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).

Have You Seen… ‘The Andromeda Strain’?

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

 –

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Dr. Mark Hall (James Olson) and Dr. Jeremy Stone (Arthur Hill) investigate in ‘The Andromeda Strain’ (image credit: Universal Pictures).

Year: 1971

Starring:  Arthur Hill, James Olson, David Wayne, Kate Reid

Directed by:  Robert Wise / written by:  Nelson Gidding (based on the novel by Michael Crichton)

What’s it about?

A group of scientists are brought together to investigate and contain a deadly extra-terrestrial virus before it spreads…

In review – why you should see it

Based on the hit 1969 novel written by Michael Crichton (who would subsequently write and direct Westworld and later on pen arguably his most successful literary work: Jurassic Park), The Andromeda Strain is a science fiction thriller that concerns the efforts of a scientific team to contain the outbreak of a biological infection when an unknown micro-organism is returned to Earth from space.

Produced and directed by Robert Wise, who previously helmed SF classic The Day the Earth Stood Still (and would go on to direct Star Trek: The Motion Picture), The Andromeda Strain is more of a cerebral and speculative affair as opposed to a pacey, action-packed and crowd-pleasing adventure.  So, whilst it may seem lethargic and ponderous to a modern audience – and it most definitely has a slow-burn, intellectually-driven quality to it – the ideas and scenarios it presents are non-the-less intriguing and even a little terrifying.

The main cast comprises Arthur Hill as Dr. Jeremy Stone, James Olson as Dr. Mark Hall, David Wayne as Dr. Charles Dutton and Kate Reid as Dr. Ruth Leavitt – specialists assembled by the U.S. military to retrieve a downed satellite thought to have brought a mysterious contagion with it from a small isolated town in New Mexico whose population, with the exception of a young baby and homeless man, have all died.  Transported to an advanced, multi-level underground laboratory facility known as ‘Wildfire’ (equipped with a nuclear self-destruct system), the team find themselves pressed into an increasingly desperate race against time to understand the source of the contamination – codenamed ‘Andromeda’ – and how to combat it, discover the reason why the two survivors were unaffected and prevent any possibility of a wide-spread pandemic.

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The ‘Wildfire’ team assemble to assess the threat of the contagion (image credit: Universal Pictures).

The story unfolds steadily and, again, although the pacing may be challenging to some (the sequences depicting the various decontamination procedures the characters undergo might be particularly testing for those of that disposition), it’s the interplay between the key cast members (the highlight of the group undoubtedly being Kate Reid’s grouchy Dr. Leavitt) and the ideas and themes posited in The Andromeda Strain that make for an often fascinating watch.  There’s the obvious scientific interest in terms of how the team apply the expertise of their various fields in the study and diagnosis of the infection (and the technology and methods employed to carry out their work) but there’s also an ethical and moral standpoint as the true purpose of the military’s project ‘Scoop’ and the Wildfire facility become known and a strong philosophical component as the identity of Andromeda as a living alien organism is discussed, as is the “what if?” theory that the infection may simply be a method of one life-form attempting to establish communication with another.  Yet, it’s the overall lethal nature of the micro-organism’s biology that facilitates the terrifying aspect of The Andromeda Strain and the possibility that despite all the technology, knowledge and skill available at our disposal the fate of the human race may be sealed by the inability to control something it doesn’t understand.

As a production, The Andromeda Strain though quaint by today’s standards holds-up well for its time and is especially noteworthy for the effects work designed by 2001: A Space Odyssey’s Douglas Trumbull (who would collaborate with Wise again on Star Trek: The Motion Picture) and the inventive use of the split-screen technique in a number of scenes.  The set designs are straightforward and have a believably utilitarian and functional quality that, despite the hi-tech nature of the equipment, adds a sense of authenticity.

Working from Nelson Gidding’s screenplay, Robert Wise directs with efficiency and attention to detail, rising to whatever is required, building a feeling of eeriness in the earlier scenes with Hill and Olson as their protective-suited characters explore the corpse-littered New Mexico town (enhanced by Richard H. Kline’s cinematography) whilst proving equally adept when cranking up the tension and suspense as the film’s frantic final act unfolds.  Gil Melle’s unconventional soundtrack adds a suitable touch of techno-electronica to a thought-provoking and enjoyable science fiction film from a bygone era.

Geek fact!

