11 May 2009

star trekkin' (part I)

This was the first time I'd not been worried about a movie's quality since Iron Man, or The Dark Knight. That sounds kind of stupid, but it's true.

I don't know why I wasn't worried; J.J. Abrams' Star Trek reboot could be a perfect storm of failure. Between recasting some of the most iconic characters in American popular culture with a bunch of no-name, Abercrombie-model-looking 20-somethings, releasing trailers focus-grouped to appeal to the audience that will go see a space action movie featuring Abercrombie-model-looking 20-somethings, ignoring 40 years of enduring, if at times shaky, continuity, beating the magic flashback even further into the ground than its already been, and promising that the most lovably nerdy of American institutions, Star Trek, would appeal to people who don't know/care about the ridiculousness of the subject of the first time Dr. Leonard 'Bones' McCoy uttered the immortal words, "He's dead, Jim" (said about a poor little lizard dog who died as the result of a transporter accident), it sure looked like Abrams & Co. were readying their own petards for hoisting.

There was not a moment of this movie that gave credence to anyone's fears. Star Trek is precisely the sort of movie that made Hollywood an economic force to be reckoned with globally: adventurous, fun, filled with great character moments, engaging, smart, ambitious, and even memorable. It's everything a summer movie could hope to be, and, in a lot of ways, everything Star Trek movies have been trying to be from the very beginning.

I'll get my complaints out of the way, pithy though they may be, before singing the movie's praises at an unreasonably loud volume. Foremost, it really was popcorn Trek. That's not such a bad thing, because it serves the "accessible Trek" mantra, but it's something I should address, as a person who, just like Philip J. Fry, had the friend void filled many a time by the officers & crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise. The plot holes that other people have brought up (some here, and a hell of a lot here - Devin's nitpicking is impressive almost to a fault) would be obnoxious, but a) this is Star Trek, and b) I was having too much fun to care. If Star Trek were a bad movie, sure, the fact that black holes don't behave like black holes ought to would piss me off, but I loved this movie, so I don't care. I found myself far more distracted by Spock's five o'clock shadow, to be honest. The lens flares (about which the DP said,
"There's something about these flares, especially in a movie that potentially could be incredibly sterile and overly controlled by CGI, that's just incredibly unpredictable and gorgeous." - thanks, IMDb) could've gotten obnoxious, but I think J.J. & Co. learned their lesson from Cloverfield (that is, just because something works for five minutes, doesn't mean it'll work for 90). That, really, is it.

[ASIDE: Vanessa made a neat point as we drove back from our second viewing of the film. We were talking about the lens flares, and she mentioned that, many times, they worked in a transitional capacity, specifically citing when Kirk and McCoy were flying up to the Enterprise. The light washed over the screen - Kirk and McCoy were looking out the window at something we the audience could not see - and then, BOOM! Enterprise. An interesting transition, to be certain, and one that recalls the end of Undiscovered Country, when the Enterprise flies into the sun and disappears in a white light? END ASIDE]

Star Trek is/was phenomenal. From the first frame to the last, I was completely enraptured. The casting was far and away, above and beyond, anything I could've ever hoped for (and I remember back during the time people were saying Matt Damon was going to play Kirk, Adrien Brody would be Spock, and Gary Sinese was up for McCoy). These are characters I've known and loved since I was a small child, so the fact that I cannot find anything to bitch about speaks, to me, volumes. Karl Urban, awesome though he was in LOTR (one of the few pieces of those movies that still hold up, in my humble opinion), knocks it completely out of the park as Leonard McCoy. Who knew he was a gifted comedic actor? The scene where he's introduced is easily one of my favorites in the movie ("All I've got left are my bones"), and while he doesn't fall prey to the "impression" that I've read people chalk his performance down to, I think he captures the essence of McCoy. I'd heard people complain about Anton Yelchin's Chekov, but for my money, he nailed the fish-out-of-water, youthful exuberance that made Chekov such a great character on the show. John Cho, an actor I couldn't have cared less about, turned Sulu into the badass we all knew he was, just beneath the surface. Zoe Saldana, well, she was Uhura, and the same goes for the single actor I had no concerns about from the get-go: Simon Pegg's Montgomery Scott (pitch-perfect casting and performing - just the right level of Scotty exasperation the whole time). I've never watched Heroes (see here for why), so I knew nothing about Zachary Quinto, but I must admit that he rode the line that a young Spock needed to ride skillfully, almost perfectly (emotional control vs emotional release). You could see it behind his eyes, that he was always thinking in his scenes (a trait, in case you've not noticed, that I adore in actors). As long as we're on the subject of Spock, let me just say that Leonard Nimoy's still got it.

