science fiction

#772: The Phantom Menace (20 Years On)

GETTING MORE TALE #772: The Phantom Menace (20 Years On)

If you can believe it, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace is 20 years old this year.  2019 is a significant year in the history of Star Wars.  It is the 20th anniversary of its return with the prequels, and it will also witness the final movie of the Skywalker saga in Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker.  Back in Record Store Tales Part 209: The Phantom Menace, I said I wasn’t “interested in contributing to the background noise” regarding the movie, but I’ve since changed my mind.  Now that George Lucas is out of the picture and J.J. Abrams is helming the finale of the sequel trilogy, it’s hard not to get a little nostalgic for 1999, when things were…simpler.

Netflix has different movies available in different countries, but you can sidestep this with some VPN software.  Some countries have no Star Wars, but between them, all of the films are available.  Bahamas is the only territory I’ve discovered so far with the first two trilogies, so I’ve been re-watching from I to VIII.  And for all its flaws, with the benefit of hindsight, The Phantom Menace is still quite enjoyable.

George Lucas had his own ideas about where to take Star Wars, but the fan hate that Phantom Menace (and the other prequels) received took the wind out of his sails.  He laid the groundwork in Phantom Menace, with that talk about the highly maligned midichlorians.  Now, midichlorians were an awful idea.  J.J. Abrams is right to leave them out of the sequel trilogy.  The idea of little microscopic organelles in your blood giving you the ability to tap into the Force?  It creates so many problems.  Like, if you have more midichlorians in your blood than someone else, does that automatically make you more powerful?  Can we therefore rank numerically every character by midichlorian count and deduce who the most powerful is?  Can you get a blood transfusion from a Jedi and steal his or her Jedi powers? That’s the kind of shit that fans hate on.  Why couldn’t Lucas leave the Force alone with all its mystery intact?

Because he was going somewhere with that.  Lucas came up with the name and concept of midichlorians back in 1977; the idea is very old.  Now we understand why.  George was also setting up the final trilogy, the one that J.J. is currently finishing. Episodes VII through IX “were going to get into a microbiotic world,” George Lucas told James Cameron. So, like Ant-Man?  “There’s this world of creatures that operate differently than we do. I call them the Whills. And the Whills are the ones who actually control the universe. They feed off the Force.”  Fans recall that “Whills” is an old word.  The first Star Wars novelization refers to the entire saga as The Journal of the Whills.  In Lucas’ own sequel trilogy, Jedi were to be merely “vehicles for the Whills to travel around in…And the conduit is the midichlorians. The midichlorians are the ones that communicate with the Whills. The Whills, in a general sense, they are the Force.”

Like Ant-Man meets Dr. Strange meets The Fantastic Voyage, maybe.  With lightsabers?  Terrible; undoubtedly awful.  I can’t even fathom how he would have executed this idea.  The fans would have rioted.  You think the hate that fandom gives Disney today is intense?  Imagine if George’s microscopic version got made.

But at least George had a vision.

Lucas wasn’t about making the trilogies the same.  Having watched both The Force Awakens and Phantom Menace recently on Netflix, it’s clear that J.J. made a better movie that feels more like Star Wars.  Flawed, yes, but it seemed to be setting up some pretty epic storytelling (until Rian Johnson took a shit all over it with his left turn Last Jedi.)  J.J.’s Star Wars is better acted, paced and edited.  The dialogue is far less stiff.  But George’s Phantom Menace has something that J.J.’s Force Awakens does not:  daring imagination.

One of the most successful sequences in Episode I is the pod race.  It’s completely irrelevant to the story, which is one of the many problems, but on its own, it is a glistening example of George’s unfettered imagination.  In 1999, this race was unimaginably new.  The only thing that came close was the speeder bike chase in 1983’s Return of the Jedi, primitive as it was.  Lucas broke new ground in multiple ways with his prequels, whether you like his innovations or not, and primitive CG characters aside.  People complain that J.J.’s Star Wars is just a soft reboot.  Well, watch Phantom Menace if that’s not your cup of tea.  The pod race, at least.  Lucas combined his love of race cars with science fiction and directed one of the best race sequences in the genre.  In any genre.  Even little Jake Lloyd shone in that cockpit, confidently flying himself to victory.

It’s a shame that pod race sequence was completely unnecessary.  I mean, you’re telling me Liam Neeson couldn’t figure out any other way to get off that planet, other than a complicated scheme of betting; gambling on a child pod racer?  Liam was supposed to be a goddamned Jedi master.  They keep talking about how much time they’re wasting on the planet, but they wait to see how this damned race plays out?  A race that could have killed a little kid!  Weird choices.  If you were a Jedi, you could have figured out dozens of faster and safer ways to get off that planet, right?

Once they do finally get off that planet, the Jedi arrive home on the capitol world Coruscant.  This was a bit of fan service, something that they wanted to see more of, since it had been such an important part of comics, novels and production artwork.  Cloud City aside, it was the first real time we saw an urban city environment on Star Wars.  True to form, Lucas made the whole planet one environment, in this case a city.  It was also some of the most brilliant visual designs on the prequel trilogy, one which would set the tone for the two movies that followed.

For better or for worse, Lucas spent much of the prequel trilogy defining who the Jedi were.  What they could do, what they couldn’t, and what they believed in.  We learned of the “living Force”, and oodles of Jedi wisdom about attachment and fear.  Jedi couldn’t marry, which was surprising, considering the Skywalker bloodline is the entire focus of the saga.  Yet George was throwing tons of ideas at us.  Stuff that he had been keeping in dusty old notebooks for years.  Nothing in the sequel trilogy comes close to revealing as much about the Star Wars universe as the prequels do.

Though Phantom Menace is the movie with the most cringe-worthy moments, wooden dialogue and shitty acting, there are the odd scenes that George did artistically and perfect.  Take the moment that Anakin and friends arrive on Coruscant, an overwhelming moment for the little boy.  George shot some of the footage from kid-height, allowing us to experience Anakin’s anxiety without clumsy dialogue.  The aforementioned pod race sequence is brilliant, and so is the final lightsaber duel.  For the first time, serious acrobatics and martial arts moves were incorporated into the laser sword battles.  This went on to define how the Jedi normally fought throughout all the prequels:  with a lot of jumping, leaping, and somersaulting.  For all the epic duels in the saga, one of the greatest (if not number one) is Kenobi and Jinn vs. Darth Maul.  From John Williams’ score (“Duel of the Fates”) to the choreography by Nick Gillard, it was focused through George Lucas’ lens into something absolutely brain-melting.  Until Darth Maul lost like a chump.  No excusing that; although remember that George did something similar to Boba Fett in Episode VI.

The droid designs were also pretty cool.  As iconic as a stormtrooper?  No.  But sleek, interesting, new and believable?  Absolutely.  This helped shape the visually stunning Naboo land battle scenes.  J.J. didn’t introduce any new infantry troops in his movie, he just updated the existing ones.

There was one thing that The Force Awakens and The Phantom Menace did equally well.  One very important thing that neither gets enough credit for: they made us anticipate the next film in the trilogies with hunger.  (Until Rian Johnson pissed all over J.J.’s ending, that is.)  Both films’ endings felt like the setup for events we couldn’t wait to see on screen.  The training of Anakin/Rey, for example.  A clue to the truth about the big bad guys (Sidious/Snoke).  The next meeting between good and evil.  J.J. and George both succeeded in creating this feeling of heavy anticipation.

