Friday, July 29, 2016

Summer School: 'The Bourne Legacy' (2012)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's returning franchises.

Thanks to the existence of Jason Bourne, The Bourne Legacy has gone from the future of the Bourne franchise to a curious footnote, a detour in which producers briefly brought in an alternate protagonist when star Matt Damon declined to return as Jason Bourne. Legacy stars Jeremy Renner as Aaron Cross, another enhanced super-soldier being hunted by his former handlers, but despite its often painfully detailed connections to Bourne's adventures, it's essentially a separate story, one that could easily have been made on its own with some very minor tweaks. That might actually have improved it, since all that director and co-writer Tony Gilroy (a co-writer on all the previous Bourne movies) accomplishes by constantly mentioning Bourne is to make his movie and its hero look worse in comparison.

One of the great things about The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum (and to a lesser extent The Bourne Identity) is the way they jump right into the action, with Bourne in motion and ready to confront his enemies. Over the course of three movies, the original trilogy reveals more about Bourne's background, but that's never the main focus of any of the movies, and the details remain minimal. When he says "I remember everything" in Ultimatum, the audience has only seen a small portion of the events that he's recovered. In contrast, Legacy is crammed full of back story, with a narrative that focuses almost entirely on the kind of experiences that Bourne had before we met him in the previous movies. Cross is still in training as an agent of the military-sponsored program known as Outcome; he has all his memories and is very much aware of the program's purpose and structure, even if he's been kept in the dark about some of the details and logistics.

As such, the first hour or so of this overly long movie (at 135 minutes, it's easily the longest in the series) is devoted to getting Cross into a place where he has to go on the run and escape from his superiors, and for an action movie, Legacy contains very little action. There are really only two big action set pieces, one around the middle when Cross rescues scientist Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz) from a hit squad sent to kill her at her home, the other at the movie's climax, as Cross and Marta are fleeing from the series' latest version of the fellow super-assassin activated to take down the hero. That last sequence, a motorcycle chase through the streets of Manila, is actually quite exciting and well-crafted, and it dials down the ridiculous, over-the-top mayhem of the car chases in the previous two movies. It's one of the strongest action sequences in the whole series, but it comes too little, too late, at nearly two hours into the running time.

Taking a cue from Ultimatum, parts of Legacy take place in between scenes of the previous movie, and Ultimatum supporting players Joan Allen, David Strathairn, Albert Finney and Scott Glenn each show up for a single, presumably contractually obligated scene (only Glenn actually interacts with any of the main characters from this movie). Bourne's name also gets mentioned frequently, and the idea is that because of his efforts at exposing the CIA's secret training programs (Treadstone and Blackbriar), this mostly unrelated military-backed private program must be shut down. Edward Norton plays the latest version of the ruthless bureaucrat determined to stamp out a rogue agent, and aside from being younger than previous versions played by Chris Cooper, Brian Cox, etc., he's pretty much the same character.

It makes sense not to have Cross as a carbon copy of Bourne, but by showing so much of his training and enhancements, the movie basically turns him into a superhero. There's no espionage in this movie, no secret government missions. It's just a rogue experimental subject being hunted down. Weisz gets probably the biggest role for any woman in the entire series, and she mostly holds her own, but Gilroy can never make Cross and Marta's escape feel like it matters even half as much as anything Bourne has done. After the great chase in Manila, the ending is an anticlimax; there's no catharsis or final confrontation, just Cross and Marta slipping away on a boat while all of their evil adversaries appear to remain in power. Just before Jason Bourne was announced, Universal had green-lit another Aaron Cross movie, but even with Bourne's return, it's hard to imagine why anyone would care to see the further adventures of this guy.

My final Bourne rankings (after seeing Jason Bourne):

The Bourne Supremacy
The Bourne Identity
The Bourne Ultimatum
Jason Bourne
The Bourne Legacy

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Summer School: 'The Bourne Ultimatum' (2007)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's returning franchises.

Like The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy wasn't necessarily conceived as part of a franchise, and its ending provides a nice bit of closure for Jason Bourne (Matt Damon), as well as some hope for his continued alliance with Pamela Landy (Joan Allen). Like Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum then ends up undoing a lot of the resolution of the previous movie, and it actually does that in a sort of devious way, setting the majority of its action in between the final two scenes of Supremacy. It's the kind of blatant retcon that I would expect more out of the Saw series, but even though it stretches credulity at times, I think it mostly works. It recontextualizes Supremacy's final scene into something much more tense, which is a bit of a shame, but it also then gives Bourne a more definitive ending afterward (which, of course, will be undone again by Jason Bourne).

