Star Wars Fans Don’t Love Star Wars, They Love to Complain

Although I’m not quite as enthusiastic of a fan of The Last Jedi at its most fervent defenders, I greatly respected that film’s willingness to burn the Star Wars franchise, one of the most historically lucrative intellectual properties around, to the ground and start anew. Rian Johnson’s entry into the Star Wars canon was a bomb meant to blow up age-old traditions from the inside. It states its intentions in blatant terms by literally burning sacred texts, portraying the franchise’s longest-established hero as a coward who wastes his days drinking grotesque alien goo, and spelling out its mission statement in dialogue like, “Let the past die. Kill it if you have to. It’s the only way to become what you’re meant to be.” I was personally more emotionally invested in the earnest, nostalgic mythmaking of The Force Awakens than anything Johnson’s film accomplished, but I do resect the way his flippant blasphemy attempted to smash the reset button on Star Wars at large, making it more palatable to younger fans without prior attachment to the series. It’s understandable why old school Star Wars fans might feel alienated or even offended by that blasphemy; maybe that reaction was even part of the point. What’s less understandable is why they were also furious with the modern revision JJ Abrams gave A New Hope in The Force Awakens, which was extremely cautious in how it updated series lore (and, in my opinion, was an improvement on the source material). What’s absolutely maddening is their disregard for the latest entry in the canon, Solo: A Star Wars Story, which returns the series back to the sci-fi radio serial swashbuckling of the original trilogy, which should be exactly what old school fans want. Longtime Star Wars devotees have no idea what would actually make them happy, except the mundane activity of complaining on the internet.

I had very little interest in seeing Solo: A Star Wars Story after comedic pranksters Phil Lord & Chris Miller were booted from the project in favor of personality-free workman director Ron Howard. Reports that execs were especially frustrated with Alden Ehrenreich’s talents as an actor were especially alarming, considering that Ehrenreich gave one of the most complexly sweet, funny performances in recent memory in Hail, Caesar! just two years ago. It turned out, of course, that paying attention to this production history in real time, knowing things like the fact that Ehrenreich was given an acting coach and that new ideas from the Lord/Miller crew where being shot down in favor of those from series dinosaur Lawrence Kasdan, was only detrimental to Solo’s entertainment potential. I felt like I had been following complaints about Solo: A Star Wars Story on the internet for a full year before the final product actually hit theaters, to the point that I was too exhausted to really care whether it was a good movie or not. It’s a shame, to, because Solo is a really fun sci-fi adventure movie, even as a compromised finished product. As Boomer points out in his review, the first half-hour or so of the film is a little iffy in its handling of the burdens of telling an origin story for a character we already know. However, once Han Solo meets up with Chewbacca in a prison pit, the movie is all cheesy swashbuckling & space heists and I had way more fun with it than I expected to. The average, longtime Star Wars fan did not have fun, if they saw the film at all. They even relished Solo’s box office underperformance as if it were punishment for Disney’s sins against the brand, despite Solo delivering the exact old school Star Wars tone they supposedly wanted to begin with. The most fun Star Was fans had after Solo’s release was complaining online about how corny the movie was in cataloguing how Han Solo got his name, his ship, his buddies and so on. If you have been complaining about how corny Solo is, let me let you in on an open secret: Star Wars has always been corny. You were once too young to notice it; now you’re too cynical to get over yourself enough to enjoy it.

Of course, it’s worth addressing that at least some aversion to the modern Star Wars canon is born of racist & misogynist politics, not matters of taste. Just this week actor Kelly Marie Tran­­ was chased off her Instagram account by Star Wars “loving” trolls who have been relentlessly bullying her for months because they did not appreciate the perceived progressivism of her character arc as Rose Tico in The Last Jedi. Similar complaints have ben lobbed at Rey, Finn, Vice Admiral Holdo, and pretty much anyone who doesn’t resemble the legion of white men who used to command the spotlight in older entries. It’s grotesque behavior that should be called out for its bigotry, but I really do think that regressive politics is just one motivator for longtime Star Wars Complainers. The more widespread problem among (to use a cursed word) the fandom is that complaint culture is Star Wars culture. The (admittedly, objectively bad) prequels from the early 2000s arrived at a time when complaining on the internet was a fresh, novel activity that kept longtime fans busy whining for over a decade before the Disney era sequels arrived. Its presumable that many Star Wars fans out there were socially raised complaining about The Phantom Menace & its ilk on the internet; it’s part of their DNA. The problem extends even further back than that, however. Young fans who first saw A New Hope in 1977 had enough time to grow cynical in the six years until The Return of the Jedi was released in 1983, which gave them plenty to complain about in the adorable teddy bear space alien Ewoks. That’s not even including the two made-for-TV Ewok movies and the cursed Star Wars Holiday Special that gave “fans“ complaint fodder between proper franchise entries. If, in all these instances, the loudest complainers speak for the hegemony at large, The Old School Star Wars Fandom only enjoys two out of the ten movies in the Star Wars canon: A New Hope & The Empire Strikes Back. Not only is that a dismal percentage for a supposed devotee, but the practice of complaining about everything under the Star Wars umbrella has become such an ingrained routine that when something like Solo actually does recapture the old school sci-fi swashbuckling charm of those two pictures, they’re entirely unsure how to enjoy it without complaining about it.

Usually, intensely dedicated fandoms complain because they have too specific of an idea of what an entry into their pop culture obsession of choice should be, especially in adaptations of pre-existing material, instead of enjoying it for what it is. Star Wars “Fans” certainly suffer that pitfall to an extent, forming concrete *shudder* “headcannons” of what should happen in Star Wars movies based on pre-existing video games, novels, fan theories, and (most disgustingly) regressive race & gender politics. In a roundabout way, though, the recent films are giving them exactly what they want: a reason to complain on the internet. If Solo’s old school swashbuckling cheese isn’t faithful enough to the Star Wars originals’ tone to satisfying these serial complainers, it’s doubtful anything ever will be. I’m only respecting The Last Jedi’s flippant blasphemy more the further I get away from it. Star Wars Complainers deserve to see their sacred texts burn to make room for new, potentially appreciative fans who haven’t spent the last few decades exhaustively complaining about the thing they supposedly love most. New fans at least stand a chance of actually finding joy in what’s projected on the movie screen, instead of finding joy in bitterly abusing its stars & creators on the computer screen.

