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Posts Tagged ‘1990s’

A venture into a wholly strange and slightly baffling world now, as we launch a new, probably fairly irregular feature, entitled NCJG Goes To Bollywood. Your ability to find proper Bollywood films in the UK is really a bit of a postcode lottery – if you live in a region with a sizeable Asian community, the chances are there will be at least one or two screens at the local multiplex doing a roaring trade in the latest releases (hence their regular presence on the UK box office top ten), but elsewhere the pickings are much slimmer (where I live, you’re more likely to find a Polish movie – Pollywood? – than anything from the subcontinent). I suppose there is always Get Clicks (until they start paying me to endorse them, I’m not using their actual name), but my cursory research suggests most of the Bollywood films available to stream come from the ‘pilloried by the critics’ category.

Let us be thankful, then, for the BFI’s India on Film initiative, which last week brought us Ray’s The Chess Players and this week offers, in a similar vein of cultural outreach, Mani Ratnam’s 1995 film Bombay. My research – once again, pretty cursory – suggests this is considered a bit of a modern classic as far as Indian movies go, with nothing more recent ahead of it in the lists of the best of Bollywood.

Things get underway in rural India as the chunkily moustached Shekhar (Arvind Swamy) returns to visit his family after being away studying journalism in Bombay. His father (Nassar) is a respected man around the village and is on at Shekhar to marry a nice local Hindu girl, so it is a bit awkward when he falls head over heels in love with a local Muslim, Shaila (Manisha Koirala), whose father makes bricks for a living. A couple of banging musical numbers inevitably follow, along with many significant looks between the two, before Shaila gives in to her own heart and the two launch a passionate but also almost entirely chaste love affair.

Naturally, a Hindu-Muslim romance is bound to cause trouble, and when Shekhar approaches Shaila’s dad Bashir (Kitty) to inform her of his marital intentions, Bashir grabs a scimitar and tries to hack him to pieces, which is not the response he was hoping for. Despite the disapproval of both families, Shekhar and Shaila elope to Bombay to begin a new life together. For a while everything seems to be improving, with the two families gradually brought closer together, but as sectarian tensions rise in Bombay, it seems that not even Shekhar and Shaila’s love is safe…

There are obviously many things about a film like Bombay which seem rather strange and alien to a western viewer – cultural things, of course, but also some cinematic conventions. (And the fact that while the film is theoretically subtitled in English, it is a variety of English that seems to have been written with minimal knowledge of the language.) One might even rashly suggest that making a musical romantic drama set against the backdrop of bloody sectarian violence is a bizarre tonal choice, the product of a wholly different perspective. But then if you think about films like West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, and (if we really must) Absolute Beginners, you can see that they use music and dance to address challenging topics in exactly the same way.

To be perfectly honest, there were rather fewer big musical numbers in Bombay than I was hoping for, and I got the impression the film-makers would like to have included more too: at one point the story just stops and everyone launches into a fairly lavish routine on the thinnest of pretexts, with minimal relevance to the plot, presumably just because that’s what they fancied doing. Elsewhere the songs are incorporated into the story a little more subtly. Before watching this film I was unfamiliar with the Bollywood concept of the ‘item number’, which is a musical interlude featuring stars not appearing elsewhere in the movie, usually included for promotional purposes only. There’s one of those here, a suggestive pop song featuring some belly dancing and MC Hammer-style moves, but it does serve the plot rather neatly – having arrived in Bombay and got wed, Shekhar and Shaila find themselves unable to, ahem, consummate their relationship for several days. When the time comes, proceedings are alluded to by various shots of Shekhar taking off his vest, intercut with the aforementioned suggestive song. The overall effect is rather pleasingly subtle and genuinely mildly erotic.

This is for a given value of subtlety, of course. Bombay is essentially a sentimental melodrama with all of its emotions dialled up to 11 from the start – when Shekhar first catches sight of Shaila (her veil blows out of the way), we get the full slo-mo effect and Indian yodelling on the soundtrack. But you can’t fault the actors’ charisma or commitment – they are an undeniably sweet couple, with Koirala an almost irresistibly winsome screen presence – and, in its early stages at least, the film mixes some genuinely funny lines and business in with the romance subplot. (Shekhar can only speak to Shaila by dressing up as a Muslim woman – fortunately his niqab hides his moustache.)

‘I didn’t come here to be sentimental,’ says one of the characters later on in the film, which is possibly one of the most disingenuous lines in the history of cinema, for you could argue that everyone in Bombay has turned up to be sentimental, most of the time. As long as the film stays light on its feet, though, you kind of indulge it in this. However, the mood grows darker as the film progresses, and real-life events start to impact the narrative. The last third of the film concerns the Bombay riots of late 1992 and early 1993, in which clashes between Hindus and Muslims led to hundreds of deaths. The religious tension which at the start of the film is almost played for laughs – the two fathers can’t have a conversation without one of them reaching for a meat cleaver – becomes deadly serious, and the film basically turns into a deeply heartfelt plea for religious tolerance.

