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…

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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.

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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.

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‘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!”

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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.

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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.

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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).

Flashback: ‘Star Trek: Insurrection’

The Enterprise crew battle to save a cosmic paradise in the ninth ‘Star Trek’ feature film…

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Patrick Stewart and Donna Murphy in ‘Star Trek: Insurrection’ (imaged credit: Paramount Pictures).

Year:  1998

Starring:  Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, Brent Spiner, LeVar Burton, Michael Dorn, Gates McFadden, Marina Sirtis, F. Murray Abraham, Donna Murphy, Anthony Zerbe

Directed by:  Jonathan Frakes / written by:  Michael Piller (story by Rick Berman & Michael Piller.  Based upon Star Trek, created by Gene Roddenberry)

What’s it about?

Captain Picard and the loyal crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise disobey Starfleet orders to protect the B’aku, whose homeworld produces rejuvenating effects which a race called the S’ona plan to exploit…

Retrospective/review

The success of Star Trek: First Contact was surely a tough act to follow and although 1998’s Star Trek: Insurrection would not prove to be as good, the result would be an enjoyable, if inferior, big screen instalment of Star Trek.  With Jonathan Frakes back in the director’s chair, the screenplay for Insurrection would be tackled by former Star Trek: The Next Generation head writer (and co-creator of television spin-offs Deep Space Nine and Voyager) Michael Piller, who had helped to guide that series to greater creative success and penned various standout episodes including the beloved two-parter “The Best of Both Worlds”.  From a story by himself and producer Rick Berman, Piller’s script provides a very Star Trek-like narrative that deals with moral themes and ethical quandaries traditional of the franchise and the types of character-driven stories that Piller favoured.  As the title implies, Star Trek: Insurrection see Captain Picard and his crew defy orders to protect the population of the planet Ba’ku, the rings of which produces a rejuvenating radiation (making the world a sort of galactic fountain of youth) which Starfleet and the Federation, in partnership with a race called the Son’a – who are trying to preserve their lives via genetic manipulation and cosmetic surgeries – seek to harvest and share for the benefit of the many.

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F. Murray Abraham as Ru’afo – the main villain of ‘Star Trek: Insurrection’ (Image credit: Paramount Pictures).

Picard learns from his superior, Admiral Dougherty (Licence to Kill’s Anthony Zerbe), that the 600-something population of Ba’ku are not indigenous to the planet – a fact that the Federation cites as justification for its actions, which the Son’a (lead by F. Murray Abraham’s Ru’afo) have manipulated to their advantage – and that the process of collecting the ring’s particles will render the world uninhabitable.  Yet the Ba’ku people are a peaceful group and Picard feels that to forcefully relocate them is a betrayal of everything he believes in and the core values upon which the Federation was founded, for which he is prepared to risk his career…and possibly his life.

Insurrection may seem, for better or worse, more like an extended episode of The Next Generation (albeit on a larger scale and with a much higher budget) and fails to match the overall excellence of First Contact but it’s still an entertaining watch with a good dose of drama, action and humour.  Jonathan Frakes once again directs with skill and a knowledge and appreciation for the history of Star Trek: The Next Generation and its characters.  As Commander Riker, Frakes is afforded a larger and slightly more significant role than in First Contact (notwithstanding him shaving off his beard) – the youthful effect of the Ba’ku radiation leading to a rekindling of romance between Riker and Counsellor Troi (Marina Sirtis) and the plot leading to Riker’s command of the Enterprise in its battle with the Son’a as Picard and his team fight to protect the Ba’ku on the ground.

It goes without saying that Patrick Stewart (who is also credited as ‘Associate Producer’) is great in the film, with another strong portrayal as Picard and Insurrection provides him with a romantic interest in the form of Donna Murphy’s Ba’ku villager, Anij.  Brent Spiner, again, proves solid support as Data and his befriending of one of the young Ba’ku (Artim, played by Michael Welch, who would go on to appear in Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes) is a highlight.  The rest of the TNG cast also get their moments, Michael Dorn’s Worf once more joining his former crewmates for their latest adventure – the B’aku radiation hilariously causing “aggressive tendencies” as it triggers the hormonal effects of Klingon adolescence – and blind Chief Engineer Geordi LaForge (Levar Burton) finds his eyesight temporarily restored.  As Doctor Beverly Crusher, Gates McMadden has less to do but does share some fun and humorous scenes with Patrick Stewart, Marina Sirtis and Brent Spiner.  Leading the threat against the Enterprise crew is Academy Award winner F. Murray Abraham (Amadeus) who is superb as the Son’a leader, Ru’afo, with a hefty and maniacal performance providing a worthy antagonist for Patrick Stewart’s Picard to face.

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The U.S.S. Enterprise plays her part in helping to save paradise (image credit: Paramount Pictures).

The narrative may flow more like an episode of TNG and not necessarily fulfil the grander high-stakes ambitions of a feature film, but at the heart of Insurrection is a Roddenberry-esque morality tale and the script contains a few neat twists and turns, including the true motivations of the Son’a rising from their surprising history with the Ba’ku.  There are also a number of decent action sequences, the standouts including the Son’a attack on the Ba’ku village, the battle in space as Son’a vessels pursue the Enterprise and the climactic confrontation between Picard and Ru’afo aboard the Son’a collector ship.  The film is blessed with Matthew Leoneti’s beautiful cinematography, wonderfully captured from the Californian landscapes doubling for the Ba’ku planet.  Jerry Goldsmith earns kudos for producing another excellent music score that draws on his previous Star Trek themes whilst creating new cues fitting of Insurrection’s story.

So, there are certainly positives in favour of Star Trek: Insurrection and although it doesn’t raise the bar for the Star Trek film series and may seem a little underwhelming when placed alongside First Contact, it still makes for entertaining viewing with solid cast performances, direction and neat action set pieces.