And, of course, there's Chris Pine, who famously modeled his Kirk not so much after Shatner, but after Harrison Ford's two best-known characters (Indy and Han Solo, naturally) and Tom Cruise's Pete "Maverick" Mitchell, from Top Gun. Again, sounds like a recipie for disaster, no? Somehow, though, they coalesce into something that's so perfectly Kirk that it's almost frightening. Cocky, aggressive, thoughtful, alert, charismatic... Everything that makes James Tiberius Kirk the man that women want, and that men want to be, is on display from Pine's swaggering into frame at the Iowa bar, to the moment he barks out his first official order as the duly designated captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise. Pine is, well, perfect, and not once does he stutter-step his syllables (he said he felt that'd be slipping into parody, and not only is he totally right, he also would've ruined the movie had he done that).

Eric Bana plays himself a great villain, certainly one of the most interesting a Star Trek film's seen in a good long time (he's really more a foil for Spock than Kirk, which is something I hope they'll address in the sequel). Bruce Greenwood [ASIDE: Here's my single moment of bitching, with regards to continuity. The movie says explicitly that Chris Pike was the first captain of the Enterprise. He wasn't, Robert April was. I understand why they took this route, using a character we actually know something about rather than one we don't, but they could've taken an opportunity to really grow a character the audience knew next to nothing about. Oh, well. Roads less taken and all that. END ASIDE] is a standout Chris Pike, a great father for the boy who, thanks to Nero, never had one. His, "I am relieved," from his wheelchair (!!!) is exemplary of a performer truly understanding his line, and selling it.

The production design, from the Apple store bridge of the Enterprise, to the dank and cavernous Romulan ship, to the IDIC chair/control console aboard Spock's ship, to the functional updating of the classic costumes, to the "flip" effect on the phasers as they switch from stun to kill, all of it grooves in the spirit of the original series. The design of the movie is optimistic, somehow, a future to which (for the first time in a good long time) we can actually look forward. It's bright and clean, and the way is led by men and women in bright, clean uniforms and ships.

One review of the film I did read (can't recall whose now, sadly) mentioned something very interesting, about how the camera's frenetic motion (which I rather liked, particularly once they got in space, as it set me, as a viewer, as askew as I imagine I might be in the weightless vacuum of space) slowed down once Simon Pegg arrived onscreen, as though Abrams no longer felt he had to compensate for his cast of [virtual] unknowns once his friend popped onscreen. Pegg is a gifted comic and a great performer, for certain, but I feel that sheds too negative a light on the rest of the cast. The movie slowed down on Delta Vega; there's no reason the camera shouldn't, too (besides, they weren't in space anymore).

Now, I've come across more than a couple of articles online (I've not read any, having been mostly away from the Internet this weekend, and not wanting to have any more of the movie spoiled than I'd already had) drawing explicit comparisons between Star Trek in the '60s and Star Trek today, how we're once again in the midst of a transformative time in national/world history, where the old paradigms (we can hope) no longer hold true, where we, at long last, get an opportunity to redefine ourselves, hopefully for the better. The original Star Trek (or TOS) put on display a time where humankind had put its differences aside, finally realizing there was more than united us than did the other thing, and pushed off into space alongside plenty of other people friendly to our cause of exploration, discovery, and camaraderie. A time when poverty, disease, war... all of it had been stripped away. A utopia among the stars, in short, was what Gene Roddenberry showed us (and that which was not utopian... well, we'd do our best to make it right, as long as we stuck to the cultural tenents enshrined in the Prime Directive). It gave us hope. J.J. Abrams' Star Trek reboot is similarly of its time, with a focus on the power of the team (equally appropriate to the origin-story-nature of the film - here's how the officers of the starship Enterprise came together for the very first time - and to the post-Obama campaign that proved, once and for all, that the young people of this country can accomplish what was once thought impossible. With some appropriate guidance, at times), of youth (or at least fresh thinking), and of proper, respectful, insightful use of the new (in this case, the freshly-minted Federation flagship), there's nothing that's out of our reach. A lesson worth appreciating, methinks. [ASIDE: there might well be way too much reading into this, seeing as how the movie was written long before the big political events took place. But, the fact that they were on the writers' minds at the time speaks, I think, to their potency. You can't just ignore these parallels, is what I'm trying to say. END ASIDE.