By the time all three prequel movies played out, each problematic with wooden acting and stiff stories, fans were burned out on prequel-era Star Wars.  The Clone Wars TV show did a better job of living in that universe, but fans longed for the old familiar again.  X-Wings and Han Solo and the Empire and all of it.  So that’s what J.J. delivered.  And J.J. Abrams learned what we all know:  there is no pleasing Star Wars fans.

We fans take this stuff too seriously sometimes.  You’ve just read 1500 words, comparing Star Wars movies’ strengths and flaws.  That’s excessive, for both the reader and the writer!  We take this too seriously, friend.  Sure, we don’t go and harass the actors on Twitter like some juvenile delinquents do, but we’ve invested so much time and thought into a goddamn space movie series.  Too late to turn back now.  I think it’s important to take a break, step back and appreciate the movies from a different perspective.  Having done that with Phantom Menace, I can see it has its mitigating traits that still make me smile 20 years later.

 

 

DVD REVIEW: Blade Runner (1982) – Tribute to Rutger Hauer by Holen MaGroin

Guest review by Holen MaGroin


BLADE RUNNER (1982, 2007 Ultimate DVD edition, Warner Bros.)

Directed by Ridley Scott

The first time I saw Blade Runner, I was unimpressed. I didn’t believe it to be a bad film, but it inspired nothing inside me. However, something about it burrowed into my mind. It could have been the inspirational aesthetic, the cryptic atmosphere, or something operating deeper in my subconscious. Something I couldn’t place my finger on. Whatever it was, I had an undeniable desire to see the film again. When I acted upon that impulse, I fell in love with it. All the emotion and humanity that had eluded me on the initial viewing became elucidated the second time around. Since then, I’ve viewed the film many times. Each of my viewings reveals more secrets and offers new interpretations to this alluringly ambiguous picture.

I’m not entirely certain why Blade Runner went over my head the first time. If I had to speculate, I’d guess that my mind was so overwhelmed by the sheer visual spectacle, that I had a difficult time focusing on the movie behind it. After becoming accustomed to the astonishing world in which the story resides, it became clear to me that much more than just the design was awe-inspiring. Underneath the electronic digital exterior was a human pulse, one that beat the strongest in the characters that weren’t even human. It poses the existential question of the definition of life, and makes us wonder who should have the authority to define it.

The events take place in the future world of November 2019. Earth has become an overcrowded, polluted, and commercialized urban environment. The Tyrell Corporation manufactures synthetic human beings known as replicants. They are just as intelligent as their creators, while also possessing superior physical abilities. They’re used off-world for slave labor, and are forbidden on Earth. Deckard is a blade runner, the best there’s ever been. His job is to take out stray replicants, a process described by the euphemism ‘retiring’.

 

When we’re introduced to Deckard, it’s clear we’re observing a broken man. He lacks purpose, and hides his feelings of worthlessness behind alcohol and a bitter attitude. Having quit his job as a blade runner, he drifts around going through the motions. He’s living a very shallow existence, numbed by whiskey, afraid to feel, and terrified of self-reflection. He’s called in to do one last job, and does so only after being threatened by his old boss, Bryant. Six replicants escaped an off-world colony, and four made it to Earth with their lives. They’ve travelled to Earth in an attempt to extend their lives, which have been set to approximately four years. Their leader is the tactical and ruthless Roy Batty, an imposing figure played by the recently departed Rutger Hauer (R.I.P.). Deckard’s job is to retire them, as they are considered a threat to the public.

Despite being artificial, these four replicants are the most compelling characters in the film. They possess real emotions, and you can’t help but empathize with their plight for life. Their methods may be cutthroat, but understandable given the abhorrent treatment they’ve received at the hands of humans. Not excusable, but understandable. Roy is the most viscous, yet he is also the one we learn to care for the most. The other three want more life only because of their fear of death. Unlike his companions, Roy is a pensive philosopher that questions the nature of his existence, and sees the artificial manipulation of his life expectancy as an injustice perpetrated by Tyrell, his creator.

Contrarily, Deckard is a classic noir archetype inserted into a science fiction world as a way of contrasting him with his supposedly ‘less than human’ targets. He has no raison d’être, no philosophy, he simply exists. The very machines he’s been commissioned to destroy contain more human characteristics than he does. He has learned to detach himself from his emotions because somewhere inside he knows that his job is immoral. As the film progresses, it’s a truth that he finds harder and harder to deny.

His path to realization begins when he visits Tyrell at the onset of his case. While there he meets the beautiful replicant Rachel and is immediately captivated by her. Rachel isn’t initially aware that she is a replicant, as she is part of a new generation that has been fitted with memory implants. She’s rather sterile and distant at first, but ironically becomes more emotional as she comes to accept the fact that she is indeed a synthetic human being. This coincides with Deckard’s own increased feelings of guilt and empathy towards these machines as he approaches the completion of his job. Both characters struggle with the concept of humanity in a dehumanizing urban environment, falling in love as they relate to each other’s fear and uncertainty.

Meanwhile, Roy and the seductive Pris manipulate genetic designer J.F. Sebastian into leading them to Tyrell. Sebastian is afflicted with a disease that accelerates aging, allowing him to relate to and take pity on the replicants and their limited lifespan. Roy and Sebastian visit Tyrell during the dead of night, under the pretense of a chess game. Roy’s patience has been rewarded. He is finally able to face his creator. His resentment towards Tyrell for manipulating his lifespan culminates in the line “I want more life, fucker.” The profanity underscores the pent up rage. It’s an emotional slip for the previously silver-tongued devil, and a subtle hint for his surprising climactic decision at the end of the film. When Tyrell informs Roy that there is no way to extend his lifespan, he disposes of his creator and Sebastian.

Deckard learns of the deaths of Tyrell and Sebastian on his radio, and decides to check out Sebastian’s place. What follows is the infamous final confrontation between Deckard and Roy. Deckard offers absolutely no challenge to Roy. Roy’s methodical killings of before are replaced by a sadistic playfulness. Driven past the point of caring upon the realization of his inevitable mortality, he plays cat and mouse with Deckard. In the middle of their game Roy’s hand begins to seize up; his time has come. Deckard attempts to jump from one building to the next to escape, but doesn’t go the distance, grasping the edge hanging precariously high above the ground. Roy catches up to him and easily makes the jump to the next building, standing above Deckard as his fingers slip. But just as Deckard’s grip fails, Roy grasps Deckard’s arm and hoists him up onto the building, saving his life.

In this moment Roy realizes that the most human gesture he can make before death is forgiveness. Saving Deckard even after he killed all his companions was an act of mercy and forgiveness that made his final deed a human one. Roy has reached the stage of acceptance, and ponders in his death soliloquy that once someone dies, all of their memories are lost. All their experience is gone forever. As he puts it, “All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in the rain.” An immortal line written by Rutger Hauer himself, it fixes an image to the human fear that we won’t have a legacy, and that all we’ve learned and experienced will be lost forever. Roy believes that with the loss of his experiences, humans will remain ignorant of the nature of replicant life, and that humans will continue to view them as objects to be used instead of living creatures. As he dies peacefully, a dove ascends out of the oppressive city. The shot seems to suggest that Roy does have a soul, and the dove symbolizes something pure and innocent. Roy has redeemed himself by saving Deckard, and his purified spirit ascends to heaven.

