Category Archives: Science Fiction

Scrooge Revisited Day 3-Cosmo Spacely in A Jetson Christmas Carol (1985)

jetson-christmas-carolNote: If you’re new to Reel to Reel, I’m more about dissecting and commenting on film than writing a straightforward review. As such, please be warned, the following is full of spoilers.

Director: Ray Patterson

Writer: Barbara Levy & Marc Paykuss, based on the novel by Charles Dickens

Cast: George O’Hanlon, Penny Singleton, Daws Butler, Don Messick, Janet Waldo, Jean Vander Pyl, Mel Blanc, Frank Welker

Notes: This cartoon was originally made as an episode of the 80s-era revival of The Jetsons. It would later be released on its own on VHS, and has been shown as its own special on occasion since then (although to date the only place to get it on DVD is part of the Jetsons Season 2 set). It logically casts George Jetson’s boss, Cosmo Spacely (Mel Blanc) in the Scrooge role, with George (George O’Hanlon) taking the Bob Cratchit part. Their dog Astro (Don Messick) fills in for Tiny Tim after he swallows a gear from his Christmas present, which somehow results in him turning green and running a temperature. What can I say, medicine works differently in the future. Hanna-Barbera, of course, also tackled Dickens in A Flintstones Christmas Carol, and at least one other time, in the Scooby-Doo cartoon A Nutcracker Scoob, which so far I’ve been unable to locate on DVD, because clearly somebody at Warner Bros hates joy.

Thoughts: This special is a nice balance between traditional Christmas Carol tropes and the puns and goofs that Hanna-Barbera cartoons do so well. After things kick off with Mr. Spacely forcing George Jetson to work overtime, we lapse into all the main beats – Spacely is visited the ghost of his old partner “Jacob Marsley” (Blanc again) followed by a trio of mechanical ghosts who show him the past, present, and future. The Past and Future are old computers, while Present is a talking gift box. It’s actually my favorite joke in the show, and my wife’s least favorite joke of 2016. Christmas Future takes a nice twist as well – Spacely isn’t dead in the future, just out on the streets after the Jetsons sued him over Astro’s death. As far as changes go, this is the most amusing one – it would be too much for the children’s cartoon to show Spacely’s death, so instead they kill off the dog.

The special adds a little interesting backstory to the characters. In the “Christmas Past” segment, we see that George and Spacely are actually contemporaries, rather than Spacely being George’s senior. What’s more, Spacely has been bullying George and jerking him around financially since they were children. I’m pretty sure this is literally the only time in the history of the cartoon that such a thing is mentioned.

Ultimately, nothing else that happens in the cartoon is terribly surprising. It’s a standard version of A Christmas Carol, mixed in with a standard episode of The Jetsons. If you enjoy either of those things, you’ll like this as well. Fortunately, I do.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

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Summer Series 1: Mad Max

Welcome, all, to the first installment of the Summer Series here at Reel to Reel Movies! A few months ago, I was lying around with a lot of time to think, and I started to ponder what kind of project I could bring to the blog this summer. After all, summertime really is the best time for me, as a teacher, to watch and comment on a lot of movies. This led me to thinking about my personal (expansive) DVD collection, which includes a lot of boxed sets and a lot of movies I’ve never seen. As I pondered, the idea finally came to me: I could use this as an excuse to watch and rewatch entire series of films, then discuss the way the movies developed over time. There will not be a regular schedule for this – I’ll post a new installment whenever I finish watching a series, but I’m hoping I can pull off a goodly number of these before the siren song of school lures me back in August.

With that said, let’s leap right into the first series of films for this experiment, a series whose newest installment is still in theaters: George Miller’s Mad Max. Although I was, of course, aware of the Mad Max movies, until a week ago neither I nor my wife, Erin, had ever seen any of them. With the latest installment getting rave reviews, though, Erin suggested that we try to track down the first three and then see the new one. We watched the original about a week ago, then the next two and the new one in a 24-hour period this weekend. Without further ado, here are my thoughts on each one. As always, Reel to Reel is a full spoiler zone, so if you haven’t seen these movies, particularly Fury Road, you may want to step back before you read all the way through.

Max Max AMad Max (1979)
Director:
George Miller
Writers: George Miller & James McCausland
Cast: Mel Gibson, Joanne Samuel, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Steve Bisley

Thoughts: As I said, this is my first time actually watching any of the Mad Max films, so this is a good time to mention just how much public perception of a franchise can be shaped by its legacy. What I knew going in was that Max was a leather-wearing, cool car-driving, desert-dwelling warrior in a post-apocalyptic landscape. What I didn’t know was that in this movie, the first one, the apocalypse hadn’t actually happened yet. Oh, it’s definitely impending. From the early moments of the film we get a sense of a society on the verge of collapse – but that collapse is still in the future. When we meet Max Rockatansky, played by Mel Gibson, he’s still a police officer, still trying to maintain law and order. The streets of the Australian community he’s trying to protect are under siege, however, by a vicious gang that rides around in the aforementioned cool cars. Their leader, Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne) is something of a cartoon villain, not really wanting anything but chaos for the sake of chaos… that’s pretty much par for the course for the villains in this film, in fact.

Honestly, this is one of the rare occasions where (after having watched them all) the first movie is my least favorite in a series. It’s not bad, not at all, but it’s nothing compared to what the franchise would become as early as the next movie. The plot is fairly thin, showing a lead-up to one of those sci-fi dystopias that the movies promise can happen as early as this time next Thursday, depending on if it catches all the lights. The villains have no arc at all, and the hero’s arc is a fairly common, predictable one. Max is a cop who is driven to incredible acts of violence by crooks who assault, maim, or murder everyone who is close to him, including his partner, his wife, and his child. This obviously leads to one of those roaring rampages of revenge that Quentin Tarentino would grow up wanting to emulate. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as it’s done well, and Miller does do it well.

The film was made pretty cheap, but by late 70s standards it doesn’t look stark. There are good chase scenes and plenty of cars and stunts, more than enough for a viewer to believe every dime spent went on the screen. His script works well for what it is, showing pretty clearly that this movie takes place in a world where everything is going downhill. Maybe the best indicator of this is how casually Max’s son, “Sprog” (which is an Austrailian slang term for “baby” – the child’s name is never actually mentioned during the movie) picks up and plays with his father’s gun. I actually had glanced away from the screen at that moment, my attention immediately reclaimed when my wife yelped in terror.

Mad Max works, and it’s an okay movie, but I don’t think it’s anything special. If it weren’t for the fact that the sequels would turn out to be particularly spectacular, I don’t know if people would remember this one very much at all.

Road WarriorMad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981)
Director:
George Miller
Writers: George Miller, Terry Hayes & Brian Hannant
Cast: Mel Gibson, Kjell Nilsson, Emil Minty, Bruce Spence, Michael Preston, Vernon Wells, Virginia Hey, William Zappa

Thoughts: The first Mad Max was so forgettable in America that, when the sequel was released, it was only titled The Road Warrior over here, as the studio figured nobody saw the first one and they didn’t want people to get confused. This is actually a rare case of a studio marketing program doing something smart. Not only is The Road Warrior perfectly accessible whether you’ve seen the first movie or not, it would turn out to be part of a trend… none of the movies in this franchise are strictly beholden to one another. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad Erin and I watched all of them, but I’m here to tell ya that you can watch any Mad Max movie regardless of whether you’ve seen any of the others and still get a perfectly reasonable, understandable, and complete moviegoing experience.

More importantly, though, The Road Warrior is where Miller upped his game. He took a character from what had been little more than a mild exploitation movie and turned him into the hero that has largely defined the post-apocalyptic sci-fi subgenre ever since. In this movie, some years have passed since Max took his revenge on Toecutter, and in that time society’s collapse has become complete. With the world in a shambles following what is heavily implied to be a nuclear war (remember, this was 1981, nuclear war was Cinematic Boogeyman Number One), there is no government, no military, no civilization save that what is pieced together by small cliques of survivors. In this movie, Max gets caught up in a struggle between one such group – generally decent people desperately trying to survive by keeping an old gasoline refinery operational – and a \warlord intent on taking their resources for his own.

This would turn out to be part of a pattern for subsequent Max films. Although he’s the title character, he’s no longer strictly the protagonist. Rather, he’s the drifter, the wanderer, the Man With No Name archetype (almost literally – he has very little dialogue in this movie, and I honestly can’t remember if his name was ever actually said out loud) who wanders into a conflict between good villagers and the bullying overlord who threatens them, helps facilitate the real protagonist’s victory, and then wanders away. The only real continuity from one film to the next is Max himself, and Miller is incredibly good with this. The injuries Max suffered in the first film (a kneecap that gets shot, an arm severely wounded) leave their traces in this and subsequent movies, but not in such a way that a first-time viewer will feel like they’re missing part of the story.

The real protagonist in this movie is a little difficult to define, actually, but the role seems to be shared by the “Gyro Captain” (Bruce Spence) and the “Feral Kid” (Emil Minty). These are the two who interact the most with Max, grow the most from having come into contact with him, and in a small degree help him come back a bit from the cold, remorseless man he was at the end of the first movie. This is also where Miller’s storytelling skills first become apparent. Although it isn’t made explicit to people who are being exposed to the franchise for the first time, if you’ve seen the first movie it’s clear that Max views the Feral Kid as a sort-of substitute for his own long-dead child. In that way, Max’s arc in the movie becomes one of redemption, trying to make up for his failure to protect his own family by saving this new one, even if he can never truly join it.

This is also the film where the antagonists evolve from simple thugs to straight-up supervillains. Lord Humungus, so named because in the post-apocalyptic outback there’s no room for subtlety, is a mask-wearing barbarian, heavily burned and scarred. Although he, like Toecutter, is a brutal creature, it’s somehow more believable in this landscape. Once the apocalypse has happened, it’s easy to accept a warlord of his caliber willrise to power… although since I was four years old when this movie came out, I’m not sure if the entire reason that trope is so acceptable is because of the impact this movie had. At one point, I understand, the plan was for Humungus — played by Kjell Nilsson — to turn out to be Max’s tortured and burned former partner from the first film, but this was dropped for some reason. Honestly, I think that’s probably for the best, as that link would have made it far more difficult for this movie to stand on its own.

Of the three original movies, this is the one I think is the best. While the third installment clearly has a bigger budget and a flashier villain, this one has the strongest story. Miller and Gibson communicate volumes with very few words, but still craft a powerful and entertaining study of the characters and the world they now inhabit, while leaving you with a modicum of hope… even if that hope doesn’t specifically apply to Max Rockatansky.

Mad Max Beyond ThunderdomeMad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985)
Directors:
George Miller & George Ogilvie
Writers: George Miller & Terry Hayes
Cast: Mel Gibson, Bruce Spence, Tina Turner, Frank Thring, Angelo Rossitto, Paul Larsson, Helen Buday

Thoughts: The third movie, which by far had the most impressive scenery and design of the original three, begins with Max being robbed by a pilot named Jedediah. The pilot is played by Bruce Spence. This has apparently caused a bit of controversy – many people believe that Spence, who also played the Gyro pilot in The Road Warrior, is playing the same character again. Others say that the voiceover narration at the end of that movie clearly spells out a future for the Gyro pilot that does not include ever encountering Max again. George Miller himself says that Jedediah and the Gyro pilot are not intended to be the same character, so I’ll take his word for it, but damned if he doesn’t make it confusing by having the only two people in this entire franchise who operating flying vehicles played by the same guy.

Anyway, Max makes his way to a place called Bartertown, where he hopes to find Jedediah and get his stuff back. Instead, he winds up in the company of Bartertown’s leader, a wild woman called Aunty Entity (Tina Turner, who Tina Turners the hell out of this movie). She’s been having a bit of a problem with “Master Blaster,” a duo who my wife Erin has found endlessly entertaining since we watched this movie Saturday morning. Master (Angelo Rossitto) is the one responsible for converting the city’s pig crap into methane, which their civilization needs to keep running, and he’s threatening to use his brutal buddy Blaster (Paul Larsson) to take over. Aunty offers to get Max’s stuff back for him if he takes care of Blaster in combat… in Thunderdome. When Max discovers that Blaster is mentally disabled, though, he’s unable to bring himself to kill the man, and winds up in exile. In the desert, he encounters a tribe of wild children, the survivors of a plane crash who believe Max is their long-lost pilot, who went to get help and never returned. Disheartened when he tells them that the world has collapsed, their leader Savannah (Helen Buday) takes a group to set out and find other people. Max knows they’re heading straight into Bartertown, and sets out to save them once again.

Of all the Mad Max films, this one probably has the most convoluted plot. This isn’t a bad thing, but it does require a bit more effort to follow than the pretty straightforward stories of the first two (or even the fourth, but we’ll get to that). It also takes a long time for Max to get to the true heroine of the film, Savannah, and her little civilization that she’s trying to keep intact.

That said, the stuff we see before we get to the kids is pretty great. Thunderdome (which I really thought would play a larger role in the movie than the one scene in which it is featured) makes for an awesome battle sequence. Max and Blaster, inside the metal dome, are tied to elastic bands and told to kill one another by any means necessary, including leaping up and grabbing the weapons placed in various places in the dome. The fight is well-staged and well-acted, but perhaps most importantly, it feels real. Most filmmakers today would use the elastic as an excuse to have Max doing high-flying superhero kicks and kung-fu moves that would be very difficult to believe in this weatherbeaten warrior. Miller, however, has Gibson and Larsson make moves that are impressive and fun to watch, but at the same time, never cross the border into being cartoonish or outlandish.

