Tag Archives: Star Wars

Countdown to Beyond – Star Trek (2009)

startrek2009

On May 13, 2005, the cancelled Star Trek: Enterprise aired its much-maligned series finale, “These Are The Voyages,” and for the first time in eighteen years there would be no new Star Trek on the air in the fall.  Likewise, the box office failure of Star Trek Nemesis had staked the film series through the heart.  Even die-hard fans, weary of repetitive plots resolved by reconfiguring the deflector dish, were pleading that Trek needed a forced rest.  Go away, we cried, echoing Bono, and dream it all up again.  Behind the scenes, life still stirred, as franchise guardian Rick Berman proposed reinvigorating the movies by introducing a brand new crew in a yet-unexplored piece of Trek‘s future history:  the Earth/Romulan war of the 22nd Century.  He hired Band of Brothers writer Erik Jendresen to pen a script with a World War II movie feel called Star Trek: The Beginning.  In Jendresen’s draft, after a devastating attack on Earth by a Romulan fleet, the disgraced Captain Tiberius Chase, an ancestor of James Tiberius Kirk, would lead his hastily assembled, ragtag crew on what would turn out to be a suicide mission to detonate a nuclear bomb in the heart of the Romulan Empire and bring an end to the war.  Fans weren’t wild about Berman’s continued stewardship, and this proposed story sounded pretty depressing after the already dreary Nemesis.  And so it was that in 2006, new Paramount chief Gail Berman (no relation) cancelled development on The Beginning and turned creative control of future Star Trek film projects over to an up-and-coming filmmaker named J.J. Abrams.

Abrams had started young, writing the script for the Harrison Ford movie Regarding Henry at the age of 21 and serving as script doctor on blockbusters like Armageddon before turning to television and achieving success with the series Felicity and Alias.  The latter, starring Jennifer Garner as a spy who has to keep her espionage work secret from her closest friends, attracted the notice of Tom Cruise and earned Abrams a shot at directing the third Mission: Impossible movie, which made $400 million worldwide just as Rick Berman was being advised that his services were no longer required.  M:I-III just happened to be a production of Paramount Pictures, who had signed Abrams to a multi-film contract and realized, well, lookie here, we have this other moribund franchise in need of some adrenaline.  Abrams, who admitted up front he had always been more of a Star Wars fan, signed his Bad Robot Productions on to produce, but wouldn’t commit to direct as well unless the script measured up.  To ensure that it did, he brought along his co-writers from M:I-III who were also veterans of Alias:  Roberto Orci, who described himself as a rabid Trekkie, and Alex Kurtzman, who didn’t.  Immediately they faced the challenge of what to do with Star Trek‘s weighty history:  ten movies, hundreds of episodes and one of the most elaborate – and from some perspectives, creatively suffocating – fictional canons ever assembled.

Their answer:  toss it.

Sort of.

buildingenterprise

Abrams wasn’t interested in chronicling the further exploits of Captains Picard, Sisko, Janeway et al, claiming that the various spinoffs and sequels had “disconnected” him from the franchise.  He wanted to return to the essence of Star Trek, and that meant a new take on the classic characters of Kirk and Spock, and, in an echo of the Harve Bennett “Starfleet Academy” movie that had never been made, going back to look at how they first met to reintroduce them to a new world.  He noted, however, that one of the (many) weaknesses of the Star Wars prequels was that there was little dramatic tension in their foregone outcome – basically, you knew Obi-Wan Kenobi wasn’t going to die because you’d already seen him in his elder years.  Abrams, Kurtzman and Orci came up with a concept that in their minds would respect the hundreds of hours of Trek that had gone before but still give them carte blanche to craft a fresh and unpredictable story – without throwing away everything a la Batman Begins.  To wit: using a little time travel to go back before Kirk was even born and create a new, unpredictable alternate universe in which all bets as to the fates of our characters were off.  Satisfied with the progress of scripting, Abrams agreed to direct and his participation was confirmed by official press release in February of 2007.

It was then a matter of finding new faces for this new universe.

Casting Captain Kirk’s original crew for the first time since 1966 was a daunting task; the fanbase would rebel, and quite rightly so, if the iconic roles were filled with a bunch of vapid CW flavor-of-the-month types.  Although Academy Award winner Adrien Brody (The Pianist) was interested in playing Spock, and Matt Damon had to call Abrams personally and ask him what was up after reading trade rumors that he would be cast as Kirk, the choice was made to go with actors who had solid experience but remained relative unknowns so they wouldn’t overwhelm the parts with offscreen personality.  Zachary Quinto, who was earning notices as superpowered supervillain Sylar on the TV series Heroes, and looked more like a young Leonard Nimoy than Leonard Nimoy, was the first to be announced in July 2007 – along with Nimoy himself.  The Bad Robot team had visited the retired actor at his home and pitched him their story and the significance of the presence of the elder Spock in it, and, uncharacteristically perhaps for a Vulcan, Nimoy was so moved by their presentation he could not speak for quite a few moments after they had left.  With Nimoy having rejected multiple previous offers to rejoin the cinematic Trek universe, his enthusiastic participation calmed the nerves of fans who didn’t know what to make of these new kids who’d been trusted with the sacred keys to the Enterprise.  After Nimoy and Quinto came the rest:  Zoe Saldana, who had played a Star Trek fan in the Steven Spielberg movie The Terminal – where the legendary director taught her the split-fingered Vulcan salute – was cast as Uhura.  Anton Yelchin, who had been born in Leningrad, got the role of Chekov, while John Cho, best known for his comedic roles, took over as Sulu.  After working with him on Mission: Impossible, Abrams cast Simon Pegg as Scotty simply by sending him an e-mail asking him if he wanted the part (would that we could all get jobs so easily.)  And Lord of the Rings veteran Karl Urban was first rumored to be playing the villain before it was clarified that he’d be succeeding DeForest Kelley as McCoy.

everybody

The guest cast began to fill in with interesting names as well:  Ben Cross, as Spock’s father Sarek, became the second actor from Chariots of Fire (after Alice Krige) to take on a Star Trek role.  Jennifer Morrison from TV’s House and Once Upon a Time signed on to play Kirk’s mother Winona, her presence in the movie confirmed after paparazzi snapped a picture of her walking to the set in a bathrobe to conceal her costume.  A more famous Winona – Winona Ryder – would play the cameo part of Spock’s mother Amanda.  Bruce Greenwood got the role of Captain Christopher Pike on the strength of his work as John F. Kennedy in Thirteen Days.  After trying his hand at being a superhero in 2003’s controversial Hulk, Eric Bana decided to err on the side of villainy as the embittered Romulan captain Nero.  Some other Australian guy no one had really heard of at the time named Chris Hemsworth was cast as Kirk’s father George.  The crew needed its captain, though, and while Mike Vogel, who had worked for Abrams before on the 2008 shaky-cam horror movie Cloverfield, was said to be a front-runner, the successor to William Shatner was ultimately announced as Chris Pine.  Pine’s father Robert was a veteran TV character actor who had guest-starred on Enterprise as a Vulcan, and Chris’ most prominent role to date had been alongside Lindsay Lohan in a 2006 rom-com called Just My Luck.  Pine looked not to create an impression of Shatner but rather to Harrison Ford’s roles as “accidental heroes” Indiana Jones and Han Solo as inspiration in his interpretation of Jim Kirk.

Shooting began in November of 2007, just as the Writers’ Guild of America went on strike.  As a result, for fourteen weeks of production, Abrams could not make any changes to the screenplay (very, very few scripts are “locked in” once shooting begins – on-the-fly rewrites and polishes may be required as stuff that seems brilliant on the page often doesn’t work when the cameras finally roll and the actors have to say the lines).  But the overall impact on the production was minimal, and because writers Kurtzman and Orci were also credited executive producers, they could be on set the entire time and provide indirect assistance in shaping scenes without violating their union rules.  Of course none of that would have mattered to those of us who were awaiting this new take on Trek with equal measures of excitement and apprehension; thrills at the spare-no-expense blockbuster treatment balanced with fear that the entire affair would be a trendy Hollywood dumbing down of what was still thought of as the more cerebral of the world’s two leading cinematic space franchises.  The first teaser trailer, which showed the Enterprise under construction to echoes of the sounds of the early American space program, did much to heighten our enthusiasm that perhaps this would finally, after a string of false starts, be the Star Trek movie we were waiting for.

May 2009 arrived, the theater lights dimmed, and we held our breath…

hemsworth

In a prologue set in the year 2233, the starship U.S.S. Kelvin encounters an enormous, spider-like vessel, the Narada, emerging from a lightning storm in space.  Quickly crippling the outmatched starship with their advanced weapons, the Romulan crew demand that the Kelvin‘s Captain Robau come aboard to discuss surrender, leaving first officer George Kirk (Hemsworth) in command.  The Romulans want to know the location of a strange jellyfish-shaped ship and its pilot, an Ambassador Spock.  When Robau admits he does not know of either, the Romulans’ leader Nero (Bana) kills him in a fit of rage and resumes the attack on the Kelvin.  Kirk orders the entire crew to the shuttles and escape pods, including his wife Winona (Morrison) who has just gone into labor.  With weapons gone, Kirk sets the Kelvin on a collision course, but the autopilot is disabled and he must remain behind.  He hears the first cries of his baby son, and he and Winona agree to name the boy Jim.  The Kelvin cripples the Narada and allows the shuttles to escape, but George Kirk is killed, leaving the newborn Jim fatherless.

A decade later, we peek in on our two lead heroes:  teenage Jim Kirk is leading a rebellious life in Iowa, while on the planet Vulcan, young Spock is bullied over his half-human heritage.  A college-aged Spock (Quinto) is eventually accepted to the Vulcan Science Academy, but rejects the honor after the Vulcan elders refer to his human half as a disadvantage.  In Iowa, a group of Starfleet cadets are celebrating before shipping out to the Academy, and townie Kirk (Pine) makes a drunken attempt to flirt with Uhura (Saldana) before getting his ass kicked in a fight that is stopped by Captain Christopher Pike (Greenwood).  Pike talks about Kirk’s father and how he represented an element of daring that Pike feels Starfleet has lost.  He notes that in George Kirk’s twelve-minute captaincy, he saved 800 lives.  Pike dares Jim to do better and suggests that he enlist in Starfleet.  After a late night bike ride to contemplate the U.S.S. Enterprise being built in a cornfield, Jim accepts Pike’s challenge and boasts that he will complete the four-year Academy program in three years.  On the shuttle ride to San Francisco, Kirk meets up with the man who will become his dear friend, Doctor Leonard McCoy, who laments that his recent divorce has left him with nothing but his bones.

nero

Three years later, Nero’s crew, which has been waiting out in space for a quarter century, captures the mysterious jellyfish ship when it emerges from a second lightning storm, with Nero growling “welcome back, Spock.”  At the Academy, Kirk is taking the no-win Kobayashi Maru simulation test (first mentioned in The Wrath of Khan) after failing it twice, this time beating it by reprogramming the simulation.  A disciplinary hearing is convened and Kirk is dressed down by the test’s programmer, Spock.  But judgment is interrupted when a distress call comes in from the planet Vulcan, which says it’s under attack.  All cadets are assigned immediately to different ships, with the exception of Kirk, who is grounded pending a decision on his status.  McCoy injects Kirk with a vaccine to make him ill and invokes a regulation regarding transportation of patients to bring him onboard the ship to which he has been assigned – the brand new U.S.S. Enterprise.  A Starfleet armada warps out of orbit headed for Vulcan, with the Enterprise delayed a few moments as its helmsman Sulu (Cho) forgets to disengage the inertial dampeners.  But when a woozy Kirk overhears Chekov (Yelchin) talking about the appearance of a lightning storm in space preceding the attack on Vulcan, he makes the connection with the lightning storm that occurred on the day of his birth prior to the arrival of the Romulan ship, and realizes the Enterprise is heading into a trap.