Geek fact! 

Star Trek: Insurrection was the first Star Trek feature to move completely away from model effects work, utilising CGI for all its exterior spaceship sequences.

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

Have You Seen… ‘Escape From New York’?

Film and TV you might not have checked out but really should…

– 

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Kurt Russell as “Snake” Plissken, the iconic anti-hero of John Carpenter’s ‘Escape From New York’ (image credit: Studiocanal).

Year: 1981

Starring:  Kurt Russell, Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, Donald Pleasence, Isaac Hayes, Harry Dean Stanton, Adrienne Barbeau

Directed by:  John Carpenter / written by:  John Carpenter and Nick Castle

What’s it about?

1997: New York is now a maximum-security prison and when the President of the United States is taken hostage after terrorists seize Air Force One, the authorities enlist the help of “Snake” Plissken – a convicted criminal and ex-Special Forces solider…

In review: why you should see it

John Carpenter’s Escape From New York may not be as widely known to contemporary viewers as the director’s more iconic mainstream hits – Halloween and The Thing – but it’s a science fiction action cult classic and comfortably one of Carpenter’s best films.  Taking place in the dystopic then-future of 1997, the U.S. crime rate has risen to uncontrollable levels leading to the conversion of Manhattan Island into a maximum-security prison, the city of New York being walled-off and mined in order to contain the most dangerous of criminals.  When the President of the United States (Donald Pleasence) – on his way to a critical peacekeeping summit – is taken hostage after fleeing a terrorist-seized Air Force One, the U.S. Police Force enlists the help of “Snake” Plissken (Kurt Russell – who would subsequently star in The Thing) a former Special Forces operative incarcerated after attempting to rob the Federal Reserve.  Offered a full pardon if he can rescue the President and get him out of New York alive within 24 hours, Snake is unwittingly given an extra incentive:  explosive charges injected into his arteries that will only be neutralised if he succeeds and returns in time.  Free to roam the decaying New York landscape and live as they please, with no hope of ever leaving, the prisoners within bow to the rule of the Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes) – the city’s overall crime boss – and Snake, with his life already on the line, must fight his way through the deranged and deadly gangs of a place that once stood for peace and liberty before it’s too late.

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Oscar-winning music legend Isaac Hayes as the Duke of New York (image credit: Studiocanal).

As the gruff, eye-patch wearing and no-nonsense Snake, the excellent Kurt Russell, with some Clint Eastwood-esque delivery (and accompanying attitude), creates an iconic action anti-hero (who would be the basis for the “Snake” character of the popular video game series Metal Gear Solid) – a disillusioned man, jaded and apathetic to the Stars and Stripes, whose only real interest here is his own survival.  It’s a central character we’re not initially supposed to like but quickly find ourselves rooting for.  Co-starring with Russell is Lee Van Cleef (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) as the equally no-nonsense police chief, Bob Hauk, whose grudging dislike for Snake begins to soften as he monitors the mission’s progress from the Liberty Island control centre.  Also appearing is Alien’s Harry Dean Stanton as “Brain” a genius engineer serving as an advisor to the Duke, Adrienne Barbeau (wife of Carpenter and star of one of his previous films – The Fog) as Brain’s tough-as-nails girlfriend, Maggie and Airwolf’s Ernest Borgnine as “Cabby”, the New York cabdriver who helps Snake get about in his armoured taxi.  Donald Pleasence, best remembered as Ernst Stavro Blofeld in the classic James Bond film You Only Live Twice, provides a wonderful performance as the slightly buffoonish U.S. President and music legend Isaac Hayes (later the voice of Chef in South Park) makes for an appropriately menacing villain as the proclaimed Duke of New York and is aided by Frank Doubleday (previously from Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13) as the oddball and eccentric Romero – named after George Romero, director of legendary zombie-horror classic Night of the Living Dead.

Considering its modest $6 million budget and the technical limitations of the time, the production of Escape From New York remains impressive.  Without the by now all too easy reliance on computer generated wizardry, John Carpenter and his team employ incredible ingenuity to combine miniatures, physical sets and matte-painted backgrounds (all helping to effectively create Snake’s stealthy insertion into New York by glider plane) with the St. Louis locations, practical effects and stunts that blend to create a suitably declining and rotten New York (that feels as indelibly dangerous as it looks, even more so given much of the film takes place at night – kudos to Director of Photography Dean Cundey) complemented by the expertly staged action sequences – whether it be gun battles or fist fights…even the arena match Snake is forced to submit to.  It’s been said before but despite the great wonders that can be achieved with CGI, its now predominant usage has diminished the true art and craft of filmmaking.

Escape From New York oozes atmosphere and is populated with colourful characters backed up by a great script.  Writing with Nick Castle, Carpenter produces a pleasingly lean and uncomplicated action-narrative laced with political subtext, social commentary (the real-world escalating New York crime rate feeding the core concept) and flourishes of black humour.  The film’s memorable synthesized music score is also composed by Carpenter (with Alan Howarth) and like much of his directorial output is an important component, elevating all the tension and excitement as the stakes begin to stack up.

Escape From New York would prove another success for John Carpenter and after teaming up for The Thing and Big Trouble in Little China, John Carpenter and Kurt Russell would later reunite for a disappointingly poor sequel – 1996’s Escape From L.A. – but that doesn’t erase the appeal and the pure entertainment value of Escape From New York.

Geek fact!

Working with Carpenter on Escape From New York is future director James Cameron (credited as “Jim” Cameron) as part of the visual effects team and a matte artist, just a few years away from his breakout success with The Terminator.

