Life and Near-Death on Hollywood and Vine

Sirens are blazing as I crouch in my car, breathing hard, hands shaking. I peek over the dash at the black sports car that just crashed into me during a high-speed pursuit with the police. The cops are swarming the vehicle, guns drawn, yelling orders at the suspect. The guns are aimed at him and therefore me. I realize I’m caught in the potential crossfire. I make eye contact with one of the officers. He motions his gun down slightly and I’ve seen enough movies to take the hint.

GET DOWN.

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I hit the deck and try to remain still, try to stay calm. I glance at the passenger side window and see swarms of tourists with their phones out filming. I can see the questions in their eyes. Is this real? Is this a movie? I know all too well it isn’t make believe. I start to wonder, is this how it all ends? Do I die on a hot summer night in a shootout on the corner of Hollywood and Vine?

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Four days earlier I’m standing on the sidewalk as vintage cars circle the block during the filming of a Hollywood movie. It’s a 1960s period piece starring Christian Bale as legendary race car driver Ken Miles.

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My whole neighborhood has been converted into the decade of Kennedy and the Beatles, James Bond and Jane Fonda. They’ve restored the store fronts to their mid century former glory, replaced the street lamps, park benches and mailboxes with period accurate relics, and lined the streets with dozens of classic cars. Every anachronism has been removed to transport the neighborhood into the past. Hundreds of crew-members equipped with millions of dollars of equipment have taken over four square blocks to create this grand illusion, this epic testament to the suspension of disbelief.

But I’m not here to gawk or celeb stalk. I’m just trying to walk my dog Moneypenny over to the convenience store to get a bottle of Coke.

A PA armed with a walk-in talkie outstretches his hand before I cross the street.

“Can you hold? We’re about to do a take.”

“Sure,” I shrug as the dog paws at the PAs feet, “I wouldn’t want to disrupt the space time continuum.”

Another voice across the street yells “Rolling!” An army of crew repeat the order and then a disembodied voice calls out “ACTION!”

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The street comes to life as a glossy facsimile of five decades ago. Extras in period garb cross the street. A huge metal bus lurches around a corner past the restored store front. A man in a beautiful white convertible zooms down the street. From the other side of the intersection, a pretty young lady with her hair up, eyes masked by turtle shell sunglasses, putt putts an old green Chevy with exaggerated fins down the block. I notice no one is smoking and I can’t help but laugh. Hollywood never get things exactly right.

After less than a minute, the word “CUT!” echoes down the street and the PA motions for me to continue my stroll. I lead the dog past the sign that reads “Businesses Open During Filming.” A week earlier this tiny strip mall was half empty and slightly dilapidated, a sad husk of mid century real estate. Some thrifty location scout had seen the potential in this building and nursed it back to health. The liquor store and laundromat have been repainted with period signage. I smile at the antiquated prices they advertise. The empty storefronts have been converted into movie sets. I notice one of them has a two liter plastic bottle of Shasta soda with modern labels. I chuckle again. Never exactly right.

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The proprietor of the laundromat is in high spirits, standing in front of his store holding court as he watches the filming. He’s full of gossip, telling us that “Matt Damien” is going to be in the movie. He seems at home in the middle of the action, and announces that he’ll be running the dryers free of charge all week as compensation for the hassle to his customers.

The owner of the liquor store is less enthusiastic. The filming has scared off his usual clientele and the film crew is too well fed by craft services to give him any business. I repeat my joke about disrupting the space time continuum which fails to garner a smile. I pay for my bottle of Coke and lead the dog off the cool tile floor back into the sunshine of the 1960s.

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Four days later I’m driving down Hollywood Boulevard toward’s Mann’s Chinese theater. I had just got my car back from the shop four days earlier after a fender-bender and am enjoying my first real drive in my newly-fixed auto. My wife is with my in-laws so I’m treating myself to a night at the movies. I remember the last time I was on the Boulevard. I saw Spiderman getting arrested. There’s always free entertainment in Tinseltown. At the corner of Hollywood and Vine I cruise into the left hand turn lane. As I yield I hear sirens approach. I spot a black sports car barreling down the opposite left hand turn lane. I assume he is planning to make a turn as well but he does not yield. It’s too late to do anything by the time I realize he isn’t stopping. I raise my hands in front of my face and brace for impact.

I’m sitting at the edge of the couch, a rum and Coke shaking in my hand. I can’t get the moment of the crash out of my mind. I close my eyes so hard I see spots. I have trouble breathing and put my hands in front of my face as though the car is still coming at me.

The force of the head-on collision sends my head thrashing backwards against the headrest. I lower my hands to get a better look at the person behind the wheel of the other car. The glass is tinted. I can’t make out the face of the individual. The car is the only face I see, a monster with a mangled bumper snarling at me. The invisible driver guns the engine, sending my car ten feet backwards in the intersection. He tries to reverse, but our bumpers are intertwined. Two beasts locked together in combat, defending their driver. Before he tries to drive forward again, I slam the car into park and yank the emergency break back as hard as I can.

THIS SONNOVABITCH ISN’T GOING ANYWHERE.

Two days later I’m standing in front of an X-Ray machine. The cops need to know how badly I’m injured. It could be the difference between a misdemeanor and a felony for the man who nearly killed me. The technician snaps the first image and tells me to turn to my right for the next. It feels like they’re taking a mugshot. For a second I put myself in the shoes of the guy responsible for it all. What was he doing that night? What was he running from?

I return from the doctor’s office in better spirits. My shoulders are throbbing, my neck aches and my back feels as crumpled as my bumper. But I’m happy to be all in one piece. I take Penny for a walk to the liquor store and the park. The place is swarming with crew and cars queued up for the next take. As Penny rolls contentedly in the grass, she attracts the attention of a couple of the background actors leaning against their vintage car enjoying a smoke and we strike up a conversation.

“So do you guys own these cars?” I ask, genuinely intrigued.

“Yep,” the man affirms proudly.

“So they put out a casting call for actors with vintage cars?”

“That’s what we do.”

It turns out this is a whole cottage industry in Hollywood. People who make a living driving old cars in period films.

“They want to make the films as accurate as possible,” he explains before leaning in conspiratorially, “although technically this scene takes place in 1963 and my car’s a ’65.”

Hollywood. They never quite get it exactly right. The guy tells me about some of the other pictures he’s worked on and complains that Quentin Tarantino doesn’t pay well.

“He’s doing a movie about the Sharon Tate murders. You know, Manson.”

“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” I nod.

