The Best of Star Trek: The Next Generation – DVD Review

Until the premier of Ronald Moore’s BATTLESTAR GALACTIC A reboot, STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION was easily the most intelligent sci-fi show on American television. Prior to its premiere in first-run syndication back in 1987, we remember not having much faith in the concept. The strength and reason of Kirk was divided between Picard and Riker, while Data would cover the same ground as Spock, etc. But the strong performances of Patrick Stewart and Brent Spiner helped the show through the shaky first season, allowing other regulars like Jonathan Frakes, LeVar Burton, and particularly Michael Dorn to develop and sharpen their characters’ personalities (we don’t know whose idea it was to kill off Denise Crosby’s character in the middle of the first season, but it robbed the show of one of its most interesting performances.) The writing on  STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION continued to improve throughout its 7 seasons until its final episode, the feature length “All Good Things” – giving the series that rarest and most enviable of things, a finale that encompasses the very best of the show.
As part of Paramount’s marketing blitzkrieg centering on JJ Abrams’ new feature, we have a 4 episode “best of” compilation of TNG episodes. We take issue with leaving out the superior Spock-oriented “Unification” – or even “All Good Things” – if only because the Borg just never really captured our imagination.
The Best of Both Worlds” (Parts I & II)
Capping season 3 and beginning season 4, this represented the second contact with the Borg, a race of cybernetic beings who travel through the universe inside giant cubes that look like square computer chips. The Borg seek to assimilate other life forms into their own “collective”, absorbing the knowledge of the cultures along the way (the concept is such a ripe metaphor for communist infiltration that it’s hard to believe that it was written after the fall of the Berlin Wall) the Enterprise’s weapons are useless until newly arrived Lt Commander Shelby (Elizabeth Dennehy) figures out a way to adjust the power frequency of the phasers to inflict minor damage to the Borg hull. The Borg’s intentions are to kidnap and assimilate Picard to use as a human face for their eventual conquest of Earth, forcing Riker to attempt a rescue of Picard before implementing Shelby’s plan to destroy the Borg ship. The Borg would go on to serve as the bête noir for the Star Trek universe throughout the ensuing television series – even getting their own film, Star Trek First Contact – which is a major reason for our eventual tuning out. A nearly faceless, emotionless enemy is exactly that, and we could never muster much interest in an ongoing battle with walking circuit boards. That being said, these episodes give Picard some nice moments while fighting to allow his humanity to show through, giving Riker a turn in the “big chair” and fighting his more rash qualities in Shelby. It’s an effects heavy go, and the series’ video-processed effects range from acceptable to dicey (we wonder when Paramount will spring for an effects facelift similar to what was done for the original series)
Yesterday’s Enterprise
Another 3rd season episode, this time the Enterprise comes across an unusual displacement in space. Just as what appears to be a ship begins to emerge from the distortion, the Enterprise bridge transforms into a more darkly lit, threatening interior with all bridge personnel now armed. Tactical Officer Worf is gone, and in his place is none other than Tasha Yar (Denise Crosby, making the first of several well-written reappearances) but the biggest surprise is the ship that has now fully exited the rift is none other than the USS Enterprise NCC-1701C, having been badly damaged in an encounter with several Romulan craft. In a nifty bit of screencraft, it turns out that the Enterprise C was on its way to assist a Klingon outpost under attack by Romulans and was yanked out by the space rift just before the ship would have been destroyed. Historically, the sacrifice of the Enterprise C to save a Klingon outpost was to have been the deciding factor in forming a truce between the Federation and the Klingon Empire, and without that sacrifice, a 20 year war ensued that has cost the lives of billions of people. Only Guinan (frequent guest star Whoopi Goldberg in excellent form) senses that something is very wrong with the timeline, and informs Picard that the Enterprise C and her crew must return through the rift and give their lives to prevent the war. It might have been more interesting to have the captain of the Enterprise C be somewhat more reluctant to return and sign the death warrants of her crew, but the inclusion of Yar was a narrative masterstroke, giving Crosby her best moments of the series – particularly when Guinan tells her that not only should she not be alive, but that her death in the alternate timeline was a meaningless one. It’s also nice to see guest star Christopher McDonald get the chance to play a heroic character for once, as the First Officer of the Enterprise C, who leads the ship back into time.
The Measure of a Man
The earliest episode offered in the set, season 2’s best finds the Enterprise docked at a star base and Lt. Commander Data under orders to report to Captain Maddox (Brian Brophy) to be disassembled for clues to the workings of his posotronic brain. After speaking with Maddox, Data doesn’t believe that he possesses the knowledge to put him back together after the procedure, and refuses to submit, citing the importance of preserving the work of his creator, Dr. Noonien Soong. Data attempts to resign from Starfleet, but the move is blocked by Maddox on the basis that Data is the property of the Federation and not a human being with rights. This cumulates in a hearing where Picard appears on Data’s behalf, but due to a lack of experienced senior officers on the base, Riker is forced to appear for the prosecution along with Maddox. Usually touted as a showcase for Spiner, it’s actually Frakes who has the best moments, forced, not just to humiliate his friend, but to prove that he isn’t human. The moment when Riker reaches behind Data and shuts him off by flipping a switch, grimly announcing “Pinocchio is broken – the strings have been cut” is quietly devastating. We weren’t thrilled with the over-humanizing of Data in later seasons, as Brent Spiner was quite capable of hinting at emotions without the introduction of the silly “emotion chip”, but this episode presents the character’s crisis of humanity with intelligence and sensitivity.