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

It’s a Classic: ‘Batman: Mask of the Phantasm’

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

“Vengeance blackens the soul, Bruce”

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Batman faces a new threat to Gotham City in ‘Batman: Mask of the Phantasm’ (image credit: Warner Bros.)

Year:  1993

Starring the voices of:  Kevin Conroy, Dana Delany, Hart Bochner, Stacy Keach, Abe Vigoda, Mark Hamill

Directed by:  Eric Radomski and Bruce W. Timm / written by:  Alan Burnett, Paul Dini, Martin Pasko & Michael Reaves (story by Alan Burnett)

What’s it about?

Wrongly accused of the murders of several Gotham mobsters, Batman investigates the appearance of a reaper-like figure…

In review:  why it’s a classic

Spinning off from the immensely popular Batman: The Animated Series, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is an exciting, fun and emotionally resonant adventure for the Dark Knight that provides a fresh and compelling insight into the origins of Bruce Wayne’s crime-fighting alter ego, the heartbreak of a lost chance for happiness and the enduring tragedy of the murder of his parents.

Enlisting the voice artists of Batman: The Animated Series with a script (the plot inspired by Mike W. Barr’s Batman: Year Two comics storyline) written by regular writers of the series and directed by creators Eric Radomski and Bruce Timm, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (originally intended as a straight to video release but ultimately receiving a theatrical release during Christmas of 1993) sees Bruce Wayne reconnect with the love of his past, Andrea Beaumont, who returns to Gotham City after disappearing some years prior.  It evokes bittersweet memories for Bruce who is still trying to understand why Andrea left so abruptly just as the pair planned to marry.

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The mysterious Phantasm (image credit: Warner Bros.)

Flashbacks facilitate a glimpse into Bruce’s earlier days in his career as a vigilante but also shows a brief point in that period when he considers a happier and more hopeful path that would see him unburdened by his vow to avenge his parents’ murders and keep Gotham safe.  Meanwhile, in the present, Bruce continues his war against crime and as the Batman, investigates the deaths of some of Gotham’s top mob bosses for which the Dark Knight is wrongly accused and must uncover the identity of the real perpetrator – a mysterious cloaked reaper-like figure who stalks the city at night.  In order to tackle this new threat, Bruce must face unexpected revelations from the past and how it relates to Andrea and her father, a financier entangled in the affairs of crime lord Salvatore Valestra.

Kevin Conroy is the definitive voice artist for the lead role of Bruce Wayne/Batman, bringing a vulnerability and humanity to the former and skilfully infusing the latter with the right amount of intensity and confidence.  Dana Delany is sublimely cast as Andrea with an appropriately strong and heartfelt performance that enhances the love story element of the film.  Filling out the cast is Efrem Zimbalist Jr. who brings his warm, dutiful tones to the role of Alfred (the familial bond between Bruce and his faithful butler is an obvious highlight), Bob Hastings as Jim Gordon, Gotham’s tireless Police Commissioner, Hart Bochner as corrupt City Councilman Arthur Reeves, Stacy Keach as Andrea’s father, Carl, Abe Vigoda as Valestra and Robert Constanza as Detective Harvey Bullock.

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The incomparable Mark Hamill returns to voice the Joker (image credit: Warner Bros.)

Naturally, any Batman story is made all the greater when it features the Joker and thankfully Mark Hamill reprises the role for Mask of the Phantasm.  Like Kevin Conroy, Hamill is perfect casting and he engages with the part passionately, bringing, assuredly, all the expected maniacal, deranged and playful qualities that define the Dark Knight’s greatest adversary.  The script ensures that the Clown Prince of Crime’s inclusion has important ties to the narrative so as not to simply throw the ever-popular comic villain into the mix merely for the sake of it – leading to a climactic showdown between Batman, the Joker and the Phantasm at the derelict remains of Gotham’s The World of the Future Fair.

Unfortunately, there’s no place for Dick Grayson/Robin in the story but this is very much a Bruce/Batman-focused narrative so whilst the inclusion of Loren Lester may have been welcome, it makes sense not to just shoehorn Robin into the plot – and there’s always the excellent “Robin’s Reckoning” two-parter from TAS.

The animation and design of Mask of the Phantasm is iconic, evoking the dark, retro-modern and gothic style of the series that displays influences of Tim Burton’s Batman.  The character designs are classic and strike the perfect balance between realism and caricature and the visuals flow beautifully with some great action scenes that are deftly executed under the guidance of co-directors Radomski and Timm.  Completing the package is Shirley Walker’s wonderfully atmospheric score which builds on the exemplary work she produced for Batman: TAS.

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is essential viewing for older and newer fans alike and stands proudly alongside Tim Burton’s Batman and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy as a classic screen iteration of a beloved comic book character.

Standout moment

In the darkened caves deep below Wayne Manor, Alfred stands aghast as Bruce emerges from the shadows, donning for the first time the cape and cowl of the Batman…

Geek fact!

Impressing the producers with her work on Mask of the Phantasm, Dana Delany would be cast as the voice of Lois Lane for Superman: The Animated Series.

If you like this then check out…

Batman (1989) : perhaps the defining big screen presentation of the Dark Knight (at least for a particular generation) Tim Burton’s gothic fantasy approach to the source material provided a clear reference point for the makers of Batman: The Animated Series.

It’s a Classic: ‘Star Trek: First Contact’

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

“And you people, you’re all astronauts on some kind of star trek”

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Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) must face his most lethal enemy in ‘Star Trek: First Contact’ (image credit: Paramount Pictures).

Year:  1996

Starring:  Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, LeVar Burton, Michael Dorn, Gates McFadden, Marina Sirtis, Brent Spiner, James Cromwell, Alfre Woodard, Alice Krige

Director:  Jonathan Frakes / written by:  Ronald D. Moore & Brannon Braga (story by Rick Berman, Ronald D. Moore & Brannon Braga.  Based upon Star Trek, created by Gene Roddenberry)

What’s it about?

