Category: Entertainment

#Axanar & Alec Peters killed #StarTrek fan films. Not CBS Paramount

It’s an overly simplistic and clickbaity headline, I know. Show me one that isn’t. Of course CBS Paramount’s new ‘guidelines’ for Star Trek fan films are their own responsibility and so, at the least, they must shoulder a weighty proportion of the blame. But by ignoring what caused their release, you’re ignoring the meat of the story.

Before we get to that though, what are the guidelines? Well, google them. I’m not your dad. Here’s the highlights though.

Your fan film can be no longer than fifteen minutes in length. You can extend this by making it a two parter, but that’s it. Two fifteen minute ‘episodes’. No sequels, no remakes, no continuations, nada. One stand alone story in two pieces lasting no longer than thirty minutes in total.

No props unless you bought them from official sources. Made a captain’s uniform at home with a sewing machine? Can’t use it. Got a friend who makes plywood phaser rifles? Nope. Turned your tablet into an LCARS padd? That might be okay, if only because I’m not aware of an official toy of the sort, but if CBS have a licensed product out there already, you’re not using an alternative.

There are also narrative constraints, and their scope is wider than a Galaxy class’s saucer section. You can’t depict drugs or alcohol, so bang goes Sickbay or Quarks. You can’t show any “offensive” behaviour which could quite literally cover anything CBS wish it to, you can’t show anything “disparaging” so your O’Brien/Bashir-esque banter has to go, no “hateful” or “threatening” content either so say goodbye to your antagonists.

In truth these narrative constraints sound very familiar to those set out by Gene Roddenberry when laying the groundwork for The Next Generation, but it’s easy to forget this far removed that the first two seasons of TNG, like The Motion Picture which Roddenberry was in charge for were… well, let’s just say they’re not the parts we get nostalgic about.

It’s fair also to note that CBS’s restricitons are more about overall themes than individual characters motives. You’d likely get away with a Klingon who hates Romulans, but the moral of your story can’t be that hatred of others is a perfectly fine thing to feel. So far, so Star Trek.

The most limiting of these rules are those concerning length, and production. Anyone who’s ever seen the excellent Star Wars short, Troops knows that you can make a great little fan film in ten or so minutes, but the majority of Trek fan films are based on an episodic structure; indeed the most celebrated are fully fledged series of 43 minute films. Many, if not most, have costume designers who work, with varying degrees of success, to mimic the costumes and uniforms seen on screen while constrained by a tight budget. CBS have nuked that idea, and purchasing the uniform, combadge, and pips from official supplier Anovos to dress up as Captain Janeway or her equivelant will set you back six hundred dollars. Picture a halfway populated bridge and your fifteen minute film has now cost you anywhere from $3000 to $6000 before you’ve shot a single scene.

The quickest skim of these rules then, reveals that fan films have basically been Red Wedded by CBS. They will allow you to crowdfund up to $50,000, which isn’t nothing, but who really wants to spend $50,000 on a half hour concept that they can’t use in any way in  future? Star Trek fan films, never the most populous beasts to roam the Internet plains, are to become ever rarer.

But why? CBS have been fine with fan films for decades. There have been ongoing Star Trek fan series for as long as I’ve been using the Internet. They’re almost all dreadful, and the few that aren’t tend to be TOS-based which isn’t my thing, but because they were small, inoffensive, and crucially, didn’t make any money, CBS didn’t care. Why would they? A fan film is effectively free advertising for a franchise. LucasArts worked this out long ago, and though CBS have never embraced them to the same degree as their competitor, they knew that too.

Enter Alec Peters. Alec Peters is a fifty-five year old former volleyball coach who collects children’s toys and led his last company into bankruptcy owing creditors hundreds of thousands of dollars, and who describes his hair colour as “salt/pepper”. Which is fine.

Peters and some chums made Prelude to Axanar, an excellent documentary type short film set in the Star Trek universe. It met with near universal acclaim thanks to excellent visual effects, a tight script, and blessed lack of wannabe actors who would struggle to show more facial emotion than a Gerry Anderson character.

The goal was to intrigue people enough that they would contribute to a crowdfunding campaign to finance a full Axanar feature. This blog isn’t here to drown you with legalese, but in short, presuming the money is accounted for and all goes on the feature, this is generally fine. Strictly speaking every fan film you’ve ever seen is a copyright infringement, but as long as you pay your dues and don’t profit, most studios don’t give a damn. They’re not Konami, after all.

The trouble with Axanar is that all the money raised wasn’t going on the Axanar feature. Portions of it were going to Peters and Co. Effectively they were paying themselves out of the fund. Weasel wording aside, this is a textbook definition of “profiting” and they were doing it based on the Star Trek IP. Furthermore, funds were also being used to set up Peters own studio, which, it was planned, would go on to make for profit features. Effectively, the lure of a Star Trek fan film was being used to generate money to build something else, and line the pockets of those involved.

CBS, understandably, had something of an issue with this. Try to imagine this parable. You write and record a piece of music. You allow people to download it from the Internet for free, in exchange for the usual agreement that they won’t use it for public broadcast or to generate profit. If someone’s making money off it after all, it should really be you. Imagine then than James Cameron picks it up, and uses it as the main theme for the next Avatar movie trailer. The trailer has millions of views, Cameron gets the ad money from YouTube for this, and thereafter, Avatar 2 makes a billion dollars in large part because the trailer convinced people to go and see it. You get nothing. Wouldn’t you be pissed?

This is pretty much the same thing that Peters did to CBS. CBS are legally recognised as the creators and owners of Star Trek. What happens with Star Trek is up to them and you can’t do anything with it that they don’t want you to. This includes, but is not limited to, using their brand to crowdfund tens of thousands of dollars for yourself. Surprising, I know.