nuship

The Enterprise drops out of warp into a scene of carnage:  the entire fleet of starships destroyed by the Narada’s advanced weapons, and its laser drill carving a deep bore into the surface of Vulcan.  Nero orders his crew to destroy the new arrival too until he realizes what ship it is.  He hails the Enterprise and addresses Spock, advising him that they will know each other quite well in the future.  Nero also demands that Pike surrender himself by shuttle.  Pike agrees, leaves Spock as acting captain and promotes Kirk to first officer.  He assigns Kirk, Sulu and Chief Engineer Olson to space-jump to the drill platform to try to disable it.  The thrill-seeking Olson (dressed appropriately in red) waits too long to deploy his chute and is killed, and the explosive charges he was carrying are lost.  Kirk and Sulu still manage to overpower the Romulans on the platform and disable the drill, but not before Nero’s crew launches a probe filled with mysterious “red matter” into the drilling site.  The probe detonates inside Vulcan’s core and a singularity begins to form – a black hole that will consume the planet.  Spock beams down to locate his parents, but his mother is lost as the group beams aboard, and Vulcan is destroyed.

spacejump

Left in command of the Enterprise with the death of his mother and his planet weighing on his mind, Spock decides to retreat to join the rest of Starfleet in the Laurentian system.  Kirk objects, insisting that they should be hunting Nero down.  Frustrated, Spock renders the combative Kirk unconscious and dumps him on the icy world of Delta-Vega.  There, Kirk is saved from a ravenous local monster by an oddly familiar old Vulcan:  the original Spock (Nimoy).  Spock Prime explains everything:  one hundred and twenty-nine years from now, a star will go hypernova and threaten to destroy the galaxy.  Spock was sent to use red matter to swallow the nova with a black hole, but he was not able to act in time before the planet of Romulus was destroyed by the cosmic explosion.  Nero held him responsible and chased him down, but both ships fell into the black hole and were transported back in time, with Nero arriving first, and changing history by destroying the Kelvin.  Nero now has Spock’s ship and the red matter and intends to destroy every remaining planet in the Federation in retaliation for the loss of Romulus.  Spock Prime knows he has to get Kirk back to the Enterprise and takes him to someone who can help:  Montgomery “Scotty” Scott (Pegg), who has been assigned to a derelict Starfleet observation post on Delta-Vega.  Spock completes Scotty’s formula for transwarp beaming and transports Kirk and the engineer back to the Enterprise, where Kirk forces the younger Spock to relinquish command to him after provoking him into a wild display of anger.  Kirk orders the Enterprise to chase after Nero, who is on his way to Earth after obtaining the system’s planetary defense information from a tortured Pike.

ksfaceoff

After a conversation with his father in which he realizes that his emotions can be a source of strength, Spock returns to duty and makes amends with Kirk.  The Narada arrives at Earth and begins drilling into San Francisco Bay, while the Enterprise conceals itself in Saturn’s rings and Kirk and Spock beam to Nero’s ship, where Spock obtains the details of Nero’s scheme and the location of Captain Pike from a mind-meld with an unconscious Romulan.  They locate the jellyfish ship and its supply of red matter, and the ship recognizes Spock as its pilot and permits him to steal it.  Kirk confronts Nero, who brags that he will deprive the young captain of his future just as he did Kirk’s father.  But their fight is interrupted as Spock uses the jellyfish ship to destroy the drill, and Nero orders his crew to pursue it.  Kirk defeats Nero’s second-in-command and heads off to rescue Pike.  Spock sets the jellyfish ship on a collision course with the Narada, and Nero fires everything he has – only to be surprised by the Enterprise, which destroys Nero’s missiles and allows the jellyfish ship to complete its kamikaze run, with Kirk, Spock and Pike beamed to safety.  The red matter ignites on impact and a black hole begins to form inside the Narada.  Nero refuses assistance and quietly closes his eyes as his ship is crushed.  The black hole begins to pull in the Enterprise as well, but Scotty ejects and detonates the warp core to push the starship clear.

spocks

At a ceremony on Earth, Kirk’s field promotion to captain is made permanent and he is assigned the Enterprise in relief of Pike, who assures him that his father would have been proud.  Spock encounters his future self, and Spock Prime promises him that his friendship with Kirk will come to define them both.  The Enterprise crew is reunited and sent off on its first formal mission, and the elder Spock narrates the famous “space, the final frontier” speech as the grand ship hurtles into warp, and sequels.

Well then.

Star Trek was always popular, but not that popular, really – it had consistently been a moderate box office performer, a sort of useful pinch-hitter who comes off the bench every few innings for a single up the middle right when it’s needed, but never sets any records or makes the playoff roster.  There had been attempts to lure non-fans, but both production and marketing for each film release tended to linger on the conservative side of the ledger, operating from the perspective that “we know we’ll get the Trekkies, and if we get a few other folks wandering in too, hey, that’s gravy.”  Never had there been a concerted effort to really strive for that glittering true blockbuster ring hovering like a tantalizing tempter just out of reach, the gilded echelon achievable only by those who dare to leap for it with both feet.  It was a credit to Paramount’s confidence in J.J. Abrams that they gave him and his team the resources with which to try.  While previous entries relied on story and performances to create a sense of scale, the truth of the matter was that most of the time you still felt you were watching a TV production shot on cardboard sets, and what should have been a massive universe still seemed very small and confined.  The Wrath of Khan got away with this because the people and the stakes were larger-than-life; The Search for Spock could have stood comfortably alongside a two-part episode of MacGyver.  The Voyage Home created scale by being able to shoot in real locations without having to hide the cars driving by, but The Final Frontier whiffed with alien environments resembling nothing more exotic than anything you’d find ten miles from the Los Angeles studio gates.  Progressively bigger budgets and more exotic location shooting followed, but the final results remained artificial and hopelessly Earthbound.  It was, perhaps, a failure of ambition.

sanfran

The worldbuilding of Star Trek has never felt immersive until the release of this movie, which finally had the resources and the determination to pay that critical exacting attention to every blessed detail; to make us feel as though you could wander through any door and find evidence of the 23rd Century in every conceivable nook and cranny.  If Abrams borrowed this approach from Star Wars, so be it – but it works, and works well.  And what we wanted from Star Trek in 2009 was not more of the same.  So here are the thousands of extras that William Shatner couldn’t get for The Final Frontier.  Here is the “future with a past” –  fleets of ships both large and small that look banged up by years of re-use and not as though the paint dried five seconds before the cameras rolled.  Here is a movie-caliber Enterprise that looks like the grand old lady we always imagined she was, with dozens of massive decks to get lost on.  Here is an alien threat that doesn’t come off like one guy in a tiny room pushing plastic buttons.  Here are exotic worlds with unifying cultural themes evident throughout their architecture, their costuming and even the lay of their landscapes; aesthetic details that you don’t notice on your first viewing but are saturated in each frame, pushing the experience into your mind on a subliminal level.  And here, finally is the broad and extensive marketing campaign that sells a Star Trek movie as a can’t-miss event.  Not a mere curiosity offered meekly for a small, enlightened clique, but the explosion of a globally inclusive phenomenon that makes you feel foolish for even considering giving it a pass.  Maybe some Trek purists preferred the idea of a protective, hipster attitude towards it – this thing that is ours and that you mainstream people don’t get – but the economics of entertainment don’t always favor that attitude, and Star Trek was stagnating toward the brink of demise.  It needed the kind of movie that would explode and introduce it to a new audience, and it simply couldn’t do that by staring at its own navel through a haze of impenetrable continuity.  “Not your grandfather’s Star Trek,” proclaimed the ads, to the derision of more than a few.

kirkolson

One thing you can certainly never accuse J.J. Abrams’ films of is lacking in energy.  In Star Trek the characters are alive and bursting from the screen in a way they never have been before; perhaps it is their immediate juxtaposition against the more languid Next Generation characters who had preceded them in the drab Nemesis, that makes them seem so vivid and colorful.  As he would later show in The Force Awakens, Abrams always has an excellent eye for casting, and Pine, Quinto, Urban, Pegg, Cho, Yelchin and Saldana slip very comfortably into the roles originated by Shatner, Nimoy, Kelley, Doohan, Takei, Koenig and Nichols and are not burdened by the responsibility.  They never make you forget about the original seven, but, armed with snappy, punchy (and mercifully bereft of technobabble) dialogue, they each bring something new to create complete characters for this new timeline instead of merely doing glorified impressions (Quinto and Urban veer closest to this dodgy tactic in their respective approaches but never quite tip over the line).  Pine in particular is absolutely nothing like William Shatner, and the story’s decision to reinterpret James T. Kirk as a maverick, Beastie Boys-loving bad boy who stumbles into his captaincy by sheer, inherent “chosen one” awesomeness, instead of the dedicated, by-the-book career officer he had been in the original series – in effect playing Kirk as the exaggerated Zapp Brannigan version of himself – is perhaps the most jarring element of this reinterpretation, but to paraphrase The Dark Knight, this Kirk may be the hero we need, not the one we deserve.

That latter statement may be the best pronouncement to be made on the entire movie.  Criticism at the time, of which there was relatively little, opined that this was an action movie, or a Star Wars remake, masquerading as a Star Trek film – that social commentary had been eschewed in favor of gags and broad action sequences.  It was ironic that 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture was lambasted at the time for having “none of the whiz-bang excitement of Star Wars,” and 30 years later the reboot was slammed for being too much like it.  Whose verdict matters most?  The moviegoing public, who decided to the tune of a record-obliterating $257 million in ticket sales that this was the movie they needed:  exciting, optimistic, and fun instead of measured, ponderous and dry.  Star Trek starts to buckle if you apply too much analytical pressure to its weaker points; the science is slapdash, the plot relies on too many encounters of convenience, and the screenwriters don’t seem to understand the process of advancement in military ranks, among many others, but there comes a point where you just say screw it, this is a flat-out great time at the movies and none of that stuff matters.  It is not cerebral, but it does have a genuine heart, and more emotion in its scenes than the last five Star Trek movies combined.  Perhaps it’s to the credit of Star Trek as a franchise that there are so many options on its menu to suit every taste and mood:  some days you want to watch Stewart-as-Picard pitted in heated debate with a recalcitrant admiral and other days you prefer to watch Pine-as-Kirk bounce around in bed with sexy green girls.  The big tent of Star Trek spans the galaxy, and this was the first time it got the proper big-screen treatment it had perhaps not needed, but always deserved.

In summary:  Points for the cast, the boundless energy, the scale of the worldbuilding, stellar special effects, heck, even the lens flares.  Deductions for a plot relying on coincidence, convenience and very suspect pseudo-science, but look, if you can make me tear up in the first ten minutes of a Star Trek movie then I’m cutting you a heck of a lot of slack.

Next time:  Cinematic karaoke goes way off-key as the new crew matches wits against a bad guy who totally isn’t Khan… or is he?

Final (Arbitrary, Meaningless) Rating:  3 out of 4 stars.

Advertisements

Countdown to Beyond – Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

wrathofkhan

As they have unfolded on parallel big screen paths over the same four decades, Star Trek and Star Wars have competed for affections from the same pool of science fiction fans, often challenging said audience to pledge its troth to one or the other.  It’s rather like what Quentin Tarantino cannily observed in Pulp Fiction about the twin phenomena of Elvis Presley and the Beatles:  you can like them each to a certain degree but nobody likes both equally; in the end you’re either an Elvis person or a Beatles person.  From the perspective of the care and feeding of movie franchises, Trek and Wars are also case studies in how a series can evolve for the better beyond the participation of its creator.  We saw with Star Trek: The Motion Picture how the stoic and lyrical story that Gene Roddenberry wanted to tell ten years on from Star Trek‘s more colorful television inception was out of step with the fast-paced space battles that had enraptured the world in Star Wars.  A decade after Roddenberry’s passing we bore witness to George Lucas failing to understand what his audience wanted from Star Wars as well.  The Force Awakens clearly saw tremendous benefit from having Lucas hand over the reins, and bearing witness a Star Trek person would nod, smile and ask wryly, “where have I seen this movie before?”

Star Trek: The Motion Picture made enough money for its studio to greenlight a sequel, but with a caveat:  factoring in the costs of the abortive attempts at a TV series relaunch that preceded it, the final budget came in at $45 million ($149 million in 2016 dollars), which for that era was demonstrably insane.  (By comparison, Star Wars in 1977 cost $9 million which is a paltry $35 million today when adjusted for inflation.)  It’s said that success has many fathers while failure is an orphan, but in this case, paternity was assigned, Maury Povich-style, to one Eugene Wesley Roddenberry.  It was determined by Paramount Pictures that Roddenberry would be removed from any future Star Trek movie and that responsibility for the series itself would be transferred to the more budget-conscious television division.