No HD release of The Next Generation has been undertaken, and the episodes here look much like the broadcast masters that have been running for nearly 2 decades. Though we’ve read that the show was shot in 35mm, it always looked far closer to Super16, with effects shots processed on video. This puts it in an odd position with the original series; cheap cardboard sets and dodgy optics aside, the show was handsomely lit by the same production company that was turning out Mission: Impossible just across the lot and looks magnificent when properly remastered. Ironically, it’s TNG that now looks threadbare and desperately in need of attention. That having been said, this SD-DVD offers the same transfers that have been previously released on the TNG season sets, and short of a pricey dressing of the original negatives it’s the best that the series currently looks on home video.

Cybersurfing: Early Reviews of Star Trek – Updated

There was a suprise screening of the J. J. Abrams-directed re-boot of STAR TREK in Austin, Texas at the Alamo Theatre last night, and enthusiastic reviews are already rolling in. Fans were told they would be seeing a brief discussion with the writers and a short preview, along STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN; instead, they got to see the entirety of the new film, plus a personal appearance by Leonard Nimoy. says the reaction to the new STAR TREK was “very positive.’
Josh Tyler at Cinema Blend enthuses:

The new Star Trek movie is amazing- easily the best Trek movie since The Wrath of Khan, and a veritable feast of sight and sound: A captivating adventure that grabs you from the first and doesn’t let go. The effects are staggering, finally what the stories have deserved so richly. There are enough huge fireballs, shattering explosions and exciting fights to go around.
All the adventure is balanced, however, by dead on work by the actors and a generous focus of the story on the characters themselves. All of the main crew get a nice picture of who they are, only Chekov ever feels like window dressing, a problem every previous Trek movie has had (even my beloved Khan) in spades. 

Quint at Ain’t It Cool News was also impressed with the new STAR TREK:

It can (and does, with Nimoy’s appearance as Spock Prime, as he’s listed in the credits) respect the originals while being free to do its own thing. […] There’s a reality to the sci-fi, but he doesn’t ignore the awe-inspiring sci-fi vistas and characters we want to see. He’s able to populate the universe with beings that could have walked out of the cantina on Mos Eisley, but are just like the Vulcans in that they do their jobs and are just part of the reality, even if they have huge eyes or crazy Don Post-ish heads. I liked that, outside of two or three instances (my favorite being the usage of the green-skinned girl), Abrams keeps all that in the background, giving the universe another layer.

The Chris Pine Network offers a couple of fan reviews of STAR TREK, focusing on the actor’s performance:

Review 1: Chris Pine is outstanding. He’s the embodiment of a conflicted soul, transcending the cliche of the troubled rebel with a greater destiny. His delivery manages to give depth while maintaining the cocky veneer.
Review 2: … with the unquantifiable big shoes of William Shatner to be filled, Pine steps up and delivers a performance that is well beyond anything you might expect. He captures the arrogance and fortitude of Kirk while also keeping that bit of humanity and depth that Shatner was so good at. Kirk is reckless at times, but he’s smart and ever-confident in his own abilities — and Pine captures that quite well.

There are round-ups of the early STAR TREK reviews at Slashfilm, Screen Crave and at Cinematical.
STAR TREK had its official movie premier at the Sydney Opera House in Australia just a few hours after the Austin sneak peak. You can see some pics of the red carpet event here.
UPDATE: Offering a counterpoint to the euphoria brimming up around the new STAR TREK film is an in-depth reader review posted at Not a hatchet job at all, Greg Clark’s take on the film offers a balanced perspective of strengths and weaknesses:

…taken on its own…well, it doesn’t suck. Anyone who says it’s better than Wrath of Khan is talking out of their hyperbolic ass though. This one doesn’t nearly have as clear a thought out script as that one, easily one of the tightestly plotted films in any genre, and suffers from the same problem as that other Orci and Kurtzman collaboration, Transformers: it wants to be all things for all people at all times. […] It wants to keep the hardcore fanbase happy, so we get a very laboriously explained tie into the old Trek continuity. And yet we have a new cast and a desire to get the mainstream back roped back into this universe, so the film stars off with massive explosions and a deafening sound mix. […]Trek leans heavily on the iconography but skimps on the details, which makes for a fun, but ultimately very lightweight movie. It’s far more interested in keeping our heart racing than it is in exploring any real sci-fi themes about exploring the universe or the meaning of sacrificing oneself for a greater good, two of the cornerstones to the best episodes and films in the Trek canon.

Seasons 1 of Star Trek: The Original Series beaming to Blu-ray

The first season of the original STAR TREK television series is scheduled to arrive in a seven-disc Blu-ray set on April 28. Previously available on HD-DVD, in its new incarnation the first season episodes will be available in their original versions and in the enhanced versions from a few years ago (which updated the special effects with relatively unobtrusive computer-generated imagery). The discs will be filled with bonus material, much of it ported over from the HD-DVD, plus some new features, including an option to hear the soundtracks in the original mono or in 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio. There will also be pop-up trivia and picture-in-picture commentary, an interactive tour, and home movie footage filmed on set.

