In 1824, eight convicts escaped from servitude in Van Diemen's Land and made a break for freedom. But surviving in unmapped, inhospitable Tasmanian wilderness turned out not to be the walk in the park that they had in mind. After days of wandering in hunger they ended up, quite literally, eating themselves to death.
Van Diemen's Land, expanding on a stage production and a short involving the same team, gives us a feature film Based On True Events. This is actually less gruesome and drawn-out than the lone survivor's version, and there's a reason for that. This is a marvel of economical filmmaking: a story kept deliberately to the necessary minimum, for the most part successfully. It's a film that looks absolutely superb, but can only have been made on a threadbare budget, spent in all the right places by Jonathan auf der Heide (director) and Maggie Miles (producer), both recent film-school grads. I applaud the savvy that went into this accomplished, if somewhat monotonous and limited, colonial horror epic.
Every year, off the coastal village of Taiji (太地), Japan, dolphins are captured and sold to marine parks all over the world. But there is another place in Taiji where many more dolphins are herded and disappear: a place called The Cove. Few outside eyes have ever seen what happens in The Cove, and a ban on filming and photography is zealously enforced. Retired dolphin-trainer turned activist Ric O'Barry, who suspects mass slaughter, becomes the catalyst for an undercover operation to film the dark deeds done at The Cove.
The Cove belongs to the higher ranks of documentary filmmaking. It has a great story to tell, and tells it well; it is a witness to the main events; its heart is in the right place. The interviews and statistics are interesting, yet the pictures have a way of speaking for themselves. And the bonus is that it stimulates on many levels. As much a hi-tech thriller and "clash of civilizations" piece as nature documentary, at the same time it manages to be a moving character study, a challenge to apathy, and a chronicler of official absurdity.
The protagonists and interviewees repeatedly face the question: why does Japan need to target and kill over 20,000 dolphins every year? We get the usual excuses, in increasing order of credibility: it's something to do with 'research'; it's something to do with 'tradition'; it's something to do with people feeding themselves. (Haven't you heard? Dolphins, not people, are behind the global collapse in fish stocks.) All of these are put up and seen for the sham that they are. But the activists are savvy enough to know that although the facts are on their side, animal rights isn't the headline issue that it used to be. So they frame the argument solely in terms of self-preservation. And when Japanese dolphin meat is shown to be saturated with mercury, far in excess of any level allowable for humans, they finally find what they are looking for.
To see The Cove is to have the increasingly rare experience of a couple of hours well-spent at the cinema. (I wouldn't have changed a thing — although surely, with all the surfies on screen, there was room for a few bars of the Dead Kennedys' Kepone Factory in the segment on Minamata.)
The Cove provokes reflection on areas beyond its stated focus: on the loss of privacy and the ease of subversion in an era of hi-tech convenience, and on the workings, or lack of them, in today's political institutions. There is a compelling structure here, too: as the film builds to its horrific climax, an interviewee throws out a line that puts it all in sobering perspective. Japan's massacre of cetaceans has nothing to do with science, tradition, or food; it's only about keeping and flexing power in the international arena. At a time when nationalism counts for less and less every year, why sacrifice people to keep those parochial feelings alive, when other higher mammals will do just as well?
Star Trek is a state-of-the art VFX spectacular that retains all the street cred and sophistication of the original series. You could say that it's a film with layers, and lots of them. So many layers, in fact, that the number of "digital artists" listed in the credits seems to outnumber the other crew and cast put together. Like most blockbusters these days, it's not so much filmed as render-farmed.
You know the setup, at least in general terms. A starship and its crew go boldly where no English-speaker has gone before. Trek, being the icon of American culture that it is, posed a challenge for the filmmakers: how do you freshen up something that is familiar to everyone? The answer lies in the solution of the moment: a "reboot". In the lingo of Hollywood entertainment manufacturers, a reboot is what you do when you are done flogging a dead horse; you bring out a new horse tarted up to look like the old one. So get some hip young actors, slap on the snazziest visual effects that money can buy, and hey presto! A franchise is reborn, snagging new customers, opening new revenue streams.
The mentality which reduces storytelling to commodified "franchises" and "reboots" is as right for Star Trek as for anything else. Trek's intergalactic missionizing was a concept that had enough legs to produce a Next Generation; why not The Generation Before The Next? The ideals that shaped Trek were no less enduring than those of America itself. Captain James Kirk was reimagined as everything that Captain James Cook should have been: on the right side, armed to the teeth with hi-tech weapons, and trigger-happy enough to not get speared by savages. Kirk works not for some eccentric, reluctant colonial enterprise, but for a benevolent World Order that lets you crush the rebels without offending your conscience. "We come in peace, shoot to kill" — it's a formula that popcorn-munchers of our time can accept without a second thought.
Then what does the director, J. J. Abrams, bring to the reboot apart from the necessary minimum? Abrams imposes lashings of a visual style drawn from Michael Bay, with its jittery camera, accelerated cutting, and incoherent action substituting more often than not for proper staging. He leans on ILM and a handful of small houses to help create a world which, it must be said, is convincing on a level far above anything churned out for Lucas lately. But to say that the pictures and performances are more engaging than what we've seen before merely confirms that the filmmakers did what they set out to do: take flogging a dead horse to the next level.
So much about this film is predictable, pre-determined by its mission to be a progenitor of sequels. For a moment, it looked like there could be some surprises, when a bunch of Federation fratboys fly unwittingly into a death trap set by Eric Bana's Romulan bad guy. But, as sure as new Starfleet ships get christened, the good guys will prevail; what else do you expect? It's Star Trek; it's Hollywood. That will be enough to get many of us through the door.
For me, too, it was just what I wanted. Once or twice a year, I go see a blockbuster fully knowing that it will suck. I do it knowing that my admission fee will feed Hollywood studios' ambitions to make films which are bigger, louder, stupider and ever more insulting to human dignity and intelligence. And if that's what you want, you should see Star Trek too.