Category Archives: Film

Brave new worlds: STAR TREK BEYOND and FORBIDDEN PLANET

Note: Incoming SPOILERS, captain. Or whatever.

O brave new world / That has such people in’t! –  The Tempest, Act V, Scene i

The early destruction of the starship Enterprise, at first glance just a repetitive stunt, is in fact Star Trek Beyond’s boldest gambit.[1] Narratively and thematically, it destabilises the character dynamics just enough to put the ship’s crew in a position where seeing them work together when re-united has an additional impact. This forms the core (the ‘warp core’, if you will … no, I’m not sorry) of the filmmakers’ approach to pushing their version of Star Trek forward.

Visually and iconographically, however, the stricken ship’s descent into the atmosphere, having been torn apart at the neck by a swarm of alien drones, recalls all those flying saucers of the early science fiction films of the 1950s (and the sci-fi pulp art which preceded them) from which artist and designer Matt Jeffries took inspiration in imagining the Enterprise. Like an archaeological excavation, its ruin reveals something of its origins.

star trek beyond enterprise

Eight years before Gene Rodenberry pitched a sci-fi television show called Star Trek to television executives, and a full ten years before the first episode aired on CBS, Fred M. Wilcox’s Forbidden Planet was released in American cinemas.[2] Famously riffing on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the plot of Forbidden Planet follows the crew of a saucer-shaped spaceship from Earth who, arriving on the desolate world of Altair IV in search of a missing colony, discover that the only intelligent inhabitants on the planet are an elderly scientist named Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), his daughter Altaira (Anne Francis), and a friendly robot named Robby.

The boisterous but well-meaning spacemen, led by Commander John J. Adams (Leslie Nielsen in an earlier, more serious role than the comedies he is now mostly known for), nevertheless undermine by their very presence the prolonged innocent girlhood of Altaira, and threaten to disrupt Morbius’s investigations into the hyper-advanced technology of the Krell, a long-dead alien race native to the planet. As tensions rise between the scientist and the crew, a series of inexplicable and increasingly violent attacks are mounted against the visitors and their vessel by an unseen entity.

Forbidden Planet C57D

Then, in a final act twist, this entity is revealed to be Morbius’s own subconscious id, actualised by the advanced alien technology hidden in the depths of Altair IV into an unstoppable force of destruction, lashing out against those who threaten Morbius’s peace of mind, attempting to destroy the crew just as it did the scientist’s fellow colonists. “This thing of darkness / I acknowledge mine”, says Prospero of Caliban in the last act of The Tempest; the Monster from the Id is only disarmed when Morbius acknowledges his subconscious actions and desires, his animal and base self, and rather than denying it exists, repudiates it consciously and with clarity of thought and vision.

Separated by sixty years though they may be, more specific resemblances between the two films, deliberate or accidental, are apparent.[3] Following its alternately melancholic and bombastic opening, the second act of Beyond’s plot finds the crew of the Enterprise marooned on the desolate world of ‘Altamid’, struggling to prevent an ancient and deadly technology  constructed by a long-dead alien race from falling into the hands of a dangerous, barbarous foe named ‘Krall’ (Idris Elba).

star trek beyond krall.jpg

Then, in a final act twist, Krall is revealed to have once been a human Starfleet officer, Balthazar Edison, a starship captain like the Enterprise’s James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), but from a more violent era of interstellar wars and interspecies conflicts. Edison resents the utopian Federation not only for failing to rescue him and his crew from Altamid, but also, on a more fundamental level, for making lasting peace with the alien enemies he spent his life fighting against.