Pitch Black (2000) – Retrospective Review

Pitch Black (2000)A busy screenwriter in Hollywood during the ’80s and ’90s, when he churned out various horror, science fiction, and action pictures (CRITTERS 2, WARLOCK, THE FUGITIVE, TERMINAL VELOCITY, WATERWORLD), David Twohy made his directorial debut with 1992’s TIMESCAPE and followed up four years later with THE ARRIVAL, starring Charlie Sheen (during the decline in Sheen’s movie stardom that eventually led him to turn to TV sit-comedy in the form of TWO AND A HALF MEN). THE ARRIVAL was an interesting take on the old alien invasion scenario, using the structure of a paranoid conspiracy thriller instead of the global destruction sceen in INDEPENDENCE DAY the same year. However, the film lacked thrills and could not find an audience, even in an era primed for that kind of thing thanks to the popularity of THE X-FILES. After scripting G.I. JANE, Twohy returned to the directing chair with a script he rewrote from a draft by Jim & Ken Wheat. PITCH BLACK is another science fiction tale involving an alien menace, but this time the approach is of a more straightforward variety, emphasizing action and special effects; the result is a fairly efficient science fiction monster film, somewhat in the mold of an old 1950s B-movie. In fact, with its high concept premise, limited cast of characters, and isolated location, PITCH BLACK suggests an old fashioned Roger Corman production, but with improved production values, special effects and performances.
The plot follows the survivors of a transport spaceship that crash-lands on an arid, desert world surrounded by three suns. It soon becomes apparent that some ravenously efficient predators decimated the planet, but they are confined to the darkness of underground tunnels. As fate would have it, the planet falls into the shadow of a solar eclipse once every twenty-two years, and (you guessed) the eclipse is due within hours. The film becomes a race against time as the characters struggle to repair an escape craft that will take them to safety. Needless to say, they don’t make it in time, and find themselves having to outrun the voracious aliens eager to make a meal of them.
With writing credits on WATERWORLD and TERMINAL VELOCITY, Twohy has a penchant for big action set pieces, often at the expense of a strong narrative. That problem doesn’t arise here, as the simple story allows for a string of action scenes driven relentlessly forward by the characters’ need to keep moving or die. As a director, Twohy also shows a good eye for the strong visual, one that is not just flashy but which has a genuine dramatic impact. Particularly memorable is the revelation that what looked like trees from a distance are actually the rib bones of dinosaur-sized skeletons strewn like some vast elephant’s graveyard across the desert plain.
Characterization is also reasonably strong for this kind of film, thanks to the help of the cast, particularly Vin Diesel, Claudia Black, and Cole Hauser. In the film’s perverse moral scheme, we’re supposed to relate to Diesel’s homicidal convict because his survival skills are so essential under the circumstances, while many of the characters we expect to be “good guys” turn out to have moral failings of their own. In fact, the film is set up as a fairly interesting dramatic thriller even before the intrusion of the monsters, which creates a pressure cooker effect, boiling previously unseen aspects of the characters to the surface.
The special effects are strong overall, but the aliens themselves (designed by GODZILLA’s Patrick Tatapoulos) are fairly generic. (It’s hard to tell whether a flock of smaller creatures is a different species or simply younger versions of the ones already seen.) The telltale CGI look is also in evidence; a little bit more live-action work would have helped sell the danger even better.
In the end, Twohy wants to present his film as a story of redemption. In a fun, popcorn movie kind of way, he pulls it off. Grafting themes like this onto the story help raise the film from being a standard issue monster movie, but it is still a monster movie. The obligatory genre touches are all there: bloody deaths, wisecracking comic relief, and a cross-section of characters types who serve as potential victims. The one-liners aren’t always that funny, but most of the dialogue works; it’s as if the film were afraid of taking itself to seriously, and felt the need to play down to genre expectations. The result may not be a blockbuster of ALIEN proportions, but it works on its own level, generating enough screams and scares to jolt fans with a pleasant rush of fear, while those who prefer suspense and decent characterization will be pleasantly surprised as well.
PITCH BLACK (2000). Directed by David Twohy. Written by Jim Wheat & Ken Wheat and David Twohy, story by Jim & Ken Wheat. Cast: Vin Diesel, Radha Mitchell, Cole Hauser, Keith David, Lewis Fitz-Gerald, Claudia Black, Rhiana Griffith, John Moore, SImon Burke, Les Chantery.

Sense of Wonder: New Trek Footage Reviews

J. J. Abrams recently screened footage from his upcoming STAR TREK movie for the genre press. The “reviews” of these excerpts (from four scenes) are now online, and the reactions are fairly predictable: those granted access are reluctant to bad-mouth the high-powered Hollywood hothots that granted them access; plus, the genre press are eager to distinguish themselves from the “Trekkies,” who (we are led to believe) will mindlessly hate the film no matter how good it is.
My personal favorite comes from Thomas Leupp at Reelz Channel, who compares the new TREK to (gasp) SERENITY:

Watching the footage, I couldn’t help but be reminded of another sci-fi flick that came and went with little fanfare three years ago: Serenity, Joss Whedon‘s ill-fated big-screen adaptation of his ill-fated TV series. Like Serenity, Abrams’ Star Trek involves a crew of attractive young people making their way around a dangerous galaxy. Both feature lots of snappy dialogue and heavy doses of humor.

There may be a less auspicious comparison, but I cannot think of it. Fortunately, Leupp seems aware of SERENITY’s shortcomings:

But whereas Whedon’s film had this oddly inert, vaguely asexual vibe to it (Nathan Fillion‘s character struck me as sort of a neutered Han Solo), the new Star Trekfeels like a muscular, edgy action movie — thanks largely to what looks like a star-making performance by Chris Pine. Pine doesn’t attempt to mimic William Shatner at all; in fact, long-time Trek fans will be hard-pressed to find any traces of the old Kirk in his version. Which, in my opinion, is a good thing.

I hope that Leupp is merely being sloppy with his words. It would certainly be a good think for Pine to craft a performance with no trace of the previous actor, but do we really want no trace of the “old Kirk”? If so, then why even retain the name; why not create a new character?
Overall, the impression I take away from these reviews is not very encouraging. BATMAN BEGINS and CASINO ROYALE proved that you can successfully reboot a series that has grown long in the tooth, but TREK isn’t just about the characters. TREK in its various forms is a science-fiction franchise that, at its best, deals in interesting concepts, presented with a Sense of Wonder. Seeing a movie about a young Kirk coming of age may sound like a hot commodity in Hollywood, but it misses the real point of TREK, which is to boldly go where no one has gone before.

Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace – Film Review

STAR WARS EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE is the first film in the so-called “Prequel Trilogy,” which provides the back story of how Anakin Skywalker turned to the Dark Side of the Force and became Darth Vader, the cybotic villain seen in the original STAR WARS trilogy. Unfortunately, the film is marred by the fact that its very existence is unnecessary: nothing in it tells us anything we need to know in order to appreciate STAR WARS (1977) or THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980) or even the lamentable RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983). The story seems padded out from a few scraps of ideas, with little significant exposition, and the little information given seems contradictory to what was established in the earlier films. Overall, more effort seems to have gone into juicing up the film with a handful of special effects highlights (the pod race, the three-way light saber duel) and with reintroducing familiar characters (the droids, Obi-Wan, Jabba the Hutt, Yoda) whether or not the film needed them.
Clearly, there is something wrong with a film, when the loudest applause occurs as the curtain goes up, in anticipation of, rather than response to, what is being seen. That is the case with STAR WARS, EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE, the highly hyped prequel that gives 1998’s GODZILLA a run for its money as an over-anticipated disappointment. The audience (after a masterfully orchestrated promotional campaign, after months of trailers and weeks of commercials and cover stories, after waiting in line for days to buy tickets and for hours to get a seat) has been led to expect that this is the major event of the year. With that kind of build-up, the excitement in the theatre is almost palpable as the lights go down. There is only one problem: the film has to deliver.
THE PHANTOM MENACE falls short in this regard. It is not a completely terrible film, at least compared to the disaster that was RETURN OF THE JEDI. But in a classic case of the tail wagging the dog, more creativity has been lavished on getting you into the theatre than on pleasing you once you get there. The story starts well, with the Trade Federation’s blockade of planet Naboo; for a time, it seems as if Lucas is taking a page from Frank Herbert’s Dune, with his handling of political machinations in a science-fiction context. Soon, however, trouble arises from the fact that the audience is well ahead of the characters. We already know that Senator Palpatine is the “phantom menace” of the title, manipulating the Federation to his own ends — despite the fact that Lucas keeps his face hidden when he appears as a Sith Lord to his Federation stooges.

Despite this built-in predictability, the film maintains initial interest thanks to Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor, who make as dashing a pair of Jedi Knights as one could wish. But after they sneak the Queen off of her besieged planet, the momentum drags. The problem is that Lucas now has to tie these events into the storyline of the original trilogy, so he spends time introducing characters (R2D2, Jabba the Hut, C-3PO, and of course Anakin Skywalker) who contribute little to this new story. (In a rare surprise, C-3PO turns out to have been created on Tattoine by Anakin. So why doesn’t he recognize his home planet when he lands in STAR WARS? Presumably Lucas will offer an explanation later, about as convincing as Obi Wan’s “I was telling you the truth” speech in JEDI.) In effect, the plot becomes a mere prologue, relying for its impact not on anything exciting in itself but on the connections to STAR WARS. Thus Obi Wan promises to train Anakin as a Jedi, and Palpatine promises to keep an eye on his progress — trivial scenes that are supposed to resonate deeply because of the story we already know.
But lets face it: no one expected great drama; we wanted all the exuberance of flying through space and battling evil that $100-million could buy. In this regard, the film delivers — at intervals. Space ships and interstellar travel are portrayed to excellent effect, but the momentum never builds, thanks to a screen time padded past two hours and ten minutes — a lethargic pace that lags behind the original’s quick tempo.
Elsewhere, the ubiquitous computer effects are meant to be impressive for their own sake: as each new creature appears, we are supposed to react in awe: “Look, another digitally created character!” However, these animated actors look too much like what they are: computer-generated cartoons. It’s as if ANTZ and A BUG’S LIFE were trying to pass off their outtakes as part of a live-action film. Aggravating matters, these technical marvels strike a decidedly juvenile tone that falls far short of Lucas’ alleged mythic aspirations. The villains are mostly robots, so no one will be offended at seeing them blown up by a little boy. And Jar Jar Binks, the film’s equivalent of Chewbacca, is merely exasperating, his comedy relief gibberish supposedly funny just because it is gibberish. As with Chewbacca, this saves Lucas from having to write coherent dialogue. We always knew what the Wookie was saying, however, thanks to Han Solo’s responses. With Jar Jar, we are left shaking our heads, even when we do catch the occasional recognizable phrase.
Having not directed since STAR WARS, Lucas has lost whatever touch he had with actors. With solid professionals (including Terence Stamp, wasted in a bit), this causes no problem, but the younger cast suffers. Jake Lloyd is a stiff. Natalie Portman is regal in her Queen regalia but lifeless when posing in her alter ego role as the Queen’s handmaid. (And what’s up with those ridiculous outfits that suggest not a galaxy far, far away but a Halloween drag parade in West Hollywood?)
Not surprisingly, the film comes to life mostly when characterization takes a back seat to action. Highlights include Anakin’s triumph in the pod race (a science-fiction update on BEN HUR’s famous chariot race); and the final light saber against Darth Maul is outstanding. But even the visuals are often derivative: for the second time, the devilish villain falls to his death down a bottomless tunnel; and for the third time the climax involves an aerial attack that explodes a massive enemy target in outer space. Even the exciting moments (and there are a few) fail to lift the film above mid-level quality. The applause as the curtain goes down has an obligatory air, as people try to convince themselves that they have not been too disappointed. But they deserved much more than they got. They deserved a great movie designed for the ten-year-old in us all, not a film designed for ten-year-olds.
STAR WARS, EPISODE ONE: THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999). Written and Directed by George Lucas. Cast: Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd, Frank Oz, Anthony Daniels.
Copyright 1999 Steve Biodrowski

Cybersurfing: Cloning Star Wars

STAR WARS: THE CLONE WARS explores the STAR WARS time line between episodes II and III. 

