The Hobbit: The Battle of the Three Films

When it was first announced, there was a strong sense that the adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic children’s novel into three films rather than two was for the sake of increased ticket sales. However the decision was made though, the decision has long since been made, and third and final chapter of The HobbitThe Battle of the Five Armies has now been released.

Depends on your definition of "defining".
Depends on your definition of “defining”.

And regardless of why it came about, it is not a bad film. It’s well made, the battle itself is often spectacular, and it highlights just how far CGI has come since Gollum ushered in a new era. That said, as the third part of the trilogy, it did seem a bit out-of-place. The main problem being that it just doesn’t feel like the third part in a trilogy.

With the dwarves completing their quest and taking back the Lonely Mountain, The Desolation of Smaug seemed to end mostly on a substantial ending. In addition to this, Gandalf’s cliffhanger and the added on Sauron subplot are resolved far too quickly at the beginning of Five Armies, that they may as well have just been wrapped up by the end of Smaug instead. In fact this cliffhanger seems to only serve the purpose of bringing people back to watch the third film.

As much as the main events of Five Armies are a part of the original novel, the way they have been presented in the film makes it feel as though it is an entirely new entity, and one which has been hijacked to bridge the gap between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. There certainly is logic to this, and it does justify the executive decision to produce three films from the single novel source material (even over the increased ticket sales argument), but the trouble is that there just isn’t enough to fill a complete film. Especially one that tries to fit in with, and will inevitably be compared to, its epic predecessors.

Because of this, many of the links between Hobbit and Rings just seem arbitrary. Unlike Dath Vader joining Grand Moff Tarkin’s side at the end of Revenge of the Sith, Thranduil’s parting words to Legolas don’t so much tie the last entry in one trilogy to the first in the next, as potentially change the entire character relationship between the two: is Legolas now Aragorn’s stalker and/or guardian angel rather than brother in arms?

A younger immortal elf. Ten years later.
A younger immortal elf. Ten years later.

That said, some of the links were nicely crafted. It’s fair to say the addition of Legolas is the biggest manufactured link of all, and generally he is well used in both of the Hobbit films in which he appears. His presence has been made to gel nicely with the other elves and their interaction with the dwarves, and his jealousy towards Tauriel and Kili even adds an extra layer to his relationship with Gimli in the later films.

But more than just these connections, the film includes the expansion and addition of new characters, such as Alfrid. Where a single counselor to the Master of Lake-Town was referred to in the book, this subplot was not only taken too far but also given an unsatisfactory conclusion. Again it is easy to see the reason for this being included, at times Five Armies can be both dark and emotional, and comic relief is often needed to alleviate some of the tension; as highly respected storyteller Joss Whedon explains, “make it dark, make it grim, make it tough, but then, for the love of God, tell a joke.” This was done well in Rings with the aforementioned rivalry between Legolas and Gimli, but for all his tales of epic heroes and bravery, is the most cowardly person escaping with all the gold he could carry a message Tolkien ever wanted to get across?

And the reason these just feel like padding is that in a similar fashion to war films such as Black Hawk Down, the single battle is pretty much the only narrative of the whole film; something which in this context just doesn’t seem to work. The film may have shown the burning of Lake-Town, but a climactic battle such as the one shown here is an event which needs to be lead up to properly. Despite it being the culmination of two previous films, this anticipation is something that gets lost in the 12 month wait between theatrical releases.

I’m aware this may be painting the film in a negative light, but when watching it I couldn’t help but notice that these things took me out of Middle Earth and back to the cinema I was watching it in. And once this started happening, it didn’t stop.

One of the biggest problems overall was one of those small things which, for me, also caught my attention within the first two films. Whilst I admit it comes from a limited perspective in terms of worldwide distribution, the amount of British television actors used in the cast can at times be distracting. Not that I am begrudging them their talents and achievements, it’s just that it seems as though they have been specifically chosen to stand out in their roles, and therefore somewhat annoyingly, stand out.

Ok, so it is an unusual hat.
Ok, so it is an unusual hat.

Take the dwarves for example: in An Unexpected Journey we are introduced to them as they come knocking on Bilbo’s door in ever-increasing amounts. There’s a dwarf, another dwarf, and then another. Complete with bushy beards, big hair, large frames, and personalities to match, next comes two dwarves, three dwarves, and then there’s James Nesbitt in a hat. It’s almost as if he arrived in the Shire on one of his Thomas Cook package holidays.

Yes, The Lord of the Rings had its share with the likes of Sean Bean and Bernard Hill, but at no point do we expect Boromir to tell the council of Elrond to “be more dog” when dealing with ring of power. Billy Connelly’s voice alone on the other hand, whilst perfect for Pixar’s Brave, coming from the mouth of a rough and ready dwarf is too close to his own flamboyant Glaswegian stand up persona to be taken seriously.

The Battle of the Five Armies is in a many ways a fine example of film making, but for all of its accomplishments it falls at the first hurdle. What use are great acting, meticulous production design, and state of the art special effects if the story they are serving isn’t up to scratch.

J.R.R. Tolkien didn’t just write novels, he crafted an entire world and populated it with different races, histories, mythologies, and even complete languages. I can’t say how much of it was by design and how much was interference from New Line Cinema and Warner Bros., but in their attempts to do Tolkien’s novel and his world justice, Peter Jackson and co. just didn’t have enough focus on crafting the story.

And isn’t that the whole point of a film in the first place?

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Review: Much Ado About Nothing

Much Ado About Nothing
Much Ado About Nothing epitomises the Indie film.

Before I start discussing this film, I feel I should reiterate something that is perhaps often overlooked; Much Ado About Nothing is a black and white adaptation of a William Shakespeare play, directed by Joss Whedon.

