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!
Twice a year, on the Showcase podcast, I sit back with whichever of my co-hosts are available and talk about the new movies coming out in the next several months. It’s time for this year’s Showcase Summer Movie Preview!
I am, as you may know, an English teacher. As such, I’ve got a particular sensitivity towards using words correctly. The wonderful thing about words, you see, is that by using them properly you can be much more specific in your meaning… more descriptive, more precise and, therefore, more effective in making the intent of your words clear. If I wanted to say, in one word, that something has been broken into ten pieces, I should be able to use the word “decimate,” because that was its original meaning. But too many people used it as a synonym for “destroy,” and now that secondary – and far less specific – meaning is also considered correct. And it irritates me. And it’s the same vein of irritation that strikes me when I hear people throw around the word “trilogy” willy-nilly.
Strictly speaking, a “trilogy” can refer to any series of three, but I think using it that way cheapens its usage. The word “trilogy” should be reserved to refer to something a little different than just “three.” These days, it seems to be popular to group movies into trilogies, perhaps because it’s so attractive package them together in a DVD box set. You can go out and buy the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Dark Knight trilogy, the Back to the Future trilogy, each with three films in a series, each of which fits the definition to varying degrees. But are they true trilogies? How about the X-Men trilogy? There have been two movies released since they started calling it that, although one could argue that they aren’t part of the original series, but rather spin-offs… but next year’s X-Men: First Class seems poised to tie everything together. Can you still make that arguement? There are three films with Evil Dead in the title, but when people talk about an Evil Dead trilogy they mean Evil Dead, Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness. And then there’s my personal favorite, the Star Trek Trilogy. In a series with either six, ten, or eleven movies (depending on how you count), the boxed set with “trilogy” on the cover collects numbers two through four, because technically, those are the only ones that take place (chronologically) one after another.
Let me break this down, guys.
The True Trilogy.
In my personal, extremely picky (I know) vernacular, a true trilogy is one story told in three parts. The Lord of the Rings, for example, is a true trilogy. (Yes, I know Professor Tolkien never actually wanted to split the book into three volumes, that it was done on the insistence of a publisher who didn’t think people would want to purchase a novel the length of a phone book. For the purposes of this semantic discussion, that’s not actually important.) For me to consider it a true trilogy, it needs to be planned as such… maybe not necessarily conceived in three parts, but once finished, part three should end with the ending the author was working towards all along. True trilogies, by my definition, are really quite rare.
It’s not uncommon for someone to claim a story was intended as a trilogy even when it wasn’t. These usually don’t hold up to close scrutiny – the original Star Wars trilogy, for example… as much as I love the first three movies, if you watch them together it seems terribly unlikely that George Lucas had decided that Leia and Luke were brother and sister when he wrote the first screenplay, and even the question of Luke’s parentage isn’t a slam-dunk in that first film. Try to handwave it as being a “certain point of view” all you want, Obi-Wan – either you lied to Luke in Episode IV or Lucas hadn’t decided yet that Vader was Anakin Skywalker. The third Scream film also tries to claim trilogy status as well – Jamie Kennedy’s character appears in a post-mortem video that lays out the “trilogy rules” – but it’s written by a different writer than the first two films and the story it tells makes the second film (which was considerably better than the third) largely irrelevant, from a narrative standpoint. True trilogies are hard to find, but easy to confirm.
Far more common is…
The Retroactive Trilogy.
A Retroactive Trilogy is what you get when a storyteller doesn’t have any solid or specific plans for a sequel, but once the first movie turns out to be a success, comes up with two more films that more or less go together. The original Star Wars, most likely, fits into this category much better than the “true trilogy” category. There are differing reports as to how much of Return of the Jedi was mapped out when Empire Strikes Back was written, it seems that at least some sort of framework was planned… as Luke is leaving Dagobah and Obi-Wan calls him “our last hope,” Yoda replies, “No… there is another.” Did they know the “other” was Leia when they wrote that line? I dunno. But they were at least thinking.
