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.
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.
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.
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.
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.