Star Trek: Discovery – A First Season Review

Ordinarily, when reviewing TV shows, I would watch 4 to 6 episodes to get a good feel for the program. With Star Trek: Discovery, I decided to wait until it concluded its first season before doing a review because I honestly could not decide how I felt about it. This latest Star Trek spinoff has been the most difficult to form an opinion about. It has many commendable features, yet there are so many aspects about it that misfires so badly, that we have to wonder if the creators behind this spinoff understand Star Trek at all. Major spoilers will follow.

Star Trek: Discovery takes place in the 2250s, which makes it a prequel to the original Star Trek. Then again it does not feel like a prequel but more like a remake. Naturally, it does not recreate the mood and production of the original because it would have been laughed off and this is part of the reason why it is so controversial with fans. Overall, this show has to be accepted as a remake rather than a reboot because there are many attempts to stick to canon and some elements established in the original Prime timeline, such as numerous Easter eggs, references and sound effects. On the other hand, they’re not always consistent with sticking to canon, which can be irritating. But once you put aside these feelings about this latest Star Trek spinoff, it becomes easier to watch.

Star Trek: Discovery is updated to today’s standards in terms of special effects, set design and writing. The entire show is beautifully executed and each episode feels more like a feature-length film than a TV show. While this is welcome, at times the creators went too far in reimagining Gene Roddenberry’s futuristic universe. A case in point is the unnecessary re-do of the Klingons, the show’s main enemy race. The poor actors portraying the Klingons seem to be drowning under all the heavy makeup and wardrobe and we have to wonder why the showrunners thought this was an improvement over the perfected Klingon look seen in the other spinoffs and films. Be that as it may, the subtle updating of other alien races like the Andorians and the Tellarites are executed well.

The Star Trek spinoff follows the story of Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), a former first officer who mutinied against her captain and was jailed. Her actions helped spark a war between the Klingons and the United Federation of Planets and most of the first season is devoted to this storyline and her redemption. Burnham is freed by the captain of the U.S.S. Discovery, Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs), and enlists her to his crew for some ulterior motive. He assigns her to aid the ship’s science officer Lt. Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp) and find a way to utilize an experimental spore drive being tested on the Discovery to win the war against the Klingons. Eventually this results in Stamets using himself as a conduit for the spore drive, which allows the ship to instantaneously travel anywhere.Even though Burnham is the main protagonist, Lorca has emerged as the most fascinating character thanks in part to Isaacs’ exemplary acting and the way he is written. Lorca was introduced as a mysterious, and unusually brutal commander who was obsessed with winning the war. He was not above tossing aside ethics to get the job done, and pushing people beyond their limit, yet he was a capable commander. But in the second half of the season, the Discovery wound up in the Mirror Universe where humans are evil and it was revealed that Lorca himself came from this reality. This confirmed many suspicions that fans had but in the end, this development was a disservice to Lorca who became a moustache-twirling villain and unremarkable. Hopefully, some way can be found to return some version of Lorca in the second season.Therein lies the fault and strength of Star Trek: Discovery and this is typical of its conflicting nature. Some characters are compelling and well developed like First Officer Saru (Doug Jones), a lanky and fastidious alien, Sylvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman), a bubbly young cadet, and Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif), a Starfleet officer who is actually a Klingon that was surgically altered into a human in order to infiltrate Starfleet. While others are interesting background bridge crewmembers  that  the show largely ignores. I’m not even sure what their names are, I just know them as the cyborg lady, or the woman with the metal implant on her skull. They barely have any dialogue and are begging to be examined more closely.

The stories themselves are also just as uneven. Some episodes are genuine classics and belong up there with the great Star Trek episodes. These include “The Wolf Inside”, “Despite Yourself” (two fantastic Mirror Universe tales), “Lethe”, “Choose Your Pain”, and “Into the Forest I Go”. As great as those were, Star Trek: Discovery is also weighed down with some downright clunkers that are poorly plotted and clumsily executed. One example is the first episode that aired for free on CBS, “The Vulcan Hello”, which needed to be great to entice people to subscribe to the CBS All Access app that streamed the rest of the episodes. Unfortunately, the season also ended on a less-than-thrilling note with a two-episode storyline that ended the war too quickly and unsatisfactory. However, the final shot of the last episode “Will You Take My Hand?” brought a thrill when a sparkling and graceful Enterprise appeared on the screen.Despite these faults, I have to admit that I genuinely enjoy Star Trek: Discovery. As far as first season Star Trek shows go, this is the best one since the original Star Trek. Unlike some other Star Trek spinoffs that first started out, this show is rarely dull and takes some genuine risks, even if they do not pay off. Of course, the criticism is valid that unlike its predecessors there isn’t any exploring done. This is something that is a vital essence of Star Trek, but it does push the envelope, chiefly with its characters and focus. The captain is not the main hero but a broken and disgraced former officer. Many of the characters are out to prove themselves and most of them do, which is why they are so easy to watch and root for.Another thing to note is that putting aside all the action and eye-popping visuals (seeing the Discovery spin its saucer while it goes into spore drive never gets dull), certain elemental truths about Star Trek are still there. We just have to recognize them: accepting diversity, seeking diplomatic solutions, and bettering yourself. As Alexander Courage’s iconic theme played during the end credits of the season finale, I found myself eagerly waiting to see more from Star Trek: Discovery, and for that reason the show is a success.

