Boomer’s Top Films of 2016

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A forewarning: this list is incomplete. As an annual list, it necessarily excises films that I haven’t managed to see this year but I am certain could appear here if I had: Moonlight and Loving are foremost among them, although I also missed Kubo and the Two Strings while it was in theatres and The Edge of Seventeen seems to have flown by with little fanfare, although I thought it looked like a lot of fun. I’m also almost positive that Hail, Caesar! would be on this list, but my friend group has a bit of a procrastination problem, so we missed that when it was in theatres as well.

I’m also completing this list before most of the Christmas releases make their way to theatres (so there’s no Rogue One to be found here, or Passengers, which I am looking forward to seeing) so that I’m not trying to push to finish this list while traveling for the holidays. And, in case the inclusion of the divisive Jupiter Ascending on my list of favorite films from last year didn’t tip you off, this is a highly subjective list of my favorite films of the year, not necessarily those which were objectively the best.

There were also several films I saw this year that will definitely not be making this list, for various reasons. I don’t normally like to make a “worst of” list, but there were some definite stinkers this year. I didn’t care for Batman v. Superman at all, and Independence Day: Resurgence and Deadpool (which I enjoyed more than Brandon did, but it didn’t exactly have me rolling in the aisles), while adequate-if-hollow representations of their individual genres, were nothing to write home about. I also was underwhelmed by Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which is notably not on this list. I got a modicum of enjoyment out of Beasts, finding it to be perfectly serviceable and moderately magical, but overly reliant on CGI and lacking the charm that made the Harry Potter film series work for me, despite a few standout scenes and  an main role for Katherine Waterston, who was in my number one movie last year, Queen of Earth.

Ghostbusters got quite a lot of laughter out of me, but I can’t call it a favorite of the year, and the same can be said of Captain America: Civil War; I may have given it a 4.5 star review, but it hasn’t stuck in my mind the way that other films on this list have. I also found Nicolas Winding Refn’s Neon Demon quite unfulfilling; I know that Brandon gave it a 5 star review, but I was largely disappointed. Among my coven of aesthetes, I’m usually the one who makes the argument that, although we usually think of film as a medium with standard narrative conventions, film can really be anything (an idea we’ll revisit below in the number one entry). With that in mind, I was expecting to really enjoy Neon Demon, but even as an art house film, its Mulholland-Drive-by-way-of-Dario-Argento vibe didn’t quite work for me, even though that description should land it firmly in my heart. As much as I liked the “Are you sex, or food?” question that foreshadowed many of the events to come, and as beautiful and sumptuous the film’s color and direction were, it just didn’t work for me.

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10. Pet: There’s very little that can be said about this film without discussing at least one of its intricate and baroque twists. It’s certainly no masterpiece, but it is genuinely inventive and relentless in its growing unease and unpredictable (but mostly well-earned) path. There’s gore and home invasion and stalking, but none of that really matters once the ball gets rolling. I gently mocked the film as an attempt at doing a more radical “eXtreme” version of the similar story (“It’s like Hard Candy, but with a girl in a cage!”), but that’s not really a knock on the film or its ambition.

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9. The Boy: I genuinely adore Lauren Cohan and have ever since her ill-fated recurring role in an early (read: good) season of Supernatural. That show already had one failed spinoff, but if they really want to get my attention, they’d have Cohan’s Bela return in her own program to act as Hell’s bounty hunter à la the 1998 series Brimstone. I’m genuinely pleased she was in two films this year (even if the other was Batman v Superman). With regards to The Boy, it’s worth noting that it’s not really a great film, although it is sufficiently suspenseful and genuinely creepy. Not every scary movie is (or ought to be) the next big thing in horror, and this movie is fairly run of the mill other than one major element. I love horror, but if there is one thing that I hate about the genre, it’s the fact that the skeptic is always wrong. If a group of teenagers head out into the woods, there will be something scary lurking in the darkness, and the skeptical character will usually be the first to go; if a psychologist and a priest are at odds about whether a young girl is possessed or mentally ill, she will be revealed to have a demon  beneath her flesh; if a person who is certain that phantoms are not real spends the night in a haunted house, he will be terrorized by ghosts; etc., etc. If a film juxtaposes an argument between rationalism and fantasy, the film always shows that the irrational is true. There’s only one franchise in the West that prioritizes skepticism over blind acceptance, and it’s for children: Scooby-Doo (which tells the realest truth– that the greatest evil in the world is done by greedy white landgrabbers). This movie is a breath of fresh air if for no other reason that the audience is presented with what is ostensibly a supernatural horror film about a doll that may or may not be alive, then reveals that there is a grounded, rational explanation, slightly goofy though it may be (and no, it’s  not that Greta has lost her mind). For that alone, it deserves a place on this list.