You can’t fault that as a message, I suppose, and given the nature of Bollywood, you shouldn’t be surprised when the film lays it all on a bit thick. But I have to say I found myself shifting in my seat and wanting to glance at my watch as the film approached its end, with many an impassioned speech about all blood being the same colour, and so on (you know, that may have been a song lyric – yes, they have songs in the middle of the rioting).

Bombay is not especially smart, nor is it especially subtle, but I don’t think it was ever intended to be – but I suspect it will stir your emotions and tug at your heartstrings, whatever your background, assuming you surrender to its considerable charms. It’s not as if sentimental melodramas don’t frequently do very well in Anglophone cinema, is it? Anyway: this is a thoroughly enjoyable film for most of its duration, with a worthy message passionately delivered. Probably a very good choice of sampler for the whole Bollywood experience.

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Let us set the dials on the Films of Yesteryear Time Machine to a point in history slightly closer to home than is usually our wont and head back to the strange days of 1999. So long ago! And yet still somehow so recent! It is slightly discombobulating to watch what looks like a contemporary film, but one in which nobody has a mobile phone and they still watch movies on VHS tape. Perhaps the strangest disconnect between Then and Now is the fact that Johnny Depp was not yet the box office darling he has since become, but a jobbing movie star whose ability to open a movie was still a bit questionable. Especially when the movie in question is one like Rand Ravich’s The Astronaut’s Wife.

Depp is playing the astronaut, natch. Playing Mrs Astronaut is Charlize Theron, and I suppose at this point it is incumbent upon us to reflect on what a movie business veteran – or perhaps hardy perennial – she has also turned out to be, although not without a few missteps along the way. Here she is at the age of 24, arguably carrying what was a fairly major movie (the budget of The Astronaut’s Wife was $75m, though I’m blowed if I can work out where all the money went). It is, admittedly, not a very good major movie, but nobody knew that when they were casting it.

Things get underway with Depp and Theron bunked up together and enjoying a last moment of whoa-ho-ho before his latest space mission. For the role Depp has adopted a somewhat questionable blond dye-job and a verywhat questionable Deep South accent. (His character is name Spencer Armacost, which apparently is theoretically possible, it just doesn’t sound like it.)

Well, Depp goes up into space with another astronaut, but there is trouble in orbit and contact is lost with the mission for a little while. When the astronauts return to Earth, Depp’s colleague (Nick Cassavetes) seems to make a full recovery, but starts behaving oddly at a party and then collapses and dies. The generally cheery tone of the movie continues when Cassavetes’ pregnant wife (Donna Murphy) commits suicide during the funeral. (I should have mentioned – this is ostensibly a horror movie.)

Not long after this, Depp announces he is quitting his job as an astronaut and joining a New York-based aviation company, despite his previous love of flying and oft-stated hatred of big cities (for a film about an astronaut there’s a definite lack of actual space hardware in it). Theron is a bit baffled by this strange behaviour but goes along with it, mainly because this is that sort of film. When she asks him about what happened during the mysterious interlude when he was cut off from Earth, he seems to take this as an invitation to start interfering with her intimate person, resulting in some public rumpy-pumpy which is not really as pulsating erotic as the film would like to think it is.

Soon enough, Theron finds out she is pregnant with her husband’s child – well, it’s twins, apparently. But is she? Coming out of the woodwork is Joe Morton from NASA’s Department of Paranoid Bafflegab, who reveals that Murphy’s character was likewise carrying twins when she died, and that Cassavetes died as a result of the strain placed on his body by some alien influence. He suggests that some malign force from deep space has taken possession of Depp and is using him to carry out a nefarious scheme here on Earth – which incorporates, somehow, the unborn children Theron is carrying…

Yeah, well, as I said, this is basically another entry into the obstetric horror subgenre (never a particular favourite of mine, it must be said), with strong elements of paranoia and cobblers SF to it as well. In fact it is, if you’ll indulge me, something of a cross between The Quatermass Experiment and Rosemary’s Baby, only not nearly as good as either. I expect this was one of those ideas which looked good on paper, but the problem is that the story runs out of places to go quite rapidly, settling on a final destination which seems not especially well thought-through – there is vaguely sinister talk of Depp helping to build a robot plane which will eventually be piloted by the twins, but this is only really a cigarette paper’s thickness away from being total gibberish. You would have expected a malevolent alien mind parasite to have come all this way with a better scheme than that.