The Andromeda Strain would once again be adapted as a television mini-series in 2008, produced by Ridley Scott and with a cast that included Benjamin Bratt and Lost’s Daniel Dae Kim.

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

It’s a Classic: ‘Alien’

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

“Ash, can you see this?”

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The central terror of Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien’.

Year:  1979

Starring:  Tom Skerritt, Sigourney Weaver, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto

Directed by:  Ridley Scott / written by:  Dan O’Bannon (story by Dan O’Bannon & Ronald Shusett)

What’s it about?

Investigating the source of a mysterious transmission, the crew of a commercial starship discover a derelict alien craft which houses a deadly cargo…

In review:  why it’s a classic

Carrying the ominous tagline “In Space No One Can Hear You Scream” and celebrating its fortieth anniversary this year, Ridley Scott’s classic science fiction horror, Alien remains one of the all-time greats of cinema.  Growing from an idea by screenwriter Dan O’Bannon (originally titled “Star Beast”), Alien sees the crew of the deep space commercial towing vehicle Nostromo awakened from hibernation when the ship’s computer intercepts a transmission of unknown origin.  Tracing the signal to a nearby planetoid, the crew touch down and discover a gigantic vessel where an encounter with a parasitic organism leads to unforeseen horrors and a fight for survival against a relentlessly lethal alien life form.

Alien is a benchmark in both science fiction and horror, but whilst there are otherworldly elements and futuristic (but credible) technology, much like Star Wars before it, there is a worn, lived-in quality to the production in respect of the Nostromo and its equipment.  This sense of believability extends to the memorable characters of Alien – essentially wary space truckers bickering about bonuses and regulations, sharply written and wonderfully acted by the cast – comprising Sigourney Weaver in her breakout role as Lt. Ellen Ripley (in turn creating one of the most iconic screen heroines), Tom Skerritt as Captain Dallas, John Hurt as Kane, Ian Holm as science officer Ash, Veronica Cartwright as Lambert and Harry Dean Stanton and the excellent Yaphet Kotto as engineers Brett and Parker, respectively.

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Sigourney Weaver as Lt. Ripley.

Another standout aspect of Alien is undoubtedly the incredible ‘bio-mechanical’ designs of Swiss artist H.R. Giger, startling and unsettling gothic creations used to bring the Alien and its world – principally the mysterious derelict ‘bone’ ship found by Dallas and co – nightmarishly to life.  The central creature itself (which would become known as a ‘xenomorph’ in James Cameron’s outstanding 1986 sequel, Aliens) is a thing of horrific beauty, intricately detailed and all the more terrifying thanks to Carlo Rambaldi’s Alien head effects and Bolaji Badejo’s simple but effective performance, making it something more than just the staple ‘man inside a rubber suit’ of old SF and horror ‘B’ pictures.  With Giger’s work and Michael Seymour’s production design there’s a lot of fine craftmanship on display and coupled with the meticulous model and miniature effects (the team including Brian Johnson, who had previously worked on 2001: A Space Odyssey and on Gerry Anderson’s Space: 1999 television series) that provide a tangible sense of reality in a way that CGI just cannot replicate.

Scott’s direction is flawless, gently leading the viewer through darkness and shadow then catching them off guard with several shocks and scares.  That approach, with the serious attention to detail and ambition for the project, coupled with Giger’s designs lifts Alien above the more primitive and potentially schlocky imaginings of Dan O’Bannon’s initial concept.  Music is of equal importance and Jerry Goldsmith’s eerie, tense and atmospheric score is the perfect complement to the visuals, accentuating all the terror, unease and chills of Scott’s unforgettable haunted house in space.

Standout moment

Exploring the cavernous belly of the derelict alien ship, Kane stumbles across a cargo of egg-like objects.  Taking a closer look at one of the eggs, Kane sees signs of movement from within…

Geek fact!

H.R. Giger would later contribute designs of the xenomorph in director David Fincher’s second sequel, Alien 3.

If you like this then check out…

Aliens : James Cameron’s sequel pays reverence to Scott’s film without repeating it as Lt. Ripley returns to the planet where her nightmare began with a unit of marines.

Predator : a spiritual sibling to Alien, John McTiernan’s science fiction action classic sees Arnold Schwarzenegger and his crack military team being hunted by a deadly extra-terrestrial.

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

Have You Seen… ‘2010’?

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

2010

The spacecraft Discovery encounters “something wonderful” in 2010 (image credit: MGM, used for illustrative purposes only).

