Monday, May 25, 2009

Nobody Writin' Me on the Blog

You bastards need to update this space more often. It doesn't have to be meaningful, well-thought out or even that interesting. Just please, for the love of God, keep writing.

That being said, I have it on good authority that the following, from one Cory McIntyre, is the greatest written work ever crafted. So I guess you can all put your pens away and quit trying.

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Saturday, May 9, 2009

Star Trek: 2009 Biatchez!

May 7th, 2009
...a day long awaited. The IMAX screen went dark. A trailer for Night @ The Museum 2 played to the mocking snickers of all. The trailers ended. A Paramount logo appeared with an unfamiliar Lost-esque musical score humming. Blurry lights, submarine squawks and a giant wall of metal soared past the screen. The wall of metal drifted away... it was a Federation starship! My mouth dropped open in awe of how detailed and real it felt - this was what Starfleet looked like with actual cinematic vision thrown at it. There were some 'splosions, some drama and sturm-und-drang, the prologue ended and a familiar arrowhead twirled in slowly with a certain special pair of words silhouetted in the foreground:


This was it. After all the long years of shite B-grade TV and movies, after all the teasing and ridicule, after two release date push backs, after endless doubt & worry, a dream had come true. Our beloved space opera was finally being given the treatment & recognition it deserved. This is easily, as 95% or whatever of the nation's critics have already said, one of the greatest summer thrill rides to come out in a decade. Even more importantly the movie achieves this without selling its proverbial soul: hip and stylish as it might be, this is still very much the same good ole Star Trek we know and love. It's like an old friend who leaves town for a year or five and returns slightly changed... some catching-up is needed but deep down they're still the same person.

Sure there are problems and minor missteps (Nokia??) but the broad strokes, what really matters, are absolutely utterly nailed: the sense of adventure, the cheer & optimism, the grungy camp tone (something lost after TOS)... Best of all is the handling of character, each one given at least one moment in the spotlight to highlight their contribution. Quinto & Urban's portrayals of Spock & Bones are nicely layered while Pine in particular manages to make Kirk his own without resorting to impersonation. For characters so completely defined by the original actors portraying them, all three of these performances are feats if not miraculous. Bruce Greenwood (Cpt. Pike) and Eric Bana (teh evilz villain) are noteworthy as well, the former for the authority he brings to a character not well established in TOS, the latter for complexity he brings to an otherwise 2D underwritten character.

It's no masterpiece though, no matter how much some including me might wish it was. It's in the A-tier but the RT rank is an overrating. Main reason, perhaps a necessary evil: it's a bit rushed - see poorly handled mid-movie 5min exposition monologue in the snow cave. There were a number of key moments where I knew I was supposed to feel emotion but for whatever reason it just wasn't coming through. An extra story beat or two would have solved this problem, but would've also detracted from the film's breakneck pace. Considering Star Trek's goal was to court a new generation of young fans this was probably a worthwhile sacrifice, perhaps Star Trek 12 whenever it comes out will have the breathing room to tell a deeper fleshed out story. For now, weesa happee.

Best Scene:
The Kobayashi Maru test

Assorted Good Lines:
"Why don't you get five more and we'll be even." - Kirk
(re: Uhura) "I would rather not discuss it." - Spock
"You have been and always shall be my friend." - Spock
" blooded hobgoblin." - Bones
"I may throw up on you." - Bones
"I can do this, I can do this!" - Chekov
"I'ma given her all she's gote!" - Scotty

How it ends:
A famous voice-over.

Friday, May 8, 2009


Star Trek Retrospective IV: 2001-2008

Prequel Fail
With Voyager's run ending on a ratings down note, merchandise sales nosediving, the most recent movie (Insurrection) a box office fizzle and Trek's reputation rightfully ruined, the producers were keenly aware that whatever followed Voyager's finale in mid-2001 had to be something hip and awesome... something that gave Trek a fresh start and would court a new generation of fans with its cool factor (sound familiar?) Thus UPN replaced the dorky, ill-received Voyager with Enterprise (later awkwardly retitled Star Trek: Enterprise), a prequel series set a hundred years before TOS with the goal of accomplishing what JJ Abrams eventually did: reboot Trek for the young generation. As the mere existence of JJ Abrams' movie proves, this first try was not so hot.

For all its superficial attempts at being different (a soft-rock opening theme instead of Jerry Goldsmith, "hull plating" instead of shields, etc), the early two seasons of Enterprise were *exactly* the same as Voyager. Same production staff, same writing staff, same dated "early 90's filmed with 00's cameras" look and feel, same tired formulaic plots, and nary a cool factor in sight. It tried so hard at first, the first handful of episodes aren't too shabby, but by the time season 2 rolls around you can just feel the energy zap from the screen with what is probably the single worst, lamest clump of 20-odd episodes Trek has ever produced. This same creative team had been working on TNG, Voyager, two of the movies and now this for almost two decades. It was time to give up. Or was it?