So in the end the film just opts for an atmosphere of stately menace, with the occasional moment hoping for erotic tension – none of which really hides the fact that this is a movie in which not very much happens for long stretches, unless you include a baffling number of close-ups of people’s mouths, ears, feet, and so on (you can see why Charlize Theron was such a successful model – her toes are gorgeous). There’s a subplot about Theron’s past history of psychological trouble, but for me this just added to the vaguely dubious tone of much of the movie – you can tell this is one of those movies about the female experience which has been written and directed by a man.

The fact that the studio figured out they had a troubled production on their hands is fairly obvious, given that the DVD of The Astronaut’s Wife comes with not one but two endings. Now, the theatrical ending has lashings of CGI in it and concludes on a note of menacing incoherence. I have to say I am somewhat more impressed by the original ending which they ended up not using: it may be more ambiguous, but this seems to have been the intention.

Hey ho. We could speculate about a parallel world in which all those bloody pirate films never got made, and wonder about what kind of career Johnny Depp would have enjoyed there – I can well imagine the actor sitting down with a pile of his late 90s and early 2000s movies and thanking his lucky stars at great length, because it’s easy to envision him still trapped in the cult fave ghetto as Tim Burton’s slightly ageing muse. Theron does a decent enough job in a not especially rewarding part, I suppose – though I suspect no-one at the time would have pegged her as a future Oscar winner and latterday ass-kicker.

It’s fairly easy to see why Rand Ravich has not been allowed near the helm of another movie since this The Astronaut’s Wife. The look of the thing is competent, but its tone is more dismal than actually frightening. It’s one of those movies that freely helps itself to elements of a number of other films, but in the process somehow manages to make them rather less interesting and effective. Probably one for obstetric horror completists only.

 

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‘I can’t believe you’ve never seen Being John Malkovich,’ said Bloke From Next Desk.

‘I didn’t say I’d never seen it, I just said I haven’t seen it in a very long time. Fifteen years or so,’ I said.

‘No problem,’ he said (I’m not entirely sure he actually heard me). Within a couple of days he had brought in his copy of the film on DVD for me to watch. He is a thoughtful fellow, even if I find him rather too inclined to be generous towards Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Hey, nobody’s perfect.

So, anyway, Spike Jonze’s 1999 film Being John Malkovich, which reached the UK a short while later, as tended to be standard in those days. I was living in the north of England at the time, many hours from the nearest art-house cinema, and so I could often only listen and sigh as London-based film critics extolled the praises of bold, brilliant, unusual films, that I knew I didn’t have a chance in hell of actually getting to see on the big screen. Ah, my wilderness years; however did I make it through? Being John Malkovich was just one especially notable example of this – there was a distinct buzz about this film, presumably because of both its startling premise and relentless originality.

John Cusack, that dependable and likeable screen presence, is cast rather against type as Craig, a struggling puppeteer who is married to obsessive animal-lover Lottie (Cameron Diaz, who is also cast very much against type). At Lottie’s request, Craig puts his unusual dexterity to use in a steadier job, working as a file clerk for the mysterious LesterCorp. Here he meets and is instantly attracted to the spiky Maxine (Catherine Keener) – she, quite sensibly, wants nothing to do with him.

All this changes when Craig discovers a mysterious blocked-up doorway in the file room. Going through it results in him being sucked down a passage and finding himself in the mind of the distinguished American actor John Malkovich (John Malkovich). For fifteen minutes he gets to experience life as a famous thespian, before he is disgorged onto the side of a road just outside New York.

Craig and Maxine decide to make the most of their discovery, by selling tickets to Malkovich’s mind for $200 each (as you would). Needless to say, there are dozens of interested parties, and it looks like the pair of them have a good thing going – until Lottie discovers that occupying Malkovich allows her to live out her fantasies of being a man, and engages in a relationship with Maxine from within the actor. Malkovich himself becomes suspicious of the odd events happening around him, and decides to find out just what is going on…

These days, you look at Being John Malkovich and think, ‘aha, a Charlie Kaufman movie’, for the writer has gone on to carve out a unique furrow as a purveyor of existential strangeness in wildly original and blackly funny films like Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Anomalisa. It’s almost enough to make you suspect he has some kind of superpower when it comes to persuading A-list actors to appear in very, very strange films.

So it is with this one. If you haven’t seen it, you may be wondering how on Earth the film goes about selling the notion of a metaphysical portal into someone’s mind to the audience – well, it is a ridiculous idea, but Kaufman and Jonze make it work by setting the whole film in a ridiculous world. No-one in the film behaves entirely normally – Craig is forever getting punched in the face for putting on age-inappropriate puppet shows in the street, the LesterCorp receptionist appears to have some kind of bizarre problem with her hearing, and the company itself is on the Seventh-and-a-Half floor of its building, with the result that everyone has to go around stooped over all the time. Given that all the characters accept these various elements without questioning them in the slightest, the existence of the Malkovich portal seems relatively less weird when it first appears.