Year: 1984

Starring: Roy Scheider, John Lithgow, Helen Mirren, Bob Balaban, Keir Dullea, Douglas Rain

Directed and written by: Peter Hyams

What’s it about?

As tensions between the United States and Russia approach boiling point, Dr. Heywood Flloyd joins a Russian expedition to Jupiter in an effort to uncover the mysteries surrounding the ill-fated Discovery mission and the enigmatic object known as the monolith…

In review – why you should see it

2010 is the sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s science fiction classic 2001: A Space Odyssey and based on Arthur C. Clarke’s novel, 2010: Odyssey Two. With the stature of 2001 in mind, 2010 (marketed with the subtitle “The Year We Make Contact”) would seemingly have the odds stacked against it, yet, despite being inferior to Kubrick’s film and Clarke’s novel, Peter Hyams’ (Capricorn One) film is still an overlooked slice of superior, cerebral SF.

Taking 2001 as a launching point, 2010 continues the story in a very entertaining and imaginative way and ably directed by Hyams, who also serves as screenwriter and cinematographer – delivering some striking images that are comparable with those of Kubrick’s. Whilst the screenplay adheres to the overall narrative of the novel there are some departures (undoubtedly for budgetary/creative reasons), the most significant being the conflict between the United States and Russia which was not a theme in Clarke’s story and which, despite some stereotyping and Cold War clichés indicative of the times, is a logical and valid component of Hyams’ adaptation and provides tension and drama whilst delivering some prescient commentary of real world issues. The film’s hopeful conclusion sends an important message that, sadly, still has resonance today but offers a grander perspective of humanity’s place in the universe and leaves the viewer with a sense of optimism and wonder.

The cast portray their characters well, with enjoyable performances from Roy Scheider (whose genre credits to this point included Jaws and Blue Thunder), succeeding William Sylvester in the role of Dr. Flloyd and John Lithgow as the likeable all-American engineer, Walter Curnow as well as the welcome return of Douglas Rain who voices the Discovery’s troubled A.I. computer system, HAL (the reasons for his malfunction revealed with some slight retconning) and a mysterious cameo from Keir Dullea as ‘Bowman’. Rounding out the central cast is Helen Mirren who stars as Tanya Kirbuk, commander of the Russian spacecraft Leonov and Bob Balaban as computer expert Dr. Chandra, both of whom share a number of good scenes with Scheider. Chandra also has memorable interplay with HAL as he reactivates the supercomputer and establishes a trusting relationship with it. Glimpses into Flloyd’s home life during the opening act and the subsequent narrations thread throughout as he transmits messages to his wife and son back on Earth add greatly not just to Scheider’s character but also to the film’s emotional core. It’s to Hyams’ credit that he injects a lot of characterisation into proceedings, something that would not have worked for 2001 but is in harmony with the more human-focused approach taken with 2010, which seeks to provide answers (and establish its own mysteries – the possibility of life on Jupiter’s moon Europa, the status of Bowman and the warning of an incredible event) without detracting from the overall enigma of Kubrick’s masterpiece.

2010 is a highly enjoyable continuation of the Space Odyssey story with some entertaining human drama and edge-of-the-seat tension as the film reaches its climax. If you like imaginative high concept science fiction (or indeed read the novel) then it’s well worth your time.

Geek fact!

David Bowman’s last transmission “My god…it’s full of stars”, utilised in 2010, was never spoken in the film version of 2001 but the line was featured in Arthur C. Clarke’s novel.

Also worth a look…

Interstellar : in a similar vein to 2010, Christopher Nolan’s science fiction epic (which coincidentally also features John Lithgow in its cast) combines scientific theory with speculative fictional concepts, grounded in strong character drama.

It’s a Classic: ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’

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

“Open the pod bay doors please HAL…”

2001

David Bowman (Keir Dullea) faces an unbelievable journey in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (image credit: MGM/Warner Bros. used for illustrative purposes only).

Year:  1968

Starring:  Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwwood, William Sylvester, Daniel Richter, Leonard Rossiter, Margaret Tyzack, Robert Beatty, Douglas Rain

Directed by:  Stanley Kubrick / written by:  Stanley Kubrick & Arthur C. Clarke

What’s it about?

