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In and of itself, the third episode in the rebooted Star Trek franchise is entertaining enough, containing the usual mix of jokes and frenetic action, though after around six hours with these reinvented characters it’s hard to see where this trilogy is actually going, and therefore one wonders whether it will run out of steam sooner rather than later (though it must be said all of the cast members seem to be retaining their enthusiasm). The important crew members of the USS Enterprise are in the same position at the end of Star Trek Beyond as they were beforehand, and although there is a little relationship development here and there in this film, there’s nothing to suggest that any great masterplan is in place. That said, in a world where the majority of franchises seem to be constantly building towards something (something that never seems to arrive, in one or two cases), perhaps there is room for this kind of well-executed exercise in water-treading; the Mission: Impossible series of movies seems to be in good health having done just that for close to 20 years.

In fact, at times Star Trek Beyond plays out like a big budget, extended episode of the original TV series, much in the same way some of the earlier, pre-reboot Star Trek movies have done. Justin Lin – director of four Fast And The Furious films – has taken over from J.J. Abrams, while Doug Jung and Simon Pegg – still playing Scotty with the kind of accent that must make Scottish people weep – have taken on the writing duties. Their story revolves around little more than a desperate to-and-forth battle for a macguffin – alien artefact blah blah bioweapon blah blah blah – and it manages to incorporate giant space stations (you know, the kind with their own ecosystems where you see lots of people strolling around on big, open walkways), a quite devestating (and well-staged) assault on the Enterprise by an alien race led by warlord Krall (Idris Elba giving average bad guy), and an extended rescue mission after most of the ship’s crew are captured during the aftermath.

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Sofia Boutella as Jaylah

Yet it’s what happens in-and-around this meat-and-two-veg plot that provides Star Trek Beyond‘s most notable moments. There are a few vague attempts to make the audience care about the on/off relationship between Zachary Quinto’s Spock and Zoe Saldana’s Uhuru, though in truth the various TV and film incarnations of Star Trek have always been more notable for the bromances, and the wittiest scenes here involve Spock and the permanently catty ‘Bones’ McCoy (Karl Urban, who has consistently been very funny throughout this franchise). There are also a couple of scenes dedicated to the hesitant – though asexual – relationship between Spock and the Enterprise‘s captain, James T. Kirk (Chris Pine, now looking decidedly similar to William Shatner in his 1960’s pomp); like the TV show these great friends have been side-by-side for several years, and yet the characters seem to be unable to talk openly to one another and share their personal feelings. It’s a shame that their screen time together in this film is limited.

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Karl Urban as ‘Bones’ McCoy

There are interesting touches elsewhere. It is revealed after all these years that John Cho’s helmsman Sulu is gay, and that he has a partner and an adopted daughter. The dialogue between Pegg and George Takei – a prominent champion of LGBT rights as well as being the man who played Sulu for a number of years – has been interesting to follow in light of this development. Takei felt it would have been better to create a new, openly gay character; Pegg, meanwhile, thought it was a shame that the franchise had never featured a major LGBT character, but that the film would be accused of tokenism if it brought in an entirely new person who happened to be gay. Personally speaking, I found it a welcome surprise to see this, particularly as big budget sci-fi tends to be quite shy around such matters, although you can sense there’s a bit of hesitation, as if the studio has said ‘you can show it, but you’ve got a maxmimum of 15 seconds’. Just speculation on my part, of course, but you can imagine the money men being wary of the effects that prejudice can have on box office takings, and of the ease with which the sequence can be cut for the film’s release in less-tolerant markets. Not that it should be, of course, and hopefully (a) that hasn’t been the case and (b) will not be in the future. Additionally, there are a couple of subtle and sweet tributes to the late Leonard Nimoy, it’s sad to see Anton Yelchin so soon after his death, and Sofia Boutella is a good addition to the cast as an ass-kicking alien named Jaylah.

