Star Trek: Into Darkness

Spoilers! Spoilers! Spoilers!

So, Star Trek: Into Darkness didn’t go as far down into the “darkness” rabbit hole as I feared it would. It was fun and exciting with lots of explosions and CGI effects (especially the warp trail), and the Klingons finally appeared, briefly. Unlike the previous installment, though, it doesn’t connect with the core competencies of Star Trek. The story only barely takes place in space; much of the time the characters are on Earth or in orbit around it. The characters don’t have many opportunities to show much depth; so the film missed the familiar triangular dynamic among logical Spock and sensual McCoy with intuitive Kirk providing the leadership that holds them together.

It turns out the main villain really is Khan, though his identity isn’t revealed right away and when it is, it’s supposed to surprise us. Khan’s character has been described as “Northern Indian,” Benedict Cumberbatch, the whitest Englishman anybody could find, plays him. After reintroducing Khan, the story takes an interesting twist I didn’t expect, and didn’t dislike, though I have mixed feelings about it. There’s better discussion of it at the A.V. Club than I can offer here.

That the movie recycles Khan’s character and even some parts of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan makes me feel like the filmmakers were abandoning the “reboot” in favor of a “remake” (and, of all the Star Trek movies, Wrath of Khan needs remaking the least). The preceding movie supposedly freed the franchise of its canonical baggage, and I was hoping for something new. At the end, though, the crew finally embarks on its “five-year mission,” providing what Gene Roddenberry always intended: hope for something better in the future.

Into… darkness?

I’m puzzled by trailers for Star Trek: Into Darkness. Star Trek isn’t about darkness. It’s about a better future. Gene Roddenberry’s original series was definitely a creature of the late 1960s, but the franchise’s persistent popularity proves its optimism isn’t outdated. From what I’ve seen, this year’s film is about James T. Kirk struggling with his ethics and summoning up the inner strength to face down a nihilistic villain of the Dark Knight trilogy variety. (Is it Khan? Played by a Brit instead of a Mexican this time? Isn’t Khan ever going to be played by a Punjabi, like his character is supposed to be?)

Now that he’s going to direct the Star Wars movies, J.J. Abrams has admitted to not liking Star Trek very much. That makes me feel bad about liking his 2009 movie. Which is unfortunate because I thought he had rediscovered something that made the original series so cool: for all the space adventuring and Klingons, the main characters were interesting. Abrams’ alternate timeline seemed refreshing, a creative way to break free from the tyranny of the “canon”. Now, all the heresies I was willing to overlook just grate on me. Was he too lazy to understand or did he just not care?

I wonder if Gene Roddenberry would have let someone who thinks Star Trek is so lame direct his movies. But there’s the problem: Gene Roddenberry is long dead, and without somebody who really loves the franchise and what it stands for it’s become just another derivative cultural commodity. Another assignment for some Hollywood brat director to pad his resume.

I get that sometimes trailers are misleading, and that the Star Trek: Into Darkness trailers might be trying to invoke the Dark Knight movies to attract audiences. I’ll not hesitate to watch when it’s released. I might even like it.

Here are some of my repressed gripes from the 2009 movie (which I still like), sparing you the more geeky stuff:

  • Dr. McCoy’s nickname “Bones” seems to come from a throwaway comment he makes, as if none of the writers knew or cared that it came from “sawbones,” 19th century term for a physician.
  • I haven’t seen any Klingons yet. What gives?
  • Zoe Saldana doesn’t look like someone who grew up speaking Swahili and John Cho doesn’t look like anyone in any samurai movie I’ve ever seen. There, I said it.
  • I like Simon Pegg, but his Scotty lacks some of James Doohan’s deadpan martial gravitas.

Oblivion

Avoid spoilers by not reading on.

Oblivion is a good example of a fun sci-fi adventure movie that falls a little short. It looks very cool (especially the guard drones) and there’s some fun action but it draws a little too heavily on other, better movies like The Matrix, 2001, Independence Day, and Star Wars. There’s even a crew of post-apocalyptic rebels in standard-issue Mad Max dress. I’m trying to decide if the same story could have been told without the movie slipping into so many familiar territories. I’ll venture a “yes” but leave it someone better qualified to figure out how.