As much as these two names are often revered and celebrated for their timeless stories and witty dialogue, and for many they will be the sole reasons for wanting to see this film, when it comes down to it, it is fair to say that the audiences for their specific texts (like those of other black and white films) can be made up more of cult followers than mainstream viewers. As such, Much Ado About Nothing won’t be of interest to everyone, and it is highly understandable why it initially went for the festival circuit rather than riding the tail of Avengers popularity with a wide release.

That said however, for those who are interested in either Wheden or Shakespeare, Much Ado is the perfect combination, and is a great place to start for anyone who wants to give more niche films at try. Those with haunting memories of studying Shakespeare at school should remember that he wrote plays to be performed by actors and not novels to be read out monotone in the classroom, which is generally where most people’s dislike comes from. On the screen these characters are more than understandable, they truly come to life, and in a way which successfully manages to merge the traditional text with a contemporary setting.

Although it can take a few minutes to acclimatise to the 400 year old dialogue, the characterisation of each performance allows the message and feeling to come across, even if individual words can get lost in translation.

Despite not having written the original script himself (although he did adapt it to the film’s abridged version), Whedon has no difficulty in directing his actors reciting the Shakespearean dialogue due to the simple fact that the two wordsmiths are so compatible. Throughout their careers both have been noted for creating characters who are witty, sarcastic, eloquent, and above all, perfectly rounded. Ye olde language aside, I don’t think there could ever be another writer more suited to being adapted and directed by Joss Whedon.

Unlike other Shakespere adaptations which clash the historical text with contemporary Hawaiian shirts, Whedon has instead opted to dress his characters in more timeless attire; the men soon forget about the wars they have just been fighting and wear classic suits for example, and the women don simple but elegant dresses. In fact almost all the visual clues, from the monochrome finish to the architecture and decoration of Whedon’s own home in which it was filmed, lend a timeless appearance to the film in which the the text itself seems perfectly placed, but which renders the sight of modern technological gadgets far from intrusive.

Beatrice is played by Angel and Dollhouse's Amy Acker.
Beatrice is played by Angel and Dollhouse’s Amy Acker.

Obviously fans of Whedon’s previous work will smile at the appearance of familiar faces, but it is clear that each has been chosen specifically for their individual roles. None of the leads are so familiar they cause a distraction, and the unique style of the film allows even Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker’s portrayals of Benedick and Beatrice to be so far removed from their previous pairing of Angel‘s Wesley and Fred, that you never make such a comparison whilst captivated in their world. Likewise his performance as Claudio proves that Fran Kranz is more than just the comedy of Topher and Marty he excels at in Dollhouse and The Cabin In The Woods respectively, and the lesser seen Reed Diamond does indeed shine when given the spotlight as Don Pedro. Whilst the bulk of the cast may be certified Whedon alumni however, there is still adequate room for newer faces such as Spencer Treat Clark (Gladiator, Unbreakable) who fit right in and gel with the rest of them.

Perhaps the only recognisable performances come in the guise of Nathan Fillion and Tom Lenk, who here have both been in cast in roles they have played before. While Fillion manages to even out-hammer Captain Hammer as the obtrusive Dogsberry, cast opposite the quiet and unassuming Lenk’s Verges, the pairing of the two as the traditional Shakespeare comedy duo is a welcome treat which make us laugh, but have cleverly been given just enough screen time to make sure they don’t outstay their welcome and become too much of a destraction.

Nathan Fillion and Tom Lenk will be familiar to anyone who has seen their other Whedon appearances.
Fillion and Lenk will be familiar to anyone who has seen their other Whedon appearances.

Despite this lovable double act, and spot on slapstick that is occasionally seen throughout, the film’s label of “comedy” sticks mainly to it’s Shakespearean polar definition of ‘has a happy ending’ (in contrast to his tragedies which ‘have an unhappy ending’) and again may not live up to mainstream expectations of ‘makes you laugh the whole way through’. But where the film may not get you roaring with laughter however, it will undoubtedly have you ensnared in it’s charm.

As it’s setting no doubt indicates, Much Ado is an intimate film giving us an important snapshot of the lives of a select few. Whole characters have been left out during Whedon’s abridging of the script, and as such the limited screen time is concentrated more on those that remain, allowing the two couplings of Beatrice & Benedick, and Claudio & Hero to both have their moments, although the reasoning behind Sean Maher’s Don John getting between them is perhaps somewhat unclear. Either that or I was just too distracted when he was possibly explaining his motive (let’s just say he had his hands full at the time).

All in all Much Ado About Nothing is a refreshing welcome not just from CGI laden Hollywood blockbusters, but also from Whedon’s own sci-fi/fantasy back catalogue. Whilst metaphor is something he obviously does well, stripping away that extra layer leaves these characters bare for all to see as we are shown their love, heart break, and inner most thoughts. Perhaps the only negative to this film is that it has raised the bar too high, and introduced a new audience to Shakespeare who will not be able to find another adaptation to match, as the result of Whedon’s work is a subtle film which makes sure that anyone who finds the idea of it appealing, won’t be disappointed.

The Incredible Hulk Assembled

Since his first comic was released in May 1962, The Incredible Hulk is one of the most iconic characters to have come from the imagination of veteran comic writer Stan Lee. From his initial comic fame came a successful TV series throughout the 70s and 80s, and he has appeared in three of Marvel’s recent wave of films, the first of which came out ten years ago in 2003.

