It’s Star Trek, Jim, But Not As We Know It – Discovery Arrives

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Star Trek: Discovery finally arrives, after troubling tales of behind the scenes problems and somewhat less-than-thrilling trailers, and I suppose the first question to ask is whether it’s the disaster many were expecting?

Happily the answer is no. The first two episodes, which dropped yesterday on CBS and the network’s CBS All Access subscription service in the U.S.A. and on Netflix almost everywhere else today, are generally exciting and well-told, with high production values and a decent cast. However, at least with the evidence at hand, it does veer away from creator Gene Roddenberry’s hopeful spirit of exploration, and this may be an issue for some.

Taking place some ten years or so before the original series’ tales of Captain Kirk and co (a point I’ll come back to later), Discovery features as its focus not the traditional Starfleet Captain (though there is one, played by Michelle Yeoh) but instead on the first officer of the USS ShenzhouMichael Burnham, as portrayed by Sonequa Martin-Green.

Burnham’s parents were killed by Klingons, which resulted in her being raised by Spock’s father, Sarek, on the planet Vulcan. This becomes important in the opening episode when Burnham’s ship is the first to engage in a direct encounter with the Klingons in almost one hundred years. Needless to say, the encounter quickly goes pear-shaped and we’re treated to a pretty epic space battle, alongside some interesting twists and turns for the characters (particularly in the second episode).

Michelle Yeoh is good value, and thankfully brings more humour and emotion to her role than the stilted trailers led us to believe, Science Officer Saru, played under heavy prosthetics by the always welcome Doug Jones, is also immediately likeable. Without these two the show would definitely have been lacking the human touch, as the rest of the crew singularly fail to register anything beyond dark-haired man, red-haired woman and grizzled admiral who only appears as a hologram, etc.

Viewers should be advised there’s also a lot of Klingon grousing about purity of race and what a rum lot we humans are. With subtitles. Of course, looking at the state of the world right now, it’s difficult to disagree with their summation of mankind. Let’s hope the show gives us enough of an opposing viewpoint to feel better about ourselves as it goes on.

Jason Issacs, another actor I usually enjoy, didn’t make an appearance in the first two episodes, so we have that treat to look forward to.

My biggest problem with Discovery was with Martin-Green, who faces the tricky problem of engaging us with a human raised by the emotion-subsuming Vulcans. It’s a delicate balance pulled off marvellously over the years by the late, great Leonard Nimoy, but across the first two episodes I found that balance to be weighted in favour of some stiff-sounding line readings and an inability to connect with the character.

Martin-Green faces a difficult task, especially being the viewer’s eyes through these shenanigans, but the cliff-hanging climax to the second episode at least suggests she’ll be getting a promising arc as we move forward. Of course, some better dialogue might help too. *cough*

My second big issue comes with the show’s setting. As mentioned above, we’re rolling around a decade before Kirk and co, but everything here looks WAY more advanced than the original series. Again, this was always going to be a tough nut to crack: you either embrace the 1960s-produced vibe of the original series or you say “Screw it, no one will buy that in the age of shiny CGI” and go for a modern design ethic. The producers of Discovery have chosen the latter.

Is this a geek-only problem? Will more casual viewers give a hoot that it looks more like the new timeline-set, JJ Abrams movies (particularly in its annoying overuse of lens flare) than a prequel show? Casual viewers may not care but this decision is baffling when so much of Discovery’s Klingon Cold War setting relies on understanding its place in Star Trek’s chronology. If nothing else it smacks of indecision at best, and downright carelessness at worst. The large number of producers and executive producers listed in Discovery’s opening credit sequence may suggest an answer to this…

What is for sure is that most of Roddenberry’s idealism is gone, as Discovery has more in common with a Game of Thrones viewpoint that humans suck and war is hell than it does with discovering Tribbles and dallying with green-skinned dancing girls, while it rams home analogies about fundamentalism with all the subtlety of a Klingon punch to the face.

Finally then, Discovery shows some promise in its set-up, but it’s likely to tick-off many long-term Star Trek fans. Personally, we have endless hours of Star Trek in its various forms before this, so I’m happy enough to see the franchise try something different. However, it’s so mired in Star Trek history (while simultaneously contradicting it left, right and centre) that I’m not certain how much it will appeal to Trekkies or non-Trekkies. Which could be something of a problem.