This time around there are no external storylines about foreign targets that the CIA wants to take down; it's just Bourne and his quest for the truth, which puts him in the crosshairs of the series' latest evil, sniveling bureaucrat, Noah Vosen (David Strathairn). Luckily, Landy is also back, and her antagonistic relationship with Vosen is a highlight of the movie, almost making her into a secondary protagonist. Also making a welcome return with an expanded role is Julia Stiles' Nicky Parsons, getting her greatest amount of screen time to date as she fully commits to being Bourne's ally, even going on the run with him. Returning director Paul Greengrass re-creates one of Identity's most memorable moments between Bourne and Marie (Franka Potente) with Nicky standing in, but she never becomes a love interest. Instead she's a source of comfort and support in a world that Bourne increasingly feels alienated from.

Greengrass continues his interest in bringing current events into the narrative here, as the movie starts with a journalist from the Guardian investigating Bourne's case, and one of the series' best and most inventive action sequences involves Bourne attempting to guide that journalist (played by Paddy Considine) to safety as Vosen's forces close in around him. That's the movie's action highlight, but there's also a very exciting chase through the streets of Tangier that culminates in a great hand-to-hand fight between Bourne and the latest inferior super-assassin the government is throwing at him. At one point he uses a towel as a weapon, which isn't quite as cool as when he used a rolled-up magazine in the last movie, but is still impressive. Stiles also gets to participate in the action a bit, as Nicky proves to be resourceful in fending for herself, even if she's not as powerful as Bourne (because, of course, no one on Earth is).

The movie stumbles a bit in its efforts to give Bourne closure, with Albert Finney showing up in brief flashbacks as the doctor who led Bourne's behavioral conditioning, and then finally appearing directly in the final act, after the main villain (Vosen) has essentially been defeated. It's hard to see this as the culmination of Bourne's entire search when this character has never even been mentioned in the previous movies (and barely factored into most of this one), but Finney does his best to make the confrontation meaningful, adding gravity to a pretty thin character. In the end, the return of Bourne's memory is less about any particular antagonist than about his own self-actualization, and the ending offers a bit of hope that he could be at peace -- hope not seen since the first movie.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Summer School: 'The Bourne Supremacy' (2004)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's returning franchises.

By killing off Jason Bourne's love interest Marie (Franka Potente) within the first 20 minutes, The Bourne Supremacy places its main character on a grim path of retribution, one that sets the tone for the rest of his onscreen adventures. The Bourne of The Bourne Identity was lost and confused but hopeful, in large part thanks to his connection with Marie. He attained a sort of peace at the end of the movie that Supremacy immediately shatters, even before Marie's death. Here, Bourne is suffering headaches and flashbacks thanks to his intense Treadstone training, and even when he and Marie are successfully off the grid, he can't escape the torment in his head. Once a corrupt Russian official frames him for the murder of two CIA agents, he has no choice but to spring back into action, ruthlessly tracking down everyone who's wronged him.

That makes Supremacy a bit less fun to watch than Identity, but it's no less entertaining, and it has greater depth as a character study. Marie may be gone, but Bourne gains a fascinating ally/adversary in Joan Allen's Pamela Landy, one of the series' best characters. While Chris Cooper's Conklin (here seen briefly in flashbacks) and Brian Cox's Ward Abbott (who gets an expanded role in this movie) were fairly one-dimensional foes in Identity, Landy is a competent spy with as much integrity as Bourne, who also values the truth over political expediency. She pursues Bourne out of a genuine desire for justice, believing him responsible for the deaths of her operatives, and she changes course confidently when she discovers the truth. The tense but respectful conversation between the two in the movie's final scene makes for a very satisfying ending (and would have even if the series had not continued).

Before that, though, Supremacy is another excellent action thriller, with director Paul Greengrass making an impressive series debut, taking over for Doug Liman. Some people complain about Greengrass' use of shaky, handheld camerawork, but to me it adds a sense of immediacy and edginess to the story, which is about someone who is constantly on edge and on the run. And Greengrass knows when to use the jittery camera to increase tension, and when to cut to a smooth overhead shot of a cityscape. There are some very good fight sequences in Supremacy, including one of Bourne's best moments, as he uses a rolled-up magazine to fend off a fellow super-assassin played by Marton Csokas. Greengrass also stages an impressive car chase that seems designed to one-up the chase in the first movie, although it does so by going so far over the top at times that it stretches credibility.

And for all his superhuman abilities, the best thing about Bourne is that he comes across as fragile and human. He's angry and hurt by the death of Marie, and by the government's unwillingness to leave him alone. He feels genuine remorse about the things he did as a government assassin, even if he can't remember most of them. Supremacy tackles the corruption and greed of clandestine government agencies and the oppressive nature of the surveillance state, but it all comes back to the anger and regret of one man who just wants to set things right.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Summer School: 'The Bourne Identity' (2002)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's returning franchises.

