Friday, November 1, 2013

The Tony Baxter Main Street Window Significance

Recently longtime Disney Imagineer Tony Baxter was honored with his own window on Disneyland’s Main Street.

baxterswindowTom Staggs’ smile is about as convincing as Marv Albert’s toupee

This is a very big deal. Tony Baxter’s contributions to the Disney theme parks are akin to those of Curt Swan to the Superman mythos or Tinker Hatfield to Nike; hugely important, but largely unknown outside the fan community. So it’s great to see him getting public recognition in the form of his very own window on Main Street in Walt’s own park. There’s scarcely a higher honor that the company can bestow on an employee. It’s tempting to look at this as the company (and its executives) formally recognizing and even celebrating the accomplishments of one of the finest Imagineers ever. But make no mistake: what looked like a “thank you for your years of service” ceremony was actually the company’s way of putting Mr. Baxter out to pasture.

Tony Baxter, you see, was a relic from the old days when Disney actually cared about the quality of its offerings. I’m not saying that back in The Good Old Days the company was a nonprofit charity that would never dirty its hands with money. Heck, plenty of people accused Walt Disney of crass commercialism during his lifetime. But Walt imbued his company with a sense of passion for the things it worked on. They didn’t simply make, for example, a movie about Cinderella or a theme park attraction with singing Animatronic birds because a financial analysis said those things would be profitable. They made them because they liked them. There was a visible commitment to quality in everything with the Disney name on it, and that’s perhaps the main reason why Disney is one of the world’s most-loved brands. But that passion and commitment to quality that Walt and the first-generation Imagineers passed on to people like Tony Baxter just isn’t shared by the company’s executive leadership anymore. I’m not just saying that because I’m still grumpy that they tore down Horizons. It’s a demonstrable fact.

Take that piece of news last week that CEO Bob Iger is insisting upon a Summer 2015 release date for the next Star Wars film despite the fact that 2014 is less than two months away and the movie is still in pre-pre-production, with no cast and not even a completed script. It’s virtually guaranteed that the film is going to be a rush job at this point, and it’s really hard to make sure a movie is good when you’re just scrambling to get it out on time. Logically, if Mr. Iger genuinely enjoyed Star Wars and had a firm commitment to making sure that anything with Disney’s name on it was as good as it could possibly be, he’d agree to postpone the film’s release to 2016. Whatever money this decision cost Disney would surely be recouped when J.J. Abrams and friends delivered a finely-tuned Star Wars film for 2016 that didn’t have to share the spotlight with Avengers 2 and the Superman/Batman movie in 2015. But instead he’s sticking to his guns and demanding a summer 2015 release. Why? For two reasons:

  1. Star Wars movies always make a lot of money regardless of how good or bad they are.
  2. 2015 is Bob Iger’s last year as CEO.

Since the next Star Wars is guaranteed to be a financial success regardless of its quality, and Iger won’t be able to take full credit for that success if it happens in 2016, Episode 7’s release will not be postponed no matter how grotesquely behind schedule it is. It could get to the point where there’s no time to do anything other than have J.J. Abrams and a production assistant act the movie out with action figures and make lightsaber noises with their mouths, and Iger would refuse to budge. Short-term profit and political things like who gets credit for what are infinitely more important to today’s Disney executives than putting out a quality product.

My point is that there is no longer any place in today’s Walt Disney Company for people who do things the way Tony Baxter and the first-generation Imagineers who mentored him did. It’s very telling that the newest, most technologically advanced theme park attractions in Florida belong to Universal Studios, a Disney competitor. Meanwhile, the newest thing at Walt Disney World (aside from the annual price increases, of course) is a crowd management/data mining system that makes vacation planning more difficult and attraction lines longer. Tony Baxter was a troublesome reminder of a time when it was heresy to suggest closing a ride or skimping on maintenance to increase profits at an already-profitable theme park. And now he’s gone.

Yes, he has a window on Main Street, along with Walt Disney and the artists and Imagineers who helped him transform “Disney” from some guy’s last name into beloved symbol of childhood innocence and human progress. And just like them, he has no share in directing the company. There are still good people there, of course, and maybe one day they’ll get their names in Main Street windows, too. Meanwhile the marketers, finance guys, and ex-TV weathermen at the helm of today’s Walt Disney Company will continue to slowly run it aground.

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Star Trek Action Figure Deficiency

The merits of Star Trek and Star Wars have been debated by their respective fanbases since the beginning of time. Not many people know this, but the famous prehistoric cave paintings in France are actually an ancient debate about which was “better”, Star Trek or Star Wars. Of course, thanks to the Internet we can now engage in these kinds of trivial debates without having to leave our house to commit cave graffiti. But one thing that I think everyone can agree on is that Star Wars has the better toys.

Like most kids in the 1980s, my toy chest contained lots of things from Kenner’s original Star Wars action figure line. It was really a toy industry game-changer. There was an action figure for nearly every character and background alien in the movies. Each figure came with one or two accessories, and their hands were sculpted in such a way that most figures could hold most of the accessories that came with other figures. Even better, the toy line also included almost every vehicle that appeared in the films (and a few that didn’t) and the fairly uniform size of the action figures meant that any figure could fit in any vehicle. The characters and vehicles were as faithful to the film versions as was possible with late ‘70s-to-early-1980s manufacturing methods, and the toys were a blast to play with.

KennerMFThis kid seems strangely okay with being trapped in a featureless orange void without his lower body.

Naturally, other toy companies scrambled to copy Kenner’s winning formula, often by making toys for the various sci-fi movies and TV shows that studios began releasing in the late ‘70s to capitalize on the success of Star Wars. For example: Star Trek licensee Mego.

The now-defunct toymaker Mego must have have thanked their lucky stars in 1978 when Paramount Pictures announced a big-budget Star Trek film. After all, they had passed on the Star Wars license before that movie was released (their executives reportedly said that Mego couldn’t be bothered to make toys for every sci-fi B-movie that came along) and Star Trek had a highly enthusiastic fanbase that would buy just about anything with with the Star Trek name on it.

spockhelmetCase in point

Yes, Mego’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture action figure line was as close to a guaranteed success as you could get. The only way it could fail is if the toys were lame or the movie was boring. Of course, what happened was that it failed because the toys were lame and the movie was boring. First, let’s look at the toys themselves. The entire action figure line consisted of a respectable 12 figures: 6 members of the Enterprise crew and 6 aliens, including a Klingon.

TMP_figurelineupImage from cooltoyreview.com

Unfortunately, the alien characters were only widely available in Canada and Europe. This meant that if kids in the US were sufficiently excited by Star Trek: The Motion Picture to want to play with its toys, only the six “good guy” figures were available to them. Even worse, none of the characters came with any accessories (by which I mean plastic weapons). Also, there weren’t any vehicles available, partially because Mego didn’t know what it was doing and partially because the Star Trek movie didn’t have Star Wars’ assortment of landspeeders and fighter craft. There was an Enterprise bridge playset, but it was nothing but a piece of cheap vacuform plastic with stickers on it. Basically all you could do was have the characters do was stand around and talk to each other. Just like in the movie!

You see, although Paramount probably wanted Star Trek: The Motion Picture to be a rollicking Star Wars-like adventure, under Gene Roddenberry’s influence it turned out to be a glacially-paced exploration of the human condition. Also, unlike the younger cast of Star Wars, Star Trek’s group of middle-aged TV actors probably weren’t up for a lot of running and jumping anyway. This made for an intelligent film, but to a kid it was about as exciting as C-SPAN. Even if the Star Trek: The Motion Picture toy line had been handled by a company that knew what it was doing it still probably wouldn’t have sold well.

Fast forward to 1987. With the end of the Star Wars trilogy three years before, the Kenner toy line had dwindled away. Star Trek, however, was just getting started with the premiere of a brand-new TV series. As a kid, I was incredibly excited for Star Trek: The Next Generation. As part of the marketing blitz that accompanied the new show, Cheerios ran a promotion where you could enter a contest for the chance to appear as an extra in an episode. (Check out this amazing article on Trekcore for more info about the Cheerios promotion) 75,000 runners-up received a small plastic Enterprise as a consolation prize, and it came with this promotional flyer for a new toy line from Galoob:

galoob_flyer2Image from Trekcore.com

According to the flyer, Galoob had all kinds of great things in store for us. Action figures! A bridge playset with animated viewscreen images and a transporter room playset with some kind of cool effect to make your figures seem to disappear! And there was more to come!