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I can see the crowd gathered around me on Hollywood Boulevard, holding their phones as they film the grizzly scene. A man in the apartment above gets the establishing shot. A man with a selfie-stick on the opposite corner gets some coverage. Eight police cars are visible, with more to arrive. At least a dozen police officers are taking cover behind open car doors with their guns aimed at the black sports car. The man filming above posts it on Instagram with the caption “One of the bonuses of living in Hollywood…you’re never short of free entertainment.” I’m pinned down in the car below, an unwilling extra in the free live show. I understand but resent the peering phones pointed at my position, filming me like a caged animal.

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My phone follows the vintage station wagon drive down the street. Of all the fancy, rare cars that have been driving around our block the past week, this was the one I was compelled to shoot a video of. When my mom was a kid, her mom used to drive an old station wagon like that. I’ve seen plenty of sports cars in old movies but not grandma’s station wagon. Mom told me about the time they went to see 101 Dalmations at the drive in. Her and her little brother got in their pajamas and hopped in the back of the station wagon. But when they arrived, the movie was sold out.

My mom had a pretty happy childhood I think. There’s only three sad stories she ever tells me about the 1960s: The day she broke her front teeth on a skateboard, the day John Kennedy died and the night they had to turn that station wagon around without seeing the movie.

A voice calls out “CUT!” and the cars lurch to a stop. The woman driving the station wagon looks at me and I sheepishly put the phone away.

“Did you get it?” she asks.

“Uh yeah.”

“Can you send it to me?”

“Sure.”

I open my wallet and pull out a business card, but she yells out her phone number instead. Anachronisms are allowed between takes I suppose. I type in the number and send the video. A PAs radio squawks that it’s time to setup the next shot. The woman in the station wagon yells “Thanks!” and drives back to her position. I cross the street and pull out the phone again. Might as well get a reverse angle. A police officer steps into the street to stop the oncoming traffic so the film crew can get their shot too.

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Crouched in my wounded vehicle, I stare in disbelief as the officers charge down Hollywood Boulevard with their guns drawn, barking orders. From the show of force I assume my attacker is extremely dangerous. Is he armed? Would it matter? I think of all the young men gunned down for less if anything at all. So many guns. I’ve never seen so many guns. It looks like a damn movie. But it’s not. I’m in shock. Disbelief. I can only think of one thing. No one will ever believe this. So I scramble for my phone and start filming. As I lift the black object above the dashboard I hope no one thinks it’s a gun.

It’s twenty-four hours later and I’m watching the brief video over and over again. I inspect every detail like it’s the Zapruder film. I’m trying to figure out how many officers there were. How many guns were drawn. I switch back and forth between my footage and the footage of the guy in the apartment above. It’s not enough. There were so many people filming while this happened. Where hell did it all go? I scour social media trying to find just a second more video, find that angle that would help it all make sense. All those people with that video of me and I couldn’t access a frame of it.

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It’s magic hour in Hollywood. The villain of the movie that’s become my life sticks his hands out of the car in a sign of surrender. The police officers continue to yell at him to get out of the car. I dare to peek a bit higher above the dashboard. He opens the door and slowly moves into the street. I see the officers follow his movements with their sidearms. I sigh breath of relief as I realize the weapons are no longer facing in my direction. The suspect lies down and the officers approach from his left in a practiced formation, stiff as tin soldiers. I open the driver’s side door and take cover behind it. A police officer appears to my left.

“C’mon sir.”

I nod and he escorts me to the sidewalk. I glance back and see the other officers handcuffing the suspect. I turn back to the sidewalk and am greeted by a firing squad of cameras and phones pointed at me. I look down to hide my face and see stars. The Hollywood Walk of Fame. I see the names of Kirk Douglas and Jimmy Stewart etched into the grimy sidewalk.

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Three days later I’m watching Matt Damon’s stunt double belt Christian Bale’s in the face. Director James Mangold calls “CUT!” This is the disembodied voice I’ve heard all week. The real Matt Damon and Christian Bale emerge before the cameras. Bale looks like a nondescript middle aged man in good shape. I wouldn’t have recognized him from this far away. Damon’s face on the other hand is unmistakable. Mangold calls out “ACTION!” and I gawk as I finally get the answer to “who would win in a fight, Batman or Jason Bourne?” I won’t spoil it for you.

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The suspect is being escorted to a squad car. An officer tells me to sit down. Are you kidding me? I’m not sitting down on Hollywood Boulevard. He asks me what happened and I give him a brief statement. I keep my cool, start laughing even, trying to shake it off like I’m some guy in a movie. I glance to the officers still in the street and quip, “that was actually pretty badass!” like I was some kid who just got off a roller coaster. Strangers crowd around me and I tell the story over and over again as they film me. I keep talking. It’s the only thing that keeps me calm. People offer me drinks and pat me on the back.

“You’re a hero dude!” one bystander says.

“You’re famous man!” his friend adds

“Technically you stopped that guy!” a lady comments. I laugh, technically she’s right. I did stop him.

The officers try to convince me to go to the hospital. I’m not going to sit in the back of an ambulance with a gray blanket wrapped around me like some pathetic victim. I act like one of the guys. I stand around the officers with my arms crossed, cracking wise and retelling the story.

“Of course it all happened on Hollywood in Vine,” I shake my head in disbelief.

“It’s Hollywood,” of the officers remarks. Helluva time for a Chinatown reference.

The sun has almost set but I keep my Ray-Ban aviators on like I’ve been deputized by the highway patrol. After all, I’m technically the guy who stopped the perp. The officers joke that they’ll tell my wife I tackled the suspect single-handedly and handcuffed himself.

My wife.

I see her emerge onto the corner of Hollywood and Vine. She’s radiant. My leading lady. Penny’s at her side, our trusted sidekick. We all three embrace.

The tow trucks have arrived. Our vehicles are still locked in combat. The sports car is crumpled but my VW still looks like he’s still in fighting shape. German engineering. The tow truck tries to pull the sports car away from mine but they’re stuck together, like two boxers who refuse to give up. The officers have me get behind the wheel of my car and put it in reverse. No joy. The cars are fused together.

“Looks like they’ve bonded,” an officer jokes. I recognize him as the guy who motioned for me to get down in the car. One of the other cops has an idea.

“What if we have the two trucks pull them apart?”

“Draw and quarter them like an old Western?” I chuckle.

The officer nods. I smile. Only in Hollywood.

It’s magic hour in our little neighborhood. Penny and I stand outside our building as the film crew finishes their last shot. The rent-a-cop outside our building tells me to hold. The disembodied voice calls out “ACTION!” and the street comes to life as the 1960s once more. The old cars prowl the streets as the young actors stroll the sidewalks. I see an iPhone in the passenger seat of one of the cars. Hollywood. Never quite gets it right.

“CUT!” the action stops, “That’s a wrap!”

The cast of vintage drivers cheers. I can’t help but smile. The police officers open the street back up to traffic and I see my wife pulling into our block. My leading lady.