Blade Runner is a pensive film. It takes its time unravelling to give the viewer a chance to think along with it. It’s about a man that learns to embrace his humanity from the very machines he’s expected to kill. He even falls in love with one. It makes us wonder what truly constitutes life, and what value a life has after it’s gone and forgotten. Blade Runner is moody, stylized, and very open to interpretation. It’s certainly not a film for everyone, but for the people that enjoy when movies offer more questions than answers, there are few that have done it better.

5/5 replicants

Version Guide

There are five distinct cuts of Blade Runner available on Blu-ray, so I figured I’d do a quick version guide and offer my opinion on the best version of the film (it’s not the Final Cut).

  • Work print (1982) – The original work print shown to test audiences. It is a few minutes shorter than the other cuts, which are practically all the same length. It contains different opening credits, and one instance of voice over narration during Roy’s death scene different than the one heard in the theatrical cuts.
  • U.S. Theatrical Cut (1982) – Voice over narration was added that elaborates on certain plot points and offers background information. This version also contains a happier ending.
  • International Theatrical Cut (1982) – Identical to the U.S. Theatrical cut, only it has a few instances of unedited violence.
  • Director’s Cut (1992) – This version removes all voice over narration, and the happier ending. It also inserts a unicorn dream that heavily suggests that Deckard is a replicant. This version doesn’t contain the extra violence.
  • The Final Cut (2007) – Everything in this cut is cleaned up. The visuals, the sound, etc. Visible wires were removed from the flying cars, and an obvious stunt double’s face was digitally replaced with the actress’s face. Includes a longer unicorn dream, no narration, Roy apologizing to Sebastian before killing him, a different background for the dove shot, the violence from the international cut, and green color grading. Roy also says “I want more life, father.” This is the only version besides the work print where he says father instead of fucker.

My favorite (short version): The director’s cut.

My favorite (long version): The green color grading of The Final Cut is awful. It buries the spectacular world and neon colors in a gross green. Using CGI to replace a face and cover up wires is also a bit too revisionist for my tastes as well. I also think the assertion that Deckard is a replicant ruins the theme of the movie. Therefore, I don’t like the unicorn dream. I also don’t like Roy apologizing to Sebastian, it’s out of character. And father just isn’t as powerful as fucker, even with the God complex connotations. As for the theatrical cuts, the narration isn’t all that awful in my eyes (it’s performed pretty badly), but it is a better film without it. It has some interesting background information, but it ruins some of the ambiguity. I do like that the theatrical cut doesn’t push the idea that Deckard is a replicant, because it’s missing the unicorn dream. The happy ending is inconsistent with the movie’s tone though. So my ideal version would be the international theatrical cut without the narration, and without the happy ending. But since we don’t have that cut, my preferred version is the director’s cut, with the international cut coming in a very close second. You should watch both of those cuts just to get the full experience. I switch back and forth depending on my mood.

This review is dedicated to Rutger Hauer. Thanks for the films, man. We’ll miss you.

 

REVIEW: Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds (1978, 2009 CD)

JEFF WAYNE – Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds (1978, 2009 Sony CD reissue)

Simply put, it’s one of the greatest rock musicals ever: Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds.  Not as well known as, say Jesus Christ Superstar, but it is essential ownership for fans of:

  • both science fiction and rock musicals
  • concept albums
  • H.G. Wells
  • Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues
  • Phil Lynott

That’s a lot of niche.  Composer Jeff Wayne wrote a musical that spans multiple genres.  Progressive rock, Disco beats, space rock, spoken word, symphonic rock…there is a foot on all those bases.  A theremin-like synth hook recurs through the album, increasing the tension.  Richard Burton is featured as the narrating Journalist, speaking the words of Wells, creating the necessary serious tone.  Meanwhile Justin Hayward is featured as the main lead vocalist, singing as the Journalist in a shared role.  It is he that delivers the catchiest of refrains on the album:

“The chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one, he said.  But still they come.” 

The story has of course been streamlined down from the original 287 page novel.  The plot remains the same, as do the major setpiece scenes.  The opening of the first Martian capsule in “Horsell Common and the Heat Ray” is impeccably narrated by Burton.  This also introduces a guitar theme that pops up again and again on the album.  And now it is clear the visitors from Mars have hostile intent, and weapons beyond those known to human science.

David Essex joins Burton on “The Artilleryman and the Fighting Machine”.  He plays a young soldier, survivor of the first Martian attack.  “They wiped us out.  Hundreds dead, maybe thousands.”  Guitars and synthesizers mingle in haunting fashion.  Dramatic strings emphasise the danger, as it quickly becomes an action piece.  Another recurring musical theme is introduced:  the terrifying Martian cry of “Ulla!  Ulla!”

Hayward resumes his role as the Journalist on “Forever Autumn”, a ballad memorable for its lamenting chorus of “Now you’re not here.”  But the destruction also resumes with the refrain of “Ulla!  Ulla!”  Then “Thunder Child”, featuring vocalist Chris Thompson, describes a counter attack by the ironclad ship Thunder Child.  She puts up a valiant struggle, managing to damage one of the Martian fighting machines, but succumbs to the heat ray.  Collapse is imminent, and Earth now belongs to Mars.

The second disc, subtitled The Earth Under the Martians, continues the story with Thin Lizzy’s Phil Lynott as Parson Nathaniel.  A foul red weed has claimed the land.  The mad Parson barely survived a Martian attack and is discovered by his wife Beth (Julie Covington) and the Journalist.  Lynott portrays the character with manic delight, as the Parson is convinced the Martians are the devil.  His feature lead vocal is “The Spirit of Man”, where the Parson blames the death and destruction on the sins of all mankind.  They witness a new Martian machine that pursues, captures and harvests humans for their blood.  The Parson thinks he can destroy the Martian demons with prayer, but fails.  The Journalist survives, and meets the Artilleryman down the road.

The Journalist is delighted to see a familiar face again.  The Artilleryman is the polar opposite of the Parson.  He believes mankind can survive underground.  “Brave New World” is a dramatic Floyd-like ballad in tribute to the new life the Artilleryman sees for himself.  The chorus of “We’ll start over again!” is infectious like all the others on this album.  “We’ll even build a railway and tunnel to the coast!  Go there for our holidays!”  He makes the future underground sound like a paradise, but the Journalist doesn’t believe such grand plans can be accomplished by just the survivors.  Instead, he returns to London.

The city is blackened, looted and abandoned.  Darker music accompanies the narrator/Journalist on his journey through on “Dead London, Pt. 1”.  Then he notices two massive fighting machines, making sounds but unmoving.  Then the machines goes silent, and the string section from the opening track “The Eve of the War” returns to dramatic effect.  This is when he discovers that simple Earthen bacteria and germs have killed the Martians.  They had no immunity to our diseases, and so the Martian invasion was stopped not by man, but by the smallest living things.  “Dead London, Pt. 2” is a triumphant refrain symbolising the victory at hand.

Life eventually returns back to normal, and the Journalist is reunited with his love.  There remains a question of a future threat from Mars.  The epilogue conclusively answers that question….