-Brandon Ledet

Star Trek Beyond, and Beyond

EPSON MFP image

Okay, folks, let’s talk about Star Trek.

When I was a kid, I was really into fantasy books. I loved The Chronicles of Narnia, The NeverEnding Story, and the Oz books (Tik Tok of Oz was my favorite) and I read them over  and over again. Then, the summer after I turned nine (1996, if you care), I spent the days with a trio of home schooled boys and their mother, who ran a de facto home daycare out of her home. Our days were pretty structured, with outdoor time and reading time, and we would watch a movie every day after lunch; frequently, this consisted of watching various Star Trek films, usually Wrath of Khan, The Search for Spock, or The Undiscovered Country (I had actually seen The Voyage Home many times before, as it was one of the few VHS tapes we owned, but had never connected it to a larger franchise, thinking of it only as “the whale movie”).

An obsession took root and hollowed me out. When the local NBC affiliate started syndicating reruns of The Next Generation in the afternoons, I suddenly had direct access to the franchise every day. My family didn’t have a lot of money, but they did their best to help buy action figures of the characters; the ones I didn’t have I made out of Happy Meal toys by painting Starfleet uniforms on them. I built a custom bridge playset out of  discarded scraps from my father’s woodworking and created new worlds for my favorite characters to explore. We didn’t have UPN, so my aunt who lived in Raleigh would record episodes of Voyager on tapes and mail them to me, and I watched those same twelve episodes until I could recite them by heart. I lived, ate, and breathed Star Trek for the better part of a decade, much to my father’s chagrin, with only occasional bouts of superhero interest. Later that year, I was taken to my first convention (with guest George Takei!) at the now-defunct Baton Rouge Hall Convention Center, where I was one trivia question away from winning an original script from the filming of classic Star Trek episode “Mirror, Mirror.” Knowing that the captain of the Reliant was Captain Terrell was not enough; knowing that McCoy’s daughter was named Joanna was not enough. Can you imagine how much smaller my student debt would be now if I had a Takei-signed copy of a “Mirror, Mirror” script? My developing brain learned a new lesson that day: every bit of information about Star Trek must be absorbed and stored, for the rest of forever, in case it came in handy again.

After the premiere of Battlestar Galactica, I had to take some time away from Star Trek. BSG was just so unlike it (or anything else) and so steeped in the contemporary political landscape that, to my cynical teenage self, Star Trek seemed immature in comparison. It didn’t help that the last TV series, the prequel Enterprise, had been reprehensibly awful for nearly all of its run; Star Trek was a dead franchise. There’s a reason that I wrote my master’s thesis on Battlestar and not Voyager. And so, with the last two feature films with the cast of NextGen being colossal failures (Insurrection received mixed reviews initially, but 2002’s Nemesis was the lowest grossing ST feature of all time), the well was capped in 2005, with the airing of the series finale of Enterprise. For the first time since 1987, there was no new Star Trek.

I’ve touched on this briefly in a few other things I’ve written here (and on my personal blog, and on bathroom walls, and interjected verbally into conversation without invitation), but Star Trek is an optimistic, progressive vision of humanity at its very core. From 1966, when the original pilot for the classic series saw a woman as second-in-command of the ship (an idea that NBC executives immediately rejected) and the series proper showed POC and women in positions of authority and respect, the show has tested the boundaries of social stigmas by pushing against them. The original series saw the first scripted interracial kiss on television in the episode “Plato’s Stepchildren,” and, despite being a Cold War product, saw a passionately patriotic Russian crewman take his place on the bridge alongside characters representing various ethnicities and backgrounds. The show was not without flaw in this arena; on the one hand, instead of casting a real Indian woman as Lieutenant Rhada in “That Which Survives” and “Requiem for Methuselah,” it appears that they cast a white actress and put her in brownface and a bindi. On the other hand, given the era in which the series was being broadcast, it’s commendable that some effort was made at all. Another example is Mexican actor Ricardo Montalban, who was cast as Indian Khan Noonien Singh; although this is problematic in that it it endorses the idea that POC of different ethnic backgrounds are interchangeable, it was groundbreaking and progressive for its day, and that humanism and progressivism is Star Trek’s best quality. No other media franchise has done so much for the cause of representation. In her autobiography Beyond Uhura, Nichelle Nichols called the series “a vehicle for [progressive] ideals about equality, freedom, and personal accountability,” for “audiences to enjoy, cherish, and incorporate into their own hopes fot the future and humanity.”

What I’m getting at here is that I’ve spent large portions of my life thinking about the world of this franchise, its implications, its role in society, it’s fictional society’s role in the text, etc., for better or worse. I’m not a Star Trek fan, I’m a Star Trek academic, with all the intense scholarship and rigorous thought that such a term implies. I’ve spent time pondering the role of the capitalism-free Federation in the larger galactic economy, what it’s like to serve aboard a starship as a civilian scientist, and whether or not it makes any sense that Sisko’s father could really run a Creole restaurant in the French Quarter (represent!) given that no one uses money. I’m a proponent of considering Galaxy Quest the tenth Star Trek film in order to maintain the integrity of the odd/even law of quality. If you want my quick rundown: the original series is Star Trek at its purest, NextGen is Star Trek at its best, DS9 is Star Trek at its smartest, Voyager is the Star Trek with the most squandered potential, and Enterprise is Star Trek at its most tired. Wrath of Khan is undoubtedly one of the most literary science fiction films ever made and is a personal favorite. My favorite author in the extended universe is Peter David, and his New Frontier series is a delight for a long term fan; I also highly recommend Greg Cox’s Rise and Fall of Khan books and anything by Diane Duane. The best fanseries is Star Trek Continues, although Renegades is laudable for its concept even if its goals are a little lofty, and Of Gods and Men gives me the warm and fuzzies. Are we all on board now? Are my credentials well established? Ok.