Director Paul Greengrass has become so closely identified with the Bourne franchise (his return is the reason the new movie, Jason Bourne, is even getting made) that it's easy to forget he hasn't actually been with the series since the beginning. Instead, The Bourne Identity, initially made as a mid-budget thriller without any long-term franchise plans, was directed by Doug Liman, a sort of journeyman director who's taken on many genres without a whole lot of personal style. That's not to say that Liman doesn't make good movies -- in addition to Identity, he directed Swingers, Go, Mr. & Mrs. Smith and Edge of Tomorrow, all solid pieces of entertainment (plus, let's not forget, the seminal first episode of The O.C.). But Liman isn't anybody's idea of an auteur, and his directorial style here is fairly anonymous, with lots of slick Hollywood elements (the sequence that depicts the activation of Bourne's fellow super-assassins, with its cheesy onscreen info text, is the most egregious).

That actually fits well with this movie, though, which follows a much more straightforward path than the sequels that come after it, without a lot of twists and surprises and backtracks. Yes, Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) has amnesia when he's found floating in the sea by a French fishing boat, and yes, he's surprised by his own seemingly superhuman abilities. But the movie doesn't spend much time keeping the audience in the dark, cutting fairly quickly to the CIA office where amoral bureaucrat Conklin (Chris Cooper), the first in the series' long line of amoral government bureaucrats, calls on all his resources to bring Bourne in and/or take him down. This is also the only movie in the series to give Bourne a real love interest (Franka Potente's Marie), and that makes its portrayal of Bourne himself a lot warmer and more emotional. And since this wasn't designed as a franchise-starter, it can have an actual happy ending, with the two lovers reunited for a new life together.

That's not to say that Identity is entirely superficial; Cooper and Brian Cox (who'd get a larger role in the next movie) make for perfect representations of the callous disregard of the government for people like Bourne. The scene at the end of the movie, with Cox's Ward Abbott casually dismissing the Treadstone project as a failed experiment before quickly moving on to the next budget item, is cruelly effective in depicting how irrelevant Bourne's suffering is to the people who created it. This movie was released less than a year after 9/11, and it depicts the growing paranoia about a surveillance state that would only become more all-encompassing in subsequent years (and in subsequent movies in this series).

It's also a very effective, suspenseful action movie, with one of the best car chases of all time (which subsequent movies would continue trying to top) and some awesome fight sequences between Bourne and the various killing machines sent to take him out (including one played by Clive Owen in a nearly wordless performance). The entire cast is strong: Damon proves himself to be a bona fide action star (even though he hasn't played many action roles outside of the Bourne series); Potente plays an appealing and believable love interest who isn't just a damsel in distress; Cooper and Cox are appropriately oily and ruthless as the villains; Owen gets a nice little speech as his character is dying, describing some of the dehumanizing treatment that would be explored over the next few movies; and Julia Stiles makes a promising first appearance as Nicky, the low-level agent who eventually becomes a key Bourne ally. They all play crucial roles in bringing the story together, and while the later movies may have more artistic ambition and real-world relevance, Identity works best as a self-contained popcorn thriller with just the right amount of substance.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Summer School: 'Star Trek Into Darkness' (2013)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's returning franchises.

If you look at Rotten Tomatoes, Star Trek Into Darkness appears to be a very well-reviewed Hollywood blockbuster that people thoroughly enjoyed, if not quite as much as its predecessor. But look around online message boards and fan sites and movie-geek outlets, and you'll find a level of hatred for this movie that matches anything by Michael Bay. With that in mind, I wondered if I'd be less impressed by Into Darkness a second time, but if anything I liked it more this time, and would even rank it above J.J. Abrams' 2009 Star Trek in my overall assessment of the series (see below). Yes, it has problems, most notably its awkward re-creation of classic Trek villain Khan Noonien Singh, but it also stands on its own more effectively than the previous movie did, with a more engrossing plot that makes an effort to take on sociopolitical issues in the classic Trek tradition.

It also features plenty of big action set pieces, which are clearly what the studio wants out of this franchise these days, and at times Abrams takes those a little too far. But there are many thrilling moments in this movie, starting with the fantastic opening sequence that has little to do with what comes after it, but provides a great showcase for the teamwork and camaraderie of the Enterprise crew, as well as some important moments of emotion and character development for Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Uhura (Zoe Saldana). It's the kind of combination of space adventure and wide-eyed exploration that makes Trek great, and I would have been happy for the movie to maintain that tone the entire time.

