Trekkies & Trekkies 2

In today’s roundup:

  • Trekkies (1997)
  • Trekkies 2 (2004)


    Trekkies
    (1997)

    2018 #97
    Roger Nygard | 83 mins | streaming | 4:3 | USA / English & Klingon | PG / PG

    Trekkies

    There are quite a few fan documentaries out there nowadays (a few years ago… wait, ten years ago? Bloody hell. Anyway, back then I reviewed the likes of Starwoids, Ringers: Lord of the Fans, and Done the Impossible: The Fans’ Tale of Firefly and Serenity). But before all of those, and I think the first of its subgenre, was Trekkies, which examined the phenomenon of Star Trek fandom — or, rather, the wild, weird extremities of it.

    Trekkies begins with the proclamation that “Trekkies are the only fans listed by name in the Oxford English Dictionary.” That’s not true anymore (“Whovian”, at least, is in there), and that speaks to an interesting truth about this entire documentary. When it was released 21 years ago, Trekkies was exposing a niche thing to wider awareness, and these fans were seen as weirdos, fundamentally. Watching it today, though, you see that it’s mostly just cons and cosplay — stuff that’s been virtually mainstream for a few years at this point. It may’ve once seemed odd for these people to define their lives as “Star Trek fan”, but now, for many people (especially younger people), it’s perfectly routine to be defined by which fandom you’re in.

    Gabriel Koerner in 1997

    That said, Trekkies still managed to find some people who are pretty weird by any standard. At the time the filmmakers received some criticism for this — for creating a film that got laughs out of “look at the weirdos!” while ignoring the more normal side of fandom. That’s not a wholly baseless critique, but I didn’t think the film was cruel. As well as going “aren’t these people nuts!”, I think it does try to dig into why they do it, what they get out of it. I’m not sure how well it reveals the former (I mean, how did any of them go from liking a TV show to… this? It must be some personality thing), but it does a decent job of showing what benefits it brings them. And there are some incredible stories (mainly from interviewed cast members) about how Trek has changed, or even saved, people’s lives.

    Trekkies may’ve lost the uniqueness it once had, with elements of the lifestyle it depicts coming to increasing prominence, but it still remains an interesting look at that kind of world, with some very memorable characters. And if you think it might’ve aged into irrelevance after all this time, there’s a bit about the importance of Captain Janeway as a role model for female leadership and what women can do — we’re still having debates and arguments about that sort of thing over twenty years later, which is, frankly, depressing.

    4 out of 5

    Trekkies 2
    (2004)

    2018 #98
    Roger Nygard | 93 mins | download | 4:3 | USA / English, German, Italian, Portuguese, French & Serbian | PG / PG

    Trekkies 2

    Such is the strangeness of Time that, just 24 hours after I watched Trekkies, I jumped forward seven years to catch up with some of that film’s featured fans in this lesser-seen follow-up. It’s not just repeat visits to old friends, though — if you thought America had a monopoly on crazies, well, Trekkies 2’s got news for you!

    This time out director Roger Nygard and host Denise Crosby take us to Germany (visiting the set of a fan film); the UK (with a guy who turned his flat into a starship, which he’s listed on eBay for $2 million (a couple of years later it sold for c.$840,000, which was still 16 times what he paid for it)); Italy (where fandom is apparently centred around food); Brazil (where a collector has a rare playset from the ’60s… which Crosby accidentally knocks over); Australia (where the fans mainly seem to be female and obsessed with the sexy male cast members); France (which is really just “more international fans”, to be honest); and Serbia (where the series and its values has brought a lot of hope to people in a tumultuous region).

    We also meet more US fans, as the sequel tries to rectify some of the first film’s shortcomings. For example, there’s a much greater section on filk music (which is, basically, music tied to sci-fi/fantasy fandom), as well as some crazy-funny Star Trek punk tribute bands — there’s a whole scene of that kind of thing in Sacramento, randomly. Plus we’re shown the lighter side of fandom, like the theatre company staging a satirical Trek-ified version of Romeo & Juliet.

    German fan film

    And, as I mentioned, we catch up with some old friends, including Barbara Adams, the lady who wore her Trek uniform while on jury duty (and who has a hilarious Trek vs Wars debate with a coworker that’s like something out of The Office), and the film’s break-out star, Gabriel Koerner. A super-geeky teen in the first movie, seven years later he has a wife and has turned his hobby into a career in visual effects. It just goes to show, there’s someone and something for everyone.