Mankind learns they are not alone in the universe when a strange artefact is uncovered on the Moon, leading to a journey to the outer solar system and beyond all imagination…

In review:  why it’s a classic

Fifty years ago, author Arthur C. Clarke and director Stanley Kubrick brought what many consider to be the greatest of all science fiction masterpieces to the big screen.  Based on Clarke’s short story “The Sentinel”, 2001: A Space Odyssey is not only a seminal masterwork of SF cinema but also, frankly, one of the best films ever made.  An ambitious production that’s still impressive today, 2001 is a mesmerising, haunting and beautiful visual and aural experience that marries high concept science fiction ideas with incredible photography (captured by Director of Photography Geoffrey Unsworth, who would later work on Richard Donner’s Superman), innovative special effects and an inspired mix of classical music and contemporary orchestrations, eschewing the use of a traditional motion picture score produced by a single composer.

2001: A Space Odyssey can be an enigma to the uninitiated, it’s more focused on hard SF concepts (technological and existential) and extraordinary visuals than a “coherent” plot – although repeated viewings and a reading of Clarke’s novel (which he wrote whilst collaborating on the film’s screenplay with Stanley Kubrick) deepen both understanding and appreciation for, and enrich the experience of, the “proverbial good” science fiction film Kubrick and Clarke set out to make.  The lack of clear explanation, especially in the mind-bending finale, is an intention on the part of Kubrick and Clarke, wanting to impart interpretation and meaning on the viewer.

In terms of the underlying narrative, 2001 follows the evolution of man and its encounters with an alien intelligence via black, featureless slabs – or monoliths – at key points, from the human race’s primitive beginnings to its spacefaring ways millions of years later (connected by that iconic jump cut) as mankind reaches for the stars and is ultimately taken on a journey beyond comprehension.  Following the unearthing of a mysterious monolith on the Moon a powerful signal is blasted into space, leading to humanity’s first expedition into the unknown.

The main bulk of 2001 focuses on the spacecraft Discovery as it journeys on a mission to Jupiter.  The ship’s scientific crew in hibernation, only her commander, David Bowman (Keir Dullea) and co-pilot Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) remain awake to attend to the day-to-day functions of the mission along with Discovery’s advanced supercomputer A.I., the HAL 9000.  Without delving too heavily into spoilers, everything runs smoothly until the HAL 9000 – or HAL – begins to exhibit signs of malfunction and turns against Bowman and Poole as they consider the possibility of disconnection.  This provides drama for the central act before viewers are taken on “The Ultimate Trip” as 2001 moves towards a conclusion that has been endlessly debated and dissected.

Kubrick’s expert direction coupled with the understated and naturalistic performances of the actors gives an almost documentary style of execution to 2001.  Again, it’s more of a visual and auditory experience that challenges the mind (and the senses) than a showcase for awards worthy character portrayals (as it happens, there is actually – intentionally – very little dialogue in the film).  The exception to this of course is Douglas Rain (who sadly passed away in November) who provides the voice for HAL.  A chilling and unrivalled performance, Rain’s subtle, soft tones and restrained delivery bring a sense of unease that only becomes more unsettling as HAL’s programming begins to unravel.

The production design of 2001 is staggering, with intricate model work and meticulously detailed sets having a functional and believable quality to them.  Adding to this are the astonishing special photographic effects, designed with assistance from Douglas Trumbull and directed by Kubrick – the iconic ‘Star Gate’ sequence remaining one of the most incredible and startling in all of cinema.  The use of music is also ingenious, the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra’s jubilant rendition of Johann Strauss’s The Blue Danube the perfect accompaniment to the dreamy, waltz-like imagery of man’s journey into space whilst Adagio (from Gayane’s Ballet Suite, performed by the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra) conveys the isolation and loneliness of the Discovery’s voyage to the outer solar system.  Most effective though are Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra and Gyorgy Ligeti’s Atmospheres (performed by the Berlin Philharmonic and Sudwestfunk orchestras respectively), compositions that complement and accentuate the eeriness and mystery of the monolith and Bowman’s cosmic and reality spanning journey ‘beyond the infinite’ as he encounters a larger version of the alien object floating in the vicinity of Jupiter.

There’s so much that has been said and can be analysed about 2001: A Space Odyssey but in basic terms it is simply outstanding and an enduring masterpiece that will forever be influential and revered by lovers of science fiction, film, music and art in general.

Standout moment

Unable to verify HAL’s report of a fault in the Discovery’s communications system, David Bowman and Frank Poole employ subterfuge as they enter one of the ship’s EVA pods to discuss deactivating the ship’s computer, unaware that HAL is observing…

Geek fact!

