Category: science fiction

Star Trek: Just Ad Nauseum


Here’s a script for a fan film that I wrote a few years back. The original intention was to do it as a cartoon, mimicking the style of the 1970s animated series. But animation is a hell of a lot of work. Also, I discovered that William Shatner is really hard to draw. Anyway I came to my senses and never made the film. But I always liked this script. Hope you enjoy it too.



Orbiting a planet. A rather drab, grey, unremarkable planet. (The typical act-opening FANFARE MUSIC plays over this establishing shot of the ship.)

KIRK (V.O.):
Captain’s log, Star Date 2229.7. Our planetary mapping and survey project has entered its third week. The mission continues, without incident.
Any incident. At all.


CHEKOV and SULU at their stations. Chekov plays Tetris on his console. Sulu nodding off. SPOCK works at his science station. UHURA is out cold and SNORING. KIRK slumps in his Captain’s chair, chin on his hand. He stares up at:

THE MAIN VIEWER, displaying the planet – a colorless ball.


Mr. Spock: report.

Spock peers into his sensor display.

Surface is a rocky crust, primarily composed of silica as is typical in Type G planets. Atmosphere is thin and unbreatheable–

As his first officer rambles on, Kirk slouches in his chair. He puts both hands behind his head.

–no volcanic activity, no life forms, no energy sources detected–

Kirk makes a MOTORBOAT SOUND with his lips. He pushes the deck with his shoe and his chair SPINS a complete 360.

Mr. Spock, we’ve discovered the dullest quadrant in the galaxy.

Indeed Captain. This planet bears strong resemblance to the last five we’ve charted. If I may employ an oxymoron: it is strikingly nondescript.

Kirk stares at the planet. His chair arm console BEEPS.

Captain: Scott here. We’ve got a wee problem.

Thank God.


SCOTTY presses buttons on one of the REPLICATORS built into the wall.

It’s the food replicators.

The little door opens. It’s a sandwich. Scotty frowns and hands it to a nearby crewman, and presses more buttons.

Unhappy CREW MEMBERS mill about behind him. All hold trays with identical sandwiches on them.

It dinna matter what you order for dinner, all ye can get off ‘em is a wee toasty.

A what?

Grilled cheese sir.

The replicator produces another sandwich.


From the crowd: a disappointed SIGH.

Cruising through space.

Kirk nibbles unenthusiastically on a grilled cheese.

Alright. Lt. Uhura… let’s liven things up. Music!

Our computer has over 97 million selections, sir. Any preference?

Nah. Put it on shuffle.

Uhura presses a button. A surf-rock version of “TEQUILA” plays. Kirk bobs his head to the music.

Captain, we’re approaching the next planet in the system.

Standard orbit Mr. Sulu.

Aye sir.

ON THE MAIN VIEWER: the planet. Another drab grey ball.

Jeeeeeez! This sucks.

It really does.

Chekov punches buttons on his navigation console. Meanwhile, the SONG that’s been playing ends (the band members shout “Tequila!”). The SONG IMMEDIATELY BEGINS AGAIN.

What’s happening.

Annoyed, Uhura hits a button. “TEQUILA” STARTS ONCE AGAIN, from the beginning.

A different song would be nice–


Or just turn it off–

I can’t even turn it down!

Uhura continues to press buttons to no effect. Spock moves over to assist. The turbo-lift doors SNAP open, and DR. MCCOY walks onto the bridge.

Jim! What’s with the beach party music? It’s being piped all over the ship!

Captain! I’ve just been re-checking our navigation logs. They’ve been tampered with.


Yes sir. We’ve actually been going in circles for three weeks now.

No wonder the planets all look the same!

Spock, still at Uhura’s side, speaks up:

Captain, the Lieutenant’s controls are not responding. Furthermore, the ship’s entertainment library has been completely deleted.


Entirely. Except for one song.

(looks skyward, dramatically)

The song wraps up again. The band members shout “Tequila!”

The obvious conclusion is sabotage.

“Tequila” starts playing again.

Forcing us to eat nothing but grilled cheese? And listen to the same song and map the same planet over and over?!

What kind of sicko would do this?


Captain! I’m in the computer room. You’d better get down here.


“TEQUILA” BLARES AWAY as KIRK, SPOCK and MCCOY enter. SCOTTY is already there. Everyone stares up at a GLOWING BLOB up near the ceiling. Its glowing energy-tendrils are imbedded in the ship’s computer processor.

Spock SCANS it with his tricorder.

Looks like my Auntie’s haggis.

What is that, Spock?

A traditional Scottish dish made with the stomach and entrails of a sheep, haggis–


It appears to be a life form composed of pure energy.

Pure energy? Is that possible?

Quite possible. You may recall our encounter with the Organians, who appeared humanoid but were revealed to be blobs of photonic plasma.

Oh yeah.

Then there was the mischievous Trelane, an immature form from a race of energy beings.


Scotty and McCoy exchange glances. They look bored.

–or the glowing creature that kept Zefram Cochrane alive on planet Gamma Canaris–

Got it. So why is it torturing us?

