Monday, May 11, 2009

All Shook Up: Star Trek

It’s a shame that the first feature film of the Star Trek franchise embellished the name of the TV series that inspired its creation. Thirty years removed from Star Trek: The Motion Picture, we finally have a film worthy of that title. J.J. Abrams’ origin story-meets-Twilight Zone episode – simply called Star Trek – is by far the most action-packed adventure in the franchise’s history, turbulent enough to make a hit of Dramamine recommended if not required. With its rapid cuts, rampant lens flares and rambunctious dolly shots (trust me, it’s possible), Abrams’ film is as tranquil as an 8-year-old on a sugar high. Whereas the original Star Trek films had a habit of throwing the crew of the Enterprise around the bridge, Abrams’ Star Trek seems intent to rock audiences from their seats.

It works; presuming, of course, that the intent is to make the beloved but oh-so-dated series seem modern again. Abrams’ Star Trek is fashionable to a fault, utilizing every accessory from the 21st Century blockbuster wardrobe. Camera gymnastics? Check. CGI spectacles created not out of dramatic necessity but because the technology exists? Check. Overly choreographed hand-to-hand combat scenes that are balletic instead of gripping? Check. Excessive face-planting close-ups that make it seem as if the director has something against collarbones? Check, again. Against a landscape of Terminator Salvation, Transformers and G.I. Joe, Star Trek blends in like a hippie at Woodstock, which is why I suspect that the effects-dominated flick will age about as well as bellbottoms or that 1979 feature film debut, now often derisively referred to as The Motionless Picture.

But that’s all concern for another decade, or at least another day. For the moment, bemoaning the digitally-dependent boilerplate of the modern blockbuster is as pointless as complaining about how Twitter is ruining the English language. Abrams’ Star Trek is precisely the film it aims to be: a creature of the times. And while the trend away from Gene Roddenberry’s humanistic focus toward George Lucas’ faster-and-more-intense brand of entertainment is surely an effort to attract a newer (younger and less nerdy) audience, the remarkable thing about Star Trek is that it puts equal effort into satisfying its Trekkie faithful. Abrams’ film, from a screenplay by Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, is littered with references to films and TV episodes past. And lest there be any doubt about the reverence that this series-regenerator holds for its source material, Kurtzman and Orci actually bend time (or something like that) to ensure that the franchise’s most iconic character has a chance to pass the torch.

What we have then is not your daddy’s Star Trek. At least, not solely. But if Dad can adjust to the fact that Abrams provides about four different views of the bridge per second, whereas the TV series used about that many camera angles for its entire three-year run, he’s bound to get more out of the experience than a Star Trek newbie. It was guaranteed that there would be a new Kirk, Spock and Bones in this picture, and that the series’ catchphrases would be spread about like Easter eggs, but few could have imagined that the new cast would capture the iconic characters’ spirit so convincingly that the signature dialogue would feel like a natural byproduct of the drama. From top to bottom, the new crew is tremendous: Chris Pine nails Kirk’s swagger. Zachary Quinto brings an inner torment to Spock untapped since the TV series. Karl Urban as Bones has the same emphatic delivery as DeForest Kelley. Zoe Saldana makes Uhura something close to a full character, rather than just a full-figured gal. Anton Yelchin finds the perfect blend of buffoonery and dependability as Chekov. John Cho is a familiarly determined Sulu. And a scene-stealing Simon Pegg adroitly captures Scotty’s boisterous spirit, if not quite his cranky attitude.

(Spoiler warning.) Veteran Star Trek fans get all that, plus several scenes with the still wonderful Leonard Nimoy as, yep, Spock. Confused? So am I. It has something to do with a black hole and time travel. Nimoy’s Spock clarifies the mindfuck in a mind-meld with Pine’s Kirk, but it was all Vulcan to me. I’d try to explain it now, but I’m afraid I’d end up sounding like Quentin Tarantino. (So there’s this Romulan ship, alright? And the captain’s all pissed off because Spock fucked up and allowed Romulus to be destroyed, okay? So this Romulan dude takes his ship shaped like a fucking medieval torture device, travels through time and waits 25 years for Spock to join him on the other side, so he can get medieval on his ass, alright? And on the other side of that black hole there’s this alternate universe, okay?) Truth is, unless you’re planning to attend Comic-Con next year, the details don’t matter. The bottom line is this: Abrams’ characters are entirely new versions of the same characters you know and love. Thus they aren’t beholden to past exploits of the Enterprise. So you should expect a sequel, certainly, but you shouldn’t expect to see Khan again.