The highly recommended 2009 CD reissue has an unlisted bonus, a medley of two of the big Justin Hayward pieces, “Forever Autumn” and “The Eve of the War”.  There is also a 2009 re-recording of “The Spirit of Man”.  This set comes recommended mainly for its lavish booklet, with full colour illustrations and pages of art.  It also has full credits and lyrics for every track, including dialogue.  The remastering is full and clear, without any obvious sonic flaws.  You can buy this album in a number of editions, with loads of remixes and outtakes, but this simpler 2 CD remaster is the ideal entry point.

Though the musical chapters are long, War of the Worlds flows by rather quickly.  Sometimes it bears sonic similarity to Alice Cooper’s elaborate Welcome to My Nightmare.  But it is far weightier and more expansive than that.  You can finish the album in a single sitting quite easily.  In fact, you probably should.

5/5 stars

Blu-ray REVIEW: Dune (1984) by Holen MaGroin

Guest review by Holen MaGroin


DUNE (1984 Universal)

Directed by David Lynch

Frank Herbert’s seminal Dune is one of the most beloved and influential works of science fiction ever committed to paper. Despite its convoluted plot, world specific dialogue, and the presence of enough supporting characters to fill a football arena, readers have been captivated by the tale of lost humanity and political turmoil for over half a century.* The book’s epic length gave it the time it needed to develop compelling three-dimensional characters. Adapting such a complex story into a feature film proved to be so challenging that Arthur P. Jacobs, Alejandro Jodorowsky, and Ridley Scott all tried and failed to bring the book to the big screen. After three misfires, American surrealist director David Lynch was hired to helm the project in 1981. The film took three challenging years to produce, and upon completion, was a substantial critical and commercial failure.

In the years since its release in 1984, the film has developed a cult following, and for good reason. While it’s not everything a fan of the book would hope for, it’s certainly not as bad as it was made out to be upon its release. For people new to the series, the sheer amount of characters, alliances, and jargon can be overwhelming. Especially when Lynch was only given two hours with which to tell a five-hundred page novel. This is easily the weakest aspect of the movie. Much of the exposition is crammed in at the beginning of the film, and its delivery can best be described as clunky. The scene in which Emperor Shaddam IV explains his plan to destroy House Atreides to the Spacing Guild is so poorly written that it calls to mind a moment from Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs in which the evil Lord Helmet turns to the camera after excessive exposition and asks the audience if they caught it all.

The sloppy exposition is exacerbated by the literal interpretation of Frank Herbert’s use of internal dialogue. Lynch’s decision to literally adapt the book’s internal dialogue by having the actors narrate each character’s thoughts and motivations is belligerent and awkward. The film too often relies on this internal dialogue that robs the movie of surprise and subtlety for the sake of clarity that it ironically fails to bring. Much of the dialogue is used to further the plot, as opposed to developing the characters. Certain characters are simplified out of necessity due to the relatively brief runtime, such as the formidable Harkonnens of the novel being turned into the disgusting cartoonish characters seen in this film. However, at only one-hundred thirty-seven minutes, the story could have been much more incoherent and disjointed than it ultimately was, but that doesn’t excuse it from being an underdeveloped mess.

While the story falters somewhat in comparison to the novel, it works surprisingly well taken on its own. Many of the theological questions of the book remain unexplored in the film adaptation, but the complex themes of political strife, globalism, and corruption are all addressed in the conflicts between the many groups gifted with power.  Each entity mistrusts the other, but must form uneasy alliances to stay afloat or to destroy common enemies covertly. The film balances these relationships remarkably well. Every group’s selfish motivation is made abundantly clear, yet each motivation prompts thought over their individual plans within plans.

Another area that the movie excels at is its tone. The novel had a very regal atmosphere, which the film captures in strides. It does a remarkable job at humanizing the bombast of the occasion. In a society where humans are trained more and more to act and perform like machines, the protagonist Paul Atreides triumphs with his innate sense of human morality and communal bonds with the Fremen. Kyle MacLachlan perfectly captures the innocence, the exuberance, and the pride of the character in the novel. Dune has a rich supporting cast including Max von Sydow, Patrick Stewart, and José Ferrer that help to elevate the material and capture its humanity.

Part of the film’s emotional success can be credited to the excellent score, contributed by Toto with one beautiful piece by Brian Eno. Toto fused orchestral arrangements with their instrumental rock prowess to create a hybrid score that is surprisingly exciting. It frames the most overblown scenes in a way that seems triumphant instead of pompous, and prevents the quiet emotional moments from buckling under the weight of the jargon. At the heart of all this technical jargon and political strife is a story about human characters, filled with human virtue, human emotions, and human desires. This score pulsates with humanity, and is something that Toto and Brian Eno should look at with pride.

The film also succeeds in its unique visual aesthetic that perfectly brings the spiritual and transcendental aspects of the novel to the screen with style. Thanks to the surrealistic tendencies of its director, this film is full of striking visual moments, particularly those that depict Paul’s prescient visions. The scene in which Paul takes the water of life in the desert and unlocks his full mental potential is especially breathtaking. It lacks the narrative depth of the novel, but makes up for it by explaining visually what the film’s clunky dialogue often failed to clarify on its own.

Dune is by no means a great film, and it doesn’t live up to the timeless reputation of the novel it’s based on. It is a cult classic from a decade known for producing its fair share of cult cinema. While many fans of the book and members of the general public look at this movie with disdain, I always walk away from it having been entertained, if left yearning for a better adaptation. We may get this adaptation now that Dennis Villeneuve is directing a new version of the film set to release in 2020. This 1984 version is flawed, and even its director calls it his worst film (I disagree; I think 1990’s Wild at Heart would take that position). The fact that I originally sought out the Dune novel because I was such a big David Lynch fan and wanted to read the book before seeing the film may paint me as a biased source, but I consider the positive attributes of the film Dune to (just barely) counteract the many negatives.

3/5 Sandworms

Author’s Note: Get the Blu-Ray if you’re going to watch it. It is a substantial improvement over any other version of the film. Dune was always a bit of an ugly duckling, but this Blu-Ray edition has gone the distance to clean up the visuals to present what is by far the best looking version of this film ever released. And whatever you do stay away from the 3 hour extended/T.V. cut that is so bad the director removed his name from the credits. It’s a butchered mess that mixes up the musical cues and needlessly edits material back in from the cutting room floor. The theatrical cut is the only version available on Blu-Ray, so it shouldn’t be too hard to avoid the bastardized extended version.

 

* Because of its generous detail and epic world-buildingLeBrain

 

 

DVD REVIEW: The Orville – The Complete First Season (2018)

THE ORVILLE – The Complete First Season (2018 20th Century Fox 2 DVD set)

We like Star Trek: Discovery, we really do.  At the same time, we wonder, “Why do studios insist the only way to do Star Trek today is to modernise it into a gritty action drama?”  Does it have to be so?  Is Roddenberry’s utopian vision of the future somehow outdated?

Though CBS Paramount seem terrified of anything “too Trekky”, others have not been timid.  Sensing the wide-open void for something styled in the old spirit of Trek, Seth MacFarlane (of all people) made his move with The Orville.

