Two Weeks In Europe: Day 1 – Leaving On A Train, Then Jet Plane

What would become the greatest trip of my life started as a complete coincidence. It was early in 2015, and I’d already thought my travel plans were set for the year; I’d have a week in Mexico, and that would be it. However, my mother called me unexpectedly one afternoon, saying that she’d come across a flyer for the Royal Caribbean cruise line. She’d been considering Greece – this was long before the refugee crisis became headlines here in the States – but decided on something far grander: a two week trip with stops in Spain, France, Italy, and Montenegro. We’d been to this part of Europe before (years before I owned a digital camera, sadly!), but never to Barcelona or Nice. I’ve always been a huge history and art geek, so I was immediately hooked on the prospect of seeing Rome and Venice. Mom had actually been trying for almost a decade to get a trip booked for Rome via her timeshare, but couldn’t get anything in the city itself. This cruise seemed like a feasible way for her to tackle her bucket list, and we wanted to travel together while she was still capable of doing so. So, we made arrangements and marked our calendars.

Skip forward about 6 months (the Mexico trip in June is a story for another time), to the morning of October 18th. I’d slept at Mom’s place overnight – amazing how the living room sofa felt better than my old bed – because we had to leave the house before dawn. Instead of driving to SFO, we stuck with what’s become our go-to option: taking BART train line all the way to the airport. It’s easy to navigate, cheaper than a shuttle, and you don’t have to worry about parking. Assuming there are no malfunctions, protests, or police activity (which all happened coming back from Hawaii last December), it’s a smooth, straightforward trip. It’s just a long ride from our starting point, almost from one end of the line to the other. It feels even longer when you’re still half asleep, shivering in the cold, and hauling 50 lbs of your mom’s luggage onto the platform. We took the first SFO-bound train of the day, and were surprised to find at least two dozen other travelers along for the ride. Any Bay Area commuter knows that getting a seat on BART during the busy hours is like a competitive sport; it’s all about positioning yourself in the crowd and seizing opportunities – and vacant chairs – with keen observation and timing. I usually stand during my daily commutes, but going to the airport is different. We tried getting the coveted senior priority seats (there’s more open space for our bags), but ended up sitting across the aisle from each other.

After about an hour of struggling to stay awake while keeping the bags standing and out of people’s way, we finally made it to the airport. Finding the terminal was easy, but the actual ticket counter was something else. We thought our flight was with United Airlines; it said so in nice, big letters on our printout. However, we failed to read the fine print: the plane belonged to United, but the flight itself was being operated by Air Canada. Cue us wasting about half an hour wandering through the terminal and getting incorrect directions from every information desk. Finally getting our luggage checked was a huge relief, both physically and mentally. Getting through security was surprisingly easy this time, too; I’m one of those unfortunate folks who seem to be a magnet for the TSA. It’s probably the suspiciously long, beautiful hair. Aside from her purse, Mom was toting a large bag full of food and her medications. She was diagnosed with diabetes last year – she carries around the doctor’s note to prove it to the authorities – but it always strikes me funny how she’s able to get several meals’ worth of snacks, cereal, and veggies past security. The most I bring are a couple packages of crackers and two refillable water bottles. With the hardest part out of the way, we had a little less than two hours to kick back and wait.

We weren’t flying straight to Spain, though. We had to fly to Montreal, then make a connection. It’s pretty standard fare…except that there was only 30 minutes between flights. When I wasn’t distracted by the movies (I got to watch Jurassic World, Inside Out, and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. Reviews coming soon!), I pondered over the logistics of our layover. 30 minutes to disembark the plane, get through customs/security, and find a gate in an airport that I’d never seen before. Yeah, it was going to be messy. Air Canada was well aware of our problem; when we landed in Montreal, they announced that the people with close connecting flights – less than a dozen of us in total – were allowed to disembark first. They were even good enough to find out what gate we needed. Mom and I bolted and got through security quickly – they have a small booth off to the side just for connections – and rushed to the next gate.

But there was no plane.

I checked my watch. No, we had at least another 15 minutes. There’s no way it could’ve left. I went to the flight listing display and searched for ours. Lo and behold, it was still at the airport, but at a different gate, in the opposite direction that we’d come. The Air Canada crew had outdated information. Because it couldn’t be that easy, right? Mom and I nearly sprinted to the correct gate, only to find that they’d been delayed and had just started boarding. We scrambled into the line and got on without any problems. As I sank wearily into my seat and buckled up, I closed my eyes and tried to rub my headache away. We’d been traveling for over 12 hours straight across multiple time zones, and we’d made a connection that, in normal circumstances, should’ve been nearly impossible. Once dinner and drinks had been served – apple juice is my beverage of choice when flying – I tried settling back and sleeping. Time passes strangely on overnight flights; with the windows shuttered and lighting inconsistent, it’s impossible to tell what time it is without looking at a phone or watch. And when you’ve been on your feet for so long, your energy and circadian rhythm are all out of sorts. I think I slept, but I’ve blacked out on flights before. I was more worried about Mom; her endurance isn’t as strong as it used to be. She spent most of the flight trying to find a good sleeping position – often using my shoulder as a pillow – but with little results.

Eventually, someone pulled up a shutter, revealing that the sun was already out. I’d lost track of the night at some point, but that didn’t matter. The captain announced that we were within an hour of Barcelona, the port where we’d board the cruise. I rubbed my eyes and shared some bread with Mom. At this point, we’d been traveling for over 24 hours straight. My head was pounding, but I had to focus on what was coming next. Disembarking. Finding our luggage. Hopefully none of it got lost in transit like the last time we were in Spain. Finding the airport-to-ship shuttle service we’d reserved in advance. We were almost an hour late, hopefully they were still waiting for us. Boarding the ship. What did that entail? So many questions, so little time.