One Last Chance
Star Trek: Nemesis (2002) - They certainly pulled out all the stops here. A longer-than-usual gap between movies, an A-list celebrity screenwriter (John Logan, writer of Gladiator & Sweeney Todd), an Oscar-winning action editor for a director, a bigger budget... with the television arm of the franchise seemingly crippled, this movie was the last real chance to make Star Trek cool again, at least in the immediate future. And that's where the trouble begins. The creative team in charge had (past five years of Trek case in point) no friggin clue what "cool" meant anymore.

If Nemesis's deep problems could be boiled down to any one cause, it's that the filmmakers were making the movie they thought fans wanted to see, as opposed to you know, actually making a good movie, which is ironically what the fans actually wanted. At an almost regular interval, a moment or shot in Nemesis comes along where you can just feel the director/writer/whoever going "ooh, they'll love this!" But it's always just so, SO painfully lame. Any time they're presented with a good or bad cinematic choice, they make the bad one, thinking its what we want to see, but it isn't! We just want a good story that sends the TNG cast out with style, dangit. At one point during the climactic battle, Picard rams the Enterprise into the enemy ship with very little explanation or result. Why does he do this? Where's the strategy? Contrast this with any of the like three similar rammings in Battlestar Galactica, the difference in quality is obvious. Earlier in the film, Picard & his team explore a planet using a dune buggy. The reason: "ooh they'll love a car chase!" But no, all this does is make the non-fans snicker mockingly during the trailer at their lame attempt to be cool, and all the fans roll their eyes because they're aware of any of a dozen reasons why this scene shouldn't be happening.

Anyways, enough with my Trekkie rant. The verdict: I have seen all of the previous 9 movies, even the worst ones, at least a dozen times. The first time I saw Nemesis in the theater was the only time I have seen it from beginning to end. It is so painfully unwatchable, it's the only Star Trek film I've never been inspired to revisit and I don't think six years will change my or anyone else's view of it. Making a paltry $40-odd million at the box office, this would be the last in the series of films that began over twenty years prior with TMP.

Best Line: (it's hard to find one, but)
"You have the bridge, Mr. Troi." - Picard, mocking Riker for recently marrying Troi.

How it ends:
New lines of work or retirement for all involved.

Too Little Too Late: Enterprise Season 4
The TV franchise adrift, the movies tanked... solution = try salvaging what was left of Enterprise. Midway through it's third season, the executive producers and writers who'd been on staff since at least Voyager "voluntarily" took a back seat to fresh blood, and wow what a difference it made. Starting with the episode "Azati Prime," the hapless show that made even Voyager seem nifty was suddenly sort of, but only sort of awesome. The characters became more rounded, the dialogue sharper and the plotlines less predictable. By the start of Season 4 when the new producers took over entirely, the entire feel of the show had changed. It was suddenly competent. By the time season 4 had ended, it was clear this was Trek's best (and only legitimately good) season since the end of DS9. There are some great stories here that actually do the origins-job a prequel is supposed to do, in particular a Vulcan-centric 3 parter, an episode about Khan's genetically engineerede relatives and a Mirror Universe tale.

Unfortunately, as good as this season was, saving the show required more than "good," if it was possible at all by this point. The ratings never recovered and Enterprise became the only Trek series since the original to be cancelled prematurely. At least it went out with dignity though, actual series finale episode aside.

Random Tidbit: In the new movie, when Scotty says he killed "Admiral Archer's poor beagle", that's a reference/making fun of this show. Enterprise's captain is a Cpt. Archer, and he has a pet beagle named Porthos. So Scotty killed Porthos! (tear)

Best Episodes (all from the last season & a half):
- "Similitude" (Tucker is mortally wounded, but Dr Phlox gets the idea to clone him via stem cell and harvest the clone's organs. naturally the clone objects. a relevant, well written and classic Star Trek story)
- "Cold Station 12" (Khan's cousins wreck havoc, plot is nothing special, it's just surprisingly well made)
- "In a Mirror, Darkly" (the origins of the Evil Mirror Universe from TOS)
- "Damage" (while the Enterprise is dead in the water from the prior episode, T'Pol confronts a drug addiction)

How it ends:
Really stupidly. But the second-to-last episode - the finale-in-spirit, is terrific.

The Great Trek Drought of the Late 2000's
For the first time since the 70's there was no new Star Trek in regular production. Rumors flew around about a new movie in the works but coming so soon after Nemesis's failure, this seemed unlikely. Rick Berman, Trek exec producer since 1990, said Paramount had approached him about a new prequel film centering around the Romulan Wars, or something, and indeed a full script had been written by the author of Band of Brothers. Nothing ever came of it and the rumor mills grew ever more silent. Us Trekkies, as exhausted as the general public was after so much usually crappy oversaturation, felt that perhaps, after 40 years, the end had finally come. Star Trek had run its course, and it was time to let a new love take its place. Farscape, Stargate, Firefly, BSG... they all tried, but none could really capture lightning in a bottle quite the same way.

