Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Star Wars Film Rankings: Part One

            We’ve spent a lot of time the past few weeks talking about Star Trek Discovery and revisiting the universe of Star Trek. So we figured it was time to shift to the other big sci-fi universe with star in the title. A few years ago, we looked that the Star Trek movies as ranked by Rotten Tomatoes score. We’ve listed the films below from highest to lowest score. This week we’ll look at the top four films and then next week tackle the bottom four.

Star Wars Film Rankings
Film
Rotten Tomatoes Score
Empire Strikes Back (Episode 5)
94%
A New Hope (Episode 4)
93%
Force Awakens (Episode 7)
89%
Rogue One
85%
Return of the Jedi (Episode 6)
80%
Revenge of the Sith (Episode 3)
79%
Attack of the Clones (Episode 2)
65%
Phantom Menace (Episode 1)
55%

The Empire Strikes Back: Embracing a darker tone, Empire pushes deeper into the emotional core of its characters. There’s more Han-Leia banter as the two grow to realize that they can’t stand one another but also love each other. Luke starts training to be a Jedi and risks turning to the dark side to save his imperiled friends. Darth Vader is back and more determined than ever to crush the rebellion. The Battle of Hoth rivals the destruction of both Death Stars for its scale and staging. Then there’s the famous, “No, I am your father” scene. And Han’s “I know” response to Leia’s declaration of love as he’s about to be frozen in carbonite. Sci-fi doesn’t get much better than this.

A New Hope: All these years later, A New Hope remains an enjoyable viewing experience with Luke Skywalker’s heroes’ journey from farm boy to galactic savior. Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher shine as Han and Leia. Alec Guinness lends his considerable gravitas to his role of Obi-Wan giving the film an air of seriousness and depth. As was shown in the prequel trilogy, George Lucas’s clumsy dialogue sounds a lot worse in the hands of lesser talented actors. The climactic attack on the Death Star remains one of Lucas’s best directed set pieces of the entire series. There are a lot worse ways to spent two hours than revisiting this classic movie.


Force Awakens: The Force Awakens benefits from strong casting and character work as well as being competently entertaining following the under-baked prequel trilogy. Tasked with introducing a new cast to go alongside the old veterans, director J.J Abrams more or less made a carbon copy of a A New Hope, which isn’t the worst thing in the world, but limits the film’s upside. The plot of the last hour or so takes a backseat to character work as there’s another bigger, badder Death Star but without any of the tension or stakes that came from blowing up the first two Death Stars. Abrams, however, moved the franchise in a positive direction by creating likeable and relatable main characters like Rey, Finn, and Poe.

Rogue One: Director Gareth Edwards has an impressive grasp of scale. He frames a Star Destroyer in the foreground with the installation of the Death Star’s super-weapon in the background. Rebel fighters crash into the front of a Star Destroyer exiting hyperspace. The film’s climatic hour succeeds where Force Awakens failed, by creating clear stakes for each part of the battle to retrieve the Death Star plans. Unfortunately, the film’s first half suffers from underdeveloped characters and a grueling slog from anonymous planet to anonymous planet that reeks of reshoots and a desire to make a film where everyone dies at the end into a family friendly adventure.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Star Trek Series Rankings

            The premiere of Star Trek: Discovery last month marked the return of Star Trek to television for the first time since 2005. There had been long gaps between Star Trek shows before, most notably an eighteen-year gap between the Original Series and Next Generation. Including Discovery, there have now been six Star Trek TV series of varying quality. Star Trek fans, a particularly vociferous group, have their own favorite captains, crew members, aliens, and villains. A few years ago, we ranked all the Star Trek movies from best to worst. So in honor of the premiere of Discovery (which will not be included, since it’s only aired 4 episodes), we figured it was about time to rank the TV shows themselves.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine—Being set on a space station meant that the show’s writers had to develop plot from character interactions rather than weekly visits to new planets. As a result, DS9 featured the best sustained character work from a Star Trek series. Sisko, Kira, Dax, Odo, Quark, Jake, O’Brien and Bashir all underwent significant character growth throughout the show’s seven seasons. Kira transformed from unrepentant terrorist to loyal soldier and leader. Bashir went from rookie doctor to war-weary veteran. Poor Chief O’Brien had to suffer some life-altering tragedy at least once a season. DS9 also developed a strong stable of villains or recurring characters like Garak, the exiled Cardassian spy, Gul Dukat, Kai Winn, the Jem’Hadar, Weyoun, and the Dominion.


