Monday, May 25, 2009

My trouble with quibbles: The Star Trek Review.

'In the 23rd century... ' -opening text, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Let's get the obvious out of the way right from the beginning; I loved this movie. Truly, madly, and deeply did I fall into utter twitterpation with J.J. Abrams love letter to the original Star Trek series, so much so that it has taken me weeks to sit back and try to look at the film with any degree of critical distance and objectivity. I've explained in previous posts my deep affection for The Original Series and the first six Star Trek films, so upon hearing of this revamp I did what any reasonable, level-headed Trekkie would do: I loathed it outright. The initial teasers did little to improve my mood; it seemed we were destined for an 'Xtreme' take on Trek starring Chris Pine as a James Kirk by way of Johnny Knoxville. I was highly, highly nervous as I sat down Saturday, May 2nd to watch a sneak peak of the film. By the time the credits had rolled, I was utterly charmed by the film, crowing it's praises to my friends and incredibly stoked about the prospects of what the franchise had in store with its new paradigm. I kept mum for over two weeks, which for a pop-culture junkie loudmouth like myself is a feat of herculean inner strength and character. Seriously, you have no idea how much I wanted to blab my guts at length and in great detail. I deserve a gold star, or at least one of those scratch 'n sniff stickers(the one with the bunch of grapes that reads 'Grape job!' would be nice).

As I said I let the film percolate in my brain for weeks after seeing it a second time opening night with my friends. Now that I've given it some appropriate distance we're going to dig into the depths of this film; what worked, what didn't, the whole gamut from the awesome to the absurb. If you've got the stones join me on the pad in transporter room two. Set phasers to stun.


The Cast: Whoever did casting for this film should get an extremely generous bonus from Paramount and Bad Robot alike. This is as damn-near a perfect recreation of the original seven characters' chemistry as could be expected from a recreation/remake/reboot of a classic television property. I think only the Brady Bunch movies got this level of eerily, spookily accurate in some instances. Now, admittedly not everyone is a perfect fit. Chris Pine still needs to grow on me a bit as Kirk, though from what I saw in the film there's serious potential. He's got that cocky swagger, that sly cunning, and of course the (slightly) smug charm that epitomizes one James Tiberius Kirk. He's not an exact recreation of Shatner, but over the course of the film he made the character his own.

For eerie recreations I think you'd have to go no further than Zachary Quinto's Spock and Karl Urban's Doctor McCoy. Quinto is almighty spooky in his resemblance to a young Leonard Nimoy and Urban nails Deforrest Kelly's mannerisms and cadence with an accuracy that made me grin from ear to ear. I hadn't realized just how much I missed McCoy in my Star Trek until that moment. I don't think Urban was doing an impersonation so much as an homage, but that's a moot point. What matters is that the original trinity of Trek is recreated with an attention to detail that bodes well for the future of the franchise.

Zoe Seldana makes for an Uhura who's competent as well as comely, and John Cho and Anton Yelchin fill their more limited screen time as Sulu and Chekov with bits of business that make them entertaining to watch. Simon Pegg gets the worst of it, as we have to wait about two-thirds of the film before Scotty makes an appearance, but once he's there he adds some levity to a film that may have been getting a bit full of itself to that point. He's underused, but what is there lays the groundwork for the heroic miracle-worker we all know and love.

Bruce Greenwood makes for an awesome Christopher Pike and I think it's a shame that we didn't get more with him in command of the Enterprise. I realize his purpose for this film was basically to warm Kirk's chair for his inevitable rise to the captaincy, but he was an effective character that had a confidence and command that I think should have stayed in place for at least another movie. We'll get into my thoughts on that as we segue into the negative aspects of the film.

It was fun to see Leonard Nimoy play Spock (or rather, Spock-Prime) for what could well be the last time, though for all the nostalgia his presence brings to the film and how it adds a touch of class of the handoff from old continuity to new, there are questions and problems raised by his presence that I'll address in the negative section.

The Look: Seriously, the film looks amazing. The Starfleet vessels look like a mix of the original series and something more realistic. I'm hesitant to invoke the relaunch of Battlestar Galactica, but the ship design and their usage in space, particularly some of the camera work in keeping track of them, looked great. Nero's mining ship looked suitably menacing, whilst Spock-Prime's odd little ship looked at once futuristic and fantastic.