Before you scoff, let’s not forget that MacFarlane clearly knows his Star Trek.  1) Patrick Stewart regularly appears on his shows.  2) He reunited the entire Next Generation cast for the first time on an episode of Family Guy.  3) He cast Michael Dorn in Ted 2 and dressed him up as Worf.  It should surprise no one that The Orville is closest in spirit to Star Trek:  The Next Generation.  In fact, not even Deep Space Nine or Voyager are this close.  From the gentle pastel sets including conference rooms, hallways and holodecks, to the techno-babble, to the minimal use of violence, The Orville is the NEXT Next Generation.  It is the Enterprise D, but if Captain Picard allowed the crew to crack wise when opportunity knocked.

It would take only the slightest nudge to turn The Orville into Trek canon.  Change some names and terminology, tone down the humour slightly, and you’re there.  Humour on a starship?  Yes, of course, but The Orville is not a comedy.  It is first and foremost science fiction, and indeed some of the best science fiction on television since Star Trek: Enterprise was cancelled.  The episodes are generally commentary on modern society, much like Star Trek has always been.  Change the setting to outer space and suddenly it’s parable.  Topics covered include the “court of public opinion” seen in social media today, gender reassignment, underachievers, religion in society, and making the most difficult decisions.  The biggest difference between the voyages of the Orville and the Enterprise isn’t even that big:  on the Orville, there are no transporter beams.

The crew of The Orville is obsessed with Earth culture circa 1980-present, but that is to be expected given Seth MacFarlane’s own interests.  References to movies and TV shows of today are rampant.  Jokes are toned down from the usual modern fare, but the pilot episode sets up a comedic premise.  Captain Ed Mercer (MacFarlane) catches his wife, Commander Kelly Grayson, in bed with a blue alien (Rob Lowe).  When Grayson is assigned as his first officer on the Union ship the Orville, the entire crew learns of their marriage issues.  Captain Mercer’s best friend (and best pilot in the fleet) is Lt. Gordon Malloy played by Scott Grimes of American Dad.  Seth’s buddy Norm MacDonald also shows up as Lt. Yaphit, a gelatinous yellow blob based on Odo from Deep Space Nine, but played for comedy relief.

Too much science fiction today has flimsy barely-there characters.  The Orville’s crew are more fully formed than the usual, with a few receiving interesting story arcs.  They are all new versions of classic archetypes.  The robot Isaac (Mark Jackson) is the twist on Data.  He is still immensely curious about humans, but knows he is vastly superior and considers everyone on the Orville his inferior.  Bortus (Peter Macon) is your “Worf”, a deep voiced, strong alien species with head ridges.  His unique trait is that his race is single-gendered, and much of his character development is in tandem with his partner Klyden (Chad L. Coleman).  Halston Sage plays the inexperienced security chief Alara Kitan, a young alien from a planet with such high gravity, that their species have evolved tremendous physical strength.  Though small she can easily throw a punch to send Bortus flying, or re-shape a cube of titanium with her hands!  Yet she lacks the confidence that her crewmates have in her.

More casting genius:  Penny Johnson Jerald, Deep Space Nine‘s Kassidy Yates, as ship’s doctor Claire Finn.  In cameos or recurring roles are Ron Canada (Next Generation), Charlize Theron and Liam Neeson (A Million Ways to Die in the West), Victor Garber (Titanic), Mike Henry (Family Guy), Robert Picardo (Voyager‘s Doctor), and Jeffrey Tambor (Arrested Development).  One has to respect both the sheer talent involved, and the willingness of Star Trek actors to participate.

As the show grows during its first season, comedy takes a back seat to science fiction.  In the bonus features, MacFarlane states that he paid attention to fan feedback, and he noted that fans were discussing the legitimate characters and science fiction tales.  Episodes feature a new twist on classic sci-fi (and even Star Trek) themes:  living in a simulation, a space zoo, Flatland, a civilisation living in a generation ship without its own knowledge, interference with space-time and developing cultures, and many planets with Earth-like societies that act as a mirror for us to view our own.  Ray guns are rarely used, and monsters are usually misunderstood.

It’s remarkable but not untrue to say that The Orville is Star Trek, but without infringing any copyrights.  Dig a little further in the credits and you’ll have a better understanding of how they managed to play The Orville so close to classic Trek.  In the director’s chair:  Jonathan Frakes, AKA Riker, and director of Trek on both TV and in cinemas.  Also directing:  Robert Duncan McNeill, AKA Tom Paris and also director of many Voyager episodes.  Behind the scenes is Brannon Braga, a producer on The Next Generation, Voyager, Enterprise, Cosmos…and The Orville.  Jon Favreau even directed the pilot episode.  With a team like this in place, MacFarlane and friends were more than capable of making a show truly within the optimistic Roddenberry philosophy.  Guys like Braga, Frakes and McNeill spent years living in that universe.

The DVD includes your traditional special features, the best of which is a Q&A session with the cast and creators of the show.  Another interesting featurette is about the physical model of the Orville spaceship, used for those slow “beauty shots”.

The Orville is the show that Trek fans have wanted for years now, at least since JJ Abrams brought it back to movie screens.  The true Trek on TV is not Discovery.  It’s not Short Treks.  It is The Orville.  If that pisses off CBS Paramount, then too bad.  If they won’t make the Trek that fans want, then someone else will — and did.

5/5 stars

MOVIE REVIEW: Solo – A Star Wars Story [MINOR SPOILERS]

It is a lawless time.

CRIME SYNDICATES compete for resources – food, medicine, and HYPERFUEL.

On the shipbuilding planet of CORELLIA, the foul LADY PROXIMA forces runaways into a life of crime in exchange for shelter and protection.

On these mean streets, a young man fights for survival, but yearns to fly among the stars….

SOLO: A Star Wars Story (2018)

Directed by Ron Howard

We are dangerously close to Star Wars overkill.  With the announcement of:

  1. A new trilogy helmed by so-so director Rian Johnson.
  2. A new trilogy brought to you by the folks who gave us Game of Thrones.
  3. A live action TV series from Jon Favreau.
  4. And not to mention more Star Wars Story spinoffs (Obi-Wan? Boba?) and the only movie that really matters: the final chapter of the Skywalker Saga, Episode IX.

We are very close to oversaturation indeed.  Remember when you had to wait three years between movies and much longer between trilogies?

Fortunately, Solo is a welcome addition to the crowded Star Wars family.

Solo was one of the spinoffs conceived by George Lucas before he abandoned ship.  He’d been trying to do “young Han” since at least Revenge of the Sith, when he was pictured in concept art as an orphan raised by Wookiees.  Lawrence Kasdan (The Empire Strikes Back) and son Jon wrote Solo, so you can be assured there is a level of authenticity here.  Who better to write that space scoundrel?  Nobody.

And who better to direct than Ron Howard?  He came in under difficult circumstances after the firing of Phil Lord and Chris Miller, re-shot 70% of the movie, and pretty much nailed it too.  Howard also brought in some of his regulars (brother Clint Howard and Paul Bettany) and threw in a literal ton of Star Wars references and crossovers.  Solo is Easter Egg heaven.

Finally, composer John Powell created a soundtrack that is different yet founded in the Star Wars universe.  Powell hybridized new and old themes together into a memorable score.  He too included Easter Eggs, in his music.  Listen closely when [SPOILER] the marauder Enfys Nest and her gang arrives.  Powell utilised a children’s choir, as a clue foreshadowing Enfys’ young age under the mask.