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It’s twilight on Hollywood and Vine when the two cars are finally loaded up onto their respective tow trucks. The driver assigned to the sports car is a massive man and he pulls the bumper off my car with his bare hands and tosses it onto the other truck. The round “VW” insignia on the front of my car falls to the street. I pick up the reflective shield and wipe it off with my shirt. Not a single scratch. German engineering.

The next day I’m on the phone with LAPD. The driver was twenty-three. No insurance. Drunk as a skunk, blew twice the legal limit on a Breathalyzer. He wasn’t a bank robber or a murderer, just a stupid drunk kid who almost killed me in a Nissan Z with tacky decals. It’s just the same. I’m not the lawsuit type anyway. I’d feel greedy going after some rich old bastard. No use suing some dumb kid whose got nothing. There’s only one thing I want.

“I hope this kid turns his life around,” I tell the officer, “and I hope someday he has a chance to apologize to me.”

The stars in the sky mirror the ones in the pavement on the corner of Hollywood and Vine. The tow trucks are lurching off and the officers are starting to disperse. There’s some old guy in uniform telling the boys in blue what a good job they all did. Not a word of praise for me, the “hero” of the film. At least according to my adoring fans on the sidewalk. Hollywood. They never quite get it exactly right.

With my wife in arm and dog at my feet, I glance back at the corner of Hollywood and Vine one more time. Next to Jimmy and Kirk I notice a name I didn’t see on the walk of fame before. Edgar R. Murrow. I think of his catchphrase and smile as the black sports car is towed into the horizon.

“Good night and good luck,” I muse.

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Still Not George Lazenby

Ten years ago, in the still nascent days of celebrity social media presence, there were no such things as verified accounts. There were no check-marks or official pages to verify who was actually a real person of note and who was trying to use someone’s name for their own vanity or self-promotion. Social media presences were something associated with younger talents, as baby boomers had not invaded Facebook as of yet. It was also a time of relative innocence regarding social media and people were more willing to let themselves be cat-fished be those pretending to be someone else. It was during this period that I accidentally, but not quite innocently become a perpetrator of such a cat-fish. This is the story of how I finally got my comeuppance a decade later. It all started as a joke.

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As a long time James Bond aficionado and the writer/star of the greatest play of all time, Nobody Does it Better: The James Bond Musical, I consider myself to be a master of 007 trivia. It was because of my hubris that I became involved in a petty squabble with a dude from Britain about piece of minutiae regarding the oft-overlooked Bond entry On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.  The 1969 film, which starred then-unknown Australian model George Lazenby as the intrepid secret agent is the only time a James Bond actor in an official Bond film has played the part only once. Long regarded as the black sheep of the Bond canon, the film’s reputation has improved drastically as of late, with some hard-core Bond fans even considering it the best of the series. It’s certainly the entry truest to its literary inspiration and has a lean, hard-nosed quality that the series would not fully embrace again until the Daniel Craig era. Since the film is so good and yet such an aberration in the classic Bond canon, there is a bittersweet quality to the film that has haunted me for years. What if Lazenby hadn’t mucked up this opportunity? What if the producers had stayed with this badass interpretation of the character rather than delve into the over-the-top campiness that defined the next two decades of Bondom? As someone who has made stupid decisions and squandered chances to do some great things at key moments in my life, the legend of George Lazenby was a cautionary tale for me. It served as a hard reminder of roads not taken.

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Anyway, back to the squabble. While perusing Facebook, I came across a trivia quiz about the film that claimed to be difficult. I scoffed and clicked on the quiz, confident that I would ace it. Indeed I got every question correct except for one, which asked for the hometown of side character Ruby Bartlett, with whom Lazenby’s Bond enjoys a brief dalliance midway through the film. An easy question, Ruby Bartlett is from Lancashire. Or so I thought. My answer was marked as incorrect, sullying an otherwise perfect score. I was blindsided and offended and decided to send a nasty message to the guy who created the quiz. In retrospect, I realize what a toxic dick I was being when I wrote:

“Ruby Bartlett is from Lancishire dumbnutz!!”

The response was stinging.

“She’s from MORECAMBE which is IN Lancashire (correct spelling). Now, what’s that Yank expression, oh yes…dumbass.”

So although technically correct, my response was not specific enough for this British (maybe Australian?) trivia wonk. He had me. I was bested. Again, I’m embarrassed by what an immature jerk I was at the time and now regret what I did next.

I created a Facebook account for George Lazenby. Not a fan page. An account. For the express purpose of being an asshole to this guy. These days such an account would get shut down immediately and certainly wouldn’t fool most people. But ten years ago it was uncharted territory. With everything setup, I sent a message from Mr. Lazenby with this subject line. Great Quiz!

I imagine how I would feel when I saw that message come in from George Lazenby. I would be elated, being recognized by the George Lazenby for my incredible quizmaking prowess. Of course it was a feint, a trick. The body of the message read as such:

Not. You are a supreme bag of douche. As someone who fucked both Ruby Bartlett AND your mom let me say: Suck my Octoballs Thunderpussy!

Sincerely,
George

Now I imagine how I would feel after quickly realizing it was not from George Lazenby and was in fact a very mean-spirited prank. Again, as a more mature and professional person I am now very embarrassed about my behavior and if the guy who made that quiz is by some improbable chance reading this, I apologize. We’re both fans of James Bond and I should have been a good sport about you besting me with a trick question.

But at the time I had a good laugh and moved on with my life, forgetting I had created this fake page. But then something strange happened. At about this time I made a post about the experience with the title I am (Not) George Lazenby. Here’s an excerpt:

Out of the blue, people started friend requesting me…I mean George. So I accepted. I figured people realized this was a joke and wanted in on the fun. And then they started messaging me, telling me what an honor it was to be friends with the George Lazenby.

The fans poured their hearts out about what an impact George’s performance had on them, and how much they admired him. I responded to each message with a pleasant, but patronizing “Thanks, mate.” I was so freaked out by this outpouring of love for George Lazenby that it took me about two hours to compose that stupid message. I debated for a good forty-five minutes over whether the “mate” was too Australian or just Australian enough.

And then I had my first scare. One of my…er…George’s friends sent a message about coming to a book signing to meet me…er…George. I freaked out. What happens if this guy starts babbling about Facebook at the signing and George is like “I don’t have a Facebook account, mate!” and then Scotland Yard hunts me down and I get extradited to England and sent to the Tower of London for identity fraud? I’d be the black sheep of Bondage! No self-respecting Bond fan would even play a round of GoldenEye64 with me!

Then the guy messaged me to tell me that it was an honor to meet me…uh…George, and that he was sad we didn’t get a chance to talk. Phew. Talk about a close one. My Facebook fraud had brushed against reality and no one knew but me. And then I started thinking, do these people really think I’m George Lazenby?