Then we woke up one morning, and saw something like this headline on CNN:


Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Star Trek Retrospective III: 1992-2001

And Now, Something Completely Different
As The Next Generation began winding down, Paramount got to work on its replacement. A fresh approach was called for; something darker, something edgier. We'd seen two series of a crew exploring new places weekly in not-much-depth, what if there was a series that stayed in one place and explored its sole setting in very-much-depth? If Star Trek & TNG were a "Wagon Train to the Stars," Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1992-1999) would be a "Gunsmoke in Space." Set on a far flung wild west space station (town) at the gateway of a crucial trade route, DS9 explored politics, war and character to a much deeper extent than its predecessors could and featured a more heavily serialized story line. For a variety of reasons, the show was a harder sell and lost much of TNG's massive audience but the quality never suffered. Like fine wine it just got better with each passing season as the arcs grew in complexity.

With the best cast, the most complex characters, the best drama and an a certain someone named Garak, this is easily my favorite of the Trek shows. It is not necessarily better than TOS or TNG, merely a particularly good orange to their perfectly ripe apples. Where TNG established the utopian ideals of humanity's future, DS9 threw them all against a wall and saw what stuck. It's different, it's risky and it's rich.

Best Episodes:
- "The Visitor" (Sisko is apparently killed in an accident but keeps reappearing to son Jake every ten years or so, who can't bring himself to let go. a father/son story that would have even frat-doucheys in tears)
- "The Die Is Cast" (exiled Garak is offered a return trip home if he assists in a Romulan & Cardassian assault on the Changeling homeworld. The changelings pwn them anyway)
- "Duet" (Kira confronts her hatred of Cardassians when a Cardassian war criminal/concentration camp manager turns up on the station)
- "Rocks & Shoals" (the crew is marooned on a planet with an also-marooned platoon of enemy soldiers, who hate their leader and who the crew try to win over)
- "In the Pale Moonlight" (with the war going very badly, Sisko decides it's time to convince the stubborn Romulans to join. He sells his soul & enlists Garak's help, darkness ensues. This is one of my favorite TV episodes of all time.)
- "Taking Into the Wind" (when Klingon leader Gowron starts mismanaging the troops & endangering the galaxy over a petty vendetta, Worf is ordered to do 'whatever it takes' to stop him, including treason)

How it ends:
"It's like they always say: the more things change, the more they stay the same."

The Zenith
TNG was ending on a (ratings) high note, early-DS9 was still holding it's audience, and Kirk & Picard made it into the cover of Time Magazine. The next movie was rickety, but only because the producers had so much other success to manage...

Star Trek Generations (1994) - Passing the torch to the TNG crew, Kirk & Picard unite in a space-time-fiddly-doodly to stop a crazed scientist from destroying a star for this and that reason. Some good ideas and themes regarding aging, time and life regrets, all beautifully filmed, but it lacks drive. A boring & muddled affair.

Best Line:
"It was fun. Oh my..." - Kirk

How it ends:
"Think they'll build another one?"

Star Trek: First Contact (1996) - aka the one with the Borg. Learning from the mistakes of the previous movie, First Contact is a terse, efficient thrill ride that starts with a bang and... lets go at some points, but most of the time holds. There are a ton of great moments, every character gets something to do, and James Cromwell stumbles around drunk. Like The Wrath of Khan, this is a B-movie cheesefest, but holy crap what an awesome one.

Best Line:
"Assimilate this." - Worf

How it ends:
The Vulcans make first contact with human society: tequila shots and Steppenwolf.

Things Start Going South
Only two years into Deep Space Nine's run Paramount decided it was time for yet another spinoff TV series. Star Trek: Voyager (1995-2001), the story of a ship flung into deep space a hundred years from home, ala Lost in Space, was born. Serve it would as the flagship series for then-new network-upstart UPN. Voyager has its fans (usually mutually exclusive from DS9 fans), I am not one of them. Distancing itself from the oft-hard drama and political intrigue of its cousin, Voyager went the summer blockbuster route and embraced stand alone action/adventure stories with little attention paid to character. This would be fine if it wasn't so damned dorky; Voyager is the epitome of every negative stereotype about Trek one could think of. It did do one good thing however: it drew the attention of the meddling execs away from DS9, which from the moment of Voyager's launch was pretty much allowed to do whatever it wanted storywise. Yay.

Best Episodes:
- "Timeless" (Kim & Chakotay's experimental warp drive thing gets Voyager home but rips it apart in the process, they try to change history and reverse the mistake)
- "Scorpion" (Janeway forges an alliance with the Borg so that they can both survive the onslaught of A SPEESEE!Z MOAR POWRFUL THEN TEH BORGZ! OMGZ)
- "Message in a Bottle" (using alien technology, the crew is able to transmit the Doctor's hologram to home and finally let Earth know they're alive)
- "Equinox" (the crew finds another stranded Federation ship, this one using the bodies of some alien animal to propel itself home, making the animals really angry. it's actually pretty badarse)

How it ends:
Really stupidly.

