Friday, December 06, 2013

Nelson Mandela

Last night I gathered with a couple of friends and we debated the direction the World is heading (I lead such an exciting life!). There was a general consensus that human society is not only on the wrong track but is ultimately heading for a major fall from grace and the debate turned to the small things we, as individuals, can do to at least cushion the blow.

One thing I argued was that we needed a figure who could reach out to the people and lead them through the dark times. Throughout history such iconic people have been vital in not only rallying supporters to their cause but in proving to the powers that be that change can be achieved against overwhelming odds.

Sadly, such leaders are few and far between, largely because those they "fight" will use any means necessary to maintain the status quo and to crush those who strive for change. And for those that do eventually achieve victory against overwhelming odds, too many succumb to the allure of power and turn against their principles.

Nelson Mandela was the rare example of a leader that did not only overcome unimaginable oppression, but who did so without allowing his own ideals to become poisoned by bitterness at his lot in life.

At the time when the hope for a new America was being snuffed out in Dallas, the fascist regime of South Africa was preparing to destroy the symbol of hope for a better Africa. That Nelson Mandela, a year younger than JFK, and from a background so vastly different than America's then great son, did not allow 27 years of imprisonment to crush his hope for a better future is profound.

That a man can spend 27 years unjustly imprisoned and emerge without a shred of hatred towards those who oppressed him is a testament to his humanity. That he spoke of reconciliation and building a World of no more injustice, rather than simply look for justice for himself is an act of selflessness few of us can imagine possible. That a man so heinously victimised because of the colour of his skin should not succumb to hatred or fear of those of a different race is a lesson for everyone.

And let us not forget that this was a man who when he achieved power, did not cling on to keep it. He achieved democracy and maintained it.

Shaped by a century dominated by war, holocaust and fascist ideology Nelson Mandela, along with Mahatma Gandhi, is proof that a person of peace can defeat a message of violence, oppression and hate.

That Nelson Mandela died on the anniversary of my own Fathers passing, is poignant on a very personal level to me, and today I think of that day in 1990 when I sat with my Dad, watching the grainy footage of this elderly man being released from prison. I didn't fully understand the meaning of what I was watching, but just looking at the smile on my Dad's face said it all. This was a moment for the ages. A moment of hope at the end of a century of turmoil.

RIP Madiba, quite simply the greatest person of the 20th Century.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Simon Pegg says 'Fuck You' to Trek fans.

So this is a week or so old but my excuse for being late to the part is that I have been busy/forgetful/lazy/crap (delete as appropriate).

It seems that Mr Pegg (formerly a talented and funny chap from Spaced, Shaun of the Dead etc) has taken umbrage at my recent criticism of Star Trek Into Darkness.  OK, so maybe it wasn't directly aimed at me, but I certainly count myself amongst the Star Trek fans that consider 'Into Darkness' the worst Trek film ever made.

I think what's most disappointing with these comments from Pegg are that of all the actors in that god awful movie I'd have thought that he would be the last one to turn of the fans. After all, he's a self proclaimed geek himself.  And we're supposed to stick together against bully's and cower under tables/bushes/hastily erected box forts (delete as appropriate) as one.  It's the geek code.

There are plenty of problems with his rant. Firstly, claiming that the fans who hate Into Darkness are doing so 'just because it is famous now' is beyond insulting. Star Trek was and still is the largest and most successful TV franchise in history. It held this status long before JJ Abrams came along. It also has one of the most successful movie franchises of all time.

Sure it is correct that the movies have never held the mainstream appeal that Star Wars had, but that is unimportant if becoming mainstream means pissing on your entire history.

And to use the argument that because Star Trek Into Darkness has made more money at the box office than the other Trek films doesn't make something good.  Four out of Five Twilight movies have made more money than the Trek films, but that doesn't change the fact that they are steaming piles of crap that only demonstrate how teenagers IQs have regressed over the last generation.  And of course I could mention the fact that if you take inflation into account, both Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home made more money that Into Darkness, but that's just me being childish.

