Star Trek Beyond

I like the beats and shouting

jaylahI gave Into Darkness some flack for lifting imagery and design material from the Mass Effect series, and joked to myself about what they might steal this time.  Lo and behold: Star Trek Beyond‘s entire premise is taken from the opening of Mass Effect 2, wherein Commander Shepard’s ship is attacked by never-before-seen aliens who decimate her beloved Normandy (replaced with the Enterprise here), “take” members of her crew, and possess technology that converts people into gray fluid.  Is this kind of pseudo-plagiarism commonplace because video games aren’t considered an art form, so any good ideas found in the gaming realm are fair game for use in something bigger and more important?  This question is half-rhetorical.  I’ve been playing video games since I was a child, and have had some of the most meaningful emotional experiences I’ve gotten from visual media by playing certain games, but I’ve only ever played one game that I would consider a pure work of art.  Still, even though this is conventional sci-fi fare, you’re taking someone’s work.

Gear shift here.  Despite all the ways in which Beyond‘s trailer looks like the filmmakers are phoning in an obligatory threequel, this is my favorite of the three.  Beyond feels the most like an actual episode of Star Trek, makes better use of its cast of women (and let’s face it: all it had to do was stop painting Uhura and others as yelping ingenues and scolding wives, but it goes beyond that – it’s aptly titled), normalizes same-gender (and different-species) relationships, and valiantly tries to make a group of relatively bland people who have no real stake in whether they discover anything during their five-year exploration mission endearing enough to an audience that they remember why so many of these damned series (and films) were made in the first place.

Kirk (Chris Pine, still less interesting than he was in Smokin’ Aces) is three years into his five-year stint as captain of a Starfleet exploration gig, and is oddly tolerable this time. His hair is more Shatner-y, and he seems to have grown up a bit (though he’s conveniently forgotten the time his remorseless recklessness got dozens of his own crew jettisoned into space).  Still, the womanizing fratboy is gone, and he seems to genuinely want to be a good leader, even going so far as recommending Spock (Zachary Quinto) for the captain’s chair if he should be unable to fulfill the duty.

Spock himself is more fun to spend time with now as well, partly because his tumultuous relationship with Nyota Uhura (Zoe Saldana) happens between movies.  Interesting implications arise when he learns that Ambassador Spock (Leonard Nimoy) has died, which in turn lets Spock know when exactly he’s going to die (or does it?  It’s not made clear whether that’s a rule, but Spock’s moroseness at the news certainly points in this direction).  His trajectory involves his coming to terms with this, as well as being paired with Bones McCoy (Karl Urban) in an adventure where he must rely on the beleaguered doctor for medical help and moral support.  Banter, friendly insults, etc. (never quite hilarity) ensue.  For better and worse, the focus on Spock’s survivor’s guilt is lessened, so while he’s less of a downer, he’s not as sharply drawn, nor is he much different from anyone else wearing a blue shirt (he just acts more like Abed than the rest do).

The supporting cast gets supporting-cast stuff to do, while their collective conflict surrounds escaping a planet that has become something of a ship graveyard after the Collecto – erm, I mean, a group of hostile bipeds have wrecked ship after ship there. These villains are led by Krall (Idris Elba), a hulking goblin who sounds like he’s perpetually out of breath and whose only motivation (until the final ten minutes of the movie) seems to be For the Evulz.  Funnily enough, he’s one of the two best things about the film, particularly once he’s actually played by Idris Elba (i.e. with reduced/no makeup).  At this point, he becomes something like a space-age Stringer Bell, albeit with much more black-and-white goals (he’s a former Starfleet captain who became disillusioned after the Federation made peace with the Romulans and other enemies, making the sacrifices of his people a waste, not to mention abandoning his ship, the Franklin, on an uncharted world – it’s a pretty good twist, not something you usually hear me say).  He’s the perfect foil to a reformed Kirk, who (while also having laughably black-and-white motivations and alignments) honestly tries to understand his opponent rather than just shouting “Let’s kick ass” and having at it.