Of these three, two are stand alone films for the character, and only two officially take place in the canon of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. Each of the three films has different stars, directors, and styles, but they also relate to each other in the form of a varied beginning, middle, and end of the same story. Much like Bruce Banner himself, the films are each different, but inseparable from their alter egos, as a detailed look will reveal.

hulk-poster
‘Hulk’ was the beginning of Marvel Studio’s fifth comic book adaptation franchise, after Blade, X-Men, Spider-Man and Daredevil.

First up was the film simply titled Hulk. No ‘Incredible’, and not even a ‘The’, Hulk was directed by Ang Lee, someone noted for character driven films which explore certain themes and ideas, The Ice Storm being a prime example, and so bringing a big green monster to the screen was something of a surprise add to his resume. The result however was a film which combines the nods to classical literature of the likes of not just Dr. Jekyll but also Beauty and the Beast, with comic book action that could only have come from the director of both Sense and Sensibility and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. Whilst keeping the themes and inspirations intact, the film does play with the original comic’s story somewhat, particularly in terms of Bruce Banner’s transformation.

Although still getting his gamma infusion by sacrificing himself in front of an invention of his own making, this time his dose of gamma radiation comes from a medical experiment designed to heal wounded tissue. Something which is also combined with genetic mutations passed on from experiments that his father David (a nod to the TV series), tried on himself. The film does include a desert explosion with tenuous links however, again caused by his father, and which occurs as a young Bruce witnesses his mothers accidental death by his father’s hands, when she falls in front of the knife aimed at her son. Thus the psychological trauma of Bruce Banner is born.

While it may have changed the story of the comics a little too much (although you can see why they didn’t risk a hero who builds nuclear bombs just two years after 9/11) this first big screen adaptation unfortunately goes the other way in terms of the medium itself. Lee’s choice of split screen editing is an interesting addition which certainly has its moments that shine, but like the use of slow motion in The Matrix sequels, becomes overused far too quickly. In addition, the fight between Hulk and a mutated poodle, as well as with his father’s own rather curious transformation are perhaps something that should have been left between the pages of an actual comic book.

Over the top they may be, but it has to be said that for a ten-year old film, the CGI is still able to stand on its own feet, and in fact the only thing that risks dating it is the youthful Eric Bana in his first starring Hollywood role.

This is not the only instance of an actor standing out however, as they, along with their characters, are its success. Bana brings out both the vulnerable and enraged sides of Bruce Banner with ease, and Jennifer Connelly unsurprisingly brings a great performance to the role of Betty Ross, having come straight from her applauded roles in Requiem for a Dream and her Oscar-winning performance from A Beautiful Mind. Receiving mixed reviews from critics, it is a film in which its failures come only from trying to hard.

'The Incredible Hulk' bridged the gap between 'Hulk' and 'Avengers'
‘The Incredible Hulk’ bridged the gap between ‘Hulk’ and ‘Avengers’

Hulk’s pseudo-follow up on the other hand, 2008’s The Incredible Hulk, is something of an anomaly. Looking back on it now, it seems to try to do a little bit of everything, and doesn’t really achieve as much as it could. Much like Marvel’s Punisher: War Zone released in the same year, it retcons the origin story of its predecessor whilst simultaneously continuing its story; Banner has escaped the US military and is on the run in South America. Still on the hunt is General ‘Thunderbolt’ Ross, who the film tells us has been chasing Banner for five years, the same time frame between Hulk and Incredible‘s cinematic release. Even Lou Ferrigno cameos once again as a security guard, and also gets to deliver Hulk’s only line, the cheer worthy  “Hulk Smash!”

On the reverse of this however, the film also strives to make new ground, Betty’s scream of calling General Ross “Dad” being a prime example as it seems almost as though it’s meant to be a revelation, but no new ground is really ever made. In addition to this, Banner’s background as a brilliant scientist is hardly mentioned, and where the audience doesn’t have prior knowledge for the film to fall back on, it would seem he is merely a military pawn that just happens to be good with machinery. 

In terms of the retcon, Banner’s transformations now come courtesy of a decades old super soldier serum, a nod to Captain America for those in the know, but for those who aren’t it may seem a possibly unneeded change that still keeps the lab experiment at the expense of the characters established origins. In addition, the fact that the military never told Banner what it was exactly just adds even more to his scapegoat like status. 

While Tim Roth may be a great choice to play the newly introduced Emil Blonsky, his desire for, and transformation caused by the Hulk’s power is merely a better realised version of Banner Snr’s story. The fact that he is a power hungry soldier also only adds to the Hollywood cliche, and is a perfect example of the film as a whole, there just doesn’t seem to be enough originality on offer. 

Unfortunately, the films pitfalls don’t end here either.The attempted humour just feels too forced throughout (“You wouldn’t like me when I’m hungry”?), and the cast don’t really live up to their predecessors, although it has to be said that they did leave the bar rather high. The core trio of Edward Norton, Liv Tyler and William Hurt are all fine actors in their own right, but the script (which Norton also had a hand in) just doesn’t seem to let them flex enough of their acting muscles. Unlike Sam Elliot’s, Hurt’s General Ross in particular hardly seems like the type to earn the nickname ‘Thunderbolt’. 

That said, The Increible Hulk is not a bad film altogether, it just doesn’t have much to work with. What it does have however, it uses to it’s best, and the Hulk Vs Abomination showdown is something to behold. It may not have the joy of destroying US military hardware via a gold medal hammer throw, but with the flailingly gruesome deaths handed out to soldiers and civilians alike, it’s fair to say that The Incredible Hulk was aiming at a tone more dark than entertaining. Something which it also makes the most of; the first ‘appearance’ of Hulk amongst the industrial bottle plant’s shadows does bring out the the best of an Alien influenced ‘less is more’ atmosphere.

