Category Archives: sci-fi

Dune: Part One (2021)

So, guess who’s seen an ACTUAL NEW FILM? Thanks to a certain worldwide pandemic, Warner Brothers decided to hold off releasing Denis Villeneuve’s Dune: Part 1 from November 2020 to October 2021, by which time they’d also made the decision to release all their films for 2021 on HBO Max as well as in cinemas (such ones as are still open, anyway). This is a move that has made a lot of people unhappy, particularly Villeneuve, who had a bit of an auteur hissy fit about how his film was made for BIG SCREENS and how it should really only be seen that way, and how ultimately the chances of the film and the putative franchise to make money would be harmed and piracy would be the only winner.

His first point is one Christopher Nolan’s made before, and to that I say: if you’re serious about the primacy of the cinema experience, you probably shouldn’t allow your films to be released any other way. Go on, forgo the additional revenue from home video and streaming sales if it matters that much. But they won’t, of course. However, his point about piracy is a good one. I know cos, frankly, I kind of prove it myself.

I saw a friend on Facebook observing how terrible it was that releasing one of the year’s biggest films on streaming six weeks before it was due in Australian cinemas meant that super high quality rips of said film in full high definition and 5.1 surround sound were easily available. People here didn’t even have to rely on shitty camcorder bootlegs for once! And it is indeed a dreadful situation, and I fully availed myself of it on Monday night. I should probably be ashamed of myself for contributing to the problem, but I don’t, let’s be honest. (Sorry, Denis.)

Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novel follows efforts by David Lynch, Alejandro Jodorowsky and John Harrison. Of these, the Jodorowsky version famously never got made and I haven’t seen the TV miniseries version Harrison directed. I’ve seen Lynch’s version, though, and I hate it. I first saw it in its re-edited TV version some time maybe in the late 80s or early 90s, and frankly I found it kind of baffling, and that was the version that was supposed to make more sense than the authorised Lynch version. I then saw the latter on TV many years later, having decided that it had been long enough since I’d last seen the film, maybe it was time to reappraise it. I decided then that the film was quite possibly even worse than its reputation, and if I hadn’t been following the plot summary in the film’s Wikipedia entry while watching the film, I would’ve been lost.

I then saw it a third time in a fan edit version by Michael Warren which has become kind of notable in its own right, he made it by taking the existing versions plus deleted scenes from the blu-ray and DVD releases. Basically, since Lynch found the whole experience so godawful he refuses to revisit the film, we have this three-hour version instead, which for me at least achieved the remarkable feat of making the film even worse. And I don’t blame Michael Warren for that, I just think there’s nothing you can do with the David Lynch version short of incinerating every copy of it.

By this point I was, frankly, scared of reading the Frank Herbert book, and so I didn’t actually do that until 2018. And I liked it more than the film, but that wasn’t really saying much; I think it gets off to a pretty clumsy start, settles into a reasonably engaging midsection then kind of collapses in the last part, and Paul Atreides is a pretty unappealing main character throughout, which is a slightly fatal problem. In short, I thought it was good, but absolutely not the monument of 20th century literature it generally seems to be viewed as.

So, to finally get to the point, and having established that I’m not exactly a megafan of the book or the previous cinematic adaptation of it, how does the new version go? Well, it looks astonishing. And given that it cost $165m, it had better look astonishing. But I’m sure that on a really big cinema screen it will look absolutely jaw-dropping. Brilliant use of real locations combined with excellent CGI, looked fantastic on my TV so the cinema experience should be a hundred times better. Which is good, cos the visuals are the best thing about the film. The cinema experience will be a lot louder too, cos the sound was overpowering on my TV and I don’t actually consider that such a good thing, Hans Zimmer’s score is so overbearing and strident that it got on my nerves pretty much all the way through.

And whatever size of screen you see it on, Villeneuve’s film has the same problem the book has, i.e. that Paul is really kind of crap. He goes from whining about the Bene Gesserit having made him a freak to envisaging himself not long afterwards without much trouble as the next emperor. Timothee Chalamet doesn’t sell him for me, either. Actually, none of the characters in the film are of much interest and, really, if it weren’t for the previously mentioned amazing visuals, I probably would’ve found the whole thing kind of insufferable. Leonard Maltin said of the David Lynch film that it was joyless and oppressive and long, and although this version is a lot better, you could still say the same thing about it in many ways.