Captain Picard and his crew pursue the Borg back in time to stop them from changing the future by preventing Earth’s pioneering warp-flight and historic first contact with an alien race…

In review:  why it’s a classic

The finest big screen outing for the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation and one of the overall best Star Trek films, Star Trek: First Contact is an exciting science fiction action adventure that proved a hit with fans and critics as well as general audiences, becoming one of the most financially successful Star Trek features – surpassing previous champion Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.

Star Trek: First Contact sees Captain Jean-Luc Picard and the crew of the Enterprise-E once again faced with their cybernetic foes, the Borg, who travel back in time to the year 2063 – a decade after Earth’s devastating Third World War – to avert the first flight by warp drive inventor Zefram Cochrane and contact with visitors from Vulcan – an event that unites humanity and sparks a more hopeful future that will lead to the formation of Starfleet and the United Federation of Planets.  Pursuing the Borg back to the 21st Century, the Borg vessel is destroyed by the Enterprise but not before its complement of drones transport into the bowels of Picard’s ship and begin taking control.  As Commander Riker and his away team work to ensure Cochrane’s warp flight occurs as scheduled, Picard must fight to prevent the Borg’s seizure of the Enterprise and their plans to destroy the future.  Star Trek: First Contact ties back to The Next Generation’s classic two-parter “The Best of Both Worlds” (read the review here) in which Picard was abducted and assimilated by the Borg and informs the character’s arc, although it isn’t necessary for casual viewers to have seen it as it’s all explained via Picard’s opening nightmare sequence and some neatly placed exposition.

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James Cromwell as Zefram Cochrane (image credit: Paramount Pictures).

As Picard, Patrick Stewart is as superb as ever in the role and there is a lot of range for the character in First Contact as the usually noble and disciplined Picard grapples with his traumatic history with the Borg and the Ahab-like anger towards his enemy which begins to override his judgement as a Starfleet captain.  Stewart shares great rapport with his co-stars, particularly Brent Spiner’s Data who is also given a great deal of focus, his loyalty to Picard threatened when he is captured by the Borg and manipulated by their Queen.  Played with a sultry and sinister menace by Alice Krige, the Borg Queen expands the mythology of the cyborg race, an individual voice within the singular Borg Collective whose purpose is to bring “order to chaos” within the hive mind.  James Cromwell provides a wonderfully spirited performance as Zefram Cochrane, a man worshipped as a historical figure by the Enterprise crew who they quickly learn is flawed and prone to drinking too much.  Alfre Woodard is equally great as Cochrane’s assistant, Lily, who has numerous standout scenes with Patrick Stewart – particularly her heated exchange with Picard as his fury against the Borg verges on vendetta, snapping him into realisation with a poignant reference to Moby Dick.  Given his duties as director, Jonathan Frakes’ Commander Riker has less onscreen presence in comparison to Patrick Stewart and Brent Spiner but still plays an important role.  The rest of the regular TNG cast are all given their moments within the story – Marina Sirtis’ inebriated Deanna Troi serving up a dash of levity – and luckily First Contact allows for Michael Dorn’s Worf (who at this point had joined the cast of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) to rejoin his former crewmates for their adventure.

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Data (Brent Spiner) is manipulated by the Borg Queen (Alice Krige) (image credit: Paramount Pictures).

Star Trek: First Contact thrills with a number of notable action sequences and set-pieces, the highlights including the first act’s space battle against the Borg ship, Picard and his crew’s attempt to halt the Borg’s infiltration and assimilation of the Enterprise and Picard and Worf’s (along with Lt. Hawk, in an early screen appearance by Neal McDonough) excursion onto the ship’s hull to prevent the Borg’s conversion of the main deflector into a means of summoning reinforcements.  The film boasts a great script (from returning Star Trek Generations screenwriters Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga) that has plenty of action, drama, humour and heart and it’s easy to see why it appealed to a wide audience.  It’s a generally pacey adventure that doesn’t sacrifice an enjoyable science fiction story or memorable character moments.  The Borg are a dark threat and the stakes are high yet First Contact maintains the hope and optimism for humanity’s future envisioned by Gene Roddenberry that is the nucleus of any classic Star Trek story.

Having helmed numerous episodes of The Next Generation (as well as Deep Space Nine and Voyager), Jonathan Frakes makes a confident jump to the big screen and keeps First Contact engaging and entertaining.  The production design is excellent and gives it a pleasingly grand, blockbuster feature film look.  The new Enterprise-E is another superb, sleek starship design from illustrator John Eaves that melds the iconic Matt Jeffries concept with that of The Next Generation’s late Enterprise-D.  Likewise, Herman Zimmerman’s interior sets are an appropriate expansion of his previous work.  The new Giger-esque biomechanical look for the Borg courtesy of Michael Westmore makes them an even scarier and formidable enemy and would rightfully earn the film an Oscar nomination.  To top things off, Jerry Goldsmith (with contributions from his son, Joel) provides a classic music score, another career best for the composer that elevates all of the excitement, emotion and atmosphere of the film – the beautifully majestic main theme on par with that of Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Star Trek: First Contact is simply a great big screen Star Trek entry that’s not only enjoyable for fans but for casual viewers as well and represents a high point for the franchise as an entertainment enterprise (pun fully intended).

Standout moment

Discovering that the Borg plan to use the Enterprise’s deflector to contact reinforcements, Picard leads a mission on to the starship’s hull in order to stop them…

Geek fact!

An early concept for the film had the Borg travelling back in time even further to the Renaissance period and would see Data become Leonardo DaVinci’s apprentice!