I considered watching and reviewing all of the Star Trek films that came before in the leadup to Star Trek Beyond, which will premier this summer. I ultimately decided not to do so, not simply because there are so many and the time between now and then is so short, but because the last thing(s) the internet needs are more reviews of the Star Trek movies. If you took all of the reviews of the films that that have ever been written, then printed them out at size ten font on a strip of ticker tape paper, the text would go all the way to Romulus and back (don’t question my math or astronomy). That’s a fact.* I do think it’s a good time to talk about the reboot in general, however, with the sequel looming on the horizon and a Bryan Fuller-produced TV series set to begin airing next year. So, let’s talk about JJ Abrams.

Abrams is a real, Spielbergian film-maker. I know that there are some who consider this heretical, and I understand their objections on the grounds that their output is of significantly different qualities. Cloverfield may have had equivalent cultural impact to Jaws, one could argue (in that both hit theatres and changed the landscape for years afterward with regards to style and tone), but it couldn’t come close to having the same kind of longevity and quality. As much as Super 8 (a movie that is 95% perfection) apes E.T., it had no hope of ever being as well-beloved. Until The Force Awakens, nothing Abrams made had the kind of staying power that Spielberg did; this is despite the similarities between the two men. I touched briefly (in my Blood Massacre review) on the fact that Abrams wrote to Don Dohler and composed the music for his Galaxy Invader, but that’s really only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to his interest in getting into film from an early age. Abrams is undoubtedly passionate about his work and his features are generally enjoyable if fleeting in their relevance.

Was he the right man to reintroduce Star Trek to the masses? Even in hindsight, it’s not really clear. The last time the franchise had any real mainstream penetration was with Deep Space Nine, as both Voyager and Enterprise were considered niche television in comparison to the relatively well-known shows that had preceded them. As a result, it had been nearly ten years since anyone outside of insiders had thought about Star Trek in any real way, and Abrams was riding high on the surprise success of Cloverfield when his name was bandied about to direct the reboot. To look back at the franchise’s history for a comparison, consider what happened British novelist Nicholas Meyers was hired to take over the film series and direct the first sequel, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The first film, Robert Weiss’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture, wasn’t well-received critically but generated sufficient revenue to warrant a second picture; Meyers had a reputation as a man who could bring a film in on time and under budget, so Paramount tapped him to bring the entire Star Trek franchise to its conclusion. The young director had never seen a single episode before, so he watched the entire series from start to finish to get a clearer idea of how to pay homage to the show and create something that would appeal to the masses and long term fans.

To do so, he chose to bring back longtime favorite villain Khan and make the film a direct sequel to the 1967 episode “Space Seed.” In it, Kirk and company find Khan and his acolytes in suspended animation in space, genetically engineered supersoldiers left over from a catastrophic war on Earth in the dark days of the 1990s (time marches on). Khan and his coterie attempt to hijack the Enterprise; when Kirk eventually defeats him, he mercifully maroons Khan and the others on an idyllic world where they can live out their lives in relative freedom rather than in a prison cell. Meyers took this idea and turned it into Paradise Lost writ large across the Star Trek universe, interpreting this as Kirk literally casting Khan down from the heavens and crafting his film around the return of Khan as a somewhat sympathetic figure of evil who seeks Ahab-like revenge against Kirk. The truly genius thing about the narrative is that the knowledge of what happened in the series adds to the intrigue but is not required for the enjoyment of the film overall; as a result, the film was such a critical and financial success that Paramount decided to make more sequels, extending the franchise and leading to its further growth.

In comparison, JJ Abrams’s Star Trek is not as successful. Abrams freely admitted that he didn’t spend much time revisiting the Star Trek of yesteryear for thematic or narrative inspiration. Instead, his first film focused more on echoing the cinematic aesthetics of the original 1977 Star Wars film, including the destruction of planets, frenetically energetic action scenes, cantinas with strange aliens, and other ideas that, arguably, don’t belong in Star Trek. There was a distinct lack of the philosophical humanism and social commentary that characterized what this franchise is supposed to represent. So did I hate it?

No, actually. The 2009 Star Trek film is delightful, in my opinion. Yes, it’s different from the canon. Yes, it’s not “my” Star Trek. Yes, it makes a lot of mistakes. Yes, its reboot/requel nature means that the only element of the franchise that remains in canon is the regrettable prequel series Enterprise. Yes, a lot of the elements make no real sense (why the hell would you build a starship of that size in a quarry in Iowa instead of in orbit?). Yes, it’s loud and kind of dumb. Yes, it was sexist in ways both obvious (nuKirk isn’t just a horndog, he’s a straight up creep) and small (Starfleet crewmembers’ rank is shown by the pleating on the wrist; by making women’s uniforms sleeveless, the film literally strips them of their rank). I’m not ignorant of or necessarily “okay” with all of that.

But for me personally, the first film in this new series did not have to be philosophical in the way that the original series and its descendants usually were (First Contact is a straight up zombie body horror movie set in the Star Trek universe, and I love it despite its tonal inconsistency with the rest of the films). Abrams’s Star Trek had one job: to get people interested in Star Trek again, to bring to the masses a sense of excitement and majesty and wonder about this world and its characters. And, hey, mission accomplished. The movie didn’t have to address human nature or racism or the inherent evils of totalitarianism or the rights of sentient technological intelligence or the importance of tolerance. The film needed to grab attention, so that Abrams could address all of those things in the next film, returning Star Trek to its humanistic and optimistic roots.

But Star Trek Into Darkness didn’t do that. Instead, it doubled down on the blockbuster elements of the first film, with more fights and more out of character moments. Having Spock fly into a rage in the first film, in defiance of what that character should do, was an interesting moment, but having him do the exact same thing in Into Darkness was a huge mistake; how is the audience supposed to set a baseline expectation of who the notably stoic and logical Spock is supposed to be when he flies off the handle in every appearance? Having Uhura pester Spock about their relationship in the middle of a mission damages all of the positive work that was done expanding her character in the first film. And, worst of all, they made Khan a white guy. And not just any white guy; the most British, whitest, most casually ableist, classist actor out there: Benedict Cumberbatch (I’ll be writing more about this soon, when I finish a write-up about why we won’t be performing an Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. review of Doctor Strange until after the film is out of theatres). Yes, as discussed above, Khan was originally played by a Mexican actor and not a Hindu one, but that was progressive for its time, and casting a white actor in a Hindu role, the way that Into Darkness does, would have been regressive two decades ago. There are a lot of fun moments in Into Darkness (and if you don’t have a fetish for Chris Pine in a wetsuit, get ready to develop one), but it failed utterly on the whole to be Star Trek, instead just being a forgettable sci-fi action adventure wearing its clothes. As The Mary Sue recently asked, where are the radical politics of modern Star Trek?