Each step the creature has taken has maximized repetitiveness and monotony for the crew of the Enterprise. I can only conclude that it subsists on the emotional energy generated in humans by situations lacking in drama.

A creature that… feeds… on boredom? Is that possible, Spock?

Off Kirk’s question, McCoy and Scotty SIGH. McCoy crosses his arms and rolls his eyes.

Indeed, Captain. You may recall the being that made us fight the Klingons with swords in order to feed on our anger.

Scotty picks his nose.


–or the creature that framed Mr. Scott for the grisly murders that keep it sated on emotions of fear and terror–

Oh yeah…

(flicking booger)
How could you forget that?!

The precedent is well-established. Only the emotion in question has changed. This being feasts on feelings of ennui.

You’re laying out a spread for him, Spock.

Kirk regards the creature.

Alright. It had us for a couple of weeks. But now we’re on to it… so why doesn’t it leave? Isn’t the fact that we’ve discovered it enough to end the boredom? I mean, now we’ve got a problem to solve.

But it’s kind of a boring problem–

Aye, it’s not very dramatic.

Then, gentlemen: let’s – get – dramatic!

Another stock shot of the ship in orbit, another MUSIC FANFARE to indicate passage of time.


KIRK has a phaser. He presses a switch on it and it emits a LOW HUMMING. (”TEQUILA” still plays in the background.)

Alright, this phaser is on overload. It should explode in about one minute… killing us all.

SCOTTY, MCCOY, and SPOCK look on. Kirk tosses the phaser to Scotty:

Hot potato!


Scotty, alarmed, manages to catch it and toss to Spock. Spock tosses to McCoy…

Captain, I must point out you are risking the lives of all the command-level officers on the Enterprise.

Kirk catches and tosses back to Spock. The phaser’s WHINING SOUND LOUDER AND HIGHER now…

Keeping it interesting, Spock.

Kirk’s toss goes high, over Spock’s head. Everyone watches as the phaser CLUNKS off the ceiling and disappears behind a control console. Scotty reaches behind it… the PHASER SOUND SCREECHY LOUD NOW…

Nice throw.

I can’t reach it!

Try harder!

I need something – a broomstick maybe.

Now when have you ever seen a broom on this ship, Scotty?

Shut yer gub, McCoy! See if you can reach it…

Kirk studies the creature as McCoy and Scotty struggle to reach the phaser. Spock operates his tricorder.

(reading tricorder)
It’s working, Sir. The creature is losing energy.

Meanwhile: Scotty has McCoy upside down, holding his ankles. McCoy’s head and upper body are wedged behind the console.

All the blood’s rushin’ to my head.

Ye won’t have a head if that phaser goes off!

MCCOY’S HAND QUIVERS, inches from the phaser – he GROANS, straining… the PHASER SOUND SQUEALING, HIGHER and HIGHER…

ON TOP OF THE COMPUTER PROCESSOR, the creature QUIVERS. It releases its tentacled grip on the computer and floats free.

…did it!

MCCOY grabs the phaser.


Scotty hoists McCoy up and they both fall to the ground. McCoy SWITCHES OFF the phaser.
The creature passes through a bulkhead like a ghost, leaving behind a spot of glowing goo on the wall.

The TEQUILA PLAYBACK finally STOPS. Spock scans with his tricorder.

Where’d it go?!

Unknown. But logically, we can assume it will seek shelter in whatever part of the Enterprise is the least exciting.

The “least exciting…” Suggestions, Mr. Spock?


A CABIN DOOR, marked with a nameplate:

The shelves are populated with cute Hummel figurines. A needlepoint sampler with a picture of the Enterprise on it hangs on the wall, captioned “Home Sweet Starship.”

NURSE CHAPEL sits in a chair, quietly HUMMING “Tequila” and working on another embroidery project. Her door BEEPS.

NEW ANGLE: Chapel answers the door. It SNAPS open to reveal MCCOY, KIRK, and SPOCK.

Hi Christine, sorry, but we’ve got to search your cabin.

The men enter, start looking under pillows, etc.

What? Why? What for?

(trying for casual)
Oh, a… alien.

Spock opens the closet.

Here, Captain.

Sure enough: it’s up on the shelf above the coat hangers. Nurse Chapel looks shocked.

That’s not mine!

Now what?

Clearly we can chase the creature from place to place by creating localized disturbances. Our only hope of forcing the creature to leave the Enterprise entirely will be to generate excitement throughout the whole ship.

Throughout the whole ship, huh?

Nurse Chapel has been standing behind the three men. Now she’s frowning:

Wait. You came looking for it in my cabin because you think I’m boring? Whose idea was that?

Nobody. Well… it was kind of a consensus thing.

Right. Somebody brought up my name.

Kirk looks around. McCoy is already looking at Spock, and Kirk glances his way as well. Spock stiffens.

I see.

ANGLE from behind Nurse Chapel. She hides her new needlepoint project behind her back. It says “I (heart) Spock” on it.

Say something, Spock.

Since the creature is in fact here, clearly my supposition was correct.

McCoy winces.


I’ll have you know I have a rich and vibrant inner life!


Once again: the ship in orbit, another MUSIC FANFARE.