So CBS sued Peters, and rather than, “hey bud. Sorry about that. My bad,” Peters countersued CBS trying to alledge that among other things, they didn’t own the copyright to Vulcan ears. This lawsuit by the way, was also paid for using funds from the original crowdsourcing. Fans who had paid for a new Star Trek film, were instead paying for a new studio, Peters wages (some $30-40k per annum if I recall, but don’t quote me), and the frivilous lawsuit he winged at CBS to divert attention from the fact that he’d broken the law.*

  • – Allegedly, of course, each man being innocent till proven guilty, and this apparent evidence of Peters breaking the law isn’t proof that he broke the law or that he is a lawbreaker until of course a court of law decides that he broke the law and is a lawbreaker. I’m just saying it looks like he broke the law and is a lawbreaker.

Cue an effective media campaign launched by Peters & Co. CBS was “picking on” the fans. They “were jealous” that Axanar was looking better than Justin Lin’s Fast Stars & Furious Treks (which in fairness, looks to have all the charm of a hypocritical Simon Pegg moaning about comic book films and sequels propping up Hollywood). CBS were only suing Axanar because the fundraising had been so successful. They wanted the million dollars that had been raised. The CBS network is worth about $30 billion, but sure, they wanted the $1m Peters had raised.

You can pick whichever side of this you choose. You can criticise CBS for not supporting fan films. You can call Peters a dishonest money-grubbing git. You can pledge never to watch another Star Trek feature again (no one will ever believe you because you’re lying, but you can pledge nonetheless), you can ignore the whole thing because Star Trek will go on as it always has, and you’ve never really felt like you were in need of extra hammy acting, ropey special effects, or surprisingly impractical clothing beyond that you already get onscreen.

But it remains a fact that CBS never felt the need to lay down the law until Alec Peters and his friends decided to profiteer off fans desire to see ever more of a beloved franchise. So fine. I retract the headline. CBS is the one killing fan films.

But it was Alec Peters that inspired them to do it.

 

Nb – 29/06/2016 14:00 – This article originally stated that monies from the crowdsourced fund were being used to fund Axanar‘s legal case. Thanks to readers who pointed out this error below. Axanar’s legal team agreed to work on a pro bono basis, and I’m happy to acknowledge that here.

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#Banshee – The Lame Goodbye, and Season 4 Syndrome

No intelligent discussion of stylish television, action scenes, sex on screen, or sheer pulpy pleasure can be complete now without mention of Cinemax’s first ever original drama, Banshee. That alone is a hell of an achievement. Thanks to an excellent ensemble cast, visual direction every bit the equal of Hannibal, Breaking Bad, or anything you’ll see on the silver screen, and characters more layered and intriguing than they ever needed be for a guilty TV pleasure, the show will rightly be remembered as a cult classic and one which will hopefully serve as a career springboard for the many talented people who worked on it.* And yet, you can’t talk about Banshee; a show which screamed from the mountaintop in primal exaltation, without discussing its abysmal, whimpering, limp-wristed, hobble-off-into-the-night, final season.

* – My shout, for what it’s worth is that Anthony Starr would be superb as the morally assaulted Commander Shepard should the Mass Effect movie ever get going, but don’t hold your breath.

Banshee season four, for a variety of reasons, was barely the same show as the one that proceeded it for three years. A change of filming location didn’t help – Banshee went from being a town you could imagine driving through in five minutes to a urban sprawl and so the, “small town; big trouble” cells that ran through the show’s blood were immediately weakened. Gone was the charm of a cop shop in an old Cadillac showroom, replaced by… well, a police station. How dull is that?

A needless two-year time jump didn’t help matters either. This has always been a lazy writers’ technique for character development and only rarely, as in the case of Battlestar Galactica’s season two finale does it ever really justify itself with a payoff that simply couldn’t have been achieved another way.

Then there was sidelining beloved characters for new ones which added nothing to proceedings. Bringing in the talented Eliza Dushku as a junkie FBI agent was largely pointless. There was never any threat (as there had been with Zeljko Ivanek’s Fed), of Hood’s past being discovered. Having established Brock as Sheriff, a new investigator wasn’t required. Hood’s ‘new’ love interest of the year was Rebecca, who, for no narrative payoff whatsoever, was pregnant with his baby before she was murdered off screen so Banshee could swap action drama for a police procedural format.

New officer I’m-sure-she-had-a-name-but-who-honestly-remembers as Proctor’s spy in the Banshee Police Department was never given enough development for anyone to care as to her motivations or fate, and so when her end came, no one cared. Speaking of Proctor, that whole becoming mayor thing never really went anywhere, did it?

Job had been kidnapped at the end of season three and his absence for the first half of season four left a chasm in the show’s landscape. Hoon Lee as a crossdressing, gun-toting, whisky-swigging, foul-mouthed, hacker has been one of TV’s most charming characters in years, and his exasperated, “it’s about fucking time,” upon his return was surely echoed in every living room as it happened.

Then there was Sugar; the first friend our hero made in Banshee. Wise ex-con bartender may not be a new role, but Frankie Faison brought good humour with an undercurrent of darkness to it, and his reward was being reduced to a bit part for most of the final season. Deva and her brother are non-entities too – the latter doesn’t appear at all.

Banshee has always matched its heroes against TV’s best comic-book villains, who remain in the mind long after their runs (often single episodes) are done. Nola Longshadow who tomahawked her way into one of TV’s finest ever fistfights. The Jason Statham-like cockney assassin who feeds the birds Scotch-soaked bread while calmly discussing his own mortality. Olek who loved Ana dearly, but whose loyalty to her father meant he would kill her if need be. The enormous bookkeeper who was too fat to fit in a car and so was transported everywhere in a pimped-out lorry. The terrifying albino who seemed physically invincible. Chayton Littlestone whose dreams of a native American violent revolution at times seemed entirely plausible. Mr Rabbit, whose wrath would hunt Hood to the ends of the earth for vengeance. Kai Proctor, who openly defied God to strike him down for his crimes, but privately wished only for redemption in his mother’s eyes.