Though the desire to work in 20th Century cultural signifiers is a little cringeworthy – The Beastie Boys’ Sabotage, Public Enemy’s Fight The Power, a motorbike – it’s a half-decent, entertaining blockbuster in a year of disappointments. Lin is known as a director of frenetic action with a penchant for busy camerawork, and there’s plenty of that as crew members fight inside and outside the various spaceships; I lost count of the number of scenes that begin with the camera turning from an upside-down position, though due to the film’s heavy reliance on crashing spaceships and controlled gravity some of it is justified. It’s not a style that I’m particularly fond of, all told, but the director seems to be popular, and as cinemagoers like spending time with these characters I dare say most will feel fairly satisfied by this film. No attempts have been made to re-invent (or even improve on) a well-turned wheel but the cast are comfortable in their roles, there are a few laughs and a few thrills, and maybe…just maybe…we’ll actually end up getting somewhere in episode four. Eventually someone – a writer, a director, anyone – has to boldly go etc. etc.

Directed by: Justin Lin.
Written by: Simon Pegg, Doug Jung. Based on Star Trek by Gene Roddenberry.
Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Anton Yelchin, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Idris Elba, Sofia Boutella.
Cinematography: Stephen F. Windon.
Editing: Greg D’Auria, Dylan Highsmith, Kelly Matsumoto, Steven Sprung.
Music:
Michael Giacchino.
Certificate:
12A.
Running Time:
122.
Year:
2016.

 

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Above all else, Paul Verhoeven knows how to make science fiction fun. Total Recall (the original version), Robocop and Starship Troopers are films that deliver on the technology and action front, but the enduring popularity of those films is perhaps just as much due to the occasionally-playful tone that exists in all three. Verhoeven has made films that are as funny as they are thrillingly violent, and it’s a surprise that he has only been in the director’s chair a couple of times in the last 15 years (though that may be a question of numbers: Starship Troopers – the last time he worked on a major blockbuster – did well at the box office, but it didn’t perform greatly when its initial cost of $100 million is factored in).

Verhoeven’s films feel like a guilty pleasure, of sorts: it’s difficult to champion anyone’s career when it includes misogynistic dreck like Basic Instinct or Showgirls, but with regard to sci-fi his movies are far more interesting; they are commercial films that often play on two levels, and while their messages are heavily delivered, they are far more subversive than much of the competing blockbuster fayre of the late 1980s and 1990s. On the surface they appear to be big, brash, bold, noisy and violent action films, and can be enjoyed as such, but behind the veneer they are also harshly critical of our own societies. Robocop may well be seen by many as just a guy in a futuristic robot suit taking on a bunch of drug dealers and rapists, but it’s also a scathing attack on the media in the 1980s, rampant consumerism and the dangers of letting greedy mega-corporations get their hands on institutions that have been traditionally funded by the state. It’s an incredibly savvy film.

Similarly, Starship Troopers works just fine as a tale of rookie soldiers taking on a bunch of aliens in some far-flung corner of the galaxy. But if you want more? (And the fact is you should always, always want more, because right now the studios are as lazy as their audiences, and if you disagree with that I recommend you check your local multiplex this weekend and consider why a barely-amusing and financially successful comedy called The Hangover has now been made into a fucking Hangover trilogy and is playing at several thousand screens worldwide.) Well, Verhoeven is equally interested in lampooning the media as before, but his themes of military propaganda, mis-information, intolerance and the rise of fascism attempt to get the viewer to question why wars start and the dangers of viewing complex situations from only one perspective. Originally released in 1997, it was even more prescient than Robocop with regard to forthcoming real-life events; you will get lots of food for thought watching Starship Troopers again today, after 9/11, the second Iraq war, the UK/US-led invasion of Afghanistan and numerous related terrorist attacks around the globe. It could just as easily be about the US-Vietnam war, despite all the visual clues that suggest its intended concern was with fascism and the Second World War.

