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The Matrix Reloaded (2003)
A genuinely mixed bag
There are spoilers in this review, so be wary.
"The Matrix Reloaded" is so full of "stuff", so brimming with ideas and images, that one barely has time to recover between each sequence. In essence, it tries to be so much that in the end I felt somehow mixed about its overall result.
To be sure, "The Matrix Reloaded" is involving and diverting, but it tests your patience with a somewhat bloated and bizarre introduction. The audience is introduced to Zion through magnificent special effects shots. The central characters are all there, and immediately we are reminded of the romance between Neo and Trinity. However, instead of taking care of re-introductions in a quick and orderly fashion, we are subjected to a seemingly endless rock video-type dance party, intercut with a sex scene between the two leads. I have to admit that I was not expecting this from a Matrix movie, and I am not entirely sure it works. Perhaps something can be said of this blatantly sexual imagery, and how this is what makes us human (or some crap like that), but a few seconds would have sufficed to make the point. Instead, the audience is treated to a good chunk of film that resembles something from MTV, only with an R rating.
There is another rather pointless scene in which a character explains how chocolate cake can have an orgasmic effect upon a woman. This is illustrated in a strange and graphic special effects sequence that seems like it would be more at home in a Ken Russell movie. Whatever point that is being made by this scene could surely have been done in a more subtle manner, or simply alluded to in a less trashy way. Eroticism is fine in certain contexts, but I really felt that in the midst of this film it just seems out of place. Perhaps I am being prudish, but it simply did not work for me.
There is action galore throughout "The Matrix Reloaded". There are several major sequences that take up plenty of screen time and totally achieve the goal of diverting and entertaining. However, the first film had a degree of urgency and danger with regard to Neo, who had not developed his powers fully. This time, Neo is totally unstoppable, and while I enjoyed the martial arts scenes for the effects, choreography, and sheer energy, the outcome was all but too clear. The Wachowskis recognize this for the car chase, the true action centerpiece of the film, and place Trinity and the always fantastic and engaging Morpheus in the line of danger. All of the action is very much over the top, and while I did get a kick out of it, it felt as if everything else had taken a back seat to the explosions. The original Matrix used action and effects to tell the story. This time, it is well-known by the filmmakers that most people are filling theatre seats to see how the new sequences will top what came before. This approach does not translate into a better film, and as result, a degree of understatedness has been lost in exchange for bombast and flashiness.
As with the first film, the question of what exactly the Matrix is allows for plenty of mind-bending, barely logical plot twists. I am amazed at how well this premise allows for interesting narrative switches. There are still dangers and threats, and a set of rules which limit the characters, but the potential for suprises is very much present. But no one should expect to be as blown away as when they saw the first Matrix. There is a lot of familiar ground recovered, but thankfully the plot does not slavishly ape what came before.
The performances by the leads are very much as strong (or as weak) as they were the first time around. Laurence Fishburne is fabulous, serving as the solid center around which everyone else orbits. Carrie-Anne Moss is as wooden as she was in the first outing, but not unlikeable. Keanu Reeves is still barely getting by, but frankly I do not mind him in the role. Most of the secondary characters are really not all that engaging, and even though various romantic subplots are introduced, I could really care less about any of them. Perhaps a less cliched approach would have done better to introduce some humanity into the story. Instead, we get a series of soap opera-type love triangles and a stupid subplot involving a new character who struggles between his duty to Morpheus and his duty as a husband.
There are a lot of problems with "The Matrix Reloaded." Sure its a good time at the movies, but the story could have been told far more effectively without cliches, sleaze, and somewhat superfluous special effects. There is a great movie in here, but it is somewhat buried under flourishes of mediocrity. Is it worth your movie fare? Yes. Is it as good as the first one? No. But then again, few sequels are. While it may not be as awful as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, it is definitely not the Empire Strikes Back.
6.5 out of 10.