And a bespectacled, bow-tie wearing, silent aide. Yes. Banshee did bad guy very well indeed.

And as part of this, it had built up its local Nazi population as future villains-in-chief from early on in its first season. When they executed a black police officer – one of the show’s few entirely good and honest guys – his wife, and their unborn child, it was easy to hate them and wish for their destruction. When they blowtorched the skin off a young officer who had left the Brotherhood and tried to start a better life for himself, we knew they would be the primary threat to our heroes in the last ever season.

Except they weren’t. There was a new Satanist serial killer and his death cult. On paper, a man believing he acts on the word of the Devil is absolutely ridiculous enough for this show. But to stretch it over seven episodes in a not-particularly-interesting serial killer plot? That’s never been what Banshee’s about. You’d be forgiven for thinking this season had been given over to trialling a new show as the final season of The Practice did for Boston Legal. Eliza Dushku in a noir detective thriller, anyone? Oh wait, Netflix kind of did that already.

And why did anyone bother bringing in the Colombian Cartel for a cameo? The Nazi Senator? (always nice to see Frasier’s Bulldog, mind you.)

Then there were the fights. Oh dear Lord, the fights. Daredevil is understandably lauded for its choreography but next to Banshee’s Lucas Hood, Matt Murdock is a ballerina. Remember the corridor scene in Daredevil’s second episode? Banshee did it first. Nola’s one-shot battle with Burton in, around, and through a classic Rolls Royce was stunning. Ana’s episode-long fight to the death with Olek was tear-inducing. Hood fighting for his life at the side of a road while eighteen wheelers scream past, his desperate struggle to survive in prison, his arresting of a rapist cagefighter. All were a visual feast of brutality TV hasn’t seen since Spartacus and Crixus fought the Romans.

Throughout it all has been the unspoken promise that we would eventually see Hood face off against Burton and while the show’s final episode did deliver this, it paled in insignificance given what had come before. Like the rest of season four, this fight just didn’t come close to the energy of what preceded it.

Showrunner Jonathan Tropper made a point of often saying not everyone would make it out the series finale in one piece, and yet, they pretty much did. Ana got her children back. Hood got to ride off into the sunset. Job returned to metropolitan civilisation, Brock got to be Sheriff of the sleepy town he loved, Bunker settled down with his love and her child, and Sugar retired a millionaire. No one likely has a complaint about this; there’s nothing inherently wrong with a happy ending, but it’s not what we were promised.

Banshee had a good final episode to a miserly final season to a superlative television show. As one friend suggested, you could always imagine it was cancelled after its third season and leave it there. Rocky V, as we all know, never really happened. Maybe Banshee season four didn’t either.

And maybe that would have been for the best. Something seems to happen to shows in their fourth seasons. The West Wing, which for its opening two seasons was as fine as television has ever been, struggled so much in its fourth year to get traction that Aaron Sorkin quit the show. Of the many hilarious episodes in Steven Moffat’s Coupling, no one’s favourite is in season four. Sherlock’s fourth ‘season’ (the Victorian Christmas special) was universally panned. Luther, which is arguably the best police drama the BBC has ever produced, had a two episode by-the-numbers fourth run. Channel 4’s chavtastic Misfits never really recovered from the loss of so many of the original stars and the fourth season was the beginning of the end. Battlestar Galactica which tore the label of best ever sci-fi series from Star Trek and never gave it back, nevertheless had a confusing, disappointing, and muddled fourth and final year.

Banshee. Sweet, beautiful Banshee went from a blazing hot sun of stylish and emotive action drama to… well, nothing of any note whatsoever and the scenes we wanted to see were largely absent. Brock finding out the truth about Hood was good, but it was one standalone scene sidelined by a lame serial killer plot, rather than built up to and savoured over time. Proctor always knew there was something off about Hood; how would he react to finding out the truth? What exactly was the familial connection between him and Sugar? Who wouldn’t have preferred to spend more time with Rebecca scheming to take over her uncle’s crime empire and risking likely death at his hands than see her serve as a plot point for a story no one wanted told? What, exactly did Hood becoming a hairy hermit accomplish? His finally leaving as Sheriff wasn’t worthy of a scene? Why wasn’t every episode just Sugar and Job flinging lovable barbs at each other before retiring to Tahiti together to set up a cocktail bar & hairdressers?

Banshee remains in my top ten list. It is a wonderful show, and one I’ll enjoy revisiting for many years to come. But if it teaches us anything about making television, it’s that maybe, just maybe, you should plan to end things by the end of your third year, and if you want to make a different show, go make one. But don’t change a winning formula as Jonathan Tropper said they explicitly set out to do after the action-laden season three. Don’t keep the brand and change the format. We deserve better as viewers.

And Banshee deserved better as a show.

#E32014: Microsoft Present 90 Minutes of Catchup

It’s almost tempting to feel sorry for Microsoft. Kicking off their E3 press conference with a focus on games rather than apps, gizmos or other assorted crap was a clear indicator that they’d learnt the lessons of the past year; foremost among which was that Sony’s “For The Players” campaign had comprehensively kicked the shit out of, “turn it on with your voice” as far as marketing went.

If you are tempted to go in this direction however and pity a billion-dollar empire, remember how much Microsoft hated retailers and gamers last year. Always on, DRM protection, no reselling, et cetera. It’s only because gamers responded so vehemently and critically to the corporation’s actions that Phil Spencer opened up this year’s conference about gamers ‘shaping the future of XBOX’ – 12 months ago Microsoft seemed to have forgotten that without gamers, the XBOX is a useless gimmick of technology and will have no future if they don’t stick with. So here’s a conference for the gamers, then. Excellent. What’s up first?

Call of Duty: The New One. Whoop-de-fucking-do.