Sure enough, just a few months later Galoob’s Star Trek action figures started to appear in stores. Wave 1 included all the characters mentioned on the promotional flyer:

picard1riker1data1

geordi1yar1worf1

Photos from Dork Dimension

And they were the only ones we ever saw. There was an extremely limited second wave that included two background aliens from a forgettable first-season episode, a Ferengi, and Q in his Queen Amidala makeup, but they were impossible to find. There was also a die-cast Enterprise with detachable saucer section that was very nice and widely available, but the only two vehicles released for the action figures were a Starfleet shuttle and an apocryphal Ferengi Fighter. (This great article on Trekcore has pictures and background info on them) I don’t know how widely-available they were, but I never saw them in any of the stores in my area and to this day I’ve never seen one in person. By the time that Star Trek: The Next Generation started to get good in its third season, the Galoob toy line was dead.

So what happened? Sure, you can point to problems with the toys themselves (making the figures unable to hold accessories by having a phaser molded into one hand and the other molded into a closed fist was a problem) the utter lack of marketing the line received (there were, as far as I know, absolutely no TV commercials or magazine advertisements for it) or the fact that some of its’ best items were either very rare or never went into production at all:

galoob_bridge_playset

This Enterprise bridge playset appeared in a dealer’s catalog, but was never produced. (Image from the forums on megocollector.com)

But there was another, more basic reason for the failure of the Star Trek toys of the 1980s. If you look at the successful toy lines from that period, like Star Wars, Transformers, G.I. JOE, or He-Man, they have one thing in common: they’re centered on a narrative of “hero” and “villain” characters locked in a never-ending battle. Star Trek was always more complex than that, even in the Original Series days where Captain Kirk got into at least one hilariously choreographed fight per episode. Even the really great Star Trek productions of the ‘80s like The Wrath of Khan or The Voyage Home just don’t easily fit into the “good guys shooting at bad guys” format that made for good toys aimed 5-to-10-year-old boys.

Also, Star Trek: The Next Generation was simply not a very good show for its first two seasons. Gene Roddenberry was adamant that it reflect his utopian 24th century ideals, so there would be little or none of the crowd-pleasing action (fistfights, etc.) that shows like Knight Rider or The A-Team featured. Just to be clear, I think Roddenberry’s aversion to violence-as-entertainment was laudable. But it didn’t help that the show was often a talky, preachy bore with cringe-inducing dialogue and flimsy plots. One can imagine how thrilled the people at Galoob were to get the Star Trek license, as well as their growing horror as the show’s disastrous first season unfolded. I think the only thing that saved the show from cancellation those first two years was that the cancellation of the Original Series had come to be seen as perhaps the greatest blunder in television history and no executive wanted to be seen making it a second time.

Having missed out on the 1980s action figure boom, Star Trek would have to wait until the 1990s to have a successful line of toys. But why did the Playmates line of the ‘90s succeed where the Mego and Galoob lines of the ‘80s failed? Timing had something to do with it, since the Playmates line came at a time when Star Trek was experiencing unprecedented mainstream popularity. But I think the collecting craze of the 1990s was the main reason. Before the ‘90s, toys were simply children's’ playthings. But when the public noticed that old baseball cards, comic books, and other items aimed at children were worth thousands of dollars, there was a run on modern-day collectibles with the expectation that they, too, would be valuable in the future. Of course this didn’t pan out, since the reason a Babe Ruth baseball card or a copy of Action Comics #1 is so valuable is because it’s exceedingly rare and the comic books, sports cards, and action figures produced in the 90s are not.

In the end, I guess Star Trek and Star Wars are something of a trade-off. Star Wars inspires better toys that people in my age group have fond childhood memories of. But Star Trek has inspired people to become scientists, engineers, and doctors. This didn’t necessarily make for good action figures, but I think it’s a tradeoff that most people associated with Star Trek’s various incarnations are glad to have made.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Star Trek Into Darkness Complaint Absurdity

Star Trek Into Darkness co-writer Bob Orci made headlines when he blew up at some fans in the comments section of an article at Trekcore.com a while back. Now, his temper tantrum was mighty immature, and he later apologized so I think he realized that. But I can kind of understand where he was coming from. Even though Star Trek Into Darkness got generally good reviews and made some good money at the box office, it’s been unrelentingly criticized by the fans. The criticism about the film’s story, its plot points, and the motivations of the characters is entirely valid.
But a lot of the criticism I’ve seen has nothing to do with those things, and comes across as overly nitpicky and mean-spirited. And in a lot of cases, these are things that have happened in previous Star Trek productions and the fans have been totally okay with them. We saw this three years ago when the first film came out, and I wrote an article in which I applied a similar standard of nitpicking to a classic Star Trek episode that a lot of old-school Trekkers enjoy. But this time, the complaints seem even louder and less rational. Let’s take a look at some of the silliest ones:
1. The Uniforms
uniforms
A common criticism is that the gray “Class A” uniforms we see the characters wearing in scenes at Starfleet Headquarters look like Nazi uniforms. Why, exactly? Because they’re gray? That doesn’t make any sense. Maybe it’s the hat. “It makes Starfleet look too militaristic!” people complain. “We’ve never seen anything like that on Star Trek before!” Ahem:
pikeshat
Yeah, what’s that thing on top of the TV in Captain Pike’s quarters from Star Trek’s first pilot episode? Why, it’s a military hat a lot like the ones we see members of Starfleet wearing in the J.J. Abrams films! I’ll admit, the first time I saw members of Starfleet wearing contemporary-looking military headgear it was a little jarring. But I respect the choice he and his team made.
I really like how Star Trek Into Darkness shows the characters wearing different types of uniforms in different settings, just like people in the real military. With the exception of Star Trek: The Motion Picture-the only Trek production to receive a proper theatrical budget before the Abrams films-we haven’t seen that from Star Trek because the money was never there for it. Heck, for the first Next Generation film the costume department was forced to clothe some of the principal actors in uniforms borrowed from Deep Space Nine! (Fact: Only Patrick Stewart and Brent Spiner got new uniforms made for them. The other five members of the TNG cast wore leftover uniforms from the TV show or DS9 hand-me-downs)
As for the “they’re too militaristic” argument-that’s exactly the same thing that fans who didn’t like The Wrath of Khan said about the red “Mountie uniforms” that debuted in that film. The reason not many people remember that is because there was no Internet in 1982 to amplify the complaints of disaffected fans. But as silly as that complaint is, it pales in comparison with the second one I’ve been hearing:
2. The Warp Speed Is Too Fast
warp_2
Another criticism I’ve heard is that it takes the Enterprise way too short a time to warp from Earth to the edge of the Klingon Neutral Zone and back. On the surface, this may seem to be a valid point. Space is, after all, vast-with astronomical distances between solar systems. Even if you had a magic technology that allows you to break the laws of physics and exceed the speed of light, there’s still no way you could travel several hundred light years so quickly, right? Sure, except for the fact that Star Trek has done this dozens, if not hundreds of times. Even though the franchise’s various writers have wrapped warp drive in a thick layer of technobabble to make it seem more real, it’s not. It’s pretend. Regardless of whatever warp speed charts the authors of various Star Trek technical manuals have made, the fact is that warp speed is as fast or as slow as the writers need it to be to service the plot. Always has been. Arguments about the “actual” capabilities of pretend technology are stupid. The way I see it, you’re only allowed to complain about the unrealistic warp speeds in this movie if you also complain about all the other times Star Trek has done this. The next common complaint is somewhat similar:
3. Magical Long-Range Transporters Supposedly Make Spaceships Unnecessary
transporter
In J.J. Abrams’ first Star Trek film, Old Spock gives Scotty a magic formula that gives the transporter practically unlimited range, and in the new film Khan uses it to beam from Earth all the way to the Klingon homeworld. This is a serious departure from the way the technology has been depicted in previous incarnations of the franchise. And I’ve heard the argument that it completely ruins Star Trek by making spaceships totally unnecessary. But that argument’s really a spurious one. After all, a starship isn’t just a mode of transportation. It’s also a mobile sensor platform that allows you to investigate a new planet before sending a landing party to it. And nothing we see in either movie indicates that it’s feasible to beam more than two or three people via this long-range method. In the end, the transporter is just like warp drive: an imaginary technology that can do whatever Star Trek’s writers want it to. And in the same vein:
4. Khan’s Magical Super Blood Is A Cure For Death
tribble
This is the one I understand the most. You see, Khan is supposed to be genetically engineered superman from the 1990s. In the Original Series, that just meant that he was stronger and smarter than the average guy. But in Star Trek Into Darkness, he’s apparently from the planet Krypton. And his blood can magically cure the sick and bring dead tribbles (or Captain Kirks) back to life. It’s a ridiculous plot device. But it’s not the first time that Star Trek has introduced some insanely powerful new technology and then promptly forgotten about it or ignored its implications.
For example, in the fifth Star Trek episode ever, “The Naked Time”, Spock and Scotty accidently discover some kind of magical new matter/antimatter mixture that allows the Enterprise to travel back in time. This is never mentioned again. Later on, they discover (again by accident) that they can also travel both backward and forward through time by doing a slingshot maneuver around a star. And in the movie Star Trek: First Contact, they discover a third way to easily travel in time by doing some technobabble with something called “chronometric particles”. Really, this should have taken all the drama out of Star Trek forever, because when anything bad happens they can just go back and time and stop it. But of course they never do that. Instead, they seem to forget about this capability unless the writers want to do a time travel story. And yes, I know that Voyager introduced something called the “Temporal Prime Directive” that was like a rule saying they weren’t allowed to go back in time and mess stuff up without a good reason, but Star Trek had been around for 30 years by then so it was really too late to plug that particular plot hole.
And what about this: in the second season Next Generation episode entitled “Elementary, Dear Data”, it was established that they could easily use the computer to create a sentient life form on the holodeck. That’s right-they gave the 24th century equivalent of the iMac the ability to create life. And on the Voyager episode “Author, Author”, they even showed that the enlightened, democratic Federation was using a bunch of these sentient holograms as slave laborers. And yet the implications of that were never explored or even really acknowledged. We were supposed to continue to think of the Federation as the good guys, even though they used their magical life-creating technology to make slaves.
Now, I’m sure that the implications of some of these things I’ve mentioned were touched upon in the novels, but I don’t really care, since the novels have never been considered part of the “official” Star Trek universe and they contradict each other all the time.
Anyway, that completes my list of some of the unwarranted criticisms that I’ve seen people make about Star Trek Into Darkness just so they could make themselves look smarter by complaining about something on the Internet. Again, I totally agree with all the criticisms about the film’s plot and the actions and motivations of the characters. But criticizing the film for indulging in the kind of illogic that Star Trek has always engaged in to some degree is a little disingenuous.