Whether or not that different feel is enough to sustain my interest in the long run remains to be seen, or to bring in those obviously much-hoped for casual viewers, but I’m certainly intrigued enough to see what this… sorry to use the word, but… grittier take on the final frontier has to offer. I had fun for its duration, and there’s something to be said for that, plus it’s good to see Star Trek back on television, its spiritual home.

Beam me up, at least for now…

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Valerian – The Flawed Jewel

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I didn’t know exactly what Luc Besson would be giving us with his big budget adaptation of the Valerian and Laureline comic books, but a sci-fi film with a pro-EU message definitely came as a surprise.

Besson first seriously considered adapting Jean-Claude Mézières and Pierre Christin’s long-running comic book series while he was making The Fifth Element. The decision to hold off until special effects caught up with the imagination needed to fully realise the characters and the universe they inhabit was probably a wise one, and it has paid off handsomely.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets literally screams out to be experienced at the cinema, preferably on as big a screen as possible – and in 3D if your local theatre understands how to properly project that format. It is without a doubt one of the most visually luxuriant films you’ll see this year (and possibly many other years), and is a thing of pure, unadulterated beauty.

Besson’s film takes no prisoners, and with little pre-amble launches us into a fully-formed world (or rather, universe) and expects us to embrace the story in progress. It’s an exhilirating rush and one which might leave some viewers who expect to be spoon-fed information a little disoriented (don’t worry, there’ll be another Transformers film for them soon, I’m sure). Valerian is a Luc Besson joint, full of the off-centre tics expected from his work, and is draped in his wonderful Gallic sensibility like a well-cut designer outfit.

It’s decidely not a Hollywood cookie cutter film, instead it’s madly ambitious and joyfully exhuberant though I didn’t feel quite the same eccentric voice as The Fifth Element was being given full reign. Perhaps this film’s astonishing budget led to more pressure on Besson.

Even if this was the case, Besson has mangaged to present us with something wonderous and completely topical, because snuck in between all the talk of extra-dimensional shoppng centres, converters and space pearls is a message that seems to focus on the importance of unity between different races. And with much of the action taking place on Alpha, a space station where millions of creatures from different planets live peacefully and exchange their knowledge and cultures, it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine the current situation between the UK and the EU seeping through into the fabric of this production. It’s quite a thing to see but with its core message of space unity, Besson has seemingly given us the first “we’re better together, despite the problems”, anti-Brexit, sci-fi fantasy.

Cara Delevingne makes for a fetching and spiky Laureline, the camera loves her and the character is pretty much elevated to the lead role (something which might irritate comic book purists, but fuck them because it works), another quality which sees the film stand out from the crowd. Indeed the film might better be titled Laureline and the City of a Thousand Planets, which does lead me to the one big issue I had with Besson’s choices.

Dane DeHaan is a fine actor, but he has a dark, somewhat surly quality which I didn’t feel was right for this role. While there was certainly no need to have Valerian as a wisecracking, Peter Quill/Starlord clone, the chemistry with Delevingne feels somewhat unbalanced at times, and a lighter touch was needed to stop Valerian coming across as something of a creep towards his partner. While this moves their interplay away from cliche, it also undercuts vital empathy and an actor with a little more screen charm would have worked wonders. It’s a shame because this central dynamic is vital to the film, and that spark could have made a big difference. I’m sure he’d disagree (hey, it’s his movie) but for me it’s a rare moment of casting weakness from Besson.

But this unusual misstep shouldn’t deter you from seeing Valerian, for despite this it’s a big, glorious attempt to give cinema something different and in an age of blue and teal colour-graded action movies that’s to be cherished and celebrated. Valerian is a jewel of a film, albeit one with an unfortunate flaw at its heart.

If nothing else, Valerian is a cult film in the making, and I can pretty much guarantee that in fifteen or twenty years time enthusiasts will be singing its praises as one of those films that everyone should have gone to see at the cinema.

Vive le Besson!

Discover The New Star Trek Trailer

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The general reaction to the first trailer for Pramount’s new Star Trek: Discovery series was probably not quite what the studio was hoping for, given it will be the flagship show of the new CBS All Access channel (at least in the U.S., thankfully Netflix have picked it up for pretty much every other territory).

This just released second trailer certainly looks a lot more spectacular, and the line readings are less stilted (though it all still seems rather po-faced for my liking, with little of the sense of fun that made the original series so enjoyable, back in 1966).