The centerpiece of the entire movie is, of course, the Starship Enterprise, and she looks as beautiful as you could imagine. Care was taken by the special effects team in honoring the best of the original television series and the films, and it shows. It's not an exact replica but the spirit of the initial design is there. I loved the look of the bridge, the corridors, the transporter room, and sickbay. Engineering. . .well. . .let's leave it for later.

Vulcan and Earth are the worlds at the center of this film, and each looks epic in scope. Vulcan is a harsh, sterile desert world that is so harcore it has buildings that hang down from the bottom of cliffs like stalactites. Tell me that's not hardcore. Earth is a utopian paradise, where Starfleet and the Federation have led to an idyllic world replete with female officers in miniskirts and hot green coeds. What's not to like?

The transporter effects are wicked, the phasers looked at once classic and badass, and the uniforms looked functional but true to the tunics and slacks of the original show. It looked like the Star Trek universe, or at least a fresh take on the old familiar jazz riffs. I ate it up.

It is a prequel, yet it isn't: Time travel in a Star Trek film? That's as groundbreaking and revelatory as the correlation between water and moisture, but the time honored cliche actually works in creating an alternate timeline that allows for new adventures to be told within the classic framework free of previous continuity. As templates for a soft reboot go you could do a lot worse, and it was actually nice to see the characters work all this out for themselves rather than have it exposition-dumped to them by some omnipotent being or some other such plot device(of course, that left Quinto with the unenviable task of providing said exposition dump but hey). This isn't to say there aren't some problems that arise from fiddling around with the space-time continuum, but we'll get to those soon enough.

So yes, some reasoned and salient points on how this movie kicked some ass, and while I was watching it I was 100% on board for both viewings. Let me maintain that I still like the film and enjoyed it immensely, but after a while I found that the more I thought about it, the more I found hard to swallow. Let's talk about


Nero: What a complete and utter waste of time and space this character was. Don't get me wrong, Eric Bana does his best with what little he's given to work with here but the character suffers from a terminal case of Not-Khan Syndrome. He's got no character, he's just an evil cipher that sits on his throne on his mining ship and is evil for it's own sake. Sure he's reeling from the dual loss of his homeworld and his wife and child, but we don't get to see any of that, his motivation barely gets referred to except in passing, and the character just makes decisions and has methods that to any sensible person in the audience seem utterly moronic:

1) Nero finds himself thrust through a black hole(something that should kill him all kinds'a dead, see below) and finds himself over a century in the past. Now let's think about this for a minute. You're over a hundred years in the past with foreknowledge of what's going to happen to your doomed planet in the future. You mean to tell me Nero just sits on his hands and doesn't inform the Romulan Empire? He doesn't think to set course for the Neutral Zone and warn his people, or to provide them with the amazingly badass technology of his mining ship/spooky-looking death fortress that would surely make the Romulan Star Empire the supreme military force of the Alpha Quadrant?

2) Okay, so you don't go to Romulus. You're pissed as hell at Spock and want him to pay. Well, if that's the case why do you then wait twenty-five years to commence your attack on Vulcan? Why not just roll on up to the planet within a couple days journey at high warp and lay the planet to waste before Spock can A)be born or B) can even be in a position to thwart your evil plan? Is this some weird form of obsessed lunatic chivalry? What, it wasn't sporting to go after Spock at a point before he can stop your plan or be too late to save your world?

3)Nero's mining vessel has a completely nonsensical design to it, and I don't mean in terms of improbable space design, I mean health and general safety. There's water on the floors, platforms from one area to another with no discernable stairwells, poor lighting, and absolutely no guard rails or means to keep you from plummetting to your death. Also it starts out badass and impressive by destroying the U.S.S. Kelvin as well as the Starfleet task force sent to Vulcan, but then becomes completely hapless in the face of the Enterprise and Spock-Prime's teeny little science vessel. What's that about? Also, using their drilling rig to place the Red Matter is also stupid as hell. Why use the drill to slowly bore into a planet's surface when a well-placed disruptor blast could do the same job? Why does the black hole have to be in the planet's core? I'm reasonably sure that if you have something that can create a black hole and then place said black hole next to a planetary body, that world is pretty much screwed, to say nothing of anything in the immediate vicinity. Which brings me to my next point.

