‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ is a Better than Expected Reboot

The Amazing Spiderman poster

When “The Amazing Spider-Man” was finally released in movie theaters everywhere, we finally got to answer the question nagging at us: isn’t it far too soon for a franchise reboot or remake or whatever the hell you want to call this? Well, the answer ends up going both ways here as Marc Webb’s film does tread familiar ground, but it gets better as it goes on. This time, our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man has a lot more edge to him and is a little more complex than he was in the Sam Raimi-directed movies.

This version starts off with a very young Peter Parker being left in the company of his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field) by his parents, Richard and Mary Parker (Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz), who are forced to leave town under mysterious circumstances. Forward several years later, and Peter is now a sullen teenager played by Andrew Garfield, one of several actors who should have gotten an Oscar nomination for “The Social Network.”

Like before, Peter is a social outcast who is not exactly the most popular person on the high school campus. But unlike Tobey Maguire’s interpretation, Peter here is sullener this time around; sensitive and shy while dealing with anger at the life he has been dealt which is anything but normal. In essence, he is more of a real-life teenager than he was in previous incarnations; confused about his place in life and unsure of himself. “The Amazing Spider-Man” hence becomes the story of a young man on a journey to find himself, and this helps ground the superhero in a reality we all know and understand.

The first part of “The Amazing Spider-Man” made me a bit impatient as it travels through all the things leading up to Peter adopting his alter-ego. Sam Raimi’s first “Spider-Man” movie may have come out ten years ago, but its images are still fresh in our minds. I’m not just talking about Kirsten Dunst kissing Maguire while he hangs upside down. Still, Webb and company do their best to make the material their own. The moments where Garfield develops his power to swing from place to place is exhilarating to watch, and whereas Raimi’s “Spider-Man” movies were like a comic book brought to life, Webb deals with Peter Parker in a more realistic fashion.

Speaking of Garfield, he has repeatedly said how happy he was to get this role, and the thrill he gets from playing this iconic comic book character is clearly on display. Throughout “The Amazing Spider-Man,” the actor looks to be having the time of his life, and he certainly has earned the right to enjoy himself based on his excellent performance here as he makes this role his own. I also really liked was how he wasn’t afraid to make Parker unlikable at times. Clearly this is a young man with issues, having lost his parents in a way no child should, and the actor makes Parker’s confusion over what is expected of him all the more palpable.

Matching Garfield scene for scene is the wonderful Emma Stone who plays his highly intelligent love interest, Gwen Stacy. Stone shares a strong chemistry with Garfield, and she gives the role a feisty kick which makes her so much fun to watch. She also infuses her Gwen with a strong humanity which keeps her from being just another love interest, and her performance goes way beyond what we could have expected.

Rhys Ifans portrays Dr. Curt Connors, once a friend of Parker’s father, who is developing ways to regrow limbs and human tissue. But something ends up going terribly wrong, as it always does, with an experiment, and he is soon turned into The Lizard. The dilemmas this character faces are not too different from what Norman Osborn/Green Goblin character dealt with, but Ifans makes the character a fascinatingly complex one as his intent to test his experimental serum on himself is not about proving oneself to a whole bunch of doubters as it is about taking responsibility for one’s creation when others are more interested in results and profit.

While I miss seeing the late Cliff Robertson and Rosemary Harris as Uncle Ben and Aunt May, both Martin Sheen and Sally Field fill the roles wonderfully. I also really liked Denis Leary as Gwen Stacy’s father, NYPD Captain George Stacy, who gets into an argument with Peter as to why he considers Spider-Man a vigilante. After watching him on “Rescue Me” and as an endlessly cynical standup comedian all these years, Leary once again reminds us of just how effective an actor he can be in playing an upstanding citizen and a strong family man.

Previously, Webb was best known for directing music videos, and the only other movie he made was “(500) Days of Summer.” You can’t help but wonder what the studio executives were thinking when they hired him after he made a $7.5 million indie movie to helm a summer blockbuster with a reported budget of over $220 million. Maybe all the other big name directors were busy or something. Then again, when you look at both “(500) Days of Summer” and “The Amazing Spider-Man,” they have strong similarities. Both feature main characters in the process of figuring themselves out while moving on to the next stage of their lives, and they also have them romancing a female who is as intelligent as she is attractive. Each movie succeeds in giving us relationships which were not the usual dopey romantic kind, and they are all the better as a result.