Regrettably, Krall’s ultimate goal of pushing back against Federation expansion (an allegory for indigenous people vs. colonizing) isn’t given enough time or depth, so by the time the film ends, we’re not really sure whether Kirk was “supposed” to win or not.  He claims that he would “rather die saving lives than live with taking them,” but he never apologizes for doing it before, nor do the filmmakers give Krall much opportunity to explain whether Federation expansion would obliterate the Frontier races.  Thus, Krall appears to us as the Founding Fathers portrayed our Natives to the public (and how the current media portrays every other person with a different idea): a ruthless terrorist whose extremism overwrites the validity of his grievances.

The other best part of the film is newcomer Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), a loner also confined to the uncharted world, living in the shell of the Franklin.  She’s one of a million Star Trek species who just look like humans with funny makeup, but some weight and respect is given to her character: she’s been severely wronged by Krall’s people, her family was killed by Krall’s right-hand dude (whom she conveniently gets to duel to the death in the scene immediately after she reveals this), and she’s lived a difficult life in the planet’s wastes.  The film’s crowded cast makes Jaylah seem like the protagonist of a really cool survival movie we’re not allowed to see, although her scenes with Scotty (Simon Pegg) are genuinely endearing at times (plus she gets to lead her own scenes, including tthe aforementioned fight, albeit with a lightweight Elite Mook who only exists to make the movie seem like it cares about Jaylah – points for effort).  Ultimately, Jaylah joining Starfleet serves as a way to say, “Hey, the Frontier races and the Federation can coexist without murdering each other,” but it’s a conversation that should be had onscreen.  Leaving it out makes Krall something of a tragic would-be hero.

Ripoffs of other things aside (seriously though, didn’t they have enough material they could use from, say, I don’t know, STAR TREK?), the worst I can say about Beyond is that it wastes its supporting villains, phones in some CGI, and delivers so many obligatory plot points that one begins to lose faith in how interesting the rest of the universe actually is: what’s the point of leaving Earth if every planet’s genre fiction follows the same formula?

220px-star_trek_beyond_posterStar Trek Beyond (2016); written by Simon Pegg and Doug Jung; directed by Justin Lin; starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Idris Elba, and Sofia Boutella.

Only Lovers Left Alive

You just can’t run from the funnel of love

loversleftJim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive takes a few cues from Karen Russell’s short story “Vampires in the Lemon Grove,” and continues the recent trend (perhaps popularized by Charlaine Harris’s Southern Vampire Mysteries and HBO’s True Blood) of stories about vampires who have evolved past their savage desires to feed on human blood in favor of either mixing with society or keeping to themselves.  In Russell’s story, the main characters, a couple not so different from Jarmusch’s protagonists, discover raw lemons as a temporary placation.  In True Blood, human blood is synthesized into a bottled beverage, eliminating the need for murder altogether.  Jarmusch’s vampire yarn is a bit grittier and more cynical, although not overtly so: vampires must keep themselves hidden from humans, who have no idea they exist, and must scrounge up whatever blood they can find by looting hospitals and making deals with blood bank doctors.

But of course, this isn’t really a vampire story.  The word vampire is never spoken, and the parameters of vampirism are never laid out, aside from drinking blood, not going out during the day, and being able to “turn” others.  It’s a film about the failure of the twenty-first century and the bleakness of humanity’s future due to willed ignorance and backwards ways of thinking.  Not a particularly fresh theme in and of itself (truth and accuracy notwithstanding), but Jarmusch explores it through a fascinating character study, absent of silly exposition or literal dystopia.  Dystopia might be coming, but somehow, it’s more frightening to be a prisoner in the actual world we live in.

Eve (Tilda Swinton) and Adam (Tom Hiddleston) have been married for several centuries.  Eve has spent the past few years in Tangier, where she obtains her blood from Elizabethan dramatist Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), who goes by the name “Kit” since he is “supposed to be dead.”  No explanation is given for how Marlowe was turned, but the film’s great efforts to shove aside lore and backstory aid its focus, and these omissions never actually feel like omissions.  Just think of the degree of “hiding” that Marlowe has to do: he’s not only been hiding his identity for hundreds of years, but he’s also been hiding his influence on Shakespeare, whose portrait, complete with a dart in its head, he keeps on his wall.  Adam, on the other hand, lives in an abandoned Detroit neighborhood as a reclusive (albeit massively wealthy) musician obsessed with anonymity.  He broods, contemplates the sad state of the world and its treatment of artists and scientists (“They’re still bitching about Darwin.  Still!”), creates complex music that the underground scene cannot get enough of, and procures rarities from local rock-n’-roller Ian (Anton Yelchin).  One of these is a wooden bullet, and we know what those can do if applied to a vampire’s heart.  Eve blames Adam’s suicidal romanticism on “Those people he used to hang out with” – y’know, Mary Shelley and Lord Byron, without whom Jarmusch’s movie would not exist.