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Point From Which You Work Backward

Five years ago today, I started this blog with two posts on the state of EPCOT. I don’t mean to toot my own horn, since I’ve never represented my work here as good, merely as a thing I do because it’s fun. But writing it has turned me on to the bigger Disney fan community and its feuding factions, and it’s led to my joining Twitter and getting to know some fantastic people there. I even got to ruin an episode of WEDway NOW!

Also, I’d be seriously remiss if I failed to acknowledge my main inspirations for starting this blog in the first place: EPCOT Central, Passport to Dreams Old and New, and Progress City U.S.A. All three of these blogs are vastly superior to this one, and your time would be much better spent reading them. But now: today’s topic.

I am by no means an Apple “fanboy” or a worshipper of Steve Jobs. But he said something once that I think really nails why the “old” Walt Disney Company that produced things like EPCOT Center and the Walt Disney World resort is nothing like today’s Walt Disney Company that has spent the last decade-and-a-half ruining those things. “You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology” Jobs said shortly after his return to Apple in 1997. Obviously, he was not talking about the theme park industry when he said this, he was talking about the tech industry. But the principle is sound.

Think back to the birth of the online music store in the early 2000s. Starting in the late 90s, people would use file sharing networks like Napster or Kazaa to download music files and then burn them to CDs. (Kids, ask your parents) Now, the legality of this was rather questionable, and the truth was that most people welcomed a safe, easy, and legal option to buy music on the Internet. But when the recording industry first entered the online music business, that’s not how they approached it. First, they looked at the money that ISPs were making from monthly subscriptions and decided they wanted a piece of that, so their new services would be subscription based. Cancel your subscription, and the music you’ve paid for goes away. Next, they decided that they’d like to be able to make money on the various things people liked to do with their music, like burning it to CDs. So a fee was attached to that, too. The resulting services like Pressplay and MusicNet were utterly terrible. It was ridiculously obvious that the record companies started with how much money they wanted to make and worked backwards from that. A good customer experience was not important. Then in 2003, Apple came along with the iTunes store that made it easy to find the music you wanted and download it a reasonable price without a monthly subscription or extra fees. Five years later it was the biggest music retailer in the United States, and two years after that it became the biggest music retailer in the world. Clearly, working backward from the customer experience was the best way to go here.

Now let’s talk about Disney’s MyMagic+ program. I’ve talked in the past about why it’s bad for Disney’s customers. But why does it even exist? Is it because Disney’s theme park people identified some new experience they wanted to bring to customers and then worked backward to come up with a system to do that? In interviews, Disney’s executives always talk about how it’s going to enhance their revenues. They never mention any benefits that their customers will see from the system, except for the times when they confuse more personalized marketing with something that customers want. MyMagic+ is just another Pressplay/MusicNet fiasco waiting to happen. The only reason it may be more successful is that, whereas music lovers in the early 2000s could always just buy CDs, use online file-sharing services, or eventually the iTunes store, there are no other distribution channels for Disney theme park attractions. Anyone who wants to visit Disney World will have to submit themselves to MyMagic+. And since Disney has such a massive reservoir of cultural goodwill it’s built up over the decades, many customers may not even realize how much they’re being fleeced. I just wish Disney would remember where that massive amount of goodwill they enjoy came from.

For years, Disney used technology to delight and benefit their customers. Audio-Animatronics combined with ingenious projection, lighting, and other physical effects gave people experiences they couldn’t get anywhere else-experiences they were happy to pay for. When the company embarked on the construction of EPCOT Center, they used the two-and-a-half decades of experience they’d accumulated in the theme park business to make it the most crowd-friendly park ever. Spacious walkways and quick-loading, “people-eating” attractions kept crowding and long lines to a minimum. By the mid-90s Disney’s parks and resorts business was extremely popular and profitable, too.

But in the last decade or so Disney’s theme park innovations have had nothing to do with improving the customer experience. FastPass, the Dining Plan, and now MyMagic+ all serve to make it more difficult to experience attractions or eat in restaurants while providing nice “revenue enhancements” for Disney. Meanwhile, down the road Universal Studios is adding innovative new attractions left and right, and people are flocking to their parks like never before. Generally speaking, when Company A competes by offering a good experience while Company B merely tries to make more money through complicated revenue-generating schemes, Company A wins.

What will the final outcome of MyMagic+ be? There’s no way to know now, and any answer is likely years in the future. But I continue to wish that Disney will one day rediscover the philosophy of starting with the customer experience and working backward.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Coulson Resurrection Misdirect

So I saw the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. premiere the other night, and this is probably the only thing I will ever write about the show. Not because I didn’t enjoy it, on the contrary it’s a lot of fun. It’s just that this isn’t really a TV/pop culture blog. However, I really wanted to touch on a very common “writer’s trick” that the folks behind Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. pulled, seemingly without a lot of the Internet realizing what they did. And yes, I should probably warn you that the following contains mild spoilers for the show, but honestly if you’re trying to avoid spoilers for a highly-anticipated piece of entertainment that’s premiered already, then you should probably just stay off the Internet.

The big question surrounding the show is how come Agent Coulson is in it, when the character was clearly killed off in that little movie you may have heard of if you were living on planet Earth at any point during 2012. Early in the show, Coulson explains that Loki didn’t stab him hard enough to kill him, and he got medical help in time, and then he took a vacation in Tahiti. But once Coulson leaves the room two other characters have a conversation in which it’s made clear that the Tahiti vacation was just a fiction, and Coulson “can never know” whatever the truth is. This moment is specifically designed to make you think that the show’s writers are keeping a secret, and you must continue to watch the show to find out what it is. And I guess I can understand why you’d fall for it.

If you’re twelve years old.

Everyone else should have a good enough sense of pattern recognition to recognize when the writers of a show are just trying to get us to keep tuning in. Remember Star Wars? When the original trilogy was being made, George Lucas would talk like there was some kind of big overarching story that he’d made up in advance, when in fact he was pretty much making things up as he went along. Or what about Ron Moore’s Battlestar Galactica from the 2000s? That show had all kind of mysteries from the very beginning, like the nature of Baltar’s “Head Six” or the meaning of the Opera House dream. And everyone was just sure that the show’s writers had all of this stuff figured out in advance, only to discover that they really didn’t, and they’d set it all up with no idea how they were going to pay it off. I never watched Lost, but I understand its creators did basically the same thing.

I’m not telling you not to watch Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Just know that the reason Coulson is alive is because the powers that be needed someone from the Marvel cinematic universe to be a regular in the show, and Clark Gregg is easier to get than Samuel L. Jackson. Enjoy the show, but don’t scrutinize every episode for clues on the secret of Coulson’s resurrection, because there aren’t any.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Star Trek Movie Ranking

At a recent Star Trek convention in Las Vegas-which was held during the same weekend as the D23 Expo-the crowd was polled about their favorite Star Trek films, and the result was the films being ranked in the following order:

STfilmrank

Obviously this ranking of the films is totally incorrect, meaning that I have a different opinion. Also, what the heck is Galaxy Quest doing there? It’s a fun movie, sure, but it’s not a Star Trek film any more than Spaceballs is a Star Wars film. Anyway, here is my listing of the Star Trek films, ranked from worst to best. All films are ranked solely on the basis of how much I enjoy them, and nothing else. Your mileage may vary. Let’s begin:

12. Star Trek: Nemesis. Nemesis is a terrible movie that fails on pretty much every level. Check out the Plinkett review if you’d like a detailed breakdown of all the film’s problems, but here are the most outstanding ones: a horrible script that tries to trick you into thinking it has a complex mystery plot when it’s really just a cynical rehash of The Wrath of Khan, a tired “nature-versus-nuture” message that’s only profound if you’re age 12 or younger, and production values that are more suited to a SyFy original movie than a major motion picture.