There’s also plenty to annoy hardcore Star Trek fans with what appears to be a great deal of retconning going on – considering this is a prequel series to Kirk and Spock’s adventures. Though not as much of a prequel as the oft-derided Enterprise show. Still with me on all this…!?

The show features a solid cast, including Sonequa Martin-Green, Michelle Yeoh, Chris Obi, Rainn Wilson, Doug Jones and Jason Issacs.

With a fairly troubled production history to date (including the loss of showrunner, Bryan Fuller), here’s hoping Star Trek: Discovery will find its space legs when it begins airing from September 24th.

Spielberg’s Ready Player One Trailer

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Based on the 2011 debut novel by Ernest Cline, Ready Player One is also the next film from master of cinema, Steven Spielberg. The first trailer has just dropped from the San Diego Comic-Con.

Spielberg and co say the film will be faithfull to the source material but also introduce enough fresh elements to give this its own identity.

As someone with little interest in games or gaming this should contain little to excite me, but you know, it’s Spielberg so I’m hoping to be pleasantly surprised (not least of which by that Iron Giant cameo)…

New Star Wars Characters Revealed by Vanity Fair!

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It’s always an exciting time in the run up to a new episode in the Star Wars saga and that excitement was dialled up today with the reveal of a fantastic and exclusive gallery of photos by Annie Leibovitz for Vanity Fair.

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As well as action shots of familiar characters, staged portraits and behind the scenes glimpses, the photos reveal characters new to the saga, including those played by Laura Dern and Benicio Del Toro, who portray Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo and “the shifty ‘DJ'” respectively.

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Head over here to Vanity Fair to see the full stunning gallery, and get ready for December 13th when Star Wars: The Last Jedi explodes into cinemas worldwide.

Alien: Covenant – Look On My Works And Despair!

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When Ridley Scott returned to the Alien franchise with Prometheus in 2012 hopes were high that the venerated director would give audiences the kind of scares associated with his original 1979 classic. What we got instead was a disjointed meditation on creation with a group of characters whose actions often seemed more alien than the series’ title creature.

During production of Alien: Covenant word of mouth suggested that Scott and the production team had taken onboard complaints that Prometheus had strayed too far from the formula and that this time… this time… we would see our beloved xenomorph restored to its full, chest-bursting glory.

Picking up ten years after we last saw Noomi Rapace and Michael Fassbender (as Dr Elizabeth Shaw and David) wander off into deep space to find mankind’s creators, we focus now on the crew of the colony ship, Covenant, heading for a remote planet, Origae-6, with two-thousand colonists and a thousand embryos on-board, monitored by an upgraded android resembling the earlier David, named Walter (also played by Fassbender).

Of course things go wrong on the mission and the ship is soon taking a detour to investigate a human signal coming from an alien planet – seemingly also ripe for colonisation.

Before you can say “In space, no one can hear you scream” the landing party runs into further trouble and for a while the film seems to be leading us along a familiar path with new forms of alien creatures, the neomorphs, making short work of everyone.

Then Fassbender’s David reappears and the film lurches into gothic Hammer horror territory. This might seem like an intriguing diversion but while Covenant IS more of a horror movie than Prometheus, Scott and his writers appear to have lost all interest in the alien. The real monster here is David, serving as Victor Frankenstein to the now dethroned star of the franchise.

Events reach a climax on the planet and the survivors return to the Covenant for a bizarre and utterly shoehorned in final fifteen minutes which attempts to recreate elements of both Scott’s 1979 original and James Cameron’s equally loved 1986 sequel, Aliens.

I have too much respect for Scott to suggest that Covenant’s Reader’s Digest abridged-version finale was a studio-dictated necessity but that is, sadly, exactly what it feels like. Events are rushed through and more crew members are dispatched with such rapidity that it would be easy to miss the true (and highly effective) horror enacted by David in the film’s final moments.

There are two movies struggling against each other, the attempted return to the scary roots of the franchise and the story Scott and co. are really interested in, that of David and Walter and the struggle with what they are, where they come from and their quest to find answers among the stars – which provide some of the most interesting moments of Covenant. Sadly, these two movies fail to cohere and we’re left with a story that satisfies neither requirement.

Scott is far too good a director for Covenant to be a disaster: there’s lots to enjoy and admire and there are moments of beauty, of intrigue and of genuine horror (and also, sadly, of unintentional humour… the baby alien raising its arms to copy David is a series low point). Unfortunately the ambition to turn the franchise into something of wider philosophical concerns dilutes the simple funhouse horror of the central creature, leaving him somewhat toothless and the film itself oddly schizophrenic.