In recent months, we’ve heard very little about the upcoming third film in the reimagined franchise. Concerns that were raised early in the production, like those that arose from Abrams handing the reins over to Fast/Furious franchise director Justin Lin, were largely put to bed when it was revealed that cast member (and notable “one of us” nerd Simon Pegg) would be working on the screenplay. Since then, there’s largely been a dearth of information about the film. That’s not a good sign. This year is the franchise’s 50th Anniversary (and the 20th Anniversary of my induction into the fandom), but where is the hype? Compare this to the lead up to the 50th Anniversary Special of Doctor Who from a couple years back, which featured retrospective specials, an anniversary team-up, a new line of merchandise, and the introduction of a new direction for the franchise. We’ve got a new film coming out in less than three months, and so far we’ve had one trailer, which was met with a collective “meh.”** As Gizmodo recently asked, why aren’t we hearing more about this movie?

Overall, as a Star Trek fan, I’m cautiously optimistic. Beyond could be the return to form that we’ve been waiting for all this time. But to be honest, I’m more excited about the upcoming television series, for a lot of reasons. For one thing, the film franchise will continue to be beholden to the skeleton of the original series, which means sticking to the characters from that show and not being able to expand as much as a new series would. For another, a new series means more material, with new Star Trek to watch every week rather than every few years. Further, Bryan Fuller has previously said that, given the opportunity to helm a Star Trek TV series, he would love to cast Angela Bassett as the captain, which is an idea that I am so on board for. More recent news has led to speculation that the new series will not be a continuation of the NextGen chronology but take a step back to cover the adventures of the Enterprise-B under the command of Sulu’s daughter Demora; this would be set during the middle of the century jump from Kirk to  Picard, and would also be the first time that we had an Asian (specifically Japanese) captain. (News that Demora will be mentioned, and perhaps even seen, in Star Trek Beyond has further fueled this belief.) In even more recent news, Nicholas Meyers, who brought Star Trek back from the edge of death before, has been announced as a consultant on the new series; frankly, there’s no reason to suspect that the new series will be anything other than perfection, and I’m really looking forward to it.

What are your thoughts on Abrams’s Star Trek, and the Star Trek that is to come? Are you excited about Beyond?

*No, it isn’t.

**It’s time for everyone to accept that there will never be a sci-fi/Beastie Boys mashup better than the BSG music video treatment of “Sabotage”. Here’s the side-by-side comparison, just for your edification.

-Mark  “Boomer” Redmond

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

disaster

fourstar

One thing that’s always disturbed me about “doomsday preppers” & “survival” enthusiasts is that they always seem to be perversely looking forward to the post-apocalyptic scenarios they’re supposedly preparing against. When preppers warn of possible end-of-the-world scenarios that will tear society to shreds, the first thing that always comes to mind is the question “Who would want to survive that?” Whether the world as I know it ends by zombie outbreak, alien attack, or (most likely) nuclear fallout, I’d honestly rather die that pick through the wreckage with the paranoid, power-hungry bullies who had been anticipating that downfall. Apparently I’m not alone in that opinion.

10 Cloverfield Lane is less of a “sister film” sequel to the (shrill, annoying, insufferable) 2008 found-footage sci-fi horror Cloverfield & more of a tense, horror-minded thriller about the monstrous spirit lurking within doomsday prepper culture. I’m not sure that it’s the first film to depict the selfish nastiness & misanthropy at the heart of “survival” types in the context of the horror genre, but it’s the first I’ve seen and it’s damn effective. After a brutal car accident, a young New Orleans woman (played by Faults‘s un-deprogrammable cult fanatic & Scott Pilgrim’s mall punk girlfriend Mary Elizabeth Winstead) finds herself chained to the wall of a mysterious basement wearing only her underwear. Her captor (played by a beyond terrifying John Goodman in what might be a career-high performance) attempts to convince her that she’s “lucky” to be contained in his bunker because “there’s been an attack” & “everyone outside [the shelter] is dead.” Skeptical of her captor’s “generosity” & the idea that “getting out of [there] is the last thing [they] want to do”, our hero carefully attempts to piece together exactly what the strange man wants her for, what’s waiting for her in the outside world, and what’s her safest, most expedient form of escape. 10 Cloverfield Lane keeps the answers to these questions shrouded for as long as possible, but one thing is certain throughout: whatever monstrous threat is waiting outside the shelter could not be has as awful as the one running the show within.

Part of the reason 10 Cloverfield Lane is such a great film is that it’s the exact opposite of its predecessor. Ditching the shaky cam blur that made Cloverfield such a nauseous mess, the film adopts a very grounded, straight-forward visual style that recalls William Friedkin’s masterful stage play adaptations Bug, The Birthday Party, and The Boys in the Band. More importantly, the first Cloverfield film never developed its characters beyond shrill archetypes fleeing danger. When someone’s endlessly shrieking “Rob’s got Beth on the phone! Rob’s got Beth on the phone!” and you don’t know or care who Rob & Beth are, it’s difficult to be anything but annoyed. 10 Cloverfield Lane, by contrast, locks its audience in a basement with a small cast of fearful doomsday survivors suffering under the power dynamics of the cycles of abuse. It’s much easier to be engaged by a film on an emotional level in that kind of scenario.

There is something very essential that both Cloverfield films share, however: the overwhelming power of their central mysteries. If these two films are to be understood as a loose anthology, it’s the basic trick of keeping the audience in the dark that binds them. 10 Cloverfield Lane ups the ante by not only clouding the truth about what exact outside force is looming as a threat over its proceedings (zombies, Russians, Martians, nuclear war, and mutant space worms are all suggested at some point), but also introducing a complexly monstrous threat from within the characters’ ranks that is simultaneously abusive, protective, and difficult to understand. The film’s woman-in-captivity terror is far from unique (actually, it seems to be somewhat of a full-blown trend recently) but the way its Stockholm syndrome familial bonds & doomsday prepper cultural context complicates that narrative allows the film to crawl under your skin in a way that its predecessor never even approached, whether or not its threat was just as mysterious. All of this, a go-for-broke third act that throws all caution to the wind, an expert use of the Shondells classic “I Think We’re Alone Now” to boot. 10 Cloverfield Lane shook me, surprised me, and confirmed my deepest fears about “survival” nuts’ ugly thirst for post-apocalyptic power grabs. That’s far more than I could’ve expected from a “spiritual sequel” to a found footage horror I failed to enjoy all three times I gave it a shot.

