Interstellar Review

interstellarI recently saw Interstellar, the highly-anticipated film from director Christopher Nolan. It’s not without its flaws, but it’s a very ambitious film that deserves a place in the canon of ‘hard sci-fi’ cinema. Its indebtedness to predecessors such as 2001 and Contact is evident throughout, but it manages to make a unique contribution to the genre through its ideas and impressive visual imagery. If I have one criticism of the film, I would say that the third act is too metaphysical (an odd criticism for a student of philosophy to make!). To say more about that, however, would be to spoil the ending of the film and this is a movie that should really be entered spoiler-free. Read on at your own risk if you haven’t yet seen it, although I will try to avoid major spoilers in this review.

The film begins by establishing that earth is running out of food. Humanity has reverted to an agrarian society; everybody has become a farmer, including former test pilot and engineer, Cooper, played by Matthew McConaughey. He and his family, including his precocious 10 year old daughter Murph, live on a farm that’s reminiscent of something from Ken Burns’ documentary The Dust Bowl. Murph begins to experience strange phenomena in her bedroom, such as books flying off the shelves. She concludes that a ghost is responsible. This sets up the first of the film’s ‘big ideas’: the tension between science and skepticism on the one hand and spirituality and sentimentality on the other. Without delving too deeply into spoilers, part of what the film attempts to do is overcome this dichotomy.

Murph’s attempt to interpret these messages from beyond leads her and her father to discover a secret NASA installation overseen by Professor Brand (Michael Caine) and his daughter (Anne Hathaway). They are planning a risky voyage to find a new home for humanity among the stars. The NASA team has discovered a wormhole that leads to another galaxy. Three astronauts have already gone through the wormhole in search of habitable worlds and have sent back some promising data. Professor Brand recruits Cooper to lead the mission to reach these potentially habitable planets. Cooper makes the decision to leave his family and embark on what’s likely to be a one-way mission into deep space. Because of the time dilation effects of deep space travel, he will experience time at a slower rate than those on earth. He faces the possibility that his family, including his children, will age and die before he ever gets back — if he ever gets back. However, as Professor Brand reminds him, in order to survive, humanity must think as a species, not as individuals.

I won’t say anymore about the plot, because to do so would get into spoiler territory. Instead, I’m going to talk more generally about the themes involved in the film. There are almost too many ideas going on in this film (although that’s preferable to there being too few) and there’s definitely a balancing act going on between the rigor of the science — which by sci-fi standards is quite high — and metaphysical speculation. Throughout the film, the characters speculate that gravity holds the key to understanding the mysteries of the universe. From my layman’s understanding, this speculation is rooted in recent theoretical physics. Stephen Hawking has attributed the creation of the universe itself to gravity and other theoretical physicists have speculated that gravity might be evidence of the existence of extra dimensions and even other universes. In the film, however, this scientific account is juxtaposed with the notion that love — something not easily quantifiable — is in some sense the most fundamental force in the universe. Again, I can’t say too much about the way this theme plays out without giving too much away. Suffice it to say that in a movie ostensibly about the technical aspects of deep space travel, wormholes, black holes, and relativity, the film devotes about a third of its running time to a very metaphysical exploration of the power of love to literally transcend space and time.

Interstellar’s turn into metaphysical, quasi-spiritual territory towards the end of the film has divided audiences. I think you’ll either like it or you won’t. I’m actually quite conflicted about what side of that divide I fall on. I rather liked the dilemma with which the crew is faced at a certain point in the movie — whether to return home or press on and find a home for the human embryos they carry with them. The film’s resolution to this dilemma is to try and have it both ways. It’s a creative solution, I suppose, but it feels a little too much like an M. Night Shyamalan film (albeit one of his better ones). The twist ending, which Nolan has employed in The Prestige, Inception, and The Dark Knight Rises, doesn’t really work for me here. To be fair, the film sets up the dichotomy between science and spirituality from the beginning and its eventual resolution — a New Age-y interpretation that sees the counter-intuitive world of arcane physics as making room for spirituality — is not completely out of left field.

That said, the film should be seen for its visuals alone. I found it to be the most visually compelling film I’ve seen this year and the best example to date of Nolan’s ability as a visual director. Unlike Inception, which I felt was marred by clunky exposition, Interstellar places much more confidence in the power of the image to convey the story. There is, of course, some expository dialogue, but nothing like the excesses of some of his earlier work. In Interstellar, Nolan trusts the visuals to carry the narrative to a much greater extent than he has in the past and, in my judgment, this is a promising development.