In anticipation of the Augst 15 theatrical release of STAR WARS: THE CLONE WARS, New York Times offers a profile of George Lucas, who muses on returning to a galaxy far, far away. Although not overtly negative, Dave Itzkoff’s article expresses a certain skepticism about revisiting the STAR WARS franchise, in light of Lucas’s expressed desire to make smaller, more personal films. Basically, there were no takers for 22 completed episodes of a computer-animated CLONE WARS television show – until Lucas opted to produce a feature film version to launch the series. Lucas is also developing a live-action STAR WARS TV series. Continue reading “Cybersurfing: Cloning Star Wars”

Sunshine (2007) – DVD Review

A desperate mission in space seeks to reignate our fading sun.This grim drama about a desperate attempt to save the world from extinction falls just short of being one of 2007’s best films. Although seriously flawed in a couple of ways, SUNSHINE tells its core story – of a (virtual suicide) mission to re-ignite the dying sun – with a soul-shattering conviction that is utterly engrossing. Alex Garland’s screenplay presents a refreshingly hard science-fiction approach that remains rooted in believable reality – more NASA than STAR WARS – and director Danny Boyle serves it up with an unsentimental seriousness worthy of the high-stakes storyline. Had the screenplay not descended into schlock in the third act, this might have ranked among the classics of the genre. As it stands, the film deserved Oscar nominations in technical categories: art direction, photography, and visual effects create a vision of space travel as spectacular and unique as anything ever seen on screen.
The premise is that the crew of the Icarus II are piloting a bomb that will, hopefully, restore the dimming sun in time to save life on Earth. Hanging like a cloud of doom over their heads is the knowledge that, over a year before, the Icarus I disappeared on a similar mission, raising the questions: “What went wrong?” and “How can Icarus II avoid repeating it?” But the truly important question hanging over the film (the same one addressed in CHILDREN OF MEN) is: What sacrifices are individual humans willing to make when the surival of the entire species is at stake?

This raises interesting moral questions of a kind that a lesser film would ignore altogether. This first becomes apparent when Icarus II detects a distress signal from Icarus I, and the navigator, Trey (Benedict Wong), says he can plot an intercept course. Mace (Chris Evans) angrily denounces the idea, pointing out that their mission priority outweighs every other consideration, including not just the lives of the Icarus I crew but their own as well. In a simpler screenplay, this cold-hearted utilitarian reasoning would brand Mace as the villain (or at least the asshole) of the group, but SUNSHINE makes it clear that he is, under the circumstances, correct.
The rest of the story relates the results of the fateful decision to overrule Mace. Captain Kaneda (RINGU’s Hiroyuki Sanada) defers the decision to Capa (Cillian Murphy). The physicist’s decision is based not on consideration for the lives (if any) aboard Icarus I. Rather, the question is whether obtaining the bomb from Icarus I (and thus doubling the chances of successfully completing the mission) outweigh the potential risks of altering course. The variables are too complex to calculate to a certainty, so Capa makes a gut decision to pick up the extra bomb.
The remainder of the scenario details a series of complications that result from this decision. Trey makes a mistake recalculating the course, which results in damage to the ship; a repair attempt costs the life of one crew member. Docking with Icarus I leads to another disaster when the ships are mysterious torn apart. Later, a fire breaks out, destroying the Icarus II’s greenhouse, the ship’s source not only for food but also for oxygen on the months-long journey through the vacuum of space.
Eventually, the mission boils down to a dreadful moral choice: there is not enough oxygen left aboard Icarus to support the remaining crew members for the remainder of the mission. The only solution is that one of the survivors must die. Who will it be, and who will perform the execution?
Unfortunately, at this point, SUNSHINE begins to fall apart. The moral issue is evaded by having one of the crew turn up conveniently dead – apparently a suicide. Yet still the oxygen consumption is too much. It is hardly giving anything away (since this detail is revealed in the trailer) to acknowledge that there is an unknown person aboard Icarus, and out past the orbit of Mercury there is only place that someone could have come from: Icarus I. The fire was actually sabotage; the “suicide” was actually murder.
In order to motivate this behavior, the script relies on that tired old stand-by, religious mania. As if that were not enough cliche, the perpetrator is presented courtesy of some weird, blurry photographic effect that suggests an inter-dimensional alien. SUNSHINE devolves from serious science-fiction to routine stalk-and-slash tactics; it is as if 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY had suddenly been hijacked by ALIEN.
Danny Boyle directs the pulp horror of the third act well enough. The threat may be contrived, but our characters still have to find some way to overcome it and save life on Earth, resulting in at least one great set-piece: a nail-bitingly heart-rending scene in which one character must effect repairs on Icarus by descending into the freezing cold liquid that prevents the ship’s core from overheating. This is one of those sequences almost worth the price of admission alone (comparable the eerie scene in Tarkovsky’s SOLARIS, in which a mysterious life form revives after a suicide attempt that involves drinking freezing cold liquid nitrogen). 
One suspects Boyle has a certain predilection for this kind of thing, as if he needs the big dramatic action to galvanize him. Certainly, the early section, meant to convey the boredom of a long space flight, is marred by an overly artsy approach that seems almost smug in its self-satisfaction. Every angle, every camera move, every dissolve and special effect seems designed with portentous intent, layered on so thick as to become off-putting. Fortunately, once the story kicks in, Boyle sets the pretentious stylization aside – or at least welds it so well to the story that they no longer stand out like a sore thumb.
Ultimately, SUNSHINE attempts to make some kind of statement about the conflict between faith and reason, but the message is muddled by reducing one half of the discourse to the level of a matinee villain. Fortunately, the underlying theme is strong enough to carry the film over its descent into genre conventions. The turn toward melodrama undermines some believability, but the story, with its heroes forced to make almost unendurable sacrifices, remains emotionally riveting. Watching it feels, at times, like being trapped aboard a ship on a hopeless mission, but when the last image fades, you will be glad you underwent the journey.

Contemplating the glories of the sun at close range.


