Star Trek Nemesis (2002)

Director: Stuart Baird

Starring: Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, Brent Spiner, LeVar Burton, Michael Dorn, Gates McFadden, Marina Sirtis, Tom Hardy, Ron Perlman, Dina Meyer

On the subject of film and television, I will always recognize “Star Trek” as my first love. Just as I’d managed to familiarize myself with the adventures of Kirk, Spock and their friends, a whole new generation of heroes was taking flight. As I grew from that small child, I followed gleefully along with each new adventure of the Enterprise-D (and, later, the Enterprise-E) to see what shenanigans that Picard and crew would get into next. No matter how good or how bland the movies were, for fifteen years I naively held onto the belief that I could always come away from a “Star Trek” movie with a positive experience. Then, “Star Trek: Nemesis” happened.

The movie takes place in the year 2379. The way that “Star Trek: Nemesis” starts off, there is zero indication that this is going to be the worst film in the franchise’s history. The admittedly spectacular opening sequence takes place on Romulus, where the entire Romulan Senate is killed in a mass assassination (apart from the rebels involved in the plot). Then, we’re told that after fifteen years we as loyal fans are finally getting something we’ve wished for from the very beginning: the marriage of Commander William T. Riker (Jonathan Frakes) and Counselor Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis). It’s all downhill from there.

Just after the wedding, the Enterprise detects an android on a nearby planet, one which looks exactly like Data (Brent Spiner). Disregarding the fact that things didn’t go so well the last time they found one of Data’s siblings and reassembled him, the crew makes the same mistake this time around. Unlike Lore, B-4 isn’t homicidal. He is… to put it delicately… slow. I think this is supposed to produce amusement from the audience, but it doesn’t. It’s not that it comes off as offensive. It’s just stupid. So is the perilous situation which Picard (Patrick Stewart), Data and Worf (Michael Dorn) find themselves in when they go in to retrieve B-4… in a dune buggy. All the technological advancements that the TV series and films have produced, and we have a scene where Picard drives an ATV.

Picard receives orders from the recently-promoted Admiral Janeway (Kate Mulgrew, from the “Stat Trek: Voyager” TV series) to take the Enterprise to Romulus to meet with the new Romulan leader. Shinzon (Tom Hardy), they are told, is a Reman who wants to negotiate a peace with the Federation and to liberate the Reman people from oppression. Seems he’s already taken care of the second half on his own, but whatever. When they meet, Shinzon reveals himself to be a clone of Picard, as he appeared in his youth. The trouble is that Patrick Stewart and Tom Hardy look nothing alike, and so Picard’s look of shock is a source of unintentional comedy.

Despite their cordial first meeting, something doesn’t smell right. Sure enough, Shinzon kidnaps Picard, and B-4 is revealed to be a plant meant to spy on the Enterprise and lure Picard to Romulus. It comes out that Shinzon is aging far too rapidly for his body to handle, and requires a blood transfusion from Picard in order to survive. However, before things can get underway, Data (posing as B-4) rescues Picard. The same weapon used to murder the Romulan Senate is discovered aboard Shinzon’s ship, only on a much larger scale. This lets Picard know that Shinzon is intent on leading an invasion of the Federation, starting with Earth.

Eventually, there’s a big space battle inside of a nebula. Communications and weapons lock are all for shit, and the Enterprise finds herself on the defensive until two Romulan vessels come to help. That doesn’t last, however, as one is destroyed and the other disabled. On her own once again, the Enterprise rams into Shinzon’s warship, disabling his primary weapons. The doomsday device, on the other hand, is still operational. Picard decides it’s his job to disable it, so he beams over there with no way back. Picard kills Shinzon in a fight, but it’s Data who comes to the rescue, securing Picard’s return to the Enterprise and sacrificing himself to destroy Shinzon’s warship.

As Riker accepts his promotion as the new captain of the starship Titan, the crew mourns for Data. In order to make the plagiarism of “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” complete, Picard learns that, before he died, Data transferred some of his memory into B-4. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how we leave this beloved crew that we had followed since 1987. Story goes that it was intended as TNG’s next-to-last film, not its last. Not even a follow-up could have absolved “Nemesis” of its sins.

Aside from those two great moments at the beginning of the film, virtually nothing about “Star Trek: Nemesis” works. In fact, virtually nothing about it even makes sense! Worf shows up again despite not being an official crew member. He’s not even supposed to be with Starfleet anymore, having been reassigned as the Federation Ambassador to the Klingon homeworld. Guess that’s out the window.

Shinzon’s motives warrant close scrutiny. He’s well within his rights to want to kill Picard. Oh, wait, no… He needs Picard alive so that he can get the life-saving blood transfusion he needs! Could have asked nicely. But, certainly, he is justified in leading an invasion of Earth. After all, it was the humans who created him in a lab and left him on a desolate planet to die when he’d outlived his usefulness. Except… Nope! That was the Romulans, whom he’d already made to pay for their crimes. But the mind-rape of Troi, that makes sense, right? Because a man of Shinzon’s background probably hasn’t been with too many women in his life. Nope, no form of rape is ever excusable, and this one doesn’t even service the plot in any way, shape or form. It’s largely forgotten soon after it happens.

