Review: Star Trek

After a long hiatus, the Star Trek franchise returns with the J.J. Abrams-directed re-launch film, written by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman.

Following a Ultimates-kind of model (Marvel’s re-imagining re-launch of classic Marvel properties such as Spider-Man, The Avengers, The X-Men), the new film takes the chance to re-introduce the classic characters of the original series in a way that allows for new growth and storytelling less bound by decades of continuity.

Star Trek is commonly known for its sociological SF slant, but this film is a pure character study. We follow James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) through their pre-histories and their paths through youth into adulthood and the foundation of their friendship. Pine succeeds in capturing the swagger and cunning of Kirk without hamming it up too much, and Quinto’s Spock excels at displaying the conflict between his Vulcan and Human sides. Each member of the cast had the chance to shine in their area, but were also depicted as vulnerable and imperfect.

The design aesthetic for the new Star Trek is the love child of Apple and the new Battlestar Galactica. It’s shiny on top and gritty on the bottom, combining the dirty functionality with the pristine shine. The future is not white-washed or sterile, but it does have the shine of optimism. The graphics were breathtaking, re-capturing the ‘Sense of Wonder’ mode of SF visuals which has been so central to the genre’s cultural impact.

Eric Bana’s Nero is a singularly driven villain who, along with Spock, ties together the plot twists that give us the new continuity. Nero may not go down as one of the franchise’s best villains, but he was compelling in his own right.

The pacing was tight, with slow moments spaced out here and there to give moments for character notes, but the majority of the film was an unrelenting roller coaster ride.

Star Trek is an exciting, accessible, fast-paced character-heavy film that requires no substantial knowledge of the franchise to enjoy, but is clearly a part and doing homage to the long-established Star Trek universe. Critical acclaim and likely box-office success mean that a sequel following the same continuity is very likely, and may also provide support for a new Star Trek television series. Heroes producer and Pushing Daisies creator Brian Fuller has already expressed strong interest in helming such a property, and with the ending of Battlestar Galactica, the role of ‘Best SF show on TV’ is open for competition once more.

Final verdict: Go see it. See it if you’re a Trekker, a casual fan, a SF aficionado, or if you just want a fun two hour ride of a film.

The Matrix: 10 Years Later

On March 31st, 10 years ago, a film called The Matrix hit movie theatres and took the film industry/pop culture world by storm. It lead to copy-cats in content, style, and in technology (The Matrix‘s ‘Bullet-cam’ became the ‘effect to do’ for the first several years of the 21st century in action movies)

It was lauded for its originality, but really, it was a combination of a plethora of influences and cultural properties which helped/help define a generation (Gen X, as the creators, Andy and Larry Wachowski). It was Hong Kong cinema made in the US, it was a live-action anime, it was pop-philosophy and comparative religion, it was cyberpunk and a blockbuster film all rolled up into one.

Transmedia Storytelling

It also launched one of the more successful transmedia properties of the last decade, as indicated by its use as an example in Henry Jenkins’ Convergence Culture chapter “Searching for the Origami Unicorn: The Matrix and Transmedia Storytelling)” (Jenkins 2006).

The Matrix universe has grown from one cultural work to include three films, a collection of animated shorts (The Animatrix), several video games (Enter The Matrix, The Matrix: The Path of Neo), including a MMO (The Matrix Online), comic books (The Matrix Comics), and a variety of merchandising tie-ins.

As Jenkins says,

The Wachowski Bros. played the transmedia game very well, putting out the original film to stimulate interest, offering up a few Web comics to sustain the hard-core fan’s hunger for more information, launching the anime in anticipation of the second film, releasing the video game alongside it to surf the publicity, bringing the whole cycle to conclusion with The Matrix Revolutions, then turning the whole mythology over to the players of the massively multiplayer online game. Each step along the way built on what has come before, while offering new points of entry. (Jenkins, 2006).

In the hands of fans

An intrinsic part of successful transmedia storytelling is the creation of a setting that is generative of many stories. The premise of the Matrix allows for a nearly limitless number of stories to be told in a number of genres (A Detective Story is much more in line with the look and feel of Film Noir, whereas “Program” is steeped in samurai action (Chanbara). Since the Matrix itself is a programmed shared universe, it can be modified to fit different desires and perspectives. Why is it that Detective’s Ash world looked so different than Neo’s world? It’s not difficult to read in the possibility that there are/were a number of servers, with different settings (a noir world, a cyberpunk world, etc.) But even without having to fill in the gaps of the setting by making these readings, there are many different places for a number of stories. This allows for fan creativity to enter into the picture, another essential part of a vibrant transmedia property.

The Wachowskis/WB can lay out the official path of transmedia cultural flow between games and films and comics, but if transmedia storytelling universes are maps, there is space beside the roads and outside the buildings in addition to those official pathways and locations. There is always room for fan-fiction, other games, fan art, vidding, and much more.