Continued in Day 2…

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Scenes You’ve Seen 2: Award Winners

Dissolve shows off some of the most famous movies ever in a completely different way.

Star Trek Into Darkness Review

When the Star Trek franchise was rebooted in 2009, many long time fans rejoiced. Gone were the stale plots built up from the previous series; it was time to revisit that universe with a fresh set of eyes, new ideas and possibilities, and a cast that could the characters all their own. With the first film laying the foundation, hopes were high that the sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness, would be even better. In the attempt to appease the fans and make a modern sci fi action movie, however, something got lost along the way.

****SPOILERS****

The movie opens with what can only be described as a sci-fi homage to Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. Kirk is being chased through an alien jungle by a horde of angry natives. Seriously, the only difference is that the trees are red, the natives are covered in crusty white paint, and Kirk is wearing a shabby robe as disguise. He makes it a few hundred more yards before some gigantic saber-toothed bear…thing rears up in front of the camera. Like any good action hero, Kirk whips out his phaser and stuns the beast unconscious. The monster drops out of view, revealing an angry Dr. McCoy behind it.

“Damn it, man! That was our ride! You just stunned our ride!”

Wait, what?

This is the first of many instances in this move that demonstrate Kirk’s utter inability to think things through. It’s one thing to neutralize a wild animal in your way. But why would he willingly take out something so integral to his own mission? He’s the captain; shouldn’t he, of all people, be privy to the exact details of the plan? They went through the trouble of disguises and exit routes, so it’s not like they’re making this up on the fly. Did he just panic and forget his method of escape? Is he trigger happy? Or just plain stupid?

Judging by the rest of the mission, it’s leaning toward the latter. The objective is simple: lead the natives away from an erupting volcano while Spock, Uhura, and Sulu somehow neutralize the explosion. This involves hovering a shuttlecraft over the mountaintop, lowering an armored Spock on a tow cable, and detonating a “cold fusion device.” Things go awry when the shuttlecraft’s engines overheat, and Spock is dropped onto a rocky outcropping surrounded by lava. As the others ditch the craft, Kirk and McCoy jump off a seaside cliff and swim to the Enterprise hidden underwater. Now they have to somehow save Spock, detonate the device, and leave without being seen.

…Wow. So little of this plan makes sense, it’s kind of impressive. Firstly, why would they hide the Enterprise underwater? It’s a starship capable of planetary orbit; if they were worried about being seen (and it’s not like these natives have telescopes), they could’ve just drifted on the other side of the planet and designated a rendezvous. What’s the ship made of, anyway? Scotty implies that saltwater will potentially wreck it. Also, what’s the deal with the shuttlecraft? As an exploration vehicle, it’s designed to enter and exit alien atmospheres. That requires an incredibly high resistance to heat; reentry is far hotter than surface lava. On that note, why would they even send an away team in the first place? The ship has a transporter. All they had to do was set the cold fusion device on a timer, beam it to coordinates that account for gravity and timing, and let the thing detonate. Speaking of which, the “cold fusion device” is basically useless in this situation. Cold fusion refers to nuclear reactions that happen at room temperature, certainly nothing capable of stopping an active volcano.

But since this is a summer blockbuster action movie, everything works out okay. The Enterprise rises out of the water in an admittedly awesome shot, and they focus on getting Spock back on board. The problem is that by doing so, they’d be seen by the natives and directly violate Starfleet’s Prime Directive of non-interaction. Because stopping a volcano from exploding and drastically altering a planet’s geothermal system with advanced technology totally isn’t the same thing. They do know that just freezing the surface of a volcano doesn’t turn it dormant…right? Way to stave off the inevitable, guys. Whatever. Kirk predictably defies orders and Spock is beamed out at the last second. Uhura is noticeably angry that Spock (her apparent boyfriend in this alternate universe) was so willing to throw his life away. He’s more angry about the Prime Directive thing, but Kirk just shrugs it off. The crew triumphantly hightails it back to space, while the natives draw and worship an Enterprise-shaped symbol in the dirt. Kinda like Comic Con, but with less cosplayers.

After the title card, the scene shifts to a family in London. A mother and father visit their daughter at hospital; it’s implied that the little girl has some kind of terminal illness. Side note: the special effects in the background are pretty cool. Having anti-gravity gurneys in an otherwise realistic facility is a nice way of showing that this isn’t too far in the future. There’s a brief scene with the parents staring teary-eyed at the poor girl, something to which anyone with sick relatives can relate. What can you do for the dying? The answer comes from Benedict Cumberbatch, who walks up to the father with a swell of music and says that he can save the child. The guy asks who this mysterious man is, and of course there’s no answer for the sake of maintaining the drama. Most savvy viewers will immediately – and correctly – guess that he’s really Khan, but whatever. Why is someone so blatantly evil hanging around children’s hospital wings? Is the father so desperate that he’ll believe any random passerby proposing a cure?

Meanwhile, Kirk is having some PG-13 rated fun-time with a pair of alien cat girls. Apparently some traits never die, even if they are in an alternate reality. Side note: Kirk not only has a vintage record player, but he’s playing “Body Movin” by the Beastie Boys. I was in high school when the Hello Nasty album dropped, and this movie has now made me feel old. Lovely. Kirk and Spock get called to Starfleet HQ in San Francisco, apparently for a meeting with Admiral Pike. Kirk optimistically assumes they’ve been promoted for the fleet’s upcoming 5-year mission – a nice foreshadowing/call back to the original Star Trek series – but Spock is doubtful. Even if they’re brief, these glimpses of Starfleet are interesting; there are plenty of people in dress uniform, complete with military-style caps. It’s a good indication that Starfleet has recovered since the events of the last movie.