Aunty Entity is probably the most memorable villain in the franchise, at least at the time this movie came out, but I think that’s largely due to the fact that Tina Turner plays the role. She does a perfectly good job, don’t get me wrong, but if it weren’t such an out-there casting choice, I don’t think she’d overshadow Humungus one bit. Still, her role and the role of Bartertown are both important – they demonstrate that enough time has passed since the apocalypse that people are trying to find alternative societies, different ways of reconstructing civilization. These are important things, things that demonstrate that the world is moving on, and in many ways they set up the landscape for the fourth film. Of course, I don’t think Miller expected that it would be 30 years before he and Max returned to the outback.

Mad Max Fury RoadMad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Director:
George Miller
Writers: George Miller, Brendan McCarthy & Nico Lathouris
Cast: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Zoe Kravitz, Rosie Huntington-Whitley, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee, Courtney Eaton

Thoughts: After many years of false starts, this year Miller finally brought Max back to screens, this time with Tom Hardy taking over the role. It’s not really clear if this is intended to be a sequel or a total reboot of the franchise, but honestly, it doesn’t matter much. Like I said before, each of the films stands alone very easily.

This time out, Max is captured by a wild group of “War Boys” who discover he has type O blood. As a universal donor, he’s quickly hooked up and used to replenish the blood of one of their own, Nux (Nicholas Hoult), as all of the War Boys suffer from radiation sickness. Their Citadel is run by a brutal man called Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played Toecutter way back in Mad Max and is now returning to the franchise). Immortan Joe not only hoards water and supplies, giving his people just enough to keep them alive, but also maintains a brothel full of beautiful wives. One of his lieutenants, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) sets out on what appears to be a standard supply run, but it is soon discovered that she’s really trying to help the wives escape. Nux takes Max, his “blood bank,” with him as part of the party that’s set to recapture Furiosa, but Max frees himself, helps wreck Nux’s car, and the two of them wind up throwing in their lot with the women in their attempt to escape Joe and get to a “green place.”

This movie is getting all kinds of rave reviews, and I have to say, I think they’re well earned. The past three decades have seen Miller’s skill as a director increase by leaps and bounds, even as effects technology has caught up with his vision. Fury Road includes some of the most spectacular high-speed action sequences I’ve ever seen put to film – crashes, fights on the back of (or side of, or underneath) racing vehicles, and a crazy dude on the front of a car playing a flamethrowing guitar. The design aesthetic has increased as well, with the film still very recognizable as being part of the world of the previous two movies, but at the same time, done with a much higher budget that doesn’t feel wasted at all.

All that’s great, but it would be meaningless if it weren’t for the story and the performances. Tom Hardy’s Max isn’t quite the same as Mel Gibson’s. He’s not as hard-edged or crazy-eyed, but the different feel he brings to it works just as well. If there’s any word I would use to describe Hardy’s Max, it’s “tired.” He comes across very much as a man who has seen everything already, he’s sick of it, and he can’t believe he’s got to fight for his life and the lives of a bunch of strangers yet again. Hmm. When you look at it that way, it’s almost undeniably a sequel, isn’t it?

Charlize Theron’s status as a talented actress is already well-established, but she’s also a fearless one. She proved in Monster that she’s not afraid to get dirty for a movie, and here she does it again, shaving her head and making herself into a battle-hardened warrior woman, believable in every respect. Nicholas Hoult is an up-and-comer, doing good action work as the young Beast in the X-Men movies and a nice turn in the zombie romcom Warm Bodies, but here he’s got a totally different thing happening. He’s a crazy creature – all of the War Boys are – but he’s got sadness and a sense of loss as well. He’s like any person raised in a cult-like atmosphere who is shocked when he sees the larger world he’s been missing out on, and he gets that across remarkably well.

Speaking of the world, Miller has gone out of his way this time to prove that this is a world that has “moved on.” Despite the fact that a nuclear war occurred some time between the first two movies, this is the first time that any sort of radioactive fallout has had a significant presence in the movie. The War Boys are all ill – Nux has even named his tumors – and early on we see Max munch on a two-headed lizard. The death of this world isn’t over yet. What’s more, the backstory we get on Furiosa implies that this world was shattered while she was still a child, at least twenty years ago, maybe more. Even if we accept this as a reboot instead of a sequel, this makes Max — who explicitly says at the beginning of the movie that he was a cop pre-apocalypse — a lot older than he looks. (Hardy himself is two years younger than Theron, for what it’s worth.)

At any rate, the fact that this world has moved on is what allows the main theme of the story to come through. In the last two movies, the struggle for resources was at the core of the plot. Here we’ve got a world where enough time has passed that resources – while still scarce – are at least stable. This makes Immortan Joe’s brothel work as a storytelling element. After all, once food is secure, what is the second most imperative instinct of any animal life? Reproduction, of course. Immortan Joe chooses to pursue that instinct in the most brutal, horrific way imaginable, but this is exactly what makes the story compelling. We can understand what the villain wants, even though we’re repelled by how he’s going about getting it, and we immediately buy into Furiosa (this movie’s stealth protagonist) and her quest to save these women and get them someplace else.

This movie is simply spectacular, easily the best film in the franchise, and I can’t wait to see what Miller has planned for the next installment, which Warner Bros has already tentatively approved.

Santa Week Day 2: John Call in Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)

Santa Claus Conquers the MartiansNote: If you’re new to Reel to Reel, I’m more about dissecting and commenting on film than writing a straightforward review. As such, please be warned, the following is full of spoilers.

Director: Nicholas Webster

Writer: Glenville Mareth, based on a story by Paul L. Jacobson

Cast: John Call, Leonard Hicks, Vincent Beck, Bill McCutcheon, Victor Stiles, Donna Conforti, Chris Month, Pia Zadora, Leila Martin, Charles Renn, James Cahill, Ned Wertimer, Doris Rich, Carl Don

Plot: On the planet Mars, a pair of Martian children watch a TV broadcast from Earth featuring Santa Claus (John Call) as he prepares for his yearly rounds. Their father, Kimar (Leonard Hicks) realizes that the children of Mars are restless and unhappy, and turns to the ancient Chochem (Carl Don) for advice. Chochem explains that the Martian children are upset because they don’t have Christmas, so Kimar takes the logical step of invading Earth to kidnap Santa. The incompetent Dropo (Bill McCutcheon) stows away, having never seen Earth before, and the Martians are soon discovered in orbit by the United States government, which scrambles to shoot the spaceship down.

Landing on Earth, the Martians encounter a pair of children, Billy and Betty (Victor Stiles and Donna Conforti), whom they abduct after interrogating them about where to find Santa. One of the Martians, Voldar (Vincent Beck) continues to express his displeasure with the plan, and the human children make his disposition even worse. When they arrive at the North Pole, the children escape the ship, and Kimar sends a robot to catch them, because for some reason Nicholas Webster thought it would be a better use of his funding to spray-paint some cardboard boxes silver than to pay a writer to take a second pass at the script. The robot also fights a guy in a really bad polar bear costume that the child actors fail to convince us is real. Once the robot recaptures the children, he and the Martians get Santa as well, using their previously unmentioned weapon that allows them to freeze time.

On the journey back to Mars, Santa comforts Billy and Betty and begins to win over all the Martians except Voldar, who we know by now is the villain because he has a black mustache. As a rocket from Earth follows the Martians, Voldar discovers that Billy sabotaged the radar screen, and decides to take care of things by shoving Santa and the kids in an airlock. No really, that’s what tries to do. And if it weren’t for Santa using his magic to save them – off-screen – they’d be dead and the audience would be happier. On Mars, Santa is given a large, elaborate machine consisting of a few chutes, buttons, and lights, intended to make his toys for him. As Santa and the kids try to make their peace with their new life of slavery, Dropo puts on one of Santa’s suits and begins dancing around like a lunatic, before being mistaken for the real Santa and kidnapped by Voldar, who sabotages the machine.

Voldar’s “forces” (such as they are) attack Santa and the kids in the toy room, where he is summarily humiliated by being beaten back by children and their playthings. Somehow, this convinces Kimar to take Santa home to Earth and make Dropo the Santa Claus on Mars. Don’t think about it too much, it’ll give you a holiday nosebleed.

Thoughts: Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is, by any reasonable standard, an absolutely terrible movie. The story is absurd. The acting is incompetent. The special effects, make-up and set design look like they were all done by the same seven-year-old child who is desperately attempting to convey his vision of both the North Pole and Mars, all on a budget of approximately four dollars and eleven cents after remembering about it at 2:30 a.m. the night before it was due. And yet, despite that, it’s such a deliciously stupid movie that it has been riffed not only by Mystery Science Theater 3000, but by both of its successor franchises, Cinematic Titanic and RiffTrax. (Yes. I own all three versions.) Anything so bad has to be good.

But goodness, where to begin with the badness? Well… with Dropo, I guess. He’s a stupid character, to be sure, one that flashes around bland slapstick and over-the-top antics that nevertheless manage to be completely underwhelming. But it’s rather hypocritical of the Martians to attack Dropo – at least he’s open in his incompetence. The rest of the crew is just as stupid as he is, but less obvious about it. When Dropo is wearing Santa’s clothing, our main antagonist Volar is too idiotic to tell the difference, even though his skin is still green and the Santa hat is literally dangling from the antenna on Dropo’s permanently affixed Martian helmet. Their kidnapping plan is idiotic on the face of it, and from the moment they enter Earth orbit they make one mistake after another. They have a “radar screen,” but fail to use it early enough to prevent becoming targets. They show themselves to a pair of children in order to find out where Santa Claus lives, even though the answer to that question (it’s the North Pole, guys) was included in the very news broadcast that alerted them to Santa’s existence in the first place. They kidnap those same children so that they can’t tell the authorities what the Martians are planning, even though they do absolutely everything out in the open and in full view of the world, then put the kids in the care of the imminently stupid Dropo, who immediately starts breaking the rules by showing them around the ship and hiding them in a surprisingly spacious radar box. As alien menaces go, these guys rank somewhere below ALF.

Speaking of the radar, that’s the next thing that drives me crazy about this movie, and it’s a flaw in a lot of bad science fiction (which this most certainly is). At assorted points in the movie, the Martians use technology that would make the predicaments in other scenes way easier to resolve if they would only remember that such technology exists. Besides the aforementioned radar screen, which nobody remembers exists until it’s too late to keep the humans from discovering them, we also have a hilariously stupid robot that is never used except to fight a polar bear that makes the one that hangs out at the Coca-Cola store look convincing. Here’s a basic rule, people: if you control a battle robot, you use that robot all the time. And as for the time-freeze gun… why don’t they use that constantly? The situation with the children, the confrontation with Voldar at the end… hell, if I could make somebody freeze I would be waving that gun around on my way to the checkout counter at Walmart.

John Call, our Santa Claus, is probably the best thing about this movie. He’s not bad in the part, but the role is poorly written and he desperately tries to make the most out of the awful material. He sounds like a Santa, he has a dance in his step that feels like a good match for his jokes, which are so bad that even your father would be embarrassed to repeat them to anybody. But he doesn’t save the movie from the depths of mediocrity, and in truth, that’s probably a good thing. If it were even slightly better than it is, it probably wouldn’t have become the classic of cheesy cinema that it now is.

Also, in case you didn’t know, Pia Zadora is in it as one of the Martian kids. It doesn’t get goofier than that.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Freaky Firsts Day 4: Devil’s Pass (2013)

Devils Pass 2013Note: If you’re new to Reel to Reel, I’m more about dissecting and commenting on film than writing a straightforward review. As such, please be warned, the following is full of spoilers.

Director: Renny Harlin

Writer: Vikram Weet

Cast: Holly Goss, Matt Stokoe, Luke Albright, Ryan Hawley, Gemma Atkinson, Richard Reid, Jane Perry, Boris Stepanov, Nikolay Butenin, Nelly Nielsen, Valeriy Fedorovich

Plot: Based on the real-life Dytalov Pass incident, this movie features a film crew venturing into Russia to solve the 50-year-old mystery of a group of lost backpackers. Holly King (Holly Goss) believes the victims fell prey to real and documented symptoms of hypothermia, whereas her film partner Jensen Day (Matt Stokoe) refuses to believe such expert hikers would have died so easily. With their sound operator Denise (Gemma Atkinson) and a pair of climbers (Luke Albright as JP Hauser and Ryan Hawley as Andy Thatcher), the crew trains and heads to Russia…

Then vanish.

Their disappearance becomes international news, and theories as to their disappearance grow as wild as that of the original Dyatlov hikers: magic, aliens, or a thin membrane in the fabric of time and space that leads to another world. Their footage is found (making this one of the few “found footage” movies to take the name of its subgenre quite so literally), and although the Russian government attempts to suppress it, a hacker group steals it and releases it.

Arriving in Russia, Holly’s crew interviews Alya, one of the searchers who found the bodies in 1959, who describes the scene with such lovely terms as “a trail of organs.” The most disturbing part of her description, though, is that the rescuers found 11 bodies, not the nine that have always been reported.

