Movie Reviews by Mark Leeper

Star Trek: First Contact (1996) -- The Crucible (1996)

We still don't know much about Mark Leeper, but he writes a damn good review!

Star Trek: First Contact (1996)

The newest "Star Trek" adventure is an
okay science fiction piece lacking in some of the
absurdities from which the "Star Trek" films have
occasionally suffered. The first of the series without
William Shatner finds Patrick Stewart a more than
adequate replacement on the screen. The script needed a
little tightening, but the Borg turn out to be a good,
if familiar-seeming screen foe.
Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4)

To this point the "Star Trek" films have either had reasonable action but scripts that have shown far too little thought to the concepts (numbers 2-4, 6 and STAR TREK: GENERATIONS). Or have had intriguing ideas wasted on poor execution (1 and 5). STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT falls into the first category, but is blessedly free of ill- conceived ideas like the Genesis Device or the Nexus. The Borg at one time added desperately-needed tension to the "Star Trek" suite of series by introducing an enemy that was at once orders of magnitude more powerful than the Federation ships and as implacable as a nest of ants. The Borg underscored that space exploration was still dangerous and that whatever the current Enterprise was, it still had limitations. However, whatever value that property represented has long since been mortgaged in episodes that showed in a fair fight the Universe has nothing--not even the Borg--that can stand up to the Enterprise, and individual Borgs can be won over by niceness. Some dim bulbs in the "Star Trek" factory have safely established that we never need to worry about "Star Trek" characters again. Vulcans return from the dead and new Enterprises come in convenient six-packs, so we can safely ignore the series and give our primary attention to "Babylon 5." With the concept of the Borg already compromised, they seem fair game to use in a film. In large part they are reduced here to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD style zombies with electronic enhancements they do not seem to use, but then the concept has already been compromised.

In the new film the Borg have an unusual strategy for assimilating Earth. They go back in time to just before that momentous day in the 21st Century--and who can forget it?--April 5, 2063 when both Zephram Cochran (James Cromwell of BABE) took the first warp jump and as a result Earth also makes its first contact with an alien race. It is amazing that both happened in one day and even more that nobody in any of the series or films has ever mentioned that fact till now. If the Borg can manage to abort the first warp trip and the first alien contact, apparently everything else will be okay for them. And their arrival has to be just within hours of the flight and not two weeks earlier because ... uh ... well, maybe the Borg are not quite so smart after all. To the rescue in their time-travel wake comes the Enterprise commanded by Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart, of I, CLAUDIUS and JEFFREY). He is here against the express orders of the Federation in a move that would be more characteristic of James Kirk than of Picard.

In the new "Star Trek" tradition of giving the directorial reins to an aspiring "Star Trek" actor, the task went to Jonathan Frakes, who is perhaps one of the least noticeable actors in this film. He is in some major scenes but is only noticeable when he seems to be grinning at the joke of him directing himself. But Frakes has always been a little redundant in the Next Generation stories. He was thrown into the cast because the creators knew that there could be no romantic interest in a bald middle-aged captain. Then Stewart demonstrated far more appeal than anyone expected. Speaking of whom I am not sure if it is meaningful to talk about whether Patrick Stewart is a good Captain Picard, but he is. Stewart is the best actor who was ever a regular in the "Star Trek" stories and his is the most interesting character. There are a few other familiar actors sprinkled in (besides the regular cast), but none to very good advantage. James Cromwell plays a sort of working class physics genius in a role that never really gels. He is never believable as the inventor of warp drive, which is perhaps the point of the joke, but it just adds to the question of how with so little resource, physical as well as mental, could this particular person putter together warp drive. Alfre Woodard is totally wasted in a throwaway role. Alice Krige, best remembered for GHOST STORY has only slightly less thankless a role as the one-dimensional punk-looking queen bee of the Borg.

This episode is not just darker in tone than many of the chapters, it is literally darker in lighting. In the entire film there are just two scenes that come to mind that are filmed in daylight. This, combined with the somewhat repulsive Borg and their queen who, as a possible homage to INVADERS FROM MARS, is little more than a head gives the film a decidedly colder and more dour feel. This could be a positive touch, but it really undermines the attempted humor scenes. It is hard to imagine Marina Sirtis doing a drunk act being funny even under the best of conditions, here it does not stand a chance. Visual effects are generally fairly good with the exception of some zero-G floating that would have been unconvincing even before the release of APOLLO 13. Jerry Goldsmith has written a nice score incorporating themes from other "Star Trek" series and films but also including some new themes.

This is a "Star Trek" episode with its share of faults, but few that come to mind while watching it. It has the melodrama of other episodes of the films but fewer absurdities this time around. Oh, and it is entertaining. I rate it a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale.

Minor spoiler...Minor spoiler...Minor spoiler...Minor spoiler...

Some complaints about the script. I have avoided reading discussions on the net so some of there may have already been brought up there without my knowledge.

  1. Even a few minutes of warp should have taken a ship a lot further from Earth than it was. Presumably warp speed is faster than light if not out and out discontinuous jumping.
  2. The claim in made that in the 25th century they no longer use money. This is patently inconsistent with STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE 9. People are spending and gambling something in Quark's Bar. Gold-pressed latinum is also frequently mentioned and used as money.
  3. Data turning off his emotion chip by twisting his head is a nice piece of mime, but it makes little sense.
  4. It really reduces the Borg to a very unintelligent level to say they do not even notice intruders in their midst. Even ants are smarter than that with far smaller brains.
  5. There are two strategies to use against the Borg and Picard chooses one because he has an unreasoning hatred of the Borg. Someone who really had an unreasoning hatred of the Borg would have chosen the other strategy.
  6. Admittedly complaining about holodeck sequences is like tripping a dachshund, but this one seems especially stupid. The holodeck in principle creates only visual effects. It would take a lot of double-talk to make it sound possible that anyone could actually be shot by a visual illusion and bleed real blood.
  7. The Universal Translator already sounds like magic assuming that it needs a lot of input about a new race. It goes considerably further to say that it knows the new language instantly with virtually no sampling.