A few observations about the science of the fiction:

  • The moon wasn’t really gone, it was just smashed up. There wouldn’t be a net loss of tidal force.
  • With all the vegetation dead and the oceans sucked up, I’m pretty sure the atmosphere wouldn’t be breathable.
  • Why were humans needed to fix the machines? Wouldn’t there be machine-fixing machines? And machine-fixing machine fixing-machines? Seems like a ready excuse to cast Tom Cruise, though the characters were so shallow anybody could have played his part.

The Descendants

We finally got around to watching The Descendants, a favorably reviewed George Clooney movie from a couple years ago. In it, he plays a wealthy landowner with a little bit of native Hawaiian blood. So you know he’s really part native, he sports a Polynesian unibrow. Inexplicably, unlike the brief phase when all the big-time actors wanted to wear mustaches (see The Men Who Stare at Goats for how they met their quota in bulk), the Polynesian unibrow hasn’t caught on.

Two take-away messages from the movie:

  • Rich people can have serious problems at home, even when they are wrestling with rich people matters like how to dispose of the islands they own.
  • Even if you’re dying tragically you still have to own up to all the bad stuff you did.

Blazing Saddles

Taggart: [shouting] We’ll head them off at the pass!
Hedley Lamarr: Head them off at the pass? I hate that cliché! [shoots Taggart’s foot]

Blazing Saddles, 1974

I introduced Lore to Mel Brooks with Blazing Saddles just as my cousins introduced me to him when I was a kid (I think they started me off with History of the World, Part I). Back in those days, I didn’t care for the madcap ending of Blazing Saddles— where the big fight scene spills over into the neighboring sets and then onto the streets of Hollywood; the heroes go into a movie theater to see how it ends and watch themselves drive off into the sunset. I now appreciate the commentary about the declining relevance of the Western genre. It probably also says something about Hollywood filmmaking that I don’t quite get.

For all that satire Blazing Saddles is pretty low-brow. My mother hates the movie simply because of the scene where the bad guys are sitting around the campfire eating beans and farting. I agree that part is neither funny nor original, yet it is also something that didn’t quite make it into John Wayne Westerns. Speaking of which, I always wondered where Governor Le Petomane’s name came from, and thanks to Google I now know. According to a Wikipedia entry so bizarre I almost don’t believe it, Le Petomane (French for “The Fartomaniac”) was the stage name of a 19th century performer whose shtick was farting.

Blazing Saddles is also incredibly dated. I’m too young to really get the Marlena Dietrich and Hedy (“It’s Hedley!”) Lamar jokes. In fact, I didn’t realize Madeline Kahn’s song and dance scene was almost an exact parody of Dietrich’s performance of “Falling in Love Again” in the 1930 Blue Angel. Which makes me wonder if Mel Brooks’ humor wasn’t already a little dated in 1974 when Blazing Saddles was released.

Blazing Saddles still has the handprints of the 1970s all over it, with its unsubtly incompetent and corrupt government officials (Mel Brooks’ cross-eyed governor first appears with his head buried in a redhead’s cleavage). There’s also a swipe at capital punishment, a hot-button 1970s political issue, with a busy medieval hunchback operating the gallows. While Blazing Saddles served as a parody of racism, it still has its own 1970s brand of racism (of the blaxploitation variety): Cleavon Little’s Sheriff Bart smokes pot, high-fives, is well-endowed, and generally outwits ignorant crackers at every turn.

As you see, I can find a lot of faults with Blazing Saddles. I like that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. I love Gene Wilder and his deadpan delivery of lines like “Little bastard shot me in the ass.” There’s another scene where Wilder’s Waco Kid is consoling Sheriff Bart, who feels unwelcome in Rock Ridge. They are both looking into or just past the camera. Wilder has his arm around Little and tells him, “You’ve got to remember that these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know… morons.” Little can barely contain his laughter, and neither can I.

The People Versus George Lucas

There’s this movie that Netflix keeps recommending to me: The People Versus George Lucas. It’s a documentary about where fans (represented in this film by greasy, overweight American Studies majors) think Lucas went wrong with the Star Wars franchise, particularly with the special edition remastering of the original trilogy and his treatment of the new trilogy. There’s even a low blow mention of the demented Star Wars Christmas special.

I never had a huge problem with the prequel trilogy. I thought those movies were pretty good. Not great, but good. On their own, they wouldn’t have made Star Wars a cultural phenomenon. Their main improvement over the older films is a more sophisticated storyline. For example, in Return of the Jedi the Emperor is just a cantankerous old man with electric fingers. But in the new trilogy he’s a master manipulator who’s pulling everybody’s strings.