That last part stings just a bit because there’s something lacking in Eric Bana’s Nero that had me longing for Ricardo Montalban, Christopher Plummer and even Christopher Lloyd (Great Scott!). Star Trek episodes (and I’m including films here) tend to be as inviting as their character dramas, and yet they are as memorable as their villains. A less J.K. Rowling-ish, more Shakespearean bad guy could have tipped this film from very-good popcorn fun to something close to great. Still, considering all the expectations heaped upon it, Abrams’ film is a tremendous achievement that’s almost guaranteed to please everyone, even if it doesn’t please everyone all the time. Personally, my fondness for the original crew is unshakeable, but Pine, Quinto and the rest have made exploring the final frontier seem like a bold adventure again. The Shatner and Nimoy cast defined Star Trek, no question, but they never perfected it. To expect Abrams’ film to be flawless would be illogical.


Mark said...

Excellent review, Jason. I enjoyed this movie so much more than I expected to. It was a perfect blend, I thought, of popcorn-fun adventure, reinvention and respect for the original series. Great tight writing, nice performances.

I think it'll age just fine, thanks. And what's wrong with bellbottoms? I've got a closet full of 'em.

Fox said...

FULL DISCLOSURE: I've never seen an entire Star Trek episode, and I probably only saw one or two of the movies when I was a kid.

So, if my lack of allegiance to sci-fi in general has affected my disliking of Star Trek (v.Abrams), then so be it, but I'm still pretty puzzled over the almost universal praise of this movie. I don't mean to single you out, Jason, b/c you express some reservations, but The Cooler is a good place to discuss such things.

I think your point that this movie won't age well is correct. One of those reasons being - and I know this is already a critical cliche - is that he cast feels like a bunch of CW actors. There's nothing wrong with Star Trek being cute, but it's TOO cute. What of the puffy hands sequence and the boobie grabbing bar sequence?? Sure, I like puffy hands and boobies in my movies too, but there it felt like it was just trying to sell product to some eleven year-old boys, and not trying to funny (it wasn't funny).

Blockbuster Summer: 0 for 2, if you ask me.

Jason Bellamy said...

Thanks for the comments, guys.

Fox: It's clear we had some of the same reactions, and as I was thinking of all the ways that Star Trek is annoyingly like so many empty, bland, CGI-fests, it hit me that at this point there are so many of those films that it's time to start looking at them as a genre (or movement) of sorts.

Personally, I could do without the action sequences on the Romulan ship's umbilical (or drill, or anchor, or whatever it is); I could do without the puffy hands (clearly they needed to give Bones something to do, because he pretty much disappears after that); I could do without the sequence in which Scotty goes through those water tubes, which is resolved so simply that it wasn't worth doing in the first place; I could do without the 100 cuts per minute; I could do without the lens flares, which is the gimmick that will make this film age awkwardly.

At the same time, I could do without rap music and country music, for the most part. But I don't think rap and country should go away, or the criticism should continually bash it for what it isn't rather than looking at it for what it aims to be. So I reminded myself that there seems to be an audience for this stuff, even if I'm not that audience, and I tried to get that across in my review.

That said, I think mindless action sells tickets in the short run, and probably Blu-ray DVDs (see: the second and third Pirates of the Caribbean films), but over the long haul it's drama, suspense and character stories that make a film memorable (see: Pirates No. 1). For example, people who love The Matrix (I'm not one of them), talk about its meaning even more than they discuss its effects, which is why it's a classic of its genre.

Anyway, Star Trek is often the kind of film I loath, the kind of film that bores me with its action. And yet I enjoyed it. Not every second of it. But on the whole.

Too cute? At times. But it worked for me, and I suspect that had to do with having an affinity for the series.

Good thoughts. I hope we'll see more discussion on this topic.

Fox said...