B-4 is a blatant plot device meant to give Brent Spiner (who felt he was getting too old for the part) a way out, and is otherwise a lame rip-off of Spock’s death from “Wrath of Khan.” If we really had to have another Data-like android, I’d have preferred the return of Lore, his evil older brother from the TV series. Wouldn’t have been any harder to explain who Lore is to the uninitiated than it was to explain the Borg in “First Contact.” You could even do a redemption angle with Lore, which might have been nice.

After the previous film had hung on the theme of youth, “Nemesis” is clearly all about death. Appropriately, Jerry Goldsmith’s somber, funereal-paced score projects the aura of being old and tired (just as the franchise itself was doing at this point). Sadly, Goldsmith himself was old and tired, and would be gone in less than two years’ time.

It took me a decade to forgive screenwriter John Logan for this mess. Director Stuart Baird hasn’t gotten off so easy. It’s inexcusable to go into a project as part of a long-running series and not make any attempts to familiarize yourself with the material. Nicholas Meyer (director of “Star Trek II” and “Star Trek VI”) knew enough to do that. Honestly, they should have just given Jonathan Frakes the director’s chair for the third time. Worse still, this debacle was supposed to be Tom Hardy’s breakout role. Instead, its total failure nearly destroyed him, and almost robbed us of great roles in films like “Inception,” “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “The Revenant,” to name a few.

The greatest offense committed by “Star Trek: Nemesis” was saved for the franchise itself, as this movie was almost the death knell of “Star Trek.” It’s the only one in the series for which I’ve never felt compelled to own a copy. To me, Hell would be defined as sitting through a double bill of “Alien 3” and this movie. I expect, after this review, that I will never feel the need to watch it ever again.

Star Trek Insurrection (1998)

Director: Jonathan Frakes

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

Wartime breeds many things, questionable alliances among them. “Star Trek” has been given the chance to reflect this a few times in its history, and one of those times was in 1998’s “Star Trek: Insurrection.” At the time, the TV series “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” saw the Federation deeply embroiled in a conflict with the Dominion, a militaristic collection of hundreds of races from the Gamma Quadrant of the galaxy (and at least two from our Alpha Quadrant). The Federation was losing the battle… in part due to its depleted forces, the result of the Borg attack in “Star Trek: First Contact.” The questionable alliance in this movie is with a race called the Son’a, the only Alpha Quadrant species capable of synthesizing the drug needed by the Dominion’s foot soldiers, the Jem’Hadar. As one of our heroes asks, why would we form an alliance with a race that is facilitating our enemy? Good question.

In 2375, on a planet in an area of space dubbed the “Briar Patch,” members of Starfleet along with a Son’a delegation are covertly observing a humanoid race called the Ba’ku. Everything is going smoothly until the android Lt. Commander Data (Brent Spiner) starts to run amok, attacking his fellow observers before removing his suit and helmet (which had been keeping him hidden from the naked eye) and revealing the secret Starfleet observation post to the Ba’ku.

Naturally, Starfleet’s not too happy about this. Admiral Dougherty (Anthony Zerbe) contacts the Enterprise to inform Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) of the situation, but expressly states that the Enterprise herself need not interrupt their busy schedule. As Data means a lot to his crewmates, the Enterprise heads to the Briar Patch anyway, leaving the Admiral flustered. Dougherty and the Son’a leader, Ru’afo (F. Murray Abraham, in a reliably good performance) stand ready to terminate Data. Picard won’t stand for it, and insists that he be given the chance to subdue his friend first. For some reason (that being Paramount’s wish for a lighter tone than in “First Contact”) this included the use of a few bars from “HMS Pinafore” as a distraction.

Gradually, it is learned that Data had been shot to protect a big secret. It is also learned that the Ba’ku, although they have the appearance of a primitive society, are in fact extremely learned in the ways of technology, and were once a space-faring species. But they have shunned things like phasers and computers. It is also explained that those among them who have reached puberty are much older than they appear. None of this makes much sense to the crew, until they start noticing peculiar changes in themselves: Geordi (LeVar Burton) is able to see without the use of ocular implants for the first time, an old romance between Riker (Jonathan Frakes) and Troi (Marina Sirtis) is playfully and passionately reignited, and Picard is startled by the disappearance of old scars.

Starfleet, it turns out, has been made aware of the regenerative properties in the rings around the planet inhabited by the Ba’ku, and that’s why they and the Son’a are here. They mean to forcibly relocate the Ba’ku. The argument is made by Dougherty that being able use the Fountain of Youth-like radiation to help billions of humans, Son’a and others excuses the resettlement of 600. Picard wonders how, with all of humanity’s technological advancements over the centuries, we still find ways to continue making the same grievous mistakes of our ancestors.