Star Trek: First Contact (1996)
The "Action" Entry
Many of the Star Trek Films have relied heavily on character interaction, dialogue, and suggested events to tell the story. Star Trek: First Contact breaks from this tradition by producing a sharp, fast paced action film that never relents from beginning to end. There are moments of reflection for the characters, but the movie has an inertia that makes the other entries in the franchise seem as if they plod along at five miles an hour. The result is one of the most satisfying films in the series.
Part of the appeal of Star Trek: First Contact, is that the central enemy is the Borg Collective, which has surpassed all other villainous races in the Star Trek universe in popularity. The central villain in this chapter is the Borg Queen, played by the chilly yet seductive Alice Krige. Krige is confident, convincing, and absolutely threatening in her performance, and seems to almost border on a character from a horror film. She lends an edge that is unique from other villains in the series, and is perfectly suited to the nature of the Borg. The design for both the Queen and the rest of the Borg is unsettling, and the story line and history of this race serves to illicit an emotional continuity between the events in the television show and the films.
Star Trek: First Contact probably has the widest appeal of all of the episodes, in much the same way as Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home did in 1986. It is action packed, filled with decent visual effects, clearly plotted, and supplies a threatening villain. This is definitely the best Next Generation film to date, and one of the strongest movies in the entire series.
Star Trek: Generations (1994)
Contrived but Entertaining
If one is willing to ignore logic, sense, and the preposterous situations and circumstances that occur during Star Trek: Generations, then they will be effectively diverted. This film, which sees the big screen debut of the crew of the Next Generation, has many problems which almost sink the whole experience.
The major plot device which is designed to (possible spoiler) bring Captain Kirk and Captain Picard together is barely plausible. The villain Soran, played by Malcolm MacDowell, is "OK" but does not reach the level of past Star Trek villains. The sub-plot concerning Lt. Commander Data almost ruins the movie, turning a likeable and popular character into an annoyance. The various holes that emerge in the plot are glaring, and show how poorly thought out much of the scripting must have been. But, despite all of these negatives, the movie succeeds in having some wonderfully engaging moments, and a rip-roaring visual effects sequence that has yet to be matched by any other film in the Star Trek franchise.
This seventh entry is still light years beyond Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. Possessing high production values and reliable performances from the regulars of the series, Star Trek Generations is a good chapter, but far from one of the best.
A Fitting Final Mission
The countless failures of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier made it imperative that another film with the original crew be made, so as to have a decent sign-off before the retirement of the characters. The result is Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, a competent entry into the franchise. It is obvious that the producers were looking to make a quality final chapter, for they enlisted director Nicholas Meyer, and the creative contribution of Leonard Nimoy, both of which were responsible for the most popular films of the series.
While not without flaws, Star Trek VI combines an overly complicated mystery plot with plenty of character moments, which aid in creating drama and a good portion of action. There is also a strong villain, the Klingon General Chang played by Christopher Plummer. Between spouting Shakespeare and plotting the demise of Kirk and his crew, Plummer rises to the challenge of stealing every scene he is in, with his performance ranking only behind Ricardo Montalban's turn as Khan in Star Trek II. Plummer is a great asset to the film, and combines the right amount of villainy and silliness in his performance.
Of the six episodes that had been released in the series, Star Trek VI has the highest production values. While the visual effects are not as spectacular as the Star Wars films, the work of ILM in Star Trek VI is relatively impressive, with a few new environments being realized effectively, as well as providing one of the more exciting space battles in the series.
The character of Captain Kirk is taken down a few notches by the script writers and in William Shatner's more subtle performance of the character. While Star Trek V fed the ego of its star, Star Trek VI presents the good captain as flawed, fallible and tired. It works to remind fans of the series that Captain Kirk has some issues, and these issues are dealt with in this film. The other members of the cast fill their roles well, but for some reason Scotty comes across as more shrill and irritating than in the previous films. Be it James Doohan's performance or his dialogue, he actually is one of the flaws of the movie.
Despite the fact that the film plays out more like an episode of Scooby Doo, the end result is that of a great piece of entertainment, ranking third behind the second and fourth entries of the series. It resolves many thematic issues that were present throughout the series, and provides a launch point in terms of continuity for the Next Generation television series. While not perfect, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country is an admirable passing of the torch for the original crew of the Enterprise.