With “(500) Days of Summer,” Webb also showed a keen understanding of how important it is for the audience to be emotionally involved with the characters in a movie. This ended up making him an ideal choice to direct “The Amazing Spider-Man” as we need to care about these characters in order for the movie’s story and its special effects to work effectively. Webb succeeds in getting us emotionally involved in what goes on, and it makes this reboot stand out from the typical summer blockbuster which invades our local movie theaters more often than not.

Another thing I have to point out is the film score by James Horner. Danny Elfman had done such a brilliant job defining the sound of Spider-Man in Raimi’s movies, and this gave Horner a hard act to follow. But Horner succeeds in giving us music which is as adventurous and invigorating to listen to as Elfman’s was. Of course, this doesn’t keep him from stealing from himself as there is a musical cue from “Star Trek II” in here, and it is instantly recognizable to those who have listened to that soundtrack over and over again.

It would have been nice if Raimi and Maguire got to make a “Spider-Man 4,” if for no other reason than to make up for the huge disappointment that was “Spider-Man 3.” But in retrospect they must have seen the writing was on the wall as there was nowhere else for them to take the character. While a reboot still feels way too soon for this franchise, “The Amazing Spider-Man” is a very entertaining movie which looks to get this series back on track. Now that we got the origin story out of the way once again, we can get to an even more exciting chapter in Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy’s lives.

* * * out of * * * *

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Star Trek (2009)

Star Trek 2009 movie poster

I have been into “Star Trek” since I started watching the original series when I was five years old. I reveled in Kirk, Spock and the rest of the Enterprise crew hurtling through space and exploring new worlds. I still remember watching the episode “The Return of the Archons” where the Enterprise crew was being held prisoner, and there was this overwhelmingly loud noise which rendered them unconscious. As they fell to the floor, I mimicked what I saw on that ancient Zenith television my parents bought, pretending I was part of this great crew. Back then, I envisioned myself as a character on that show and “Star Trek: The Next Generation” as its adventures made up for the dullness of reality.

As “Star Trek” expanded from its original incarnation later became a never ending movie franchise, I stayed with it as much as I could. My dad had to carry me out of “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” after I burst into tears at the end. The fact that I kept saying he would come back to life was truly an utter coincidence when “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock” came out, and I was in tears after that one as well. I later became determined to be the first person in Thousand Oaks, California to own a copy of “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” on VHS. When my family moved from Thousand Oaks to the Bay Area, I found myself wanting those transporters to be real so that I could beam down south to hang out with the friends I was forced to leave behind.

But somewhere along the line, I found myself losing interest in all things Trek as I started to miss out on the last couple of seasons of “Star Trek: TNG.” Then there were other spinoffs like “Deep Space Nine” and “Voyager” among others, and I became increasingly less excited about the franchise as it came to resemble “Law & Order” and its various other incarnations. You knew what you were going to get, so the level of excitement I had for the franchise kept fading away year after year. Still, I believed that the franchise could be resurrected because, as Spock would say, there are always possibilities.

That resurrection has now arrived, seven years after “Star Trek: Nemesis,” thanks to J.J. Abrams. His “Star Trek” movie is the most exciting film this series has seen since “First Contact,” and I fucking loved it! This origin story of the Starship Enterprise and its cast gives the franchise a much needed kick in the ass. By taking the series in new directions, Abrams has succeeded in opening up the world of Trek to an audience that never fully embraced it before.

We get to see a young James Tiberius Kirk driving a hot rod while blasting the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” on the car’s stereo, and this is the first sign that this “Star Trek” is not going to be the same old shit. We see a young Spock getting taunted by his classmates which makes him use methods other than that famous Vulcan nerve pinch to subdue his enemies. Seeing Spock beat the crap out of others might have been hilarious in any other movie, but Abrams takes the character in fresh new directions we have not seen him go to before. This plays much more intensely on the fact that Spock has always been half-human and half-Vulcan.

The plot of “Star Trek” revolves around the device of time travel which has played a part in the most entertaining and successful films in the series (“The Voyage Home” and “First Contact”). It involves a large mining ship of Romulans commanded by Nero (Eric Bana) who is as thirsty for revenge as Khan was in “Star Trek II.” It doesn’t matter how much you know about Gene Roddenberry’s sci-fi universe because anything and everything you remembered about it previously will seem very different, and that makes this movie all the more entertaining and unpredictable.