So has Pike, who’s traded his wheelchair for a cane and an immaculate office. He questions Kirk and Spock about the mission, but it’s obvious he’s not happy. Kirk apparently lied on his captain’s log and tried to cover up the ludicrous plan. Spock, being the responsible paragon of proper protocol, wrote his own report. If this was happening in the old Star Trek verse, the situation would probably be brushed over and forgotten, maybe with a threat of demotion. But this shows what would actually happen if a military captain pulled these kinds of shenanigans: He gets demoted and loses command of the Enterprise. That’s it. It’s amazing he didn’t get a court martial. Pike gives the kid a much-needed dressing down over his recklessness, irresponsibility, lack of humility, and inability to understand his shortcomings. Kirk points out that he was originally given the Enterprise for being such a maverick, but clearly doesn’t understand what being a leader is all about.

Gee, I wonder what Kirk’s character arc is going to be.

This meeting scene is brief, but it’s one of the most underrated ones in the movie. While everyone else is acting like younger, hipper versions of the iconic characters, Bruce Greenwood’s take on Admiral Pike is the most believable. He captures the angry, aging father figure with just the right amount of energy and personality. Of course, the fact that he’s retaking command of the Enterprise (and taking Kirk back as his first officer?! Wow, so much for common sense!) means he’s going to die pretty soon. Mentor characters have a habit of being killed as a way kick-start the student’s character growth. It’s a narrative thing. Side note: the face-to-face argument gives the audience lingering shots of Chris Pine’s inhumanly bright blue eyes. Did the post-production crew think Kirk was secretly an alien?

Back in London, it’s established that Benedict Cumberbatch has magic blood. No, seriously. This is the plot point they’re going with. Apparently it has healing properties that completely disregard things like type or allergic reactions. Why, that’s just what the little girl needs! Dad hooks up the IV and watches his daughter’s stats return to normal. In exchange for this wonderful cure, he is tasked with blowing up the Starfleet building in which he works. He does this by dropping some kind of chemically-enhanced ring that explodes in water. The camera pulls back from the fiery destruction and settles on a snapshot of the little girl. It’s the way to remind the audience that this horrific act was done for her sake by a loving father. But why? After seeing his daughter healed, he could’ve easily contacted the authorities and had Mr. Magic Blood arrested for plotting terrorism. The magic blood could’ve made a temporary recovery; the girl could’ve keeled over the next day. Also, how did he think this was going to end for his daughter? Did he really believe the doctors were just going to let her walk out after a miraculous recovery? If anything, they’d keep her there for scientific study and discover a mutation in her blood…Growing up is not going to be fun for that kid.

Whatever. Starfleet’s been attacked, so Admiral Marcus (played by Peter Weller of RoboCop fame) calls for a meeting of all senior officers at HQ. En route, Kirk gives Spock a bitter talk about the whole honesty thing, and even calls it a backstabbing. He implies that Spock doesn’t understand that the two are friends, something that would actually make sense. In the original series, Kirk and Spock had known each other for years, and their relationship reflected that. In this alternate universe, they’ve only known each other since the events of the last movie. They were at each others’ throats – literally. Not surprising they still don’t work well together. The two part ways at the start of the meeting, believing they’re never going to see each other again. Yeah, like that’s going to happen.

Admiral RoboCop explains that the building in London was a Starfleet data archive. The father-turned-bomber conveniently sent a message (Seriously, why didn’t he just send the message without triggering the bomb?!) warning of what was going on. The mastermind is John Harrison, one of Starfleet’s top agents gone rogue. He’s commandeered a ship and gone into hiding, but apparently hasn’t left Earth. Kirk, of all people, makes an astute observation: Why would a terrorist target a data archive? Everything in there is public knowledge and has no tactical value. Also, why hasn’t he stolen a ship with warp capability and vanished into deep space? It’s almost like Harrison wants to stay close by…As everyone mulls this over, a small ship hovers outside the window and starts blasting everything.

Oh, so that’s why Harrison is still there.

The plan is simple: bomb the archive to get the Starfleet’s top brass in one room, then blow it to smithereens. It’s brutal, effective, and relies heavily on a complete lack of common sense. Is the audience supposed to think Starfleet is incompetent? They know Harrison is one of their top agents; why would they use the same protocol – which he would know – to set up an emergency meeting? Couldn’t they have chosen a new place to hold a conference? Also, why are they having this secret meeting in the upper floors of HQ, next to a massive window? They live in a world where flying vehicles with guns are normal. Anyone could hover nearby, take a phaser shot, or even read lips with a telescope! Why aren’t they in an underground bunker? How did Harrison even get close enough to the building? They know he’s commandeered a ship. Doesn’t it have trackers or anything on it? This is all happening mere hours after a terrorist attack; shouldn’t the airspace around Starfleet HQ be closely monitored? He should’ve been blasted to smithereens by security as soon as he opened fire.

But of course that doesn’t happen. The attack lasts just long enough for most of the senior officers to be gunned down, including Pike. (Called it!) He spends his final, agonizing moments cradled in Spock’s arms. Unlike certain characters in other Star Trek films, he does not die well; there’s blood flowing out his mouth, and his eyes are brimming with tears. Bizarrely, Spock takes the opportunity to do a Vulcan mind meld. Why? Does he have some kind of fascination with death? Was he trying to preserve Pike’s memory a la Wrath of Khan? Is he using it to better understand his own mortality? Shouldn’t he have been trying to get Pike to a doctor? Meanwhile, Kirk manages to destroy the ship’s engine , and he and Harrison have a brief stare-down before the villain teleports away. Kirk actually has a pretty sad moment when he realizes his mentor is dead. Then airspace security shows up.

