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Posts Tagged ‘Eric Bana’

When is a universe a star? The question is surely relevant to J.J. Abrams’ 2009 redo of the mighty Star Trek phenomenon, a look at which I’ve been promising myself for ages now. The present time seems as auspicious as any, with the sequel due upon us in a matter of days, and Abrams recently anointed (possibly from a poisoned chalice, if that isn’t stretching a metaphor too far) as the director of the first Disney Star Wars movie.

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The circumstances in which I first saw the 2009 Star Trek have a bearing on my attitude to it. I saw it at a picturehouse in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, at what felt like a frankly unreasonably early hour on a Sunday morning (I believe I had been at a nightclub the previous evening). I was accompanied by my then-wife, which was fortunate as the movie was, as usual, in Russian, and my grasp of the language didn’t extend much beyond counting fruit, so as a native speaker she could at least explain the finer points of the plot (or so I hoped).

Anyway, we sat down to watch it and – with the odd reservation – I was rather impressed by what I saw. I could not, in all honesty, follow all the convolutions of the story, but obviously I have since caught up. It opens with a starship investigating an anomalous phenomenon in space, only to be confronted by an enormous vessel of Romulan origin – but Romulus in the future. The captain (Eric Bana) is intent on locating the famed Ambassador Spock, with whom he clearly has a bone to pick, and doesn’t care who he blows up in order to get to him.

Well, the first officer of the Federation ship has to sacrifice his own life in order to secure the escape of the rest of the surviving crew, which would probably have come as a shock to long-time Trekkies as he is revealed to be Captain Kirk’s dad, who never previously died that way. The time-travelling Romulans have, in short, changed the history of both Kirk and the Federation.

This acts as a marvellous get-out for scriptwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, allowing them to jiggle about the established history of all the classic Star Trek characters without being accused of riding roughshod over continuity (well… we’ll come back to that). So we meet a slightly different Kirk, who’s more of a bad-boy maverick with a chequered past, and follow his enlistment into Starfleet, his first encounters with Spock (Zachary Quinto), McCoy (Karl Urban), Scotty (Simon Pegg), and the rest, and the eventual showdown with those vengeful Romulans. The original Spock (Leonard Nimoy) pops up briefly too, as if to give some sort of official imprimatur to the whole undertaking.

Well, in Russian, I thought it looked rather marvellous – Abrams has come up with a new and convincing aesthetic for the Star Trek universe (even if the engineering deck of the Enterprise now looks like a brewery, for no apparent reason), and – provided you can see past the lens flare – it’s a beautiful-looking movie. However, I have to say that every time since that I have watched this film, I’ve liked it a little bit less than before.

This is not to say that I think this is an outright badly-made film, because it obviously isn’t – I will happily have it on the background while I’m doing something else, because the story is sort-of coherent and interesting, it looks good, and there are some well-executed sequences along the way. It’s a pretty good SF action blockbuster. I just don’t think it does Star Trek any favours: in fact, I would say it’s the biggest retrograde step in the history of the franchise.

Now, as regular readers will know, my hearts may belong to Doctor Who, but Star Trek – certainly selected bits of it – can have one of my lungs without my complaining in the slightest. I don’t think I’ve missed more than two or three episodes of any of the series, although to be honest by the time Voyager and Enterprise came along it was more out of a sense of obligation than any sense that this was vibrant, innovative and exciting SF.

Why do I like Star Trek? Two main reasons, I think – firstly, in its better incarnations, Trek has never been afraid to tackle some fairly challenging ethical and philosophical issues – I’ve heard it argued that all true SF is an extended attempt to define what it means to be human, and this is certainly true of the best of Trek. The latter series may have dropped the ball somewhat in terms of breaking new ground in this area, but that shouldn’t detract from the achievements of the earlier shows.

Secondly – and I admit this is much more geeky – I like the Star Trek universe very much. All right, so it isn’t the most subtly-developed fictional universe in history, bits of it are quite repetitive and in some ways it can be outright absurd, but it’s mostly coherent, and it looks like it would be a nice place to visit (neither of which you could strictly say about the Doctor Who universe). For me, one of the great attractions of Star Trek prior to 2009 was that, in a sense, the ongoing star of all of the series and movies was the universe itself.