-Brandon Ledet

Cloverfield (2008)

EPSON MFP image

twohalfstar

News broke late last week that sometime after J.J. Abrams had wrapped filming on Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, his production company Bad Robot had “secretly” filmed a “blood-relative” followup to his 2008 production Cloverfield. I personally had a mixed reaction to the revelation that a second Cloverfield film is headed our way. I absolutely hated the original Cloverfield film when it was released in 2008. Loathed it. A sequel (or a “blood relative” semi-sequel) would not likely be something I’d be interested in, then, except that the trailer for 10 Cloverfield Lane is so thoroughly badass that it made me reconsider my stance on the original entirely. So, for the third time in eight years I decided to give Cloverfield a chance to grow on me. I’m bummed to report that although my hatred for the film has calmed down a great deal, it’s still not my thing.

Found footage horror films are a dime a dozen (almost literally; their attractively low production costs are a large part of why they’re so plentiful). Cloverfield is a step above the rest in terms of what it accomplishes with the limited scope of the found footage horror as a genre. On the monster end of the equation, the movie nails everything it aims for. Its lumbering, Godzilla-sized creature is a sight to behold (whenever you can get a good glimpse of it) and the broad strokes of its threat on New York City is complimented nicely by an evil army of tiny insectoid (baby?) versions of the larger creature. The movie is smart not to over-detail exactly why or how the monster arrived. Is it from the ocean floor? Is it from another planet? These questions are asked, but never answered. Instead, Cloverfield focuses on detailing the mayhem: rockets launched, buildings demolished, oil tankers tipped & set aflame. It’s honestly not at all hard to see why so many people have latched onto Cloverfield as a breath of fresh air in the creature feature genre.

What sinks the film for me is the human end of the equation. The characters are understandably panicked by the sight of a grand scale monster tearing the city down around them, but their shrill, frantic reactions are relentless & honestly, annoying. As an audience member it’s far more entertaining to focus on what the gigantic (alien?) beast is up to instead of hearing someone shriek “Rob’s got Beth on the phone! Rob’s got Beth on the phone! Rob’s got Beth on the phone!”, especially since Rob & Beth are so vaguely defined that they’re barely more than total strangers. It’s an exciting feeling to be chased down to a creature you barely comprehend, but when you’re only interacting with the damned thing through brief flashes & the creatures you do spend time with are just as barely-comprehendible New York City nobodies, the whole ordeal can be very frustrating. Despite the presence of future-greats Lizzie Caplan & T.J. Miller, the human toll in Cloverfield feels greatly deserved, a debt well paid. I wanted (most of) these characters to die at the monster’s hands(? tentacles?). I doubt that was the desired effect.

Still, I find myself excited for 10 Cloverfield Lane. Maybe it’s the narrative remove from the found footage format that’s working for me in that ad? Cloverfield aims for a kind of authenticity that I’m not sure it achieves. It bends over backwards to make sure there’s a reason why the cameraman (Miller) would be filming in the first place (a going away party for Rob! Rob! Roooooooob!). It goes way overboard on that end, though, with the cameradude explicitly saying “This is going to be important. People are going to want to see this.” There are also some eyeroll-worthy instances of coincidence (like the Statue of Liberty’s head rolling to a stop at these exact characters’ feet) & terrible self-survival choices (even for the horror genre) that compromise the film’s attempts to feel like a document of a “real” supernatural event. Really, though, what doesn’t work for me in Cloverfield is its human casualty stockpile. It’s especially sad that they’re so blandly represented & so unable to generate sympathy even though the monster mayhem doesn’t start until 20 minutes into the runtime & the characters in question never leave our sight. They’re always around, waiting to baffle & annoy. 10 Cloverfield Lane promises almost the exact opposite experience: three characters trapped in a small space through a cinematic lens instead of a faux documentary one. I expect that set-up (and what promises to be one intense John Goodman performance) will be a much more satisfying experience. I believe this despite optimistically giving the first Cloverfield a shot three separate times, with my opinion only being raised from white hot anger to mild displeasure. That’s still progress, I guess.

-Brandon Ledet

 

 

 

 

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015)

EPSON MFP image

fourhalfstar

I can’t tell if J.J. Abrams’ current career status would be a nerd’s wildest dream or their worst nightmare. Both? Simultaneously tasked with commanding sci-fi nerdom’s two most beloved properties, Star Wars & Star Trek, I’m sure he’s giddy with the power of adapting two franchises he surely grew up loving. Nerds are a tough bunch to please, though, so there’s an absurd amount of external pressure to not muck up their sacred texts, a pressure even Star Wars creator George Lucas wasn’t protected from (after he admittedly mucked them up spectacularly). One of the most delightful things I have to report about Abrams’ first Star Wars feature (of presumably many to come), The Force Awakens, is simply that it is by no means a misstep or a failure. I’m in a nice sweet spot of expectation where I grew up loving the original Star Wars trilogy, but not to a rabid, detail-obsessed degree that would leave me nitpicking whatever Abrams delivered. Coming from that perspective, I can’t exactly speak on behalf of Star Wars fanatics, but as a movie lover it’s hard to imagine that they’d be anything but pleased by The Force Awakens as a finished product. A great balance of enthusiastic fan service & promising new ideas/story threads, the latest entry in the Star Wars universe is far from the muted, just-good-enough, tragedy-averted compromise of 2015’s The Peanuts Movie (or Abrams’ own Star Trek work, for that matter). It’s an actually-great, entirely successful new birth for the franchise, sometimes feeling like it could be in contention as being nearly just as good as Episodes IV or V. The overall feeling I got while watching The Force Awakens is “What more could you ask for?” Abrams has successfully walked the Star Wars tightrope & delivered something sure to please both newcomers & skeptics and, more importantly, something that’s deliriously fun to watch when divorced from the burden of expectation.