This revelation does come, perhaps, too late for the film to fully flesh out Edison’s character in the same way that Forbidden Planet does for Morbius. The nature of and expectations for what constitutes a science fiction spectacle has, of course, changed greatly over the last sixty years, and the fast-moving action-adventure of Beyond will invariably have less time to spend on character work than the dialogue-laden atmosphere-building drama of Forbidden Planet.[4]

forbidden planet morbius.jpg

Unfortunately, despite the fascinating ideas behind the character and Elba’s performance, the lack of definition early on means the character never becomes as central to the narrative as he is to the film’s themes. This is a particular shame, since the parallels between Morbius and Edison are, on paper, quite fascinating. Both men become the thing they hate: Morbius, the rational scientist, is revealed to be a territorial beast, a Faustus whose passions overwhelm his intellect; Edison, once a heroic defender of humankind, is transformed into a monstrous, inhuman brute – a Kurtz who has lost his moral compass in the darkness of space.

The scientist is the more complex, developed character, but the soldier is (in theory at least) the more tragic. A fallen Faustian magus he may be, yet Morbius is able to reconcile with the beast within him, and even though it costs him his life, he is able to save the lives of his daughter and Commander Adams, as well as ensuring that the Krell technology will not be misused by anyone else in the future.

forbidden planet adams altaira

Edison is faced with a similar moment of self-realisation, at long last seeing clearly not his depravation, but rather his humanity. He ultimately rejects the epiphany offered to him, however, and makes one last nihilistic attempt to kill Kirk and destroy millions more lives. Beyond being the earnest, optimistic film that it is, he fails, dying alone in the vacuum of space, consumed by the very weapon he hoped to use to render his vengeance on the Federation, while Kirk is saved by the efforts of his faithful crew.[5]

Morbius was a tragic figure for the Atomic Age, a scientist who had tapped into a power too great to control, a father figure whose attachment to his daughter unambiguously recalls Freud, who needs a good, sensible, down-to-earth military man like Command Adams to fix his mistakes and bring his daughter into Adams’s own ‘household’ (or spaceship, in this case) as, essentially, husband and wife. Beyond, equally, is in small ways and large, very much a film conscious of the current historical moment. In contrast to the bridal Altaira, the alien survivalist Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), who the Enterprise’s crew encounter on Altamid, is not primarily defined as any other character’s daughter or love interest and is instead accepted into the crew and Starfleet on her own terms.[6]

star trek beyond jaylah chair.jpg

Moreover, that Beyond’s themes of tolerance, unity, and mutual cooperation seem to strike a particular chord in light of the current political situation in both Britain and the United States has already been remarked upon. Not only is Edison ultimately shown to be an embodiment of xenophobic hatred (an unusually layered example, in fact), but when Commodore Paris (Shohreh Aghdashloo) praises Kirk for saving the day once again, his humble but honest response that “It’s never just me” comes across as an astonishingly direct rebuke to Donald Trump’s conceited, dictatorial line from the Republican National Convention of “I alone can fix this”.[7] The film’s stubborn adherence to the principles of teamwork and, yes, togetherness, is emblazoned by its stirring final moments in which whole crew, for once, gets to follow Captain Kirk in uttering each a part of the original series’ iconic opening narration:

Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.

Of course, Star Trek’s progressive credentials have always been somewhat qualified and even compromised – leaving aside the original series’ Sixties sexism (trying saying that three times fast), the oft-acclaimed ‘first interracial kiss on television’ occurred when both characters involved (William Shatner’s Kirk and Nichelle Nichols’s Uhura) were under the influence of mind control. Never particularly adept at dealing with issues of sexuality and gender, even the recent revelation that the character of Sulu in the new films is gay – partly to further diversify the crew and partly to honour the original actor and gay rights activist George Takei – encountered controversy when Takei objected on the ground that this interpretation of the character was not accurate to Rodenberry’s original conception.

Rodenberry himself has been suggested to have used his show’s ideals to further his own commercial interests, and his invention of the Vulcan ‘IDIC’ insignia (standing for the very Trek-like mantra of “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations”) was accused by none other than Leonard Nimoy as an example of blatantly fan-exploitative merchandising. Even Trek’s famed celebration of the frontier is fraught (except for the excellent and underrated Star Trek: Deep Space 9) with mostly un-interrogated colonial baggage and primarily Western assumptions about discovery and exploration.[8]