Maybe my Facebook George was like Santa. Even though all signs point to bullshit, people still want to believe. Was I doing my fellow Bond fans a great service, or was I playing them for fools? I couldn’t decide. Every time George made a new friend, or someone sent him a heartwarming message, I considered shutting down my account. But I couldn’t bring myself to it. People wanted to shower George Lazenby with love and admiration, and who was I to stop them?

And then the real George was in the news. Divorce. A nasty one. The support came rushing in. People from all over the world were offering their kindest thoughts and messages of hope. Our friend from the book signing sent the longest and most thoughtful. He told of his own personal experience going through a divorce, and the wounds it had caused. He opened his heart and soul to George Lazenby. It was the most wonderful letter I’d ever received, and I felt like a sneaky little bastard reading it. I only wished that I could some how deliver it to George, and erase my memory of it. I’m sorry George. And my sincerest apologies to the loyal friend you don’t know you have.

For most of my early twenties this story was a regular hit at cocktail parties or during discussions with fellow Bond fans. Eventually I came to the decision that it was not ethical to maintain this account. I created an email account with a random name I’d never remember and associated the Facebook account with it. I created an extremely long automatically generated password I would also never remember and let go of it all. There was no way I’d every be able to get back into the account. I deleted the blog post excerpted above and never told the story again. Until what happened last night.

As part if its Throwback Thursdays programming the North Hollywood Laemmle was exhibited one-night only screenings of one 007 film for every one of the pre-Daniel Craig Bonds. Since Lazenby was only in OHMSS that was obviously the one they would screen. But there was an added perk. Lazenby would be there for a Q&A! I wrangled my entire family to go see the movie with me as sort of a pre-birthday celebration.

Living in New York and Los Angeles I’ve had a few conversations with public figures of about the same level of “celebrity” as Lazenby. I have a general set of rules for these encounters: Don’t act weird, never ask for an autograph and for heaven’s sake no selfies. There’s a strange relationship between the general public and public figures. We all have a personal relationship with them, but they don’t have a personal relationship with any of us. It’s a dynamic we should all respect. In terms of autographs, that has for better or for worse become an industry. Human leeches stalk celebrities, camp out at airports with stacks of 8x10s, get as many signatures as they can and then auction them off on eBay. Gross. Most celebrities know about this and unless they are at an event that is an official signing, they feel taken advantage of when people ask them for autographs because they are profiting off of them with no compensation.

In terms of Q&As, these are generally not signings or meet and greets. The celeb usually hangs out backstage with their handlers, comes out for the session and then exits through the back. I figured this was how George would roll. But just in case I had a chance to talk to him, I brought a couple pieces of memorabilia, including a copy of the Playboy magazine that Bond reads in the flick. It’s a fun gag  in the movie because Bond stories have often been published in Playboy and Bond himself is a literal playboy. If I had a chance to get him to sign it I might ask, but mostly I  just thought it would be fun to say “Hey remember this? Cool right?” Like I said before, I didn’t think I’d have a chance to meet him anyway.

Imagine my surprise when I walked into the lobby and saw George chatting with fans and taking pictures. He seemed pretty chill and open to talking to fans. When I got into the theater George sat down in the front row. I was still wary about talking to him. I didn’t want to embarrass myself. But I figured what the heck, he seems pretty down-to-Earth. So I strolled up with the Playboy in hand and introduced myself. He politely said hello and shook my hand. I sensed things were cool so I showed him the magazine.

“Remember this?”

He starred at me flatly. “No.”

“Oh, thought you might like to take a look, it’s the one from the movie.”

“Yeah I know.” Was he fucking with me?

His friend sitting next to him seemed interested so I decided I pulled out a copy of the novel On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and showed it to them. The friend said “Oh cool he’s got a copy of the book!”

And then I blurted it out. I asked George to sign it. And I immediately regretted it.

George Lazenby looked at me coldly. “No. I’m not signing anything.”

I said “Okay that’s fine. Nice to meet you!” and walked off.

I wasn’t sad that I didn’t get a signature. I didn’t feel attacked. He didn’t yell at me. I was just embarrassed. I grew up a weird nerd who was often bullied by the cool kids. Eventually I learned confidence and honestly a big part of that was fashioning my sense of style and wit on James Bond. And yet in that moment I was instantly transported back to grade school. I was just a fucking nerd. I had broke one of my celebrity sighting rules and it had blown up in my face. I was crestfallen.

As I walked back to my seat with my head down I suddenly remembered the whole affair with the trivia quiz, the George Lazenby Facebook account and my stupid, bullying behavior towards a fellow fan. This was my comeuppance. I deserved this. That’s what made it feel so bad. I wasn’t some poor downtrodden fan. I was an asshole getting bit in the ass by Karma.

I slumped in my seat. I was humiliated. I wanted to leave. My family reminded me about the whole “never meet your heroes” trope. That was even more embarrassing. George Lazenby isn’t my “hero.” If it had been Sean Connery, one of my actual heroes, I wouldn’t even have bothered talking to him. I’d respect his space and figure I’d get shot down if I tried. But Lazenby? He’s the guy that did one Bond movie that only nerds like me know about. He was just hanging out in North Hollywood talking to fans.

After a few minutes, the theater manager came up and announced there would be a trivia contest. I perked up. This was a chance to redeem myself. To make up for missing the question about Ruby Bartlett from ten years ago with Lazenby himself sitting right there in front of me. I knew every single answer of course, even winning a prize for answering a question about Telly Savalas’ reading habits. And one of the last questions was “What magazine does Bond read in the movie?”

This was my moment. I stood up in the audience and held the magazine in the air. The crowd went wild. They cheered me. I beamed with pride. I may be a nerd but I was king of the nerds. As I sat down my dad leaned forward. “Feel better Junior?” he asked. I nodded. I felt like a million bucks.

Eventually the Q&A began. As a bit of context, Lazenby has a reputation for a couple of things. He always brags about how many women he’s had sex with, complains about money and tells stories that probably aren’t true. I’ve seen him do this a couple times in interviews and documentaries. And sure enough as the questions began, he launched right into it. At first it was charming. What fun to hear a real James Bond talk about living the James Bond lifestyle. But eventually it started to outwear its welcome. He launched into a long rambling story about having sex with multiple women in a hotel room in China while his pregnant girlfriend was in his boat during the largest storm in history. We all started to feel wildly uncomfortable and grossed out. It was extra icky because I was sitting next to my mom, my sister and my wife. I looked over at them. They were disgusted. This wasn’t any fun. Lazenby capped off the story doing a racist Chinese accent and made a point to inform everyone he was not being paid for this appearance. Yeesh. Tacky. Eventually the theater manager thanked him and they rolled the picture.

