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Posts Tagged ‘J. J. Abrams’

So, to recap: didn’t like the 2009 Star Trek movie very much. Or, to put it another way, I enjoyed it most the first time I saw it, which was dubbed into Russian and lacking in subtitles. Looked nice, rattled along, but it didn’t really work on any level other than as an SF action spectacular, and I had serious issues with the way it opted to honour and ground itself in the rich heritage of Star Trek history by casually obliterating most of that history in one fell not-especially-coherent swoop. But, as usual, I was in the minority, the box office kerchinged to the tune of $385 million, and four years on here we are with the next offering from director JJ Abrams, Star Trek Into Darkness.

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There’s not a lot of darkness initially on display as we find ourselves on a primary-hued planet where our heroes are engaging in a spot of surreptitious geological intervention. This segment is colourful and frantic but mainly seems to be here to permit the inclusion of an effects sequence where the Enterprise rises from the depths of an ocean (why on earth is it down there in the first place? Even Scotty complains that this is a ridiculous idea), although I suppose it also launches some of the character plotlines which run through the rest of the film.

Kirk (Chris Pine) saves the life of Spock (Zachary Quinto), rather against his will, mainly because by doing so he breaches the Prime Directive. Ructions ensue at Starfleet Command, but are curtailed by a terrorist attack on London. It turns out that the culprit is an enigmatic rogue Starfleet officer, named (it says here) John Harrison – he is played, quite as well as you might expect, by Cumbersome Bandersnatch from Sherlock. Not content with blowing up London and Noel Clarke, Harrison has a go at blowing up the top brass of Starfleet as well, then – before you can say nuqDaq ‘oH puchpa”e’ – transports himself off to the Klingon planet Qo’noS.

Thirsty for vengeance, even though some members of his own crew have deep reservations, Kirk accepts the mission of carrying out a retaliatory strike against Harrison. But can the young captain put his desire for revenge aside in the name of real justice? And is there more to their mysterious, almost-superhuman adversary than meets the eye?

If you liked the 2009 Star Trek movie, you’ll almost certainly like this one too, because it has all the same virtues: it looks sumptuous, the actors give it everything they’ve got, and the story barrels along energetically enough. There is even a bit of a topical moral quandary for the characters to wrestle with, which is a welcome improvement. I have to say, though, that I think the plot this time around is perhaps just a little too convoluted for its own good: much of it is powered by the interplay between two separate villains, and occasionally it’s not completely clear when they’re working in concert and when they’re actually in conflict with each other. I’m not going to flatly state that the plot doesn’t make sense: but I do think the film doesn’t quite work hard enough to show what the sense of it is.

On the whole the movie seems rather more interested in illustrating the main and fundamental difference between the new Star Trek universe and the one it replaced: specifically, that in nu-Trek people wear more hats. It’s true: we see Kirk and Spock turning up for various functions wearing peaked caps, while one of the new uniform designs unveiled here put me rather in mind of staff officers in the Imperial Navy of Emperor Palpatine. Even the Klingons wear hats in the new universe – well, helmets, anyway, though these do not completely obscure the fact that they have mysteriously got their cranial ridges back a few decades earlier than they did in the real universe.

For me it just added to the sense that this somehow isn’t real Star Trek – quite apart from the general aesthetic, there’s a subtle suggestion that the Federation still has a market-based economy, for one thing – and this is at its strongest when we consider the main characters of the film. Never mind that most of them don’t even look very much like their originals, they don’t behave or interact in a remotely similar fashion. Pine’s Kirk is an irresponsible wild man with none of the charm or charisma of William Shatner’s version, nu-Uhura’s importance has been boosted to the point where she’s arguably superceded McCoy as a lead character, and so on. Even the ones who are particularly well-played – and Simon Pegg makes the most of some good scenes as Scotty – aren’t recognisable as the same characters. Things get even more bizarre when it comes to the other characters who get their first nu-Trek outing in this film: not only do they behave totally differently, but their accents have changed and one is a completely different ethnicity.

Despite all this, the film stays quite watchable as long as it sticks to its own terms of reference. However, as the climax approaches… well, one of the predictions I made after seeing the 2009 movie was that this new iteration of the franchise would be condemned to endlessly revisit and reinterpret old characters and stories in order to justify its existence. And so it proves here, as Abrams and his writers have the sheer brass neck to revisit and reinterpret some of the Trek movie series’ finest and most memorable moments. They stuff it up; they honestly stuff it up very badly. True, there’s a physical confrontation at the end of the movie which is brilliantly staged and will caress the pleasure centres of any genuine Trekkie – but this didn’t make up for the moments which had me literally snorting with derision: it was like watching a home-movie remake of an Oscar winner.