The DVD presents SUNSHINE in widescreen with audio options for English 5.1 Dolby Digital and Spanish and French Dolby Surround, along with optional English, Spanish, and French subtitles. Bonus Features include two audio commentaries, deleted scenes, web production diaries, and two short films.
The twelve deleted scenes are mostly expository moments meant to establish the characters or clarify the logistics of the action. There is a talky alternate version of the final confrontation with the villain, which was apparently meant to provide intellectual element to the physical conflict. All of these sequences have optional audio commentary by Danny Boyle.
The Web Production Diaries provide the cast and crew short vignettes to talk about themselves and their involvement with the film. Particularly interesting are the comments from the physicists hired to oversee the scientific accuracy of the film.
The audio commentaries are by Danny Boyle and Dr. Brian Cox. Boyle is good at providing the nuts and bolts information about bringing the difficult project to the screen, but Cox’s commentary is even more interesting, perhaps because it is not the sort of thing one usually hears on these DVDs.
Basically, Cox addresses the issues of scientific accuracy versus dramatic license and points out where Danny Boyle drew the line between them. Cox notes that, according to current scientific theory, the sun should not die out for billions of years, but he was able to fashion a theory that would account for the scenario in the film. Although never specifically stated in the film itself, Cox tells us that the sun has been diminished by the presence of a “Q-Ball,” a theoretical particle disrupting the fusion reaction that fuels the sun. The bomb on board Icarus II is not mean to reignite the sun but to destroy the Q-Ball, allowing the sun to return to normal.
The two short films are “Dad’s Dead” and “Mole Hills.” Neither has anything to do with SUNSHINE. Danny Boyle included them because he thinks DVDs are an opportunity to bring short subjects to a wider audience.

SUNSHINE(2007). Directed by Danny Boyle. Written by Alex Garland. Cast: Cillian Murph, Chris Evans, Rose Byrne, Michelle Yeoh, Hiroyuki Sanada, Cliff Curtis, Troy Garity, Benedict Wong, Mark Strong, Chippo Chung (voice of Icarus).

Star Wars: The Original Trilogy – Science Fiction Film Review

An Appreciation of the Original Films and a Look at How Times (and George Lucas) Have Changed Them

When STAR WARS premiered in 1977, there had never been anything quite like it. Sure, the antecedents were obvious (everything from Kurosawa’s THE HIDEEN FORTRESS to Flash Gordon serials, not to mention Arthurian myth) but the elements were assembled in a way that made the results seems fresh and invigorating. Like a variation on a well-known melody, the very familiarity drew audiences in, while the variations amused and surprised.
More important than that was the way that the film established a pact with its audience that made it nearly critic-proof. Much of what happens in STAR WARS, EPISODE IV: A NEW HOPE is obviously corny and hokey, but the film works to earn good will on this count. Almost every frame says, “Yes, these are clichés, but they’re fun, and if you will give us the benefit of the doubt, we will use them to entertain you in the most magnificent way possible.” Thus, after a decade of contemporary, serious film, often reflecting a Watergate-inspired cynicism, it once again became possible to boo the villain and cheer the hero, to engage in a kind of simple but very primal action-adventure style excitement that had been long absent from the screen.
Of course, it didn’t hurt that the film had the sort of production values to pull off this coup. Although some contemporary commentators (e.g., late Frederick S. Clarke, founder of Cinefantastique magazine) railed against the film’s lack of content, they missed the point, which is that the formal execution was excellent. A well-played melody, even a simple one, can be as moving as botched virtuoso attempt. George Lucas’ film obviously lacked the profound grandeur of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, but on the basic level of simple entertainment it succeeded as well as any film ever has.
Much has happened since then. The trilogy has assumed its place in the cultural landscape with such stature and devotion that the aesthetic value of the films has almost become irrelevant. The films were reissued, in so-called Special Editions, in 1997. Although the opportunity to see pristine new prints on the big screen was compensation not to be dismissed lightly, tampering with the films resulted in controversy regarding the wisdom of altering something so beloved in the first place.
Ominously, some of the changes seemed geared toward making the old films fit better with the long-planned prequel trilogy. When the first two prequels emerged, STAR WARS, EPISODE ONE: THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999) and EPISODE TWO: ATTACK OF THE CLONES (2002), they were so bad that even many long-time believers started to lose faith. They also showed that Lucas was having trouble tying together the loose plot threads, raising more questions than he answered.
The next step in the de-evolution of the original trilogy was their release on DVD on September 21, 2004. Supposedly, back in 1997, we were seeing the original trilogy as George Lucas had always wanted it to be seen, had he the luxury of perfection the first time around. The evidence of the films themselves failed to bear out this claim, and the DVD release drives the point home even more clearly, because once again the films underwent revisions—some obvious, some subtle.
STAR WARS (1977), subtitled A NEW HOPE since the release of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK in 1980, has aged a bit, mostly apparently in comparison to EMPIRE. The photography lacks the rich colors that later bathed the first sequel in layers of atmosphere. As a writer-director, Lucas obviously knew how to put together an entertaining package, but he does not necessarily have a great deal of finesse in either area. The dialogue is often fun, but sometimes it is downright clunky, and the performances he elicits from his cast are superficial. The three leads (Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford) seem to be play-acting at their roles, rather than really embodying characters; this has benefits, in that it makes the adventure seem fun and exciting, rather than truly dangerous, and it certainly makes it easy for younger audiences to relate to the characters. In fact, the only really strong character scenes inevitably involve the more seasoned performers, Peter Cushing and Alec Guinness. Still, the editing of the action scenes is invigorating: for example, the attack on the Death Star is not merely a great effects show; it is a well-choreographed space ballet.
On the other hand, seeing the film with its sequels and prequels in mind, it becomes obvious that, for all Lucas’s mythic aspirations, the biggest myth of all is his Master Plan. For example, Darth Vader clearly is the only member of the Empire who believes in the Force: “You are all that’s left of that ancient religion,” he is told, and the underlings of the unseen Emperor even diss the Force, preferring to put their faith in the power of the Death Star. This makes the depiction of the Emperor in the sequels and prequels, as a practitioner of the Dark Side of the Force, somewhat inexplicable.
The knowledge that Darth is Luke’s father alters A NEW HOPE in ways that are sometimes interesting and sometimes convoluted. For instance, there is nothing in the film to imply that Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru are not literally Luke’s uncle and aunt, which would make them Darth’s brother and sister-in-law, respectively. Since Darth’s minions are responsible for killing the elderly couple, it made Luke seem a bit niave in RETURN OF THE JEDI when he depended on familial affection to protect him from Darth’s anger. Of course, Lucas had to clear this up in the prequels showing that Owen and Beru are not really blood relative of Anakin Skywalker. However, there is no clearing up Princess Leia’s brother-sister relation to Luke. Overlooking the chants of “Incest!” that now erupt from audiences in response to any suggestion of romance between the two, there is also the question of Vader’s sensory powers—or, in this case, lack thereof. That’s right: Vader, who can detect Obi Wan and Luke long distance, never gets even a tingle of the force when face to face with his own daughter.