Now to be fair to COD, this does look like a visually impressive FPS but the day COD stops looking pretty, half the point of purchase is gone. Kevin Spacey showing up as the bad guy or not, no one in the world is going to buy this game for its story. The futuristic setting is nice though; there actually seem to be a handful of new gameplay mechanics and the multiplayer will almost certainly be addictive, if you’re the kind of person that finds playing the same game on the same level in the same way over and over again addictive. A multiplayer, in other words. The most important thing about Microsoft kicking off with COD though? It’s not an exclusive. You’ll be able to play it on PlayStation as well. Yes, some DLC will come out first on XBOX, but who over the mental age of fifteen really gives a shit about putting a map purchase off for next month’s paycheck? A poor start.

Next up is Forza… err, 5? Yes, second billing in Microsoft’s press conference goes to a game that came out last year. Why is such a prestigious spot given to an eight-month old game? You can now download a new track for it as DLC. It’s free. Yay.

Forza: The Real New One is up next however, and it’s got… cars and shit in it. Cue a notably muted reaction from the crowd. 1080p and 60fps we were told! Or put another way, exactly what everyone should fucking be providing on next-gen, all the fucking time. At least it’s an exclusive though, making this the first time today Microsoft have given you a real reason to pick an XBOX over a PS4. Assuming you like racing games, that is, and think a shameless Gran Turismo clone will be better than the next Gran Turismo. You might.

Flying in hot on its heels is a quick ad for Evolve which makes some half-witted claim about the next evolution in gameplay being a First Person Shooter where you kill monsters. Or you can be the monster, which has certainly never happened in games ever before. This will also be evolving on PS4.

Interestingly if you’re not a complete fucking philistine, Assassin’s Creed Not V: Unity is up next. ACNotV is set in revolutionary France, features campaign co-op play for you and up to three other people who won’t read the codex entries and looks very good fun, as always. No mention of how the present day story will progress, as always, and interesting to note that since this isn’t being given a number, Ubisoft themselves may not consider it that much of a groundbreaking sequel. Certainly that’s why Black Flag was bumped up to the all important ACIV name, rather than remaining a Brotherhood-esque ‘lesser’ sequel. Available on PS4. At this stage, you have to wonder whether Sony will really need more than ten minutes at the end of the day, because Microsoft are advertising for both at the moment.

Microsoft next push forward EA and Bioware’s Dragon Age Not III: Spanish Inquisition which is an XBOX exclusive. Nah, just fucking with you. Of course it’s not. Much has been made by others of the progress Bioware have made with the Frostbite 3 engine and maybe I’m just less excited about the incremental step forward graphics seem to have taken with this console generation, but I’m not so impressed. It looks okay. Okay that is, if it’s running on an XBOX 360. There is absolutely nothing that screams next-gen about this game.  Dragon Age is about the story more than the graphics though; we all know this.

But then there’s fuck all about the story other than what might be Leliana with a knife to her throat at the end. It’s actually a strikingly unimpressive, unevenly-paced and badly cut trailer. A big disappointment, though we can presumably expect more later on when EA take centre stage.

It’s in stark contrast to what follows. Insomniac Games foul-mouthed, pisstaking trailer for Sunset Overdrive. Playing like a mad cross between Saints Row IV and Jet Set Radio, it’s the first genuinely interesting and NEW idea we’ve seen thus far. It remains to be seen whether the gameplay’s frenetic style will get mundane and repetitive, but for now the game looks very impressive. And EXCLUSIVE!

And it’s followed up by MOAR EXCLUSIVE! It’s DLC, right enough, but what DLC. The fresh-natured and brightly coloured, slightly madcap fun we were just shown in Sunset Overdrive already seems as boring as guessing whether or not HALO will be mentioned in the next half hour. Super Ultra Dead Rising 3 Arcade Remix (this is actually what it’s called) Hyper Edition EX Plus Alpha looks like brilliantly good fun combining the repetitive boredom of Dead Rising 3 with the balls-to-the-wall mentalism of Capcom employees who found some decent coke from the 80s revisited Street Fighter whilst high. Want to kill Zombies with your mates as Ryu and Chung Li? Of course you fucking do. This is the stand-out moment so far and finally provokes some real enthusiasm from the crowd.

Fable McChicken Legends is introduced next. It looks pretty enough in that comicy Fable way, and deserves kudos for arguably being only the fifth game of all time to feature a Scottish accent that sounds like it might actually belong to someone from Scotland, but there seems little of particular interest here until ‘villain mode’ is mentioned, where you effectively play the game as a Tower Defence clone while people actually playing Fable (and presumably having more fun) try and get through your traps. I’ve always been fond of Fable’s experimentation though, and forgiven it a lot of faults so maybe it won’t be quite as dull as Microsoft have made it seem today.

Continuing the brightly coloured cartoon visuals next is a very attractive side-scrolling platformer exclusive to XBOX, Ori and the Blind Forest. It really does look lovely.

HALO music is next. Lots of people get excited. Those of us excited by minor concerns such as character and plot do not. First up is the Masturbator Collection which includes Halos, 1, 2, 3 and 4, presumably remastered. Maybe not. Since Halo 2’s anniversary is coming up, Halo 2 is being re-released individually as well, and it is being remastered. The focus is naturally on the multiplayer (despite Halo 2’s campaign being one of the most interesting of the lot), so I went for a piss and came back when they were talking about HALO Nightfall which could actually be fun. HALO has a decent story at heart; it’s always fun when they decide to actually tell some of it rather than funnel you down a corridor to shoot some more neon gremlins.

A look at (Intel?) Inside from the creators of Limbo is next and it looks every bit as atmospheric as its precursor. Available on XBOX and PlayStation. It’s followed by a longer than usual VT on indie games, but on this subject it’s impossible not to think of Microsoft playing catchup to Sony who have gone out of their way to make life easier for indie developers.