Going forward, Roddenberry received a token screen credit of “Executive Consultant” and retained the right to comment on aspects of production, but for all intents and purposes he was a figurehead with any significant influence stripped away.  Harve Bennett, a veteran TV producer with credits like The Mod Squad and The Six Million Dollar Man, would take over the center seat, famously winning himself the job by speaking truth to power and telling then-studio head Charles Bluhdorn that TMP was really boring and that yes, he could absolutely make a better movie for less than $45 million.  Bennett watched all 79 episodes of the original series and found himself intrigued by a genetically-engineered villain from a first-season episode who had been left by Captain Kirk to fend for himself on a distant planet.  Thus were planted the first “space seeds” of what would become Star Trek II:  The Wrath of Khan.

There was another wrinkle to be dealt with as well in that Leonard Nimoy had been a reluctant draftee to the previous film and showed even less inclination to sign on for the second.  Nimoy harbored a great animosity towards Roddenberry and the studio stemming from unpaid royalties for use of his image in officially licensed products over the years, and while this had largely been settled to his satisfaction prior to the commencement of production on TMP, he, like many fans, had found the movie a frustrating creative experience.  Bennett’s pitch to get the author of I Am Not Spock to sign on was to give him a great death scene, modeled after Janet Leigh’s in Psycho:  it would occur about half an hour into the movie and act as a shocking but memorable punch to the gut for the audience, raising the stakes of the final battle to come.  That would both limit the amount of time Nimoy would have to spend on set and give him a final, merciful out from a role he was ready to move on from.  Nimoy was amenable, and production could commence with the entire cast intact.

Now, it was just a matter of coming up with a story.

captainspock

Roddenberry’s original proposal for the sequel was a time travel adventure that would see the Enterprise crew going back in time to prevent a malicious alien intelligence from interfering with the JFK assassination and thus corrupting human history.  After what was certainly a polite Hollywood “thanks but no thanks,” Bennett forged ahead on his own course instead, soliciting different writers to flesh it out into screenplay form.  What resulted was something of a mishmash:  one particular and no doubt peculiar draft involved the Enterprise crew going up against a superpowered alien man and woman from another dimension – think Captain Kirk vs. General Zod and Ursa from Superman II.  At one point there were five different versions of the same story floating about and nobody among the higher-ups was happy with any of them.  That’s when Nicholas Meyer came to Bennett’s attention.

Having recently made the H.G. Wells/Jack the Ripper time travel fantasy Time After Time, Meyer was introduced to Bennett by a mutual friend, and as Bennett explained the ongoing scripting difficulties, Meyer made a bold suggestion.  Let’s look at every single draft, he said, and let’s make a list of everything we like, whether it’s a character, an event, or even a section of dialogue.  Meyer then proposed to take all those elements and weave them into a coherent screenplay.  Bennett explained the tremendous time crunch facing them:  in order to maintain the movie’s release date, the effects house (George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic) needed the script in twelve days.  No problem, said Meyer, I can write this in twelve days.  Bennett was skeptical but gave him the job, and indeed, twelve days later, Meyer finished his draft, Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country (a reference to Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” speech).  A few tweaks to satisfy the actors aside, the twelve-day wonder was very much what we ended up seeing on the screen – apart from the title, which became The Vengeance of Khan until it was reported that the third Star Wars movie was to be called Revenge of the Jedi.

We all know how that turned out.

Moody and restless on the occasion of his birthday, and much like Sherlock Holmes in the absence of a new case (a deliberate allusion made by Meyer, who had written a Holmes novel), Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner) is watching a new generation of Starfleet cadets, led by the bright young half-Vulcan Lt. Saavik (Kirstie Alley, in her first movie) usurp the place of his much older crew at the forefront of space exploration.  Those crew have largely gone their separate ways:  Spock (Nimoy) is now captain of the Enterprise and serving as an instructor to the cadets, and Commander Pavel Chekov (Walter Koenig) is first officer on the starship U.S.S. Reliant, which is searching a distant sector for a suitable lifeless planet on which to test the mysterious Genesis Project.  Apparently unable to read their star maps properly, Chekov and his new captain Clark Terrell (Paul Winfield) stumble into the clutches of the exiled Khan Noonian Singh (Ricardo Montalban), who had been left on what had originally been a lush and fertile world subsequently transformed by natural disaster into a wasteland, costing him the lives of many of his people, including his wife.  Khan uses the mind-controlling properties of a native eel to bend Chekov and Terrell to his will, commandeers the Reliant and sets a course to intercept the man he blames for his ruin:  James T.  Kirk.  But first, he wants the Genesis Project for himself.

Genesis, it turns out, is like its Biblical namesake a “weapon of mass creation,” which can terraform a lifeless planet into an Earth equivalent in a matter of hours.  It is being developed by Dr. Carol Marcus (Bibi Besch), her son David (Merritt Butrick) and an elite team of scientists at Regula One, a space laboratory above a lifeless planetoid.  When an oddly monotone Chekov demands that Genesis be transferred to the Reliant, a suspicious Marcus calls her old flame James Kirk.  The transmission is jammed and Kirk assumes command of an Enterprise filled with a skeleton crew of green cadets to find out what’s going on.  They are intercepted by Khan, who gets the upper hand with a surprise attack, cripples the Enterprise (killing Scotty’s young nephew Peter in the process) and demands all information relating to Genesis.  Kirk’s superior knowledge of starship operations allows him to deal a desperate return blow, and the Enterprise limps to Regula to find the scientists murdered, Chekov and Terrell stuffed inside storage lockers, and Genesis gone.  However, the transporter was left on, suggesting that someone escaped, beaming deep into the planetoid.  Inside the Genesis cave, an oasis of life beneath the surface of the dead world, Kirk meets up with Carol and David, who is revealed as his estranged son.  Another betrayal looms as Chekov and Terrell suddenly turn on Kirk and company, revealing themselves still under the control of Khan.  Terrell kills himself to avoid murdering a fellow officer, Chekov is freed, and Khan steals Genesis from under their noses.  Kirk is at his lowest – defeated, outmatched, and feeling old and worn out.

But thanks to some efficient repair work by Spock and Scotty, the Enterprise is patched up, rescues its commander and steals away to hide in a nebula where shields, visual readouts and weapons locks won’t work, and where they will be more of a match for Khan and the Reliant.  As the ships battle to a stalemate, Spock observes that Khan’s lack of experience shows in his two-dimensional perception of space.  Kirk orders the Enterprise to drop out of sight, only to rise again behind Reliant and deliver a punishing and fatal blow.  Khan will not be denied his wrath, however, and activates the Genesis countdown, knowing that the Enterprise won’t be able to outrun the blast without its warp drive.  Spock, mindful that logic demands that the needs of the many outweighs the needs of the few, subjects himself to a lethal dose of radiation in order to repair the engines and allow the Enterprise to escape, as the Genesis detonation gives life to a new planet inside the nebula.  Kirk, who has made a career of cheating death, is brought face to face with it as he must say goodbye to his dearest friend.  Yet in sacrifice there is redemption to be found, as he makes peace with his son, and gazing upon the sunrise as it breaks over the Genesis planet, finds himself feeling young.  And with Leonard Nimoy narrating the famous “space, the final frontier” lines, the camera lifts our hopes as it sweeps through a Garden of Eden to find Spock’s coffin lying safe and sound, a hint that in the future, perhaps nothing is as final as it seems.

Gosh, where to begin in the critical analysis portion?  There is so much going on here that you could probably write a dozen posts about this movie alone.  (It took me three paragraphs to summarize the plot and it still feels like I left so much stuff out.)  It remains the yardstick by which every subsequent Star Trek movie is compared, and whenever a new Trek dares to crib from it in the hopes of recapturing lightning in a bottle (as seen in the plots of Nemesis and Into Darkness, specifically) the results are invariably inferior.  In The Wrath of Khan, every element is firing on all cylinders:  the literate, classical dialogue (the go-to Star Trek movie when looking to quote the franchise in its entirety), the gradual tightening of the tension in Meyer’s efficient direction, the seething and layered intellectual fury of Montalban’s performance, the welcome spark of the renewed interplay between Kirk, Spock and McCoy, the seamless integration of new characters that we actually come to care about (Saavik, David and Carol), a then-unknown James Horner’s majestic nautical-flavored score.  It is a singular example, oft forgot in the modern age of CGI spectacle, that a movie is not necessarily made great by throwing an unlimited supply of money at it.  Forced by the studio into re-using leftover sets and costumes and even into recycling a few effects shots, Meyer compensated by giving the script the scope of an epic instead, using the characters to examine relatable issues like life, death and the inevitability of aging (rare in Hollywood films because movie stars hate acknowledging that they’re getting older).  The result is so engrossing that it feels much grander in scale than it actually is:  shot entirely on soundstages with roughly 80% of the movie taking place on either the Enterprise bridge or a redressed version of it.  You don’t notice any of that though, because you’re clinging to your seat wondering if Kirk and company are going to make it out of this one alive.

Montalban and Shatner make for perfect adversaries – ironic given that they never share the screen – and neither gave a better performance anywhere else.  I’ve noted before how Meyer lamented Montalban’s underuse by the industry given his sublime talent, and he’s so good here at playing the villain he could have easily been the Alan Rickman or Gary Oldman of his day.  One of my pet peeves about younger actors playing bad guys is that they lack the life experience that lends a performer the gravitas in order to pull off true, unnerving malevolence, and fall into the trap of the emo tantrum instead.  With Montalban, aged 61 at the time of filming, you can see the years of hatred etched into Khan’s soul roiling behind sinister eyes as paraphrased Captain Ahab drips off his tongue like ambrosial acid.  Khan is quite simply terrifying, and no Star Trek villain actor since has been able to equal his work (I’ll wager most average people can’t even remember the names of the other villains across the series, let alone who played them.)  Shatner is great too, and proves (as he largely failed to do in the previous entry) that he can carry a movie as its leading man, delivering a performance that stands somewhat in opposition to how William Shatner is generally perceived:  there is effective understatement and nuance and quiet in James T. Kirk when we first see him rudderless and lamenting the life that feels like it is slipping away.  The return of Khan awakens the hero inside him, and the movie becomes his journey to reclaim the best part of himself – the unflappable, indefatigable, larger-than-life starship commander – as well as finally embrace his “first, best destiny” as a father and a leader.  The evolution in Kirk is as much of a joy to watch unfold as anything else about the movie, and although the death of Spock is deeply saddening, it is that last necessary step for Kirk to grow up.

To that most controversial aspect of the movie – that in hindsight really does seem the proverbial tempest in the teapot – Gene Roddenberry, who as I noted earlier was sidelined during the production, is alleged to have been responsible for leaking Spock’s impending screen death, resulting in a flurry of angry letters and threats to the production team from upset fans.  At that point, the script had Spock dying in Khan’s initial attack on the Enterprise in the first act in keeping with the intent to create a homage to Psycho.  With the Vulcan’s fate and the movie’s biggest surprise now lamentably public knowledge, Bennett and Meyer decided to move his demise to the end of the movie and add a fake-out to the opening scene, where Spock appears to be killed four minutes into the movie in what turns out to be a harmless training simulation.  That way, first-time audiences would shake their heads for making such a fuss over nothing, only to be tremendously moved when Spock eventually sacrificed himself for real in the climax.  Meyer said in hindsight that he owed Roddenberry a strange thanks for forcing them into a better movie.  But that was to be Roddenberry’s only contribution of any substance.  Like George Lucas thirty-three years later, he would sit idly on the sidelines and watch others take what he had created to new and unexpectedly greater heights.  There is a degree of tragedy in that.

goodbyetospock

In summary:  Points for pretty much everything.  A few marks off because the wonderful George Takei (Sulu) and Nichelle Nichols (Uhura) don’t have very much to do, but that’s a minor quibble.  This is, without hyperbole, simply Star Trek‘s finest cinematic hour.

Next time:  Spock comes back, on the other side of the camera, and the bloom comes a little bit off the rose as the “odd number” curse starts to take shape.

Final (Arbitrary, Meaningless) Rating:  4 out of 4 stars.

Countdown to Beyond – Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

tmp

Greetings humanoids!  As summer begins to scorch the green from the lawn, it’s time to resurrect a Graham’s Crackers tradition from a few years ago:  the movie series review!  You may not realize this, given the complete absence of advertising and hype thus far, but there’s a new Star Trek movie coming out at the end of July.  Star Trek Beyond, the thirteenth volume of films based on that obscure cancelled sci-fi series from the 60’s, is due to hit theaters on July 22, 2016.  Longtime readers may recall that back in 2012 I did a day-by-day recap of every James Bond movie leading up to the release of Skyfall, offering up a custom brew of trivia, anecdotes and commentary designed to whet appetites for what turned out to be arguably the best 007 movie of our generation – and Star Trek Beyond‘s pending premiere gives me a lovely excuse to do the same for the bygone silver screen adventures of Kirk, Spock, Picard, Data et al.  There are seven weeks remaining and only twelve movies to get through so the posting schedule won’t quite be so rigorous – but hopefully you’ll enjoy what I have to say, and perhaps you might be inclined to brush the dust off your DVD cases and pop them in again.