KIRK (V.O.):
Captain’s log, Star Date 2229.5: We’ve devised a plan we hope will drive the creature off the ship. To deprive it of any source of sustenance, our plan will have to excite every single crew member at the same time.


KIRK sits in his chair. CHEKOV and SULU are at the helm, UHURA and SPOCK at their stations as usual.

Helm, report.

Course laid in, sir.

Stand by.
(punches a button)
Attention everybody, this is the Captain speaking.


A bunch of MISC. CREW mill around, listening to Kirk on the intercom.

The ship’s engines have lost power and we’re spiraling out of control toward the planet. I’m very sorry. There’s really nothing we can do at this point, and, we’re all going to die. It’s been an honor serving with all of you, thank you, and goodbye. Kirk out.

The crew members stare at each other blankly for a moment. Then everyone starts running around, SCREAMING in panic.


KIRK smiles, satisfied.

Now, Mr. Sulu.

Sulu presses a button.


The ship PITCHES over to one side.


MISC. CREW all stagger and hit the wall. They SCREAM more.


Grinning, SULU hits another button. He laughs… one of those freakishly deep-pitched George Takei LAUGHS.


The ship LURCHES over the other way, and dives down toward the planet.


MISC. CREW stagger and hit the other wall. They all SCREAM again.



Everything VIBRATES. The GROAN of the Enterprise’s straining engines is loud in the room. NURSE CHAPEL ignores it. She is crying, and talking to the energy creature in her closet.

I don’t blame you. It’s not your fault he thinks I’m dull. No. There’s only one person I can blame for that, and that’s–

The energy creature quivers, and disappears through the back wall of the closet. Chapel frowns:

Oh I’m sorry, was I boring you?!


Her cabin door opens, and NURSE CHAPEL strides out. She spots the ENERGY BLOB and follows it as it floats down the hallway. She staggers a bit as the ship LURCHES in its death-spiral.

Hey! I was talking to you! You low-budget-lookin’ piece of crap energy creature! You think I’m boring!?

Chapel follows the creature into the turbo-lift.

I’ll show you how boring I am… uh, not!

The turbo-lift doors SNAP shut.


The grey landscape of the planet hurtles past on the viewscreen. The Enterprise is losing altitude. Loud ENGINE SOUNDS and RATTLING.

Impact with planet surface in 2 minutes Captain.

Maintain course and speed, helmsman. Uhura: buzz Nurse Chapel and see if the creature is still in her closet.

It’s not…

Kirk turns. In fact, the creature is emerging through the closed doors of the turbo-lift. It hovers near Uhura’s console. Everyone stares.

The ENGINES ROAR, ever louder. The PLANET SPINS PAST on the viewer…

Depleted energy readings from the creature. It’s working, Captain!

Then why doesn’t it leave?

The rest of the crew is terrified. But those of us here on the bridge know the danger is not real.

Impact in 90 seconds. Unless I press this little green button, of course.

OK, we need something really exciting to push it over the brink. Everybody think!

The turbo-lift doors SWOOSH open. NURSE CHAPEL walks out, a crazed look on her face. She glares, fiery-eyed, at Spock.

ANGLE ON SPOCK: one eyebrow goes up.

Chapel strides toward Spock and takes his hand. Spock rises to face her.

Kiss me, you big dummy.

Chapel plants one on Spock. Spock breaks it off.

Nurse, this is highly–


She embraces Spock with both arms, dips him, and passionately resumes kissing him.

Kirk stares. So do Uhura, Sulu and Chekov.

The energy creature QUIVERS, and visibly CONTRACTS. Kirk gets up and approaches it, to get a better look.

Keep it up you two. It’s working!

Impact in 30 seconds.

Everybody, kiss each other. That’s an order!

Kirk begins kissing on Uhura, seated at her console. Uhura’s earpiece falls out.

Sulu looks over at Chekov.

Orders are orders.

Chekov and Sulu start making out.

For a moment we just cut back and forth between the three kissing couples and the quivering creature, as the RED ALERT KLAXON BLARES and the planet surface rushes ever closer…

WIDE SHOT – everyone on the bridge is kissing.

THE CREATURE IMPLODES, splattering glowing goo on the walls. Kirk breaks from his clinch with Uhura:

Press that button, Mr. Sulu!

Sulu reaches over to his console, while continuing to kiss Chekov. He presses the button.

ON THE VIEWSCREEN, the planet surface RECEDES as the ship gains altitude…

Everyone stops kissing.

Kirk wipes a bit of goo from his face.

Nice work everyone.

Kirk smiles at Uhura. Sulu gives Chekov a wink.

Nurse! Very inspired!

Thank you, Captain.

Chapel and Spock are quite drenched in goo, since they were closest to the creature.

You two, go get cleaned up.

As the two exit via the turbo-lift, Kirk returns to his command chair and punches a button:

All hands, this is the Captain. Forget what I said before, about the crashing and the dying. False alarm. Sorry.

SPOCK rides in goo-covered silence with NURSE CHAPEL. He looks at her. Chapel smiles back, confidently.

