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Nemesis Revisited

Writing about the same movie more than once is something that I hardly ever do, but taking a retrospective look at Stuart Baird’s Star Trek: Nemesis feels almost obligatory, given I’ve written about nearly all the proper Trek films in the last couple of months. There’s also the fact that when the film came out, no-one actually realised that it was a watershed moment in the history of the series. So here we go.

The review of Nemesis from its original release is here.

Well, looking again at my opinion from Stardate 5.1.2003, there’s not much there that I actually disagree with, although I am a little embarrassed not to have figured out that the reason the TNG mob kept making movies for so long was because they were much more popular than the people off the other TV shows. If anything I think I was a little too kind to a movie which has got some serious problems.

It’s not actually a problem per se, but looking at Nemesis again now, there’s something about it that places the film very firmly in the zeitgeist of its time – some of the other movies which queued up to crush this one at the box office were Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Die Another Day, and The Two Towers, and there is something curiously baroque and fantastical about the production designs here – it almost feels like the Enterprise is travelling to Mordor rather than Romulus, with the Orc-like Remans much more prominent than the traditional Romulans who appear (the Romulans finally get a major role in a Trek movie and it’s a duffer like this).

Before we get to the heart of darkness, though, the movie has an unexpectedly light tone, with the various goings on at the reception and Worf’s entirely understandable concerns about attending a nudist wedding. The whole buggy chase sequence does not appear to serve much of a purpose, either (and is it my imagination, or doesn’t there appear to be serious violation of the Prime Directive going on here?). More than this, the presence of the chase is emblematic of the movie’s choice to favour action-movie elements over plot and character – a large number of character scenes were cut from the film (the internet means they are now freely available to view), which may be why it feels so lacking in warmth and texture.

Then it all gets rather dark and perhaps just a bit overwrought. As mentioned, the subtext about Picard and Data’s clones is both laboured and obvious, and I find myself obliged to wonder what the point of the sequence where Shinzon violates Counsellor Troi’s mind is. Did Stuart Baird get off on this sort of thing? (A second sequence along the same lines was also cut from the film.) The interminable and rather unimaginative space battle which makes up most of the final act of the film also looks more like a mistake than ever. Script, direction, and design all feel like the work of people who are only passingly familiar with Star Trek.

But my main thought is that this is a film which is totally unaware of its main significance, that significance being that it really would prove to be the nemesis of the film series (in its original incarnation, anyway). While it ostensibly features the parting of the ways for the senior staff of the Enterprise-E, you get the sense that it would be easy enough to get them all back together one way or another (Worf has already been reassigned to the Enterprise from his posting as ambassador to Qo’NoS, after all), and apparently another film was planned. (This may be why the climax of the film packs so little emotional punch, despite featuring the death of a hugely popular character.)

Of course, it was not to be, and as it turned out this proved to be not just the last appearance of the Next Generation characters, but our final canonical glimpse of life at the end of the 2370s – an appropriately hopeful one, given this is Star Trek, with the prospect of a genuine rapprochement between the Federation and the Romulan Star Empire (I am inclined to disregard the suggestion of Romulus’ destruction a few years later in the same way I tend to ignore everything else introduced in the Abrams movies’ timeline). Long-term Trek producer and custodian Rick Berman seemed to be set in prequel mode from this point on – after a fifth TNG movie was canned, his next idea involved a trilogy of films set in the 22nd century (concurrently with parts of Star Trek: Enterprise, though with new characters), concerning the Earth-Romulus War referred to in the original TV show. This never got past the very early stages of development, with Paramount opting to summon up the dark power of the dreaded Abrams instead.

And so, in terms of the movie actually released to cinemas, our last glimpse of the future of Star Trek is oddly appropriate: the Enterprise in spacedock for a refit, missing a few key crewmembers, shown in a special effects shot that goes on perhaps just a bit too long while Jerry Goldsmith’s music plays over the top. Isn’t that where we came in, back in 1979? There may be a sense of the films unintentionally closing the circle, but it would be wonderful if one day we could visit the 2390s or 2420s and see what the Federation and its neighbours are like, generations after Picard and his contemporaries. Anything is possible, and if Star Trek is about one thing, it’s about being hopeful for the future.

 

The people at Modiphius, makers of the latest Star Trek role-playing game, could be forgiven a slight case of nervousness at the moment. Licenses for these big-name properties don’t come cheap, and they have clearly put a lot of time and effort into the new game. One suspects they may not have been anticipating the underwhelming response to Star Trek Beyond and the general lack of buzz around the golden anniversary of Trek. In terms of the franchise’s future, a lot may be riding on the success of Discovery (perhaps a bit worryingly). There are already plenty of reasons to wish for a renaissance in Star Trek‘s fortunes and quality – the fact this would help the chances of a game which has clearly been something of a labour of love is just one more.

I’ve been playing Trek RPGs since the late 1980s – mainly in the form of the original FASA game and its associated starship combat system. Fond of them though I am, the FASA rules were, to the modern eye, very clunky and war-gamey, and failed to address some of the inherent problems in trying to simulate the Trek experience in an RPG: namely, everyone wanted to play a Vulcan, as the racial component of character creation was rather unbalanced, and the issue of the guy playing the captain turning into a despot (or junior characters being wildly insubordinate) was basically left for the GM to deal with.

Star Trek Adventures is a much slicker and more modern game that makes a decent attempt at addressing these kinds of issues. There is much to like about it, a little that I am slightly dubious about, and a few things that I think are just a bit odd. First amongst the oddities is the way that the game is clearly being marketed as a (for want of a better word) universal Star Trek RPG, with the option for games set in the 22nd, 23rd, or 24th centuries (or, to put it another way, the Archer, Kirk, and Picard eras).