Without further ado, let us… engage!

Given the entrenchment of Star Trek into western popular culture as we know it today, it’s hard to imagine a time when it was nothing more than an old cancelled NBC space show with a robust group of dedicated fans who couldn’t let go – the Firefly of its day.  In the mid-1970’s, without the Internet to give viral life to the latest rumor, one could rely only on tantalizing hints of revival shared at conventions like a game of telephone.  For series creator Gene Roddenberry, a contradiction of a man whose lasting vision and humanism were always tempered in life by a healthy degree of Barnum-esque hucksterism, the notion of being able to squeeze a few more cents from a past success in a climate where his attempts to move on were flaming out left and right must have been powerfully compelling.  When he would show up and announce that he was working on a way for Star Trek to return, who knew how much of that was truth and how much was just baiting the hook so he could keep charging appearance fees and selling merchandise?  The short-lived animated Star Trek series was a taste, an ultimately unsatisfying hors d’oeuvre, but for fans, it was something – something to stoke the fire of hope for the return of the genuine article.

Eventually, Roddenberry got down to business and began writing, cobbling together a controversial screenplay provisionally named The God Thing that was subsequently given the green light for a very low budget – even for the penny-pinching 1970’s – movie.  But in Hollywood, there is no such thing as a straight road, and The God Thing would be rewritten, cancelled, revived as a TV pilot, cancelled again, scheduled as a TV movie of the week, cancelled, and then finally – after Star Wars exploded across the world, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind on its heels proved that the popularity of sci-fi wasn’t a one-off fluke – given the go-ahead as a big budget motion picture.  The best effects houses in the country were hired to give it a sweep and scope equal to Star Wars, and the production secured the services of director Robert Wise – a filmmaker who had edited Citizen Kane, directed one of the highest grossing movies of all time (The Sound of Music) and won an Oscar for West Side Story.  And the movie was titled, to remove any sense of doubt as to its potential for epicness, Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

In the 23rd Century, an unspecified number of years after the conclusion of the USS Enterprise‘s five year mission to explore strange new worlds, a massive energy cloud that is vaporizing everyone and everything in its path is headed straight for Earth.  The highly decorated Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner) undertakes some bureaucratic wrangling to get himself assigned as captain of his old ship, which is currently undergoing a massive refit in orbit.  In doing so, he displaces its current captain and his protege, Will Decker (Stephen Collins), and swiftly recruits his old crew to accompany him on this emergency mission – all with the exception of science officer Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy), who is back home on the planet Vulcan attempting to purge himself of his lingering human emotions, but at the same time is drawn to a consciousness at the heart of the energy cloud and in short order, finds himself back – albeit uneasily – amongst his old friends, Dr. McCoy, Scotty, Uhura, Sulu and Chekov.  Also signing on for this mission is the Deltan navigator Ilia (Persis Khambatta), a mysterious bald alien woman who has a history with Decker.

After a nearly fatal misadventure inside a wormhole thanks to Kirk’s unfamiliarity with his new ship, the Enterprise arrives at the energy cloud and manages to avoid being vaporized (thanks to Spock’s quick thinking).  The ship penetrates and journeys deep inside the cloud, seeking to make contact with the intelligence that is powering it, to try and convince it to leave Earth alone.  Abruptly, Ilia is abducted and replaced with a probe identical in appearance (but with a sudden penchant for high heels and short skirts) through which the crew can now communicate with the intelligence, which calls itself V’Ger.  V’Ger is a form of mechanical life travelling to Earth to locate its creator, with whom it plans to join.  After Spock goes rogue attempting to investigate further, he reveals his understanding of his connection to V’Ger – both incomplete and searching for someone who can provide answers.  V’Ger is having a crisis of faith – for a mechanized life form built to function solely on logic, this is an anomaly that it simply cannot compute.  The Enterprise is finally welcomed inside the heart of the energy cloud, where they discover what V’Ger really is:  a probe built by NASA and launched over 300 years ago, Voyager 6 (V—ger), which has grown beyond its 1970’s programming and become sentient.  Voyager has seen the universe, has learned the what and the where and the how, and now wants to understand the why.  The answer lies in the human equation:  Decker sacrifices himself to join with Voyager and Ilia, completing a trinity of sorts which causes them to ascend to a plane of existence beyond our comprehension and leave the Enterprise (and Earth) alone to continue its adventures.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (or TMP in fan shorthand) is most definitely not akin to Star Wars.  There is no swashbuckling, there are no action scenes to speak of.  There isn’t even really a villain.  This is less shades of Joseph Campbell on monomyth than it is a deeply philosophical pondering of essential questions of human existence – notions of faith and purpose and the meaning of it all, perhaps with the aspiration of the story far exceeding its capacity to reach it in the course of an economical running time.  It’s interesting to situate the movie opposite its sequel, The Wrath of Khan, as the two most literate and intellectual Star Trek movies ever made.  But where Wrath of Khan locates the philosophy in the hearts of its characters, TMP assigns them to a largely offscreen, unfathomable character that we, the audience, don’t really care that much about.  There are few personal consequences whether or not V’Ger gets its answers, other than the hackneyed “Earth will be destroyed!” gimmick.  The resolution of the crisis is also hived off to supporting characters that we’ve just met and haven’t invested that much in either.  Stephen Collins brings a great deal of likability to his thinly-written Decker, and Persis Khambatta tries her best but is stuck in a pretty dumb, borderline unplayable role.  (I have to roll my eyes at the description of her character – an alien beauty from a race that is supposedly so sexually alluring that members of her species have to take “oaths of celibacy” in order to serve safely with humans, lest they, I don’t know, sex them to death?  Such a creation would not be out of place in anything directed by Michael Bay, and speaks to irritation at the way Roddenberry and many, many artists and creators like him over the decades feel this puerile compulsion to flaunt their sexual fantasies publicly within their art.  Put it this way – a woman wouldn’t have come up with the idea of Ilia.)

What is striking about the regular cast is how uncomfortable they seem in their roles.  With the bulk of the movie’s runtime given to showcasing the effects work, the script is thin on character moments as it is, but even in those brief bluescreen-free scenes, there is a notable lack of energy to the interactions, stemming from the fact that Kirk just doesn’t seem like Kirk, McCoy is not McCoy, and so on down the line.  I’m sure not all of it can be traced to the ridiculous uniforms they were clad in (Shatner observes in his book Star Trek Movie Memories that the actors could not sit between takes without ruining the costumes, and an inadequate compromise was made with the crew providing boards that they could lean against instead).  It must have been a considerable challenge for each actor, returning to a part they had played ten years earlier – and never expected to again – and trying to recapture what was endearing about them in the first place while regurgitating technobabble and conjuring emotions at blank screens where effects would be inserted later.  This works for the story, to a point; the Enterprise crew is supposed to be uneasy at being reunited suddenly in a crisis after a long time on separate paths, not to mention worried at the fate of their home world, but for an audience, especially for a 1979 audience that had waited to see these people again for a long, lingering decade, it would have simply felt wrong, as if you’d showed up at someone else’s family reunion.  There is no sense of camaraderie; the interplay, even the familiar banter between Spock and McCoy, is forced and clunky.  The screenplay uses the characters only as props in service of exploring the movie’s larger philosophical canvas, rather than using the philosophy to explore the characters.  The dialogue is almost exclusively explanatory and plot-driven, “Morris the Explainer” writ large.  As such our emotional investment in the journey is minimal, and as the credits roll, we might be thinking about what we’ve just seen, but we don’t feel much of anything.  The motion picture has not moved us.

So what works about The Motion Picture?

Two major things.  The first and most obvious answer is Jerry Goldsmith’s music.  There had been a merciful pivot away from the deeply grating bleeps and boops that characterized 50’s and 60’s sci-fi, starting with Stanley Kubrick’s use of classical music in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and cemented with John Williams’ brilliant work in Star Wars.  Given his turn at the podium, Goldsmith echoed Williams’ symphonic sweep in the creation of the famous main title theme which would appear in five of the films and serve as the theme to Star Trek: The Next Generation, but also craftily incorporated some electronic elements to underscore the eerieness of the mysterious cloud as the Enterprise travels through it, the music often the only element pushing the movie forward through long, silent stretches.  The visual effects, assembled by such industry heavyweights as Douglas Trumbull and John Dykstra, are sublime, and the odd wonky matte painting aside, hold up extremely well against their modern-day CGI equivalents.  They rival and arguably exceed the Star Gate sequence in 2001 in terms of their abstract beauty and the imagination infused into the imagery.  It’s not X-wings flying over the Death Star, but it’s art, and much of it is beautiful.  The only mistake with the effects is the fault of whomever decided that every penny that was spent had to wind up on the screen, to the detriment of pace.  (Wise had to cut the movie together without the effects in place, as they were still being worked on right up until almost the hour of the gala premiere.)

A criticism levelled frequently at Star Trek: The Motion Picture is that it is boring.  A critic at the time complained that it had “none of the whiz-bang excitement of Star Wars.”  In hindsight, Roddenberry, Wise and the production team deserve some credit for not trying to make another Star Wars.  Their noble error was in going too far the other way, of giving us poetry when a prose exploration of the same subject would have been more in line with what the audience wanted.  In a sense, the entire movie functions not as narrative but as metaphor, and a rather vaginal one at that given the predominance of men in the cast:  it was observed by a smarter mind than myself that the Enterprise, a tiny speck soaring deep through the tunnels of a vast energy matrix in search of V’Ger, is a sperm bringing the spark of humanity to the egg waiting to be fertilized by it.  Throw in talk of the creator and creating God in our own image and you’re dealing with some heavy, heavy stuff, man, when perhaps most people just wanted to see some spaceships blow up.  Still, if you’re not going to press my thrill button, or try to stir my emotions, then at least challenge my intellect, and in that area, The Motion Picture succeeds.  I, too, have on occasion stopped to ask the question to the empty air just as Spock does at a critical moment in the third act:  “Is this all that I am; is there nothing more?”  Figuring that out seems to me to be the essence of what it means to be human – the fuel that has driven Star Trek in all its forms.

That, to me, is the polar opposite of boring.

The Motion Picture also works as a necessary stepping stone for what is to come; a cathartic purge, if you will, of the mess of false starts and dashed hopes that preceded its creation.  It dispenses with the awkward baby steps that were always going to accompany the first reunion of the characters and their transition from small screen to big and gives the series tabula rasa to move forward to much greater heights in a brand new era.  It is also, in its more stately approach to the solving of narrative problems, a template for Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Where Gene Roddenberry had to include a fistfight to sell his show when NBC had dismissed Star Trek‘s first pilot as too cerebral, here we see that cerebral approach to storytelling in full, elegant display.  V’Ger begins the movie as a terrifying antagonist, doing seemingly villainous things, but its actions are not out of spite, and a crisis is eventually resolved without shots fired nor nuclear explosions set off (aside from the “heavenly” burst of white light that accompanies the creation of new life at the end).  There is a profound optimism in the message that understanding is the greatest means at our disposal to end conflict between enemies who seem implacable.  Today, when a presidential candidate bleats incessantly about building walls to keep the terrifying others out, we should take this message to heart, even if our cinematic appetites have always trended toward resolution by good old-fashioned shoot-em-up – as exemplified by the enduring appeal of Star Wars.

In summary:  Points for score, effects, philosophical underpinning and aspirational reach.  Probably the best, if only, “hard sci-fi” Star Trek film. Marks off though for weak characters, expositional writing, languid pace and a lack of emotional depth.  It’s Star Trek, but it’s not enough Star Trek, if that makes any sense.

As the last thing you see before the credits promises, the human adventure is just beginning, and next time we’ll delve deeper into what is still regarded, justifiably, as the greatest Star Trek movie of them all, where we learn that it was the Klingons who said that revenge is a dish best served cold.

Final (Arbitrary, Meaningless) Rating:  2 1/2 out of 4 stars.