Everyone's second favourite Scotty (see what I did there!) then goes on to talk about how hard everyone worked to make the film. Bravo guys. You worked hard in your job. We should all go easy on you. I'm sure the guys who made Battlefield Earth worked really hard (in fact didn't John Travolta sink his own money into it? - that's dedication), but it doesn't change the fact that the movie was the biggest joke of 2000.

Simon Pegg is the perfect example to all kiddies out there of what can happen when all your dreams come true. It can make you an egotistical know-nothing child. On the plus side he's now mega rich so go Pegg!

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Writing the Absolute

Many who know me will recall that I make grand claims about being a writer, but rarely produce anything for people to actually read.

Well I've finally launched a writing journal - Writing the Absolute. The aim is to give me somewhere to share my writing progress and also provide snippets from my latest projects.

The first 6 weeks will be focussed on the Clarion West write-a-thon. Both myself and Georgina Kamsika are giving it a go.

My goal will be to write a first draft of my new screenplay, 'Edge of Tranquility'. It's quite a tough deadline as my fulltime job does take up a lot of time, but the write-a-thon seems a great way to get motivated and also earn a bit of cash for all the great work they do.

In terms of this blog, it fell into the dark recesses of the internet over the last few years. My recent rant about the slow destruction of Star Trek reminded me of how much fun I used to have writing about movies, politics and general rubbish.  So I am going to try to do more on here, if only to give myself an excuse to geek out (as if I needed one!).

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Still True If Destroyed

Let's get one thing out of the way, I do enjoy action, adventure summer blockbusters. Not all of them, but as a genre they can be great fun. Bourne, Mission Impossible, Die Hard, Indiana Jones at their best can be a great laugh. They aren't incredibly deep and they aren't likely to win oscars, but they are exciting and when done well deliver a big smile on the face as you leave the cinema.

Action movies in 2013 are a lot different to the golden age of the genre in the 1980s. They have moved towards more intense, 'non-stop' action as studios find themselves competing more and more for the attention of fickle movie goers.

'A rip-roaring roller-coaster ride from start to finish' has become the stock critics tag-line for the successful action blockbuster. Crank up the action set-pieces, put the films main protagonists in more and more peril and the audience will lap it up. Seems simple, but the formula isn't a recipe for guaranteed success – see the uber-flop John Carter on how it can go terribly wrong.

It is for this reason that studios are so eager to re-use and reboot older 'franchises'. They have already bottled the secret elixir of success once, so why not again? Plus they even come with their own legions of fans desperate to see more. If a studio was to announce a remake or sequel to the Back to the Future franchise, the fans would be queuing in cinemas around the World, even though the chances of re-capturing the same mood that the 1980s originals achieved are incredibly low – see Indiana Jones 4 as an example of how to rape the childhood memories of an entire generation of movie fans.

It didn't surprise me that Star Trek was the latest of these franchises to come under the reboot fad in 2009. Star Trek was ripe for it. A franchise with a fan-base that ranks in the top two Worldwide in terms of size and obsessive compulsion towards the object of their desire. Plus it's a franchise that had fallen on hard times. Recent incarnations on both the big and small screen have failed to live up to the legacy left for them. In 2009 it was, according to the studio, time.

I've been very vocal in my incessant dislike for the 2009 reboot of Star Trek by JJ Abrams. I wasn't against the changing of time lines or the recasting of legends. I openly welcomed it. Several years earlier I was calling for Star Trek to be given a break for a good few years and then rebooted (BSG style). A reboot can go in a different direction, can try something new, but alas the Nu Trek we were given in 2009 fell far short of anything that resembled true quality in my opinion.

So it shouldn't be a surprise that I did not enjoy Star Trek Into Darkness, a movie so dark they have to put the word into the title as a disclaimer. Except of course it isn't particularly dark and any hint of tragedy is either brushed aside with bravado or dealt with inside 5 minutes to ensure the movie keeps ticking over. Nor should it be surprising that I failed to honour my promise from 2009 to not see this sequel. I am... weak!

