Saturday, July 2, 2011

Preview: Sci-Fi 25th Anniversaries

Is there anything that can make movie fans feel older than anniversaries of favorite films? I know that for the most part, observing a film's anniversary is merely a marketing ploy for a re-release in theaters or a new DVD/Blu Ray release, but it still has the ability to make one feel damn old.

Hey, I'm someone who's childhood is rooted in the 1980s, and I don't need the reminders that some of the movies from my youth are now around a quarter-century old. Wait. The Goonies was released 26 years ago? Gremlins was 27 years? E.T. will be 30 next year?!? Even '90s staples are approaching or have passed the 20 year mark. What's that you say? The Simpsons are 22? Aye carumba!

As my generation now gets to be indoctrinated in the marketing of nostalgia, it's time to accept that some of our beloved childhood memories are aging just like the rest of us. As part of Sci-Fi week, the theatre is screening two films that celebrate their 25th anniversary this year: Star Trek IV and Aliens. Can you believe it's been two and a half decades already?

For both, the history of both franchises actually extends farther back.

Despite several ups and downs, Star Trek is still going strong. This year marks the 45th anniversary of the original television series, and they're celebrating in a big way next month in Las Vegas. What happens there stays there, I suppose. But if you're going, be aware that others may have cameras. That's if... uh, you're going to do something foolish...

Convention or not, what's Klingon for "where's my dignity?"

Star Trek was originally a live-action television series broadcast from 1966-69 and an animated series from 1973-74, then re-launched as a film franchise at the end of the 1970s. Despite a lukewarm reception for Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979, the film franchise really hit its stride with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in 1982 and the blockbuster smash Star Trek III: The Search for Spock in 1984. Since parts II and III were a connected narrative, it was natural for the story arc to continue into part IV. Released in 1986, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home is the completion of this "narrative trilogy" within the franchise.

Star Trek IV is easily the lightest, silliest and most accessible of the series. It remains a bold departure from a series that is always viewed as a bit stiff and self-important (until J.J. Abrams' reboot in 2009, that is). The plot here involves our 23rd century crew rescuing Earth from a mysterious space probe that's wrecking havoc on the atmosphere. Turns out the probe is looking to chat with some humpback whales (extinct in this story since the 21st century). So, the solution is simple. Go back in time to 1986 and bring whales back to sing their whale songs at the probe or something. Logical, right? Right. Wait, HUH?!? Eh, just go with it.

A little preachy in its environmentalism, Star Trek IV is, above all, a good time. Who doesn't want to see Spock ask what exact change is? For McCoy and Scottie to boggle over how to use a Mac? For Uhura and Chekov to look for nuclear wessels? To see Kirk confront someone with this catch phrase?

The movie was very '80s in its sensibilities, and not just because it involved time travel set in the period. The comedy is heavily dependent on that "fish out of water" theme that accompanied successful comedies by studios of the period: Crocodile Dundee, The Golden Child and Coming to America. But for such a serious sci-fi series, it's still remarkable that the studio suits gave director Leonard Nimoy carte blanche. Then again, after part III made beaucoup cash under Nimoy's direction, why not? It's not like the studio wanted them to put Eddie Murphy in it or anything (oh wait, they actually did).

Luckily for all of us, Murphy declined the role planned for him. It's good to know someone learned a lesson from Superman III. Nevertheless, Part IV played it loose and light, and flourished from its bizarre mixture of time travel, hijinks, and humpback whales.

To this day, I know several Trekkies that curse Star Trek IV for being "fun." Can you believe that? The nerve of those filmmakers. Making something lighter and more accessible. How dare they!? (mock gasp) Oh well. Vulcans are like that, I suppose.

Ah, but Star Trek IV isn't the only sci-fi gem celebrating an anniversary this year.

When Alien came out in 1979, it was such a high-end spin on a B-movie concept that no one thought it could ever be matched in its caliber. Few even thought of attempting to make a sequel to it, since Ridley Scott had crafted such a masterpiece of space-gothic horror.

