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June 27, 2013

Filed under: movies»reviews»scifi

Magic Missile

I'm not entirely sure why you would make films based on a franchise that you never liked. I'm on record as believing that the first JJ Abrams Star Trek flick was a reasonable popcorn flick but it didn't share anything with the original product except some character names. That's not true for the second movie. Into Darkness (to use its weird, not-really-a-subtitle subtitle) isn't just bad Trek, it's loathesome filmmaking.

The low-hanging fruit is that the plot doesn't even try to make sense for more than five minutes at a time, but since the original series was hardly airtight, I have a number of other bones to pick, including:

  • The Enterprise is not a submarine.
  • In a franchise known for its progressivism, it's painful to see all of the women reduced to either needy girlfriends or passive sex objects.
  • Along the same lines, I like Benedict Cumberbatch just fine (actually, I think most of the actors do a decent job), but he is surely one of the whitest people on earth and should not be playing Khan Noonien Singh.
  • The Enterprise is not a submarine.
  • Scotty's Magical Transporter and Plot Hole Device can now send people all the way across to the Klingon empire, but our heroes still get in a ship to follow him because there wouldn't be a chance for a pointless shootout otherwise.
  • Star Fleet dress uniforms that bear an uncanny resemblance to Death Star formalware.
  • Warp speed is now basically Rainbow Road, complete with starships spinning out into space with skidding sounds when they get hit with a blue shell magical laser beam.

Sure, much of this probably seems like nitpicks and nerd rage. I've watched a lot of Star Trek, probably more than most people, and so there are a lot of things that to me are instinctively not right but aren't necessarily invalid. I think it's a shame to lose those parts of the Trek canon (and I tend to think that Abrams' alterations are worse than the material he's replacing), but I'm hardly objective. Lance believes that he's just trolling us, and I'm not sure that's wrong.

I find the movie's general incoherence to be frustrating. But that's not what actually makes me angry.

At the end of Star Trek Into Grim Serious Incoherence, Khan crashes his spaceship into San Francisco. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people are killed, but that's okay because they're not the protagonists and presumably their psychological issues were less attractive. This is, to put it lightly, not really what Gene Roddenberry had in mind when he pitched "wagon train in space" to some bored Desilu executives.

Speaking personally, I'm getting a little sick of the whole "it's been a decade since 9/11, so let's crash a flying vehicle into a city and call it emotional resonance" thing that every hack director with a render farm has been on lately. Abrams is doing it, apparently the new Superman movie does it, The Avengers did it. It's a cheap, transparent ploy to make otherwise airy summer entertainment seem important, so that critics can write that your otherwise incoherent summer tentpole flick has "real-world allusions" in it. Blowing up a planet in the first reboot movie wasn't enough, I guess.

Nowhere is that more true than in Star Trek No Subtitles Just Darkness. Khan doesn't really have a good reason to crash his ship into a major city. It doesn't particularly help him achieve his goals. He just does it because, as with every other reason that anyone does anything in a JJ Abrams movie, it's part of the story checklist they wrote before actually getting to outmoded concerns like "dialogue" or "motivation" or "character." City destroyed: tragedy achieved. On to the next setpiece!

Reboot or not, there are some things that a Star Trek movie shouldn't do, and mass murder is one of them. I'm under no illusions about the ideological purity of Star Trek, especially under Paramount's management, but I like to think that Roddenberry's vision should mean something regardless. As it is, there must be a little whirlwind somewhere around the ionosphere where his ashes are spinning. If JJ Abrams wants to participate in a little cinematic disaster porn, he's welcome to do so, but I wish he'd restrict it to some other, less established franchise. It's probably just as well that he's moving on to Star Wars: this kind of bankrupt cheesiness will fit right in there.

August 31, 2009

Filed under: movies»reviews»scifi

District 9

Shorter District 9:

Sure, we could have done something thought-provoking with our premise, but it was that or the giant robot shootout. The choice was clear.

Nobody doubts director Neill Blomkamp's technical chops, or his gift for visually juxtaposing science fiction elements (robot policemen, aliens, mecha) over footage of his native South Africa. It is, however, unclear that he knows what it actually means when he does so. District 9 betrays a lack of insight--but just as much, a lack of interest--in the implications of his special effects.

Arturo R. Garcia raises several valid questions at Racialicious, in the brilliantly-titled post Shrimpin' Ain't Easy:

Why is [head alien] Christopher so much smarter than his fellow refugees? How could he be the only one trying to find a way out, or to know/care enough to clothe himself in a 'human' manner? And, if humans and Prawn are able to understand each other by the time the 'footage' is released, why did the documentarians - because that's how the first half of this film is framed - exclude interviews with any of the aliens in favor of black South Africans telling us how threatened they feel, and white South Africans denigrating the species as a whole?

And fellow commentator Nicole Stamp is more blunt about the film's use of stereotypes:

Why can't the Nigerians just be people with logical motives like money and weapons? Why do they have to go out of their way to be ooga-booga savages? The film would still have held up without the narrative elements of cannibalism and interspecies sex. Why do the blacks have to be sexual degenerates who will eat filth and violate the oldest human taboo by committing cannibalism? The only reason I see is to shoehorn some cheap visceral thrills into the movie. It's lazy, sensationalist writing, and it diminishes the potential for intelligent, nuanced allegory. And it doesn't even make sense.

The portrayal of the gangsters bothered me for another reason. As I was sitting in the theater, when one of the "documentary" interviews comments on the Nigerian crime syndicates, a chuckle went around the audience. The implication was pretty clear: for Americans, Nigeria means spammers and criminals. Three cheers for international stereotyping!

But ultimately, I found District 9's problems to be rooted less in racism and more in a reluctance to engage. Despite being set in South Africa, it's not really an apartheid movie. Despite dealing conspicuously with refugees from outer space, it's not a post-war movie. Nor is it a first-contact movie, or a film about immigration and cross-cultural boundaries. Its goals are modest: to be an action movie, and a showcase for an admittedly impressive set of special effects.

To some extent, this might be preferable to higher ambitions but less success. Executed badly, movies in many of these subgenres are lucky to be hackneyed, if they're not even more offensive than what they decry. From that perspective, it's tempting to absolve Blomkamp for his film's toothlessness--although I think no-one can realistically argue that we live in a post-racist society, it's also hard to say that we need to be told, once again, that apartheid was a bad idea.

Then again, to give him that pass is to treat science fiction simply as a way to rehash simple object lessons from history--a failing often embodied by Star Trek's well-meaning aliens-as-minority trope, which is rarely flattering to anyone involved. In the last few years, we've seen some great sci-fi that uses artistic license to examine political questions (both new and old) from interesting directions: BSG, Torchwood, Pan's Labrynth, Children of Men, The Dark Knight--although they range widely in subtlety, intelligence, and complexity, these movies are undeniably engaged.

District 9 is not. While social redemption might be asking too much, the film is notable in that it hardly ever, in the first half-hour or so--and never after that--bothers to draw a comparison between its South African setting and the alien segregation that theoretically drives its alien-buddy-cop plotline. Nor does it consider the other parallels--colonialism, technological exploitation, literal class warfare--that might be drawn. In fact, by the end of the movie, the status quo has been largely upheld. The resulting experience feels like a bit of a let-down. Given such a compelling setup, you want to say, this is the best you could do?

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