Malcolm McDowell: The CFQ Interview

Malcolm McDowell in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE.
Malcolm McDowell in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE.

Practically omnipresent and infinitely versatile, Malcolm McDowell has played, among others, a rebellious private school student, a futuristic sociopath, a degenerate emperor, Michael Myer’s nemesis, and the killer of Captain Kirk. He has worked with directors that have included Stanley Kubrick, Paul Schrader and Rob Zombie. He’s pretty much done it all, including a brief appearance as a mastermind in corporate espionage in this weekend’s environmental biography, A GREEN STORY. And, oh, has he stories.
We were able to spend some time with Malcolm, delving into the full range of his career, including his work with the iconoclastic director Lindsay Anderson and how he faced the challenge of filming a high-speed orgy for A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. Click on the player to hear the show.


Star Trek: Generations (1994) – Retrospective Science Fiction Film Review

Star Trek: Generations (1994)This is the first first time the cast of STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION stepped out of the television tube and into theatres; unfortunately, even more than the six STAR TREK films that preceded it, STAR TREK: GENERATIONS suffers from the feeling that it is  only a bigger budgeted episode of the television show, one that fails to use the full potential of the cinematic medium. The result is in many ways the worst that STAR TREK has to offer: science fiction, speculation, and the all-important Sense of Wonder take a back seat to character drama of the most mediocre sort, creating something not too far removed from a feature film version of a soap opera.
Despite self-congratulatory claims that this would be a self-contained motion picture, STAR TREK: GENERATIONS is nothing more than a series two-parter, shot in Panavision and edited together (and not a very good one – “The Best of Both Worlds,” parts 1 and 2, are much better). There is even an obligatory and annoying B-story about Data’s emotion chip, which wastes screen time that should have been devoted to the under-developed main plot, which leaves much to be desired. The opening ten minutes arguable rank among the best big screen TREK – a mini-movie featuring three members of the old crew on the Enterprise B. But when we flash foward to the crew of THE NEXT GENERATION, the interest level plummets. Partly this is because their first scene is a ridiculous attempt at whimsy in the dreaded holodeck; more importantly, it’s because the new crew have not yet attained the level of mythic archetype that would make them capable of carrying a movie on their own shoulders.
STAR TREK: GENERATIONS is weak science fiction. Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) is worrying about the passage of time and contemplating his own mortality. In the great tradition of contrived plotting, he encounters a villain whose goal just happens to relate to Picard’s own personal problems. Rather like Sybok in STAR TREK 5: THE FINAL FRONTIER, who wanted to find Eden, the obsessed Dr. Soran (Malcolm McDowell, who deserves better) is searching for eternal life in heaven. This search is expressed in techo-babble terms such as “nexus” and “time continuum,” of course, but it all emerges as a MacGuffin of the worst sort, just a plot device to give the characters something to do.
The true point of the story is to pass the torch to the new crew and to get the two Starfleet captains together. Unfortunately, the meeting of Kirk and Picard sparks no chemistry, because their personalities are barely engaged by the dilemma at hand, whose stakes are never made palpable to the audience. (We’re told that Soran’s efforts will cost millions of lives, but we never see them at risk; instead the adventure merely helps Picard get over his midlife crisis.) Perhaps surprisingly, the hammy Shatner acts rings around the more subtle Stewart, whose low-key approach proves weak at filling the big screen.
On top of everything else, STAR TREK: GENERATIONS suffers from the none-too-subtly snide attitude that the makers of THE NEXT GENERATION evinced toward the original STAR TREK. In order to smooth over the transition from films based on the orignial STAR TREK series they are willing to cast James Doohan, Walter Koenig, and William Shatner, but the first two get only brief cameos, and Shatner’s featured roll as Captain Kirk remains subsidiary  to Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) not only in screen time but also in the callous treatment of the character. Kirk is in the film because it was a good box office decision, but you get the feeling that producer Rick Berman and writers Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga enjoy killing him off so that their captain no longer has to live in Kirk’s shadow.
The few attempts to make STAR TREK: GENERATIONS feel like a real motion picture tend to backfire, such as the inexplicable appearance (courtesy of talented but miscast director of photography John Alonzo) of shadowson the Enterprise. (What – did engineer forget to replace some light bulbs on the ship?) In an even more desperate attempt to justify the feature-length treatment of this television-style script, STAR TREK: GENERATIONS crashes the Enterprise D –  a truly spectacular special effects sequence that in technical terms almost justifies the price of admission. However, emotionally, how many times can you destroy the Enterprise and get any juice out of it? As if to underline this failing, the denouement has an under-used Riker expressing regret at never getting into the captain’s chair, to which Picrd responds, “I’m sure this wont’ be the last ship christened Enterprise.”
After the number of times the Enterrprise has been trashed (twice in this movie alone!), one might wonder whether someone at the Federation would start to think the jinxed name should be retired.
STAR TREK: GENERATIONS(1994). Directed by David Carson. Screenplay by Ronald D. Moore & Brannon Braga; story by Rick Berman, Ronald D. Moore & Brannon Braga. Cast: Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, Brent Spiner, LeVar Burton, Michael Dorn, Gate McFadden, Marina Sirtis, Malcolm McDowell, James Doohan, Walter Koenig, William Shatner, Alan Ruck, Jenette Goldstein, Whoopie Goldberg, Majel Barret (as Enterprise computer voice).