Well, to some extent this is true, but the rulebook makes it clear quite early on that the default setting for the game is the year 2371 (the Enterprise-D is about to go on its final mission, the crew of Deep Space Nine are engaged in their cold war with the Dominion, and the Voyager is preparing for its ill-fated mission to the Badlands). The rationale for this is that there are plenty of options for adventure here, with other ships being called upon to fill in for the lost Enterprise, etc, but it’s hard to shake the impression that this decision was largely made for licensing reasons.

The Trek rights situation is rather complex, but basically this game was licensed by the holders of the rights to the TV shows rather than the movies, and so the game’s ability to include material from big-screen Trek seems to be very limited. The art primarily features Picard-era characters (judging by the uniforms), with a few pictures of people in Kirk-era gear, but there’s no sign of the red tunics from the Harve Bennett/Nick Meyer films or the dark uniforms introduced in First Contact. Events from some of the movies are touched upon, but only very occasionally; there’s no mention of the Abrams timeline at all (so it’s not all bad news).

The people writing this game really seem to know their lore and be dedicated to providing a proper Star Trek experience for players, so it’s very unlikely that this was an entirely voluntary choice – and, to be fair, I get the sense that Picard-era Trek is still the most popular with the fanbase, and so many people will be looking to play in this era, in which case the late-24th century default setting shouldn’t be too much of a problem.

On the other hand, if your game’s setting moves away from about 2370, there’s a sense in which the options the game presents you start to become limited. Several of the PC racial options are designated ‘Next Generation era only’, while there are no ‘original series era only’ choices. It’s most noticeable when it comes to the Federation ship classes presented as player options. Of the nine ships in the book, the Akira, Constellation, Defiant, Galaxy, Intrepid and Nova classes are obviously Next Gen only, while the Miranda and Excelsior classes bridge the original cast movies and the Next Gen era. The only original series ship offered is the Constitution class (to be fair, there aren’t any other canon ship classes from this period). There are no stats for the NX-class starship at all, despite Archer-era play still supposedly being an option. Also absent are stats for the refitted Enterprise, and the Sovereign-class – both of which are essentially movie-only designs.

This feels odd and perhaps a little irritating more than anything else, because the basic rules lend themselves equally well to recreating all periods of Trek. Any differences will most likely be ones of emphasis and style, and this is touched on to about the degree you’d expect in a core book – there’s a brief section on how the final frontier was a bit wilder in Kirk’s time (the late 2260s) and how ships operated more independently of Starfleet, but not much when it comes to creating period-authentic scenarios, for instance.

(I’m not sure this isn’t a big misjudgement, given the 2260s are arguably the most iconic Trek setting, especially for gamers who aren’t Trekkies. The idea of being off in unexplored space encountering strange new worlds (etc) may well be rather more appealing to some game groups than (say) getting heavily involved in pre-Dominion War faction politics, especially if they’re not familiar with DS9. Plus, you get to fight it out with the Klingons with a totally clear conscience, seeing as they’re definitely all bad guys at that point in history.)

The rules themselves are admirably simple, to start with at least, with a roll-some-d20s-and-beat-this-number mechanic. Target numbers vary from 8 to 16, depending on a characters competence (they are based on Attribute + Discipline) with extra successes being generated if you roll well or have an applicable focus (basically, a skill specialisation). The six disciplines each relate to one of the branches of Starfleet and are left admirably vague – the ‘security’ discipline covers everything from interrogating a prisoner to getting into a phaser battle. Characters also have a bunch of talents which can help them in various ways, too.

There’s also the seemingly-obligatory narrative system, which in this game deals with Momentum and Threat: characters can convert extra successes into something called Momentum, which is a group resource characters can spend to buy extra d20s, do more damage, get more information from the GM, and so on. Threat is basically the same but is a GM resource to make life harder for the players; it does require the GM to be on the honour system and not sneakily introduce complications (etc) if they don’t have any Threat to spend. (PCs generate Threat in a number of ways – by avoiding lethal injuries, or by using certain pieces of equipment, for instance phaser rifles or photon torpedoes.)

So far so good, but I’m a little dubious about some of the advanced rules the book presents, in which some situations are handled using ‘extended tasks’ with a new set of terminology – the book starts going on about ‘Work Tracks’, ‘Breakthroughs’, and ‘Magnitude’, and even if all this is strictly necessary for a good game experience, I’m not sure the more abstruse elements of the rules are explained sufficiently. At least the book makes it clear they are only advanced options.

The core rules encourage the GM to ensure there are a number of routes to solving any crisis the characters end up in – ‘Red, Blue, and Gold solutions’ – and there are some nice rules for using the scientific method in true Trek-style. Inevitably, though, there’s a combat system, and it’s, well, okay. One of the striking things about the FASA game was how spectacularly deadly ranged weapons were – this is a very modern game, in that PCs will have to be quite determined or very unlucky to die. It’s theoretically possible to take a bat’leth in the face from an enraged Klingon and walk away without a scratch – the same is true of a shot from a disruptor rifle, or indeed anything else. (Here the game theoretically requires the use of proprietary dice, but it’s much easier to work around this than it is with, for example, Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars game.)

The system seems likely to work much better when it comes to starship combat (although, as with many of the rules systems, the wise GM will spend time preparing cheat sheets first detailing just what the various options are for the different bridge positions), mainly because many Trek ship battles are basically slugging matches that take a long time to resolve. I anticipate that major battles will feature a lot of battering away at the opposition’s shields, desperate redistribution of the power network, captains yelling orders at their crew, systems being knocked offline, and so on. Although there is also a somewhat streamlined system for when you just want to blow up a Klingon bird-of-prey without a lot of messing about.