    Indeed, overall it’s not quite as “look at the freaks!” as the first film. It takes time to explicitly discuss what’s going too far and what’s normal, and it also highlights how Trek fandom has been a force for good, like raising money for charity, or giving hope in war-torn regions. Consequently it’s not as funny as last time, but probably in a good way — this one’s a bit more thoughtful, a bit fairer to its subjects as people. Ultimately, I think the two films work quite well as a pair. There’s also been talk of a Trekkies 3, which I hope happens — as I mentioned about the first film, attitudes to this kind of fandom have changed massively in the past decade or so (for example, the rise of Comic-Con and its influence), so it would be very interesting to explore that.

    For my money, the most insightful moment in either film comes from Pierluigi Piazzi, a Brazilian publisher of Star Trek books, when he says that “this is a wonderful way to be crazy. Everybody’s crazy, but it’s wonderful this way.”

    4 out of 5

  • Returning to Jedi (2007)

    2015 #91
    Jamie Benning | 148 mins | streaming | 16:9 | UK / English

    Returning to Jedi completes fan/editor Jamie Benning’s trilogy of documentaries about the original Star Wars trilogy with a look at the making of… well, obviously. In case you’ve forgotten, Benning’s “filmumentaries” are most succinctly summarised by the documentary’s own introduction:

    Returning to Jedi is an unofficial commentary. It contains video, audio and information from over one hundred sources taking you deep into the making of Return of the Jedi.

    I’m not entirely sure why, but it felt to me that this might be the best of all Benning’s Star Wars filmumentaries (he’s also completed ones for Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark). It’s not that anything’s drastically different (the format works), it’s just a certain something that made it the most engrossing. Perhaps there was more material to work with — the result is something like 20 minutes longer than Jedi itself, and a good ten minutes longer than the other Star Wars filmumentaries. Doesn’t sound so much when put like that, so maybe I’m making a spurious correlation.

    There’s certainly tonnes of behind-the-scenes footage in this one, more so than the other two. Much of it concentrates on the creation of the special effects, as usual, with particular attention paid to Jabba, the Rancor, and the speederbike chase. As all are noteworthy achievements in effects work, they merit the focus. Audio snippets from various interviews down the years provide some more varied detail. There’s a fair bit of information on variations to the story that were considered and rejected, though it does make it sound like Lawrence Kasdan was desperate to kill someone off: he kept suggesting the likes of Han, Lando, and even Luke should make the ultimate sacrifice, while Lucas maintained no one should die. Kasdan wasn’t alone — Harrison Ford also thought Solo should die, and Mark Hamill expected more darkness for Luke — but I guess they weren’t to be heard by an increasingly autocratic Lucas (reports of him essentially directing Jedi for Richard Marquand, or of his clash with the Directors’ Guild that prevented Steven Spielberg from directing the film, go unmentioned here).

    Highlights include: a look at the set for Jabba’s sail barge and the Sarlacc pit, an enormous raised construction in the Arizona desert that looks incredible; the fact that they consulted a child psychologist, who told them under 12s would think Vader being Luke’s father was a lie unless it was unequivocally stated, hence the scene where Yoda does just that; and a selection of interesting deleted scenes. The wisest deletion was an early scene of Luke building his new saber and hiding it in R2-D2 — how much would that undermine the reveal that Luke had a plan all along? — though also of note are a sandstorm before they leave Tatooine (deleted for pace) and a full-on shoot-out as Han and co enter the bunker on Endor.

    Whether Returning to Jedi is the best of Benning’s work or not is neither here nor there, really. Although their length and the fact they sometimes focus on minutiae probably rules them out for the casual observer, who might prefer a shorter making-of overview if they’re even interested, his trilogy of Star Wars filmumentaries are consistently fascinating for fans.

    4 out of 5

    Returning to Jedi can be watched on Vimeo here.

    Star Wars: The Force Awakens is released in the UK at midnight tonight, and in the US on Friday. It will be reviewed at a future date. (Possibly Christmas Day. We’ll see.)

    This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

    Building Empire (2006)

    2015 #71
    Jamie Benning | 137 mins | streaming | 16:9 | UK / English

    The first of Jamie Benning’s “filmumentaries” looks at the making of sometime Best Film Ever, and widely-accepted Best Star Wars Ever, The Empire Strikes Back (as it used to just be known). To quote the documentary’s own intro:

    Building Empire is an unofficial commentary to The Empire Strikes Back. It contains video clips, audio from cast and crew, alternate angles, reconstructed scenes, text facts and insights into the development and creation of the film.