The Fourth is With Us Again

saga

When I reflect on the state of Star Wars on May the 4th of two years ago, the word that springs foremost to mind is nervous.  We knew that Episode VII was in production, we’d read the rumors and seen that first black and white picture of the cast at the table read, we knew the original heroes were coming back – but we still couldn’t shake the jitters.  Too many unknowns in play.  Despite the scorn dumped on George Lucas for the wobbly prequel trilogy, the idea of a new Star Wars movie without any involvement from him whatsoever still set many stomachs ill at ease.  Would it turn out to be an empty exercise in fanservice (from a filmmaker with something of a reputation for leaping headfirst into that well-cratered minefield) or would it catching Force lightning in the proverbial bottle and gift us with the wonder we first felt at the theatres in 1977 (or with our videocassette copies in the early 80’s, depending on our respective ages)?  Would we be leaping up and cheering and racing back to the kiosk to buy another ticket or would we be shuffling for the exits with the sour faces we wore as the Revenge of the Sith credits rolled?

Fast forward to May the 4th, 2016, and we know the answer to that.  Against expectations, we have entered the Star Wars Renaissance.  Star Wars is everywhere in a way it hasn’t been, since, well, longer than I can remember.  The Force Awakens was one of the highest-grossing movies of all time, and its highly anticipated sequel is filming presently and due to hit our collective consciousness in a little over a year and a half.  Daisy Ridley has become an instant movie superstar.  This December’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story promises to unspool the never-told-but-oft-alluded-to tale of how the Rebel Alliance acquired the infamous Death Star schematics (with another compelling lead female role, essayed by Felicity Jones.)  Plans for Han Solo and Boba Fett spinoffs are also in the works, to say nothing of the eventual saga-concluding epic Episode IX in 2019.  Literary tie-ins bulge off shelves with novels like Aftermath and Bloodline.  Oh, and yes, the Walt Disney Company is building two massive Star Wars lands at its American theme parks.  Toys and pop culture references abound and kids are throwing on Jedi robes and running around swinging plastic lightsabers again, pretending to be Rey and Finn and Kylo Ren just like we used to pretend to be Luke, Han, Leia and Darth Vader.

It’s a great time to be a Star Wars fan.

A week or so ago I was trolled on Twitter by an – let’s say interesting individual who, according to his timeline, goes around latching on to people who’ve said unkind things about the prequel trilogy and then spams them with memes and rants about the wonderfulness of Episodes I, II and III before blocking them in what is presumably a masturbatory fit of self-satisfied pique.  You can’t please everyone, I suppose.  Contrary to what this fellow presumes, I never said I hated the prequels.  There are plenty of things about them to like:  John Williams’ score, some of the lightsaber fights, the depth of the worldbuilding among many others.  What they get wrong, however, is that they lack the key ingredient that makes Star Wars resonate with its fans, and that is the sense of hope.

The prequels were always going to be a tragedy, and despite the whiz-bang-whee moments of adventure supplied generously throughout, the ominous, inevitable sense that this is all going to go wrong in the end casts a dark pallor over the seven-hours worth of narrative.  It doesn’t matter that you know IV, V and VI are going to set it right.  Taken on their own, the prequels are just simply not a very happy experience.  Art always mirrors its creators’ mindsets, and the young, eager, starry-eyed neophyte George Lucas who made the first trilogy is not the cynical, fearful, age-embittered auteur who cobbled together the second after spending decades as a billionaire CEO shuffled daily from meeting to meeting – a man increasingly worried about the world awaiting his three children.  Lucas thought America had learned the lessons of Richard Nixon and then watched helplessly as it turned around and anointed George W. Bush.  He couldn’t have made a film with the optimism and hope of The Force Awakens because it’s simply not who he is anymore.  But that didn’t have to mean that the hope dwelling at the heart of his slumbering creation could not have awakened as it did.  We should thank Lucas for the wisdom to bequeath his legacy to the custody of Kathleen Kennedy who recognized more than anyone what Star Wars had been and what it could be again.

Yes, bad stuff happens in Star Wars.  Entire worlds are obliterated at the whims of very bad people craving absolute power.  And unlike in its other more sci-fi oriented cousin Star Trek, you can’t save the galaxy far, far away by reconfiguring the deflector dish to emit a phased tetryon stream and realizing the true meaning of “Darmok and Jalad at Tenagra.”  In Star Wars you have to pick up a blaster, or a lightsaber, or climb into an X-Wing.  Set aside your fears and stand up against the bad guys trying to set everything you hold dear aflame.  Each one of us dreams that in our inevitable moment of crisis, we will summon the courage to awaken our inner force, and that through the brave, extraordinary efforts of ordinary people, and despite the power of the dark side, we too will be able to change the world for the better.  There were some tremendously sad moments in The Force Awakens, but was there anybody who didn’t watch that final scene of Rey offering the lightsaber to Luke and feel that kind of optimism, that things were going to be all right in the end, both for the characters and for us?  The metaphor of the generational handover in the movie was not subtle, but it was indeed apt, and proven by how the new generation of fans has responded.  Kids who weren’t even around when Revenge of the Sith came out are asking to have their hair styled like Rey for Star Wars Day.  We old sods are back too, and we’ve let Rey, Finn, Poe and BB-8 into our crusty, guarded hearts with the same welcome we extended their predecessors.

They are, at long last, the New Hope.

I’ve written extensively about the implications of and reactions to The Force Awakens since before and after its release, but it occurred to me that through these many thousands of words I haven’t actually said what I thought of the movie.  And I can think of no more suitable judgment than this:  I didn’t want it to end.  I knew, as I watched Rey ascend those stony steps, that the credits were imminent, but a very young, long since quiet part of me hoped that somehow the story would go on.  And I’m contented knowing that it will – in more than just a collection of movies.

Because the Force is with us.  Always.

Fun and Fancy Speculation about Star Wars: Episode VIII

viii

Spoilers, of course.

The last reels have unspooled.  The final reviews are in.  Billions of dollars have exchanged hands.  Billions of bytes of data have been exchanged in the evaluation and measurement of the story’s worth.  Opinions have been cemented and there is little else to say about Star Wars: The Force Awakens.  There remains but one lingering question:  what’s next?

Episode VIII has begun filming; we know this, thanks to the official announcement featuring a recreation of the final moments of the previous movie, and writer-director Rian Johnson’s sporadic tweets on the subject.  We’ve heard that Benicio del Toro and Laura Dern have joined the cast, most of which is returning.  We were disappointed but ultimately understanding about the shift of the release date from May to December of 2017, particularly if the additional time means a better movie is the result.  Other than that, the lid is closed, and as fans the only thing we can do between now and then is speculate.  What lies among the stars for Rey, Finn, Poe, Kylo and BB-8?  How will Luke and Leia fit in?  Will the Resistance defeat the First Order once and for all?

Figuring out what happens next isn’t actually that difficult.  The way forward is much clearer than the dangling threads of The Force Awakens would make it seem.  Let’s look at them one at a time.

The state of the galaxy

The First Order was successful in wiping out the capital of the Republic and most of the Republic fleet, leaving the Resistance without its primary means of support.  However, their superweapon Starkiller Base was also destroyed, reducing the First Order to much the same state.  So as Episode VIII begins, the galaxy is without a central government – essentially in a state of anarchy, with two substantially weakened powers grappling to establish themselves as the sole viable unifying force, with thousands of star systems up for grabs.  The Resistance was depicted as something of a ragtag band using old ships and weapons, while the First Order appears to be much better funded with plenty of state of the art materiel and personnel.  Even with Starkiller Base eliminated, the First Order may be better equipped to continue the battle for the galaxy even if it has to be one measly star system at a time.  One could very well envisage the opening crawl setting up the story thus:  while the First Order has been dealt a blow, with the Republic gone they have begun a war of attrition, pushing outward and laying claim to system after system, and the Resistance finds itself unable to keep up and looking desperately for a way to stem the tide.

We know nothing about Benicio del Toro’s character yet, other than vague comments about him being a villain.  That doesn’t mean necessarily that he’s another member of the First Order – their entire leadership is intact after The Force Awakens.  What if, instead, he’s the leader of a third party – some kind of wealthy (if shady) syndicate that the Resistance needs to court in order to keep up the fight?  We know the galaxy is full of criminals, like the infamous Hutts, or the rival gangs that sought to extract their swindled funds from Han Solo before they were eaten by rathtars.  What if Del Toro is the head of the mysterious Kanjiklub – or more likely, the leader of a Spectre-like organization that controls all illicit activity throughout the galaxy and has no great love for the First Order?  You could have an interesting story there with both the Resistance and the First Order attempting to sway his group into the fight, a sort of “enemy of my enemy is my friend” type of dilemma.  For General Leia, it would mean a significant challenge to her principles.  Is it worth doing business with devils to defeat the greatest devil of all?  If it has to resort to similar methods to achieve its ends, is the Resistance no better than the very foe it professes to despise?

The state of the Force

Even though the previous movie ended on a shot of Luke Skywalker and Rey looking silently at one another as the music swelled, Episode VIII likely won’t pick up with them for at least the first ten minutes (remember, all Star Wars movies begin with a spaceship going somewhere).  It would be foolish to believe that merely a glimpse of his old lightsaber will be enough to convince Luke to impart his knowledge to this completely unknown girl.  And I do believe she is unknown, despite the wishes by many fans that she will turn out to be Luke’s daughter.  There would simply be no story for Luke if that were the case.  Why would he refuse to train his own child?  You can suggest that it might be because the previous attempt to train one of his bloodline went bad, but there’s a considerable difference between a nephew and a daughter.  Rather, I would imagine that Luke will want nothing to do with Rey, having decided (at least at first) that the galaxy is better off without people who can touch the Force.  At least, until Rey proves herself somehow.  This is where a concept that was deleted from The Force Awakens might come into play.  (Hollywood never lets a good idea go un-recycled.)

Before screenwriters Arndt, Kasdan and Abrams decided that Luke himself was to be the object of the quest, there was discussion that there might be some valuable information left over in remnants of the Death Star that had crashed in an ocean on Rey’s world, and that that would be the story’s McGuffin.  In the movie, Han said that it was rumored Luke had gone looking for the first Jedi temple.  Yet when we find him he’s on an empty island in the middle of a vast ocean.  What if the Jedi temple is somewhere under all that water, and in order for Rey to be granted the benefit of Luke’s teachings, she is forced to help him find it, in a quest through ancient ruins that invokes Indiana Jones?  (Laura Dern as an oracle/ghost of one of the first Jedi, perhaps?)  The journey would of course be a spiritual one as well as a physical one, with Rey finding out even more about herself along the way and discovering, rather like The Karate Kid, that what appears as a futile series of labors has in fact been her Jedi training all along.  One aspect I find interesting in the discussion of who Rey might be is that every single theory suggests she was left on Jakku for her protection.  What if that’s not the case – what if she was abandoned there because her parents were afraid of her, because they thought she was dangerous?  What if there is more dark side in her than we’ve been led to believe thus far?  It sets up a fascinating contrast with Kylo Ren, whose training we know thanks to Snoke’s last line of dialogue is also incomplete.  In Episode VIII we might see parallel stories of Rey being trained to resist her innate darkness while Kylo struggles to purge the last of his inner light as he endures unexpected guilt over his act of patricide – and because there is an Episode IX to come, we may not see the resolution of that conflict yet.

The state of the galaxy’s favorite bromance

When we last saw Finn, he was lying unconscious in a Resistance medical bay after taking a lightsaber to the spine.  He will of course make a miraculous recovery and be consumed now with taking the fight to his former colleagues after spending most of the first movie running away from them.  John Boyega, tweeting on the first day’s shooting, included a hint of what might be either his character’s arc or an actual line of dialogue:

boyegatweet

This would fit what I talked about above, with the Resistance in regrouping mode as the First Order takes system after system, and Finn growing impatient with the progress of the war.  He’s going to want to punish the people who stole his life from him.  Trying to keep him from going too far down the dark path – even though in this example it’s not a question of being seduced to the dark side of the Force – will be his BFF Poe Dameron.  One could even see the two of them being dispatched on a mission that has something to do with the scenario I hypothesized above regarding Benicio del Toro’s character.  Rian Johnson is said to have arranged screenings for the cast of the Gregory Peck war movie Twelve O’Clock High and the Russian film Letter Never Sent; the former is about a hard-nosed general whipping a bunch of misfit bomber pilots into fighting shape, while the latter is about a group of geologists who get trapped in the Siberian woods while searching for diamonds.  Finn and Poe (and little BB-8 for good measure) might be cast into an homage to either, or a combination of both of these narratives.