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8. Ten Cloverfield Lane: Far better than it had any right to be, this sequel in-name-only suffers from an overly elongated denouement that is so tonally dissonant from the film that precedes it that I couldn’t justify placing it any higher on this list. I felt much the same way about Super 8 several years back: 90% of both of these film is absolute perfection, but the unsatisfactorily Syfy Channel ending mars what could be otherwise be an unequivocal classic. Still, the bulk of the film that is spent in John Goodman’s bunker is relentlessly and intoxicatingly tense, and the strong performances from the three players give the film an intimacy that many films that would be called “character pieces” lack.

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7. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping: Easily dismissed as a profoundly stupid film, the mockumentary Popstar is actually an incisive and withering dissection of the dreamy pop culture star-making machine as the industrial complex that it really is. Although some of my fondness for the film is no doubt informed by the loss of my beloved The Soup (I’m still in mourning) and the resultant general dearth of media that is aimed at mocking and disempowering the grotesque machinery of entertainment industry synergy, this is also a movie that rides high on hilarity, with jokes flying off the screen at a rapid pace. The narrative of a band member whose success and ensuing egotism destroys their relationships before realizing that interpersonal connection is more important than fame is a tired one, but at least Popstar is a parody, which makes it work at least as well as its spiritual predecessor Josie and the Pussycats. From mocking Macklemore and the way that his music is paradoxically homopositive and insecure about masculinity (“Equal Rights“), the meaninglessness of hip-hop that apotheosizes empty materialism (“Things in My Jeep”), and the creepy fetishization of military action and nationalism (“Finest Girl (Bin Laden Song)“), the film delivers on a lot of levels.

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6. London Road: Although I already spoke about the film in my review of it, I’d love to reiterate the intrinsic beauty of the way that this film is made and the voices that it uses to speak to us about human nature, in both its beauty and its spitefulness, its heart and its bile, while sidestepping the potential to be overly didactic. Tragedy can birth hope, or more tragedy, or both; communities can do good by creating solidarity and a desire for rebirth or evil by turning its back on those who need help most. The story of the people, in their own words, is at turns revolting and endearing, but never less than mesmerizing.

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5. Arrival: I like Amy Adams, even if her rise to stardom is an utter puzzle to me. To be honest, the first thing I think of when I hear her name is the episode of Charmed where she played a potential Whitelighter who almost kills herself (complete with terrible green screen effect); the second thing I think of is her playing a fat-sucking vampire because of kryptonite in her garden in Smallville (complete with terrible fat suit); the third thing I think of is her appearance as a vaguely self-hating member of Tara’s family in a Very Special Episode of Buffy where magic equals sapphic love (complete with terrible accent). Maybe that says more about myself and my wasted adolescence than it does about Amy (it does), but she’s come a long way since 2000, and I’m glad to see her here in this beautiful film about the nature of existence, how life is transient and ephemeral but also powerful, with ripples and effects that echo into eternity. Some of the plot elements are a little belabored, and I could have done with a little less idealization of romance at the end, but overall this is a touching film that could one day be the Contact of our generation.