Still, I expect this movie will do at least as well as the last one, and further instalments will doubtless follow. But I suspect these will do no more than attempt to recycle past glories in same manner as Star Trek Into Darkness. The starship Enterprise is travelling in circles: attractive circles, energetic circles, well-crafted circles, yes, but still circles. At the moment this is a franchise which is boldly going nowhere new.

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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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Well, well: it looks like the wheels of Hollywood spin ever faster. It seems like only a few weeks ago that I was writing about James Gunn’s deranged vigilante movie Super (come to think of it, that’s because it was), and yet here we are with Super 8 already in theatres. The first six sequels somehow completely passed me by, I’m afraid, and to be honest I don’t quite see how the two storylines are connected, but never mind.

Super 8 is the greatest Steven Spielberg-helmed Stephen King adaptation ever made, which is rather odd given that it’s an original story written and directed by J.J. Abrams. Given Abrams’ history of doing violence to narratives (his own in Lost and to other people’s following what he did to Star Trek continuity), it comes as something of a surprise that Super 8 is a relatively straightforward story.

Set in 1979, the main character is Joe (Joel Courtney), a teenage boy who, along with his father (Kyle Chandler), is struggling to cope with a recent bereavement. Joe finds escape in helping his friends make a super low-budget horror movie on a super 8 camera (hence the title of the movie). While secretly filming one night, the kids are witnesses to a spectacular train crash (and boy, is it spectacular!), which litters the area with what looks like mysterious space lego.

The next day a military task force has set up shop in town, its members clearly in search of something. Strange occurrences continue – every dog in town runs away. Electronic and mechanical equipment disappears without trace. The town sherriff mysteriously vanishes. Joe and his friends are still preoccupied with finishing the movie, though – well, Joe himself is perhaps a little more concerned with his growing friendship with a girl (Elle Fanning) who’s also in their film…

The best recommendation I can give to Super 8 is that it feels like something made because of a genuine passion for the subject matter. In an era when it sometimes feels like every blockbuster is a sequel, a remake, a reboot or a comic book or video game adaptation, the fact that it is an original story gives it a tremendous and very welcome freshness. (Yes, all right, it’s not actually a sequel to Super.)

Beyond this, the most striking thing about the movie is its painstaking and almost wholly successful recreation of the atmosphere and style of the kinds of movies that Steven Spielberg was making three decades ago. This, so far as I can see, is the only reason why Super 8 is a period piece. Occasionally Abrams cuts loose with major CGI sequences – the train crash, and a few others I won’t describe in detail – but the rest of the time it’s all very low key and naturalistic, with nothing that couldn’t have appeared in a movie made at the time this is set.

Abrams gets uniformly strong performances from a largely unknown cast and – his love of lens flare excepted – apes Spielberg’s own directorial style with great deftness. There’s an element of sweety-schmaltziness to some parts of this story that I found slightly overdone, while in other places there were elements I found a little bit too obvious. Despite all this, it’s an impressive job – quite what Steven Spielberg himself made of it (he is, after all, the producer of the movie) I can’t imagine. Presumably he took the homage in the spirit in which it was intended.

At its heart, though, Super 8 is much more of a B-movie than anything Spielberg was making in the late 70s or early 80s. Deep down it’s more like a Stephen King story (not that there isn’t a considerable intersection between King and Spielberg on occasion). I am obviously loath to go into too much detail here, as the central mystery of the film is very carefully established and satisfyingly resolved.

By the standards of modern blockbuster entertainment, Super 8 feels really rather small-time and restrained – very much a personal project. That said, it’s no less engaging or rewarding than any of the other major movies out this summer, and considerably moreso than most of them. Definitely J.J. Abrams’ most likeable and accomplished film to date.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published May 18th 2006:

[Originally following a review of Slither.]

Funnily enough, we go from a film about bizarre and unnatural methods of reproduction to Tom Cruise’s latest project. (Yeah, yeah, bring on your lawyers: you ain’t got nothing on me!) This is Mission: Impossible 3, as if you didn’t already know, co-written and directed by JJ Abrams, the creator of Alias and Lost. This is one franchise which isn’t afraid to drag its feet while the Cruiser gets on with other things – it’s ten years since Brian de Palma’s (quite nifty) original, and six since John Woo’s (kinetic but soulless) follow-up. Well anyway, clearly it has been decreed it’s time for a third installment and our presence in the multiplex is clearly expected.

