Category Archives: Review

What’s On? Star Trek: Beyond

By Daniel J. Durand

Beyond average. That may sound unexciting, but let me explain.

The rebooted Abrams universe left a lot to be desired for Trekkies who fell in love with the main timeline of the series, and it’s hard for any individual film to stand up to the decades of TV and movies that made up the Trek legacy.

The first of the reboot films was, in my opinion, awful—lens flare and explosions do not a Star Trek movie make. Into Darkness wasn’t much better, essentially a mutated remake of Wrath of Khan, despite promises to the contrary made by Abrams early in production.

The latest iteration of the Star Trek franchise had a lot to make up for. As it stands, while Star Trek: Beyond had some quirks, but I am happy to say that it went far beyond my expectations, and was a solidly good movie.

What Sparked?

First the good news: this movie was not cheesy, nor did it focus on weird romantic tensions or explosions like Star Trek 2009, and character development took on a much more prominent role in Beyond than it did in the previous films.

With the Enterprise crew now three years into their five-year exploratory mission, Kirk is beginning to feel disconnected by the isolation of deep space—there is little structure being so far away from civilization, every day feels the same, and it’s hard to stay grounded.

As he celebrates his birthday, Kirk realizes that he has now outlived his father. Having built his career around living up to his father’s Starfleet reputation, he now must set a reputation of his own. Kirk applies for a promotion to vice admiral, and recommends Spock be promoted to captain of the Enterprise.

Spock, meanwhile, has his own struggles. Since the destruction of his home planet Vulcan, and with the remainder of his people scattered across the galaxy, Spock feels that he owes a reproductive duty to his specie, and breaks off his relationship with Uhura.

Not long after his breakup, Spock is met by two Vulcans, who inform him that his counterpart Ambassador Spock (Leanord Nemoy from the original Star Trek continuity) has died. Spock now must choose between his life in Starfleet, or his sense of obligation to fill in the void left by Ambassador Spock’s passing.

We see Spock’s feelings come out a couple of times in the movie: when he tries to talk to Kirk about his decision to leave Starfleet, but can’t find an appropriate time; and during a conversation with McCoy, when Spock says he intended to reconcile with Uhura. Spock has come a long way since the up-tight, conflicted young man prone to weird emotional outbursts seen in the first movie, and it shows.

Even some of the lesser bridge crew members get some much-needed attention—McCoy gets in on the action during a chase scene toward the end of the movie, and has a few good one-liners, and Scotty shows off his famous charm when we see him casually enjoying a cup of tea, purposefully looking the other way while his engineers bang on equipment in a manner that has to violate Starfleet regulations. Sulu has a daughter, and Chekov, we discover, is a fan of Scotch, much to the surprise of his shipmates.

Granted, some of the developments or one-liners are tongue-in-cheek references to the original series, but what’s important to note is that for the first time, it doesn’t feel like the cast of reboot-Trek is trying to emulate Trek Original Recipe—instead, they’re standing on their own.

At the same time, we do see a lot of nods to the original timeline left behind by Old Spock’s travel to the past in Star Trek 2009. As a long-time Trekkie, it was really nice to see the history of this newer timeline tied back to the old one—without giving too much away, I was ecstatic when the crew finds an old NX-class starship, complete with archive footage of the previous crew in their Enterprise-era uniforms. Props go to Simon Pegg—he spent hours going over Star Trek fan pages and talking with Trekkies online when he wrote the script, trying to tie the movie in with established continuity and lore as much as possible.

While the previous paragraph may not mean much to newer fans, it was refreshing to see the franchise reaching out to older fans again—a lot of us felt like the unwanted step-child back in 2009, and Abrams was kind of a jerk in interviews when talking about the old show and wanting to cut the old guard out in favor of a newer, edgier Trek.

What Sputtered?

While I praised character development before, the flatness of other characters stood out.