As to “the lip bite that launched a thousand ships”?  I think it would a tremendous and welcome step forward to have gay characters in a Star Wars movie.  I don’t think it’s going to happen.  I don’t think the powers that be would slam the door on the possibility by dropping Poe’s yet-unseen girlfriend into the plot, but they will more than likely skirt what they could see as a potential audience-alienating controversy by leaving the matter to wishful conjecture instead.  The main thrust of the story is always going to be the war in the galaxy far far away, and every subplot will be in service to that narrative, not progressive social commentary, as much as we might welcome it.  Finn and Poe will remain pals and comrades-in-arms, but nothing more.

Putting it all together

The second act of a play is traditionally the darkest, or, as Lawrence Kasdan has put it, “when everything goes to hell.”  Characters are brought to their lowest point.  Everything we’ve taken for granted collapses.  The remaining pieces are assembled in an unexpected order for the final dramatic showdown.  I think we will see the First Order resurgent, the Resistance on the edge of a final defeat, friends set against one another and Rey and Kylo Ren both forced to wage mortal battles with their own respective souls, perhaps even in the form of a lightsaber rematch.  I doubt we will see anything as gut-wrenching as Han Solo’s death – it would be gilding the lily a bit to take another one of the classic trio out of the picture – but as the credits roll we’ll be left with significant doubt as to whether our heroes will survive.  We may even be doubtful as to whether our heroes are actually heroes.  Just as Darth Vader ultimately turned out to be the true hero of the original trilogy by killing his evil master in Return of the Jedi, what if his grandson, whom we could never possibly consider forgiving after what he did to our childhood idol in The Force Awakens, is fated to follow a similar path?

About the only thing we can be certain of about Episode VIII is that once it’s done we’ll be having the exact same conversation about Episode IX.  In the meantime, let me know your own thoughts in the comments – do you see these as logical developments, or do you have another idea about what will follow the crawl on December 15, 2017?

In Search of Rey’s Parents… Or Not

rey

Prefacing this entry with the usual SPOILER ALERT for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, although seriously, if you’re one of the eight people left in the world who hasn’t seen it yet, what’s stopping you already?  I’m gonna get into major storyline discussion here, so please stop now if you don’t want to have the movie ruined for you.  Should you proceed past this paragraph, you are tacitly agreeing to hold me blameless.  Putting on the hold music while you consider wading further…

…doo dee doo dee doodeedoo, da da da da, dara dada daa.  (That’s the Cantina Band song, FYI.)

Now that we’ve had a little over a month to watch, re-watch, digest, mull, contemplate and postulate regarding the implications of the newest Star Wars movie, not to mention its – in the modest opinion of this scribe – gobsmackingly awesome lead character, we turn our lonely eyes to imagining what lies beyond the horizon of December 2017 and revelations promised to us by the ambiguous finale there on that isolated mountaintop in the middle of an endless sea where nascent Jedi Rey presented the fabled blue lightsaber of Anakin Skywalker to its last master Luke, just before the iris wipe to credits.  One of the biggest mysteries left unanswered as those blue names began fading in and out surrounded Rey herself, how she was able to achieve a decent mastery of the Force so quickly, and if perhaps the solution lies in her parentage.  There are three main theories circulating the Internet to that regard:  that she is Luke’s daughter, that she is Obi-Wan Kenobi’s granddaughter, or she is another child of Han Solo and Leia Organa whom they chose not to acknowledge during their many interactions with her in The Force Awakens.  While it’s very possible that one of those theories is the correct answer, I would argue that from a story perspective, it’s better if Rey is none of the above.  Why?  Let’s get into that.

1.  The Star Wars universe is incestuous enough already.

One of the loveliest aspects of the narrative of the very first Star Wars movie is how each character guides you to the next through a series of what seem like chance encounters.  Princess Leia hides the Death Star plans inside R2-D2, who meets up with C-3P0 and crashes with him on Tatooine.  They are abducted by Jawas who then sell them to the family of Luke Skywalker, who takes them to Obi-Wan Kenobi, who takes him to Han Solo and Chewbacca, who takes the whole gang back to Princess Leia, completing the circle.  With the sequels we learned of familial connections that made that journey in the first film seem like an amazing series of coincidences.  Indeed, it’s well known that making the villain the father of the hero did not occur to George Lucas until well into the second draft of The Empire Strikes Back, and likewise had he known that Luke and Leia would turn out to be siblings in the next movie we would have escaped the notorious makeout scene in the Hoth medical bay.

You can’t argue the dramatic impact of those revelations – the original trilogy probably would not have had as much resonance without them – but as modern writers and directors, you can’t go back to that parched well yet again without risking the audience’s suspension of disbelief.  The prequels made things worse by establishing that C-3P0 had been built by Anakin Skywalker himself and that R2-D2 had been present for every significant event that transformed the Republic into the Empire, the cumulative effect of which was to retroactively make old Obi-Wan Kenobi into the biggest exaggerator/outright liar this side of Coruscant.  (Theory #2, that Rey is a descendant of Kenobi, would make him an even bigger liar, and render all his sanctimonious teachings to Anakin about forsaking attachment for the greater good pretty well moot.)

It almost escalated into the realm of the ridiculous:  we were spared, thankfully, an “Anakin, I am your father” moment from Episode III when a planned monologue from Palpatine about how he used the Force to will the midichlorians (ugh) to create the young Skywalker was dropped from the final script.  To paraphrase Douglas Adams, space is really, really, really, really big.  Are we to accept that every major happening in the really, really, really big Star Wars galaxy centers on three generations of a single family who keep running into each other in amazingly convenient fashion, and hold back just enough truth from their encounters to keep the plot moving right along?  The Force Awakens was fairly criticized for having its story rely too much on coincidence, and Episode VIII should endeavor to move away from that – not turn the whole enterprise into a “who’s your father” exercise that would embarrass Maury Povich.

2.  It weakens Kylo Ren’s character arc.

Kylo Ren, a.k.a. Ben Solo, sees himself as the natural heir to Darth Vader (the evil part of Vader, not the redeem-yourself-in-the-end-by-killing-the-bad-guy-aspect).  As a member of the hallowed Skywalker line, Kylo believes he has been chosen by the Force itself to fulfill a grand purpose left unfinished.  When he is using the Force to extract information from Rey’s mind and finds his own mind under siege by her awakening Force powers, his deepest fear, that he will never achieve that goal, is revealed.  After Rey rejects his offer of teaching her and defeats him in their climactic lightsaber duel, the implication for Kylo going forward is an escalating path of bitterness that he is not, in fact, the Chosen One he believes himself to be.  That his destiny is one of mediocrity, being vilified for his murderous actions, and ultimately being forgotten.  How much more brutal for his ego does it become, how many more lightsaber-slashing tantrums ensue, if the person who is fated for greatness in the Force turns out to be a mere nobody from a backwater world plucked from obscurity, instead of being yet another scion of an already famous family?

Kylo feels entitled to greatness by virtue of being descended from greatness.  If he is pitted against someone descended from that exact same greatness, what results is petulant cries of “mom and dad always liked you best” as glowing blades clash (and Kylo is teetering a little too far on the emo scale for the liking of many to begin with).  It becomes the equivalent of Kim and Kourtney and Khloe duking it out for Force supremacy, and honestly, nobody really roots for anyone in that contest, do they?  Instead, Kylo’s rage at failing to measure up to someone who has not a drop of Skywalker blood in her would truly push him over the edge – and if he is to follow Anakin Skywalker’s ultimate path of redemption, the choice to save someone who was not family (especially after he had no problem murdering his own father) would be all the more meaningful.

3.  It makes Rey less special, and it reinforces the dubious lesson that greatness depends solely on where you came from.

Daisy Ridley’s performance as Rey elevated her above contemporary genre female heroes simply by how much whiz-bang joy she invested in it.  Rey wasn’t one of these downtrodden “sigh, I guess I have to go reluctantly save the world now because I’m the only one who can” tropes yanked from dystopian teen fiction.  While her choice to join the fight was not a willing one, once she committed she went all in, and brought a sense of wonder to the new world she was discovering both without and within.  Despite her initial and understandable fears, she embraced her abilities with the Force and became stronger than the young “no one” had ever dreamed.  Obviously Rey’s connection to her family is a pivotal component of her character; when we first meet her she is marking off the days since she was abandoned by them on the desert planet Jakku, and she longs to go back and continue waiting for them to return.  In the vision that accompanies her first touch of the lightsaber, we see a young Rey begging them not to go, and a spaceship rising into the sky in the distance, the faces of her family conveniently kept off camera for a possible future revelation.  If we see a future reprise of this scene and the camera whips around to reveal Luke Skywalker, or anyone else we already know, Rey’s choice to grow becomes less about personal courage and more about inevitability and predestination.  In that iteration, the choice was never hers – her DNA made it for her.  Put it in more contemporary terms:  a young man is born to a legendary major league home run hitter and eventually grows up to hit even more home runs than his father.  How interesting is that story, versus that of a young man born to an non-athletic minimum-wage day laborer who against much longer odds achieves the same goal?

The Chosen One is a trope that stretches back to the beginning of human storytelling, and resonates because there is a part of every single one of us that sometimes wishes we were “chosen ones” ourselves.  But in a way, this fantasy is abdicating a very precious responsibility – free will, our ability to write our own destiny – by wishing that someone else had set everything in motion for us long before we were born.  That we were born into royalty, or a long line of millionaires/magicians/mutants, or whatever, and all that is needed to rise from the puddle of mediocrity in which we think we swim is that fabled call to adventure.  There is something to be said for the concept of a true nobody who comes from nothing rising to seize the lightsaber by virtue of her own determination and hard work (a concept sure to appeal to the libertarians out there) and righting the course of history.  It would certainly be a positive message to send to the young women who identify with Rey that they don’t need to be of noble blood (or marry someone who is) in order to make something remarkable of themselves.

We know, based on the existence of Yoda, Obi-Wan Kenobi and the countless other Jedi who populated the prequels, that the Force is not confined to the members of the Skywalker family.  Kenobi says in the first movie that the Force exists in all living things, and as much as you might hate the whole midichlorian concept, it reinforces this idea that everything has the ability to touch the Force on some level.  We also know that the Force is sentient, and is constantly attempting to balance itself by investing individual people with an enhanced ability to use it.  For all we know, there could be thousands of young men and women like Rey spread throughout the galaxy, gifted in different areas with an unusual level of aptitude that they don’t fully understand.  Poe Dameron’s ace piloting skills, for example, might even be another manifestation of the Force, if to a more limited degree.  But only Rey has the courage to “let it in,” which, if it speaks to her fortitude and not her parentage, makes her all the more compelling a character.  It tells the audience that every last one of you has the potential for greatness, and nothing about that requires that your last name is or has ever been Skywalker.

4.  And it’s exactly what we’re expecting them to do.

And that is my biggest gripe with the potential big reveal about Rey’s parents in Episode VIII.  J.J. Abrams et al did such a phenomenal job in keeping Rey’s story secret for The Force Awakens that watching her discover her true self was the most wonderful surprise about a movie that relied so much on echoing the story beats of the first, classic trilogy.  I can’t help but thinking that if Rian Johnson and Colin Trevorrow (respective directors of Episode VIII and IX) go down the well-trodden road of hanging the emotional stakes of the next two movies on a tired, obvious theory about Rey that everyone has already guessed, then the audience response will be a fairly giant collective shrug – and it’s not as though those movies don’t already have enormous expectations to live up to the standard set by TFA.  Certainly it’s fun to speculate about who Rey could really be, but we want the answer to be something that nobody ever saw coming.  We want to be surprised again, and frankly, given the amount of money and talent going into producing these things, we should see nothing less than their best efforts to do just that.  The greatest stories are those where your expectations are turned on their head, not just met (barely).

It was announced this week that Episode VIII‘s release date has been bumped from May to December 2017, ostensibly due to that being a window that steers it clear of the comic-book adaptations and other summer movie fare that might eat into its potential box office take.  But it was also revealed that writer-director Rian Johnson is doing another revision on the script (even though filming has already begun) to pare back the roles of some new characters and ensure that the spotlight remains on Rey, Poe and Finn (umm… obviously?).  If they are going to take that extra time to make sure we get the best movie possible, then use it to give us a story that will keep us guessing or make us admit in hindsight that “I never would have thought of that.”  Don’t count on holding the audience’s loyalty if what you are serving is a lame, obvious “Rey, I am your father” reveal.  (The latest theory about Rey is that she is descended from Emperor Palpatine, based on, I don’t know, the fact that they both have British accents?  Not quite sure how old Palps was getting some on the side while he was so single-mindedly plotting to take over the galaxy.)