Of course, because the film is so fresh & so highly anticipated, there’s an intense fear over the possibility of spoilers among some viewers, so I’ll try to tread lightly in this review. Even a simple roll call feels like a small betrayal, but it’s a somewhat necessary one. On the fan service end of Abrams’ well-calculated formula, the film could’ve just as easily been titled Star Wars Episode VII: The Gang’s All Here. Luke Skywalker’s importance to the universe has escalated to mythical proportions as he’s reported to be “the last Jedi.” His sister Leia has graduated from princess to general, establishing herself as the figurehead of The Resistance. Speaking of which, The Resistance is an obvious stand-in/update for The Rebel Alliance of the original trilogy, just as its The First Order big bad is a stand-in/update for the older films’ Galactic Empire. The only figure that seems to not have changed a lick is swashbuckling smuggler Han Solo, who remains as steadfast in his personality as a droid would, just as unable to evolve in his demeanour as the same-as-ever C-3PO. The characters are far from the only elements re-purposed from the franchise’s origins, though. A quest to locate Luke & the wisdom of Jedi knowledge is very much reminiscent of Luke’s quest to train with Yoda. There’s also some major theme callbacks like struggling with identity in the context of parentage and, of course, the eternal struggle of Good vs. Evil (in the succinctly-framed balance of The Force) mixed among much smaller tips of the hat to details like space chess & the infamous Cantina scene. I also had a lot of fun with the way it indulged in recreations of the older films’ exact screen wipes & Force-manipulation battles (which are essentially 100% sound cues & intense trembling). The greatest trick The Force Awakens pulls off, though, is when it finds a metaphor for its own existence in the callbacks. For instance, an almost exact replica of The Death Star is represented here, except that it’s 20 times larger, much like Abrams’ budget vs. what Lucas was originally working with. And then, of course, there’s the BB-8 “ball droid”, which is essentially a cuter, more technically impressive, surprisingly versatile version of R2-D2. It’s a modern update to a classic model, much like the film itself.

Speaking of BB-8, that little bugger has got to be the most exciting new addition to the Star Wars canon right? It’s at least the film’s breakout star, a kind of acknowledgement to the merchandising end of the franchise (in that it’s super cute & palatable for children), but also a ruthless, shrewd, determined, even dangerous character in its own right (possibly in a conscious effort to distance its cuteness from the heavily debated, somewhat purposeless existence of Ewoks). For the full year of advertising we all survived in order to get to this point, all I could think about in relation to this film was BB-8. Comedian Paul F. Tompkins’ four second delivery of “I’m Ball Droid. I gotta roll on out of here,” got me more hyped on watching The Force Awakens more than any particular ad did (and, of course, that clip continuously played through my head once I actually got to watch it). There are a lot of of other great, new characters introduced to the Star Wars universe in The Force Awakens, including a new possible future for the Jedi tradition, a rage-filled Sith-in-training prone to on-brand temper tantrums, and a Storm Trooper With a Heart of Gold, but in a lot of ways they feel like echoes of characters we’ve seen in the past films (well, except maybe for that Storm Trooper dude). There’s just something really special about the BB-8, whether or not it’s taking up the baton from a still-beloved R2-D2. It’s a pretty remarkable achievement in character design as well as exploitation of body language & subtle vocal manipulation. For new viewers entering the Star Wars universe for the first time with The Force Awakens (and they do exist) a lot of old, well-established familial ties & big concepts like The Force are going to be somewhat off-putting, since the film is not going to be able to hold their hands through the catch-up process, but BB-8 is such a great encapsulation of what makes the franchise work for so many people that it might not be a problem. It’s the perfect little tour guide for a space-set soap opera that’s only going to get more tangled & complex as these films continue to be produced (which will probably be for eternity, considering how much money this one will make at the box office). It’s instantly loveable & accessible.

I’m not going to pretend that The Force Awakens is perfect. I was a little off-put by some of the CGI reliance, particularly when it came to intimate interactions with alien faces. A lot of the CGI is nicely restrained & deftly employed, but it gets tiresome to look at (and is guaranteed to age poorly) whenever it’s used on a green-screened character with more than a line or two of dialogue. I also felt that the action sequences could sometimes go a bit long in a way that softened their impact, but that’s a small quibble, especially considering just how visceral & vicious things get in the climactic lightsaber battle. For the most part, though, it’s a remarkably difficult film to complain about. Even with lines like the racially-tinged throwaway gag “Droid, please”, which should fall flat in a very uncomfortable way, the film somehow makes it work. It’s easy to tell that Abrams & his collaborators were huge fans of the franchise doing their best to deliver a film that most people could love. He finds an immensely satisfying balance here of recreating past successes from the original trilogy, but with entirely new purpose. Much like the universe it inhabits, The Force Awakens feels old, beat up, lived in, the exact kind of world-building last year’s The Guardians of the Galaxy strained to establish in just one film, but this time with an extensive back catalog of content for support. The film’s ragtag group of heroes more or less winging it in their quest to overthrow The First Order may be very reminiscent of a similar motley crew who tried to overthrow The Galactic Empire (for instance, a female lead most certainly not in need of constantly being saved shouts “Stop taking my hand!”, which could have very easily been an old-school Leia moment), but they’re more of a refreshing evolution than a shameless retread. Sure, The Force Awakens can rely on work already put in by past films for lines like “Without the Jedi there can be no balance in the Force” to actually mean something, but it also finds its own touching moments, like in the question of when is running from a threat a form courage & when is it a submission to fear or in finding the simple goodness of people in exchanges like “Why are you helping me?” “Because it’s the right thing to do.” Most importantly, it feels like all of the ground work of pleasing fans through callbacks & establishing its own competence as a unique property are now out of the way, which is in a lot of ways a burden lifted. When the film ends, you’re genuinely excited to see where the story goes next because the future of the franchise is promised to be less self-reflective, more open-ended, uncharted territory. I’m already getting amped about Episode VIII‘s release in Spring 2017 as I type this, which I guess is a sign that Abrams did something exactly right in The Force Awakens.