Yet Another Movie
Star Trek: Insurrection (1998) - Picard & crew must tamely rebel against an Admiral looking to steal a fountain-of-youth planet from its 600 inhabitants, for the good of the many. A light & sadly forgettable film with some cute moments. Would make for a good drinking game.

Best Line:
"Saddle up, lock and load." - Data

How it ends:
Everyone lives happily ever after.

Coming soon: Parts 4 & 5, 5 being the movie we're seeing tonight...

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Star Trek Retrospective II: 1987-1992

New Kids in Town
Paramount had been toying with the idea of bringing Trek back to the small screen for several years at this point, always ending in awry, but in the Year of Charles's Birth this second series finally came to fruition. Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994) was unveiled to audiences deeply skeptical of any attempt at filling the original crew's shoes, skepticism not unlike that faced by Connery's two replacements upon exiting the Bond role. Were Shatner & Nimoy Star Trek or was the tale bigger than them? Thanks mainly to resident God Among Men Patrick Stewart, the latter was true.

Skepticism aside, TNG was a ratings - albeit not critical - success right out of the gate and in fact pioneered a whole generation of syndication-only TV shows of dubious quality such as Hercules, Xena, the allegedly decent Babylon 5, et al which followed. Differences from the original series included a more "enlightened" crew with less in-drama (aka less characterization), an updated ship and a Shakespearean-trained Captain. The early years are laughably cheesy, like TOS but without the charm and the final two seasons derail again, but there's a stretch in the middle there of truly great television. TNG could be a bit sterile at times and certainly hasn't aged well, but its reputation and popularity are well deserved.

Best Episodes:
- "The Inner Light" (Picard is zapped by an alien probe from a long-dead civilization and given a lifetime of one of its scientist's memories)
- "Tapestry" (Picard "dies", goes to heaven, finds out the Almighty is actually pesky omnipotent Q. Q offers Picard a chance to relive his life without regrets, Picard regrets the decision to do so)
- "Cause & Effect" (the Enterprise is caught in a timeloop that keeps ending in its destruction, the crew must figure out how to plant clues for their next 'round' to escape the space-time-whatsit-loopy-doopy)
- "Chain of Command Pt. 2" (Picard is captured by the Cardassians and tortured. features Stewart's classic "THEH AH FOUR LIGHTS!" line)
- "Measure of a Man" (a douchey scientist wants to disect Data against his will, arguing that Data is a robot & has no rights. Data is put on trial to prove that he is in fact alive and deserves the same rights as everyone else)
- "Darmok" (An alien captain w/severe language barrier strands himself & Picard on a planet with a nasty monster, hoping that the male-bonding experience will help their civilizations figure out how to communicate)
- "All Good Things..." (the pitch-perfect series finale, Q puts humanity on trial for being a "dangerous, savage child race," Picard must prove him wrong)

How it ends:
"Five card stud, nothing wild, and the sky's the limit."

Shatner Gets to Direct, Fail Ensues
Meanwhile over on the movie lot, a fifth Trek film is put in the works:

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1988) - After Nimoy got to direct films 3 & 4, Shatner demanded the same chance. Armed with an ambitious story about a renegade Vulcan on a quest to literally find the Almighty, who apparently lives in a part of the Mohave Desert at the center of the galaxy, Shatner set to work. All manner of production problems ranging from budget cuts to a visual fx company that had quite noticeably no idea what they were doing fell upon him, resulting in a so-bad-it's-brilliant monstrosity. The plot is thin and riddled with holes, the look cheap, the dialogue bad... Scotty bonks his head & we're supposed to laugh... this is one of the stupidest, worst movies in the series. Still though, that character driven charm that makes the original gang so special is very much present. It's a fun train wreck to watch.

Best Line:
"K'pagh pagh pagh, KEGH GINAB!" - Klingon Captain

How it ends:
"Row row row your boat, gently down the stream. Merrily merrily merrily merrily, life is but a dream."

Gorbachev to the Rescue
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991) - An aging Enterprise is dispatched on a not-so-subtle Cold War allegory mission to escort the Klingon Chancellor to Earth for peace negotiations. Thanks to a recent catalismic disaster (Chernobyl?), among other problems, the Klingon Empire has decided it can no longer afford hostility with the Federation and wants to make ammends. Kirk hates the Klingons and the Klingons hate him, but he accepts the mission anyway. Chaos on an epic scale ensues when the Chancellor is assassinated, seemingly by Kirk.

With its dark, intelligent edge and relevant story, this could have been greater than Khan. Unfortunately some wild mischaracterizations from a suddenly alcoholic Chekov, an annoyingly angry Scotty (how do you make Scotty annoying?) and a racist Uhura (borderline heresy considering the significance her character has to the African American acting community) drag things down a notch or two or three. Still, the ideas & commentary are great and it's certainly the most far-reaching cinematic story Trek had tackled to this point. I respect it more than I enjoy it.