One of the key successes Abrams has with “Star Trek” is the actors he has chosen as none of them try to do imitate what the actors who originated these roles did before them. Among the most impressive is Chris Pine who plays Kirk as a hotshot who gets himself in trouble constantly and lacks a father figure in his life. Pine really succeeds in capturing the same cockiness and over confidence that William Shatner brought to the role before him.

But even better is Zachary Quinto who plays Spock at his most emotionally unhinged. Of all the actors here, he has the biggest obstacle to overcome since the original Spock (Leonard Nimoy) is in this film as well. I admired how Quinto strongly displayed Spock’s inner turmoil and of the fact that he is a child of two worlds. One of his best moments comes when he essentially flips off the Vulcan High Command after he is accepted into their prestigious science academy. By describing Spock as having done well despite the “disadvantage” of having a human mother (played by Winona Ryder of all people), we get a huge thrill out Quinto making “live long and prosper” sound like he’s saying fuck you to the.

Another inspired casting choice in “Star Trek” is Simon Pegg as Engineer Montgomery Scott. As the movie heads to its exciting climax, it is frightening to see just how much Pegg resembles Scotty from the original series, and that’s even more so when we hear him say, “I’m giving her all she’s got Captain!” Pegg gives us a Scotty that is a perfect comic foil, and it will be great fun to see where he will take Scotty in future installments.

As Nero, Eric Bana gives us the strongest and most lethal villain this series has had since Khan. Whereas the previous antagonists seemed more refined in how they acted among their prey, Nero’s fury is so personal and uncontainable, and the fact that he is named after the Roman Emperor whose rule was marked by tyranny, and that he ordered the execution of his mother and adopted brother, should give you an idea of how screwed up he is.

The rest of the cast includes Bruce Greenwood who is perfectly cast as Christopher Pike, and it reminded me a lot of his underrated portrayal of John F. Kennedy in “Thirteen Days.” John Cho of “Harold & Kumar” fame plays Sulu, and he has a great moment where he gets to put his fencing skills to the test. Zoe Saldana plays Uhura with a calm sexiness and an intelligence that is foolishly underestimated by others until she makes you see the big picture. Karl Urban gives us a pitch perfect Dr. Leonard ‘Bones’ McCoy and captures the character’s infinite crankiness we all know him to have. Anton Yelchin plays Pavel Chekov, and while the character feels underused here, he is still well cast and has a flawless Russian accent. And of course, we have Winona Ryder playing Spock’s mother, and her performance is all the more impressive when you take into account that she is only two years older than Quinto.

What impressed me even more about this particular “Star Trek” is that it was given a budget of over $100 million. There is no doubt that the money is there on the screen, and the effects are remarkable. This is an especially good point to make as special effects have never really been the strong point of the “Star Trek” series, but here they are the best they have ever been. The Enterprise bridge looks so much different than it ever before, and it has a sleek style to it that makes being there all the more inviting.

I’ll be very interested to hear what die hard Trekkers think of this latest adventure of the Enterprise crew. This one does not dwell on big ideas the way “Star Trek” has done for the most part throughout its various incarnations. The main power of Roddenberry’s series was how it dealt with social issues of the day in the realm of science fiction. This one is meant to be more like “Star Wars,” and it allows Abrams to give this aging franchise an invigorated feeling that it desperately needed. While it may not be a “Trek” rooted in philosophy, I think this one leaves the door open for writers to explore present day themes in a future installment.

But I cannot go on without mentioning the welcome return of Leonard Nimoy as Spock (. This could have been a gimmicky cameo that lasted just a few seconds, but Nimoy’s Spock does play a very pivotal role in this movie. Furthermore, he also helps give it a sense of legitimacy that it would not have had without his appearance. Keep in mind, his character was the only one who survived the rejected first pilot of the original series.

Seeing this “Star Trek” brought a lot of happiness to me. My mood seems to get inadvertently sidetracked depending on the health of the franchise. I can honestly say that I am not all surprised at its longevity or constant rebirth. Roddenberry’s message of hope always finds a way to win out, and it is fitting that the movie is getting released around the beginning of the President Barrack Obama’s first term. Granted, this is really a coincidence since the movie was being developed before he made his decision to run for President, but it’s a wonderful coincidence all the same.

All those kids who gave me crap about liking this great series can suck it now, because “Star Trek” is here to stay. Even those who picked on me for being a Trekker, and ironically did much better in science classes than me, won’t be able to pass this one up. “Star Trek” can be seen as the first truly great odd-numbered movie in the long running series, and it is proof that this series will never die.

Live long and prosper? OH HELL YES!!!

* * * * out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2009.