As you would expect given the director’s pedigree, this latest outing finds Tom Cruise stranded on a tropical island with an invisible monster and a female student who’s secretly a top spy. Ha! Ha! Oh, my sides. All right – it doesn’t really. Instead, our toothsome inch-high superspy has gone into semi-retirement as a trainer of other agents and is all set for domestic bliss with his fiancee – no, it’s not Thandie Newton from the last movie, she clearly got sick of never being allowed to wear heels, it’s someone new. But then – wouldn’t you know it! – one of Tom’s trainees gets into trouble and he’s sent in to rescue her. This does not go entirely to plan and Tom finds himself on the wrong side of lardy arms dealer Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose main hobby is putting bombs up peoples’ noses. A fink within the IMF eventually gives Hoffman the forwarding address of Tom’s new bride and our hero finds himself having to nick a crucial plot device Macguffin for him before his wife gets put six feet under and his own sinuses get decongested with extreme prejudice…

Despite what you may be thinking, Abrams does work fairly hard to make this more than just a cynical cash-in on the Mission: Impossible name. The premise of the show (each week a disparate team of Impossible Missionaries got sent on an unfeasibly complicated, er, mission) is reflected in the structure of the movie – obviously Tom is the Chief Impossible, aided by Deputy Impossible Ving Rhames (yup, back again, still with moustache) and Assistant Impossibles Maggie Q and Jonathan Rhys Meyers. (Our own Simon Pegg pops up in a couple of scenes as a very junior Impossible who isn’t let out of HQ, presumably because his costume isn’t stylish enough.) Anyway the film is written so Tom and the gang have to go Impossibling in a different location every thirty minutes or so – there is a good deal of globe-trotting involved in this but with the exception of a ridiculous caper inside the Vatican all the locations are used strictly as ‘colour’ – apart from the trip to Rome, they could probably have set the whole film within thirty miles of Birmingham without it needing very much in the way of rewriting. Lalo Schifrin’s classic theme gets blasted out fairly regularly too, which is nice, but the classic ‘your mission, if you choose to accept it…’ schtick is very nearly abandoned, which isn’t.

The plot is fairly bonkers, but acceptably so, and the film only really gets dull in between bouts of Impossibling. At these points Tom hangs out with Ving Rhames (who used to be an ace hacker but who, to judge from his interest in Tom’s personal life, has since retrained as a relationship counsellor) or gets dragged over the coals by snippy IMF boss Laurence Fishburne, who appears to have been on the pies since finishing the Matrix trilogy. Both of these are fairly grim but much, much worse are the segments where we get to see Tom and his missus hanging out and generally just being in love with each other. Yes, Tom’s teeth go into overdrive, flashing and pulsating away like an Aldis lamp. To be fair, his performance throughout is also quite acceptable but the fact remains that when on screen, no matter what the movie, he frequently looks completely nuts – and when, as in this case, the script does not address that fact, the results are rarely entirely satisfying. Hoffman, who’s a much more versatile performer, gets considerably less screentime and his part is so thinly written even an actor of his abilities struggles to really make an impression.

JJ Abrams does a decent job as a debut director, with a fair eye for a striking composition. He achieves some neat effects, too: in particular a sequence where real-live-Tom-in-a-Hoffman mask is seamlessly replaced by Hoffman himself playing Tom-in-a-Hoffman mask is very neatly done. He seems to be aware of the dangers of franchise fatigue as well – one of the set-piece bits of Impossibling here is dangerously similar to one from earlier in the series, and Abrams handles it in an unexpected way that keeps it relatively fresh. He also handles the blatant nature of the central Macguffin with amusing impudence – though whether this is done as a post-modern in-joke or as an act of sheer desperation I don’t know. I’m prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt, but only if he explains what those ruddy numbers are all about by the end of the year…

In the end, though, this is a fairly sterile and mechanical piece of entertainment. The individual bits of Impossibling are entertaining and amusing and there are some effective bits of action along the way – but the climax is rather low-key, and the film’s attempts to be politically relevant come across as strained and spurious. It doesn’t play with the audience’s expectations in the way the first film did, and doesn’t have much in the way of novelty value either. As a popcorn movie, it works, and I expect it will do very well at the box office. But the prospect of a six year wait before the next instalment doesn’t bother me in the slightest.

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