Now, the length of the thing is an interesting issue, cos I didn’t realise until recently that Villeneuve was making it as a two-parter. Whatever else can be said for or against his film, he knew that compressing that book into one film wasn’t going to fly and he insisted on making it in two parts, and now he’s also envisaging the second Dune book (Dune Messiah) as the third part of a trilogy. I knew this by the time I watched the film, of course, so I knew what to expect, and I think the pacing of the film actually worked given that it was just the first half of something that will eventually be about five hours long. I just wonder how more casual viewers who maybe didn’t realise this was just part one might feel once they get to the end and find there’s still half a story to be told.

But, if you were a casual viewer, that’d be the least of your worries. Villeneuve has made his film for fans like himself (filming Dune has been a lifetime ambition for him) more than the general filmgoing audience, and, frankly, if you’re going in completely cold with no knowledge of the story from either the book or at least the Lynch film, I feel it’s going to be harder work than it was even for me, cos there were still times in this film I was kind of perplexed by what was happening cos Villeneuve doesn’t exactly communicate some things very well.

Again, I should emphasise I was watching a 720p mp4 of the film recorded from HBO Max that I obtained dubiously. Maybe that wasn’t enough. Maybe the cinema experience really is necessary. Maybe the proper overwhelming experience most other people seem to have had can only come at the cinema. Maybe it’s like what Kim Newman has said about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, another film I’m frankly not a fan of; any time he’s seen it at a cinema he thought it was one of the best films ever made but any time he’s seen it on video he thought it was merely OK. Maybe I’d like Denis Villeneuve’s Dune better at the cinema. And since I’m almost not going to see it that way when it finally comes out here, I’ll never know, and I can live with that. I think in the end I just hoped for too much from this film, something it could never really deliver cos the problems go right back to the source material. I don’t suppose I’ll bother watching the TV miniseries…

Blade Runner (1982)

Director: Ridley Scott

Oh hi, fancy seeing me here… Anyway, long time since I last watched this, and even longer since I watched this version… there being so many versions of this film, of course, that part of the fun of watching it on TV tonight was wondering exactly which one we’d get. Lo, it was the actual original cut from 1982 with Ford’s infamous voiceover, which I’ve not seen since probably the late 80s… Back in the 90s when I was doing film studies at UNSW we watched it in class once, i.e. the 1992 “director’s cut” that wasn’t really, and the lecturer asked if any of us had seen both versions. I was the only one who had, so she asked which of them I preferred, and I said neither, and the ensuing gasp of horror from my classmates was something to hear; I half expected someone to burn me as a heretic. Still, ask me a question, run the risk of getting an honest answer; I didn’t think either version could be called “better” than the other, cos frankly I didn’t really like either. It did nothing much for me in either form (I’ve not seen Scott’s proper director’s cut) and I never really understood why people thought so highly of it; I mean, it was perfectly adequate and technically accomplished but not that much more.

I last saw it about a decade ago thanks to my erstwhile radio colleague Evan when I saw the 1992 version at his place, and I think I liked it for the first time pretty much… but I didn’t love it, and on rewatching the original version tonight I still don’t. I’ll obviously concede its visual splendour (if nothing else, seeing it in a proper widescreen version only reminds me yet again how inadequate pan-and-scan VHS editions of films like this were back in the pre-digital dark ages), cos I’m not that stupid, and it’s an excellent illustration of Isaac Asimov’s theory that science fiction is less a genre unto itself than a flavour you apply to other genres; basically Blade Runner is really an old-style film noir tarted up with androids and other “futuristic” details. I’m actually less offended by Ford’s voiceover than most people are, cos that’s just another thing noir does. I still don’t love it, though. It’s perfectly good, eminently watchable and well-made (though with hindsight the unicorn business is just even more obscurely handled than in the director’s cut), all of that. And it still feels kind of cold and empty and it still doesn’t fully connect with me and I still don’t entirely understand why it’s supposed to be one of the greatest films of all time.

