Woman in Motion


Uhura is still alluring.

(2019) Documentary (Shout! Nichelle Nichols, Vivica A. Fox, George Takei, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Reginald Hudlin, Lynn Whitfield, Al Sharpton, Pharrell Williams, John Lewis, Maxine Waters, Martin Luther King III, Rod Roddenberry, Michael Dorn, Benjamin Crump, Michael Eric Dyson, David Gerrold, D.C. Fontana, Deborah Riley Draper, Walter Koenig, Allison Schroeder. Directed by Todd Thompson


Whether you are a fan of the show Star Trek or not, you have to admit that it was historic and changed our culture for good. During its short three season run, it pushed the boundaries of what television sci-fi could be – from essentially kids programming to, for the first time, intelligent adult shows concerning issues that humanity was facing at the moment it aired (many of which we’re still facing) from racism to mutually assured destruction to drug addiction.

Nichelle Nichols was part of that groundbreaking cast. She was one of the first African-Americans to appear in a role that wasn’t subservient or strictly comic relief (although she did provide that from time to time). She took part in television’s first interracial kiss (with William Shatner) which led to many stations in the South to refuse to air the episode; that’s history making. But many of Trek’s even most staunchest fans may not know that her real history making came after the show left the airwaves.

The astronaut program for NASA had been up to that point strictly white men only. While there had been a brief flirtation with admitting women to the program, that effort was eventually discontinued quietly and NASA remained a white boys-only club – and Nichelle Nichols noticed. She told NASA’s chief “I don’t see my people (among the astronauts)” during a convention and as it turned out, NASA listened. They had already been eager to change the demographic of the astronaut program; the problem was, they weren’t getting much interest from the African-American community nor any other minorities for that matter. Nichelle, through her Women in Motion program, was tasked with recruiting astronauts to the program. And in order to talk knowledgeably about the process, Nichols herself underwent some of the tests that applicants go through.

Eventually, she succeeded in bringing enough people of color and women to the program to at least get the integration process started. This documentary on her life focuses primarily on her post-Trek endeavors, although her early history growing up in Chicago, her aspirations to be a dancer and a singer, and her gradual migration to acting are chronicled, as is her career as Lt. Uhura (there’s an amusing montage of Nichols saying her signature line “Hailing frequencies open,”).

But it is also true that the extraordinarily talented Nichols – who has an amazing vocal range, which she demonstrates in several songs sung during the course of the documentary – was criminally underutilized, often relegated to being little more than a switchboard operator. Stung by the lack of development for her role, Nichols was ready to quit – until no less a personage than Martin Luther King, Jr. intervened, urging her to keep at it. The astute Dr. King realized the symbolic importance of Nichols’ mere presence on Star Trek.

The movie, which was the opening night film at last year’s Florida Film Festival, does bog itself down with an overabundance of talking head interviews from all walks of life, including her fellow Trek co-stars George Takei and Walter Koenig, one of the successors to the franchise (Michael Dorn), actors (Vivica A. Fox and Reginald Hudlin), scientists (Neil DeGrasse Tyson), astronauts (Mae Jemison and Bill Nelson) and politicians (Maxine Waters, John Lewis) discuss Nichols and her importance as both an actress and a recruiter for NASA.

Nichols proved to be an engaging storyteller, although after filming she was afflicted with dementia which is not evident in the film. It did prevent her from doing much publicity for the film, which is a shame because there is a wonderful warmth here, even despite the seemingly endless parade of interviews. We do see a lot of archival footage of Nichols stumping for NASA as well as a plethora of Trek clips, but this isn’t a movie necessarily for hardcore Trekkers – although they will certainly want to see it.

REASONS TO SEE: Nichols is a wonderful storyteller. She has amazing range as a singer. One truly gets a sense of her inner strength and determination.
REASONS TO AVOID: Overly reliant on talking head interviews.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: As a child, Nichols took ballet dancers and dreamed of one day becoming one of the first African-American ballerinas; she ended up becoming a singer (and at one time sang for Duke Ellington’s orchestra) and then an actress.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/11/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: To Be Takei
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
The Mimic

Star Trek Beyond


"Someone's sitting in my chair."