In the meantime, Harrison reappears on some other planet, dons a stylish hoodie/trench coat, and vanishes into parts unknown. Scotty has a pretty good idea, though; when examining the wreckage of the ship, he comes across a “portable transwarp beaming device.” No, seriously. That’s the mouthful they’re going with. It conveniently displays its last programmed destination, the Klingon homeworld…Wait, what? Technology in this universe has not only advanced enough that people can carry their own personal transporter, but it lets them go to other planets too?! Why isn’t every ship in Starfleet equipped with these things? Doesn’t this undermine the entire point of building habitable starships? Why don’t they just send probes equipped with these things into deep space? Wouldn’t that save tons of money and resources? Boy, they sure could’ve used one during that¬† volcano mission…And if Harrison had such technology, why would he even need to get someone else to blow up the archive? Why attack the conference room directly?¬† He could’ve just teleported a bomb into the room. If he’s Starfleet’s top agent, I shudder to think what the red shirts are like.

Despite the Klingon planet being the space equivalent of North Korea, Kirk is determined to get revenge. Admiral RoboCop inexplicably gives him the Enterprise again – despite demoting him less than a day before – and assigns Spock as his first officer. Also, the building Harrison destroyed wasn’t an archive; it was a secret military research facility run by Starfleet’s clandestine Section 31. Ooh, Star Trek espionage sounds promising. They’ve even developed a long-range, untraceable photon torpedo! The mission is simple: Take all 72 of these bombs to Harrison’s location, blow everything up, and warp out before the Klingons figure out what happened…even though the Klingons would be able to read the Enterprise’s warp signature and trace it back to Earth. They don’t seem to realize that last part. You’ve got to wonder why the admiral chose to reinstate Spock, though; he’s a notorious stickler for rules, and I’m pretty sure the whole murder-from-a-distance-and-possibly-trigger-a-war plan isn’t Starfleet regulation. There’s no way he’d let that happen. It’s pretty obvious that there’s a bigger scheme going on – the lingering shot of the spaceship models in the admiral’s office is blatant foreshadowing – but everyone agrees to go along with it.

Especially Kirk, who poorly attempts to hide his revenge-fueled rage as they prep for the mission. Spock points out the lack of morality involved in killing someone without a trial, how it completely goes against protocol, and the needlessly risky idea of bombing a place home to a war-faring people. If only they had a portable transwarp beaming device…Kirk, of course, brushes all of this off. He’s too busy staring at Carol Wallace, an advanced weapons specialist assigned to the mission by the admiral himself. Carol Wallace…That name sounds familiar. Like Carol Marcus, Kirk’s love interest in the original timeline. But that means she’d have the same last name as the admiral. There’s no way those two could be connected, right? Right?

The mission prep hits a snag with Scotty’s recurring bouts of common sense. He’s refusing the shipment of those long-range torpedoes because he can’t scan their payload, and the contents are classified. He’s absolutely right, too. If you’re working with weapons, especially explosives, you need to know exactly how they work. Are the contents toxic? Does they have to be stored at a certain temperature? What is its fail-safe? What kind of fuel does it use? It’s kind of important. Considering that the ship’s warp core is essentially “a radioactive catastrophe waiting to happen,” Starfleet’s militarization, and his transwarp equation being weaponized, Scotty has legitimate concerns. Since Kirk is too revenge-focused to give him another choice, he promptly resigns and begs him not to use the weapons. Later, man. See you when the plot inevitably needs you again!

Forty minutes in, and we’re finally back on the Enterprise. I’m suddenly reminded of bridge’s ridiculous lighting scheme. It’s like going to an Apple Store, but even more blinding. I get J.J. Abrams has a thing for lens flares, but what kind of spaceship has lights that are positioned to shine directly in the crew’s eyes? After warping into space and replacing Scotty with Chekov (Seriously?) in engineering, Kirk announces his plan to the entire ship: He will take a landing party to the surface, arrest Harrison, and bring him back to face trial. Wow, looks like Spock’s impromptu ethics lesson paid off! So has his background check of Carol, which reveals that she’s the admiral’s daughter and boarded with false documents. Man, Starfleet really is inept; there have been two acts of terrorism in a week, and they just let anyone on without proper inspection? For all they know, she could be some kind of saboteur. They should keep her locked in the brig until they can find out her actual intentions…But due to plot purposes, Spock keeps her secret for no reason.

Speaking of sabotage, the warp drive breaks down 20 minutes away from their destination. Kirk, Spock, and Uhura (and two guys who will probably killed off-screen soon) take a shuttle to Harrison’s location in an otherwise deserted part of the planet. That leaves Sulu in charge, which is a cool nod to his counterpart in the original series. He’s tasked with broadcasting a message to Harrison, warning him to surrender or get wiped out by 72 missiles. “If you test me, you will fail.” Oh, how intimidating. Hey tough guy, how do you know Harrison can even hear you? Does he have a radio? How are you broadcasting this message? You do know the Klingons can probably pick up your transmissions, right? You’d change your tune if you had a few Birds of Prey aiming at you. Why are you even warning Harrison that you’re coming? You don’t know what other resources he has. You’re giving him time to come up with another escape, or even a counterattack! This is supposed to be a stealth mission, right?