Hmm, you may be wondering, but what’s the ship’s counsellor doing during these epic starship battles? Just sitting there yelling ‘Captain, I sense hostility’? (If your game group even contains someone interested in playing the counsellor, your players are better adjusted than any I’ve ever met.) And, for that matter, what’s the tactical officer doing while everyone’s trying to cure the Valargian plague and tend to its victims?

Well, one fairly bold idea Star Trek Adventures really runs with is the idea of troupe-style play, where everyone runs one main character and has access to a group of minor characters who can be activated as the situation demands it. So, if you really want to be faithful to the TNG vibe and leave the captain on the ship all the time, you can: the guy who runs the captain can play a redshirt or an away team specialist for a while, and if something kicks off on the ship while the away team is, um, away, everyone else can play the bridge crew understudies. These supporting characters can even develop and advance if they recur from one scenario to the next. Given this is basically what happened to Worf and O’Brien on the TV show, this feels ‘right’, and hopefully players will embrace it (it also helps ameliorate the psycho captain problem, as most people will get to be senior officer at least part of the time).

Character generation is rather pleasing, though purists will probably object that Vulcans have been left underpowered in the name of game balance – they have the same attribute limits as Humans, which is hardly what the canon suggests. There isn’t the greatest selection of races, but there are guidelines for creating your own, along with unique characters. (Starship creation is similar to PC creation, and it’s quite easy to homebrew your own stats for the NX, or the Sovereign class, or the Ambassador class, or any of the wacky old FASA ships.) You can even randomly create your character for the most part, which is a lovely retro touch – though this does create the possibility of a PC group consisting of four science officers and a helmsman, which could lead to some curious game experiences.

The core book does not include stats for any named canon characters, which is perhaps a little regrettable as they would at least provide examples of Values (a narrative-based character element). The closest we get, weirdly enough, is a stat block for the planet-killing robot vessel from The Doomsday Machine. (There are generic stat blocks for the major adversarial races – no Gorn, alas – and their ships. They don’t quite come out and say Borg cubes can only be destroyed by a plot device, but it’s a near thing.)

Time and again, looking through this book, I was struck by the writers’ obvious and genuine love of Star Trek, both in terms of the lore – details as obscure as the registration numbers of mentioned vessels are correct – and the look and feel of the game. There’s even a roll-your-own-alien-race-of-the-week table, along with a similar one for randomly creating strange new worlds and new civilisations.

I suppose the downside of this, when coupled to the fact the game is clearly aimed at existing Trekkies, is that some of the background material assumes familiarity with the universe. A few fewer knowing in-universe documents would have made room for, say, an actual timeline of the Trek universe, detailing what went on and when. But this is a minor quibble – even Wikipedia has one of those these days.

I only have the PDF of Star Trek Adventures, but I am sufficiently impressed with it to be seriously considering acquiring the physical book and pitching it to my current group as something to consider when our current Star Wars game reaches a natural break point. The art is great, the look of the thing is very authentic (although nearly 400 pages of white-on-black LCARS text may lead to eyestrain), and really the only other negative I can think of to say about it is that the starter adventure looks a bit weak. Whether we ever get the ambitious range of quadrant- and section-specific sourcebooks Modiphius have announced, let alone era- or race-specific ones (you just know the Klingon lobby will be demanding this), is still up in the air, but I hope this game does well, because the world could always use more classic Star Trek, and classic Star Trek seems to be baked into the essence of this game. An impressive take on a tough property to get right.

 

 

Putrescent Adolescent

New Arnold Schwarzenegger movie? Yes please! New Arnold Schwarzenegger movie about a zombipocalypse? You betcha! New Arnold Schwarzenegger movie about a zombipocalypse in which Arnie plays a guilt-consumed father struggling to come to terms with the imminent death of his beloved daughter? Um, well, hang on a minute…

For once, I don’t think my thought processes are too divergent from those of the average person, or at least the average person who is still prepared to entertain the notion of watching a new Schwarzenegger movie. Let’s face it, there are not as many of us around as there used to be, for Arnie’s career has been in a state of – let’s be kind – managed decline ever since his political interlude, and arguably for some time before that. I think I may have said this before, but the old quote about the star still being the same size, but the films having got a lot smaller, was never more apropos than when discussing the world’s most famous former Austrian.

So Arnie presumably finds himself in a bit of a bind when it comes to choosing projects. Pushing 70, does he keep plugging away in the kind of testosterone-drizzled all-action fare that was his forte back in the 1980s and early 90s? This stuff was never less than mildly risible even when he was in his prime, and all the more preposterous now he’s of pensionable age. Or does he take a crack at more experimental, unexpected types of movie, even if they’re not necessarily going to draw in his target audience?

This is the conundrum of Henry Hobson’s Maggie (released in 2015), which appears to be aimed at people who like touching, slightly sentimental family dramas, but feel they just don’t include enough visceral zombie horror. (And die-hard Arnie fans.) I suspect this is not the largest target audience in the history of cinema.

Hey ho. The big man plays Wade Vogel, a farmer somewhere in the Midwest, who like everyone else is struggling with the outbreak of a virus that turns people into cannibalistic zombies. (This is referred to as the necro-ambulism virus, and I honestly can’t decide whether this is sufficiently clever or just the film not trying hard enough.) How did this start and get so widespread? As usual, it is deftly skipped over: this movie is all about Arnold, not r-Nought (a little joke there for people with a background in mathematical virus-modelling; you’re welcome). The world is not quite in Dawn of the Dead territory yet, but things are looking bleak.