Prior to filming on 2001, Gary Lockwood appeared in the second pilot for Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek, “Where No Man Has Gone Before”.

If you like this then check out…

2010 : Peter Hyams directs the Kubrick-less sequel that sees Roy Scheider’s Heywood Floyd journey to Jupiter in order to reactivate HAL and uncover the secrets surrounding the monolith and the disappearance of David Bowman.

Solaris : Russian cinema’s answer to 2001, Solaris is a similarly cerebral and enigmatic piece that’s worth checking out.

Film Review: ‘Arrival’

Denis Villeneuve delivers a slice of remarkable science fiction cinema 

that’s far from being a typical blockbuster…

_

Spoiler-free review

Starring:  Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Tzi Ma

Directed by:  Denis Villeneuve / Written by:  Eric Heisserer (adapted from the short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang)

What’s it about?

When strange alien vessels appear around the Earth, linguist Louise Banks is called upon by the U.S. Military to try and communicate with the mysterious visitors…

In review

Wowed by critics and earning a respectable box office gross on its theatrical run late last year, director Denis Villeneuve’s intelligent and mesmerising sci-fi mystery has far more in common with the likes of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar than more straight forward, crowd-pleasing (but generally enjoyable on their own merits) alien invasion blockbusters such as Independence Day.

Based on Ted Chiang’s short story “Story of Your Life”, Arrival (not to be confused with the Charlie Sheen starring bargain-bin 1996 B-movie The Arrival) is beautifully acted, hauntingly realised and thought provoking with its intellectually challenging and mind-bending hard SF concepts that shuns the more generic, formulaic and predictable tropes that all too often afflict the genre.

Arrival concerns the mysterious appearance of twelve pebble-like extra-terrestrial vessels around the globe and the efforts to form a means of communication with the alien visitors and discover their intentions and purpose for coming to Earth.  Heading up the central cast is Amy Adams as Louise Banks, a linguistics expert enlisted by the military to board the alien ‘shell’ floating above the United States.  Sorely overlooked at this year’s Academy Awards, Adams delivers a powerhouse performance that subtly yet believably conveys the intellect and emotional strife of her character.  Supporting Adams is Jeremy Renner as physicist Ian Donnelly, a role that demonstrates his ability to stretch beyond the action-star heroics of the Mission: Impossible and Avengers franchises.  Completing the central core of characters is Forest Whitaker in a suitably authoritative turn as Colonel Weber.

Avoiding cliché, Arrival depicts the reaction of the global governments, their military solutions, the awe of the scientific community and the escalating panic of the world’s population with a laudable degree of realism and plausibility, presenting a painfully true reflection upon the world as it stands today.

Earning plaudits for his work on Sicario, Denis Villeneuve – currently putting the finishing touches to Blade Runner 2049 – brings strokes of arthouse cinema to Arrival whilst maintaining a focus on the principal cast, keeping the overall experience dazzling and captivating via Bradford Young’s incredible cinematography and Johann Johannsson’s wonderfully atmospheric and immersive music score (embellished by the film’s inspired audio design), skilfully ratcheting up the tension as the final act satisfyingly unfolds.

Sure to be revered as a modern science fiction classic in the years to come, at its heart and beneath heady intellectual ideas, Arrival contains messages about communication and understanding that expresses a sense of hope, even in the face of darkness.

The bottom line:  Haunting, beautifully constructed and simply mesmerising, Arrival is a wondrous piece of intellectual SF cinema that’s masterfully directed and superbly acted.

Arrival is available to own on Blu-ray, DVD and digital formats now.

Arrival

Preparing to make contact: Amy Adams stars in Denis Villeneuve’s captivating sci-fi mystery ‘Arrival’.

Film Review: ‘Doctor Strange’ (spoiler free)

Mighty Marvel casts its spell…

Starring:  Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Tilda Swinton, Mads Mikkelsen.

Directed by:  Scott Derrickson / Written by:  Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson & C. Robert Cargill / 115 minutes

What’s it about?

His hands mangled in a car crash, brilliant neurosurgeon Stephen Strange’s career is seemingly over.  Exhausting all surgical efforts to repair his injuries, Strange travels to a place called Kamar-Taj where an encounter with a mysterious figure sees him thrust into the world of the mystic arts…

In review

With the runaway successes of Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man, Marvel Studios have proved adept at bringing lesser and more obscure comic book properties to the big screen and in a manner that manages to please fans and regular audiences alike.  Doctor Strange would immediately seem a far trickier and more daring gamble than those previous hits but for the most part, Marvel Studios succeed once more.