And yet it’s hardly an understatement to say that Citizen Kane it ain’t! What I love about Verhoeven’s films is that they are packaged as trash, and Starship Troopers is a perfect example. And I don’t mean to be derogatory with the word ‘trash’. This is great trash. As-enjoyable-as-Tarantino-trash. He’s aiming to put as many bums on seats as he possibly can, and he’s going to make everyone think they’re just watching some grunts fight giant bugs, but that’s categorically not what you’re really watching.

Casper Van Dien’s Square Jaw stars as Johnny Rico, a young student about to finish school in a future Buenos Aires with his girlfriend Carmen Ibanez (Denise Richards), friend Doogie Howser MD (Neil Patrick Harris) and fellow classmate Dizzy Flores (Dina Meyer), who fails to hide her own admiration for Johnny. Their teachers – brilliantly – are Michael Ironside and Rue McLanahan (ex of the Golden Girls, sporting a giant prosthetic forehead), who indoctrinate their pupils with fascistic and militaristic viewpoints not dissimilar to those espoused by the Nazi party. This Buenos Aires is under the rule of a global ‘Federation’, of which citizenship is a privilege earned by military service (citizens are then granted many more opportunities prohibited to everyone else). Citizenship is every brainwashed kid’s dream in this uber-clean, bland and sanitised version of the future, and the four segue into the military as soon as their exams are finished. Ibanez wants to be a pilot, Doogie Howser MD has loftier intelligence aims, and Rico and Flores join the mobile infantry.

Interestingly, Verhoeven stated in 1997 that the first internet news sting included in the film (an advertisement for the mobile infantry) was adapted shot-for-shot from a scene from Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. We are told, through superb propaganda footage (delivered in the film via a version of the internet that looked futuristic in 1997 but is now very, very dated), that Earth is at war with arachnids on the planet Klendathu. These gruesome bugs are attacking Earth by shooting huge plasma bolts at an asteroid field, which in turn sends the giant rocks hurtling through space towards our fair, green planet. A minor detail, but an important one, is the revelation that the human race invaded the bug territory first. Hilariously, the alien species are merely reacting to an attempt by Mormons to set up a colony on Klendathu, and Verhoeven delights in showing footage later on of the decimated colony, bloodied and dismembered corpses strewn all over the floor.

The film progresses through a series of high school and boot camp scenes (hour one of the film) before the bugs send one meteor too many, narrowly missing Ibanez and new love interest Zander (Patrick Muldoon) as they perform training manoeuvres in a large and instantly forgettable spaceship. It smacks straight into – and decimates – Buenos Aires, and kicks off a brutal interplanetary war as a result (and that’s hour two of the film).

When choosing the parts of Rico, his friends and the other soldiers, Verhoeven picked actors that can primarily (and perhaps unfairly) be described as walking sets of gums and enamel. The square-jawed, blue-eyed, blond-haired Van Dien had mainly appeared on TV and in video games, and Starship Troopers was his big break. Richards, throughout the film, has an irritating perma-smile plastered across her mush; while her lights are most certainly on, it’s questionable as to whether anyone is home. They’re joined by Ace (Jake Busey, son of Gary), a character so irritating I was still hoping he’d get eaten by bugs several hours after the film had ended. It’s Beverley Hills 90210 in space.

The casting is vitally important. It gives the movie the air of a badly-acted soap opera, and this bunch of clean-cut, blemish free teens fit perfectly with Verhoeven’s sanitised future, where there’s no litter, no creases in clothing, no week-old stubble and no hint of rock n’ roll or rebellion. Costume Designer Ellen Mirojnick did a terrific job with the plain, well pressed outfits, so that even those who aren’t in uniform are in uniform. To get on in this supposed Utopia you clearly can’t be overweight, underweight, anti-establishment, or fond of a piercing or two (though interestingly Verhoeven’s film is keen to show that both sexes and all races are on an equal footing). Almost all adults in this militaristic society, however, have physical defects of some form or other, presumably from being involved in previous battles.