The Crucible (1996)

THE CRUCIBLE is Arthur Miller's
allegory of the politics of the 1950s Red Scare
told with a setting of the Salem witch trials.
This 45-year-old play is as powerful a drama as you
will see on the screen this year. While a little
hampered by the 17th century prose, it remains a
moving theatrical experience.
Rating: +3 (-4 to +4)
New York Critics: positive: 20, negative: 1, mixed: 4

THE CRUCIBLE is the story of the Salem witch trials, but it is a lot more than that. It is an examination of a society that through fear gives unquestioned authority and power to a select few supposed defenders. The result is an exercise in power far worse than the threat it was intended to curb. The House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, chaired by Senator Joseph McCarthy were the inspiration for Arthur Miller's original play, but the parallels he draws can be applied to any situation where the public allows itself to be ruled by fear rather than reason. It is a ready-made and fully- formed analogy that some can apply to the "political correctness" argument, others to the firearms debate or political issues with religious implications. The term "witch hunt" has come into common usage as any campaign against dissension, perhaps in large part because of this play.

The setting is Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. This is a community committed to an extreme devotion to its religion and what it sees as service to God. And if the Bible says that such things as witches exist, then witchcraft must be a very real and very present threat to the community. Several adolescent girls, led by Abigail Williams (played by Winona Ryder), are caught in the act playing the voodoo-like game of "conjuring boys." Williams has taken things a step further and has tried to use the magic to kill a woman she considers her enemy. At first she denies that the game had anything to do with witchcraft, but quickly discovers that she has happened onto what seems to her a good thing. The first suggestion that any of the people of Salem have engaged in witchcraft seems to bring down the wrath of the whole community. And the people of Salem, many already involved in minor conflicts with their neighbors, seem all too ready to accept and exploit witchcraft accusations against their enemies. Soon there area dozen or so girls making accusations and basking in the celebrity their accusations bring them.

Drawn into the situation are John Proctor (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his wife Elizabeth (Joan Allen). John had had a short dalliance with Abigail, but now wants to remain faithful to Elizabeth. It is a situation that Abigail, with her new-found power, discovers she can change. To investigate the accusations come first the Reverend Hale (Rob Campbell) and then the esteemed Judge Danforth (Paul Scofield), Deputy Governor of Massachusetts. Hale is a moderate man as likely to find an accused witch innocent as guilty. Judge Danforth, on the other hand, is a religious zealot who couches his actions in legalisms. At heart, however, he is deeply afraid of witchcraft himself and can no longer accept any possibility of innocence. He sees the girls' accusations as God giving him the tools to root out the Devil in Salem. Eventually the witch hunt will take on a life of its own and will get beyond even his control. Caught in all of this is John Proctor who still has some affection for Abigail but sees first hand the evil that Abigail is wielding.

Daniel Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder each seem acceptable by themselves, but somehow do not seems to have much dramatic chemistry together on the screen. Day-Lewis is made up with considerably more realism than is Ryder. He, like many of the people of the story, show the sign of a hard life with scars and with rotted teeth. Even making allowances for Ryder's youth, a similar hard life seems to have done little more than ruffle her hair. Ryder appears out of place and too well cared-for considering the look of most of the other people in the film. Joan Allen, who previously played Pat Nixon in NIXON gives a subtle uprightness to the role of Elizabeth Proctor. Paul Scofield playing another judge will surely bring memories of A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS. He brings a lot of the same magnetism to this role as he had in that, perhaps presenting another side of the same character. Familiar faces in less pivotal roles include Bruce Davison, Jeffrey Jones, and George Gaynes.

In some senses this production is a little too polished to feel accurate. The opening sequence shows a voodoo-like ceremony in the woods complete with mystic chalk symbols drawn on ground, and Tituba chanting a perfectly recorded version of the Yanvalou Chant. It was very theatrical but not very realistic. Some may find the film a little hard to follow, particularly in the first half hour. The viewer is introduced to a large number of characters speaking in the manner of 17th Century English. A word should be said about the accuracy of this film to the historical fact. It is not much beyond the names of some of the people. Abigail Williams was an eleven-year-old and John Proctor was sixty, so much of the Miller's tale of sexual revenge does not work as history. However I am willing to give Arthur Miller more latitude to play with the facts in this film than I give Gibson for BRAVEHEART. Robert Bolt in A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS or William Shakespeare with JULIUS CAESAR is doing a lot more than just telling an adventure tale. Miller is a writer who can tell a story of complexity with some profundity. If THE CRUCIBLE is not historically accurate, it transcends that. I personally hold BRAVEHEART more accountable for historical accuracy than I do THE CRUCIBLE.

THE CRUCIBLE is a powerful play on stage, but it has been made available to mass audiences only twice before, once as the 1957 French film LES SORCIERES DE SALEM and then again in 1967 as a play performed on CBS. With the exception of the latter, no non-live version has ever been available to American audience until now. It is something of a service that it is available now. I give it a +3 on the -4 to +4 scale.


To TOCE-Mail the AuthorSerendipity Link