I remember playing a home-brewed Matrix table-top roleplaying game the summer of 1999, a game designed by friends so that we could tap into the awesomeness of the Matrix setting, even drawn in as limited a fashion as it was when the only data point was the original film. The mythology/setting of the Matrix had proven compelling enough to lead us to make our own ways to interact with the Matrix universe on our own terms, when not provided with an official outlet. A smart transmedia author/creator will encourage this informal/unofficial play/interaction, as it inevitably leads fans/customers back to the official parts, the ones that convert into sales.

Benefits of the transmedia approach

Unofficial transmedia play is free advertising. It keeps fans thinking about the property and shows/develops their level of involvement and investment. The more you play in the world of the matrix, the more it can matter, and so the more you will continue to play, and the more you will reach out to others to join you.

The Matrix universe was far from the first transmedia storytelling venture. George Lucas’ Star Wars had become comics, video games, action figures, trivia games, board games, memorabilia and more decades before The Matrix. However, The Wachowskis & Co. did utilize new media technologies and digital cultural socialization to further its popularity with a strong online presence. The Matrix Comics were first shared online, and preview videos of the Animatrix were available exclusively on the web before the DVD release.

A transmedia approach also allows a cultural property to become a franchise, with film, television, comics, video games, and other media to be tied in, allowing a tv show to reach out to video gamers and to comics readers, building its fan base with every new node in the transmedia map.

Other properties since have followed the transmedia model, but we can remember The Matrix property as one of the most commercially successful examples in recent memory. While opinions on the 2nd and 3rd films vary wildly, it is hard to deny the economic success and cultural impact of the Matrix property, and much of that is due to a transmedia storytelling and marketing approach.

Escape From City-17 Part One

The Purchase Brothers have released the first episode of a Half-Life 2 fan video Escape From City-17.

Episode 1:

Now that you’ve watched it — here’s the really impressive part — the first two episodes were made on $500. It’s a marvel how far you can get when people work for the love.

The video liberally uses effects and designs from the video game to great effect (which also serves to make the production cheaper) — the flatline sounds for the Combine Police, the gun FX, and re-works the computer effects of the tripods and Combine ships.

We’ve seen only a bit of characterization so far, but the premise provides more than enough narrative momentum for now.

Escape From City-17 is one of a growing number of professional-level fan videos which, through new media outlets such as YouTube, serve as a training and proving ground for up-and-coming directors/animators/actors. It’s a formula already proven by Felicia Day’s The Guild, LonelyGirl15, etc. Escape From City-17 is additionally impressive due to the effects involved. Rather than having to move to LA (or an equivalent film center–I’m going to speak from a USA perspective) and spend years trying to break in, creators can make their own works, distribute and advertise via YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, etc., and some of them break through. The chance of success may not be any better than breaking in by going to LA, but the opportunity cost is much less, as it doesn’t force creators to up-root and move across the country/world.

This is only the first episode, so we have more coming. The Purchase Brothers have already been in contact with Valve, so I imagine we will see much more from this team.

Review — Coraline (film)

Coraline is adapted from the Hugo-winning Neil Gaiman novella (illustrated by Dave McKean) and directed by Henry Selick, who directed The Nightmare Before Christmas. It is advertised as the first stop-motion film created for 3-D.

The voice acting is strong, meshing well with the character modeling chosen for the film version.  The film makes a few changes from the novella, most notably in adding a companion character for Coraline, Wybie Lovat.  Wybie provides some exposition that contextualizes the events at the house, and is part of the film adaptation’s efforts to flesh out the story into a shapen and scope that fits the medium and the time (111 minutes).

If you don’t know the novella, here’s a short synopsis:

Coraline Jones is an inquisitive, curious explorer of a nine year old girl.  She and her family have moved into an apartment in an old house in the country, but is ignored by her parents, who are both writers.  In the film, her parents are up against a deadline, which accounts for their distaction.

After exploring the house and the environs, she finds, inside the house, a door to nowhere.  The door leads to a mirror of her apartment, but with her ‘Other Mother,’ who looks the same except for black buttons as her eyes.  As Coraline’s visits to the world of the Other Mother continue, the wonderous turns to the delightfully creepy, as Selick and his team build on Gaiman’s surrealist vision to deliver a story that is tight, symbolicaly rich but never confusing.

To speak more about the voice talent — Dakota Fanning gives the right balance of youth, curiosity and spunk for Coraline, Teri Hatcher plays from distracted to warm to terrifying as the Mother/Other Mother, and John Hodgeman puts in a great supporting performance as the Father/Other Father.

Coraline is one of a sadly few film adaptations of novels/textual works where the adaptation both adds to the original work while doing justice to its source material.  Selick’s film Coraline gives a visual/auditory experience which enriches the textual experience of Gaiman (and McKean, if you have the illustrations)’s novella.  A viewer can easily appreciate the film version without having read the book, as did my sister.

The film is currently playing in 3-D for a limited time, and I highly recommend that everyone take the chance to see it in 3-D.  Unlike “Chuck vs. The Third Dimension,” Coraline makes striking use of the 3-D technology, enhancing critical emotional moments and providing texture for the film.  The 3-D provides a depth of field, makes the high-emotion moments ‘pop,’ and creates an overall more visceral experience.