All in all it seems that the films main function is merely to act as a bridge, essentially nothing more than preparing Hulk‘s audience for the eventual release of (The) Avengers (Assemble) some four years later; it is the simple narrative purpose of Banner getting on the right side of the military (alongside an obligatory Downey jr cameo), in the guise of a cinematic blockbuster. 

(The) Avengers (Assemble) sees Banner matched intellectually with Tony Stark
By being teamed up with Stark, Banner’s intellect is given a lot more precedence in (The) Avengers (Assemble).

As a film that combines elements of four other Marvel movies, it’s unsurprising that Avengers combines elements of both previous Hulk films. As a character with a more rocky filmic history though, it is not unsurprising that only elements important to Banner’s own story are incorporated. While Iron Man, Captain America and Thor may have brought the plethora of supporting cast with them, and even the tessaract central to villain Loki’s plan, not even Betty Ross gets the courtesy mention afforded to Thor‘s Jane Foster, complete with Natalie Portman screenshot.

As such it has to be said that even having been written and directed by Joss Whedon, whose previous film Serenity is a masterclass in exposition designed for both new and old audiences alike, any Hulk fan who hasn’t seen the others won’t exactly be confused throughout preceedings, but may be a little behind those who have.

The first of the main four superheroes to be introduced, Banner’s story picks up where Hulk left off, rather than Incredible, which I’m afraid to say does make it perhaps a little superfluous. Again a brilliant scientist, who this time round is even comparable to Steven Hawking, he is acting as Doctor to those in need when hiding (as Bana is seen doing at the end of Hulk), rather than bottling plant handy man who can build himself a chemistry set. As mentioned previously however, Avengers does continue the super serum origin story, and acknowledges the events of Incredible when Banner states that he “broke Harlem.”

This time he is played by Mark Ruffalo, who was not only the original choice for Incredible, but who is also the first actor to portray the Hulk as well as his alter ego. Alongside a different actor, we also see a different side of the character; this time a Banner who is more paranoid, pointlessly turning away from a S.H.I.E.L.D. logo whilst in the middle of a command centre, and also has a more unique relationship with the Hulk, referring to him throughout as “the other guy”,  even to the point of correcting himself when mentioning him by name. Added to this is his secret at controlling his changes. An idea that Whedon has since hinted at coming from his own experiences in Hollywood, Banner here is “always angry”, in comparison to Norton’s calming breathing techniques.

As an ensemble piece we also get to see a variety of different reactions from the various characters. In the absence of Betty Ross, Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow is at first wary of contacting “the big guy”, but brings a sense of pity as well as fear when trying to calm him. Perhaps the best though, outspoken as ever, is Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark. Not only is he a great match for Banner intellectually, but openly admits being a fan of both his “work on anti-electron collisions” as well as his ability to “turn into an enormous green rage monster”, which he considers to be Banner’s suiting up. Something Banner refutes however, clarifying that rather than having a suit, as the Hulk he is instead completely exposed.

'The Incredible Hulk' also set up another possible sequel with the origin of comic villain The Leader.
‘The Incredible Hulk’ also set up another possible sequel with the origin of comic villain The Leader.

Although not strictly an end to the Hulk story with The Avengers 2 is already in development and another stand alone film not completely out of the question, this appearance does bring a sense of conclusion to the character. Having fought the Hulk for so long, Banner is now more at peace with his alter-ego (even if he does have to always be angry to achieve it), and by fighting alongside the Avengers to save the earth, he has gained a sense of acceptance that was previously missing.

So what are the connotations of three different actors? For a start, it is not as though Marvel films, even those considered canon to the Cinematic Universe, don’t have a perfect continuity record, with both Terrence Howard and Don Cheadle appearing as Captain Rhodes in the Iron Man films. With recent discussions about the logic behind how (un)generous the wages can be, it’s also entirely possible more changes may also take place in the future.

As I’ve mentioned, we also witness three different sides to the character of Bruce Banner. Whilst film making is obviously a collaborative effort, especially when different films come from different writers and directors, throughout all the Hulk has been through I feel that I have to make a mention to Zak Penn, perhaps the only person to have been involved in the writing of all three films.

While it would be unfair to blame him personally for the differences of the three films, his screenwriting history, especially with Marvel, is an interesting one. Credited as writing the story for both X2 and Avengers, arguably two of Marvels best efforts, he is also credited as writing (presumably the screenplay as well) Elektra and X-Men: The Last Stand, arguably not Marvel’s best efforts by any means.

Actors, directors, and writers may change, and details may not be consistent throughout the three appearances of Bruce Banner and the Hulk, but we do get an over arching, if fractured, story which serves a great modern character. Overall, a great example of the many Marvel films that have been released recently, and why they are so popular.

Whether they be a stand alone, sequel, or part of a franchise, Marvel Studios utilise well respected actors and terrific special effects, but these alone do not make successful films. Marvel films shine in exactly the same way its comics do, by telling enthralling stories about daring characters that have been thrilling audiences for generations.

Review: ‘Star Trek – Into Darkness’ (spoilers optional)

So, I’ve just got back from the cinema having seen Star Trek Into Darkness. A film I have been waiting a long time to see, a time which seemed to have been made even longer from all the trailers, posters, and clips floating around on the internet. Not to mention a text from a close friend who thought I’d be interested to know about her attending the premiere.

I guess I can forgive her now that I’ve finally seen it myself, but knowing how to describe it, especially without giving away any spoilers, that’s the tricky part….

Blockbusters just can't help themselves can they.
Blockbusters just can’t help themselves can they.

Firstly, the film does have all the hallmarks of a summer blockbuster, and I have no doubt it will go on to do well at the box office. It has action, explosions, spaceships, even the obligatory scantily clad blonde, although it has to be said we do get to see her intellect as well (I think). Whilst not necessarily a bad thing, the film is also perhaps the single biggest argument for audience reception theory there is, as Trekkies, Newbies, and everyone else in between will have entirely different reactions to what they see on screen.