A big video next as Not Tomb Raider II is premiered. Lara’s having therapy and still shooting people with arrows. There’s very little on detail here, but the revamp of the franchise was fun enough last time round and there’s reason to hope for the same next ‘Holiday’ which I think is Americans bullshit way of saying Christmas.

In any case, The Witcher Wild III Hunt is up next and looks to be a perfectly capable Elder Scrolls clone. That’s slightly harsh, as the combat and cut-scenes are much improved over Skyrim and its forebears, the voice-acting seems competent and the graphics attractive enough.

Killer Instinct – a game that really doesn’t seem that old to me, but evidently no one under the age of 25 had ever heard of until last year gets a namecheck next, and there’s more nostalgia to follows as Phantom Dust is announced via a trailer that looks like a post-apocalyptic gay nightclub opening, fireworks, fag hags and all.

Tom Clancy’s Non-Exclusive The Division is up next and this looked impressive last year and continues today. Despite some new ideas such as levitating torches that blind your enemies as you shoot them, this is standard cover-based shooting, but does look considerably more interesting than the legion of COD clones you’ll see over the next few years.

Next up is Something From Platinum Games (or ‘Scalebound’ if you prefer) and it looks to be typical hack n’ slash shit of the sort that’s kept the ex-Capcom employees in the black for the last few years. Expect good reviews, particularly from XBOX only mags which will get hard simply because it’s exclusive, and repetitive, over-in-five-hours, gameplay.

Crackdown makes a welcome appearance at the end and with levels of mad that seem to be trying to out-Saint, Saints Row IV, which is only fair since SRIV tried to out-Crack Crackdown.

Finally a montage of what’s coming out in future. The finale? It’s more fun on XBOX ONE. No mention of Kinect which seems odd when you consider that it really is the one area Microsoft are ahead of Sony by a big margin. Co-op is obviously the buzzword of the year. And the 360 is dead. This is despite the fact that a number of the above mentioned games will be released on the console; Microsoft never mentioned it once.

Pacific Rim Jaeger

PACIFIC RIM IS BIG DUMB FUN AND THAT’S FINE, BUT IT ISN’T SPECIAL

Pacific Rim Jaeger

Be honest, with this kind of poster, you weren’t expecting Shakespearian dialogue or Machiavellian intrigue, were you?

Pacific Rim may well be Guillermo Del Toro’s worst film to date. Not having seen all his others I don’t feel qualified to judge. I can say this though. It’s a fuckload better than Transformers. Not that this is saying much, mind you. Pretty much the entirety of everything ever is better than Transformers, but given that both that and this are basically about giant things beating the crap out of each other, it bears mention here.

Kicking off with its simple premise and never straying too far into complexity thereafter, Pacific Rim is painting by numbers storytelling, and quite a few of the brushstrokes go outside the lines. The opening sequence is dedicated to a brief history of what’s going on. This film is about the end of the war (spoiler alert: we beat the evil aliens), not the beginning. So there are some nice shots of a jock-off monster invading San Francisco with the obligatory, did-the-bridge-survive-unscathed; no-of-course-not shot, a rush forward to humanity coming together in the face of a common threat to build the world’s biggest beat-em-ups, and then we’re informed that we were winning the war easily. Since this wouldn’t work for the film, something has to go wrong.

So we see our hero and his brother who both pilot the American Jaeger (Jaeger is the German word for ‘fuck-off big robot with plasma cannons and a sword’) notable mostly for being the blandest design in the film and for encouraging a whole generation of kids to misspell ‘gypsy’. They both pilot it because one person alone can’t handle it; the toll on the mind is too great. So of course we’ll later be treated to a scene where our hero pilots it alone, probably after some sort of emotional trauma, maybe like losing a brother.

The script is so straightforward, the only shock about this inevitable string of occurrences is that it happens so early, because big bro is killed off during the first fight and Hero Boy pilots the thing back to land. Then he disappears for five years. As you do.

The meat of our tale begins when Idris Elba’s Nick Fury character is told that despite the fact the Jaeger program has killed off every alien that’s come to Earth, it’s being shut down so we can build a wall around the Pacific Ocean (said Rim is where a wormhole lets them into our world). As everyone watching knows, this wall is doomed to failure, but thus far only Air Marshall John Luther is smart enough to see it.

On cue though, five minutes later the wall is breached and the Australian Jaeger beats the shit out of an alien. The good military man was right all along, and the silly politicians were wrong. Doesn’t quite explain why their decision wasn’t immediately reversed though. The shutdown still goes ahead despite the obvious risk to national safety. Wait… that reminds me of something…

Don’t try to read that much into Pacific Rim, because there’s nothing under the gloss. Hero Boy’s trepidation at getting back in the cockpit is due to the fact that the piloting software requires pilots to literally enter each other’s minds, so he felt what his brother felt as he died.  This is forgotten in less time than it took me to write this paragraph.

When he agrees to come back, he needs a new co-pilot and we’re immediately aware that it will be Hot Chick despite Authority Figure saying no. This is due to very serious reasons as we can see from Elba’s stern expression, but which are forgotten just as quick as Hero’s traumas and he changes his mind for no discernable reason.

These serious problems are evident as when linking with the machine, Hot Girl has a nightmare and nearly kills everyone on the base. She’s suspended because this has clearly never happened before, hence the lack of a safe training environment where mass manslaughter would be impossible. It probably takes about ten minutes before this too is forgotten, and she’s back out there.

We’re introduced to other pilots and Jaegers as well who play nicely to the stereotypes. The Asians wear red and have a technologically advanced robot, the Russians are bleach-blonde-burly and have a massive hulk of antiquity and the Aussies look like they’d be more comfortable surfing in their slick machine. Each and every one of them may as well be wearing T-shirts that say ‘expendable’ on them.