Don't get me wrong, I actually thought STID hit all the right buttons I'd expect from a summer action flick.
  • Near non-stop action
  • Epic battles and fight scenes
  • Amazing set-piece special effects
  • Light, easy to follow plot
  • A twist at the midpoint to allow the story to be expanded from 90 mins to a whopping 132 mins
  • A suitably sinister, well spoken (British) villain
  • Characters that are carefully designed to fit the plot but are instantly forgettable
Check list complete. Good job JJ and crew.

And that would be fine if that's what Star Trek is supposed to be. Big budget action fare, set predominately in space.

This goes back to my problem with the science fiction genre. These days as long as something is set in the future or in space it classifies as a Science Fiction story, despite it not sharing anything else in common with the genre.

Now this isn't JJ Abrams fault, the makers of Star Trek actually tried to move the franchise into the more action-orientated arena 10 years ago. The result was the terribly bloated and soulless Star Trek Nemesis. Aside from a superb performance from a young Tom Hardy (well spoken British villain), the movie is one to forget.

When JJ Abrams took over the reins he was clear that he wanted to make a Star Trek that 'he would like'. A Star Trek more like Star Wars of which he is a huge fan. He succeeded with the first new Trek film and continues it here. But turning Star Trek into Star Wars is not something I, or any self-respecting Trek fan, would have wanted.

I love Star Wars (the original three), but they occupy a completely different space to Star Trek. One is an action adventure fantasy set in space and the other is a science fiction space opera.

Star Trek is now Star Wars light. It is a franchise over-dependent on thrills and special effects. This was the same criticism thrown at George Lucas over his Star Wars prequels. He lost the spark of the originals in those movies and couldn't get it back.

My point with all this is that while these new Star Trek movies are incredibly popular, it has been achieved by taking Star Trek away from it's original genre and aims and planting it firmly in the same arena as Transformers and GI: Joe. Action first, storytelling second (or more realistically last).

Star Trek was built on a very simple concept, that of the explorers making those first true steps into space and the unknown. They were akin to the trailblazers in the old West or the explorers of Christopher Columbus' time. There was action and conflict, there had to be, but it was, for the most part, driven by the dangers of the unknown. The driving force behind this type of Science Fiction was that it allowed the makers to tackle modern taboos and subjects that could not be easily covered in a contemporary setting.

In the 3 years of the original series we had stories that tackled racism, religion, sexism, global war and the problems of nationalism. The shows makers battled studio executives throughout as censors picked through any attempts at concealing political messages during a time of great upheaval. However episodes like City of the Edge of Forever, Miri, Menagerie/Cage, Let that be Your Last Battlefield and A Taste of Armageddon are prime examples of the storytellers using their medium to get the audience to think beyond the pew pew action explosion. Of course in the 1960s you couldn't simply rely on special effects set pieces to cover up a light plot!

In subsequent TV spin-offs Star Trek continued to create shows that held a fine balance between action/adventure and growth storytelling. This continued well into the 1990s with stories like The Outcast, All Good Things, Chain of Command, Past Tense, The Die is Cast, Doctor Bashir I Presume, Sacrifice of Angels, In the Pale Moonlight and Far Beyond the Stars.

Now of course there was some utter tripe that came out of Paramount during this time (Spocks Brain anyone?), but the key aims of the franchise were clear.

The other major gripe with this new take on modern science fiction is that such stories should, by definition, have some actual science that has some basis in, you know, science. If you are going to try to pass off your story under this genre, you could at least try.

So to sum up 2 pages of ranting, these new movies are so far away from science fiction they might as well be period dramas! Which brings me nicely onto the actual film. As I've mentioned before, if you want mindless action with a light plot then you'll probably love this film. Scratch the surface and you'll be bitterly disappointed. I want my Star Trek to at least make sense and this story fails on every level.

