Bastille Day

Your alligators are sewn on backwards

bastilleIn a college screenwriting class, I once wrote a script I thought was pretty good.  My professor even told me that every few semesters, one student script really stands out, and that this was the one.  I’ve since lost it, but if it had actually been produced, I assume I’d be cringing at it now.  I still think the characters were better than what you get in your standard Hollywood action fare, but instead of existing for the same reasons real people with complicated histories exist (i.e. no reason), their collected backstories served the larger narrative, one that needed them to come together to connect plot dots, a plot full of conspiracies, corrupt government officials, gunfire, and a sainted young white dude who can puzzle it all out.  I get bummed out thinking about it.  Even if I was on the right track (not with that script in particular, but moving toward something good), even if the dialogue was alright and the plot resolution reasonable and the characters okay to spend time with, the produced result probably would have turned out looking a lot like Bastille Day.  And it would deserve a crappy review.

Bastille Day pits a bunch of ex-HBO main-supporting actors against a terrorism conspiracy in Paris (sadly evoking thoughts of the recent tragedies there and in Nice): Special Agent Briar (Idris Elba), a generic cowboy cop, gets mixed into the investigation of a bombing accidentally triggered by Michael Mason (Richard Madden).  Briar is guided along by his classically beleaguered CIA superior, Tom (Anatol Yusef), and slightly more sympathetic agent Karen (Kelly Reilly) who mainly exist to emphasize how badass Briar is, and how evil the generic European bad guys are, respectively.  As straightforward as it sounds, the Island Syndrome never becomes exhausting because the actors never seem bored playing tropes straight and saying things like “I know an asshole when I see one.”

The tritagonist of the film, Zoe (Charlotte Le Bon) mostly exists as a target/ingenue/plot device, but it’s worth noting that every significant story movement is catalyzed by her: deciding at a certain moment not to trigger a bomb, bashing a corrupt cop over the head with a flashlight like someone out of a Lucia Berlin story (Google it), saving the dudes’ asses, and heroically rushing through a line of riot police in order to incite action.  The latter scene evokes great historical moments captured in photographs, including recent ones of women standing up to body-armored men with machine guns and shields, and even though I’m sure it wasn’t intended to do so, it’s one of the few moments worth taking away from the film (taking farther, at least, than your after-film chat with your filmgoing partners about what you just witnessed).

Speaking of the story, it’s pretty clear who the real bad guy is from the beginning, but the “why” continues to change, and the action doesn’t hit a low enough gear to reveal much depth.  The villains seem like stereotypical fear-mongering bombers who don’t mind creating collateral damage in order to keep citizens angry at the police (they use hashtags to guide protesters to the next significant location), which at first feels like an uncomfortable criticism of gullible internet-surfing social justice warriors who spend their days looking for stuff to protest, but it turns out that the bad guys are actually the police themselves.  Why are they doing this?  Because they’re pissed that no one appreciates them.  Wait, but they’re killing and manipulating citizens.  Why wouldn’t the people walk around chanting NWA lyrics?  Just when the layers seem to be peeled back as far as they’ll go, the filmmakers decide to settle on plain ol’ greed to justify the bad police’s actions: their endgame is to use the gigantic protesters vs. police rumble as a cover to lift mass amounts of cash from the Bank of France during the Bastille Day Parade.  It’s not that it’s lame in and of itself; it’s that it never seems like we need Stringer Bell, Robb Stark, and Meyer Lansky to take care of a bunch of cream puffs like these guys.

That said, the protest side-story does sit uncomfortably, if only because the filmmakers’ intentions with it are never made clear. It’s not half as bad as Christopher Nolan’s opportunistic and disrespectful treatment of the Occupy movement in The Dark Knight Rises, though.

BD is ultimately harmless, I think.  But it really does rely on the actors, not the writing/story/characterization – for instance, it wouldn’t have been watchable with, say, Keanu Reeves and Mark Ruffalo as the two non-buddy heroes, and it almost reaches that point in scenes that feature the tedious villains talking to each other.  Why didn’t they cast Anatol Yusef, an actor who can play deep menace with very little effort, as the evil police boss instead of Lee Van Cleef’s character from Escape from New York?  This isn’t intended to be the aforementioned “crappy review” I would have given my own movie.  But in a world where American action films come with a write-by-numbers kit, it seems to be very, very difficult to avoid making the same movie again and again.  My script didn’t come with the kit, but it also did: by the time I was twenty, I’d seen this movie a thousand times.