Rare Grooves – The Green Slime

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Welcome to the latest in an occasional series of articles where I’ll be looking at the songs that have graced some of my favourite films through the years. Of course, since this is OODH, it’s unlikely I’ll be tackling anything from Grease or The Little Mermaid (fabulous as the Ashman & Menken tunes were in the latter).

The Green Slime is a truly wild piece of space opera which, like the previous entry in this series, The Last Dinosaur, was an American/Japanese co-production, here between Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Toei. MGM provided the funding and script while Toei provided the film crew and location to shoot the film. In fact a third country was involved, as the storyline originated in Italy and was supposed to be part of Antonio Margheriti’s Gamma One tv movie series.

The script was written by William Finger (the co-creator, arguably the creator, of huge swathes of what we now recognise as the Batman mythos), Tom Rowe and Charles Sinclair from a story by co-producer Ivan Reiner. The film was shot in Japan with a Japanese director and film crew, but a non-Japanese cast of Robert Horton, Richard Jaeckel and Luciana Paluzzi.

The plot sees a group of scientists sent into space to destroy an asteroid on collison course with Earth. They return from their mission to the asteroid with an unwanted guest, a glowing piece of space fungus which mutates and multiplies into the screeching, tentacled green slime monsters of the title.

It’s camp, goofy and madly entertaining, and never less than breathlessly directed by Kinji Fukasaku, who also made the seminal Battles Without Honor and Humanity film series (1973-74) and the controversial Battle Royale (2000).

The music score was written by Toshiaki Tsushima, but Charles Fox re-scored much of the film for its release in United States. Fox, of course, was co-composer (along with Norman Gimbel) of Grammy winning hit song Killing Me Softly With His Song, and created the famous theme tune for Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman TV series (“In your satin tights, fighting for your rights…”).

And it’s the theme song for The Green Slime which brings us here today. Written by Fox and produced, arranged & performed by surf music pioneer Richard Delvy, the song gives us outré lyrics such as:

“What can it be; what is the reason?
Is this the end to all the seasons?
Is this just something in your head?
Would you believe it when you’re dead?
You’ll believe it when you find
something screaming across your mind …green slime!”

Once heard, never forgotten, this song will worm its way into your psyche like… well… green slime. Enjoy!

 

Guardians 2 – Galaxy 0 – Gunn Scores Again!

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When James Gunn hit with the original Guardians of the Galaxy, back in 2014, the film took many by surprise. For those of us who had been following both Marvel’s careful universe-building gameplan (up to that point) and Gunn’s career – starting with his days at Troma, through projects such as PG-Porn and onto the low to mid-budget gems, Super and Slither, the tone of Guardians was less of a surprise. More surprising, perhaps, was the fact that so much of Gunn’s off-kilter sensibility shone through the Marvel house style.

Happily, that sensibility has been allowed full reign for the sequel, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, perfectly encapsulated by the opening sequence which involves the already in-situ Guardians battling a tentacled space beast accompanied by the glorious harmonies of E.L.O.’s Mr. Blue Sky. Gunn being Gunn, the focus of the battle is kept to the background while we follow Baby Groot dancing along to Jeff Lynne’s most famous tune.

It’s this kind of oddball choice that gives both volumes their charm, and that’s added to by a cast now fitting snugly into their roles. Chris Pratt, Zoe Salanda, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel and Karen Gillan are all clearly having a ball, and Michael Rooker and Pom Klementieff grab their expanded and new roles respectively with relish.

The stand out star of Vol 2 for me however, was Dave Bautista. His Drax is an immensly likeable character and Bautista kills every single line and beat with expert comic timing. Vol 2 has several great laugh out loud moments and Bautista is at the heart of many of them.

Newcomers (to the MCU) Kurt Russell and Sylvester Stallone provide welcome gravitas and there are several fun and surprising cameos for both casual viewers and Marvel geeks (like me). Russell in particular plays well against Pratt and it’s something of a clash of the charmers whenever they share screentime.

Vol 2 is bold in style and is easily Marvel’s most colourful production to date – in fact the film generally resembles a particularly fine LSD trip, with shining rainbow colours splashed around gleefully. It’s a welcome expansion to Marvel’s usual colour palette, and one which the forthcoming Thor Ragnarok looks set to continue.