As they march into the mountains, they begin finding unusual phenomenon, such as a trail of enormous footprints made by what look like human feet in far colder temperatures than anyone could stand being barefoot for more than a few minutes. They start to hear things, then find an old weather station with a human tongue. Jensen breaks down, and as Holly tries to comfort him, a pair of creatures run past in the distance, unseen by the crew, but captured on camera.

Arriving at Dyatlov Pass, the crew marks the spots where the bodies were found and Holly describes their deaths for the camera – all dead of hypothermia, but all suffering assorted injuries as well. Exploring the area, Holly and Jensen find a metal door buried in the snow. In the night an avalanche destroys the camp, killing Denise and breaking Andy’s leg. Jensen is convinced that someone set the avalanche on purpose to dispose of them. They think they’re saved when a pair of hikers arrive, but they shoot JP. Forced to leave Andy behind, the others make it into the door.

They follow a long tunnel underground, ending in a lab (Of course it ends in a lab) which has been utterly trashed, although the light bulbs still seem to work. They find photos of the old Philadelphia Experiment, an American teleportation project that went terribly wrong. JP is attacked and consumed by a pair of the creatures – ugly, emaciated, twisted people who contort in weird shapes and seem to blink in and out of existence. They find a tunnel that looks like some sort of hole in time (it actually looks really cool, I can’t think of a better way to describe it), and Jensen speculates it’s where the creatures originated from, that similar portals could be responsible for unexplained phenomenon around the world. Trapped, he convinces Holly to try to use the portal to teleport to safety. They wind up on the side of the mountain, but in 1959, where their bodies are collected by the Russian military and brought down into the lab (along with Holly’s camera). They hang Holly and Jensen’s bodies on hooks below ground, and we see them mutating, becoming two of the creatures that stalk Dyatlov Pass.

Thoughts: A lot of people have an irate, visceral hatred of “found footage” movies, as if there’s nothing good that can be done with the genre. This is pretty short-sighted to me. Sure, there have been tons of crappy found footage movies, films that try to use shaky cameras to cover up bad special effects and cheap budgets, but then you get something like the magnificent Chronicle, and the form pretty much justifies itself.

For the most part, Devil’s Pass is much more entertaining than the average found footage fare. Unlike the bulk of such movies (set in the woods or caves or similarly dark places), this movie is set in a snow-covered mountain range. It gives it a very distinct visual appeal, much clearer and cleaner than most found footage films, and the stark white vista is far less forgiving of cheesy camera stunts. When there are camera tricks – at several moments the picture bounces and glitches – it’s almost always done to signify that the crew is near the otherworldly creatures, even though they’re unaware of it.

The big night scenes, such as the avalanche, are actually really effective, as the slow crumble of the snow down the mountain turns into a wave. Denise’s death is even cool – she slides directly into the camera, which in this movie is literal, her head cracks the lens when she crashes into it. The movie even addresses the usual “why the hell are you still filming this?” question that found footage falls prey to – Holly explicitly says that she wants a record of what happened, no matter what, so that they don’t wind up as another Dyatlov mystery.

It’s by no means perfect, though. The movie definitely falls prey to what TV Tropes refers to as “Awesome McCoolname.” When you hear about characters with monikers like “Jensen Day” and “JP Hauser,” you get pulled out of the movie any time they call each other by name. But Devil’s Pass’s biggest weakness probably comes in with the reveal of the creatures. Although the design is good, they’re heavily CGI, and it looks like Holly and Jensen are trying to fight creatures from a video game. I know that’s a standard complaint to make about an effects movie, but damn it, sometimes there’s simply no other way to explain what you’re looking at on screen. My wife, who had been enjoying the film up to this point, simply said, “And that’s where it lost me.”

It didn’t lose me, not as badly at least. Bad computer graphics aside, I think Devil’s Pass has a lot going for it. It avoids a lot of the tropes that damn bad found footage movies, and at the same time has a fairly clever storyline that pokes a hole into actual history and mixes it with a very healthy formula of science fiction and horror. While it isn’t going to be remembered as one of the all-time greats, and it’s not a movie I picture myself watching over and over again, it’s an enjoyable way to spend 100 minutes and worth taking a little time on.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Blake’s Friday the 13th Marathon

Many, many years ago, in a magical land called 2006, my local Wal-Mart had a sale on the Friday the 13th series. Although I’d seen some of the films before, I never saw all of them, and I took the opportunity to get the films, watch them all (some of them for the first time) and review them. It became an annual tradition. The next year, I recruited some of my friends to join me in a marathon of the Nightmare on Elm Street series, and when we launched our podcast, it became a special Halloween episode every year.

Earlier this evening, I got into a talk online about the merits of the various Friday films and that reminded me of this long-ago review. With Halloween coming up (my second-favorite time of year, after Christmas), I thought it might be fun to dust off that old post and re-present it here. I’ll unearth the other Halloween marathons too, and present them to you in the weeks approaching the big night. So let’s start here, from the long-ago past of 2006, when I reviewed all (at the time) eleven Fridays!

Friday Review Logo

When I was a kid, I didn’t watch scary movies. For one thing, my folks didn’t let me – which in retrospect is probably a good thing in light of reason #2: I would have wet the bed every night for a month after seeing one. I was kind of a skittish kid, and even as my classmates would talk about how cool Jason or Freddy Krueger were, as much as I tried to join in the conversation faking my way through it, I knew that actually watching the scary movies of the 80s would be a really bad move, especially for my bedsheets.

As I got older, I started reading the likes of Stephen King and began to appreciate films like Alien and The Birds. By the time The Sixth Sense rolled along, it had finally dawned on me that I was majorly into horror, and it wasn’t keeping me up at nights. Although I may succumb to the cheap startle in a horror flick like anyone else, by the time the credits roll, the actual sense of danger has evaporated and I’m fine. The real world is frightening enough.

Even though I was into horror, I wasn’t into what I think of as the “slasher” genre. Buckets of blood and piles of gore wouldn’t even elicit a cheap scare out of me, and I avoided the movies handily. Then, a few years ago, my buddy Chase began to teach me how to appreciate the movies not as horror, but as camp. They were goofy, they were cheesy, and they were way over the top… and that’s what you’re supposed to love about them. By the time Freddy Versus Jason rolled around in 2003, I had decided to see it with my friends, but before that I wanted to at least see how the stories had started. I’d already seen the original A Nightmare on Elm Street, but I hadn’t seen any Friday the 13th movies, so the week before the release I rented the first two. They were okay, but very different from what I’d come to expect. I saw Freddy Versus Jason and thought it was brilliant as camp. Eventually, I saw a few more Jason movies, Jason Goes to Hell and Jason X.

As I was preparing the Halloween Party for my blog I discovered the local Wal-Mart had a biiiiiiiiig display of horror movies for only $4.58 (or something like that) a pop. Included in the display were all eight of the old Friday the 13th movies, the ones done before Paramount dropped the property. As I already owned the three movies made by its new home, New Line Cinema, I decided to pick up one or two of the classics at a time. Then, once I completed the collection, I’d do a massive Halloween Party article reviewing not one movie, not two, but all eleven motion pictures featuring Jason Voorhees. Because I’m crazy, that’s why.

So as you read these reviews, keep in mind a few things. First up, this is written through the perspective of someone in his late 20s who has grown an appreciation for both horror and camp, but is well aware of the distinction between the two. Second, this weekend Friday marathon will be my first time watching many of these films. Out of an 11-film series, I’ve only seen #s 1, 2, 11, 9 and 10. Oddly enough, in that order. And finally, these movies have been out for years – decades in some cases. There will be spoilers, especially concerning the first movie which (let’s face it) is the only one in the series that really has a big enough twist to even constitute calling it a spoiler. So without further ado, let’s begin.

friday01Friday the 13th (1980)

The original Friday film was actually really reserved, especially compared to how far the series would go in future installments. Years after a pair of counselors at Camp Crystal Lake are murdered, the owner of the camp decides to reopen, apparently unaware that he is in a horror movie and these things invariably lead to people getting killed. As he brings in a group of teenagers to begin getting the camp ready for the summer – and this is the shocker – people begin getting killed. Particularly the more promiscuous ones, which in fact means virtually all of them, except for sweet little Alice. As Alice watches her friends die gruesome deaths all around her, she’s the one left to face the killer before it’s too late.

Like I said, this movie actually had a genuine surprise at the end, and if you don’t know what it is (or don’t want to know what it is), skip the rest of this paragraph. Actually, skip the whole article and go read my review of the Superman trick-or-treat pail again. Anyway, we’d spent the entire movie watching these kids get butchered by some unseen killer, and we thought Alice was finally safe when she met a nice, sweet little old lady names Mrs. Vorhees. Then Mrs. V begins telling the story of the camp, how a little boy drowned in the lake years ago because a couple of counselors were off being promiscuous in the fashion that gets teenagers in slasher movies killed instead of keeping an eye on the kid. Then Mrs. V goes a little loony, and before we know it, Alice is fighting for her life. Hence the twist: a cross-dressing Anthony Perkins aside, you just don’t expect the killer in a horror movie to be the little old lady.

It’s easy to forget, as the later films were focused firmly on making Jason an unstoppable machine, programmed to kill as many people as possible in as graphic a fashion as possible, that the original Friday was a pretty effective suspense flick for its day. It had all the hallmarks – surprising deaths, twists and turns and a killer you didn’t get to see until the very end. More than that, though, there weren’t even any hints of the supernatural killer Jason would turn out to be, except for a brief flash of him popping out of the lake in which he supposedly drowned at the end of the movie, in a scene that very easily could have been written off as a hallucination. The menace in the first movie was human – crazy Mrs. Vorhees, grief-stricken over her son, even muttering dialogue between herself and her boy in a particularly freaky sequence.

The acting was wooden, of course, and the effects don’t hold up at all, but all things considered, it wasn’t a bad little thriller. Which is what makes it so incongruous with the rest of the series. Now we want the big, crazy, over-the-top monster. The first movie doesn’t quite fit anymore.

Friday02Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981)

Buoyed by the success of the film, the next year Paramount studios cranked out the first of what would be an interminable chain of sequels. We open up on Alice, who has apparently grown out her hair because she has nothing better to do while lying around having nightmares, then we get an extended sequence of archival footage from the first movie in case  there was anyone who missed it, which seemed kind of redundant to me as the gap between watching the first movie and the second was only as long as it took to put a frozen pizza in the oven. Plus there was a perfectly good sequence later in the film where one of the new teenagers told the story of the first movie as a campfire tale, which did the job perfectly well without boring the hell out of the people who’d seen the first one. Also, it was kind of stupid as it gave us a good 10 minutes or so of getting reacquainted with our heroine, Alice, before (spoiler for ya) she winds up getting killed by Jason before we even see the opening credits.

After the credits we find out it’s now five years later and a new group of counselors is heading out to the lake, but not to Camp Crystal Lake. To the Camp next door. Because if there’s a psycho killer on the loose, he won’t make the hike or something. Actually, most of the new campers don’t believe the story at all, which makes them feel downright foolish when the first person gets garroted against a tree trunk with a string of barbed wire.

This is Jason’s first time out as the killer (although he didn’t yet have his trademark hockey mask), and he was quite a different character from who he would later become. He still didn’t speak, and he had a burlap sack over his head for most of the film, but he wasn’t the mindless beast we’re used to. He actually had intelligence. He laid traps. He came up with some clever murders that didn’t rely on conveniently placed props or explosive devices. And what’s more, he was human. Strong, yes, and a cold blooded killer, but still not the super-zombie we would all grow to know and love. Still, it’s a step closer, and this is probably where real devotees of the franchise began to fall in love with it.

The ending works fairly well, as the Obligatory Last Teenage Girl pretends to be Jason’s mother and confuses him long enough for them to make their escape. Of course, as we know from the first movie, there’s still room for one more shocker at the end.

Friday03Friday the 13th Part 3 (1982)

The third installment in the franchise took an interesting path – the movie was filmed in 3-D. This was no doubt very cool in the theaters, but just makes it look a little silly on DVD without the benefit of the funky glasses. [2013 Note: Remember, I wrote this in a pre-Avatar universe where there was little to no demand for 3-D movies and I, as a viewer, had not yet grown violently angry about how the technique is overused.] There are tons of shots that clearly serve no other purpose than to take advantage of the gimmick – knives and pitchforks thrust right at the screen, a snake jumping out at you and other such things. There are also a lot of shots like this that probably seemed nonsensical even when it was in 3-D – a totally irrelevant shot of a baseball bat pointing at the screen while some kids are playing in the street, a few stoners shoving a joint at the camera, a yo-yo scene that no doubt got this film serious Academy Award consideration, a crazy old man waving around an eyeball shouting warnings and so forth. On the upside, we did get the funkiest opening credit sequence in the series so far.

The story is exactly what you would expect. The film opens with an extended flashback from the previous film, then we find out it’s the next day (which means it’s no longer Friday the 13th, doesn’t it?) as couple in a general store down the road watch the news reports about the killings. Things don’t turn out too well for them. Next, a group of teenagers decide to go up to “the lake” where a bunch of people have been killed, because teenagers were as stupid in 1982 as many of them are today, and Jason starts slaughtering them. Actually, the teenagers in this series are even stupider than most of the other ones – the girl whose family owns the farmhouse where the teens are staying actually escaped an encounter with Jason two years earlier, but she decided not just to come back anyway, but to bring all of her friends with her. She would most certainly be off my Christmas Card list.