What the 2009 movie seems to represent, though, is an announcement that Star Trek is not fundamentally about its own universe any more. It now fundamentally seems to be about one particular set of well-known characters – Kirk, Spock, et al – with everything else being up for grabs as suits the requirements of the story.

Hence the structure and central conceit of this movie. It would surely have been much simpler to just reboot the franchise from scratch with the classic Enterprise crew coming together for the first time, but this would inevitably have meant clashes with established continuity and a negative reaction from the established fanbase, whom Paramount clearly want on-board with the new series. So we get the rather laborious device of villains from the ‘established’ universe travelling back to create a new timeline where Abrams and company can do what they want: what they want, so far as I can tell, is to have their cake and eat it, seeing as their objective appears to be to establish an unbreakable connection to the old continuity without their being bound by it in the slightest.

It seems strange to show your respect for an established continuity by largely obliterating it, but this is what the movie essentially does. A hand-wave is slipped in explaining that the actions of Bana’s character have created an ‘alternative timeline’, but this is not how temporal mechanics works in the Trek universe and the writers should be aware of that. If you travel back in time and start changing things in Star Trek, you don’t create a new parallel timeline, you replace the original one – this idea is central to the plots of several of the best pieces of Trek, such as City at the Edge of Forever and the movie First Contact. Basically, the 2009 movie, as a direct result of trying to keep long-term fans on board, takes the vast majority of existing Star Trek and throws it in the bin, storywise. You would think this would be rather counter-productive, but the feedback I’ve seen from Trek fandom has been mostly positive, which genuinely surprises me.

The movie’s preoccupation with jiggling its own continuity about means there’s not much room in the plot for anything else. Well, there’s a narrative thread for Spock, and another one for Kirk – both examples of our old friend the character-driven story – but the film completely shies away from any deeper questions. As I said, this is a good-looking SF action movie with a peculiarly convoluted backstory, but nothing more demanding or challenging than that.

It’s not impossible to reinvent a plot-driven series as a character-driven one – sorry, it would feel contrived if I didn’t mention Doctor Who at this point – but to do so at the same time you completely reboot the continuity begs the question of just what, if anything, is left of the original when you’re finished. And in my experience, whenever anyone attempts this kind of alt-timeline reboot of an existing set of characters, the post-reboot need to show that this really is still the same series results in endless new takes on old stories and situations, rather than anything genuinely original.

And so it seems to be the case with the ‘new’ Star Trek: the comic series based on the new movie largely consists of rejigglings of episodes from the original TV series, while in the forthcoming movie the big question everyone seems to be asking is who Benedict Cumberbatch’s character will turn out to be – Khan or Gary Mitchell? There’s a thin line between paying respect to continuity, and being smothered by it. Never mind that the new version of Star Trek seems to have kept many of the minor details of the original but none of the spirit – what’s more important is that it doesn’t seem to have anywhere new to go as a result. I’ll be going to see the new movie, of course, but my long-term prognosis for the franchise is not a very positive one: to me it looks very much like what’s left of Star Trek will eat itself.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published May 20th 2004. 

One of the benefits of going to a school with a slightly unorthodox curriculum was that in addition to all the usual stuff, like Maths, English, Chemistry and History, for an hour a week we took a class called Classical Studies, in which we learned about things like Greek theatre, the archaeological excavations at Mycenae, the Roman occupation of Britain, and – crucially for this week’s spouting of bias – the particulars of the Trojan Wars. I say ‘benefit’, because I found it all rather fascinating (and it got me a reasonable GCSE), but either the subject matter or the way in which it was taught was enough to give many of my classmates a severe case of Homer phobia. Hopefully this will not deter them from popping along to see Wolfgang Peterson’s epic blockbuster on this subject, Troy.

