Star Trek

by J.J. Abrams (2009, United States)

I first discovered Star Trek when I was in kindergarten via reruns of the original series. Later, I enjoyed the subsequent movies chronicling the further exploits of Kirk, Spock, et al. However, when Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered—I was in 6th grade at the time, I believe—it was like lightning out of the blue and I became as big a Star Trek geek as you could imagine.

How big, you ask? Well, for example, my friends and I would often get into discussions—in physics class, natch—over the nature and structure of dilithium crystals. We were completely talking out of our butts, of course, but it was great fun to have something that inspired us so much. It was, in some ways I suppose, a nearly religious experience, my first forays into true geek culture.

But notice I said “was”. Subsequent years took their toll on the once mighty franchise as well as my impressions of it. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was great, but with its darker tone and murkier political and religious plotlines, it felt like it was cut from a different franchise. Star Trek: Voyager had its moments, but after awhile, I just lost interest. The crew never galvanized me the way that Kirk’s or Picard’s had, nor did their plight. I couldn’t drum up any enthusiasm for Star Trek: Enterprise. It, along with the later films, felt like desperate attempts to simply bleed a turnip, to wring just a little more cash from the franchise.

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Iron Man

by Jon Favreau (2008, United States)

Iron Man is that rare summer blockbuster movie. It can certainly be taken at face value and enjoyed as a big budget popcorn-type of movie—the cinematic equivalent of a bacon double cheeseburger with a big side of greasy fries (to quote my review of Hot Fuzz). However, like Batman Begins and X-Men 2, there are deeper subtexts and themes that you can tease out if you so desire, and you can do so without ruining the pure, thrill-packed entertainment one bit.

Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr. in a bravura performance) is a brilliant inventor and, thanks to his company, Stark Industries, a multi-billionaire. When not showing off his company’s latest weapons, he’s bedding supermodels and living the playboy lifestyle—much to the chagrin of his close associates, such as personal assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and military attaché James Rhodes (Terrence Howard). That all changes when, during a trip to Afghanistan to demo Stark Industries’ latest missile system, his convoy is attacked by terrorists.

Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark

Stark is critically wounded in the attack—by one of his own weapons, ironically—and captured. An emergency and unorthodox surgery saves his life and he is put to work building weapons for his captors. There, Stark undergoes a startling revelation, that the weapons he so blindly assumed were being used to defend America have actually ended up in the hands of its enemies.

This, combined with some soul-searching brought on by the man who saved his life, a fellow captor named Yinsen, propels Stark to seek a new direction in life. But first he has to escape, and being the brilliant inventor that he is, he does so with the aid of a giant suit of powered armor complete with rocket launcher, flame thrower, and jet engines (natch).

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The Amazing Screw-On Head

by Chris Prynoski (2006, United States)

There are two sides to American history.  There’s the boring side that’s been taught to you by history textbooks and schoolteachers.  And then there’s the other side where, as it turns out, America is actually littered with ruins of ancient and alien civilizations (at least west of the Mississippi), where mad zombie scientists seek to overthrow the world, and where horrific demigods lay imprisoned within vegetables, patiently waiting to be freed from their parallel universe prisons to lay waste to Mankind.

The only bastion of defense against these horrors is Screw-On Head, a secret government operative at the beck and call of Abraham Lincoln (yes, that Abraham Lincoln), and who is, well, a screw-on head with an army of steampunk bodies at his disposal.  And he’ll need them all, because the nefarious Emperor Zombie—once Screw-On Head’s closest friend and manservant before he began dabbling in ancient black magic—is seeking the power of an ancient kingdom to bring the world to its knees.

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Godzilla: Final Wars

by Ryehei Kitamura (2004, Japan)

Billed as the “50th Anniversary Commemoration Project” for mighty Godzilla, Godzilla: Final Wars is also the last Godzilla movie for the next decade or so.  Toho, the studio that brings us all of the kaiju loving, has seen fit to give the big guy a rest, due in part to diminishing box office returns.  And of course, it only makes sense to have Godzilla go out with a big bang, one last hurrah before taking a well-deserved vacation (after all, there’s been 5 Godzilla movies in the past 6 years).

However, after having seen Godzilla: Final Wars, the only thing I could think was “This is the best they could do?”

If I were Godzilla, and this were my “50th Anniversary Commemoration Project”, I’d probably go back and trample Tokyo two or three times, just on general principle.

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X-Men: The Last Stand

by Brett Ratner (2006, United States)

Here’s a fair bit of damning praise: X-Men: The Last Stand (X3) is nowhere near as bad as it could’ve been, but it’s nowhere near as good as it should’ve been.  Naturally, most folks will point to the changing of directors, from Bryan Singer to Brett Ratner, as the reason for this, and that’s not entirely unreasonable.  Under Singer’s hand, the first two X-Men movies became something entirely deeper and more resonant than perhaps anyone had expected comic book movies to be.

The X-Men have always been about portraying outcasts, the shame and ridicule they suffer at society’s hands, and the ways in which they could rise above such persecution, through sacrifice and heroism. Singer tapped into all of these things, and delivered films that were certainly much, much better than they had any right to be.  And they were still entertaining, full of great special effects, solid action sequences, great characters that you could actually care about, witty dialog, and storylines that, while quite fanciful, touched on weighty themes (prejudice, bigotry, alienation).

In Ratner’s hands, however, all of that has been stripped away and replaced with sheer spectacle.  Which is certainly fun and engaging to watch, but there’s also definitely something missing.

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