Speaking of youth, actually, that's one of the things that interested me most about the film. I've said before that my biggest complaint with the TNG cast films, particularly as opposed to the TOS cast's films, is their lack of an overarching theme. The films were all, to one degree or another, about aging, about finding a place in a world that was in the process of passing you by, about legacy. The TNG cast's movies had nothing like that (and might have if they'd had six movies to work with, but we'll never know. I doubt it, anyway. The writing was never as good). Abrams' Star Trek, though, is all about youth and potential, about taking an active hand in writing (or rewriting, depending on your level of bitterness) your story. Bruce Greenwood's line to Kirk, about settling for a less and ordinary life over reaching for something more, perfectly encapsulates this. Even Original Spock takes the opportunity that time-travel has afforded him to place his mark on what remains of his people in a very indelible way - he even selects the planet on which the new Vulcan colony will settle. I'm excited to see how they explore this in the future.

I've complained at length (not so much here, but in person... "Talking," if you will) about movies that take big chances, almost enviable ones, taking them back in the last few moments (Brett "I Can Have All The Endings I Want, Motherfuckers" Ratner's X-Men: The Last Stand killed Professor X, but brought him back, erased Magneto's mutant powers, but brought them back... Tropic Thunder took a huge chance with what it might've tried to say about race in entertainment, except that it decided it didn't want to say anything at the end). Star Trek, to its unending credit, doesn't do any such thing. When that black hole destroys Vulcan, it destroys it, taking with it Spock's mother, Amanda. When George Kirk is killed aboard the U.S.S. Kelvin, dooming his son Jim to a youth of juvenile delinquency (presumably, George was the only person that could've guided Jim onto the correct path early, but then we wouldn't have had what passed for Kirk's hero journey, would we?), he dies, ramming his ship into the belly of Nero's oversized Romulan mining/war ship. After all, the best method I know of for creating drama is raising the stakes, and Star Trek does this unerringly well (really, that's the Abrams stock in trade, but it works particularly nicely here).

The film's plot, while imperfect (head-scratchingly so, at times, and in serious retrospect), is frequently an afterthought, so caught up was I in the breathless rush from one great set-piece of action or character development to the next. The frequent tips of the hat the film makes to everything that has come before is mostly more than fan service (only once or twice did I feel the explicit quoting of past dialogue was ham-handed... When Original Spock says to Kirk, "I have been, and always shall be, your friend," it came at precisely the wrong time for me. If he'd used it to reassure Kirk that, yes, his plan to transport Kirk and Mr. Scott aboard the in-warp-space Enterprise was not intended to kill the young man, but to help him, well, that I could've gotten behind. Would've been a much cleaner, smoother use of the line), and serves to nicely punctuate scenes and exchanges (My favorite? Easily McCoy's, "I'm a doctor, not a physicist!"). Showing us, after decades of wondering, what Kirk's victory over the impossible test, the Kobayashi Maru, was a stroke of genius (and Pine's completely lackadaisical attitude towards the proceedings somewhat foreshadows the ease with which he assumes command).

Now that this film has come to its close, now that I've seen it twice, I feel the need to muse on what might come after, what I might try to contribute to the story. We've seen how the main characters came together to overcome the seemingly impossible, we've seen Kirk grow into himself (complete his hero journey, if you will), but there's one thing we haven't seen, and that's how the Big Three (Kirk/Spock/McCoy, not Superman/Batman/Wonder Woman) grew into their roles with each other. Kirk bounced off Spock and McCoy often enough, and McCoy and Spock had their moments, but the three men didn't have a moment like, say, in Star Trek II, in Kirk's quarters, where they learned about and discussed the ramifications of Carol Marcus' Genesis device (Spock logically detached, McCoy attacking the problem from his gut, and Kirk synthesizing the two men's approaches into one uniquely his). That's what I want to see from the next film; how the Big Three became precisely that. I think I know how to do it, too. But that's going to take some brainstorming.

It's a crime that the film is only going to be in the IMAX for two weeks, for that really and truly is the way to experience it (and preferably with a crowd that recognizes as many of the in-jokes as possible, and is receptive to Abrams' retooling). It's the sort of movie I'd consider in blu-ray, in fact.

The real question I'm left with, here at the end of my piece, is, where does Star Trek fall in my listing of the pantheon of Star Trek films? I'm inclined to place it either third or fourth, after Undiscovered Country and Wrath of Khan, for sure, but is it truly better than First Contact, a movie to which time has been less than kind, but was awesome in the years shortly after its release? The issue with placing it ahead of First Contact is that I would be summarily discounting every one of the TNG films, and by association, their cast. I don't know if I'm comfortable doing that.

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