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Star Trek (2009) : J.J. Abrams directs this rousing, crowd-pleasing big screen reboot of the franchise as a young James Kirk (Chris Pine) battles to save Earth from a vengeful Romulan from the future…

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

Flashback: ‘Star Trek Generations’

It’s 25 years since the cast of ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ transitioned to the big screen…

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Captains Picard (Patrick Stewart) and Kirk (William Shatner) unite to save the galaxy in ‘Star Trek Generations’ (image credit: Paramount Pictures).

Year:  1994

Starring:  Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, Brent Spiner, LeVar Burton, Michael Dorn, Gates McFadden, Marina Sirtis, Malcolm McDowell, William Shatner, James Doohan, Walter Koenig

Directed by:  David Carson / written by:  Ronald D. Moore & Brannon Braga (story by Rick Berman, Ronald D. Moore & Brannon Braga.  Based upon Star Trek, created by Gene Roddenberry)

What’s it about?

Captain Picard and the crew of the Enterprise must stop an obsessive and dangerous scientist from causing the deaths of millions as he searches for a way to return to a mysterious extra-dimensional realm…

Retrospective/review

With Star Trek: The Next Generation completing it’s highly successful seven year run on television and the original Star Trek crew’s big screen voyages concluded with 1991’s Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country it was time for the torch to be passed.  Production on a seventh Star Trek film, in which the newer Star Trek cast would make their silver screen debut, commenced almost immediately after work had wrapped on The Next Generation’s series finale with Star Trek Generations releasing in cinemas in the fall of 1994.

An enjoyable and fun science fiction adventure, Star Trek Generations facilitates a meeting between William Shatner’s Captain Kirk and Patrick Stewart’s Captain Picard whilst also incorporating smaller cameo roles for two other classic Trek characters – Chekov (Walter Koenig) and Engineer Montgomery Scott, a.k.a. “Scotty” (James Doohan).  The story begins in the 23rd Century as Kirk, Chekov and Scotty are guests of honour aboard the newly commissioned successor to Kirk’s ship, the Enterprise-B.  Her maiden voyage is interrupted by an incoming distress call from the Lakul – a transport ship ferrying El-Aurian refugees to Earth, amongst them future Enterprise bartender, Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg).  Discovering that the Lakul is tangled in a mysterious energy ribbon with destructive tendrils threatening to tear it apart, the Enterprise (under the command of Captain John Harriman, played by Alan Ruck) risks all to save the refugees – including Captain Kirk, seemingly lost when the Enterprise’s hull is breached.

Flashing forward 78 years to the 24th Century, Captain Picard and the crew of the Enterprise-D investigate the attack of a deep space observatory.  Recovering the only survivor, the El-Aurian scientist, Dr. Tolian Soran (Malcolm McDowell, star of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange), Picard soon learns that Soran, along with Guinan, whose race has a life span many times greater than humans, were rescued during the Lakul incident and that the energy ribbon encountered by the Enterprise-B is a recurring phenomenon known as the Nexus, a gateway to an extra-dimensional realm were one’s fantasies and dreams are realised and time has no meaning.  Soran, in cohorts with the Klingon Duras sisters Lursa and B’etor (Barbara March and Gwyneth Walsh, respectively, reprising their villainous roles from Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), in exchange for providing them with a powerful new weapon, plans to draw the Nexus to him by destroying stars and threatening the lives of millions.  With the stakes set high, Picard is soon confronted with Soran on the planet Veridian III before being swept into the Nexus, leading to an encounter with a legendary Starfleet captain once thought dead…James T. Kirk, offering Picard his only hope of stopping Soran.

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Malcolm McDowell as Soran (image credit: Paramount Pictures).

Although they may have felt encumbered by a laundry list of requirements for the film (the essential ingredient being a Kirk/Picard team-up), screenwriters Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga – who also wrote the TNG series finale (the feature length “All Good Things”) took their knowledge and experience as former writers on The Next Generation to construct an entertaining narrative that gets the job done, providing some decent character moments together with an imaginative and action-packed science fiction story, under the capable direction of David Carson, himself no stranger to the franchise having helmed fan-favourite TNG episode “Yesterday’s Enterprise” and the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine series premiere.  Generations also boasts a music score from veteran TNG and Deep Space Nine composer Dennis McCarthy, particularly effective during Picard’s scenes in the Nexus where the music has an appropriately wondrous, mystical quality to it.

Focusing on the acting performances and characterisation, there’s a lot for fans to appreciate.  Beyond the obvious delight of having Kirk and Picard onscreen together, both William Shatner and Patrick Stewart are given a reasonable amount to chew on.  Stewart’s Picard suffers the tragic accidental deaths of his brother and nephew (his scenes with Whoopi Goldberg’s Guinan are also a highlight, as they always where in TNG) before his later experience in the Nexus which presents the noble starship captain with the dream of an idyllic family life at Christmas time and a renewed sense of faith as he unites with Captain Kirk to save the day.  Despite only appearing in the opening and closing acts of Generations, Wiiliam Shatner is still given enough time to prove his worth as his meeting with Picard invokes a realisation that the fantasy the Nexus offers just can’t compare with the reality of risking all for the greater good.  The horse-riding scenes also allow Shatner to combine his real-life enthusiasm for the equestrian with his defining and most iconic screen role.

