May 16, 2016

Reconsidering Stargate Universe: "Human"

Robert Carlyle as Dr. Rush and his wife Gloria in SGU's "Human:

Unlike the previous Stargate series, SGU thrives because of its large ensemble. When Young talks about getting his people home, it doesn’t feel like he’s only referring to four people. We constantly see background characters interacting, which creates a believable atmosphere on the Destiny. There are still a few stars that draw the most attention, however. Young is the leader, but it’s really Eli and Rush that steal the show. David Blue is the audience surrogate as Eli and makes him so endearing. Even so, it’s Rush that stands out as the most complex character on SGU. The remarkable work from Robert Carlyle only improves with each viewing. He’s willing to show the darkest sides of Rush, but it’s never just for shock value. There’s a method to his madness even when his behavior is callous towards his fellow crew members.

What makes Rush work is the humanity beneath the character. Carlyle says so much with his eyes; there’s compassion even when he’s being cruel. This episode paints a clearer picture of the trauma that helped create the bitter Rush we know. The loss of his wife Gloria (Louise Lombard) drives his pursuits on the Destiny. Controlling time and space is more important than getting home or playing nice. The wounds of losing Gloria to cancer are still fresh in Rush’s mind. His brain chose one of the worst times in his life because that experience haunts him. The belief that he might change his past through the Destiny is too strong to ignore.

“Human” uses a fairly common storytelling device to explore Rush’s past. Instead of a straight flashback, we see a variation on those moments that connects to his goals to solve the Destiny’s code. It’s no surprise that Robert C. Cooper directed this episode. His three SGU episodes (“Time”, “Human”, and “Malice”) are all excellent and deviate from the show’s regular entries. They move away from the Destiny, and Cooper takes the opportunity to shoot them differently. The bleached look for “Human” makes sense because it’s an artificial version of reality. Rush sees moments from his past, but he’s really viewing a creation from the Destiny’s systems.

Robert Carlyle as Dr. Nicholas Rush in Stargate Universe's "Human"

A Mysterious Beginning

Jeff Vlaming’s script finds ways to explain Rush’s history without too much exposition. We begin with Rush waking up next to a woman in a nice home. He puts on his glasses and immediately starts working on a formula. What’s immediately noticeable is the brightness of this space. We know it’s not the Destiny without having any explanation. Vlaming worked most recently on Hannibal, and he understands how to craft smart TV. “Human” was his only SGU episode, and he made it count. We’re immediately drawn into this story and know it’s quite a different environment. The shot of Rush’s crazy office before the opening credits reveals a man on the brink of madness and sets up an intriguing mystery of what’s to come.

It doesn’t take long before we start to grasp Rush’s actual location. Symbols appear in his vision while he teaches class at the university, and he cares little about his wife’s cancer. Rush is treating this entire day like it’s nothing special. Even when Daniel Jackson appears to inform Rush about the Stargate program, he could care less. All this has happened before, and it will happen again…at least in Rush’s mind. When we finally see the shot of Rush motionless in the chair on board the Destiny, it’s a striking image even after catching the hints before it.

Michael Shanks as Dr. Daniel Jackson in Stargate Universe's "Human"

Dr. Jackson, I Presume

Some fans disliked the appearances of SG-1 cast members on SGU; they seemed to fit within a different universe. I like the way they become supporting players in this new story. It reminds us that we’re still in the same world even if the tone is different. Richard Dean Anderson and Michael Shanks don’t need to make huge adjustments to feel authentic on this show. The situations are more dramatic, but their acting still feels natural. Shanks appeared as Dr. Jackson in a video clip explaining the Stargate program in the pilot. It was refreshing to have him return for a more significant role in this episode. The choice to have Jackson appear as part of Rush’s memories also works. He isn’t just stopping by a brief cameo to remind us of SG-1.

Jackson serves as a bridge from Rush’s personal life and his time on the Destiny. That moment comes near the end of his wife’s struggles and begins his journey to work on the Stargate program. Jackson also provides clues that help Rush unlock the basis for the Destiny’s master code. It’s fitting that an archaeologist who studies ancient symbols would help Rush on his way. There’s also a nice callback to the death of Jackson’s wife Sha’re in SG-1’s “Forever and a Day”. He also was helpless to save her, and that connects to Rush’s inability to help Gloria. Beyond the thematic connections, it’s just great fun to see Shanks playing Jackson once again.