I chose to see it in 2D, and have to say it’s a gloriously looking film. The flyover of 23rd century metropolitan London is so much something to behold that it’s a scary realisation of what our historic capital could actually look like 200 years from now. The Enterprise is also given some amazing set pieces, and I truly hope that the 3D conversion is done properly, and does them justice.

The actors are also praise worthy, and along with the script each continues to bring these characters loved by generations into the 21st century. Zachary Quinto brings us a more rounded character, particularly as this film again toys with the conflict between Spock’s human and vulcan half, even if his sarcasm may at times be more pointy than his ears. This is compensated somewhat by Karl Urban toning down his DeForrest Kelly possession however, and giving a more natural rather than impressionistic performance.

Despite this however, there are a small number of instances where the film is let down by common sense, at least for established Trek, and has to make way for artistic license. There and back in a day does seem to be pushing it even for warp (let alone the beaming), but having actually thought about Chekov’s red shirt a little more (it was in a trailer, therefore not really a spoiler), it isn’t as out of place in Star Trek common sense as you might think. 

Continuing director J.J. Abrams’ new vision to the screen, Into Darkness has Star Trek running through it like the stick of proverbial rock. So much so in fact, that it makes you wonder how many of those references were included just to show off either the writers own knowledge/research, or how eager they were to make sure they pleased hardcore fans. Let’s just say it’s a long road getting from there, to the Admiral’s desk.

[Like I said, it’s tricky, but I’m still trying my best. If anything is getting too spoilery for you though, now’s the time to press that little x in the corner.]

'Into Darkness' continues the logic vs instinct of Spock and Kirk's central relationship.
‘Into Darkness’ continues the logic vs instinct argument central to Spock and Kirk’s relationship.

This is much like the film as a whole, in that rather than seek out new life and new civilisations in a new timeline, Into Darkness does choose to use more than just references to what has come before. Revenge is hardly a new concept to cinematic Star Trek (see The Wrath of Khan, First Contact, Nemesis, and even Star Trek)let alone the whole of the franchise. My review of it’s predecessor tried to list the ways in which it adapted the series it was spun from, but for it’s sequel it seems I should add “Mirror” to that list.

Where Star Trek took the series and gave it a twist, Into Darkness carries this round to a full 180 degrees. Many aspects of Trek are turned on their head, each with varying degrees of success. I have to admit at one point the sight of a Tribble made me facepalm that Picard himself would be proud of, but on the whole, even the sharpest of turns is perhaps only comparable to reading Shakespeare; an academic exercise that conveys interesting and debatable ideas, but doesn’t hit the mark that was intended. Just as Shakespeare wrote plays to be seen performed not read from a page, so too here are several ideas that perhaps may have worked better in speculative transmedia prose than a canonical feature film.

I also have to point out that this review is coming from the mind of an unashamed Trekkie (hence receiving the boasting premiere text), and like I said, everyone will have different opinions. Overall though I would say that it is definitely a film worth seeing, and does have something for everyone. With it’s fiftieth anniversary only three years away or not, I’m sure that there will be another outing for the crew of the Enterprise, but this time I’m be mulling over the most recent release for a bit more time before eagerly awaiting the next.

[Ok, I’m gonna give this a try, for anyone who has already seen it, or just doesn’t care, highlight the rest of this post, to reveal the spoilers in white text.]

So, it seems all those rumours were true after all, Benedict Cumberbatch IS Khan. For those who don’t know, not only was original Spock right, in that he was the meanest, baddest and brightest of the Enterprise’s adversaries, but his place in Star Trek history was assured by the flawless performance of the late Ricardo Montalban, and you can be sure there will be those sending hate mail simply at the idea of his recasting. 

Personally, I have to admit that I too am annoyed that John Harrison’s true identity wasn’t someone else, but for different reasons. As much as I can see what Abrams and co. were thinking, anyone passionate enough would have been following the rumours, and therefore not surprised. Likewise those who weren’t, probably wouldn’t find it that much of a big deal. In fact it’s most likely those occasional audience members somewhere in the middle that get the most out of it. 

‘Revelation’ aside however, the idea of Kirk and Khan fighting shoulder to shoulder was certainly an interesting one given the nature of their previous relationship, but as I mentioned earlier, is possibly one that should have remained speculative rather than canonical.

And the mirror doesn’t just end here. Seriously, anyone who hasn’t already, really needs to go and see Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Carol Marcus, the radiation chamber, almost half the new film seems to copied and pasted from the old

Although Scotty’s sabotage of Starfleet prototypes and miraculous resurrection stem from Star Trek III, I don’t really want to talk about Kirk’s death, let alone his revival.

And as for Spock’s scream. Really?????

Film Review: ‘Star Trek’, The New Current Old Generation

'Star Trek' was the start of a new chapter in the franchise's history.
‘Star Trek’ was the start of the latest chapter in a substantial history.

Just ahead of next week’s cinema release of Star Trek Into Darkness, last week saw the retail release of the Star Trek video game. Both follow on the tradition of Trek‘s new style, brought to our screens by J.J. Abrams in 2009’s feature film, Star Trek. A film which had the difficult job of pleasing everyone from hardcore addict to complete newbie, but did so remarkably well and is regarded highly by pretty much everyone. I don’t know how fondly Hollywood considers each years top ten most illegally downloaded films, but that’s one list that Star Trek boldly topped.