Not that this makes the presence of John Malkovich himself in the film any less astounding – getting him to participate at all is possibly its greatest achievement. ‘If the film is bad, my name’s not just above the title, it is the title,’ Malkovich reportedly complained to Jonze, ‘and if it’s any good, everyone’s just going to assume I am this character.’ It’s not even as if this is a particularly flattering depiction of Malkovich – there’s a running joke about how he is universally acclaimed as a great thespian, but none of the other characters can actually name any of the films he’s appeared in. The fictional Malkovich takes himself very seriously, too – which presumably the real one doesn’t, or he wouldn’t be anywhere near it (apparently the studio head would have preferred Being Tom Cruise, as well).

If you’re the kind of person who likes to try and guess what the theme of a film is before watching it, you would be forgiven for assuming that this is essentially a comedy about our contemporary obsession with fame – everyone gets their fifteen minutes of Malkovich, after all. And while this is a consistently funny film, if you come to it with the right attitude at least, I don’t think that’s all there is to it. It may sound like a comedy, but it doesn’t behave like one – neither the performances nor the direction do anything to suggest that this is anything other than a straight drama, admittedly one with an outlandish element of fantasy, perhaps even of horror: after all, the plot resolves itself as ultimately being about a secret immortal who has hit upon a method of vastly extending his life by overpowering the free will of unsuspecting victims. Only the deadpan seriousness of the presentation makes it funny (an engaging paradox).

You can’t fault the film for its entertainment value, or endless inventiveness – as Roger Ebert said at the time, this is one of those incredibly rare films which is as surprising in its last thirty minutes as it is in its first. It is consistently funny, surprising, and… well, I’m not quite sure I’d call it thought-provoking, but it does delight in throwing strange ideas at the audience. The problem is that the price of this is that the film departs from any kind of recognisable dramatic structure – who’s the protagonist? Who’s the antagonist? Just which way is this going to go? Bereft of any of the usual signposts or markers, my memory of this movie after my initial VHS encounter was one of a collection of wildly disparate individual bits rather than a coherent narrative, and I’m not sure meeting it again on DVD has done much to change that impression. A very well-made, very funny film, but a total oddity on nearly every level.

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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.

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Something notable happened to the perception of SF and fantasy in the UK in the middle of the 1980s: when I was very young, SF programmes like Star Trek were on in prime time on one of the main channels – this is the main reason why original Trek acquired its cultural traction in the UK. On the BBC at least, there seemed to be relatively little stigma attached to the science fiction genre prior to the late 80s – the network produced Survivors, Blake’s 7, and Star Cops all in the preceding ten years or so.

After this, however, the BBC largely stopped making SF, and the imported programmes that it did broadcast usually turned up on its minority network in an early-evening slot. This happened to re-runs of The Invaders and the Gerry Anderson programmes throughout the 1990s, and also to every episode of Star Trek the BBC has broadcast since about 1986. (The Beeb has never had the rights to Enterprise, but at one point in 1997 they were showing Voyager on Sundays, Next Generation on Wednesdays, Deep Space Nine on Thursdays, and the original series on Fridays.)

As you can see, in the UK all Star Trek was treated equally – as disposable cult-fodder – and so we never got the sense that some iterations of the show might be more popular or successful than others. Certainly, I was a little surprised last year to discover that most general-audience histories of the franchise focus primarily on the original series and TNG, treating the last three shows as being rather obscure and only of minority interest. Still, at least it explains why there was never serious talk of doing DS9 or Voyager movies, and also the slightly odd, semi-detached relationship between the Next Gen movies and the TV shows that were in production simultaneously with them.

This is most noticeable in Star Trek: First Contact, directed by Jonathan Frakes and released in 1996, when there were two other TV series running which were ostensibly set contemporaneously with the movie. I remember going to see this movie on its opening night with a group of other people, some of whom knew their Trek, some of whom didn’t, and I seem to recall we all had a pretty good time: we concluded it worked well as both a Trek film and an SF action movie. These days – well, sitting down and watching the movie more thoughtfully, I’m inclined to be just a little more critical.

I suppose some of this is simply down to my unreasonable fondness for sprawling fictional universes and my expectation that they try to stay coherent and plausible, on their own terms at least. Certainly there are very sound real-world reasons why the Enterprise has retained the virtually the exact same senior staff for nine years, but from an in-universe perspective one is forced to wonder why the Federation flagship is crewed by people whose careers seem to have ground to a halt. (At least Worf (Michael Dorn) seems to be getting on with his life, although this does require the movie to ‘spring’ him from Deep Space Nine in rather the same way the rest of the A-Team were frequently required to extract Murdock from a mental hospital.)