Best Line:
"LET THEM DIE" - Kirk, in full Shatner glory

How it ends:
A well-earned ride into the sunset. This is the last time we see the original crew together.

Star Trek Retrospective I: 1966-1986

Dude at Rotten Tomatoes is doing this retrospective thing where he spends each day leading up to May 8th watching the 10 Trek films for the first time and reviewing them, from a non-fan perspective. Thus, I copy him, albeit from a mucho-fan perspective & including the five TV series.

The Dawn of Greatness
We begin with Star Trek (The Original Series), airing on NBC from 1966-1969. Earnest and honest even at it's cheesiest, this is one of the more watchable, enjoyable TV dramas ever created. In the midst of a tumultuous decade, just as Science Fiction was taking a turn for the apocalyptic with Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green, et al, Star Trek presented denizens with hope. It envisioned a future where mankind has outgrown its petty differences and set out across the galaxy on a mission of peaceful exploration. Poverty, disease, and (human-vs-human) war have gone the way of Bubonic Plague. We're not saints, we're still driven by emotion and greed, but to a more controlled extent.

At the end of the day though it was the characters that made this series the classic it became. Spock, Bones and Kirk, the logic, the emotion and the mediator respecitvely were all instantly-relatable badasses who we loved to watch kick Klingon butt week after week. They were the original Bromance. If there was one reason Trek went off the rails in the past decade, it could be pinned on losing sight of that important fact: it's the characters, stupid.

All in all, a flawed but rightfully beloved masterwork that was ahead of its time and relevant still today.

Best Episodes:
- "City on the Edge of Forever" (giant glowing donut sends a drugged Bones back in time, Spock & Kirk travel back to the 1930's to stop him)
- "Balance of Terror"
(the Enterprise must hunt down a rogue Romulan ship, gets pummeled)
- "Errand of Mercy" (Kirk must convince a planet of pacifist hippies to resist a Klingon occupation, the hippies end up pwning both Kirk and the awesome Klingon captain)
- "The Trouble with Tribbles" (revenge of the furballs)

How it ends:
Cancelled abruptly after its 3rd season due to "low" ratings despite an Emmy nom for Best Dramatic Series. Neilsen calculated its ratings differently back then with less weight placed on demographics; it is said that had they calculated the way they started calculating just a year later, Star Trek would've regularly cracked the top 10.

"Cancelling that show was the worst mistake we ever made."
Almost imediately following its seeming-death, Star Trek reruns rapidly found a massive audience in the "right as kids get home from school" syndication timeslot. Throughout the 70's it amassed more and more popularity to eventually absurd magnitudes. Paramount's eyes lit up. In Trek, they saw an opportunity to replicate Fox's then-recent success with Star Wars, thus was born:

The First Four Movies
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) - Cobbled together from remnants of an abandoned Trek spinoff pilot, this ambitious monster was a respectable failure. It tried to be a Grand Cerebral SciFi Masterpiece (tm) in the vein of 2001, with a record-breaking budget to match, but Star Trek isn't 2001. "It's the characters, stupid," which is where TMP goes awry. High-concept ideas about machines and humanity and pretty-looking spaceship models take precedence over emotion and leave us with little to do except watch the crew stand around the bridge looking really worried about the admittedly impressive visuals flashing by on the screen. The result isn't terrible persay, merely very boring and stilted. A robotic affair worth one viewing but not another.

Best Line:
"V'ger!" - Ilia

How it ends:
"The Human Adventure is Just Beginning" (with a box office tally clearly warranting a sequel)

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) - That's more like it. Until allegedly now, this was Trek's one *great* classic movie. It's an old, simple tale of revenge, death, love and life... all character-oriented stuff that gets us back to what made the Original Series so great in the first place. The cast is back on their game, Shatner's voice echoes through eternity and our tears are undeniably jerked. It's clearly more of a campy B-movie than an Oscar vehicle, but there's no shame in that.

One of Countless Best Lines:
"Of all the souls I've encountered in my travels, his was the most... (with difficulty) ...human..." - Kirk

How it ends:
One of cinema's singularly great death/funeral scenes.

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984) - Okay, a little bit bumpier of a ride here, but not terrible. Clearly struggling to fill Khan's big shoes, this film of mostly middling-quality salavages itself with one of the greatest 3rd acts in the series. Most of the time it's slow, cheap-looking and not all that interesting if you're unfamiliar with the mythology. When it finally takes off about 50min from the end it becomes suddenly unexpectedly AWESOME, like a switch was flipped, but never enough to redeem the hobbled beggining. Merits include a terrific, at times heart-wrenching performance from Shatner, some terrific one-liners and an intriguing mystical tone to the whole thing. Cons include the distracting Genesis Planet set and the aforementioned snooze-inducing first two-acts. A very mixed but lovable bag.