Pointless and Idiotic
The tremendous high of enthusiasm that Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home created is all but destroyed by this muddled, pointless and unfortunate entry in the long running Star Trek series. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is such a drastic plummet from the quality of the previous films that one wonders what happened.
Everything from screenplay, visual effects, editing, and story have all seemed to lose several points in this film, and the end result ends up feeling disjointed and apocryphal in relation to the continuity of the series. The story deals with tremendous metaphysical questions in the same way a troubled twelve year old would, and moments that could have had great power come across as if they were directed by a person who has a resume composed entirely of beer commercials. Many of the movie's sequences are obviously pandering to the ego of William Shatner, Star Trek V's director, writer and star. The brightest point of the entire film is the villain Sybok, played by Laurence Luckinbill. Luckinbill lends a degree of dignity to the material that it does not deserve, and is the only person throughout the film that seems to have half of his brain capacity functioning.
Star Trek V seems to want to tap into the nostalgia of its fan base, but does so with over-long and pointless scenes of Kirk, Spock and McCoy singing around a campfire. While the first film failed to make the characters paramount, Star Trek V gives the audience WAY to much of the character moments, sacrificing a decent and logical story and ignoring aspects of the previous films. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is the lowest point in the entire franchise, making it a necessity for the original crew to return for one more adventure.
Star Trek: Insurrection (1998)
Preachy, Plodding and Pointless
Star Trek: Insurrection is not necessarily an awful film, but is ultimately pointless in the greater scheme of things. There is no new ground covered by the story, the morality of the choices of the characters is debatable and unclear, the production values are lacking the polish of the previous two films, and there is very little action or character development to off-set the negative aspects of the film.
If Star Trek: Insurrection was a two-part episode of the television series, it may be have been acceptable. But as a big-screen entry, it seems rather weak. The audience learns nothing new about Picard and crew, and the talents of F. Murray Abraham as the lead villain are wasted. There is not one memorable moment during the entire duration of the film, and by the end all that is left is a preachy premise about the nuances of the "Prime Directive", a theme that has been milked dry by the various movies and television series.
Ultimately, Star Trek Insurrection is an absolutely pointless entry in the franchise, seemingly designed only to rake in a few million dollars without attaching any quality or interesting material to make the effort worthwhile. This ninth chapter is among the worst.
Lighter and Happier Than its Predecessors
Star Trek II and Star Trek III both dealt with serious themes, and had an unusual focus on death and the macabre. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, by comparison, is a much lighter and happier affair, and is thankfully pulled off rather well.
Comedy is by far the most difficult and dangerous genre of film, so it is no small miracle that Star Trek IV maintains its integrity as an entry in the franchise while shooting for laughs throughout. The plot itself is preposterous, but has a sense of fun and urgency that resonates beyond the Star Trek universe, dealing with many issues of the time of its release. Such things as the Cold War, Endangered Species, and Nuclear Energy are all dealt with in a delicate but amusing fashion. This, balanced with the extensive and effective use of familiar characters, make for some truly memorable and enjoyable moments. The juxtaposition of the Enterprise crew of the twenty-third century reacting to the customs of the 1980's remarkably never wears thin throughout the movie, and makes Star Trek IV a true gem.
It is interesting how stylistically different Star Trek IV is from the previous films, yet comfortably holds its own with the other nine entries in the series. Standing so far outside the formula manages to heighten this episode within the ranks of the best. Of the original crew films, Star Trek IV is second only to The Wrath of Khan.
An Odd But Decent Entry
Much of the effectiveness and excitement of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, is maintained throughout the running time of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. Picking up immediately where the last film ended, it seems as if Star Trek III is an essential second act. Many of the plot points and themes that were introduced in its predecessor become fleshed out further, and secondary characters develop into primary players. Still, the crew of the Enterprise are at the center, and many of the film's best moments arise from the banter-like dialogue that displays their relationships to one another.
