There’s nothing particularly wrong with employing the time-space continuum for the pure fun of the concept. EDGE OF TOMORROW makes good sport of it, coming up with a pretty keen action film and allowing Tom Cruise to play comedy beats better than he did in KNIGHT AND DAY. But, given the mind-bending possibilities inherent in the genre, it seems almost a crime not delve for deeper meanings than just “craven coward becomes kick-ass action hero.” GROUNDHOG DAY did it. So did TIMECRIMES. So did FUTURAMA (numerous times).
And now, so does COHERENCE. The tale of a Los Angeles dinner party that goes all kinds of wrong when a comet begins warping the dimensions, the film — directed by James Ward Byrkit, the man who helped create the freaky “family” film RANGO, and starring BUFFY’s Nicholas Brendon, Emily Baldoni and Maury Sterling, among others — manages to be as much a commentary on relationships and the fragility of the social contract as it is an sf mindfreak. I delve into the film in my review for HOUR OF THE WOLF, and, as bonus, also take a look at the latest episode of the fan-produced STAR TREK CONTINUES and IDW’s first Star Trek: New Visions photo-novella, both of which, in another example of the crossing of the timelines, deal with the aftermath of the Enterprise crew’s visit to the mirror universe in “Mirror, Mirror.” Weeeeeeeird. Click on the player to hear the segment, or right-click the title below to download.
Scribes with Bad Robot creds in talks… Syfy wants Oz characters to go to war… We wanted to show you the trailer for RIDDICK. We can’t. We just can’t…
From the luxurious Cinefantastique Online studios in NYC, Dan Persons brings you up-to-date on what’s happening in the world of fantastic film & TV.
Genre film lost one of its most influential forces last week when author and screenwriter Richard Matheson passed away. Whether writing originally for the screen, as with the STAR TREK episode, “The Enemy Within,” adapting his own work, which he did for such classic TWILIGHT ZONE episodes as “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” and the archetypal 50’s horror film THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN, or adapting others, including bringing Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife to the screen as BURN WITCH BURN (a.k.a. NIGHT OF THE EAGLE), Matheson was able to embue his scripts with a contemporary outlook and an incisive inquest into the human condition that helped define genre film for the latter half of the twentieth century, and on into the twenty-first.
Cinefantastique Online’s Steve Biodrowski, Lawrence French, and Dan Persons sit down to discuss Matheson’s contribution to the world of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, weigh his overall influence on popular cinema, and discuss favorite examples of his work. Also in this show: Steve and Dan discuss the recent limited releases BYZANTIUM and 100 BLOODY ACRES. Plus: What’s coming to theaters next week.
Don’t wait for Will Smith?… STAR TREK ship gets a new lease on life… JUG FACE finds a pit of horror…
From the luxurious Cinefantastique Online studios in NYC, Dan Persons brings you up-to-date on what’s happening in the world of fantastic media.
Very funny stuff. After losing a chess game to Nimoy, Quinto challenges him to a round of golf; the last one to arrive on the course has to buy lunch. Quinto has the edge, because he is driving the new Audi S7, with lots of room in the trunk for his clubs, not to mention a GPS.
Get a look at Superman’s new look… STAR TREK producer Brannon Braga gets all witchy… Damon Lindelof gets Left Behind… THE WIZARD OF OZ goes deep…
Cinefantastique Online’s Dan Persons brings you up-to-date on what’s happening in the world of genre media.
Drum takes this to be the nail in the coffin of any argument to the effect that STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION was better written than the original STAR TREK series, but I always find these lists somewhat dubious because of the difficulty of setting a standard for comparison. For example:
Are we talking about the sheer number of good episodes? That would favor longer-running shows like ST:TNG
Are we talking about average of quality, factoring the best and the worst? By that standard, an overall mediocre show might rank as highly as a great show that was marred by some bad episodes. This is especially important in the case of STAR TREK, because almost everyone agrees that its third and final season was a misfire. By this standard, I think STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION would edge out its predecessor: Episodes like “The Royale” were bad but not as bad as “Spock’s Brain.”
Are we just considering which show reached the highest level of achievement, even if in only a few episodes? By this standard, I think STAR TREK would handily win; there were a dozen or so great episodes that outdid anything STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION ever mentioned.
