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 McCoy (Urban), plucky navigator Chekhov (Yelchin) and reliable Sulu (Cho) must utilize an ancient, outdated vessel and find a way to take down Krall before he takes down the Federation.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

Moonraker


In space, nobody can hear your witticisms.

In space, nobody can hear your witticisms.

(1979) Sci-Fi Spy Action (United Artists) Roger Moore, Lois Chiles, Michael Lonsdale, Richard Kiel, Corinne Cléry, Bernard Lee, Geoffrey Keen, Desmond Llewellyn, Lois Maxwell, Toshiro Suga, Emily Bolton, Blanche Ravalec, Walter Gotell, Arthur Howard, Michael Marshall, Brian Keith, Chichinou Kaeppler, Claude Carliez, Catherine Serre, Beatrice Libert.  Directed by Lewis Gilbert

Sci-Fi Spectacle 2015

Among James Bond fans, Moonraker remains even today a divisive subject. Some hail it as being among the best of the entire franchise (New York Times critic Vincent Canby thought it was even better than Goldfinger) while others look upon it as campy schlock with little redeeming value.

The plot is pure balderdash. A space shuttle, on loan to Britain from the U.S., is hijacked from a 747 on the way back to America. James Bond (Moore), MI-6 agent 007 is assigned the case by M (Lee, his last appearance in the franchise) and is sent to interview Hugo Drax (Lonsdale), the billionaire owner of Drax Industries who manufactured the shuttle. While on the French estate which the industrialist had moved stone by stone to the California desert, Bond meets Dr. Holly Goodhead (Chiles), an astronaut assigned to Drax and is nearly murdered by Chang (Suga), Drax’ bodyguard. With the assistance of Corinne Dufour (Cléry), Drax’ personal pilot, Bond discovers some blueprints to an unusual glass container.

Bond goes to Venice to find out the secret of the container and discovers that it is a vessel for a highly toxic nerve gas, accidentally killing several lab technicians in the process. Chang, however, he kills on purpose. He calls in the cavalry only to find the entire operation has disappeared. However, Bond kept a vial of the gas as proof and M keeps Bond on the case despite calls to take him off it. Under the guise of sending Bond on holiday, M sends him to Rio de Janeiro where Bond has discovered that Drax has moved his operations. There, with helpful contact Manuela (Bolton) he eventually learns that Drax has a secret base near Iguazu Falls on the Amazon.

Drax also has a new bodyguard, by the name of Jaws (Kiel) and a plan – to render Earth uninhabitable by humankind (the gas is harmless to animals and plants) and take the most beautiful specimens of humans onto a space station orbiting the Earth, kept hidden by a massive radar jamming device. Bond and Goodhead, who  turns out to be an ally, must stop Drax from wiping out all of humanity and beginning a new master race, one which he and his descendants will rule.

As Bond movies go this one is pretty ambitious. It had for its time an eyebrow-raising budget. In fact, For Your Eyes Only was supposed to follow The Spy Who Loved Me but as Star Wars had rendered the moviegoing public sci-fi crazy, producer Albert Broccoli decided to capitalize on the craze and send Bond into space. Utilizing series regular Derek Meddings on special effects (for which he was nominated for an Oscar) and Ken Adam for set design, this became one of the more visually spectacular of the Bond films, right up there with the volcano lair of You Only Live Twice.

Moore as Bond relied on witticisms more than Sean Connery ever did; here he approaches self-parody. By this time he was beginning to show his age (he was older than Connery was when he made Never Say Never Again) and becoming less believable in the role, although he would go on to make three more Bond films. This wasn’t his finest moment as Bond but he continued to make it through on charm and comic timing.

His main Bond mate, Chiles, was decidedly less successful. Many consider her the coldest Bond girl ever; she is decidedly unconvincing as a scientist and less so as a spy. She has almost no chemistry with Moore; Carole Bouquet would turn out to be a much better fit for Moore in For Your Eyes Only which wisely brought Bond back to basics when it came out in 1981.

Kiel, as Jaws, was already one of the most popular Bond villains of all time. Rather than being menacing, he became almost comic relief; his indestructibility becomes a running joke which might have been a tactical mistake by the writers. The movie desperately needed a sense of peril to Bond and you never get a sense he’s in any real danger other than a single sequence when Chang attempts to murder him in a G-force testing machine. Nonetheless Kiel is game and is one of the better elements in the film.

By this point in the series Bond films essentially wrote themselves and had become a little bit formulaic. Despite the popularity of this film, Broccoli knew that he had to break the franchise out of its rut and he would do so with the following film which would become one of the best of the Moore era; this one, while some loved it and audiences flocked to it, remains less highly thought of today. It is still impressive for its space battle sequence, it’s amazing sets and zero gravity sequences, even despite being somewhat dated. It, like nearly every Bond film, is solid entertainment by any scale.

WHY RENT THIS: Special effects were nifty for their time. Moore remains the most witty of the Bonds. Jaws.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Chilly Chiles. Lacks any sense of peril. Occasionally dull.
FAMILY VALUES: Violence and some sexual innuendo
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Would be the highest-grossing film of the series until Goldeneye broke the record in 1995.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Special Edition DVD includes a still gallery and a featurette on the Oscar-nominated special effects. The Blu-Ray edition includes these as well as some storyboards and test footage.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $210.3M on a $34M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (Blu-Ray/DVD Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu (download only)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Sci-Fi Spectacle continues!

Ender’s Game


Asa Butterfield can't resist saying "Hi Mom!"

Asa Butterfield can’t resist saying “Hi Mom!”