James Doohan and Walter Koenig are a pleasing addition to the opening of Generations and along with Kirk, a comforting sight, yet although William Shatner is afforded a larger role, this is still very much a Star Trek: The Next Generation film – with Brent Spiner’s Data particularly well-served as the Enterprise’s android experiments with emotions allowing him to experience a range of feelings and human concepts, from humour and joy to fear and regret.  The always excellent Spiner rises to the occasion with ease and its unsurprising that Data becomes such a key player in the subsequent Star Trek films.  As the central villain, Malcom McDowell delivers a decent measure of threat, Soran’s desire to revisit the Nexus driven by the yearning to see his dead wife and children.  It’s something touched upon but sadly not fully explored but does however provide the character with some depth and the script furnishes McDowell with some memorable lines, such as “they say time is the fire in which we burn” which has something of a literary and philosophical quality to it.

Of course, the biggest surprises of Generations (spoilers…) are the heroic – but highly controversial – death of Kirk (reshot after test audiences were underwhelmed with the original scene, in which Soran simply shoots Kirk in the back), truly marking the end of an era and the destruction of the Enterprise-D to make way for a new and more big screen friendly U.S.S. Enterprise for the sequels.  Both elements help to supply Generations with a suitably tense and gripping finale and an emotional farewell to a beloved character.  Whilst Star Trek Generations is not on the same level as perennial favourites Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, it’s still a fitting first big screen outing for the crew of Star Trek: The Next Generation which would lead to the superior and popular sequel, Star Trek: First Contact.

Geek fact! 

It was originally intended that Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley would reprise the roles of Spock and Doctor McCoy in Generations in place of the Chekov and Scotty cameos, but both actors declined feeling that Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country was a more satisfactory finale for their characters.

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

Film Review: ‘Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’

A celebrated science fiction-fantasy saga comes to its conclusion… 

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The end of a saga nears in ‘Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’ (image credit: Lucasfilm/Walt Disney Pictures).

Spoiler-free review

Starring:  Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Anthony Daniels, Domhnall Gleeson, Richard E. Grant, Ian McDiarmid, Billy Dee Williams

Directed by:  J.J. Abrams / written by:  Chris Terrio & J.J. Abrams (story by Derek Connolly, Colin Trevorrow, Chris Terrio & J.J. Abrams) / 142 minutes

What’s it about?

As the final battle between the forces of good and evil approaches, Rey prepares to complete her training as a Jedi and Kylo Ren investigates the apparent return of Emperor Palpatine…

In review

Forty-two years after it began, the original Star Wars story reaches its conclusion with Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker the final chapter (‘Episode IX’) of what is now known as ‘the Skywalker Saga’.  It’s an entertaining and nostalgic ride that’s undeniably flawed, falling victim to a lack of a cohesive vision and direction for this sequel trilogy which began with 2015’s smash hit The Force Awakens and tries very hard to please fans jaded by the risky creative choices made by writer/director Rian Johnson in the divisive previous entry, 2017’s The Last Jedi.

The story of The Rise of Skywalker picks up in the wake of the events of The Last Jedi and sees General Leia Organa’s diminished Resistance struggling to survive as they continue the fight against the relentless tyranny of the First Order, under the rageful leadership of Supreme Leader Kylo Ren.  As mysterious transmissions from the supposedly deceased Emperor Palpatine are heard throughout the galaxy, the paths of Ren and Jedi-in-training Rey are once again drawn together as the powerful Dark Side of the Force beckons and the final battle between good and evil looms.

Returning director and co-writer J.J. Abrams (replacing Jurassic World’s Colin Trevorrow, who departed the project following creative differences) repeats much of what he brought to The Force Awakens, producing an action packed, visually striking and emotional Star Wars adventure that’s saturated with fan service, inducing the film with heaps of nostalgia that’s enjoyable and pleasing to a certain extent, but this reliance on sentimentality can also prove burdensome to the already convoluted and messy plot.  Abrams certainly builds a series of energetic and exciting set-pieces with land speeder chases, lightsaber duels and explosive space battles all confidently and rightfully in place although the CGI effects-heavy finale makes for a slightly muddled third act (which much like The Force Awakens has a tendency to repeat plot points of previous films, specifically Return of the Jedi).

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John Boyega, Daisy Ridley and Oscar Isaac in ‘Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’ (image credit: Lucasfilm/Walt Disney Pictures).

The cast of The Rise of Skywalker are all solid with standout performances from Daisey Ridley and Adam Driver as Rey and Kylo Ren, respectively, with the pair confidently driving the core narrative.  Oscar Isaac once again enjoys an increased presence as the fearless Poe Dameron, bolstered by the fun camaraderie he shares with John Boyega’s Finn.  Beloved classic characters Chewbacca, C-3PO and R2-D2 are also back (and in a smaller capacity, Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker) and the charismatic Billy Dee Williams makes a welcome return to the Star Wars universe as the ever-buoyant General Lando Calrissian.  As for the return of Emperor Palpatine (last seen plummeting to his presumed demise in Return of the Jedi), Ian McDiarmid is at his scenery-chewing best and provides a devilish and sinister threat, yet the character’s role largely feels like a retread of the past.

Of course, there needs to special mention of the late Carrie Fisher (who, honourably and fittingly, receives top billing) who via the use of unused footage is incorporated into The Rise of Skywalker.  Given the limitations of those cut scenes (particularly in terms of dialogue), Fisher’s appearances can come across as a little distracting at times yet Abrams and his team do well with what little was available to them and ensure that the sequences featuring Leia are both respectful and have an importance to them.

If there is one grand fault of the sequel trilogy it’s that it didn’t take enough time to bring the trio of Rey, Poe and Finn together more and sooner rather than later and although strides are made to correct that in The Rise of Skywalker it feels like it’s too little too late and the sense of unity and friendship between the three can’t hope to match the inseparable familial bond shared by original heroes Luke, Han and Leia.

Undoubtedly a reaction to the reception of The Last Jedi and an attempt to re-invoke much of the praise which greeted The Force Awakens, The Rise of Skywalker ultimately plays it safe and results in an entertaining if not wholly satisfying finale to a long running cinematic serial.  It’s still a superior effort in comparison to the maligned prequels but likely the weakest instalment of the modern Star Wars sequels.