José Soto

 

 

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Runaways Emphasizes Characters At The Expense Of Superhero Antics

runaways poster

Marvel Studios’ first streaming TV show on Hulu, Runaways, has finished its first 10-episode season.  Now that the show has finished its run (don’t fret, Runaways has been renewed for a second season), it’s time to review the show. In a nutshell, Runaways is enjoyable if not especially outstanding.

Runaways is based on the recent Marvel Comics teenage “superhero” team created by Brian K. Vaughan and Adrian Alphona. Fans of the comic book characters know that the group of teenagers are not actually superheroes. They don’t use code names or wear goofy outfits and there are less fisticuffs in their adventures, which the show faithfully recreates. By the way, this adaptation is supposedly set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) though you would not know it. It has almost no reference to the MCU, not even vague mentions of “The Incident” as in the Netflix Marvel shows. However, how people react to the demonstration of superpowers and wild situations is not consistent in the MCU that has aliens, public superheroes and other fantastic people. It might as well not be set in the MCU. Instead, the emphasis is more on the characters and their immediate world of L.A. The basic story is that several well-off teenagers with wildly different personalities  discover that their parents are actually supervillains. Horrified, the teenagers band together, rebel against their elders and go on the run.

The TV adaptation more or less follows this premise though no one runs away until the final episode that just streamed (“Hostile”). This made the entire first season feel like a set up for the really interesting stuff. For example, “Hostile” featured the best moments between Gertrude Yorkes (Ariela Barer) and her pet raptor and the dinosaur finally had some screen presence. The raptor seemed more like a character than a CG/puppet creation. But putting aside the lack of thrills, Runaways is a different animal than the comic books in that by not having the kids run away until the final episode, it focuses on their relationships with each other and their parents. If that sounds like mopey teenage drama then you are correct. Although, it’s well done and holds your attention.

What helps are the writing and most of the acting. While the kids are newcomers they are surprisingly good in their roles such as Barer, Rhenzy Feliz (as Alex Wilder), Gregg Sulkan (as Chase Stein) and Lyrica Okano (as Nico Minoru), the parents steal the spotlight many times. Instead of presenting the parents as mustache-twirling villains like in the comics, they’re more dimensional and grounded here. You understand that they live in a grey world where they’re forced to make questionable decisions. These were done, for the most part, to provide a good future for everyone, but the consequences of their choices have come to haunt them and alienate their children. There is a mystery of what their true motives are, but that gets a bit muddled. The parents’ machinations and how the Runaways react to them sometimes slows the show’s pace. Adding to the drawbacks is the mid-season introduction of Jonah (Julian McMahon), a mysterious and super-powered person running things for his own purposes. If anyone screams “bad guy” it’s this character. Unlike Jonah, the parents are more nuanced and well acted. Standouts include Annie Wersching, Ryan Sands, Kevin Weisman, Bridgid Brannagh and James Marsters.

Strangely, for a show about teenage superhumans (for the most part), the weakest moments are when they actually go into action. This happens exactly two times in the first season, which will surely disappoint anyone expecting another Daredevil, but it’s for the best. When the Runaways used their superpowers against an opponent, their actions were quite dull and unrealistic. Basically, they would stand around and use their powers one at a time. Blame it on the budget, but this became a drawback. The other episodes are spent with the Runaways dealing with their hormones, parent issues, and your typical teenage angst.

Make no mistake, Runaways is  pretty interesting and put together well, even if it’s not groundbreaking. As these season finales go, this one raised more questions than gave answers. All of it just to set up a second season, though it could leave you feeling frustrated because just as things pick up significantly, the episode ends. Hopefully the second season will be here before we know it and provide satisfying answers while ramping up the dilemmas of the Runaways…and their parents.

Waldermann Rivera

 

Star Wars: The Last Jedi Is A Polarizing, Mixed Bag In The Star Wars Saga

This review for Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi is coming later than usual because I wanted to think about the film I saw on opening weekend before plunging ahead with words about its merits…and faults.

The first part of this review will be spoiler free and talk about the latest Star Wars film in general terms. The second half will discuss in more details my impressions, which will go into spoiler territory.

Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi continues the saga of the universal struggle between good and evil in a distant galaxy. It takes place shortly after the last film where fledgling Jedi, Rey (Daisy Ridley), finds the long-lost Jedi Master, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) on a distant planet called Ahch-To. She wants to be trained and enlist Skywalker’s help in the struggle against the First Order, the despotic government that rose from the ashes of the Galactic Empire.

Meanwhile the ragtag group she belongs to, the Resistance, is in dire straits and on the run from the First Order. Its leader, Snoke (Andy Serkis), and his apprentice Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), are determined to wipe out the pesky Resistance once and for all and destroy Skywalker, who is the film’s titular character. This largely sums up the plot of Star Wars: The Last Jedi without giving anything away.

The eighth film in the main Star Wars trilogies is a mixed bag. There are so many powerful moments and unpredictable developments. These will resonate not only with fans, but with the overall saga. Admittedly, this film borrows elements from The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, but only superficially. Certain expected narrative beats never occur and the film left me guessing as to what would happen next. The unpredictable nature of the latest Star Wars film will leave viewers unsure about the fate of characters, which creates genuine tension. We genuinely wonder if certain characters will survive by the end of the film. The film also takes time to examine the Force, the mystical energy wielded by the Jedi and the bad guys. Unlike those stupid midichlorians, the Force in this film rightfully returns to its metaphysical roots as the film explores its nuances. For the eighth film in a franchise to be this unpredictable and out of the box is a testament to the skills of writer and director Rian Johnson.

Unfortunately, there are too many flaws in logic and gaping plot holes that cannot be waved away with a Jedi mind trick. As skilled as he is, Johnson failed to think through the plot. Too often, we keep asking “why did so and so do that? Why don’t they just do this and be done?” This is a problem Johnson displayed with his acclaimed (and overrated IMO) film Looper, where cool concepts were undone by flaws in narrative logic. Honestly, this makes me wonder about the quality of the new trilogy he will oversee.

Just as crippling is the film’s pace. It starts with a blast, but meanders in the middle and feels uneven, though the final 45 minutes are terrifically nail biting. Certain characters fly off on meaningless quests in scenes that could have used another pass in the editing room. Other characters are given well-rounded and satisfying arcs that allow them to grow and change. Others should have not appeared at all.

No matter where one stands with it, Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi is a very polarizing film. It is unlike previous Star Wars films, which will disappoint many fans. On the other hand, story and character wise, Star Wars: The Last Jedi strikes bold new directions that anyone would have to admit bring new and much-needed wrinkles to the Star Wars saga.

Alright, this is the final warning for anyone who has not seen Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi and does not want to be spoiled.

 

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And A Justice League For All

Justice League is the latest film for the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) franchise and I think it is one of the best. Once again, a DCEU film has for some bizarre reason received a divisive reception, but to me this film works on just about every level. The story continues from Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and in a nutshell, shows Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) seeking out other meta-human super heroes: Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), the Flash (Ezra Miller), and Cyborg )Ray Fisher) to form a team capable of stopping an alien invasion led by supervillain Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds).
The action and stunts in this movie are top notch and the story is relatively straightforward. Some would say too much so since it is a two-hour film as opposed to Batman v. Superman, which was two and a half hours long. I would have liked to have seen more world-building and perhaps another 10-15 minutes of runtime to do so, but Justice League still did not feel rushed to me. Another complaint I’ve heard is the CGI, especially with Superman’s missing facial hair due to actor Henry Cavill having a mustache during reshoots. There were maybe a few seconds where I noticed this, but it did not ruin any scenes and the rest of the effects in the movie were quite good. Everything from Cyborg’s armor to Steppenwolf’s parademons were all well done. The fight scenes were a thrill to watch and the history lesson shown early in the film that depicts a previous invasion was a special treat since it shows alien Green Lanterns for the first time in the DCEU, as well as massive armies of Atlanteans and Amazonian warriors facing off against the hordes of Apokalips. I do wish this scene was longer to set up the whole invasion storyline, but what we did see was great.
 