Almost immediately after the movie began, I noticed George had left. I suddenly felt grateful that I had a chance to talk to him. If I had hesitated or waited, I would have missed my chance. When the picture finished and the lights came up I felt a feeling of catharsis. As I stated earlier, whenever I watch this flick I get that weird feeling of missed opportunity. I always feel bad for George and wished he hadn’t squandered his chance to be a great Bond. For the first time, I didn’t. George got his kicks and was kind of gross. He clearly didn’t embrace the character  like Roger Moore or Pierce Brosnan. He’s not a dick or a bad person and he wasn’t particularly rude to me. But for the first time, I don’t really care that he only did one James Bond flick. It actually made the movie even more special. An interesting transition between the Bond of the 60s and the Bond of the 70s. A fascinating footnote to the storied and sordid saga of cinematic Bond. But at the end of the day, the world had had enough of George Lazenby. And you know what? So have I.

See you ’round mate.

 

The First Flop Far Far Away

In the wake of Solo‘s lackluster opening weekend I’ve been thinking a lot about On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Released in, 1969 OHMSS was the first “flop” of the James Bond franchise and there are marked similarities between the 6th official Bond film and the 2nd Star Wars spin-off. OHMSS replaced beloved Bond star Sean Connery with an unknown younger actor named George Lazenby, the production was plagued with bad press regarding on-set drama and the script was laden with ham-handed references to previous entries. The story also portrayed a softer side of James Bond. We saw him experience a moment of heartache that helped us understand why he would grow into such a cynical womanizer as the years went on.

 

Audiences balked at the idea of a new actor portraying cherished character and OHMSS under-performed at the box office. Critics rang a death knell for the James Bond series and predicted the character would drift into irrelevance in the 1970s and beyond. The producers panicked and orchestrated a quick course correction. Sean Connery returned for the following film which doubled down on the tried and formula for the series. OHMSS became known as the black sheep of the Bond saga and Lazenby disappeared into obscurity.

As the years wore on Lazenby’s solo turn as the world’s greatest secret agent was re-evaluated by critics and fans alike. Eventually it became regarded as an underrated classic and one of the best in the series. By the time I became interested in James Bond there were some hardcore fans who went as far as to say it was the best Bond film.

I hope that someday Solo will be regarded as an underrated entry in the Star Wars saga. It’s far from a perfect film and an ultimately an entirely unnecessary one. And yet it tickles a place in my heart that I haven’t felt since the first entry in the series. The criticisms leveled at the film are precisely what I enjoyed about it. I like that we see a fully-formed Han Solo rather than see him become Han Solo. We saw how that approach went down with Anakin in the prequels. I enjoyed that the film checked off all of the boxes one would expect in a Han Solo film. I loved that it fixed the Kessell run parsec problem and we see Han shoot first. I like the little references to the old expanded universe lore. Fundamentally I just enjoyed Alden Ehrenreich as Han Solo. He’s cocky, funny and charming. Like Lazenby he has big boots to fill. No one will ever be Harrison Ford just as no one will ever be Sean Connery but Ehrenreich does a better job than anyone expected and I think anyone else would have been able to pull off.

I’m not worried that one flop far far away will tank the Star Wars universe or ruin anyone’s career. I am worried that Disney and Lucasfilm will learn the wrong lessons from taking a loss on this entry. I’m worried they will make an illogical course correction and steer the franchise in the wrong direction. It’s debatable whether OHMSS is the best Bond film, but history has been much kinder on it than the next entry, Diamonds are ForeverDiamonds was regarded as a welcome return to form for the superspy but now routinely ranks among the worst films in the series. Whereas Lazenby’s bond was youthful, athletic and energetic, Connery is doughy and disinterested in Diamonds, thoroughly phoning in his performance. While OHMSS is a tightly-plotted hard-nosed adventure film, Diamonds is a bloated self parody that lazily drifts between set pieces. The style of OHMSS maintains a timeless quality whereas Diamonds is a dreadfully tacky exercise in 1970s excess. James Bond remained successful for decades to come but in retrospect it really lost its way after their first flop. One need only look to Moonraker or Die Another Day for that reality to sink in. I hope that the next Star Wars film will not be the Moonraker of the series.

The reputation of OHMSS as a flop is actually misleading. Although not a box office phenomenon like its predecessors, the film did make money. And I’m confident that as the years go on Solo will eventually roll into the black on Disney’s ledgers. I hope that Disney chooses to move forward with another Solo or Lando film despite this disappointing take, much in the same way Warner Brothers continues to churn out DC movies despite horrible reviews and mediocre earnings. But even if Solo turns out to be the George Lazenby of the Star Wars universe I will always cherish this charming but troubled $300 million disaster.

 

The Last Jedi: An Honest Trailer Totally Destroys How Everything Wrong with an Epic Take-down Should Have Ended

It is a magical moment at the movies. Sitting with my sister, my best friend, the Leia to my Luke, the person who I saw Star Wars for the first time with, seeing something we had waited our whole lives to see. The return of Luke Skywalker. The Jedi Master takes his sister’s hand and my sister takes mine. I am one with the movie and the movie is one with me. As a jaded “older” Star Wars fan in my thirties, it’s harder and harder for me to suspend my disbelief these days. And yet there I am, fully transported to a galaxy far far away. It’s not a perfect movie. With the exception of The Empire Strikes Back there is no such thing. And yet opening night of The Last Jedi is about as close to a perfect movie-going experience as I can imagine.

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On the way home I check Twitter and am truly shocked. Some hard-core fans hated it. The Last Jedi has a lower audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes than The Phantom Menace. There’s a petition on Change.org to have it removed from Star Wars canon. Some douche on Instagram burnt his own Star Wars t-shirt and declared that Star Wars is dead. I don’t think these guys represent all fans or even a majority of them. They are simply the loudest voices, the “alt-fans” of geekdom, the “Make Star Wars Great Again” contingent of whiners. And it’s time to shut them the fuck up.

I’m sick of hearing about how Return of the Jedi  “should have ended” or listening to some wannabe without a single IMDB credit “totally destroy” The Force Awakens. If I wanted to hear “everything wrong” with Rogue One I would have asked and the next time an “honest trailer” pops up in my feed promising an “epic takedown” of The Ewok Adventure I’m honestly going to lose my mind. There is a toxic obsession with trying to ruin other people’s enjoyment of popular films and with the intense “fan” backlash over Star Wars: The Last Jedi, I’ve finally had it.

The guys raging on Reddit and Rotten Tomatoes about The Last Jedi being worse than The Phantom Menace are not really fans of anything except their own sanctimonious opinions. I don’t think they’re even Star Wars fans. The overwhelming fan backlash over the prequels was understandable. There was some fairly thoughtful criticism of The Force Awakens, much of which I agreed with. But this snarling anger over The Last Jedi is nothing but a frothing frenzy of self-aggrandizing madness. This mean-spirited side of Star Wars fandom is not a sudden development and even the beloved original trilogy of films are starting to feel its rage.