Star Trek: The Next Generation—The show that launched a million Picard memes. After some brutally terrible episodes at the beginning of Next Generation’s run, the show offered a positive vision of humanity’s future. Crewmembers on the Enterprise accepted one another’s cultures, sought peace and cooperation, and generally lived together in harmony.  Captain Picard was more lawyer than soldier, seeking to peacefully resolve disputes rather than resort to violence. Commander Data, the android, sought to become more human. Worf, the security officer, was the last honorable Klingon in the galaxy. The female characters, however, were underdeveloped. Counsellor Troi loved chocolate and frequently lost her empathic powers. Dr. Crusher had a know-it-all son and an episode where she had sex with a ghost. The less said about the short-lived Tasha Yar and the rape planet the better.

Star Trek: The Original SeriesThe Original Series may be ranked too low, but I couldn’t find a reason to push it higher. The show’s campy elements occasionally overwhelmed creator Gene Roddenberry’s view of a utopian future. The show featured strong character work and sci-fi plotting. Allegories abounded about racism, the Cold War, and contemporary American politics. The episode titled “City on the Edge of Forever” featured Kirk back in the 1930s allowing a young woman (whom he loved) to die rather than change the course of Earth’s history. TOS also established the relationship between Captain Kirk, the logical Mr. Spock, and Dr. McCoy that would anchor the series and six follow-up movies. The show is, and remains, a classic.



Star Trek: VoyagerVoyager began with a great premise: A Federation starship, stranded over seventy years from home, all alone in the Delta quadrant. Without the support of Starfleet how would they survive? The ship had a strong willed female captain and a racially and ethnically diverse crew. Yet the show squandered it all, never developing its characters beyond single, easily identifiable traits. There’s Chakotay, he’s Native American. We know that because he goes on vision quests. There’s Harry Kim, the navigator, he’s young. There’s Seven of Nine, she used to be a Borg and wears cat-suits to appeal to young male viewers. Then there were the same recycled plots about the holodeck malfunctioning, encountering God-like aliens, and a seemingly endless supply of shuttlecraft even though the show seemingly destroyed them every other episode.  

Star Trek: Enterprise—Undoubtedly the weakest of all the series, Enterprise was a prequel to the Original Series trying to tell the story of the founding of Starfleet and the Federation. Instead, the show recycled too many old plots from the previous series without offering anything new or interesting. The characters (always the most important part of a series) were even blander and more inoffensive than the crew of Voyager. The over-sexualization of female characters continued with Vulcan science officer T’Pol continually subjected to Seven of Nine-esque costuming. This was a show that refought World War 2 (again) with space Nazis, had numerous poorly handled 9-11 allegories, and a series finale that focused on Commander Riker from Next Generation rather than any of its own characters. 

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Rest of 2017 Movie Preview

            It’s been a bad year for movies. The summer box office declined 15% from last year. Studio executives have been quick to blame Rotten Tomatoes, the review site aggregator, for the decline in revenue. The truth is though, revenues are down because this summer’s movies were bad. Apart from Dunkirk, it’s hard to think of a single good movie that came out over the summer. With all this in mind, let’s take a look at what’s coming out for the rest of the fall.

October 6
Blade Runner 2049: There’s reasons to be skeptical of any Blade Runner sequel. The biggest reason is—why did Blade Runner need a sequel? The Ridley Scott classic featured a classic score with a visually striking depiction of a future dystopian Los Angeles. Blade Runner successfully mixed a film noir plot with existential anxiety. Nothing about the film screamed a need for a follow-up. The sequel does have Denis Villeneuve of last year’s Arrival behind the camera. Go see it, but be wary.  

October 13
Marshall: This film biography of Thurgood Marshall seems promising enough. Just having a biography of Marshall, the first African-American Supreme Court justice, is a step in the right direction. The film’s plot does not attempt a Cliff-Notes version of Marshall’s remarkable life. Rather it focuses on his defense of a black chauffeur accused of sexual assault in Connecticut by a wealthy white socialite. Marshall joins forces with a Jewish attorney. The film’s purported examination of race and antisemitism in mid-century white America has the makings of something worth seeing in theaters.