This may have something to do with the response of the authorities, which if you ask me lacks a certain something when it comes to rigour. Once you get bitten by a zombie, it takes a number of weeks for the virus to fully take hold, during which time people are allowed to take their loved ones home and spend time with them. Eventually they are expected to drop them off at a government Quarantine centre (which is basically a euphemistically-named extermination camp for zombies). Not surprisingly, people are forever leaving it too late or refusing to give up their sort-of dead, which is why there are always zombies wandering out of the woods or appearing unexpectedly in public bathrooms.

Still, questionable though the system is, it’s this that enables the plot of the film to take place. The movie opens with Wade collecting his teenage daughter Maggie (Abigail Breslin) from a hospital in the big city – she has been bitten and will soon be on the turn. Nevertheless, Arnie resolves to take her home and care for her for as long as he possibly can. Arnie’s wife, who is Maggie’s stepmother (played by Joely Richardson), has a few misgivings about this, as there are other kids about the farm, but they are packed off to stay with relatives.

Tough times are in prospect for Wade (fairly tough for Maggie, too, now I think about it) – gruesome reminders of people who hung on to their infected loved ones for a little too long are everywhere, the local sheriff is sympathetic but makes it very clear his priority is the safety of the town, and the town doctor seems to base his career around giving spectacularly suspect advice. But, you know, suffering is the basis of drama, or something like that anyway.

Well, if nothing else, Maggie is yet more evidence of the near-infinite flexibility of the classic Romero zombipocalypse set-up: Maggie is a horror movie, but only by default, due to its zombie content (in the same way that any film about aliens is technically on some level science fiction). It really plays much more like some kind of brooding, morbid, atmospheric drama about people struggling to come to terms with the fact of impending mortality. Sure, Arnie takes out a few zombies with an axe, but it’s not like he or anyone else enjoys it – this is absolutely not an action movie.

It’s arguably the precise opposite, as Arnie basically does nothing at all for most of the film. He sits. He broods. He looks mournfully about him. It’s Arnie, Jim, but not as we know him. He may be the top name on the marquee, but this is essentially a character role for Schwarzenegger, a notion which would prompt many people to – oh, I see you’ve already fastened your seatbelt. Well, to be completely fair to the big man, the ride is not too bumpy, for he is required to be withdrawn and introspective rather than too emotional. Hobson directs him sensitively and the end result is really not as bad as you might expect.

Most of the heavy lifting, character-wise, comes from Abigail Breslin, a talented young actress who finds the subtlety and the humanity in a part where it would have been very easy to go rather over the top. Also, she does get to go and do things, like talk to people, hang out with her friends and other incipient-zombies, and so on. On the other hand, this arguably creates a structural problem in the movie, for the focus slowly but definitely shifts from Wade to Maggie as the story progresses. The ground kind of shifts under your feet as you try to work out who your point of identification is supposed to be. I wouldn’t be surprised if the original script had started out being entirely about Maggie, with Wade’s role and character being beefed up when Arnie signed on.

Certainly, for a film which is being marketed on the strength of Schwarzenegger’s involvement, he is not the dominant force of old, and his involvement in the closing stages of the film is almost entirely passive. Still, by this point it has become abundantly clear that this is not your typical Arnie movie.

But is it any good? Well, the average Arnie fan would probably say no, and it has to be said that the film’s effectiveness as a drama is necessarily affected by the presence of a leading actor of such, um, restricted technical ability. But as zombie movies go, this is (literally) a change of pace, the central metaphor and subtext is sound, and the supporting performances are never less than adequate and in some cases rather fine. The reliance on atmosphere and the rather glacial pacing are likely to annoy fans of more kinetic zombie films, though.

I would struggle to say I genuinely liked or enjoyed Maggie, but I can still admire its ambition and various achievements. It sets out to do something different, and it certainly succeeds in that (that said, the general bleak tone, washed-out cinematography, and focus on parental care do rather put one in mind of The Road). My advice would be to treat this as a rather arty horror-drama which happens to have made one extremely odd casting choice, rather than an Arnold Schwarzenegger zombie film.

Relentlessly Nice

Film-making, in the Hollywood mainstream at least, is often a kind of Faustian bargain – on the one hand, you have a writer and/or director, who have a story they really feel has value and deserves to reach the widest possible audience, while on the other there’s the studio who are actually paying for the thing, who want as healthy a return as possible on their investment. Advertising and suchlike tends to focus on the former. Occasionally, though, it’s almost impossible to avoid the impression that a film has only been made for the purposes of raking in the dough.

I think it’s this problem that besets the last couple of ‘original’ Star Trek movies. It would be almost impossible for the makers to argue that these are stories they were burning to tell about these characters, because by this point they’d already made about 180 TV episodes and movies featuring them. It’s not really a cash-in, but it is an example of a reliable product being put out for an established audience. Sound business, probably, but not exactly exciting or likely to thrill mind and spirit in the way that genuine SF is surely supposed to – I think it was Kim Newman who observed that by the late 1990s Star Trek had become the genre equivalent of McDonald’s.

Certainly, the sense of being a movie without a particularly pressing reason to exist is one of the problems afflicting Jonathan Frakes’ Star Trek: Insurrection, originally released in 1998. With the original series crossover movie out of the way, along with the Borg rematch action film, the big question was obviously that of what to do next with the Next Generation crew – and you do get a sense that they never really found a particularly compelling answer to it.

The year is 2375 and the Enterprise is being kept very busy with diplomatic and courier assignments – enough to make Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) lament the loss of their role as explorers (not that they ever seemed to do much of that, even in the TV show). However, a crisis demands his attention when Data (Brent Spiner), who has been assigned to a joint mission with a dubious gang of aliens called the So’na, seemingly goes rogue and starts attacking Federation personnel and their allies.