If you’re a fan of 2001 and Contact, I think you will enjoy Interstellar.


I Believe in Gotham City

Guest blogger and comic book aficionado, Jason Major, takes an in-depth look at the Gotham trailer and offers some predictions on the upcoming series.

Gotham is an upcoming show on FOX TV Mondays that is about Detective James Gordon trying to fight crime in Gotham City after the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents. Far from just a Bruce Wayne origin, the show is described as a crime opera focusing on the cops and the fall of Gotham City and the origins of the villains and world of the Dark Knight.

The first full extended trailer has been released as well as a “Villains Themed” shorter trailer can be seen here:

My review of the trailer may be different than than that of the TV series itself, but so far it is shaping up to be fantastic. The trailer itself takes on a more cinematic look, and I’m sure if someone took the time to mash it up with a Batman trailer, it would almost look like the origins of a new Batman movie.

The look is very similar to me to the Batman: Animated Series of the 90’s — a modern yet retro look with retro-looking clothing, a very Noir-ish looking Gotham. Even the producers admit their influence is from New York in the 70’s.

One of the promising aspects is that they are looking straight at the source material for the cops and supporting cast for Gordon, using the Gotham Central comic book (a comic which focused on Gotham’s cops in a world with Batman) for reference and using established characters like Renee Montoya, Harvey Bullock, Crispus Allen and Sara Essen to further populate its world.

Villain-wise, we are being promised many of the “big bads” of Batman very early on. The Penguin is a key character here, more based on the newest Batman: Earth One graphic novel (a reboot comic version of the character), where Penguin is skinnier and smaller than round and fat, but also much more vicious. Selina Kyle (Catwoman) is also part of the cast, as a young homeless girl/thief, and Edward Nygma has been given a new origin as a forensic scientist with a penchant for puzzles and riddles. A young Poison Ivy was also shown in the trailer.

The Joker has also been promised sometime, very possibly by the end of season one, although “with great care and thought”. My own hope is that they go with the classic Jack Napier/gangster Joker. I would be interested in seeing a Noir-like origin for the Joker, perhaps as a gangster with a troubled past who eventually becomes the Red Hood before becoming the Joker we know. My guess is that Joker will become a supporting character once he is introduced.

The Batman: Earth One graphic novel is set on DC’s New Earth One, where they are doing graphic novel reboots of their characters separate from their New 52 line. Its influence on Gotham is seen both in Penguin and also a new approach to Alfred as more of a Butler/ex- marine bodyguard (this version was also used in the new Beware the Batman cartoon). In many ways, this version does make some sense, as Bruce is only 10-12 years old right now.

The trailer looks fantastic, and despite what else you may read from internet fans complaining about “this will suck because it is not Batman”, early reviews from critics and word-of-mouth suggest they are looking at this series to become a breakout hit at Fox. A full-season order would not be picked up for a show at this time usually, and a full-season order shows more confidence in the final product.

Also, I find many of the complaints unfounded. For example, comparisons can’t be made to Smallville. Superman’s mythology as Superboy/young Clark Kent has a lot less in the comics in terms of classic villains and world-building. I would argue that Batman has one of the greatest rogues gallery, but also one of the best supporting casts in all of comics. There is a lot of great world-building that can be done if they do a nice mix of gangster/street-level villains and classic rogues gallery. Also, none of the creators of Smallville have anything to do with the show. Both Bruno Heller and Danny Cannon were heavily involved in CSI, which is by far a better comparison for Gotham. CSI seems to have lasted for quite some time now and had multiple spin-offs. Other shows Bruno Heller has been involved in include Rome and The Mentalist, both critically-acclaimed shows. Ben Mackenzie was a cop on the crime drama Southland, as well as the voice of Batman on the animated movie Batman: Year One, which seems like good groundwork for his role to me. Donal Logue was also acclaimed on Sons of Anarchy and Vikings, (and also has comic book cred in Ghost Rider as Johnny Blaze’s friend) and the cast is surrounded by interesting characters as well.