11. Star Trek: Insurrection. A bland, forgettable excuse for a film. The only reason it exists is because it had been two years since the last one, and at the time two years was the prescribed interval between Star Trek movies. Insurrection tries to be too many different things, and it fails at all of them. It wants to be an action movie like First Contact, and fails because its company of middle-aged TV actors are not convincing action stars. It wants to be a romantic comedy, but the humor is forced and unfunny and the romance between Picard and Anij isn’t believable. And it also wants to be a Classic Star Trek Morality Play, but it fails at that too because the moral is stupid: the 600 attractive Space Amish who aren’t native to the planet should get to hoard its Fountain-of-Youth powers for themselves for what reason exactly? In the end, the only good thing you can say about Insurrection is that it’s not quite as bad as Nemesis.

10. Star Trek: Generations. Generations is a textbook case of what happens when there are too many cooks in the kitchen. Paramount wanted the film-which was supposed to reboot the film franchise with the Next Generation cast-to include some cast members from the Original Series. Originally it was supposed to be all of them, but when that proved impossible it was whittled down to William Shatner and whoever else was available and didn’t want too much money. Picard and Kirk were supposed to meet somehow, but without time travel. Also, Patrick Stewart wanted an emotional storyline for Captain Picard. And William Shatner wanted to be able to ride his horse. The producers wanted Data in a central role since he was the Next Generation’s most popular character. And of course there had to be action and space battles. Oh, and all of this had to happen on about half the budget that a normal blockbuster tentpole film would get, because Paramount was kind of cheap when it came to Star Trek. Brannon Braga and Ronald D. Moore-who had only written for television before this-put all these required elements into a blender and the result was a movie where the climax is three elderly dudes having a fistfight on top of a mountain. The one positive thing I’ll say is that the saucer crash sequence-which was one of the last big movie effects sequences to be accomplished without CGI-still looks pretty impressive after all these years.

9. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. A trifecta of unfortunate events conspired to make Star Trek V a stinker: a writers’ strike, the fact that Industrial Light and Magic’s “A-team” was working on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Paramount was unwilling to pay big bucks for ILM’s “B-team”, and the choice of William Shatner to direct. Shatner was fixated on a story where the Enterprise crew sets out to physically locate God. Producer Harve Bennett and co-star Leonard Nimoy tried to get him to reconsider, but Shatner was irrationally confident in his ability to make the concept work. Even worse, somebody (probably the studio, but I’m not sure) wanted the movie to feature the same kind of humor that worked so well in the previous film. Unfortunately, under Shatner’s direction the humor was mostly embarrassing slapstick that reduced the supporting characters to cartoon versions of themselves. With an experienced director, a more polished script, and better special effects, the movie might have been good. As it is, there are some nice moments, but not near enough to save it.

8. Star Trek: First Contact. I know what you’re thinking: how could I rate this one so low? First Contact is widely regarded as the best of the Next Generation films. I’ll admit that I loved First Contact when I first saw it. At the time it was a breath of fresh air for the franchise: reimagined Borg! Action hero Picard, armed with a big ol’ phaser rifle and an attitude! A new Enterprise designed for interstellar butt-kicking! Unfortunately, none of this makes up for the fact that the plot doesn’t make any sense and ruins the Borg, perhaps the most unique adversary we ever saw on Star Trek.

As originally conceived, the Borg were an impersonal horde of cyborg “space locusts”. Their only goal was the single-minded consumption of technology. (For their second appearance, it was decided that they also wanted to assimilate people) But it’s kind of hard for Captain Picard to have a verbal confrontation with an impersonal foe, and it must have been written into Patrick Stewart’s contract that every film had to have a scene with him verbally confronting the villain. And so the Borg Queen was created. As a concept, it was kind of cool-a physical manifestation of the Borg hive mind. Unfortunately, it also gave the Borg an Evil Leader. Instead of an impersonal, cybernetic locust swarm, the Borg were turned into a bunch of stormtrooper-like henchmen commanded by an Evil Overlord who brought about her own downfall by making all the stupid Evil Overlord mistakes.

First Contact’s B-plot, about Zefram Cochrane building his warp ship, is even worse. The movie asks us to believe that some guy living in a remote village in Montana in the aftermath of a nuclear war is able to build a warp-capable rocket ship out of spare parts. Not even Tony Stark could do that!

And just to strain the audience’s credulity even more, we’re asked to believe that these people who have been through a nuclear war and are still distrustful of each other and divided by deep-seated issues that go back centuries if not millennia, are suddenly inspired to join hands and sing Kumbayah by a UFO landing, then invite the aliens from the UFO to the local honky-tonk to have a beer with them. Do I even have to make fun of this?

All in all, Star Trek: First Contact may have accomplished what it set out to do in 1996, but I believe it’s aged worse than any of the “good” films in the franchise.

7. Star Trek Into Darkness. The most recent entry in the Star Trek film franchise is a fun and exciting ride. Unfortunately, like Star Trek: Nemesis it rips off The Wrath of Khan, albeit a bit more capably. But what really eats at me is how obviously unqualified Kirk is for his job. Prime Universe Kirk was always keenly aware of his responsibility for the lives of his crew. But JJ-verse Kirk doesn’t figure that out until about two seconds before his bad decision-making is about to get his crew killed by Admiral Robocop and his Big Bad Spaceship of Cartoonishly Obvious Villainy. This is clearly something that scriptwriters Robert Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof didn’t think about and would prefer the audience not think about, either. Still, setting that to one side (and it’s not easy!) I do like how this is the first Star Trek film since 1991 to even attempt some relevant social commentary. Also, the film is very well-acted, and all the actors give very enjoyable performances.

6. Star Trek (2009). For the first time since 1979, Star Trek got an actual movie-sized budget. And for the first time ever, the big-screen starship Enterprise was not crewed by middle-aged television actors. The result was a fun, fast-moving film that made Star Trek relevant again. What makes the success of this film even more remarkable was how similar it was to the previous film, Nemesis, which is the standard by which Star Trek movie badness is judged. Like Nemesis, it features a bald, irrationally angry Romulan-oriented person in a Big Evil Spaceship of Doom who plans to use his implausible superweapon to destroy the planet Earth to satisfy his vendetta against a member of the Enterprise crew. And although Nero’s reasons for wanting to destroy Earth make no more sense than Shinzon’s, J.J. Abrams Star Trek is still many orders of magnitude more entertaining. It’s just a well-executed film. The actors really shine in their roles; Zachary Quinto is especially good as Spock, and Chris Pine manages to make you root for Kirk even though he spends most of the movie behaving like an arrogant frat boy.

Unfortunately, the nonsensical decision to “award” Kirk with command of the Enterprise at the end of the movie despite the fact that he’s only just graduated from the Academy makes it very hard for you to suspend your disbelief. It’s bad enough that the film seems totally ignorant of the distances between things in the solar system (the Enterprise needing to “hide” behind one of Saturn’s moons to avoid being seen by Nero’s ship in Earth orbit reflects a level of scientific ignorance I haven’t seen since the old Lost In Space) but it kills me that it’s also ignorant of how real human organizations work, too.

5. Star Trek: The Motion Picture. I know everyone says this movie is boring, and they’re not altogether wrong. But The Motion Picture is by no means a bad film. It’s really amazing that it turned out as well as it did considering its troubled production history. It handles the characters very well; Kirk takes a while to get his groove back after being stuck behind a desk for two years and Spock has a great arc where he’s forced to admit that logic alone is not enough. Sure, the film focuses on Decker and Ilia to the exclusion of series regulars like Scotty, Uhura, or Sulu, but wasn’t the Original Series always doing the same thing? The big-screen Enterprise has never looked better than it did in this movie, and the ship’s interiors were thoughtfully designed by people who were honestly trying to depict what a futuristic deep-space exploratory vessel would really be like. Even the much-ridiculed “disco pajama” uniforms are thoughtful projections of what 23rd century astronauts might actually wear. The Motion Picture may not have as much heart as I’d like, but it certainly has a brain.

4. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. One of the very best. Director Nicholas Meyer (who also co-wrote the script) delivered a taut political thriller that expertly drew on current events of the time-the breakup of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. Even better, he did it on a ridiculously tight schedule and an even tighter budget. Composer Cliff Eidelman’s score has a cool “eastern-bloc” sound that’s never really been heard on Star Trek before or since. Other things I like about the film: Admiral Cartwright, a character introduced in Star Trek IV, appears again in a nice bit of continuity then turns out to be one of the bad guys. Also, the behind-the-scenes folks did a excellent job redressing the sets to give the Enterprise a great submarine vibe. It’s unfortunate they didn’t get more time and money to more fully redress the sets they had to share with The Next Generation, most notably Engineering, but they did a fantastic job with what they had. Christopher Plummer is a wonderfully theatrical villain, Michael Dorn has a nice turn as Worf’s grandfather, and Kurtwood Smith does a good job as the Federation President. It’s a shame they couldn’t get Kirstie Alley to reprise the role of Saavik, as her betrayal would’ve packed more punch than that of brand-new character Valeris.

3. Star Trek III: The Search For Spock. Again, I’m ranking the films here based solely on how much I enjoy them. And since my favorite Star Trek films are the “Spock trilogy”, this film is in the right spot on the list. The Search For Spock is often tagged as a “bad” film by people who buy into the notion that only the even-numbered films are any good, but before Internet fandom started telling everyone how to think Star Trek III was pretty well-regarded. And why not? Sure, it’s not as good as Star Trek II, but that’s no reason to dislike it. It deals very well with the aftermath of Spock’s death in the previous film and I really love the story of our family of characters coming together and sacrificing their careers to save their friend. The Search for Spock also holds a special place in my heart as the first Star Trek film I ever saw. Christopher Lloyd does a fine job as the Klingon villain Kruge and Mark Lenard has a nice turn as Spock’s father Sarek, a role he originated on the TV series.

2. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. What? How could I not rank this one number one? The Wrath of Khan is the best Star Trek ever! Have I lost my mind? Not at all. I really love The Wrath of Khan, but I enjoy the number one film on this list just a teeny bit more. And so, my number one favorite Star Trek movie is:

1. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. This is a fun movie, pure and simple. All the characters get something interesting to do (well, Uhura gets the short end of the stick there, but it’s hard to juggle seven main characters and one guest star in a two-hour film) the humor is genuinely funny and not at all forced, and we get to spend some time in every EPCOT Center fan’s favorite decade, the 1980s! Interestingly, The Voyage Home came out in 1986, the same year that The Living Seas pavilion opened, a nice piece of totally unintended Star Trek-EPCOT Center synergy. Walking around SeaBase Alpha, it was easy to imagine it as the futuristic undersea research lab where Dr. Gillian Taylor and her new 23rd century colleagues were studying George and Gracie.

Well, there you have it: my personal list of the Star Trek films, from worst to best.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Pixie Dust Detoxification Effect

A warning: A lot of what I’m about to say will in this post come across as uncharacteristically blunt. I’m not one of those people who goes around telling anyone with a different opinion than me that I’m right and they’re wrong. In fact, I usually edit myself pretty strongly to avoid seeming hypercritical or not respectful enough of someone else’s opinions. So if anything I’ve written here makes you a little hot under the collar, please remember that I’ve made every effort to be reasonable, I don’t like arguments, online or otherwise, and in the end, I’m just some guy on the Internet. I’m not real.

So let’s dive right in.

If you’re reading this I’m going to assume you’re familiar with the basics of MyMagic+ by now. If not there’s a pretty good breakdown here, although it does have an unreasonably positive spin in my opinion. I don’t like MyMagic+, and I think that anyone who looks at what it’s supposed to do and says that it makes the Disney World experience “better for everyone” is either a liar or a fool. I usually try to make more nuanced statements than that, but this not one of those things that’s just a matter of opinion. With MyMagic+, Disney is instituting a program that’s good for them and bad for their customers. There’s no way to completely opt out of the program since all ticket media will be RFID-enabled (more on that later) and those who choose not to use features like FastPass+ will have a much worse experience in the parks than those who do. These are facts. Not opinions. Facts. Let me break it down for you:

FASTPASS+

The current FastPass system will completely go away and be replaced by FastPass+. FastPass+ will encompass all attractions, not just the most popular ones, and will also include things like special parade and fireworks viewing areas and selected character meet-and-greets. All customers will get 3 FastPasses per day to be used at one park only. Also, all FastPasses must be scheduled in advance via the MyMagic+ mobile app or the My Disney Experience website. There will be little, if any provision for same-day FastPass availability. None of what I’ve just said is opinion or speculation, it’s all been confirmed by Disney. After reading that you can probably tell why FastPass+ is such bad deal for Walt Disney World visitors, but just in case you’re scratching your head and saying “That doesn’t sound bad at all!” let me explain why you’re wrong:

1. You will have to plan your entire vacation almost down to the minute. The complexity of a Disney World vacation had already reached the upper limit of what I was prepared to tolerate. Thanks to the Dining Plan, you have to make dining reservations months in advance unless you want to eat fast food your whole trip. Then, when you arrive at the park, you have to make sure the return times for any FastPasses you get don’t conflict with your restaurant reservations. It’s a hassle.

But now with MyMagic+, you’ll have to plan all this stuff out in advance. Instead of just saying “I think we’ll go to EPCOT on Tuesday”, you have to plan exactly what everyone in your party will do in EPCOT on Tuesday. You have to make sure that none of their FastPass return windows conflict with the lunch reservation you made for the family at Biergarten or your dinner reservation at Garden Grille. And what if your son Justin used his three FastPasses on Soarin’, Test Track, and Mission:Space and now he has no FastPasses left to get into the Illuminations viewing area with the rest of the family? Sure, he can go into the app and change it, but what if he doesn’t want to? Now you’ve got an argument on your hands, which distracts you from the spreadsheet you’re building to keep track of where everyone will be in the park at what time to make sure they don’t miss your meal reservations. And all that’s just for one day! Multiply it by a four day vacation and you can see what a gigantic pain in the butt this is going to be.

But wait! There’s more! You know how if you want to eat at an extremely popular restaurant like Le Cellier or Be Our Guest you have to make your reservation at literally the earliest possible second or you won’t get one at all? (Let’s suspend our disbelief here for a moment and pretend there’s a high demand for these restaurants because they serve genuinely excellent food, not because they’ve been unreasonably hyped by bloggers who are just trying to show off how totally part of the “knowledgeable Disney insider” crowd they are.) Now FastPasses are going to work the same way! If you don’t book your FastPasses for Soarin’, Toy Story Midway Mania, Space Mountain, or whatever insanely popular attraction you care to name at the earliest possible moment, you may not get one. And if you do, it could be at a ridiculously inconvenient time. Ask yourself how many average, non-theme-park-savvy people are going to realize this? How many of them will forget to book FastPasses altogether, or wait until the week before their trip?  I’d say the appropriate metaphor for those folks involves a river of excrement and a Native American water vessel without any means of propulsion. But, even if you’re the biggest Disney nerd there is and know exactly how to work the MyMagic system, you still won’t be able to avoid . . .

2. Longer wait times for everything. The current FastPass system doesn’t actually make wait times shorter. What it does is grotesquely inflate the wait time for standby riders while FastPass riders wait about as long as they would if there were no such thing as FastPass. This means that for highly popular but slow-loading attractions like Peter Pan’s Flight or Soarin’, the standby line is so long that it basically isn’t worth it to ride them without a FastPass. Of course, there’s a way around this: simply ride these attractions first thing after rope drop, before FastPass return times kick in. Also, it’s worth noting that attractions that load quickly, like the PeopleMover or Pirates of the Caribbean, don’t use FastPass, and their original loading procedure remains highly efficient.

But now this is all going to change. Since every attraction will have FastPass+, standby wait times for every attraction will be drastically inflated. And since you only get three FastPasses per day, you will end up waiting in some of those lines if you want to visit more than three attractions. Since FastPasses will be entirely reserved in advance, there won’t be a “window” at the beginning of the day where you can hop in the Standby line for a popular attraction and progress quickly through it without being held up by the FastPass process. The fact that wait times will increase is something even Disney acknowledges. Why else would they be installing interactive games in so many standby queues? Because they love their customers and want them to be happy? Or because of the need to placate customers who are going to be spending a lot more time standing in basically stationary standby lines once MyMagic+ is fully up and running?

3. Less flexibility. One thing Disney representatives always say when talking about MyMagic+ is that it’s all about giving their customers more choices, more options, more freedom to personalize their vacation. This is a completely and utterly false lie. It’s the same kind of thing that AT&T or Verizon says whenever they introduce some complicated new rate plan designed to squeeze more money from their customers but not improve their service in any way. What is really more likely, that a huge corporation like Disney or AT&T loves its customers so much that it wants to spend a huge amount of money developing a system to make their lives easier, then add it to the service it already provides at no additional cost? Or that they’ve found a way to enhance their revenue in a way that worsens their customers’ experience, and they’re just marketing it as in improvement?