As for the additional footage, it’s mostly a bust. Jabba the Hutt’s scene was rightfully cut during the initial release time, because it is redundant, merely repeating what has been established in the preceding scene with Greedo, the bounty hunter whom Han shoots. The only reason for the presence of Jabba now is as a kind of CGI stunt: his appearance does not improve the film; it merely impresses with the ability to slap a special effect monster on top of what was originally meant to be an actor. And Jabba is far too nice: he seems more disappointed with than angry at Han; he’s just too far away from the disgusting, vengeful slug we later meet in JEDI and the prequels.
Apparently, Lucas himself was not satisfied with Jabba’s appearance in A NEW HOPE. The DVD version redoes the CGI work to make the character look more as he does in A PHANTOM MENACE. This is a bit like slapping a new coat of paint on a car because the engine needs a tune-up. Also tinkered with is the shoot-out between Han and Greedo: they’re shots come closer together now, but Greedo still fires first. (Han—a mercenary always looking out for number one—shot first in the original 1977 version. In order to make Han look more like a conventional goody-two-shoes hero, Lucas had Greedo shoot first in the 1997 Special Edition; Lucas claimed that Greedo had always shot first—it was just harder to see in the old prints—an assertion undermined by a frame-by-frame look at the laserdisc release.)
Even worse were some of the other additions, such as the moving dewbacks and the expanded city of Mos Eisley. The stationary dewbacks in the original STARS WARS typified the film: it seemed to take place in a complete world, filled with things we did not have time to stop and see; they merely passed before our eyes in tantalizing glimpses. Well, no longer: the added effects are not tantalizing but distracting, especially an annoying flying probe that accompanies the storm troopers. Likewise, the tour of Mos Eisley merely slows things down before we get to the next important scene. The CGI effects clash badly with the original look of the film, and the shots have no point of view: it’s not as if we’re seeing things through the eyes of young, naive Luke, who might be impressed by all this grandeur—and it is an awful lot of grandeur for the backwater planet that Tattoine is supposed to be. (This sequence has been somewhat improved in the DVD release, with smoother CGI work that makes the characters look a bit more believable as their vehicle zooms past the camera.)
THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK came across better in its 1997 Special Edition, because there were no missing scenes to be intrusively reinserted. A couple of additional shots of the Wampa (that abominable snowman thing that captures Luke at the beginning) were the most obvious addition, and they actually helped, by increasing the creepiness and sense of danger that pervade the rest of the film. A lot of transparent space ships and obvious matte lines were cleaned up, but there was still some woefully obvious blue fringing around Chewbacca’s face in one shot. The cloud city was more impressive, thanks to views added through windows in the sets. When seen from the sky, however, the new footage bears suspicious resemblance to Tattoine, if not in architecture, then in the geometrical arrangement of the buildings.
Unfortunately, although EMPIRE escaped the Special Editions relatively unscathed, it has fared less well in the DVD set. The previous depiction of the Emperor (played by an anonymous actress under heavy makeup, with a voice supplied by Clive Revill) has been replaced by Ian McDiarmid, who played Senator Palpatine/Darth Sidious in the prequels. And bounty hunter Boba Fett’s voice (previously supplied by Jeremy Bulloch, the actor inside the suit) has been overdubbed by Temuera Morrison, who plays Jango Fett in ATTACK OF THE CLONES. (This makes a kind of sense, since Boba is supposed to be a clone of Jango and therefore should look and sound exactly the same.)
Despite these changes, and an unresolved storyline that paves the way for its dismal sequel, EMPIRE remains in many ways the best (indeed the last good) STAR WARS film, thanks to some matured acting on the parts of Hamill, Fisher, and Ford, not to mention improved writing (courtesy of Lawrence Kasdan and the late, great science fiction author and screenwriter Leigh Brackett) and improved direction from Irvin Kershner. Kershner may not be the sort of creative artist who could have conceived something like the STAR WARS saga in the first place, but when it comes to the basic craft of staging action and working with actors, he is a seasoned pro who took Lucas’s material and did a better job than Lucas himself could have.
The same could not be said about helmer Richard Marquand in RETURN OF THE JEDI. That film, of course, is such a dud that no amount of reworking could have saved it. (Let’s just say that the Sci Fi Universe cover story entitled “50 Things We Hate about RETURN OF THE JEDI” could as easily have been “150 Things.”) The little new footage only increases the problems, particularly a ridiculous and inappropriate song-and-dance number of embarrassing quality. As before, we’re left wondering why bounty hunter Boba Fett is hanging out with Jabba’s entourage instead of running around hunting for bounties (of course, it’s so he can be conveniently killed off). The question is exacerbated by his presence in the restored Jabba scene in STAR WARS: the character looked like a free-lancer when introduced in EMPIRE, but now he seems to be on Jabba’s permanent payroll.
We do have to give the Special Edition some credit, for eliminating one of the more amusing gaffs: On your old laserdiscs or videotapes, watch the first set of tie fighters in the shot just prior to the Emperor’s arrival on the new Death Star; keep your eyes glued to them—no matter how many other ships zip in front to distract you—and eventually you will see them blink out of existence just before the shot ends. The Special Edition simply cut the shot before the mistake.
Never one to leave well enough alone, Lucas has made new changes for the DVD. In some cases, these are minor things noticeable only to hardcore fans; for example, buildings seen in the prequels have been added to exterior special effects establishing shots, and actor Sebastian Shaw’s eyebrows have been digitally airbrushed away for the scene when Darth Vader’s face is finally revealed. The biggest change, however, will be obvious to everyone. At the end, when Luke sees the ghosts of Obi-Wan, Yoda, and Anakin Skywalker smiling at the victory celebration, Anakin’s ghost is no longer portrayed by Shaw. Instead, we see Haydin Christiansen, who played the young Anakin in ATTACK OF THE CLONES and REVENGE OF THE SITH. This is supposed to make a kind of sense: restored to a stage of grace, Anakin appears as he did before his change into Darth Vader. Nevertheless it is an odd choice, because Luke has only seen the older, badly scarred version of his father. You have to wonder why Luke is not asking, “Who the hell are you – and where is my real father?”
Since JEDI was never very good to begin with, these changes did not seem to be worth getting upset over; however, they did point in a bad direction. Lucas was retrofitting his original trilogy to match up with the prequels; unfortunately, the prequels almost make JEDI look good by comparison, so the changes tend to degrade the originals down, rather than lifting them up. With REVENGE OF THE SITH completing the prequel trilogy in 2005, one had reason to wonder whether Lucas had finally closed the book on the old films – or would there be a new round of “improvements” for whatever the next new viewing format turns out to be – the iPhone trilogy, maybe?
The answer turned out to be that Lucas was planning to convert all the STAR WARS films to Digital 3D, a strategy announced at Showwest in March of 2005. At the time, Lucas did not commit to a specific schedule, but he did suggest that he would have A NEW HOPE ready in time for its 30th anniversary in 2007, with the intention of subsequently releasing one STAR WARS film per year. The digital 3D process can convert any conventional 2D film. It was successfully used on Tim Burton’s A NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS in 2006; however, 2007 passed without a STAR WARS 3D release.