Investigating, Picard and the others discover a remote, secluded planet, inhabited by the thoroughly peaceful and decent Ba’ku people, who have rejected most of the trappings of technological civilisation. Everyone there is living the rustic idyll, and living it for a very long time, because the unique properties of the planet’s rings vastly boost physical wellbeing and longevity (something which begins to have odd effects on several members of Picard’s staff, too). The So’na have persuaded the Federation to assist them in exploiting this effect for the benefit of the wider galaxy, even if this means forcibly moving the Ba’ku without their consent and rendering their planet a lifeless cinder. Picard, being Picard, naturally has strong views about this sort of thing, but finds himself at odds with Starfleet Command, and compelled by his conscience to take up arms against his own people…

Well, not exactly: people who are allies of his own people, maybe, and allies who are established from the very start to be a very shady bunch. As insurrections go, the insurrection in Star Trek: Insurrection is not the most shocking insurrection in the history of insurrections, and it’s fairly clear the film’s only called Star Trek: Insurrection because Paramount wasn’t keen on titles like Star Trek: Stardust, Star Trek: Forever and Star Trek: Apostasy.

Actually, you can see where the blundering paw of studio interference has had an effect on this movie in a number of places – Paramount’s instinct with the Trek movies, following Star Trek IV at least, always seemed to be to go light whenever possible, in the hope of attracting a wider audience. So it is here, as Picard and the others do all kinds of unexpected and often slightly cringeworthy things: Data turns into an inflatable lifejacket. Riker and Troi hop in the hot tub together so she can shave off his beard. Troi and Dr Crusher discuss their resurgent ‘boobs’ (cringey this may be, but it’s also the only significant contribution Gates McFadden gets to make to the movie). Picard puts a beaded seat cover on his head, sings a Gilbert and Sullivan number, and dances the mambo across his quarters (not all at the same time, thank God). Some of this verges on the silly.

It’s a particular problem because you can see that the script (by Michael Piller, in many ways the principal architect of Star Trek storytelling in the 1990s and early 2000s) is trying to strike a much more thoughtful and mature tone. Of course, the film is ultimately once again about allowing Patrick Stewart to employ his massive gravitas (and, by extension, Picard’s colossal moral authority) by planting himself like a tree in the path of incipient injustice and doing what’s right, and Stewart (naturally) makes it work; he always does. But the film’s mechanism for facilitating this is to present a tarnished, compromised Federation, far from the utopian state it had traditionally been presented as for much of Trek prior to this point.

This is an interesting idea and does allow the film to plug into some of what had been going on in other bits of the franchise in the preceding couple of years – following various maulings in the war with the Dominion in DS9, and the Borg invasion in the previous movie, it’s kind of logical for the Federation to be on the back foot and losing touch with its ideals (apparently, the suggestion is that this movie is set concurrently with the final episode of DS9, hence the mention of peace negotiations with the Dominion – Worf just turns up like he never left, of course).

And it is nice to have another Trek movie focusing a little more on big moral themes and philosophical ideas, because this is a crucial element of the TV show that often never makes it into the movies in one piece. There isn’t the greatest of depth to it on this occasion – the Ba’ku are blandly, tediously nice, while the So’na are very obviously bad guys – but at least it’s there.

In fact, the film seems to have made a real effort to be thoroughgoingly nice in pretty much every department. Jonathan Frakes works very hard to fill the opening sequence with lyrical, pastoral imagery, which works well, but it establishes a tone which really lingers throughout the film. Even once Picard launches his ‘insurrection’, everything remains surprisingly mild and good-natured, there isn’t a sharp edge or genuinely tough decision in sight.

Still, it is solidly plotted and structured, and the inevitable action-movie climax is competently assembled (Piller takes no chances and makes sure the script favours Picard, Data, and Worf, the most popular characters). The thing is that, by the end, we are really back where we started, nothing has really changed (except maybe that we have become reacquainted with Riker’s chin): no-one has had a life-altering experience, everyone is ready for next week’s episode. You would have to be hyper-critical to say that Star Trek: Insurrection is an actively bad movie, but it’s not really stretching things too much to say that it frequently doesn’t feel much like an actual movie at all.

The Sixth Element

Further extracts from The Lacklustre Film Blogger’s Guide to Behaving Badly at the Cinema:

June 10th, in the Earth Year 1997 – your correspondent and a bloke called Pete are leaving Huddersfield’s premier fleapit cinema, having just watched Luc Besson’s new sci-fi spectacular, The Fifth Element.

‘I really don’t know what to make of that,’ I said. ‘That was either one of the greatest, most imaginative films I’ve ever seen, or a massive load of poo.’

Pete considered this for about a quarter of a second. ‘Poo,’ he said.

I gave his answer equally careful appraisal. ‘Yeah, you’re probably right,’ I said.

Earlier Today – and, despite my experience a couple of decades ago, I make it to the front of the queue for Luc Besson’s new sci-fi spectacular.

‘Hello. One for Valerian and the Unnecessarily Long Title, please.’

I have to hand it to the serving minions at the city centre multiplex, they’re getting quite used to this sort of thing, and I got my ticket with barely a raised eyebrow. I note that even the exhibitors agree with me on the name thing, for on the ticket it’s just called Valerian.

The full title is Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, and it is based on the long-running French SF comic strip Valerian and Laureline. As you might therefore expect, this is a distinctly pulp-SF influenced movie, all served up with the restraint, self-awareness, and iron narrative control that are the hallmarks of a Luc Besson movie (NB: irony is present).