Gotham’s challenges, in my mind, will live or die by the writing. For me, part of the problem with 21st century television is that shows are so serialized that they hard to follow from week to week and you give up and wait for the DVD/Blu-ray release. One way Gotham seems to be avoiding the problems of serialized TV is that the producers/directors have mapped out already the entire first season. This is a stark contrast to a series like Smallville, which in my opinion seemed to be made up as they went along. Also, here’s hoping the procedural-like formula will help it be a show that will be more easy to jump into. If done right, it should be simple for new viewers: Gotham is corrupt; Gordon is trying to stop the escalation; Bruce is one day going to become Batman.

The other potential problem is if the story becomes too repetitive. Will the series still feel fresh two years in, while we are continuing to wait? Will they use too many of the big villains too soon? Batman has a large encyclopedia of villains. If they mix the gangster-type villains, the classic more well-known rogues, and revamp some of the lesser-known rogues, plus the more traditional police procedural murders/cases, Gotham could have a chance at becoming a very interesting crime epic.

The actor playing Bruce Wayne has a lot on his shoulders. I would love to see this kid grow into Batman through the more classic origin: by studying hard and learning from the world around him. The producers have promised that you won’t see teen Bruce Wayne drama. Instead, you’re going to see a kid who knows early on that his calling is to become the saviour of Gotham. My hope is that they will play first with the classic origin where he tries to do this through the law until it becomes self-evident that this is impossible. It’s important here to remember that the classic origin for Batman is more rooted in Batman wanting to make sure that his personal tragedy never happens again. It’s less about vengeance and more about justice and taking his tragedy upon his shoulders and preventing anyone else from having to go through that again. The child actor has to interestingly portray a character going through this transformation into the Batman, rather than a character in a soapy teen drama.

I believe in Gotham City. I believe that a crime opera in the shadow of Batman could work. Only time will tell if I am right, but for now the Dark Knight rises on television. (Yes, I know, I had to.)

Godzilla (2014) Review

This week’s post is by guest-blogger, and monster movie fan, Robert Mullin. Enjoy!

godzillaThere can’t be many people out there who don’t at least recognize Godzilla. With a film history spanning sixty years and thirty films, Godzilla is in rarefied air with other globally recognizable icons like Superman, Popeye, Mickey Mouse and Tintin. But if you are perhaps not familiar with Godzilla at all, he is an extremely large lizard monster that is awakened by nuclear testing in the Pacific Ocean and wreaks havoc on Japanese cities with his enormous size and nuclear breath. Sure, it sounds silly when it is summed up like that, but the original film had a powerful impact on a post-war Japan. Needless to say, the character really took off and spawned many sequels and became part of the pop culture of the 20th century. We now have Hollywood banking rather successfully on the name Godzilla, because anything that already has brand awareness makes their job easier. Now then, on to the review of this reboot of Godzilla at the hands of the American filmmakers, but word of warning: there are going to be spoilers. If you haven’t seen the film yet, skip down to the bottom of this review and read the conclusion in which I will outline why you might want to consider seeing this film or not. You’ve been warned.

The opening credits of the movie explain part of the origin story of Godzilla himself, highlighting stock footage of nuclear bomb tests in the Pacific that are now revealed to be attempts to kill Godzilla. The credits end and we’ve made the jump from 1954 bomb tests in the Pacific to 1999 in the Philippines. We are then introduced to Dr. Ishiro Serizawa, played by Ken Watanabe, who works for a group called Project Monarch that are investigating a collapsed mine in the Philippines. Inside, they find two large eggs, one that is intact and the other which has hatched and made it to the sea. Meanwhile, Janjira nuclear plant engineer Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) and his wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche), who is also some kind of nuclear engineer, are investigating possible damage to the plant. Suddenly, what were slight tremors erupt into an earthquake which damages the plant core. Joe Brody ends up sealing off the contaminated levels to prevent the nuclear radiation from poisoning the entire region and, in the process, seals his wife Sandra inside to perish with her team.

This becomes the catalyst that drives the best human story in the film, as Joe Brody doesn’t believe the earthquake story that is used to cover up what exactly caused the earthquake that compromised the Janjira plant and killed his wife. Jump forward fifteen years and we see Joe Brody’s son, Ford Brody, arriving home in San Francisco after demobilizing with his explosive disposal unit. Upon arriving home, he receives a phone call that his father has been arrested in Japan for illegally crossing the contamination zone surrounding the nuclear plant that was destroyed. After getting bailed out, Joe Brody tells his son that he believes that the official story about an earthquake causing the Janjira meltdown is a cover up and that he has evidence to prove it at his old house inside the contamination zone. Together, they go to their old home, but are captured by a military patrol. They discover that the contamination zone actually was a cover up and the nuclear plant was destroyed by a creature evolved to feed on nuclear energy. The creature has formed a cocoon around the nuclear core and is feeding off of the radiation and growing. Without warning, a massive winged insect-like creature emerges and wreaks havoc before flying away. During this encounter, Joe Brody is fatally wounded and promptly dies, leaving Ford Brody to carry the rest of the movie as our main human character. The creature is named MUTO by the military (standing for Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) and begins flying east toward the United States.