Uhura misses out on the treatment her fellow officers receive, and doesn’t really add much to the story other than a plot point for Spock’s arc. In fact, she acts a lot more like Princess Leia than a Starfleet officer, spouting platitudes like “Unity is strength!” to the main villain, Krall, and insisting that her captain will rescue her.

Even Krall and his allies are pretty much a blank slate until the last 20 minutes or so of the movie. All we know about them is that they’re aliens, and for some reason they hate the Federation enough to kill a lot of people.

When a movie withholds details about the plot or characters to build suspense, it can keep the audience hooked, looking for any clues they can find and wanting more. Not so in Beyond, where at each point details may reside… we simply don’t get them, and the scene cuts away.

Which brings me to another problem with the movie—it feels rushed. Not the whole movie, but the first 20 minutes at least, which have us jump settings three or four times, and again at later points where it would have been nice to have had a split second longer to enjoy the scenery.

Case in point: when the crew docks at Yorktown, a massive new starbase packed with skyscrapers and a giant, spiraling city-scape, we get only a brief pan shot that moves too quickly to make out any detail, and when Yorktown first appears on the main viewscreen of the bridge, the camera pans from Kirk exiting the elevator, to the viewscreen, and then straight back around to the bridge in one unbroken movement. We see the characters visibly reacting to how awesome the artificial planet in front of them is, but we barely get to see it ourselves!

There was probably more here that was cut for time, but I felt like I was watching the movie at 150 percent speed, and that speed increase also took away from some of the realism of the computerized graphics.

In fact, the computer graphics failed to impress in more than one instance—space battles looked a lot more like the Star Wars prequels than Trek film, since hardly any seemed to have been made with practical effects or models. As for aliens, while there were many played by actors in full costume and makeup, the realism of those aliens sharply contrasted with the ones who were put in with green screen.

Enterprise and Deep Space 9, two series that pioneered a lot of the digital effects used in the franchise back in the 90s and early 2000s, did a much better job of blending digital and practical effects, and it was sad to see that go when Beyond had so much more money to work with than either series.

Parting Thoughts:

While there were a few quirks this time around, Star Trek: Beyond does a lot more to reconcile between old and new fans, while simultaneously developing its main cast enough to truly stand on its own.

Also, to be fair, I have to say that even the original series took a while before it gained its space-legs, and in a lot of ways, the franchise didn’t really start to pop until Wrath of Khan was released.

The Abrams universe had a lot to prove, and while it still hasn’t completely won me over, it came surprisingly close with this installment—Beyond is to new Trek as Wrath was to old Trek, and I’m actually excited to see where the franchise will go from here, especially with a new TV series on the way.

I give Star Trek: Beyond a B-plus. Points are lost for the weird scene-jumping and pushing so many character details to the final reel, but overall, there was clearly a lot of effort put into getting this one right, and it’s a good movie that I wouldn’t mind seeing again.

 

Daniel Durand wants to cosplay a Starfleet captain. Ask him for details at ddurand.specialprojects@gmail.com

What’s On: Ghostbusters (2016)

by Daniel Durand

Last night, I bit the bullet and went to the theater to see the movie that’s been causing everyone so much grief online and in social media—Scooby-Doo 2.

Kidding. I saw the Ghostbusters remake. But there were a lot of moments where I thought I was watching one of the live-action Scooby-Doo movies.

Full disclosure, I did not expect to like this movie. I have been a huge fan of the Ghosbusters franchise my whole life, from the movies, to the cartoons, to the comic books. I still remember walking down the road to the local movie rental store with my parents to pick up movies and snacks—Ghostbusters was one of the first movies to become part of that near-weekly ritual, and it was a big part of my childhood. Any movie would have a hard time trying to emulate those experiences.

But, my heart still wears a proton pack, and I had to see this movie, just to be sure.

What Sparked?