November 3
Thor: Ragnarok: November has also become a spot for Marvel and Warner Brothers’ tent-pole movies. Like most of Marvel’s movies, the first two Thor films have been perfectly pleasant, but wholly unremarkable—more interested in filling in their place in the MCU than creating an enjoyable movie experience. The trailers for Thor suggest the level of cheekiness and humor that audiences have come to expect from the MCU, but with a more vibrant color palette. It’s seems like Marvel has finally recognized that these are comic book characters and the films should/can reflect that.

November 17
Justice League: Ugh. After the utter disasters of Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad, Warner Brothers is back again. This time for a return engagement with director Zack Snyder and his love of fascist imagery. Snyder’s films also feature drawn out and incoherent CGI climaxes—something that undermined Patty Jenkins’ promising Wonder Woman. Joss Whedon stepped in for Snyder during the film’s reshoots giving the film some hope that it won’t be a three hour dour slugfest. Wait for the reviews before going to see it.


November 24
Murder on the Orient Express: Directed by Kenneth Branagh, this adaptation of Agatha Christie’s famous novel boasts an impressive cast. Branagh plays Hercule Poirot, Christie’s detective. The rest of the cast includes Daisy Ridley, Penelope Cruz, Judy Dench, Josh Gad, Willem Dafoe, Derek Jacobi, and troublingly Johnny Depp. Your opinion of Johnny Depp may be a good barometer for whether you want to see this movie or not. Hopefully Depp actually tries to play a character rather than just another version of himself.

December 15
Star Wars: The Last Jedi: Compared to The Force Awakens and Rogue One, Disney has remained tightlipped about Last Jedi. They’ve only released a single trailer, but that won’t deter audiences. Rey (Daisy Ridley) has tracked down Luke Skywalker and begun her Jedi training. Kylo-Ren has killed his father and has to live with the consequences. Meanwhile General Leia has to lead the Resistance against the First Order. The only questions is, will you go see it on the first day or wait till the weekend?

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Star Trek: Discovery

            After months of delays and behind the scenes intrigue, Star Trek: Discovery finally premiered on CBS on Sunday night. The first episode aired on the network, but the remaining episodes will air exclusively on CBS’s streaming platform, CBS All Access. The second episode went up on All Access immediately after the first premiered. Set ten years before the Original Series, Discovery follows the story of Lieutenant Commander Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), first officer of the USS Shenzhou. Discovery is the first Star Trek series not to feature a captain as the protagonist. Discovery will also be the first Star Trek show since the last two seasons of Deep Space Nine to feature serialized rather than standalone storytelling. Having watched the first two episodes, they feel more like a prologue to whatever the series eventually becomes. Thus, it’s hard to judge whether Discovery will be more Deep Space Nine or Enterprise.  



            The first two episodes, “The Vulcan Hello” and “Battle at the Binary Stars” vary in their quality. “The Vulcan Hello” suffers from clunky writing and exposition dumping. The show takes great pains to introduce another retconned version of Star Trek’s favorite villains turned allies, the Klingons. In Discovery, the Klingons ridged heads are on prominent display alongside their rampant xenophobia. A religious zealot named T’Kuvma berates his fellow Klingons on their failure to follow the old ways. He promises to unite the 24 great houses—a point that is reiterated several times—and make the Klingon Empire great again. Compared to the Klingons of The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, Discovery’s Klingons are less obsessed with honor and instead are more tribal and brutish. Discovery has T’Kuvma and the other Klingon characters speak Klingon while providing English subtitles. The subtitles combined with the harsh and guttural sounds of the Klingon language—forcibly pushed through the Klingon’s teeth (shown prominently in several scenes)—means that the audience spends more time reading the dialogue than paying attention to what is happening on screen.

            The first two episodes lean heavily callbacks to the Original Series, but fail to establish any sort of continuity with it. Burnham is a human raised by Vulcans, specifically Spock’s father, Sarek. Sarek (James Frain replacing the late Mark Leonard) makes several appearances throughout the first two episodes in his role as surrogate parent—Burnham’s parents were killed by Klingons, something the show continually reminds us. There is a lot of conversation about the need to balance logic and emotion. Burnham, while presented more in the mold of Spock, frequently succumbs to her emotional desires, informed by her parents’ death and desire to protect her crew. She even knocks out her captain in order to initiate a confrontation with the Klingons that will prove Starfleet’s meddle. While supposedly a prequel to the Original Series, the technology of Discovery clearly outstrips that of Kirk and Spock’s Enterprise. Starfleet’s dark blue uniforms and the show’s dark color palette fail to harken back to the Original Series at all, making it hard to imagine Discovery as a prequel.