We start with a frenetic escape set-piece straight out of James Bond. Kirk and Bones jump off a cliff and swim to the USS Enterprise, which is submerged in an ocean to prevent it being seen by the aliens they are monitoring because of the prime directive. Wait? Wouldn't the safer option be to hide the ship in orbit and use shuttles or those amazing transporter thingies?


Spock's inside a volcano trying to stop it from erupting, because in this universe Spock isn't logical and doesn't follow the prime directive either. He uses a MacGuffin – that even scientists today would point out couldn't possibly work – to save the day, but his rescue leads to the Enterprise being seen by the aliens.

Back on Earth, Kirk is suspended for breaching the prime directive because Spock doesn't cover for him. Bad Spock. Grrrr! Kirks suspension lasts for about the length of a t-mobile advert when Admiral Pike decides he can be his first officer. Pike lasts about the length of another t-mobile advert before he is killed in a terrorist attack on Star Fleet HQ. Let's not go into too much detail about how a top brass military meeting would have zero security and could be blasted away by a lone assassin in a flying car, because Kirk is Captain again! Hooray!

Kirk and crew warp off to get revenge.

I'll stop there with the synopsis because quite frankly it is the biggest pile of convoluted crap I've seen since Indiana Jones 4. I'll just ask a few questions, assuming you've seen the film:
  • Why does the Enterprise have to fly after Khan (spoiler) in the first place, when they have already mentioned him using Scottys crazy 'beam anything anywhere in an instant' technology? Couldn't they just have beamed there?
  • In fact given Scottys remarkable invention from the 2009 movie, aren't Starships now completely redundant? I mean why build giant space ships when you can just beam across light years of space at the touch of a button.
  • Why is Chekhov put in charge of engineering when he's clearly not qualified? Wouldn't there be other crew who work in engineering up to the task of replacing Scotty? Do they not have some form of succession planning? Assistant Chief Engineers? No.
  • Why are the Klingons even in this film? Their sole purpose is to be beaten up by Khan. Oh right, because the real bad guy wants to start a war. Isn't there an easier way than sending someone you don't trust with some suspicious torpedos and just hoping he actually fires them at your enemies? I mean, couldn't they just arrange for a peace conference and then assassinate the Klingon leader. Wouldn't that be a less ropey plan? Star Trek VI was a very good film.
  • Why is no-one suspicious about Khan surrendering? I mean it's not like we've seen supervillains surrender to gain an advantage in any other recent movies (Dark Knight, Avengers, Skyfall).
  • Why does it even matter that there is a big reveal about Cumberbatch being Khan? Most of the people watching the movie are casual movie-goers. Most of them have probably never heard of him.
  • What is the point of Carol Marcus? She's a scientist who doesn't do science, preferring to just hit ticking bombs at the last second to save the day. And she gets her kit off. That's it.
  • If the Enterprise has a really sophisticated brig for Khan why didn't Kirk get dumped in it in the first film rather than being inexplicably exiled to Hoth?
  • Why, if you want to kill 72 superbeings, would you put them in torpedos and then give them to Kirk? Couldn't they have just executed them in a more traditional way?
  • When the Enterprise is attacked by the real evil bad guy, Admiral Marcus, they come to rest in our own solar system. Why does Spock only think to contact old Spock? Why doesn't anyone think to contact Star Fleet or in fact any other living soul that can maybe help them as Marcus has clearly gone insane?
  • Why is Kirk able to stun Khan with one shot but later in the movie about 12 shots fail to even make him flinch?
  • Why are they one minute not able to transport torpedos around, but then when it suits Spocks purpose hey presto they can?
  • Why do 72 of the most advanced torpedos in the history of weaponry exploding inside another Starship not completely obliterate it? Haven't these people seen what happens to the Death Star in these situations?
  • Kirks death scene involves him going into the reactor and KICKING a machine until it works. This is not even a question. No wait it is. Are Star Fleet crews actually now just monkeys?
  • Kirks death has zero emotional impact because at no point in these two films has there even been a scene in which Kirk and Spock appear to be friends. And what's the message here? That Spock has learnt something he should have already known because he's a logical Vulcan? He sure as hell knew it in Wrath of Khan.
  • Spock has another bout of rage in which he beats someone senseless, proving yet again that he isn't actually a Vulcan, but an unstable human with pointy ears. In fact the only time he acts like a Vulcan is when Uhura is whining that he doesn't have any emotions. Has she even watched these two films? He shows nothing but emotion. Except around her. Maybe he's trying to tell you something love.
  • Uhuras sole role in this movie is to complain about Spock. Has feminism really gone that far backwards since 1966, when a visionary writer decided to put a black woman in a position of authority on a TV show for the first time?
  • Superhuman Khan blood saves Kirk 5 minutes after he died, completely removing the emotional impact his death could have had. And yes I know I said it didn't have any emotional impact in the first place, but I suppose some 5 year old might have been mildly affected. If super blood can save lives does that mean none of the crew ever have to die in upcoming films?
  • Once the dust has settled we have Kirk telling everyone he is reciting the Star Fleet mantra about going on a 5 year mission and boldly going and all that. Why, if that is the mantra of the entire Star Fleet is there,  only seconds later, a line from someone (I think Bones) worrying about how no one has ever done a 5 year mission?
I give up. Seriously.