(2013) Science Fiction (Summit) Harrison Ford, Asa Butterfield, Hailee Steinfeld, Viola Davis, Abigail Breslin, Ben Kingsley, Nonso Anozie, Moises Arias, Stevie Ray Dillmore, Andrea Powell, Conor Carroll, Aramis Knight, Brandon Soo Hoo, Jimmy “Jax” Pinchak, Suraj Partha, Khylin Rambo, Caleb Thaggard, Cameron Gaskins, Kyle Clements, Wendy Miklovic, Jasmine Kaur. Directed by Gavin Hood

How many gamers have heard their parents tell them that their endless hours spent at the console/computer/device killing aliens, driving race cars, battling monsters and wrestling WWE superstars was wasted time? How many times have they heard that they gained no useful skills in doing so?

Here’s a movie that has a contrary viewpoint. 50 years after a devastating invasion by the ant-like Formic, an alien race seeking to colonize the Earth, the military knows that we as a species survived by the skin of our teeth. We never really developed a means of combating the swarming tactics of the aliens, unable to find any kind of pattern in their attacks. Only the bravery and sacrifice of one Mazer Rackham saved the human race.

Rather than trusting to established military tactics, the International Fleet has determined that the best way to combat an inevitable future invasion is to attack the home world of the Formic but not under the command of one of their own. Instead, they are taking the best and the brightest children and exposing them to strategy and tactics. The most ruthless of these are put into battle school and those with the most consistent record of victories are sent to command school. Only the very best of these will one day command that invasion.

Ender Wiggin (Butterfield) is a scrawny kid with a brilliant tactical mind. Disliked for his cold, intellectual demeanor (and a smug arrogance to be sure), he is constantly bullied by bigger kids but he is not only able to defend himself, he does so in such a way that precludes future bullying. This captures the attention of Colonel Graff (Ford) who promotes Ender to battle school. While Ender’s parents fret, Ender’s brother Peter (Pinchak) shows frustration that it isn’t him going further in the program while his compassionate sister Valentine (Breslin) tries to protect her little brother.

Ender falls under the command of the small but tough Bonzo (Arias) who is as ambitious as they come and doesn’t want a newbie ruining his chances at command school. Sergeant Dap (Anozie) doesn’t think much of Ender but grudgingly learns to respect him. Only Petra (Steinfeld), Alai (Partha) and Bean (Knight) believe in Ender while gruff Colonel Graff watches his progress with approval. Only Major Anderson (Davis), the school psychologist, worries about Ender the boy. “When it’s over, what will be left of the boy?” she wonders while the pragmatic Graff replies “What does it matter if there’s nothing left at all?”

Time is running out; Ender is the last hope of the military in their all-out war for survival against the relentless, implacable Formic. But Ender has reservations about what he’s doing and why he’s doing it. Can the boy become the man who will save the human race?

The movie is based on the first book of the Ender series by Orson Scott Card. Spanning a dozen books and at least as many short stories, this is clearly being looked at as a franchise for the studio which is lacking one now that the Twilight series is over. While the book wasn’t specifically aimed at the young adult market which Hollywood seems to drool over these days, it certainly has found a foothold among them.

The effects range from pretty good to spectacular which makes sense since Digital Domain, one of Hollywood’s premiere effects outfits, is aboard not just as an effects studio but also as a producer. Of particular note are the battle room sequences. Think of it as zero-G laser tag and while not quite up to the level of what we see in Gravity it is at least as technically competent and a whole lot of fun.

It’s always a good thing to see Harrison Ford onscreen and here he is the gruff, pragmatic (and some would argue heartless) military man who is balancing the survival of the human race with the needs of a little boy. The Colonel’s humanity occasionally shows through and one can only conclude that it is more Ford than the Colonel we are seeing in those moments. Graff is part Han Solo, part sensei but mostly military man and the latter characteristic wins through nearly every time.

Butterfield received criticism (although not from me) for being emotionless in Hugo but is less scintillating here than he was in that film. Ender is constantly battling his own rage throughout the film and we rarely get a sense of it from Butterfield, nor do we get a real sense of Ender’s genius. Most importantly, it isn’t until the coda that we get any sense of Ender’s humanity. Granted, this isn’t an easy role to play. There are no templates for it because nobody has ever gone through what Ender goes through in the film. Butterfield has to play it by ear and falls short. As much as it might pain me to say it, he might have benefitted from a director like Scorsese here – although Hood is a very good director who has coaxed amazing performances from less talented actors in the past.

I haven’t read the book in more than twenty years myself but I did like it back in the day and read several of the sequels (my son Jacob was also heavily into the Ender series as a teen). It seems to me that the movie stuck pretty well by the book although not exactly, but close enough that there hasn’t been much hue and cry from the devotees of the book. Considering that Card was a producer on the film might have something to do with it.

The movie falls short in generating excitement. In some ways it’s almost clinical and quite frankly it could have used a bit more emotion – not necessarily from the lead characters but simply in general. In a way, it could have used a little more Valentine and a little less Ender in that regard. Still, it’s impressive visually and while it doesn’t generate the kind of excitement that makes me eager for the series to continue as a franchise, I certainly would buy a ticket for the next film should one get made. Given the initial box office figures, that’s not a slam dunk.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific special effects. Harrison Ford.

REASONS TO STAY: Butterfield not quite up to snuff. Lacks passion.

FAMILY VALUES:  Sci-fi action and violence, some thematic elements and a fairly nightmare-inducing monster.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: For the battle room zero-g scenes, the actors had to attend Space Camp but also got special instructions from Cirque du Soleil performers regarding the choreography. Special devices had to be invented in order to give the actors full range of motion during the physically demanding scenes.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/12/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Starship Troopers

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Last Vegas