We get a few series milestones in this film – we see Jason acquire his now-trademark hockey mask and machete, we see the beginnings of the strains of humor in the series, and we also introduce, for the first time, the Dork Factor in the character of Shelly, an afro-ed prankster who keeps scaring the hell out of the other characters in a series of pathetic attempts to be liked. I think we’re supposed to sympathize with him, but by the time he starts popping out of the water under the dock, we’re kinda waiting for him to die.

Jason honestly doesn’t come off very well in this movie. Sure, he gets to kill people, but he often comes across as kind of clumsy – even buffoonish. The things the obligatory Last Surviving Teenage Girl does to him, successfully slowing him down just enough, turns him into a monster that Abbott and Costello could have had a ball with. I guess that’s understandable, though – in this installment, Jason is still at least kind of human. He still hasn’t become Superzombie. Not yet.

The story structure as a whole is pretty poor, actually. Early in the film one of the teenagers announces she’s pregnant, after which the filmmakers make the bold choice of completely ignoring that plot point for the rest of the film. Then, after an hour of fake scares and the occasional killing – often off-camera – we get ten minutes of a bloodbath, then the remaining 20 minutes are the surviving teenage girl running around and screaming.

Ah well, when I got into this, I wasn’t expecting Orson Welles or anything.

Friday04Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984)

In perhaps the single most misleadingly-named film outside of The Neverending Story, the filmmakers tried to wrap up the series by killing off Jason far more definitively than they had in previous installments. Clearly, it didn’t take.

This time out, we begin with a montage from the three previous films, framed in the campfire story from Part 2, which actually works pretty well. Then we pick up right at the end of Part 3, as they take Jason’s body to the hospital. (The hospital? Come on, guys.) There, of course, he wakes up and kills a very nice young couple making the mistake of doing the dirty down in the morgue, which now that I think about it, doesn’t really make them all that nice to begin with.

Then our attention shifts to – you guessed it – a group of teenagers trying to have a fun little weekend. (Apparently the second, third and fourth films in this series all take place during a bizarre chronal anomaly which resulted in five or six Friday the 13ths being held one after the other, without any of those pesky Saturdays or Thursdays getting in the way). This time out, one of the teenagers has brought along her little brother Tommy – played by Corey Feldman. The sad thing is, were it not for Goonies, this clearly would have been the high point of his career.

The filmmakers then begin to try to make up for the lack of sex in Part 3 by throwing about ten times more than in the first two films combined. We’ve got twins, we’ve got vintage films, we’ve even got Crispin Glover as one of the teenagers who should have known better than to have sex while Jason was around. (The sad thing is, were it not for Back to the Future, this clearly would have been the high point of his career.)

I’ll give director Joseph Zito credit – this is the film where the deaths in the series really started to get elaborate. They weren’t too over-the-top yet, but Jason was no longer content with simple stab wounds and the odd strangulation. Here we’ve got people slaughtered with corkscrews, killed through movie screens, crushed through shower glass – he goes all out.

Then finally, little Tommy comes up with a plan. He shaves his head and pretends to be baby Jason, confusing the big brute. (Anyone who thinks this sounds suspiciously like how he was defeated in Part 2, there’s a reason for that. It is suspiciously like how he was defeated in Part 2.) Lil’ Tommy then gets Jason in the head with a machete, which apparently is supposed to be more effective than being knifed in the chest with a machete, hung in a noose and getting an axe lodged in his skull, because those didn’t seem to work in the last two films. Then, in a rare burst of common sense for these films, Tommy sees Jason’s hand twitch and, instead of screaming, running away and/or getting slaughtered after the killer appeared to be dead, he just picks up his machete again and goes to town.

So Jason is dead, but Tommy is clearly very disturbed by the whole thing. Still, it’s all over now. Right? Right?

Yeah. Right.

Friday05Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning (1985)

Paramount couldn’t even wait a year before changing its mind on this one. Apparently in this franchise, “final” means “final” in the same way that “dead” means “dead” in a comic book universe, a philosophy that would later be adopted by the makers of the Final Fantasy video game series and the Final Destination franchise.

Jason, who’s busy being dead, gets a break after three films that run right into each other. It’s a few years later and Tommy (now a rugged teenager played by John Shephard) has been institutionalized due to his childhood trauma. He’s sent away to a retreat where he shares his hideous rubber masks with Steve Urkel’s pal Weasel from Family Matters (not a joke, friends, I looked this up). As he tries to acclimate to life at the home, he meets the other teens, each of whom is troubled in his or her own way. One of them, for example, is troubled in that he goes bonkers and hacks up one of the others with an axe. This is widely regarded as a bad thing, as later that day other people start getting hacked up in ways very reminiscent of Jason’s murders at Camp Crystal Lake.

There’s lots of blood, lots of hacking, a truly disturbing eye fetish, and the psycho in the hockey mask returns. We’re all supposed to imagine that this is Jason back from the dead, but frankly, it’s not very convincing. Yeah, he’s tall, but the hockey mask is all wrong and the big, bulky Jason is now built like a skinny little basketball player. In the end Tommy and his friends (and here’s another spoiler warning) manage to kill off Jason by chucking him off the side of a barn onto a conveniently-placed array of spikes. As he dies, his mask falls off and we realize it wasn’t Jason at all, but Roy Burns, one of the docs who investigated the killing of the teenager back in the beginning… who evidently was his son, whose very existence he managed to keep a secret all this time. Okaaaaay, if you say so.

For all its flaws, I do believe in credit where credit is due. This movie comes across like a clear attempt by the studio to escape the crutch of having to kill off Jason in at the end of every movie only to have to bring him back at the beginning of the next one. Switching killers and then implying that the evil had traveled on to someone else at the end wasn’t that bad an idea, and at least was more intelligent than the Halloween franchise’s attempt to divorce the property from Michael Myers in its third installment. But let’s face it, fans of Friday want Jason, and this movie didn’t feature Jason at all. Hey, wait a minute… “didn’t feature Jason at all?” Wasn’t my stated purpose at the beginning of this experiment to review “all of the films featuring Jason Vorhees?” Could I have skipped this one on a technicality? Aw, crap.

Friday06Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986)

Okay, this is where it really started to get ridiculous.

About a decade after the events of A New Beginning (judging by the fact that Tommy is now played by Thom Mathews, who looks like he’s in his 30s, which is a neat trick for someone who just two movies ago was not only 12 years old, but also Corey Feldman), Tommy can’t escape the spectre of Jason. He grabs his friend Allen and… hey, wait a minute. Is that Horshack? Is that freaking Horshack from Welcome Back, Kotter? playing Allen? Okay, this movie automatically gets ten more cool points. Don’t worry, it’ll lose them by the opening credits.

Anyway, Tommy is freaking out about Jason, so he and Allen go to dig up his corpse and cremate him. Tommy freaks out, though, and stabs Jason’s body with a metal pole. This proves to be a really bad idea, when lightning strikes the body and reanimates it. Yes, friends, it’s Superzombie! He’s finally here! As he pulls himself out, Tommy runs away like a little scaredy cat and Jason imitates the opening titles of a James Bond movie.

Tommy runs to the police, who very presciently throw him in jail, where Officer Expository Dialogue reminds him that they changed the name of Crystal Lake to “Forest Green” because they wanted people to forget Jason. Meanwhile a young couple in the woods runs into Jason and the girl utters a phrase that manages to even the movie out on the Cool-Point-O-Meter again, “I’ve seen enough horror movies to know any weirdo wearing a mask is never friendly.” Ironic, self-referential humor always appeals to me.

Back at Camp “Forest Green,” yet another group of teenagers is setting up to be counselors for the summer. Also, for the first time, we see some actual campers at camp. Go figure. As the teens get the camp set up, we visit a bunch of comical would-be-warriors playing paintball and taking it way too seriously, which is what makes it kind of cathartic when they start to die.

The survivalists are actually just the start of showing off the crapitude that would be Jason Lives. The filmmakers in this go-round really tried to go for the laughs in addition to the killing. There’s not anything wrong with this, in and of itself. There’s a proud tradition of horror/comedies, from the good ol’ days of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein all the way up to modern classics like Army of Darkness. The thing is, a good horror/comedy must be both frightening and funny. Jason Lives was neither.

The only really good thing I can say about this movie is that at least the filmmakers had the good taste not to blow their wad and have Jason kill off an entire cabin full of children when he burst in on one. That, I think, would have gone too far. Yeah, we want to see Jason killing, but killing punk teenagers. Fact is, in movies like this you almost kinda root for the killer, you want to see how he’ll up the ante. Going after the kids would have been too much.

Tommy again manages to beat Jason, this time following the completely out-of-the-blue announcement that “the only way to stop Jason now is to bring him back to where it began… Camp Crystal Lake.” And how does Tommy know this exactly? Apparently that home for troubled teens he stayed in during the last movie had an extensive course study on occult manifestations and how to exterminate them. That or the screenwriter was a hack, take your pick. Anyway, Tommy finds a convenient boulder which he wraps around a chain and puts in a canoe. Yeah, I know. Then, in a fairly unconvincing fight piece, he loops the chain around Jason’s neck and drops him in the lake. His girlfriend then jumps in to hit Jason in the head with a boat motor, and everybody lives happily ever after, except for anyone who actually paid money to see this. Horshack and self-referential humor aside, we’ve hit the real low point in this series.

Friday07Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (1988)

C’mon, did anyone really think a little thing like being stuck on the bottom of a lake was going to stop Jason? Part VII opens up with another montage sequence of scenes from the previous films, all of which basically make one point that everyone seeing the movie already knows: Jason is a bad ass. Oh, and he’s stuck at the bottom of the lake. Jason is a bad-ass stuck at the bottom of the lake.

The movie opens with a little girl who runs out into a boat on the lake and somehow kills her father. Seems she’s got some telekinetic powers, those funky things. Years later, as (wait for it) a teenager, she comes back, lamenting her father’s death, and winds up accidentally freeing Jason from his watery prison. Soon, a bunch of teenagers up there for a birthday party start getting killed.

This is actually a vast improvement over Jason Lives. They filmmakers mostly abandoned the idiotic slapstick that killed the previous movie, and Tina – while coming across as a “Carrie Lite,” does make for an interesting adversary. Terry Kieser (the “late Bernie” himself) does a suitably despicable turn as a self-important doctor hoping to study her condition, with no thought for what havoc his little experiment may cause. This is also the first appearance of Kane Hodder, who would play Jason three more times and who many fans consider the definitive performer. He’s good – big, imposing, frightening, and the makeup and costuming has improved a lot as well. Chunks of flesh have fallen off, you can see spine and ribcage, and he really looks menacing for the first time.

Is it a great movie? No. But it’s better than the series had been since its earliest installments, and a well-needed jolt of what makes the monster so much fun.

Friday08Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (1989)

It’s time to travel! With the Crystal Lake region done to death, for their final Friday, Paramount Pictures put Jason out to sea and then on to the mean streets of New York City. The film begins with a pair of rambunctious teens spending the evening on a yacht on Crystal Lake. (Apparently Crystal Lake is connected to a river. This was news to me.) While they’re having their fun, their anchor drags a submerged power cable into Jason’s body, jolting him back to life. The moral of the story? Once you’ve finally got Jason dead, put whatever’s left in a rubber box, for God’s sake. Jason thanks the teens who resurrected him in his own inimitable style, and then the story takes off.

The next day we see a group of high school graduates taking a cruise for their senior trip – a cruise to New York. You know, when I think of great cruise destinations, I think: the Caribbean, Cancun, New York. But that’s where they’re going, especially our heroine du jour, Rennie, who is terrified of the water. Would that this were the only thing to be terrified about. Jason has stowed away aboard the ship, and the killing begins.

For a movie ostensibly about Jason “taking Manhattan,” it sure takes long enough to get there. The first hour of the film takes place on the ship, with Jason killing people in various clever and distinctively nautical ways. Finally, the survivors make it to New York, and Jason is hot on their heels, ready to begin the killing there. All the time, Rennie keeps having flashes of Jason attacking her even when he’s busy elsewhere.

I was actually surprised by this movie. Based solely on the title, I was braced for another Jason Lives level of camp and crap. The first hour, though, is actually pretty good. I’ve got a penchant for “claustrophobic” horror movies, where the protagonists are forced to fight for their lives in an enclosed space with little or no hope of escape, and the shipboard battles fit that bill very well. Once we make it to New York, it’s not as strong. It’s still basically the same few characters running around with Jason, occasionally drawing in a gang banger or bystander to take a hit and allow someone else to live another scene or two. The filmmakers totally squandered the potential of having a killing machine like Jason in a major metropolitan area – so much could have been done with that premise, but except for a brief chase on a subway car, it isn’t even touched on. I’m also not a fan of the new powers Jason started whipping out in this movie. Superzombie is one thing, but a psychic, teleporting superzombie? That’s a bit much. Jason works best as the unstoppable killing machine/mama’s boy. Let’s leave the psychic stuff for the Tinas of this series, shall we? They also worked in some unnecessary (and out of character) humor bits, like Jason scaring away a group of gang-bangers by taking off his mask and revealing his face, allowing them to escape. Um… since when does Jason actually care about scaring people? He just wants ‘em dead. For that matter, letting them escape is pretty preposterous too.

