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Non-Review Review: Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451 certainly makes a strong case for being “the movie of the moment.”

Adapted loosely from Ray Bradbury’s iconic and beloved science-fiction novel, a piece of source material that famously bewildered François Truffaut during his first and only interaction with Hollywood movie-making, writer and director Ramin Bahrani perfectly positions Fahrenheit 451 as a piece of pop culture for the Trump era. Bahrani smartly retains almost as much of the aesthetic of the source material as he updates, making a strong case that Fahrenheit 451 is more than just an opportunistic broadside at the current political moment.

“I’m going to burn it all.”

Nevertheless, Bahrani makes a number of changes to the story, and turns up the volume on particular story elements, to align his televisual adaptation for the current cultural moment. Ray Bradbury famously claimed that he wrote Fahrenheit 451 as a criticism of television, creating an engaging irony within this adaptation. Bahrani shifts the emphasis slightly to position his adaptation as a criticism of the internet, in particular modern internet subcultures and the way it decreases the audience’s attention span. There are live streams, in-home assistants that are always listening, emojis, and online “fans.”

This is certainly a valid approach to the material, and it’s to the credit of Bahrani as a writer and a director that he manages to build a world that is obviously of a piece with that created in the source material written sixty-five years ago and which works as a pointed commentary on modern cultural discourse. With its brutalist architecture, its cold digital cinematography, its compelling central performances, its suggested alternative history, and its ominous ambient lighting providing the occasional splash of vivid colour, Fahrenheit 451 creates a fictional world that is compelling and engaging.

Lighting a spark…

Unfortunately, the film’s narrative is nowhere near as engaging as its setting. Bahrani cannily borrows characters, premises and sequences from the source novel, but he largely reworks the story. Fahrenheit 451 is restructured as a more conventional science-fiction narrative than the original book, complete with apocalyptic stakes and a macguffin to drive the plot. The plot of Fahrenheit 451 is generic science-fiction fluff, a pale imitation of the familiar rhythms of movies like The Matrix or Equilibrium or Aeon Flux. It is almost as though Bahrani has internalised Bradbury’s critique of television as dumb and simple and broad.

As a result, Fahrenheit 451 doesn’t work nearly as well as it should. It is a beautiful piece of work from an aesthetic perspective, but one employed in a very crude and unsatisfying manner.

Television film.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Memorial (Review)

Memorial is a great example of Star Trek: Voyager doing a generic Star Trek story.

The episode has a very basic premise that allows for the construction of a science-fiction allegory, the kind of storytelling associated with the franchise dating back to early adventures like The Devil in the Dark or Errand of Mercy. Despite its unique premise and set-up, Voyager had largely embraced the archetypal mode of Star Trek storytelling in its third season. A lot of Voyager episodes feel very broad and very generic, and could easily be adapted for another series – whether inside or outside the franchise.

The real devil in the dark.
Spoiler: It’s us.

There any number of episodes that are not rooted in the specific premise of Voyager, that could easily have been reworked or reinvented for another crew at another point. The Chute was a harrowing story about the horrors of mass incarceration and its capacity to turn people into animals. Nemesis was a meditation on killology, in the way that militaries turn soldiers into killing machines. Scientific Method was a treatise on the horrors of animal testing. Random Thoughts was paranoia about “political correctness gone mad” translated into forty minutes of television.

Memorial belongs to a very specific subset of these episodes, something of a bridge between the more generic Star Trek storytelling to which Voyager aspires and a slightly more specific area of thematic interest. Voyager is a series very much engaged with the idea of memory and history, perhaps befitting the Star Trek series that straddles the twentieth and twenty-first century. Episodes like Remember, Distant Origin and Living Witness are all archetypal Star Trek stories, but they are built around ideas of particular interest to Voyager.

The past never remains buried.

As the title implies, Memorial belongs to that very specific subset of episodes. It is easy to imagine a version of Memorial starring James Tiberius Kirk, Jean-Luc Picard, Benjamin Lafayette Sisko or Jonathan Beckett Archer. It is a generic Star Trek episode that could work with any crew, perhaps meaning something slightly different in each context. (On Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, it would be an “O’Brien must suffer!” episode. In fact, Hard Time is quite close.) However, it is an episode that engages overtly with ideas that are of great interest to Voyager.

Memorial is about the importance of memory and history, even in a world where time seems to have lost all meaning.

Standing watch over history.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Virtuoso (Review)

Virtuoso is an interesting companion piece to Blink of an Eye.

Blink of an Eye was in many ways an exploration and reflection of Star Trek as a multimedia franchise, looking at the way in which the franchise has touched and shaped contemporary culture in the thirty-odd years since its inception. As part of this, the episode touched on fandom in a variety of ways, whether the abstract fandom of those individuals inspired by the series to accomplish great things or the more specific fandom including merchandise. Blink of an Eye was very much an episode about loving Star Trek.

Music to our ears.

As a result, Virtuoso feels like a very strange choice to directly follow Blink of an Eye. The two episodes are not connected by plot, outside of the basic idea that the EMH might spend an extended period of time on an alien planet without access to Voyager. After all, Star Trek: Voyager had committed itself to producing standalone episodic storytelling. However, Virtuoso is also something of a metaphor for Star Trek fandom, a look at what it is to love a piece of popular entertainment and to eagerly embrace it.

Unfortunately, the proximity to Blink of an Eye does no favours for Virtuoso, emphasising the script’s weaknesses and tone-deafness. Virtuoso is an episode that feels very pointed and cynical in its portrayal of fandom, very broad and very unpleasant. It is a clumsy and muddled piece of television, on that struggles to hit the right notes.

