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:

icanthearyou

. . . 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.