MCDGODZ EC052Aboard aircraft carrier USS Saratoga, Dr. Ishiro Serizawa fills Ford Brody in on the real reason for all of the nuclear tests in the pacific during the 50’s: the military was, of course, trying to kill Godzilla. He goes on to explain that Godzilla and the MUTO are alpha predators from billions of years ago that feed on radiation and as the radiation on the surface subsided, they moved closer to the Earth’s core. But with mankind’s prolific use of radiation as a source for energy and weapons, these creatures are surfacing again. It is confirmed that a second MUTO is already in the US and it’s the mate of the Janjira plant MUTO. At this time, the US Navy spots Godzilla following the first MUTO and concludes they will meet in San Francisco. Needless to say, the Navy is correct and Godzilla confronts the two MUTO creatures in San Francisco and a giant monster battle ensues.

Godzilla 2014 doesn’t have a complicated story or terribly compelling and deep characters. You would be understandably disappointed if you saw the trailer before seeing the film and were looking forward to Bryan Cranston being the main character. Unfortunately, Cranston’s screen time in the trailer is disproportionate to his screen time in the actual movie. Instead, our main human interest character is Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who isn’t terrible by any means, but lacks all of the emotionally convincing cues the audience is treated to in the first third of the film thanks to Cranston. Juliette Binoche also turns in a stellar performance and is an interesting character but has even less screen time than Cranston. I guess the studio didn’t want great performances and characters we might care about to distract audiences from the mighty Godzilla. And that approach ultimately wouldn’t be a bad take if they had put more Godzilla in the movie. Instead, for much of the first two thirds of the movie whenever Godzilla is going to fight a MUTO or smash a building, the film cuts to a scene of a regular person reacting or simply jumps to different characters watching it unfold on television. We get to see Godzilla through a regular person’s perspective but the human characters aren’t interesting enough for this to work. Thankfully, this approach is abandoned about two thirds into the movie and audiences get what is one of the finest displays of Godzilla in the character’s history. Up until that payoff, the movie does drag in places. But the payoff is so full of the joy of the character that I can’t help but feel that this movie accomplished what it set out to do.

Ultimately, if you aren’t a fan of Godzilla, this movie isn’t going to convert you. But if you even have the faintest fond memory of being a kid and watching the Toho Godzilla films, then this will appeal to you immensly. I have always liked monster movies, so I am by no means unbiased. But I do always try to judge a movie by looking at what the filmmaker was trying to accomplish and then attempting to determine whether he was able to do that. Gareth Evans and the rest of the people involved in making this film, accomplished what they set out to do and rebooted a beloved character for children and adults alike. In a movie landscape where dark and gritty takes on characters I cared about growing up are taking away the very elements that made me like those characters in the first place, Godzilla stands apart.

The Amazing Spoiler-Man 2

As the title indicates, this review will be chock-full of SPOILERS. If you haven’t seen The Amazing Spider-Man 2 yet and don’t want to know what happens, don’t read any further. If you’ve seen the movie, or just don’t care about spoilers, read on. If you just want to know whether or not I recommend the movie, skip to the very last paragraph.

First, however, some general comments. I have to admit I was underwhelmed by The Amazing Spider-Man when I first saw it. I felt it was an unnecessary retelling of the origin. I’ve always been puzzled by why studios don’t treat superhero franchises like the Bond movies. Recast them, change directors, but don’t hit the reset button every single time. We all know who Spider-Man is and we could have just hit the ground running with The Lizard, who was already set up in the Raimi series.

Speaking of Raimi’s movies, the new Spider-Man franchise invites the inevitable comparisons. One way to justify a hard reboot, would be to do something completely different with Spider-Man’s origin. To be fair, the Amazing series does draw much more explicitly on the origin from the Ultimate Spider-Man comic, which is outside the main Marvel continuity. The first one established the mysterious death of Peter’s parents and his dad’s connection to Norman Osborn. This thread is carried forward in the sequel and provides sufficient motivation for Peter to become Spider-Man. Uncle Ben’s murder in the first outing felt too perfunctory; it’s there because we expect it. (There’s another one of these deaths in the sequel too.) I got the feeling that the filmmakers were playing it safe here, rather than taking a risk. I thought it would have been interesting if Uncle Ben had survived the first movie.