In the same way, the opening of the movie does feel a little peculiar. Picard (Patrick Stewart) and the gang are safely ensconced aboard the shiny new Enterprise-E, when alarming news comes in of a new attack by the Borg (an implacable cyborg menace to civilisation as we know it, who may or may not be knock-offs of the Cybermen from Doctor Who). Picard has history with the Borg, which forms the basis of his arc in the movie – but this also means Starfleet consider him a bit suspect, so the ship is packed off to the Neutral Zone in case the Romulans try to take advantage of the havoc wreaked by the Borg incursion.

Quite apart from the very rum decision-making on the part of the Admiralty – if Picard is considered likely to go fuzzy round the edges in a pressure situation, what is he doing commanding the flagship of the fleet? – and the fact that this bit of script is obviously just here to give the captain a big hero moment where he decides to disobey orders and go to the aid of the fleet, doesn’t the Federation have more pressing concerns than the Romulans at this point in time? Pointedly not mentioned at all is the ongoing cold war between the Federation and the Dominion, which was the basis of DS9 episodes around this time. Which in turn leads one to wonder what the Enterprise-E was doing throughout the Dominion War. It is almost as if the movies and TV shows operated in slightly parallel universes, rather in the same way as Marvel’s movies and TV shows do at the moment.

Well, anyway. Picard and the Enterprise, along with the rest of the fleet, manage to destroy the invading Borg cube by cunningly, um, shooting at it a lot, but not before it disgorges a Borg sphere (big on geometrical designs, these Borg) which promptly disappears back in time. Realising the Borg are planning on conquering Earth in the past (no respecters of temporal integrity, either), it’s up to Picard and the others to follow them and save history.

They find the Borg have gone back to 2063 and are trying to avert Earth’s first contact with an extraterrestrial civilisation (hence the title), which was triggered by the first flight of Zefram Cochrane’s prototype warp-drive ship. (Cochrane is played by James Cromwell, at the time most famous as the dancing farmer from Babe.) Fixing the prototype and getting a reluctant Cochrane to stay off the sauce long enough to fulfil his destiny is tricky enough, but somehow the Borg have managed to infiltrate the Enterprise, and the crew also have to battle to stop them from taking over the ship…

We shall skip over the nagging questions of why it is that the Borg don’t just travel back to 2063 near their home planet and make the whole journey to Earth in the past, thus avoiding Starfleet’s response entirely, and the convenient way in which they establish a foothold on the Enterprise so easily, and think about more general matters. You can kind of see the thinking that went into the general shape of this movie – I think everyone assumed that with the original series crossover movie done and dusted, the next one would concern itself with Round Two between the Enterprise and the Borg, while after the success of Star Trek IV and many other time-travel episodes of Trek, it’s understandable that the studio should want a film built around that sort of premise.

But having said that, this is (as far as I can remember) pretty much unique in being a mass-audience SF movie in which characters time-travel from one made-up future world to another (as opposed to something recognisable as the present day, or a point in history). This is not necessarily a terrible choice, but it is a peculiar one – I’m reminded of the current discussion of ‘incorrect’ song writing. If the concept has any validity, then I would suggest that Star Trek: First Contact has touches of incorrect scriptwriting about it. (Earlier drafts of the story went by the title Star Trek: Renaissance and saw the Borg going back in time to assimilate Leonardo da Vinci in 15th century Italy, but this more ‘correct’ idea was apparently vetoed by Patrick Stewart, who refused to wear tights in a movie.)

Once you get past the byzantine complexities of Star Trek continuity and the slight oddness of the premise, this is an undeniably solid movie, and certainly the best of the Next Gen films. Alien invasion movies were back in fashion in 1996, most notably in the form of the all-conquering Independence Day, and this is very much in tune with the zeitgeist even if it can’t quite match Roland Emmerich’s epic roller-coaster for thrills, scale, or sheer entertainment value – something of that slightly staid and worthy Next Gen sensibility persists throughout.

Then again, the moves away from the Hollywood SF movie formula do provide some of the film’s most memorable moments. The business on Earth with Cochrane provides a good-natured change of pace when set against the rather grimmer goings-on on the ship, the obscurely kinky scenes between Data (Brent Spiner) and the Queen of the Borg (Alice Krige) are distractingly odd, and all the various space battles and ray gun fights are well-mounted. But the heft of the film comes from Patrick Stewart, and Picard’s struggle to overcome his own rage and desire for vengeance against the Borg. The moments you remember are Picard ferociously tommy-gunning Borg drones while howling in fury, accusing Worf of cowardice for not being willing to fight to the death, lashing out in anger when confronted by his own irrationality and helplessness. All credit due to Patrick Stewart, of course (and also to Michael Dorn, whose ability to create memorable character moments from the slightest material is almost miraculous) – but this is also interesting in the wider context of Star Trek as a whole.