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4. Star Trek Beyond: Nearly forgotten among the more high-performing comic book flicks and talking animal movies that made up the bulk of this year’s domestic box office successes, this third film in the reboot series actually feels more relevant now than it did at the time of its release. If the villain of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was Mike Pence (or, more accurately, amorphous forms of violence that are the direct result of suppressing one’s true nature due to political oppression, so… Mike Pence), then the villain of Star Trek Beyond is your average Trump supporter and voter. Krall is a man full of rage, a nationalistic fury forged to white-hot purity because of his viewpoint that the principles of unity and tolerance, the idealistic precepts under which the Federation flies its banner, are weak. In reality, the truth is that he is an anti-intellectual remnant of a bygone era, a time when strength and intimidation, not peace and acceptance, were the greatest of virtues; his madness and anger are the result of a society that has become more utopian in the time that he has been forgotten. Instead of finding a new niche for himself in this strange new world (as embodied in the way that Jaylah, who was born into Krall’s world but escapes it and finds a way to not only survive but thrive in Federation space), he would rather burn it all down than find a way to adapt. Ultimately, society is preserved because unity, peace, and compassion (and art!) are more powerful than the rage of the beast. At the time that the film was released, I could not have foreseen the outcome of the election, and when discussing this philosophical difference in my review stated that it was “not a terribly deep humanistic ideal, and is so faintly traced that the film could be accused of paying lip service to that idea more than actually exploring it.” In the wake of all that has happened in the weeks since the election, it’s an ideal that is worth remembering and even cherishing, and Star Trek Beyond may ultimately be the most prescient Trek since Undiscovered Country.

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3. Don’t Breathe: I wrote pretty extensively about this film in my review, so I’ll just paste over some of my thoughts from that piece: “[Director Fede] Alvarez’s beautiful cinematography and lingering camera work elevate what could otherwise have been a fairly run-of-the-mill horror movie. There’s an attention to detail that bespeaks a greater knowledge of the language of film, and Alvarez is obviously well on his way to being a master linguist. I can’t remember the last time, other than The VVitch, where I felt so much tension in my spine while taking in a fright flick, and I was haunted by the movie for hours after walking out of the theatre.”

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2. Anomalisa: This one is a bit of a technical cheat, since its release date (December 30, 2015; who the hell does that?) meant that there was no way to see the film in time to include it on my list of my favorite films from last year, but also meant that it shouldn’t properly be included in this year’s list since it was technically released in 2015. In case you missed it, Anomalisa is classic Charlie Kaufman madness, filled with quirky characters and sly character development that desperately wants (and often succeeds in having) the viewer sympathize with a main character who is ultimately morally bankrupt and unlikable, but pitiable in his mental dissolution. In my review of the film, I expressed my weariness with the seemingly endless “paint-by-numbers privileged-white-guy-versus-ennui” films that are littering our cultural motion picture landscape; in the ensuing year, I’ve moved past irritation into hostility, but I still recall this film with a great fondness. It’s atypical Kaufman in that it lacks much of the magical surrealism of Being John Malkovich and Synecdoche, New York (minus the conceit that all characters other than Stone and his love interest have identical faces), but the intricacy of its stop-motion beauty far outweighs the mediocrity of its unappealing protagonist.

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1. The Witch: A New England Folktale: How do I love this movie? Let me count the ways! It’s a cinematic masterpiece from the first frame to the last; I’m still anxiously awaiting a second-by-second breakdown by Every Frame a Painting, because each captured moment is elegant and haunting. The film acts as a kind of newly-discovered Nathaniel Hawthorne short story, what with its ruminations on faithfulness and faithlessness, acting as a kind of companion piece to both “Young Goodman Brown” in the way that both highlight the apparent Calvinistic truth that depravity is the true nature of man, and that the carnal world and its temptations must constantly be guarded against lest the smallest of sins (white lies, sexual curiosity, and even neglecting one’s prayers) snowball immediately into damnation. It’s a true New England American Gothic piece in this way, and that voice is clear and revelatory. The only real problem with the film is that it’s at once both a character driven drama, a horror flick, a mood piece, and an art film, and it’s that last one that I think is the biggest hangup for the film’s detractors. Unlike other movies that might fall under the generous “art film” banner, The Witch is not a hard film to follow or understand. If you recommend, for instance, Mulholland Drive to a friend, they may watch but not enjoy it, saying “I didn’t get it.” The danger with The Witch is that, despite its dense layers of subtext and meaning and its reliance on a basic understanding of Puritan morality, many may come away saying “I get it, I just don’t like it,” even though they fail to actually grasp the width and breadth of its mastery.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Star Trek Beyond (2016)