Uhura’s priorities are a little skewed, too. She spends a good portion of the ride chewing out Spock over his stoic reaction to the whole near-death in the volcano thing. Because a lovers’ quarrel is exactly what we need in the middle of a high-stakes and possibly suicidal mission. He explains the difference between not caring and choosing to accept death on his own terms, which gives a lot of insight into Spock’s personality. Before anyone can ponder on it, however, the shuttlecraft is attacked by the Klingons. Wasn’t this area supposed to be abandoned? They try to hand wave it by saying it’s a random patrol, but how could they miss something like that? Don’t they have scanners? Maybe if they weren’t so distracted with the soap opera drama…Anyway, a big, loud chase scene ensues, resulting in them being caught and forced to deal with the Klingons face-to-face. Uhura tries negotiating, but gets nearly strangled to death.

They’re saved by Harrison’s grand, bloody entrance. He wastes little time in annihilating over a dozen Klingons in with a hail of lasers, blades, and explosions. The crew tries their best to fight as well – the entire scene has a first-person shooter vibe – but they’re completely outclassed by his brutal efficiency. There’s a reason he’s one of Starfleet’s best. He casually dismisses Spock despite being held at gunpoint, and surrenders after asking about Sulu’s torpedoes. Kirk takes the opportunity to use excessive force (several punches to the face) during the arrest, but it has no effect whatsoever; Harrison just stands there looking bored. It’s a demonstration of his physical prowess as well as his intellectual; unlike most battles, Kirk can’t brawl his way out of this one.

After notifying Starfleet, they put Harrison in the brig. This results in an unintentional homage to The Silence of the Lambs. A creepy, intelligent, and cultured killer trapped behind a wall of thick glass, while the heroes try to get information out of him? Yeah, Cumberbatch is channeling a sci-fi Hannibal Lecter. As McCoy takes his blood sample, he implies that he knows why the warp core is busted and offers his insight. Kirk angrily shuts him down at first, but eventually gets a set of space coordinates and the suggestion to open one of the torpedoes. It’s a start, but Harrison didn’t need to be so cryptic. Why not spell out what’s going on right then and keep the plot moving? …To bring Scotty back into the picture, of course. He’s busy getting hammered in San Francisco (sharp-eyed Bay Area viewers will note the club is at the end of Pier 3 near the Ferry Building), and takes a personal call from Kirk. Wait, what? Their communicators have a range that spans across planets?! How far apart are they? Scotty agrees to look into the Harrison’s mysterious coordinates and accepts the captain’s apology.

That leaves the torpedoes. With Scotty gone, Carol is the only person qualified to examine them. Kirk’s confused reaction to her being Admiral RoboCop’s daughter is funny, but it’s a reminder of how pointless the coverup was. Did Spock keep it a secret just to mess with Kirk? Shouldn’t they be more worried about the security breaches involved with someone using fake transcripts? They’re lucky she’s not evil; she’s here because she knows her father is pulling some kind of scheme. After her ridiculous and pointless fan service scene (seriously, who thought that was a good idea for Kirk to ogle while she stripped down?), she and McCoy start operating on a torpedo. Since this would be too boring on its own, the bomb somehow arms itself and activates a timed explosion. Carol fixes it with the good old pull-out-all-the-wires trick from every action movie ever, and it’s revealed there’s someone cryogenically stored inside. Harrison then drops the big reveal of the movie:

His true name is Khan! (Dun dun dun!)

For a second, I thought they’d put in a bolt of space-lightning for dramatic effect. It’s supposed to be some huge revelation, even though long time fans could’ve picked up on it long beforehand. It was so obvious, even the back of the DVD case spoils it. The only real reason to have Khan return is because he’s the most famous villain in the Star Trek lore; people are familiar with the name, so it instantly makes the film more interesting to the average viewer. He reveals that he and his 72 followers were genetically engineered to be superior to human beings in every way. They were condemned as war criminals and frozen over 300 years ago, but were found by Admiral RoboCop sometime between the two movies. Khan was revived alone and tasked with developing weapons technology, thus laying the foundation for the admiral’s dream of a militarized Starfleet. Kirk asks, “Why would a Starfleet admiral ask a 300 year-old frozen man for help?” That’s a very good question; no matter how intelligent someone is, it takes time to learn things. Going by the timeline, Khan would’ve needed to learn three centuries’ worth of technology and science – including the development of interstellar travel and warp engines – in less than one year. That’s like asking Benjamin Franklin to design the Large Hadron Collider! Are there really no better qualified tacticians in this continuity?!

Khan tries to gain sympathy with Kirk (and the audience) by pointing out their similarities: they’re both leaders who would do anything for their “families.” Only difference is, Kirk didn’t go on a murderous rampage when he lost someone. Admiral RoboCop clearly isn’t working with a full deck, either. Not only did he try to blackmail Khan by threatening to kill the other 72 crew, but he knowingly sent the Enterprise into enemy territory with a sabotaged warp core as well. All for the sake of kick-starting a war with the Klingons and getting rid of any evidence of the conspiracy. Using the long-range torpedoes with Khan’s crew inside was just the icing on the cake…even though it makes no sense whatsoever. If you’re a evil military mastermind and have six dozen pieces of evidence linking back to your scheme, why would you let someone else dispose of them?! Why did the admiral even bother giving the torpedoes to Kirk? He could’ve just cremated the bodies and then equipped the Enterprise. Did he seriously think they’d risk bombing the Klingons after the engine broke down?