I’ll start with the positives, because there were a few. Some were expected, such as Kate McKinnon’s portrayal of Dr. Holtzmann, the quirky and possibly insane engineer of the new GB crew. Holtzmann seemed detached from reality in a fashion that seemed half Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka, and half what Ed from Cowboy Bebop would be like as an adult. Here’s a video if you don’t know who that second character is:

Holtzmann was, to me, the only character that really stood up to any of the originals. I felt like she was less of a replacement for Egon Spengler, the original gadget guy, and more of a character of her own that could have just as easily strapped on a pack and gone toe-to-toe with Stay Puft. In a movie that felt watered down and bland, Holtzmann was what kept me watching, and Kate McKinnon had better get a damned award for this.

I also liked that the movie had a couple of original ideas that were not present in the older parts of the franchise.

In the original movie, no one believes that the Ghosbusters are really catching ghosts. The EPA tries to shut them down because, famously, Walter Peck has no dick, and the mayor is only willing to trust the weirdos in slime-covered jumpsuits when he has no other choice.

In Ghostbusters 2016, however, not only do the Ghostbusters not have to prove they aren’t frauds, but it turns out that the government has a special detachment to investigate the paranormal, and the mayor knows all about the existence of ghosts. The mayor still publicly pretends that the Ghostbusters are crazy publicity hounds, but by the end of the movie, the city is actively funding their work as a “just in case” countermeasure against future ghost attacks—pretty much the exact opposite of the mayor’s reaction from the first film.

Also, in the same scene where the new Ghostbusters crew is brought before the mayor, he mentions that one of the strange occurrences on the government investigators’ radar is a whole town being turned inside out—Holtzmann reacts to this news excitedly, much like I did. I don’t know about anyone else, but I would have loved to have seen that in a Ghostbusters movie.

The remake also introduced the concept of ley lines—geographic lines between major landmarks or sites of cultural or spiritual importance—to partly explain why ghosts were being drawn to New York.

A similar concept was used in the Ghostbusters video game that came out for PS3 a few years back, in which the same cult that built the apartment building in the original movie was explained to have also built a series of nodes that channeled ghosts into the city and drew from their power, which was ultimately lured the major baddies from the first and second movies.

Sadly, the ley lines were only mentioned once, and any hope of a larger construct or explanation of the Ghostbusters universe probably died there.

What Sputtered?

Product placement. Holtzmann carries Pringles, the secretary-savant shows us the 7-Eleven logo as a suggestion for the Ghostbusters crew to use, there’s a slew of logos smattered around the background shots, and references to Papa John’s, Cadillac, and more.

To be fair, the original had tons of product placement (Twinkie anyone?) but I just felt like they handled it better in execution. When Dr. Venkman opens Dana Barrett’s refrigerator to check for ghosts, it’s crammed full of Coke, Perrier, and Oscar Mayer—all things you would expect to find in a refrigerator. But when I watched the remake, and Holtzmann has a tube of Pringles under one arm while she’s filming the first ghost encounter, I just thought it was forced.

A major area that I think caused the overall movie to suffer was that it seemed to stretch on a little too long. You could have safely cut a half-hour from it and probably made the finished product flow better. I love Holtzmann, but did we really need four scenes where she shows off new gadgets, when even Q from the Bond franchise only gets one per movie?

Exacerbating this problem was a cast of redundant characters. The movie opens with an historian, played by Zach Woods, leading a tour of a spooky mansion, which soon becomes the site of the first ghost attack of the movie. But why have a separate character that is an historian knowledgeable about New York City, when Leslie Jones basically sells herself as a worthy member of the new team by talking up her historical chops (and having access to a car that would become the new Ecto-1)? You could have just made Leslie Jones the tour guide, which would have led to her encounter with the Ghostbusters, and cut about five minutes off the movie’s run time.

Even Bill Murray’s cameo as an academic skeptic of the paranormal was redundant—we’d already watched Kristen Wiig get fired from her job as a university physicist by her Ivory Tower asshole of a boss, and then another scene where the Ghostbusters are kicked out of their lab at a different academic institution. Why not just have Bill Murray play Wiig’s boss, and be done with it? Bam! I just cut another eight minutes off the movie!