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)

Director: Nicholas Meyer

And now here I boldly go, cos hitherto Final Frontier was the most recent Trek film I’ve seen… hence why I actually chose to watch my own copy of it cos SBS2 were running it and the sixth film together, so I thought I’d better get this write-up out of the way before sitting down with the next film. Anyway, again, Memory Alpha has a wealth of detail on the production nightmare; to be honest, I vaguely recall being surprised at the time that this film was made at all, cos I knew the fifth film was generally considered something of a tanker, but it seems Paramount thought the old crew deserved a better final hurrah than Final Frontier. However, they also decreed that film number six absolutely must not cost so much as a dollar more than number five had done, and things apparently only got worse from there… Anyway, the finished film takes us back into M-rated territory (I presume the remarkable zero-gravity gore played some part in that), and also into fairly old-fashioned noir thriller territory too; the Klingons are suing for peace at last but Kirk—still not exactly over the murder of his son at Klingon hands—is accused of murdering the Klingon Chancellor. Gene Roddenberry saw the film two days before he died, and was reportedly unhappy with the racism towards the Klingons, but surely that’s actually a large part of the point of the film, Kirk realising the misguidedness of his prejudice against them (and Spock realising his own prejudice in favour of one of his own people)… Whatever, I enjoyed it immensely; a terrific and honourable send-off for the original crew which kindly allows the viewer to forget Final Frontier ever happened. And “not everyone keeps their genitals in the same place” may well be the single best line in the entire franchise…

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)

Director: William Shatner

In which the Trek creative team managed to pretty much squander the goodwill the series had managed to build up so far. What went wrong? Well, the Star Trek wiki Memory Alpha offers a number of possibilities, including the mediocre response to the Next Generation TV series (which had started in between films) and various behind the scenes issues including a threat of legal action from Gene Roddenberry—the series creator who’d been increasingly sidelined by the studio since the initial film and had been unhappy with all the others made after it—plus studio interference (Shatner wanted a fairly dark film, Paramount wanted it kept light like the previous film) and inadequate budget (which harmed FX and pre-production). And, frankly, the fact that the crew were getting visibly older (Kelley & Doohan both pushing 70 by then) probably didn’t help much. However you break down the blame, in any case it’s hard to argue that this film is a marked step down in overall quality from the films that came before it, though I would argue it’s still not as bad as the first one (I’d much rather rewatch this over the first film). Basically, the primary issue is that it’s just kind of flat overall, and the attempts at humour are particularly weak; the basic story (Enterprise is hijacked by Spock’s religious fanatic brother to go in search of God) actually isn’t bad—though the similarity between it and a never-made Roddenberry script seems to have been what triggered the putative lawsuit—but the execution leaves something to be desired. The end result has been somewhat written out of Trek history after Roddenberry huffily declared it “apocryphal”; it apparently went straight to video in some countries and earned a few Razzies as well. I’m… not 100% convinced it’s that terrible—Sybok’s confrontation with Kirk, Spock & McCoy and their “pain” is, I think, really well done, much the best thing about the film—and, like I said, I still think it’s better than the first film, not least because it’s half an hour shorter…

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)

Director: Leonard Nimoy

Now, I did say that Khan was widely considered the best Trek film, but there is also a school of thought which says this one—the first one I’ve seen on the big screen (must’ve been the 1986/87 school holiday), and hitherto the only one I’ve seen on the big screen—is the best of the bunch. I don’t know for sure if I’d agree with that, but it is a terrific way to wrap up the saga the previous two films started—the three films do make a very pleasing trilogy—boldly going where no Trek film had gone before into regions of culture-clash comedy (not to mention hammer-handed ecological themes and something approximating to romance). Voyage reprises the plot of the first film, i.e. alien probe heads for Earth to make contact with someone (or, rather, something) that isn’t there to talk to them, except this time the solution is somewhat more complicated and involves travelling back in time about 300 years… Wherein comes the clash of cultures, of course, with the crew of the Enterprise having to deal with their ancestors’ different ways, their colourful metaphors and all that (the scene with the punk on the bus is one of the best things in the film). It makes for a generally light and jolly adventure romp, an awful lot of fun though, as I said, I’m not quite convinced it’s better than Khan; but it certainly is a satisfying wrap-up of the events of the previous two films.