Admiral RoboCop tries to make up for it by personally taking the USS Vengeance – an absolutely massive warship Khan designed – straight to the Enterprise in a last-ditch attempt at a cover-up. Boy, he sure could’ve used a portable transwarp beaming device right then. So much for being discreet. He chides Kirk for disobeying orders (I don’t know why he’s surprised, as Kirk is an established rule-breaker), and asks for the prisoner’s location. After both sides give up on the pretenses of this being a real mission, the admiral admits the truth and demands Khan be given up. They attempt to warp back to Earth, but the ship is gunned down a hail of phaser fire and explosions. Carol tries to talk her father out destroying the Enterprise, but is promptly teleported to the other ship. With death mere seconds away, Kirk frantically tries to surrender himself to spare the crew – a nice parallel with Khan – but is mocked and shut down. It’s at this point that Kirk finally realizes what being a leader is all about: taking responsibility for your choices. You can’t just go gallivanting through life without handling the consequences. With his pride finally crushed, he turns to apologize to his crew before being vaporized…

…Or at least that’s what would have happened, but Scotty snuck on board the Vengeance and temporarily shut it down. Yes, he went to Khan’s coordinates and found a huge warship at a secret base, and somehow infiltrated their security. How convenient. Couldn’t he have sabotaged the weapons down earlier? You know, before all the explosions and death? With both ships now adrift and incapable of fighting, Kirk decides to team up with Khan, jump over to the Vengeance in a spacesuit, and take it over from the inside. When Spock calls him out on his ridiculous plan, Kirk admits that he’s just making things up as he goes along and isn’t fit to command the Enterprise. It’s true on both counts, considering that they’re only the moon’s distance away from Earth. Why don’t they just call for help? Kirk used his personal communicator to phone Scotty from Klingon airspace. Also, why are there no other Starfleet vessels in this area? Did Admiral RoboCop somehow plan for this to happen and order everyone else on deep space missions before dealing with Kirk? There were two terrorist attacks against Starfleet within a week; if anything, there should be even more ships near Earth than usual.

Whatever. Scotty warns that the Vengeance will have weapons restored in three minutes, so time is of the essence. While the entire space jump scene is nonsensical, it provides some of the coolest-looking visuals in the movie. If you’ve ever seen any of the NASA space walks, you know how awesome they are. This version goes much, much faster, and the visor navigation displays have a nice Tron vibe. There’s even a bit of tension with Scotty temporarily getting caught by security (Finally!) and the entrance being wide enough for only a couple of people. Of all the potential teams to infiltrate a ship in Star Trek, would anyone expect Kirk, Scotty, and Khan to do the dirty work? They make it up to the bridge just as the Vengeance powers back up – the infiltration actually takes about nine minutes instead of three, but the audience is supposed to be too distracted to care – and hold Admiral RoboCop at phaser-point.

Kirk is savvy enough to have Khan stunned at this point, but apparently forgot that he’s capable of withstanding physical injuries. The villain plays possum just long enough for the admiral to babble some last-minute fanatical warmongering. With the dramatic tirade over, Khan jumps up, knocks out both Scotty and Kirk, breaks Carol’s leg, and crushes Admiral RoboCop’s skull like a melon. With full command over the deadliest starship in the area, he triumphantly contacts the Enterprise and demands Spock hand over the crew in the torpedoes. It’s kind of disappointing. In Wrath of Khan, there was a similar battle between two ships. But what made the original Khan so dangerous and awesome was his cunning; he nearly destroyed the Enterprise by using a smaller, less-equipped ship. This time, everyone knows he’s going to pull something, but he wins via superior firepower anyway. Oh sure, there’s a brief spoken battle of wits – Khan and Spock are the two smartest characters in this continuity – but Khan wins by virtue having the only ship that can actually function.

Spock isn’t out yet, though. While the others were busy with the Vengeance, he took the time to call Spock Prime and give Leonard Nimoy a cameo scene. He did this to get advice about Khan, even though he just assumes his alternate reality counterpart knows about the villain. It’s supposed to be a haunting callback to Wrath of Khan, but it’s kind of pointless. Spock Prime’s scene can be summarized as, “I’m not supposed to tell you anything that might alter your destiny, but Khan is a really dangerous guy.” No kidding. Presumably Spock Prime explains how Khan’s pride and vengeful nature makes him easy to manipulate and outwit, but those are insights the younger Spock could’ve realized on his own. Did we really need to drag the older, wiser Spock into the fray just to give a villain a little more credibility? Also, if you’re capable of contacting someone on a nearby planet, why are you not calling for help?!

Spock must have learned something, though. His plan is simple: Pretend to give into Khan’s demands, but take the frozen crew members out of the torpedoes first. Set the bombs to detonate, and watch the pretty fireworks of a huge space ship exploding. It’s actually a clever trick, and it’s much more interesting than the mindless battles in some of the other movies. The problem is the fact that Khan let it happen at all; he willingly teleports armed torpedoes onto the Vengeance without thinking it through. At first glance, it’s a way to demonstrate Khan’s flaws and overconfidence, but it doesn’t work. Before taking the bait, he spends a few seconds to scan the torpedoes. It would be befitting of his methodical and tactical nature, except that he doesn’t notice his crew has been removed. How did he miss that?! The entire point of the scan is to confirm the physical makeup, contents, or location of an item; do life signs not show up in cryogenics? The oversight is baffling.

Khan’s temporary triumph is admittedly awesome, though. After getting the torpedoes, he teleports Kirk, Scotty, and Carol back to the Enterprise. His taunt, “No ship should go down without her captain” is easily one of the best lines in the entire movie. He even dishes out ten more direct hits on the Enterprise before the torpedoes detonate. The crew doesn’t have time to celebrate, though; the ship took way too much damage and is now caught in Earth’s gravity. Sulu says that without shields, the ship will burn up in the reentry. If they don’t get the engines back up and running, they’ll crash in minutes! It’s an interesting dilemma, even if it isn’t scientifically possible. The battle took place near the Moon, and both ships lacked propulsion. Nor were they using momentum from coming out of warp; from that distance and lack of speed, it would’ve taken them months to drift to the planet. However, it gives Kirk just enough time to get a serious reality check. As he and Scotty race down to engineering, he gets to see the consequences of his actions: the Enterprise is being torn apart, his crew is dying, and there’s no chance of escape. Watching him trying to save someone from plummeting to their death – and failing – is gut-wrenching. Some of the scenes, like people running through a sideways-tumbling hallway, are some of the most nightmarish visuals in any Star Trek film.

