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Scene by Scene: STAR TREK: NEMESIS Part X – ‘Blue Skies’

As Star Trek: Picard begins, with the return of The Next Generation era, I’m going to take a scene by scene look back in the next couple of months about the tenth Star Trek film, Stuart Baird’s Nemesis, from 2002…

For such a relentlessly dark film, Star Trek: Nemesis ends on a bittersweet note of hope, but one that feels false. It serves as a good allegory for the film in general: a point of departure that never feels *right*.

Cast your mind back to 1991. The Undiscovered Country brought the curtain down after 25 years on the adventure of The Original Series crew with a stylised flourish. The so-called ‘end of history’ predicted by political scientist Francis Fukuyama allowed Nicholas Meyer’s film to frame the first Star Trek generation’s final adventure around the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and use it as a neat parallel for the embrace of a new world: peace between the Federation and their most intractable enemies, the Klingons, one we would see reflected in Worf being part of the Enterprise crew in the middle of the 24th century. It felt symbolic. It felt earned. It felt worthy of such iconic characters.

When you consider Nemesis, do you feel the same way for the crew of The Next Generation? Is this either a fitting end to a 15 year run which took in seven seasons of a hugely popular TV series (far more popular in its time than The Original Series was while broadcast) and multiple movies? What really does Nemesis *say* about this crew or who they are at this point? I’m not convinced it says much of anything or leaves any of them, even Jean-Luc Picard, at a reasonable point of closure. It just feels like a film made to satisfy the box office needs of a franchise that, by this point, was running out of steam. Hence: darker, bigger, more explosive, higher stakes, a megalomaniacal villain and a story that taps into the most celebrated Star Trek movie of all.

Nemesis ends with shellshock for the characters which mirrors the unfinished trauma of a film which serves as no real ending at all. We would have to wait almost two decades before we saw the seeds of a true conclusion to the Next Generation era.

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Scene by Scene: STAR TREK: NEMESIS Part IX – ‘Goodbye…’

As Star Trek: Picard begins, with the return of The Next Generation era, I’m going to take a scene by scene look back in the next couple of months about the tenth Star Trek film, Stuart Baird’s Nemesis, from 2002…

The so-called Battle of the Bassen Rift is designed, pretty unashamedly, to recall the Battle of the Mutara Nebula in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, with Nemesis even determined to sacrifice a major character at the end of it in a shock way to save the ship and crew.

When you think about the climactic battle in The Wrath of Khan, do you remember it riven with tension? A pitched, submarine or maritime fleet tet-a-tet in space between the Enterprise and the Reliant which was more about the aspect of quiet suspense and tactical superiority between Admiral Kirk and Khan Noonien Singh? We don’t come anywhere close to that in Nemesis. The Bassen Rift is a fairly routine, thunderous ship to ship battle, with a few Romulan ships thrown in for good measure, with the only unique selling point being Jean-Luc Picard’s decision to crash the saucer section of the Enterprise-E into the Scimitar, having exhausted shields, weapons and the self-destruct system. Even this, however, felt better done in Star Trek: Generations, when the separated Enterprise-D saucer slams into Veridian III.

Nemesis almost feels designed to be the culmination of every space battle Star Trek has delivered thus far in the 90’s era of the show, given they steadily built from a few skirmishes in The Next Generation to an entire war in Deep Space Nine or a horde of Borg Cubes battling bio-synthetic, inter-dimensional beings in Voyager. Everything about that ugly sword in space, the Scimitar, is a representation of how Nemesis simply relies on the dark, explosive set-piece when this crew, and these actors, are capable of so much more. Just look at that hilariously embarrassing Will Riker/Viceroy action set-piece, seemingly designed to give Jonathan Frakes one last run at Action Riker (or even something to do in a film where he’s done naff all). Apparently Riker was supposed to quip: “Don’t worry, hell is dark” before kicking the Viceroy to his death, though it was vetoed because they felt Riker would be enjoying the murder a bit too much. It’s a shame he didn’t. Some unintentional levity at this point would have been welcome.

By now though, the stakes are supposedly high. Shinzon has a WMD. He’s headed for Earth. The fleet are nowhere. The Romulans aren’t enough help. How, in the end, do you solve a problem like Shinzon?