star trek beyond yorktown

And yet. Star Trek is, at its best, a cultural manifestation of a wistful yet vital dream – one which has ebbed and flowed alongside the last fifty years of American and world history. It dramatizes the belief that better institutions, better ways of living, the discovery of our better selves, are all, in fact, possible. Though it may be a bit rough around the edges, Beyond exemplifies the best of Star Trek in ways Into Darkness and even the 2009 reboot only managed to hint at. “How far you’ve come,” Edison murmurs when he beholds the Yorktown – a complex, colossal, yet ethereal space station on the edge of the known galaxy; a strikingly imagined symbol of ingenuity and inclusiveness. Perhaps he is merely being ironic, or just maybe, despite his disillusionment, he can’t help but be a little impressed.

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[1] The ‘original’ Enterprise was also destroyed at the end of its third cinematic outing, in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, directed by Leonard Nimoy.

[2] Star Trek Beyond thus managing to mark both the 50th anniversary of the franchise itself, and the 60th anniversary of one of its most notable pre-cursors.

[3] Given, at the very least, co-screenwriter Simon Pegg’s well-documented fondness for sci-fi history, the former is perfectly plausible.

[4] Seen as light fare in its own day, of course, but positively contemplative in comparison to its modern descendants.

[5] Not that the precise nature of the threat is particularly important to the plot (we’re firmly in MacGuffin territory here), but where the technological fears manifested in Forbidden Planet focussed on nuclear power, in Beyond the threat has been updated to a biological weapon, matching more modern fears of what scientific manipulation of the natural world can do.

[6] It’s just a shame she and Zoe Saldana’s Uhura never have an actual conversation, at least as far as I can recall.

[7] Which is doubly remarkable given that Simon Pegg and Doug Jung must have scripted the film long before Trump was even the de facto GOP nominee.

[8] And don’t talk to be about the Prime Directive, the sloppiest narrative conceit outside of Doctor Who’s ‘fixed points in time’.

A Midlife Crisis of Conscience: American Masculinity and Morality in IRON MAN and CASABLANCA

Iron Man PosterCasablanca Poster

Okay, admittedly, this post started out as a joke. In a conversation about the production of Classic Hollywood cinema, my PhD supervisor remarked on the numerous script revisions CASABLANCA went through right up to the point of shooting. I offhandedly commented that it was one of the many things that this most beloved classic of black-and-white romantic dramas had in common with IRON MAN, a comic-book superhero blockbuster about a man in a suit of CGI armour saving the world from villainy, because I have a weird sense of humour.

But the more I thought about it, the more I found the connection genuinely intriguing, and specifically the leading roles and their surprisingly resonant stories of wounded masculinity and personal redemption. The ground seems even richer given both characters’ relationship with America’s place in the world.[1]

Though it went into production in 1942 and premièred later that year, CASABLANCA is very deliberately set in December of 1941, the events of its plot occurring just prior to the attack on Pearl Harbour and America’s entry into the Second World War. The careful neutrality cultivated by Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) in the complex internal politics of German-occupied French-colonised Casablanca became, no doubt consciously, a metaphor for the still-neutral America of the previous year.

TonyStark

The journey of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) from wealthy industrialist to superhero takes place in a very different climate, against the context of two drawn-out wars, led by the United States, which have turned into military and political quagmires. A billionaire arms manufacturer who designs his own weapons, Stark represents an America at the height of its powers, but whose actions have appalling unintended consequences for the people ostensibly under their protection.

Like Tony Stark, Rick Blaine has a background in arms dealing. As part of his anti-fascist backstory, we’re told he ran guns to the Ethiopian army during their defence against Mussolini’s Italy in the ‘30s. In the film’s present, his café/bar/casino business in Casablanca certainly doesn’t suffer from the city’s importance on the refugee route out of war-torn Europe.

Like Rick, Tony has a practised cynicism about the state of the world and people’s behaviour that acts as cover for his damaged emotional core. Both begin their stories avoiding their issues with different brands of wit (Stark’s is that of the charming rogue, Rick’s is more of a world-weary deadpan). Both would rather seek solace at the bottom of a glass (or bottle) than genuinely open up to anyone. Both carry their cynicism like a shield.