Adam is saved by a video chat with Eve, and the two reunite in Detroit.  The couple do not interact with each other until roughly a half-hour into the film, and thus the amount of time we spend with them driving the streets, exploring museums at night, listening to rough cuts of Adam’s new tunes, and lying around in bed, is well-earned and well-put-off until we have some context.  Adam obtains his blood from Doctor Watson (Jeffrey Wright), a blood bank worker who is more than happy to drop some “O-Negativo” off the back of a truck in exchange for a thicker wad of cash than he’s making doing honest work.  Notably, Adam goes by the pseudonym “Doctor Faust,” a reference to the most famous of the real-life Marlowe’s work (a derivative work in which a deal is made with the devil).  Still, Adam claims to have no heroes.

The film’s movement is made up of anti-narrative, as many of Jarmusch’s films are, though critics’ claims that the film continues Jarmusch’s “rebellion against narrative” may be a bit erroneous.  Dead Man‘s exploratory scenes relied entirely upon plot points, rebel against them as it might.  Similarly, Broken Flowers, The Limits of Control, and Ghost Dog feature a protagonist on a journey initiated by himself, and the real exploration (as well as the occasional inaccessible philosophizing) happens during the breaths in between.  Here, with Eve and Adam, we have two characters who want nothing to do with plot.  They do not want a story.  They’ve had enough of it.  Yet inconveniences are thrust upon them, and when the story does move forward, it is dragged kicking and screaming (not that its quiet characters do either).  The few “happenings” in the film involve Ava (Mia Wasikowska), the young vampire sister of Eve, who has lately invaded everyone’s dreams as a way to say that she’s coming to visit.  Neither Eve nor Adam wants Ava around to spoil what they have, especially Adam, who wishes Ava were dead (a reference is made to something that happened 87 years ago, but Eve and Adam were both there, so the specifics are not revealed, as that would be a violation where exposition is concerned).  Ava shows up, and things change.  Unlike Eve and Adam, Ava is curious, fresh-faced, eager for new experiences.  Do they dislike her because she’s been a perpetual teenager for centuries?  Or because she’s an amalgamation of who they used to be (name and otherwise)?

As expected, Ava ruins things in a single night, and again, movement is forced upon the couple.  In the end, as two blood-deprived vamps descend upon unsuspecting lovers in a back alley in Tangier, following Adam’s haunting justification – “What choice do we have?” – we see how quickly and easily one’s identity can be compromised in a world wherein that identity is not even acknowledged, let alone nurtured.  This is not to say that the film’s ending constitutes some broad idea, or even that is has to mean something, but there is, on the part of the characters, at least a “shift” if not flat-out growth – it’s subtle and reluctant, and greater parts sad than happy.

This is Jarmusch’s best film in a while.  Unlike many of Jarmusch’s others,  Only Lovers Left Alive is not saturated by obvious themes, nor does it revolve around a sainted everyman.  In the tradition of those films, however, it grooves to a magical, sludgy soundtrack that makes the tiniest of movements seem dire and urgent.  Planning a flight is excruciating.  Tiny interior things such as Adam taking interest in another musician (Yasmine Hamdan) contain multitudes of significance, while major flourishes like kicking Ava out of the house seem routine and likely to happen again.  The main cast make up a sad, wonderful family that is not only worthwhile to spend time with, but also carries the pain and quintessence of the “last people on Earth” while simultaneously being unaware of it and just trying to live.  It’s particularly affecting to realize in retrospect that Mia Wasikowska’s mischievous Ava inhabits the truest identity in the film, representing where things once were and where they’re unknowingly going again, and she, much like the film’s featured recluses, goes undernourished.

Only Lovers Left Alive (2014); written and directed by Jim Jarmusch; starring Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, and Mia Wasikowska.