What none of them realize is that the Son’a have more on their minds than prolonging their lifespan. It turns out that the Son’a are really exiled Ba’ku, petulant children come home to punish their parents. Ru’afo has allowed his hatred to fully overcome him, and means to take things a step further. Fearing death, he doesn’t care if he kills all of the Ba’ku in order to get what he wants. He even kills Dougherty when the Admiral becomes more of a hindrance to his plan. In order to stop him, Picard appeals to the conscience of Ru’afo’s best friend Gallatin (Gregg Henry). When the danger is over and Ru’afo is killed, the remaining Son’a are reunited with their Ba’ku family in order to begin the healing process.

As I’d indicated, Paramount was looking for something with a lighter tone this time around. As youth was a theme here, it makes sense that Data’s part of the plot would include learning what it means to be a child. While these moments range from cutesy to downright silly, the rest of the movie’s ‘humor’ is mostly cringe-inducing. Juvenile humor can work when given the right setting. But a “Star Trek” production should never, under any circumstances, include a boob joke. Never.

There are other things this movie does which make no sense. Worf shows up… and it’s never really explained why. Isn’t he needed on Deep Space Nine? His biggest contribution is the massive pimple next to his nose. Picard strikes up a bit of a romance with a Ba’ku named Anij (Donna Murphy), and that’s all fine. But there is that one scene where Anij apparently displays some sort of ability to slow time down so one can literally ‘live in the moment.’ To make matters worse, when Picard asks exactly what the audience is asking (“How are you doing this?”), all he gets is “No more questions.” In other words, just go with it! But, I say, then why go to the trouble of showing us this if you’re not going to explain it? “No more questions.” *Sigh* Okay, fine.

There’s a great movie hiding underneath all of the silliness, but “Star Trek: Insurrection” never quite manages to find the right balance. I wouldn’t call it a bad movie, but it’s also not a particularly memorable one. Some critics have said that it would play just fine as a two-part “Star Trek: The Next Generation” TV episode. Part of this can be attributed to the fact that it’s highly derivative of several existing TNG stories, chiefly the plots of “Who Watches the Watchers?” and “Journey’s End.” It has important points to be made about Earth’s brutal history of forced relocation, which are then overshadowed by goofy, out-of-character moments from the main cast. This failed attempt to recapture the magic of “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” would send the series back to its default of trying to recapture the essence of “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”. Whether or not one approves of the direction of the last few movies since, that is the true legacy of “Star Trek: Insurrection.”

Star Trek First Contact (1996)

Director: Jonathan Frakes

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

Considering the overwhelming success that the “Star Trek: The Next Generation” TV series had with its third season cliffhanger episode, “The Best of Both Worlds, Part I,” and its follow-up which kicked off Season 4, the decision to film a big screen sequel was a no-brainer. Rarely has “Star Trek” had as menacing a villain as the race of cyborgs from the Delta Quadrant of the Milky Way Galaxy. (We live in the Alpha Quadrant, for those keeping score.) So formidable are the Borg that they’ve been dumbed down on more than one occasion in order be more frequently utilized.

Due to the foolish decision to have the TNG crew share the spotlight in “Star Trek: Generations” with their predecessors from the original series, 1996’s “Star Trek: First Contact” marked their first solo venture. In 2373, the Borg pick up where they left off six years earlier with their plans for the invasion and assimilation of Earth and its billions of inhabitants. Normally, a starship with as experienced a crew as the Enterprise-E would be on the frontlines. However, Starfleet in its infinite wisdom believes that someone like Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart), who was once captured and assimilated by the Borg, should not be placed in a position where he might have to face them again.

So, while the best and brightest of Starfleet march on to get themselves massacred, the Enterprise is stuck patrolling the Romulan border. Everyone in the crew is in agreement that their orders are ridiculous, and they vote unanimously to return to Earth where they can swoop in and save the day. However, although the Borg’s massive cube-shaped vessel is destroyed, a smaller spherical ship escapes the explosion and travels backwards in time to a point in Earth’s history when they would be defenseless. Just before the vortex closes, the Enterprise follows the Borg and destroys them when they find them firing at a fixed location somewhere in the middle of Montana.

A quick check of the time period they’ve arrived in reveals the date to be April 4, 2063. This is significant to the Enterprise crew because they know that the next day, April 5th, is to be the day that Earth makes first contact with an extra-terrestrial race (in this case, the Vulcans). How very “Terminator” of the Borg to choose such a date! Knowing that, and knowing that the site which the Borg had been firing upon was a missile complex, the crew beam down to the surface to survey the damage, hoping not to find too many casualties.