The movie is set in the kind of universe where you expect everyone to have ‘Space’ in front of their job titles just to make it absolutely clear what’s going on. After some prefatory goings-on, we meet Space Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Space Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne), who are space government security agents. They are initially engaged in retrieving an extremely endangered space animal from the clutches of space gangsters in a very peculiar market, surrounded by space tourists, and things become a little awkward when Valerian gets his arm stuck in another dimension.

All this resolved, the duo head off to Alpha Station, which is basically the International Space Station, shoved off into deep space when it became too big and unwieldy (look, just go with it). Now it is the titular hub of galactic diplomacy and commerce, but a mysterious force is threatening to destroy it. Space Commander Filitt (Clive Owen), Valerian and Laureline’s space boss, has summoned them (and the space animal) as he thinks it may help in resolving the crisis. But before they can get anywhere, the meeting of top space brass comes under attack from mysterious aliens…

I feel I should go on record and reiterate that I am genuinely a fan of Luc Besson and his uniquely uninhibited style of film-making – whatever else you can say about the Besson canon, the movies themselves are rarely dull. That said, my experiences watching The Fifth Element, together with the fact that Valerian (I’m not typing that whole title every time) has already been declared a box ofice bomb in the States, did lead me to lower my expectations in this particular case. Was this justified? Well…

Actually, for the first few minutes I had real hopes that the States had got it wrong, for the opening sequence of Valerian is very nearly magical: Bowie plays on the soundtrack, and Besson moves from the manned space missions of the 1970s into a lavishly imagined future depicting the human race spreading out into the galaxy and befriending alien races. It’s rare to come across something so unashamedly optimistic in modern SF, and it’s quite charming.

However, from here we go to the alien CGI planet of Mul, where androgynous aliens do peculiar alien things while conversing in an alien language. All of this eventually turns out to be relevant to the plot, but while you’re watching it, it just seems like a lot of rather smug CGI aliens prancing about endlessly, and all that goodwill rapidly drains away.

The introduction of our two heroes doesn’t help much, and here I feel we must digress momentarily to issues of casting: Valerian appears to have been written as a loveable, wisecracking rogue, someone who on the face of things is a slightly dubious character, but who’s really a reliable and principled hero when the chips are down. The part is really crying out for someone like Guy Pearce – perhaps I’m thinking of him because his performance from the 2012 Besson movie Lockout would have been note-perfect here – or another actor who can do that effortless, tough guy charisma. Instead, they have cast Dane DeHaan, a capable actor but one whose most distinctive quality is that he always gives the impression he’s in dire need of a nice hot meal and a long lie down.

On the other hand, one of the notable things about Valerian is that it reveals Cara Delevingne to be a rather engaging screen presence – she shows every sign of being able to act a bit, unlike many other MTAs, and (obviously) the camera seems very fond of her, especially when she’s working with the right hair and costume people. Just goes to show you shouldn’t judge anyone on the strength of their contribution to Suicide Squad, I guess, and given she’s at least as integral to the action as DeHaan’s character, I wonder why the whole movie isn’t called Valerian and Laureline? Hey ho.

That said, DeHaan and Delevingne are not noticeably gifted with chemistry when they’re sharing the screen, which is a problem as many of their scenes revolve around Valerian’s somewhat febrile eagerness to take their relationship to the next level, and her problematic reluctance (I guess rank has lost some of its privileges in the future). Lack of chemistry, a shortage of snap in the supposedly snappy dialogue, and the fact that the two experienced space security agents seem to be characterised as snarky Millennials meant that it took me a long time to warm up to the duo.

In the end, what successes the film has are largely down to its visual imagination – this is a vast, whimsical galaxy that isn’t obviously derived from any single source, although there are obviously touches of the stellar conflict franchise, Flash Gordon, Guardians of the Galaxy and The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy sprinkled across it. It all looks very lavish and vibrant, even in 2D, but if you have an issue with endless CGI characters and backgrounds this is not the movie for you. There is lots of creative imagery and some inventively silly high-tech weaponry on display.

How much you enjoy Valerian will probably boil down to your ability to just lie back and enjoy the look and feel of the thing, while ignoring the many and serious issues with the plot and scripting. I’ve been assimilating every book on story structure I can lay my grubby little protuberances on recently, so perhaps I’m over-sensitive to this kind of thing, but given Luc Besson is credited with writing nearly fifty movies, Valerian is strikingly shoddy and haphazard in the script department. The plot is about trying to stop the destruction of an imaginary place we don’t know much about by an abstract force, the hero seems more concerned with his love life than any weightier concerns, and there are vast rambling detours away from the main plot – a major, lengthy sequence featuring Ethan Hawke as a space pimp and Rihanna as a shape-shifting space pole dancer could be totally excised without materially affecting the actual story of the film.

People have a go at the stellar conflict prequel movies for focusing on CGI and spectacle over actually having a coherent narrative, but only at their very worst are they quite as self-indulgent and lacking in focus as Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Now, I like this kind of sci-fi (I’m on record as preferring the prequel trilogy to the recent Disney-Abrams stellar conflict offering), but even so I find it quite hard to say anything especially positive about Valerian beyond vaguely praising its incidental imagination, and of course Cara Delevingne’s hair. I’m not sure any audience will be quite captivated by the film’s impressive visuals sufficiently to overlook its serious shortcomings in the storytelling department.

 

One from the Stomach

‘I think the title of this film is very off-putting,’ said a stranger behind me in the cinema queue, speaking to her son.

I turned round and frowned at her. ‘What, you don’t like France?’ I asked. (I can be very socially inappropriate sometimes.)

She did an actual double-take at me. ‘I didn’t mean Dunkirk. I was talking about The Big Sick.’