Best Line:
(in the aftermath of a kick-ass action piece)
Kirk: "My God Bones, what have I done?"
Bones: "What you had to do, what you always do, turn death into a fighting chance to live."

How it ends:
A "series finale" type ending + box office take warranting a further sequel:

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) - aka "the one with the whales", as sleak as it is silly. After three sobering, bittersweet stories, in particular the 3rd one, it was time to lighten the mood. This is a straight "fish out of water" comedy with a lightweight save the Earth moral, chronicling the crew's hijincks in 1980's San Fran. It's also probably the best looking of the bunch with Oscar-garnering cinematography. My verdict: I'm more a fan of the sobering drama character stuff, so while I recognize that this is a clever, well made and funny film, I don't really love it. But other peeps might & do.

Best Line:
"Is this a time for another 'colorful metaphor'?" - Spock

How it ends:
"Let's see what she's got..."

Further reviews in due time.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Batman / Robin: Overthinking the "Worst Superhero Movie of All Time"

Joel Schumacher’s 1997 film Batman & Robin is generally considered one of the worst films, or at least one of the worst superhero films, of all time. It currently suffers a measly 12% rating on the movie review website Rotten Tomatoes and a 28% on Metacritic. Usually, such poor reception might be the result of the ineptitude on the part of the filmmaker to hone the formal elements of film to express anything of value. Upon closer inspection, however, Batman & Robin actually reveals a consistent, singular vision. Given the fact that Schumacher is an openly gay filmmaker, one can assume that the film’s homosexual overtones are the product of the director’s own life experiences and worldview. In particular, the film acts as a commentary on gender and sexuality. Batman & Robin serves as a utopian text favoring homosexuality, in which the characters that conform to the “normal” gender and sexual roles of mainstream society are depicted as deviant criminals incapable of meaningful relationships, while the heroes of the film subtextually exhibit gay tendencies and are ultimately able to form the strongest bonds of all.

Each of the three villains in the film represents and satirizes a different aspect of heterosexuality whose gender and/or sexual roles can often be problematic. The primary villain, Mr. Freeze, exemplifies an individual in a monogamous heterosexual relationship, the standard in mainstream society. He rejects sexual advances by one of his henchwomen and is immune to Poison Ivy’s love pheromones. Freeze and his fidelity to his wife are twisted, however, as he is a criminal whose misdeeds are motivated by his unwavering obsession with curing her of a rare disease. Meanwhile, a scientific accident has rendered him unable to survive in anything but sub-zero temperatures, symbolizing his loss of emotion in a stagnant marriage. This is magnified by the fact that he must constantly steal diamonds in order to power his cryogenic suit and the machine that will presumably cure his wife, essentially showering her with an endless supply of jewelry. In other words, the character serves as a satire of conventional heterosexual relationships and the materialistic obligations that they often entail.

Moreover, Freeze embodies the quintessence of traditional masculinity. The casting of Arnold Schwarzenegger is key in realizing this representation, as his canon of work consists mainly of high-adrenaline action films, a notoriously “male” genre. The actor boasts a considerably large muscular physique as the result of his former weightlifting career. Even Freeze’s former alias, Victor Fries, is mentioned as being a two-time Olympic decathlete. Both Schwarzenegger and his character are at the height of their physical form, often interpreted as a sign of manliness. In addition, Freeze’s henchmen resemble hockey players, skates and sticks included, associating the villain with the typically male-dominated realm of physical sports. Freeze’s masculinity is perfectly illustrated when he offers a particularly chauvinist word of advice to a fellow villain, “No matter what they tell you, Mr. Bane, it is the size of your gun that counts.”

If Freeze exemplifies the height of masculinity, Bane represents the dangers of masculinity gone awry. Perhaps a commentary on the use of performance-enhancing substances in athletic culture, the steroid-like “Venom” serum augments Bane’s strength to a ridiculous degree, transforming him into a mindless, obedient super-soldier. He works as a minion for the lustful seductress Poison Ivy and wears a mask that resembles the type of bondage suit associated with acts of sexual sadomasochism. Bane signifies a harmful side of sexuality, and his affiliation with Ivy resembles the problematic type of relationship based solely on physicality, as she only uses him for his muscle.

Poison Ivy characterizes heterosexual promiscuity and lust. She is essentially a prostitute, even at one point auctioning off her own body at a charity ball. She and Bane both arrive at the rainforest-themed event in the guise of apes, symbolizing the primitive element of carnal desires. She is at one with the true nature of human beings, often declaring herself Mother Nature. With her seductive dance and hypnotic pheromone dust, Ivy is able to charm every male at the ball. She uses her concoctions to force men to do her bidding and kills them with her poisonous kiss. She effectively uses her body as a weapon, a fact impeccably represented when Ivy fixes her hair in the reflection of a knife in the middle of a fight scene. Ivy embodies the way in which sexuality can be misused for personal gain.