There’s some forced competition between Hero and Aussie guy that wishes it was as emotionally complex as Maverick and Iceman, which ends up not so much being resolved after Hero saves Ausman’s life, but forgotten. Less, ‘you can be my wingman’ and more, ‘I know I walked in here for a reason but I’ve forgotten what it was…’

Meanwhile, Elba is revealed to have been a solo Jaeger pilot back in dem old days, by whom the great toll was paid. If he gets into the cockpit again, he tells Hero, he’ll die. We’re left to pretend to wonder for less than five minutes whether or not he’ll end up in the cockpit again, and only slightly longer before we find out he’ll ‘sacrifice’ himself to help save the day.

The amount of questions you could ask throughout are legion. How do these bipedal machines walk in water when the ocean bed is miles below? Why didn’t they just build bigger Jaegers when the aliens started getting too big to deal with? Why did the hero spend five years off the grid instead of reporting back in? Why did they have such a hard time finding him? Was no one tracking the giant robot he was in? Why did they shut down a functional defence plan in order to build a wall that even a kid could see wouldn’t work? Why didn’t they go back to the good plan straight away when said wall got knocked over? Why did the aliens chase after one man who melded with them, but not another who did it before him? What was Idris Elba doing with a little girl’s shoe for twenty years? How did hero’s girlfriend nearly kill everyone the first time she merged with the machine? Don’t they have safeties on these things? Doesn’t it defeat the purpose of a noble sacrifice if the character survives through a suicide mission?

It’d be easy to guess from the above that I hated it, but I didn’t. There’s always a place in my heart for big dumb fun, and it doesn’t get much bigger or dumber than giant robots versus giant monsters. It’s nice that it has nods to its spiritual predecessors; having the majority of the action take place in Godzilla’s Hong Kong rather than anywhere in the US is nice, and the special effects are great; there’s a real sense of weight to the machines that’s completely absent with Michael Bay’s juckin’ n’ jivin’ Transformers. It’s also nice that though Hero Boy is the clean cut American protagonist of old, his chums are international throughout, at least attempting to buck the ‘America saves the World™’ trend. The fight scenes are good (albeit not great) and it’s refreshing to see a film that makes no excuses for what it is and ditches practically all the fluff you’d otherwise see in a summer blockbuster of this type. The romance, tragedy, humour, backstory, politics and edifying are all as naught to fuck-off big robots belting fuck-off big monsters with fuck-off big fists. Pacific Rim is a solid 3-star film if you don’t look too closely at the details.

The moment you do though, you’re lost. I had to consciously fight to ignore the above and so enjoy myself. There were moments where I swear to God, I was actually saying the characters’ dialogue verbatim along with them, it was that predictable. It’s a phenomenally simple film, is too mainstream to be a cult classic and too average to be remembered, but it’s not that bad. There’s nothing wrong with big dumb fun. Trouble is, if you watch other summer sci-fi blockbusters like Star Trek or Independence Day, you’ll immediately be reminded that even big dumb fun can have charm and emotion. Pacific Rim has robots hitting monsters in the face. And they’re fuck-off big.

Mortal Kombat Legacy II

Mortal Kombat Legacy II is this year’s biggest Internet disappointment

Mortal Kombat Legacy II

It’s still a cool logo. Shame about the product

Before discussing the failure’s of the year’s big web series, it’s worth going back to where it began. In 2010 Kevin Tancharoen’s short film, Mortal Kombat Rebirth, created for $7,500 as a pitch to Warner Brothers hoping to get the greenlight to start work on a full length feature, was excellent. Featuring a surprisingly good cast for a web series, fronted by Star Trek Voyager’s Jeri Ryan and The Dark Knight’s Michael Jai White, and dragging the mythological based series into the real world, it served as a reworking that in ten minutes, was better than either of the two silver screen Mortal Kombat movies that had preceded it.

Warner Brothers weren’t sold enough to allow Tancharoen to begin work on a third big screen outing for the franchise, but they did stump up some cash for a web series, and the resulting Mortal Kombat Legacy released the next year remains one of the most impressive web shows you can see. Adding Battlestar Galactica’s Tamoh Penikett to the cast, featuring impressive fight sequences and a range of different styles suited to the characters portrayed, the project wasn’t perfect, but was very impressive.

Using each episode (or at times, two) to tell an origin story for different characters allowed Tancharoen to experiment with different storytelling techniques, and use the ten-minute constraints of webisodes wisely. Sub Zero and Scorpion’s family rift is shown to have started in feudal Japan and their film is reminiscent of countless Samurai stories. Movie star Johnny Cage was treated to an E!-like celeb gossip intro, Jax and Sonya Blade have an action shoot out with criminal Kano, the more fantastical story of Kitana and Mileena is told in part by a Ghibli-esque anime, and Thunder God Raiden is treated to an excellent short where he is trapped in a psychiatric institute. Not all aspects worked and some were divisive, but there was something for every fan of the series.

The success of the show prompted Warner Brothers to trust Tancharoen with a second series and a 2015 feature film. Talking of the former, Tancharoen promised a more linear plot revolving around the tournament itself and the typical ‘more of the same but better’ aspirations.

He failed.

Admittedly the reaction I’ve seen from others has been positive, but there are countless problems with Legacy’s second run that are all too easy to point out. Mostly, we’re dealing with a new cast and mostly, they’re as wooden as a log cabin. Despite some nice ideas (for the first time in history, Liu Kang is almost interesting), the dialogue is clunky and the script cries out for an editor.

Take this sequence as an example. In episode 3 we’re shown the backstory for newcomer Kenshi, for who it seems Daniel Southworth has based his performance on a sneering Steven Seagal. It’s not a bad short, leading up to a fight that sounds like it has promise in episode 4. Come episode 4 though, we don’t see it; instead the screen goes black, some heavy chords hit and we’re left to assume that he won, but was blinded in the process. Not to worry though, because later in the episode the characters face off again, and this time we’re treated to some acceptable martial arts and hammy effects. Done.