As the title implies, though, Into Darkness gets much darker with the introduction of villain John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), a rogue Starfleet officer who masterminds two deadly terrorist attacks and then flees to the Klingon home world. Halfway through the movie, Harrison is revealed as Khan, and screenwriters Damon Lindelof, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman subsequently rely too heavily on callbacks to The Wrath of Khan in place of building their own compelling story. The most frustrating thing is that, with a few minor adjustments, this could easily have been a story about a villain who has some resemblance to Khan but is a separate character, and it would have worked better without having to live up to the past movie. It works fairly well even so, especially as Kirk and Spock have to make moral decisions about what constitutes a proper response to a terrorist attack, and how to bring a terrorist to justice.

Cumberbatch is very good as Harrison, who is more deviously manipulative than Ricardo Montalban's Khan, and who lacks the same intense personal desire for revenge against Kirk (he does desire revenge, but it's mainly an abstract revenge against Starfleet, and to a lesser degree against Peter Weller's Admiral Marcus). Even though Nero in the previous movie was planning to destroy entire planets, he never felt all that threatening. Harrison is genuinely creepy, sitting in the Enterprise's brig making cold, calm predictions of mayhem like Hannibal Lecter. He's a more effective villain in those scenes than he is in the absurd final fight scene, with Harrison and Spock trading blows while atop flying garbage barges. That follows the large-scale destruction of San Francisco by a crashing starship, the kind of empty action-movie devastation that this series should be smart enough to avoid.

Even cheaper is the brief, fake-out death of Kirk, which mirrors Spock's death scene in The Wrath of Khan, but lacks the emotional power. Obviously Kirk isn't going to stay dead, and I doubt I would have wanted to see an entire movie about bringing him back to life (in the vein of The Search for Spock), but his supposed death is so meaningless that it might as well not even be included in the movie. Still, by the end there is a real sense of loss, showing that Abrams and the screenwriters understand the consequences of their big action sequences better than most blockbuster filmmakers. Maybe it was callous to wipe out Vulcan in the previous movie and a large portion of San Francisco in this one, but at least the characters aren't just brushing those things off and moving on. People focus on the idea that the current incarnation of Star Trek is all about mindless action, but the creators of these movies still know how to take things seriously.

My final Trek rankings (after seeing Star Trek Beyond):

The Wrath of Khan
The Undiscovered Country
First Contact
Into Darkness
Star Trek (2009)
The Voyage Home
The Search for Spock
The Motion Picture
The Final Frontier

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Summer School: 'Star Trek' (2009)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's returning franchises.

I was kind of blown away by J.J. Abrams' Star Trek when I first saw it in 2009 (and wrote a glowing review), and I think a big part of that was how fresh and new it felt compared to the last iterations of Trek in movies and especially on TV. But coming back to it now, after a positive reevaluation of Nemesis and many years of familiarity with the style of the new series, I was slightly less impressed. I still think it's an extremely entertaining movie and very effective at what it sets out to do (resetting the series into a new continuity while preserving the old one), but I was more aware of the faults this time around, especially the forgettable villain and the contrived way that the familiar crew comes together on the Enterprise.

Still, it's a lot of fun, and Abrams deserves enormous credit for putting together a cast that both effortlessly evokes the original characters and stands on its own. Every actor in this movie does a great job, and that goes a long way toward smoothing over the rough spots in the plotting. As in The Search for Spock and Generations, large portions of the plot exist solely for logistical reasons, so that the timeline for this series can diverge from classic continuity while leaving that continuity intact. That applies to the entire role of Leonard Nimoy as the original Spock (or Spock Prime, as he's referred to in the credits), whose presence connects the main Trek universe to this new alternate version. He travels back in time from a point eight years after the events of Nemesis, chasing the Romulan terrorist Nero (Eric Bana), and thus creating a divergent timeline. Even though his function in the movie is a continuity patch, Nimoy imbues Spock with the same soulful wisdom that he's always brought to the character, with an additional wistfulness that comes from age.

Nimoy never overshadows the main cast, though, and that's a testament to the ensemble that Abrams puts together. Chris Pine makes Kirk into a modern action hero while retaining his sense of integrity, and Zachary Quinto gives the young Spock a darker intensity to go with his typical Vulcan reserve. Karl Urban expertly channels DeForest Kelley as McCoy, still curmudgeonly even at a younger age. As they do in the original movies, Sulu (John Cho) and Chekov (Anton Yelchin) get only brief spotlights, but they make the most of them. Simon Pegg turns Scotty into a slightly more comedic character, although his constant exasperation was always a source of humor. Possibly the biggest change comes from Zoe Saldana as Uhura, who gets a much larger role and a more proactive personality. Her unexpected romance with Spock is one of the movie's most surprisingly successful alterations to continuity.