4) If you're going to use a drill with a long, dangling cord, maybe take the oppurtunity over the course of the twenty-five years you spent waiting and plotting your revenge to oh, I don't know, armor it up? God almighty, you think if Darth Vader had noticed the exhaust ports on the Death Star he'd have gone 'No, leave that horribly vulnerable spot there for the next twenty years or so. I honestly can't see them ever being a problem.' Oy.

Science Doesn't Work That Way, Even In Trek: What the hell is Red Matter, and who thought it'd be a good idea to use a black hole to stop a sun from going nova? That's like dousing someone on fire with gasoline in an effort to put them out. It makes no frickin' sense. Surely there'd be some way by the late 24th century to get a sun's core to level out. I mean, at the very least Picard should be able to get Q on speed-dial and ask for a favor.

'Yes Q, I will wear the pink bunny suit to all my diplomatic functions for an entire year. Yes Q. Just fix the sun of Romulus. Thanks.'

Time Travel. It will make you insane: In a way, I might have almost preferred a full reboot of the franchise if it meant that the following roadblock wasn't sitting in my path. Once I thought about it, the entire film becomes a retroactive act in frustration. I think the only thing worse than being a writer of speedsters like the Flash has to lie in writing anything that deals with time travel, especially in Star Trek.

Spock-Prime is trapped in the past with Nero, but the thing is, Spock has time travelled before. Like, a lot. So much so he even devised a way to do it. So why doesn't he slip Young Spock the computations for time travel, then have the Enterprise and a fleet jump back in time and ambush Nero before he can destroy Vulcan and leave only 10,000 Vulcans left alive? And don't feed me that 'needs of the many' bullcrap because you can't tell me either Spock wouldn't want to at least save his mother. Or for that matter, travel forward in time to just before Romulus's sun goes nova and apply the Red Matter properly. Don't tell me it couldn't be done, it was just lazy writing. You could even do it and argue that the presence of the Red Matter in the past created an alternate timeline, which would allow for the creation of the 'new' Trek while leaving the 'old' Trek universe intact.

Don't play the time game unless you plan to play with it right and map out all the consequences accordingly. Otherwise you end up leaving your plot full of more holes than a block of swiss cheese.

Engineering: What the hell was up with those engineering sets? I get it, we're supposed to think of the Federation starships as more naval-seeming vessels with a kind of lived-in atmosphere, and on the Kelvin that worked fine as it seemed to be an older Starfleet vessel. But the Enterprise is the flagship of the fleet, the benchmark and testbed of all sorts of advances in starship design. You're going to tell me there's a frickin' boiler room on board the most advanced ship in the fleet? Really? Okay. . .does it run on shovel-fulls of dilithium coal? Also, points to my friend Yrol for pointing out the laughable Galaxy Quest-like chompers that Scotty almost gets fed to after he and Kirk beam back to the ship. What was the point of that thing save to create peril? Compared to the sleek, lovely set pieces of the bridge and sickbay it was just jarring. Hopefully the sequel will improve the design to something a bit more futuristic-looking.

Here, have a captaincy: Kirk goes from cadet to commander to captain of the Enterprise in essentially a period of 24 hours? You're kidding right? We couldn't have maybe established the crew as coming together on the Enterprise with Kirk and Spock maybe working their way up the ranks and earning battlefield commissions to their classic roles? No? We're going to do it in like a day? Say what you will of Shatner's Kirk but at least he worked his way up the ladder to a command rather than having it handed to him as part of some kind of nebulous 'destiny' tripe. I get that the film wanted to waste as little time as possible getting everyone established in their classic crew positions, but still. We couldn't have done a couple quick cuts ahead in time? I mean, Nero waited twenty-five years, I'm sure he could've waited a little longer. . .

Don't misunderstand me, I thought this film was a helluva lot of fun to have at the cinema. But it's not without it's flaws, and in a way I'm kind of glad for them. Star Trek has always been a little hokey, and if the film sometimes fudges a bit in its quest to entertain I'm hardly going to loathe it for trying. My hope is that the filmmakers take the lessons of what did work and didn't and parlay it into a sequel that blows the doors off of all our expectations. Reccomended.


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