Thursday, May 14, 2009

Buckle Up

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.


Joe Valdez said...

I agree with your level headed, non-Kool Aid sipping assessment of Star Trek, Peter, except for me, the problems weren't as easily overcome.

This movie was fast, well cast, fast, occasionally witty, fast and much better than any recent incarnations of this franchise. It was definitely fast. But at no time did it really feel like Star Trek.

I don't feel the movie really commented on the human condition. The Enterprise didn't seem to really boldly go anywhere. I don't really know what the point of Starfleet Academy was. I'm not even sure what year we were supposed to be in, or how the human race got to that point, and I'm a fan.

The action scenes moved so fast that it was nearly impossible to gain any scale or appreciation for what was going on.

I have not read anyone comment on the score one way or another, but I can't even remember there being any, which went a long way from denying a feeling of grandeur a big sci-fi movie like this should have.

I will offer that Karl Urban really impressed me, and most of the cast was good. But I don't get the impression that J.J. Abrams likes movies or really has the passion to make a good one. This is consumer entertainment product that falls somewhere between Iron Man and Superman Returns for me.

Marc C said...

Overall, a very good review, but naturally, I have plenty of thoughts.

I agree with you about how stale Star Trek became. But I don't think it was the result of the vast canon, but more of the no talent hacks that were running the franchise. When you have people in charge of Star Trek that clearly loathe the original series, and lack any creative talent whatsoever, things are going to suck.

I don't think Abrams had to destroy the Star Trek universe to make the movie good. This was SUPPOSED to be the origin of Kirk and Spock, and how the gang got together. But by changing all of history, this is NOT the story of how the gang got together. It's an alternate story of how the gang got together. I'll stop calling them a gang now.

By altering history, Abrams was unable to tell the story he wanted to tell.

More important, Spock Prime acted fundamentally out of character in order to make Abrams' plans work.

You've watched a buttload of Star Trek throughout your life. In Star Trek, while there have always been many universes, there has only been one timeline. If that wasn't the case, why bother running in the Guardian and stopping McCoy from saving Edith Keeler? Why bother following the Borg to the 21st century and stopping them? So when Abrams changed the timeline, he basically wiped out everything, and that was a hell of a slap in the face to long time fans. The original timeline cannot possibly exist anymore from a plot standpoint.

Because of that, it was extremely out of character for Spock Prime to act the way he did. He woudln't simply let "billions die who did not die before." He would do everything in his power to undo the historical havoc created by Nero. While many things were similar, Kirk lost a father, Spock lost a mother, and an entire planet blew up. Spock Prime could never ignore that to simply work on a Vulcan colony.

I think the story would have been brilliant had it been about RESTORING the timeline and preventing Nero right at the beginning from attacking the Kelvin.

The characters we all know would have helped Spock Prime. It's their heroic nature. And even without that, they could always pick things up in the right timeline in the next movie with the same cast. That's the beauty of it.

Restoring the timeline might make an interesting sequel...

I also felt that Scotty was misused. I think that while the character does indeed bring humor to the story, it seems lost that the character kicks ass. When it came to his job, he had no peer. I get your point about his late introduction being an ace in the hole, but I think it made no sense for Chekov to be the one to lock onto Kirk and Sulu when they were falling on Vulcan. That was clearly a Scotty moment given to the wrong character.

It might have been interesting to rework their introductions. Either have the scene on Delta Vega before the destruction of Vulcan (a big reworking that probably doesn't jibe), or have Chekov be the one found on Delta Vega and Scotty be on the ship. You lose the part about Spock giving Scotty his own formula, but that's not that big of a deal. Chekov can then be inspired by Kirk to join the academy himself, and we don't have the awkward 17 year old Wesley Crusher wannabe.

Overall, I would give the movie 2 1/2 stars out of 4. Good, not great. Wrath of Khan is still king.

alone in the dark said...

i think what's interesting to me about the endless reboots/remakes of all films is that they begin to look and sound a lot like fanfiction. fanfiction written by people who are getting paid lots more money to write it than your local kid who, i don't know, obsesses about sonic the fucking hedgehog or something, but fanfic all this same.

i haven't seen it, but this reads to me very much like the case of someone loving something so much that they just had to put their own personal spin on it, which is pretty much what fanfiction is all about.

i'm not denigrating that, by the way. just pointing out something which seems interesting to me.

Ted said...

Thinking about Star Trek days later (having enjoyed it) I must say the main plot is essentially a way to put the old characters into ships/costumes/FX that do not look 60s TV retro. It's housecleaning for the rest of the Trek sequels.