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A few months back, I wrote about the then-upcoming release of Star Trek Beyond and discussed my hopes for the film and the franchise in general. I wasn’t particularly excited after the first trailer, but the second trailer seemed a bit better, and the fact that Simon Pegg was one of the credited writers was certainly a point in the film’s favor, given his actual fondness for the franchise (in comparison to Roberto Orci, which I’ll get to in a minute). A generally favorable early critical response was also heartening, despite the general dearth of any significant marketing push for the film. I did see the same TV spots play before almost every YouTube video I watched in the past three weeks, but I can never tell if that’s marketed to me specifically as a Star Trek nerd scholar or indicative of a larger initiative. And, as a scholar, was I satisfied?

Yes? Mostly? This is definitely a fun movie, and a major improvement over the tone deaf Into Darkness, which was bad on a such a high number of levels that it’s difficult to nail down which one was most absurd. Was it the nonsensical nature of the motivation of the film’s antagonists? Was it the fact that their motivation might actually make sense when viewed through the lens of the particular madness of screenwriter and notable 9/11 truther Roberto Orci (there’s a decent article about this on BirthMoviesDeath, which is pretty great even though I have mixed feelings about Devin Faraci)? Was it the recasting of a character whose name is Indian and was previously portrayed by a person of color with Benedict Cumberbatch? It was probably that.

I went into greater detail about my feelings about both of the previous films in this reboot timeline in the previous article, so I won’t get into it here, but I will say that, although this film is being billed as a return to Star Trek’s roots or a real “classic style” Star Trek story, that’s not entirely true. Of course, given that the same thing was said about Insurrection back in 1998 (and, for better or worse, that’s a more or less true description of the film’s premise if nothing else), that’s not necessarily a bad thing. This is still a film that takes characters from a fifty year old television series where most problems were solved within an hour and attempts to map them onto a contemporary action film structure, which works in some places and not in others. Other reviews of the film have also stated that Beyond is a more affectionate revisitation of the original series than the previous two films, which is also mostly true. The film does suffer from the fact that the opening sequence bears more than a passing resemblance to a scene in Galaxy Quest, which is a stark reminder of the kind of fun movie that can be made when someone loves Star Trek rather than simply sees it as a commercial venture. Overall, though, you’d be hard pressed not to get some enjoyment out of this film, Trekker or no.

The film opens 966 days into the Enterprise’s five year deep space exploration mission, and Kirk (Chris Pine) is beginning to feel the weight of both the mission and the impossibility of living up to his father’s legacy. When the ship docks at Starfleet’s newest starbase, Yorktown, a ship appears from a nearby nebula containing one alien astronaut, who says that her ship crashed on a mysterious planet within said nebula and asking for assistance. In true Federation fashion, Kirk and Krew jump at the chance to help out, but are immediately attacked as soon as they penetrate the nebula; the crew is forced to abandon ship, ending up scattered and/or captured by the villainous Krall (Idris Elba), who seeks a doomsday MacGuffin in order to exact violence against the concept of peaceful unity in general and the Federation in particular because of its idealization of these virtues. Along the way, Scotty (Pegg) meets a woman named Jaylah (Kingsman’s Sofia Boutella), who helps him reunite the crew and to plan a rescue and escape.