I should also add that I enjoyed The Amazing Spider-Man much more on Blu-ray than I did in the theater. It looked dark and washed out when I saw it; maybe it was the fault of the projectionist. The Blu-ray looks great and the movie has its moments. I prefer Andrew Garfield to Toby Maguire. Again, the interweaving of Spider-Man’s origin with his father’s scientific work for Oscorp is interesting, if not fully developed until the sequel. I also prefer mechanical web-shooters to organic ones. And it was cool to see Spidey use his webs like trip-lines to detect movement, the way real spiders do. (After all, he’s supposed to do whatever a spider can, right?)

To return to the Raimi series, however, the high watermark for any of the Spider-Man movies is still Spider-Man 2. Although I’m sure we’ll see Doc Ock again (we see his mechanical arms in The Amazing Spider-Man 2) because this film franchise is building up to the Sinister Six, I doubt we’ll get as good a performance as Alfred Molina’s. I give The Amazing Spider-Man 2 some credit for not simply remaking Raimi’s sequel, but it didn’t achieve the same success for me.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed it as a fan. If I were to take off my fanboy hat, however, and put on my critic hat, I admit that the movie has its faults. So this is really a two part review: first the fanboy review, then the critical review. By the way, we are now well and truly entering SPOILER territory. You’ve been warned.

The film starts off with Peter’s parents fleeing the country by private jet. Richard Parker is attempting to upload his research to something called ‘Roosevelt’ to prevent it from falling into Oscorp’s hands. However, there is an assassin on the plane who kills the pilot causing the plane to go into a nosedive. Before the assassin bails out, he kills Richard’s wife and attempts to kill him. The two men struggle, and Richard manages to eject his attacker from the plane. He then uploads his research before the plane crashes. This will be an important plot point later.

We then cut to Spider-Man swinging around New York in an effort to stop the hijacking of a truck containing radioactive isotopes. The main hijacker is a Russian gangster played by Paul Giamatti, who will later become the Rhino. By the way, the majority of Rhino’s scenes are in the trailer. He doesn’t play a major role here; I take it they’re just laying the groundwork for the next movie. Anyways, Peter keeps seeing the ‘ghost’ of Captain Stacey, played by Dennis Leary (maybe he’s stealing material from the ghost of Bill Hicks 😉 ), and he’s reminded of his promise — which he hasn’t kept — to stay away from Gwen. After summarily defeating the bad guys, Spidey rushes off to his high school graduation where valedictorian Gwen is giving a speech. Unfortunately, this speech — about how brief and precious life is — telegraphs what will happen to Gwen by the end of the movie. Anybody familiar with the original Spider-Man comics knows that her story does not end happily, but it should be obvious to any moviegoer familiar with the usual cliches, that she’s foreshadowing her death in this speech. This somewhat diminishes the drama of Peter breaking up with her because we know they’ll get together again, which will lead to her demise.

The main villain of the film is Electro, played by Jaimie Foxx. A friendless electrical engineer who works for Oscorp, Max Dillon is rescued by Spider-Man during the truck hijacking and becomes obsessed with Spidey and wishes he could enjoy the same adulation. Although they only met once, Max considers Spider-Man his best friend. Later, after he falls into a vat of electric eels, gaining the ability to absorb electrical energy, Max is drawn to the lights of Times Square. Spider-Man inevitably shows up, and Max is upset when Spider-Man doesn’t remember him. They fight. Max is further angered when Spider-Man steals his newly-found limelight. Eventually, Spidey prevails and sends Max to prison. As far as villainous motivations go, this one is pretty weak. Unfortunately, this weakness is shared by most of Spider-Man’s rogues gallery. They’re either mad scientists — with some connection to Peter Parker’s life — or they’re schmucks who stumble into some superpower or advanced technology and decide to rob banks and fight Spider-Man, so maybe I should give Electro a pass.