With a budget significantly larger than any of the previous Trek movies (even adjusted for inflation), Abrams' film features a number of very strong action set pieces, and the best special effects of the entire series. The space jump to destroy Nero's massive drill, the battle between the U.S.S. Kelvin and Nero's ship that opens the movie, and Kirk's encounter with giant alien beasts on Delta Vega are all exciting, well-designed sequences that mark the movie as a top-notch sci-fi/action blockbuster. Even with the emphasis on action, this film doesn't entirely lose the thoughtfulness that Trek is known for, and it's especially strong at character development, quickly and efficiently establishing background and relationships among the main characters. It's easy to see the respect that Kirk and Spock develop for each other, the good-natured camaraderie between Kirk and Scotty and Kirk and McCoy, and the deep love between Spock and Uhura. As the older Spock, Nimoy gets the same kind of meaningful passing-the-torch moment that William Shatner got in Generations.

The weakest point in the movie is definitely Bana's Nero, who, like Spock Prime, exists primarily to move the plot where it needs to go. Unlike Spock Prime, he never really makes an impression as a character beyond that, and the movie's use of Romulans as antagonists is less effective than their use in Nemesis. It's also a bit disappointing to see the somewhat cavalier destruction of the entire planet of Vulcan (and the entire planet of Romulus in the main timeline) as a plot device, although Quinto manages to make its loss feel significant, as Spock struggles with his grief. Given how many requirements screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman undoubtedly had to fulfill in order to get this movie to satisfy the continuity-obsessed Trekkies, remain accessible for a general audience and feature a number of big action sequences, they do a remarkable job of holding it all together. Some fans will never accept the direction that this movie set for the franchise, but to me it's an excellent synthesis between studio mandates and creative integrity.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Summer School: 'Star Trek: Nemesis' (2002)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's returning franchises.

Going into Star Trek: Nemesis this time around, I had pretty low expectations. It has a poor critical reputation, and I remember being unimpressed when I saw it in the theater in 2002. So maybe that contributed to my unexpected appreciation of this final movie for the Next Generation cast. Or maybe it was the considerable reputation and body of work that Tom Hardy has built up since appearing as the villain in this movie. Maybe it was my lingering goodwill for the Next Generation cast, who never got the chance at a grand farewell that was given to the original cast. Whatever it was, I thoroughly enjoyed Nemesis this time around, nearly as much as First Contact, and I think it might be the most underrated Trek movie of all.

Producers clearly learned some lessons from the success of First Contact and the lackluster response to Insurrection, bringing back many of the elements that worked so well in First Contact. There's a lot more action here, there's a villain with personal ties to Picard, there's a main plot that puts the entire Federation in danger, there's a Data subplot that hinges on his melancholy longing rather than dumb humor, and there's a large role for one of the well-known alien races from the TV series. All of those elements work, to varying degrees, making Nemesis far more exciting and suspenseful than Insurrection. The focus on Picard (Patrick Stewart) and Data (Brent Spiner) means that the supporting characters (especially Michael Dorn's Worf and LeVar Burton's Geordi LaForge) end up without much to do, although Counselor Troi (Marina Sirtis) gets her most substantial role in any of the movies.

The connection between the villainous Shinzon (Hardy) and Picard is more than a bit contrived, but the two actors make it work, and their scenes together are generally very good. Shinzon is the human leader of the Remans, the soldier/laborer caste of Romulan society, and he stages a gruesome coup over the Romulan government at the beginning of the movie. It turns out that he's a clone of Picard (via a rather flimsy explanation), which sets the stage for a lot of dialogue about mirror images and nature vs. nurture. The Data storyline dovetails nicely with that (although it's equally contrived), as Data discovers B-4, a prototype version of himself with a more naive, childlike manner (who is also being used as a pawn by Shinzon).

Shinzon's identification with and hatred for Picard resembles the relationship between Khan and Kirk, but to me it doesn't feel like a retread (even though that's one of the main criticisms of the movie). Shinzon is less sophisticated and more aggressive than Khan, and more interested in conquest along with his vengeance. Hardy gives him the tragic nobility that marks the best Trek movie villains, and even when Shinzon's plans don't entirely make sense, Hardy's performance makes them convincing. He poses a real danger and even seems close to defeating the Enterprise at the end (which of course he doesn't, but he does force a situation in which Data must make the ultimate sacrifice). There's a genuine sadness both to Data's "death" and to the death of what Picard sees as his younger self.