FastPass+ will restrict you to one park per day. This is by design. Its stated goal, as outlined in company documents that have leaked online and/or message board postings from people with a proven track record for providing reliable inside information, is to solve the problem of outsized crowds at the Magic Kingdom (and EPCOT, to a much lesser extent) in the late afternoon and evening due to people park-hopping there after spending the first part of the day at Hollywood Studios or Animal Kingdom. What Disney would like is for people who started their day at Hollywood Studios to remain there, and presumably for people who started their day at Animal Kingdom to go back to their hotel room and sit on their hands, since that park closes at like 5 o’clock in the afternoon.

Now, to any sane person the answer to the question of how to get people to stay longer at Hollywood Studios, Animal Kingdom, or even EPCOT is obvious: add more attractions and entertainment to those parks that people will want to experience. After all, it worked pretty well in Anaheim with the California Adventure overhaul. But Disney is not in the theme park business just so it can do what people want, even if those people happen to be paying customers. No, the approach Disney is taking here is to herd people where it wants them to go, not where they are naturally inclined to be. The executives are very happy about this “crowd management” feature of MyMagic+, because they imagine that it will spread crowds more evenly throughout the four theme parks and alleviate the need to spend the money to add new attractions. Because we all know that the Orlando management team would rather get a colonoscopy from Captain Hook than spend the money to add new attractions.

Now maybe after reading all this, you’re like “Dave, I totally agree that FastPass+ is going to be a giant hassle. I just won’t use it! I’ll opt out!” Well, good for you. But since the current FastPass system will go away, and FastPass+ will dramatically increase the wait times at every single ride on property, you’ll be waiting in a lot of hideously long, barely-moving standby lines. But you will have paid as much to get into the park as everyone else.

So that’s it. I’ve spent over 1,250 words talking about just one aspect of MyMagic+ and why it’s so bad for everyone who’s not a Disney executive. And I didn’t even get into the fact that another exciting feature of this technology is that Disney will be able to track you all over the property and develop a complete picture of your park touring, dining, and spending habits for every minute of your stay. That’s something that freaks a lot of people out, and if it doesn’t at least worry you you’re incredibly naïve.

Still, so as not to be accused of being too one-sided in my opinions I really do need to mention one positive aspect of MyMagic+: its convenience. Instead of having to fish a ticket out of your pocket and feed it into a little slot while pressing your finger against a biometric scanner to enter the park, you just swipe your MagicBand against an RFID reader. Instead of having to pull a card out of your wallet to pay for something, you just swipe your MagicBand against an RFID reader. And instead of having to insert your park ticket into a FastPass machine to receive a FastPass, then present that FastPass to the Cast Member at the front of the FastPass queue, you just swipe your MagicBand against an RFID reader. Is it convenient? Sure. You’ll save seconds of valuable time. But balance that against the increased time you’ll spend waiting in line and maybe you’ll see why I’m not enthused.

But perhaps I’m getting all upset over nothing. Because Disney has been doing a lot of tests of the MyMagic system over the past few weeks, and they’ve gone great except for the fact that the system doesn’t work and the frontline Cast Members are obviously not trained to deal with any of the problems it has. Here’s a nice first-person account from one of the MyMagic test subjects. Here’s another one. What worries me most is that Disney management is going to respond to the negative feedback from their customers and the front line Cast Members like this:

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. . . and decide to push ahead with full implementation of the system anyway even though it clearly does not work. And if you seriously think that Disney’s executives are not out-of-touch enough to do something like this, then I have a tropical island in North Dakota I’d like to sell you.

As I said at the outset, I am not usually this blunt. But the fact of the matter is that anyone who says that MyMagic+ is really going to be a great thing for Disney’s customers fits into one of three categories:

  1. Extremely naïve people who view the world through rose-colored glasses and won’t consider the possibility that Disney is just like every other corporation because that would “spoil the magic.”
  2. People who work for Disney and are being paid to lie about how wonderful MyMagic+ is.
  3. Bloggers, podcasters, or website owners who don’t dare to say anything negative about any of Disney’s ventures lest they upset their friends in Disney’s social media arm who provide them with freebies and access to make them feel special, or aspiring bloggers, podcasters, or website owners who are trying to get in good with Disney’s social media arm to obtain the aforementioned freebies and access.

The first category of person is just clueless, maybe even mentally ill, and I don’t dislike those folks but I do feel sorry for them. But the other two groups of people will deliberately steer you wrong just to satisfy their own selfish agenda, an agenda that may be as trivial as hoping Disney will notice them and treat them like a “preferred” blogger. And I have nothing but contempt for those people.

If you’ve made it all the way through this extremely dense wall of text, you deserve a prize. Unfortunately, I don’t have any, because this isn’t one of those blogs with sponsors and stuff. But, maybe you’re wondering “What does all of this have to do with the title of this post? And why do you feel so strongly about it?”

Well, I’ve had a lifelong love for Walt Disney World. It used to be full of awesome stuff that I loved. Some of that stuff is gone now, but there’s still plenty there. And I’m very much a creature of habit. Once I find something I like and am comfortable with, be it a burger joint, a brand of sneakers, or a certain cartoon mouse-themed vacation compound, I stick with it and it takes a lot to un-stick me. But over the past decade or so I’ve watched Disney World get progressively more expensive and more complicated to navigate without necessarily getting any more fun. For me, MyMagic+ is the final straw. At one time, I might’ve qualified as a “pixie duster”. But if this thing is implemented, if even the FastPass+ part of it is implemented as currently planned, I’m completely done with Disney World. They’ve lost me as a customer, and I will never go back unless someone else pays for it.

I’ve heard people who spend a lot of time at Disney World spoken of as “pixie dust addicts”. And I know the feeling. I know the irrational desire, at the end of a days-long Disney vacation, to whip out my credit card and max it out just so I can stay another few days. But the last time I walked out of a Disney park, which has been almost two years ago now, I did not have that feeling. I was just ready to go home. The best way to detox from your Pixie Dust addiction, in my opinion, is to take a step back and realize how expensive and difficult-to-plan a Disney vacation has become. Then go online and realize what a great vacation you can have elsewhere for a fraction of the price.

If that doesn’t shock you back to reality, nothing will.

Friday, July 26, 2013

The Great Imagination Rumor-a-tron

I was planning for my next post to be an article about the recently-announced Superman/Batman movie and my opinions on it. But the Internet had other ideas. Specifically, the section of the Internet that concerns itself with Walt Disney World.

It’s currently ablaze with the idea that EPCOT’s Imagination pavilion will shortly become the home of the Disney Channel’s Phineas & Ferb. A lot of people are acting as though this is an officially announced thing that is for sure going to happen, and this has led to no small amount of agonized wailing and hand-wringing. So before somebody gives themselves an aneurysm over this Phineas & Ferb thing, let me say something:

IT IS A COMPLETELY UNSUBSTANTIATED RUMOR

The way it started was, a guy on the WDWMagic message boards who has a proven track record of providing accurate inside information said that Imagination would be closing for at least a year, that there would be some kind of refurbishment, and that the refurbishment would involve the removal of Captain EO. Nothing was said about what might replace the current ride-through attraction and post-show. So people began speculating.

One speculation was that some kind of Phineas & Ferb attraction would be installed. Actually, there have been speculations about this for quite a while, based simply on the fact that the current Imagination attraction is horribly unpopular, Phineas & Ferb are a successful Disney Channel property, and Disney likes to use its theme parks to promote its film and television properties.

So when it was suggested that the Imagination pavilion would finally be getting some kind of refurbishment, the Phineas & Ferb speculation popped up anew, and was repeated over and over again until it blossomed into a full-blown rumor. Then various Disney fan websites picked up on these  speculations and reported them either as fact or at least as credible rumors. Sometimes these pretend journalists even attributed the story to “sources", which infers that the source is within the Walt Disney Company, when in fact it was just some yahoo on a message board.

So, final sum-up:

  1. The Phineas & Ferb thing is just an unsubstantiated rumor
  2. In fact, the Imagination pavilion’s closing and subsequent refurbishment hasn’t been officially announced, and so that’s a rumor, too, albeit a more substantiated one because it comes from a credible source.
  3. Just because an unsubstantiated rumor is repeated a whole bunch of times does not make it true.
  4. We have no real idea what form any refurbishment of the Imagination pavilion may take, except that Captain EO is almost definitely going away.
  5. Everyone should just chill out until we have more information.

That is all. Thank you and happy Internetting!

Monday, July 8, 2013

On The Lone Ranger and Audience Appeal

For most of the past week or so, a lot of the conversation in my Twitter feed has revolved around The Lone Ranger and its failure at the box office. As far as I can tell there seem to be two main opinions on why the movie didn’t do well:

  1. The Lone Ranger bombed because it is not a very good movie.
  2. The Lone Ranger is a good movie, but people aren’t going to see it because of unfair bad reviews from movie critics and/or some kind of nefarious scheme by Disney to deliberately sabotage the film as part of some kind of corporate political power play.