I agree with the critics that Jar-Jar Binks and the midi-chlorians or whatever the hell they were called were pretty stupid. And as my brother points out, the transformation of the Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader is not really convincing: how does this guy get from loving his mother and wife to slaughtering children? It took me a while to admit I agree with him. Intellectually I can understand that story arc; emotionally I just don’t feel it. But people who were disappointed by the new trilogy expected to experience it the way they experienced the original, as awe-struck eight year olds. But I don’t think it’s fair to expect somebody, even George Lucas, to repeat that level of achievement.

Lucas’ real crime was tampering with him original films. With a lot of sequels, adaptations, and remakes, there is a fallacy among the faithful that original art is somehow damaged by its inferior successors. That is not usually true, but in this case Lucas actually did harm his films. I can sort of understand why he might want to dress up the old special effects, but the old effects were noteworthy in their own time. They were part of what made those movies cool to begin with. But the addition of unnecessary scenes, and the outright changing of one of them (Han shot first!) is unforgivable.

Zero Dark Thirty

In his 1991 book Baghdad Without a Map, Tony Horwitz, a freelance journalist who lived in the Middle East during the 1980s, wrote about visiting Saddam Hussein’s Iraq before the Persian Gulf War. While sightseeing in the capital, he sneers at a statue commemorating Saddam’s attempt to kill Prime Minister Abd al-Karim Qasim in 1959:

Iraq was the first country I had ever visited that enshrined an assassination attempt as the most glorious event in the nation’s history.

When I read that back in the 1990s, I shared Horwitz’s contempt for that nation which wrapped its identity in thuggish violence. Lately I’ve been reminded of it as we celebrate the killing of Osama bin Laden. I was glad to see the end of him but I don’t see it as anything worth celebrating. It took us ten years to track down and squash that miserable worm and in the meantime we let him warp our society. Don’t be so proud.

Shoeless Joe

Somehow, my wife has gotten away for years without having watched Field of Dreams. Likewise, I’ve lived in Iowa City twice that long and had never read W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe, the book Field of Dreams is based on. The book is set in Iowa, specifically in Johnson County near Iowa City. Kinsella is an alumnus of the University of Iowa’s renowned Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

We remedied all that last week. Of the movie my wife commented, “Kevin Costner is not a very good actor and that was not a very good movie.” I agreed that it seemed better when I was a kid, that it’s too sentimental, that you need a deep cultural understanding of baseball to like it, and that Kevin Costner is not a very good actor.

I hadn’t seen Field of Dreams in a long time, but I took the opportunity to compare it to the book. The main character, Ray Kinsella, has a creepy intensity and obsessiveness that didn’t come out on the screen— he’s eccentric but not disarming and likable like Costner. Otherwise the story follows pretty closely. A lot of the dialogue is right off the page, though the book has many more characters.

I guess all that’s left is to go up to Dyersville and see the Field of Dreams movie site; a tourist trap that dies a little bit with every year the movie recedes into our collective memory. We can take our time: they just got a tax break from the state so they’ll be around for a little while.

2001

Whenever I want to remember what the year 2001 was like, I pop 2001: A Space Odyssey into the DVD player. That year, the worst thing that happened to us was some mysterious aliens gave us the creepy-baby treatment. At least we kept it secret from those Soviets. I really should have gone on vacation to the moon that year instead of New Mexico.

Our dark national weekend

On account of a variety of presidential, departmental, and gubernatorial proclamations, we’ve lowered our nation’s flag to half-staff four or five times in the last month. On Friday I lowered it for the shooting victims of Aurora, Colorado. We won’t raise it again until Wednesday. I feel like we abuse our flag this way, and ourselves, by being in a perpetual state of symbolic mourning. I think it cheapens the idea of official mourning  and renders it rather meaningless.

Despite the recent unpleasantness, the insincere and indulgent spectacle of leaders and commentators tearing at their clothes, we went to see “The Dark Knight Rises” on Saturday . There wasn’t any security theater— just regular motion picture theater, a crowd, and a pretty good movie. It gave me some hope that people weren’t cowering at home in reaction to the latest media event.

(The film, incidentally, is about a government unable to govern fairly, and citizens unable to carry out their democratic duties responsibly. Batman solves both problems with brutal and decisive violence.)