            Burnham’s character arc across the first two episodes gives clues towards what kind of show Discovery could be. The “Vulcan Hello” opens with her and the captain of the Shenzhou, Philippa Georgiou, played by special guest star Michelle Yeoh (HINT, HINT) reminiscing about their seven years serving together. As the two flee an approaching storm, Georgiou suggests that Burnham may be ready for her own command. Over the course of the two episodes, Burnham, in a desperate bid to save the captain and crew from the Klingons, betrays Georgiou and winds up in the brig. Her actions are understandable, but unforgiveable. Heartbroken by the betrayal, Georgiou confronts her first officer in a scene that highlights the utopian future that Gene Roddenberry imagined back in the 1960s. Here is an African-American woman talking with her commanding officer, a Malaysian woman, in a future where their respective races and genders aren’t the only lenses through which we view their interaction. They are two officers having an argument about the nature of loyalty and duty. The scene passes the Bechtel test with flying colors.

            By the end of “The Battle at the Binary Stars” Burnham is locked up for mutiny while the Federation readies for war with the Klingons. Next week’s episode, then, should be telling in ultimately what kind of show Discovery will become.  

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Dunkirk

            Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is much better than the director’s recent work (Interstellar and The Dark Knight Rises). Rather than boring his audiences with pseudo-intellectual babble about farming and love overcoming all obstacles, Nolan instead offers an ode to the determination and resilience of Britain’s Greatest Generation. The sheer scope and scale of Dunkirk borrows less from recent war films and more from the 1960s spectacles like The Longest Day and The Great Escape. Nolan fills his movie with recognizable actors whose characters barely speak, let alone have names. Instead of talking and philosophizing, they’re primarily interested in staying alive and escaping the onslaught of the Germans. The result is a film replete with tension that refuses to let the audience off the hook.



            Nolan’s Dunkirk tells the story of the British evacuation from the eponymous French port in 1940. The Western front has collapsed and the Germans have overrun the French and English armies, forcing them into a pocket around Dunkirk. Meanwhile the British navy is desperately trying to evacuate as many men off the beaches as possible to prepare for the upcoming German invasion of Britain. Nolan constructs the film along three parallel stories of land, sea, and air taking place over the course of a week, a day, and a single hour. The land portion of the film follows the efforts of two soldiers to make it off the beach. They hide on ships, get torpedoed, and desperately try to save themselves. The sea portion of the film features a middle-aged Brit, his son, and his son’s friend piloting the family boat over to Dunkirk. During their day-long journey, they pick up the lone survivor of a U-Boat attack. Finally, the air portion takes place over the course of a single hour as two Spitfire pilots try to protect the Dunkirk beaches and British ships from German attack.

            Dunkirk doesn’t offer much in terms of characters. Most of them, in fact, are unnamed. Many of them, especially the soldiers on the beach, barely speak at all. The cast is populated with lots of famous English actors and musician Harry Stiles (though I couldn’t tell you what he looks like). Kenneth Branagh and Mark Rylance, two of England’s greatest Shakespearean actors, have the closest thing to actual characters. Branagh, armed with a fantastic white turtleneck, plays the naval commander in charge of evacuating soldiers from the beach. His job is keep order as the Germans bomb the British army on land and torpedo the British fleet at sea. Rylance is the civilian sailor who takes his vessel across the Channel to rescue the stranded soldiers. Standing in for that cliché of stiff-upper lipped Brit, Rylance conveys determination and humanity in the face of the shell-shocked U-Boat survivor demanding that they turn back to England.

That's some strong turtleneck action right there. 

            The names of the characters and lack of dialogue don’t really matter. Dunkirk is about more than the individual survival of any individual character. Rather it’s about England’s lowest point during World War 2 and the efforts of the entire nation to survive. Nolan fills the movie with a constant and never-ending sense of dread. Whistling bullets kill soldiers on their way out of Dunkirk. German planes strafe the beaches, attacking those waiting to be evacuated. Those lucky few who make it onto a ship wind up drowning after being torpedoed. There seemingly is no escape from the enemy. Nolan conveys this sense of perpetual and inescapable dread without ever showing a single German soldier until the very end of the film (although the Germans are out of focus). The Germans are the unseen but seemingly omnipotent enemy.