ROMEO MUST DIE: less star-crossed lovers, more impossible physics (2000 in Film #12)

This year, 20 years on from the year 2000, I’m going to celebrate the first year of cinema in the 21st century by looking back at some of the films across the year at the turn of the millennium which took No #1 at the box office for their opening weekends.

This week, released on the weekend of March 24th, Andrzej Bartkowiak’s Romeo Must Die

Just to underscore the box office power Erin Brockovich had at this point in March 2000, Romeo Must Die actually debuted in 2nd place at the box office, despite being the highest grossing new release of that week.

On paper, Andrzej Bartkowiak’s action picture might have appeared enough to see off Erin’s David vs Goliath drama, even with the star wattage of Julia Roberts behind it. Romeo Must Die front-lines two major new stars of the moment from the Chinese and African-American community, contains a plot filled with Hong Kong-action cinema styled ‘chopsocky’, not to mention a surfeit of guns and a couple of car chases thrown in, and would have appealed to a broader audience, particularly of teenagers and people of colour. And while by no means a flop, almost quadrupling its fairly minuscule budget, Romeo Must Die nonetheless is barely remembered two decades on save for one tragic factor: Aaliyah.

One of the biggest stars in hip-hop and R’n’B of the late 90’s into the early 2000’s, Aaliyah was a child prodigy mentored by R. Kelly (which is worrying with the benefit of hindsight…) who broke out into an era-defining star who, to many, was changing the face of her musical sub-genre around her. Aaliyah would have no doubt had a hugely successful career and still be relevant today. Fate took a cruel turn, sadly, when in August 2001–less than a month before the epoch-defining events of September 11th, Aaliyah was killed along with much of her retinue in the Bahamas when her private jet crashed before takeoff. She was a mere 21 years old. Romeo Must Die was not the final film she starred in during her budding cinematic career (that honour goes to the poorly made sequel to Interview with a Vampire, Queen of the Damned), but it was the most successful.

The fact Romeo Must Die only stands out because of the sad, untimely death of its co-star is a telling indictment of a leaden misfire which has not aged well at all. …

Scene by Scene: STAR TREK: NEMESIS Pt VIII – ‘Waiting for the Dawn’

As Star Trek: Picard begins, with the return of The Next Generation era, I’m going to take a scene by scene look back in the next couple of months about the tenth Star Trek film, Stuart Baird’s Nemesis, from 2002…

It is at this point in Star Trek: Nemesis, as the final act and the final intended showdown with Shinzon begins, that any logical sense of narrative structure begins to collapse in on itself at a thalaron radiation level rate. We learn what has been hinted earlier in the film: Shinzon is dying.

Though John Logan’s script works hard to try and compare him to Khan Noonien Singh, as we’ve previously discussed, he owes perhaps more of a debt to Renard, the James Bond villain from The World is Not Enough played by Robert Carlyle. Struggling to remember him? That’s unsurprising. Ultimately, the bullet in his head that was slowly killing him is probably the most memorable aspect of the character, even with an actor as strong as Carlyle in the role. His entire rationale is fuelled by the reality he won’t be around to see the fruits of his terrorist actions. Shinzon is the same. Yet the difference is that Shinzon has the cure directly within his grasp.

When Jean-Luc Picard asks if his warped clone can be saved, Enterprise doctor Beverly Crusher informs him: “Nothing except a complete transfusion from the only donor with compatible DNA… you”. Picard then asserts that Shinzon will come for him, except… didn’t he just escape from Shinzon’s custody, having been very easily beamed off his own ship? Shinzon has always known he was dying, this isn’t news. Beverly concludes, after all: “Shinzon was created with temporal RNA sequencing. He was designed so that at a certain point, his aging process could be accelerated to reach your age more quickly. He was going to need to skip thirty years of his life, but when the temporal sequencing wasn’t activated his cellular structure started breaking down”. This is a neat science-fiction concept—a cloned spy who will rapidly age when triggered—which is utterly wasted as the explanation for Shinzon’s slow death. But if he knew, why not just drain Picard of his entire blood the moment he beamed him onto the Scimitar?