Specifically, it is scientist Zefram Cochrane (James Cromwell) whom they are hoping to locate alive and well. It is Cochrane whose warp drive technology made it possible for humans to travel faster than light and explore beyond our own galaxy. This is also what made the Vulcans, who’ve been observing us for years, finally decide to pay us a visit. While on the surface, they encounter Lily (Alfre Woodard), who believes them to be hostile forces come to kill her and her friends. She falls ill due to radiation sickness, which requires that she be taken on board the Enterprise under sedation.

It is at about this same when it is revealed that some of the Borg have survived, and they have begun assimilating parts of the ship and members of the crew. So, while some stay on Earth, the rest hurry back to the ship. Everyone gears up for a fight, but it doesn’t take long for the Borg to adapt to Starfleet’s weaponry, and so the crew has to split up and come up with another plan. Several more crew members are assimilated, with some pleading to be shot dead before the process has a chance to complete itself. Data (Brent Spiner) is captured and taken to the Engineering section. Picard winds up with a revived Lily, who witnesses firsthand just how badly Picard’s prior experience with the Borg has affected him.

Back on Earth, it is up to Riker (Jonathan Frakes), Geordi (LeVar Burton) and Troi (Marina Sirtis) to locate Zefram Cochrane and convince him of the importance of his warp flight. When they do find him, they behave a little fanboy-ish, like many of us who meet one of the “Star Trek” actors at a sci-fi convention. Their built-up image of Cochrane doesn’t quite fit the man standing before them. He likes to get drunk and listen to loud music, prefers taking trains over flying, and admits his only interest in building his warp ship was to make money and retire to a private island. All the hero worship he’s receiving scares him a bit.

These two competing story arcs I’ve laid out represent the good parts of “Star Trek: First Contact.” There is yet a third story arc, and it’s not as good. In Engineering, Data meets the Borg Queen (Alice Krige), who sets Data on the next step of his evolution as he explores his sexuality. He’d actually had one other such encounter back in the first season of the TV series, but that was at a time when he was still emotionless and knew an awful lot less about what it means to be human. The Borg Queen also tempts him with human flesh, grafting it onto parts of his android frame.

These parts of the movie, although they are well-acted and do their part in furthering Data’s growth as a character, are simply not interesting enough. These scenes also do the other two story arcs a disservice in taking up valuable screen time. The Borg Queen herself also diminishes the Borg to an extent. They’d been built up well enough on the TV series and were scarier without her. It also takes away from Picard’s transition into Locutus of Borg in “The Best of Both Worlds,” the explanation being that the Borg Queen (who is evidently omnipresent) wanted a counterpart. Yawn.

No “Star Trek” movie has ever been perfect (except perhaps for “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”). However, two decades after its original release, “Star Trek: First Contact” is still one of the best films in the franchise. It boasts one of the many things that was lacking in “Star Trek: Generations,” a score composed by Jerry Goldsmith. As such, Goldsmith’s “First Contact” soundtrack was his second best in the series (the best being his work for “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”).

The cast is great, too. Whether you look at it as unintentional humor or not, I love Patrick Stewart’s performance as the revenge-minded Picard. His scenes with Alfre Woodard are some of the film’s best highlights. Also terrific is James Cromwell, who is fun to watch in anything he does. In the first of what would be three guest appearances with his old crewmates, Worf (Michael Dorn, who had joined the spin-off TV series “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”) makes his least convoluted appearance here as he comes on board the Enterprise after his new ship, the Defiant, is set adrift by the Borg attack.

I don’t even mind the messy time travel aspect of the plot. You could really pick that apart if you wanted to, but the movie is good enough that it’s just not worth getting into. Besides, “Star Trek” has consistently come up with illogical explanations for time travel, so why be different now? A truly strong showing here made resistance to future sequels futile. The question remained: Would the next chapter in the TNG saga live up?

Star Trek Generations (1994)

Director: David Carson

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

Everybody, especially when we are younger, has a certain idea of how we want our lives to progress. Very few are fortunate enough to see those dreams come true. Most are left with memories of people and places long past, and some are so unsatisfied with their current state of being that all they can do is look to the past and observe “how much better things used to be.” Some would probably jump at the chance to return to that point in their lives when they felt happier than they’d ever felt before or since. Just how far would such a person be willing to go to get what they desire, were such a thing possible?

“Star Trek: Generations,” co-written by Brannon Braga & Ron Moore, attempts to answer this question. In the 23rd century, during a test run for the newly commissioned Enterprise-B (with retired Starfleet officers Kirk, Chekov and Scotty in attendance), a distress call is received from two vessels trapped in some sort of energy ribbon, known as the Nexus. Both ships are destroyed, and only a small portion of the crew of one of those ships survives. The Enterprise-B herself sustains heavy damage, and Kirk is apparently lost in the process. Among the survivors of the doomed freighters is Guinan (later the bartender on board the Enterprise-D, played by an uncredited Whoopi Goldberg) and Dr. Soran (Malcolm McDowell), who displays rather obvious distress when his pleas to be allowed to return to the Nexus fall on deaf ears.