Poison Ivy is also consistently associated with Christian imagery and diction throughout the film. This is significant in that Christianity has often been a factor in the argument against gay rights in American culture, in which homosexuality is often declared “unnatural” and in direct contradiction with the teachings of the Bible. As Ruth Hubbard explains in “The Social Construction of Sexuality,” “To fulfill the Christian mandate, sexuality must be intended for procreation, and thus all forms of sexual expression and enjoyment other than heterosexuality are invalidated” (52). As Ivy even warns one of her victims before killing him, “It’s not nice to fool with Mother Nature.” In terms of appearance, she resembles the traditional image of Eve from the book of Genesis, a nude woman with her private parts covered in leaves. Her lustful nature also recalls the notion of original sin, the eating of the forbidden fruit. Freeze even refers to himself and Ivy as “Adam and Evil” after she explains her plan to allow plants to reclaim the earth from humanity, to create a contemporary Eden and start anew. Ivy decries the corrupt state of the world as she ponders, “Why should only Batman and Robin die while the society that created them goes unpunished?” Assuming the two heroes are to represent homosexuality, it is as if Ivy is condemning the immorality of mankind as interpreted by the Bible. She contradicts herself, however, in that her sexual promiscuity also defies Christian values. It is this contradiction that delineates Ivy as a satire of the incongruities in the system of Christian beliefs.

Ivy’s complex relationships with the men of the film are of particular interest. Her partnership with Mr. Freeze functions as another failed heterosexual relationship of sorts. Though they share a hatred for Batman and Robin and plot to essentially conquer Gotham City, their super-abilities are in complete contradiction to one another. Freeze represents harsh winter conditions while Ivy symbolizes the thriving of plant life. Usually the two cannot coexist. The failure of their “marriage” is solidified in one of the final scenes, in which Ivy is sentenced to share a cell in prison with Freeze, doomed to a life of conjugal hell. Ivy’s relationships with Batman and Robin are also noteworthy, as they reveal the latent homosexuality and bisexuality of the characters, respectively. As she puts it, “Batface and Birdbrain turned out to be much more resistant to my love dust than expected.” If the two characters were to be interpreted as homosexual, such an aversion would make sense. This also problematically implies that sexual orientation and romantic attraction is merely biological and not acquired by experience or from external sources, a hypothesis that is difficult to verify. When Ivy increases the dosage of love dust, Batman and Robin begin to fight for her affections. Robin becomes irrationally jealous when Batman questions his attraction to her. “She has us fighting over her somehow,” Batman says, as if the fact that he is sexually attracted to a woman is unthinkable.

The evidence that Batman is a closet homosexual is plentiful. Even George Clooney openly admits to playing the character as a gay man. Though Bruce does have a girlfriend, Julie Madison, her only role is to conceal his true sexual orientation as his "beard." On several occasions, Bruce dodges questions about the issue of marriage with Julie, not only revealing his discomfort with the relationship, but also effectively making him a foil to the marriage-obsessed Mr. Freeze. Bruce struggles with his relationship with Julie because of his secretive lifestyle, the fact that he is a costumed crime-fighter and, likely, gay. “I know you’ve had your wild nights,” she excuses. “Wild doesn’t quite cover it,” Bruce says. The innuendo is clear.

If fighting crime and homosexuality are to be associated with one another, one can assume that Batman harbors a romantic infatuation with Robin. From the first exchange of dialogue, Batman establishes his disapproval, perhaps jealousy, of the fact that Robin expresses an interest in women. “I want a car. Chicks dig the car,” Robin says. “This is why Superman works alone,” Batman jokes in reply. He playfully chastises his young sidekick, or perhaps more appropriately, his “partner,” a somewhat loaded term mentioned multiple times to refer to their alliance. The two also argue constantly over the issue of trust, a common issue in romantic relationships, specifically when it comes to dealing with the threat of sexual infidelity. In this case, the threat is Poison Ivy, who remains the point of contention until Robin finally trusts Batman and tricks her with a pair of rubber lips to withstand her poisonous kiss.

Comic book critic Frederic Wertham suggests in his book Seduction of the Innocent that the original comic book characters of Batman and Robin are inherently homosexual. He writes, “Only someone ignorant of the fundamentals of psychiatry and of the psychopathology of sex can fail to realize a subtle atmosphere of homoeroticism which pervades the adventures of the mature ‘Batman’ and his young friend ‘Robin.’" He then comments on the fact that at home, the two characters “lead an idyllic life. They are Bruce Wayne and ‘Dick’ Gray- son. Bruce Wayne is described as a ‘socialite’ and the official relationship is that Dick is Bruce's ward. They live in sumptuous quarters, with beautiful flowers in large vases, and have a butler, Alfred. […] It is like a wish dream of two homosexuals living together.” Wertham would surely criticize the questionable nature of Bruce and Dick’s living situation in Schumacher’s films. In Batman Forever, Bruce takes Dick in, despite the fact that he appears to be in his mid-twenties, clearly not a child as in the comics, and therefore does not require a legal guardian. In Batman & Robin, Dick still lives with Bruce. To the outsider, their relationship might more closely resemble a homosexual one rather than a mere friendship or father-son bond.