It makes little sense, purely designed to establish the conditions for what will make up the final act. Nemesis might have done well to not have Shinzon be dying at all because all it does is show up how cripplingly incompetent he is. …

Scene by Scene: STAR TREK: NEMESIS Pt VII – ‘The Echo Over the Voice’

As Star Trek: Picard begins, with the return of The Next Generation era, I’m going to take a scene by scene look back in the next couple of months about the tenth Star Trek film, Stuart Baird’s Nemesis, from 2002…

The final few scenes of, roughly, the second and middle act of Star Trek: Nemesis underpin many of the issues about Stuart Baird’s film that we have already discussed, chiefly the tortured parallel between hero and villain.

Jean-Luc Picard, abducted by Shinzon and thrown in the brig of his gigantic warship the Scimitar, has the truthful showdown they danced around while speaking in the Romulan Senate. If that was Shinzon play-acting the diplomatic new leader, this is the outcast, spiteful clone child who never grew up in the bowels of his oversized toy, spitting venom at the man who encapsulates everything Shinzon is aggrieved by. And this conversation really does spell out that psychology: Shinzon hates what he is, and hates that he didn’t have the easier, more prosperous and respected life Picard had. All of Picard’s innate ego as a leader morphed and twisted into a nightmarish visage. “My life is meaningless as long as you’re still alive. What am I while you exist? A shadow? An echo?”.

Nemesis is all about the darker ‘id’ of our hero trying to assert itself. Were we dealing with more of a skilled script that truly understood the film being made, we could suggest this is why Picard reacts so poorly to the violation of Deanna Troi, as discussed previously – a violation, indeed, that serves little purpose as B-4 contains the transponder needed to execute Shinzon’s plan, so mind-raping the Counselor just appears to be ‘sport’ for the villain, if it wasn’t distasteful a narrative choice enough. One could argue that Nemesis is attempting to literalise Picard’s internal darkness through Shinzon, a darkness we glimpsed in Star Trek: First Contact during his obsessive pursuit of the Borg (which Shinzon even alludes to here), but this would be giving the film too much psychological credit. John Logan is certainly shooting for those Jungian comparisons but you never truly feel, in any way, that Shinzon is some kind of Picard offshoot, except for the fact both men are folically challenged.

The fact is, Nemesis has already spent over half of the running time playing with a relationship that was clearly antagonistic from the very beginning, and now as those dominoes begin to fall, the emptiness of the film begins to show itself.

ERIN BROCKOVICH: A relaxed but powerful American star-vehicle (2000 in Film #11)

This year, 20 years on from the year 2000, I’m going to celebrate the first year of cinema in the 21st century by looking back at some of the films across the year at the turn of the millennium which took No #1 at the box office for their opening weekends.

This week, released on the weekend of March 17th, Steven Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich

Erin Brockovich was the first true success story of the year 2000. Not only was it heavily critically appreciated, with a celebrated and eventually Oscar-winning performance from Julia Roberts, it was also a remarkable commercial hit, netting a quarter of a billion dollars world wide and in the top 15 box office films, globally, of the entire year.

It was, in a very real sense, a trend-setter in that regard. This is Roberts at the very peak of her game as an A-list Hollywood icon, able to open a film on both her name and that of the character she portrays in this simple but effective David vs Goliath story, or as Albert Finney’s lawyer Ed Masry puts it “David vs Goliath’s entire family”, given extra weight and depth by its strong through-line of female empowerment. This isn’t just a gift of a role for an actor like Roberts, it’s also a charm of a character; a real-life, genuine modern heroine who fought the system and won, a tale director Steven Soderbergh and writer Jennifer Grant never embellish. It’s a remarkable story enough based on the facts.

For Erin Brockovich to make such a powerful dent in the global box office attests to multiple things at the turn of the century; the continued, key importance of star wattage to open a movie (Tom Hanks would pull a similar trick later in the year with Cast Away), a clear audience appetite for female-driven, progressive cinema, and indeed at this stage the desire for more than just rinse and repeat sequels. In the age just before the true birth of the franchise picture beyond certain cult sub-genres, Erin Brockovich is proof that true-life pictures with the right combination of talent in front of and behind the camera, strong word of mouth based on quality, and perhaps a reactive element against the emptier big-budget blockbuster could make bank. 

It undoubtedly paved the way for the mid-2000’s fusion of pop-culture blockbuster and auteur-driven drama as typified by Christopher Nolan and, indeed, Soderbergh himself. Erin Brockovich’s legacy is a strong one.