Dr. Soran, you see, has a specific time or place in mind, during which he was perfectly content, and he would do ANYTHING to be able to relive that period as if it were happening now. His whole family was wiped out when the Borg invaded his and Guinan’s homeworld and either killed or assimilated most of the population. This traumatic event has turned a once peaceful individual into a man obsessed with regaining something he has lost for all time. The only way this can be achieved is by way of the Nexus. This energy ribbon acts as a sort of virtual reality, accessing a person’s thoughts and giving them the fantasy life they desire, be it based on past experiences (in which case one can make choices contrary to the ones they made in real life) or on dreams of an alternate present time.

Unfortunately, Dr. Soran has determined that, since he can’t safely fly into the Nexus with a ship, he must alter the ribbon’s course so that it will come to him. To do this, Soran launches probes into various stars, triggering supernovas which result in the destruction of entire solar systems and the loss of millions of lives. In 2371, 78 years after being rescued by the Enterprise-B, Soran encounters the crew of the Enterprise-D. It isn’t long before Soran’s plans are discovered by our gallant heroes. Tracking him to a planet called Veridian III, Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) beams to the surface with the hope that he can reason with Soran. Being the clichéd megalomaniac villain that he is, Soran is beyond all reason.

In the middle of it all, although we didn’t know it back in 1994, this would be the first of four theatrical chapters detailing the evolution of the android Data (Brent Spiner) from a very intelligent artificial life form into one that has gained a perspective on humanity. Here, Data is given an emotion chip, allowing him to laugh, cry, feel excitement and fear, use colorful language and be disgusted by bad alcoholic drinks… all for the first time. While this does make for some of the movie’s sillier moments, it does take on a larger importance once one is able to take a step back and connect it with Data’s journey through the three subsequent films.

Eventually, Soran is able to carry out his plan with the help of renegade Klingons. The Enterprise-D is even shot down and crash lands in a spectacular special effects sequence. Yes, the Enterprise-D which was an integral part of the TNG television series that lasted for SEVEN seasons… doesn’t even get one entire movie before being destroyed. The excuse for this was that the producers needed a vessel that would be more “theater-friendly.” With the Veridian system destroyed and every living thing, including the 1,000+ members of the Enterprise-D crew, having been killed… just where is this movie taking us next? Answer: Once more unto the Nexus, dear friends!

After realizing his own fantasy of the family he’s never going to have to be just that, Picard crosses over to another fantasy world, where he finds Captain James T. Kirk alive and well. After convincing Kirk that he’s not only fooling himself if he thinks his surroundings are real but that there’s a mission out there for a man who no longer feels as if he’s making a difference, the two captains return to just before Soran’s probe is launched so they can thwart the Doctor’s plans. Sadly, Kirk is killed in the process.

Among the list of things that you just don’t do which was taught to us by singer Jim Croce, an addition must be made: You don’t kill off James Tiberius Kirk. Certainly not with as ill-conceived and undignified a death as he’s given here. Worse yet,  Kirk dies for no reason at all! Inside the Nexus, we have been told, time has no meaning. As presented, the Nexus robs the conclusion of the film of any suspense it might have had. Where’s the urgency? If you screw up, Soran gets the Nexus to come to the planet and WHOOSH! Kirk and Picard are back inside the Nexus, whereby they can once again meet, leave together, and try to stop Soran as many times as they want to!

Even worse is the problem created by Kirk and Picard leaving the Nexus to try and stop Soran. This one’s a doozy… If Soran entered the Nexus at the same time Picard did, does that mean Soran is both still there when Picard leaves AND on Veridian III when Picard travels back in time to stop him? Or has he been magically transported back, as well? If so, why doesn’t he seem to notice? It’s more likely that it’s simply a make-it-didn’t-happen scenario, and that only Kirk and Picard noticed the changes, but it’s not really explained very well. Forgetting all of that, why is Kirk even necessary? If Picard can choose any point in time to come back to, as Guinan tells him he can, then it would save time, lives and a perfectly good starship if he were to return to when Soran is first brought on board the Enterprise-D and have him thrown in the brig. End of story! …I think of these things when I have a lot of time on my hands.

I’ve admittedly watched “Star Trek: Generations” many, many times since 1994. In that time, the movie has not aged well at all. It was never one of my favorites, but I now regard it as one of the worst in the “Star Trek” film franchise. That is in no way reflective of its cast, and has everything to do with the people working behind the camera. It makes no sense to have a passing of the torch movie when that torch had already been satisfactorily passed by the previous film, “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.”

This movie is also not friendly to anyone unfamiliar with the “Next Generation” TV series. It tries so desperately to cater to longtime fans while simultaneously going out of its way to upset the vast majority of them. All with a story so full of holes that you could drive a starship through it. Almost makes one wish they had their own personal Nexus so that they could live in a world where this movie doesn’t exist.