Overall, the original STAR WARS trilogy (at least the first two films) were great entertainments that sacrificed a certain depth and ambition in favor of old-fashioned action-serial story-telling delivered with zeal. STAR WARS, especially, was not simply the hyperthyroid version of FLASH GORDON that critics tagged it. It was not so much the movie we all imagined we had seen as kids; rather it was a sequel to the movie we imagined we had seen—a sequel to our universal cultural consciousness. That’s why the story could start in media res. That’s why a mere paragraph opening crawl could establish all we needed to know—because on some level, we knew already. That’s why we could relate to characters and situations drawn so broadly.
Unfortunately, that connection was slowly eroded as George Lucas worked out his alleged master plan. With each piece of the puzzle he added—either by revising the old films or by making new ones—he took something away from us, some part of imagined memories, that we had invested into the film. What was once a kind of interactive process of a very gratifying kind has degenerated into a sort of forced-fed pseudo-religion. None of that is enough to detract completely from the entertainment value of A NEW HOPE and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, when viewed on their own, but the larger phenomenon has gone a long way toward diminishing the sheen.
STARS WARS, EPISODE IV: A NEW HOPE (1977). Written and directed by George Lucas. Cast: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Alec Guiness, Peter Cushing, ,Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, peter Mayhew, David Prowse.
STAR WARS, EPISODE V: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980). Directed by Irvin Kirshner. Written by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan, story by George Lucas. Cast: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels, David Prowse, Peter Mayhew, Kenny Baker, Frank Oz (voice), Jeremy Bulloch.
STAR WARS, EPISODE VI: RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983). Directed by Richard Marquand. Written by Lawrence Kasan and George Lucas. Cast: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels, James Early Jones (voice), David Prowse, Peter Mayhew, Kenny Baker, Frank Oz (voice), Warwick Davis, Jeremy Bulloch.
Copyright 1997 Steve Biodrowski; revised version copyright 2004. revised again in 2008. The original version of this article appeared in the June 1997 issue of Cinefantastique.

Nimoy Back as Spock

In a nice rundown of news from the San Diego Comic-Con, Variety tells us that Leonard Nimoy will return as Mr. Spock in the upcoming Star Trek film being developed by J. J. Abrams. Zachary Quinto (Heroes) will play a younger version of the character, suggesting that the script by Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (Transformers) will indeed be a prequel showing the origin of the original crew of the Enterprise. Abrams says he is “desperately trying” to squeeze William Shatner into the film. Paramount plans a release on December 25, 2008.
Also mentioned in the article are news of Iron Man, Indiana Jones 4, and the “tentatively titled Cloverfield.” The latter is a monster movie that Abrams is producing, which is scheduled to bow on January 18. The teaser trailer recently generated quite a bit of interest when it appeared before Transformers; by not identifying the title, the trailer created an air of mystery that had fans on the Internet desperately trying to figure out what the movie was.

“We need our own monster movie,” said Abrams, adding that he conceived the idea for the pic after seeing how popular Godzilla still is in Japan. “King Kong is adorable, but I’ve wanted a great monster movie for so long.”
Abrams declined to disclose pic’s actual title, but shot down online rumors that it will be called “Monstrous.”