Everybody was worried about lead actor Alden Ehrenreich as Solo.  Admit it, you were too.  Fear not, for young Ehrenreich (who is signed on for three films) nailed the role.  His higher voice is the only niggle that consistently reminds you that he’s not the Han you remember.  Similarly, Donald Glover fits into Lando Calrissian’s capes comfortably, including the suave talkin’.  Billy Dee Williams should be very happy with the new Lando.

The concept of Han as an orphan is retained, but instead of being raised by Wookiees, his backstory is more aligned with the old Star Wars novels.  He is a thief on planet Corellia, where he and girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) try to stay under the Empire’s nose.  Corellia is a shipbuilding world with huge, expansive scenes of Star Destroyers under construction.  When Han and Qi’ra are separated, he joins the Empire, as he did in the comics.

Han wanted to be a pilot, but got stationed in the muddy trenches to quell an uprising on planet Mimban.  Han, you see, isn’t the best at taking orders.  While enlisted on Mimban, he meets Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and his best friend to be, Chewbacca (now played by Joonas Suotamo).  Solo is swept into the seedy world of organised crime where he is delighted to catch up to Qi’ra, and is introduced to her boss played by Paul Bettany.  They both work for the dark, shadowy crime syndicate Crimson Dawn.

From an exciting pulse-pounding train heist to the Millenium Falcon, Solo keeps things moving.  It’s one big set piece after another, including the Kessel Run.  And yes, they used the novels as the source material.  The Falcon does indeed make the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs, getting a little beat up in the process.  By the end of the film, she’ll look a little more like the ship you remember.

The plot has its twists but you can foresee that some backs are going to get stabbed.  Han’s backstory is over-explained a bit too much for a single film, but there is still enough left to explore should Solo 2 be somewhere in pipe.  The truth is, the first viewing of Solo is less paying attention to the plot, and more looking for cameos.  Speaking of which, characters tie Solo into movies as diverse as Rogue One and The Phantom Menace.  You’ll see some stirrings of the early Rebellion, and Han’s intrinsic sense of right and wrong.  You might even see a giant “fuck you” to the Star Wars special editions.  [SPOILER] Han is definitely a “shoot first” kind of guy.

Things get a little muddled with a side character (Lando’s droid L3-37 played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge) with a passion for droid’s rights.  Perhaps a droid-based Star Wars movie would be interesting for the future, but it was extraneous here.  Solo is best when it’s giving you a tour of the Star Wars universe, from crime lords to the trenches on the front lines of the Empire.  Trench warfare on Mimban is directly inspired by the muddy fields of World War 1, and it’s far better than any of the Clone Wars stuff in Revenge of the Sith.

Unlike The Last Jedi, a spinoff movie doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel.  In many measures, the pressure was off.  Solo aims to be a fun movie that requires no connections to the Force or Skywalker family.  It’s a shame that it has not performed well, but that is not a reflection on its quality.

3.75/5 stars

WTF Comments: Discovery of the Lemming edition

Star Trek: Discovery is a controversial series.  Reviews have been very mixed, and fans are split.

Before reviewing, I watched every Discovery episode twice.  Even three times for some.  My review is rather positive3.5/5 stars — and hopeful for the future of the show.  Discovery is not perfect.  Not only is there room for improvement, but things that simply must improve.  But Star Trek has a history of poor first seasons.  Remember The Next Generation in 1987?  Nobody liked Next Generation best in 1987.  It had a rough, rough start.

My review received lots of great comments.  Nobody agreed with my full assessment, just bits and pieces here and there, but comments were helpful and completely relevant.

All but one!  Enjoy this WTF Comment from Dick Dirk.  

He blocked me shortly after.

In the words of William Shatner, “It’s just a TV show!  Get a life!”

MOVIE REVIEW: Runaway (1984 – The KISS Re-Review Series)

The KISS RE-REVIEW SERIES Part 27:  Bonus movie review!

RUNAWAY (1984 Tristar)

Directed by Michael Crichton and featuring Gene Simmons

Being in  was never enough for Gene Simmons.  Dating Cher and Diana Ross gave him a taste of Hollywood stardom.  He saw movies as his next mountain to climb.  Gene secured an audition with novelist and sometimes director Michael Crichton.  Crichton asked Gene to communicate, without saying any words, his desire to kill him.  Whatever Gene did worked, and he scored the role without even having to read for it.

Crichton’s next film Runaway was a Tom Selleck sci-fi vehicle and Gene played the villain Dr. Charles Luther.  Turning his back on Kiss and leaving Paul Stanley to do all the heavy lifting, Simmons cut his hair and got filming.

Set in the “near future”, Runaway depicts an America in which robots are commonplace.  Every household has some, and they have failsafes built in to protect humans.  Selleck played Jack Ramsay, a veteran cop now on the “runaway squad”, a quiet department dedicated to capturing errant robots.  His latest case is a shocker.  A robot has committed the first ‘bot-human homicide in history.  What caused it to malfunction and deliberately kill its owners?  Ramsay discovers a strange chip inside designed not only to override its safety protocols, but also to order the robot to kill.  But who would do such a thing?

Who else?  The evil Dr. Charles Luther played by the God of Thunder himself.

Dr. Luther developed new templates that allow robots to identify and assassinate specific humans.  They are worth a fortune on the black market, and so Luther killed his partners and went rogue.  However his ladyfriend Jackie (Kirstie Alley) doublecrossed him and stole the chips.  When Ramsay and his cop partner Karen find Jackie, they narrowly escape Luther who was tracking her.  Not only does he have killer robots, but also a huge-ass handgun that has homing bullets that can even turn corners.  They try to set up him by having Jackie return the stolen chips, but in one of his best scenes, Gene Simmons stabs her in the back in the middle of a kiss.

Jackie didn’t turn over all the chips.  Ramsay still has some.  Being the evil genius that he is, Luther hacks the police computers and finds out where Ramsay lives.  This leads to a very typical final confrontation, in which Luther kidnaps Ramsay’s son and brings him to an under-construction skyscraper.  Of course he would.  It’s a standard movie cliche involving elevators and heights.  Conveniently, the movie establishes early that Ramsay has a fear of heights.  Of course he does!

Luther does have one neat gadget for this long and fairly boring ending.  He has robotic spiders that spit acid, programmed to kill anything that comes down from the building.  Tom Selleck eventually bests Gene Simmons as you knew he would, but Gene also gets one of the cheesiest movie after-deaths you will ever see.  You know those scenes when you think the villain is dead, but he’s not?  Gene gets to make a funny face and go “RAAAAHHHHH!” before dropping down dead for real this time.

Michael Crichton was certainly a fine science fiction writer, with titles like Jurassic Park and The Andromeda Strain to his credits.  As a movie director, he was less successful.  The Great Train Robbery (1979) starring Sean Connery and Donald Sutherland, and based on his own novel, was his best work.  Others point to Westworld (1973) as his best work as a director.   The main point is, nobody looks to Runaway for movie gold.  It’s sluggish, clunky and at times pretty goofy.  As a science fiction film, it utilized intelligent concepts and envisioned a future that was very different for the cinema in 1984.  Runaway had a story idea.  Jack Ramsay was a complicated character, with a cliche but workable back story.  It was just poorly executed.  One redeeming value is its Jerry Goldsmith score, which was his first all-electronic soundtrack.