    It begins with director Irvin Kershner explaining how he came to be involved, though my main observation was how much he sounds like Yoda. Maybe that’s just me…

    From there, there’s a focus on the special effects and how they were achieved. There’s a lot of detail about the myriad effects on Hoth, the creation of the asteroid field, and the puppetry of Yoda, as well as boundless trivia, like detailing the set-extension matte paintings. Other major themes include changes from early drafts and in deleted material; audio differences between the many different versions (not only the various release prints and Special Editions, but audiobooks and the like); commentary from actors on the evolution of their characters; plus detail on the actual filming, including the terrible weather on location in Norway (they were able to shoot some of Hoth’s desolate ice fields within feet of their hotel) and the rigours of the Luke/Vader lightsaber duel.

    My personal highlight of the documentary comes in Cloud City, at the point Lando’s betrayal is revealed. Benning inserts a “deconstruction of an action scene” (Han shooting at Vader; Vader Force-stealing Han’s gun), using uncut footage and B-roll to quickly glimpse how such things are achieved — or were, before “with CGI” was the answer for everything. Here, Benning’s work transcends merely placing rare interviews or behind-the-scenes footage at the appropriate juncture, instead using that material to create something genuinely new and insightful.

    Assuming you’re interested in snippets of minutiae and amusing trivia (if not, these filmumentaries definitely aren’t for you), the downsides are few. It’s a shame that, just occasionally, there are stretches with no additional material (though never for long) when at other times the additions race by in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it flash. There are also quite a few instances labelled “restored music”, but there’s no comment from John Williams, Kershner, or anyone else on why so much was removed and/or changed.

    Niggles aside, I felt like I enjoyed Building Empire even more than its later predecessor (how very Lucas). I’m not saying it’s fundamentally better — just as with Star Wars Begins, for those who love making-of details and trivia, Building Empire is a delightful grab bag of such bits and pieces.

    4 out of 5

    Building Empire can be watched on Vimeo here.

    Star Wars: The Force Awakens is released in the UK this Thursday, and in the US on Friday.

    This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

    Star Wars Begins (2011)

    A Filmumentary

    2015 #63
    Jamie Benning | 139 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | UK / English

    This year, I finally got round to watching the Star Wars Blu-rays I bought back whenever they came out, so I thought what better time to also finally watch Jamie Benning’s trilogy of “filmumentaries”. What’s a filmumentary, you ask? Well, here’s the opening text of the film itself:

    Star Wars Begins is an unofficial commentary on Star Wars. It contains video clips, audio from the cast and crew, alternate angles, bloopers, text facts and insights into the development and creation of the film.

    For those familiar with (Warner) Blu-rays, it’s essentially a fan-made Maximum Movie Mode, though drawing on a wealth of archive resources rather than newly-recorded material. In practice, it plays less like a cohesive “making of” and more like a trivia track on steroids. Only rarely do we learn something fundamental; mostly it’s interesting titbits. But then, this is a documentary made by a fan for fans, and fans love minutiae. Consequently, it sometimes comes from a place of deep fan-ish-ness. For example, it refers to and uses clips from the “Lost Cut”, but never bothers to define or explain what that is (or if it did, I blinked and missed it). Conversely, it occasionally transcends “Star Wars trivia” to unveil general “moviemaking trivia” — how different on-set audio sounds to the final mix; demonstrations of how editing can affect the flow and pace of a scene; and so on.

    Perhaps the highlight are some early deleted scenes. Featuring Luke, Biggs and their friends on Tatooine, and placed to intercut with the droids’ progress and Vader’s search for them (i.e. before we even meet Luke in the finished film), the sequences were removed en masse due to execs’ fears they made the movie feel like “American Graffiti in space”. And for once, an exec was right! They give the movie a completely different tone; more grounded and less mythic. Thank goodness they were done away with, to be honest.

    Another personal highlight was a snippet from a 1978 interview with Harrison Ford, in which the Han Solo actor says Star Wars is not science fiction, it’s science fantasy. He’s bang on the money — it’s a distinction I subscribe to wholeheartedly. I’d always thought it was a more recent argument, but there he is expressing it right after the film came out, not as some decades-later revisionism.