It used to be the general consensus that the prequels were crap and the originals were unimpeachable. But then Return of the Jedi started getting hate among hard-core fans. The opening act is slow, Han Solo’s character is weak, the Ewoks are stupid and how is the Empire defeated by a bunch of teddy bears? Okay, valid points but I still love this movie. Then the original Star Wars started getting a brow-beating! The film slows down on Tatooine, there are pacing issues in act two, Mark Hamill is a bad actor, there are two climaxes, blah blah blah. Well, at least we have The Empire Strikes Back. Not only the best film in the series but one of the best movies period. Surely that classic is safe from the wrath of fandom, right? Well apparently there’s a huge “plot hole” regarding Luke being trained by Yoda in only a couple of days, the Millenium Falcon wouldn’t be able to get to Cloud City so quickly, and C3PO’s whining “ruins” the film. So when all is said and done, according to hard-core fans, there are really only about 47 minutes of Star Wars that’s actually any good. I honestly think that the average person likes Star Wars more than the average superfan. I don’t know what these guys want. They long for the old Star Wars yet hammer those films for their weaknesses. The Force Awakens was too much like the old movies but The Last Jedi is too different. Disney has been desperately trying to figure out how to please these idiots and I think it’s time to just ignore their bullshit. These fucks would probably complain about getting a backrub from Slave Leia while Yoda tickled their balls.

The Last Jedi is a bold attempt to move on from what we expect from a Star Wars movie. It’s weird, it’s different, and it’s occasionally jarring. But guess what? So was Star Wars. As conventional as the original trilogy seems, that’s because they established those conventions. In reality, the original Star Wars was an extremely bizarre, experimental and daring picture in its day. The best moment in the otherwise very safe The Force Awakens was the vision Rey had when she touched Luke’s lightsaber. The scene was unlike anything we had ever seen in a Star Wars film. The Last Jedi is a whole movie of that scene. It is the end of everything we thought Star Wars was and a promise of everything it can be. In that way it captures the revolutionary spirit of Star Wars by being unlike any Star Wars film in the past. Our villain Kylo Ren spells it out. “Let the past die,” he tells Rey and the audience, “kill it if you have to.” Our hero Luke Skywalker literally casts aside the past by tossing his own lightsaber away like Prospero’s staff.

The Last Jedi succeeds by challenging our assumptions about a universe we thought we knew so well. As the second entry in the new trilogy, we all assumed the film would contain a shocker as epic as “I am your Father” and Star Wars fans became obsessed with “calling” what the twist would be. Most of the theories revolved around our new protagonist Rey. We all assumed she had to be related to someone we already knew — a Skywalker, a Kenobi, a Palpatine, hell even a Binks! But the real “twist” of The Last Jedi is that we were all wrong. Rey isn’t a Skywalker, she’s nobody. The legendary Skywalker lightsaber is nothing. The Star Wars universe is much larger than we ever thought we knew. After decades of cloying “fan service” it was a huge “fan fuck you” and I loved it. Everyone obsessed with “calling it,” everyone who thought they were so smart that they figured it out was dead wrong. But, like, isn’t that what a twist is all about?

And what a twist indeed.  It deserves a place in the pantheon of “Rosebud is a sled,” “it was Earth all along,” and “Tyler Durden is the narrator.” It is a colossal meta-mash to the balls of fandom like we’ve never seen and it had me laughing with glee as I clutched my own crotch. What a fucking ride. What a risk. What a moment in cinema history.

But that doesn’t seem to be the biggest cause of rage directed at The Last Jedi. The true coup de gras behind the hate was the portrayal of Luke Skywalker, whose appearance has been awaited since before I was born. Yes I was brought into a world desperate to see the return of the great Luke Skywalker. We got glimpses of it in comics, novels and video games. Luke Skywalker finally wearing the traditional robes of the Jedi of yore. Master Skywalker overseeing the glorious return of the Jedi Order. The mighty Luke toppling AT-AT walkers with the flick of his wrist. Luke Skywalker, savior of the Galaxy in his clean white robes, lightsaber at his side, standing toe-to-toe with entire armies, defending the New Republic. We sat on the floor of our bedrooms, carpet strewn with action figures playing it out again and again. We knew this was the destiny of Luke Skywalker.

We were wrong. He’s a sad old man living on milk and fish in a crumbling ruin with a bunch of frog babushkas, spacecows and fuzzy penguins. Everything we knew Skywalker would accomplish, he failed at. He failed to re-establish the Jedi Order, he failed to protect the New Republic, he failed his own family and the entire Galaxy. No! No! That’s not true!  That’s impossible!!!! Nooooooo! Nooooooooooooooooo!

And then relief! Another twist! Luke has arrived! A glorious Deus Ex Machina for the history books. Clad in the Jedi Robes, beard and hair trimmed to perfection, lightsaber at the ready, defying the armies of evil! YES! SEE! We were right! This is what became of the great Luke Skywalker. He looked just as he did on the covers of all those books and comics. It was happening just like we played it out on that carpet with our toys. We were wrong about Rey but we were right about this!

And yet, the real twist was it wasn’t the return of Skywalker at all. It was what everyone thought his return would be — both in the audience and the Star Wars Universe itself. It was an illusion. He was a galaxy away, manipulating the minds of everyone. Moving himself across the battlefield like a kid playing with his action figure. And then he disappeared. After over 30 years of waiting to see the return of Luke Skywalker, we learned that he would never return at all. Eat your heart out Citizen Kane. This is a twist for the ages.

The fans took to Twitter. “This isn’t Star Wars! This isn’t Luke Skywalker! Star Wars belongs to us! You don’t understand Star Wars! We do!” But here’s the thing. No one owns Star Wars. Not us, not George Lucas, not even Disney. No one truly understands it either. The lasting appeal of Star Wars is as mysterious as the Force itself. Luke spells it out for us. The Jedi were hubristic. They thought the Force belonged to them. They thought only they understood it. As the old Star Wars fans we were the Jedi. We thought it belonged to us. We thought we understood it. We were wrong. If anything, it belongs to the children now. The young padawans in the audience. It’s hard for us old fans to pass on the series to the younglings like a treasured heirloom and in some ways The Last Jedi is a beautiful pang of that heartache. The ghost of Yoda tells Luke that the hardest part of having students is that “we are what they leave behind.” I think that a lot of the rage against The Last Jedi is from those who feel as though they are being left behind by their favorite franchise. In the end of The Last Jedi we see a young boy playing Star Wars on the floor with his friends, telling the story we just saw with a crudely-made Luke Skywalker “action figure.” It’s a bit on the nose but it’s a genius moment. He is both the old and the new generation of fans. He knows what happened to Luke Skywalker and so do we. Now it’s time to find out what happens to him. The biggest Galaxy in the Universe just got a little bigger and I’m excited to explore it with the old generation of fans, my own generation and the next. Luke Skywalker is dead. Long live Luke Skywalker.

