Earthlings Review and Opinion




Earthlings: Ugly Bags Of Mostly Water (2005)
Director: Alexandre O. Philippe

review by Alasdair Stuart

My final year at secondary school is not one I remember fondly. As well as the usual pressures of exams, the final choice of university and the horrors of adolescence I also had to deal with facing the reality of leaving the island I grew up on, the aftermath of losing a close friend, and getting a spectacularly bad haircut. It was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a fun period of my life. With one, notable, exception...

Being the son of a teacher meant I tended to be in school a good hour before everyone else and, one morning in particular, I found myself printing off a history essay on one of the school's computers. I brought the file up, spell-checked it and by accident brushed against the font menu. The computer had the Klingon font installed. Maybe I was tired, maybe I was bored, but curiosity got the better of me and I changed the essay into Klingon. It took a full two minutes to stop laughing and a full five to convince myself not to hand it in that way. To this day part of me still wants to know what mark I would have got.

All this is a roundabout way of saying I'm a trekkie, I have a tremendous fondness for Star Trek that not even seven years of the asinine Voyager and four of Enterprise could fully destroy. I've read the books, I've played the role-playing games and, God help me, I've even experienced the dubious wonder of the 'interactive' board game. It remains part of my worldview and, like a lot of trekkies, I've found myself wondering, from time to time, whether I've taken things a little too far.

Having watched Earthings, I now realise I have nothing to worry about. Alexandre D. Philippe's movie explores the fascination with the Klingons and in particular the Klingon language. The only fictional language to have an Institute devoted to its study, Klingon has becomee a cultural phenomenon in its own right. A legitimate language, it has spawned an anthem, thousands of practitioners and the qep'a, an annual convention for Klingon speakers. It's the qep'a that Philippe uses to explore the common ground that the language grants its speakers and explores why exactly it has become so popular.

Philippe covers every base here, starting at the top with the father of the language, Marc Okrand. Originally hired to create two lines of Vulcan for Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Kahn, Okrand was re-hired to create the Klingon used in Star Trek III: The Search For Spock. Since then, he's seen his work grow massively in popularity until now it's a living, breathing language with Okrand at the helm. He's in the unique position of being the sole creator of a living, growing language and its fascinating to see not the lengths that Okrand has gone to keep himself, and his speakers, amused. Recent additions to Klingon include the fast moving bird Cha'bip (Cha meaning fast, bip meaning 'bip bip' as in Road Runner) and nahgbek, the word for spoon which is a combination of the words for flat and rock with their first two letters transposed for reasons lost to time. Or, to put it another way, a spoonerism... Okrand comes across as both a uniquely intelligent man and one with a very strange sense of humour that Klingon speakers seem to have tremendous fun working out. It's a puzzle as much as a language and that goes a long way towards explaining its appeal.

Michael Dorn, the longest serving Klingon actor in the series, also makes an appearance and provides a fascinating counterpoint to Okrand, viewing the Klingon speakers with a mixture of admiration and more than a little caution. On the one hand, he's genuinely fascinated by them and, on the other, like many Star Trek actors, clearly finds their passion for the show irritating at best and disturbing at worst. It's Dorn who seems fascinated by the mindset needed to embrace the Klingon way, and it's Dorn who makes the point that there's more than a hint of Halloween and the desire to hold onto childhood behind the wearing of Klingon costumes. He has a unique view of the language and is an intelligent, articulate and extremely wry interviewee. The extended interview with Dorn, supplied as an extra here, is a highlight of the disc.

Then, of course, there are the conference attendees themselves. All articulate and all clearly passionate about their lifestyle choice they're by and large a likable bunch of eccentrics. They include members of the ongoing project to translate Shakespeare into Klingon, complete with Klingon political subtext and cultural analysis (a point which Dorn, the only professional actor interviewed, objects to) as well as Kranknor (alias, Richard Yempell), composer of the Klingon anthem. A successful amateur musician, his bewildered pride at the Klingon anthem being his biggest 'hit' is deeply endearing, especially when he recounts the story of a group of strangers at a convention singing the anthem back to him. Other standouts include Dr d'Armond Speers, the father who taught his son to count in Klingon before he could count in English, and Michael, whose determination to pass a Klingon language exam and 'belong' is oddly poignant. However, Philippe doesn't shy away from the more obsessive side of fandom, with Michael's couching of his failed relationship as \"I thought she was a Klingon but she turned out to be a bloody Romulan,\" being particularly difficult to watch. There's a victim mentality that a lot of the fans have, a need to justify their study of a fictional language from a TV show as something more than a hobby that's both sanctimonious and irritating. Similarly, Robyn Stewart's refusal to speak in anything but Klingon, and have what she says translated by her husband, comes across as both smug and intensely irritating. This is a hobby not a lifestyle and the worst excesses of fandom are those who forget that.

In the end though, there's a sense that Klingon is now bigger than all of them. Okrand describes it like a child, all too aware that one day it will break free and live or die on its own. Dorn is convinced that the language will die when the series, or perhaps he himself, dies, whilst Kranknor sees a time when the language could be handed over to the Klingon Language Institute for further study and development. None of them think they're right, none of them know what the future holds, but all of them find themselves in thrall to something that is now bigger than the sum of its parts.

If you're a Star Trek fan or even a Klingon speaker yourself then this may be uncomfortable viewing. Few fans are as passionate or as unafraid of embarrassment as Star Trek fans and, as a result, Earthlings has moments of almost Office-like comedy and tragedy. However, it's all presented openly and honestly and with a great deal of affection for all involved. Philippe's created a documentary about something being born from nothing, a language rising and evolving from something as trivial as a TV show and, for that reason alone, this is fascinating viewing. This is a high quality disc too, with a director's commentary and interview joining the Dorn interview in an unusually strong extras' package. All in all, one thing is clear, the language of warriors is here to stay. I'm just glad I didn't hand that school essay in...


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Earthlings Review and Opinion

Earthlings Review and Opinion

Earthlings: Ugly Bags Of Mostly Water (2005) Director: Alexandre O. Philippe review by Alasdair StuartMy final year at secondary school is not one I remember f





Earthlings Review and Opinion
Earthlings Review and Opinion

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