Your Blu-ray comment is interesting. It is very "Blu-ray" friendly, isn't it? Not just in that it will have 1000 extras, but in the way it's shot. I'm not a cinematographer, but I imagine some of those colors are gonna really pop in high-def. Nothing wrong with that... just another point to add to the thought that some movies are made with the DVD releases already in mind.

Richard Bellamy said...

Jason and Fox -

Star Trek didn't strike me as a CGI-fest. The preview certainly seemed to indicate that it would be one. But I felt the special effects merely moved the story along and were never pumped up or gloried over. The film moved so quickly that there was hardly enough time to go "Ooh, ah!" This was definitely not a bloated CGI-fest like Transformers. This movie was very character-driven.

Jason Bellamy said...

Hokahey: Indeed, the movie is character driven. Except for ...

* The totally pointless encounter with two CGI beasts on that ice planet;

* The totally pointless gremlin friend of Scotty;

* The sequence with Kirk's massively swollen paws;

* The sequence in which Scotty is flushed through those water tubes (reminding of the awful conveyer belt sequent from Episode II of Star Wars), which is introduced as a suspenseful moment, only to have the scene end all too simply when Kirk opens the ejector valve. (Why bother?)

Notice that I didn't mention the shots of the space battles. That's because the space battles are a necessity of this space drama. Those are natural elements of the plot that are best fulfilled with CGI.

The above examples are different: they exist solely to show off CGI. They are extras. They are worked into the plot (and not so well in most cases) to provide an excuse to exist. But the plot doesn't need them, and so those moments wouldn't be in the film if the studio wasn't pandering to effects-heads.

Granted, these are just a few episodes, as compared to Transformers, which is all about ogling CGI. (I got bored just watching the trailer for the sequel.) Then again, CGI is the only way to effectively tell the Transformers story, presuming there's a story to be told (and so far, I haven't seen one worth telling).

To jump to another film: Peter Jackson's King Kong uses CGI beautifully (the scenes of Kong in New York) and cheaply (the scenes with the stampeding dinosaurs and the giant bugs).

When the drama calls for the CGI, it works, no matter how grand or minimal. When the CGI exists for its own sake, the rotten smell is easy to detect. Star Trek has some of both.

Daniel said...

Great last comment, Jason (and great last line of the review), and I appreciate that you are appreciating Star Trek for the "right" reasons, not just saying "it's so awesome".

But I'm still pretty much with Fox on this one. I dozed off for a second when future Spock was talking about blah blah whatever, and the overall tone of the whole thing just felt flat to me. No suspense whatsoever and at least to me, uninteresting human drama. I didn't hate this movie because it looked good and it didn't try to re-do anything that had been done before. But I've been as flabbergasted as Fox at the critical praise, though I was in a similarly confused position with Iron Man last year.

My theory is simply that bar is automatically lowered May 1 of every year. As my friend said when we walked out, and as you point out, it's really good "for a summer movie". Fine, but then make that clear in the praise for it instead of making it the best-reviewed film to beat of 2009, summer or not.

Jason Bellamy said...

Daniel: I agree that the bar is lowered in the spring and summer. (At the other end of the scale, if a film dares to win an Oscar, it is automatically overrated.)

Your comparison to Iron Man is a good one, though I enjoyed Star Trek far more, because of the fun I had watching the characters interact. This picture is special in that it has momentum from the previous Star Trek episodes (TV and film). That probably has a lot to do with the positive reviews.

Daniel said...

Funny that you mention Iron Man, and in my comparison to it I should have noted that I've already been hearing Oscar buzz for ST, mostly for technical achievements. Seems a little early what with some major blockbusters still in the pipeline (fingers crossed for Cameron's Avatar), but Abrams did well in that department.

Jett Loe said...

Re: Iron Man - the comparison is apt when you consider that the first villain seen in the Bush-Age Blockbuster 'Iron Man' is the first hero we see in 'Star Trek' = both played by the same actor Faran Tahir - this has real thematic resonance re: Star Trek as the inaugural blockbuster of the Obama administration.

Re: the lens flares = no problem with 'dating' the picture I think = they serve the same purpose as the first 'lens flare breakout picture' Easy Rider - in the sense that they establish that what we're watching is created by a process, not by magic and therefore real...

ok enough ranting for now - keep up the good work on the blog :)