So. Still convinced I’m the dullest member of the crew, Mr. Spock?

I am… pleased to re-assess my views, Nurse. Your solution to our dilemma, while unorthodox, was also completely logical. And quite innovative. My congratulations.

The turbo-lift stops, and the doors snap open. Chapel leans in close to Spock before disembarking:

Glad you liked it, Spock.

Spock swallows and TURNS SLIGHTLY GREEN.

Chapel turns and exits. The turbo-lift doors shut.

Spock puts a hand to his forehead, wiping away a spot of goo. He raises one eyebrow.


TEQUILA plays once again as the Enterprise leaves orbit and sails off into the stars…




Consumption: 2018

A moment from Leigh Whannell's UPGRADE

Leigh Whannell’s UPGRADE

I keep this list every year, for fun and for reference. The list only reflects films seen for the first time.

I don’t do a numbered ranking, but my #1-most-fun-I-had-at-the-movies award goes to Leigh Whannell’s UPGRADE. Visually inventive and spectacularly violent, this rough-and-ready cyberpunk B-movie felt like a return to the days of ROBOCOP, or peak John Carpenter. Bravo!

Kudos, too, to the makers of SPIDERMAN: INTO THE SPIDERVERSE. It’s got heart, it’s got style (more than one, actually) and it’s so smart, fast, funny and original it makes all the other superhero movies look kinda stupid by comparison.

Have you ever been watching a movie when a moment comes along that suddenly shifts your entire sense of what it is you’re watching? I LOVE that. It’s rare to get even one of those in a film, and it happened to me twice while watching Ali Abbasi’s BORDER. This one’s about a Swedish customs officer who can literally smell fear. That’s all I knew going in, and all you need to know too. Don’t read the reviews.

I’ll buy that for a dollar! Boots Riley’s SORRY TO BOTHER YOU takes place in the same universe as ROBOCOP and Terry Gilliam’s BRAZIL. That’s just my theory. But it’s true.

Other 2018 theatrical standouts for me included ANNIHILATION, A QUIET PLACE, THE FAVOURITE (seen in 2019 so it’s not on this list) and (sniffle) WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?

On the TV series front, favorites at our house included The Crown, The Good Place, Better Things, Travelers, and Killing Eve.

The rise of Netflix streaming is very much in evidence in this year’s list. Standouts include Tamara Jenkins’ note-perfect PRIVATE LIFE (Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn as a middle-aged couple racing against their biological clocks), and writer/director Macon Blair’s 2017 release I DON’T FEEL AT HOME IN THIS WORLD ANYMORE. By turns funny and violent, the latter stars Melanie Lynskey as Ruth, a woman in way over her head as she tries to recover her grandmother’s silverware from some burglars. Ruth’s simple, heartfelt plea is one for our times: “For people to stop being assholes.” Amen, honey.

Linked titles take you to my review, or more info on the film.

The Shape of Water
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
The Post
Black Panther
Darkest Hour
A Wrinkle In Time
Isle Of Dogs
A Quiet Place
Finding Your Feet
Solo: A Star Wars Story
Incredibles 2
American Animals
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom
Bohemian Rhapsody
Spiderman: Into The Spiderverse
First Man

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping*
Double Indemnity
Dr. Strange
Hunt For The Wilderpeople
My Happy Family
Beauty And The Beast (2017)
All That Heaven Allows
The Secret Life Of Pets
I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore
The Passion of Joan of Arc
Table 19
For The Love of Spock
Don’t Breathe
The Florida Project
The Informant!
Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story
Battle Of The Sexes
The Endless
Take Me
E Il Cibo Va
Henry Fool
The Land Of Steady Habits
Game Night
Private Life
The Trip To Italy
Book Club
Sorry To Bother You

The Crown
Rick and Morty
Modern Family
The Good Place
Better Things
The Orville
Big Little Lies
Abstract: The Art of Design
The Great British Baking Show
Killing Eve
The World’s Most Extraordinary Homes
F*ck That’s Delicious
Black Mirror: U.S.S. Callister

Spill Zone – Scott Westerfeld
The Best American Short Stories 2009 – ed. Alice Sebold
Orfeo – Richard Powers
Creatures of Habit: Stories – Jill McCorkle

*Surprise, Motherfucker!

6 tweets about THE SHAPE OF WATER


  1. You guyssss… I know it’s been a pretty weak movie year but SHAPE OF WATER is not a masterpiece. Don’t go soft on me you saps.
    #ShapeOfWater #YabtM
  2. Also, you DO realize it’s SPLASH, right? It’s. SPLASH.
  3. I mean, I enjoyed it. It’s not terrible. It’s heart is in the right place, I guess. I’m def. 100% against sadistic govt guys inexplicably torturing fish-men
  4. “Inexplicable” is overstating it. It was the space race. Something to do with Laika the space dog. Anyway, Michael Shannon had his reasons.
  5. I liked Sally Hawkins & Richard Jenkins. I liked their characters & relationship. I liked the sets. Fish-man was handsome.
    And it was funny when he SPOILER ALERT
    ate the cat
  6. OH, and what’s all that “waiting for the rain so the canal is full” business? Just drive to the damn beach.