Ohhhh,’ I said, feigning sudden comprehension. Needless to say, we did not speak again.

Yes, it’s that time of year again, when cinema screens are ram-jammed with coldly calculated kid’s film franchise extensions and noble British tommies shivering on a beach while trying to work out exactly what’s going on with the chronology. You’re really reliant on some high-quality counter-programming cutting through (if you want to have an even vaguely rewarding time at the cinema, anyway), and luckily just this has arrived in the form of Michael Showalter’s The Big Sick.

Or should that really be Kumail Nanjiani’s The Big Sick? It’s hard to think of another recent film which is so obviously personal, for all that it is part of that most peculiar of genres, the romantic comedy.

No, seriously – what is the function of romantic comedies? I get the point of full-on comedies, for they are there to lift your spirits and make you laugh. Dramas are there to engage your intellect and emotions, action movies provide a basic adrenaline thrill, horror movies play with the darker end of the emotion spectrum, and proper science fiction stimulates the intellect.  And so on, and so on. But what’s going on with rom-coms? Who sits down to decide what film to watch and says ‘You know what, I wouldn’t mind feeling a bit more romantic tonight’? Either you’re feeling romantic or you’re not, and if you’re not feeling that way, nothing is less likely to kindle the flame of love than watching two beautiful young people play games for ninety minutes before inevitably ending up together. Part of me suspects this is all about reinforcing social and cultural norms, given that our society is largely glued together by the notion of romantic love, and that going to see a rom-com provides a sense of affirmation, that there is some objective truth to this notion. (Which, you know, there may be.)

Some of this kind of gets obliquely addressed in The Big Sick. Pakistani-American stand-up comic and actor Kumail Nanjiani plays Pakistani-American stand-up comic and actor Kumail Nanjiani (it will be interesting to see if his performance wins any acting awards), who meets therapist-in-training Emily (Zoe Kazan) at one of his gigs. Neither of them is looking for a serious commitment, and yet there is a spark between them, and a relationship develops almost without either of them willing it.

However, in Kumail’s case, the aversion to commitment is basically because his family are still deeply attached to the tradition of arranged marriages, with a seemingly-endless string of unattached Pakistani women happening to drop by at family meals. Kumail doesn’t want to get kicked out of the family for admitting to a relationship with a white non-Muslim girl, and this inevitably causes tension between Emily and him.

And then something happens. Does this constitute a spoiler or not? I can’t remember if it’s in the trailer or not, but it’s in all the promotional material that I’ve seen, and the film is called The Big Sick, after all. Emily is admitted to hospital after what seems to be a bout of flu causes her to faint, and ends up in a coma. Despite their relationship being in limbo, Kumail finds himself hanging around the hospital and bonding with Emily’s parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano).

This is a rom-com, so you probably don’t need me to tell you that this crisis forces Kumail to think hard about what is really important to him – is it keeping his parents happy, even if that means living a lie, or spending his life with Emily? The charm and the achievement of the film, which is the same as that of any watchable romantic comedy, is that you are engaged and entertained even as the story proceeds towards a throroughly predictable conclusion (Nanjiani and the real-life Emily have been married for nearly a decade and co-wrote the script together).

As I get older and become more aware of my neuro-atypicality, trips to watch rom-coms increasingly feel like anthropological expeditions to observe the peculiar behaviour of remote tribespeople, and yet I found The Big Sick to be rather delightful and almost completely winning. Much of the credit for this must go to Nanjiani himself, who gives a brilliant deadpan comedy performance. It probably helped my connection to him that Nanjiani is no stranger to the less-mainstream areas of culture himself, being a noted X Files fan (which resulted in him actually appearing in the good episode of season 10). That said, at various points in the film, Kumail breaks off from watching Night of the Living Dead and The Abominable Dr Phibes to engage in intimate relations, which I can’t imagine ever doing myself, so this is obviously a relative thing. (What kind of person takes a girl home and then suggests they watch an old Vincent Price horror movie together, anyway? Ahem.)

Then again, this is a film with a strong ensemble performance, from the various members of Kumail and Emily’s extended families (Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff play Kumail’s parents), and also the various other up-and-coming comedians Kumail hangs around with. The film never puts a foot wrong when it comes to its frequent shifts in tone, and never feels self-consciously heavy when dealing with ostensibly serious topics like ‘the Pakistani-American experience’ or ‘coping with a loved one in a coma’ (the movie resists making the obvious Smiths reference).

In fact, although on paper the movie looks like an inventive mash-up of the Cross-Cultural Romance (with Various Attendant Issues) and Medical Crisis Romance story-forms, it doesn’t really feel like either of them – it feels heartfelt and genuine rather than forced and formulaic. None of the major characters is wholly flawless or an irredeemably bad person – they’re just recognisable people, with rather messy lives they are doing their best to cope with.

I laughed a lot all the way through The Big Sick (there was also, admittedly, a sharp intake of breath at the point where someone tells Kumail that ‘The X Files is not a good show’) – but it also snuck in some genuinely moving moments, which took me entirely by surprise. Normally I would be inclined to speculate as to extent to which real life has been rewritten to suit the demands of a standard three-act dramatic structure, but the film is so funny, so warm, and so sincerely truthful that I’m inclined to give it a pass on this. This is a charming and immensely likeable film, however you feel about rom-coms in general; highly recommended.

Stathamophobia

Gratifying though it has been to see the great Mr Jason Statham become much more a fixture of major studio movies, with his appearances in the Fast & Furious franchise, the Expendables series, and even a Melissa McCarthy comedy, there has been a definite downside to this – namely that vehicles headlined by Mr Statham himself have become that much thinner on the ground. The fact that the last couple of these didn’t even shown at my multiplex of choice doesn’t help much either – well, at least Netflix loves Jason, even if the Odeon doesn’t.