By the time this gang of Hollywood beauties face the legions of vile, ugly, orange-and-green-goo-spewing bugs, you find that it’s not all that easy to root for the humans, as you would normally expect to. Rico is so serious and humourless it’s a surprise his buttocks don’t squeak as he walks. Ibanez, the film’s other lead, is disloyal to him (something that sent the test audiences into squawks of displeasure). And yet Starship Troopers‘ masterstroke is that it doesn’t matter whether you care about these characters or not by the time they meet the bugs: Verhoeven deliberately tries to make his audience bloodthirsty by using several dismal actors who had the misfortune to be way better looking than you and I (especially I). He takes ’em light years away from home just so he can terrorize them and maybe, just maybe, treat us to their horrible, painful deaths. And if there’s any justice we’ll cheer at the demise of this human army of creaseless automatons. How’s that for a mirror being held up to society?

The boot camp and school scenes are packed with one cliche after another, to the point where it must surely be a deliberate ploy by the director: Starship Troopers is a satire of teen romance films and a satire of war films. There’s a kind of indoor American Football game against a rival high school, a typical prom night, a classic maniac drill instructor who breaks cadet’s arms and throws knives into their hands before shouting “MEDIC!”, and clumsy scenes inside the boot camp mess halls. (Really, the acting is so bad here it’s untrue. Jake Busey is particularly bad, but to be fair to him he learned to play violin for his role. That’s method.) In Flores there’s even the great girl who is in love with the leading guy, but is ignored while the leading guy focuses his attention on the other girl … the one that will break his heart. The cliches keep coming throughout the film – the cowardly general who meets a violent death, the injured soldier that stays behind with a grenade (a nuke in this case) to take out the advancing enemy, the Zulu-style siege … the list is long. Hilariously long.

While Van Dien’s name might be at the top of the bill, the real stars of Starship Troopers are the bugs, designed by Phil Tippett*, who eventually went on to direct the dismal straight-to-DVD sequel. (The CGI for Starship Troopers was state-of-the-art upon release, but understandably looks dated now. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the arachnids, which still look terrific today, but the space sequences look a little tired and have not aged well. And while I’m on the subject, the set design is pretty terrible in a lot of the scenes that take place in space. The spaceship walls look cheap and plastic, and monitors unimaginatively flash up phrases like “ABORT!”) Verhoeven teases the audience by showing one of the arachnids in the opening sequence, and then withholds them for the best part of an hour. When Rico and co finally land on Klendathu they come face to face with a lot of bugs; a fantastic range of fire-breathing, plasma-shooting, body-dismembering and brain-sucking alien creatures. The film’s battle scenes are deliriously enjoyable; as stated above there is something hugely entertaining about seeing these tanned beauties as they get violently slaughtered by the bug army, and it’s all the more amusing to read that the director himself stood in front of the actors and screamed in their faces so that they would look scared enough.

Only Michael Ironside appears to know just exactly what kind of movie he’s appearing in. A veteran of well-loved 80s trashy sci-fi, he gets to deliver the film’s best line – “They sucked his brains out!” – with his tongue firmly in cheek. It feels like the majority of the the younger cast members – aside from the likeable Dina Meyer – are the unwitting victims in some kind of cruel, elaborate stitch up. The way the characters’ paths improbably keep crossing is completely ludicrous. The comic lampooning of news items, adverts and talk show clips had been done before, by Verhoeven himself. There’s so much wrong with Starship Troopers that the most surprising thing is that it all works and feels so damned right.

The re-imagined Nazi stylings work well, whether it’s the constant and often-witty propaganda segments that pop up throughout (the best being the gang of children stomping manically on some unrelated Earth insects to show solidarity) or the use of imagery (giant eagles, Gestapo trenchcoats). Yes, the action is violent, but it’s also frenetic and exciting, and whichever way you watch the film – as a satire and commentary on war and society or as an out-and-out sci-fi action flick – it is great, great fun. Verhoeven famously stated in the DVD director’s commentary that he began reading Robert A. Heinlein’s original book, which is apparently vastly different in tone and message, but got bored and gave up. Heinlein wrote for kids, and more importantly he wrote seriously. Verhoeven and screenwriter Ed Neumeier adapted the material to make a biting satire disguised as camp, gory trash that was misunderstood by a lot of critics upon its initial release. Their loss; this is every bit the equal of Robocop.