I think the reason for The Lone Ranger’s failure to attract an audience is much simpler than that. The movie bombed because-and bear with me here-not a lot of people wanted to see it. I’m going to pause for a minute to let that sink in.

Whether the movie was good or bad has nothing to do with it. The opinions of movie critics have nothing to do with it. If those things were as important as people imagine, Michael Bay wouldn’t be able to find work as a director anymore. The Lone Ranger flopped because not a lot of people want to see a movie about the Lone Ranger. Period.

Hollywood would rather throw $300 million at a movie based on a preexisting thing as opposed to an original concept because it seems like a safer bet. The way it’s supposed to work is that you make your movie based on a preexisting comic book character or toy or whatever and millions of people say “Look, a movie about the Transformers, a thing with which I am familiar and for which I have nostalgic affection! Here’s my money!” And the next thing you know you’ve made a billion dollars.

The thing is, the making-a-billion-dollars part will only happen if the moviegoing public has a preexisting affinity for the preexisting thing your blockbuster movie is about. That’s why the Transformers movies rake in the dough, but Battleship tanked even though it was pretty much the same. The quality of the movie doesn’t have a lot to do with it. People will sit though three hours of Michael Bay’s seizure-inducing direction of a nonsensical Orci-Kurtzman script because they love watching Optimus Prime punch Decepticons and say “Autobots, transform and roll out!”

What I’m saying is that all preexisting intellectual properties are not created equal. Some of them (Star Wars, Batman, Transformers) are so well-liked that their mere presence will guarantee a hefty profit. Obviously, The Lone Ranger is not one of those. So why did Disney spends hundreds of millions of dollars on it? The answer is Iron Man.

Before 2008 nobody outside the comic fan community knew who Iron Man was. His film rights were only available because nobody wanted them. Iron Man was a surprise hit, but in retrospect it’s not that surprising. The film had a good script, a brilliant piece of casting in Robert Downey Jr., and who wouldn’t want to be a snarky billionaire with a high-tech flying robot suit?

The success of Iron Man showed that, in certain circumstances, a well-made film could get audiences excited about a character they’d barely heard of. Of course, Disney wanted to grab a piece of that, not just by buying Marvel, but by developing their own film franchise from an obscure piece of pop culture. Yes, they did it with Pirates of the Caribbean, but they failed with TRON:Legacy and John Carter. So they took the some of the people responsible for Pirates’ success (Johnny Depp, Jerry Bruckheimer, and Gore Verbinski) and threw the Lone Ranger at them. Or maybe they threw them at the Lone Ranger.

Obviously, it didn’t work. Why? Back to my original point: nobody wanted to see a film about the Lone Ranger. It has nothing to do with how well or how poorly the film was made. Iron Man was about a tycoon in a super-cool flying robot suit. The Lone Ranger is about a cowboy in a domino mask with a sidekick whose name means “stupid” in Spanish. One of those is appealing to modern audiences, and one is not. No amount of marketing will change that. The Lone Ranger is a character from the “Golden Age” of comics, pulp magazine, and radio, and those Golden Age characters are notoriously difficult to adapt for modern audiences. Studios tried it with The Shadow and The Phantom in the 90s and failed. Disney tried it with John Carter of Mars last year, and that failed, too. In fact, the only non-Batman, non-Superman, Golden Age character to enjoy a modern renaissance lately is Captain America. I think it has something to do with the fact that it’s easy to update Superman, Batman, and Captain America for the present day. Characters like the Lone Ranger (and DC’s “cowboy superhero” Jonah Hex, for that matter) are trapped in the past.

Now, I certainly don’t blame Disney for throwing The Lone Ranger out there to see if it would get any traction. And for people who liked the movie and hoped there would be sequels, I’m truly sorry. I went through the same thing when Superman Returns didn’t get a sequel. I wasn’t a fan of the whole idea of Superman as a deadbeat dad, but I enjoyed Brandon Routh’s and Kevin Spacey’s takes on their respective characters and would like to have seen more. But, if the film is a hit on Blu-Ray or on television, maybe the character will see life again in an animated series, comics, or some other medium.

But, like The Shadow, The Phantom, Fibber McGee, and Jack Armstrong The All-American Boy before him, the modern world seems finally to have passed the Lone Ranger by.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Superman Code Complex

NOTE: This article contains massive spoilers for Man Of Steel. If you haven’t seen the movie yet and are trying to avoid spoilers, bail out now.

I am a huge Superman fan. My favorite movie of all time is not a Star Trek film, a Star Wars film, or even a Disney film, it’s 1978’s Superman: The Movie. When I wasn’t pretending to be Captain Kirk as a kid, I was zooming around the house in my makeshift Superman costume with John William’s soundtrack blaring in the background.

superdaveI am totally serious about that

I love Superman. And even though I went through a very brief teenage phase where I thought Spider-Man was cooler because he was angsty and Todd McFarlane drew him, the Death of Superman arc in the early 90s pulled me right back into Superman fandom.

These days I’m not a regular reader of the comics, but my favorite stories include most of Grant Morrison’s work (especially All Star Superman) and Mark Waid’s Kingdom Come and Birthright. You could say I prefer the more classic Superman that has fun, science fiction-y adventures and a strict moral code.

And I liked Man Of Steel.

You’re probably wondering if you read that wrong. How could a guy who loves the colorful, funny, lighthearted 1978 film also like the desaturated, grimmer, more somber 2013 edition? How could a guy who loves the version of Superman whose greatest power is his instinctive knowledge of right and wrong and who’s sworn never to use his power to take a life enjoy a film where the Last Son of Krypton snaps a guy’s neck?

Well, let me go ahead and talk about the Zod Neck Snap since it is the most controversial element of the film. I’m a big believer in the Superman Doesn’t Kill rule. If Superman breaking Zod’s neck was presented as one of those moments where the audience is supposed to cheer, if Superman looked at the camera and tossed off a snarky one-liner after he did it, then I would be very angry indeed, and this post would be all about what idiots the filmmakers are. But that’s not what happened, is it?

The point of the scene was to force Superman into an impossible choice: kill Zod, an act he feels is morally repellent and wrong, or allow Zod kill the family he’s threatening with his heat vision, and possibly thousands, millions or even billions more. (And no, the family couldn’t run away. That’s what I though at first, too, but their path was blocked by rubble) He didn’t have time to think about it or to formulate some kind of alternative. The options were: 1. Kill Zod, or 2. Allow Zod to kill a lot more people. Instead of our hero getting to choose between a right and a wrong, he’s forced into a situation where he has to choose between a wrong and a wrong. That’s good drama right there.  And yet, many critics argue that the writers should have sucked the drama out of the scene by giving Superman some kind of technobabble alternative. To those people, I have three words: Star Trek: Voyager.

Remember Voyager? That horrible, late-90s, “lite” version of Star Trek that is pretty much universally reviled, even among Star Trek fans? A big reason why it’s so hated is that it set up a situation where the characters would allegedly be forced to make hard choices: stuck on a small spaceship seventy years from home with limited supplies, limited fuel, no allies, and the crew divided into opposing Starfleet and Maquis factions-and then completely failed to follow through with any of it. Is that what you wanted to have the writers of this film do? And rest assured, if the writers had given Superman the last-second technobabble alternative the critics seem to want, then people would have just criticized that decision instead and accused the writers of taking the cheap and easy way out.

What it comes down to, I think, is that a lot of people (some of whom work for high-traffic sites like io9) decided to dislike Man of Steel before anything at all was known about it. And because, like any film, it has a few plot holes and imperfections, as well as some genuinely controversial story points, these things are being used as “evidence” of how bad it is by people who already decided to hate it ahead of time.

The fact is that Superman’s killing of Zod was not glorified. It was not presented as a happy, triumphant moment. It was an agonizing decision that obviously cost Superman dearly. The people who are saying things like “Man of Steel gives us a Superman who won’t hesitate to kill when he thinks it’s necessary” either haven’t seen the movie or are deliberately misinterpreting it to bolster the decision they made to dislike it in advance.

However, all of that being said there is one criticism I have of the scene, and it’s that little kids were subjected to it. The showing I went to had lots of parents with their kids, many of them 10 or under, and it’s a shame they had to see that. If for no other reason than that, I really wish the filmmakers had found another way out. Even though it would have robbed the film of some drama, even if it would have given Superman an “easy out” and allowed him to sidestep having to make a tough dramatic choice, I think that might have been preferable to subjecting kids to a scene where a man’s neck gets broken.

