I’ve been out to the cinema twice in the last couple of weeks to see two very different films: the latest cinematic instalment in the Star Trek franchise and Warwick Thornton’s low-budget Australian film Samson and Delilah. It’s virtually impossible to compare the two films in a manner that is fair, given the fact that they span such different genres and are coming from such different places, but in judging each of them I have found that juxtaposing my observations of each has provided some much needed clarity. Hopefully that will come through in what follows, although this is by no means guaranteed.
So let me first turn to Star Trek. First, a confession. I am the sort of person who has digested all the original movies, most of the original series, all of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine and about half of Voyager. I had some fairly high hopes for this movie, and I was looking forward to the dynamism that someone like JJ Abrams promised to bring to what has become a flagging franchise. By and large the casting seemed pretty on the money; Zachary Quinto is a dead-ringer for a young Leonard Nimoy, Chris Pine offered the sort of youthful exuberance that one would expect from a young James T. Kirk, and Simon Pegg does actually look quite a bit like a young James Doohan in the right light.
Unfortunately for me the casting, along with the pleasantly brisk pacing, turned out to be the best thing about this movie. The origins stories for Kirk and Spock, which effectively make up about the first half of the film, are generally well executed, with a few glaring exceptions. The Nero (Eric Bana) half of the story, however, seems all too familiar and represents extremely well-worn territory. Mix the Star Trek TNG double-episode “Unification” with a couple of the time travel/reality warp plot devices of films like Star Trek Generations (VII) or First Contact (VIII) and you end up with something very similar to the plot here. Frankly, it is wafer-thin stuff and Star Trek fans have been brought up on better, so they should expect better from a full-length motion picture in 2009. They deserve better than science fiction stock sketch number 127.
My reasonably high expectations of Star Trek compare in an interesting way with my expectations for Samson and Delilah, an Australian film that has appeared on the national radar out of nowhere, without fanfare but some pretty hardcore critical acclaim in recent weeks. Yes, this is another “depressing” Australian movie. But this is a movie that will change you. It will make you laugh, it will make you want to cry, and it will change the way you think about the world, and quite frankly, I am not sure how much more you can ask for in a film. Unlike Star Trek, you will find it hard to forget that you have seen this film once you have seen it.
Samson and Delilah looks and sounds like no other film you have seen before. The cinematography is superb and makes wonderful use of the landscape of the outback. There is very little dialogue in the film. This might sound strange and put folks off, but the film’s characters are utterly expressive and fully-formed; which really does lay bear how much dumbed-down dialogue we all have to endure in most modern television shows and films. The story is languid and organic, and Thornton makes clever use of repetition to reinforce the mood he is trying to create. I am not even sure that it is fair to say that Samson and Delilah has a plot, in the normal sense of the word. This is total film. This is someone else’s life unfolding in front of you, a strange sort of dream that draws you in.
In short, Samson and Delilah makes practically all other films currently showing at your local box office seem childish, limited, and irrelevant. I don’t think I can put it any more bluntly, or truthfully, than that. Go and see it – see it now, and tell your friends.