            The film’s ending is a little clichéd, with the requisite Churchill speech about British resilience in the face of adversity as the soldiers from the beach find themselves safely back in England. This sentimentality undermines the effective ending of the air portion that sees Tom Hardy’s Spitfire pilot guiding his flaming plane onto the beach for a safe landing after destroying a German plane. After being captured by the Germans, Hardy’s plane burns in the background. His safe landing lifts the tension that dominates the film. He—and, by extension, England—survives.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Farewell to Cassini

            On Friday September 15, 2017 NASA will send its Cassini spacecraft one final set of instructions—to fly directly into Saturn’s atmosphere, destroying the spacecraft. Running low on fuel after spending thirteen years in orbit around Saturn, Cassini has reached the end of its operational life. NASA decided to crash Cassini into the atmosphere rather than risk biologically contaminating one of the planet’s moons with an accidental collision.  After almost twenty years since leaving Earth, the Cassini mission has been one of NASA’s most successful exploratory missions, returning a whole host of data about our solar system’s 6th planet.


            The Cassini-Huygens probe launched from Cape Canaveral on October 15, 1997. The Cassini-Huygen’s original mission called for the spacecraft to explore the structure and behavior of Saturn’s rings, the composition of its moons, the behavior of its atmosphere, and land the Huygens probe on the surface of Titan. Planning for the mission began in 1982 as the result of a collaboration between NASA, the European Science Foundation, and the Italian Space Agency. Soon after its launch, Cassini performed two gravitational-assist flybys of Venus, one of Earth, and one of Jupiter in order to propel it to Saturn. On July 1, 2004, after a nearly seven year journey, Cassini finally entered orbit around Saturn.

            On Christmas Day 2004, the Huygens probe separated from the Cassini orbiter and began its descent towards Titan. Titan has long fascinated astronomers because of it is the only moon in the Solar System with a dense atmosphere (similar to Earth’s) and the only other planetary body to have liquids on its surface. It is primarily composed of ice and rock. The Huygens probe landed on Titan on January 14, 2005. It was the first and, so far, only landing of an Earth-made probe in the outer Solar System. The probe, weighing about 700 lbs, gathered data about Titan’s atmosphere and surface conditions and sent back about 350 photographs of Titan. Readings from the probe confirmed the existence of liquid lakes, rock clusters, and methane clouds. The planet’s atmosphere creates a surface remarkably similar to Earth including rivers, lakes, seas, and dunes. Titan has seasonal weather patterns and it even has wind and rain storms.   

The surface of Titan 

            During its almost thirteen years in orbit around Saturn, Cassini has greatly expanded our knowledge of Saturn. Besides the Huygens probe, here are some other highlights of the mission.

Saturn’s Hurricane—In November 2006, scientists spotted a storm with an eyewall (like you see in a hurricane) around Saturn’s south pole. This was the first sighting of this feature on a planet other than Earth. Unlike hurricanes, this storm is stationary at the south pole and is 5,000 miles across and 43 miles high with winds up to 350 mph.

Flybys of Moons—Besides visiting Titan, Cassini has engaged in multiple flybys of Saturn’s other moons. It has also discovered seven smaller, previously unknown moons. The photos of the moon Phoebe revealed that it likely has ice just under its surface. During its flybys of Enceladus, Cassini discovered the existence of ice geysers near the South Pole and later confirmed the existence of a subsurface liquid water ocean.

Saturn's rings, close-up 

Saturn’s Rings—Cassini also performed extensive experiments on Saturn’s rings in order to uncover their composition and structure. It has also returned some remarkable photographs of the rings themselves.

The Great Storm—In 2012 Cassini observed the results of the Great White Spot (similar to Jupiter’s Great Red Spot) storm that occurs every 30 years or so. Cassini discovered that Saturn’s storm is the result of the loss of acetylene gas, an increase in phosphine gas, and a decrease in temperature in the storm’s center. This causes the storm to become white and make it visible to telescopes.

            In the last months of its life, Cassini has been undertaking dives into Saturn’s rings in order to capture most information and photographs of Saturn’s most distinctive feature. With the spacecraft at the end of its operational life, NASA decided to engage in the dives and risk the damage or destruction of the spacecraft. However, Cassini survived its various plunges into the rings and has returned some remarkable images. On Friday, NASA will order the spacecraft to descend into Saturn’s atmosphere, ending Cassini’s tenure as one of the space program’s most remarkable and successful missions.