Independence Day (1996)

Director: Roland Emmerich

Starring: Will Smith, Bill Pullman, Jeff Goldblum, Mary McDonnell, Judd Hirsch, Margaret Colin, Randy Quaid, Robert Loggia, James Rebhorn, Harvey Fierstein

It was twenty years ago today that I sat down inside of an absolutely packed movie theater for my first look at that summer’s big blockbuster hit, the alien invasion film “Independence Day.” That I should revisit it on this day has more to do with that anniversary, my acknowledgement that I’m that much older now, and my nostalgia for the film than it does with the franchise’s recent ‘resurgence.’ The term ‘blockbuster’ doesn’t mean near as much now as it did back in 1996. The hype surrounding this movie was beyond ridiculous. We’d all seen the image of the White House being blown to smithereens dozens of times over before the movie was even released, and this was a full decade before the invention of YouTube. With few exceptions, I don’t know of too many movies being released today that have been capable of provoking the same level of anticipation.

The movie takes place over the course of three days… which, if you’re keeping score, means that the war between mankind and a space-faring alien race takes ends far more quickly than any wars we fight among ourselves. Like a scene right out of the “V” miniseries, the alien spacecraft enter our atmosphere without much warning, scaring the bejesus out of most while fascinating the rest. “Independence Day” features what may be the most honest response to discovering that we are not alone which I have ever seen on film. Sure, you have the typical “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” crowd who stand around with both their jaws and their arms wide open, but there’s also the panicked masses who are in such a hurry to get the heck out of town that they will toss their belongings out the window toward their waiting cars, while subsequently crashing into other vehicles due either to being unable to see the obstruction or just because they’re in so much of a hurry that they won’t wait for traffic. Add to that one particular news report discouraging viewers from firing their guns at the alien ships. If this were going on for real, I’d expect all of this behavior.

David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) believes he knows the cause of all the satellite disruption: The aliens are on a countdown to an attack. He gets his father to drive him to the White House (since David, the health nut, only has a much slower bicycle to get from point A to point B ), and convinces his ex-wife Connie (Margaret Colin), the White House Press Secretary, to allow him to talk with President Whitmore (Bill Pullman) about what he thinks he knows. The President doesn’t act on David’s advice immediately; it’s only after three helicopter pilots have died that Whitmore decides to evacuate the city. It’s about this time that the alien spaceships all begin to open simultaneously. Any remaining idiots… I mean bystanders… are treated to a fancy blue light show and then… BOOM!!! One shot immediately obliterates the national landmarks that each craft is parked over, and the resulting fiery shock wave takes care of the rest. It’s by some great bloody miracle (and a poor display of the laws of physics) that Air Force One escapes unharmed. Perhaps the creepiest image of the entire film comes when we are shown the aftermath of the attack in New York City: the Statue of Liberty is seen toppled over in the foreground, while the World Trade Center towers are in flames in the background. Yeesh…

The next day, we don’t fare much better. An entire squadron of Marine Corps pilots is taken down easily by the heavily-shielded aliens. The only surviving pilot, Capt. Steven Hiller (Will Smith), manages to bring one of his enemies down with him and drags the alien through the burning desert until he’s met by a caravan of survivors led by former alien abductee Russell Casse (Randy Quaid), who give him a ride to Area 51. Air Force One heads there, too and, once all are there, they meet with Dr. Okun (Brent Spiner). The doctor is pleased as punch that they’ve brought a live specimen for him to examine. Pity the doctor neglected to sedate the creature. You can guess what happens next. When our heroes arrive on the scene of the carnage, the alien speaks to them through Dr. Okun (who is quite clearly already dead) through some form of telepathy. When President Whitmore attempts to negotiate, he is told in no uncertain terms that what the aliens want us to do nothing more than just die.

On July 4th, after what has to be the winner for the most mind-blowing instance of a random idea hatching from an unrelated comment, David come up with a plan to plant a computer virus into the alien mother ship, in the hopes that it will give everyone down on Earth time enough to take down the city-leveling monstrosities hovering overhead. The President gathers all the survivors with piloting experience and gives them an uplifting speech. David and Capt. Hiller, the would-be NASA astronaut who is finally living his dream of going into space, volunteer to upload the computer virus. The upload is successful, though I’m not sure quite how. It’s hard enough trying to get Macs and PCs to talk to each other!

An alien ship approaches Area 51, and so the President and his pilots go in for the kill. Their missiles don’t do near enough damage, though, and they find it difficult to hit the aliens’ primary weapon, which has been engaged. Eventually, the only man left with a missile is Russell Casse. The missile won’t fire, however, and so Russell opts for a heroic suicide flight directly into a collision course with the aliens’ weapon, causing a chain reaction that completely destroys the alien ship. I’ve heard a lot of people compare this scene to that of Bugs Bunny plugging up the barrel of Elmer Fudd’s gun with his fingers. I get why, but I have to say I’ve never had a problem with it. I’ve always seen it as just a matter of the weapon ironically being the aliens’ Achilles heel. David and Capt. Hiller also manage to destroy the mother ship, and we’ve finally won the day.