But I think the main thing about this movie that left me feeling a little empty after the fact was not the poor cameos, or the fart/vagina jokes in the first 15 minutes, or even the goofy, Scooby-Doo special effects—no, it was the attitude of this movie, and knowing that nothing that anyone says will matter.

And no, I don’t mean the knowledge that my words don’t matter. I’m some nobody critic on the internet, and there are thousands like me that mean equally zero. I mean knowing that nobody mattered.

Proof of concept: on opening weekend, Rory Bruer of Sony said in an interview that there was no doubt in his mind that the new Ghostbusters would become a major Sony franchise and have a sequel.

So none of the controversy about this movie really mattered—in fact, even the people who like this movie don’t matter. It seems that the current model for the movie industry right now is to crank out as many reboots as they can, piggybacking off the success of the original, aimed at getting butts in chairs and cramming as many product endorsements in as possible. If you don’t like it, no one cares, have another shit sandwich and shut up.

Any pissed off fans who loved the originals for decades… well, they’re just eggshells to an omelet.

Parting Thoughts:

I’d give Ghostbusters 2016 a solid C. It’s passable, and not as bad as the harsher critics said, but it was basically stupid. It could never have stood up to the original with Paul Feig directing, and was too poorly written and cringe-worthy to stand on its own.

I might have given it a B if it were more condensed, or if they had tried more to pass the torch from the original cast, but as it stands, I wouldn’t even recommend it as a DVD purchase to keep your kids quiet for a couple hours. If that’s really all you’re after, buy the original—it’s funnier and will introduce your children to pop culture references that even a lot of 20-somethings don’t get anymore.

 

Daniel Durand is a writer based in Boise, Idaho, who may or may not be thinking about writing Ghostbusters fan fiction. He can be reached at ddurand.specialprojects@gmail.com.

That’s so Ratchet (and Clank)

by Mitchell Bonds

Hollywood has a problem with video-game-to-movie adaptations.

In early May I watched the animated feature “Ratchet and Clank,” based on a video game series of the same name by Insomniac games. It got pummeled by critics and the box office — to the point where Insomniac might not break even on production costs — and I think that’s a shame.

The film deserves some of its lumps due to poor execution, the worst of it is because it’s a Herculean task to make a good game-to-movie adaptation. Much like book-to-film adaptations, they lose a lot in the transition. The more you liked the original, the more you’re likely to face disappointment.

One for the fans

Tell me if this sounds familiar: A pint-sized nobody from a boring job on the backside of planet nowhere dreams of joining the Galactic Rangers, but fails until an unlikely sidekick joins him to fight a planet-destroying megalomaniac. Along the way they learn to do the right thing for the right reasons, and learn the value of friendship and teamwork.

Ugh. Generic city, population: Me.

I was introduced to the goofy run-and-gunny-rooty-tooty-point-and-shooty comedy platformer “Ratchet and Clank” by one of my best friends nearly 14 years ago. The two of us played the heck out of it together, staying up way past when his parents said we should be asleep. We’d hang a blanket near the bottom of the staircase to block the light from the TV so we wouldn’t get in trouble as we combed the desert level at 2 a.m. for the elusive Platinum Bolts.

It was even better once a sequel added multiplayer duels. He may have been the one who owned the system and the games, but if I ever picked up the Lava Cannon (which shot a stream of gold-orange lava at its target and we affectionately named “the Pisser”) during a match, he was literally and metaphorically toast.

We’ve both followed and played every game in the franchise, occasionally comparing notes. So I really, REALLY wanted to like this movie.

Failure to acquire target audience

To a longtime fan, this movie is mediocre. The game’s writers occasionally shine through with the snappy dialogue for which the franchise is known, and the over-the-top heroes and villains feel comfortably familiar. And, unlike some other ‘family features,’ it doesn’t feature butt and fart and boobies-on-guys jokes, so it’s pretty clean.