While Batman exhibits latent gay tendencies, the depiction of Robin expresses much more confusion in terms of sexual orientation, aligning more with bisexuality than homosexuality. As Robert Lang argues in Masculine Interests: Homoerotics in Hollywood Film, it is Robin, “more than Batman—in keeping with biology’s imperative that younger men be more driven by sexual desire than older men—who finds himself responding helplessly to [Poison Ivy’s] toxic allure” (238). His sexual confusion allows him to explore the possibility of romance with a woman rather than continue his homoerotic relationship with Batman. Ivy urges Robin to “’forget the geriatric bat! Come join me—my garden needs tending’—as if the sexual interest she is inviting Robin to take in her were simply the flip side of his interest in Batman” (238). His affections are torn throughout the film by several characters.

Batgirl, also known as Barbara Wilson, serves as another potential romantic possibility for Robin. He marvels at her beauty when she first arrives at Wayne Manor, and curiously follows her when she sneaks out at night. It is worth noting that the filmmakers alter the character’s background from the original comics. The character is normally Barbara Gordon, the daughter of Batman’s ally, police commissioner James Gordon, but in the film her name is changed so that she is the niece of Bruce’s butler Alfred, the surrogate father of Bruce, and by default, Dick. Because of this familial connection, Barbara is off limits to Dick. Indeed, she is treated as more of a sibling in the dynamic of the Bat-family rather than a romantic interest, especially since Dick and Barbara never share an onscreen kiss.

Another reason Barbara may be romantically unavailable to Dick is that she could be interpreted as a lesbian, offering a female homosexual perspective to the heroes of the film. Barbara never shows any interest in Dick, despite his curiosity in her. Moreover, she is interested in traditionally “male” activities like motorcycle-racing and fighting crime. In the climactic final battle, conventional gender roles are reversed when a falling Robin plays the “damsel in distress” and Batgirl saves him with her grappling hook. She also one-ups her fellow crime-fighter when she succeeds in figuring out how to redirect a series of satellites to unfreeze the city. “You’re pretty good at this, little girl,” Robin quips. “Watch and learn, little boy,” she replies. She is essentially a better superhero than Robin, which is significant given the fact that comic books and comic book movies are dominated by male heroes.

The fact that Batman & Robin serves as a homosexual allegory within the superhero genre is noteworthy, as it represents a “subversion and appropriation of mainstream media.” Schumacher takes an extremely popular character from an increasingly prevalent genre, and transforms them both to fit his own personal vision. Given the reins of the Batman franchise after Tim Burton’s two comparatively darker installments, Schumacher chose to take the series in a decidedly campier direction (much like the 60s Adam West series), first with Batman Forever and even more so with Batman & Robin. The dialogue consists almost entirely of clich├ęd one-liners and bad jokes, such as Batman’s “You break it, you buy it,” or Mr. Freeze’s “Let’s kick some ice!” As Larry Gross outlines in his essay, “Out of the Mainstream,” “the classic gay (male) strategy of subversion is camp,” an attempt to undermine mainstream media’s often negative representations of homosexuals, among other minorities. “The sting can be taken out of oppressive characterizations and the hot air balloons of official morality can be burst with the ironic weapon of camp humour” (68).

This film also uses the convention of good versus evil inherent in comic books as a weapon against mainstream representations of gender and sexuality. Simply put, the good characters are homosexual while the evil characters are heterosexual. As such, the film serves as a utopian vision of a world in which homosexuals emerge victorious, pointing out the contradictions of heterosexual tradition. Schumacher utilizes the formal techniques of cinema to establish this gay utopia, specifically through the emphasis on and idealization of the male body. His Gotham City consists of godlike, skyscraper-sized nude statues over which the heroes and villains chase each other. Such figures also adorn Bruce Wayne’s mansion as well as the museum at the beginning of the film, cementing the motif. The influence of nude figures even finds its way into the costume design of the film. In the documentary Shadows of the Bat: The Cinematic Saga of the Dark Knight Part 6: Batman Unbound, Schumacher explains that the nipples, robust rear ends, and large codpieces on Batman and Robin’s costumes are inspired by “Greek statues that have perfect bodies” and are “anatomically erotic.” Close-ups accentuate these features during montage sequences in which the heroes suit up to go battle evil. The male body is literally in the face of the viewer.

Perhaps it is this utopian vision of homosexuality that turned mainstream viewers off of Batman & Robin, causing the bombardment of harsh criticism. The traditional language of film is often constructed for heterosexual understanding, so any alternative would naturally alienate viewers. The film ultimately undermines the conventions of the heterosexual mainstream, which is likely the reason for its embarrassing legacy. It is misunderstood. Perhaps the relatively homophobic majority is simply not ready for films like Batman & Robin that challenge the standard in terms of gender and sexuality.