I’m @giantspecks on Twitter. Occasionally Yelling About Movies #YabtM with my friends. Come say hi. Or yell back!

John’s 2017 Productivity Report



This cartoon by Jules Feiffer first came to my attention via Stewart Stern, a wise and lovely man who knew a thing or two about writing AND writer’s block.

2017 Goal #1: Finish my feature screenplay spec BARTENDER OF THE YEAR and submit it to the Nicholl Fellowship in April.

Goal achieved? NO

Not only did I blow past the Nicholl Fellowship and every other contest deadline this past year, I am nicely on-track to miss a bunch of 2018 deadlines too. I’m currently 100+ pages into a terrible, no good, very bad first draft. Writers sometimes call the first draft the “vomit draft,” the goal being getting it done, not making it good. But rather than a full-throated purge, progress on BARTENDER OF THE YEAR has advanced in a series of minuscule puke-belches.

BARTENDER is a comedy-drama about a popular local mixologist who runs for office in his small town. It’s also my challenge to myself to write a movie outside my comfort zone: one with no science fiction elements or high-concept gimmicks to propel the story. And it’s propulsion, sure enough, that has been lacking. In my darkest moments of plotting this thing I’m convinced I know nothing about writing, human nature, normal human speech, or how the everyday affairs of human beings are conducted. I feel as if I’m bluffing my way through everything.

And then other days… it’s better. A lot better. Experience has taught me the only way out is through. Push, work, WRITE until the work becomes the thing that occupies your mind instead of the fear.


Goal #2: Search for material

Goal achieved? YES

Itching to get a project into prep, this year I decided to put on my producer hat and start looking for screenplays. I didn’t find anything I wanted to option, but I made the effort and read a pile of scripts. (I’m still itchy. If you’re interested in sending me something, please read this to learn more.)


Goal #3: AFX training

Goal achieved? NO

This year I bought myself a nifty (and pricey) new MacBook with the intention of updating my knowledge of Adobe After Effects. The ability to create pro-level motion graphics and visual effects “in-house” would hugely expand the range of projects I can execute DIY-style. And, it’s never a bad thing to have more marketable skills. But I had an ambitious list of goals for 2017 and something had to give, so this one resides on the back-burner. I needed a new computer anyway, honey. Really.


Goal #4. Take a beginning improv class

Goal achieved? YES

Every Monday for 10 weeks this past year I stood up with a group of strangers, playing silly improv games with them and making up scenes on the spot. I said and did the first stupid-ass thing that came into my mind. Something different, to maybe blow some cobwebs out of the brain. Not as embarrassing as anticipated. Signing up for the intermediate class in January.


Goal #5. Other writing

Goal achieved? YES

OK, admittedly “other writing” is a pretty nebulous goal, so it’s easy to call this one a win. I did work on things besides BARTENDER OF THE YEAR in 2017… and even finished some of them.  For instance, an 8-page short called FROG, which I’m pretty happy with. It’s a two-hander about a disabled intern who befriends the super-intelligent frog she meets one night in a university computer lab. It was written expressly for the Jameson First Shot contest and if it had won, the script would have been produced with actor Dominic West providing the voice of the frog. Alas, that didn’t happen, but FROG did quarter-final in the ScreenCraft Short Screenplay contest in September.

Screen Shot 2017-12-30 at 1.38.29 PM

context is everything

One of the best writing experiences I had this past year happened at the day job, imagine that: Armstrong Creates, the agency I’ve worked at for mumble-mumble years now. I’m a generalist there, which means I might be retouching photos one day and cooking up an ad campaign the next. When a client (a manufacturer of corks for the wine industry) decided they wanted a concepts for a promotional video, I whipped up a script for a comedy sketch that takes place entirely inside a wine bottle. The wine and the cork are personified (think the Fruit of the Loom guys), best buddies who’ve grown very close over the years as the wine ages. They even sing a duet together. Like so many concepts, this pitch never made it out of the conference room. Too bad: I think it would have turned out well. Would have been an absolute blast to shoot, too. Given that, what exactly made this a good writing experience? Well, I got paid, for one thing. But more to the point: starting from zero I cranked out a completed script – one I was really happy with – in the matter of a couple of hours. It was exhilarating, and a welcome reminder that I don’t really need inspiration. I just need a deadline. So sure, my concept got rejected, but I went home happy that day. And the experience helped me shake off the torpor I’d been fighting much of the year.

Back at home and re-energized, I finally wrote up a first draft of ANAESTHESIA, another short film idea that I’d been kicking around for too many years. I’m also compiling notes for a new feature script, the one I’ll write once BARTENDER is in the bag. I don’t know the title yet. But it’s a sci-fi comedy about an alien invasion. Yeah, back to the comfort zone. I gotta be me, I guess.