Rey is such a wonderful addition to the Star Wars universe, and to the motion picture science fiction/fantasy genre in general, that it would be a shame to see her lessened by a cheap, easily anticipated plot twist about her parentage.  She, and her fans cheering her on from the theater seats, deserve far more.  It may be fun to speculate about such things, but I have a feeling that if any of these theories turns out to be right, the result will be only disappointment – and everyone knows we have endured far too much disappointment from this franchise already.

jarjar

Shame on the body shamers

leia

I guess the goodwill couldn’t last too long.  Just as Star Wars:  The Force Awakens is being greeted by critical acclaim, record box-office earnings and praise for its compelling lead character, the dark side of fandom has arisen – very much like the movie’s First Order from the ashes of the Empire – and is blasting Carrie Fisher for her appearance, so much so that the actress/writer herself felt the need to respond through social media.  As you’ll see in the linked article, the troglodytes in question have then doubled down, suggesting a variation of “you were asking for it” by her agreeing to appear in the movie in the first place.

It is a morbidly fascinating phenomenon to witness the claiming of ownership of an entertainment franchise by certain segments of fans who blow collective gaskets when the newest installment does not meet every single one of their impossible expectations, or worse, dares to shake up the status quo.  Author Chuck Wendig received a taste of this when he met a backlash over including gay characters in his Star Wars novel Aftermath.  But even with that, Wendig wasn’t attacked for his looks, or, you know, succumbing to that virulent, merciless and entirely natural human process known as aging.

When it comes to women, all bets are apparently off.

Carrie Fisher is incredibly smart, razor-edge funny, breathtakingly courageous with her openness about her battles with depression, and has probably written more of the lines you quote to your buddies at the pub in her largely unheralded career as a script doctor than any other scribe alive today.  But Hollywood is notorious and has always been notorious for giving its women a limited shelf life depending on – and you’ll forgive the lewd expression – how fuckable they are perceived to be.  I think of a lot of actresses of her generation who inspired heavy panting back in the 80’s and 90’s – Daryl Hannah, Geena Davis, Michelle Pfeiffer, Sharon Stone to name but a few – and wonder where they are now.  They’ve lost none of their talent, but the parts aren’t coming, despite male contemporaries continuing to land interesting and challenging roles.  Michael Douglas in his 70’s still appears in blockbusters in 2015 while his younger, but apparently not young enough wife Catherine Zeta-Jones is nowhere to be seen.  One of the most egregious examples I can think of is when Kathleen Turner, the voice of Jessica Rabbit, the famous femme fatale of Body Heat, was hired to play “Chandler’s father in drag” in an episode of Friends.  When you don’t sell posters or copies of Playboy anymore, this is what you are left with.  On the rare occasion you do get a chance for a plum part – usually as someone’s mother or a cackling villain – the response is, as we are seeing with Carrie Fisher here, clucked tongues questioning how you could let yourself go like that.

What is it about seeing an older Leia that struck such a disgruntled nerve?  We all know the infamous gold bikini from Return of the Jedi – for many young men of that era it was a sexually formative experience, but frankly there were plenty of other scantily-clad princesses in sci-fi and fantasy at the time, and you don’t often hear lingering reminisces of longing for Princess Ardala from Buck Rogers or Princess Karina from The Ice Pirates.   With Leia, perhaps it was the notion of a powerful female character being enslaved, literally chained up, that was the most appealing to those fertile young imaginations (he wrote, choking down his vomit).  Regardless, I’m not entirely sure, and Carrie Fisher has mused about this in her one-woman shows, why “Slave Leia” had to then create an implicit contract between her performer and millions of fanboys, that the person in the outfit was somehow obligated to look like that for the rest of her life, that her sexuality became the property of legions of strange men.  How she looks is really her business and no one else’s.  It may very well be the failing of male-driven Hollywood as it creates these images of lust-inducing goddesses without acknowledging the human reality beneath the makeup and the barely-there costumes and the pixels.  But these hopped-up keyboard warriors who have the gall to act as if they have been wronged, and then go and insult an accomplished woman from a safe perch behind proxy servers, are spectacularly nauseating.  Because, to put it bluntly:

CARRIE FISHER DOES NOT OWE YOU AN ERECTION.

Neither she, nor any other person who puts themselves in the public eye bears any responsibility to fulfill the sexual fantasies of every single person who happens to look at them.  When you buy a ticket to The Force Awakens, all Carrie Fisher owes you is a good performance, and in that, she delivers, bringing a quiet note of tragedy to what had once been an irrepressible character.  Perhaps that itself factors into disappointment with TFA Leia, that she is more subdued and less the forceful “your worshipfulness” than she is in the original trilogy.  Well, in character terms, 30 years of a life spent fighting a war you had hoped was over will do that.  More to the point though, Carrie Fisher was not under any compulsion to return to the front of the camera, and that she did it (and subjected herself to a rigorous diet and exercise regime first) speaks to her ultimate love of the character and the franchise and a level of caring for the fans that perhaps doesn’t always come across in her occasionally blunt interviews (remarks that, were she male, would pass unnoticed, like, I don’t know, EVERY SINGLE QUOTE Harrison Ford ever gave about Han Solo being boring).  And forget the comeback about whatever she was paid for her participation – do you have any idea what script doctors make?  She does not need the money that badly.  She could easily have sat this one out.

To soil yourself and fire demeaning remarks off into the Internet because the 2015 movie didn’t feature the 1983 actress is to betray a terrible sense of male privilege, as though the entire purpose of Princess Leia and by extension Carrie Fisher’s existence is to satisfy your desperate need for arousal by any means necessary.  It isn’t.   But apparently it’s okay to reduce her to that.  (I write this without expectation that my readers fall into this category, so kindly forgive the use of the figurative “you.”)  The success of The Force Awakens should have been celebrated as an unreserved triumph for Carrie Fisher and yet, the movie not yet three weeks in theaters, it is instead dragging out old issues that she’s struggled with her entire life.  She didn’t need this crap.  Where we should be talking about the movie’s story, style, message and impact, instead the discussion is being driven to its most trite level by the most juvenile of entitled voices, to the extent that Fisher herself felt the need to say something about it.  That’s disgraceful, and Star Wars fans everywhere owe her a collective apology – and a thank you for reminding us that even our imaginary heroes grow up.

It’s past time that we did too.

A Rey of Sunshine

rey

Be forewarned.  Star Wars spoilers ahead.

Again, in all caps, just so you’re clear.  MAJOR STAR WARS SPOILERS INSIDE.  ABANDON ALL HOPE OF REMAINING UNSPOILT, YE WHO VENTURE PAST THIS POINT.

One more time for those just joining us.  THIS POST WILL CONTAIN STAR WARS SPOILERS.

*hold music hums while you decide*

We all good?  Okay.  By reading on, you hereby agree to hold the author of this site harmless for any potential Star Wars-ruining experience that may occur, in perpetuity until the heat death of the universe.

I saw The Force Awakens yesterday afternoon.  When you hit your fifth decade of life, and you’ve seen so many movies in those forty years that the tropes and cliches of cinematic storytelling have embedded themselves in your neural pathways to the point where your response to them becomes almost Pavlovian, you tend to approach any new theatrical venture, particularly one that has been so excessively hyped, with an unavoidable sense of cynicism.  Here we are now, you say warily, paraphrasing Kurt Cobain, entertain us.  And how often do you walk away feeling satisfied, or surprised?  Rather infrequently, I have to admit.  I enjoy the movies for what they are, but I always see the seams at the edges.  And I went into The Force Awakens with a healthy distrust of its director, J.J. Abrams, a man whose storytelling style relies primarily on frustratingly circular references to the movies he grew up watching, rather than any particular unique vision.

J.J., you sly, sly dog you.

Granted, one does not walk into the seventh installment of a 40-year-old movie franchise expecting mind-blowing originality (I certainly don’t expect it from Bond, my other great cinema love).  I did receive the anticipated reprises of old favorite characters and the homages and tributes to everything that has made the world love Star Wars all these years.  But what I also got, and what made me walk out of the theater with a broad, dumb smile on my face, was something that I’d been longing to see realized on screen for ages, and finding it in a Star Wars movie of all places was like the surprise toy inside the chocolate egg.  I knew too, that as happy as I was to discover this, there were millions of girls and women to whom it would mean so much more.  I’m happy for them most of all.

To wit:  the absolutely compelling character of Rey, played by English actress Daisy Ridley, is the center of the movie.  The “awakening” referred to in the title is hers.  She is brave, skilled, resourceful, determined, and over the course of the story, as her connection to the Force deepens, grows immensely powerful.  She has a past that is not spelled out for us but rather left as a tantalizing mystery.  She is no one’s love interest, and is not defined by her relationships with or unrequited longings for any particular man.  And she kicks tremendous ass, whether it’s outrunning TIE Fighters in a rusty old Millennium Falcon or confronting and defeating Dark Side villain Kylo Ren and saving Finn, the male character whom the movie’s poster and trailers would have you presume is the new Jedi of this trilogy.  (Abrams’ controversial “mystery box” promotion style has worked very well here, which is why again, I hope you’ve already seen the movie as you’re reading this.)  And Rey achieves all of these things without descending into sassy or sexualized caricature, or a neon sign flashing above her head reading “LOOK AT THIS AUDACIOUS, ENLIGHTENED STATEMENT OF FEMINISM WE MALE FILMMAKERS ARE MAKING.”

Rey just is who she is, and frankly, it’s glorious.

I’ve always found the term “empowered women” a bit troubling, as it suggests that women on their own are somehow without power.  Rather, it is better to say that a woman is powerful by her very nature as a woman.  Goes with the territory, folks.  And yet in science fiction and fantasy this is too often the exception and not the rule.  Looking back, there has never really been a good reason why in genre movies, women have not been able to take the forefront of the story, other than the increasingly outdated notion that the young boys who make up the presumed primary target demographic for this genre somehow won’t be interested in seeing girls buckle their swash, or that somehow casting a female lead means you have to turn the story into a pedestrian rom-com with true love as the object of the quest.

Instead, women are usually relegated to the secondary roles of eye candy, love interests or over-the-top man-hating villainesses, their characterizations as sketchy as the anatomically impossible poses in which they are often rendered in comic books.  Why have we had eighteen Marvel movies without a female lead?  Your guess is as good as mine, but it seems to stem largely from writers, producers and directors (and executives) unable to arrive at what feels like, in the light of The Force Awakens, should be a very obvious conclusion:  that women with power and agency won’t, in fact, scare men away from fantasy and science fiction movies.  They belong there, as much as the boys do, and audiences will thank you for it.  And yes, the dudes will love these characters too.

Thankfully, there have been huge exceptions of late that may be at last, softening this attitude.  Frozen was a story in the fantasy genre about the bond between two sisters (one with tremendous magical powers), with male characters shunted to the background, and it only became the highest-grossing animated movie of all time.  As I write this The Force Awakens has already become the fastest movie to hit $300 million at the box office, and I’ll wager here and now that it will eventually blast past Avatar and take its place on top of the all-time list.  Because audiences love Luke, Leia, Han and Chewie, but it’s Rey’s story they are going to want to see again and again.

There has been some criticism of her, centering largely on the speed with which she acquires her Force abilities in the movie without any training, and suggesting that this pushes her into Mary Sue territory.  I would suggest that there are two responses to this, one “in-universe” and another examining the broader question.  The in-universe explanation is found in a line from the very first movie, where Luke and Ben are discussing the Force and noting that while it obeys your commands, it also controls your actions.  The Force is sentient and has an awareness of when people’s greed and lust for power has pushed it out of balance, so it creates what it needs to set the universe right again.  Rey’s awakening is in response to the rising threat represented by dark-sider Kylo Ren and his mysterious master Snoke, and the speed at which it happens is perhaps a reflection of the urgency with which it is needed.  (And it also makes for the movie’s best scene in which Rey tries the Jedi Mind Trick on a Stormtrooper played by a very famous actor in disguise…)

You could also suggest that Rey is just that damn gifted, which is where the Mary Sue question comes in, and my answer to that is, so effing what?  In how many movies across how many genres have we seen preternaturally skilled guys?  How many times have we seen a young male screw-up transformed into an unstoppable fighting machine in the space of a five-minute training montage?  Why is this somehow more valid storytelling technique than seeing it happen to a woman?  Yes, Rey may be in some ways an expression of wish fulfillment for fangirls, but thanks to some great writing (by Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan) and Daisy Ridley’s magnetic performance she doesn’t come off like that, and even if she does, I fail to see why this is a bad thing.  We gents have plenty of examples on our side to choose from.  I’d love to see more women like Rey in genre films, treated with all the maturity and complexity that those characters deserve, and I’m glad that the gauntlet has been thrown down.  All those involved with her creation deserve accolades.  (It should also be noted that The Force Awakens passes the Bechdel Test too.)