One victim of Odeon’s Stathamophobia was last year’s Mechanic: Resurrection, which is ostensibly a sequel to 2011’s The Mechanic. To be honest, though, it could really be a sequel to almost any Jason Statham film you care to mention, inasmuch as he is (as usual) playing the Jason Statham Character – which is to say, a tough, taciturn professional whose lethal skills are offset by a strict code of honour.

Rather amusingly, Mechanic: Resurrection‘s director, Dennis Gansel, has opted for the possessive credit (i.e., ‘A film by…’), which is more sensibly reserved for films with a distinctive artistic vision and aspirations to be high art. None of these things is true of a normal Jason Statham movie, and they’re especially not true of this one.

Mr Statham plays Bishop, a retired assassin who specialised in making his handiwork look like an accident. These days he is living the life of Riley in Brazil on his lovely yacht, but, wouldn’t you just know it, his past is about to catch up with him. A young woman turns up and refuses to let Mr Statham’s clever attempts to pretend to be Brazilian fool her. ‘You can’t even get the accent right,’ she observes, which (given Jason Statham’s notoriously variable attempts to sound American) is about as close as the film gets to actual wit. Anyway, she is in the employ of one of Mr Statham’s old acquaintances, Crane (Sam Hazeldine), who has unfinished business with him. Not that it really matters much, but apparently both Bishop and Crane were effectively sold into slavery as children and trained as child soldiers by a gangster. This might make more sense if they didn’t both have London accents, but I digress. Anyway, Crane wants Bishop to carry out three looking-like-an-accident assassinations, or it will go the worse for him.

After a second or so’s consideration, Mr Statham refuses the young lady’s offer in the traditional courteous fashion, by hitting her over the head with a table. Pausing only to beat up all of her bodyguards, he departs (by hurling himself atop a passing hang-glider) and clears off to Thailand and the beach resort of his old friend Mei (Michelle Yeoh, soon to go where no Hong Kong action star has gone before).

Here he meets Gina (Jessica Alba), a young woman who appears to be having trouble with an abusive girlfriend. At Mei’s prompting, Mr Statham intervenes (he’s very ready to sit in judgement on men who are violent to women, given only five minutes earlier he was hitting girls with tables), and the man with a legendary skill when it comes to premeditatedly killing folk and making it look accidental, accidentally kills the dude but makes it look rather like a murder. Hey, everyone has a bad day once in a while, I guess.

It turns out that Gina is also in the employ of Crane, the plan being that she will get it on with him and then allow herself to be kidnapped, thus giving Crane leverage over our man. She is still basically a good sort, though, as she is ex-US Army and also runs an orphanage in Cambodia. Not entirely surprisingly, the two of them get it on anyway, at which point Crane’s goons indeed turn up and kidnap her. Slow off the mark, there, Mr S.

Well, Mr Statham has to go off and do the three assassinations after all, but luckily they are horrible people so his conscience stays fairly clear. I suppose you could call these sequences little vignettes – Bishop has to get himself in and out of a maximum security Thai prison, which involves exploding chewing gum and a fake facial tattoo (done in biro from the look of things), and then does his human fly impression up the side of an Australian skyscraper to flush a human trafficker out of the bottom of his own swimming pool. Then it’s off to Bulgaria for his date with his final target, an American arms dealer (Tommy Lee Jones).

The presence of a relatively substantial performer like Jones, along with that of a high-profile leading lady like Jessica Alba, might lead you to conclude that this is a more serious and credible Jason Statham movie. You would be entirely wrong, I am afraid, for this is a Jason Statham movie in the classic vein, even – if I may be so bold – an especially preposterous one. (In case you were wondering, Tommy Lee Jones basically contributes an extended cameo, while Jessica Alba is, perhaps not for the first time in her career, essentially just ornamental flesh.)

The cinematography is quite nice, I suppose, and the various scenes of Jason Statham doing intricate, determined things in the course of his assassinations are well managed. This is one of those films where Mr Statham spends most of his time scowling intensely, with perhaps a touch of wistfulness now and then – he’s perfectly good at this, and also in the numerous action sequences. For some reason he spends quite a lot of the film in a wetsuit this time, but this is far from the oddest thing about it.

The problems mainly lie with the script, which is hackneyed, has nothing new to offer, and oscillates between deep predictability and moments of the utterly absurd – at one point the villains’ yacht leaves Sydney harbour, and then seemingly only a few hours later is cruising in the Black Sea. Now, I do like a touch of the outlandish and crazy in my Jason Statham movies – it’s the contrast between Statham’s completely deadpan approach to the material and its frequent barking silliness which gives them their distinctive tone – but somehow here it all feels just a bit perfunctory, not even remotely grounded in reality.

The opening section of the film is fairly engaging, but once Mr Statham sets off about his various assassinations, it rapidly becomes – dare I say it – completely mechanical, with very little in the way of characterisation or intentional humour. By the time the final act arrived, with a succession of uninspired shoot-ups and obvious plot twists, I actually found it a genuine struggle to stay focused on the movie and not start thinking about something else. Long-term readers will know that this is something that is very rarely the case with a Statham movie.

I really don’t know. I am, obviously, a fan of Jason Statham, and have sat and watched nearly all his movies and mostly enjoyed them – and while this one does have a few bits and pieces in it to divert the attention and reward the faithful, at the same time it too often feels formulaic and poorly thought through. I really like Jason Statham because he is usually a front man whose presence is the indicator of a Good Bad Movie. Mechanic: Resurrection, unfortunately, is just a Bad Movie.