When I saw the movie, the theater was nearly vacant. Maybe the poor reviews turned others off, but I can’t have been alone in seeing this. Kids who were old enough to play “Ratchet and Clank” when it first came out are now old enough to have kids old enough to bring to this movie.

My friend who loves the series couldn’t join me because he was running a 104 degree fever, but his sister who’s only a few years older than him has a son who’s about as old as we were when WE first got into the series.

So where were the theatergoers? I suspect they stayed home, knowing the biggest downside to movies based on video games has always been how far they stray from their source material. Making the transition from 6-10 hours of gameplay to 1.5 hours of screen time is hard, harder still when trying to keep the elements that interested fans in the first place.

In “Ratchet and Clank,” The plot is a watered-down and condensed version of plot points from three of the games, and pretends the plot holes created by doing that don’t exist.

As for shoutouts to the game’s fans, the film shows off many, MANY of the franchise’s iconic weapons and gizmos — and adds a few well-placed lines of dialogue that explain how and why some of the game’s mechanics make it into the film, such as the menus from the game being an interface in Ratchet’s armor — but none of them get enough screen time to really emphasize how fun they were.

Case in point: The RYNO, the fan-favorite “Rip You a New One” ultimate weapon, gets a dramatic introduction but never even gets properly fired. In the games, I loved the RYNO in all its various incarnations, from the behemoth pepperbox that rapid-fired missiles, to the satellite laser platform to my personal favorite: The RYNO V, the machinegun-shotgun-bazooka that played “The 1812 Overture” while spraying the whole map with hot death in a variety of exciting flavors. I was disappointed by its brief and impotent introduction.

This fanboy complains: A few things were missing that could have been chuckleworthy. It would have been nice to lampshade how “bolts,” the galactic economy’s coin of the realm, are literally threaded construction nuts and bolts. Some of the other fun toys like the grind-rail boots and helicopter pack might have been a nice change from the constant use of his “Swingshot” magnetic grappling hook from the game.

Indeed, any number of tiny additions and nods would have been well and good but still wouldn’t have solved the real problem: The story.

Think of the children

Children aren’t idiots. I say this having been a 5-year-old who managed to get pizza in his hair on a regular basis, but really, kids these days are pretty savvy. They pay attention, they notice things adults don’t, and they’re capable of following a more complex plot than most give them credit for. Introduce a more complex reason to despise a villain other than “he’s a funny color, talks with an accent and looks weird,” and they’ll probably comprehend it (giving kids an advantage over the average “Call of Duty” player).

In Ratchet’s case, the villain is destroying entire planets with a Death-Star-esque space station called The Deplanetizer (strong) but the movie goes out of its way to explain they’re uninhabited planets (weak) except now he’s targeting a galactic capital planet with millions of inhabitants (strong) so they evacuate first (weak).

In the game, Chairman Drek and his corporation murder millions and destroy a half-dozen planetary ecosystems for profit: he is a villain most foul. In the movie… I don’t know, he’s making too many asteroid fields? Softening the evil of a villain can be done correctly (see the continuing story of Gul Dukat in Star Trek), but having him pull his punches because it’s a kids movie is the wrong way to go about it. Kids can understand a remorseless, greedy monster as a villain if you give them the opportunity.

But therein lies the problem. If a movie panders to fans of a game, it needs to contain more of what makes the game good. If it’s just a kids movie and needs to not be too dark, do that. But don’t split the difference. It’s why the “Resident Evil” zombie franchise has done fairly well for itself, while the 1993 “Super Mario Bros” tanked horribly.

It brings to mind a quote by “Parks and Recreation” character Ron Swanson: “Never half-ass two things. Whole-ass one thing.”

 

Mitchell Bonds edits for a local newspaper as his day job, and elsewise spends too much time playing video games and writing about dragons. Beware of contacting him at fouryearquest@yahoo.com.