After this film, Paramount apparently gave up on the property, resulting in a four-year gap before the next movie, the longest at the time. Then New Line Cinema bought the license, but apparently not the trademark, because none of Jason’s subsequent appearances have appeared under the Friday the 13th moniker. In fact, the next time we saw Jason was in…

Friday09Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (1993)

Why New Line would resurrect the franchise just to (pretend to) finish it off is beyond me. Why they made their first venture into this series such a bad one is even more perplexing. The DVD I have features both the “R-rated” and “Unrated” versions of the film. I went with the unrated version for this review, assuming there’s nothing in the whopping three minutes of extra footage that would be too much for my fragile little mind.

The last time we saw Jason, he’d been wiped out by a wave of toxic waste beneath the streets of Manhattan. This time, the filmmakers (including Friday creator Sean S. Cunningham, who came back for this “final” installment) didn’t even go through the pretense of showing how this film relates to the previous one. Jason pops up at the very beginning, hale and hearty, chasing a girl in a towel through the woods. Oh, but she’s not just any girl in a towel – she’s an FBI agent. After several movies of trying to pretend Jason didn’t even exist, it seems the authorities have finally wised up. The girl is bait for a sting operation that involves lots of guns and at least one explosive charge. Jason blows up. Jason blows up good. We’ve got body parts strewn about, a head flying through the air and a still-beating heart lying on the ground. And that’s before the credits.

As the coroner examines Jason’s remains, he sees the still-beating heart and – because this is what coroners do with still-beating hearts – eats it. Then he goes on a killing spree of his own. Flash to a TV interview with a big-name bounty hunter, Creighton Duke, who claims that Jason has the power to change bodies the way normal people can change clothes, and only he knows how to defeat him. Back in Crystal Lake, he approaches a waitress at a local diner, saying that only she and her daughter can stop Jason once and for all, and if you don’t know where this is going yet, you haven’t watched enough horror movies.

What with one thing or another, we find out the waitress’s daughter, Jessica, is dating the TV host, Robert, and has a child of her own with a local boy (Steven) that she’s estranged from. The waitress is killed, Steven is thrown in jail and he meets Duke. After a nicely sadistic finger-breaking sequence, Duke explains what anyone who’s ever seen a horror flick should have been able to figure out for themselves – through some convoluted twist, the waitress was Jason’s long-lost sister, making Jessica and her child his last two blood relatives, which means they’re the only two people who can either kill him once and for all or bring him back to his own body.

Steven escapes from jail and hightails it to the Voorhees house, where he finds a book that one of the prop guys stole from the set of Army of Darkness but which otherwise serves absolutely no purpose. He also overhears Robert on the phone laughing over the fact that he swiped the waitress’s body and stowed it away here for the sake of ratings. It’s his last boast, however, as Jason’s previous host then takes his body, and continues the carnage.

Eventually, Jessica and Duke wind up at the Voorhees house, where he tosses her a switchblade which then mysteriously transforms into a… um… magic dagger. And he tells her that only she can send Jason to Hell, tonight, “for all time.” He also informs her that she can’t trust anyone, because Jason could be in anybody’s body at this point. This turns out to be true, but only because Jason has suddenly, spontaneously developed the power of speech. Sure, just because none of his other hosts could talk, why should it be a stretch that this one suddenly can?

Jason jumps into the dead waitress’s body, which then turns into his, and Duke gets killed as Jessica wastes precious seconds trying to get the dagger out from under a dresser because, apparently, she doesn’t want to bend over the extra three millimeters it would take to reach it. Steven and Jason have a big final battle scene while Jessica (again) tries to grab the dagger. She finally stabs him with it, which results in a peachy little lightshow and a bunch of hands popping up from under the ground to drag him off to hell. A couple of the hands also grab Steven and try to pull him down. Jessica winds up saving him, but she takes a really long time to decide to do it, considering that he’s the father of her child and has saved her life about a billion times during this movie.

The movie, as a whole, is full of plot holes, terribly convoluted and utterly out of synch with the rest of the franchise. It does, however, get points for the single coolest shot in the entire series at the very end. New Line took advantage of its new property to give fans something they’d been craving for a decade – as Jason’s mask lies in the dirt, one last hand pops up to drag it down with the rest of him… a hand with long, sharp knives on the fingers. That’s right, fans wanted to see Jason take on Freddy Krueger of A Nightmare on Elm Street fame, and now that New Line owned both properties, was it going to happen?

Yes. But not for another decade. At any rate, the only way this could be considered “The Final Friday” is if we assume future installments did away with the crutch of trying to place the events on Friday the 13th and decided they could happen at any old time. Still, it would take a good eight years before Jason would grace the screen again.

Friday10Jason X (2001)

After eight years, New Line decided “to Hell with this final stuff (pun intended), let’s bring him back. But this time… let’s make it a sci-fi movie!” So in the near future, Jason has been captured (how did he get out of Hell?) and is awaiting cryogenic suspension at the Crystal Lake Research Facility. One of the bigwigs has decided he doesn’t want Jason frozen, though, he wants him “soft” so they can continue to study his amazing regenerative powers. Which may well be the stupidest decision in the history of the planet. Jason, of course, cuts loose and begins a killing spree that doesn’t end until he and Rowan (the hottest female scientist) are frozen in cryogenic sleep.

Over 400 years later, they’re found by a group of scavengers (all of whom, coincidentally, appear to be teenagers) sifting through the ruins of a dead planet Earth. They find the two frozen bodies and bring them to space, anticipating that Rowan can be revived. She’s reanimated and brought around with the help of handy nanobots, and begin to study Jason’s corpse. Unfortunately, the scientists don’t seem to comprehend that with Jason, you don’t need nanobots to wake him up, you just need him to thaw out. And yes, the killing begins anew.

Jason slaughters lots of people really good, including the ship’s pilot, which in turn causes the spaceship to crash into the Solaris station instead of docking with it, as was the plan. The entire space station blows up, pretty much ensuring that Jason breaks his record for body count with this one. As the survivors flee, the professor who saw so much profit potential in Jason utters what has to be one of the dumbest things ever said in this franchise, “Guys, it’s okay! He just wanted his machete back!” Okay, yeah, they were going for the funny there, but still.

The survivors try to escape, and one of them finds love with his android (aaaaaaaw). Then he upgrades the android to turn her into a fighting machine, giving us the closest we’ll probably ever get to a Jason Versus Ripley battle scene. She blows him all to smithereens, but happens to knock his body right into the medical hold where all those helpful little nanobots are. So while the others wait for a rescue and prepare to blow up part of the ship so the rest of it will stay in one piece long enough, the shipboard computer (showing the sort of poor judgment that has given shipboard computers a bad name since 2001) rebuilds ol’ Jason. He’s not just Superzombie anymore. Now he’s Cyber-Superzombie! Sadly, his snazzy new duds don’t make him any more agreeable, and he keeps a-comin’. A few more people die, although remarkably, none actually are killed directly by Uberjason (one blows himself up, one dies in explosive decompression and the last one rides Jason into burning up in the atmostphere). Jason falls to the surface of “Earth 2,” and whatever’s left of him just happens to touch down on the bottom of a lake… beside which we have a couple of teenagers out camping. This is supposed to be poetic, I suppose. Anyway, the few survivors seem to have a little happily ever after potential, so good for them. As far as Jason, hopefully this little glimpse of the future was the last, because it just didn’t work. If it had been done right, this movie could have been another Alien. Instead, it was another Alien: Resurrection.

Friday11Freddy Versus Jason (2003)

If you’re wondering how Jason got out of Hell after part nine, this film would seem to be your answer. More importantly, it gave horror geeks something they’ve wanted for nearly 20 years – a face-off between the two most popular slasher film stars of all time. Ten years after the teaser at the end of Jason Goes to Hell, we open up with the story of Freddy Krueger, a child killer who was burnt alive by a mob of vengeance-seeking parents. Freddy’s demonic spirit couldn’t be quieted, though, and he gained the power to attack children and teenagers (always with the teenagers) in their dreams. Thing is, Freddy only has power over your dreams if you’re afraid of him, and the parents of his little town, Springwood, are drugging their kids to suppress their dreams and make them forget Freddy ever existed. Down in Hell, Freddy finds Jason Voorhees, and sends him back to the surface to wreak a little havoc, bring back the fear, and let him cut loose again.

Jason heads straight for the house where Freddy’s most infamous killings took place, and where there just happens to be a new teenage girl, Lori. Lori is depressed because her boyfriend, Will, up and moved away without as much as a goodbye, so her friends bring over a couple of guys to cheer her up. One of them goes upstairs for a little fun with his girlfriend, which is Jason’s cue to have a little fun of his own. The cops are called and Freddy is the immediate suspect, even if they don’t want to even say his name out loud. Freddy makes a play for one of the other teens, but he isn’t strong enough, so he give a brief soliloquy about letting Jason have some fun. After 10 movies with a bad guy who doesn’t even so much as grunt, it’s a little disconcerting to suddenly have a baddie who yammers on for hours on end. Of course, that’s one of the things that gives these two such distinct personalities.

Turns out, though, Will didn’t just run off from Lori, he was placed in a mental institution because Freddy was too strong in his mind. When he sees Lori’s house on the news as the scene of an attack, he and his friend Mark break out and run to the rescue. Back at school, the class nerd expresses his concern for Lori and a guy who apparently was cloned from Jason Mewes starts handing out flyers for a party. Will and Mark pop up with Freddy’s story on their lips and people start getting more and more terrified, which of course is just what Freddy wanted. Mark figures out that the institution was a place to quarantine everyone who had contact with Freddy, like he did when his brother, Scut Farkus, “committed suicide.” Fortunately, even after four years in a mental institution, he’s still got his van (which he apparently got when he was 14), and Will sets off to find the girls at Jason Mewes’ party, which happens to be in the middle of a cornfield.

One of Lori’s friends wanders off on her own and winds up getting drawn into Freddy’s Dreamworld boiler room, where he’s at his strongest. Before he can take her out, though, Jason kills her in the real world, denying Freddy his kill, which he doesn’t take well at all. Jason crashes the rave and some enterprising Horatio Sanz wannabe (I swear, when they decided to cobble together the two leads from previous movies, they just gave up on having any original characters in this movie) sets him on fire. In a dry cornfield. You know, it’s actually a mercy he was killed off before he graduated high school and entered the work force.

The kids escape and Freddy starts killing people himself. Meanwhile, the only cop in town whose head isn’t up his ass recognizes the similarities between the new killings and the Jason Voorhees legend. He meets up with the teenagers and they put everything together in a painful sequence of expository dialogue, culminating in them heading back to Will’s institution for more of the dream-suppressing drug. Freddy and Jason both show up to cause terror, and somehow along the way the kids decide that Jason is the lesser of two evils. They get him drugged up and haul him back to Crystal Lake, where he’ll have “home field advantage” over Freddy. While they’re doing this, Freddy and Jason face off in the Dreamworld.

The mandate must have been to have them battle on both of their home fields, because the kids manage to yank Freddy out of Dreamworld to do battle at Camp Crystal Lake, which has apparently been rebuilt and abandoned again since Jason Goes to Hell. As usual, both of them prove to be imminently distractable, which gives the remaining kids just enough time to set up a firetrap on the dock, which Jason really should have been ready for since Tommy Jarvis nailed him with the same thing in Jason Lives.

The final battle sequence is actually pretty satisfying. It’s a bit over-reliant on a highly convenient construction site there at the camp, but Freddy and Jason each get their licks in and there’s a lot of blood to go around. You’ve also got to give the producers credit for actually having the guts to show a winner. (Sorry, Freddy fans, but when one of the characters ends the movie with a head attached to his neck and the other one doesn’t, he can wink all he wants, but he’s still lost.)

So there you have it, sports fans. All 11 Jason Voorhees films, viewed and reviewed in a 48-hour stretch, because I clearly have lost my mind. What’s even crazier – I enjoyed it. Even the really bad ones. I’ve seen ‘em all now. The worst of the bunch? Easily Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives. The best? I’m gonna call that a toss-up between Friday the 13th Part 3 (yeah, I know I was kind of down on it in the review, but this is the film where Jason as we know him really began to take shape) and Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood. The most fun? Freddy Versus Jason, because the geek in me will always give it up for a great crossover. Is this the end of Jason? Probably not – reports are that there’s a Freddy Versus Jason 2 in the works, possibly bringing in a character from a third horror franchise (God, I’d love to see Ash take on those two), and there’s supposedly a new Friday solo film in talks as well.

As for me, I think I need to cleanse myself – go watch some Looney Tunes or something to wash all the blood out of my system. But if you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed whipping it up, let me know. There are plenty of other horror franchises out there. Maybe in next year’s Halloween Party, it’ll be Freddy’s turn.

[And it was. But here, just for the sake of completion, is the review I wrote of the Friday remake in 2009.]

Friday 2009Friday the 13th (2009)

One of the many wonderful things about Erin is that she not only tolerates the kind of movies I watch, she makes me promise to wait for her to watch them. So today, she and I went out to catch the remake of the 80s horror staple Friday the 13th. If you may recall, a while back I actually reviewed all of the previous films in the franchise, so you can consider this a sort of addendum to that review series.

This film, like producer Michael Bay‘s remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, is sort of an updating of the horror legend. The film begins some 20 years after the death of Pamela Voorhees, a mother who murdered a slew of counselors at Camp Crystal Lake whom she believed caused her son Jason’s death. (This, of course, was the plot of the first movie.) In the here and now, a group of teenagers (it’s always a group of teenagers) comes up to the lake in the hopes of finding a large crop of wild pot purported to grow here, quickly allowing the movie to cast aspersions on all three of the vices that get kids killed in these movies — sex, drugs, and alcohol. Six weeks later, the brother of one of the teens goes to the camp to search for her, at the same time as a second group of oversexed, alcoholic, pothead kids rolls up to spend a weekend away from it all.

“Away,” unfortunately for them, means “right in Jason’s backyard.”

There’s actually a lot of good in this movie. The plot isn’t just a carbon copy of any of the previous films, although the film goes out of its way to include all the tropes that made them popular. The brother, played by the kid from Supernatural whose name I can’t spell and am too lazy to look up, is a stronger male lead than most of the heroes of the franchise, and we get two fairly well-rounded female characters as well. The rest of the characters are all painful stereotypes, including the slutty blond, the jackass boyfriend and the black guy who feigns offense at unintended racial stereotypes. Seen it.

Jason himself is quite a departure from previous incarnations of the character. This is a much smarter Jason. He doesn’t just march through the film mindlessly killing everyone with whatever he has at hand. This is a Jason who thinks. Who sets traps. Who uses a light switch. He’s got a brain. As a result, he’s nearly an entirely different character.

In the end, actually, that’s the main drawback for the film. Jason is almost a different character, and the film is almost a different franchise. It’s not that it’s bad — I mean, it’s not great, but it’s at least as good as at least half of the old films. But it’s not really the same, and it’s supposed to be. It’s the Coke Zero of the franchise. You can tell it’s supposed to be the same, and it’s not bad, but it still tastes different no matter what the commercials tell you.

Fun with Riffing

RiffTrax Starship TroopersOnce upon a time, there was a thing called the “Cable Ace Awards.” It was basically the Emmys for cable TV. They stopped giving them out about the same time HBO started winning all of the real Emmys, at which point they realized there was no longer any reason for the Ace Awards to exist, showing the sort of self-awareness the MPAA  can only dream of. As far as I’m concerned, there’s only one lasting contribution the Ace Awards made to modern society: they’re responsible for my introduction to Mystery Science Theater 3000. One year, whichever network was broadcasting the awards showed a bunch of the nominated shows over a weekend, including an episode of MST3K. As my parents’ cable provider did not, at that time, carry Comedy Central, I’d never seen an episode before. I stumbled upon the image of a guy and two robots in a darkened theater cracking jokes about a terrible 50s-era monster movie, the sort that local TV channels still showed all weekend even then. I was instantly mesmerized, but it would be about two years before our local cable got Comedy Central and I was given my real entryway into becoming a hardcore MSTie for life.

MST3K went away many years ago, of course, but it has its spiritual successors, my favorite of which is RiffTrax. The RiffTrax crew consists of Michael J. Nelson, Bill Corbett, and Kevin Murphy – essentially the second cast of MST3K. They’re doing the same job as before, making fun of movies, but now they do it through video on demand you can download from their website or buy on DVD, MP3 commentary riffs for blockbuster movies that you can synch and watch on your own, and a few times a year, live riffs of movies they perform in front of an audience and broadcast to movie theaters across America. Last night, I went to the first RiffTrax Live event I’ve had the chance to attend – a Kickstarter-fueled riffing of director Paul Verhoven’s laughably bad sci-fi “satire” Starship Troopers. The riff was great, picking apart the movie mercilessly. Even several cast members, including Casper Van Dien, Clancy Brown, Jake Busey, and Neil Patrick Harris (who has joined Mike Nelson for riffs in the past) spread the word about the riffing, none of which particularly spared them from the crew’s jokes… although it should be noted that Denise Richards undoubtedly got the worst of their jabs, and she didn’t seem to have anything to do with promoting the riffing.

I’m not here to sell you on the riff, though – you can go to their website and download any of their riffs if you need convincing. What I loved about this, more than anything else, was the actual experience of watching the film. I went with my friends Kenny, Daniel and Lauren, all of whom have gone to RiffTrax Live shows before, and therefore knew a bit more about what to expect than I did. As we sat down, the screen rolled with what appeared to be the usual pre-movie spiel you get in any multiplex in America… but soon, the resounding laughter would make it clear even to the blind that this wasn’t just your ordinary stuff. Instead, it was RiffTrax-generated jokes. Anagrams that poked fun at recent summer blockbusters, “Movie Mistakes” gags that invariably turned into jokes about Casper Van Dien’s post-Troopers career, and so on. With each change of the scene there’d be quiet, then laughter.

In-between the new screens, though, the atmosphere was nothing like a usual movie theater, where disinterested strangers sit around chomping down their popcorn at best or yammering on their phone at worst. Instead, it was a sort of carnival atmosphere, full of people who came not just to watch a movie, but to have a good time. People roamed around, talking, chatting to strangers. There was a sort of unspoken promise that the general volume level would drop to read the preshow cards (even though there was no technical reason for it to do so), and a bizarre feeling of community. It was like everybody in the room was in on a joke that we knew the people wandering in and out of whatever Tyler Perry joint was soiling the adjacent theater would never understand.

Once the movie started, the conversation stopped, but not the noise. People laughed, people cheered, people applauded their favorite riffs. I don’t usually clap even in the best of movies, because it’s not like the actors can hear me. But when Mike Nelson dropped a fairly obvious gag at the expense of AT&T, it hit a sort of universal chord that made the theater almost explode with energy, and I found myself pounding my hands together along with everybody else.

Because I wasn’t just “at the movies,” like I am any other time, even when the best movies are on the screen. Years ago, the MST3K commercials included a line that was something like, “It’s like watching cheesy movies with three of your funniest friends.” Last night, I felt like I was in an entire theater full of friends who wanted to have a good time together.

They’re going to rebroadcast the Starship Troopers show on September 12, again in theaters across America. Then they’re coming back on October 24 to riff the granddaddy of the modern zombie film, Night of the Living Dead. I can’t wait to see that one too, and I intend to go to as many of these as I can from now on. In a world where even movie theaters are so often dens of misery, it’s great to know that for just a little while, you can stop in for some pure, untarnished fun.

2 in 1 Showcase at the Movies: Monster-Sized Double Feature

showcase logo full black2For those of you who listen to the podcasts, I reviewed a pair of movies in this week’s episode of my show. If you feel like listening to me ramble a bit about Pacific Rim and Monsters University, here’s a link!

(If you dig comic books, I also briefly talk about the new issues of Astro City and Quantum and Woody.)
2 in 1 Showcase At the Movies #36: Monster-Sized Double Feature

Superman Week Day 5: Henry Cavill in Man of Steel (2013)

Man of Steel

WARNING: Spoilers begin very soon in the plot recap in this article. If you haven’t seen Man of Steel yet and don’t want to be spoiled, READ NO FARTHER.

Director: Zack Snyder

Writers: David S. Goyer & Christopher Nolan

Cast: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Diane Lane, Russell Crowe, Antje Traue, Harry Lennix, Richard Schiff, Christopher Meloni, Kevin Costner, Laurence Fishburne, Ayelet Zurer, Michael Kelly, Rebecca Bueller

Plot: The planet Krypton is embroiled in a civil war. Jor-El (Russell Crowe), leader of their scientific community, believes the planet to be doomed, but the ruling caste refuses to believe him. One person who does believe him is General Zod (Michael Shannon). Zod stages a violent coup, during which Jor-El steals the Kryptonian Codex, an artifact that carries in it the pre-determined genetic code for all Kryptonians. He and his wife Lara (Ayelet Zurer) have conceived a child in secret, Krypton’s first natural birth in centuries. Hiding the Codex with the baby Kal-El, Jor-El sends him into space to the planet Earth, a distant world where Krypton sent scouting parties eons ago. Zod kills Jor-El, but is captured. He and his followers are sentenced to an orbital phantom stasis, which allows them to escape soon afterwards, when Krypton is destroyed.

Flashing forward, we see an adult Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) working on an Alaskan fishing boat until an oil rig disaster forces him to reveal his incredible strength and resistance to injury. This is not the first time it’s happened – the wandering Clark has been roaming for some time ever since leaving his mother Martha (Diane Lane) back in Smallville, Kansas. Clark makes his way to an arctic research station, where he has heard rumors of an alien spaceship deep beneath the ice. There, he encounters Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams). Saving Lois from the Kryptonian spaceship’s built-in defenses, he leaves her safe and takes the ship elsewhere. Using a key he’s had with him since childhood, he activates the ship and a hologram of Jor-El, who tells him the history of the planet Krypton and begins teaching him to use his powers for a greater purpose, one that seems to echo the wishes of the man who raised him, Jonathan Kent (Kevin Coster). Through a series of flashbacks throughout the film, we see young Clark trying to deal with his enhanced senses and using his gifts to help people. Jonathan has always been afraid, though, knowing that Clark is an alien, that people would not accept him. He impresses on his son that he will – one way or the other – change the world when he is revealed, but the time for that reveal hasn’t come yet. Jonathan ultimately dies in a tornado rather than allow Clark to save him and show his powers.

Lois tracks down the activities of her savior, eventually finding the home of Martha Kent in Smallville. She meets with Clark again and the two strike up a friendship, with her deciding to bury her intended story about him as she returns to the Daily Planet. The point is quickly overshadowed when Zod’s ship appears in the skies above Earth. It announces, in a broadcast translated into every Earthly language, that they are harboring Kal-El of Krypton somewhere on the planet, and promises to bring down great suffering if they do not turn him over. After some soul-searching, Kal-El gives himself up to the military, who turn him over to Zods’ lieutenant, Faora (Antje Traue). Faora insists that Lois Lane come with them as well.

On Zod’s ship, Lois activates the recording of Jor-El, who guides her in an escape attempt while Kal-El finds the truth about Zod’s plan: he wants to find the Codex stolen by Jor-El and use it to transform Earth into a new Krypton, a process which would necessitate the extinction of the human race. Kal-El escapes and saves Lois, but not before the Kryptonians manage to read both of their memories, revealing that the Codex has been imprinted the very cells of Kal-El’s body. Faora leads a Kryptonian excursion to Kal-El’s home in Smallville. As Kal-El and his brethren go to war in Kansas, the American military initially targets them both, but Col. Nathan Hardy (Christopher Meloni) soon comes to realize that Kal-El is not an enemy.

The Kryptonian warship splits into two, using “world engine” technology to sandwich the planet and begin the terraforming process, beginning with Metropolis. Kal-El, now being called “Superman” by the soldiers, provides the military with the ship that brought him to Earth, explaining that it uses the same sort of technology that powers the engine, and that crashing it into the Kryptonian ship will rip open the portal and toss them back into the Phantom Zone, provided he can destroy the engine on the other side of the globe first. As he battles his way to the engine, in Metropolis, Hardy’s army pitches a desperate battle against the Kryptonians. Both Superman and Hardy succeed, but at the cost of Hardy’s life. Returning to Metropolis in time to save Lois from falling to her death, Superman realizes one Kryptonian remains: Zod. The two engage in a pitched battle, Zod blaming Superman for destroying Krypton a second time. Although Superman does his best to minimize the destruction and save the humans, when Zod discovers how to activate his heat vision, Superman is left with no choice but to kill the General. Realizing what he’s done, the Man of Steel screams in agony and collapses in Lois’s arms.

Some time later, Superman again shuts down military efforts to track him, promising he’s on their side, but won’t stand for being watched. Returning home to Martha, Clark tells his mother his decision: to use his powers for the betterment of mankind, and to do so, to take a job where he can monitor danger and where no one will question him for running off at a moment’s notice: that of a reporter. In Metropolis, he takes a tour of the newspaper where he’s been hired as a stringer, culminating with “meeting” Lois Lane. With a sly, knowing grin, she shakes his hand and says, “Welcome to the Planet.”

Thoughts: It’s been several days, as I write this, since I saw Man of Steel, and my brain is still processing a lot of it. The reaction, from comic book fans, comic book professionals, and the general public has been remarkably mixed, with some people loving the changes to the mythos and others who hated them. I’m not here to keep you in suspense, friends: I absolutely loved the movie.

Not every minute of it, mind you. There were some slow moments, particularly in the middle, and a few times when I thought things didn’t quite feel right, but most of those were overshadowed by the things I did like. Christopher Nolan, who directed the Dark Knight trilogy, took the reigns as a producer for this film, with the directing chores going to Watchmen and 300 director Zack Snyder. The story was by Nolan and screenwriter David Goyer, who also worked on the Batman movies. The resultant film has a tone and emotional impact that’s similar to Nolan’s Batman with a visual style that’s the best parts of what Snyder brought to his other movies, but without some of the over-the-top elements (such as his frequent use of slow motion) that can sometimes make those films a little hokey.