“Independence Day” is a tribute not only to the flying saucer films of the 1950’s, but also the star-studded disaster films of the 1970’s. It owes so much to “War of the Worlds” that it may be the reason why Steven Spielberg waited until 2005 to do his own remake of the H.G. Wells classic. An admittedly flawed movie, “Independence Day” nevertheless rises above its silly plot thanks its terrific ensemble cast, in particular Jeff Goldblum and the scenery-chewing Will Smith. The score by David Arnold is as genuinely uplifting as it is memorable. Like any decent alien invasion/disaster popcorn flick, “Independence Day” is also really good at building tension, piling adversity on top of adversity for our heroes to dig themselves out from underneath. I’ve seen this movie more times in the last two decades than I can personally count, but I always have fun with it. If it shows up on television, I’m compelled to watch. Though the event movie is slowly going out of style, this one’s still guaranteed to raise a smile.

2001 A Space Odyssey (1968)

Director: Stanley Kubrick

Starring: Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, Douglas Rain (voice), William Sylvester

Movies like “2001: A Space Odyssey” are like a magic act. The fun is not in figuring out how the stunt works, but in the experience of witnessing the performance. The magician, Stanley Kubrick, is not interested in spelling things out for us. The intent is not to tell us a story, but to show us a story. Kubrick certainly could have chosen to spin a more conventional science-fiction yarn accompanied by an ordinary soundtrack, but that wasn’t his style. If it was, we wouldn’t still be discussing “2001” with the same fervor as when the film first premiered nearly half a century ago.

“2001” can also be defined as a four-act play. Act One takes place many millions of years ago, well before the first appearance of homo sapiens. Two tribes of apes are at odds over possession of a water hole. The group which had previously laid claim to it is chased away, but is then visited the next morning by a black monolith. The trepidation with which they greet this strange object is relatable to anyone who has hesitated to take that next step in his/her own personal evolution. All they require is a little push. Soon, the apes discover how to make use of tools and they assert themselves as the dominant tribe, re-taking the water hole from their enemy.

One of the greatest shots in the film occurs as the tribe’s leader triumphantly tosses a bone up into the air. As the bone begins its descent, we are instantly transported millions of years into the future. Signaling the beginning of Act Two, the bone becomes a satellite in orbit, and it is now the year 1999 AD. Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) travels to Clavius Base on the Moon where another monolith has been discovered. Naturally, this proof of extra-terrestrial life is kept secret from the general public to prevent widespread panic. The monolith emits a signal directed straight at Jupiter.

Act Three picks things up 18 months later. In 2001 AD, the United States space vessel Discovery One is en route to Jupiter. The crew consists of Drs. David Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) as well as three others in hibernation. But the ship’s main functions are controlled by the HAL 9000 computer (Douglas Rain). A crucial scene early in this portion of the film depicts a BBC television interview segment in which Bowman and Poole discuss their working relationship with HAL, and the computer boasts about its perfect operational record. The insinuation that nothing can possibly go wrong is always a portent of doom.

HAL exhibits erratic behavior when he misdiagnoses a faulty antenna control device, digging himself a deeper hole by trying to cover his tracks. Fearing that HAL’s behavior puts the mission at risk, Bowman and Poole take steps to ensure that they cannot be heard as they discuss the option of disconnecting HAL. Unfortunately, they hadn’t counted on HAL’s ability to lip-read. Reasoning that the mission is too important to allow anything to jeopardize it, HAL kills Poole while he is out on a space walk, prompting Bowman to jump into an EVA pod sans helmet to attempt to recover the body. When he returns, HAL won’t open the door to let Bowman back in. While doing this, HAL is also terminating the life functions of the three hibernating astronauts. Bowman re-enters the Discovery via the emergency hatch and moves on to the part of the ship which, effectively, is HAL’s brain. HAL pleads with Bowman to no avail, as the errant machine is shut down. Just then, as the ship arrives at Jupiter, a pre-recorded message from Heywood Floyd reveals the details of the mission which had previously been known to HAL but kept secret from the crew. Wonderful timing, Dr. Floyd!

The fourth, final and most dizzying act commences with Bowman flying an EVA pod out to intercept a monolith now in orbit around Jupiter. The pod is then sucked into a seemingly endless vortex filled with bright colors which carries Bowman across unfathomable distances, revealing many alien landscapes and other uncharted heavenly bodies before landing him in a setting which would appear more familiar to someone of Terran origin such as himself. There, time seems to pass at a more accelerated rate. Bowman comes face-to-face with older versions of himself, switching perspectives each time until he winds up old and dying in bed. With one final gesture, he extends a hand as if to touch the monolith that now stands at the foot of his bed… and is transformed (or evolves) into a being called a Star Child.