ALIAS – ‘The Abduction’ (2×10 – Review)

In 2018, I began my first deep-dive TV review series looking at JJ Abrams’ Alias, which ran from 2001-2006. This year, I’ll be looking at Season Two’s 22-episode run in detail…

Ever since the very beginning, Alias has always neglected a key group of its contracted regular cast, among them the character who finally gets his moment in the spotlight in The Abduction: Marshall Flinkman.

Though Will had his conspiracy investigation angle in Season One to give him meat to chew on, Marshall was one of three characters particularly who week in, week out would get short shrift compared to Syd, Jack, Vaughn and Sloane principally. Dixon would only be wheeled out when Syd needed someone to go on a mission with, getting only the briefest of interesting plots when he suspects Syd of betrayal in Almost Thirty Years. Francie, Syd’s roommate, gets an unconvincing romantic sub-plot ditched from The Coup onwards, after which she barely features. It takes Dixon’s entire belief system and then family to be destroyed to give him anything of real substance, and Francie has to actually *die* before she becomes in any way interesting. Which just leaves Marshall.

Right from pilot episode Truth Be Told, Marshall is designed entirely as comic relief. He is the nerdy oddball who is tolerated purely for his technical brilliance, given how much he irritates all of the serious people in the room. There is barely an episode of Alias up to this point that doesn’t feature Marshall in a briefing awkwardly dropping one-liners or geek references that nobody in the room finds funny, or rambling too often before being cut off and falling quiet. He is, effectively, Xander Harris from Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets Q from the James Bond series by way of the Lone Gunmen in The X-Files. Marshall, as a character, runs entirely counter to everyone else in Alias and that’s precisely the point – though he may be a genius, he is also perhaps the most relatable person in the show. If we were in Alias, we’d all be a variant on Marshall, most likely.

The Abduction, and particularly A Higher Echelon after it, are designed with one question in mind: what if we throw Marshall out of his comfort zone?

Scene by Scene: STAR TREK: NEMESIS Pt VI – ‘A Violation’

As Star Trek: Picard begins, with the return of The Next Generation era, I’m going to take a scene by scene look back in the next couple of months about the tenth Star Trek film, Stuart Baird’s Nemesis, from 2002…

One of the criticisms of the recent revival series, Star Trek: Picard, is that Jean-Luc is not acting at points in the manner one would expect from Starfleet’s most reasoned, compassionate Captain. While there may be some truth to this in places, the new series contains nothing as egregiously out of character as we see in Star Trek: Nemesis.

I’m referring, of course, to Picard’s insistence that his trusted Counselor, Deanna Troi, in the wake of a particularly traumatic sexual assault committed on her by villain Shinzon—via the mind powers of his Viceroy—through powerful telepathy, allow herself to go through the ordeal again as part of the bigger picture. The ship’s doctor, Beverly Crusher, is strangely dismissive for starters. “Aside from slightly elevated levels of adrenalin and serotonin, you’re completely normal”. When Deanna, understandably shaken and rocked by what she’s experienced, requests to be relieved of duty, Picard does not just deny it but doubles down. “If you can endure more of these assaults, I need you at my side now, more than ever”. Yes, you read that right. The hero of Star Trek: The Next Generation actually asks Deanna Troi to let herself be raped, again, in order to try and deal with Shinzon, his only reasoning seemingly being that they are “far from Federation space”.

This goes beyond a mere mishandling of character. Troi describes her assault as “a violation” but Picard’s response is without doubt a violation of everything we know about this man. Granted, he always traditionally struggled with inter-personal relationships across the run of TNG, but Movie Picard—a distinction we have discussed—is markedly more open and relaxed around his crew. Nemesis presents him as anxious about their departure, about the immediacy of changes to the “family” he discussed in the wedding speech at the beginning of the film. So would he really, at this point in his life and career, ask a dear friend—someone who counselled him through his own violating trauma after assimilation by the Borg, and someone he has just helped marry—to open herself up to a deep psychological and sexual assault after having just experienced one?