Rick

Their wounds are born of different circumstances, different losses, but they are both deeply felt. As is continually hinted throughout Tony Stark’s appearances in both the IRON MAN series and AVENGERS, he retains strong feelings of parental neglect directed towards his father, Howard (depicted variously by Gerard Sanders, John Slattery, and Dominic Cooper). For Rick, the damage is rooted in his abandonment by Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) and the false promise of true love; a personal catastrophe that is mirrored by the fall of France to the Nazis.

Tony and Rick’s responses to such emotional damage are almost mirrors of each other. Tony throws himself into superficial flings with attractive women in a futile attempt to plug the hole in his heart, while teasing and acting dismissively towards those who really do care about him. Rick, unsurprisingly, disdains the company of women, and almost anyone else. But what unites them is the reluctance to value personal connections, and an accompanying acceptance of the way things are and their established roles in their respective political ecosystems. They both, after all, do very good business out of war.

Both Bogart and Downey Jr.  were both in their early forties when they took on their most iconic roles. Indeed, one of the details that marks IRON MAN apart from most other modern superheroic débuts is that it’s not a teenage coming of age story, like either SPIDER-MAN origin. It doesn’t centre on a young adult male finding his identity, like DC’s BATMAN BEGINS and MAN OF STEEL.[2] His fellow headlining Avengers, Captain America and Thor, are characters blessed with youthfulness belying their true age, whether due to pulp science or mythic vitality.[3] Stark is vulnerable in way they are not, hence the metaphor of the suit of armour which is central to his character, hence his damaged heart.

Tony Stark's Heart

Stark’s resort to patriotism as a defence for his career buckles when he discovers that his weapons have fallen into the hands of America’s enemies, and that they are being used not just against combatants, but on civilians. Tony’s realisation, but not quite acceptance, of his own culpability is what drives him to shut down his company’s production and sale of weapons as his first act on returning from Afghanistan.

It is also, as far as the film is concerned, what gives him the duty and, in a sense, the right to go back to Afghanistan and take action. Of course, because this is a superhero movie, Tony’s means of going about this is building an even swankier CGI suit of armour and bringing the fight to the bad guys.[4] He lives out the fantasy of seeing something horrible on the news, feeling genuinely guilty about it, then going and stopping it. And it is, of course, a fantasy. But it is one which is fascinatingly caught up in a web of anxieties about guilt and responsibility felt towards those caught up in the wake of conflict.[5]

Rick’s revelation is more personal, as he discovers that Ilsa’s own situation was more complex than he had imagined. But the pettiness is part of the point, as he can no longer use her treatment of him as justification for his indifference to the state of the world. He accepts that he has a moral obligation to use his privileged position and resources to help her and Laszlo escape the Nazis. In coming to terms with his feelings of betrayal, and allowing Ilsa to leave with her husband, he returns to the world from his self-imposed emotional isolation. It is no coincidence that his (and the film’s) famous last line announces the beginning of a new and valued personal connection.

Casablanca Ending

So, yes, as humorous as the comparison was meant to be (to myself, anyway), both Rick Blaine and Tony Stark are confronted with a midlife crisis of conscience. They realise that the defence of their damaged pride and their attempts to insulate themselves from further hurt have obscured from them the reality that they can do more to help. In its best moments, Iron Man isn’t just about saving the world from comic-book villains. It’s also about the saving of its hero’s soul. And, as Rick himself famously states, Casablanca isn’t just about the relationship problems of three little people. It is, in fact, about saving the world. More importantly, perhaps, it’s about admitting that the world can be saved.

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[1] Iron Man is also, of course, the inaugural picture of the now all-conquering Marvel Studios, and in that sense the start of something of a throwback to the studio system of Classic Hollywood in which Casablanca was produced.

[2] Adulthood identities turn up in the most surprising places, like caves infested with flying rodents, or alien spaceships.

[3] Captain America actually has something of an analogue, albeit a non-American one, in Casablanca’s Victor Laszlo, the Czech resistance leader whose arrival in the eponymous city sets the plot in motion. They are, after all, both straight-laced heroes possessed of genuine nobility, whose very qualities of goodness and decency are often used as evidence that they’re inherently less interesting than their more cynical foils.

[4] Though, as has become something of a recurring motif for the series, it’s significant that the real villain is American and more embedded in the military-industrial complex than even Tony Stark.

[5] At least until the lacklustre last act of the movie, though it’s a theme the franchise returns to, most noticeably in AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON.

Sauron sweeps to victory in Middle-Earth

So I wrote this silly thing and figured I might as well put it up here.

the-eye-of-sauron_3133429b

Our top story today is the shocking upset in this year’s elections as Sauron, the Dark Lord of Mordor, sweeps towards a truly unexpected victory across much of Middle-Earth. The controversial policies of the coalition government, including the use of invasive surveillance programs such as PALANTIR, the privatisation of the Houses of Healing, and the pillaging of the villages of the common folk, seem to have done less harm than expected to the fortunes of Mordor’s candidates.

Not since the First Age and the re-election of Melkor, called Morgorth, the Great Enemy, has an incumbent party seen such a resounding increase in elected seats. The Home Secretary, Shelob the Spider, was overheard clicking her mandibles with glee, while the Witch-King of Angmar promised that under his continued stewardship as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Middle-Earth’s economic recovery would be assured.

When asked for for comment, the Dark Lord Sauron, having yet to re-attain physical form and thus remaining, for the moment, a giant fiery eyeball, repeated his highly successful campaign catchphrase: “Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul, / Ash nazg thrakatulûk agh burzum-ishi krimpatul.” The Dark Lord closed his remarks by whispering the words “I SEE YOU” into the very souls of men, before turning his attention elsewhere.

Sauron’s coalition partner Saruman has, however, been dealt a crushing blow. Formerly of the White Council, it was hoped after the last election that the wisdom of Saruman would mollify the extreme rapacious tendencies of the forces of evil. However, the controversies surrounding university tuition fees and the burning of the Westfold have alienated his traditional base in the Gap of Rohan, and polling data suggests his fighting Uruk-Hai have apparently left him behind, instead opting to vote directly for his evil master, Sauron.

More shocking was the failure of the Free Men of Middle-Eath to make any significant headway, and indeed losing their last grasp on the north, as the Men of Dale were routed in the vote by the Dwarven Nationalists. Last year’s referendum on Dwarven Independence, far from drawing a line under the question of the Dwarven Nationalism, seems to have galvanised support for Dáin Ironfoot, who has long claimed that, with the riches of Erebor now regained from Smaug, the Dwarves are capable of sustaining their own economy without direct support from the south.

Questions will no doubt be asked around the leadership of Faramir, son of Denethor, who has been unable to escape accusations of being a ‘wizard’s pupil’. Despite talk of being tainted by the power of the One Ring, there will no doubt be those who wonder if Boromir, Faramir’s older brother, would have been more suited to leadership of the party in this election. Meanwhile, Théoden King, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, was overheard by one insider muttering “Where now is the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing? They are gone, like rain on the mountainside.”

Elsewhere, the Elves have held on to their previous three seats in Lothlórien, Rivendell, and the Grey Havens. While the Ents did manage to maintain their presence in Fangorn Forest, their leader Treebeard has released a statement saying that “No one cares for the woods anymore.”

The creature Gollum has also managed to hold at least one seat in parliament. During the election, he was often to be found in his cave, surrounded by kippers, hissing the words “preciousss” and “nasty, tricksy hobbitsesss”. Despite being rumoured to have once been a hobbit-like creature himself, Gollum’s anti-hobbit stance has been central to his campaign, and has gained some traction in former Arnor townships such as Bree, which has seen an influx of migrant hobbits in recent years.

Finally, there have also been unconfirmed reports that Gandalf the Grey, also called Mithrandir and Stormcrow, has been seen on the road from Minas Tirith, gnawing on the brim of his pointed wizard hat. More on this story as it develops.