Based on the Marvel comic books by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, the journey of neurosurgeon Doctor Stephen Strange from arrogance to fall from grace and eventual redemption may be a little clichéd but via the film’s exploration of magical abilities and mystic realms there lies another dimension to the storytelling that opens up the possibilities for future Marvel Studios productions.  It’s fair to say in that sense that this makes the “Sorcerer Supreme” an important character as the looming apex of Avengers: Infinity War approaches.

In the role of Stephen Strange, Benedict Cumberbatch makes for a strong lead and although for some it may take a little time to adjust to his American accent, the Sherlock and Star Trek Into Darkness star laps up the material handed to him in a performance that’s impassioned, witty and by the end of it all, noble.  Seemingly the requisite love interest, Rachel McAdams is somewhat underserved as Christine Palmer although she does share some vital scenes with Cumberbatch that helps the audience become more invested in the character and his arc throughout this origin story.

Tilda Swinton is wise and otherworldly as the enigmatic Ancient One and co-stars Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Wong fit nicely into the mix as fellow sorcerers Mordo and Wong respectively.  As the main antagonist, Mads Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius – a former pupil seeking to unlock the secrets of dark magic –  has some great moments, rising to the challenge of being pitted against the talents of Cumberbatch and Swinton but is ultimately less memorable than Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull (Captain America: The First Avenger) or James Spader’s Ultron (Avengers: Age of Ultron).

There’s a slight over reliance on humour at times, parts of it are welcome relief but some moments feel forced, included merely for the sake of it and arguably undermine several key scenes that would have benefitted from a more dramatic tone.  Where Doctor Strange really excels is via its jaw-dropping, kaleidoscopic visuals as director Scott Derrickson intertwines influences of Escher with the cinematic awe of Inception and the mesmerising psychedelia of 2001: A Space Odyssey that bring the trippy imaginings of Messrs. Lee and Ditko breathtakingly to life.  The extra expense of an IMAX 3D ticket is fully warranted for the fullest possible immersion in the mind-bending spectacle of folding cityscapes and unravelling astral planes.

Ultimately it’s the visual elements that gloss over the overall flaws in the tone and narrative of Doctor Strange but there’s no denying the charm of Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance and the potential of further adventures of Marvel’s Master of the Mystic Arts.

The bottom line:  Despite some formulaic elements and jarring moments of silliness, Doctor Strange is a reliably entertaining and visually stunning addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Doctor Strange is screening in UK cinemas now and opens in the US and worldwide from 4th November.

Benedict Cumberbatch confidently leads Marvel Studios' 'Doctor Strange'.

Benedict Cumberbatch confidently leads Marvel Studios’ ‘Doctor Strange’.

TV Flashback: ‘Star Trek’ – “Where No Man Has Gone Before”

Starring:  William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Gary Lockwood, Sally Kellerman, James Doohan, George Takei, Paul Fix, Paul Carr

Series created by:  Gene Roddenberry

Written by:  Samuel A. Peeples / Episode directed by:  James Goldstone / 1966

What’s the episode about?

Attempting to cross an energy barrier at the edge of the galaxy, the U.S.S. Enterprise is severely damaged and a strange phenomenon causes two crewmembers with high ESP ratings to develop god-like abilities…

Review/retrospective

In 1964, Gene Roddenberry produced a pilot for a science fiction series called Star Trek.  Titled “The Cage” and featuring Jeffrey Hunter in the lead role as Captain Christopher Pike, it was ultimately rejected by executives at television network NBC who felt it was ‘too cerebral’.  However, they saw potential in the premise of Star Trek and in an unprecedented move (and reportedly under the persuasion of Lucille Ball, star of I Love Lucy and co-owner of production studio, Desilu), commissioned a second pilot.

Written by Samuel A. Peeples, who had previously worked on series such as Wanted: Dead or Alive and Burke’s Law, “Where No Man Has Gone Before” would take an imaginative science fiction concept, in this case extra sensory perception (ESP) and explore the moral consequences of individuals being imbued with god-like powers that, on the wrong side of human ego, could prove corruptive and dangerous.  Ironically, still a cerebral idea but one that would incorporate some measure of action and excitement to satisfy the demands of TV bosses, all too aware of the popularity of western and detective series where audiences had come to expect a bare knuckle fist fight or two.  Peeples’ script works extremely well and whilst later episodes of Star Trek are better examples of those morality plays that would become a significant part of the series’ DNA, it gives the audience a science fiction story that’s treated intelligently, laced with personal and ethical conflict as well as that aforementioned element of action and adventure.