I’ve mostly avoided the news this weekend, and the predictable shouting about gun control. I did find today a calm, reasonable, yet passionate article by Jason Alexander, an actor, about the gulf between the Second Amendment and the unregulated self-arming of belligerent extremists. Like Jason Alexander, I’ve tried very hard to not let my dislike of gun fetishism and trigger-happy social engineering get in the way of my belief in the constitutional validity of responsible gun ownership.

Unlike Jason Alexander, I see these mass shootings more as symptoms of mental health problems (something nobody— politicians, the media, anyone— ever wants to talk about) than of lax gun control. Clearly, Colorado’s permissive conceal-and-carry, make-my-day gun laws didn’t deter this clown from assaulting those theater goers. But whatever it is about our society that produces such antisocial, hyper-individualistic berserkers with stunning regularity deserves examination as much as our gun laws.

So when we raise our flags to full-staff on Wednesday, we’ll have only completed another exercise in feigned solemnity. We’ll take a break for a while until the next appointed outrage. Meanwhile another psychopath is going untreated.

Prometheus

This post is about a movie; avoid spoilers by not reading.

We don’t usually go in for the 3-D at the movie theater but Prometheus seemed like it would be worth it, and it was. It was probably the best movie we’ve seen at a theater in a while. The 3-D effects weren’t terribly intrusive. I forgot I had the glasses on and perhaps that’s as it should be. As for the rest of it, the story, character, and visuals all clicked very nicely.

I have a pet peeve with space adventures, even ones I like: when arriving on a strange planet, the explorers always manage to land within walking distance of the its seat of power. In the case of Star Trek, The Original Series, the away team might land in what looks like a total wilderness (or as wilderness as a cheap set of foam rocks can get), but are guaranteed to find a representative of the whole big planet is just beyond those shrubs. It’s sort of like aliens landing by happenstance around the corner from the United Nations Headquarters. How convenient! Anyway, I rationalize that a planetary survey took place off-camera somewhere.

The Hunger Games

My first feeling after seeing “The Hunger Games” at the theater was that it was good if you like watching teenagers kill each other. I borrowed the book too. The movie follows it very closely. The main difference is that the book is told entirely in the first person from Katniss’s point of view so some of the behind-the-scenes machinations in the Capitol seen in the movie were added by the filmmakers.

The greatest value of the movie was its excellent visualization of the book’s efficient text, the best examples being in the flashy, high-tech fashions of the Capitol such as Caeser Flickerman’s talk show set. A little less impressive were the depictions of the Captiol’s architecture. My wife and I debated about whether the filmmakers intended the city to look drab or if they tried to make it look monumental and fell a bit short.

I’ve heard some jabbering about whether dystopian Panem is meant to represent the follies of a liberal or of a conservative society. I didn’t get any sense of partisanship from Suzanne Collins’ story. I thought it was more about an exploitative civilization that lived in leisurely comfort while distant, hidden people toiled for their benefit. Panem seemed like a combination of ancient Rome, pre-Revolutionary France, and contemporary North Korea but I saw a lot of us (liberal, conservative, or otherwise) in it.

Mirror, Mirror

Avert your eyes if you don’t like spoilers!

If the trailers made “Mirror, Mirror” look like a comedy, it’s because they had the funniest parts. Maybe I should have known better. That guy who imagined up “The Cell” directed “Mirror, Mirror”, meaning it manages to be bright and colorful and creepy all at the same time.

It’s a fun movie, but not a very good one. I think it was the seven dwarves that turned me off. There was a faint reek of political correctness about them. They aren’t indentured miners or whatever they were supposed to be in the Disney film. They’re ruggedly and independently employed as a merry band of bandits. The actors playing them had many unnecessary lines—as if there was contractual obligation to be equitable—that killed the momentum of their scenes. In this case, adding depth to the characters didn’t contribute to the story. A film that wants to avoid the appearance of being exploitative should probably not involve dwarves at all.

Julia Roberts was a hoot, the best part of the movie, better than even the costumes. Actors must find it liberating to play villains. It always makes their performances more enjoyable. Or maybe it’s us and we just like a good baddy. Oddly, I didn’t find her wicked queen to be a fading beauty because Julia Roberts is just as pretty as ever. But I suppose a hypothetical society that fetishizes baby-smooth white skin would indeed find Snow White “fairest of them all.”