I get it, though.  It’s an Idris Elba vehicle, and an argument for his candidacy for the position of James Bond.  Fine.  If you have to keep making 007 movies, cast him as James Bond.  Just don’t have him sing the theme song.

220px-bastille_day_28film29Bastille Day (2016); written by Andrew Baldwin and James Watkins; directed by James Watkins; starring Idris Elba, Richard Madden, and Charlotte Le Bon.

 

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.

Prometheus

What are my chances?

Prometheus, previously titled Paradise, and which I’ve privately renamed Battle for the Planet of the Space Jockeys, is Ridley Scott’s reimagining of 1979’s Alien mythology.  This time, however, Scott is armed with twenty-first century movie effects and has poured copious amounts of CG into an otherwise live action film (which makes one wonder whether he would have done the same had he possessed the technology in the seventies).

The popular question concerning this film seems to be whether or not it is a direct prequel to Alien.  The short answer is no, because Dan O’Bannon, who wrote the original, didn’t write Prometheus, having passed away in 2009.  Instead, we’re stuck with Damon Lindelof, whose unbridled hubris and laconic dialogue rendered the final season of Lost nearly unwatchable.  Lindelof’s writing has not improved, but having screenplay groundwork previously laid by Jon Spaihts and a plot structure defined by Alien, he manages to keep the goings-on (relatively) tight in this case.  I did occasionally feel “Island Syndrome,” however, during certain scenes in which the actors were clearly making the dialogue sound better than it actually was.

Set several decades before Alien, the film follows Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace, the original girl with the dragon tattoo), a religious archaeologist who discovers identical cave paintings all over the world, most recently on the Isle of Skye in Scotland.  Along with her romantic partner, Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), whose sensibilities starkly contrast her own, Shaw receives funding from the Weyland corporation (the company of devious motives for which Ripley and the crew of the Nostromo worked in Alien) to follow the coordinates suggested by the paintings, which lead to a previously-unexplored world in outer space.  The two are joined by a crew that will bring back immediate memories of the motley group of marines in James Cameron’s Aliens, in that they are unprofessional, disagreeable, and harbor an inexplicable disdain for the protagonist.  The film’s deuteragonist, though, is David (Michael Fassbender), an android in the tradition of the other films.  While David is described as having no soul, he displays limitless curiosity, seemingly genuine care, and a very real sense of vengeance.  Going against a popular sci-fi trope, David doesn’t want to be like his creators (who are, in turn, searching for their own creators in space); in fact, he’s quite relieved to be nothing like them.  Also onboard is Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), a Weyland executive with the compassion of a wolverine and the personality of an ice cube.  Guy Pearce makes an appearance as the elderly Peter Weyland, the megalomaniac who runs the company, and considering the tenure of his appearance in the film, I’m not sure why Scott couldn’t have cast a famous older actor instead of making Pearce go through five hours of makeup for a walk-on role.

The space expedition, as it must, quickly devolves into bad decisions, bickering, and jump-scares.  The less important/interesting members of the crew (a geologist and a biologist whom I mistook for mercenaries based upon their behavior) are the first to be picked off by the indigenous denizens of the planet, which clearly resemble the alien “facehugger” of the original film.  From here, however, the story does not fall into the slasher-movie structure of killing off each crew member one at a time as they grope around in the dark.  The discoveries and intrigue begin to pile up, including the revelation that the “space jockey,” a being discovered in passing by the crew of Alien, was a member of the species that may have spawned humanity and now wants to destroy us.