When thinking about Man’s exploration of outer space, it provokes a feeling of peace and serenity. Regardless of the dangers inherent in venturing out into the stars, that sense of awe and wonder triumphs over all. I get the same feeling from the outer space sequences in “2001,” though it would not have been accomplished so completely were it not for the accompaniment of Johann Strauss’s “The Blue Danube,” in particular. I’ve heard the original intended score from Alex North, and it just doesn’t fit. The movie would have been made more ordinary. That simply would not do.

There is also a certain serenity about the way the humans in this movie carry themselves. Very efficient and businesslike. That is, of course, until HAL starts malfunctioning. That’s when Keir Dullea is allowed to remove the veil of calm, and play Dave Bowman with more impulse and emotion. HAL, being an artificial intelligence, never has this problem. Even when explaining to Bowman why he won’t “open the pod bay doors,” HAL’s voice maintains a constant, disturbing calm. Thus, the film’s best performance comes from the one actor whose face you never see. HAL is another of Kubrick’s great magic tricks in “2001,” and plays an integral role in elevating this Space Odyssey into the all-time sci-fi classic status which it has so deservedly earned.

The Martian (2015)

Director: Ridley Scott

Starring: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Donald Glover, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Chiwetel Ejiofor

I do love edge-of-your-seat science fiction. Recent years have produced such films as “Gravity” and “Interstellar,” both of which I consider to be modern technical masterpieces. I also love it when a seemingly past their prime director like Ridley Scott can surprise us with something truly special. This is what he’s done with 2015’s “The Martian,” Scott’s best work since “Blade Runner.”

I sincerely hope that, by the time I’m at or around 50 years of age, we’ll have learned how to send manned missions to Mars. Going by the the timeline of “The Martian,” we will! It’s the year 2035, and the crew of the Ares III is 18 Martian solar days (sols) into their planned 31-sol mission. Plans change when a dust storm forces a more hasty exit. During the course of this storm, astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is hit by debris and knocked well beyond anything resembling a line of sight. Unable to locate Watney, communicate with him or even establish that the man is still alive, his crew make the hard choice to leave without him.

All is not lost. It turns out that Watney survived the storm, and that the reason why his vital signs were undetectable was due to a jagged piece of antenna which had pierced clean through his biomonitor and caused a rather nasty gash that required medical attention.  As Watney begins to reason what needs to happen in order for him to survive, he calculates how long it will take before his food supply runs out. As luck would have it, Watney is a botanist and is thus able to create a makeshift farm using human excrement for soil, water derived from rocket fuel, and potatoes in storage for a Thanksgiving meal that’s decidedly no longer on the schedule.

Meanwhile, a dilemma of a different kind emerges once NASA, after reviewing satellite photos from Mars, comes to the realization that Watney still lives. Quickly, attention is drawn to the crew of the Ares III. To put it mildly, mission director Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean) feels that it would be irresponsible of them not to inform the crew, who are still en route back to Earth. Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), the Director of NASA, overrules Henderson and prioritizes the completion of the mission. When it becomes necessary (not to mention possible) to explain all this to Watney, he’s not well pleased. A few f-bombs later, Watney insists that the crew be made aware that he’s alive. Sanders relents.

You know that, as soon as anyone dares to utter such fateful words as “assuming nothing goes wrong,” something inevitably WILL go wrong, and it does. First, Watney’s potato crop is destroyed in an accident. Next, the unmanned supply ship meant to restock Watney’s food rations explodes shortly after takeoff. Desperately running out of time and options, NASA secretly negotiates with the Chinese for use of one of their probes. A plan is devised which would involve the Ares III crew using the Chinese probe to instead resupply their ship so that they can have enough provisions when they slingshot around the Earth for a return trip to Mars to rescue Watney themselves. Sanders, a pragmatic man who is not keen on the idea of risking six lives to save one, rejects the plan. However, Henderson sends the plan to the crew anyway. They are unanimously for it, and get to work right away.

That things will turn out okay is no real spoiler and in fact should be expected. It would be cruel to string the audience along for not quite two and a half hours only to have the story end tragically. What’s important is whether the journey is entertaining. Boy, is it ever! The cast is (inter)stellar. Matt Damon is really good at playing stranded astronauts, having done so in Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” …which also co-starred Jessica Chastain. Here, Chastain plays the Ares III mission commander Melissa Lewis, whose 1970’s music collection it is that makes up most of the film’s soundtrack as the only music on hand for Watney to listen to while on Mars. With a particular nod to disco, the songs are often relevant to the situation at hand.

“The Martian” is also a visual treat. The scenes on Mars are all completely believable. To the untrained eye, it looks as though Matt Damon has actually filmed his scenes on the fourth planet of the solar system. I enjoy these parts of the movie so much that I liken it to a good dream, one which cannot reasonably last as long as I want it to. As good as “Interstellar” and “Gravity” are, “The Martian” is that much greater  and really speaks well for the future of the science-fiction genre at-large. I can only hope, when we do finally send men to Mars, that it will be within my lifetime and that it will be an awe-inspiring, routine (i.e. incident-free) mission.