The bottom line:  Visually stunning and boasting some great action sequences albeit encumbered by a problematic narrative and uninspired story choices, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is a flawed but entertaining finale to the franchise’s original saga.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is in cinemas now.

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

Flashback: ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’

2019 marks four decades since Gene Roddenberry’s ‘Star Trek’ was relaunched on the silver screen…

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Bob Peak’s wonderful poster art for ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’ (image credit: Paramount Pictures).

Year:  1979

Starring:  William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, George Takei, Walter Koenig, Nichelle Nichols, Majel Barrett, Persis Khambatta, Stephen Collins

Directed by:  Robert Wise / written by:  Harold Livingston (story by Alan Dean Foster)

What’s it about?

As a mysterious and hostile force advances towards Earth, Admiral James T. Kirk is reunited with his former crew as he takes command of the newly refitted U.S.S. Enterprise on a mission to intercept the intruder…

Retrospective/review

Celebrating its fortieth anniversary this December, Star Trek: The Motion Picture may not be as popular as its 1982 sequel – Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan – but its place and importance in the history of the franchise shouldn’t be overlooked.  Originally conceived as a pilot for a new Star Trek television series, the production would evolve into a big budget feature film in the wake of the success of Star Wars – although Star Trek: The Motion Picture would take more of a high-concept science fiction approach similar to that of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Produced by Gene Roddenberry (who would write the film’s interesting but slightly bizarre novelisation) and skilfully directed by The Day the Earth Stood Still’s Robert Wise with a story, credited to noted SF author Alan Dean Foster, that echoes elements of classic Star Trek episode “The Changeling”, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is presented on a visual scale that could only have been dreamt of back in the days of the original series.  The film opens as Klingon (the iconic Trek race given a more alien-like makeover for the big screen) warships commence an attack on an approaching force – an expansive and powerful cloud of energy which soon neutralises the aggressors.  As the cloud proceeds on a heading for Earth, an unfulfilled and desk-bound Admiral Kirk (William Shatner) convinces his superiors to place him in command of the newly refitted U.S.S. Enterprise on a desperate mission to intercept and establish contact with the intruder.

Believing the benefit of his experience and leadership will provide the best chance of success, Kirk initially finds himself troubled by an unfamiliarity with the refitted Enterprise and in conflict with her would be captain, Will Decker (Stephen Collins), whose situation is complicated further by the posting of his old flame, Ilia (the late Persis Khambatta, in her introductory film role) as ship’s navigator (Walter Koenig’s Chekov now occupying the post of security chief).

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Admiral Kirk (William Shatner) and the crew of the Enterprise (image credit: Paramount Pictures).

Dealing with engine troubles and a near fatal wormhole encounter before rendezvousing with science officer Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) along the way, the stakes are raised as the Enterprise intercepts the approaching danger – traversing the energy cloud to discover a colossus alien vessel at its centre.  As Ilia is replaced by an android duplicate serving as a representative of the alien ship, Kirk learns that the intruder is ‘V’Ger’, a life-form on a journey to find and ‘join’ with its creator.  It all leads to a startling finale in which (spoilers follow…) Kirk and his crew face V’Ger, which they are astonished to discover is the lost 20th Century NASA probe, Voyager VI – repaired by an unknown machine race and sent on a return voyage to its point of origin where it can complete its programme of “learning all that is learnable” and providing all the information it has amassed to the creator.  Having gained sentience on its journey, V’Ger has reached the limits of its understanding and must evolve by joining with its creator…and one amongst the Enterprise crew volunteers to do so.

The film is commonly criticised for its slow pace (detractors unfairly labelling it as ‘The Slow Motion Picture’) and whilst this may be true, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is best viewed for what it is – a cerebral cinematic experience that reunites an iconic and beloved set of characters, unfolding steadily and subjecting the viewer to some striking visuals as it presents intriguing and intelligent science fiction ideas.  Despite the more conceptual and visually driven story, the cast are all reliably great – especially the central trio: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley, representing, respectively, the celebrated troika of Kirk, Spock and McCoy.  As the main star, Shatner is provided with some decent material as the ever-passionate Kirk wrestles with his regret at accepting promotion and his yearning to return to command of a starship.  Likewise, Nimoy gets to once again grapple with Spock’s conflicted half human/half Vulcan nature, his sensing of V’Ger and an inability to attain ‘Kholinahr’, the Vulcan ritual of complete emotional purging, driving his desire to re-join the Enterprise crew and seek out the mysterious invader.  DeForest Kelley’s Doctor McCoy is once again the cantankerous yet valued conscience and moral centre.

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The glorious refitted U.S.S. Enterprise, designed by Andrew Probert (image credit: Paramount Pictures).

The production design and special effects for Star Trek: The Motion Picture are reasonably impressive considering their age.  The redesigned Enterprise is simply beautiful, brought to life by the superb model work.  The sets are sparse but have an appropriately futuristic feel to them as do the crew uniforms which are a fitting evolution of those in the original series in comparison to the more military-based attire of the sequels.  In terms of the effects, led by 2001’s Douglas Trumbull and Star Wars’ John Dykstra, they remain a key element, the mesmerising sequence of the Enterprise’s penetration of the cloud, the jaw dropping ‘V’Ger flyover’ scenes and Spock’s ‘spacewalk’ being the most obvious highlights – in addition to the wonderfully executed launch of the Enterprise, of course.  Jerry Goldsmith’s Oscar nominated score is one of the composer’s best and an inseparable accompaniment to the story and visuals, capturing the romance and majesty of space in the 23rd Century, the grandeur of the Enterprise, the eerie mystery of the enigmatic force that threatens humanity and the wonders of the unknown.