Then we get to episode 5, which is ostensibly about two pieces of Ikea furniture having a row (or to put it another way, Kitana and Mileena), which is composed of flashbacks to their original episodes from the first season, and then? They stand and watch Kenshi’s fight, with Johnny Cage (Casper Van Dien phoning it in as the most pathetic incarnation of the character you’ve ever imagined). We’re treated to some vaguely different angles of the same so-so fight and the same angles of the same hammy effects.

The production values vary wildly. Sweeping shots of Macau and landscapes constrast oddly with Mileena’s appalling facial make-up and Sub Zero’s motorcross mouthguard. Varied and attractive filming locations in Earthrealm go up against a field and a beach for Outworld.

The pacing is nonsensical, with three episodes giving time to the story of one fight, and others serving as naught more than reminders of what’s happened previously.

Despite the promise to focus on the tournament this time around, there are countless flashbacks (not in themselves, bad things), and the ‘tournament’ itself boils down to a campfire on the beach and three fights which occur as the result of aimless walks around the same dour landscape.

The brilliant origin episode in season one which introduced us to Raiden is forgotten, and now the character (played again, by an inferior actor) serves only as the protagonists’ expositionist, except he doesn’t explain anything of note because he’s onscreen for less time than it takes the opening titles to roll.

Tancharoen’s script is littered with immature drops of clumsily-delivered F-bombs that do nothing but suggest a teenager was working on the script, he serves up the wrong fatality to one character, appears to have completely ditched any pretence of realism as seen in the first series,  there’s no mention of favourites such as Jax, Blade or Kano who anchored its success, let alone appearances, and after ten episodes which, objectively speaking tell no real stories beyond those of Kung Lao, Liu Kang and Kenshi (the rest is filler and repetition) the tournament we were promised has barely begun.

It’s not all bad. It’s a lot of fun to see one positive piece of recasting and welcome Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa back as Shang Tsung after 18 years. That’s about it though. There’s none of the inventiveness we saw two years ago, absolutely no risk-taking (unless you count letting the work experience kid write the banter), a lack of wow! moments, a failure to agree a purpose for the season and so tell either a collection of stories or one cohesive one, a dropping of the varied filmography that worked so well first time around… The whole thing feels like lazy, directionless, fan-film filler till the movie comes out.

None of this would really be an issue if it were the first we were seeing of Tancharoen’s Mortal Kombat work, but we know he can do better. Legacy II’s greatest crime isn’t that it’s bad, but that it’s disappointing, because after two years and with a solid base it should have been very, very good.

Gollum

An egotistical review of An Unexpected Journey

Gollum

Andy Serkis’ Gollum steals the film from all others in an engrossing and fantastic piece of theatre

From the moment Howard Shore begins to expand upon the greatest score of his lifetime and Ian Holm’s kindly old Bilbo begins to tell us the story of the Dwarves of Erebor, it’s as if we never left Middle Earth and one is forced to wonder how on Earth we survived the past ten or so Christmases without a return journey. An Unexpected Journey is easily the weakest of Jackson’s Tolkien films so far, but given the caliber of cinema that came before and the relatively lightweight nature of the source material, that was always on the cards, just as Fellowship of the Ring couldn’t match up to its sequels in terms of grandiose spectacle or rip-roaring action.

To get the negatives out of the way first, the film is far from perfect. Its 300-hour running time is near indefensible, with the opening scenes in the Shire taking an Age of Middle-Earth before Martin Freeman’s younger hobbit sets out on his adventure, and whilst the sweeping helicopter shots of the party hiking through Middle-Earth are as beautiful as ever (It’s really no wonder the New Zealand Government was so eager to host this trilogy), there is the sense that there’s a few too many than are needed. The party itself, consisting of Bilbo, Ian McKellan’s twinkly-eyed Gandalf and 13 mostly interchangeable Dwarves is hardly as iconic or memorable as the Fellowship of Nine. With the exception of Ken Stott’s kindly Balin and James Nesbitt’s joke-ridden… whichever one he played, the majority are there simply for necessity’s sake and contribute less to the story than Jackson’s indulgent additions to the original text.

It is here that the filmmaker will invite criticism the most. Making a trilogy of three-hour films out of a book less than three times the length of Lord of the Rings necessitates the inclusion of things we might not have expected. In some cases they work perfectly. Right from the start the flashback to the ancient Dwarf kingdom under the Lonely Mountain is as impressive as the first time we beheld Minas Tirith, with the underground city looking exactly as it should. Balin’s tale of when he beheld Thorin battling Azog (Manu Bennett of Spartacus fame) immediately reminds us of the unmatched battle scenes Jackson became famous for after the turn of the century, and the inclusion of Radagast the Brown, a ‘lesser’ Gandalf investigating the appearance of the ‘Necromancer’; a villain we know will be revealed as Sauron also lends excitement and expands upon stories Tolkien himself only glanced at. There are obvious filmmaking additions as well. Venturing into the Mountains in the book, one line describes how Bilbo saw stone giants; here that is transformed into a ten-minute action scene, and, perhaps recognizing the fairly slack pace the story moves at, the inclusion of Azog as a hunting nemesis, forever on the heels of the Dwarves adds some needed tension.

By and large, it must be said that the film works for the most part, brought down primarily by its needless length and the fact that it must be compared to Jackson’s original trilogy. In this, it meets the same judgment as the material it is based upon. The Hobbit is a very good children’s book, but it doesn’t come close to the epic nature or majesty of The Lord of the Rings and so the same can be said of the film. It is a very good piece of cinema, less disappointing than Christopher Nolan’s Batman finale, not as over-praised as Skyfall but unfortunately just plain not as good as Fellowship of the Ring.