In the meantime, Norman Osborn has apparently died and Harry Osborn has inherited Oscorp. Naturally, Peter and Harry are old friends. Harry discovers that he has also inherited Norman’s genetic disease. He also discovers that his father and Peter’s father, Richard Parker, were working on a spider-human DNA hybrid that could cure Norman’s ailment. The testing never officially made it to human trials, but Harry figures out that Spider-Man must be the result of some such experiment. Since Peter takes pictures of Spider-Man, Harry enlists his aid to find the wall-crawler, so Harry can extract some of Spidey’s blood which Harry believes will heal him. Spider-Man visits Harry and tells him he won’t donate his blood because the effects could be dangerous and unpredictable. Of course, this causes Harry to hate Spider-Man. Harry proceeds to break Electro out of prison and the two vow vengeance on the web-slinger. Again, as far as motivations go, these are thin.

Peter discovers that ‘Roosevelt’ is a reference to an abandoned subway tunnel used to transport President Roosevelt during WWII. Peter’s father, Richard, has stashed all of his research in a subway car to keep it out of Norman’s hands. Norman was going to use the research to create biological weapons and sell them to the highest bidder, but Richard coded the spider venom to his DNA so only a blood relative could use it. This supposedly explains why it bestowed spider powers on Peter. However, this makes Spider-Man’s origin spectacularly improbable. By pure chance, the spider bit the one guy in the world who could possibly become Spider-Man! What are the odds? With great power comes great improbability.

The rest of the movie is pretty perfunctory. Harry gets his hands on the spider venom, which turns him into the Green Goblin. The suit and glider conveniently rise out of the floor ready for him to take flight. Spider-Man, with Gwen’s help, manage to defeat Electro by overloading his circuits or some such nonsense, before he drains all of New York’s power. The Green Goblin shows up, immediately figures out Peter’s identity through his relationship with Gwen, and Spider-Man and Goblin fight. As Gwen falls down a clock tower, Spidey shoots his web to save her, but the recoil snaps her neck and she dies. This is all comic book canon, but it felt really rushed here. There was a lot of compression in the movie. It felt like the Green Goblin showed up for the express purpose of killing Gwen because that’s what we expect him to do. This could have been deferred to the next movie and it would have had more impact. The film then rushes through a year of Peter moping and not being Spider-Man. Then, after a few minutes, he triumphantly returns to defeat Rhino. Again, this should have been saved for the next installment. It would’ve had much more impact. After all, these stories play out in the comics over years, not two hours, and there’s too much content here for one film.

The movie ends with a set-up for the Sinister Six. I can’t help but cynically conclude that the studio is rushing to this point. They also seem to be in a big hurry to reestablish the status quo. Now that Gwen Stacey is out of the way, I expect it won’t be too long before we see Mary Jane. I heard rumors that she was introduced in an earlier cut of this movie, but dropped due to running time.

And that’s another thing. This movie is a bit too long. It could’ve used a more streamlined story and a stronger edit. There were a few long stretches without any Spider-Man action where I wasn’t engaged. Again, the scenes between Peter and Gwen — the will they, won’t they stuff — didn’t play well after her demise was so clearly telegraphed a few minutes into the movie. I know that the teenage romance elements are a staple of the Spider-Man story — the genius of the original comic is that it’s a soap opera — but it’s wasted here. Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone are a charismatic couple, but the cliched writing didn’t allow these scenes to have the impact they should have.

So would I recommend The Amazing Spider-Man 2? Yes, I would give it a mild recommendation. It’s visually interesting and probably the most faithful Spider-Man ever put on screen. Everything from the costume to Garfield’s performance is right out of the comic book pages. If you’re a hardcore fan, it’s a double edged sword. You’ll probably appreciate more of what’s going on, but you’ll also probably notice a lot more flaws. If you’re a casual moviegoer who isn’t burned out by the superhero genre yet, and just want some escapist fun, then check it out. If you go into it with moderate expectations, you probably won’t be disappointed.

Star Trek: The Motion(less) Picture

Okay, so I couldn’t resist a bad pun in the title. Seriously though, it summarizes my problem with the first feature length Star Trek film: not much happens in this movie. When something finally does happen, it isn’t very interesting. There’s not even enough content here for a filler episode of the original series. Now, I can imagine some readers saying ‘You just don’t get deliberately paced, conceptual sci-fi. Go back to watching the Abrams-verse if you can’t handle the real deal.’ That might be a valid criticism if it weren’t for the fact that I have serious problems with the action-oriented reboot as well. No, the problem isn’t that I don’t appreciate philosophical, cerebral sci-fi. I do. I like 2001, Solaris, Moon, even Prometheus (which a lot of people hated). The problem with The Motion Picture isn’t that it aspires to be philosophical; the problem is that it aspires and fails. It also fails to be entertaining which is a cardinal sin for any fictional medium, clever or otherwise.