Regardless of this concern, Drum points out that STAR TREK gave the world more memorable catch-phrases, such as “Live long and prosper” and “I’m a doctor, not a brick-layer.” ST:TNG has nothing comparable.
Other horror, fantasy, and science fiction shows to make the list:
3: THE TWILIGHT ZONE
26: THE X-FILES
35: TWIN PEAKS
38: BATTLESTAR GALACTICA (2005)
49: BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER
63: SOUTH PARK
90: THE PRISONER
91: THE MUPPET SHOW
Of course, any list that omits THE OUTER LIMITS (the original 1960s version) should be regarded as highly suspect. Likewise, placing LOST and BUFFY THE VAMPIRE above THE PRISONER is indefensible. But at least the voters were smart enough to put THE TWILIGHT ZONE near the top.
STAR TREK is back, Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) is still flouting the rules, director J.J. Abrams is still dividing the fan base, but amazingly, inconceivably, there’s no dissent within the Cinefantastique Online ranks this time: Steve Biodrowski, Lawrence French, and Dan Persons all agree that STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS is supreme, quintessential TREK adventure. Telling the tale of the Enterprise’s encounter with a diabolical mastermind (Benedict Cumberbatch), the film at once delivers the big-scale action (even better in IMAX 3D) that audiences have come to expect from a major studio tent pole release while honoring the ideals that made creator Gene Roddenberry’s optimistic vision of the future so compelling.
Come join Steve, Larry, and Dan as they delve deep into this top-notch entry to the TREK franchise, exploring what makes it both a superior entertainment and a worthy elaboration of Roddenberry’s humanistic vision. Plus: What’s coming to theaters next week.
Director J.J. Abrams is back in the captain’s chair, piloting the U.S.S. Enterprise through more explosions, more lens flare – in fact, more of just about everything that disenchanted Trekkies with STAR TREK (2009) – and this time all of it is enhanced with enough eye-popping 3D to make these angry fans switch their phasers from stun to kill; and yet, none of that prevents STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS from doing what no STAR TREK film has ever done before: achieve greatness for the second time in a row. Though purists may disagree, Abrams’ two STAR TREK features rank atop their predecessors, eclipsing all of the STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION films and all but the best of the classic TREK films.
What redeems all the bombs and bombast – the tipping of sacred cows – and the apparently heretical disregard for TREK orthodoxy? It’s a simple trick, really, but a profoundly insightful one: by staying true to the fundamental core of the familiar STAR TREK ethos and characters, screenwriters Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof can twist the details in new and interesting ways without ever violating the franchise’s prime directive: portraying an optimistic view of the future. Yes, that Utopian future will be threatened, and the story will focus less on speculative fiction than on the action-fueled drama of defending against a villainous threat, but that scenario will be used not just as an excuse for photon torpedoes and phaser blasts but also as framework for grandiose moments of pathos that bring the characters alive for a younger generation and remind old viewers why they fell in love with the crew of the Enterprise in the first place.
This time, the threat takes the form of Jonathan Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), who bombs a Starfleet data archive and later targets Starfleet headquarters itself, before skipping off to a planet in the Klingon system. Kirk (Chris Pine), who has been briefly demoted for ignoring the Prime Directive and prevaricating about it in his captain’s log, is re-instated as commander of the Enterprise and tasked with using a newly developed photon torpedo to take out Harrison and make a quick getaway before starting an interplanetary war with the Klingons.
There may be more to the story, however, as it turns out that the Starfleet Data Archive was actually a secret project to develop weapons for a war with the Klingons, which Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) believes is inevitable. Is Harrison simply a patsy? Is he part of a conspiracy to ignite the simmering Klingon-Starfleet conflict? Or does he have his own, secret agenda?
STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS attempts to be the MAGNUM FORCE (1973) of the TREK series, directly addressing – and in fact deliberately back-walking – the impression left by its predecessor. Whereas MAGNUM FORCE attempted to counter the critical accusation that DIRTY HARRY (1971) endorsed a fascist approach to policing, STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS directly takes on the perceived militarization of the TREK universe, which reached its apotheosis in 2009’s STAR TREK, wherein seeking out new life and exploring strange worlds took a back seat to blowing up bad guys. Harrison’s attacks have lethal and very personal consequences for Kirk, who initially is happy to go on a vengeance-fueled mission involving targeted assassination from a safe distance.