Small pleasures.

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Deep Space Nine at 25 – The Most Multicultural of (Star) Treks

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is the first (and perhaps only) multicultural Star Trek.

Ironically, Deep Space Nine is often derided by traditionalist fans for eschewing core Star Trek principles. Deep Space Nine was the first (and only) Star Trek series to unfold on a space station rather than a space ship, boldly sitting rather than boldly going. More than that, Deep Space Nine was the first Star Trek series to embroil the Federation in an active war, notwithstanding the Klingon or Romulan Cold Wars nor the Cardassian Wars that retroactively took place during the early seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

However, in a very real and substantial way, Deep Space Nine was also the Star Trek series that hewed most closely to the humanist principles of Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek. It could reasonably be argued that Deep Space Nine simply made an effort to interrogate and to explore premises that Roddenberry never properly considered. At its core, Star Trek had always been about embracing the unknown with open arms and about learning that what was different was not always scary or monstrous. Deep Space Nine embraced that.

Deep Space Nine was not a series about a bunch of explorers looking “to boldly go” in any literal sense, but about a bunch of characters struggling to fundamentally understand “new life forms and new civilisations.” More than the other Star Trek series, Deep Space Nine was about embracing other cultures and values, about recognising that differences could enrich as much as divide, and that there was no single “right” way build a better world. Deep Space Nine is an ode to humanism and compassion, embodying many of the virtues other Star Trek shows nod towards.

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Millennium – 5-2-2-6-6-6 (Review)

This February and March, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fourth season of The X-Files and the first season of Millennium.

It is interesting to compare and contrast the scripts that Morgan and Wong wrote for the fourth season of The X-Files with the scripts that they wrote for the first season of Millennium. The duo were writing for both shows at the same time – with episodes frequently airing within a week of each other. Morgan tended to focus more on the four X-Files scripts, while Wong worked primarily on the three Millennium episodes. While the seven scripts are all fascinating in their own way, there is a marked difference in how the duo approach the two shows.

Their four episodes of The X-Files are very bold and experimental – they look and feel utterly unlike anything that the show has done; before or after. These four scripts seem to needle at the show, pushing it further. Home seems designed to see how much unpleasantness the writers can get on to Fox prime time in the nineties. The Field Where I Died is a thoughtful and melancholy romance with no companion in the X-Files canon. Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man parodies the show’s central conspiracy. Never Again makes the Mulder/Scully dynamic toxic.

Having a blast...

Having a blast…

That makes a great deal of sense. After all, The X-Files was in its fourth season. It was approaching that impressive “one hundredth episode” landmark, the number of episodes necessary before the show would be secure in syndication. (At least in the television landscape of the nineties.) Although less than half-way through its eventual nine-season run, The X-Files was an old dog by this stage of its life cycle. As such, it made a great deal of sense for Morgan and Wong – two writers who had been there at the beginning – to shake things up.

In contrast, the three scripts that Morgan and Wong wrote for the first season of Millennium are a bit more conservative in scope and tone. They are fascinating pieces of television that help to establish the mood of the show, but they are not as experimental of the work that Morgan and Wong were doing on The X-Files. Again, this makes a great deal of sense. Millennium was still a very young show. It was still defining its own identity, figuring out what it wanted and needed to be. Morgan and Wong’s three scripts are essential in that development.

Taking a page from the Group...

Taking a page from the Group…

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Star Trek – Bread and Circuses (Review)

The first Star Trek pilot, The Cage, was produced in 1964. To celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, this December we are reviewing the second season of the original Star Trek show. You can check out our first season reviews here. Check back daily for the latest review.

Bread and Circuses is not subtle. Then again, that is the point.

There’s a lot of interesting stuff happening in Bread and Circuses, the fourteenth episode produced for the second season, but the last to air. There’s the idea of a world dominated by “a twentieth century Rome”, a rogue captain, a Prime Directive dilemma and a scathing indictment of modern television. Not only is it one of the last episodes with a “produced by Gene L. Coon” credit, it is also an episode co-written by Roddenberry and Coon. It is also the episode of Star Trek that endorses Christianity most explicitly and heavily.

"Wait, we're only getting it in black and white?"

“Wait, we’re only getting it in black and white?”

Bread and Circuses is a bold and audacious piece of television, full of venom and righteous anger, rich in satire and cynicism. It’s a plot so ridiculously over-stuffed with good ideas that viewers are liable to forgive the show’s somewhat cop-out ending where Kirk and his away team beam back to the Enterprise and continue on their merry way as though little has actually happened. Bread and Circuses feels like it uses every minute of its fifty-minute runtime wisely, balancing character with world-building.

It is probably a little bit too messy and disjointed to be labelled a dyed-in-the-wool classic, particularly when compared to the shows produced around it. Nevertheless, it is a decidedly ambitious piece of work, and one that demonstrates what Star Trek could do when it sets its mind to something.

When in Rome...

When in Rome…

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Non-Review Review: The Armstrong Lie

The Armstrong Lie is about a lot of things. It’s nominally about Lance Armstrong’s attempted come back in 2009, and then about how it was all one big lie once the doping allegations became impossible for the athlete to deny. Those are, in a way, the least interesting aspects of Alex Gibney’s documentary. Instead, the film works best as an exploration of power and vested interest, as well as an exploration of narrative and how that narrative is manipulated and shaped to suit agendas.

thearmstronglie1

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