Bonus points: There are a lot of great new-to-the-scene actors in this film – Adam Driver, John Boyega, Lupita Nyong’o, etc. What really made me giddy, though, is that both Domhnall Gleeson & Oscar Isaac made the cast, which makes for just about the most unexpected Ex Machina reuninon I could possibly imagine. Those two films are so far from one another on the opposite ends of the sci-fi spectrum that it’s difficult to justify that they’re billed as being in the same genre at all.

-Brandon Ledet

A Latecomer’s Journey through the Mission: Impossible Franchise

EPSON MFP image

A few months ago I was so blown away by the ridiculous spectacle of the trailers for Furious 7  that I doubled back & watched all seven Fast & Furious movies for the first time ever just to see what it was all about. What I found was a franchise that I had rightly ignored as a teen for being a mindlessly excessive reflection of what has to be one of the trashiest eras of pop culture to date: that nasty little transition from the late 90s to the early 00s. Over the years, though, I’ve developed an affinity for mindless excess & hopelessly dated trash cinema, so 2015 proved to be the perfect time to watch the Fast & Furious movies from front to end. As expected, they started as a disconnected mess of car porn & Corona soaked machismo, but by the fifth film in the series, something intangible clicked & the movies suddenly pulled their shit together, forming a cohesive action universe built on the tenets of “family”, rapper-of-the-minute cameos, and hot, nasty speed.

I can’t say I was equally blown away by the trailers for the latest Mission: Impossible film, Rogue Nation, as I was by Furious 7‘s more over-the-top flourishes, but there was a similar feeling of being left out there. Rogue Nation was to be the fifth installment of a franchise that’s been around for nearly two decades. Despite the ubiquitousness of the image of Tom Cruise suspended from a ceiling in a white room in 1996, I couldn’t remember ever seeing a single scene from the Mission: Impossible films. The Rogue Nation ads suggested a similar trajectory for the franchise as the Fast & Furious films. It seemed like something along the way had finally clicked for the series, like it now had its own mythology & core philosophy, which is a feeling I’ve never gotten before from the outside looking in. My mission, should I choose to accept it (that’ll be the last time I make that awful joke, I promise) was to come to know & understand the series from the beginning, to figure out exactly what’s going on in its corny super spy mind, the same way I became part of Vin Diesel’s “family”. It turns out that  the story of the Mission: Impossible series is the story of five wildly different directors adopting five wildly different plans of attack on a franchise that didn’t really come into its own until at least three films in.  It’s also, to an even greater extent, the story of Tom Cruise’s fluctuating hair length.

Listed below, in chronological order, are all five feature films in the Mission: Impossible franchise as seen through my fresh, previously uninitiated eyes. Each entry is accompanied by brief re-caps of its faults & charms, but also has its own individual full-length review, which you can find by clicking on the links in the titles themselves. If you are also looking to get initiated into the Mission: Impossible world yourself, but wanted to skip the franchise’s classy-trashy beginnings, I highly recommend starting with the third installment & only doubling back to the first two films if your curiosity is piqued by the heights of the most recent three.

Mission: Impossible (1996)
EPSON MFP imagethree star

What I found at the beginning of the Mission: Impossible saga was unexpectedly classy. This was a retro action movie starring (a pre-Scientology-fueled couch-jumper) Tom Cruise when he still defined what it meant to be Movie Star Handsome. This was 1996, a beautifully naive stretch of the decade before we let rap rock ruin America. This was a dumb action movie with a classic score by Danny Freakin’ Elfman, for God’s sake. These days it’s difficult not to meet news of an old TV show getting a big screen adaptation with a pained groan, but back in its day Mission: Impossible was kind to its source material (despite fans of the original series grousing at its initial release), obviously holding immense respect for the era it came from, while still updating it with a certain amount of mid-90s badassery. Mission: Impossible is essentially a mere three ridiculous action sequences & some much less exciting connective tissue, but there’s plenty of camp value to be found at the very least in its super spy gadgetry. For instance, despite the obviously technically proficient world of international super spies detailed here, they’re all fighting over possession of a floppy disk, a very era-specific MacGuffin that really takes me back. Besides this goofery, there’s also a truly ludicrous scene where a helicopter chases a train into a tunnel, there’s a lot of mileage squeezed out of the high tech masks that allow characters to rip off their faces & become other people, and the infamous Tom Cruise hanging from the rafters sequence features a lot more puke than people typically mention. All of this and Ving Rhames. I cannot stress how much Ving Rhames’ mere presence brings to the table, camp wise.

In the director’s chair: Movie of the Month veteran Brian De Palma, who can be credited for elevating this film above the typical 90s action flick through his ludicrously excessive camera work & lack of visual restraint.
A note on Tom Cruise’s hair: Short, conservative, handsome. This may not seem important yet, but I swear it will be soon enough.

Mission: Impossible 2 (2000)

EPSON MFP imageonehalfstar

It turns out that the rap rock garbage fire I was expecting from the first film was actually alive & well in the the second installment of the series, Mission: Impossible 2. M:I-2 ditches the Brian De Palma sense of 60s chic for a laughably bad excess of X-treme 90s bad taste. Almost everything pleasant about the first Mission: Impossible film is absent in the second. De Palma’s over-the-top abuse of camera trickery is replaced by straight-faced action movie blandness accompanied by non-sarcastic record scratches. Any enjoyment derived from the removal of faces in the first film is ruined here by an unrestrained overuse of the gimmick. The Danny Elfman score from the first film was supplanted by (I’m not kidding, here) a goddamn Limp Bizkit cover of the series’ original theme. Even Tom Cruise’s wardrobe was downgraded. He traded in his tux for a leather jacket that he shows off on his super cool motor bike while shooting his gun with wild abandon. God, I hate this movie. Pretty much the only element of the first film that comes through unscathed is Ving Rhames, who remains a delight in every scene he’s afforded.

In the director’s chair: John Woo, who takes such a strong grip on the franchise’s throat that it feels a lot more likely that this is a spiritual sequel to his Nic Cage trashterpiece Face/Off than it having anything to do with Brian De Palma’s film at all.
A note on Tom Cruise’s hair:  Along with Cruise’s douchier wardrobe, he also adopts a much less respectable hair length that allows his greasy locks to flow in the wind as he slides around on his motorbike & jams to Limp Bizkit. Blech.