“Someone’s sitting in my chair.”

(2016) Science Fiction (Paramount) Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, Karl Urban, Idris Elba, Sofia Boutella, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Joe Taslim, Lydia Wilson, Deep Roy, Melissa Roxburgh, Anita Brown, Doug Jung, Danny Pudi, Kim Kold, Fraser Aitcheson, Matthew MacCaull, Emy Aneke, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Greg Grunberg, Fiona Vroom. Directed by Justin Lin

 

The Star Trek franchise turns 50 this year as next month marks the anniversary of the first appearance of Captain James T. Kirk and the U.S.S. Enterprise on the NBC network way back in 1966. The franchise has gone through six different television series including one animated version and a seventh set to debut in January, thirteen movies, dozens of fan-made videos and innumerable novels and fan-fic entries.

The latest film (and the first of the rebooted “alternate universe” Trek without J.J. Abrams in the director’s chair) finds the Enterprise in the middle of its five year mission and a bit of a malaise has set in among the crew, not the least of which is Captain Kirk (Pine) who is contemplating taking a promotion and a desk job. After a botched diplomatic mission left an ancient yet apparently unimportant artifact in the possession of the Federation starship, Kirk and crew pull into the gigantic Starbase Yorktown for some desperately needed R&R.

While the Enterprise is docked at the impressive space station, an unidentified ship comes from a nearby largely unexplored nebula. Its lone occupant, Kalara (Wilson) pleads for assistance, saying that her crew has been marooned on a planet inside the nebula after the ship was damaged. Kirk takes his ship into the Nebula, only to meet a foe that the pride of the Federation fleet has absolutely no defense again.

Separated on a hostile planet with much of the crew captured, the officers of the Enterprise have to figure out a way to warn the Starbase that Krall (Elba) a maniac with a serious mad on for the Federation is coming and has the might to bring the Yorktown to its knees. With the help of Jaylah (Boutella), an alien whose family was murdered by Krall, Chief Engineer Scott (Pegg), a badly wounded Spock (Quinto), his ex-girlfriend Uhura (Saldana), the irascible Dr. McCoy (Urban), plucky navigator Chekhov (Yelchin) and reliable Sulu (Cho) must utilize an ancient, outdated vessel and find a way to take down Krall before he takes down the Federation.

Justin Lin, who has directed several films in the Fast and Furious franchise, brings an action pedigree to the science fiction franchise and as you might expect, the emphasis here is more on the action. Surprisingly, however, there is a great deal of focus put on the various interpersonal relationships of the crew, particularly on the Spock-McCoy bromance which was a centerpiece of the original series but got little play in the reboot until now. Some of the best moments in the film involve the bickering between the two of them.

This is a fine-looking film and great care has been put into the sets and special effects. The Yorktown is particularly amazing, a space station that has a bit of an Escher vibe to it with amazing maglev trains and soaring skyscrapers. It’s what you’d expect from a cityscape four centuries from now. The question becomes why would something like that be built in space when there’s a perfectly good planet below it? It looks nifty as a space dock but would an entire city the size of Chicago be needed to support starships docking for repairs and resupplies?

But of course, the future is whatever you make of it and conventional logic can disappear in a flash of new technology. Speaking of technology, it’s put to good use here as the special effects are state of the art. There’s no doubt that you’ll dig that aspect of the film even if you enjoy nothing else. Quite frankly, there’s a lot more to enjoy too; the cast here is strong and getting Idris Elba as your lead villain is absolutely a coup. Elba is climbing up the ladder to what no doubt will be eventual A-list status and a slew of awards. Even unrecognizable under prosthetics and make-up, he still has the ability to command the screen in almost a Shakespearean turn here.