Here’s how I imagine the thought process behind this movie went. I deliberately haven’t done much research beyond watching the film itself, so I’m essentially guessing, but willing to bet that this is close to what happened. Roddenberry and his collaborators saw Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and thought “That’s a great movie!” I would agree. However, they then thought to themselves “Let’s make a Star Trek movie like that! Since 2001 raises questions about human purpose and destiny, our movie will raise questions about human purpose and destiny! Since 2001 is methodically paced with a loose, meandering narrative, our movie will be methodically paced with a loose, meandering narrative! Since 2001 features an artificial intelligence, our movie will feature an artificial intelligence!” Unfortunately, all of the elements that work in 2001 don’t work in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. I’m sure it looked good on paper, but it falls flat in execution.

disco mccoy

The future is disco.

I’m not entirely sure why none of it works. The main problem is the pacing. It’s one thing for a film to take its time to develop, but there should be a point to it. For example, do we really need an almost 7 minute sequence of the Enterprise sitting in space dock? A much shorter establishing shot would have done the job. Also, the ship takes a long time to get to its rendezvous with V’Ger. This might be fine if anything happened along the way. Often in sci-fi, a long space voyage can be exploited to explore characters, resolve some kind of conflict, or introduce some psychological tension. The Motion Picture doesn’t bother with any of this. The conflict between Kirk and Decker gets old fast and the conversations among the other characters are tedious and inconsequential to the plot. We’re just along for the dull, protracted ride from earth to the ominous cloud. (By the way, when the principal antagonist in a movie is a cloud, the movie has problems.) The audience is never rewarded for their patience. There’s isn’t any payoff at the end of it. I’m not going to spend time on plot synopsis here (there’s always Wikipedia for that), but suffice it to say that the plot is too thin to carry the film’s weighty pretensions. Again, this concept might have provided enough material for a less memorable episode of the TV show, but it cannot sustain a feature length movie.

But I’m a philosopher, not a film critic (Jim) and usually I can forgive some technical flaws and appreciate a movie’s underlying philosophical ambitions (as with Prometheus). Unfortunately, The Motion Picture, despite it’s 2001-esque aspirations, doesn’t offer much by way of fodder for philosophical reflection. Worse, what it does offer is embarrassingly sophomoric in both philosophical and science fiction terms. The familiar tropes are all here: V’Ger is an entity in search of meaning, having transcended its original programming or teleological function. It seeks to return to the ‘the Creator’ for further instructions. However, as Spock informs it, it must find its own meaning. There is an obvious parallel here between V’Ger and humanity. The humanism that permeates many of Roddenberry’s original Star Trek episodes is back. As human beings, we’ve transcended our biological programming and must find our own meaning independent of the intentions of an alleged creator blah, blah, blah. We’ve heard it all before, and more deftly handled, in any number of sci-fi stories. There’s nothing particularly noteworthy about this entry. It doesn’t really add to the canon in any discernible way. It’s just another Roddenberry story. Of course, his antipathy toward theism is well known. It can be readily found in several Star Trek episodes, notably “Who Mourns for Adonais?” I don’t have a problem with this aspect of Roddenberry’s work; in fact, I share his humanism — though not his globalist utopianism — to some extent. But this schtick was getting tired even in 1979. Learn a new tune already. However, my criticism is not simply that this premise isn’t particularly original. Stories are told and retold and much of our contemporary fiction is a retelling of ancient mythical tropes that are probably destined to be recycled indefinitely. Roddenberry could have told his humanist parable again in a fresh way; unfortunately, he didn’t.

In conclusion, there’s not much to see here. The best thing about this movie is Jerry Goldsmith’s score that would later become the theme song for TNG. There are a few decent visual effects for the time, I suppose, but nothing that really stands out. The actors slip back into their roles, but they aren’t given much to do. So, I can’t recommend The Motion Picture except to the die-hard Star Trek completionist, who’s no doubt already seen it. In my opinion, this is one of the worst entries in the Star Trek franchise. Fortunately, this early misstep is followed by what is widely considered to be the best of the franchise: The Wrath of Khan. Next time, I’ll talk about that flick in more detail.