While Runaway isn’t considered Michael Crichton’s best film, it might be Gene’s.  His next roles were less flattering.  He played a transvestite villain in Never Too Young to Die with John Stamos.  There was a cameo in the horror cult classic Trick Or Treat.  Opposite Rutger Hauer, he played a stereotypical terrorist in Wanted: Dead or Alive.  His last film before returning to Kiss full-time was an early George Clooney film called Red Surf.  Gene was a friendly weapons dealer.

Meanwhile in Kiss, Paul Stanley had clearly taken over leadership.  All the singles were his.  Since Gene had short hair, he wore a pretty silly wig on stage with Kiss.  None of this helped his image in the eyes of fans.  He did earn a good review for Runaway from Roger Ebert, but otherwise the movie was a dud.

2/5 stars

To be continued…

 

MOVIE REVIEW: Star Wars – Rogue One [spoiler-free]

“It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire.

During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.

Pursued by the Empire’s sinister agents, Princess Leia races home aboard her starship, custodian of the stolen plans that can save her people and restore freedom to the galaxy….”

jyn-erso-rogue-one-posterSTAR WARS:  ROGUE ONE (2016)

Directed by Gareth Edwards

If you are familiar with the opening crawl from Star Wars: A New Hope (1977), then you are already familiar with the last third of Star Wars: Rogue One.  With Disney now in control, we will see Star Wars movies to fill every nook and cranny in the mythos.  Rogue One is just the beginning, and it’s a logical place to start.  A New Hope began mid-action.  Princess Leia is under attack and captured by Darth Vader, but R2D2 and C3P0 have escaped his clutches with the plans to the Death Star.  Did we need an entire movie to see how they got there?

Of course we didn’t.  That’s why George settled for an opening crawl.  The story of how the Death Star plans got into Leia’s hands has gone through many iterations over the years.  The original Star Wars radio drama was one variation.  In another, the video game Dark Forces, you steal the plans yourself as a character named Kyle Katarn.  Now we have the official story featuring a new band of rebels:  Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), K2S0 (Alan Tudyk), Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) and the charismatic pair of Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) and Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen).  They are assisted by the forces of Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), an extremist character originally from the Clone Wars television series.  Together they must get those Death Star schematics into the hands of the Rebel Alliance.

If only it didn’t take so long to do it.

Rogue One is a long running movie, with a final battle that is stunning eye candy but too slow.  As X-Wings, Tie Fighters, Y-Wings and new ships such as Tie Strikers and U-Wings do battle over the planet Scarif where the Death Star plans are stored, you get to watch…someone trying to flip a master control switch.  Someone describing the location of the switch.  Someone trying to locate a file in an archive.   Someone trying to align an antenna and send a file.  Almost sounds like another day at the office, and it takes forever to get from A to B.

Fortunately, Rogue One delivers in other respects.  Planets new and old (you’re gonna shit your pants when you see which old) are to be seen.  One strength of the original trilogy was the variety of planets.  We visited five different worlds:  desert, ice, cloud, swamp and forest.  The prequel movies brought fire and water planets.  Rogue One debuts the exotic Jedha, a spiritual home of the Jedi religion and a source of the Kyber crystals that power their lightsabers.  There is also a tropical paradise planet, torn up and exploited by the evil Empire.

img_20161223_212600There are also cool new ships and stormtroopers to feast your eyes on.  The coolest of these are the black Death Troopers, the personal force of Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn).  Krennic is the prime villain of the film, an ambitious yet bumbling higher-up in the Empire who finds himself on the wrong side of Governor Tarkin (a CG Peter Cushing) and Lord Darth Vader himself.  And as you shall see in the climax of the film, being on the wrong side of Darth Vader is not a place you want to find yourself.  Mendelsohn shines in the role, especially in any scene in which he is paired with Mads Mikkelsen who portrays Jyn’s father Galen Erso.  The character of Galen Erso is revealed to have made a major covert move in the war, that changes A New Hope in one significant way.

In trying to please Star Wars fans who weren’t into The Force Awakens or the prequel trilogy, perhaps Rogue One went too far.   A film with Tarkin as a major villain is a Star Wars fan’s dream, but CG isn’t at the stage yet where he looks perfect.  The uncanny valley strikes again, and somewhere between your eyes and brain, you can tell something is “off” about the character.  The same can be said about another surprise cameo from the past.  Other characters seem shoehorned into the film without a good reason.  (Was there any logical reason to see Pignose and his friend, Scott?)  On the other hand, there is some very clever use of original, unused footage from 1977 to bring other characters back who absolutely should be there.  You’ll know the shots when you see them.  Best, and most significant of the nods to the past are appearances by Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits) and Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly), two senior leaders of the Rebel Alliance.

Felicity Jones and Diego Luna are as fantastic as Mendelsohn is.  Jones can do more acting with her face than most can do with 10 lines of dialogue, but her character isn’t fleshed out.  We know a little bit about who she is, but not about what makes her tick and what she feels.  Luna’s Cassian Andor seems to have more depth.  He seems to have some more skin the game.  Jyn Erso is just along for the ride until she changes her mind mid-way and does a complete 180.  Too many times, characters don’t take actions that are consistent or logical.

The biggest flaw with Rogue One is you already know how it ends.  And if you don’t, you will be able to predict death scenes well in advance, so obviously are they telegraphed.

What makes Rogue One special despite its flaws are the ways it brings childhood dreams to the big screen.  For decades, kids have been flying their X-wings through the back yard, strafing their stormtroopers on invented planets.  Others lucky enough to have an AT-AT in their collection enjoyed target practice with a group of Rebel soldiers.  Younger fans brought up on Star Wars video games will enjoy settings and action right out of the Jedi Knight series.  Rogue One also lifts the veil on the Empire a little bit, an organization we actually see little of in the original trilogy.  Think about it.  Most of the time, you were following around Luke and his friends, on the run from the Empire and doing their own thing.  You didn’t see much of what life under the Empire is like.  Now you do.  Mass electronic surveillance, police state tactics, punishment and coverups are the order of the day.

img_20161223_212639

The last issue to discuss is the score by Michael Giacchino, which is intentionally different from a John Williams soundtrack. It is different and good, but lacks the standout themes that the saga films are known for.  That was the right direction to take, as Rogue One should and does feel like a different kind of Star Wars movie.  It should not be confused with the concurrent saga films, which follow the story of the Skywalker family.

It’s not Giacchino’s fault that Rogue One doesn’t deliver the same kind of awe-inspiring story of the other films.  While it does venture into the mythos of the Force via the blind guardian Chirrut Îmwe, it is not intended to unveil the same kind of chilling revelations.  There is no “I am your father” moment.  There is no self-discovery of inner power as we saw in the past with Anakin, Luke and Rey.  Instead Rogue One travels the road of the soldiers, the grunts on the ground fighting the Empire both openly and secretly.  There are no Jedi to save them, no chosen ones.  Only luck, if you believe in that sort of thing.

The most encouraging thing about Rogue One is how “right” it was done.  Its heart is in the right place at all times.  When the prequels came out to fill in the blanks, they left us more puzzled than anything.  Wait…Darth Vader built C3P0?  Obi-Wan was actually trained by Liam Neeson?  Princess Leia’s mother died in childbirth even though Leia remembered her as being “beautiful, but sad?”  Rogue One doesn’t trample on the continuity at all, it only enhances it.  And that’s all we really needed.