The acting was also a positive as the chemistry between the team members was a highlight. Ben Affleck continues his role as the definitive live-action Batman, Gal Gadot is just as good as she was in this summers big hit Wonder Woman, Ezra Miller(the Flash) provides hysterical comic relief as the youngest member of the team, Ray Fisher is effective as the troubled hero Cyborg and Jason Momoa gives fans a good preview of Aquaman, the next DCEU film in December 2018. The underwater battle sequence shown was a sight to behold and should be great to see for a whole film come next year. Finally, Henry Cavill returns as the iconic Superman. His resurrection is handled well and showcases his awesome powers as things don’t go quite the way Batman planned because Supes isn’t in a good mood when he does wakes up. His eventual return to battling the villains is a great moment and gives fans their first glimpse of the hopeful Superman in the DCEU they’ve been waiting for. I also enjoyed Steppenwolf’s portrayal by Ciaran Hinds. He was a powerful adversary for the League and his parademons were also scary looking henchmen. I did not see him as a weak villain, however I would have liked to have seen more of where he came from, the planet Apokalips, as well as his ruler Darkseid, who is only mentioned but not seen.
The tone of this film is lighter than Batman v Superman, and there is more banter between the heroes which is not surprising since Joss Whedon took over from Zack Snyder during reshoots. Most of the quips are amusing and they didn’t take away from the stakes the Justice League faced with the fate of the world hanging in the balance. Batman is a changed character from the previous film since Superman’s sacrifice and death gave him a new outlook on what it means to be a hero. This propels him first to form the Justice League and then to bring Superman back to life when he realizes that the League are overmatched and need the Man of Steel to get them over the top against Steppenwolf and his legion of parademons. Wonder Woman is shown still dealing with the aftermath of losing Steve Trevor in her solo outing and even argues with Bruce about having to come to terms with your past. I liked seeing this character progression and it seems to bring the heroes full circle from where they started in previous films.
 
Aside from the minor quibbles of the shorter run time and mustaches, Justice League is a film that I definitely enjoyed. The ending sets up further adventures for our heroes and villains with a  post-credit scene (SPOILER ALERT!) showing a freed Lex Luthor wanting to create his own group of supervillains starting with Deathstroke. Whether this happens or not is unclear due to the mixed reception the film has gotten.
I would love to see another JL film, especially if it features the League battling a rival group of supervillains and having Green Lantern joining the team as the seventh member. New characters joining the league is hinted at in the end and this is something that should be explored in future films. Previous incarnations of the Justice League in both comic book and animated films, plus, characters like Martian Manhunter and Shazam, would be nice to see. In any case, even if this doesn’t happen, it was great to finally have a live-action Justice League film featuring these legendary characters. It was a pure joy seeing them joining together on the big screen for the first time, showing off their amazing powers, and saving the world. Any future team-up movies with them are something we all can look forward to.
C. S. Link

Thor: Ragnarok Is Three Times The Fun

For the third film in a trilogy, Thor: Ragnarok is the liveliest one of the bunch. Frankly, after the dire and listless second film Thor: The Dark World, this third Thor film is a spectacular shot in the arm for the God of Thunder’s films set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).

Loki and Thor

Thor: Ragnarok quickly picks up where the second film left us, with Thor’s brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) commanding the throne of otherworldly Asgard under the guise of their father Odin (Anthony Hopkins). Thor (Chris Hemsworth) quickly deduces what Loki is up to and the two find out the consequences of Loki’s actions. In Odin’s absence, the Nine Realms that he ruled over have slipped into anarchy. This also means that Hela (Cate Blanchett), the Goddess of Death, who was imprisoned by Odin to escape and wreck havoc on Asgard. Before Thor could stop her, he is accidentally transported to the planet Sakaar, taken captive and forced to fight in gladiator-type games held by the planet’s ruler, the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). As we all saw in the trailers, Thor’s opponent is the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), who was last seen going into self exile in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Thor must find a way to stay alive, escape his enslavement and convince the Hulk to join him in saving Asgard from Hela.

thor vs hulk

Now reading the above makes you think this will be another serious-minded Thor film with high stakes and Shakespearean undertones. But that isn’t the case with Thor: Ragnarok. The somber approach worked in the first Thor film thanks to the skillful hands of Kenneth Branagh, who is familiar with Shakespearean drama and brought that to Thor. But this time, Thor: Ragnarok’s director Taika Waititi relied on his comedic tastes and background for the film. In doing so, he brought a welcome change of pace and mood this time around as this film is more of a comedy. This approach mostly works though I have to admit there are times there are just a tad too many jokes and there are moments that should’ve had more weight but come off as too light. It’s clear that Marvel Studios wanted to repeat the look and formula that worked for Guardians of the Galaxy and this is very evident in the scenes taking place on Sakaar. The Guardians of the Galaxy films perfectly balanced its comedic tone with serious drama but Thor: Ragnarok comes up a bit short in keeping that balance.

Hela (1)

Nevertheless, the third Thor film is a fun blast with stunning set pieces and special effects that buttress its lighter tone. Credit for that does not just go to Waititi, but the film’s stars starting with Chris Hemsworth. In other films, Hemsworth has shown that he has quite a comedic gift and he gets to display that in this film. Thor seems less pompous and more laid back in his third outing. It’s almost as if he has thrust off his original regal persona and taken on an ability to crack a joke. This does not mean he takes things lightly. Hemsworth and the director knew which moments to hold back the jokes  and appropriately react to more serious moments. Continue reading