The problem with these Retroactive Trilogies is that sometimes the writers simply try too hard. They build everything up in part two to some gargantuan cliffhanger, but along the way they’re throwing so many things at the audience that the story starts to get lost and garbled. Then, when part three comes along, they’ve gotten so jumbled up that they just can’t untie the knot before the end. I don’t have the hatred for the Matrix sequels that some people do, but I can’t deny they fell victim to this problem. Even worse, I’d argue, were the second and third Pirates of the Caribbean films. Not coincidentally, I liked the fourth Pirates film much better than two or three, mostly because the plot had almost nothing to do with the previous three films, simply throwing Jack Sparrow and Captain Barbossa into another standalone adventure.
One of the best Retroactive Trilogies I’ve ever seen is the Back to the Future series, with second and third installments that are entertaining in their own right, extend the world built in the first, tie back to the beginning in a logical way, and each have their own clear identity. But they’re still, to be clear, a retroactive trilogy. Yes, I know, we’ve all seen that “To Be Continued” logo at the end of Part I a million times… which is why most people forget that it wasn’t actually in the theatrical cut, but added to the VHS release after the first movie was a hit and the studio decided to go on and make some sequels.
The Trilogy in Name Only.
This is the one that really irritates me. When the trailers for Oz the Great and Powerful came out, they identified Sam Raimi as the “director of the Spider-Man trilogy.” Which made me bristle. The three Raimi-helmed Spider-Man movies are in no way a trilogy… not planned as such, not conceived as such, not executed as such. Aside from the lead characters, the only arc that even remotely welds them together is that of Harry Osborne, whose significance in Spider-Man 2 was negligible. Furthermore, Raimi never intended to stop at three. There were plans, at one point, to go to six films, but after Spider-Man 3 left audiences disappointed and Tobey Maguire hurt his back, everyone decided to walk away from the franchise and let someone else take a crack at it. (Incidentally, there are reports that the current Amazing Spider-Man film is intended to launch a trilogy. Whether there’s actually a three-part story planned or whether it’s just marketing using that word because they think it sounds sophisticated remains to be seen.)
A Trilogy in Name Only is what you get when a series happens to end after the third installment. Blade, for example. Ocean’s Eleven. The original Robocop franchise. None of these were planned as three-volume stories. These just happened to stop after three movies for various reasons – failure of the third installment, age or lack of interest in the principal actors, whatever. Despite that, these films frequently get packaged and marketed as “trilogies.” Even the Godfather franchise falls under this category.
Sometimes, though, fourth films get made after a series seems over, taking away even its faux “trilogy” status. Toy Story is currently in this category, but every time you turn around it seems someone is starting a rumor about Pixar working on a Toy Story 4. (Seeing as how the third Toy Story had perhaps the greatest ending of any animated film in history, I really think that would be a huge mistake, but that’s an argument for another time.) You can find DVD sets of the TransFormers films marketed as a “trilogy” even as the fourth film is under production, and I distinctly remember the Saw movies marketed as a “trilogy” even back when they were actively cranking out a new movie every darn year.
What’s more, we’ve entered the age of the drastically-delayed sequel, which is taking older films that used to fall into this category and turn them into longer franchises: Die Hard, Indiana Jones… these used to be called trilogies, then fourth films came out. The same thing will happen to Jurassic Park next year.
Remakes or spin-offs incidentally, do not take a film out of this category. They’re working on a Robocop remake, but they’ll still market the original as a trilogy. They marked The Mummy franchise as a trilogy because they can easily (and rightfully) ignore the Scorpion King films.
Evil Dead is an interesting case, as the new film is being presented as a remake, while at the same time the creators are publicly talking about continuing the original series (with an Army of Darkness 2) and eventually making a film that would bring the two incarnations of the franchise into a collision course. After AoD2 and a new Evil Dead 2, they’re considering a film that would feature Bruce Campbell’s Ash meeting Jane Levy’s Mia in a film that – I feel comfortable saying – would finally force the American Film Institute to stop placing Citizen Kane at the top of its “100 Greatest Films of All Time” list. At any rate, doing this would make for seven films total… two Ash Evil Dead movies, two Army of Darkness movies (also starring Ash), two Mia Evil Dead movies, then whatever they would call the final film.