This isn’t the best movie in the Star Trek canon but it’s right up there. It’s good to see that someone besides J.J. Abrams and Nicholas Meyer can make a great Trek movie. Some blue blood Trekkers may grouse at the surfeit of action sequences (which has been true throughout the reboot) and even that it isn’t true Trek. I disagree. Much of the movie revolves around the concept of working together for a common goal versus waging war for the betterment of the species. It is a question we continue to struggle with even now. While this isn’t as thought-provoking as hardcore Trekkers may like, it is an extremely entertaining summer entertainment. Unfortunately, that hasn’t translated into box office dollars so it is likely that the franchise – with the next installment already greenlit and featuring the return of Chris Hemsworth as George Kirk – will take a different turn. And perhaps that’s for the best.

REASONS TO GO: The film emphasizes the interpersonal relationships of the crew. Some very cool special effects here. Idris Elba even under layers of make-up is one of the best actors today.
REASONS TO STAY: A couple of holes in logic appear here and there.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence and action, some a little bit gruesome.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first Star Trek film or television show to be shot primarily outside of Hollywood. It was mainly shot in Vancouver and all of the interior sets were built from scratch.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/14/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Little Prince

Star Trek


Star Trek

Eric Bana gives Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto some hair care tips.

(Paramount) Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Eric Bana, Simon Pegg, Karl Urban, Bruce Greenwood, Leonard Nimoy, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Ben Cross, Winona Ryder, Chris Hemsworth, Jennifer Morrison, Rachel Nichols, Faran Tahir. Directed by J.J. Abrams

Even icons from time to time must reinvent themselves, if for no other reason to remain relevant in changing times. That is even more true for those having to do with the future.

The Federation starship U.S.S. Kelvin is investigating strange readings at a black hole. To the surprise of the ship’s captain (Tahir), a gigantic spacecraft of unknown design emerges from the singularity and without any provocation at all, opens fire on the starship, crippling it. The captain is forced to come aboard the unknown ship and is escorted to its captain, a Romulan named Nero (Bana),  who proceeds to ask the Federation representative some rather odd questions, the strangest being what stardate is it. The answer drives Nero berserk and he murders the captain and once again opens fire on the Kelvin.

The second-in-command (Hemsworth) orders an evacuation of the doomed Kelvin, paying special attention to his wife (Morrison) who is in labor. He intends to join her, but the ship’s automated functions are out of commission, and they are needed to gain critical time for the crew of the Kelvin to make their escapes. He realizes with sickening horror that he must remain aboard to run the ship manually. The young lieutenant saves his crew by ramming the dying starship into the unknown spaceship, crippling its weapon systems and propulsion. The name of the young hero? George Kirk.

Years later, his son James (Pine), born the day of his death, is adrift in Iowa, drinking in dive bars, picking up every woman he can and generally just lashing out at the world. While attempting to pick up a pretty Starfleet cadet named Uhura (Saldana), he gets jumped by a number of cadets, holding his own for awhile before getting his tush handed to him until Captain Christopher Pike (Greenwood) stops the fracas and clears the bar. He talks to the young Kirk about his father, and the difference he made to the 800 lives that were saved by his sacrifice and invites Kirk to join the Academy.

At first Kirk is reluctant to join Starfleet but eventually relents. On the shuttle ride to San Francisco, he meets an irascible divorced physician who is joining Starfleet to rebuild a career that had been essentially stymied in his divorce. The medico’s name is Leonard McCoy (Urban).

Already at the academy is a young half-Vulcan named Spock (Quinto). Tormented by young Vulcans for his half-human ancestry, Spock elects to follow the Vulcan disciplines of logic and dispassion of his father Sarek (Cross) with the blessing of his compassionate mother Amanda (Ryder). Despite this, Spock elects to decline admission to the Vulcan Science Academy (the first Vulcan ever to do so) and join Starfleet. After graduating from the Academy, he devises the notorious Kobiyashi Maru test, the infamous “no-win” scenario.