Brian J. Smith as Matthew Scott in Stargate Universe's "Human"

A Careless Adventure

It’s easy to forget the B plot of this story involving Eli, Chloe, Scott, and Greer’s expedition to a new planet. It’s easy to blame the two civilians for leading them into a dangerous situation. They were getting stir crazy on the Destiny and don’t have the military discipline. In a sense, Scott and Greer (plus Young) were more to blame for getting them into this situation. They also suffered from bad luck when a “sizable spider” appeared at the wrong time. Venturing into the unexplored tunnels was foolish, but it was hard to predict what would happen. Their fate is mostly a strong reminder about the dangers of the Destiny’s time limit. Even when a situation appears safe, all it takes is a cruel twist of fate to create serious danger.

While this story line feels like a distraction from Rush’s efforts, there are some good moments. The transparent attempts by Eli and Chloe to explore the planet are charming, and Young’s knowing smile is a nice touch. On a different note, Greer’s serious reply to Eli’s joke of “you scared?” and the brief flashback again hints at Greer’s traumatic past. The slow reveal of the demons from his past is effective and depicted well by Jamil Walker Smith. With each failed attempt to escape, the sense of impending dread increases. The final shot of the four characters standing in disbelief as the Destiny jumps away is a real surprise.

What Have You Become?

The scenes on the planet are really the first act of the next episode “Lost”, which focuses on the search for them. This week’s centerpiece is Rush, who risks his life to enhance their knowledge of the Destiny. The ultimate revelation of the number 46 is secondary to the emotional journey for Rush. Carlyle does remarkable work in the final moments with his wife. The reasoning for his callous behavior to others is on the nose, but Carlyle sells the turmoil. He’s a broken man without Gloria, and it will take great effort for Rush to overcome that anger.

Another interesting aspect is Young’s tough decision on whether to save Rush. If he doesn’t act and Rush discovers new info, that may save the stranded people on the planet. Despite the new information, there’s little Rush can do in such a limited time. Young had faith in Rush, which shows an evolution in their relationship. It didn’t help to solve the crisis, but the extra time allowed Rush to find a clue that could pay major dividends. SGU’s slower pace allows characters to slowly change and interact differently over time. It takes some patience, but the adjustments feel natural over the full season. “Human” is an engaging detour that provides Rush’s history while still driving the story forward. The clue he found sets up greater discoveries down the road.

This article is part of the Reconsidering Stargate Universe series, which takes a up-close look at each SGU episode. Catch up with all the entries on this page.

May 12, 2016

Blind Spots Series: Jailhouse Rock

Elvis gives his famous performance in Jailhouse Rock

Elvis Presley appeared in more than 30 films largely during the ‘50s and ‘60s, but few remain well-known today. Most of them were light musicals that used Elvis’ stardom to draw in audiences. I can’t speak with any authority on his career; I’d actually never seen an Elvis film prior to this experience. Even while doing musical marathons and having other opportunities, I never selected a movie from “The King”. This wasn’t a conscious choice to avoid Elvis; he’s created plenty of good songs. In fact, “Suspicious Minds” is one of my go-to karaoke songs. Somehow his films didn’t attract me in the same way as other music superstars from that era.

When I decided to include an Elvis movie in this year's Blind Spots Series, Jailhouse Rock was the obvious choice. The iconic performance of the title track is everywhere in pop culture. On its own, that sequence promises a fun and upbeat story with energetic songs. Elvis does a choreographed dance number to one of his signature tunes; how can it go wrong? That moment holds up well and does not disappoint. This is the image people will see of Elvis 100 years from now. He’s shaking and swaying at the height of his powers, and it’s clear he’s a superstar. Elvis is alive! There’s even a fun touch at the end where a TV producer chides dancers for missing their marks. That line reminds us that it’s all a tightly produced theater, even within the movie.

I mention that line because it connects to what I find most interesting about Jailhouse Rock. In his performance scenes, Elvis is magnetic but never seems truly authentic. The songs are lip-synced, which is the norm for most movie musicals. Elvis has a rare ability to make the moves feel improvised when they’re really tightly choreographed. When you look beyond the songs, this story is a surprisingly cynical take on the music industry. Elvis’ Vince Everett is a wannabe star who has great talent. However, he also has no compassion for anyone but himself. Women and former pals are just pawns for him to push around in his pursuit of money. It sends a weird message to have Vince be such a total jerk right to the end. He only mellows after he nearly loses his voice, and I doubt that he’ll keep being a changed man after the credits roll.

Elvis Presley and Judy Tyler in Jailhouse Rock

I don’t want to oversell the complexity of this story; it’s quite stilted for the most part. The love story with Peggy Van Alden (Judy Tyler, who tragically died shortly after production ended) has no sparks. She represents the business side of his career and the authenticity he loses. Judy spends a lot of time smiling, but she’s sidelined once Vince’s career starts flying. The other main character is his former jailhouse buddy Hunk Houghton (Mickey Shaughnessy), a country and western singer. When Hunk gets out of jail, he becomes Vince’s lapdog to stay afloat. He also represents something real amid the fakeness of the industry. When Hunk literally punches some sense into Vince, it’s a convenient way for a jerk to start reforming. It’s also laughably clunky.