Boy, they sure could’ve used a portable transwarp beaming device.

This doesn’t last long, unfortunately. Considering how much this move takes from Wrath of Khan, it’s not surprising that it’d reuse the ending as well. Kirk makes it down to engineering, goes directly into the housing of the warp core to fix it (apparently it involves a bunch of dropkicks from impractical angles), and gets a lethal dose of radiation. He gets it working just after the Enterprise falls through Earth’s cloud layer…Wait, didn’t Sulu say they’d burn up in reentry? They should’ve been a giant cinder by the time they reached that altitude! At least seeing the battered, broken Enterprise triumphantly rising was worth it. However, Kirk’s conversation with Spock and his death-by-radiation kind of spoil the mood. It’s sad watching Spock with a trembling voice and teary eyes. He just lost the closest thing to a friend. However, any tragedy is lost when he turns his head skyward and screams:

KHHHHHHHHAAAAAAAAAAAAN!

…Wow, I never thought I’d be laughing so hard at a Star Trek death scene. Did you really have to go there, screenwriters?! That scene was hammy enough in Wrath of Khan. Can’t you at least try to let this film stand on its own? Whatever. Turns out the Vengeance is also crashing back to Earth, and Khan aimed it straight for Starfleet HQ. Of course. He actually misses his target and destroys a huge chunk of San Francisco, and manages to jump to the ground with only a small face wound. Then a prolonged foot chase between he and Spock ensues. No, seriously. Because there’s no better way to end a blockbuster space action movie than a foot chase through San Francisco.

They end up fighting on top of a floating barge, and it seems promising in concept. Both Spock and Khan are gifted with extraordinary intelligence and physical strength…so they battle like a couple of drunken brawlers. It’s the Vulcan Nerve Pinch versus raw genetically-enhanced power! Khan actually has a few opportunities to kick Spock off the edge – the fall would’ve easily him – but tries to crush his head a la Admiral RoboCop. So much for being a master tactician. Uhura teleports in as a distraction and says they can use Khan’s blood to save Kirk. This gives Spock the reason not to succumb to vengeance – hence the big theme of the movie – and manages to haul Khan back to the Enterprise off-screen. Two weeks and a magical blood infusion from McCoy later, and Kirk wakes up in the hospital. Way to go, screenwriters. You’ve completely negated the tragedy of a main character dying, thus cheating your audience of any lasting emotional torque. Kirk was dead for less than ten minutes! Now that they’ve found a way to cure death, how are they going to handle mortality in the next movie? Rather than having Khan studied and the effects replicated, they put him back in a cryogenic tube and leave him in storage. What about a trial? Whatever. Skip forward a year, and the Enterprise has been rechristened and is embarking on her iconic 5-year mission. Cue credits and a classic Star Trek theme music remix.

…Well, that could’ve gone better.

It’s a shame. Star Trek Into Darkness has a lot going for it. The premise of Starfleet espionage and the issues of its militarization are interesting. Having an intelligent villain like Khan is great; it makes him more dangerous and fascinating. Kirk’s overall character arc is great; he starts as irresponsible braggart and gets a deadly, painful lesson in responsibility and leadership. From a narrative standpoint, however, the rest of the movie falls flat. Several characters didn’t get enough development, and there so many plot inconsistencies that it’s mind-boggling. There’s a fine line between paying homage to the original series, and using it as a crutch. Wrath of Khan was an amazing movie; Into Darkness should be able to stand on its own without it, but doesn’t. Don’t go in thinking like this is an old-school Star Trek film. If you just want sci-fi that’s more about flashy explosions and action, go for it. Otherwise, trek somewhere else.

The Wiivengers – A Marvel / Nintendo-Verse Mashup (Parody)

Check out this awesome animation James Farr made for the recent release of Smash 3DS! Never thought I’d see a Nintendo and Marvel mashup!

Awesome and Geeky Narrations

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is all about voice acting. Specifically, the voice actor you’d choose to narrate your blog posts. This is kind of interesting; despite how I come across in my writing, I’m actually very soft-spoken in real life. I’m good with the one-on-one talks, but put me in a room full of people…Yeah, I’d rather be typing, not speaking. I’ve actually tried launching a Let’s Play/Twitch stream channel, only to discover that my voice is way, way too quiet even on a microphone. Maybe I need voice coaching or something. As for who I wish my blog’s narrator could be:

Morgan Freeman. There’s something about his voice that is so frank, down-to-Earth, and easy to listen to. He was brilliant in The Shawshank Redemption. I wish I could speak as smoothly as him.

Kevin Spacey. Have you ever heard him narrate? Go watch The Usual Suspects sometime. He could make reading numbers out of a telephone book interesting.

Richard Attenborough. While it’s sadly too late for this one to ever happen, there was always something grand and compelling about the way he spoke.

Johnny Yong Bosch. One of the go-to guys for the lead characters of localized anime and games. It’d be easier to list the shows he isn’t on. If I had to choose a specific character for him to use, it’d probably be Yu Narukami of Persona 4.

Crispin Freeman. Similar to the previous entry, his work in localized anime and games is incredible. His narration as Kyon in The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya is still one of my all-time favorites.

Steve Blum. His voice acting work is the stuff of legends, and he holds the world record for the amount of game voice acting credits. Having Spike Spiegel from Cowboy Bebop narrate my posts would be amazing, but Jamie from Megas XLR would be strangely hilarious.