The Basics:

Directed by: Paul Verhoeven
Written by: Ed Neumeier, original book by Robert A. Heinlein
Starring: Casper Van Dien, Denise Richards, Dina Meyer, Neil Patrick Harris, Michael Ironside, Jake Busey
Certificate: 15
Running Time: 129 Minutes
Year: 1997
Rating: 
8.7

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My dad was always a fan. I wouldn’t necessarily call him a Trekkie, but he was a fan nonetheless. If Star Trek repeats or any of the later spin-offs were on TV – usually around 6 or 7pm on BBC2 on a weekday – I’d often find him sitting through an episode before dinner. But me? I’d watch if I had nothing better to do, but I have to be honest: despite lapping up nearly every other sci-fi TV show or film myself, Star Trek always left me a little cold. I’ve never hated it, but equally I’ve never loved it. The Shatner / Nimoy films? Nah, it’s OK thanks, I’d much rather watch The Empire Strikes Back again instead.

Yet I am one of the many thousands that has found much to enjoy about JJ Abrams’ successful re-booting of the franchise as a going cinematic concern. Long-time fans may well recoil in disgust at certain sacrilegious elements, but I’ve enjoyed the fresh life that has been breathed into these old characters. Despite my natural cynicism, 2009’s Star Trek was a hugely-entertaining affair, with sharp dialogue, great visual effects, charismatic performances and an injection of post-MTV sex n’ swagger; normally word of the latter would get me running for the hills, but to give the new series wider appeal Star Trek needed to be brought up-to-date, and it worked. Central to the movie’s appeal was the interplay / bromance between Chris Pine’s James T. Kirk and Zachary Quinto’s Mr. Spock, and Abrams has relied on this – and the other elements mentioned above – so that the formula works once again with Star Trek – Into Darkness.

The film begins with a standalone prologue (formulaic, formulaic and thrice formulaic – can someone actually produce a blockbuster that doesn’t do this, please?) that had me rather fearful, given that it partly resembled an old Star Trek episode, albeit with better visual effects (the alien savages, though, are truly terrible and I feared the worst). But the spirit of the 2009 film is soon re-captured with admonishments for the brattish-but-brilliant Kirk delivered by his superiors and several early clashes as a result of Spock’s overly-logical thought processes and predilection for sticking to the rules. The opening 20-30 minutes is set largely in future versions of San Francisco and London, and both cities look fantastic, not-so-subtly showing some famous features in the background to tie them into the present. We are introduced to rogue Starfleet agent John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch, pronouncing every single syllable intently so that we are left in no doubt that he is a) an AC-tor and b) an AC-tor that is playing a villain).

Harrison engineers the blowing up of a hidden defense archive centre in London that is gathering data on the Klingon empire, and then subsequently attacks Starfleet headquarters before fleeing to the Klingon homeworld of Kronos. Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller*) orders Kirk and Co to track Harrison down, and they set off in search of their new enemy, only to find out things aren’t quite a simple as they appear to be. Naturally. (It’s nice to see Peter Weller back in a reasonably meaty role, especially given that he has one of the most piercing glares known to man and the role requires him to glare, glare and glare some more. In fact, thanks to Peter Weller’s glares I finally ‘get’ the fuss behind 3D. A Peter Weller glare in 3D is quite something, and could probably reach into your very soul on a good day. Take my word for it.)