Elvis first appears on screen at a construction site and quickly kills a man with his bare hands. The story sets up Vince as an anti-hero ready to fight the world. Later on, he violently slaps a studio head after learning that the guy stole his music. Elvis wants to be Johnny Cash, but he comes off like a whiny teenager. There’s no menace to Vince; his punch of a prison guard during a riot comes out of nowhere. He’s very unlikable, but that doesn’t make us root for him. We need some connection that makes him worth following. Elvis only seems at home when performing, and he’s quite stiff in the dramatic scenes. The possible loss of his voice feels like the right comeuppance for Vince. He’s especially mean towards women and takes Judy for granted right until the end.

Released in 1957, Jailhouse Rock was only Elvis’ third film. I suspect that he grew more comfortable on screen later in his career. He also probably didn’t spend too much time playing idiots like Vince. Despite the story issues, this release was a huge box-office success. It arrived during a time when rock ‘n’ roll was grabbing hold with the public. There’s a conflict within the film between youngsters like Vince and the old-school establishment. Judy and Vince even start an indie record label to sell his music. He’s ultimately corrupted by the old guard and wowed by pretty things. A beautiful actress shows up briefly for a romance and then quickly disappears. That whole sequence feels designed to keep Vince from Judy more than anything else.

I’m glad to check this movie off my blind spots list, but it hasn’t sold me on Elvis as an actor. The tale of possible redemption falls short because he doesn’t feel genuine. Inadvertently, it promotes the idea that Elvis isn’t original. There are many intriguing ways to read the film's themes in terms of Elvis’ career, though I’m not the guy to do it. Taken solely as a piece of entertainment, Jailhouse Rock isn’t a complete product. A few great performances aren’t enough to sell the total package.

This is the fourth entry in the 2016 Blind Spots Series. You can preview this year’s list and follow along with future entries through Letterboxd

April 5, 2016

Reconsidering Stargate Universe: "Faith"

The Stargate Universe (SGU) episode "Faith", directed by William Waring

The Destiny is not a comfortable place to live. It may offer incredible views of space, but the accommodations could use some work. People are tired of wearing the same clothes and eating tasteless food. The communications stones can offer glimpses of Earth, but it is another body. The military group might be accustomed to this type of sparse environment, but it still takes its toll. For the scientists and other civilians, they’re ready for something new. That need appears in the form of a beautiful new planet in “Faith” and tempts even several main characters. Will they give up the security of the Destiny for the promise of something greater?

It’s clear that a return to Earth is not forthcoming, and the recent danger from the aliens in “Space” and “Divided” didn’t help. It’s easy to see why T.J. and Chloe would be tempted to join Dr. Caine’s (Tygh Runyan) group on the planet. His faith in their alien saviors is enticing, even if it requires a giant leap. Whether it springs from belief in God or just seeing nature again, the pitch is alluring. The opposition led by Young pitches the “live together, die alone” mantra. They may have issues to overcome on the Destiny, but they’ll solve them as a group. It’s a safer approach on the surface, yet there are extenuating circumstances that may tips the scales.

Young spends much of the episode trying to mend fences after the mutiny. Approaching Rush with hat in hand, he seems committed to a more collaborative style. He’s hardly a pushover, however. His proposal at the end still involves strong arming to ensure his people return. This isn’t the same guy who head butted Rush and left him on the planet, but Young is still enforcing his will. Ensuring the military sticks with him isn’t Young’s real motivation, however. His feelings for T.J. and the importance of Scott make them invaluable. In T.J.’s case, Young doesn’t even have all the information. If he did, his efforts might be even more vigilant to retain her.

T.J.’s Journey

The central figure in this episode is T.J., who finally gets a real chance to shine. The first shot is T.J. waking up to an alarm on board the grim Destiny. Alaina Huffman brings so much heart to T.J. and says plenty with minimal dialogue. The pregnancy story line could easily become a cliché in lesser hands but avoids the narrative trap. Instead, we feel for T.J. and understand why she’d want to stay on the planet. It isn’t the zombie apocalypse, but the Destiny falls well short of being optimal for raising a child. Resources are thin, and there’s always danger around the corner.

Huffman’s real-life pregnancy caused the writers to adjust the story, and it mostly clicks. T.J. is one of the show’s strongest characters, and it’s a relief to see the arc handled well. She doesn’t smile that often, which makes the glimmers of joy even more effective. Sitting next to Chloe on a log, she’s more content than she’s been since they reached the Destiny. T.J. is in her element hiking through the woods and relaxing by a waterfall. The laid-back script from Denis McGrath includes quite a few character moments like that one. Seeing T.J.’s happiness makes her initial decision to stay on the planet feel less abrupt. After a month on the planet, there was little doubt.

