Classic Review: Alphaville

Stars: ★★★☆

Summary:  A logically opaque, madcap, pretentious, and hilarious genre mashup.

Review:  To a geek like me, combining deconstructed film noir with a vague science fiction dystopia makes for a beguiling premise.  After hearing about ‘Alphaville’ and reading a little about it via the Criterion Collection, I made it my first DVD rental through Netflix, expecting an equally exciting product.  Of course, I had overlooked that this is an art film, and moreover it is quite insane.  This means it ended up even better than I expected.

‘Alphaville’ moves swiftly from episode to episode, slapping random ideas together like an optimistic French philosopher who is both drunk and convinced that ‘Axe Cop‘ is the next big thing in serious literature.  That’s hyperbole, yeah, and it’s cathartic to say it.  The point being, it seems the filmmakers weren’t concerned with making the premise seem credible, but they were using it as an excuse to indulge in various kinds of madness.  “Tangent” is the word of the day.  It’s possible that Godard did find reason for the randomness, however, as the story, in its most vanilla form, could be described as the man of passion (viva la France!) versus the cold logical computer society of tomorrow.  A stylistic rebellion against narrative sense, perhaps?

The protagonist, Lemmy Caution, a character borrowed from detective novels and films set in an ostensibly more realistic time and place, is summarily transposed, with all his noir tendencies, into the Huxleyian future city of the film’s title.  In this setting, the sheer arbitrary nature of his behavior clashes directly with the computer that nigh-intangibly controls everything.  It’s like an episode of classic ‘Star Trek’ — the episode ‘Return of the Archons‘ comes to mind — only instead of Bill Shatner lasering zombies we have Eddie Constantine shooting holes in centerfolds.

The parallels between ‘Alphaville’ and the previously mentioned ‘Return of the Archons’ are actually pretty striking, as are the differences.  Both involve men on a mission, looking for missing persons in a computer-controlled, soulless society.  Unlike the Enterprise crew, who wander only because they don’t know where to start, Lemmy Caution does whatever the hell he wants, despite having a clear objective from the get go.  The film’s plotting is startlingly opaque.  If Lemmy has a grand plan, he doesn’t share it, to my recollection.  He’s there to find a couple of people and blow up Alpha 60, the monstrous computer, preventing Alphaville’s influence from infecting other “galaxies”.  This being an art film, Lemmy’s solution isn’t bombs or bullets, but unbearable love poetry.  It’s similar to James Kirk’s tactic of talking alien intelligences to death, with the writer’s naked ideas as the ultimate weapon.

The best way to digest this film is as a comedy, a guilty pleasure packed with odd moments.  Judging by its creator’s pedigree, it’s probably not unintentional.  It’s not a bad film.  In fact, it’s rather brilliant, in a quirky way.  It deserves a bigger cult audience than it has accumulated, especially in light of substantially better, relatively recent sci-fi dystopia film noir such as ‘Brazil’, ‘Blade Runner’, ‘Dark City’ and ‘Minority Report’.  They all owe an artistic debt to this wonderfully off-kilter classic.

NR: Meet Me On Holodeck 3

James here with Wednesday’s News Reflections.

Today, piggy-backing off Collider’s report, I’m talking about 3D‘s evolution.  Thanks chiefly to James Cameron, nearly every major Hollywood player has bet it all on 3D.  I’ve been down on the technology in the past, as I prefer classic cinematography, but it is quite seductive.  Its justifies its existence by excellence and its potential to evolve into a daughter medium. Now, due to such innovators as Apple and Nintendo, the technology is outgrowing the need for uncomfortable, dimming glasses. Heck, in twenty years, my kids might be asking me for a holodeck without safeties.

Okay, so that’s unlikely for several reasons, but it’s clear the virtual world is outgrowing its bounds and establishing a beachhead in reality. We won’t dodge Agent Smith in The Matrix, we’ll be dodging him in the suburbs.

Okay, so that’s highly unlikely, too, but tongue-in-cheek exaggeration aside, in a world economy fueled by ever-accelerating demand, 3D tech is sure to develop into a new brand of escapist virtuality easily distinguishable from cinema. Traditional films may find themselves in the place still photography is now to motion pictures; not disregarded by any means, but perhaps playing a semi-ancillary role to the “highest” medium, whatever we call 3D then. Obvious, this new virtuality effects video games as well. Just as older, simpler forms of gaming remain popular as increasingly complex systems grow, it’s likely that 2D gaming will survive, but in my mind’s eye, the effects on the gaming industry will be far more profound.

Whatever the case, it’s not necessary for film lovers to bemoan the inevitable rise of 3D, but it’s probably a good idea to catch up on William Gibson and Philip K. Dick novels, for when things get weird.

Classic Review: Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

Stars:  **** out of Four

Summary:  Nicholas Meyer’s second ‘Trek’ film equals the first and ends the original series on a dark, chilling, and ultimately hopeful note.

Star Trek VI:  Revenge of the Giant Klingon.

Star Trek VI: Revenge of the Giant Klingon.

Review:  So the previous ‘Trek’ was a failure, falling way short of expectations and coming dangerously close to destroying the franchise.  Thanks to Paramount’s concern over the 25th anniversary of the media property, however, they were given another shot at the silver screen, this time to close out the original series cast’s run.

And it’s so, so good.

After the high adventure and wacky antics of ‘The Final Frontier’, this film delivers a dark, intense detective story, a philosophical political thriller.  Blending the literary influence so well captured by director Nicholas Meyer with series creator Gene Roddenberry’s often on-the-nose allegory, it strikes a nearly perfect balance of intellect, message, and thrills.

It opens with a new ‘Trek’ composer — Cliff Eidelman, never destined to write another note for ‘Trek’, unfortunately — spinning a dark web of sound over space.  We know from the first few notes and the dark, purplish color of the opening credits that we are in for a trip into the dark side.  By the time the music is drawing to an obvious close and the credits are following its lead, we are anticipating a release.  And we get it, in the form of a classic Industrial Light & Magic explosion, complete with disc-shaped shockwave.  Then we cut to the bridge of the U.S.S. Excelsior — Captained by Sulu! — which is soon enough hit with the explosion.  After surviving the wave, the crew quickly finds out that the Federation’s longtime enemy, the Klingon Empire, just had one of its central moons and sources of power destroyed in a freak accident (Chernobyl, anyone?)

Now it’s time for talks.  But legendary Captain Kirk, suggested for the diplomatic mission by his friend Spock, is not happy.  He blames the Klingons for the death of his son, and considers them “animals”.  “Let them die!”  He says.  But now he’s committed.  After meeting the Klingon chancellor, he soon discovers that the Klingon leadership can for the most part be trusted — or can they? — and they start their journey to Earth on awkward but hopeful terms.  Soon however, disaster strikes as Captain Kirk watches his own ship, outside of his control, fire on the Chancellor’s vessel.  With the Klingon gravity controls knocked out, assassins beam over from the Enterprise and murder the Klingon leader… and now it’s Kirk’s fault.  He and Dr. McCoy are arrested, leaving Spock and the rest of the Enterprise crew to solve the mystery and rescue Kirk & McCoy as political turmoil reigns and war looms.  Somewhere, an assassin still remains, possibly on the Enterprise…

The setup is excellent, and the execution, slow-burning until the last twenty minutes, is superb.  Though the film lacks a villain quite as memorable as Khan, Christopher Plummer does a good job playing the antagonist, and makes up in personality what he lacks in the personal touch.  Shatner, Kelley, and Nimoy each turn in their best, most confident performance since ‘Wrath of Khan’.

The political philosophy of the movie is simple, yet very strong for ‘Trek’.  It brings the series full circle, back to the themes that the first television series thrived on.  It’s a Cold War parable, but focuses on the subject of hate and bigotry rather than the conflicting philosophies of the opponents.  In short, it goes after the chief problem that plagued both, in the real world and the fictional universe of Trek.

As the Enterprise crew flies into the glare of a star at the end of this last drama, we are left both tearful and glad that we were along for the ride.  With a such a great last hurrah, it’s a shame they chose to bring back Kirk for the next film, ‘Star Trek: Generations’, only to drop a bridge on him(!).  I’d rather forget about that film, and leave what happens after ‘Trek VI’ an undiscovered country.

Not-So-Classic Review: Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

Stars:  ** out of Four

Summary:  A stunted, mediocre debacle, with entertaining moments, but without an overall sense of catharsis.

To keep people from leaving?

To keep people from leaving?

Review:  So this is going to be a short review.  It’s not a remarkable movie in either direction, good or bad.  It’s just stunningly mediocre.  It has its fun moments, and its bad moments, and its moments where you just can’t wait for the movie to end.   Despite my terrible comment on the original poster’s tagline — which was created early on in production, when the studio still had high hopes for the movie — it isn’t unwatchable. Unfortunately, it has earned such a bad rap all around that I feel like I have to keep it in the ‘Not-So-Classic’ category.   It’s not a classic.   It’s not an utter failure either.

This was original ‘Trek’ star William Shatner’s only directed entry of the series.  He had a huge scope for the original story, and obviously inspired great confidence in the studio, as is evident by the early marketing campaign.  Judging from some of his novels, including some he had also intended to become ‘Trek’ films, the action-idea was probably too ambitious.  I’m trying to be fair, here, to counterbalance some of the anti-Shatner backlash that the film generated.  I think he, and the rest of the production team, really thought they were going to make a winner.  Unfortunately for Shatner and company, the scope proved to be too much.  The studio couldn’t afford to pay for the special effects needed.  So instead of inspiring ‘Star Wars’-like thrills, it inspired confusion and disappointment in Trekkies everywhere.

The story, though odd, does have a vein of potential.  The idea was to put the Enterprise crew on a spiritual quest, an encounter with God.  In the end, they only found a counterfeit, but I believe the intention — though vaguely captured, at best, in the final film — was to show that the true God was way beyond anything the Enterprise crew could fathom.  This strikes again at the philosophical richness of ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’, which ironically also failed to communicate its original story in a fulfilling way.

The characters and the execution leave a lot to be desired.  The film is far too comedic, going into the realm of slapstick and not showing the restraint of the previous installment.  Things feel disrespected, dishonest, and pretentious.  Some of the moments — such as Uhura stripping naked and dancing to distract a couple bad guys — are completely out of place.  The “villain”, Sybock, is overwrought and unconvincing.  We never get the needed sense of pathos to sell his character right.

A disappointment, really, after an impressive trilogy preceding it.  Shatner feared he had killed the franchise.  In fact, he may have, had it not been for the studio supporting a sixth picture due to the then-upcoming 25th anniversary of ‘Star Trek’.  And that film fixed everything.