As much as I enjoy J.J. Abrams' 2009 Trek reboot, it makes me sad that Nemesis marked the end of the Next Generation movies. It may be a decent movie, but it still doesn't provide a fitting send-off for the characters. Riker (Jonathan Frakes) moves on to be captain of a new ship and Data is seemingly destroyed, but everyone else just continues on as they were. Screenwriter John Logan (an outsider brought in after three movies written by Trek TV writers) apparently had an idea for another movie that he was working on with Brent Spiner (who shares story credit on Nemesis), that would have also included some characters from Deep Space Nine and Voyager (Janeway makes a cameo here), and I would have loved to see that (and still would). But if the Next Generation crew is never going to make it back to the big screen, at least they got to tackle a story with real themes and character development in their last outing. For fans who dismissed it at the time, it's worth another look.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Summer School: 'Star Trek: Insurrection' (1998)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's returning franchises.

More than any other Star Trek movie, Star Trek: Insurrection feels like a slightly overgrown TV episode, and not even a particularly notable TV episode. After the rousing success of First Contact, it's disappointing to see the franchise take such a dip in quality, and it's especially disappointing to watch the movie now, knowing that the Next Generation cast would never get a chance to match the quality of First Contact (even after the disaster of The Final Frontier, the original cast got one more try). I wouldn't necessarily call Insurrection the worst Trek movie, but it's probably the most disheartening. The Final Frontier is a train wreck, but at least it's clearly an ambitious passion project for William Shatner; Insurrection is just a listless, obligatory extension of the franchise.

The problem starts by introducing villains and allies with no connection to any previous Trek stories. Previous movies may have sometimes misused Klingons and other familiar Trek antagonists, but at least those characters brought some accumulated fan interest and history with them, to give them a way to match up to the beloved main characters. Insurrection instead offers up the Son'a, a race of decrepit, genetically modified senior citizens who are desperate to steal the fountain of youth-like radiation on the planet of the peaceful Ba'ku. The Ba'ku are kind of insufferably smug space Amish, who shun advanced technology and live in a bland utopian village where no one ever ages.

The movie starts out with an ethical dilemma that is at least somewhat interesting: Should the 600 or so Ba'ku be forcibly relocated so that the resources from their planet can be harvested and used to improve the health of billions? To me, the answer is obviously yes, so it's a little hard to care when Picard makes a righteous stand against moving the Ba'ku, especially when it's revealed that they aren't even indigenous to the planet. They just stumbled on it randomly, much like the Federation has, and now they are hogging it all for themselves. But the screenplay by veteran Trek TV writer Michael Piller doesn't allow this potential gray moral area to last for long; the Son'a quickly go from technologically advanced Federation allies to homicidal villains, planning to wipe out the entire Ba'ku population mostly out of spite. So Picard ends up on the obvious moral high ground, even though his reasoning to get there was highly suspect.

That wouldn't necessarily be such a problem if there were more exciting or suspenseful action, but the stakes of the story are so low (especially compared to the fate of Earth and the entire Federation in First Contact) that it's hard to get invested in the outcome. Instead of building big action sequences, Piller and returning director Jonathan Frakes focus on dopey comedy (after his genuinely creepy turn in First Contact, Data once again gets a terrible comic-relief subplot, this time alongside an annoying kid) and drippy character moments, including an insipid romance between Picard and a Ba'ku woman played by Donna Murphy.

F. Murray Abraham chews scenery, but not in a particularly entertaining way, as the villainous Son'a leader Ru'afo, but he never seems like much of a threat. At one point, when one of his plans is thwarted, he gives this ridiculous yelp that makes him sound like a toddler having a tantrum. That's sort of the point of the Son'a, who turn out to literally be petulant children of the Ba'ku, but it doesn't make him a very layered or compelling antagonist. He's not a proud warrior with misguided intentions; he's just a petty asshole. And his plans amount to very little of consequence, which would have been fine for a semi-interesting episode in the middle of a Next Generation season, but is a giant failure when it comes to crafting a meaningful, large-scale sci-fi feature film.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Summer School: 'Star Trek: First Contact' (1996)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's returning franchises.

Before revisiting all the Star Trek movies for this project, I wouldn't have hesitated to name Star Trek: First Contact as my favorite movie in the franchise. Although I had casually watched The Wrath of Khan and The Voyage Home on TV as a kid, it was Star Trek: The Next Generation that really made me a Trek fan, and First Contact was the first Trek movie I saw in its original run (either in theaters or soon after it was released on home video; I don't quite remember). But I also hadn't seen the movie since 1996 before watching it again this week, and although I still think it's top-tier Trek (and the best of the Next Generation movies), I'd probably put it behind Wrath of Khan and maybe also The Undiscovered Country in my overall ranking.