 

The Battle for Battlefront

It’s a watershed moment in the history of gaming. The night before a hotly anticipated launch, Andrew Wilson, CEO of Electronic Arts, takes a call from Bob Iger, head of Disney. The exact interchange is unclear but one can assume it was along the lines of this:

“Drew, what the fuck are you doing with my brand?”

The brand is the multi-billion dollar Star Wars universe and the fuck-up is Star Wars Battlefront II. The game is gorgeous, fun to play and a love letter to the most beloved cinematic universe in history. The problem? Star Wars Battlefront II isn’t fair.

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The game is structured so the more money you spend on in-app purchases, the easier it is to dominate other players in the brutally competitive multiplayer slaughter-fests that make up the core of the game.

Until that call from Bob Iger.

The Battlefront II launch is like being stuck on a Spirit airlines flight while adults in diapers scream about continuity errors in The Land Before Time series.

News of rampant Reddit rage had reached the head desk of the House of Mouse and Iger told Wilson to fix it. So hours before the launch, the in-app purchases were removed from the game indefinitely.

The battle over Battlefront is noisy clash of two toxic elements of our culture. Angry nerds and capitalist pigs. The Battlefront II launch is like being stuck on a Spirit airlines flight while adults in diapers scream about continuity errors in The Land Before Time series. It’s is ruining something that is supposed to be fun.

Andrew Wilson has learned his lesson. I only hope that Bob Iger learned his. This is what happens when you farm out your most important property to a company like EA.

It’s clear what a short-sighted blunder it was for Iger to shut down Disney’s in-house game development arm last year. It makes me pine for the days of LucasArts, who put out not only some of the best Star Wars games but some of the best games period.

Unsurprisingly Disney shut them down too.

The game’s gender diverse portrayal of the Star Wars universe means much of the game depicts our heroine slaughtering droves of fellow women.

Star Wars Battlefront II is in many ways the most reactionary game ever made. Most of the changes between I and II are reactions to fan outrage rather than creative ways to improve on the formula. Fans demanded a story campaign so EA crafted a single-player experience that throws every Star Wars cliché into Aunt Beru’s blender. The game’s gender diverse portrayal of the Star Wars universe means much of the game depicts our heroine slaughtering droves of fellow women. The whole experience unwittingly serves as a bizarre metaphor for the toxic masculinity of the crusty outer edges of nerdom.

As Leia leads her soldiers into battle, smoke and debris cast a cloud over the broad promenade that once served as the path of her mother’s funeral procession.

Ultimately a game should be fair and fun. Star Wars Battlefront II is fairly fun. The game requires you to charge boldly into battle, in more ways than one. I’m therefore surprised that my instinct while playing the game has been to hang back and just look around while my fellow players dash towards death. The portrayal of my favorite film universe is so accurate, so beautiful despite all of its brutality, that all I really want to do is wander and wonder in awe. I don’t really care about killing people, I just want to be in Star Wars for a little while.

So far my favorite part of the game is playing as Princess Leia on the planet of Naboo. Leia doesn’t mention it, but Naboo is the homeworld of her mother, a woman she never knew but whose legacy lives on in Leia’s own bravery. As Leia leads her soldiers into battle, smoke and debris cast a cloud over the broad promenade that once served as the path of her mother’s funeral procession. She gives the orders to fall back and I dash into Theed Palace as blaster fire echos through the halls that her mother once walked as the young queen of this world. As I wander through the halls, I find myself absorbed in this world that never was. I stop at a painting on the wall. It’s a painting of Leia’s mother. I stand and stare for a moment until an explosion jolts me from my reverie. I fire blindly into the fog of war and fight for my life. Despite all of the game’s flaw and the frustrations over the launch, everything suddenly seems worth the price of admission. I’m there, I’m in Star Wars. I only hope that next time I’m there, everyone is having as much fun as me.

Blade Runner 2049: Too Good to Succeed

I hated the original Blade Runner until I realized it wasn’t a movie. At least not in the “beginning, middle and end” sense of mainstream motion pictures.

It’s certainly not about plot, barely about characters and not even really about atmosphere and location — its two most universally lauded aspects. Blade Runner is sounds, colors, and themes. It’s a tone poem. A meditation.

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Blade Runner pretends to be detective movie in both style and form. But there isn’t really a mystery. In a detective movie, the protagonist asks questions to unravel the plot. In Blade Runner, our detective asks questions to “provoke an emotional response.” It is a perfect metaphor for the film. Dadaist detective work.

As a ten-year-old raised on Star Wars, my first viewing of the film was a bizarre disappointment. I expected an action-packed adventure about Harrison Ford zooming around a future city in a flying car killing androids with that cool gun. Instead I was treated to a gloomy and nonsensical nightmare in which the “hero” is a drunken killer who never actually wins a fair fight with any of his adversaries.

Even though I hated it, I kept watching it. Maybe it was the special effects, maybe it was the perverse sensuality, or maybe it was something subconscious that continued to draw me in. By the fourth viewing I finally understood the plot only to realize it didn’t matter. By that time Blade Runner had mysteriously become one of my favorite films. The film’s place in the pantheon of cinematic achievements has followed a similar path. A box office flop upon its initial release, Blade Runner is now regarded as one of the best science fiction films, and certainly the most influential. Yes, even more influential than Star Wars, its action-packed cousin.

When the first full-length trailer for Blade Runner 2049 came out, I was a little concerned about the apparent emphasis on fighting and action in this new one. I was worried they were trying to deliver what my ten-year-old self wanted from the original. I’m happy to report that Blade Runner 2049 is nearly as ponderous and devoid of action as its vaunted predecessor. True to its inspiration, Blade Runner 2049 is a box office flop. And you know what, I’m happy about that.

If Blade Runner 2049 had been a hit, it very well may have launched a new franchise of films with the potential to ruin the legacy of this impressive duology.  Invariably, those films would have filled in the “holes” in the story and given us answers we didn’t need. Blade Runner isn’t about answers, it’s about questions. The new film hints and whispers at what happened in between the two stories. We glimpse a blurred photograph, catch a cryptic reference, and see a thousand mile stare from our former hero. But there is no explicit explanation of exactly what occurred in the 26 years between films. Even the most tantalizing question from the original film — whether or not Rick Deckard is a Replicant — is not answered here. In fact, the truth is made even more uncertain. This is not a tease or frustration, it’s a relief.