Wherever they came from, and however they were watching, Abrams had his audience in the palm of his hands right from the start, in possibly the most effective opening of any film I have seen. The distinct atmospheres of the eerie arrival of Nero, the action packed destruction of the Kelvin, and the emotional exchange between a pre-Thor Chris Hemsworth and House‘s Jennifer Morrison set the scene for a film in which all three don’t compete, but compliment each other throughout.

And this is where Star Trek stands out, not because it achieved the feat of pleasing multiple audiences, but because of how it achieved it. Utilising multiple ideas simultaneously, which includes a Spock/Uhura love story that doesn’t just fill modern cinema’s need to have one, but which also adds an extra layer to Spock’s conflicting personality.

But more than what happens on-screen, its very nature combines more elements than even Spock’s mixed heritage, and with people describing it as a reboot, prequel, spin-off, etc, it really is all these things and more. So much so, the only word I can ascribe to it is simply an ‘adaptation’. Such a broad term is needed due to the many different ways in which it relates to what came before….

TV -> Film
Like the ten films which precede it, 2009’s Star Trek was a film adaptation of a TV series, 1960’s Star Trek, and later The Next Generation. Where it differs from the original films however, is that it simply takes what was on the small screen, and makes it bigger. Released ten years after the show was cancelled however, The Motion Picture and its successors moved with the times, and changed pretty much everything from the uniforms, even to the ship the crew were serving aboard. Without these changes however, in many ways Star Trek is simply one of a tradition of television adaptations from the recent 21 Jump Street, and Get Smart, that goes through The Dukes of Hazzard and Charlie’s Angels, all the way back to 1991’s The Addams Family and most likely beyond.

Prequel
Taking its inspiration from the series rather than films, the story of Star Trek goes back even further however. Despite spanning a modest twenty-five years, with most of the action taking place in 2258, the first season of The Original Series was set some years later on in ’65. This however, is done for a rather specific reason…

Origin Story
Perhaps not a term that is considered an adaptation as much as it should be (which, to be fair, is any story which isn’t original), Star Trek nevertheless fills this role by showing us exactly how the trio of Kirk, Bones and Spock comes to be. We even see the Enterprise itself being built, and as individual Starfleet officers make their way aboard, we see them become the crew we know and love. Even more than this however, it also shows us James T. Kirk himself being born, and you really can’t get much more of an origin than that. (Without being icky at least.)

Reboot
A rather popular term these days now that Hollywood seems to consider its output dispensable (I know Spider-Man 3 was hardly Peter Parker’s finest hour, but did The Amazing Spider-Man really have to start from scratch?), but which Star Trek is a responsible example. Not just because it was introducing them to a whole new generation, it’s fair to say that it had to show us how the band got together, considering it introduces us to a what is essentially a new band in the first place. It may be the same crew, but one played by fresh faces, each of whom needs the time to shine and prove to audiences why they deserve to fill the shoes they’re filling.

Sequel
Much like the cinema audiences who have been transported back in time, so to has Mr (or even Ambassador) Spock. Last seen on-screen in the two-part The Next Generation story Unification, Spock was living on Romulus trying to forge a peace between the Romulans, and his half-native Vulcan. Not only holding the same title but still dealing with the same aliens, his personal story through the film is one the writers are continuing from where previously established Trek left off.

Not since 'The Day The Earth Stood Still' has a chalk board been so important to science fiction cinema.
Not since ‘The Day The Earth Stood Still’ has a chalk board been so important to science fiction cinema.

Spin-Off
As anyone who remembers Back to the Future: Part II will tell you however, travelling back in time has consequences. Most often this results in a parallel timeline, something which the Enterprise crew themselves surmise (as much for the audience’s benefit as their own). Leaving the original timeline of William Shatner and his successors to continue intact elsewhere in the multiverse (generally in the paperback section of your local bookshop), this new timeline begins with something of a bang. One that occurs in the centre of the planet Vulcan, Earth’s closest ally, which drastically alters what is to come, from that which we have already seen.

The film even had its own transmedia comic mini-series, Countdown, which bridges the gap from the Next Generation era of the previous film Star Trek Nemesis, but I think you get the picture.

The nature of 2009’s Star Trek as a production mirrors the very nature of Star Trek as a 47 year old institution. A film that continues Gene Roddenberry’s vision that everything from the crew of a spaceship to humanity itself is so much more than the sum of its parts. That as individuals we can join together to solve problems that range from a Romulan invasion, to war, poverty, and disease.

A noble vision that is shared by many throughout a fandom spanning the globe. Although we may be waiting a long time for Roddenberry’s lasting vision to become a reality, at least we don’t have to wait much longer before discovering Abrams’ latest, Into Darkness.

‘Thunderbirds’ are still Go!

After my usual morning routine of checking my email, social networks, and sfx.co.uk, today I came across some great news. Three months after the sad death of Gerry Anderson, not only is his legacy is still alive as ever, but the shows that he was working on seem to still be in development.

Despite growing up thirty years after they were first made, Thunderbirds, Stingray, and Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons were highlights of my childhood. They captured my imagination, were undoubtedly an inspiration for me pursuing a career in film/television, and are a treasured part of my nostalgic VHS collection.

Anderson was still creating new shows well into the '90s and beyond.
Anderson was still creating new shows well into the ’90s and beyond.

Although I’m afraid to say I’ve seen less than half the shows he produced, there hasn’t been one I’ve seen and not enjoyed (Space Precinct was also a personal favourite), and this just helps to point out how prolific and imaginative a creator he was.

Not one to rest on his laurels however, it seems that he continued to work as long as his Alzheimer’s would let him, and today Anderson Entertainment have announced that there is still more to come, as they are “actively pursuing a number of new Gerry Anderson projects“.

As much as this prospect delighted me, there was also part of me that was sad as well.