Even so, it's an extremely entertaining movie that makes great use of the Next Generation cast and adds a couple of really strong supporting characters played by accomplished actors James Cromwell and Alfre Woodard. Like Wrath of Khan, it achieves some of its resonance by functioning as a sequel to a beloved episode (or episodes) of the parent series, in this case the two-parter in which Picard (Patrick Stewart) was abducted and assimilated by the alien Borg. A brief dream sequence establishes everything that any new audience member needs to know, and then the action gets going almost immediately. After so many movies that start by getting the crew back together or checking in on their down time, it's refreshing to see writers Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga (veterans of various Trek TV series) and director Jonathan Frakes (aka William Riker) cut right to the chase. The Borg are attacking. Earth and the entire Federation are in danger of being obliterated. The Enterprise must save the day. Go.

First Contact offers up the biggest space battle in the history of the series thus far, and then it sends the Enterprise back in time after the Borg. But this isn't a rehash of The Voyage Home -- instead of going back in time to our past (as the writers originally envisioned) or our present, they head to a time that is still in our future, 2063, when scientist Zefram Cochrane (Cromwell) was about to make humanity's first contact with aliens (Vulcans). The Borg plan to cripple humanity by preventing first contact, and then assimilating Earth in the past. They also infiltrate the Enterprise and start to take it over. Thus the divided crew has two missions: Make sure Cochrane launches his warp ship from Earth, and stop the Borg from overtaking the Enterprise and killing or assimilating everyone on board.

The result sometimes feels like an awkward mix between two different movies. The Earth-set material with Cochrane is fairly light, although not nearly as light as the time-travel portion of The Voyage Home. It's an upbeat adventure story with a nice sense of humor, and a very satisfying arc for Cochrane, a self-doubting cynic who's reluctant to embrace his role as the forthcoming savior of humanity. It gives Riker, Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) and Geordi LaForge (LeVar Burton) a solid spotlight away from the rest of the crew, and it features a very entertaining performance from Cromwell, who makes Cochrane an entertainingly flawed mix of opportunist and idealist.

The storyline that takes place on the ship is much heavier, with some of Stewart's best acting as Picard, who is consumed with a need to stop the Borg, partially out of personal revenge and partially because he understands firsthand what kind of horrors they can perpetrate on the people they conquer. Frakes works wonders with his limited budget, building suspense and a feeling of galactic danger without ever leaving the Enterprise. The addition of the Borg Queen (Alice Krige) gives the story an extra element of creepiness, and Krige makes for one of the best Trek movie villains, combining the sort of tragic nobility of characters like Khan and Chang with a real malevolence. Even if the two main threads of the movie are sometimes disjointed, they come together for a rousing, satisfying finale. It's a high point for Trek and the Next Generation cast, who unfortunately wouldn't get a chance at anything of this caliber again.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Summer School: 'Star Trek: Generations' (1994)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's returning franchises.

Sandwiched in between the well-regarded finale of the original Star Trek cast in The Undiscovered Country and the even more well-regarded (and commercially very successful) first solo adventure for the Next Generation cast in First Contact, Star Trek: Generations is sort of a forgotten Star Trek movie. It's stuck fulfilling a bunch of logistical tasks that take a back seat to the storytelling and character development, and it has to serve two fan bases, both eager to see their favorite characters represented respectfully and favorably. Given that, I think it works out pretty well, even if it won't go down as one of the best Trek movies. Like The Search for Spock, which was similarly constructed from external mandates (it was actually written with the ending first), Generations at times strains to fit its various plot elements together logically, but it holds them together thanks to strong performances and character dynamics.

Obviously the big deal here is the meeting of the two Enterprise Captains, Kirk (William Shatner) and Picard (Patrick Stewart), and even though the characters don't have any particular personal connection, Shatner and Stewart successfully convey their mutual respect and teamwork. Picard stands a bit in awe of someone he knows as a major historical figure, and Kirk clearly recognizes an equal in Picard. The villain they team up to fight, Malcolm McDowell's Soren, may be kind of underwhelming, but their dedication to defeating him and saving lives feels genuine. Similarly, Kirk's death scene may not have the impact of Spock's death scene in The Wrath of Khan, but it does bring out some real emotion. Kirk saying, "Who am I to argue with the captain of the Enterprise?" did get me choked up a bit. And Kirk's death has managed to mean something, never undone or retconned in any of the movies or TV series that followed.