Mel Blanc. The called him “The Man of a Thousand Voices” for a reason. He was absolutely brilliant; his acting in the Looney Tunes cartoons were a huge part of my childhood. I’m already grinning at the idea of Porky or Daffy reading my posts.

I could go on for hours listing awesome potential narrators, but I’d better stop now. How about you? Who would you want to narrate your personal thoughts and writings?

Robin Williams, And Why We Need To Talk About Depression

When I started writing this, I was going to focus on the death of Robin Williams. But looking over all the coverage in the last 48 hours, I’ve realized that such an article would just be repeating the same stories already out there. I could talk about watching Mork & Mindy reruns on Nick at Nite as a kid, or how I saw Aladdin, Jumanji, and Mrs. Doubtfire enough times to memorize every line. I could talk about how legitimately creepy I found him in One Hour Photo and Law and Order SVU. I could talk about how the phrase, “It’s not your fault” still makes me tear up. But you’ve read – and likely experienced – all of that already. It’s amazing how one man can bring together millions of strangers with a common experience of laughter. I wish I had a better story to tell you, that I was trapped in an elevator with him for an hour, or that he held a door open for me one time. But I don’t. I’ve lived in the Bay Area for 30 years, but I never met him.

And now I never will.

If there’s anything positive that can come out of this tragedy, it’s that more people are talking about depression and suicide. It needs to be discussed. Our culture has many proverbial elephants in the room, but depression is one of the biggest and deadliest. Psychology has developed leaps and bounds over the last century, but there’s still so much we don’t know. Lobotomies aren’t a form of treatment anymore, though all the medications and their innumerable side effects aren’t much better. Most folks haven’t bothered to learn anything about depression; if something’s uncomfortable, it’s much easier to sweep it under the rug. There’s an unspoken stigma – especially for men – about mental health. Oh sure, we all know it’s there, but who wants to think about that? It’s so much easier going about your daily life, catching a movie, playing a video game…whatever it takes to keep you distracted from the darker, lesser-known aspects of our existence. Because there’s no way anything like that could happen to you, right?

I know better.

I know what it’s like having that little twinge of doubt consuming your every action and decision. It builds with each passing day, filling and weighing your down like molten lead. I know the burn of stigma and shame, that sense of worthlessness and isolation. That no one could possibly understand. That you’re different, broken, maybe a lost cause. That you shouldn’t bother asking for help, because it’s nothing, it’s all your fault, and no one would want to help you anyway. That you have to pretend and put on a smile, and how exhausting it is. That you can’t fall asleep sometimes, because your brain is spinning like a tire stuck in mud. That you occasionally dread getting up in the morning because it’s yet another day bereft of meaning. That every aspect of your life is conspiring to make you more miserable. That things are so bad now, and the future is a terrifying prospect.

Look, I know you’re out there. You’re sitting in front a screen somewhere, and you’re feeling trapped and alone. I don’t know you, your background, age, sex, gender, ethnicity, circumstances, none of the above. I’m not going to pretend that I get everything about what you’re going through, but I know enough. Depression isn’t just a habit you can kick; it’s there, and it’s a serious, potentially deadly problem. It doesn’t make you a bad or weak person. But leaving it untreated is like putting a rock in your shoe and running a marathon. So, let me ask (and you don’t have to answer, but just think about it): What’s stopping you from getting help? Is it fear of rejection? Insurance coverage costs? Guilt? Whatever it is, are there ways around it? Also, let’s make one thing clear:

There is nothing, nothing wrong with asking for help.

I’m not going to romanticize therapy, either; it’s difficult in ways you’d never expect. It makes you take a long, hard look at yourself, and there’s no instant cure. For some, a couple of pills a day isn’t going to solve your problems. But if you’re going to do anything, then at least talk about it. If you can get therapy, go for it. If not, talk to your trusted family and friends. If not them, support groups and hotlines. Possibly all of the above. If you need to call someone, there are plenty waiting to listen. People can and will help you, but they’re never going to know unless you tell them. And for those of you who know someone in need, be there for them. It’s not about politics, taboos, or whatever else; someone you care about needs your help. I don’t think you’re going to leave them hanging. If you want to learn more about depression and suicide, there are several resources online. Try starting with the entries on WebMD, Wikipedia, and TV Tropes.

I don’t know if this post is going to make any difference. If it helps someone struggling out there, then I’d consider it a success. I’m typically reserved and quiet, so all of this preaching about seeking help from others and whatnot might sound hypocritical. Despite that, I am living proof of my argument; I wouldn’t be here otherwise. I’m not an optimist, but I’d rather fill an empty life than throw it away. Look, I’m not idealistic enough to think that we can change everything about depression overnight; despite all our advancements, we’re barely scratching the surface. But the first step is talking about it. Too many people have lost their lives in the silence already.

I’ve been on the soapbox long enough. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll be on a Robin Williams movie binge.

Soundtrack Saturdays: Goldeneye 007 – Archives

It’s hard to imagine what gaming would be like without Goldeneye 007. Based on the famous James Bond movie, it was one of the finest multiplayer games of its time. Every modern first-person shooter owes something to its design. Up to four players could hunt each other down at the same time, using a plethora of guns, bombs, and knives. The ridiculous amount of codes and secrets (including a functional ZX Spectrum emulator!) made every fire fight entertaining. I doubt I’m the only gamer who remembers the floating mine glitch, or the tedium of tracking down Dr. Doak in the second stage. Despite aging poorly in terms of graphics and simplistic stage design, its fundamental mechanics are solid. The superb soundtrack adds some much-needed ambiance and keeps you engaged in the mission. Nearly 20 years later, you can still find gamers willing to give it another round.

If you want more Goldeneye, you can find the full OST here.

Good gaming, good music.