As in the best STAR TREK, the scenario is a thinly veiled reflection of our current situation: think of drones and targeted assassinations in the Middle East, and you get the picture, at least initially; later developments turn the story into a warning about the dangers of blow-back. The joy here is that the script – and Pine – sell the device as character drama, allowing us to identify with the understandable feelings of grief and rage that could lead Kirk to moral compromise. In this regard, it is worth noting that STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS reaches back into the very earliest days of the original STAR TREK television series – back to that first half-season, produced by Gene Roddenberry, when Kirk was a driven man, given to heated, sometimes incorrect decisions (think of his effort to track down and kill the Gorn in ARENA without bothering to ascertain who was really the aggressor in a lethal territorial dispute).
Fortunately, as in the series, Spock (Zachary Quinto) and McCoy (Karl Urban) are on hand to help their captain reclaim his ethical center. As in the previous STAR TREK, the characters are milked for the dramatic juice that energizes what could have devolved into preachy moralizing. Yes, the familiar shtick is proudly displayed (Spock invokes logical and regulation; McCoy says “Dammit, Jim…”), but the screenwriters and the actors realize full well that these cliches are not just arbitrary punchlines to be inserted at random; rather, they are tags that help identify the underlying truth about the characters, which is then teased out when they are tested under life-or-death circumstances. SPOILER ALERT
Exactly how that happens is fascinating, to coin a phrase. Just as the previous STAR TREK made rebooting the story part of its plot, acknowledging the previous history while simultaneously subverting it, STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS deliberately echoes – or, more precisely, mirrors – the events of STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN. Familiar elements abound: a newly developed force capable of great destruction; the presence of Carol Marcus (Alice Eve); bodies secreted in photon torpedo tubes – so much so that, by the time Harrison reveals that he is actually Khan Noonien Singh, it is only what we expected.
The trick is that the expected set pieces are inverted, with characters taking on actions previously performed by others; we get a true alternate-universe version of the familiar events, taking what was old and making it new again, including a heart-rending variation on STAR TREK II’s most memorable plot development. (We won’t give it away here, but we will say you do get to here the memorable how of rage, “KHHHAAANNN!!!” – but not from the lips of James Kirk.) Here, STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS flirts with post-modernism, using the audience’s assumed familiarity to add resonance to the events depicted, even though, strictly speaking, there is no direct plot continuity with the film being referenced.
Even more impressively, the new film not only enhances itself by looking back on its 1982 predecessor; it also performs a sort of retro-active miracle, enhancing our appreciation of WRATH OF KHAN, which has now become part of a mirror-image diptych, the two films mutually reinforcing each other with their similarities and differences. END SPOILERS
Amidst all the action and angst, STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS never forgets to be fun. The familiar character patter from the classic series is re-energized here; most of the jokes feel like authentic character moments, not old vaudeville routines hauled out of the mothballs. One exception is the sly, post-modern bit when Kirk transfers Checkov to engineering and tells him to put a red shirt on. Checkov’s worried expression is supposed to relate to concern over his new duties, but the audience reads it as fear of the fate known to befall so many red-shirted cadets in the old television episodes.
Technical credits are astounding; even the 3D conversion looks great, enhancing the dynamism on screen – especially in IMAX engagements. Fortunately, there is more than just visual flash here. Early on, there are actually some almost non-dialogue sequences, accompanied by a more delicate style of music scoring, that convey subplots and even a touch of exposition with admiral subtlety and economy, balancing the intentionally over-the-top excesses of the action sequences.
The more visceral scenes are sometimes overdone, and the plot is more convoluted than it needs to be, requiring a fairly thick slab of dialogue to explain Harrison’s actions, which dovetail perhaps a bit too conveniently with the desire of Admiral Marcus to find a casus belli with the Kklingons. STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS crams too much into one film, with the result that it frequently seems to be careening off into the wrong direction. Remarkably, the film almost always makes the necessary course correction before speeding down the wrong worm hole, and if viewers are more than occasionally left feeling that Abrams and company are trying too hard to recreate memorable beats from their first TREK outing, those misguided efforts usually redeem themselves. (For example, the rather non-energetic opening tease of Kirk escaping from a primitive alien tribe turns into an interesting dilemma – obey the Prime Directive or save Spock’s life – and culminates in sly joke at the expense of Trekkies: after a glimpse of the Enterprise, the tribe seems to adopt it as an object of worship, just as legions of fans on Earth have done for decades.)