One thing it can hold over that film however is a piece of masterpiece theatre taken directly from the book. The Riddles in the Dark section pits Bilbo (who, it should be said, is considerably more fun and easier to root for than his nephew, Frodo) against Andy Serkis’ magnificent Gollum whose twin personalities give us as good a show as any we’ve seen before; indeed the scene is really one of three characters and not two. Gollum is charming, sweet and innocent, yet at the same time deathly threatening and psychopathic.  The scene alone warrants Oscar consideration for special effects. Though as impressive as ever throughout (with the odd exception of Azog whose feline face looks oddly unreal at times), such is the quality of CGI on display in Gollum’s cave, and so good have Weta become at mimicking the facial expressions of Serkis and integrating the character into the scene, that it’s nigh on impossible to forget that what we’re seeing isn’t actually real. Such is the impact of this scene that at its finale when Bilbo is poised for the killing blow and pity stays his hand, we can’t help but agree as he looks into the eyes of Smeagol for an instant and sees a lost, terrified child, one who gained a number of audible and heartfelt sobs from the theatre I sat in. This image is lost all too quickly and Gollum’s more evil half asserts itself once more, immediately heightening the threat to Baggins, but if any were forced to wonder why it was Bilbo didn’t kill the creature, An Unexpected Journey not only answers that question but dares you to suggest you would have done any different. The fact that such emotion stems from a computer generated image is exceptional, and all but gives the film an extra star all by itself. In fact, fuck it. This is my review and I make the rules. This scene takes the 65% scoring film you’ve seen on Rotten Tomatoes, and drags it high into the movie events of the year. It is reason enough for the entry fee.

There are, as said, a number of faults. Many of them are serious but none are critical (save perhaps the unjustified running time). Watching this film is however like being wrapped up in a story from your childhood and the simple truth is that despite the early plodding pace, I didn’t want it to end and come the final scene, I was desperate for more. If this is to be the weakest of Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy (and given the events not covered, one suspects that’s the case), then roll on the rest. I can’t wait.

Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome is finally here (in part, on Friday, online)

That awkward moment when you have to explain to friends and family that you’re an ‘Internet actor’…

For us all I asked. I was answered for us all. Welcome, you are. So here’s the skinny. Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome is getting released on DVD. After it shows on TV. Which will be after it’s chopped up and shown on the Interwebz. But it’s the same thing. Although it’ll be edited for TV. And the Internet. They’ll be the same. Probably. Just the DVD release will be unedited. Beyond the usual editing, anyway. All this was announced yesterday and will start to occur in five minutes.

Or, Friday. Whatever. Point being it seems odd that an official trailer is only first released now for something that will happen in less than five days. You might expect such things 6 months or more in advance. Example? Starz (and those guys I like) newest series, Da Vinci’s Demons will premiere in the first half of next year. They released a teaser trailer for it weeks if not months ago and a trailer proper today; Blood & Chrome gets a handful of days. Bit weird. You’ve not seen it, you say? Well check it out. I’ll wait.

You realise of course, that I’m taking full responsibility for this. We hear nothing, then nothing, then a bit of some more nothing then I write about it and  a month later the trailer’s released, the online and TV debuts are both announced, the DVD release is announced and it’s all to a schedule so tight it’s like spandex on a SyFy regular? Come on. Like coincidence is even a real word.

Anyway, looks fine. Fucking webisodes though?

I’m not opposed to such things in principle. I’m really not. Ever watch The Guild? I stumbled across the first season once upon a time and thought given the nature of it webisodes were a perfect format. It was cute, quirky and ten minutes or so of fun whilst taking a break from something else. Of course, the fact that the creators didn’t have a TV channel to put it on probably had something to do with the creative decision to put it on YouTube but… whatever, it worked.

You catch that Mortal Kombat web series? I liked that a lot. Very cool. With each episode focused around a specific character and narrative, again the format worked. ‘Course in that case it helped that it was actually written specifically to be shown in ten minute chunks but… whatever, it worked too.

And that Halo series? Well, I didn’t watch that. But apparently it was good if you’re into faceless avatars and… whatever the plot of Halo was. Something about space gremlins, I think. I must admit I got distracted by [anything with a plot] instead.

And maybe this will work too. Maybe the script which was originally written as a web series before the decision to make a backdoor TV pilot which was itself before the decision to drop the idea of a TV series which was immediately prior to the decision to not show it on TV of course followed by the decision to show it online in chunks and in whole on TV can hold up. Maybe my grammar checker won’t put a wiggly green line under that sentence.

My problem isn’t with webisodes, online distribution or people that campaign for the Tea Party. Well… okay, the latter but that’s not particularly relevant here. It’s once again the disdain SyFy has shown the concept and in large part I simply don’t understand it. Mark Stern can talk about ‘exciting new mediums’ until he’s blue in the face but I don’t want to watch a 2-hour movie in weekly chunks on YouTube. I’ll forget, or lose interest, or simply not have the time or patience. When I want to watch a movie, I cook a meal, fix a drink and settle down for a session in front of the box. I don’t munch a Mars bar whilst checking my emails on the other screen sat at a desk. Same with TV shows. I started watching that H+ thing and was mildly interested, but I couldn’t be bothered checking back ten times to see the equivalent of what I’d have watched in one 90-minute go if it were on TV. As a result, I’ve watched three or four episodes and can’t really be bothered catching up.

Now to be fair to SyFy, and I’m all for treating corporations with the individual personal rights that they enjoy under law, it’s not like this doesn’t make financial sense, at least sort of. Late announcement or not, this is the Internet. People know. People will watch. They get whatever money they get from the deal with Machinima Prime and then they get the money from the TV event and then they get the money from the home releases. They’ll also get a good test to see how popular online shows can be for them, and even better, if it turns out it’s actually good they’ll have weeks running up to the TV release of good press. So that’s all hunky dory.

Of course there will be a bunch of people like me who won’t want to watch on YouTube and yet don’t want to wait till the new year either. These people will be instantly put off, and won’t exactly sing the praises of SyFy.

But then we weren’t anyway and if SyFy’s proved one thing over the past few years, it’s that it doesn’t give a shit what you say or think, just so long as you watch.

And online or not, cut up or not, many of us still will.