The bad guy, Nero the Generic, goes back in time, messes with events, and suddenly the look of the film reflects late '00s production design. Whereas a proper Trek prequel would look... like 50s sci-fi? Forbidden Planet?

I like Star Trek for character and stories, but I also like it for the magenta smoke, analog synth blips, go-go costumes and the general cultural time capsule nature of it.

I guess it's more than I could have hoped for to have a Spock wearing the right color. (man, I hated those maroon, paunch-hiding jacket getups of the 80's Trek films)

Still a blast, but it could have done a few more things right and become a classic.

Anonymous said...

Hm. Where to start?

First off: Great review! It's obvious, that you enjoyed the movie (important point).

Second: My own thoughts. Some light and lots of shadow.

Basically, this Star Trek works as a restart of some sorts. It's not completely successful - not because it pushes the reset button to get rid of 40 years of continuity - but because it repeats some of the lame stereotypes and dull plots that ruined the last movie AND the last series. Besides, it's not very deep and (as another, very angry reviewer pointed out elsewhere) has mostly been "blinged up" for a younger audience.

Is that a bad thing? No!

Unfortunately, the "new blood" infusion has not taken place on the side of the producer. While the director is competent and the cast is great (except for one), the story and character development did not come out as very innovative (time travel, Romulan villain, planet destruction).

Why some people claim Paramount done this as a favour "for the old fans" (a blatant lie considering how they bashed that very same fanbase) I would like to point out that especially those "old" fans appreciate innovative ideas first and foremost - and complain about abandoning the continuity later.

To give you an impression how far fandom can develop I would like to point you at some of the fan projects out there.

Three of the best(IMHO):

- New Voyages (aka Star Trek Phase II)

- Starship Farragut

- Starship Exeter

Especially Cawley's gang have done an excellent job! They even got original actors AND staff personal for their fan episodes! And, boy, do their sets and effects look great!

(Oh, and regarding the character of Pike, watch the New Voyages episode "IN HARM'S WAY"!)


Anonymous said...

I don't think that I am ever going to the cinema again. On saturday evening I caught Star Trek, guarded but hopeful having read a lot of very positive reviews, but also very wary. I expected something a little ‘cheesy’ with over-baked effects, possibly shallow and more reminiscent of an extended pop video, perhaps squeaky clean and aimed at the teenage crowd. Unfortunately I underestimated.

What a pile of steaming s***! Excuse me, absolutely steaming.I feel betrayed, but I shouldn’t. Not by Paramount or Abrams who have re-written history and reshaped the franchise, all fair game in the creative stakes even if the execution is lousy. My annoyance is with the community of critics who have rubber-stamped approval on this turkey but I should have known better. I am not sure that I can really articulate my disapproval and keep this short so I try to stay abstract.

The plot is a train crash, a comic book series condensed into a movie. I can forgive the self-indulgent vignette of Kirk as a rebellious brat, but this is a hotchpotch of swiped ideas and not an original thought amongst them. Time travel, revenge, a baldy Romulan with a big messy ship, the main fleet awol and cadets to the rescue. Lets blow up a planet, make it two. Threaten earth, squeeze in one of the old cast. A big CGI monster or two that is never going to catch Kirk. Knot it all together with some truly shockingly convenient coincidences and ignore the gaping black holes and crap crap crap science.

And three captains of the Enterprise, lets have a boys punch-up to settle who the real captain should be. We know the bridge crew can fight as Star Fleet still don’t have any marines for sorting out trouble ‘down below’.

I saw that there were two writers in the credits. I don’t really know how this works in Hollywood but I can take a wild guess. One guy sits on the crapper and squeezes out a daft idea on the back of his cigarette packet, and the other is hired to mould the dialouge.

I was reminded of Sunshine by Danny Boyle, a half-competent sci-fi movie made by someone who shouldn’t be making sci-fi. All glossy effects and excellent production values and every single scene stolen from another movie.

Star Trek is so much worse. Hardly better than the last movie in the series from which it steals so many ideas. Better special effects. Better music. More engaging characters I will give it’s due (Quinto is excellent a better Spock than Spock). Superficial entertainment for pre-teens. Perhaps they were the real target audience.

And to the critics, present company excepted I emphasise, a 95% approval on Rotten Tomatoes? Are these the same people who gave approval for Quantum of Solace or the Crystal Skull? What is the criteria for a good action movie? No, lower your threshold. Keep going I need to rate a blockbuster. Fresh young faces. Things move on the screen. Sparkling CGI. A rousing score. Sounds like fun after all, it must be just me.