None of this is to make any particular claims about the qualities of any film in any given category. There have been bad “true” trilogies and terrible “retroactive” trilogies. Sometimes a trilogy in name only can have three fantastic movies (and by “sometimes” I mean “mostly in the case of the Toy Story films”). This isn’t about judging any film as superior to any other. This is all about a plea from me to use words the way they are intended. If it ain’t a trilogy, don’t call it one.
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!
In the interest of full disclosure (and to generate a little content here) I thought I’d present a regular tally of what movies I managed to see in the previous month. Some of them I’ve written about, most of them I haven’t. This list includes movies I saw for the first time, movies I’ve seen a thousand times, movies I saw in the theater, movies I watched at home, direct-to-DVD, made-for-TV and anything else that qualifies as a movie. Feel free to discuss or ask about any of them!
What I Watched in February 2013
- Blazing Saddles (1974), A
- Superman II (1980), A-
- Birdemic: Shock and Terror (2010), F; RiffTrax Riff, A
- Groundhog Day (1993), B+
- Dead Alive (1992), B+
- Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade (2007), B
- X-Men (2000), B+
- Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), A
- Star Trek III: The Search For Spock (1984), B
- Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989), D
- Die Hard With a Vengeance (1995), B+
- Dredd (2012), B+
- A Good Day to Die Hard (2013), B
- Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Part II (2013), B+
- Trekkies 2 (2004), C+
- Trek Nation (2010), B+
- Cool As Ice (1991), F; RiffTrax B+
- Live Free or Die Hard (2007), B+
- Branded (2012), C+
- Argo (2012), A
- The Crucible (1996), B-
If you pay any attention to movie news at all, you no doubt were aware earlier this week when Disney announced that Episode 7 of their shiny new Star Wars franchise would be directed by none other than Star Trek rebooter J.J. Abrams. And the internet went berserk, because that’s what the internet does. People who loved the new Star Trek loved the idea. People who hated the new Star Trek hated the idea. People who hated the ending of Lost hated the idea (even though Abrams’s contributions to that show ended some time in the first season when he got caught up in moviemaking). People who loved Fringe were too busy watching the last episode of that series over and over to notice that anything else was going on. But by the time the dust had settled, pretty much everybody had an opinion. As I created this blog specifically to have a place to pontificate about movies, I thought I’d share my opinion here.
I’m cool with it.
Okay, that’s the short version. Let me talk a little bit about why I’m cool with it. The problem with this sort of speculation is that nothing made by a Hollywood studio is the result of a single auteur vision, and that makes it incredibly difficult to predict how any creator will fit a project by basing your opinion on their earlier projects — producer notes, diva actor notes, studio interference, budgetary concerns and any other number of things can and will affect any movie, and even when you have an unmitigated cinematic disaster it had be hard to accurately place blame. (Take George Clooney’s willingness to accept blame for the fiasco that was Batman and Robin. I still think Clooney, at that age, could have played a decent Bruce Wayne, but he was saddled with a terrible script, a terrible director, terrible casting for his co-stars and a studio that made them keep adding idiotic nonsense so they could produce Happy Meal toys.) That said, there’s really nothing else we can base our judgment on, so flawed or not, I’m going to look at Abrams’s previous filmography to explain why giving him this job gives me hope for a good Episode 7.
First and foremost, I trust Abrams as an idea man. True, he’s directing this film, but that doesn’t mean he won’t keep his finger in the story — I’d be shocked if he didn’t. He has relatively few movies to his credit as a director (the two Star Trek films, Mission: Impossible III and his own Super 8, which we’ll talk more about in a minute), but he had a hand in creating or producing lots of quality television. Besides the aforementioned Lost and Fringe, he was also behind NBC’s Revolution, the Jennifer Garner launch vehicle Alias, the hit Person of Interest, and the underrated (and sadly cancelled) Alcatraz. In film, besides the movies he’s directed himself, he helped conceive Cloverfield (a film I’m a big fan of). And let’s not forget his greatest success… Felicity.
(No, I’ve never seen an episode of Felicity.)
