Thursday, May 14, 2009
It had to happen eventually. Something had to happen with Star Trek. I already mentioned how boring STAR TREK: NEMESIS is. ENTERPRISE ranks as one of the single least compelling shows in the history of the medium. I used to say that what was wrong with Star Trek was that the mine had been stripped, leaving nothing left to explore, but maybe that wasn’t the problem. Maybe it had just become too consumed by its own language and rules—not just the canon which probably was impenetrable by a certain point, but by the elements that had become ingrained in that canon. The awful technobabble dialogue, the droning music, the actors speaking their lines in a numbing monotone. It had ceased to be fun or diverting in any real way. I happened to see an episode during the final season of ENTERPRISE which, though I couldn’t recite the plot to you, somehow involved Nazi aliens in some sort of alternate World War II and they managed to make even that boring, a pretty neat trick if you think about it. I say this as a fan from way back ever since watching the reruns of the original series on Channel 11 back in New York. Not that I watch them all the time, but it’s nice to have the DVDs around in case if I ever want to take a look at an episode to remember the way it used to be. I’ve even got the old animated show. So I’ve seen the new film directed by J.J. Abrams simply called STAR TREK (after all, there's never been a movie with that title before) twice by now. This was necessary because it was almost like I needed one viewing just to begin to absorb this film and figure out exactly what it is. That said, my thoughts on it still feel preliminary. There are problems, yes, and there is room for improvement in future installments, but it’s just about as good a summer popcorn movie that I’ve seen in the past several years. It moves. It has an energy. There’s no way to be certain how I’ll feel about it in a month or a year but right now I wouldn’t object to sitting through it again this very moment. It’s fun and that’s one thing that any incarnation of Star Trek hasn’t been for a long time. There’s no way to ask the question “What is Star Trek?” without getting into a debate with somebody since there are going to be all sorts of opinions. But maybe, just maybe, this film is what Star Trek needs to be right now.
Everyone knows about the plot right now, how what we know of as the history of Kirk (Chris Pine) Spock (Zachary Quinto) McCoy (Karl Urban) Uhura (Zoe Saldana) Sulu (John Cho) Chekov (Anton Yelchin) and Scotty (Simon Pegg) is irrevocably altered by the arrival of the Romulan Nero (Eric Bana) from the future. Leonard Nimoy as Spock (“Spock Prime” in the credits) turns up in a key role to give his blessing and to give us one final look at his version of the character. In sealing up the old universe into a Ziploc bag, never to be opened again, it’s kind of liberating to be able to explore some of the characters in new ways and in some cases, like Uhura, give them a character where previously none existed at all (in that sense, I think romantically pairing her with Spock is a terrific idea). The script by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (it’s easy to imagine that producer Damon Lindelof worked on it as well), even with the flaws that people have been talking about is structured in a way designed to keep it moving like a rocket (when the action kicks in, it’s done in that one continuous day kind of plot like STAR WARS) and continually brings up new elements throughout, like how it doesn’t introduce Simon Pegg’s Scotty until late in the game, as if hiding an ace up it sleeve) that never lets it get dull for an moment. It even brings up elements of the Trek mythos that have pretty much laid dormant since the 60s—Christopher Pike, Sulu and his fencing, green Orion girls—and seems to take a certain delight in doing something with them as if satisfying a daydream one of the writers had long ago. And with all the familiar dialogue spoken by the characters throughout I’m pretty sure that there are a few non-catchphrase exchanges heard here and there (I’ve seen some of these films and episodes a lot) that seem inserted almost subliminally. It’s as if the wanted to do whatever they could to make this feel like a dream Trek, one that really takes advantage of the universe in a way we haven’t seen before. With all these elements coming together I found myself liking my second viewing even more than the first. It just put a big grin on my face as I remembered what it was once like to really enjoy a summer movie, or maybe just a summer movie that featured the Starship Enterprise. Even the digital effects were something that impressed me, something that rarely happens anymore, particularly during the extremely well-donespace jump sequence. And for once I didn’t mind all the camerawork that people seem to be worked up over or even all those flares. It was a style for this film, for this new presentation of Trek and it gave a surprisingly vibrant feel to the whole thing that hadn’t been seen before. By a certain point I stopped noticing it and seriously, I’m the first person to get annoyed by that sort of thing these days.