Unlike any other version of Superman we’ve discussed this week (or, for that matter, any other version I’ve ever seen on film) this film really plays up the alien “first contact” aspect of the character. Initially, this made me nervous, as I prefer my Superman to be Clark Kent in tights and not an alien who pretends to be human. Those fears melted away pretty quickly, though. Jor-El is a much bigger presence in this movie than he’s been in any of the other versions, and Krypton plays an enormous role in the story, but at the core we still have the son of Jonathan and Martha Kent trying to solve the mystery of his own life and, once that puzzle is cracked, trying to learn his place in the world. Like Batman Begins did for that franchise, Man of Steel ends its story much earlier in the character’s personal mythos than we’re used to, with the very beginning of Clark’s life in Metropolis and many of the familiar elements (working as a reporter, donning his trademark glasses) not clicking into place until the final moments. This wouldn’t work, except for the fact that the whole film is about building up to that, about Kal-El and Clark Kent learning how to be Superman. In my mind that’s why all of the movie – including (hell, especially) the drastically shocking ending worked.

I’ll address that particular elephant in the room later, though – it’s important enough to save it for last. Let’s get back to Snyder for a moment. His 300 was a fun movie, full of action and violence, but it was hardly a serious picture. Watchmen, if anything, suffered a bit from remaining too faithful to the source material, much of which comes across as rather ponderous when put on the screen. His first original project, Sucker Punch, was a garbled mess of a film that looked pretty but didn’t have a scrap of logic, development, or coherence to it. Worrying about him taking on the premiere superhero franchise was a fair reaction.

But by giving him a solid story to work with, Snyder did some fantastic work. These are the most intense, brutal, energizing and electrifying action sequences a Superman movie has ever had – the most almost any superhero movie has ever had. The only thing that comes close, to my mind, is the final alien invasion sequence from Joss Whedon’s Avengers (another great superhero movie with an entirely different tone, despite a mild structural similarity to the conclusion of this film). Snyder didn’t only land the action moments, though… the quiet bits in Smallville worked very well, and the scenes of Clark learning how to fly were a joy to watch. They did, however, inspire a small chuckle from me when I thought about how similar they were to bits from Andrew Stanton’s  John Carter, a 2012 sci-fi film that didn’t get nearly the credit it deserved. Carter is one of the characters Superman’s creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, had in mind when they were pulling together the many pieces of the Man of Steel back in the 1930s.

Henry Cavill works very well as a young Clark Kent. The earliest scene with him, chronologically, is the death of Jonathan Kent. There, we see him as a frustrated young man (a late teen or early 20something) still fighting against a father who he feels has repressed him. The pain in his face when Jonathan dies lingers, and informs so much of what the character does later. Looking back on the previous scenes of him saving the men on the oil rig, you can now recognize in him someone who has something to atone for. That pain is amplified exponentially after Zod’s death, and it will be very interesting to see whether the promised sequel (which has already been pushed into production) will follow up on that sort of emotional beat.

Amy Adams as Lois Lane is another fine touch. She’s a great actress in her own right (I am, I admit, a fan), and she brings a strength and courage to the character. She’s not the spitfire that Margot Kidder was, but she’s not a wallflower either. This is a Lois that doesn’t go out of her way to be antagonistic, but she isn’t about to back down from a fight either. What’s more, she’s also the first Lois we’ve seen to actually solve the mystery – she figures out that her Guardian Angel is Clark Kent of Smallville before there’s even a “Superman” identity to look for. It’s a great moment for the character that deviates a bit from the usual pieces of the Superman mythology, but it does so in a way that strengthens Lois’s character without weakening Clark. What’s more, it will also easily allow the filmmakers to sidestep any future questions of how the person closest to both Clark and Superman is fooled by his rather simple disguise.

The entire cast, really, acquits itself well. Russell Crowe and Kevin Coster both feel like good, rational and admirable fathers for Superman. (Whether the fact that both of Superman’s fathers have played Robin Hood was considered during the casting process or not is a question for the ages, but I like to think it brings a little bit of metatextual gravitas to the casting.) Crowe’s Jor-El is a larger presence than the other versions have been, even Marlon Brando’s, but he also feels more like a loving father than those other versions. Even his holographic replica, at the end, sounds like he’s proud of his son.

Costner’s Jonathan Kent dies before he gets to see what Clark does with his power, but the way he dies is just brilliant. Almost every other version of the character has died of a heart attack – believable, sad, but not the character-defining moment we get here. In this version, Jonathan is saving people in traffic from a coming tornado, goes back for the dog, and realizes he’s not going to make it. His son could easily save him, even at this early stage of his development, but Jon refuses to allow it. At this point, Clark’s secret is more important than his own life. The one thing that’s always set Superman apart from the likes of Batman and Spider-Man is that he’s not usually driven by tragedy or survivor’s guilt… sure, he’s the last son of Krypton, but his home planet is one he never knew until he was an adult, it wasn’t formative for him. Jonathan’s death, in this manner, gives him something to atone for. His father – just minutes after Clark denied that he was his father – made a supreme sacrifice on his behalf. From that moment on, we’ve got a Clark Kent trying to be worthy of that sacrifice. It’s powerful as hell.

Michael Shannon was an interesting choice as General Zod. He doesn’t quite have the devilish look of Terrence Stamp, he could almost be a hero in the right circumstances, and he certainly believes himself to be the hero of the story. That’s what makes him compelling – from his way of thinking, he’s doing exactly the right thing. To use a rather overused metaphor, if you knew that the only way to save the human race was to destroy an anthill, would you hesitate to do it? Ants aren’t sentient, of course, so it’s a metaphor that falls apart, but using Zod’s logic, it’s perfectly sound. The best villains are always those that believe themselves to be in the right.

So having danced around it enough, let’s get to the most contentious part of this movie: Superman kills Zod. There’s no question about it here, no way to dress it up like an accident, no way to say that he didn’t know it would be fatal or that maybe Zod really survived. Superman wrapped his arms around Zod’s head, twisted with all his incredible strength, and killed him. And Superman is a character who should never kill.

And that is why it worked.

I’m about to get super damn nerdy here, pointing back to specific comic book stories and everything, but please bear with me. I’ve got a point to make. Superman is the character who believes in life above all else. Superman is the character who will do anything to find another way. Superman is a character who believes that death is not the last resort, but it is never a resort at all. But this is a lesson that has to be learned, and how else do we learn than from our mistakes?

I’m about to blow some minds for people who don’t read comics, but Superman has killed before. At least twice, in fact. In Alan Moore’s epic Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? (recently voted by fans as the greatest Superman story of all time), he kills the interdimensional menace Mr. Mxyzptlk, who has gone from being a pest to being a homicidal god. Then, to punish himself for killing – something he believes nobody, even Superman, has the right to do – he removes his own powers and walks away into the arctic waste. Fans accepted this pretty readily, most likely because it was presented as an “imaginary story,” something that was not technically in-continuity and was, in fact, the final story of the previous 50 years of Superman continuity before writer/artist John Byrne came in and relaunched the character with his Man of Steel miniseries. It’s a good story. But the second one I’m going to mention is even more applicable.

Superman V2 22A few years later, Byrne left the Superman comic books with a story called the “Supergirl Saga.” In this story, Superman discovers an alternate dimension where his counterpart is dead, there are no other superheroes in the world (no Batman, no Wonder Woman, no Justice League, etc.), and three Kryptonian criminals are laying waste to the entire planet. Superman is brought there to stop these alternate versions of Zod, Faora and Quex-Ul, but he’s too late, and the planet is left with just one survivor. Superman plans to strand the Kryptonians on this dead Earth, but Zod taunts him, promising to find his way to Superman’s own dimension and repeat his massacre there. Realizing Zod is right, that he can do it, Superman uses a piece of Kryptonite and executes them.

This being a part of the regular Superman line, it got a much bigger reaction than the Moore story. It was horrifying. It was shocking. Superman isn’t supposed to kill. And the writers who followed Byrne recognized it – Superman was so emotionally scarred by what he did that he wound up exiling himself from Earth for months, no longer believing himself worthy of being among humans. Both the “Supergirl Saga” and the subsequent “Exile” storylines also made that list of the best Superman stories, as voted on by fans, and I think it’s because they so brilliantly exemplify the point I’m trying to make here.

Superman doesn’t kill, that’s true, but that’s not the whole statement. The whole statement should read thusly: “Superman doesn’t kill, because the one time he did, it almost destroyed him.”

Zod’s death in Man of Steel isn’t a calculated, premeditated act. Superman never sets out to kill anybody. It’s not even the cold execution of the alternate Zod from the “Supergirl Saga.” It’s done in the heat of battle, by a young Superman who has only recently learned the full extent of his powers, and it’s done while Zod is actively threatening the lives of innocent people. And after it’s over, Superman is shattered. He screams in pain and agony, not at Zod for placing himself in that position, but at himself for failing to find another way. In circumstances where virtually anybody on the planet would consider his actions justified, Superman considers himself a failure, because he didn’t live up to the ideal that Jor-El has set for him.

And it’s that ideal, more than anything else, that drives the character. Clark Kent is not Superman because he can fly or see through walls or juggle tanks. He’s Superman because he reminds all of us that there’s a better way, and nobody will be harder on him for failing to reach that ideal than he will be himself. This may be the first Superman movie that actually demonstrates that influence on others as well. Repeatedly, throughout this movie, we see characters step up and be heroes because of the example he has set: Hardy’s death at the end, where he throws a one-liner back in Faora’s face, is priceless. Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) and Steve Lombard (in every version of the mythos, the biggest douchebag who ever worked at the Daily Planet – here played nicely by Michael Kelly) risk their lives to save an intern named Jenny (Rebecca Bueller, who many believe is this universe’s gender-flipped stand-in for Jimmy Olsen, as her last name is never spoken) even while Metropolis is crumbling all around them. Even before there is a Superman, we see young Clark save a bus full of kids, including a bully named Pete Ross (Jack Foley as a kid, Joseph Cranford as an adult). After he saves him, the next time we see Pete he’s helping Clark to his feet after he stops himself from crushing another group of thugs who are picking on him. Adult Pete shows up too, around the time that Zod is demanding Kal-El be turned over, and warning the people that know who he is to step forward. It seems pretty clear that Pete knows who they’re talking about, but he doesn’t say a word.

(I would, in fact, love to see this in the Man of Steel sequel – some circumstance where the entire town of Smallville turns a blind eye to the Clark/Superman connection, because there’s simply no way to believe they don’t know who Superman is, but it’s easy to believe that they’ve all silently decided to keep his secret.)

So yes, I loved Man of Steel, and if you didn’t, I hope I’ve at least articulated exactly why I think it worked so well. Warner Bros, as I’ve said, has already kicked off work on Man of Steel 2, with the promise of it leading to a Justice League movie down the line. After so many false starts over the years, if this is the template they use, they may finally have found a way to get it right.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Superman Week Day 2: George Reeves in Superman and the Mole-Men (1951)

Superman and the Mole MenDirector: Lee Sholem

Writer: Robert Maxwell

Cast: George Reeves, Phyllis Coates, Jeff Corey, Walter Reed, J. Farrell MacDonald, Stanley Andrews

Plot: Daily Planet reporters Lois Lane and Clark Kent (Phyllis Coates and George Reeves) are sent to cover the opening of the deepest oil well in the world, but arrive to find that unknown problems in the drill shaft have caused the company to shut the oil well down. As the two of them find rooms at a local hotel for the night, the oil shaft is opened from the inside and two bizarre creatures stumble out. In the morning, Clark and Lois arrive back at the oil shaft to find the night watchmen dead, frightened to death Lois glimpses one of the creatures, but Clark and the oil rig’s foreman are skeptical of her claim. The foreman confesses to Earth that the super-deep drill hadn’t struck oil as planned, but phosphorescent radium, then burst into an enormous hollow area deep beneath the Earth’s surface.

The two Mole creatures are spotted in town and an angry mob forms, planning to hunt them down. Switching his clothes to his Superman uniform, the man of steel races the mob, led by Luke Benson (Jeff Corey). The Mole Men have already escaped, and Superman’s effort to placate the mob is only partially successful – several of them head out that night and find the Mole creatures atop the town dam. One of the Mole Men is shot, and Superman catches him in the air, racing him to the hospital, while the other escapes. Benson’s mob chases the remaining Mole creature to a shack, trapping him, then set the building on fire. He narrowly escapes, but Benson believes him dead, allowing him to return to the drill shaft and slip back underground.

At the hospital, the doctor is afraid to operate on the Mole Man due to the radiation, and Benson is assembling his mob again again. Superman faces down the mob, and the second creature returns from the drill shaft with reinforcements and a weapon. They approach Superman, who realizes they’ve only come to rescue the wounded creature. Benson tries to attack them, and they turn their weapon on him, but Superman saves him. He helps the Mole Men return to the drill shaft, which they destroy from within. No one will ever disturb the Mole Men again.

Thoughts: After two movie serials starring Kirk Alyn, this short movie (only 58 minutes) was made as a sort of test for the proposed Adventures of Superman TV show. The show was given the greenlight and this movie was heavily edited and shown on television as the last two episodes of the first season. These days, such a thing would be really obvious, but at the time, the production values of a TV show versus a B-movie weren’t really that disparate from each other… I’m sure a lot of the audience never even knew.