There’s a lot to love here. There are references peppered throughout to other parts of the franchise, and instead of feeling hamfisted or forced as in previous installments of the reboot series, they feel natural here. There are more overt connections, with the basic plot about a dangerous planet that acts as a graveyard for various interstellar travelers and their ships being somewhat reminiscent of the animated Star Trek series episode “The Time Trap,” as well as one of the proposed fates of a starship lost a century previous being that it was snatched by a giant green space hand, which happened to the original Enterprise in “Who Mourns for Adonis?” Kirk’s opening log even references the fact that there’s a lot of shacking up going on aboard the ship during its mission, which is undoubtedly a reference to the fact that NBC balked at Gene Roddenberry’s proposal that the coed Enterprise crew be composed of roughly half men and half women; the story goes that one exec stated that this would make it seem like there was an awful lot of “funny business” going on. Likewise, Roddenberry’s original script treatment was about a starship that bore the name Yorktown, not Enterprise, leading to the starbase in this film being named for the former. Those are pretty obscure references to pull out and use for the plot of this movie, and that’s pretty indicative of how much this film cares about the fandom. More obscure references, like discussion of the dissolution of the MACOs and the Xindi and Romulan Wars (all of which are references to Star Trek: Enterprise), the possibility of accidentally splicing two people together with transporters (transporter accidents are fairly common in the franchise, but this is probably a shout out to the Voyager episode “Tuvix” in particular), Kirk’s birthday melancholy and even some of the lines he uses in his toast (from Wrath of Khan), and the appearance of a Commodore Paris (the Parises being a family with a long history of Starfleet ervice, most notably Tom Paris of Voyager) are scattered throughout and are, frankly, quite welcome.

Of course, references do not a great Star Trek film make. There are some things that don’t quite work, and given that the film runs just shy of 2 hours and that there has been some discussion of what was cut (mostly backstory for Krall and Jaylah, but smaller moments like Sulu kissing his husband as well), there are some things that don’t quite read as well on screen as they likely did on the page and/or before the film was edited down. I’m also never going to be completely on board with the use of high speed land-based chases in Star Trek; I know that Justin Lin comes from the Fast/Furious franchise so that’s really his wheelhouse, and as a result these sequences at least work better than previous attempts (I’m looking at you, Nemesis). And I know that it’s nitpicky to point this out, but there’s a lot of Hollywood science going on in this movie. First of all, nebulae are not composed of giant rocks; they’re made up of mostly dust and ionized gases. The film presents the nebula surrounding the mystery planet as being more like the Hollywood imagining of what an asteroid belt looks like, with city-sized rocks knocking into each other; real asteroid belts are mostly empty space with some rock throughout (in space, such a small area with such large pieces of debris would mean that the rocks the Enterprise works so carefully to navigate would pulverize each other into dust within a very short time, relatively speaking).

But, this is still a good movie. There is a classic Star Trek idea here, in that Krall hates the idea that the galaxy is uniting under a banner of peace instead of strength/valor and will do terrible things to demonstrate his devotion to his anti-Federation ideals, as well as the fact that he is opposed and ultimately defeated by the strong bonds that the crew of the Enterprise have and their devotion to the ideals of unity and exploration. It’s not a terribly deep humanistic ideal, and is so faintly traced that the film could be accused of paying lip service to that idea more than actually exploring it, but the fact that this film actually bothers to have this idea means that this movie is actually Star Trek, and not just JJ Abrams’s Star Wars demo reel wrapped in Star Trek’s clothes. The new additions to the cast are very engaging as are the old standards, and there’s a lot of story here that makes it well worth investing in a visit to the theatre. The end of the film legitimately left me with damp cheeks (for those of you who have already seen it, I’m talking about the photo that nuSpock finds in Spock Prime’s possessions), and I can’t wait to see it again. It’s not a five-star movie, but it has my seal of approval.

Final thought, though: The Franklin is said to be the first ship capable of achieving Warp Four; on Star Trek: Enterprise, the NX-01 Enterprise is said to be the first ship capable of achieving Warp Five, even though the Franklin seems to have come later in the timeline given that her captain’s service record includes participating in the Xindi conflict, which followed shortly after Enterprise’s first few years of service. I’m not saying that this can’t work (the Franklin could actually be older than the Enterprise but Captain Edison took command of her later, like how OG Kirk took over command of the Enterprise from Christopher Pike, took command when Robert April was promoted to Commodore). I’m honestly just pointing this out because if I don’t mention it, someone will call me out on it.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Star Trek Beyond, and Beyond

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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