As in the previous STAR TREK film, the cast turn the characters into something resembling people, not fifty-year-old cliches. Pine captures the strengths and weaknesses of Kirk; Quinto has Spock’s dual nature down cold, the external logic keeping the underlying emotion hidden yet always felt, just beneath the surface. Urban is uncanny in his ability to play McCoy as if the part always belonged to him.
Even the supporting characters (Zoe Saldana as Uhura, John Cho as Sulu, Anton Yelchin as Chekov), though still clearly subordinate, are given their moments to shine, establishing what makes them great crew members, worthy of being on the Enterprise. Simon Pegg seems a little older and a wee bit tired as Scotty, but he is still an engaging comic presence, and the character even shows a little moral backbone, resigning over a matter of principal at a time when Kirk is too blinded by rage to see that Scotty is right.
At its core, STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS is a story of a brash young man who learns a much-needed lesson in humility. Thankfully, the screenwriters realize that personal growth, in and of itself, is not enough to justify the collateral damage that results in a film like this (would it really be fair for dozens if not hundreds of crew people to die so that Kirk can become a better person?), so something else is offered, a larger lesson about holding onto your ideals even when you are tested in extremis. It’s a lesson not only for Kirk but for all of us, and STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS makes the point as well as any classic STAR TREK episode ever did.
Where will the Enterprise voyage next? STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS ends with the promise the the familiar five-year journey about to commence, implying that future episodes will take place out in the galaxy, instead of focusing on the defense of Earth. Although the first two films in the revamped franchise have triumphed at extracting dramatic gravitas from dire situations, there are only so many times you can go for the big emotional character moments before those moments go stale. Perhaps there could be dividends from allowing the supporting characters to take up more of center stage, but hopefully the next TREK will boldly go to some strange new world, where spaceships and tricorders are not merely a backdrop for an action-adventure tale but part and parcel of some thoughtful speculative fiction.
[rating=4] STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS (Paramount Pictures: May 16, 2013). Directed by J.J. Abrams. Written by Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman & Damon Lindelof. 132 minutes. PG-13. Cast: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Benedict Cumberbatch, Anton Yelchin, Bruce Greenwood, Alice Eve, Leonard Nimoy.
Also: THE FRANKENSTEIN THEORY and more HELMLOCK GROVE
Take another tour of horror, fantasy, and science fiction on home video with this week’s edition of the Cinefantastique Laserblast Podcast. Lawrence French, Dan Persons, and Steve Biodrowski explore the over-hyped “purge” of classic titles from Netflix; review the new Blu-ray releases of STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, STAR TREK: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY, and STAR TREK GENERATIONS; analyze THE FRANKENSTEIN THEORY; and explore the ghostly goodies on THE AWAKENING’s Blu-ray disc. And of course, there is the usual weekly rundown of all that is new on store shelves and on demand.
Tuesday, May 7 Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction Home Video Releases
MAMA on DVD and on Blu-ray plus DVD plus UltraViolet from Universal Studios. Bonus features:
In-depth look at effects – BD Exclusive
Deleted scenes with commentary from Andy and Barbara Muschietti
Original short subject with intro by Guillermo Del Toro
Birth of Mama – featurette about expanding short subject
Commentary by Andy and Barbara Muschietti
FRINGE: THE COMPLETE FIFTH SEASON on DVD and Blu-ray from Warner Home Video.
Hollywood Hits 4-Movie Collection on DVD from Mill Creek Entertianment, including four classic/cult titles from Columbia Pictures (that is, distributed by Columbia, not necessarily produced – resulting in an eclectic mix from the 1940s, ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s):
RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE with Bela Lugosi
REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN with Peter Cushing
MR. SARDOICUS with Guy Rolfe
THE BROTHERHOOD OF SATAN with Strother Martin
Blu-ray Steelbooks (new steel collectible casing for previously available discs):
V FOR VENDETTA
THE MATRIX 10TH ANNIVERSARY (obvious anachronism)
LORDS OF THE RINGS trilogy
BOOK OF ELI
ROGER CORMAN CULT CLASSICS – SCI-FI CLASSICS TRIPLE FEATURE EMBOSSED SLIM TIN with these three titles: