Film Review: ‘Godzilla vs. Kong’

Two iconic Titans clash in the latest chapter of Warner Bros/Legendary Pictures’ MonsterVerse series…

A monstrous clash: two cinematic titans collide in ‘Godzilla vs. Kong’ (image credit: Warner Bros’ Pictures).

Spoiler-free review

Starring:  Alexander Skarsgard, Millie Bobby Brown, Rebecca Hall, Brian Tyree Henry, Kaylee Hottle, Kyle Chandler, Demian Bichir, Eiza Gonzalez, Shun Oguri

Directed by:  Adam Wingard / written by:  Eric Pearson & Max Borenstein (story by Terry Rossio, Michael Dougherty & Zach Shields) / 117 minutes

What’s it about?

The King of the Monsters faces the King of Skull Island as Apex Titans Godzilla and Kong grapple for their place as the victor…

In review

Not since Batman v Superman:  Dawn of Justice has there been such an anticipated cinematic smackdown between two titanic pop culture icons and thankfully Godzilla vs. Kong delivers.  The latest entry in the Warner Bros/Legendary Pictures ‘MonsterVerse’ series, Godzilla vs. Kong is grandiose, bombastic fun (embellished by Tom Holkenborg’s music score) and fully embraces its roots, melding epic scale action with the bonkers, outlandish B-movie comic book sci-fi (complete with flourishes of ropey character dialogue and moustache twirling villainy) of Japanese kaiju films with the worldbuilding and ancient mythology of King KongGodzilla vs. Kong therefore succeeds by just being what it is – a big, dumb roller coaster popcorn blockbuster that doesn’t falter in its efforts to entertain.  It’s unlikely to sway the opinion of anyone who hasn’t enjoyed 2014’s Godzilla, 2017’s Kong:  Skull Island and 2019’s Godzilla:  King of the Monsters but for fans of those films it’s a satisfying treat.

Opening with Godzilla seemingly going on the offensive against humankind as he demolishes a facility owned by the shady Apex Cybernetics, the Monarch organisation, having captured Skull Island’s Kong for study and fearing untold devastation should the two Titans meet, hastily draws up plans to return Kong home.  Director Adam Wingard (You’re Next) delivers the incredible effects-laden action with aplomb and with clear joy and enthusiasm (the recently announced ThunderCats feature film is in good hands).  From Godzilla and Kong’s scintillating initial face-off, an ocean-bound, battleship-sinking clash to the city-crumbling decimation of their brawl amongst the searing neon-lights of Hong Kong it’s all kaiju fans would want or hope for and an enthralling sugary delight for that inner-child.

Eric Pearson and Max Borenstein’s screenplay provides a functional framework to drive the narrative from point to point (alas lacking the post-war nuclear terrors and environmental concerns allegorically woven into classic Godzilla flicks) between the various showdowns of the two Apex Titans.  As was the case with the previous MonsterVerse instalments, the script draws on the rich history of both characters and laces it with fan-pleasing Easter eggs and reverence to the established mythology whilst creating some of its own – the most notable example being Kong’s wondrous journey into the home of his kind, the subterranean realm known as the Hollow Earth (culminating in a gratifying moment where the giant ape demonstrates the ‘King’ portion of his title).  Whilst the writing doesn’t seek to overly service the human characters, there’s enough interest to hold the viewers’ attention and keep them invested.

Millie Bobby Brown returns to the MonsterVerse in ‘Godzilla vs. Kong’ (image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures).

Of the human cast, the returning Millie Bobby Brown (the Stranger Things actress reprising her role from Godzilla: King of the Monsters) is a standout as the sparky Maddison Russell, as is Iron Man Three’s Rebecca Hall who plays scientist Ilene Andrews, joined by Alexander Skarsgard (The Stand) as ridiculed author/scientist Nathan Lind.  Also returning is Kyle Chandler in the role of Maddison’s father, Mark Russell (it’s worth noting that Chandler also starred in Peter Jackson’s King Kong) albeit in a much smaller capacity and bafflingly, despite being billed in the opening credits, the excellent Lance Reddick makes an all-too brief appearance – leaving one to believe there may be extra scenes left on the cutting room floor.

Newcomer Kaylee Hottle provides a sweet and touching performance as Jia, a deaf Skull Island orphan, under the care of Hall’s Andrews.  Saved from devastation on Skull Island by Kong, Jia is a key presence as she utilises sign language to communicate with the great ape, providing some surprisingly heartfelt moments.  There’s some goofy humour courtesy of conspiracy podcaster Bernie Hayes (Brian Tyree Henry) and Maddison’s school chum Josh (Julian Dennison, of Netflix’s The Christmas Chronciles:  Part 2) to lighten the tone whilst Demian Bichir, Eiza Gonzalez and Shun Oguri make for a trio of suitably cheesy villains.  The cast are all fine and enjoyable in their parts, although there is a genuine lack of gravitas in the wake of Ken Watanabe’s absence…his character’s fate in King of the Monsters obviously precluding his involvement, sadly.

Again, it’s not the human characters that the audience is here for and Godzilla vs. Kong treats their true leads with awe and reverence.  Given ‘Gojira’ was last to have his own MonsterVerse film, the focus of Godzilla vs. Kong shifts a little more towards Kong who by all intents is the main protagonist and the only hope of halting Godzilla’s rampage.  Like the previous films, there is a definite sense of personality to both characters conveyed through the intricate CGI animation and their interactions with the human players – more specifically in the case of Kong here.  A little slow in its first act, Godzilla vs. Kong ramps up to a mostly even pace, carefully positioning Godzilla and Kong’s confrontations throughout the film.  The finale is perhaps a bit predictable, but the climactic Hong Kong battle facilitates an exciting finish as the two silver screen leviathans face a threat that might be greater than them both, as hinted at in the film’s marketing.

Godzilla vs. Kong obviously isn’t profound or meaningful (at least in terms of intellectual high-art cinema) nor does it intend to or need to be, it’ simply bold, awesome spectacle and the kind of entertainment that’s needed right now.

The bottom line:  Godzilla vs. Kong does what it should by bringing audiences an epic, effects-filled extravaganza that pits cinema’s (literally) biggest monsters against one another for an all-mighty clash that’s popcorn entertainment at its purest.

Godzilla vs. Kong is now in cinemas where available and is also viewable (for a limited period) via HBO Max in the U.S. and Premium Video on Demand internationally.

Image(s) used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

Thoughts on ‘Zack Snyder’s Justice League’

A league united…and redeemed?

DC core heroes are brought together to face cosmic evil in Zack Snyder’s ‘Justice League’ (image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures).

After much anticipation and feverish expectations, Zack Snyder’s Justice League – affectionately known in fan circles as the ‘Snyder Cut’ – arrived this Thursday courtesy of a long fought, passionate fan campaign and a costly endeavour by Warner Bros. Pictures and the burgeoning streaming platform HBO Max (the film available to U.K. viewers via Sky Cinema/Now TV as part of its international roll-out).  $70 million dollars and some hard but dedicated work later, Zack Snyder’s original vision for Justice League has been ceremoniously brought forth into the light and the differences are significant and often astonishing.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a spectacular effort that provides an almost completely different viewing experience from that of the more compromised theatrical version which saw Marvel Studios veteran Joss Whedon (director of The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron) brought in to replace a grieving Zack Snyder, following the tragic suicide of his daughter Autumn (to whom this version of Justice League is lovingly dedicated), to oversee post production and studio mandated rewrites/reshoots.  It can be argued (though few would) that there is still entertainment value in the flawed but fun theatrical version of Justice League (read the review from 2017 here), as it’s perhaps more easily digestible and no doubt more palatable to the general viewer unaware or less troubled by the commercially-driven ills that befell the final product.  For those more inclined to commit to a four-hour running time then there is much to offer in Zack Snyder’s film.

Less of an extended cut (in the vein of Snyder’s superior ‘Ultimate Edition’ of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) of Justice League and more of a total reworking of it, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a longer, deeper and in many ways more satisfying, often more mighty effort.  It’s not for the timid or for audiences attuned, or accustomed to, and with a preference for the brighter, tirelessly upbeat popcorn blockbuster fare of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (as phenomenal as they often are, of course) as this is unmistakably a Zack Snyder film.  Visually grand, operatic, mythological and of serious mind and intention, it’s an unconventional superhero epic that demands more from the viewer with a tone that’s more adult (beyond an uptick in bloody violence and peppering of bad language) and delves more deeply into it’s characters, providing expanded back stories and greater depth for the likes of newcomers Cyborg (Ray Fisher, whose role is greatly enhanced), The Flash (Ezra Miller) and Aquaman (Jason Mamoa) joining the already established Batman (Ben Affleck), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) and the resurrected Superman (Henry Cavill – thanks to digital tooling, here dons a version of the iconic black rebirth suit from the 1990s Death/Return of Superman comics).  The film takes an existing villain, Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciarin Hinds) and adds more dimension – as well as tweaking his physical appearance with stronger CGI – as well as reinstating the overlord of proceedings, the formidable power-hungry cosmic conqueror Darkseid (Ray Porter), who was excised from the theatrical cut.  There are a few small character moments from the theatrical version that are sorely missed, such as Batman’s encouragement and reassurance to an overwhelmed and inexperienced Flash during the tunnel battle, but on the whole there is a lot more to chew on (and less goofiness) in Snyder’s cut.  Another major change of note is the music score with Tom Holkenborg’s (who, as Junkie XL, collaborated with Hans Zimmer on Snyder’s Batman v Superman) music replacing Danny Elfman’s score and proves stylistically more suited to Snyder’s film.

Admittedly, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is only likely to appeal to hardcore fans of not only the director and his vision for these core DC characters but also is more of benefit to readers invested in the rich mythology of DC comics history, well-versed in classics such as Jack Kirby’s Fourth World and Mark Waid and Alex Ross’s Kingdom Come (to cite a couple of celebrated works). The film treats the titanic DC heroes seriously, recognising the fundamental differences between the DC and Marvel universes.  Marvel succeeds greatly by putting the human in superhuman and whilst there is some element of that within the DC pantheon, the DC Universe is largely concerned with mythological fantasy.  Is this all to say that Zack Snyder’s Justice League is perfect?  No, it’s a little slow in it’s set-up and perhaps a tighter three-hour cut would be more refined, leading more quickly into the pacier urgency of the second half.  Is it the greatest superhero film of all time?  Again, no, but in many ways it is ground-breaking in delivering something different from the maligned rough-edged romp of the theatrical version.  Sadly, Zack Snyder’s Justice League leaves us hanging with the narrative doors wide-open for the envisioned sequels that are no longer on the table with the theatrical edition remaining part of the official DC Films canon, but ignoring it’s epilogue the story is fairly complete, if only to now occupy its own abandoned corner of the multiverse.  Whilst Zack Snyder’s Justice League is left as a sort of DC Elseworlds one-shot live-action graphic novel and a promising glimmer of what might or could have been, just as the icons of DC Comics endure, the DC Extended Universe goes on.

Image(s) used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

It’s a Classic: ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ – “Yesterday’s Enterprise”

Looking at some of the best pop culture offerings in film, TV and comics…

“Let’s make sure that history never forgets the name…Enterprise”

Recurring guest star Whoopi Goldberg, a key component in the success of “Yesterday’s Enterprise” (image credit: ViacomCBS).

Year:  1990

Starring:  Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, LeVar Burton, Michael Dorn, Gates McFadden, Marina Sirtis, Brent Spiner, Wil Wheaton, Denise Crosby, Christopher McDonald, Tricia O’Neil, Whoopi Goldberg

Director:  David Carson / written by:  Ira Steven Behr, Richard Manning, Hans Beimler, Ronald D. Moore (from a story by Trent Christopher Ganino & Eric A. Stillwell) / series created by:  Gene Roddenberry

What’s it about?

The forbearer to the current U.S.S. Enterprise is brought 22 years into the future via a temporal rift and changes the flow of history, creating an alternate timeline where the Federation is close to defeat in a war against the Klingon Empire…

In review:  why it’s a classic

Ask any Star Trek fan about their favourite episodes and it’s likely that many would include “Yesterday’s Enterprise” on their list – there’s no argument that it’s not just an outstanding instalment of Star Trek: The Next Generation but a gripping piece of science fiction drama in its own right.  From a story by Tent Christopher Ganino and Eric A. Stillwell, “Yesterday’s Enterprise” sees Captain Picard and the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise ‘D’ confronted with the preceding Enterprise ‘C’ which appears in the present, causing devastating changes to the timeline with the United Federation of Planets on the losing side in a war with the Klingon Empire.  With history recording that the Enterprise C disappeared during a battle to save a Klingon outpost from destruction by Romulan warships and Guinan sensing that something is not right, Picard and his crew believe that their only hope is for the previous Enterprise to return to its own time where the selfless sacrifice of the ship and its crew, seen by the Klingons as an honourable act, could avert a terrible conflict.

A thrilling and engaging story, “Yesterday’s Enterprise” is also iconic for facilitating a guest return for Denise Crosby as Lt. Tasha Yar, who was killed back in “Skin of Evil” in the first season of The Next Generation.  The teleplay’s writers include Ira Steven Behr, future writer and showrunner of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Ronald D. Moore, who would go on to co-write feature films Star Trek: Generations and Star Trek: First Contact (and subsequently develop the reimagined Battlestar Galactica series) and their presence is heavily felt with a strong focus on characterisation and statements of morality, qualities that lift “Yesterday’s Enterprise” (and for that matter, any great Star Trek episode) above its core SF concept.  It’s through the darker and more hopeless scenario of a deadly and costly war that we appreciate the altruistic values of the Federation as we know it and that the brave acts of a few can benefit the many.

Denise Crosby returns as Tasha Yar in “Yesterday’s Enterprise”, also featuring Christopher McDonald as Lt. Castillo (image credit: ViacomCBS).

“Yesterday’s Enterprise” boasts a reliably strong performance from Patrick Stewart, at this point in the series he is fully invested and committed to the role of Captain Picard and gets to add a subtle shade of grit to his character who in the altered timeline is a military commander as opposed to an explorer and diplomat.  The regular supporting cast all play smaller but significant parts with Brent Spiner’s Data being a particular standout, but it’s arguably the guest stars who really enhance “Yesterday’s Enterprise”.  Denise Crosby’s return is a welcome one and she is provided with meaningful material, Christopher McDonald delivers a likeable performance as Enterprise C helmsman Lt. Castillo (and sharing great chemistry with Crosby, essential for the romantic bond that develops between their characters) and Tricia O’Neil brings authority to the role of the Enterprise C’s captain, Rachel Garrett.  Yet, it’s Whoopi Goldberg who shines the most – her appearances as the mysterious and noble Guinan always add significantly to any episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation but her portrayal in “Yesterday’s Enterprise” is particularly impressive with a passionate and layered performance.  Goldberg’s scene with Stewart’s Picard in which she pleads that the Enterprise is not supposed to be a ship of war, but a ship of peace is especially poignant and really captures the heart and soul of Star Trek.

David Carson’s direction is skilled and attentive, his staging of scenes and positioning of the actors together with the use of various angles and close-ups draw the viewer further into the drama.  Carson is also adept at cranking up the pace as he executes tense and energetic action scenes and it’s no surprise that Carson (whose first credit for Star Trek: The Next Generation was “The Enemy”, from earlier in the third season) would be called on again to helm further Star Trek episodes, including the premiere of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and also The Next Generation’s first big screen outing, 1994’s Star Trek: Generations.

As exciting as it is emotionally impactful, “Yesterday’s Enterprise” is yet another example of Star Trek at its best and an exemplary piece of storytelling that continues to resonate over thirty years later.

Standout moment

Learning from Guinan that she died a senseless death in the original timeline, Tasha Yar confronts a conflicted Captain Picard with a request to transfer to the Enterprise C and face a potentially more gallant fate…

Geek fact!

Tricia O’Neil would return to Star Trek again with guest roles as a Klingon scientist in sixth season TNG outing “Suspicions” and as a Cardassian military observer in the DS9 episode “Defiant”.

If you like this then check out…

Star Trek: Voyager – “Timeless” : fifteen years after the loss of the U.S.S. Voyager during a daring attempt to return home, former officer Harry Kim plans to alter history and prevent the disaster from ever occurring.

Image(s) used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

TV Review: ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ Season 3

‘Star Trek: Discovery’ goes boldly into the future…

The cast of ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ assemble as they raise the flag for season 3 (image credit: ViacomCBS).

Warning! Contains SPOILERS

Starring:  Sonequa Martin-Green, Doug Jones, Anthony Rapp, Mary Wiseman, Wilson Cruz, Michelle Yeoh, David Ajala, Blu del Barrio, Ian Alexander, Janet Kidder

Series created by:  Bryan Fuller & Alex Kurtzman (based upon Star Trek, created by Gene Roddenberry)

What’s it about?

Michael Burnham and the crew of the U.S.S. Discovery find a new adventure awaits them as they arrive in the 32nd Century…

In review

For its third season, Star Trek: Discovery enters unknown territory as Commander Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) and the U.S.S. Discovery and its crew make their one-way trip 930 years into the far future of the 32nd Century – the farthest point in time in which a Star Trek series has taken place.  It’s another entertaining outing that allows Star Trek: Discovery to chart its own course whilst keeping an eye on the history of the franchise to deliver some surprising moments of fan service.  Things get off to a slightly uneven start as Discovery’s writers and lead producers Alex Kurtzman and Michelle Paradise contend with balancing standalone narratives with this season’s overarching story (more on that in a moment) but everything begins to ramp up and coalesce as the end line approaches, leading to an engaging tranche of final episodes.

Picking up right where season two left off, the third season’s opening episodes – “That Hope is You, Part 1” and “Far From Home“ deal with Burnham and the Discovery’s arrivals in the 32nd Century, which thanks to temporal mechanics comes one year apart.  Despite the defeat of the malevolent A.I. known as Control and sentient life being kept safe from annihilation, with the universe-spanning Sphere Data merged into Discovery’s systems, we find that the galaxy is in a troubled place following ‘The Burn’, a sudden catastrophic event occurring a century earlier.  In this incident, the majority sources of the warp drive enabling substance Dilithium simultaneously detonated along with any starship with an active warp core, claiming millions of lives and the decimation of both the Federation and Starfleet.

Given the scarcity of Dilithium, coupled with Starfleet’s diminished numbers and inability to operate properly it’s a job that only Discovery, with its unduplicated space-hopping spore drive, can achieve and on which the remnants of Starfleet must rely.  Hindering their mission is the threat of the Emerald Chain, a nefarious mercantile group that seeks to fill the galactic power void left by a contracted United Federation of Planets – of which its founding centre, Earth, is no longer a member.  It paints a grim picture that mirrors our currently fractured and disconnected world, but the hope that Discovery can uncover the origin of The Burn and find a way to rebuild Starfleet and the Federation is what forms the positive backbone of this season.

The backdrop to the seasonal arc is established in the early episodes of season three, which also facilitate the introduction of some new characters.  Upon her arrival in the future, Burnham meets Cleveland “Book” Booker (David Ajala, sharing some great chemistry with Sonequa Martin-Green) an initially roguish space courier from whom she learns of The Burn as well as the galaxy’s status quo and finds herself partnering with as she awaits the arrival of Discovery.  Book is an enjoyable addition to the series as he becomes a helpful ally to the Discovery crew and hopefully Burnham and Book’s exploits during the year-long wait for Discovery will be detailed in a future novel or comic book title as it’s something that’s sadly only touched upon on screen.

In keeping with the traditions of Star Trek, Discovery further expands the diversity of its cast and characters by adding non-binary actor Blu del Barrio and transgender actor Ian Alexander (who performed the role of Lev in video game sequel The Last of Us Part II) to the group.  Del Barrio plays Adira, a human joined with a Trill symbiont after its former host, Gray – Adira’s boyfriend – is tragically killed.  Del Barrio brings a wonderfully sensitive performance to the likeable Adira and given that their character is taken under the wing of Lt. Cmdr. Stamets and Dr. Culber, del Barrio gets to share some great scenes with series regulars Anthony Rapp and Wilson Cruz.  Ian Alexander, though given less to do, is equally effective as he features in flashback scenes as well as mysteriously appearing, sporadically, to Adira.

New crewmate Adira (Blu del Barrio) joins Cmdr. Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) onboard Discovery (image credit: ViacomCBS).

Rounding out the guest cast is Oded Fehr who is excellent as Starfleet’s noble, no-nonsense commander in chief, Admiral Vance and oddly, iconic film director David Cronenberg, who appears as the enigmatic ‘Kovich’.  Little is known about Kovich at this point but with Cronenberg confirmed to return in season 4, we’ll surely find out more.  Season three finds its big bad in the form of Osyraa, the Orion leader of the Emerald Chain – played by Janet Kidder (niece of Superman’s Margot Kidder).  Though more of a straightforward villain than a compelling antagonist, Osyraa proves a formidable enough foe as things ramp up towards the season finale.

Of the established Discovery cast, all have their moments this season.  Sonequa Martin-Green continues to be the centre of the series and is given a lot to tackle, given Burnham’s year working with Book and her doubts about her future once she reconnects with Discovery.  These feelings are eventually allayed but Burnham finds her time with Book has reawakened some old habits and despite good intentions, she rashly defies orders to rescue Book from the Emerald Chain in “Scavengers” resulting in her removal as first officer, much to Saru’s disappointment.  Speaking of whom, Doug Jones is once more a standout as Saru, who rightfully (and not unexpectedly) earns his promotion to captain of the U.S.S. Discovery.  Yet, the investigation of The Burn also leads to some personal stakes and a clouding of judgement when a Kelpien distress signal is discovered.  Burnham’s demotion leads Saru to entrusting Ensign Sylvia Tilly as acting first officer, a decision that on the face of it might seem ridiculous but is earned given Tilly’s growth as a character – her commitment to the command training programme and trustworthiness as well as her stint as ‘Captain Killy’ in the Mirror Universe, all make sense of the creative choice.  As Tilly, Mary Wiseman has always been the heart of Discovery and excels in demonstrating the young ensign’s abilities – and shortcomings – in a leadership role.

Wilson Cruz is also great as Dr. Hugh Culber, who after his post-rebirth soul searching and self-doubt finds he is now more at peace with himself and a point of moral counsel for his crewmates, evidenced in “People of Earth“ which deals with the crew’s trauma at what they’ve gone through and left behind.  A lot of this is focused through Discovery’s helm officer, Lt. Detmer, giving Emily Coutts a chance to step-up and enjoy some uncomfortably tense moments with Stamets as her mounting post-traumatic stress reaches a breaking point.  It may be a misconception that there shouldn’t be conflict between characters in Star Trek, it’s actually always been present since the original series, only side-stepped in the early years of The Next Generation at the behest of series creator Gene Rodenberry.  Trek has always utilised instances of conflict to facilitate drama but in the end, it always serves to create an understanding and strengthen the familial bond between the core characters – as it does so here.

As with previous seasons there are some standout episodes.  One highlight is “Unification III”, penned by series writer/producer and Trek novelist Kirsten Beyer.  It’s a revisitation of the Star Trek: The Next Generation two-parter “Unification”, where Ambassador Spock (the late, great Leonard Nimoy – who we get to see courtesy of footage from the TNG story) sought the reunification of the divergent Vulcan and Romulan races.  “Unification III” finds that this was finally achieved after the destruction of Romulus (see Star Trek 2009/Star Trek: Picard), with Romulan survivors living on the Vulcan homeworld, now known as Ni’Var – another world which has seceded from the Federation (at least it’s heartening to have learned that the Kelpien homeworld, Kanimar has since joined).  The episode helps to paint the wider cosmic picture in terms of post-Burn politics and relations and sees Burnham reunited with her time-travelling mother (the superb Sonja Sohn), who, in a neat tie-in to Star Trek: Picard, has been living in the future as a member of the noble Qowat Milat group.

The two-part “Terra Firma” is also rather good (following the disappointment of the Book-focused “The Sanctuary”), seeing the departure of Michelle Yeoh’s Philippa Georgiou as she prepares to head-up the gestating Section 31 series and a return (of sorts) to the Mirror Universe courtesy of the mysterious ‘Carl’ (CSI’s Paul Guilfoyle), guardian of an equally mysterious doorway.  Whilst it’s fair to say that the Mirror Universe may have been played out in Star Trek for now (perhaps more so since Discovery went there for half a season) it serves Georgiou well, providing reasons for the softening of her character since her arrival in the Prime Universe.  It also gives us a chance to see, in keeping with the spirit of Mirror U outings, the delightfully over-the-top dark and ruthless versions of familiar characters, this time including the Mirror Burnham (alas, mentions of Jason Isaac’s Gabriel Lorca don’t lead to a cameo), with Sonequa Martin-Green clearly relishing the role.  It also affords Michelle Yeoh an opportunity to grapple with a conflicted and surprisingly vulnerable Georgiou.  The biggest surprise of the season comes in “Terra Firma, Part 2”, learning that Georgiou’s trip to the Mirror Universe was simply a test of worthiness by Carl, who reveals himself as…the Guardian of Forever!  This tie-in to one of the all-time classic Star Trek episodes, “The City on the Edge of Forever” is a golden moment which expands the mythology of the Guardian (not seen since the also-classic animated Star Trek episode “Yesteryear”) by combining what was established in the televised version of “The City on the Edge of Forever” with Harlan Ellison’s original concept.  The two-parter concludes with Georgiou’s poignant farewell as she enters the Guardian’s portal to travel to an unknown time and place – leaving viewers awaiting the Section 31 series to see how Georgiou’s story continues.

The Guardian of Forever returns (image credit: ViacomCBS)!

It’s also worth mentioning that after its journey to Starfleet’s space-bound HQ (in “Die Trying“), Discovery receives a nifty futuristic refit (complete with bizarrely independent warp nacelles) and upgraded technology to bring her more in line with the standards of other 32nd Century Starfleet ships, including the U.S.S. Voyager-J and the Eisenberg-class U.S.S. Nog (a touching tribute to late Deep Space Nine actor Aron Eisenberg and his character in that series).  As for the Sphere Data, this begins to manifest itself via Discovery’s main computer (which plays into the events of the season finale), foretelling what was seen in the Short Treks instalment “Calypso”.

Season three is wrapped up in a trilogy of final episodes.  “Su’Kal” is a surreal outing in which the cause of The Burn is revealed – a Kelpien named Su’Kal (Bill Irwin), marooned at birth on a Dilithium rich planet and raised by various holograms in an elaborate holographic environment.  It’s a great episode for Doug Jones, not only because Saru gets to connect with another being of his race but also for the fact that the setting allows Jones to appear sans his Kelpien make-up.  The explanation for the Burn and Su’Kal’s link to it are a little vague although ultimately cleared up in the season finale, but in basic terms, it’s presented that when Su’Kal becomes emotionally unstable, so does the Dilithium around him.  Su’Kal’s trauma of his mother’s death caused such an event, creating a chain reaction on a galactic level, resulting in what becomes known as The Burn.  Whilst some might be disappointed by this reveal and its metaphysical nature, it’s actually an unexpected one and a welcome alternative to the predictability of The Burn simply being the responsibility of a villainous individual or group. Penultimate episode “There is a Tide…” is an exciting and unabashed homage to action classic Die Hard as Ossyra and the Emerald Chain seize Discovery (and thus its spore drive) placing Burnham in the main action role as the incarcerated acting captain Tilly and Discovery bridge crew plot to retake the ship, which provides an opportunity for stalwart ancillary characters Detmer, Owosekun (Oyin Oladejo), Rhys (Patrick Kwok-Choom) and Bryce (Ronnie Rowe Jr.) to play an active part here and in the finale.

The season finale, “That Hope is You, Part 2” brings everything to an action-packed and effects-laden close which, for better or worse, is generally par for the course with most long-form narrative streaming shows but although there is the tendency for Discovery’s producers to overindulge in the feature film visuals afforded the series (an example being the elaborate turbolift shaft sequence which becomes a little excessive) it does keeps the viewer hooked.  It gets all a bit frantic but the resolution sees the Emerald Chain defeated (albeit rather quickly and conveniently) and Su’Kal separated from the Dilithium rich environment, now providing Starfleet with a vital source to fuel the warp drive capabilities of its ships.  Surprisingly, Saru decides to depart Discovery and return to Kanimar with Su’Kal (at least temporarily we’re assured as Doug Jones is returning for the now in production fourth season).  That leaves the captain’s chair of the U.S.S. Discovery vacant, a position that Admiral Vance offers to Burnham – which after brief hesitation, she accepts.  It’s not a totally unexpected development as it was likely that the show’s main character would eventually end up in a command position and it puts things in an interesting position that will hopefully conclude Burnham’s arc of redemption.  The finale also sets the series on a positive and hopeful path as the work to reconnect Starfleet and rebuild the Federation truly begins and that promises a very Star Trek-like direction for the series going forward.

The bottom line:  Star Trek: Discovery transports viewers into the far off future of the 32nd Century for another entertaining chapter in the series with some standout episodes and fine cast performances.

All episodes of Star Trek: Discovery’s third season are now available to stream via CBS All Access in the U.S. and via Netflix internationally (Canadian viewers can watch it via the Crave TV service).

Image(s) used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

Flashback: ‘Superman II’

It’s Superman vs. General Zod in the 1980 sequel to ‘Superman: The Movie’…

Christopher Reeve returns as the Man of Steel in ‘Superman II’ (image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures).

Year:  1980

Starring:  Gene Hackman, Christopher Reeve, Terence Stamp, Sarah Douglas, Margot Kidder, Jack O’Halloran, Susannah York

Directed by:  Richard Lester / written by:  Mario Puzo and David & Leslie Newman (Superman created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster)

What’s it about?

Relinquishing his powers to become mortal so that he can be with Lois Lane, Superman soon faces the threat of General Zod and his fellow Kryptonian criminals who have escaped the Phantom Zone…

Retrospective/review

Not quite the classic that Superman: The Movie is, Superman II is still a fun and generally pleasing sequel with its light-hearted, family-orientated and occasionally goofy approach making it a product of its time.  As is now widely known, Superman II began shooting back-to-back with Superman: The Movie under the direction of Richard Donner.  The demands and pressures to get the first Superman completed in time for its December 1978 release resulted in suspension of work on Superman II and mounting tensions between producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind and Donner would see the filmmaker’s departure from the sequel.  This led to Donner being replaced by director Richard Lester who would go on to reshoot much of what Donner had already filmed, establishing a slightly less dramatic and more comic strip tone.

Debuting in time for Christmas of 1980, Superman II sees the return of Christopher Reeve as Clark Kent/Superman who finds he is forced to reveal his true identity to an increasingly suspicious Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) and decides to relinquish his powers in order for the pair to be together.  It’s a sacrifice that comes at a cost when Kryptonian criminal General Zod and his cohorts are released from imprisonment in the Phantom Zone (as per the opening act of Superman: The Movie) and arrive on Earth, the yellow sun’s radiation blessing them with super abilities.  Realising his advantage, Zod sets about subjugating the people of Earth and seeks vengeance against the son of his jailor, Jor-El – Superman himself!  The de-powered Man of Steel has no choice but to find a way to defeat Zod before it’s too late.

Superman II is pure comic book entertainment of a simpler time and whilst inferior to Superman: The Movie it’s a highly enjoyable follow-up.  Unsurprisingly, Christopher Reeve shines as the Man of Steel with all the confidence, nobility and humanity audiences expected.  Margot Kidder likewise puts in another sparky performance as the determined Lois Lane and shares great chemistry with Reeve.  Terence Stamp is excellent in the role of General Zod, with a lighter take on the villain that can’t really compare to the fiercer and more formidable version portrayed by Michael Shannon in Man of Steel but Stamp brings gravitas and a believability to the character and together with Sarah Douglas’ uber femme fatale, Ursa, and Jack O’Halloran’s hulking mute, Non, provide a suitable threat to challenge Superman.  The central hero has more than ‘just’ a trio of Kryptonian adversaries to contend with as Superman II brings back Gene Hackman (once more receiving top-billing) for another enjoyably sinister turn as the devious Lex Luthor, who having escaped prison (facilitating a cameo by Ned Beatty as the bumbling Otis) locates Superman’s Fortress of Solitude and unlocks its secrets, then seeks to form an alliance with Zod to achieve his own villainous ends.

Terence Stamp stars as General Zod in ‘Superman II’ (image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures).

The script from Mario Puzo and David & Leslie Newman is fun, balancing humour, drama and action with numerous heart-felt moments.  Whilst some of the effects work now appear a little dated, the action sequences remain engaging under Richard Lester’s capable direction – especially Superman’s battle with Zod in the heart of Metropolis and the climactic face-off in the Fortress of Solitude.  There are some odd abilities on display in terms of powers – Zod’s telekinetic eye beams, the Kryptonians’ game of teleportation during that aforementioned showdown in the Fortress of Solitude and of course, Superman’s throwable chest symbol (affectionately parodied in the hit animated comedy, Family Guy)…a little bizarre, but not totally ridiculous when considered alongside Silver Age Superman comics.  The resolution to the restoration of Superman’s powers is a little quick and convenient as is the amnesia kiss Clark employs to erase Lois’s knowledge of his identity, acting as a reset button for further instalments.  These are all little moments that although a tad silly, have their charm if accepted at face value and taken in the right context.

In 2006, Warner Bros. Home Video would release Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut, where all of the footage shot by Richard Donner would be restored and edited with the gaps filled in by sequences from Richard Lester’s theatrical version of the film, screen test footage and some CGI elements.  In a number of ways it’s a superior version, not in the least for the restoration of scenes with Marlon Brando’s Jor-El (replaced by Susannah York as Lara-El in the theatrical version to avoid having to pay Brando another hefty fee), a more serious tone and the incorporation of music by John Williams from Superman: The Movie.  It’s definitely worth checking out but the at times cumbersome assembly of the cut (Donner’s Superman II was after all an incomplete production) leaves it feeling less definitive and admittedly there are some moments from Lester’s film that are arguably better…Superman asking Zod if he’d care to “step outside” has much more impact than the original line regarding “freedom of the press”, a small but significant example.  There’s no doubt that if Donner had been able to complete his version of Superman II back in 1980 there’s every chance that it would have been something special but as it stands the Donner Cut is a curiosity that’s a treat for fans to be able to experience.

Superman II is solid entertainment and despite falling short of the high bar set by Superman: The Movie is a worthy sequel to a beloved classic and a comic book adventure that’s suitable viewing for all ages.

Geek fact!

Appearing in Superman II is the late Shane Rimmer, voice of Scott Tracy in Gerry Anderson’s classic puppet series Thunderbirds and would also go on to have a small role in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins.

All images herein remain the property of the copyright owners and are used for illustrative purposes only.

Flashback: ‘Spider-Man’

Before the genesis of the MCU, Marvel’s most treasured icon made his big-budget silver screen debut in Sony’s ‘Spider-Man’…

Poster art for director Sam Raimi’s ‘Spider-Man’ (image credit: Sony Pictures/Marvel Entertainment).

Year:  2002

Starring:  Tobey Maguire, Willem Defoe, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, J.K. Simmons, Rosemary Harris, Cliff Robertson

Directed by:  Sam Raimi / written by:  David Koep (Spider-Man created by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko)

What’s it about?

Bitten by a genetically engineered spider, teenager Peter Parker finds he is endowed with enhanced strength and senses which he utilises for good as the heroic costumed vigilante ‘Spider-Man’…

Retrospective/review

Whilst the great explosion of comic book films began in the summer of 2000 with the release of 20th Century Fox’s X-Men, the continued success of the genre was undoubtedly secured by the debut of Sony/Columbia Pictures’ Spider-Man two years later.  Helmed by Sam Raimi, director of The Evil Dead – and a huge Spider-Man fan – with a screenplay by David Koepp (Jurassic Park), the first big screen outing for Marvel’s iconic webslinger is well worth revisiting.  Being Marvel’s most treasured character, Spider-Man had previously been adapted into live action in a short-lived late 1970s television series and had more recent success on the small screen with the hit animated series which ran between 1994 and 1998.  After an aborted attempt by Aliens and Terminator 2 director James Cameron to bring Spidey to the big screen in the mid-90s with Carolco Pictures, Sony’s Spider-Man would hit cinemas in the summer of 2002.

An origin story, Spider-Man sees high school student Peter Parker, gifted with the proportionate strength, enhanced senses and wall-crawling abilities of an arachnid after being bitten by a genetically engineered spider (a modernised take on the more atomic age inspired radioactive one of the comic book), turn to a secret life of costumed crime-fighting following the murder of his uncle, Ben – an act he finds he could have prevented but fails to do so.  His heroic vigilante alter-ego identified by the public as ‘Spider-Man’, Peter is soon faced with the challenge of the ‘Green Goblin’, a deranged villain who begins terrorizing New York from the skies above with his aerial military assault glider.

Kirsten Dunst as the iconic red-headed girl next door, Mary Jane Watson (image credit: Sony Pictures/Marvel Entertainment).

In the lead role of Peter Parker/Spider-Man is Tobey Maguire, bringing to the screen the awkward, nerdy underdog qualities of the smart but meek Parker boy, with all the cares and ills of an everyday teenager to life whilst infusing his guise of the ‘Friendly Neighbourhood Spider-Man’ with the requisite dose of heroism, humour and good-heartedness.  He shares good chemistry with co-star Kirsten Dunst, who plays Mary Jane Watson, the seemingly unattainable red-headed girl next door he yearns to be with.  Equally suited is James Franco as Peter’s best friend, Harry Osborne, completing the central trio who will grow and develop over the course of the Raimi Spider-Man trilogy.  Filling the important parts of Peter’s Uncle Ben and Aunt May are, respectively, Cliff Robertson and Rosemary Harris with both actors deftly providing the supportive and loving parental roles that are a key component of the Spider-Man mythos.

As Norman Osborn/Green Goblin, Willem Defoe delivers an increasingly unhinged turn with Osborn’s path to insanity unfolding as the chemically induced persona of the Goblin takes hold.  The scenes in which Osborn ‘converses’ with the Goblin (in the mirror/via the Goblin armour helmet) are an irrefutable highlight of Defoe’s performance.  Granted, the design of the Goblin suit is a little like something out of Power Rangers but that doesn’t detract from the overall threat.  There cannot of course be any discussion of Spider-Man without praise for the inimitable J.K. Simmons as the cantankerous chief of the Daily Bugle newspaper, J. Jonah Jameson.  Simmons’ energetic portrayal of Jameson is such a delight and his crusade against what he perceives as the menace of Spider-Man bringing another essential ingredient to the mix.

Sam Raimi directs with a genuine passion and clear understanding of the Spider-Man character and his world.  Raimi’s horror background adds a pleasing hint of the gothic and a dash of dark humour to proceedings accentuated by the music score from composer Danny Elfman, who also provides a main theme as recognisable as that of the 1960s Spider-Man cartoon and as epically sweeping and heroic (complementing those exhilarating web-slinging scenes superbly) as Elfman’s previous work for Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns.  The action is engaging and expertly staged, with an exciting and tense finale that’s also shockingly brutal as Osborn’s Goblin proves his physical might over the young and inexperienced hero.

The friendly neighbourhood web-slinger faces the deranged ‘Green Goblin’, played brilliantly by Willem Defoe (image credit: Sony Pictures/Marvel Entertainment).

Spider-Man remains largely faithful to the source material and despite the contemporary setting it very much feels like the classic Lee/Ditko comics of the early 60s, adhering to the spirit and core elements of those original stories – not in the least the tragic death of Uncle Ben.  Driven by Ben’s wise words that “with great power comes great responsibility” (invoking Stan Lee’s immortal phrasing from the Marvel Comics) to use his abilities for good, it also reminds us that the burdened hero is often the most interesting and identifiable and part of the reason why Spider-Man is such an enduringly popular fictional character.  There is one significant change from the established lore in Peter’s ability to shoot webbing organically from his wrists, as opposed to the mechanical web-shooters and web fluid he would invent in the comic.  It’s a slightly odd element that was (supposedly) retained from James Cameron’s treatment that would later be rectified with The Amazing Spider-Man reboot and continued in the recent Marvel Studios iteration.

Received favourably by audiences, Spider-Man is a solid, highly entertaining first big-budget cinematic outing for the Marvel Comics character which would lead to a sequel that many still consider one of the best comic book films of all time.

Geek fact!

The Evil Dead star Bruce Campbell cameos as a wrestling ringleader and would also go on to appear in Spider-Man 2 and 3.

All images herein remain the property of the copyright owners and are used for illustrative purposes only.

It’s a Classic: ‘Star Trek’ – “The City on the Edge of Forever”

Looking at some of the best pop culture offerings in film, TV and comics…

“A question.  Since before your sun burned hot in space and before your race was born, I have awaited a question”

Star Trek - City a

Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) encounter the mysterious ‘Guardian of Forever’ (image credit: ViacomCBS).

Year:  1967

Starring:  William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, George Takei, Nichelle Nichols, Joan Collins

Director:  Joseph Pevney / written by:  Harlan Ellison / series created by:  Gene Roddenberry

What’s it about?

Captain Kirk and Science Officer Spock travel back in time in pursuit of a delirious Doctor McCoy, crazed by an accidental overdose of a powerful drug, in order to prevent disastrous changes in the timeline…

In review:  why it’s a classic

Once aptly described by film critic Scott Mantz as the Citizen Kane of Star Trek”, “The City on the Edge of Forever” is a firm fan favourite and irrefutably one of the finest ever Star Trek episodes.  From a story written by the late science fiction author and television writer Harlan Ellison, “The City on the Edge of Forever” received significant, uncredited rewrites from Star Trek writer/producer Gene L. Coon, story editor D.C. Fontana and finally, series creator Gene Roddenberry in order to temper some of Ellison’s more radical ideas that didn’t align with the altruistic nature of the series and behaviour of its characters (drug-dealing Enterprise crewmembers would clearly be out of place) and other elements that the show’s budget simply couldn’t allow.  Thankfully, the result is nothing less than an unforgettable masterpiece of imaginative and dramatic SF-TV.  The episode rightfully earned the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Episodic Drama on Television as well as the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation.

“The City on the Edge of Forever” opens as the U.S.S. Enterprise arrives at an unexplored planet to investigate the source of mysterious ‘time ripples’.  The ship is rocked, causing helmsman Sulu (George Takei) to be injured and whilst being treated, Doctor McCoy (DeForest Kelley) accidentally injects himself with a dangerous overdose of a drug which renders him paranoid and maniacal.  Pursuing McCoy to the planet below, Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and his landing party discover ancient ruins and a strange, sentient stone structure – a gateway through time that calls itself the ‘Guardian of Forever’.  As the Guardian demonstrates its ability, the deranged McCoy leaps through the gateway.  Following McCoy to a point before his arrival, Kirk and his loyal Vulcan first officer, Mr. Spock (the always superb Leonard Nimoy) find themselves in depression-era New York and eventually in the 21st Street Mission, run by the pacifist Sister Edith Keeler (Joan Collins).  Accessing historical records from his tricorder device, Spock soon discovers that McCoy has somehow caused an unfolding change in events – whereas Edith Keeler had originally died in an accident, she now survives and her campaign for peace would lead to a delay in the United States’ entry into the Second World War, allowing the victory of Nazi Germany – creating a ripple effect of unfathomable consequences.  As they await McCoy’s arrival through the time stream, Spock informs his captain that in order to save the future, Keeler must die…but Kirk finds he has fallen in love with her.

Star Trek - City b

Kirk faces a moral dilemma as he falls for Sister Edith Keeler (Joan Collins) in “The City on the Edge of Forever” (image credit: ViacomCBS).

It’s a great story and a standout episode for William Shatner, whose passionate performance is remarkably effective and bittersweet.  Despite the more dramatic aspects of the story, there are some terrific comic moments in the second act – Kirk and Spock being caught ‘acquiring’ 20th Century clothing by a patrolling police officer leads to a hilarious scene in which Kirk attempts to explain the alien Spock’s appearance, one of many moments in the episode that demonstrates the magnificent interplay and rapport between Shatner and Leonard Nimoy.  Shatner also shares wonderful chemistry with guest star Joan Collins, who is charming as Edith Keeler, a woman beyond her time who dreams of a hopeful future for all of humanity – a future that the gallant Captain Kirk knows to be true.  It gives “The City on the Edge of Forever” an evocative philosophical angle to accompany the story’s grand science fiction aspects and solid characterisation.  “The City on the Edge of Forever” is also, undoubtedly, a strong outing for co-stars Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley – who puts in a particularly memorable turn as the crazed drug-afflicted McCoy, whom Keeler nurses back to health – and a highlight of the friendship between Kirk, Spock and McCoy which is both embraced and put to the test as Kirk faces perhaps his greatest and most personal moral dilemma.

The climactic moments of “The City on the Edge of Forever” are agonising (all the more dramatic thanks to some tense direction by Joseph Pevney) given there is only one inevitable outcome and provides an unusually sombre, yet poignant, ending for an episode of Star Trek.  It all creates a must-see classic which represents the Star Trek franchise at its absolute best.

Standout moment (spoilers)

Discovering that McCoy has arrived and is healthy, Kirk rushes across the street to greet his friend – as Edith steps into the road, unaware that a fast-moving truck is approaching…

Geek fact!

Harlan Ellison’s original script for “The City on the Edge of Forever” would later be adapted into comic book form as a mini-series from IDW Publishing, released in 2014.

If you like this then check out…

Star Trek: The Next Generation – “Yesterday’s Enterprise” : Captain Jean-Luc Picard faces a difficult decision when the appearance of the Enterprise ‘C’ through a time vortex adversely alters history.

Images used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

Flashback: ‘X-Men’

Summer 2000 saw the arrival of Marvel’s ‘X-Men’ on the big screen, leading to an explosion of superhero blockbusters at the cinema…

X-Men Xavier & Magneto

Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan provide heaps of gravitas in Bryan Singer’s ‘X-Men’ (image credit: 20th Century Fox).

Year:  2000

Starring:  Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, Famke Janssen, James Marsden, Halle Berry, Anna Paquin, Tyler Mane, Ray Park, Rebecca Romijn (as Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), Bruce Davison

Directed by:  Bryan Singer / written by:  David Hayter (Story by Tom DeSanto & Bryan Singer.  X-Men created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby)

What’s it about?

The not-too distant future: as the U.S. Government contemplates the introduction of a registration act for mutants – evolved humans with paranormal abilities – the benevolent ‘X-Men’, led by Professor Charles Xavier must stop Xavier’s old friend, Erik Lensherr and his Brotherhood of Mutants from igniting a conflict with the rest of humanity…

Retrospective/review

Although it could be argued that the contemporary explosion of comic book superhero films was initiated by the success of Blade in 1999, it was actually X-Men that brought the genre to the masses – leading to an (at least presently) endless crop of big screen comic book adaptations.  Helmed by The Usual Suspects director Bryan Singer, X-Men would become a smash hit for film studio 20th Century Fox in the summer of 2000 and although it may now seem a little tame when placed alongside Marvel Studios releases such as the colossal Avengers Endgame, it remains an enjoyable superhero action adventure that has an important place in the history of superhero cinema.  It would also spawn a lucrative film franchise spanning almost two decades, concluding with last year’s unfairly maligned (albeit flawed) X-Men: Dark Phoenix…or technically, will conclude with the still as-yet unreleased New Mutants spin-off.

By enlisting a director of proven calibre and having its cast include two of the world’s most talented and experienced actors, Star Trek legend Patrick Stewart as Professor Charles Xavier – leader of the ‘X-Men’ and a mutant with incredible mental powers – and Ian McKellan as Xavier’s old friend turned enemy, fellow mutant Erik Lensherr – aka ‘Magneto’, with the ability to control magnetism – X-Men would take a serious and somewhat believable approach to the source material without betraying the core fantasy and socially aware elements Stan Lee and Jack Kirby infused into the original Marvel comics (and which was so well portrayed in the classic 1990s Fox X-Men animated series).  Some may have been upset by the lack of more colourful costumes, but the cool black leather X-uniforms are indicative of the style and creative intentions favoured in Singer’s film.

X-Men Wolverine

Hugh Jackman debuts as Logan/Wolverine (image credit: 20th Century Fox).

In X-Men, as U.S. senator Robert Kelly (Bruce Davison) debates the perceived danger of those with mutant abilities and presses for the Mutant Registration Act, Erik Lensherr, with his ‘Brotherhood’, believing that a war between mutants and the rest of humanity is all but inevitable, plots a pre-emptive first strike which Charles Xavier and his benevolent mutant X-Men must prevent.  In order to uncover Magneto’s plans, Xavier must investigate the link with two stray mutants – the young and afraid adolescent girl going by the name ‘Rogue’ (Anna Paquin, future star of TV hit True Blood), with the ability to absorb the powers of other mutants and the mysterious Logan, otherwise known as the cage fighter called ‘the Wolverine’, who is unable to recall his past or how his skeleton was grafted with the indestructible metal adamantium – a process he only survived thanks to his mutant-healing factor.

Although he may be taller than his comic book counterpart, Hugh Jackman – receiving top-billing – is instantly and effortlessly Logan/Wolverine, perfect casting in a role that would quickly become popular with audiences and fans alike.  Jackman simply is Wolverine, aside from matching the obvious physicality of the character (minus the height difference, which really isn’t an issue given the strength of Jackman’s performance) he embodies the spirit of Logan, from the raging temperament to the emotional depth arising from his nightmare flashes of lost memory and his befriending of Anna Paquin’s Rogue.  It’s a sublime portrayal right from the outset in X-Men and one that would only become more refined and assured in later instalments.

The cast of X-Men is filled out commendably with a generally strong group of actors who are a good fit for their characters.  James Marsden, Famke Janssen (previously a femme fatale in the James bond film Goldeneye) and Halle Berry make for pleasing live action versions of fan-favourite X-Men, respectively: the optic-blasting team leader Scott Summers/aka Cyclops (the conflict between Cyclops and Logan intact from the comics), the telekinetic Jean Grey (with no X-alias) and Ororo Munroe/aka Storm, with the ability to control weather effects.  Magneto’s Brotherhood boasts Rebecca Romijn as the shape-shifting Mystique, Tyler Mane as the feral Sabretooth and Ray Park (Darth Maul in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace) as the agile, whip-tongued and slime-spitting Toad.  They may not be afforded anything in the way of character development, but non-the-less help facilitate the threat to the central heroes.

X-Men Cyclops

‘Cyclops’ (James Marsden) leads the X-Men as they attempt to prevent a war with the rest of humanity (image credit: 20th Century Fox).

From a story by Singer and Tom DeSanto, the script is provided by David Hayter (best known for voicing iconic video game character Solid Snake in Metal Gear Solid) which captures the essence of the X-Men comics, it’s characters and the themes of prejudice and persecution which sadly remained as prescient in 2000 as they were in the 1960s, transposing it all into a more grounded reality.  Despite the more serious elements of the story (immediately evident from the bleak flashback opening at a World War II concentration camp, where the young Erik Lensherr is separated from his parents and his mutant abilities are first demonstrated) there’s still some fun to be had with a smattering of black humour and entertaining action sequences which complement the human and emotional aspects of the film.  The narrative wisely focuses on Logan and Rogue as the lone outsiders who cross paths with the X-Men, acting as a mirror for those in the audience unfamiliar with the world and characters of Marvel’s X-Men.  Bryan Singer’s direction is tightly and expertly executed, with a clear sense of visuals, tone and character deftly balanced with the action set-pieces which meld seamlessly with the special/visual effects which make full use of the $75 million budget (a princely sum back in 2000 but small change compared to today’s cinematic superhero offerings).  The Liberty Island finale is suitably tense and exciting bringing X-Men to an action-packed crescendo which may pale in comparison to the more epic and effects saturated climaxes of subsequent entries but is a satisfying close for Singer’s first effort.

Whilst the overall quality of Fox’s X-Men franchise may be inconsistent, the films are generally entertaining and sometimes excellent (see: X2, X-Men: First Class, X-Men: Days of Future Past and Logan) and Bryan Singer’s X-Men is certainly one of the better early Marvel Comics big screen adaptations, the success of which (along with Sony/Columbia Pictures’ Spider-Man) would allow more comic book blockbusters to hit the big screen and inevitably become the dominant genre in film and television.

Geek fact! 

Amongst the serving producers of X-Men was later Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige, mastermind and guardian of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Image(s) used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

It’s a Classic: ‘The Terminator’

Looking at some of the best pop culture offerings in film, TV and comics…

“Come with me if you want to live!”

Terminator a

Arnold Schwarzenegger is the iconic killer cyborg in ‘The Terminator’ (image credit: MGM).

Year:  1984

Starring:  Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Biehn, Linda Hamilton, Paul Winfield, Lance Henrikson, Earl Boen

Director:  James Cameron / written by:  James Cameron & Gale Anne Hurd

What’s it about?

An unstoppable cyborg is sent back through time from the year 2029 to murder Sarah Connor, a waitress who will be mother to the leader of the human resistance waging a future war against the machines…

In review: why it’s a classic

Prior to 1984 it would be hard to believe that James Cameron would become one of modern cinema’s greatest auteurs.  Having previously worked as an art director on Roger Corman’s Battle Beyond the Stars (and later increase his profile by co-writing the screenplay for Rambo: First Blood Part II with Sylvester Stallone), Cameron had made his directorial debut with the dreadful horror sequel Piranha II: The Spawning.  Yet his fever-induced vision of a robot killing machine would spawn not only a successful filmmaking career but also a pop culture phenomenon.

Setting out to create the definitive technological science fiction terror tale, Cameron would drive The Terminator above its perceived B-movie trappings and create an all-time classic.  Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger in the title role, The Terminator sees a formidable and seemingly unstoppable cyborg sent back in time to the then present day of 1984 from the year 2029, where mankind faces extinction in a war against Skynet – an advanced form of A.I. – and its army of war machines, to murder Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), the mother of the human resistance’s leader, John Connor, before he is born and can lead the human race to victory.  There’s hope for Sarah in the form of Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn – later to star in Cameron’s Aliens), a resistance soldier also sent back to 1984 with a mission to find and protect her from Skynet’s ‘Terminator’ at all cost.

Terminator b

Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn in ‘The Terminator’ (image credit: MGM).

Say what you will about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s acting abilities, but his balance of subtlety and intensity created a truly terrifying adversary, a shark-like robotic predator driven relentlessly to fulfil its programming in a career-defining role that would propel him to superstardom and a performance that is a crucial component in the success of The Terminator.  The film is a tense, exciting and often terrifying sci-fi action chase-thriller that posits a frightening scenario in which the advancement of technology and humanity’s hubris results in its obliteration.  Its dystopic elements are levied by the romance that builds between Sarah and Reese and together with the hope of humanity’s survival, creates a sense of hope amidst the bleakness.  Michael Biehn is great as Kyle Reese in a performance that conveys more depth than the average action hero.  Biehn is certainly adept at handling all of the required physicality but there’s a vulnerable quality to Reese that brings a lot of humanity to the character and a believability to a man out of time who has only ever known a life of hardship and struggle.  Linda Hamilton is perfectly cast as Sarah Connor with a fine portrayal of the everyday girl-next-door who has the fate of humankind literally placed in her hands.  Despite the fantastical aspects of the story, Sarah’s arc and her growth unfold naturally as she begins to unlock her inner strength and ultimately accept her destiny.  She is the heart of The Terminator and Linda Hamilton helps to create one of the most iconic screen heroines, inspired by Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in Ridley Scott’s Alien.

Terminator c

No escape? The Terminator continues its relentless pursuit (image credit: MGM).