The answer is, of course, no. It is without doubt the most unpalatable and insensitive aspect of Nemesis as a film, which here uses serious sexual assault as a stepping stone of narrative in a troubling and even flippant way. …

MISSION TO MARS: a sedate, mournful, yet optimistic journey to the stars (2000 in Film #10)

This year, 20 years on from the year 2000, I’m going to celebrate the first year of cinema in the 21st century by looking back at some of the films across the year at the turn of the millennium which took No #1 at the box office for their opening weekends.

This week, released on the weekend of March 10th, Brian de Palma’s Mission to Mars

At the tail end of the 90’s, and before the rise of the dominant multi-picture franchise, every year was marked by films which covered similar blockbuster ground. 

1996 had aliens with Independence Day and soon after through a comedy lens in 1997’s Men in Black or Mars Attacks! That same year brought us the ‘volcano’ movies – Volcano and Dante’s Peak, both front-lined by rugged men of action. 1998 was the ‘asteroid’ year, marked by Michael Bay’s excess in Armageddon and the more philosophical (and far superior) Deep Impact. 2000’s variant on this trend was the Mars mission, with critical misfire Red Planet dropping at the tail end of the year, and before it Brian de Palma’s Mission to Mars, arguably the superior of two films which projected humanity forward deeper into the 21st century and toward the next frontier. We remained hopeful, back then, that humanity might reach for the stars. Twenty years on, the best we can hope for is that Donald Trump’s vaunted ‘Space Force’ ends up with eggs on its vacuumed face.

Mission to Mars, in a quirk of fate, actually takes place in the year 2020. The Mars mission, in an even stranger quirk, launches in the film on my birthday. With significant confidence, I am pretty sure that my 38th birthday this year will not be marked by another giant leap for mankind, which places Mission to Mars even more firmly into the science-fiction territory it already covers. Mars missions are promised or hoped for perhaps in the 2030’s, and now Red Planet’s 2056 looks far more likely (if we even have a habitable planet to launch from by then).

Mission to Mars, as a result, is hopeful and optimistic about our chances as a species, in a similar vein to its tonal bedfellow, 1997’s Contact, from Robert Zemeckis. They are films with different journeys but similar destinations. Both are riding the crest of Western hopes in the 1990’s that we may be about to embark, in the 21st century, on a great new adventure. That makes it all the more disappointing that Mission to Mars, the first significant high-concept blockbuster movie released in 2000–it’s only real challenger on opening weekend being Roman Polanski’s Johnny Depp-starring slow burn horror The Ninth Gate–is an underwhelming, strangely mournful and frequently corny experience. …

ALIAS – ‘Passage – Pt 2’ (2×09)

In 2018, I began my first deep-dive TV review series looking at JJ Abrams’ Alias, which ran from 2001-2006. This year, I’ll be looking at Season Two’s 22-episode run in detail…

The second half of Passage is proof positive that Alias might have benefited more often by indulging in the traditional two-part episode structure of old, given how well it makes use of the breathing space afforded to it by part one.

The Box, as we previously discussed last season, played structurally with the classic two-part event episode by seeding a high-concept idea within the ongoing, serialised fabric of Alias, in a different manner to Alias’ penchant for ending stories week by week in a truly serialised fashion with a cliffhanger, frequently Sydney-in-peril. This lessened over time, with many Season Two episodes having the confidence to end on an emotional beat, but connected narrative structures remain – take how Salvation flows into The Counteragent, for example. Passage, like The Box, has a condensed conceptual idea—Syd, Jack & Irina work together on a mission—that only exists within the construct of these two episodes, while helping the forward the broader arcs of the season.

Passage therefore has the space to establish the global stakes—in this case stolen suitcase nuclear weapons inside contested Kashmiri territory—and establish the emotional stakes—here surrounding whether Syd, Jack and the broader CIA can trust Irina enough to let her out of her cell—which gives this entire story a greater depth than some Alias episodes are afforded. It is a sign that Alias can break from the traditional Season One template of a mission Sydney goes on with a specific objective, broken up into two or three set-pieces per episode. The mission in Passage *is* the episode, and it works entirely to service the Bristow family drama. Not until Season 4 premiere Authorised Personnel Only will Alias again give itself the two-part framework to tell a story in quite this manner.

That is part of the reason Passage works so well, indeed rarely for the second part of a story, it works better than part one and the establishment. Passage also works because the payoff is as satisfying, if not more so, than the setup preceding it.