On one hand for Anderson himself, and the simple fact that he won’t be there throughout the production of whatever these projects may be. But also because no matter how good film and TV projects that don’t involve their original creator are, they also have the potential to be so much more.

I know it’s a comparison I always seem to use, but to be fair, there’s not much else that has had such a lengthy and celebrated-auteur-centric history as Star Trek.

Although it continued going from strength to strength after the death of Gene Roddenberry in 1991, and with new producers came new ideas such as the stationary Deep Space Nine, none of his sucssesors have explored sexual equality in the same way Roddenberry did with race and gender in the 60’s.

Despite giving interviews in which he stated that Season 5 of The Next Generation would feature gay characters, even today, 21 televisual seasons and five feature films later, we are still waiting to see if J.J. Abrams will live up to the fact that it “should happen and I would love to be able to be a part of that” with Star Trek: Into Darkness.

In many ways Roddenberry and Anderson were more similar than I think they’re generaly given credit for, both being influential figures who played their part in the ‘Golden Era’ that revolutionised TV on both sides of the Atlantic. Another possible unlikely comparison however, is James Cameron. Or at least their creations.

When it comes to his films, James Cameron created not just memorable characters in The Terminator and T2:Judgement Day, but an iconic and unique family situation that even the Tracys can’t outdo. Both written and directed by Cameron, they each give different insights into what is an intriguing relationship between lovers, mother and son, and son and absent & adopted father figures, but which the following film Rise of the Machines overlooks.

With Hollywood still seeing the money potential, even after Cameron reportedly announced that T2 finished the story he wanted to tell, the further cinematic adventures were perhaps even more inevitable than 2004’s Thunderbirds. Made by “an American company who didn’t know anything” it is not surprising that the film was a failure with both the box-office and critics. As Anderson was not even hired to be creative consultant, he can only be respected for turning down a six-figure offer to endorse the film by attending its premiere.

TV spin-off 'The Sarah Connor Chronicles' continued 'The Terminator's focus on family.
TV spin-off ‘The Sarah Connor Chronicles’ continued ‘The Terminator’s focus on family.

Although two Supermarionation Thunderbrids films were previously released in ’66 and ’68, Anderson’s genius is something which has fared much better on the small screen. Like the later Terminator series The Sarah Connor Chronicles which, as its title suggests, focused on the family rather than machines, Anderson was able to frame his shows’ legendary special effects around stories that focused on equally captivating characters.

This is something that his fans all over the world can be reassured by, as back in January 2011 Anderson himself announced he was working on a new Thunderbirds TV series. This was confirmed by ITV and Weta last month, and is no doubt be one of the new projects still being worked on. 

In addition to this, the head of production at Anderson Entertainment is none other than Anderson’s own son Jamie. Whilst his media credentials may be somewhat untested as of yet, surely the son of one of the most iconic, and principled, TV producers of his generation is a good bet to ensure the fruition of these new projects will be as close to Anderson’s original vision as possible.

20 years on: The ‘”Maybe not super, but still better than average” Mario Bros.’

For some reason, 2013 has been one of those years that’s reminding me I’m getting older. As an avid film fan, it’s probably something to do with the fact that 1993, a great year of films for seven year olds, was 20 years ago.

Yep, I’m afraid to remind you that as of this year Mrs Doubtfire, Cool Runnings, and Robin Hood: Men in Tights to name but a few, are all 20 years old.

Theatrical poster for 'Super Mario Bros', Rocky Marton & Annabel Jankel, 1993.
Theatrical poster for ‘Super Mario Bros’, Rocky Marton & Annabel Jankel, 1993.

With so much time having passed since their production, these films are all viewed in different ways. Jurassic Park is set for a re-release in eye-popping/hurting 3D, whereas Bob Hoskins is most likely still of the opinion that: “The worst thing I ever did? Super Mario Brothers. It was a fuckin’ nightmare.

Credit where credit is due though, in 1993 Jurassic Park set the record for highest grossing film. I’ve never quite agreed with measuring a film’s (or anything’s) success with money, but considering it’s ground-breaking physical effects are still better than many modern CGI efforts, the forthcoming Jurassic Park 4 notwithstanding, it’s not hard to see why they’re giving it the 3D treatment.

Super Mario Bros. on the other hand didn’t exactly wow many critics or cinema-goers, but in the spirit of fair play, it was the first of a whole wave of  Hollywood Video Game adaptations that haven’t exactly fared much better. The very next year Japanese and Western audiences were each given their own Street Fighter film, which the last 19 years have given both the time to be seen worldwide. The resulting opinions seem to suggest that Hollywood’s Jean Claude Van Damme offering was K.O’ed by it’s anime counterpart.

As the years came and went, so did films such as Mortal Kombat, House of the Dead, and Alone in the Dark. Don’t worry, I haven’t seen them either.

But this is not to say that all video game films are worth avoiding, or haven’t at least contributed something to modern cinema. Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within might not have been what audiences were expecting, but the sophistication of its photo-realistic animation garners nothing but respect. Likewise I can think of much worse summer action movies than Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. Even with a last minute sci-fi time travel twist, it still received much less flack than the aliens of Razzie winning Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

With so many films receiving so many mixed reviews it’s hard to say which has fared the best, though perhaps one that stands out the most is 2002’s Resident Evil. Where others have been faulted for either staying too close or straying too far from their playable counterparts, writer/producer/director Paul W.S. Anderson instead decided to take it in another direction. From a game famous for it’s suspenseful horror and nerve shredding atmosphere, the film places emphasis on action instead, and even does so without the need for running ‘zombies’. The result is a film which not only keeps in plenty of the game that the audience love, but gives it enough of a twist to keep it fresh.

'Tekken', Dwight H. Little, 2010, wasn't even released theatrically in the U.S.
‘Tekken’ was never given a theatrical release in the U.S.

Between its failures and moderate success’s though, it doesn’t seem as though Hollywood has learnt much over the past two decades. Resident Evil has since jumped the shark with four (so far, more on the way) sequels, Street Fighter‘s player two, The Legend of Chun-Li, barely even pressed the start button to join in, and the only U.S. screening of 2010’s Tekken was to prospective distributors. Needless to say, none felt that entering the Iron Fist Tournament was worth their effort.

Despite this however, Hollywood’s films keep on coming, with Assassin’s Creed and Metal Gear Solid reportedly in development. But given its reputation, it’s not surprising that the Japanese games makers themselves are increasingly producing CGI films themselves. Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children and Resident Evil: Damnation are aimed almost exclusively at gamers, fit into the games’ continuity transmedia style rather than rebooting, and were released straight to DVD. It seems to me as though they’ve found the right way to go about it.

Taking all this into consideration then, from a general perspective if not Bob Hoskins’, does Super Mario Bros. really deserve the bad reputation its been chained to all these years?

First things first, the Mario games were more than likely chosen for being a well known name than having an adaptable storyline. The basic premise of ‘hero rescuing princess trapped in a castle’ isn’t exactly the most original, even if Mario is the first plumber to do so. Also using this age old fairy tale however, is the other still long running Nintendo franchise, The Legend of Zelda. 1993 saw the release of the series’ fourth title Link’s Awakening, and by nature of being an RPG as opposed to a run and jump platformer, each offered much more in terms of quests, adventure, and more importantly, characters that were only two dimensional in terms of pixels.

And here is perhaps the first misconception. Looking back it is easy to assume that a simpler backstory to adapt naturally gave the film-makers the attractive prospect of more freedom to explore the Mushroom Kingdom; but with such an assumption comes the wonder where Dinohatten and even dinosaurs came from? With The Princess Bride made six years previously, it’s not as though such a fantastical medieval film, turtles included, wouldn’t have been practical. But when you consider this point is backed up by the all too similar Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III, a film released just two months before Super Mario Bros., in which the titular turtles travel to feudal Japan, you can’t really blame the film-makers too much for going in another direction. Even if that direction wasn’t Zelda.

As mentioned before though, Mario video games are simply more popular, and therefore a bigger name to draw in the crowds. But they are still video games. Unlike the books and TV series which were also being adapted, adapting a film from games was always going to be aiming at a niche audience, something which still holds true today.

I’m not saying they’re mutually exclusive so forgive me for generalising them, but gamers are going to be less concerned that a film is adapted from a book, than readers towards a film from a game. In terms of storytelling at least, books have a centuries old reputation of being grown-up, even cultured, and moving. Video games on the other hand were looked down upon just for being what they are, games. Not only this, but generally speaking, the less sophisticated the game (ie: mere running and jumping), the younger the audience they are seen to be aiming for. Whether this is the case or not, its fair to say its how they are perceived.

Added to this is the fact that the more an audience enjoys something the more critical they will be of its film. After watching one of their adaptations you can instantly tell who’s read a Harry Potter book, simply because the first thing they’ll say about it is everything that was missed out. Mario’s job of pleasing audience members is an uphill struggle even before the outline becomes the screenplay.

A screenplay with which you also have to acknowledge the compromises made to contemporary Hollywood. Between a choice of Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo, it was always going to be Leguizamo taking the romantic lead in a film aimed at the kids to twentysomethings demographic, so I’m afraid the switch of Peach for Daisy is somewhat justified. The dinosaur being called ‘Toad’ on the other hand, isn’t.

And that’s where the next problem comes, Bob Hoskins and Dennis Hopper. Obviously I’m not saying I have a problem with Hoskins and Hopper, far from it, just that I’m agreeing with them when they say they regret having done it. Kids watching the film in cinemas, may have recognised Bob Hoskins as Smee from 1991’s Hook, Dennis Hopper probably not at all, but their accompanying parent’s would obviously recognise them a lot more. The Long Good Friday, Blue Velvet, Easy Rider, all are respected films that bestow upon their actors a sense of class, which in turn give audiences expectations. Expectations that this film was never going to live up to.

Script and cast aside though, lets look at the production values. Not the worst certainly, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Mario’s Dinohatten was actually a hand-me-down Mars from Total Recall. As for the CGI, it’s no surprise that co-directors Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton’s only other recognisable creation (then, and even now) was Max Headroom, which would explain their being chosen to attract the MTV generation. Gripes notwithstanding, its two Saturn Award nominations for best costume and make up were well founded.

Like the games that preceeded it, Dead or Alive focused heavily on the visuals.
Like the games that preceded it, ‘Dead or Alive’ focused heavily on the visuals.

Weighing up the pros and cons, it’s fair to say that twenty years later, Super Mario Bros. is still a bad film, but that doesn’t matter. And even if it did, that’s precisely the reason why it’s brilliant.

Yes, the fact it makes me feel old does add to it’s nostalgia factor, simply by reminding me of being a kid, but more than that you have to remember it’s primarily a kids film. Adaptation or otherwise, kids films are always going to stand the test of time better, not just because they’re silly, but because they’re meant to be silly. Script and casting are always going to be hard hurdles to jump, and that’s where the majority of video game films fall down. But if you can look past those, the dated effects only add to its charm, and while it may not have had D.O.A.: Dead or Alive‘s forethought to not take itself seriously (disclaimer: not a kids film), when looked at in the same vein I don’t think you can deny that Super Mario Bros. is pop corn munchingly, brain meltingly, silly.

And that’s why I love it.