John Logan

GLADIATOR: an epic, bravura examination of Pax Americana (2000 in Film #18)

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 May 5th, Ridley Scott’s Gladiator

One of the defining films of the 2000’s, Gladiator might also be the first epic piece of blockbuster American cinema released in the 21st century.

It had been decades since Hollywood had produced a film like Ridley Scott gives us here. The sword and sandals epic went out with the birth of the New Hollywood movement in the late 1960’s, which swopped the pomp and exuberance of languid historical epics such as The Fall of the Roman Empire, Cleopatra, even Stanley Kubrick’s superior Spartacus, for a leaner, grittier and more contemporary cinematic aesthetic. By the time cinema once again dipped its toe in grand storytelling, the blockbuster gave birth to fantasy, science-fiction and adventure which, again, put paid to audiences wanting to see large scale historical recreations of the ancient world. A decade earlier, Gladiator would have struggled to even be made.

Stepping into the new millennium, Scott nevertheless saw an opportunity, as DreamWorks pictures believed there was the space to develop a revision, a reimagining, of such classical Hollywood storytelling for a new age. Saving Private Ryan two years earlier, which revolutionised how to depict the visceral nature of World War Two, arguably inspired how Scott and DreamWorks envisaged bringing the harsh world of the ancient Roman Empire to life; a world filled with war, bloodshed and a copious lack of sanctity for human life in the face of a populous bating for blood. The space was created for the very Spartacus-influenced tale of Maximus Decimus Meridius, the beloved Roman General who sees his family murdered by envious new Emperor Commodus, before slaying his executioners and fighting his way up through the gladiatorial pits of Rome to challenge the very notion of Empire itself.

What strikes me, looking back with two decades distance, is not just how impressive Gladiator remains in vision and scope, even if at times it falls into melodrama, but how it speaks even more potently now than then about what the film was really about: America at the end of the 20th century. It continues the refraction we have seen thus far in 2000 in American cinema about the nation’s legacy and place in the world.

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 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. …

Scene by Scene: STAR TREK: NEMESIS Pt I – ‘A Generation’s Final Journey Begins’

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…

‘A Generation’s Final Journey Begins…’

That was the uniquely ominous strap line for Star Trek: Nemesis at the end of 2002. The promise of closure. 

After fifteen years, since The Next Generation launched on television in 1987 and triggered the second era of Star Trek, the voyages to go where no one has gone before for Captain Jean-Luc Picard and the crew of the Enterprise-E (formerly D) would be coming to an end in the fourth and final film for a dynamic new crew slipping gracefully into middle age. Voyager had just ended on television after seven years but Enterprise was in its second season, and there was every indication more spin-off shows would eventually line up alongside it. To Paramount, franchise producer Rick Berman, and the cast and crew, it felt like the right time to bring the curtain down on these characters.

Many remembered how just over a decade previously, The Undiscovered Country had quite naturally retired the crew of The Original Series. It felt apt, with a group of characters born in the heart of Cold War detente and futuristic optimism, to see Kirk, Spock et al warp off into the sunset as the Soviet Union fell and the geopolitical paradigm changed. Nemesis struggles to replicate that same feeling of finished business. The Next Generation crew never entirely gelled with the cinema in the way The Original Series crew had, and arguably only First Contact stands out with time and distance as a truly great Star Trek movie. Kirk & company found each other again in middle age and discovered a creative renaissance, triggered by the success of The Wrath of Khan. Picard and his crew went immediately from the end of their series into Generations and a movie saga, stuttering across a decade in which the world changed around them.

Nemesis, released in the long shadow cast on all American storytelling by the horrific events of September 11th, 2001 in New York, as a result feels like the reluctant last gasp of Star Trek’s second era, wedged amidst the embers of Reaganism and the post-Cold War ‘End of History’ that 9/11 blew out of the water.

It feels, oddly, like a crew who aren’t quite as ready for retirement as everyone thinks.

From the Vault #23: SKYFALL (2012)

From 2012 onwards, before developing this blog, I wrote a multitude of reviews on the website Letterboxd. In this irregular series called From the Vault, I’m going to haul these earlier reviews out of mothballs and re-purpose them here.

This one, timed as Sam Mendes’ 1917 arrives in cinemas, is from March 23rd, 2014…

For five decades of James Bond in cinema, arguably standing tall as the biggest and most successful film franchise of all time, there needed to be some kind of celebration. Not just fanfare, documentaries, look backs, ceremonies, interviews, but rather a celebration of what Bond is, what he means, why he remains relevant half a century on to a world immeasurably different from the one Ian Fleming created him in.

Skyfall turned out, perhaps beyond our expectations, to be all of those things – the clearest demonstrable examination of 007’s psyche we have ever seen, in which Sam Mendes continued the work began by Martin Campbell in Casino Royale (or I would argue GoldenEye infact) and not only gave us what we expect from a Bond movie–the glitz, glamour, action, suspense, wit–but equally delivered on meaningful drama, characterisation and subtext beyond the measure we usually get in this series. It’s been said by many – Skyfall isn’t just a Bond film, it’s a *film* and taking away the slightly derogatory context of that remark to a wonderful franchise, it remains true.

Skyfall is both a truly great Bond film and a great movie in its own right.

From the Vault #2: THE LAST SAMURAI (2003)

From 2012 onwards, before developing this blog, I wrote a multitude of reviews on the website Letterboxd. In this irregular series called From the Vault, I’m going to haul these earlier reviews out of mothballs and re-purpose them here.

This one is from April 15th, 2014…

The honour and code of the samurai has always been enticing to a Western civilisation that is far removed from such customs, which perhaps makes The Last Samurai such an enticing, enigmatic film.

Edward Zwick crafts quite an epic adventure rich in mythology & thematic resonance that while traditionally Hollywood in its construction still manages to exist a cut above many such movies of its ilk, a touch of class surrounding how the story of Captain Nathan Algren is put together, based as it is on several real life legendary American figures who played key roles in the Satsuma Rebellion in Japan during the late 19th century. This isn’t a direct re-telling of those events but serves as a leaping off point to construct a tale about a stranger in a strange land, of a man haunted by fighting an unjust war who rediscovers his honour & place in the world through a dying culture.

Zwick’s film is slick, sweeping, beautifully shot and frequently involving, backed up by a strong performance by Tom Cruise in one of those roles that remind you just what a good actor he can be.