Not that I don’t have a few issues, or maybe even a few qualms related to where all this might be going. The movie moves fast and much of the time that clearly seems to be what J.J. Abrams has in mind. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But there’s something missing in there for me. There’s no one single shot or image or ever a series of images that come off as distinctly cinematic. There’s stuff going on in the frame constantly in every scene—and points to the film for shooting in genuine anamorphic, not Super 35 or digital—but there’s no real joy-of-filmmaking in anything that Abrams does here. There’s no one single moment where we ever feel that. There’s some great effects work and there’s the gaze at the setting suns of Tatooine equivalent as young Jim Kirk gazes at the Enterprise under construction, but it’s not quite enough. We need to see not just the great starship captain that Kirk is going to become, but the great man he is going to become and I’m not quite sure that’s here. That’s not the worst thing in the world, certainly, but it is something that keeps this film from being something that is great.
That said, the performances by the leads are just fantastic, working expertly in presenting these young versions of these characters doing not just impersonations but nailing something about the essences for the most part. They also create successful characterizations by themselves, something we can’t say with each one of these reboots (yes, that would be SUPERMAN RETURNS) Pine, Quinto and Urban all are terrific and I look forward to seeing what they’ll do with these characters in the coming years. Zoe Saldana (boy, she’s stunning) had more of a blank slate to work with than some of the others and Pegg’s Scotty is more of a comic relief but these characterizations work immensely and there’s not a moment when they were on screen that I wasn’t enjoying what they were doing. The thinly-drawn Nero, who’ll probably go down as one of the least memorable villains in all of Trek, seems less the fault of Eric Bana, who seems game, than either a script that lets him down or stuff that was cut from the final film. Winona Ryder has a few minutes in old-age makeup as Spock’s mother (I miss her), Bruce Greenwood hits the right note of authority as the first actor to play Christopher Pike in over forty years and a few alums from prior J.J. Abrams projects turn up in bit parts. At this point in time Leonard Nimoy seems almost more like Nimoy than Spock but this almost seems appropriate and it’s hard not to be affected a little bit by getting to see him as Spock on the big screen once more. I’ve spotted some criticism of Michael Giacchino’s score out there but, though I haven’t heard the album yet, in all honesty I thought it was terrific. I’ve loved his work in recent years, particularly on LOST and here I thought he got the tone for this just right with an extremely rousing main theme, which I look forward to hearing him expand upon in the future. There are few other composers out there right now whose name I’m as pleased to see in film credits as much as his.
The film does know how to keep the wheels spinning fast enough that the issues that people seem to be harping on don’t even bother me very much, but it does cause certain things involving the characters to not pay off. So much of the basic story comes from Nero’s hatred of Spock, yet when it comes to mano-a-mano time it’s Kirk who really squares off against the villain (true, Kirk and Kahn never met in that film but it had so much other thematic richness going on that it was never really an issue). I also couldn’t help but notice that a line said to Kirk near the very end—“Your father would’ve been proud of you”—is the exact same line said to the lead character of a brilliant thriller that won Best Picture at the Oscars years ago (If you don’t know what it is, I guess it doesn’t matter). In that film the range of emotions that washed over the face of the lead actress (who also won the Oscar) upon hearing this said more than any words ever could and added much resonance to the entire film. In STAR TREK the line is spoken but there’s not even a shot of Kirk reacting to it which would allow a sense of thematic closure to the moment. It’s just another part of the pomp and circumstance of the scene. I’m not saying that there should be complex ambiguity on Kirk’s face here but there could be something that would add to the movie and would even be valuable in getting us to care about this version of the character in films yet to come. I like STAR TREK a huge amount right now and since we’ve got crap from Michael Bay and Stephen Sommers coming this summer, surely making me want to jab a fork in my eye, in a few months it might even seem downright miraculous just how good this film is. I just wish there was more substance to it. More that would stay with me. Remember the tag line from THE MOTION PICTURE, this franchise’s first appearance on the big screen, thirty years old this year—The Human Adventure is Just Beginning. That film was actually lacking in the drama department too, for its own reasons. This time, they’ve got an even better head start to do more of it in the follow-up and I hope it happens. I hope they don’t do something predictable, like bring back Kahn or go all action to make it a QUANTUM OF STAR TREK sort of thing. This is the time for the people involved to branch out and really make this universe their own. There are so many possibilities that they could explore and if they strive for the stars, there’s every reason to think that they could pull it off.