In the meantime, a brash young Ensign Kirk is blowing through the academy in a mere three years, still picking up women wherever he goes including a beautiful young Orion ensign (Nichols) who has come up with a rather ingenious solution to Spock’s test, landing him in hot water with the Academy dons. Unfortunately, an emergency comes up that relates directly to Kirk’s past, one that will bring all the disparate elements and characters together and forge together a crew that is destined to become a legend, while a man from the future (Nimoy) holds the key to the lives of Spock and Kirk.

The Star Trek franchise has been in decline for several years now, with an over-saturation of product that eventually seemed somewhat formulaic in many ways. Star Trek reboots the franchise with the original characters as seen through fresh new eyes. Director J.J. Abrams balances a delicate line of maintaining the spirit of the original series while adding additional elements of action and epic scope. Thus his new re-imagining of Star Trek will please not only hardcore Trek fans but also more general audiences.

Electing to go with a cast of young actors while steering clear of big name actors (Bana as Nero is the most recognizable face in the show other than Nimoy, and Bana is nearly unrecognizable in any case), and they come through in spades. All of the major crew members (Cho as Sulu, Pegg as Scotty and Yelchin as Chekov, as well as Urban and Saldana) have extremely pivotal scenes and establish their characters nicely.

Much of the success of Star Trek rests on the shoulders of the two leads, and they pull through splendidly. Pine captures the essence of James Tiberius Kirk without the quirks and mannerisms of William Shatner. He nails the bravado, the charisma, the independence and the compassion of Kirk but at the same time manages to render him human and fallible. Like Shatner’s Kirk, he is rash and sometimes prone to egotism, but at the heart of him is his brilliant intuition and willingness to risk. Pine takes an epic character and makes him accessible.

Quinto, best known as Sylar on the hit TV show “Heroes” makes a marvelous Spock. He radiates icy calm that masks the boiling inferno below the surface. Spock is heavily conflicted but chooses not to come to terms with his conflicting natures; instead he subverts his more human aspects in favor of the Vulcan stoicism. Quinto also has an uncanny resemblance to Nimoy as a young Spock, and fills the boots more than adequately.

There are plenty of breathtaking special effects, not to mention some intense action sequences, the best of which is a parachute jump onto a drilling platform high in the atmosphere of Vulcan. Visually, this is a movie that will rock your world.

But is it Star Trek? That’s the question most Trek fans were hoping to have answered. I have to say, yes and no. The original television series in many ways was less action-oriented than this is. Yes, there were plenty of fistfights, phasers set on stun and epic space battles in the original, but the themes had to do with things that were important to series creator Gene Roddenberry; man’s inhumanity to man, racial tension, drug abuse, gender inequality and the supreme waste and ultimate uselessness that is war. Here, we are being re-introduced to the characters that the producers hope to rebuild the franchise with and the movie is more about that than taking on issues.

However, the foundation has been laid and hopefully in the future we’ll see stories more in tune with the high bar that Roddenberry set. Given the outstanding box office returns the movie had, it is inevitable that there will be at least one or two more installments in the movie series if not more. The action and special effects will get the bodies in the door; the characters will bring those bodies back for more. Abrams has hit a home run with the new Star Trek. Now, the question becomes can he do it again?

WHY RENT THIS: Breathtaking special effects and heart-pounding action sequences drive the movie. Young actors bring established characters back to life with fresh perspectives. Pine makes a fabulous Captain Kirk and could be a future star.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The overall tone that Trek-haters despised is still present here.

FAMILY VALUES: Some scenes of brief sexuality and some violence; also there is a nightmare-inducing creature during the Delta Vega sequence. Otherwise, fit for most young audiences (but not for the very teeny tiny).

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The seven years gap between this movie and Star Trek: Nemesis is the longest in the franchise history.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There are three different home viewing versions of this so far: a single-disc DVD which is essentially just the film, a 2-disc Special Edition DVD which contains some deleted scenes including Abrams’ take on the Klingons, and a 3-Disc Blu-Ray which contains a humongous number of featurettes, as well as a 360 degree view of various Enterprise and Romulan sets. There is also a feature on Gene Roddenberry’s legacy.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Disney’s A Christmas Carol