Mission: Impossible 3 (2006)

EPSON MFP imagethreehalfstar

It’s difficult to imagine a better corrective for John Woo’s rap rock shit show than the third installment that followed it a whopping six years later. Mission: Impossible 3 opens with a beyond terrifying Phillip Seymour Hoffman moving Tom Cruise’s super spy hero Ethan Hunt to tears while torturing him for information. This moment of intense vulnerability is a far cry from the second film, which was more or less a chance for Cruise to pose as a late 90s badass so X-treme that even his sunglasses exploded. In Mission: Impossible 3, Ethan Hunt becomes a real person for the first time. He’s not Tom Cruise dressed up like a handsome super spy like in the first film or a irredeemable hard rock douchebag like in the second. He’s a vulnerable human being locking horns with a nightmare-inducing Hoffman, who knows how to exploit his weaknesses to get what he wants. Like when the fifth Fast & Furious film discovered its heart in Vin Diesel’s longwinded ramblings about “family”, Mission: Impossible 3 finally pushes the series into a sense of cohesion by reducing its protagonist from an action movie god to a regular dude with a dangerous job. It’s clear how much Mission: Impossible 3 is trying to return to its roots & find itself as early as the opening credits, which bring back the original arrangement of the movie’s theme (as opposed to the Limp Bizkit abomination). What ups the ante here, though, is a one-for-the-record-books performance from Hoffman that elevates the material just as much as Werner Herzog did for that other super soldier Cruise flick Jack Reacher. Hoffman is pure terror here & the movie knows how to put that element to great use. There’s even a scene where, thanks to face-ripping-offing technology, two Phillip Seymour Hoffmans engage in a fist fight in a bathroom. Two Hoffmans! I wasn’t even expecting one, so that was a genuine treat. Bonus points: this film features the most Ving Rhames content of any Mission: Impossible film to date.

In the director’s chair: JJ Abrams, who had only worked in television before rescuing this troubled project from developmental Hell (at one point David Fincher was attached to direct!?). Abrams not only pulled this series’ shit together against the odds, but he also found a way to make the film’s escapist, popcorn movie action clash effectively with its more disturbing elements, specifically Hoffman’s personification of terror.
A note on Tom Cruise’s hair: Much like the movie as a whole, Cruise’s hairdo ditches the embarrassing crudeness of the second film & returns to the handsome tastefulness of the first. I’m telling you; this hair stuff is important.

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)

EPSON MFP imagethreehalfstar

Mission: Impossible 3 (2006)

EPSON MFP image

threehalfstar

campstamp

It’s difficult to imagine a better corrective for the rap rock shit show that was Mission: Impossible 2 than the third installment that followed it a whopping six years later. Mission: Impossible 3 opens with a beyond terrifying Phillip Seymour Hoffman moving Tom Cruise’s super spy hero Ethan Hunt to tears while torturing him for information. This moment of intense vulnerability is a far cry from the second film, which was more or less a chance for Cruise to pose as Limp Bizkit-lovin’, motorbike-ridin’, late 90s badass while some slow motion doves flew around him & everything about him was so X-treme that even his sunglasses exploded. In Mission: Impossible 3, Ethan Hunt becomes a real person for the first time. He’s not Tom Cruise dressed up like a handsome super spy like in the first film or a irredeemable hard rock douchebag like in the second. He’s a vulnerable human being locking horns with a nightmare-inducing Hoffman, who knows how to exploit his weaknesses to get what he wants. Like when the fifth Fast & Furious film discovered its heart in Vin Diesel’s longwinded ramblings about “family”, Mission: Impossible 3 finally pushes the series into a sense of cohesion by reducing its protagonist from an action movie god to a regular dude with a dangerous job.

It’s clear how much Mission: Impossible 3 is trying to return to its roots & find itself as early as the opening credits, which bring back the original arrangement of the movie’s theme (as opposed to the rap rock version from John Woo’s film). M:I 3 even brought back Tom Cruise’s more handsome, less cringe-worthy hair from the first film that was absent in the second, a seemingly shallow detail that I promise makes all the difference. What ups the ante here, though, is a one-for-the-record-books performance from Hoffman that elevates the material just as much as Werner Herzog did for that other super soldier Cruise flick Jack Reacher. Hoffman is pure terror here & the movie knows how to put that element to great use. There’s even a scene where, thanks to face-ripping-offing technology allows for two Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s to engage in a fist fight in a bathroom. Two Hoffmans! I wasn’t even expecting one, so that was a genuine treat.

In addition to the strength of its antagonist & the newfound humanity of its central spy, M:I 3 also intensifies the sheer spectacle of its action sequences. The first film in the series was more or less three great action sequences & some dull filler while the second was a slow build that amounted to one really ludicrous third act. Mission: Impossible 3, on the other hand, features at least seven ludicrous action sequences by my count. There’s some ridiculous use of wind turbines, exploding bridges, and missile-dodging that makes this easily the most over-the-top entry of the series so far in terms of action. These escapist, popcorn movie moments clash very well with the more legitimately thrilling performance from Hoffman & some disturbing imagery like Cruise’s mortified face when his fiancé is in danger or a kinky, horse-shaped leather mask that is used to subdue him.

It’s pretty incredible that Mission: Impossible 3 was so adept at bringing the series back to life, when all signs pointed to it being a doomed project. Released soon after the Scientology-ridicule started troubling Cruise’s career after an especially memorable Oprah appearance, the movie went through two directors (one would’ve been David Fincher, which is almost too good to be true) before landing on JJ Abrams, who had never directed a feature film before. Abrams, perhaps confident due to his extensive work in television, succeeded at the very difficult task of not only pulling this series’ shit together, but also rescuing a troubled project already years in the making. It’s pretty incredible the quality & range of directors Cruise has hired as a producer to helm these films, but it’s even more incredible how much Abrams was able to hold his own in that arena, topping even Brian De Palma’s entry in the franchise by making the best Mission: Impossible film to date.

Side note: In addition to being the best so far, this film also featured the most Ving Rhames content in any Mission: Impossible film to date, which I assure you was not a coincidence.

-Brandon Ledet