Sadly, Ridley Scott has never been as good with characters as his brother Tony (who along with Quentin Tarantino crafted True Romance, pound for pound one of my favorite films).  The former has always focused on set pieces before the people and stories inhabiting them, and therefore the character deepening (which should not be confused with character development) does not get off the ground until well into the adventure.  After Holloway, unbeknownst to Shaw (“but knownst to us” – Mel Brooks) has been intentionally infected with an alien agent by David, we get a tender scene in which Shaw reveals her sterility and her desire to “create life,” a possible motive for her obsessive quest for knowledge concerning the Engineers.  This is, for the most part, all we get.  The film relies on its action to familiarize us with the characters from there on out, and conversations between them serve to reinforce their respective dominant traits: Shaw is quixotic, Vickers is ostentatious, Holloway is a skeptic, Janek (Idris Elba) is a stoic, Fifield (Sean Harris) is a bit of an asshole, and so on.  Attempts to deepen them beyond these traits are glossed over.  David is the one who remains a mystery.  He gets his own scenes before anyone else does, puttering around on the ship for two years while the human crew members sleep through the countless light years it takes to reach the Engineer planet, and even though we get to spend this time with him, we’re never quite sure what he wants.  He’s always following orders, sure, but Fassbender often lets slip (in both his expressions and clever dialogue) that something more is going on in that milk-and-pasta-filled head of his.

Vickers is another anomaly.  While the rest of the crew, despite being esteemed scientists, continually fall into the Principle of the Inept Adventurer (moving toward scary places, thrusting their hands toward the maws of alien beasts, and taking their helmets off on an uncharted planet, which not even Buzz Lightyear was dumb enough to do), Vickers is always pragmatic.  She stays indoors when she knows something dangerous is outside.  She demands that everyone do their jobs and follow protocol.  When Holloway is infected, she will not let him back on the ship, and a scene reminiscent of one from Alien in which Ripley refuses to allow the infected Kane back onboard, yields ghastly results.  The issue is that the screenplay sets her up as an antagonist, then hints that she will eventually let her hair down (which she should, since the antagonistic forces in the film severely outnumber the good guys by the third act).  After the standoff scene, Shaw and Vickers are well-established as the yin and yang of the ship, two strong women made enemies by Vickers’ rash actions, but they barely, if ever, have another interaction before the story’s climax, and Vickers’ part in the film ends with an “isn’t that cool?” moment meant to inspire applause, but which rang hollow for me.

Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw is the film’s character centerpiece and performance gem.  Once the cast is inevitably shaved, she is forced to carry on plenty of scenes by herself, and these contain the most revealing bits of her character’s steadfast nature.  The film’s most frightening scene comes when Shaw is implanted with an alien embryo (retaining the original film’s theme of unwanted pregnancy) and must perform a Caesarean section on herself in order to remove it.  Suddenly, the horror is real.  The tears are genuine.  The sci-fi landscape crumbles away for a few minutes and we are left in a whitewashed room with only our heroine and an impossible decision.  In this scene and forward, Shaw begins to mirror Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley, the unwavering protagonist of the original film series: fixations on motherhood (Shaw is sterile and later must remove an alien fetus from her own body, Ripley’s daughter died and she must later care for an orphan), relentless pursuit of their respective alien Others (Shaw must gain knowledge, Ripley must destroy them), and a sort of quiet sympathy that radiates from both, despite their apparent two-hundred year gap (though their real-life timestamps are all too evident from their hairstyles).

Finally, H.R. Giger’s art style is well-preserved (the space jockey, the interior of the spaceship and pilot’s seat, the phallic-headed alien).  His name appears in the credits, but I do wonder if he was on set painting everything himself like he was decades ago.  Regardless, the use of his unique style (considered in the seventies to be too horrifying for audiences) is the linchpin for any argument in favor of this film being a true prequel (besides all the chestbursting, of course).

“Prequel” is a term I dislike for reasons created by George Lucas at the turn of the century.  Consider Prometheus, then, part of a grand mythology, one defined mostly in the imagination since it only spans three 120-minute films (I do not acknowledge Alien 3, Alien Resurrection, nor the Alien vs. Predator series), and a look at the other side of the mirror concerning powerful female figures through the sci-fi/horror ages – a rarity for genre fiction.

The Alien DNA is all there, but I promise, connecting stories with your imagination will work and satisfy much better than comparing graphics and storyboards.  It always has.

Prometheus (2012); written by Damon Lindelof; directed by Ridley Scott; starring Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, and Charlize Theron.

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