Also welcome is the greater emphasis on family relationships – a theme layered across several different sets of characters and one which even manages to colour the McGuffin that drives the plot. If this McGuffin feels a little underwhelming at first (even though it involves the end of the galaxy as we know it) a little reflection reveals surprising depth at the ostensible villain’s plans (I’m being deliberately circumspect here to avoid spoilers).

This emphasis makes for quite an emotional ride too, and you shouldn’t be surprised if your heartstrings aren’t well and truly tugged upon by the film’s climax.

If Vol 2 outstays its welcome by ten minutes or so, and wanders a little too amiably here and there (hello, extended sojourn on the Ravagers’ ship), that’s a small price to pay to spend two hours in the company of such superb characters. Honestly, I’d happily spend two hours with Drax, just revelling in his blunt as a brick one-liners.

This e-number fuelled adventure is a full on funhouse ride and as much of a good time as can be had without losing your underwear, and Gunn has definitely hit two for two. Bring on the promised Vol 3, I say.

*** Oh, and in the tradition of Marvel’s post-credit scenes, Vol 2 features no less than five, and viewers are advised to stay until the very, very end…

BREATHE! Star Wars – The Last Jedi Trailer Is Here!

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As expected, the teaser trailer for Episode 8 – The Last Jedi dropped just now at the Star Wars Celebration and, well, here it is…

It’s very Luke and Rey-centric, and it’s more of an atmosphere piece than anything. But there’s some cool looking stuff in there – possibly nothing that will convert a non-fan to Jedi-ism but, hey, you know Disney’s money is already in the bank, right!?

Star Wars Episode VIII The Last Jedi opens on December 15th, 2017 and very possibly three quarters of the world will go to see it.

Thor: Ragnarok Wins Battle of the Led Zeppelin Trailers!

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In the last week or so we’ve been treated to two trailers for forthcoming big, studio tentpole movies, both of which rely on the trusty wailing, axe slashery (as in guitars, though there are plenty of real axes in the trailers themselves) and drum pounding of the mighty Led Zeppelin!

First out of the gate came Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, accompanied by Babe I’m Gonna Leave You (from the Zepp’s 1969 debut album). It’s all very blokey and muddy and grey with a bunch of Ritchie’s usual tics (speed ramping, etc) and ultimately, for me at least, didn’t feel in any way unique (and it has some very big boots to fill against John Boorman’s mad and operatic, Excalibur). The Arthur story appears to have been given the Game of Thrones/Sherlock Holmes treatment and if you’re up for that, then I guess I know where you’ll be spending your movie cash this summer.

Next up comes Taika Waititi’s first crack at the Marvel Cinematic Universe and, well, take a look for yourself:

The Thor films have frequently felt like the poor relations of the Marvel movies, neither quite reaching the targets they were aiming for (though I still find them both very enjoyable… Dark World in particular only really misses its mark due to the now frequent Marvel trope of the underdeveloped villain, with poor Christopher Eccleston doing his best under heavy make up).

A trailer is no proof of the finished product, of course, but judging from what we see here Marvel have let the Flight of the Conchords/What We Do In The Shadows director have his head of steam.

Already we see something lighter, brighter and far more cosmically ‘out there’ than the previous entries in this franchise, and certainly allowing Chris Hemsworth’s comedy chops to shine is a stroke of genius. Plus of course, there’s *that* guest appearance… it’s no trade secret that Thor: Ragnarok borrows from a certain set of well- loved stories from the comic books and the sight of those two characters (I’ll avoid spoilers here in case you’re the only person on the planet unaware of this) facing off against each other is just too delicious. Additionally, everyone knows Jeff Golblum automatically improves any movie he’s in.

Finally, we have the use of Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song, from 1970’s Led Zeppelin III. Now you might want to subtract a point or two after the song’s spellbinding use in the trailer for David Fincher’s slightly less spellbinding The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, but really that would feel somewhat churlish in light of its perfect use here.

Imprisoned on the other side of the universe, the mighty Thor (Chris Hemsworth) finds himself in a deadly gladiatorial contest that pits him against the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), his former ally and fellow Avenger. Thor’s quest for survival leads him in a race against time to prevent the all-powerful Hela (Cate Blanchett) from destroying his home world and the Asgardian civilization.

If this official synopsis above for Thor: Ragnarok doesn’t get you vibed (along with Spider-Man: Homecoming and Guardians of the Galaxy, vol. 2), well, there’s always King Arthur for you to look forward to. I’ll be gleefully diving into Waititi’s gloriously colourful immigrant song…