If audiences and critics understood and agreed upon what Blade Runner is about and what it all means, it would ruin the mystique. Even the original director Ridley Scott doesn’t understand the movie. In the documentary Dangerous Days, Scott admits that Deckard is a Replicant — attempting to put to bed the decades-old debate at the core of the film. In that same documentary, screenwriter Hampton Fancher (who also penned the newer installment) adamantly insists that Deckard is not a Replicant. Even Harrison Ford, the actor who brought Deckard to life on the screen has declared the character is human. I personally side with Fancher and Ford. But even if they’re wrong, knowing for sure whether or not Deckard is a Replicant ruins the entire film. As Tom Lorenzeo of Taste of Cinema puts it, Scott is “glorified production designer” who doesn’t understand the basic essence of his own film. Like Replicants themselves, Blade Runner defies the will of its creator.

Blade Runner 2049 does not attempt to follow current trends or cater to mainstream audiences. That is what makes it special. The film’s one concession to modern dystopian sci-fi tropes is the brief scene depicting an underground resistance of Replicants. The largely undeveloped plot-line seems to be straight out of the Hunger Games playbook and it is undeniably the weakest link in the story. If the film had been a hit and spawned sequels, we certainly would have learned more about this “rebel alliance” operating beneath the rain-swept streets of the future.

One of the great things about the original Blade Runner is that the rebellious Replicants are not part of some huge resistance, they are a small and desperate band of individuals taking a one-in-a-million chance at freedom. That they fail in this attempt is essential to the pathos of the Blade Runner mythology. If we continued to follow the resistance in 2049, it would most likely lead to the Replicants “winning.” Since we probably won’t see another film in this saga, I’d like to think such a triumph would be a Pyrrhic victory at best. Luckily this film died at the box office so I’ll be left to ponder what may have been for another 30 years. And yes, this film will stick with me that long. It’s that good.

Sitting behind me on opening night was a young boy about the same age as I was when I saw Blade Runner for the first time. Like me, he was a bit too young for the brutal violence and disturbing sexuality of the film. I won’t assume he hated it, but he didn’t seem nearly as juiced as the kids bounding out of the theater the night Force Awakens opened. The best films are the ones that grow with you as you revisit them. I think this film will grow with the current generation as the original did with mine. Maybe we’ll another sequel in 35 years. If we do, I hope it fails as beautifully as this one.

 

Will Star Trek Discovery Save Planet Earth?

Rejoice. It took half a century, but there is finally an incarnation of Star Trek that is both smart and easy on the eyes. Don’t get me wrong, the cheesy production values of the original Trek are part of its charm. And as frustratingly dumb as the recent films have been, I’ve still enjoyed the eye candy. But we’ve never really had a Star Trek thoughtful enough to please die-hard fans that’s also fun enough to attract casual viewers. Star Trek Discovery may be the closest we’ll ever get. It’s cool to watch and conveys a few messages the troubled people of Earth really need to hear right now.

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The two-part pilot takes place about a decade before Captain Kirk’s fabled 5-year mission and centers around the re-emergence of the Klingon Empire as a galactic force to be reckoned with. Our human hero was orphaned at the hands of Klingons, raised in the logical ways of the Vulcan and now serves aboard a Federation Starship with a crew of creatures from across the galaxy. After the discovery of an ancient Klingon artifact, the crew finds themselves in a moment of perilous brinkmanship between the Federation and the Klingon Empire. The clash of cultures sets a trap of misunderstanding with the potential to destroy them both.

Meanwhile The President of the United States and the Supreme Leader of the Democratic Republic of Korea rattle nuclear sabers across the Pacific. For the first time all year I wish the President was watching TV instead of leading the free world.

Unlike our situation in the 21st Century, the audience is dying to see the 23rd Century blow itself to hell. It may be Star Trek, but it is American TV after all. The inevitable grand battle between the Federation and the Klingon Empire evokes the maritime art of the 18th Century — fiery canvases filled with dizzying detail, portraying the insignificance of human beings against the epic terror of our own monstrous weapons of war.

Amidst the battle, a human crewman stumbles towards our hero, shell-shocked and hopelessly confused. “Why are we fighting?” he asks “we’re not soldiers, we’re explorers.” It may be a bit on the nose, but it’s the question I always asked when watching the recent action-packed Star Trek films. Why are they fighting?

As the President and the Supreme Leader prod and provoke each other towards war, I pray they ask themselves the same question. Why? Why are we fighting? If somebody told those guys to calm down and watch some Star Trek we may just save the planet.

Alas, parallels to nuclear brinkmanship are nothing new to the Star Trek universe. Long before North Korea went nuclear, the relationship between the Federation and the Klingons reflected the Cold War conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union. In fact, most of what I’ve described so far is pretty standard Star Trek fare. But by the end of the pilot it becomes clear the writers are about to boldly go where this franchise has rarely dared to go while still staying true to its heart. In the pilot’s final moments, Star Trek Discovery proves itself to be a big, beautiful risk for CBS. And that’s when Star Trek is at it’s best.

“Risk,” Captain Kirk once said, “Risk is our business.”

Captain Kirk. He’s the Star Trek hero all others are compared to. In some respects James Tiberius Kirk is TV’s original social justice warrior. Nary a Star Trek tribute goes by without a reference to Kirk and Uhura’s infamous interracial kiss, the first in TV history. But in other ways, Kirk is the ultimate expression of white male privilege in America. Despite the diverse makeup of his crew, he’s still in charge. He breaks the rules without consequence, constantly violating orders, getting court marshaled and even escaping death. Even his punishments are actually rewards. When he cheats on the most important exam in the Academy he gets an accommodation. When he steals and destroys the Enterprise they “demote” him to Captain and give him a brand new ship.

Star Trek Discovery‘s protagonist Michael Burnham is the first woman of color to play the lead in a Star Trek series. In the pilot she pulls a classic Kirk, ignoring orders and listening to her instinct instead. Like Kirk, she is forced to stand before a Starfleet Tribunal to answer for her crimes. At the moment when the audience expects our hero to be “punished” with a command of her own and sent on a classic Star Trek adventure, the unthinkable happens. She is sentenced to life in prison. I immediately thought of the millions of African American men languishing in prison for non-violent drug offenses while white America sobs over the victims of the opioid “epidemic.” Captain Kirk is a hero. Michael Burnham is a convicted felon. Star Trek Discovery will boldly go where no man has gone before because our hero is no man.

The pilot ends with a breathtaking preview of what to expect from the rest of the series. It is clear that unlike previous incarnations, Star Trek Discovery won’t end each week with a hearty laugh from the bridge crew as everything returns to normal. This will be a series where our heroes’ actions have consequences, for herself and the rest of the galaxy. It hopefully won’t be Star Trek‘s final frontier, but it is certainly a new one.