6 tweets about COLOSSAL


  1. Given COLOSSAL’s fun premise, the film that unfolds is not quite the romp you might expect.‬
  2. COLOSSAL puts Kaiju monsters & indie-film slackers into a genre blender. Like many smoothies the result is a bit lumpy & faintly sour
  3. The lumps: Characters poorly defined. Plot threads meander. Some end abruptly and add little. Even the monster origin story is half-baked.
  4. The sour: characters aren’t typical indiefilm losers. Not clever/charismatic enough. The range is more like “pathetic” to “pathological”
  5. Premise pulls you through the rough patches, even as COLOSSAL turns darker. One scene evokes mass carnage without showing a drop of blood.
  6. And as stakes rise, COLOSSAL rallies. The film deploys its cleverest notion near the end, delivering a satisfying resolution.

I’m @giantspecks on Twitter. Occasionally Yelling About Movies #YabtM with my friends. Come say hi. Or yell back!

6 tweets about LIFE (the movie, not the existential dilemma)

Ryan Reynolds in LIFE

  1. LIFE is not a bad movie, but it’s a B-movie. ‪#LIFEmovie‬ ‪#rental‬
  2. So yeah, if you liked the trailer that’s what the movie is. No more, no less.
  3. There IS a long, lovely single-take intro that’s maybe the best zero-g scene ever in a space movie
  4. There’s also a major action scene toward the end that just doesn’t work very well, IMO
  5. But there’s tension/suspense, gross-outs & scares. Things zip along in a 10-little-Indians way that can’t help but remind you of ALIEN.
  6. The ending (SPOILER!) reminded me of the ’70s when big studio pictures more often than not went “tails” at the end instead of “heads”

I’m @giantspecks on Twitter. Occasionally Yelling About Movies #YabtM with my friends. Come say hi. Or yell back!

Beyond Recognition

Karl Urban and Zachary Quinto in STAR TREK BEYOND

Karl Urban and Zachary Quinto in STAR TREK BEYOND

Star Trek, we need to talk. We’ve had a lot of good times. But we’re both in such different places now. I’ve grown. You’ve shrunk.

I never saw INTO DARKNESS. After STAR TREK (2009) I decided to save myself the aggravation. But I was one of the hopeful fans who’d heard STAR TREK BEYOND would be the course-correction the series needed. I got burned again.

Initial reports that this one “got it right” were probably based on a few quiet scenes between McCoy (Karl Urban) and Spock (Zachary Quinto). The casting has always been the best thing about these reboot movies, and indeed, here they kinda get the dynamic: Spock and McCoy bicker but underneath we can tell they respect each other. Fine. The bar is pretty low if we’re pleased with 10 minutes of chit-chat amid two hours of frenetic nonsense.

I won’t waste anyone’s time with a plot synopsis, but BEYOND kicks off with Kirk whining into his Captain’s log that he’s basically bored (what) with the routine (WHAT) of his 5-year mission. Exploring strange new worlds and boldly going has apparently become a big drag. I wanted to slap Chris Pine. Imagine original series Shatner/Kirk expressing this. It would never have happened. Here, the reboot (or “Kelvin timeline,” if you must) gets fundamental traits of both Kirk and the franchise wrong. This scene was Star Trek putting itself on the psychiatrist couch, trying to diagnose its own malaise. It’s not you, Jim: it’s the scripts.

But J.J. Abrams (director on the first two reboot pics, producer on BEYOND) has never respected the source material. He’s never treated Star Trek like anything more than a gig. He said he tried to watch the original series but “couldn’t get into it.” So he ripped it to shreds and picked out the bits that looked shiny to him. The end result is some kind of assemblage that only vaguely resembles Trek. In this metaphor I think Abrams is either some kind of primitive folk artist or maybe a crow.

But if you like movies made by crows, there’s plenty of shiny bits here to keep you busy. Kirk rides a motorcycle! The Enterprise gets smashed (again), and then the crew blows up the bad guys with an old Beastie Boys tape! Neat! And director Justin Lin never, ever, ever stops moving the camera.

In a rare quiet moment near the end of the film, Spock pulls out a picture of the original cast (from WRATH OF KHAN, I believe) and silently gazes upon it. More soul-searching, maybe: “where did we go wrong?”

Star Trek, I came back to you. I thought you’d changed. I thought maybe it could be like it was before, when we were both younger. But I got hurt again. So this is goodbye.

At least until May, when Discovery debuts.

I’m @giantspecks on Twitter. Occasionally Yelling About Movies #YabtM with my friends. Come say hi. Or yell back!

Time is an inky circle


This post contains spoilers for ARRIVAL.

ARRIVAL is one of those rare birds, a sci-fi movie for grownups. It’s aesthetically and conceptually elegant and at the same time very moving, and if you haven’t already, you should see it before you learn too much. Not that there is a huge and sudden reveal: there is no SIXTH SENSE moment. At least, there wasn’t for me: it was more a gradual, growing awareness of the story’s main premise and all its implications.

The protagonist of ARRIVAL is linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), recruited to communicate with alien visitors who have appeared in our skies. As the story begins, language is seen by all the characters in the film as a means to an end. Slowly and simultaneously, you and the characters on screen come to realize language itself is the point.