It’s no secret that the production of Star Trek: The Motion Picture was troubled by last minute script re-writes, increasing costs (its budget inflating to a then eye-watering $46 million, making it the most expensive feature film at that time) and a tight schedule to meet its 7th December 1979 release date, leaving director Robert Wise with no time to produce a final cut and unsatisfied with the film in its theatrical form.  Much of this was remedied with the 2001 DVD release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture – The Director’s Edition, a superior edit of the film with Wise reinstating some of the more character-orientated scenes missing from the theatrical version whilst trimming down some of the longer and more superfluous moments, a fresh sound mix and new CGI effects to enhance and embellish the existing visuals.  Unlike the Star Wars Special Editions, the changes made were to benefit what Wise felt was an unfinished film and, largely, choices that would have been made in 1979 had the production been permitted the extra time and resources required.

Despite receiving a critical drubbing Star Trek: The Motion Picture would prove a box office success, paving the way for several sequels and an eventual television rebirth of the franchise.  Whilst Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is considered to be closer to the overall spirit of the original Star Trek series with a deeper focus on the characters and emphasis on morality play elements (whilst injecting a larger measure of action and excitement), Star Trek: The Motion Picture is perhaps more cinematic and – especially in its Director’s Edition form – an enjoyable and underrated first big screen adventure for Kirk, Spock and company that’s deserving of a revisit and perhaps a reappraisal as it reminds us that “The Human Adventure is Just Beginning”…

Read the classics review of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan here

Geek fact!

Mark Lenard, who portrayed Spock’s father in the original Star Trek series appears as a Klingon commander in the epic opening scenes of Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

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

Flashback: ‘ Batman Returns’

The summer of 1992 saw Michael Keaton’s Dark Knight faced with two iconic foes in Tim Burton’s second (and final) Batman film…

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The superb Michael Keaton dons the cape and cowl once more in ‘Batman Returns’ (image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures).

Year:  1992

Starring:  Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, Michael Gough, Pat Hingle

Directed by:  Tim Burton / written by:  Daniel Waters (story by Daniel Waters and Sam Hamm)

What’s it about?

Batman faces a new challenge when a corrupt businessman plots with the villainous Penguin to seize control of Gotham City, with matters further complicated by the appearance of the mysterious ‘Catwoman’…

Retrospective/review

Given the blockbuster success of Batman in the summer of 1989, Warner Bros. Pictures were naturally keen on producing a sequel.  Released in June of 1992, Batman Returns, whilst not as good as its landmark predecessor (although for some the reverse applies) easily qualifies as a strong second outing for Michael Keaton’s Dark Knight.  Although there’s slightly less focus on Bruce Wayne/Batman, Batman Returns is still very much a Batman film lovingly produced through the dark gothic imaginings of Tim Burton.  It’s clear that Burton was given more creative freedom as Batman Returns has even more of an idiosyncratic and fantastical touch that makes it unmistakably a Tim Burton film, but still feels appropriate for a major Batman feature born in the era of seminal comics works The Killing Joke and The Dark Knight Returns and would also serve to inspire the exemplary Batman: The Animated Series.

Having formerly taken on Jack Nicholson’s Joker, Batman Returns doubles the jeopardy with two main antagonists – the Penguin and Catwoman, who are reinvented for this iteration.  Danny DeVito lives and breathes the role of Oswald Cobblepot – otherwise known as ‘the Penguin’ – his podgy, diminutive build, pointed nose and flipper-like hands giving him somewhat of a grotesque and literally penguin-like appearance, effectively evoked via the brilliant make-up design.  Much like the ‘monsters’ of the classic Universal horrors, his villainy is driven by tragedy – specifically, abandonment by his parents as an infant – and a desire for acceptance.  Michelle Pfeiffer is a similar revelation as Selina Kyle, starting out as the meek underdog before the fateful incident that leads to her ‘rebirth’ as the sultry and formidable Catwoman who, like Bruce Wayne, finds herself grappling with dual personas.

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The Penguin (Danny DeVito) and Catwoman (Michelle Pfieffer) provide double the trouble for Batman (image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures).

Colluding with DeVito’s Penguin is the excellent Christopher Walken (who previously proved his worth as a villain in James Bond outing A View to a Kill) as devious Gotham businessman Max Schreck – named after the actor who portrayed Count Orlock in the classic German horror Nosferatu – who brings further weight to the threat Batman must face.  As for Michael Keaton he continues to impress, deftly straddling the line between his two identities bringing emotional complexity to Bruce Wayne, aided greatly by the chemistry he shares with Pfeiffer’s Selina Kyle, whilst applying a confident measure of brooding and intensity once he dons the iconic cape and cowl of the Batman.

Batman Returns is a very atmospheric film (benefitting from another great Danny Elfman music score), the Christmas holiday setting and frequent snowfall adding a feeling of wintry crispness to the gothic chill evoked by Bo Welch’s wonderful sets which build upon Anton Furst’s Academy Award winning work on the previous film.  A gentle increase in humour provides an element of quirkiness and levity (especially in the exchanges between Bruce and Michael Gough’s Alfred) without undermining the darker and more dramatic themes of the story.  As with Batman, the stunts and choreography in the fight sequences are top-notch and coupled with superbly staged action set-pieces (bolstered by some deftly executed pyrotechnics) provide plenty of visual excitement.  It all makes for a fun and artfully crafted comic book blockbuster at a time when such a thing wasn’t so common.

Read the classics review of Batman (1989) right here.

Geek fact!

Batman Returns features an early screen appearance from Hellboy and Star Trek: Discovery star Doug Jones as one of Penguin’s circus clown goons.

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