of nature and natural instincts. Yet there’s a sincerity and lack of pretense to the film that transcends this paradox and evokes the sublime.

Cast: Harrison Ford, Dan Stevens, Omar Sy, Karen Gillan, Bradley Whitford, Colin Woodell, Cara Gee, Scott MacDonald, Terry Notary Director: Chris Sanders Screenwriter: Michael Green Distributor: 20th Century Studios Running Time: 100 min Rating: PG Year: 2020 Buy: Book

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