3.5/5 stars

Blu-ray REVIEW: Transformers (2007)

Old review from the archives dug up for your enjoyment. With all apologies to the regular music readers, I decided to post my reviews of the first three Transformers movies, in reverse order.  That’s the only way I could have saved the best for last!

Click here for Dark of the Moon.
And here for Revenge of the Fallen.


TRANSFORMERS (2007 Paramount)

Directed by Michael Bay

J. from Resurrection Songs requested quite some time ago that I post this review.  I decided that the only way to post my review of this movie, the first of the loathed “Bayverse” Transformers film, was to do it legit.  I wrote up a review for my journal almost 10 years ago that has never been seen by anybody.  Back then, I actually liked the movie, and the first is still the best of the series.  Let’s look at this thing from the perspective of “then”.  Things seemed wide open!  Whatever was wrong with the movie could be fixed in the next one, right?

How wrong we were.  Read on!


PRIME

Date: 2007/07/23

TRANSFORMERS: Not actually much more than meets the eye!

I hate Michael Bay. Period. I hated him when I saw Armageddon, easily the worst excuse for science fiction I’d ever seen. I maintain that anyone seeing that movie is dumber for doing so. It kills brain cells like a shot of Absinthe, straight up. I was predisposed to hating Transformers since Michael Bay directed it, but surprisingly I didn’t hate it. I didn’t love it either; it was infinitely flawed. But what I liked in the film, the stuff that they nailed perfectly, was killer.

So what did they mess up so badly that I was cringing? What did they get right? Where did they surprise me?

I am with most people who hated the robots speaking and acting “contemporary”. These are aliens after all, so why Optimus would say “My bad!” when stepping in a flower bed, or why Jazz would talk like Bill Cosby acting hip-hop, I have no idea. Bumblebee “peeing” on John Turturro irked me too. For the record, “peeing” occured twice in this masterpiece of film: Once when Bumblebee unloaded on Turturro’s Agent Simmons, and once when a puppy dog urinated on Ironhide’s foot. (I did like it when he said, “That’s going to rust!” though.) This kind of thing was stupid, juvenile, and out of place even as comedy relief. Granted we’re talking about a movie based on a toy line, but the kids who played with those toys are grown up and have kids of their own now. I would like to think that piss jokes in a science fiction movie are a little passe now. (Although I do own Jackass 1 and Number 2, so call me a hypocrite.)

The storyline was a little weak. The “Allspark” that the Transformers are seeking is nothing more than a McGuffin to drive the plot. Apparently in the hands of Megatron it can do infinite harm, in the hands of the Autobots, it can heal their homeworld of Cybertron. However, in the end, it’s just a box that robots chase each other around for, like a colossal game of Cybertron Football.

The human character of Sam Witwicky as played by Speilberg’s new protege Shia LaBouf was really funny. I don’t know if he had much more dimension than that, though. He’s an awkward teen who wants to get the girl, any girl, but Megan Fox just happens to be available at the right time. When Shia is ready to protect the Allspark with his life (“No sacrifice, no victory!”) it comes a little bit out of left field considering that he rarely showed any motivation beyond getting the girl and staying alive. However, his honest, humourous delivery will make him a star one day. This kid has yet to show what he can do. I am sure he will under Speilberg in Indy 4*. As for Megan “the” Fox, she did little other than live up to her name. She did that very well. However, she didn’t really generate any other feelings in the audience. Lots of gratuitous skin shots.

Bernie Mac had some funny lines, totally over the top. But that’s why they hired a guy like Bernie Mac to play a used car salesman. John Turturro was OK, but you can tell he just phoned in his performance. John Voight, give the man some credit, looked like he was trying. Shame his part was so generic. All the soldiers in the film were pretty much just Michael Bay Soldiers…the same, every film, every time.

The robots had no characters, aside from Optimus and Bumblebee. They could have been fleshed out a lot more, but at least they felt like characters. Megatron was completely wasted, just a really big, mean, bad guy. You couldn’t even tell it was Hugo Weaving voicing him. Peter Cullen did a great job as Optimus, of course. I’m glad about that casting choice.

There were many nods to the past. Most of the characters still transformed into similar forms. Optimus looked amazing. Bumblebee was pefect as a Camaro. Frenzy was no longer a cassette tape, but the basic gist of the robot was the same. Brawl (misnamed “Devastator” in the subtitles…will this be fixed on the DVD version?**) was still a tank. Starscream was no longer an F-15 Eagle, but now a F-22 Raptor…killer update! Scorponok looked amazing in scorpion mode, but had no character to speak of and wasn’t seen in robot mode at all. Shame, that. He was once one of the deepest characters of the old Marvel series.

There was even some dialogue from the past: Optimus says, “One shall live, and one shall fall!”, the same words he said before Megatron killed him in the 1986 Transformers movie. However, twice the words “more than meets the eye” were uttered, making everyone in the audience groan. (It was just as bad as James Cromwell saying, “And you guys are astronauts, on some kind of star trek?” in Star Trek: First Contact.)

There were many nods to the creators. “This is way better than Armageddon!” one character says, with Michael Bay’s penis firmly in mouth. Someone mentioned E.T. in honour of Señor Spielbergo. There were also a small number of original series Star Trek soundbites, since the same dudes who wrote this are also working on Star Trek XI, an original series-era movie.*** (Interestingly, Michael Bay’s cousin Susan is married to Leonard Nimoy.)  Some of these things were cool, some were not.

Michael Bay’s directing, as always, was suck-ass. Just for fun I watched Team America a few days before going to see Transformers. All that stuff that is made fun of in that film was in Transformers, in spades! As soon as we hit the desert in Qatar, there’s a piece of “Arabic” music that sounded right out of Team America. All the slow-mo shots interspersed with high-speed action, all the cheesy dialogue, all those over-dramatic camera angles and lighting effects…Michael Bay threw in the kitchen sink, every trick he knew.

I think the coolest thing about Transformers was that it opens up wide what can happen in 2 and 3 (Peter Cullen, Megan Fox, and Shia LaBouf have signed on for two more). Michael Bay isn’t necessarily doing the sequels, so maybe someone with a lighter hand can take over. Slow things down a bit. Let us actually see the robots. The action was mostly so fast and white-washed with explosions and debris that you couldn’t see the robots.

Speaking of the robots, much has been made of their look: People whine that Optimus shouldn’t have flames, the Megatron should transform into a gun, that Bumblebee should have been a VW Beetle. I say, stop whining. These robots look amazing. I’m sure Megatron will look different in the next film anyway.**^

Speaking of the next film: Storywise, it’s already been said that the Dinobots, Constructicons and Soundwave are potential characters for the sequel, opening up story possibilities big time. I’d like to see Grimlock and Optimus clash over leadership direction a little bit like in the old Marvel series. Megatron and Starscream too…their conflict was hinted at. The ending was left wide open for sequels. (Why did the stupid humans believe that Megatron could be disposed of in such an easy way? Foolhardy!)

So there you go. Go get a Coke and a huge tub of popcorn. Enjoy and most importantly, enjoy discussing afterwards with all your geek and nerd friends like I am.

3/5 stars

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*He did not.  

**It was not. Even though Bay introduced the actual character of Devastator in the next film.

***2009’s Star Trek.

**^He did look different, but not any better.