Gene Roddenberry’s vision for the future of humanity, inasmuch as it became a defining feature of the Star Trek he was involved in during the final years of his life, was that human beings were somehow perfectible, and that the people of the Federation had moved on beyond their recognisable human hang-ups. Writers on TNG came to call this notion ‘the Roddenberry box’ as it limited the possibilities of interpersonal drama so much – any script built around the idea of conflict between the regulars got spiked, for example. And yet First Contact seems to be commenting on this idea in a manner which I’m not at all sure the Great Bird would have been happy with – never mind the fact that Picard has clearly been left significantly damaged by his previous experiences with the Borg, the film presents Cochrane, architect of the bright future which the Federation will come to exemplify, as a rather ambiguous character – overly fond of a drink, motivated by self-interest, unwilling to face up to responsibility. Is the whole notion of perfectible humanity built on rather shaky foundations? The movie is wise enough not to go too far with this.

It adds a welcome, if subtle piece of heft to what is otherwise much more of a straightforward action movie than most of the other good Star Trek films. The tendency of Star Trek films to turn into action movies has been bewailed by others in the past, not just me, but if you’re going to turn Star Trek into an action movie it should at least be a good one, with some interesting ideas and strong characterisation still somewhere in the mix. Judged by this standard, First Contact is certainly a success, if not quite up to the standard of the very best films in the franchise.

 

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‘Classic Star Trek was that slightly rough girl who is a touch unrefined, dripping with sex appeal… and you end up wanting more. TNG was that more subdued, shy, refined girl… but innate passion and chemistry just isn’t there, and the entire experience feels a tad unrewarding.’ – Glen C Oliver, quoted in The Fifty Year Mission

‘My favourite bit was when Malcolm McDowell nutted Captain Slaphead.’ – Tony Parsons, Newsnight Review

Watching Star Trek: Generations in the UK was a slightly odd experience, simply due to the different ways in which film and TV operated back in those distant days of 1995. Nowadays, popular American TV shows arrive in the UK either simultaneously with their US transmission, or at most a couple of months later, but twenty years ago being a Star Trek watcher without a satellite subscription was a gruelling ordeal (I suppose you could say it was an exercise in character-building, but then that seemed to be other people’s rationale for every lousy experience I had in the 90s). There was, for instance, a two year gap between the transmission of the first and second episodes of series four, a period demanding strict spoiler management if you also read SF magazines. The cinema release of Generations in the US followed the conclusion of Next Gen‘s final season (after a decent interval, anyway). When it arrived in the UK shortly afterwards, we still had over a year of first-run TNG still to go, so it all felt a bit odd and a little premature.

(Still, it could have been worse: the first X-Files movie likewise appeared shortly after its US release, thus completely screwing up the intricate meta-plot for those of us who were a year behind due to only having access to the BBC broadcasts.)

Oh well. At least the movie itself seemed to pass the time fairly agreeably – at the time, anyway. Things get underway with the inaugural cruise of the Enterprise-B in 2293, overseen by Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and a couple of his old buddies, who are clearly not as retired as it was implied they were about to become at the end of Star Trek VI. Things go a bit amiss when the Enterprise encounters refugee ships caught in a mysterious energy ribbon, and Kirk apparently sacrifices himself to save the day and allow some of the refugees to be saved.

Before you can say ‘hang on, if the Federation was rescuing refugees from a Borg assimilation back in Kirk’s day, how come no-one had ever heard of them when the Enterprise met their first cube in second-season Next Gen?’, we find ourselves 78 years later aboard the Enterprise commanded by Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart). The ship receives a distress signal from a research outpost which has been attacked by the Romulans, and one of the survivors turns out to be Dr Tolian Soran (Malcolm McDowell), whom we have previously met as one of refugees (he’s one of those conveniently long-lived kinds of alien). Investigations are hampered by Picard being distracted by bad news from home, and Data (Brent Spiner) deciding to instal a chip which gives him emotions, and by Soran turning out to be a bad ‘un.

Yes, Soran teams up with some renegade Klingons, kidnaps the ship’s regular whipping boy LaForge (LeVar Burton), and zooms off to execute his nefarious plan of blowing up various stars. But why? Well, it turns out the mysterious energy-ribbon is either a gateway to heaven, or basically intergalactic crack, or simply one of those metaphorical Trek plot devices, and Soran is keen to get back into it, and blowing up stars will help with this (it’s complicated). In order to put a stop to all this, Picard finds himself obliged to team up with Kirk, who has been stuck in the timeless world of the ribbon since the start of the movie. But can victory come without great sacrifices?

As I suggested, while David Carson’s movie seemed fairly satisfying on its first release, these days it just feels slightly off in all kinds of ways. It’s not that it’s totally without good things – the chief of these being Malcolm MacDowell, who is clearly having a whale of a time chewing up the scenery (I seem to recall him volunteering to come back and kill off the rest of regular cast in subsequent movies), but the vibrant cinematography also does a great job of making the film look very different from the TV series which was such a recent memory when it came out.