Star Trek: Insurrection (1998) – Retrospective Film Review

Star Trek: Insurrection (1998)By the time this film reached theatres in 1998, viewers knew better than to expect good science-fiction from STAR TREK features. The franchise had long since reached the level where the selling point was not to “go where no one has gone before” but to put familiar characters through familiar paces, preferably by reviving some villain or other concept from the small screen. So it was a mildly pleasant surprise to see STAR TREK: INSURRECTION – the ninth STAR TREK film and the third featuring the cast of STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION – make some small attempt to stand on its own as a self-contained movie. Sure, there were continuity references to STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE, but at least you did not have to be up-to-date on the latest episodes to follow the plot; in fact, you did not have to watch the series at all.
The basic premise of STAR TREK: INSURRECTION – a planet blessed with a fountain of youth – is not original; certainly, the classic STAR TREK visited its share of paradise planets, but thankfully there are no references to any of these episodes. Instead, the idea is used to launch a story in which Picard finds the ideals of the Federation being undermined from within. The result is a moderately engaging adventure that provides plenty of action without resorting to the HELLRAISER-type horror elements used to enliven the previous big-screen entry, STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT.
Along the way, the cast is well served. One of the big problems of the films, particularly those based on STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION, has always been what to do with all the regular characters while still introducing some guest stars and new villains. Michael Piller deftly solves the problem by making the screen time count, in neat little scenes that tickle audience expectations (as when the youthfully rejuvenated Riker and Troi rekindle their long-dormant romance).
Frakes, meanwhile, does a competent job as director. STAR TREK: INSURRECTION has fewer opportunities than STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT to show off spectacular visuals, so the result feels even more like a made-for-television film (a problem with most of the TREK features). Fortunately, Frakes keeps the story moving and even pulls off a few poignantly poetic moments, as when Picard’s love interest, Anij (Donna Murphy) teaches him to enjoy a perfect moment, wherein time seems to slow down, as evidence by the blurred wings of a hummingbird suddenly clearly visible in slow motion.
Unfortunately, this romance is one of the weak points in STAR TREK: INSURRECTION. (Others include the videogame joystick Riker uses to manually pilot the Enterprise, a holodeck supposedly large enough to surreptitiously transport an entire village that turns out to be exactly the size of a ship’s bridge.) Apparently, more was in the original cut to invest emotional substance in the love story, but it was trimmed down after test screenings. This may be an example of actually slowing the pace down by cutting, leaving the remaining footage without the necessary grounding to make it compelling.
Also altered is the film’s conclusion. No longer does Ru’afo undergo a youthful regression that takes him past childhood to an embryonic stage; instead, he blows up in a space ship – a fiery climax that is a tad too typical. Fortunately, F. Murray Abraham’s performance remains otherwise intact, and he is an effectively malevolent force, even under all the make-up. Even more important, he is in control of his deviousness so that one believes he could gain the cooperation of the Federation’s Admiral Dougherty (a fine performance from Anthony Zerbe, who avoids sinking into outright villainy while clearing portraying a man willing to make moral compromises). One exchange between them is priceless: Ru’afo, who wants to prevent the Enterprise from contacting Starfleet, says, “I could send a ship to… [long pause for the right euphemism] …escort them back.” The look in Dougherty’s eyes clearly shows he knows just what he is agreeing to.
Unlike the foolish STAR TREK: GENERATIONS, with its off-screen and unseen populations threatened by a kid’s science project rocket, STAR TREK: INSURRECTION establishes a sense of something worthwhile at risk that is worth defending. So when the shooting starts, it is not mere gratuitous violence but an expression of dramatic conflict. Frakes and production designer Herman Zimmerman’s vision of the bucolic Ba’ku village may straddle cliché, but the film brings this cliché to life in a way that makes us believe the Enterprise crew would risk everything to defend it. Thus, the film captures the idealism of STAR TREK that is often missing from the big screen.
For all of this, however, the conflict is registered in terms that seem rather mild, hardly rising to the level to justify the use of the word “Insurrection” in the title. This ninth feature film voyage of the Starship Enterprise seemed like reasonably good STAR TREK back in 1998, perhaps mostly because no one was expecting much. At a time when the legend stated that odd-numbered TREK films always sucked, it was not hard for INSURRECTION to exceed expectations, so being half-way decent was good enough.
Over a decade later, the film fades from memory – it’s like one of those not-quite-favorite episodes from the series that you might enjoy watching again if it happens to air during  a STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATON marathon, but it comes nowhere near achieving the best that STAR TREK can do, either on the small screen or the big screen. Taken on its own terms, STAR TREK: INSURRECTION is a a minor success with enough appeal to satisfy undemanding fans, but it never rises above its genre, and it lacks the panache that enlivened even the less successful features starring the classic TREK cast.
The crew of STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION would make one more appearance in a feature film, 2002’s STAR TREK: NEMESIS, which tried to pump up the proceedings with a darker tone and an oh-so-serious storyline, but it was not until 2009’s STAR TREK that the franchise would once again yield a film that succeeded not only as a big-screen episode but also as a blockbuster big-screen entertainment.
STAR TREK: INSURRECTION (1998). Directed by Jonathan Frakes. Written by Rick Berman & Michale Piller, based on “Star Trek” created by Gene Roddenberry. Cast: Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, Brent Spiner, LeVar Burton, Michael Dorn, Gates mcFadden Marina Sirtis, F. Murray Abraham, Anthony Zerbe.

Copyright 1998 Steve Biodrowski. This review, in different form, originally appeared in Cinefantasitque magazine.