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)

Director: Leonard Nimoy

So SBS ran this and Khan as an entirely logical double bill tonight, hence we’re going straight on… I know the theory says that the Trek series tends to go odd-numbered films bad, even ones good, but this one arguably throws that theory into question; it’s a great follow-up to the previous film. It’s also markedly more melodramatic than its predecessors, too, which is something I don’t think I really appreciated before tonight (really, that is some fucking bravura scenery-chewing coming from Christopher Lloyd as the Klingon commander; Shatner almost matches him during their climactic fight, though), but then that’s kind of unavoidable given the story, which is basically summed up in the subtitle there… Robin Curtis struck me as less effective somehow as Saavik than Kirstie Alley in the previous film (the recasting seems to have come about because Alley was asking too much money to reprise the role) but everyone else is fine, which is good, cos this really is more about the characters than anything. I mean, yeah, you’ve got the whole business about the frankly catastrophic fuck-up behind the Genesis project (and oh LORD could that planet setting have looked any more studio-bound—something else I don’t think I fully appreciated until tonight’s rewatch), but the film is about what the subtitle says, i.e. the lengths Kirk and the Enterprise crew will go to in order to save a fallen comrade, and it culminates in a really marvellous end scene which is still hugely satisfying emotionally (Nimoy really did reserve one of the best parts of the film for himself). So yeah, that theory I mentioned about the odd vs the even-numbered films? Not this time. Enjoyed immensely.

Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

Director: Nicholas Meyer

Ah, now this is more like the thing. Fortunately the first Trek film did sufficiently good box office business to warrant making a sequel—originally to be a TV film but upgraded to theatrical early on—which was what really got the film series going… Right from the off, Khan improves on its predecessor by the sheer act of Doing Stuff; you cannot accuse it of being inert at all. Plotwise, it obviously revisits an old episode of the original series, “Space Seed”, though you don’t need to have seen that (I actually didn’t see it myself until maybe just a couple of years ago), the situation is clearly enough laid out… revenge plots are always a good hook, and Meyer handles it well; Khan doesn’t feel like a blown-up TV episode like the first one did, and there is a noticeably greater emphasis on character, which is to the film’s considerable advantage. Still, plenty of other action and effects work to look at, too, if you want that from your Trek, all of which adds up to what I presume is still generally considered the best of the film series (probably the best for casual fans, which is, after all, what I am myself; I’m not a full-blown Trekkie like some of my friends). It should go without saying, though, that the film reserves its best trick for last; if the revenge plot is a good narrative hook, then the death of Spock was not only a fairly bold move but also an excellent hook for the next film (and also showed considerable faith that a third Trek film would go ahead). Speaking of which, let’s move on…

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

Director: Robert Wise

So, since the new Star Wars film is due out, SBS2 are countering it with the first 9 Star Trek films. I, obviously, watched the first one tonight, though out of sheer perversity I watched my own copy of it rather than the TV broadcast…though to be sure I suspect the lack of ad breaks was the only real advantage of doing so. Then again, this IS Star Trek: The Motion Picture we’re talking about, an ad break would’ve been something actually happening… Indeed, there seems to have been far more action off-screen than on it; years of trying to get a film going, then the studio opting for a new TV series, then changing their minds again after the success of Close Encounters, months of shooting, gigantic budget blowout… and all for some fairly average reviews at best. And, frankly, the ho-hum reception of the film wasn’t exactly unjust, cos it’s not really very good. The film’s problem is that, ultimately, it was blown up somewhat from the proposed new TV series pilot for big screen treatment, and “big screen treatment” seemed to mean taking it with the seriousness of 2001 or Solaris. Basically, it’s a lot less fun than it probably would’ve been as a TV episode, and also more than twice the length (the network would’ve insisted upon it moving on at more of a clip). On the plus side, a stupid amount of money—even the original budget was, I think, far more than was ever spent on the entire original series—was thrown into the production and you do see the benefit of that on the screen; if nothing else the effects work is still pretty marvellous to behold. It’s just unfortunate that this isn’t the case with the rest of the film (the main actors were largely unhappy with the script’s ho-hum characterisation and their, frankly, kind of awful uniforms—goddamn but THOSE haven’t worn well). There’s nothing actually wrong with the plot; a space probe returning to Earth centuries after checking out the rest of space isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Maybe it would’ve fared better as the TV episode it was originally meant to be.