The problem, I think, is that the film plays it safe when it should be doing something new and surprising, and innovates when what we really want is something familiar. Doing a movie where the original crew and the Next Gen mob meet up was arguably too much of a no-brainer to be advisable, and yet here it is, albeit in a rather limited form. It doesn’t really help that the TNG writers don’t seem to have much feel for the original crew, or that the script was clearly written for different characters to perform – Scotty finds himself spouting all kinds of scientific bafflegab and Chekov ends up in charge of sickbay, and it’s hard to think of a way they could have made it more obvious that it was supposed to be Spock and McCoy in these scenes.

I suppose I should also mention that Kirk doesn’t really feel like Kirk in this film, despite Shatner’s best attempts to give him some of the old swagger and fire. The theme of the film requires Kirk to be a somewhat regretful, diminished figure, looking back on an unfulfilled life, and this doesn’t quite ring true somehow – yet the Generations take on the character seems to have acquired some traction, having a lot in common with the Kirk who appears in the ‘autobiography’ which came out a couple of years ago. It’s Kirk, but not as we know him, and perhaps this is why his death at the end of the film doesn’t have anything like the impact it should – it’s also the case that it feels like the writers are dotting an i, rather than concluding this character’s story. (Maybe they should have kept Shatner’s ‘bridge on the captain’ ad lib.)

Writing about the very first Star Trek movie, I mentioned its similarities with early TNG, and the crucial mistake it made by not presenting the characters in a way that was recognisable from the TV show. Certainly the movie assumes the audience will have a certain degree of familiarity with the TV show – recurring villains the Duras sisters show up, for instance – and the whole thing is to some extent plotted and structured like a big-budget episode of the series. But they also come up with a story where Picard starts crying like a baby and Data can’t stop laughing like an idiot, and neither of these are things which I really want to see in a TNG movie (or indeed in any form of TNG). That said, at least they get interesting things to do, which isn’t the case for everyone in the cast – some of the junior members of the crew just seem to be there to meet contractual obligations, and even in these minor roles their performances radiate that comforting MDF quality we have come to expect.

I suppose I also have a problem with a couple of faults which recur throughout the TNG movies: whether or not they actually have a planned economy in the 24th century is the subject of fierce debate, but it seems certain beyond doubt that they have totally run out of subtlety. Like many of the TV episodes, they take a theme or a piece of subtext and then belabour you with it at quite extraordinary length, in the form of characters making long speeches or engaging in lengthy discussions about it. Yes, the film is about mortality and growing older. This is clear by about ten minutes in. And yet they keep on and on and on about it, without ever actually managing to say anything surprising or especially subtle about it, until the plot crashes into the assumption that, because Star Trek is ostensibly SF, a Star Trek movie should resolve like most modern SF blockbusters (i.e., with an action sequence). Hence the concluding scenes of three men in late middle age clambering around on some rocks.

I’ve never really been anything like as fond of the TNG movies as I was the original series movies from the 80s. Maybe it’s because I saw those early films when I was younger, or maybe it’s because I’m generally much fonder of the 60s TV series than I am of TNG. But I also think it’s the case that the TNG films feel constrained, somehow, obliged both to stay true to the ethos of the TNG TV series and respect the integrity of the rest of the Trek brand. They just don’t feel especially cinematic, and if a film doesn’t feel cinematic, what’s the point of it? This film includes lavish bigger-than-TV moments (the bit on the sailing ship) and supposedly significant developments (the business with Data’s chip, the destruction of the Enterprise-D), but ultimately it doesn’t really feel like anything other than a carefully-assembled brand extension.

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The time has come for a confession, and not one I ever recall making before. Here we go; brace yourselves. I have never really understood what all the fuss is about when it comes to Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. I mean, I’m not saying it’s actually an actively bad film, and it’s certainly an improvement on Star Trek V, but I get the sense it’s considered to be some kind of cinematic triumph, a return to form to match the best films from the 1980s. (That said, looking at the Rotten Tomatoes percentages for the Star Trek film series is very nearly enough to make you lose your faith in the human race anyway.) And I’m afraid I just don’t get it.

Nicholas Meyer, writer-director of Star Trek II and co-writer of Star Trek IV, came back to oversee the proceedings. Apparently this was partly a political decision, as it was thought that giving Leonard Nimoy the gig might annoy William Shatner, but this seems to have been a troubled production in many ways – the future of the film series had been thrown into doubt by the failure of Star Trek V, and it was only the looming 25th anniversary of the TV show, and the desire to do one last movie with the original cast, that led to this movie being given the green light. Even so, Harve Bennett, the writer-producer who had overseen all the 80s movies, walked away from the series after his idea for a prequel showing how all the characters had met was rejected (it is customary at this point to crack wise about how this idea eventually resurfaced in 2009; feel free to do so if you wish). In short, this was a movie made on a punishingly low budget and brief production schedule – I suppose the fact that it is reasonably accomplished does qualify as something of an achievement.