Star Trek III tries to emulate the formula of Star Trek II by introducing a scenery-chewing villain. This time around, this role is filled by Christopher Lloyd as the Klingon commander Kruge. Lloyd seems to have fun with the role, and he does make a formidable foil to Shatner's Kirk, but he lacks the class and psychological depth of Montalban's Khan. Still, the formula pays off, and Kruge's actions show that there are genuine consequences and dangers that our heroes must face.
The visual effects in Star Trek III leave much to be desired, but do not detract from the characters or the story. There is a relatively spectacular effect that is pulled of rather well, and provides one of the more satisfying moments of the film, both spelling a victory over the villains and a loss for the crew of the Enterprise. The final action set piece is poorly done, but provides some entertaining moments, and does not lessen the quality of the story telling.
In the final analysis, Star Trek III builds upon the successful elements of The Wrath of Khan in a way that creates continuity and unity in this fictional universe, while also providing more of the positive aspects of any Star Trek adventure. It is true that without its characters, Star Trek would be mediocre science fiction. But because the individuals that are created by this set of actors are so likeable and compelling, the franchise transcends mediocrity, and manages to engage on a human level. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock is no exception.
Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
A Lean Piece of Entertainment
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is among the best of the lucrative and prolific franchise. Taut, well-crafted, effectively directed and able to emphasize the all-important nature of the characters and their relationships, this film by far exceeds its predecessor in every way. Not a moment is wasted throughout the running time, with visual effects serving as a consequence of the storytelling rather than dominating as in the first film.
Star Trek II also benefits from a strong and compelling villain, found in Ricardo Montalban's portrayal of Khan. The character's motivation for revenge makes for some wonderful moments of flare, and Montalban squeezes every scene for all it is worth. He is without a doubt the strongest villain in the entire series, and is largely responsible for the success of this movie.
The performances of the major cast members all shine in this adventure, reestablishing the importance of the Kirk, Spock and McCoy triangle. These characters genuinely seem like old friends, and are able to address the material with a sense of familiarity that makes their performances seem natural. This belief in the people and personalities of the Enterprise's crew is essential for the drama and devastation of the movie's climax, which is both powerful and moving.
There is not a moment of excess in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which, after twenty years, has yet to be surpassed in quality by any of the Star Trek films that have followed it. It bridges the gap between the campiness and joy of the original television series and the universe depicted in the films. As it stands, it is one of the finest films of the science fiction genre, not for its visual effects, but for its depiction of character and its overall success as a piece of cinematic entertainment.
Imagery Overshadows Characters
Star Trek, in its many incarnations, has always held its greatest appeal in its characters. When one watches an episode of the various TV shows, or one of the films, their is an expectation of how each individual will react to a situation. With the original series cast, there is plenty of bickering, banter, and life that resides in the relationships they have created with each other. In essence, Star Trek is about the viewer knowing the characters, and wanting to see how they rise to a challenge. It is this central component that Star Trek: The Motion Picture fails to recognize.
There is an obvious over-reliance on (very poor) visual effects throughout the film, which manages to bore rather than engage the viewer. The plot is actually rather clever, and has the feeling of a fifties sci-fi thriller, but makes the fatal mistake of becoming more important than the character interactions. The plot of a Star Trek movie should essentially provide a framework for the characters to engage in dialogue, solve problems, and entertain the audience with their idiosyncrasies. Instead, it seems to take an eternity for the crew to become assembled aboard the Enterprise, and seemingly half the film's running time has elapsed before Kirk, Spock and McCoy are actually in a scene together, which is a major misstep considering that their relationship is what made the original show so entertaining in the first place. The story preempting the figures that make Star Trek what it is is poorly balanced in this film, and as a result just makes it a dry, uninteresting exercise in sci-fi and visual effects.
What results is a bloated, over-long, and relatively pointless movie. It is remarkable that the franchise continued after the many failures of this particular entry, though we as fans of the series may be thankful that the film makers recognized the problems and changed gears so as to allow for the voyages of the Enterprise to continue on the big screen.