I’ve come to know a fair number of women through social media who are big genre fans, and I’m excited to read what they thought of Rey.  I imagine they’ll be able to articulate what Rey means to girls and women far better than I possibly could, so I’ll sign off for the time being and let them take the stage and enjoy their well-deserved moment.  And I will wait with bated breath for Episode VIII and the joy of discovering where Rey’s story takes her next, my faith in the ability of the movies, and genre movies in particular, to surprise me renewed, and hungry for more.

“Chewie, we’re home.”

werehome

Three little words.  The first uttered in darkness, the remainder as the lights come up and we behold the weathered features of Han Solo standing next to his furry, lifelong companion, in the aging corridors of the Millennium Falcon.  A clarion call to uncounted legions of dreamers, young and old alike, waiting in what often seemed merely vain hope for thirty-two long years.  We’d seen the Falcon fly in the first teaser, but this was different.  This was an affirmation of something that we’d long been told was never going to happen.  This was a gift.  This was faith rewarded.

About damn time.

The Internet has grown far beyond what it was in 1999, when one had to suffer through an agonizing hour of QuickTime buffering through a dial-up connection to behold the reveal, following the Lucasfilm logo, of Trade Federation tanks creeping over a grassy hill.  Certainly, at the time, I pored over the frames of the teaser for The Phantom Menace with unbridled curiosity, clutching at the merest hint of clue to what the story would be, and discussing and debating it at length over pints with fellow Warsies.  We were excited, surely, long having been starved of anything new from the galaxy far, far away, absent the comic books and the Timothy Zahn continuation novels, which, finely crafted as they were, could not quite compare to the idea of a new Star Wars movie rolling across the screens.

Retrospect (and retconning, to be totally honest) has diminished the sense of anticipation rippling through fandom in those months leading to Phantom Menace‘s opening night.  I was the only one of my friends with free time on the day advance tickets went on sale, and I hauled myself out of bed before the sun came up in April ’99 and drove twenty miles to the theater where there was already a line fifty folks long, prepared to stand there under baking sun until the box office opened at 3 p.m.  People were playing the fresh-in-stores Episode I soundtrack on ghetto blasters, clowning around in Jedi robes and swinging plastic lightsabers, one-upping each other with quotes and character impressions and generally having as good a time as one can in a long queue.  Foolishly, I did not bring any provisions (or even a hat) with me, and wound up having at one point to ask the two guys I’d befriended standing directly ahead of me to hold my place while I hopped in the car and raced off to the most proximate fast-food joint to find a bathroom and some bottled water.  When they finally flung open the doors and I walked away, sunburned but with a whole pile of golden tickets for the 12:01 a.m. showing two weeks hence in pocket, it seemed rather anticlimactic, but I still had the sense of mission accomplished and relief that I wouldn’t have to wait one second longer to see it than anyone else.

We wanted so desperately for that movie to be everything we’d been hoping for.  It’s tough to remember too that apart from the most deeply cynical cinephiles, everybody loved Phantom Menace on first sight.  No less an authority than the late Roger Ebert said, “My thumb is up, with a lot of admiration.”  But the glow faded very fast.  Loud naysayers started screaming about its flaws, and those of us who’d been soundly in the pro-camp began to realize that beneath the digital veneer and the aura of NEW STAR WARS! was a poorly-written and poorly-performed story locked in to hitting marks and prevented, by its very nature as a prequel, from giving us any surprises.  It was like a long, monodirectional train ride past flashy scenery to a predetermined destination, its characters marionettes against bluescreen, the dialogue stilted and hammy.  And the previously revered George Lucas became a figure of scorn.  We gave him two more chances to right the ship, but as the credits of Revenge of the Sith rolled, and with them the end of Star Wars as we knew it, we sighed at the affirmation of that old axiom that we can’t go home again.  The uneven Clone Wars aside, that was it.  Lucas said he was finished with Star Wars.  He was ready to move on.

Enter the Walt Disney Company, and later, J.J. Abrams.  The man who’d awoken the dormant Star Trek franchise by infusing it with a healthy dose of Star Wars-style action and banter.  The man who tossed out the story treatments that Disney had purchased from Lucas and said that what he and the fans wanted to see was the return of Luke, Han and Leia.  Sure, we said, good luck getting Harrison Ford back, who had opined with grouchy regularity over the preceding thirty years that he had absolutely no interest in revisiting the character of Han Solo.  The photograph released last April of the new cast sitting in a round, Ford included, was welcome, but could not compare with the reveal in yesterday’s trailer of Han and Chewie, together again against odds, against fate, against belief and probability and all measure of the randomness of how life unfolds.  The gasp heard around the world was very real, and quite deafening, given the three decades we’ve been collectively holding our breaths.

The Force Awakens will not premiere for another eight months.  In the months prior to the Phantom Menace‘s release, entertainment journalists were speculating about the possibility of it out-grossing Titanic and Lucas himself said with a shrug that it simply wouldn’t happen.  He understood that hyperbole of some aside, he was up against expectations that no one could possibly hope to meet.  Certainly, Episode I could have benefited tremendously from some alternate creative choices here and there, but had Orson Welles come back from the dead to direct it from a script by the equally moldy Billy Wilder, you still would have had a vast majority of fans grumbling that they thought The Matrix was better.  Anticipation is a funny thing in that satisfying it is often an exercise in disappointment.  With tremendous loyalty to Star Wars as a whole still a robust force – pun intended – and the additional burden on its back of overwhelming the lingering sour taste of the prequel trilogy, so too can The Force Awakens not hope to please everyone.

What it has already done to its betterment is given us a singular moment that we can savor until the cold months return, and a lovely sentiment that we can remember with a smile in years to come, no matter the quality of the end result.  The feeling that we have, if for ever a brief instant, finally come home.

Marvel Fatigue

ageofultron

I come before you today with a problem.

It is a rather insidious one at that, beginning at the base of my spine and migrating with so many spider’s steps one fraction of an inch at a time up along the vertebrae and couching itself in the recesses of my brain, there to ferment and fester and trickle into the forefront of my thoughts.  It is the contradictory notion of living in the height of the era of fantasy and comic book-inspired film adaptations, long dreamed about since boyhood, and being overtaken gradually by a creeping fog of ennui that threatens to grow into shrugging disinterest.

You see, I have Marvel Fatigue.

I know, I should probably be forced to turn in my geek card after a statement like that, and go and lurk the message board of the New Yorker waiting for Richard Brody’s latest bloviation on Antonioni.  But I’m wondering, in the last few weeks before Avengers: Age of Ultron debuts, if we’re just getting too much candy and we’re growing benumbed to its taste.  Since 2008 there have been ten movies set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with eleven more slated for release over the next five years (even more if you factor in the X-Men and Spider-Man movies).  And that doesn’t take into account whatever it is DC is doing (which seems to be a late-to-the-party duplication of the Marvel game plan, but with much more depressing product, in keeping with the prevailing dark chic aesthetic of the period), or the various TV iterations of the MCU, be they Agents of SHIELD, Agent Carter or any of the plethora of forthcoming Netflix originals.  We’re way past saturation point now; we’re drowning.  And it would be one thing if the movies were bad – for the most part, they’re all serviceable pieces of entertainment, made with top-notch talent.  But they are all so locked into a shopworn and audience-tested formula that they’ve utterly lost their capacity to do the one thing movies like that should:

Surprise us.

The feeling began to bubble up after I saw Guardians of the Galaxy, a movie that was being lauded left and right in the community of fandom as one of the greatest things for those of our ilk to hit the cineplexes since the original Star Wars.   My son, naturally, was presold, but, won over as I was by seeing gushing praise from sources I respected, I even managed to sway my wife to join us.  And apart from a few cute touches here and there, I came away from the screening feeling let down.  The clincher for me was the music, the collection of tracks on Peter Quill’s fabled “Awesome Mix Volume 1.”  Disappointingly, there was not a single song on there that hadn’t been used in at least a dozen popular movies preceding this one.  Perhaps the intent was to feed nostalgia by scoring the story with the songs that would have been popular around the time Star Wars was wowing us all for the first time in 1977.  For me, it was the most blatant possible reminder that these movies are suffering from what I’ve talked about before with cultural karaoke.  Rather than striking out for bold, new, uncharted territory, they’re treading ground that has already been crushed under the weight of heavily booted footprints, choosing always the safe and familiar route.  Every moment is a callback to something else, instead of standing on its own.  You practically need a pop culture dictionary to understand everything that’s going on.

I enjoyed the first Avengers, but I’ve never watched it again from start to finish, as for me it was rather like a meringue:  sweet and sugary but ultimately hollow and scarcely worth a second taste.  If you set aside the whee! factor of seeing all those characters together in a movie for the first time, the story is paper-thin, and the emotional moments are forced and artificial – I mean, come on, the idea of the bickering team bonding over the death of a marginal character who’d had little impact on the lot of them (and turned out to only be, as Miracle Max would put it, mostly dead) just in time to fight off the alien menace in a CGI orgy of exploding buildings, is pretty flimsy for ostensibly A-list screenwriting.  One can also see, based on the clips released from Age of Ultron thus far, that the sequel will follow the same pattern.  Now that they’ve become an inseparable team, the heroes will find themselves pitted against each other, again – not for any organic reason, but because the Scarlet Witch’s magic messes with their minds – until they again overcome their differences and unite to fight off the robot menace in a CGI orgy of exploding buildings.  Throw in a few pop culture puns delivered from Robert Downey Jr. and you’ve pretty much got the whole movie there in a nutshell, haven’t you?

I don’t say this all to be snarky for the sake of being a contrarian.  I want to be wowed.  I want to be surprised.  I want the movie to go left when I was convinced it was bearing right.  I want to burst out of that theater and race to the kiosk to buy a ticket to see the very next screening.

I just have little faith that that’s going to happen.

I imagine that I will take my son to Age of Ultron, laugh at the parts I’m expected to laugh at, roll my eyes at the showers of concrete from the exploding buildings, and shuffle on home to mark the calendar for when I’ll have to take him to Ant-Man.  Marvel hasn’t shown in its productions thus far, nor indeed, have any of the other superhero movies of the 21st Century, that they have any interest in pushing the envelope and giving us something unexpected.  And why should they?  They have a formula that keeps generating hundreds of millions of dollars annually, a pent-up demand from my generation and our descendants that continues to flow as predictably as Niagara Falls.  You know exactly what you’re going to get when you walk into one of these movies, and it’s foolish to pretend that there is no appeal in that, as anyone who keeps going back to McDonald’s can attest.

I’m tired of McDonald’s.  Give me a steak.

Yeats famously said that things fall apart, the center cannot hold.  Eventually, one of these movies is going to fall flat on its face, and questions will be asked, fingers will be pointed, articles will be written and everyone will collectively scratch their heads, wondering where it all went wrong.  There won’t be one distinct answer, other than the notion that by refusing to evolve, by churning out essentially 21 versions of the same story in a period of eleven years, they will have brought on their own demise.  The irony of it all is that it isn’t as though the potential is not there for mind-twisting stories and emotionally resonant moments, given the sheer volume of the source material, and the reservoir of talent bursting to be heard.  But the focus remains only on predictable flash, because that is what a group of accountants in Burbank have decided is what sells – especially to overseas audiences who don’t grasp the puns – and they want their bazillion-dollar Christmas bonuses.

I’ve simply reached the point where as an audience member, I can’t overlook the hyperkinetic pixels and the stale one-liners anymore.  Yet I cling to a tiny, diminishing reservoir of hope that one of these days, one of these movies will leap off the screen and smack me out of my complacency and remind me why I loved these stories to begin with.  That hope is what keeps me buying tickets.

But I’m not there lining up on opening night anymore.