The obelisk in the SGU episode of "Faith"

New Discoveries

Despite the slow pace and character-driven story, there are a few mysterious discoveries. The standout is the giant obelisk on the planet, which signifies an advanced civilization. Like Volker and Rush, we’re frustrated to learn so little about this impressive structure. Its presence does give Caine a logical justification that a higher power created the planet. The questions about the planet’s origins are intriguing; something created this Earth-like place way too quickly. It's brave for SGU to test our patience and not reveal more details.

There’s also a strangely brief moment where James uncovers a device on the Destiny that resembles a large robot. Like the city of Atlantis in SGA, this large ship contains plenty of secrets. Even a store room with crates has the chance of providing something new. The lack of more attention on this item shows how the producers are playing the long game. It’s another reason that SGU works better in a binge format. The pieces fit together much easier when there’s less time between each episode. Young’s choice to wait for Rush also connects with the down-to-earth approach. There’s only so much one person can do at once.

Soccer Game in the SGU episode "Faith"

A Break in the Action

The highlight of “Faith” is the music montage that depicts everyday life on the planet and the Destiny. The song “All My Days” by Alexi Murdoch sets the right tone for the joys of the daily routine. A quick shot from a Kino of a soccer game with both military and civilian players says it all. The tension of the recent days wore everyone down, and getting the chance to just be is refreshing. We also see Chloe and Scott reconnecting in a pond, Volker studying the obelisk, and James’ team exploring the Destiny. The last shot of T.J. hiking to the waterfall flows smoothly into the next moment with Chloe. T.J.’s come to terms with the pregnancy and made her choice.

There’s a narrative risk in taking such a slow-burn approach in this episode. After the fireworks of the past two episodes, viewers might want to keep the momentum rolling. It’s a talk-heavy episode, and some conversations like the Eli/Wray chats might feel unnecessary. On the other hand, it’s these small moments that keep us on board with the characters. We saw them fighting and barely surviving for several episodes. It’s good to dial back and re-connect with their humanity. Rush and Wray especially return to less-hostile waters in this story. They may not love the direction of leadership, but they aren’t working to undermine Young.

Louis Ferreira as Colonel Young in SGU's "Faith"

Young’s Risky Proposal

Despite the low-key tone, there are high stakes in the climax of “Faith”. Three main characters have committed to stay on the planet and leave the Destiny for good. Young’s efforts to retrieve Scott and T.J. make sense from a practical standpoint. Scott is a trusted officer who people trust in both the civilian and military ranks. T.J. provides crucial medical support on a ship with little expertise in that area. Like I mentioned earlier, that isn’t the main reason Young risks his life to reach them. He’s trying to keep his friends safe and doesn’t want to lose them (especially T.J.). Young did reject the idea to round them up by force, but he wasn't really taking the high road either.

Young’s pitch to the group seems helpful on the surface. He’ll give Caine’s group a shuttle to help them survive on the planet. The catch is giving up people like Scott and T.J. that could be even more valuable. I’ve barely mentioned Chloe because we don’t get a clear sense of her ultimate motivation. She quietly changes her mind after the others fold. It’s tricky because Young might even believe he’s doing a good thing for the people who stay on the planet. He isn’t trying to be a dictator, yet he leaves T.J. and Scott with little choice.

Faith or a Delusion?

The big question hanging over the conclusion is whether Caine’s belief was accurate. Would his faith lead to the promised land or set up their destruction? His idea that the planet was “created for us” is quite arrogant despite the beauty on the planet. Even so, it’s hard to be too rough on Caine for believing in a higher power. There’s plenty of evidence that something advanced built this world. Young’s statement that he can’t begin to answer whether the planet was a lifeline makes sense. He knows what the Destiny is and can make due in that environment. The planet has too many question marks for a military guy charged with keeping people safe.

The final shots are quite somber and bring a sad conclusion to T.J.’s hopeful story. She stands alone on the ship and has lost the joy we saw in her eyes on the planet. This moment contrasts sharply with Young’s rare smile while enjoying the feast in the mess hall. He’s feeling victorious and doesn’t realize what T.J. may have lost due to his actions. Staying on the Destiny was probably the right move, but the way they returned wasn’t a free choice. It may take a long time for T.J. to recover her brief serenity, and more challenges are coming on the horizon.

This article is part of the Reconsidering Stargate Universe series, which takes a up-close look at each SGU episode. Catch up with all the entries on this page.