The film absolutely presumes audience familiarity with the characters. Aside from a short bit of voiceover at the beginning, it doesn’t waste any time with Superman’s origin or establishing Clark Kent’s life at the Planet. In fact, except for Lois Lane, none of the other characters who would be regulars on the TV show make an appearance at all. Reeves and Coates are cut from the same cloth as Kirk Alyn and Noel Neill, who filled those roles just the previous year  (and Neill would replace Coates on the TV show after the first season). Reeves is the square-jawed paragon of heroism that we all expect Superman to be – strong and bold. Like Alyn, his Clark Kent is earnest, but he also has a bit of swagger, a bit of cockiness that we don’t often see in Superman. He’s not a jerk or anything, but neither is he the oafish, bumbling Clark Kent later adaptations would have. Reeves’s Clark is virtually the same character as his Superman, just with a change of clothes. As the TV show progressed over the next few years, he began to adopt a real sense of tongue-in-cheek humor, a bit of a wink at the camera, but in this early appearance we don’t see any of that.

All things considered, there’s surprisingly little Superman in this movie. If you skip the opening narration, Reeves doesn’t put on the famous costume until 24 minutes in (and I remind you, the total running time is just 58 minutes). If a viewer somehow didn’t know who “Clark Kent” and “Lois Lane” are, they could easily think this was just another “monsters from beneath the Earth” sci-fi flick like hundreds of others being turned out at the time. This falls into the edict of the TV producers, I suppose – there was a rule on the show that Superman didn’t show up until the third act. This limited the need for special effects (a term used here loosely), but also helped force Reeves’s Clark into being a tougher character, otherwise the audience probably couldn’t have stood him for that long. The best effect in the film, by the way, are the bursts of light when the Mole Men try to zap Benson… it wasn’t much of a wad, but they blew it at the end.

Coates is a passable Lois Lane, but doesn’t quite have the energy that Neill (and later actresses) brought to the role. She moves the story along and doesn’t embarrass the character, but at the same time, she doesn’t really keep pace with Superman the way you’d want her to. She has a brief exchange with Clark, berating him for always disappearing when there’s trouble and completely missing the obvious answer, even when he slips and says “I” saved one of the Mole Men before correcting himself to “Superman.” It’s stuff like this that sometimes gets Lois branded as less of formidable woman than she deserves to be.

The Mole Men themselves, visually at least, are probably the least-effective thing about this film. They’re creepy, to be certain, but that mostly comes through their odd way of moving and the expressions on their faces. Like so many science fiction movies of the era, the monsters look like actors in bizarre suits, covered in fur and wearing skullcaps that make them look less human, but not totally convincing as monsters.

From a story standpoint, though, the Mole Men work much better than the makeup budget allows. There’s a hint of tragedy to them. They’re never portrayed as evil or even accidentally menacing – they’re simply creatures taken from their own world and placed in one where they don’t belong. Even at the end, when they fight back, it feels much more like self-defense, like a rescue mission, than it does an intentional threat. The scene where they meet the little girl has echoes of the Universal Frankenstein, while the agonized face of the creature trapped in the burning shack reminds me of nothing so much as Tod Browning’s Freaks from 1932. Like the people in that film, you sympathize with the creature far more than the people who torment him.

In the end, the biggest reason to watch this movie is for Reeves. Both as Clark Kent and as Superman, he’s got a strength and a commanding presence, a clear-headed rationality that the character deserves. Reeves was wonderful in this role, even if it did weigh down upon him for the rest of his life. That life ended tragically, of course, and one will always have to question how much of that tragedy was a result of his association with his most famous role… but as a Superman fan, we can only be grateful to have had a performer this early who embodied the hero so well.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Gut Reactions: Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

74202_10151312194336999_1827486701_nDirector: J.J. Abrams

Writer: Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman & Damon Lindeloff

Cast: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Benedict Cumberbatch, Anton Yelchin, Bruce Greenwood, Peter Weller, Alice Eve, Noel Clarke

Plot: Starfleet is rocked by a terrorist attack orchestrated by the mysterious John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch). As he escapes across the galaxy, James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and the crew of the USS Enterprise begin a desperate chase to bring him to justice. And to say anything else would be majorly spoilery, so let’s pretend I’ve recapped the entire movie for a moment and wait until after you see the spoiler line below before I say anything else too specific, shall we?

Thoughts: When J.J. Abrams rebooted the Star Trek franchise in 2009, fans of previous incarnations seemed to fall squarely into one of two camps. On one hand, there were those die-hards who felt like the liberties and changes taken with nearly 50 years of canon went too far to be acceptable and couldn’t find enjoyment in the movie. On the other, there were those who were willing to accept the Abrams Trek as a different continuity, inspired by but not beholden to the original, and were therefore more forgiving of the changes. Although I certainly understand the feelings of those in the first camp, I steadfastly belong to the second. I really enjoyed the 2009 Star Trek, and although I tried to keep my expectations reasonable for the follow-up film Star Trek Into Darkness, upon finally seeing it, I think I liked this one even more.

Some general spoiler-free thoughts before I get into the real hardcore nerd analysis that will scare half of you away. This is most definitely not your classic Star Trek. Not only is the tone very different – more high-octane, rapid-fire action, and while the philosophy is still there it’s much more subtle and hidden under flashy set pieces and a hell of a lot of lens flares – but there are certain things in the film that just wouldn’t work based on the physics of the original series. (For example, it was well established that starships weren’t designed to operate in a planetary atmosphere, let alone go through some of the things we saw in this movie.) I had to make a conscious choice to let go of that sort of thing, because if you can’t, there’s really no chance of enjoying the new series. Having made that choice, though, I’m glad I did, because the spirit of this new Trek is incredibly exciting to me.

Abrams’s version of Trek places its emphasis on action. There are some brilliant sequences here, both in the CGI-heavy outer space arena and in more practical moments of hand-to-hand combat, all of which look good. The cast, once again, is great. Karl Urban has encapsulated DeForest Kelley’s Leonard McCoy in a way that would have been impossible to believe not long ago. Simon Pegg’s Scotty very much has the soul of Jimmy Doohan’s, and brings in some much-needed comic relief during the more serious moments of the film. Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto as Kirk and Spock, of course, are still the stars of the series. Each of them has a character that’s more of a tangent to the original than some of the other cast members – you can see the blueprints of William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy in their performances, but they’ve been dressed differently. More about that in the spoiler section, though.

Benedict Cumberbatch, the man with the most British name in human history, steps into the villain’s role in this film and really steals the show. There’s a taste of his character from Sherlock here, in that he’s the smartest man in the room and he knows it, but replace Sherlock’s inability to empathize with an innate savagery and deep passion for his people (and hatred of virtually anyone else), and you’ve got someone who is scary as hell. Cumberbatch is not only a lot of fun to watch on screen, but terribly menacing at what he does.

Finally, a word for Michael Giacchino, who in a relatively short time has very much earned a place next to the likes of John Williams and Danny Elfman as one of the great movie composers. Bringing back both the classic Trek theme and the new theme he composed for the 2009 movie, Giacchino’s score fits the action and energy of this movie perfectly. He and Abrams have worked together several times now, on Super 8 and the Mission: Impossible films, plus on the TV show Lost. Add to that an impressive body of work for Pixar, and it has become very easy to put together a playlist of the greatest Giacchino scores ever.

Okay, I’m pretty much itching to get into the spoiler stuff, so those of you who haven’t seen the movie yet may want to head out. In closing, I really liked this movie, but I think a person’s enjoyment of it will depend largely on how they feel about Abrams’s new Trek timeline in general. If you liked the 2009 movie, this one will knock your socks off. If you didn’t, there’s nothing here that will change your mind.

And that’s that. Spoilers begin after the line:

_____________________________________________________________________________________

In Into Darkness, we see an Enterprise crew that has been together for a little while now, but Chris Pine’s Jim Kirk has yet to let go of the wild, rebellious streak that defines him. While there’s something to be said for the character’s daring, he doesn’t know where the line is and he doesn’t understand what he did wrong when he crosses it. In this film, we see a real journey for the character. He sees firsthand what happens when somebody goes too far, and the horrific consequences of someone who isn’t willing to accept responsibility for his actions. Peter Weller’s Admiral Marcus is a nice counterpoint to Kirk in this – although he’s one of the ones who comes down hard on Kirk for breaking the rules early, at the end he becomes a reflection of what might be if an officer is left unchecked. As a result, we’re left with a slightly changed Kirk at the end – not one who will be unwilling to flout the rules for what he feels is right, but one who will be more aware of the consequences of his actions. Pine’s Kirk isn’t Shatner’s Kirk, but the man he is at the beginning of this movie wants to hide breaking the rules, while at the end I believe he will become the man who does the right thing but is willing to take the heat for it (as Shatner’s Kirk did in the original Star Trek III and Star Trek IV).

On the other hand, Zachary Quinto’s Spock has taken a rather wide curve away from Leonard Nimoy’s version, and I somewhat think that may be a direct response to Nimoy’s presence. Although Spock’s struggle between his Vulcan logic and human emotion was always at the forefront of his character, this movie really does show us a greater depth of struggle than Nimoy traditionally had. Quinto’s Nimoy has maintained a romantic relationship with Uhura (Zoe Saldana) for some time now – Nimoy’s Spock never had any such connection – and he makes it explicitly clear during the film that he fights to suppress his emotions. He also fails, and fails big, when Kirk dies saving the Enterprise, blowing up with rage and tearing across San Francisco to take down Cumberbatch’s Khan.

Ah yes, Khan. Let’s talk about Khan, shall we? This is one of those times where I sort of bemoan what the internet has become. While it’s a great communication tool, it can sometimes ruin surprises. From the minute a sequel to the 2009 movie was announced, people started asking “Will it have Khan?” When Benedict Cumberbatch was announced as playing the villain, people asked, “Does he play Khan?” When they said his character’s name was “John Harrison,” people asked, “But he’s really Khan, right?” I can’t blame Abrams and the rest of the cast and crew for lying – there had to be some attempt at surprise – but they were fighting a losing battle from the beginning.

Like the rest of the cast, Cumberbatch’s Khan isn’t quite the same man as the original series Khan. His accent isn’t as ridiculous and he never takes his shirt off to reveal a plastic chest, for example. Also, he’s not as upfront about his intentions as Khan Classic. He’s sneakier, more manipulative, toying with the lives of others to orchestrate events in the direction he wants them to go. In case the dedication at the end of the film doesn’t make it clear enough, this is a Post 9-11 Khan, and in that way, he’s scary. He’s also a lot of fun to watch, tearing through a squad of Klingons almost singlehandedly, and helping Kirk in their freefall through space between the Enterprise and Marcus’s warship.

This film uses Cumberbatch very well, but he’s not nearly the only callback to the original series’ two Khan stories. Technically, this is more analogous to the “Space Seed” episode of the TV show (certainly in terms of timeline), but Abrams and the writers never passed up an opportunity to remind people of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. An early scene has Quinto’s Spock reminding us that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,” for instance, but from there the film pulls a nice switcheroo on us. Instead of Kirk watching helplessly as Spock dies to save the Enterprise, the reverse happens, with Pine’s Kirk dying to save the ship. The death, like everything else in this movie, reminds us of the original but kicks it up with more action and a heavier dose of special effects, but the result is the same: two men on opposite sides of a pane of glass, one of them dying, one of them grieving, both of them admitting to a friendship that stupid male ego or a suppression of emotion has left unspoken until now. Then we get one more callback – Spock borrowing Shatner’s bloodcurdling howl of “KHAAAAAAAAAN!” just before the final action sequence.

There was one more callback worth mentioning: Alice Eve as Carol Marcus. Sure, they tried to pretend she was somebody else when she first showed up (Carol “Wallace,” her mother’s maiden name), but like Cumberbatch as Khan there could never really be any doubt. This is the new timeline equivalent to the mother of Kirk’s son. Unfortunately, she’s one of the few things in the film that’s kind of wasted. She’s there to look hot in short skirts and underwear (which I’m male enough to admit she is very successful at doing), but she adds very little to the story. It’s likely that Abrams is setting her up to play a larger role in the series down the line, which I’m fine with. Considering how he found great moments for virtually every other player – including Scotty, Sulu and Chekov –it’s kind of a shame they couldn’t do the same for her.

The callbacks, by the way, may seem a little silly to some. They may seem a little over the top. They may seem like the filmmakers are winking at the camera. There’s a reason for that: they are. But they’re over the top and winking in a way that’s really acceptable to me. I think they work, and not just because I’m a big nerd and love that sort of thing (although I am). There’s an actual, honest, in-universe excuse for it if you look back at the first movie. Nimoy, as “Spock Prime” (as they’re calling him now) says that the altered timeline is trying to course-correct a little bit. Although there have been irreparable changes to the timestream, like the destruction of Vulcan, the universe itself is trying to adhere to the old timelime as much as it can. That’s the reason the same characters that assembled as the Enterprise crew in the old timeline all happened to wind up on the ship together in the new one as well. If you extrapolate that, it’s easy to explain the renewed conflict with Khan, Kirk’s introduction to Carol, and even Kirk’s death. (Since Spock wasn’t in place to die in this timeline, the universe found a substitute. And as Kirk, like Spock, was going to come back from the dead anyway, that was okay.) It may be more metaphysical than science fictional, but I like the idea of these characters being tied together by fate, bound by destiny. They are, to borrow a word from Stephen King, Ka-Tet, and they will be Ka-Tet in any timeline in which they happen to exist. These people are together because they’re supposed to be. And there’s something a little inspiring and very comforting about that.

So anyway, yeah, I really liked this movie. I can’t wait to see it again. And although I know Abrams might be a little busy soon with that “other” Star franchise, I really hope they find a way to bring him back to the helm of the Enterprise at least one more time.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!