Well, anyway: the political settlement of the late 23rd century is thrown into turmoil when a major industrial accident deep within the Klingon Empire threatens to render Qo’NoS uninhabitable and bring about the collapse of Klingon civilisation. This does however give the visionary Klingon chancellor (David Warner) the opportunity he needs to negotiations with the Federation, with a view to ending decades of hostility and bringing about a new age of galactic peace and unity.

The Enterprise senior staff, who are months away from retirement (the film has a tendency to get a bit meta about this, not to mentiona sentimental), are rounded up and given the mission of escorting the Klingon diplomatic party to Earth. (The only person not back at his post is Sulu (George Takei), who – unusually for a long-running Trek character – appears to have developed a career and is now in charge of his own ship.) Kirk (Shatner) is less than delighted that Spock (Nimoy) has volunteered him for this, as he still has issues with the Klingons killing his son a few movies ago. But duty is duty.

An uneasy atmosphere between the two groups degenerates into open distrust and hostility when the chancellor’s ship is attacked, apparently by the Enterprise, and the chancellor himself is murdered. Kirk and McCoy are arrested, put on trial, and packed off to the Klingon equivalent of Siberia, and it’s up to Spock and the others to solve the mystery of the murder and work out who is trying to sabotage the peace settlement…

When The Undiscovered Country came out in 1991 (or 1992, depending on where you were living at the time), the world was a radically different place to that of five years earlier. The TV show The Next Generation, initially viewed by some members of the original cast as a preposterous upstart, had become well-established as a popular and (eventually) critical success, and the failure of Star Trek V seemed to have proven that the future of Star Trek really lay with the Enterprise-D and its crew (you could argue the movie acknowledges this by giving a cameo role to Michael Dorn, playing an ancestor of his TNG character). Bearing this in mind, Star Trek VI seems like a bit of an indulgence, one last chance to see the old gang, an opportunity for them to leave the stage gracefully and with a little dignity. And you can’t fault the sentiment behind that, but it’s not necessarily a recipe for a great movie.

This is a film which is dealing with some powerful themes – intolerance, racism, fear of the future – and you would expect it to go into some fairly dark and intense places. Yet it doesn’t. There are some fleeting moments of genuine drama – Spock tells Kirk the Klingons will die if a peace treaty is not agreed, and Kirk snarls back ‘Let them die!’, there is the scene where Spock uses a mind-meld to tear information from the brain of the traitor Valeris – but much of the time this is trying too hard to be a fun, light-hearted romp. I think it was Kim Newman, reviewing the movie in Sight and Sound, who suggested how much more effective it would have been as a drama had, say, Scotty turned out to be one of the conspirators, but that would have run totally counter to the purpose of the film, which is not to provide complex drama, but nostalgic fun. As it is, the tone of the film never quite feels right.

I think that to some extent Nicholas Meyer’s lack of grounding in Star Trek is a little more on display here than was the case in his earlier scripts for the movies. Quite apart from controversial innovations such as putting a kitchen on the Enterprise (apparently that’s controversial, if you’re a Trekkie), it doesn’t feel like he ever quite gets the Klingons exactly right – they’re not the mostly irredeemable villains of the TV show, nor really the slightly more nuanced and alien culture that had been established in The Next Generation by this point. That said, he does write a good villain in Christopher Plummer’s General Chang.

Instead, Meyer’s Klingons are transparently based on the Soviets – they have show trials, a gulag, and so on. However, this does make sense when you consider that the whole film operates as an allegory for US-Russian geopolitical relations in the late 80s and early 90s. It opens with a deep space version of the Chernobyl accident, and goes on to cover what Meyer described as ‘the Berlin Wall coming down in space’. Fair enough, but it’s hardly handled with the greatest of subtlety, or really much subtlety at all. And it never really touches upon the central paradox of the plot, which is that humans and Klingons find the prospect of peacefully co-operation so objectionable that they co-operate together to stop it happening. Nimoy himself later admitted that they had missed a trick in not taking the opportunity to explore just why the Klingons had always been so implacably hostile.

Still, as I say, it’s not what you’d call an awful movie, just a little underwhelming. I think that by the time it reached the UK, we knew that Next Generation movies would eventually be coming, Deep Space 9 was on the way, Gene Roddenberry had died, and there was a general sense that Star Trek was moving on, away from the original characters. I think it may be the film’s very affection for Kirk, Spock, and the gang that keeps it from giving them the really memorable swan song they surely deserved. A curious problem; I’m not sure how it could have been solved.

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