The film’s special effects have aged extremely well and bely the $6 million production budget.  Younger viewers may scoff at the more practical nature of The Terminator but the ambitious blend of miniatures, puppetry, stop-motion animation and rear screen projection are a testament to Cameron as a pioneer in filmmaking.  Of course not all of the credit should go to Cameron, sure, through his tenacity the film’s grand vision was realised but it mustn’t be forgotten that the film’s groundbreaking effects and design would never have been achieved without the works of effects company Fantasy II and Hollywood legend Stan Winston (who would collaborate with Cameron again on Aliens and Terminator 2: Judgment Day as well as creating the deadly alien hunter in Predator).  The Terminator is the successful sum of numerous parts and would not have been complete without Brad Fiedel’s score, undoubtedly one of the greatest revelations in motion picture music.  As strong as the film’s concepts and visuals, the metallic clunks and thrumming beats infused within Fiedel’s electronic score bring the killer cyborg and ravaged future Los Angeles to life.

Whilst the franchise may have faltered in recent years, James Cameron’s The Terminator remains forever a classic piece of science fiction cinema and with its laudable technical achievements, thrilling action and a captivating story it’s a film that will continue to endure.

Standout moment

Homing in on its target, the Terminator tracks Sarah Connor to the Tech Noir nightclub – making its way through the crowds on the dancefloor, drawing a handgun as it approaches Sarah and prepares to make the kill.  But Kyle Reese is already there, waiting to spring into action…

Geek fact!

Initially under consideration for the role of the Terminator were Lance Henrikson (who would go on to appear as LAPD cop Vukovich, alongside Paul Winfield’s Lt. Traxler) and O.J. Simpson.  Arnold Schwarzenegger was also originally put forward by his agent for the part of Kyle Reese.

If you like this then check out:

RoboCop (1987): the ‘other’ iconic 80s techno sci-fi action classic, director Paul Verhoeven executes a violent and satirical film with a superb central performance from Peter Weller as the titular part-man, part-machine future cop.

Images used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

Have You Read… ‘Hulk: Gray’?

The comics and graphic novels you may not have read that are worth checking out… 

Hulk Gray (a)

Cover art for the original hardcover collected edition of Hulk: Gray by Tim Sale (image credit: Marvel Comics).

 

Written by:  Jeph Loeb / art by:  Tim Sale (The Incredible Hulk created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby)

What’s it about?

Seeking out an old friend, Dr. Bruce Banner recounts the first hours following his exposure to Gamma radiation – the very event which unleashed his raging alter-ego, aka the Incredible Hulk…

In review

Following their collaborations on Daredevil: Yellow and Spider-Man: Blue, writer Jeph Loeb and artist Tim Sale (the creative team who produced fan favourites Batman: The Long Halloween and Superman: For All Seasons for DC) reunited for another Marvel Comics limited series – Hulk: Gray, originally published in 2003/2004 as six single issues under the more mature and less creatively restricted Marvel Knights banner.

Hulk: Gray is a standalone story recounting a previously untold tale in the history of the Incredible Hulk, within the first 24 hours of Dr. Bruce Banner’s fateful exposure to Gamma radiation and his transformation into the raging gray – or “grey” – giant.  That’s right…as aficionados will likely be aware, the Hulk was originally coloured grey for his debut in 1963’s The Incredible Hulk #1 and was subsequently recoloured green due to issues with printing reproduction (although a grey version of the Hulk would later feature in Peter David’s popular run on the title).  But aside from honouring this aspect of the character’s origin, the title Gray has more of a thematic meaning as it ponders the shadier middle moral ground between black and white.  It also explores the Frankenstein parallels that have often been linked to the character – something that was there from that very first classic issue by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.  The story is presented in a straightforward manner, weaving its ideas neatly into the narrative.

Hulk: Gray opens as a forever on-the-run Bruce Banner, mourning the death of his late beloved wife, Betty (nee Ross), on the night of their wedding anniversary, takes a brief pause to seek the counsel of an old friend, psychotherapist Dr. Leonard Samson.  Tired of being pursued and eternally haunted by his beastly alter-ego, Banner bares his soul to Samson as he recalls his earliest moments as the Hulk and how the only true salvation in his life was Betty.  Yet, as we learn, Betty’s initial encounter with the Hulk is not exactly a sympathetic one and adds to Banner’s heartbreak in the face of an inevitably irreversible change in his life.

As well as Banner’s relationship with Betty, Hulk: Gray also looks at the conflict the Hulk’s appearance incites with the U.S. Military as Betty’s father, General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross begins his relentless campaign to hunt down the creature.  What’s interesting is that Gray really conveys the sense that Ross, with his traditional air of “might makes right” (again in-line with how he was originally conceived by Lee and Kirby), is equally as raging and destructive as the Hulk, the difference being that his actions are deemed lawful and sanctioned by the U.S. government.  He may be more in control and less unpredictable than the almost mindless (or more child-like) Hulk, but the maniacal, near-psychotic Ross faithfully depicted here is proven to be just as dangerous with the resources – the “might” – at his command.

There’s still an element of hope in the story as the Hulk is not totally alone and has one person he can call “friend” (notwithstanding an unfortunately brief meeting with a desert-roaming bunny rabbit) – teenager Rick Jones, whom Banner had saved from the fallout of the Gamma Bomb test.  Gray highlights the ever-important friendship between Banner/Hulk and Rick and touches upon the burden of guilt that Rick carries as he blames himself for Banner being caught in the blast that leads to his ‘condition’.  Despite his troubles, Banner doesn’t hold his new young friend responsible and both as man and beast finds, at this point, his only trusted ally.  It underpins Banner’s inherent sense of morality and benevolence that prevents the Hulk from becoming a force of evil without removing the element of danger that accompanies an unrestrained and primal creature.

Throughout its six chapters, Gray serves up a pleasing dose of Hulk-Smash! entertainment and facilitates a secret, undocumented pre-Avengers confrontation between the formidable grey behemoth and Tony Stark’s Iron Man (with his classic early 60s bulky, golden tin-man appearance).  The desert-bound battle between the two future allies is a standout moment with Stark quickly realising that he’s bitten off more than he can chew as he’s beaten and tossed around by the Hulk.  Despite the technology at his disposal, Stark is unable to counter the threat that he and the U.S. Military have, perhaps unwittingly, provoked.

With the opening and closing of Gray taking place in the present, most of the story is told via Banner and Banner/Samson’s conversation, threaded throughout and serving as a narration.  Jeph Loeb’s entertaining script grapples onto the thematic concepts to present a poignant and thought-provoking tale of a man and a simple-minded and powerful but misunderstood monster, examining the dichotomy between the two personas and Banner’s startling revelation of why he really believes Betty loved him and stood by him for so long.

Tim Sale’s art is great and makes for a suitable accompaniment to Loeb’s script, with a classic, cartoon style that is reverential to – but exaggerates – Jack Kirby’s original visual design and which was also influenced by celebrated Hulk artist Marie Severin and her parody take on the character, ‘The Inedible Bulk’ (appearing in Marvel’s superhero spoof comic Not Brand Echh).  The use of colouring and shading is simple and effective (the black and white bookending sequences between Banner and Samson adds a touch of noir that also accentuates the central ‘grey area’ concept), creating a strong sense of atmosphere and the use of grey ink wash for the Hulk himself provides a subtle highlight that helps the iconic character standout on the page.  Whilst Sale’s style wouldn’t necessarily work as successfully in regular issues of The Incredible Hulk, the art he produces for Hulk: Gray is befitting of the pulpier approach taken by a story rooted in atomic age sci-fi.

Lovingly executed by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale, Hulk: Gray is a salute and homage to those early tales of the Incredible Hulk crafted by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, simply told whilst broadening the depth of a decades-old Marvel Comics icon and reiterating the core elements that make the character most appealing.

Geek fact!

Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale would team up once again in 2008 for a further ‘colour’ Marvel hero limited series – Captain America: White in which Steve Rogers recounts a special mission during World War II.

Hulk: Gray is published by Marvel Comics and is available in print and digital formats now.

Images used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).