    This is actually the third of Benning’s filmumentaries — he started with Empire and followed it with Jedi, only then going back to where it all began. Maybe there’s a reason for that. Maybe a greater behind-the-scenes scrutiny on the sequels gave him more to work with, producing more in-depth making-ofs, and when he went back to the first he just had to work with what he could find. Or maybe the disjointed trivia grab bag is his style, and here it reaches its apogee. I guess I’ll find out soon enough.

    Star Wars Begins may not be the first port of call for anyone looking for an overview of the making of Star Wars, but it’s a goldmine of behind-the-scenes titbits and occasional candid revelations for anyone with a strong enough interest.

    4 out of 5

    Star Wars Begins can be watched on Vimeo here.

    Star Wars: The Force Awakens is released in the UK this Thursday, and in the US on Friday.

    This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

    Back in Time (2015)

    2015 #161
    Jason Aron | 94 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA, Canada & UK / English

    If you’re on social media (or even just frequent pop culture news sites), you can’t fail to have noticed that Wednesday just passed was “Back to the Future Day”, the exact date Marty McFly and Doc Brown (and Marty’s girlfriend) travel to in Back to the Future Part II. As one of the many, many (many) things that went on to mark the occasion, Netflix debuted this crowdfunded documentary worldwide. Apparently it began life as a film just about DeLorean owners, but then expanded to include Back to the Future fans in general, and ultimately features many of the trilogy’s cast and crew talking about the movies themselves, too.

    So it’s a “fan documentary”, like, say, Starwoids, Ringers, Done the Impossible, or the one it most reminded me of, Legends of the Knight, This focus has not gone down well with some viewers: there’s quite a lot of criticism on Letterboxd from people who clearly expected something else entirely. Far be it from me to judge (haha! S’exactly what I’m about to do), but I didn’t read up much on the doc before viewing and I’d managed to be aware it was about the movie’s legacy and its fans, so I’m not entirely sure what they expected. If you’re not interested in a documentary about a movie’s legacy and its fans, maybe don’t watch a documentary about a movie’s legacy and its fans?

    That said, it does begin with a hefty behind-the-scenes making-of type section about the film in question. Interviewees including Bob Gale, Robert Zemeckis, Steven Spielberg, Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, supporting cast members, production crew, and at least one studio executive, talk us through the genesis of the project, the travails of getting it greenlit, some of the making of the first film (not least the recasting of Eric Stoltz), touch on their imaginings of 2015 for Part II (not least the famous hoverboard), and only mention Part III in the context of it being the end (reiterating that there are no plans for either Part IV or any kind of remake).

    Then it moves on to the fans — what the film means to them, and what that’s led them to do. Those we meet include a couple who travel around the US in a DeLorean fundraising for Michael J. Fox’s charity; the team of aficionados who restored Universal Studios’ decrepit display DeLorean; the family of collectors who own the only film-used DeLorean that will ever be in private ownership; a guy who built a mini-golf course in his yard with a Back to the Future-themed hole that he’s used for charity events with some of the films’ cast; the people who have had some success developing a real-life hoverboard; and the guy who set up a fansite that was so good it became the official site, and is now regularly employed as an official consultant about the films, not least for the rafts of merchandise that comes out these days. We also get a look at the Secret Cinema event in London from a year or two ago that made headlines for all the wrong reasons. Naturally, none of that gets mentioned here (in fairness, because it has nothing to do with Back to the Future itself).

    Finally, there are some “famous” fans: Adam Goldberg, who appears to have created some US comedy show I’m not familiar with that had a Back to the Future-themed episode once; and Dan Harmon, who created Community (which this week was revealed to have helped Yahoo lose tens of millions of dollars, of course) and some animated show that the makers of the documentary clearly assume you’re familiar with (I’m not). Harmon comes across… well, he ultimately doesn’t come across very well, let’s leave it at that.

    Some consumer advice, if you do intend to watch it on Netflix: someone technical has clearly messed up, because the title cards and end credits are completely black, and interviewee IDs flash up for half a second each on a subtitle track. Obviously it doesn’t ruin the overall flow (unless you really want to know people’s names and jobs), but it’s a shame.

    That glaring error aside, Back in Time is not a bad film, provided you know what to expect. It’s a shade too long and the storytelling is occasionally a little jumbled, but there are some nice interviews and stories — hearing Michael J. Fox recount the Royal Premiere where he was sat next to Princess Diana pretty much makes the whole exercise worthwhile.

    3 out of 5

    Back in Time is available on Netflix now.