Even Benedict Cumberbatch can't save this film. He over-hams it, and the sooner he gets back on a flight to blighty the better. Great actor in danger of being ruined by Hollywood. Only Karl Urban comes out of this movie with any credibility. He yet again nails DeForest Kelley as Bones and when I wasn't going blind from lens flares I was genuinely impressed with the lad.

The original show and movie franchise survived on the back of superb chemistry between Kirk, Spock and McCoy. Here there is nothing. Kirk and Spock clearly do not like each other, making any scene in which they apparently show their friendship utterly unbelievable.

Every single crew member is clearly not worthy of serving in any military that has ever existed in the entirety of human history. Half of them have serious mental stability issues (Kirk, Spock, Scotty) and the others look woefully out of their depth.  

The original Kirk was certainly reckless and had a lot of fight scenes, but just re-watch those episodes and films. He was clearly a keen tactician and took onboard the ideas of his officers. Wrath of Khan is certainly not non-stop action, which leads me to believe that JJ Abrams has never actually seen the movie. Pines Kirk, meanwhile, is a raging, arrogant alcoholic with literally no redeeming features. He doesn't just resent authority figures, he openly ignores all common sense and would last about 20 seconds in a real military outfit. Is this JJs template for Han Solo in the new Star Wars film? Is so, enjoy Star Wars fans!

And as for Spock. The basic power of that character was that he was an outcast trying to fit in. It is a classic science fiction trope, reused in other Trek series (Data, Worf, Seven of Nine, Odo) and the wider sci-fi universe. Spock was the logical one yes but thanks to his childlike understanding of human morality, the viewer was able to learn from his eyes. This modern Spock is simply an angry and bitter human being with pointy ears. When he does talk logically he is quickly shot down by Kirk who inevitably proves him wrong. Lesson here kids is that experience, knowledge and skill mean nothing.

I know it's just a movie, but when you are a fan of something this stuff matters. It matters so much to me I've written 3000 words about it and posted on my blog for the first time in 4 years! From a monetary perspective JJ Abrams has reinvigorated Star Trek, but at what price? Will the millions who flocked to see this film be hooked on Star Trek going forward or will they just see it as another summer blockbuster to take or leave?

I see that Spielberg and Lucas have railed this week on the direction Hollywood has taken in recent years. While they conveniently ignore the fact that their own careers have directly led the industry towards disappearing up its own arse, they do have a key point. If the movie isn't mainstream enough, why should the studios bother? This is why we are getting more and more of the same action sci fi fare. Something has got to give.

I think a summer of re-watching proper Star Trek may be in order for me.

Star Trek Into Darkness: 2/10 (it gets more than one purely for Karl Urban)
Special mention to 'The Editing Room' for reminding me of some the things I'd forgotten!