The only surviving cast member from “The Cage” is Leonard Nimoy, who returns as a far less emotional and much more intellectual Mr. Spock.  At this point, the character is a work in progress as Nimoy seeks to find the right level of cold logic and define the subtle nuances of the Spock viewers would come to know.  No easy task given the changes in the character’s portrayal from the original pilot and a few quirks aside, Nimoy does a commendable job of laying the groundwork for the infamous Vulcan science officer.

Replacing Jeffrey Hunter is Canadian actor William Shatner as Captain James (no “T” just yet) Kirk and in contrast to Nimoy’s Spock, Shatner hits the ground running and is very much the familiar starship captain from the get-go with a passionate and driven performance as Kirk is torn between the responsibilities to ship and crew and his friendship with Gary Mitchell, who Spock warns is becoming an increasing danger as his latent powers grow.

Mitchell is played by Gary Lockwood, star of Roddenberry’s short-lived military drama The Lieutenant (and would go on to appear in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001:  A Space Odyssey) who shares good chemistry with Shatner and fellow guest star Sally Kellerman (later earning an Oscar nomination for M*A*S*H), in the role of Dr. Elizabeth Dehner – another strong female character in the vein of Majel Barrett’s ‘Number One’ in “The Cage” – who’s high ESP rating would also lead to the awakening of omnipotence.  Whilst Mitchell reaches the ‘point of no return’ (Lockwood’s performance becoming more and more menacing), it’s Dehner who begins to question these new abilities and their corruptive influence over the more rational sides of human nature.

Missing from the familiar ensemble of Star Trek’s first season are Nichelle Nichols’ communications officer Lt. Uhura and DeForest Kelley’s chief medical officer, Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy (a role temporarily filled here by Paul Fix’s Dr. Piper) and whilst James Doohan is in place as chief engineer Scott, George Takei’s Sulu is absent from the Enterprise helm instead forming part of the ship’s scientific group.

Strangely, NBC decided to commence airing Star Trek with “The Man Trap” on 8th September 1966 with “Where No Man Has Gone Before” going out on 22nd September.  Given noticeable differences in casting and even some of the set design and costumes (with the slightly more drab crew uniforms being recycled from “The Cage”), this must have been jarring for even the least attentive of viewers at the time?  In the end, “Where No Man Has Gone Before” succeeds as a rough template for Star Trek, where it demonstrates the indomitable nature of the human spirit against the backdrop of an entertaining and imaginative SF story.

Geek fact!  Samuel A. Peeples would also pen the first episode of the Star Trek animated series, “Beyond the Farthest Star”.

Kirk (William Shatner) and Spock (Leonard Nimoy) attempt to restrain and increasingly dangerous Gary Mitchell (Gary Lockwood) in Star Trek's second pilot, "Where No Man Has Gone Before".

Kirk (William Shatner) and Spock (Leonard Nimoy) attempt to restrain an increasingly dangerous and exponentionally powerful Gary Mitchell (Gary Lockwood) in Star Trek’s second pilot, “Where No Man Has Gone Before”.

Film Review: ‘Interstellar’ (spoiler-free)

Far beyond the stars…

Starring:  Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Cain

Directed by:  Christopher Nolan / Written by: Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan / 169 minutes

What’s it about?

As humanity faces extinction on an Earth ravaged by environmental catastrophe, former NASA pilot Cooper’s discovery of a scientific anomaly leads him on a journey that will take him to the stars…

In review

In 1968, Stanley Kubrick (with Arthur C. Clarke) took audiences on “The Ultimate Trip” with 2001: A Space Odyssey – a cinematic experience widely considered as the apex of cerebral and imaginative science fiction.  It proved triumphantly that science fiction cinema could be realised in a serious, thought provoking and technically proficient manner – a world away from the plethora of cheap (though in many cases, still enjoyable) ‘popcorn’ B-movies of the 1950s.  With Christopher Nolan at the helm, Interstellar follows Kubrick’s lead and melds the expansive imaginings of 2001 with human drama and exploration of modern scientific theory.