Enter James Cameron...

Cameron, an ambitious young film maker who was creating The Terminator (itself a now iconic sci-fi franchise) at the time, pitched the idea of a sequel that emphasized "terror more than horror." After some years in development, Cameron finally got to craft his own take on the Alien universe. In 1986 his sequel, Aliens, was released.

A direct sequel to the 1979 film, Aliens is still a very different creature than Ridley Scott's masterpiece. It's just as capable as getting your pulse pounding, but this time the thrills come straight from your own adrenal glands. It's a rip-roaring roller coaster that comes out guns a blazin'.

Decades after the events of Alien, a hibernating Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is found in her escape pod. Debriefed by the company regarding her claims of an encounter with such a strange creature, she's brushed off as a hysteric. However, when contact is lost with a colony on the planet where the alien was found, the Marines are sent in. All of a sudden, Ripley is taken seriously and tags along as an expert. Then all hell breaks loose. It's one of the most visceral thrill rides in motion picture history.

Heck, even the trailer does a great job of getting the blood pumping. So here it is, lean and mean:

25 years later, it's still the tightest movie that Cameron has ever made. Remember when James was capable of consistently making things like this? Now we get pedantic space epics like Avatar, and I'm more than a bit disappointed. I entreat you, Mr. Cameron, to engage more than my eyeballs. Up until the last 20 minutes of The Abyss in 1989, you used to know how. At this rate, I'll be able to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the end of Cameron's true creativity in three more years.

In retrospect, both of these films are remarkable gamechangers in shaping their franchises. Star Trek IV introduced a lighter side to the space epic, albeit one that backfired miserably in 1989 with Star Trek V. Still, the franchise has since proved most successful when balancing comedy, drama and an affable ensemble, as evidenced by The Next Generation cast in their series and subsequent films. For the foreseeable future, I can imagine Trekkies will still argue over who's the better captain, Kirk or Picard? Heck, in a few years there may even be a new argument over who was the definitive James Kirk: Shatner or Pine?

As for the Alien series, well... it was all downhill from here. While I concede that the arguments I hear about the best Alien movie are a matter of taste, they never include parts 3 or 4 in the discussion. David Fincher directed Alien³ in 1992, and it was a notoriously difficult production that yielded subpar results. And as for 1997's Alien: Resurrection? Well, it had Winona Ryder in it, and that's just about all one needs to know to judge that film.

The true seed that sprang from Aliens is, in my opinion, the modern action movie. Jaws may have spawned the modern summer blockbuster, but James Cameron brought guns to the battle and transformed Hollywood action hits into pure boy toy exercises. Alas, no one has reached the apex in mixing interesting characters, thrills and action like Cameron did. He's excelled at making loud and innovative action films, but his figurative children have only succeeded in recreating the sound and fury, signifying nothing. All of you Michael Bays of the world take note, make us care about the characters before blowing everything up.

It doesn't frighten me at all that 25 years can pass in the blink of an eye. In fact, I'm comforted by it. I've lived a heck of a lot since 1986, and look forward to whatever my future may bring. I enjoy that I can be content in occasionally revisiting the past, instead of living in it. Truth is, I still don't feel that old just because these two films are observing 25 years. I say, here's to 25 more. Another quarter century that can be written as we see fit, where we can all live long and prosper.

Showtimes for the films:

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
Friday, Jul 8th

Friday, Jul 8th

Final Notes about the screening

Double Features:
"When two movies are grouped together under the same thematic heading, one ticket is good for both features when viewed back-to-back on the same day." (cha-ching!)

"Hassle-free downtown parking available for $6 at the One American Center for all summer films! Since you’re also supporting the theatre when you buy parking, they're giving you a free small soda each time you park there for a film. Buy online with your film tix and print out your confirmation e-mail or buy directly from the garage attendant (cash only). Attendant will have your soda ticket as well."

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