Thursday, January 17, 2008

A Shallow Cut with a Razor

WARNING: SPOILERS (spoilage factor: about the same as a cow mutilated by aliens and left undiscovered in a field for a couple of weeks)

First of all, sorry for the lateness of this post. I know I’d promised something for last weekend, but things got too busy. That being said, I’m glad some of you enjoyed the post with the photos from the set on Centennial Beach. Anyway, here’s a quick review of “Battlestar Galactica – Razor”.

It’s been a few weeks since “Razor” made its appearance – a sidebar story to the main BSG plotline (though it did drop a couple of hints about what might be expected in the upcoming season) detailing the events involving the Pegasus, as seen through the eyes of one of its officers, Kendra Shaw.

Pretty much half of the story is told through Shaw’s flashbacks: her arrival, the attack on the Colonies, the murder of the ship’s first X-O, the discovery of the Cylon traitor and the slaughter of the civilian refugees, to name a few. The rest of the tale takes place in “the present” - sometime late in Season 2 after Lee Adama has been given command of the Pegasus, but before the debacle on New Caprica – a time where a sullen Kendra has been busted in rank and is spending her days on KP duty before Apollo promotes her to second-in-command.

While “Razor” is a good, solid, compelling piece of television (certainly better than most of the stuff on the boob tube prior to the writers’ strike and light years beyond the filler running now), it’s not without its flaws. In some respects, I think the story would have been much stronger had it simply been a self-contained movie focusing entirely on the tragedy of the Pegasus, up to its encounter with Galactica and the fleet.

Certainly, retooling the feature to be a continuous story line rather than jumping back and forth between the present and the past would have been a lot less jarring. A more steady rhythm to the plot would probably have given us more time to see the development ( or is it devolution?) of Shaw’s character, as well as that of Admiral Cain and the others aboard Pegasus. And in so doing, a conventional linear timeline would have allowed the writers to steadily ratchet-up the tension, perhaps giving the story’s resolution and Shaw’s death a bigger emotional payoff.

And yet… and yet… maybe that was the whole point of the constant flashbacks - to keep us, the viewers, as off-balance as Kendra was, to really put us in her boots. And in so doing, maybe it was a test to see if we too would develop a cold mask, would try to become desensitized to all the trauma we were seeing, just as Shaw did, or, if we would be able to elude that trap and retain our feelings (the fear and revulsion and helplessness) and so our humanity through the experience.

Regardless, the jerky jumps between memory and present create a more serious concern about the story: the timeline jumps gave me the feeling that the writers were flinching from probing the extent of the darkness closing in upon the crew of Pegasus. It felt as though the writes only wanted to hint at the frightening and depressing depths to which things had sunk as Cain realigned her focus along a dreadful course. Granted, sometimes it’s more effective for a story to hint at horrors rather than put them fully in the spotlight. But in this case, when it’s an emotional plummet off of a precipice, when ends-justify-the-means morality becomes a dehumanizing road to madness and destruction, it might have made a more absorbing story. Now, in saying that allowing the camera to stay in the past amidst Cain’s conversion from Colonial fleet admiral to vicious pirate queen, I am certainly not saying the story would have benefitted from seeing gore or witnessing Lieutenant Thorne’s sickening brutality towards the Cylon captive – not at all, far from it. I’m wondering if they’d given more time for dialogue between the crew, to see if they were debating among themselves, to see how Shaw managed to put up with her own company on the cold solitary nights in her bunk with nothing but her guilt and fear, to see how the Colonial conscripts/captives adapted to their new life aboard Pegasus, I’m wondering if seeing that evolution of character would have made a more powerful story. Would that have made a movie too dark for the audience to bear with? Possibly. But BSG is a dark story by nature. It is a tale of genocide and refugees and civil infighting and being hunted, of suicide and loneliness and hopelessness and the unknown and failed dreams. BSG has explored all of these kinds of darkness and more over the three seasons we’ve seen so far, and viewers have been forced to cope with all of it and reflect on what it says about our lives.

That being said, “Razor” certainly wasn’t a bad or even mediocre movie. There are many things to like about it.

On the surface, I loved the look of the old-model Cylons and their Raiders – fighting and flying the way they were meant to. They were more than a tribute to the designs of the original series; these Cylons looked and acted the part of a serious threat to the human race – they were not the gladius-waving, half-hearted extras of old staggering to their knees after just one shot. It was a treat to watch “Razor” if for no other reason than to see the Cylon centurions in action.

And you can’t help but be in awe of the sheer magnitude of the attack on the Colonial shipyard and Adama’s memories of the final engagement of the first Cylon war. Sure, as SF fans, we’ve seen plenty of big space battles before, with titanic ships lumbering across the screen slugging it out with each other as swarms of fighters dive between picking away at each other. But the special effects crew of BSG worked hard to craft a more tangible realism into these scenes than the Lucas team has – the shot of the Battlestar Columbia breaking up and tumbling into the ice planet’s atmosphere (an ice planet with an ultimate weapon no less – nice updated allusion to the old series episode “The Gun on Ice Planet Zero”) seemed more suited to something closer to home like “Memphis Belle” than a traditional SF movie like “Return of the Jedi” that felt alien in its distance (never mind because of its aliens). And best of all, these huge SFX shots didn’t take away from the humanity of the vignettes, they enhanced them – the scenes were still about the people in them. You also have to love how Bear McCreary worked the original BSG theme into the score for the Adama flashback.

I also got a kick out of some of the nice little pop culture allusions scattered throughout the story. Laughed my ass off when Starbuck, Shaw and the marines are floating in space, having just tricked their Cylon pursuers and Kara Thrace gets that smarmy grin on and says “Ain’t it grand when a plan comes together?” (for those of you who don’t remember TV of the 70’s & 80’s, the Starbuck of the original series was Dirk Benedict, who later went on to become Templeton “Faceman” Peck on “The A-Team” – the signature line of the mercenary crew’s leader Hannibal was “I love it when a plan comes together.”). And, though I didn’t catch them until my second viewing – on the extended edition – there are a couple of lines from James Cameron’s “Aliens” dropped in here and there where the sergeant gets on the case of a marine named Hudson.

All in all, “Razor” is certainly worth watching on the merits of these surface points.

But there’s definitely something deeper going on with this movie, something I’ll explore in my next post in a day or two. (Hopefully it won’t be as late as this installment!) Stay tuned.
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