Nolan’s first post-Batman work is more Inception than The Dark Knight Rises, offering more of the reality altering and mind-bending imagery achieved in the former than the intense comic book action of the latter – though that’s not to say that Interstellar doesn’t include a fair share of edge-of-the-seat moments, it simply balances them against its other diverse elements.

Interstellar introduces an Earth that has been environmentally decimated, with humanity having turned its back on technological and other pioneering pursuits in favour of sustaining a desperate existence.  McConaughey plays Cooper, a widowed father of two and a former NASA pilot who once pondered about humanity’s place in the universe and forced to give up his dreams to take up a life as a humble farmer – dreams that have sparked the imagination of his daughter, Murph (Mackenzie Foy).  Unexplained events lead Cooper and Murph to a chance meeting with Professor Brand (Michael Caine) and the hard, but necessary decision Cooper decides to take by leaving his family to join an interstellar mission through a recently discovered wormhole to find humanity a new home – before it’s too late.

Whilst Interstellar generally takes the ‘hard SF’ route of 2001, there’s actually a surprising amount of emotional depth to proceedings played primarily via Cooper’s relationship with his daughter and her despair at her father’s decision to leave her (and her bother) behind to embark on a journey from which he may never return.  At turns heart-wrenching and heart-warming it provides the story with a resonance and a humanity that sets Nolan’s film apart from 2001 and ventures closer to the likes of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Naturally, Interstellar presents us with Nolan’s customary ‘heightened reality’ and the hard SF route is taken via the scientific theories of wormhole and space-time postulated by physicist Kip Thorne and as a result there is some heavy exposition that may leave traditional blockbuster audiences jaded and perhaps threatens to distract the more learned viewer, therefore it is the afore-mentioned emotional core that Nolan employs deftly to seek a balance between the intellectual moments and the human drama.

Nolan has once again assembled a fine cast of actors who successfully infuse their roles with the awe and wonder that the journey of Interstellar demands of them, juxtaposed against that human drama and presenting high stakes and challenges for their characters to dare to overcome.  McConaughey continues his resurgence of recent years, bringing a likeable and relatable quality to Cooper who is both a striving pioneer straight out of The Right Stuff and loving father struggling to reconcile with the anguish of leaving his family behind for the ‘greater good’.  Similarly, Hathaway puts in another strong performance as scientist Amelia Brand, who also has her own personal grief to bear.  Among other casting highlights are the ever reliable (and Nolan regular) Michael Caine who makes good use of his relatively small screen time as Amelia’s father, Professor Brand, some well-placed levity from droid ‘crewmember’ TARS, voiced by comedian Bill Irwin and a surprise cameo from…a well-known actor.

2001 aside, Nolan has cited a variety of influences that are present throughout Interstellar – from the world-building of Star Wars to the worn ‘lived-in’ aesthetics of Ridley Scott’s Alien, enriched by a commitment to practical elements of set design and location shooting (boasting some striking photography by Hoyte Van Hoytema which demands the extra cost of an IMAX ticket).  It’s an ode to the genre and the overall possibilities of good, practical, film making in the digital age.

Hans Zimmer complements the visual and emotional elements with another wonderful, wondrous, score (can he do any wrong after his incredible compositions for Inception, The Dark Knight Rises and the Nolan-produced Man of Steel?), although there are moments where the sound mix seems to be out of balance as Zimmer’s music threatens to muffle some of the dialog – hopefully this will be rectified for the home video release.

Despite grand intellectual themes and incredible imagery, Interstellar provides a decent measure of excitement with a number of set-pieces to rival Inception, with the colossal tidal wives and ice clouds of the worlds the film’s characters voyage to and a particularly tense, edge-of-the-seat orbital docking sequence among the highlights.  True, some may find the near three hour running time challenging (and at times it does verge on that feeling) and those not familiar with Nolan’s previous works or appreciative of the cerebral SF of 2001 might be baffled by the mind-bending final act but for fans of such things, Interstellar is bound to delight and inspire.

The bottom line:  As strong as any of his previous works, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is visually arresting, imaginatively expansive and emotionally resonant.  Prepare for a thrilling journey that Messrs. Kubrick and Clarke would envy…

Interstellar is in cinemas now.

Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) embarks on a journey to save the human race in Christopher Nolan's 'Interstellar'.

Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) embarks on a journey to save the human race in Christopher Nolan’s ‘Interstellar’.

What did you think of Interstellar?  Share your spoiler-free thoughts below!