Based rather loosely on the old legends (Homer himself gets credited as an ‘inspiration’), this is primarily the story of lethal but capricious warrior Achilles (Bradley Pitt), who spends his time variously fighting for or arguing with the ruthless and power-hungry High King of Greece, Agamemnon (Brian Cox). Agamemnon has conquered all of Greece, and now his ambition turns in the direction of the great city of Troy in Asia Minor. He gets his chance when Helen (Diane Kruger), the wife of his brother Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson) runs off with visiting Trojan prince Paris (Orlando Bloom), much to the horror of Paris’ brother Hector (Eric Bana). This, Agamemnon thinks, would make a smashing pretext for going to Troy and replacing the existing management. With the aid of the trickster king of Ithaca, Odysseus (Sean Bean), he persuades Achilles to join his cause, and a thousand ships set sail for death and glory…

Now obviously there was always going to be a good deal of snipping and tightening of the story in order for this film not to be even longer than The Lord of the Rings – and so it proves. The siege of Troy, rather than ten years, lasts about a fortnight (and even this time includes a lengthy lay-off for both sides), and the plot and cast list are correspondingly cut down. So, for anyone else who knows the story, there’s no Hecuba, no Cassandra, no Philoctetes, Troilus or Cressida. (But, rather unexpectedly and charmingly, Aeneas does get a single scene.) The overtly mythological elements of the story are almost wholly removed, too, with the exception of a single scene with Achilles’ mother Thetis (whose divinity is not elaborated upon). A shame, but I can understand why – it’s not as if epic fantasy films about huge sieges have set the box office on fire lately, is it?

More importantly, Achilles himself is retooled as a slightly more conventionally heroic figure. He still sulks and thinks of nothing but his own reputation, but instead of the, ahem, traditional Greek practices usually ascribed to him, he gets a girl as a love interest – Trojan priestess Briseis (Rose Byrne – sigh). Pitt certainly looks the part, but never quite brings the character to life – Eric Bana is really much better as his Trojan counterpart. But about half of you will probably be pleased to know Bradley gets his bum out a few times, and the script rewrites the story to a considerable degree to give him the maximum screen time possible.

Of course, the danger with this sort of film is that it will degenerate into a bunch of men in skirts and questionable hairstyles declaiming on battlements to no great effect. The spectre of absurdity swoops over Troy a couple of times, but the film manages to hang in there as a serious drama by, well, taking itself very seriously. The action scenes are top-notch, gritty and bloody, with the CGI (I assume there must have been some) virtually unnoticeable for the most part. Somehow Petersen even manages to get through the scene where Paris picks up a bow and arrow for the first time without a knowing snigger running through the audience.

But more important is the film’s insistence that this was a political war, fought on a pretext by an ambitious and ruthless ruler. The Trojans are (mostly) flawed, but decent and good people – the Greeks are depicted much less flatteringly, Agamemnon and Menelaus in particular. The film isn’t especially subtle about this (or indeed anything else), but it’s enormously refreshing to see a major release drawn in such all-pervading shades of grey. (On the other hand, the film’s total lack of humour or irony might not appeal to many people today – but I hope this isn’t the case.)

To be fair, Troy never quite catches fire and really thrills or moves, but it’s a solid story, well-told for the most part. Some of the exposition is rather clunky – but then again there’s so much back-story that’s probably inevitable – and the climax seems a little bit rushed and perfunctory, but this is a commendable and impressive adaptation of the story. An unusually thoughtful and classy blockbuster – recommended.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published  17th July 2003:

When it comes to the big, mega-profitable, summer event movie blockbusters, who would you say was the most influential man in Hollywood right now? Spielberg? Nah. His last few films have shown an edginess which, while welcome, is rather uncommercial. Lucas? Give me a break. The man’s head is wedged firmly up his own thermal exhaust port, and in any case, the original Star Wars owes a clear debt to the work of the real big cheese – octogenarian comic book writer Stan Lee.