Since Star Trek is what everybody is focusing on, though, let’s talk about that for a moment. In 2009, let’s be honest here, Star Trek was dead. The underwhelming Star Trek: Nemesis had frozen any plans to continue with the movie series and, although Enterprise was an okay TV series, it wasn’t nearly good enough to wash from people’s mouths the effluvia of Star Trek: Voyager, the low point of the franchise. I was a huge Trek fan growing up, I loved the movies, I loved The Next Generation, and I especially loved Deep Space Nine (which I still contend, in terms of writing, is the best of the various Star Trek TV shows). But at that point, I honestly didn’t care if we ever saw another Star Trek property.
He rebooted the franchise in a way that preserved the original (by creating an alternate timeline in which his series will take place), and from there, he ran wild. I’ll grant you, not everything in the reboot meshes with the original — the technology and physics of it doesn’t fit at all. As many of my more green-blooded Trekker friends constantly remind me, in the original timeline it was explicitly stated that starships were built in space because they couldn’t be constructed and launched on Earth, as they are in the reboot. And yes, Tyler Perry was in it, and was somehow the only thing not covered by a lens flare. But despite all that, the film was fun. It was full of more energy and excitement than I’d felt from Trek in years. Older Trek, the really good older Trek at least, was admittedly a more cerebral sort of thing, full of allegory and depth, whereas Abrams took the approach of “let’s blow up a damn planet”. But Abrams had a different task than the earlier films — he had to present a version of Star Trek that presented the sort of enormous cinematic landscape viewers were now demanding (thanks to films like Lord of the Rings) and won over an audience that previously was uninterested in Trek. He couldn’t just make a movie to appeal to existing Trek fans, because as the Enterprise ratings had already proven, there weren’t enough left to sustain the franchise.
Now there are, and now I’m very excited for Star Trek Into Darkness as a result.
But Trek, honestly, is not the reason I’m particularly interested in seeing what Abrams does with Star Wars. For that, my attention turns to the film he wrote and directed between Trek outings: the Steven Spielberg production Super 8.
If you grew up in the 80s and you haven’t seen Super 8, you’ve made a mistake. Even though the film is set in 1979, it’s a love letter to the sort of movies we grew up with. The slow burn of the alien threat has shades of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T., but even more important than that, the interaction of the kids feels like this could have been a sequel to Goonies or Explorers. The kids in this movie are so perfectly cast and so genuine in their dialogue and interactions with one another that you could easily believe that they’d been friends their entire lives instead of pulled together by a casting director. It’s the kind of movie people my age watched when we were the age of the kids in the movies. Abrams proved with this film that he understands that era of moviemaking perfectly.
And when, my friends, was Star Wars truly great?
If Abrams can bring his 80s sensibility together with his 21st century visual skill and ability to create amazing action pieces, the new Star Wars has the potential to eclipse the prequel trilogy. (I know, I’m not setting the bar particularly high there, but still.) I’m not saying that the movie will be great, I’m saying that Disney has given it the first ingredient it needs to be great. (Well, second — getting Toy Story 3 screenwriter Michael Arndt on board was the first ingredient.) It’s still up to Abrams to gather the rest of the ingredients and put them together properly, and he may yet fail. But damned if I’m not willing to give him a chance.
It was recently announced that Warner Brothers is working on taking the epic poem, The Odyssey, and turning it into a science fiction film. Because the internet exists, responses ranged from the cautiously optimistic to the blindly cynical to several hundred ancient Greeks complaining that Hollywood is raping their childhood like they did with that Jason and the Argonauts debacle. Amongst all the responses, though, only one took me by surprise. At /Film, Germain Lussier said, “Even in our wildest, 11th grade English class imaginations, few could have seen this one coming.”
To which my response is… “Really? Is it that big a surprise?” If anything, I can’t believe it hasn’t been done before.
The great thing about science fiction, friends, is its infinite adaptability. There is virtually no story you can’t tell in the proper sci-fi setting… in fact, many of the greatest works of sci-fi are largely metaphorical in nature. Both the Star Trek and X-Men franchises, at least early in their early incarnations in the 1960s, were often used to discuss the civil rights movement. Battlestar Galactica was known to deal with modern-day politics. Superman is often spoken of as an extraterrestrial Christ figure, despite being created by a couple of Jewish kids from Cleveland. Everything from 1984 to 2012 has taken then-current fears and put them on display through a sci-fi prism.