Central to the film is the notion that language shapes perception. As Louise learns to parse the aliens’ looping pictographs she also acquires their ability to perceive time in a non-linear way. Exploring this concept, ARRIVAL does that amazing thing science fiction can sometimes do: it re-situates you, offering a unique vantage point from which to consider the conscribed parameters of your human experience. After seeing it, your own inability to perceive events before they happen may feel to you a sorry limitation, like a kind of blindness.

Screenwriter Eric Heisserer employs non-linear story structure to represent Louise’s expanding perception. As directed by Denis Villeneuve, it’s a fairly daring tactic that tosses the audience without warning or cues into key scenes in Louise’s future. A sequence in which Louise and a high-ranking Chinese general collaborate to avert global catastrophe is breathtaking, cross-cutting between Louise’s present and future while defying notions of cause and effect.

But the film is not just a think piece: in ARRIVAL, the intellectual and the emotional are unified, inseparable. For Louise’s newly expanded perceptions also allow her to foresee a great personal tragedy. Ultimately she embraces the choices that will lead to that tragedy, fully aware of the terrible cost. I found myself turning her decision over and over in my mind for days afterward. That says everything about the strength of the film.

I’m John Harden. I also write and direct. I’m on Twitter as @giantspecks, sometimes Yelling About Movies with my friends. Come say hi. Or yell back! #YabtM

That time Supergirl made me cry


Melissa Benoist as Supergirl

Currently I’m watching two very different TV shows: SyFy’s The Expanse and CBS’s Supergirl. The differences between them, and how I find myself reacting to them, is making me think a lot about what’s really important in storytelling.

The Expanse is SyFy Channel’s prestige programming. It’s complex. It’s dark. It looks expensive. It takes itself very seriously. It tries very hard, but often to little effect. Supergirl, on the other hand, doesn’t hardly seem to be trying at all, but the emotional payoffs have been surprisingly powerful.

The storylines in Supergirl are your basic, primary-colors comic book stuff. No gritty re-imagining here. It’s not a perfect show: dialogue can be clunky, and effects and production design are often pretty cheesy as well. The stories are quite simple. But they resonate, because the writers are working basic, relatable themes: family loyalty, prejudice, anger vs. self-control.

The character of Supergirl (aka Kara) illuminates how important backstory can be to creating a relatable character. Like her more famous cousin, Kara was rocketed to Earth in a little space capsule by parents who stayed behind to die on doomed homeworld Krypton. The big difference between the two of them: Kal-el (Superman) was a baby when he left Krypton. Kara was 12. This simple fact makes Supergirl a much more interesting character than Superman, and has been driving the best story moments all season. Kara remembers her home, and her parents, and she misses them terribly. At times, torn between her human and Kryptonian identities, she literally feels alienated from the human race. She has anger issues. Think about that one for a minute: Supergirl has all the powers of her cousin. If she really came unglued, she could do a lot of damage.

We got a glimpse of that in the episode where Supergirl was temporarily turned bad by some red kryptonite. It revealed an inner life full of resentments, and made me think about her in a way I never had with Superman. (This hour also featured some of the best acting ever seen on the show, and yes, this is the one that made me cry.)

Ultimately, Supergirl’s corn and goofiness don’t matter: I understand the characters and I want to know what they’ll do next. I am entertained.

“Entertainment,” I imagine, is probably not a word that comes up much as often as it should in The Expanse writers’ room. To their credit, it feels like they are smart people working very hard at the 10,000-foot level to honor the big story arcs of the books (I haven’t read them).

SyFy's The Expanse

SyFy’s The Expanse (Photo by: Jason Bell/Syfy)

The show plays a long game, over the course of the first season setting up political tensions on an interplanetary scale between Earth, colonial Mars (now an independent state), and the Belters, roughneck denizens of the industrialized asteroid belt. But big things are made up of little things. And The Expanse is rarely compelling at the smaller scale, the scale of viewer engagement – that is to say, individual scenes and episodes. (See Game of Thrones to observe how a show develops big story arcs while simultaneously making things work moment-to-moment. Personally, I’m not much into swords-and-sorcery stuff, but I’ll make an exception for GoT because… well, because that shit is undeniably gripping.)

The weaknesses of The Expanse are instructive to me because as a sci-fi guy I’m enamored with all the things it counts as virtues: the detailed world-building, the realistic hardware, the getting the physics of space travel (mostly) right. Yet, all through season 1, I struggled to stay with it because I didn’t much care about what was happening. There was a glimmer of hope in episode 2, when space-freighter guy Holden logged a distress call in direct violation of captain’s orders, forcing them to change course & try to help. Stakes! Conflict! Characters are what they do, and I saw Holden make a hard choice to do the right thing, regardless of the consequences. So now I’m in his corner. As the show has progressed, it’s been interesting to see Holden become the de facto leader of the Rocinante crew, despite the fact that they all rightly blame him for the pickle they’re in. I hang onto Holden and his gang to stay afloat in a sea of I-don’t-care.