My evidence? Four of the most financially successful action movies of the last year or so: Spider-Man, Daredevil, X2, and now the long-awaited adaptation of Hulk, directed by Ang Lee (no relation) – all of them fruits of a relatively brief period of extraordinary creativity for Lee, nearly forty years ago. Co-created, like the X-Men, with legendary artist Jack Kirby, the Hulk has always been the darkest, strangest, and most morally ambiguous of the big-name superheroes. The fame of the character, in the UK at least, is largely due to the TV series of the late 1970s, where a rather domesticated and wimpy Hulk travelled America as a kind of hitch-hiking social worker. Lee’s film returns to the original comics, with impressive results.

Hulk opens with a sequence set in the 1960s, as army scientist David Banner struggles to artificially augment the human immune and regenerative systems. Forced to test his work on himself, he is shocked when his wife gives birth to a son, Bruce, who possesses a unique genetic anomaly – and his attempt to rectify his mistakes will have tragic consequences for all three of them. Thirty-five years later, the now-grown Bruce Banner (played, slightly confusingly, by Eric Bana) is a civilian researcher in the same area, though unaware of his past – or that his girlfriend Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly, once again playing the love interest to a genius with a split personality) has a distant connection to it. But Bruce is forced to confront his personal demons as his father (now played by Nick Nolte) reappears, and an accidental dose of gamma radiation leaves him rather green around the gills. And everywhere else…

This film has taken a fair bit of stick for being overly long and wordy and slow to get going. And to be totally honest, this is not entirely unfounded. It’s over half an hour before the Hulk puts in an appearance, and prior to this it is quite talky, with Ang Lee seemingly obsessed with close-ups of lichen growing on rocks. This is nothing like as faithful an adaptation of the comic as, for example, the Spider-Man movie, but given the extent to which the Hulk changed in the early years of his career this was probably inevitable. It’s to the script’s credit that nearly all the regular characters from the early books appear (no sign of Rick Jones or the Grey Hulk, though) and it wholeheartedly adopts the psychological take on the relationship between Banner and the Hulk which Peter David brought to the comic in the early 1990s. This is why the film takes its time to begin with – establishing Banner’s character and inner turmoil is crucial to the story it wants to tell.

But once the Hulk does appear, things pick up pace rapidly. This is the real deal, the comic-book Hulk – all the movie retains from the TV show is the iconic ‘Don’t make me angry…’ line, and even this is given an arch twist. (Oh, and TV Hulk Lou Ferrigno cameos alongside Stan Lee himself near the start.) The CGI Hulk is hugely impressive, both in the action scenes – demolishing redwoods during a startlingly brutal fight with irradiated pit-bulls, casually ripping tanks apart, leaping miles at a time – and in the quieter moments when he confronts Betty or his father. It’d have been nice if the big guy had been given more dialogue, but I suppose you can’t have everything. (The perennial question of ‘Why does the Hulk’s shirt fall off but not his trousers?’ is also sort-of addressed, a source of much sniggering during the screening I attended.)

The film stutters a bit in its closing stages. Clearly recognising the similarities between the Hulk and Godzilla – both the result of accidents with radiation, both slightly morally ambiguous, both very bad news for insurance companies – the film-makers give him an opponent worthy of his mettle in the final reel (the lack of which was one of the main flaws in the Emmerich Godzilla of five years ago). Without wishing to spoil it too much, the villainous character is essentially new, but his superpower should be very familiar to long-time comics fans. However, his actual agenda and motivation are rather unclear and – while undoubtedly spectacular – the actual battle is too brief and poorly lit to be really satisfying.

This doesn’t detract too much from a satisfyingly meaty and intelligent action movie. All the main roles are solidly played – with the possible exception of Josh Lucas’ slightly hammy performance as Banner’s rival Glen Talbot – and Ang Lee directs with impressive pace and energy, using split-screen and a range of imaginative cuts and wipes to great effect. This possibly isn’t a movie to take small children along to see, as it is a slow starter and what humour there is is subtle and quite black – but with its brooding intensity and emphasis on characterisation it fully does justice to the source material. Now all we need is for the Hulk to fight Wolverine in the sequel, and a spin-off starring Michelle Rodriguez as the She-Hulk, and I can die a happy man.

Another one for the ‘rather over-enthusiastic and over-generous’ file, I fear…

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