Then there are the stories that pick up on specific plots and tropes. Alien, as I’ve argued many times, is essentially a haunted house movie with the house replaced by a spaceship and the ghost replaced by a drippy, hard-shelled monstrosity with acid blood. Forbidden Planet shares much of its DNA with William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Throw the Swiss Family Robinson off their island — off the planet — and you have Lost in Space. That one didn’t even change the family’s last name.
Much has been written about George Lucas homaged big ol’ chunks of Akira Kurasowa’s Hidden Fortress when he wrote Star Wars. That’s probably the reason people were so willing to believe the recent rumor — since debunked — that Disney had Zach Snyder working on a Star Wars universe adaptation of another Kurasowa film, Seven Samurai. (You may know it better by the title of the American remake: the classic western The Magnificent Seven.) That story could easily work in outer space. Hell, why stop there? Take the death of Qui-Gon Jinn and retell it Rashomon style.
The Odyssey in space? Why not? Look at the basic DNA of the story: it’s about a general who has been gone from home for years who gets lost and goes through many dangers and adventures on his way home, where everybody but his wife and son believe he’s dead. Gerry Dugan and Phil Noto put that story in a contemporary military setting and called the graphic novel The Infinite Horizon. The Cohen brothers dropped it into the American south and gave us O Brother, Where Art Thou? The Civil War drama Cold Mountain picks up on parts of Homer’s epic. James Joyce loosely adapted it in Ireland at the turn of the 20th century and called it Ulysses, which the Modern Library declared the best novel in 100 years.
Hell, why stop at The Odyssey? Give us space opera versions of The Iliad and The Aeneid while you’re at it. Hollywood loves a trilogy.
Good science fiction can handle almost anything you throw at it.
Okay, folks, since people are talking about such things, I’ve put together a list of my ten most-anticipated films of 2013. This, of course, is based on what trailers I’ve seen, what news I’ve heard, and my previous experience with the franchises in question. Assuming I remember, I’ll come back at the end of the year, take a look at these ten films, and let you know if I think they met with my expectations. In alphabetical order, because I find it hard to rank such things.
- Ender’s Game-One of my favorite books of all time. Harrison Ford as Admiral Graff. I know some fans are upset that they aged the kids and compressed the story into a year, but I can honestly understand why. It’s a reasonable concession to make the story work for a movie, and I’m willing to give them a pass on it if everything else works.
- The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug-I’ve always enjoyed Tolkien and I liked the first installment quite a bit. Looking forward to watching it continue.
- Iron Man 3-I really loved the first two and Avengers was amazing. I’m hoping Marvel Studios can keep the energy up there.
- Man of Steel-Because I am a lifelong Superman fan and the trailer kicked ass. Amy Adams is a perfect choice for Lois Lane, and Christopher Nolan’s involvement as producer gives this movie some serious potential.
- Monsters University-The original Monsters, Inc. is one of my favorite Pixar films, and the trailers for this prequel have made me laugh.
- Oz: The Great and Powerful-I’ve loved the Oz books my whole life, and this looks like Sam Raimi actually mined the novels for material pretty deeply. I’m interested.
- Pacific Rim-Directed by Guillermo del Toro, first of all. And judging by the trailers, it’s basically Robotech versus Godzilla. If that doesn’t get you excited, I don’t want to know you.
- Saving Mr. Banks-Tom Hanks playing Walt Disney in the story of how Mary Poppins was brought to the screen. Perfect casting, high hopes.
- Star Trek Into Darkness-The last movie made me a Trek fan again long after I thought Voyager killed that piece of my heart.
- The Stupidest Angel-I’m a big fan of Christopher Moore’s novel about an idiot angel who screws up a kid’s Christmas wish and almost brings about a zombie apocalypse. A heartwarming tale of Christmas terror indeed. And Rhea Perlman is in it, for crying out loud.