But those scenes aboard the Rocinante are only about one-third of the show. The UN/Earth scenes are all talk. I just wait for them to end. The Ceres scenes are tough going too, but for different reasons. Sorry, maybe I’m a bad person, but I don’t care about the downtrodden people of Ceres. Oh, hey, you know who I cared about? Those mutants on Mars in Paul Verhoeven’s TOTAL RECALL. The Ceres scenes kinda bring those guys to mind. Again, stylistically far goofier than the grimness of The Expanse, but in TOTAL RECALL the basic requirements of drama had been met: I got to know the mutants. Early scenes introduced some of them to me as individuals, so when their oxygen got cut off, it hurt. The people on Ceres, by comparison, are an undifferentiated bunch of rabble. They are a symbol. And because they are a symboI, it doesn’t much matter to me whether they have air and water.

Furthermore, I didn’t care about the missing girl – the other part of the Ceres storyline – because again, I’ve been given no reason to care. Onscreen for maybe 10 seconds, at the beginning of episode 1, what we were shown of her was totally cryptic. I understand we were building a mystery, but if I can’t be told any info about the girl because it’s a mystery, I better damn well care about the guy who’s trying to solve the mystery for 10 episodes… but I come up empty there too. I don’t know why he’s working on this case except that his boss told him to. Oh, and I think he fell in love with a snapshot of the girl. Really?

There’s also the problem of uniformity of characters. Personalities in The Expanse range in disposition from “tough-but-fair” to “mass-murderer,” so inevitably we’re steeped in hard-boiled dialogue, all delivered with unblinking stares. It gets old. To differentiate the characters, some of them have accents, and a few of them are women (UN lady and mohawk girl*). This is the same flaw – wall-to-wall second-rate tough talk – that very nearly made me bail on season 1 of Netflix’s Jessica Jones, before that show was redeemed around mid-season by virtue of its terrific villain.

There are other things about The Expanse that make watching something of a chore. There’s a triple-whammy of accents, slang, and an invented language, compounded by characters who mumble, or whisper, or struggle with English pronunciation (UN lady). I’m not sure how much a crummy stereo mix has to do with it, but I for one am constantly rolling the DVR back trying to tell what’s being said. I should just turn on the subtitles I guess.

Finally, The Expanse is sometimes hobbled by what seems like indifferent direction. There are fumbled opportunities to build suspense and pay it off with action. Setups are poor, so when action comes, I’m surprised or confused. Moments that should have visceral impact slip by because I’m trying to interpret them. Hey, somebody in a spacesuit (can’t tell who) just did something! A gun went off! Whose gun? Which way was it pointed?

Happily, there are exceptions to this. Most notably, a terrific scene in the season’s final episode, set in the lobby of a seedy space hotel. Pretty much every character in the show arrived there at once, all of them looking for the mystery girl. What transpired next was a long, wordless scene as the suspense built, and built, and built… and was finally paid off with a shootout that was absolutely bananas. I was grinning.

The Expanse is telling a complicated story. For that, it should be applauded. I’ll bet I’ve been more patient with it than your average viewer, but, like an average viewer, I am tuning in for entertainment. I want a payoff. So far, The Expanse’s payoffs have been kind of meager. I’m hanging in there, hoping it will get better. Rooting for it, really, because on many levels The Expanse is just what I always wanted in a sci-fi TV show. It’s been renewed for a second season, and I’m glad. It would be a shame to see it go away. There’s a lot of potential there.

*After an entire season I can’t remember anybody’s name except Holden’s. For that I’m not going to apologize… or Google, for that matter.

Our view stats on Vimeo during our busiest week to-date

Thousands of eyes on us

Our sci-fi short film NEW debuted online November 2, and the response has been very gratifying indeed. As I write this post, we’re coming up on our 15,000th view. For a three-day period in early November, we were clocking around 3000 views per day! Those might not be spectacular numbers for, say, a 30-second kitten video, but for a quiet, 17-minute drama it’s pretty damn great. Even better: the smart comments the film has received. More about that in a moment.

Vidsee postThe film has been featured at sites like Film Shortage and Alltop. And I particularly enjoyed the generous selection of screen caps and long, English-as-a-second-language plot summary over at Singaporean short film site VidSee. Fun… but don’t read it if you haven’t seen the film yet!

Last week, I did an interview for a TV station in Switzerland called BeCurious TV – they’ll be airing that interview soon, along with NEW and two of my other shorts.

Best of all, we’ve been covered at, the go-to site for all things science fiction. I’ve been trying to get them to write about NEW for over two years! They were my white whale. Back when we were crowdfunding the budget, I sent the editors emails brimming over with all the charm I could muster, detailing the sci-fi epic being cooked up in their very own backyard (the site is based in San Francisco). All to no response… until now. Fair enough. I imagine they wanted to have a finished film to show people before writing about us.

But write abOur review at io9out us they did, last month, with a nice review that declared NEW “pretty heartbreaking.” When their story was published, it shot our view count through the roof for a couple of days. A month later it’s still a major driver of traffic to the film. Thank you, io9.

Click the image to read the review, and then take the time to savor the hardcore sci-fi discussions happening in the comments. You can see the viewers digging in, debating story points and extrapolating on the future glimpsed in NEW. No one is discussing whether the film is any good or not – that bar has been met for them. Following what was a just-okay festival run, it’s immensely satisfying for me to see NEW really finding its audience like this.