All that stuff happens in the last 15 minutes or so, though, and the rest of the movie is decidedly uneven. It's nice to see Kirk, Scotty (James Doohan) and Chekov (Walter Koenig) trotted out as figureheads to launch the Enterprise-B at the beginning of the movie, and their presence continues the theme of obsolescence and torch-passing from The Undiscovered Country. And it's exciting to see the Next Generation crew graduate to a feature film, even if the final episode of their TV show had just aired six months prior to the movie's release. The subplot about Data (Brent Spiner) installing an emotion chip is kind of silly, although it does afford the amusing opportunity to hear Data say, "Oh, shit!" I had forgotten how central Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg) is to the plot, and I liked seeing her integrated into the wider Trek mythos.

The plot, however, is mostly nonsense, with a vaguely defined pocket dimension that somehow exists outside of time, and an obsessed, near-immortal scientist (McDowell's Soren) determined to return to it at any cost. A pair of Klingon sisters from a few Next Generation TV episodes show up as secondary antagonists, continuing the movies' tradition of mostly squandering the Klingon characters. The Enterprise gets destroyed again (albeit in a slightly more spectacular fashion than it did in Search for Spock). Soren is meant to be a tragic villain in the vein of Khan or Chang from The Undiscovered Country, but he doesn't have their sense of melancholy or hubris; he's just a selfish asshole. Really, he's mainly a plot device, an elaborate continuity patch to get the two titans of the franchise into the same scene together. For all the hoops that the creators had to jump through in order to make that happen, the effort turns out to be mostly worth it.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Summer School: 'Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country' (1991)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's returning franchises.

Thankfully, Paramount decided not to let The Final Frontier stand as the last Star Trek movie to feature the entire original cast, because Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country is a lovely send-off for the original Enterprise crew and a very good movie in its own right, second only to The Wrath of Khan in the original series. Wisely, it pays no attention to the events of The Final Frontier, while following up on certain plot elements of the preceding three movies. Yet it's not as closely tied to those movies as they all were to each other, and it functions well as a standalone piece and as a companion to Star Trek: The Next Generation, which was at the time in its fifth season.

Torch-passing is very much on the movie's mind, and returning director and co-writer Nicholas Meyer (who worked on both The Wrath of Khan and The Voyage Home) handles the characters' impending retirement with grace, even when the characters themselves don't. While William Shatner made Kirk into a cartoonish superhuman in The Final Frontier, here Kirk is flawed and arrogant, and he comes to regret some of his actions by the end of the movie. Most of the characters end up reflecting on their age and potential obsolescence, as the entire original crew (minus George Takei's Sulu, who has gone on to become captain of his own starship) is set to be decommissioned in a few months. They're sent on one last, seemingly mundane mission, to escort the Klingon leader to Earth for peace talks, and they find themselves caught in the middle of a plan to sabotage those talks.

The thawing of tensions between the Klingons and the Federation was meant to reference the timely topic of the end of the Cold War, but the story works well on its own, even viewed many years later when the references are not nearly as topical. Christopher Plummer is great as the grandiose Klingon general who is holding onto the old ways, whose methodical and intellectual approach to warfare makes him the series' most compelling villain since Khan. The movie manages to put together a decent whodunit (as Spock and the Enterprise crew search for clues about the saboteurs who assassinated the Klingon leader) along with its political allegory and its exciting space battles, and it makes good on the promise of a storyline about Kirk on trial that was mostly cut short in The Voyage Home. Even Kirk and McCoy's imprisonment in a Klingon work camp on a remote icy planet fits into the story well, giving Shatner one final chance for both fisticuffs and lip-locks (with a shape-shifting alien played by Iman).

While the jokes in The Final Frontier made the characters seem like whining senior citizens, the humor here is both gentler and more consistent, and tinged with a bit of melancholy. Shatner redeems himself after his terrible acting and directing in the previous movie (although Kirk's rousing final speech is more than a little cheesy), and Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley give Spock and McCoy the right mix of dignity and irascibility (if nothing else, rewatching these movies has given me a new appreciation for Kelley's acting abilities). Michael Dorn is a welcome surprise as the great-grandfather of his TNG character, who serves as Kirk and McCoy's Klingon lawyer, and Kim Cattrall brings surprising gravity to her role as Vulcan Lt. Valeris.

Although this is the third Trek movie to substantially feature Klingons as villains, it's the only one that really uses them well, giving them the sense of history and honor they deserve. Outside of their use as metaphors for Soviets, the Klingons have a fascinating culture that this movie gets right, as more than just belligerent warriors or rude bullies. The eventual conspiracy to derail the peace talks, which involves Klingons, Romulans, humans and Vulcans, is a plot worthy of Star Trek's galactic scope, and it highlights one of my favorite things about Trek: the way it can feel like the real political and social history of the future. That's an impressive accomplishment, and a great way to give these beloved characters a proper ending.