Moving on, although my opinions of the film differ greatly from the conventional Internet opinion of it, there’s one other criticism of the movie that I do agree with: the huge amount of destruction and the ignoring of the huge amount of civilian casualties that must have occurred. However, the problem as I see it is not that Superman fails to show concern for civilians caught in the crossfire of his superhero fight, it’s that the movie kind of forgets that these civilians even exist. Aside from a few shots of people running away from the destruction, civilians are only present when the film needs them to create peril or drama, like when Perry and Steve are trying to rescue Jenny, or when Superman is forced to kill Zod to save the family he’s threatening. In the scenes where Superman and Zod are punching each other through buildings, those buildings appear to be empty. I don’t think that was a writing decision, I think the production just didn’t want to go to the trouble to animate people diving out of the way in those shots. Overall, it goes a long way toward making Metropolis feel less like a real place and more like the final level of a Superman video game.

I’ve read some very thoughtful criticism saying it would have been nice if more drama in the Zod fight could have come from Superman desperately trying to save civilians and fight Zod at the same time, and I totally agree with it. I really believe that Warner Bros. was stung by the complaints that Superman Returns didn’t have any fighting in it and made this film a Superhero Punching Fest to compensate.

I also believe lazy writing is responsible for how life in Metropolis seems to have gone back to normal when Clark Kent comes to work at the Daily Planet, even though it seems that only few weeks or maybe months have passed. After 9/11, a sort of pall hung over New York for weeks, if not months. The disaster in Metropolis was a lot bigger; how can life have gone back to normal there when there’s a 10-mile-wide crater in the middle if the city? Obviously, having spent over two hours telling this origin story, the movie wants to wrap everything up in a nice pretty bow in the last five minutes. It’s a lot like the end of J.J. Abrams’ first Star Trek film, where Kirk is directly promoted from Cadet to Captain at the end of the movie just so it can end with him in command of the Enterprise, since that’s the familiar status quo. Since the people behind Man of Steel made a big deal about how realistic it was going to be, it would have been nice if that realism could have extended to how a city would realistically react to being half-leveled by superpowered aliens and their Evil Death Machine. But the way I see it, this isn’t a problem just with this film but with these kinds of “origin story” movies in general.

So, now that I’ve defended Man of Steel against some of the criticisms leveled against it we arrive back at the question I asked several paragraphs ago: how can a guy who loves the Christopher Reeve films and the more idealistic portrayals of Superman in the comics also like Man of Steel? Well, just because I love some of the more fantastical takes on Superman doesn’t mean I can’t also appreciate a more “realistic” interpretation of the character.

I like to see Superman’s powers visualized with modern special effects. I also appreciate how they’re consistently portrayed and don’t vary according to the needs of the plot. For example, in the 1978 film he can fly fast enough to reverse time, but not stop two missiles. And in Superman Returns, he flies right into Luthor’s Kryptonite island trap without using his vision powers to check the place out first and discover that it’s made of Kryptonite and maybe he shouldn’t land on it. If there’s any of that in Man of Steel I didn’t see it.

The acting in the film is top-notch. Henry Cavill is great. Amy Adams is the best Lois Lane we’ve ever had. Michael Shannon is an excellent Zod, with a more logical reason for his actions beyond the “cartoon villain” motivations Terence Stamp had to work with in the Donner films. I love the little story arc Christopher Meloni’s character has, and I thought Laurence Fishburne made a fantastic Perry White. I couldn’t believe the some of the negative reactions I saw when he was first cast in the role, all based around the fact that he’s African-American, and not white like all previous versions of the character. Who cares? You should get the best actors you can, and if an actor of Fishburne’s caliber is available you had darned well better cast him!

Most of all, I appreciated the film’s trying to realistically portray how people would react to the presence of someone like Superman. In the previous films  and TV shows, we’ve never seen that. Especially in the 1978 film, everyone seems just pleased as punch about the flying bulletproof space alien, and not the least bit freaked out. In some of the more recent comic book reboots of Superman’s origin, he’s been distrusted by the military at first, but as soon as he does a few good deeds that distrust is quickly forgotten (I’m thinking of Birthright and Geoff Johns’ Secret Origin here. The New 52 handles it a little better). Staying on the realism theme, I also appreciate how Lois Lane is in on Clark’s secret from the beginning, ensuring that we won’t be asked to believe than an award-winning investigative reporter can be fooled by a pair of glasses. Still, in the brief scene we saw with Clark in the glasses it didn’t look like he was putting forth any effort to try to act like a different person. It reminded me of Dean Cain’s Clark, and not in a good way. Hopefully the dual identity thing will get a believability injection in the sequel.

The fact that I enjoyed Man of Steel doesn’t mean I think everyone who didn’t is somehow wrong or not entitled to their opinion. There are several people whose opinions I respect (Mark Waid, for example) who didn’t like the movie and gave very thoughtful reasons why. And that’s fine. My only problem is with the common Internet tendency to try to appear smarter than everyone else by preemptively declaring that a piece of popular entertainment is not any good.

So those are my thoughts on Man of Steel. If you’ve read this far, then you probably deserve some kind of medal. Or maybe you just have too much spare time.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Star Trek Into Blockbusterdom

NOTE: This article contains spoilers for Star Trek Into Darkness. If you haven’t seen the film and wish to remain spoiler-free, go no further.

I’m fully aware that, as an old-school Star Trek fan, I was supposed to hate Star Trek Into Darkness. This article should be a lengthy dissertation on all the movie’s faults, and if you found it fun and entertaining, I’m supposed to tell you to stop it, because you are wrong, wrong, wrong. I should also prove how smart and witty I am by making several snarky comments about lens flares.

But that’s not what I’m going to do.

Like its predecessor, Star Trek Into Darkness is a fun ride that does not always make a ton of sense in the story department. The fact is that there are some serious, story-derailing plot holes. But you know what? EVERY Star Trek film except for The Motion Picture and The Voyage Home has serious, story-derailing plot holes. My knowledge of movies is by no means encyclopedic, but I can’t think of one summer blockbuster ever that doesn’t have serious, story-derailing plot holes. A sizable chunk of the Internet is devoted to making fun of them!

That being said, there is one moment that completely took me out of the movie. You know the one I mean:

khaaan

I know, when director’s commentaries are recorded and interviews are given, J.J. Abrams and his cohorts will claim that the moment where Spock yells “Khaaaaan!” was meant as an affectionate homage, a nod to old-school Star Trek fans to assure us that the filmmakers made this movie for us, too. Unfortunately, it kind of made it look like they’ve never actually seen The Wrath of Khan, or at least weren’t aware of the reaction William Shatner’s famous line elicits. I don’t know how cinema audiences reacted to it in 1982 because my parents didn’t believe in taking their 4-year-old to a movie in which alien brain worms slither in and out of peoples’ ears, but I sure can tell you the reaction that Shatner’s yell of “KHAAAAN"!” gets today: it makes people laugh. Or at least chuckle. It’s not a Crowning Moment of Awesome, it’s more of a Crowning Moment of Cheesiness That Still Somehow Manages To Be Kind Of Awesome.

So towards the end of Star Trek Into Darkness when Kirk dies saving the Enterprise, at a moment when the filmmakers clearly are trying to make you cry, having Spock howl “KHAAAAAN!” elicits the completely opposite reaction. It makes you laugh. And in so doing, it takes you right out of the movie and breaks the suspension of disbelief. For a moment you lose the ability to pretend that the stuff on the screen is actually happening and that the lines the characters are saying are really their words, and not something that’s been carefully crafted by a screenwriter.

So yeah, the “KHAAAAAN” thing bugged me. But other than that, I honestly did enjoy the movie. It was big and entertaining, and the characters were genuinely pleasurable to watch. Especially Simon Pegg’s Scotty. He absolutely stole every scene he was in, and I really enjoyed watching him do his thing.

Better yet, the movie really tried (as much as a big dumb summer blockbuster can) to have a Star Trekkian message and to comment on current events. I appreciate that.

So why does it seem that the majority of the “geek community” is being so negative towards this film? Are they just trying to make themselves look smarter than everyone else by disparaging a piece of popular entertainment on the Internet? I’m sure that’s true for some people. But here’s why I think that J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek films are more heavily-criticized than their predecessors, even though they share many of the same kinds of story problems.

The people who wrote for the original Star Trek were not raised in a cocoon of electronic media. They read books. They had life experience outside the entertainment industry: Gene Roddenberry served in the military and worked as a commercial airline pilot and a police officer before he became a writer. Gene Coon, who contributed almost as much to the Star Trek universe as Roddenberry did, served as a Marine in World War II. Nicholas Meyer, who directed two of the Original Series films and wrote for three of them, is very well-read and peppered his scripts with literary references.

One gets the impression that J.J. Abrams and his associates like Damon Lindelof, Bob Orci, and Alex Kurtzman don’t have much experience in anything outside watching movies and TV shows, and maybe reading comic books and playing video games. This causes the movies they make to lack a certain kind of depth, and I think it’s something that people pick up on, if only subconsciously.

I’ll have some more random and nitpicky thoughts about Star Trek Into Darkness later, but for now my verdict is: fun movie, entertaining, well-acted, has some plot holes. In other words, a summer blockbuster.