Return of the Jedi (1983)

Director: Richard Marquand

I should probably that I actually did watch this just a few weeks ago, as Ch. 7 showed it before re-running the whole series on 7mate. But I only channel-surfed onto it by accident and missed the first half of the film… Still, rewatching it pretty much inspired me to do the whole series when 7mate showed it, which, as I mentioned earlier, I hadn’t exactly been planning to do and hadn’t really been looking forward to either. I enjoyed that second half of Return a few weeks ago, and I enjoyed both halves again tonight.

That said, I still think it’s probably the least of the original trilogy, although, that also said, it struck me on this revisit that I’ve probably underrated it in the past. It’s not actually a particularly weak film on its own terms, it just has the somewhat difficult task of tying everything up, you know, both trilogies if, like me, you watch the whole thing in “episode order”… of course, 32 years ago it only had to finish the work begun in two other films, but that was going to be hard enough. Still, it does the job it has to do in pretty entertaining fashion, and on rewatching all the films in close proximity like this, I think I’ve realised the real strength of this film, i.e. the real sense of how much the characters have changed. I mean, obviously the performers aren’t quite as young here as they were in 1976, but that also kind of translates into the characters too. Han isn’t quite so abrasive as in the first two films, Luke is all grown-up and no longer the boy from the old desert farm, Leia is, well, not quite who we thought she was at first, and as for Vader… yeah, that’s kind of the biggest character development here.

And then there’s the Ewoks. I like the Ewoks. Fuck the haters.

I still can’t imagine David Lynch directing this. Remember he was originally supposed to. Don’t know much about Richard Marquand, other than he seems to have mainly worked on British TV in the previous decades, and his film career was cut short just a few years later by his early death. And apparently he was really enthusiastic even then about the possibility of Lucas producing prequels (more so than Lucas himself was by that time) and would’ve been happy to make one. There’s a “what if” for you… Anyway—my continuing reservations about the prequels notwithstanding, it’s been kind of nice coming back to Star Wars after spending so many years wanting nothing to do with it; maybe I’ve just spent the right amount of time away from the series, I don’t know. And, of course, with the latest film in the saga due to arrive next month, it’ll be interesting to see exactly where the series goes over the next few years, especially now that George Lucas is no longer running the show.

As a final thought, I’m sure I’m not the only person who has trouble watching the end of this film without also thinking of this video

The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Director: Irvin Kershner

And while we’re talking about continuity between the original trilogy and the prequels, how did Obi-Wan apparently forget Luke was one of twins? Also, when was he Yoda’s student (or did Yoda palm him off to Qui-Gon before Phantom Menace)? And aren’t there a remarkable number of droids who look like C-3PO? Maybe Anakin assembled him from a kit or something…

Anyway, Empire is usually hailed as the best of the Star Wars films, and I don’t see any real need to challenge the conventional wisdom. If you haven’t read Joel Bocko’s appraisal of the whole series, please go and do so; he made a good point in a comment on my post about Star Wars about how even this film and Return of the Jedi kind of compromise the singular integrity of the first film. Still, if a sequel had to be made, then this was the way to do it. The thing about the original trilogy is, not only is each film a remarkably clear illustration of the three-act structure principle—setup, complication, resolution—but the whole trilogy works in the same fashion. So Star Wars is the setup, Return the resolution, and Empire very much the complication. Indeed, it only took five words to complicate the mythology of the films in a way that would eventually result in that whole additional trilogy, and yet the whole idea of Vader being Luke’s father apparently only entered the story in its second draft (Leigh Brackett’s first draft apparently contained no such thing).

But yeah, complication is the order of the day (not just on-screen; there seems to have been plenty of off-screen issues too like Kershner originally refusing the job). With hindsight, of course, we can see the destruction of the Death Star wasn’t going to end the Empire, which was, you know, likely to strike back. The Alliance is chased from Hoth, and the Millennium Falcon is chased at length through the asteroids and ultimately to Bespin, and by the end of the film Vader almost has what he wants. It’s a markedly darker affair to the previous film, which is probably at least partly what seems to attract people to it; also, Joel’s essay (above) makes a good point about Kershner being less interested in referring back to the old SF serials that inspired the first film, so it really does move on its own terms. Also—and Lucas knew it—Kershner was just a much better director, especially with actors. It’s a difference that does elevate Empire over its immediate predecessor and, as I said, I’m happy to go along with the general appraisal of this as the best of the series.

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