Into Darkness delivers on its fairly impressive first and second acts, and despite a couple of largely forgettable segments when you see the Enterprise in peril yet again (cue extras stumbling from one side of the frame to another, at an angle, for the umpteenth time) the tension is maintained and at least three of the film’s set pieces are pretty exciting. The main problem, though, is that the idea of a Klingon threat to mankind is initially built up but when the USS Enterprise finally gets to Kronos the Klingons serve merely as incidental cannon fodder. Presumably the species is being held back for a third, and possibly final, film. Ultimately this desire to set the scene for a follow up makes you feel a little short-changed, though it’s certainly free from the kind of misjudgements that plagued Iron Man 2.

After a brief fight Harrison gives himself up, and shortly thereafter – following a couple of plot twists you will probably have read about or will see coming – his threatening, super-strong and super-smart villain loses some of his menace. This bad guy seems more like a minor problem after he teams up – albeit briefly – with Kirk and the Enterprise. Still, for a while, Cumberbatch shines as the calm, grudge-holding nemesis, filled with contempt for his captors while he stays one step ahead of them.

The best moments involve Kirk and Spock. I enjoyed both Pine’s and Quinto’s performances here every bit as much as in the predecessor, and to top it all Pine is even starting to resemble William Shatner (ever-so-slightly, I hasten to add, and thankfully not the T.J. Hooker years). Quinto’s poker-face never drops when Spock is on the receiving end of Pine’s comically-exasperated tirades, and he also has a few amusing (and touching) scenes with Uhura (Zoe Saldana) as he fights to keep his ‘other’ relationship on an even keel. The crew is fleshed out with lighthearted turns involving old favourites like Scotty (Simon Pegg, doing for the Scottish accent exactly what Dick van Dyke did for the English), Chekov (Anton Yelchin, doing the same for the Russian accent, which is even more impressive considering that he’s actually Russian) and the magnificently cynical, grumpy ‘Bones’ McCoy (Karl Urban, once again making the most of his screen time).

One of Abrams’ big successes is that he has given the supporting cast things to do in both films that just about feel necessary within the framework of the story. Alice Eve joins the fold as science officer Dr. Carol Marcus, but her addition seems a little superfluous. There’s enough comic action between the Enterprise’s two big guns alone, but the rest of the crew chip in regularly with amusing lines, withering put-downs and generally manic overacting as they dart around attempting to fix warp drives and drive warps. Echoes of the overly-earnest TV series are there in terms of the look and feel of the Enterprise, and certainly with regard to the costumes, but in tone this new incarnation is far lighter and all the more inclusive and enjoyable for it.

But – rightly – we’re left in no doubt that it’s the Spock and Kirk show, and both are given their big set-piece moments: the former involved in a thrilling fist fight in the sky above San Francisco and the latter in an implausible but nail-biting scene where he is shot across space from one ship to another, negotiating debris and a failing space-suit as he aims for a small opening hatch. These moments are the high points of Into Darkness, though the battles involving the Enterprise itself – an exploration vessel rather than an out-and-out warship – are infuriatingly short as always; this universe always seems to be lacking in space dog-fights. Into Darkness includes those ever-panicky cries to get the shields up as the crew gets its arse kicked from one galaxy to the next, but you never truly feel as though one of this tight-knit bunch might actually die or that the ship might actually be blown into a million tiny pieces. A bolder line in the third film, perhaps with the death of a major character, would be a welcome surprise. Especially if they stay dead.

That said, Abrams has delivered the kind of wit and thrills I’m after in a Friday night blockbuster, and he has re-modelled this sci-fi institution well, acknowledging its past but refusing to be a slave to it (and that certainly bodes well for another project he has on the side). Despite the foreboding and slightly misleading title Into Darkness is light and fun, like its predecessor, and does not pretend or try to be anything other than a loud, exciting space adventure. If that’s what you’re after it shouldn’t disappoint. I left suitably entertained.

The Basics:

Directed by: JJ Abrams
Written by: Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof
Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Benedict Cumberbatch, Zoe Saldana, Peter Weller, Karl Urban
Certificate: 12A
Running Time: 132 Minutes
Year: 2013
Rating: 
7.1

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